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.
“The Brave and the Bold” – Part 2
Following the dramatic disappearance of Central City in Part 1 of “The Brave and the Bold” the rest of the Justice League takes notice when a midwestern U.S. city up and vanishes! Interesting to note that, although the dome started expanding from the lab on the shoreline (riverfront, most likely) it appears centered in the middle of the city, rather than on its outskirts.
The heroes pretty quickly abandon the “shut down the field generator” idea once Green Lantern’s ring proves unable to penetrate the force field around it. I don’t know that the average RPG players would be so quick to give up and go looking for Grodd. Some systems may even have options in place to foreclose certain choices, making it abundantly clear to the players they’re not going to succeed that way, and forcing them to make a different choice. Other systems prefer to let players call the shots in that regard, or to at least have a chance of success, no matter what.
The same is true of when the other Leaguers investigate the Central City dome: after a shaky (but not too critical) crash landing, they likewise discover they can’t get through the dome, but there is something similar going on in Africa. The decision to go there to investigate could easily be something GM-guided, player-guided, or a combination of both. RPG scenarios, unlike television scripts, may have unexpected actions on the part of the heroes.
Flash stays true to his brash and impulsive challenges, eliciting Green Lantern’s classic “Don’t heckle the super-villain!” Note that GL’s force field is pretty easily able to handle the portable weaponry the mind-controlled cops are able to bring to bear (although Flash manages to cleverly disarm them anyway). Flash can also heft and carry a 400 lb. gorilla while moving at super-speed! That’s not at all out of line for most RPGs, which tend to inflate human-level strength capabilities, anyway. The “average” Strength in Mutants & Masterminds, for example, can press 50 lbs., and it’s only Strength 3 to lift an ape like Solovar. It’s even less in the Hero System, where Strength 15 can press 200 kg (well over 400 lbs.).
Meanwhile, the other Justice Leaguers run afoul of Gorilla City’s automated defenses in a clear story complication that leaves them all captured (that, or they all managed to fail the check to avoid that fate). They also end up in restraints that clearly limit their options for escape to … well, Batman, in order to shift some of the focus to Batman’s abilities (as opposed to, say, J’onn or Wonder Woman’s strengths).
Green Lantern gets into a challenge sequence with stopping the missiles, while Flash confronts Grodd. Now, I don’t know how to disarm a cruise missile, but I’m imagining it’s more involved than cutting it open and tearing out some wires. Still, it suffices for superhero purposes, where the question isn’t whether or not GL can stop the missiles but can he do it in time?
In the confrontation with Grodd, Flash is clearly too fast for the big ape to lay a paw on him but, on the other hand, doesn’t have a lot to take down a guy as tough as Grodd (although I’ll lay odds that a player character would still go with “I hit him a lot at super-speed” at first). So Flash tricks Grodd into defeating himself by goading him into using his mind control helmet, which Flash has cross-circuited. In game terms, that might have been the player’s intention all along (and what Flash’s player declared when pushing the helmet down over Grodd’s eyes) or it might have been a “retcon” of some kind, based on the effectiveness of Flash’s interaction with Grodd and the use of some in-game resources (which Flash has certainly been accumulating in this story!).
Stopping the missiles from hitting Gorilla City has two escalations: First, when a flying piece of debris stuns Green Lantern, allowing two of the missiles to get past him, and then when Hawkgirl’s attempt to smash one of the missiles sends the warhead plummeting into the heart of the city. Wonder Woman has to expend a heroic effort to stop it, with her signature cry of “Hera, give me strength!” For at least a moment, we’re left to wonder if Diana has made the ultimate sacrifice (although we know that’s not likely). A storytelling GM might use the same technique: having Wonder Woman’s action succeed, but leaving doubt as to her fate for a moment or two.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Don’t Overcomplicate: As parts of this episode—notably the missile disarming scenes—point out, don’t get too bogged down in real world details when it comes to superheroes. Does Green Lantern really need training in nuclear physics or bomb disposal to take out the runaway missiles? Sure, maybe his military background justifies it (although John was likely a non-com Marine, not in ordinance disposal) it really doesn’t matter. The point is to make the process of dealing with the missiles dramatic, not burdensome.
Some Things Just Are, Redux: Just as in Part 1 of the episode, there are some examples in Part 2 of things that are just all-or-nothing, or at least seem that way. The force fields protecting the generator and covering Central and Gorilla Cities are just impenetrable. The weapon that fells the League outside of Gorilla City overwhelms even J’onn and Wonder Woman, and the manacles that imprison them can’t be broken by simple brute force. Perhaps there were just some poor check results involved, but it seems like not only can there be some things in the genre that are just “no go” barriers, but they are, in fact, fairly common.
Don’t Make it Too Easy, Either: While the advice not to overcomplicate (previously) is good, don’t make things too easy on the heroes, either. Most of the challenges in this story dealt the heroes reversals: GL stops the first two missiles, but then is unable to finish the job. Hawkgirl and J’onn stop the next two, but still leave a crisis for Wonder Woman. The Leaguers break free from Gorilla jail, but run smack into the force dome, and so forth. When it looks like the heroes have a routine solution, it’s probably time to crank things up a notch and make it more difficult.
Leave Room for Revision: A lot of the action that happens in an RPG is back-and-forth through narrative time: players declare what they want, the game system dictates how successful (or not) they are, and the GM interprets the results to add to the narrative, which the players may then still be able to edit using in-game resources. So the flow is not quite the same as watching a narrative unfold on the screen. While gamemastering, leave room for these types of “revisions” and reinterpretations of events in the game as they unfold. An RPG is the process of creating a story, rather than telling it; the telling generally comes after the game (and the story) are complete.
Next Up: Is a renegade Amazon threatening Man’s World? “Fury” – Part 1
Great, often overlooked point, about creating a story rather than telling it. Too many game-masters out there are all about “their story”, seeing the campaign as just a way for the players to have some small participation in their grand saga.