Friday, April 10, 2015

Meta-Pets: Sketches and Pitch

I thought I'd pull up another old pitch we worked. It didn't go anywhere, but we had an interesting time batting ideas back and forth. We wanted Meta-Pets to be a kind of YA story, but with super-pets. We've seen a couple of comics use an animal team as a basis: Beasts of Burden, We3, and Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers. I think that last one came out after we put this one to bed. I like the Meta-Pets concept and, as I do with everything, I've been thinking of how you'd use it for an RPG. The singular protagonist wouldn't work (unless you did a troupe-style game). You could do it exclusively with the players running animals, but I think that shifts the focus too much.

What I think would work is having each player make up a teenager. They all go to a mysterious school where everyone has secrets and perhaps even powers. But each character would also make up a super-pet companion. They could have their own stories and missions. At the table you would swap between scenes of the human characters doing things and the animal characters getting into hijinks. I could imagine using one of the dramatic version of Apocalypse World or maybe Fate.

Anyway here's a rough set of sketches (unedited, so really rough) from some of our brainstorming. 

High Concept: Teenager Sarah Brothers finds herself the owner/leader of a team of super animals. Now she must figure out their origins while fighting battles against villainous beasts, teens and supers.

The Pitch: Teenager Sarah Brothers struggles socially and academically at school after the mysterious vanishing of her father. She comes home to find a strange new stray dog in her neighborhood. Sarah tries to feed it, but the little canine seems to want to lead her somewhere. Eventually she follows, trying to keep up with him across the suburbs of keystone City. Eventualy they reach an apparently abandoned building, where the dog leads her to the body of his former master. But even as she recovers from that shock, an armed clean-up team enters, determined to contain everything inside. Sarah tries to flee, but is quickly caught. However the explosive entry of a group of other animals- possessing super powers- knocks out her captors. Sarah flees home only to find the animals waiting for her. They can talk, they have powers and they've come looking for her- though they don't know why. Now Sarah must balance high school life, keeping secrets from her mom, and taking care of a team of super animals.

Key Characters:
  • Sarah Brothers: Once a geeky-overachiever, she used to be the smartest in her high school. But her father's vanishing and the vageries of the high school social scene have left her adrift. She's given up on everything, but now finds herself with new responsibilities.
  • The Animals: Wraithwolf: A Siberian Husky with a Southern drawl. His control over matter allows him to hide from sight and pass through walls. Lol: A smart and overweight cat with short-term memory problems. His mind-control/mesmerism powers would be more effective if his attention didn't wander so quickly. Kakaw: A parrot with modest TK powers, and a screechy voice. Self-esteem issues make him the neediest of the team. Mechamster: A mechanical animal who looks more like someone's idea or a hamster or rat than an actual one. Believes he's flesh and blood. His tech-connection powers make him invaluable support. Fenris, tiny, invulnerable and super-strong dog. The most guided by instincts, he can talk in simple sentences. In a team of bizarrely intelligent animals, he's the odd beast out.
  • Marta Brothers: Sarah's mother. Allergic to animals, she's tried to keep Sarah focused, but her husband's disappearance threw both of them off balance. Though she won't admit it, she's scared about her vanished husband's secrets.
  • Dublin Stross: Mysterious investigator from one of the “Alphabet Soup” of agencies in the new universe. Looking for evidence of meta involvement in the area.
  • Nate Diamond: The new smartest kid at school- handsome and intelligent, he makes everything look easy. Seems to carry some kind of grudge against Sarah.
  • Annie Jones: One of Sarah's former friends- turned against her in a classic girl bullying move. She's forced to up her game to remain on the inside with her new pool of friends.

To Begin: We see the small dog, Fenris, sniffing at a hand. He looks up as if listening for something and then walks out through the wall, leaving a outline as he punches through. He crosses a highway at night, one car deflecting off of him as he keeps walking. He heads into the suburbs of Keystone City, following some trail. We cut to Sarah Brothers and see her day at high school- pushed out by the geek mafia and cut out by her old circle of friends. The underclassmen fear here based on rumors about her past and her father's involvement in organized crime- whispers about why he vanished.

Sarah returns home and we see her leaving out food for the neighborhood stray, when she's approached by Fenris. She offers the god food, but it refuses and waits patiently. He tries to lead her, but she's reluctant. Eventually she gives in and follows. In the background we can see that other dark and shadowy shapes may be following the pair. They arrive at a building, and Sarah goes in- only to find herself spotted by a High-tech minion clean-up crew. They attempt to capture Sarah and Fenris, and in the middle of the fight, other animals appear (Wraithwolf and the others). They fight off the bad guys as she escapes with Fenris. Sarah returns home, shaken, thinking about what she'll tell the police, tell her mother. She goes into her bedroom to find Wraithwolf and the others sitting on her bed.

“We need to talk,” the dog says. Close Issue One.

What's the Goal?
  1. A book that combines the action of a superhero book, with a lighter tone and approach. Not exactly Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars, but certainly drawing some inspiration from those sources. I'm also thinking about the dramatic elements of Azumanga Daoiah and His & Her Circumstances as a touchstone. We seen animal books (Mouse Guard, We3, Beasts of Burden) do well in recent years. There's a little riff on the idea of a Legion of Super Pets, but only lightly. The most important thing being that the animals can talk, think and reason like normal people.
  2. The material sets up several core mysteries, tied set within the new 52 universe. Where did these animals come from? They don't clearly share a single origin, so what drew them to Sarah?What's the deal with her father? How can she maintain her life and still help the animals out?
  3. I imagine some of the drama will come from Sarah's trying to keep everything sane among the group. As well, the question of how to feed and care for all of these new found animals. Can she keep herself anonymous when the animals are ought doing things? This should be a teen protagonist book, without the agnst or goofiness that we've seen in some of the other books.
  4. In some ways this should be a classic superhero comic book, but also comment on it in passing. It ought to be fun. Wraithwolf's a patriot and driven to help, so he's trying to whip the others into shape. What will the bad guys think when they're taken down by pets? Imagine that the vairous animal characters are in some ways “stand ins” for the classic roles within a super-team. Can do some visual parodies of classic superhero shots with the animals.
  5. Enemies should involve ferrets- because I hate ferrets.
  6. My original scribble that started this: protag Girl, Sarah, for the time being, has grown up in Keystone City. She used to be the smartest, the geeky over-achiever, but she's been knocked off of that pedestal in recent years. The Geek Mafia in her school, led by an unpleasant version of Encyclopedia Brown, has bumped her out. The popular clique has ruled her out based on old friendships. In some ways, she ought to be like the athletic animal lover character from Azumanga Daoiah. Her father's gone missing, and some indication that he had a secret or double life. Mysterious bits which can be followed up on. Her mother takes care of her and is a good person, but highly allergic to pets. So the big joke later on will be the Cat mind-controlling the mother into taking allergy medicine and being cool with the pets.
  7. I want to animals to all have a different feel. The Cat communicates mentally, Fenris doesn't talk, Wraithwolf & the Bird do. The Hamster-mecha has a different vocal tone. Can talk through different speakers. Burning out his hamster wheel. The point being that they didn't come from the same project- and there's a mystery about why they came to her. 
Scene One
On a tiny dog, FENRIS, looking forlornly at the hand of his master. With canine instincts, he's pushed his food bowl near the body on the floor of a cluttered lab. The off-panel corpse conceals much from the audience- the who, how and why of this death. If we see the lab, it is only in fragments. It has the look of something jerry-rigged together, haphazard and unkempt. Fenris looks away, as if hearing a noise. He heads off, tail wagging, towards a door. In the next panel we see a building covered with graffiti; it is dark outside. Light streams out from the bent corner of the steel door- the makeshift doggie door this canine has just made as he heads off into the night.

Scene Two
SARAH BROTHERS biking to school, frantically late. She ride through the streets of a classic, close-built suburbs. Still she brings her bike to a sudden stop. She approaches the bushes and we see a cat, with kittens. Sarah's brought food, but the cat bites her. Sarah, pulls back, disappointed. She heads on to school.

Scene Three
Sarah at school- we can see it is a high-end, upscale suburban school in Keystone City. Suspiciously nice and well-appointed, it serves a community serving the massive technological and industrial research park nearby- with companies close together for "synergy." Sarah locks up her bike at the nearly empty rack: everyone else has scooters, cars and the like. In the hallways, her peers ignore her, avoiding her glance. Underclassmen scurry away from her like she has the plague. We overhear a few comments- strange threats aimed at peers and staff from what at first glance seem to be underprivileged elites. We geek the first hints of a Geek Mafia- warring cliques of teens with highly-placed parents in the research triangle. Sarah moves through it unaware. She's distracted in class clearly apart from her peers and unsure why. She tries to speak to AMANDA KILN, but the former friend ignores her . In biology, the strangely high-level lecture drones on. Like any high schooler, Sarah zones out- though everyone else seems engaged. Looking out the window Sarah sees a parrot perched on a tree outside. It watches her. She breaks eye contact and realizes class has finished, the other students have left and she's lost a whole class period.

Scene Four
Sarah gets home as her mother, MARTA BROTHERS, returns from work. Asked about her day, Sarah mentions her missing assignment for biology, slipped away because she zoned out. Her mother suggests she call a friend to get the homework, but Sarah evades the suggestion. There's a break in the conversation. They've crashed against this topic before. They fix dinner and there's a lull. They wait- and then uncomfortably laugh at themselves for waiting for Sarah's father. They have to stop doing that- but we can tell this is a nightly ritual. Sarah's father, Marta's husband father vanished and the wound remains open. Her mother returns to normal conversation, and asks about the animal tracks outside. Marta reminds her daughter about the community rules and her own allergies. Marta's allergic, and doesn't want any animals in or around the house. Later, after dark we see Sarah sneak outside. She puts pet food out in a secret bowl near the alley. As she goes back inside we see a silhouette, the threatening shadow of a massive hound, like a wolf (clearly not Fenris' shadow).

Scene Five
At school the next day, Sarah comes into the middle of gossip and chatter. A new student has arrived, NICK TSUDA, a handsome and brilliant young man. His parents have taken key positions at one of the local research facilities, Promethean Labs. Sarah watches as AMANDA leads Nick around, and the Geek Mafia begin to size him up. Sarah's startled when Nick approaches her, introducing himself in a forward way...he acts as if they're spoken before. Confused and more than a little embarrassed at the attention, Sarah manages to keep her composure- perhaps this is a way to rise above those who have excluded her? Sarah's reaction provides the first hints about her memory gaps.

Scene Six
Sarah returns home and sees the tiny dog sitting in the street in front of her house. She rushes over and grabs it up before a car can hit it. Despite her mother's allergies, she takes Fenris inside. Her love of animals and soft heart drive her to clean up the filthy dog. As she shampoos Fenris she discovers a collar with an ominous black tag. More weirdly, she finds the tail end of a thick steel leash still attached. Outside, Sarah offers Fenris food from her secret stash, but he refuses. Instead he heads off, stops and looks back at her. Clearly she's meant to follow. Sarah hesitates, but eventually decides to see where the dog will lead her. Sarah's grabs her bike and follows Fenris through and out of the suburbs. They pass the many high-tech research facilities- a cavalcade of vacuous and futuristic names..

Scene Seven
Fenris makes a beeline for the abandoned-looking warehouse building, the same one we saw earlier. He slips in and the door gives way when Sarah tries it. Inside she activates the flashlight app on her phone. The building is more developed on the inside than she expected with divided rooms and labs, a strange glow and plastic hanging sheeting. Looking at some of the experiments gives Sarah a headache- though she's not sure why. She follows Fenris, who leads her into the central lab, with workstations, exposed wiring, and the feeling of someone jerry-rigging mad science together. She finds an older man on the floor, dead of uncertain causes. He has the other end of Fenris' leash on his wrist, and the empty bowl of food pushed close. Sarah freaks out and goes to pick Fenris up when she hears a loud sound.

Scene Eight
Agents, heavily armed enter the building. They're responding to some kind of signal or alarm- perhaps something Sarah tripped. She see them swarm in on the security monitors and can hear them speaking- the building to to be contained, eliminate anyone on-site. Finding no signal on her phone, Sarah tries to make a break for it, hoping the chaotic layout of the building will help her. She tries several tricks to distract and delay them- she's not helpless and wants to protect Fenris as much as anything. There's a chase- tripping, things being knocked over- and then suddenly she finds herself looking up at drawn weapons from these professional “cleaners.” And then all hell breaks loose, as Siberian Husky, WRAITHWOLF, appears out of nowhere, and knocks them down. The rest is slideshow of chaos as Sarah flees- does she see what she think she does? Who are they fighting? Do we see a cat for a moment? A bird? We never get a clear shot of who is taking out these agents as Sarah makes her escape and frantically bikes homeward- Fenris tucked in her jacket.

Scene Nine
Sarah returns shakily to her house. Her mother's voice on the answering machine tells her she'll be back late. Still holding Fenris, unwilling to put the tiny and apparently unperturbed dog down, she reaches her room and turns on the light. Sitting on her bed is Wraithwolf, the other animals, in the shadows of the room still.

“We need to talk” says the dog on her bed.

So I'd like to start a page/thread looking specifically at the animals of this proposal. Gene suggested that we needed to build some greater weirdness into them, which makes sense given how loosely I sketched them as placeholders. They need avoid Pokemon comparisons and be interesting and unique. So here I'm going to outline some general notes about the animals, and then provide a list of them, which we can make changes to as we come to decisions. So what's here isn't written in stone, but hopefully will serve as a touchstone for our discussion.

  • They have super-powers
  • Some of them can speak
  • They do not share a common origin
  • Some of them make have been created by vanished friends of Sarah
  • One of them was created by Sarah herself, perhaps alone or perhaps with aid. That might have several purposes, but we need to decide on that in the future. For example, the animal might be there to stop her if she starts remembering more completely. Alternately, the animal might be a resource to gather allies or find her friends. Or it is intended to help her regain her memory when the time is right. Or it is intended to protect her while she is in her memory loss state. I like the idea that there's some kind of code of pass-phrase she has to use, but she can't remember. Until that's been given, the animal holds to its original programming.
  • Some of the animals are more “animals,” with those instincts. Some of them behave more like humans- a factor of the method of their creation. Those various instincts and inclinations might complicate the group dynamics.
  • The animals have not necessarily been created by hard science, but might have been crafted by mad science, Science! or even magic.
  • The animals are universally uncertain about their origin.
  • With modest exceptions, they can pass as normal animals to humans, but perhaps not to other animals.
FENRIS Breed: Tiny Dog
Imagine Fenris as the most animal of the group. He doesn't speak, but does have some comprehension (on the level of Krypto or the like). He's super tough, with perhaps some enhanced strength to go along with that. I imagine the others speak to him/deal with him as a animal or a dim relation.

WRAITHWOLF Breed: Siberian Husky
I imagine him most like a human- pretty far away from his animal instincts. He can fully speak and reason. He thinks of himself as a person. He has a strong practical bent, perhaps even conservative. He's a patriotic dog. We can decide if we want him to have a Southern accent or not. That strangeness can eventually be a clue leading to his creator. He possesses intangibility and some degree of invisibility as his powers. The later I image more as a blurring effect, leaving him as an outline. Gene suggested an aura around him- a distortion into another dimension when he activates his powers. Maybe he doesn't have precise control of his shifting powers- parts of his body go intangible from time to time, especially when napping. He ought to otherwise be a slightly tougher than normal dog.

LOL Breed: Plump shorthair cat
We can and should obviously change the name as it is probably too cute. Originally, I'd focused on the cat being the one possessing mesmerism powers. I think that should be the case. He can affect the minds of enemies, giving them hallucinations (primal memories, sensations, etc). I picture this looking a little like the madness Shade, the Changing Man creates. But I also think that the cat has a secondary power- a kind of reality warping ability (though not literally that). He can jump into pictures and become part of them- taking the place of elements or simply sitting in there. He blends somewhat with the style of the illustration. He can move between nearby pictures in this way. If you've seen Paprika, I'm imagining something like that. So you might see the classic Le Chat Noir poster, but with LOL in place of the cat. That gives us a truly strange power with a strong visual element.

I picture the cat as fairly articulate, but more than a little lazy. He might also have some significant memory problems- a resetting mental loop, a kind of short term memory problem, or simply absent-minded for comedy. The cat will be the device which allows us to overcome Sarah's mother's allergies- as it mesmerizes her into accepting the beasts (and making her take an allergy medicine). That might be the first marker to indicate themes about mind control and memory.

MECHAMSTER Breed: Robot hamster
It shouldn't look exactly like a hamster, more like someone's mad science idea of what these things look like. We can have it either continually hide or it has some kind of holographic camouflage. Perhaps it develops that later. It should clearly be a robot, but it thinks of itself as an animal, despite talking and being made of metal. That attitude ought to create some tension among the group. For powers, I picture it as the hacker, both for security and computers. It has the ability to interface with machines. I see it as the most needy of the group, looking for reassurance.

THE BIRD Breed: Parrot
This is the one I'm most at a loss about, how to fill in a gap in the line up and create something distinctive. I decided against sonic powers, as that seems too pat. In fact, I'd imagined the bird squawking with an irritating howl and then being asked if that's its power. In the proposal, I'd suggested some kind of TK, but that doesn't have any plot ramifications or tie ins. A “firebirds” also too easy, so I want to avoid that. Perhaps the Bird's simply articulate and super smart at the start, and we later learn something about his power. Or he doesn't know his power, but is convinced he has one. The Bird can obviously talk, and has the advantage of perhaps being the one animal who can actually speak (at least a little) in public.

Sarah: Protagonist
In the versions we've been working with, she has a primary motivation of SOLVING THE MYSTERY. Now in a couple of different takes on this, that mystery has shifted and we've presented a couple of different ones to be dealt with: MISSING MEMORY, VANISHED FATHER, ORIGIN/PURPOSE OF THE ANIMALS, and CHANGES AT SCHOOL. The one which had the most resonance, and would be primary, would be question of her Memory, given that everything else can be tied into that. So one of the key questions would be whether she begins aware of those gaps in her memory or picks those up over time. I'm inclined to the former, as it sets up the problem right from the start. As well it offers a concrete problem she can see and identify right from the start.

Her additional motivation/dramatic drives come from MOTHER-DAUGHTER-RELATIONSHIP, DESIRE TO BE ACCEPTED, LOVE OF ANIMALS, and NEED TO TAKE CARE OF THE ANIMALS. So of those are goals more than motivations- but they're secondary, complementing the primary motive.

The Animals
Supporting characters- but kind of the crux of the story. Their origin and uncovering that ties into the plot and arc of the story. Their personalities offer story material and details to play off of. I talked a little bit about them but we were still in the stage of brainstorming about them in another thread. The key point is to make them distinctive and less cute, but rather more weird and interesting. But at the same time, their depiction shouldn't stray over into We3 territory- that's a balance problem I'm going to come back to in a little bit.

The real question is about the balance of focus: who is at the center of the story: Sarah or the Animals. I think in our various discussions we came down on the side of Sarah- the protagonist, for whom the animals serve as a device of change and a problem she has to work with and solve. Flipping the other direction would have the animals at the forefront, with perhaps Sarah as the long-suffering weird pet owner.

Primarily a suburb- with the high school stuff being in a suburban-style and upscale school. Again there's an attempt to mirror Veronica Mars there. The idea being that this particular suburb is host to a number of Science! companies and corporations. They supply to agencies and the various strange corners of the meta-human universe. And they're here in close proximity to encourage competition, allow them to pool a testbed, and to take advantage of the McGuffin “strangeness” of the town. Ivy Town, a little, from Simone's run on the Atom was what I was thinking. The battles between the parent scientists would be paralleled in the battles between the mad science students and the geek mafia of the school.

One of the plots we'd played with was the idea that Sarah had done this to herself- that she's erased her own memories for a purpose. We'd batted around a number of takes on that: she let it happen when she lost a competition with another science student; she did it to protect her family; she did it because she wanted to be normal; she did it because she was afraid of what she was capable of; she did it to save some of her friends. In these cases- she's actually has the powers of mad science, but she's put those away. And the animals come in because one of them she created- and it holds the secret to restoring her memory.

There was also the suggestion of old friends vanished, perhaps one of them created one of the animals, etc. Anyway, we batted around a bunch of this in the discussion threads.

I've been thinking about a twist here- especially if we can set if up so that it looks like Sarah was once a mad scientist and mind-wiped herself to keep from going bad (explaining other students' reaction to her out of fear). But then the twist is that in fact she wasn't the Big Bad Mad Scientist, but instead sidekick to that Mad Scientist. Sarah either had a hand in mind-wiping her friend to keep her from going evil OR she was mind-wiped by her friend at the same time as a time-bomb, an insurance policy-knowing that Sarah would eventually be able to fix the problem and restore her.

Having looked through this, recalling some of the initial hesitation over this idea, and considering it against the way the new 52 looks, I don't think this pitch will work or fit- or rather I should say I don't really see a good way to make the core concept (kid/animals with powers) work within that. It might work in other contexts, but I don't think here. I would likely require a darker and more unpleasant tone to make it work, which as I mentioned above takes it into We3 territory which I think isn't that great a direction- in the sense that I don't think the core concept works there and there are other better and more effective ones to pursue.

As well, there's the Girl Genius comparisons, especially since GG has a talking cat- something I'd forgotten until today. So I think it could be seen as too derivative. And I'm not sure coming up with an entirely new take on this would be worth the effort. So I think we can table this one.

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