Re: Animated • Justice League “The Enemy Below” – Part 2

jl07This 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.

“The Enemy Below” – Part 2

Going after the missing Aquaman and following up on evidence that someone in Atlantis is behind a plot to assassinate him, the League falls victim to Atlantean perimeter defenses and is captured. Atlantean synaptic headbands leave them largely powerless and in the clutches of Orm, who intends to execute them as he leads an attack on the surface world.

So, Aqauman is largely a joke in fan circles, thanks to versions like the Super-Friends, but Justice League offers us quit possibly the most badass Aquaman ever: Orm chains Aquaman to a rock and pins his infant son there by his swaddling blanket before blasting the rock and sending it sliding into a volcanic trench. Aquaman is able to break one of the chains by sheer effort, but cannot break free of the other. So he severs his own hand in order to save his son! (This, by the way, is far cooler than the comic book version, where Aquaman’s hand gets eaten by piranha.)

The League and Aquaman have to confront the danger of the Atlantean “doomsday reactor” that is melting the polar ice and threatening to flood the world. The fight with the Atlanteans is pretty straightforward, something to keep the Leaguers busy while Batman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman tackle the reactor. Note that Aquaman makes a giant orca “area attack” against a group of Atlantean soldiers, taking them all out at once, and interesting use of his power over marine life.

The duel between Aquaman and Ocean Master (although he’s never called that in the episodes) is interesting to choreograph: Orm attacks from surprise, initially stunning Aquaman. When he moves in for the kill, however, Aquaman kicks him, knocking him away (guess he wasn’t so stunned after all). He blocks Orm’s trident with his hook and punches him, knocking him down. Orm destroys the reactor’s control mechanism, then shoots the surprised Aquaman; a maneuver to get Aquaman to drop his guard?

In the end, Batman (protected by Green Lantern’s ring aura) is able to shut down the reactor while Aquaman leaves Orm dangling from a precipice and allows him to (apparently) fall to his death.

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?

There Are Always Challenges: One of the great things about superhero settings is, there is always a way around characters with tremendous and varied powers. Taking four of the most powerful members of the Justice League captive, the Atlanteans still manage to hold them easily with the plot device of the synaptic headbands that short-circuit the heroes’ concentration and abilities. (We’ll see a similar trick in the upcoming Gorilla City episode.) If it hadn’t been that, it might have been Atlantean sorcery or some drug derived from rare seaweed or whatnot. The point is there’s always a new way to challenge the heroes (and therefore the players) and what the challenge is isn’t so important as the fact that there is one.

The Heroes Don’t Have to Do Everything: It’s noteworthy that Mera saves the League from dying in Orm’s watery execution chamber, in direct opposition to most of the Game Master advice you get never to have NPCs save the PCs or show them up in any way. Now, it’s possible the “mechanics” behind the scenes included some means by which a player caused or narrated that rescue, perhaps using some game-system connection with Mera from a previous encounter. It’s equally possible the scene represented the players trying to escape, but unable to succeed mechanically in overcoming the synaptic headbands (the efforts of Wonder Woman, J’onn, and Green Lantern could well be: rolls… unsuccessful total… “Can’t focus…” etc.) so the GM brings in Mera as a last-ditch out so the heroes don’t die (because we know they’re not going to, after all). Or it could have been planned from the start that Mera would help them out. The point being that, in spite of all the GM advice, sometimes it suits the plot for a NPCs to provide a helping hand in getting the heroes out of trouble, and that’s okay.

Success at a Price: The key moment in this episode is Aquaman’s sacrifice to save his son. I could talk about various game mechanics, including extraordinary effort in M&M or the idea of acquiring and immediately tagging a new Challenge in Icons (probably in addition to tagging Aquaman’s “Duty to Family and Kingdom” aspect) but, in my opinion, any mechanic beyond “with a sufficient sacrifice, success is ensured” is inadequate. We could look to quantify “sufficient sacrifice” but that’s tricky business. In the Deryni Adventure Game, talking about “sword spells” I wrote:

…it’s probably best to just fudge it and say the hero valiantly sacrifices his life in order to strike down his foe, accompanied by a suitably dramatic description … Such a valiant sacrifice shouldn’t be dependent on a die roll for success; if the player is willing to sacrifice his or her character to the cause in the name of a good story, it’s only fair to ensure the hero’s dying effort is a success!

In the same vein, while Aquaman doesn’t sacrifice his life, I think the principle is the same; don’t let the dice ruin an awesome dramatic moment when it’s easier to just say the hero’s effort is successful. Call it a circumstantial “awesome modifier” large enough to make the die roll moot, if that makes you feel better about it.

It’s also interesting to wonder how engineered Aquaman’s situation is: did his player simply roll poorly on the escape attempt(s) and run out of ideas or did the GM create a situation where an extreme solution was the only one? If the latter, is that “unfair” in game terms? Should players be put in situations where their characters must sacrifice in order to succeed? I think that’s largely a decision the player(s) and GM should make together, but is something to consider in any dramatic storytelling game.

Next Up: The Justice League versus the Injustice Gang in “Injustice for All, Part 1”