Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The care and feeding of secret identities

Secret identities are not particularly in, right now. On shows like Flash and Supergirl they seem to reveal their secret identities at the drop of a hat (mask?). The biggest group, the X-Men, don't really have secret identities, though some of them wear masks in sort a half-witted attempt at hiding their identities. Though the original X-Men wore masks and still do, most of the New Mutants don't when I look at covers. (Really...they're hated and feared. You'd figure they'd wear more disguise, not less.) The lamented Fantastic Four just say who they are, and Tony Stark admits to gallivanting around in armor. Thor has no secret identity, and Hank Pym seems to use his name as often as any of the other identities he has.

And, really, secret identities have a bad rep. It feels in retrospect like there were a bazillion stories where Lois suspected Clark of being Superman, but was foiled because Clark dressed up a robot, or Batman, or pretended to be dead, or used super-ventriloquism (really? I mean, really?) to pretend he was in the next room from Superman.

Not to mention that in the context of most superhero RPGs, your secret identity as Pablo Pinkwater, crusading blogger, doesn't matter except as a way to feed you information or get you in and out of scrapes.

So what's a GM to do with secret identities?

Obviously, you don't need them. It's totally okay if a player is fine with playing Frank, whose public name is Ionic Column, or even just Frank. If that's the game you want to play, great.

But if a character has taken a secret identity--has made a point of saying it--then what do you do with it?

There are, to my mind, three reasons why a player might take a secret identity for his or her character:

  1. It makes sense for the character (the sole trained normal in a group of demigods, for instance) but the player doesn't really want to play it. In that case, trying to bring in the character's secret identity is going to be frustrating for both of you: you'll get annoyed that you keep throwing out plot crumbs that get ignored, and the player will get annoyed that you're wasting all this time on unimportant things. A variant of this is the player who is actively trying to keep you from giving them stuff that will distract from what they consider the cool gaming part. You see this in players who are there for the puzzles and game rather than the story. (No knock on either.)
  2. It makes sense for the character because they have something to hide from the other characters. I had this in a recent M&M3E game, where one character was the child of villains and was actually working on behalf of the supervillain community. This wasn't underhanded as a game thing: The other players knew the character was like this, but their characters didn't. So we did a fair but of almost-lost-identity stuff that revolved around that.
  3. The player likes all the angst and the convoluted solutions to pretend to be other people.

In the first case, both of you should just agree that it's the case. "Do you care about this stuff? I notice you didn't take secret identity as a complication or quality." As a GM, you can avoid certain areas easily.

The second case is really the easiest. The important thing is discovery by the other characters, and if your players like your basic fewmet football, then the other players are going to seize on every opportunity that the character provides.

The third case is the one I'm going to talk about. These ideas can also be applied to the second case.

A secret identity is just a specific case of A Terrible Secret. What matters are the consequences of exposure. Once you have sufficiently high consequences, you can play around with the threat of exposure. If there are no consequences, who cares? Your PC can be Hugh out in the suburbs who gets in the car every day, drives to a secret location, and changes. The super team is no different than, say, your secret government organization as a job.

So what are the consequences of exposure, and how do you make them obvious to the players? What are the consequences of exposure?

Generally, the negative consequences of exposure depend on a couple of things that might or might not be true for a given character;

  • The hero isn't indestructible all the time. Similarly, trained guys need some kind of down time. If your hero is vulnerable if attacked in his sleep, suddenly there's a reason not to let people know where he lives.
  • The hero's associated aren't indestructible. Your hero might be very tough, but the girlfriend/boss/employee/cousin/paperboy isn't. 
  • The hero wants some privacy.
  • The hero wants to stay in touch with regular people.

So you make them care about exposure by playing with the things that are true for that character and creating situations that might take them away.

People say one thing about the general case and act differently about the specific. So J. Jonah Jameson is against superheroes and these whackos, but it's different when it's his son who has become the Man-Wolf. Your character's dependents might mention how awful the hero identity is, and might even have a plausible reason for hating him or her, but it might not hold up when it's someone the dependent knows. For instance, Aunt May in the early days repeatedly said things about that awful Spider-Man, which made Peter afraid to let her know. During the period where she did know, it was obviously fine with her. (The Ultimates version of Aunt May knew, and was fine.)

If a PC has some romantic potential partner, having the partner say, "I would never date so-and-so" might well be a partial argument against a reveal.

The PCs can see the results of a public identity generally and vendettas carried out by villains against their friends who don't have secret identities: if papparazzi camp out on the doorstep of team-mate Avalanche, or if the Murky Molemaster attacks the family of Avalanche, well, the player has a reason to figure you'd do the same to his or her PC's relatives or loved ones. So feel free to attack them; it's especially effective against people you can't hurt directly. If no one on the team has a public or semipublic identity, feel free to introduce a hero who is being blackmailed in just that way: maybe Fisher Prince doesn't patrol the Swamp section of town whenever he gets a signal from the Bone Gang. There's a whole adventure there trying to resolve Fisher Prince's problem while showing the characters what might happen to them.

Gossip or hearsay can be a powerful tool. If Joe Random Stranger mutters bad things or even threats against the hero, is it so far-fetched as to think a villain might do bad things? "What's that guy, covering his face? What has he got to hide, huh? I bet he's a criminal. And the guy who does show his face, why, he's got these shifty eyes." Feel free to use any photos that fit, just like a "Separated at Birth" joke.

Secret identities seem to be mostly out of place in modern comics or modern supers RPGs. You can still wring interesting things out of them.