Re: Animated • Justice League “In Blackest Night” – Part 1

jl04This 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.

“In Blackest Night” — Part 1

While Jon Stewart is visiting his old neighborhood, some trouble breaks out, with even bigger trouble on its way. Green Lantern easily stops some criminals’ getaway car, lifting it up into the air, and grabbing the escaping criminal and holding him off the ground with his power ring.

When the Manhunters arrive to take Green Lantern into custody, the Justice League confronts them and, of course, a fight breaks out.

A Manhunter takes a swing at Hawkgirl, she ducks and swings her mace at him. Catching her arm, he flings her away, but Flash catches her before she hits anything.

Some interesting dynamics here: the Manhunter’s initial attack fails, but his defense against Hawkgirl’s attack is so successful he’s effectively able to attack her again. Flash catching her seems to be a sacrifice of an action on his part, since he doesn’t do much else at that time.

J’onn jumps a Manhunter—twice—and each time gets hit with a shock from the android’s baton. The second one flings him away and leaves him stunned.

Hawkgirl hits a Manhunter in the back of the head, knocking him down and stunning him, but a blast from another Manhunter’s baton sends her flying back through a plate glass window, and then a wall, although she quickly gets to her feet.

Even the relatively “normal” Hawkgirl is pretty resilient! (Although it’s later established Thanagarians are stronger than humans.)

Their computer reflexes allow the Manhunters to trip Flash so he slams against a parked car, stunning him for a moment.

The interesting thing here is how the Manhunters specifically counteract Flash’s super-speed, used as a defensive ability. It’s not that they are more accurate overall (Hawkgirl dodges one of their attacks) but they are specifically trumping Flash’s speed with a trait of their own (computer-like accuracy and speed).

A Manuhnter hits an incoming Hawkgirl with his baton, slamming her into a car and stunning her. He prepares to finish her off just as Superman swoops in. A kind GM giving Superman a chance for an interrupt or just Superman’s innate “take the hit for someone else” ability, like the Interpose advantage from M&M? One can easily see a game mechanic like: “If someone connected to you is endangered, activate this ability to suddenly show up out of nowhere to save them.”

Superman plows the Manhunter into a building, but is hit from behind by a blast from another’s baton. When he turns, a second blast sends him flying back. He braces against it, and walks upstream against the blast to break the Manhunter’s baton, take it from him, and snap it in two.He then lifts the Manhunter off his feet and hurls him into the first one, just recovering from being slammed into the wall.

The “move upstream against a blast” maneuver is classic Superman, yet not often reflected in game system terms. What exactly is Supes doing here? Icons refers to it as “blocking”–using sheer Strength to resist an attack. It’s interesting to note that none of the Manhunter’s blasts seem to actually harm Superman, but blocking prevents him from being thrown about by them and gives him some degree of advantage over his opponent once he makes it within arm’s reach.

The third Manhunter blasts Superman and Flash from surprise, laying them out on the pavement.

J’onn J’onzz drops on the Manhunter from above (probably increasing his density) driving him through the car on which he stands. The Manhunter recovers, lifts up the car and throws it at the Martian. The Flash intervenes to push him out of the way.

Did J’onn give up his defensive action in some way that the Flash needed to intervene? Perhaps giving up one’s defensive capability grants an attack bonus? Or is it just Flash using his super-speed to help out teammates because he can?

It’s also noteworthy that the wreck of the car is on fire, although no specific mention is made of J’onn being vulnerable to fire.

Green Lantern puts a stop to the fight and surrenders to the Manhunters, much to his teammates’ surprise. Definitely John Stewart’s player working with the complication/subplot that is key to this episode, which is a good example of building a story that focuses on a particular character without excluding the rest of the team.

Note that J’onn can telepathically read Green Lantern’s mind from across interstellar distances, and the Javelin is capable of interstellar travel. One of the reasons the Space Travel effect in the third edition of M&M shifted from measuring speed in multiples of the speed of light to just a few tiers of interplanetary and interstellar travel is because, once you move past distances on a planet in the comics, everything moves at “the speed of plot”.

Attacked by patrol ships on Ajuris-5, Superman burns out their weapons with his heat vision while J’onn phases through one to tear out some vital components. Hawkgirl disables the third badly enough that Superman has to rescue it. The last instance is both characters playing to their personalities—and perhaps earning roleplaying bonuses for doing so.

J’onn grabs an alien guard and telepathically sedates him while also reading his mind to learn where Green Lantern is being held.

This is an interesting example of a multi-purpose action: a grab/grapple, mind reading, and a mental “grapple” or attack to sedate the guard. Some systems might choke on the action requirements here while others levy some sort of multi-action penalty. It may also be significant that the guard is a “minion” or background character, not really important to the story.

We wrap up with testimony from Kajar Ro (an old-time JLA foe from the comics) and Green Lantern’s admission that the accusations against him are true: he is responsible for the destruction of an entire planet!

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?

Personal Stakes: “In Blackest Night” is about John Stewart’s sense of guilt and responsibility, and his teammates’ willingness to trust in his innocence and try to help out, even when he doesn’t want them to. In a game context, providing “hooks” connected to the characters’ motivations, goals, and personal lives can turn generic adventures into compelling personal stories. It’s interesting to wonder how much of this particular story would come from the GM and how much from the player’s input, both pre-game and during play. For example, some GM’s might discuss the whole “falsely accused” plot-line with the player beforehand, setting the stage, whereas others might spring it on the players during the game, asking them to play along (or even encouraging compliance with certain game mechanics like point awards). Of course, Green Lantern has a challenging role in this episode, because he doesn’t really do anything: He surrenders to the Manhunters and to the trial, while the other characters are off fighting or investigating. His relative inaction plays off in the next episode, however, as we will see.

Playing to Type: The different personalities of the League members are very much in evidence in this episode: Flash is a team-player, looking out for everybody. Hawkgirl is aggressive and forceful, even bloodthirsty. Superman tries to protect everybody and save innocent lives. J’onn is aloof but also empathic and Green Lantern is wracked with guilt over his supposed failure. Ideally, players roleplay because it is fun and part of the experience, but it’s often helpful (and fun) if the system rewards good, consistent roleplaying with things like various “brownie points” or even game mechanics for measuring the impact of a character’s personality and motivation on the plot. Indeed, some games—such as Tim Kirk’s Hearts & Souls—take the approach that personality and motivation matter more than traits like “Strength” or “Intellect” when it comes to determining outcomes.

Flexibility is Key: System flexibility is important in any tabletop RPG because no ruleset can completely encompass all the possible actions players may want their characters to try in the context of an actual game. In order for players to feel a degree of immersion and control over the story, rather than just moving pieces around on a game-board, they need options. This is even more the case in superhero settings, where the range of possibilities is so vast. So a robust core mechanic with some useful guidelines is better (IMHO) than a detailed and “realistic” sub-system for every possible contingency, given how often certain “corner cases” will arise. Still, some systems handle the question of flexibility more elegantly than others, and some game system “tools” perform the job better in actual use than others. On top of that is the question of taste and personal preference, where the “feel” of the system is important, and often vastly different from one person to another.

Next Up: Flash stalls for time…In Blackest Night, Part 2