Sorry this Avengers post is a bit late: June activities have been keeping me busy, then I decided to wait and post this one on my birthday. Just be glad I didn’t decide to wait until the release of Captain America: The First Avenger in theaters…
Obligatory 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.
Although he’s not technically a founding member of the team, I (like a lot of Avengers fans) think of Captain America as one of the “core” members, so this episode is kind of a big deal, and handled really well, in my humble opinion.
- So the Hulk is clearly “out of action” for a while. (He won’t be back until the “Gamma World” two-parter in two more episodes.) While this is obviously a story element of the series, it’s interesting to consider it in the light of an ongoing RPG series: Is the Hulk’s player absent during this time, with the character’s absence written into the series? Is Hulk’s player running a different character? For that matter, has Cap’s player just joined the game or is Cap a new character for an existing player? How many “players” would/does the Avengers series have? (We can wonder the same thing about the addition of Black Panther and Hawkeye later in the series.)
- The Avengers find Captain America frozen in ice and we get a short clip of his backstory before he awakens on board the quinjet. In a game, is this where we would see the whole flashback from “Meet Captain America” played out?
- It is on! Captain America vs. the Avengers. Cap stuns Ant-Man and Thor right out of the gate, a couple more hits and a judo throw sends Thor flying into the quinjet’s control panel. Note how most of Cap’s attacks against Thor and the other Avengers are matters of finesse and superior martial arts skill; highly reminiscent of the original Marvel Super-Heroes RPG handling of martial arts (the ability to stun or slam/throw opponents much stronger than you).
- Cap’s thrown shield knocks down Iron Man, then he catches the shield in time to take a direct hit from Thor’s hammer! Note that as Thor is attacking from above and Cap is braced against the ground, the blow doesn’t even move him (as some other attacks against his shield do later). Cap then sweeps Thor’s legs out from under him, another finesse move.
- Cap’s last attack is a great combo: a ricochet with his shield to catch Thor off-guard. He then tackles Iron Man and uses his repulsor blast to take down Giant Man as well, rolling to his feet to kick his shield back up into his hand, ready to go again. All of this basically happens in one “action”—none of the Avengers get to go or counterattack, although we might count Iron Man’s repulsor attack—so how does it break down? It makes me think of the stunt points from the Dragon Age game: as if Cap’s player rolls a shield attack and gets lucky: GM: “You’ve got six stunt points! What do you do?” Cap’s player: “Okay, I’m going to use three for a Takedown on Iron Man, two to Redirect his attack at Giant-Man, and the last one for a Ready to grab my shield again.” (Or something like that).
- Aside: Captain America’s speech patterns have a hint of John Wayne to them (“You got that right, buddy!” and “Stow that kind of talk, mister!”). Nice.
- Meanwhile, Black Panther is breaking into Avengers Mansion. Is this a subplot that would play out at all in an RPG? After all, the Avengers are initially unaware of his presence. Unless, of course, Panther is a player character and this sequence is being played out in front of the other players. Of course, that would be odd, too, since Panther’s player would be getting very little “screen time” and would spend several adventures/game sessions doing next to nothing.
- Speaking of subplots, it doesn’t take Captain America’s Enemy subplot long to kick in, does it? Baron Zemo and HYDRA are aware that he’s back. We get another flashback of Cap’s conflict with Zemo. This could be played out, described by the GM or Cap’s player, or just left in the background. The same is true of Zemo’s confrontation with Strucker and his meeting with Arnim Zola, all of which happen outside of the heroes’ awareness.
- “There’s more to fighting than speed and strength, Zemo!” Here Captain America is pretty much straight-out declaring his own power: unfailing determination (see Super-Normal, following).
- It’s a classic giant monster attack! Interesting to note how Cap and Wasp don’t go rushing off with the rest of the Avengers, but hang back at the mansion to have their moment. This could be a potentially difficult thing to manage in an RPG, where players are all eager to jump into the action. Of course, separating the Avengers was part of Zemo’s plan, so perhaps there’s some less subtle GM manipulation going on (e.g. a compel of Cap’s “Man Out of Time” quality to put him in a funk).
- Note that the Avengers are initially ineffective against Doughboy. There’s a lot of talk about the need for “balanced” encounters, particularly regarding combat, but this encounter is initially anything but: a creature that not only ignores Iron Man and Thor’s most powerful physical attacks, but actually gets stronger from Thor’s lightning!
- We note that Wasp’s bio-stings do some damage to Doughboy at the mansion, and she’s able to blow him apart from the inside. Story-wise, this gives Wasp a chance to shine later. This is also an effective trick for GMs looking to boost the role of an otherwise less effective character.
- The fight between Captain America and Zemo has several interesting elements: Initially, the armed Zemo appears to have a slight advantage over the unarmed Captain America (who has left his shield in the assembly hall). Several of their attacks are combo types: Zemo doing a kick that slams Cap, followed by an instant stand, then a rushing attack. Cap slamming Zemo with his shield, followed by a close attack. When Zemo stabs at him with a dagger, he plants it in the wall, then breaks it with a kick. Lots of interesting dynamics rather than “I attack, he attacks…” ad nauseum.
- Zemo threatening Wasp in order to escape is classic. Cap’s reaction to it is so reflexive it makes me wonder if there is any player involvement in the decision at all. That is, many RPG systems “bribe” players to make the right (heroic) decision with a “carrot” of hero points, Karma, or what have you. This scene makes me think of a system that goes a step further and simply assumes the heroes do the right thing: The GM tells Cap’s player, “Zemo defiantly shouts ‘Never!’ and hurls a grenade near the helpless Wasp. Leaping in front of her, you plant your shield to deflect the blast but, by the time you turn around, Zemo is gone. Here’s a hero point.” It’s all fait accompli. Is that taking away too much player choice? Should Cap’s player have the option of letting Wasp die in order to take down Zemo? That would certainly have created a very different ending to this story.
- Cap’s presence helps to rally the Avengers (one of his game traits?) and his mention of Arnim Zola gives Ant-Man a clue about how to defeat Doughboy. One of Cap’s qualities is he is a “catalyst” for others to be more heroic/awesome. He doesn’t come up with how to beat Doughboy, or implement it, but his presence is instrumental in bringing it about. Note that Ant-Man’s plan is another example of a “lateral win” by the heroes against a foe that previously seemed unbeatable. It’s also worthwhile to note that Ant-Man’s condemnation of Zola’s misuse of science (“Bad people, using science very irresponsibly.”) is followed up by him solving the problem, using science. I can see an almost direct roleplaying/success exchange here.
What does this episode teach us about superhero game design?
Super-Normal: Although he’s a “super-soldier” Captain America (along with Batman) is one of the archetypal examples of the “super-normal” – a hero with no real powers able to keep pace with the likes of Thor and Iron Man. Any superhero game worth its spandex has to be able to handle this type of character effectively. Most do so with some sort of intangible “heroic” quality like hero points (M&M), Determination (ICONS) or Edge (Marvel Adventure Game). Others (e.g., Hero System) may give the character “powers” in game terms that have descriptors attached to them like “intense training” or “heroic” since it would be a stretch to call a guy like Cap “normal” in most regards.
Combos: Cap’s attack combo makes me think a superhero RPG should support such awesomeness in some fashion, either using a system like Dragon Age stunts or an application of a resource like hero points (which Cap should have in abundance) to pull of maneuvers like that.
Boosters: Sometimes it’s a characters job to make other characters more awesome. Captain America does this as a leader. Wasp does it as a cheerleader, sometimes (including helping Cap to buck up). Some characters in comics even do it as victims (e.g. “Robin, the Boy Hostage” per the Joker). One thing D&D 4e does well is encourage “team-based” tactics, where characters are often on the lookout for ways they can help each other do cool and effective stuff. A genre as teamwork-based as superheroes should take a lesson from this.
Lateral Wins: I’ve made this point before, but oftentimes in a superhero scenario the way to win isn’t necessarily the most straightforward (like “keep hitting the bad guy until he goes down”). Heroes are often confronted with “unbalanced” challenges against foes with “unfair” advantages and have to come up with other routes to victory. I think a good superhero RPG should both facilitate these kind of challenges and their resolution. Some of the most creative stuff in RPGs comes from being handed a disparate and seemingly unconnected set of things and being told “make this awesome”.
Next Up: Everything Is Wonderful