Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Of Names, Talking Trees, and Anthropomorphic Animals

As mentioned before, I participate in a "supposed-to-be monthly" Friday game night. Over the course of the past few years, we've played D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, Cthulhu (of both d20 and Savage Worlds varieties), Warhammer 40K RPG, OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord.

These games, being on Friday nights after a long week at work, tend to be a little more about just talking about work and every day life versus buckling down and getting straight to playing. We do end up playing, but we have at least a good hour or even two of hanging out and hoisting a pint or two before we take out the dice.

One of the topics that comes up often during the first few hours of hanging out is current TV and movies. For those of us who enjoy the genres of fantasy, science-fiction, and comic books, this is a great time to be alive with the veritable litany of shows and movies right now, especially with Marvel's success at the box office and DC aiming to follow suit with its TV series and recently announced slate of upcoming silver screen adaptations.

It's this Marvel versus DC thing I want to talk about in today's post, but not in the way you might think. It all leads to a bigger point, which is "Why do people think some things are cool, while other things that are almost exactly the same are considered stupid?"

Marvel is sitting pretty right now in the world, not just among self-labeled geeks but also as a pop culture fixture in general. The highest grossing movie this year was Guardians of the Galaxy (which I don't think most people ever saw coming) and that's followed by Captain America: Winter Soldier. It's safe to say that, at least this year, they own Hollywood. Marvel's properties have entered the pop culture lexicon with most people knowing the names of characters that 10 years ago wouldn't have registered with the average American.

"Hawkeye? You mean the guy from M.A.S.H.?" *

This guy is stupid?
By virtue of their success, many ideas that people may have scoffed at before have somehow become "cool." But, interestingly, the lesser known properties from Marvel don't necessarily carry that same cache. The upcoming movie, Ant Man, is a perfect example of this. It's got a pretty big name cast with Evangeline Lilly, Paul Rudd, and Michael Douglas just for starters. It's a story based on a long-standing member of the Avengers and a character who has been around for decades. Among people following the production of the movie, there is some concern due to the multitude of director, cast, and script changes that have occurred during production, and that's understandable. But, to the average person, even those who are fans of Marvel movies, Ant Man isn't something they can get behind.

To quote a friend in my game group (and I'm going to be picking on him a lot as we continue, so hopefully he's got a good sense of humor about this), "Ant Man? ANT MAN? That's stupid."

Just so I understand, Spider-Man is cool, but Ant Man is not.

Is Ant Man not cool because you can't conceive of who he is or what he does, and therefore that's stupid? Is it just that the name seems stupid? Try to imagine that you had no idea who Spider-Man was. You're starting with a blank slate with no idea of his powers or his costume or his origin. Would hearing the name "Spider-Man" make you think the guy is cool, or stupid? Now think about Ant Man again.

But this guy is cool? Really? Have you seen
this movie? It's all about context, folks.
This same friend has been keen to point out to me on several occasions that DC's heroes have stupid names, and cracks up every time I bring up the character Elongated Man. I imagine quite a few of you out there might not even know who Elongated Man is because he's currently not part of the New 52. You might even be chuckling like Beavis or Butthead right now because you think the guy's name is funny. But, as I've said on many occasions, it's not really about the character's powers or his or her name, it's about how the creative team make stories featuring that character. A bad writer can turn a so-called cool character like Batman into a caricature of himself. We've all seen that happen before. You need look no further than the awful Joel Schumacher Batman films (the terrible Batman Forever and the even worse Batman & Robin). So, does a name make a character inherently stupid? Have a read of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis (with an open mind) and then tell me if you still think Elongated Man is stupid. I'm not arguing that his name couldn't have been better chosen. I'm saying that the character himself is not stupid, nor are the stories in which he appears, just based on what his name is.

My friend, however, doesn't see it that way.

This brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy again. My friend is, when push comes to shove, a Marvel fan. He likes Batman but the rest of the DC Universe isn't for him. His son digs Marvel heroes, and Marvel has admitted done a much better job than DC of bringing their heroes to the masses through the big screen. So, earlier this summer during game night, I asked the group, "Who's seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet?" At the time, no one else in the group had seen it.

"No way. I'm not seeing that. It's so stupid - it's got a talking raccoon in it."

"But.. wait, what? You're not seeing it because it has a talking raccoon? I asked. "Do you even know what it's about? It's just a fun, slightly goofy, popcorn summer action adventure. It's along the same line of the Avengers movie. You liked that one, right?"

"Dude, it has a talking raccoon. Oh, and a stupid talking tree, too. I'm out."

"I don't understand this hatred for the raccoon. They even explain in the film why he is like he is..." I started to say.

"Doesn't matter. I don't do anthropomorphic animals. They're just stupid."

This conversation went on for a while with other members of the group jumping in, but my friend was adamant that talking trees and animals are just stupid.

"Hey, do you like Lord of the Rings?" another friend asked.

"Yes," said my talking tree hating friend.

"That has talking trees in it. Treebeard is a significant character in that series."

My friend stood for a second, not saying anything.

"And what about the Chronicles of Narnia? Do you like those?" we asked.

My friend answered slowly... hesitantly. "Yes."

"Dude, that series is full of talking animals. So, what's this deal with you saying anthropomorphic animals are stupid?"

My friend was quiet for a second, and then finally said, "Good point. Good point." A short pause later, he then proudly announced, "It's a conceit of the genre." He stood there matter-of-factly with a smug look on his face, arms crossed on his chest.

"What? What the Hell does that mean?"

"It means it's a conceit of the genre," he said, just repeating what he'd already said as thought that were the only explanation needed. "Talking trees and animals are part of fantasy literature.  They don't belong in a comic book movie."

"Says who?" I asked, rather loudly. This guy really knows how to push my buttons and I realize that he does it partly just to get a reaction. He's also keenly aware that during this entire discussion I've been knocking back some Imperial Pale Ales with ABVs approaching 9.5 - 10%.

"They don't belong in comic book movies. It's just stupid."

"But this is a space fantasy. You don't even know what the movie is about. So Wookies are okay in Star Wars but a race of intelligent plant-based life in Guardians of the Galaxy is stupid?"

"Yep, exactly. It doesn't make sense."

This whole argument we were having continued for some time, and neither one of us was going to see the other point-of-view. It's very reminiscent of the science-fantasy laser-sharking argument, about which I've blogged before. Some people seem to have a very narrow, limited view of what fantasy, science-fiction, and now comic books should be. Fantasy is dwarves and elves, and I guess, talking trees and animals. Science fiction is starships and lasers and alien races that in no way resemble talking versions of earth flora or fauna. Never the twain shall meet.

And now we have a limited definition of a comic book movie, which apparently should not include any fantasy or science-fiction elements to it, but rather should only feature costumed heroes with cool names that are not based on funny words or tiny insects, and they should be limited in scope to talking place in Manhattan.

What are you thoughts about all this? Was Guardians of the Galaxy stupid because it featured an outer space setting with a talking tree and raccoon? Is Ant Man stupid because he's named after a small insect? Is Elongated Man stupid just because his name makes an easy joke for a pubescent juvenile male?


* Look it up, kids. It was a great show I grew up watching with my dad.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water (Pasadena's finest)
Listening: "Police on my Back" by the Clash

Sunday, October 12, 2014

This Week in Comics

I don't normally post on the weekends, as I mainly spend that time with my wife and daughter, as well as trying as much as possible to get some gaming in with friends. However, it's been a bit since I last posted, and I had a thought about a new semi-ongoing thing to post about, giving my impressions of the previous week's comics that I picked up.

Long-time readers know that I go to my local comic shop, Collector's Paradise in Pasadena, every Wednesday with my daughter after I pick her up from school. Here's a look at the things I picked up and my thoughts on them so far.

My goal with these posts is, as with all of my comics-related posts, to try to expose you all to the world of comics out there and how they might be different than what you might think. I also tend to try to bring them back around to tabletop role-playing games and discuss things that you can steal from various different books that could make some cool scenarios for your games.

As a reminder, every Wednesday after I get home from my shop, I tweet out which books I picked up that week. This week's tweets were:


Rather than talk about each one individually, I'm going to group them a bit.

Haven't Read Yet
Here's an easy category - of the books I picked up this week, I still haven't read Batman Eternal, Superman/Wonder Woman, or Astro City.

DC's Earth 2 Titles (Earth 2, Earth 2: World's End, Worlds' Finest, and New 52: Futures End)
Earth 2, an alternate earth in the DC Universe, has exploded lately. Prior to DC's "New 52" reboot, Earth 2 was the home of the old Golden Age heroes that were created just prior to, or during, World War 2. So, it was home to the "original" Superman and Batman, as well as the original Flash (Jay Garrick, the guy who wore the helmet inspired by the Roman God Mercury), the original Green Lantern (Alan Scott, whose powers were actually more magical and who wasn't part of the Green Lantern Corps), and the original Wonder Woman (who was ret-conned to be Hipolyta, Diana's mother).

With the New 52 relaunch, those characters don't exist any longer in mainstream DC continuity. Instead, DC launched a book called Earth 2 which tells the stories of an alternate Earth in which the "Trinity" of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all died a few years ago, giving their lives to protect their planet from an invasion by Darkseid. In the wake of their sacrifice, a new generation of heroes was born, including alternative versions of the Green Lantern and the Flash, as well as brand new heroes that don't exist on the main DC Earth, such as Hawkgirl, Red Tornado, Sandman, Red Arrow, and some others. There's also a new Batman prowling around, and another Kryptonian taking the place of the more familiar Clark Kent version.

Earth 2 has consistently been among DC's better books after the New 52 reboot, and it's mainly because the authors (firstly James Robinson and most recently Tom Taylor) have been given a bit more liberty to create their world from scratch without having to try to fit into any pre-existing continuity.

There was a "bridge" book of sorts, Worlds' Finest, which told the tale of two of Earth 2's minor "sidekick" heroes (Supergirl, the cousin of Superman; and Robin, the daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle). Both girls see their mentors die during the Darkseid invasion and shortly after are accidentally teleported over to the main DC Earth, where they've spent the past 27 issues pretty much not interacting with any of the main Earth heroes at all. They've just ducked under the radar and tried to figure out a way to get home. This book has been a bit of a disappointment, as it was ripe for some great stories featuring Supergirl (who takes the moniker of Power Girl on the main Earth) and Robin (who takes the moniker of Huntress) interacting with their doubles on this world as well as the doppelgangers of their Earth 2 mentors, etc.

The issue of Worlds' Finest from this past week features a shift in the storyline moving forward, focusing on the original Batman and Superman of Earth 2 and telling their "secret origin" of sorts. The creative team try to do some things to make the origins different and original, but ultimately Batman always has to deal with the death of his parents and Kal-El always has to be the "last son" of Krypton, and that's what we get here.

The other two books in the Earth 2 line are both weeklies. One of them, Earth 2: World's End, is brand new this past week. It's a massively oversized issue, which is quite a bargain at $2.99, but it's mainly full of a recap of sorts, summarizing the past two years of the title. It's a good one to pick up if you haven't ready any Earth 2 stuff before and are interested in that world but don't relish the thought of reading through 26 issues to "catch up."

New 52: Futures End is another weekly which on issue #23. It tells a tale 5 years in the future with a time-traveling Batman from even further in the future (Terry McGinnis, for those of you who used to watch the old Batman Beyond animated series) and a sort of "what if?" type storyline of how things will turn out if certain current events aren't corrected. It's fun to see what happens to our favorite heroes five years down the line, but there are a lot of storylines in this one and sometimes reading this weekly book can be a bit frustrating, as you might go two or three weeks without the creative team touching on one particular story thread. It also has a huge cast of characters, because it has to deal with the entirety of the DC universe, including all of the characters from Earth 2, who in this future tale have all been transported to the main DC earth (which is why I filed this under the "Earth 2" heading).

Should You Read It? As I mentioned - Earth 2 itself has been among DC's better offerings since the New 52 reboot, but due to all of the interconnections right now with all of these other titles it could be a bit daunting to jump into. You're probably better off grabbing the trade collections of the earlier stories if you want to read about Earth 2. I wouldn't really recommend Worlds' Finest at all, but since it's changing direction I'm not sure going forward what I'll think of it. Both of the weekly series are "events" and not really necessary. New 52: Futures End is a fun, alternate future type book but at this point if you haven't been reading it, I'd just wait for the trade collection.

The Bat Family
This week had two big changes among the Batman family of titles.

Dealing with the easiest one first, Batman #35 just features a new story arc and an over-sized issue (that unfortunately also comes with an over-priced $4.99 price tag). Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (pencils) have been handling Batman since the launch of the New 52 and they are one of the only creative teams that's been consistent since the re-launch. This is a perfect "jumping on" issue if you haven't been reading Batman (although I'd suggest you go back and start with the "Court of Owls" story from the first trade collection, just because it's so good). Comic geeks are always known to have arguments of "which superhero would win in a fight..." and most hard-core geeks will say the answer is "Batman" because he always plans ahead and has spent most of his "down time" figuring out how he would take down each member of the Justice League if it ever comes to that. If that thought of seeing how Batman might accomplish such a feat sounds intriguing to you, read this issue.

The other big change to the Bat family this week was a sad one for me, and is resulting in me removing a title from my pull-list. This is the second time in the past two weeks that a change in creative team has caused me to do this. The first time was with Green Arrow #35, which I disliked so much after the new creative team came on board that I pulled it from my list.

Batgirl #35 is actually a worse offender than Green Arrow, to me. Fan favorite author Gail Simone, who has defined Barbara Gordon as Batgirl since the New 52 reboot, has left the title and in her place is a brand new team of younger writers who have completely changed the tone of the book, seemingly by trying to make it more modern and "hip" which apparently means having it read like a series of social media posts. They've also put Barbara, one of DC's strongest and smartest superheroes and a female role-model, into a new college environment where she makes bad choices such as passing out from a drunken stupor after a party at her new apartment and as a result having her laptop stolen. There's just so much wrong with this entire scenario - starting with Barbara forgetting her training and drinking so much that she passes out and has no memory of the previous evening, so being so short-sited that she never thought to back-up the contents of her laptop on a cloud-based server so that she'd never lose her data. The new creative team tries so hard to bring this title into the new age of computers and constant social interaction but forget basic things like how modern society backs up their data. It's just sloppy writing and editing. Furthermore, all of the constant references to social media don't serve to make the title seem fresh and new, but rather serve only to ensure that in two or three years it's going to look very dated.

Here's a page from the issue, courtesy of Bleeding Cool. This is definitely not a "role-model" hero that girls today are looking for in a comic.


Should You Read It? If you haven't been reading Batman, this is a great issue to jump into (although as mentioned it does have a higher price-tag). I'd stay far away from Batgirl, but I do have to put that in the context of me being an older man with a young 5-year-old daughter. I do suspect that a younger, older teenaged girl might actually respond to the title, but I'm not convinced that Barbara makes a good role-model any longer.

Galaxies Far, Far Away
I've read two science-fiction titles this week - one of which, at first glance, might not seem like science-fiction.

First up is Black Science, which I've reviewed here before. This latest issue, #9, is definitely not a good jumping-on point if you haven't been reading the series. It will sadly just confuse you and might turn you away from what is an otherwise excellent series. However, the art along should be enough to at least give you pause - it's absolutely fantastic. This latest issue features a group of giant-size militaristic telepathic hive-mind millipedes. Just read that sentence again and tell me you're not the least bit curious. However, I would strongly suggest if you're interested in the title at all and haven't read it before, just pick up the first trade volume that collects the first six issues for only $9.99. You won't be sorry.

The second science-fiction title is Justice League United, which DC seems to be tweaking to perhaps capitalize on the popularity of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The cover even features the sub-title, "Gathering to Protect the Galaxy." JLU spun-out of the previous Justice League of America title. With the disbanding of that team, a few of its former members (Green Arrow, Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, and Stargirl) along with newcomers like Supergirl, Animal, Adam Strange, and a new Canadian girl hero named Equinox, have banded together to prevent a galactic catastrophe and save a genetically engineered child who was supposedly going to be the "bringer of peace" but is instead the embodiment of destruction (those of you who watch the TNT series Falling Skies may be sighing to yourself now, "Been there, done that"). The real selling point of this series, though, is that it's not afraid to have some fun. Comics, especially of the DC variety, have just gotten too serious and dark. JLU avoids that by having some fantastic banter between Green Arrow and Animal Man and showcasing the naivete of a young Stargirl, while also delving into the mysticism of the native inhabitants of Canada and bringing back one of DC's old Silver Age Buck Rogers type heroes, Adam Strange, and mixing that all up into a goofy, fun, and entertaining story. This past week featured issue #5, but there was also a #0 issue to launch the title, so I suspect it will be coming out in trade format soon if you want to catch up. 

Should You Read It? Both of these titles are quite good, but they're very different. Black Science is kind of like pulp science-fiction but with a harder edge and no real "heroes." Read my review, linked above, to see if it's up your alley. Justice League United is a fun team-book of heroes that I really enjoy. It's authored by Jeff Lemire, who also wrote the most recent run on Green Arrow that I thought was one of the best comic books being published until the new creative team took over with issue #35. 

Scary Stuff
One of a myriad of new #1 issues that came out this week, Wytches is by Scott Snyder (the currently writer on Batman, noted above) and critically acclaimed artist, Jock (who previously teamed with Snyder on Batman: The Black Mirror, one of the best Batman stories ever told). With Wytches, Snyder brings a lot of his own personal experiences to the story, which takes place in rural Pennsylvania. These are not the pointy-hat and broomstick witches that we've all grown up with. Instead, Snyder and Jock instill a sense of fear, horror, and dread into the story that really is perfect considering the Halloween holiday that's fast approaching. This is a very moody and atmospheric book that would make perfect nighttime reading if you're trying to get your scare-on.

I did have a small issue with some of the overly sexually graphic dialogue. I'm no prude and it didn't bother me from that standpoint as much as it did from the fact that it was just completely unnecessary. Similarly to the new creative team on Batgirl, is seems like Snyder was trying too hard to try to be modern and relevant to a younger audience and instead it just comes across as trying too hard. The particular scene I'm talking about was just so over the top and and truly unnecessary in furthering the creepy mood of the tale that it served to actually pull me out of the story and question why it was there in the first place.

Should You Read It? There are a lot of great ideas in here, particularly for people running a horror-themed RPG or even if you're just looking for scary story around Halloween time. Beware of the graphic sexual content (written, not illustrated) if that kind of thing bothers you.


Hanging: home (laptop)
Drinking: Saranac Pumpkin Ale (2.5/5 stars)
Listening: "Ghost Riders in the Sky" by Marty Robbins

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Happy Batman Day!

I almost let the day slip by without reminding everyone that today is Batman Day, as designated by DC Comics, to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the creation of the character back in Detective Comics #27.

Here's an article on CNET chatting about it - but the basics are that you can drop by your local comics shop today to pick up a free copy of a comic re-telling the origin of the character. This story actually first appeared last year in Detective Comics #27 (volume 2), an anniversary issue with a bunch of short stories by various authors at DC. The free version of the comic includes a cover featuring the image that Greg Capullo created for Batman #0 (Volume 2) from September 2012.

Here are the four masks you can pick up today
at your local comic book store.
Also while you're at your shop, you can pick up a mask featuring one of four different versions of the character (the original from 1939, the Adam West version, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns version, or the current version from the New 52). After you pick up your mask, take a picture with your cell phone and Tweet is using the hashtag #Batselfie.

Your store should also have a bunch of other cool stuff, like limited edition capes and tons of comics and graphic novels featuring not only Batman but also Robin, the Joker, and other Batman character from through the past three-quarters of a century.

DC also has a sale going on Comixology right now, with $0.99 copies of individual Batman comics and 10 different graphic novels/trade paperbacks on sale for only $2.99. But, the sale lasts for today only so make sure to head over and pick them up while you can.

Drop me a comment below to let m know how you celebrated Batman Day today. When I pick up my daughter at preschool, I'll play a selection of Batman music in the car (TV series theme, Danny Elfman theme, etc.) while we head to our local shop. After we get home, I'm considering showing her an episode of "Batman: The Animated Series." I'm just not sure which one. She just turned five on July 8th, so I think something deep like "Heart of Ice" would be a little beyond her.

Cheers, all!


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Blackbird/Bye Bye Blackbird" by Sara Gazarek

Friday, July 11, 2014

Game Inspirations Friday: Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

Originally when I started this particular "column" on the blog, the idea was to illustrate the myriad of inspirations I used when creating my ongoing World of Samoth campaign.

However, there's just so much great material out there, so I've put an eye toward expanding this list to just other inspirational works that could be used in a variety of different settings. My weekly comic book reviews also fulfill this objective, so I'll be focusing on works other than comics for Friday inspirations. I'm also of thinking of things that could be inspirational to youngsters, as well, and this week's entry certainly fits that bill.

Back when I was in 4th Grade, my friend Lee had Barlowe's Guide, and I would always beg him to let me look at it. It was a fascinating, almost scholarly look at various aliens from the history of science-fiction, impeccably illustrated with these beautiful, detailed paintings. The artist, Wayne Barlow, has been called the "Audubon of otherworld creatures" and that description is perfect. Interestingly enough, Barlowe served his apprenticeship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, so it's understandable how he might choose to approach illustrating some of science fiction's most famous alien life forms.

Barlowe's paintings showcase things such as an aging Athshean's mane and how it grows more silver over time, or the resting and locomotive postures of an adult Merseian. The accompanying prose describes the Physical Characteristics, Habitat, and Culture (or sometimes the Reproductive Habits) of each alien creature and does so from an "in-world" standpoint; that is, it is written as though these creatures were really alive and the reader just wanted to find out more about them, similar to simply leafing through a copy of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds. The source material for each alien creature is listed as well (the book and/or series and the author) but other than that, no other mention is made to the aliens being fictional creations. 

As a youngster, I really just loved the paintings of the aliens and thinking about what kinds of worlds they must inhabit. At age 9 or 10, I hadn't read, or even heard of, most of the source material that Barlowe used to create his book. As I got older, I began to appreciate that Barlowe's book came out at a time when science-fiction was still a relatively "young" genre. Although many of the major milestone books of the genre, such as Dune, Foundation, and Ringworld, had been published before Barlowe's Guide hit bookshelves in 1979, the genre as a whole had been a bit "under the radar", so-to-speak, until "Star Wars" was released in 1977. At the time Barlowe's Guide came out, though, the popularization and "Star Wars-i-fication" of science fiction hadn't happened yet. As a result, almost all of the source materials Barlowe relied upon for his guide were decades old, and many of them fall into sub-genres that aren't considered "true" science-fiction any longer (e.g., H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness is represented here, which most people these days would consider more horror than science-fiction).

Barlowe's source material creates an almost de-facto "the best of science fiction" list, with many hallmarks of the genre represented: the aforementioned Dune and Ringworld, Vance's The Dirdir and The Pnume, Clarke's Childhood End, L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, Chalker's Midnight at the Well of Souls... the list goes on and on. There are also some titles that truly represent the time during which they were written, such as Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.

From a world-building perspective, Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials was immensely helpful to me in terms of how I thought about other races and creatures in my tabletop RPGs, and Wayne Barlowe's beautiful paintings were also an inspiration for me to work on my own artistic skills at the time. This is a great book to have as a deskside reference to just flip to a random page and get some inspiration for looking at non-human lifeforms differently in your games, as well as providing a great list of classic science-fiction to put on your reading list.

Nearly two years later, in 1996, Barlowe published his much anticipated sequel, Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy. Unfortunately, it just doesn't have the charm of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials. Part of the reason relates to the subject matter, as Barlowe makes the odd choice of focusing on quite a few human or very human-like characters, so the diversity of life isn't as large is it is in the Extraterrestrial book. In terms of the source material, the history of literary fantasy fiction isn't quite as developed and rich as that of science-fiction. Although there is a treasure trove of ideas from mythology, much of fantasy fiction, post-Lord of the Rings, is comprised of a lot of LOTR pastiches. Barlowe includes most of the standards you'd think of, but then makes some very odd choices (e.g., Howard's Bran Mak Morn is featured, but not Conan). Interesting, Barlowe includes the Machine-Beast from the derivative Sword of Shannara but doesn't include any creatures from Tolkein. While this might have been a rights issue, it stands out in a strange way.

The original Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, though, is a classic in its own right and serves as a great introduction to the genre of science fiction literature. As noted, I was around 9 or 10 when I first saw the book, and in that context, this would also make a great gift for a young one who is looking to expand his or her science fiction knowledge beyond Star Wars.

BARLOWE'S GUIDE TO EXTRATERRESTRIALS
  • Format: Full color hardback with 112 pages. The version I have was a reprint from 1987 and includes a Foreward by Robert Silverburg and an additional 32 pages of illustrations from Barlowe's sketchbook for the aliens featured in the book as well as of his own creation. 
  • Where to Buy: The book was out of print for a while but is available on Amazon in both hardcover and softcover versions. 
  • Price: Price varies widely based on condition and demand. Right now it looks like most "new" copies are selling for around $42+ dollars, and used copies can be had for as little as $0.55. One seller also has a "collectible" version of the hardcover, signed by the artist, in "Very Good" condition.
  • More Information: Here's the Wikipedia page, where you can get a full list of each alien and its accompanying source material.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Halo" by Depeche Mode



Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Campaign Setting Idea: The Power of Royal Blood

Here's yet another campaign setting idea, this time about a world where royal blood has actual power. This follows up a short series I've been doing, including an idea for the League of Anarchist Scientists and one for a dystopian future where governments have been replaced by powerful families.

Background and Setting
In this world, those of royal blood have actual powers, like flight, telekinesis, super strength, and more. Since most countries have royal families, there's kind of a "gentleman's agreement" among them all that the royal families won't get involved in bigger world conflicts. Rather, they continue to just hold all the power while letting the common people handle things like fighting wars and so forth.

The royals guard their blood very carefully, which could perhaps explain a bit about why rumors of incest among royal family members seem to be common. They also all have different, unpredictable powers. That is, no two royals are exactly alike in terms of their powers and abilities.

Let's set this world during a major world conflict that's one of the most destructive that this world has ever seen. In fact, let's make this an alternate earth and set it during World War II during the German bombing of London. The devastation of the First World War has eroded peoples' confidence in the royal families, to the point that some of them, like the Hapsburgs and the Romanovs have been overthrown. However, in the United Kingdom, the royals still rule.

During the bombing, let's have one of the English Princes decide that he'd fed up with living off the taxes of the commoners of England and seeing his country destroyed by Nazi bombers. So, let's have him, on a whim, use his powers to join the battle and destroy a bunch of Nazi planes.

Although this action saves the country temporarily, it has severe repercussions. Let's not forget that most other countries have, or had, royal families. The Emperor of Japan has several children of his own...

What about Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and the Republic of the United States?  Surely there's no royal blood in these countries. Or, is there?

Characters
Obviously the campaign here would probably revolve around some of the lesser members of the royal families, but could also involve military attaches or non-powered special agents from countries with no royal blood, for example.

Given that this is all about family, we'll probably see a lot of in-fighting between siblings and also between sons and daughters and their parents in addition to the fighting between different nations. We're also liable to see long lost royalty uncovered in some countries and discover that they might not really support the current regime.

This setting is also ripe for a lot of exploration of the interactions between non-powered commoners and the super-powered royalty they are supposed to follow. There's probably a lot of questioning at best, or outright resentment and hostility at worst.

Challenges and Conflict
Of course you've got the big "everyone versus the Nazis" type of conflict, which is easy, but it's very simplistic and of course the war wasn't just about that. There were a variety of theaters and more than one Axis power. But the actual war is going to be the main conflict.

There's also the conflict described above of dealing with matters of family among the various royal houses. Impetuous children disobeying their elders and getting the royals involved in the war is going to be a major point of conflict and drama in this type of story.

And lastly, again as noted above, there's the conflict that exists between the "normals" and the royals.

To me, this sounds like a really fun setting for a supers-type game. While the idea of supers in World War II has been done before, this is a fresh perspective by taking the idea of royal blood having "powers" to the extreme and turning royalty into the world's only superheroes and villains.

As you've probably guessed, this idea is yet again from a comic book, a six-issue mini-series called Royals: Masters of War, published by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics. The last issue came out earlier today, which means that this entire story will most likely be collected into trade format soon. Not only is the story really well done, but the art is amazing. All together, it makes for a very interesting and evocative setting for a role-playing game.

ROYALS: MASTERS OF WAR
Format: Six monthly four-color issues, the last of which was published on 7/9/2014.
Where to Buy: As always, I strongly encourage you to buy this at your local comic book store. You can find one close to you by using the Comic Shop Locator. If you don't have one close by, you can buy a print version online at places like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or you can buy a digital version to read on your desktop, tablet, or smartphone at Comixology. That link takes you to the page for the entire series.
Price: The first four issues are each available for $1.99 each on Comixology, and the last two issues are currently priced at $2.99 each.
Rated: This is for more mature people - the Age Rating on Comixology is 17+.
More Information: The official page for Royals: Masters of War on the Vertigo Comics website is here


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Mother Earth Brewing Co. Sin-Tax Peanut Butter Imperial Stout
Listening: "The Girl's Insane" by the Januaries



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

One Page Dungeon Contest: "Honorable Mentions" Prizes

My daughter in her homemade Wonder Woman
Costume, Halloween 2013. She's trying to look
"tough" to capture the Cheetah. She turns 5 today.
(So it doesn't get buried in the post: I'm offering a free RPG book to the two Honorable Mention winners of this year's One Page Dungeon Contest. Please read below for more info.)

Today is my daughter's birthday - she turns five years-old and is super excited. She has a little party planned this weekend - a "neon party" out in the backyard. My wife has been purchasing everybody garishly colored neon shirts to wear, but of course I have something completely different and thematically appropriate to my own personal tastes.

Recently my friends came over to play another session of my World of Samoth campaign. We've been continuing to play despite my lack of updates about it here on the blog. My daughter was home when the gang came over and entertained herself with books, her Leap-pad, and movies, but also asked a bit about Dungeons & Dragons and said that she wished she was old enough to play. This got me to thinking about running a game for her and a few of her friends, which I'm going to try to set up soon.

And all of that got me to thinking that during my judging for this year's One Page Dungeon Contest, I remembered seeing two entries that were clearly written by young people. One of them, Gwendolyn A. Potter's "Ponies Candy Square Dungeon" had a cute introduction written by her dad, wherein he identified that the "Tiny Tyrant" was age six, and that she demanded to be able to make a dungeon for the contest her dad was entering. Her dad took dictation and wrote out the dungeon word-for-word, and it's really quite charming.

The other dungeon, "Magic Dungeon" is by Sadhbh Brennan and includes a very colorful map with some hand-written descriptions such as "Tower full of statues coming to... life."

I was very impressed that these youngsters chose to enter the contest and come up with their own dungeon designs, and I had actually emailed the contest coordinator, Random Wizard, to ask if we could award some sort of "honorable mention" status, which did end up happening. You can see the full list of the winners here, including these two dungeons called out for special honorable mentions.

While that's really nice, as I thought about my own daughter and trying to encourage her to use her imagination and I've explained to her how a role-playing game works and what we do when we play. And I thought I could use this opportunity of the One Page Dungeon Contest to reward these two youngsters for their creations.

To that end, through a series of circumstances, I have ended up with extra copies of the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide II and also the original Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting (the one before Paizo created the Pathfinder RPG system, so it's also 3.5 compatible). I'm offering Gwendolyn and Sadhbh each one of the books as a reward (including shipping) for their work and to encourage them to keep at it. I want them to understand that their creativity was recognized by the other judges and myself.

I have Gwendolyn's dad's email address, as he put it on the submission, but if anyone knows how to get in touch with Sadhbh's parents, please have them contact me on Twitter, Facebook, G+ (links to all over at the side) or to email me using gmail and the name samothdm.

Here's a bit about the two books - I'm hoping that they'll each want a different book. Otherwise, I'll flip a coin.

The Dungeon Masters Guide II for the 3.5 system is really less about mechanics and more about running a game. It includes chapters on things like knowing your players and their play styles, communicating at the table, modifying published adventures for your own campaign, and ideas for archetypal locations such as a battle in the sky, a burning building, a flooding dungeon, or an ice bridge. It also covers how to begin and end a campaign, using house rules or expanded rules, building cities, and more. There are also some really fun random tables, such as "50 Rumors and Hooks" and "100 Instant NPC Agendas." Again, while this is a 3.5 era book, the vast majority of this book is either mechanics-free or can be easily stripped of mechanics or replaced with the game mechanics of your choice. Hardback; 288 pages.

The Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting depicts the world of Golarion, the world in which the Pathfinder game takes place. It covers about 40 different empires, kingdoms, and city-states as well as the religious pantheon common to Golarion which includes 20 different deities in addition to a variety of lesser gods, archdevils, demon lords, and more. One of my favorite parts of the book is detailed descriptions of the standard D&D races in Golarion (dwarves, elves, etc.) but also all of the world's different human ethnicities. When this book was first published, it wasn't common to call out differences in humans; they were just "humans." In this campaign setting presentation, we get 11 different human ethnicities that are all different, but with no mechanical changes to those presented in the standard rules. This isn't a book about "giving bonuses" but rather just a book of ideas to mine for your own campaign world creation, or you can just use it "right out the box" (so-to-speak). Hardback; 256 pages.

Both books are un-used and I never even cracked the bindings, as these are duplicate copies that I was given as gifts. As an added bonus, each one also has the price sticker from Border's, where they were purchased for me, and as we know, Border's is out of business so maybe these are collector's items! (Just kidding).

Hopefully Gwendolyn and Sadhbh will get some use out of these books and they will help to spark their imaginations even more, and encourage them both to enter the One Page Dungeon Contest again next year.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Hendrick's Gin Martini
Listening: "Oh My God" by Mark Ronson featuring Lily Allen

Thursday, July 3, 2014

80's TV Thursday: Max Headroom

Looks like it's the week of dystopian near-future topics, after yesterday's ideas I gave for a potential campaign setting.

Anyone remember this short-lived ABC series that was actually created by and produced in Britain?


Max Headroom aired for 14 episodes across two seasons in 1987-1988. The series was based on a made-for TV movie called "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future", which itself was created to develop a backstory for the character of Max Headroom, who was a computer-generated TV host.

Confused?

I don't blame you. But, let's just focus on the series that eventually aired here in the States. 

The World and the Premise
Max Headroom takes place in the relatively near-future, in a very odd world characterized by the majority of the populace leaving in squalor and oppression in over-crowded conditions. In this world, television networks have assumed positions of power as the true ruling class, with the actual governments in a subservient role. The show exaggerates the extent of the networks' power by inventing such conceits that there are laws preventing TVs from being shut off, and that TV sets can actually monitor peoples' physical and emotional state. In this world, the sale of TV advertisement time is a form of monetary stocks for the networks.

The importance of advertising in this world leads directly to the plot of the pilot episode, in which an investigative reporter for one of the networks, a man named Edison Carter, discovers that a new ad serving technique called "Blimpverts" is actually killing viewers.

Later, Carter along with a team of friends from the network form a sort of underground resistance movement to make public the unethical practices by the networks via hacking networks feeds to air their investigative news stories.

The Characters
Edison Carter (played by Matt Frewer, in probably his best-known role) is discovered and chased down by network employees. During his flight, he has an accident and his consciousness is uploaded into a computer, eventually creating the AI character of Max Headroom (also played by Frewer). Max has none of the inhibitions of Carter, is smarmy and disrespectful, but generally a huge help to in uncovering crimes committed by the various networks.

Edison Carter is helped by Theora Jones (played by Amanda Pays, a character actor who has appeared in dozens of films and television programs since the early 1980's), a controller at the same network as Carter. The two are friends and there are hints of a simmering romantic relationship but that was never fully explored before the show was canceled.

Edison's other helpers consist of a variety of network personnel including his producer, Murray McKenzie (Jeffrey Tambor) and Ben Cheviot (the new and surprisingly ethical Chairman of Carter's network). There's also a computer hacker and tech-genius who is part of the network's research department, Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) who is the person who uploaded Carter's consciousness to create Max Headroom.

Another of Max's non-network friends is Reg, a colorful character with a 1980's punk aesthetic who prefers older music styles and printed books over electronic forms of communication. He is referred to as a "Blank," because he is not listed in any government database.

The Bad Guys
Almost all of the crimes in the series are committed within the context of corporations, mainly television networks, program distributors, and other communications-related companies.

The Ending
Max Headroom was definitely a fad that had a very short window of popularity. The initial mid-season run of six episodes was popular, but by the time it came back for its second season, the popularity of the Max Headroom character had waned and become almost a parody of itself. The second season lasted only eight episodes before cancellation and despite having been at one time the spokesman for New Coke and also hosting a short-lived interview show on the Cinemax pay TV network for a while (during which, in one episode, he famously yawned to indicate boredom while interviewing Sting), Max Headroom hasn't aged well and is almost seems to be forgotten these days.

Cultural Impact
Max Headroom was strangely prescient in much of what it portrayed in the show, with ideas such as computer hackers (and their personalities), the fading of printed media in favor of TV and digital, and the idea of people going "off the grid" (as expressed by the Blanks) to keep corporations and governments from spying on them. Additionally, the show portrayed many other cyberpunk themes, which was a relatively new science-fiction genre when the show debuted, and exposed a wider TV watching audience to the cyberpunk genre.

Any Good Ideas for Role-Playing Games?
Most of the ideas here would come from the world-building of the show and the setting they created. Much could be copied over into a pseudo-cyperpunk game, especially one that relies on a 1980's aesthetic of what the future looked like (which, oddly, matches quite nicely with the actual Cyberpunk game by  R. Talsorian Games in 1988.

With only a bit of work, a games master could probably adapt some of the plots of the actual episodes into adventure seeds for his players. 

Is It Good for Kids?
This is a relatively harmless show, but it does depict a somewhat bleak future, and portrays most authority figures as selfish at best or downright criminals at worst, including most government officials. There's some violence as well, but almost no sexual situations or other "adult content" and since it was on broadcast television in America, there was no swearing. I'd say it's probably fine for a real mature eight-year-old or an average ten-year-old or older.

I'd love to hear your memories of the show. Please drop me a note in the comments below. 

MAX HEADROOM

  • Format: 14 hour-long episodes (which work out to about 45 minutes without commercials).
  • Where To Buy: The complete series is available on DVD from Amazon. It oddly does not seem to be currently available on any of the mainstream streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video. 
  • Price: The 14-episode boxed set is currently priced at $30.51 on Amazon. 
  • Rated: Not rated.
  • More Information: Here's the IMBD page for the show.


Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Bloodletting Go" by Tears for Fears
Drinking: Heal the Bay IPA by Golden Road Brewery
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