Re: Animated • Justice League “Secret Origins” – Part 2

jl02This blog takes a look at episodes from the Justice League animated series from a tabletop roleplaying game perspective, both in terms of game design and game play.

Obligatory Spoiler Warning: I will be discussing the events of the episode in the post. If, for some reason, you’re interested in the show and this blog and have not seen the show, go and do that first. The blog will make much more sense, and you won’t have your enjoyment of the show spoiled. You Have Been Warned.

“Secret Origins” – Part 2

The aliens (disguised as Army soldiers) open fire on the heroes: Batman pushes J’onn out of the way, Superman is hit and blasted back into an overturned vehicle, falling to the ground, stunned. Batman hurls an explosive batarang that scatters several aliens. J’onn spots others coming up from behind. He phases through Batman and then increases his density, taking the blast, which stuns him. Batman knocks the ambushing alien out with a batarang.

We get our first look at J’onn’s density controlling powers: Note the shimmering blue aura when he goes super-dense (a rarely used ability in the series). We also start to see how Batman’s arsenal has been upgraded a bit to allow him to run with the “big dogs” in terms of super-powers. But then, maybe he doesn’t use exploding batarangs a lot in Gotham just because it would be overkill.

Superman shields his retreating friends with a tank, which he then hurls at the aliens. Batman and J’onn get aboard the batplane and take off, with J’onn telepathically calling for aid (his glowing eyes indicating when he’s using telepathy).

A flight of alien ships pursues the batplane, forcing Batman to fly some difficult maneuvers to evade them. Superman intervenes, destroying one ship, and is fired upon, hurling him into a cliff-face and stunning him.

Again, notice how “damage” seems to work: the invulnerable guys (Superman and super-dense Martian Manhunter) take hits that knock them back, momentarily stun them and force them to shake it off, but that’s pretty much all.

Batman manages to evade the Imperium ships, even wrecking some of them through his maneuvering, but a shot from one blows a wing off the batplane.

Green Lantern catches the falling batplane, while Hawkgirl swoops in and strikes two of the ships. The heroes regroup and go on the offensive.

One hit from Superman or from Green Lantern’s power ring is enough to destroy an alien ship. Two quick hits from Hawkgirl’s mace does the same. J’onn tricks several of the ships into firing on each other through his incorporeal form, destroying them.

A near blast stuns Hawkgirl, knocking her onto a cliff. Wonder Woman swoops in, blocking blasts with her bracelets and reflecting them back at the ship, destroying it. Green Lantern throws a force field over both heroines to protect them from the impact of the damaged ship.

This is an interesting sequence in terms of heroes defending for each other: Wonder Woman protects Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, in turn, protects both of them. A system should encourage this sort of teamwork, given how important it is for superheroes.

After the aliens are routed, the heroes get together and J’onn fills them in on the enemy they’re facing. Then they go for the classic Silver Age maneuver of splitting into smaller teams to handle the alien installations.

Flash rushes into the alien compound. He taunts a tripod and dodges a half dozen or more blasts from them before running into a kind of “land mine” that explodes and traps him in a mass of sticky goo. Green Lantern blasts the leg off of a tripod, felling it, then moves in to help Flash out.

Dodging an eye blast from a tripod, Wonder Woman snags its leg with her lasso, then wraps it up and topples it over into a wall,  knocking a hole in it. Batman takes note of how the aliens avoid the sunlight pouring in through the opening in the wall. He and Wonder Woman also learn from J’onn that the ion matrix crystal at the heart of the installation is key to stopping its effects.

Hawkgirl flies into a group of seven aliens and takes them all down in just seconds, while a stunned Superman looks on. Some kind of takedown attack or minion option? It’s certainly a “low-tension” scene where Hawkgirl gets to show off a bit and establish that she’s a tough warrior.

Green Lantern throws up a force bubble to protect against the tripod’s blasts, but a gas-weapon penetrates it. It’s noteworthy that the gas is yellow, although the yellow vulnerability of the Green Lantern ring is never really mentioned. Or is it simply that GL’s force bubble isn’t airtight and the gas seeps through it? Flash blows the gas away, grabs the unconscious GL, and runs for it.

Superman and Hawkgirl are trapped in a chamber of the alien installation that floods with gas. Superman, less affected, tries to break out, but a powerful energy surge through the walls stuns him.

J’onn knows telepathically when Superman and Hawkgirl are defeated and captured. Batman mentions it is “as if [the aliens] know what we’re thinking.” Batman breaks out his electro-shock knuckles (another “upgrade” to his gadgets) and covers J’onn and Wonder Woman getting clear but is trapped in the control chamber with the crystal and the aliens, and apparently killed…

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?

Deus ex Machina: This episode pretty unashamedly uses various plot devices to move things along. J’onn telepathically summons the other heroes to show up in the nick of time to fight the aliens, and several of the heroes fall into alien traps. The focus is on moving the action along as much as possible; for example, while we do see Flash and Green Lantern zipping across the ocean, we spend very little time wondering how the heroes get to distant places on Earth where the aliens have invaded: they’re just there in the next scene. Although there’s potential for some story editing mechanics here, a bit part of the lesson is “it’s a superhero story, don’t worry about it so much.”

Teamwork: Right from the beginning, teamwork is important to the fledgling Justice League: J’onn saves Batman, Superman covers their escape, Green Lantern catches the falling batplane, Wonder Woman saves Hawkgirl, Green Lantern protects them both, and so on. Comics frequently emphasize that it is heroes’ ability to work as a team that gives them an edge over sometimes more powerful villains. A game system should encourage this with mechanical advantages to working together; Affiliations in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying are one example: most of the Leaguers probably have their highest die in Team (although the Flash is kind of a Buddy and Batman is obviously a Solo, as we’ll see). Related to teamwork…

Let’s Split Into Teams! The new team immediately divides into smaller teams to tackle multiple alien bases violating the RPG maxim “never split the party”. In the Torg RPG, the Orrorsh horror setting addressed this trope by allowing split parties to accumulate the points they needed to overcome the monster’s supernatural power faster. Similarly, a split group of heroes could accumulate opportunities to earn hero points (determination, plot points, etc.) faster, which is essentially what happens here: each team faces reversals and challenges, possibly feeding those points into a common resource (like a Team Determination pool in Icons). In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, this might be an instance of the Watcher (GM) exercising the ability to change the Affiliation dynamic, which expends dice from the Doom Pool, making things easier for the heroes in the long run.

It’s a Trap! A big part of this episode is the superhero trope of traps: Flash falls into one, Green Lantern is nearly felled by one, Superman and Hawkgirl are trapped and captured, and then Batman is trapped and apparently killed. Some traps are challenges the heroes are meant to overcome, while others are reversals that change the direction of the story. In a game context, it’s interesting to wonder if the traps faced by the three teams of heroes had equal chances of success. That is, could it have been Flash and Green Lantern trapped rather than Superman and Hawkgirl, if the dice had gone a different way? Might none of the heroes been trapped, if they’d done something different? How much of Batman’s circumstances are a “set-up” and how much is just random fortune? (Something we’ll look at in the next installment.)

Next Up: The conclusion of “Secret Origins”