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 Savage Time” – Part 1
The three-part conclusion of Season One of Justice League hits on some great comic book elements, including time travel, World War II, Nazis, and alternate histories, to say nothing of featuring one of DC’s more unusual master-villains, the immortal Vandal Savage, in an action-packed story full of fun Easter eggs for viewers, along with some useful ideas for superhero RPGs.
The episode cuts right to the chase: The League, returning from a mission in space, is witness to a strange shockwave event across the Earth that mysterious makes the Watchtower (with Batman on board) disappear! Green Lantern, his ring in need of a recharge (note the foreshadowing) is just able to protect them. Investigating, the heroes discover Metropolis bizarrely transformed into a totalitarian police state. When the local stormtroopers demand “identity papers,” things get rough.
Note that the stormtroopers energy weapons actually stagger Superman until Green Lantern throws up a protective energy dome. Indeed, Superman seems particularly de-powered in this episode compared to the other Leaguers, perhaps in a tip of the hat to his Golden Age persona.
The “Batman” (or, at least, Bruce Wayne) of this alternate reality helps lead the heroes to the safety of his underground lair, tricked out with some of the trappings of the Bat-cave (note the Bat-mobile like car and the Bat-computer). He fills the heroes in on what has happened: The Axis won World War II, and America is under a repressive regime. Someone has changed history! Note how Batman’s origins still holds true in this universe: regime stormtroopers murdered his parents rather than a mugger, but the inspiration is the same. Also note parallel universe versions of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon as Resistance members (one of the kids might be Tim Drake, too).
It’s a toss-up as to whether or not Batman is a player character in this adventure or (more likely) a stand-in NPC. If Batman’s player hadn’t been able to make it for this game, this is pretty much exactly what I would have done: used his character to add a more personal element to the time-shift, along with providing a “local” ally and informant for the heroes. If a player character weren’t available for this, a trusted NPC would have done as well.
The heroes track down the laboratory where, sure enough, there is a time portal into the past. Cleaning up the security there (no real challenge) the heroes decide to use it to try and correct the changes. There’s a bittersweet moment where Batman muses that this could save his family, and none of the League wants to take away his hope by saying otherwise (apart from Superman’s “I can’t promise that.”)
The time portal takes them to war-torn France during WWII, just in time to help save some Allied troops from Nazi war-wheels, future tech sent into the past by Vandal Savage. Note that Superman’s initial punches, heat vision, and the like are relatively ineffectual against the war-wheel, and he even needs Wonder Woman’s help to push it over (much as with the Atlantean ship in “The Enemy Below”). This is definitely not the Superman who pushes planets out of orbit! Also note that, while it isn’t shown, it’s pretty well implied that people are getting killed in the fighting: both in the first tank the war-wheel blasts and in the war-wheel cockpit that gets blown up. We’ll see more of this in later episodes as well.
The heroes go with the classic “split into smaller teams” approach: J’onn and Wonder Woman flying to Berlin to find out where the future tech is coming from, the rest of the team staying behind to help the Allies. We get a nice Easter egg in the form of the American soldier downed by a war-wheel, clutching a hand over his eye (who just happens to look a lot like a certain Sgt. Nick Fury…) followed by the mother of all guest appearances when the dashing blond Allied agent Wonder Woman rescues introduces himself as “Trevor … Steve Trevor”.
Finally, we get the fulfillment of the opening foreshadowing as Green Lantern valiantly holds off a war-wheel until his power ring runs out of energy, then hands a wounded soldier off to Hawkgirl, telling her to leave him behind and get to safety as the war-wheels close in…
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Jump Right In: If this episode of Justice League teaches us anything, it is to jump right in when it comes to superhero and comic book action. How do the Leaguers manage to avoid the effects of Savage time-shift? Who cares? Maybe it’s Green Lantern’s ring, but it’s not worth spending any time on it. Likewise, when the heroes find the time portal, they don’t faff around, they leap through it into the past to set things right! In a superhero RPG, action is preferable to indecision, even if it may not be the “right” or “perfect” action. The system (and the GM) should encourage and reward this. Sometimes a blunder, poor roll, or other misstep may complicate things for the heroes, but they should generally be throwing caution to the winds and doing things. In some cases, a mechanic wherein heroes can be relied upon to take immediate action (such as compels in Fate or ICONS, or reflexes in Burning Wheel) can be useful.
Let’s Split Into Teams! It’s a total comic book trope for teams of heroes to split into smaller teams to tackle separate challenges. The trick is not only allowing for this, but managing it well. Some of this involves regular scene-shifting and cuts (as in the episode itself) so one group doesn’t have the opportunity to get bored waiting. There’s also the question of whether or not particular game mechanics are needed to support this, such as the Marvel Heroic Affiliations (where Wonder Woman and J’onn shift from Team to Buddy status, and Green Lantern shifts from Team to Solo at the end of the episode).
The Golden Age: It can be argued that the two most “native” periods for comic book superheroes are the decades of the Cold War (particularly the 1960s) and the “Golden Age” of the 1940s, including World War II. “The Savage Time” nicely highlights the natural fit of superheroes vs. Nazis, and reminds us that it was one of the first tropes of the genre. Even a modern-day setting can take advantage of this by providing neo-Nazi stand-ins, like Marvel’s HYDRA, or SHADOW from the Earth-Prime setting of Freedom City, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the real thing, and giving the heroes an opportunity to stand up for freedom and democracy and punch some Nazis in the face.
Next Up: Behind enemy lines in Part 2 of “The Savage Time”
Pingback: Re: Animated • Justice League “The Savage Time” – Part 2 | Steve Kenson