I’ve been resisting the obvious suggestion about defining the superhero group, “set everything ahead of time,” for very good reasons. Most of the trouble that’s cropped up in playtest so far is not due to failing to do that, but directly traceable to introducing a new hero, whose definitions and problems tend to bulk up disproportionately. Introducing a hero even as a limited-only guest throws everything a curve.
I don’t mind having done it in this game, in terms of enjoying play – the Geysers session rated high on my fun-scale for action, drama, and moments. But as playtesting, Komodo Dragon presents a rather brilliant example distracting everyone from things that were developing in a more paced, sequential way. Unlike the case of Silverbeak in the Defiants game, this time included no player learning-curve, or connections problems, or real-life delays, so I could examine it strictly in terms of content.
For this session, I wanted to focus mostly on relationships and to let the heroes lead as I made sure to bring in the plethora of NPCs I’d worked up from their sheets and origin histories, but I was also prepared for them to encounter explosive energetic reality-twisting danger upon any of the following:
- Turning on relevant equipment at Advanced Futures, perhaps to test it, or perhaps when Bry asked what something did
- Examining things in the PowerCave, especially since I was ready to describe some interesting phenomena concerning that big Tesla coil
- Visiting Darius Darkstar again, to discover him locked in reality-warping battle with the Continuum
I did not want to lead them with “the story’s over this way” signs, as any of these are viable events which may as well show up later rather than now. During preparation, I also chose not to turn any of them into Bangs, i.e., “you get a call, the PowerCave’s blowing up, get over there now,” or anything like that. Instead, during play, I merely spread the rugs and opened the doors just in case anyone really wanted to go to any of them.
You can see me asking over and over the necessary questions to make sure I was not, myself, closing these possibilities off. You can also see two very definite “no, I want to do Basilisk/Shelly” moments from Alan, each time flatly stating he was not going to leave San Francisco and would pursue his investigations. You can also see me check in with the players about the second one, that if we do this, then we’d pretty much be shelving any action-danger play for the session.
Alan’s determined investigation of Shelly Van Houtte was not prepped by me, but it was definitely “what we are doing” this session, and in light of my first point above, it means Alan did not want to leave “Komodo Dragon’s visit” behind. One might contemplate whether Alan sought the answers (for Mike) that he did because it dug into important questions for Mike (his character) or into the views or goals of me as the originator of the content – an interview with the creator, as it were. But I dislike addressing this sort of distinction, so for anyone who wants to know, be aware that I’m not proceeding with it.
And what a complex nest of things awaited there. Let’s see ...
- This is a supervillain with really shitty values and attitude, but whose position and decisions should be at least understandable even though they were, to me, not even remotely morally grounded
- She drove her powers-use to self-destruction voluntarily, specifically in favor of successful messaging
- The powers themselves, “the” Basilisk, does have goals/views of its own, but it did not make her do that
- “The” Basilisk is defined as an ongoing villain, who I would want to reappear and be recognizable as such, but leavened differently by the host personality – i.e., it’s not just a power that anyone can adopt
It's important to understand, I think, that as far as she was concerned, Shelly died a hero, and that a hell of a lot of people agreed with her.
That’s why I presented Anna not as a Fifth Business who could provide “the secret” now that we’ve found her, but as a person with slightly contrasting views, for comparison. I happen not to like her views (or Shelly’s), but I thought it was good to show that Shelly was not a brainless vessel for others’ ideology to fill, insofar as she had a friend and roommate as a long-standing debate partner.
So why didn’t Anna just provide “why Shelly did it” in a nutshell? Fictionally, it wasn’t very justifiable, in that Anna wasn’t herself fully knowledgeable and did not know the Basilisk was an entity of its own. But that could be hand-waved away like all fictional justifications. Instead, it comes down to my decision or viewpoint that people aren’t locks, they don’t have keys. I also do not see, for myself, where “the line” between Shelly and Basilisk fell, at least not in terms of parsing her decisions and positions during play, so instead of permitting Mike to arrive at his desired “answer,” I preferred to lay down a fairly broad boundary/overlap zone for Mike to encounter and to wonder at.
Perhaps it makes sense to say that I do not provide closure for my characters, preferring the questions they raise to stay thorny in my fellow players’ minds. Therefore gaining a fuller context for Shelly made sense to me, but providing either Mike or Alan with a nice explanation to pop into a file drawer did not.
One detail matters a lot: the whole “getting attention” thing, which had been on the Basilisk’s sheet as Shelly’s personal Psychological Limitation. I thought during play that somehow I wasn’t introducing it correctly during the conversation with Anna. I had included it to humanize Shelly, not to trivialize her. Rather than saying, “Oh, she’s just an attention hog, and would become a terrorist and possible mass murderer as long as it got attention,” I contend that many positions which appear to be intellectual or ideological are underpinned by social recognition and support, perhaps all of them. I am now thinking of several of my gaming acquaintances during the past four years slide straight down the alt-right hole just because social media and indirect employment (blogging for a sponsored platform) greased the slope.
Another detail: I did not provide personal images for Shelly or for Anna because I knew anything I'd choose would skew perceptions. This is where role-playing beats the shit out of any other medium, even prose. I want everyone to rely on his or her own imagination, period.
We refined these questions and issues bit by bit, scene by scene, dialogue by dialogue, and especially considering Frank’s input at a couple of points, it seemed like they’d really managed to get at a concrete question after all: what was the damn Basilisk, anyway.
Now, I was prepared for that! I had thought a lot about how Jake and Shelly were both tapping into Space Needle energy, and in the interest of sanity, and at the risk of over-simplicity, I had McGuffined it all together: Space Needle, pseudo-reptilian psychic power, Tesla, Higgs-Boson, the Continuum ... so yes, when the questions finally migrated north from San Fran to Humbolt, it all came down to Frank’s roll for Vince’s funky science ... and those triple boxcars.
That’s plot. Right there. Failing to figure it out in time would be the linchpin of the next session. And it’s why this session turned out to be anything but a distraction, instead becoming a genuinely humanocentric bit of superhero reflection (note my callback to Darius’ comment too), with a discernible impact upon all that is to come.
For the record, I did cut out a couple of things:
- I wanted to bring in Denise’s side effects, which I’d forgotten about in previous play, but my brain was too Basilisk-y and I couldn’t come up with a good idea.
- We briefly discussed Magical [Minority] tokenism, with reference to Chase in particular, but also relevant to Shelly, which was interesting but not particularly involved in playing events.