Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Old Heroes Never Die (No, Really)

Yes, "Superhero Week" continues here at the ol' blog.

I spent a few minute again this morning watching the trailers for the new Captain America movie on the YouTube. Boy, do they get me revved up!

I've written before that Cap is one of my favorite superheroes...maybe my favorite of all time from the Marvel comics universe. Well, Daredevil's up there, too (even the Ben Affleck version).

[*sigh* I thought of writing a Top Ten List of Superheroes this morning, but then realized how utterly ridiculous that would be...there are so many, old and new, that there's no guarantee mine would even be "set in stone." And what would I be basing it on? Writing and artwork? That varies across the length of a series. How the hero is portrayed in film? Varies by actor and director. Based on which powers I'd like to possess? No way! THAT list would include characters like Wolverine, Silver Surfer, and Green Lantern...none of whom would fall into my list of "favorite" superheroes. At least not these days]

Even though Cap is one of my faves, I've owned very few of his comics over the years...like maybe one or two. Not that I haven't owned comics that included Captain America...Avengers, of course, Marvel Team-Ups, Secret Wars (the first series anyway), etc. Cap is a character who really stands out when working with others...not because he isn't badass in his own way, but because he gets to demonstrate more of his intangibles: his leadership, his idealism, his ability to inspire and mentor.

Still, I stopped buying comic books with any regularity back around 1990, and those were mainly Silver Surfer or Dark Horse imprints, not the Marvels that would feature Captain America. The last Cap-featured comic I purchased was probably around 1985 or '86. Maybe even earlier than that.

However, I've had the chance to visit some of the later comics, thanks to my old high school/college buddy who is (possibly) a bigger nerd than I am. No, he doesn't play role-playing games (or even computer games), but he has the largest collection of comics, Legos, and toy paraphernalia of any adult I personally know. He's loaned me a few of his trade paperbacks for Captain America, allowing me to follow some of the story arcs of the last 10 years (give or take), and that's why the trailers for the new film getting me so stoked: without a doubt the Falcon and the Winter Soldier are (other than The Ultimates reboot) the two best things to have happened to Captain America since I was a kid.

[yes, I realize that Cap and the Falcon were a team back in the 1970s, but this was before I was reading anything other than Golden Key comics...during the 80s, I just didn't see Falcon that much, and it was only after he got thrown back into the comic that I saw what a nice pairing they made]

Please O Please keep the name "Snap"
I'm not a huge fan of Snap's re-conception as "Bird Master;" sometimes less is more with superheroes, and I was plenty satisfied with his low-powered heroics. Why must you get your Cosmic Cube in my peanut butter? But I am totally on-board with him as a super-secret agent-of-SHIELD dude that appears to be the situation in the new film.

[for folks who haven't seen the latest trailer, here's a link]

And Winter Soldier? Other than being just about the coolest Marvel villain since before Apocalypse (who ruined O-So-Much for me)...well, folks should know by now how much I love tales of heroes falling to the Dark Side and then getting a shot at redemption, right? Add that to my passion for cyborgs (which I've blogged about on numerous occasions) and you can see why WS is in the top two or three Marvel baddies of all time...for me, anyway.

[there will probably be some spoilers in the following paragraphs, so consider yourself warned]

Winter Soldier does something that few plots in the comic book do...he emphasizes the age (or rather agelessness) of the comic book character. When the writers of Captain America decided to bring Bucky Barnes back (Cap's original WW2 sidekick) they had to figure out why he would still be spry and kicking ass after so many decades. Cap, of course, has the Super Soldier Serum running through his veins that makes him (apparently) as ageless as any mutant, but Bucky was just a young, highly competent "masked man;" how would he have survived decades to come back and haunt his former mentor?

Thank goodness for the comic trope of periodic cryo-freeze!

Thing is, I like the idea of the aging (or increasingly decrepit) superhero. We watched Pixar's The Incredibles the other evening, and I was once again struck by how entertaining it is to see costumed crusaders transition into "normalcy" (domestic life and the subsequent challenges it brings). Sure, this may be in part because I can identify with it (as I gradually take on more aspects of "middle age" myself)...but the reason we can ALL identify with it is because it does happen to all of us...all of us outside the four-colored world of comic books, that is.

And I think it's interesting to see people who were super heroic...who are still super heroic, actually...deal with those challenges.

The subject of the aging or "past their prime" hero is not a new subject for exploration. Miller did it in his Dark Knight graphic novel, it was explored at length in Moore's The Watchmen, and you can see traces of it in film: the aforementioned Daredevil with Ben Affleck and the most recent Batman film of with Christian Bale show the effects of crime-fighting taking their toll (non-stop Advil consumption and lost cartilage leading to knee braces). But usually, it's perpetually glossed over (or outright ignored) in the genre...Batman being as effective as ever despite a lack of supernatural or superhuman ability.

My recent games...both published and "not-yet-"...have all tried to take into account decrepitude and the toll taken by the adventuring lifestyle. I know that when you're a teen or 20-something gamer, you don't care all that much for these kinds of rules...in fact, when I was a teen playing AD&D or Traveller the penalties for advanced aging always annoyed the hell out of me! I wanted to play a perpetually young/prime of life character in the same stripe as a comic book super or cinematic action hero! But nowadays, that's a lot less interesting to me. I'd rather play a guy fighting his own slowing inertia than a young buck with a randomly required weakness or limitation.

The problem with such rules is the tendency to make them too crunchy or granular, necessitating more record keeping than I (or my usual players) want to track. For something semi-abstract like Marvel Superheroes, you could do something easy like:

Middle Age =  minus one column shift on all actions (-1 CS)
Old Age = minus two column shift on all actions (-2 CS)

[yes, that includes mental-based actions like inventing stuff...why do you think all those battle suits are scratch-built by YOUNG inventors? You lose focus and drive as you age, too]

Of course, experience and wisdom (i.e. the Karma mechanic) can still be used to offset this.

But for crunchier hero games, like Heroes Unlimited or Mutants & Masterminds, age mechanics can be a real pain to incorporate. And it's nigh impossible with more abstract, narrative-driven games like Capes and With Great Power...unless the players themselves want to account for this in their story-telling.

Mmm-mm-mm...I know there are some readers out there, who consider this whole line of thought to be of little-to-zero worth, and not just the youngsters. I can hear one particular person I know, ringing in my ears with "People don't play RPGs to emulate the sucky-ness of real life! They want to escape from these things for the length of a game session!" Ugh...you ARE escaping from the suck, dude! I'm just trying to incorporate a different and (I think) interesting new wrinkle/challenge. Ah, well...it's time for me to go pick up D from daycare. Maybe I'll write about this more later. Maybe.

I might just have to settle back into the writing of my own supers game.

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