Blog Carnival: Death and Superheroes

Jonathon’s having a Blog Carnival of Death, and I’m gonna jump on the end of the salsa line with a look at Death in Superhero gaming! Hop aboard, and don’t forget to bring your maracas……

Death is a strange beast in the world of superheroes; it’s both highly significant and little more than a speed bump at the same time. In the comics, a heroes death is the lazy writers’ way to say “this story is important! Read it!”, and it’s usually followed by at least one mini-series, a few cross-overs and finally the hero re-appearing (either in person, or with someone else behind the mask) carrying on like nothing has happened. The list of A-list Superheroes who’ve died and come back is growing so long now that it’s become a stale and lazy trope. Superman, Captain America, the Flash and Martian Manhunter head the list of dead guys, with Batman currently “dying” so slowly across several comics right now I just wish he’d leave the mortal coil and never return.

In Superhero gaming (as least, my gaming), things are a little different. With precious few exceptions, the dead stay dead, and the after-effects of a hero’s death impact those around them to a massive degree. In our earliest days, the death of one hero caused a huge shift of personality in his partner, prompting Kestral to become Black Kestral (Hi, Kel!), and a whole story arc turned the world a darker place – at least, for a while. But the dead stayed dead.

In my college days, I ran my Magnum Opus, a campaign named The Pegasus Project which faced the death of superheroes head-on. It started as a simple enough scenario straight out of the comics – a hero botches a rescue causing the death of a Senator. In response the government outlaws heroes and authorises the creation of Pegasus robots – 30; tall horse-headed creations of Dr Avery that looked somewhat like Knight chesspieces. One arm was “normal”, and the other was a huge bigass gun which my players nicknamed the Vark Gun for the sound it made. It was a morphic weapon that could adapt to the particular weaknesses of the hero they were hunting. And they hunted in packs of three.

It quickly turned from a superhero game to one of survivalist horror where the superheroes were little more than mice trying to outsmart the cats. Each scenario piled on the body-count with at least one (frequently more) deaths at the hands on the Pegasi, and the players loving every minute of it. The session where Anubis (yes, the God, and our version of Thor) was Varked by a Pegasus lowering the Gun over his head and completely atomizing him, there was a moment of awed silence. They killed a God, and the players realized for the first time that this was a battle they weren’t going to win. Somehow, the game managed to retain it’s superheroic roots too, with the heroes rescuing folks and fighting bad guys (who were also being hunted by Pegasus) while trying to avoid the huge killer robots. The heroes were afraid of death, and that made the game seem……. more real, somehow.

In the end, the heroes realized the flaw in the Pegasi’s programming, and my slow-boiling plot-twist; they defined and targeted anyone significantly above the average (this was their definition of “Super”), and with each death, the average was lowered until the merely above average was targeted. Dr Avery (the Pegasi’s) creator was Varked right before their eyes, simply for having above average intelligence.

In the Final Scenario, the players presented me with new characters – not heroes, but normal, everyday people. Folks under the Pegasi’s radar. Armed only with baseball bats, handguns and crowbars, they managed what a legion of Superheroes couldn’t; they took down a Pegasus, and the player party went on into the night. I ended the campaign there with announcements that similar events were occurring across the globe; ordinary people were taking to the streets the world over and fighting back for their heroes. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

I guess my point is this; when a character dies, it’s a world-changing event, at least for the folks around them. Think about that for your next D&D game. Don’t just loot their bodies and move on.

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