super powers

So the usual problem with supers games is, what if one character is many times more powerful than another? Worse, what if one is many thousands of times more powerful? How does the weak character bear on the game?

There are lots of ways games solve this, but I’m not really interested in specific solutions. Let’s tease this apart a little instead.

capn underpants.jpgSupers are super good at applying force. Super strength, laser eyes, frost breath, super speed, whatever it is, they are primarily about exerting force with it. So when we say one character is a lot more powerful than another, we are really saying that they are better at exerting force. Now if this bugs me, I really have to look a little closer at why: why does the ability to exert force better than someone else mean that there is an overall unbalance? That a weaker character has no impact on story?

So let’s look at superhero stories. They have a fairly basic pattern: there’s some situational stuff, some kind of conflict, a half hour of punching to develop the problem, some more situational stuff, some more conflict, and a really huge fight scene. The fight scene dominates the story.

Or does it? It dominates the time, but if our metric was some kind of “volume of story delivered” the fight scenes are actually incredibly sparse. They do little or nothing to develop the story they just take all the time. The meat of the story is elsewhere.

So why over-mechanize the bit that is basically fluff?

Let’s say Cap needs to beat up the Hulk. That’s a a half hour fight scene. Cap is using all kinds of tricks set up before hand. He takes a terrible beating. He eventually tricks the Hulk into Bannerizing or being thrown into orbit or something. Hulk is not dead. No one is ever dead. Even dead, next year they won’t be dead. Don’t worry about dead.

But this fight is not where the meat is. The meat is in why Cap needs to beat up the Hulk. And so that’s where the game should be too. Cap has constraints. Hulk has constraints. These are the things that define their characters far more than their super powers because they define when the character can use them…and when they can’t. Cap can’t get frustrated in a Senate hearing and solve the problem by decapitating the committee. He could do that. He has the power. He can apply that force. But he is constrained. And when you are constrained to not act you simply do not have that power in any real sense.

Cap has a set of ethics that strictly constrain him. And he is partially reliant on a technology (without that shield he is less).

Hulk is not always the Hulk and cannot apply force unless he is. And when he is he acts emotionally and not rationally. He is constrained to obey the id first and foremost. And maybe most importantly, Banner does not like being Hulk. He does not want to invoke his super power ever.

decision densityThose are the defining things about those characters. Those come into play everywhere the story is dense, everywhere there is not a fight, everywhere that culminates in that visually stunning but essentially empty fight scene.

And that’s why a weak character is as or more important than a strong character in a supers story. That character has two things going for them: outside the fight scene they are probably better at this than the supers (compare Tony Stark to Pepper Potts), and during the fight scene they invoke constraints: they need protecting, they calm the beast, they are what is being fought for. The weak character is the story. It’s what the supers react to. It’s the whole reason the super exists.

So the question to me is not how do we make sure these power imbalances work, but rather why are we privileging the largely empty fight scene over the story-dense material that necessarily precedes it, shapes it, constrains it, places it, and counts the score at the end of it? Why is the power scale problem even a discussion we have? It seems to miss the whole point of the source material.

4 thoughts on “super powers

  1. One of the reasons I really love Smallville (which was a game that really transcended it’s source material), was that it was all about what matters to the character – the character’s personal values and relationships. Which means that superheroes, aliens, mutants, and normal people were all effectively operating on the same playing field – it was just the scope of the activity that varied between them (saving a crashing airliner filled with people versus stopping someone from absent-mindedly stepping in front of a car whilst reading their mobile phone). The effect of failure (or success) was the same to both.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The human eye is drawn to risk. Fight scenes might be dramatic wastelands but they are risky. Just as you have to insert drama into your risk to make the Hulk interesting, you add risk to your drama to make Bruce Banner interesting.

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