Chaos in Rook City

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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.

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Storytelling with Sentinels of the Multiverse

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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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