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.
“Legends” – Part 1
One of my favorite staples from the Silver and Bronze Age DC Universe was the semi-annual Justice League/Justice Society crossover so, naturally, I’m a big fan of this episode. Unfortunately, not so much DC Comics, which disallowed the use of the Justice Society characters after reading the script, which they apparently felt was “disrespectful”. (My own impression is just the opposite, actually.)
We kick off with an homage to “Flash of Two Earths,” in that Flash, trying to contain the destruction of the rampaging robot’s power core, accidentally bridges the vibrational gap between worlds, causing him, Hawkgirl, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter to disappear.
But let’s back up a moment: Speaking homages, notice how much the robot’s head looks kind of like Ultron? The opening fight is also interesting as it’s most of the League versus a single opponent. Note how their attacks have small incremental effects that don’t really seem to hinder the robot much in any way, but its attacks down GL, J’onn, and Hawkgirl. A combo by Superman and Batman finally takes the robot down: Superman tearing open its outer armor and Batman targeting its power core (why Superman couldn’t just blast it with his heat vision we’re not sure, but maybe Lex prepared for that). Also note Superman’s exclamation of “Good Lord!” (rather the “Great Scott!” or “Great Krypton!”): He is truly a product of America’s Heartland.
J’onn gets some telepathic foreshadowing that Something Is Not Right before the Leaguers discover they’re in a world very much like the ideals of the 1950s, except in the present day. Then it’s…
“Trouble in Seaboard City!” Music Master (harbinger of the character “Music Meister” in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, perhaps) escapes from the scene of the crime by blasting Green Lantern into a building. The heroes don’t get to pursue because the Justice Guild shows up—and the inevitable fight breaks out!
After the heroes sort out that they’re all the good guys—thanks to Flash saving an innocent life in the midst of the fight—they regroup and have the opportunity to go up against Seaboard City’s most infamous criminals, the Injustice Guild!
Most of this episode pokes gentle fun at the Golden/Silver Age style of the Justice Guild characters and their world: the roll-call, the corny one-liners, the kid sidekick, the decoder rings, the police sergeant with the Irish accent, and the scheming villains who tip off their foes with taunting notes and riddles, to name a few (to say nothing of Streak’s “You’re a credit to your people, son,” comment to Green Lantern). J’onn’s visions suggest something far more sinister is going on and, by the end of the episode, Hawkgirl discovers what appear to be the graves of the members of the Justice Guild!
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Teamwork! Often, a team of player character heroes will face off against a single, more powerful, villain. The game system needs to take this possibility into account in terms of its action economy and the effectiveness of the heroes’ actions, or else solo villains will be easily overwhelmed. Consider how more recent editions of Dungeons & Dragons treat solo versus group monsters, giving solos considerably more hit points (and, often, various reaction abilities) to allow them to hang in a fight longer than their team counterparts.
In Seaboard City, crime doesn’t pay! Heroes fight. In fact, they fight almost as often as they do the villains. Any superhero game has to handle fights between or amongst the heroes, or between the players heroes and NPC heroes controlled by the Game Master. Ideally, those fights should be non-lethal and conclude with everyone realizing there’s been a misunderstanding. Fortunately with some gamers, it’s not difficult to get them into a fight, and they’re willing to fight to win. The difficulty sometimes arises when players try to avoid getting into fights with their fellow heroes, or look to end them prematurely.
What kind of criminals tip off the authorities? The “clues” about the various element crimes lead the Justice Guild right to their foes, without a single wrong deduction. In essence, the clues themselves are pretty immaterial, and its safe to say there wasn’t a chance of the heroes getting them wrong. The GUMSHOE RPG system is noteworthy for its approach to investigations in that heroes are assumed to always “get” clues that further the plot, avoiding the derailment that occurs when players overlook or misinterpret a vital clue or the dice are against them in that regard. Instead, how well they handle the clue(s) is a resource they can spend later in the game. In superhero game terms, perhaps players who do well in finding or figuring out clues get bonus points (hero points, Determination, etc.) they can use later on.
A Priceless Part of Our Nation’s Aviation History! Music Master’s theft of the flier, and Green Guardsman’s insistence that it not be damaged, are great examples of complications introduced into play, as are the danger to the window washers and Guardsman’s power ring not affecting aluminum (much like the Golden Age Green Lantern’s ring is powerless against wood).
Nuns and Dynamite… Speaking of complications, Seaboard City has the concept run amok, as the nearly victorious Flash is faced with the threat of a bus full of nuns headed for a runaway truck loaded with dynamite! This is where the comic-style complications of the setting truly go over the top (so much so that “Nuns and Dynamite” is a common term for complications in my own gaming group). Still, it’s a good example of how Game Masters can use and introduce complications to influence the flow of events in a superhero adventure. If you can reliably expect heroes to drop everything to save civilians in danger, then you have a useful tool in your hands. If the game system helps to reward or enforce this, so much the better.
Next Up: Creeping Cemeteries, Catman! What’s really going on? Part 2 of “Legends”