Superhuman endurance

No glamor.

No glamor.

It’s 1966, in The Amazing Spider-Man #33, co-plotted by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, drawn by Ditko. it’s the third of a three-issue story called “If This Be My Destiny …!” which is so iconic as to have its own detailed Wikipedia page. Aunt May lies helpless in the hospital; the doctors are baffled by an unknown factor in her blood, which Peter knows had been received from him in an earlier blood transfusion. He enlists a biologist he can trust, Curtis Connors, to concoct a serum which will permit her to be treated successfully, and to do that, Connors needs a radioactive thingie.

Now Peter’s trapped under a water tank “the size of a locomotive.” The radioactive thingie-stuff is on the floor, a yard away. Including the final page of #32, no less than six pages of incredible art detail the stages of his struggle to win free. You can find it summarized, blogged, or otherwise referred to all over the internet; it’s one of the most, possibly the most striking physical scene in all of superhero comics. It isn’t only a question of how strong he is, but of whether his fatigue will overwhelm his strength.

I am 5’8″ (1.73 meters) and between 190 lbs (in shape, mostly muscle) and 215 (out of it, mostly not). FYI, at the time of this writing, I’m out of shape due to serious breathing and sleep problems that began in my mid-40s. With those partly corrected, I’m beginning to seek shape again. It’ll be a hard road, because from age 29 through 44, I was in insane good condition … and for the latter half of that period, willing and able to fight anyone, and respected enough to work out in a wide variety of martial arts studios as a guest. I don’t feel comfortable writing about this while still in lamentable condition, but here goes. Plenty of people were able to nail me, and I paid for every advance with pain, but I must say, in that latter half, only professional fighters and real street-survivors were my match. I know exactly what I’m talking about when I say, you win a fight because you’re mean enough, especially in a dispassionate way which resembles psychosis, but you survive a fight at all because your wind and heart are sound enough. And you can’t win unless you survive. And the key is that although everyone has his or her true physiological limits, one must learn to work (and fight) outside one’s own signaled, perceived limits, which are narrower.

Fatigue was remarkably present as a key factor in Spider-Man fights of the 1960s. Again and again, Peter would win or survive a fight by rope-a-dope, and if someone got the drop on him and kept the pressure on, saying, “You can’t keep this up forever,” he would think, “That’s true,” and seek for a reversal or an escape. He got his butt kicked more than once, and not just due to some OMG New Power ™, but usually because he was stressed or tired or both.

Back to #33, that issue was a true story climax for Peter Parker. Never mind beating up crooks. It was the point when he distinguished between those signaled limits, where you just know you can’t go on, and his true limits, where one dangerously matches the genuine frame and energy of the body against reality. That latter match isn’t a joke: even success can be injurious and failure means crippling injury or death. The responsible fighting teacher does not force people there routinely – I knew one who did and literally killed a woman in his class, who had a heart attack during one of his gung-ho drill sessions. Those signaled/perceived limits are there for a reason. But Peter realizes, in a step-by-step, agonizing panel-by-panel process, that he is willing to go there this time.

What follows is my impression based on the comics I read, not on a scholarly survey.

Somehow, by the mid-1970s, it seems to me that hardly any of that routine fight-fatigue was left in the comics. The fights still honored getting stunned from a hard hit and needing a moment to recover, but no one got plain old tired any more, except for female heroes whose powers kept hitting ceilings of use, like the Scarlet Witch, and/or as a prelude to being beaten. It was certainly not taken as a given that any fight situation instantly fatigues everyone involved, and that it proceeds remorselessly. The only male hero who routinely suffered from energy failure was Iron Man, due to his heart condition, and even that got explicitly written out by the end of the decade. Wait – I remember too the same thing for Spider-Man, when Gerry Conway gave him an ulcer. So special medical situations, sure, but again, I’m talking about ordinary fatigue due to sustained physical effort, for anyone, simply because fighting is tiring.

PSA: do NOT image-search for "ulcer" on the internet.

PSA: Don’t be like me, do NOT image-search for “ulcer” on the internet.

In the 1980s, some hero might get tired all of a sudden, with the classic sweat-beading, but it was weirdly arbitrary, an excuse for him or her to lose this time, and would fail to be a factor in some other fight the hero was supposed to win. Or there’d be some awesome powers-use which automatically wiped the hero out, like the Torch’s Nova Blast or the disturbing power-orgasm + faint of many female heroes. Or, in Miller’s titles and a host which imitated him, a hero would be brought down by age or injury but always break free or fight on to win through Sheer Will ™, in a process which looked more suspiciously canned with each repetition. … or was nightmarishly good, because Miller’s funny that way.

This gave me chills too.

This gave me chills too.

Why this whole thing about default superhero fatigue changed, if indeed it did and isn’t merely my biased reading, I have no idea. I don’t have enough ready data to investigate well, because I haven’t combed the stories to figure out exactly when or with which authors. It’s odd – nothing about Stan Lee suggests he had personal knowledge of fighting, but I tentatively think that no one else quite brought that particular focus to their super-fights as well as he. I don’t think it could have been just Ditko because of the precise verbiage about the issue throughout the sequences; whichever creator initiated it, both had to have been involved. As written by Lee, both Cyclops and the Human Torch generally had to keep on eye on their gas tanks too, if I recall correctly. My image-based knowledge and memory of Lee-Kirby isn’t detailed enough to say anything about it.

Which brings me to Champions the role-playing game, first published in 1981, and examining a crucial rules change for its 1989 fourth edition, written by a different set of authors.

In the earlier editions (1-3), the rule is that for every 5 points of strength or power used, you lose 1 point of Endurance. Granted, that value starts pretty high – typically 40 or more – but consider that one is typically slamming away with 50 or 60 point powers, or as a strength-based fighter, an equivalent amount. Just hammering away like that can drain you, and at 0 Endurance, further effort comes off your more crucial reserves and can knock you right out. There’s a periodic recovery during fights, and one can use actions to do it too, based on a value called Recovery, sensibly enough. In a relatively standard Champions fight of the early days, heroes had to strategize their heaviest hits against their energy reserves, ducking to recover every so often.

Sadly, one of the key skills of the Champions player was borking the rules to get around this very thing, and although the character creation system tried to make it expensive, still, there were ways to become an Energy Bunny. I typically limited or disallowed them over cries of player rage, saying hey, I want you on your knees during a fight unless you are smart or lucky, and I want you to be paying attention to one another’s current energy status and changing the way you fight accordingly. If you put your power on limited-use charges (which cost 0 Endurance), you can only have so many, never mind your stupid “points,” because I expect to see charges used up. We’re not here to grind away at huge reserves – in a game like Champions which, like Tunnels & Trolls, uses huge handfuls of dice for damage, the rolled values are quite predictable and conducting fights by exchanging standard hits is extremely boring in both process and outcome.

The authors of the 4th edition apparently saw things differently, and one of the most significant changes was to drop the basic Endurance formula from 1:5 to 1:10. So a 50 point blast in 3rd edition cost you 10 Endurance, but in 4th edition, only 5. In other words, one didn’t even need the rules-tricks to get through almost any violent encounter well above one’s energy limits, and as I recall, most groups I played in or knew about simply stopped tracking Endurance entirely, and characters’ differences in Recovery became meaningless.

I don’t know what happened with the Endurance rules in either 5th or 6th edition.

For my 1990-1992 game, I switched to using 4th edition Champions myself, for arguably the finest experience I achieved in gaming prior to the late 1990s. But when it came to endurance and recovery, I insisted on retaining the older rules.

For your consideration, here’s my thinking for both the comics and role-playing: human endurance humanizes characters, and superhuman endurance works great if it’s more of the same rather than simply canceling questions of endurance. If there’s an exception, meaning a “tireless” character, that should be outright terrifying, one of those creepy things which let you know that this character lacks humanity in whole or in part. The title character in the original Terminator (1984 film) was a zillion times scarier than any other – because he did fall down or go inert or get stopped by attacks … but always got back up. That let the audience know this guy isn’t human, not in the SF way that most aliens or good-guy androids aren’t human (that’s a matter of fictional ethnicity), but in a visceral way that renders the T-100 a thing, not a person at all. Late in the transition I’m talking about – if it happened – and if it did, was piecemeal and graded – every superhero apparently had become such a thing, for exactly the same reasons … and that’s supposed to be cool? To be what a superhero “is”?

A study in ambiguity: Thor vs. Hulk in Defenders #10, which I owned and loved.

Punt!

Punt!

Come on, guys. They sweat and are clearly exerting effort, not merely punching a button to apply SooperStrength Rays ™. Are we to interpret this as an implied ultimate failure of reserve or not? What on earth does “neither shows any sign of tiring” mean, when the art obviously shows they have physiological limits? Would they stay there unto the fall of the heavens and the heat death of the universe? Is it supposed to be cool that these characters’ strength is indeed “limitless” when it’s also cool that each one is the other’s limit? Sput! Fizz! Cognitive dissonance, summon thy geekery to have it both ways!

Thought-experiment: what if you read a story in which the Hulk is just as strong as expected, but he gets tired? After putting out a lot more effort than you or me, I get that, and just so you don’t cry real tears, let’s say he outlasts everyone else – but it happens, right there in the story, as a plot point, as an undeniable feature of the fictional events that affects what happens next. Take it further to characterize the title and the depiction of the character this way, so it’s not a special one-off. Add the implication that he starts burning “fuel” from the start of every fight or other exertions, like anyone else, albeit rarely hitting anything near its limits. Add ordinary indicators like sweat or changes in posture that do indicate potential or near-failure of his effort. Does this bother you? Seem off-canon? Frighten you? Weird you out? Make the Hulk “littler” to you?

‘Cause I think I’d like the Hulk a whole lot more that way.

Links: What makes the Hulk ‘incredible’

Next: Second-best villainy

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on May 10, 2015, in Heroics, Supers role-playing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. An idle hypothesis about the cultural history of the phenomenon you describe here:

    In American culture of the 1960s, what was the #1 genre of fight narrative that an urban comic books writer would draw on when constructing their own stories? What were the top five? I would argue that one thing that would not be on the list would be comics themselves; another that would be conspicuously missing, considering a modern viewpoint, would be Wuxia in general, before that started seeping in in the ’70s.

    My pet hypothesis is that what the likes of Lee and Ditko were drawing on in this regard were boxing (popular at that time and place as a spectator sport, and indisputably the king of fighting sports at the time), show wrestling and pulp adventure fiction. This shows in the fighting technique and storytelling of that fighting – for example, highly trained martial professionals like Captain America are more likely to tackle somebody (iconic pre-’70s move, all the superheroes were doing various sorts of body tackles and dives then) or throw a haymaker than they are to perform a high kick or, in fact, any sort of kicking.

    Now, I at least see a pretty direct comparison between the narratives of boxing and the fatigue trope here: boxing narratives (I mean the story and interpretation of what happens in the ring in a real match, not a sports fiction story necessarily – commentators are the ones who interpret for us, and draw attention to things and paint the dramatic arc of the fight) pay a lot of attention to fatigue, conserving strength and the effects that stamina has on the strategy, tactics and technique of a boxing fight. The ’60s superhero fight is a lot like a boxing match in many ways, really: the small serial pictures paint pictures of fast and furious exchanges, broken by reorienting bits as one fighter or the other withdraws and e.g. tries to escape or seeks a better field of engagement; the rhythm is similar to how a boxing match breaks down into rounds interspersed with breaks for the fighters to catch their breath. The effects of violence are similar as well; superheroes, whether super-tough or highly trained, effectively cannot be taken out in one hit, just like an alert boxer cannot be taken down with mere fists – the only way to do it is by exhaustion, force them to make a mistake and let a blow through.

    (An aside: I adore the silver age comic book fight sequences of Stan Lee comics, the likes of the Vulture vs. Spider-Man fight in Amazing Spider-Man #2. They have such varied understanding of space and props, and the moment-to-moment tactical detail makes the fighting as much a part of the content of the story as it’d be in an action movie. Not that the modern style doesn’t have its virtues, but I feel that this whole narrative approach has been ignored too much in superhero storytelling in the late decades.)

    To me it seems pretty clear that this aesthetic of violence changed in comics around the same time as it changed in movies, with the dual influences of New Hollywood realism and stylized Wuxia aesthetics. It is pretty ironic to me that while superhero violence got nasty (adrenaline, bruises, concussions, puncture wounds, Wolverine) in the ’70s-’80s, it also largely lost this earlier exhaustion trope – sweating and submission by lack of reserves simply aren’t part of the wuxia aesthetics package in the same way they are in e.g. wrestling.

    And yes, I agree 100% about the Hulk thing. I would be more fond of the Hulk in general, really, if his schtick didn’t evolve relatively early into being outright, incontrovertibly stronger than anything else he comes across. Takes away much of the grandeur and tragedy of the concept when the rage of Banner failing against the military-industrial complex isn’t really on the table, thematically speaking.

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    • We are 100% on the same page. The boxing point, that specific Spider-Man #2 fight, the tackling, you are nailing it. I absolutely agree that the added “nastiness” of the 80s and especially the 90s seems very weird to me in the absence of fatigue, especially the ordinary fatigue that sets in for anyone during any fight. Now that I think about it in this context, I bet that’s why I’ve always been reluctant to call it “realism.” I want to read Master of Kung-Fu more than ever now.

      It would be more speculative to talk about the physicality of personal life and also of action-acting in the 60s and 70s, compared to today. I mean, not about the difference (which is really obvious to me), but about how it affected comics.

      The timing interests me a little bit, because at least in my experience, the shift in the comics came before the shift in the movies that you’re talking about, but maybe we are talking about a variety of shifts rather than one. I do remember a dramatic change in 1990s superhero fighting and combat details, including sound effects, which I really think was all about Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

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  2. Regarding: ‘What on earth does “neither shows any sign of tiring” mean, when the art obviously shows they have physiological limits?’

    i think that part is based on an incorrect assumption. Exertion does not necessarily mean that one is near the end of his limits. A marathon runner likely starts sweating early on (even before he starts running, if he’s in a warm climate), but that in no way means his endurance limit has been reached. Sweating is simply the body’s way of cooling off, either from external heat or (in the case of Thor vs. Hulk) bodily exertion (which may, but does not necessarily, lead to exhaustion).

    (That said, for many un-fit people (like myself), sweating and exhaustion are very closely related, but in fit people that is not necessarily the case.)

    A couple months back Douglas Cole (https://plus.google.com/u/0/106658611924718886008/posts) did an article on modeling combat-level physical fatigue in GURPS a few months back (and it sounded, to me, harsher/more realistic than the Champions mechanics you describe), but his feed stream is so full that i cannot find the post.

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    • I agree with you, and I found writing that part difficult because I didn’t want to run off into physiological footnotes. The idea was that because they sweat, their respective physiological systems are functioning – in other words, it’s not some ineffably magic/godly strength or gamma-ray strength which doesn’t act like bodily physiology at all, but that these are their bodies in action. Therefore they don’t have to be at the edge of exhaustion, but since these are bodies in action, the very notion of tiring is at least on the table. The ambiguity of the caption comes from saying that they’re not! Therefore I can’t tell, as a reader, whether this potential to tire is acknowledged or not: either it means that they can get tired but aren’t yet, even after hours (which is sort of what I’d prefer, but the caption doesn’t say it); or it means that they aren’t going to get tired ever because THOR and HULK. It’s the gradation into the latter meaning, the fact that it can be read that way (no matter how intended), which led me to include the sequence in the post.

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  3. I think you’re referring to The Last Gasp, from Pyramid #3/44. I proposed an Action Point and Fatigue Point economy for GURPS, where AP recover on the scale of seconds, while FP (already in GURPS) take many hours or days (instead of minutes) to heal.

    The article itself is here: http://www.warehouse23.com/products/pyramid-number-3-slash-44-alternate-gurps-ii

    Some blog posts about it here: http://gamingballistic.blogspot.com/search/label/The%20Last%20Gasp

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Let’s see if the iPad works for me.

    One of the nicer things about the Netflix “Daredevil” series is that it shows Daredevil getting visibly tired and shaky at the end of fights. As my friend Josh says, “He starts out doing Kung-Fu, but by the end it always comes down to boxing moves.”

    Liked by 3 people

    • Santiago Verón

      This is so interesting! If it’s true, they’re taking into consideration his background as “the son of a boxer”, as if fatigue peeled off the ninja exterior and you got a boxer core.

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  5. Ron, when I saw this post in my email feed I was 100% sure you were gonna take this in a particular direction, and felt a little surprised you didn’t head there.

    So: read “If This Be My Destiny” and that great sequence in Spider-Man 17-19 when he flirts with giving up the fight against crime, the bit around issue 50 involving reprising that theme. Read just about any Captain America comic in the 60’s. I submit that for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (see: “The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin!”), and possibly Steve Ditko too, the chief heroic virtue is the refusal to give up. The, as you frame the terms here, fighting on past the signaled limitations, past doubt, past despair. Whether you’re lifting off heavy machinery, or voluntarily letting Reed Richards turn you into the Thing again in order to defeat Doctor Doom, or realizing the Red Skull has effectively become a god but you are going to fight him anyway… To these guys, what made a hero was finding the inner reserve to STAND BACK UP when every temptation existed to stay down.

    That sequence is largely missing from today’s comics, and I am not quite sure why. Heroes do get defeated all the time, and they strategize and bounce back, but that level of melodrama may require some soap operatic elements that tend to get left by the wayside, I don’t know.

    It did, however, make for the very best moment of the Maguire/Molina “Spider-Man 2” movie, when Aunt May gives Peter some harsh but loving words out by the clothesline.

    The one thing will say is that, taken as a role model for fifteen year old me, this “Never Surrender!” credo only works for certain types of problems. Walls do exist, and there is nothing shameful about realizing you’ve hit one, particularly with social or intellectual matters. If, after a couple tries, you cannot batter your way through, it’s time to climb over, go around, or think if you really need what’s on the other side to get what you truly want. (Implied ending of Spider-Man #33: “Well, you know, Aunt May *is* pretty old, and she led a good life…”)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Replies like this one are a wonderful reward for blogging. So many avenues of discussion! It especially makes me optimistic again for superheroes as a genre, to think about all the ways they can be done which, despite the long history, remain untapped or have fallen away for no good reason.

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  6. I’m not sure during what edition it changed as well (I’m thinking fourth but possibly fifth) but the Reduced Endurance advantage also went from each level further halving the End cost (10, 5, 3, 2, 1, and finally zero) to the second purchase automatically bringing it down to zero. So in the first case, it would have been a +1 1/4 advantage to get zero end (although I’m not sure how it rounded, so maybe +1) to +1/2 in the latter editions.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow – that’s a big change too. I don’t remember it from 4th, but that’s just memory, and it’s possible that I purged all knowledge of technical 4th-ed END rules because I simply retained 3rd’s in use.

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  7. I’ve been definitely thinking a lot about exhaustion as a game mechanic, and I don’t really see it very well modeled or utilized in a lot of games. And some of it is that it’s hard to predict exactly when/how that kicks in and how bad.

    Then there’s the exhaustion during the encounter/crisis/fight, then there’s the adrenaline dump later, which can be minutes or hours down the line, and the complete, overwhelming tiredness that hits.

    Games measure this mostly as a cost – a resource/cost that hits you, and not so much the emotional drain that you get or the sort of… headspace you have to drive yourself into to push through and what that might mean for you as a person (and granted, this is all stuff you really can’t process in the moment, or at the time and most people don’t look back, because… fuck you survived isn’t that enough?).

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  8. Hi Ron! Great post, that stirred the memory of a lot of great comics! (I still get the chills from that Daredevil page. They could have closed Daredevil after “Born Again”, retiring the series like numbers get “retired” in football. Every story after that would have to be compared to that one…)

    There is another very iconic comic book battle where, like in Terminator, tiredness, stamina, etc were used to show the human against the inhuman: the Hulk / Thing “battle of the century”. http://kerrycallen.blogspot.it/2014/11/what-was-comic-battle-of-20th-century_10.html
    The thing is more intelligent than the hulk, he knows (and use) boxing, rope tricks, leverage, he is by far the better fighter, and time and again the pin down or hold the hulk… but the hulk never tire. Never stop. The thing can’t, he gets tired, and get beaten.

    This fight shows the difference between the two much better that saying simply who’s stronger. The Thing is a superstrong human with the aspect of a monster. The Hulk is a true monster. (at this time in his publishing history, the hulks works much better as an opponent that as a hero)

    I am not very familiar with DC Comics of that same time frame, but from the few I have read, wasn’t thi depiction of fatigue another of the differences between Marvel Comics and the DC ones? I don’t remember Superman ever sweating at that time…

    Liked by 2 people

  9. FWIW, _The Comic Book History of Comics_ talks about how young Jack Kirby was involved in tons of fistfights and gang-related violence in his pre-teen and early teens. He even claimed to be able to tell where different kids were from by studying their fighting style.

    It seems likely that even if Lee didn’t have the first hand experience, plenty of his peers did. And Eero is likely spot-on with the boxing.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This is really interesting to me because I had been mulling over the new Avengers movie for a couple of days and came to the conclusion that one of the things I really enjoyed was how Quicksilver seemed to get tired. There were so many moments where he’s either taking a deep breath to prepare himself for another dash or double over gasping just after a burst. I don’t know if that was a director’s choice or the actors choice but yes, it added to that character’s humanity. He seemed real and pushed and weighed down despite his speed.

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  11. oberonthefool

    Couple short points:

    I was super happy at the beginning of Winter Soldier where Steve meets Sam on the track and they finally show Cap’s most impressive ability, which I’m always disappointed when it gets ignored, his superhuman endurance. Not just because he’s in top physical condition, but because his body literally does not generate fatigue poisons in the same way as a normal human body- it’s his only actual “super” power, but boy, what a doozy. Like Gawan and Lancelot, he literally could fight for an entire day without rest if the situation required it. This, far more than his strength, athleticism, or even his tactical genius, is what gives him an edge, and what differentiates him (or should) from the rest of the spandex set.

    Second, tangential point, I’m super bored with the “Determinator” trope, it’s one of the most overused, to the point that it’s not even a class so much as the default state of all heroes, even mundane ones, these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ditko plotted and drew this. Lee wrote dialogue and captions. Credit where credit is due.

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    • Credit for that was given in the comic itself, and I didn’t say otherwise. Even if Lee’s contribution was as minimal as the most unsympathetic claimants say, when it comes to tactics and especially fatigue during fights, the words and pictures always matched perfectly. I don’t really care who “began” the combination.

      I do not highly regard debates about the nuances between “plotted” and “co-plotted,” or other long-standing Lee vs. Ditko / Lee vs. Kirby tropes. It’s been nothing but a fan status game for thirty years. I do not advise pursuing that line of discussion here.

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  13. I’ve realized that END Cost in 3rd edition, besides a straight up energy reserve, was intended to act as a limiting factor on Active Points. You could drop 10-12 END on a heavy hitting power, or reduce the Active Points to a manageable level, or pile on the Limitations on it so that it would, say, only be usable three times a day on Thursdays or something similar. Or you could just live with it, and not be able to afford anything else.

    In second gen HERO, it was cheap and easy to ignore END. When they reduced END costs in 4th, they had to institute hard Active Point caps as an alternative. (Incidentally, 5th and 6th are identical to 4th in the way they handle END.)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Santiago Verón

    I have never thought of “endurance” (or super-endurance) as a different concept from “strength” (or super-strength), never once, in my whole life. It WAS there, but I never thought of it in a narrative, and I think even in real life I just thought that as you got more tired, every one of your blows got weaker. Thanks a lot!

    P. S. I think I should check Saint Seiya again now. (It was one of my favorite shows in the 90s, when I was 7 years old.) I always thought Saint Seiya fights would be impossible to model in a roleplaying game because they all end with the hero laying down on the ground, defeated, almost K.O., then he realizes he must keep on fighting, then while almost-dead/sleeping/delusional/in trance has visions of what he’s fighting for and of a new power source/technique he can tap into, then he does, gets up again in a new power level and defeats his opponent. Now that I write this, I guess it’s like an enlightment/resurrection, but still wonder about how it works (narratively, as in why doesn’t it get boring, and mechanically, how you’d model that in a game). It’ll be interesting to rewatch those battles having in mind the “fatigue” concept!

    …which you all just said doesn’t apply to martial artists, and that’s basically what all the heroes from Saint Seiya are, so, I don’t know.

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