Edited by Jaym Gates, 2020’s Powered Up! – An Earth Prime Anthology is a shared-universe collection of superhero stories. All stores are set in the common background to Green Ronin’s Mutants and Masterminds superhero RPG.
Once again I’m going to start out with general comments before talking about the individual stories.
Turning roleplaying games into published works has a long, long history, which goes back to 1980s works like Wild Cards (based on Martin’s Super World campaign) and the Dragonlance series (based on Weis and Hickman’s D&D modules) and beyond. (Andre Norton’s 1978’s Quag Keep might be the earliest example of the genre.)
Now, what’s interesting at the table may not necessarily be interesting on paper. This may be particularly true of a sub-subgenre like works based on superhero RPGs; it’s all to easy to overlook the elegance of particular character designs when it’s easier to write about flurries of fists and laser-bolts. This is even more true of short fiction, where there may not be room for detailed backstories (backstories that each player doubtless created for their characters).
It’s interesting to compare and contrast this to the Reagan-era Wild Cards books. On the positive side, the authors that Gates assembled have created characters that are far more inclusive than those imagined by Martin’s crew. The recent collection is missing some of the abjectly cringeworthy elements of the older one, like the manner in which Wild Cards treated non-Americans (relic of a pre-internet era where one presumes that Martin’s writers consulted National Geographic back-issues for whatever research they did do). In the current book, rape as plot parsley is more or less absent, whereas the Martin anthologies would be reduced to a couple of pages without that element. So yay to Powered Up! authors for those improvements.
On the minus side, the actual stories themselves are underwhelming, but without being actively terrible in the manner of a TSR tie-in novel. I don’t know the publishing background of the authors Gates chose, but the sense I get from the prose in this work is that these authors are moving from roleplaying to prose writing. Structurally, the stories tend to end abruptly, and the brevity of each story makes it hard to develop anyone’s backstories. It’s all rather … first- or second-draft-ish. One could see any of these authors becoming established genre authors, but they don’t seem to be there yet. Compare that to the authors that Martin chose: published, some well-known, all competent, who nevertheless relied on deplorable tropes, over and over. Swings and roundabouts.
In sum, not a bad collection, not a great one. But it may hit your sweet spot.
“New Girls” by Crystal Frasier
A new legacy hero confronts an old villain.
“Before They Knew Him” by Richard Lee Byers
A dastardly villain finds an innovative way to strip an urban hero of his powers.
“Love Bites” by Skyler Graye
A shapeshifter’s attempts to appropriate other people’s glamourous lives prove frustratingly ineffective.
“Roger That, Team Rusty” by Eytan Bernstein
Will the tools with which Kid Robot has faced villains allow him to survive … school?
“Haunting Debts” by Nathan C. Meyer
An old-West-style occult hero faces off against demonic forces.
“Target: Freedom” by Nathan Crowder
A bow-wielding hero stymies a crew of racist terrorists.
“Even Villains Have Standards” by Kelly Goodman
A collection of the city’s worst team up against someone even worse.
“The Prisoner” by Richard Lee Byers
A science hero finds himself blaster-deep in occult horrors.
“The Bears” by Susan J. Bigelow”
Two minor-league superhumans go toe to toe with Koschei the Deathless himself!
“Western Menace” by Russell Zimmerman
Asian sorcery versus foot soldiers of a nasty science-based criminal organization.
“A Slip in Time Saves Mind” by Caias Ward
Reunion with ex-girlfriend turned supervillain is delayed by the untimely appearance of a super-mercenary.
“Last Light” by Aaron Rosenberg
Two old-time heroes team up to thump bad guys yet one more time.
“The Durgan Caper” by Jennifer Povey
Criminal toons: wacky but also potentially quite lethal.
“Night of the Witch” by Nathan C. Meyer
Pesky cultists’ plan is flawless, save for the possibility that two of the city’s many, many heroes might intervene.
“Secret(s) Identity” by Maurice Broaddus & Isabella Faidley
Hero to some, super-science foot soldier to his true bosses.
“Kill Me Baby, One More Time” by Michael Matheson
An unkillable hero sets out to deal with werewolves, only to be derailed by a more pressing threat.
“At the Speed of Screwed” by Andrew Wilmot
A speedster is offered something even more valuable than true love.
Powered Up! - An Earth Prime Anthology is available here.