Wednesday, October 17, 2012

In Which The Warlock Illumines the Shadows...

Continuing our cross-blog extravaganza, the Journeyman GM and I decided to stop and reminisce about one of our first real campaigns together--my Heroes Unlimited/Call of Cthulhu mash-up, "Shadows of the Cold War".  While the campaign was somewhat short-lived, it provided some great moments of role-play around the table and really showed off some of the things I love about gaming at Wittenberg, to say nothing of Will's skill and creativity as a player.

For those of you that don't frequent my blog, I billed "Shadows of the Cold War" as something of an "alternate-universe Watchmen", in which the events of that seminal graphic novel never actually happened:  Ozymandias never detonated his squid, Silk Spectre never determined the identity of her father, and Dr. Manhattan simply up and left.  Our heroes took up residence in the DC Comics underworld of Hub City, which was all but polluted with crime and vigilante activity.

Rorschach's vengeance:
an inspiration for Manifesto's
first investigation.
While our three other heroes--played by the PlatinumChick, DigitalKat, and L-Train--played "average" citizens of Hub City, Will had decided to take a slightly less orthodox route.  His hero, Manifesto, was the semi-successful result of an East German/Soviet super-soldier project who had gained most of his combat experience fighting in Afghanistan.  After falling out with his handlers over ideological issues, Manifesto escaped Soviet control and stole into the United States, hoping to spread the word of Marx to the impoverished masses of the Hub.

While it might not seem exciting to many, the two introductory sessions of "Shadows..." may be among my all time favorites.  Manifesto was literally a "stranger in a strange land"--bereft of basic 'givens' like citizenship, a drivers' license, or even the ability to speak proper English, Will/Manifesto stared down a greater threat than a supervillain or a back-alley ganger:  the plight of poverty, viewed through the eyes of an illegal immigrant.  Manifesto was lucky in many regards--he managed to procure work as an unskilled laborer at a construction site, was able to find his way to a housing and human services branch through which he procured a small apartment, and received some significant donations from the Salvation Army.

Throughout these sessions, nary a die was rolled--after all, what good is combat prowess or technical expertise, when your character is living on the streets?  But the buy-in on Will's part was spectacular, and the table was riveted throughout.  When Manifesto finally managed to get his feet under him and meet some of his fellow vigilantes, it was like he had finally 'made it'.

This isn't to say that our game was a matter of The Sims-lite.  Rather, our game focused heavily on investigation and several ongoing attempts to thwart an arms-trafficking ring run by The White Russian, an enigmatic criminal mastermind.  Leads into a Benson and Hedges Holdings warehouse led our heroes to what may be the most foul villain I've ever created:  Mr. Kisses.

Meant to be a riff on "Mr. Fantastic gone mad", Mr. Kisses was a serial rapist and murderer, with a penchant for targeting under-aged girls.  His deranged psyche had fetishized the "American Ladies" young adult novels of the time, leading him to kidnap school-aged girls, abuse them, and then kill them.  However, with an in-born elastic ability, Mr. Kisses' victims died messy, horrific deaths.  With each clue they found, with each step closer the group took, Mr. Kisses provoked a powerful sense of righteous vengeance, which I've rarely seen around the game table.  When Kisses died--and they most assuredly did not let such a madman live--there was a collective sigh of relief around the table.  One less girl would be made a victim in this world.  One less mother would spend sleepless nights in tears.

While Mr. Kisses certainly hit home with a Rated-R, Iron Age sensibility, this isn't to say that our campaign didn't have moments of comic relief.  As a side-effect of his super-soldier experimentation, Manifesto's metabolism worked at four times the normal rate:  he had to eat a full meal every few hours or be stricken with crippling migraines.  It became a running joke at our table that Manifesto would hit the Happy Panda Chinese Buffet on his way home from work, eating the place clean!  Set in 1986, our game was rife with references to The A-Team, MacGuyver, and the worst of 80s music.  Lockshanks, L-Train's character, even made a point to go see Return of the Jedi on its opening day!

The treacherous roads of Centralia, PA
As I mentioned earlier, our heroes met an untimely end, mainly due to a poor choice of driver and some phenomenally bad die rolls.  Our campaign ended just as it hit its nascence.  I had planned for our heroes to visit Centralia, Pennsylvania in the upcoming session, uncovering Cthulhian horrors amongst the smoking ruins.

Despite our tragic (and more than a little ironic) end, "Shadows of the Cold War" left a sizable influence.  The wonky mechanics of Heroes Unlimited left an ashen taste in my mouth and the Iron Age of Comics remained a relatively untapped realm of inspiration for a would-be game designer.  In designing Cold Steel Wardens, I dropped elements directly from "Shadows..." into the game--The White Russian, Mr. Kisses, and even Manifesto himself have made it into my first draft copy as NPCs and, in Manifesto's case, a fully playable pre-generated character.

And Will?  Well, despite my tendency to kill off his characters, he's still coming back for more...and next week, we'll take a look at what it's like as a player in one of his games!

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