Today’s article started with a tweet from Alan Spartan (@SpartanAlan), who asked, “What do any fantasy authors out there think about RPG resources for fantasy writing rather than gaming? Good/bad/misleading?”
My answer was “Good question. I’ll have to write a proper response next week. Until then – all of the above.”
That last statement is an answer that needs some amplification, and that’s what this article is intended to provide.
Turning RPG game-play into fiction brings a lot of benefits. I’ve identified five below that I think cover all the bases, but there could easily be more.
The most obvious one comes from identifying your fiction with the game product used to generate it. This creates a cross-marketing synergy in which every player of the game system is encouraged to at least check out your fiction (if not to buy it outright, thinking they are supporting the game system that they like), and every outsider who likes the fiction is encouraged to look into the game system.
The bigger and more popular the game system, the bigger the benefits to the work of fiction; the smaller and more obscure the game system, the bigger the proportional benefits to the makers and publishers of the game system from any level of success of the fiction. The middle ground is where things get interesting.
It could be that there is a sweet-spot where maximum benefits are achieved by both parties. It could also be that the disadvantages persist after the benefits run out, and that the middle ground benefits no-one particularly. It could be that both statements are true, according to minor factors that have not been identified – how well game elements translate to the fictional page, how recognizable the game elements are within the work of fiction, etc.
I suspect that canonality would have a major role to play – if the fiction is considered to be canonical game material, it will get a bigger boost from the game system market, and vice versa.
Lots of people have contributed their imaginations to the game. Just look at the sheer number and variety of creatures that can be encountered in a game of D&D, for example. All this is material that the author doesn’t have to think of himself, leaving him free to focus on other elements of the work of fiction.
Of course, this does leave the work of fiction hostage to the quality of the imaginings of the game. Some game ideas are flawed, short-sighted, or just plain silly. And the author may have to work harder than usual to bring those spoon-fed creative elements to life within the story. And finally, there is a danger that cohesion will be lost in the narrative, that different encounters will feel randomly thrown together simply because they were.
There was certainly an element of this within the original D&D movie – at times it felt like the plot was being interrupted for a random encounter, before resuming once again. Part of that stems from these creatures just popping into the plot without their existence being established within the framework of the story.
Involving pregenerated inspiration introduces new skills into the mix – the ability to select the right encounters to make a good story as opposed to a good game, for example.
In a nutshell, basing your fiction upon a game can make it quicker and easier to knock out the work of fiction – but it can also make that work of fiction feel like it was knocked out too quickly and cheaply, without the necessary investment in plausibility.
One of the areas a lot of people seem to suffer from is the metaphysical framework surrounding their story, especially if it is not integral to the plot. Creating an internally-consistent universe takes a LOT of work and deep thought. Being able to import an established metaphysics and cosmology and theology and all the implications and cross-connections between these subjects can save the author a LOT of work, especially if these are not to be central elements within the plot.
Combat Realism and Balance
Here’s one of the biggies, when it comes to benefits: Quite often, when reading a B-grade work of fiction (or worse), you get the sense that the central character’s capabilities change randomly from scene to scene. In one scene, he struggles to tote a sack of potatoes and in another he knocks down castle doors – well, that might be exaggerating a bit. This comes from trying to evoke the same level of suspense and danger in all the combat/drama sequences throughout the story – the protagonist’s abilities vary according to the needs of the plot.
A lot of that can be solved by conducting the combat with a consistent set of PC stats and game mechanics, taking detailed notes, and then turning every roll into narrative of the course of the battle. By establishing a set standard for the abilities of the central character(s), you can then define how tough the opposition need to be according to how much trouble the protagonists have in emerging victorious – then handle your battle scenes accordingly.
But, as always, there is a caveat: it’s easy for battle sequences to go on for too long, and overload the narrative, and for the individuality of the participants to be lost. Take a look at the Helm”s Deep sequence in the Lord Of The Rings (the novel) – Tolkien periodically punctuates the battle with brief character sequences to keep that identification alive, and furthermore, has the individuality of the combatants influence their style of battle (though I think the movie actually does a better job of the latter).
Condensing a battle sequence to the right length – and knowing what the “right length” needs to be – is a whole new problem that adapters need to face, a new skill that they need to acquire.
Out-of-combat Balance & Structure
Of course, similar problems can exist and be overcome using game mechanics outside of combat. It’s all too easy for a below-par writer to have his characters unable to see what’s going on two inches in front of his nose in one part of the story and able to detect nuanced subtleties a hundred miles away from the merest whisper of a rumor at another time. My players describe this sort of thing generally as “moving with the speed of plot”.
Having consistency in what the character can and can’t do is another of the big benefits that can come from synergizing game-play and fiction-writing.
As you may have come to expect, however, this is not an unalloyed benefit. It constrains what the character can do, and that can force the writer to artificially enhance the circumstances in order to move the plot forward. We expect characters to learn from their mistakes and progress in capabilities – but not too fast – and the pace of character development in the game may not match that demanded by the plotline. There are only two solutions to this problem: pad out the story with lots of inconsequential story to give the characters the time they need in game mechanics to evolve sufficiently, or throw in a lot of unexpected ramp-ups to that potential to get the characters where they need to be. For all his good points as a writer, EE “Doc” Smith was extremely prone to the latter solution (and he wasn’t working with a game system). The problem that results is the “superman syndrome” – each time you ramp up what the character can do, you need to come up with a reason why those heightened abilities don’t make the next encounter a breeze. To keep the drama going, you need to continually up the ante in terms of the opposition’s capabilities, too, and after a while, that all seems to become too artificial.
Breakthroughs don’t generally happen just when you need them.
Having damned the benefits with faint praise and a lot of caveats, it’s time to look at the pitfalls.
The Copyright Problem
The first problem that comes to mind is that most of the text from which you will be working is subject to someone else’s copyright and/or trademark. Take the 3.5 Monster Manual. The stats are OGL, the description and flavor text are not. That means that you either have to completely reinvent the descriptive wheel or get permission from the game company to use their content.
Neither is a completely satisfactory solution. Needing to reinvent the wheel each time to make it uniquely your own undoes a lot of the benefit derived from being able to import game elements into the fiction. Alternatively, being able to copy-and-paste tracts of descriptive text (then tweak, of course) runs the risk of contrary styles of delivery. Deriving your text from another writer’s work risks losing your own descriptive voice – the result sounds like a patchwork because it IS a patchwork.
A different shade of green
It gets worse. Let’s say you need to describe Elves. A common element of fantasy gaming, this is something that you are almost certainly going to have to deal with. You can’t copy Tolkien and you can’t copy D&D, and even if you could the results could feel ‘tacked on’. You not only need to make this ubiquitous race your own original creation, but you need to be able to capture their uniqueness and transfer it to the page without page after page of exposition. It can actually end up being more work than simply creating a new race with the qualities that you need/want them to have rather than trying to describe a different shade of green.
What’s more, it’s easy to get lazy when importing elements from another source. You change one or two elements of the description to make the race your own and never dig deeply enough into the rest of the source material to identify the ramifications and consequences.
Take a look at the article I wrote on The Ergonomics Of Elves. Making the elves a little different from humans was easy. It was the ramifications and consequences that made it interesting (and the processes of simulation to discover those consequences). Everything from social structure to social activities to weapons design to furniture to diplomatic relations got impacted.
The elves that resulted were very different from Elves in basic D&D for all their superficial similarities (resulting from convergent design), which were also different to those in the LOTR movies, which were different from those in my Fumanor campaign (detailed in the Orcs & Elves series). There were certain elements in common, superficial similarities abounded, but the more you dug into the race and what made it tick, the more different they became from all these other exemplars. They were “different shades of green”.
It would have been a lot less work to make an overt change and never explore those ramifications – but superficial efforts always produce superficial fiction. And that’s a whole separate problem to overcome.
Roleplay vs Narrative
There are things that will work well, even to the point of near-necessity, in an RPG that simply don’t translate into a work of fiction. Wandering Monsters are an obvious example. They can serve an essential function in a game setting that simply doesn’t translate well into a more connected narrative. They are too isolated, and make the resulting fiction feel compartmentalized and disconnected, as though someone wrote part of a novel, dropped in a short story featuring the same characters, then resumed the novel.
The two types of work are structured differently, if they are to be any good.
Similarly, there are structural elements needed by fiction that simply aren’t present in the typical RPG game session, and that require extensive translation. Combat sequences come to mind as an example.
Rendering each blow and by-blow into a narrative form always sounds good on paper, but it’s horribly inefficient.
Ten participants in combat, five rounds of combat, an average of two blows per participant per round, and let’s say 10 seconds per blow (absolute minimum) to render the narrative – 10 x 5 x 2 x 10 = 1000 extra seconds, almost an extra 17 minutes, to conduct the battle. Taking the time to be a little more artistic about the narrative can easily triple this, and suddenly a single battle takes close to an extra hour to play through, in the RPG context, on top of the actual simulation of the battle. If the combat itself takes an hour, that’s 50% inefficiency. If it takes two, that’s 33% inefficiency. (Check out my article on time-and-motion in RPGs for more of this sort of analysis).
Blow-by-blow narrative is the first thing to go when you try to streamline combat for gameplay purposes. But that’s the chief utility for the fiction writer using an RPG to give a little structure to his writings; if anything, he will want to go in the other direction.
Good game design is therefore at odds with using games as a fiction generator.
But there’s one aspect of game design that tends to flow into any fiction based on it all too easily. Any flaws or shortcomings or shortcuts in the way the game simulates reality – and these are essential to practical game-play – will tend to translate directly into the pages of the fictionalized narrative, often without even being noticed.
The fiction is hostage to the limitations of the source material.
The opportunities available to characters are constrained and confined by what the game system allows. The effects of what characters do are generally confined and constrained (for the most part) to the impacts on the participants, and it’s up to the GM to extrapolate those effects into alterations to the environment. This focus is – to some extent – essential for practical game-play – but the fiction writer has to fill in those gaps or his work will feel shallow and superficial. And that can be even harder than crafting the narrative action-by-action, especially when an environmental impact that should have been felt in the gameplay isn’t, because from that point on, you have to throw away your simulation results and wing it anyway.
“The fireball detonates, Kendrick throws himself flat in the nick of time. Baldron stands his ground against the arcane flames, and emerges smoking and singed. Baldron takes advantage of the Wizard’s surprise at seeing him still standing there to deliver a killing blow against his foe.” Sounds reasonable? Okay, now try inserting “The stone floor melts and runs like taffy” in between Kendrick throwing himself flat and Baldron standing his ground. Or “The overheated limestone floor explodes.” Or “The wooden walls and floor are reduced to ash.” Standing your ground suddenly seems a whole lot more improbable, and as for being in a position to strike the final blow…
Credit where Credit Is Due
Finally, I want to pose the question: if you are using an RPG as the foundation of one or more fictional works, how much credit (and how big a share of any proceeds) are the players entitled to? Do the players hold copyright over the characters that they create? Can the author be sued?
When I was creating my Champions Campaign, I was very careful to get each of my players to sign releases that specified the manner of attribution, the copyright on the characters, permission to use them, etc. Any fictional product deriving from that campaign that is sold beyond the circle of historical or contemporary players of the campaign and that earns more than a nominal threshold value entitles them to a minor share of the proceeds.
I was fortunate; my players were very accommodating, and the fact that I had deliberately tried to be better than fair about their contributions helped persuade them to sign those releases. If any of them had wanted to kick up a fuss, however, negotiations would have been long and difficult, with no certainty of success.
The first volume of campaign background was solely my creation, leaving only the headache of rewriting anything derived from copyrighted Hero Games source material, like UNTIL, and reinventing characters that were too obviously derivative of Marvel or DC comics, like the main villain “Mandarin”. The second volume is largely fictionalized and I have releases for the key characters. The third volume has also been largely rewritten from the original gameplay and I have more detailed released from all the players. The fourth, fifth, and sixth volumes exist only in an abridged format and are more faithful to the game-play material, and are still covered by the original player releases. The seventh volume contains the abridged versions of 4, 5, and 6, plus a completely fictionalized version of subsequent events. Volumes 8 onwards tell the story of the original Zenith campaign and subsequent gameplay (Volume 7 was written as the campaign background and copies sold at cost to the players in the Zenith campaign). A little planning a long time ago has me covered.
You might not be so lucky.
The Right Balance
There are aspects of RPG gaming that can be usefully translated into fiction, and benefits to doing so. But, in order to achieve those benefits, the game needs to be optimized and purposely designed for that application, because so many of the things that go into making a roleplaying game Good To Play are at odds with the things that make fiction Good To Read.
Special attention needs to be paid to each of the drawbacks that I have identified. The game should be a starting point, nothing more.
It might seem, on first glance, that using an RPG as a tool for generating fiction is a great shortcut. I think I have shown that it can and should be even more work than just writing the story. The question to be asked is how to ensure that the extra effort required yields sufficient benefits to justify that extra effort.
Used effectively, an RPG can be a great tool for the fantasy writer. The trick is to achieve the part of that sentence that comes before the comma.
It’s Not Just Fantasy
Although the original question was about Fantasy writing, I’ve touched on Superhero and Sci-Fi along the way, and that’s because the same analysis applies to all genres of fiction that have an RPG. Some genres can benefit more than others – and I’ve already written an article on how Mystery Writers can achieve particular benefit from using RPGs as a foundation for their stories (An Air Of Mystery – Using an RPG to write mystery fiction).
A Superheroic Example from the Zenith-3 Archives
The reason I have leaned so heavily on the Zenith-3 campaign is because I have actual experience of translating those adventures into a fictionalized synopsis; before Campaign Mastery started, I used to do so regularly for the benefit of the players of the game. So I thought I would close this article with an example from those writings that dates back to late 2001 and spans three game sessions. It’s been stripped of game mechanics, but still betrays its origins from time to time. It could certainly serve as the outline of a fictionalized account of the events.
“Whispers In The Dark” Part I
In the wake of Johnny Luca’s flight to Zenith-3’s protective custody, the mobster turned over documents proving that the Director of the FBI had been in the Mafia’s back pocket for a number of years. He then astounded the heroes by offering to give them information to prosecute even more government officials in the pay of the mob, in return for immunity from prosecution and protection from an assassin known only as Mr Whisper. The members of Zenith-3 made the decision to follow up on Luca’s information, and Glory contacted an old friend within the FBI. After flying to Washington and presenting Luca’s information to Glory’s contact, the FBI agent swore in the team as FBI deputies and promptly contacted Judge Bartholomew Schumacher, a Justice of the Supreme Court, for a warrant to search the Director of the FBI’s office. The search revealed over a million dollars in bribe money and enough evidence to incriminate a number of senators and congressmen.
Upon returning to the Dam, where they had left Luca, the team discovered that Karma’s wards and guards had been torn to shreds by an unknown attacker. Finding Luca huddled in a corner almost catatonic from terror, Karma conducted a telepathic probe on the former capo and found one phrase running through his mind: “Please don’t hurt me, I’ll tell you everything!” Guessing that the mysterious attacker now knew everything about Zenith-3 that Luca did, the team returned to their base just in time to receive a distress call from Scarab in Mrs Mayberry’s boarding house. Teleporting to the house, the team found Mandarin, Mrs Mayberry and Scarab all unconscious but no sign of the attacker. Upon awakening, Mandarin accused Glory of being in league with the mysterious entity which had attacked the house. When Glory protested that she knew nothing of the attack, Mandarin merely laughed mockingly and proclaimed “You are just like the one who attacked us”, before teleporting away.
As Team Zenith-3 stood in the wreckage of what had been Mrs Mayberry’s home they had a decision to make. Normal humans (namely the UNTIL personnel serving in the base beneath Mrs Mayberry’s house) were living at the Champions base and were at risk in any battle, but they had chosen to take those risks. As Scarab pointed out, there was another person living with them who hadn’t been given the option to choose – Mrs Mayberry. The discussion was abruptly halted as Mrs Mayberry began waking up, and Blackwing changed to his human form to help the elderly landlady up to her room. The discussion continued downstairs in the base, and one thought clearly emerged – Zenith-3 had no real option but to reveal their true identities to Mrs Mayberry. Also discussed were various alterations to the house such as the additions of alarm systems and a couple of reinforced safe-rooms where Mrs Mayberry could hide in the case of attack. The team meeting then turned to a matter long overdue – team elections. After the votes were tallied it was found that they had chosen their most introverted member as chairman and their newest recruit as field commander.
The next day Zenith-3 spoke to Mrs Mayberry in her living room and revealed their identities to her. After a few minutes they were able to convince her of the truth of their claims, but it was difficult to tell who was more surprised – Mrs Mayberry at the team’s open admission, or the team at just how much she had already figured out. Ravenscroft, after all, hadn’t even bothered wearing a mask as a member of Zenith-3, and his statement on Helloween that “A vote for McCarthy is a vote for Chthon!” was televised around the country. In the end Mrs Mayberry was convinced of who the team really were and agreed to some security precautions, including the installation of alarm systems.
Meanwhile, at the Dam, Karma was coping with a white glove inspection of the repairs following the attack by Mr Whisper on the facility. During the additional work demanded by the inspector, she discovered that many of the instruments the control systems relied on were glorified simulations – a puzzle that she intends to solve as soon as possible.
Shortly after the discussion with Mrs Mayberry, St Barbara received a phone call from Shaun Davies, a student she’d met in her civilian identity, asking her out on a date. Blackwing, who had received the initial call, took a great deal of glee in using his shape-shifting powers to assume Shaun’s shape and trying to make St Barbara burst out laughing while still on the phone. That call was interrupted by a message from Captain Thompson for the team to investigate a disturbance at the Boston Library. When the team arrived they found that a massive explosion had blown out the front of the Library. Upon investigating, the team determined that the explosion had centered around a grimoire which had been teleported into the Library specifically for Mist. They also determined that the explosion had made the Library structurally unsound. After a series of jury-rigged repairs, a few mishaps, a pratfall or two, and even more property damage, Zenith-3 was finally able to recover the book and take it back to their base for study.
The book was from Mist’s brother in Avalon (who had a bad habit of putting too much power into his spells). It included a personal message to Mist and contained a divination spell known as ‘The Terrain of Wisdom’, which would let someone step into the memories of the spell’s subject. While Mist studied the spell, the team had an appointment to keep – escorting Johnny Luca to the FBI to finalize the deal for his information. Karma opened a gateway for the team into a janitor’s closet at the Boston FBI office in an attempt to avoid being ambushed by Mr Whisper.
The first hint that this attempt had failed came when Whisper fired a pistol round into Karma’s skull from behind as soon as she stepped through her portal. St Barbara immediately followed through the portal, using her light powers to keep Whisper off-balance while Luca and the rest of the team made transit. After a nervous negotiation session with the FBI, the now-recovered Karma brought the team home. To retrieve the evidence Luca was offering, Luca had to present the key to the vault containing a map to the hidden evidence at a bank in Zürich. The evidence was Luca’s ace-in-the-hole, and he had gone to great lengths to keep it safe. The vault key was hidden in Luca’s mansion, which Dragon’s Claw and Glory infiltrated with near-contemptuous ease. Retrieving the key, they returned to Zenith-3’s base. In the meantime the rest of the team planned their strategy. Whisper had been one jump ahead of them from the get-go, and now was the time to use that to turn the tables on him.
Karma opened a portal to a park in Zürich near the bank and Luca stepped through it. A rifle bullet smashed into his skull and he fell to the ground, with Whisper teleporting in to attach a limpet mine to his back to finish the job. However the assassin was doubtless surprised to learn that ‘Luca’ was in fact Blackwing even as Mist cast the Terrain of Wisdom spell, sending Glory, Karma and Oracle into Whisper’s memories. Meanwhile Blackwing, Dragon’s Claw and St Barbara protected Mist, who was busy maintaining her spell, from Whisper’s physical attacks. After a short but intense battle, Whisper vanished. With the threat over for the moment Karma brought the real Johnny Luca through to the bank where, after verifying his identity, the group proceeded to the vault holding the papers.
Without warning, Whisper suddenly materialized, snatching the papers from Luca’s hands and vanishing before anyone could react, and the team realized that Whisper had not been fooled by Blackwing’s deception; his primary objective all along was the recovery of the evidence. Glory, Karma and Oracle soon returned from their spirit quest through Mr Whisper’s memories with startling news – critical information about the assassin. The rest of Zenith-3 were stunned to learn that Whisper was, in fact, the Mandarin of Dimension-Halo. Only Mist took the discovery in stride – she had always felt that there was something very wrong with the kindly priest and his New Jersey Cult….
“Whispers In The Dark” Part II
It was a sombre Team Zenith-3 which gathered in their base after their return from Zürich. It seemed that all their work to get hold of Luca’s files had been for nothing. As they compared notes and Oracle began assembling their impressions into a cohesive pattern, options began to emerge.
The journey through Mr Whisper’s memories had made it clear that his immortality, like that of Mandarin-Prime, had been caused by accidental exposure to a mixture of magical potions. However in Dimension-Halo it was more similar to vampirism than the true immortality of Mandarin-Prime. His need for blood had been the driving factor behind his actions down through the centuries, inspiring legends of such bloodthirsty leaders as Genghis Khan and Vlad Tepes. It had led to his becoming one of the leading haematologists in Dimension-Halo in an attempt to cure himself. And it gave Zenith-3 a crucial lever of negotiation – as Oracle pointed out, the team had to deal with Whisper to recover the documents, they didn’t necessarily have to fight him. Glory’s blood was saturated with life energy and was constantly regenerating itself, and based on the team’s knowledge a transfusion should permanently satisfy his need for blood. With this in mind and the knowledge of his location (a small church in New Jersey which had been discovered in a previous investigation) the team began discussing plans to get a small group into the church without being torn to shreds by Whisper.
While a series of plans were tossed around the briefing room, Karma grew frustrated with the endless debating, grabbed a pouch of Glory’s blood and teleported to the New Jersey cathedral. There she gave the blood to Whisper and quickly explained its properties. The sorcerer told Karma that he would check her claims – of which he was understandably skeptical – and that she should return the next day. Karma did so to find that Whisper was prepared to cancel his contract on Luca and to turn over the documents he’d stolen from the Zürich vault in repayment for the cure. With the documents back in the team’s possession, they were quickly forwarded to the FBI, who were able to get the appropriate warrants drawn up by Judge Schumacher, the only Justice of the Supreme Court known not to be in the Mob’s pocket. As deputized FBI agents, Zenith-3 was called upon to serve some of these warrants. When they were ordered to arrest Governor Alphonse Capone of Illinois, Blackwing’s grin was big enough to decorate a truck’s front grille.
Once the warrants were served and Scarab gave the team a hearty well-done, their mentor ordered them to take some time off to unwind. To help them let off steam Scarab had procured tickets to “Le Amore”, a recently-released Italian movie about perceptions. As the team left the theater after the film they noticed a selective blackout had hit Boston. Their curiosity piqued, the team took a look from the air only to discover the still-illuminated areas spelled out words: “When is a bird like a gift?” The answer of course was, “When it’s free,” and it could only mean one thing – Jamison Riddle, aka the Riddler, was back!
“Riddle Me This”
The team traveled to the Boston power station, where they found that the workers on duty had been killed by small arms fire – very small arms fire. The culprits appeared to be toy plastic soldiers, a number of which lay melted where they had tripped circuit breakers. The only thing out of the ordinary (!) was that each plastic soldier had a rubber band around his ankle – there was no sign of circuitry or any other animating force. In the team’s last encounter with him, Riddle had shown no evidence of superhuman powers which raised the question of a super-powered copycat. The team asked Captain Thompson, their police contact, to have Riddle’s cell checked; that inspection showed all to be normal. At the same time, Captain Thompson reported that the Scepter Of O’Brien had been stolen from a museum where it had been displayed. The assault and massacre by the toys had been nothing but a very effective distraction. The team were unsatisfied with the eyes-only examination of Riddle, and decided to check things out for themselves. To their amazement, this check revealed even worse news than the team had anticipated – not only was Riddle missing, but an animated dummy made of a mop, blanket and several pieces of string had taken his place!
The next day Zenith-3 was advised that a hijacked light plane was skywriting a riddle. St Barbara approached the plane, piloted by a ventriloquist’s dummy, as it completed its message, only to have it dive towards the busiest intersection in Boston with a cargo of high explosives. Some hurried teamwork managed to shift the plane out over Boston harbor before it detonated, and there were no civilian casualties. After decoding the riddle in the sky the team determined that the Riddler’s next target would be a diamond-encrusted piano and they rang the manufacturer to provide warning. The person who answered the phone was higher than a kite and the team hurried to the factory. On their arrival they were greeted by the sight of an intoxicating gas being pumped into the factory’s ventilation system while a toy fire engine sucked up the diamonds with a miniature vacuum cleaner. Upon seeing the members of Zenith-3 the fire engine bolted for the nearest exit. Dragon’s Claw was able to stop the fire engine with the diamonds from losing itself among dozens of others which were standing by in the alley by the simple expedient of hurling several shuriken into it, but the team could do nothing to save the thirty people in the factory who died from the gas.
The construction of the dummy in his cell clearly linked Riddle to the power station attack. The prison dummy, the animated toys and the light plane’s pilot all bore a startling resemblance to the type of ascientiffic devices built by Widget, a former member of Zenith-3 who had retired back to Dimension Prime. St Barbara decided to check up on Widget, taking Glory and Karma with her for backup. Upon arrival at Widget’s home town in New Zealand, St Barbara quickly confirmed that Widget had been missing for two weeks. A search of her bedroom triggered a trap which Glory determined was based on necromantic magic, and a search of the local area turned up a talisman of Chthon. Clearly some deal had been struck between Chthon and the Riddler.
Meanwhile, the day after the attack on the piano makers, the supertanker Liquida (largest oil carrier in the world) arrived in Boston harbor on it’s maiden voyage. It was a major media event and Jamison Riddle decided to add his own inimitable touch in the form of several dozen toy boats and submarines, which fired a volley of torpedoes into the Liquida’s hull. Although in no immediate danger of sinking the tanker had sustained a major hull breach and was leaking massive amounts of crude oil into the harbor. Mist managed to repair the damage to the tanker while her teammates distracted and destroyed the toy boats, discovering the hard way that the torpedoes had enough explosive power to punch through even Blackwing’s armor. By now the team was getting rather irate at Mr Riddle’s pranks! At the same time, there had been another robbery, staged in such a way as to cause maximum embarrassment to the team. The Riddler’s new MO was becoming pretty clear.
With the discovery that Widget was missing from her home St Barbara decided to conduct a last quick overflight of the area. In the process she spotted a local pervert who, when confronted, admitted that he had a film showing Widget being abducted – amongst many others of the local girls disrobing. After receiving the film somewhat forcefully, St Barbara gathered Karma and Glory and returned to Dimension-Halo with their news. A check of the footage revealed one interesting fact, namely that Widget had been abducted by Chthon herself rather than Jamison Riddle. This led Oracle to speculate that perhaps Chthon herself was the mastermind behind the crimes, letting Riddle plan and commit them in order to vex Zenith-3 as revenge for thwarting her Helloween plot.
The team assumed that Riddle’s crimes were linked to the four elements. The power station raid and theft of the scepter corresponded to earth (plastic soldiers (ground forces) and the Highland ties to the scepter), the exploding plane corresponded to air and the sabotage of the Poseidon club coupled with the attack on el Liquida were linked to water. This left fire unaccounted for and the notion of a fire-related incident in Boston, especially in light of Riddle’s past crimes, left the team very worried indeed.
The night after St Barbara returned from Dimension Prime, Zenith-3 received a call from the staff at Logan International Airport. Their radars reported jamming and this was deemed high enough on the weirdness scale that they had been advised to contact the team. Blackwing took the Bright Cutter, the team’s captured starship and AI, to the airport to check on the disturbance, while the rest of the team gathered at the transporter, ready to respond should hey be required. Blackwing quickly determined that help was definitely necessary – the jamming was only a side-effect of the presence of hundreds of tiny zeppelins, each bearing the name ‘Hindenburg’. The gargoyle detective’s suspicions were confirmed when he bumped one with the Bright Cutter’s forcefield, causing it to explode in a fireball. The zeppelins were filled with explosive hydrogen, they were cruising towards the landing pattern of the busiest airport in the Boston area, with an eventual destination of the Boston Gardens Stadium, where twenty thousand spectators were watching the Boston Patriots play. The effect of several hundred explosions in a structure filled with civilians would be catastrophic.
The team split up to deal with the separate threats. Blackwing repeatedly piloted the Bright Cutter through the zeppelin formation, exploding many of the flammable vehicles, while St Barbara and Glory tried to land as many of the airliners heading for Logan as possible (the tower couldn’t provide much assistance due to the radar jamming). Karma headed to the Boston Gardens to coordinate with the administrators should an evacuation be necessary. Upon arriving, she promptly found that the Garden’s control room had been firebombed with white phosphorous and the Hershey blimp recording the game was acting in an unusual manner. Flying up to check on the blimp she immediately discovered that it was empty except for an animated sock puppet at the controls, slowly venting the blimp’s fuel tanks over the stadium – in effect turning the stadium into a gigantic fuel-air bomb. And the Zeppelin “triggers” were only seconds away!! At the last minute, Karma managed to prevent the puppet from setting off the explosive mixture before setting the blimp on a course towards Boston harbor, watching as the little zeppelins followed, still homing in on the beacon within the larger blimp. The resulting explosion, while spectacular, caused no civilian casualties.
Meanwhile back at Logan Airport the partnership of St Barbara and Glory was proving extremely effective. St Barbara’s light powers were able to guide the airliners to a safe landing while Glory proved invaluable for replenishing St Barbara’s flagging endurance – using her powers nonstop for so long was proving extremely tiring for the former team leader. The only real problem was when an airliner landed a bit short on the runway, its outermost propeller almost severing Glory’s arm at the shoulder. It was difficult to tell what shocked St Barbara more, Glory’s injury or her calm instruction to ‘hold it steady, cauterize it and it’ll heal on its own in no time.”
Having averted a possible catastrophe, but failed to prevent the robbery that had accompanied it, the team returned home for a well-earned rest. The next morning Oracle was in the midst of his usual ritual of completing the Boston Globe’s crossword when he noticed that the answers formed a pattern. After a brainstorming session with the rest of the team, he was able to determine that Riddle (the author of the crossword) would strike at the Ed Sullivan Show being filmed in New York that day. Using their contacts in the FBI the team was quickly able to secure tickets to the audience. Once inside the theater the problem changed from finding Riddle to determining which Riddle was the real one! The wily psychopath had created several duplicates of himself including a three day dead corpse. Unable to find the correct Jamison Riddle, the team had to wait in the audience for something to happen.
It didn’t take long. With the introduction of the American swim team a mass of cotton threads descended from the ceiling and a horde of plastic soldiers began rappelling to the stage. Several members of the team swarmed onto the stage to protect the audience from the soldiers while Karma and Mist began searching for Riddle with senses other than the mundane five. They quickly located Riddle in a chandelier above the audience and discovered that he was linked to Widget by more than her powers – the two were physically and magically merged. A precisely coordinated telepathic and mystical strike was sufficient to sever the links between the two and separate their bodies. Both were disoriented but Riddle still had enough presence of mind to flee. The innocents he had killed weighed heavily on the team’s collective mind – even Blackwing, who had sworn a vow never to kill, was ready to tear Riddle limb from limb and Mist was a great deal less restrained. Riddle leaped from the chandelier, using a glider to break his fall and pressed the button on a remote control. A dimensional portal opened and the aging criminal swooped through it, evading the team once again. However the team had their friend back, and Riddle was no longer in the city. Karma pointed out that he had, in effect, made a blind interdimensional jump. They couldn’t track him but the odds of him ever returning to Dimension-Halo were extremely low.
“Riddle Me This”: Epilogue
Zenith-3 was finally able to take a well-deserved rest. After Widget had taken a couple of days to recover from her ordeal, the New Zealander chose to return home, despite her joy at seeing her teammates again. The team had several days to recover from their injuries and stress, and things settled back to normal. Naturally it couldn’t last.
One morning Dragon’s Claw, possessed by a feverish urgency, called a meeting and demanded that they travel to Japan immediately. Several times in the meeting he slipped into formal Japanese, a habit which only manifested when he was under extreme stress. The team quickly loaded their gear onto the Bright Cutter and headed for Japan, eager to see what had set their teammate off. Soon after entering Japanese airspace they picked up a news broadcast showing a village which had been taken hostage by a familiar team of Japanese metahumans – now led by Torquemada, an old nemesis of Zenith-3. When Torquemada demanded that Dragon’s Claw surrender himself to prevent the massacre of the villagers, the odds of the siege not being linked to Dragon’s Claw’s sudden need to return home went right out the window…