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.
“War World” – Part 2
J’onn’s quick thinking helps to save Superman from another (potentially lethal) volley from Mongul’s robot soldiers, rallying the crowd’s support to keep the alien dictator from executing the defiant Kryptonian on the spot, and demonstrating once again that many victories are won through means other than direct conflict.
In this episode, even more than Part 1, we see Green Lantern and Hawkgirl bickering like an old married couple, so much so that they don’t notice the gas trap the smuggler unleashes on them until it is too late, almost certainly a GM-controlled complication, with bonuses for good roleplaying! (Have you also noticed that all knockout gas in the DC Animated Universe seems to be yellow? The manufacturers definitely had the Green Lanterns in mind…).
The lack of interstellar navigational capability in Green Lantern’s power ring is a bit odd, especially considering he didn’t have a problem getting them to the pit-spot planet (although John was following the other ship’s trail at the time). It’s clearly part of the same complication to get him and Hawkgirl in touch with Draaga, but still a bit odd.
In spite of the fact that Superman in the early episodes of Justice League is much like he was in the Golden Age (a bit smug and overconfident) he’s still too devoted to the heroic ideal to allow innocent people (even innocent alien people) to die needlessly, which is why Mongul’s threat carries weight.
Still, Superman makes a fight of it. He blocks four hits from Mongul’s energy axe before managing to disarm him. Then he gets a couple more hits in on Mongul to “make it convincing,” suggesting would be a pretty lopsided fight, if not for Mongul’s doomsday threat.
Having J’onn’s impersonation of Mongul remove the danger of his super-weapon is obviously too easy, since the Manhunter’s injuries just “happen” to break his concentration at the wrong time (another complication, and a bonus point for J’onn’s player). It could have also been the result of a particularly poor die roll, but more likely a little GM influence to avoid anti-climax.
Superman takes a good seven hits from Mongul before he “goes down” although how much the Man of Steel is faking it is unclear. Still, he and Mongul are pretty evenly matched. Then Draaga steps in and Superman is on the defensive, trying to convince the dishonored gladiator not to interfere. Note the instance where Superman dodges Draaga’s punch and then flips him away, a nice “spin” on a defensive move, maybe reflecting some extra degree of success there.
The timely arrival of Green Lantern and Hawkgirl might well be Martian Manhunter’s player spending some of those earned points, unless the GM is just moving things along by having them find their way to the super-weapon in the nick of time. Hawkgirl’s blocking action against the cannon firing is both daring and impressive! She knocks out a blast intended to destroy a planet, taking out the whole installation!
Speaking of spending resources, note that the heroes are willing to stand aside and let Draaga deal with Mongul, offering their moral support, and perhaps their in-game resources that can be shared with advice like “Keep your guard up on the left” (from GL) and the cheers of the crowd. Maybe one (or all) of the players are allowed to dictate Draaga’s actions and dialog for this scene to keep them involved, so it’s not just them listening to the GM narrate Mongul’s defeat.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Go With Coincidence: When Superman ships Draaga off-world in order to help him, the GM needs to get him back, so Green Lantern and Hawkgirl “happen” to get gassed and dumped on the same planet, allowing them to hook up with the alien gladiator and ferry him back to War World. It’s a pretty big coincidence, but comic book stories like this one are full of them. If you need one, just go with it. Likewise, if you’re a player and your GM sets up a coincidence to further the plot, probably best to work with it and keep on going. At the very least, the players probably earned some points for doing just that.
Ideals Matter: If Superman just told Mongul where he could stick his planet-destroying threats (or, for that matter, if Supers had just offed Draaga) things would have gone quite differently. In a superhero setting, it’s important to know what the heroes will and won’t do, because crossing those lines becomes a very big deal. The GM would be much less inclined to turn a planet of strangers into hostages knowing the hero didn’t especially care about innocent life, for example. Ideally, the system should also reward players for making the difficult choices and sticking to their ideals even when it isn’t convenient.
Be Bold! When the planet-smashing weapon is firing and there’s no time left, don’t hesitate! Jump in front of it and use whatever you’ve got to stop it! Ideally, by that point, the system has let you build up some resources so you can spend whatever you have (aided by your teammates) to pull it off. Superheroing is necessarily about carefully laid plans or playing it safe, which is rewarded in other genres or systems.
Player vs. Character: Although most RPGs keep a strict 1:1 relationship between players and their characters, that’s not the only way of doing things. Perhaps some scenes call for the players to take on the roles of entirely different characters, “jumping” from one point of view to another. Others may call for the players as a group to control a single character, focusing their attention and relaying on “teamwork” as players, rather than characters, to choose their actions. Different options for mixing-and-matching can offer novel approaches to game play rather than the usual “one player = one specific character” way.
Next Up: Some monkey business with “The Brave and the Bold” – Part 1