Archive for the 'Comics Nonsense' Category


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.


mouse guard con scenario

somewhere deep in the wilderness

The weasels, distracted by the unexpected appearance of their look-out’s severed leg, left their captives unattended just long enough for Black Mariya, hidden on a ledge above, to hoist her two injured comrades out of the torture pit.  The survivors fled from the caverns and hobbled through the crumbling autumn leaves, struggling desperately to get back to Port Sumac.  A bitter squall of late October rain threatened to drench them to the bone.  As they huddled huddled around a hastily-constructed fire, they reminisced about their fallen patrol leader, Vidar Blue-Cloak, pierced through both eyes by two arrows.  “God, he was fat,” someone said.

mouse guard’s a lot of fun

(if you like it when mice suffer horribly)

Last night we finished up our three-session run of Mouse Guard, one of those RPG’s that calls out, “Run me more often!” from my shelf.  (Others who clamor: Shadow of Yesterday, Trollbabe, Primetime Adventures.)  Mouse Guard has been out long enough by now that it’s already found it’s audience, but damn if it isn’t an elegant, low-prep, easy-to-run game that (in my experience) always provides a session that is at the very least entertaining.  The thing is written in a way to put me to sleep, and they’re kidding themselves if they think the audience is children, but it’s a damn fine game.

the honeycomb dispatch

A one-shot Mouse Guard scenario, with pre-generated characters, that plays out in about three hours give or take.  Comes with character sheets, GM record forms, a map, and other stuff like that.  I think this link ought to lead straight to downloading a zipped file folder.   But I’m dumb with this stuff, so if it doesn’t work I apologize.


marvel heroic – illustrated example of play

Here you can see why I have no future in the fine arts!  Also, I will teach you how to cheat at this game!  Plus random Steve Ditko art!

(I’m using bold text for the GM (a/k/a the Watcher).)  Okay, so let’s cut to a new scene.  Spider-Man, you’re on top of the Fisk Building.  Since you stopped to threaten the Kingpin a second ago, I’m going to say that the Vulture’s had a few minutes to take to the air.  I’m plunking down Asset: Far Away, and I figure the Vulture flies fairly fast but not supersonic, so it’s rated with a d8.  (I’m allowed to do this to set up the scene; later it might cost me from the doom pool.)  The Vulture looks over his shoulder at you and snarls, “You’ll never catch the Vulture, wall-crawler!”  What now?

(I’m using regular text for Spider-Man’s player.)  Well, I guess I could try to web him up.  But I’m running low on plot points.  You know what?  Screw it.  I’m activating the limit on my Web-Slinging power set.  I’m out of webs!


Yeah, I mean, I really wanted to ruin the Kingpin’s upholstery back there.  You should see the place.  Webs everywhere.  I guess I shouldn’t have been so wasteful.  Anyway, I’m shutting down those powers, and you have to pay me with a plot point.  Thanks.  Spider-Man thinks to himself (makes thought-bubble gesture) “Without my web-fluid, he may be right!”

Okay, so you’ve shut that group of powers down, but what about for your action?

There’s probably heavy industrial stuff on this rooftop, right?  Like A/C units, satellite dish, water tower, that kind of thing?  I’m gonna rip up a big chunk of roofing machinery and chuck it at the Vulture.  That’s my Solo d8 + Superhuman Strength d10 + Wisecracker d8.

Man, don’t spam the Wisecracker trait.  You gotta give me something.

Fine.  “Hate to wreck property, but I gotta keep the HVAC unions in over-time!”  I notice you don’t force the Black Widow act out her Dangerous Liaisons trait. Anyway, that’s a . . . roll of 8 on the d10, and 6 and 3 on the pair of d8’s.  I’m going to keep the 8 and 6 as my total, for 14.  That leaves me with a d8 for my effect die.  What have you got?

There’s nobody to oppose you, so you’re rolling against the doom pool which stands at 3d6 + 1d8.  Rolling that, I get 6, 6, 4, 2.  My reaction is 6 + 6 = 12.  You beat me, and rip up the AC unit.  Now what?

Let’s use my d8 effect die to create an Asset: Torn-Up AC Unit d8.  What’s the Vulture doing?

Um, getting away but I’m honestly not sure.  The rules don’t say precisely how to increment assets like Far Away or Raging Wildfire.  Let’s try this: the Vulture’s gonna roll against the doom pool too.  If he wins, and his effect die is greater than d8 (so, a d10 or d12), then his Far Away asset takes on that value.  If he wins but his effect die is a d8 or smaller, the asset’s value bumps up by one.

Sounds okay.  That’s like the stress system, isn’t it?

Yeah, I guess so.  There’s a lot of self-similar stuff in this game, which is kind of confusing, but also, once you learn one trick, you can apply it elsewhere.  I still don’t know how I feel about that.  Anyway: Vulture’s got Solo d10 + Cowardly d8 + Feathery Flight d8.  He’s also trying to coax a little more performance out of his flying harness, so that’s probably +1d8 for his Tech Expert specialty.  Dang, this game uses a lot of d8’s–let’s pretend this Tens dice is a d8 and I’ll re-roll a 90 or 00.  I roll 7, 5, 5, 1, for a total of 12 with a d8 for my effect die.

Here, I’m rolling the doom pool: 3d6 + 1d8 . . . 8, 6, 3, 3.  The reaction is 14, beating your 12, so you lose.  Maybe the Vulture has gotten a little overconfident and still hoping to stay within gloating range?

Sure.  So my Asset: Far Away stays at d8.  And I rolled a 1, that’s an opportunity.  Do you want to buy it for one plot point?  It will let you bump up any push or stunt on your next action.

Nah–I have something else in mind.  Okay, so I’m going to throw the AC Unit one-handed at the Vulture and break those smelly wings.  “Vulture, if you’re flying south for the winter, you’ll need air-conditioning!”  Solo d8 + Wisecracker d8 + Superhuman Strength d10 + Asset: Torn-Up AC Unit d8.  Hmm, you do need to buy more dice!  I hate this stupid Tens dice thing you do.  Anyway, that’s an 8 on the d10, and 5, 4, 2 on the 3d8.  I’m gonna make my total 13, and use 1d8 for my effect die.  And maybe something else… but let’s see how you roll.

Vulture’s reaction is Solo d10 + Feathery Flight d8 + Acrobatic Expert d8 + Asset: Far Away d8.  I can’t think of a distinction that applies.  So that’s 8, 5, 5, and 2.  My reaction is 13, equal but not greater than yours, so you hit the Vulture.  You’re going for d8 physical stress with your effect die?

Yes, but I’m also spending that plot point, which lets me use a second, unused die on my roll for an effect as well.  So in addition to d8 physical stress with my first (free) effect die, I’m going to damage his Feathery Flight trait with my second effect die, a d8.  Try getting away now!

Hmm!  Let me mark off the stress.  The Vulture’s Feathery Flight is rated at d8, so you’ve demolished that power completely!  The Vulture groans in pain and plummets from the sky!  Okay, for his action he’s going to try to recover. I’m going to take that d8 out of the doom pool and use it to reestablish my flying trait.

Wait, I thought you can only try to heal yourself during a transition scene?  In an action scene someone else can try to heal you, but if you’re doing it all on your own you need to wait until things quiet down.  Unless you’ve got healing powers like Wolverine.

Huh!  Let me see, I thought I could do that.  (Checks rule book.)  Looks like you’re right.  Okay, well, let’s just say he’s falling toward a building helplessly–thinking maybe he had a spare power pack somewhere and realized he forgot it at home.  What do you do now?

I’m going to eliminate the distance asset.  That’s Swingline d8 + Solo d8 + Acrobatic Master d10–eh, you know, I’m going to split that d10 down to 2d8.  And can I fold in the Vulture’s d8 stress because he’s still hoping to get away?  Yes?  Okay, that’s me rolling 5d8 . . . 8, 8, 4, 3, 1.  Do you want to buy that 1 off me?  My total is 16, with a d8 for my effect die.

Sure.  Here’s a plot point, and I add 1d6 to the doom pool, which is now 4d6 + 1d8.  And for his reaction, the Vulture rolls Solo d10 + Acrobatics Expert d8 + Asset: Far Away d8.  I’m going to include my Cowardly distinction at a d4, because that lets me step up the lowest die in the doom pool, making it 3d6 + 2d8. 

Come on, man, how are you cowardly?

The Vulture’s screaming out, “My wings, my wings!”  He’s unsure whether to be more scared of Spider-Man or hitting the rooftop, and so isn’t able to prepare well against either.  Hmm, that’s 4, 4, 4, 4.  My reaction is 8, you beat me.  In fact, you beat me by more than 5, so your d8 effect die steps up to d10.  What were you hoping to do, again?

Eliminate your Asset: Far Away d8.  I’m closing in on my web-line.  Thwip!  Thwip!

Okay.  And–hey, wait a minute!  Weren’t you out of web-fluid?  You didn’t reactivate your Web-Slinging power.  I think your dice pool was wrong!

I, um, forgot.  Yeah, forgot.  Say, you know what’s interesting about the Vulture?  He’s like Spider-Man’s evil grand-dad or something.  They’re both gadget-guys, they’re both acrobats, but Peter Parker is a nice kid and the Vulture’s this mean old ex-con.

Oh man, don’t get me started.  There’s this whole anxiety about fathers in the Silver Age Spidey stories.  Jameson exploiting his astronaut son, Robbie worried about his kid’s politics, Harry freaking out on drugs and becoming the Goblin.  Captain Stacy.  It’s frequent and really sustained.  What’s kind of cool about the Vulture is that he’s got that same thing going on with his super villain career, but in reverse: passing the costume on to the younger Blackie Drago who has no respect for his elders.  A hero with no father and a villain with no heir.  Vulture and Spider-Man really deserve each other.

Gee, how about that!  So, um, what’s he doing on his round?

Trying not to splatter on the roof, I suppose.  He’s rolling Solo d10 + Acrobatics Expert d8 + Spry Geezer d8.  And I’m going to spend 2d6 out of the doom pool to add to my roll.  That’s 6, 6, 4, 4, 1, total of 12.  Want to buy that 1 off of me?

Sure.  Here’s a plot point, now I can push harder or stunt better on Spider-Man’s next turn.  The doom pool is now 1d6 + 2d8, right?  And also maybe the Vulture’s d8 stress.  Let’s roll: 5, 4, 3, 2.  Reaction of 9.  So I guess you don’t get splattered.

Okay, so let’s say you’re clambering onto the rooftop where the Vulture landed.  He’s all banged up and looks like he’s seen better days.  What now?

(play continues)


marvel heroic – musing hesitantly

Me, Tavis, and Tavis’s son played in the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying launch party at the Compleat Strategist, organized by the incomparable gaming mutant Jenskot.  We had fun!  Then Tavis and his kid had to leave and many new players came.  We had even more fun!  Then I went uptown and played it with some friends, and had fun too!  So: 3 for 3, but with some reservations.

the good social stuff you don’t care about

Here is how awesome my friend Jenskot is: he organized a launch party for free, developing elaborate cheat-sheets requiring hours of work, to promote the work of strangers, who couldn’t get their act together to ship their silly game on time.  It was a launch party to promote a book that doesn’t exist yet!  (You can buy the PDF on-line, though.)  But people still had fun!

"--?!?" is right

The really nice thing about playing these licensed games is that it gives you a chance to geek out with fellow nerds about your love of the source material.  “Wait, we’re fighting Razor-Fist?  Razor-I have prosthetic steak knives instead of hands-Fist?!?  The guy’s not a villain, he can’t even go to the bathroom!  But boy, Paul Gulacy man, what happened to him?  Nobody ripped off Jim Starlin’s style better.”  So that was fun too.

Also if a superheroic adventure begins with Iron Man pretending to get drunk, while Colossus gets wasted on vodka, and they fly around NYC together demolishing buildings in order to finally build the long-awaited Second Avenue Subway line, the game has already failed (in the eyes of a 10 year old comic fan) –

Pretend-Drunk Iron Man + Drunk Colossus + Unauthorized Urban Renewal = GAMING FAIL (for some people)

the good game stuff

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is a cleverly designed game that, in play, feels like a modern-day super hero comic book.  Lots of snazzy action, a dose of fan-favorite characterization, and (at least at this early stage of learning the game) very drawn out and “decompressed.”  The rules ship with a mini-module called “Breakout” based on the Bendis/Finch New Avengers arc of the same name, and a player commented, “You know, this felt exactly like those comics.”

The closest point of reference I can see is Dungeons & Dragons 4e, but only insofar as they’re both complex games designed to produce cool combat set-pieces by way of a cleverly designed economy.

The game operates by building a dice pool from various personality traits, super powers, and skills.  Your roll measures both your overall performance and the effect it has on the fictional circumstances; your opponent makes a similar roll to resist you.  As a player, you can heap inconvenience on your character–“Captain America is a man from the 1940’s, so I’ll say he has problems understanding how to deactivate the super-computer…”–to earn resources called plot points.  Plot points can be spent to activate special super power combos or to jazz up your dice pool in other ways.

(Indie Filth Alert!  This game expects you, as a player, to occasionally make things worse for your character in the hope of reaping a mechanical advantage.  A sizable segment of gamers don’t like that in any way, shape, or form.  If you’re one of them, you won’t like this game.)

Meanwhile the GM–called “the Watcher” in this game after Kirby’s version of the Man in the Moon–is on the look-out for any 1’s that you roll.  The Watcher buys them off you with plot points, and for every plot point he pays you, he adds +1d6 to the “doom pool,” which represents the general FUBAR nature of superhuman conflict.  When you’re trying to do something that has no NPC to resist you, you’ll roll against the doom pool.  The Watcher can also spend dice out of the doom pool to activate special super villainous powers or create plot twists.

So the game works by steadily growing the doom pool, with you earning plot points along the way.  In theory, the game is balanced if you’re rolling a bunch of d6’s for the Wasp and I’m rolling a bunch of d12’s for Thor, because the Wasp is going to be earning plot points about twice as fast, though the doom pool will also be growing a lot faster as she gets in over her head.

Several people on RPGNet have complained that the game doesn’t have a character creation system, but that’s not true.  It doesn’t have a randomized or point-buy character creation system, but damn if I didn’t create Sonny Sumo last Kirbsday in less than 10 minutes.  Almost all of that time was conceptual.  The game doesn’t really sweat exactly how strong you are: Thor, the Hulk, the Thing, and Colossus are all equally strong, which as a neckbeard offends me greatly.  But figuring out your character’s personality, and fine-tuning some super power tricks, takes a little bit of insight, because that makes a much bigger difference in play.

(Indie Filth Alert: if you like discovering your tabula rasa character through play, this is not the game for you.  If you require randomized character creation, this is not the game for you.  If you require transparently point-bought balanced characters, this is not the game for you.)

The game is also pretty great at handling bizarre power stunts.  You know how, in Kirby’s Fourth World titles, the little super-iPad called Mother Box can do practically anything?  It’s a huge pain in the butt in Marvel Super Heroes, because you’d have to spend hundreds of points of Karma and get many spectacular rolls to pull off so many one-time-only stunts.  But with Marvel Heroic those weird never-see-it-again powers carry a low, low price of one plot point.  Which makes it handy for guys like Iron Man, Hawkeye, and Courageous Cat, who never seem to run out of nifty tricks.

the bad game stuff

Man alive, this game has stats for no-name bozo’s like Armor, Iron Fist, the Constrictor, and Tombstone–but no stats for the Hulk, Thor, Doctor Doom, or Magneto.  Inexplicable!

This book gives the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide a run for its money for disorganization–or maybe, in this case, over-organization.  The rules for healing and recovery are spread over three chapters, written largely the same way but in each instance there’s a little rule added that appears nowhere else.  This book’s credits list six editors; you could not prove it by the way the book is organized.

There are a lot of things in this game that resemble one another, but have subtly different mechanical effects.  “Stress” is exactly like a “complication,” except that stress doesn’t go away at the end of a scene; instead it converts to “trauma” which is also exactly like stress (which is like a complication).  A “stunt” is like a “push” is like a “resource,” and all of them are like “assets,” except that an asset is created by rolling dice, and all four resemble “traits” except a trait is a permanent part of your character.  Basically, they came up with a really nice economy, and then are trying to tell you there’s a mechanical difference between Coke and Pepsi–and there is, but it’s hard to discern at first.  So far, it seems that no two people who have read rules agree on how a fictional circumstance should translate into the mechanics.

Although the game describes superhuman speed, subsonic flight, and teleportation, there aren’t any rules for movement in general, or spatial relationships of any kind.  A single villain trying to run away from a group of super-heroes with differing rates of speed requires a surprising amount of mental gymnastics.

(Indie Filth Alert: if you really like battle-grids, miniatures, and being able to unambiguously declare where your character is in space, this is not the game for you.  If you like saying, “My guy’s kind of over here, and your guy is kind of over there” and having the mechanics reflect that, this game might not be for you–it appears to be an open question.)

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to say, “Well, what you just declared is mechanically permitted even though it doesn’t make fictional sense.  Oh no, we broke the fiction!”  Example!  Spider-Man hurls an industrial air-conditioning unit at the Vulture.  He rolls to get an “effect die,” which can be traded in for any one of the following; he can spend a plot point to do another thing too…

  1. Spidey could inflict physical injury on the Vulture (effect die becomes physical stress)
  2. Spidey could break the Vulture’s flying suit (effect die cancels out flying super power)
  3. Spidey could inflict a painful memory of past defeats on the Vulture (effect die becomes emotional stress)
  4. Spidey could remove the distance between him and the Vulture (effect die cancels out the “I’m far away from you” asset)

The first three are at least arguable given the fictional circumstances.  But there’s almost no conceivable way that chucking an A/C unit at the Vulture will physically move Spider-Man and the Vulture closer together.  Yet the game’s economy isn’t going to stop you from saying stupid stuff like that.  It’s the table’s responsibility to police the interaction between the fiction and the mechanics.

(Old Gaming Fart Alert!  If you doubt the good sense of the people you play with, this game is not for you.  If you believe that RPG’s should be hardwired to prevent you from creating logical paradoxes accidentally in play, this game is not for you.)

what do you think, middle-aged comics nerd?

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is an extremely nifty game that shows a lot of promise.  It is, however, extremely confusing even beyond the learning curve of a new game.  Aside from the crazy disorganization of the text itself and the almost-but-not-quite-the-same quality of many of the rules, the text veers toward a worrying (but manageable) one-night stand between cause and effect.  I played it three times in one day with three different groups, and we all had a great time!  You might too, but it’s not for everybody.


kirbsday: sonny sumo!

Last time: after Darkseid banished the Infinity Man, Desaad imprisoned the Forever People in the amusement park/concentration camp Happyland in a variety of cruel deathtraps, but their Mother Box escaped and sought help from a stranger named Sonny Sumo.

plot synopsis

Sonny Sumo is a Japanese guy hoping to make a name for himself in Jack Kirby’s version of pro-wrestling by fighting a giant, flame-throwing robot with swords for fingers.

Crazy Mother Box stunt of the week: healing Sonny’s third-degree burns.

Eager to prove himself against a real challenge, Sonny agrees to help Mother Box rescue the Forever People.  Which he does with astounding ease, making me wonder if that’s because Sonny Sumo is just that awesome, or the Forever People are just that inept.

Alternately, it could be that Desaad is an incompetent junkie, too busy getting high off his fear-siphon to prevent the escape.  “What can equal this for joy?  I find it strange that Darkseid would shun this!”

When Desaad’s guards show up en masse, Sonny Sumo mind-controls them . . . via the Anti-Life Equation!  Sonny Sumo’s the guy Darkseid has been searching for, lo these past five issues!

what’s the story with sonny sumo?

Kirby came up with Sonny Sumo when Marvel Comics letterer Morrie Kuramoto started giving him some good-natured grief about creating an Asian super hero, since Kirby and Lee had created the first mainstream African super hero with the Black Panther.

We know Sonny Sumo is comic book Asian because:

  • He’s named Sonny Sumo
  • He talks a lot about the samurai’s warrior code
  • His skin is the color of fried chicken

(The coloring process in comic books at the time made it difficult to produce Asian skin tones.  This was a problem throughout Doug Moench’s and Paul Gulacy’s time on Master of Kung-Fu for example.)

That said, Sonny’s clearly the hero of this story, and he’s depicted in a way that’s both stoic and sarcastic, calling Big Bear “bushy-beard” and speaking in contractions in a time when a lot of Asians in comics were excessively formal.  He ain’t no Chop-Chop, is what I’m saying.

Kirby probably added Sumo to Forever People #5 for the same reason he added the Black Racer to New Gods #3: DC editorial had urged him to debut a lot of new characters.  The conceptual design is interesting.  The Black Racer is a mysterious, eerie, tragically vulnerable vigilante, signified by the armor, his so-weird-it’s-frightening mode of travel, his full-body cast, his eyes staring in horror.  And, maybe to white audiences in 1970, also his blackness.  (That said: Kirby has no problem depicting warm and relatable black characters, like the Black Racer’s sister or Gabe Jones over in Sergeant Fury.)

Sonny Sumo, in contrast, is a friendly, confident, pulp adventure character.  He’s an awesome fighter with great courage, but he’s pretty affable and low-key.  Plus it turns out that Sonny Sumo possesses the ultimate weapon, the Anti-Life Equation!  Even so, Kirby isn’t above exploiting Sumo’s Japanese heritage as a type of super power:

“Inside him, ancient centuries and even more ancient practices come alive!  Expand!  Take hold!–and to their work!”  As Sonny’s manager explains, “It’s a kind of oriental thing—like invoking a mystic power  in the mind!”

This kind of thing was unfortunately par for the course with Asians in comics back then: you’re either an honor-obsessed madman, a devious Oriental mastermind, a superstitious peasant, a powerful mystic, or a Judo master.  Sonny Sumo doesn’t rise above those stereotypes, but it’s clear that Kirby meant to create a sympathetic, effective hero.

have we learned anything?

Yeah!  First of all, when the Forever People ran into a serious problem, Mother Box went straight to the one guy on Earth who has the Anti-Life Equation locked in his head.  Surely that’s not a coincidence: Mother Box knew this from the start, and is therefore more clever than Darkseid or Desaad.

What does it mean that Sonny Sumo has the Anti-Life Equation in his brain?  Hell if I know!  Earlier in the issue, Sonny demonstrated sufficient willpower to reject his own injuries.  His desire to test himself against adversity isn’t a compulsion to battle, like Orion’s case, but rather a deliberate decision to set aside his instinct for self-preservation in order to confront new challenges.  Maybe that selflessness and iron will give you command of the Equation?  Who knows?

Though Sumo’s role here is a little fuzzy to me, there’s some fun stuff about the Anti-Life Equation, free will, and destiny.

Check it out: there are “many other” all-powerful cosmic equations.

Also, the Forever People give a pretty good explanation of their mandate: they believe that everyone should do his or her own thing, and are fighting the Blue Meanies who won’t let people live how they choose.

What does Darkseid think about this?

Everybody’s got their own nature, and everything they do will express that nature.  Darkseid explains: “It’s the very core of our conflict!  To fulfill ourselves—we must kill them!”  I love that!  If you take the Forever People’s just-be-yourself motto to its fullest conclusion, you’re going to get a sociopath like Darkseid eventually.  Darkseid’s villainy is simply his karma in action, and while he may regret the circumstances, it is his nature to do anything for power and he won’t fight that urge.

sonny sumo, in marvel heroic

I’ve been thinking for the past week or so that Marvel Heroic Roleplaying might be a better fit for Kirby’s Fourth World saga than my beloved Marvel Super Heroes, in part because it handles laughably flexible (i.e., totally deus ex machina) power sets like Mother Box much better.  Sonny’s a character who would work very easily in Marvel Super Heroes, but I’ve got this other game on my mind right now.

Probably the SFX and Limits could be better designed.  Still getting a feel for this thing.


Solo d10, Buddy d8, Team d6


Honor Code, I’ve Handled Power All My Life, Underground Wrestler

Power Set: Mind Over Matter

Mind Control d10, Enhanced Reflexes d8, Enhanced Stamina d8, Enhanced Strength d8

  • SFX: Anti-Life Broadcast.  For each additional Mind Control target, add +1d6 to your roll and keep +1 effect die.
  • SFX: Chi Focus.  In a pool including a Mind Over Matter trait, replace two dice of equal steps with one die of +1 step.
  • SFX: Second Wind.  Before making a roll involving a Mind Over Matter die, move your physical stress die to the doom pool, and step up your power trait die by +1.
  • LIMIT: Exhaustion.  Shutdown any Mind Over Matter power to gain 1 plot point.  Recover this trait by activating an opportunity or during a Transition Scene


Business Expert, Combat Expert

Milestone: Wielder of Anti-Life

  • Gain 1 XP the first time you use Mind Control power trait in a scene.
  • Gain 3 XP when you use Anti-Life to rescue yourself or others from the forces of Apokolips
  • Gain 10 XP when you use Mind Control to harm someone for your selfish gain, or when you renounce Anti-Life forever

Milestone: Almost Famous

  • Gain 1 XP when you introduce yourself to someone who hasn’t heard of you
  • Gain 3XP When you gain stress from engaging in battle in public
  • Gain 10XP When you defeat a tremendous adversary in public combat, or quit the fight game and become a derelict

ah hell, sonny sumo in marvel super heroes

Primary Abilities

  • Fighting: Incredible (40)
  • Agility: Excellent (20)
  • Strength: Excellent (20)
  • Endurance: Remarkable (30)
  • Reason: Typical (6)
  • Intuition: Good (10)
  • Psyche: Incredible (40)

Secondary Abilities

  • Health: 110
  • Karma: 56
  • Resources: 6
  • Popularity: 20

Special Abilities

  • Power: Anti-Life Equation.  This is Mind Control at Amazing rank.  It costs 10 Karma points to use this power.
  • Power: Mind Ritual.  This is Regeneration (or, in the Advanced rules, Recovery) at Incredible rank.
  • Talent: Wrestling
  • Talent: Martial Arts
  • Contact: the Forever People, super hero group
  • Contact: Harry Sharp, boxing manager



Past Adventures of the Mule

January 2020
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