Saturday, January 14, 2012

Super Saturday: Superhero Non-Simulatability

Here's a real problem for superhero-based gaming -- whether you're talking tabletop RPGs, computer games, massively multiplayer online stuff, etc.). The problem is this: So many (most?) stories achieve a conclusion by means of a one time "gag" of a superhero surprise-revealing a new power, effect, or interaction -- one that has never been shown before, and will likely never be used ever again. In a regular rule-driven system (not one of those player-narrative-driven doohickeys), this seems like an insurmountable problem.

Also: Consider the variant to rock-paper-scissors in which "fire" may be thrown once in your lifetime. How do you really adjudicate/enforce that fairly?

A couple of examples from early classic Lee-Kirby Thor issues (maybe not the most perfect of case-studies, but what I have at hand here):
  1. Journey Into Mystery #85 -- Thor's first clash with Loki (encompassing the whole issue) ends with Thor dunking him in the East River. "According to legend, Loki's magic powers are useless in water!" he says. Obviously, that was never effective again.
  2. JIM #93 -- Thor's first battle with the Radioactive Man. Among the unexpected one-off things that happen here are that (a) Radioactive Man would "blow up like an H-bomb" if subjected to any physical violence, and (b) the issue ends with Thor summoning a tornado in New York that can blow the Radioactive Man all the way back to China, where he then mushroom-cloud explodes as predicted.
  3. JIM #114-115 -- The Absorbing Man is another good example of a seemingly unstoppable foe who is basically never beaten the same way twice. His first dramatic appearance ends with Thor "spinning my enchanted hammer at cyclotronic speed, [so that] I have the power to transmute the elements themselves!"; after which a bystander says "It was like a nuclear explosion! Even the ground is glazed!". Thus Thor has created helium gas, forced the Absorbing Man to change into it, and floated him into space. This will never happen again.
  4. Thor #171 -- Here, a long battle with the Wrecker ends with Thor throwing him onto the powered third-rail of the New York subway system, and then connecting Mjolnir to it to drain away all of the Wrecker's supernatural strength (allegedly de-powering him "fore'er"). I'm particularly uncertain how you'd ever deal with circumstantial power-changes or de-powering of different characters (pretty common in the comics) in the game setting.
Thoughts? Have comics gotten away from that kind of deus ex machina over time? Is that just a hopeless thing to try and recreate in a rule-driven game system?


  1. You could use a Champions variable power pool, with the limitation: only one use of a particular power+special effect. I'm not sure how much that should cost.

  2. For #2 and #3 I think you could get away with using Power Stunts in the Marvel Superhero RPG.

    For #1, in Mutants and Masterminds they have a versatile Hero Point system that I believe (haven't played it, only skimmed it) allows the player some degree of narrative control. This could easily be adapted to allow the player to exclaim the villain's spontaneous weakness.
    Player: "What superman doesn't know is that his invulnerability does not apply to the laws of magic!"

    #4 At first reading I thought Thor would be draining his own power upon connecting Mjolnir to the circuit but it looks like it had the opposite effect.

    The best I could think of would be Judge adjudication, and a very lenient one at that.
    Player: "I want to throw us both onto a high voltage circuit then use my lightning hammer to siphon off his energy"
    Judge: "Then you better roll high"

    I suppose in a superhero system you would award a substantial bonus for action that would appear at the end of the issue, after each side had a chance to take the other down and failed or set up a series of actions that led to that point (subway rail).

  3. Couldn't the same be said of most long running fantasy series? There are always some lazy writers that need an dues ex machina to resolve inescapable plots.

  4. I think you would need to combine some kind of Hero points system with a good roll of the dice, as RedHobbit mentioned, and also a William Shatner action setup. For those not already familiar, the Shatner action setup is where, for convoluted or unlikely actions, or other non-combat actions, a failure on your roll indicated you didn't even attempt it because you knew it would end badly. This allows the players to try unlikely and interesting resolutions without fear of dying with every attempt.

  5. My superhero system Kapow! has explicit rules for this sort of thing, but you might dismiss it as a player-narrative-driven doohickey. Basically you can always choose to try to attack to disable a power, provided you have a genre-appropriate justification for how you're disabling it. In addition there's a special rule called Power Play, where if you haven't managed put any of your foes down for three rounds, you can power up one of your powers or create a new one-off power, after which your power is burned out (potentially long-term, requiring you do do an adventure to restore it).

  6. I believe this kind of thing is the basis for MSH's "power stunt" rule. Spend a bunch of karma to do a one-time special effect with a character's normal powers.

    But Marvel is one of the first RPGs to feature heavy use of narrative resolution and metagaming (through the use of karma).

    Too bad the power stunt rules didn't provide as good of explanation/example as your post!

  7. In GURPS Powers, any super power can parry any other super power. That gets a chunk of super hero action....

    For the take down... hmm.... I'd model that Thousand Suns style with an extended test... and borrowing from the experience system... you only get to work toward the ah-ha solution by making perception checks after each failed attach.

  8. I think comics have moved away from the "powers on demand" approach of early comics. Heroes may develop a new power, but that's usually after a story arc that leads to the new thing.

    If I recall correctly Spiderman got new abilities with the black costume, but he got the black costume/symbiote during the course of Secret Wars.

    It's not like that Superman movie, where all of a sudden Superman tears a membrane off his S symbol and throws it at the bad guy, who gets tangled up in it.

  9. I will also plug the Marvel Super Heroes "power stunt" system, specifically designed to model these kinds of things. The stunt is a difficult roll using an existing power and investing karma points (like investing xp into an advancement fund for a specific new power).

    If the stunt is used repeatedly, the investment eventually buys it as an additional power (which makes the rolls easier and thus the effect is more reliable). Otherwise, it's a one-shot effect never seen again and the invested karma is more or less wasted.

    The rulebook actually uses as examples the Human Torch capturing villains in a cage of fire, a stunt which eventually became part of his standard repertoire, and a one-time stunt Spider-man pulled off where he made a canoe out of his webbing, a trick he has never repeated.

    Both "Truth & Justice" and "BASH" were influenced by MSH and have similar power stunt systems. I believe that something similar existed in Silver Age Sentinels, too. And of course MSH has its own retro-clone under the name of Four Color

  10. Hey guys, interesting thoughts. Of course, I do like the MSH system and the Karma points there are my favorite version of "hero points" (I think the fact that it's high-granularity and pre-called instead of post-called makes more comfortable with it).

    My problem with the "Power Stunts" (from the Advanced rules) is that it seems to work the inverse of what I'm talking about here. If you use a Power Stunt 10 times it becomes a stock ability (i.e., gets easier with time). I feel like for to model this stuff here we'd have to reverse that and make it harder each time -- start at 100 karma expense and double each time, say. (Or in other words: make the player come up with different stunts each time.)

    I actually am attracted to the idea of making successful "karmic" tactics harder, and harder ones easier, over time. Like there was some MMO that did that with their magic system automatically, I think (lesser-used spells ticked upwards in potency in real-time, and vice-versa). So in that regard I kind of do have a soft spot for Joshua's "Power Play" rule where after some failures your powers get intensified. Nice idea.

  11. A rules-driven system can have rules driving things other than the physics of the fiction.

  12. Hey as old as this is this was a great read: I'm currently getting ready to run a Gamma World 7e campaign reflavored as Guardians of the Galaxy style superheroes in space campaign, and I've been trying to wrap my head around what Alpha Mutations mean in the context of that game. Since they are entirely random and change very often it makes sense for them to represent these goofy one-time powers that superheroes use every once in a while.

    1. That sounds like a great game! Glad there was some idea here you could use. Consider also my friend BJ's recent release of Mutant Bastards if that contains anything for you (he's the biggest fan of Gamma World that I've ever known).