Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Non-Combat Super Heroics

Now, maybe it's the Super Hero game that I get to play in later tonight (yesterday when you read this), but I've been thinking a lot about the non-combat heroics that are often featured in super hero stories, but may not be in actual super hero games. Obviously, this wouldn't be in all super games, but the ones I've played in - and ran - have generally had the big tendency to be on fighting super powered criminals. So, let's take a look at why and how you can do some of these non-combat heroics.

Let's start with the why. Why would you want to feature non-combat heroics? Well, because they are heroics, and I would assume your super hero game is meant to feature heroics. Even better though, saving people from crashing planes, burning buildings, and run-away busses is awesome because they are completely about the heroics.

This is different from combat where it is as much about saving the day as it is about beating the opposition into a pulp. In fact, that direct conflict between the hero and the villain can actually become more important than the fact that the hero is also saving people. After all, when Superman is fighting Lobo, Darkseid, or Doomsday, are we really that wound up in the fact that he's saving people? Or are we caught up in the fight and the immediate danger that it puts Superman in? Generally, it's the second one, and this is a view held by the authors and artists too. Why else would Superman deliberately punch his enemy through a building during work hours in a major metropolitan city? (answer: we're supposed to be focused on the fight, not the bystanders)

Also, non-combat heroics gives the GM to challenge a hero without having to go after them personally. Superman is invulnerable (I'll be using him a lot here, folks) and is hard to challenge physically. However, Superman cares about bystanders, and they can be challenged physically quite easily. There is a failure condition, and a brutal one at that, for Superman here and he will never actually be harmed. If he prioritizes wrong, uses the wrong plan, or is simply too direct and forceful, then people will die. More importantly, people will die because of him.

Combined, the two give you, as a GM, a great way to put the focus on heroics and to challenge those combat monster PCs with something they are very likely not build to handle. Saving lives.

Trains, Planes, and Automobiles
Ah, the runaway vehicle. This is a classic staple of the super hero genre, and has been featured in a good chunk of super hero movies. Superman saves a crashing plane in Superman Returns, Spidey has to deal with a run-away train in Spider-Man 2, and even Green Lantern has to save a crowd of people from a crashing helicopter in his new movie. What makes this so fun is that there is a dual threat that can make things very fun to see how the hero handles it. See, there are two groups of people in danger. First, the people in the vehicle are definitely in peril. Second, the people outside the vehicle - or where it will crash - are also likely in dire straits.

Now, the trick with these is to not make it just one roll. Make the situation complex and keep the scene dynamic. A hero can't just go to the nose of a crashing plane and cold stop it. Well, they can, but if they do then that is very similar to a crash now isn't it? One second the plane is hurtling to the ground at terminal velocity, the next it comes into contact with something that it can't shove through. Two fun ways to handle this, if and when a player does it: one, they make the situation worse and injure people inside as the vehicle jolts to a stop and they have the choice of letting it go or going right through it and likely killing everyone; two, the plane pins them against its nose due to it's velocity. With two, they shouldn't be hurt (they could have stopped it) but just because they can lift that plane while standing on the ground, doesn't mean that they can do it without any support behind them to push off with. Even flying heroes tend to move down when hit from above by just about anything.

The slow way to do it should involve a few rolls. The plane scene in Superman Returns is a good example with a multi-tiered danger level to the people involved. First, there is the attached shuttle that needs to be separated from the plane. Then, the plane goes into a spin which puts those inside in direct/immediate peril and that has to be stopped. Then the plane has to be slowed down and levelled. Finally, Superman is able to slow the plane down (and he does a slow deceleration, which is good) and fully save the day. In the process, he gets buffeted with debris, smacked away from the plane, and we are all given a good scene where the danger isn't to Superman, but to everyone else (and those stakes are even better considering the genre).

Burning Buildings
The other staple is the burning building with people trapped on high floors. Here, you actually have some issues for your heroes to deal with, especially if they need to breathe. Fumes and heat are an issue, the smoke will blur the vision and bring tears to the front, and then there is the fact that the building is likely about to start collapsing.

For these situations I recommend having two stats ready to go before hand. One is a round timer, when the timer is up the people still in the building are likely lost. Either they pass out and become nigh impossible to find due to being silent and the smoke, or the building can collapse. Either way, things are on a timer and the PCs need to act fast. The other stat, is the number of people in the building. This then becomes the race: can the heroes save everyone before the building burns to the ground?

I recommend you treat the building as an active opposition here. Have it try to kill the heroes on occasion: drop floors out from under them, drop floors onto them, have fire flare up when they open doors. Have it try to kill the person the hero is currently saving with similar tactics. The PCs should have to make perception checks to find those still in the building, and as it gets closer to empty (especially if the PCs think they're done when not) you may want to increase the drama factor. The PCs fail that last perception check and think they got everyone. They go to leave when suddenly there is the cry of a young child from the top floor - right where a flame just blew out the window, - or a desperate parent looking for their child who had gone to sleep just before the fire started.

Make the PCs wait to find out if they actually got everyone until the fire department clears out the building. If they did, that is awesome. If not, well, then it should be a somber scene. It's doubtful people will blame the hero (though, family of the victim may), but there will be that sort of quiet, morose feeling around. Yes, people were saved...but for all those heroics, one or two didn't get out. Obviously, if the PCs won, then it should be awesome, cheers, and thank yous all around.

The Best Part
The best part about using non-combat heroics in your game is this: Once you have established them in your game, and established the mechanics for how they work, you can then use them in other ways. Perhaps an aerial battle takes a turn for the worse when the villain shoots a plane out of the sky. Now the hero has to both fight the villain and try and save the plane. They can't do both, and the villain will likely hit them while they are distracted. Alternatively, pull a Green Goblin from the first Spider-Man movie, and ambush your PCs as they move through a burning building trying to save people. Bonus points if there is still people in that building needing to be saved.

So, have fun with these. Set them up, establish the game rules, and then switch it up on folks and watch the drama fly. These games are supposed to be about Super Heroes, so make sure you have some super heroics in there as well.

Any other methods or ways you've done this in your hero games? Other situations that the PCs can find themselves in?


  1. You know, as basic as this is, I've never thought to use it in a supers game. I think it didn't help that when I was playing supers games, the big deal was the dark hero so the ends justified the means for most players.

    Makes me want to make a Super Hero that (somehow) draws his powers from people around him but for some reason, if someone near him is hurt or killed it's like kryptonite to him. Actually that would make a good basis for a supers RPG. It would mechanically make the players have to care. Thats not the same thing as golden age heros but it's a weird and interesting twist.

  2. Good stuff. The hero part sometimes gets lost in the super. When civilians have been involved in my games, the PCs have been quite good about protecting them but a pure disaster might be fun to use as well.

  3. I agree about giving time and energy during play to non-combat heroics, but I disagree about using rolls. If you require rolls, the heroes will fail some of the time (or there was no point rolling), and that is contrary to most comics and what most players are hoping to get out of superhero games. You can get all the interesting dramatics and decisions the heroes have to make as to how they can use their powers to bring a plane to a safe landing without ever subjecting it to a skill roll.

  4. Joshua: you have a point, and I can see your argument. However, there are two things some GMs may want that can make it worth having die rolls.

    1) by doing this, you can make the saving from the catastrophe into it's own action sequence, with that the die rolls help give the feel of combat, as well as the tension as the possibility of failure comes into play - and the players know that they may fail.

    2) Your post seems to assume that a failed roll is going to result in a catastrophic failure. Superman fails the strength roll at the end, so the plane crashes into Yankee Stadium and kills everyone. That doesn't have to be the case. It could be that a failed roll doesn't doom the plane, but that someone gets seriously hurt (in Superman's case, Lois Lane would be a good person) or he doesn't manage to save everyone.

    He has still saved the day, but there is definitely a price for failure. You are right that this doesn't happen all the time (or even often) in comic books. However, we're also being exposed to heroes at the top of their game who regularly pull off the total win.

    Still, it would depend on the game you were running and the feel you wanted for it. Which is also totally fair. I just, personally, see doing it without die rolls to boil down to "I save the plane." with no tension since the chance of failure is gone.

  5. I think fidelity to the genre generally means that the only sources of tension are when the hero is fighting a villain, or more rarely when the hero is undertaking a task that is at the very limits of what he can do or beyond. Most of the time if Superman is saving a plane from crashing, or rescuing trapped miners, it's presented as routine, so the game should treat it as routine. If you try to introduce tension into those moments by adding significant possibilities of failure the players' superheroes will come off as much less competent than the kinds of heroes they're seeking to play. It would be like playing a Western game and demanding riding checks of the PCs every time they jumped onto or off of a horse and for each mile they gallop: the tension added isn't worth the damage to the narrative when they inevitably fail at some point.

    That's not to say there should never be tension, or die rolling. If Spider-man is trying to stop a runaway train, as in Spider-man II, then I definitely see that as a tense moment and worth rolling for. Even there, though, I think you want to be careful about exactly what the consequences of failure are. Damage to Spidey seems to me to be much more in keeping with genre expectations than serious injury to the passengers, unless the failure is catastrophic.

    I handle this in my superhero system by only requiring rolls if the task they're attempting is near the limit of what they can do (or if they're being actively opposed), and even then, if they fail they have the opportunity to try to transform that failure into a success at a cost to them.

    This seems to work really well. The players don't at all seem to find it boring that much of the time they can just describe what they're doing, confident that it'll succeed: "I swoop down and grab the child out of the way of the armored car" "While he's doing that I'll create a force bubble to bring it to a gentle stop before it hits the wall." The key to GMing this style is that you present the scene as a number of things going on at the same time that the team needs to deal with, given them decisions to make about priorities and who handles really goes a lot farther to making them feel engaged and heroic than presenting them with combat-like mechanics so they can feel uncertain of the outcome.

  6. I think I see what you're saying, and it definitely does have some merit. I think my preference would lie somewhere in the middle. The first time, or first few times (or times when it is special, i.e. Lois Lane is on that plane!) are the times when saving the day really get played up.

    The same is true in Spider-Man II with the train. it is played up, because it is a villain's plan to thwart the hero.

    I think, when establishing the hero, you could go about doing it this way. When the hero is established, hand waving the rolls, or just playing it off in narrative (back and forth with the PCs). This way, I think you could also get a feeling of growth to, something like "Before saving a plane was a trouble. now, I can pretty much do it at will"

    Out of curiosity, what Super system is yours? It sounds like something I'd like to take a look at.

  7. It's a system called Kapow! that I'm trying to get some more feedback on before I release it as a free RPG. If you're interested in taking a look I can email you a link to the pdf.

  8. Yeah, definitely send me a link. It sounds interesting.

  9. Sent the link via the blog contact address...