A lot of people have been offering advice since I admitted that the fights in my Mutants and Masterminds campaign, Shock & Awesome, haven’t exactly been up to snuff. I’m still in the process of compiling it all, since the conversation seems to have spread to multiple message-boards in addition to the blog, but it’s useful stuff (also, you guys rock). Hopefully, by the time I get around to posting the lessons I’ve learned after sixty sessions, things will have improved a whole bunch.
‘Course, given that we were on a three-week break from the game while one of the players is overseas, I’d already started tackling ways to fine-tune the campaign during the downtime. It’s one of the nice things about taking a break when you’re gaming weekly – it gives you the space to look back and reflect. In this instance I had a sneaking suspicion that my own habits were a part of the dull-fight-scene problem, so over the last couple of weeks I’ve gathered up my campaign note and performed:
THE VILLAIN AUDIT
It’s easy to get stuck into a rut when it comes to bad guys. As GMs we have a natural inclination towards certain times of opposition, usually because they’re either statistically easy to prepare and run (in complex game systems) or the kind of antagonist who resonates with us in more traditional narratives. Either way, in the back of our brain, GMs have a short set of Ur-villain archetypes that they reach for out of habit.
So when I started looking the combat problems in my superhero games, I figured this was one of the culprits. I’ve had this problem with non-supers games in the past, especially when prep time grew short. I’d spend D&D games overusing bugbears, say, or demons, ’cause they were solid opponents, mechanically speaking, that I found easy to run. I’d frequently lean towards clerics and fighters when I added classes to bad guys ’cause I knew those classes best and, system-wise, they made for better antagonists due to their superior hit-points.
In superhero games things are far more free-form, even in mechanically complex supers systems, largely ’cause every villain us unique (well, except for the mooks. And the duplicators). Falling into a rut is even easier when you start grabbing for familiar concepts, so during the downtime I fired up a copy of Excel and did a thorough audit of the bad guys who have appeared in the campaign so far, to see which tropes I was overusing and which needed a bit more work.
I should note that I’m not including every villain in the campaign in this list – there are some who have merely made appearances that are basically foreshadowing, or didn’t get a chance to actually engage in an action sequence due to player choices. What I’m focused on here is purely the characters involved in action sequences, whether it be a fight, a chase, or something similar.
The list of things I track in the excel document is as follows:
Every villain gets labelled with one of six classifications on this front, three of which I’ve borrowed from the new Marvel Adventure Game and the other three I’ve just adapted as a means of keeping track. The labels are Solo, Buddy (for a villains who appear as pairs), Team, Mook Squad (for opposition that used M&M’s minion rules), Armed Force (for opposition that used M&M’s mass-combat rules), and Leader (for a solo villain who leads a mook squad or armed force).
Each of these approaches represents a different kind of tactical challenge, and they don’t have to be consistent across each villains appearance. I have one villain, Blackhawk, who started as a Leader in the first session he appeared and ended as a Solo when he was finally taken down several sessions later. It has very little to do with who the villain is, and everything to do with how they were used when they were actually pulled into an action sequence with the players.
The goal here is to track the basic dynamic of the fights I’m presenting to my players. If I finish the audit and notice that a whole bunch of sessions have been 2 PCs versus a Solo villain, I know it’s time to shake things up a little.
2) POWER LEVEL & ARCHETYPE
The vast majority of point-based superhero games, such as M&M, provide players with a series of common super-human archetypes that find their way into most comic books. A lot of it just seeps into your day-to-day conversation after a while – you get used to thinking of big, super-strong guys as bricks and energy controllers as blasters.
Odds are, if you’re reading this, you’ve either got (or you’re developing) your own short-hand for various archetypes based on your system of choice. I’ve included my list below (or, at least, the parts of it that have been used in the campaign thus far), which has been cobbled together from a handful of different game systems and articles about Superhero tactics over the years. Feel free to skip it if you’ve got this part down.
Battlesuit: high-tech battle-armor
Brick: big, strong, indestructible guys
Cyborg: used for cyborgs
“Energy” Controller: usually labelled alongside the power they control
Gadgeteer: high-tech power sources that aren’t armor-based
Illusionist: powers based around manipulating heroes perceptions
Martial Artist: highly-skilled combatants, usually favouring hitting over damage
Magic: powers based around spells and/or occult backgrounds
Mentalist: mind-controllers, telepaths, and telekinetics
Mook: cannon fodder whose purpose is to get beaten up
Paragon: characters who mix movement powers, ranged attacks, and strength
Shapeshifter: Powers based around changing appearances
Speedster: Primarily focused on using movement powers
Summoner: Powers based around brining in additional combatants
Soldier: trained, well-armed combatants who aren’t necessarily super-powered
Warrior: combat-focused types who rely on a more-or-less even combination of power and skill
Weapon Master: See Martial Artist, but focused on a single weapon
Again, my goal here is to look for patterns. If the players have been facing a lot of flying paragons with eye-beams of late, then another enemy with the same basic archetype probably isn’t going to excite them.
One thing I will note, though – being able to separate out particular archetypes can be enormously useful. You could make a good argument for Soldiers, Warriors, Martial Artists, and Weapon Masters being much the same thing, but the open up a variety of different tactical options for the players. For example, if you disarm a Weapon Master archetype they’re usually much less effective; disarm a warrior, however, and they’re still a major threat.
3) POWER SOURCE
I don’t need to get specific with this one – I really don’t care that Blackhawk’s powers come from an electromagicnetic harness for the purpose of this exercise. “Tech” is an easy catch-all in this instance, and one I long suspected I’d overuse (I’ve been reading a lot of old Iron Man and Captain America comics of late).
Interestingly, this is probably the one point of the audit where I actually want to see consistent patterns. There’s a tendency in superhero comics for heroes to face villains that are either dark reflections of themselves or extreme opposites. Iron Man faces technological villains, Captain America faces would-by patriots, mutants face other mutants. If I’m doing my job right in Shock and Awesome, this list should be full of Military/Tech types (one character is a super-soldier), Occult/Magic types (the super-soldier was made to hunt demons), and mutant types (one character is a mutant electropath).
When I break from that pattern, it should either be a big thing or a minor villain.
4) PRIMARY TACTIC
This is the real meat of the exercise – narrowing down every combatant the characters have faced to their core tactic, whether it’s firing from a distance (Blaster), hitting people hard and absorbing lots of damage (heavy-hitters), hit-and-run tactics (Skirmisher), going hand-to-hand with enemies (Brawler), manipulating the terrain to their advantage or hindering opponents (Terrain Controller), treating other people as their puppets (Mental Controller), or simply altering perspective, using misdirection, of being irritating as hell for their opponents (Trickster).
I’ve thrown in Mooks as well, for those folks whose sole purpose is getting the hell kicked out of them with no real hope of hurting the heroes, and Negotiation for the villains who weren’t really looking for a fight and weren’t forced into it by the heroes.
This isn’t comprehensive – there should probably be a Finesse category, for example, but I haven’t used anyone whose modus operandi is being exceptionally skilled in combat but relatively light on damage (Trading damage for attack bonus, in M&M terms). Anything that doesn’t fit, I’ll usually improvise a listing that makes sense to me or put them in as a hybrid.
I’ve uploaded a PDF copy of the villain audit for anyone who wants to follow this next bit, although the details probably aren’t interesting to anyone who isn’t part of my campaign. What’s useful about the Audit is the ability to look at the campaigns patters in a single glance and spot the absences and repetitions. If I’m overusing a particular tactic or power-set, it shows up pretty quickly when I glance down the list.
I start off focusing on the Tactics column, ’cause that’s the place that’s going to have the most direct bearing on my problems with combat. I’ve been very heavy on the Brawlers (the focus of 18 session entries) and Blasters (13 session entries), followed by skirmishers (6 entries) and heavy-hitters (4 entries). The others tactical approaches are bringing up the rear with a handful of entries each. More importantly, when I have included some variance, it’s inevitably been in situations where there’s an entire team of opponents.
Most of this ties back to the reasons I mentioned in the introduction – I’ve avoided terrain controllers ’cause the M&M Affliction system which handles such things was a big shift from the 2E rules I’m more familiar with. Every time I’ve used a terrain controller, I’ve found the game slowing down as I had to look up the effects, which means I’ve shied away from them rather than using them more often and getting familiar with those rules.
Fortunately, that’s a relatively easy fix – I’ll make a note to use more Afflictions and I’ll just copy the details I need directly onto the villain’s character sheets and keep doing that until I combat flows smoothly and I’ve got the details memorised.
Similarly, I’ve shied away from using Skirmishers ’cause the chase rules which inevitably become part of their appearance bored one of the players. This, too, can be navigated around by finding alternate approaches to a chase (personally, I’m just grabbing the 2E rules and using them; they’ll have a higher learning curve, but I think the dynamic will suit the players better).
Finally, as a note, I’ve avoided using a lot of mentalist types ’cause of the PC builds – one of the players didn’t buy up any mental defense so he’s wide open to things like Mental Control. I didn’t particularly feel like spamming the duo with mental attacks ’cause it’d seem like a punishment; I’d rather hit him with one mind-controller to expose the weakness, then let him buy up some mental defenses before hitting him with another one.
This is actually one of the few things I’m really happy with in terms of the Audit, although I’m making a note that I should probably hit the group with another mental effect in the next session or three to keep that particular weakness on the player’s radar. I don’t necessarily wanting him spending his power-points on that to the exclusion of everything else, but having it slowly improve widens the scope of villain types I can use without totally ruining his night.
The next columns I’m paying attention to is the Power Level and Affiliation sections. Again, I’m remarkably heavy on Solo villains and Leaders with squads of mooks – thus far we’ve only had two teams, one of which was a rival hero team that didn’t get much of a look-in during the fight they had. Power Levels have frequently been in relative parity with the player characters as well.
In part I can justify this by the fact that we’re a small group with only two PCs, but it also means that there’s rarely a sense that the PCs are going to need to overcome superior odds. Overcoming more powerful opponents is one of those things superheroes are meant to do – there’s a reason a new villain usually debuts by kicking the heroes butts, setting up the expectation that they’re unstoppable.
Next step – power source and archetype. Fortunately I’m pretty happy with the spread here. There may be a preponderance of tech-powers, mutants, and supernatural but that’s in keeping with the campaigns characters (a mutant and a super-soldier trained to hunt demons.
Finally, charting this by session lets me roughly gauge when and why our most successful fights have been. The Triceratops fight in issue 2 (a PL 10 Solo Brick vs two PL 8 heroes) is probably the most fondly-remembered of the campaign, followed by the sequence between sessions 14-16 where there was the most tactical variance in their opponents and significant storyline depth associated with the fights. At least one of the players reads this blog, so it’s possible he’ll weigh in and let me know whether my memory of notable campaign battles matches up with his.
The least successful fight, in my eyes at least, took place in session 20 when I introduced the first NPC heroes into the setting; what could have been an interesting fight-scene failed utterly due to some poor set-up on my part.
All of which tells me some important things – we pick up the campaign again next week, and my original plan had been to run yet another Leader villain with mooks at his beck and call. My initial sketch for the session had the leader as a Brick/Blaster combo, with the mooks all Brawlers. I’m now thinking I might shelve that plan for a couple of sessions, and see if I can think up something with a little more spice.
This kind of variety isn’t necessarily going to fix our problems with less-than-exciting combat all on its own, but it’s a good first step and it gives me a template to work off. I’ve made a note in my GM diary to update the Audit file every five or six sessions from this point on, which means I’ll spot any trends as they emerge instead of looking back on them with the benefit of hindsight as I’m doing here.