Character Thoughts - Jo
I think this may be the first time I’ve had a character really and truly die in a game. Sure, I had a monster hunter die at the end of a campaign and be brought back to life. I also had a character who was the only one to survive a Deadlands game, with the mission of telling the tale so her companions wouldn’t be forgotten. But as far as campaigns go, I think this is the first time death was absolutely the end. I tend to be very attached to my characters, and hope for happy endings. I’m okay with this death, though. I mean, given the title of the game, it isn’t like it wasn’t telegraphed.
At the end, it all came down to a couple of dice rolls - I rolled to see if Jo could get everyone out, and only partially succeeded. She went back in anyway, and Bill had Michael’s player roll to see if I survived, and he failed. (He'd already spent all his tokens on resisting Miss Maudie’s ghost ordering him to kill my character.) Michael survived, but that may not be a blessing - he’s badly injured, lost his wife, and guilty of two murders and massive financial fraud. It’s a sad but fitting end to our ghost story.
Going into the last session, I knew there were two huge reveals on the horizon, and I had no idea how Jo would react to either of them, and I really didn’t want to decide in advance. I thought about them, but figured that we’d see how it felt in the moment. Then, in the same scene, we finally hit the reveal that Michael knew about Jo’s affair, and that Michael had killed his brother earlier that day. I was a little surprised but pleased with the way both went.
For the first, when Michael told Jo he knew about her affair, I had at least half expected that I’d get really defensive and belligerent - it’s how Jo reacted to Lisette trying to make her feel remorse for her actions as a teenager, after all. But with this, a betrayal she knew was a betrayal, and her husband finding out, the reaction was much quieter, with no real defense of her actions offered. She didn’t push back, and she didn’t really ask for forgiveness. She did say she’d fucked up. I liked the quiet reaction more than the defensive one I’d been expecting to have. Of course, it wasn’t the time to sit down and hash out their entire marriage, but I came out of that thinking that things weren’t good, but they weren’t necessarily entirely doomed? At least, you know, until Jo died twenty minutes later.
As to the second reveal, how Jo would react to finding out her husband was capable of murder, it was a lot less clear-cut than I’d been expecting. When it came right down to it, Michael didn’t say the words explicitly, and the obliqueness was enough that Jo got it, but didn’t have to get it entirely. She knew what he was saying, but she could hear it and yet not process it. I had a feeling that her initial reaction would probably not be entirely condemnatory - it’s hard to switch gears that quickly about someone you love and have been with that long. In the long run, though, if she’d survived and had time to think about it, the horror would have slowly grown.
A large part of why Jo could more or less understand what Michael had done but not deal with it yet was a personality trait that she had through the entire game, but which really took control in the final episode. As a surgeon, and because I thought it would be very useful in a haunted house game, her secondary trait was “Calm Under Pressure.” When faced with everything going to shit, Jo was constantly triaging, putting her emotions aside (and frequently last) in order to do what needed to be done.
In many ways, this was a microcosm of the entire character, and a look at how that ability could serve her well in short term emergency situations, and yet be the same trait that screwed up her life when constantly applied to a very busy life, when it always meant putting the less urgent things (her marriage, time to relax, self-care) last. Her dramatic poles were Bulling Through vs. Taking the Easy Way, and except for that affair, she never took the easy way. In fact, it’s probably what killed her, in the end. She’d saved her kids and her husband, but there was one thing left she could try to do, and she did it. Poor Jo.
While triaging like that is a character trait I share, I’m also a much more emotional person than Jo, and less able to put everything off until an easier day that will never come. It was interesting how, during the finale, I was often tense, but never on the verge of breaking down. Every supernatural thing Jo saw unsettled her, but she would deal with it by refocusing on the matter at hand. It might have scarred her for life, but at the time, she did what she had to do.
Was that the best choice? Lisette and Michael’s players both went to incredible places dealing with the fears and stresses and breaking down, becoming more and more unstable, while I never felt like Jo lost her stability. That makes her good as a foil, but maybe that’s a hint to trying playing someone less stable in a future game. (On the other hand, I might already be doing that in TimeWatch, where I feel like Millie is constantly teetering on the edge of a breakdown.) Still, it’ll be a challenge, to try another character where triaging is not part of her innate abilities, someone who has more potential to be overwhelmed.
If we’re talking about playing characters who differ from myself in some important way, let’s go back to one of my primary stated goals in playing Jo. I am fairly in touch with my emotions and sometimes far too attuned to the emotions of people around me. So I had wanted to play a character who was not that, someone who was not emotionally intelligent, not nurturing, who might be surprised by what she actually felt, if she ever understood she felt it.
I feel like I succeeded moderately well. Jo as a parent was definitely not nurturing, although I also don’t think she was a terrible mother, either. She made some fairly obvious mistakes that she wouldn’t understand, including her confrontational manner in regards to her daughter acting out. She never understood that Maddie was acting out, in part, because she knew her mother was having an affair, and saw it as a betrayal of her father. (Which, of course, it was.) And when Tyler had been scared by the apparition at his window, she wasn’t as understanding as she could have been, but she didn’t belittle him, either. She tried to direct him to what she thought was the most likely answer, and that was probably not as helpful as a hug would have been.
As a wife, Jo was also certainly not emotionally intelligent - her marriage was crumbling, and she had no idea what to do about it. She even thought her husband wouldn’t realize she was having an affair. When on the island, she was trying to reach out and find a common ground and history, to rekindle a romance. It felt like Jo and Michael were never actually adversaries, but they didn’t remember very well how to be allies anymore. The possibility was there, the past had proven it could be done, but neither had the resources to figure it out in the present.
And as a friend, Jo sucked. She fought like hell to have no space for Lisette, at the cost of hurting Lisette time and time again. Renewing that friendship would have meant examining some painful things about herself, and some unlikeable things she’d done. Given her jealousy over Lisette and Michael’s connection, it was much easier to decide Lisette was the enemy and treat her as such. I was delighted, though, by the small moments of friendship that snuck past her armour. The closeness never lasted long, but these were two people who remembered the patterns of friendship on a cellular level.
Outside of musing over the psychology of my own character, one thing I never realized until after the game was that when the three of us picked the evocative phrases for the haunt, we were also picking mechanical aspects. Each of those phrases (ours were “The Whisper,” “The Mirror,” and “The Door”) meant that the ghosts had a specific power. Bill says he did this so the ghosts weren’t all powerful and there were rules he had to follow. I thought that worked well, and we inadvertently picked some of the most psychological of the powers!
We have certainly had a history of great drama-heavy games before, and I am so privileged to be playing with this awesome group of people, all of whom I trust so much to do interesting things, be interesting characters, and to explore bravely together in scenes that can get into emotional territory. This particular game started with a mandate to have drama-centric game, to play hard and with passion, to embrace characters and a situation that would put pressure just about everywhere. It did not disappoint. So this is my personal thank you to my husband, for being an awesome GM, and the other two players for being so astoundingly daring and kickass in what they bring to the table.
The "Official" Backstory, direct from the GM's pen:
In the Prohibition era, Maudie and Galen McBride were smuggling alcohol into northern New York State with the Stewart brothers, Ewan and Neil. They secured their hold on the liquor rackets with acts of horrifying violence, cowing their enemies. Maudie ran the "business" side, managing the money, while the men got their hands dirty. The distillery that supplied the operation was built into the foundations of Strathclyde House, in a secret sub-basement.
Neil was the most dangerous member of the operation, leading brutal attacks on their competitors, often leaving his mark with a curved skinning knife (which gave him his nickname, "Skinner"). The most notorious of these was a raid on a rumrunning operation in New York where he arranged for their competitors to be strung up from a tree outside a country garage they used as a distribution point and skinned alive. The incident loomed large in the news, as a boy in the employ of the Americans hid himself when he saw a car full of masked men approaching. He reported the incident in gruesome detail, including the quote (from Neil) that became a sensational headline: "No one gets out alive."
After the publicity, Maudie told Galen that they would need to get rid of Skinner. He was too dangerous, too unpredictable, and her plan had always been to sink the profits of their illicit enterprises into legitimate business ventures, expanding the McBride family fortunes. Galen killed Skinner, walling him up in a recess of the basement distillery, which would soon be bricked up and forgotten as Prohibition wound down. Without Skinner's muscle, Ewan was no match for Galen, and agreed to a payout that was a small fraction of what he believed he was owed. He took his money and put it into a shipping business, which his son Bruce would build into an international empire.
But Skinner wasn't quite done with the McBrides. Maudie and Neil had been sleeping together for years, under Galen's nose, and Maudie found herself pregnant. She quietly dealt with the inconvenience herself, and hid away the mortal remains of Skinner's child in the walls of Strathclyde House, where no one would ever find it. With that small detail accounted for, she was the sole proprietor of a financial empire... all of it in her name, and under her control, which would leave Galen a bitter and hateful man until his death.