Critical Hit: Hays of Shadows – The Meeting

tl;dr  Klaus and Alanna seem to have taken a couple of logical leaps too far in turning the game into a direct confrontation between two PCs. They call a war meeting of several PC and NPC factions to ally against The Proxy. The episode is bolstered by Rodrigo’s great characterization of the Proxy’s competence and elevated by the layered confrontation between the Professor and the wizard.

Title: The Meeting
Episode: 440
Season: Hays of Shadows
Season Episode: 16
Podcast: Critical Hit
Gamemaster Brian Bergdal
Rodrigo Lopez as The Proxy
Matthew Peterson  as Ian
Sam Nelson as Alanna
Rob Rasmussen as Klaus
Stephen Schleicher as Dr. J.D. Higginsbottom III
Game systemUrban Shadows

In last week‘s episode (on Critical Hit), we got caught up on all the characters after the damaging violence that happened in the Goblin Market. The season has taken an interesting turn in that the central conflict is now between two player characters — the demon-human fusion known as The Proxy, and the wizard, Alanna, who is trying to interfere in their infernal plans.

This week’s episode opens with both Alanna and Rob’s vampire, Klaus, rallying other PCs to their side by invoking the Apocalypse. Alanna doesn’t really need to, though; she mostly gets the revenant, Ian, to side with her because they’re siblings and The Proxy has badly hurt her.

Klaus recruits the Scholar, however, by directly invoking the end of the world. “I think there’s money to be made in that,” replies Stephen’s professor character, agreeing to come along. Higginsbottom is really rounding out to be one of Stephen’s most complex and interesting characters in the series. He’s at turns dopey, pretentious, lovable, mercenary and sad.

At the meeting of the anti-Proxy group, Alanna gives a rousing speech with a rough framework: The Proxy’s return from death has weakened the fabric separating Earth from Hell, allowing in more and different demons than would normally come to Hays, KS in an average year. The PCs around the table have all had conflicts with demons, and they all concur that this seems like a reasonable explanation.

But it feels to me as a listener that Alanna has taken a couple of logical steps too far. I even got the sense that Sam had the same feeling — at the end of her monologue, Alanna doesn’t call for an attack on the Proxy, but for gathering more information to bolster their argument. It’s kind of a weak note, but it seems like she’s got the Hays Police Department, a mysterious anti-mystical society, and Klaus and Higginsbottom on her side. That’s going to count for something.

I also think that there’s a tendency in RPGs and especially actual-play podcasts for players to want to clump up. If one of the PCs says that it’s time to go hunt the wumpus and retrieve the MacGuffin, well, unless they’ve got serious reservations, it’s best to go along with the rest of the party.

But Powered by the Apocalypse games really seems to drive towards that soap-opera drama where one-time allies become bitter enemies and then team up again if it’s in everyone’s best interest. It will be interesting to see if and how Alanna’s coalition will hold together, especially if her warnings about apocalyptic armies of demons flooding over the plains of Kansas don’t come to fruition.

Rodrigo finally gets a chance to start moving some of his own chess pieces around the board. He’s been sidelined a bit in the last few episodes, so it was good to get him on mic. He manages to do some minor corruption, convincing a city councilman to condemn Alanna’s building, in an impressive and funny way. He and Brian manage to make America’s 1671st largest city seem, well… urban.

He doesn’t get the best line of his segment, though. The line of the whole episode goes to GM Brian, who is describing the scene of the Proxy’s business building that had been roughed up by some of Klaus’s gang. “You definitely get a whiff of vampire taint,” says Brian, as laughter slowly rolls around the table. “OK. Bad phrasing.”

The best dialogue of the episode, and maybe the best of the season, happens as the Professor and Alanna have a private chat after the meeting. The Professor has discovered that the Shears of Atropos, a powerful artifact which he left in Alanna’s safe keeping, are able to extract power from magical beings and extend the holder’s life span. Life extension is the Professor’s obsession, and he’s not shown himself to be very scrupulous in getting what he wants. He’d like to maybe get those Shears back from Alanna, and maybe they could use them together on the Proxy?

Stephen plays the scene beautifully. He’s clear that he’s trying to minimize his character’s dependence on Alanna, and that it’s very important to him to have control over the situation. But he doesn’t let the Professor’s frustration get shown at all; there’s no threatening or ultimatum. But he reminds the audience that the Shears can be used on any powerful person, including his supposed allies Klaus and Alanna. It’s nicely done.

It’s a great dilemma for Alanna, and Sam plays it out oh so well. She clearly knows that if she flat-out refuses, it will drive Higginsbottom into the arms of the Proxy to make a deal to get them back. But if she hands them over, it gives Higginsbottom a chance to turn on the coalition, maybe getting a better deal from the Proxy. Alanna clearly dislikes and distrusts the Professor, and Sam really shows it.

One thing that I would have liked to see here was a roll to find out what happens. Either a Figure Someone Out on Alanna’s side, or a Mislead, Distract or Trick on the Professor’s. Either way, the dice could have a hand in directing the resolution of the standoff between the two PCs. Instead, it was up to Sam to make a decision about what her character would do, which seemed to put an unfair amount of narrative pressure on her. PCs should have to figure out puzzles, not players.

Another option would have been an exchange of Debt, which might be enough to curb the Professor from leaving the coalition or shopping his skills around for a better deal.

Ultimately, Alanna chooses to give the Shears to the Prof, in exchange for a loose promise that he will let her teach him how to use them responsibly. It seems like the kind of decision you look back on later and say, “That’s where things started going bad.” I hope that doesn’t happen here; I really like Alanna’s and Sam’s great job bringing her to life.

Technically the episode is flawless as usual. Great production all the way around. There’s very little that gets in the way of the action; Matthew and Stephen both try to do intimacy moves, so we need to go into how those works for about 10 minutes. It’s actually pretty interesting, though, and since it’s at the end of the episode it doesn’t really slow down the action.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this season wraps up. I think there’s a good narrative arc that leads to a final confrontation between the coalition and the Proxy, with lots of combat, and then some kind of denouement.

But if we’re lucky, we’ll have some more player-to-player interaction before that happens. I think it would be a shame if Rodrigo didn’t get a chance to sway some of the PCs to his side, or at least neutralize them by prying them away from Alanna.

All in all a good episode, but the psychological conflict between the Professor and Alanna raises it to above average, and gets this episode four out of five stars.