Archive for the 'Indie Filth' 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


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.


One Page Dungeon: Devil Gut Rock

This is cross-posted from my illustration blog last night. I’m sorry if this is bad form, but no one reads my illustration blog anyway and this is a free goodie for you loyal readers. I gotta do something to make up for my lack of talkie-talkie on the mule blog. – das Goat

So, in the interest of triggering more rpg game-playing in my recalcitrant friend, I challenged him to make an entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest this year. Although he is well versed in the nature of dungeon adventuring and RPGs from way back in his youth, he balks at currently playing for various reasons of time commitment and free time. However, he is quite keen on the study of structures and the creation of “game play objects” like miniature painting and particularly making war-game scenery. I knew he would be up for some dungeon design.

So I emailed him the link to the One Page Dungeon contest on a lark, realizing that we had just over a week to go before the submission deadline. But it would be fun to goad him into a competitive effort and the process would be good for my infrequent DMing as well.

After he took the bait and started discussing ideas with me, I started to look through the OPDC webpage in earnest and saw that there were actual prizes awarded and I got even more excited. And then I looked through the winning entries from the previous years and got a bit nervous. There was some good stuff, both from a visual standpoint and play-wise. It would be some stiff competition.

Oh well, I figured. I told him we should blast through the process, try and get them submitted and then take turns playing each other through the dungeons one night. (Maybe shouting over to Mrs. Greengoat about how much fun this was.) That would be the best part and I could use my entry for a future session with the notorious NY Redbox Crew.

So after too much time spent on inking my isometric map and cramming as much text as I could decently fit on a sheet of paper I was finished. I wanted a good playable dungeon and kept my visual extravagances limited for readability and clarity. Or maybe I tell myself that because the map is kinda bare.) It has inspired me to get into more isometric cartography in future endeavors.

Tools used: I inkjet printed an isometric grid straight onto Borden & Riley Paris Paper and penciled in the rooms. I used india ink with brush and pen straight over that and added the keyed numbers digitally. Wrote the text in Open Office and did layout in InDesign with free fonts. I should start using all open source software in the future. Adobe habits are hard to break. I listened to the Melvins.

Use and Enjoy:



Mike Mearls’ Magnificient Encomium

Recently noisms of the superlative Monsters & Manuals called The Mule Abides “the most consistently high-quality blog out there, in terms of theory and gaming history, probably.” I should thus be ashamed to use it as the ashbin for stuff I write that didn’t make it elsewhere, but one of the benefits of being a blog-collective is that no doubt one of the other contributors will come up with something brilliant to keep up our quality average.

A while back Ed Healy contacted me for some quotes for the RPG Countdown Best of 2011 show. I wound up quipping about a number of things I didn’t work on, but one that I did – Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium – caught the attention of the guys at EN World, who wanted me to expand on the quote for their D&D Next page.

I think – but am not sure – that it didn’t ever appear there. As was the case in 2008, being a playtester means that visiting sites where fans are talking about a new edition is as madness-inducing as wearing just one of the eye-cusps that lets you perceive the Vancian over-world. If y’all have already read this at EN World, I apologize for the repost and the out-of-context community in-jokes like the link at the end. Just in case this is its last chance to avoid obscurity, though, here’s me looking back on Mordenkainen’s:

As a lifelong Gygax fan, I was honored to be chosen as one of the designers of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium; how cool is it to be hired in real life to make magic items for Gary’s PC? And as a Dungeons & Dragons fan, I was thrilled to learn that Mike Mearls would be the lead on the project. At every step in my professional involvement as a gamer, Mike has been participating in the same communities I’m fascinated by and showing me the next step forward.

When I was at the Forge in ’04 learning how to start Behemoth3 to publish Masters and Minions, Mike was there sharing the design chops and OGL mastery that he’d soon demonstrate in Iron Heroes, and also proving that it was OK to be open to indie insights and still love D&D with all your heart.

When I was at the OD&D boards in ’08 discovering all the things the old-school renaissance could reveal about the game I thought I already knew, Mike was there posting session reports from his Kardallin’s Palace campaign and dropping science like the analogy that OD&D is a jam session while 4e is a symphony.

I haven’t kept up with the combat as sport vs. combat as war thread here at EN World but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Mike posting there too; he is a true member of this community and as appreciative of others’ deep insights bridging the edition gap as he is ready to bust them out himself.

The vision that Mike showed in his leadership of the Mordenkainen’s team is everything that I want from D&D Next. His eagerness to celebrate the game’s rich history meant that no artifact was too obscure or silly for us to find its hidden treasure. I’d done five other 4e projects at that point and never expected I’d get a crack at the iron bands of Bilarro or the bone of bruising. I didn’t have to tell him why it was important to have mundane items like mules in the game, Mike already knew. He pushed me to define caltrops or glass marbles with the same clarity and concision as the best 4e design, and let me write about how players and GMs can work together to adjucate the flexibility and concreteness that lets OD&D characters retrain their mule into a warbearer donkeyhorse or a pitfinder donkeyhorse in the blink of an eye.

The other thing Mike taught me with Mordenkainen’s was how to be honest and direct and still discreet. The book went through a lot of changes – I lucked into being interviewed by the Gamerati because Amazon still has the version of the cover that had my name on it, and for a while it wasn’t going to come out at all. Mike gave me some time at Gen Con, and after I rattled off all my conspiracy theories about what was going on behind the scenes, he kind of sighed a little. “Sometimes we come up with these clever stories that sound good until people start asking questions, and then it all gets complicated,” he said. “I don’t understand why we don’t just tell the truth.”

D&D Next’s promise is as huge as the job it’ll have overcoming the misgivings fans have in trusting a new set of promises. Because I want D&D to grow and thrive, I am overjoyed to see Mike in charge of that job.

When we were doing the Kickstarter for Adventurer Conqueror King, seeing that Mike had become one of our backers was a shining moment that all the great reviews since can’t equal. Autarch is taking up the space that freelancing used to for me – getting to do Dwimmermount with James Maliszewski is also making me feel like the big kids have agreed to let me roll up a character in their game – but I’d gladly put it aside for a second and pitch in to Wizards’ great project to end the edition wars. Send me that contract for the Quintessential Mule, D&D Next is the perfect system for it!


There and Back Again

Timothy Hutchings has a gallery show at I-20 opening tomorrow night, Thursday March 22. I’ve noted before that Timothy is

known to White Sandbox players as the dwarf Mallo Beer-bane and to others as (among other things) the curator of the Cursed Chateau exhibit, the editor responsible for the animation wizardry in the Kickstarter video for Adventurer Conqueror King , a panelist in the Dungeons & Dragons in Contemporary Art discussion, and one of the Doomslangers artists.

Since then Timothy has also been been part of the role-playing-themed art show Big Reality, where he exhibited his own work as well as selections from the Play-Generated Maps and Documents Archive, which he created and curates. Folks who are following the Dwimmermount kickstarter have also recently heard from Mr. Hutchings, on the subject of why the donation of materials from James Maliszewski’s home campaign to PlaGMaDA matters:

Tabletop role playing games completely revolutionized game play. Our multi-billion dollar computer game entertainment industry is built on the shoulders of pen and paper RPGs. With the popularity and overwhelming cultural presence of computer games comes the need for their academic study, and academic study demands original sources for research. The materials preserved by the Play Generated Map and Document Archive and other collecting institutions are being held in trust for those researchers and the important work they have just begun, and just as importantly these materials are disseminated back into popular culture so that the gamer of today can see the traditions and innovations that developed into the contemporary landscape.

Like many of my posts do, this one makes a blah blah sound. Here, then, are some charts Tim and Ezra Claverie who I am proud to call our mutual friend came up with for a game of Burning Wheel that I didn’t get to play in, but sounded delightfully old-school and Dwarf Fortress-inspired:

Inspired by:

a giant’s poop contents chart

  1. Giant poop worms.  Like rot grubs but they don’t kill you so easy. The worms burrow into the PC’s flesh, reproduce, then send thousands of progeny out each end of the character’s digestive tract.  If this happens in front of NPCs then get an Infamous trait with that group.
  2. Gold coins.  Why would the giant eat gold coins?  1D of cache.
  3. A knife.  And bloody poop!  Ha ha, dumb giant pooped out a knife.  Is the knife magic?  On a 1-3 roll on the “what’s with this sword” chart, on a 4 it’s proof against acid, on a 5-8 then no – it’s not magic.
  4. A humanoid skull.  Bury it for a reputation 1D Friend of spirits
  5. A living troll arm, it makes half-hearted attacks. (I love this.)  Only fire can destroy it.
  6. A perfectly intact head sized egg.  (it was planted here by something else)
  7. Poop eating giant centipede.  Agility test or your probing arm gets bitten.  Yes you get an armor roll.  Learn that you don’t push your arm into the poop, you dork.  If you said “Oh yeah I was wearing my armor!” then you have poop all over your armor too.
  8. A bunch of springy worms.  Each worm’s belly contains a pearl-like gem (value, properties to be determined by GM).
  9. Seeds.  Are they magic?  Are they giant?  Are they just giant tomato seeds?
  10. A giant’s tooth.  This giant got beat up in a fight and swallowed his own tooth.  1 in 6 that it has a silver filling or is gold or whatever.
  11. An idol!  Geerwyn the Unfortunate.  This poor idol has the worst things happen to it and it’s possessors, but it also gives them help in getting out of these situations.  While carrying Geerwyn, any random thing that can happen to the possessor does, the more bizarre the better.  But, Geerwyn will Help the possessor out of these same situations with +1 or +2 Advantage dice, depending.  Geerwyn will also halve random damage from the bad stuff he causes, trading off injury for shame – rather than a B10 burn from the irate fire toad, the character will receive b5 but will have his beard burned off.  Bearing Geerwyn automatically gives the holder a 1D “pathetic bumbler” trait.

What does that worm pearl do?  (Gem Appraisal or whatever)

  1. Crap, it’s a worm egg and will hatch in your gem pouch.  And it eats gems!  Which become worms!  Will only hatch when there are other gems around.
  2. It’s a pill.  +2D to your next health test.  Good luck figuring out that this thing actually does that.  Maybe you noticed that it was an exceptionally healthy worm.  If taken the pill stays inside of you until you die, you don’t actually digest it.
  3. It’s actually a gem worth a little bit of money.
  4. Invisible things are reflected in the gems surface, but the surface is so small and round it doesn’t help much.  +1D to seeing invisible things, but you must be working Carefully as well.
  5. It’s a unique gem the likes of which adorn the crown of the dwarven prince.  If it gets around that the prince’s crown is adorned with worm poop pearls, it would cause quite a ruckus.

What’s in that egg?  (did you let it hatch?  If not then you might just get goo)

  1. It’s hardboiled, magically, and is delicious.
  2. A baby harpy, full of spite and can fly as soon it’s hatched.  It will flutter after the PCs cursing and drawing attention to them until killed or frightened off.
  3. The yolk is solid gold!  (worth 2 cache)(everyone make a Greed test)
  4.  It’s full of molar teeth?  What the hell?  (if you plant these they’ll grow into chickens)
  5. Rotten, cracking it open gives you and your stuff the Stinky trait for awhile.
  6. A tiny, perfectly formed homonculi.  Who does it resemble?
  7. It’s not an egg but a solid piece of ivory.  (worth 2 cache)  If you crack it open there’s a miniature, living elephant inside.
  8. Nog!  How bizarre.  (works like regular nog)
  9. The liquid inside the egg shines with the brilliance of a wizard’s spell for 1d4 days.  If you drink it your eyes and orifices all glow.
  10. A tiny dead looking guy in robes run through with a tiny sword and stuck with tiny arrows.  He has miniature everything a wizard adventurer would have.  (worth 2d of cache to middle aged lady collectors)  He will rot away once removed from the egg.
  11. The egg is full of pearl bearing poop worms.

Tim gave me permission to post these charts a while back. He perhaps didn’t mean “at the same time as mentioning an occassion in which he is doing a serious artist thing”, but as I am the kind of person who would pay a Joesky tax with stolen Joesky-inspired coin, clearly nothing is beneath me. Tim and Ezra made many more tables like this which I will post the next time I get behind on the taxman!

I will not be able to make the show’s opening tomorrow night, as I am taking my son to his first GaryCon, but I hope to make it after we get back.


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.


cthulhu dark at recess

At NerdNYC’s Recess mini-convention, I played Cthulhu Dark,  a free, rules-light Lovecraftian horror game.  In which my very proper English vicar could not shake the delusion that Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was actually a hithertofore unknown species of thunder lizard, whose sacred blood was a consubstantial spiritual gasoline powering the machinery of Western Civilization.  I drank a ghoul’s bile (“the quintessence of Lazarus!”), artificially induced stigmata with the aid of a hammer and nails, and thoroughly derided Gerard Limcraft’s Field Guide to Sheffield, Mimsey, and the Barrows District.

I also ran my D&D dungeon, “TPK Tower,” which I’m in the process of writing up for sharing, in order to pay back taxes.



revelation radio

The other night, the Rapture came to Methehatchee, Tennessee.  Four hundred and five souls, mostly teenagers, were seized with the power of the Holy Spirit and departed this vale of sorrows for paradise, twenty-nine minutes into the broadcast of Wild Bill Acres’ Rock ‘n Rodeo.  Other listeners, sinners all, slashed their throats with broken bottles, swallowed their tongues and choked to death, slit their veins to unleash the vermin within, or set fire to themselves.  Few of the Elect shall be troubled by their loss!

james, do you ever talk about stuff besides money and old comic books?

For the past couple of months I’ve been running a game of Sorcerer.  We probably had the climactic session on Friday, which involved a player committing mass murder via Bible verse on the radio.  Figure I’d talk a little about the game.

Trigger warning: this post involves well-meaning white people playing a supernatural suspense story in which race relations are very prominent.  Also it is crazy long.

It’s set in the fictional Methehatchee County, Tennessee, circa 1955.  Immediately after Brown v. Board of Ed. threw the political landscape into consternation, and right as Bill Haley, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis are setting fire to youth culture.  “Demons” are creatures of Southern folklore.

any time you thinking evil, you thinking ’bout the blues

In writing this post, I’m struck by how absolutely shitty all Actual Play accounts are.  If you’re not playing in the game, you’re mainly interested in highlights.  So I’ll give highlights.  You can see a fuller version over at the Forge thread.

Super short version!

Player characters:

* Tommy Joe Jackson.  White lunkhead, about 19, hoping to make a fortune as a rock ‘n roll musician, except that he’s not very talented.  To help with that, he’s got himself a Mojo Hand from Delilah the swamp woman.  The Mojo Hand, linked to the ghost of Tommy Joe’s friend Boyd Lutz, makes him one mean guitar player, but  requires him to resolve all of Boyd’s bad karma while it constantly connives to create teen anarchy.

* Zachariah Cosgrove.  A white, crippled faith healer who’s returned to his ancestral home after a long time away.  Cosgrove learned the power to command demons from Ol’ Saul, his mentor and father figure.  Out of hubris, he bound to him the imp Melchidezek, to show that he is beyond temptation.  (Melchidezek is shaped like a horse, has an insect’s head, the hair of a woman, and its tail is a baby’s arm.) Melchidezek can perceive people’s deepest desires, and also grants Zachariah the power to heal others–but demands that he feed it communion wafers stolen from Catholic churches..

whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on

Among many other things, these are the scenes that stand out.

Tommy Joe and his band get run off the stage at the county fair by the outraged Baptist Ladies’ Auxiliary; he abandons his friends and their equipment.  Kicked out of his aunt’s house, he ends up at his band-mates’ apartment looking to crash.  They refuse.  Tommy Joe physically beats his “friends” into submission, and tells them he’s moving in; they can sleep on the floor because he’s taking the couch.

Zachariah encounters the beautiful demoness Mavis Belle, and fails to recognize her for what she is.  She inspires in him a vision of the apocalypse, occurring in October 1962.  He sets off to prepare his mixed-race congregation for 7 years of trials and tribulations.

Eager to repair his musical career after this setback, Tommy Joe tries to placate the Mojo Hand’s need to lay Boyd’s spirit to rest.  So he goes over to Boyd’s old house, and kills Boyd’s drunk, abusive father with an ax while wearing the father’s KKK robes.  And then writes a song in the father’s blood.  And sets fire to the house for good measure.  But not before Boyd’s 8 year old brother sees Tommy Joe’s face, stabs him in the leg with a screwdriver, and runs away.

As Zachariah tries to lead a revival meeting to challenge the power of Jim Crow, his mentor Saul figures out that Mavis is a demon.  The congregation discovers Saul in a pentagram, chanting Solomonic rites, with Mavis half naked and tied up, and assume the worst.  Zachariah manages to barely defuse this situation.  Later, Zachariah ends up losing his virginity to Mavis in binding the girl-demon to his service.

Saul, horrified by what’s happened, banishes Zachariah’s imp-demon Melchidezek.  Zachariah unfairly blames Mavis for this, and ritually tortures her.  Mavis’s demonic desire is for power, Glorious Godfrey style, but her need is for genuine affection–and Zach has just trampled all over all of that.  She’ll get hers, but has to bide her time until then.

Delilah–the witch who gave Tommy Joe the Mojo Hand–had been Mavis’s previous master, and blames Tommy Joe for her rebellion.  So she sends a demon to possess Tommy Joe’s best friend.  Tommy Joe and his friend get into a fist fight inside a speeding car, and crash into a garbage truck at high speed.  Tommy Joe takes his unconscious friend out to Hangman’s Point to finish him off, but at the last minute realizes the kid’s not in his right mind and spares him.  Returning to town, Tommy Joe is arrested by the sheriff (and Grand Dragon of the Klan) for the murder of Boyd’s father.

Zachariah by this point has learned that Tommy Joe is a sorcerer, and sends Saul to recruit him into the apocalypse squad.  (Saul eventually helps Tommy Joe break out of jail via shapeshifting magic.)  Zach then takes Mavis to pay a visit to Tommy Joe’s manager and radio show host, Wild Bill Acres, who’s having a nervous breakdown on-air after Zach’s cousin Mehitibel jilted him.  Zachariah comforts Wild Bill, tells him to go home and rest, and invites Mavis to fill in and preach to the town.  When Mavis balks, Zachariah eats her out as she recites the Gospel into the airwaves.

Mavis is a demon; one of her demonic abilities is Hint, which in D&D terms is sort of like contact higher plane mixed with feeblemind.  Any target automatically knows the truthful answer to one question–but will likely be momentarily overcome by hallucinations, and may die from seizures. And she just broadcast this power to a county of about 100,000 people.

Figuring 1% of the population, mostly kids, were listening to Wild Bill’s show at the time, say 1000 people.  We did the math, and about 80% of the audience would be tripping out.  And of those, roughly 30-50% would die when their nervous systems just can’t handle that much Unholy Truth.

We paged through some of the NPC’s who might be listening, diced it out, and several died in spectacularly gruesome ways.

Eventually Mavis got tired, asked Zachariah to get her some water–and then clobbered him to get even for last night.  She was about to kill him when Saul and Tommy Joe conducted a banishing ritual across town to drive her out of this world.  It didn’t work… but it at least distracted her long enough for Zachariah to crawl away.

So now we’ve got a city in chaos, a child-bride demon prophetess on the loose, a shapeshifting rock ‘n roller, and a silver-tongued holy roller beaten within an inch of his life.  All of the backstory is now revealed.  It will be interesting to see how this shapes up.


rick jones, sorcerer (pt 3)

Avengers 57 by John Buscema

Using Sorcerer to run Atomic Horror type stuff, which I only know from comic books:

building a sorcerer scenario: the relationship map

In Dungeons & Dragons, players typically navigate a dungeon, designed more-or-less as a flowchart.

Zork I as flowchart

Sorcerer is one of many role-playing games that doesn’t work well in that format.  Instead of constructing a flowchart that depicts physical space, you build a house of cards, the “relationship map” showing lines of tension between NPC’s.  Here’s an example I found for some version of Vampire:

somebody's Vampire game as "house of cards"

Players, in the process of pursuing their own interests, will knock into the house of cards, and hijinks ensue.  All of this is addressed at great length in Sorcerer’s Soul, one of the supplements to the game.  But I’ll work out an example over the course of a couple posts.

N.B., obviously some of the really famous D&D modules use both techniques.  I’m thinking of something like B4: The Lost City or B2: Keep on the Borderlands, where the dungeon-dwellers have their own factions, alliances, and vendettas which the players’ arrival will inevitably throw into disarray.

step 1: draw lines of sex and death

All this day-dreaming about alternate Marvel Comics rosters makes me think about the House of Pym, and how it influenced the formation of the Avengers.  So my source fiction is gonna be Avengers comic books from, like, 1963 through 1973, with a focus on Hank Pym and the people linked to him.  Scripted by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, illustrated by Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and John and Sal Buscema.

At this stage, you plow through the source material again, keeping an eye out for relations between characters, particularly primal stuff like sex and killing.  Then you draw a little map: click to embiggen.

by some miracle I am not a virgin

genealogy of the Vision, 1967 through like 1973

Christ, that’s a lot of people!  Let’s pluck out the main characters:

The Pyms:

  • Goliath is a mad scientist with a massive inferiority complex.
  • Wasp, his wife, a generation younger.  Fabulously rich, spoiled nymphomaniac.  “Supportive” in a belittling way.
  • Ultron is Goliath’s creation: an indestructible, brilliant, genocidal robot with an Oedipus complex.

The Williams:

  • Wonder Man: a businessman who embezzled from his own company.  He gets blackmailed by the Enemy into becoming a double-agent.  He dies, heroically, as a triple-agent.
  • Grim Reaper is Wonder Man’s brother.  He’s not wrapped too tight.
  • Vision is Wonder Man’s brain downloaded into the body of a ghost-like robot.

The mutants:

  • Scarlet Witch is a ex-terrorist mutant who falls in love with the Vision.
  • Quicksilver is an ex-terrorist mutant who is rabidly possessive of his sister, the Scarlet Witch.
  • Magneto is a terrorist mutant who emotionally dominated Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.  Later revealed to be their father.

The sub-plot:

  • Goliath II (a/k/a Hawkeye) is Goliath’s jackass friend.  Naturally the original Goliath supplies him with an addictive steroid in the interests of national security.  He is sweet on the Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch.
  • Black Widow is an alluring Soviet spy who’s got Goliath II wrapped around her pinky finger.  Her ultimate loyalties are extremely murky.

step 2: identify moral crimes

Doesn’t have to be illegal, just morally disturbing to the reader.

  • Goliath, at Ultron’s urging, tries to scoop out the Wasp’s brain and plant it into a robotic body.  Because he loves her.
  • Ultron (Goliath’s darker side) scoops out Wonder Man’s brain and places it into a robotic body.
  • Goliath and the Wasp are locked into an extremely toxic marriage filled with physical (and emotional) abuse and a constant struggle for dominance, mainly fueled by Goliath’s raging insecurity, which the Wasp exploits when it suits her.
  • Magneto emotionally abused his children into joining his holy vendetta against the human race.  When the kids have second thoughts about it, he arranges to shoot the Scarlet Witch so that Quicksilver goes berserk and rejoins Magneto’s team.  Their betrayal costs the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver their only human friends.
  • Goliath II is wild for the Black Widow, but she exploits him in service of the Reds.
  • The Grim Reaper goes crazy when Wonder Man dies, and swears revenge against a whole bunch of innocent people.  (Oddly, he’s kind of okay with the idea that someone scooped out his brother’s brain and put it in a robot.)  (The Grim Reaper is a pretty lame character.)

“but i only care about dungeons and (inexplicably rare) dragons”

I’ll get back to D&D soon.  I want to finish this up.  Later this week we’ll conclude scenario creation for Sorcerer.

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2022

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