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.
“A Knight of Shadows” – Part 1
The Justice League series is full of homages to the late, great Jack “The King” Kirby, and perhaps the most prominent in the first season is “A Knight of Shadows” featuring one of Kirby’s enduring DC creations: Etrigan, the Demon.
First, a look back at how Jason Blood came to be bonded with the demon Etrigan by Merlin’s curse, for Blood’s role in the fall of Camelot. Origin stories are compelling elements of the superhero mythos—perhaps a flashback game mechanic that provides a bonus or reward for working an opportunity to relate a character’s origin during play? Also, this is again a scene where none of the Justice Leaguers are present, so in a game context it might be told entirely by the GM as narrative, or run for the players taking on the roles of the characters in this particular era.
In spite of “knowing better,” as Jason Blood says, Batman remains skeptical of stories about Arthurian legend and Morgaine Le Fey. Still, he trusts Blood (the two of them having met previously in the Batman: The Animated Series episode “The Demon Within”) leading the two of them to follow up on the threat… and walk into Le Fey’s trap.
Batman is able to fend off the animated weapons initially while Blood looks for an exit, but when they are outnumbered (Blood proclaiming, “There are too many of them!”) he recites the incantation, “Gone! Gone, the form of man, rise the demon… Etrigan!” The Demon’s hell-spawned powers make short work of Le Fey’s sorcerous minions.
J’onn’s telepathic scan for Morgaine is both a classic RPG conundrum (mind scans and other supersenses can be real “plot-busters”) and a classic example of GM intervention to prevent exactly that from happening. Morgaine senses J’onn’s effort, and uses her considerable mystic power to psychically attack him. Her attack takes the form of an insidious illusion that J’onn is back on his native Mars, reunited with his lost wife and children, until the Demon forcibly pulls him out of it. Note that J’onn does get some clues for his trouble, so the use of his powers is at least partially successful (it furthers the heroes’ search) as well as invoking the dramatic subplot.
Flash and Wonder Woman’s arrival at Harv Hickman’s estate reveals that it is on or near Halloween, a traditional time of power for a sorceress like Morgaine Le Fey. Naturally, the party-goers are a crowd of DC homages and in-jokes (some them Kirby creations as well), and Flash and Diana get mistaken for costumed guests.
Batman is also cast in the unusual role of optimist when played against Etrigan, who is ready to write-off J’onn as “damaged goods” due to Le Fey’s influence. He’s right, to a degree, as J’onn’s hesitation due to Le Fey’s hallucinations allow her the opportunity to stun Batman and the Demon and escape.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Matters of Scale: Sometimes it really is just a matter of scale when it comes to handling a threat. Batman and Jason Blood struggle against the unliving suits of animated armor, but the Demon destroys them all in just moments. Similarly, even with the Demon’s aid, Batman is virtually helpless against Morgaine’s magical might. In spite of his considerable skills, Batman just “doesn’t have the tools” (to quote another mystic villain from the Superman Animated Series). There’s something to be said for a system that recognizes that, when you attack ice with a blowtorch, the ice doesn’t stand much of a chance.
Feelings Matter: Superhero stories often feature melodrama, but need the ability to play those feelings as legitimate. J’onn’s struggle to cope with the loss of his family, and the comfort that even an illusion of their return brings, is a key element of the story. If J’onn’s player just shrugs it off, or the system reduces it to nothing more than a series of die rolls or mechanics, it loses some of its poignancy.
Team-Ups: What Etrigan’s guest-spot in this adventure really highlights is the role of the team-up or guest-star. In the comics, it is often a gimmick or means of boosting sales (or renewing a character’s trademark) but, in a superhero RPG, what is the role of a guest-hero? Is he or she a GM-controlled character, or a temporary role for one of the players? (Note that only half of the League is on-hand for this story.) You could even have a “guest-star” mechanic, a die-roll or other “luck of the draw” that says a player will take on a different role for that adventure, perhaps used in conjunction with something like the “universe style” of play from ICONS Team-Up (where players may have and share multiple characters).
Next Up: Can the Martian Manhunter escape the ghosts of his past? Part 2 of “A Knight of Shadows”