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 3
It’s the end of the first season of Justice League and the conclusion to the epic three-part “The Savage Time” as the time-tossed members of the League have to stop Vandal Savage from interfering with history and prevent the Axis powers from winning World War II.
Trapped by the Axis forces, Wonder Woman breaks off the cover of the stolen communicator, puts Ernst and Steve Trevor under cover and yells “Brace yourselves!” as the war wheels open fire. The Amazon Princess endures and deflects withering fire and, once the tower collapses, holds up the debris even when a war wheel runs over it to crush whatever remains. This is a classic example of an in-game test or challenge relying on the hero’s abilities, but one that is not a conflict: Wonder Woman isn’t trying to defeat the war wheels, just ensure her charges survive and that the soldiers believe they have succeeded in their mission.
Superman and Hawkgirl lead an assault on Savage’s secret factory, taking out the anti-aircraft defenses (being much smaller and more maneuverable than planes, to say nothing or more invulnerable in Superman’s case). Flash again proves himself one of the more heroic Leaguers, concerned with clearing the workers out of the about to be destroyed factory right before the Blackhawks bomb it into rubble. They learn the Axis is building jet engines, and Martian Manhunter arrives to fill his teammates in on where the future tech is coming from.
Easy Co. stumbles upon the enemy airfield they’re looking for: While haranguing John (yet again) Bulldozer falls right through the camouflage of the fake “hill”. In game-terms, this is almost certainly the doing of John’s player (spending an in-game resource to enhance his finding of secret base, which John mentions with his “I knew it!”) although it could be the work of a Gamemaster looking to give the bully Bulldozer a bit of well-earned payback. GMs, never be afraid to make fools of your NPCs for the players’ enjoyment, especially if those NPCs have it coming!
“You can’t stop them ’em all single-handed!” “Watch me!” This is John Stewart’s moment: He’s been racking up points putting up with the loss of his power ring, Bulldozer’s sniping, and getting along with Easy Co. and now’s his time to use them. He rushes Savage’s plane, grabs a motorcycle, and makes the daring leap on-board as it takes off. He sabotages the plane and gets “lucky” enough (again, those points) to take out the radio as well, causing the whole squadron of planes to slow to match its pace. Although he gets captured, his confrontation with Savage is just an opportunity to “recharge” a bit as the master-villain tries to torture him for information.
“Gotta warn the good guys! Which way is west?” Flash does what he does best: run. It’s a terrific response to a situation where the non-flying super-speedster, rather than lamenting his inability to take out a squadron of super-sonic fighter-bombers, takes action to do what he can to help out.
Meanwhile, the flying members of the League catch up with Savage’s planes and start doing damage, aided by the timely arrival of Wonder Woman. Martian Manhunter does his rare super-dense maneuver to “fall” right through a plane, while Superman, Hawkgirl, and Wonder Woman tear into the enemy planes. When they fire their afterburners to try and escape, Flash’s involvement pays off and the Axis jets stumble right into an artillery barrage from the Allied fleet.
Finally, John Stewart plays his last cards: He takes down Savage’s guards and, although Savage tries to taunt him into killing him (knowing it won’t do any good), he shoots out the jet’s controls instead. Then, at the last minute, J’onn “happens” to sense Green Lantern’s presence telepathically and warns Hawkgirl, allowing her to give him a lift off the doomed plane before it crashes into the Atlantic. That’s a sure use of player influence over the narrative that goes beyond just the character’s own traits, but makes for a satisfying conclusion to the story, as well as tying up Hawkgirl’s “guilty conscience” subplot from having to leave Green Lantern behind earlier.
The heroes return to the present (just before time portal collapses) and we’re treated to Superman joyously hugging a restored (and bewildered) Batman, and Wonder Woman’s reunion with an elderly Steve Trevor, now in a veteran’s retirement home, who still remembers his “Angel” from the War.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Heroes Act: It’s been said before, but this episode shows decisiveness on the part of the heroes. They don’t dither or wring their hands, but spring into action, even against overwhelming odds. This can be a difficult behavior to teach some RPG players used to careful planning or cautious and conservative use of their resources, always on the looking for “traps” laid by the GM. Look for game systems or table rules to encourage this kind of thing, but it is often just a style of play Gamemasters need to encourage and players need to buy into in order to make the game fun and exciting. GMs may even watch to “coach” more timid players with hints like “It might be cool if you…” or “Well, you could…” which also reduces the sense of “competition” between Gamemaster and player.
Determination Pays Off: Many RPG systems (ICONS and Mutants & Masterminds amongst them) offer a “payoff” for suffering the slings and arrows of misfortune for much of an adventure in the form of in-game resources (Determination or hero points) players can use in the climactic confrontations to pull off cool stunts and to encourage them to leap into action, knowing they have the means to succeed. The Torg RPG from West End Games had similar resources as well as a mechanic for “playing for the moment,” where a player could choose a single moment in an adventure to go “all-in,” ignoring the normal rules for spending resources and getting to use them all at once. You could institute a similar rule in other games, letting players bend or ignore the usual limits on spending resources for their “big moment” but encouraging them to choose it carefully. For some interesting teamwork, you can even limit the “big moment” in an adventure to just one or two characters, getting the players to cooperate on choosing who and when.
Calling in the Cavalry: The idea that every player character should have a useful role is ingrained in game design, but can sometimes be taken to the extreme that every character should be equally useful in every situation, which is rarely the case (and may come off as forced or artificial). Sometimes, it is clever use of a character’s capabilities that can make the difference, such as the super-speedster willing to forego a direct encounter and rush off to “warn the good guys” and later bring in the cavalry to help out (or, for that matter, the wizard who rides off before the big battle at Helm’s Deep, looking to bring aid at the last moment).
Next: That wraps season one of Justice League and this installment of the Re:Animated blog. After my trip out to Seattle in mid-October for the annual Green Ronin meeting, I’ll be giving some thought to where this blog has been and to the places where it might go. Stay tuned!