Monday, May 30, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse & Changing Times

I saw X-Men: Apocalypse Friday, and if you liked First Class and Days of Future Past you'll like this one too. A complete aside from the overall point of this post: contrary to many Marvel fanboys and girls I kind of like it that Fox rather than Marvel Studios gets to make X-men movies because (1) the X-men have long been sort of a sub-universe within the comic with their on distinct feel, and (2) if Marvel had had all there characters from the beginning, I don't think we would have seen an Ant-Man or even an Iron Man movie this soon--and we'd probably have Wolverine on the Avengers.

Anyway, one thing about the latest trilogy of x-films is that that are firmly rooted in specific eras of recent history (the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s), even if their evocation of those eras is more akin to Happy Days than Mad Men in accuracy. This is a departure from the Marvel Studios films which are always up to the minute "now" (except flashbacks) and most comic books which are in a strange present, that keeps getting retconned as time moves forward. Stan and Jack may have told us that Reed and Ben fought in World War II but by Byrne's Lost Generation limited in the '90s, they weren't even out of college in the 80s--and now they are probably younger than me.

The reasons for this are understandable, but it doesn't have to be that--in the comics or in your superhero rpg campaign. Maybe most campaigns don't run long enough to see much history pass during them even if you had the sessions take place more or less when they were played, but there's no reason you can't start in the past and skip ahead, playing a certain number of sessions in each era or maybe establishing a "legacy setting" by running a short campaign as "the Justice Society" before moving to the present (or at least a couple of decades) to play their legacies. The setting quickly gets historical depth that means more to the players than backstory the GM just made up.

The Wild Cards books edited by George R.R. Martin are on example of this sort of campaign and Marvel: Lost Generation is another. Both are fairly different, which shows the versatility of the concept. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Mortzengersturm Playtests

My NTrpgcon of Mortzengersturm, The Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak is just 6 days away. This past week there were not one but two playtests of the adventure: one Friday by Jeff Call (whose art will grace the adventure when published) and one by me yesterday with a group of seasoned gamers other than my regular one. Both sessions seem to go really well and will inform some minor tweaks I'm make to the adventure at the con and also to the eventually published thing.

After spending a good bit of time this past week on the pregens, I was curious to see which one the players' picked. Sir Clangor (fighter), Minmaximus the Mighty (dwarf fighter), Wulf Howlen (barbarian), Moonflower (elf ranger), and Brother Mudwort (frogling cleric) were chosen, so both the intelligence-based spellcasters and the thief were eschewed--probably having some implications on how they made to approach problems later.

One interesting thing was how much I forgot! Having written the thing based on an adventure I ran in my regular campaign (almost a year ago now, admittedly) I didn't necessarily prep in the way I might a published adventure (Orr either my desire to adhere to adventure-as-written is stronger with my own stuff! Likely a bit of both.) and so there were so fun (to me) details and NPC bits that fell by the wayside. I didn't really effect the players' enjoyment, obviously.

Another was how things play differently in the context of an ongoing campaign than they do in an isolated adventure. I've tried with the pregens and through the adventure itself to convey the feel of the Land of Azurth, but interacting with the Clockwork Princess of Yanth Country or encountering a bunch of weird creatures with punny names plays differently depending on how much you've run across this stuff before. Again, I don't think that effects player enjoyment, but it gives me something to think about in terms of generizing an adventure enough it can be used most anywhere and without losing the flavor that makes a particular setting (hopefully) interesting, because with an adventure or adventure locale derive from an ongoing campaign, that was part of the alchemy that made it fun.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Wednesday Comics: Annotations on Future Quest

My on-going look at Don Lawrence's Storm will take a break so that we can dive into Future Quest, the first of DC's re-imagining of classic Hana-Barbera characters. This will contain spoilers.

"Part One: Lights in the Sky"
Future Quest #1 (2016), Written by Jeff Parker; Art by Eric "Doc" Shaner & Steve Rude

"A Distance World." The story opens with what appears to be the origin of Space Ghost as the last survivor of a Green Lantern-esque group of space peacekeepers. They they all wear uniforms resembling those worn by Jace and Jan (and Gleep) in the Space Ghost cartoon. The opening caption ("years before") suggests Space Ghost's adventures do not take place in the future,  point that was unclear in the various cartoon series.

Looking for Strange Phenomena. Next, we're introduced to the members of the Quest team: Jonny, Hadj, Benton Quest, "Race" Bannon, and their dog, Bandit. They seem pretty similar to the original versions from the 1964 series, though Jonny and Hadj are older than they were when they were first introduced.

Birdman. Two characters are introduced as government agents visiting Dr. Quest: Ray Randall and Deva Sumadi. We're given a couple of clues to Ray Randall's other identity: He has a pet bird named Avenger and we're told his superior is named Falcon 7. He is (as confirmed later) Birdman, solar-powered secret agent superhero, who worked for Inter-Nation Security in his 1967 cartoon series. He was never given a secret identity in those adventures.

One of the Other Three Great Minds. Dr. Quest is still contending with his arch-nemesis, Dr. Zin. Zin appeared in 4 episodes of the original 1964 Jonny Quest cartoon and on episodes in the 80s and 90s revivals. Here, he is working with F.E.A.R., the villainous organization that opposed Birdman in his series. Zin's spider-eye robots that appear later in this issue first appeared in the 1964 episode "The Robot Spy."

"Where do you think it came from?" Hadj and Jonny come across the body of a creature from a dimensional rift that resembles Tundro, a member of The Herculoids. In another rift they peer into they see Space Ghost, Jan, Jace and Gleep, Shazzan, Mightor, and the Herculoids. Space Ghost had crossovers with all of these other characters in the six part "Council of Doom" arc in 1967.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Further Tales of Vo

There are two human(-ish) tribes dwelling in the Vale of Vo. Both are likely the descendants of the folk who crashed their ship into Vo sometime in the distant past, and both claim the ancestral hero of Liberator-Vo.

The Vozerai are a pious people who live an austere and simple life, rejecting of physical pleasures, that dwell in the nose section of the ship. Even dama-fruit is not to be overly enjoyed, lest it lead one to impiety, and from impiety to death in the jaws of the bugbears. This ultimately serves the wheel of life, true, but it is impious to throw away existence lightly. Vozerai society is somewhat theocratic, ruled by cleric scholars, but theses Learned Ones only wield as much power as the number of folk they can sway to their interpretation of the record of accumulated utterances and noises of the bugbears. One thing all Vozerai Learned Ones agree on, whatever their other doctrinal differences, is that the Voyanki are heretics deserving of devouring by bugbears.

The Vozerai are all invisible as is typical from creatures in the Vale of Vo. They have the cultural habit of murmuring or mumbling to themselves, either their inner thoughts or scraps of prayer, so as to make others of their kind aware of their presence. They try to stifle this habit when bugbears may be in hearing.

The Voyanki live in the former tail section of the ship. They hate the preachy, milksop Vozerai for long-nursed but vaguely-remembered grudges, but it may be that they are also a bit jealous. By some trick of heredity, the Voyanki are not completely invisible but only mostly so. Their flesh is utterly transparent and their bones are a very pale white with a faint pinkish tinge. For this reason, Voyanki are somewhat more likely to be meals for the bugbears. They have become into strong warriors for their own defense--and to raid the better supplied Vozerai. The war chants and cries of the Voyanki sound like an attempt to mimic the bugbear voices. Their greatest warriors claim to wear bugbear skull headdresses, but of course, no one has ever seen them.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Tale of Vo

The Vale of Vo looks pretty enough, but that is because the carnage is invisible. The valley is a demiplane or pocket dimension bound by two tall mountains and a ring of hills. Its small stands of forest and orchards of fruited tress are divided and crossed by cobbled paths and clear brooks and streams; a bucolic tranquility only visibly marred by the strange craft that has crashed awkwardly across it's middle, leaving a scar in its wake. The vessel, too, was injured in its arrival; its torpedo shape is broken along is width, leaving two colorful, enameled chrome sections: nose and tail.

Art by Al Williamson. The ship before the crash, perhaps.
No inhabitants are visible in the Vale of Vo, because every animal in the valley is invisible. They are made so by eating the fruit of the trees: the dama-fruit. The dama-fruit is roughly tear-drop shaped and a pinkish color striped with yellow-green. It's flesh is like a papaya's in texture and tastes something like a grape mixed with a apple with hints of fond childhood memories and notes idle summer days. Consuming of most of one fruit will make a man-size creature invisible for 2d6 hours. Regular consumption of the fruit (at least 5 days) will lead to invisibility for 2d4 days after the last fruit was eaten.

The inhabitants of the valley have had to adapt to this condition. Bats have filled the niche of birds, and some of these sing eerie songs in the dappled tree canopies. The primary predator, the dread bugbear, uses smell to find its prey--which is an imperfect method, but good enough to make the bugbears a great threat to the vale's human denizens.

The humans call the bears "bugbears" because they are something out of nightmares, but also because they make an at-first-faint hissing, buzzing, rustling, droning sound that reminds one of insects, but in truth sounds more like mostly-static on a radio. If one was the stand near a bugbear for long enough (this would not be advisable) one might come to discern a tone behind the surface noise that swells and subsides, and this might precede a low, warped, and crackling voice or voices that would be near unintelligible (if truly there at all) but might repeat numbers or nonsense phrases before being swallowed again by the tone and the noise. Sometimes the voice (or voices) is said to cut sharply and suddenly into the static and to say something with great insistence but no greater clarity.

The occurrence of the voice has lead one group of humans in the Vale to assume the bears are gods or at least speak for the gods. These are the Vozerai. More on them tomorrow.

[freely adapted from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum]

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Paper Town of Azurth

Paper Town (it is said) in some sense occupies space in the Uncanny Valley in the west of the Country of Yanth, but the most reliable way to gain entry to the town is via a map. Potentially any map will do, but it must be one noting a nonexistent settlement, street or island. These fictitious entries serve as gates to Paper Town.

As is common with magical places, gaining entrance is not as simple as finding a suitable map. Luckily, the legend regarding Paper Town's creation delineates the necessary procedure. Paper Town, as the story says, was a gift given to Princess Hyacinthia of Azurth on the occasion of her birthday by a mysterious stranger. He informed the Princess that she could not visit Paper Town in person, being compose of something other than paper and possessed of general lack of flatness as she was, but her shadow could—with the proper attire. The stranger traced the outline of the Princess’s shadow on a large sheet of paper and cut around its edge. The cutout was taken to a place where the stranger’s map showed a hamlet to be but was not. The cutout vanished, like a piece of paper slid under an unseen door into an equally unseen room.

The fact Hyacinthia never regain her shadow nor have many who have repeated this ritual might give some pause, but that detail is not frequently repeated.

In Paper Town, the cutouts become paper doll doppelgängers of the person that served as their model. These visitors find unfolding streets of pop-up trees and citizenry and flat facades that elaborate to Escher-architectured structures when entered. The city seems endless, but the clever observer will note that it recycles itself to appear so. As the preceding portion grows, the receding part folds up behind. This can happen in any direction: Tall towers erect themselves when an evil sorcerer flies up to his sanctum. Dungeons unfold like inverted houses of cards when heroes go delving. The ostensible ruler of Paper Town, Princess Seven, paper doll of the long dead Queen Hyacinthia, makes the final decision on how "permanent" a new structure is in her city.

One attractive trait of Paper Town is that it conforms to a visitor's imagination in certain ways. Anything one wishes for may be found there, though anything of value is likely to require a quest or be obtained in a way that makes one not want it after all. In other words, Paper Town adheres to laws of story.

The archons or godlings that truly rule Paper Town enforce this reality zealously. These Great Tall Tailors, or Scissor Men as they are sometime called, will catch paper doll visitors who are ill-fitted for the story the Tall Tailors wish told and snip, snap, snip, reshape them into a more pleasing arrangement. The Tall Tailors are paper themselves (Or perhaps they are the shapes left when slender, lank-limbed manshapes are cut of paper?) save for their gleaming, scissor hands. Their shadows are also Tailors but their shadow-scissors cut the spirit exclusively while their metallic doubles cut the physical.

It is said that the Book of Doors, a book where every page is a portal to another place, originated in Paper Town, but how it came to be in the wider Land of Aurth is unknown.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wednesday Comics: Storm: The Battle for Earth (part 3)

My exploration of the long-running euro-comic Storm, continues. Earlier installments can be found here.

Storm: The Battle for Earth (1980) (part 3)
(Dutch: De Strijd om de Aarde)
Art by Don Lawrence & Script by Dick Matena

Solon has come to offer Storm help, saying he can show the humans a way into the city of the Azurians. He wants revenge on the Supervisor who sent his men to their deaths. Balder doesn't trust him, but Storm agrees to go along.

Solon leads Storm, Ember, and a nameless extra across a marsh where he seems to prove his intentions by saving Storm from a monster. They enter the city from an old sewer pipe, and make their way through the tunnels until they come up through a manhole and find:

Balder gloats to Solon they they discovered his treachery by him discussing his plans over an open comm. He throws Solon, Storm, and Ember in the dungeon.

Meanwhile, the extra, though fatally wounded, made it back to the camp to tell Balder what happened. Enraged, Balder leads an all out assault on the city. Though the humans fight bravely, the advanced technology of the Azurians inflicts heavy losses.

The Supervisor watches the battle on his viewscreens but also finds time to get grabby with the beautiful serving girl, Silene--who it turns out is the fiancee of Solon.

She steals his keys from him and frees our protagonists. They run to open the gate, but some where along the way, they lose Ember in the crowd. There is no time to look for her. In the control room, Storm and Solon take out the guards and raise the gate. Balder and the army pours in. The fighting is fierce, but eventually the Azurians are overcome.  The Supervisor has one surprise left though:

He demands a ship and safe passage for himself and his remaining men. Mordegai grants their request. The Azurians fly off to an old, deserted Chultu Monastery in the mountains once known as the Himalayas.