Vanessa Ann McKenzie: A Guest Post by Reika

Today I’ve got something a little different for you. My dear friend writes fanfiction for various properties, especially games, and today’s post is about the lead character from her long-running XCOM fanfic, Taking It Back.


As a long time gamer, both tabletop and computer roleplaying, I have a lot of characters that I love. Some of them even see re-use, often from a tabletop game to computer, but sometimes from tabletop to tabletop. This is about one that went from tabletop to fanfiction based on a computer game, but oddly enough not a CRPG.

Vanessa Ann McKenzie “Van” started off as a character in a short lived CthulhuTech game. I won’t go into her history for that, except to say that she was teen from a wealthy NYC arcology that was brutalized by the Esoteric Order of Dagon. It was such a rough background that it gave my hardbitten GM pause as being almost too brutal for him, but he ultimately okayed her.

Normally characters like Van tend to not stick around in my brain for long because I have a lot of character voices clamoring for attention, but stick around she did. Every so often I’d threaten to inflict her on my GM, just to see him twitch, but also because I wanted to see what Van would be like if she was given a chance to grow.

The reasons why she stuck around in my head are that while she is a survivor of terrible things, she is still a good person who wants to save the world despite itself.

Being the cynical person that I am, that kind of character is an extreme rarity for me.

Van’s opportunity to get developed came about in a completely unexpected manner.

I was in a writing slump for a year. None of my existing projects, fanfic or original, interested me, then I played through the sci-fi turn based strategy game XCOM 2 and my Muse handed me a fully fleshed story idea.

Being stubborn in addition to cynical, my initial reaction was “you have got to be shitting me”, but the Muse insisted that it would be great.

For those unfamiliar with the XCOM series, the premise is simple: aliens invade the earth and an international coalition is formed to fight them off. The series originally started in 1994 as UFO: Enemy Unknown, had multiple sequels and spinoffs, then was rebooted as XCOM Enemy Unknown with an expansion pack called Enemy Within.  XCOM 2 takes place 20 years after Enemy Unknown where the aliens won with superior firepower, took over humanity’s fate and XCOM became a disorganized resistance movement.

With both games, the player is meant to be the Commander who leads XCOM to its ultimate fate in victory or defeat, so you don’t make a persona or avatar like you would with other games. The various characters address things to the player directly as the Commander.

While I somewhat liked Enemy Unknown/Within, it didn’t really excite me. XCOM 2 was a very different beast, especially with the story and the major NPCs.

So when I gave in to the Muse’s ridiculous idea of a romance set in XCOM 2 between the Commander and Central Officer John Bradford (second in command to the Commander) I tried to figure out the Commander. That’s when Van gave me a mental smack upside the head. So I had my Commander.

Fortunately that included a revised background, because there was no way I was using the original.  She was still a survivor who wanted to save the world. Only in this case she grew up in the slums of Newark, New Jersey, lost both parents and older brother to drugs, alcohol and crime at the age of 12. From there she bounced around in foster care until she was old enough to fend for herself. All that saved her from a similarly gruesome fate as her familiar is the fact she’s smart and perceptive.

Her fascination with history came about from her desire to understand how people do what they do, but had no interest in psychology. Her interest in sci-fi came about from the rare family outing to see the movie Independence Day in the theaters. Even at eleven years old she knew most of it was bunk, but thought it was an interesting idea, one that she thought over from time to time as the years went by.

When Van entered college she chose to go for a history degree with a focus on the effects of technologically superior cultures on those with more primitive tech. That eventually lead to her now infamous (to her at least) thesis during her Master’s program about possible scenarios for aliens invading the earth and likely reactions to those scenarios. That brought her to the attention of the fledgling XCOM coalition that had been formed as a just in case contingency to the very idea of an alien invasion. When she completed her Master’s, she was given a job offer at Foresight Laboratories to come up with simulations for the military to deal with. Within a few months that position evolved to running and solving simulations cooked up by other people.

It ultimately proved to be on the job training when a few years later a real alien invasion started, XCOM became activated and Van was made the Commander.

Unfortunately, they were betrayed by the very countries they were trying to protect, XCOM HQ fell to the aliens, Van was taken prisoner and the alien controlled ADVENT government began to reshape humanity.

Twenty years later, Van was rescued by the remnants of XCOM and now she’s faced with rebuilding XCOM, uniting the disparate forces of the Resistance and bring down ADVENT for an earth she doesn’t recognize anymore and for a humanity that she doesn’t feel a part.

Van is probably one of the most human characters that I’ve come up with. She’s far from perfect, and started off as a person who really only had her brains going for her to eventually becoming someone who can kick ass (my typical RPG characters start off enormously capable at the ver least, the rapidly become grotesque) She’s wounded and scarred, but tries not to let that dominate her life. When she loves, it’s a quietly intense thing. When she makes a promise, she finds a way of fulfilling it. Even if it ends up horribly delayed. She doesn’t take anyone’s shit either. After all, she once kicked a general out of her vase when he made the mistake of trying to countermand her orders.

Thus, this is how the story Taking It Back came to be and I was finally able to give Van her chance to grow and shine.

I will still threaten to inflict her on my GM though. Just because. 😉

If you’re interested in reading the story, you can check it out at


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