Across three sessions: a bank robbery, a public unmasking, our protagonists finally have their show down, and a guest appearance by the most startling character of them all! Plus—the second death of the First Responder!
James, whatever happened with that Marvel Super Heroes game David was running for you and Noah? There were a lot of session summaries and I kind of skimmed them.
Connie (played by Noah) is a terminally ill supervillain with a high tech suit that gives her ghost powers. Sam (played by me) is a down on his luck eco-terrorist who dabbles in magic. When Connie realizes science can’t cure her condition, she tries to get help from Sam. Not realizing that Sam has been trapped in another dimension, Connie thinks he’s simply ignoring her. She kills his pet, steals his grimoires, and threatens his ex-wife. When Sam finally returns to Earth, he’s now locked into a cycle of vengeance against Connie. She’s the smartest human being on the planet and simply better than him at everything. It’s human versus superhuman, no holds barred!
Now I remember. And at this point Sam has run out of Karma, a resource that would even the odds a little, right? Seems like the best move would be to knock over the chessboard.
Yeah. Turns out that trip to the other dimension was pretty useful: it gave Sam blackmail material to use against his parole officer, a guy with telepathic powers aching to send Sam back to jail for the slightest violation of parole. By comic book coincidence, the parole officer is a refugee from that dimension. By threatening to send the guy home, Sam clears up his past indiscretions.
Yet so long as the Law is constantly peering over his shoulder, Sam can’t get down to the real business of saving the earth by any means necessary. Since Connie, in addition to threatening Sam’s family, is also on the run for murder, Sam proposes to bring her in, in exchange for being released entirely from all supervision. The parole officer agrees.
Sam grimaces, not liking what comes next: “All right, damn it. You’ve got yourself a superhero.”
Wait, “superhero”? Wasn’t the point to play villains? I know this game allows a player to switch sides, but I’ve never seen it play.
It’s literally the first time I’ve seen it done in 40 years. But procedurally it’s simple. You say, “I’m a hero (or a villain) now,” and lose half your Karma. Then you play by the similar-but-not-identical rules for heroes or villains. If, like Sam, you were already at zero Karma, there’s no downside if it makes sense for the character.
And for Sam, it did make sense. He’s a schemer but not a sociopath. Last session he murdered his heroic arch-foe, the First Responder (this was, I think, Sam’s first homicide) and it left him shaken. The first thing he did after getting back to earth and cell phone service was to call his mother to ask if he was a good person: “You’re not a bad person, Sam. You just… care too much.” I wasn’t expecting David to nail it that way, but it was 100% correct.
As lifelong Marvel Comics fan, this moment of moral instability felt absolutely gorgeous. The company has a handful of genuine anti-heroes: the earliest version of the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, Quicksilver, Yellowjacket, the mid-60’s Black Widow. Even lovably wholesome characters like the Thing and Spider-Man were, for a few delicious early scenes, contemplated lives of heartless criminality. Accompanied by anti-villains too: Doctor Doom from the earliest days, but the Punisher and Magneto as time went on. I don’t know how to describe it—there’s electricity in every panel with these guys when they’re at their best/worst. It’s a particularly rich vein in this literary canon, and this game absolutely nails it.
Okay, so what’s Sam’s first deed as a superhero?
Well, he communicates with his family to make sure they’re safe for the moment, then arranges a showdown meeting with Connie. On the way, he donates most of his remaining money to charity—Karma boost! And he then calls a news station to reveal his secret identity and origin to the world—Popularity boost!
You can’t fight her straight on, so you’re making yourself luckier, more persuasive, and able to operate in the open.
Exactly! And after that… maybe a return to villainy? But as far as actually, like, fighting Connie, I did not have a plan. I’d just have to bump into her and hope for the best.
What about Connie? Was she just sitting still this whole time?
We kind of had a rhythm of Connie-heavy sessions alternating with Sam-heavy sessions. But in this instance she tracked Sam’s ex-wife to a resort in the Hudson River Valley, and was stalking her for a bit. But Sam’s ex was a little too cagey. In a nice bit of characterization, Noah remarked, “Connie’s frustrated. And when she’s frustrated, she makes things.”
In these rules, inventing stuff requires spending (lots and lots) of money. So Connie decides to knock over a bank, a robbery which also awards her villainous Karma. I don’t believe she kills anyone.
As she’s escaping with $150,000 in bearer bonds and jewelry, the moment of truth arrives. After playing cat and mouse with Sam for several sessions, Connie’s sociopathic scientist finally meets her match….
…The man-insect Bug-Morph.
Bug-Morph. He’s one of a few NPCs David’s referred to every few sessions—some weird guy running around off stage doing superhero stuff. By the laws of random encounters and “as fate would have it,” Bug-Morph shows up to foil the robbery.
Connie is an extremely effective combatant—in her suit, she has the fighting skill of a multiple black-belt, super strength, intangibility, a 500-foot leap, and an electrocution touch. But what we learned is a lesson the criminals of New York know very well: you do not fuck with Bug-Morph.
What was the fight like? Most of your other super-on-super battles were pretty brief.
Marvel Super Heroes does a lot of things right, but there’s one wobbly spot in the rules: if two guys start pounding on each other, and each of them is pretty well-armored against the other’s attacks, fights get a little repetitive. Most characters have a “best move,” and losing Health points a little at a time doesn’t change the tactical analysis very much.
For Bug-Morph, that best move was to just splatter acid around all over the place, destroying all kinds of private property in an attempt to bring Connie down. As Connie’s player, Noah tried nearly every fighting move in the book, trying to judiciously switch between intangibility and her electro-grip.
The fight lasted a long while, but when Connie failed to lock Bug-Morph in a wrestling hold, Bug-Morph finally scored a kill result. Connie lost all of her Health, and (having used up all of her Karma in the fight) Connie was dying. Bug-Morph intervened enough to save her life. She’s unconscious, defeated by some random weirdo, when Sam arrived.
Wait—so after ten sessions of tension, of wondering when these two supervillains were gonna meet up to combine forces or kill each other, after all of the crazed stalking and a moral transformation arc and revealing your secret ID—Connie gets knocked out and tied up by… just some guy?
That’s Bug-Morph to you, buster!
But yeah! It’s so stunningly anti-climactic that it almost wraps all the way ‘round to being perfect..
I’d love to know David’s creative process on this: I have no idea if it was, in fact, a random encounter or something he felt like bringing in. What I do know is that the fight could have easily gone the other way—which would have built Connie up as that much more terrifying of a threat, and Sam that much more outmatched. But this particular outcome is something none of us would have consciously chosen. The game itself is participating.
…Okay, so Sam finally tracks down Connie, who’s gone out of her way to make him an enemy, and she’s totally helpless. Now what?
When Sam arrives, he’s figured out by the gobs of acid all around that Bug-Morph is on the scene, so he’s wearing the (armored) costume of the First Responder. Disguised, Sam persuades Bug-Morph that anyone as smart as Connie probably has countermeasures against being knocked out—likely a bomb. The First Responder heroically volunteers to disarm it—“Save yourself, Buggy—I ain’t got much to live for, the doctors said it was Stage IV. Let an old man go out a hero.” Bug-Morph splits, Sam grabs Connie (and most of the money) and runs, detonating part of the area with a cannon. Classic mysterious death scene.
Sam drives Connie to a desolate motel, destroys her super-suit, and ties her up. He has every reason to drag her in to the parole office so he can slip off of their leash.
But when she regains consciousness, Connie quickly sizes up Sam’s dimwitted hope to enlist her genius into his crusade. All she wants in return is a cure for her medical condition. And…. what good is slipping off the leash to save the biosphere when Sam honestly has no ability to do that? Sam already blackmailed a disreputable billionaire to get funding; he negotiated with his sniveling parole officer to stay out of jail; now the woman who threatened his family and killed his pet goose wants to cut a deal to save her skin. What’s more important to Sam: protecting his loved ones or pursuing his old, self-destructive ideals…
Sam unties Connie. They have a deal.
There’s more in that session—I presume the game will continue; there’s a prison riot and a Lich King Arthur and a planet to save—but there you have it: a nice, totally organic story arc in ten sessions.