Building a Better Deathtrap

Diabolical Dilemmas for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game

A super-villain has defeated our heroes, leaving them at his or her mercy. What is the villain going to do? Certainly not kill the heroes in cold blood. Not only would that end the game in a hurry and leave the Narrator with a lot of unhappy players, it wouldn’t be in keeping with the modus operandi of most super-villains. Killing the heroes outright denies the villain the opportunity to use one of the favorite villainous devices: the deathtrap.

This article looks at ways to include some fiendish deathtraps in your own Marvel games, along with some game rules to make escaping from those traps a little more exciting.

Why Deathtraps?

Why doesn’t the villain just do away with the heroes when they are helpless? Why put them in a deathtrap? Well, villains have many different reasons. Some want to demonstrate their own cleverness by creating the perfect deathtrap, although they always seem to fall just a bit short. Other villains prefer for their enemies to suffer. Rather than kill them quickly and cleanly, they want to make the heroes squirm. For some a deathtrap is a means of doing away with the heroes without the villain having to dirty his own hands at the task. In some cases, the deathtrap happens by accident rather than design; the heroes end up in a perilous situation-trapped in a burning building, for example-and the villain simply leaves them there to die.

Whatever reasons the villain might have, the real reason behind deathtraps is simple: super heroes just don’t die in such undramatic ways as being shot by a villain after a knock on the head. Super heroes only die in dramatic life-of-death struggles, and rarely even then. The consequence of defeat in most RPG settings is death, combats are often lethal. In the non-lethal setting of the comics, deathtraps provide a way to put some drama into a super heroic adventure. Defeated heroes, and their players, know that they face, not death, but “a fate worse than death! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” (Sorry, got carried away there.)

Being Defeated

A key part of many deathtraps is that the villain first defeats the heroes. The villain puts them into a deathtrap, reveals his or her evil plan, then leaves the heroes to face their fate. The trick in translating this into the Marvel game is defeating the heroes in the first place.

As a general rule, players don’t like to lose. Although roleplaying games like Marvel don’t have any real “winners” or “losers,” players often equate “defeated in combat” with “losing.” If a Narrator plans to defeat a group of heroes before putting them in a deathtrap, expect the players to fight to the very last to avoid being defeated, even if defeat seems inevitable. And, if you give them the opportunity, don’t be surprised if the players somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Trump cards and Edge can do that.

There are several ways you can deal with this problem in your games. The first is to tell the players up front that, in playing a Marvel game, a certain amount of defeats may happen to their heroes. These defeats shouldn’t be looked at as failures on the part of the players or their heroes, simply as part of the game. As you play and the players see that defeat does not mean certain death for their favorite hero, they’ll begin to loosen up about getting defeated now and again. They might even look forward to the deathtrap that’s coming next!

You can also set up “you never had a chance” situations; traps so fiendishly designed that the heroes simply have no way to avoid being defeated. For example, the heroes break into Arcade’s control room and confront the crazed assassin, who’s sitting in his chair, smugly confident and taunting them. One of the heroes decides to punch or blast Arcade. When he does, the android duplicate of the carnival hitman explodes, releasing a cloud of knockout gas. The gas quickly incapacitates the heroes, allowing Arcade to drop them into his latest Murderworld. In this case, the heroes don’t get a chance to resist the gas; if they trigger the trap, they’re caught.

Or you can simply start an adventure with the heroes already defeated by a villain, who has them in a deathtrap. For example, if your players are running the Uncanny X-Men, you tell them they were out for a night at the opera when Arcade’s loyal assistants, Ms. Locke and Mr. Chambers, sprang a stun gas trap on them. When the adventure begins, they wake up in their costumes inside Murderworld and the game begins!

Use this method sparingly. If the heroes are confronted with too many situations out of their control, the players can become frustrated and lose interest in the game. Oftentimes it is better to allow the players to come up with some way to avoid the trap, then hit them with another one, rather than making a particular defeat inevitable.

Lastly, you can surprise heroes with deathtraps that do not require the villain to defeat the heroes first. In the first example above, the booby-trapped android duplicate of Arcade might be the deathtrap rather than a means of getting the heroes into one. Heroes can walk right into a deathtrap if a villain prepares the proper “bait,” like a crime in progress or a helpless loved one.

The Doom Clock

Deathtraps require a certain dramatic timing in order to remain tense and exciting for the players. One way the Narrator can accomplish this is through the use of a “Doom Clock,” which counts down how long the hero has to successfully escape the deathtrap before disaster.

The Narrator chooses a number of actions required to escape from the deathtrap. This should generally be between two and five actions. One action is too quick for anything except the simplest traps, while more than five actions tends to bog things down and get boring. The Narrator then decides what the various actions should be, for example, finding the access panel to the computer, bypassing the security lockouts and reprogramming the system. If the player offers a plan of his or her own, the Narrator should break it down into actions accordingly.

The Narrator then chooses the number of actions before the deathtrap activates: how long before the walls close in, before the hero is dropped into the pit of boiling acid, and so forth. For tough deathtraps, this interval should be the same as the number of actions required to escape. For easier challenges, the interval can be from 25% to 100% longer.

The Narrator then begins to turn over cards on the Fate Deck. Each card represents an exchange. On a positive draw, the hero may attempt an action to escape the trap. On a negative draw, the trap’s “clock” advances forward by one exchange. On a neutral draw, nothing happens: the hero is struggling to figure out what comes next while the clock is ticking.

Last Ditch Effort

It may be that the trap springs before the hero has time enough to escape, especially when the positive and negative counters are close. In this case, when the final negative card comes up that would trigger the trap, the hero has the option of making a last ditch attempt to escape. This is a single action, chosen by the Narrator. It should have a difficulty at least three levels higher than that of the other actions for getting out of the trap. So a deathtrap that required three challenging actions to overcome normally would require a superhuman last ditch effort to escape. Heroes can use Pushing the Limit to help with a list ditch effort. If the hero is successful, he or she escapes just in the nick of time.

Dramatic Events

While the Doom Clock is ticking, the Narrator can use any Dramatic Events that come up on the card draws the enhance the excitement of the deathtrap, if appropriate. For example, Emergency or Endangered Innocents might indicate a new threat from the deathtrap, like a runaway laser beam setting the room on fire. On the other hand, events like No Restrictions or Never Say Die, might actually help the heroes, giving them additional insight or a second-chance. This is very useful if the heroes are having too easy or too difficult a time with the deathtrap, keeping things in balance and keeping the players on the edge of their seats.

Types of Deathtraps

Here are some of the classic deathtraps from the comics for use in your games. You can use these basic ideas to create an almost endless array of lethal traps. Consider spicing things up by combining two or more deathtraps into one, or by taking an existing “classic” and adding a new spin to it, like a Closing Walls trap where the room the heroes are trapped in is slowly filling with an alien bio-sludge that causes the heroes to mutate or lose control of their powers.

  • Closing Walls: The heroes are trapped in a room where the walls are closing in or which is slowly filling with sand, water, poison gas or something equally unbreathable, or perhaps both: the walls are closing in and the room is filling up at the same time. The walls may also be backed up by more than crushing force, they may be lined with spikes or heated red hot. The heroes have to figure a way out of the room before they are crushed or suffocate. Needless to say, this trap is considerably less threatening to heroes who are either invulnerable or don’t have to breathe. However, their teammates, friends and loved ones still do.
  • Controlled Teammate: The villain brainwashes one of the heroes into thinking his or her teammates are enemies who must be destroyed. The team has to convince the brainwashed hero not to attack. The Narrator can control any brainwashed hero(es) for this trap, but it can be a lot of fun to give control of the mind-controlled heroes to the players and let them loose! Encourage the players to roleplay helping their comrade break free of the evil mind-control, rather than reducing it to just a series of Willpower actions. You can use the Doom Clock in conjunction with the heroes’ attempts, especially if there is a time-limit, such as the mind-controlled hero about to trigger a far more lethal deathtrap.
  • Countdown: The heroes are sitting on top of a bomb (or similar deadly device) which is counting down to go off. Of course, the heroes are restrained or in some way prevented from easily defusing the bomb. The Doom Clock represents the trap’s countdown.
  • Decoy Villain: A decoy that looks like the villain (a robot duplicate or simply a dummy) triggers another trap when it is attacked. The decoy might explode or release a toxic gas when struck, or it might trigger things like trapdoors or cages containing dangerous creatures.
  • Gauntlet: The heroes have to make their way through a corridor or maze filled with deadly traps of all kinds. The traps can be anything the Narrator thinks up: automated weapons, fighting robots, creatures, pit traps, swinging blades and so forth. There may also be a time-limit for the heroes to make it through the gauntlet before something else happens, like the whole place blowing up, being flooded or something similar. Heroes often use gauntlets for training purposes on their own, like the “Danger Room” scenarios of the X-Men.
  • Psychodrama: The heroes are trapped inside a mindscape or illusion that involves something drawn from their own memories or worst fears. They may all see the same thing, or each hero might experience something different-the claustrophobic hero feels the walls closing in, the hero afraid of drowning sees the room filling with water, and so forth. The heroes have to overcome their fears in order to defeat the trap.
  • Sawmill: The heroes are strapped down, helpless, while a deadly attack draws closer and closer. It might be a laser, molten metal in a steel mill, a buzz-saw in a lumber mill, a rampaging monster, or some attack or substance a hero is especially vulnerable to. The heroes must escape before the attack gets to them. Alternately, a friend or loved one of a hero may be placed in a similar situation, forcing the hero to come to the rescue.
  • Tiger Pit: The heroes are placed in a trap where dangerous animals can attack them. It might be hungry lions, sharks, piranha, poisonous snakes or even more exotic creatures like alien monsters, mutates or cyborgs. Usually, there is something keeping both the creatures and the heroes trapped together, like a pit or force field. The creatures also have the home-field advantage, such as having to fight sharks or giant squid underwater (while holding your breath) or dealing with invisible mutants that can see in the dark while in pitch blackness.