Pulling a fire out of the hat: Marvel Superhero Roleplaying Campaign update

My elaborate plan for the previous week’s game having been smashed to pieces by the players’ unforeseen decisions, this game session took a very different tack. We started with the aftermath of the heroes’ unexpectedly quick smashing of an attempted ambush by a cadre of supervillains.

Titanium, flush with success and dragging the severed torso of a Humanoid android behind, rode her Titanicycle straight to City Hall and demanded a meeting with the acting mayor (the mayor having been kidnapped a few weeks earlier — a mystery we have yet to solve). She was stymied by a redoubtable receptionist, but the chief of police got wind of her presence and hustled her into a meeting room where they could discuss her prize in private.

And it was indeed a prize. Nobody knows how these virtually indestructible androids work, and until now the heroes hadn’t been able to capture one (or even a piece of one). In fact, they had spent more time strategically retreating from them than anything else. The chief of police and the mayor called in the heroes’ mentor/legal-eagle/gov’t liaison, Mr. Neal Streate (a character my brother created for one of our games long, long ago; he’s a retired superhero, now a well-connected benefactor for our little hero team), who whisked the Humanoid’s remains off to a lab for analysis.

A whole bunch of table talk then ensued, during which I attempted to think up a good way to reintroduce the big, dramatic heroes vs. villains battle the players had avoided the previous week. I had no new plan going into this session. Despite the fact that my game planning failure was actually due to some very good roleplaying by the players (the kind of play that both gamemaster and players could be proud of), I was super bummed out about all the wasted effort and doubting my own abilities a bit. I still really wanted to play that scenario…but there was just no way to reintroduce or repurpose it.

Being unable to think of any kind of interim action that would advance the game toward finding Cyclone and/or his mysterious kidnappers, I decided on the spur of the moment to address a different, but related issue.

Past action: The smear campaign

A few weeks after Cyclone’s kidnapping, the mysterious Big Bad staged incidents to sabotage Titanium’s and Menagerie’s popularity. Popularity is important in the Marvel Superheroes system, so this is kind of a big deal. Players can gain or lose popularity for their public actions and even cash it in, so to speak, for favorable results, and the gamemaster is exhorted to make it really matter in terms of the heroes’ interactions with NPCs in general. Also, villains have negative popularity, and no superhero wants to be seen as a supervillain.

Somehow the Big Bad supervillain staged very real events with convincing fakes of Titanium and Menagerie as the perpetrators, resulting in a precipitous popularity drop. (Phantom, who has been literally invisible for half of our encounters with villains and is totally unknown to the public, wasn’t subject to any of it.)

Rather than just describe the smear campaign at the table, I showed the players some videos of the destruction the public thought they had perpetrated.

Titanium was accused of destructive incidents that destroyed millions of dollars of infrastructure and plunged part of the city into a blackout. For this one, you have to imagine someone capable not merely of causing this, but of standing IN it, laughing and dancing.

Arcing high-voltage electricity can be hotter than the surface of the sun. Nobody has a prayer of stopping this fire until the electricity gets cut off.

Titanium’s popularity was actually -3 after the smear campaign, which is part of the reason why the receptionist so steadfastly refused to let her see the mayor.

The false-flag events featuring Menagerie were like something straight out of a blockbuster movie. Unlike the movies, no people were eaten, nor were there any scenes with Jeff Goldblum, but her popularity took a heavy hit despite those positive notes.

After this serious hit to their popularity — and with a lot of supervillain action looming on the horizon — the heroes needed some redemption, so I thought I’d try a straightforward, highly public disaster rescue sort of scenario.

So this is where I pulled a warehouse fire out of the gamemaster’s bag of tricks.

Back to this week’s action

In the intervening months since the players had busted the mysterious Big Bad’s evil robot assembly operation in the Overton Warehouse, the derelict building was claimed by squatters who turned it into a sort of hippie art commune thing, where the squatters lived a bohemian life in ramshackle plywood-and-cardboard condos, studios, and lofts. I modeled the situation on a real place in (I think) San Francisco that burned down a few years ago and killed several people who were trapped inside — but this time, there are superheroes!

Using my magic powers of handwavium, I decreed that all the characters received word of the rapidly developing disaster at the same time and that it was clear that only superheroes could save the day. The players were totally on board with saving the day…but of course they also had questions. (How would we all know at the same time? Where are we right now, exactly? What if we’re out of town?) I redirected the questions by asking them where they thought they’d be and giving them a chance to invent their own narrative for how their characters arrived and when.

Being imaginative folks who like to get into character, they made the most of the opportunity.

Sydney Malloy, aka Titanium, lives in a nice old neighborhood not far at all from the downtown warehouse district, so she suits up, revs up the Titanicycle, and speeds to the scene — stopping briefly at a hardware store to pilfer borrow some bolt cutters, fire extinguishers, some blankets, and one of those nifty fold-up emergency egress ladders you can unroll and hang from a windowsill.

Janey Nevitt, aka Menagerie, is hanging out with Penelope Go, aka Phantom, after class at Peninsula College on the other side of town. While Menagerie makes for the warehouse quite literally as the crow flies, Phantom suits up and then uses her teleportation power to be the first to arrive at the scene.

At first, the firefighters refuse to let the lone, costumed girl through their perimeter. Since she’s frequently invisible, she isn’t very recognizable, and there has also been a rash of impostors and crackpot imitators recently. The firefighters don’t want anyone getting hurt. (Speaking of wannabe heroes, have you ever seen Mystery Men? If not, you need to.) Phantom solves that problem by teleporting herself and the guy who’s telling her she can’t cross the safety perimeter straight into the middle of the firefighters’ planning huddle.

Having been made a believer, he and the other firefighters fill her in. The fire started near the front of the warehouse, and they believe several people are trapped in the back. All the rear exits are blocked and impenetrable (because the rear 1/4 of the building is a super-secure evil robot storage vault, but nobody knows that). The building’s many skylights (Overton windows…ha!) have allowed the fire brigade to dump in enough water to keep the fire from moving too far back, but it’s getting hotter by the minute, and nobody can get in to effect a rescue.

Phantom has a solid mental map of the place, having fought the Humanoids in it before, so she’s able to teleport straight to the people who are trapped. She teleports three people to safety before Titanium and Menagerie arrive.

Titanium, who has Unearthly invulnerability, just strides straight into the fire and through it; she intends to deliver her rescue supplies with no delay. The GM rolls some dice and rules that amazingly (or should it be remarkably?) the Remarkable intensity fire doesn’t burn up her supplies on the way through. (Want to know what Remarkable and Unearthly mean?) She collars some guy who seems to have his wits about him and sets him to distributing and wetting the blankets to help protect people against smoke inhalation.

Phantom then pops back in and teleports both Titanium and another hippie out of the warehouse. There are still over 20 people trapped. At this point, Menagerie has arrived, so putting their heads together outside, the heroes quickly make a plan. Phantom will teleport Titanium up to the roof. Titanium will deploy the foldable emergency ladder from the skylights while Phantom continues teleporting folks one by one. Meanwhile, Menagerie will transform into a T-rex and turn the side of the warehouse into a dino-sized exit.

The players also take a moment to lament the absence of Cyclone, who could potentially have used his Incredible intensity whirlwind to suck the fire right out of the building or, more reasonably, used his Amazing disintegration power to obliterate any inconvenient stretch of brickwork. (A pointless question that sidetracked us all for a few minutes: Can you disintegrate fire?)

The plan starts well enough. The ladder is deployed, and Titanium gets some people started climbing up it. But then a rash of bad rolls hit all the players.

Titanium had intended to use her cable apparatus (minus the anti-android heat feature) to reel herself and some additional victims up, but can’t get the cables secured to the roof. Phantom is getting disoriented after she teleports, losing a round of action each time. Menagerie keeps failing to make the T-rex transformation (it’s a Red feat, requiring a roll of 80+).

While the heroes struggle, the fire is getting rapidly worse, and the trapped people are suffering badly from smoke inhalation. They begin to slump unconscious in twos and threes. The smoke is starting to get to the heroes, too. They begin to take Typical damage (6 points) for every round they’re inside the warehouse.

Titanium takes no damage, of course — and she finally manages to get a rescue ladder lowered down from a skylight — but two of the ladder climbers fall off, and her player’s roll to catch them is a measly 3 (on percentile dice…ouch). One of them falls on top of her and is okay, but the other hits the floor and suffers a compound leg fracture.

Meanwhile, outside, Menagerie realizes to her horror that if she had succeeded in transforming into a T-rex, knocking the wall down from outside would probably have killed several people inside. Change of plans! She transforms into a bird instead and flies through the skylight. Once inside, she spends some of her dwindling store of Karma to make damn sure the T-rex transformation succeeds. It does, but at a cost of 58 Karma points. Oof.

The transformation is expensive, but worthwhile, as it’s the tipping point for the heroes’ entire operation. To a 12-ton T-rex, the brick wall is just so much papier-mache. And although the fresh influx of oxygen makes the fire rush closer, now they can start rescuing people in batch lots.

Cameras are flashing and crowds of bystanders are taking videos as Menagerie turns into a gorilla and runs back in and scoops up three unconscious people at once, then goes back for more. Titanium helps the exhausted Phantom (who has teleported nearly 20 times in quick succession and taken a fair amount of smoke inhalation damage) out into the clear air and continues pulling people to safety. Firefighters rush in to help and paramedics start rendering aid.

The rescue is a public success and a smashing PR victory.

Postgame

It was a victory for the players and for the gamemaster.

The players remarked during the game and afterward that there was a surprising amount of tension in the fire-rescue scenario. The daughter was also surprised at my admission that I had pulled it out of thin air on the spot after realizing my other inchoate schemes weren’t going to work.

Both those things were very satisfying after a week in which I had seen preparation go to waste and allowed myself to get a bit down about the lost effort and what I saw as a failed game session (although the players didn’t see it that way). Running a tabletop roleplaying game isn’t easy, but it’s amazingly fun and rewarding when it works well.

I haven’t tallied up the Karma points and Popularity points yet, but it’s going to be a pretty decent haul. The heroes are going to need it when they face the next enemies that are awaiting them.

And what is awaiting them, you might ask? Hell if I know. Well, I do know, sort of; it’s just not sketched out yet. And after that planning fiasco two weeks ago, I’ll know better than to get into too much detail. I’ll spring the encounters when they feel right and keep my GM information overhead to a minimum; that’s usually the way it works best, both for me and the players.

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