I realized last night that I hadn't read the 100-page 'World Gone Mad' alternate history in the 2nd edition of Detwiller/Stolze/et al.'s Wild Talents. I'd briefly looked at Ken Hite's 'Building Superheroic Histories' section - customarily thoughtful and provocative, though as usual he's a good deal dryer when playing in someone else's sandbox than when, say, spinning madness in his solo material - along with the well-wrought rules material, but hadn't wanted to plow through another game-fiction/timeline piece.
The alt-historical material (Detwiller's?) brings the Superpowered WWII setting of Godlike up to the present day, steadily ramping up the Weirdness, Intensity, and Intrigue over the course of an alt-Cold War heavily indebted to Watchmen (and the Ender's Game series). I didn't expect much from this fictional history, but by the time President John F. Kennedy chose not to seek a second term in 1972 due to a conscience-gnawing painkiller addiction stemming from his wartime injuries, I was completely hooked, and devoured every word. (You might think me a nerd or wuss or whatever, but the words 'Kennedy retired from politics in 1972 and settled in Hyannisport, spending his remaining years sailing and writing books. He would go on to win the Pulitzer prize in literature in 1978 for his book Lebanon, on the 1971 Soviet-American Lebanon Crisis. He died, quietly, at home in 1981' brought a very real tear to my eye.)
It's a stunning piece of capsule fiction; crucially, it offers an impressive number of tonally-varied settings for historically-minded Supers campaigns. [SPOILERS AHEAD.] I particularly liked the 'Campaign Setting: Styx' sidebar: in just three paragraphs (presumed-)Detwiller sketches an evocative, intensely gameable sci-fi setting suitable for everything from squad-level human paramilitary work to Foundation-scale galactic sci-history. The idea that the Builders came into being as psychic projections of one depressed office worker is only one of the campaign frame's weird wonders. The 'World Without Tyrants' sub-setting is even more exciting: imagine The Authority as a rogue black-ops subcommittee of a superpowered Peace Corps. Sample sentence: 'Imagine how Tianenmen Square might have played out with a superhuman standing between the tanks and students.' If that doesn't get your gaming juices flowing, I can't help you...
The Watchmen vibe is very strong in the 'World Gone Mad' material, never moreso than in the First Contact storyline; and of course Benjamin Baugh's Kerberos Club is heavily indebted to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of Moore's unqualified successes. It's interesting and heartening to see Alan Moore's approach to fantasy worldbuilding adapted (both provocatively generalized and necessarily flattened) so successfully in Wild Talents. Indeed, the 'One Roll Engine' games are consistently excellent at capturing specific genres/styles/moods - see the rich Buffy-etc. world of Monsters and Other Childish Things, the desperate grit/pulp of Godlike, and Stolze's noble-fantasy game Reign. But the most impressive O.R.E. (stylistic) achievement is the blend of Moore's provocative genre-mashup approach to alternate history (Illuminated Victoriana in From Hell, four-colour Cold War noir in Watchmen) with a decidedly un-Moore heroic optimism. Wild Talents holds onto Watchmen's darkness - four colours, all of them grey - while making room for everything from big-canvas space opera to the finely-observed melodrama of Stolze's Progenitor (in which Superman is a Midwestern housewife whose every small choice is nonetheless important to the world-story).
That's a much more difficult feat than, say, Baugh's work in Monsters and Other Childish Things, which is just as enjoyable as Wild Talents on the page but has a lower bar to clear voicewise. It's really hard to duplicate Buffy's constancy and integrity of thematic integration, as the failures of so many Buffyverse writers demonstrate, but the Whedonesque voice is a little easier to get at, or should be. Brian Lynch's Angel: After the Fall series handily illustrates both points, *ahem*. In any case Baugh definitely isn't doing Buffy, but rather his own sort of 'Buffy/Veronica Mars/Calvin & Hobbes/Sideways Stories mashup' (ahem) - and those stories are all about the stylized kidspeak, which has so much built-in evocative power that it's no wonder so many genre writers flog it to grim death.
I'm getting off track here.
(I don't count Watchmen's success as 'unqualified'; its obsessive patterning, oppressive formality, fussiness, cynicism, and small-mindedly literal 'literariness' have faded over time in comparison to more enjoyably fantastic works like V for Vendetta, League..., and the frankly insane Promethea, not to mention the unimpeachable From Hell. But Watchmen, like the infinitely more enjoyable Cerebus, is such a major work that you want to forgive its flaws.)
As far as superhero RPGs go, Wild Talents doesn't have much competition in the worldbuilding area. Here's a bit of the new DC Universe game, based on the new 3rd edition of Mutants and Masterminds:
As the Axis menace grew in Europe and Asia, President Roosevelt looked to America’s Mystery Men for aid. A se- cret mission to Scotland led the Flash, Green Lantern, Dr. Fate, Sandman, Hourman, Hawkman, the Atom, and the Spectre to thwart an attempted Nazi invasion of America by Valkyries who had been summoned using the Spear of Destiny. The group chose to remain together, becoming the Justice Society of America.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Roosevelt followed the Justice Society’s example and issued a call to service for all of America’s Mystery Men. They united as a single “All-Star Squadron” intend- ed to protect the home front. A mystic spell cast by Hit- ler and Tojo using artifacts like the Spear of Destiny pre- vented most of the All-Stars from directly intervening in the theatres of war. Any hero with mystic powers (or vulnerable to mysticism) would become a mind-controlled puppet of the Axis!
The All-Stars reverted to the core Justice Society members after the war, with most other heroes going their own way. By 1950, a rising tide of paranoia in the United States found the JSA called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and ordered to unmask. The team disbanded in protest. Many of the members vanished into retirement. The next generation of heroes was more circumspect about their activities; groups like the Challengers of the Unknown operated largely in secret, out of the public eye.
It is not until relatively recently that costumed heroes be- gan working openly once again. After rescuing the U.S. space-plane America, Superman made headlines. At the same time, a mysterious vigilante named Batman was operating in Gotham City. A new Flash appeared in Central City, while a new Green Lantern (part of an interstellar corps of law-enforcers) began operating out of Coast City. The Amazon heroine Wonder Woman came to Patriarch’s World with a message of peace, and a mission to stop the mad god Ares from triggering an apocalyptic war.
Coast City became the target of the alien warlord Mongul and the Cyborg Superman. Mongul destroyed Coast City (and its millions of inhabitants) in an instant as part of a plan to transform Earth into a new Warworld. The devastation drove Hal Jordan over the edge, opening him to possession by the fear-entity Parallax.
Coast City was eventually rebuilt, but people were understandably slow to move to the site of one of the greatest mass-deaths in history. A reborn Hal Jordan was among the new Coast City’s dedicated residents, and he defended the city against an attack by his archenemy Sinestro and his Corps. Although encouraged to evacuate, the citizens of Coast City chose to stay, putting green lights on display to show their resolve. Jordan and fellow Green Lantern Kyle Rayner defeated Sinestro, and Coast City’s reputation as “the City Without Fear” was secured.
Since then, the city’s population has swelled to even more than its previous heights, with new construction underway and the damage done by the Sinestro Corps being repaired with the assistance of architect and Green Lantern John Stewart. A memorial to the original inhabitants of Coast City featuring a green lantern has been established, and various charities and business are active in keeping the flame of Coast City burning bright.
That right there is some absolute rubbish. Genocide brushed off in a single paragraph, its main effect being that it upset the Green Lantern? This is why mainstream superhero comics are rightly considered juvenile. Blowing stories up from human- to superhuman-scale is obviously fine, but if you don't bring sociology and psychology and history with you, you break down into something even less compelling than myths'n'legends. (Compare to the handling of planetary genocide in J.J.
Barnum's Abrams's recent Star Trek film, btw.)
Batman's revenge-upon-criminals gig means something very different during Reagan's presidency than it did during Kennedy's, or Truman's - as Frank Miller understood all too well. The complex Wild Talents world invests every single character with an enormous amount of actual responsibility (not the melodramatic Heroic Cost stuff of the four-colour books).
Too distracted to finish. No no, don't be sad.