Re: Animated • Justice League “Paradise Lost” – Part 1

jl10This 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.

“Paradise Lost” – Part 1

A hurricane strikes “Beach City” (the news report has Snapper Carr reporting from “Beach City Pier”). This preamble is the classic “heroes vs. disaster” scenario, which tends to get limited treatment in superhero RPGs compared to combat.

Diana’s monologue on her way back to Paradise Island is classic and any player who came up with Wonder Woman saying these things to prepare for a confrontation with her mother should get some type of award!

Finding the Amazons under an evil spell, Wonder Woman spots Faust in the nick of time. She deflects Faust’s initial spells, acrobatically dodging past him. Grabbing a fallen column she hurls it at him, forcing him to dodge, then rushes in to knock him down and grab him. Note how Wonder Woman’s emphasis on offense puts Faust on the defensive and gives her the opportunity to close the distance and grab him.

Faust, of course, blackmails Wonder Woman with the spell to restore the Amazons. Now, at this point in her career, Diana probably doesn’t know any other magicians like Zatanna or Dr. Fate and, who knows, it might be more difficult for another sorcerer to undo Faust’s work. He poses the classic Macguffin hunt, telling Wonder Woman to retrieve the items he wants…or else! Faust’s blackmail is another classic complication, potentially adding hero points to Diana’s total.

In the museum, a bronze statue attacks and Wonder Woman dodges. She throws her magic lasso over its sword hand, but the statue yanks her into its strike, knocking her into the wall—a serious failure on her attack or success on its defense? It swings again and misses, as she flies out of the way. Three more slashes dodged, then the statue hits with a punch that sends Diana into a mass of stone columns. She lifts up a broken column and smashes the statue’s leg with it in a fury, then flies in with a flurry of blows, reducing the statue to rubble. Is this an example of determined effort? Certainly, Wonder Woman took a beating early on and probably racked up some points for earlier in the adventure.

Tipped off by Batman, other members of the League offer to help find the remaining artifacts in time to meet Faust’s deadline. J’onn and Flash find one in what looks like Central America while another is hidden beneath an urban mall.

A blast of flame from the giant serpent guarding the second artifact stuns the Martian Manhunter. When it attacks again, Flash whips up a whirlwind to blow the flames back in its face (power stunt?), then dodges its bite. Running up the serpent’s back, he ties it into a knot, a good use of a “non-offensive” power to essentially execute a “grappling” attack. J’onn recovers and, when the serpent gets untangled and surges forward, he nails it with an uppercut that knocks it out (one of the first instances of J’onn demonstrating super-strength in the series).

Made to see each other as hideous demons, Wonder Woman attacks Superman, hitting him twice and staggering him back. He strikes back, sending her flying backward, but she lands on her feet. Her next hit stuns Superman, so she hits him again, sending him through a window. He rushes and slams Diana, hitting her on the way out into the mall. Diana lassos Superman, but he flies up and slams her against the ceiling hard enough to stun her. She throws a car at him, which he hurls back, but misses. Wonder Woman grabs a pair of live cables and slams them into him, followed by a kick, and then a down hand strike, slamming Superman to the ground and stunning him. He sees her reflection in the pool just before she hits him again, then hurls him away. Wonder Woman gets in three more hits before Superman puts up his arms and starts bracing himself against them, fighting defensively. When he tries to grab Wonder Woman to restrain her, she kicks him through a wall, again leaving him stunned, if not worse.

In Icons game terms: Wonder Woman gets in a total of eleven hits on Superman: assuming she’s Strength 9 and he has Damage Resistance 8, that’s 11 damage versus probably Stamina 15+, plus potentially extra damage for the power cables. When Superman braces, he gets enough of a bonus to take no damage until she hits him again for a fairly serious stun. Superman gets only a couple hits in, but he has Strength 10; what’s Wonder Woman’s Damage Resistance, if any, since she’s likely Stamina 15–16? Damage Resistance 5 (Limited to Bashing)?

The dynamics of the Superman/Wonder Woman fight show a lot of back-and-forth, and a lot of actions determined by or based on what the opponent does. This suggests a degree of opposed action, with the outcome determined by who wins the exchange and what they can apply that success to accomplish.

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?

Not All Threats Are Villains: The opening scenes of this episode show that not all threats heroes encounter are going to be villains, and even some villainous threats can’t be overcome by just beating them into submission. The hurricane creates specific challenges for the heroes and so does Faust: he has something to bargain with, and Wonder Woman cannot save her Amazon sisters without first getting Faust’s cooperation. This is more of a Game Master lesson in adventure building, but a good superhero system should also support this with systems for other types of challenges.

Sooner or Later, Heroes Fight: It is a trope of the superhero comics that heroes end up fighting each other almost as much as they do villains. Misunderstanding, mind control, and more lead to hero and hero fights, and the system needs to account for and support that possibility. Players are often going to measure their heroes’ capabilities by figuring out who else they can “take” amongst the other players’ heroes. This can be a fun exercise in the game, but also needs to be handled carefully, because player vs. player scenarios often bring out the competitive streak in some gamers, a “win at any cost” attitude that can turn a friendly competition into a serious game-breaker.

Actions Based on Circumstance: Particularly as the Superman vs. Wonder Woman fight demonstrates, actions are often based on (or limited by) circumstance. Sometimes, the back-and-forth system of one character acts, then another, has limits in terms of reflecting this. Some games use initiative systems whereby the slower character “declares” first, allowing the faster character to change actions based on the new information (“She’s going to throw a car at me? My action is to catch it and throw it back!”). Simultaneous resolution systems might focus on game system first (“roll an opposed Prowess test”), outcome second (“Okay, Wonder Woman, you win the test with a moderate result. What happens?”). In almost all cases, there’s some degree of “translation” between game mechanic and narrative in-game action.

Next Up: The road to Hades is paved with good intentions in “Paradise Lost, Part 2”