Superheroic Tactics

There’s a basic progression in many role-playing games; the characters start off relatively weak, and act with caution. They try to plan ahead, scout out the opposition, maximize their rewards, and minimize their risks. As they become more powerful, and more certain of surviving and escaping, some of the precautions start to fall by the wayside – and they move towards a “kick in the door” strategy of just wading in swinging.

They may start out that way if combat is mostly non-lethal, is fought to first blood or something other than death, or if the game master subscribes to the “balanced encounter” theory and there’s basically very very little chance of them losing – which winds up with the old “Combat as Sport and War” dichotomy.

Superheroes are a little different for a couple of reasons – but the most basic is that Superheroes aren’t out to get anything for themselves. They’re there to defend the general public, not to get rich, or to accomplish secret missions, or to rule the world, or to really do anything particularly proactive. They’re maintaining the status quo, rather than going out to change things. Superheroes are fundamentally reactive -and that makes for an equally fundamental chance in their tactics. Their villainous opponents pop up with a plan, and the superheroes try to stop them. Even worse… superheroes generally have no idea of what their opponents current insane objective is, what allies and powers the villains have this time, or of where or when the battle is going to occur. They’re all too often going in completely blind – but they don’t dare give the villains time, so they go in anyway.

In the real world, and for most RPG characters, that would be a recipe for suicidal battles and total defeat. Fortunately, superheroes are incredibly durable. Even better, super-villains are usually more than a bit crazy, rather uncooperative (and thus tend to come in smaller groups), tend to stick to themes, and – while they often have more power than the heroes – their powers tend to be very specific or have other weird limitations.

Thus the basic superhero tactical plan tends to be “we go in, rely on our incredible defenses to survive the enemies initial attacks, traps, or what-have-you, and improvise a plan once we have some idea of what we’re up against”. They’ll usually be pressed hard at first, and may even be thrown back or defeated – but they have defenses rather than reserves, and will survive the various villainous surprises. Once they have some idea of what they’re up against, and what they need to be doing, they will bounce back, coordinate their attacks, move to stop the bad guys plans (whatever they may be), and pull out a victory.

Now circumstances may alter that basic plan a bit.

  • If they’re actually attacking a known target for once – such as a secret base – they usually add a brief list of objectives such as “take the control chamber”, “don’t let the boss escape”, “prevent them from activating the cosmic mega-cannon”, and so on.
  • If they’ve got known opponents, those with relevant powers may get some specialized defenses ready (well, it’s Infernus… I’ve got my fire protection spell running and a water-blast ready), there may be a few targets assigned (you go after Megasmashman… you’re the only one we’ve got who can keep him busy!), and they may actually have some idea of what they’re trying to stop – but it’s still urgent; super-villains can do a LOT of damage very quickly if left on their own.
  • If the heroes know when and where the fight will be, they’ll likely try to evacuate civilians in advance and maybe even try to bring in some allies.
    When they know who they’ll be fighting, or if some of their powers complement each other nicely, there may even be some teamwork assignments (Gigavolt! You absorb his electrical attacks while I hit him with my knockout arrows!), but they tend to be pretty basic.

And that’s about it. You almost never see much of the way of superheroic contingency plans unless you have a character with a related power, such as precognition. Even then, you don’t see any actual plans being made, what you see is a character with a power that allows them to occasionally pull out just what they need. That’s an easy enough power to give a superhero – but in a game the mechanics aren’t going to have anything to do with “planning”. Either the game master will provide a list and try to work the stuff on it into later events (tricky, but fun if you can pull it off and the player doesn’t miss his or her cues) or it’s just a way of letting the character defer a few decisions until they’d actually be taking effect.

There’s actually a good reason for that. When you might, at any moment, wind up in the dimension of Teddy Bears, where the Koala King will force you to resolve your differences with your opponents with an eucalyptus leaf eating contest, tactical exercises get kind of awkward. SWAT teams may train in handling hostage situations – but no one expects them to train for “the floor is abruptly flooded with lava, while a dozen fire elementals appear randomly about the area and start attacking”. In the real world… stuff like that doesn’t happen.

In a superhero universe, stuff like that happens all the time.

That’s why most superhero plans can be summarized in a single sentence. For superheroes… “They haven’t spotted us – so we’ll follow them back to their hideout, watch the hideout to see who comes and goes, and then track and investigate those people so that we can try to take down the entire organization” is an extremely elaborate plan (and one that is usually only possible for a group that is actually on the offensive and has both investigative skills and police powers).

Since they’re on the offensive, that plan can even be extended with a few basic contingencies – whether to fall back or attack if spotted, who will move in to stop the bad guys and who will form a perimeter / evacuate civilians if the bad-guy group they’re observing gets up to something horrible, and where to fall back to if they have to retreat. Contingency plans much beyond that though will inevitably get lost in an endless maze of ever-remoter possibilities – and there’s only so much “time” available, whether that “time” is measured by the page count in a comic book, the run time of a cartoon, or the length of a game session.

In more urgent situations – when it’s “the villains are attacking (whatever)” there usually isn’t much time for planning beyond “we go in and stop them”, “really tough guys lead”, and “sneaky guys try to get the drop on them” – which really amounts to “use your powers appropriately”.

Similarly, that’s why superhero “training” focuses on developing their special powers, generic combat skills practice, and working up ways to combine their powers with those of their current teammates, rather than on tactics for dealing with particular situations. You can count on your own powers first, on your personal combat skills second, and on your teammates third – but you can’t count on the environment, setting, or situation at all. There are just too many powers that can change those things in the blink of an eye out there.

To pull a quote from The Practical Enchanter (and from an old gaming group)…

“Right. We’ve got two groups of incoming hostiles and civilians to evacuate. Talisien, raise a storm, we’re going to need cover. Ironstar, power up the old warpgate; Starblade can get it programmed. Orealis, you-“ -Captain Valor

”Why is he always in charge?” -Ironstar

“Because he had a plan before the rest of us had even counted up the power signatures on the scanner display?” -Orealis

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One Response

  1. […] Superheroic Tactics: The difference between being an adventurer and being a superhero. […]

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