Sentinels of Justice: “Prometheus Unhinged”

Here is the session 3 play report for our Sentinels of Justice Champions Now game. This session surprised me in various ways: both in terms of the heroes’ actions and the emotional effect that the emerging story had on me.

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7 responses to “Sentinels of Justice: “Prometheus Unhinged””

    • A hand injury is making it hard to type–so this will be briefer than I want. Your third point has become the most important thing for me for the past two years. Whenever I play now, I’m thinking about something more than just doing my job right. I want to play well and be satisfied with what I have done. The yet-to-be-posted 5th session of our Champions Now Ierendi game is a session when I felt very satisfied with how I played (sorry for bad grammar, but I’m in a rush). I used to have a problem “sinking into” or inhabiting the situations I was in while playing a single character. It takes a lot more than reflection on “what my guy would do”. I think it actually involves a lot more thought related to how “loose” we are with authorities, and what I can and can’t say. For instance, when can I play the reaction of an unnamed character to what I’m doing? When can I describe what something a little outside of the scope of my character’s direct obvious influence looks like? I think I’ve made some major strides in making real interesting choices and playing well recently, and its taken a whole lot of reflection on how I play. I’ll try to come back to this one because I have had to be so brief.

    • Regarding authorities, maybe consider the primary stealth variable: given that person A has the authority in question, the extent to which everyone else often provides the actual content via table-talk which looks like play.

      (dice roll)
      (person A without the authority: “oh that totally decapitates him!”)
      (person B, with the authority: affirmative confirmation, e.g. “Yes,” or even just an overt nod or “yes” type point at that person)

    • Dear Ron,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. There’s no need to apologize for its video nature. As you know, posting videos is my preferred way to contribute to Adept Play for precisely the same reasons you cited. If not for that I’m on holiday and away from my recording equipment, I would have made a video responding to your response.

      I appreciate the three topics that you presented for consideration. There’s SO MUCH to think about each of them, but I’ll limit myself to considering where they overlap and how they inform the Sentinels of Justice game when they do.

      Of the three topics you presented, aesthetics intrigued me the most, as moving from achieving actual play to assessing the “worth” of play seems incredibly complex. How do we do it? Who should do it? When should we do it? Is making such assessments potentially harmful to actual play? These and other questions raced through my mind, as did some possible responses to them, but going into all that would take me far afield from how aesthetic concerns overlap with the topics of killing-related discourse in superhero RPGs and my wrestling with possibly hidden expectations for this particular game.

      Let me start with the latter. I found your observations of how I talk about play astute and meaningful. You’re right; I often say, “I didn’t expect that,” which betrays the fact that I DO have expectations. What’s fuzzy in my mind is expectations about what. As you note, I’ve taken great pains to elbow the story-writing gremlin out of the way, so I’m confident these aren’t story expectations. Instead, they are expectations about how people I’ve known for decades tend to react at the table. Although I was “wary” about why the players (not the heroes) allowed Dr. Bellows to take Bog’s head, I enjoyed it when it happened and for all the reasons you mentioned in your response. The players let their heroes go through the stages of discovery that made sense in the situation, and they reacted accordingly. In your assessment of my report, they were on it, and it paid off. In retrospect, I couldn’t agree more, but at the moment, I wondered what motivated those choices because I’m always looking for subconscious motivators of feelings and actions. When focused introspectively, this habit of mind allows me to cage that story-writing gremlin (among other things). When focused on others, it leads me to wonder and question. In both cases, I work hard to avoid falling into judgment (although I fail sometimes). In this instance, I’ll take your comments as an affirmation that all of us were on it, which was a precondition to the emotional payoff that emerged. Because emotional impact is one of many aesthetic concerns, I believe our commitment to play positively contributed to the game’s aesthetic merit.

      I was less confident when I began to examine our process (and my choices) in light of your comments about killing as a topic in superhero comics and gaming. So much of what you said in your comments rings true to me. While it’s not the first time I’ve heard you discuss this history and these experiences, your raising them concerning the Sentinels of Justice made me ask a series of related questions and consider whether or not my choices have hampered play and damaged the aesthetic merit of our game. What follows are my reflections on at least some of these questions.

      Did my choices about killing generate fraught play, which I understand to mean that they produced undue anxiety about killing or being killed that pulled players out of actual play?

      I don’t think so, but that’s because the rules take such anxiety off the table. Although the rules state that a hero is “nominally dying” when an attack reduces their Body to 0, they also say that “Dying is elective for a hero, occurring only at the player’s choice” and that “A dying non-player character may be declared dead by the player whose hero delivered the relevant attack.” Sharing this with my players caused them to relax about the whole matter and relegated killing to a purely thematic and aesthetic concern. I appreciate this about the game’s design!

      Does the history of killing as a topic in superhero comics and games inform the content and (by extension) the aesthetics of the Sentinels of Justice game?

      As you said, that’s probably unavoidable. I’ll self-reflect in my responses to upcoming questions, but first, let me muse on how this discourse might manifest in the other players. Lauren is new to Champions and only has a passing familiarity with superhero comics of the 1990s. Jen and Dan played Champions decades ago but focused little on its play culture, and neither cares about either upholding or reveling against the genre conventions of superhero comics. On the other hand, Mike has a long history with Champions, is a longtime fan of superhero comics, and, in the past, has been the Inspector Javert of genre police. Although to different degrees, all these players have experienced some socialization around superheroes and killing. This socialization bleeds into our game’s thematic and aesthetic content, even as the rules remove much of the procedural anxiety about killing.

      This thematic content was evident in the heroes’ dinner conversation during Session Two. From a certain angle, that discussion rehashed the old and tired discourse about killing in superhero comics. Given that originality is an aesthetic concern, some might see this as detracting from the game’s aesthetic merit. That’s fair, but as far as I’m concerned, the conversation was more about the heroes exploring bonds and boundaries, which made the whole scene very satisfying. Besides, authenticity is also an aesthetic concern, and (“basic” or not, and for whatever reasons) this is where the players (and heroes) legitimately are at the moment. So, it is what it is, and so it must be.

      Now that I’ve discussed my fellow players let me be upfront about my “credentials” as a genre patrolman. Although never as rigid as Mike has sometimes been, I often approached superhero games with expectations of genre emulation firmly in place, with my preferred framework being the comics of the late 1970s and early 1980s (as I understood them at the time). I poo-pooed the “Cool! We can kill!” trend of the late 1980s and early 1990s and the increasing levels of depravity evident in villains as we entered the 21st century. The expectations that resulted from these predilections predictably led to some frustrating play experiences, as my players often had far more casual attitudes about killing than I did (among other things). I’d been stepping away from such expectations for about a decade by the time I read Champions Now, but Champions Now provided the clarity and methods I needed to attempt a clear break with the old ways. That’s important context for understanding my responses to the following questions.

      Why did I decide to give the Silver Shirts “killing attacks?” Did my decision to do so negatively affect aesthetics and play?

      My decision to give the Silver Shirts “killing attacks” was thematic and aesthetic (as it pertains to the rules). Thematically, the Silver Ranger represents white supremacy and proto-fascism, which I consider among the most virulent and deadly forces in our national history. There was never a question that the Silver Ranger would have “killing attacks.” Although the elective death rule renders “killing attacks” no more deadly than any other type of attack, they feel more visceral when they land in play, and I wanted that for the game’s white supremacist and fascist avatar. Ultimately, I thought there was an appropriate symmetry to assigning the same to his footmen. Regarding the aesthetic dimension of the rules, bringing the Hazard’s die total down by half also proved desirable. Their attack’s knockback and the amount of damage that gets through on an average damage roll makes more sense at 6d6. Building them as a 12d6 Blast would KO Major Shocker on an average damage roll; at 6d6, he’s only Stunned. Also, it’s important to remember that the Hazard that is the Silver Shirts is arguably “nerfed” by all ways heroes can avoid it. Among these ways is making a Dexterity Roll – another aesthetic call that aims to have the players feel the dynamic movement to escape that the Dexterity Roll represents. Good aesthetics? Bad aesthetics? I don’t know, but it’s a considered aesthetic judgment, at the very least. Again, I don’t believe these choices hampered play due to the elective death rule.

      Doesn’t our adding of a Force Field to Major Shocker’s sheet suggest that my choices about “killing attacks” are driving fraught play, with characters armoring up as in the old days?

      I said in my video that Mike didn’t complain when Major Shocker went down, which is true, but he did make a passing comment about needing to invest points in Missile Deflection to protect his hero against such a fate. However, this comment wasn’t about killing attacks but about being taken down so quickly during the fight. “Killing attack” or no “killing attack,” this would have been an issue, as the players were getting used to a version of Champions where, as the rules say, “your hero is going to get hit and, sometimes, hit the dirt.” Fortunately, there’s a great deal of good news here, including that adding the Electromagnetic Field power to Major Shocker’s sheet occurred in a fashion that all of us found satisfying in terms of the fictional situation and that the game’s design (in terms of resource management) prevents the power’s inclusion from rendering Major Shocker immune from hitting the dirt occasionally. Also, Mike did a brilliant job of making Major Shocker’s injury count regarding the hero’s interactions with other characters and attitudes to situations of play.

      Is my history with killing-related genre conventions driving me to craft villains so irredeemable and depraved that they’re forcing the heroes into kill-or-be-lame situations?

      I thought long and hard about this one after watching your response. Traditionally, my genre preferences swung in a different direction, but I considered the possibility that I could be overcompensating in my eagerness to break with my old practices. However, I don’t believe I’m doing that. Dr. Bellows is a terrible person who’s done horrible things, but he’s not a mindless killer and has human qualities that define him beyond his villainy. Similarly, all the Silver Legion villains have humanizing Situations on their sheets (as well as diverse reasons for joining the organization and varying levels of commitment). As personally offensive as their dominant ideologies are to me, redemption isn’t out of the question for any of them. Whether or not the heroes eventually come to know or care about these Situations is contingent on what develops during play, but the potential is there. Also, the Silver Ranger and his goons are the only ones with killing attacks. Orion and White Flame’s powers are less lethal and more “fun” in a traditional superhero comic book way. All that’s to say that I don’t think the way I’ve approached the topic of killing is harming play by backing players into corners. But I admit there’s uncertainty there, as much depends on how effectively I present situations and how the players process whatever comes out during play.

      Finally, I’d like to think about Justicar’s decision to make a citizen’s arrest and turn Dr. Bellows over to “Officer Friendly.” During that scene, I didn’t see Dan struggling over whether or not to make the “right” decision vis-a-vis a genre convention; I saw Dylan Pierce wrestling with Ma’at and with himself in the context of what he’d just learned and the conversations he’d had with Nadia and his teammates over the last 24 hours. I can buy Dylan’s decision, given that the character has no direct exposure to the NYPD’s corruption. If psychological and emotional realism is a measure of aesthetic merit, I believe Dan’s character work in this scene contributes to a positive assessment.

      However, the matter of institutional realism is another matter entirely. We were running out of time, so I wrapped up the session by quickly saying something about Justicar going to the police station to make a statement and Dr. Bellows going to jail, but this felt weak and unsatisfying, so I decided to start the next session by going back and playing through Justicar’s interactions with the police. In doing so, I aim to set up a social situation that Justicar must navigate and has at least the potential to challenge notions that the NYPD is an unproblematic arbiter of justice in our game.

      So, there you have my reflection on the overlap of the three circles you presented in your response. The fact that my assessment of our game is so positive after processing everything is surprising and makes me somewhat suspicious of my thinking, but that’s how my brain works. It just means I’ll stay humble and keep looking for ways I’m mistaken, which is probably good because, in my experience, humility is the engine of improvement.

      Thanks again, Ron! I both enjoyed and benefited from listening to and reflecting on your response, and I appreciate your taking the time.

      All the best,

      Aldo

    • That’s a lot of processing!

      I have one thing to clarify: that I do not want any association between my “Officer Friendly” reference and Justicar turning over Dr. Bellows to the police. I even felt a twinge when I said the former, thinking, “I hope no one puts these together,” because that comment is part of the big circle (#1) as context, not a reference to the events of the game. The events in the game made sense and, for what it’s worth, felt good.

    • Heh – a lot of processing, indeed! Your post caught me at the start of Thanksgiving break, so I had the time to play with the ideas you presented. And no need to worry about your point of clarification: I assumed that your “Officer Friendly” comment was about the overall context and not Justicar’s specific actions in play. However, assessing the situation in light of the overlapping topics you presented made sense, especially since I’ve already been thinking about what I need to do to create a satisfying situation vis-a-vis the NYPD’s presence in the game.

    • I want to dig in pretty hard on one point. You wrote,

      … the Silver Legion villains have humanizing Situations on their sheets (as well as diverse reasons for joining the organization and varying levels of commitment). As personally offensive as their dominant ideologies are to me, redemption isn’t out of the question for any of them.

      Really? I totally accept it about the named villains, but the dentist guy? There you had the straightforward opportunity to share humanizing content about a person, and you revealed instead that he was a genuinely disgusting monster: a sadist + bigot + abuser of medical responsibility. Your description of play conforms to my description of playing foes as a trap between “too vile to let live” + “heroes don’t kill.”

      I’m not a telepath and I don’t want to talk about what you meant or thought or felt at the time. I want you to see the behavior as it might be experienced outside your head, whether by the actual player involved or, theoretically, any player who has training/ingraining from the relevant period of comics/Champions history.

      Important: since we know that play during, following, and further following that point has been brilliant, there’s no gotcha in this comment. This isn’t about bad play. It’s still about what “intrudes” from each of the three circles into their overlap zone. I’m saying that more influence/habit may be coming from that first circle than the text I quoted allows for. Whether this is the case (at all and if so, how much) is very much your business, so please don’t clarify for my sake. Whatever value my comment has is best discovered in the long run, not as dialogue right now.

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