“The Alternative” is an NPC for Progenitor, the Ennie Award-nominated setting for the Wild Talents roleplaying game.
Written by Greg Stolze, © 2013
Monica Spielman is a typical American girl in 1984. She’s fifteen years old. Both her parents are dead. She’s losing teeth due to malnutrition. She’s missed her last two periods and she desperately hopes it’s another effect of her poor diet, because her sexual encounters have been exclusively non-consensual. She’s in post-apocalypse Dallas when a mob sets upon a suspected metahuman. It’s at Fair Park, which turned into a scrap-metal bazaar after the bombs fell and eventually grew a ring of food- and gas-traders around it. Monica’s just trying to slink away—she’s seen too many people get lynched like this—when she feels a horrid icy wind blast out from the epicenter of the disturbance and sees a man rising up on a pillar of air. “I don’t want to hurt you!” he shouts in a voice choking with rage before bullets ring out from the dealers’ security thugs, knocking him from the sky and leaving his corpse to be torn apart by the howling crowd. Monica sees all this and weeps, wishing it could all be different.
She wishes, and then miraculously it is.
Who Is ‘The Alternative’?
Monica was born in 1969, the very year the Progenitor first began acting on the international stage. Everything in her life has been in Amanda Sykes’ shadow, though this is by no means uncommon. Her father got a job in Dallas working on a ZRI glass factory line. Her mother sent money to Meta-Victims Advocacy and Support. But it’s not until the Metapocalypse that Monica really blames her problems on dark energy and its users.
When she becomes infected, she does not pause to consider any ironies inherent in expressing her anger towards dark energy through the use of dark energy powers. When you’ve been raped, hungry for months, and really wish you didn’t have to witness mob violence, your grasp of irony gets pretty weak. Monica thinks the world would be a better place without Sykes and her ilk, so her power tries to make it so.
Monica’s abilities give her temporary access to a world where Amanda never got infected, and neither did anyone else. Whatever spatial or dimensional intersection embedded the power in the Progenitor missed Earth entirely in Monica’s realm. No Amanda in Vietnam meant no Progressive Harmony. No Bich Thi Nguyen upholding the USSR. No Atlantis. No Johnson re-election. No Metapocalypse.
In fact, the world Monica can access would be utterly familiar to you reading this article, and to me writing it. It is, after all, ours.
The Other Monica
Monica from the otherverse has nothing more on her mind than a breakup with an early boyfriend, a romantic collapse so painful it’s thrown everything else off-kilter. All the insipid music and big-hair nonsense of “her childhood” (meaning, last year) gives way to torn stockings under baggy shorts, Doc Martens, the Big Boys, bleached denim, heavy mascara and R.E.M. She even goes to a Butthole Surfers show.
Other Monica (who takes the name “Paisley” and is referred to as such from here on to avoid confusion) is healthier and happier than the Progenitorverse Monica, but otherwise unexceptional. Monica can, at will, change into Paisley indefinitely. They can’t meet, though each has a grasp of the other’s memories and experiences—it’s like Bruce Banner’s experience, if the Hulk was a Hüsker Dü fan. Both Paisley and Monica can access Monica’s metahuman powers while in the Progenitorverse, but Paisley can’t use them in her native cosmos.
In addition to transforming into her non-apocalypse alternate, Monica gives other people visions of their lives in the otherverse. This is not something she can control and she isn’t aware of it when it happens. More random still, it’s temporally unfixed, meaning, it might go off and take effect two days earlier. It’s an effect that can precede its cause, though it almost never targets anyone who hasn’t met Monica or who doesn’t meet her sooner or later.
These visions are quite vivid, though brief. People who experience them know who they’d be (or not be) if there had never been a superpowered Amanda Sykes. They’re brief, rarely more than a half-hour or forty-five minutes of experiential time, and they take only a few seconds of objective time. (To clarify: You have a vision that seems to last almost an hour, only to snap out of it and discover that mere moments have passed.)
Giving people jarring random visions is one thing. Deliberately turning them into their other selves is something else altogether, and Monica can do that too. In fact, she can do it on purpose. She points at you and you transform into what you’d be absent the influence of the Progenitor. Transformed people retain memories of their Progenitorverse lives, but their immediate and personal memories are of their lives in the otherverse. Their personalities are often drastically different, even if their bodies hardly change at all.
Metahumans under the influence of this ability lose their powers until it wears off (which it usually does after a number of hours), but that’s not the most extreme change people experience. Some die. Some never exist.
Think about it: Abe Sykes alone saves hundreds of lives in the early 1970s, even without factoring in ID/EA. Soldiers get sent home by Ngoc Vo instead via body bag and in our world, the death toll for the Ancash quake eventually reached 47,000. Lots of people in the world of Progenitor live because of dark energy, one way or another. Those people, when hit by Monica’s “Alternate Other” power, change into corpses. Then, when the power wears off, they come back remembering what it was like to die.
If you think that’s a painful experience (and don’t get me wrong, it is) that’s nothing next to people younger than Monica, who were conceived after Amanda started fighting in Vietnam. Her presence there changed the course of the war and the course of the presidential election. It doesn’t take much prurient imagination to see how that could interfere with a conception here or there. Some young people in Amanda’s home cosmos never get born in Paisley’s. When hit by Monica’s power, they simply disappear. When they return, they have no sensation that time has passed at all. No cool alternate history memories for them, just the knowledge that Monica can erase them from existence.
Note that these instant-kills and vanishings are rarely permanent and never retroactive. For example: Suppose your conception took place when Johnson was re-elected. When Monica replaces you with the void that exists where “you” aren’t in the otherverse, your friends don’t forget you while the void is in place. From their perspective, you vanish and they wonder where you are until you return.
Bits and Bobs
Monica’s final power is a bit odd. In addition to exchanging human beings with their otherverse selves, she can do the same with inanimate objects. That smashed Yamaha moped moldering in the ditch? She might be able to restore it. Or she might be able to transform it into whatever the metal was used for in the otherverse. It’s a confusing and unpredictable power for loose junk, but for things like trees and buildings and (of course) things predating Amanda Sykes it’s far more reliable. Unfortunately for the billions of dollars of antiques destroyed in Moscow, Chicago, London, Paris, Washington and New York, it’s not a permanent change.
Monica Spielman, “The Alternative”
History: See above.
Lineage: Amanda Sykes – Abe Sykes – Jarvis West – Trent Brownback – Maria Escondo – Otis Crowsky – Elijah Burge
Personality: Monica is jumpy, easily angered, vindictive and self-centered. It’s pretty much what you expect from someone who’s had everything taken away from her in a horrible and violent fashion. If things calm down and she has a chance to recover—meaning, if someone can take care of her and not let her down for a year or two—she could come out of it strong, level-headed and imminently practical.
Paisley is curious, amazed by dark-energy, appalled at the seemingly-bottomless suffering in Monica’s world, exhilarated by the secret of access to another cosmos, and she see-saws wildly between courage and caution.
Info Only Goes One Way
Something to understand about the way Monica makes alternates is that information can only flow from the otherverse into the Progenitorverse. When she turns someone into their otherworld alternate, it’s like she’s taking a snapshot of the alternate and photocopying it over the Progenitorverse edition, cut and paste style. But she can’t paste anything into the otherverse. So every time she switches to Paislely, the Paisley she becomes experiences things for the first time. She has Monica’s memories, including the memories of being other Paisleys, and that usually fools her into thinking it’s a steady thing. But when she returns to the otherverse, she carries no recollection of being away, because she never really left.
This has a physical aspect, as well. When Monica turns into Paisley, she turns into an uninjured Paisley. This means she could turn into Paisley, get her arm blown off, turn back into Monica (who would be as injured, or uninjured, as she was when she first changed) then turn into a fresh, unhurt Paisley with two arms.
(These factors could lead Paisley to conclude that her world is real in a way that Monica’s isn’t, or that she herself is trapped in some kind of solipsistic delusion. But she’d have to stay in the Progenitorverse for months on end before she reached that point.)
Loyalties: (Monica) Protecting younger and more fragile refugees (1), (Paisley) Her family (3)
Passions: (Monica) Personal survival and risk reduction (2), Revenge on dark energy abusers (1), (Paisley) Indie rock (1)
Provide Visions of Alternates 8d (16 Points): As described above, under “Visions.” This can affect anyone within 310 miles of her when it goes off (or anyone who will be within 310 miles of her at some time within the next few months).
Being the target of this weird extra-temporal episode is baffling when the vision ends, giving the target a dice pool penalty equal to Width after he snaps out of it (as per the ‘Daze’ extra).
Useful (+2), Daze (+2), Range Boost (+2), Temporally Unfixed (+0), Full Power Only (-1), Uncontrollable (-2)
Transform Other Into Alternate 7d (49 Points): She can turn people into the otherverse versions of themselves, as revealed in visions. This lasts a number of hours equal to the Width of her roll times its Height.
If she uses this on someone who’s dead in the otherverse, that person is replaced with a corpse for the power’s duration.
If used on someone who was never born in the otherverse, the person just disappears until the power wears off, with no recollection of the gap.
If used on someone who’s alive but injured or sick in the other world, a Scattered Damage attack handles it pretty well.
Attacks (target is alive and damaged) (+2), Endless (+3), If/Then (stops working after WxH hours) (-1), Scattered Damage (-1), Uncontrollable (-2)
Useful (target is alive and damaged) (+2), Endless (+3), If/Then (stops working after WxH hours) (-1), Uncontrollable (-2)
Useful (target is dead or never born) (+2), Endless (+3), If/Then (stops working after WxH hours) (-1), Uncontrollable (-2)
Useful (target is alive and fine) (+2), Endless (+3), If/Then (stops working after WxH hours) (-1), Uncontrollable (-2)
Permanently Change Other Into Alternate 2HD (4 Points): She can permanently change someone into their otherworld alternate, but with a couple of big, big restrictions. The first is, it has to be voluntary, either on the part of the person being obliterated (or ‘transformed’) or on the part of the alternate who’s going to replace the Progenitorverse native. Moreover, either she, the person being changed, or the alternate coming into existence, has to pay a point of Base Will to seal the deal.
Useful (+2), Permanent (+4), Attached (Transform Other Into Alternate) (-2), Base Will (from either her or target) (-2), If/Then (either target or target’s alternate has to be willing) (-1)
Change Between Paisley and Monica 2HD (4 Points): Once per scene, she can make the switch. If she’s Monica, she can change into Paisley. If she’s Paisley, she can change into Monica. The change lasts until she makes another switch and is temporarily disorienting (that’s the Loopy flaw). Note that if she turns into Paisley, she instantly regenerates any damage.
Useful (+2), Endless (+3), Exhausted (-3), Loopy (-1)
Change Objects Into Alternates 4d (8 Points): As described above, under “Bits and Bobs.”
Useful (+2), Duration (+2), Uncontrollable (-2)
Conditional Regeneration 9HD (18 Points): Every time she changes into Paisley, it’s a ‘fresh copy’ of Paisley’s body, with any wounds she’s taken in the Progenitorverse copied over.
Useful (+2), Engulf (+2), Permanent (+4), Attached (Change Between Paisley and Monica) (-2), Automatic (-1), If/Then (only when changing into Paisley) (-1), Self Only (-3)
Conditional Hyperbody 1d (1 Point): Objectively, Paisley is in far better shape than Monica, since she missed out on all the stress and extended sleep deprivation and malnutrition and violence. On the other hand, she doesn’t know, in her bones, how far she can push her body. Monica does. To look at it another way, Paisley’s never had to run for her life. Monica has, more times than she can count. So Monica is constantly pushing a sicker body, while Paisley loafs along pampering a healthy body. Until shit gets real. Then Paisley can call on hysterical reserves of strength that are, for Monica, just daily life.
In practical terms, Paisley gets +1 Body when she’s absolutely terrified.
Hyperstat (+4), Attached (Change Between Paisley and Monica) (-2), If/Then (only when Paisley is terrified) (-1)
What Do You Do With Paisley?
I’ll let you in on a little secret: Paisley/Monica/The Alternative exists solely to make certain things easier for the GM. She’s not a Big Bad who takes down the unstoppable PC (although being removed from reality for no less than two hours can change up a battle if it’s aimed at the big damage dealer, or at the one invulnerable guy in an otherwise fragile party). She’s a simple, one-girl pretext for stuff that might otherwise be hard to engineer, and I don’t just mean a simple excuse for why a character vanishes when his player can’t get a sitter on game night.
Why does is her power of bestowing otherverse visions have to be unfixed in time and random? Because it allows foreshadowing. If you’re going to run a game where a player’s usual character is replaced, leaving him controlling an alternate universe version without powers, it’s not much fun to toss him headfirst into that pool with no warning. The bad way to handle Monica is to spring her on the PCs—surprise, you’re powerless and uncool!
The good way is to have them experience these weird hallucinations as you’re wrapping up (or in the middle of) another plot. Since Monica’s active in 1984 and on, PCs looking for trouble are spoiled for choice. Right in the middle of dealing with post-apocalypse superpower insanity, a PC gets snapped into another America. You run this little sideline for a bit, until the other players are getting bored (assuming, of course, that the PCs’ otherverse selves aren’t working together too) and you give the PC a chance to explore what his character could have been. It’s a little vacation from the angst and responsibility of being a metahuman in the thick of the metapocalypse. It also lets you figure out what kinds of Stats his alternate might have. On top of that, you can ask the other players about what their characters would be in a world without the Progenitor.
The Cure for Buyer’s Remorse
Sometimes a player gets tired of a character. There’s no shame in it, sometimes people just grow apart from their imaginary superheroes. Maybe the tragedies in the character’s past have stacked up to a point where the player’s no longer having fun. Or maybe the character has gone in a direction that the other PCs can’t, won’t, or don’t want to follow.
For whatever reason, the time has come to retire that character gracefully and provide a trustworthy replacement. With Monica, you can let the player take over a character who’s very similar (and who was, indeed, the same person right up to 1968) but who has, at the same time, been spared the heartache and craziness of metahumanity. The alternate can be brought in and made permanent. Then all that remains is to expose him to a strong dark energy carrier and see what powers his alternate-universe psychology manifests.
The Soft Alternative
Some enemies you can kick into a caldera of seething explosive magma and then, later, reminisce about it over cold beers. (“Oooh, I shoulda said ‘All you need is LAVA’ when I threw him in!”) They’re horribly evil and need to be destroyed.
But sometimes it isn’t that simple. Some antagonists are crazy, misled, well-intentioned, or just too young to know right from wrong. With Progenitor in particular, there’s a high likelihood that PCs are confronting people who gained powers from them, or gave powers to them, people who can’t simply be dismissed without social and emotional repercussions.
Or sometimes, even without personal entanglements, a character isn’t so simple. It may have nothing to do with the villain and everything to do with a hero’s unwillingness to mete out so final a punishment. What’s the point of having all the power in the world if you have to fall back on the barbarity of murder as a punishment?
Monica, if persuaded, can serve as a permanent fix without bloodying anyone’s hands. A hyperintelligent but emotionally immature toddler supervillain can be traded in for a perfectly normal child. The same second chance can be used on anyone with emotional baggage
Raising the Dead
Best for last, though again, this has its limits and restrictions. But if a PC dies from a case of cold dice, Monica can look over the corpse and sweep in its alternate-reality, unpowered self. Then all that remains is to lose the Base Will for permanence and dark energy exposure to repower the tweaked version. This only works, of course, if it hasn’t been established that the alternate version is also dead, or nonexistent, or a tremendous jerk. It only works once.
But it could bring back an alternate edition of a dead villain, too.