Secret Identity: How to Keep a Super Hero's Identity a Real Secret!
Super heroes with secret identities are often extraordinarily careless. Flimsy covers that wouldn't last five minutes in the real world are expected to stand up to the scrutiny of hostile and friendly intelligence agencies, the media, police, friends, relatives, co-workers, employers, and other heroes-no matter what.
We all know that the world isn't like that. The technology of identification is highly developed and uses dozens of forensic and investigative techniques. It's virtually impossible to do anything without leaving evidence: fingerprints, photographs, saliva, skin particles, hair, blood, etc. And these aren't the only ways we affect our surroundings. Modern society runs on records, and anyone who seems to behave abnormally risks attracting the attention of tax agencies, the police, and a variety of other authorities. It's difficult enough for anyone to drop out of sight in our own world, but in a super-powered world, most agencies could call on the help of their own super-agents with a range of unusual talents that could easily track down almost any hero or villain. Add the scrutiny of the press to these factors, and it seems unlikely that a real-world super hero could stay hidden for long. Having said this, it should be remembered that comic-book heroes are usually able to survive such scrutiny even if their disguises are nothing more than changes in hair styles or the wearing (or removal) of glasses or tiny masks.
It's sometimes difficult to understand why super heroes bother with secret identities, which often seem more trouble than they're worth. But the main reason for their use is to give heroes (and villains) a private life that isn't continually interrupted by the press and assassination attempts. For the Advanced MARVEL SUPER HEROES game, activities in one's secret identity are important in restoring and maintaining Karma; this becomes almost impossible if the character can't maintain a normal private life.
This article presents a rating system for a new ability score, Secrecy, intended for use as a rough guide to the security of heroes and villains. Check if there is any major change at the end of each adventure; if the final rating falls below Typical, the hero may be due for some problems.
All aspects of the rating system are heavily biased toward heroes; only the most careless will suddenly learn that The Daily Bugle has published their secret identities, or find hit men waiting in their apartments after a hard day of crimefighting. This system has been tailored for compatibility with the Advanced MARVEL SUPER HEROES game, but it can easily be adapted to any other game.
To calculate the Secrecy rating, the hero must be assessed for each of the following factors: Disguise, Precautions, Confidants, Profile (Secret), Profile (Super), Concealment, and Karma. When all factors are assessed, add the points for each factor and divide by seven to get the final Secrecy rating.
Some of the heroes and villains mentioned below do not currently maintain secret identities; Secrecy ratings instead reflect an earlier period of the character's career or a potential rating. A few examples have been left blank, where no character seemed to fit the circumstances described. For the purposes of this article, anything said about the secret identities of heroes also applies to villains.
Does the hero wear gloves, a mask, or any other disguise? Does the character change shape or size? These factors can make identification easy or almost impossible. The ratings suggested below are only guidelines and should be modified for unusual cases. Under most circumstance, a disguise should never be better than Monstrous in effect.
|Feeble||A total lack of care about secrecy is shown, apart from a clothing change. (Northstar)|
|Poor||Flimsy precautions are taken, such as wearing a domino mask. (Shadowcat)|
|Typical||A cowl mask and gloves, possibly with a costume that covers the arms, are worn. (Daredevil)|
|Good||The costume covers the hero's entire body. (Spider-Man)|
|Excellent||The hero's costume incorporates padding or armor that alters his body shape, or the hero has powers that cause minor changes in his physical form. (Iron Man, She-Hulk)|
|Remarkable||The hero's costume or powers cause substantial changes in his physical form. (Colossus)|
|Incredible||The hero's costume or powers substantially alter his size and form. (Hulk, Thing)|
|Amazing||The hero's costume or powers cause radical physical transformations. (Human Torch when "flamed on")|
|Monstrous||The hero has an unusual or extremely thorough disguise, involving a total physical change, different body, etc. (Thor/Donald Blake)|
Acting talents: If the character is skilled as an actor or similar performer, and he uses the skill to enhance his disguise, this may cause a shift of 1-3 columns on his rating, as follows:
- Occasional amateur actor/performer: +1CS
- Professional performer (but not an actor): +2CS
- Professional actor: +3CS; This assumes that the character automatically uses his skill to change his voice and posture as a super hero.
Does the character try to avoid any connection between his secret and super identity, or are the two closely associated by common friends and interests? For example, Peter Parker has an uncanny knack of finding Spider-Man in action; how long will it be before someone puts two and two together? Under most circumstances, this rating should not exceed Incredible.
|Feeble||An obvious public relationship between a hero's secret and super identities exists; people know of the dual identity but lack evidence to prove it. (Kingpin)|
|Poor||Many obvious links exist between a hero's secret and super identities. (Spider-Man)|
|Typical||Evidence of a link between the two identities exists, such as a similarity of resources and skills. (Iron Man)|
|Good||No obvious links exist between the two identities, but some unusual associations could be found by investigation. (Daredevil)|
|Excellent||No links exist between the two identities, apart from living in same city or area. (Thor/Donald Blake)|
|Remarkable||The hero's super identity is mainly active in another city or country. (Nightcrawler)|
|Incredible||The hero's super identity is mainly active on other planets or in other dimensions. (Doctor Strange)|
Does anyone know the hero's secret identity? Even the most reliable friend might be unable to resist dropping a few hints, or might be tortured or brainwashed to reveal the information. This category also includes any enemies who might know an identity but have not yet broadcast it.
|Feeble||The hero's secret identity is known to at least one major enemy or many civilians. (Daredevil)|
|Poor||The secret identity is known to friends, relatives, or government agencies. (Shadowcat, Black Widow)|
|Typical||The secret identity is known to several civilians. (Iron Man)|
|Good||The secret identity is known to one trustworthy civilian or 2-5 heroes. (Scarlet Witch)|
|Excellent||The secret identity is known to one other hero. (Spider-Man)|
|Remarkable||The hero is a loner, and his secret identity is never revealed to anyone. (Punisher)|
|Incredible||Because of amnesia or multiple personality, the hero's secret identity does not know of his super identity.|
|Amazing||The hero's powers are manifested in a way that leaves no evidence of heroic involvement, or the hero is not aware of his use of his powers.|
Is the secret identity a newsworthy figure or a total nonentity? Newsworthy figures are more likely to be noticed if they make revealing slips, and they are often under the surveillance of police, intelligence agencies, criminals, news reporters, etc.
|Profile - Secret Table|
|Feeble||The hero's secret identity is a global figure (the head of a major state, a member of royalty, a religious leader, a pop star, etc.). Everyone in the world knows of this person. (Victor Von Doom)|
|Poor||The secret identity is a national figure (American senator, head of a minor state, business tycoon, TV star, nobleman) known to many people in one country, but he is not globally famous. (Mariko Yashida, T'Challa)|
|Typical||The secret identity is regionally famous (a well-known journalist on a city paper, a prominent local industrialist, mayor, etc.) or is known to a few hundred thousand people by name (e.g., an author), but is not a major national or international figure. (Anthony Stark, Peter Parker)|
|Good||About 500-5000 people know of the secret identity by face, name, or reputation. He may be a lawyer, doctor, teacher, director, etc. (Dr. Donald Blake)|
|Excellent||About 50-500 people know of the secret identity, who may be a clerk, security guard, retired person, etc.|
|Remarkable||About 5-50 people know the name of the secret identity, who may be a technician who only meets a few clients, an unpublished author, a night watchman, etc. (Clint Barton)|
|Incredible||The secret identity is known to 1-5 others, such as a spouse or relatives. (Rachel Summers)|
|Amazing||No one knows the character's secret identity. The character could be unmasked on nationwide TV and wouldn't be recognized by anyone. (Red Skull, Scourge)|
Is the super-character well known or a total nonentity? Prominent heroes are more likely to be monitored by intelligence agencies, the police, and supervillains. This rating is often related to the hero's Popularity, but there should not be a direct relationship. A hero dropping from 50 to 0 in Popularity because of a particularly stupid mistake would become more famous, not less!
|Profile - Super Table|
|Feeble||Everyone in the world knows of this character. If a hero, the character is followed by a fan club and besieged by groupies. Both heroes and villains are always under observation by the police and intelligence agencies. In the case of villains, any appearance is always the signal for major countermeasures by military and intelligence forces. (Captain America, Galactus, Doctor Doom).|
|Poor||Famous on an international or national level, this character is usually monitored by intelligence agencies and foreign spies; (Red Skull, Thor)|
|Typical||The character is famous, probably one of the top half-dozen heroes or villains in the country, and he is frequently pursued by the press, spies, etc. (Mr. Fantastic)|
|Good||The character is moderately well known, with a reputation that probably extends to several cities. He receives routine attention from police and intelligence agencies. (Black Knight)|
|Excellent||Though not the premier hero or villain of a city, the character tries hard. He is occasionally pursued by the press, but his activities are rarely the main concern of any national or international agency. (Mockingbird, Spider-Man)|
|Remarkable||One of the crowd, the character is probably only remembered as "one of those super guys". The average man in the street is unlikely to be able to list his powers. (Shaman)|
|Incredible||A second-string hero or villain, this character is someone well divorced from routine public attention. Typically, he seen in action only against other super-characters without much effect on the public. (Kraven)|
|Amazing||One or two people probably know of this character; most don't and wouldn't care if they did. The character is ignored by the press and other agencies. (Morlocks)|
|Monstrous||Who? No one has ever heard of this character, who may be brand new or have little effect on the general public.|
How many of this hero's last few missions have involved no slips or mistakes threatening his identity (e.g., ripped masks, fingerprints embedded in girders, etc.)? Since the status of characters changes constantly in the comics, there are no examples in this section.
|Feeble||There have been major mistakes in several recent missions, and friends (or enemies) suspect the hero's secret and have evidence to back up their ideas.|
|Poor||There has been one recent major slip, or a series of minor slips that could lead a reasonably competent investigator to suspect the truth.|
|Typical||There have been a few minor slips, but nothing would immediately lead an investigator to the truth.|
|Good||One or two very minor slips have been made.|
|Excellent||No slips have been made (applies to most brand-new characters).|
If a hero has Karma, he tends to be lucky. The fates are on his side, the Force is with him, and coincidences and accidents are resolved in his favor. If he lacks Karma, he won't be saved by lucky accidents, and someone with the CIA or KGB might decide to start looking at those old files on him and analyzing them for clues. If enemies know his secret identity, Karma may bring about a situation that prevents them revealing the information.
Effects of Secrecy
|Feeble||The police, intelligence agencies, and other organizations probably know of both of the hero's identities. This information can be learned by any competent researcher. Gossip columnists may be waiting for a slack day to reveal the information if it hasn't already been released, and the truth is definitely known to S.H.I.E.L.D., the CIA, the FBI, the KGB, and other major intelligence forces.|
|Poor||The connection between the identities could be learned if a major intelligence agency made a real effort, or if super-powers and detective techniques were used. The connection is definitely known to S.H.I.E.L.D. and is probably known to other major agencies.|
|Typical||The identity connection is well concealed unless a real slip is made. The truth is probably known to S.H.I.E.L.D. but not to other agencies.|
|Good||The identity connection is unlikely to be known to anyone, apart from any confidants that may exist.|
|Excellent||The separation of secret and super identities is totally secure, barring disaster.|
Judges are advised to avoid publicizing secret identities unnecessarily, even if the PCs are extremely careless. Any factor that might reduce the effect of mistakes should be taken into account. Remember that it is rare for a hero's alias to be revealed in the comics. Unless it is essential to the plot, most super hero RPGs should reflect this philosophy.