The Untouchables

A new Icons Narrator posted the following (paraphrased slightly) on the Icons Yahoo mailing list:

I have a problem: enemies with a Prowess or Coordination so low it doesn’t even matter if the player rolls the dice or not: even with a –5 roll, the hero can’t be hit! I get that superheroes are superior to mere thugs, but even Spider-Man gets punched once in a while. Knowing he didn’t need to roll to avoid a hit wasn’t fun for my player.

There are a number of solutions to this problem, although I’ll note up-front the only reason it constitutes a problem, in my opinion, is that it’s interfering with the player’s (and, apparently, the Narrator’s) fun. If you’re dealing with an “untouchable” hero, somebody with a defensive ability of 8 or more (putting them 5 or more above the average ability level of 3), here are some things to consider:

Challenges: This is the main one. Spider-Man (and other extremely capable heroes like Batman, Captain America, etc.) don’t routinely have trouble dealing with normal human-level thugs, but they do run into trouble from time to time. When that happens, it is usually more in the form of a challenge than a poor die roll; that is, the GM decides a bad guy gets a “lucky break” or the hero has an unlucky moment. So a thug manages to get the drop on the hero, he is momentarily distracted by something (usually thinking about some problem or the like), there’s an unforeseen accident, and so forth. These are all good examples of temporary challenges (Icons, p. 92) or compelling one of a hero’s existing challenges (“You’re concerned about wrapping this up in time to get to the hospital to see you sick aunt, so much so that you’re off your game and a thug tags you! Here, have a Determination point.”)

Teamwork: Lesser opponents might combine abilities (Icons, p. 57) in order to have a better chance against a hero. Even just the usual +1 may shift things from no chance at all to a slight one (on a +5 roll only) but enough to keep things interesting. You can even allow for greater teamwork bonuses for larger groups of foes, but probably not more than +2 or +3. You can even consider “overwhelming numbers” (or some similar aspect) an aspect you can tag to apply a +2 bonus for the foes, giving the player a Determination point when you do so.

Criticals: This is an optional rule for GMs looking for a bit more variability: a +5 roll (that is, a die roll that results in a +5 modifier) is always at least a moderate success, regardless of difficulty, and a –5 roll is always a failure (again, regardless of ability and difficulty). This means any test has at least a 2% or so chance of succeeding or failing, regardless of the normal odds. That’s not a lot, but may be enough to keep players on their toes, knowing there’s at least some chance. Now the “untouchable” hero always has to roll to defend, since there’s still a chance of that critical –5 coming up.

Cheat! Finally, do things to liven up the combat that don’t rely on dice or Determination points, but description and—frankly—manipulation of things behind the scenes. After all, the player doesn’t necessarily know his character cannot be hit, especially if some of the aforementioned options are in place. Even if you know there’s no chance of failure, make the player roll anyway and “interpret” the results to maintain a bit of tension. Describe a “near miss” or “grazing hit” that has no real effect other than some in-game color and to keep the players guessing. Apply modifiers to the situation or change the circumstances to make them more challenging. Would the hero walk all over a group of thugs in a straight-up fight? Give them hostages as human shields or a superior tactical position. Given them better weapons (supplied by a mysterious benefactor, as in the new Gangbusters! adventure), or put one of the heroes’ friends or loved ones in the line of fire (perfect challenge opportunity).

In using any or all of these ideas, keep in mind: an “untouchable” hero should get the opportunity to enjoy being such a superior fighter, just as an invulnerable hero should get to bounce some bullets or a super-fast hero should get to ignore the mundane limits of time or distance; that’s part of what being “super” is about! Spice it up to keep things interesting for you and your players, but also allow them to enjoy being able to take on hordes of lesser foes, secure in the knowledge that they can handle it … most of the time.