Once again, I want to remind everyone that ability ratings in HQ do not represent how “powerful” or “skilled” a person is with that ability, but instead represent how well the person uses that ability to accomplish their goals.
For example, Captain America has low levels of enhanced human strength as part of his super-soldier modifications. Iron Man has superhuman strength that allows him to lift weights that Captain America couldn’t budge. However, both characters might have the same rating in super-strength, because it represents their ability to use their individual strength ratings to effect change in their environment and accomplish their goals.
The key to determining if Captain America or Iron Man can lift a particular weight doesn’t lie in the ability ratings, but in the definition of those abilities themselves. It’s well established that Captain America can lift (at the highest end) about 2 tons (or 4,000 lbs.), and Iron Man can lift 80+ tons (or 160,000 lbs.). So if Captain America tries to pick up an M1 Abrams battle tank (about 68 tons), the GM shouldn’t even call for a roll. It’s an impossible task, as defined by the character itself (not the character’s rating). If Iron Man wants to lift it, he can.
But where the rating matters is inside the adventure when everyone is at the table. But it’s important for the GM to frame a contest so that it gives the player a chance to come up with a potential solution to a problem.
For example, the GM says that a building is collapsing, and a bunch of innocent bystanders are going to be crushed. Captain America is not strong enough to hold up the entire building, of course. However, the player narrates that Cap uses his shield and his enhanced strength to deflect the falling debris away from the huddled bystanders, preventing any injury to them and creating a pocket in the falling building where the debris supports itself and lets them escape getting crushed.
The stakes for this are: If the player succeeds, none of the bystanders get injured and can be easily rescued once the building settles. If the player fails, one or more of the bystanders get injured or even killed.
Note that, since we’re playing a comic book game, having Captain America’s survival depend on the results of a single roll are not really appropriate. The GM decides that it’s more interesting to determine if Cap can save the innocent bystanders or not, than whether he personally survives or not. The player is playing Captain America—of course he survives. But the guilt over his inability to save the innocents is something that might be interesting to play out if he fails.
In this case, the player rolls Cap’s Super-Strength ability rating, augmented by his rating in his Captain America’s Shield ability.
Differing Power Levels
Of course, many comic book hero teams combine superheroes of varying levels of power. The Avengers, for example, have had both Black Widow and Thor on the same team. The character ratings are likely to be in the same range, but their actual descriptions of what they can do may vary widely.
This is not a problem specific to HeroQuest, by the way. Most published superhero games have the same issue. Mutants & Masterminds pretty much ignores it, assuming all characters will be created with the same Power Level. The now out-of-print Marvel Heroic Roleplaying used a more narrative system that ultimately is similar to how a HeroQuest GM will need to address it.
In games that use a system that attempts to simulate real-world physics, these things are more easily defined. A villain who is tough enough to ignore small arms fire might have an Armor rating higher than the damage rating of the most powerful handgun. All the GM has to do it compare numbers and see which one is higher.
In a more narrative system, it is vital that all the players at the table are on the same page. If the Abomination can shrug off bullets, then the pistol-wielding hero won’t be able to narrate using his guns to take him down. But this also frees up the player to come up with the kinds of crazy stuff that you actually see in comic books. Can the hero shoot something else that may cause some kind of chain reaction that will affect the Abomination, like shooting a fuel tank and causing a huge explosion?
Because the Resistance is not based on real-world physics, it becomes a negotiation between the GM and the player as to what the character may accomplish. This means the GM has to be flexible and accept comic book logic when the player comes up with a solution to a problem.
This also means that the GM needs to keep in mind the power level differences when presenting challenges to the team of superheroes. If the GM tells the players that the alien invasion is being carried out by robots who are immune to any weapons less powerful than a round from a battle tank, and one of the characters is playing a hero on the power level of Daredevil or the Punisher, then that hero is going to struggle to find a way to affect the situation.
The GM can, of course, always present innocent bystanders to rescue and similar situations. But this will get stale after a few times—every player wants to be able to hammer on a villain sometimes. So it’s important for the GM to ensure—if there are heroes of varying levels of power on the team—that villains, or villain teams, come in varying power levels as well.
It won’t need to be all the time, of course. Occasionally having a single villain that only the most powerful of heroes can battle is okay as long as there are other important things for the lower-powered heroes to do. Note that I put emphasis on important—crowd control is an okay option if used very rarely, but the GM should ensure that other elements get used much more often. Options include a doomsday device that needs to be deactivated, the closing of a portal to another dimension, facing down hordes of minions that threaten to overrun a vulnerable group or location, capturing the person who summoned the big villain, stealing something important while the big villain is distracted by the battle, etc.
What is important is that the player needs to feel that he or she is contributing to the success of the team, even if playing a hero that is not as super-powered as some of the others.
In HQ, superhero characters don’t really differ much from their mundane (or fantasy-based) counterparts. But, as always, it’s important for everyone at the table to be on the same page.
Unfortunately, I’m out of time and I didn’t get a chance to demonstrate some character write-ups. So I’m going to revisit this topic again next week and give some example characters as well as examples of a few villains.