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Superman and Purpose

Greetings, citizens of Metropolis, (Metropolians? Metro-ites? Metrons? Is there even a specific term?) and happy salutations to all for another annual Superman Day. While it may have originated as yet another spurious corporate holiday, for some it can still be an opportunity to celebrate a long-beloved superhero. Though I may tend to be more of a Marvel fan myself, DC Universe stalwarts like Superman and Batman have always been part of my media consumption. This may be an unavoidable force, as evidenced by both my children becoming fans of DC superheroes before they even consumed any related media. A while back, Bugsy broached the topic of nature of Superman as a character and property for a previous Superman Day. With such a long-running and widespread character, it's worth thinking about what our own personal experiences with Superman have been. How have they shaped our unique view of the character, and how will that change our interactions with future Superman media? For this post, at least, let's narrow things down to focus on a particular aspect of Superman and storytelling, and what we can learn from it: what is the purpose of Superman?

Before we can take anything from this question and apply it to our own storytelling and tabletop games, we need to figure out what we mean by "purpose." Do we mean his own personal purpose from the character's point of view, the thing that motivates him? Do we maybe mean the character's purpose in a particular given story? Or maybe we mean the purpose of Superman in general, as a character ? There's so much purpose to think about! One story, a long-time favorite for both of my boys, sums it up completely in the title: Superman…To the Rescue! Superman goes around using his powers to rescue people from disasters: by putting out a fire with his freeze breath, by lifting a sinking ship with his super strength, and by fixing train tracks with his heat vision. All very Superman things to do! And then he spies an ice cream truck selling frozen treats in the summer heat. Not wanting the ice cream to melt, Superman swoops in once more to the rescue, helping the vendor and enjoy a tasty treat of his own as well. Whether that last one really qualifies as a rescue is up for debate. But as per the title and more clearly heroic deeds, for Superman, he's there to rescue. This is a aspect we see across Superman’s history in various media. In the early comics, he's constantly rescuing Lois or Jimmy. One might even argue that, as Clark Kent, he's rescuing the Daily Planet from poor writing. In darker timelines, Superman can be seen as rescuing citizens from themselves through whatever he feels is justified by his own "evil" (to us) terms. Of course, those kinds of justifications can line a slippery path into supervillainy.  In any case, from a certain point, the purpose of Superman seems to be "To Rescue." It's a reason that applies to Superman, even when he isn’t being Superman.

This is something we need to consider in our own stories and tabletop games by drilling down to what the "purpose" is. What is the purpose of the group(s) of characters in your game or story? What are their purposes as individual characters? If you’ve got a tightly knit cast of characters serving as heroes, their individual purposes and goals while tie probably into (or at least support) the larger "team" or "group" purpose. If a group of characters has the purpose of "solving groovy mysteries," the individual purposes for that might include "to study local history nationwide," or "report on strange phenomena from across the country." Or maybe something as simple as "earn super-scooby-snacks." Regardless of what it ends up being, if you can determine a character’s purpose, especially if it supports a group purpose, or even greater purpose in the story itself, it's something you can work with. It drives the story and aids the engagement between characters. If the purpose is to solving those groovy mysteries, setting up situations where the characters rescue people without solving those mysteries isn’t likely to be very rewarding or interesting for long, and the same would apply the other way around.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Superman, Jimmy Olsen, or a teen riding in a Mystery Machine, purpose is a driving force. Without purpose, stories and characters won't come to life or provide audience fulfillment  in an exciting and entertaining way. We need purpose to bring things to life and to bring people together. So if your story is in a rut, or if things just don’t seem to be going right at the table, take a few moments to think over purpose, at every level. Those purposes may not always align, but that is okay, and, depending on the complexity of you're going for, be preferable. Justifications can always be made - even when they lead to the Dark Side, they'll make your stories richer and more rewarding. If you follow on these purposes, layering them into story and character, and relate them back to each other, you’re sure to be in a better place than if you hadn't considered them. Until next time, folks, I hope your stories and games are full of purpose, and, if you needed it, just maybe this post's purpose was to come to your rescue.

- A

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