Re: Animated • Avengers “Ultron-5”

avengers22Obligatory 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.


Another in the big wrap-up of the first season, the genesis of a major Avengers villain foreshadowed since the very start of the season… Ultron!

  • Ant Man tries to end the conflict with the Serpent Society peacefully, to no avail. When it becomes painfully clear that his pacifist, reformist approach is against the Avengers’ grain, Pym quits the team.
  • Anaconda hits Thor with an entire subway car (which he pretty much shrugs off). In the Marvel Universe, we know Anaconda isn’t up in Thor’s strength-class but, to the casual observer, that doesn’t seem to matter much. Super-strong is super-strong.
  • Wasp size-shifts to kick Cobra at full-size, a slight foreshadowing of what is to come in the episode. It’s also notable, since Wasp appears to have her full lifting strength at wasp-size. So why does she need to grow in order to hit harder? It might be some form of “growth momentum” maneuver or stunt to give her attack extra punch. Given that Cobra is superhumanly tough, that makes sense.
  • Hulk and Black Panther’s encounter with the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes takes place “off-stage”. Would that also be the case in an RPG scenario? It could be, or the GM could run the encounter for Hulk and Panther’s players, perhaps parallel to the Serpent Society encounter, then bring the members of the team back together.
  • Note the running gag with the Hulk smashing his way into, out of, and through things: “Why would you do that? The doors open automatically!”
  • There’s a dramatic build-up in this story to Ultron’s reveal. The thing is, even a non-Marvel-phile knows Hank’s “creepy robot” is up to something before Ultron turns on Hank (comic fans, of course, know Ultron’s destiny from the moment it is introduced). How does a GM manage the dramatic build-up to the big reveal without having one of the players jump the gun?
  • Ultron’s surprise attacks on Ant Man and Wasp largely amount to GM fiat, although they can be “legitimate” in-game actions, given how much Ultron outclasses both of them.
  • It’s interesting to note the modern interpretation of Ultron and the differences between “evil robot” in 2011 versus the 1960s. In the Silver Age, a robot was little different from a “Frankenstein’s monster” (and often compared to such) with some technological trappings. Modern Ultron is, first and foremost, extensively networked. It initially operates behind the scenes and exerts control over other computers, as well as the ability to upload its software into other shells.
  • In the show, Ultron’s encephalo beam is a non-lethal weapon (presumably the “stunner” Pym referred to in an earlier episode). In the comics, the beam is actually one of Ultron’s deadliest weapons, which the Avengers take great care to immunize themselves against before going up against him.
  • In spite of being what amounts to a focused laser-beam, Iron Man’s uni-beam throws Thor across the assembly room with its blast. (Of course, in the show, the uni-beam might be more repulsor-based.)
  • Safe to say that Hulk’s removal form the mansion (and this part of the encounter) provides him with a bonus later on.
  • Black Panther’s vibranium knives can cut a quinjet in half! Now that is badass! It’s another indicator of the relatively fragile nature of inanimate objects in a superhero universe, since Panther’s knives don’t generally have the same effect on his opponents (including the unliving, but still animate, Ultron).
  • Ultron “disintegrates” Thor in a massive blast. It’s an interesting question how the GM handles this in-game. Does Thor’s player know he’s still alive? Do the other players?
  • Wasp’s growth power stunt and attack is pretty much a textbook example of a power stunt solution to a problem (namely Wasp’s inability to escape from a trap based on all of her known abilities). Also note that, in true RPG fashion, it lasts for just one action/attack, and Wasp is clearly dazed or fatigued by the effort.
  • Note Ultron’s scan of Cap’s shield, coupled with the quote “Soon I will be unstoppable.” Even odds when we see Ultron in Season 2 he’ll be sporting a new vibranium-alloy body based on the composition of Cap’s shield (perhaps also providing the capabilities to remake said shield, after the events of the final episode of the season). Maybe Myron MacLain will head up the research effort to remake Cap’s shield, with the mysterious Vision involved in stealing the research?
  • Once Giant Man decides Ultron has to be stopped, it ends pretty quickly. Hulk’s return, charged up with anger (and bonuses from being shanghaied earlier), coupled with Pym’s knowledge of Ultron’s weaknesses, lets them finish things. The same blast that “disintegrated” Thor doesn’t stop Hulk (who is, admittedly, tougher).
  • I like that Ultron’s AI/OS apparently fits on six discs (the last one Pym tosses into the disintegrator is labeled “6 of 6”). That’s some tight code!

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Acting In-Character: In an RPG, would mean Ant Man quitting the Avengers mean his leaving the series as a character (although it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t, really, in the show). When does staying “in character” require a player to make choices that effectively remove the character from the series, and how do players and Gamemasters balance those choices? It’s one thing if the player wants the character out of the series but another if he or she is trying to stay in-character and at the same time keep the character involved. Such dramatic give and take should be encouraged, but also needs some management.

Gamemaster Cheating: In this episode, should the players know, or should the GM “cheat” and tell everyone Thor is dead, fully intending to bring him back in the next adventure? Should the epilogue with the Enchantress be featured in the adventure to clue players in or is it better to wait until Thor’s dramatic reappearance in the next episode to maximize the impact? To what degree should the GM mislead or even outright lie to the players to further the drama of the story? The GM has to be willing to “cheat” to at least some degree in order to keep things interesting, without stepping on the players’ self-determination.

How Super is Super? It that many of the gradations of strength and power found in RPGs are unnecessary for comic book supers: there might be four or five gradations at most to cover 95+% of the characters. Take Anaconda’s strength in this episode. How strong is she? Well, strong enough to hit Thor with a subway car, but all that’s really clear is she is “super” strong.

“Give Me Something to Smash!” If the Hulk smashes things, then give him opportunities to smash things. If a hero is a tech-expert, then give him a chance to show it off. In general, whatever the heroes do, let them do it when you can. It’s easy to create adventures intended to frustrate or counter the heroes’ abilities; resist this urge and give them a chance to shine instead.

Next Up: The Ultron Imperative