The perils of planning: Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying campaign update

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

Well, not the beginning, but a beginning in medias res, as it were…

Having restarted the Marvel Superheroes campaign after months of hiatus (one of the few good things to come from this garbagy coronavirus pandemic is that the daughter is home and we’ve got enough people in the house to play games again), I implemented a plan I’d been thinking of for quite a while, in which one of our hero characters gets kidnapped by an ultra-mysterious supervillain.

That part went pretty well, actually.

In the last session before the daughter hied to college on the other side of the state, my character, Cyclone (we tend to treat him like a player-character even though technically he’s just a glorified NPC), got ambushed and knocked unconscious by a horde of Humanoids — and the game sat in limbo like that for months.

When we started up a few weeks ago, I spun up the plan I’d had in mind all that time, and the Humanoids staged a kidnapping. The players in our small group (there are only two; the son and daughter) were outraged by the kidnapping attempt and made a valiant effort to save their superfriend, but it turned out the bad guys had a good plan and the ability to pull it off. It was a close-run thing, which made it lots of fun for the gamemaster and the players.

I’m running this game using my circa 1986 advanced game set, so we’ve been fighting some vintage baddies — the Humanoids that were Hulk’s nemesis for a while (but Leader isn’t their leader), Blacklash, Lizard, Beetle, and Boomerang. (I chose this group of villains because they each have some characteristics that could give one or more heroes a really hard time — and because they’re in two neat alphabetic groups, which minimizes my page-turning and searching in the Judge’s Book.)

The Humanoids have kind of been our nemesis too, and the players have run into them several times now. They’re an interesting antagonist. Individually, they aren’t tough enough to really hurt the heroes, but they’re damage-resistant enough that the heroes can’t do much to them, either; tactical decisions and numerical superiority sway the fight more often than just slinging around some superpower. It’s been a seesaw battle, with each side notching its share of minor wins and small losses.

This time, the players got the short end of the stick when the Humanoids went all Super Voltron and a whole bunch of them combined into a single, ginormous, 40 foot tall Humanoid and delivered their unconscious friend into a hovering helicopter.

Menagerie tried to brute-force it by using her combined Animal Self-Transformation and Animal Mimicry powers to turn into a T-Rex. It had worked before, but this time the conglomerated Humanoid was just too big. She abandoned the attempt, turning into an eagle instead and pilfering Cyclone’s sunglasses and cell phone so that she could focus her Telelocation power on them to maybe get a fix on his location later.

Titanium, who was speeding after the Humanoid at 95 mph on her motorcycle, tried to use the base of Buchanan Fountain (we’re using the big, awesome city map that came with the Advanced Set, too) as a ramp to jump her motorcycle in a glorious arc that would turn herself and her motorcycle into a projectile intended to connect with the Humanoid’s head, but again, the thing was just too darn tall — and the dice betrayed her. Titanium’s motorcycle was intercepted by the tip of the statue atop the fountain’s plinth, and she, the motorcycle, and the statue wound up all twisted together in a small crater in the middle of the park. She’s literally indestructible (Unearthly Invulnerability), so no damage done, except to inanimate objects and her pride.

And that set up the next game night.

It was delayed a couple weeks for one reason and another, and I used some of that time to do a lot more planning than usual. Generally, I just mull things over as I go about my business during the week, and then take an hour or maybe two to make a very rudimentary outline of a scenario or two that I want to spring on the players. Sometimes I don’t even do that; there’s just a hazy idea of something I could do and some NPCs and things I could do it with, and I weave it in with whatever the players have decided to do at whatever seems like an appropriate point, and it develops as we go. It generally works pretty well.

This time, though, I had decided that there would be a fight in an empty parking garage, and I set about planning everything about it. I found a snazzy floor plan to print out; collected some pictures online to set the mood; made copious notes about where the baddies would stage themselves and their Humanoid minions; decided which hero each villain should engage in combat; and made elaborate plans to reveal tantalizing clues about the mysterious Big Bad who’s directing the villains and their Humanoid minions and lure my players into it.

The players did a bit of planning as well, as the son had come up with some Batman-style combat gadgets he wanted his character to procure and there were several weeks of in-game time to work with. Titanium, alias Sydney Malloy, doesn’t have any superpowers to speak of other than invulnerability, and she’s tired of being little more than an indestructible punching bag. She was a super-popular child/teen TV star before gaining her powers, so she has Incredible resources; not quite Tony Stark, but not too far off. I consulted the rules on such things, we rolled the dice and discussed how various gadgets might work, and now Titanium has stun gauntlets with pepper spray, and a tactical backpack with 50 feet of grappling cable that can not only be used as a climbing aid, but can heat to Remarkable intensity — the point being to entangle and then melt those plasticky Humanoids and teach them a lesson.

The lead-in and luring part of the plan worked quite well. The players took hints when given, followed the threads I dangled, and the gods of tabletop gaming smiled upon me. (Is it still railroading if the players wanted to go that way anyway?)

But alas, the gods are fickle, and players are unpredictable.

Actually, no, in hindsight, they were utterly predictable. As was my failure. I wanted to make sure there was a pitched battle in the underground garage, and I had some amazing (to me…probably unpleasant to them) surprises waiting for the players in there. So, knowing that the PCs had no easy way to deal with the Humanoids en masse, I had bunches of them guarding all the exits.

But the players, with that uncanny player-sense they develop when you’ve been gaming together for a while, knew that I was luring them into a gigantic ambush. They started gaming the game. (Fair enough…) Also, they just made some flat-out good rolls to unearth some info I didn’t expect them to find. And they employed sound tactics for probing the ambush, so that they weren’t taken fully off guard when it was sprung.

My biggest mistake was revealing too many of the Humanoids too soon. The players knew the danger those things posed in number, and the numbers were obviously too large to deal with, especially since Cyclone, their most effective Humanoid neutralizer, had been kidnapped. Another mistake was in staging the Humanoids who guarded the main entrance to the garage so that they *looked* imposing…but were in fact poorly positioned. I guess that part was unintentionally realistic; the villains in charge hadn’t commanded the Humanoids before, and the androids’ Intelligence is merely Feeble. Of course they’d be poorly positioned and slow to react.

Anyway, the players did the best thing anyone can do in an ambush — identify a weak point and counterattack it with total abandon. Titanium having bought a new Titanicycle, Phantom being able to run 105 mph, and Menagerie being able to fly not just like a bird but as a bird, the heroes were much more mobile than their opponents.

Titanium, who was a stunt double before turning superhero, did some Hollywood style tricky motorcycle riding to outflank the Humanoids who were guarding the closed door. Being Feeble of intellect, they all turned around as one and scrambled to get her, remaining totally unaware of the other two heroes. A roll of 99 on Titanium’s Acrobatics skill then followed, allowing her to thoroughly discombobulate them and wrap a couple of them in her snazzy heat cables.

Phantom (played by the daughter) used her invisibility and super speed to get into the kiosk/office area and bodyslam the couple of Humanoids that hadn’t been stupid enough to chase after Titanium, and then find the switch that would raise the overhead door. Menagerie (also played by the daughter), who had been hovering above the Humanoid group in bird form, turned into an elephant at a strategic moment, squashing three Humanoids and knocking down a handful more with her big elephant derriere as she turned around to see what Titanium was up to.

The garage door now quickly opening, Menagerie and Phantom made for the exit — but Titanium risked capture to stay an extra round while the intensely heated wire finished its work. She probably should have been dogpiled and captured, but the gamemaster’s dice rolled low, the player rolled high, and the Humanoids’ contested grappling attempt failed. Titanium wriggled out of their grasp, remounted her Titanicycle, and roared out of the garage at high speed, trailing half of a Humanoid tangled in the cables behind her.

And that was it. No big, dramatic, pitched battle of heroes and villains in a dramatically lit underground garage. Just an overly dramatic lead-in to some very effective and sensible player actions, and a somewhat let-down but still impressed gamemaster.

3 thoughts on “The perils of planning: Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying campaign update

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  1. Sounds like a fun game! But it reminds me of why I’m not a great game master. I don’t think well on my feet, but planning ahead inevitably goes awry.

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    1. I don’t know that I’d call myself a great gamemaster (GM, DM, whatever), but I guess I am/have been a good one. The players have always kept coming back for more, anyway. 🙂 You ran some games for various people back in the day, didn’t you? Wouldn’t you say those turned out well?

      One of the obstacles to successfully *not* planning is that it takes a lot of game-world and system knowledge; you can’t pull it off if you have to spend more time looking up rules than describing the results. The first 3 or 4 Marvel sessions were pretty janky that way. Plus, you’ve got to know your group, and the group has to be willing to just play along for a while and buy into whatever comes down the pike. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of imaginative, flexible players; probably would’ve failed miserably and repeatedly with a more demanding/persnickety group.

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