Re: Animated • Avengers “459”

avengers15Obligatory 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 aliens invade in the episode of Avengers that introduces us to the Kree and their ancient foes, the Skrulls, as well as Captain Marvel and a future member of the Avengers. It’s also a nice spotlight on Ant-Man, Wasp, and their budding relationship.

  • Quick teaser to set up the events of the episode that would work well as the opening scene of a game session: “You’re in a quinjet about to arrive at a joint SHIELD/U.S. military deep space observatory…”
  • “I’d estimate about three-and-a-quarter miles from the observatory.” Is this an in-character declaration from Ant-Man’s player, just making up the details, or repeating back information from the GM?
  • The Sentry’s invisibility is initially pretty effective: all of Wasp’s attacks miss it, even after it attacks (giving away its position), until Ant-Man covers it with ants to reveal it. Invisibility in RPGs is often considerably less effective, at best providing a defensive bonus. Once revealed, the Sentry stops bothering to use the cloaking option. Once the heroes have overcome that challenge, it’s no longer interesting in terms of the plot.
  • Also note that the presence of the invisible Sentry is scary. Wasp is more outwardly frightened, but everyone is clearly on-edge.
  • Wasps stings and Carol’s blaster have pretty much no effect on the Sentry. As is often the case, the villain proves initially immune to what the heroes have to throw at it.
  • The power source explosion, filtered through Captain Marvel’s energy field, clearly has an effect on Major Danvers. In the comics, exposure to the Kree “psyche-magnetron” technology imprints Kree DNA on Carol’s physiology. This is a pretty close match (including the involvement of a Sentry and a U.S. military installation).
  • The Sentry’s backwards grab of Giant Man: a power stunt on its part? Should the GM in a system like Icons or M&M be awarding Giant Man’s player a bonus for that tactic/setback?
  • Note that Captain Marvel gives his full name as “Generis Halas Son Mar-Vell” a name based off of several of the characters who have used the name “Captain Marvel” in the Marvel comics. Likewise, his morphing tech is reminiscent of that of Marvel Boy (Noh-Varr).
  • Mar-Vell notes he came to Earth to study a “genetic anomaly” in humanity: the mutant potential placed there by the Celestials, perhaps?
  • Having the Avengers confront the Sentry in front of a drive-in movie theater (‘50s “monster movie” style) is a nice touch.
  • The Sentry’s morphing capabilities and multi-armed counter-attacks against the Avengers seems to support the counter-attack concept brought up in previous columns: essentially for each Avenger who attacks, the Sentry gets to attack back.
  • Once again, Wasp and Ant-Man manage to fit a lovers’ quarrel into the middle of a fight, in true comic style. The action essentially stops (fades into the background) for their dialog.
  • Giant-Man takes a hit from the Sentry to save Wasp. “Jan, I lo…” How much of a game system bonus does Wasp get from that scene? Just the look of grim determination on her face says a lot!
  • Note how the Sentry’s blast takes Giant-Man down but—in a variation on the “invisible cuts” concept mentioned previously—it does not visibly injure or wound him in any way apart from some scuffs and bruises.
  • Wasp flying into the opening in the Sentry’s shell before it regenerates is a clear use of hero points/extra effort/determination, etc.
  • Thor can fly in outer space! The Thunder God in the show clearly has immunity to a lot of mortal concerns (although he may be holding his breath, at least).
  • Interesting to note the nega-bomb blast out towards the orbit of the Moon. Given that Earth’s Moon is sometimes inhabited in the Marvel Universe, one can’t help but wonder if there will be repercussions there. (Although, in the Avengers continuity, the Inhumans’ home of Attilan may still be in the mountains of Tibet, leaving only the cosmically-powerful Watcher living on the Moon.)
  • “You should prepare for the storm that’s coming.” Would that be a galactic storm? (A nod to the big “Operation: Galactic Storm” crossover involving the major alien empires of the Marvel Universe.)

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Declarations and “Parrot Syndrome”: One issue with the flow of tabletop play is what we might call “Parrot Syndrome”—the GM spouts off some information a character should know by virtue of skill level or a successful action (noticing or figuring out something) and all the player can really do is parrot-back what the GM just said or go with the even shorter “Yeah, that” or “I tell everyone that, essentially.” It tends to pull the role out of the player’s hands, at least for that bit of exposition. It also makes it difficult for characters to withhold or “filter” information, since everyone hears what the GM has to say.

One way of dealing with this is to prepare some information in advance, perhaps on notecards or the like, which the GM can simply hand to the appropriate player as that information is uncovered. This is particularly effective in games where an established “chain” of information is planned and expected.

Other games deal with it by allowing and encouraging players to fill-in certain details on their own. That is, with a successful action, the player can simply declare something and make it a fact. This requires a lot more improvisation from both the players and the GM, and can take the plot in unexpected directions. To use this episode as an example, imagine Ant-Man’s player simply declared there was no sign of organic matter in the scans. The GM, thinking quickly, decided rather than a Kree ship or expeditionary force, the incoming object was actually a robot.

Love & Fear: Lots of systems have various ways to deal with how characters feel in the context of the game, too, from things like “fear checks” with mechanical effects to loves and hates as in-game abilities used for actions as much as other games use Strength or Intelligence. Character motivations matter a lot in this episode: from Wasp and Ant-Man’s feelings for each other to fears of the Sentry and the Kree to Captain Marvel’s sympathy for humanity and willingness to betray his own people to save Earth from devastation. To what degree are these motivations left up to the players to portray and to what degree does the game system offer “rewards” (or even “requirements”) for portraying them?

Guest Stars: Guest characters like Captain Marvel (or Carol Danvers, for that matter) are a significant part of comics. It’s worth considering ways to make their involvement more interesting in game-system terms beyond just “non-player characters controlled by the GM”. Could Captain Marvel have been a guest player character? Run by a regular player or a guest player at the table? Same for Carol Danvers: just a regular NPC or some type of secondary player character?

Next Up: Widow’s Sting