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.
“Metamorphosis” – Part 1
Fun Science Fact: I was incredibly fond of “elemental” heroes as a kid, they actually made me want to learn about the periodic table and the properties of the various elements and chemical reactions. So, naturally, I have a soft spot for Metamorpho, the Element Man, sometime ally (and occasional member) of the Justice League.
We kick things off with Green Lantern stopping a runaway train. Oh, sure, the episode actually starts with Simon Stagg’s pitch about the Metamorpho process, his talk with Java, and Rex Mason on selfsame train, but how much of that stuff are the players in on? It could be some exposition from the GM, or even a bit of game play with Rex as a player-controlled character, but more likely from the game perspective it starts with, “Okay, Green Lantern, you notice a runaway train rushing at high speed through the city…”
Two things are noteworthy about Green Lantern’s efforts to stop the train. First, it’s an effort. GL clearly strains and focuses all of his will into making it happen. The second is that he’s not entirely successful: the train does smash into the station and overturn, although, presumably, he manages to ensure that injuries and property damage are minimized compared to what could have happened. This suggests the process is a bit more than “roll a power check” or the like, probably something more akin to a pyramid test in ICONS or a challenge in Mutants & Masterminds. Certainly, GL puts some effort into it, either fatigue, a complication, or spending some resources.
A big chunk of the middle of this episode is taken up by Metamorpho’s origin story: Green Lantern is the only Leaguer involved (apart from talking to Batman on the communicator). All of the scenes with Rex Mason could easily happen “off-stage,” but that’s a rather unsatisfying approach, since it doesn’t give the players first-hand insights into Metamorpho or his motivations. This raises some challenges offered by the traditional RPG story structure of “one player = one character” with the GM as “narrator” (and NPCs).
The search for Mason gets sidetracked by a quick little encounter with some bank robbers, mainly to provide pretext for Hawkgirl to save Green Lantern’s bacon and for the two of them to have a little heart-to-heart talk before he goes rushing off to see Mason.
Of course, the meeting set up by Metamorpho is a trap. Note that GL’s protective aura springs up automatically to shield him from the surprise fire blast, and that he actively blocks some of Metamorpho’s initial attacks (forming shields and bubbles) but that when John is momentarily stunned by a powerful blow that slams him into the ground, his force field drops, leaving him at Rex Mason’s mercy…
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Sharing the Spotlight: The most interesting element (pun intended) of this episode is the role of Rex Mason. He’s a pretty pivotal character, and has a number of scenes to himself. So, how to handle that in a superhero RPG context? There are a number of options:
- Off-stage: Mason’s scenes just happen “off-stage,” either described to the players as omniscient observers by the GM as narrator, or assumed and not described to the players at all, leaving them a bit in the dark as to what is going on. This can be effective in terms of a misunderstanding scenario (the heroes really don’t know what happened) but might be less satisfying from an overall story perspective. Still, having the players sit through a lot of exposition by the GM can slow down the game.
- Guest Character: Metamorpho might be a guest character, played by one of the regular players, or a guest player (meaning this was either planned out well in advance or the GM is a truly excellent improvisor). In a “Universe Style” series, as described in ICONS Team-Up, Metamorpho could be one of a regular player’s “alternate” characters (the same being said for the Demon’s appearance in “A Knight of Shadows”).
- Group Character: Lastly, Metamorpho might be a guest character, as above, but rather than having one player take up most of the “spotlight time” in the game, the group as a whole “plays” Rex Mason/Metamorpho in the scenes where he appears, or at least the scenes where he appears solo (with control reverting to the GM for conflict scenes with the League). This might involve some type of collaborative game play, or passing the role from player to player.
Heroism Costs… Green Lantern’s strain at stopping the runaway train points to a common superhero trope: putting in extra effort in order to succeed when the chips are down. This is why many superhero RPGs have mechanics of one sort or another for “pushing” or “extra effort” and/or some type of resource—Determination, hero points, plot points, etc.—giving players influence over the outcome of otherwise random die rolls. The key point is that these things are finite and “cost” the players something in game terms, forcing them to choose where and when to spend their heroes’ limited resources.
… But Not Always: The whole bank robbers scene doesn’t really require any game mechanics, since it’s a foregone conclusion the heroes will stop the robbers, it’s really just a matter of how. It’s a fairly “routine” situation, in spite of the apparent dangers. The action is just backdrop for the interaction between the characters, and sometime its wise to acknowledge and focus on that.
Next Up: More bad chemistry makes trouble for our heroes in Part 2 of “Metamorphosis”
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