AUTHOR'S NOTE: After examining Darths & Droids, which apparently is built on the premise that the "plot" of Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace resulted from a bunch of accidents in a roleplaying session, rather than being carefully planned out in advance, I was inspired to try writing something with a similar premise, just for fun.
I thought about "classic" comic book story arcs I could parody, and settled on this concept: What if the events known as "The Dark Phoenix Saga" had simply been part of a campaign in a superhero-themed roleplaying game, with the players living in a world where no one had ever heard of "Marvel Comics" or "Chris Claremont" or "John Byrne"?
Make no mistake -- I admire "The Dark Phoenix Saga," and I wish its tragic ending had been allowed to stick. But I'm going to make fun of it anyway! Or at least of its first issue ("X-Men #129," cover-dated January 1980). If you have never read "The Dark Phoenix Saga," then be warned that this parody will naturally be stuffed full of Spoilers for it.
Consider this a "transcript" of what happens in a gaming session (with some of the boring parts edited out). The guy running the adventure will usually be called, very simply, the GM (or just plain GM for short). His real name is Bill, but that's almost never mentioned and doesn't mean anything subtle. I toyed with the idea of giving him some silly name such as Clare Byrnemont, but I restrained myself in the nick of time. (I hear your sighs of relief!) The players will only be referred to by the names of the superhero characters they are running; I figured that would be easier than asking you to remember a whole new set of names and mentally keep track of which person (such as "Steve" or "Pat") was running which superhero.
STUMBLING THROUGH THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA (Part 1)
GM: Okay, so you've said goodbye to all your pals on Muir Isle and you're now on the plane for your transatlantic voyage. Any of you doing anything special after you're airborne and cruising along at 20,000 feet?
COLOSSUS: Guess I'm leaning back in my seat, putting on some headphones, listening to some Grateful Dead tunes.
GM (blinking): Anything else? Any reaction to recent trauma in your life, fr'instance?
COLOSSUS: Oh, right. Ah . . . listening to the music is just part of the brave front I'm putting up. Sensitive, artistic soul that I am, naturally I'm brooding like nobody's business over the "sad necessity" of destroying Proteus at the end of our last session . . . but being a Russian, I keep all this suffering just bottled up.
GM (happy that lip service has been paid to the idea that killing the villains is somehow a "bad" thing): Okay, okay. Anybody else?
NIGHTCRAWLER: I'll just be happy to get home.
GM (deciding to work in some more of his latest Mysterious Subplot): Cyclops, you see Jean leaning against a bulkhead looking a bit blank, as if she isn't really tracking whatever's going on around her.
CYCLOPS: Okay, I guess I'll just leave her alone.
GM (blinks as his script is derailed): What?
CYCLOPS: It's a rule of thumb I live by. If a babe has incredible powers, and appears to be lost in thought -- it's best NOT to disrupt her concentration unexpectedly. No telling what might happen!
GM: Is this how you normally handle it with the women you know? I mean, in real life? Just ignoring them whenever they seem worried or zoned out?
CYCLOPS: Is that RELEVANT? In real life, my girlfriend isn't telepathic and telekinetic. People won't get their lives ruined if I interrupt her when she's brooding over her homework or whatever. Likewise, if she suddenly reached over and affectionately tugged off my glasses, it wouldn't cause a red optic blast to smash holes in whatever was in front of my eyes (such as her face!). The etiquette for super-powered mutants is, of necessity, ENTIRELY different!
[The GM makes a note for future use -- something about that hypothetical example with removing the boyfriend's glasses has triggered a new train of thought.]
GM: Okay, okay, you've got a point. Let's just say that she suddenly blinks hard and seems -- once again -- to be focused on what's in front of her.
CYCLOPS: Right, right. I guess I'll ask if she's feeling okay.
GM: She doesn't want to talk about it. She doesn't seem to resent your efforts to strike up a conversation, but she doesn't want to dwell on whatever it was that just happened a minute ago. The ball's in your court again, Romeo.
CYCLOPS: Now there's a heavy hint if ever I've heard one . . . suggestions, guys? What should I say to prove what a nice, sensitive fellow I am beneath this shell?
STORM: Might be a good time to tell her about dating Colleen Wing when we thought Jean was dead . . .
CYCLOPS: Good point! I make a clean breast of it. I also explain that while Colleen is a nice girl and all that, she doesn't make my pulse pound the same way a certain red-headed Phoenix does.
GM: Jean explains that she already knew about it, what with her telepathy and all. But she's glad you're being honest.
CYCLOPS: Whew! Dodged a bullet there, didn't I? If she thought I was trying to keep it all a deep, dark secret, she'd probably never forgive me.
GM: Seems likely.
WOLVERINE (softly, to Colossus): Makes me glad my girlfriend in real life ain't telepathic.
COLOSSUS (whispering back): My last one came close enough to be terrifying.
CYCLOPS: Anyway -- now that I've broken the ice, I'll go ahead and chat about how numb I was, emotionally, when I thought she was dead -- and how overjoyed to realize she was actually still among the living. Do we need to roleplay this in excruciating detail?
GM (showing mercy): No, I think we can fast-forward a bit. She kisses you. Apparently all is forgiven! Anybody else got anything you want to roleplay while you have a captive audience, here on the plane?
[GM waits a few beats.]
GM: No? Okay, we fast-forward some more. You touch down at the X-Mansion and disembark. In the main entry hall, you are surprised and delighted to see Charles Xavier sitting in his wheelchair, beaming at you!
WOLVERINE: Aw, no. Professor Plot-Hammer is back in our lives!
STORM: How the heck did he find out we were alive? I was sure we'd finally thrown him off the trail!
NIGHTCRAWLER: All that trouble we went to, making sure the two NPCs in the Antarctica adventure -- Jean and Hank -- "just happened" to get separated from us as all that lava was flooding Maggy's underground base . . . but it was worth it! We figured they'd run home and tell Charlie-Boy that we must have died. I thought he might give us a nice epitath on a memorial or something . . . "Greater love hath no mutant than this, that he lay down his life for another."
WOLVERINE: Yeah, I got all misty just thinking about it. Anyway, we figured he'd take off to another galaxy with his alien princess sweetie, and so it would be happy endings all around! He would settle down with what's-her-name, Lily Andrea, to make babies, and we wouldn't have him pushing us around with his nasty telepathy every time he had another mood swing!
CYCLOPS: Served him right, too, after he pulled the same 'dead and buried' stunt on US, way back when.
COLOSSUS: "Us"? What do you mean, "us," white man?
NIGHTCRAWLER: Actually, I think he only pulled the same stunt on YOU, "fearless leader." The rest of us only joined up last year, remember? The only other "teammate" who dates back to those days is "Jean," and she's a GM-run NPC nowadays, ever since Tracy quit running her right after that "space shuttle crash" incident.
GM: Guys, I've told you before. Tracy was quitting anyway. So she VOLUNTEERED to sacrifice herself by exposure to the radiation as she piloted the shuttle down to save the rest of you.
STORM: But did you tell her you were planning to resurrect the character, call her Phoenix, and take control of her as an NPC from then on?
GM: No, but what did she care? She was planning to spend her gaming nights with a "RuneQuest" group from now on!
STORM: I was just thinking that if you'd said she would be getting super-telepathic, you might've been able to keep her around.
GM: Do you have any idea how nerve-wrackingly unbalanced it is to run a group where one of the PLAYERS has a majorly telepathic character? I've seen it tried -- when I was just another green roleplayer, I was with a group called "the Justice League of America." This one power-gamer had a hero our breathtakingly gullible GM had already approved before I ever came along. Super-strength, energy blasts, super-breath, super-speed, shapeshifting, flight, intangibility, AND telepathy. He kept insisting that if the villain-of-the-week wasn't telepathic, then his character should be able to read the guy's plans straight from his mind. Not to mention ours, whenever we were planning anything we wanted to keep a surprise from him!
COLOSSUS (whispering to WOLVERINE): Swell. Another "war story" from his misspent youth, to remind us how lucky we are to have him as a GM instead of Whosis, the guy who ran their "Justice League" adventures . . .
GM: Between that and all his other powers, I had to wonder why the rest of us even bothered to show up for gaming sessions. Then it turned out this hero -- "The Martian Munchkin," or some such name -- had a weakness to fire. A bunch of us "leaked" this to all the tabloids, and pretty soon it seemed like every villain we met carried flamethrowers and incendiary bullets and stuff around all the time. I think my favorite was the time one mad scientist sprayed gasoline all over the room before we entered, and then triggered a spark as Martian Munchkin came charging in . . .
[We'll spare you the rest of the GM's interminable reminiscences, and just skip ahead to a Danger Room training session, happening some days later in game-time]
GM (sternly): Okay, Wolverine, the Professor says that if you're going to throw a fit over every little thing in these vitally important training sessions, then he's just going to have to put ten demerits on your record.
WOLVERINE: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!
[Wolverine wipes his eyes]
WOLVERINE: Thanks, Bill. I needed a good laugh. But seriously, what does he say?
GM: No, seriously. He's scowling at you ferociously, as if he expects you to be intimidated.
WOLVERINE: Hold on. Is the Prof under the impression that I hang around this madhouse just on the off chance that someday he'll give me a nice report card to take home to mother?
GM: In a word: Yes. That's how he handled his first batch of students, back in the day!
WOLVERINE (looking around at the other players): Whaddaya say, gang? Should I explain to him that I'm in this first for the slugfests, and second for the chance to impress the chicks?
NIGHTCRAWLER: Actually, if the Professor wants to keep us happy, he might want to address some sad inequities in the gender ratio in our line-up. We've got what, four guys and two gals on active duty at the moment? And Cyke has Jeannie all locked up, and Storm isn't interested in the rest of us, except for treating us like a bunch of well-meaning but snot-nosed little brothers . . .
GM (muttering under his breath): I always said Storm was a good judge of character . . .
COLOSSUS: Much as I hate to say it . . . they've got a point.
GM (rattling some dice): Okay, okay, I'll tell you what. I was about to have Cerebro register a "hit" from a new mutant. To move things along, I'll make it a double hit -- simultaneously, by sheer coincidence -- and I'll make BOTH of them girls. As to whether or not you guys can convince them to join the team . . . well, there you're on your own! Fair enough?
COLOSSUS: Let me guess -- then the Prof will order us to go check them out, and one or both of those gals will coincidentally happen to be tangled up with whatever Big Bad Conspiracy you were planning to unleash as the centerpiece of our next adventure, ANYWAY?
GM (looking incredibly angelic): Would I do a thing like that to you?
ALL THE PLAYERS: YES!
GM (shrugging): Look, do you want to meet these girl mutants, or don't you?
[Evidently they do -- we now fast-forward a bit to when half of the group -- Storm, Wolverine, and Colossus, accompanying Professor X -- are approaching the Pryde home in a nice quiet suburb]
GM: As you wheel Professor X up the sidewalk, you pass a woman just exiting the Pryde domicile. She's still young, but rather severe-looking. Pale blond hair up in a bun, and she wears spectacles and a conservative brown suit. She just sorta nods at you politely as she strides past.
COLOSSUS: I think I recognize the pattern. Kinda like what's-her-name, Marian the Librarian, in "The Music Man." Very intellectual, very prim and proper, very lonely and repressed, but incredibly hot if you can get her to take the glasses off and let her hair down and generally unwind. Betcha some of my "naive Russian farmboy charm" would soften her up!
GM (straight-faced): Interesting theory. Too bad she isn't lingering to chat. She's already down at the curb, getting into her car.
COLOSSUS: Oh well, two ships that pass in the night . . . guess we'll never see her again?
[A few minutes later -- after they've all been introduced to the Prydes]
COLOSSUS: Hold on a minute! We're here to recruit a scrawny THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD kid? Have we ever had anybody at the Mansion who wasn't at least SIXTEEN? Y'know what? Why don't we come back in three or four years, when she's filled out a little? I might've known you'd find a way to cheat on your promise to introduce us to a couple of mutant babes in this adventure!
GM (smugly): I didn't say "babes." I said "girls." A teenaged female qualifies as a "girl."
STORM: Just BARELY teenaged? I've got a bad feeling about this . . .
[We fast-forward again. They are now in the local Malt Shoppe. Storm and Kitty are sitting at a table chatting; Wolverine and Colossus are currently finding other ways to pass the time]
WOLVERINE: Okay, I'm flipping through one of the *ahem* men's magazines; the kind that only adults are allowed to buy.
COLOSSUS: I'm shocked. I'm chagrined. I can't believe these decadent capitalist shopkeepers are allowed to sell such trash in places where schoolchildren congregate.
GM: In other words . . .
COLOSSUS: Naturally I stand right behind Wolvie, looking over his shoulder, just to double-check on how decadent and trashy it all is! Besides, anything is better than staying over on the other side of the store, with that thirteen-year-old brat making eyes at me!
STORM: Thirteen AND a half. She's very insistent about that extra half-year!
COLOSSUS: Thanks for reminding me. Is that supposed to make it feel less creepy?
[We'll skip over the surprise attack by men in armored suits. I'm not trying to do a panel-by-panel, blow-by-blow rendition of the entire saga. It goes pretty much the way you remember -- for a little bit, the X-Men on the spot seem stymied; then Wolvie has the "brilliant idea" of switching opponents and they polish off one another's "assigned" attackers in very short order.]
GM: Done congratulating yourselves on your tactics? Now let's see all three of you roll for a defense against psychic attack!
WOLVERINE: How strong is the attack, exactly?
GM (sweetly): Just make your roll, and I'll tell you if it did any good.
STORM: Gee, that doesn't sound menacingly predestined or anything . . .
[STORM, COLOSSUS, and WOLVERINE all roll. They are NOT terribly surprised when told they all get knocked out cold by the mysterious ringleader's overwhelmingly powerful psychic sledgehammers.]
COLOSSUS (rolling his eyes): Admit it. You just made that up. If the ringleader is a telepath on the same scale as Professor Plot-Hammer, then she could have begun AND ended this fight in ten seconds flat, WITHOUT all the brawling and associated property damage that went BEFORE!
STORM: But hey, who needs "efficient use of resources" anyway?
WOLVERINE: Grudge Monster Alert, people! Betcha that even when we wake up, he'll insist we're Utterly Helpless until further notice, because this Mysterious New Telepathic Supervillain is just so darn unstoppable until someone else pulls our fat out of the fire!
STORM: Wait -- did they get what's-her-face, Kitty, along with the rest of us?
GM: Probably not. You think she was already out of the store long before you got mind-zapped.
STORM: Ah. The pieces begin to fall into place. She gets to rescue us now, doesn't she? I guess that's how we'll finally find out what her mutant power is, and we'll be terribly impressed and grateful?
COLOSSUS: I think you hit the nail on the head. We're going to get stuck with her as an X-Man whether we like it or not, aren't we?
Well, what did you think? Did it make you laugh? Or did you pass out from boredom in the middle? Do you want me to do this again sometime, until I've worked my way through the entire saga? Or are you praying I'll drop the idea before any more time has been lost on it?