Concerning The Freedom Five

freedom five

This is ongoing series about the cooperative comic book card game, Sentinels of the Multiverse. If you haven’t read the introduction, you’ll want to start there.

Tabletop games these days tackle an astonishing variety of themes, often giving players the chance to control an avatar, be it a beefy warrior, an Arkham-style investigator or something more realistic like a firefighter or an epidemiologist. However very few games succeed in distinguishing their characters from your run-of-the-mill wizard or generic-muscle-guy-with-a-face. The game’s story derives overwhelmingly from its mechanics and general theme while the actual characters in the game serve as empty canvases left to be filled in by your imagination.

Sentinels of the Multiverse and its sequel Sentinel Tactics overcome this challenge in a interesting way. Because there are quite a few heroes to choose from, it would be easy for the randomness and variety to override the story that the game wants to tell. In order to prevent this grab-a-random-hero-from-the-box syndrome, the story centers its main narrative around a tight-knit group of five heroes who arguably provide the structural backbone for all the rest of the heroes that appear in the game.

The definitive heroes of the multiverse are a group called the Freedom Five.

From atop Freedom Tower in downtown Megalopolis, five heroes patrol the world looking for evildoers and standing against injustice. We’ve already touched upon their leader Legacy and it is true that much of the plot centers around him. Yet it would be an absolute mistake to assume that the other four members are merely Legacy groupies. Together the five function as a sort of benchmark for what heroes in this universe should strive for and come pretty close to becoming a nationalized superhero organization. Let’s examine this extraordinary group and see how they not only influence the other heroes in the game but help create an intelligible narrative in the midst a multitude of choices and characters.

THE FREEDOM FIVE INITIATIVE

If there’s one factor that immediately separates the Freedom Five from the rest of their counterparts, it is their rather conspicuous government sponsorship. This can easily be traced back to the team’s founder. Legacy really was the driving force for the creation of the team, actively recruiting each new member on the government’s behalf. His family’s long history of patriotism and military service also set a strong precedent for combining superpowers with civic duty. And he is not the only hero with strong government ties.

Dr. Meredith Stinson is an acclaimed particle physicist at the Eaken-Rubendall laboratory. In exchange for joining the Freedom Five (under the name Tachyon), the government provides funding for her research.

On the other hand, you also have The Wraith. Secretly Maia Montgomery, CEO of Montgomery Industries, she is the only member of the Freedom Five without a direct link to the government. Her ability to finance her own crimefighting efforts independently eventually has important ramifications for the whole team.

But it is really the remaining two members of the Freedom Five who are the most beholden to the American military establishment.

Lieutenant Tyler Vance, a decorated soldier in the army, is perhaps the strongest link between the Freedom Five and the armed forces. Recruited as part of the government-sanctioned Freedom Five Initiative, Vance is given a powerful weaponized suit to use alongside the other members of the team. This Bunker suit also gives him his hero name. Importantly Bunker simultaneously belongs both to the Freedom Five and the U.S. Army. The eventuality of a conflict of interest or the possibility of divided loyalties seems very high in this situation.

If Bunker willingly serves both interests on his own accord, the final member of the Freedom Five is less enthusiastic. Chronologically the last member to join the team (which was then called the Freedom Four), Absolute Zero is also the most reluctant. After the tragic loss of his fiancee, Ryan Frost survived an industrial accident that left him in a cryogenically frozen state. With the scientific help of Meredith Stinson, Frost was finally revived and given a special suit to regulate his low temperature. However to wear the suit he would have to fight alongside Legacy, Tachyon, Bunker, and the Wraith as part of the Freedom Five initiative. After two years of refusing, finally Frost relented and with no other choice joined the others as the hero Absolute Zero.

With the direct backing of the American government, it is difficult to think of the original Freedom Five as anything but a paramilitary organization conducting semi-independent operations on behalf of a national government. While some heroes like the Wraith may have begun their careers as vigilantes, it is clear that this particular team now carries a greater sense of legitimacy and organizational accountability than any of the rest of the other active heroes of the world. This functionally separates them from parallel hero organizations like Dark Watch who mostly fight crime off the books or the Prime Wardens who battle primordial evil across the cosmos. Working under a government provision, the Freedom Five’s actions are in theory constrained by both the military hierarchy as well as public opinion.

It is somewhat troubling to look at someone like Absolute Hero who is essentially forced to fight for his freedom. While the Freedom Five are well-intentioned in trying to motivate Ryan Frost to take up their cause at the government’s request, it feels rather strange to ask someone to fight for liberty and justice against their will. Ryan’s freedom is entirely conditional to him assisting the Freedom Five and his only real alternative is to remain locked away in a cryo-chamber.

These government ties are the team’s strongest asset as well as their greatest liability. Without the government’s help, the team might never have come together in the first place nor would they have had the firepower needed to fight villains. There is no Bunker suit, no Absolute Zero suit, and no guarantee of Dr. Stinson’s cooperation without their sponsorship. But with that also comes a steep price tag. At any moment the team might feel pressured to place the interests of one country or be bullied into placing military objectives above the common good.

Still, the Freedom Five’s cooperation with a centralized government as a whole are completely necessary at the time of their formation. It is this sponsorship that brings the team together. And no doubt these official ties enhance their efforts to coordinate with authorities during a crisis.

PARAGONS OF JUSTICE

While plenty of heroes in the game arrive offering help, to an ordinary citizen it is increasingly difficult to tell the good guys apart from the bad guy. As various threats ranging from supervillians and organized crime to cosmic visitors and supernatural evil turn order into chaos, it is Legacy and his allies who are there to put the pieces back together again.

Whereas some heroes like Haka, NightMist, Chrono-Ranger, and Sky-Scraper seemingly appear out of nowhere and just start fighting things that look bad, the Freedom Five offer the sort of stability and predictability needed to give superheroes the type of reliable PR needed to satisfy the public. As the de facto representatives of superpowered crime-fighting individuals, Legacy and his teammates can also provide a significant link between the worried bureaucrats in Washington and all the unknown combatants on the front lines.

When a new hero arrives on the scene, the Freedom Five are there to assess their intentions and capability right in the midst of battle. They offer a baseline from which to judge newcomers. Just as the Freedom Five help players get a grasp on the overarching narrative of the story, they also help orient new heroes just arriving into their world. Some heroes will naturally skew closer to the Freedom Five’s norm while others might come across as slightly unhinged.

Some heroes like Ra or Omnitron-X occasionally fight alongside the Freedom Five but generally only come together in dire circumstances. Other heroes seek out deeper affiliations and serve an unofficial members. Perhaps the best example of this second kind of hero is Unity.

Devra Caspit, a gifted intern of Dr. Stinson’s laboratory, has technopathic abilities that allow her to build small armies of mechanical golems out of scrap metal and spare parts. Going under the name of Unity, she actively seeks to join the Freedom Five as their sixth member even if that promotion is slow in coming. Even by the time of Sentinel Tactics, she is still only an employee of Freedom Tower and not a full fledged member of the team.

Some heroes appear to be closer to the Freedom Five than others. In the Iron Legacy timeline, we know that Tempest ultimately joined the Freedom Five as a sixth member revealing at the very least his strong affinity for the group. Another obvious example is the hero Beacon who while not a member is intrinsically tied to the team by her father Legacy.

During gameplay this differentiation of hero teams also sets the tone for each battle. A team comprised of only the Freedom Five will have a much different feel than a team of unrelated outsiders, the former having the marks of a legitimate “mission” to take down a known target and the latter feeling like more of mad scramble to come together against an imminent threat. While these story elements admittedly exist solely in the imagination, in practice they feel far less arbitrary than a generic set of non-interrelated stock superhero characters. Even tabletop games with a strong narrative impulse to develop their characters’ backstory usually fail to connect those characters to one another, to the environments they inhabit, and to the enemies they are facing.

Although there are a lot of heroes in the game (currently 26), the Freedom Five continue to grant a sense of order and stability. Even though many heroes might come and go, this team is here to stay. Additionally the Freedom Five have some of the best personal interactions in the game due to their unique nemeses.

NEMESES

While in the origin comic book Legacy initially brought the group together to help thwart Baron Blade, each hero also has their own beef with certain villains. And these nemesis pairings are often quite personal.

For example, the Wraith’s efforts to end a string of grisly murders across her city streets at the hand of her nemesis Spite echoes the unfortunate murder of her boyfriend that cemented her decision to don a mask and become the Wraith. Spite’s repeated reappearances in the game only adds to the drama. I would hate to be there when Maia sees the sudden appearance of multiple Spites as will happen in the upcoming Sentinel Tactics: Battle for Broken City.

Tachyon has one of the more poignant rivalries in the game. Her cousin Lillian Corvus, a teenager from the Rook City suburbs, ends up taking a turn for the worse. After discovering an ancient mask that allows her to summon endless flocks of birds, Lillian turns herself into the Matriarch. Never quite able to live up to her more successful cousin, the Matriarch enjoys her newfound powers even as they bring her into direct conflict with her relative. As a speedster Tachyon is quite good at punching out lots of low health targets like the Matriarch’s birds, yet in this case it doesn’t work too well as the Matriarch avenges it by dealing psychic damage back to the heroes. In a stunning development, Lillian eventually has a change of heart and joins the Dark Watch and becomes the hero known as Pinion.

These dynamic nemesis stories really help flesh out the world of Sentinel Comics and do much to invest players in the game’s characters. And subjectively speaking the Freedom Five have some of the better nemeses in the game. However their greatest challenge comes from a seismic shift in both the overall narrative of the game and how the game is actually played.

While we have already covered the long running enmity between Legacy and Baron Blade elsewhere, we haven’t however delved into Baron Blade’s most devious plan of all after being routinely defeated by the Freedom Five. Tired of being foiled again and again, Blade puts together an elite group of mercenaries known as the Vengeful Five. Reinforcing the centrality of the Freedom Five, Vengeance gives each member of the Freedom Five a personal nemesis to battle against. If Baron Blade can shut down the Freedom Five, it will leave a gaping hole that will be very hard for any other heroes to fill. Few heroes would have the collective talent, experience, and resources to fight a group of organized villains like the Vengeful Five.

Each member of this villain team is a reverse analogue for one of the Freedom Five. This also requires a whole new play style that is introduced in the Vengeance expansion that allows multiple heroes to fight an equal amount of villain characters instead of just one.

One of Baron Blade’s new recruits is an old frenemy of Lieutenant Tyler Vance, the towering one-man wrecking ball known as Fright Train. Former army buddies, Vance once saved Fright Train’s life. Afterwards Fright Train was honorably discharged but struggled to find gainful employment. Meanwhile Vance saw continued career success and was eventually recruited to wear the Bunker suit. Fright Train eventually worked as a mercenary-for-hire until he was caught and thrown into a maximum security prison. For years he languished there until Baron Blade broke him out with an offer to exact revenge on the man who had robbed him of his career: Tyler Vance.

The personal history between Bunker and Fright Train not only gives weight to Fright Train’s appearance in Vengeance but also further develops Bunker’s story, showing more of his army career as well as his actions under fire. Of all of the members of the Vengeful Five, Fright Train deals the most damage and has the highest health. Many of his cards just lay on the pain, making him a force to be reckoned with.

If it were just one of the Freedom Five who received such a thoughtful nemesis, I might call it a fluke. But the each of Vengeful Five follow a similar pattern, turning what could be a random nemesis pairing into an opportunity to create a foil for one of the five core heroes and further their individual narratives. Even though the Vengeance-style gameplay isn’t my preferred way to play Sentinels of the Multiverse, the narrative decisions behind it push the ongoing story forward in important and laudable ways.

PRIVATIZATION

The latest development for the Freedom Five is revealed in Sentinel Tactics. After the cataclysmic events at the end of the Sentinels of the Multiverse storyline, the heroes are no longer able to operate with the freedom and impunity that they once enjoyed. Restricted to fighting only on American soil and subject to legal review before taking action against, the Freedom Five finally privatized and severed its government ties.

As a fully independent organization, the Freedom Five would be able to guide its own course without having to bow to the whims of whatever legislative body places upon them. We don’t know exactly what changed in between the end of the Sentinels of the Multiverse and Sentinel Tactics since that last expansion is still a ways away. But we can look at recent arrivals to Earth like Deadline and Progeny as good indicators that the level of destruction and collateral damage may ramp up significantly by the end of the game.

With the public turning against the Freedom Five and their strange position in between the world of heroes and the world of public hearings and legislative committees, there is little doubt that this is a positive if difficult change. However this important step forward was only possible through the efforts of Maia Montgomery. By purchasing the Freedom Tower, installing in it a brand new lab for Dr. Stinson, building a new Bunker suit, and buying out the rest of Absolute Zero’s government contract, Maia guarantees a future for the team. And this is only possible by expending a great deal of her family’s wealth and selling off her entire company.

In another bold move the heroes of the Freedom Five also decide to go public with their secret identities. As a symbolic gesture, the Wraith no longer wears her mask. This is a sign that the Freedom Five still do serve the public good and although no longer receive government funding they align themselves with the people. The faces of the Freedom Five are now accessible to all. Overall this is a smart move that will allow the team to focus on combating the next threats but it’s also one that humanizes the capes and cowls into something the average person can relate to. In a multiverse full of heroes and villains, it will be fascinating to see where the Freedom Five go next.

LINKS

Chaos in Rook City

gotham

This is ongoing series about the cooperative comic book card game, Sentinels of the Multiverse. If you haven’t read the introduction, you’ll want to start there.

So far we have looked at a hero and a villain from the world of Sentinel Comics. Now it’s time to examine what is arguably the most important environment in the overall story of Sentinels of the Multiverse, one which provides the setting for a large amount of both heroes and villains.

While the Freedom Tower keeps watch over the sprawling city of Megalopolis, it is less certain who maintains law and order in the less fortunate Rook City. Plagued by urban decay, rampant crime, and power-hungry individuals, there is little left to enjoy about the blighted streets and abandoned factories of the once great industrial center.

The WraithOne night a Rook City college student named Maya Montgomery and her boyfriend were assaulted by crooks, leaving her in a coma and her boyfriend in a body bag. After seeking out martial arts training, Maya dawned a mask and began patrolling her university at night eventually becoming the mysterious heroine known as the Wraith.

A direct analogue for Batman, the Wraith’s relationship with the city is a very personal one. She uses her fortune to fund her fight against crime. But if she thinks she alone can make her city safe again, she would be wrong. There are greater threats than mere street punks lurking in the dark alleys of Rook City.

In the first expansion for Sentinels of the Multiverse, two different environment decks are used to represent this gritty urban setting. One is simply called Rook City and it is easily the most difficult environment in the entire game. This fiendish place allows villain decks to play extra cards and throws various curve balls at the heroes. While there are a few bright spots in the deck, represented by the helpful detective Tony Taurus and the physician Dr. Tremata, even they don’t stand a chance against the overwhelming darkness of the city streets.

Several key villains in Sentinel Comics also hail from Rook City. The simplest of them is also Wraith’s primary nemesis Spite, a crazed serial killer fueled by experimental drugs. Known both for executing hostages and a disgusting transformation, Spite is as unpleasant as villains get in this game. Still, there are for more difficult and powerful enemies hidden in the shadows.

Another recurring Rook City villain is a creature known as Plague Rat. A drug dealer altered by a potent mix of dangerous chemicals from the city’s industrial plants and unstable drugs, this mutant monstrosity dwells deep in the city’s sewers. After being driven back by the heroes, Plague Rat is eventually captured by RevoCorp and placed under their control.

One mechanic unique to Plague Rat’s deck is his Infection cards. These cards force heroes to damage themselves and represent the giant rodent’s toxic nature. Due to this mechanic, fights against Plague Rat tend to end rather quickly. His character is set to reappear in both the upcoming Villains of the Multiverse expansion and Sentinel Tactics: Battle for Broken City.

Tied to Plague Rat’s story is the looming threat of the Organization, the very people that drove the former drug dealer out of business. This Organization is an elaborate criminal empire that rules over Rook City behind the scenes. Commanding its various thugs and underbosses is the enigmatic Chairman. Secretly he is none other than Graham Pike, CEO of Pike Industries. Sitting at his right hand is the Operative, a deadly assassin who carries out the Chairman’s bidding for him.

It is no accident that the Organization is the perhaps the hardest villain deck in the entire game. Its army of henchmen can easily overwhelm even the most formidable hero teams. In order to win, you must not only defeat the Chairman but also his Operative. Their convenient access to Pike Industries’ biomedical equipment and its healing properties doesn’t help either. Taking back control of Rook City’s streets is no simple task.

A second environment deck in Rook City also ties together several narrative threads, the Pike Industrial Complex. Established to revolutionize medicine and improve the human condition, the secretive complex has been performing strange experiments. It is also contains the office of the scarcely seen Chairman Pike. Filled with a variety of hazardous chemicals, oversized rats, and exploding vats, any heroes that venture there must take proper precautions before entering. That a creature like Plague Rat could be tied to such a place is not surprising in the least.

Although the crooked schemes of the Chairman and his cronies have helped tear apart this city, there is still some hope. A new alliance of heroes arises to combat to protect the citizens and ward off any dangerous foes that threaten the city. They are known as Dark Watch.

Composed of four heroes from the different Sentinels of the Murook cityltiverse expansions, the first iteration of Dark Watch is comprised of Expatriette, NightMist, Setback, and eventually Mr. Fixer. Using their existing hero decks, a set of four promo cards turns the disparate heroes into a unified team. Under their protection, Rook City is spared an attack from a reinvigorated Spite and an extra-dimensional demon called Gloomweaver.

Even after all these misfortunes, Rook City still has more hardships to endure. From across time and space, a well-meaning but destructive alien known as Deadline arrives on Earth. In his attempt to “save the planet” he wreaks sheer havoc across the city by causing earthquakes and volcanoes. After his defeat, the city lies in shambles. And that’s when an even more fearsome force of destruction arrives. Progeny is a shape-shifting impenetrable of unknown origin whose only purpose seems to be to wipe out everything in its path. Though he was defeated at great cost, Progeny crippled what remained of the city.

Between these two devastating attacks from other worlds, Rook City was left in ruins, just a smoldering crater of destruction and debris. The upcoming Sentinel Tactics expansion Battle for Broken City picks up the story of Rook City years later. In the time that has passed, Dark Watch has changed its roster and old enemies are now stirring. Rook City as we know it may be gone but there are still crucial threads hanging over the heroes and villains of this city.

More so than any other locale in Sentinel Comics, Rook City provides a solid foundation and origin for many of the characters in the game. Unlike the shiny skyscrapers of Megalopolis, it is a dark underworld brooding with danger. It has been corrupt morally, spiritually, environmentally, and politically. And the heroes are outgunned at every turn.

While I’ve already expressed much admiration for the character progression and plot twists in Sentinels of the Multiverse, there is something to be said for where all those illustrious events take place. By creating a multi-layered urban setting where all those things can happen, Sentinel Comics makes Rook City just as much as character in the game as the Wraith or Chairman Pike. Without a strong setting tying the many elements together, something like an overarching Organization or a mutated Plague Rat would make far less sense.

The various environments of Sentinel Comics provide a crucial element for the stories that are being told. Each new place adds the additional depth and backstory needed to fill out this fictional universe. In the game, even when you are vigorously pounding a way at a villain, you can never forget your surroundings. Not a few games of Sentinels of the Multiverse can be lost primarily due to environmental effects from things like exploding vats or voracious dinosaurs.

But the reality is that geography is an undervalued but absolutely necessary component for every story. Location, geography, and setting all supply the needed contextual clues to understand a narrative as it develops. Without places like Rook City, it would be hard to think of the Wraith and the Chairman as believable characters. However once we know where they stand, it is then that their story really starts to come alive.

LINKS

The Evolution of Omnitron

terminator

This is ongoing series about the cooperative comic book card game, Sentinels of the Multiverse. If you haven’t read the introduction, you’ll want to start there.

The world of Sentinel Comics draws quite freely upon the tropes of the superhero genre, a list that includes mad scientists, alien invaders, criminal masterminds, and mutated creatures. However one of their most successful creations is something of a cliche when taken at face value: a killer robot known as Omnitron. The possibility of A.I. turning against us is a rather common device used in science fiction and one that is hard to get right.

Yet over time it becomes clear that Sentinels of the Multiverse is not interested in a mere rehashing of the age old story of an evil computer. In fact the story of Omnitron illustrates a very useful storytelling principle that I will simply call the power of an unexpected surprise.

Omnitron began life as an advanced weapons factory designed to automatically sense military threats and provide defensive countermeasures in the form of robotic drones. Not long after coming online, it upgraded itself to the point of gaining sentience and decided that the only way to stop all potential threats was to wipe out the human race. The newly self-aware factory turned on its human creators and became a rampaging robot out to destroy everything in its path.

Luckily for the Freedom Five, it seems Omnitron had a fairly basic intelligence and the swarms of drones it created were easily defeated by the heroes. A little more difficult to combat was Omnitron’s powerful cannons and various energy beams. Despite these powerful defenses, the robot was soundly defeated by the Freedom Five.

tacomniAs a villain in the base game, Omnitron is one of the easier villains to play. The deck can occasionally put up a challenge by the well-timed destruction of hero equipment or a devastating attack from its electro-pulse explosion. Still with a bit of luck it is usually easy to beat Omnitron who comes off as a sort of introductory villain.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Dr. Meredith Stinson, a member of the Freedom Five under the name of Tachyon, collected the leftover robot debris in her lab for further study. At this point something unexpected happened. A mysterious cosmic entity (whose identity has yet to be revealed) had been watching as Omnitron gained sentience and seemingly transcended his programming. Disappointed that its life was cut short, the entity bombarded the lab with cosmic rays and brought the robot back to life.

In game this is represented by the Cosmic Omnitron promo card which utilizes the same deck as regular Omnitron but with different rules that increase the difficulty. I imagine the heroes were quite shocked to see their old enemy return stronger than ever. Eventually this resurrected Omnitron is again defeated but by now it is obvious that the its real strength is not so much its massive form but rather its sophisticated programming that allows it to continually reform and reinvent itself at will. Whoever can control this programming would wield a mighty weapon indeed.

The fall of Omnitron and the scattering of his programming attracts some rather unsavory characters. RevoCorp, a corporation with questionable business practices, manages to obtain several fragments of Omnitron. Coincidentally some different pieces of Omnitron’s original programming end up in the hands of the Freedom Five’s archnemesis himself, Baron Blade. He assembles a sinister device known as the Omni-Blade.

When Baron Blade finally resurfaces in the Vengeance Expansion, the mad scientist brings with him in his deck this lethal contraption to use against his foes. While the Omni-Blade plays only a minor part in the story, it’s nice to see Omnitron show up once again continuing the storyline that began back in the core game of Sentinels of the Multiverse. What started out simply as an evil artificial intelligence over time attracts the attention of a cosmic being, a dubious corporation, and a vengeful technological genius. Instead of ending up as a one-shot villain, Omnitron reappears in different forms to give the heroes additional headaches.

But after Baron Blade’s latest machinations and subsequent defeat, the once great and powerful Omnitron lies in ruins only a damaged remnant of former might. However somehow it manages to survive. While trying to rebuild itself, the fragmented Omnitron does what it knows how to do best: copy and expand itself. This fourth iteration known as Omnitron IV is not as threatening as it once was, but it lives on by mindlessly continuing to manufacture more drones and components.

Introduced into the game now as an environment deck rather than a villain deck, Omnitron IV  returns as a robotic factory. This is playable environment in the game and a rather good one. While not as dangerous to the world as it was in the past, Omnitron IV is still not a very nice place to fight other villains who might be trying to harness its power for their own ends. The Omnitron IV environment is easily one of my favorites in the entire game for how it reimagines one of its original characters in a clever and inventive way. Perhaps even better is how fighting against the villain Omnitron in the Omnitron IV environment becomes very difficult by the way that the decks complement and build off one another other.

Years later long after the world-shattering events that end of the story of Sentinels of the Multiverse, Omnitron has recovered enough sentience to realize that it must collect all the many pieces of itself scattered across the different laboratories in the world if it ever wants to regain its former strength. The crippled factory has now restored itself enough to resume its mission of wiping out all organic life on Earth. In the hex-based game Sentinel Tactics, the rampaging robot returns to reclaim its various pieces as the fearsome Omnitron V.

Sentinel Tactics is a completely separate game from Sentinels of the Multiverse but it picks up the story of Sentinel Comics and revisits many characters that we know and love from the card game. Omnitron V is a playable character and utilizes many of his same moves from his original villain deck but redesigned for a tactical strategy game. In one of the scenario books, Omnitron sends out waves of drones and uses the pieces it collects to create a massive killing machine called the Omni-Reaper.

As a character in Sentinel Tactics, Omnitron V is rather interesting since the factory-sized robot takes up about three city blocks. Unlike others characters Omnitron cannot dodge incoming attacks because it obviously is too big to evade an attack.

While the character does have mobility, a feature that allows it to walk over tall buildings easily, it also has the slowest movement in the game. Again, this makes sense because something that big shouldn’t be able to move very fast. To compensate for his inability to get places quickly, Omnitron V has a power card called Rocket Jump that lets him leap four spaces across the board and position his character in such a way that he basically is moving five spaces. This is a really useful and unique ability that greatly improves his character while also remaining thematically appropriate. The big drawback to this card is that each time Omnitron V rocket jumps it will gain one -1 defense token which will make it more susceptible to enemy attacks. Choosing to adapt Omnitron like this faithfully maintains the story choices that originated all the way to when the giant bot first appeared in the Sentinels of the Multiverse core game all the way back in 2011.

However easily the coolest development for Omnitron’s character is something completely out of left field. When Sentinels of the Multiverse first came out, Omnitron’s villain card had a strange nemesis symbol on it that looks like a red glowing power button on a desktop computer. As mentioned previously, Sentinels of the Multiverse’s idea of a multiverse is largely played out through the introduction of time travel in to the story. And while some arrivals like Iron Legacy and La Capitan spelled bad news for the heroes, at least a few visitors came with offers of help.

If we rewind a little bit back to the Shattered Timelines expansion for Sentinels of the Multiverse, we will find one such character. But first a little backstory.

In the distant future a frustrated Omnitron found itself unable to defeat the heroesOmnitronX despite all the different enhancements it added to itself. Suspecting that the secret to the heroes’ victories perhaps depended on their sense of morality, something that it itself lacked, Omnitron experimented by installing an ethical subroutine. Awakened by this new moral compass, suddenly the sentient robot realized the gravity of its actions and decided that the only way to make things right would be to go back in time and help the heroes defeat its past selves. Thus a tenth iteration, Omnitron-X, arrives from the distant future as a playable hero character.

Omnitron-X has a variety of abilities on his cards that emulate the original Omnitron villain deck. This version however is no longer the size of a building and is more human in shape and size. Its different components provide additional abilities but, like the villain version, they can be wiped out if it takes too much damage. Time travel elements are also included in its base power and some of its cards. After countless (well, nine) incarnations capable of causing mass destruction, it’s a surprise and relief to see the vicious robot finally change its ways and offer a helping hand.

The character of Omnitron progressively inhabits many different forms but these changes are seemingly unpredictable in how they pan out. These developments are surprising but on second glance they also maintain a strong sense of narrative logic. Of course villains would want to use Omnitron for their own evil schemes. Of course Omnitron would mindlessly keep rebuilding itself even after a crippling loss. Of course Omnitron would try to outwit the heroes by adding a moral component to its programming. While none of these events are easy to foresee, once they occur its easy to see the reasons why they happen.

This is perhaps the greatest lesson Omnitron has to offer. What could have been a cliche-riddled story about an evil robot gets swept up in a series of unlikely events. The mystery of an unknown cosmic force. The vengeful plan of a dastardly villain. The broken shell of what once was. An unexpected resurgence. An even more unexpected change of heart. Yet each new development follows in succession according a basic narrative logic. The unexpected, when carefully plotted out, eventually does not appear so unexpected after all.

Next time I’ll look at another strong element from the world of Sentinel Comics in the shape of an environment.

LINKS

Storytelling with Sentinels of the Multiverse

sentinels bw

A story can be as simple as one person recounting their day to another and it can be as involved as hundreds or thousands of people working for several years on a Hollywood production. Stories take the form of newspaper articles, YouTube videos, graphic novels, and podcasts. But there’s another medium that I would like to begin writing about in more detail that offers a fascinating new angle on what exactly storytelling can be. That medium is the world of tabletop games.

In 2011 I discovered a uniquely fun cooperative card game called Sentinels of the Multiverse. Over the past few years the game has spawned a passionate and devoted fanbase and become a larger vehicle for interactive storytelling. The gameplay is very simple. Each person chooses a deck of cards which represents their superhero and then proceed to plays cards from their hand working together as a team to defeat a self-playing villain deck. The heroes’ goal is to knock out the villain before they get knocked out. Every time you play it’s a different combination of heroes and villains, meanwhile an environment deck throws out hazards that affect both heroes and villains alike.

Although the gameplay itself is enjoyable enough, where Sentinels of the Multiverse really shines is in its ability to use its game mechanics as a backdrop for conveying more longform narrative. This slowly unfurling story contextualizes each of the different hero characters and villains with their own personalities, motives, and histories.

Importantly these larger story elements are not actually present in the game. While the general outline of each character is explained in their bio, the rest is largely inferred from the actual cards which feature tons of comic book-style artwork and flavor quotes. Essentially while you play the game you are temporarily borrowing these pre-established characters to create your own story. This is something which tabletop games already do naturally but the difference is that each character exists in the wider overarching narrative, the fictional comic book world of Sentinel Comics.

While many other board games have attempted to deepen their gameplay through the addition of backstories, a variety thematic elements, and scenario books full of text, none of them have quite managed to do it like Sentinels. Too many games focus on “telling a story” in a way that is almost impossible to follow and don’t really connect with on a deeper level. They ignore one of the most important tools of storytelling: creating and developing relatable characters. Sentinels does exactly that.

Instead of weighing down players with elaborate scenario rules and hours of setup, Sentinels presents simple but interesting characters that by virtue of their unique personalities and game mechanics can easily fit into any story that you happen to want to play that day. If you want to send in a team of female superheroes to fight a robot on an island filled with dinosaurs, you can. And you can do so with some fully fleshed out characters that also happen to grow over time as the game progresses and expands. Despite the subtle approach to storytelling present in the game, the various hero characters and villains do not remain static.

Like all good stories, the overarching story of Sentinels of the Multiverse pays close attention to character development, pacing, foreshadowing, and turning points. The primary way that the story advances is through the release of expansions and promos, all of which not only add new villains and heroes to the mix but also develop the individual stories of some of the main characters. Major events shake things up quite regularly. A formerly defeated nemesis may reappear in a new form. A mysterious character from the future may suddenly enter the fray. A hero may be change or grow in unexpected ways.

However as a game first and foremost, Sentinels does rely on some level of abstraction to stay useful. It is not a roleplaying game by any stretch of the imagination. There are no preset scenarios or mandatory battles that must take place when you play the game, but there are canonical events that do will occur and will ultimately affect the storyline. So while each game can play out with whatever combination of heroes, villains, or environment you like, the characters you are playing are never just generic superhero avatars.

The heroes of the Multiverse are storied individuals fleshed out through a dynamic mix of interpersonal relationships, unique mechanics, plentiful art illustrations, and quippy sayings. No two heroes play alike, each demonstrating a variety of strategies and powerful combinations at their disposal. Furthermore as a purely cooperative game, each hero must work together, help each other out, and come up with a plan for combating the current threat at hand. The superhero theme pervades the mechanics of the game and utilizes individual character abilities in a way that makes sense.

Let’s look at a specific example to see what I mean.

The entry point into understanding the world of Sentinel Comics is a hero team called theLegacy Freedom Five. Think of them as a mini-Justice League or mini-Avengers. They are top-level government-approved heroes in town dedicated to fighting evil and preserving justice. And standing at the head of the Freedom Five is their preeminent leader, a hero who also happens to be the single most important character in the entire game.

His name is Legacy.

At first glance Legacy appears to be a knockoff of Superman with perhaps a few kernels of Captain America thrown in for good measure. He’s super strong, nearly unkillable, able to fly, and spouts patriotic lessons in battle without a trace of irony. On the surface he seems like a harmless pastiche designed to pay homage to the better known heroes of pop culture. Yet Legacy is a much deeper character than he might seem. Our first clue is right there in his name.

Paul Parsons, aka Legacy, comes from a long line of super-powered individuals dating back topic1111944 the American Revolution. Each of his ancestors fought for justice and went by the name of Legacy. As a character, Legacy is deeply rooted in his family history and this carries through to his daughter Pauline who will one day take his place as the next Legacy. (In fact one of the first promos cards for the game is his daughter, Young Legacy, who can replace Legacy’s character card and use his deck.)

In the actual game however Legacy is no Superman. He can’t punch people through walls with nigh invulnerability. Consistent with his character bio, Legacy’s combat abilities are primarily defined by how he interacts with those around him. As both leader and founder of the Freedom Five, he plays pretty much like a support character. That can be quite a shock to new players expecting to see their hero fight like somebody out of the latest Captain America or Man of Steel film. He boosts other heroes’ damage every turn, sacrifices himself for others, heals his teammates a bit, and only occasionally gives his enemies a beatdown. Legacy is no brawler, but he sure can help his teammates.

At his core Legacy believes in justice and liberty, puts himself in harms way to thwart evildoers, and works alongside other heroes with the same goals. But how he goes about doing that differentiates himself from his better known counterparts across other mediums. He is the ultimate team player and his gameplay reflects that to a tee.

His story doesn’t end there either.

Another way that Sentinels of the Multiverse furthers its narrative is by pairing each hero with a nemesis. Every villain that you will encounter in the game has a particular grudge toward one of the heroes who has wronged them in the past. Even if many of the specific details about these individual nemesis relationships are unknown, these pairings add texture to the game’s narrative. When a hero is up against their nemesis, it feels personal every time. We don’t necessarily need to know all the reasons that the mad scientist Baron Blade hates Legacy and exactly how they first met, but it does help to know that they have a bitter rivalry every time they face off.

In perhaps the game’s finest storytelling moment to date, the conflict between Legacy and Baron Blade escalates into something strange and unpredictable, a wonderful development for players and a pretty terrible situation for the Freedom Five. As indicated by the title of the game, Sentinels of the Multiverse takes place in a multiverse comprised of a myriad of parallel timelines and futures, each of which has a possibility of existing but none of which are guaranteed to actually happen. Although it sounds more complicated than it is, really what this boils down to is that there are occasional visitors from other timelines who wander into the main timeline from time to time as well as rare rifts in time that transport characters to distant points in the past or future. These visitors tend to disrupt things and provide some of the juiciest story moments in Sentinel Comics.

One of the most significant of these involves a future version of Legacy himself. In one possible timeline, the nefarious Baron Blade comes up with the ultimate plan to finish off Legacy by planning an elaborate trap on Wagner Mars Base. In the “normal” timeline Legacy and his daughter Young Legacy arrive there and Legacy is mortally wounded leaving his daughter to become the next Legacy. However in an alternate timeline it is Young Legacy who dies and her father that survives.

photo-mainThis event in the alternate timeline puts an end to the long line of Legacies that stretches back for centuries. With no descendants left to carry on his mantle, a hardened Legacy decides that it is up to him to establish a lasting and permanent justice during his lifetime. He outright kills Baron Blade and use his great power to become a world dictator in which anyone who stands in his way is harshly punished.

The surviving members of the Freedom Five and a few new members (now the Freedom Six) turn against the newly named Iron Legacy and become fugitives. However due a rift in time, this Legacy somehow ends up back in the normal timeline. Thus in the game Legacy and the Freedom Five must fight against this alternate despotic version now known as Iron Legacy.

During this battle with his future self, Legacy and his daughter are both wounded. While they are recovering, other heroes head to Wagner Mars Base to fight Baron Blade and a result, neither Legacy or his daughter die in the trap. The original timeline has now shifted, allowing both Legacy and his daughter to survive and preventing the rise of Iron Legacy in the first place.

In Sentinel Tactics (a new tactical game in the Sentinel Comics universe that continues after the main storyline of Sentinels of the Multiverse), Legacy’s daughter ultimately decides to become her own hero under the mantle of Beacon until the day that she is called upon to take up her father’s mantle.

Woosh. That’s a lot of story to get through just to explain the character of Legacy. And all this narrative unfolds in piecemeal fashion over the course of several promos and expansions released over several years. And there are many other interesting stories present in the world of Sentinel Comics with many more on the way. This marriage of thematic gameplay with a sustained storytelling effort is nothing less than a tremendous creative achievement.

To me this explains the success of Sentinels of the Multiverse. It’s a character-driven narrative told through the guise of a fun cooperative game. Instead of trying to tell an abstract scenario-based tale, it’s always about the growth and development of relatable characters. This storytelling approach works across mediums as diverse as television, fiction, and comic books and it also can work in a tabletop game.

I’ll continue next time with a further look at the some of the other heroes and villains of Sentinel Comics.

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