Re: Animated • Avengers: “The Man in the Ant Hill”

avengers5Obligatory 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.

“The Man in the Ant Hill”

This one is a relatively short Avengers Assembled, no disrespect (or pun) intended to either Dr. Hank Pym or T’Challa, both of whom are pretty cool on the show and handled well by its writers and animators. Anyhow, let’s get down to it:

  • You may be big, but I’m small! So, Ant-Man brings us to the topic of shrinking superheroes, an archetype almost entirely defined by Ant-Man’s various incarnations, the Wasp, and DC’s the Atom. Yeah, sure, there are a few other characters with shrinking powers (Doll Man, for example) but you’re getting pretty obscure at that point. Size-changing powers seem problematic for a lot of superhero RPGs, not the least reason being that matters of scale for superheroes seem to have little, if anything, to do with real-world physics, as we shall see.
  • Now you see me… Pym’s initial size-change in the confrontation with Klaw and his goons effectively allows him to disappear; everyone’s looking around for him, and he’s able to get in an action or two before anyone even spots him. The bonus shrinking provides to stealth, concealment, or the like shouldn’t be underestimated, especially if surprise attacks play an effective role, as we’ve noted previously.
  • Speaking of Ant-Man’s initial attacks, it’s clear he retains his normal-size strength while shrunk, given how he decks the goons he hits while ant-sized, and how high/far he can jump at that size. Some systems (M&M, for example) make “normal strength while shrunk” an advantage or modifier on the power but it may well be the default state, given that all the best comic book examples have it.
  • Klaw uses an area effect sonic blast versus the tiny (and therefore high defense) Ant-Man. Clearly, he’s been paying attention to his size modifiers! Plenty of RPGs (e.g. Hero System, M&M) differentiate between area effects and direct attacks, and make the former more effective against fast, agile—and in this case, tiny—targets.
  • Ant-Man shrinks the entire quonset hut and everybody inside it! It’s a cool effect, bringing Klaw and Co. down to his (and the ants’) level, but what is it in game terms? A power stunt? Most likely, although it would be difficult for an effect that shrinks a whole area to have the same “value” as Ant-Man’s normal shrinking effect in game-terms. Moreover, is it something Ant-Man’s player would come up with on the fly? I tend to assume it would be more of an in-game “retcon” or stunt than something Ant-Man’s player planned for in advance, although you never know.
  • Aside: Check the headline “Man-like Thing Stalks Upstate” on the cabbie’s newspaper, i.e., the Man-Thing, not Ben Grimm (although what Man-Thing is doing upstate rather than in the Everglades, we don’t know).
  • Note that Wasp’s stings seem to have little effect on Whirlwind initially but, when she charges him, stings energized around her hands, she gives him a black eye. When she blasts him at full-size, she takes him out! Do the effects of Wasp’s stings increase with her size? Seems odd, if so, given that shrinking is her primary power.
  • Ant-Man and Wasp manage to have a whole argument while Whirlwind is in a cloud of bugs, rather than pressing their advantage and taking him down (plus, isn’t it great how Hank is ant-sized and Jan is roughly doll-sized here?). This is another example of “great roleplaying, poor tactics” since the argument is totally in-character and tells us lots about Hank and Jan’s relationship and motivations, but it also allows Whirlwind time to break loose. How can the game system encourage and reward this type of play?
  • Note that when Whirlwind does get lose, a very determined Wasp dodges one of his whirling saw-blades, then blasts the other two out of the air. She grows to full size and blasts Whirlwind, taking him down. So, was Whirlwind “defeated” already when she and Hank were having their argument, and this scene is just a description of the final takedown, or did the intervening argument scene allow Wasp to “charge up” and have what she needed in terms of resources—Determination, hero points, etc.—to finish Whirlwind off on her own? Does she get some sort of priority (initiative?) that lets her finish off Whirlwind before Ant-Man even gets to go or is this is the (very delayed) action that follows Ant-Man’s “cloud of bugs” attack?
  • Shifting back to Wakanda, note that T’Chaka definitely includes some nerve punches and pressure point strikes in his attacks against Man-Ape. There’s a different kind of “finesse” attack going on, shifting things from Man-Ape’s strengths (big and tough) to the Panther’s (fast and agile).
  • Klaw’s covert sonic weapon is another surprise attack, even more so since it is effectively invisible. We noted the effectiveness of surprise attacks previously, but it’s worth noting this additional support.

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero game design?

Small Things Matter: Literally. Shrinking has to grant enough advantages to be a worthwhile power while also not being too overpowering. The Wasp is an example of a potentially abusive type of Shrinking character: super-high defenses from being really small, coupled with an effective ranged attack that may even gain bonuses from its targets being relatively large. Of course, Wasp doesn’t really have any defenses apart from being really small and harder to hit, so there’s some compensation there. Superheroic shrinking also has to be willing to ignore the real-world physics of tiny people and go with what we might call the “kid effects”—things any kid would describe as the benefits of being super-small, without getting into things like the square-cube law, leverage, surface area, etc.

Make Room for Roleplaying: Jan and Hank’s interactions, and Jan’s taunting of Whirlwind, amongst others, remind us of the importance of allowing plenty of “breathing room” for roleplaying and dialog in a superhero game. The Torg RPG had a “Monologue” card amongst its Drama Deck, able to stop all the action for a character to talk. There should definitely be some give-and-take to character interactions in-game beyond just their game effects.

Next Up: Breakout!