Slow & Steady Superheroes

(I almost used the subtitle “Threat or Menace?” but that wouldn’t quite be accurate.)

One criticism often leveled against Champions (the superhero configuration and ancestor of the Hero System RPG engine) is that combat is too slow. Take your pick of the various jokes about being able to take bathroom breaks, go out and pick up pizza, or other things you can do between your turns in Champions. One of my favorites was about how someone should design another game you can play while you’re waiting to take your turn playing Champions.

But is stretching out a relatively short fight to cover a lot of game time—complete with lots of focus on tactics—really a flaw when it comes to the superhero genre or is it a feature?

I’ve looked at a lot of superhero source material—comics, animated series, movies—when it comes to designing for superhero games and there are some interesting elements to the flow of superheroic combat:

One is that the combats are generally all the same length regardless of the number of participants involved. This is a limitation of the media: given that an issue of a comic or an episode of a TV series is the same length, a fight has to take up a certain amount of space, whether it involves two combatants or a dozen or a hundred.

Thus the number of individual actions of characters involved in a fight are inversely proportionate to the number of characters involved: that is, the more people in the fight, the fewer things they each get to do. Many team-on-team fights of a half-dozen or more heroes against a similar number of villains only last the equivalent of two or three turns in game terms, sometimes as little as a single turn with each character getting to act once! A fight with fewer combatants tends to last longer, with both sides really slugging it out, particularly when you come down to just two characters.

Add to that the fact that the typical RPG game session tends to be a good deal longer than the typical superhero cartoon or comic book. In three to four hours, you can cover a lot of ground compared to just 30–60 minutes. To make up the difference, you either need more plot or game activities that fill some of that time.

That’s where longer combats can be a plus. To some degree, superhero stories are arguably about combat: heroes fighting villains (or each other!). Certainly most RPGs are focused on the activity of fighting; look at the combat chapter of most games as compared to the rest of their action resolution rules. For that matter, look at the fact that most RPGs have a chapter for resolving all actions except combat, which gets its own chapter/section. Even when those sections are mixed, I’ll wager the majority of actions covered are in some way connected to fighting.

So if combat is what it is primarily about, why shouldn’t the game focus on it in greater detail and take more time working it out? Are superhero games that allow combats to end too quickly too “light” for the genre?

Of course, even more detailed, and therefore slower, combat systems don’t necessarily “telescope” to reflect the number of combatants or the importance of the combat; a Champions fight between ten characters is no different than one between just two in terms of the characters’ capabilities. It’s just to take just as many attacks to down the characters, meaning the team fight takes much longer than the one-on-one.

Truth & Justice (using the PDQ system) offers a useful take on this by dividing situations into simple, complicated, and conflict categories. Now, technically, any fight would seem to be a conflict situation, but there’s nothing stopping the GM from deciding that some fights are actually complicated or even simple situations.  Certainly, Batman taking on some run-of-the-mill thugs is more of a simple situation; it’s not even worth bothering to roll the dice most of the time. Games that offer thug or minion rules, like Mutants & Masterminds, take a similar tack for some situations to speed up some combats.

Still, fights can sometimes be too fast for some players in some superhero systems. After all, no RPG is going to combine the visual spectacle of superhero action from a film or cartoon with quick and decisive action. By definition, tabletop RPGs need room for players and GMs to paint a picture of what is going on, using both description and the medium of the game system. The nature of the medium seems more given to a “slo-mo” or “bullet time” approach to combat.

That narrative space doesn’t have to come from the pauses where other players count up their dice or refigure their modifiers, but it can, in which case the perceived weakness of a slower tactical approach can be turned into a strength.