Ben Bones

writing & worldbuilding

The Phantom Racer

"I can hear my heartbeat,

Like a piston in my chest.

I'm a phantom racer, justice in a steel machine of death."

- TWRP, Phantom Racer

Playing an upcoming race-campaign in Pathfinder: Mad Max meets Wacky Races meets Borderlands. We're all playing different guys on the racing rig, and since nobody else went for the pilot, I'm about to go hard as a motherfucker. Concept is the classic 'guy who died in a car crash and came back to race'. Like oh buddy, you thought you could rest? You buffoon. You fool. You can never escape yourself. He goes really fast though so that's fun.

The guy is a shortstack, cos I think it's funny when the pilot is the tiniest person on the team, and also he's a tight-wound spring of adrenaline, so. Short king! In the world, there's a spirit of pure adrenaline. Our Phantom is absolutely an accidental devotee to both aspects of her (both the Thrillseeker and the Battleseeker). Ironically leans more towards the latter! Would absolutely get into a bar fight and - given that the current build is either Summoner or Wizard - would promptly get smashed to bits.

Behind the wheel though I think he calms down a lot. Like, he's never really calm unless he's got the pedal flat against the floor, you know? Otherwise he's a creature of starkly lit motel bathrooms, white-knuckling the sink, too wired to sleep. Thinking he goes by the name 'Ham', you know? Short for Phant-ham. Nah I'm kidding, it's because he goes ham so often, that's what people know him by. "Oh crap, Ham just walked in. Quick, let's leave before the party gets rowdy." That type of shit.

I think he has to be straight-edge though, weirdly enough. That's mostly because I've got another character who's an addict, so I want to keep certain themes compartmented. We can say that racing is his high!

This is the point in character creation where I ask "Why are you like this?" to the character. And usually I lean into some sort of humanising detail. If not relatable, then something understandable. I wonder if it might be more fun to go the other way in this case? WAIT. Oh damnn you know what we should do?

So. A couple more details! Gonna do the classic garage office with newspaper clippings of the accident. Stuff like 'Driver Dies in Horrific Crash!' plastered up on the wall, with our guy's face grinning out in black and white. Heading: 'Foul Play Suspected'. Subheading: 'Arc Sabotaged Prior to Race?' (It's perfectly legal to sabatoge a vehicle during the race, of course). '[INSERT TEAM NAME HERE] Champions Once Again'.

There would also be a very old, and very faded yellow clipping referring to our guy's first race! Baby's first derby... this wouldn't have been the big run, of course, just a little entry qualifier. The clipping would be a puff piece, a little bit of human interest, and it would go on to say the winner stood out from the competition for being so nice!

"Where other racers opt for defensive Arc mods, [DELETED] is making waves as the only racer riding a completely weapon-free skiff!

"I just don't see the point," this brand new racer said, when asked for comment. "It's a race, right? It's just a matter of being faster than the competition."

Fine principles, but they won't mean much in the big-time. A reminder that in last year's Thunderrun, the Wizard's Tower levelled an entire canyon on the southern bend of the track, and our current champions, the [INSERT HERE] totalled no fewer than three Arcs.

"If they can't catch me, they can't kill me." [DELETED] continued, "I'm gonna win it clean."

Well, it'll certainly be fun to watch them try. These are some bold words from an unknown nobody, and while he's certainly proven he's fast, I can't help but suspect this naive attitude is going to get him killed..."

- Newspaper clipping, 'Arcs and Carts', 30XX

The clear implication being that yes, it did get him killed! LOL.

So yeah. Before he died, he was a really sweet guy, refused to put weapons on his Arc, just a kind-hearted and well-meaning 'classic shonen protagonist'. He was nice, easy to talk to, stood around drinking with other racers, complimenting them on their tight turns, and the way they could drift. Not a mean bone in his body. No tightly-wound aggression, no bar fights, just an earnest desire to win!

In other words, before he died he was a different person. It's the classic came back wrong plot, baby!

So yeah, this lets us take it in several wonderful directions. First, given that he died because he was too nice, he probably has issues with his prior naivity. Whether that's a full 180 into mean, or if it's defensiveness of similarly innocent racers, I don't know yet. Maybe both! Also, his current goal is 100% revenge on the racers who smashed up his Arc and killed him. Now, whether that incident actually was sabotage or not, it actually doesn't matter. Frankly it's just a cool line to put on a newspaper heading, and it probably was just a run-of-the-mill accident. But he still wants revenge, to the exclusion of nearly everything else! Dreams of fire... also fun to bring in the retro outfit. Ha, it would be so funny if it wasn't retro at all, and if it was like, last year. Would be so funny to play as if it's happened so long ago though.

Dreams of fire. I imagine if the Arc catches on fire again, his whole body burns away to the skeleton, because he died that way already. I also want like, an evil laugh track to play whenever he smashes up another Arc? A low background "Harr harr harr". It sounds corny written down, I know, but it's still fun. I'll see if I can't find where I've heard it before...

Appearance wise, his face is flayed to the skull, and his neck is raw and red. Rest of the body's intact, though, with skeleton tattoos on arms and legs, which are a little ghostly looking in a certain light. Fashion-sense is wild. Honestly the main reason I'm making this page is so I have a place to post more stuff once I draw it. Still want the 'pilots jumpsuit with big aviator goggles' pic, with steam rising off him as he grins, a whole foot shorter than the next tallest person in the party... it's fashion week in the [?KT] desert!

We've also got another person in the party who died, more or less? Went through an accident that took most of their whole damn body. And like, I'm just a ghost, you have to live like that. It makes me think though. What's the difference between an honest-to-goodness ghost and horrific life-ending injury, from a character standpoint? I think I have to go a little further than simply 'came back to race' as far as unfinished business goes. Because if this cyborg person did the same thing, then what makes being a ghost distinctive? What am I haunting? Because it can't just be my car. It can't just be myself. What in the world is actually keeping me from moving on?

Maybe it's more than 'having died'. Maybe it's about 'being dead'. The dead don't get to interact with their old lives, they don't get to impact the world... maybe everything he does is for the sake of feeling alive.

This sort of thing:

'Cyborg': "You wanna go? I died!"

Phantom: "Yeah, me too. But unlike you, I didn't come back. I stayed dead. You know the main thing about being a ghost? Beyond haunting the living? It's that I've got nothing left to lose. And buddy, I drive like it!"

I'll talk to the other player about it closer to the release date. As I was saying earlier, this is when I ask my character what makes them tick, though. Right now, that seems to be 'wants to win the race, wants to feel alive'... I think the racing thing is just a haunting phenomena, essentially. He died in a race: that's why his ghost has that drive. It's like the way ghosts are never 1:1 with the living person they were, you know? They become defined by their death, by the aspects of their personality they were known for, and are changed. I think if he crossed the finish line, he would dissipate into mist, at peace at last... but hm.

Oh, I know what it is! He has to race every year until he wins! And up until this point, it's been way more spooky, you know? Like he's not on the race register at all, but then suddenly as they're passing through the Devil's Canyon, he appears out of nowhere, takes out a random vehicle, and dissapears before the next bend. Or maybe they see him in the rear-view, but when they adjust it, he's gone. And it's a sign when you see him that you're going to get into an accident at some point in the race. A spook story! An urban legend! Something half-real, more phantom than menace! LMAO.

And then, he's given some kind of in. Something to give him a little more substance, like, a sacrifice or a summoning. Could straight up have been a random accident. Bunch of kids fucking around, did a seaance, accidentally brought Phantom through the veil. That way it can be completely unconnected to main plot, if it needs to be. Otherwise one of the other players could investigate reports of a manic speedracer in an old racing jumpsuit, tearing through the streets on a souped-up skiff, always gone by morning...

Final notes: usually, I lean into a humanising detail. Something relatable. Something understandable. This time though, I can't help but wonder if I could go for a dehumanising detail? An inhuman motivation. To think of him more as force of nature... that when the party is sitting at the bar, anybody trying to insight Phantom would miss the mark. Essentially, rather than having a 'why', he just has something deeply wrong with him. A little part of the personality that empathy just slides right off.

What could it be, then? Honor? That's a pretty inhuman ideal to be defined by. It's also almost impossible to guess. You know when you love something, how it feels like you don't have control over the part of you that loves, as if it's something within you but seperate from you, that you don't have access to? Yeah, me neither! Maybe he sees it all as a game? Maybe he's incompatible with life itself, and struggles with anything unrelated to his domain of ghost-hood? Maybe he's lonely, and haunting is just how he says hi?

Here's a bit of ramble because I'm thinking about it now: in movies, isn't it always that the speedster is obsessed with going fast, beyond any actual appreciation for a destination? In that sense, they're all going nowhere. The space behind you and the road ahead are the same, if you don't care where you're going, and in which case the speed you're going doesn't matter.

What's some way we could make speed matter? Acceleration as an expression of pain? Of joy? Both? Hang on, isn't it true that the faster you're going the harder you hit? Velocity, right. What is it that hurts? What is it that sings in him, if speed itself is simply the expression of it? Oh my god. Love of the machine. Deux ex machina. Okay fuck yeah, that's a classic. He's also the ghost of the car, lmao, their souls got mangled together? That's so fuckin' funny!

Maybe this is insane, but what if he's more car than otherwise? Not in a machine way. I'm talking about the car's soul. Like, I've loved my cars. So... can they love me? Can a car love you so much it comes back from the dead? Truly a wacky concept, mostly engaging with it for the thought experiment. But really though! If cars can have souls (which they are given through love and humanisation, which we know [DELETED] had in spades], and a car dies, then that soul could become a ghost, sure.

So acceleration as motivation isn't because he's angry or wants vengeance or happy, or any of the rest of it. It's just because... he's a car. When a car is 'on', when its engine beats like a heart, when the motor's going, it's for the express purpose of movement. That's just why it's alive. Same for the Phantom?

What kind of personality does love give a car? Well, a racecar gets a hunger for the race, obviously. But more than that! Brutal speeds, body to the road. An unphased awareness of its own fragility, of how easy glass shatters and metal tears. Tenderness and protection for the people inside it. Playful hostility for the people outside of it. A deep and intimate relationship with the driver, of course, of course.

This probably isn't really feasible, but... there is in fact, a Rage Phantom eidolon as a Summoner option. And it doesn't work mechanically, but I did see it and think 'huh' as I was looking at options there for a car eidolon. It's funny to think about us making the car of our character. It's also late, and I do think this is a truly insane concept to actually consider playing. I think if we introduce it, we'll definitely go more along the lines of 'souls mangled together', instead of 'I am the soul of an old racecar, haunting the track out of love for the driver I lost'. The latter is a bit much. The former is also more... no, I shan't say.

Oof, I do have to evaluate how well this gels with other player, though, given they might be more mechanical than us. Might end up leaning more ghost, and trying to figure out what he's haunting beyond himself, his car, or the race.

More to think about here, but I'll leave as-is for now.

Update 30/5/24: Another late night idea! Could Phantom jack into a machine? Some kind of mental rig, given certain aspects of the mechanical build... also kind of works if we go for the 'soul of his car got mashed in there too'. More importantly, the whole 'dying in a car crash and getting my soul mashed into my vehicle' could be like, the hilight of his afterlife???? That would put a different spin on the usual ghost rider angst! Like, oh, you didn't like getting changed irrevocably? Skill issue! It's about the ecstacy of an incomprehensible experience. Something new and vast and destructive that consumes you utterly, and leaves only the echo of you behind, still buzzing from that impossible high. Like, completely skip the whole trauma aspect of this particular trope. He's just like 'look how fast I go now' lmao. Wait. Hang on, isn't this just him in denial? Wait that might be cooler..!

Themesong: Smoke On the Water.

Session Notes: xx


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