Moral Victories

Recently, I was watching “Patriot Act” one of my favorite episodes of Justice League Unlimited. It’s terrific because it has a WWII scene with Nazis and Spy Smasher (in black and white, no less), the General, Green Arrow being a smartypants, Vigilante being his good ol’ Wild West self, and Seven Soldiers of Victory and Newsboy Legion homages, but what really makes it one of my favorites is the final confrontation between Sir Justin, the Shining Knight, and the General, and it’s scenes like these that inspired some of the additional game-system tools I wrote up for the upcoming Icons Team-Up sourcebook, notably pyramid tests, maneuvers, and the idea of using them for alternate types of wins. Let’s take a look at the scene in Icons terms with these options in play, shall we?

Warning – Possible Episode Spoilers

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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. Continue reading

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.

Planet-busting in Mutants & Masterminds

Some superhero settings feature truly cosmic levels of power. While, in my experience, it is most often easier to simply treat such massively powerful beings as plot devices, sometimes it’s fun to consider the limits of the game system in terms of modeling them. Case in point: how many ranks of Damage would you need to destroy the Earth in the third edition of Mutants & Masterminds?

Now, a lot of it depends on how we define “destroy.” For the sake of discussion, let’s stipulate the following:

  • The Earth is an “object” in game terms (albeit a big one). So it is subject to the rules for damaging objects.
  • While made of a variety of materials, we’ll consider the Earth’s base Toughness that of stone: rank 5.
  • The “thickness” of the Earth is its diameter: 7,901 miles. That’s technically a distance rank of 20, since it’s shy of the 8,000 miles value of rank 21. Since an object’s Toughness equals its base rank + (distance rank + 7), that would make Earth’s Toughness rank 5 + (20 + 7) or 32.
  • Let’s say that the Earth’s Toughness is also Impervious, so nothing less than Damage 17 even has a chance of damaging the planet as a whole. Anything else might mess up the landscape, but that’s all.

So, the minimum Damage rank (17) has a resistance DC of (17 + 15) or 32, the same as the planet’s Toughness value, meaning the resistance check pretty much can’t fail.

But wait: let’s assume the “attacker” is going to take the option of making an attack check, since the Earth is a pretty massive object. It’s not like he’s going to miss! That’s good for a critical hit and +5 Damage. Likewise, let’s assume the attacker goes for a Power Attack for –2 to the attack check and +2 Damage.

That ramps the Damage up to 24, or DC 39. Now the GM needs to roll a 7 or better for the planet to suffer no serious damage. A 6 or less means a Toughness reduction, while a 2 or less (for a Toughness check total of 34 or less) actually means two degrees of failure: the attack blows a hole clear through the planet! While that doesn’t shatter the Earth in one blow, it probably means the end of life as we know it as the molten core bursts out and floods the surface.

(Indeed, if we were being really pedantic about this, we could probably stipulate the Earth’s “thickness” as that of the rocky mantle—mere tens of miles—since any attack that blasts through that will unleash the high-pressure molten magma from the core. But I digress…)

Ramping things up further, a Damage 20 attack, made with a successful attack check, a full Power Attack (+5 Damage), and some extra effort (for +1 Damage) does a whopping Damage 31, DC 46. The planet needs a die roll of 14 or better to avoid damage altogether. A roll of 9 or less means a hole punched right through the planet, while a roll of 4 or less shatters the entire planet in a single blast! So it’s quite possible for some high-level characters to at least threaten Earth-sized planets, to say nothing of smaller moons or the like. Take the Damage rank up by even 5–6 and the attacker has even odds of smashing planets with single attacks!

SAGA System: Fighting the Good Fight

[This article originally appeared in the Legends of the Lance newsletter.]

In the SAGA System rules for Dragonlance: Fifth Age, heroes use their Strength to perform actions in melee combat, like hitting their opponents. Characters with high Strength codes are also better trained in the use of melee weapons.

This approach causes difficulties with some hero concepts players may have: What about the wiry swordsman who’s deadly with a blade but not particularly brawny, or the strong hero who can’t hit the broad side of a barn? Additionally, some players may have difficulties equating combat skill with brute strength.

Worse yet, based close combat ability on Strength makes physically powerful monsters in the game nigh-unbeatable, due to the massive differences in Strength between, say, a human and even a small dragon.

One option for handling these concerns is to introduce a new ability to the SAGA System: Fighting (or Prowess, or something similar). Fighting takes the place of Strength and is aligned with the suit of Swords. It measures the hero’s training in melee combat, both armed and unarmed, and the ability to use different weapons effectively. The Fighting ability code works the same as the standard Fifth Age Strength Code; an “A” means the hero is trained with all melee weapons, a “B” is all but very heavy weapons, and so forth. If a hero does not have training in a particular weapon, the hero suffers a one level increase in difficulty when using it.

To make room for Fighting, the Strength and Endurance abilities are collapsed into one ability (called Strength), measuring the hero’s overall muscle and stamina, and aligned with the suit of Helms. It is used for actions involving brute Strength (like breaking down doors and bending bars), as well as all actions Endurance is normally used for.

Fighting is used to make melee attacks, and it is also used to avoid melee attacks, representing the hero’s skill in parrying and blocking. So attacking in melee combat is an average Fighting (Fighting) action, as is avoiding an attack. The Narrator may also wish to allow heroes the option of using Agility to avoid melee attacks, giving nimble heroes a better chance of getting out of the way. If the attack hits, the hero’s Strength still determines damage normally.

Strength is still used as the action ability for close-in unarmed attacks like wrestling, representing the advantage greater Strength provides the attacker.

The Narrator should choose the Fighting score for characters and creatures in the game. Creatures may have Fighting equal to their Physique, or the Narrator may choose to give them a lower fighting score to represent creatures that are physically very strong (high Physique) but not particularly swift or accurate (lower Fighting). This also gives heroes more of a “fighting chance” when going up against larger, more powerful creatures.

Gamma World: Gamma Grass

Ever since first edition Gamma World I’ve been fond of this “monster” because it embodies the setting’s ethos of “even the landscape is out to get you”. I’ve updated it for the current edition of the game, with a little added benefit/story hook to encourage characters to actually brave the risks involved, making it a bit more than just a random hazard.

Gamma Grass: Known as “zeeth” in the language of the seer lizards, this purple sward reproduces by teleporting its seeds into the guts of nearby creatures. The seeds release a deadly neurotoxin, killing the host, which decomposes and fertilizes a new patch of gamma grass.

Mature gamma grass is a hazard that attacks any animal creature that begins or ends its turn within 5 squares of the patch. Seed teleports that miss materialize in the air nearby with a sizzling “pop” as they burst harmlessly.

Attack: Ranged 5, +7 vs. Fortitude. Targets protected by force fields are unaffected.

Hit: 2d6 poison damage, plus ongoing 5 (save ends). If target drops to 0 hit points or fewer, it dies and a patch of gamma grass sprouts from the corpse the next day.

If mature gamma grass is harvested, dried, and smoked, it grants a particular type of alpha shift: the smoker may draw the next two Psi mutations from the alpha mutation deck and choose to retain one, gaining a +2 bonus to overcharge that mutation for the next encounter.

Because of its benefits (along with a mild euphoric “high” from smoking it), serfs, sleeth, and some badder tribes use slave labor to harvest patches of gamma grass. Those that do not survive the process simply ensure a bumper crop in the following season.

Gamma World: Medusa Microbes

Torn from the headlines! News about concrete repairing microbes inspired the following Gamma World hazard:

Medusa Microbes: Fast-acting microbes attempt to “repair” their target by replacing organic materials with calcium carbonate. Moderate Perception check to notice minor petrifications of wildlife and smoothing over of stone-like materials in the area. Any creature starting or ending its turn in the area infected with medusa microbes is attacked by them:

Attack: +8 vs. Fortitude

Hit: Target slowed (save ends).

First failed saving throw: Target restrained (save ends).

Second failed saving throw: Target unconscious (but not prone, save ends).

Third failed saving throw: Target dead and permanently petrified.

Unified Special Effects for Torg

Special effects skills are special skills. They allow the character to create various extranormal effects, from magic to miracles to psychic powers. Each given special effect is called a discipline and each is considered separate from the others. Each discipline requires two skills: an action skill that is used to create effects and a effect skill that is used to determine the power, damage, duration, etc. of an effect. For example, the discipline of magic has Sorcery as its action skill and Willforce as an effect skill. Psionics has Psionics and Mental Strength, Spiritualism has Focus and Faith and so forth.

Character use Special Effects skills to create effects (often abbreviated “FX”). Each effect is learned separately, and characters with FX skills have lists of effects they can do. For example, a typical Aylish mage:

Sorcery +3, Willforce +2
Effects (spells): flaming weapon, detect corruption, light, mystic shield, invisibility

Or an Eidenos Optant:
Focus +4. Faith (Keta Kalles) +3
Effects (gifts of Lanala): see through mist, increase Toughness, simple spear, blossom spear

Or a Core Earth psychic:
Psionics +2, Mental Strength +4
Effects: read thoughts, telekinetic lift, precognitive visions, psychometry

Even a Nippon martial artist:
Kata +1, Ki +4
Effects: invisibility, walk without trace, cobra strike, hypnotize


The following are the different types of effects characters can create.


This causes non-living things to move, levitate or fly without altering their shape or form. A weight value equal to the Effect Skill can be moved at a rate of speed equal to the difference between the weight value and the effect skill (i.e., a maximum weight could only be moved slowly if at all, but small objects may move faster).

Attack (wound, slay)

The basic damaging effect. The attack uses some medium (be it magical fire, holy lightning or mental force) to do damage equal to the Effect Skill to the target. The attack may be resisted by Toughness, Mind or Confidence at the caster’s choosing or by an opposing effect skill (such as a miracle resisted by the enemy’s Faith or a spell resisted by Willforce).

Bind (request, geas)

With this effect the target creature is forced to obey some agreement. The agreement can only be about a single thing and there must be a definte point at which the agreement is completed. The effect is generally resisted by the subject’s Willpower. This effect is often used to command summoned creatures to perform a service.

Compel (induce, control)

The compel effect causes the subject to do something against his will or to feel a particular emotion. The effect must be something that the target is capable of doing. Obviously self-destructive commands give the subject +10 to their Willpower for resisting this effect. The subject is entitled to a Willpower roll for each interval on the Time Value Chart that passes while under this effect to see if they break free of the compulsion.

Conceal (cloak)

This effect causes people or things to be hidden from normal notice or sight. The difficulty of noticing the subject of this effect (even in plain sight) is equal to the Effect Skill.


This effect allows the user to create matter out of nothing. Only non-living matter may be created and each type of item or material is a unique effect. The user also cannot create anything with which she is not familiar and creating materials beyond the user’s axioms is an automatic four-case contradiction.

Delude (appear, seem)

Delude creates illusions or phantasms that fool the senses of the victim. Strangely garbed wizards appear as ordinary workmen, an ancient barrow appears to be a gentleman’s manor, etc. Each type of illusion is a seperate effect.

Dispel (dismiss, banish)

This effect is used to cancel another effect or send a summoned thing back to where it came from. The difficulty is equal to the Effect Skill of the other effect or the appropraite resistance value of the summoned creature. While dispel can affect all the abilities of a discipline equally (e.g. dispel magic), each type of summoned creature is considered a unique effect and some creatures may have conditions on their banishment (such as knowing the creature’s name or having the correct Faith skill).

Enhance (fortify, grow, intensify)

This effect increases or improves an existing ability. Compare the Effect Skill value to the value to be enhanced and read the results on the Power Push table. This is the amount by which the value is increased. This effect has numerous applications, from creating enchanted weapons and armor to heightening Strength or other abilities and skills. Special Effects Skill values cannot be Enhanced by this effect.

Forsee (divine, predict)

The forsee effect is a difficult one that allows the user some glimpse of the future through any number of methods from Tarot reading to psychic visions. The difficulty is based on how far into the future the user wishes to see and what information is desired. Information gained from this effect is always somewhat vague and open to interpretation.

Heal (cure)

This effect can heal wounds, cure disease, etc. For wounds, the Effect Value is compared to a difficulty of 15 and the results are read on the success chart. For each level of success, one wound is cured. A successful use also removes all Shock and KO conditions. For diseases, the difficulty is based on the type of disease. Such healing may only be used once per day on any given character.

Protect (shield, armor)

This ability provides protection for the subject in the form of mystic armor, a force field or similar effect. The user’s adds in the Effect Skill are treated as armor adds up to a maximum of the Effect Skill value.

Reveal (hear, see, show)

This effect allows the character to sense things that are hidden or distant. It is the effect used for clairaudience and clairvoyance (scrying spells). It is also used for telepathy and other effects that reveal information directly to the character. The difficulty of the effect is based on the distance value and the Resistance value of the target character (if any).

Shape (manipulate)

This allows the user to control and warp inanimate objects. A character could use it to direct a fire into a wall, raise a wall of earth or open a passage through a wall. The action does not change, create or give life to the affected material. The difficulty is generally based on the Toughness of the material.

Summon (call)

Summon is used to draw spirits into the user’s presence. The effect only summons the spirit-it does not bind it or protect the summoner. Those require other effects. Summoning cannot draw in creatures present in the normal world. Thus, the user could not summon the Aylish ambassador, for example. Each type of summoning is unique and some spirits cannot be summoned without additional conditions.

Transform (alter, change)

This action changes the form of a living being. The change does not affect the victim’s personality. The subject’s abilities are logically affected by the transformation (a man turned into a mouse would not be very strong, for example). This is a very difficult effect; the Difficulty Value is equal to the subject’s Toughness or Willpower (whichever is higher) +10.

Transmute (purify, putrefy)

The companion of transform, this effect changes non-living matter, turning lead into gold or wood into steel. The general difficulty is based on the Toughness and weight value of the object.

Transport (move, travel, send)

This effect imparts movement to the subject creatures, either at a speed value equal to the Effect Value or instant teleportation of a distance equal to the Effect Value. Teleportation requires that the user be able to see or sense the destination or be very familiar with it (in which case the difficulty is increased by +3).

Ward (protect, bar)

Ward creates a barrier against a specific opponent or effect, such as a summoned creature or an enemy of the faith. The warded creature must exceed the Effect Value of the ward with an appropriate skill or ability roll (usually Willpower or Faith) in order to break through it.

Weaken (curse, sicken)

This effect is the opposite of Enhance (above). The result points of the effect are read through the Power Push table and subtracted from the target value.

Long-term effects

These effects can be created by adding a Time Value to the difficulty of the effect.


Extra Time: Add the time value of the additional uninterrupted preparation time to the bonus number.

Extra Effort: Each point of Shock taken gives a +1 bonus to the Effect Skill total. Each Wound gives a +3 bonus.

Possibilities: A reality-rated character can of course spend a Possibility to enhance one of their special effects.

The War Dancer Discipline

Before the long night of the Scourge, the Human Kingdom of Landis in Barsaive was ruled, like the rest of the province, by the Theran Empire. The proud warriors of Landis were forced by their Theran masters to surrender their weapons and all impliments of war were outlawed on pain of enslavement and death.

Though many warriors wanted to fight the oppression of mighty Thera, they could not risk their compatriots and loved ones. They hid from the forces of the Empire and continued their teachings in secret, waiting for they day when they might be free.

One of these warriors was a man known as Kaatal. In seeking a new weapon to turn against the Therans, Kaatal looked to the world of nature, where he studied the combat abilities of many animals and creatures. Kaatal did not have the passion to follow the way of the Beastmaster, for he did not seek to understand the mind of the beast-he looked to nature only as a means of finding a new way in which to be a Warrior. Kaatal trained to make his own body the weapon that he needed, following the ways and techniques that he observed.

In time, Kaatal taught his way to others. His teaching were concealed in the graceful movements of his combat style, which were further exagerated to make them into a whirling sort of dance that the Therans could take to be nothing more than a folk custom and not a deadly weapon. So was the discipline of the War Dancer born.

The War Dancers of Landis never liberated their homeland from Thera. Even as their number grew, news of the coming Scourge reached Barsaive. The construction of kaers began, and the war dancers entered the underground shelters to wait out the Long Night. While hidden in their separate kaers, they continued to teach they ways of their discipline and kept alive a spark of rebellion against Thera and theran ways.

When the people of Barsaive began to emerge again into the light of day, the war dancers began to recognize one another from the many kaers in which they had been concealed. Although they followed the same discipline, centuries of isolation had led to factionalism among them; there were debates on proper traditions, ways of teaching and order of precedence among the proud warrriors. The war dancers were splintered into small groups and some individuals struck out on their own, traveling the lands of Barsaive and teaching their discipline to others they encountered.

Important Attributes: Dexterity, Strength, and Toughness

Racial Restrictions: Obsidiman, T’Skrang, Windling

Karma Ritual: To perform his karma ritual the War Dancer meditates. When an inner state of tranquility is reached he begins the Great Dance, moving through each of the elements as represented in the Dance: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Wood. The ritual ends with a decisive punch into a cupped hand.

Artisan Skills: Dance, Elemental Sculpting

First Circle

Acrobatic Strike
Avoid Blow
Karma Strike
Karma Ritual
Unarmed Combat

Second Circle

Durability (7/6)
Steel Thought

Third Circle

Great Throw
Tiger Spring

Fourth Circle

Karma: The War Dancer may spend Karma on any action using DEX only.

Swift Kick
Thread Weaving (dance-weaving)

Fifth Circle

Physical Defense: Increase the Physical Defence of the War Dancer by one.

Anticipate Blow
Temper Self

Sixth Circle

Initiative: Increase the War Dancer’s Initiative step by 1.

Lizard Leap

Seventh Circle

Recovery Test: The War Dancer gains an additional recovery test per day.

Detect Weapon
Second Attack

Eighth Circle

Physical Defense: Increase the Physical Defense of the War Dancer by one.

Cobra Strike
Spot Armor Flaw

Ninth Circle

Iron Hand: By expending two permanent points of damage, the War Dancer hardens his hands like iron, increasing base unarmed danage by three steps.

Battle Shout
Crushing Blow
Wound Balance

Tenth Circle

Karma: The War Dancer may spend Karma on Damage Tests in unarmed combat only.

Social Defense: Increase the Social Defense of the War Dancer by one.

Champion Challenge
Lion Heart

Eleventh Circle

Initiative: Increase the Initiative step of the War Dancer by one.

Weapon Breaker

Twelfth Circle

Physical Defense: Increase the Physical Defense of the War Dancer by one.

Spell Defense: Increase the Spell Defense of the War Dancer by one.

Crtical Hit

Thirteenth Circle

Recovery Test: The War Dancer gains an additional Recovery Test.

Spirit Strike
Safe Thought

Fourteenth Circle

Karma: Increase the War Dancer’s Maximum Karma by 25.

Vital Strike

Fifteenth Circle

Elemental Favor: At the cost of three Strain, the War Dancer can perform a special Dance that calls upon the favor of the elemental planes. The War Dancer must perform a special hour-long ritual and make a Karma Ritual Test. That value becomes the effect value for one elemental effect that the War Dancer may call upon in battle. The favor can be a gust of wind, a sudden burst of flames, a minor ground tremor, etc. The favor must be called upon before the next sunrise or it is lost.

Gain Surprise
Stone Skin

New Talents

The war dancer uses the following new talents:

Karma Strike

Step Number: Strength + Rank
Action: No
Skill Use: No
Requires Karma: Yes
Strain: None
Discipline Talent Use: War Dancer

This talent allows the user to focus magical energy into any part of the body to increase the damage of an unarmed attack. The character uses their Unarmed Combat talent to hit and uses their Karma Strike talent for damage. The character must spend Karma to use this talent. The karma die is added to the damage roll. The effect of the Karma Strike talent lasts until a hit is scored or a number of rounds equal to the talent rank pass.

Great Throw

Step Number: Strength + Rank
Action: Yes
Skill Use: Yes
Requires Karma: No
Strain: None
Discipline Talent Use: War Dancer

This talent allows the possesor to hurl an opponent to the ground. The attacker makes Unarmed Combat test versus the Physical Defense of the opponent. If the character gains at least a Good success he does damage equal to their Rank in Great Throw plus Strength. The opponent also must make a Knockdown Test with +5 added to the difficulty.

Building a Better Deathtrap

Diabolical Dilemmas for the Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game

A super-villain has defeated our heroes, leaving them at his or her mercy. What is the villain going to do? Certainly not kill the heroes in cold blood. Not only would that end the game in a hurry and leave the Narrator with a lot of unhappy players, it wouldn’t be in keeping with the modus operandi of most super-villains. Killing the heroes outright denies the villain the opportunity to use one of the favorite villainous devices: the deathtrap.

This article looks at ways to include some fiendish deathtraps in your own Marvel games, along with some game rules to make escaping from those traps a little more exciting.

Why Deathtraps?

Why doesn’t the villain just do away with the heroes when they are helpless? Why put them in a deathtrap? Well, villains have many different reasons. Some want to demonstrate their own cleverness by creating the perfect deathtrap, although they always seem to fall just a bit short. Other villains prefer for their enemies to suffer. Rather than kill them quickly and cleanly, they want to make the heroes squirm. For some a deathtrap is a means of doing away with the heroes without the villain having to dirty his own hands at the task. In some cases, the deathtrap happens by accident rather than design; the heroes end up in a perilous situation-trapped in a burning building, for example-and the villain simply leaves them there to die.

Whatever reasons the villain might have, the real reason behind deathtraps is simple: super heroes just don’t die in such undramatic ways as being shot by a villain after a knock on the head. Super heroes only die in dramatic life-of-death struggles, and rarely even then. The consequence of defeat in most RPG settings is death, combats are often lethal. In the non-lethal setting of the comics, deathtraps provide a way to put some drama into a super heroic adventure. Defeated heroes, and their players, know that they face, not death, but “a fate worse than death! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!” (Sorry, got carried away there.)

Being Defeated

A key part of many deathtraps is that the villain first defeats the heroes. The villain puts them into a deathtrap, reveals his or her evil plan, then leaves the heroes to face their fate. The trick in translating this into the Marvel game is defeating the heroes in the first place.

As a general rule, players don’t like to lose. Although roleplaying games like Marvel don’t have any real “winners” or “losers,” players often equate “defeated in combat” with “losing.” If a Narrator plans to defeat a group of heroes before putting them in a deathtrap, expect the players to fight to the very last to avoid being defeated, even if defeat seems inevitable. And, if you give them the opportunity, don’t be surprised if the players somehow managed to snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Trump cards and Edge can do that.

There are several ways you can deal with this problem in your games. The first is to tell the players up front that, in playing a Marvel game, a certain amount of defeats may happen to their heroes. These defeats shouldn’t be looked at as failures on the part of the players or their heroes, simply as part of the game. As you play and the players see that defeat does not mean certain death for their favorite hero, they’ll begin to loosen up about getting defeated now and again. They might even look forward to the deathtrap that’s coming next!

You can also set up “you never had a chance” situations; traps so fiendishly designed that the heroes simply have no way to avoid being defeated. For example, the heroes break into Arcade’s control room and confront the crazed assassin, who’s sitting in his chair, smugly confident and taunting them. One of the heroes decides to punch or blast Arcade. When he does, the android duplicate of the carnival hitman explodes, releasing a cloud of knockout gas. The gas quickly incapacitates the heroes, allowing Arcade to drop them into his latest Murderworld. In this case, the heroes don’t get a chance to resist the gas; if they trigger the trap, they’re caught.

Or you can simply start an adventure with the heroes already defeated by a villain, who has them in a deathtrap. For example, if your players are running the Uncanny X-Men, you tell them they were out for a night at the opera when Arcade’s loyal assistants, Ms. Locke and Mr. Chambers, sprang a stun gas trap on them. When the adventure begins, they wake up in their costumes inside Murderworld and the game begins!

Use this method sparingly. If the heroes are confronted with too many situations out of their control, the players can become frustrated and lose interest in the game. Oftentimes it is better to allow the players to come up with some way to avoid the trap, then hit them with another one, rather than making a particular defeat inevitable.

Lastly, you can surprise heroes with deathtraps that do not require the villain to defeat the heroes first. In the first example above, the booby-trapped android duplicate of Arcade might be the deathtrap rather than a means of getting the heroes into one. Heroes can walk right into a deathtrap if a villain prepares the proper “bait,” like a crime in progress or a helpless loved one.

The Doom Clock

Deathtraps require a certain dramatic timing in order to remain tense and exciting for the players. One way the Narrator can accomplish this is through the use of a “Doom Clock,” which counts down how long the hero has to successfully escape the deathtrap before disaster.

The Narrator chooses a number of actions required to escape from the deathtrap. This should generally be between two and five actions. One action is too quick for anything except the simplest traps, while more than five actions tends to bog things down and get boring. The Narrator then decides what the various actions should be, for example, finding the access panel to the computer, bypassing the security lockouts and reprogramming the system. If the player offers a plan of his or her own, the Narrator should break it down into actions accordingly.

The Narrator then chooses the number of actions before the deathtrap activates: how long before the walls close in, before the hero is dropped into the pit of boiling acid, and so forth. For tough deathtraps, this interval should be the same as the number of actions required to escape. For easier challenges, the interval can be from 25% to 100% longer.

The Narrator then begins to turn over cards on the Fate Deck. Each card represents an exchange. On a positive draw, the hero may attempt an action to escape the trap. On a negative draw, the trap’s “clock” advances forward by one exchange. On a neutral draw, nothing happens: the hero is struggling to figure out what comes next while the clock is ticking.

Last Ditch Effort

It may be that the trap springs before the hero has time enough to escape, especially when the positive and negative counters are close. In this case, when the final negative card comes up that would trigger the trap, the hero has the option of making a last ditch attempt to escape. This is a single action, chosen by the Narrator. It should have a difficulty at least three levels higher than that of the other actions for getting out of the trap. So a deathtrap that required three challenging actions to overcome normally would require a superhuman last ditch effort to escape. Heroes can use Pushing the Limit to help with a list ditch effort. If the hero is successful, he or she escapes just in the nick of time.

Dramatic Events

While the Doom Clock is ticking, the Narrator can use any Dramatic Events that come up on the card draws the enhance the excitement of the deathtrap, if appropriate. For example, Emergency or Endangered Innocents might indicate a new threat from the deathtrap, like a runaway laser beam setting the room on fire. On the other hand, events like No Restrictions or Never Say Die, might actually help the heroes, giving them additional insight or a second-chance. This is very useful if the heroes are having too easy or too difficult a time with the deathtrap, keeping things in balance and keeping the players on the edge of their seats.

Types of Deathtraps

Here are some of the classic deathtraps from the comics for use in your games. You can use these basic ideas to create an almost endless array of lethal traps. Consider spicing things up by combining two or more deathtraps into one, or by taking an existing “classic” and adding a new spin to it, like a Closing Walls trap where the room the heroes are trapped in is slowly filling with an alien bio-sludge that causes the heroes to mutate or lose control of their powers.

  • Closing Walls: The heroes are trapped in a room where the walls are closing in or which is slowly filling with sand, water, poison gas or something equally unbreathable, or perhaps both: the walls are closing in and the room is filling up at the same time. The walls may also be backed up by more than crushing force, they may be lined with spikes or heated red hot. The heroes have to figure a way out of the room before they are crushed or suffocate. Needless to say, this trap is considerably less threatening to heroes who are either invulnerable or don’t have to breathe. However, their teammates, friends and loved ones still do.
  • Controlled Teammate: The villain brainwashes one of the heroes into thinking his or her teammates are enemies who must be destroyed. The team has to convince the brainwashed hero not to attack. The Narrator can control any brainwashed hero(es) for this trap, but it can be a lot of fun to give control of the mind-controlled heroes to the players and let them loose! Encourage the players to roleplay helping their comrade break free of the evil mind-control, rather than reducing it to just a series of Willpower actions. You can use the Doom Clock in conjunction with the heroes’ attempts, especially if there is a time-limit, such as the mind-controlled hero about to trigger a far more lethal deathtrap.
  • Countdown: The heroes are sitting on top of a bomb (or similar deadly device) which is counting down to go off. Of course, the heroes are restrained or in some way prevented from easily defusing the bomb. The Doom Clock represents the trap’s countdown.
  • Decoy Villain: A decoy that looks like the villain (a robot duplicate or simply a dummy) triggers another trap when it is attacked. The decoy might explode or release a toxic gas when struck, or it might trigger things like trapdoors or cages containing dangerous creatures.
  • Gauntlet: The heroes have to make their way through a corridor or maze filled with deadly traps of all kinds. The traps can be anything the Narrator thinks up: automated weapons, fighting robots, creatures, pit traps, swinging blades and so forth. There may also be a time-limit for the heroes to make it through the gauntlet before something else happens, like the whole place blowing up, being flooded or something similar. Heroes often use gauntlets for training purposes on their own, like the “Danger Room” scenarios of the X-Men.
  • Psychodrama: The heroes are trapped inside a mindscape or illusion that involves something drawn from their own memories or worst fears. They may all see the same thing, or each hero might experience something different-the claustrophobic hero feels the walls closing in, the hero afraid of drowning sees the room filling with water, and so forth. The heroes have to overcome their fears in order to defeat the trap.
  • Sawmill: The heroes are strapped down, helpless, while a deadly attack draws closer and closer. It might be a laser, molten metal in a steel mill, a buzz-saw in a lumber mill, a rampaging monster, or some attack or substance a hero is especially vulnerable to. The heroes must escape before the attack gets to them. Alternately, a friend or loved one of a hero may be placed in a similar situation, forcing the hero to come to the rescue.
  • Tiger Pit: The heroes are placed in a trap where dangerous animals can attack them. It might be hungry lions, sharks, piranha, poisonous snakes or even more exotic creatures like alien monsters, mutates or cyborgs. Usually, there is something keeping both the creatures and the heroes trapped together, like a pit or force field. The creatures also have the home-field advantage, such as having to fight sharks or giant squid underwater (while holding your breath) or dealing with invisible mutants that can see in the dark while in pitch blackness.