Re: Animated • Avengers “Come the Conqueror”

avengers18Obligatory 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.

“Come the Conqueror”

It’s Worldwide Invasion time for the Avengers as Kang, fresh from his defeat in a one-on-one encounter, unleashes his legions on an unsuspecting Earth. Part two of the Kang trilogy of episodes really builds momentum and keeps going the entire time with barely any pause.

  • We quickly see that conventional forces are all but helpless against Kang’s scarab robots. Even SHIELD can’t stop them and needs to call on the Avengers for help.
  • Robots! Naturally, Kang’s army is made up almost entirely of machines, which the heroes can smash, crush, and blast without any twinge of conscience. Things would be quite different if Kang’s legions were made up of flesh-and-blood soldiers or if each of those scarabs had a human pilot on-board.
  • Captain America’s inspirational moment is well-scripted: the endangered kids, the looming silence as their doom approaches, then the red, white, and blue hero leaping to their defense at the last moment, yelling the team’s rallying cry: “Avengers Assemble!” Being an inspiration is part of what Cap does best.
  • “I need bigger stingers.” Note that Wasp’s stings are pretty much ineffective against the scarabs. The heroes don’t get a total pass when it comes to taking on Kang’s robots; they’re not utter pushovers.
  • Setback! Indeed, the scarabs turn out to be even more of a challenge than expected: they’re self-repairing! No sooner do the heroes think they are winning then the GM deals them a reversal. It quickly becomes time to retreat and regroup.
  • “Hulk, free Giant-Man… Move!” Cap takes command, showing his natural leadership skills and willingness to order even the Hulk around. Better still, Hulk does as he’s told (albeit grudgingly). This might just be an example of good roleplaying between Cap and Hulk’s players, or an in-game example of Cap providing Hulk with a bonus via his leadership abilities, backed up by some roleplaying, perhaps even a “sweetener” to encourage cooperation on the part of Hulk’s player.
  • Note that Cap’s shield protects him from the scarab’s blast, but it still pushes him back (although doesn’t knock him down). Hawkeye is out of arrows, another setback for the heroes.
  • “I found bigger stingers.” Wasp swoops in with a quinjet, weapons blazing, to clear a path for the Avengers. Seems like a pretty direct relationship between the setback(s) previously and her coming up with an alternative way to tackle the problem.
  • Nick Fury serves as an effective mouthpiece for some narrative exposition about what is happening in the world and the urgency of the situation.
  • “I’m teaching Ultron the concept of… violence.” Because there’s no way that could possibly go wrong. Isn’t it great that Ultron has an “evil” (or at least, “violent”) switch and that it turns his eyes red when it’s on? Seriously, though, this is an interesting twist on Ultron’s origin and provides a bit more of a reason for the robot to go rogue. Note that the Avengers’ army is also made up of disposable robots, rather than SHIELD agents or conventional troops, so the Ultrons and scarabs can blast each other to smithereens all day long.
  • Thor manages to take three full-on blasts from the scarabs before Wasp takes them down; the Thunder God is pretty tough and, although it isn’t as big a feature for him as it is for some heroes, he clearly has some degree of damage resistance (apart from just being able to take a lot of damage).
  • The scarabs are what might be called “hard” minions: they have some degree of toughness but, once you crack that, it’s fairly easy to take them down: both Cap and Hawkeye do so with one hit each (albeit with Cap’s indestructible shield and an explosive arrow).
  • Once the Avengers hit on a plan to deal with Kang’s armada and put it into action, the end comes quickly. Finding the armada’s weakness is the key, rather than head-on fighting, another example of a lateral win. All the direct fighting just buys time for it to happen.

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Let ‘Em Loose: While there are plenty of examples of heroes demonstrating restraint in the comics, and opportunities for the Gamemaster to have players in a superhero RPG do the same, also give the heroes opportunities to really let loose. An army of robots (or zombies, or animated trees, or whatever) might seem cliché, but it does the job of allowing the players to indulge in some superheroic violence without worrying all that much about the consequences, which should be one of the benefits of playing superheroes.

Heroes Are Heroic: It might appear self-evident, but a good superhero game should provide opportunities and encouragement for the heroes to be heroes, inspirational, self-sacrificing, and willing to do what is difficult and dangerous in the face of overwhelming odds. Having simple mechanical bonuses for things like Captain America’s inspiring leadership is good, but requiring appropriate descriptions of just how Cap inspires the troops and the people who trust in him is even better.

The Pause That Refreshes: It can be a useful dramatic and plotting tool for a game system to have moments where a pause or break in the action occurs: the “refresh” of some game resource, for example, from action/hero points to limited use abilities (such as daily and encounter powers in D&D). It allows for narrative tricks like setting the heroes up to think they’ve got the upper hand and then, when they’ve expended resources, deal them a reversal so there is an in-system reason for them to retreat, regroup, and pause for a moment.

Next Up: The Kang Dynasty