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.
Red Arrow, Green Arrow’s former sidekick, stages a daring rescue of a scientist (Serling Roquette) held prisoner by the League of Shadows. Although he frees Dr. Roquette, the League still has her latest work, a nanotech infiltrator called “the Fog.”
It is the end of summer, for most of the Team, with the exception of Wally West (Kid Flash), who’s already back in high school for his sophomore year at Keystone High. Wally makes it to the Cave well after the day at the beach, and just in time to meet the Team’s newest member, Green Arrow’s new protégé Artemis, and to hear about their latest mission.
Red Arrow fills them in on Dr. Roquette’s invention, a nanotech cloud that is not only destructive, but capable of raiding computer systems for valuable data. He gives them the doctor’s location and leaves things in the hands of the Team.
They get to work protecting the doctor while she works on a virus program to disable the Fog. Since the League of shadows knows Roquette can do this, they dispatch assassins to eliminate her. Miss Martian mind-links the team to prevent their communications from being overheard, leading to some argumentative “teen-think” (as Dr. Roquette puts it), particularly between Kid Flash and Artemis. Robin is naturally the one one who notices it was Artemis’ arrow that helped the team out against Amazo.
While Professor Ojo uses the Fog to raid STAR Labs in Philadelphia, the assassin Cheshire infiltrates the high school where the Team is keep Roquette. A handful of ball-bearings trip up Kid Flash and Cheshire dumps him in the pool. Aqualad is able to intercept shuriken hurled at the doctor, only to learn their edges are poisoned. Although he claims to be “largely immune” to the jellyfish-based toxin, it slows him down. Artemis rushes to help, while Miss Martian fishes Kid Flash out of the pool. Outnumbered, Cheshire uses a smoke-bomb to vanish.
Robin and Superboy arrive in Philly too late to prevent the raid on STAR Labs. They continue tracking the Fog while the Team moves Roquette. Cheshire returns with reinforcements—Black Spider and Hook—and tries to take out the doctor again. That’s when Roquette transforms into Miss Martian, and Cheshire realizes she’s been played. Leaving her compatriots to deal with the heroes, she goes after Roquette and Aqualad.
Professor Ojo unleashes the Fog against WayneTech. Robin is concerned. In a deft moment, the writers of the show don’t bother to tell us why: Most viewers know it is because Bruce Wayne is Batman, and compromising WayneTech might also compromise the Bat-cave and its technology. Naturally, Robin has codes and voice overrides for WayneTech security, helping him pursue the Fog.
Cheshire is able to overcome and escape Artemis and reach the internet café where Aqualad is guarding Roquette. She “tests” and overcomes Aqualand’s toxin resistance and is about to finish off the doctor when she realizes Roquette has already uploaded the virus, eliminating the reason for her elimination. Robin is able to use the virus to disable the Fog just in time. Superboy pulls the classic “walking upstream” maneuver against Professor Ojo to take him down (see the Blocking action in Icons for one example).
Cheshire leaves, and Artemis knocks her down with explosives outside the café. When Cheshire’s mask is knocked off, Artemis recognizes her, and Cheshire taunts her with the possibility of her new teammates finding out “all the she knows.” Artemis lets Cheshire escape rather than risk it.
Although the Team welcomes Artemis on-board, Red Arrow makes it clear he knows she’s not who she claims to be, and the Sensei of the League of Shadows communicates with the Light (light casting shadows, a nice touch) and they mention “an operative on the inside” of the Justice League’s young team…
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Pays to be Prepared: A lot of the elements of this episode are about readiness and preparation, having the right tools for the job, the right plan at the right time, and so forth. In particular, it points to the value of such things in game-play, and the occasional challenge of modeling them in terms of game stats. For example, Red Arrow uses a number of utility arrows to get into the Infinity Island complex to rescue Roquette. While in some RPGs it might make sense for him to have a cable/grapple arrow, why write down an “electronic security system spoofing” arrow on your character sheet unless you know you’re going to need one? The same goes for the explosives mining the beaches of Infinity Island: In game-play, would Red Arrow’s player have to have set them up in advance, or could they be retroactively “inserted” into the narrative after the fact, when it becomes useful?
Some type of ret-conning and “preparedness” option makes the most sense, simply because it encourages creativity and avoids endless laundry lists of corner-case abilities that may or may not ever really come into play. Some games handle this with very broad and free-form traits. If a character has “Infiltration” or “Sneaky” or the like, then that character can also be assumed to have whatever tools or trappings go with that trait, unless the story dictates otherwise.
Largely Immune: It gets even more interesting when you have a “war” of preparation or ret-conning going on. Take the initial Cheshire vs. Aqualad fight:
- Cheshire throws a shuriken at Dr. Roquette, and Aqualad jumps in front of it, and a couple others. Cheshire acts, Aqualad counters.
- Cheshire taunts that her weapons have drawn blood. Aqualad counters that Atlantan skin is quite dense. Cheshire ripostes that her shuriken are quite poisonous.
- Aqualad notes that the poison is jellyfish-based and he is largely immune. “Largely,” Cheshire counters, noting that the poison must be slowing him down.
One can almost hear the process of a kind of bidding or one-upsmanship system happening behind the scenes, with a player shifting circumstances, then the GM (or another player) shifting them again, never actually contradicting what has come before, but shading things for or against each side. Indeed, Cheshire’s “testing” Aqualad’s immunity later on could be a reflection of Aqualad’s player exhausting that particular gambit during the earlier scene. Now it’s no longer effective.
I Hate Being Played: The revelation that “Dr. Roquette” is actually Miss Martian in disguise is another ret-con. While the players running the Young Justice characters might have well come up with that plan and implemented it, one could just as easily see a game system with mechanics allowing a shapeshifting or disguise character to stop and edit the narrative, saying: “Just as Cheshire moves in for the kill, Roquette turns green and twists her head around to look at her, smiling” (spends game resource or makes necessarily roll). So, even if nobody thought Roquette was a disguised Martian before, it’s true now. The narrative is fluid around the gaming table, since the players are both immersed in it, and simultaneously co-creating it.
Smoke and Mirrors: Lastly, we have the subplot of Artemis. “Who are you?” Kid Flash asks, the key question in this episode. One nice thing about the dual nature of tabletop roleplay is that players are both actors in the drama as well as its audience. Ideally, they can separate their own knowledge from that of their characters, allowing such scenes as Artemis exchange with Cheshire and later with Red Arrow to play out in front of them and provide foreshadowing, without spoiling the sub-plot. Note this takes some deft roleplaying, just as it does some deft writing here, not to give away too much.
Also, as mentioned previously, some of the plot may exist in a state of “potential,” in that it hasn’t been created yet. In a game, the GM might simply say, “Cheshire’s mask is knocked off in the explosion, she rises and turns towards you…” (GM activates a subplot or some trait on Artemis’ character sheet). “You!” Artemis says. They play out the scene, but neither actually knows who Cheshire is to Artemis or what she knows that could threaten her, until they work it out later in or outside of the game.
Next: Kid Flash doesn’t believe in magic, but that isn’t going to stop magic from destroying him and his friends, if they can’t restore the most powerful magical hero in the world … Doctor Fate!
I ran a game recently where something like the Cheshire Aquaman bid took place. It was a lot of fun for the NPC I was playing to taunt the hero and the hero to throw it back (the other players are very bad at in-game banter) as we exchanged or spent points on making our taunt true.
It’s a system I highly recommend using in nearly every game, I’ve even house ruled it into games that didn’t have it originally.
What game system were you using and what in-game resource was used for the taunt battle?