Re: Animated • Avengers “Widow’s Sting”

avengers16Obligatory 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.

“Widow’s Sting”

This episode is a good one for the “agent-level” Avengers who rely primarily on their skills and training (and gadgets) rather than on being giants, gamma-monsters, or gods.

  • You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of Hydra and AIM: meeting in broad daylight on what must be a public pier in New York City (or close by). It actually says something about how powerful (and feared) both organizations must be.
  • Note that Hawkeye’s initial volley of arrows takes out two Hydra agents, but doesn’t affect Grim Reaper in the least (except to plant a tracking device on him, we later learn).
  • Hawkeye fights under the cover of a smoke-arrow because, well, he never misses (and presumably has the skill or advantages to compensate for the modifiers for the smoke) while the cover pretty much ensures his opponents haven’t got a prayer of hitting him.
  • So, who’s “playing” Iron Man in the RPG scenario version of this? Is Iron Man’s regular player just in for a cameo role in a couple of scenes or is the GM running Iron Man as an NPC while his player is out (same as the players of the other Avengers not featured in this episode)? Juggling the dynamics of a superhero team as part of an ongoing RPG series can be a challenge, especially when it comes to adventure planning.
  • Similarly, Mockingbird’s appearance in this story could be a one-time “guest” player or a regular player running a different character because the GM felt the adventure was perfectly suited for Cap, Panther, and Hawkeye, but didn’t want to add, say, Thor or the Hulk to the mix and asked for a substitution.
  • Aside: The artists on the series did a pretty awesome job with individual characters; check out Hawkeye’s pugilistic profile versus Cap’s square-jawed one. In spite of the fact that they’re both blond-haired, blue-eyed white guys, they don’t look anything alike.
  • Black Panther: “At least we know his weakness now, if he were to turn on us.” (referring to Mockingbird) Did I mention that I love Black Panther’s incredibly dry sense of humor on this show? His player would be getting bonus points from me all the time…
  • Grim Reaper: “I’ve met with the fat man. He won’t stand in our way…” The Kingpin, of course.
  • Just count how quickly those Hydra goons fall down! Hawkeye and Mockingbird take out two, three of them at a time with each attack/action. Even beyond the Takedown advantage in M&M you almost want a system that bases how many goons you take out with a single attack based on how well you succeed.
  • “I grew up in a circus.” While this is actually a part of Hawkeye’s comic book back-story, it’s interesting to note its usage and to wonder about it in game-terms. Was Hawkeye’s circus background (and, presumably, the lock-picking skill derived from it) planned in advance or determined on-the-fly during play? Some game systems would make “Grew up in a circus” (or some variation) the actual defined trait, whereas others would use it as back-story to explain skills like acrobatics and lock-picking, beyond just SHIELD training. In others, the “circus” trait might serve as a bonus to more defined traits, such as aspects do in FATE.
  • Hawkeye manages to catch Viper’s grenade and throw it back at the last second, but then realizes he’s nearly out of arrows. You can almost see the stunt/complication relationship play out in those few seconds.
  • When the Avengers rally, they’re taking down Hydra goons in groups of four or more at a time with some pretty big attacks.
  • Part of Baron Strucker’s effectiveness relies on his lieutenants to run interference for him and save his bacon.
  • Hawkeye uses a ricochet shot to take out one of the Widow’s bracers. She retaliates by aiming for his quiver (touching off its explosives and forcing him to discard it).
  • “You could never take me hand-to-hand, Clint.” No kidding. The Widow is a much better martial artist than Hawkeye. He hasn’t got a prayer. Note that the sequence where she paralyzes his arms with two quick nerves strikes looks very much like an homage to a similar scene from Avatar: the Last Airbender.
  • Notice that Mockingbird takes down Viper (and gets rescued by SHIELD) off-camera, which becomes significant in…
  • Epilogues: Again, the closing scenes of the show—where Strucker realizes AIM has been more successful with the Cosmic Cube than anyone expected, and SHIELD learns Viper’s secret—could be entirely “off stage” in an RPG and something the players don’t learn, or could be staged for them as “audience” rather than as participants to provide some foreshadowing for the players, if not necessarily their characters.

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Consequences and Daring: Some RPG players have a tendency to shy away from the kind of daring-do and swashbuckling common for superheroes. In this episode, Hawkeye (admittedly the poster-child for overconfidence) takes on Grim Reaper and MODOC—and their minions—all by his lonesome, and has no qualms about rushing Baron Strucker’s throne room. A good system should encourage this kind of behavior while also balancing it out with some sort of consequences. After all, if nothing the heroes fail at matters, then nothing really matters in the story at all.

Upping the Ante: This episode features a particularly strong pattern of following each success on the heroes’ part with a reversal or escalation of the situation until the climatic destruction of Hydra Island. This is a useful dynamic to keep in mind when designing and running superhero adventures: when things are looking good for the heroes, it’s time to make them more challenging.

Stunts Aren’t Just For Powers: There tends to be an emphasis on “power stunts” in superhero RPGs when, in fact, the emphasis should probably be on “stunts” in general (sometimes done with powers). Skilled characters like Hawkeye prove this point: his “I grew up in a circus” lock-picking trick could easily have been a stunt of sorts. It’s noteworthy that the two superhero games of my own design (Mutants & Masterminds and Icons) both allow for non-powered stunts, but even then there still seems to be a natural tendency to emphasize the “power” stunt over others.

Next Up: The Man Who Stole Tomorrow