Monday, May 6, 2013

Who Earned The Win?

So, Avengers has been out long enough that I am comfortable spoiling minor bits of it. That said, I recognize that a little warning is in order, so here it is - I’m about to discuss a minor plot twist from The Avengers.


Ok, Loki has a magic stick. If he touches your heart with it, you serve him loyally. Late in the game, Loki and Tony Stark have a fantastic scene which culminates in Loki attempting to use the stick on Stark. This is a good plan on Loki’s part, but it fails because Stark has the arc reactor gizmo over his heart. This isn’t really explained within The Avengers, but anyone who’s seen Iron Man knows this.
In many senses of narrative, this is a HUGE cheat. If this had worked, Loki’s plan would have almost certainly succeeded, and it was dumb luck that it didn’t work.

Success through dumb luck makes for pretty lame narrative, and this bit bugged me at first, but I realized something - it wasn’t about the narrative. That was a moment of satisfaction for the audience. From the very start of that scene, many nerds were already wondering about the interaction of stick and reactor, and even if you weren’t, when it failed, it was a moment that let you, as a member of the audience, get it, and that’s a pretty powerful reward.

This is on my mind because in RPGs, players have elements of both protagonist and audience, but it’s very easy to focus purely on their role as protagonist when thinking about narrative and fiction. Doing so can be very rewarding, but it’s easy to forget that you may get more punch from crossing the fourth wall (so to speak) and violating the rules of narrative in order to deliver a reward directly to your players. Help them feel smart or awesome.

And yes, there are ways to do this within the narrative, but they strain things. Avengers suggests to me that it might sometimes be worth cutting out the middleman and jumping right to your players.


  1. I still feel vaguely guilty for a thing I did this one time as a GM. One of the players had a very out of the box idea for a "win" in a situation that I suspect would have otherwise been unwinnable (though lord knows, given the vagaries of the D20). Unfortunately, the idea clearly showed a slight misunderstanding of the entities involved, so I said "if you do it this way, it will work." Which he did, and the good guys won, and it was cool. But I keep wishing I could go back in time and just let what he wanted to do work, unaltered by my superior understanding of the situation.

  2. Further reaching nerdgasm for you.

    In Thor, Thor tells natalie portman "your ancestors called it magic, and you call it technology. I come from a place where they are one and the same." So there is a link between technology and magic. What does Tony Stark's arc reactor do? It protects his heart from being stabbed with metal objects.

    I doubt this was planned beyond the funny moment that a phasing blade doesn't pass through Tony's arc reactor, but it is funny that a random bit of side dialogue also shows that the two can interact oddly as they're the same thing effectively.

    1. Oh, yes, absolutely. And from a writing perspective, it is totally *not* a cheat. The technology is well established, and the metaphor of heartlessness is perfect. It is problematic only because it is coincidence which allows such a perfect moment.

      And as noted, that problematic-ness is overshadowed by AWESOME. :)

  3. GM: "Loki tries to use his magic on you, tries to hit your heart... and hits!"
    Player: "I don't resist."
    GM: "OK, that means he'll take you over..."
    Player: (smiling) "My character doesn't have a heart."

  4. Oh, and in a mechanics way. Player failed resistance roll, then tagged his "Metal Heart" advantage for a reroll and won. :)

    1. I think (though it's just me) that it works a little differently. See, the beauty of this for me was that player, IMO, didn't HAVE to roll anything. Like Dave said above: you don't need to DO anything, because you just ARE something. in this case by virtue of having metal plate above your heart (or even metal encasing your heart) you ARE immune to Loki's "glowy stick of destiny"(c)

  5. Keen to hear your thoughts on this post-Iron Man 3, spoilers for which I will not bring up here.

    1. Was traveling this weekend. I need to carve out some time to see it this week.

  6. It also depends on how Tony's player was playing the scene. Did the player figure out the arc reactor could stop the stick, and that's why he was so confident and blase?

    I had a very similar moment at one point. My character had been given a present by his wife. It was a magic amulet that, among other things, made him immune to the wiles of other women. That was just a throwaway bit by the DM, but I remembered it. Later, the party was being stalked and steadily dominated by a succubus. When the succubus came for my PC, I said, "Ah hah! I am immune to her feminine wiles! My amulet of marital fidelity protects me!"

    The DM totally disallowed it. To this day, I feel deeply cheated that it didn't work. For me, part of being clever in RPGs is making the little details work out in my favor.

    1. Word. I have been there in games. It disappoints me especially when I know the GM and it feels like he wants to "win" an encounter and that's why he disallows stuff. But it's also disappointing when you really just want to flex your creative muscles at, say, a pickup game at a con.

      Once, with a GM who was a stranger to me, I was playing Hank Pym in a FASERIP Marvel game, and I was trying to kit bash a device that would let me use destructive sonic interference to damage/defeat Klaw. He totally disallowed it even though it's a canonical way to beat that guy. /grump

    2. Oh, man. Ripoff.

      And double ripoff.

    3. Hmm... About Tony knowing it won't work ― I'm honestly not sure, and for me it's much better if he didn't know. See, there his game was just talk Loki long enough to
      a) get Jarvis time to setup mark7
      b) meanwhile get the bracelets on his hands
      c) maybe find out something about Loki and get him off his game
      IMO Tony, being Tony, was just overplaying this last bit and would be totally overwhelmed not for his ARC reactor thing.
      Though if I, the player, had this planned, I'd probably play it the same way ))

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  9. The latest episode of "Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff", Episode 41, has a section in the Film Hut segment where ken and Robin are talking about a new film called "Upstream Color" that utilizes an almost entirely experiental narrative rather than an explanatory one. This leads to a short, but wonderful discussion on the differences between both kinds of narratives and how they're utilized in films, games and culture. Highly recommended.


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