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.
“Fury” – Part 2
Things get rolling (quite literally) as the Justice Leaguers leap into action to help people endangered by the chaos caused by Aresia’s allergen as it spreads throughout the city.
There’s some interesting interplay as Batman pushes Wonder Woman out of the way of an out-of-control bus. She then has to deal with a collapsing radio tower while Batman chases the bus and manages to stop it in the nick of time. Batman’s “spotlight” time is over right after that, however, as he succumbs to the effects of the allergen as well.
With Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl left on their own to deal with the crisis, one wonders how to handle this from an RPG perspective: Are the players of all the male characters just “sitting out” the rest of this adventure? Are they participating in other, meta-narrative, ways that don’t appear “on screen”?
The brief scene where Sakuri and Aresia break into the airbase (again proving you can defeat any electronic lock by smashing it) could be a short aside. Otherwise, it’s largely irrelevant from a game perspective, happening “off stage” while the heroes aren’t present.
The rescue of the medivac chopper is an exercise in increasing complications: Wonder Woman stabilizes the helicopter, but is felled by an errant power line. The cable ignites a fire as Hawkgirl and Wonder Woman get the crew to safety, then the explosion sends the wreckage tumbling towards the street! This could be another instance of a poor success attempt (e.g. Wonder Woman tries to stabilize the chopper, but her player rolls poorly) or a GM-imposed complication.
Star Sapphire shows up in the nick of time to help out by catching the falling debris in a force field. She then offers to take the heroines to deal with Aresia. Of course, it turns to be a ruse: Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl both get the drop on Aresia and Sakuri, knocking them down, but then Star Sapphire’s force field separates them. Note how it “resets” the conditions of the conflict: both Aresia and Sakuri show no signs of “damage” immediately afterwards, and the scene shifts from a conflict to a negotiation for a while.
When the heroines refuse to join Aresia’s crusade, Star Sapphire launches an attack, putting Wonder Woman on the defensive, deflecting with her bracelets. Sakuri incepts Hawkgirl’s attempted attack on Aresia. Hawkgirl blocks Sakuri’s katana and smashes it with her mace. Sakuri then trips Hawkgirl and attempts to disarm her, but gets shocked by the mace’s energy field instead, demonstrating the value of reaction-based effects as “counter attacks”.
Aresia then sucker-punches Hawkgirl (who is focused on Sakuri). Wonder Woman hurls a barrel into the path of Star Sapphire’s beam, the resulting explosion knocking Sapphire into a wall, but Aresia also sucker-punches Wonder Woman, knocking her down. Things momentarily shift to interaction again, as Aresia attempts to use her prisoner Hippolyta as leverage. When it doesn’t work, Star Sapphire blasts Wonder Woman and Hawkgirl from behind, stunning them.
Note that there isn’t much made of Wonder Woman catching up with the bomber, she just does it. The Javelin’s attack puts Star Sapphire on the defensive (throwing up a protective bubble) until Wonder Woman hits with with a thrown cannon (!) putting her out of action.
Even in the midst of all the conflict on-board the bomber, everything pauses for Hippolyta to lecture Aresia about compassion and reveal the truth about her origins. Then the action starts up again as Aresia refuses to be swayed from her chosen course.
Note that, once the missiles are disabled and Aresia’s plot is foiled, Wonder Woman “happens” to get thrown through the cockpit of the bomber to safety just before it crashes into the ocean. This is almost certainly a GM-fiat to go with the classic “mysterious death”. Aresia is gone, but there is no way to know for certain if she survived or not.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Going Beyond One Player = One Hero: The structure of this episode raises questions about the classic RPG structure where each player controls a single character as his or her proxy in the story. Although some RPGs have played around with this traditional structure, it remains the core of the vast majority of games. It might be interesting to experiment with different approaches, such as a group of players creating a team of characters, wherein they can each have the 1:1 player:hero ratio, but there’s no direct “ownership” of characters: players might swap roles, or multiple players might control a single character. The focus is on the team and the characters as a whole. Clearly, some mechanics would be needed to handle the question of multiple players running a smaller number of characters, but it could be an interesting experiment.
The Power of Surprise: Once again, we see the effectiveness of surprise attacks (and treachery), able to take even powerful heroes down in one go. In some senses, surprise attacks make heroes as vulnerable as minions (in games that make that distinction) or else they might be GM-controlled complications that short-circuit the usual conflict mechanics, taking a hero out of the fight immediately, but costing the GM resources (and/or awarding them to the players). It’s certainly a useful element for speeding up some conflicts.
There’s Always Time to Talk: The shift from conflict to interaction and back again in the two episodes of “Fury” is noteworthy. Conflicts can be put “on hold” by a character’s monologue or discussion, only to flare back up again. Sometimes that pause seems to “reset” things (if the conflict hasn’t gone too far) other times it does not, or the interaction even furthers the conflict, wearing one or more of the characters down; for example, in addition to providing useful context, did Hippolyta’s revelation to Aresia also “weaken” her in a mechanical sense, making it easier for the heroes to triumph? This suggests that mechanics for moral victories and other measure of success are valuable.
Next Up: Nuns and dynamite, oh no! It’s Part 1 of “Legends”