TV to Tabletop is a series in which I examine scenes in popular movies and TV shows and break them down into game mechanics. Essentially asking, “What if this wasn’t a scripted performance with big budget special effects, but a group of players sitting around a table rolling dice?” There are spoilers for Batman: Gotham by Gaslight below.
This weekend I finally had the opportunity to catch up on some of the DC Animated Movies I’ve missed in the last couple of years. Warner Brothers Animation has really upped the ante with its most recent films, delving into interesting Elseworld stories with mature themes and ratings. Although Batman and Harley Quinn had one of the best scenes in Batman history (and one of the worst), the movie that resonated most with me was Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Those of you who follow my Titan City Chronicles know that I am a massive fan of super hero period pieces. Gotham by Gaslight delivers a great Batman versus Jack the Ripper story and an amazing 1880s Gotham City. Needless to say, I loved it.
I absolutely adored Bruce Wayne as a Carnegie style millionaire, using his money to fund the World’s Fair in Gotham. Selina Kyle as a suffragette entertainer and con artist was genius, and Hugo Strange as an alienist is one of the best period conversions ever. It featured a slick mystery and a deep love of the Batman Mythos. Gotham by Gaslight also has one of my favorite Batman action scenes of all time, which will be the focus of our examination today.
Near the halfway point of the film, Batman has arrived at Arkham Asylum, a bedlam style madhouse, to exchange information with Hugo Strange. The alienist claims to have information that can aid the Batman in his search for the Ripper. Unfortunately for Strange, Jack gets there first and chucks him in a pit with his patients, who promptly kill and possibly eat him. Batman goes into pursuit.
Jack makes his way to Arkham’s roof and boards the attached police dirigible. He forces the pilot to go airborne and throws the poor man to his death. Batman uses his steam-powered grapnel gun to board the ship and we have a fight on our hands. The two men come to blows inside the cockpit of the airship, leaving it without direction.
Their battle rages across the entire craft. At one point they both fall onto the Gotham rooftops and they chase each other back onto the balloon of the zeppelin. Jack gets a hold of Batman while standing on one of the propellers and almost shreds him. The police finally end the fight by causing a Hindenburg style explosion and Jack the Ripper escapes to torment Gotham anew.
What it Teaches Us:
This scene showcases just how important setting is when designing your encounters. There were numerous opportunities for this encounter to devolve into a slug fest between two opponents with similar powers in a rectangular room with no distinguishing features. I have played games where they would have been all the thought that went into this fight.
Instead of that, we got an epic battle which will stick with the audience for a long time to come. This was possible for a number of different reasons. Try to think about these things as you design your own encounters:
Danger: The airship is an immensely dangerous battleground for a number of reasons. Neither of our combatants can fly. Batman can safe fall as long as he has that grapnel gun, but other than that this elevation is a potentially lethal issue. The dirigible also doesn’t have a pilot, so it is adrift in a populated area. It is no doubt going to crash into buildings, knocking the fighters prone, showering them with shrapnel, or even crushing them against a wall and exploding. There are also the propellers to consider. These massive blades can dice Batman or Jack like bad onions if they so much as touch that area. These dangers force the player to really engage with the scene. They will do their best to avoid the hazards, but will also find strategic ways to use these factors against their opponents. In the movie, Jack disarms Batman of his grapnel gun and tries a few times to pitch him out of the door to his death. Build these things into your encounters and your heroes and villains will come up with similar gambits.
Setting as a Character: This is advice that often comes up in fiction writing, but I find it has a more literal application for tabletop game design. Your environment should have its own agency. I will often roll Initiative for the setting elements in any given scene. In this example, the airship literally has actions, it moves every round. This movement will have consequences for every round of combat. It could be that there’s a percentage chance for the airship to hit a building this round, prompting the players to roll an Acrobatics test. Failure could result in them falling prone or even out of the dirigible. You can move the setting’s Initiative each round as well to make sure there is always a surprise element for the players to consider.
Memorability: When you’re designing an encounter, you want to come up with at least one thing that immediately draws the attention of your players. This is the elevator pitch of your scene. “Battle on a renegade airship through the streets of Gotham” is way more exciting than a fist fight in Hugo Strange’s office. Hearing that description immediately paints a picture for anyone who has seen an action movie. This is the kind of encounter your friends will talk about at conventions and you always want to approach your adventure design from that angle. You should never approach a combat from the perspective of grinding or filler. Those are concepts that work in video games that don’t really translate to the tabletop environment. Combat can take a lot of time during a session and you never want your players to feel like it’s never going to end. Instead think of your encounters as the action set pieces of a movie. These are the big ticket scenes that you would put in the trailer. Creating a memorable setting is a big step in the right direction, especially in this case where the hero and villain don’t have flashy powers to fall back on. This scene could only happen in this setting, and the story is better for its inclusion.
Designing This Scene:
If I was going to stat this scene out for my own Mutants & Masterminds game I would write it as follows:
Arkham Airship Escape:
Scene Type: Combat
PCs: Batman PL 10
NPCs: Jack the Ripper PL 11, Airship Pilot PL 1, Police on the Ground PL 2
Read the following to the player:
Batman, you race away from Dr. Strange’s office and find yourself in the central patient processing room. The lunatics in the pit have just finished beating poor Hugo Strange to death. Across the chasm you see Jack standing in judgment over his latest victim. An ivory African tribal mask covers his face, but you feel his gaze shift to you. He bolts down the corridor behind him. What do you do?
At this point, Batman enters into a chase with Jack. This is an opposed skill challenge. Each round Batman and Jack will roll an opposed Acrobatics, Athletics, or movement test. If Batman wins 5 times before he loses 3 he catches up with the Ripper as he boards the airship. If the Ripper gets away, he makes it to the dirigible and has time to get airborne. Either way at the end of this challenge have Batman roll for Initiative.
Jack’s Motives and Tactics:
The Ripper’s priorities are to get rid of the pilot, preserve his secret identity, and escape from or kill Batman. Jack will dump the pilot on the first round if Batman was late. If Batman arrived at the same time, Jack will stab the pilot. After that Jack’s priority is to lose or kill Batman. He will spend the first few rounds trying to remove Batman’s grapnel gun and toss him from the ship. If he fails in either task twice, he will move to stab Batman until he dies. Jack wants to remain on the zeppelin as long as possible because if he removes Batman, he will be able to use his secret identity to marshal forces against his opponent on the ground. He does not, however, wish to die here. If the fight turns against Jack, he will prioritize escape.
More than likely, the airship will be without a pilot, so it will be adrift in Gotham City. The wind will carry it into and through buildings. Starting on round number 4, roll a d20 each round. On a 1-7 the dirigible will crash into a wall. Have the fighters both a roll a DC: 20 Acrobatics test. Failure means that the combatant falls prone. Failure by 3 degrees means they have fallen off the airship. A roll of a 1 for the collision test results in damage across the area the combatants are currently fighting in. Have them roll Toughness checks against Damage 6. If the battle makes its way onto the outside of the airship, there are 4 propellers along its sides. Opponents can be tricked (see Deception in the Hero’s Handbook) or thrown/pushed into these blades. This results in a Toughness check versus Damage 10. The zeppelin can also be detonated by firearms or fire-based attacks. The dirigible has a Toughness of 10. It crashes to the ground 2 rounds after being destroyed and results in a Burst Area Damage 12 explosion, affecting everything in a 120-foot radius.
Starting in round 8, the police will take one group shot at the airship each round. This is a Damage 7 effect for the dirigible to resist.
Gotham by Gaslight is an excellent addition to the DC Animated Universe, with some excellent lessons for Game Masters. Keep this scene in mind as you draft your own set pieces. There are things in any given encounter that are beyond your control. You don’t know what your players are going to do, you don’t know how the dice are going to fall, but you can set yourself up for the greatest success in the design stage. Remember to make each combat dangerous, memorable, think of your setting as its own character, and you will be well on your way. Thank you for reading and may all your hits be crits.