The new Avengers movie out this month is something I’m planning to go and see next week. As a result, I’m planning to run the Marvel Super Heroes RPG, originally published in the 1980s – there’s a newer version out but I’m not sure if I’ll get it in time.
I’m planning to run the Days of Futures Past setting. It’s set some time in “the-not-t00-distant-future” after the events in X-Men: the Last Stand, although the film came out some time after the comic. It’s a time when many superheroes have been killed by the robotic Sentinels, who now hunt down anyone with super-powers as part of Project Wideawake (not just mutants, but normal or augmented humans, aliens, and anyone with super-human powers). It’s a pretty bleak future depicted in Futures Past: mutants, both super-heroes and -villains, are either executed or imprisoned in internment camps; the PCs are thrown into this head-first, avoiding Sentinel patrols, and trying to evade capture and execution.
One aspect I’ve decided to use is one of proper random attribute and power generation. I’m not a big fan of points-based systems that all too often allow min/maxing, allowing an unscrupulous player to wring an unfair advantage from a system. As I’m also using the Ultimate Powers book it means that there’ll be a variety of powers that the PCs could have, rather than them all having the same power (or powers): there should be some variety.
The Sentinels are hugely powerful opponents – a challenge even for the X-men – so the PCs are likely going to be outclassed right from the start. And here’s the thing: that’s how it should be. In the movies, the superhero nearly always gets their butt kicked on the first trip out, or something goes awry. Sometimes the heroes have to be outclassed, and they should retreat or face destruction.
This is why I hate D&D’s concept of Challenge Rating, and why I think encounters should occasionally be impossible for characters to beat. CR is ultimately a total cop-out and does not challenge the creativity of your players. CR is a guideline, not a rule: if your low level group are facing something of the higher level enemy, then they should back off, and formulate a different strategy. It is also a pretty common plot device in literature, where the protagonists frequently face a more powerful foe, sometimes with tragic consequences (e.g. Sturm Brightblade in Dragonlance, Kyle Reese in The Terminator, etc.).
As a GM, make it clear that such foes are powerful enough, and that the party is in deadly danger: of course, if PCs persist in “waking the dragon”, or otherwise pushing their luck, as GM give them ample opportunity to reconsider. If they don’t, then feel free to unleash seven kinds of hell upon them.
However, PCs shouldn’t continually suffer this, as sooner or later it’ll wear thin. However, there’s no reason why the same threat can’t become a recurrent one, so long as it isn’t over-used: Hearing the sound of Sentinels overhead, for example, may be enough to get the PCs moving in a Marvel Superheroes game; the huge roar as the dragon wakes up may motivate the would-be adventurers to get moving with the loot that they can carry, etc.
Of course, if your players are the type to sacrifice their PCs with a “Run, Sara!” moment then by all means give their PC’s death meaning: it shows a weakness, and provides a plot device or macguffin, such as a blind spot or weak spot, e.g. in the film of the same name, the Mummy (the hugely powerful Imhotep) flees a cat, of all things.