This 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 2
In spite of the pretty serious beatings from last episode, Superman and Wonder Woman recover almost immediately from their fight, ready for action again.
In addition to the cute Dr. Strange homage, the investigation scene of Faust’s “sanctum” is primarily exposition and comic relief (with Batman’s “Don’t touch anything!”). One challenge is how this information is passed along to the players to relate to the other players; perhaps Batman’s player gets an “off-stage” briefing or notes. In some systems, this exposition might even be improvisation, declared by the player rather than the GM, based on the GM’s previous foreshadowing that Faust is working for some infernal being.
In the confrontation with Faust, his initial mystic blasts scatter the League and manage to stun Superman (who is vulnerable to magic, after all). Flash is easily able to dodge his attacks, but Faust blunts his charge by tearing up the earth so Flash trips—a classic “area attack versus high defense speedster” maneuver (which gets used against Flash multiple times). J’onn rushes in and shoulders Faust, knocking him down. A mystic blast passes through the Martian when he phases. Then a massive blast scatters J’onn and Batman, sending a pillar falling onto Batman, but Superman catches it (note Superman blocking for Batman, ala the Interpose advantage from Mutants & Masterminds). Batman traps Faust with a cable, then Wonder Woman uses her lasso. Faust sends a magical shock along both lines to stun the heroes. Surrounded by Superman, Flash, and J’onn, Faust casts seeds that turn into giant, spiked vine-tentacles. With the League occupied, he’s able to grab Hippolyta and teleport away.
In the fight with Hades, a hit from Superman is enough to stagger him back, but he counters with a backhand powerful enough to send Superman flying into a column. An exploding batarang in Hades’ hand doesn’t even phase him, nor do rapid-fire punches from Flash, who is nevertheless able to dodge Hades’ flaming breath.
Hades summons a legion of undead soldiers and sends them against the heroes. He starts picking them off while they deal with the skeletons until Faust blasts Hades in the back, revealing his “true” form. Wonder Woman makes a determined effort to tear the key free from the lock and destroy it, creating a vortex that pulls Hades back into Tartarus. Diana uses determined effort again to hold on against the vortex and pull her mother free, returning Hades to his banishment.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Recovery is Generally Quick: Unless a character suffers a dramatic injury of some sort, they recover from even the most terrific fights immediately; Superman and Wonder Woman pound on each other (Supes especially takes a beating after he stops fighting back) and yet they’re both fine right after. Now, they are both super-strong, but that generally seems the case. On the other hand, Batman’s injuries in Part 1 of “Injustice for All” are played for dramatic effect but then, in spite of adding getting ambushed by the Joker and a serious fall, he’s fine in the next episode. So, unless there’s a dramatic point to be made, superhero characters should bounce back pretty quickly.
There’s Room for Player Input: The exposition scene in Faust’s sanctum points towards the potential for players to choose some of the elements of the story. The GM might have set up the mysterious floating, fiery portal and ominous voice and left the rest up to what the character with the best investigative total (almost certainly Batman) decided it would be. RPGs like Theatrixoffering this kind of declarations, and others do as well, often limited by some sort of game system resource (“plot points,” etc.).
Sometimes, the Villain Gets Away: Faust teleporting away with Hippolyta, leaving the League to face his overgrown vine monster is classic comic book: delaying tactic allows the villain to further his nefarious plot. In a lot of RPGs, this would earn the players a bonus for the following encounter, since the conflict almost matters less than the fact that it delays the heroes briefly. In many ways, a lot of comic book plots are extended “chase” scenes, where the heroes deal with obstacles keeping them from confronting the main bad guy until they are finally able to do so.
Minions vs. One-on-One: Hades undead minions supply another comic book trope: this conflict “belongs” to Wonder Woman, and the undead soldiers just give the rest of the League something to do while Diana rescues her mother and has it out with Hades by sending him back where he came from. That’s not to say the fight with the skeletons doesn’t matter; the League is keeping them off of Wonder Woman so she can do what needs to be done, but this kind of thing is a useful story-management tool when you want to have a one-on-one conflict in the midst of a team-on-one encounter.
Some Fights You Can’t Win: At least, not by fighting. This is simultaneously one of the easiest and hardest things to model in an RPG. “Conflict” systems can be sufficiently abstract that the actual conflict could be about anything from a clash of arms to figuring out a puzzle (ala “Riddles in the Dark” from The Hobbit). It’s the lateral wins concept we’ve looked at several times before.
The trick is to translate the abstract rules outcomes into compelling story while keeping the players engaged and not feeling like they’re no longer in control of their characters. Thus you get clear-cut goals (remove the key in order to close the portal) coupled with great difficulty (initial attempts make it clear determined effort is needed in order to succeed). This is not all that different from a combat, where the clear goal is to defeat one’s opponent, and the great difficulty is split up into smaller segments of back-and-forth attack and defend until one side wins.
Next Up: In space, there is only war! Part 1 of “War World”