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.
In the second part of the Young Justice series opener, a group of young sidekicks face their biggest challenge ever in an effort to prove themselves to their Justice League mentors.
The short version: Captured by Cadmus, Robin, Aqualad, and Kid Flash manage to awaken Superboy’s instincts for freedom and good and escape, acting as a team and taking down the project in the process.
The highlights: This episode delves deeper into the over-arching plot for this season, introducing the conspiracy known as “The Light,” which is the power behind Project Cadmus, and making it clear they have much larger ambitions than even a secret “monster factory.” Some of the elements here—particularly the Light’s plans to replace the sidekicks with clones—foreshadow later developments in the series.
“Ask yourself: What would Superman do?” Aqualad’s question to Superboy is going right for the obvious bonus to convince the young clone to break through Cadmus’ conditioning and save them. In some RPG context’s, Superboy’s player might even hand Aqualad’s player that tool, using things like qualities in Icons or particular complications in Mutants & Masterminds. It could be a trade of resources, like card-play from the Torg RPG as well. The key thing is, it works, and provides Superboy with the plot motivation necessary to take action. Indeed, to use Torg as a further example, it might have been impossible for Superboy to act against Cadmus before this, keeping his player from “jumping the gun,” not unlike the Power of Fear rule from the Orrorsh sourcebook, which helped maintain the narrative flow of a horror story in that realm.
“It was you!” Dubbilex is Superboy’s “guardian angel” during all this, revealing that he set the fire to lure heroes to Cadmus, and helped the young heroes and Superboy to escape, so that Superman’s clone could give the hope of freedom to all of the geneomorphs. Although it’s a plot device, it’s an effective one, and a useful Game Master tool, such as when Dubbilex telepathically guides the heroes along their escape route, avoiding a rather dull scene of them becoming lost in the depths of Cadmus.
The scene where the Justice League arrives is a real payoff, delivering a sense of power, majesty, and authority to the adult heroes. You feel some of the kids’ anxiety knowing that the grown-ups are here, and they are not happy. Plus there’s just fannish delight in identifying all of the Leaguers and wondering about the interpretations of them in this version of the DC Universe. It’s definitely one of the benefits of working with established characters: guys like Superman and Batman just need to show up for you to get a sense of things. It’s something GMs running games in a licensed setting can take advantage of as well. It’s one thing getting a firm talking-to from an NPC hero and quite another to get a critique or praise from Batman or Captain America.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Brains Over Brawn: In the end, it’s teamwork (and Robin’s planning) that wins against Blockbuster. Robin’s plan is a textbook example of a Pyramid Test from Icons, taking a roundabout way of dealing with Blockbuster rather than just beating on him until one side or the other drops. Instead, Robin (who lacks the physical capabilities to go toe-to-toe with Blockbuster) comes up with a plan to drop the whole building on the guy and oversees implementing it with the aid of his teammates. Everyone plays his part, and … BOOM! They literally bring the house down. A system that encourages and supports this kind of lateral thinking is worth considering.
Teamwork: Speaking of which, Kid Flash’s skid past Blockbuster to distract him and set him up for Superboy and Aqualad is also a textbook example of how heroes can use teamwork: Kid Flash maneuvers, his teammates benefit. Lots of games support this concept in different ways, from “aid” and “help” actions to more formal combat maneuvers, or the maneuver system of Icons to create a “distracted” quality and hand-off a free activation of it to a teammate. One thing that could be useful here is a system that prompts or reminds players of this option: Another area where Torg shines is its “Approved Action” line, suggesting one or two types of actions where the player characters can get a benefit that turn. GMs in games with an awarded player resources could take a hint from this, putting together a random list of “opportunity actions” and awarding the player(s) who creatively use them with more hero points, determination, plot points, or what have you. Otherwise, players may tend to think of their choice of actions solely in terms of what their character can accomplish, rather than what the team as a whole can do.
Mysteries: The foreshadowing (fore-lightening?) scenes of the Light in this episode all happen with none of the heroes present, so a GM has to consider in the context of an RPG whether or not this is information the players get at all. Note that it’s perfectly possible to give the players information their characters do not have. Players have to compartmentalize what they know versus what their characters know all the time, and this can be just one more example. You could provide “off-stage” looks at conversations involving the Light to ramp up tensions and whet the players’ appetites for the mystery, just as those same scenes are intended to do for viewers of the episode. You could also decide to maintain point-of-view and not show those scenes to the players, leaving them more, well, in the dark about the Light.
Next: The young heroes finally have the chance they’ve wanted—but is it everything it’s cracked up to be?