The Professor X Paradox

Many of us here at Critical Hits enjoy comics, especially of the superhero variety. So it’s natural to try and combine our love of roleplaying games with our love of superheroes into one solid package.

Primarily, our experience with superhero games was in GURPS Supers. GURPS is a system we developed a fair amount of experience with, so it seemed natural to build on our previous low point powers and crank up the character points to make ourselves some superheroes. The system also afforded enough flexibility to cover a wide range of characters that we wanted to play, from a super-fast speedster (named, guess what, Speedster) to a powerful hulking brute (The Uncrushable Gronk.) The only concept that GURPS was completely ill-equipped to handle was the Green Lantern archetype. Other than that, our group experimented with a wide range of classic character types, enabled not just by the Supers rules, but any other GURPS books that we needed to fill it out.

Unfortunately, there always seemed to be a wall that our campaigns hit, and has made us reluctant to pick up another superhero game in many years. While discussing the issue and attempting to settle on a new system, The Main Event and I hit on the core of our problem, and we dubbed it “The Professor X Paradox.”

You see, take a typical party. You’re likely to have a wide range of different kinds of heroes in your group. To take some iconic examples, let’s say your party has the Incredible Hulk, Cyclops, and Professor X. Now let’s say, as what often happens in an RPG and in superhero stories, the party gets into a fight. You want to have a challenge for the party members, so you have a brute ala Abomination. Now, for the Hulk, this is an interesting fight. And Cyclops might be able to help out too. But for Professor X, either he’s going to completely take over the Abomination with mind powers and have him pose no threat, or he’s going to get obliterated by one punch from Abomination. Basically, the Hulk’s scale of toughness is so beyond a normal human’s that if you ever have a normal human in the fray, he’s likely to be killed if he happens to get involved in the fray.

Essentially, you’re looking at a rock/paper/scissors situation with most credible threats that you encounter. Yes, this can be mitigated somewhat by having intended opponents square off, but PCs are much less likely to obey narrative causality than try to minmax a fight.

We even have one real example in a game we played in that we like to reference for the problem. It was a superhero game, but with some post-apocalyptic/demonic elements to it. I was the aforementioned Speedster, a super-fast runner who could dodge just about anything thrown at him (except on a critical failure.) Bartoneus was a heavily armored mech pilot (with a talent for traffic analysis.)

Since the mech’s armor was so tough, most threats didn’t stand a chance of harming his character, so the GM started to introduce threats specifically to attack him. One particularly laughable example involved demons with rocket launchers. However, the one that really illustrates the example involves a gaggle of creatures who could accelerate themselves to near light speeds and explode upon impact. The force was enough to be able to blow a hole in the mech’s armor.

That’s not what happened, however. One of them launched itself at Speedster. All I needed to do was dodge, and roll anything but an 18 on 3d6.

Guess what I rolled. Speedster of course didn’t have any kind of armor, toughness, or serious HP, so he was super-fast chunks of goo in no time.

Thus, we’ve encountered the example enough to know that it stymies any attempt to get a superhero game off the ground. We experimented with more flexible and recommended systems like Champions, but it ended up being too complex to get more players onboard. We’ve investigated some other systems that try to address the problem in other ways, like the indie game Truth & Justice. I’ve heard many good things about Mutants & Masterminds, but found myself totally unimpressed with the first edition that I read.

Until we find a system that is simple enough yet addresses “The Professor X Paradox”, the superhero game will remain one of our holy grail campaigns…

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, the Geek's Dream Girl.

Comments

  1. Very good analysis. Give 2nd ED M&M spin if you get your hands on it. It’s intersting if you want to go for a narrative slant on typically crunchy Superhero gaming.

  2. Have you tried Villains and Vigilantes? It’s an older system that is a lot simpler than many of the systems of today. It’s also a relatively cheap download from DrivethruRPG.

  3. I agree with Chatty, give M&M 2e a try. I’ve had similar problems with Champions and Silver Age Sentinels games, but the few M&M 2e games I ran seemed to work well.

    Geek Gazette´s last post: Internet Video: Batman/Superman: World’s Finest

  4. I’d recommend checking out TriStat dX, the system used for the Big Eyes, Small Mouth and Silver Age Sentinels series. Despite Geek Gazette’s experience, I played a quite-fun superhero game in the system, and the rules are available for free online. The system’s designed to handle high-powered, cinematic combat, and gameplay’s pretty simple.

    Gregory Weir´s last post: Some Free Indie RPGs

  5. Chatty & GG: I’ll check out M&M2e again, but it may be a bit too crunchy to get people in on. That may be a topic for another post.

    Duroon: I’ve heard the name, but never knew what it was like. Thanks!

    Gregory: I’ve played a decent amount of BESM, and own the TriStat dX book. It never grabbed me, but I’ll give it another read-through.

  6. There’s actually a fairly simple solution to that problem, that works with any system.

    How do teams in the comics that consist of relatively normal guys with no armor or super-reflexes, like Cyclops, coexist with tanks like Colossus? The writer just grants script immunity to the weaker characters. If the Abomination attacks Colossus, he can land a punch, if he attacks Cyclops, he can’t. He might stun him with a near miss, or bury him in rubble, but he’ll never just splat him (unless Warren Ellis is writing it as a joke on the readers).

    So grant script immunity to your supers characters. Just rule that if one of the heavy-hitter’s attacks actually lands on a non-tank, the GM decides what happens. What happens can range from being a complete miss, to being momentarily stunned, to being taken out of the fight until helped (rubble lifted to reveal that through luck or skill he has managed to create a safe pocket), to being taken out of the fight entirely. If you apply this equally to PCs attacked by heavy-hitter NPCs and PC heavy hitters attacking weaker NPCs, the PCs will even learn to stick to genre and have their Colossus character stick to attacking the Juggernaut instead of trying to one-shot Black Tom all the time.

  7. Sure, which is the “narrative causality” argument. I guess I just wish that it happened to occur organically within the system without a lot of GM intervention. I hear “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” RPG works along those lines.

  8. This problem shows up in other genres too, specifically with GURPS.

    We played a GURPS fantasy style game for about 10 years, and the characters all advanced in different directions. One PC brought in a character that had pushed his Broadsword skill to 21 when he made the character, and advanced it even further in game. He would just rip through combatants in the fray, and anyone I made that could pose a challenge to him from either an armor or skill perspective, way outclassed most of the other characters.

    What I did to solve this was to start designing encounters based not on the skills of the party, but on the disadvantages. This warrior had post combat shakes and flashbacks. Previously it was a way for me to give him insight into his background, but I started to use it to lower his effectiveness to that of the rest of the group. I would stage fights. A group would confront the party, and they would deal with it, he would start having shakes and flashbacks, and during the 2-3 minutes he was going through that, a second group would attack the party. This let me keep the risk for others at an acceptable level, reduce his effectiveness, let everyone keep playing, and even pushed “unknown history” clues into his fights at the same time.

    It seemed to work well, and all the players seemed to enjoy the game more.

  9. This happened to us, almost a decade and a half ago (OMG, I felt old just typing that!).

    We were playing Rifts, and we had a party of a Glitter Boy, a Juicer, a Cyborg… and me, a “rogue scholar” with no armor, a simple laser pistol and a beat up van filled with old books.

    That game is soooo unbalanced that its a wonder how it keeps selling… And this was not power creep, because the sheer lack of balance is there since the first book.

    Amphimir the Bard´s last post: Rusia, Georgia y la hegemonía de la OTAN

  10. TheMainEvent says:

    Rifts always made me scratch my head when I tried it. I played some sort of dog-man hybrid and normal goons could take me out. Someone else played a Cyborg and mow through tanks.

    The WORST system in this regard is perhaps the WORST system of all time: World of Synnabar. One of my friends insisted it “only had a bad rap” and set about to prove it was good.

    He failed.

  11. John: An interesting idea, and not one that need be confined to GURPS.

    Amphimir: I’d say that’s one of the least of my problems with RIFTS…

  12. I think the problem is not with the game but with the genre. The sort of narrative causality that you deride is a common element of the superhero comic. Otherwise you’d quickly run out of villians and you’d run out of heroes only shortly thereafter. In RPG form the characteristics of the genre still persist. There are however two easy solutions to this problem. First is to let the characters die. The players have created the characters to do only one thing well (this is true in every superhero game i’ve ever played or GM’d) The price of this is that they are glass cannons. That is the choice they made, so let them die when their weaknesses are exploited. Force them to innovate ways to cover the vulnerabilities or to leverage they super abilities into protecting them. If the don’t innovate they die and make new characters, which will either be new versions of the old ones, or will slowly migrate to a build that will allow them to attack and defend. The second is to give them a X number of Fate points which allow them to make miraculous escapes as described in an above comment. It is their choice when they are used, but they only get one per session or so many per level or whatever. Any left at the end of the session/level can be traded in for something else. The players are rewarded for playing smart and not needing the fate chips, but aren’t particularly penalized for when the speedster hits the fan.

  13. Hey, I’m not deriding narrative causality, it’s the PCs that did. If they’d fight their intended opponent or take up their intended challenge, it wouldn’t be an issue… it’s when the Hulk decides he can just smash through the door that Batman is trying to lockpick before going back to fight the Abomination do things get mixed up.

    I’m not a fan of not letting people play the character type they want because the system doesn’t support it. I think wanting to play your own version of Cyclops should be allowable in a superhero game without being told that you’ll probably die.

    The second idea, however, is definitely one I’m interested in. I’ll have to look into what systems support that kind of thing.

  14. This problem is far less significant if dealing with challenges is not the main point of the game. So, if you are willing to put more emphasis elsewhere, the situation might get better.

    To elaborate a bit: Instead of building a combat scene to challenge the player characters, give them some problem, but don’t create a solution. When they try something, use common sense, the rules and your sense of drama guide how successful they are.

    Problems can be hassles with secret identities, creatures from beyond the stars trying to eat Earth or make everyone mad, just another supervillain, or problems with persons the characters care about.

    (For games, if you are not inherently allergic to games without lots of rules, check out Truth and justice. On the site’s freebie page you can find PDQ, which is the core system of their games. It is free. T&J is slightly more complicated, IIRC.)

  15. You’ll note, good sir, that I specifically point out Truth & Justice being a possibility at the end of my post :) More research is required to see if it’s a good fit for the group.

  16. This is why Professor X doesn’t go out on mission all that often…and also why when there’s mechs, everyone in the fight has one…

    Less invincible characters need to stay off the front-lines if you’re going to give the Hulk a challenge there…

    It’s a tough problem that is best avoided by avoiding the problem…

    Reverend Mike´s last post: Session #1: Dead Jeffery On A Rope

  17. Also, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!…

    Reverend Mike´s last post: Session #1: Dead Jeffery On A Rope

  18. One approach is to set some limits in the first place: if you have Professor X and Cyclops, both at the ‘squishy human’ level, then cap damage resistance somewhere before the ‘nigh-invulnerable’ Hulk level. Pick a point where a threat to Cyclops is still a threat (but less of one) to Armored Hero X, and call that the maximum starting value.

    This works, but it’s somewhat unsatisfying to the guy who wants to play the Hulk.

    A variation is to balance with probabilities. The squishies get to have a high chance to avoid being hit. Hulk gets hit by just about everything, but shrugs a lot of it off.

    The problem here is that the massive hit eventually gets through, and the squishy squishes.

    The best way is to use narrative imperative. If the attack did enough damage to kill, it did enough damage to stun, disable, entangle, and so on. How many times in old comics did a relatively-fragile character take a punch from a rampaging Hulk or other strong guy and survive because “I… *uhn*… rolled with the blow just in time!”?

    Hm… come to think of it, this should probably be a full-fledged blog post. Might get to be rather long for a comment. >.>

  19. I want to clarify that my Mech character in GURPS was a normal human in points, and had spent almost all of his points (to the same value as the other players) on his suit of armor. One player made an off-hand comment about me repairing my armor between adventures, which was necessary or else I’d have been gradually worse than the other players. The GM took this as something that needed fixing, and started with the ridiculous things.

    “You see a group of demons patrolling the hall below you. One of them is carrying a rocket launcher with armor piercing missiles!”

    Great…

  20. OriginalSultan says:

    GURPS also lacked game balance in general. It is just more pronounced with higher point value characters. For instance, it is pretty easy to make a GURPS Fantasy Knight-esque character who is impervious to most damage due to his good armor right from the get-go. Another example from a friend of mine (in a standard 100 pt Fantasy game) was a Goblin Wizard who turned insubstantial (rendering himself immune from almost everything except for Air Jet spells) while simultaneously being able to make lightning attacks while insubstantial. Fun.

    It seems that the more flexibility the game allows, the greater the potential for imbalance between the characters. Of course, there are also numerous games with little flexibility that are also not balanced…

  21. The issue is what the rules of the game do.

    GURPS is designed to maximize internal consistency. It is not designed as a tool for generating fiction.

    Contrariwise, With Great Power and Prime Time Adventures are.

    The key is to dissociate character success from Naturalistic consistency. Hell, you can dissociate character success from *player* success, as is the case in Capes.

    I can guarantee you: playing Green Lantern, Professor X, or frickin’ *Toad* in any of these would work just fine.

    Who would win in a fight: Batman or Superman? The answer is, ‘It depends on who’s writing it!’ When you’re playing an RPG, it’s *your* fiction. *You* are the creator. If this is a problem for you, it’s because you’ve got the wrong tools.

    Joshua A.C. Newman´s last post: Robot Checkbox

  22. haha. Great story with the mech and the demons.

    I will have to agree with chatty (and other people who mentioned it) here. 2nd ed M&M seems to work pretty well in this regard. For whatever power level your campaign is, there is an upper limit of toughness and defense (with some minimal tweaking you can do to trade one off against the other). As long as you encourage your players to put at least a few points into these things, you can usually get a fair handle on how well your players will deal with any threat, and none of them should be so far above the others that encounters will be unfair (at least at default power levels).

    Maestro´s last post: 2nd Exam Done!

  23. I use a heavily modified version of Marvel SAGA. I know that may sound odd, but I like the core card mechanic and it is pretty hard to actually outright kill a character. Granted, I’ve modded the system so heavily that my players call the rulebook the “suggestion book” and mainly use it as a powers catalog, but it has worked for several campaigns.

    Regardless of the system, if one player insists on playing Black Panther and another Thor, the GM is going to have to work to give everyone their “panels” to shine.

    Oz´s last post: 3PP 4e support

  24. Demons with armor-piercing missiles? no!

    Demons with mental/magic powers or mind-control that ignores the armor…. yes!

    Attack where your enemy is weak, retreat where your enemy is strong. Instead of attacking versus the character’s strong point (armor/toughness) you attack him where he is weak. That’s the main reason you have multiple characters…

    The demon attacks the tough-guy who is weak minded, then the mentalists blocks and protects the tough-guy….

  25. TheMainEvent says:

    @Rekres: Good point, but this comes back to narrative causality a bit, doesn’t it? Instead of getting comic-style Hulk/Colossus slugfests its just everyone getting picked off (and possibly killed) by their bad match ups…

  26. Anonymous says:

    FATE – Red Hat – Still being worked out, but Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files are good leaping off points.

  27. What about Aberrant? I recall having a good time using that system, but don’t recall how this paradox displayed itself. Anyone else have any recollections?

    The O´s last post: Follow the Yellow Cat Road

  28. Would anyone actually have fun playing a superman character?

    joshx0rfz´s last post: YouTube Tuesday: BMX Powers Go! Edition

  29. I think Joshua Newman got the closest to what I consider the answer here, in that the writer (GM) controls much of what type of outcome is probable (though I’m sure we all have stories where the PC’s have confounded the expected).

    But I look at this post and all the responses, and my main responses is that the lack of balance that every one is notating is always going to be found in games that combat is the primary interaction.

    As long as you are trying to validate the existence of a ‘sage-type’ character (Prof X here) in a game where combat is king and the measuring stick you are all using, you’re going to have this paradox you describe, or at least so I see it. It would be the same if you created a character who was supernaturally pursuasive and attractive, or possessed great spy skills, or any other skill set that is not combat specific.

    Your description of the combat and the scale of toughness is actually balanced well if there are enough social-interaction, non-combat situations where the Hulk’s strength are useless. In other words, I find it as much a setting flaw as a system flaw.

    LordVreeg´s last post: Taking Damage

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