Archive for October, 2011


the Citadel of Defenseless Babies

That'll teach you to try to escape from the Citadel of Defenseless Babies!

Readers of the Mule may wish to check out a series of posts I’m doing at the Adventurer Conqueror King blog. These mini-essays appear over there because they grow directly out of my experience wrestling with revamping legacy D&D procedural generation systems like wandering monsters and treasure types for the ACKS system, but I often find myself linking back here because they also continue conversations we’ve had like

  • why the Citadel of Defenseless Babies – the fabled goal of all adventurers seeking profit with no risk, which is to our murder-hobos what the Big Rock Candy Mountain is to ordinary hobos – is specifically comprised of dwarven babies
  • why giving XP for gold is important (see also: murder-hobos)
  • how unintended consequences, like fetishizing balance, arose out of decisions made by WotC designers in the course of overhauling legacy systems – something constantly on our minds as we work on ACKS
  • wonky analysis of the mathematical underpinnings of Basic/Expert D&D, or at least reporting on what happens when you get actual mathematicians like Delta on the scent of these problems
  • how to fill in the gaps left in older editions of D&D without reducing their flexibility for individual takes on the material

Also there are many excellent posts by people successfully overcoming the disadvantage of not being me, including insightful analysis by ACKS lead designer Alex Macris and art by Ryan Browning like the awesome griffon above. If you read the Mule via Google Reader or similar subscription service and you haven’t added the Autarch blog’s RSS feed, what are you waiting for?


kirbsday: Jimmy Olsen 135

One last Jimmy Olsen to get to before this project shifts into second gear. 

I love this cover (by Neal Adams, I think) but sadly, a “horde of [midget] Killer-Supermen” never arrive, and are only briefly implied in the comic itself.  I presume the cover artist was working on an early plot synopsis that got changed midway through the issue.

We open with Simyan and Mokkari, two self-confessed evil scientists, who are cackling about how the Earthmen have no defense against the superior biotechnology from Apokolips.

Superman and the Newsboy Legion take their leave of the Hairies, who urge them to investigate a mishap at “the Project.”

And soon:

So: an anarchic motorcycle gang (the Outsiders) are providing security for a bunch of techno-hippies (the Hairies) who provide traps and diversions to protect the United States Army.  And who’s the Army here to protect?

Teddy Kennedy, some guy, Gregory Peck, and a young Dick Nixon?  No!  They are the original Newsboy Legion from the early 1940s.  (No Flipper Dipper back then, alas.)  The gang hanging out with Jimmy Olsen in the past few issues are their sons.  Except their sons look and act exactly like them and no one ever mentions the kids’ mothers…

So the Project has cloned Jimmy Olsen at least forty-three times and have deployed Clone-Jimmies as infantry soldiers.  And:

digression: okay, wtf

Superman, let’s have a little talk.  The Project is apparently a top-secret military genetics research laboratory (protected by hippies and the Hells Angels).  Your employer, The Daily Planet, presumably one of the nation’s leading newspapers, gathered DNA samples from its teenage interns without their consent, and turned those samples over to the Army.  The Army then grew a squadron of child soldiers grown from your best friend.  Plus you keep a petri dish full of microscopic naked Jimmy Olsens.  Do we need to have an intervention, Superman?  You used to be a journalist for God’s sake.

back to the show

Meanwhile the evil scientists report on their progress to Darkseid via video conference.  This is one of Darkseid’s earliest scenes, and we’re still learning about him: he’s in charge of both Inter-Gang and the Evil Factory, the latter of which is explicitly some kind of advanced expeditionary force from some place called Apokolips tending toward the conquest of Earth.  Darkseid had been trying to blow up the Hairies last issue, and now is operating the Evil Factory, so whatever the Project is up to must matter a lot to him.

Then the evil scientists’ giant, which Darkseid calls an “uncontrollable organic murder machine” gets loose and runs amok:

The scientists use the Penetrator Beam to teleport the giant into the factory.  The giant, of course, turns out to be a mutated, enlarged Jimmy Olsen with kryptonite skin.  Superman gets knocked out when the giant reveals its identity.  You keep dozens of him naked in a petri dish, don’t act so scandalized.

As a soldier (Olsen 43?) exclaims, “Holy smoke!  Someone’s bred a giant renegade Jimmy Olsen!”  The Project sends its own weaponized Jimmy Olsens from stolen cells to fight it.  Meanwhile,

… another Kirby revival:

some comments

This issue is . . . strange.  The villains of this piece are unmistakably bad guys: they’re aliens bent on conquering Earth on behalf of Jack Kirby’s ultimate villain, Darkseid (who orchestrated the plot to kill several children last issue), and they work in a place called the “Evil Factory.”  And yet their dastardly deed is to clone Jimmy Olsen without his consent for use in war, which is apparently exactly what Superman’s buddies in the Project are doing.  Superman is a dick, but in this issue he’s verging on Mad Scientist’s Henchman level villainy.

This is one of the most interesting aspects of Kirby’s portrayal of Superman.  Superman means well, but seems very uncomfortable with the idea that other people have agency.  In issues 133 and 134, Superman is ostensibly worried that his boss, Morgan Edge, is plotting to kill Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion, so he has to warn them off their news assignment at any cost–but rather than explain his concern like a rational person (“I believe Edge tried to have Clark Kent murdered.  Let’s do this together, Jimmy”), Superman’s impulse is to give orders and throw his weight around.  He doesn’t see the kids as his moral equals, and in this issue he and his friends straight-up treat them as lab experiments.  To dramatize this point, Superman is completely defenseless when he sees the giant’s face: the idea that Jimmy, even a cloned Jimmy, might resent and hate him is a disarming shock.

The other frustrating thing about this issue is that the really promising antagonism between Jimmy (the real one) and Superman fades totally into the background here, as if it never happened.  Maybe a day ago in fictional time, Jimmy Olsen was hellbent on finding the truth of this story, even if it meant crashing a motorcycle into Superman’s genitals.  He was fighting the most powerful man in the universe because the dude was getting in the way of his job.  By now, though, Jimmy is a wonderstruck observer to Superman’s cascade of revelations.  He is surprised, but not noticeably dismayed, that a major American newspaper is colluding with the Army to conduct ethically dubious experiments on his own DNA.  Two-fisted Jimmy is gone, and we may never see him again.


shark cleric

it was your basic unforced error

Over in the Lands of Ara the gang is telling tales of awesome Clerics.

In Charlatan’s Saltbox run (more please!) I started out as a Level 6 Cleric, and they are terrific.  PRO-TIP: If you are upset that the Level 1 Cleric has no spells and isn’t fun to play, the problem is that you’re not starting out with 30,000 experience points.  Not only do I have access to fourth-circle spells, but I own three boats (two folding, one normal size).  Clearly God wants me to find the New World.

Anyway, in our very first voyage, we’re out hunting Sea Dragons, when we come across a group of sharks.  My recollection of the conversation, after several months:

OTHER PLAYERS: “Sharks!  Let’s kill them for sport!”

ME: “Cease!  That is not best practice.  Speak with Animals on the bull!”


ME: “Get ready, buddy!  Today’s the day!  Growth of Animals on the bull!”


ME: “You’re big now!  Invincible!  Thanks to me!  Now, use your group of–”

SHARK: “NOM NOM NOM” (eats rest of sharks because it can)

ME: “–uh, sharks, and serve us as scouts to find–”

SHARK: “NOM NOM NOM” (begins eating boat because it can)

ME: “That is not best practice!  No, seriously, knock that off and serve us, I helped you.”


OTHER PLAYERS: “How long does this spell last?”

ME: “Two hours.”

OTHER PLAYERS: [Expletives deleted]

ME: “This was not best practice either.”

So as you can see, I have problems playing characters with exceptional Wisdom, but there are fun things you can do with Cleric spells.  Just make sure you don’t give a gift to a shark.  They are dickholes.


OTHER PLAYERS: “Yarr, a grotto full of walrus-creatures.  Let us slay them for their blubber.”

ME: “Cease!  Let us interrogate them of Sea Dragons.  Speak with Animals on the bull!”

WALRUS-MONSTER: “You see, Lurleen?  Invaders!  I’ll kill them so you see who’s the real Walrus Stud here!  Urk urk urk!”

SUITOR: “Screw you, Darryl!  Lurleen is my sea-cow!  I’ll kill ’em for you, Lurleen, while you think of my hot lovin’!  Urk urk urk!”

ME: “This is–ow!–not best practice.  High-quality females prefer–quit biting me!–mates who treat guests hospitably to treasure!”

Anyway, again: speak with animals is something of a mixed blessing in the Dungeons & Dragons world where everything wants to kill you anyway.  But it is fun as the dickens.

Another fun spell: speak with plants.  You are probably thinking, “Pff, plants.  All they do is make the air breathable.”  And you would be right.  But what’s cool about all the speak with _______  spells is that you can have a social encounter with practically anything.  If you have ever wondered what it would be like a role-play a conversation with a big patch of seaweed, now you can force your DM into doing so.

joesky tax: a relevant house rule

I’m not sure who started it–maybe Tavis, and then Eric adopted it very quickly?  I don’t know–but we usually play that spell-casters cannot “double up” on memorized spells.  So the Magic-User can’t just stock up on sleep spells, and that forces her to solve problems more creatively even if it limits the party’s firepower.  But there’s an additional benefit, which is that Clerics can’t stock up on cure light wound spells, and thus gets to explore the rest of the spell list without other players accusing him of forgetting his duties.  Don’t hate the player, hate the DM!

This rule means that from 0 to 25,000 XP, one B/X Cleric is limited to a single cure light wounds spell.  That is rough times.  If you want more, hire more Clerics.  But I don’t think this has been a serious problem for us.  I’d guess that there’s about 3 substantive hours in each of our sessions, which is enough time to get into 1-2 fights, and usually some very modest healing is enough to see us through while leaving enough tension toward the end to keep things exciting.


bleg: origin of term “sandbox”?

You know how everyone is always saying “sandbox this” and “sandbox that”?  Where did that term come from, and when?  What’s the earliest recorded mention?

I’m asking because Ron Edwards asserts (PDF) that “sandbox” is one of those terms that everyone throws around, mostly by way of example–“Oh, you know, like Keep on the Borderlands!”–that probably could use some more examination, and I think he’s right.  I’m wondering what it was originally coined to encompass.

My own exposure to the idea behind it, if not the term, is the “Techniques of Story and Campaign Design” in the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (TSR 1986) where Doug Niles compares Linear, Open, and Matrix style games; this advice was rehashed in the 2e era in the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide (TSR 1990 by Jaquays and Connors).  I’m presuming if the term had been around in 1986, Niles would have used it, if only as a touchstone.

But I’m wondering if there are earlier mentions of these ideas, and specifically the term “sandbox.”  Any thoughts?


wtf, monk?

Jia Dao, “The Swordsman” (9th C. CE)

For ten years I have been polishing this sword;
Its frosty edge has never been put to the test.
Now I am holding it and showing it to you, sir:
Is there anyone suffering from injustice?

(Trans. by Dr. James J.Y. Liu.)

As a sideline to the “Escape from the Elder Brain” thing I’m working on, I’ve been mucking around with 1e Monks lately.  (Monks are good for jailbreak scenarios because they don’t require much equipment.)

Has anybody played a TSR-era Monk?  What in the world are they like in play?

Just looking at the rules, the Monk is a strange, strange class.  Absurdly high stat requirements, but the stats don’t give you any benefits.  An absolutely brutal XP curve.  A big passel o’ Thief abilities, including Open Locks and Find Traps (because of all the lockpicking Bruce Lee did, I guess).  Their martial arts abilities constantly upgrade their Armor Class, Attack Rate, and Damage–and confer an instant-stun or instant-kill attack that involves treating descending Armor Class as a percentage.  And they can run around at super-speed.  And, pretty much every level, they get  weird random stuff like speak with animals or feign death.

This is not so much a class as something the dog sicked up.  Everyone always moans about how a quintessentially Asian class doesn’t really belong in Tolkien-manque fantasy (or maybe says everything belongs everywhere, Elmo-meets-Leatherface style), but I think that argument overlooks the fact that the Monk class is simply an abominable design.  It’s ugly in Supplement II: Blackmoor, it’s ugly in AD&D, it’s ugly in Oriental Adventures (where the Monk mess gets folded into a build-it-yourself martial arts mess) and in Master’s Set/Rules Cyclopedia.

Around 100,000 XP, the range I’ve been looking at, a 1e Monk probably does damage equivalent to a Fighter (hitting less often but occasionally getting lucky with a devastating attack), coupled with the AC of a Thief and the Hit Points of a Wizard.  That’s odd, but viable–but to get there you need to slog through the levels where you’ve got the AC of a Magic-User, the 85% failure rate of the Thief, and combat abilities that mainly require melee.  I refuse to believe anyone ever played a Monk to 17th level, where they are engines of destruction.

Is there a way to clean this up?  I know several people have tried.  Here’s what I see as a niche for the Monk: it’s an acrobatic ninja type class straight out of wuxia films, so you’ve got a bit of the Thief’s stealth with the Fighter’s general ass-kickery, but all mixed into a huge heaping helping of wire-fu.  Because Enlightenment = Compassion = Power = Humility = Enlightenment, the Monk has some mystical abilities as well, but I don’t want to get too crazy here.  If I can implement this using some of the class-design constraints of B/X, so much the better.


Yeah, going with Chinese for the class name, which may be a mistake.  But Yóuxiá (pronounced: “yo? sha?”) has a more secular connotation than “Monk,” approximately equal to our knight-errant or wandering hero, and arguably you could fold in Ninja-type rogues in there too.  If you want to call it a Monk in the privacy of your own home, that’s fine.

  • Ability Requirements: None.  Unlike the designers behind the Blackmoor Monk and its progeny, I believe in creating a class that people can qualify for without cheating.  I thought about requiring 9 Dexterity, but none of the other human classes in B/X impose ability requirements.  But the way this is written, you’re going to want very high stats, especially Dexterity and Constitution, just to survive.  So there’s “multiple attribute dependency” built in here already, as in the original class.
  • Prime Requisite: Wisdom.   In the source fiction, the best of these characters tend to be very philosophical, and thematically that outlook is the source of their power.  Placing Wisdom as PR gives players an incentive to play that type of character.  It also contributes to the “multiple attribute dependency.”
  • Weapons: Dagger, Short Bow, Staff, Long Sword, Spear, Mace, Hand Axe.  I could see an argument for “All” here, but these seem to be the weapons that feature most prominently in the wuxia movies I’ve seen.  You could probably change it to “All” without too much trouble.
  • Armor: None, no shield.  I think we all agree that these guys are not encumbered.  The lack of armor makes Dexterity and Constitution extremely important to survival.
  • Hit Dice: d4, to a maximum of 9d4 +2 per level.  I could see an argument for d6, but the 1e Monk in has d4 like a Magic-User, and fulfills many of the same functions as the Thief which gets d4 HD in B/X (where all classes have HD one step lower than in 1e or 2e).  This feels cruel, but helps keep the XP curve down.  Note that while the 1e Monk rolls d4 for HD each level, eventually getting 18d4, this seems really cheesy and I’m avoiding it.
  • Attacks and Saves: as Cleric.  Medium attack progression (same as a Thief), but pretty good saves.  I thought about going with Halfling attacks and saves, but figured that it would be better to err on the side of caution.  The best argument for Halfling (i.e., Fighter) attack progression is that in 1e, the Monk gets to attack many times per round, but that is probably an example of how the abstract nature of D&D combat doesn’t really model the moment-by-moment theatrics of a martial arts battle–presumably a swordsman too makes many attacks in a 60 second round of combat.  But let’s just bracket the Halfling attacks & saves for later playtesting.
  • Special Abilities…
    • Unarmed Damage: 1d4.  Youxia can inflict serious harm with their hands and feet.  (But getting stabbed still hurts worse.)  If an Youxia inflicts minimum damage, this is treated as a special strike, depending on level:
      • Trip or Disarm at level 1.  Save versus Wands, or be tripped or disarmed, likely losing next action.
      • Sweeping Strike at level 5.  All adjacent enemies take 3d4 damage, save vs. Breath for half.
      • Nerve Strike at level 9.  Save versus Paralysis, or be stunned for 2d4 turns.  CLW ends.
      • Quivering Palm at level 13.  Save vs. Poison, or lose 4 HP every round.  Neutralize poison or cure disease ends.
    • Climb Walls, Move Silently, Hide in Shadows, Detect Noise as Thief.  These guys do a lot of sneaking around.  The Detect Noise is probably unnecessary, but helps the Ninja aspect of the class do spy stuff.
    • Special Movement.  The Youxia can zip around the battle field, from level 1 onward.
      • Split-Move.  Youxia may move, attack, and move again.
      • Charge.  Youxia may inflict double damage when charging, like a Fighter.
      • Dodge.  Youxia get a +2 to Armor Class in any round in which they move.
      • Retreat.  Youxia can retreat from melee without announcing it before rolling initiative, and don’t provoke “attacks of opportunity” when moving around the battlefield.
    • Use Cleric Scrolls at 10th level, 90% accuracy.  To give them a mystical side.
  • XP Curve: Cleric.  I could see an argument for the Thief curve, since these guys are merely unarmored lunatics running around punching people for d4 damage.  But let’s stick with the Cleric curve for now since the Youxia has the Cleric’s save progression and Wisdom as Prime Req, and it’s simply easier to reference.

But you know?  I’m wondering if this is really an improvement.


continual cheese

After one hundred sessions of Moldvay/Cook, the stalwart heroes of our Glantri campaign are taking a vacation in Ravenloft with OSRIC.  I’m only playing casually, but it’s my first exposure to the AD&D 1e ruleset, and it’s eye-opening.

the old man of the mountain loves the e.e.o.c.

For one thing, the ceiling is really low.  I’m mainly familiar with level caps from B/X, where they set in around 128K experience points for Halflings and around 600K points for Elves and Dwarves–in any case, far beyond anything we’ve ever achieved in three years of play, even in the comparatively Monty Haul White Sandbox game.  As a result, I had never understood the disdain for level caps I’d sometimes see online.  But in 1e, if you’re not careful, you can hit the level cap at around 30K, which is where we’re starting.  By that point, most races are already beginning to feel the pinch outside of their stereotypical classes.

Relatedly: what is up with the level cap for Assassins?  A Gnome with anything less than 17 Intelligence and 17 Dexterity tops out at Illusionist 5, but could reach level 8 as an Assassin.    Are you a Half-Elf with 16 Strength?  Well, you could reach Ranger 5 or Assassin 11.  Practically all of the races have greater room for advancement in the Assassins Guild than anywhere else.  I never knew the Black Hand was such a big believer in affirmative action hires.

shut up and give me the cheese

Due to character creation methods–4d6 drop lowest, arrange to taste, 1:1 stat swapping, 30K experience starting–we’ve got more cheddar than the state of Wisconsin, and that’s entirely by design.  We’re tromping into Castle Ravenloft with:

  • Druid
  • Paladin
  • Elf Fighter/Thief with 18 Dex
  • Elf Fighter/Mage/Thief (gettin’ mediocre all over the place)
  • Half-Orc Fighter/Cleric (pro-wrestler, worships the Blood God, radioactive, wields a stop sign)
  • Elf Assassin with 17 Str and 18 Dex
  • Hengeyokai (Crane)  Shukenja
  • Half-Elf Fighter with 13 Str (that’s me)

I rolled pretty blandly, and I didn’t want to mess around with my stats since 4d6 drop lowest is plenty generous for my taste.  Fighter was the only class I could qualify for without being absolutely terrible.  It’s my first time in several years playing a Fighter.

Let us say that I am only holding my own due to force of personality.

Here is how twinked out we are: the Assassin and the Elf F/T both have Thief Abilities above 50%.  I didn’t realize there would ever come a time when a Thief was not statistically doomed to disappointment.  Maybe being an Elf with 18 Dex has something to do with it.

One of our companions is a Hengeyokai, a race from 1985’s Oriental Adventures.  Many of the Asians I know have a hard time digesting cheese, so they placed it all in this book for storage.  The Hengeyokai is basically a Were-__________, in this case a Were-Crane, so he can fly pretty much at will and has double-strength infravision.  He is also a Shukenja, which is like a lightly armored Cleric.  On first reading Oriental Adventures, the Shukenja looked like the least interesting class by far.  But, as always, I was mistaken.  The Shukenja’s spell list apparently includes such gems as Plot Dump, Locate McGuffin, Slay Named NPC, and Win Adventure.  All of which are second-level spells.

Seriously: one of the things this dude can do is force an enemy to save every time he’s struck by weapons or else take an extra 6 points of damage.  Or: give a character a base 30% chance to instinctively spot traps or other sources of danger.  Plus: fly like an eagle.

This player initially rolled even worse stats than I did, and the fact that he created this powerhouse is a huge testament to his rules-savvy.  It is really nicely done.

In the meantime, I’ve decided that the only thing I can offer the party is literal meat-shielding.  I’m hoping that Strahd will try to eat my female Half-Elf with 15 Charisma first, and thus buy my companions a round or two.  When I die, I’m coming back as a Drow Cavalier/Acrobat.

joesky, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you

Continual Cheese

  • Level: Cleric 2
  • Range: 5′
  • Duration: Permanent
  • This spell conjures a holy piece of self-regenerating cheese.  Any mice, rats, were-rats, rat-men, or so on, must Save vs. Spells or be unable to resist nibbling from it.  They might end up fighting over it, at Dungeon Master’s discretion.  Rat-creatures who have eaten the cheese may be commanded as if charmed when the Cleric plays a pipe.  If continual cheese is cast at a creature’s eyes, it must save or be the subject of innumerable puns about Green Bay.


kirbsday: Jimmy Olsen 134

And we’re back with a second installment of Jack Kirby’s so-called “Fourth World” saga.  As noted last time, Jack Kirby had come to DC Comics with some big ideas about a whole set of brand new titles dealing with youth culture, Viet Nam, the Cold War, and a lot of other stuff.  But he began his stint writing and drawing Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, which he immediately converted from smarmy, contrived gags (“What if Jimmy had a beard that wouldn’t stop growing?”) to a hallucinatory pulp-adventure story.

Here’s Kirby efficiently recapitulating the plot of the last issue:



But fortunately

All of this is basically the plot of the last issue, but it cements the idea that as an Establishment figure, Superman really doesn’t know how to deal with the youth culture, while Jimmy Olsen does–and he’s got enough manpower and hand-me-down technology to humiliate Superman whenever he steps out of place.  It is hard to think of Jimmy Olsen as an awesome, two-fisted adventurer who can knock out the Man of Steel twice in a row, but Kirby manages to do it.

Now let’s go for a drive, past obstacles laid down by the mysterious Hairies!

This is one of Kirby’s notorious collages, a scan of the original artwork.  All of the reproductions I’ve seen are in black & white, which is a tragedy.  Kirby began experimenting with collage in the pages of Fantastic Four in the mid-60’s, where the original plan was to illustrate the Negative Zone entirely in collage.  It’s such an amazing technique, especially now that digital coloring procedures can reproduce it in full color.Oh, Superman!  Just stay in the treehouse, won’t you?  Why do you have to mess up Mr. Olsen’s Wild Ride?

I love that “of course.”  Who wouldn’t use the name “Mountain of Judgment” to refer to a demon-shrouded ICBM carrier?

And who would be driving around a drag-strip deathtrap in a demon-shrouded ICBM carrier?  Hippies!

Hippies who defuse bombs hidden inside super-cars:

I don’t know, Big Words: I think a bomb hidden inside your car is more of a single danger if you ask me.  Maybe the doubled danger is that it would hurt the Whiz Wagon’s resale value.

Also, I am not sure how the bomb-defusing Hairy counts “triple” murder when there’s like a mob of dudes around the bomb.  Looking at the nearby panels, there are only three Hairies there–maybe he only considers deaths of Hairies to be murder, and deaths of Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion mere property destruction, like killing a cow.  I hate to think ill of hippies, but really, that’s the only interpretation that makes sense, considering that the Hairies apparently think nothing of arming sociopaths like Outsiders with rocket-propelled motorcycles and kryptonite bazookas, and then trying to kill intruders with gorges, drowning, and psychedelic distractions while people are traveling at 120 mph.

Anyway: it turns out the villain of the piece is exactly who you’d suspect in a hippie-heavy plotline: the phony-baloney zillionaire businessman…

…who is literally the servant of a mysterious mastermind, Darkseid, who makes his first appearance here, hidden in the top desk drawer with the take-out menu’s and leftover pennies.  I assume I’ll write more about Darkseid in the weeks to come, but right now we just have a teaser about a “vast, ominous intrigue.”  Because nothing says “major new super villain” like telling a middle-manager that you’ll call him back later.

So for those of you following along at home, here’s the plot of Jimmy Olsen 133-34: Jimmy Olsen’s new boss, taking orders from Darkseid, sends him on a suicide bombing raid against a bunch of paranoid hippies, who are saved at the last minute by a grumpy Superman.

The Hairies explicitly call attention to the fact that the media is trying to destroy them, which is a pretty astute bit of cultural criticism to appear in a super hero comic book.  Kirby is definitely taking a political stance that would have been controversial in early 1971; in fact, it’s controversial forty years later.  I was reading this issue during the early weeks of the Occupy Wall Street movement, when major media outlets were dismissing the protesters as smelly, disorganized, and incoherent.  I could totally see Rupert Murdoch try to blow up Zuccotti Park with an Atomic Segway piloted by tweens.

As noted last week, it was common for this series to feature pseudo-conflicts between Superman and Jimmy based around a misunderstanding or communication problem.  There’s a bit of that here, but fundamentally it’s a conflict around Superman being too smothering and protective.  Jimmy thinks he can do the job; Superman thinks it’s simply too dangerous.  They have become super-frenemies.

It turns out that Superman was right, of course, but I don’t think anyone is reading this comic and rooting for Superman.  No, we’re rooting for Jimmy, because he’s courageous and has the best car and isn’t taking shit from anybody, including the Last Son of Krypton, and Jimmy don’t care how many planets the guy can bench-press.  Jimmy Olsen has a motherfucking case.

In looking at this conflict, it’s interesting to contrast each character’s source of influence.  Superman is incredibly strong, can fly faster than a speeding bullet, and can shrug off automatic rifle fire.  He really goes to town on the Outsiders!  But Jimmy manages to defeat him twice, because Jimmy’s power is entirely social.  Morgan Edge, the fink, trusts him, or says he does.  The Newsboy Legion respects him as their cool older brother.  The Outsiders revere him as the most kick-ass leader they’ve ever had–and the Outsiders get their Superman-wreckin’ weaponry from their Hairy friends.  Superman is an indomitable Establishment figure, but he can be put down by a bunch of outcasts working together.  The struggle to come together can make you turn chicken–or man!

the General Assembly, forty years too early


you and the farce you rode in on

Lately I have been playing PendragonTo hear Jamie Mal tell it, Pendragon is this high-minded epic:

[Pendragon] is, to be frank, the most perfect out-of-the-box RPG I have ever played. . . .

I’ve run campaigns where the characters were stalwart companions of Arthur, venal, mercenary knights, and even opponents of the High King and each and every one of them felt like it could have come from the pages of Malory. . . .

The other amazing aspect of Pendragon is the backdrop against which it is set: the timeline of Arthur’s nearly 70-year reign. This backdrop provides structure and a vital sense of history to a campaign. . . . This makes it easy for player knights to do important, even legendary things, without having either to usurp the roles of famous knights like Lancelot or Gawain or to play second fiddle to them. . . .  Until you’ve done such a thing, it’s difficult to describe just how mythic it all feels — exactly as I’d always wanted it to be.

Jamie Maliszewski, look to your beard sir!

I am having absolute oodles of fun with this game, but there’s precious little gravitas when we sit down to play.  Not for lack of trying!  Our GM loves the King Arthur mythos, as do I.  To get pumped up before each game, I try to read a few chapters of Le Morte on the subway.  Sir Accolon!  Sir Ablamor of the Marsh!  King Bagdemagus, who by royal decree has the best name ever!  King Leodegrance of Cameliard!  <falls down on ground, eyes roll into back of head as mouth gets all frothy on Arthuriana>

And then we sit down to play, and I fail and I fail and I fail.  Let me regale you with a tale of Sir Carabad.

One time my guy was riding around, when he saw his old friend Sir Laern. His beard had been shaved off by ruffians!  Egad!

I swore vengeance on his beard and rode off.  At a nearby tower the ruffians had hung Sir Laern’s beard on a pole.  Zounds!  The brutes, admirers of Roman fashion, insisted that none should cross the nearby bridge but that they joust on pain of being clean-shaven.  They did not know that a man’s strength and essence flow from his luscious, woolly beard.  But they would learn!

I accepted their challenge, fewtered my spear, and met their champion at a gallop.  Seconds later I was on my backside as the footmen rushed toward me with shears.  Precious little time to act!  I leaped up and decided to confound them by shaving myself and tossing the clippings in the river.  “Hang that from a pole, you villains!”

This was almost my greatest victory in the game so far.  Humiliating myself so bullies would leave me alone.

sir carabad thinks you’re a bunch of pigs

In a subsequent adventure, Sir Carabad and his less-accomplished peers ventured into the Perilous Forest in search of King Pellinore and Glatisant the Questing Beast.  Along the way, we met up with the King of Swine and his pig-knights, who actually turned out to be okay people despite their disgusting dietary habits.

Following the Swine King’s directions, we came to a watchtower . . . which was occupied by a giant, who claimed to guard a princess.  Naturally we rushed into the tower – to realize the princess had been kept prisoner for 80 years and had starved to death, nothing more than a skeleton.  Gadzooks!

The other knights concocted some sort of plan involving riding away with the skeleton (wearing a blonde wig) to tempt the giant away from the tower where he could be lanced.  Sir Carabad, having nearly been killed in single-combat with a giant some years before, sought to super-charge his warrior prowess by invoking his passion for Honor.

As the other three knights charge the pursuing giant, Sir Carabad starts screaming incoherently, furious at their duplicity and their mistreatment of an innocent corpse.  He swoops in, gathers up the princess’s skeleton, and rides off into the Forest Perilous to spend a year serving the King of Swine, convinced that pigs are man’s moral superiors.

omg omg omg

With Sir Carabad out of the action, I broke out my back-up knight Sir Cibno for the Battle of Badon Hill, the big lollapalooza that truly establishes Arthur as rightwise king of all England.  Cibno lasted all of about two seconds, because Pendragon maims you for life in the blink of an eye.  So out comes the auxiliary back-up knight, Sir Bledri.

Badon Hill is a hell of a long battle, but somehow we muddle through, and on the last day, due to some lucky die rolls, we are literally fighting right next to King Arthur, Sir Kay (who totally mismanaged my manor, but that’s another tale), Sir Griflet, King Pellinore, Sir Tor, and Sir Lamorak.  Time to impress some people, and a earn promotion, by invoking a passion!  When King Arthur swings Excalibur and decapitates the Saxon king, Sir Bledri is so fired up that he runs screaming incoherently after the rolling head, snatches it up, and flees with it to a nearby cave.  There he spends months whispering to it how honored he should feel to have been personally decapitated by King Arthur himself.

i play games to escape

The other thing about Pendragon is that when I’m not failing miserably, I role-play a middle-class dude with serious money problems, fretting like hell over real estate prices, parenthood, and inadequate healthcare.  Somehow this is a lot more fun to do in Arthurian Britain, which leads me to suspect that our modern day political discontent would be eased if someone just dressed up like King Arthur and wandered around.

value added

If you haven’t played Pendragon, you should.  You should especially play it with our GM, because he’s very good.  But you should know what you are getting in for.  Pendragon is a game that will kick your ass, badly and repeatedly.  Rolling 1d20 for damn near everything, when one or two scores are 15, a few are around 10, and the rest are hovering around 3,  means you’re going to fail a lot, especially when it really counts. And the advancement system–where you only advance a skill by rolling under the value, then rolling over the value–makes it extremely difficult to improve.  I don’t think any of my characters have ever improved in this way in 6-7 sessions of play.

The Passion system in particular is an attractive nuisance: you can go totally insane, or you become seriously depressed, or you can be so dismayed that you age prematurely–your passions are out to destroy you at practically every turn.  But prospect of invoking a passion successfully is almost the only way to overcome the whiff-factor of your regular skills.  I don’t think I’ve ever invoked a passion successfully.

So taken together, you’ve got some extremely likable knights, slammed with urgent mundane concerns (my clothes keep getting eaten by moths, for instance), but who are desperately trying to be heroes–but who nevertheless keep failing.  I love Sir Carabad dearly, and he’s trying so hard to be a good, chivalrous Christian knight . . . but the dude is a blithering nincompoop.

Still, as long as you don’t take Jamie’s high-mindedness seriously, it’s a blast.  Lucy, can you hold that football for me?


run off to join the circus

Longtime Marvel Comics fans groan at the Circus of Crime, who, for the uninitiated, are simply a team of criminal circus performers.  They have no powers aside from the Ringmaster’s hypnotic hat, and they routinely suffer embarrassing defeats.

Everyone agrees that the Circus of Crime has been a laughingstock for fifty years.  Everyone is an idiot.  I will prove this, and then show you a whole new world.

attention must be paid

Check out the debut of the Circus of Crime in the Silver Age of comics.  The Ringmaster has this crazy hat that hypnotizes large crowds.  So they decide, in effect.  “Yo, let’s hypnotize the crowd and steal their stuff!  Then when we leave town, each person will assume that he or she was the victim of a pickpocket.”  In other words: to hide the fact that you picked someone’s pocket, you will make him think you’re a pickpocket!  Say what you will about the Circus of Crime, they pioneered the Moebius alibi.

The big flaw in the plan is that they always end up robbing super-people, and in their debut they run into the Hulk (Incredible Hulk #3, 1962).  You would think that the non-powered roustabouts in the Circus of Crime are unworthy foes of the Hulk, who has at this point in his history already defeated two alien invasions and the Red Army.  But you would be wrong!  In this first issue, Jack Kirby’s art turns the Circus of Crime into a weird mixture of seedy Americana and Biblical menace, a locust plague ravaging the desolate, lonely towns of the Southwest.  Later artists would drop the ball, but in Kirby’s hands the Circus looks genuinely nightmarish.

Anyway: the Circus of Crime loses to the Hulk.  (Who wouldn’t?)  They then lose to Spider-Man and Daredevil (Spider-Man 16, 1964) and then lose the rematch (Spider-Man #22, 1965).  The Circus of Crime proceeds to defeat Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Avengers (Avengers #22, 1965), and then brainwashes Thor (Thor #145-147), escaping unpunished each time.  Finally, in Avengers #60, they crash the wedding of Yellowjacket and the Wasp, which is attended by practically every super hero ever, and are humiliatingly defeated.

Now, sure: one win, three losses, and one tie isn’t a terrific record.  But damn, a clown is fighting the Hulk.  Not a magic clown, a robot clown, or a radioactive clown.  A clown-clown.  And he not only survives, but decides he has learned enough to beat Thor.  And does!  (For a while.)  That is the most bad-ass clown in the world.  Give him a board with a nail in it, and he’s taking out the Silver Surfer.

the revolving tent-door of super humanity

But when you step back, there are tons of goofed out circus folk becoming super people in Marvel Comics.  Hawkeye started in the circus.  So did the Blob, and his circus folk trounced the X-Men in his debut.  There’s Ghost Rider, the Swordsman and Mesmero.  Unus the Untouchable is a pro-wrestler, which is practically the same as a circus performers.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Enforcers were originally circus-folk.

Similarly, several established super heroes want to become circus performers. In, like, Fantastic Four 15, Johnny Storm’s fondest wish is to join his freak-cousins in the circus.  To me, this sounds crazy: Johnny Storm is a astronaut super hero who does nothing but drive race cars and heavy-pet barely legal teens every day.  But he would drop all that for the circus in a heartbeat.  Clearly he knows something special about the circus.

Plus Quicksilver, in his early Avengers period, is like, “I know I’m an Avenger, and one time I conquered a country, but it’s all just stepping stones to joining the circus.”

Maybe circuses are, like, some parallel athletic conference for super folks, sort of like the AFC/NFC divide.  We assume the Circus of Crime doesn’t have any powers, but maybe that’s just because we don’t follow that conference.

thus obviously

I am now wondering about a whole passel of unpublished, circus-themed Silver Age comics.  If there’s the Circus of Crime, why not the Circus of Justice?  The copy writes itself.  Run away and join the Circus of Justice on their never-ending roadtrip of righteousness!  Gaze at Betty Bluebeard, the Hirsute Beaut!  Gasp at Spitfire the flame-eater!  Thrill to Umberto, the one-legged unicyclist!  Marvel at the allergic-to-evil Dharma, the elephant who never forgives!  Will they ever settle the score with the traitorous Hawkeye and the Swordsman?  Hey rube, there’s adventure afoot!

Likewise, the Cirque d’Outre, which I figure is pretty much exactly like the Cirque du Soleil except 60’s and way creepier.  I’m figuring Prince Randian and Jojo the Dogface Boy are inspirations here.  Even money says they get involved with Doctor Strange occasionally.


kirbsday: Jimmy Olsen 133

Let’s get started on the Fourth World stuff!  Anything that kicks off with Superman being slammed in the junk by a motorcycle has to be good.

After leaving Marvel Comics, Kirby’s first gig at National Comics (later to become DC) was on Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen.  To non-comics readers, this would be like if Steve Wozniak had quit Apple Computers to design electronic gizmos to put in McDonald’s Happy Meals.  Even by the standards of a genre where men wear their underpants on the outside of their clothes, Jimmy Olsen was juvenile.  But all of the bigger titles had established writers and artists, and Kirby didn’t want to kick anyone out of a paying gig.  So Jimmy Olsen is where he ended up.

Enough talk!  Time for action!

Jimmy Olsen meets his colleagues for a new assignment to the mysterious Wild Area, and checks out their fabulous vehicle.

The Newsboy Legion is a poverty-stricken, scrappy-as-hell kids’ gang consisting of four irritating white kids, plus Flipper-Dipper, a black kid with such an unquenchable obsession with scuba-diving that he apparently walks around the streets of Suicide Slum in full diving gear including an oxygen tank at all times.

Flipper-Dipper is awesome.  You can just picture Kirby at the drawing board, chomping on a cigar, thinking, “Gee, I’ve got a blabbermouth kid, a nerdy kid, a handsome kid, a tough kid . . . what would round that out?  Oh of course!  That most beloved archetype in all of children’s literature, the scuba-diving kid!”  And then one of his assistants says, “But boss, how are you gonna squeeze scuba-diving into the plot every month?”  And Kirby shakes his fist and growls, “Bah!  Just watch me!”

Meanwhile Clark Kent is bitching to his new boss, Morgan Edge, that the Wild Area assignment is too dangerous for Jimmy.  Edge is pretty chill about possibly sending six children to their deaths . . . But he then puts a hit on Clark Kent to keep him from snooping around.I love that hiring a hit-man sounds like it’s easier than ordering a pizza.  The Inter-Gang telephone receptionist must have a fun job.  Anyway, the hit fails because Clark, of course, is Superman (spoilers!), and he decides to stop farting around with this job stuff and just go to the Wild Area himself.  Meanwhile Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion go to the Wild Area in their flying car thingy . . .

And they get attacked by some anti-social motorcyclists called the Outsiders.  When Jimmy punches out a guy who looks like Doctor Doom, he becomes the leader of this chapter of the Hell’s Angels.

Superman shows up in the Wild Area and is sarcastic as hell.The Outsiders defeat Superman with a kryptonite ray-gun–they apparently have access to crazy technology somehow–and Superman realizes that Jimmy is now hanging out with Elves from Dungeons & Dragons or something:Though Superman tries to persuade Jimmy that he’ll be killed if he sticks to his assignment, Jimmy Olsen ain’t no bitch.  He was told to find the Mountain of Judgment, and that’s exactly what he’s gonna do.  Shut up, old man!

In this single issue, we’ve got: a new writer, a new artist, a new team of sidekicks (to Superman’s sidekick), a super-car, a new villain mastermind, a new villain team (Inter-Gang), a “drop-out” society of hippies, and of course, the conversion of laughingstock man-child Jimmy Olsen into one of comics’s biggest bad asses who dominates practically everyone he meets.  Meanwhile Superman comes across as a schoolmarmish killjoy at least partially motivated by professional jealousy.

While it’s customary to talk about how different this issue is from everything that’s proceeded it in Jimmy Olsen, which typically involves something goofy happening to Jimmy leading to a spat with Superman, there are some continuities too.  First: Jimmy Olsen leading a futuristic motorcycle gang is probably the same order of wackiness as Jimmy becoming a member of the Beatles in Ancient Israel.  Second: yep, conflict with Superman.   It’s interesting that this isn’t smoothed out at the end of the issue; it’s clear these guys don’t really want to hurt each other, but Jimmy isn’t backing off the big assignment, even though he acknowledges it might kill him and his friends.  Third: there’s a whole bit of business I omitted where Clark Kent has an answering machine with artificial intelligence, designed to give him an alibi–just the sort of goofy super-gizmo that is always saving Kent’s identity in any other issue.

Still, these continuities are transformed by the escalating tension in the book.  Superman getting maced with kryptonite by some random biker dude under Jimmy’s orders isn’t even the climax of the story.  Rather, it’s the irreconcilable disagreement over Jimmy’s mission, which even the Outsiders believe to be suicide.

At any rate, it is one hell of an opening.

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2011

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