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 | , , , | show 5 comments