For you these lillies, these stalks of hyssop
for you this altar which is not an altar
in the ordinary sense but a stairway of song
to the unbearable ones
helpers in our need.
—Hjalmar Gullberg, “For the Demigods”
“I’m not so much a ‘morality’ superhero.”
Posing a question: “How much do you stick to rules when it comes to NPC-on-NPC violence?” But it begins with an actual murder:
Mid-July 2020, at about 4 a.m. in the middle of Queens Boulevard, someone shot my girlfriend’s neighbor twice in the back of the head. Someone else shot him six times in the chest. He died in the middle of the street. He was 25.
The neighbor is the son of my girlfriend’s building superintendent, an Albanian immigrant with prison tattoos. That afternoon, the family was visited by several dozen members of the Gambino family, while a large number of Bloods grieved outside.
The whole time, around their house the police respectfully kept a five-block cordon.
A week after this, Fano and I began “A Remedy for Oppression,” our hybrid Marvel Super Heroes / Champions Now game. When Fano specified that one of his major NPC’s was a crabby Eastern European landlady, I decided I wanted to rope this episode into the game somehow. Albanians, gang war, friendly young man gone wrong.
My original thought was that the landlady—Agnesa Stojku—had a troublesome nephew, Krysztof, who would be dead when the curtain rose on the very first session. This was stupid, and luckily I decided to include Krys in the regular cast instead. He became a fun character to play: I’ve known a bunch of guys like this, very charismatic, very funny, smart but uneducated, trying to live the good life as imagined by a young dude with poor taste.
Prometheus, as basement tenant Mel Abdul, became friends with Krys. They did home repair projects together, Mel helped him in a romantic dispute and ran a few errands for his Aunt Agnes. They’d razz each other.
Good, solid, downtime comic book scenes. But this was a was a hotheaded young man making bad decisions about dangerous people, and in each session I’d emphasize it a little more. “The Now” reflects escalating tensions in Krys’s life, though it took me a damn long time to nail down the details.
PANDEMIC, GRAVESEND, AND GANG WARS
In mid-October 2020, New York City began a semi-illegal crackdown on some Jewish and Chinese neighborhoods which were showing extremely high rates of infection. All public gatherings were shut down, all businesses shuttered, in the face of punitive fines. To make the ethnic targeting more palatable politically, entire postal codes were affected. (Disclosure: in my day job, I have to enforce some of these violations, and I don’t like it.)
This was met with massive resistance from Brooklyn's Ultra-Orthodox community, which has a kinda fucked up relationship with NYC law enforcement.
This crackdown supplied the missing details in Krys’s life of crime. One of the affected postal codes, Gravesend, contains a large number of Albanian immigrants. A real-world restaurant-hookah bar-bellydancing establishment is pretty obviously a mob front. Krys had been skimming money from this place, but as the restrictions got worse and worse, his business partners had less and less patience with his perpetually short money. Some shit went down in “The Now” in the last few weeks, and people were out to kill him.
One person in particular deserves mention: Moonflower. Aigül Niazova is an undocumented Kazakh sex worker turned supervillain with fungus-control powers, and the pandemic has only confirmed the lesson of her life: nobody gives a FUCK about you because you’re worthless. (Honestly, still feeling that out: she’s a new character.) Moonflower has beef with Krys’s mob boss father, and decides to throw in with the Jewish rivals of the Albanian gang to kill Krys.
THE DEATH SCENE
By the end of the session, Prometheus, Krys, Moonflower, and a Jewish gangster are locked in a room together with the police bearing down on all of them.
Prometheus has spent the session investigating Krys, and is now reevaluating their friendship. At this moment, although he knows that Moonflower intends to kill Krys, Prometheus is trying to keep the other gangster from escaping. In fact, Krys is only in that room because Prometheus tricked him into going there.
Intentions are declared, initiative is rolled, actions are resolved by the book. Moonflower lunges at Krys and grabs him by the wrists. Black mold begins to erupt from Krys’s skin as he (simultaneously) empties a pistol clip into Moonflower’s chest. Alien fungi sprout from Krys’s lymph nodes. He gurgles, falls to his knees, falls over, and then, like a slime mold, deliquesces into dust.
Prometheus is horrified, angry, and (surprisingly to me) shocked. Moonflower: “Walk away. None of this concerns you at all.” Prometheus: “No. You’ve just made this extremely personal.”
THE RULE I FORGOT
Here is a major character we’ve come to like in spite of our best judgment, and his death is motherfucking metal. It’s a great way for Krys to die, it’s a great way to introduce Moonflower, and a perfect cliffhanger to end the session.
But Marvel Super Heroes doesn’t do one-shot kills. If you get knocked down to 0 Health points, you’re entitled to a saving throw, and even if you fail you’ve got a couple of rounds for someone to help you. Maybe Prometheus might have found some way to save his life.
I forgot this rule—this is our first death in the campaign. If I had remembered, I feel confident, but not absolutely certain, that I would have applied it. Playing by the rules is a good and important thing. But...
- It was a fucking great scene
- For the entire campaign, Krys has been following his own incentives and bad judgment to arrive at a moment almost exactly like this
- Krys certainly would have died during this week’s “Now” if Fano had chosen to do something else this session, and I’m pretty sure I could just, like, say that it happened so long as it’s true to the situation
- Usually when I flub a rule, I play through it and shrug it off
- Fano absolutely orchestrated this: let’s put a dude in a room with his mortal enemies including a supervillain, as I stroke my chin—what the fuck, Fano?!
NPC’s & YOU, THE NEW BREED OF MODERN COMICS PLAYER
I know what I should do: I should ret-con it in the first few minutes of the next session. But I feel pretty damn certain I won’t.
How do y’all think about these types of moments? To what extent do the rules apply to NPC’s, and if the answer is “absolutely all the time,” what would have to be at stake for you to feel . . . tempted?