Re: Animated • Justice League “In Blackest Night” – Part 2

jl05This 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 2

While Superman and J’onn investigate the truth of the allegations against Green Lantern, Flash and Hawkgirl keep an eye on the trial proceedings. Flash impulsively offers to defend John against the charges, not realizing that the alien system of jurisprudence makes advocates subject to the same penalty!

Arkis’ power ring aura is enough to protect him from Hawkgirl’s mace. So why do Green Lanterns throw up protective bubbles, if their rings provide an automatic force field? Is there an additional protective benefit? A “layered” defense of some sort? The bubble might represent a kind of primarily defensive action, sacrificing an attack for improved defense (as is the case in many game systems).

With the proprietor’s call of “No weapons!” Hawkgirl willingly tosses aside her mace and the Green Lanterns forgo the use of their rings. Even outnumbered, Hawkgirl is more than a match for a group of Green Lanterns in unarmed hand-to-hand combat (GL training not being renowned for its focus on unarmed combat). It’s useful for a superhero game system to differentiate between different types of combat skill (armed and unarmed, close and ranged) so these situations can arise.

“We all have to be held accountable, we have too much power not to be.” John Stewart is true to his ideals. Indeed, this is an essential element of the comic book superhero genre: superhumans without accountability creates something quite different in style from the brightly-clad defenders of truth and justice.

It doesn’t take Superman and J’onn long to figure out the deception, although they get ambushed by Kanjar Ro and need Hawkgirl’s help. Once again, Superman rescues the pilot of a ship shot down by Hawkgirl. They also arrive in the nick of time to save Flash and GL from execution. Once the League can prove John wasn’t responsible for destroying a planet, his confidence is restored and he’s ready to go after the Manhunters, who are on their way to Oa.

In the assault on Oa, the League takes on droves of Manhunters, each of their attacks taking out three to six of them. A different “scale” for attacks on hordes of minions? Compare this to Part 1, where fighting an even number of Manhunters was a significant challenge.

In a duel, the chief Manhunter is able to stun Green Lantern long enough to enter the central power battery and begin absorbing its energy. A villainous use of a plot-shifting mechanic? Does this setback grant GL the resources needed to defeat the Manhunter? John recites the Green Lantern oath as a focus and redirects the Manhunter’s power, apparently destroying it. (A classic example of tagging a catchphrase in a game like Icons.)

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?

Investing in Investigation: This is a relatively “roleplaying” intensive episode. Although there are scuffles with the Ajuris guards, a bar-fight with the Green Lanterns, and a space dogfight with Kanjar Ro, much of the first half is investigation and Flash’s efforts to stall the trial. Depending on the system, this could be fairly freeform roleplaying or more rules-driven, using investigative and “social conflict” sub-systems. Either approach has its own appeal, but it’s worth noting that an RPG doesn’t need game systems to handle things like Flash’s stalling tactics; they could simply be Flash’s player doing some roleplaying or describing what Flash is doing.

Accountability: It’s noteworthy how much of this episode hangs on the League’s willingness to go along with the trial, rather than simply using their superior power to bust John out and leave. They have a respect for the law and proper procedure, and John’s insistence on seeing things through is not just because of his sense of guilt, but also because he believes in law and order, because otherwise his career and oath as a Green Lantern is meaningless. In superhero RPGs, it’s important that the players buy into the high concept of how heroes are supposed to behave if the game is to remain true to the source material. Some games offer mechanics to help enforce this behavior—like Karma in Marvel Super-Heroesbut it’s still ultimately the players’ choice.

Situational Challenges: The final conflict with the Manhunters points out how challenges in stories often vary widely based on their level of importance. In the battle against the Manhunters, the heroes trying to hold them at bay are able to take out multiple targets in broad, sweeping actions. Once inside the dome, however, a single Manhunter is a serious threat and it becomes a one-on-one struggle. It’s obviously useful for a system to “scale” to different levels of difficulty based on the story’s needs. Mutants & Masterminds handles this with the “minion” designation for some opponents, which the GM can apply at will. So the Manhunters the League fights in Part 1 are clearly not minions, but the hordes in the climax of this episode clearly are (except for the Manhunter Prime). Similarly, the Torg RPG uses “Standard” and “Dramatic” designations for scenes, and the challenges to the heroes would vary based on those scene types (in the form of round-to-round modifiers and conditions).

Spotlight Time: Green Lantern is clearly the focus of “In Blackest Night” and the final climatic confrontation with the Manhunter Prime is all up to him. Ensemble-cast teams in RPGs (which is pretty much all of them) have to make some use of shifting the spotlight to different characters and allowing them the opportunity to shine.

Next Up: Into the deep with “The Enemy Below” — Part 1