Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Your superhero puzzle adventure

As I was driving in today, I realized that I don't do a lot with the traditional superhero puzzle game, where you have the nigh-unbeatable villain until you learn his secret (He's vulnerable to cheese!...yes, the lactose-intolerant villain).

In a sense, this is a puzzle adventure: you need to tease out the weakness and then use it. In a non-superhero puzzle adventure, you have other issues, but finding the right kind of stake for the vampire or figuring out the identity of the actual bad guy is the same sort of problem...yet I don't seem to have the same issue when dealing with non-superhero things.

There are a couple or three reasons for this. Most of them are just me avoiding things I'm bad at.
  • Superheroes punch.
  • Character reuse
  • Making it discoverable
  • Making the final battle satisfying

Superheroes punch.

Part of it is that in this genre, combat is most of it. Not research, not character interaction, but punching. The superhero solution to a lot of problems is to punch it until it falls down. ("World hunger? What do I punch?") As GMs, there's a tendency to personify problems as particular villains. (This can be kind of tricky; I tend to avoid it.)

So there's a tendency for the adventure to be all about combat. That's certainly where an improvised adventure will go for me.  It doesn't have to be that way, but that's certainly where I'll go. I have to think about the adventure first in order to avoid it.

Character reuse.

Once you have had your players discover the weakness, it's still there. The character is a one-shot, which offends me. Historically there's a precedent for one-shot characters--I do not think that there's really enough attention paid to the fact that comics were (and are) a business. Certainly, the DC model was kids where the audience turned over every four or five years. You tore through a tremendous number of villains, and some of them were pretty awful, just because you had dozens of comics coming out a month, each with two or three stories. They couldn't all be gems. (In fact, I suspect that pressure was part of the reason that Gardner Fox came up with the multiverse idea: he'd written Flash comics in the 1940s, he had a tremendous backlog of characters, so putting Barry in that world might have been easy for him.) This view is also informed by something Alfred Bester once wrote about his time in comics. But for every multiverse, there's The Eraser, who even as a child I thought had a ridiculous getup.

There are ways to bring back a gimmick character.
  • The character has fixed whatever weakness the PCs discovered. Usually the fix introduces a new problem, but sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it heralds a new tougher version of the villain. A lot of supervillain reiventions are like this--the secret of the Moon Mirror is retrieved by some other person, who says, "Hey, his mistake was so-and-so, and I'm not going to make that mistake."
  • The character has a new gimmick based on the same theme. I always feel obliged to figure out why the character doesn't just go public with the invention and make money off it, at least until they've made the transition to obsessed-enemy status.
  • Sometimes you bring back the character as part of the supporting cast, no longer a villain but a resource. He or she becomes a court-ordered ward of the hero, a stoolie, an inventing assistant, whatever.

Making the weakness discoverable.

This is a mechanical storytelling thing.

It is a genre thing that the obvious weakness isn't appropriate or isn't exploited. The Flash never takes Captain Cold's gun away. (Well, almost never. Side note: I was never a big Flash reader, simply because during the heyday of my comics renaissance, the 1980s, every Flash issue seemed to have something to do with the death of Iris Allen: either his new girlfriend looked just like her or he was off the rails because of her death, or she was in the future. It was like there was no fun in it at that period. I know a lot of people treasure their memories of that run, but to me it just seemed depressing and confusing, and hard to get into. End digression.)  And, when you think about it, there's a difference between a guy with a gun and a villain. The first is a threat until you take away the gun. The second is a threat even if you take away the gun. Maybe that's a touchstone you can use: a guy with a gun is an environmental thing: you don't choose to have a make-out session in Crime Alley because there are bad guys there; however, a villain finds you wherever you're having your makeout session.

Anyway, making the weakness something that players can discover and use is a big thing. I have invented aspects on the fly that can be used, but that always seems like cheating to me. Having laid clues before-hand seems fairer...but I know they can miss it. I know as a player, I totally missed something that I should have caught. I'm thinking of a couple of particular instances, because Jim Gardner is very good at making sure the clues are out there. (The reveal of Hexshark, one of his villains, had clues that were obvious in retrospect, but it was a total surprise to me.)

So when you're thinking about weaknesses, you have to think about how the players will discover them. And when they miss that clue, how will you show it to them?

On an episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff they used an example of monsters who were powerless against silver, and they had all sorts of examples about showing that the monster couldn't affect silver, and I recommend it to you (they were talking about varying monster powers), but the mechanical part of inserting the clues still seems problematic to me. Obviously, the villain picks a crime site without that weakness.

Still, if you're doing a puzzle adventure like this, you kinda have to structure things to lay the clues down. So the structure seems to be something like...


  1. Original meeting: villain gets away with everything because the weakness isn't present at the crime scene.
  2. Next meeting: the PCs bring their A game and because of that, the fight goes on longer than expected and hints at the weakness.
  3. Some kind of research (actual books, talking to informants or scientists) indicates what the weakness might be.
  4. PCs bring the weakness, but it doesn't work. Turns out the villain has prepared for it, knowing that's the weakness.
  5. PCs undo the protection for the weakness, and use it successfully.


And that is a big hint for dealing with my last problem...

Making the final battle satisfying.

The players still have to have the final battle, and in a storytelling sense it has to feel like it's actually worthwhile. If the PCs show up with insecticide and the villain Katydidn't falls down immediately, that sure sounds like someone made their "Defeat bad guy" roll instead of figuring out what to do.

Sometimes that's appropriate: sometimes the apparent bad guy is just a step on the way to the real bad guy. ("Who turned her into a giant insect?") But if you don't have that in mind, my temptation is to pull powers out of my ass.  I am ashamed to admit that this is the area where I have fudged the most in my GMing career. And that's something I want to fix.

So assuming you want the final battle to be satisfying, I can think of the following approaches.

  • The PCs are subtly wrong. They still have all the ingredients, but they try the method they've worked out and it doesn't work...but the battle reveals how it should be done, and they do it.
  • Using the weakness is tough. It takes effort and skill to exploit, but it shouldn't be something that can't be done multiple times (or it doesn't require a roll). A spell that can only be cast at midnight and the villain has to be present. Maybe the villain has to hear it, and part of the battle is keeping the villain from covering his/her/its ears, or just leaving. You can't knock him unconscious because he has to be able to process it.
  • The villain has taken precautions against this weakness: the battle is really about undoing those precautions so you can use the weakness. I've often wondered why various Kryptonians don't fly around in an articulated lead suit. They're strong enough that it doesn't hinder them, and with all the metric tons of Kryptonite that fell to earth in the Silver Age, you'd think it would be practical. This is really a variation of the last one.
  • The weakness is hard to get to. Kryptonite and magic are rare now, and the PCs don't get to them without the bad guy appearing.
  • The villain has assistants; he or she is just the final capstone. 
These aren't the only ways of dealing with this, just the ones I thought of in a moment..