It was like staring into a row of funhouse mirrors out of a nightmare. Every tank Sally ‘Spitfire’ O’Brien looked in held a body with her face. According to the readouts at the base of the tanks several were deceased, each corpse looking . . . warped, somehow, by the experiments they’d been subjected to, but an equal number had life signs in the green. CryptoHertz, Sabot, Calamitas, and White Coat (Showtime had vanished by now) all kept one eye on Spitfire while they spread out and looked at the tanks themselves, trying to understand. Plague Hack’s words – no, lies – and the video he had shown her – had to have been a fake – burned in Sally’s mind as she found herself standing in front one of the dead tanks. With a blood curdling scream she raised her fist and smashed it into the tank.
Calamitas leaped forward to restrain her as Spitfire tried to attack the body, howling that she was the real one and that it was all a trick. The commotion startled CryptoHertz into action; displaying the ‘quick-thinking’ that had proven emblematic of his superheroic career, he quickly tapped away at the controls for one of the living tanks and managed to decant the occupant while the others were distracted. For a moment CryptoHertz froze; unconscious superpowered teenage girls in some kind of form-fitting medical suit were not, up to this point, a strong suit of his. The ‘quick-thinking’ kicked back in, though, and a minute later the Hemophiliac was startled as CryptoHertz hurtled into the back of the minivan with what certainly looked like an unconscious Spitfire over his shoulder, screaming for him to floor it.
For a humanoid blood creature the Hemophiliac turned out to have quite the lead foot, ‘driving dangerously’ back towards Arasaka Base at speeds that CryptoHertz was unaware his mother’s vehicle was capable of reaching. While traffic laws were left in tatters in their wake and CryptoHertz looked pale by the end of it, the pell-mell getaway served to get the pair and their cloned charge far enough away from the orphanage/lab that they were outside the A.E.G.I.S. cordon rapidly being set up.
That’s the scene that Calamitas, White Coat, Sabot, and a shaky but somewhat calmer Spitfire emerged to as they exited the building themselves: A.E.G.I.S. tactical units deploying out of the back of armored trucks, rank-and-file agents closing off roads, and The Lawman strolling towards them, hand on his gun and cigar clenched between his teeth. The gunslinger congratulated them on finding their lost teammate, then quickly grilled them about what the hell had happened. Sabot saw no point in lying, and told The Lawman everything: Plague Hack, Showtime Sr., the Spitfire clones (as he hadn’t noticed CryptoHertz’s exit, the ‘rescued’ clone was left out). That last bit had The Lawman turning his head sharply to look at Spitfire.
“You mean to say that you’ve been cloned, many times?”
“Welp, there goes my attempt at being sober this year.”
After letting the young heroes know that so far as he knew Showtime Sr. was still locked up in the Spike, and that he’d look into it, The Lawman sent them on their way; A.E.G.I.S. would secure the rest of Plague Hack’s lab. The quartet were more than happy to make their escape; while they likely wouldn’t get any further information from the lab once it had been secured, they knew when to cut their losses, and everyone wanted to get home.
Spitfire was not pleased to see one of her clones when she did so.
‘Subject Lambda’, as she had introduced herself to CryptoHertz and the Hemophiliac upon awakening, was surprisingly calm. She ‘didn’t understand the nature of the current experiment’ that had her outside of the only place she had ever known, but the pair had managed to convince her that they were legit. The appearance of ‘Subject Sigma’ further mollified Lambda, but Sally quickly moved to nip that one in the bud, and further went on to declare that they’d be calling this other girl Laura instead. Laura agreed readily enough, assuming it was for operational security, and accepted the offer to stay in the Red Dragon’s old room.
Meanwhile White Coat pulled out the journal he’d managed to find and began pouring through it. There were a lot of notes about the cloning process that had given birth to the various Spitfire iterations, including hints that many of Plague Hack’s experiments had been about making them immune to diseases of his own creation. Both Sally and Laura, upon examination and comparison to the notes, showed markers for having been exposed to an even more virulent strain of the Hyper Polio that Plague Hack had released into the city during the not-oft-spoken-of White Coat IV’s tenure, killing White Coat V’s parents in the bargain. There were also a few notes about the magic of Showtime Sr., how it represented a ‘new phase in the great work’. There was even a scribble in the margins about using Showtime Sr.’s magic to disguise Spitfire clones and have them infiltrate Halcyon City High School #5. This immediately got the entire team concerned; whether that plan had actually been carried out yet or not, it wasn’t a possibility they could simply dismiss. They had to go on a clone hunt (Spitfire was more than agreeable to that way of putting it).
Of course, there was some question of how to find any Spitfire clones hidden among the school’s population. White Coat was able to use the notes in the journal and his scans of Spitfire and Laura to build a detection device that would pick up any matching genetic markers if he could get it close enough, but the team didn’t share very many classes, and neither Spitfire nor the Hemophiliac actually attended the school. They needed a way to get the entire team into the building in case of a fight, and to gather as many of their fellow students together at once. After a few minutes of thinking, it was CryptoHertz who pointed out that the semi-formal dance was coming up in a week . . .
With a plan of action set in place, there was the matter of who to take to the dance. Sally quickly roped DeGauss into taking her. Gil gave Emma a call; while the start of the conversation was definitely on the frosty side, Emma still sore over the revelation that Morgan and Gil were on the same team, Gil managed to stutter his way through enough of an apology and an invitation for her to agree that he’d be taking her to the dance. The Hemophiliac gave the Sea Tarantula a call; flattered, his fellow transformed teenager agreed to go with him, so long as she could find a dress in time. Morgan was nowhere to be found throughout all of this, but everyone assumed that they’d turn up despite not being part of the plan, to spike the punch bowl if nothing else.
Things got particularly interesting the night of the dance, though, when it came to Laura. The team didn’t want to leave her behind, but neither the exchange student Sabot nor the 13-year-old Brayden had a prospective date of his own, making Laura the obvious choice. Both of them going with her was the compromise, but that got complicated when two limousines showed up on the day, one bearing the markings of High Impact Biomedical and the other the markings of Arasaka Corp. Sabot said that it was simple: Brayden could take Laura to the dance, but Sabot was the one who could take her home, which flabbergasted the younger boy. Sabot’s moment of being suave was interrupted, however, when the Arasaka limo driver informed him that he had a call in the vehicle before they could depart. Sabot paled somewhat, and spent a few moments straightening his tux.
Upon entering the limousine Sabot bowed his head to the viewscreen that had lowered from the ceiling, paying respect to his mentor: one Arasaka Saburo, CEO of Arasaka Corp itself and a semi-retired corporate superhero. The conversation was . . . tense. Saburo had received reports of Sabot’s activities, and praised his Protégé for his successes in Halcyon City so far. However, he also chastised Sabot for what he viewed as reckless behavior; tangling with a megacorporation like High Impact BioMedical, and a villain like Plague Hack, was far more dangerous than Saburo had envisioned when he sent Sabot to Halcyon. Sabot shot back that Saburo’s methodology, which had often trended towards necessary sacrifices and the greater good, was not his own. He’d do what he had to in order to protect others, not leave them hanging-
Arasaka Saburo slammed the palm of his hand on the desk he was sitting behind, snapping and yelling across the channel that “You know full well that, for many reasons, you are not replaceable!” The resulting silence was stark, a look of genuine concern flickering across Saburo’s face; despite his intent, Sabot was unable or unwilling to disregard his master’s influence, and he bowed his head again, promising that he would try to be careful. Saburo thanked him and, not unkindly, wished him a pleasant time at the dance.
That family-esque unpleasantness dealt with everyone was able to make their way to the dance at their own pace. The youngsters were surprised to see a few familiar adult faces. The Lawman, in normal civilian attire instead of the usual cowboy getup, was leaning against one wall and nursing a flask, looking somewhat dour. Less surprising but no less intimidating was the presence of Sonja ‘Dread Queen’ McCloud, glass of wine in hand, who was cheerfully greeting everyone as they arrived. That this was a high school event and both chaperones were drinking was less worrisome than the fact that a superhero and a (retired) supervillain were the chaperones in question.
Spotting Morgan, female tonight, pouring what looked like vodka into the punch bowl out of what Gil would certainly call a Bag of Holding further helped to alarm the more serious members of the group. When a rabbit fell out of the Bag and Morgan had to fish it out, Sabot sighed and predicted a disaster of one flavor or another.
The team spread out, both to enjoy the dance and to try and spot any Spitfire clones. Sally went straight for the punch bowl, having not noticed Morgan spiking it, making this the second time the Delinquent was getting the Bull probably more drunk than she should be. Still, Sally had fully decided to enjoy her time with DeGauss, and hauled him out to the dance floor. For his part, DeGauss found himself not exactly calmed when Sonja caught his eye, gestured towards Sally with her wine, and winked.
Gil and Emma were out on the dance floor as well, Emma smiling up at Gil and remarking how nice it was to be going together, when another young man approached and asked if he could cut in. Emma agreed, if only for a bit, asking Gil if he could get some punch. Gil, on the other hand, spend a moment too long staring at a male Morgan. First of all he was surprised, because as far as he knew they weren’t able to switch between genders at will, it was more a flip of a coin sort of thing; it seemed Showtime might be gaining greater mastery over their magic. Second, he remembered that Emma didn’t know Morgan’s true nature; she regarded female!Morgan as a rival, but as far as she knew male!Morgan was a different person (and a handsome one at that). Gil stuttered out something and made a beeline for the punch bowl.
The Hemophiliac and the Sea Tarantula weren’t the only not-exactly-human attendees, and the pair were having a rather pleasant time, but soon enough the pair could hear a student muttering under his breath about ‘freaks and monsters’. The Sea Tarantula began to wilt at hearing the insults, but the Hemophiliac was increasingly comfortable with his own state these days. Turning to look over the Hemophiliac shifted his liquid face to take on the appearance of the offender, before showing the young man in question what he’d look like as he first rapidly aged and then rotted away. Suffice to say the student fled, the Sea Tarantula perked up again, and the pair continued to enjoy their evening.
Sabot and Brayden were the two team members actually moving through the crowd, using the scanner to try and find any more Spitfire clones, but so far Sally and Laura were their only hits. As the evening went on they began to doubt that there were any more clones to be found, and their attention wandered slightly. Brayden, still smarting from Sabot’s comment earlier with Laura and feeling a little mischievous, sought out a girl from his social studies class who he believed had a crush on DeGauss, and began talking the young Nova up to her. Once he’d encouraged her to make a move, Brayden took her over to introduce her – only to be all but backhanded several feet away by Sally, who was busy sharing her first true kiss with DeGauss. Brayden was badly rattled by the off-hand strike from Sally, who had barely even noticed him, and stalked off.
On the way to the punch Gil spotted Sonja clapping her hands together in delight as she observed Sally and DeGauss and figured that, well, clearly DeGauss had figured something out and maybe she could help. Sure enough, the former Dread Queen greeted Gil with a sly smile. When Gil asked what sort of advice she’d given DeGauss, Sonja shrugged one shoulder slightly and simply said she’d encouraged DeGauss to be clear and direct. Granted, Sally was hardly opposed to the idea in the first place, but punching your way through the rotors of a helicopter and then crashing into an evil lab to rescue a girl was about as clear and direct as it got, so in broad strokes the advice had helped. Gil nodded, more to himself than Sonja, and turned on his heel back towards Morgan and Emma. While he didn’t, quite, shove Morgan away he made it very clear he was back and that he and Emma were together-together. Emma was all smiles, and as they began to dance again Gil spotted Morgan (female again) over Emma’s shoulder giving him a smile and a thumbs-up. The Beacon had long enough to wonder if this had been Morgan’s weird way of being a wingperson, before Emma grabbed him by the tie and pulled him down for a first kiss of their own.
Back across the hall, Brayden was re-approaching DeGauss and Sally with a glass of punch. DeGauss, having come up for air as it were, spotted the youngest member of the team and decided to keep the pair apart for both their sakes. He twirled Sally away from Brayden, but didn’t quite pull it off as smoothly as he’d hoped; Sabot and Laura had been walking by, and somehow the two girls got switched. Not that DeGauss didn’t notice, but Laura took one look back at Sally, looked up at DeGauss, shrugged and thought she should also participate in this part of the experiment, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him.
Before the no-doubt-explosive reactions to this were given time to manifest, however, things got a bit more literally explosive – as the double doors to High School #5’s auditorium blasted inwards in a ball of fire and debris, smoke filling the room as the students began to yell . . .
Tropes are not bad. The internet tells you so, so it must be true.
Tongue in cheek aside, the fact does remain that just because an idea is typical, or expected, or even bordering on cliché does not mean it can’t be a welcome addition to your tabletop roleplaying game. If you’ve bounced around the tabletop RPG community for any length of time I’m willing to bet you’ve come across an article or a video or a thread to the tune of “How Do I Start My Game Without Having Them All Just Meet In A Tavern?” Mind, that’s a perfectly valid question, and you can get some interesting creativity by subverting those classic moves, but you don’t always have to, and you might find yourself with a group that doesn’t want to miss out on those moments.
The players for High Impact Heroics put their spin on things early. Rather than your ‘standard’ superhero setting I ended up with a world that was decidedly (post?)cyberpunk superheroes, and the more we got into it the more it became something akin to a mashup of Masks and Cyberpunk 2020. They came up with unique characters, I tossed a few interesting enemy and ally NPCs into the mix, and boom! Plenty of creative stuff going on.
But there was always going to be a dance of some kind. I knew that the second the players demanded more Masks. I mean, come on, your main characters are in high school, there’s got to be some kind of big social event for them to go to. What better than a dance, with all the awkward social interactions? That’s just what you do with this kind of game, right? Never mind that the system works perfectly for it. Even if I hadn’t planned for it, the players were angling for it all on their own.
It’s not just dances, either. The crew of the Borrowed Time managed to ever so briefly get themselves a beach episode. And sometimes meeting in a tavern is just fine. After all, it’s proven to work.
I was in a D&D campaign once that concluded an arc with an honest to goodness straight out of a shonen anime tournament arc. Every other team had some kind of quirk from the Muscle Wizards, to the warforged who were basically Power Rangers, to the vampire squad, to the doppelgangers who were like the party if our stories up to then had gone completely different. It was completely over the top, we were picking which of the other teams we’d like to see win and eventually face us as the GM described the rest of the tournament going on around us, and it ended in us fighting the final boss in a pocket dimension where my cleric surfed on a rapier through the air before dying in a hail of swords.
It was awesome.
See, there’s a reason that Sir Terry Pratchett had it right when he wrote that “Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow.” These kind of things are familiar to readers/viewers/players; we know within a certain range how they’re likely to go and what’s involved in them, and as a result we find them comfortable. Heck, that’s a large part of how High Impact Heroics’ setting ended up the way it did; this particular group feels very comfortable in the cyberpunk genre, and aspects like Arasaka Corp are familiar touchstones even if they don’t entirely behave the same here.
There is, of course, a way to have too much of a good thing. If there wasn’t, then you wouldn’t see people asking for advice on different ways to start a game. But if you can make an old idea interesting (90% of the work there can be done by player characters putting their unique spin on things), then there’s no reason you can’t enjoy your starting taverns, your high school dances, your beach episodes, your tournaments, your dying mentors, your long-lost siblings, whatever. Don’t use it all the time, within a single game or across multiple campaigns, and you’ll find that indulging in a ‘cliché’ from time to time can be just as fun as turning things on their heads.
Next Issue: It’s a ballroom blitz! Chaperones fall and our young heroes are forced to defend themselves and a crowd of innocent students from the party crashers. As the house gets brought down the heroes will have to face truths about themselves – and reveal secrets they’ve kept from one another in the bargain . . .
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!