TV to Tabletop is a series in which I will be examining scenes in popular movies and TV shows and breaking them down into game mechanics. Essentially asking, “What if this wasn’t a scripted performance with big budget special effects, but a group of players sitting around a table rolling dice?” There are spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War below.
For the first issue I want to focus on a scene from Avengers: Infinity War. Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Drax, and Mantis have all decided to ambush Thanos on his homeworld of Titan, using the Time Stone as bait. Thanos arrives, and after some obligatory villain monologuing, the heroes launch their surprise round. The combat goes in their favor (despite Thanos dropping a moon on Tony) and the combined Avengers and Guardians manage to trap the Mad Titan. It’s at this point they begin to remove the Infinity Gauntlet, and the Game Master sees his epic, universe ending finale begin slipping away, at least until Star-Lord remembers that Gamora was supposed to be there. In his rage, he wakes Thanos up and Thanos wraps up everything in a snap.
This is a beautiful example of how a GM can course correct the plot while making the players think it was their idea all along. A lot of roleplaying games have a mechanic built in related to character flaws: personal weaknesses, relationships, personality quirks, and the like which make a character’s life harder. Mutants & Masterminds calls these complications. This helps ease the connection between playing the game to win and playing into genre tropes. Every good hero suffers setbacks, even if we don’t want to see our player characters get hurt.
In many systems, complications are accompanied by a reward of some kind when they cause a player to act against their own self-interest. Mutants & Masterminds has hero points, Ubiquity has style points, Savage Worlds has bennies, and so on and so forth. These rewards make future encounters easier for the players at the expense of a little pain in that moment. Hero points also ease the pain of the GM stepping in to alter the outcome of a scene. A GM might do this if the players are breezing through sections that were supposed to be more difficult, if this moment would be a good showcase of one character’s relationship with a villain or a victim, or anytime a scene needs a touch of personal drama. It’s important to remember that this mechanic should always be used in service of the story, not just to protect a villain that the GM thinks is interesting, or to rob the players of their agency.
In the Infinity War example, Star-Lord probably had a relationship complication with Gamora, who presumably up until this point was another player character. When the GM saw that Thanos was going to go down they handed the player a hero point and said something along the lines of, “Peter, you remember that Gamora was taken by Thanos back on KNOWHERE. It’s a little odd to you that she’s not here, and Thanos appears to have the Soul Stone only she knew about.” Star-Lord’s player then reacted in such a way that, while harmful to the group’s mission, felt completely in character.
It resulted in the party’s failure in that encounter and ultimately the death of half the universe, but hopefully that will all be resolved in a satisfying manner the next time the group gets together to play. Complications are a good way to stimulate roleplaying opportunities for player characters and hero points are a great way to reward them for acting against their better judgments. Using a personal flaw in a pivotal scene like this will add to the drama of your story in an organic, character driven way. This technique will result in moments that your players will remember for a lifetime. Thanks for reading and may all your hits be crits!