Out in one of the suburban zones of the Halcyon City metropolis Gilbert Phillps was shrugging on his trenchcoat and looking over his shoulder at the sleeping figure in his bed. When the doors had blown in at the Halcyon City High School #5 Semi-Formal Dance, the first thing he’d done had been to grab his friend and date Emma and spirit her away to safety. Once they’d gotten there, though . . . well, it had been an exciting night, long-hidden emotions had been revealed, and teenagers are teenagers. Now, though, Gil had to find out what had happened to the rest of his team. Leaving a note for the sleeping Emma, CryptoHertz opened his room’s window, deployed the flight pack that was the latest of his cybernetic upgrades, and flew off into the night (or rather, morning) sky.
He’d flown this same path in the other direction, and it was a quick trip, but as he approached the ruins of his high school’s auditorium and began to feel a sense of dread that feeling was justified. He reversed his trajectory hard, coming to a hover, as Sonja “Dread Queen” McCloud floated into his path. She looked . . . upset. She also looked like she’d been through a small war, the somewhat aloof demeanor replaced by the one that had served her well in her days as a supervillain. CryptoHertz’s player remarked that “this is how I die.” Showtime’s player helpfully quipped “At least you won’t die a virgin!” which somehow didn’t make the Beacon’s odds look any better.
Sonja had some unkind words for CryptoHertz about ‘abandoning’ his team when they needed him, casting aspersions upon his role as the erstwhile leader of the group of young heroes. CryptoHertz was able to shrug that off, however, catching on that Sonja was lashing out because she was actually concerned – most likely about Calamitas. The retired supervillain wasn’t particularly forthcoming when it came to details, but CryptoHertz was able to get the word ‘hospital’ out of her, made his best guess at the nearest one, and flew off before she could express her displeasure in more energetic terms.
In fact, at the nearest Halcyon City Hospital branch to High School #5 Spitfire – Sally – jerked awake to find herself in a hospital bed, with a bunch of wires and tubes sticking out of her. She had a moment of sheer panic – memories from her time in Plague Hack’s lab flashing through her head – before she looked around and realized where she was, and more importantly spotted Calamitas – DeGauss – unconscious in the room’s other bed, even more wired up than she was. It took a gargantuan amount of effort, and fiddling with the painkilller IV more than was probably advisable to suppress all the aches, but Sally managed to get herself into the bed alongside him, holding him close and thinking about what Carbine had said.
Just as DeGauss was groaning his own way to consciousness the door to the room opened, and the Lawman – limping slightly and with bandages poking up from beneath the collar of his shirt – walked in and sat down in a chair with a wince. The A.E.G.I.S. superhero explained that ‘Jessie’ had hit him with just enough actual bullets to compromise his armor, followed by a tranq round so close behind that it had to have been in the same magazine. Typical marksmanship from Carbine, he said, remarking that Sally was lucky she had been up against a real villain in Sablestar.
He gave the couple what update he could. No civilian casualties, which was a blessing. The Hemophiliac had gone to ground, not surprising for him considering his date was still technically a wanted villain, and White Coat V had yet to get in touch after getting snatched up by High Impact BioMedical. Sabot had been picked up by Arasaka Corp, CryptoHertz was still MIA, and Showtime-
The Lawman’s communicator rang, and when he picked it up Morgan said a somewhat cheery greeting. Then the other Morgan did the same thing. At the Lawman’s surprised outburst they quickly explained about the whole ‘split myself into two people thing, don’t worry we’re working on it’ situation and – the call cut off as the Lawman dropped the communicator and crushed it under his boot. It was hard to tell who had gone paler, the Lawman now reaching into his jacket for his flask or Sally clinging to DeGauss more in horror now than affection or comfort.
Out in the parking lot – they’d tracked the ambulances carrying Sally and DeGauss – an Arasaka Corp custom limousine sat, engine purring, surrounded at a distance by a number of nondescript Japanese men in dark suits. Within, the same shifting technology that allowed Sabot’s mecha suit to change size and shape had transformed the luxurious interior into a cybernetics workshop. Sabot himself was on the slab, and Arasaka Saburo had rolled up his sleeves to make repairs on the android boy’s damaged frame.
There was little conversation. Their relationship was . . . tense didn’t quite cover it. Saburo’s original son had died many years ago, part of the impetus that had driven him to become a superhero. Much of Sabot’s initial personality and memories had been based on the deceased Arasaka heir, spliced together with an orphan who’d perished in the kaiju attacks so common to metahuman Japan. Saburo and Sabot were thus both mentor and Protege and in a real way father and son, but Saburo’s ‘greater good mentality’ had often rubbed Sabot the wrong way before.
As he reattached the severed arm, Saburo finally spoke, quietly admonishing Sabot for his ‘reckless and self-endangering’ behavior. Sabot countered that – unlike Saburo himself – he would never fail to put himself in danger if it meant protecting others, no matter the personal cost. Unlike their conversation before the dance, Saburo did not raise his voice, merely nodding in acknowledgement – before pointing out that Sabot’s life was worth protecting as well. With that he closed up the last panel and instructed Sabot to keep the arm in a sling while self-repair protocols wrapped up before urging him to go inside and check up on his teammates.
Rendered thoughtful by his mentor’s words, Sabot walked into the hospital just as CryptoHertz landed and the Morgans – Laura in tow – arrived separately. After a brief but terrifying encounter with the Night Nurse – the superhero on call at the hospital responsible for making sure nobody got up to any funny business – they found the room with Sally, DeGauss, and the Lawman.
Notes were compared. Whatever Plague Hack was planning, his previous actions always followed the same rough pattern: escalating experiments and attacks upon superheroes, corporate upheaval as High Impact BioMedical began to balkanize, and seemingly unrelated supervillain activity eventually culminating in some grand ‘experiment’. The last such experiment had been the one to kill White Coat V’s parents when he was very young. Despite reports of Plague Hack’s death after many of these incidents, that only seemed to buy time; it had been only about a decade, and it seemed as if the same pattern was being followed once again.
Incorporating any kind of magic user into his schemes was new, and the Morgans supposed they might have a way to draw Showtime Sr. in and deal with him, possibly recombining themselves in the process. CryptoHertz admitted that his cybernetics had been an accidental delivery – but the longer he had them, and the more attachments arrived, the more he began to wonder. Sally and DeGauss were putting on a brave face, but they were both hurting. Sabot summed it up; they’d been hit hard, and all of them were wondering if they were in over their heads.
The Lawman piped up. Sure they were. Fact is, though, that this team of kids had proven themselves to have the chops to play in the big leagues. Hell, look at what they’d accomplished. They’d wrecked two of Plague Hack’s labs, liberated a clone (he very carefully did not propose that they’d liberated more than one given Sally’s denial), fought a hit team of supervillains and mercenaries to a standstill when even the Lawman and the Dread Queen went down. Now was not the time for doubts. Now was the time to step the heck up, darn it, because they’d proven they could.
In one of the more emotionally charged turns, however, each member of the team chose to try and resist the Lawman’s use of his Influence – even Morgan, who had granted the Lawman Influence over them again after having removed it in the first session. Sabot did not, accepting that his Savior would go up while his Mundane dropped – but the rest successfully rejected it, too caught up in their self-doubt to believe what the Lawman was saying. Hilariously, Morgan immediately got rid of the Lawman’s influence over them again. As taken aback by their honest feelings on the matter as the GM, the Lawman simply assured them that A.E.G.I.S. would do what they could to cover the team’s back, but that things were shaping up for Plague Hack to keep picking a bone with the youngsters.
As the Lawman left the Morgans decided to take Laura back to Arasaka Base, and Sally and DeGauss resolved to keep resting in one another’s arms (teenagers are teenagers, again), Sabot offered to help CryptoHertz with his potential cybernetics problem. Heading out to the Arasaka Corp limo they explained the situation to Saburo, who looked CryptoHertz up and down and agreed to lend them the use of his mobile workshop.
Inside the limo and on the slab, Sabot confirmed CryptoHertz’s concerns. The last attachment, the flight pack, had included a software upgrade to the Beacon’s entire neural net – a neural net, it seemed, that had been recording CryptoHertz’s biometrics since he’d installed the first reflex booster. The flight pack’s software upgrade had included a wireless transmission system, and it dumped all the recorded data so far to an unknown recipient. The list of suspects was short, and plague masks featured heavily. It did not appear as if there was any other sort of active program going on; the system looked like it was collecting another batch of new data now for another dump, but the transmission was not always-on. Still, the two young heroes agreed – Saburo’s nod showed he did as well – that it would be better to disable the feature entirely. Still jacked in, Sabot attempted to do so . . .
He rolled a Miss.
Operation seemingly complete, CryptoHertz swung his feet to the floor of the limo and stood up in one smooth motion – before drawing one of his katanas and lunging forward. Saburo’s hands flew out, catching the young man’s hands and arresting the blade’s momentum – but not before half of the blade buried itself in the CEO superhero’s belly.
CyrptoHertz felt panic burning through his mind even as the rest of him was strangely numb, still struggling against Saburo to shove the sword in deeper despite all of his mental efforts to stop himself. The heads-up display in his eyes was awash with security warnings as whoever had taken control of his body – Plague Hack seemed likely – did their level best to make him a murderer. Any connection like that is two ways, however, so with no other option CryptoHertz tried for a brute force clash of wills back along the signal. It was like slamming his mind into a steel wall, but the ‘blow’ connected. CryptoHertz’s player chose the ‘take something option’ from directly engage a threat, and as a result something was knocked loose . . .
The view of Saburo fighting for his life vanished. Instead, CryptoHertz found himself in a lab that looked . . . oddly out of date. He still didn’t have control, however, as his point of view turned to see a man standing next to him in a lab coat with the High Impact BioMedical logo on the front. The man was smiling and holding out his hand for a shake, and CryptoHertz had to fight off a sense of vertigo as he recognized him from his history textbook: the man who would become the first White Coat. This was . . . in the past?
Whoever’s eyes he was looking through showed a similarly lab-coated arm accepting the offered shake, a feeling of pride coming over him that wasn’t his own, and the vision turned again to look through a glass window. In the chamber beyond was . . . some kind of device with trailing wires, bubbling tubes of liquid, and a jagged crystal of some kind at the center. CryptoHertz saw ‘his’ hand flip a switch, and the crystal began to glow . . . but suddenly red lights were flashing, tubes were shattering, and sparks were flying. The point of view shook as CryptoHertz’s host ran to a heavy security door and hauled it open, rushing into the chamber, frantically pulling cables loose. There was a weird lack of sound the entire time, further throwing CryptoHertz off.
Suddenly the point of view whirled around again in time to see the security door closing, sealing the chamber even as the crystal began to glow brighter and throw bursts of energy into the walls. Through the glass window the other man could be seen, looking horrified, mouthing the words ‘I’m sorry’. The vision was suffused with a feeling of terror and betrayed anger before there was a final burst of light that consumed everything, a moment of searing pain, and then . .
. . . nothing but darkness.
Back in the real Plague Hack had marked the Angry condition, however, and the sword twisted in Saburo’s gut as the villain chose to vent through unthinking violence. Sabot leaped towards CryptoHertz, cursing as he pulled his teammates collar down to expose the datajack in the back of his neck and plugging back in. Unaware of the battle going on in CryptoHertz’s mind and the secrets being revealed as a result, Sabot attempted to cut the connection entirely.
He rolled another Miss, and Sabot felt his joints seize up as his own security was suddenly breached.
CryptoHertz shook his head as the vision or memory or whatever it was faded, grip loosening on the sword in Saburo’s gut as he found himself back in control of his body. Before he could do anything about that Sabot’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder and hurled CryptoHertz backwards down the length of the limousine. For a moment it seemed as if the threat was over – until Sabot stepped forward, grasped the katana himself, and shoved it the rest of the way into his mentor despite Saburo’s best efforts to stop it. The mentor looked into his Protege’s eyes and saw nothing staring back at him besides killing intent.
CryptoHertz yelled out in panic, realizing that Sabot had not succeeded in defeating Plague Hack’s hijacking but had merely become its target. Seeing no other way, he spooled out the datajack cable from the back of his neck and plugged it into the back of Sabot’s, attempting another brute force effort to shove Plague Hack out. Again the feeling of slamming his mind into a wall, again a solid blow, again managing to take something from his opponent . . .
Another vision. The man whose eyes CryptoHertz was now using stared out through the goggles of a plague doctor’s mask, bereft of the technology it would incorporate in the modern era. Across a street littered with bodies and burning vehicles stood another figure, the man from the first memory, now in-uniform as the first White Coat. CryptoHertz’s mind was filled with the burning anger and thirst for vengeance suffusing his host, even as the body was gasping for breath and fighting against pain. White Coat raised his gloves, the coils on his backpack charging up energy, before the predecessor to White Coat V’s defibrillator gloves shot lightning towards CryptoHertz’s point of view. There was a flash of searing pain, despair . . .
And darkness consumed him again.
But not for too long. Awareness filtered back in. The man in the vision looked down at his hands and realized that, despite having been killed a second time, he had not remained dead. The first reconstitution had been put down to the effect of the experiment, but this . . . this was a repeating result. This was not just a guess, this was science! Yes, he had been wrong to waste his second life seeking vengeance, because there was nothing to avenge. Somehow, the original experiment had defeated the one opponent that had previously gone undefeated.
If the experiment could be replicated, the process repeated . . . then he could share his newfound gift with the world, and the enemy of all that lived could be conquered. Forever.
He had a lot of work ahead of him…
CryptoHertz lurched back, Sabot pulled along with him, as the presence in their minds receded, the connection broken as Plague Hack marked Insecure and chose to recede into the background. They only had a moment to feel relieved, CryptoHertz further staggered by the memory of what had to be Plague Hack’s origin story that he’d knocked loose, before the two young heroes had to spring back into action. The Night Nurse in the hospital’s lobby turned to yell at whoever had just slammed through the double doors, only for her eyes to widen as she saw Sabot and CryptoHertz carrying Arasaka Saburo between them, the CEO superhero’s blood already spilling on the floor . . .
Elsewhere in the city, the man now known as Plague Hack pulled a cable from the jack in his skull, breathing heavily. Hijacking CryptoHertz and Sabot had never been part of the plan when he’d seeded the Beacon’s cybernetics packages, but the chance to take out Arasaka Saburo had been an unexpected opportunity too good to pass up. Whether the man died or not, however, this opportunity would provide yet another one to exploit . . . but he would have to act quickly. The young test subjects would no doubt be incensed, and A.E.G.I.S. was too close for comfort. Plague Hack turned to Subject Rho, standing patiently behind him, and informed her that they would be accelerating the plan . . .
Well. That escalated quickly. I’ve got two takeaways from this session, one having to do with the results of player character failure and the other pertaining to how your villains react to player character successes.
Failure has to matter, and it has to matter in a big way. This is a universally important idea for roleplaying games, although it doesn’t quite reach the micro scale with games like Dungeons and Dragons, where missing an attack is just missing an attack and failure really becomes important on the encounter/session/adventure scale. For Masks, other Powered by the Apocalypse games, Forged in the Dark games, other narrative games, it’s not just an important idea, though. It’s vital, and it does reach the micro level of every failed roll having meaning.
I’m going to indulge in what’s probably a massive ego trip and quote my own game, since it’s advice we really wanted to have in there:
“Misses are more than just a failure: When a player rolls a 6 or less on a roll, they have certainly failed at whatever they were attempting to do. That should not be the end of it, however; a ‘simple’ failure is boring, and more importantly can bring the action to a screeching halt. A Miss should thus add a complication to the ongoing situation, actively hurt the PC via harm, or allow the MC to use one of their Moves. This way the player and the party at large aren’t just bummed out over not having succeeded, they’re dealing with increased tension or fighting to regain control of the situation.”
The point of taking actions in the first place is to advance the story. You might have heard of ‘failing forward’, the idea that failing to succeed on a roll shouldn’t cut all the momentum out of an adventure, and that’s part of it. But what we talked about in Transit’s advice section, and what ended up being so vital here, was that even when you fail forward, that failure in and of itself has to matter.
When Sabot rolled a Miss while trying to cut the datalink in CryptoHertz’s augmentations, I could have just said that they’d failed, maybe marking a condition in the process. Knowing that in all likelihood Plague Hack himself would be able to continue monitoring the Beacon wouldn’t have been a good thing . . . but in terms of story, nothing would have changed. They’d have been in the exact same position as before the roll. So I made that Miss matter, and the one after that, and as a result got to drop some really secret knowledge and deliver one heck of a wham episode.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the two Misses above changed the shape of the rest of the High Impact Heroics campaign in a big way.
Villains should be reacting to what the player characters are doing, we’ve gone over that before, but what this session proved is as follows: don’t be afraid to move up the timetable if things escalate quicker than you expected. A wise GM plans loosely and not too far ahead anyways, because players, but by the same token your bad guy should have a final goal and a rough plan for how they’re going to reach it. In terms of reality, this might translate into an expected number of sessions, and in-universe a number of discrete smaller goals leading towards the finale. Fact is, though, that sometimes the villain is going to have to accelerate their plans a bit.
The second Arasaka Saburo showed up in Halcyon City in person I knew that Plague Hack was going to take a shot at him for Reasons. Honestly, though, I thought it was still quite a way off. There was the aftermath of the ballroom blitz, the situation with the Morgans, and all sorts of other problems. Then the dice handed Plague Hack the best shot he was ever going to get, so he took it. By doing so, I estimate the plot jumped ahead by at least two sessions. The ballroom blitz had been intended as the midpoint of the campaign, raising the stakes for a build up that would take us to the final act. Instead what it did was build a pretty sizeable snowball, and this session’s events pushed it down the hill, with predictably accelerating and escalating results. After this we had definitely entered the, ahem, endgame.
So you might have planned for fifteen sessions, and your villain might be hoping to have all their ducks in a row before initiating the final phase of their plan, but sometimes you have to hurry up and hit the button labeled ‘Break Glass in Case of Premature Protagonist Progress’.
Next Issue: The attack on the high school and the attempted assassination of Arasaka Saburo sets off a chain off events that threaten to spiral out of control! The Morgans make a play to draw out their father, Sabot hungers for vengeance, and Plague Hack begins the final phase of his latest plan by going on the offensive, but not all of his experiments are fully under his control. As allies rally to the defense and blades and bodies break, Spitfire will be forced to face the truth . . .
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, visiting DriveThruRPG through one of our links, and/or pledging your support on Patreon!