Re: Animated • Avengers “Iron Man is Born!”

avengers1A little side-project I’ve been wanting to work on for a while is going through the episodes of the new Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes animated series with an eye towards superhero RPGs and what (if anything) we can learn in terms of game design and game mastering from what is (in my humble opinion) an excellent comic book style superhero show. So, without further ado…

“Iron Man is Born!”

The initial five episodes of Avengers were split up into little five-minute “minisodes” shown on the Web to promote the show, then collected to form the introductory episodes. The first focuses on Avengers founder and financier Tony Stark, Iron Man. Some of the episode’s game-able highlights:

  • Uni-Beam: Iron Man’s uni-beam deals out a lot of damage (it takes out a HYDRA skull-walker in one shot!) but also consumes a lot of power: armor power drops to 40% after he uses it and it takes a good three minutes or so to recharge with Iron Man relatively at rest. This might be considered the equivalent of an “encounter” power for Iron Man, or something that otherwise has a limitation on it that he can only use it sparingly. It’s also implied that it is more powerful than his routine attacks, so the limit isn’t necessarily compensating for the uni-beam’s “cost” but more for its level of power/effect.
  • “Jarvis, activate external speakers” When Iron Man uses his armor’s PA system to address the HYDRA goons, it raises an interesting design issue: in game-terms, did Iron Man’s player have to pre-plan for his armor to even have a PA system? If he didn’t, and said to the GM: “I want to use the external speakers in my armor to amplify my voice so all of the HYDRA troops can hear me” what should the GM’s response be? To my mind, it should be “Sure, that makes sense,” but I also understand that’s not going to be every GM’s response, and a game system has to take that into account.
  • Iron Man takes out all of the HYDRA troops in what amounts to two actions: a cluster-bomb to destroy their weapons (stunning them with the blast) and shooting the last couple guys with his repulsors, almost as an afterthought. This might imply some kind of “minion” rule, or it could be that Iron Man is just that good, compared to a bunch of otherwise normal guys with high-tech rifles.
  • Iron Man’s shields are down after a few hits from the Dreadnought’s blasters: an effect of the blasts themselves or due to a drop in power levels from using the uni-beam previously?
  • Iron Man uses his repulsors to block two incoming missiles and dodges the remaining three, letting one explode on impact with an obstacle before shooting down the remaining two. How would this sequence play out in round-to-round combat? Is it a specific defensive action (note that Iron Man seems to be on the defensive here) or just a part of “routine” defense?
  • After being tackled by a Dreadnought, Iron Man grabs the robot’s drill bit before it can bore into him. Again, a specific defensive action or just “routine” defense? How long will a player tolerate being “on the defensive” against a foe before it starts to get frustrating? Is there a behind the scenes sequence of Iron Man rebuilding his power (which he squandered a bit at the start of the scene)?
  • Without enough power for an EM pulse (another limited use effect?) Iron Man unleashes repulsor blasts against the Dreadnoughts, but their shields are too strong for them. The shielding technology is stolen from Stark: does this constitute some type of subplot or character-benefitting complication for him? Safeguarding his technology is a major theme of the character in the show.
  • A punch from a Dreadnought sends Iron Man flying into a building. He then gets picked up and tossed into a car. Knockback of some sort is definitely a factor in this fight.
  • Note in this part of the sequence, the Dreadnoughts attack Iron Man one at a time, and he gets one counterattack for each attack one of them makes, rather than the more traditional “heroes go, villains go” round-to-round structure. What about an action system wherein each “side” in a fight gets actions equal to the highest number of actions on a side? So when Iron Man fights three Dreadnoughts, he gets three actions to their three; when Magneto fights five X-Men, he gets five actions per round to their five, and so forth.
  • A knocked-down Iron Man blocks an incoming Dreadnought with his feet and then melts its face off with his boot jets! A great stunt, the sort of thing a good system should encourage.
  • Iron Man throws up his arms to withstand the Mandroid assault, since he wants to avoid hurting any of the SHIELD agents. A defensive move? Something that enhances his damage resistance for that round?
  • The Grim Reaper cuts supports in the Vault to drop part of the ceiling onto Nick Fury. Given how Fury’s defenses are heavily based on dodging the Reaper’s attacks, this suggests some sort of feint/surprise attack maneuver: Fury thinks he’s dodging attacks, which aren’t actually aimed at him, but intended to set him up for the ceiling drop, which catches him by surprise and negates his dodging advantage. Is this the sort of maneuver Grim Reaper’s player (most likely the GM) needs to plan/play out in advance or could it be “retconned” (spending some resource, perhaps, to turn missed attacks into some sort of “I meant to do that” trap)?
  • Similarly, Fury planting an explosive on the Reaper’s scythe and having glider wings to save him from the fall from the SHIELD Flying Car: pre-planned effort on the player’s part (giving Fury a good load-out/equipment manifest), a spur-of-the-moment stunt, or even a retcon? (GM: “You plunge off the flying car, what do you do?” Player [spends a resource/makes a roll]: “I freefall, then activate the hidden glider wings in my uniform.”).
  • Baron Strucker walks right past the helpless Maria Hill and Nick Fury and uses his Satan Claw on some nameless SHIELD agent to drain his life force. He only uses it against Fury later in the scene when Fury is able to fight back. Does a level of “plot immunity” need to be written into the rules of the game (e.g., villains cannot attack helpless heroes if that doesn’t suit the genre) or is it just in how you choose to run the game?

Lessons Learned

What do the examples from this episode teach us?

Sacrifice = Success: When Iron Man is willing to sacrifice armor power/efficiency, he gets a bonus. His uni-beam is a trade-off of immediate success in exchange for a period of weakness.

Freeform Action: Characters don’t just stand toe-to-toe blasting and punching each other, there are a lot of maneuvers and different actions to keep things interesting. Either the system rewards such innovation and variety or else requires it in some fashion. An example is the stunt system from AGE, wherein the system both offers a bonus (in the form of the stunt) but also enforces innovation (it decides when stunt points get handed out, but it’s up to the player to decide how to use them).

Let Heroes Be Heroes: If a superhero wants to do something cool and in-character (like Iron Man’s armor speakers) why not just let him?

Next Up: “Thor the Mighty”!

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