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A Remedy for Oppression: issue 11

For you these lillies, these stalks of hyssop

for you this altar which is not an altar

in the ordinary sense but a stairway of song

    to the unbearable ones

    helpers in our need.

—Hjalmar Gullberg, “For the Demigods”

“I’m not so much a ‘morality’ superhero.”

—Fano

Posing a question: “How much do you stick to rules when it comes to NPC-on-NPC violence?”  But it begins with an actual murder:


Mid-July 2020, at about 4 a.m. in the middle of Queens Boulevard, someone shot my girlfriend’s neighbor twice in the back of the head.  Someone else shot him six times in the chest.  He died in the middle of the street.  He was 25.

The neighbor is the son of my girlfriend’s building superintendent, an Albanian immigrant with prison tattoos.  That afternoon, the family was visited by several dozen members of the Gambino family, while a large number of Bloods grieved outside.  

The whole time, around their house the police respectfully kept a five-block cordon.


A week after this, Fano and I began “A Remedy for Oppression,” our hybrid Marvel Super Heroes / Champions Now game.  When Fano specified that one of his major NPC’s was a crabby Eastern European landlady, I decided I wanted to rope this episode into the game somehow.  Albanians, gang war, friendly young man gone wrong.

My original thought was that the landlady—Agnesa Stojku—had a troublesome nephew, Krysztof, who would be dead when the curtain rose on the very first session.  This was stupid, and luckily I decided to include Krys in the regular cast instead.  He became a fun character to play: I’ve known a bunch of guys like this, very charismatic, very funny, smart but uneducated, trying to live the good life as imagined by a young dude with poor taste.

Prometheus, as basement tenant Mel Abdul, became friends with Krys.  They did home repair projects together, Mel helped him in a romantic dispute and ran a few errands for his Aunt Agnes.  They’d razz each other.  

Good, solid, downtime comic book scenes.  But this was a was a hotheaded young man making bad decisions about dangerous people, and in each session I’d emphasize it a little more.  “The Now” reflects escalating tensions in Krys’s life, though it took me a damn long time to nail down the details.

PANDEMIC, GRAVESEND, AND GANG WARS

In mid-October 2020, New York City began a semi-illegal crackdown on some Jewish and Chinese neighborhoods which were showing extremely high rates of infection.  All public gatherings were shut down, all businesses shuttered, in the face of punitive fines.  To make the ethnic targeting more palatable politically, entire postal codes were affected.  (Disclosure: in my day job, I have to enforce some of these violations, and I don’t like it.) 

This was met with massive resistance from Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox community, which has a kinda fucked up relationship with NYC law enforcement.  

Anyway!

This crackdown supplied the missing details in Krys’s life of crime.  One of the affected postal codes, Gravesend, contains a large number of Albanian immigrants.  A real-world restaurant-hookah bar-bellydancing establishment is pretty obviously a mob front.  Krys had been skimming money from this place, but as the restrictions got worse and worse, his business partners had less and less patience with his perpetually short money.  Some shit went down in “The Now” in the last few weeks, and people were out to kill him.

One person in particular deserves mention: Moonflower.  Aigül Niazova is an undocumented Kazakh sex worker turned supervillain with fungus-control powers, and the pandemic has only confirmed the lesson of her life: nobody gives a FUCK about you because you’re worthless.  (Honestly, still feeling that out: she’s a new character.)  Moonflower has beef with Krys’s mob boss father, and decides to throw in with the Jewish rivals of the Albanian gang to kill Krys.

THE DEATH SCENE

By the end of the session, Prometheus, Krys, Moonflower, and a Jewish gangster are locked in a room together with the police bearing down on all of them.  

Prometheus has spent the session investigating Krys, and is now reevaluating their friendship.  At this moment, although he knows that Moonflower intends to kill Krys, Prometheus is trying to keep the other gangster from escaping.  In fact, Krys is only in that room because Prometheus tricked him into going there.

Intentions are declared, initiative is rolled, actions are resolved by the book.  Moonflower lunges at Krys and grabs him by the wrists.  Black mold begins to erupt from Krys’s skin as he (simultaneously) empties a pistol clip into Moonflower’s chest.   Alien fungi sprout from Krys’s lymph nodes.  He gurgles, falls to his knees, falls over, and then, like a slime mold, deliquesces into dust.  

Prometheus is horrified, angry, and (surprisingly to me) shocked.  Moonflower: “Walk away.  None of this concerns you at all.”  Prometheus: “No.  You’ve just made this extremely personal.”  

And... scene.

THE RULE I FORGOT

Here is a major character we’ve come to like in spite of our best judgment, and his death is motherfucking metal.  It’s a great way for Krys to die, it’s a great way to introduce Moonflower, and a perfect cliffhanger to end the session.

But Marvel Super Heroes doesn’t do one-shot kills.  If you get knocked down to 0 Health points, you’re entitled to a saving throw, and even if you fail you’ve got a couple of rounds for someone to help you.  Maybe Prometheus might have found some way to save his life.

I forgot this rule—this is our first death in the campaign.  If I had remembered, I feel confident, but not absolutely certain, that I would have applied it.  Playing by the rules is a good and important thing.  But... 

  • It was a fucking great scene
  • For the entire campaign, Krys has been following his own incentives and bad judgment to arrive at a moment almost exactly like this
  • Krys certainly would have died during this week’s “Now” if Fano had chosen to do something else this session, and I’m pretty sure I could just, like, say that it happened so long as it’s true to the situation
  • Usually when I flub a rule, I play through it and shrug it off    
  • Fano absolutely orchestrated this: let’s put a dude in a room with his mortal enemies including a supervillain, as I stroke my chin—what the fuck, Fano?!  

NPC’s & YOU, THE NEW BREED OF MODERN COMICS PLAYER

I know what I should do: I should ret-con it in the first few minutes of the next session.  But I feel pretty damn certain I won’t.

How do y’all think about these types of moments?  To what extent do the rules apply to NPC’s, and if the answer is “absolutely all the time,” what would have to be at stake for you to feel . . . tempted?

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

James_Nostack's picture

I don't know, man, you missed those issues.  It happens sometimes.

Sean_RDP's picture

Speaking first to this situation, it sounds like an intense scene. And it sounds like this is how it should have went down, which honestly may not be a relevant statement, but there it is. 

In this case, I would not ret-con events; you d not owe NPCs anything. If you had killed off the PC's friend in an act of malice because you like making your player's miserable... well that would be an entirely different conversation. This is an idiom where character motivation arises from tragedy and this situation affords that. But the NPCs are part of the color, ultimately, and sometimes they get erased at the worst or best moments. 

Sometimes we forget rules even with systems you have a great deal of familiarity with. I know I do all the time. But like in a sporting event, where referees often have to make snap judgement calls, we as the GM do not get every call right. IF the missed call is egregious enough, I might change it. But more often than not we discuss it and move on.

And now my dark secret: I will often not even roll for NPC on NPC action. As a rule of thumb, the stronger character wins any confrontation. Depending on the situation, I might kill an important NPC, though I tend to give the the players an opportunity to act heroically. 

Circling back to this specific situation, there is no reason to assume that the NPC has to stay dead, unless wierd resurrections are not part of the idiom you are playing with. I would look at this as an opportunity and indeed, maybe the unfairness of missing the rule can be layered into the various reactions by other NPCs, some of whome surely blame the hero for what happened.

...and if the dead NPC can be brought back, as a fungus monster or something, that is even better. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Warning: possible over-analysis. I don’t think I’m speculating, given our discussions so far, but one never knows.

I think you have three very separate issues tied up in a knot, so poking it and turning it into a non-knot is where I’m going with this comment.

#1 is about killing and about whether heroes kill, or perhaps technically in pop-speak, whether intentional killing is a Moral Event Horizon. It’s been an undercurrent or side-topic throughout all of your posts about this game. [My comics-relevant perspective that I wrote right here has been judged to be terribly distracting and got snipped.]

But even that is a distraction! The scene you’re describing does not feature a player-character killing anyone. This string is solely about what Prometheus might do later, and I think it is entirely a non-issue at present. It is a very shiny string about both comics and the Marvel Super Heroes rules, so it begs to be included, but no, let’s loosen it, separate it, and shelve it.

#2 is about out-of-play events, which as we’ve talked about is a big aspect of the Champions Now techniques you’re using. And like the first string, this one is quite shiny too and has commanded the attention of almost everyone who’s responded ... but again, it’s not relevant. We are talking about an event that occurred during play, in the presence of the player-character. This string isn’t even really in the knot at all, it just got tangled up in there by accident and we keep working our way along its two strands as if it were important. So again: loosen, separate, shelve.

#3 is the only issue that matters, and suddenly it’s not a knot any more. What are the rules for someone killing someone when playing Marvel Super Heroes?

I think you haven’t misplayed, or if so, to a trivial degree. The issue may be sufficiently charged for you that it seems more extreme than it is.

The only thing you didn’t do was roll the saving throw for the slaughtered friend. And ... is that really a big deal? It does not provide a get out of jail free moment for him, after all. It’s not a “missed me!” effect, just a “not die from from it” one. My purist sensibilities suggest rolling it now, and then if he succeeds, we know that somewhere in that horrible fungal disintegration his consciousness persists. Nothing needs to change about the fiction as determined so far, and nothing about that roll says Prometheus has to know its result.

Incidentally, I don’t think the “couple of rounds to save his life” rule matters much either, even to the purist. Prometheus was kind of busy as far as I can tell, and that rule is pretty circumstantial anyway – it’s in the GM’s purview to decree that there’s not a lot you can do about that particular special effect.

And that’s what the purist says, to insert the “still alive in some awful way” possibility via the saving roll, and that’s all – none of which requires any retcon of played events.

To anyone sane, i.e., not the purist, if you spot yourself the sin of skipping over the saving roll, well, what’s the big deal with that? It wouldn’t be the first consequential roll you or I has missed applying in the heat of the moment, and it won’t be the last.

That’s all I see here. Really a very minor string and nothing particularly in need of correcting or conceptually struggling over.

James_Nostack's picture

Right, so:

I agree with all of that to a very large extent.  This isn't a huge deal in terms of outcome, it's simply a flubbed rule in the heat of the moment that may not have made any difference.  Accident rather than homicide, GM cleared of all charges, case closed.

But it's one of those accidents where someone gets what they've wanted all along.  Normally I'm a purist by your terms, but this time I'm not going to be, and that decision is tainted a little by impure motives.  I would not fudge a die roll, but I'm taking this accident and running away with it.  That's sort of a curious line to draw, and it made me wonder how scrupulous other people are about this kind of thing.

Oh, and killing is very much worth discussing in this game - let me make a thread for it.

James_Nostack's picture

Killer superheroes & this particular supers RPG:

Whether a comic book superhero kills someone is a publishing decision based on brand management.  Sometime in the 50's, a consensus was formed that a superhero doesn't kill.  (I'm not sure what prompted that; killing is never mentioned in the Comics Code.)  

In the early 70's, just long enough for kids who grew up reading the more bloodthirsty late 40's comics to enter the profession, there's this sudden shift and a ton of new characters are created who have no problem at all with killing.  

The pendulum resumes swinging mid-70's, and by 1980 killer superheroes are rare again, at least at Marvel.  And then by 1990 they're back in fashion, and so on.

 In the mid-80's, when I was a kid, killing was a dial: you did it . . . never / by accident / intentionally but under extreme circumstances / under some but not all circumstances.  Under all circumstances was an implied setting on the dial, but the Punisher hadn't really made it big yet.

So in Marvel Super Heroes, killing someone is a valid-but-disapproved method of handling a crisis.  In-game it literally wipes out all the good things you have done.  It also shifts the game into hard mode, at least temporarily, because your Karma is gone.  In the advanced rules from 1986, killing also wipes out your teammates' Karma.

The actual people at the table might enjoy the killing, and agree the killer is still a hero.  But he's a vigilante-among-vigilantes, and no longer lives within The Law.  In this particuper RPG, it's probably the most powerful thematic statement you can make: "In situation ___________, I killed (or chose not to kill) someone, and the result was _____________." 

It so happens that Fano is a big fan of Doctor Who, specifically because of the "killing is unthinkable, there's always a better way" morality, and was the son of a theologian.  So this is a relevant issue not just in the game, but interpersonally.

It's not like I'm sitting around thinking, "Hey, can I get Fano to kill people?"  But it's an instrument on the dashboard that I do pay attention to.    

 

Ron Edwards's picture

There are a lot of rabbit holes here, both for comics/RPG discourse and for you in particular. So I want to go really slowly.

The only thing I want to go into now is the actual rules for the game. I have the original 1984 rules so I'll stick with those. Here's my one point: that if you have recently spent your Karma way down, then losing it "all" is no big deal. One might even spend it for the intend-to-kill attack, if you want a really tight application of my point.

I do not consider this a loophole. I consider it to be a brilliant feature from a designer who knew the comics at a visceral level and may not even have articulated this point to himself. If it shows up in play, then the effect is precisely the morally-grey, high-energy, somewhat scattered, but provocative head-space that Marvel heroes occupied during the Byrne and Miller heyday - before the New World Entertainment buyout of 1986, after which these exact issues took a nosedive toward stupid.

Therefore, this game is absolutely not like Villains & Vigilantes or DC Heroes, both of which are extremely morals-mandated and identify heroism with the law. Yes, heroes can kill, at particular times and circumstances, without harm from punishment-type mechanics. Not always, not gratuitously, not morals-free, and most likely quite fraught regarding their allies and acquaintances. The game puts the issue on the table, at the table, not off the table.

I do not regard the modification in the 1986 highly, to say the least. However, it doesn't really change my point, only puts the "fraught" up to 11 ... that is, unless the overall group understands what's up and everyone spends out their Karma before the kill-moment. Which is perfectly valid and seems to me rather evocative of certain X-Men moments in particular.

I bring this up to argue that you are not playing a game which honors the high ground for either morality-of-killing or the law as such. It is very nicely suited for the events of play you're describing in this post, and I suggest applying the Karma and Reputation rules in full, and if it turns out to apply, the rather wonderful sequence of how a hero can be arrested and go through the entire legal procedure including conviction. The game won't let you down; you'll be playing in a space which the designer clearly understood and supported with the rules.

For people who are interested in Marvel Super Heroes as a system (it is a bright light in hobby history), feel free to check out my blog posts The little game that could and A fearful symmetry is born, as well as the Lab Make Mine Marvel which examines the four RPGs produced via that license.

I don't want to dive into comics this and comics that. If anyone's interested, I've written extensively about the history at Comics Madness, learning things as I go (so the earlier posts have some errors), in order: How did I get these mutton chops?, a lot of the posts in the vigilante debate series that I did with Steve Long, Kill, kill, kill, Killing rules (or does it?), and Batpulp.

James_Nostack's picture

Right, I should have mentioned that Karma-management strategy.  This may be an offensive analogy, but to me this feature of the game is vaguely like Humanity loss checks in Sorcerer.  You made an extremely significant choice, which is all the more existentially terrifying not because of the certainty of consequences, but because there may not be any consequences at all.  

Editorial's attitude is hard to summarize at this point in time.  You've got guys like Gruenwald for whom a killer superhero is self-evidently impossible, folks like Miller and O'Neil who are like "No, that definitely happens sometimes and it's fine," and Claremont's insistence on debating what it means that it's fine.  It's muddled. The official position seems to be something like, "Killing is wrong," while often flirting with the idea, ".... but what if it weren't?"  

Ron Edwards's picture

Not offensive at all, highly on target, and appreciated!

We better not go into Marvel history here. That's worth a recorded conversation, and long past due now that I think about it.

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