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Friday, April 23, 2021

Anyone Can Wear the Mask with Jeff Stormer!

I got to play Anyone Can Wear the Mask with the man himself, Jeff Stormer! We played over Discord, with Jeff as The City, me as The Villain, and my friend Aaron as The Hero. I had listened to some actual plays of the game he had done with The One Shot Podcast Network and on his own Party of One Podcast.

The game was very loosely set in Maximum Recursion Depth, and specifically in "Bell City" inspired by Jeff's experiences living in Philadelphia. It was also a pretty much entirely nonviolent scenario. Both the hero and the villain, and nearly all of the other characters, had nonviolent-based powers, and most of the threats encountered were of a nonviolent nature. We hadn't explicitly set out to do that necessarily, but I think it's pretty consistent with how I've been thinking about things and trying to do things lately so it was a pleasant outcome. It's also cool to see that this system totally supports that kind of play.



Play Report

Bell City was broken up into the following neighborhoods:
North Bell - Riverside (Clubs)
South Bell - Downtown (Spades)
East Bell - Historical Philly (Diamonds)
West Bell - The District of Neighborhoods (Hearts)

Chris Harris (He/His) is our hero, although he has no superhero costume or alter ego, he's just a guy out there with powers, doing good. He's a college student at West Bell Arts University. The powers were drawn from this list, and Chris has the power-
Memetic: Their photos, drawings, writings, etc., tap into the metaphysical collective unconscious, virally infecting culture within a matter of days. Often the tail of the meme lasts only just as long.

Lorenzo Tan (He/His) is our villain. He's sort of the corporate executive evil supergenius archetype along the lines of a Lex Luthor. His power is-
Letter of the Law: Has a supernatural ability to identify rules, regulations, laws, bureaucratic organization, etc., and additionally to either find the loopholes in them, or enforce them through legal writing, counseling, or courtroom tactics.
The big catch with Lorenzo, is that he explicitly does not do anything illegal. He does plenty of shady stuff, and as the head of a major corporation he is often twisting the laws in his own favor, but he will not be entrapped. Defeating him will require some kind of resistance against the status quo.


Chris lives in Paintcan Alley in West Bell, an area with a lot of affordable housing for the students, but since it's an art school, the whole neighborhood is full of cool art projects and it's a kind of low-key hip area. He's got several roommates, some of whom are students and some of whom dropped out or never went to college but are old childhood friends.

One of them, Cyrus, works odd jobs as a handyman, but has a history of misdemeanors and was caught stealing from the evil corporation he was working for. Cyrus asks Chris to intercede on his behalf, so Chris heads to Stanwick Tower, the massive, iconic centerpiece building of Downtown South Bell.

At the top of Stanwick Tower is a secret rooftop garden full of vibrant, over-lush, indulgent, bizarre, and exotic plants. Cyrus' client was Professor Kentucky "Tuck" Johnson, a sleazy tax-haven art dealer and part-time professor, who knows Chris from one of his classes. Tuck is organizing a convoluted pyramid scheme; a blockchain-based virtual art gallery composed of NFT art, with a cryptocurrency valued off of the value of the museum as the "bank". However, the scheme is The Producers-esque, where the company is depending on the value of the bank being low, at the expense of the artists and the community funding it. Chris is forced to contribute to this scheme, or else Tuck will report Cyrus and he'll go to prison.

Chris's girlfriend, Tessa Kincaid, is a computer science graduate student and hacktivist. They work together to promote the virtual gallery and turn it into something profitable and empowering for the community, at the company's expense, but with plausible deniability with regard to his obligation to Tuck.

At the gallery opening, Chris meets a high school art prodigy, Pete Jenkins. Pete has the power-
Artist's Touch: Their touch imbues objects or surfaces with an inherent, aesthetic sense of "art". Likewise, by touching art, they can extract the aesthetics from it. The object or surface does not change, merely others' perceptions of it.

Pete is a tragic, misunderstood, awkward kid, with so much potential, but who could easily succumb to his darker impulses and inability to understand society. Chris, using his Memetic powers, takes Pete on as something like a protege or sidekick, in some ways serving as an editor on his art to help him refine his works into something that is still true to himself, but also that others can better understand and appreciate.

Along the North Bell Riverside is an old warship that now serves as a tourist attraction in the pseudo-historical, touristy, family-friendly Riverside area. Suddenly, people begin to lose their memories and become confused, and soon they take on the personas of pirates and privateers in battle. The ship is being haunted by the Poltergeist Fanny Rotten Forgotten. There's an old wive's tale, that Fanny's husband was a fisherman who left to become a pirate, hoping the lucrative treasures could be used to raise his family. However, after so many years, he was yet to return. In her grief, Fanny took arms against the pirates when, years and years later they did return, but by then she had forgotten what her husband even looked like. Chris wades through the chaos to reach Fanny, and uses his memetic powers to remind her of her past; and rather than channeling her frustrations on how much the neighborhood has changed and become unrecognizable (a metaphor for her own grief), she should instead appreciate that the neighborhood still exists, and what it has become, and the tokens of the past still present. This returns things to normal, although many people still have foggy or forgotten memories, including Chris.

An old friend who has been gone for some time overseas reaches out to Chris, but because of his recent memory loss, he does not remember who this person is. They ask Chris to infiltrate the shipping yard to retrieve an important shipment, and to keep absolute secrecy and not even tell anyone that they're back in town or talking with Chris. There are shady rumors about this person and Chris isn't sure if he can trust them, or how much this person knows about his powers.

Chris manages to sneak in and finds that it's a government shipment, surrounded by scientists in lab coats. When Chris and this person meet up with the item, his memories begin to come back. The "old friend" is actually his uncle, who also has Memetic-related powers. Whereas Chris can spread Memetic information across the Noosphere, his uncle can perceive it, and this is how he's able to return Chris's memories.

From the uncle "reading" the package, they're able to learn that this is all connected to something called The Doppler Potential: Super-organism distributed intelligence that evolved as an epiphenomenon of the formation of the United States Government, to which it is inextricably linked. It is part of the Karmic Cycle and legally human according to the Celestial Bureaucracy, but seeks to attain godhood. It does not hide its existence, as there is no need to do so. Its existence marginalizes humans as merely nodes of a larger consciousness, which most humans find existentially untenable and so deny it in the face of all evidence or grant it uncritical token acknowledgment.

Again using the uncle's powers, they learn that The Doppler Potential has set off a cascade of events that will cause a subway train collision into the Bell City Megaplex, an underground mall in the middle of downtown. They arrive in the middle of the night, but the Doppler Potential has shut down all electricity and network access and trapped them inside. They discover that the train has been possessed by The Ghost in the Machine, which has been manipulated into lashing out against the modernization of the city. Chris finds some of Pete's transgressive graffiti inside the mall, and uses the evocative imagery to appeal to Ghost in the Machine. However, he is a little too convincing, turning Ghost in the Machine into an aggressive anarchist, who is now broadly lashing out against the city, inadvertently hurting people even as it aims to topple the corporations vying for control over the city.

As chaos ensues, Lorenzo Tan uses this as a smokescreen to buy up large swathes of the city and open a new warehouse for his corporation. The poor conditions of the warehouse and new gig economy leave workers exhausted and desperate, Cyrus acts out in protest and is arrested, local businesses are run out of business and replaced by monolithic corporate chains, and the city is metaphorically, and in some ways literally drained dry.

At a historical revolutionary war site in East Bell, poltergeists rise up in a chaotic war between Fanny Rotten Forgotten and her privateers, Ghost in the Machine and the revolutionary soldiers, and the corporate goons. As it turns out, Ghost in the Machine's subway line was once a railroad smuggling ring and war supply line, managed by Fanny's husband's pirates; Ghost in the Machine is Fanny Rotten Forgotten's husband!

They make peace, and Chris, followed by practically the entire city, confront Lorenzo in the mall, who looks down on them from a private office above. Lorenzo uses Chris's relationship with Cyrus, the shady dealings of Tuck and Chris's association with that deal, and the other recent events, to try to portray Chris as a rat, an opportunist trying to take advantage of the people and the city, and not truly fighting for justice and the city. However, the uncle releases the documents from the Doppler Potential heist, and Chris makes a convincing argument for how he's only bringing value to the community, such as how he banded the city against Tuck's NFT art gallery scheme or Pete's political and aspirational street art, and that he decidedly does not want power over the city (in fact, the dangers of his powers and how they could be used for selfishness and evil was his greatest fear for the city).

While he can't force Lorenzo to leave the city, the entire event generates enough bad press that Lorenzo decides it is not worthwhile to continue to pursue his current plans, and instead shuts down the warehouse and leaves the city (for now). Many of the businesses affected by Lorenzo will never return, and Cyrus will always have a mark on his record, but new businesses startup and the city develops a rebellious spirit, especially among the younger generation. Bell City has become iconic as a place for those with a rebellious spirit who wish to create positive change in the world. The story of Ghost in the Machine and Fanny Rotten Forgotten becomes iconic, the symbols, the cultural icons, for Bell City and this movement.

Debrief

I had an absolute blast playing this game. Jeff for sure brought a lot of creativity and charisma to the experience, but I have no doubt that Aaron and I could play this again with others, and in fact, have talked about doing so. As someone who plays primarily OSR / NSR type games and not as many narrative games, but who loves worldbuilding and storytelling and also superhero comics, this nonetheless all played out very organically. The system itself is very straightforward and basically unfolds the narrative in itself. I was surprised how easily we were able to tell a coherent and moving superhero story, one that explores themes of personal interest, with themes we were able to establish early on and use as throughlines for the whole session, culminating in something that felt weighty and impactful, as if we had carefully constructed the story as if we knew how it would end from the very beginning. I could also very easily imagine using this system as a starting point to build a world for a larger campaign. I am very glad to have supported this game and had the opportunity to play with Jeff, I hope people enjoyed this story and check out the game for themselves!

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