Today’s guest article is by Chris Spivey, talking about how the TV show Black Lightning makes fertile ground for a great superhero game and how to run one. Chris is the award winning author of Harlem Unbound and is currently working on an un-named superhero game for Chaosium. – Head gnome John
Considering the second season is airing any day now, I am coming to this retrospective and exploration later than most. The show spoke to me in a similar intensity, if not manner, as Black Panther did. That feeling made me consider staying in a quiet(ish) mood, keeping my overall thoughts and perceived implications of the show to myself rather than with the world. But my mind kept coming back to this show—its vision of superheroes, world building, relationship dynamics— and how it lined up with so many of my thoughts related to superhero gaming. A number of the beats have appeared in my superhero campaigns.
What changed my mind? Someone told me they don’t know why we need Black Lightning if we have Luke Cage. My first thought was, “What kind of logic is that?” If we all believed that, then we don’t need Arrow, The Flash, Daredevil, Punisher and especially not Iron Fist. But each of those shows is telling a different story with a different lead, (mostly) addressing issues differently. If anything, we need more shows like Black Lightning, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Agent Carter (we miss you, Peggy). I am still rallying for Photon, Blue Marvel, and Ms. Marvel. Hearing that comment solidified my need to share my thoughts about the show and how gamers can add the essence of the show to their own supers game.
A Brief History of the Superhero Genre
We can’t talk about superhero comics-related media without touching on the comic ages. Anything I write about superheroes has to include their importance and impact on society, each age reflecting society at the time:
- The Golden Age (1938–1950ish) ― Coming out of the Great Depression, America was looking for light entertainment and a diversion from reality and found it in Superman! The Kryptonian boy scout jump-started the age, surpassing his masked predecessors, and his success solidified the comic industry. The wave rode into World War II with heroes shifting to patriotic themes and providing moral support for troops and people back home. The superheroes frequently fought gangsters, supervillains, crooked politicians, and Fifth Columnists.
- The Silver Age (1956ish–1970) ― The Silver Age moved towards more science-based superheroes rather than magical ones of the previous age. The idea of superheroes on teams with constant bantering, bickering, and facing greater challenges sold in droves; such teams as the Justice League, the Fantastic Four, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and X-Men were hot items.
- The Bronze Age (1970–1985) ― Comics became more complex, lost the frivolity of the Silver Age, and evolved into what they were meant to be: a mirror for society. Comics became a voice to those without a voice, a chance to inspire as they did in the Golden Age but with more modern values and diversity. There were too many issues plaguing the world to ignore: street riots, the Vietnam War, a corrupt law and order system, and drugs. This exponentially increased minority superheroes with the likes of Luke Cage (the first black superhero to have his own comic book), Shang-Chi, and Storm.
- The Modern Age (1985–Now) ― This could easily be broken down into two or three new ages; building on the concept of social issues and complexity led to a desire for grim and more adult-themed comics. Independent comic publishers were able to establish themselves as power players in the market, such as Image Comics, Milestone Comics, and Dark Horse Comics. These independent comics could do things that the larger companies couldn’t, as they did not need to hold a middle ground of ideas to keep their fanbase.
The Skinny Upfront
Black Lightning is one of the best DCTV superhero shows (heck, just any television series) airing, in my opinion, with Arrow as a distant second. There you go, I said and stand by it. Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage is excellent but a very different show with a different vision that is a different discussion. The characters are well developed, the story moves at a solid clip, and the cast is engaging. All of that makes it a great show and fertile ground for superhero roleplaying game ideas. It does not reinvent the superhero genre or even attempt to, and Black Lightning does something better…it elevates the bar.
One of the show’s primary focuses is on what superhero comics were meant to do ever since the first pages of Action Comics #1 in the Golden Age, and more solidly addressed in the Bronze age of comics: hold a mirror up to society exposing the ugly truths while holding us to a higher ideal through our superhero avatars. This has been done to varying degrees of success since its inception and when it is done, it is frequently whitewashed. The X-Men are a perfect example of this, being an analogy of the civil rights movements with some people casting Professor X as Martin Luther King and Magneto as Malcolm X, and the mutants representing African Americans. And yet they are primarily all white, even in today’s incarnation. The analog has continued to evolve with the times to include those in the LGBTQ community and more, but the characters are still principally cis, white, and usually male.
Black Lightning’s creation had the other DCTV shows attempt to address social issues with baby steps. For instance, Super Girl’s Jimmy Olsen’s, a black hero, needing to decide if he should come forward to show a black man can be a hero. In those shows, all of the people of color are sidekicks, their struggles barely acknowledged, and their stories are quickly wrapped up before the end of the episode. This show casts people of color as the primary protagonist and integrates the struggle into their daily lives making it a near-perfect superhero tale for television or the gaming table, balancing real life with the responsibility and repercussions of superheroics.
The show focuses on community—on family and friends—by placing them all into the central plot of making their city a better place; they are pillars of the story.
The reason this show speaks to me so much: I am an educated black man of a certain age raising a daughter in our dangerous world. I endure racism, being targeted by the police, and the crushing weight of depression from the current administration politics. To see a strong realistic African American family battling the same issues I do daily is uplifting and inspiring. At its core, that is what superheroes are supposed to do. They inspire us, make us want to be better, and are a reflection of our lives.
That spark of inspiration is something that can be reflected in a game. It may seem small but it establishes the player characters in the world and reinforces that their actions have positive consequences. So many games focus on the damage the superhero battle inflicts on the city, which should also be considered, but they don’t highlight the “civilians” cheering them on. For Black Lightning, they can be found in the random doorman that opens the door for him and praises his work before a battle. Those moments tie the supers more strongly into the world. They can even translate into a minor mechanical bonus to hit or dodge, or a Sanity bump.
Bringing it to the Gaming Table — A Template for Assessing your Superhero Game
How does any of this help you run a superhero game? How do you apply it? Here are a few questions to ask and things to consider as you prep for a great superhero game.
- What Comic Age Do You Set It In? Decide on what age the campaign will fall into. It doesn’t need to be a direct correlation but rather a general tone or vibe and it should set the values of the universe. Whatever the age, it can be modernized and interwoven into the game. This is something the players should know before making characters as it also lets them have a better sense of the type of game they are playing in. The Punisher blasting his way through a group of criminals doesn’t generally work in a more simple Golden Age Style game.
- Know Your Vision: You need to know the scope of the “world” for the first “season” of the game. The scope may change after contact or after a few sessions with the players and that’s fine. The initial setting may be focused on a single city block, neighborhood, or the entire city. By establishing that baseline it enables the game to expand naturally.
- Player Characters vs NPCs: The players should know both the Comic Age and your Vision before creating characters. This lets them build a character that fits into the campaign mechanically. If a player knows that the game has a Silver Age vibe and deals with keeping the city safe, they may decide to build a mechanical engineer working for a private company knowing they are more likely to encounter alien technology rather than magical power rings.
- Backstory. Backstory. Backstory: Backstories are more vital in superhero games than in almost any other genre. The character is living dual existences. This conflict is fertile ground for drama, roleplaying, and enhancing player buy-in. This is the element that makes superhero games more than just punching a bad guy in the face.
- What Are The Key Relationships? With the world and superhero backstories established, relationships are going to need fleshed out. These relationships should feel natural by creating complications and moments of joy. My personal balance for this would account for this being 25-30% of the campaign’s focus. These relationships can be both as a superhero and within their secret identity.
- What System and Why? Picking a system is always tough. The game needs to feel super-heroic, allowing incredible feats, but not be too crunchy. There are many systems out there that tackle superheroics in different ways — choose the one that fits your play style best.
Lightning Strikes! Running Black Lightning With The Template
Let’s break down a few of the key elements of Black Lightning into the steps above so you can be ready to run a Black Lightning themed game.
- Comic Age: Modern Age
- Know Your Vision: Protect Freeland. Much of a Black Lightning game revolves around keeping the city safe and stable.
- Player Characters vs Key NPCs:
Players: Jefferson, Jennifer, Anissa, Lynn, and Gambi
Key NPCs: Tobias, Henderson, Lala, Syonide, and Kara
- Backstory. Backstory. Backstory: I won’t delve in too deeply so there aren’t spoilers, but the backstories in Black Lightning are often about uncovering the past and finding out how those things hidden in history affect the future where the current story is being told.
- Relationships: There are many relationships that interweave between the main characters, and some of the Key NPCs change throughout the show and in relation to the characters. I don’t want to spoil much, but in a Black Lightning game, relationships will change based on the choices the characters make — where they put their efforts and what they leave behind to protect Freeland.
- What System and Why: My first thought would be Wild Talents. Wild Talents has the ability to create various powers; the Will mechanic dovetails with the character’s moral drive, and the ease of research. Black Lightning could also easily be run in my upcoming superheroes campaign for Chaosium. That allows for a number of powers, occupations, and sanity effects. An interesting take would be to run the game as a One-2-One. The player would choose one of the main cast, while having the other main cast members be sources, and tackling the series’ story.
Black Lightning as a show is great, and Black Lightning as a game played among friends brings the story to the people at your table. It takes the narrative and makes it a living thing. When you’re jonesing for a new superhero game, look to Black Lightning as something that might give your group a good narrative framework. Where’s the future? Right here.