Quick, what superhero setting features JFK, nascent superheroes just discovering their powers, and the mutant struggle for equality juxtaposed over American civil rights? No, not X-Men: First Class…Brave New World! No, not the novel by Aldous Huxley…the role-playing game by Matt Forbeck!
Brave New World features a superhero-infested America gone mad. When an evil mutant organization fails to assassinate John F. Kennedy, he transforms the United States into a fascist dictatorship under military rule where every mutant must be registered. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the X-Men comics featured mutant oppression in 1984 when Senator Kelly passed the Mutant Registration Act. Brave New World takes this conflict between the superpowered and the government to its logical conclusion – the act grows in scope until it comes to define world policy: mutants change the outcome of wars, destroy entire cities, and usher in a new age with Kennedy extending his term as president indefinitely. It takes over 20 pages to outline this background, which is summarized just as effectively on Wikipedia.
Brave New World is the last gasp of old school design, complete with “how to role-play,” random full color plates, and long dramatic fiction introducing the setting. Throughout, what would normally be color glossy pictures are converted here in black-and-white for economic printing purposes. Sans color, much of the artwork is considerably less impressive.
In Brave New World superheroes are “Deltas” either for or against this new world order, a tool of the Man or a desperate fugitive using their powers for justice. Complicating matters is the disappearance of the ultra-powerful superheroes known as Alphas. In this world, nobody is multi-classed or high-level.
And that’s the problem. Brave New World is obsessed with creating a superhero genre that’s sharply defined by its world, which by its very nature means the heroes can’t be so powerful that they can trounce government agents. Players can choose only from 10 archetypes: bargainer, blaster, bouncer, flyer, gadgeteer, goliath, gunner, healer, scrapper, and speedster. They can be slightly customized, but their powers, skills, and attributes are predefined. This is a role-playing game where “role” is something of a straitjacket.
The narrow focus applies to the game master too. Forbeck is uninterested in providing much of a toolkit for game mastering the campaign. Throughout the book, any information that would further the campaign (Where are the alphas? How does one become an alpha? What’s up with JFK?) are deferred to other supplements. In essence, if you want to know more you have to pay up for future supplements…and since Brave New World came out in 1999 we now know that some of the books were never published. In short, even if you were to buy into what amounts to over a hundred dollars in books, you still wouldn’t have the complete setting.
Brave New World does one thing very well: low-level class-based underdog superheroes battling against the government and each other. In that regard it has much in common with the Basic Dungeons & Dragons set. The superhero role-playing game in particular has been changed forever by Champions; players expect to be able to create whatever character they want. That’s more a comment on the evolution of game design than Brave New World. It might surprise modern players expecting a more flexible system, but for gamers who want to recapture the feel of X-Men: First Class, Brave New World might be just what they’re looking for.