Archive for December, 2011


perennial D&D puzzler

What is the smartest tree?

I ask because my seafaring 6th Level Cleric relies very heavily on the speak with __________ line of spells in his search for his particular White Whale.  Previous attempts to speak with kelp elicited the valuable information that “sunlight is delicious” and “seawater is salty,” but shockingly little actionable intelligence about gold.

So naturally the most sensible course of action is to cruise around the local region, planting trees on a bunch of islands, so that when I speak with plants I’ll have a spy network . . . of trees.

But I don’t want to deal with moron trees who don’t understand the value of money, or uppity treants who will lose their shit when they see me sailing on a boat made out of their friends.  I guess talking to Dryads would be cool, but I think they would get mad really easily too.  Among trees that are not also monsters, my guess is Christmas trees, because they spend time around humans long enough to become knowledgable about our culture, and also, they probably think all those presents are tribute to them, which then gets stolen by vile human implings, so they’re always looking out for more loot.  But I’m, um, going out on a limb on that one.  (Sorry.) 

Perhaps our braintrust (the two people who read this blog) can solve this riddle?  At first glance it sounds preposterous, but I bet this happens in every D&D game where somebody can cast this spell.


kirbsday: life vs. anti-life

Last time, these idealistic aliens called the Forever People settled down to live in a slum alongside a lonely little boy named Donnie, and with the help of the Infinity Man scared off a bug-vampire-creature named Mantis.  It wasn’t bad, but it was relatively standard stuff.  This is better:

Glorious Godfrey is in town, preaching the gospel of Anti-Life.  Godfrey is plainly based on Billy Graham, who was a close associate of Dick Nixon, one of the main inspirations for Darkseid.  From the Wikipedia:

After Nixon’s victorious 1968 presidential campaign, Graham was an adviser, visiting the White House and leading some of the private church services that the President organized there.  Nixon offered Graham the ambassadorship to Israel in a meeting they had with Golda Meir, but Graham turned down Nixon’s offer.  Nixon appeared at one of Graham’s revivals in East Tennessee in 1970; the event drew one of the largest crowds to ever gather in Tennessee.  Nixon became the first President to give a speech from an evangelist’s platform.  However, their friendship became strained when Graham rebuked Nixon for his post-Watergate behavior and the profanity heard on the Watergate tapes; they eventually reconciled after Nixon’s resignation.  Graham announced at that time, “I’m out of politics.”

The Anti-Life creed bestows total certainty, total unity, and total entitlement–especially the entitlement to murder. “Yes, it is [Darkseid’s] gift to us, friends!  The cosmic hunting license!  The right to point the finger or the gun!”

One of Godfrey’s minions, a Justifier, accosts Donnie and threatens him for the location of the Forever People.  Luckily, the kids save Donnie with Mother Box–but not before the Justifier blows himself up with a suicide vest.

The Forever People realize Glorious Godfrey must be behind this religious frenzy, and set off after him, but not before one of the saddest scenes in the whole Fourth World saga:

Wow.  I know you can read the panel, but I have to break that out for a second:

BEAUTIFUL DREAMER: Goodbye, Donnie!  We leave you what cannot die–Love!  Friendship!

SERIFAN: It is so in New Genesis!  It can be here!

DONNIE: You must come back!  You must!

now hold on a second there, donnie

Donnie, I know you live in an abandoned slum neighborhood where your only other source of human contact is Uncle Willie, who is like 90 years old, senile, and ready to shoot anything that moves.  And a few weeks ago these extra-dimensional teenagers show up and start, like, giving meaningful responses to your dialogue balloons, which has probably never happened to you before. And they fix your TV.


  1. They have no problem giving a massive hit of Space LSD to a 10 year old boy
  2. They get hunted by suicide-bomber religious maniacs armed with “omega rays!  Earthmen would disintegrate instantly!”
  3. The Justifier blew up your house.  The Forever People can’t be bothered to fix it.
  4. The fact that the Justifier got into Donnie’s home, and then blew it up, strongly suggests that Uncle Willie, who was in charge of “security,” is dead.  The Forever People can’t be bothered to find him or heal him.
  5. Also, Donnie, I hate to bring it up, but you are crippled.  And the Forever People, with their crazy techno-magic, haven’t helped you.
  6. Would you like some more LSD to take your mind off what shitty friends the Forever People are?  Too bad, the Forever People are cutting out.  Bye!
  7.  You beg them to come back.  SPOILER ALERT: The Forever People will never see you again.  You were a drag, Donnie.

I presume the reason we never see Donnie again in the Fourth World saga is that he commits suicide.  Seriously: when the Forever People come back to the slum, not only will they make no effort to find Donnie, they don’t even mention him.

“It is so in New Genesis!  It can be here!”  Can be.  Not will be.  Apparently you’ve gotta earn it.

stop making fun, kirby was awesome

But let us pretend that scene works and move on.  Godfrey’s Justifiers are going on a rampage:

The Forever People arrive outside Glorious Godfrey’s revival tent and summon the Infinity Man–TAARU!–who bypasses the Justifiers and demolishes Glorious Godfrey’s psychoactive sound system.

And then:

In case you were wondering: this proves that Satan is more powerful than God, or at least that the Forever People’s faith breaks apart on that particular jagged rock.  Also: you don’t want to dare Darkseid to do his worst.

And then this classic page:

is this the end?

Nope.  This issue kicks off a pretty good arc in The Forever People, and as we’ll see the rest of the titles begin to pick up steam as well.

This issue speaks for itself pretty plainly–maybe a little too well–so there’s not a lot to say.  Whereas Granny Goodness is practically a Jungian archetype, Glorious Godfrey feels more like an editorial cartoon.  Not a bad one!  And there’s a time-honored place for topical political cartooning in super hero comics, starting with Captain America punching Hitler in the face all those years ago, also courtesy of Jack Kirby.  But generally I feel that making super-stuff too topical is often a mistake: it certainly hasn’t done the Forever People, as a concept, any favors over the past forty years as one revival after another has fizzled.

I do like that the Forever People leave Donnie with a blessing of love and friendship, while Glorious Godfrey’s organized goon squad of crusaders are burning books and rounding up undesirables.  And that ultimately the transcendent Infinity Man is denounced by the religious zealot.  It’s also a little unusual to see evangelical Christianity, or at least something with its trappings, portrayed in a relentlessly negative light in mainstream entertainment.


super-police procedural

For thirty-four years, America’s top scientists have failed to unravel the secret of this song’s incredible catchiness.

warning: 2000 words of obviousness

When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old I got a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes Role-Playing Game, loved it, but never really played it until eighteen months ago, at which point I felt confused and overwhelmed about how to run the silly thing.  After a whole lot of flailing around, I think I’ve cracked it, or at least have a set of solutions which are painfully obvious in hindsight.

One of the things I love about the Moldvay and Mentzer version of Dungeons & Dragons is that the rules instruct you how to build a dungeon.  The results may not be lauded genius like The Caverns of Thracia, or as atmospheric as Zak’s Library of Zorlac (tucked away in Vornheim) or minimalist masterpieces such as Antti Hulkkonen’s Den of Villainy (one of the 2010 One-Page Dungeon Contest winners) or Rob’s Vermin Hollow (ditto for 2011).  But even if the rules don’t produce works of genius, if you follow them, you’ll end up with something playable.  It frustrates me that there’s nothing analogous for super hero games, at least that I’m aware of.

dungeon = case

So my theory is that the super hero equivalent of a dungeon is the case.  This isn’t true for all super heroes in all decades, but is broadly true for Silver Age Marvel, the main period I’m interested in.  The case has a couple of basic elements:

Starts with a super-crime.  A bank robbery, which is how almost all super hero one-shots start IME, is not a super-crime.  A crime what is super, is defined by being either

  •  impossible (your classic locked-room murder mystery)
  • baffling (breaking into a bank to put money into the vault)
  • beyond law enforcement’s ability to handle (“Uh, sarge, how do we ticket a 40′ radioactive lobster that’s illegally parked?”)
  • visually or conceptually crazy

There’s some play in here about what constitutes a “case,” depending on what matters to your super-folks.  In the early days, the Fantastic Four were like, “Whoa, the Bermuda Triangle exists!  Let’s check that shit out!” and the X-Men were like, “Gee willikers, another mutant hit puberty somewhere, let’s come across way too strong so they won’t want anything to do with us.  Cyclops, are you wearing your hideous plaid suit?  Great!”  But my assumption is that we’re talking about criminal activity, just super-sized.

This super-crime is part of a plan.  Someone did it for a reason, and they’re not going to be satisfied until they take it to the next stage.  What does this super crime lead to?  And why should the super heroes care?  This last bit is important.  In the occasionally awkward but still very satisfying RPG With Great Power…, figuring out what the players value, and then drawing a bullseye around that, is actually the very first step of prep–so you know that, as a GM, you want to endanger Aunt May or challenge Tony Stark’s image as a hedonist, and work up some plan that puts those aspects at risk.

A super villain has a stake in the plan, and therefore in the super-crime.  Committing or planning the crime (by far the most likely), discovered it accidentally and is now exploiting it (best for weird-phenomena type cases), opportunistically using it to discredit the super heroes, whatever.  If you need more than one super villain, okay, but keep it simple.

The super villain isn’t worried about law enforcement.  The classic explanation is that her powers make her seemingly unstoppable (bulletproof, travels too fast to catch, teleports out of jail, mind-controls the jury, etc.), but simply paying off corrupt cops, intimidating witnesses, or having a great hiding spot are reliable standbys too.  Don’t blow past this step carelessly, because you’re basically posing a puzzle to the players, and they’re going to MacGuyver up some crazy solution.

If the super villain has any sense at all, she’s anticipated the most obvious counter-moves to her cop-trumping advantages, and worked out a way to keep her ass out of jail.  If the super villain is super-duper-smart, she’s also figured out a way to incorporate obvious counter-moves into the plan itself.

One thing I’m toying with, for the plan, is to steal the “countdown clock” technique from Apocalypse World.  For those who don’t know it, the idea is that a threat is divided into 6 scheduled segments (0 to 3 o’clock, to 6 o’clock, to 9 o’clock, and then to 10, 11, and midnight; these times are figurative rather than literal).  Once the plan hits 9 o’clock, it can no longer be prevented, you’ve just gotta brace for impact.  Segments are ticked off as the plan approaches completion.  (Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set actually has some decent rules on how long it takes for people to build doomsday weapons, so that may take the place of this little clock thing.)

can we play yet?

Anyway, that’s the super-crime related stuff.  Once the players get wind of the super-crime, it’s off to the races.  (Actually, making the players aware of the crime is something to think about too.  Many great super hero comics begin with the crime in progress, and the hero learns about it afterward, and is like, “Gee, I missed it, but I’ll look into it anyway!”  This works because a comic book can switch between viewpoints, but most RPG’s don’t.  So don’t waste your cool visual for the super crime if no player will be around to see it.)

So you open with the super-crime, and maybe if the heroes are on the scene there’s a fight.  If the super villain is on the scene at all (maybe she’s not) then she should have some way to cope with being captured or even killed.

what Morrison intends as irony, is all too often how play proceeds

You’re then left with something resembling a police procedural.  The super heroes investigate the super-crime, looking for clues as to the villainous plan, how to prevent it, and how to capture the super villain.  On TV and in real life, this involves interviewing witnesses, interrogating suspects, painstaking examination of physical evidence, stake-outs, undercover work, shadowing people, and so on.  In a police procedural on TV, the investigators are gonna get the necessary clues; the only question is how the search leads to other dilemmas and sub-plots.

In an RPG session, this is probably going to involve skill checks or similar mechanics.

  • If the players succeed, hey, great, give them a clue.  You should have lots of clues, and they should be legitimate.  Giving players a fake-ass clue is sadistic, because studies have repeatedly shown that the act of sitting down at a table to play RPG’s lowers people’s IQ by 50 points.  Your players are spastic lunatics with 7-second attention spans.  If you give them a fake clue, they will forget the 120 other real clues and drill down on that fake one, and it will be aggravating for them because nothing makes sense and aggravating for you because they’ll just sit around arguing (more so).
  • If the player fails the skill check, consider giving them the clue anyway at a price.  I’m stealing this idea from Mouse Guard, where the heroes can succeed at the cost of being made Hungry, Tired, Angry, Sick, or Injured, each of which is debilitating and difficult to remedy.  In Marvel Super Heroes, the likely targets would be a hero’s Health, Karma, Resources, or Popularity: present the player with a situation where they can get the clue but at a risk to one or more of those values.  So, for example, this witness will talk–but only if the super hero looks the other way regarding his gambling (failing to arrest someone means loss of Karma).  The condition ought to make dramatic sense in the fictional situation.
  • Alternately, if the players fail the skill check, not only do they fail to gather a clue, the situation gets dramatically worse via a twist.  (Again: stolen from Mouse Guard.)  Naturally, you should only use these if they’re appropriate to the fictional circumstances–which means keeping an eye out for these opportunities during prep.  Here are some classic twists:
    • God damn it, Human Torch, this is our case!  Leave us alone!  Some idiot super hero decides to tackle this case himself, which by the laws of super heroics means fighting you for it.  This gets old after a while, so you probably want to keep an eye out for really short-tempered super-types who don’t always see reason–unless nobody knows each other yet.
    • Freeze!  You’re under arrest!  The police somehow get their signals crossed and think that the super heroes are to blame.
    • Uh… why are you wearing that costume?  Somehow, a super hero’s secret identity (or some other sensitive bit of information) is at risk.  This doesn’t have to be widespread knowledge or wind up in a villain’s hands – sometimes it’s enough of a twist for your wife to find out what you’ve been doing at night when you said you were working.
    • They struck again!  While the heroes were screwing up with this clue, the super villain or her minions went out and did it again.  This enables the plan to ratchet forward another step along the “countdown clock.”
    • It’s a trap!  Oh no, what looked like a clue was actually a fiendish death trap.  I guess that means I have to figure out death traps in a later post.
    • Let’s fight!  The super villain gets tired of the super heroes’ interference, and so sends a gang of goons, or a trusted lieutenant, or something, to fight them.
    • Chase Scene!  Man, somebody’s getting away, time to bust out the vehicle rules and give them a work-out.

if i break your wrists, james, will you please stop typing?

At some point the players will get tired of fishing for clues, and decide to make a run on the super villain, and/or wait around at a likely target to intercept her. Remember that the super villain has probably anticipated the most likely responses, so the players might need to first call in a few favors, or build a special gadget, and that process may cause the plan to ratchet forth another step toward midnight.

  • You’ll need a map of a villain’s lair – the Marvel Advanced Set has some stuff on building a super heroic headquarters that would work for lairs as well – or the scene of the next crime.  Make sure this place is just bursting with “interactivity”–ropes to swing on, exploding barrels, clueless civilians milling about with no clue of the danger that’s about to go down, trapped tunnels, nuclear reactors about to go critical, escape subs, and so on.
  • You should also think about what the super villain wants to accomplish.  Fights are boring when all that one side wants to do is clobber the other side.  Does the super villain want to delay the heroes long enough for the final countdown to go off or reinforcements to arrive?  Maybe imprison and brainwash them?  Make it look like they committed a murder?  Seize and hold territory?
  • If a super villain takes some pretty serious licks (in Marvel, health is reduced to Endurance rank value or less), she’s gonna bolt, fake her own death, or give up with the knowledge she can easily escape.  Preferably, the plan keeps marching along.

Important point: do not cheat to keep the super villains or their plans going.  If the players get lucky, or play very well, totally let them enjoy their accomplishment.  You’ve got new super villains every month, some of whom will try to learn from the failures of their peers.  In comic books, the status quo never changes very much, because of publishing demands.  This is deadly for RPG’s.  Keep things unstable and moving along.

Anyway, that’s my current thought on this thing.  It’s all incredibly obvious in hindsight but I had to clear some mental blocks first.


the prince of peace

Click for the entirety of the first issue, written, penciled, and edited by the King himself, inked by Mike Royer.

Let there be peace on earth and goodwill toward men, or, failing that, a bellowing, hysterical, mohawked product of “hormone surgery from space” stomping around the place putting things to rights.

I am told that Keith Giffen’s new OMAC series is decent, but haven’t checked it out yet.


kirbsday: the x-pit

Oh man, I plum forgot it was Thursday.

Last issue, a mysterious young man named Scott Free took up the mantle of Mister Miracle, super escape artist, to avenge the death of his friend Thaddeus Brown.

Scott evidently has access to far-out technology, but we don’t know why.

The follower is seemingly ruined, but Mother Box sacrifices itself to save Scott.

The crazy robot, Overlord, is controlled by Granny Goodness.

What is Barbara Bush doing in this comic?

God damn.

Granny’s minions abduct Oberon and the follower, mistaking it for Scott Free.  (The minute the follower shows up dressed up as Mister Miracle, you know the villain will fall for the ruse.  But that already happened when Overlord zapped the duplicate.  It takes a certain amount of storytelling balls to use the exact same trick twice.)

Scott gives chase, but:

The X-Pit!

Things get pretty rough: searing flames, electric jolts, hurricane winds, drowning in mud.  But of course:

Turns out that as Mister Miracle and Oberon were enduring the punishments of the “torment circuit,” the radiation of the X-Pit strengthened Mother Box to the point where she could K.O. Overlord.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mister Miracle has no inclination to arrest, beat up, or drive off Granny Goodness and her minions.

Busting vengeance-crazed, totalitarian viragos hellbent on your destruction isn’t Mister Miracle’s way.  He shows up, gets put in a trap, escapes from a trap, tells haterz to go fuck themselves, and leaves.  Probably not how Wolverine would handle the situation.

parent trap

We’re going to see a lot more of Kirby’s view on fatherhood in the later issues of The New Gods, but this issue really hits on motherhood issues.  In crude plot terms, Scott is shielded from harm by the sacrificial Mother Box, while Granny Goodness builds the sadistic X-Pit with the help of Overlord, her “baby box” which is this weird stunted fetus-machine.  Like the contrast isn’t clear enough, Kirby also installs Granny Goodness as the commandant of a concentration camp for orphans.  (This last bit isn’t totally made clear yet, but we’ll see it in a few months.

Obviously, the good mother facilitates the safety and growth of her children, even to the point of self-sacrifice.  Whereas the bad mother exploits her children for her own gratification–Overlord also is a kind of cosmic-cube wishing machine type of thing, which makes jewelery in addition to the X-Pit–and is threatened when her children show any sign of independence.  On Apokolips, even motherhood demands total control.

Anyway: Granny Goodness is an unforgettable character both in concept and in execution.  When’s the last time you came across a villain whose power was “evil motherhood”?   That close-up is an utterly convincing portrait of maternal fury.  She is just totally fucking psycho.  At least Darkseid is sane.


kirbsday: the four-armed terror!

Last time, the scientists of the Evil Factory, Simyan and Mokkari, sent a rampaging monster to destroy the DNA Project, and Superman was on the ropes after dissing Jimmy Olsen and the Newsboy Legion.

Alas, this issue delivers almost exactly the same thing.  In the past I’ve run some interference for Kirby’s repetitious elements, characterizing them as recurring motifs.  But in this case, it’s pretty much the exact same plot, just as Forever People #2 and New Gods #2 are almost the same story.  All three of these issues have a cover date of April-May 1971 (appearing on the stands in January or so), though, which surely isn’t coincidence.  It’d be interesting to know what was going on during that period.

Anyway, recognizing that issue #137 is a lot like issues #135-36, what’s there to appreciate about this one?

Well, I think the Four-Armed Terror, though kind of a lame adversary in the abstract (he has four arms, is ugly, and is starving for nuclear radiation to eat) is always depicted in a creepy and savage way.

Last issue, the Step-Ups invited Superman and Jimmy Olsen to a concert – but it turns out Jimmy gets to play the instrument (click to enlarge)

Please note there’s another 2-page splash collage immediately afterward, for a total of 5 splash pages devoted entirely to a “solar-phone” concert.  For comparison, the hell-planet Apokolips itself gets, thus far, a single half-page panel and peeks over into a splash.

Five consecutive splash pages is an absolutely overwhelming amount of narrative force in this medium–I don’t think there’s a single precedent for it in super hero comics at that time.*  And it’s devoted to Jimmy Olsen and the teenage Newsboy Legion basically hallucinating to electronica.  I really wish I could find a color version of these panels: the collage stuff looks about a million times better in color, and maybe that justifies the huge space devoted here.

So either Kirby really wanted to make a big deal about Jimmy Olsen tripping, a bigger deal than was made about anything else in comics before . . . or he really wanted to rush these issues along.  (This issue has 22 pages, 8 of which are splash pages.)   Given the similarity of plot to the previous issues, and really tight analogues between the other issues coming out this month, I’m inclined to say he was rushing.

Eventually Superman discovers the Project is under attack and tells the kids to stay out of it.  He wants to keep them safe, but as usual he’s pretty high-handed about it.

Oh hey, it’s Yango from issues #133-34!  The Four-Armed Terror is raising such a ruckus that the Outsiders and the others must evacuate the Habitat, and maybe the Wild Area itself.  I omitted a scene earlier in which Yango briefly mourns Jimmy Olsen, “the best yet,” having gone to his presumed death at the Mountain of Judgment.

The Four-Armed Terror double-strangles Superman until Jimmy shows up with his Hairy-designed harmonica gun.

Somewhere in here, Superman deduces that this creature was stolen from the Project’s own radiation-eating, four-armed monster cells: in this case, they were trying to breed a creature capable of surviving after an atomic war.  Two things are obvious:

  1. Simyan and Mokkari are really abusing the grant process, since all they do is just steal stuff from the Project
  2. It would have been a lot easier for Superman to just fight the dang ol’ Project, since all of their research gets used against him anyway

The monster traps them in an energy egg.  More monsters should do this.

On page 21 we finally learn the villains’ scheme:

SIMYAN: There’s the blip!  Our fledging is in the main conduit!

MOKKARI: Praise Darkseid!

SIMYAN: Yes, directly in his path is the giant atomic pile that supplies power to the entire underground world of the “Project!”

MOKKARI: He must feed on radiation!  He’ll rip that pile apart and trigger a chain reaction!  Then a great while flash!  A fire storm of indescribable heat!  Shock upon shock as a mushroom cloud rises where once the Project stood!  A job well done, eh, Simyan?

SIMYAN: It will be beautiful, Mokkari!  And with it will go all the rest!  Yea–and even the city of Metropolis–which lies above within range!

Alas, Mokkari’s reverential description of the nuclear meltdown is only text: too much space devoted to the solar-phone concert, not enough time for a Kirby-vision nuclear disaster.  But . . .

* = Hmm.  Ditko manages six splash pages in Spider-Man Annual 1965, where Spidey takes on the Sinister Six, but they’re not consecutive pages.  Steranko manages a colossal 4-page spread in Strange Tales #167 as Nick Fury wages his final battle against the Yellow Claw.  So Kirby’s usage here is more of degree than of kind.


I don’t want to repeat myself any more than I already have.

This month Kirby’s got a thing about children having psychedelic experiences.  It is unmistakably the highlight of little Donny’s life over in Forever People #2, and the format of this issue strongly implies that it’s the most important thing ever to happen to the Newsboy Legion or maybe all of comics.  And of course, the idea of these huge collages–which look beautiful in full color but I think reproduce very poorly in black & white–is to sell a vicarious psychedelic experience to the child readership.

It’s hard to see what Kirby’s doing here that wouldn’t be of a piece with contemporary psychedelia.  By the early 70’s this stuff had become extremely commercialized and exploited by the wider culture; the real surprise is that it took so long to penetrate into mainstream comics.  Kirby’s attitude appears to one of uncritical, enthusiastic acceptance, which again is typical of the wider culture at the time though maybe a little unusual in a guy who was 49 years old.

I have some partial thoughts about crime in super hero games but I’ve got to do work…



strahd gangbang

Neisseria, the Medusa navigator by Scott LeMien

With the help of my Medusa navigator, I crashed the spaceship into to the mouth of the enormous ghost-robot that hovered over Swamp Town, and we disembarked to rob the spoiled teenage were-tiger picnickers…

Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

we killed strahd, you missed it

Well actually, it looks like Beedo’s gang did it too, but they had more people involved.

In our game of I6: Ravenloft, the four remaining PC’s had found all these curiously specific items of Strahd-slaying, but the best weapon was, of course, a mule to the face.

Our Normal Magic-User negotiated with Strahd to return a painting of the vampire’s little girlfriend–and threw a mule (from a robe of many things) through the painting right as Strahd was examining it.  “A mule to the face would at least be distracting,” so our Kryptonian Assassin got a backstab  with the Sun Sword.  I ended up facing the vampire lord for a round or two of single combat, and then Sensible Half-Orc blasted him with a mystic amulet or something.

The Ravenloft module was entertainingly and ably run by “Naked Sam” on the Red Box site, and it was a nice change of pace.  I think the four players that night all agreed that while we had a fun time, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e was a laughably pretentious game with little to recommend it over LBB, B/X, or BECMI.  I practically cried reading the “Gaining Experience Levels” section on page 86 of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Forget Strahd: somebody needs to run a stake through Gary Gygax for sucking blood out of gamers with that nonsense.  Ugh.

the necromancer is dead, so what else is new?

A couple days later, I swung by Tavis’s game, where we had the aforementioned Medusa-navigated spaceship crashing into the ghost-colossus to rob teenage lycanthropes having a picnic on pickled robo-dwarf.  You know: Tavis’s game.

we are here for the picnic (art by Jedo)

One of our off-screen enemies, going back to the days when I was a regular player, was a necromancer named Ashur-Ram, who keeps Wraiths and Spectres imprisoned inside crystal phials which he throws as grenades.  We never have enough priests to turn back these level-draining undead, so we usually gave Ashur-Ram a lot of latitude.

But it turns out he was on board the ghost-colossus when we smashed into it.  This precipitated a panic when long-serving members of the party realized the danger we were in, especially after Ashur-Ram’s Dragon killed all of our meat-shields. “Quick,” said the other party members, “the necromancer appears willing to pay us to leave him alone!  We want to leave him alone!  We want to get paid!  Let’s take the offer!”


Now, it may be my -2 Wisdom modifier talking, or the fact that I was playing a brand-spanking-new character in contrast to guys who had invested for 40 sessions in their toon.  But when you have an insanely wealthy necromancer by the throat and you outnumber him 8:1, and he’s already spent some of his best spells, you strangle that fool.  And so for once I exploited our consensus-driven process by refusing to give in until everyone else got sick of arguing with me.

We killed the necromancer, who had filled us with dread for like 30 sessions, in like 3 rounds.  Nobody took damage except for one guy who got drained two levels and who had been staunchly opposed to fighting this guy.  (Sorry, dude.)  But we are now even more ridiculously wealthy than we had been, and I’m sure fixing the level-drain will be fairly easy.

Plus I think some dude got it on with a Sphinx.

big bad encounter design in old-skool D&D

Both of these episodes are related.

What surprised me about the big fight with Strahd is that there was, in fact, no big fight with Strahd.  We encountered him three times, and it was no biggie each time:

  • Our scout teleported away without any lasting harm thanks to a magic item
  • Our Assassin decapitated him with a single attack (no lasting harm to Strahd)
  • Mule to the face!  And then super-death.
  • Before we got to Strahd the last time, we fought a Nightmare.  The Nightmare put up a better fight.

My impression of this fight, and the hit on Ashur-Ram the necromancer, is that the Many versus One fight is really hard to get right in D&D.  Either the adversary is going to be way out of your league, in which case you need to run like hell, or it’s a plausible foe at your level in which case the group of you will crush it easily.

Furthermore, in order to be taken seriously as a fictional adversary in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, you need to cast spells–which means that you can’t get punched in the face even once if you want to cast, but now there are like 4-8 people surrounding you.

The Nightmare alluded to above was pretty much Many versus One (there were some Hellhound minion-types), but the Nightmare had the advantage of an insanely low Armor Class (like -4 or -5) plus an aura of nausea that made it even harder to hit.  As a result, the Nightmare could afford to stick around for a while and dish out damage.  I realized after leaping onto its back to attempt to tame it that it could run away to some Hell-Plane any time it wished and simply ditch me there, so in trying to avoid its weaker attack I accidentally opened up its special killer move.

But Strahd, and the poor Necromancer, didn’t have great defenses (anti-magic would have worked as well) or an infallible yet deadly escape plan.  Run like hell.

So how do you make the Many versus One fight work?

My advice would be: you don’t.  Give the Boss Bad Guy a retinue of henchmen, maybe appropriate to the Charisma score, and have them follow the Boss around at all times.  (Works for world leaders!)  And failing that, no enemy of any brains will stick around to fight on someone else’s terms: if you’re caught at a disadvantage–like, say, eight adventurers crash a spaceship into your bunker and polymorph your Dragon into a flounder–then you retreat, regroup, and get revenge at a time of your choosing.  As someone said at the end of the Necromancer caper, by the time the adventurers reach your throne room, you’ve already lost.

Extremely intelligent NPC’s should probably auto-fail their morale checks in such circumstances, and should think twice before attempting to negotiate with murder hobo’s for safe passage.

But eventually that confrontation is gonna happen, at which point your Boss NPC has to do several things very quickly:

  1. Protect against melee combatants blitzing you
  2. Knock out enemy casters
  3. Cancel any on-going status effects the party’s got going
  4. Take out as many targets of opportunity as possible

It’s hard to say which of those four is the most urgent, though taking care of #1 early hopefully will buy you some time.  My thought is that debuffs can wait a bit since players may try to keep tossing them on as the fight progresses.  You probably shouldn’t waste time buffing yourself, because (a) it takes up time that you need to spend taking care of other things, and (b) the players will just hit you with a dispel anyway.

One helpful trick, though it is sort of unfair: design your throne room in a way that takes care of at least one of these problems for you: maybe you get to drive around in an armor-plated Pope-Mobile or your throne levitates 20 feet off the ground so melee guys can’t reach you.  Or there’s 3 feet of sucking mud all over the place which basically cancels out any haste spell, or a constant rain of cinders that inflicts steady damage so casters can’t rely on getting a spell off.

Relatedly: divert attention with a MacGuffin, hostage, dead-man switch, or some other strategic necessity so that the players can’t get away with killing you immediately.  The problem here is that your distraction probably won’t keep everybody occupied, and things will likely escalate into a very non-standard combat encounter, which favors the players’ hive-mind.

I’m uncertain as to the best timing of summoning help, such as from demons or conjuration spells.  It’s good to have somebody running around taking the heat off you, but they’re mainly just meat-shields.  (I think we summoned 8 Goblins to help us fight the Nightmare.  All they did was get in the way, though we did propose a variation on our beloved Baby Armor, namely Goblin Sponge Armor, to ablate the vampire’s attacks.  Alas they faded from view before we could get our armorer on the case.)  Summoning help costs at least one round, and it’s probably only going to buy you two at best, unless the enemy absolutely must put down your helper.  Bringing two Wraiths into the fight sure didn’t help the Necromancer.

(Related question: why is Animate Dead such a high-level spell?)

My short prescription would be something like slow (surprisingly, does not exist in the B/X version of the game!), confusion, growth of plants, or wall of ice to keep attackers at bay, followed by (say) hold person, darkness, silence, or feeblemind on enemy casters.  Cause Fear is a nice spell for either purpose, though it only affects one target.  I also like casting a charm person on a Cleric: it not only saves you from a melee attacker, it also steals the players’ buffs for your own use.  My general thought is that while invisibility is a pretty good spell, it’s a pain in the neck to run because you’re always sweating whether your next action will blow it.

Any other thoughts on the Many versus One spellcaster thing?  What am I missing?


Original Adventurer Conqueror King Art for Sale

Ryan Browning has created an Etsy store where he is selling a number of the original pieces of art he created for Adventurer Conqueror King, some earlier work he did for The Secret Fire, and the painting he did to bust out his illustration chops:

Eowyn vs. the Nazgul, Ryan Browning, 2011. Oil paint on archival coldpress illustration board, mounted on foam core. 20 x 26.5 inches

So that James’s Kirbsday doesn’t have a monopoly on Mule posts with awesome art, here are some more of my favorites:

Efreeti Attack, Ryan Browning, 2011. India ink on archival bristol, 11 x 8.5 inches.

The content of this illustration was suggested by one of our Kickstarter backers, and confirms that it is really awesome to have the people who are excited about your game be the ones to imagine what illustrations will convey that excitement.

One of the things I like best about the early D&D illustrations is that the scenes they depict are specifically ones you’d encounter in play. The backer art orders supply this quality in spades – check out the way the fighter is receiving healing during a battle.

Lots of modern illustration seems to me to suffer from the same problem as a game that the DM has planned ahead of time: it reflects only one brain’s vision of what’s going to be cool. Battle scenes done by people who’ve played the game, like those done by people who’ve witnessed battles, are instead full of lots of moments of private drama. These images draw you in because they provide the opportunity to imagine yourself in many different roles, each of which is dealing with a separate challenge.

Note that all this assumes that a) the artist can unite these individual moments into a compelling composition and b) the artist and art director care about these details in the art order and make sure they’re represented in the finished piece. Ryan’s talent is easy to see, but my experience suggests that his assets in category b) are rarer.

Slain Dragon, Ryan Browning, 2011. India ink on archival bristol paper, 11 x 8.5 inches.

Fighter, Ryan Browning, 2011. India ink on archival bristol paper, 5.5 x 4.25 inches.

The backers who contributed the art orders got the first crack at the originals of their work, so some of my favorite illos of Ryan’s are not up on the Etsy site. The ones he did based on the text, rather than from a specific request, show the benefits of a single-author approach. Just as a DM’s plan for a campaign can be a lot simpler and stylistically unified than it will become when players come along wanting to give their characters funny names and options from the Book of Vile Brokenness, the pieces Ryan did as chapter intros and character class exemplars feature the strong, stylized graphic design that reflects his personal vision. The remarkable thing to me is that, like Trampier, he manages to do this without losing realism. The fighter’s gear is recognizably based in the real world, but the angular arrow motif suggests it was worn by a historical dude who had style and knew how to pose. Likewise, the smoke and blood curling away from the dragon head make it simultaneously an exercise in Art Nouveau whiplash lines and a concrete trophy of adventuring.

All proceeds from the Etsy site go directly to Ryan, and will hopefully make his venture into commercial illustration less financially ruinous than the usual professional involvement in RPGs. (As the saying has it, the way to make a small fortune in this industry is to start with a large one.) If I may engage in some more self-interested hucksterism: we are currently proofing the layout pages of the core Adventurer Conqueror King System book, a process much enlivened by the frequent appearances of work by Ryan, Johnathan Bingham, and the Mule’s own Greengoat, as well as Telecanter’s monster silhouettes. The text and tables aren’t as pretty to look at, but they play real good!

ACKS will be available for sale soon, but by pre-ordering it now you can get all the benefits that were otherwise available only to our Kickstarter backers – access to the developer forums and drafts of upcoming projects and a free PDF copy of the first of these, our mass-combat system Domains at War.


the world that’s coming

Belated joesky tax from last Kirbsday: a super hero setting I’ve been mucking with over the past week or so, basically ripping off Kirby’s mid-1970’s works.  (The collage by Jay Garrattley above captures the concept pretty well, but I only discovered it after writing all this…)

The goal isn’t to literally use the same characters and situations, but rather to tease out the thematic connections, file off some serial numbers, and just fool around for a bit.  Other inspirations might include THX 1138, Zardoz, and Seaguy.

when gods walk the earth

Once upon a time, a zillion years in the past, the Shining Ones descended from the heavens and walked among men.  Some of the men, the Shining Ones changed.

And the Shining Ones departed, but the changed men remained.  Long-lived, brutal, domineering due to altered genes and cultural contamination, in-bred to the point of deformity, in latter days the changed men would inspire sinister veneration.

The Shining Ones left relics of their passing.  So too did the changed men leave strange traces, and stranger descendants, of their prehistoric dominion.  In the fullness of time, antiquarians, eccentrics, and adventurers would scour the globe for these lost artifacts.

Those who decipher the ancient writings know that the Shining Ones promised, or threatened, to return when summoned.

a space odyssey

The world that’s coming is a strange place, where everything from broadcast energy to brain transplants is commonplace.  Thinking machines match adult orphans with childless couples, while DIY sex-droids distract a restless populace from ecological and financial catastrophes.  Geopolitical super powers bellow and squawk in the tar pits of mutually assured nuclear armageddon.  International crises must be defused with preemptive precision.

The road charted by the Shining Ones in millennia gone by leads past miracles of the modern age, but appears to end in holocaust.  The bone begets the bomb—and the bombardier.  When the Space Program encounters undeniable evidence of the Shining Ones, will we at last transcend our patrimony, or will it drive us to the final cataclysm?

The line between man and machine blurs.  Is this triumph of a schizophrenic civilization our brother, our betrayer, or our bulwark against an intergalactic threat?

In the distant future, the Shining Ones have come and gone.  New species with only the dimmest recollection of man’s accomplishments prowl a world thrown into ruin.  Can this fate be avoided?

action! in a mystic realm!

Thinking this over, the closest analogue is maybe Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though in the future, and hopefully less sucky.  Or maybe The X Files done as pulp adventure rather than as suspense.

My instinct would be to set this in the World That’s Coming, the freaky future of 2001 as seen from the early 1970’s, populated by genetically modified super-cops sworn to non-violence, renegade robots, sinister lurking mutants, devious antiquarians, two-fisted astronauts, and a star-child or two.

One possibility: a tiny nation in equatorial Africa has been selected, after many tortuous rounds of United Nations bickering, as the site of the Space Elevator.  This development project promises riches beyond compare, but at great ecological risk.  The ruling prince, after securing the project, dies and now the nation is sinking into disarray as factions of the royal family scheme for advantage.  KGB and CIA agents parry each other, trying to dispel rumors of an eerie discovery on Mars, while unscrupulous adventurers scour the countryside looking for lost artifacts.

This needs to bake a little bit more: I suspect you’d have to focus on a little piece of the setting, and play it out for a while, and then make up some other guys doing some other thing elsewhere, and I’m also unsure if this would work better as a “party-based” thing or as a bunch of independent protagonists.  But there’s promise here.



On Wednesday, December 12, 2001, the Flea Theater will be hosting a panel discussion entitled “Theater and Role-Playing Games” at 8:30 pm, following that evening’s performance of SHE KILLS MONSTERS at 7:00 pm.

Graphic Design by Jaime Vallès

Before Dungeons & Dragons, there were only six sorts of table-top games: pen and paper, board, card, dice, tile, and miniature games. Players of role-playing games, the seventh kind created in 1974, become both actors and audience in a private drama structured by dice and rules rather than a director and a script. Some have claimed that this kind of game constitutes a new form of performing art. What is certain is that role-playing games borrow elements from pre-existing performance arts – when a name for the phenomenon of games like Dungeons & Dragons was needed, some preferred “adventure gaming” because “role-playing game” was already taken by both an improv exercise and a group psychotherapy technique – and that many of the people who are currently shaping the direction of contemporary theater were themselves shaped by early exposure to role-playing games.

Four of these writers, theatrical artists, and game designers will be sharing their experience and perspectives on the panel:

Edward Einhorn is a writer and director. He is the Artistic Director of Untitled Theater Company #61 – a Theater of Ideas, and is the author of numerous books and plays for adults and children including the recent adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which he directed.

Nicholas Fortugno is a game designer and educator. He teaches the Game Design and Interactive Narrative program at Parsons New School for Design, is the co-founder of the NYC game design studio Playmatics LLC, and has created multiple live-action role-playing games including A Measure for Marriage, modeled after a Shakespearean comedy and designed to facilitate a friend’s marriage proposal.

Matthew Gregory is a director, actor, costume designer, and game designer. He is the Artistic Director and a founding member of the Hive Theater Company, a faculty member at CUNY – Kingsborough, and the co-author of the Kitsunemori role-playing game supplement.

Robert Ross Parker is a director, writer, and actor. He is the co-Artistic Director of the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company, the editor of The Dramatist, the Journal of the Dramatists Guild of America, and the director of SHE KILLS MONSTERS.

The panel will be moderated by Tavis Allison, who founded Adventuring Parties LLC to promote public awareness of role-playing games in contemporary culture by creating events like this one.

The event will be free and open to the public, although purchasing tickets to the performance before the panel  is highly recommended. SHE KILLS MONSTERS is a great play in its own right and a stellar example of one way role-playing games and theater can interact. Those who attend the show will be uniquely qualified to contribute to the Q&A session following the panel.

If you’ll be in NYC and can make it, let us know you’re attending at the event’s Facebook page; if not we’ll hopefully post video of the discussion!

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2011

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