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Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the Avengers episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

Episode 8: “Some Assembly Required”

Now we’re into the “regular” series episodes, although this one has a fair amount of setup, since it has to establish key elements like the Avengers’ new headquarters, vehicles, gadgets, etc. as well as the team dynamic.

Although the Hulk is more of a regular ongoing character in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, this episode is also an homage to issue #2 of the Avengers comic where the Hulk, a member of the team for all of one issue, quits (and in that instance, never comes back).

• Poor Mandrill, he never stood a chance. Another good “teaser” scene that lets the heroes strut their stuff, albeit without even having to make an attack, unless you count their massive team intimidation of Mandrill a game mechanic element.

Avengers Mansion: So, the heroes acquire their new HQ pretty fast. In game terms, was it “points” (or whatever sort of resources) from their first adventures? Is Iron Man “paying” for the Mansion both in-character with his wealth/resources and in-game with his points in some fashion? I’ve often thought team headquarters should be one of the benefits of being on or having a team, not something the individual characters need to “pay” for unless they have a personal headquarters. So maybe Batman and Superman pay for the Batcave and the Fortress of Solitude, but Flash and Green Lantern don’t pay for HQs, including the Watchtower, which is “free” to the Justice League just for being a team. Could be the same with the Avengers: Iron Man’s Arsenal is part of his Stark resources, but Thor and Hulk don’t “pay” for the mansion, even though they live there.

• The classic Avengers bickering gets underway quickly: Hulk’s peeved, Thor is clueless, Iron Man is smug and overly pleased with himself, Ant-Man doesn’t trust Stark, etc.

• The Training Room sequence is brief but gives almost everyone a chance to show off a little bit. In a game scenario this could almost be a mini-game unto itself, which is how I’ve run it (and seen it written and run) in some games.

• The “Most Wanted” list displayed in the Assembly Room is a ready-made hook (set of them, really) for a series: the GM sets up a list of escaped villains, hands it over to the players and asks “Who do you go after first, and how do you go about it?” Plenty of opportunities to fit other plots in there, especially as the escaped villains go about their schemes and the heroes are alerted to them.

• Banner’s mirror-image talking to the Hulk: something the Hulk’s player can see? It can be tricky playing out scenes where a player character is influenced to behave differently. Ideally, you get the player to go along for the ride, rather than feeling like control over the character has been usurped.

• We get some foreshadowing concerning Ultron for the first time, followed by some more bickering between Thor and the Hulk, then...

• It’s a classic hero on hero fight between Thor and the Hulk! The assembly call goes out and all of the Avengers get in on the action.

• Iron Man’s sensors can pick up on magic! Pretty cool.

• The Hulk vs. the Avengers fight is another interesting one-on-many. The Hulk pretty much hands the Avengers their heads. Are they holding back? Is the Hulk benefitting from opportunities that come from being a solo combatant against a team? Normally, being outnumbered would be a bad thing, but he seems to turn it to his advantage.

• Hulk’s defeat of Wasp allows him to break the Enchantress’ spell. At the least, the GM probably granted a significant bonus to whatever was required to break the enchantment at this point. At most, it might have been a near-automatic thing. There’s a fine line between granting a hefty bonus and just making some thing a fait accompli. In the former case, you’ve got to account for the (albeit slim) possibility of failure. What if the Hulk hadn’t broken the spell and had crushed Wasp instead? Not an option in the cartoon, but it could happen in the context of a game if the dice happen to come up that way, assuming everything isn’t entirely under the GM’s control.

• Executioner surprise attacks and disables Iron Man, although it’s noteworthy that his attack, rather than just leaving Stark unconscious (kind of dull) instead imposes a new challenge: his armor is paralyzed and he’s helpless, but still able to communicate. Similarly, the Enchantress captures Thor’s hammer in a spell, but doesn’t take Thor out immediately. There’s plenty of opportunity for interaction, taunts, and threats.

• Meanwhile, the Hulk struggles between wanting to help (and, let’s admit it, smash whoever did this to him) and just wanting to leave. This could be a scene for building up character power in some regards, reaping the story rewards of the earlier mind-control plot.

• Wasp’s stings make Skurge back off but don’t really seem to hurt him. His flame blast, meanwhile, KOs Giant-Man.

• It’s the Enchantress vs. Thor and Iron Man! She deftly uses mystic shields and teleports as defenses, letting her take on both heroes, at least until the Hulk returns.

• Enchantress thinks she has the upper hand, but “No one controls the Hulk!” — at least not twice. Hulk unloads on her, allowing Thor and Iron Man to finish her off. Once Enchantress is off her guard, she’s relatively easy to take down (“easy” for the combined power of an attack by Iron Man and Thor, anyway).

Lessons Learned
What does this episode teach us about superhero game design?

Moments of Awesome: I plan on making this point again later (they will be several opportunities) but a key thing in superhero RPGs, and RPGs in general is: let the heroes be awesome. If there’s an opportunity for you, the GM, to play some D-lister like Mandrill blustering and just as quickly surrendering to the heroes’ obvious awesomeness, do it. Don’t try to blunt or deflect the awesomeness; give into it and help make it happen.

Weird is Normal: In the Marvel Universe, of course the sensors of Iron Man’s armor can detect magic as “unidentified energy” (and can presumably now tag it at least as “unidentified magic” now that they know what the look for). Nobody even blinks that Thor is a Norse god or comes from Asgard or that there are gamma monsters or people who can shrink or what have you. The world is crazy and weird, but that’s totally normal for a comic book universe. Of course, in an RPG, you need players willing to buy into that concept.

KOs Aren’t the Only Consequences: “Defeated” does not necessarily have to mean “knocked out” or “out of action” and it can actually be much more interesting when it means something else. This is where flexible consequences, like those found in FATE, come in handy, as well as games like FATE and SIFRP (Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying) that let you define the terms of your own defeat. Imagine if Iron Man’s player, faced with an overwhelming sneak attack from the Executioner, said: “Okay, what if the axe lodges in my armor and totally shorts it out? I’m down and the armor is shut-down and leaking energy but I’m still conscious” and the GM considered and said: “All right” rather than the GM dictating those circumstances. Thor’s player later gets a chance to take action to reverse those circumstances, whereas Thor would have made a fairly poor “medic” to help an injured Iron Man.

Foreshadowing Makes For Good Transitions: The bridging and ending parts of this episode involve foreshadowing Black Panther and Captain America’s involvement with the Avengers. As in discussion of narrative framing in “Meet Captain America” this kind of structure can give the players information their characters might not know. The primary trick with foreshadowing in an RPG versus a more traditional narrative is that RPGs are not “fixed” and what is being foreshadowed may or may not actually happen. Be careful not to set too much of the future of the game’s narrative in stone in case circumstances require a course correction to get there.

The Expected Can Be Dramatic: There’s nothing necessarily wrong with setting up some preordained conclusions for a superhero scenario. After all, watching the cartoon, we know the Avengers are going to win. Many of us comic buffs even knew (or at least strongly suspected) the Hulk was going to quit. Imagine in the context of an RPG the Hulk’s player is going to be away for a couple of months and has to be “written out”. Just because everyone knows this going in doesn’t mean the game has to be dull. The interesting element with iconic heroes isn’t necessarily the end, but how they get there. It isn’t if they win, how they manage it, that’s interesting and dramatic. Anything else is largely playing with the inherent assumptions of the genre. For example, if you run a superhero game where a villain seizes control of the United State via mind control but, after the heroes win, the U.S. government and economy collapse, leaving chaos and a massive power vacuum, then you’re into another kind of story which, as the Squadron Supreme comic showed us, can even be a good one, but it’s not a traditional superhero story.

Next Up: Living Legend

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stevekenson

July 2011

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