An Anecdote

Few things are duller than gamers talking about old games, but I will risk it here, because this anecdote so neatly encapsulates the problem of games with overpowered, or even superpowered characters.

Once upon a time, I fell in with a group of role players who worked for West End Games, the company that brings us both PARANOIA and STAR WARS RPG’s. They were a fine bunch of fellows, and we found we had an evening to kill, so I suggested that I moderate a roleplaying game of my own devising: a pick-up game, so to speak.

Over the years, I have adduced a relatively simple method to start a game at the drop of a hat without the cumbersome process of rolling up characters.

Typically, I tell players, “You can play any character from any book or story I have read or seen. Anyone. If you are from a movie I’ve seen or a comic I’ve read, I will know your background, powers, and limitations.”

The reason for my generous indifference to how strong your characters are, or what powers they have, is that I like to put players in a background where they are faced with a moral quandary, or a threat that can only be solved by tact or cunning or creative thinking.

For background, I have a multiverse setting which is a combination of Norse Myths, Zelazny’s Amber, Zelazny’s Roadmarks, Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion, miscegenated with LeGuin’s Earthsea, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Gene Wolfe’s Urth, Highlander, Dr Who, HP Lovecraft.

Over the years, I have developed fairly sound guidelines as to how to handle crossovers (Kal-El of Krypton, for example, when in Amber is only as strong as Gerard) or how different ideas or systems of magic tend to work when outside their home element.

There were four players, three boys and one girl.

She decides to play a lass who has a son of Fenrir as her loyal pet, a hound as large as a pony apparently make of smoke or dream-stuff, who can step into the dreamworld at will, and can make himself substantial or insubstantial, visible or invisible.

As a fair moderator, I warn her that her character knows from past experience the Norse God, Thor, and his prime manifestation in the material universe, Gerard of Amber, are dedicated to hunting and eradicating the sons of Fenrir, so that calling up this hound will entail the risk of enemies hunting for you.


Boy One decides to play a crippled hobbit, but who has in his possession the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, the Ring of the Dark Lord, Sauron. In my multiverse, this ring has ultimate power, power akin to that of the Jewel of Judgment in Zelazny’s Amber, of which turning the wearer invisible is the least of the side effects. The ring bearer can corrupt and control any spirit, demon, or magical spell, charm, or influence anywhere in his environment, and command nature herself to obey him.

As a fair moderator, I warn him that the One Ring calls the hideous Ringwraiths to him, and the call is stronger and faster when the ring is used for evil purposes, and that the ring has a mind of its own, which forever will seek to return to its master. Also, I tell him Sauron has eight brothers, each equal in magical power and mystic art, each who also seeks the ring either to use it or destroy it: Gandalf, Saruman, Rhadaghast, Vindalf, Gwydion (also called Manawydan), Sparrowhawk, Merlin, Dr. Strange.


Boy Two decides to play Elric of Melnibone, a particularly apt choice considering that the background was a multiverse. He has the cursed Great Sword Stormbringer, which can drink the lives of man and fill him with their vitality and power; but also the Ring of Kings which allows him to summon up angels and godlings and archdemons of chaos, including the dread and dreaded rulers of Old Chaos, Arioch, Xiombarg, and Mabelode. Lesser beings, who were nontheless allpowerful when compared to mortals, such as the Assassinator of the Gods, Checkalakh the Arsonist and Straasha the Seaking, were his to summon and command.

The drawbacks and dangers of using his sword or calling these Chaos Gods were well known to any reader of Moorcock’s books, and he knew that the Lords of Law would be opposed to him. The sword was malign, and would chuckle a metallic chuckle if he got hurt.

As a fair minded moderator, I warned Elric that if he ever thrust his magical soul-drinking sword into the body of a being that had godlike power, and therefore had more life-energy than his human frame could withstrand, that the excess energy would ignite his bloodstream and made his bones explode and kill him instantly.

However, Elric was a master magician, and had god waiting on him, minor gods and major gods, and had a sword that could kill anything, human or superhuman or divine. In effect, he was pretty much immune to all possible attacks, physical or magical alike, unless he gave into the temptation to overeat, and stuck his sword into a superbeing.



Boy Three decides to play the Silver Surfer from Marvel Comics, a being possessed of THE POWER COSMIC, able to deflect and ignore practically any bullet, bolt, atomic explosion, because he can control rearrange and reorder anything made of matter or energy in his environment. His silver body is nothing more than a human shaped shell covering what is basically a living supernova. He knows that he has been cursed by Galactus (who, in my multiverse, is the father of all vampire and life-sucking creatures whatever, not Dracula) not to depart from the human world, and that various supervillains, Dr. Doom among them, seek his invulnerable life and infinite power.

Being a fair minded moderator, I warned him that there was one thing and one thing only which his immense powers could neither analyze nor defend against. While he was on Earth, he ran into people like Dr Strange and Agatha Harkness who could use a force called magic. This force was older than the Big Bang and more fundamental than the laws of nature, and nothing he could do could defend him from it. (Superman of Kripton suffers a similar liability. Your friendly moderator was assuming that either the hobbit with the ring or the Albino elf with the cursed sword would protect the otherwise invulnerable Herald of Galactus from any adverse magical attacks they might encounter.)

Other than magic, he is pretty much unkillable.

silver surfer

So, in this particular session, I had decided what the drama would be:

The player characters wake up in a wooden cabin with no portholes, their exit blocked by a locked hatch. From the roll and pitch of the deck, it is obvious this is the brig of some eighteenth century sailing ship. You’ve been shanghaied!

Now, what the moderator expected was that the player characters would combine forces and smash down the locked door in less than one microsecond, either by means of shadow-wolf, magic ring, magic sword, or Power Cosmic. They would then discover on what ship they were and who had abducted them and why.

This was not the the Black Hole at the End of Time, nor Dread Doors of the Impassable Dwarf Mine of Moria, nor the Black Gate of Mordor, nor the Vault Door of Fort Knox. It was not even the Heavy Duty Locked Door of my Woodshed Out Back. It was a freaking wooden hatch. On a ship. Held shut with … well never mind how the door was barred, because they never got that far. Let me just say that the Gray Mouser, much less Jack of Shadows, could have put the point of his dirk between the leaf and the jamb and lifted the bar out of place. The horse from the movie ROAD TO EL DORADO, Altivo, could have gotten out of this brig, even without a pry-bar.


They never got that door open.

Nope, Boy Two and Boy Three, Elric and the Silver Surfer, immediately got into a pissing contest over which of the two of them would open the door. They argued and postured and insulted and were in a fine fettle. While the hobbit, who is a cripple, and the little girl, who has no powers or abilities whatever aside from a magic pet dog, stand there blinking at this display of testosterone-drenched masculine dummkopfery, the Magician-Lord of Melnibone and the Cosmic Avenger decide to throw down.

And immediately mug each other.

As I warned him, magic was the only thing that could possibly harm the Silver Surfer, and so the ultra-magical magic sword of magical magic, Stormbringer, penetrates his invulnerable silver shell like it was flaky pie crust, killing him instantly. Since he is a being made of nothing but energy, there is not even a corpse: his entire body is sucked into the great sword Stormbringer like water slurped through a soda straw to the last drop.


As I had warned him, absorbing too much energy from a superbeing was the only thing that could possibly harm Elric of Melnibone, and so when the super-hyper energy of the POWER COSMIC, equal to an exploding supernova slides through the cursed magical sword Stormbringer, up his arm and into his heart, it is far, far more than human cells can absorb, and, as warned, all his blood bursts into white-hot flame and all his bones explode. Arioch the Duke of Hell appears in a cloud of darkness, vaunting, to drag the albino’s ragged soul to the eternal punishment, except that the Power Cosmic burnt up Elric’s ragged soul like tissue paper, so there was nothing left. Arioch pouts and vanishes.

Nothing was left to bury. The sword Stormbringer fell point first into the middle of a black stain on the deck, and vibrates slightly. Perhaps there is an eerie, metallic chuckle.

At this point, Boy One and Girl One are not really in the mood to continue the game, so we called it an evening.

(For those of you who were curious, they were aboard the Flying Dutchman crewed by Blackbeard the Pirate with Davy Jones as his First Mate. This was the Blackbeard from ON STRANGER TIDES by Tim Powers, who actually was a voodoo witch doctor of considerable power. )


(Blackbeard had stolen the map of time from a group of nasty hobbits called the Time Bandits, who were locked in the cell nextdoor, because whoever has the map needs them to read it. Blackbeard was sailing down the river of time seeking the Fountain of Youth, which would make him immortal, but he was pursued by the Black Summoners of Doom, by Lucifer the Beautiful, and by agents of the Supreme Being, one of which was the Swamp Thing, and the other the rather scruffy John Constantine. I assumed, with the over-the-top powers of Boy Two and Boy Three, they would slay the pirate horde in one second, get the time map, talk or bully or bribe the evil hobbits into reading the map, learn the secret path to the Fountain of Youth, and then, aha, have to decide whom to trust and what to do with it, considering that Ringwraiths and Chaos Gods, Oberon’s children and Fenrir and your hobbit cousins back home alike crave that holy water that bestows life to the lifeless, and immortality to the living.)

time bandits

Since I never throw anything away in my imagination, some day I will run a game where the man badguy is the cabin boy from the cursed timetraveling pirate ship Flying Dutchman, who is armed with, and possessed by, the monstrous and evil sword Stormbringer. But that is a tale for another time.

In the meanwhile, the moral of the story is this: in roleplaying games in general, and in games like the type I run in particular, IQ goes down as firepower goes up.