Back in 2014, I ran a campaign known as Arcana High. The pitch was that the PCs were students at a world-renowned magical academy, but ended up inheriting relics which allowed them to transform into the Secret Swords, a team of masked heroes from times of yore. I’ve gone on to GM many other campaigns from then on, but even seven years later it is one of my most memorable campaigns. I used the Pathfinder system with the caveat that every PC must have levels in a full or partial spellcasting class, and the Secret Sword relics automatically granted Big Six bonuses along with anti-divination and disguise abilities to better maintain a secret identity. Topping this all off was my own feat-like progression of special abilities derived from superhero tropes. For this I drew influence from magical items rather than class features, so as to at once reduce the Christmas Tree effect while also allowing for meaningful progression. Furthermore, I had a more focused sense of what I wanted the game to be; I knew that things in Pathfinder got crazy past 12th level, so I sought to keep things in the setting (including the larger threats) within this scale while still doing my best to emulate “larger than life” adventures. In all but the final arc PCs still had regular concerns of balancing school life with magical vigilantism. And while they were talented enough to handle themselves, several ‘mid-level’ NPC allies they made along the way could still usefully contribute in smaller ways to their adventures.
While I’d like to think that I did an adequate job with the tools that I had, if I were to run Arcana High again I would not use Pathfinder or a D&D system for that matter. Even back then I realized that I was fighting against the rules in order to better fit genre constraints. Which naturally make me concerned about how Supers & Sorcery handles this, and for an Edition that is notably lower-powered than Pathfinder. Most superhero RPGs in general are not class-based, instead providing a point-based toolkit to build one’s character. Secondly, the power levels of superheroes vary wildly depending on the characters in question and genre. Thirdly, the limitations of race mean that choosing more exotic options are out of the question unless you’re using a 3rd party supplement or starting at a higher level. You can’t expect to run a D&D Superhero game without someone asking at some point if they can play as a dragon, or maybe even a Treant that sounds like a monotone Vin Diesel. Fourth, the reliance upon Vancian rest refresh rates and accumulation of spells and items means that it’s harder to emulate a single-themed character like the Flash or one who’s not a gadget-user, in that you’re bound to pick up tangential abilities over time. There’s also the fact that the core abilities of many superheroes are at-will features, and the pacing between battles and damage recovery don’t play well in the endurance run dungeon crawl that is D&D.
Fifthly, one trick pony character types often boil down to martials making repeat attacks rather than something more interesting. For example, if I were to emulate the Hulk in Champions, Masks, or Mutants & Masterminds, the systems in place easily let my character pick up something big and throw it, pick up someone else and wield them as a weapon, let them stomp the ground and create a shockwave, use super-strength to leap really far, and various other effects beyond just punching someone hard. The RPGs in question all do this very differently, but the martial/caster divide is notably absent in superhero media for a variety of reasons. And then of course there is Godbound, which is an OSR version of Exalted that does away with many D&D tropes in order to better emulate the “PCs are divine heroes” flavor.
Last but not least, superheroes as a genre are incredibly broad. Even from the same publisher and era, they have very different set-ups and aspects. Peter Parker’s comics mostly detail an otherwise normal young man whose down-to-earth worries of schooling, his job at the Daily Bugle, and Aunt May help emphasize his grounded nature of a “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.” The X-Men focuses on themes of prejudice and the fear of humanity being upstaged by hyper-evolved mutants, with said mutants trying to find their place in a hostile world. Then there’s the Silver Surfer, a space-traveling artificial life form who has trouble relating to Earth at all and often acted as a voice of reason against our petty, backwards ways during the Silver Age of Comics. Each of these characters have different levels of power, but strong attempts at emulating their comics into RPG form will result in very different systems and settings unless one goes for a ‘generic’ approach.
With all that being said, I find combining superhero aesthetics with 5th Edition to be a tall order. Supers & Sorcery doesn’t seem to be aping any specific ‘style’ of superhero as mentioned above, instead billing itself in the broadest terms possible. As such this puts it on the level of something like the “build your own genre” of Champions vs. the more focused RPGs such as Masks. And even games such as Champions have the sense to put Spider-Man and Superman on different power tiers. More so than Pathfinder, Bounded Accuracy leads to a smaller power curve, closer to the “street level” than cosmic level that some superheroes can attain. I get that 5e compatibility sells books as a publishing strategy, but that doesn’t necessarily speak to the strength of the system. Throughout this review I’m going to be keeping the above in mind.
Sorry if that ended up as a bit of a rant. But I wanted to outline what I feel Supers & Sorcery has to contend with, and what the likeliest questions would-be readers are going to have about the stories one can make in its world.
Supers & Sorcery is just as much a settingbook as it is one of crunch. It centers on the city of Beacon, a bustling fantasy metropolis sitting at the nexus of a bunch of planar gateways home to all sorts of people. Various neighborhoods are themed around the various Ages of Comic Books, or designations of popular tropes and trends of real-world superhero tales. Golden Age is the emerging WW2 genre with strong influences from pulp predecessors, Silver Age is more light-hearted with sci-fi themes, Bronze Age is gritty antiheroes, ninjas, and...wait, the author is confusing Bronze Age with Iron Age. The Bronze Age of Comics was in the 70s, when the genre took a more mature turn with the unshackling of the Comics Code Authority. It was strongly marked by social change, such as more superheroes of color, more explicit left-wing political commentary, and the ‘powering down’ of some of the more ridiculous Silver Age antics. The Iron Age was post-Watchmen, which was more mature in the sex and violence sort of way. The Modern Age is thus defined in this book as a super-vague timeframe which combines elements of the previous Ages.
There’s also a full-page Dedication to Chadwick Boseman, talking about the actor’s influence in the superhero genre.
Chapter 1: Character Options
The first few chapters of Supers & Sorcery focus on the player-focused side of options. We get two new races thrust upon us: the Chloryfolk, who are a race of sapient music-loving plants. Their base traits include +2 Wisdom, being able to rest faster to spend Hit Dice while maintaining contact with sunlight, and proficiency with the Performance skill and 2 musical instruments. They have 6 subraces reflective of their native region along with +1 to an appropriate ability score; for example, Aquatic grants the ability to breathe underwater and a swim speed along with speaking with undersea life.
The other race is the Gnobold, a rare and new species in Beacon who are all the children of a gnomish-kobold couple and effectively an extended family. They gain +2 Dexterity, have Darkvision, advantage on all mental saves vs magic, limited telepathy in the form of mumbling, and advantage on attack rolls when within 5 feet of an ally. The two subraces include Anointed Gnobold, which grants +1 Wisdom and the ability to grant the attack roll and magic save advantages to adjacent allies 1/rest, and Craft Gnobold which grants proficiency with tinker’s tools and land vehicles but can also make a kit-bashed simple mechanical device during a short rest.
Origins reflect your PC superhero’s Origin Story, aka the source of their powers. The setting of Beacon has 4 major sources of superpowers: alien heritage, magic, science, and extraordinary skill. You get 6 Origin Points to spend as you wish among the categories, and gain 3 more at 11th level. Each source has a small list of abilities ranked from 1-4 points. Most of the features are rather minor things at 1-2 points (learn 1-3 cantrips, bonus language, darkvision and nonflight speed, etc), although features in the 3-4 range tend to be more significant (flight speed, resistance to 2 energy damage types, bonus spells, Expertise as per a Bard or Rogue, etc).
*But one specific new source of powers, arkwave energies, are not listed among them, and are in fact part of the new Archon class. I feel that this is an oversight, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen things in this book that could use a second editing pass.
The book is rather vague as to whether Origins are meant to work in tandem or as a replacement for Races and Backgrounds. Normally one would think that they add onto it, but as the book brings up the idea that the GM can use them as replacements, it thus begs the question. Honestly Origins have some nice features, but cannot really make up for the ability score bonuses and features that races provide, much less the bonus skills and equipment of backgrounds. This is one of the weaknesses of 5th Edition: in Pathfinder, one could play as a monstrous race by using their Challenge Rating as a rough baseline for their effective level, and there’s an unbalanced yet weighty system for creating new races. For Godbound, race doesn’t really matter, and the Words of divine power one gains access to are broad and powerful enough to replicate a wide variety of concepts. And in actual superhero RPGs, the benefits of species are bought as superpowers just like anything else.
The Archon is the new class for Supers & Sorcery. They are the product of supernatural arkwaves which spread across Beacon every 20 years.* Archons are capable of instilling other people with superpowers, making them a valuable commodity. They feel a strong pull towards some ideal or virtue, which also manifests in the forms their powers take.
*the book notes that they spread farther than the city, among all the worlds of the Ring of Virtue.
The Archon has 1d8 Hit Die, is proficient in light armor, simple weapons, alchemy kits, Constitution and Charisma saves, and chooses three skills from a list of mostly physical and charismatic choices along with some cerebral ones such as Arcana, History, and Nature. At 1st level they are immune to disease, their Strength and Constitution scores cannot be reduced by any means, 1/rest they can enhance their senses to grant advantage on the next Investigation or Perception check made in an hour, and can communicate telepathically with intelligent creatures within 60 feet.
At 2nd level they gain a Warlockesque progression of Empowerments which are special abilities they can temporarily grant to others. They also get a Presence Attack which is an at-will ranged ability that deals 2d6 force damage +1d6 every 2 levels afterwards. Alternatively (and this is a permanent decision) an Archon can instead make their Presence Attack a melee one, gaining proficiency with martial weapons and use Charisma modifier for the attack and damage of all weapon attacks, along with +1d6 to +4d6 bonus force damage made with such attacks depending on their level.
At 3rd level they choose one of 3 Principalities which serve as subclasses, while at 5th level they can spend a reaction to reduce oncoming damage by half their Presence Attack die (or the choice of gaining Extra Attack instead for more martial builds). 6th level they gain temporary hit points after a long rest, and at 9th level they can cast Spiritual Weapon as a bonus action but at the cost of having their Presence Attack damage halved. Their later class features are more utility in nature: at 10th they gain enhanced movement of at-will flight, parkour (Dash as bonus and advantage on Acrobatics/Athletics), or teleportation whose uses are limited by short rest. At 13th they can speak and understand all languages, at 15th gain proficiency in Strength saving throws (Intelligence if already proficient), at 17th can grant their enhanced movement to an ally, at 18th can use their Charisma score in place of a die roll result 1/long rest, and at 20th level they can Empower two creatures at once with the same use and can also permanently Empower others.
The Principalities represent common feel-good virtues. Hope allows the Archon to summon mirror-image echoes which have telepathic contact, and grant various boons such as advantage on saves vs charm/frighten conditions to nearby allies, the echoes becoming automatically Empowered when an ally is Empowered, and gain advantage on attack rolls and bonus damage when fighting next to allies. Compassion is all about defense and healing, granting a limited use healing touch which restores hit points equal to the Presence Attack die, advantage on Medicine checks and effectively always having a healer’s kit on hand, can grant temporary hit points to nearby allies 1/long rest, and can end a variety of negative Conditions on allies benefitting from the healing touch. Principality of Justice are offensively focused, performing criticals with Presence Attacks on 19-20, the ability to push away and knock prone opponents if the Presence Attack is the variant melee option, count as one size category larger when it’s advantageous to the Archon, can create a gravity-warping ark field that can grapple multiple opponents and impose disadvantage on all attack rolls made against nearby targets 1/long rest, and a suicide ark bomb that deals AoE damage if the Archon is dropped to 0 hit points 1/long rest.
Empowerments are abilities which are learned as the Archon levels up. They start with 2 at 2nd level and gain 2 more at 5th, 11th, and 17th level and gain a final 9th Empowerment at 20th level. There are 20 Empowerments to choose from and their respective durations differ: most last for 1 minute, but others can last for 10 minutes or even hours. They include things such as having a creature treat their weapon attacks as magical, advantage on initiative rolls, gaining a special ranged elemental attack, resistance vs a certain damage type, flight, limited regeneration, and alternate forms such as etherealness, increased/reduced size, and shapeshifting into a CR 1 or lower creature of the Beast type. Archons cannot empower themselves, only others.
As a class the Archon feels odd to me. They seem to be the setting’s “special shtick” a la Eberron’s Artificer in that they are a reflection of a societal archetype. But in terms of superheroes they are a bit limited in being an “energy blaster” as their primary capability. Which in the world of Dungeons & Dragons is also the most common magic-user archetype for beginning players, which doesn’t really wow me. The granting of special abilities to allies is a nifty one, although as the Archon cannot Empower themselves there're only so many superhero archetypes they can emulate.
Speaking of which, there is one new subclass for every PHB class, each one’s features being an obvious callout to some notable Marvel/DC character.
Path of Growth Barbarian turns into the Hulk. When you rage you increase 1 size category along with enlarged personal equipment, reach, and +1d4 bonus damage as the initial feature. They can eventually grapple creatures of any size, gain advantage on Intelligence checks in interactions with Large and larger-sized creatures,* gain advantage on attacks vs smaller creatures, and the capstone ability imposes the Frightened condition on hostile creatures that start their turn within 10 feet of them.
*which is weird as Intelligence skills are more or less internal, i.e. what the characters knows vs what they can cause other creatures to do. Unless it’s meant to make them more easily identify giant monsters? Either way strange wording
College of Soundwaves Bard manipulates raw sound for a variety of purposes. They begin with resistance to thunder damage, learn the Thaumaturgy cantrip but can only use the booming voice feature if learned in this way, and gain proficiency in Persuasion or Insight. They also can spend Bardic Inspiration to subtract from a creature’s attack roll or add to a target’s saving throw roll if a hostile creature uses a verbal component spell within 60 feet. Later features include 2d6 to 4d6 bonus damage on all spells and attacks that deal thunder damage, can let a limited number of creatures within the AoE of said attacks auto-succeed on relevant saves as well as suffering no damage, and the capstone ability lets them create a sphere of silence at will and can mess with a target’s action economy by messing up their inner ear orientation by causing dizziness.
The Emotion Domain Cleric is an empath, capable of sensing and manipulating emotions. Their bonus spells are mostly buffs and debuffs (fear, confusion, calm emotions) along with some utility (zone of truth, locate creature). They initially gain proficiency with Insight and Persuasion and can grant temporary hit points to allies during a short rest by expending spell slots, Their later features include a Channel Divinity that can instill indifference or enragement (6th level) in a target, impose disadvantage on the saving throws of a target that attacked them, and their capstone ability allows them to spend a reaction to make an attacking target autofail a relevant roll.
Circle of the Mark Druids focus on a more specific kind of shapeshifting, honing the abilities of a particular animal type. They choose a specific CR 1 or lower Beast as their ‘mark,’ which grants additional features on top of the normal Wildshape boons when the druid takes their form. Such options include +1 AC, gaining an alternate movement speed based on the creature's form, certain minor senses (darkvision or advantage on Perception), or dealing bonus damage with natural weapons equal to Wisdom modifier on top of Strength/Dexterity. They also have Animal Friendship and Speak with Animals prepared as bonus spells, and their later features include improving their base traits (more AC, better movement, blindsight, etc), the ability to gain one creature-specific special ability of another wildshape form when shaped into their Mark, and their capstone ability grants them a bonus trait as well as the ability to cast Conjure Fey 1/long rest that takes the form of a pack of animals of the Marked beast.
The Super Martial Archetype is basically a poor man’s Superman. Your initial ability grants you Super Strength which...grants advantage on Strength checks and can add double your Strength modifier to attacks made with weapons while grappling. At 7th level you gain Super Vision which...grants you double proficiency on Insight and Perception. At 10th level you gain Super Speed which...lets you cast haste 1/short rest. 15th is Super Flight, where you gain a flying speed equal to your walking speed. At 18th you gain an at-will ability to use a reaction and reduce any form of damage by 1d10 + half Fighter level.
Way of the Steel Strike Monk turns you into a cyborg...no wait, it just gives you a magitech arm. You initially gain proficiency with tinker’s tools and an artifact which grafts onto or replaces a limb. You need to maintain said artifact daily or it suffers an Exhaustion-like Disrepair that gets worse over time.* But using the artifact with a Flurry of Blows allows the monk to add both their Strength and Dexterity modifiers to damage, and can cast Light but only on their artifact. Their later features include the ability to spend ki points to cast Acid Arrow, Scorching Ray, or Shatter and can increase the effective level by spending more ki points. They can also learn to cast Protection from Energy 1/rest, and their capstone ability lets them store up to 6 unused ki points into their artifact during long rests and can spend a reaction to cast one of their spells as an opportunity attack when a creature would provoke such an attack.
*wow as though being a poor man’s Iron Man wasn’t cool enough!
Oath of Gesh Paladins are Aquamen clones of all things. They make an oath to the Lord of Water, and are tasked with protecting the seas and their ecosystems. Their bonus spells are mostly utility and nature themed (create or destroy water, misty step, dominate beast, etc) and their Channel Divinity can let them add Charisma on top of Strength for melee attack rolls, advantage on Strength to push objects, and can impose disadvantage on attack rolls targeting adjacent allies. Their later features include an aura that grants resistance to cold damage and can move freely in water without penalty, casting Insect Plague that takes the form of a moray eel swarm, and their capstone ability can summon a CR 8 or less Water Elemental.
Evenfall Rider Rangers were attacked by a vampire or werewolf, partially gaining their abilities but also a burning desire for justice/vengeance against the species that wounded them so. They gain vampires and lycanthropes as bonus favored enemies, add 1d6 damage once per turn on all weapon attacks, gain darkvision, and gain Find Steed as a known spell. However, they are saddled with a curse depending on whether they’re a partial vampire or lycanthrope that activates on a failed Wisdom save once every 4 days or full moon respectively. Vampires gain an overwhelming urge to feed upon blood, while lycanthropes must hunt for prey and gain 1 level of exhaustion.* Later features include gaining bonus known spells depending on type (suggestion, invisibility, vampiric touch, and the like), gaining advantage on grapple checks vs vampires and lycanthropes and against the Charmed condition, can take half or no damage from AoE effects on failed and successful saves, and their capstone abilities cause all CR 5 and lower Court of Empty Night members to be afraid of the Ranger, and a bonus spell (confusion or faithful hound). Their final capstone ability lets them make 3 bonus weapon attacks 1/long rest when attacking a foe with 25% or fewer HP total (Ranger always knows the percentage of all targets) and stuns them if they’re still standing.
*What is up with archetypes imposing penalties now?!
Gatekeeper Rogues learn how to teleport for a player-defined reason (choose your choice of comic book logic upon gaining the archetype) and find novel uses for it. They initially can teleport anywhere within the 5 foot reach of a target whenever they hit with a melee weapon and this doesn't count against their movement. Their later features let them cast Blink, Misty Step, Dimension Door, and eventually Plane Shift and Teleport a limited amount of times per day (fewer times for higher level spells). They can use Dimension Door against unwilling and grappled opponents, inflicting Sneak Attack damage automatically when teleported in such a manner.
So umm...where’s that at-will teleport? I don’t expect it to be like the spell, but even short-range jumps are pretty iconic! Heck there are official PHB archetypes that let you do this outside of combat!
Red Right Hand Sorcerer Bloodlines are born as one of two surviving twins, possessed of the uncanny ability to absorb luck from others and use it for themselves as a result of fiendish influence. They initially can speak Abyssal, Infernal, gain double proficiency on all Charisma checks with fiends, and as a reaction can impose disadvantage on a single roll of a target within 60 feet a limited number of times (CHA modifier) per long rest. Their later features include the ability to spend Sorcery Points to add +1 to +3 to a spell attack roll,* 1d4 to 5d4 bonus damage,** or +1 to +3 Save DC of a spell*** 1/long rest. They can later take the form of a bat-winged demon, imposing the Frightened condition on nearby hostile targets, and their capstone ability lets them spend 7 Sorcery Points to grant additional features to said demonic form such as ignoring Frightened condition immunity, gaining flight speed, and a broad GM Fiat “perform acts of basic magic without expending a spell slot.”
I’m unsure of what comic book character this bloodline’s based. It feels closer to something you’d find in a regular D&D setting.
Warlocks with the Cosmic Light Otherworldly Patron are chosen by a powerful figure to enforce justice in the multiverse via the wielding of arkwave light energy. Their expanded spell list is mostly utility and defense-focused (daylight, flame strike, spirit guardians, etc), and their initial features grant them advantage on saves vs the Frightened condition and can deal 1d4 bonus force damage on their first attack made after the condition ends for every round that it lasted. Later features grant them a 30 foot flying speed (this kicks in early in comparison to other subclasses, at 6th level), immunity to inhaled toxins, resistance to force damage and immunity to the Charmed condition, and their Capstone Ability (appropriately-named A Corps of Your Own) lets them summon 10 illusory copies 1/long rest when they cast Eldritch Blast, and each one can make a single 1d12 force damage attack while also granting the warlock effect line of sight of everything within the illusory copies’ senses.
We also get a new Pact of the Ring for Warlocks with this subclass, granting them a magical ring that can be replaced via a 1 hour ritual. It grants the warlock the ability to turn their Eldritch Blasts into sustained forms up to 10 cubic feet in size, and can be maintained indefinitely and deal said cantrip’s damage to all who touch them (but otherwise can’t do anything else besides damage). Higher levels let them maintain more such shapes, and at 17th level can form it into a single construct.
A Green Lantern Corps patron is a cool idea, but I cannot help but feel that they would make a more appropriate Paladin. Additionally, said superhero’s core feature of being able to make energy objects isn’t replicable with said class and Pact. There’s no mention of if said Eldritch Blast shapes can sustain a certain level of weight, to what degree they are transparent for cover purposes, and if said shapes can mimic the function of ‘real’ objects.
Wizard School of Logomancy is devoted to the magic of words, and also has more traditional stage magic aesthetics; so it’s Zatanna. The initial features include the ability to ‘reverse’ the damage type of a cast spell (acid becomes poison, fire becomes cold, etc) and deals 1d4 to 1d12 bonus damage depending on wizard level when cast in such a way, and can teleport as part of their movement and leave an illusory double behind that is mistaken for the caster on a failed Intelligence save. Later features include the ability cast spells without somatic components provided they have an immediate casting time,* attempts at Counterspelling the wizard’s spells require an opposed Insight/Deception check in order to work, can deflect hostile spells back at the caster by speaking the verbal components backwards, and their capstone ability lets them create an AoE hallucination that imposes a variety of damaging debuffs based on a random roll of the target’s perception (wrapped in chains and submerged in water, being sawn in half, etc).
*the rules do not have an ‘immediate’ casting time. They’re separated into actions, or by minutes/hours for longer casting times.
There are four new Spells in this chapter. Heroic Landing is like Feather Fall but generates an AoE shockwave attack upon landing; Ice Cube is a cold-based version of Fireball but with a cube-shaped AoE; Twin Powers Activate has to be cast by 2 people with knowledge of the spell, transforming one of them into a CR 5 or less Beast, the other into a CR 5 or less Elemental. Finally, X-Ray Vision allows one to see up to 15 feet through objects and barriers but is blocked by common metal and lead.
Alter Egos are Super & Sorcery’s backgrounds, representing common civilian identities. There’s 12 of them, and quite a few have highly similar if not identical skill and equipment lists to PHB ones, albeit renamed to be specific to Beacon-specific institutions and trades. Some of the more interesting ones include Beacon Herald Reporter (choice of knowledge-based skill proficiencies, proficient with Forger’s Kit, and access to library and old newspaper archives), Lamplighter (city watch, Thieves’ Tools or Gaming set, plus choice of History, Insight, Investigation, or Persuasion, along with various minor favors from people due to local contacts), Mogul (come from a rich family or came into wealth, one tool proficiency of choice, Insight & Persuasion, and can craft magic items in 1/3rd the time when making use of company resources), and Shattered Son (anti-establishment group, gain Sleight of Hand & Stealth, proficiency in Disguise Kit & Thieves’ Tools, and knowledge of fast and discrete routes, a hidden safehouse, and patrol routes of law enforcement).
This chapter ends with two Feats. Resolute requires one to have 13 or higher Constitution, but allows one to immediately regain hit points upon reaching 0 hit points by spending half their remaining Hit Die; this is a limited-use ability, and unlike rest-based refresh rates for PCs is recharged on a 5 or 6 on a d6 roll every long rest, more akin to monster abilities. The other feat, Super Flight, increases one’s Dexterity by 1 and a flight speed equal to one’s base walking speed.
The ability to fly (and swim, burrow, and other unconventional movements) indefinitely is one of the most common abilities in superhero comics. However, it does raise the question of former class features which grant flight. There’s also a number of magic items that grant a similar ability, ranging from Uncommon to Rare. As flight from S&S’s new classes are often gained at higher levels, and don’t add to existing movement rates nor does this feat, it does beg the question of what happens if this feat becomes superfluous or tradable when the class feature is gained.
Chapter 2: Sidekicks
A mere 3 pages long, this chapter hardly qualifies for the title. Owing to how so many superheroes have constant companions, sidekicks are an optional system for NPC allies which players can level up and build like PCs but with special rules.
Sidekicks level up congruently to PCs, but at a halved rate. Instead of using typical classes they have Sidekick levels but can gain proper class levels after their 3rd sidekick level. Sidekick levels are notably weaker than real classes, with a mere d6 Hit Die, a starting proficiency bonus of +1, and limited proficiency in a single language, skill, tool, and simple weapon. At levels 2 through 10 they gain their choice of a single benefit such as more individual weapon/armor/tool proficiencies, ability score increases, cantrips or 1st-level spells, and proper class features of a real class equal to half their level. Their proficiency bonus grows to +2 at 3rd level and +3 at 10th level.
I gotta say, these rules are rather underwhelming. I’ve seen better rules in Matt Colville’s Strongholds & Followers for NPC allies that can grow alongside party members. And although they're much newer releases, the Sidekick rules from the official Tasha's Cauldron of Everything and Spheres of Power/Might’s expansion do the same thing but better. There Sidekicks are inferior to true PCs, but have more notable increases over the course of play.
Chapter 3: Variant Rules
At 2 pages this section’s even shorter than Sidekicks! Six new rules are provided to give a more superheroic feel for 5e games, and thus an intended higher level of power. The first rule allows PCs to spend the Hit Die to add the rolled result (no CON modifier bonus) to d20 rolls, damage rolls, and even to subtract the result of an enemy’s successful saving throw vs one of their attacks/spells/etc. Another rule allows the spending of Inspiration to cast a spell at a slot one level higher or to gain access to a class feature 2 levels higher for an undetermined amount of time. A third rule allows PCs to voluntarily take on levels of Exhaustion to gain advantage on attack rolls/saving throws or +5 to a single ability score for 3 rounds. Or to cause a target’s successful save to auto-fail. The fourth rule causes a “knockback” effect on critical hits where targets are flung through the air and fall prone as well as taking bonus damage if they come into contact with a solid surface. A fifth rule causes PCs to be able to take an instant short rest whenever they change into or out of their costumed identity, and long rests whenever they foil a supervillain’s plot. The final rule takes the Minion system from 4th Edition where enemies designated as “mooks” have only 1 hit point but their stats are otherwise unchanged.
A lot of these rules tend to give static increases to abilities vs more thematic changes. I do like the one-hit Minion idea, although some need work like the Inspiration use having a specific duration. Another thing I would’ve liked is a kind of scalable table of magnitude for higher power levels of superheroes, like the Hulk and Superman being able to lift entire buildings. For example at Tier 1 (1st-4th) you are street-level crime fighters and use the base guidelines for D&D, but at Tier 4 (17th-20th) you can blow up asteroids with your fists.
Thoughts So Far: The new material has left me unimpressed and only reinforced my concerns that Superhero D&D is better off using another ruleset in order to properly emulate genre conventions. The sample class archetypes are at once too unbalanced and too restrictive at emulating the diversity of character archetypes that are part and parcel of superhero fiction. Although there were attempts at opening things up in regards to race and origin, the inability to play actual monsters and more fantastical creatures (conceptually similar if not mechanically identical) that you’d expect in Superhero D&D is another point against its favor.
Join us next time as we cover the setting proper in Part 2: A World of Heroes!