Thursday, December 31, 2015

What Street Level means to me


Someone was asking for a street-level system over on G+ the other day, and I had answered before I really examined my assumptions. So here we'll take a quick look at street-level supers.

If I say I want a street-level hero, then I probably mean Black Lightning. Or Arsenal. Or Batman...wait. Do I mean Batman? Or Spider-Man? I mean, the Bat goes up against Darkseid on a regular basis, as part of the Justice League. And while Spider-Man whups a certain amount of hoodlum butt, I never think of someone like the Green Goblin or Doc Ock as street-level, so why should their arch-foes be street level?

But on the other hand, if we measure a hero by his or her occasional opponents, then anyone who has ever been in the Avengers or the Justice League is not street level. (And over the years, they've had pretty much everybody.) Even though the Justice League has a number of decidedly cosmic foes, it has also had members like Vibe, who it's pretty safe to say is street level. And Black Lightning.

And, frankly, it can't be power level, because I don't think that we can count Adam Strange as street level, even though he's just a dude with a raygun and a rocket pack.

Where does Squirrel Girl fit? I mean, her whole raison d'etre seems to be to take down cosmic villains with a plucky attitude and a set of frankly silly (uh, sillier than usual) powers.

So it can't be occasional opponents and it can't be power level. What about regular opponents? Well, for the early part of his existence, Jim Corrigan as the Spectre confined himself to thugs and hoodlums. In those days, he was the spirit of vengeance. Star Lord has, well, the kind of powers that would do him okay in Hell's Kitchen, but he is a regular in cosmic stories.

There is no hard-and-fast rule, especially as characters wander between titles and teams. So the term "street level" has got to be a guideline, a kind of wish list, rather than an absolute.

With that out of the way, when you say a character is street level, here's what it means to me. Your definition might vary.

  • The character isn't that powerful, or that really intense power is limited in some way. Perhaps OmniNom can turn anyone into a piece of bedroom furniture given their true name, but most people don't even know their true names. OmiNom has to be like any regular trained person...until finding out the person's true name...and then exacts retribution. Or Hulkette can bench press a tank, but has normal tensile strength problems when trying to lift or move heavy objects.
  • Some guys with guns are an actual threat. Kitty Pryde and Colossus probably aren't street level by that metric. Batman might be; every once in a while, they get a lucky shot (when guided by the plot).
  • The usual stomping grounds is a neighbourhood or city, and it's a noteworthy event when the character goes elsewhere.
  • The usual foe hasn't got ambitions beyond the city. There are no plans to take over the world, but rather plans to knock over the 7-11. Or bank. Or maybe get that valuable item out of the vault. Or revenge. If he or she gets hold of an unstoppable robot killing machine, the most likely use is to rob jewelry stores.[1] Again, it's a noteworthy event going up against a foe with bigger plans.

These aren't absolute; characters can be really powerful and be limited mentally or morally, or have sworn an oath to defend this patch of land. But really I need three out of four of these for a character to sometimes be street level.

It feels more like scope, though that's not all of it. Spider-Man is street level mostly because he chooses not to deal with world or nation threatening problems. Cosmic characters talk about worlds and universes where street level characters talk about buildings and streets. They save the world or the universe on a regular basis. (Must be tough to get insurance on Rann.)

In an RPG, lowering the available points/dice is an easy adjustment, but if everyone's on the same page, you might not need even that. 

1. And then drive the Unstoppable Killing Machine out of town to unload it, but the cops are still following it, so you have to kill or disable the cops, and then the spy satellites have it, and it's just sitting there...with a load of bullion...waiting. Killing anyone who comes near. Man, that sounds like a setup for a story.

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