Of Capes and Guns
Once upon a time, I was really into comic books. I know, shocking right? In fact, the way that I really got into RPGs wasn’t D&D (though it was the first thing that I played), it was the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game. For those of you who haven’t played it, it has most of the standard components for RPGs – characters had attributes, powers, and skills and they gained experience* that they could use to improve their abilities. One of the things that made the game really fun was that the combat system did a great job of simulating the phenomenon of super-strong characters clobbering each other and emerging unscathed. They had terrific maps of city areas where you could stage battles, and it was not at all uncommon for a character to get knocked off of a building, go through another building, fall 20 stories and then get up and come back for more.
As I got older, I became more of a fan of the little guy. Thor was cool and all, but he was a pansy compared to Daredevil. So I tried to use the same rules system to play grittier stories, with heroes fighting thugs with guns instead of aliens with forcefields. It fell flat. Why? Guns.
“God created man, Sam Colt made them equal.”
Guns are a big problem. They’re cheap, they’re easy to use, and they are way more effective than most superpowers. In the comics, characters only get shot when it helps to move the story. Every other time, the bad guys miss, or the protagonist dodges. In the Marvel System, guns were assumed to be largely ineffectual. Daredevil could eat a couple of bullets and shrug it off. This means that in order to make common street toughs seem dangerous, they needed to be carrying blaster guns and the like – which breaks the gritty, street-level tone that we’re striving for.
So then you decide that you’re willing to change rules systems to get that gritty, 3-color comic feel. You pick up a system where guns and their damage are more realistically modeled. Now you have a new problem: dead player characters. Unless your characters are actually bulletproof, a fight with a few armed thugs is going to be lethal.
Let’s say that you’re playing Daredevil, or even my personal favorite, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He’s agile enough to dodge bullets, and he has a nifty spider-sense to make sure that nobody gets the drop on him. He’s in a fight with a few thugs – let’s say three. He’s in a dark alley somewhere and he’s rescued that poor lady who was being mugged, and now it’s time to deal with the bad guys. He spins a web at them, and they point their guns and shoot at him.
A full automatic pistol can fire about three rounds in a second. So three thugs times three shots gives us nine rounds fired. Let’s say that our thugs aren’t all that good with their guns, and only four of the nine shots are on target. Let’s also posit that Spider-Man is agile enough to dodge the bullets 90% of the time. So, his chances of dodging all four bullets is 0.9^4, or about 66%. This means that 1 in 3 times, Spidey gets shot. Those aren’t very good odds for our favorite web-head.
Now hold on a second. People play realistic campaigns that use guns all the time, right? And those characters aren’t dying left and right, so something has to be wrong here. The difference is that in realistic campaigns that use guns, people use different tactics. They take cover. They provide covering fire. They wear body armor. Most importantly, they use guns themselves, putting truth to the saying that the best defense is a good offense. In a truly realistic campaign, you should only be rolling to dodge a bullet when everything else has failed.
So what does this mean for our hopes of a gritty, realistic campaign using superheroes? Well, it depends on what and how much you are willing to compromise. If the thing that’s important to you is feats of acrobatics and martial prowess overcoming armed men, you’re going to have to use a rules system that tones down the lethality.
If you’re most interested in a realistic setting that happens to have superheroes in it, then you either need to make sure that all of your player characters can survive getting shot several times and shrug it off or you have to accept that they are going to look like SWAT teams with capes. That’s the problem with realistic campaigns. The realism tends to get in the way of the fun.
*The experience system in the Marvel system actually rewarded karma points instead of experience. This system was particularly clever, as you could lose karma for doing evil things (including leaving bad guys to die), so there was an incentive for the players heroically. This did a lot to preserve the comic book feel of the game. Also, you were allowed to spend karma to affect critical die rolls. I think that this is cool in theory, as you could choose to sacrifice character progression for the sake of the story, but in practice it removed a lot of the drama. A lot of the suspense is removed when you know that you can ensure that you can’t fail that one critical roll. That’s why I’m a fan of killing your PCs.