Mystery achievement

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.
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9 responses to “Mystery achievement”

  1. Investigating Shelly/Basilisk

    My creative interest in the background of the Basilisk host, Shelley, certainly originated after I read a comment Ron posted about an earlier session — that she had made a conscious decision to die for her cause. This inspired the idea of investigating her motivations. 

    The inspiration was driven first when I remembered Mike's psych lim "everybody deserves a second chance." That led me to thinking he might want to understand how someone could be committed to views he disagrees with. This also resonated with what you had mentioned about the real Charles Edison (whom I had just thrown out as the original PowerStar) holding conservative values. In retrospect, I think it appealed because it was a way to contrast with how I see Mike as the son of a hippy commune. I hoped some moment of shared humanity or tradgedy might emerge.

    Second, I, the player currently have a desire to find the vulnerable humanity behind views I disagree with. I thought something might emerge. So, in part, I was indeed interrogating what Ron, the GM, understood about the alt-right. I suspect I chose "Everybody deserves a second chance" to begin with because that aspect of justice is most interesting to me personally. 

  2. Second reading

    On reading the original post above more thoroughly, it sank in that you, Ron, intentionally left Shelley's deeper motivations undiscovered. In retrospect, I think a neat answer would have been unsatisfying. I just wish we were playing more sessions because I'd like to pursue Mike's drive to understand "evil." I'm even considering having Mike spend some time and money (and XP) on detective and disguise training, so he can infiltrate alt-right groups. I see it as a kind of naive optimist's dive into the opposition. 

    • If I may, I did notice, while
      If I may, I did notice, while watching, that for the second time in Legacy your character could’ve used Disguise. The other being when at the tower.

      Not that he needed it, though. If anything, in this session the investigation was curtailed by a failed science / intelligence roll, after all.

    • Mike wasn’t trying to appear

      Mike wasn't trying to appear as someone else doing something specific, he was just a guy on campus. As I mentioned in play, the student body at San Francisco State University is older than most, on the average, and most of them work full-time or heavy part-time, so he didn't look unusual. There were also more than the usual number of off-campus, i.e. older activists hanging around, so his lack of immediately-recognizable college gear wouldn't seem odd either.

      I took all of the above into account when considering his stated action, and Disguise wasn't warranted this time.

      (relevant info for SF State U)

    • Alan: I’d love to see Mike

      Alan: I'd love to see Mike struggle to understand evil, but there's a lot more closer to home than sneaking off onto Komodo Dragon's character sheet. Whether Darius Darkstar is "evil" or not, and relative to what, is something I'd be willing to investigate through many, many sessions of play, across varying situations and in light of our ongoing discovery of our game's history.

  3. focus on what you put on your character sheet

    Ron, I had not considered the idea that Mike was crossing into someone else's "story." I suppose it would be like Daredevil getting worried about Doc Ock. Ock might have a guest appearance but DD wouldn't pursue the line in great depth. And I bought Dr DarkStar as, so that sends the GM the message that's what I'll focus on. And I did not. I really hadn't been thinking in those terms in our last session. It's not like it's got to be a hard and fast rule but in a game with a limited number of sessions like ours, I guess it would have helped you, the GM, if I had thought of that as a player.

    • I’d rather follow your lead

      I'd rather follow your lead during play, which is why I didn't invoke any such principle at the time. If it mattered that much, I would have.

      My comments here are musings, about emergent dynamics, not criticisms – you certainly weren't breaching either rules or any "soft" standards, and I think the lack of tone or body language in an internet comment makes my point sound harsher than it is.

      If its effect was for you to look again at your sheet and say, "oh  yeah, that is there," then that's all I was aiming for, no more.

  4. Split Party

    It's always a little akward when "party members" split up to achieve their goals. It great to glimpse behind the curtain at what was awaiting if we did x or y! That is interesting prep work.

    I think its easy for PC's to automatically follow the most obvious path. In the last case, there were leads for the Basililk. There also was the "catching up" business of exploring the power cave for clues and stuff at Advanced Futures, but chasing the villian is a big pull.

    • I enjoy play most when events

      I enjoy play most when events and content have created a "tapestry" that we're all invested in, so that whatever the heroes do, either something will occur there or something is going to come get'em no matter what.

      By saying this, I do not mean the "moving clue" or "floating mystery" which will somehow be located exactly where the heroes go, but rather the depth and energy that are found in just about everything we've played or established.

      Legacy is really good for this – we could play this for ages and ages, without hitting a stall-out in content or relying on repetition. The potential for Darius Darkstar, Advanced Futures, and the Continuum is all sorts of DC-style science fiction fun. For Marvel-style stuff, I really want to see how an older person's later-life decisions interact with high-risk action heroism, and there's a bunch of Disadvantages-based stuff we haven't even managed to establish properly yet, including Denise's Side Effects, what the Dark Cohort want (and will do), and what it means for PowerStar to have a Public Identity for his hero-ness vs. his Secret Identity of being Mike.

      All that is to say that play doesn't have to be composed of how our tac-squad fights the villain-challenge of the week, like a skirmish dueling game. So splitting up is cool, doing this as opposed to that is cool (especially since "that" may get up to doing things on its own), and developing information and perspectives is especially cool.

      This session reminded me some of those comics issues, or in the case of TV, episodes, where the ending moments don't concern a foe being hauled off to jail, but the hero looking out of a window and thinking.

      … just wait 'til you see what's going on in the PowerCave though …

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