An Aberrant Brain

Oh my goodness, I did not intend to have so much time pass between posts. A big work development plus two major trips (a third next week!) plus my first bout of Covid have all kept me away from my laptop.

And yet I had a lot of fun pouring over one of my favorite games of my childhood, Golden Heroes. It was a nice validation of what I want to write about these days: the long list of superhero tabletop roleplaying games (hereafter TTRPGs) that rarely get enough attention. I’m going to continue jumping around the list of games, spotlighting ones I either love or that intrigue me.

Since I started in the 1980s, let’s fast forward a decade. Honestly, the 1990s isn’t a particularly interesting span of superhero games. It’s the time when Champions and, to a lesser extent, GURPS Supers, took up most of the oxygen in the room. Goodness knows I spent my TTRPG time in the ‘90s running two different Champions campaigns and loving the crunchiness that would become the HERO System.

But right at the end of the decade entered a game that I’ve owned for more than twenty years yet barely played: Aberrant. My curiosity in this game abounds. I picked it up at a time in my life when I had just moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, was deep, deeeeeeeep into Magic: the Gathering, and without a dedicated roleplaying group. By the time I was back into TTRPGs there were newer, fresher games to play. As a result, it’s one of those handful of games I own that I’ve played only in a couple of one-shots.

The more I’ve explored Aberrant as part of this blog, though, the more curious I’ve become (and also slightly poorer, since I bought the next two versions to compare them). Let’s see why…

A few weeks ago, I only had three books. Hm…

A Brief History of Aberrant

I couldn’t find a rich, narrative history of Aberrant like I did Golden Heroes, so here is the story as I understand it. Apologies in advance for anything I’m somehow misinterpreting or not seeing clearly.

White Wolf Publishing was a new and powerhouse European game publisher in the 1990s. White Wolf was most successful and famous with its World of Darkness games, but it also produced some fantasy TTRPGs and, right at the end of the decade, the trio of games now known as the Trinity Continuum.

The Trinity Continuum was ambitious because it was essentially three different games interconnected by the same basic mechanics and fundamental lore: Adventure! was an action-pulp, alternate-1920’s game. Aberrant was a near-future superhero game. And Æon was a far-future sci-fi game. All three shared, essentially, one universe with each taking place on a different part of that universe’s timeline. It’s a cool idea, and one that has followed each game through various editions. Although this post is focused on Aberrant, each time the game appeared it has been joined by Adventure!, Æon, and a variety of Trinity-spanning books.

This is speculation on my part, but in looking at White Wolf’s projects I suspect that they saw the success of their World of Darkness games and thought the future was in taking these properties into videogames. They merged with an Icelandic videogame company in 2006 and were acquired by another in 2015. Shortly after that, a scandal led to the dissolution of White Wolf as an independent entity.  

Whatever the case, after three years and quite a few supplements, Trinity generally and Aberrant specifically in 2002 ceased publication. The games tried a d20 reboot in 2004 (because pretty much everyone at the time was seeing if they could make d20 work, sort of like 5E now), but they never found their footing. There is shockingly little content I could find on this d20 foray.

Then, for fifteen years, Aberrant faded into the background as a cool setting with a sometimes-unwieldy game behind it. Eventually Onyx Path Publishing, founded by a White Wolf alum, obtained the tabletop publishing rights to a lot of White Wolf’s old games, including Aberrant. After a recently successful Kickstarter, a new version of Aberrant was born using Onyx’s Storypath System. For these reasons, sometimes this new Aberrant is called “Second Edition” and sometimes “Storypath Edition.” Almost everyone calls the 1999 game “First Edition.” (And again, no one refers to the d20 version as anything, really.)

I was able to find this 2019 interview with the most recent version’s core authors, Steve Kenson and Ian Watson. There isn’t much history-telling to fill in the blanks above, but it’s a great introduction to the broad brushstrokes of the Trinity Continuum generally and a deep look at what excited the authors about this newest incarnation of Aberrant. Check it out!

It’s amazing to think that the original game only lasted three years. As far as I know, people are still playing Aberrant campaigns from First Edition, and it’s still some people’s favorite “crunchy” superhero game. And hey, it spawned a reboot twenty years later that is already seeing a ton of new supplements. What makes it so intriguing, you ask?

What’s Great About Aberrant

The single best thing about Aberrant is the one thing that has endured across three distinct game systems: the setting.

It occurs to me that superhero TTRPGs fundamentally need to decide how much to invest in worldbuilding a setting that explains – and potentially sets the boundaries for – superpowers. Most games just assume that it’s a comic book reality, in which radioactive insects, mystical artifacts, aliens, time travel, interdimensional demons, and giant robots just exist, and that people with amazing powers (often bestowed by some combination of the above) choose sides and battle with their fists and eye lasers.

Aberrant does deep worldbuilding. Indeed, the first HUNDRED pages of their 285-page core book in 1999 are dedicated to fleshing out how superpowers came to be and how “novas” – the people with these powers – exist within society. Those pages are also the only ones in color, full of rich, creative entries detailing news reports, science journals, celebrity interviews and, yes, comic book pages. The art throughout is consistently excellent and evocative of the “Iron Age” of comics, clearly a core inspiration for the tone and flavor of Aberrant. In the newest version, the setting takes up even more space (over half of the roughly 300 pages) and is still the centerpiece of drawing you into the game.

I won’t try and do a full review of the setting here. Suffice it to say, Aberrant takes place about ten years in the future after an international space station blew up and irradiated the globe, spawning the rise of novas. The authors have created a richly textured story as to how the world embraced these thousands of superpowered individuals, full of factions, internet celebrity, private companies, and varied government interventions. Playing Aberrant means becoming facile in terms like quantum flux (and quantum tech and, honestly, quantum everything), The Utopia Society, eufiber, the Æon Society, The Teragen, OpNet, the XWF, Mazarin-Rashoud Coils, and yes… Aberrants (both a slur term for novas and a formal organization).

Getting steeped in Aberrant’s setting is as daunting as learning the game’s mechanics, and in fact creates a sort of dual barrier to entry for new players. The First Edition book didn’t help matters by making the setting a series of wildly creative but unorganized snapshots, something very cool when you spend time with it but incredibly difficult to skim or reference later. The newest edition, thankfully, does a bit of indexing and exposition, but it’s still dense stuff.

But just like any deep worldbuilding, the density and depth of the setting are also the things that fans of the game are most passionate about. The world of Aberrant is evocative and full of intrigue. Reading those first hundred pages of the original book or the setting chapters of the new one, it’s impossible not to have your mind explode with campaign and character ideas, very much like modern Blades in the Dark or Symbaroum, but even more globally expansive.

Aberrant’s setting strives to take a realistic view of how the world would react to superpowers. It’s also, as I said, steeped in the Iron Age of comic books, full of the gray morality and grittiness of the 1990s. There is a very real sense that power corrupts. It’s even baked into the mechanics, as the thing most likely to take your character out of a campaign isn’t death – it’s the tainted transformation from modern god to monster. There are rules in the most recent edition for adapting Aberrant to different tones, but I’m a big believer in playing to a system or setting’s strengths. Aberrant is about the costs and perils of having superpowers as much or more as the glory. It’s a game about tough choices in a complicated world.

Here’s a terrific summary from a very good 2019 review of the original game:

“You are placed as central figures participating in a tragedy played out in slow motion. All Novas are doomed to be tainted by their powers in time, despite any good intentions. No matter how hard they try, they will lose that which makes them human. It’s inevitable. It’s a devastating bit of storytelling, and creates a setting rife with narrative rabbit holes to fall down. I haven’t found a superpowered RPG that comes close to this level of depth in its world building.”

For a detailed look at all things Aberrant, check out the OpCast podcast – a podcast completely dedicated to the Trinity Continuum. There is an episode specifically looking at the First Edition of the game, and a five-episode breakdown of the new Storypath book. Not surprisingly, these episodes slant heavily towards the setting.

Let’s Talk Mechanics (And Lots and Lots of Dice)

The strength and richness of Aberrant’s setting are, I believe, what has engendered so much nostalgic love for the game and the reason why it’s respawned into a new edition. It’s certainly the reason I kept cracking open the original 1999 rulebook over the years. But I’ve made it almost to the end of this write-up without mentioning the mechanics. So how does Aberrant actually play?

The 1999 edition was based on White Wolf’s Storyteller system, which uses d10s exclusively. At its core the system is elegant: You create a dice pool when trying something, and every 7 or better on a d10 is a success. The more successes, the better the result. Aberrant built on this core idea by adding “Mega” (or superpowered) attributes and abilities, which count two successes for a 7-9 and THREE for a 10, resulting in much splashier results.

Although elegant, the original Aberrant broke down in how big the dice pools became. It wasn’t uncommon to have twenty or even thirty d10s in a pool. Although rolling dice is fun, it’s apparently possible to have too much of a good thing. Add in that a 1 on a d10 is a “Botch” and those big dice pools start getting weird. Most longtime players of the First Edition shake their head at how out-of-control silly the game experience could be, especially as the power level increased. As one player commented in a Reddit forum: “The idea [of Aberrant] is fantastic, but you will need to houserule the crap out of it.”

Unlike Golden Heroes, character creation is time consuming and complicated, using a point-buy system that isn’t hard to grasp but does involve a lot of steps. It’s nowhere near as crunchy as Champions (which, as I said, was the dominant superhero game when the first edition of Aberrant came out), but it’s not easy either. The good news is that the system allows for pretty much any superpowered concept, but it’s also a process that a GM is going to have to supervise.

I mentioned earlier the inevitable decline from god to monster inherent in Aberrant’s system. This mechanically in the 1999 game is called “Taint” (which, yes, everyone made fun of then and still do today) – basically, the more Taint your character accrues the less human they become. I really like the idea of this system, but in practice it was a little clunky and surprisingly easy to avoid, a better concept than execution.

So along comes the Storypath system from Onyx Path Publishing, an updated version of White Wolf’s Storyteller system. It’s still d10 based, still with Mega attributes and a point-buy system to create any and all powers. Dice pools are less unwieldy. Taint becomes “Flux” and is more flexible (and less narratively inevitable). And the rulebook is definitely, definitely better organized and thus easier to navigate than the First Edition one. For a good overall review of the new Aberrant compared the original, check out this write-up.

Alas, though: I haven’t yet been able to play the newest edition of Aberrant. It remains on my “super interested to try it out” pile. So consider today’s post a nostalgic reminiscence of the 1999 game more than an analysis of the update. Still, my interest is piqued. Here’s hoping the power of my nostalgia and the strength of the overall Trinity setting is one that pulls you into checking it out. And if you do… drop me a line and let me know how it goes!

Next time I’ll jump forward another decade into the 2000s and pluck some fun-but-lesser-known game out of the pile. Until then, uh… may your Summer be Taint-free and all of your experiences Mega? I don’t know, man. I didn’t really have a closing in mind.

My Golden Heroes Brain

Starting in early adolescence and continuing through college, I mostly played Villains & Vigilantes and Champions (shhh… yes, I’m old), and someday soon I’m sure to have a lot to say about these two beauties. They are two of my all-time favorite games in any genre.

Amidst epic, mask-clad campaigns with friends, my broader exploration of superhero tabletop role-playing games took root. Of the “other” (meaning, not V&V or Champions) superhero games from my teens and twenties, my favorite is a little-known British game called Golden Heroes.

A Quick Golden Heroes History Lesson

The year is 1984. The original Apple Macintosh computer runs its first television commercial. Los Angeles hosts the Summer Olympics. Cyndi Lauper and Wham! are dominating the radio. And a skinny Jay Salazar, just starting middle school, convinces his grandmother during a regular visit to their local gaming store to buy him a new superhero game just hitting the shelves.

It’s amazing that Golden Heroes and I found each other that 1984 day, back at Wargames West in Albuquerque. The game didn’t stay in print long, particularly in the United States. I’m the only person I know across my many gaming groups who ever owned it. Heck, I probably bought one of the few copies in the state of New Mexico.

Why was its tenure so short? Years earlier and across the pond, authors Simon Burley and Peter Haines were university students and friends in England, inspired by Chris Claremont and John Byrne at the height of their powers. They self-published copies of their game and sent it to major publishers hoping for a deal. Check out how the original looked!

The original Golden Heroes, pre-Games Workshop

It was Games Workshop, a London-based publisher now famous for the Warhammer miniatures game, that showed interest. Although few people associate the two, Golden Heroes became GH’s first-ever homegrown game.

Unfortunately, Games Workshop lost access to the Marvel Comics license they had intended to use for Golden Heroes, a license that would instead get used for TSR’s famous FASERIP-system Marvel Superheroes game. Marvel Superheroes beat Golden Heroes’ release by weeks and soaked up consumers’ attention, even though many people – me included – thought Golden Heroes was the superior game. A year later, having published two adventures (Legacy of Eagles and Queen Victoria and The Holy Grail), a Supervisor’s (GM) kit, and some embarrassingly bad miniatures, Games Workshop quietly closed the doors on Golden Heroes.  

For a lovely look into Simon Burley’s stories of the game’s founding and rules, check out the Grognard RPG Files podcast (Part 1 and Part 2). There are a ton of fun stories there, including Simon and Peter going to conventions with their new game, stirring interest by simulating famous battles from the comic books like the X-Men vs. Shi’ar Imperial Guard fight in Claremont/Byrne’s Dark Phoenix saga.

Despite its lack of commercial success, I love this game. My good fortune to discover Golden Heroes led to countless hours of joy for me during those painfully awkward middle school years. I’ve carried the books with me for forty years and counting even though I have yet to play it for more than a single session with friends.

Well-traveled and well-loved

What’s Great About Golden Heroes

Before I get into the game, I want to say something about the art. Art matters in any TTRPG, but for me it matters even more in a genre meant to simulate a visual medium like comic books. Golden Heroes showcases art from several different artists, and the quality varies. But the good far outweighs the bad, and I am nostalgically giddy about the stuff from Alan Davis, Mike Collins, Brett Ewins, and Jon Glentoran.

As I’ve spent the last week reading reviews of Golden Heroes (for two stand-outs, check out here and here), I’m relieved to see that what everyone loves most about the game is character creation. Those reviews make me feel significantly less self-conscious about the memories of me and my friend Ted rolling up character after character after character, then drawing them into our sketchbooks and going back for more. I sort-of-almost-remember actually playing the game, but not in any way that stands out. What I vividly remember is the joy of making characters… all told, probably more than a hundred of them over the years.

Character creation is fully random in Golden Heroes, which on the surface sounds like a nightmare. You roll on four Attributes: Ego, Strength, Dexterity, and Vigour (yay for British spelling!). You roll on how much damage your character can take and dish out. You of course roll up your superpowers. Finally, you roll on the character’s Background, or life before becoming a hero.

That series of random rolls can potentially lead to a mess, but there’s a safeguard built into the system. Golden Heroes gets around the goofiness of rolling up someone with incredible Strength, low Vigour, a Chameleon Ability, Replication, Teleport, and a Vehicle by making a player rationalize how these particular powers hang together. From the Players Book:

“This is where you must use your skill and imagination as a comic-book writer. You must concoct, possibly with the help of the [GM}, a plausible background for your character which explains how they got their Superpowers. You should attempt to explain as many of your character’s powers as possible, for which the [GM] deems are inconsistent are forfeited.”

p.9

You can trade off power rolls as you go for upgrades to already-rolled powers or for an Advantageous Background (like being a Bruce Wayne / Tony Stark billionaire). So while character creation is indeed random, it gives the player a ton of latitude to sculpt those initial rolls into something that’s fun to play.

Simply put, character creation in Golden Heroes is quick and easy, full of flavor and guided by narrative. At the end of this post I’ll roll one up to demonstrate.

Golden Heroes’ “let’s remember that we’re all comic-book writers” vibe permeates the rules of play as well. There’s a heavy focus on combat and set pieces, dividing combat actions into Frames. Different activities cost different amounts of Frames per round (very similar to the modern Pathfinder Second Edition, actually), giving the action a delightfully comic book feel.

Combat can get overly crunchy, unfortunately. For example, there are different rules to resolve a Parry versus a Dodge, and they use different dice (and to be honest, Parry rules are just bonkers). Tables rule everything, as was common in the 1980s. My guess is that, if I ever got into a regular campaign, I’d eventually simplify some of the mechanics to keep everything moving and as fluid as character creation. Even amidst the crunch, though, there are some cool ideas. In addition to Frames-as-actions, you have two hit-point pools: Hit-to-Coma (HTC) and Hit-to-Kill (HTK), and this distinction helps simulate the fact that comic books can toggle between characters beating each other to a pulp but never dying and life-or-death stakes.

Between combats, characters get a certain amount of downtime phases, which is also easy to picture making their way into comics books. And in a truly narrative RPG innovation, every campaign in Golden Heroes has a set of Campaign Ratings that are built collaboratively between players and Supervisor (the GM) that fluctuate based on the adventures the characters undertake and their role-playing. Campaign Ratings also get awfully crunchy, but it’s clear that despite the complexity the goal here is to have a dynamic world and story built off individual character backstories. Supervisors reward players for being heroes instead of murder hobos or powermongers, and these rewards help them achieve more success in the campaign world. It’s a cool rewards system that veers away from individual level-progression and, again, mimics what superheroes experience within comic books.

If you’re intrigued by the game but either don’t want to track down expensive, hard-to-find books or play outdated crunchy tables of the ‘80s, Simon Burley has gone on to update the system as Squadron UK. It’s easy enough to pick up on DriveThruRPG. Because I can’t help myself, I’ve ordered a copy and may dive into it in a future blog post.

Let’s Roll Some Dice!

As I’ve said, the glory of Golden Heroes is the character creation. In fact, there is an absolutely wonderful section in the Players Book that dedicates three full pages to showing the “now you interpret your powers” system in action – using one set of powers rolls to flesh out eight (!) in-depth character ideas. Let’s walk through the steps and see what happens.

For the four core attributes, it’s old school D&D style: Roll 3d6 and that’s your score. Alright [rattles dice in hand]. Here we go.

Ego is a measure of my character’s willpower. I roll 5,4,3: 12.

Strength is, um… how strong my character is. I roll, 3,5,1: 9.

Dexterity measures manual dexterity rather than physical agility. I roll 5,4,3 again: 12.

Vigour (ha!) is a measure of how fit and healthy my character is. I roll 6,2,2: 10.

Wow. My character is pretty much the definition of average.

Hits to Coma (HTC) is the amount of damage my character can take before passing out. I roll 1d6 for each point of Vigour, or 10d6. Fun! I roll 1,1,2,3,4,1,5,2,6,5: 30. Blech. My character will be Staggered at 1/5 of my HTC, or 6, and will be Stunned at 1/10, or 3.

Hits to Kill (HTK) is the amount of damage my character can take before dying. 10d6 again yields 6,6,4,1,3,2,3,6,3,1: 34. My character will be Hospitalized at 3 HTK.

Movement is how far my character can move in a Frame, measured in metres (ha!). The calculation here is (Strength + Dexterity + Vigour) / 6. My character’s movement is 5.

Now comes the fun part.

I get a number of power rolls equal to 2d6 halved + 4 (why not 1d6+4? I don’t know, man. I suppose the idea is that rounding up gives you slightly more rolls on average). Since I’m rolling mediocre today, of course I roll 7, rounded up is EIGHT power roles. Wheeee!

Each Power Roll can be used to either:

  • Determine an Advantageous Background
  • Roll on the Superpower Generation table
  • Upgrade a Superpower already rolled
  • Enhance Superpowers and skills (used for campaigns)

Roll 1-2: 55 = Psi Powers, which the table tells me immediately costs an additional power roll. Psi Powers are COOL and makes a ton of sense for someone with decidedly average stats.

Roll 3: 56 = Psi Powers! This automatically bumps me from Grade 1 Psi Powers to Grade 2, something I would have probably done anyway. Neat.

There’s a subsystem in Psi Powers to determine my powers. I get 15 + 1d10 Psi Points and I roll a 9. 24 Psi Points, which is a resource pool for using my psychic powers. What psychic powers? Let’s roll four d10s and find out:

  • Psi roll 1: 6. Telekinesis. This is my Specialty Power (meaning it costs less Psi Points to use than the others).
  • Psi roll 2: 4. Precognition
  • Psi roll 3: 5. Psi Blast
  • Psi roll 4: 8. Telepathy

Roll 4: 02 = Agility, which as I said is different from Dexterity. This means my character can leap 4 metres in a Frame, swing at 2-4 times my Movement, gain a bonus to dodge, and can do extra damage by swinging or leaping into combat.

Roll 5: 33 = Health. Another table here, which I roll 5 on a d6: Toxin Immunity. My character will be immune to poison.

Roll 6: 20 = Energy Attack. Another table, which I roll 6 on a d10: Vibration. My character can emit destructive vibrations.

Roll 7: 24 = Flight, which is what it says it is and doesn’t require another roll.

Roll 8 is my Advantageous Background roll (which the rules allow me to pick, but I’m embracing full randomness): Previous Training, which allows me to add 2 to any Attribute or 1 to two Attributes and should represent some sort of elite training.

My character’s Superpower rolls:

  1. Psi Powers (Grade 2 – Telekinesis, Precognition, Psi Blast, Telepathy)
  2. Agility
  3. Health (Toxin Immunity)
  4. Energy Attack (Vibration)
  5. Flight
  6. Background: Previous Training

Now comes the time to rationalize and make sense of these rolls. As the Players Guide says, I need to come up with an origin story and narrative that ties everything I’ve rolled together, forfeiting what doesn’t make sense.

Can I get eight distinct concepts out of this list? Gauntlet thrown!

Concept 1: Hand of Gaia

Maasa Abebe is a young, talented archeologist (Previous Training, +2 Ego). At a dig she discovers the literal heart of the world, an artifact linked to the primordial goddess Gaia. Thereafter she is a living avatar of the goddess, able to tap into the ancient soul of the Earth itself to move objects, read others’ thoughts, and even unleash localized earthquakes. Her connection to her goddess makes her immune to natural toxins and preternaturally light on her feet.

I can’t really make Flight makes sense here but kept all others.

Concept 2: Psion

Cassidy O’Toole is in the prime of her life and a doctoral student of cognitive psychology (Previous Training, +2 Ego) when she discovers her terminal illness. Her wealthy parents sign her up for an experimental set of treatments to find a cure. The bad news is that the treatment facility is destroyed during a super-powered battle, with Cassidy the only survivor. The good news is that the chemicals and supervillain powers combine to cure Cassidy and leave her with superior health and psychic powers. She is adopted by the superhero group responsible, becoming an invaluable member.

I don’t really see a room for Energy Attack here (Flight, I’m saying, is a result of Telekinesis on herself).

Concept 3: Quake

Adam Johnson is a dedicated, albeit mediocre gymnast (Previous Training, +1 Strength, +1 Vigour, also accounts for Agility) and geology student at UC Berkeley. During a particularly humiliating competition, Adam’s mutant powers manifest and his rage causes an earthquake to level the gymnasium. Horrified, he retreats from school and vows to understand these new abilities before returning to society. He is quickly found by a group of mutants who train him in his vibration-themed powers (including flight and a metabolism so high it’s resistant to toxins) and give him purpose.

In this version, I’m dropping the highly valuable Psi Powers and would likely request that the Supervisor allow me to upgrade Energy Attack to at least Grade 2 to compensate.

Concept 4: Nomad

No’madd is the sole survivor of an alien spacecraft that has crashed on Earth. In a desperate gambit to save their species from a dying planet, No’madd’s people rigorously trained countless explorers (Previous Training, +2 Ego) and sent them to the far reaches of the galaxy. Now stranded here and utterly alone, No’madd has vowed to ingratiate themself to the local populace and improve life on Earth as much as possible, always hoping more of their people will find their way here.

Aliens always feel a little like cheating in Golden Heroes because I can basically keep everything and say it’s innate. I’d probably ask the Supervisor to switch from Vibration on my Energy Attack to Cosmic.

Concept 5: Prana

Sunita Singh was born and raised in a monastic order (Previous Training, +2 Ego) where she quickly became a prodigy of the mindfulness and inward-centered teachings. At fifteen years old, she had surpassed all masters of the order. At twenty, she went into a meditation so deep that she did not eat or sleep for years. At twenty-five, finally, she awakens with a glowing third eye on her forehead and manifests a broad array of psychic abilities. She has perfect control of her body, full of grace and immune to toxins. Sunita, without a word, flies up and away from the monastery, full of intent to change the world.

I’m keeping everything here except the Energy Attack.

Concept 6: Noir

Christopher Knight was a hardboiled detective (Previous Training, +2 Ego) in Chicago in the 1920s, killed during a case investigating a crime boss. Now he has reappeared, spectral but solid enough to interact with the world. Why now? What is he here to do? Chris doesn’t know, but he picks up the trail of that cold case, intent on finding out.

The Psi Powers, Flight, and Health are all easy enough to fold into “dead guy powers,” and the Agility is decently noir-style pulp detective. I’d work with the Supervisor to say that his Energy Attack is his spectral pistol, using Vibration as an energy type but saying it’s basically ghost bullets.

Concept 7: ATHENA-5.5

Nine years after Dr. Dara Melamed’s death, the ATHENA prototype artificial intelligence she created finishes building itself a physical shell (stretching here, but I’m saying self-educating itself for years has led to Previous Training, +2 Ego). The smooth, silver globe rises from Dr. Melamed’s secret laboratory and drifts out into the city. (It’s the story of Ultron from Marvel Comics, but a creation that strives for making the world better through collaboration with its fellow populace.)

I don’t think it makes sense to keep Agility, since a floating globe won’t really be leaping or swinging anywhere. Everything else makes sense, though I would talk to the Supervisor about making the Energy Attack Sonic or Laser instead of Vibration, which is more what I picture.

Concept 8: Medusa

Deep-sea diver (Previous Training, +2 Vigour) Sophie Kim discovers a new, bizarre species of jellyfish, an amazing and groundbreaking find. Unfortunately, it stings her and sends her into a coma for nearly two years, and the jellyfish is never seen again. When she awakes in a government science facility, Sophie’s body has turned translucent like a jellyfish, her hair a mass of tentacles and her brain pulses with electricity within her iridescent skull. She has amazing psychic powers, immunity to toxins, and she can swim at astounding speeds. Government officials give her the codename Medusae (which the media mistakenly changes to “Medusa,” a name that sticks) and send her out on aquatic missions.

No Energy Attack here, and I’d say the Agility and Flight are water-based. She can’t technically breathe underwater, so I’d either ask for a device to allow her to do so or to provide a Grade 2 on Health from the Supervisor to compensate for the self-imposed limitations on my powers.

There we go! Eight distinct thumbnail concepts from the same random rolls, all of which I can see being a fun foundation for a series of adventures. So yes, fully random rolls can be a mess. But there’s enough freedom in character creation that somehow solid characters still emerge. It’s fair to say that very few of these ideas would manifest in quite the same ways if I was using a point-buy system and starting with my own concept. That’s the joy of Golden Heroes character creation, and why it’s so addictive.

Holy cow this post became a beast. I’ll set my eyes on another game from my master list of games and see where the next post takes me.

In the meantime, may your Vigour be high and your Movement take you many metres!

A New, Heroic Adventure

For the past couple of years, my posts here have primarily been scenes I’ve written for my longstanding Pathfinder campaign. Because of some dynamics within the gaming group, we’re taking an extended break. Being a Game Master of a deep and complex story has been soaking up my creative energy for almost three years now, and I suddenly find myself with time and space for something new. I’ve learned over the years that a) I only have room in my brain for one creative project at a time, and b) there must always be a project.

What to do with this fresh, blank canvas? Normally I would turn to superhero fiction, either character sketches in preparation for something ambitious or short, contained stories. But I’ve been loving this tabletop role-playing renaissance in my life, and I’m not ready to fully replace my TTRPG creative space with something entirely non-TTRPG related. The switch from traditional fantasy to superheroes is an easy one, but my grip on my dice bag is white-knuckled and fierce.

Alrighty then. It’s time to turn this blog into a blog.

Superhero Tabletop Role-Playing Games

For as long as I’ve played fantasy TTRPGs – which for me started in middle school back in the 1980s – I’ve played superhero TTRPGs. I’m a lifelong comic book reader, and the opportunity to live those stories was and continues to be a siren’s call.

The first superhero tabletop game, Superhero 2044, followed the more popular Dungeons & Dragons by a mere three years (1977 vs 1974). Since then, for forty-five friggin’ years and counting, a handful of superhero games have continued to regularly pepper the broader role-playing game landscape, nowhere close in popularity but ever-present.

The lack of popularity, by the way, confuses me. Even in our modern age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating cinema and television, superhero games take a backseat to elves and dragons, steampunk industrial fantasy, horror, and futuristic sci-fi. I mean, look at the top graphic from this 2021 analysis, where a superhero game doesn’t even crack the top fourteen Google searches (unless you count small slivers of the Powered By The Apocalypse or Blades in the Dark systems). That same article says that the superhero genre makes up a measly 6% of the broader TTRPG market.

Maybe it’s that simulating superhero action – where traditionally anything can and does happen, full of characters with wildly different power levels – is more difficult than other fantasy genres. Maybe it’s that people want to watch adults dress in spandex, imagine it, but ultimately get embarrassed actively pretending it with friends. I don’t know. For now, the important point here is that, okay, these games aren’t incredibly popular with most people.

To me, though, they’re THE BEST.

Neeeeerrrrrrd Alert!

Indeed, I have a full cabinet full of superhero TTRPGs I’ve collected over the years. Many I’ve played with friends over the decades, but just as many I’ve only made some characters and wished that I had a gaming group eager to tell superhero stories with me instead of sword-and-sorcery ones. It’s fair to say at this point that I’ll probably never play all the comic book-inspired games that I own.

At some point in the last year, the collector in me started getting curious as to what percentage of the entire superhero TTRPG market I knew, and if there were any new or major publications I’d missed over the decades.

(This sort of side quest, the need to generate a list or framework, is common for me. Heck, two years ago I started compiling a “Favorite 300 Albums” spreadsheet and hope to finish it before Christmas. My brain is a demanding, dissatisfied master.)

The result of my curiosity is this list. Or perhaps I should say THE LIST. It is beautiful and daunting and full of masks… every superhero role-playing game ever published. I’m not saying it’s perfectly comprehensive because every time I dig through the internet, I miraculously find little gems I never knew existed. But I am saying that this list is the most complete list of superhero TTRPGs around.

Basking in Superheroic Glory: A Blog Pivot

Now that I have this wonderous, sparkling list, what do I do with it?!? On its own, it’s cool but not particularly useful. At one point I fantasized about launching a podcast where I walked through each game, systematically looking at what made it special or fun and taking it for a test spin. But the technical start-up costs of a podcast are daunting and not something I’m particularly excited to take on right now.

But you know what I am excited to do right now? Write, baby.

Welcome to my new creative project. I’m going to take some time to explore these superhero role-playing games, one by one. I’m not going to march in order down the list, because wow does that sound like grappling with a lot of archaic, bad games early on. Instead, my intention is to cherry-pick games I either love or that intrigue me, and just generally see where this series goes. Maybe I’ll only write about a small handful of games and feel ready to jump into more fiction writing. Or maybe this list will be satisfying enough to keep going. I’m excited to find out.

We’ll begin next time with a low-key favorite game of mine from high school, often overlooked but utterly delightful. Here’s a hint: I probably should have said “low-key favourite game.”

Stay tuned!

i. Ironside

The room was one-way glass on four sides, two facing the Hollywood studio’s bustling office and the other two facing the hazy, morning urban sprawl of Los Angeles. In this mirrored box, high above the City of Angels, three laughably diverse celebrities sought to change the world.

“Alright, let’s get started,” Christina Ng said. She was often described behind her back as the Corporate China Doll, a petite, seemingly ageless CEO of one of the world’s most successful companies. Christina barely capped five feet tall even in her heels, yet she was clearly the leader here.

“We’ve got video of their auditions if we need it, plus interview transcripts from our conversations with them, photos, and bios in those packets in front of you all. Our goal today is to cut our group in half, from sixteen candidates down to eight. It’s going to be a long day, and we’ll take breaks as we need them. First up is John Bliss from upstate New York, whose Guardian name is Ironside.”

“He’s too fucking nice,” Hudson barked. “This is an extermination service, not a nursery. I need killers.” Nearly seven feet tall, Hudson was built like a comic-book version of a pro-wrestling action figure. An ergonomic office chair strained under his muscular bulk. His simple tank-top displayed not only his physique but his oily jet-black skin, patterned with yellow like a salamander. Hudson was the first videotaped Guardian, and thus one of the most famous and iconic figures in the world, a true American hero. He was also an asshole, and Christina immediately found herself annoyed.

Christina sighed. “You weren’t a killer when you transformed. You were an electrician. Guardians are rarely killers when they change.”

“Alright, fair,” Hudson said reluctantly. “But I wasn’t no choir boy even before I transformed. This guy is.”

“Fair,” Christina nodded. If they were going to spend the entire day debating candidates, it wouldn’t do to fight with Hudson in the first minutes. “Remember that this is a brand play for AlphaTech as much as it is an extermination service, as you put it. You need people who can fight. I need people I can market.”

“He’s definitely marketable,” Andromeda Stacey, twice People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person in the World, purred.

Andromeda looked fake she was so perfect, even here where all the cameras were off. Her Disney-large eyes, pouting lips, and long neck were as unbelievable in person as the lithe, toned curves beneath her halter top. Blonde hair piled on the supermodel’s head except for a couple of artfully curling wisps brushing each high cheekbone. Whereas Christina sat perfectly erect, Andromeda draped across her chair like a swathe of silk. Christina was a heterosexual woman well into her forties and even she found Andromeda distracting.

“He’s like a 1950’s poster,” the model continued. “Beefy, blonde, handsome, and wholesome. And the kids will think his powers are cool.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Alright, John,” the skinny cameraman said, “We’re ready when you are. We’re rolling.”

John Bliss nodded and took a deep breath. The southern California sun beat down mercilessly.

John grew up in White Harbor, a manufacturing town in upstate New York, and except for four years in the Army he hadn’t traveled much elsewhere. When John had auditioned for Alpha Squad, the world’s first privately-funded team of Guardians, with its big Hollywood studio crew and high-tech corporate backing, he’d assumed everything would be slick. Like a sci-fi show.

So far, it felt sort of the same as New York.

He’d flown coach to Los Angeles. The hotel right near the beach was pretty nice, he guessed, but the room was awfully small. And here he was, miles and miles from Hollywood in some no-name California town, in a big, sprawling junkyard for his first and maybe only audition. Nothing so far had matched his fantasies about Alpha Squad. John was not an entitled guy, but he found himself a bit disappointed by something he’d hyped up in his mind so much.

Still, best thing was to do his best, like his Mom would tell him. The instructions from the film crew were simple as day:

Destroy the truck.

It was a big truck, a Ford F150, sitting about fifty yards away. New.

Everything about the task seemed absurd. There were literally junk cars piled up around him that people had discarded, but here was a perfectly good truck that his Daddy would have loved to drive, and that was the thing John had to destroy. It wasn’t even moving, just sitting there unsuspecting and innocent. John didn’t see how beating up on a defenseless truck was going to tell the judges whether he could or couldn’t defeat a Demon. But instructions were instructions. The Army’s drills didn’t always make sense either. He’d do his best and make his parents proud.

John turned away from the truck and jogged the other way, about another thirty yards further from that doomed, new truck. It was as much distance as he could get in the junkyard with a clear path between him and his target. A pile of old appliances loomed a couple feet from his back like a scrapyard totem pole as he turned and faced the truck again.

He blew out another breath and rocked his neck back from side to side. This is why he came all the way across the country. Time to do his best.

Time to be a Guardian.

He started running. With a thought, wrought-iron metal plates appeared from seemingly nowhere to wrap around John’s body. The entire process took less than a one-Mississippi, and it looked and sounded a lot like something from a Transformers movie. Slabs of metal several inches thick slapped around him in a shifting mosaic, encasing him in armor as he ran. The metal was black, pitted and industrial, like pieces of an unpainted locomotive. Pistons ran along his arms and legs, connecting at running gears on his elbows and knees. A large blast pipe started at his waist and wrapped to jut from behind one shoulder, billowing steam as he moved.

When it was done, John Bliss had become considerably taller and wider, encased in full armor that appeared to be a cross between a medieval knight and an ancient train. His head was an iron cylinder with one Cyclopean eye that glowed white even in the bright sun, an iron, wedge-like grill in front.

CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK

His armored feet bit into the arid dirt and weeds as he ran, leaving churned craters behind. Faster and faster. Pistons worked. Steam puffed from the blast pipe and occasionally one of his joints. John, now fully the Guardian his town had dubbed “Ironside,” barreled forward.

His Daddy had clocked him at well over a hundred miles an hour when he got going, as long as he was moving in roughly a straight line. John figured he must have been close to that speed when he collided with two-and-a-half tons of Ford.

The sound was deafening, and for a moment all John could see was twisted metal everywhere. Blind and deaf, he instinctively threw both hands out wide, ripping the mighty vehicle in two and sending both halves spinning away.

As the violent noises of the collision died away, John looked around him with his one, shining eye. Debris from the Ford truck was everywhere… behind him, in front, and especially to each side. He hadn’t realized it, but he must have carried the truck dozens of feet before ripping it in two. That beautiful new truck was now unrecognizable junk for the junkyard.

“Is that it?” John asked. In his Ironside form, his voice was much louder, deeper, and echoed as if he were standing at the bottom of a well. “Am I done?”

The camera crew gaped at him from thirty feet away.

“That was awesome,” John heard one of them say.

 

Meet the Judges: Andromeda Stacey

Andromeda Stacey, twice People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person in the World, evaluated her face in the mirror.

“You are stunning,” said the man to her right.

Andromeda almost pointed out the many flaws. For starters, those three damned freckles, too-large pores on her nose, the shadows under both eyes, how one nostril was slightly larger than the other, and the faint remnants of a pimple near her lower lip. But she never said such things out loud.

Instead, she quirked one corner of her mouth into a smile and said simply, “Thank you, Peter.”

Peter Moore had aged well, thanks in large part to unending wealth and power as a studio executive producer. He possessed a strong jaw and clear green eyes, the kind of looks that melted young Hollywood aspirants into spread-legged piles of drool. Peter could easily have been a rugged forty years old or a fit sixty. Only the deep smile lines around his eyes revealed more sixty than forty. His shaved head glowed in the bright lights surrounding the mirror.

“Listen,” he said in his deep baritone, straightening his tie in the reflection, “I know you’ve caught a lot of flak for being part of this show, but I hope it’s falling on deaf ears. You’re the perfect third judge for Alpha Squad. The audience is going to tune in because of you.”

The other person in the room, her make-up artist Barbie, was applying concealer below Andromeda’s eyes. The shadows there disappeared as she brushed out the concealer with practiced, quick strokes. Soon the other obvious flaws would be obscured. Goodbye until tonight, freckles.

“Thank you, Peter,” she said, almost without moving.

“Don’t move,” Barbie scolded.

“Good luck today,” Peter said, smiling his brightest at her in the mirror and winking. “Knock ‘em dead, and don’t take any shit from either of them, you hear?”

Andromeda quirked her lip again. After a second or so, the smile faded.

“Right then. See you on set, gorgeous.” He turned and walked out of her dressing room, the door closing behind.

“Asshole,” muttered Barbie.

“Peter? He’s not so bad.”

“Don’t move. If you say so. All he did for five minutes was talk about your looks and then ended by putting you in your place. You’re better than him.”

Andromeda put her hand up, signaling Barbie to stop with the brush.

“Put me in my place?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Barbie was built like a twelve-year-old boy, all skinny limbs and sharp angles. Her pink hair was short and spiked out from her head artfully. Today she wore a simple tank top, showing off tattoos that covered every inch of skin below her chin. The most dramatic ink was the Asian-looking tiger crawling from shoulder to elbow, but Barbie’s body was a mosaic of fantastical animals, obscure symbols, and cartoon characters.

“I shouldn’t have said anything. Sorry,” Barbie said, not sounding sorry in the least.

“No, please. What did you mean?”

“It’s just…” Barbie sighed loudly. “I mean, ‘third judge’? Like the other two are obvious and you’re the tag-along? And that follows a reminder that some people don’t even want you on the show. It just felt like tearing you down more than building you up, is all. Saying people will tune in because of you is just telling you that you’re hot, like you’re only there as eye candy. This sexist industry gets to me sometimes is all.”

Andromeda settled back into the chair, signaling it was time to resume. Barbie started expertly applying highlighter along the top of her cheekbones in silence.

In a couple of minutes, Andromeda spoke. “I don’t even hear those things anymore, to be honest. And let’s not kid ourselves. I’m only on this show as eye candy.”

Barbie snorted. “No. You’re not.”

“How so?”

“If you were here as eye candy, you’d be the host. You’re a judge. You’re here for your opinions.”

“And as eye candy.”

“Okay, sure. But it’s your words that are going to shape this show, not the luscious lips saying them. I get really tired of people treating you like you don’t have a brain, and I’ve been working with you long enough to know you do too. Your looks get you in the door, but you are smarter than anyone at the studio and both of those judges combined.”

“Hm,” Andromeda said noncommittally.

Several minutes later, Barbie was using a fluffy blending brush across her eyelids when Andromeda spoke again.

“It’s ironic,” she said, “that the person hired to enhance my looks is saying this.”

She heard Barbie snort again. “The fact that you see that irony only proves my point.”

Nearly an hour later, both women stared in the mirror, evaluating her face critically. Clay, her hair stylist, had artfully piled Andromeda’s blond hair atop her head, with spiral locks curling down each side to frame her face. That face was now smooth, perfectly symmetrical, and, Andromeda silently admitted to herself, flawless. Cheeks shone. Lips naturally pouted. Her eyes looked back from the mirror large and sensual. Purple eyeshadow glittered, ready to match the miniskirt dress that hung behind her. She had become an airbrushed photograph come to life.

“I think we’ve got it,” Barbie said.

“Yes,” Andromeda said, “Me too. The Trojan Horse is built.”

Barbie blinked, startled. Then her face broke into a huge smile.

“God yes. That’s what I’m talking about. Go get ‘em.”

Meet the Judges: Hudson

The door to the Blue Cat bar crashed open, a panting, skinny white kid silhouetted in the door frame. He wore hipster slacks, a button-up shirt with a too-big collar, and those thick-rimmed glasses that made nerds seem cool. In a glance, Hudson decided the guy was a complete waste of a life. He turned his back on the kid and returned to his Dos Equis.

A few seconds later, the kid was breathing heavily behind him. Hudson frowned.

“Mr. Hudson, sir?”

Dammit. Fanboy.

He sighed and looked at Sylvette, the bartender. She was a pretty thirty-something black girl with a halter top and a sweet afro. Hudson liked Sylvette, which is why he always came back to the Blue Cat whenever he was in LA. She saw his expression and winked, leaning back against the counter to watch the show.

Slowly. Dramatically. Hudson slid off the barstool. Stood up. Turned around.

The kid stepped back involuntarily, just like Hudson intended.

Hudson was about six-and-a-half feet tall. Right now he was wearing a white tank-top, fully displaying his physique. Oh, and his oily jet-black skin, patterned with yellow like a salamander. Seeing Hudson on TV and in person were different experiences, he’d found. He looked down on the kid with pupil-less, white eyes. The punk hipster swallowed audibly.

“Something I can do for you, man?” Hudson rumbled.

“Ah. It’s just, well…” he stammered.

“Yeah? I’m sort of busy here, as you can see. So get to it.”

“Mr. Hudson, sir…”

Hudson grunted. “Shit, man. That’s not my name.”

The kid faltered. “Um, what?”

“My name is Deshawn Andrews, so you can call me Mr. Andrews. Or you can call me Hudson. My fucking last name sure as fuck isn’t Hudson, though. That’s my Guardian name.”

“Oh. Right. Okay.” He was sweating and seemed to gather himself. “Mr. Andrews, sir. I’m from the studio.”

Hudson crossed his massive arms over his massive chest.

“And?”

The kid almost wet himself. It took him a couple of tries to find his voice. “And you’re supposed to be on set now, sir.”

Hudson paused, frowning. He turned back to the bartender.

“Sylvette? What day is it?”

She smiled a bright white smile, framed by those luscious chocolate lips. She had a big gap between her two front teeth. Damn fine woman.

“It’s Monday, honey.”

Hudson grunted, “Damn.” He turned back to the kid, who took another step back.

“When were we supposed to start?”

“Um,” the kid checked his phone. “It’s eleven AM, so we don’t start shooting for a couple of hours yet. But you were due at nine for make-up, wardrobe, and prep.”

“Shit, man. A couple of hours?” Hudson eased his bulk back onto the barstool and turned back around. He took a long swallow of his beer.

It took the kid almost a full minute. Hudson didn’t move. Sylvette didn’t either, though her smile became bigger the longer the silence stretched on. Finally, the kid cleared his throat.

“Mr. Hud– Mr. Andrews, sir?”

Hudson took another swallow. Sylvette shook her head, still smiling.

“Mr. Andrews?”

“What, man?” He still didn’t move. The kid appeared in his peripheral vision.

“Um, we have to go, sir. I’ve got a car outside.”

“Nah.”

“Um, what?”

“You deaf? I said no. I’m enjoying a beer with this fine woman in a mercifully empty bar. Go away, kid. I’ll be there before they start shooting.”

“But… The studio wants you there for…”

“I don’t need that other shit. They get me when I get there. Thanks for letting me know.”

“But…”

“Fuck off.”

More silence. Sylvette couldn’t help it and bust up laughing. She had a sexy laugh, that Sylvette. Hudson thought he would ask her out one of these days.

“I’m, um, I’m going to call the studio,” the kid said uncertainly. “I really think they want you there now.”

“Cool. Do that. Outside.”

Another few seconds of awkward silence, then footsteps and the Blue Cat’s door opened and closed.

“You really filming something today?” Sylvette asked, cocking her head to the side. Big hoop earrings flopped around when she did that, which Hudson thought was sexy.

“Yeah. Apparently.”

“Commercial?”

“Nah. Television show called Alpha Squad.”

Sylvette’s whole face lit up like fireworks. “Oh! I heard about that! That’s the reality show for a new Guardians group! You going to be in it?”

Hudson shrugged. “I’m one of the judges. Then they want me to lead the group after the show, I guess.”

“That’s so sweet! That show’s going to be epic.”

“Hope so.”

“So why you giving that studio guy such a hard time, then?”

“Punk kid annoys me. I’m not taking orders from him. Besides,” he opened his arms out wide and smiled. “Like I said, I’m enjoying a drink with a fine woman. Nothing should interrupt that.”

Sylvette laughed and shook her head. Those hoop earrings jangled around.

“You ever going to ask me out, honey? I’d say yes.”

Hudson kept smiling. “Someday.”

The door opened again, letting in daylight for a second before shutting. The kid all but ran over to his side again. He was holding his phone out like passing an Olympic torch.

“They want you there now, sir. Mr. Moore wants to talk to you. He’s on the phone. Here,” the kid waved the phone around. He looked terrified and sweaty. Good.

Hudson sighed and took the phone in his enormous hand.

“Hey Peter,” Hudson said. “Yeah? Yeah.” Pause. “Okay. I know, I know. I lost track of time, man.” Pause. “No, it’s cool. I’ll come over now.” Pause. “Annoys the fuck out of me, actually. Where’d you get him from?” Hudson listened, then laughed. “Okay, yeah. I won’t kill him until after I get there. Thanks, man.”

Hudson tossed the phone back to the kid. He fumbled it and it clattered to the floor. Fucking useless.

“Sylvette, my dear, my chariot awaits. Thanks for opening up for me.”

“Anytime, honey.”

He reached into his back pocket for his money clip, unrolled a Benjamin and laid it on the table.

“Don’t forget what I said,” Sylvette said, taking the bill and smiling her fine, gap-toothed smile.

“Someday,” he said.

“Well, you got my number.”

“I do. Alright,” Hudson turned to the kid, who had recovered his phone and was looking appropriately uncomfortable. Hudson was going to make this ride hell for the punk, just to fuck with him. “Let’s go then.”

“Okay, great. Great! My name is–”

“Don’t care.”

He could still hear Sylvette’s sexy laugh as they left the Blue Cat behind.

Meet the Judges: Christina Ng

Christina Ng sat in her expensive office chair, staring at a framed photo on her desk. A clock over the closed door ticked seconds ominously in the otherwise silent room.

It was a sizable office, but spartan. Various marketing and business bestsellers lined a modest bookcase mounted on one wall. On the opposite wall hung a framed document–AlphaTech’s first approved letter of funding as a new start-up in Silicon Valley. A tasteful white orchid, to match a tasteful white throw rug. A few modern chairs in which to sit, also white. Occasionally, someone at AlphaTech would ask her about adding some character to her office, and Christina would point out the wall of windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge behind her. To her, the view was the only aesthetic needed.

The photo showed a younger Christina at her MBA graduation from Stanford University. In it, she wore a red robe and cap, hugging a classmate with eyes shut and smile wide. She could remember that day so well, perhaps the happiest day of her life. Graduating was an accomplishment, but even more a beginning. The day after graduation, Christina began sketching out the business plan that would lead to AlphaTech’s framed funding letter. Staring at the photo brought Christina peace, and hope in troubled times.

Someone knocked on the door twice and then opened it a foot. Samantha Winters, Christina’s executive assistant, stuck her head into the room. She was a young, plump, pale, blotchy, and generally unattractive woman with glasses, and she always had a perpetually startled look on her face. Wicked smart and capable, but easy to underestimate just looking at her.

“Christina?”

Christina blinked from her reverie and looked at Samantha. “Hm?”

“Five-minute warning. Then they’ll escort us to the airport. I’ve got your bags ready.”

“Okay, thanks Sam.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you.”

Samantha stepped more fully into the room. She was wearing jeans and an unflattering floral top. “You okay?” she asked.

Christina blinked again and smiled with lightly-freckled cheeks. The freckles were the only blemish on her China-doll face.

“I guess. Just sort of thinking about beginnings. It’s a big day, right?”

“Yep. And a fun one. It’s going to be great. Let’s see how you look.”

Christina dutifully stood up and stepped around her desk. White blouse, gray business blazer and matching pencil skirt. She was a small woman–just barely topping five feet tall in her stiletto heels, and petite in every way. Her straight black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and fell to the middle of her back. She smoothed her skirt unnecessarily as her assistant looked her up and down.

Samantha cocked her head. “Beautiful and polished, as always. But…”

“But?” Christina quirked an eyebrow.

“For a Board meeting? Perfect. For today, though, I think the people at the studio are going to spruce you up a bit.”

“Spruce me up? What needs sprucing?”

“Just some color, maybe. A dramatic hat, or a scarf. Something for the audience to talk about.”

Christina smirked. “I’m not exactly aiming for the audience talking about me.”

Her assistant crossed meaty arms and smiled. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”

“You are, frustratingly, rarely wrong, Ms. Winters.”

A male voice shouted from behind Samantha. “Christina!”

Samantha flicked Christina a look that said, “Want me to get rid of him?” and Christina flicked back a quick shake of her head. It was one of those near-telepathic interchanges both women valued about their partnership.

“And here’s Gareth!” Samantha said, falsely beaming. She stepped aside.

Gareth Graham was a medium-height, skinny Englishmen with perpetually unkempt-yet-stylish hair. He wore a navy-blue suit and a salmon tie, loosened to also look unkempt yet stylish.

“There you are! I’m glad I caught you. Listen, before you kick off this ridiculous enterprise I wanted to try one more time to tell you what a bloody disaster it’s going to be.”

Gareth always had a wild, insistent energy to him. Christina, meanwhile, exuded an aura of serene calm. Their two styles often clashed in AlphaTech’s boardroom. Christina crossed her hands behind her and met Gareth’s panting figure with a half-smile. A moment of silence passed.

Gareth straightened, and exhaled loudly.

“That is to say,” he said less emphatically, “I’d like a word, if you please.”

Behind him, Samantha smiled. “I’ll leave you, then. The studio folks will be here any minute so make it quick.”

“Thanks Samantha,” Christina said as the door closed. Christina backed up a bit and sat lightly on the edge of her desk, gripping the edge with her hands. “Now then, Gareth, we’ve been through this, and the Board agrees with me. You know that.”

Gareth grimaced. “I know. Of course I know. I’m appealing to you to step back and see the wider picture here, Christina. Everything is coming up roses for AlphaTech, and there’s no need to take away that momentum. This could ruin us.”

“I appreciate your concern.” Gareth started to say something, and she held up a hand, cutting him off. “And I appreciate it’s a risk. Companies take risks, Gareth. My job as CEO is to make these decisions. I made the decisions that brought us to such a rosy P&L, you may recall.”

“Yes, but…”

“And if Alpha Squad is a disaster, well…”

“You’ll be out,” Gareth said violently. “You’ll be done. A laughing stock. This company you built will be taken away from you.”

Christina cocked an eyebrow. “Paving the way for a new, vibrant, visionary CEO, perhaps?”

“Dammit. If I wanted the job and wanted you to fail, I wouldn’t be here pleading with you. I’d let you bloody fall flat on your bloody face.”

“Fair point. So why come?”

“In hopes that on the precipice of this disaster that you’d see reason. Don’t do this. Please. I don’t understand why you’re so driven to make us such a public spectacle. I didn’t think you wanted to be a celebrity.”

“Is that what you think this is about? This is about building a brand, Gareth. AlphaTech’s, not mine. And doing some good while we’re at it.”

Someone knocked on the door.

“Well, I’m off to Los Angeles, it seems. I’m afraid the die is cast, Mr. Graham.”

“Mark my words,” Gareth said, shaking a finger, “this Alpha Squad nonsense will. Not. Work. You may have a meaningless reality TV show career at the end of this, but it will be the end of you leading a global enterprise.”

“I suppose we’ll see,” Christina said gently.

“I suppose we bloody will.”

The door opened, and Samantha stood there with an older, bald white man and several young people with tablet computers held to their chests. Gareth turned on his heel and pushed through them angrily. The group looked on briefly as he stormed towards the elevators, then turned their full, smiling attention to Christina.

“Big day,” the man said in a deep voice, stepping forward and extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Christina. You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, Peter.” Christina pulled herself away from her desk and met his grip, her hand comically small in his. “Well, let’s get going.”

As the two of them made their way out of the office one of the young people, a cute girl with sunglasses perched on top of her head turned to one of her young companions.

“I’m thinking we need color,” she said.

“Definitely. We’ll do that in LA. I have some ideas. A yellow scarf, maybe?”

Christina overheard and paused long enough to look at Samantha. Her assistant shrugged.

The group moved to the elevators, leaving the office door open. Only the ominous sound of a clock ticking filled the silence.