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A Spacesuit and A Wrench, But No Gun

You’re trying to earn a living doing salvage and repair. Maybe on Mars, maybe near the moons of Saturn. Take contracts, fix things, and upgrade your ship.

And there is no combat system whatsoever.

Does that sound interesting to you? It sounds interesting to me. The game is Void Above, and I just heard about it when Jwalt posted a link a few days ago.

Void Above

I haven’t played it yet, but the free QuickStart looks like the mechanics back up the concept, instead of just doing vague hand-waving. It is a GMed game, not GMless, which is less my jam, but for a premise like this I have been known to make exceptions. I’m in.

The kickstarter is closing in mere days, and it doesn’t seem to be getting as much love as I think it deserves.

Ben Robbins | February 26th, 2024 |

Cathy Grant is Captain Danger’s Sister (part 2)

During our long-running superhero campaign I introduced a new character, Cathy Grant. But I didn’t tell the players she wasn’t really a new character at all, she was an existing character, Captain Danger’s sister Felicity, using a fake name to get a job and get out on her own in the big city.

Did you read that post? Yeah, read that post first.

Eleven games had gone by without anyone putting two and two together, so in Episode 36, “Luck Under Glass”, I figured it was time to let the players in on the joke, so we could move on and see how Captain Danger felt about her sister stepping on her toes, intruding into the superhero world, getting into constant danger, and hanging around with Guardian of all people.

So I set up a big reveal and… it fell completely flat.

What happened? It’s the start of the session and we’re jumping between Guardian and Captain Danger, both in their secret identities, separately going about life in the city. Captain Danger (in her secret identity) is having lunch with her sister at a street cafe, arguing about something as they usually do. It might have even been about how she hasn’t seen Felicity much recently, with Felicity being evasive, of course.

And then cut to Guardian (in his secret identity) strolling down the street. And look, there’s his assistant, Grant. So of course he strolls up and starts giving her a hard time about not writing his latest story for him (like we said: bad boss). And Grant looks awkward and hems and haws.

There’s a full five beat pause before the players realize that now we’re not playing two different scenes, this is the *same* scene, and Captain Danger is sitting there listening to some total stranger call her sister “Grant” and haranguing her about some job she didn’t know Felicity had.

Dead silence follows. Seth and Ping are just starring at me. There is another full five beat pause before Guardian pulls a “I’ve got to return some video tapes” and strides off, leaving Felicity and Captain Danger just sitting there. And then robot battlepods attack, sparing us further awkwardness.

But *Why* Did That Happen?

In the moment, the total lack of reaction was cringe-inducing. The kind of thing that makes a GM just weep. But talking about it afterwards, Ping and Seth explained that they were so surprised they couldn’t think how to react. Which in hindsight makes a lot of sense because if you look at the situation more closely the players know something weird just happened, but the characters… don’t?

In-character, Guardian has no reason to think anything is weird. He just saw Grant having lunch with another woman he doesn’t recognize. So from Seth’s point of view, there really is nothing to say. No big reaction would make sense, even if he *wanted* to have a big reaction.

And in-character, Captain Danger heard this total stranger call her sister by a different name and make some references to working together, but that’s not exactly earth-shattering? She should have questions, but no reason to flip out. It’s not like she just learned that her sister was living a double life, hanging out with superheroes and getting caught in the middle of battles with mutant bikers from the apocalyptic wasteland…

Sidenote: An Apology to Paul

And here is a quick sidenote, where I apologize to Paul, another player in the campaign. Because in Cathy Grant’s very first appearance, she actually did get caught in the middle of a battle with mutant bikers from the apocalyptic wasteland. Mutant bikers who had burst through a rift into the middle of the high society soiree that the reporters were covering and that Paul’s character, Dr. Daedalus, was attending in his secret identity as the wealthy heir to his family fortune. Which of course was why Episode 25 was named “High Society”. And yeah that sounds very random, but it was part of the big “worlds in collision” storyline that was the main plot of the campaign. It totally made sense, in comic book land.

Right as the action breaks out, and choppers are skidding across the parquet floors and knocking over champagne glasses and canapés, and everyone is freaking out, Paul has his Iron Man-esque inventor quickly improvise a flash bomb and hurl it at the mutant bikers to stun them so the terrified guests can get out of the way and he can dash off and change into his armor without blowing his secret identity.

But the GM (me) says *click, buzz* nothing happens. It’s a dud. And Paul is looks at me with a “hmmm?” look on his face. Because he totally made the roll.

But I know that it failed because, unbeknownst to everyone (at least until Episode #39 “Luck Under Glass (part 2)”), Felicity has probability-warping luck powers, just like her sister Captain Danger. Not even Felicity knows, which is fitting, since Captain Danger kind-of sort-of doesn’t know her own incredibly daring escapes and escapades are a product of an actual superpower either. She thinks she’s just a two-fisted badass who sometimes can’t catch a break.

And in addition to the mutant bikers, who else was in the blast radius of the flash grenade? Yep, plucky junior reporter Cathy Grant aka Felicity. So her luck power protected her from the attack by making the circuitry fizzle.

But I also know that from Paul’s point-of-view, it probably looks like I’m being a bad GM and sabotaging a clever move on his part to avoid spoiling my awesome combat set piece. A classic GM injustice. So I take him into the kitchen and I say “I know that looked bogus, but there is absolutely a reason that didn’t work, and I can’t tell you what it is right now, but some day I will. Trust me.” And Paul was totally fine with that and the game kept rolling, because Paul is a great player.

I showed that I respected his place as a player and asked him to believe I wasn’t violating that trust. And I could write a whole separate post about just that interaction and the nature of the trust between GM and players and the need to protect that trust… and what happens when you fail: I’m looking at you, Seven Steps!

When Your Reveal Is Not A Reveal

So the reveal fell flat because the players were shocked, but the characters weren’t, because the characters hadn’t seen anything truly surprising. The reveal was all player-knowledge, not character-knowledge. A player-reveal, but not a reveal for the characters.

I think that split threw the players into role-playing paralysis, where they couldn’t figure out how their characters should react in the moment because they were trying to untangle what their characters knew. And keep in mind that the moment the players saw that Grant was Felicity, their first reflex would be to mentally jump back through all the previous games, look at everything that happened in a new light, and try to quickly understand what it all meant. Their brains were busy for a few minutes, so of course play grinds to a halt.

And part of that was because I had failed to provide any hints or foreshadowing, any clues that would lead someone to figure it out or at least slap themselves in the forehead for not spotting it sooner. The only real hint was that Grant acted just like Felicity, which is a pretty subtle clue that hilariously was interpreted as me just having a narrow role-playing range.

So instead of a hilarious “doh, of course!” I got a stunned silence.

Ironically I think if their characters had not been in the scene when the truth was revealed — if they had just been watching someone else play a scene where it came out — the players would have had more freedom to just go “oh my god!” and enjoy the moment, because they would not have been trying to figure out an appropriate reaction for their characters at the same time.

Twenty Years Later…

The whole New Century City campaign was a long time ago, in a game far, far away. Which leads to the question, would I run a game that way now?

Not at all. I have a very different view of the dynamic of the people at the table, or maybe I just enjoy different things. Nowadays instead of keeping it a secret that only I knew, I would eagerly tell everyone “That’s really Captain Danger’s sister, Felicity, but the characters don’t know it, so let’s see how far this goes before it all blows up!” Because there are few things quite as fun as role-playing your character unwittingly throwing bombs into a situation that the players all understand but the characters don’t. Dramatic irony!

Think of it as time of enjoyment: I spent a dozen games being the only one knowing how truly interesting the situation with Felicigrant was. I was hogging all the fun. If I had told the other players, we could have all enjoyed every awkward moment together.

That’s how I play nowadays: let everyone in on the fun, whenever possible.

Ben Robbins | February 25th, 2024 | , , , | 5 comments

Worlds In The Wild

I’m getting verified sightings of In This World deliveries in the wild!

In This World books

Books are showing up on people’s doorsteps, which means it’s time to get folks together and make some new worlds. Cats not included.

Update: If you too want to show everyone your beautiful book (with or without pets) drop a link in the comments or send them to me at info at lamemage.com and I’ll share them.

Ben Robbins | February 23rd, 2024 |

Cathy Grant is Captain Danger’s Sister

“Your female characters all sound alike” -the irony, oh the irony

I’ve mentioned before how, when I used to GM a lot, I had a tendency to keep secrets. Deep secrets. Long secrets. Sometimes for years. Longer than most people would consider sensible. Like back in the old Doven campaigns, it was almost ten years before anyone figured out the fundamental structure of the world.

When I buried secrets, I didn’t count on the players ever figuring them out. They were there because they were truths of the world, not because I wanted the players to discover them. Ultimately they were there for me. If the players put the pieces together, that was entirely to their credit. They cracked the code all on their own and could feel proud of their sleuthing, like when parties uncovered hidden treasures in West Marches.

But there was also the opposite case, where I intended the players to figure a secret out, because it was something they needed to know to understand what was going on. A necessary revelation, even if I had no idea how or when they would put the pieces together. Like in our New Century City superhero campaign, the players needed to figure out the big “worlds-in-collision / this is Terra” reveal, because until they did they couldn’t do something to fix it. Did I guess the reveal was going to take nearly a hundred game sessions? No I did not.

This story is also about New Century City, but it isn’t about a big secret, it’s about a very small one. A secret that had no real impact on the main plot, but was just an interesting bit of character development. It was also much shorter, kept hidden for only about a dozen games before the truth came out. This campaign was also a million years ago, so I’d probably play the whole thing quite differently now, as I’ll talk about later.

So let me tell you about the time Captain Danger’s sister fooled everyone…

In This Episode, Guardian Gets A Sidekick

Guardian was Seth’s character, a Superman-like hero (if Superman was sometimes a total jerk) complete with a Clark Kent secret identity as a reporter for the local paper. At the start of Episode 25, “High Society”, he got saddled with a completely green new assistant, Cathy Grant. Cue hijinks as he has this plucky but inexperienced sidekick following him around who he has keep out of danger, all while hiding his superhero identity, etc. An incompetent Lois Lane sans romance. Classic stuff.

What I didn’t tell him was that “Cathy Grant” was not really a new character. She was actually someone who had been in the game since the very start, all the back in Episode 1, “Enter LiveWire”: she was Captain Danger’s sister, Felicity, using a fake name.

Captain Danger was Ping’s character, and she and Felicity had a tempestuous relationship from the start. Felicity didn’t know her sister was one of New Century City’s most prominent superheroes, she just knew she was always behind on her share of the rent for their apartment, because she was secretly too busy saving the city to hold down a temp job. Their main dynamic was bickering and getting on each others’ nerves. Constant sibling rivalry.

The other players were all very familiar with Felicity, having watched numerous scenes of the two sisters going at it, but their characters had never met her, because they didn’t know Captain Danger’s secret identity either. So to Guardian’s eyes, this was honestly someone he had never seen before.

(And yes, because it was a superhero game I named every episode at the start, comic book-style)

So I introduce this situation and in my mind I start a countdown clock. And if this clock had a label it would say “time until everyone does a spit-take and realizes this is the same person”. Because I think it will be a hilarious reveal. And ultimately this is all just a setup for what comes after, which is seeing what Captain Danger thinks about her stay-at-home sister going out and getting a life, and putting herself in danger in the process. What is Felicity doing butting into her superhero life? Doesn’t she know who the main character of this story is?!? That’s the real question we’re building towards. The deception is just a fun way to get there.

Interview With A Superhero

Adventures happen, Cathy Grant keeps making appearances, but no one thinks anything is fishy.

A crowning moment (for me) came in Episode 31, “Interview With A Superhero”. Ping normally played Captain Danger, but she had been running a new up-and-coming B-team hero, Avatar, for a series of side adventures. This whole session was centered around Cathy Grant, junior reporter, landing an interview with Avatar and asking her all about her recent adventures, how awesome it was to work with Guardian (ahem), and then intermixing the interview with flashbacks to play out those interludes. A super fun framing device.

But I also knew this would be the first time Ping would be in a scene talking to Cathy Grant. Would she notice the similarities and realize this was really her other character’s sister??? After all, I was doing my best to role-play Grant as ‘Felicity trying to pretend to be a real reporter’, since that’s exactly who she was.

Late in the session, in a perfectly glorious moment, after Avatar and Grant had been talking for hours, Ping looked at me, scrunched up her face, and dryly commented how my “female characters all sounded alike”.

Did I manage to keep a straight face? Yes I did. Barely.

Next up: Part 2, in which my hilarious reveal falls completely flat…

Ben Robbins | February 19th, 2024 | , , , | 1 comment

“For other times of loss”

Like all boys, they never walked anywhere, but named a goal and lit for it, scissors and elbows. Nobody won. Nobody wanted to win. It was in their friendship they just wanted to run forever, shadow and shadow. Their hands slapped library door handles together, their chests broke track tapes together, their tennis shoes beat parallel pony tracks over lawns, trimmed bushes, squirreled trees, no one losing, both winning, thus saving their friendship for other times of loss.

Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962. We think of Bradbury as a science fiction writer, but every time I read his work I’m reminded he was really a poet.

Ben Robbins | February 15th, 2024 |

A Whole Stack of Worlds

Does one of these belong to you?

In This World books

If you interpret this glorious sight to mean that printing is done and shipping is underway, you would be correct.

Ben Robbins | February 5th, 2024 |