Re: Animated • Avengers “The Casket of Ancient Winters”

avengers20Obligatory 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 Casket of Ancient Winters”

… and now for something completely different.

Having defeated Kang the Conqueror and saved the Earth, the Avengers are confronted with a whole new menace. Rather than a technologically-advanced foe from the far future, it is a mystic menace from the ancient past.

  • “Jan and I will cover the mansion…” The lack of response to Iron Man’s alert back at Avengers Mansion is a great moment, the kind that could arise for players in rare form who decide to be difficult just to see what happens. Things like this don’t always have to derail a game: even if Wasp, Hulk, and Hawkeye were “meant” to be at Stark Tower when things started getting cold, it all worked out.
  • Take note of Hawkeye’s “archer’s tan” – nice bit of animation.
  • Once again, Black Panther has the good lines: Iron Man: “I’m starting to think Wasp and Hawkeye are the smart ones.” Panther: “I did not realize there was any question…”
  • “My suit is designed to withstand radiation” “Of course it is.” Is it? That is, did Black Panther’s player build “radiation resistance” into his suit in advance of this story, or is it just one of those things that makes sense in light of Panther’s abilities, a convenient plot device so there’s no concern about T’Challa getting radiation sickness?
  • Radioactive Man stopping Thor’s hammer in mid-flight is a classic right out of the Marvel comics. (Iron Man’s pseudo-science explanation, too, for that matter).
  • The scene between the Enchantress and Malekith could easily be dispensed with in an adventure, so as not to give away too much too soon about the nature of the wintry threat.
  • Hawkeye: “We need to move the team to the West Coast.” A little homage to Hawk’s role as original chairman of the West Coast Avengers.
  • Thor and Iron Man’s bickering is classic Silver Age Marvel, the kind of stuff that made Marvel’s books real breakouts at the time. It also makes for great roleplaying fodder, provided players are good at keeping up such banter without it getting mean or personal.
  • “You should try more chaos theory, less failure.” ZING! Not only that, but Panther is just mimicking Stark’s own phrasing back at him, so Iron Man is getting schooled on multiple levels. Have I mentioned I really like the interpretation of Black Panther on this show?
  • The ice demons? Clearly minion types, given how easily they break, but there are also a lot of them (“They’re everywhere!”) as is often the case with minions, and they’re pretty tough otherwise, able to dish out some damage.
  • The conflict between Malekith and the Avengers is one of strength versus weakness: he takes out Thor using the Casket, but Iron Man’s heat-shield renders it ineffective to use again. Malekith’s magic has Black Panther on the ropes, until Thor reveals the dark elves are vulnerable to metal (including vibranium, apparenlty). Bolstered by the Casket, Malekith’s power is too great for either Iron Man or Thor, until they combine their powers together.
  • Note that the Avengers back in New York are essentially helpless against the dark elves, which cannot be touched but still attack at will. Perhaps in an RPG context one of those characters might have come up with something to turn the tide, but it’s interesting to note such an “unbalanced encounter” in terms of RPGs, which are often so obsessed with “game balance”.

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

You Can’t Think of Everything: It’s fairly easy in an RPG to imagine playing someone who is stronger, faster, or more skilled than yourself in various ways, but how do you play someone who is smarter than you are? One thing we ran into in our Shadowrun games with the issue that, while we (the players) weren’t hard-bitten, experienced street mercenaries, our characters were, and should therefore have a greater degree of “street smarts” and preparation. We occasionally ran into the complaint of “but my character should have seen that coming!” The same can be true in superhero RPGs, especially with geniuses like Tony Stark, Hank Pym, and T’Challa running around. There’s something to be said for building in some sort of “genius points” or allowing players to use their heroes’ great intellects for things other than skill bonuses and whatnot.

Not Everything Needs Numbers: Some systems (and designers) might want to write up the exact game traits for the Casket of Ancient Winters: what is needed to spread an icy winter across the entire world, free the dark elves, and so forth. This might be simpler in some game systems than others, but isn’t really necessary in any of them: the Casket is a plot device, not a character, and the means of stopping it is also a story goal (stop Malekith and close the Casket) rather than a game mechanic as such. Not everything in a game needs “stats”.

Raise the Stakes: While some RPG challenges are just a matter of winning a fight, many superhero challenges pit the heroes against “unfair” odds: foes who are immune to their regular attacks, able to ignore their defenses, and so forth. Sometimes a good superhero scenario features “impossible” odds where the good guys have to try something different if they are going to win.

Next Up: Hail, Hydra!