Sunday, April 11, 2021

Revisiting Old Haunts

Sunday. Our last day of Easter vacation (kids are going back to school tomorrow) and I, for one, am a little sad for it to be coming to an end. It's been enjoyable for the whole family, despite not really doing much of anything...I think the kids really needed a break from the "grind" of clock-punching for school. All of us are a little more slack these days...the wife even said she's not looking forward to her office reopening (she's been working from home since last February), and I'd imagine there are a lot of folks who feel the same after adapting to the amorphous Covid-induced limbo of "shelter-in-place."

One thing we didn't get to, though, was much gaming. Sad but true...the boy had a full schedule of sports this week (soccer Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday; baseball on Wednesday; and then both a baseball game AND a soccer game yesterday).  Today he's sleeping those poor legs a rest...but the last couple weeks of the soccer season look to be equally as busy as it continues to overlap with the Little League (and my daughter's first season of LL is slated to start in a week as well). Seems he may have finally been "called up" to a higher tier in soccer (that's the reason for the extra practices)...just as he was getting ready to chuck the thing in frustration. For me, I'm just happy I can watch my kids play in sunny weather. Yesterday was a beaut of a day (and the boy went 3 for 4 with two runs and an RBI as the leadoff hitter...what a stud!).

D&D. I think we'll be playing some D&D today. Need to exercise the "mind muscles," too.

However, while I have the minute to type, I wanted to blog a few words on my superhero side project. Even though I haven't been gaming this week, I have been designing like a bit of a madman. Even done a bit of writing, though most of that's going to need changes. Thing is, I've been tweaking my whole concept, and while I still like the idea of a game focused on the "superteam" I find I need something altogether different for play-testing. Because the fact is, I don't HAVE a "team" of players to draw upon.

But it's not just that. This week, I've found myself going back to an old well that I abandoned far too soon. Specifically I've been revisiting my old DMI (Deal Me In) game system and Legendary Might (my supers version of DMI). Last tinkered with circa 2015, there were a lot of reasons I set the thing aside:
  • a lack of "robustness" in game play and character generation
  • lack of system for incorporating human elements to contrast with super slugfests
  • need for a modified card play mechanic to allow character effectiveness without "breaking the bank"
  • need for a more abstract combat system, incorporating power usage and comics/film "violence"
  • need for procedural systems that create more than just fight scenes
A lot of these things are interrelated (duh) and while I had ideas for them, they also represented a lot of work (brain sweat) that I just couldn't put together back in 2015, mainly because I was dealing with the upended life and culture shock of moving to Paraguay (not to mention a new baby). Game design in general (for yours truly) was being "backburnered" in those days, and it's not all that surprising I let the thing get all dusty and forgotten on Ye Old Laptop's hard drive.

Stuff happens.

Welp, I've cracked it out of storage and started hammering away again. And with the steady diet of superhero fare we've been ingesting this week (old X-Men films, the Falcon/Winter Soldier series, the old Fantastic Four movies, Guardians of the Galaxy, the entire two seasons of Agent Carter)...well, it's no wonder really. I've got heroes on the brain.

And, astounding as it might seem, it feels like I'm making actual progress (at least, from a design perspective). Much as I was enjoying my MSH-HU mashup of design, the system was feeling far too wargamey for the genre...and the more I wrote, the more I found myself filing off...or amputating that were too specific, and not abstract-y enough.

Because...well, look. When you try to model comics with reality-based specificity (say, something like GURPS, or Champions, or DC Heroes), you find yourself running into all sorts of problems because neither comic books, nor films, give a rip about emulating "reality" UNLESS it is in service of storytelling. How fast is the Flash? As fast as he needs to be. How strong is the Hulk? As strong as is necessary. "Reality" only matters when it makes a decent plot point (like Flash vaporizing himself by pushing past the lightspeed barrier). The laws of physics have never applied to Superman's abilities...only the laws of a "good story."

Yet we know that not all superhuman abilities are created equally. Spider-Man and Luke Cage are plenty strong, but they can't do what Thor or the Hulk can do. Many comic book characters have an agility the equivalent of an "Olympic gymnast;" but even in gymnastics, some Olympians are better than others on a given day (that's why they give out medals). There are super soldiers and there are super soldiers but there's only one Captain America, and it's not really about the shield and costume. 

Going predicted.
Trying to model these things with specificity in a game is a fool's errand. Which is why games like Jeff Grubb's original MSH and Simon Washbourne's Supers! do such a great job: they embrace the abstraction inherent in the genre. Of the two, I think Grubb has the better design, but it still falls down in three areas for me:
  • too much randomness/lack of coherence in character generation
  • too much procedural fiat rather than direction in adventure design
  • too much "wargame" inherent in the game's logistics (in some ways more "board game" than RPG)
[although the last is somewhat corrected in the Advanced MSH system (doing away with the "area" system) it ends up falling prey to the too much specificity pitfall inherent in other games of the genre]

And it's still a pretty darn good game...probably the best for its genre of any I've read/played. At least, so far as system design is concerned. Which, of course, is why I was looking at a streamlined version of MSH for my own system as recently as a couple weeks back.  It just does a lot of things right.

But Legendary Might, especially in its current incarnation, has (I believe) great potential. And its design is all mine, for a change...not drawing from (or knocking off) some other designer's hard work. That has immense appeal to me, a dude who's made most of his money piggy-backing off concepts pioneered 40+ years ago. For that reason alone, I'd like to make the thing work. No, I'm not the first person to use playing cards as a randomizer, nor am I the first to use cards in conjunction with narrative structure...ain't saying that. But the Deal Me In system is still mine, and the way I'm using it NOW in this game...well, it's kind of exciting. 

I kind of want to play-test it. Sooner rather than later. Maybe today, instead of D&D. Maybe.

Happy Sunday to you all. Hope everyone has a good week going forward. Thanks for taking the time to read!
: )

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

X-Men, X-Fan

Sunday night, the family watched the first (year 2000) X-Men film. I'd been wanting to do this for the last week or so, figuring it was time to introduce the kids to the whole concept of the Marvel "mutant." They, of course, had been resistant, preferring to watch Agent Carter or re-screenings of the various Avengers films, but Sunday I finally got my way. Of course, they ended up digging it...mutants are fun, after all.

For me, I was reminded of all the reasons I dislike this particular film franchise. I haven't blogged about it much (at least, not that I remember...and I'm too lazy to go searching through my back posts at the moment), so guess what? Here it comes:

First, my relationship to the films: I've seen the original two movies multiple times. I didn't LIKE the first one, but I enjoyed it (for reasons I'll describe below), and there were parts of it that definitely begged for revisiting from Yours Truly. The second film I found to be better done and more enjoyable (probably due to cutting of clunky exposition necessary in a first film), and is probably my favorite of the franchise. The third film I found pretty bad/dumb: I've only seen it once. The fourth (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) used a story arc retcon that I hated in the comics, but was still "okay" right up till the end when it turned pretty that point I vowed never to see another X-Man movie in the theaters.

However, I broke this promise when I went to see the next film X-Men First Class with my wife (who is a fan of the X-Men since she was a kid).  I found the premise to be interesting but the show wasn't great...mostly bland and un-memorable. This one killed the X-Men for my wife and I've never been to another theater showing of the film. We watched The Wolverine (the next installment) on cable TV, and it was so terrible I swore off the franchise all together. 

I skipped Days of Future Past. I watched Deadpool (free on cable) because so many people told me I had to see it, that it was so good at lampooning the genre, that it was so funny and irreverent and better than the last few movies. I thought it sucked. The last 20th Century Fox mutant film I watched was a small part of Apocalypse, on TV, while drunk, when the family was out of town and I was hanging with my brother and he wanted to watch it. I dozed off during the movie, finding it both badly done and boring.

For me, the franchise got very old, very fast. It was so much a "one-trick pony" that it was simply disappointing on a fundamental level...far more so than the MCU. Just as the mutant-themed comics turned me off over time by shifting focus to their most popular character (Wolverine) the films badly stumbled by A) over-milking the mutant prejudice theme, and B) over-focusing on Wolverine and all his issues...when for me, the joy, the beauty of the X-Men comics was never found in these things. 

See, I was an X-Men fan back in the day...and from a young age. While my elementary school days was a more eclectic collection of comics, in middle school (extremely formative years for Yours Truly) and early high school it was all mutants, all day. X-Men, X-Force, Excalibur, New Mutants...these were the comics my friends and I collected. These were the comics we had to pick up, that we pooled our money to buy, that we swapped and shared. We played a LOT of Marvel Superheroes RPG in those days, and much of our gaming was informed by the stuff we were reading in X-Men comics...despite the fact that there wasn't a single mutant character in our campaign (that I can recall).

[our campaign world didn't contain any Marvel properties at was our own version of "Earth"...and the game being what it is (we were using the Ultimate Powers Book, of course) there were too many interesting character choices to have simple "genetic mutants" infesting our game]

I quit reading X-Men sometime around the early '90s, before I graduated from high school (class of '92) and maybe even before that (I moved on to Silver Surfer about a year before going on a semi-permanent hiatus from comic books). I remember being bemused...and then disgusted...about the Wolverine solo series. Wolverine was a cool of my favorites even...but enough to hold his own series? Doing what? Stabbing folks? He was a bit character with a fairly specialized skill set (as were all the characters in those days)...I had issues where all he did was shovel hay with a cowboy hat and drink beer with Kurt; he never even ranked "team leader" for most of the run! Anyway, it was about that time I stopped buying single issue comics, so it appears I wasn't the "target demographic" the publisher was aiming for.

I realize now, that my experience with X-Men more-or-less coincided with the Chris Claremont run (1975-1991) on the series. 16 years on one title provides a lot of coherence of vision, not to mention a whole lot of story lines, most of which have been completely ignored by the film franchise...despite being the things that made the series "beloved" to fans that grew up with those comics....

I know, I know. "Cry me a river, JB. Wah-wah-whine." Once again I'm bitching and moaning about 'nostalgia' and ignoring the fact that things change. Uh-huh, yep, sure: things do change; I get that. When I started this blog, I didn't even have my oldest is 10 years old and playing D&D. I am well aware that I am prone to being mired in nostalgia, lost in the past. I've seen Cobra Kai (great series, by the way)...the irony inherent in its protagonists is not lost on me. But listen folks: what are these film studios trading in, if not the nostalgia of an aging fan base? Why not create new and original story lines, or new and original characters? Changing characterizations of existing characters (Cyclops and Storm especially) or changing storylines to fit characters that weren't in the original storyline (Magneto's "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" predates the involvement of most of the X-Men that appear in the first film) doesn't seem to be the way to go when pandering to a fan base.

Though perhaps the filmmakers felt people would be grateful enough just to see their comics on the big screen? Not a terrible originally worked for this fan (until it stopped working).


Monday night, the family watched X2: X-Men United and, as I wrote, I enjoyed it more than the original. It wasn't that it was more like the comics of my youth; instead, it was a matter of already understanding the filmmaker's vision and so, rather than being put off by disappointed expectations, I could simply relax and enjoy what the product was: Hugh Jackman hogging the spotlight and stabbing people. Teen romances that never were in the comics. Magneto and Mystique featuring prominently. Cyclops and Storm relegated to weaksauce bit parts (with less meaningful screen time than the cameos of minor characters). The bad juju about the evils of bigotry. Etc.

Ah, children liked both movies (they preferred the second of the two) and there are far worse "changes" in the world. The Seattle Sounders' uniform this season, for example: purple and orange?! What in the everloving name of F is that all about?! Holy blankshow, Batman! 

[and, for the record, I would welcome changes in some areas. The season's only just started and the Mariners are already under .500 for, like, the 25th straight year. Crapola]

*ahem* Anyhoo. I suppose that's about all I have to say on the subject (for the moment) except that, as I chip away at my latest attempt at superhero RPG design, these movies are indeed on my mind and in my memory...especially as I look for something that illustrates the genre as presented in cinema. That's really the key thing (for me) to remember: it's not about how "disappointing" a film may be as an homage to the comic book, it's how well it works as a serial story in and of itself. Because in the end (assuming this game ever gets written), it's really not about emulating the intellectual property of Marvel (or anyone else), but about helping the GM/participants create their own "super world," just as my friends and I did in the past. And as we used X-Men comics as an inspiration, I would fully expect younger folks to use the movies in the same fashion.

Times change.

As one last aside, I have to say I think it's especially interesting that Disney has managed to recover the X-Men rights, and am extremely curious to see how/if they will incorporate mutants back into the MCU. If it were up to me, I would reboot the whole thing, without regard to the original franchise films. Treat all that stuff in the same way as Claremont treated X-Men prior to his takeover in the 70s (i.e. fairly unnecessary). We've seen plenty of example reboots in film (the many Batman franchises, Spider-Man, the Hulk, etc.) so why should be any compulsion to tread the same sorry-ass missteps made by 20th Century Fox?

But of course they will. The X-Men movies made a ton of money and the film industry as a business has shown itself to be both unimaginative and ever-chasing of past success (*double sigh*). 

All right, that's about enough for a Wednesday. 

Any team that FEATURES Wolverine
(the ultimate non-team player)
ain't no "team." Sorry filmmakers.

OH, WAIT: I almost forgot that today marks the 20th wedding anniversary of my wife and I. I am a very blessed and fortunate man to have such a special person share her life with me. Without her love, it is quite possible I'd be even more curmudgeonly and ranty than I am. Thank goodness she's strong enough to hang in there!

Okay, that really is enough.
: )

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Happy Easter!

The kids will be on Easter vacation (what the secular types calls "spring break") for the next week, so I will probably be too busy to write much. On the other hand, Lent is over and so I might just go back on the caffeine...which would result in folks seeing the occasional early morning missive from Yours Truly.

Anyway, have a good one. Blessings on your families and prayers for a springtime renewal of hope and peace. God and love be with you all!

[now I've got to go buy a ham...]

Yes, back on the red
meat, too.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Thinking Out Loud

Another Thursday, another D&D session on the horizon. The kids are anxious to get back to their characters, lost in the dark though they are.  Little do they know they're about to run into the mutants ("orcs") that make their home in the tunnels the party are traversing.

But that's all for this afternoon. Right now, I'm thinking about game design. My son is writing his own RPG at the moment (a Star Wars game) that he...amusingly...calls "D&D 5" (all my kids' game designs seem to be "D&D" with an added version number), and while it would mostly seem to be emulating the old D20 Star Wars system, I am pleased with his work on the project (and also that he's drummed up some enthusiasm for it with kids at his school) 

But that's a digression. I mean, I am thinking about Diego's design (at least as much as I'm thinking of the RBI he got in last night's baseball, it's good to have sports back!), but mainly I'm focused on the superhero thing I'm putting together, my semi-knockoff of MSH (should I call it MSH Dos? Maybe as a working title) and how I can do it different. That is, different from other RPG systems of the genre. 

NOT, by the way, because I want to "stand out from the crowd." Fact is, my stuff is so low budget that any grandiose plans for publication are far more likely to fail than the newest version of...well, of whatever's the "established brand of the day" (probably M&M4?). No, I want it to be different...specifically, different in focus...because so many of these games fail to work

At least, they fail for me. I'm not as pig-headed stubborn as some GMs when it comes to the hero thing. I was never a HUGE comic book collector, even as a kid (maybe a couple dozen issues - not titles! - PER YEAR, at my height). I liked to read comics (usually those of my collector friends), but I just didn't have the money to spend on comics, nor the easy access to a solid comic book shop; consequently, I don't have the depth and breadth of comic book knowledge that some GMs possess. In my experience, the folks who can run a system like Heroes Unlimited or DC Heroes or Mutants & Masterminds over the long term is a person who has been steeped in hundreds upon hundreds of superhero comics.

That's not me. And it's not really my kids, either (for whom this game would be written) or even a LOT of folks these days who might be fans of the super genre. They read a couple titles, perhaps, but their main exposure to the genre is through the screen medium: film and television (and maybe video games). That's a tough thing to emulate in an RPG, and I don't really want to try.

What I want to try is bringing the screen medium's sensibility (with regard to genre) to the experiential nature of the RPG medium.  Can that be done?

My question of the day.

Clearly, the drive behind the supers thang is different from my usual brand of Dungeons & Dragons; in D&D characters have impetus be proactive. Go out and get that treasure! Level up! Become powerful! Tackle bigger challenges! The superhero genre isn't that at all, and approaching the genre with a "D&D mindset" will quickly turn the PCs into something a far cry from "heroism" (celebrity attention seekers at best; super powered villains at worst).

Leaving aside origin stories and one-off adventures (we're interested in long-term campaign play hereabouts), what exactly is it that motivates the heroic persona to become a costumed adventurer? What gets them out of bed every evening, donning cape and cowl to brave the terror of the night? Just spitballing, I can come up with a few different categories of hero fiction:
  • The Sad Sack: this is the dude who doesn't have a choice in the matter, whether due to psychological or actual pressure. I'd put both Spider-Man ("if I shirk my responsibility, people die") and the Hulk (constantly hunted by the U.S. military) in this category. These are mostly solo adventurers; they often bemoan the fact that they are super-powered at all, and constantly struggle to achieve a normal life. Whether or not they ever achieve that happy ending they want varies based on the popularity of the character (whether or not their series is going to get cancelled). 
  • The Fanatic: this one is pretty close to the Sad Sack but they're driven to become vigilantes because they have an issue with the normal criminal justice system. Lots of these: Batman, Daredevil, Green Arrow, Punisher. These guys (they're mostly guys) have serious trust issues (duh) which leads them to working solo, as much as their understanding that they are criminals themselves and really taking action that's both unnecessary and extralegal. 
Neither of these types of story are good models to emulate in the RPG medium in part because they're not very conducive to group play (due to their focus on a single, spotlight character). Oh, you could have the occasional "dynamic duo:" Cloak & Dagger fit as a Sad Sack couple, and I'd throw Misty Knight & Colleen Wing (during their Daughters of the Dragon title) as part of the Fanatic group. But more than that, I dislike the motivations presented in these two tropes: in both cases, the characters are driven by negativity. That can make for a good, fun series to read (or watch) but it's not a great one to get players up and moving.

So what else do we have?
  • Defenders of Earth: this one works for folks from the Justice League to Doctor Strange. The hero(es) are tasked with the job of handling extraterrestrial (and extradimensional) threats that Earth, being what it is, simply isn't capable of handling itself. Some might complain these are pretty "reactive" stories (and they are), rather than proactive, but when we tune into a Green Lantern comic (for example) we're expecting something to happen. We figure that MOST (not all!) of the "downtime stuff" will be ignored in favor of the Big Conflict that the comic (or show) will showcase. The stories we are viewing are only the "interesting events" that occur in the life(s) of the character(s). They can dip into a bit of the resignation thing, however (if we don't save the Earth, no one else will). A smaller version of this might be Black Panther ("Defender of Wakanda") or Sunfire ("Defender of Japan").
  • Powered Task Force: the Avengers might be "Earth's mightiest heroes" but they're generally tasked with Earthly missions: taking down super bad guys and terrorist organizations. While the Avengers films include bouts with the occasional intergalactic threat, it is made clear that they spend a lot of time on active duty acting as a kind of extra-governmental global law enforcement. Motivation is some form of "duty" - they're pseudo-military after all - with a heaping helping of "for my teammates" (fellow soldier). This category can also apply to strictly national teams (The West Coast Avengers, X-Caliber, etc.).
  • School for the Gifted: this covers everything from the X-Men to the Teen Titans to Sky High to the Umbrella Academy, all stories about youngsters learning about their powers (as a group) and finding their way in the world (as a team) while developing into adulthood. Motivation is the usual teen peer pressure, wanting to look good / not stupid thing, as well as pleasing parents (probably), and possibly school pride. 
  • Super Families: here we have your Fantastic Four and (for the younger generation) The Incredibles, the latter of which is interesting because it deals with the legacy of the parents and their mistakes. Generally, though, I'd prefer to stay away from a set-up that pits PCs in a parent-child dynamic, at least one involving BOTH parents (too much authority); single parent might be okay (Batman feels okay with both Robin and Batgirl in the mix). Siblings are better: the FF, Power Pack, or the Shazam! family being good examples. Motivation is, of course, family (also sibling rivalries), which makes even downtime activity interesting between monster-of-the-week activities.
  • Superheroes for Hire: the mercenary route isn't a great one for the supers genre because "making money" and "heroism" don't really go hand-in-hand. That being said, for a more light-hearted (i.e. humorous) series (like Damage Control, Ghostbusters, or the original Heroes for Hire), I think it might work. Luke Cage and Iron Fist are a pretty good example: despite doing hero work for pay, it's not like they ever get rich...too many widows and orphans can't afford to pay. And anyway Fist IS rich (amusingly) but simply doesn't care about money. In the end, the motivation is still adventure (and buddy/friendship) with the "professional" title being a justification for hanging out and socking people.
Looking over these categories, I think the ones that would work best for the RPG medium are the Task Force or the School, both of which could include Family dynamics under their umbrella (both military units and school peers being something like "second families," right?). Both these categories of "super" series provide a number of features:
  • Provides a reason for multiple player characters of different types to participate.
  • Provides group dynamics that function outside of adventures.
  • Provides justifications for adventures ("missions" and "exams," respectively).
  • Provides reasons for new characters to arrive (new hires, transfer students, etc.)'s hard bringing a new sibling into a super family!
  • Provides a motivation for hero participation (duty/job or responsibility/grades).
  • Gives leeway for NPC dynamics OUTSIDE the team (soldiers and students both have non-powered family members, friends, neighbors, etc.). Such NPCs may be privy to the characters' job/school or may be completely in the dark about what they do.
  • For characters whose identities are secret, they don't have to worry about supporting themselves as "full-time heroes" (they're paid a stipend or receive a "scholarship" to their fancy school).
  • Players/characters can leave at any time without disrupting the campaign.
Fortunately, in my current design I already stumbled on a way to scale the game to "younger" heroes...I was thinking of the New Mutants at the time and how the system might develop teenagers and their powers. However, the main issue I have with a school is that it's a little tougher to work with the non-powered kid (the inventor or special forces-type hero) least, not in a campaign (mostly) devoid of humor, and I have not been known for running "funny" campaigns. 

[not in the conventional comedic sense; cackling at my players' expense doesn't count]

Still, the rules should work for both, and SOMEone might want to run the game with a bit more ridiculousness than myself; look at the popularity of Teeny Titans! Anyway...

Okay, that's enough musing. I've got a host of errands to run before today's D&D game. Totally welcome any thoughts, critiques, suggestions, and whatnot in the comments section...your input in my brainstorm is greatly appreciated!
: )

Typical paramilitary task force 
with extra-national jurisdiction.