Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be talking about Steven Universe and the GMing lessons that can be derived from it.
I promised that I would try to do these Algalon Paradigm articles with a bit more frequency, and today I’m going to try and make good on that promise by talking about what is EASILY one of my favorite TV shows that’s on-air right now. That TV show would be Steven Universe, a cute little cartoon that both myself and the Marlows watch religiously.
Take a Moment
So, what is Steven Universe? Its essentially a relationship-focused story that has the backdrop of an intergalactic war that takes place on an alternate reality version of Earth. Steven Universe is very much a modern cartoon—its episodes are roughly 15 minutes long and has a more modern “feel” to it in the sense that it relies heavily on gags and is generally very fast-paced (you need to be to have quality episodes in a mere 15 minutes). The rapidfire pace of the show can be disorienting to people who are more accustom to the traditional 20-minute show (such as the Avatar series) and downright blasphemous to those who enjoy longer running times. Pacing issues harry the series in its first few hours of watching (which amount to roughly 4 to 5 hours of actual time spent watching the series), but once the show finds its legs around Episode 24 of Season 1, it gets REALLY good.
Really, REALLY good.
So, what’s the hook for this series? Honestly, its character arcs. Steven Universe’s greatest strength is its ability to make meaningful connections between its characters and then grow them (both the connections and the characters). Also of equal note—there is NO filler in Steven Universe. Every episode, even those that seem pointless in the present, usually comes into play at some point in the future. To date, there hasn’t been a single episode that wasn’t growing a character for a bigger episode later or exploring a relationship between two characters so it could go back and draw upon them sometime in the future. Even better, Steven Universe’s relationships are SUPER believable—the series features ALIEN ROCKS FROM OUTERSPACE, yet people love those characters because of how well-rounded their personalities are.
Warning! This section will have spoilers. Turn back now if you don’t like spoilers.
So, what does Steven Universe have that makes it so worthwhile to GMs and players? Allow me to tell you:
- Competent Dads: Steven is 12 years old at the start of the series, and his dad looks like a washout. He’s big, fat, dresses poorly, runs a carwash, and lives out of his van. But at the series moves on, WOW. Greg is one of the most likable characters in the series, and it shows time after time that he is generally a great father to his son. He’s a father that makes mistakes, sure, but in many ways Greg is a role model for male parents, especially as his character is explored more in Seasons 2 and 3.
- Flawed Characters: Holy CRAP every person in Steven Universe is flawed. Its pretty crazy to see such well-rounded characters in a kid’s TV show, but its part of what makes Steven Universe’s characters so endearing. Now, you’re probably wondering, “Gee, how flawed could a kid’s show’s characters really be?” Well, pretty much EVERY character has had at least one moment where they do something REALLY terrible to a friend, as well as plenty of times where their negative qualities are explored. For example, both Steven and Amethyst are self-deprecating, with Amethyst being borderline depressed about it. Steven has had plenty of screw-ups, but as a 12-year old kid he hasn’t done anything quite as series as the adults in the series. For example, there’s an episode that explores the friendship between Amethyst and Steven’s Dad, and in that episode Amethyst accuses Greg of dropping their friendship after Greg becoming romantically involved with Steven’s mom. Gems all have the ability to shapeshift and Amethyst is the best at this power, so in order to spite Greg she SHAPESHIFTS INTO THE LIKENESS OF GREG’S DEAD WIFE TO MOCK HIM, saying, “Would you like me better if I looked like this, Greg?” All of the major characters have low moments like this despite being generally good people, which is part of what makes the show SO believable. It’s a skill that many players and GMs lack—the ability to humanize their character(s) by having them act in a variety of ways as a result of their emotions or abilities.
Alternate Earth: Steven Universe exists in an alternate version of earth where things happened a little bit differently thanks to the presence of aliens. At first this isn’t super clear aside from naming conventions—Beach City, the name of the town that the story takes place in, could be any shoreside town. But as the series moves onward, you see that names are eerily close, but different—for example, New York City is just called “Empire City,” (New York is the Empire State in real life) while Pennsylvania is called Keystone (in real life, Pennsylvania is the Keystone State). Hilariously enough, New Jersey is just called “Jersey,” and all of the worst stereotypes about Jersey apply. The AE is cute, but it doesn’t really become relevant until the first global map of the world is shown, and we see that something looks off with the continents, specifically North-Asia (AKA Russia). Bits and pieces of story have fluttered in that suggest what may have given the world this shape, but nothing has ever been confirmed so far. We’re still waiting.
- The BEST Aliens: The aliens in Steven Universe, a race called “Gems,” is one of the most well-rounded, well-thought-out, and ultimately unique races that I have ever seen in a series. Essentially, each gem is a construct the size of a gemstone, but the gems have the ability to project a light-based body around themselves based upon a specific layout, or blueprint. In many regards, Gems are compared to computers, and “bad stuff” can happen to them along the same lines as computers. They can be damaged or corrupted, and their bodies can be destabilized or destroyed. The sheer ecology of the Gems, however, is what makes them so interesting—gem culture and psychology alone makes Steven Universe worth the watch.
- Childhood Heroes: Not only does Steven Universe feature a child protagonist, but it does an EXCELENT job of developing the character’s fighting ability and maturity on-screen. Steven starts the series unable to do as much as summon his weapon, but by Season 4 he’s helped take on one of the series’ major antagonists and defeated her. The growth of Steven is one of the best parts of the show, to be frank, and its worth a watch if only to see how young people can be trained to come into their own as fighters and heroes.
- Everything Matters: There is no filler in Steven Universe. The writers are amazing at taking episodes that look like they should be “slice of life” shorts and pulling them back into their overarching storyline, either by eventually stating that a character “needed the growth” shown in the episode, or by having the events of such episodes boil over spectacularly later. Things that happen in the show have consequence (there’s a story arc where one character remains furious with another for almost five episodes), and the show is VERY good about continuity. GMs watching the show would take care to note how much BETTER everything feels when its all worked together in this manner.
I have a LOT more thoughts on Steven Universe, and I’ve kept silent about a number of awesome things (like Gem Fusion) in order to try and get you to check it out. So do it! See it! The show is currently on hiatus, so you have PLENTY OF TIME to catch up.
So until next time, I’m signing out to go stare at my screen, futilely hoping for more Steven Universe.
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.