Monday, October 12, 2020

Marvel FASERIP: Thor's Power Stunts

Last time we took a look at the Advanced Marvel FASERIP (1986) rules with its novel "Power Stunts" rule. In brief: a character can expand their super-powers in creative ways by spending Karma and making a FEAT roll; and this roll gets easier the more times they try it. In particular, the rule calls out the fact that published examples of Power Stunts in Marvel comics count for canon characters -- and therefore, the more knowledge a player is in the lore of their favorite character, the more functionally powerful that character is at the table. From the book:

If you are playing an established Marvel Super Hero, the question of whether he has done this stunt before or not is determined from the Marvel Comics themselves. Each time you can spot him using this particular stunt, that counts as one time.

In the last post I wrote, "Surely only an insane player could be expected to actually go track down every researched use of super-powers that a long-running character has ever made." On that note, here's a complete accounting of power uses for my favorite Marvel character, Thor, from the first decade of his comic's publication -- which is to say, issues #83-195 (1962-1972), that is, all of the classic Lee/Kirby era, into the switch of John Buscema as artist, as collected in Marvel Essentials Thor Vol. 1-4. (ODS version here.)

Commentary:

  • Color-coding above follows the rule for FEAT level from the book: stunts tried 1-3 times require a Yellow FEAT, those tried 4-10 times take Green FEAT, and those tried more than require no FEAT at all (in this list: only making wind & rain, and the lifting vortex-tornado attack form). 
  • Recall that the book rule uniquely calls out weather control powers as being intimately tied to the Power Stunt rule (perhaps the author was trying to rein in the powers of Thor specifically?), so if it ever matters for any character to make this survey, it seems most important in this case. 
  • There were a very small number of cases where Thor used the same "stunt" twice in a single issue of the comic. For simplicity, I only ever documented one case of a stunt per issue. 
  • The majority of this run has Stan Lee listed as writer, and Jack Kirby as artist, with occasional fill-ins by other artists. Notably, early issues #90-96 mostly have art by Joe Sinnot. Kirby's last issue is #179 (out-of-order with issue #178; delay or dispute in production?), #180-181 by Neal Adams, and then John Buscema from #182 on. Similarly, with issue #193 Lee's credit switches from Writer (et. al.) to Editor (or the like), with Gerry Conway as writer. Note that the tone and pacing changes considerably when Kirby leaves, even with Lee credited as writer throughout, giving evidence that the artist was greatly involved in plotting in the Marvel Method.
  • On that shift in tone, Thor's most prominent powers shift a bit. For example, up until issue #180, the "Lifting vortex-tornado" power is actually the most frequent ability seen, beating out even the "Make wind and rain" power. After Buscema becomes artist, that latter power gets used much more frequently, and it then takes the lead.
  • Likewise, there’s a change in the aspect of energy-blasts directed from the hammer. In issues #104, 114, and 156 it’s clearly a lightning-blast (so described and shown as jagged stroke). Then in #164-165 it becomes a single straight-line force blast, even though Thor in #165 describes this as “The fury of the thunder... the carnage of the storm... !!” From that point on, the attack always looks like a straightforward force-blast, and it gets used quite a bit more frequently thereafter (again, into the Buscema transition). I actually considered distinguishing these powers, but the verbal description in #165 convinced me to count them together.
  • Some of the powers which the FASERIP rules indicate as core powers of Thor are actually not  used very much in this run. For example: In most of the run, the power of Dimensional Travel is limited to Thor transporting himself from Earth to the Rainbow Bridge, with Odin being the who sends him back to Earth when necessary. Shooting the lightning-blast from the hammer only happens 3 times in the first 70 issues (becoming more common later, although the form changes, as noted above). Calling lightning from the skies only happens 3 times in the decade. Spinning the hammer in front of him as a shield likewise only happens 3 times -- far more common is for Thor to simply hold the invulnerable hammer fixed in front of him to ward off shooting attacks ("Parry projectiles", with 9 occurrences). 
  • A common trope is for Thor to battle a villain to a standstill throughout an issue, and then in the last few panels of the issue (on the last page) whip out some never-before-seen power that ends the battle. A deus ex malleo, if you will. The long list of powers used one single time, in the tail of the table above, is mostly evidence of this. (Was that also common for other Marvel comics at the time, or were they particularly prone to the "power stuntiness" of the divine magic hammer?)
  • Another thing that should be noted, and is not handled in the FASERIP rules, is the several instances of powers being canonically removed in the comics. For example, in Thor #282 (1979), Thor sacrifices the time-travel power of the hammer at the behest of Immortus, in order to save the world of Phantus. Later in Thor #340 (1984) the power/curse to transform into a mortal man is removed by Odin and transferred to Beta Ray Bill. (I think it's been returned and removed a few more times since then.) So this presents another pitfall in the FASERIP rule: a player could quote evidence of some particular power, and use that to their advantage at the table, while simply omitting the fact that it was known to have been removed at a later date. 
  • Again, the list above covers the 1962-1972 issues of Thor (originally Journey Into Mystery). A few other options for timeframe come to mind. Perhaps one could cut off the list around issue #180 for a purely classic Lee/Kirby presentation of the character. Or one could expand up to 1986 to when Jeff Grubb was writing those rules (about an additional decade-and-a-half), that is, close to the end of Walter Simonson's seminal run on the comic. Or one could try for an encyclopedic iteration up to the current day (another 35 years), and commit to adding more in the future. Also, one could look to crossover comics like the Avengers and add any other interesting power stunts that appear there. But that would certainly be beyond this writer's resources at this point!

Anything in the list here that was particularly surprising? Any critical things I missed? Don't try this at home.

Scheduling note: Don't forget that next Sunday on the Wandering DMs YouTube channel, we've scheduled Marvel Super Heroes FASERIP creator Jeff Grubb to be our live interview guest. That's Oct-18, 1 PM ET. Hopefully I'll sneak in a question about how comprehensively he expected players to be poring over their old comic books for their favorite characters' Power Stunts. Hope you'll join us as well and get your FASERIP questions in the live chat when he joins us!


8 comments:

  1. Unearthly work you've done! Seriously. I'm not even a supers fan, but your work here is really impressive.

    Have you heard of Autarch's Ascendant RPG? It had a Kickstarter and is awaiting publication. There is a free preview on DriveThruRPG. Ascendant uses a color-coded table for action resolution, and cites Jeff Grubb's work on the Marvel Super Heroes RPG as an influence. If you get a chance, you should check out the Kickstarter page or the free preview prior to your interview, to analyze their version of the color-coded action resolution table.

    The Ascendant RPG also cites Greg Gorden's DC Heroes as an influence on their decision to use a logarithmic scale to measure attributes and other quantities. I'm curious to hear your take on this, given your knowledge of mathematics. (You can find the basic tables for attributes and quantities in the free preview.)

    Finally, the intro to the Ascendant RPG states that they have attempted to approximate real-world physics in precisely those areas in which comics do, and to ignore real-world physics in precisely those areas in which comics do. Here's an example from page 4 of the preview: "For instance, comic books tend to permit strong heroes to pick up heavier objects than weak heroes can, or to throw objects with more force than weak heroes can. In that sense, comic book worlds clearly reflect the physical formula that Force = Mass x Acceleration. Conversely, when strong heroes pick up huge objects like jetliners, comic books routinely ignore issues such as center of gravity, leverage, and surface pressure. A jetliner’s fuselage doesn’t crumple under the force of the hero’s hands, even though it should." And they explicity state as a core principle ("Canon #2") that real-world physics should be used to fill in any gaps created by the rules, such as a character with a fiery aura, who should trigger a wildfire when walking through a drought-stricken California woodland. This reminds me of your approach to D&D, in which you often analyze real-world cases before creating or revising a rule.

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    1. Thanks for the amazingly kind words! :-D I've been keeping this list since July of last year when I started re-reading the classic series in my spare minutes.

      Great reference on Ascendant, that sounds really well thought-out. I've heard of it but not read it to date. For my retroclone here I do have G-Core by Jay Parker, in which he swapped out the color gradations for a straight binary succeed-or-fail on d10 for everything (we got to play in a game with him at TotalCon last year).

      I do love hearing about keeping the graduated system of successes, which I do think worked well for supers. And I'm also really fond of systematically thinking about the measures in advance (like a logarithmic system): that's the one place that's always been the most awkward/uncomfortable with FASERIP for me. Thinking about the comic-book tropes to be simulated sounds top-notch to me. Thanks for the recommendation, adding it to my list now. :-)

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  2. Ah, you gotta love Stan Lee's unrepenting attitude towards storytelling. He never left logic get in the way of a good story. If I recall correctly, Magneto was also prone to developing powers on the fly, both during Lee's and Claremont's run. Chris Claremont had a more pseudo-scientific approach to stunts, often giving supposedly scientific reasons which were... endearing to read. Good times.

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    1. Yeah, easy to believe that. Related: Magneto shows up to oppose Thor in issue #109, and you can see in the order list above, Thor whips out two powers against him, "Track magnetic field", and "Remove magnetic field", which are never seen before or thereafter.

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    2. Another trope I noticed on this run is that when a villain re-appears, they almost inevitably are described as "far stronger than last time!". Sometimes this is given a specific explanation, sometimes they don't bother.

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    3. A personal favourite of mine is an occasion in which Magneto casually states that his previous encounter with Mesmero was, in fact, a robot impersonating him. No other context provided, moving on with the plotn the end. That was Claremont and Byrne, early 70s if memory does not fail.

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    4. Ha! Nice!

      Bringing it back to the MSH RPG, that's also used as the primary plot thread in module MH1: The Breeder Bombs (Magneto replaced by a robot).

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    5. Good to see they knew their sources :).

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