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.
Miss Martian awakens in the desert with no recollection of how she got there—or how she even arrived on Earth, for that matter. Suddenly, she’s attacked by a feral, out-of-control Superboy, who bounds away into the desert after Megan manages to hold him off, leaving only the torn remnants of his shirt and “S” shield behind.
Kid Flash and Artemis are in a similar situation in an isolated shack: No recollection of how they got there, or of each other. Artemis comments about how the situation is probably one of her dad’s “stupid tests” where she’s supposed to kill Kid Flash or something, foreshadowing of her background. Robin is on his own in the desert, but has enough of a memory flash to recall Batman insisting on radio silence, such that he doesn’t try to contact his mentor or the Justice League. This is a plot convenience, but one that makes sense, given Robin’s training and the emphasis he places on Batman’s guidance and orders.
Megan meditates and regains some of her memories, enough to begin searching for her missing teammates, particularly Superboy.
Speaking of the Boy of Steel, when Artemis and Kid Flash are attacked by Bialyan troops, Superboy shows up and tears into them, shrugging off both small arms fire and even tank shells, ripping tanks apart with his bare hands. His invulnerability in the scene reflects descriptions from early Superman comics where “not even a bursting shell can penetrate his skin!” Apropos, since Superboy is, in many regards, much like the Golden Age Superman in terms of both powers and more aggressive temperament. Nevertheless, the Bialyan troops manage to corral Superboy long enough for Psimon to pacify him.
We learn Aqualad is lying, unconscious, in the desert for who knows how long, which can’t be good for an Atlantean. When confronted by Bialyan soldiers, Robin manages to take out six out of the nine or more of them by himself before help arrives in the form of Kid Flash, Artemis, and Miss Martian, a nice reminder that while Robin is the youngest of the team, he’s also perhaps the most competent. The team regroups and Robin jokes about “why isn’t anyone just whelmed?” a callback to the first episode, which he and the rest of the team don’t remember.
Miss Martian is able to telepathically restore some of the team’s memories, although Artemis is leery of someone poking around in her mind. Again, hints that she has something she’d rather keep secret. We get some flashbacks to fill things in, starting with the end of the previous episode. Among other things, we learn that the Justice League has a United Nations charter, but that it also prevents them from operating without U.N. sanction—meaning the team’s covert mission is technically illegal (or at least a violation of the League’s agreement with the U.N.).
Sensing Superboy is in pain, Miss Martian rushes off to help him, leaving the rest of the team to deal with Aqualad. Miss Martian re-encounters Psimon, who can sense her presence even while she’s in camouflage-mode, and the two of them become locked in psychic combat. Miss Martian is able to restore Superboy’s mind, and the Sphere held captive by the Bialyans breaks free and aids the two heroes.
Miss Martian rallies against Psimon after some initial setbacks. Together with Superboy, she overcomes the villain in psychic combat such that Psimon—and the entire Bialyan camp—is blasted away by the telekinetic feedback. Robin and his teammates deal with the Bialyan soldiers and reach the bio-ship with Aqualad so he can be rehydrated, and have his memories restored by Miss Martian, and the Sphere tags along with the team back home.
In the closing scene, Psimon confesses his failure to the Light, and a female member of the council reveals “a successful test of our new partner’s delivery system” showing video of a boom tube opening and depositing the Sphere in the Bialyan desert.
What does this episode teach us about superhero RPGs?
Non-linear Narrative: “Bereft” begins after Psimon has wiped the team’s memories, because part of the story is the mystery of why they are stranded in the desert and what happened to them. The team’s recovery form their memory loss would be somewhat less interesting if we saw what happened first, and the same tends to be true for narrative at the game table. There’s nothing wrong with starting off your story in an unusual, and potentially more interesting, place such as “You all wake up in the desert with no recollection of how you got there. What do you do…?” Such an approach can immediately engage the players and grab their attention. You just need to set up the conditions of the events beforehand.
I used a similar narrative device in The RetConQuest adventure for Icons: the heroes start the adventure as ordinary people fleeing from the robotic soldiers of a totalitarian dictator who rules the Earth, only to learn not long thereafter that they are in an alternative timeline. They are all superheroes in the previous timeline, altered by a the time-traveling master-villain, and must recover their powers and true identities to fight him and set things right.
Absent Friends: Notably, Aqualad has no real role in this story, he’s unconscious the entire time, only recovering at the very end. Safe to say Aqualad’s player probably missed a session, since otherwise it isn’t a very nice thing to exclude a player from the whole story. Superboy, on the other hand, spends the first part of the story mindlessly raging, but does recovery halfway through and plays a significant role in helping Megan defeat Psimon.
Speaking of which, “Bereft” is a textbook example of character ties and motivations driving story and mechanics: Miss Martian’s actions are driven by her blossoming love for Superboy, including abandoning Aqualad in favor of helping Connor, and restoring Superboy’s mind while fighting Psimon, and drawing upon his support to defeat the psychic villain. Many game systems reward players for making in-game choices in accordance with their character’s motives, including things like hero points in M&M and Determination Points in Icons, or even encode motives in the character’s abilities, such as Values and Drives in the Smallville RPG or the dice bonuses for teaming up with a buddy (as opposed to operating solo or in a team) in the Marvel Heroic RPG.
Mindscapes: Psimon and Miss Martian have a “mindscape” telepathic battle, a classic comic book trope, complete with psychedelic special effects. In game terms, it’s interesting to wonder how or if those effects work: Are they mere “flavor text” to accompany particular die rolls? Do good or interesting descriptions provide any bonuses or game benefits? Do the descriptions come before or after knowing the outcome of a particular exchange of psychic attacks? For that matter, is psychic combat something any character with telepathic powers can do, or does it require explicit mental attack and defense abilities? Certainly, Superboy is able to play a supporting role in the combat to turn the tide, and its fair to say Miss Martian builds up to her victory over Psimon throughout the episode.
The “Ninja Thing”: Kid Flash comments about Robin “doing the ninja thing” when Robin vanishes while Wally and Artemis aren’t paying attention, reappearing in much the same way moments later. Robin’s extreme level of stealth, which allows him to simply disappear, implement some plan, and then reappear, could easily be codified as a game ability for that character, a great example of a “power” that isn’t necessarily a super-power per se, but still has a significant effect. The Power Profiles sourcebook for Mutants & Masterminds has a couple of chapters on game abilities built out of power effects that are not super-powers but simply extraordinary examples of training, talent, or skill. Icons A to Z introduces “knacks” for the Icons system, similar extraordinary abilities that are more like permanent stunts than powers.
Cyphers: While the nature and identity of the Sphere become clear later on in the series, it is a near-complete cypher for some time. Similarly, in a game environment, while you could have the entire back-story planned out for something like the Sphere, you might also introduce it without any real idea what it actually is, filling in the details later when a good possibility occurs to you. The players don’t have to be any the wiser that you didn’t have it planned that way “all along.” If you do something like this, pay close attention to player speculation about what a cypher might “actually” be: Whether they know it or not, they’re giving you story ideas they think might be interesting.
Next: Red Arrow goes up against the League of Shadows to prevent them from inciting a war. Seems like he could use some help…