the incredibly murderous hulk (Civil War 1)

stamford meets the rampaging hulk

We started in medias res: the Hulk on an insane rampage in downtown Stamford, CT.  Enter the X-Men, lured here by bad information, and desperately trying to stop the carnage.  Before play even begins, the Hulk has killed the Beast, Shadowcat, and dozens of civilians.  Our scene distinctions?  “Half the city is on fire,” “Downed power lines,” and “The streets are choked with rubble.”  The Hulk has crushed Cyclops’s ruby visor, and hurled Colossus into the middle of the Long Island Sound, where he’s rapidly sinking.  Storm, already frustrated by the Black Panther’s cold feet about their impending wedding, can’t react quickly enough.  It’s a bad place to begin!

Ultimately the players spent nearly all of their energy trying to rescue Colossus.  They weren’t comics-readers, and I should have reminded them that Colossus is able to hold his breath for an awfully long time.   Cyclops commandeered a sonar-equipped cigarette boat from the marina, while Storm created a whirlpool.

The Hulk then tried to stun everyone with a cannonball leap into the Sound.  Storm, at this point boiling over with fury, tried to freeze the Sound and trap the Hulk in ice, but he leaped out and icicles cut Storm pretty badly.  As Colossus climbed up the anchor Cyclops lowered to assist him, the Hulk smashed through their boat on his way down, stranding all of the mutants at sea.  Cyclops confessed to Storm, before they were about to die, that he had always loved her.

Curtain!  More later.

piecemeal review of marvel heroic rpg – civil war event

I have a lot to say about the Civil War Event book, much too much for a single blog post.  To make a serial review palatable to readers I’m going to try to flavor it a bit with our actual play, as well as some adaptation notes and write-ups.

To begin with: I did not read the Marvel Civil War comic books, which were published sometime around 2006.  This Civil War Event RPG thing is my first real exposure to it, other than an occasional Wikipedia browse.  And I have to say, I really feel bad for the RPG designers.  The Marvel Civil War really sounds like a storytelling train wreck, even worse than the late-80’s Claremont Crossovers that basically drove me out of reading comics regularly.

I can imagine the pitch meeting at the Marvel offices very easily.  “Our company became famous in the 1960’s by having heroes fight other heroes.  First, in the Fantastic Four itself, where the traumatized astronauts were constantly at each other’s throats, and then bringing in heroes from other titles for cross-promotion.  But over the decades this has become the cliche Misunderstanding Fight, with little provocation, no decisive outcome, and no lasting consequences.  What if we revisited that–but with everybody fighting everybody, over genuine conflicts of interest, with definite winners and losers, and the whole line changes as a result?”

In broad terms, it’s a fine idea, and exactly what I as a reader would like to see.  But it sounds like the thing really fell apart in execution.  The deal with the Marvel Civil War is that a terrible, 9/11 style tragedy befalls Marvel World, and American population finally decides, “Look, these people need to at least give us their names and addresses.”

So, as the writer, you’ve got to think up a high-stakes, super-tragedy that horrifies the nation.  And you come up with: a super villain nobody remembers murders a team of super heroes no one cares about, as well as half a city that has never mattered in the setting.

That.  Sucks.  (Oh, and spoilers I guess.)

This is the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of having a randomly encountered giant centipede kill an unnamed hireling torch-bearer.  It is . . . a mild misfortune, not a tragedy, and certainly not something to spend much table-time on.  (The poor hireling would be lucky if we don’t laugh over his corpse, frankly.)

Yet spinning out from this terrible humanitarian disaster (which surely must happen every third Tuesday in Marvel World) is an absolutely bewildering number of plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots as every single magazine published by Marvel Comics gets drawn into the fray.  As brilliant as the Marvel Civil War concept sounds in principle, in execution (at least from what I can gather) it sure looks convoluted, disjointed, and heavy-handed in execution.

And that’s a really hard problem when trying to do an RPG adaptation.  I feel bad for everyone at Margaret Weis Productions who worked on this, because I suspect they have a better sense of storytelling than the people who actually work at Marvel Comics, and it would have been so tempting to change stuff, but then the die-hard fans would never let them hear the end of it, and who knows what it would do to their license.

That said: the Civil War Event book does a really good job of conveying numerous settings and factions in the Marvel World.  In combination with the scenes mostly described in a play-this-in-any-order-that-makes-sense sort of way, you get certain features of Sandbox Play, though I’ll argue in a later post that this is tricky to truly pull off.  The designers also present you with several different options for each scene, so if (like me) you read the official version and say, “WTF, that’s incredibly stupid,” usually there’s at least one or two ideas that make the scene not only palatable but potentially very cool.

One choice the Civil War Event book makes, which I think is very wise, is to completely frame out the terrible humanitarian tragedy.  Your players aren’t involved in it in any way: they’re doing their usual super hero thing beforehand, and then they get this terrible news, and the story picks up from there.  Usually, if there’s something in an RPG scenario that’s just gotta happen, it’s best to frame past it, so that you don’t have player agency conflicting with the plot’s entire premise.  It was a good choice.  But one I had to undo.

adaptation notes

Tavis’s son is extremely energetic, and a huge fan of the Hulk.  (Hollywood, if you had to cast a ten year old boy to play the Hulk in a movie, this is your kid.)  I’ve wanted to play a game with Tavis’s family for a while now, and it struck me that the Hulk is the perfect guy to unwittingly cause a humanitarian disaster: it’s pretty much his whole deal.

In fact, the Hulk himself is pretty much the poster child for the Marvel Civil War: here’s a dude who saves the world on a regular basis, but in doing so is enormously destructive, presumably leaving a terrible death toll in his wake.  And half the time, he’s a fugitive running around completely unsupervised and almost anything could set him off.

This was enormously clarifying.  The Marvel Civil War, once you get past its dumb-ass club-foot political commentary about the War on Terror, is ultimately a question about the responsible use of anger and violence.  And that’s the core of the Hulk as a character, and the core to most of his supporting cast over the years.  So our game would star the Hulk and his gang, doing their thing.  I explained that we’d begin with the Hulk on a rampage, probably against super heroes who would suffer terribly and die, and then we’d “officially” begin in the aftermath of this rampage with the Hulk’s friends, our real PC’s, showing up on the scene.

(Selecting one group of characters to focus on is pretty helpful here: the Civil War Event book gives you player characters as diverse as Deadpool, Doctor Strange, and the Wasp, none of whom have much of anything in common, and who drag in a whole bunch of totally unrelated stuff.  Again, the designers had to offer a whole bunch of playable characters, but I think this much freedom is a mistake in actual practice and takes away thematic focus.)

But if you’re going to have the Hulk destroy a town and kill a team of super heroes that people care about, who should he kill?  Well: the Civil War is really an Avengers-type of deal, so we probably want to save those characters for later.  The Hulk and the Thing have a huge rivalry, and I didn’t want to give that up so early, which rules out the Fantastic Four.  That leaves the X-Men, who don’t have any strong Hulk connections and thus can be torn out of the universe fairly easily.  Plus 1986 Mutant Massacre storyline, in which the X-Men get completely crippled and broken, blew me away as a kid.  (In the main Civil War storyline, there is growing tension with Atlantis because the Sub-Mariner’s cousin died in Stamford.  Here, killing Storm obliges me to swap in Wakanda for Atlantis, which is just as well.)

links to downloads

Here is the Hulk, courtesy of the good people at Margaret Weis Productions.

Here is my scene-write up for the Battle of Stamford.

My list of Hulk supporting cast, to be featured as PC’s throughout the event.  Most of these characters have official stats now, but I had to make up some for Samson, Sabra, and Scorpion, which are linked out.  (I actually don’t remember ever reading any stories about Samson, Sabra, or the Scorpion, so I kind of made up something that seemed plausible.)


7 Responses to “the incredibly murderous hulk (Civil War 1)”

  1. October 21, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    Your version of Civil War sounds much more entertaining that what Mark Millar gave us.

  2. October 21, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    That is damning with faint praise, but thank you. I suspect ANY game of Marvel Heroic “Civil War” would be more entertaining than the one actually published, due to the institutional pressures of publishing such a thing.

  3. October 21, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Civil War was a mess — as have all of Marvel’s events since at least House of M — and your version is indeed better. One of the problems with it — as well as all of Marvel’s events since at least House of M — is the premise doesn’t make sense in the context of the setting. Almost as soon as the concept was revealed, people were saying “hang on, the Hulk has caused much more destruction in his time, so why hasn’t this come up before?” but Marvel seemed adamant on avoiding any interesting stories — for example, Iron Man has in the past been a bit of a loose cannon, so there’s a good story in confronting him on his hypocrisy — in favour of a punch up and having everyone act like an idiot.


    Anyway, your version is better.

    That said, the events of the comic spin out of the reaction to the civilian casualties of the fight between Nitro and the New Warriors; no one seems to care that much about the Warriors themselves. The political tension of the story — such as it was — was between Iron Man wanting to place controls over the heroic community so that no such catastrophic mismatches would occur again, and all the freedom-loving hippies who valued their secret identities.

    So your sacrificial heroes need to be a group who don’t really know what they’re doing, and the X-Men are too seasoned and competent for that. If you’re going to drop the civilian casualties and have the deaths of the heroes be the thing that kicks it all off, then I’d suggest that the X-Men — being mutant scum — probably aren’t well-liked enough amongst the bigoted bastards of the Marvel Universe to fit that role.

    You’re right that there aren’t many other A-list teams around though; who’d care if Alpha Flight got smashed? There are enough Avengers running about that you could have one team of them killed and still have enough left over to form another team. I’d even suggest that the Avengers work best as they’re the Hulk’s original team, so there’s some resonance there.

    All that said, it could work. The X-Men — perhaps led by an inexperienced leader, or Cyclops is having one of his I-can’t-cope days — run into the Hulk, misjudge everything and get a load of people killed. The government responds by calling for the registration of all mutants; some heroes agree, some disagree, and you still get your “civil war”. It could even be two-pronged, with the Hulk still at large and also being hunted, and different heroes going after different targets; maybe some heroes go after both the X-Men and the Hulk, some go after one and not the other, and some think the whole idea of arresting one’s friends stinks and have nothing to do with any of it.

    One problem with all of that is that both mutant registration — Reed Richards argued against it at the time because his son Franklin is a mutant, but was all for it in Civil War, and there was no examination of the hypocrisy, because why bother pursuing that interesting story? — and Hulk-hunting have been done before.

    Anyway, rambling. Your idea is good and I don’t mean to suggest you’re doing it wrong.

  4. October 22, 2012 at 12:01 am

    Kelvin, those are very perceptive comments. Thanks.

    By “super heroes people care about,” the people I had in mind were the readers/players, not the fictional inhabitants of Marvel World. I recovered from the Marvel Zombie virus just as the New Warriors were making their debut, so to me their deaths mean almost nothing. In-fiction, all people know is that the Hulk and a bunch of teenage mutant-scum destroyed a small American city, and by God, there oughtta be a law!

    One of the nice things about this play group is that they’re casually familiar with Marvel World, mainly from the films and a smattering of Silver Age reprints. A lot of the plot elements that have been done to death over the past 50 years are still somewhat fresh for them. Thus, the Hulk wiping out the X-Men functions as this setting’s version of “Deadly Genesis,” and maybe Chuck will build a new team from the ashes and maybe he won’t. (Depends on when they publish the X-Men supplement, I guess.)

    As a corollary: I’m using a very stripped down “classic” version of the Marvel World. Partially this is a personal preference, but also, I need to keep the setting fairly simple so as not to overwhelm the players. There are probably about 20 super heroes and maybe 50 super villains, mostly folks that the players have a reasonable chance to recognize. By keeping the sandbox small, it means that players’ choices will ricochet among the NPC population, hopefully provoking response and counter-response.

    For example, at the close of this post’s play report, the Hulk is wanted by:
    * SHIELD + Avengers + Fantastic Four (the usual deal; they need a new hobby)
    * Professor X (for destroying his life’s work)
    * The Mandrill and his Sisterhood of Mutants (for killing their peers)
    * The Black Panther (for maiming his fiancee)

    In some sense, it’s better for the Hulk if the Registration Act passes, because then it forces all of the Hulk’s enemies to operate at cross-purposes and gives him some breathing room.

  5. October 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Yes, I think you have to strip the setting back, otherwise it would become unwieldy very quickly.

    I hope you continue to update us on this campaign. It’s quite interesting to me as a recently-lapsed Marvel reader.

  6. October 22, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    This is phenomenal. Now I want to start our CW campaign over.

    James, are you on Google+? I gave you props there as well:

  7. October 23, 2012 at 12:29 am

    Yes, but not under this name.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2012

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