Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Matters of Scale

The boy and I have been watching Star Wars Rebels lately (it runs on TV in Paraguay, though I have to ask him to translate the show for me). It's good enough, and fun enough (and kid friendly enough) that we decided to go ahead and download the first season on iTunes. Unfortunately, with the crap internet connection here, that means about four+ hours per episode. When the internet is working.

*sigh*
Things aren't always this exciting...but often enough.
Still, the first three or four episodes have been worth the cost (in time and money), especially as I now get to watch the show in English (the boy misses a lot, after all...he is only five). But while there's a lot of annoying things about it (mainly about the main characters), I'm still finding the show to be (in sum) a good watch and interesting from the possibility of game development.

The idea of using a single ship as a reason for an adventuring crew to stick together isn't anything new. Traveller did it. Star Trek (and IP-inspired works like Far Trek) did it. Ashen Stars did it. Bulldog did it. Back in '05 I was working on something called "Shipboard," I was doing it. I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting. But having adventures/stories revolve around the exploits of a single crewed vessel is a time-honored tradition of science fiction...whether you're talking comics (the Micronauts, Dreadstar), television (Star Trek, Space 1999, Firefly), or film/novels. It's a good trope, the whole "life-in-a-can" thing. Very Das Boot...you're stuck together, so better work together.

So that's not anything I find terribly interesting (though it is a rather new thing for the "Star Wars" 'verse...usually, you've got SW protagonists operating all over the galaxy simultaneously). No, what's more interesting to me is the scale at which these rebels are carrying out their various subversive ops against the Empire. Rather than the usual galactic scale, we find them working at a planetary scale...in and around (for the most part) a single planet.

This is a very interesting choice of setting and one that makes a lot of sense when you think about it. I mean, the scales in Star Wars are all wonky anyway...you have a couple dozen (maybe) star fighters going toe-to-toe with an Empire that has the resources of a trillion beings to draw upon? Um...okay.

What can one ship or rogues do against a whole galaxy? Or a whole system of inhabited planets? Or against even a couple capital ships? Not much, of course (run away!)...but I'm not just talking about open conflict (laser-on-laser action). What kind of difference can a single ship make in helping the oppressed people of an over-thrown, galactic republic?

Not much...that's a lot of (refugee) mouths to feed.

Much of the Star Wars comics published by Marvel (back in the pre-prequel, pre-RotJ days) centered around the antics of Luke and Leia acting as spies and diplomats, trying to drum up support for their rebellion (flying around, talking to planetary governments about throwing in their lot with the rebels and getting all united in The Revolution), while Han and Chewie did their Hand and Chewie "loser thing" (getting into small change trouble with small change crooks). I mean, you can't rescue a princess and blow up a Death Star every episode/issue, right?

[you know, come to think of it, Lucas really did a huge disservice to his whole franchise by rehashing the Death Star thing in Return of the Jedi. Forget your hate of ewoks, forget the inconsistency of yet another appearance on backwater Tatooine at the ass-end of the galaxy, forget the whole crazy Leia-is-your-sister thing. Sure...those things all have varying degrees of suckage and lazy-plotting attached to them. Lucas, at the tail end of a broken marriage and a thwarted attempt at (real) empire-building was just trying to tie the thing up in as expedient a manner as possible, in order to make a buck (thank God for licensing, huh?)...and that, of course, is understandable. BUT, the bit that sucks the hardest is the recycling of the same film plot from the first movie with a bigger scale. What we should have seen is a showdown with Vader and the Emperor (and those dudes in the red imperial guardsmen) in some shadowy, lava-moated citadel with ALL the protagonists present and accounted for, with ALL the heroes facing their "moment-of-truth" with new Dark Side mind-fucks and Jedi mysticism, a culmination of the path of the first two films, while matched with the B-SciFi monster horror and Flash Gordon comic-tropes that Lucas mashed together in the first place. What a wasted opportunity]

[*sigh*]

But doing what Marvel did isn't a great recipe for an RPG. Playing diplomat is fun if you're playing a game like Diplomacy (natch), but it's fairly boring stuff in a game that's supposed to be about soaring space opera and blasting stormtroopers. Splitting protagonists and giving them different agendas in different parts of the galaxy may be nice for expanding and growing a setting, but it's a superficial exploration...not the dig-down-deep that it could be.

A while back I wrote a bit about "closed systems;" what I suppose I meant as limited environments for exploration. A single dungeon for a D&D-ish game. A single city for a superhero game. For a game that features a spacecraft capable of faster-than-light travel (and a galaxy filled with a million inhabitable worlds) confining the setting to a single planet (with occasional side jaunts) seems fairly limiting...at least given the homogenous environments of the Star Wars universe (where every planet has a "type:" water world, desert world, forest world, etc.).

I like this. Sorry, I do. I know some folks buck the ideas of limits, of artificial restraints imposed on their adventures. But for me, it seems there's plenty of good adventures to explore in such a small environment, plenty of impact to be had by acting on a single world, plenty of character that can be developed within a small crucible. I mean, it IS a planet...even if it lacks the diversity of environment, culture, and species found on little ol' Earth, it's still big enough that you can make for a meaningful series/saga. There's a lot of potential there, even with a relatively unimportant planet in the empire (and I'm not so sure Lothal IS unimportant...being a farm planet, it appears to supply a ton of food to the Empire's military. Tampering with that supply will get the number of troops at the garrison upped in no time flat).

So, cool. It's got me thinking of one or two ideas. It's also making me think I might have short-changed Star Wars (the West End Games D6-based RPG) back in the day. If I'd considered something of this (small) scale, I might have found it easier...and saner...to run a SW saga.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Problem With Cry Dark Future

Over at Save Vs. Poison, DM Wieg has been working up his own version of Cyberpunk 2020 using Sword & Wizardry as a base. Which is hip and all, but not really my cup-o-tea. I lost interest in CP2020 about the same time as I actually had a chance to play it. Maybe a little later (I sure did buy a lot of material for the game considering how little use I got out of it...though how could anyone pass up a supplement called The Chrome Berets?).

I love this supplement.
ANYway, he asked me to take a look at what he was doing based on my work on the as-yet-unpublished Cry Dark Future, which made me actually dig out and look at Cry Dark Future and see just why the hell it ISN'T published yet. After all, I finished the writing quite a while ago, it worked fine in play-testing (got great reviews from one game group), and was even able to attract interest at the one Con I took it to. Since I'm willing to pay for art these days, and have a printer (and the money to pay said printer), why haven't I just put it out there for the world to give me their dollars? Heck it was even edited...twice.

Because. That's why.

Because it's not great. I mean, it's just B/X Shadowrun, folks. And that's not good enough.

Part of the whole raison d'ĂȘtre for writing the thing was me realizing A) Shadowrun is just D&D with guns and cybernetics, and B) The B/X system is easy enough to mod, and C) why not bring a simpler, easier, friendlier system to the whole Shadowrun concept? So that's what I did...I mean, the game is STILL "Shadowrun"...you won't find Vancian spell lists for example the way the White Star folks (for example) crammed the magic-user and cleric lists into their game.

Shadowrun is a nice enough game. I've gotten some mileage out of it in the past (much more so when I was a teenager), and the recent editions have some truly excellent artwork of a kind I find particularly inspiring.

[I also very much enjoyed the first three novels set in the Shadowrun 'verse; some good stuff in there dealing with the types of issues rarely if ever seen in play at an actual SR table]

But remember that angsty post I wrote about 5 minutes before starting this one? The one in which I said I should be designing and developing games I want to run? Okay, B/X Shadowrun isn't really a game I want to run. Shadowrun isn't a game I want to run.

[sorry to Greg, of course...and all my friends in the U.S. Navy who happen to LOVE Shadowrun]

But that's a concept thing, and there's more to my dislike of my own game than the basic concept (which, by the way, should probably be enough!). There are a number of problems inherent in the design. Chargen, being based on Shadowrun, was too fiddly and took too long (there's a reason why every single edition of SR has included a list of standard archetypes for ready play, rather than making chargen a central part of play). Parts of combat (like bullet counting) are too fiddly. Magic, heavily based on Shadowrun, was too loose and grab-ass for my taste. And, if memory serves me right, there were some problems with the whole "random-monetary-reward-for-job-generator." Though truth be told, any game in which you're playing for money and the money allows you to buy all "system upgrades" (bigger weapons, better cyberware) has some inherent flaws of "game currency" built into the long-term play of the game. I know I found that in my days of playing ACTUAL Shadowrun, too.

[in D&D, for example, no paladin just goes into a shop, plops down his money, and purchases a +5 Holy Avenger. Even if you find a mage willing to create one for you...and you have the money...the DM can make the finding of the magical ingredients exceptionally difficult or challenging; it may even be easier to simply search out legends of an existing holy avenger (no doubt guarded by a host of fierce creatures). But in Shadowrun, the right contacts coupled with the proper credstick will get you anything you need with regard to gear, weapons, and cyberware...heck, even spells and magic items]

So, yeah...there are/were some inherent "system failures" in the game as written, mainly due to me adhering too closely to the structure and system of Shadowrun.

But the whole SR concept is...well, it's fairly unappealing to me at this time. It's dated, sure...the whole "Cyberpunk" thang is pretty dated. But just because a genre is dated doesn't mean it's bad, or lacks value. Many genres over the years have been considered "dead" only to make startling comebacks (the western, the space opera, '30s pulp adventure all come to mind). Many concepts considered "traditional cyberpunk" may be dated, but the idea of a dystopian future ruled by soulless corporations is still a pertinent subject of fiction and role-playing.

Does this illo really suggest "cyberpunk?"
No, it's the introduction/overlay of fantasy tropes/species into an existing structure (i.e. "the real (future) world") and the assumed outcome ("adventurers") that bugs me. It's the idea of going on "missions" for those same soulless corporations...the same way a party of D&D characters get hired by some mysterious figure in a smoky tavern...that bugs me. Scurrilous rogues trying to make a living in a largely lawless fantasy world is more believable to me than the SINless squatting abandoned warehouses filled with stashes of high-tech gear. Are you really stuck eating nutria-soy glop while sporting state-o-the-art combat enhancements? Who pays for the WD40 when your bionic blades get squeaky?

Fact is, there are cooler ways to structure a mash-up of fantasy and futuristic, which is why I started rewriting the whole damn game. The problem is, even though I was doing so (re-conceptualizing the setting as something more post-apocalyptic...kind of a Dark Sun meets Bakshi's Wizards meets Heavy Metal meets Appleseed meets the Deathlands novels)...AND fixing the other problems (the reward system, the fiddly chargen, the magic system, the bullet-counting, etc.)...even though I was doing that I found:

A) I wasn't terribly excited about the prospect of running such a game, and
B) The re-writes were taking a LOT of work.

[and would require even more work for a book worth publication...more play-testing, more editing, etc.]

And so the thing got back-burnered, and I just haven't gotten back to it. THAT is the problem with Cry Dark Future. It wasn't good enough as originally conceived/written, and I my dwindling interest in rewriting a post-apocalyptic fantasy game just to make use of a handful of B/X-based guns/cyberborg systems wasn't enough to sustain my writing/design stamina. That's why CDF may very well NEVER see the light of publication in any format.

Which is kind of depressing when I consider how much work I put into the thing originally (and later) and how I dismantled my old D&D campaign to do a bunch of play-testing for something that just ended up scrapped.

Like I said, I'm feeling a little angsty at the moment.

I'm sure this isn't the final word on CDF, by the way. I have hope that someday, something called "Cry Dark Future" will be published by Yours Truly in some format or other. It might even be before I get back from Paraguay (which for the interested means "before August"). But it's really not one of my priority projects at the moment. Just so folks know.

Diminishing Returns

This morning I've been spending my time drinking coffee and reading over the Taxidermic Owlbear's massive list of D&D retroclones and D&D-inspired games. It is, of course, incomplete, failing to list many pre-2000 fantasy heartbreakers and certain D&D-inspired games that borrow heavily from the original, "master game" (games like Palladium, WFRP, T&T, or Empire of the Petal Throne). But that's okay...T.O. has done a great service by providing a list of recent games from the latest "D&D Renaissance," giving interested folks (like myself) a lot of material to chew over.

Which is what I've been doing this morning...downloading and reading and "checking stuff out." There's a lot available for checking.

And in light of all this material...some of it "meh," some of it good, some of it great...how much more I, personally need to do. How much more I need to contribute.

Well, actually "need" is the wrong word. I should be saying want...my contributions to gaming have been fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

[which is fine, by the way. It's good to have a wide range of voices contributing to any particular art, even if only a handful are truly innovating and "pushing" the art. Consider what music or film or painting would be with LESS artists. A lot less interesting, is what]

Since it is very difficult to make any kind of living wage in game work (let alone an income capable of helping support my family), I'm left considering the only real value to game writing and design is in what matters to me personally. What games do I want to play?

Not: what are some innovative rules? Not: what are some niche subjects or settings that have gone unexplored? Not: what are some ways to make games more diverse and/or inclusive for folks who have felt (traditionally) excluded? And certainly not: what are some games (or supplements) that I think will make me a buck? Because the amount of profit I make compared to the time put into any venture is so small as to preclude justification.

I think I might be wanting to get of "the biz."

I'm realizing (today) how both gaming and design are both incredibly personal. To many, the reaction to that statement is probably, "duh, yeah," but I'm talking about internalizing my understanding, not just knowing something intellectually. The creative process, whereby which we create any form of art (static, performance, gaming, whatever) always involves being channeled through an individual (or multiple individuals if we're talking about a shared or group activity). But for an activity that requires a continual "going back to the well" for on-going participation, the personal aspect is only emphasized.

To put it another way: if I write a novel, the book is going to be colored by me...my perceptions, my vocabulary, my feelings on theme, and my particular use of grammar. The art (book) that is created is an expression of myself, but once created it is "out there" in the world, unchanging. Same with a film, a piece of theater, a culinary recipe, or even some types of game: board, card, strategy, war, computer, etc.

But for a role-playing game, that requires so much input from the participants' (players and GMs) own imagination...just make the game function!...my personal color is grossly overshadowed by the needs and desires of the people playing the game. My imagination is not going to be a tappable resource for the people who are playing my game...they have only their own imaginations to rely on when the text of the game fails to provide answers. As it must inevitably...RPGs don't script adventures like Choose Your Own Adventure books.

It matters little what my intention is with regard to game design, because intention is quickly discarded in favor of the needs of play.

I look at some of the great world settings folks have created in direct conjunction with their "rule hacks," things like Kyrinn's Urutsk, Gus L's Fallen Empires, Alexis's 17th century Earth, Barker's EPT...heck, even Chris Hogan's Small But Vicious Dog...games that have evolved away from their D&D roots even as their setting and world has evolved to meet the personal needs of their creators. I look at these and I think, what the heck am I doing?

What am I doing?

My own games have been sloppy. Not in terms of execution, perhaps, but in the case of overall consistency of theme and setting. I haven't created and run a true "fantasy setting" for decades. I've just run games...sometimes with consistent characters and/or consistent rules, sure. But...

But...

I look at my current "project list." I wrote this up to keep track of all the various half-baked (and half-written) ideas I currently have sitting on my hard drive. It's not even totally up-to-date (well, it's kind of, but I'm sure it's missing a thing or two). There are 27 working titles on it. 27! Those are projects in various states of repair. One or two are nothing more than titles and a couple hastily sketched notes! Others have scores of writing attached to them. And this isn't even counting one page, micro games I've written that could be developed further. That I'd like to develop further.

Twenty-seven. Only four or five of which have seen ANY play-testing. Just what am I doing?

What I should be doing is working on something that means something to me. Whether a system or setting (or both), that's what I should be developing...something that I want to play. No, scratch that (my designs are often centered on games that I'd like to play)...what I need to be working on is something I want to run. Because running games is what I do.

Running games. I've run a lot of games over the years. Most had some "fun" element to 'em. Many had problematic bits...and "tweaking" doesn't always fix that.

[sometimes the most problematic part of a game is that it doesn't appeal to the players. This is understandable; not every game appeals to every person. Personally, I hate Toon with a passion, and disliked much of the original Changeling, and while I really enjoy the themes and settings of Savage Worlds and HEX, their game systems leave me cold...or, worse, disinterested]

If I only focused on games I enjoyed running, or concepts that I wanted to run, my list of projects would dwindle significantly. Like, probably to...let me count...three? Maybe four. Maybe. Maybe less. Yeah, less.

*sigh*

I've been feeling angsty this week...I don't know why. Really, I don't. Maybe because I've been writing and writing and writing and am not loving what I'm doing. Or I'm looking at it and thinking, who will love this besides me? Or I'm rereading it and thinking, this is good but I don't think I'd ever want to run it myself. Or I'm thinking...well, any number of "stuffs." Angsty...like I said.

UGH. This post is going nowhere. I am very glad I'll be winging my way to Mexico in a couple days for a short vacation...it's obvious I need one.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Son...

...says that he wants to be an artist when he grows up. I don't know whether to feel incredibly proud or incredibly worried. I suppose I feel both. That's probably normal.

I'm sorry I didn't have the chance to write anything Friday. I had the "day from Hell" Thursday, and everything that came out of my fingers was a little too cranky and unproductive. Having one's car towed will do that...but having one's car towed in Paraguay is its very own special kind of bullshit.

[and that's all I'm going to say on the subject for now]

I have a LOT of game stuff on my mind at the moment. So much so that I don't know what to do with it. It's the weekend, so I don't really have time to write (I'm going to post this in the next couple sentences, and that will probably be the last thing on the blog till after Easter). I've got half a dozen concepts all clamoring for my attention in my mind, and I'm trying to consider the best way to "put them out there" into reality.

If I had my druthers, my life would revolve around games...playing, designing, and promoting. But it doesn't.

At least I don't live in Syria.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Way Back in the '90s

I spent a lot of time thinking about 1992 this morning.

When I was a kid, I calculated the year I would become a legal adult (1991) and the year I would be of legal drinking age (1994). The 90s seemed like a long way off...they were "the future, man." Prince's album, 1999 was released in '82, envisioning...well, nothing really. The possibility that we'd all be blown up in a nuclear cataclysm long before entering the 21st century, I suppose. Keep that 70s hedonism going through the 80s, y'all.

I don't know why I've been thinking about 1992 specifically, but it was a seminal year for me. I started going to movies again on a regular basis (though usually, artsy films). I made the acquaintance of Quentin Tarantino (his movie, Reservoir Dogs anyway). It was my first year in college...a place where I had many, many happy experiences compared to the drag that high school often was. I didn't have my first serious girlfriend (that would be a couple months into '93), but I did "mess around" with more than a couple young ladies. I smoked my first pack of cigarettes (though my real partying wouldn't start till the following summer). I made a lot of good friends, most of whom I've lost touch with.

The 90s were my time, man. I did the musician/band thing. Did a lot of acting (on stage and public access television). Partied a lot. Loved (and lost) more than a few times. Spent the decade enjoying my (young) adulthood. I was figuring out what it meant to be an adult, getting it very wrong most of the time. I was simply the second-coming of my teenage self, all the dials turned from 10 up to 20.

1992 was the first time I was able to vote in a presidential election. My candidate won. He was this dude from Arkansas that played the saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show. God, we were living in a new day and age. After 12 years of Reagan and Bush we were living in a time without fear. Without some crazy Cold War, or a bunch of random U.S. invasions, or some shitty economy. Things were booming! Things were looking up! We didn't get just one president, we got two! And the second (the First Lady) was even smarter than her charismatic husband! Gosh, health care reform...yay!

I did not do a lot of gaming in the 90s. Hell, for most of the decade I didn't own a television or even a computer. I was too busy L-I-V-I-N, man. I was employed throughout (I've been working since high school...these last years in Paraguay have been my longest stint of unemployment since I was 15), though my jobs were random, haphazard, expedient...not with an eye towards long-term goals or career, simply as a means to earn ready cash. I never gave much thought to the future...I was already living IN the future. All my focus was on the present.

No internet or blogging for me back in those days. Not sure I would have had much to say.

Now...boy, 1992 is a long time ago. The 1990's are a long time ago. I still feel (mostly) young, but my youth, my stupid, callow youth is a long time ago. I still have a pile of CDs from that time (in my garage, in Seattle)...music like Nine Inch Nails and Tool and various "grunge" and "alternative" bands, stuff with dark and cynical lyrics and themes. Good music, but stuff I can't really listen to these days. I'm too happy, too blessed, too appreciative of what I am, of what I have. For most of my life (up until the end of the 90s), I really didn't "get it." I wasted a lot of time, blamed a lot of my dissatisfactions of life on things other than myself.

And, unfortunately, I didn't have any mentors or strong role-models to straighten my shit out. I just had to figure it out myself, the same way I had to figure out how to play Dungeons & Dragons at the age of 8 or 9. No one was showing me the right way to do anything. Most of the time, I was the person people were coming to for help or advice.

Anyway...

I'm not sure what's bringing this blog post out of me at the moment. I'm not drinking (well, I am drinking coffee, but not anything stronger). I've still got a bit of a cold, but I'm not feverish. I got a good night's sleep. I was originally planning on writing something about "small town" mentality with regard to D&D campaigns (maybe tomorrow)...I really don't know why I feel the need to wallow in my reminisces at the moment. I don't feel particularly old.

Yes, I know this came out
before 1992.
But there is a lot of mileage on these tires. If you'd asked me in 1992 to name a favorite film, I probably would have given you The Blood of Heroes, the Rutger Hauer/Joan Chen cult classic. If there had been blogging in 1992, I would have devoted at least a week of posts to writing about the film, the hidden nuance within its setting and writing that makes it such a fascinating entry into the post-apocalyptic genre...not to mention the coolness of "the Game." I would have lauded a lot of compliments on the screenwriter, certainly a genius, and I'd brag about how many times I've re-watched the film (since I own it on VHS. Haven't even had a working VHS player for years). Apart from a couple of weak performances (I'm not a fan of Vincent Donofrio's work in the film, for instance), The Blood of Heroes would be pretty close to perfect, in my book.

[interesting that David Peoples would get a lot more accolades for his writing of Unforgiven, another film I love, that was released in 1992]

Now, of course, there's an international sport that's been created and spread across the globe based on the game in the film (O those crazy Germans!). If I was 20 years younger and stupider (and still had two good knees), I'd probably be trying to make it on one of the American teams myself. But I'm not and I won't and...well, as I said, there's a lot of mileage on Ye Old Tires.

I really hope I can help my children to appreciate how wonderful life is. I let them watch far too much television but hopefully that will change when we get back to a country where playing outside is more of an option (where the rain doesn't create flash-floods, the sun doesn't create heat-stroke, and the mosquitos don't carry dengue). My parents were good parents (for the most part), but they didn't really instill in me an understanding of the real possibility of life. They told me I could be "anything I want" but they provided me with neither roadmap, nor real support. And for many of my "dreams," the mantra was often "get an education/get a job first"...which in the end, left me with little time and energy to pursue any serious goals.  A cocktail, a film, a few hours hanging out, an occasional romance...this was the extent of my pleasure once my "responsibilities" were met.

I never learned to hustle.

Now, a quarter-century after I reached "the future" I am living in a present that is better than I ever imagined (being that I feel very fulfilled with a home, family, and writing hobby that is immensely satisfying), AND now I see a future still full of potential possibility, with no real end date. I'm not excited by this prospect, mind you...I am anxious because of it. Because I have no road map. Because I doubt myself. Because I want things to work perfectly and I keep making missteps through my ignorance or selfishness or both. Because there are no benchmarks for me as there were in my youth. The age of retirement? Only if that means something in the next twenty years. The day my children grow up and move out? Who knows when that might occur (my 40-year old brother is currently living with our mom). The day I become a full-time game publisher? Yeah, right...it's tough enough just being a part-time one (and the money is only enough to support my hobby).

I'm not worried about survival. I've been very good at surviving (health and sanity intact) the last four decades. I'm worried about living up to my potential, about making something of lasting value, of making a difference. Maybe I have too much fear in me. That doesn't mean I won't try. I'm just worried I'm going to half-ass it and make a frigging mess of everything.

That's definitely different from how I thought in 1992.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Idle Hands...

I am sick (again), but not terribly so. Some weird random cough, stuffed up head, and (most irritating for me) the damn nasal drip.

What I should be doing is sleeping, but I'm not (duh). Instead, I've got a (game) project I'm working on that I am extremely engaged in. No, it has nothing to do with my B/X Campaign Setting (that's now up to page 62, though it's currently un-formatted...it's probably 6-8 pages away from completion). And, no, it has nothing at all (or nearly nothing) to do with the recent superhero game I've been diddling around with.

Nope, this is yet another project that I'm all hot and bothered about. I am hoping I can keep it short-n-sweet and knock it out in a day or four. I am really going to give it that ol' college try. The thing is, my time for "work" (of this sort) is growing short...I'll be winging my way off to Oaxaca, Mexico for Holy Week, and will probably be away from my computer from the 21st till after Easter. And who can say even after that?

Fingers crossed.
ANYhoo. The writing is going well, which is a relief because this thing is pretty far "outside-the-box" for Yours Truly. However, I've been recently inspired by a couple new artists with whom I've made recent acquaintance, one of whom is actually Paraguayan. I am really, really hoping I can use her artwork in the new project (Paraguayans don't play RPGs, of course, and I don't write in Spanish, so a "comp copy" of the book probably won't fly as payment for services rendered. However, as I wrote the other day, I DO plan on paying my artists from now on, so I was thinking about moving to cash as my means of barter anyway).

Okay...that's enough. Got to go to the lavanderia and then get home to plug in a few more pages before my illness gets any worse!
: )

Monday, March 14, 2016

Jessica Jones (Addendum)

My main review still holds true.

"You don't want to watch? Fine."
Just took the time to finish watching the last couple episodes of the Jessica Jones series on Netflix. Excellent. Ends on a perfect note. The last two episodes are great, and are as tough to watch as the earlier stuff (though for more gruesome reasons). Very clever, very well done.

I see now the reasons for the inclusion of IGH (as a set-up for the following season). Still dissatisfied that this ended up involving the Simpson character (too much coincidence)...but from a filmmaking perspective it just "tightens the strings." Part of the problem with shows that involve large ensembles (take Lost as an example) is you end up with a lot of loose ends flapping in the breeze...which might be "realistic" (in the real world sense) but perhaps unsatisfying to the paying audience who wants to see everything resolved.

On the other hand, the wife and I just finished watching the series finale of Downton Abbey last week, and the ending held exactly zero surprises...everything, more or less, perfectly resolving the way folks would like it to resolve. Which is fine, because, in the end Downton Abbey is a feel-good drama, a type of show that you don't really see (it doesn't usually make for compelling television).

Jessica Jones is not "feel good," and it would have felt wrong to end on a 100% positive, upbeat note. The last shot is a great one...I'm not sure if this brand of darkness really fits with the Marvel milieu, but it sure as hell is great television. As I was saying the other day, these comic-to-screen adaptations don't have to be cannon. What the show's creators have done with the Jones property is pretty amazing.

Sweet Christmas.
And the adjustments they've made to Luke Cage are fantastic, too...Michael Colter's portrayal gives us a much more interesting, nuanced character than the caricature that was too often on display in comics and animation (though I haven't read any of his recent stories...like any of the New Avengers stuff...so it's possible I've missed a lot of character development). Most of what I've liked about Cage in the past is his interaction with Danny Rand, the way the two complement each other. But the interaction between Cage and Jones is even better, bringing out additional layers I've never seen in the comics. It's much more interesting (to me) than the usual romantic relationships in action-dramas...or even your average romantic-comedy, come to think of it.

[I say "interaction" not "chemistry," as the latter doesn't seem to really be there. However, I'm not sure how much of that is by design...Jessica Jones, as written for the show, is not the type of person to easily have chemistry. And Cage has always been a hard-case...the unbreakable skin has been a metaphor for his personality for much of the character's existence]

So, it was good. Good enough that the series as a whole easily makes my Top Ten list of live-action Marvel fare. That's not hyperbole, just by the way...I actually went through the current list of live action Marvel films and television series to make sure. My current list (solely based on alphabetical order):

  1. Ant-Man
  2. Captain America: The First Avenger
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. Daredevil (the Netflix series)
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Incredible Hulk (the Ed Norton film)
  7. Iron Man
  8. Jessica Jones
  9. Spiderman 2 (the Alfred Molina/Doc Ock film)
  10. X2: X-Men United (that's the second film)

I mean, I like the Avengers films an awful lot...they probably fall just outside of my Top 10, and the films listed aren't without their warts. In fact, a couple of 'em may not even be great cinema...but each of them has something special that (for me) distinguishes it. A really awesome villain for example (Alfred Molina, Tim Roth), or a fun and playful version of a traditional protagonist (Ant-Man, Iron Man, Star Lord) or jut a damn good marathon of storytelling (Daredevil and Jessica Jones).

[actually, just looking over the list I see that all of these films have great antagonists. I'm a villain guy, I guess...it's the Dungeon Master in me]

Okay, that's it. Time to do some chores (including some work on the book).

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Jessica Jones

The problem with comic books is that it's a business...an industry. I mean, there may be more wrong with it than that, but (to me) that is the main issue.

Not that being a business is ALL bad; there's more than a few good things that come out of being a part of a big, greased-up machine. But as with film, and certain other media (yeah, I might as well throw tabletop RPGs into the mix), there're certain large pitfalls associated with being "big business." Being beholden to that almighty dollar, to shareholders, to the need to make a profit. It's not necessarily greed (this isn't another anti-capitalism post...at least, that's not my intent). But folks get accustomed to a certain lifestyle, you know.

For example, Spider-Man has been featured in more than 1000 comics. That's featured mind you...as in, his name is part of the titles. After more than 50 years of fighting crime, you'd think the old man would give it a rest. Most baby-boomers his age have retired by now...and I doubt any of them could boast of the physical beating he's taken over his career. I don't care if he has the strength of a 167 pound spider...he has had his ass handed to him every issue or three. Regardless of whether he's winning the fights or not, that shit takes a toll.

But even if it doesn't (and it doesn't...he's a comic book character after all), how many stories can you really tell over six decades and multiple titles (Spectacular Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, etc.)? Sooner or later, you're pumping a dry-well. You're recycling the same stories, the same issues, the same drama. You're fighting the same Green Goblin for the upteenth time, it's just Green Goblin II or Green Goblin III or the Hobgoblin. You're dealing with the same Doc Octopus of Doctor Doom you've thwarted on numerous occasions (and yet the guy never seems to get the hint). You've broken up and gotten back together with the same girl so many times it's like...I don't know. I had a neurotic relationship with a girl I met in college that was "on-again-off-again" but that craziness only lasted a couple-three years. You hit age 25 and (so long as you don't have a kid together by then), you wise up and grow the fuck up. It might seem like it takes twenty years, but it doesn't really.

But none of that is really Peter Parker's fault. The problem is one of "the biz:" Spider-Man sells comics. The objective of any business is to make money. Money is made (in that industry) by selling comics. Therefore, the Powers That Be require their artists and writers to continuously pump out Spider-Man comics, by whatever means necessary.

Art be damned. I mean it...comic books are a capital-A "ART form." They've got writing, they've got illustration. They've got pacing and layout and plotting and dialogue and all those things that require artistry (not scientific method) to achieve greatness. But all that "art" is secondary to the need to sell copy. Make an Avengers. Make a West Coast Avengers. Make a New Avengers. Diversify the brand and build on what's already popular. THAT takes priority in a business (going with the proven commodity) over trying to do something new and original. R&D is the money-suck of any business...you never know if the brainstorm is actually going to payoff (and, heck, it probably doesn't most of the time), and you've still got to pay the wages of your employees. You've still got to answer to the shareholders. 'Art be damned...we own the Spider-Man IP!'

So, I'd guess more than a few people have never heard of Jessica Jones. In the scheme of the Marvel universe she's a fairly minor character (though she is part of their "main" universe), and a recent addition (created in 2001). Yes she's had her own title...twice (Alias and The Pulse), but they lasted a grand total of 28 and 14 issues respectively (with The Pulse ending in 2006). I've never read a single issue of either...the only reason I know anything about her is that she's married to Luke Cage.

[I was researching Cage for something a few years back...probably a superhero RPG...and I found out he had somehow gotten hitched and wanted to know who the hell would marry Luke Cage. Thank goodness for the internet, huh?]
THIS image is not what the show is about.
And while I've read all the background and story arcs (on-line) for the character's series, none of it was really enough to interest me. It's not that I'm more interested in Spider-Man or something...he's bored the shit out of me for years as well (truth is I haven't been a regular purchaser/collector of comics for decades). I just wasn't intrigued enough by what I read to want to take the time and spend the money on some new, fire-and-forget, minor character comic series. I used to dig on Dazzler, but I never bought her graphic novel, either.

So now we have this Jessica Jones show on Ye Old Netflix, and the only reason I'm watching it is (in descending order of importance):
  1. Because of the interconnectedness of the Marvel Netflix series (Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist...the main one I'm waiting for...all living in the mean streets of New York) I'm afraid I might miss something if I don't catch ALL the series.
  2. I'd feel like a real shit-heel not watching the one superhero offering of Marvel that features a female protagonist. Seriously. Black Widow is bit character. And Shield Agents aren't "super heroes" in my book.
  3. The strength of the Daredevil series (and other Netflix originals...House of Cards, Unbreakable Kimmie, Orange is the New Black) gave me faith the show would be at least interesting.
[see that Marvel? There was a time when people picked up the new Marvel hero mag based on the strength of earlier offerings. All those "classic" titles that are into the 800s and higher were NEW once upon a time. Have a little faith (and quality control) and re-learn what you've forgotten]

[or not, whatever. It's your business, after all, not mine]

So I started watching Jessica Jones (for those reasons) and I'm nine episodes in (just watched two tonight), and the show is great. Probably better than Daredevil (I'm still irritated by that cheesy ninja fight towards the end of the season), though I am partial to old DD. But the story in Jessica Jones is excellent, the acting is top notch, the writing and pacing are great, and the whole of the show is compelling. I watched two episodes tonight (five in the last couple days), and I had to force myself to stop so that I could write a blog post before (hopefully) hitting the hay.

But as I wrote in my last post, it can be difficult (mm..."challenging") to watch. The creators seem to really be striving to put the "tense" into "intense." I actually started watching the series a few months back, and am only just now returning to it. It's...well, it will probably push some buttons for you (and not very nice ones)...but that's a good thing, in my opinion. I mean, not if the show is absolutely hateful...and this one isn't. Hateful I mean. There's enough humanity and decency found within the characters (in a non-cheesy, non-preachy way) to balance the negativity.

And some of it's pretty negative...you get that in any story involving private investigators, of course; especially when the P.I.s biz starts getting mixed up with their friends and relations. But Jones is just such a fuck-up in so many ways...even when she's being super-smart and ballsy and tough and clever, she's STILL putting her foot in it. Digging her own hole. She's a friggin train wreck.

She's the jaded nihilist with the heart of gold. She's too much of a realist to be a hero, but has too many scruples (or guilt) to be a rank opportunist. She's a walking bucket of shame with a fifth of whiskey.

It's so anti-heroic, Jones (played exceptionally by Krysten Ritter) is on the verge of redefining what the hell it means to be an "anti-hero." She shuffles around town in her hoody and combat boots, basically making an ass of herself at all times. She shows that even a Class A badass can end up looking like a Class A clown if you keep the "tough guy" image going long enough. So many non-heroic images...getting thrown out of a bar, too drunk to stand. There's a great scene in which she climbs the Brooklyn Bridge (for no reason other than character exposition/development) where the camera is doing the "point-up-the-dress" view, and all you're treated to is a woman in rather unflattering jeans climbing a ladder. There's her completely wrecking people's lives while trying to "do the right thing." It's not Jones trying to be a "hero;" she just has too much morality not to try.

"A drink needs me. I don't."
And she has absolutely no time or give-a-shit for other folks' baggage or self-pity. She just tells it like it is. The murderer whose talking about his abusive childhood: "You're going to blame your shit on poor parenting?" She's constantly telling people to grow up...even though she is light-years away from maturity herself.

But it's good writing; none of this feels like it's just set-up for one-liners. And just as often she's getting sharp retorts thrown back in her face. Or being told off in no uncertain terms. Most often by people she cares about and whose opinions matter to her (thus making the "sting" harder). It's abusive. But it's self-inflicted. It's depressing...but there's hope. I mean, she's a superhero, dammit...she's got superpowers and we're talking about Marvel, so of course there's hope. And we all hope she'll pull through.

Because there are a lot of people counting on ol' Jessica Jones. In the comic book world, people count on their heroes. Eventually. After they realize (in the words of one character) that "they're up there, and we're down here, and we just need to get the hell out of their way." The way God and Stan Lee intended, I suppose.

It's a very good show. It also has nearly bupkis to do with the story arcs of the Jessica Jones comic series (either one) besides her origin story and her abuse at the hands of the Purple Man. In fact, the show is soooo street level, I really wonder how they're going to handle the Luke Cage and (especially) the Iron Fist series. On the Kenneth Hite "blue (weirdness) scale" this one's cranked pretty darn low...not much room for other dimensional realms and flaming chi punches. Just like you won't find Stilt-Man or even "radar sense" in the Daredevil series, the super powers found in Jessica Jones are either rationally explained, or else relegated to the land of Not-Relevant-Enough-For-Exposition. Like Daredevil, this one's an origin story without the origin story. No one cares about how Ms. Jones got her super powers (well, not much anyway)...we care about what she does with them. In this series we're seeing an origin of sorts...not how she became superhuman, but how she became a hero.

And that's a far more interesting story to watch.

[EDIT: Comments on this post may contain *SPOILERS*. Read at your own risk, but feel free to comment]

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Street Level Heroes

This is more about TV.

I'm writing this Friday night around 11pm; the house is quiet, the kids are asleep, the wife's out of town. I plan on putting on a little Netflix (Jessica Jones) and catching an episode or two, but I wanted to blog a couple things while I'm thinking about it...even though I don't plan on posting this for a couple days.

I received a notification from Netflix that the new season of Daredevil is coming out March 18th. Readers of this blog know how much I dig the man in the red suit. The main question, of course, is will the second season be as good as the first? Well, it's going to introduce Elektra, and the first episode (per IMDB) has Daredevil facing off against Frank Castle (AKA the Punisher) so comic fans should be prepared to totally geek out. For me, I have to say that the highlight of watching the trailer was actually seeing Murdoch and Foggy interact...as I blogged before, Elden Henson is a breath of fresh air; I forgot how good the chemistry between these actors is, and I found myself (emotionally) moved in just a few second clip. Rosario Dawson again makes an appearance, based on the series trailer, and Deborah Woll (Karen Page) gets 2nd billing in every episode, so I assume she remains prominent, despite the introduction of ex-flame Elektra.

Not Greek.
Elektra appears to retain her Greek-ish heritage (last name "Natchios") but will be played by Elodie Yung, a French woman of mixed French and Cambodian ancestry. Which I find fascinating for all sorts of reasons. It won't be the first time a non-Greek person will have played the popular anti-hero (see Jennifer Garner), but I wonder about the insistence of keeping a character's ethnic identity. I suppose I'm just being picky.

Or am I? There's been quite a brouhaha over the casting of Finn Jones to play Danny Rand in the upcoming Iron Fist series...appears more than a few people were hoping that Marvel and Netflix would take a step outside comic book cannon and cast an Asian-American in the role (you can do your own Google search for "Iron Fist controversy"...you'll find several articles). I mean, he IS a martial arts master, right?

Oh, boy.

Not Asian.
I can understand why Iron Fist is a troublesome character. He's got the whole "cultural appropriation" thing going on, plus you know, the "white guy reigns supreme" thing (kicking the ass of Asian martial artists as he takes on the championship mantle from the mystical Asian kingdom dimension). Of course, even making him Asian is problematic because, well, then you get the whole stereotype of "all Asians know karate" thing. Look, I grew up in Seattle and had a lot of friends of Asian ancestry...not a single one did martial arts, and many of them (especially my Filipino buddies) absolutely HATED that stereotype.

Come to think of it, in all the years I practiced martial arts (about a decade of tae kwon do and hwa rang do plus a single, abbreviated foray into chung moo do) all the practitioners I knew were caucasian. Hell, I only ever met one instructor that was Korean, and she'd only started practicing because she was married to her (caucasian) husband who was an instructor and had met her in Korea.

[I did work with a man of mixed Hawaiian and Japanese ancestry who taught aikido, but all the folks I knew who studied aikido...four guys and a girl...were white]

But that's the Seattle experience, and we have a legacy left from Bruce Lee who lived there and ran a school for a number of years before going to Hong Kong to make movies.

Not even American.
So Iron Fist is a problematic figure. The thing is (*sigh*) I LOVE Iron Fist. I've been waiting with bated breath for his series since it was announced years ago. When I was a kid playing Marvel Superheroes, my character was based on Iron Fist (his look, not his powers). The recent series for the character, the "Living Weapon" stuff, is great. I really dug the whole Daredevil-Iron Fist switcheroo (which made perfect sense when you think about it). I love his relationship with Luke Cage...the black-white buddy thing. I love his off-again-on-again relationship with Misty Knight (probably my second favorite female superhero after Batgirl...it's the cyborg thing). I love that he's stupid about a lot of things. I love that he's smart about things that are truly important. I love that he got rid of his wealth rather than sitting on it (like Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen). I love that he runs a tiny dojo for inner city kids. He is a very urban superhero (like Cage, like Misty)...he reminds me of real people I've known...good people who are involved with their community and who don't allow themselves to be stereotyped by what they do, regardless of the color of their skin.

For me, the problem isn't that Iron Fist is a white dude. The problem is there's an under-representation of Asian and Asian-American superheroes. Well, male ones anyway...there've been several prominent females, and even some re-skins (if you'll pardon the pun), like the Wasp in Marvel's Ultimate imprint. But male heroes? In Marvel (with which I'm more familiar) you've got Sunfire and Shang-Chi and in DC you've got...what? Samurai from the Super-Friends?

As far as I know, Shang-Chi is the only one who ever had his own title: Master of Kung-Fu. Now there's a walking Asian stereotype for you! Shang-Chi was first published in 1973 (before Iron Fist) and his series ran into the mid-1980s. I mean, if folks really want to see an Asian martial artist superhero, that's the guy you want to bring to the screen...but no one wants to see that. We've got plenty of Hong Kong action films with Asian actors doing martial arts already.

Black Panther?
How about if we make Black Panther Malaysian instead of African? As I wrote before, in a cursory study of diversity in the Marvel universe (among prominent superheroes), black males are over-represented considering their percentage of the American population. And having a black dude named "Black Panther" is right on the same level as having a Chinese guy known as "the Master of Kung-Fu." Black panthers (the animal) are common in the equatorial rain forests of Malaysia (per Ye Old Wikipedia) as well as southwestern China and Nepal. I know Marvel plans on coming out with a Black Panther film...why not cast it with Malaysian actor Zahiril Adzim (the kick-boxer in the critically acclaimed drama Bunohan)? Wouldn't that be a better choice than the (often sad-sack) karate-dude Iron Fist?

[haha. Just joking...I know they've already cast Chadwick Boseman who was great as Jackie Robinson in 42]

The point is, there are a lot of better options for re-imagining characters as non-white heroes than the guy with the dragon tattoo on his chest. Dr. Strange would have been a fine choice (a third generation Asian-American who travels to Tibet and faces culture shock?). Daniel Dae Kim would have made a great Hawkeye (leader of the West Coast Avengers). Probably not Tony Stark (looking at his origin story), but certainly Rhodey/War Machine. Ghost Rider. Any of the X-Men when you think about it (maybe not Thunder Bird). Ant-Man (though I really did enjoy Paul Rudd as Scott Lang). Any of the Fantastic Four could have been east Asian (though having orange rocky skin kind of renders the whole ethnicity thing moot). Spider-Man (isn't he due for a new reboot anyway?).

Yes, I know I'm irritating people on both sides. The point is, it ain't the 1960s. Filmmakers aren't making real CANNON stories anyway...people are driving Teslas and using cell phones and the internet. You don't need to go with "cannon" for race if the rest of the story is getting a facelift. But Iron Fist is a poor choice for a re-skin, in my not-so-humble opinion. Have him get his ass kicked by Asian martial artists if the cultural appropriation thing is too galling for you, and then have his bacon saved by Luke and Misty and Colleen. Heck, that's always been the real strength of his character: his friends and teammates.

[by the way, why does Wolverine get a pass on the cultural appropriation thing?]

*glug*glug*glug*
Ugh, still haven't talked about Jessica Jones. She really deserves her own post, but I really just want to go watch an episode. Okay, let me just (briefly) say this: Jessica Jones is a good show. It is a HARD show to watch...there's quite a bit of button-pushing that goes on in it: issues like racism and severe abuse and substance dependency and mental illness and other unsavories. It's quite a bit more intense than watching Daredevil beat up human traffickers, and it brings up all sorts of "icky" feelings. But it's well done, and the cast is terrific, especially the leads (Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter as Luke Cage). Ritter especially...she's just so unapologetic as a train wreck of a superhero that you can't help but root for her. And David Tennant as the Purple Man is really slimy...unlike Donofrio's Kingpin, there is absolutely no sympathy for this particular psychopath.

Yeah, Jessica Jones really needs its own post.

Alcoholics really shouldn't date bar owners.
I will say that, with regard to issues of strength, Ms. Jones seems to be right on par with my calculations. In doing my research into superheroes' weights the other day, I came across this article taking Marvel to task for making women who were too skinny for their height and build (kind of a "Barbie doll" syndrome for comics). I haven't researched that, as most of the characters the author cites are superhero women who don't possess "superhuman strength" (the subject of my research), but after reading it, I was wondering how Jones would hold up.

Turns out pretty well. Her official stats have her listed as 5'7", 124# which isn't all that far off from the measurements of the actor who plays the character (5'9", 127#). By my calcs, a super-strong character of 124# with "good" (13-15) physical strength has a Carry/Throw of 3.2 tons. Marvel doesn't list an official limit to Jessica's strength, though it notes that she is able to throw a two-ton police car with ease. Looks about right to me.

[plus, her full strength punch is enough to kill a normal human (oops! spoiler!). That's the same whether you can bench six tons or sixty, folks]

Okay, that's enough superhero talk for one night. Later, folks.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Comes Chaos

OKAY. I spent a bit of time at lunch today getting a little stinky-drinky and writing more bad JuJu about Paraguayan ignorance (and drawing parallels with certain presidential campaigns in the home country)...but I'm almost 100% certain that no one wants to read more of that kind of nonsense.

So let's talk about B/X-related nonsense. And, no, not superheroes.

Waaaaaay back in January, I mentioned I was going to get in on this whole B/X Campaign Challenge thing, set up by Mr. James V. West. I also said I figured I could knock-out a 64 page supplement in about 64 days, giving myself (approximately) till the end of March to get it done. Seeing as how it's been seven days since the last time I worked on the thing (just checked...March 4th) people may be wondering how is the project progressing?

Pretty good. I'm at 53 pages (formatted)...a bit more than 36,000 words without counting headers and page numbers. Since I'm aiming for about 58-60 (to make room for illustrations, a cover leaf, and table of contents), I'm pretty close to completion.

It's always that last bit that's the bitch, ain't it?

Actually, that's NOT why I've stalled. For a "campaign book," I started to find there was surprisingly little campaign to the thing...mainly a collection of rules and notes about how to inject a little crazy into one's standard B/X game. I started to think maybe I needed a bit more setting, a bit less system. And then, of course, I got distracted with other brainstorms...

But I'm digressing. As I wrote back on the 22nd (when I was first considering the challenge), the idea I had was an incredibly derivative one, and it still is....specifically, I am adapting the old Warhammer Realm of Chaos books (Slaves to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned) to the B/X game system, an idea that I once thought was pretty ridiculous. Also, not a terribly original idea, considering folks like Steven A. Cook have already done similar work (his Hordes of Chaos is a nice little "monster manual" designed for use with Labyrinth Lord).

But whatever...it's only a 64 page book. It's specifically designed for use with B/X (which everyone loves and now has access to, thanks to the release of the PDFs). It files all the serial numbers off anything that might be considered IP by other game companies. And it's written for a B/X system...for a game of exploration and treasure hunting...not a war-game.

And it does have a setting...one that could easily be expanded with additional books, if I was so inclined.

Slaves to Darkness.
So good, I own two copies.
The fact of the matter is Slaves to Darkness and The Lost and the Damned are damn masterworks. They have terrible, disgusting, magnificent, tragic themes. They are well-designed (for their time and their purpose) and are filled with beautiful, terrible, horrible, awesome artwork. They are classics that most buffs of dark fantasy (and dark fantasy games) should have on their shelves. I own physical copies of both, having paid an exorbitant price for one after many years of searching.

They are also fairly unplayable as they are. While the fluff from the books have penetrated the Warhammer universe for nearly three decades (Slaves was written in 1988 and last time I checked a 40K Chaos Codex they were STILL recycling quotes from its most excellent pages), the Warhammer game long ago dropped the systems found within their pages, keeping only the themes. Mordheim's chaos war band was a pretty poor substitute for a champion-led retinue of miscreants and mutants.

SO, because I love these books...their themes (which simply emphasize the dark spaces in the human heart to terrible extremes) and their mutants and their monsters and their madness...because I do love them, I've adapted them to a system that I love (B/X) so that they can see play at the table. They deserve to see play at the table.

And I find the setting I've designed (that I'm thinking I might want to detail in greater depth) so intriguing that I'd really like to run a campaign set in it, despite having voiced (only a few months ago) a longing to try a Holmes-style campaign. B/X...sucking me back in! Seducing me to the darkest of dark sides!

Anyhoo, it's almost done and my intention is to do my own artwork for it (not sure how that's going to go...) and sell it for a pittance in electronic form. That's my intention; we'll see what happens. But regardless, I've got to finish the writing first.

Hopefully by the end of the month.
; )

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Strength

I'm sure some folks are wondering what I've been working on lately. I mean, this week. Instead of talking about my B/X project like I promised I would (sorry).

Superheroes. Most of it related to modeling strength.

Rather than post some big-ass essay, I'll give you some highlights. Here's a real life individual who's a good example of a person with a (B/X style) strength of 18:

He's smiling at your puny muscles.
In case you don't recognize him, that's Bruce Lee, a guy who stood under 5'8" and weighed less than 140 pounds his entire adult life. A guy who was a fanatic about fitness, nutrition, and weight training. Anyone who can knock a dude fifteen feet with a punch has some phenomenal explosive power. But Lee had plenty of fantastic feats of strength (as told by people who know him)...here's a good list if you're interested.

For a B/X-based game, where a strength of 13+ indicates a damage bonus, I think it's fair to consider that bonus based on training, explosive speed, and the ability to add extra injury with the occasional mixed-in, non-weapon blow (an elbow, kick, shield-bash, etc.).  A lot of stuff can happen in a ten second round, you know?

But that actually has little to do with the superhero game (because the system is different from "straight B/X")...it's just the precursor that led me to the line of thought for my super heroic strength modeling.

See, most superhero RPGs have some way to model "super strength" (a staple of comic book super powers, since, oh Superman; i.e. a long-ass time), and the usual route is to do some sort of quantitative method in a ranking system. For example, the original Marvel Superheroes did the RM, IN, AM, MN, UN, etc. ranks that measured superhuman strength in terms of tonnage (1, 10, 50, 75, 100, respectively). Aberrant had a one-five point "mega-attribute" system (also in tons: 1, 10, 25, 50, 100). Supers! does the same thing with dice (the more dice, the more tonnage), while Heroes Unlimited categorizes strength into four different tiers (normal, exceptional, superhuman, and supernatural) with each tier determining the exact amount that can be moved based on the character's Physical Strength attribute (exceptionally granular, in a way that makes Mutants & Masterminds look almost abstract).

But I'm not going that route. You see, I figured something out: when it comes to lifting heavy objects, strength, for most individuals (comic books individuals) is mainly tied to one's physical mass. After training, of course.

Look at the weights that are lifted by Olympic weight lifters. Male or female, you can see that the limits of what can be snatched, cleaned, and jerked is limited to a bit more than twice a person's physical mass...and there's a rate of diminishing returns for adding more muscle. A larger human has the potential to lift a larger amount of weight, but the overall percentage becomes smaller the bigger the human. The world record for a clean and jerk lift for a 53kg woman is 134kg: 253% of her body mass. The record for a 105kg man is 246kg...only 234% of his body mass. By the way, these kinds of numbers hold true for power-lifting MMA fighters who are as much concerned with speed and stamina (if not more so) than with physical power.

Of course, we're talking about people who power lift as a profession. Most of us don't. Most of us don't have 18 strength either. But we can still get an idea of peoples' ability to lift and carry. I find several references to minimum body weight requirements of 150 pounds for firefighters. Full kit for a firefighter (who is presumably in good condition) is a bit more than 70 pounds...half their weight (which they're required to lug up and down flights of stairs in rather perilous situations). So using our abstract B/X strength (STR) ladder, I've come up with the following range of measurements:

Avg. STR/Fitness (9-12) Carry/Throw 25% of body mass
Good STR/Fitness (13-15) Carry/Throw 50% of body mass
Excellent STR/Fitness (16-17) Carry/Throw 75% of mass
Peak STR/Fitness (18) Carry/Throw 100% of body mass

Oh, yeah...there's also an "Awesome" strength category for individuals of obviously non-human proportion...dudes like the Thing or members of the Hulk family. They go up to 125% but their overall body mass is doubled, which increases their weight.

For benching, or just lifting one's maximum weight, those numbers are doubled but a good dice roll will allow you to pick up a little more (helping folks meet those Olympic level numbers).

Anyway, that's the basic calculation for "heavy lifting" based on one's fitness level and mass. Now, if your character has "super strength" as a power you simply multiply your lift capacity by 100. That's it, end of story. You're a hundred times stronger than a normal person of your mass and fitness level if you possess superhuman strength.

Surprisingly, it models fairly well for most comic book characters. Spider-Man's official weight is 167 pounds, which gives him a lift/bench press of 12.5 tons with an excellent (16-17) strength/fitness level. Luke Cage with his dense bone structure and the same fitness level as Spidey is listed at 450 pounds giving him a 34 ton range, also very close to his comic book strength level. Thing has a listed weight of 500 pounds (he has a rocky flesh, but he's not solid rock...he bleeds) a 62.5 ton range. Meanwhile, the savage She-Hulk with her 650 pound frame could lift 48.8 tons when she was "excellent" (16-17) and and 65 tons after improving to "peak" (18) with a lot of work-outs on the Fantastic Four's Thing-based exercise equipment. This models well on the old Marvel character (who had an Amazing 50 strength that then increased to the Monstrous 75 range).

Little old Captain America only weighs 220 pounds so would have a 440 pound maximum, which seems a bit low considering the world records in the category. But the guy who set a record in bench press at 440 pounds was a professional strongman named Doug Hepburn who weighed 300 pounds at the time...I think this is just a matter of Steve Rogers getting the most out of his (smaller) frame.

It's not perfect. Mighty Thor, even at a listed weight of 640 pounds, tops out a little low, and Marvel's Hercules, listed at only 325 pounds, is only about a third as strong as he should be. Oh, yeah...DC's heavy hitters like Superman (225 pounds) and Wonder Woman (165 pounds) are about one-tenth or one-twentieth as strong, but I'm working on some workarounds for the truly titanic champions of the comic book world.

Anyhoo...that's what I've been working on lately.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Batgirl

Love the Docs.
Last fall, I started writing a blog post about Batgirl, but it got bogged down, especially after an over-long preamble about comic book heroes in general. I'm going to try this again, because I've had superheroes on the mind lately (um, the last 48 hours), but...well, we'll see how it goes.

For me (and for a lot of folks) Batgirl means Barbara Gordon. Ye Old Wikipedia tells me that she was one of the most popular characters during the Silver Age of comics and was ranked #17 on IGN's "Top 100 Comic Book Heroes" list of 2011...one of only four women to crack the top 20.

[the others? Cat Woman at #20 (hero?), Jean Grey at #13, and Wonder Woman at #5. If we ranked male and female superheroes on separate lists, that would put Babs Gordon at #3 overall...equal par with Spider-Man for the male side]

Trying to come up with my own such lists are extremely difficult (edit edit pages and pages of text)...but after spending much more time than I probably should have and coming up with 20 heroes of each sex (a Top 40 of spandex-clad classics), Batgirl is the clear favorite for the #1 spot in on the "Ladies List," and comes in somewhere around #6 overall (both lists combined). She is, quite clearly, my favorite super heroine of all time...something I wasn't even aware of until recently. Heck, she may not have even been in the running until I started really checking out the whole "Batgirl" concept with my son the last couple-three years. Even ignoring all that Oracle/Birds of Prey stuff that's given her an extra boost in popularity the last quarter century, Batgirl is extremely interesting conceptually...different from most any superhero out there (well, if you're looking at "big namers" from the Big Two comic companies).

First off, she's one of the few modern day heroes not possessed of actual "superpowers." Batgirl is a throwback crime fighter in the pulp tradition, despite being created a quarter century later than most of her comparable male counterparts (Batman, Green Arrow, Spirit, The Shadow, etc.). While there are plenty of "non-powered" humans found within the ranks of modern superheroes, most of these possess science-fiction gadgetry (Iron Man, Hawkeye, Vindicator, etc.) or training in fantasy-level skills (Dr. Strange, Elektra, Iron Fist, etc.). Batgirl has a few "themed" gadgets, but aside from some of the more campier items of her TV years (a laser compact capable of "destroying anything"), the pre-Oracle Batgirl was pretty low-tech when it came to the stuff in her utility belt. She's an old school detective in the same vein as Batman.

However, unlike Batman, or most non-powered superheroes, Batgirl's character isn't motivated by any sort of past tragedy. Heroes like Batman, or Punisher, or Elektra all have some sort of dark violent thing that has happened to them, causing them to "don the mask" and punish evil-doers, a violent sort of "self-therapy." Such tragedy isn't necessary for heroes gifted with powers beyond mortal ken, but even so it's often included in their origin stories (see Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Daredevil, etc.) to drive home the importance of using their powers responsibly. But for the non-powered hero, tragedy is important to push the character into a life outside the norm, to justify becoming Green Arrow or Iron Man or the Huntress instead of simply living the life of a billionaire playboy/playgirl.

This formula doesn't apply to Barbara Gordon's character. Her only "tragedy" is being a product of her time...the highly intelligent daughter of a cop at a time (the 1960s) when women were underrepresented and mostly absent from the ranks of law enforcement.

[to be clear, there were female police officers by the 1960's. The first female police detective in the United States appears to have been Alice B. Clements of the Chicago P.D.. She was promoted to detective in 1913, seven years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in this country. After her retirement, however, uniformed women officers were few and far between, not even allowed to walk beats in Chicago till the 1970s]

Alice Clements. Yes, she was a real person.
Instead of tragedy, Gordon's motivations appear to be partly duty (using her skills to make the world a better place) and partly thrill-seeking. Over time, the "duty" part gets the upper hand, and the mature Barbara Gordon becomes a U.S. Congressman and (eventually) retires from crime-fighting, hanging up the cape and allowing other heroes their day. This is yet another thing that distinguishes her from most other superheroes: her transition to maturity and a self-awareness of her own mortality (not to mention the difference she found she could make doing things other than "patrolling the streets").

Couldn't just let her retire
 with dignity, could you?
'Course popular heroes can never stay retired/dead/crippled, right? Comic companies have to sell comics and known commodities have more draw (and sell more copy) than the new unknown, yeah? *sigh*

[low-hanging fruit. yay]

I started thinking about Batgirl (back in October-November) mainly because I was watching and digging on the new Flash TV show and considering how well these WB folks could do something like Batgirl, drawing on the combined experience of both Flash and Arrow. It wouldn't have to include Batman at all, just focus on this interesting character who's somehow got herself into the vigilante business...not because she learned some sort of zen archery/salmon ladder shtick on an island, but because...well, just because. I mean, she's Phoenix Jones with a better rogues gallery (and probably better gadgets) living in an alternate universe where godlike beings (Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.) walk among the mere mortals. What's the mental thought process that leads one into that particular pickle? She must be a little cracked in the head, right? But without all the negative, tragic-past baggage you find in Batman or Luke Cage or Jessica Jones. Someone with the fun side of the "new" Barry Allen...but without the powers. Now, THAT would be a show I'd like to see.

As for gaming (the thing that brought me back to this 7-month old blog topic)...Batgirl is the type of superhero who really works best in a granular level RPG, like Heroes Unlimited. Games like MSH or Supers! or (God forbid) Mutants & Masterminds are a bit too far above her pay grade in terms of scale. Oh, I'm sure there's a write-up for the character in Green Ronin's DC-licensed version of M&M, but O So Ugly I don't even want to contemplate the stat block. I'm thinking of maybe, just maybe, returning to a Very Old (& Dusty) project that I was working on...back before I started worrying about things like being "innovative" or "subversive" in my design process. Something a little B/Xish (class and level based) without actually being B/X. I do have a street-level game on the design table, but that's all about being angry...and Batgirl's not really an angry person. There's quite a bit of the "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" to her. I wonder if I have it in me to write a fun game..while still keeping things gritty and granular with bullets that make you bleed.

[by "fun" I really mean "light-hearted." I hope my games are somewhat fun to play!]

Maybe. That's what I'm thinking anyway...something that inverts the scale problems one finds in games like MSH and DC/Blood of Heroes, without being as fiddly as M&M and without being as hit-or-miss as Heroes Unlimited. Something with the right amount of crunch, while allowing for comic book tropes (super punches not disintegrating folks, for example), and with consequences for failure that are rough without "canceling the series" of a character. That's a tall order...but I'm thinking about it.

Inspired by Babs

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

What's Up

Normally, I wouldn't be blogging on a Tuesday, but I've got a few minutes and I'm putting off "real" writing for the moment. Plus, I didn't put out anything yesterday (I've got something half-written but it's pretty half-hearted and I'm not inclined to finish it), so I feel like I owe Ye Old Readers.

Here's the thing: I've got a LOT on my mind lately, and I'm not just talking about my daily life stuff (that's all crazy-nutty, too). No, I mean a lot when it comes to game design and game publishing. This happens when I've had too much time to stew/think about "stuff." Each of these is probably worthy of its own post, but I'm going to do a few bullet-points right now, just so I can empty my brain a bit:

  • Numero Uno: I'm probably not doing as much as I could to make an actual damn business out of this self-publishing thing. Yeah, yeah, I'm not talking about getting rich and famous; I'm talking about making more than beer money. Part of this is a lack of business acumen, part of it is a lack of organization, part of it is a fear of really putting myself out there, and part of it is sheer laziness/inertia. I really need to do something about ALL this.
  • Numero Dos (related to Numero Uno): If I really want to do anything with this, I'm about 85% certain I need to step-up and start collaborating with folks, something I'm loathe to do. For a variety of reasons (most of which boil down to 1) being disappointed in the past, and 2) personal insecurity), I've historically preferred to "go it alone" rather than work in a team. But that attitude is extremely limiting; you can always accomplish more working with others. I know that, I just don't like it. At least if I rely on myself for EVERYTHING I feel I have 100% control...and I'm pretty control freakish. Problem is, I can't do everything (decent artwork for example). It's shooting myself in the foot (or the head) to operate the way I do.
  • Number Three (related to Numero Dos): I don't think I'm ever going to "not pay" for art again. Clip art is mostly shitty. Finding public domain print art that is good worked one time (with Five Ancient Kingdoms) but that's it. And I think my writing is good enough that it deserves some better illustration. And I just can't accept any more "freebies" from volunteer illustrators...being a for-profit biz means paying one's contractors. So there.
  • Knock-Off, Innovative, or Subversive: For me, these are the three levels of game design. "Knock-Off" doesn't just mean retroclones. There's nothing very original about systems based on the D6, or D20, or D%, or dice pools, and there have been plenty of RPGs with both class/level chargen and "defined-by-selection" or some combo of the two. Even so, just getting a game written (knock-off or not) is hard enough for the average person. Being "innovative" means injecting something new into the existing RPG paradigm, but it's hard (if not impossible) to do this wholesale. Do you want characters? Do you want systems that resolve processes? We are talking about a game here, not freeform play. Finally, there's level three ("subversive") design, aimed at having real world impact (educating or changing persons thinking or perception)...hopefully for the good...based on the play at the table. Level 1 design is a grind. Level 2 design is a challenge. Level 3 design is...well, it's something else entirely.
  • Numero Cinco: I'd like to do more subversive designs. I've got a couple-three on the shelf, but they're so tough to do...and do well (I'd say "do right," but I'm not sure that can be 100% accurate. Subversion is in the mind of the beholder, you know?). And by "well" I mean accomplishing one's (design) objective while not upsetting the participants, except as is required to meet the needs of the objective. It's so daunting at times that...well, the proof is in the fact that those games haven't been completed, nor even play-tested at this point. When you try to do something that's "socially interesting" or "relevant," you're really super-conscious of the possibility of totally flubbing things. Well, I am, at least. But then, see point Numero Dos...if I was a little more willing to collaborate (i.e. "work with others") I might be able to assuage some of those self-doubts.

One big circle of thoughts, spinning back into each other.

And perhaps none of these thoughts are especially constructive to what I actually need to do (i.e. "write," "finish writing," etc.). But the more I put words on paper, the more I can't help but think of the Bigger Picture...the What Exactly Are You Up To question. What AM I up to? Not just from a writing sense but an overall How Do I Fit In This Niche Market Industry sense.

More on all this later (maybe). Oh, and I really, really plan on giving people the whole run-down on my new B/X project (I know there's some curiosity)...maybe tomorrow. Right now, I've got to go buy groceries.