Superheroes and Lateral Wins

So thanks to a combination of back issue collections released on DVD and my iPad (and the ComicZeal app) I’ve been spending some time in the Silver Age of Marvel Comics, notably the early issues of Avengers and Fantastic Four. While reading Avengers #22 (wherein “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” breaks up and Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch try to find work in a circus — and that’s just the “B” plot!) I was struck by something.

Captain American is up against Power Man, the Enchantress’ latest plaything, with all the powers of his predecessor, Wonder Man. In short, he’s super-strong and invulnerable. Really invulnerable. Cap quickly realizes nothing he can do can hurt this guy, even though he’s got it all over him in the fighting skills department. What’s more, when the rest of the Avengers arrive, none of them can hurt Power Man either: he shrugs off Hawkeye’s explosive arrows and Quicksilver’s super-fast punches, even the Scarlet Witch’s hexes (as this is long before other writers decided she was a certified Threat to Reality™ able to do almost anything).

How do the Avengers win the day? (Spoiler warning if you haven’t read the issue): They hold out long enough for the Enchantress to realize her scheme to frame them and break them up has failed. She takes a magical powder and vanishes, leaving a heartbroken Power Man behind, who surrenders, deprived of his motivation for fighting any longer!

Scenes like this one make me aware of how often in the comics heroes manage to overcome challenges, including “unbeatable” foes, through cleverness, determination, and other “lateral” means rather than the RPG-favored “beat on the villain until he’s out of hit points” (or “at incapacitated condition” to use Mutants & Masterminds vernacular).

I’ve heard many times that putting a villain into an RPG scenario “the heroes can’t possibly beat” is “unfair” and “cheating” on the part of the GM, as if every challenge in an RPG should and must be able to be overcome by a good roll of the dice and a straightforward application of the characters’ abilities. While I have nothing against an old-fashioned super-powered slugfest, from time to time I think it’s healthy for a game and an ongoing series to introduce challenges—and foes—the heroes can’t just punch or blast, but force them to come up with a lateral win.