DeGauss stepped off the bus and shouldered his backpack, another day at Halcyon City High School #5 behind him. The house he walked towards was a curious one, first of all because it looked more like three identical houses joined side-to-side. More curious was that one section looked brand new, a second was currently under construction, and a third looked like it would need repairs soon. Just as DeGauss reached the doorway a desktop computer was thrown through the bay window of the soon-to-need repairs section, followed by a torrent of sulfurous cursing, causing DeGauss to roll his eyes; it must be payday again at Collateral Damage Demo and Construction Co. The young man let himself in and started to make his way to his room when a sultry voice piped up: “Ah, young DeGauss. What did the establishment try to drill into your head at school today?”
“I don’t remember!”
Sonja McCloud was DeGauss’s host mother and the wife of Marshall McCloud, a.k.a. the retired superhero Collateral Damage Man. Of course, she was retired herself, from her time as the super villain known as the Dread Queen.
Their courtship has been quite the thing, at the time.
Anyways, the result was that DeGauss’s home life in Halcyon City was often strange, and today was no exception. Sonja made pleasant enough small talk, but kept dropping hints about “that Spitfire girl”. DeGauss retreated as soon as he could, once Sonja mentioned that Marshall wanted to talk with him. That was no more normal, as the man’s famous temper was raging as he tried to deal with payroll mishaps for his company, wrecking most of his office in the process. Still, he was able to calm down long enough to give DeGauss some information: a list of HIBM-sponsored orphanages whose power consumption raised the specter of hidden labs.
Meanwhile, Brayden Salk III was being tutored in the only subject he hadn’t been jumped up at least ten years in: social studies. His attendance at HCHS #5 was otherwise strictly nominal, but being raised pretty much within the corporate culture of High Impact BioMedical hadn’t done much for young Brayden’s familiarity with the rest of society. Just as the lesson was coming to an end, however, Brayden’s efforts to pack up were interrupted by the arrival of one Dr. Siber, the retired White Coat III (the less said about White Coat IV, apparently, the better).
Generally a stern fellow, Dr. Siber nevertheless complimented Brayden on his recent activities as White Coat V. The young prodigy still had a long ways to go, true, but the fight at the mall the other day was a good start. In an effort to further strengthen Brayden’s bond with his team, and to perhaps further bring the team into the HIBM fold, Dr. Siber gave Brayden some information on a number of HIBM facilities and requested that Brayden lead the team on a tour of the facilities in question. Brayden’s first assumption was that Siber had given him corporate busywork, but soon realized that Siber was really giving him an excuse to be poking around in buildings where they might find more secret labs.
Back at Arasaka Base proprietor Chase returned with an order of Chinese food, and Sally flipped out. If she had to endure one more takeout meal, she said, then someone was going to get punched into orbit. She stormed out of the game store, determined to use the scrounged together petty cash provided to her by Dr. McBride to at least get one good meal out on the town. Level heads that might have stopped her weren’t present; Sabot was still back in Japan, and Gil was caught up with school (and trying to fix things with Emma, to no avail). Even Morgan, who might have stepped in to make up for the arcade incident if they could, was still MIA. The only other member of the team actually at Arasaka Base was The Hemophiliac, and he just shrugged and got Chase to play a few rounds of Magic with him.
Sally wound up at a restaurant named Dempsey’s (which caused a bit of conflicted expectations, as the player wanted it to be the high-tech high-end place from the Honor Harrington books and I was thinking of a greasy spoon diner I knew of; we settled on the former), which had once been a frequent locale for her entire family to visit. Real food, people who weren’t ‘total dorks’ . . . Sally was practically in heaven . . . and then she heard a familiar voice as a family of three sat down for dinner. Her head whipped around, and sure enough right there were her father, mother, and younger brother.
The entire reason she’d been hiding out at Arasaka Base was that Dr. McBride had assured her that her family might be in danger if she stayed with them, but Sally was unable to resist the temptation right in front of her. She stood up from her own booth and walked to theirs, greeting them somewhat warily. Mrs. O’Brien’s shock quickly turned to weeping joy, pulling her daughter in, while younger brother Brandon and Sally immediately fell back into good-natured sibling bickering. Between the two of them Sally learned that they’d believed her dead, and had even buried a body that she assumed was the clone dubbed Spitfire 1.1.
Mr. O’Brien’s reaction, however, was more of anxious fear. He certainly didn’t seem as surprised.
Sally caught on to this right away. While she told her family some of the details of her recent life without revealing that she was Spitfire, including mentioning there was a guy she was interested in, she kept asking pointed questions about what exactly had happened on Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, the fateful day when Sally had fallen into the clutches of her father’s employer: High Impact BioMedical. Mr. O’Brien kept saying that he would explain, but also kept trying to insist that they leave immediately. Sally played dumb, citing that her family had only just arrived and hadn’t eaten yet, but under the table she used her phone to trigger an emergency ‘Get Here Right Now’ beacon that Gil and Sabot had set up for everyone.
The response from the members of the team in town and with their phones on, which ironically including neither Gil nor Sabot, was rapid. DeGauss borrowed a pickup truck, Sonja shouting advice about flirting as he raced out of the McCloud residence. Brayden suited up as White Coat V and commandeered a HIBM helicopter. The Hemophiliac loaded himself in a zorb and launched from Arasaka Base. All three arrived at Dempsey’s in quick succession, DeGauss pulling up out front, White Coat being dropped off, and The Hemophiliac crashing down and stepping out of the dissolving zorb. It caused quite a stir in the restaurant, and the street outside cleared a bit, but all three were rather surprised to see Sally appearing as if she was having a cute family moment instead of a battle to the death.
DeGauss eased his way over but was immediately grabbed by the arm and hauled into the booth next to Sally. There was a fair amount of smiling and cuddling from Sally, actually, which made DeGauss nervous; aside from being out of his personal depth Mrs O’Brien was giving him an inquisitive look. Brandon was much more fascinated by ‘the blood dude’, and he ended up at another table with The Hemophiliac and White Coat. Both of the younger boys became fascinated by watching The Hemophiliac ‘eat’, basically by absorbing things directly into any part of his body, Brandon because of the sheer gross novelty of it and White Coat because of the scientific nature of it. The Hemophiliac shoved most of a pasta dish into what was roughly his abdomen and declared himself Hemophiliac al Dente.
Meanwhile Mr. O’Brien continued to insist that they needed to leave, but Sally wasn’t having any of it. DeGauss gradually caught on that at least part of Sally’s behavior was an act (she was still sitting pretty darn close though . . . ), and that the reason Sally had called them here was because she was suspicious of her father. Things were just starting to come to a head, the teenage heroes about ready to start getting insistent themselves, when there was a metallic crunching noise from outside. Everyone in Dempsey’s turned to see a figure stepping off the crumpled form of a parked car. Despite having being turned over to AEGIS after being defeated by the Arasaka Base heroes, there stood one Cybernetic Punch, looking more than a little upgraded and quite a bit angrier.
Whatever was going on with the O’Briens could wait; it looked like Spitfire, Calamitas, The Hemophiliac, and White Coat V had to go to work.
Cybernetic Punch snatched up another car in his metal hands and hurled it towards Dempsey’s, but Calamitas was ready, using his power to raise a wall of energy around the restaurant. The vehicle slammed into that energy and exploded into a fireball, but when the smoke cleared and the debris clattered to the ground the wall still held. Cybernetic Punch continued his assault with a hands-on approach, rocket elbows flaring, but for the moment Calamitas was able to keep him at bay. White Coat attempted to calm the panicking restaurant clientele, but they weren’t in the mood to listen to a young teenager, even if he was the only one in ‘uniform’ (Hemophiliac notwithstanding) and ‘speaking with the authority of High Impact Biomedical’. Almost getting trampled by the panicked crowd left White Coat decidedly Insecure in his nascent authority.
Just as Cybernetic Punch was winding up for another swing, the energy wall vanished. His momentary surprise turned into startling pain as Spitfire took the opening Calamitas gave her and slugged the cyborg clear across the street, practically burying him in another vehicle. The young man, thoroughly Afraid as a result, triggered his rocket elbows again – and punched downward, sending up a blast of shattered asphalt and dust. When they could see again our heroes looked upon a hole clear through the street that opened up into the sewer system below; Hemophiliac immediately pursued, flowing down into the hole, while White Coat followed after picking himself up off the floor of the restaurant.
Calamitas and Spitifre stood in the restaurant, mulling over whether or not to join the pursuit, when they noticed patrons collapsing, Sally’s family among them. The pair of young heroes quickly realized that the building had been flooded with some kind of gas meant to render the occupants unconscious. They swayed, slightly affected, but were able to keep on their feet. As the last of the civilians fell asleep a figure walked into the dining area from the back – wearing a wide brim hat, what appeared to be a plague doctor’s mask, and a pitch-black duster festooned with vials, syringes, and glowing mechanical devices. It was impossible to mistake the figure for anyone else but Plague Hack, supervillain(s?) and mad scientist(s?) that had haunted Halcyon City for decades, the nemesis of the White Coats!
Deciding that survival was better than valor with so many vulnerable people around, Calamitas grabbed Brandon and Mr. O’Brien and lunged for McCloud’s pickup truck, while Sptifire hurled a table at Plague Hack before grabbing Mrs. O’Brien and running for it. Plague Hack avoided the furniture and pursued Spifire, but was slowed somewhat as he ended up bouncing off the hood of the pickup truck when Calamitas swerved towards him, before peeling out and rushing to get the O’Brien father and son to safety.
Meanwhile, down in the sewers Hemophiliac attempted to simply flow ahead of Cybernetic Punch by Unleashing his powers, but wasn’t able to maintain proper control, and instead ended up horrifying several city blocks worth of people by turning their toilet water bloody crimson. White Coat was able to call up a map of the sewer system, however, and the pair of heroes were eventually able to corner Cybernetic Punch. The Hemophiliac asked that Cybernetic Punch stand down, explain how he had escaped from custody, and why he had attacked. For his part the cyborg, suddenly realizing that White Coat ‘wasn’t with “them”, began panicking further, telling the heroes that ‘they’ had gotten their hands on him again, gotten him away from AEGIS, and installed a loyalty device. He had only been following the orders transmitted to him, and was now demanding that the heroes get the device out of him.
While it was a thoroughly gross way to do it The Hemophiliac, guided by the medical knowledge and scans of White Coat, was able to inject himself into Cybernetic Punch’s body, flowing along the cyborg’s own blood stream until he was able to reach the device and disable it. The Hemopihliac withdrew to find a thoroughly grateful Cybernetic Punch, and told the young cyborg to head for the hills after exchanging contact information so that they could get in touch if needed. White Coat remarked that Cybernetic Punch was the second teenage supervillain that Hemophiliac had managed to turn that month, and the pair began trying to make their way out of the sewers.
Spitfire was staggering down the street, unconscious mother over her shoulder, when she heard a noise behind her; Plague Hack had caught up, recovering from Calamitas’s vehicular attack. As Spitfire turned Plague Hack hurled a syringe dart in her direction, and Spitfire was faced with a hard choice: take the hit or let the dart hit her mother. She chose to take the blow herself, and as the dart now buried in her shoulder injected its contents she heard a low chuckle from Plague Hack. That was the last thing she sensed before darkness claimed her.
Calamitas, having parked the truck with Mr. and Brandon O’Brien in a safe place, came flying over buildings to join up with Spitifire, but by the time he arrived all he could see was Mrs. O’Brien lying in the street unconscious and a HIBM helicopter (different from the one White Coat had used to arrive) starting to take off. Calamitas made an assumption and used some energy to teleport aboard the vehicle as it rose into the air. He found himself in the crew cabin with a pilot, a somewhat surprised Plague Hack, and an unconscious Spitifre strapped onto a stretcher with some sort of device on her chest.
Plague Hack said that Calamitas could do what he liked, but that the device on Spitfire was a heartstopper; he could trigger it at will and kill the girl, and was certainly willing to do so. Calamitas hesitated for a moment, before deciding to trust in Spitfire’s superhuman toughness. He encased himself in the last of his summoned energy and swung – upwards, smashing his way through the top and rotors of the helicopter. As he floated to the earth the chopper spiraled to the ground and slammed into an empty street, exploding into flames.
Some time later AEGIS agents were crawling all over the scene, as the Hemophiliac and White Coat pulled themselves up out of the sewers and Calamitas waited for Spitifre to be pulled, safe and sound, from the wreckage. The Lawman approached the young heroes with a grim face, however. They’d found a single body – the pilot’s – but that was it. Given the information known about Plague Hack, surprisingly sparse considering how long the villain had been around in one form or another, the Lawman believed that there must have been another party involved; he didn’t have the ability to escape that wreck on his own. In the moment, though, that mattered little to the young heroes; Spitfire was gone, and it looked like she was in the clutches of a madman . . .
As a GM, you don’t always have to know the how of something happening while it’s actually happening. Masks referring to the GM as the Editor-in-Chief is a particularly on-point bit of verbiage in this case; you’re the person in charge, nothing is set in stone, so you can go back and figure out all the moving parts after the fact.
In the moment, I had no idea how Plague Hack got out of that helicopter with Spitfire. None whatsoever. Calamitas teleporting on there in the first place wasn’t really on my radar, and him reacting to Plague Hack’s little Spitfire-killing-device by punching his way up through the rotors was definitely not part of the plan. What I did know in the moment was that 1) my supervillain had actually managed to succeed in snatching his target, and I was somewhat loathe to have him fail at the last minute without a really heroic effort, and 2) Calamitas had acted in such a way that nobody had any eyes on Plague Hack or Spitfire when the chopper went down and exploded.
This is a comic book game. In comics, unless you see the body (and, unless your name is Uncle Ben, maybe not even then), there is every reason to believe that a character is still alive. So that’s the narrative device I tapped into. “There’s no sign of them, they must have escaped somehow, what a mystery!” Then, when we’d all said our goodbyes and closed the Hangouts call, I sat there and asked myself how exactly Plague Hack had pulled it off.
Now I won’t say how he did it yet because that’s spoilers for next Issue, but it was actually pretty easy for me to come up with an idea (the players had left all sorts of them scattered about for me to pick up, and again, comics have all sorts of tricks to use), and it provided my an opportunity to tie in a few more character threads. But this is basically handwaving something in the moment to figure it out later. In some ways, it could even be considered railroading, depending on the circumstances. I’d definitely say I put things on the rails for a second, there; I wanted Spitfire kidnapped for Plot Reasons, I’d managed it, and I had enough wiggle room left to me by the players to get away with it. But once you’ve done it, well . . .
You’d darn well better come up with a good, satisfactory explanation.
Often, when making things up on the fly, GMs will come up with the reasoning right away, but in these sorts of situations that’s not the case, so you end up with a need to get things put together by the next session. You can’t just blow it off and say ‘just because’. Even if the players don’t find out the explanation right away, you need to get that explanation ready for them to find. A little bit of foreshadowing might not be undue, here; I dropped to the players that Plague Hack’s power set was not traditionally known to include teleportation or invulnerability or anything of the like, so that got them thinking that something (or someone) else might be involved.
If you’re putting things on the rails a bit (Plague Hack got away, the MacGuffin has been stolen, someone was killed in a locked room), then if your players notice them they’d better not have reason to be irked by it. Calamitas left me the room, here, and to be fair I forced his hand with the heartstopper, but if he’d just tried to punch Plague Hack out of the chopper we’d probably have had a much different outcome. Don’t have something happen in the moment that you have to create an explanation for later if the players have created a situation where there can’t be an explanation.
This thus becomes a loaded piece of advice. Yes, keep in mind that you can go back and make things up after the fact, and realize that being able to do so in between sessions can actually help you come up with better ideas than you could in the pressure cooker of the action. But be careful about how you do it, and for your own good don’t make a habit of it.
Next Issue: Stray members of the team return and our heroes come together to try and rescue Spitfire from the clutches of Plague Hack, while Spitfire finds herself under the knife and learning the horrible truth of how she gained her powers . . .
Masks: A New Generation is published by Magpie Games. Any other products used or mentioned within the game remain the property of their respective creators, and player character names and concepts remain the intellectual property of their respective players. If you like what Cannibal Halfling Gaming is doing and want to help, please consider telling your friends about us and/or pledging your support on Patreon!