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.
A traffic accident in Metropolis! A school bus teeters on the edge of a bridge. This looks like a job for Superman … and Superboy, for that matter, as the young hero leaps to the rescue. Although he reaches out to Superman, Superboy finds that the Man of Steel is still uncomfortable with his clone’s existence, something of concern to Batman.
Note the secret controls hidden in the Shakespeare bust on Bruce Wayne’s desk (an homage to the ’60s Batman TV series).
Back at the Cave, Black Canary runs a training session for the team. When Superboy scoffs at the notion, she demonstrates her superior skills by throwing him, in spite of his super-strength, and taking him down a second time with a leg-sweep. Before things can progress, Batman informs the Team of a mission: safeguarding the disassembled parts of the android Amazo on the way to two different STAR Labs facilities.
Trivia: The mission map pinpoints Gotham City in southwestern Connecticut, between New York and Boston (where the two STAR Labs are located).
A swarm of robotic “MONQIs” attack the convoys, stealing the android’s parts in spite of the best efforts of the Team to stop them. An infuriated Superboy takes off after them. Fortunately, Robin is able to hack into one of the MONQIs and use its tracking system to follow the now reassembled Amazo, in the process of beating on an outclassed Superboy.
Maybe it’s my own biases talking, but Professor Ivo comes off as quite effete and more than a little gay in his confrontation with Superboy, perhaps one of the reasons for creating giant, bare-chested androids…?
Superboy takes some serious hits: from the equivalent of Captain Atom, Black Canary’s sonic cry, Flash (probably coupled with some super-strength), and Superman, without being taken out. He’s more than a little tough (and probably getting some payback from having the spotlight this episode, see Lessons Learned).
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent meet at Bibbo’s diner in Metropolis to discuss Superboy. Young Justice adds the interesting note of making Bruce Wayne a benevolent father-figure, who truly cares about his young ward, and understands the plight of an orphan, and encourages Clark to do the same. The notion that he is Superboy’s “father” is too much, however, and Superman refuses to listen. Note the homage to the supporting character Bibbo from the Superman comics and the inside joke that Superman prefers All-American apple pie while Batman orders “Devil’s food” cake.
Although the Team is outclassed by Amazo (possessing all of the League’s powers), Superboy comes up with a plan to first distract the android by going after Professor Ivo, then using its defensive tactics against it. When Amazo uses Martian Manhunter’s intangibility to avoid an attack for a mysterious arrow, Superboy sticks his fist through the still phased android’s head just before it resolidifies to use Superman’s power to attack. Amazo’s head explodes, disabling it.
Batman tells the Team they’ve done well and impressed the League, perhaps including a certain Kryptonian, although he notes, as Superboy knows all too well, how “hard-headed” Kryptonians can be. When Robin angrily confronts the League about shadowing and “babysitting” them, he learns the arrow that intervened in their fight with Amazo didn’t come from Green Arrow. They assume it belonged to Speedy, who is secretly helping them out, but a significant glance between the Leaguers suggests otherwise.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Skill vs. Power (Again): As cited in the previous Re-Animated, super-heroic contests often pit skills against sheer power. It’s part of the job, as Robin mentions to Superboy, and Black Canary illustrates. Game systems can and do model this: In Icons, wrestling is a test of Prowess vs. Prowess or Coordination; Strength is only a factor in breaking out of a hold, not in avoiding being thrown or tripped. The same is true of maneuvers intended to cause trouble for the target, generally in the form of a lost panel, which pit Prowess against Prowess or Coordination, which are Superboy’s weaker areas. Similarly, Mutants & Masterminds has a trip attack, which normally goes against the higher of the target’s Strength or Agility (Athletics or Acrobatics) but there is an Improved Trip advantage (which Black Canary almost certainly has) that lets the attacker choose, going for the weaker of the two.
“I hate monkeys!” Superboy’s subplots and complications are on display in this episode, starting with his issues with Superman, then leading into his anger-management in the training session with Black Canary, and even his dislike for simians in Professor Ivo’s choice of minions for the theft. In Icons terms, “I hate monkeys!” is almost certainly one of Superboy’s qualities (it’s way too much of a recurring tagline to be otherwise). It’s followed by Superboy getting blinded by the MONQIs, then rushing off on his own and taking a serious beating from Amazo for a while before the rest of the team can help out. Many superhero RPGs spotlight a character’s complications, drawbacks, and internal conflicts with some type of reward system, such as hero points, plot points, determination, and so forth. It’s no coincidence that Superboy is also the one who comes up with the plan to distract and defeat Amazo and implements it: having racked up the necessary resources, he puts them to work. In this way, games seek to mimic the narrative structure of comic book stories: heroes face initial setbacks and challenges, struggle with them for a while, then stage a comeback at the end.
A Barrel Full of MONQIs: Professor Ivo’s MONQI robots point out the phenomenon of “swarms” in game mechanics. Although they are numerous individual opponents, they function like a single challenge for the heroes. Many game systems treat swarms of lesser foes as a single entity in terms of game rules; taking out an individual component is less important than overcoming the swarm as a whole, and its capabilities are often based on various components adding up to greater than the sum of its parts. If I were making the MONQIs a foe in one of my superhero games, I’d almost certainly write them up as a single “entity” of sorts, rather than breaking down stats for the individual robots.
Next: The Team has a new member, and a new mission against the League of Shadows, but do they also have a traitor in their midst?