Re: Animated • Young Justice “Independence Day”

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This blog takes a look at episodes from the Young Justice 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.

“Independence Day”

It’s the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and the “sidekicks” of four members of the Justice League are about to get their inside look at the world’s greatest team of heroes, although it’s not what they expect. Robin, Speedy, Aqualad, and Kid Flash are to take their first step toward eventual League membership, and they’re all eager to do so.

Things start off with the young heroes helping their mentors to corral four cold-themed villains putting a chill on the summer day. Note that Robin’s acrobatics, mocking laughter, and batarang strikes to Mr. Freeze’s helmet set him up for Batman to finish him off, while both Speedy and Aqualad take down Icicle, Jr. and Killer Frost with a single hit each. Kid Flash disarms Captain Cold (taking a minor hit to the shoulder) allowing Flash to take him down.

Early in the episode, we get glimpses of the Justice League much as the young heroes do: the Hall of Justice is a Washington DC monument, fitting right in alongside the neo-classical architecture (and the interior library looks much like the “set” of the old Superfriends series). The Leaguers are number-coded according to the order in which they joined the team (Batman is 02, Martian Manhunter is 07, and Green Arrow—the first new team member after the original seven—is 08, for example). Still, the Hall is little more than a façade: The League’s real headquarters is the top-secret orbiting Watchtower.

When it becomes clear things are moving to slowly to suit him, Speedy angrily walks out. Then the League is called away on an emergency, leaving the local authorities to handle a minor fire at Cadmus, a genetics lab in DC. Robin hacks the Hall’s computer system, and the three remaining young heroes decide to investigate on their own and solve the case before the League.

They find a lot more than they bargained for: the public Cadmus offices conceal a vast underground facility that’s creating advanced “genomorphs” with various super-powers, in particular something code-named “Project Kr”. Confronted by the Guardian and a group of genomorphs, the heroes escape deeper into the complex and discover “Kr” is the elemental symbol for “Krypton,” the project is a young clone of Superman, force grown and programmed as a weapon!

The telepathic “gene-gnomes” influence Superboy when the heroes try to free him and he attacks. Aqualad takes three (!) hits from Superboy before Robin pulls him off. Although the Boy Wonder clearly has superior combat skills, nothing he does has any lasting effect on the clone: Superboy takes down both Kid Flash and Robin with a single hit each. Aqualad also has superior skill, and is more of a physical match for Superboy, but still not quite in his league: When the clone slams him hard against the rock ceiling a couple of times, Aqualad is also down for the count. Superboy lets the staff of Cadmus into the lab and the young heroes are at their mercy…

Lessons Learned

What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?

We’re On Our Own: First and foremost, Young Justice is about the young heroes, the sidekicks, and not their Justice League mentors. Over and over, the story reinforces that the kids are on their own, either by choice or circumstance. The League is called away by an emergency, the kids decide to investigate Cadmus on their own, even once they decide they’re (literally) in too deep and call for help, they are out of communications range and still on their own. This theme gets reinforced later in the series as well. One of the challenges of a shared-world setting, where there are heroes other than the player characters, is keeping those other heroes from being an easy fall-back. If the game uses genre-enforcement mechanics (awards for roleplaying, Karma, Qualities, etc.) they can help to reinforce this sense of independence: If the players seemed at all reluctant to take the Cadmus investigation hook, for example, the GM might have encouraged it with these mechanics. Similarly, mechanics for creating complications of setbacks could manufacture the inability to call for help when it would affect the flow of the story.

Infinite Earths: Following as it does after the popular Justice League animated series, Young Justice is its own take on the DC Universe, with particular adaptations of the canon. This is a useful lesson in dealing with original source material: While a licensed game might need to address a setting “as-is” as much as possible, your own take on it can use the parts you like, capture the overall flavor, but still adapt and focus on what is necessary for the story, modifying or leaving out other parts. With the “infinite Earths” cosmology found in major superhero settings, it’s easy to consider every superhero setting as part of a larger multiversal “meta-setting”.

Fast Fights: Note that the three main sets of fights in this episode are pretty quick: The “teaser” fights in the beginning are over fast, with the villains each taken down in one hit. The fight between the Guardian and the genomorphs and the trio of young heroes is also pretty quick: Robin disappears using a smoke bomb, Kid Flash evades some of the genomorphs, and Aqualad trades only a couple of blows with Guardian before shocking him and running. The fight between Superboy and the trio is the longest, and only then because Aqualad is able to stand up to him for a short while. Ideally, a superhero game looking to duplicate this kind of experience should offer a resolution system with at least the possibility of one-hit KOs and a quick ending to a fight between reasonably capable opponents.

Skill vs. Power: That said, note that differences between skill and power do matter in some of the conflicts. Robin is clearly the most skilled and best-trained of the heroes, but he isn’t able to do anything to stop Superboy. A gas bomb in the clone’s mouth momentarily stuns him, while a taser blast does nothing at all (other than providing Superboy with a tether to pull Robin in and deck him). If Robin had gone full defensive, he might have lasted longer (making it harder for Superboy to lay a hand on him) but it’s noteworthy that Robin didn’t have much of a chance. Likewise, while Aqualad is closer to Superboy in sheer power, he’s still not in the Kryptonian’s weight-class, and only holds out for so long. Both of these instances  could be explained by poor die rolls or the like on the part of Robin and Aqualad’s players, or some type of dramatic failure mechanics, but it points out that systems that broadly weight all characters the same (focusing on different traits, or the characters’ “dramatic value”) may not simulate this kind of situation well.

Next: Our young heroes are in the clutches of Project Cadmus—can they convince a Kryptonian clone created as a living weapon to help them?

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