Archive for February, 2012


mighty marvel reward systems

Last week we played some Marvel Super Heroes—the old FASERIP game, not the new one which I hope to talk about soon—and I decided to muck with the reward system a little bit.

In Marvel Super Heroes, your character doesn’t “level up” and seldom improves over time.  Instead, heroic behavior earns you Karma points, which you can then spend to alter dice rolls.  This represents peak performance, good luck, or the moral arc of the comic book universe, and helps to explain why a comparatively ordinary guy like Captain America can take on the Hulk on equal terms: Captain America may be weaker, but a lifetime of heroism lets him save the day.

Like hit points in D&D, Karma measures whether you’re a protagonist of the campaign.  If you’ve got a ton of Karma saved up, it’s because you’ve attended lots of sessions, you’ve overcome many villains, solved many crimes, or found time to manage the obligations of your secret identity.  And with great Karma comes great performance.

Yet Karma isn’t easy to acquire, especially in the advanced rules.  Most Karma awards are in the neighborhood of 10-30 points, and it’s pretty easy for the GM to place you in a Hobson’s choice: sure you arrested the cat burglar (+5) but you had to blow off Grandma’s birthday party without a good excuse (-20) for a net loss of 15 Karma points.*   And of course, if your super “hero” chooses to go on a one-man crime wave, that’s going to carry a heavy Karma cost as well.

There’s also the issue that Marvel Super Heroes doesn’t have strong ways to distinguish characters’ personalities.  There’s a +10 Karma award for good role-playing, but in my view this doesn’t always capture the luchador soap opera that is Marvel Comics.

Supers of Yesterday

At the top of my list of favorite fantasy games I really should get around to playing sits The Shadow of Yesterday, by Clinton R. Nixon.  Shadow of Yesterday uses a customizable XP system called Keys.  Each character chooses a few of these Keys, which read like this:

Key of Unrequited Love
Your character has a love for someone who does not return this love.  Gain 1 XP whenever your character has to make a decision that is influenced by them. Gain 2 XP every time your character attempts to win their affection.  Gain 5 XP every time your character puts herself in harm’s way or makes a sacrifice for them.  Buyoff: Abandon your pursuit of this person or win their love.

You get a few XP for something pretty minor and easy to arrange; you get additional XP for something that carries serious repercussions or is otherwise difficult to deal with.  The “buyoff” means that any time you betray the key, you have the option to permanently cash it in for 10 XP, which in Shadow of Yesterday is like leveling up twice, but you can never take this particular key again.  In other words, if you choose to lead your character toward a moment of cataclysmic personal growth, you can reap massive rewards.  (And no, I don’t know what’s up with the key metaphor, which seems hopelessly mixed.)  You can use some of those XP to buy a new key if you’re so inclined.

Method of emphasizing your character’s role as a protagonist in the story?  Method to reliably garner more Karma?  Method to off-set Karma losses for certain kinds of character-appropriate bad behavior?  Method to emphasize silly soap opera elements of super hero comics?  Yes to all four.  As an added bonus, if you’ve got a player who’s like, “Uh, who is ‘Wonder Man’?  What’s this guy like?” you can then point to the Key of Being a Douche.

Some Stuff From Our Game

I haven’t figured out how much it costs to purchase a new Key—I’m figuring 100 Karma, and you can only have three at a time, but that’s just provisional for now, since we’re in the process of testing it out.

Can you match these Keys to the respected ranks of the Avengers?

Key of the Bad Relationship.  Gain 10 Karma when you’re in a scene with this person.  Gain 20 Karma when you try to win this person’s respect or make him or her jealous.  Gain 50 Karma when you suffer or make a sacrifice because of this person.  Cash-Out: 100 Karma if you walk out or otherwise end the relationship.

Key of the Bronco.  Gain 10 Karma for mouthin’ off to super-guys.  Gain 20 Karma when you show ’em up by deeds.  Gain 50 Karma by saving the day through lone-wolf grandstanding.  Buy-Off: Gain 100 Karma by submitting to a wise leader.

Key of the Crying Android.  Gain 10 Karma for discovering a new question (supposedly philosophical, but almost always continuity-obsessive) while brooding over the mystery of your origins.  Gain 30 Karma for risking harm in search of an answer.  Cash-Out: Gain 100 Karma for answering the question.

Key of Hedonism.  Gain 10 Karma every time you indulge prodigiously in wine, women, and song.  Gain 30 Karma every time this upsets uptight people or overcomes your responsibilities.  Cash-Out: Gain 100 Karma points when you swear, this time you’re going to settle down and grow up.

Key of Homo superior.  Gain 10 Karma points when you defeat a human.  Gain 30 Karma when you defeat Sentinel robots, government super-agents, or assimilationist mutants.  Buy-Off: Gain 100 Karma by taking orders from a human.

Key of the Loser.  Gain 10 Karma points every time you mope over your shortcomings.  Gain 20 Karma every time you are defeated or give up.  Gain 50 Karma if that failing endangers innocent third-parties.  Buy-Off: Gain 100 Karma by thwarting a national or global conspiracy.

Great minds

Turns out that the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game has an XP system called milestones that resembles keys greatly.  Here’s an example of a milestone.

Created by Warren Worthington III, this international relief agency offers mutants support they can’t get anywhere else. Will it inspire Beast?
1 XP when you use your Medical Expert to help a mutant recover stress.
3 XP when you choose not to engage in a confrontation in order to rescue or support noncombatant mutants.
10 XP when you either allow a mutant to die or give up your status or reputation to save them.

Note that the massive XP rewards combines the fulfillment of the key (sacrificing your professionalism to save a mutant) with as the option to betray it (letting a mutant die), which in Shadow of Yesterday would be broken out separately, with more points given if you choose to renounce your values.

My first impression of the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game is cautious enthusiasm: it looks like a complex fighting game that handles “power stunts” a lot better than my old beloved Marvel Super Heroes did, but I’m a little suspicious that fights will begin to look the same after a while, and the scenario creation rules look . . . problematic.  But I look forward to getting experience with this thing pretty quickly.  Either way, I’m pleased that we hit on these reward systems independently: it’s a sign I’m on to something.


* = Contrast: if you had allowed the thief to go free (-5) in order to make it to Grandma’s party (+10), you’d have a get gain of 5 Karma points.  Going to Grandma’s house is therefore more important than catching mere thieves, but less important than catching murderers–it’s about as important as catching an arsonist or mad bomber.  Obviously, after an exhausting day on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Richard Posner puts on a strange costume and becomes . . .  Milton-Fried-Man, who is Pareto superior to ordinary mortals!


D&D is a desert

Why do we not use the video embed feature in OSR blogs more often? Greengoat knows much about death metal that is 100% relevant to D&D, and I am psyched to see Cyclopeatron posting again and the opposite of disappointed that so many of his recent posts have just been videos. Being not very cool myself, but not wanting to let that hold me back, I lifted this one off story-games’s Stuff to Watch thread:

Things I get from this:

  1. Given that D&D is the apocalypse, this is what it looks like. Magnificent horses and beat-up cars, ancient walls with spray-painted graffiti. The city of Greyhawk is like Dubai: an oasis of wealth formed at the place where riches can be extracted from a hole in the ground. All the wilderness around it should reveal, like the one-time Fertile Crescent, the consequences of having been civilized for thousands of years in which adventurers irrigated fields with salt water and let goats graze at will and used flaming oil to solve their problems.
  2. Since I should be busily promoting the Dwimmermount Kickstarter which launches on Friday, allow me to point out that the way James’ work inspired me to drive this home in Sunday’s game was to tell the players: “The statues you find in the dungeon all have had their heads replaced by that of Turms Termax. You recognize his face because it stares down on you all the time, in various states of crumbling ruin. The most remarkable thing about the mountain of Dwimmermount you climbed up to get here is that this is the only peak you have ever seen that isn’t carved with Turms’ head, Mount Rushmore-style.”
  3. This is brazenly stolen from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun; tip of the hat to Play Unsafe for teaching me to go with the first, most obvious and derivative thing you can think of when playing an RPG because your goal is to hit the primal chords that others can riff off and maybe even be surprised by if they haven’t chewed over all the same stuff you have.
  4. Part of why I love Dwimmermount is that the presence of Typhon alongside Turmax in the pantheon is evidence that James has been chewing the same Wolfean roots, which is entirely appropriate because Gene is explicit about New Sun being an extended love letter to The Dying Earth just like Gygax’s work. It’s not like James is being coy about this either, Shadow & Claw is right there on his what I’m reading list.
  5. There is a room on the first level of Dwimmermount, which no party I know of has discovered yet, whose central mystery is straight jacked from another of my favorite foundational D&D sources. I am deeply impressed that James has the confidence to know that filing the serial numbers off of the stuff he steals will ruin what makes them perfect.
  6. What this taught me to do: the party is confronted by a Thuvian metal door at the entry to the dungeon, no visible handle or knocker or anything. They cast read languages so I decide that yes, they can now see letters damascened into the metal using alloys indistinguishable to the unaided eye. “What language are these in?” they ask. I suspect the correct answer is ‘have you ever seen ancient Thuvian?’ but I want everyone to be in on the fun; that’s why I argued for eliminating infravision in ACKS and make all my intelligent swords compulsively talk out loud even if they also have telepathy. So I say “it’s in Common, which is the language of the ancient Thuvians. All sentients you know about are born knowing how to speak this language.” OK now the players want to know what it says. “Speak Friend and Enter,” of course.
  7. The priceless thing about this: they still wound up using knock to get past the door. The glory and the tragedy of RPGs is that giving the players a clue that is totally obvious to you is often functionally equivalent to giving them a puzzle with no hints whatsoever.
  8. Back to the MIA video. The power she gets from having her face uncovered is the same OD&D affords you when you say “no, none of us are playing generic fighters in this edition; those guys are fighting-men, my character is a fighting-woman“.  James’ text brought these possibilities alive for me too; in the room I’m hinting about, he specifies that the face on the wall is the face of a Man. (Note how Carcosa squeezes even more juice out of this: is it the face of a White Man or a Green Man?) When the players found the statue my play-by-post group hauled out of the dungeon three years previously, this attention to gender deepened the mystery: did they haul the one statue of a Woman up the stairs and leave the Men behind because it was the only one not defaced with Turms’ head, or due to some deeper significance?* And would it be more or less creepy if Turms had slapped his beardy visage on all the statues regardless of gender? Instead it looks like he cast himself as five ancient male gods, and then apparently replaced one of the statues wholesale with that of his lover. Was the missing statue also that of a woman?

The other thing I should be promoting is that tomorrow night, Wednesday 2/29, is the last installment of Games that Can’t be Named at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. True to form, I can neither confirm nor deny that we will be playing Dwimmermount with some non-disclosed ruleset or another.

However, it is known that I will be refereeing an expedition into this great dungeon on Saturday evening at the Brooklyn Strategist using the Adventurer Conqueror King System. I’ve claimed for myself the honor of inaugurating a series of events in which a host of other NYC-area GMs will present  their own takes on James’ opus, which will run each Saturdays for at least as long as the Kickstarter campaign – 3/3 (me), 3/10 (Paul Hughes),  3/17 (50% chance of John Stavropoulous), 3/24 (I hope Eric Minton so that he has less time for writing stuff that drives ACKS off the top slot at, and 3/31, 4/7, and 4/14 all to be determined.

If you’re not in NYC, James will be running games via G+. More about all this soon.

* ACKS points to the correct answer; as I recall, we hauled out that statue because we thought we could sell it for more than the others.


The God of Abortion

Last night I arrived late to the evening session of the Jean Wells memorial and everyone was worn out from having run games for kids all day. So instead of playing Silver Princess as planned, I ran the draft of the first level of Dwimmermount I was carrying around to measure its map dimensions against the Brooklyn Strategist’s Sultan table as part of planning the backer rewards for the mega-dungeon’s Kickstarter.

I’d visited Dwimmermount before as a player in James’ PbP but was otherwise approaching the text pretty much cold, leaving the world beyond the basic elements I knew (a dungeon entrance, a nearby fortress town) to be filled in through play in the way I first learned how to do by reading Grognardia and using it as a guide to engage with OD&D.

The players, who I’ll call Adam and Ben, rolled up their guys using 3d6 in order, with much groaning at the resultant suckitude. They chose to start at third level, I said they could then roll up two first level henchmen. Adam and Ben hit on the happy inspiration of making the henchmen all the same class as their higher-level PC, so that their roleplaying of this trio was united by each character being a different perspective on the same archetype. This was important because they chose two very provocative classes – cleric raising the issue “what is the nature of religion?”, and elf posing the question “no one has ever seen a member of your species, what can we learn from these examples?”

Because we were short for time, and because playing with ACKS mechanics like the breakdown of living expenses and expected income by level has taught me a good sense for purchasing power, I treated the roll of 3d6 for starting gold as a wealth score. And based on half-understood stuff I heard Chip Delany say about how sword and sorcery is based on the moment when currency overthrows feudalism, I decided that this starting wealth came in 10 gp, 1 lb coins that awed all who saw them.

I told the players “you’re in the Fortress of Muntsburg, there really isn’t a market but you can try to use this gold to get the soldiers here to part with any equipment you want.” We did a one move per PC stocking procedure at a level of granularity where a strong success on hiring thieves meant that we later assumed they had equipped every member of the expedition with all kinds of mountaineering equipment so of course you had ropes and grapples and spikes and hammers.

Adam asked “can I get a staff for my cleric?” I was like well, you’re a third level character, you can get any kind of mundane equipment. They do have two special kinds of staff, one that has a torch holder-mace fixture where you can hit people and still carry a light, the other being a slot where you can put in vials of holy water or oil to shatter on contact.

Adam’s priest wanted both of these, but his roll against Wealth (3d6, how much did you make it under?) was in the Apocalypse World hard-bargain range so I said “They have some of those but the guy who owned them last died in a way that was unhallowed, they won’t bury him in the graveyard and his staffs might be haunted.” Adam didn’t want them that bad.

Next Adam’s acolyte wanted holy water, so I had that roll against Wisdom because the local church cared more about piety. He failed badly, so I said “You can make one vial using your own supplies” – he still had the gold his Wealth score represented, I wasn’t going to say no altogether – “but you can’t use the temple’s fount due to a doctrinal disagreement. What issue caused the falling out between you and the church in Muntberg?”

“We’re pro-abortion,” Adam said tentatively. Building steam: “We believe in the God of Abortion.”

Wow, what am I going to do with that? I figure the church in the fortress is Lawful but we moved fast through char-gen so I haven’t asked about the PC’s alignment and where does this issue fall anyway? Dropping into gruff roleplaying voice to do a local church elder: “We believe that rape is the lawful right of conquest. It is proper for us to sire children on those we defeat, so that the seed of the righteous will spread and our forces will grow. It is a sin for subjugated women to take the lives of our progeny.”

We all reflect on this for a second and then I move on to the rest of the equipping; we’re all eager to get to the dungeon, no one seems to want to get distracted by tangling with these rape apologist priests in town. Later we hear some other epithets for the deity the PC clerics worship – he’s also the God of Peace, and of Healing the Hacked-Up Upon – but when the hireling thieves want to convert after seeing Adam’s clerics perform miracles of healing, it’s the God of Abortion they are invited to serve. And when Ben’s elves are wanting their wounds to be noticed and healed, they mention that their pantheon also includes a God of Reproductive Rights.

Thoughts here:

  1. As spontaneous material created in play, this was totally awesome. Adam said later “You put me on the spot, I didn’t know anything about my god! So I just decided that they believed in something I really do believe in.” It worked amazingly well that he’d chosen an issue orthagonal to law/neutrality/chaos, but equally capable of dividing people into camps of pro-choice/neutral/pro-life, and I can’t wait to play to find out more about this.
  2. I believe this material could only work in inverse proportion to the degree it appears in the text. If Dwimmermount had anything more than the lightest dusting of stuff we might use as improvisational seeds for exploring the God of Abortion – the whole pulp D&D heritage of half-orcs and maidens bound to altars and references to Macbeth – I will stub my toe against the question “what does James Maliszewski think about abortion?” and that moment is going to be a trainwreck for however long it lasts.

Writing stuff into the adventure is the wrong tool to use to explore controversial issues in roleplaying games, because it creates an intrusion of authorial presence when the author isn’t there to talk to.

I’ve been friends with Adam and Ben for years, we’re all New Yorkers, the shared cultural currents mean that we can hook a live wriggling fish like abortion and be pretty sure we won’t be pulled off course. Exploring this issue by watching it come up in play teaches me things about the players and the world we’re creating together. The process of play is creating strands that lead from the negotiated understanding among the players, which has lots of background to draw on, to the story we’re discovering through our characters. Controversies that pull on these threads just create useful tension for this process, which is interpersonal first and intertextual second.

Even if I’d been running this session for strangers, as long as we were at the table together I would have asked “what’s the doctrinal disagreement?” and I would have been comfortable negotiating “abortion” as the answer. I’m a reasonable adult, decades of roleplaying and years of therapy have taught me plenty about how to make sure the good time I’m looking to have in a game isn’t derailed. I’m confident that whatever comes up in play can be dealt with on a social level so that we can keep creating the lens that lets us experience the other world of the game together.

But I have absolutely no confidence that I could talk about abortion with someone who isn’t physically present. I avoid any kind of forum where controversial issues get talked about, and I curate my Facebook and G+ streams to focus on interests where I know I have common ground. I don’t know what James believes about abortion, and if he was using Grognardia to talk about that I’d filter my reading of his posts to try to keep it that way.

I believe the bandwith of Internet communication is just too narrow to make a conversation about abortion worthwhile. The exchanges that get past my filter look to me like hostility or choir-preaching at worst, talking-past at best. Given that the communication between author and audience is even more limited than the Internet, I don’t expect that putting material about abortion into the written text of an adventure would yield any better results.

Within the intellectual and aesthetic domains where Grognardia proves good Internet communication can take place, I am interested in learning James’ opinion whether or not it agrees with my own. I do think he and I agree that analyzing an author’s personal views is not a fruitful approach to finding the gold in a written text. Putting any kind of material into the text of an adventure that makes me think about the author’s stance on an issue thus seems to me to make it less artistically successful, not more.

originally posted at story-games, where it echoes a related conversation about orc babies in Keep on the Borderlands 


Jean Wells Memorial Event Today

Today gamers are gathering at the Brooklyn Strategist to roll dice and have a good time in memory of Jean Wells, the first female professional in roleplaying games. The event is organized by Alex Guzman of Bad Wrong Fun, my co-organizer for the Games that Can’t Be Named series of events (whose grand finale is this Wednesday, 2/29, at the Soho Gallery for Digital Arts), and continues that tradition of bringing together players from all niches of RPGs to jointly celebrate common ground and experiment with the effects of using different systems to explore similar content.

If my parenting schedule works out, I’m looking forward to attending tonight’s session of the Jean Wells memorial. It’s raising money for a good cause and helping preserve the legacy of an important gaming pioneer. More selfishly, I want to take advantage of the chance to play Jean’s module Palace of the Silver Princess, which I had a great time helping Nick Mizer prep for an Adventuring Parties bachelor party but couldn’t participate in (it being in Houston and all).

Here’s hoping it becomes an annual celebration, joining the ranks of Gary Con, the NYC Dave Arneson Memorial Gameday, and the David L. Arneson Memorial Maritime Miniatures Mayhem Event (the fourth of which is likely to take place on April 7th at The Source).

Details about the event, from Alex’s post at nerdNYC:

On Sunday February 26th We (Bad Wrong Fun & B-Strat) will be holding a NYC RPG all-day gaming event in remembrance of Jean Wells who passed away a month ago on Jan 25th. The event will be at the Brooklyn Strategist located at 333 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11231.

The event will be broken into 2 sessions:

Day Session 12:00pm – 5:00pm & an Evening Session from 6:00pm – 11:00pm

There will be several different “Silver Princess” games being hosted simultaneously at a number of tables to allow for maximum attendance and participation. (More info on game systems below)

The door fee for the charity event will be $25.00 – beyond the donation made to Doctors without Borders in Mrs Wells name, attendees will receive the following:

1 month worth of free weekly membership to the Brooklyn Strat – (4 free play sessions, this does not include tournaments / premium events.)

Entry into the raffle for prizes held at the event for either the morning or evening session. (Prizes will include Gift Certificates redeemable at the Brooklyn Strategist).

Jean Wells was a D&D pioneer, and the original sage of Sage Advice, she is also the author of B3 Palace of the Silver Princess. During our event this is the module we will be playing however we will be using several game systems:

· OD&D / 1st ed Dungeons and Dragons

· 4E D&D

· Labyrinth Lord

· RuneQuest / Legend.

A strong argument can be made that Wells’ version of B3 was the last “old school module” to be produced at TSR; and that when it was pulled and replaced with the Moldvay version of B3, that’s the end of the “old school”.

For those unfamiliar with it:

The original B3 had a well-developed wilderness region, didn’t have a strongly-integrated plot, and was designed explicitly to be the top two levels of a mega-dungeon complex (with exits from those levels to lower levels that were supposed to be added by the DM). In short, it was the closest TSR ever got to publishing a module that matched the campaign set-up described in OD&D.

The module has a lovely fairy tale quality to its mythology, providing a strong contrast to the Tolkien-Vance-Howard triumvirate more typical of D&D.

The revised B3 got rid of the wilderness, added a plot, and sharply curtailed the extent of the dungeon complex. It was, in short, a complete repudiation of the original “old school” method of adventure design.

Apart from being for a good cause, participants will be getting a good deal, (The 4 free sessions at the B-Strat alone are worth $40) and It should be a lot of fun. It will be interesting to see how well the module works with different treatments of settings, systems & various GMs!


kirbsday: the closing jaws of death

Last time: super-escape artist Mister Miracle literally stepped into Doctor Bedlam’s latest trap–a fifty-story building filled with ordinary humans driven to murderous rage by the doctor’s paranoid pill–and was bound in chains, locked into a trunk, and thrown off the 45th floor!

Mister Miracle #4 takes up split seconds later.  Short version: Mister Miracle escapes.  But that’s not the memorable part of this story.

big bonus! big surprise! big barda!

A woman!  A woman in a Jack Kirby Fourth World title!  Who’s not “simple but worried secretary Claudia Shane!”  Who’s not a wallflower like Beautiful Dreamer, whom readers didn’t think could talk because she was so passive!  Who’s not a villainess like Granny Goodness!  Mister Miracle #4 debuts Barda, a friend of Scott Free’s and an officer in the Female Furies of Apokolips.

Barda’s here partially for sex appeal.  Kirby based her look off actress and singer Lainie Kazan, who had done a nude spread for Playboy in late 1970 (not pictured because I value your continued employment).  Later this issue we see Barda in a bikini, and it’s an unusual amount of skin for a Kirby book, though she has no belly-button…

Barda’s also here to provide backstory. In the Mister Miracle series so far, every month something eerie and threatening happens, but Scott Free does not lose his cool: he expects it, and he’s pretty tight-lipped about explaining things to the poor, mystified Oberon.  Clearly there’s an origin story here, but Scott apparently is keeping it bottled up inside.  Barda’s less circumspect: she tells Oberon (and the readers) that she grew up with Scott in Granny’s orphanage and eventually helped him escape to Earth.  They’ve got a shared history, and at least one of them is willing to blab about it.

Barda is also here to add some chaos to Oberon’s somewhat-frayed domesticity.  It’s interesting to contrast the home life scenes in Mister Miracle with those in Forever People and New Gods.  The Forever People hang out with Donnie and Uncle Willie for a little while in issue #2, but the humans are weird hosts and the gods are strange guests, and they can’t wait to tell Donnie, “Have a nice life!” and leave in issue #3.  (The typical super hero doesn’t make such a formal goodbye unless he doesn’t expect or intend to return.)  The “O’Ryan Gang” is somewhat more ordinary than a crippled child living alone in a slum with his senile, gun-toting uncle, but they can’t take a break from formally introducing themselves long enough to have normal interactions.  Yet Scott and Oberon have a convincing foolhardy-child/worrywart-parent relationship, and Barda helps bring this characterization to the fore.  I’m trying to think of the last time I saw a male super hero cook dinner in a Silver Age comic…

And of course, Barda is also here to punish fools.

Yes, butch Barda’s version of Mother Box is called her “Mega-Rod.”  Don’t joke about it to her face.

It’s hard to talk about Barda without also talking about female characters in super hero comics.  DC’s major heroines at this point were Wonder Woman and Supergirl, both of whom were strong and effective, but weren’t directly at war with traditional gender expectations.  Over at Marvel, the most prominent female characters at that time were probably the Invisible Girl, who was so stupid she couldn’t even pick a name for her baby:

And the Wasp, whose reaction when told that an innocent man is dying of a rare blood poisoning is that her boyfriend should stop working on a cure and take her out dancing:

By the late 60’s and early 70’s, the Women’s Lib movement was hitting its stride, sometimes depicted rather clumsily in comics.  So it’s kind of cool that Kirby presents this Barda character as someone who is physically powerful, assertive as hell, totally indifferent to gender expectations–and yet very friendly and cool all the same.

the day of the multi-cube!

So anyway, what happens in this issue, plot-wise?  How does Mister Miracle escape the falling trunk?  Well, he just does!  But later he explains the trick to Oberon:

He then gets throw into an iron maiden, on the set of some kind of Dungeons & Dragons style medieval TV show–because why wouldn’t there be a medieval TV show filming inside a modern office building?

Again, the multi-cube dissolves the back of the iron maiden, allowing Scott to escape.  Though Barda frequently offers to help, Mister Miracle refuses as it would compromise the warrior-code of this duel with Doctor Bedlam.  Eventually Bedlam himself manifests…

…and threatens them with a human stampede, except the multi-cube casts a sleep spell and the heroes are spared.  Mister Miracle wins again!

This issue closes with Mister Miracle giving Oberon a hypothetical account of how he pulled off these tricks, which is kind of a nice structure–maybe encouraging children to imagine how Mister Miracle could have done the impossible, and then revealing the secret.


kirbsday: will the REAL don rickles panic?!?

Last time in Jimmy Olsen 139: to secure a contract with Don Rickles, malicious media mogul Morgan Edge sends an eccentric employee, Rickles look-alike name-alike act-alike Goody Rickles, into a deathtrap managed by Inter-Gang underboss Ugly Mannheim.

“don’t ask! just buy it!”

Boy, you said it, Kirby!  Whew.  Okay, so basically, Clark’s trapped in space, zooming toward Apokolips…

…But is rescued by Lightray, a supporting character in The New Gods.  I guess this is nice, but given Clark’s secret identity it’s hard to imagine he was ever truly in danger.

Note that the collage is in color, unlike some of the previous efforts from a few months ago.  I’m not sure if this represents Kirby and the publisher discovering some new production technique, or just throwing a bit more care into the usual process, but by this point in late ’71 the photo-collages are starting to look a bit more vivid.

The Golden Guardian charges off after Ugly Mannheim and his Inter-Gang hoods, and beats an antidote to the pyro-granulate poison out of them…

And Jimmy and Goody Rickles make their way via the subway to Morgan Edge for medical help.

Meanwhile the real Don Rickles has shown up at Morgan Edge’s office, to the surprisingly demonstrative delight of the staff:

As Don and Edge sit down to iron out a contract, we get the inevitable collision…

The sudden onset of echolalia and echopraxia unnerves Don so much he’s got to sit down, even as Goody and Jimmy plead for their lives:

Morgan Edge calls the bomb squad, but is more concerned about his office furniture.  The Guardian saves them with the antidote, but Clark opens a boom tube right behind Don’s chair…

Finally, Don Rickles realizes that the only way he can escape the madhouse that is Galaxy Broadcasting is via the bomb squad:

and here we are again

So, although last issue was kind of inexplicable, Kirby manages to wrap the storyline up pretty well.  It works as a madcap action-comedy, and it’s a nice change of pace in a story about Black Racers, concentration camps at Disneyland, and mass hysteria.  There’s no denying it’s bizarre, and maybe the jokes could have been a little sharper, but hey: writing and drawing two issues a month.

These plots involving Morgan Edge remind me a little bit of some classic J. Jonah Jameson gags in the early days of the Spider-Man comic.  Way back when, Jameson wasn’t simply content to denounce Spidey: he wanted to defeat him by proxy, so he paid mad scientists to create killer robots, scorpion-men, and fishbowl-headed vigilantes to take the kid out.  Naturally, not only does Spider-Man win, but Jameson suffers a humiliating comeuppance.  (I can never get enough of the Scorpion-comes-after-Jameson storyline.)  Yet Kirby doesn’t humanize Edge with Jameson’s preening buffoonery: Edge is all coldblooded psychopathy.  I wonder whether any of these portrayals owe anything to longtime Marvel publisher (and Stan’s uncle) Martin Goodman–as a family member, Stan could have afforded a humorous wink at Goodman’s sharp business practices that would have been livelihood-threatening to employees like Kirby.

In the letters column this issue, readers grapple with the DNA Project.

The trouble with people like Randy Hiteshaw is that they aren’t privy to the classified documents that would explain how keeping hundreds of microscopic naked Jimmy Olsens in little white underpants is vital to winning the Cold War.

i am going to rationalize you, goody rickles, if it’s the last thing I do

One of the things I love to hate about comics fandom is the seemingly irresistible compulsion to rationalize everything.  Any loose plot thread or inexplicable occurrence must be harmonized with established continuity.  You see this with DC Comics all the time: in the mid-80’s they thought their setting’s history had gotten too complex, so they junked most of it with the Crisis on Infinite Earths.  But ever since then, they’ve had to revise stuff left dangling in the aftermath in Zero Hour and 52 and Final Crisis and the New 52 relaunch.
I generally think these efforts are unnecessary and quixotic. but dang it, even I give into temptation sometimes.
Weird things about Goody Rickles:
  • Named after Don Rickles
  • Looks exactly like Don Rickles
  • Acts like Don Rickles would if Rickles were written by Jack Kirby
  • Dresses in a super hero / New Genesis style costume with a big zero on the chest
  • When he meets Don Rickles, Don ends up reflexively repeating Goody’s words and body language

This leads to one and only one conclusion: Don Rickles is a robotic “follower” unit as seen in Mister Miracle 2.  Goody is a native of New Genesis, High-Father’s court fool, dispatched to Earth and toiling away at the nerve center of a major metropolitan newspaper to keep an ear open in the aftermath of “The Pact!” (see New Gods #7, coming in like… 12 weeks) or maybe “Himon!” (again, weeks away).

Being a show-off entertainer, Rickles builds himself a follower and sends it off to Hollywood, where it becomes famous.  He names it “Don” as a mock-lordly title.  Due to signal interference from Doctor Bedlam (who employs a similar animate-technology) or perhaps the Overlord device used by Granny Goodness (one of Goody’s relatives?), Don Rickles starts operating independently and forgets its true nature.

Goody, meanwhile, stays in character like Edgar in King Lear.  The minute he suspects Inter-Gang involvement at Galaxy, he bursts in on Morgan Edge and harasses him for an investigatory assignment.  He tries to steer Kent and Jimmy away from the dimension-trap, and is heartbroken when Kent disregards his warning and seemingly dies.  Once he’s been booby-trapped with pyro-granulate, Goody makes a beeline to Morgan Edge, hoping the crisis will blow Edge’s cover and force Darkseid’s network to reveal itself.  Goody Rickles: unsung champion of the Life Equation. 

Well, I’ve wasted my morning!  Jeez, comics….


time of the dragon

Warning: wordy and nostalgic, but there’s a TPK at the end.

Among the Old-Timey D&D Nostalgia & Rehabilitation Crew, people will often talk fondly about the weird, evocative settings of the 2e era–Dark Sun, Planescape, Al Qadim, Spelljammer (okay, maybe not always fondly for Spelljammer)–but hardly anyone ever mentions Time of the Dragon.  Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who remembers it existed.

what the heck are you talking about?

Time of the Dragon was an extremely non-Tolkien campaign setting box set, written by Zeb Cook and published in 1990.

Time of the Dragon was ostensibly set in the Dragonlance world, but on an entirely separate continent.  Though there were a few scattered references to the regular Dragonlance setting, the connections aren’t very deep.  The Acaeum suggests this started out as a new campaign world very late in the 1e era, and got retooled for 2e.  It’s possible that someone said, “Hey, remember Zeb’s big project?  We’ve sunk a lot of cost into producing that thing, and then retooling it for 2e.  Dragonlance is pretty hot right now, let’s just slap a logo on this thing, sprinkle some references for the fans, and ship it.”  Time of the Dragon got comparatively little support over the next year or two and then sank out of sight, which makes me wonder if its budget got cut midway through the design cycle.  The fact that the boxed set’s cover was swiped from an issue of Dragon magazine hints that there may have been problems.

what’s in it?

Time of the Dragon presents the continent of Taladas, via 96 pages of fluff for a dozen or so cultures, 32 pages of new rules, a couple of huge maps, and 24 cardstock illustrations.

The backstory is pretty standard: Golden Age + Enormous Space Rock = Catastrophe, and now there are a zillion little groups running around in the aftershocks.  Lately four gods have taken an interest in mortal affairs and have recently restored priestly spells to their most devoted followers, throwing some societies into confusion.

Here is what you won’t find in Time of the Dragon:

  • Comic Relief Kender
  • Comic Relief Gully Dwarves
  • Comic Relief Tinker Gnomes
  • Knights of Solamnia
  • Towers of High Sorcery
  • Draconians (well, one prototype version)
  • Dragonlances
  • Complicated, millennia-long histories
  • Railroads or meta-plot
  • Tie-in novels (well, not until like 15 years after the line sank)

By those standards, it’s hardly Dragonlance at all.

map made by fans

The rule book contains rules for Lizard Man, Ogre, Goblin, and Minotaurs as 2e player races as well as a new school of magic (but no unique spells for it), but the bulk of the rule book is taken up with “kits,” combinations of skills and equipment that help to differentiate the broad classes of 2e.  I’m ambivalent about the proliferation of kits in the early days of 2e: I haven’t especially missed kits in the OSR generally.  But some part of me likes the idea that my pseudo-Mongolian cattle rustler is going to look a little bit different mechanically from your pseudo-Polynesian islander, even though we’re both Fighters.

what do you like about it?

At the most basic level, I like that Taladas doesn’t feel like a mainstream fantasy setting.  Personal faves:

  • Roman-style Minotaurs, overseeing an empire of human plebians, locked in a border war with a nation of priestly necromancers.
  • The Uigan nomads (Mongolians manque) feuding with the Elf Clans and other ancestral rivals on the high steppes of the Tamire amid the scattered ruins of a bygone age, as the Minotaurs gradually steal their territory.
  • Beetle-armored, self-flagellating swordsmen sailing a Sea of Glass on ice-boats, between agoraphobic “deep dwarves” and Gnomes who are holding back the armies of Hell with steampunk.

Time of the Dragon came out after several of the late-80’s culture-heavy setting books: Kara-Tur, FR5 The Savage Frontier, and the several of the Gazetteers from the BECMI line.  I had a few of these, but they often felt padded or boring, filled with calendars and holidays and stuff I never really gave a shit about.  Mainly I remember these awful in-character introductory paragraphs for each chapter.  Cook thankfully omits these, and the cultural write-ups manage to give me enough inspiration that I can come up with fun material, without bogging down in minutiae. This is admittedly a matter of taste: I want enough detail to be evocative, but not so much that I suffocate.  It feels a bit like if an issue of National Geographic was published with eye for Sword & Sorcery adventure locales, except mostly text and no boobs.  (Not the best analogy, I’ll admit.)

Also, I really liked the pantheon, though this is mainly due to spendingway too much time thinking about it during college.  Taladas supposedly shares the same gods as the regular Dragonlance continent, but Cook selects the four gods he cares about and throws the rest away.  Maybe the most influential of the remaining gods is Hith, the god of damnation–he who gives you everything you ever wanted, but it’s hollow on the inside.  And Erestem, the goddess of savage destruction–but is necessary to clear away the old to make room for the new.  I spent an embarrassingly large part of my junior year of college concocting various myths about and theological correspondences between these deities, Philip K. Dick, and all the other wacky stuff people think about in college.  Yet the idea of Hith has some personal relevance to me even today, and although if that’s because I put in a huge amount of work fleshing out this pantheon in my own mind, Cook did supply a pretty fertile patch of soil.

what sucks about it?

Well: 96 pages is rather gabby for a culture book, at least to my taste.  I don’t need to be told that pseudo-Eskimos herd reindeer, for example–but I can see the argument that, in the days before the Internet, it would have been handy to have a one-page summary of Eskimo-type stuff written for teenagers.

I’ve heard that some people don’t dig the interior art, though I rather like it: there’s a . . . silent quality to it, somehow, that really works for me.  And the attempt to fix the Tinker class didn’t really go far enough–that class is just hopelessly bad (and you still need the Dragonlance Adventures book to play it, though that’s not the case with the rest of this setting).  The kits could probably stand to be a bit leaner, maybe with a more radical design.

More importantly, paging through this thing at age 35, I have a pretty good sense of how to run something like this.  Zero in on a particular region, highlight and complicate the conflicts going on there, and then just see where people go, sandbox style.  Time of the Dragon isn’t especially dungeon-centric, so you’d need some good hex-crawling procedures, some skills at running soap opera/political intrigue type games, and maybe some workable rules for mass combat.  (Time of the Dragon includes army stats for the then-current version of Battle System, but those seem way too involved for my purposes.)

my very first t.p.k.

In Ninth Grade we had been playing for just over a year in a Dragonlance campaign run by my friend Adam.  (I played a Minotaur Ranger who, via cheese in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, could dual-wield Two-Handed Swords.)  I’d gotten Time of the Dragon the previous Christmas, loaned it to Adam enthusiastically, and he agreed to run a game where our guys took a world cruise.

Here is my recollection of the adventure, admittedly it was like 21 years ago:

GM: So you’re sailing in your boat, because you’ve heard rumors of another continent…

RED WIZARD: Wait, we have a boat?

GM: How else are you going to get to the other continent?

KNIGHT OF SOLAMNIA: Other continent?!

ME: Shut up guys, it’s gonna be awesome!

GM: …When your boat is approached by a Minotaur vessel.  The captain of the Minotaur ship bellows out, “Furl sail and prepare to be boarded in the name of the Minotaur Empire!  Your vessel may be carrying contraband!  Come about and do not resist!”

ALL PLAYERS: We resist!


ME: Wait a minute, why am I killing other Minotaurs for the sake of humans?  My guy stops fighting.


ME: I shout out, “Let us parley!  There has been a misunderstanding!”

WIZARD & KNIGHT: Oh great they threw us in jail, good going.

ME: Bah!  They have this gladiatorial justice thing, don’t worry, we’ll kick everyone’s ass and they’ll apologize.

GM: James, your guy has to do a solo combat against this Minotaur gladiator.

ME: Cool!  I’m gonna climb up on the top rope, and do this flying headscissors takedown, where I launch my legs around his head and just force him to the mat.

GM: . . . . You do that to him?  Like, catapulting yourself thighs-first at this guy’s head?

ME:  What?  I saw it on Wrestlemania one time.  I think you were with me when we saw it!

GM: . . . Okay . . . so thighs first at. . . the Minotaur gladiator?

ME: . . . .

WIZARD & KNIGHT: Oh, he totally does that.  Can we roll for the damage?

GM: Okay, for your punishment the court sends you to the ruins of the Aurim Empire, to recover some Dragonlances from shattered civilizations.

(lots of fighting and dungeon exploring; we get pretty banged up)

GM: There is a shrine here to Mishakal, goddess of healing.

KNIGHT: Wow, we really ought to rest and heal up.

ME: What?  Come on, we’re adventurers.  Stopping to rest every five minutes isn’t very heroic.  The Wizard still has most of his spells.

WIZARD: I could use some healing, but I’m fine if we want to press on too.

ME: We don’t rest.  “Fight on, my friends!”

GM: Okay… (rolls dice) You encounter an army of Frankenstein-Draconians.

KNIGHT: Oh man.  We should have rested.

ME: I’m sorry, okay?  Wizard, help us out here.

WIZARD: I cast invisibility.

ME & KNIGHT: wut

WIZARD: And then I fly away.

GM: The monsters attack!

ME: You can’t cast a new spell like fly and still keep your invisibility up!

WIZARD: The flying isn’t a spell.  I’ve been a Draconian passing as human for the whole campaign.  GM, I fly away real fast.

GM: Their archers pop out of cover and are peppering everyone they can see with poisoned arrows.

KNIGHT: You’re not going to help us fight?

WIZARD: The last words you hear from me, as I invisibly soar away on great leathery wings, are nearly lost in the din of battle, but if you strain your ears you can just barely make them out: “Kiss…. my….. ass…………”

ME: Gah, I’m at 0 HP.

GM: James, your Minotaur is unconscious.  Knight, you can see the Draconian soldiers fall back, as their chieftain moves to the fore.

KNIGHT: I bellow out that I will challenge him to single combat and poop on his corpse!

(single combat begins)

GM: …Okay, so with that hit, he knocks you clear across the room, and you land in a pile of rotting human corpses, perhaps previous challengers.  Your sword clatters on the flagstones, about 10 feet away.  Under the corpses, there’s what looks like . . . yes . . . a Dragonlance!

KNIGHT: I’m going for my sword.

ME: What?  No, the Dragonlance!  You inflict your current hit points as a bonus to damage on dragon-dudes.

KNIGHT: I have 3 hit points right now.  I’m specialized in sword, so I have a better chance to hit and would do almost as much bonus damage.

GM: You’ve only got time to grab one weapon.

KNIGHT: Sword.

WIZARD: Seriously, if you let this guy close in melee he’s going to get all those extra attacks again.  You’ve gotta take him out at a distance if you can.

ME: Take the Dragonlance, and throw it at the chieftain.  I saw it in a movie!  Maybe Ladyhawke or Kull?  What was that movie with the tri-blade?

KNIGHT: Throw the Dragonlance?!  That’s stupid.  If I miss, I won’t have any weapons and he’ll be right on top of me.

GM: Okay, come on, what’s it going to be?

KNIGHT: Sigh… Fine, I throw the Dragonlance.

GM: ….And you miss.  Well, I guess you are all killed.  Thanks for playing, guys!

The really sad thing is that my plans haven’t gotten any better over the past twenty years.

Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2012
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