Archive for January 12th, 2013


pendragon: the holy grail, murder-pigs, and impregnation critical

Much has changed in the realm of King Arthur since my last post about our on-going Pendragon game.  The last update occurred sometime around the Battle of Badon Hill, where Arthur successfully repelled the Saxons and cemented his reign once and for all, around 518 A.D. according to the Great Pendragon Campaign; or game is now roaring into 531 A.D. where our now middle-aged knights are about to harrow Hell for my dead pagan enchantress bride.

I don’t even know how to summarize things, so here are just a couple of snippets.

Beardsley: Sir Lancelot and the witch Hellawes

don’t call the queen a pig (unless you really have to)

The big thing in Sir Carabad’s life, since we last saw him gamboling among the faerie pig-people of the Forest Perilous, was his infatuation with the enormously wealthy Lady Madule of the Raven Locks.  Lady Madule is an unusual person: bored of standard tales of knightly accomplishment, she found Carabad’s autobiography of failure, woe, and insanity among the Fey very pleasing.  She is a Goth among Goths.

(We would later realize that, under the medieval legal system, a widow has more property rights than an unmarried woman, so arguably she selected Carabad as a husband extremely likely to die or go missing forever.  I have been in relationships like that.)

To curry favor with his lady-love, Sir Carabad agreed to retrieve some golden apples, and his friend Sir Clegis vowed to assist.  A king whose wife was dying in childbirth advised them that the apples would be found in a forest . . . but the forest could only be entered by fugitives.

CARABAD: Wait, so he said it could only be entered by fugitives?

GM: “Yes, fugitives.  Now, I don’t like Arthur’s knights very much, but you’re welcome to stay here until any fugitives come along, and…”

CARABAD: And his wife is sick?

GM: “You may see for yourself how she struggles!  Darling, the midwives say it will not be much longer, they have undone all the knots in the castle–”

CLEGIS (CARABAD’S FRIEND): Oh brother, I see where this is going.  I’m getting the horses ready and hiding the king’s vampiric spear.

CARABAD: “My lord, no wonder your wife suffers: so would any pig trying to birth a half-human child.”  Before he can order his men to kill us, I jump on my horse and–

GM: He doesn’t order his men to kill you.

BOTH PLAYERS: He doesn’t?!

GM: He just fumes and thunders, “Get!  Out!”

CARABAD: Jeez, how can we insult him any worse?  Um, I say–

CLEGIS: “No, Carabad, let us away and find some other way to become fugitives before we are slain.”  What if we, um, beat up some monks and stole their robes and fled into the forest?  I ask at the nearest village for where some monks are.

GM: “Oh, the white friars?  You can find them at the inn, where they are foreswearing their faith.”

CARABAD: Well, if we stole their robes maybe they wouldn’t care enough to chase us.

CLEGIS: Fugitive… fugitive… hmm… Clearly we can’t ride TOWARD the forest, because we can’t find anyone to chase us.  But what if we rode our horses BACKWARDS into the forest?

GM: What?  I’m confused.

CARABAD: I get it!  A fugitive runs into the forest because he’s being chased.  If we ride into the forest without being chased, we would be not-fugitives.  But if we rode the horses backwards, we would be not-not-fugitives.  Which is the same as being fugitives!  Oh.  Oh, that is nice.

GM: I’m still confused.

CLEGIS: The trick is, we’d know we were doing it, which may defeat the purpose.  So we would have to wear blindfolds.

CARABAD: This is . . . This is the greatest plan anyone has ever come up with.  It makes my calling the queen a pig look really stupid.

GM: Look, it says all you guys need to do is make DEX rolls to enter the forest.

PLAYERS: ………….Oh.  So what do we do with the blindfolds?

Eventually Sir Carabad found a golden apple to give to Lady Madule, though Sir Clegis had to behead an innocent man due to one of those oaths you swear to forest spirits.  Forest spirits apparently have a really good legal team, because nobody ever thinks to break the oath.

Beardsley: The Achieving of the Sangreal

a moment of glory

Also, Sir Carabad heroically led the armies of the Grail Castle against the forces of King Death, and was married to Lady Madule by the Fisher King himself.  You had to be there.

Beardsley: A Devil in a Woman’s Likeness (right half)

satan’s racehorse

Dan’s main character, Sir Hervis, went on a quest to rescue his sister, who had been kidnapped by the notorious Sir Bruce sans Pitie, the most notorious knight in England, who makes a custom of kidnapping damosels and then riding off on his infernal steed.  Sir  Hervis was accompanied by the prideful Sir Pellandres.

GM: “Aye, I’ve seen his horse, it’s as fast as the Devil himself!”  The peasant crosses himself superstitiously.

HERVIS: Hmm.  Even if we find Sir Bruce, it won’t do us any good because he’ll run awayand we can’t catch him.

PELLANDRES: Ah!  But what if we make him come to us!  I shall pridefully boast that I have the fastest racehorse in all of Logres.  We shall challenge him to a race!  And when he arrives, smite him!

HERVIS: He still might run.  I’m going to bury miniature crucifixes along the outside of the race track, so that when the devil-horse arrives, it’ll be trapped inside.

PELLANDRES: Oh, a devil-horse, that’s right!  ….I am going to pridefully spread rumors that my horse is a saint.

GM: How can a horse be a saint?

HERVIS: It’s a creature of habit.

PELLANDRES: How indeed?  I will train it repeatedly to kneel at the altar of the local church, at night.  And then once it can do so reliably, show it off to the peasants at Sunday mass.  (Rolls dice)

GM: “Gadzooks!  That horse is a saint!”  “Someone ask the horse to heal my scrofula!”  “To think I shoveled the saint’s waste!  I will keep it in a reliquary!”

HERVIS: Big thumbs up on this plan.

PELLANDRES: How can Sir Bruce ignore such enticing bait?  An angelic horse on a race track against his demon horse!

GM: …So the day of the race comes, and Sir Bruce is there.  He’s this enormous guy, bigger than both of you put together, and his horse breathes fire from its nostrils, and lightning sparks strike when its hooves touch the ground.  It’s like he’s revving the horse’s engine at NASCAR.  “Who’s ready to race!”

HERVIS: I’m going to wait at the edge of the track, and strike him if he strays outside the crucifix line.

PELLANDRES: “I shall race you, varlet!  Upon my holy steed!  What ho, the signal!”  (rolls dice)

GM: There’s the fanfare to begin – your horse think’s its time for mass and kneels.  Sir Bruce’s horse is off like an arrow…

Long story short: Hervis, Pellandres, and their ally Sir Emerause (much love, Greengoat, come back to us) tracked down Sir Bruce, killed him, and rescued Hervis’s sister and Bruce’s other captives.

Beardsley: How Morgan le Fay gave a Shield to Sir Tristram

a young knight should not fight an entire army by herself

We forgot this rule of thumb when Lisa joined us to play the Saxon shield-maiden Aethelflaed.  Our characters, with over a decade of advancement, just barely survived the final assault on Rome–Sir Carabad himself was nearly cloven in half by a Byzantine cataphract.  But poor Aethelflaed never stood a chance and was cut down like chaff.  This was kind of our fault, because we had never used the “fight defensively” rule and had forgotten it existed; this might have kept her alive.

Beardsley: How King Mark and Dinadan Heard Sir Palomides (right half)

eight year old children should not fight wild boars

The notoriously prideful Sir Pellandres went boar-hunting with his retinue in France, during the winter of one of Arthur’s European campaigns.  When the knight fell off his horse, his eight year old son was unable but to laugh at him.  Angrily dismissing the rest of the men, Pellandres insisted that he and his son would find and slay the boar by themselves.

That was not best practice.  Though they are a speedbump in games like Dungeons & Dragons, wild boars are pretty horrible beasts by Pendragon standards.  In contrast, unarmored eight year old boys are speedbumps.  It . . . did not end well, and I believe Pellandres went mad for a while until he wound up in a monastery.

Beardsley: How La Beale Isoud Nursed Sir Tristram

that damn pregnancy table

Despite several years of marriage, Sir Carabad and Lady Madule did not produce any children.  Inevitably Sir Carabad went mad again (stupid Sir Gawaine!), so I had to adventure as Lady Madule, the pagan enchantress, for a few years.  (The joke here is that Lady Madule is a pretty horrible person, insanely loyal to Morgan Le Fey, cruel, and deceitful, and only married Sir Carabad in the expectation that he’d die and she could officially own her own lands.  Which everyone but Carabad could see.)  Inevitably Lady Madule was imprisoned and slated to be burned at the stake for witchcraft.

By this time Sir Carabad had recovered, rounded up the grieving Sir Pellandres, found Sir Hervis, and they all rode off to rescue Lady Madule.  This goal was achieved!

PELLANDRES: Have the two of you ever, y’know, consummated that marriage?

CARABAD: Gee, I guess we’ve been at war for two years, and then I was mad for a few years… I suppose not.  She has headaches a lot, and says that the stars are not properly aligned.

PELLANDRES: You are never going to get a better chance than right now.

HERVIS: If you invoke a passion, that’s +10 on the childbirth table.

GM: Passion rolls shouldn’t apply to the childbirth table!

HERVIS: Why not?  Look, the first ten results are, “No child born.”  If you get a +10 from a passion, you skip that and she’s automatically pregnant.

GM: ….Oh, what the hell, sure.

PELLANDRES: And the baby and mother will only BOTH die if you roll a 1.

CARABAD: Well, we’ve been married 5 years and I wooed her for 5 years, and I really do need an heir at this point.  I’m rolling my Romance by describing how many adventures we’ve had to rescue her and save her life.  (Success!)  You are all deafened and repulsed by the animalistic groans coming from the pavilion.

PELLANDRES: I’m curious, you should roll now to see what happens in winter phase.

CARABAD: (rolls dice; comes up 1: “Child and mother both die”)  (I practically rend my clothes in frustration)

GM: Oh man, I love it when horrible things happen to Sir Carabad.

CARABAD: Wait!  I’ve got that holy salve my father left me!  I can save them!

GM: Only one of them.  You should roll your Love (Family Line) versus your Love (Lady Madule) to see whether you save your wife or your infant child.

CARABAD: (rolls) ……………Wow.  Um, I am going to name my daughter Madule.  Thus endeth that whole ten year story arc.  Wow.

So next year we are riding into Hell to see if we can redeem Lady Madule’s soul.

Beardsley: Excalibur in the Lake


watchmen: ozymandias and dr. manhattan

joesky tax

I’ve been too busy at work to finish up my earlier post about Watchmen as a normal super hero RPG thing (post one, post two).  But here’s  zipped PDF’s of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan, reflecting very idiosyncratic personal interpretations of these characters circa 1966 for the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying Game.  Do you think I could have adapted them better?  Speak up, because I’m sure there’s room for improvement in terms of content.  (Again, I am ashamed of the layout and formatting but don’t care to take the time to learn how to do such things properly.)

Issue 4-8-4

watchmen and heroism

Last time I talked about violence, which in Watchmen often, though not always, involves super-folks savagely victimizing an ordinary person.  Much as we might hate to admit it, that’s perhaps the most fundamental wish-fulfillment of the comic book super hero: “I wish I was super strong, so I could just beat the snot out of Keith Brophy.”  If you look at the earliest Golden Age stories, the heroes are absolutely delighted to wallop the hell out of hapless thugs–reflecting, maybe, folk hero anger of a society still coping with organized crime, openly corrupt political machines, and Commie-Nazis, combined with every school kid’s hatred of bullies.

By avoiding the abstracted violence-as-catharsis of most super hero comics and returning the bully/victim model in which the protagonist is the bully, to center stage, Watchmen is of course a deconstruction of “the super hero,” but also “heroism” more generally.  (Duh!  Everyone knows this!)  By not bothering with a typical good-versus-evil plotline cluttered with super villains, Moore and Gibbons get to show at least four different ethical systems in conflict–a “civil war” among super heroes far more nuanced than anything Marvel would do twenty years later.

The Comedian receives public praised as a hero, but is one of the most vile and despicable characters in the book–the one most eager to hurt people who don’t “deserve” to be hurt.  (One of Moore and Gibbons’ best tricks in this book is that they virtually never provide us with someone who “deserves” to get hurt, which undermines a lot of how our culture thinks about super hero comics and the application of violence more generally.)  The Comedian’s luck, or shrewdness, is that so long as he (off-panel) hurts enough officially designated bad guys to be useful to the elites, everyone is willing to look the other way and excuse his on-panel indiscretions.  The joke is that he’s a horrible fucking guy.

If the Comedian is at heart a sadist willing to serve whoever grants him greatest license, nobody could accuse Rorschach of selling out.  Kovacs was inspired to become an action hero by the horrific inaction of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors.  In Kovacs’ view, there are men and women who do evil deeds, and we cannot shirk our duty to punish them lest we become complicit in their iniquity.  The dude follows his own moral compass, no matter how askew it may point, and he never falters even when the path reaches its terminus.  (I think Moore’s treatment of the Question’s ethical code is a very rich subject for analysis; given how often this thing is assigned in college classes, however, I’m sure it’s been done to death.)  Rorschach only hurts the people who “deserve” it, but his judgment about who “deserves” violence and who doesn’t is highly suspect.

Doctor Manhattan, of course, is omnipotent, except he’s become so detached from ordinary human concerns that he doesn’t want to do much of anything–and whatever he chooses to do has, in some sense, “already” taken place anyway.  Predestination robs him of agency, and therefore also of moral urgency.  From Jon’s point of view, nobody “deserves” anything: free will is an illusory by-product of a deterministic mechanism.  And yet, though he recognizes this fact, he has no problem vaporizing people or obliterating entire villages in Viet Nam.  The Comedian is immoral but Doctor Manhattan is amoral, and it’s hard to determine which is worse.

Issue 11-11-1

Finishing up the quartet, Ozymandias recognizes numerous immediate and long-term threats to the human race, perceives their intricate interconnections, and decides that super heroism is plainly inadequate to the “super crises” of the 1980’s, requiring a stepped-up response.  The guy who actually saves the world from thermonuclear extinction is a mass-murdering megalomaniac.  The world, the human race as a whole, “deserves” to survive and this higher good supposedly excuses millions of deaths.

(It’s only within the insular world of comic books that Ozymandias’s ethics come as a shock: it’s a school of thought that’s as old as warfare, employed in the bombing of Hiroshima and in the Cold War disaster scenarios occasionally referenced throughout the novel.  The trick is that here, one extremely competent man stands in the position of an international super power; a private citizen making decisions normally reserved for presidents.)

superpathic tendencies

Moore and Gibbons are presenting the four active super heroes of 1985 as psychopaths, to a greater or lesser extent–unable or unwilling to truly consider the humanity of other people.  But in a way, presenting super heroes as (literally) insane isn’t that surprising: how normal is it, really, to dress up as an owl and spend fifteen years of your life putting criminals in the hospital?  It is, at best, a personality disorder of some kind, and it’s telling that the two characters who have pretty much put the adventuring life behind them to live as muggles, Dan and Laurie, are the two most normal protagonists in the book.

Relatedly, super heroism itself is absurd.  The real world, as several characters observe, is far more complicated than punching a super-baddie in the nose.  Street crime is just a symptom of much more entrenched social failures.

But fundamentally I think the problem here is that these people have been given, or have assumed, carte blanche to determine who deserves to live and who deserves to die–to define “good guys” and “bad guys.”  That’s a maddening question, and it’s no wonder that the characters who answer it, one way or another, are highly disturbed individuals.

But then again, it’s a question our police officers, politicians, and pundits are called upon to answer every day.

Who watches the watchmen?

Issue 3-29-3

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2013
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