“You are members of a shadowy government conspiracy to assassinate the President and derail the proceedings to have the US join the League of Allied Nations. To do this you have tracked down and taken control of an experimental weapon created by a secret government project.”
“Due to a glitch this device believes it is a human being…”
– excerpt from the conspirators’ handout
During my New Century City superhero campaign (the one that spawned all the M&M adventures), one of the subplots was that a main PC, the rookie hero Eclipse, didn’t know his origin. He was raised by foster parents, but had vague hints that his real parents were scientists that had given him his powers (with science!) before some disaster had taken their lives yadda yadda yadda. I know — crazy superhero stuff.
So we’re about 40 games into the campaign, and I decide to run a showcase episode “Origin of the Eclipse” to explore the secrets of his past. At least that’s what I say I’m doing…
We start off with all the usual shticks. Suspicious people turn up who seem to be either trying to warn Eclipse or find out what he knows, there are old photos of people who seem eerily familiar, incomplete files of ominous portent, allusions to secret projects better left buried — all the standard build-up as we warm up the mystery.
There a few are close scrapes and a bad encounter with knock-out gas, until finally Eclipse corners one of the guys who seems to know a lot but dreads saying anything useful (“you’re better off not knowing! leave the past alone!”). And this guy looks very afraid of Eclipse, which is strange, because Eclipse is a lovable hero. Just then Eclipse spots a sniper on a nearby roof and heroically leaps to shield the guy. Bang! Eclipse gets shot (did I mention his powers did not include being bullet proof?) but when he looks down instead of blood he sees sparks and broken circuitry. The guy he just saved is looking at him in horror, saying “oh my god, it’s true! You’re not human. You’re a robot!”
And then Eclipse blacks out. End game session: to be continued.
Woo, surprise! You’re not what you think you are!
But that’s not the experimental part.
As the game is breaking up I have a quick huddle with Eclipse’s player and admit that no, of course Eclipse really isn’t a robot, just wait and see what happens. Because it’s his character, right? I’m really not trying to jerk him around or leave him hanging. But I tell him to keep it under his hat and I don’t tell any of the other players, so on the email list there are all these “holy crap, Eclipse is a robot?!?” messages flying around, because it is a pretty surprising twist.
So the next game session (Origin of the Eclipse, part 2) we have this NormalVision/VillainVision scene where the other players (who are running their own superheroes most of the game) play the NPC spies/conspirators who’ve now captured robot-Eclipse and are reprogramming him to follow their orders and carry out a scheme to assassinate the president. [Technically it's only sort of NormalVision, since the NV players are in the scene with a normal PC.]
I send Eclipse’s player out of the room to brief the other players on their roles as the conspirators. I give them a background handout outlining their whole plan, how they need to handle the robot-Eclipse and get him to relinquish his delusions of humanity, the works. They’re even told how they’ve opened an access panel on Eclipse and attached leads to monitor his functions, and how if he gets uppity they can override him with a particular command phrase.
But here’s the thing: as I already said, Eclipse really isn’t a robot. Early in the last game when Eclipse got knocked out by gas, the conspirators really captured him and hypnotized him. They gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion, so he would think he was seeing cybernetic parts in his body and think he was a robot. The sniper shot blanks, and the rest was a hallucination. The conspirators are just brain-washing him to think he’s a robot so he’ll carry out their nefarious plan without his morals getting in the way. They’re just pretending to attach leads and monitor his “electronic brain” and all that stuff.
The conspirator NPCs of course know all that, but I intentionally don’t tell the players running them in this scene. So now everything in the scene is backwards:
- Eclipse’s player is running a character who thinks he is a robot, but the player knows that’s not true (player knows the truth, character doesn’t)
- The other players are playing characters who are pretending that Eclipse is a robot to trick him, but the players think it’s for real (characters know the truth, players don’t)
It’s crazy backwards metagaming, players having less knowledge than the characters.
They play it all out, with the conspirators pushing Eclipse to stop pretending to be a person, and Eclipse doing a reticent “yes– masters–” bit. Then just a few scenes later the players (now back playing their normal superheroes) uncover the conspiracy, find out about the brainwashing attempt, and realize they have to find and stop Eclipse. Mystery over.
The question is, who was that scene for anyway? Sure all that inversion of player/character knowledge is interesting and experimental, but what purpose did it serve?
The more obvious reason is that a good story needs to come out one piece at a time. You have to absorb and accept each moment before the next twist comes along and changes everything. If you just summarized what happened or skipped to the end (“Eclipse was brainwashed to think he was a robot and assassinate the president, now we have to stop him”) it’s all at arms length. It’s not interesting. But if you live through all the twists and turns you get sucked in (q.v. Revelations).
The other players were surprised to find out Eclipse was a robot, and later when they find out it was a trick they get to say holy crap all over again. They really “get” the experience of Eclipse thinking he’s a robot, because they’re in the scene doing it, rather than just hearing about it later. They’re participating in the plot, not just watching it. That’s part of why it’s _a game_ not a story.
Which leads us to the other more slippery reason, which is that this whole metagaming flip actually makes the conspirator players stand in as surrogate-victims. By tricking those other players into believing the lies their own (temporary) characters are telling, those players are taking the place of Eclipse’s player as the ones getting deceived. We get the suspense and impact of a player character turning out to be some kind of monster, but the player who actually cares (Eclipse’s player) isn’t left hanging by it because he already knows it’s all fake. See, I told you it was slippery.
Attentive readers will jump up and down and shout that in a previous article I said something along the lines of “it is forbidden to interfere with the flow of information between the character and the player. You can never say ‘yes, your character knew that all along, but I didn’t tell you.’” But I’d remind the gentle reader that I also said, hell yes you can, just recognize that you are playing with dynamite and breaking all the rules.
This game was definitely a special case, since the players were controlling NPCs, not their normal characters. I took pretty good care to make sure the people with real investment (Eclipse’s player in this case) were not usurped — that was really the whole point.
And that’s the take-home lesson. If there’s ownership and investment, respect it and think about what you’re doing, but if there isn’t, well knock yourself out. You can get away with crazy stuff in a one-shot game that you couldn’t in a long campaign, but of course the flip side is that if you did it in a long campaign it is potentially much more meaningful. But dangerous.
What happened to poor not-really-a-robot Eclipse? When the dust settled, he knew nothing more about his origin than he did at the start — the clues the conspirators left in his path were just fabrications to throw him off balance and make him vulnerable to their suggestions. Luckily he also failed to assassinate the President — but not for lack of trying — and the heroes found out that in a world with superheroes and supervillains, the Secret Service is not to be trifled with, because you can’t outrun telepaths.