Archive for October, 2012


the incredibly murderous hulk (Civil War 1)

stamford meets the rampaging hulk

We started in medias res: the Hulk on an insane rampage in downtown Stamford, CT.  Enter the X-Men, lured here by bad information, and desperately trying to stop the carnage.  Before play even begins, the Hulk has killed the Beast, Shadowcat, and dozens of civilians.  Our scene distinctions?  “Half the city is on fire,” “Downed power lines,” and “The streets are choked with rubble.”  The Hulk has crushed Cyclops’s ruby visor, and hurled Colossus into the middle of the Long Island Sound, where he’s rapidly sinking.  Storm, already frustrated by the Black Panther’s cold feet about their impending wedding, can’t react quickly enough.  It’s a bad place to begin!

Ultimately the players spent nearly all of their energy trying to rescue Colossus.  They weren’t comics-readers, and I should have reminded them that Colossus is able to hold his breath for an awfully long time.   Cyclops commandeered a sonar-equipped cigarette boat from the marina, while Storm created a whirlpool.

The Hulk then tried to stun everyone with a cannonball leap into the Sound.  Storm, at this point boiling over with fury, tried to freeze the Sound and trap the Hulk in ice, but he leaped out and icicles cut Storm pretty badly.  As Colossus climbed up the anchor Cyclops lowered to assist him, the Hulk smashed through their boat on his way down, stranding all of the mutants at sea.  Cyclops confessed to Storm, before they were about to die, that he had always loved her.

Curtain!  More later.

piecemeal review of marvel heroic rpg – civil war event

I have a lot to say about the Civil War Event book, much too much for a single blog post.  To make a serial review palatable to readers I’m going to try to flavor it a bit with our actual play, as well as some adaptation notes and write-ups.

To begin with: I did not read the Marvel Civil War comic books, which were published sometime around 2006.  This Civil War Event RPG thing is my first real exposure to it, other than an occasional Wikipedia browse.  And I have to say, I really feel bad for the RPG designers.  The Marvel Civil War really sounds like a storytelling train wreck, even worse than the late-80’s Claremont Crossovers that basically drove me out of reading comics regularly.

I can imagine the pitch meeting at the Marvel offices very easily.  “Our company became famous in the 1960’s by having heroes fight other heroes.  First, in the Fantastic Four itself, where the traumatized astronauts were constantly at each other’s throats, and then bringing in heroes from other titles for cross-promotion.  But over the decades this has become the cliche Misunderstanding Fight, with little provocation, no decisive outcome, and no lasting consequences.  What if we revisited that–but with everybody fighting everybody, over genuine conflicts of interest, with definite winners and losers, and the whole line changes as a result?”

In broad terms, it’s a fine idea, and exactly what I as a reader would like to see.  But it sounds like the thing really fell apart in execution.  The deal with the Marvel Civil War is that a terrible, 9/11 style tragedy befalls Marvel World, and American population finally decides, “Look, these people need to at least give us their names and addresses.”

So, as the writer, you’ve got to think up a high-stakes, super-tragedy that horrifies the nation.  And you come up with: a super villain nobody remembers murders a team of super heroes no one cares about, as well as half a city that has never mattered in the setting.

That.  Sucks.  (Oh, and spoilers I guess.)

This is the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of having a randomly encountered giant centipede kill an unnamed hireling torch-bearer.  It is . . . a mild misfortune, not a tragedy, and certainly not something to spend much table-time on.  (The poor hireling would be lucky if we don’t laugh over his corpse, frankly.)

Yet spinning out from this terrible humanitarian disaster (which surely must happen every third Tuesday in Marvel World) is an absolutely bewildering number of plots, sub-plots, and sub-sub-plots as every single magazine published by Marvel Comics gets drawn into the fray.  As brilliant as the Marvel Civil War concept sounds in principle, in execution (at least from what I can gather) it sure looks convoluted, disjointed, and heavy-handed in execution.

And that’s a really hard problem when trying to do an RPG adaptation.  I feel bad for everyone at Margaret Weis Productions who worked on this, because I suspect they have a better sense of storytelling than the people who actually work at Marvel Comics, and it would have been so tempting to change stuff, but then the die-hard fans would never let them hear the end of it, and who knows what it would do to their license.

That said: the Civil War Event book does a really good job of conveying numerous settings and factions in the Marvel World.  In combination with the scenes mostly described in a play-this-in-any-order-that-makes-sense sort of way, you get certain features of Sandbox Play, though I’ll argue in a later post that this is tricky to truly pull off.  The designers also present you with several different options for each scene, so if (like me) you read the official version and say, “WTF, that’s incredibly stupid,” usually there’s at least one or two ideas that make the scene not only palatable but potentially very cool.

One choice the Civil War Event book makes, which I think is very wise, is to completely frame out the terrible humanitarian tragedy.  Your players aren’t involved in it in any way: they’re doing their usual super hero thing beforehand, and then they get this terrible news, and the story picks up from there.  Usually, if there’s something in an RPG scenario that’s just gotta happen, it’s best to frame past it, so that you don’t have player agency conflicting with the plot’s entire premise.  It was a good choice.  But one I had to undo.

adaptation notes

Tavis’s son is extremely energetic, and a huge fan of the Hulk.  (Hollywood, if you had to cast a ten year old boy to play the Hulk in a movie, this is your kid.)  I’ve wanted to play a game with Tavis’s family for a while now, and it struck me that the Hulk is the perfect guy to unwittingly cause a humanitarian disaster: it’s pretty much his whole deal.

In fact, the Hulk himself is pretty much the poster child for the Marvel Civil War: here’s a dude who saves the world on a regular basis, but in doing so is enormously destructive, presumably leaving a terrible death toll in his wake.  And half the time, he’s a fugitive running around completely unsupervised and almost anything could set him off.

This was enormously clarifying.  The Marvel Civil War, once you get past its dumb-ass club-foot political commentary about the War on Terror, is ultimately a question about the responsible use of anger and violence.  And that’s the core of the Hulk as a character, and the core to most of his supporting cast over the years.  So our game would star the Hulk and his gang, doing their thing.  I explained that we’d begin with the Hulk on a rampage, probably against super heroes who would suffer terribly and die, and then we’d “officially” begin in the aftermath of this rampage with the Hulk’s friends, our real PC’s, showing up on the scene.

(Selecting one group of characters to focus on is pretty helpful here: the Civil War Event book gives you player characters as diverse as Deadpool, Doctor Strange, and the Wasp, none of whom have much of anything in common, and who drag in a whole bunch of totally unrelated stuff.  Again, the designers had to offer a whole bunch of playable characters, but I think this much freedom is a mistake in actual practice and takes away thematic focus.)

But if you’re going to have the Hulk destroy a town and kill a team of super heroes that people care about, who should he kill?  Well: the Civil War is really an Avengers-type of deal, so we probably want to save those characters for later.  The Hulk and the Thing have a huge rivalry, and I didn’t want to give that up so early, which rules out the Fantastic Four.  That leaves the X-Men, who don’t have any strong Hulk connections and thus can be torn out of the universe fairly easily.  Plus 1986 Mutant Massacre storyline, in which the X-Men get completely crippled and broken, blew me away as a kid.  (In the main Civil War storyline, there is growing tension with Atlantis because the Sub-Mariner’s cousin died in Stamford.  Here, killing Storm obliges me to swap in Wakanda for Atlantis, which is just as well.)

links to downloads

Here is the Hulk, courtesy of the good people at Margaret Weis Productions.

Here is my scene-write up for the Battle of Stamford.

My list of Hulk supporting cast, to be featured as PC’s throughout the event.  Most of these characters have official stats now, but I had to make up some for Samson, Sabra, and Scorpion, which are linked out.  (I actually don’t remember ever reading any stories about Samson, Sabra, or the Scorpion, so I kind of made up something that seemed plausible.)



In Defense of the Megadungeon

The OSR’s love affair with the megadungeon seems to be over, if you believe the blogosphere.  Playtests of Jamie Malisewski’s Dwimmermount dungeon have shown just how little patience people have for empty room after empty room.  Maps of giant dungeons are held up as examples of poor design.  There’s even a resurgence of interest in the once universally panned 2nd edition, because at least its railroad adventures gave the players something to do.

Stephan Poag suggests the problem comes from players who only get to play sporadically, and can’t be bothered to remember all the details of a massive monster hotel: “when they manage to get away to play D&D, they want to have fun, joke around, drink beer and have a few interesting encounters that we can laugh together about.”  He goes on to say “I’m not seeing how a multi-level dungeon with hundreds of rooms fits into that.”  His post actually reacts against this attitude, discussing how much fun he had back in the day drawing up silly dungeons, but it’s true—the blogs are full of people who get to game rarely enough that they don’t want the plodding, methodical mapping exercise that is the current state of the megadungeon.

My personal experience is almost the direct opposite of this.  For a couple years now I’ve been in a player in Eric Minton’s “Chateau D’Ambreville” megadungeon campaign, which is closing in on its 150th session.  This is the longest sustained campaign I’ve been part of, or, for that matter, heard of.  We meet weekly to explore the sprawling underlevels of what was once Castle Amber, a sometimes surreal, sometimes prosaic maze where a bunch of wizards hid during a civil war twenty years ago.  We’ve been five or six levels deep in all that time; we know for a fact there are at least as many levels we’ve never seen.  And we keep going back.

Part of the reason why may be simple demographics.  We live in New York City, which has a large enough population that we can attract a large number of players.  We play a pickup game, where whoever shows up gets to play, under the condition we must all be out of the dungeon and home by the end of the session.  Most of us are married or in serious relationships, but very few of us have children—which may explain how we can meet so often.  We’re also all very committed to the ideas of the OSR and dungeoneering in general, with a preponderance of artistic and/or information technology backgrounds.

But we keep going back to the Chateau, not because of who we are, but because it’s there.  I’ve never questioned for a second the fact that our campaign is built around a tentpole dungeon.  And it is full of empty rooms—many nights, we come back with a handful of copper pieces and no good stories.  Sometimes we lose characters, or get level drained, or get in a fight so nasty we have to buy our way out at the expense of magic items and coin.  It never stops us—if anything, it steels our resolve to find the big treasure around the next corner.

A big reason for that is Eric.  He’s the best DM I’ve ever played with.  He knows when to play a silly accent for laughs, and also how to make an encounter feel truly threatening.  And his dungeon, even with its vast stretches of empty rooms, contains enough mystery and surreal locations (insane proto-computers, washerwomen golems who will trade gold for soap, competing bands of humanoids fighting over scarce dungeon resources) to stay fresh and interesting over so many sessions.

Another reason is that we have plenty of relief valves.  If we need a break from the Chateau, there’s always the Keep on the Borderlands, or Quasqueton, or countless one-page dungeons to conquer; Eric is steadfast in his belief that it’s up to the players what happens next, even if that means setting aside his lovingly-crafted dungeon for a while.  He even lets the players take the occasional turn in the DM chair—something we all look forward to, since a guest DM means a freer hand with the loot.

But in the end, if megadungeons were boring, none of these things would matter.  It may be facile simply to say that the people who have lost interest in big dungeons aren’t playing them correctly—facile, unfair, and obviously incorrect.  But clearly there is a right way to do it.  We found it, maybe by mistake.  The megadungeon may disappear from the OSR landscape (or more likely just fade into the background until the next blog cycle passes), but I imagine we’ll still be playing in the Chateau at session 200, and beyond.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2012

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