2664317-superman_earth_1_06

Making Superman Truly Invulnerable In Fate Core

1443271-superman_bullet_super

It should have been expected, but I was still shocked nonetheless at how many people were more critical of my JLA stat blocks than they were of my Avengers. It’s probably due to the JLA being slightly more iconic and in the public eye than the Avengers (and typically more invulnerable/perfect at what they do than the more complicated lives of the typical Avenger). The most common critique was the lack of believable disparity between Superman’s traits and the others. So, let’s address what can be done to make Superman feel truly invulnerable in a Fate Core game.

When I wrote Superman, I gave him The Last Kryptonian as an aspect. That justifies a lot (pretty much all of his powers while he’s on Earth). But remember how we constructed all of Iron Man’s various systems of his armor through an aspect? This is no different, and probably a little easier since everybody knows what the abilities of a Kryptonian are. One of the things that aspect justifies is invulnerability. In mechanical terms, that’s usually represented by an armor rating or some increase to Athletics.

Before adding an armor rating to Superman, it’s probably best to first add a stunt that allows him to defend against physical harm with his Physique skill. I didn’t do this because Superman is also really fast and his flight ability is as important as his invulnerability, and so Athletics needs to be high enough that the difference wasn’t big enough to warrant a stunt. Maybe in your version it will.

So that’s one way, use Physique to defend against physical damage and describe it as the character taking the damage and ignoring it rather than moving out of the way. But that’s not what we’re discussing, is it? What we want to explore is how to handle it when Deadshot rolls higher and penetrates that invulnerable hide with a bullet. How’s that make Superman invulnerable?

ScOF-Superman-Bulletproof

Well, first of all, it doesn’t (penetrate his hide, I mean). Remember what we said about justification in that Iron Man articleThe Last Kryptonian justifies Superman as being invulnerable and thus immune to bullets. Narratively, it’s easy enough to say that he completely ignores Deadshot’s bullet, but that’s not simulating fiction through mechanics, it’s making the narrative more important than the mechanics (it is, but that’s besides the point).

Caveat: I use a single stress track and a single consequence track, but this works with Fate Core’s standard tracks. When Deadshot makes that fatally perfect shot against the Man of Steel, it affects the setting, not the character.

When Superman takes stress, it means it’s a close call, it only requires narration, nothing mechanical and doesn’t affect the setting. In essence, he has absorbed damage to his surroundings (how very Superman of him). But when he takes a consequence, things start to happen.

Let’s say Superman is protecting a bank from villains and Deadshot is taking potshots at him through the window. If he hits and Superman would be forced to take a mild consequence, he doesn’t. Not in the usual fashion, anyway. A mild consequence would mean something narratively important that Superman is responsible for, like a ricochet off his chest that strikes a young kid who’s now injured. Write on Superman’s sheet (under physical consequences, if that’s what you use) Injured Child and let him feel the grief. In order to recover from that, he has to get that kid to the hospital, or otherwise save his life, which has to happen after he’s done trouncing Deadshot for what he’s done. That trip to the hospital is Superman’s recovery action.

If it was a moderate consequence, maybe Jimmy Olsen was in the bank taking pictures for the Daily Planet and it was him that got struck. That’s a closer relationship to Supes than some random kid, and so the effects on his social life will last longer. Jimmy’s Been Shot! If it was a severe consequence, maybe it was Lois! Of course, it doesn’t have to be a ricochet into a person. It could have hit a gas main, broken open the vault, etc. Anything serious enough to warrant the level of consequence Superman is getting and he can be blamed for (because if he can’t be partially to blame, why have the consequence?).

The same thing could happen if he’s trying to stop a train and fails the roll.

speeding-train

His player decides to succeed at cost and the train stops, but the cars after the first all derail and slam into surrounding buildings! This puts many people in danger and Superman has to clean up the mess (recovery action), but will feel the shame (and social reaction) for some time (recovery duration).

But what if he’s taken out? You ask. That’s more serious than a simple consequence, and it should be. If he’s taken out, his goal utterly fails. The bank explodes in a mushroom cloud killing everyone inside, etc. People know Superman was involved and he’s not going to get off easy. (If the injured kid was inside, we have to rename that to something appropriate, like Mourning A Kid I Could Not Save.)

To recover the Blown Bank Job consequence, Superman has to show up at the memorial, where he’s sure to meet with the negative journalists (shouldn’t he be in that crowd?) and next of kin who may hold him responsible. And that’s perfect in keeping with one of  Superman’s themes: the consequences of living in a cardboard world.

Whenever Supes, or anyone else who’s immune to an effect takes real “damage”, look at two things: first, how can it affect the character. If it can’t, how can it affect the location/setting/other characters? There’s always a way to “injure” someone by hurting their goal instead of their invulnerable hide.

If anyone tries this out, let me know how it went!

33 thoughts on “Making Superman Truly Invulnerable In Fate Core”

  1. This post has single handedly turned me on to FATE. I backed FATE Core, but after seeing it I sort of lost interest. This post made me do a full 180. I want to play a supers game in FATE now!

    Also, this has made me want to write Superman fanfic, and I really dislike Superman.

    Thank you for this post!

  2. This is one of those things I read and then feel stupid. I’ve been playing Fate for a few years, running Fate Core since February in two separate campaigns, and I didn’t grok it to this level. Thank you, sir, for the lesson in being an awesome Fate GM.

  3. How do you stop it from getting old? If it was just superman you could use all kinds of different threats tailored to him, but in a group game where most of the players aren’t bulletproof you may want to keep using villains with guns
    How often can you put Lois in danger before your players start to groann? How many fights in a row can you have riccochets off superman? And if it’s not a ricochet but rather just a bystander getting shot then why does only superman feel the consequences? Why doesn’t the rest of the JLA have to deal with the fallout of the bad bank job? I mean, you could make them but then they will have to deal with Superman’s recovery on top of their own.

    I don’t mean to sound too critical – your idea is good but I just foresee more obstacles to be overcome now that you have overcome that one. Superman just works differently than other heroes so it will always be hard to try use the same mechanics to represent him.

    1. It won’t get that old, I think. Characters in Fate are fairly sturdy – they don’t get a whole lot of consequences all that often.

      For Superman, the mild consequence of guilt over the endangerment of a citizen or being knocked into a building and having a “Citizens in Danger” mild consequence is pretty common and almost always useful. More severe consequences endanger him further, but that is fairly rare in games I’ve played (severe consequences happening almost never).

      When there are more than a few Justice Leaguers – the problem children here are Wonder Woman and Superman – concentrate on things that aren’t just the environment.

      After Superman gets a consequence and puts “Citizens in Danger”, Wonder Woman could get a consequence a few rounds later like “Covering for Superman, Again!” as she shores up a building that’s falling or diving in front of civilians, due to Superman’s failure. Maybe that’s Superman’s consequence that Wonder Woman is “recovering” – “Diana’s Gonna Be Pissed”.

      Another option would be to do a staccato of sorts. The first consequence impacts the setting (as above), the second impacts the player’s goals and the third impacts something elsewhere that will eventually be important. To affect the goal, think about the what the characters are after and throw a wrench in it (the bad guys get away and it’s all Superman’s fault, etc.). When something elsewhere is affected, having Superman’s fighting in this location mean that he’s not present when someone frames him for a murder.

      Story consequences!

      Find something important to the character and break it in half, or bring in a new twist that can hurt them physically or ruin their goals.

      Most of the time, superheroes have so many personal struggles that it’s really very extremely easy to get them a mass of fate points through compels. At that point, they aren’t likely to get seriously hurt.

      I would say that this is a common problem for writers of comics, “how do we keep these characters who can do anything compelling and interesting?” Especially for Superman. So do what they do, slap a compel on that “Last Kryptonian” high concept and bring in some magic or kryptonite when things get boring with gunfights, allowing for some real damage to ol’ Big Blue.

      1. It could also mean that NPCs won’t (at least not constantly / to the point of boredom) try to attack Superman with regular bullets and the Attack action.

        You could narrate “the mooks try to shoot you but it just bounces off” but real Attack actions would be something that Superman WAS vulnerable too. Such as non-physical attacks.
        Or challenge Superman in ways other than being a target of the Attack action. I.e. hard choices and/or weird shit.

        1. In Fate, “hard choices & weird shit” are called Compels, which generate Fate points, which is what powers Superman’s invulnerability. In Fate, it’s not that he can save the world because he’s invulnerable, it’s that he’s invulnerable because he has to save the world.

          1. No, I got that that was your take from your comment. That he had to accept compels all the time to fuel his power.

            And that’s a fine take. I just don’t agree. I was trying to say something else.

            I don’t think it’s so much that Superman wins defense checks against bullets, as it is that plain bullets just don’t hurt him in the fiction.

            I’m not a huge AW fan but I think this snippet from Dungeon World applies to certain takes on Fate, too:
            “A character without a weapon of some sort isn’t going to trigger the hack and slash move when fighting a dragon since a bare-knuckle punch really doesn’t do much to inch-thick scales. It doesn’t count for the purposes of triggering the move.”

            “It doesn’t count for the purposes of triggering the move” — someone shoots bullets at Superman, and it doesn’t trigger a defense roll because he’s super. Well, it can occasionally do, but then, as Ryan has it, it’s the externalities he wants to defend against, not physical harm.

          2. Because in Fate, what is true in the fiction is true in the fiction.

            So we have three takes here:
            Ryan’s, which is that his failed Defense rolls cause externalities. I like this take in moderation and would use it to complement or mix it up with
            my take, which is to not even bother with the Attack/Defense rolls most of the time, if they don’t have an in-fiction reason to matter.

            If I understand your take correctly, his failed Defense rolls still cause him damage, but he won’t fail them because when played/GMed properly, he will have a lot of fate points to cause high defense rolls. Is that right?

            The reason this take doesn’t appeal to me is that I think his schtick is that he shrugs off bullets as if they were nothing.

            This comes from an perspective of “What if we played Fate in a game world where Superman, with all his might, existed?” rather than “What if we played Fate and someone wanted to be very good at defending against physical attacks.”

            Superman’s mere existence is in-fiction-reason enough to not game out the Attack/Defense rolls some times. Bullets affect him as little as someone firing a handgun in Australia affects me here in Europe.

            I know Superman was weaker between 1985 and 2003 but I grew up with the pre-Crisis Superman so that’s what I want to model.

    2. “Lois is in danger every other issue” is one of the more common complaints from Superman readers, so even the writers use it a lot.

      Also, while it’s true superman is pretty much invincible, he isn’t perfectly so. There are examples of him taking physical injury, Batman’s broken his nose at least twice, and there are folks like Doomsday, Orion, and Hercules who can go toe to toe with him in a fist fight. He’s fully vulnerable to magic, it’s not common today but there are plenty of sorcerers and witches in the DCU. And for some reason any competent super-sniper seems to know a guy who knows a guy who can make Kryptonite bullets.

      Also, Superman is more… ?altruistic? than most of the JLA. Things that don’t touch Batman, Diana, any of the lanterns on an emotional level always seemed to resonate with him (or at least they did before the nDCU.)

      By mixing the occasional ‘real’ physical damage from above into Supe’s pool, and the occasional ‘goal’ damage into the other characters, it helps balance it out and tie it together.

  4. I honestly am amazed with how well you have a grasp on FATE, and a lot of what you have been sharing is allowing me to get a really good grasp of the potential of the system.

    More so of what I am very amused and inspired by is the fact that the Story itself is center of every decision in the game. The narrative, more times than not, is the core to what the mechanics revolve around.

    I also find it very interesting that more times than not, if a player role play’s their character in a decent fashion, they likely will have (at a later time) a greater influence in the action in later scenes. Combine that with appropriate skills so that a player can potentially gain free invokes, behaving in a way that isn’t simply hack’n’slash, the Heroes can cooperate with each other in order to create very team-oriented, flavorful, and enjoyable story-driven games.

    Thanks again for all your input on your blog so far, you have a devote reader now among your blog and will be looking forward to what you plan on sharing next!

  5. I see it differently. I see it as Superman’s player always having a huge stack of Fate points. He’s invoking “Son of Krypton” and probably 3 other aspects on every roll, and powering a bunch of Stunts. He hits Legendary without breaking a sweat.

    How can he do this? Because not only is he the most powerful being in the world, he’s the most compelled. If Batman gets a Fate point because a bus is being threatened & he’s compelled to act, then Superman gets three because while Batman deals with the bus Superman is keeping Lois’s helicopter from crashing into a school field trip to the White House. The player would demand these compels, because he needs them. He’d also want some highly public and jucily-invokable Aspects to, which are tagged left and right by his enemies.

    Environmental consequences are good, yes. Any good fight with Superman is mostly about breaking him down mentally anyway.

    Deflected bullets damaging bystanders is pretty non-heroic, though. Nuts to that.

  6. Another thought: the price for a compel is usually just one Point, but in Spirit of the Century one could escalate up to three times. If a GM was compelling my character to walk straight into a hail of bullets with no armor, I’d buy off that compel. But if he wanted to force it, and offer me two or three, I could see taking it, even if it meant immediately burning those points to make a Legendary+ defense or overcome Physique roll.

    Seems like Superman would always pour on the points, too, setting up boosts for his next feat of derring-do.

  7. Sandra,

    I’ve never seen a line in any Fate rules that says “What’s true in the fiction is true in the fiction.” Maybe I just don’t know what you mean by that. I do know the concept of not rolling unless both success and failure would be interesting, and Superman taking damage is arguably not interesting. In scenes involving regular bullets, those could just be background, though that’s tricky if Batman is also present. (Batman, I’ll note, is also invulnerable to bullets, for all intents and purposes, but it’s because he makes some effort to avoid them.)

    The idea of failed defenses causing externalities is cool, but it seems somewhat reversed from the usual Fate approach, and not very heroic when it involves Superman indirectly causing the harm.

    I don’t understand your objection to my approach. The end result is that he DOES shrug off bullets as if they were nothing. Any guy with 4 Toughness & some relevant Stunts against a passel of mooks probably never even has to spend a Fate point to shrug off their attacks, but if Superman has to he can, essentially endlessly due to his Compellable nature.

    On the flipside, even an enemy with a lot of Fate points might not have Aspects that help them against Superman. Even “Perfect Marksman” doesn’t help. Only a few key enemies could even boost their Guns roll against Superman with a rare aspect like “Bottomless Resources” for Lex Luthor or “Massive Intellect” for Brainiac. I think that’s where the “fiction” matters: in determining what Aspects can help against Superman, based on what we know about him.

    My perspective is that the world is the world and Superman isn’t the only one in it. In a game with Superman, others are around who can’t just shrug off bullets, and if they have to roll to avoid or absorb damage, then so does Superman. If there’s a wall to bust through, then that’s an obstacle with a difficulty that must be overcome. Superman can do it, but not because he’s strong. He’s strong because he HAS to bust through that wall. Batman probably can’t do it, or any of what Superman can do, because he’s trained in different skills, has different Stunts, has different Aspects & is compelled in different ways.

    “Superman is inherently invulnerable” works out to be the same as “Superman is invulnerable because he’s so deeply compelled.” But the latter, as I see it, is Fate, while the former is not. Which is okay, but worth being clear about.

  8. What I meant here is that in most settings, humans breath air, right? There’s no rule for that, it’s just true in the fiction. And it would be weird to me if GMs would start to require players to make a “breathing” roll just to see them breathe air in the mechanics (unless, of course, given extraordinary circumstances—but the same is true for harming Superman). I guess I phrased this confusing or tautologically.

    To me, any NPC rolling to harm Superman with a plain handgun is as if I’d allow a roll to see how far a mook can throw the island of Manhattan barehanded. It’s just not possible in the fiction, and I value a strong mutual interplay between rules and fiction.

    To paraphrase you, but not meant in a mocking way: “In a game with the island of Manhattan, other items (such as pebbles and goldfish) can be thrown, and if mooks can roll to see how far they can throw these items, then they can roll to see how far they can throw Manhattan.”

    I hope you don’t take this as being too disrespectful (I’m not fond of sarcasm), it’s just a rhetorical device to explain my point here.

    It’s just… humans can’t breathe liquid mercury. Birds can’t walk on the sun. And plain bullets can’t hurt Superman.

    Liquid mercury doesn’t need to spend fate points in order to avoid providing humans with oxygen.
    The sun doesn’t need to spend fate points in order to avoid getting birds walked on its surface.
    And Superman doesn’t need to spend fate points in order to survive ordinary, weak bullets.

    It’s interesting that Superman as a character is very conscience-driven and compassionate.
    It makes it possible to tell stories even though he is so super.

    So there is definitely a place for compelling Superman a lot and I’m sure he’ll also find uses for those fate points in games built around him and his presence.
    I just don’t think it should be needed for a few measly bullets.

    1. They’re not “measly bullets,” they’re bullets. They don’t become “measly bullets” until they’re trying to inflict stress through a potentially Legendary toughness roll, without applicable Aspects to back them up.

      Saying that Superman doesn’t have to roll against bullets is fine, it’s just not Fate. It disregards the balance of the Fate point economy, which is what allows very powerful characters to team up with less powerful ones. Shooting something without a gun might seem a bit fictionally jarring (though it’s pretty easily rationalized) but probably doesn’t unbalance anything.

      1. I think you’re coming at it from this perspective:

        It’s a hypothetical game night.
        One player says: Oh, I want to be able to shrug bullets! I’ll take Great Toughness, and appropriate aspects to make it very hard to inflict stress on me since my defense rolls will be so high!
        The other player says: Cool. I want to be more of a dark vigilante type character. I’ll take great Intellect and Fight, and take the aspect “World’s Greatest Detective!”.

        You want a game where two players, who’ve never heard of the characters, could happen to end up creating a passable (according to your take) Superman and a passable Batman, and that they are balanced against each other.

        While I’m coming at it from this perspective:

        Superman and Batman are what they are. They enter the fiction on their terms.

        Let’s say I’m playing a Fate game where the players are ten-thousand-foot high giant monsters, battling in a city.
        One of the monsters, a giant dino, might have Great Fighting,
        the other, a giant robot, perhaps only Good Fighting.
        This is relevant when they battle against each other. And is still Fate. They still use Aspects, the fate point economy, the four Actions and Outcomes, everything. It’s just that it’s played on that scale.

        But when puny humans arrive, they are just like ants. A single human can’t roll a “fighting” skill against this giant robot. Not because the robot has Good Fighting and tons of Fate points. It’s because the human is a creature made in a different “scale”.

        It’s the same with Superman and the bullets.
        When players and GM, agree to bring in Superman to the game, they agree that they are playing a game on the scale where Superman can exist.

        And he doesn’t have to be balanced against an unpowered human, any more than the island of Manhattan has to be balanced against a tiny little beach pebble that a child can throw.

        One of the things, not the only one, but one of them, that prompted the creation of the original Fudge was that Steffan O’Sullivan was working on a roleplaying game of tiny faeries. You know, like Tinker Bell. He gave them the default strength: 2. (Where 10 was a normal human.) Then an extra ordinarily strong faerie could pay a small sum to buy its skill up to 3. Just one more, should be cheap, right? But that’s 50% stronger!

        That’s why, in Fudge, we have the adjectives and they are relative to the scale of the characters in question. A tiny little bug can still have “Good Fighting” compared to her fellow bug pal with “Great fighting”. Both would be blown away by a human child.

        And this absolutely carries over to Fate.

        1. Well, yeah. I’m talking about actually using the rules of Fate to make something invulnerable, which is accomplished by making the character vulnerable to Compels. Just saying that the character is beyond the level of certain effects is certainly compatible with the rules, but it sidesteps them, and downplays the importance of Compels. I thought we wanted it to be impressive when Superman strides through a hail of bullets, not trivial – even though it’s trivial to him.

          1. Actually, I was puzzling with a similar problem, that gets covered by the “Scale”-Rule from the Toolkit. But reading Sandra’s take I feel that she has it nailed.
            Silver Rule: Never get the rules get in the way of what makes narrative sense.
            Something easily forgotten, because the Fractal gets so much more coverage.
            Thank you, Sandra.

  9. I think Sandra has it right. It is not Fate points which allow more powerful characters to stand with lesser, but the fiction. If a character has a place in the fiction they will stand with or without Fate points. Fate points are a way of rewarding the creation of the fiction, and of fairly distributing spotlight time. I think the Fate rules are too worried about balancing skills and stunts amongst the player characters, and the game would be stronger if the mechanics trusted the fiction more. So the real question is whether the scene being described has some dramatic bearing to Superman? Sure the GM can get fancy with the rules turning harmless bullets into something the man of steel can actually feel, but that’s not the GM’s job, and is ultimately shallow. If there is some dramatic hook here, the GM should compel supes’ player with it, and the real threat should derive from it. The bullets don’t matter. Of course they don’t. But the hail of gunfire is masking where Jimmy’s screams are coming from, barely heard by Superman’s super-hearing as it is, and time is running out. If there’s nothing of dramatic force here, and that requires some challenge on Superman’s level, whether by force or morality or even just time, then let the scene go. Why are we here? The bad guys fire, the bullets bounce, the man of steel saves the day, no dice rolls, no compels, no points. It’s a momentary vignette to show off how super our hero is.

Comment