Re: Animated • Avengers “This Hostage Earth”


Obligatory 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.

“This Hostage Earth”

It’s the start of the final three episodes of Season One on Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and the culmination of many of the plot threads woven through this season as the plans of the mysterious patron of the Enchantress and the Masters of Evil come to fruition.

  • Interesting implication that Karnilla is killed by the Grey Gargoyle’s power (Enchantress speaks of her in the past tense) and that Grey Gargoyle himself is betrayed and killed by the Enchantress and her Executioner (“The battle was hard fought. He did not make it.”) There’s dealing with the issue of death in what is supposed to be a “kid’s show” as well as the tendency of the superhero genre to treat death as a mere inconvenience.
  • It’s great how casually Iron Man talks about building a dimensional bridge to open a wormhole between Earth and Asgard, for such is the wahoo nature of comic book super-science.
  • Speaking of which, Black Panther nicely sums up a comic conception of magic as weird science: “Ley lines: veins of magic running through our world connecting it with others, or—as Iron Man would say—paths of otherdimensional energy that reveal weak spots between the dimensions.” As Iron Man once put it in the Avengers comic: “Magic is just a technology I don’t understand” which generally seems to be the view in most superhero RPG settings as well.
  • The Avengers split-up to each go to one of the sites of magical activity. Some game systems may explicitly encourage this “let’s split up!” approach so commonly found in the Silver Age comics: perhaps there’s a greater chance to earn hero points of the like from doing so, in addition to the practical ability to tackle multiple things at once. Certainly, you have to watch out for not punishing this approach, especially since gamer wisdom is “Don’t split the party!”
  • Thor seriously underestimates Zemo’s blaster: Player error or a game system reflection of Thor’s godly arrogance?
  • Note that Living Laser appears too fast for Iron Man to hit, although he has no difficulties hitting Iron Man while taunting him. In fact, that forms the basis of Iron Man’s plan to defeat him: if Laser is going to hit him, then he’ll use his armor’s capabilities to absorb him, and then blast him back out into the cosmos.
  • Interestingly, Wasp comes up with a lateral plan to beat Abomination (using her stings to bring an avalanche down on him) and still loses, although her loss is just another increase in challenge.
  • The glow around Zemo’s sword as he fights Thor suggests a spell cast upon it by the Enchantress (the special effect is similar to her other spells) although it could be some energy effect of Zemo’s weird science. Note the matter of scale, where Zemo (albeit a “near perfect” human, but still mortal) can fight Thor hand-to-hand.
  • The fall of Thor, Wasp, and Captain America builds tension towards the arrival of Giant Man to take down Abomination. Pym releases that tension in a savage beat-down of the Abomination to save Wasp, possibly reflecting a built-up teamwork or team action bonus of some sort. The other Avengers overcome their opponents as well. Things quickly reverse again as the Norn Stones activate, escalating the threat.
  • Note, Cap’s snide “comrade” to Crimson Dynamo is entirely in character, but it’s funny to think that this Captain American essentially slept through the entire Cold War and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.
  • Thor is able to summon back Mjolnir, stun Zemo and then the Enchantress, and knock aside Zemo’s blaster bolt with a casual swipe of his hammer. Looks like he’s dipping into the pool of “dramatic energy” built up to this point as well.
  • “Avengers, you must destroy the Norn Stones!” A good example of a coordinated team effort. We don’t even see the actual destruction happen, just the lead-up actions to Thor’s final blow and a blinding flash of light. Is this action fait accompli following the decision to take it or is some sort of test, roll, or effort required on the heroes’ part? Given the consequences of the action, is it even fair to ask the players to expend effort on it, or should they expect to be dealt surprises and reversals for some of their actions?

Lessons Learned

What do these episodes teach us about superhero game design?

Dead, but Getting Better: Superhero RPGs, like their parent comics, might as well treat “dead” as another damage condition from which characters can recover since, basically, they do. It might be harder to recover from than a stunned or knockback condition, and there might be special requirements or the like, but “dead” doesn’t mean the same thing in the comics that it does in other types of stories.

Railroading: Each Norn Stone site is guarded by one of the Masters of Evil. In game-terms, one wonders if the villain is chosen before the heroes decide which sites they are tackling or after the fact, matching the villain(s) with the heroes. For that matter, how much “player” choice would the heroes have about their site? Seems like Captain America is carefully matched with Nifelheim, for example, and Thor with Asgard. What if their players had chosen differently? In a pre-written scenario, is it “railroading” to align particular characters with particular sites and, if so, is that a bad thing (the general presumption is that anything reducing player choice or freedom is bad and “railroading” is almost always used as a pejorative).

Split Screen: The heroes splitting up is a common element of superhero stories, so a good superhero RPG should be able to handle action happening in multiple locations at once. The round-to-round structure of most RPGs can do this, provided things are happening in parallel. It hardly matters if the characters are all in different places, so long as the players are taking their turns one at a time. The system should be careful not to penalize heroes for splitting into smaller teams or going solo, unless the intention is to avoid this particular convention of the comics.

Ramping Up: This story demonstrates the dramatic model of building tension, with the heroes encountering more and greater challenges and reversals, leading to a resolution point where the heroes are able to “tap into” that “energy” (measured in game terms as bonus points or advantages of some sort). They “cash in” on the tension and use it to achieve success. A lot of the balance is in ensuring the heroes don’t slip over into total defeat before they have the opportunity to “cash in their chips” and achieve victory. In essence, it involves coming up with various ways to explain why the heroes don’t win yet until the time is right.

Next Up: The Fall of Asgard