Author Archive for James Nostack


“oriental adventures” class summary charts

“My cossack asks the Leprechaun, ‘Why did you sabotage that aqueduct?'”

The other day Zak was talking about how come nobody seems to use 1985’s “Oriental Adventures” rules, written by David “Zeb” Cook with material from François Marcela-Froideval.  I think it’s an interesting effort, and one I’ve always been intrigued by, but (among many other problems) the book suffers from some truly bad organization and editing.  If I’m remembering correctly, Cook has said he was bascially handed Marcela-Froideval’s manuscript on Friday and told, “Have this thing ready to publish on Monday.”  That’s not the correct deadline, but it’s that type of story, where publication date had been set way in advance of when the manuscript was actually ready.  And it shows.

Anyway, what the hell: I spent a long time compiling all the information about the “Oriental Adventures” into a set of charts which hopefully are easier to use than the book itself.  I was thinking mainly for use with AD&D 2e but I guess you could port it to whatever you like.


charlemagne: by the cross and the sword


Yes: Christopher Lee recorded a heavy metal album in which he pretends to be Charlemagne.

Because I’ve been enjoying Pendragon so much, I became curious about how to adapt a historical low-fantasy environment to Dungeons & Dragons.  Turns out dudes already beat me to it twenty years ago with HR2: Charlemagne’s Paladins.  I’ve been messing around with this book, and it is weird.  

The sourcebook groups its rules options into Historical (pretty close to reality), Legendary (pretty close to most European epic tales), and Fantasy (pretty close to D&D-style fantasy).  Under the middle-of-the-road Legendary set of rules, everybody’s human, and the only available classes are the Fighter, Paladin, Cleric, Thief, and Bard. 

Even more critically, spells are very tightly restricted in terms of subject matter.  Bards get Illusions, Enchantments, Conjurations, and Divinations only; (Christian) Clerics get Healing, Divination, Protection, and a tiny percentage to cast some other spells.  So right there, nobody is tossing fire ball to vaporize a horde of angry Visigoths, or teleporting from Aix-la-Chapelle to Roncevalles to send Roland some reinforcements.

But even more importantly, spells take “one unit” longer to cast.  So a spell with a “casting time” of 4 segments, now takes 4 rounds; a spell that takes a turn to cast now takes an hour; etc.  (The book doesn’t say it, but presumably the compensation is that the durations are similarly extended.)  This has the effect of turning spells into ritual type performances, which is kind of cool.  But it also means that it’s almost impossible to cast spells in the middle of combat.  Magic is something you plan ahead of time; it’s not your “oh dang we need immediate crisis control” toolbox

As an experiment, I’ve been playing “solitaire” by running some sample characters through a randomly generated dungeon.  Unsurprisingly, with the spell-casting classes crippled, the Fighter dominates.  The game is still playable, and even still recognizable as Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s definitely a “Gladys Knight & the Pips” thing going on. 

(In fact, this is exactly how things go in Pendragon: in 4e, you could play a magician or a miracle-worker, but what you can do is so limited that you really should be playing a knight instead.)

The whole thing makes me wonder what the idea was behind the Historical Sourcebooks.  “It’s the D&D you know and love!  Minus the races, the classes, most of the magic, most of the monsters, and all of the really cool treasures!  Doesn’t that sound fun?” 

To me, it kinda does, actually: there’s a viable sub-set of D&D in here.  But I think the audience for it is likely very small.


against the pixies


Has anyone ever done G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, but literally scaled down and reversed?  So that instead of adventurers invading the home of a Giant, the players are Northmen defending their homes against incursions of sprites and pixies?

Just came to me, now that the blockade has been lifted.

"Let's team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure."

“Let’s team up to make people miserable and eat their treasure.”


when is a PDF worth $1?

Question for our three readers:

I’ve got a convention-ready B/X adventure that includes a Dungeon, a Dragon, an Evil Wizard, a Castle, some Wilderness Environs, and, I suppose, a spare monster lair or two as one-pagers, along with a party of pre-generated characters.  It runs to completion in about 3-5 hours depending on whether parties take certain shortcuts or get incinerated by dragon-fire.  If you want all the Dungeons & Dragons stuff that Frank Mentzer promised you as a child, condensed into a four hour time slot, I’ve play-tested this thing 6 times and it’s solid.

It’s written for a party around 5,000 XP (approx 3rd level), but yesterday I ran it for a single character with 300,000 XP (approx 9th level) and it proved about as challenging.

I would gladly offer this thing for free, because the OSR provides so many awesome things for free just as part of the culture.  Except that the effort to typing up an explanation, design notes, suggestions, and so on would require taking time away from other things I would rather do, such as playing games, reading comics, and doing my real job.  (For all I care, I’m fine donating the money to a colon cancer charity; I just want to feel that my effort is accomplishing more than just providing an afternoon’s distraction.)

So I would like to charge a nominal fee for this thing to explain to my girlfriend why I am working on this instead doing the dishes, but the question is: if you are going to spend $1 on something, what’s the minimum level of professional production you’d expect?  New monsters, spells, character classes?  Art by someone who cannot draw?  Art by someone who can draw?  Layout by someone who understands the difference between Tahoma and Calibri, or just a slab of text?

To avoid failure, I’m not setting a date or promising anything.  I’m just wondering what the OSR’s expectations are regarding a producer’s ethical obligations when charging a nominal fee for (to be honest) meat & potatoes content.


the hulk against the world


(This is a kinda-long AP post, but toward the end I pay my Joesky Tax by including some Civil War milestones that can be printed on Avery labels and stuck onto your character sheet.)

My first Civil War game was a one-shot conflict between the rampaging Hulk and the uncanny X-Men, played out with Tavis and his family.  Owing to their schedule, a second session probably isn’t likely any time in the foreseeable future, so I put together a second group and started fresh.

Session One

Scene 1: Yet Again With the Smashing

Again: we open with the Hulk all crazy, destroying (in this instance) Peekskill, New York, opposed (this time) by Shadowcat and the Beast.  After a crazy underwater battle that ended with Shadowcat psychologically shattered by the Hulk’s endless capacity for rage, the Beast (now joined by Storm) managed to barely wear down the brute, but not before the Hulk’s fury of destruction and a toxic gas cloud kill hundreds of people.  Among the X-Men, Cyclops and Colossus died in a train crash.

Scene 2: Let’s Not Feel Guilty About This

Bruce Banner wakes up in a dirty alleyway, his tattered purple pants coated in filth, the air filled with the sounds of sirens and uncontrollable weeping.  Must be a weekday.

Wandering amid the ruins of Peekskill and a mob of first-responders, SHIELD forensics specialists, and grandstanding super heroes, Banner is accosted by his old Defenders teammate Doctor Strange, who teleports him back to Manhattan before The Man can detect him.

While Wong escorts a battered Banner to the soothing Bathtub of Bahamut, the Master of the Mystic Arts gets an earful from his latest disciple Nico Minoru and his publicist Sara Wolfe about his inaction in the face of a horrific tragedy.  When he cannot evade their criticism with a shield of Zen platitudes, Strange basically tells them to shut up.

When Banner comes downstairs, he announces there’s this weird boil on the back of his neck.  Strange’s mysticism and medical know-how reveal that this was an entry-point for a xeno-borg critter curled around Banner’s amygdala–his rage center–making him even easier to infuriate than usual.

The players conclude that obviously the only man to help them is Professor X.

Scene 3: Sympathy for the Devil

So Bruce Banner goes to visit the world’s most powerful telepath before the bodies of his two students are even cold and a third is still catatonic.  Chuck takes it pretty well, all things considered:

“I have pity on you, Doctor Banner.  After what you did today, SHIELD will hunt you down.  The Avengers will turn on you.  The Sisterhood of Mutants, no friends of mine, will not stop until you are dead, for daring to kill two mutants.  Ororo’s fiance, the Black Panther, perhaps the deadliest man alive, will seek revenge against the monster who hurt his beloved.  But all of this is because you lack control.  Because no one would help you.  I will help you.  You will never be angry again.

And Professor X then does a total mind-whammy on Bruce Banner and shorts out his ability to feel anger, robbing him of his only defense against the whole goldang world.

But Dr. Strange is not simply the Sorcerer Supreme.  He is the Passive-Aggressive Dick Supreme, and Professor X just intruded on his territory big time.  Strange telepathically contacts Nick Fury and tells him exactly where the X-Men (who are also blamed for the rampage) are holed up.

Professor X, Storm, and the Beast take Kitty, a mostly-disassembled Cerebro, and flee in the Blackbird, and blow up the mansion before SHIELD can arrive and pore over the research.


more critiques of the civil war event book

The big problem with the Civil War Event book is that it’s . . . impersonal.  By which I mean, the RPG designers give you a cast of 32 playable super heroes, many reiterated from the Basic Book.  Thirty-two heroes, choose four, gives you something like 863,040 unique groups of four heroes if I’ve done the math right (no guarantees).  Even if you suppose many tables will play troupe style, it’s impossible to design this thing with a particular set of characters in mind.

In that sense, the Civil War Event resembles an old-timey D&D Dungeon, which exists in a completely impersonal sort of way and doesn’t care that your first-level Fighter’s name is Executioner Tootles and he can speak Robot Latin.  But it’s also very unlike a D&D Dungeon, in that the Marvel Civil War is all about personal choices, man!

You can do that personal choices and consequences type thing well with an indie game set-up (see Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard), and you can do the impersonal scenario that you’re gonna have to navigate through no matter who you are really well in games like Dungeons & Dragons.  But the Civil War Event is disconcertingly trying to do both at once.  A key skill in running this game is figuring out how to push the characters’ buttons, even when the published material doesn’t quite get you there.

One necessary first step is to chop out everything that serves no purpose.  Marvel’s Civil War unfolds like this: there’s a terrible humanitarian catastrophe, everyone is agitated and anticipates a significant governmental response, the response is to nationalize superhumans, some superhumans resist this, everybody fights, and it just gets worse and worse until one side takes things too far and loses the moral high ground.

Any scene that isn’t playing on those issues should be thrown in the garbage.  Did Thor’s hammer land in Oklahoma?  Who cares!  Did you get invited to the Black Panther/Storm wedding?  This is padding.  (I always hated those comics which promised to be a tie-in to the latest cross-over, and then had almost nothing to do with it.)  What’s with this whole Atlantis thing, and the Hydra stuff, both of which seem to be kind of tacked on?

The only thing that matters is that the Man is sick and tired of your super hero bullshit, and he kind of has a point.  Now you’re going to toe the line or else.  If your players want to pursue other goals–“Who built the alien city within Blue Area of the Moon, anyway?  Let’s go live there!”–that’s awesome, because it’s directed by the players themselves.  (And God help you if they choose this, because this is not the easiest game in the world to run completely on the fly.)  But where your players lead you is a very different thing, creatively, than allowing the published material to waste valuable table time on stuff that doesn’t tie strongly into the premise.

(I don’t blame the RPG designers for this: they’re trying to adapt a comic book “event” which, by editorial fiat, sprawled out in all directions at once.)

In addition to ruthlessly cutting “empty” scenes, I strongly recommend that the characters in play take at least one of the Milestone included in the Event, rather than simply accepting the ones on their character sheet, because that will at least tie them in somehow to the big picture stuff going on here.  You can still jaunt off to Cleveland to hang with Howard the Duck, but it won’t gain you much XP.

joesky tax

Here are some milestones (page one, page two) for our game, printable for Avery 5162 white labels, which you can stick directly onto your character sheet.  (This isn’t every milestone in the published material, just the ones I felt best suited a Hulk-centric game.)

the other thing

The other thing that’s a little strange about the Civil War Event is that it is, and isn’t, a railroad.  It’s more like these required way-stations, and how you get there is your own business.  There’s going to be a Humanitarian Catastrophe.  There’s going to be a Big Government Response.  Etc., etc.  As Greengoat sagely observed, “This stuff is all just window-dressing for the titans to hit each other over the heads. Like an animated Street Fighter backgound.”  And that’s about right.

I’ve included at least one or two options for the players to completely subvert this entire thing, and will respond to innovative player-spawned plans I haven’t taken into consideration.  But mainly unless they’re clever, they’ve just gotta cope with the Big Picture stuff unfolding kind of like it did in the comics, more or less.  I can’t figure out if that’s an interesting design feature, or a frustrating bug.


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


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.)



watchmen: rorschach and the comedian

joesky tax

Links to a zipped file containing idiosyncratic adaptations for Marvel Heroic Role-Playing of Rorschach and the Comedian, circa the 1966 Silver Age period that I posited must exist in my earlier post.  The adaptations reflect personal choices, and I welcome commentary or suggestions about improving them.  Also, these character sheets are formatted for shit.  This is because I don’t know how to do graphic design, don’t care to learn, and have other things to do than please you.

violence in watchmen

Having paid my tax, I get to blither for a few hundred words.

When comics fans talk about the “Dark Age” of comics, they usually place its advent with the DC’s publication of Watchmen in 1985 and The Dark Knight Returns in 1986.  For the next several years, comics were saturated by graphic violence.   Over at Marvel, by 1989 the Punisher was holding down three separate titles based entirely around shooting criminals, and Wolverine probably surpassed Spider-Man as the company’s most popular character.  (1986 also saw the Mutant Massacre, which to my 10 year old mind was awesome.)

Given the increasingly graphic displays of violence in popular culture throughout the 1980’s, I think it’s unfair to blame super hero comics’ bloodlust solely on Moore, Gibbons, and Miller.  But I do think that Watchmen has interesting things to say about violence, and its gruesomeness is anything but gratuitous.

When I think about violence in Watchmen, the scenes that immediately leap to mind are the Comedian’s attempted rape of Sally Jupiter, and the set-piece battle in the last two issues.  But that’s because the rape scene was unprecedentedly repulsive in mainstream comics, and the set-piece is a great integration of action, character development, exposition, and moral dilemmas.

But these scenes are in one sense extremely unusual: they’re super hero fights!  With only two or three exceptions, all of the violence in Watchmen consists of super heroes beating the holy hell out of ordinary people.  This starkly contrasts with, say, Jack Kirby–another creator obsessed with violence as an artistic theme.  For Kirby, violence is a titanic, revelatory clash between unconquerable equals, even when Jimmy Olsen has to crash a motorcycle into Superman’s junk.  For the most part, equals don’t fight in Watchmen: super powered humans maim, cripple, murder, and vaporize largely defenseless people.  While it may not be the first to do so, Watchmen is certainly the most successful comic to view super human violence through the eyes of its victims–it’s the horror of Sally’s victimhood that makes the rape scene so terrifying.

The brutality of the violence in Watchmen plays to this as well.  When Rorschach takes out a fellow prisoner, he doesn’t just punch the guy: he scalds him so badly with a tub of boiling fat that the man dies.  Ozymandias surely breaks the jaw, the teeth, and the nose of his hapless would-be assassin.  There’s a sadistic element here: these victims are (literally) power-less, and we get to see every gory detail of what that would mean in a world where these sorts of people exist.

I would argue, though I may not be able to support, that it’s this element of sadism that was so attractive to the mainstream comics industry and/or fans who were entering their mid-teens at the time.  (The sadism element is perhaps even more pronounced in The Dark Knight Returns.)  Part of what was great about the Mutant Massacre, from a young reader’s perspective, is that the Marauders killed the HELL out of the worthless Morlocks, paralyzed Colossus, crippled Nightcrawler and Shadowcat, and drove Angel to commit suicide.

Watchmen may not have directly caused the over-the-top violence that began to saturate comic books in the late 1980’s, but its phenomenal success gave the industry a slight push over the precipice.


Ayn Rand vs. Aleister Crowley: FIGHT!

james, why haven’t you been boring us with your blogging lately?

Lately I have been experiencing a rolling series of professional ethical crises in my new job!  It is awesome sucky.

But gaming-wise I could tell you about the latest adventures of my beloved  Sir Carabad who went to to war on King Arthur’s behalf against Rome.  Sir Carabad was part of a peace envoy lead by Sir Gawaine to parley with the Emperor of Rome, when Gawaine went psycho-killer and beheaded one of the defenseless diplomats and then led the Romans into an ambuscade and slaughtered them.  (As related in Book V, Chapter VI of Le Morte.)  Mallory for some reason leaves out the part where Sir Carabad, who was participating in the negotiations in good faith and who has an irrepressible urge for Justice, challenged Sir Gawaine to a duel after insulting Gawaine’s family as a bunch of backstabbing sadists.

Or I could tell you about or Barbarians of Lemuria game, in which I have sworn eternal revenge on Tavis’s buxom yet treacherous barbarian Zharrna, who stole the skull-sized ruby from the Pyramid of Skulls.

But that’s a story for another time maybe.  Here’s what I’ve really been concentrating on:

watchmen ’66!  now, with more KA-POW! and SOK!

The comic book world has been roiled up for a couple months now over DC Comics’ effort to wring every last dime out of their most prestigious property by releasing a bunch of Before Watchmen comics.  Other than general disinterest, I have no strong feelings about this.  Alan Moore sternly disapproves, but I suspect Alan Moore sternly disapproves of almost everything at this point.

Mainly, I figured if DC was going to exploit this terrible idea, why couldn’t I?  And thus, I decided I wanted to run a few games of Marvel Heroic Role-Playing set in the “Silver Age” of the Watchmen setting.  It’s one of those terrible ideas that I can’t say no to.  (As one Red Boxer phrased it, “When I play super heroes, I want to be Captain America, inspiring millions by punching Hitler in the mouth.  I don’t want to be raping people to death.  Thanks but no thanks.”)  Plus, it returns Watchmen to its Charlton Comics action hero roots: Moore and Gibbons coming to pick a fight with Ditko on the man’s own turf.

(As I assume all readers know, Ditko is a die-hard Randian; Moore seems to be an acolyte of Crowley; Watchmen is, at least partially, an agon between Moore’s and Ditko’s ethical systems.  I would love to figure out a way to fit L. Ron Hubbard into this somehow, and then we could have all of the Twentieth Century’s great crackpot philosophers in one bundle.)

but watchmen isn’t a standard superhero world, is it?

I’d argue it totally is.  The first few times I read Watchmen, I was struck by how spare and under-populated its super-world was: as a Marvel Zombie, I owned The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which listed 960 pages worth of characters, compared to the mere 6 major and 8-10 minor super-folk of Watchmen.  Also, comics fans tend to talk about Watchmen as a “realistic” setting.  But check it out:

By the mid-1980’s, you’ve got mass-produced electric cars and airships (possibly operating on anti-gravity–it’s not clear how Archie stays aloft), a bio-dome in Antarctica, cloning, a disintegration chamber, widespread genetic engineering (including the four-drumstick turkey seen in issue #1), glider wings, grapple-guns, infravision goggles, laser pistols, psychics, psychic sensitives, a “solar mirror weapon,” man-made tachyon pulsars, and teleportation blink-bombs.  All of that stuff would have been in development and even more exotic in the mid-60’s.

I think mainly what’s going on here is that super hero tech exists, but it’s expensive, and a lot of the people we see in Watchmen aren’t especially economically successful.

Ozymandias has a mutant lynx, an Antarctic Fortress with a disintegration box, multiple tachyon-pulse satellites, and a giant psychic suicidal xenomorph.  But then, Ozymandias is brilliant and has absolutely tons of money.

A rung or two down the economic ladder, Nite Owl II owns a radar-invisible submersible aircraft with missiles and flamethrowers (and a hidden runway).  Plus he’s got night-vision goggles, a laser gun, an owl-car, and a proto-type exoskeleton.  Not bad for a talented millionaire.

A rung or two lower still, Laurie Juspeczyk grew up in Beverly Hills with a super-hero for a mom and the best trainers money could buy.  By the time she’s 16, she’s evidently an extremely capable gymnast, martial artist, and detective.

In the Watchmen world, if you’re clever, rich, and motivated, you can be a super human.

Watchmen also contains implications of psychic phenomena.  The Giant Space Squid was cloned from a the brain of a “psychic,” and Ozymandias boasts that “sensitives” all over the world will have nightmares for years.  Nobody responds to this by saying, “WTF are you talking about, ‘psychic’?  I call bullshit on that, Ozymandias.”  (The characters object to the feasibility of other parts of his plan, but that aspect just slides by unremarked.)  Apparently it’s an accepted thing in this world, though kept entirely off the illustrated page.

Deschaines, or the xeno-organism based on his brain, could apparently transmit thoughts like telepathy, and others can receive those impressions at least on a subconscious level.

Curiously, Robert Deschaines was also described as a “clairvoyant” and a “medium.”  A medium is a term usually associated someone who makes contact with the spirit world of ghosts.  That’s an interesting concept.  Doctor Manhattan is, fundamentally, a ghost: a disembodied intelligence who took on material form but was never fully committed to the material world.  (Some of the ghosts in Inferno have a similarly screwed up perception of time.)  Are there other beings like Doctor Manhattan out there in the quantum foam, things that people like Deschaines could communicate with?

This line of thinking might imply that Moloch the Mystic was more than a mere stage magician; his act may have included genuine hypnotic abilities or mind control.  Considering he spent several decades worrying the Minutemen and the Crimebusters, and apparently his arch-foes were the omnipotent Doctor Manhattan and the extremely formidable Comedian, he probably had more going on than just a pinstripe suit and a .38 revolver.

(That’s admittedly a whole lot to infer from a stray comment about Deschaines, a character we never see.  But I think it’s self-consistent.)

The genetic engineering stuff shows up with Bubastis’s debut around 1975; Ozymandias notes that “eugenics” has taken great strides since 1960.  Via comic book logic, it’s impossible to imagine that this wouldn’t get used to genetically engineer humans or animals to perform certain tasks.  There’s the possibility of transgenic animals or people with grafts.  We don’t see any–but the plot never takes us toward genetics in any serious way.  We do see a roast turkey with four drumsticks in issue #1, though, so the technology has become sufficiently cheap and commonplace to have routine domestic applications.

The other thing we’ve got going on is cloning.  So it would be possible to mass-produce or create one-off duplicates.  Deschaines’s brain isn’t just cloned, it’s cloned and augmented in unspecified ways to create the Space Squid.

Just as importantly, Ozymandias’s plan depends on the fact that you can encode memories onto cloned brain tissue.  The volume of memories may not be very great compared to a true human, but it certainly sounds like the Giant Explodey Squid had at least an encyclopedia inside.  This suggests that cloned humans could be grown with memories of the original, or with specially encoded skill sets, or both.

Surprisingly, we don’t see much of computers in the Watchmen World.  With all the money in the world, Ozymandias is rocking what looks like an Apple IIe in his corporate HQ.  I guess most of the R&D budget went into these wackier technologies and computers are languishing behind.

Did the Comedian receive some kind of steroid treatment?  He seems to bulk up a lot over the course of 20 years, and is still a huge guy in his early 60’s.  My preferred explanation is that he’s been in the military for 40 years and it shows, but it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for him to take steroids either, and it might explain a portion of the character’s aggression.  (As a reader of the comic, I don’t like this theory, but as a gamer looking for hooks, it doesn’t sound absurd.)  The problem with this idea is that you’d think we would see other juiced folks running around, either as CIA operatives or as criminal goons.  We don’t see anything like that.

But we do hear about various villains.  Not just Moloch and the Big Figure, but Jimmy the Gimmick, the Underboss, the TWilight Lady, and Captain Carnage, as well as old-timers like Captain Axis and the Screaming Skull.  There were apparently a fair number of these guys in the early 1940’s–see Hollis’s dying flashbacks–and in 1977 the Comedian teases Nite Owl II by suggesting he’s only comfortable fighting guys in Halloween suits, which implies there are still several around.

Interestingly, there may also be super heroes unaccounted for.  During the first and only meeting of the Crimebusters, Captain Metropolis opens the meeting by saying, “Let me say I’m pleased to to see so many of you here.”  The whole cast is present for the meeting, so you’d figure Captain Metropolis would say something like, “I’m so happy you all decided to come.”  But Moore’s a careful writer, and the implication is the actual attendees are a clear majority, but not the entirety, of those invited.  Who the heck else did he invite?  Mothman’s been committed by then, Hooded Justice, Dollar Bill, and the Silhouette are all dead, and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre have sent their designated replacements.  There must be other super heroes out there who just never enter into the story for whatever reason.

I grant this is a little weird, given how tightly structured Watchmen is, and how comprehensively Moore and Gibbons designed their world around their six protagonists.  But it’s not unprecedented in comics.  Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men rarely involved other aspects of the Marvel Universe; Ditko’s Doctor Strange almost never had cross-overs.

We can theorize a leaping, capering character in Greenwich Village–the Village Idiot–possibly based around Ditko’s Creeper.  Maybe a Southern version of Hawk & Dove, Freedom Rider and the Nighthawk.  Charlton’s Nightshade never shows up in Watchmen, but might be a refugee from the paranoid Meta-Zone of Ditko’s later Shade the Changing Man series, which could be the source of all the aliens that Captain Atom was always fighting with, as well as the inter-dimensional space Doctor Manhattan teleports through.

Anyway, I do think this is a viable concept.  The trouble is thinking of a precipitating event…

Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2021

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