Monday, December 8, 2014

[Into the Odd] Hypatia Handel and Mr. Sweets (NPCs)


The Favorite © 2010 Omar Rayyan 

As I noted in my last post, I love Chris McDowall's Into the Odd. I also love the artwork of Omar Rayyan. (There are signed and framed prints of Rayyan's Cemetery Puca and Tar Pitcher illustrations for Magic: The Gathering on my office wall.) Finally, I love image-based character creation (as utilized in, say, the late, lamented Everway RPG).

So why not put them all together? I'm going to generate a series of Into the Odd NPCs using some of my favorite Rayyan paintings and illustrations, beginning with the lovely 2010 piece depicted above ...

Hypatia Handel
STR 7, DEX 12, WIL 17, 3 HP.

Penknife (d6), 3S.

Blond and lacy. DRIVEN TO EXPLORE THE UNDERGROUND—ALL OF IT. (After all, the rest of Mr. Sweets's family must be down there somewhere?)

Mr. Sweets
STR 17, DEX 12, WIL 10, hp 10, Armour 1.

Leathery, baggy, and ugly—but strangely redolent of lavender. DRIVEN TO PROTECT HYPATIA AT ALL COSTS. Mr. Sweets usually attacks with his claws and bite (d6), but he will gore a target with his horns (d8) if he has room to charge.

... What, you thought Mr. Sweets was using Hypatia to conquer Bastion for his foul kind? He's really just the classic "hideous yet loyal pet that only a child can love"—but in Bastion, those pets come with fangs and claws and abdomen-ripping horns. I envision Hypatia's parents hiring PCs to track her down on one of her Underground jaunts; Hypatia could also be a valuable source of information about just what's underneath the city streets.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

[Into the Odd] Initial Thoughts



I'm currently obsessed with Chris McDowell's Into the Odd, an extremely streamlined D&D neoclone published in PDF and print formats by Paolo Greco under the Lost Pages imprint. I'm not joking about the streamlined part: an Into the Odd character first rolls 3d6 to generate Strength, Dexterity, and Willpower scores, then rolls 1d6 for HP, and finally chooses a starting package of equipment based on the intersection of his highest ability score and his HP total. That's it. It's so easy I'll do it right now ...

OK, I rolled a 16 STR, a 12 DEX, and a 5 WIL plus a 2 for HP. Clearly this character is a powerful brawler with a decent amount of speed and agility—but his will is incredibly weak. He's very impulse-driven and not at all good with the occult. His starting package of gear consists of a staff (d8 damage), a pair of tongs, and some glue. Not great equipment, but if his STR were any higher, he'd be looking at a prosthetic leg or one arm! (As your abilities and HP increase, your results on the starting gear table grow more ... ambivalent.)

Once play begins, the rules are incredibly simple. When your character chooses to do something risky or dangerous, you make a saving roll versus the relevant ability. Equal or under your score succeeds. Combat's deadly by design: there are no hit rolls, just damage rolls. Damage comes off HP first; when that total zeroes out, the character makes a STR save to avoid Critical Damage (i.e., being incapacitated and in danger of dying unless tended to within an hour). Assuming the save is made, the character then takes damage off his STR score. At 0 STR, death ensues.

Of course, simplified D&D clones like this aren't anything particularly new these days. The system in Into the Odd is mostly designed to get out of the way, letting players focus instead on the fiction, the experience of the game—and this is where Into the Odd really shines.

The game's setting can best be described as "China Miéville meets OD&D." There is Bastion, a teeming metropolis technologically situated somewhen between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. (Factories turn out firearms and the like, but swords are still commonly used.) Beyond Bastion's walls and its ring of sister cities are the largely abandoned Deep Country and the exotic Golden Lands. To the north lies the mysterious and deadly Polar Ocean. Oh, and there's trouble both above and below: beings are raining down into Bastion's streets from the Stars while monsters bubble up from the city's Underground, an endless chthonic playground.

A typical scenario involves the discovery and exploration of weird, eldritch ruins or landscapes in search of Arcana, strange artifacts capable of granting great powers as well as twisted curses. In other words, the player characters end up looking an awful lot like the adventurers who assist Isaac in Perdido Street Station or the salvors in Railsea. (Bastion-centered scenarios will feel more like the former novel while adventures in the Golden Lands will tend toward the latter book.)

It's the weird touch that attracts me to what's possibly an even more brutal ruleset than OD&D. When I'm playing a sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy game, I have trouble dealing with the low life expectancy of Old School characters. But transpose everything to a bizarre salvage-punk environment, and I'm golden.

Looking forward to getting a chance to play Into the Odd soon!



Wednesday, November 5, 2014

[Beyond the Wall] Revised Edition On the Way



When Peter Williams of Flatland Games posted this Jon Hodgson image in the BtW thread on RPGnet, I was all


Then he went and posted this image of new Erin Lowe artwork:


And I was all


Today the bastard went and added this image to the thread:


Frickin' Larry MacDougall. Why do you torment me so, Peter? Why? Sell me the damn game already!

As my daughter said back when she was in preschool, "Patience hurts you."

(They were trying to teach her "Patience is a virtue," but my little girl knew more about patience than that.)

Monday, October 27, 2014

The D&D Player's Worst Nightmare ...



Last year I gave you a beholder pumpkin. This year I give you the one thing no player of D&D wants to meet on a dark tabletop at midnight. Happy Halloween 2014!

Friday, October 3, 2014

[Supers!] Brute Squad



Last night I started playing in a Supers! Revised campaign at my FLGS. I knew going into the game that I wanted to play a brick, but I was having trouble coming up with a concept that worked ... until a thesaurus search turned up "brute." Suddenly the light bulb went on: "brute" leads to "brute squad" leads to "brick with the ability to duplicate himself."

In other words ...


With this mental breakthrough, my character came together in a flash. Here are the stats for Brute Squad, a former henchman trying to make it as a hero:

Brute Squad

a.k.a. Andrew Irons

Resistances (7D)
Composure 2D
Fortitude 4D
Reaction 3D
Will 2D

Aptitudes (4D)
Athleticism 3D
Fighting 3D

Powers (12D)
Armor 4D
Duplicate Self 4D
Super Strength 4D

Advantages (1D)
Is That Your Best Shot?

Disadvantages (-4D)
Enemy (Wise Guy)
Obligation (Parole Officer)
Social Hindrance (Disreputable)
Social Hindrance (Ugly)

Competency Dice (2D)

Backstory
Andrew Irons grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. He didn't have many options in life, and his brutish looks didn't help him win friends and influence people. A crappy job in an unsafe factory exposed him to a bizarre chemical solution, granting him the typical brick power suite as well as the more unusual ability to duplicate himself. His newfound abilities made him particularly attractive to the villain community, and "Brute Squad" found himself working as a henchman to a number of different bad guys. But his heart was never in his villain work. In fact, when his last boss, the super-genius crime lord Wise Guy, ordered him to execute a captured superhero, Brute Squad not only refused to do the deed but turned on Wise Guy as well. After serving a shortened sentence on account of his face turn, Brute Squad tried to find legitimate work for a man of his talents. But this ex-con is having trouble finding anyone who trusts him: will he stay a hero, or will he fall back into a life of crime?

Monday, September 29, 2014

[13th Age] Goodbye, Half-Orcs; Hello, Beast Folk?



Just a little thought-experiment here, something I'm contemplating for my own version of the Dragon Empire after reading some online discussion of half-orc origins:

13th Age gets away from the problematic origins of the traditional D&D half-orc by explaining the species not as the product of sexual violence but as a High Druid-initiated immune response to the return of the Orc Lord and the concomitant rise in orc populations. Walking, talking lymphocytes, if you all.

As a way of avoiding the inscription of rape into the game setting, this certainly works. But it does raise a new question: why use a breeding-related term for the resulting species of pseudo-orcs? Obviously the answer is "because 13th Age tries to preserve the sacred cows of D&D tradition whenever possible," but that meta-explanation doesn't make much sense within the fictional context of the Empire.

What I'm thinking then (and I suspect a Google search would demonstrate that I'm in no way original here) is to recast the half-orcs as an entirely different species: beast folk. The precise appearance of the beast folk is still up for grabs: they could just look like brutish humans with excessive body hair and pronounced canines, or they could have many more animal features, features that might be tied to specific subpopulations (a wolf group, a deer group, etc.).

But the advantage of either approach is that the existing half-orc stat block (bonuses to either STR or DEX and the Lethal racial power) can apply to the beast folk concept without any changes needed. The beast folk backstory also nicely maps onto the existing half-orc one: the beast folk of the frozen north have frequently been enemies of the Empire, but with the resurgence of both the Orc Lord and the High Druid, the Emperor has seen fit to make peace with his former foes and to support them against the hordes on their borders. (Especially since the Dwarf King's attention to the orcs frequently wavers based on whatever is bubbling up beneath his delvings that week.)

Thoughts?

Friday, September 26, 2014

[13th Age] One Unique Thing, Rat Queens Style



I can't be the only person in the world who thought "One Unique Thing" when reading this panel of Hannah and Orc Dave in Kurtis Wiebe and Rob Upchurch's Rat Queens #5, can I?

[13th Age] 13 Pregens



As I recently mentioned, I'm in the process of producing thirteen pregenerated first-level characters for use with 13th Age. This series is partially intended to be a resource for other 13th Age players: the characters can be used as springboards for other characters, as NPCs for GMs in need of a contact or some such, or even as characters in their own right. But it's also meant for me to get outside of my ranger-shaped comfort zone and try my hand at some concepts I don't normally explore.

At present, 13th Age has fourteen races (aasimar, dark elves, dragonics, dwarves, forgeborn, gnomes, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, high elves, humans, tieflings, and wood elves in the main rulebook; tywyzogs in the Bestiary) and fourteen classes (barbarians, bards, clerics, fighters, paladins, rangers, rogues, sorcerers, and wizards in the main book; chaos mages, commanders, druids, necromancers, and occultists in 13 True Ways) in print. I'm going to ignore the tywyzog and the occultist for the purposes of this experiment, giving me a nice round thirteen by thirteen grid of options.

Here are the thirteen characters in order of their creation:

1. Sergeant Kesek, 1st Level Dragonic Commander

2. Red Nose Roger, 1st Level Human Ranger

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

Feedback is of course welcome, and I'd love to hear if anyone ends up making use of the characters.

Friday, September 19, 2014

[13th Age] Red Nose Roger, 1st Level Human Ranger



Something I've been toying around with in my head for the last month or so is a series of thirteen first-level 13th Age characters—partially as a means of really familiarizing myself with all of the classes and races in the game, but also as a way to provide starting pre-gen characters for the larger 13th Age community. Putting together the stats for Sergeant Kesek, the dragonic commander, convinced me that I needed to follow through on this idea, and this post is thus the second in the series.

I'm a big fan of rangers as a class, especially when they're given access to pets. (My time playing a dwarf hunter in World of Warcraft is a big factor here.) Since I've already created a fourth-level ranger with the Animal Companion talent (Mim the gnome and her woolly rhino Loth), I thought I'd opt for something smaller this time round and go with Ranger's Pet as the core of the character. At which point I realized that I could generate a rat-catcher, everyone's favorite career from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and give 13th Age fans game stats for the notorious "small but vicious dog."

A vermin hunter isn't the typical ranger hunter archetype, but then again the sewers of the Dragon Empire are nowhere near as tame as our more mundane sewers—albino alligators would be the least of a sewer-dweller's problems! So the Empire needs brave (desperate) heroes (losers) to journey below and protect its cities from drainage-dwelling monsters.

Red Nose Roger, Human Ranger

Level 1

STR 12 (+1), CON 16 (+3), DEX 18 (+4), INT 10 (0), WIS 14 (+2), CHA 8 (-1)

AC 18, PD 15, MD 11

HP 30, Recoveries 8 @ 1d8+3 per recovery

One Unique Thing: After my nose was bitten off while cleansing the Horizon sewers, the Archmage gave me a orichalcum replacement. Now I smell things that aren't there.

Icon Relationships: Archmage +1, Emperor +1, Prince of Shadows +1

Backgrounds: Born a beggar on the streets of Axis +4, kitchen drudge for the Imperial Court +4, licensed as one of His Imperial Majesty's Rat-Catchers +5

Racial Power: Quick to Fight

Class Talents: Favored Enemy (defaults to beasts), Ranger's Pet, Tracker

Feats: Favored Enemy (Adventurer), Ranger's Pet (Adventurer)

Basic Melee Attack: +5 vs. AC, 1d8+1 damage, 1 miss damage (iron-bound cudgel) or +5 attack, 1d6+1 damage, 1 miss damage (excessive knife)

Basic Ranged Attack: +5 attack vs. AC, 1d6+4 damage (sling)

Gear: Leather armor, iron-bound cudgel, excessive knife, sling, 25 gp

Roger's backgrounds give him ins with the urban poor and the servants dwelling downstairs in the houses of the nobility. His efforts to stop a particularly bad infestation in one of the Emperor's palaces led to his appointment as an Imperial Rat-Catcher—a license that has taken him to the sewers of all the cities on the Midland Sea. It's this third background that was picked up with Roger's urban variant of the Tracker talent: as suggested by the folks on the 13th Age Google+ page, the text of Roger's Tracker talent reads "urban" where the book says "wilderness" and vice versa. To gain facility in tracking beyond the city walls, Roger will need to acquire the relevant feats (now inverted to cover wilderness environments). Roger's backgrounds account for his positive Icon relationship with both the Archmage and the Emperor—but a man can't spend as much time in the sewers as Roger has without developing a working relationship with the Prince of Shadows as well. Roger just never mentions this to his superiors in the Imperial Household.

Snapper, Small but Vicious Dog

Abilities: Counter-bite, Tough

Snapper was obviously destined to take the Counter-bite ability, but I also wanted him to have that irrepressible mutt quality. I therefore used Crooked Roger's second feat choice (the one he got from being human) to purchase the Adventurer feat for Ranger's Pet and cover the two ability slots needed for Tough. The result is a nasty little bastard who will nip anyone getting too close to his master.

Monday, September 15, 2014

[13th Age] Sergeant Kesek, 1st Level Dragonic Commander


William O'Connor kicking it.

One of my favorite aspects of Fourth Edition Dungeons & Dragons was the game's inclusion of the dragonborn as a player character race. Humanoid dragons are a logical extrapolation of the typical D&D universe—that they weren't core before 2008 has always surprised me. (Does it have something to do with the perception that a breath weapon ability is overpowered? I can't say.) Anyway, I loved everything about the race and made my first Fourth Edition character a dragonborn warlord named Sergeant Kesek.

When I picked up 13th Age, I was pleased to see that dragonborn had made it into the game in the form of "dragonics" or "dragonspawn." But the game did not yet have a warlord class analog ... until the commander came along in 13 True Ways. I've got my PDF copy of the book at last (waiting on the hardcopy), and I thought that I could test-drive the class by putting together a 13th Age version of Sergeant Kesek. Here goes ...

Sergeant Kesek, Dragonic Commander

Level 1

STR 17 (+3), CON 14 (+2), DEX 10 (+0), INT 10 (0), WIS 12 (+1), CHA 16 (+3)

AC 16 (17 w/shield), PD 13, MD 14

HP 27, Recoveries 8 @ 1d8+2 per recovery

One Unique Thing: I'm the sole survivor of the Crusader's Brimstone Falls campaign ... and the Diabolist is the one who saved me.

Icon Relationships: Emperor +1, Diabolist +1/-1, Crusader -1

Backgrounds: Hard-bitten mercenary sergeant +4, carouser extraordinaire +2, specialist in dragon lore +2

Racial Power: Breath Weapon (quick action, close quarters, +5 vs. PD, 1d6 fire damage)

Class Features: Command Points, Fight from the Front, Weigh the Odds

Class Talents: Armor Skills, Combat Maneuver (Carve an Opening), Martial Training

Commands: Rally Now!, Save Now!, Try Again

Tactics: Basic Tactical Strike

Feats: Fight from the Front (Adventurer)

Basic Melee Attack: +4 vs. AC, 1d10+3 damage, 1 miss damage (2-handed glaive) or +4 attack, 1d8+3 damage, 1 miss damage (1-handed longsword)

Basic Ranged Attack: +1 attack vs. AC, 1d6 damage (short bow)

Gear: Half-plate armor, shield, glaive, scimitar, short bow

If I've done my build right, Kesek is a lead-from-the-front Sergeant Striker figure—John Wayne with scales. His OUT is based on the vestigial backstory I developed for his original Fourth Edition incarnation: he and his fellow PC Cynfael (human rogue) were the only survivors of the massacre of Sulech's Heartbiters. Here I tied it into the Crusader's conflict with the Diabolist: Kesek hates the Crusader for the debacle at Brimstone Falls, but is not sure why the Diabolist saved his life. Was it just a whim of hers, or is he somehow part of her long-range plan to unleash Hell on the Empire? Either way, he owes her a life-debt.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Klarkash-Ton Is Up in Your Canon



Just discovered today that S. T. Joshi has edited a collection of Clark Ashton Smith's stories and poems for PENGUIN FRICKIN' CLASSICS. What a great 45th birthday present! Say "hello" to my next ENGL 1119 "Literature of Fantasy" syllabus, Mr. Smith!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

[13th Age] Gnome Ranger Mim and Her Woolly Rhino Loth



Back when I played World of Warcraft, my character was a dwarf hunter—primarily because of my penchant for woodsy characters. I soon discovered the charms of pets, though, an enchantment that has reached the point of RPG evaluation criterion. (Seriously! I find myself judging games based on how easily they integrate pets among other companion NPCs.) Although my character had many pets, including a six-legged alligator named Crocostimpy, his favorite was the woolly white rhino he picked up from the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Said rhino was named Alexei (after Marvel Comic's Rhino), and his most charming feature was the nearly subsonic thundering sound made by his feet as he charged around Azeroth.

So I was thrilled to realize, while making a Ranger for a 13th Age game at my FLGS, that I could reskin the Boar Animal Companion as a Woolly Rhino. (All Animal Companions in 13th Age share the same base stats, being differentiated only by a single trait; this makes diversifying one's pet beyond the six book options extremely simple.) Because the only thing cooler than having a rhino as a pet is riding one's rhino pet, I opted to make my character a gnome. Here are the current stats for Mim the ranger and her rhino Loth:

MIM, GNOME RANGER

Level 4

STR 13 (+1), CON 15 (+2), DEX 18 (+4), INT 10 (+0), WIS 15 (+2), CHA 10 (+0)

AC 20 (22 vs. OA b/c Small), PD 17, MD 14

HP 72, Recoveries 10 @ 4d8+2 per recovery

One Unique Thing: I know what the North Wind is saying

Icon Relationships: Archmage +/–1, Dwarf King +1, Orc Lord –1

Backgrounds: Woolly rhino wrangler +4, Frost Range guide +4, Flunked out of illusionist school in Horizon +2

Racial Powers: Confounding, Minor Illusions, Small

Class Talents: Animal Companion x2 (woolly rhino), Lethal Hunter, Two-Weapon Mastery

Feats: Animal Companion x3 (rhino adds Escalation Die to attacks, rhino can attack 2x in a round 1x per day, rhino has +1 to PD and MD), Extra Backgrounding (increases to "Woolly rhino wrangler" and "Frost Range guide") Two-Weapon Mastery (adds level to miss damage)

Basic Melee Attack: +9 attack, 4d6+2 damage, 8 miss damage (2 hand axes)

Basic Ranged Attack: +8 attack, 4d6+4 damage, 4 miss damage (thrown hand axe)

LOTH, MIM'S WOOLLY RHINO

Level 3

AC 19, PD 18, MD 14

HP 45

Companion Power: +1 attack when Loth moves before attacking

Basic Melee Attack: +9 attack, 3d6 damage

Mim has had three Incremental Advances since she began play, adding both a feat and a talent as well as increasing her hit points. She also has a few magic items she's never really used in play (they're objects the other players/characters didn't want, and they don't fit Mim's theme); I didn't bother including them as a result.

I'm really happy with the combined effect of Mim's One Unique Thing and her Backgrounds: they give her the wintry effect I was after as well as defining how she differs from the stereotypical gnome. Finally, it's quite clear to me that animal companions are one area where 13th Age has it all over Dungeons & Dragons: the latter game's CR 1/4 limit on a Beastmaster Ranger's companion choices has really undermined what's cool about animal companions in what appears to be the name of game balance.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Book of Kirby



Over on Twitter, Copra creator Michel Fiffe announced a blog post describing his process producing Cobra #16 as one inspired by the King of Comics: "Kirby Is My Co-Pilot." His choice of phrase reminded me of the old saying "God is my co-pilot," and the above saying immediately popped into my head. Use this meme well, and use it wisely. But most of all, use it to celebrate Jack Kirby!

P. S. If you haven't read Fiffe's Copra (his love letter to Ostrander and Yale's Suicide Squad), now is a great time to start: Bergen Street Comics is about to release a TPB collecting the first six issues of the self-produced series. Pre-order the book; you won't be sorry you did!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Modrons Are Back . . .



. . . in the Fifth Edition Monster Manual, and this old Planescape hand is thrilled to hear it. I generally prefer the Fourth Edition cosmology to the traditional Great Wheel, but I will always have room in my heart for these little guys from Mechanus.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Diamonds Are Forever in Frank Miller's Daredevil


[Here's the last of my old comics blog essays on page layout, a piece on Frank Miller and Klaus Janson from 2 May 2012. Let me know if you'd like to see more layout analyses in this vein. Thanks!]

I've been rereading Frank Miller's run on Daredevil lately, and the following page from "Gang War!" (issue #172, July 1981) caught my eye:


Here Miller and inker Klaus Janson turn in a wonderful piece of fight choreography. The use of tiered panels gives them lots of room for their figural work (the entire issue has lots going on panel-wise; this fight is mostly done in horizontal tiers, setting up a spectacular shift on the page after this one, a page that replaces horizontals with verticals). And their figures are spectacular! The Z-patterns I've discussed previously on this blog show up here as well, but doubled (or possibly even tripled). The first Z occupies panels 1-2: Daredevil's left hook draws our eye through the first panel to the right (even as his right arm reverses this motion, tossing Bulleye's gun away to the left), while the elbow to Bullseye's back takes us down and left into the second panel (aided by motion lines and the deliberate crossing of the gutter by Daredevil's hands). The leftward force of Daredevil's attack focuses our attention on Bulleye's kick in the left half of the panel; that exchange of blows is also a second diagonal line down from panel 1, a line formed by the angles Daredevil occupies in both panels. A similar parallelism is taking place on the right side of the panels as Bullseye's elbow draws our attention down to his head shooting forward. That head jerk sends us to panel 3 (as does the heavy use of black shadow on the Daredevil figures in both panels' left halves).

Panel 3 continues the downward, leftward stroke of the Z-pattern. Once again, gutter crossings aid and abet our eyes here: Bullseye's knee gets us from panel 2 to panel 3, and the brick in his left hand in panel 4 connects back to panel 3 (assisted by the lines on his glove and boot). But the shift from panel 4 to panel 5 splits. The main stroke of the Z runs down and left into the rightward moving boot that Bullseye delivers to Daredevil's face–a kick that sets up the final, horizontal strike of the Z. At the same time, Bullseye's panel 4 brick attack sets up another diagonal path into panel 5, this time running down and right into another kick by the villain. Motion lines aid this transition, although they establish a bit of tension between the lines of the page layout and the diegetic action of the story—Bullseye's brick attack and second kick are both moving up and left even as our eye moves down and right.

Panel 6 looks like it's starting a new Z-pattern with panel 5 as the top horizontal stroke, and panel 6 as the beginning of the downward diagonal stroke. The motion of the figures in the panel might be a truncated bottom horizontal, but something else is going on here besides Z-patterns. Look at panels 2 and 5: both break the page's general rule of one action per panel. Panel 2 gives us two attacks, and so does panel 5. Moreover, both attacks aim at the center of the panel: the lefthand attack in each panel moves right while the righthand attack moves left.

There's also a mirror-effect going on here. Panels 1-3 depict Daredevil in charge of the encounter, while panels 4-6 give Bullseye an edge. Panel 2's double-figures are mirrored in an X-pattern with panel 5's double-figures: we see all of the combatants in the exchange on the left half of panel 2 and on the right half of panel 5, while the right half of panel 2 and the left half of panel 5 give us close-up shots of the action (even if the character getting struck differs in the two panels). The bricks on the right side of panel 3 are mirrored by the bricks on the right side of panel 6. Daredevil is on the left in both panels 1 and 4, Bulleye's on the right. Finally, in panels 3 and 6, Bullseye is positioned on top of Daredevil.

In fact, the more I look at the page, the more I see two vertically-stacked diamond patterns. The first diamond is panels 1-3; the second, panels 4-6. The Z-patterns help us move from panel to panel, but the diamond patterns anchor the entire page as a single instance of layout. Perfectly legible stuff, but awesomely intricate as well.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Line-Up for My Fall 2014 Comics Course



Here, in pictorial form, are the ten titles I'll be teaching this coming fall semester in ENGL 121, the comics and graphic narratives class I added to my university's literature curriculum. The books are spread out across the 76 years since Superman's first appearance in 1938. (That said, the 40% of the titles that were published in or after 2000 reflect the mainstream presses' discovery that comics could be critically and commercially successful.) Los Bros didn't make it on the syllabus this go-round, but I'm reading Love & Rockets and will probably be adding them when I teach the class for the third time.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

[5E] Defending In-Character Inspiration via Walt Simonson's Thor



Here's a more constructive variation on my previous post. There are been complaints that the new Inspiration mechanic in D&D 5E is "dissociated," "meta-gaming" that pulls a player out-of-character. How Inspiration does this while the ability to fight without impairment even at 1 HP out of 60 doesn't is a question that never seems to get answered. (The answer, by the way, is that different players occupy different locations on the immersion spectrum and thus lose immersion at different times in response to different mechanics.)

I find that Inspiration perfectly maps onto in-character decision making, and I'm going to use Walt Simonson's Thor #362 to illustrate what I mean.


The situation is this: Thor has led the forces of Asgard into Hel to rescue the souls of mortals falsely imprisoned there. He's managed to succeed, but at the cost of grievous injuries to his face from Hela's clutches. As the Asgardians withdraw with the rescued souls, Hela uses a technicality to violate the cease-fire between the two sides and sends her undead armies after them. For the Asgardians to escape, someone has to stay behind and hold the Gjallerbru against the dead long enough for the good guys to make it past the boundaries of death. Like the hero he is, Thor states he'll do this. The others protest in vain, and Thor is only stopped from sacrificing himself when Skurge the Executioner, a former enemy of Thor's in the employ of the seductive Enchantress, coldcocks our hero and offers to take his place at the bridge:


In game terms, Skurge is the neutral evil low-Wisdom fighter who's been a pain in Thor's ass for several hundred sessions / issues. Out of nowhere he makes this amazing in-character speech explaining his willingness to die for his former foes' sake. The player of Balder, the lawful good paladin who was resurrected just before the start of Simonson's run, is so impressed by Skurge's player's speech that he grants his Inspiration point to Skurge (as per p. 36 of the Basic Rules PDF). The actual exchange of the point is right there on the page in panel 6, the moment when Balder hands Skurge his M-16. (The Asgardians are rocking American longarms in this storyline—it's a comics thing.)

This is a perfect example of how a simpatico group of players can make in-character sense of the player-instigated Inspiration trading mechanic. Skurge's speech is precisely the sort of "good roleplaying" the rules mention, and his statement that Balder is the only god to never laugh at him works an in-character explanation of why the point moves from the paladin to the fighter. DM Walt Simonson probably could have just as easily given Skurge's player the point in response to his awesome roleplaying, but Balder's player beat him to the punch.

OK, what about Skurge's expenditure of the point? How is that conceivably in-character? Well, in the first place, I think some people are getting hung up on the term "Inspiration." You could just as easily call the mechanic "Willpower" or "Determination." It's the moment when someone buckles down to get the job done, when their concentration narrows and their range of possibilities expands. Don't assume that it's only a meta-fictional trick of authors in complete control of their characters and plots: I know for a lived fact that my Bond to my family has allowed me to momentarily alter a situation to my favor. I was briefly "inspired" by that trait, and the odds shifted. As a result of such experiences, the expenditure of an Inspiration point seems perfectly in-character to me—especially since the D&D 5E has taken care to ensure that Inspiration is a binary state (you only ever have one point at the most; you can't stockpile it or store it in some sort of "Inspiration bank").

In Skurge's case, it's his Flaw (his unrequited love for the Enchantress) that motivates his expenditure of the Inspiration point at Gjallerbru:


(Wait for it ... we're getting there ... just wanted to show this awesome page layout: note how the tier 2 panels containing the approaching undead cavalry widen as the bad guys approach Skurge and the reader, and revel in that amazing final tier with the stylized Norse bridge backdrop.)


"As the warriors of death ride hard down upon him ... the Executioner turns his thoughts from the flowing blond hair that always dances before his eyes ... and begins to do the thing he does best! BUDDA BUDDA BUDDA BUDDA KAPOW! KAPOW! BLAM! BLAM! BEYOWWW!" Tier 2, panel 2 is the moment where he spends the Inspiration he got from Balder to whoop undead soldier ass. To me, that expenditure is as in-character as it gets.

Obviously, others may feel differently, may find that even this relatively restrained mechanic (players periodically get a point they may spend to justify gaining advantage) breaks their sense of immersion. I am in no way suggesting that my experiences and tolerances are universal. But I do think this post demonstrates that so-called "dissociation" is not an objective quality of mechanics but a subjective quality of players—and why I'd like to see the term retired in favor of honest discussions of personal gaming preferences and tolerances.

The next two pages of Thor #362 boil down to Simonson dropping the mike and walking off stage:


(Pardon me while I sit here a spell and contemplate the parallel yet contradictory motions of tiers 2 and 3: tier 2 pulls back away from Skurge, tier 3 zooms in on the M-16's muzzle.)


In the immortal words of the Kool-Aid Man: "OH YEAH!"

What, you thought I was going to let you go without showing all of the greatest death scene in the history of superhero comics?*

* OK, Supergirl's death in Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 is up there too. Props to Marv Wolfman and George Perez for that!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

D&D Discussion Pet Peeve



Yes, we get it. You like your elf-games to be fully immersive. That's a fine play-style. Now stop thread-crapping our non-immersive discussions.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day!



Peter Gillis and Sal Buscema deliver one of my favorite Captain America speeches ever in What If #44 (April 1984). Be safe this weekend!


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Looking-Glass Layout with Steve Ditko


[Here's the penultimate comics layout analysis from my old comics blog. In this entry from 9 August 2010, I'm looking at the work of Steve Ditko . . . ]

I've moved on to reading all of the Lee-Ditko run on Amazing Spider-Man, and I want to take a break from the Kirby analysis by looking at Dikto's layout for page 16 of ASM #23:


I'm struggling for a vocabulary that would allow me to express what I'm seeing on this page that distinguishes Ditko from Kirby.  Perhaps the best way to express the distinction is that Ditko concentrates on motion within panels instead of motion between panels as we see in Kirby.  Ditko's characters don't flow as easily from panel to panel as Kirby's do; Ditko will often (in other issues of AMS) make radical shifts in viewpoint as he makes the transition between panels.  I can't recall Kirby making use of extradiegetic arrows to guide the reader's attention as happens in panels 6-8 of this page.  So a point for Kirby?  Maybe . . . but I still really love the layout of this page and find Dikto a dynamic artist.

What impresses me most about the page is Ditko's use of mirrored panels--not in the panels' contents, but in their shape and placement on the page.  The top half of the page (panels 1-4) is repeated in the bottom half of the page (panels 5-8), but in a way that creates an "X"-pattern.  The big panels 1 and 8 form one stroke of the X, while the little panel sequences 2-4 and 5-7 form the other stroke.  Put another way, Ditko takes the second set of panels and flips them left to right to generate the "X"-shape.

The contents of the panels support this structure: panels 1 and 8 are the only two to feature both Spidey and the Green Goblin.  In both panels, Spidey is positioned toward the outer edge of the panel while the Goblin occupies the inner edge (additional instances of mirroring across the y-axis of the page).  Spidey is upside down and swinging up and to the right in panel 1; in panel 8, he's still upside down, but now swinging down and to the left.  (He's also coming toward us in panel 8 while moving away from us back in panel 1.)  The Goblin leans left in panel 1 and right in panel 8, yet more mirroring.

Panels 2-3 and 5-6 are also mirrored panels, but this time they flip left across the y-axis of the page instead of right (as in the case of panels 1 and 8).  Panel 2 shows the Goblin's hand releasing a pumpkin bomb; panel 3, Spidey's hand shooting a web to block the bomb.  The diagonal line repeated in both panels (hand/bomb in panel 2, hand/web/bomb in panel 3) is then repeated yet again in panels 5-6.  However, this time, the characters have traded places: now it's Spidey who acts first in panel 5, and the Goblin who wards off the attack second in panel 6.

Panels 4 and 7 offer similar layouts yet utterly different contents.  In panel 4, it's Spidey who acts, tossing the pumpkin bomb behind him to his left (and our right).  In panel 7, it's the Goblin's turn: he pulls Spidey's web in the opposite direction (behind him to his right and to our left).  The curves formed by the motion lines of Spidey's arm in panel 4 and the web shape in panel 7 are mirror-images of one another.

So while Ditko does feel the need to clarify the diegetic sequence of the page's action with the arrows connecting panels 6-8, he nonetheless does a brilliant job of integrating the entire page through an innovative page layout.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Kirby's Legacy Lives On



[Starting to run out of comics-commentary "reprints" from my defunct Kracalactaka blog. Here's one from 6 August 2010 on a tribute to Jack Kirby in the pages of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's Supreme.] 

I was reading Alan Moore's wonderful revamp of Rob Liefield's Supreme last night and came across a page by artist Rick Veitch that demonstrates Kirby's influence.  Of course, it's not particularly a surprise that this page is Kirbeyesque: the issue from which it's taken (issue #6 of Supreme: The Return) is an explicit homage to Kirby's lifework.  Nevertheless, Veitch's work here is more than a pastiche of Kirby's style, but a testament to his mastery of Kirby's layout techniques.  The page above is from a sequence in the comic where Supreme encounters a cigar-chomping "imagineer" who prefer to go by the sobriquet "King."

There's so much to love about this page.  Matt Yackey and Digital Broome (the colorists) use the traditional "color spectrum" to generate an "X" layout for the page: panels 1 and 4 form one stroke of "X," giving us natural colors brown and green bounded by "cool" colors violet and blue, while panels 2 and 3 use the "warm" colors yellow and red to form the other stroke.  Veitch strengthens this second stroke with the motion lines in panel 2, diagonals replicated by the Kirby krackle cigar in panel 3.

Veitch also uses the "Z" layout we saw in the Kirby page I analyzed in my last blog entry.  Supreme (drawn by Veitch in the 1990s Image style customary to the character) navigates his way across the four panel layout.  In panel 1, he flies away from us and to our right, drawing the eyes to panel 2--where he turns toward us and flies down and left to panel 3.  In panel 3, Supreme turns again, still facing us, but this time flying down and right into panel 4.  There he ends the page pointing up and to the right, with his back turned to us: a pose basically identical to the one he assumed in panel 1.

At the same time, Veitch makes Supreme progressively larger in each panel, an increase in size that heightens the Kirbyesque sense of motion on the page--a nice contrast to the more static quadrants of the "King"'s face.  Even there, though, there is motion as each quadrant shifts in color and texture from one of the four classical elements to another (earth to air to fire to water).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

[Supers!] Ms. Marvel (a.k.a. Kamala Khan)



To celebrate the news that Supers! Revised is now available in print format, I've decided to stat up Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel (as of issue #5 of her eponymous title). I love the story that G. Willow Wilson (writer), Adrian Alphona (art), and Ian Herring (colors) are telling about Jersey City's first Pakistani-American superhero—especially the way Alphona depicts Kamala's power set.

RESISTANCES (5D total)
Composure 2D
Fortitude 2D
Reaction 2D
Will 3D

Even though she's just a teenager with no training, I've given Kamala 2D in her two physical Resistances to reflect the toughness upgrade most characters get along with their superpowers. She's a fairly grounded character, so 2D for Composure as well. I did give her an extra die in Will to reflect her stubborn determination to do what's right even if it gets her grounded.

APTITUDES (2D total)
Academia 2D
Art & Craft 2D

Not a lot of Creation Dice to spend here: Kamala is an ordinary high school student. She's smart and studious, so I bumped her Academia a die. I also gave her a die in Art & Craft: she writes well-received Avengers fanfic, and she does a solid job of kit-bashing her costume.

POWERS (11D total)
Regeneration 4D (complication: only out of combat)
Shape Change 4D (complication: only humanoid forms)
Size Control 3D (down to 9 inches, up to 18 feet)
Stretching 2D (up to 20 feet)

Metaphorically, Kamala is figuring out who she is—and thus she gets a power suite reflecting the instability of her identity. It's also clearly a fun set of powers for Alphona to draw. We've seen her turn into variations on Ms. Marvel as well as a store mannequin, so I thought the "only humanoid forms" restriction fit her current level of Shape Change. As for Regeneration, we know that she can only rapidly heal damage in her ordinary form; I phrased this as "only out of combat" but it could just as easily be "never in hero ID" or some such. Willing to take suggestions on refining this, especially since she also apparently needs to eat like the Wally West Flash to fuel the power.

ADVANTAGES (2D total)
Dumb Luck (1 reroll per session)
Occupation (superhero fangirl, 1 related reroll per session)

Kamala has been lucky rather than smart so far in her hero career. (Issue #5 suggests she's starting to get a handle on things, so I can see her buying off this Advantage to pay for improved Powers soon, though.) She's also known among her friends as an Avengers fangirl: I gave her a die in Occupation to reflect her command of superhero trivia.

DISADVANTAGES (-3D total)
Enemy (the Inventor)
Secret (her hero ID is a secret from everyone except her friend Bruno)
Social Hindrance (she's a teenager and has to deal with all the limitations of being a minor)

Issue #5 ends with Kamala making her first archenemy, so a clear Disadvantage there. I've also given her Secret (for her secret identity) and Social Hindrance (she can be grounded by her parents). Note that I haven't created any Disadvantages to go along with either her Inhuman lineage (the book's done nothing with this yet) or her Muslim faith (she's observant, but I don't see her background limiting her in the way that her age does).

COMPETENCY DICE (3D total)

As you can see, Kamala fits nicely into the 20D/beginner level of Supers!

Kirby Page Layout ... Now with Panther Power


[Time for another Thursday "reprint" from Kracalataka, this time from 4 August 2011]

There's a Kirby page from Fantastic Four #52--the Black Panther's debut issue--that I've been wanting to talk about ever since I read Hagop's lovely discussion of it at The Short Box back in February.  Here's the page in question:


Hagop does a good job of discussing what makes individual panels on this page exemplars of Kirby's style.  What I'd like to add to that analysis is a reading of the page's overall layout, one that takes into account Kirby's ability to masterfully direct the reader's eye from one panel to the next.

For example, we once again see our old friend the Z-pattern.  Here it's based on Ben Grimm (with an assist from Johnny Storm).  In panel 1, Ben rushes toward the right edge of the panel (and the page), attempting to seize the FF's Wakandan guide before he escapes.  The motion lines contribute to the rightward dynamic of the panel.  In panel 2, Ben's figure still anchors the Z-pattern, but now Ben has been flipped right-to-left, and his left arm points down and left, directing our eyes to the second tier of panels.  Panel 3 (the first panel of the second tier) continues the downward diagonal begun in panel 2.  Finally, the Z-pattern is completed on the third tier of panels in panel 5: the falling figure of the Thing completes the downward diagonal's leftward motion, and the Torch's sprawling form pulls us to the right edge of the page, finishing the base of the Z.  (This is why it's important that the Torch show up in panel 3, supporting Ben from the right side of that panel--the same basic layout of figures that we see in panel 5.)

Kirby complicates matters with the appearance of T'Challa in panel 4.  Visuals match the narrative here as T'Challa intrudes upon the Fantastic Four, and the figure of the Black Panther breaks into the Z-pattern of the page.  Where the Panther is concerned, panels 4 and 5 form a second downward diagonal parallel to the first.  T'Challa leaps down upon the unsuspecting heroes in panel 4, a jump completed in panel 5 as he knocks them sprawling.  (The legs akimbo of panel 4 become the complete spread of panel 5--a single fluid motion captured in two moments.)

The Panther's attack also disrupts the page's panel grid.  Up until panel 5, we've been led to expect a six-panel grid broken down into two panels per tier, three tiers page (exactly what we'll get on the next page of the issue, page 11, and throughout much of the issue as a whole).  Kirby departs from that expectation here, giving us  instead a single elongated panel that covers the full extent of the tier.  Story drives layout: T'Challa kicks Ben and Johnny, and their flying bodies literally push the panel down and out toward the edges of the page--to the point where Johnny's body pressures the boundaries of human physiology to mimic the right angle of the panel's lower righthand corner. Again, motion lines are used expertly here, extending the panel out from the center point of T'Challa--whose impossibly split legs also copy the panel boundary (in this case, the long horizontal line at the top).  The Black Panther pushes the bottom line of the Z to its limits, causing it to bow out in the middle.

It's the clarity of layout that impresses me the most here.  While I love much of the art in modern comics, I find that the layout skills pioneered by Kirby and others are less in evidence, an absence of craft that undermines the reading experience.  But there are some nice modern counter-examples, and I'll discuss a few of those when I next find a chance to look at page layout.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Actual Play: Free RPG Day, 2014 Edition



I took part in this year's Free RPG Day celebration at Armored Gopher Games, my FLGS, and the event was an overwhelming success: five games, all of which ran with full tables, and a quickly depleted stack of free RPG materials. Since I was both a player and a referee this year, I thought I'd throw together an actual play post describing what went on.

(L to R) Ka-Boom, Primal, Lawman, Freeze-Tag, and Co-Opt

My stint at referee came first: starting at 11 a.m., I ran a session devoted to Hazard Studio's Supers! Revised game. I had a six-hour time slot, so I opted to let the players create their own heroes instead of using pre-gens. Since Supers! Revised is not yet in print (due to hijinks beyond Hazard's control), I had to rely on the single PDF copy on my MacBook hard drive. This created something of an information bottle-neck, although I was able to make copies of the extremely helpful Character Creation Guide provided in the back of the rulebook. It didn't hurt that the nature of Supers! Revised as a game doesn't necessitate frequent look-ups to build a character: not only does the Guide list all Resistances, Aptitudes, Powers, Boosts, Complications, Advantages, and Disadvantages but the game's relative simplicity means that dice devoted to a given Power are a more or less transparent indicator of the character's ability with that Power. (There was some fiddling with the rulebook to ensure that characters' Power dice matched up with their hero concepts, but nothing like I experienced the one time I tried to referee a Champions character creation session.)

My five players came up with the following supers:

The Lawman - Western sheriff descended from a long line of law enforcers. Carries his ancestor's six-shooter (a weapon that fires ghost bullets) and badge (affording him mystic protection from harm).

Freeze-Tag - Bounty-hunter with the ability to teleport to his quarries and stop them in their tracks with a paralytic touch. (The name was my suggestion to the player, but the powers pairing was his—and so wonderful that I will be stealing the character for use as a campaign NPC.)

Co-Opt - A hero whose powers are all about taking from others (co-opting their metahuman abilities with Power Steal and their skills with Mimic Aptitude) and then sharing them with himself (by cooperating with his duplicates). He also had Super Speed but rolled poorly with it all session, causing the other players to dub him "Worst Speedster EVER."

Ka-Boom - A skilled fighter whose primary power was her BFG. It went "KA-BOOM" when fired (natch).

Primal - A robot able to morph into any size animal form contained in its data banks.


I then tested the heroes' capabilities by running them through a fairly straightforward scenario, Hazard's Scene Stealers: Black Ice. The team found itself in hot pursuit of Cold Kill, a notorious super-villain who was in the midst of hijacking an armored truck. The chase was more or less a cinch for the players: Freeze-Tag kept teleporting from block to block to keep up with the truck, Co-Opt relied on his super-speed, Primal turned into a silver-maned stallion and carried Lawman on its back, and Ka-Boom ... well, I let her pick from the list of commandeered pursuit vehicles contained in the scenario, and she chose the ice-cream truck.

Cold Kill was definitely outnumbered, although he did nearly managed to put down Lawman and Primal with his wide-angle ice blast. (The ice-cream truck was totaled by the same blast. You served Ka-Boom well, Mr. Softee!) The team then more or less beat him down with a minimum of fuss. Unfortunately for them, the arrest was complicated by the on-site crash of a private plane ... and the arrival of Rio de Sangue, a contract killer who wanted the briefcase possessed by one of the passengers.

(Rio's nom-de-guerre led to much mocking by the heroes: "His name is Rio, and he dances on your glands ... Oh, Rio, Rio, you have got a severed hand!")

As a 35D villain, Rio was much more of a challenge for the team. His numerous super-abilities (including his hellacious 5D Armor) made it difficult for them to get in a decisive blow. On the other hand, Rio was equally outnumbered. Once Primal realized the armor's weakness (it didn't protect Rio's head, something Primal discovered when it shifted into condor form and tried to scratch out the villain's eyes), he got the rest of the team to start taking called shots. Rio attempted to escape by flying away, but Primal shifted into pterodactyl form and took him down. Cue end credits!

Everyone had a great time playing Supers! Revised; the only real complaint came from a few players who realized mid-scenario that they should have built their heroes differently to get the effects they wanted (and even these players agreed that they were talking more about fine-tuning than a completely misleading ruleset). My one regret as a referee was the massive beating my solo villains took as a result of serious outnumbering; I probably should have given Rio some minions as back-up to occupy some of the heroes and minimize the ganging-up effect. But then I didn't anticipate five players! (There was much less attendance for at the Gopher's 2013 Free RPG Day event.)


After a break for dinner with my family, I came back to the store for the second session of the event. This time I was a player in my friend Dave's Dungeon World event. Dave was running a scenario based on Mike Carr's Dungeon Module B1: In Search of the Unknown. He had tried to run the adventure the previous year but had insufficient players show up (i.e., just me). He had even tried to run it at home for me and another friend, but a TPK in the first encounter and a lack of time to start over had deep-sized that attempt. Hope springs eternal, though, and Dave offered the scenario again at this year's event. As mentioned above, he made the right call, ending up (like all the other games this year) with a full table.

I'll let Dave have the honor over at his blog of describing what transpired at the table. But I will note that I had a blast playing my swashbuckling Elf Fighter (who wore a fake mustache in the finest Fairbanks-Flynn tradition). Perhaps my crowning glory was the moment when I checked for traps by the corpse of a dead halfling thief onto a pile of treasure. There wasn't any trap, but I did manage to wake up the chimera who owned said treasure ...

Thanks to the Gopher staff for hosting Free RPG Day, to my players for showing up and indulging my desire to run Supers! Revised, and to Dave for sticking it out and finally getting to run his Dungeon World adventure!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

More Kirby Layout Goodness


[Another "reprint" from my defunct Kracalactaka! blog. Edited to remove a reference to a 2010 familial health crisis that ended for the better.]

This time let's look at a page from Fantastic Four #58 . . .


What we've got here is a beautiful Z-pattern that naturally syncs your eyes and the flow of narrative action on the page. The eye goes from Ben to Ben in each panel (expect for the transition between panels 5 and 6 which is handled via Doom's figure as well as the natural causal link between the makeshift spear in Ben's hand and the explosion that spear causes when it hits Doom). There is also the same sort of X-pattern that I discussed in my previous post on Kirby's Thor layouts. You have a line descending from the "ZAFFT!" in panel 1 through the "RAKK!" in panel 3 to the "ZOT!" in panel 5. Crossing that line is the one descending from the Ben Grimm in panel 2 through the Ben in panel 3 to the Ben in panel 4. The diagonal line formed by the wreckage that Ben demolishes in panel 3 adds to this larger portion of the X-pattern.

There's also a lovely bit of variation in panel size and shape here as well. The top and bottom tiers of panels consist of two equally-sized squares each. These tiers serve to frame the middle panel, a single rectangle that expands left (with the eye's own motion as it shifts down and left from panel 2) to mirror Ben's violent action in panel. A nice bit of emphasis by the King here!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Why So Many Good Superhero RPGs Now?



Over at RPGnet, someone has posted a poll asking folks which system (Capes, Cowls, and Villains Foul or Supers! Revised) they'd use to run a Justice League campaign. While the poll is running in favor of my preferred superhero ruleset (Supers! Revised), the discussion has made it clear that either game would be a perfectly fine choice. Meanwhile, Steve Kenson is getting ready to release a revised edition of Icons, his acclaimed superhero RPG, HERO Games has a streamlined edition of Champions available, Paragons & Prowlers is getting decent buzz, etc., etc.

What's going on? Why are we living in a veritable Golden Age of superhero games? (Roleplaying games are generally in a good place right now design-wise, but superhero games seem to be doing especially well—I don't really see any sort of edition-warring taking place between systems.) Theories?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Why Kirby Is King


[This post was originally published on my now-defunct Kracalataka! blog back on 7 July 2010. I'm going to be slowly moving the more interesting posts from that blog here to Vargold over the next few weeks.]

I've been reading the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on The Mighty Thor, and I came across these pages from Thor 137 ("The Thunder God and the Troll") that demonstrate Kirby's command of page layout.  Here's page 2, my first example:


Here Kirby depicts a competition between Thor and the goddess Sif, his new love interest.  (I get the sense that, by issue 137, even Lee was getting tired of mortal love interest Jane Foster.)  What I love about the layout on this page is the interaction of the six panels.  The first panel (Sif launching a javelin toward the reader's right) is mirrored by the sixth and last panel (Thor throwing Mjolnir toward the reader's left).  The second panel (Sif's javelin lodging in the pole) is mirrored by the fifth and penultimate panel (where the force of Mjolnir's impact on the ground causes the spears to burst out of the pole).  The overall effect is that of an "X" pattern: panels 1 and 6 form the first line of the X while panels 2 and 5 form the second line.  The coloring ties the layout together even more.  (There's no colorist credited for the issue, so I'm not sure who to praise here.)  Panels 2 and 6 match up due to their yellow backgrounds—but they're also linked diagonally to panel 3 by virtue of the rather large swatch of yellow represented by Thor's golden locks.  Blue dominates the reverse pattern of panels 1, 4, and 5.

My second example is page 5:


Yellow backdrops and action lines tie together panels 1 and 4.  So does content: in both panels, Thor is smashing an enemy's weapon.  The result is a diagonal pairing that continues the force of Thor's panel 1 blow down into panel 4: in both cases, Mjolnir moves down and to the reader's right.  Panels 2 and 3 are tied together by the diagonal line linking the troll missile before and after it is launched at Thor.  In panel 2, the missile points down and left to the center of the layout; in panel 3, it zooms up and right.  The layout is once again an "X" shape.  At the same time, though, Kirby ties together panels 3 and 4 in a lovely action sequence: in panel 3, Thor prepares to strike by moving Mjolnir down and to his left.  Then, in panel 4, Thor ends the page with a "Thbooom!" by swinging his hammer across his body to his right.  The layout result is a beautiful arc of motion across the gutter between the panels.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

[Supers!] Kitty Pryde



Supers!, Simon Washbourne's wonderful superhero RPG from 2010, has just come out in a revised edition ($10 in PDF, POD coming soon) from Hazard Studio. I haven't put together an itemized list of the differences between the two editions, but my initial pass through the revised version convinces me that Hazard has done an excellent job of clarifying the rules without unnecessarily complicating them—a very welcome outcome in the case of this, my favorite superhero game.

Of course, it wouldn't be a superhero RPG without a character conversion or two to see how well the rules handle archetypal comics characters. So I decided to do a Supers! RED version of my favorite Marvel mutant, phasing wunderkind Kitty Pryde. Like Josh Whedon, I too was introduced to the X-Men through Kitty's eyes, and she's remained one of my favorite characters since then.

The version I've chosen to stat up is the Kitty we see at the end of Uncanny X-Men #143 (March 1981), the final issue of John Byrne's run on the title as penciller. In this story, Kitty has to survive the attack of an N'Garai without any help from her teammates. It's a classic done-in-one, a real rite-of-passage for Kitty that more or less marks her emergence as a superhero in her own right. So it's also a perfect point to stat her up as a beginning 20D Supers! character.

Resistances (4D)
Composure 2D
Fortitude 2D
Reaction 2D
Will 2D

Kitty is not yet 14 years old, so giving her Resistances higher than 2D (already a step beyond human average) seems wrong to me.

Aptitudes (8D)
Academia 3D
Aircraft 2D
Athleticism 2D
Fighting 2D
Performance 2D
Technology 3D

Kitty is explicitly described in the comics as a genius, so I've given her MA/MS equivalent ability in academics and technology. Her 2D in Performance reflects her skill as a dancer (and looks ahead to her ability as a storyteller), while her other 2D Aptitudes are part of her X-Men training (issue #143 explicitly makes a story beat out of her SR-71 Blackbird study).

Powers (7D)
Flight 1D (only when insubstantial)
Insubstantiality 5D
Super Weaponry 4D (touch attack, only versus electronics)

Phasing is Kitty's main mutant power, so it gets the most dice. Her ability to walk on air molecules (and thus "fly" at running speed) is handled as Flight—which she gets for free courtesy of her "Only when" Complication. I've also given her Super Weaponry to reflect her power's effect on electronic systems: it's not called out as part of her power set by issue #143, but we've seen her use it to free Wolverine form a cage during the Dark Phoenix storyline.

Disadvantages (-1D)
Secret: Mutant

Kitty doesn't look like a mutant, so she doesn't get the Social Hindrance that many other mutants (e.g., Nightcrawler, Toad, etc.) get. Instead, her mutant status is a lurking secret, and its exposure becomes a plot point in future story lines.

Competency Dice (2D)

 I left Kitty with two Competency Dice to reflect her protagonist power—and also as a way of saving up for the dice she'll be spending to make Lockheed the space dragon her Companion. Well, that and the ninja training. Chris Claremont was a rather generous GM when it came to character advancement!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Gossamer & Shadow: Curses, Foiled Again!


Narasen, Queen of Merh (image by Daphne Danielson)

As my last post indicated, I've been reading Lords of Gossamer & Shadow, Jason Durrell's wonderful diceless RPG. The game's publishers have been released a series of mini-supplements in PDF form, and my favorite of the bunch so far has been Addendum: Blessings & Curses, a new set of powers for LoG&S characters. The essence of the Blessings / Curses power is straightforward: you pay fifteen character points for the basic ability to bless and curse, and then you add on twenty character points for a blessing / cursing pool. The twenty points in this pool can be used to construct personalized blessings and curses; all blessings and curses consist of five aspects (severity, influence, persistence, dismissal, and duration), and the various degrees of these aspects cost different numbers of points. As a blessing or curse is cast, the points used to pay for it are subtracted from the pool and remain inaccessible until the blessing or curse expires or is broken. The result is that a beginning magician will only be able to maintain a small number of minor blessings / curses or a single medium-sized one; with experience (and more character points), more mojo is available to build one's bene- and maledictions.

It's a fairly elegant little system, and I immediately begin using it to reconstruct the blessings and curses in the books I'm teaching this semester as part of my "Literature of Fantasy" course. My first attempt was this blessing from Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea:
[Ged] set a charm on that salty unreliable spring. The water rose up through the sand as sweet and clear as any mountain spring in the heights of Gont, nor did it ever fail.
I rated the blessing's severity at "mild" (1 pt.)—it's just a desalination charm. Because only a single small island spring is affected, the blessing's influence would be "specific" (also 1 pt.). So far, so cheap. Things get more expensive with the blessing's persistence, though: a spring is a constant thing, so I had to take "ongoing" persistence for 4 pts. I had some options for dismissal depending on how difficult I envisioned it being to break Ged's spell; in the end, I opted for "requires effort to dismiss" (2 pts.). Even as a young mage, Ged is extraordinarily powerful, so only another full-fledged Roke graduate could cancel the blessing. Finally, I had to consider the blessing's duration. This aspect is a multiplier, not an additive, making things get expensive fairly quickly. "Nor did it ever fail" didn't leave me a lot of wiggle-room: I was going to have to choose between "lifelong" (x3 pts., a duration of decades), "generational" (x4 pts., one of centuries), or "eternal" (x5 pts., what it says on the box). Here I split the difference and took "generational."

The final cost of Ged's blessing was 32 points ([1 + 1 + 4 + 2] x 4), a spell beyond the ability of a starting character in LoG&S. Of course, Le Guin's Earthsea works along different axioms than the game: for example, blessings and curses in the novel are more or less fire-and-forget (no maintenance cost). So there's not going to be an easy match-up between the fiction and the rules.

Something similar happened with the curse I decided to replicate. By this point in the class, we had moved from Le Guin to Tanith Lee. Our course text was Night's Master, but I had enjoyed reading that book so much that I went ahead and started its sequel, Death's Master, for pure pleasure. At the start of that novel, Narasen, Queen of Merh (depicted above), has been cursed by the dying sorcerer Issak. (He attempted to assault her, and she put a spear through him.) The curse is too long to quote here, but its essence is this: the land of Merh will become infertile and barren until the man-loathing queen conceives a child—but her womb is destined never to "quicken from the seed of any man living."

I don't think it's much of a spoiler for a book called Death's Master to note that the seed of a dead man offers Narasen a way to get around Isaak's curse. But that loophole is the only way out; none of Narasen's sorcerers can break the spell. So the curse's dismissal aspect is the most expensive: "difficult to dismiss" at 4 pts. Its influence and persistence are also at maximum: the entire kingdom of Merh ("widespread, 4 pts.) is affected, and the infertility is "ongoing" (4 pts.). Severity is surprisingly less extreme: the people, animals, and plants of Merh can exist as always, but they'll never reproduce until the curse is broken. Call it "middling" (2 pts.). Duration seems straightforward: Isaak mentions that "Famine and plague shall sit dicing in the streets for mortal lives." Add to this the curse's targeting of Narasen, and I think we can stick with "lifelong" for a multiplier of x3 pts.

Once again we have a particularly expensive casting: 42 pts ([4 + 4 + 4 + 2] x 3). But Isaak is a particularly potent wizard, and, since he is dying, he's not particularly afraid to incur any Bad Stuff he needs to cover the cost of the curse. (As a GM in a diceless game where player death is negotiated, I'd be willing to let a PC get away with a death curse like this in exchange for the end of the character.) Sorry, Narasen—looks like you're going to have to go ahead and get the plot of Death's Master moving!

As mentioned above, fiction != game. So I'm not using these sample blessings and curses as a way of judging the rules for their failure to recreate the conditions of settings other than the one Jason Durrall created for LoG&S. Instead, I've been using them as a way to test the versatility of the cost scheme, and here the supplement excels. The system was able to account for all the aspects of the castings, a fact that bodes well for players who will be more inclined to act in accordance with the parameters of the LoG&S universe. So call this a strong recommendation for Addendum: Blessings & Curses, especially since the supplement will only set you back $2.99!


Monday, March 10, 2014

Gossamer & Shadow


Pick a Door, any Door (art by the amazing Jason Rainville)

Whew. Seven weeks into the semester, and I finally find some time to post here. My fantasy literature students just took their midterm (covering Dunsany, Tolkien, Vance, and Le Guin), and my global performance in the Middle Ages class has just started Yuan zaju after finishing medieval English drama. Had to give up running Tales of the 13th Age because I'm taking part in my daughter's dance recital: I'm playing the non-dancing part of the evil Spanish Governor in Pacquita, and rehearsals for the actors are on the one night all my 13th Age players could make it. Luckily, one of those players has assumed GM duties and is now running the game on Thursday nights; I'm playing a dragonspawn paladin named Sule whose One Unique Thing is a congenital allergy to god.

But the primary reason for this update is to discuss my latest RPG purchase, Rite Publishing's Lords of Gossamer & Shadow (LoG&S). I've been eyeing this system for some time, partially because it comes highly recommended by such respected folks as Rob Donoghue and Bruce Baugh and partially because its original setting removes the primary obstacle to my enjoyment of the late Erick Wujcik's Amber DRPGRoger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber setting. (Don't get me wrong—I have nothing against Zelazny's books; I just read them far too early in my adolescence to really appreciate them.) When DriveThruRPG's GM's Day Sale dropped the price of the PDF/softcover combo to $30, I decided to take the plunge.

Still making my way through the rulebook, but I like the overall cut of the game's jib. Mechnically, I appreciate the clarity of the rules and the utility of the worksheets for player-generated Artifacts, Companions, and Domains. As an old Everway hand, the diceless side of LoG&S doesn't bother me at all: between attribute ranks, Stuff, and player tactics, I have more than enough information to adjudicate conflicts. I still can't get my head around how to integrate PCs and NPCs on the Attribute Ladder (do I need to create all the NPCs at the start of the game? if not, how do new NPCs get worked into the ladder?). I'm also thinking that there's a bit of an Amber DRPG remnant in the strange advice on p. 15 that players not be able to establish their characters' parentage—that makes sense in the familial hothouse that is Amber, but not in the more wide-open environment of the Great Stair. So far these are my biggest problems with the game.

In fact, I liked LoG&S enough to go ahead and grab all of the game's mini-supplements while the sale was still ongoing. The Addendum: Blessings & Curses powers add-on is a particular favorite of mine; look for a follow-up post test-driving those rules.