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.
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.
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.