Whilst there are a lot of Batman-themed board games, we’ll soon be seeing the first tabletop RPG based on the adventures of Dark Knight since the release of the Batman Role-Playing Game in 1989. Set to be published by Monolith, Batman: Gotham City Chronicles – The Roleplaying Game is more than likely to take the majority of its cues from the bat’s storied comic book history, if the Gotham City Chronicles board game is anything to go by. But the upcoming RPG could do well to look elsewhere for inspiration.
(Minor spoilers ahead for The Batman (2022))
The caped crusader has had many onscreen appearances, from the 1960s television series to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, with his most recent being simply titled The Batman. Released into theaters just last month, The Batman - helmed by Cloverfield and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves – stars internet darling Robert PattIson as the vigilante himself, with Zoë Kravitz as the anti-hero Selina Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman; Colin Farrell as The Penguin; and Paul Dano as The Riddler. The film itself is excellent and I recommend people go see it, if only for the chemistry between PattIson’s Batman and Kravitz’s Selina Kyle, but what really struck me is how much potential there was in both the movie’s setting and core themes.
Most tabletop roleplaying games are multiplayer affairs, with all the people involved needing to have equal opportunity to share the limelight. The Batman tabletop RPG can’t just be about Batman - it needs to provide a playground in which its players and game master can explore the world of the caped crusader together. The Batman should be the upcoming RPG’s main source of inspiration because it’s far more concerned with the city and people around Batman, than Batman himself.
Focusing on a Gotham that isn’t simply a black-and-white depiction of criminals would make for an amazing Batman RPG.
Gotham has always been an iconic comic book setting, and that shows in the way it’s depicted on-screen. The Gotham City in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film certainly stands out stylistically speaking, but the setting of The Batman is more than just its shadowy alleyways and neon crossings. Beyond the tangled web of mystery that the Dark Knight unravels throughout the course of the film, much of the plot of The Batman is concerned with the impact that a vigilante would have on a city and its citizens. This Gotham is as crime-ridden as any other we’ve seen, but The Batman takes great pains to highlight the systematic and economic causes of criminality, as well as how a force like Batman would interact with all that in a way that isn’t necessarily beneficial.
Focusing on a Gotham that isn’t simply a black-and-white depiction of criminals versus law enforcement – legal or otherwise – would make for an amazing Batman RPG. In a messy world like the one featured in The Batman, players could create complicated characters who are forced to navigate the various societal and economic challenges of living in Gotham. One player might become a member of the Gotham police force who’s desperately trying to combat its rampant corruption, whilst another could be a vigilante who believes that the people should protect themselves, and someone else may become a leader of a local community striving to provide enough food and shelter to the victims of Gotham’s inner rot. It would be so easy for a Batman RPG to just focus on the vigilantes and the villains, but The Batman shows that there’s so much more to the universe than that.
It would be disappointing if the Batman RPG didn’t do anything more than just allow players to beat up ‘baddies’.
Even the more vigilante aspects of the film – such as Selina Kyle – are still focused on the importance of caring about the victims of crime more than the perpetrators. Rather than the usual motivations one might associate with Catwoman, such as the desire for wealth or personal revenge, Selina Kyle in The Batman is driven by the need to initially protect, and then seek justice for, a close friend in a vulnerable position. Whilst Batman continues to remain obsessed with discovering the whereabouts of The Riddler and apprehending corrupted members of the police force, Selina is determined to discover what happened to her friend, an immigrant in a dangerous situation she is unable to escape from.
A Batman roleplaying game should certainly involve vigilantes, infiltration, fighting and detective work – which The Batman has a refreshingly large amount of – but it would be amazing to have all of these elements be shaped directly around helping and seeking justice for the victims of Gotham. Considering recent and ongoing conversations around the role of the police force and law enforcement, it would be disappointing if the Batman RPG didn’t do anything more than just allow players to beat up ‘baddies’.
The success of The Batman should stir the creators of the upcoming RPG to offer a Gotham that isn’t just an arena filled with human punching bags.
Tabletop RPGs, particularly the indie kind, have featured gameplay mechanics and world-building aspects that enable GMs and players to tackle some pretty important topics, such as sexuality in Monsterhearts 2 and corporate greed in Cyberpunk Red, and it would be good to see some more mainstream titles follow suit.
The critical and commercial success of The Batman should stir the creators of the upcoming Batman tabletop RPG to offer a Gotham that isn’t just an arena filled with human punching bags and quirky villains - though The Riddler, The Penguin and Carmine Falconi from The Batman prove that even comic book villains can fit into a commentary of systematic issues – but a place for complicated narratives of corruption, criminality and the need for hope.
If a blockbuster film can tackle these topics and still make a whole bunch of money, I don’t see why a tabletop roleplaying game can’t in this day and age.