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Young Justice as Super Game Fodder

An exploration of how existing intellectual property can be effectively translated into narrative or into game design.

Young Justice as Super Game Fodder

 

 

Jonathan Frakes. Michael Reaves. Greg Weisman. Three men whose collaboration on a project called Gargoyles permanently altered the lens through which I view narrative.

 

So, if you thought I was going to miss out on Young Justice, you were sorely mistaken.

 

Young Justice, a Warner Brothers Cartoon, began in 2010 with a two-episode pilot. In 2011 seven additional episodes were added for a total of nine. There is also the secret tenth episode which was accidentally web-leaked. There are even rumors that an eleventh episode completed production but has not been shown anywhere. There is conflicting information regarding how many episodes constitute a season run. Some sources indicate that there are 26 episodes in a season while other sources (and the reality of what has aired) indicate that there are two be two ten season episodes with a significant time skip in-between where sixteen episodes would have been. Warner Brothers has stated that the series has been renewed and that they are indeed working on ten more episodes for 2012. In the United States the series aired on Cartoon Network. It is highly likely that the series may be available from a different source depending on region or country.

 

UPDATE: Just before posting this article word from Greg Weisman via the internet(http://youngjustice.wikia.com/wiki/User_blog:Rassilon_of_Old/Young_Justice_updates_-_August_2011)

He says there will be complete 26 episode seasons.

 

UPDATE: From that same site news that episode 11 will play on September 23 and episode 12 will play on September 30. Also episode 10 will air before that (making it no longer secret).

 

Although I do think that as entertainment and animation Young Justice should be ranked as one of the best series worldwide for 2011 that is not actually the reason for this post. I am actually hoping to point out the value of the show as game-fodder. ‘Fodder’ carries a negative connotation and sometimes even ‘game’ can be used in the negative (“YOU THINK THIS IS A GAME!?!”). So, to those not familiar with the term, it might seem like a disparagement. Actually, ‘game-fodder’ is a positive phrase synonymous with the word ‘inspiring’. Specifically ‘game-fodder’ refers to fictional material that inspires world building, campaigns, characters, innovations and enhancements in the hobby of tabletop RPG gaming. Indeed, the purpose of this post is to put forth my observation that Young Justice is the finest game fodder I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

 

I will not be addressing larger question of the value of comics and manga as game-fodder in this post. That is a distinct topic that I expect would span several postings. However, it might be worthwhile to start with what version of the world and characters were chosen for this series. I think an informative description of the series comes from Greg Weisman. “...based on elements from the original 1960s Teen Titans, the 90s Young Justice and even more recent Teen Titans and Justice League comics. Plus everything in between. In some ways, this series is an adaptation of the entire DC Universe. But the key word is adaptation. (http://www.s8.org/gargoyles/askgreg/search.php?qid=12354)

 

Sounds like the plan was to do whatever makes the most sense to them, much in the same way that a GM would. So what kind of a world is this? Well, lets start with the illuminati (craftily rebranded here as ‘The Light’). Are they an impotent illumanati (as seen in the X-Files or, as parody, in Metalocalypse) used merely as a Greek chorus or an audience to the deeds of the protagonists? Or, are they a refined version of the shadowy illumanati which we glimpsed in Gargoyles?

 

Well, while driven by the need to hide from the likes of Superman and the Martian Man Hunter the illumanati actually do not seem to be toothless. In fact they seem to realize that they cannot confront the Justice League in an obtuse way. They seem to be methodically and covertly taking over the world while simultaneously researching ways to eliminate their powerful enemies. The best example of this is seen in episode ten: Lex Luthor is a Diplomat. From a campaign standpoint this sort of asymmetrical opposition is highly recommended. In other words, if the player characters are strong grant the enemy subterfuge. The Light does actually throw physical challenges at the players but it is almost always a test as well as an attack. Even when it isn’t a test The Light is meticulously gathering data about their encounters. The mindsets and modus operandi on both sides are remarkably similar to that of the GM and the players respectively.

 

The party includes a Robin and a Super-Boy. Although these may seem too specific, actually a host of character generation questions have to be answered. Starting with which Robin and which Super-Boy?

 

Mr. Weisman has stated this in interviews and the WB made no secret of Robin's identity in pre-production. Also in the False Red Tornado Episode we see a trophy case for a brief instant just before it is smashed, the plaque on the trophy reads ‘Dick Grayson’. Internet trolls would prefer a Tim Drake, whereas I, myself am a Damian Wayne fan all day. Maybe it's a copyright thing? Regardless of which Robin is which, the script writers have taken special authority onto themselves and seem to be writing the story around the idea that this Robin and Batman enjoy a strong father and son relationship.

 

In fact in the very same False Red Tornado Episode Bruce Wayne says to Clark Kent in a private coffee-and-pie-oh-my moment “Look, I know he… troubles you. But he’s here, you have to get over the ‘how’ and ‘why’ Trust me on this. This boy needs his father.” Wise words, almost as if Bruce Wayne is speaking from personal experience regarding the sudden appearance of a previously unknown son. (>cough< Damian Wayne).

 

But back to the intriguing father-son dynamic, how to GM it? I would say whip up a relationship mini-sim in the form of a conversation tree with multiple choice responses available to the player. These could be printed and handed out before the session then 'graded' by the GM. I would say a combat penalty (for the session) if the conversation goes south or, conversely, some sort of bonus if a certain conversation milestone is reached.

 

 

Martian Meghan is the female of the group but feels like an Ally NPC or a GM controlled PC. Her back-story is the real gold here. No longer descended from refugees of the Martian civil war/extinction she is from Mars. In other words Mars is still populated by an advanced psychic society! Holy radical setting, batman! GM's, just don't jump the gun and send the party to a radically different location on a whim. Methodically introduce small pieces of information which gradually lead to a reason and means to visit Mars. For my money the stakes of the visit should already be high. As for Meghan being a white martian/traitor: I am against it. For people to really roleplay their characters they have to feel safe in the world. This means no real traitors close to the party and no home-base invasions (episode 12? say it ain’t so). GM's often lament that their player characters are unhinged, ultra-violent and acting without mercy. But can the PC's psychologically afford to be merciful? Apparently they are unclaimed orphans in a world where they can trust no one and there is no such thing as a safe place. Really, aren't they being set up to act the way they do? At the end of the day the GM should set his sights a little higher. Instead of cheap tension based on shredding the player characters world-view the GM should build suspense gradually. (Such as the slow realization that white Martians are infiltrating planet Earth in preparation for a skrull-style invasion?) This sets up narrative dilemma for one of the players without going fully into the whole traitor thing.

 

'Kid Flash' Wally is an ancillary PC. His main goal seems to be to support the Robin PC. This often happens in a player group. One of the players is invited to join and brings with him friendships and loyalties from outside the game. There are worse things. Give this player something constructive to do, such as Wally's mission souvenir collection. (which is pure video-game inspired brilliance) Or perhaps make them designated comic relief, but don't push it if it doesn’t work (as it sometimes doesn’t work for Wally). Whatever you do, don't lose your head and give him Doctor Fate's Mask. For that matter, try not to throw around artifacts of power. Also, do not suddenly introduce magic into a non-magic campaign.

 

Superboy (the superman-clone version) is exactly what a GM should expect to hear when he asks a player for some character generation ideas. Most of the literature will advise the GM to veto this idea. Young Justice and I override that veto. Overpowered? That is really outmoded thinking. Is a player character going to punch Ra's Al Ghul's plan to manipulate the economies of the Asian world? Punch it super hard... in the face? Will a player character hold his breath in the vacuum of space until The Light see's the error of its ways?

 

But how do the Young Justice writers balance out Super Boy's power level? Well lets start with the father-figure dynamic. He is jealous of and frustrated by the rewarding functional relationships of the other player characters. This contributes to his unwillingness to use teamwork. The GM has to be a little smart here and only give a player the Super Boy character who might use it wildly and to the determent of the teams goals. Another balance is that due to the cloning process he also has an aversion to monkeys. A phobia or aversion is easy to set up and the penalties are spelled out in most rule systems. (hold on, didn't Goliath have an unwanted clone as well... ...)

 

Aqua-lad is everything a player character should be. He provides leadership and team-building but without ego. Only way this happens in real life is if the player is somehow a plant or stealth for the GM. As such, killing him off for the purpose of furthering the narrative would be valid. (and an exception to the player world-view warning above)

 

Red Arrow. Ah. A player showed up for the first session then decided he was too cool for school. Happens every time. But how to handle it? Young Justice shows us how: the GM gives the character a theme fueled exit (“we're not sidekicks!”) a cooling off period. Then brings him back as an ultra-rad NPC. I mean really pulls it off. We now have a potential dues-ex machina as well as an alternate Mission-Giver! Pretty advanced role playing and GMing but just imagine if it worked, what an accomplishment that would be.

 

Artemis. OK. Motif is extremely important. Players like to feel like they're inherently contributing something stylisticly and they don't like to be stepped on. For example you cannot add a second Superman-clone or a second Robin to the party. That being said you don't have to replace the archer with an archer (although, for god sakes do not introduce magic here either). This feels like the player who replaced Red Arrow was none to enthused to be brought off the bench and maybe made it to a session or two. As frustrating as that may be it is never safe to drop the 'traitor among you' card. Unless you also drop some major clues and guarantees (out of game) as to who is and is not a traitor. On the other hand if this is another NPC...

 

 

Finally let's get back to Batman as Mentor/Mission-Giver. This is a very inspired and I would argue perfect version of the Batman character as well as a cool stand-in for the GM. The Young Justice team struggles with issues of freedom and independence exactly like players do. Players do not want to have their explorations, choices, or even risk-taking behavior stepped on. The GM must earn the trust of the players while consistently demonstrating a wide range knowledge and wisdom. Somehow, the Young Justice version of Batman as mentor is a great first step. As a survivor of (a fictional) reckless youth full of turmoil and vendetta he understands the characters struggles and effortlessly empathizes with them. His very presence promises trust in the characters which makes them eager to earn it and reciprocate it. At the same time he has expectations. This is very subtle because he does not have to sit there and list all his expectations, the characters tend to have some ideas and interpretations of what these might be. All this, all this is gained simply by choosing the right Mission-Giver. All this could be lost by making the wrong choice.

 

Many GM's complain of players balking mission assignments or refusal to 'take the bait'. Not only are players unlikely to refuse a mission assignment from Batman himself but the reason they are unlikely to refuse is that they are now role playing. They are accepting the world and its characters without second-guessing. This is an optimal attitude to promote in any campaign or session.

 

And now for you continued edification I would like to offer a quick episode/session round up.

 

 

 

The first session is always tricky. The GM lacks confidence and yet has a definitive endpoint in mind. The players are trying too hard and doing too much. Some of them are learning the combat system, some of them have not gamed together before. If you can get the party together and get a mission out of it, it's enough.

 

 

A player is a no-call, no-show. The GM acts quickly and gives the Red Arrow Character an angry exit.

 

The GM throws some misinformation via Red Tornado (pseudo Mission-Giver) and false clues at the players causing false player belief (led by Martian Girl). Leading to tension among players and a downgrade in Martian Girls status.

 

 

 

Starts off with a vs. clay face mission. Dues Ex Machina from Batman to prevent Aqua Lad PK some warnings that the players should not expect this every time. (some good foreshadowing, actually)

 

Solo-mission for Aqua-Lad in Atlantis. (perhaps as a reward for being stealth?) The Queen being pregnant adds a great 'not on my watch' effect to the mission. Aqua-man called away, ftw. Good and surprising use of Manta as the villain backed up by evil Seal Team 666 of evil.

 

There is a false/fake under water terrorist attack (can player figure out that it is a diversion?)

 

Sleeping Alien Horror? (Lovecraft, ftw)

 

Aqua-Lad backed up by NPC ally take out evil minions and use their clothes, equipment and weapons for disguises. I was pleased when they actually shot the enemies kewl rifles. Plus under water combat, lots of using minions as shields and projectiles ftw.

 

 

 

Great mission. Who is the leader? Use a point based system, or, more interestingly, a player vote.

which leads to team combat tactics...

 

Oh! Tech-tree, I wuv you tech tree! (see drug tech breakthrough (Venom(1,2,3)))

 

Great use of clearly defined and distinct criminal roles for different villains:

 

Sports Master as a surprisingly good minion/pain-in-the-players-ass is the mule of this operation and he also answers directly to the light. Cobra is a cult who has taken over the venom factory and used its facilities to combine venom with block buster, test it and manufacture it. Mexican Wrestler had his factory taken and becomes a temporary comrade.

 

 

This is a secret episode. So, I'm not going to tell you.

 

 

 

Congratulations, Nicole. Of all the ultimate goodness, yours is the most ultimate!

 

We get to see Robin and Aqua Lad skills: [Lore Master:(super villains)]

Thinks Professor Ivo is dead, etc. Proper use of well known world and characters.

 

Viable reason(s) and explanations as to why the stronger heroes cannot intervene. This is extremely important. Remember GM's it's not only what is happening but what is not happening.

 

Explanations:

  1. Amazo gets stronger

  2. Red Tornado wants them to do things on their own (sort of like leveling up newer characters in a video game, ftw)

  3. Every time other characters get father-figure boosts Super-Boy gets debuffed due to jealousy

    NPC Truck Driver and Wally get hit with Martian Girls horror factor, ftw.

Robot flying monkey minions!

 

M.O.N.K.E.Y.: [Taunt], [Green Laser Eyes (kyrptonite powered!?)], [Flight],

As tech can be hacked by Robin.

 

Wally's best comic relief showing.

 

Fascinating and good use of Dues Ex Machina (saves Wally from PK) (a mystery assumed to be NPC Red Arrow but which later turns out to be the new player character) I guess almost any narrative device can come up aces in the hands of a good writer or a good GM.

 

VEHICLES! (oh, no you didn't!) Here's the concept. Each player has an Akira bike which has special abilities which line up thematically with the players motif.

 

Robin = Red: hover-drone + unicycle (mini-bike)

Aqua Lad = Black: sea water storage (instead of backpack) so … extra item slot(s)

 

Super-Boy = Red. Same as Robin's? But he ditches, (due to debuff?) so we'll never know. But as the other prim a-dona Robin doesn’t mind. Prim a-dona's always back each others play(s).

 

Martian Girl ditches.... and Wally ditches... oh come on! Now you are just toying with me.

 

OK. One criticism. The absorb your powers/skills mini-boss. Mostly I love it, but... there has to be rules, especially if there is going to be combat. Kishimoto understands this but the 1960's really and truly didn't. This is very bad and should be corrected, not celebrated.

 

That being said none of this is Nicole’s fault.

 

 


The amnesia effects different characters in different ways for a great role-playing opportunity.

 

Oh! ally/companion/pet! Is this a base upgrade or does it belong to a specific character?

GM's please ponder the wisdom of the base upgrade... … … …

 

Psychic battle for Miss Martian. GM's we need to do better then this. Find or develop a separate combat system. Even something based on a CCG will do in a pinch.

 

 

NPC Red Arrow introduces bodyguard mission, ftw

 

New Archer character introduced.

 

 

<Thomas Pugsley: Ten is not Enough Episodes to Have a Doctor Fate Episode, Episode>

 

 

Mostly what not to do.

 

Nonsensical, illogical, counter-intuitive puzzles are very Gary Gygax 1st edition, but they made no sense in the 1970’s and make even less sense now.

 

What is success in this mission? What is failure? What are the player characters even supposed to do?

 

Overpowered enemies (magic type to boot), there are no magic using characters so kid flash has to be shoehorned into the Helmut. Did the GM plan that all along or just get forced into it to prevent a tpk? Either way feels like a railroad all around.

Hey, look, I am a fan of witch-boy too but there is just no way to make this work.

 

On paper I am pro- a non- ‘The Light’ episode but this is all wrong.

And so, my stalwart GM's when creating or gaming in a fantasy world the three keys to success are limitation, limitation, limitation.

 

 

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