Re: Animated • Avengers “The Man Who Stole Tomorrow”

avengers17Obligatory 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 Who Stole Tomorrow”

So, I’ve got to admit: I didn’t “get” Kang the Conqueror at one time. When I started reading comics (around 1979-1980) Kang just didn’t seem all that menacing. It wasn’t until Kurt Busiek’s treatments of him in Avengers and Avengers Forever that I really got the idea of Kang as a foe to be reckoned with and re-read some of his earlier stories and saw him as both noble warrior-general and arrogant conqueror rather than second-rate Doctor Doom. Fortunately, the trilogy of Avengers episodes starting here taps into the Kang I “got” as well as his original comic book appearances to make him a foe worthy of Earth’s Mightiest heroes.

  • “What’s a ‘futurist’?” The brief chat between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark helps to set the tone for the episode and reveal something about their characters: Iron Man is about the future, innovation, and—to a degree—a measure of overconfidence based on that. Captain America is about tradition and tried-and-true ways of doing things. The conversation fits the theme of the story so well that, in a roleplaying context, it’s unlikely to happen spontaneously. At the least, one can imagine the GM telling Cap and Iron Man’s players: “Do a thing about the future,” or something to that effect.
  • Once again, the sparring match between Stark and Cap shows up the advantages of being a superior hand-to-hand fighter: we never even see Cap swing a punch, but every time Stark goes at him, he ends up on the mat. More support for the idea that close combat fighting is less of a matter of attack-defend, attack-defend, but an opposed contest where the winner hits and the loser takes it.
  • Some nice foreshadowing and set-up with the 42 prison and its Ultron jailers. (More on that in the later episodes of this trilogy.)
  • Kang’s initial fight against Captain America and Iron Man is classic comic book: he gives the heroes a real pasting and is essentially unbeatable; invulnerable to all of their attacks, able to counterattack at will, all but playing with them.
  • Even when Hulk’s surprise attack drives Kang into a wall and gives him the drop on the Conqueror, Kang isn’t down for the count. Hulk’s massive strength (by definition as high as is allowed for a hero) is enough to overcome Kang when his defenses are limited, but Kang still breaks free and reclaims his throne and the technology to overcome the Avengers.
  • Kang’s transporting of the Avengers into the future of a ruined Earth is pure fait accompli: the heroes don’t see it coming and essentially have no chance to avoid it. This is sometimes the case with some villain actions and schemes.
  • Back on his throne and prepared, Kang’s defenses are a match even for the Hulk, able to absorb his blows and send him flying back so Kang can continue his monologue uninterrupted.
  • Note that Captain America states his willingness to sacrifice himself, if need be, for the safety of the world. He pretty much has to do so to maintain the integrity of his character. It’s not himself that he’s concerned about, it’s Kang’s threat to conquer the world in order to make it safe from the Kree and the Skrulls.
  • Although the Avengers can’t damage Kang, they do manage to separate him from his throne (perhaps rightly reasoning that he’s less powerful that way): Ant Man sets it up with his cockroach swarm and Hulk’s shockwave does the rest. If the heroes hadn’t come up with the way to do so, would they have simply been left behind when Kang vanished into the past? Or does the GM play things out until the heroes come up with a plan and execute it?
  • When Kang is able to defend himself, he’s pretty much unbeatable: he takes full strength blows from the Hulk and Thor, flings Giant-Man and others aside, and shrugs off masses of explosives. The only attack that gets him is Panther’s surprise attack (thanks to the Hulk’s distraction). Even that only inflicts cosmetic damage and provokes a fierce reprisal. It’s far less a matter of the Avengers being able to beat Kang by fighting him; the fight simply gives Iron Man time to figure out how to hack into Kang’s technology.
  • Note that once Iron Man overcome’s Kang’s tech, it’s all over: Kang is still able to fling Thor and Captain America aside, but his own force field brings him down and Thor delivers the finishing blow. Kang’s defeat comes the moment Iron Man figures out how to win, the rest is just epilogue for the most part. Even then, Kang manages to escape, transported back to his ship.

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Interludes: Savage Worlds Deluxe has an “interludes” system whereby the GM draws a playing card and its suit determines a type of story a player tells about his or her character as a way of filling in backstory and passing time for things like overland journeys or other pauses between action senses. If the player goes along and does a good job, there’s an in-game reward (a “bennie” or adventure card in SW). Given the tendency of superhero characters to monologue and reminisce, such a mechanic would work well and fit easily into games with “action economies” like M&M and Icons (with hero points and determination, respectively).

Gamemaster Fiat: Sometimes, as a superhero GM, you just need to be able to say: “Here’s what happens,” and have that be the case, such as when Kang timeports the Avengers into the future. It’s doubtful the GM is giving anybody saving throws or whatnot, especially since “success” would effectively take the hero out of the adventure! There needs to be a mechanism for the GM to just declare things outright from time to time, although it can also compensate by rewarding the players in some fashion, such as the complication or challenge mechanics for M&M and Icons.

Team Victory: More than perhaps any other genre, superheroes stress the importance of teamwork: They overcome opposing teams by having it where villains often don’t, and manage to defeat single opponents far more powerful by working together. While many RPGs make nods towards teamwork with certain bonus or things like “combined attacks” it isn’t necessarily those mechanics that win the day (note the Avengers’ effective “combined attack” against Kang when Iron Man says to take him down doesn’t do a thing). Instead, it seems more like the team as a whole accumulates “points” towards their victory, even through the indirect efforts of some members, somewhat like the Challenge system in D&D (also adapted in M&M): although their actual attacks where ineffective, the Avengers keeping Kang occupied contributed as much to their win as Iron Man’s efforts. Indeed, Iron Man’s player might not have been able to “win” unless or until his teammates accumulated a certain amount or degree of success.

Next Up: Come the Conqueror