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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 13: “Gamma World, Part 2”
So after the lead-in from Part 1, “Gamma World, Part 2” delivers one of the best Avengers episodes of the first season, and we’ll look at some of the reasons why.

• Right from the start it’s Night of the Living Gamma Zombies as the Leader’s gamma dome overtakes not only Las Vegas, but also the area around the Cube where SHIELD and the Avengers are (which is apparently not far outside of Vegas).

• Thor, the only one unaffected by the gamma energy, is quickly overwhelmed by the monsters, including his former teammates. Is his defeat a fait accompli, where the GM simply informs Thor’s player of such, or was there a chance of him winning against such a horde? Should such a chance have even been provided?

• The Leader’s scenery-chewing monologues in this episode are deliciously villainous. Jeffrey Combs provides a terrific voice for the character and you can almost detect a Vincent Price-like quality to the performance, perfect for the ‘50s atomic horror style of the gamma villains.

• Thor definitely pays for the limitation(s) on Mjolnir in this episode, having it left behind when he’s captured and later having his foes take advantage of that fact.

• Doc Samson, on the other hand, pays for his “minor NPC” role by being knocked out at the start of the episode and then off-stage for the rest of it. Still, this keeps the focus on the Avengers themselves, which is where it should be.

• In the confrontation with the Hulkbusters, the Hulk punches one missile out of the air and throws up his arms against a volley of machine-gun fire. Both may be some sort of successful defensive maneuver or just description of the Hulk’s “passive” defenses (in game terms) but it would be interesting to determine how to implement such things to make defense more interesting. The Icons approach of having players actively test (roll for) all their characters’ defensive actions might apply here.

• A volley of four missiles sends the Hulk flying and K.O.s him, at least for a few moments. It’s just long enough for Hawkeye to swoop in to help out, so maybe a game turn or two at most. Compare and contrast with the Episode 3 fight with the Hulkbusters; seems fairly comparable.

• Hawkeye standing up to, and even threatening, the Hulk is brilliantly in-character. This is the brash, take-no-prisoners Hawkeye of the early Avengers comics. Although he didn’t really interact with the Hulk (who was even dumber and more monstrous in the comics of the time) you can totally see their interaction going like this. Hulk’s reaction (uproarious laughter before giving Hawkeye what he wants) is pitch-perfect as well. Funny thing is, if Hawkeye had coldly chosen a tactic for dealing with the Hulk, making him laugh (the opposite of being angry) would have been a brilliant move to get him to revert to Banner, but one suspects that Hawk didn’t think things out that far in advance (but would still gladly take credit, if it were pointed out).

• “You wish me to talk? Fine!” Oh, Leader... The monologuing becomes pretty blatant, but the Leader carries it off. It’s also a nice touch how his attitudes are a dark reflection of Thor’s own arrogance: “They need me!”

• “The longer people are exposed to the gamma energy, the more likely the changes will become permanent.” This touches upon the No Consequences concept discussed below.

• “You feeble-minded fool!” The Leader has, of course, anticipated Thor retrieving his hammer and planned accordingly, having the Absorbing Man lying in wait to absorb Mjolnir’s power. But did the GM plan in advance? Or is it merely a matter of “creative cheating” on the GM’s part to deal with the new circumstance and make the Leader appear smarter?

• “Who is left to stand against me...?” Oh, Leader... you just had to say it.

• “Fight back!” “I cannot, for I am... concentrating.” Absorbing Man really lays into Thor, hitting a good half-dozen times with his hammer-fists. Yet Thor doesn’t go down. One can only assume those hits are not as powerful as Thor himself going all out or that his “concentration” also constitutions some sort of defensive posture that helps him to take the hits (possibly also the use of some resource like hero points or determination to help soak up the damage). Effectively doing nothing—and taking hits—while preparing to pull off a cool stunt is definitely a daring tactical choice for a player, who might be motivated to take more immediate action.

• Hawkeye clearly taunts the Leader: “Too bad you’re such a lousy shot, cucumber head!” Gives him a chance to slip away and help the Hulk, since the Leader doesn’t follow immediately.

• Good thing, too, since the powered-up Abomination has the Hulk on the ropes until Hawkeye shows up to dose Abbie with the gamma cure and cut his power back to manageable levels. Then the Hulk sends him flying with one punch.

• Thor takes down the Leader’s ‘mech with Absorbing Man as his “hammer” and the Hulk is able to smash the gamma device and hurl it into space (!). Nice homage to the Leader’s later “wrinkly brain” look, and a great set-up for the Hulk’s “you’re ugly” zinger.

• Note how the tables turn pretty fast: Hawkeye takes down the transformed Avengers with one arrow each. Thor takes out Absorbing Man by exerting his control over Mjolnir’s magic. Hawkeye and Hulk take out Abomination with one attack each, and Thor smashes the Leader’s ‘mech with a single strike from Absorbing Man. Not a lot of drawn-out beat-downs here.

• “Hello, Mr. Blonsky.” In the final scene, Zemo and his allies recruit the Abomination. Was this planned in “game terms”? If so, did the GM have to engineer Abomination’s “escape” by being hurled away from the fight, or was the “plan” to use whichever gamma villain escaped (Abomination, Absorbing Man, Wrecker, etc.) as one of the Masters of Evil?

Lessons Learned
What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

No (Lasting) Consequences: One genre-expectation of comic book superheroes could be summed up as “there’s always hope”. So long as the heroes win, things are going to be okay: the horrible mutations, changes to reality, or what have you, will revert back to normal. In a more gritty or realistic scenario, the Leader’s gamma transformations might have been permanent, leaving thousands of mutants freaks behind (to say nothing of depopulating Las Vegas) following defeat. As it is, once the gamma dome is gone, all is well again. The same tends to go for property damage or (as we’ll see later in Avengers) things like changes to world-wide weather patterns.

Don’t Offer Choices You’re Not Really Offering: In the case of Thor’s early defeat and capture in the episode, if Thor’s player were offered the chance to fight back against the gamma monsters and win, or to take some other route of escape, things would have gone in a very different direction, perhaps with Thor on the run or looking to recruit allies to stop the Leader. That’s fine, so long as the GM is okay with the story heading off in those directions. If you’re going to present a choice or option in-game, make sure you’re okay with all of the possible outcomes of that decision, since any one of them might happen, even the less likely one(s). If you don’t want players to make a particular choice, then it’s generally best not to offer it in the first place rather than give them the appearance of choice, only to yank it away when things don’t go as planned.

David and Goliath: Superhero teams frequently mix guys like Hawkeye (well-trained athlete with a bow and trick arrows) and the Hulk (essentially the strongest guy in the world) and not only do it successfully, but allow for scenes where Hawkeye can bluster and talk about taking on the Hulk one-on-one. Hulk might have laughed, but Hawkeye and Black Widow nearly took him down together. The “normal” guys need stuff that puts them in the same league as the ones who can move mountains. Usually we’re talking about the game’s “hero” resource (hero points, Fate Points, Determination, Karma, etc.).

Zing! Corny and snappy dialog are a big part of the genre, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with setting up straight lines for heroes to quip about, encouraging villains to monologue, or giving defiant heroic speeches about how the bad guys will never get away with this. Indeed, it can be a lot of fun. The game system can even support this with rewards for effective roleplaying, the need to toss out a one-liner to activate some game benefit (spending hero points, for example), or even with a system like White Wolf’s Adventure! which featured a mechanic where your character could be such a sharp wit that you supplied the GM with one or more “straight lines” in advance as set-ups for comebacks you’d already had time to think up (rather than having to invent them on the spot).

Next Up: Masters of Evil

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stevekenson

July 2011

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