Wednesday, August 17, 2016

New Comics Wednesday: How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way

Today is Wednesday, which of course means it's the day all of this week's new comics hit the shelves. As always, I'll be heading over to my local shop with my daughter after school today to pick up my pull-list and chat with the staff and regular customers. It's one of the traditions I've had with my daughter dating back to when she was only about 3 years old or so. She's basically the "store mascot." Last week there was a signing with writer Ed Brubaker and artist Tom Coker, and the store owner mentioned it was the first time they'd done a signing that my daughter wasn't there (she was visiting my in-laws).

Normally I chat about a new comic that I'll be picking up tonight, but today I wanted to write about a fantastic book that I received as a gift when I was around 14 years old back in the mid-1980's, Stan Lee's and John Buscema's How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way

I've written before about how my friend John at this time, who was an incredible artist. He was a true natural talent, whereas I really had to work at drawing and never had the technical expertise he possessed. I made up for it by being clever, which is great but will only take you so far. Even at age 14, his figure drawings were incredibly detailed and exact, with a sense of musculature and movement that would pull the viewer into his sketches. He taught me a bit about his process and then mentioned this book to me. I picked it up at the library and devoured it, and eventually my mom gave it to me as a birthday gift.

The book itself is divided into 12 chapters and covers topics such as the equipment you'll need, form, perspective, figure drawing, adding action, faces, composition, covers, inking, and more. It does a great job of showing how to start with a very limited sketch, such as a stick figure, to capture the action and pose, and then build on top of it with successive three-dimensional shapes until it's completely fleshed out. It's how my friend had taught me, and how I do my drawings to this day, but having it all laid out in easy steps with tons of examples of what to do and what not to do is very helpful.

This really isn't a book for beginners or little kids. It would help to have some basic artistic training before trying to tackle some of the projects in this book. It's still a fun read, with Stan Lee's over-the-top sensationalist writing and looking back at the world of Marvel comics in 1978 and seeing great examples of the Marvel style from that era. The book also includes examples from older comics from the 1950s - 1960s that are fun to look at.

If you or your kids are comics fans with any desire to learn a bit more about the craft of making a comic book, as well as taking a stab at improving your drawing skills, this is a great book to pick up. It's available on Amazon in Paperback for $12.93. I have the hard-cover version and I'm sure if you searched hard enough, you could find it.

A few funny personal memories about this book - firstly, in 9th Grade, I took an art class by one of the former animators on the Thundarr the Barbarian TV show, and he mentioned being in a meeting once (not sure if it was for Thundarr or another job) where a fellow artist was having problems with his figure drawings and the guy's boss grabbed a copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and chucked it at the guy's head and said, "Learn how to draw!"

In my 10th Grade English class, we were required to write an essay completely in passive voice from start to finish - every sentence had to be passive. As the topic, the teacher challenged us by making us write a "How to" essay but we were left to our own ideas as to exactly what we were trying to teach in our essay. I chose to write "How Comics Are Drawn the Marvel Way" and described every step in passive voice. I remember I got a perfect score, except I got graded down a half grade because I accidentally left the essay sticking out of my manual typewriter and my mom had to drive it to school later that day, so it was "late."

Lastly, the main reason I wanted this book, other than to just in general improve my drawing skills, was because I had recently picked up the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game by TSR and I wanted to create my own superheroes using the game's mechanics (instead of playing Spider-Man, for example) and of course I wanted to illustrate them, but I wanted my drawings to look really good.

Below are some of the sketches I did following the steps in this book - this would all be from around 1985 or so.

©1985 Martin R. Thomas
I sadly forget the name of this team. The guy on the left was obviously
just a giant-size guy with super strength. The red guy was a speedster, modeled
after the unfortunately named "The Whizzer" from Marvel's Squadron Supreme.
The green metal guy was the team leader who put on the armored suit to
compensate for the fact that he normally needed a wheel-chair to get around.
I remember nothing about the chick character. Sadly I was an adolescent boy
when I drew this, so the chick was mainly just supposed to look "hot."
There's nothing really original here - these are all clearly based on typical
superhero archetypes but at the time I loved making these up.

©1985 Martin R. Thomas
An "action-shot" of my speedster character.

©1985 Martin R. Thomas
The guy on the left is obviously Blue Bolt. For the guy on the right, I was
experimenting with "Kirby Krackle."

Hanging: Home Office (laptop)
Drinking: Sparkling Water
Listening: "Down the Road" by Lurob (from Mushroom Jazz 7)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

New Comics Wednesday - A Universe Rebirth, A Girl and Her Cat, and A Fun Female Spy

Today is Wednesday, which means of course that it's New Comic Book Day, when this week's new comics will be on-shelf at your local shops and newsstands. For today's post, I'll talk about three relatively recent comics that I started reading, why I chose them, and as always, if there are any ideas you can steal for your role-playing games.

Note that I keep my reviews spoiler-free. 

DC Universe Rebirth #1 (one-shot)
This comic came out about two weeks ago, but you should still be able to find it quite easily at your local shop considering that it had quite a huge print-run. I'm sure a lot of you out there are groaning about, well, typical comic fan-boy stuff like "DC doesn't know what they're doing" or "I stopped reading DC with the New 52" or whatever.

What Is It?: This is a comic book for people who, frankly, just enjoy comics - superhero comics in particular. The story is driven by the lore and the legacies of DC characters that were unfortunately lost when DC did their last reboot in September 2011 following the Flashpoint maxi-series. In the intervening five years, DC initially experience huge sales growth but recently has seen quite a decline, and a variety of factors have led them to reconsider the wholesale destruction of the nearly 70 years of pre-New 52 continuity. A small "test" of sorts from last year, an event called "Convergence," brought back some old characters thought long-gone. While the story line of the event itself was a bit muddled and the titles were very hit-and-miss in terms of quality, it was clear that fans wanted to see the return of some of their favorite characters.

Geoff Johns, the Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics, writes the DC Universe Rebirth special, which is a massive-sized 80+ page giant for only $2.99.

Why You'll Like It: Johns brings back a character that's been missing from the New 52 as the "narrator" of a tale that discusses "what happened" to the DC Universe and why nobody remembers what changed. The narrator choice is quite inspired and relates back to some of Johns earlier and celebrated work in comics writing. Throughout the tale, the narrator, attempts to interact with other characters as an "anchor" to pull him back into "real time." We therefore see both New 52 characters as well as older characters that we haven't seen since the New 52 reboot. All throughout, the narrator discusses that "something is missing" as a way to inform that reader that things we used to enjoy about comics, like the relationships of the characters, the sense of fun, and the legacy of characters (via new people taking on the mantle of a hero once the previous character retired or died) were unceremoniously wiped away for a more grim, dark universe.

If you've missed certain elements about DC Comics over the past few years, I can almost guarantee that this story line, combined with beautiful art by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Scivber, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez, will have you feeling the excitement and the fun that you used to have reading DC stories.

Whatever you do, please don't read any online reviews that contain spoilers, as there is a huge moment at the end of the story that has huge revelations for DC comics stories moving forward, and I was lucky enough to have been completely surprised by it.

Why I Chose It: This is pretty much covered above, but I know a lot of people who simply stopped reading DC Comics in the New 52, or maybe only read Batman just because he's Batman. There was quite a bit of bad stuff in the New 52, but honestly there was some good story-telling (I was particularly fond of Jeff Lemire's run on Green Arrow and Gail Simone's run on Batgirl, among others), but something just felt like it was "missing." These weren't the characters I grew up with. With Rebirth, we're getting a return to those characters I read back in High School and College, but without negating the good parts of the New 52.

Is There Anything In Here You Can Use In Your Role-Playing Games?: Even if you're not playing a supers-themed game, there's a lot in here about multi-universes, time/space-shifting and that kind of crazy theoretical science-fiction stuff that can find a place in any type of game that involves those themes. Most fantasy-themed and some science-fiction games include the idea of other planes, etc. and the DC Universe Rebirth special explores the idea of what happens when certain parallel universes are able to exert an influence on other ones, perhaps combining them together without the other universes even realizing that they are changing. I can't say too much more about that without getting into spoiler territory.

Also, Geoff Johns is a master of characterization, and any GM can benefit from seeing how Johns creates characters, both heroes and villains, that are interesting, believable, and unique.

The first issue of this new fantasy comic by Dark Horse also came out a few weeks ago, and since Dark Horse is a bit of a smaller publisher it might be more difficult to find, but it's very much well worth it. If you can't find a print copy, just drop by the Dark Horse website and snag a digital copy.

Gene Ha does both writing and art-duties in this story, which was originally designed as a graphic novel but being adapted to a monthly series.
What Is It?: This is, for a short explanation, a twisted young adult fairy-tale, in kind of a like a weird interpretation of something like Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland. As in those stories, a young female character (Abbie) is whisked off to another fantasy realm. Unlike those stories, however, the main focus of this book is on what happens in "the real world" while that character is gone, particularly focusing on the character's sister, Mae.

Why I Chose It: The artwork in this is superb - Gene Ha's style is typically a bit more "realistic" but for this story he wisely chooses a slightly more exaggerated, almost cartoon-like look that's more appropriate to the story and the characters, but without sacrificing the level of detail for which he's known. The coloring is fantastic (trust me, it makes a huge difference having an excellent colorist) and the odd lettering style all match to make for, visually, a great looking book.

I also like that the main characters are both younger girls (teens) because, as the father of a young girl, I feel like there aren't enough stories featuring strong female characters. We're getting there - there are certainly more than there were when I was a kid, but more can be done.

Lastly, the story is just tons of fun, and I'm curious to see where it goes next. Ha injects a level of mystery and intrigue that's grabbed my attention, and it certainly will for you when you read it.

Is There Anything In Here You Can Use In Your Role-Playing Games?: There are tons of great fantasy creature designs in here, and the idea of twisting the familiar fantasy trope of a character who gets whisked to another world is turned-around here and that's a really interesting concept for a fantasy game - exploring the real world once that character returns (and maybe is followed by a few denizens of the fantasy world...). The characters are drawn in somewhat broad archetypes, but that makes them great patterns for PCs or NPCs for a role-playing game. Even after only one issue, I could easily see this being used as the source for a fun, younger-adult role-playing game scenario where characters move back-and-forth between the real world and a fantasy land, but play the same characters in each.

This relatively recent comic from Marvel is currently on issue #3. It's intended to be a somewhat limited series (it won't be going on for 20+ issues), so depending on your style, you may want to wait until it's trade paperback format. In any event, it's a great story and shows off some fun things you can do in comics that you can't do in other media.

What Is It?: This is the story of Bobbi Morse, aka Mockingbird, a somewhat "street-level" type hero of the Marvel Universe who typically doesn't have any "powers" and fights just using her brain, her totally awesome martial-arts fighting skills, and sometimes with her staff.

If you're not familiar with the name Mockingbird, but Bobbi Morse sounds familiar, that's because her character is prominently featured in the TV Show "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." They never call her Mockingbird on the show, and she doesn't wear her familiar comics costume, but it's the same character.

The story in Mockingbird is built in a very interesting premise - in the comics, Bobbi has been exposed to a few different reactive "agents" including the Super Soldier Serum (what turned Steve Rogers into Captain America) and "The Infinity Formula," so she is required to visit the SHIELD medical labs once a week for testing and monitoring. The opening page of each issue is treated like a medical form, wherein a patient has to fill out a form for why they are at the SHIELD medical facility and includes little humorous, tongue-in-cheek notes from doctors, psychiatrists, friends, etc., which are all part of Bobbi's file. There is also a running gag about Bobbi having to get a "replacement medical beeper" which she is required to carry on her person, and Bobbi has to check-off boxes indicating why she needs a replacement beeper (she typically checks the "Other" box and then writes something snarky like "Hulk sat on it."). Mockingbird clearly shows her contempt for the medical tests and is at the SHIELD labs under duress. She'd rather be out kicking bad-guy butt.

Why I Chose It: This comic shows how comics can still be lots of fun and have a sense of humor but still have plenty of great action. In the very first issue, as an example, there's a splash-page spread of Bobbi sitting in the waiting room at the SHIELD medical labs, reading something while she waits to be called into the doctor. The scene looks pretty mundane until you really start to look at the characters. In the background is a nicely-dressed guy with dark here and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard.  He's reading a small pamphlet, and if you pay close attention to the title, you'll see it's about "Gonorrhea and you." Poor Tony Stark.

Once you notice that, you'll realize that the entire issue is pretty much full of little visual gags and easter eggs like that, and it makes it a blast to read, and re-read.

Also, this is one of the few comics that's written by a women author. I wrote about under Mae about why I sometimes go out of my way to find strong female characters as role-models for my daughter. But finding "real world" role-models is just as important, and I like being able to tell her, "This was written by a girl!"

Is There Anything In Here You Can Use In Your Role-Playing Games?: Absolutely - there's clearly something weird going on with Bobbi and the action drops you in media res - there's no explanation of why scenes move from one-to-another but not in chronologically linear fashion, and that style makes a great example for running a non-linear scenario. I wouldn't recommend it every time in a game, but once in a while dropping the players into an unfamiliar scenario and then having them play out "scenes" at various points in the past (or future) non-consecutively, can be a fun way to do a one-shot type game. Mockingbird is written very much in this style and follows a "show don't tell" type of mentality, so if that kind of thing bothers you and you want everything explained to you, this might not be the book for you.

Please drop me a comment below, or find me on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook (links to the right) and let me know your thoughts on any of the comics above, as well as what other comics you'd currently recommend. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap Water (but don't forget that it's Negroni Week!)
Listening: "Back in the Dayz" by the DJ Cam Quartet

Monday, March 7, 2016

Victorian-Era Mondays: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the COMIC)

Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat - if you enjoy the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, that's great. But you should definitely read the source material. It's like watching the film version of The Watchmen but never having read the graphic novel.

However, if you strongly disliked the film (I fall into this camp), you should definitely read the comic. It's so different as to practically be a completely different story.

With that said, let's get onto looking at this work of graphic fiction as a source of inspiration for some Victorian-era influences in your games.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is set in Victorian London and brings together a disparate set of Victorian-era fictional characters into one cohesive story, led by Mina Murray (of Bram Stoker's Dracula). Unlike the film version, the American Tom Sawyer is nowhere to be found in the story.

Mina is hired by a gentleman named Campion Bond, a member of a British Intelligence agency to put together a team (described by author Alan Moore as "a Justice League of Victorian England") in order to stop a "gang war" (to put it mildly) between two major villains of Victoria-era fiction. This type of situation is one of the true bright spots of the series - major Victorian characters who never interacted in the fiction of the time are brought together into one very well-written story so that it seems completely natural that they would know each other. There are characters from Gothic fiction (Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) alongside characters from mysteries and crime fiction (such as Sherlock Holmes) and adventure fiction (King Solomon's Mines).

All of this fantastic story-telling is coupled with beautiful artwork by artist Kevin O'Neill, including some really neat pseudo-steampunk designs and period advertisements to really help convey a sense of the world in which the characters live. The artistic style of the character designs is perfect for the story, and O'Neill is a master at facial expressions, but also excels at background and architectural work.

As I mentioned before in my post on Gotham by Gaslight (another Victoria-era inspirational resource), one of the things I really enjoy about the Victorian-era for gaming purposes is that it combines some more "modern" inventions and things like travel and exploration alongside more "antiquated" ideas like superstition and globe-spanning empires. All of these types of ideas are used to full effect in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.

There are actually several books in the series - Volume II involves many of the same main characters but brings in ideas of Victorian space exploration via inspiration from works by the likes of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs (with an artistic sensibility not too dissimilar from the Space: 1889 game). The third volume of the series, entitled "Century" is actually three stories that take place in 1910, 1969, and 2009.  There's also a spin-off series, the Nemo Trilogy and a Black Dossier (which came out between Volume II and Volume III) that is more of a source book for the world of the League.

All of the volumes, but especially Volumes I, II and the Black Dossier, are fantastic, imagination-inspiring resources for a Victorian-type role-playing. There are tons of ideas for character backgrounds and personalities, equipment, architecture, and more to be found in these comics. On top of all that, they're great stories. Alan Moore is one of the masters of modern comic fiction and combined with the images of artist Kevin O'Neill, they create a world full of fun, adventure, and fantasy that can inspire any role-playing gamer. 

Format: Available in a variety of formats. The first two volumes have been collected in a 416 omnibus edition, but there's also a 176 page edition of just the first edition for about half the price.
Where To Buy: I am strongly in favor of buying comics at your local comics shop, if you have one. If you're not sure, visit the Comic Shop Locator, where you can enter your ZIP Code and see if there's a shop nearby. You can also of course order online at sources like Amazon. Lastly, if you're into digital comics instead of paper, here's a link to where you can download a copy at Comixology.
Price: Prices vary depending on the edition you get (e.g., the omnibus or just a single trade paperback). Currently, Volume I is available on Amazon for $11.68.
Rated: Comixology rates this as "Ages 15+ only" which is probably just about right. There are some real adult situations in here that could be confusing or inappropriate for younger readers. As always, my suggestion is that you read it first before deciding if it's appropriate for your kids.
More Information: It's a bit tough to find a "true" website for the series, because the publishers have changed over the years (Alan Moore has a bit of a bad history with DC Comics, who purchased the original publisher, Wildstorm Comics, and so he later moved it to another publisher, Top Shelf). Your best bet is probably just a Wiki type page, such as this one.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: A Scofflaw (with Orphan Barrel Rhetoric bourbon)
Listening: Happy-Go-Lucky Local (Live) by Duke Ellington

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

New Comics Wednesday: Supergods

Today is new comic book day - the day that shops receive their new comics. Although I'm currently subscribing to about 36 titles, this ended up being a slow week for me. Only one regular title that I'm reading came out (Batman & Robin Eternal, which is a weekly), and I also chose to pick up the first issue of Black Widow by Marvel comics.

Lately, in addition to my weekly comics, I've also been reading a lot of books about the history of the hobbies I enjoy, particularly role-playing and also comics. Not too long ago, I finished a book by comics writer Grant Morrison, called Supergods: What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, which was published back in 2011.

While I'm going to categorize the book as a history of comics, it's really much more (and at times, much less) than that, and it defies categorization. It's part memoir, part auto-biography, part history of comics, and part philosophical musings about how we can view our own lives through the lens of the superhero. What's frustrating, however, is that the book isn't really divided neatly into these sub-categories. It wanders back and forth between each one, which can make it a bit difficult to follow if you're trying to get a linear sense of the different "ages" of comics.

However, that doesn't stop me from recommending this book to those who are interested in comics from an historical perspective but also, as mentioned, from a philosophical one. Grant Morrison is highly regarded as a storyteller in comics and he has a real command of the form. His All-Star Superman is in my top three Superman stories of all time, and I'm not alone in that assessment. He understands these characters but, more importantly, understands the medium he is using to tell his stories, and does all of this in a way that makes his readers identify with the characters and insert themselves into the story. 

Supergods is, at times, written with that kind of mastery. In the first parts of the book, Morrison writes about the early days of comics, before he was even born, and in these sections he brings his love of comics and their characters to the fore. The section on the Golden Age of comics contains a lot of broad strokes history that I've read in other books on the subject, but it's instilled with Morrison's own sensibilities about the kind of political, social, and economic forces combined to create the right situation for comic book superheroes to become so popular. He continues these themes through the following "ages" of Comics - the Silver Age, the "Dark Age," and the "Modern Age."

However, once we reach the point in time where Morrison was old enough to be self-aware and has a memory of himself as a child, the tone of the book changes. Morrison can be a little self-indulgent at times, and his confidence comes across more as cocky and even egotistical. But, he also does a great job describing a very different environment for a young comic book reader than most of us are used to - he grew up in a more industrial part of Scotland, so his access to American comics of the time was much more reduced, and he also had the opportunity to read, and eventually write for, English comics that we here in the States never had a chance to see back in the day. These sections of the book are quite interesting from an historical perspective, as they describe a part of comic book history that most often gets glossed over in mainstream histories that focus only on the United States.

Those familiar Morrison know that he has some "unconventional" ideas about things such as magic (from the standpoint that, he thinks it's real and claims to practice it successfully to affect changes in his life) and other metaphysical theories. There are times in the book where Morrison's attention wanders and he writes at length about his experiences "summoning a spirit" to guide him in life, and these situations are only very tangentially related to the main points he's trying to make about the superhero culture. It's as though Morrison had the idea for three different books - a history of comics, a memoir about his experiences as a master of the metaphysical, and a theory about how humans can learn more about themselves by learning more about the main superhero archetypes that inhabitant the comics that we've read throughout history. Unfortunately, these three ideas don't really mesh all that well, yet Morrison went ahead and attempted to put them together anyway.

Then, out of nowhere toward the end of the book, with little transition to lead the reader along the way, Morrison reviews the current state of superhero movies (as of 2011) but never ties these ideas into the rest of the book. It's almost like an after-thought, as though a friend mentioned, "You should include a part about the Batman movies..." and Morrison decided to throw it at the last minute.

All told, this book does do a good job of describing and delineating the main eras of superhero comic books, and the main world events that were happening at the time that made the shift in themes and character happen between the ages. For that alone, this book is worth a read. For those who enjoy Morrison's comic book writing, this will give the reader quite a bit of insight into where Morrison gets some of his ideas and why he's written some of the stories he's written.

However, as a guide to help us understand "What Mask Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human," this book is sadly a failure. Ideas are proposed, but never fully developed, and in the end, the reader won't feel any closer to understanding what seemed to have been Morrison's main reason for writing the book.

Format: My copy is a 464-page hardback, but it's also available as a paperback and Kindle e-book.
Where to Buy: Since it was published about five years ago, this may be difficult to find at a brick-and-mortar store, but it's readily available on Amazon.
Price: A new copy of the paperback version is currently selling for $12.68 on Amazon.
More Information: Grant Morrison's official website has a page for Supergods

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: "Grapefruit Margarita" (recipe from a bartender in West Hollywood over the weekend, using grapefruit and lemon instead of lime, and mezcal instead of tequila, and muddled with fresh sage leaves)
Listening: "Coma Cat" by Tensnake

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Third Time's a Charm: One Page Dungeon Contest

Thanks to the kindness of All-Around Cool Cat Random Wizard, I will be one of the judges again this year for the One Page Dungeon Contest. This will be my third time being a judge, so hopefully I'm getting the hang of it by now. I'd like to thank good old RW for this opportunity, and also thank the other judges (several of whom are also returning from last year, as well as a brand new judge this year) for their time and effort in coordinating and judging the event. It actually is quite a bit of work, but it's "fun" work and really idea-inspiring.

I've written a few columns here on the blog about the One Page Dungeon Contest - here are a few of the more relevant ones for people who are planning to submit an entry in this year's contest or just wanted to learn more about the contest itself.

  • My Judging Criteria for 2014
    • My thoughts on the things I was looking for when judging for the first time
  • The Other Judges' Criteria for 2014
    • I interviewed many of the other judges of the 2014 contest via email to find out what their criteria was and why they chose the winners they chose
    • Coincidentally, this has been one of the most viewed posts on my blog, partly because Random Wizard has linked to it from the official One Page Dungeon Contest webpage
  • My Thoughts on the 2015 Contest
    • This is mainly an overview of "Why Do We Need a One Page Dungeon Contest" wherein I chat about what I like about the contest and why I think it's "important"

One thing I never really got around to doing last year was recapping my thoughts on the entries in 2015 and how they were different from 2014. I keep all of my judging notes in Evernote so I was able to go back and look at what I said. Here were my topline thoughts on the contest as a whole in 2015:

  • Spelling and grammar are much better this year than last year - HUGE improvement
    • However - some work needs to be done on "it's" versus "its"
  • Layouts so far have been better for the most part - not as many "wall of text" entries
  • Some layouts though are just too clever for their own sake - it's very important to use a legible font and to not have such a dark background that the font can't be read.
    • This was a big problem this year for many entries
    • [This is a new note I'm writing as I write this post on the blog, but there was one specific entry last year that was hand-drawn and the design was so difficult to read that I ended up not being able to actually read it, so I couldn't even score it. I felt horrible and I tried so many different ways - I printed it out, I enlarged it on my screen, I viewed it on my large monitor (32")... nothing worked. PLEASE have a friend, or better yet, someone who knows NOTHING about RPGs look at your entry before you turn it in to make sure it's legible, to catch spelling and grammatical errors, etc.]
  • A few entries this year that aren't actually adventures - more like board/card games that don't rely on any kind of player or character skill
  • These should ideally be "pick up and play" not "here are some rough notes for you to spend hours fleshing out to run."
  • A nice looking map with just a list of some random encounters is not a "dungeon"
  • The map should not be an "after-thought" - in a one page scenario, the map should really be more prominent
  • Lots of mini-campaign settings (essentially just a setting idea, an overview/summary, and a map - that's not an adventure that a DM can just run on a moment's notice)
  • Adventures should at least mention a rough idea of party level/experience (low-level, beginner, average, advanced, etc.)

I have notes like that for every single adventure - for a peak into how I picked my winners as well as the judging process for me and the other judges, you can watch an interview that we recorded on Google Plus last year after the contest was over. All of the judges used a fairly similar process to picking the winners, but to differing degrees (I score mine on a basis of "Yes," "Maybe," and "No" on the first round, then I go back and re-read all of my "Maybes" and "Yes" qualifiers and start narrowing them down to pick my Top 10, whereas other judges actually assign numerical scores for a variety of things like layout, theme, map, etc. and then weight the scores to get a total). 

Anyone out there planning to enter this year's contest? Have you participated in the past (Kelvin, I know you have!).

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: 2010 Bordeaux, Lafite Barons de Rothschild Collection
Listening: "Star People" by Blue Six

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

D20-Era Reviews Tuesday: Book of the Righteous

As mentioned last month, I'm going to reserve Tuesdays mainly for a new feature on the blog, wherein I'll review an old D20-era product, mainly from the standpoint of how useful it is for gaming with any system, whether you prefer stuff like D&D (any edition), Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, or other systems of your choice.

Today's book features a ton of non-mechanics content that can easily be used "as is" in a fantasy campaign world, or modified to fit an existing religious pantheon, regardless of your system of choice. We're talking about Green Ronin's Book of the Righteous, published in 2002 for the 3.0 Edition of D&D.

The idea and concept behind this book, as discussed in the introduction, is that most fantasy religions presented in campaign settings are simply very cursory overviews, covering a god's name, portfolio (areas of influence), maybe a favored weapon, and not much else. In most published fantasy game religions, little attention is paid to things such as the names and titles of the priesthood, how one advances in the priesthood (not just in class level but in influence), rites and ceremonies, and so forth. Most books even go so far as to provide some type of game mechanics and statistics for the gods or their avatars, which honestly aren't really all that useful if you're playing a cleric or paladin and are looking more for information on how your character might react in a certain situation based on his or her religious beliefs.

I've mentioned before that I've had difficult intertwining religion into my long-running World of Samoth game, which mainly has come from a lack of desire on the part of the players to really get into character and make decisions based on the tenets of their characters' faith (which is fine - they're just not interested in that aspect of the world). However, part of the issue is also the way I described the faiths in my campaign background I handed out before my campaign began. One of the later players to the group mentioned being interested in having his character follow a specific faith, but that he really didn't know enough about it to make an informed decision as to whether it made sense and also how it would impact his character's outlook and world-view. That's a fair assessment - I did get a bit more caught up in things like what color robes the priests would wear versus things as basic as how a member of that religion might view the government, the poor, the rich, adventuring and looting, non-believers, etc.

The Book of the Righteous is something that really could have helped me when crafting the faiths of my world. It presents a single encompassing mythology, which you can either adopt as-is, modify, or completely ignore. There are guidelines throughout the book for taking each approach. The meat of the book is actually descriptions of the major churches of this faith, which follow a pattern of being associated with typical fantasy gods - e.g., god of strength, god of justice, god of death, etc. But they are presented in very colorful and intriguing ways, and in each description it provides full details on things such as the myths, associations, alignment, representatives, purpose, and servants of the deity. It also covers the structure of the deity's church, including the doctrine, common prayers, holy days, saints, the deity's view of its church, and preferred weapons. Lastly, it cover the holy orders of each deity, including its clerics, holy warriors, and (because it is 3rd Edition, after all), Prestige Classes.

The authors describe the book as essentially being a campaign setting that is all about religion, but one that's written in such a way that it can easily be incorporated into an existing campaign world. This is a large undertaking, but for the most part, it does work that way. There is a ton of detail behind the various churches in this book, but plenty of guidance to help you modify things to mesh with your existing campaign world, especially if you follow a traditional fantasy polytheistic approach to religion. 

In addition to covering each of the deities, the book also presents an interesting concept at the very beginning - the "Great Church." This is an over-arching church structure that incorporates the entire mythology but doesn't focus on worshiping just one particular deity. It could easily be used as a pattern for a medieval Western European monotheistic religion, and one thing I really liked about it is that its Prestige Class is a "Deacon" which is more of an aristocratic leader versus a spell-casting cleric. In fact, Deacons don't even require spell-casting to qualify for the class, nor do they gain spell-casting abilities.

There is also a discussion on incorporating "The Old Gods" which are ancient gods that are more "elemental" in nature (air, earth, water, the "tree of life," and the creator). Each of these, like the other deities in the book, includes same detail in terms of the myths and purpose, details on the church structure, and the different holy orders associated with that deity.

There's a ton of great content in here and it's very easily modified, adapted, or expanded upon, and very little of it has game mechanics - there are mentions in the sections on the holy orders for how you modify a cleric or paladin's (called "holy warriors" in this book) powers to swap them out for things that are more appropriate to the deity in question, but it's minimal. For example, in one of the chapters covering the clerics of the goddess Zheenkeef (goddess of wine, madness, and inspiration), it just mentions which domains those clerics can pick from, when during the day they would pray for their spells, and what alignment they can be. That's it. Nothing too fiddly. The game mechanics in the section on the holy warriors (paladins) of Zheenkeef are limited to: what domains they can choose from, additional class skills they receive, two powers they swap out in place of "remove disease" of a standard paladin, what spells they can choose from, what animals they can choose from for their celestial mount/animal companion, and their "code of conduct" (which isn't mechanics - it's just flavor). Again, there aren't a lot of mechanics here in the majority of the book. Obviously the Prestige Classes do include more mechanics behind them, but you can easily just read the background/introduction to the class to get the idea of what it's about, and then decide how to apply that for your particular system. In a "rules light" version of D&D, like B/X or 1st, you'd just role-play the differences with no mechanical benefits (or maybe swapping out a a higher level ability or two) and call it good.

After the presentation of the churches, which take us through more than half the book, there's a chapter on "Putting Faith in Your Evil" which talks about the structure of evil faiths, gods, and cults. It's a short but interesting chapter.

This is followed by "Campaigning" which provides ideas on alignment, geographically integrating your faiths into your campaign world, adventure hooks, evil races, and heretical teachings and blasphemy. This is all great information that is most often overlooked when presenting fantasy religions for campaign worlds.

Then there is a chapter called "Do It Yourself," which covers how to design your own mythology from scratch. It covers such topics as Cosmological Implications, Names, Complete Religions (things like "The Past Returns" and "Friendly Foreign Culture" all the way to "Gods From Another Dimension"), Single Gods, Racial Gods, Altering the Churches, and Altering the Mythology and the consequences of doing so.

Then we get to the mechanics of 3rd Edition with Chapter 11, called "Additional Rules." This section is only 33 pages long, representing only slightly more than 10% of the entire contents of the book. It covers a new class, the "Holy Warrior" which is basically a paladin but one that swaps out different class skills, preferred weapons, and class abilities (such as remove disease, lay-on-hands, and mounts) for different abilities based on the deity in question. It's a really neat solution and one that makes paladins different from each other while still maintaining the essence of what makes them a paladin. I actually used these a lot for my 3rd/3.5/Pathfinder World of Samoth Game, modifying the class abilities to fit the religions of my campaign world. The section also includes the requisite new skills and feats, new cleric domains, new spells, new magic items, and a handful of new creatures.

The appendices cover topics like "A Treatise on the Divine" which covers the creation story of the mythology and where the gods came from, and also quick reference guides for all the gods and churches presented in the book.

Anyone else pick up this book back in the day?  what were your experiences?

  • Format: Originally a 320-page hardback book with color cover and B&W interior. Also available as a PDF.
  • Where to Buy: Although the hard-cover is out-of-print, used copies are available right now on Amazon or you can also buy a PDF directly from the Green Ronin website
  • Price: The original price for the hard-back was $39.95. The PDF currently sells for $19.95.
  • More Information: The product page on Green Ronin's website describes the book and provides links to preview some images, designer spot-lights, etc. When you buy the PDF version, you also get a free 16-page PDF Update of the Holy Warrior class for the 3.5 version of D&D. The book itself was never updated to 3.5 so this is a nice bonus.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Water
Listening: "Gotta Be Love" by Joey Youngman

Monday, February 22, 2016

Victorian Era Monday: Ravenloft's Masque of the Red Death

Mondays around here are typically reserved for reviewing books, comics, TV shows, movies, or games that are focused on non-standard fantasy genres, namely Pulp/Noir and the Victorian Era. Today's entry is from Sword & Sorcery Studios: a supplement for their D20 version of the Ravenloft Campaign Setting called Masque of the Red Death.

This supplement is a D20 update of an old 2nd Edition D&D era Ravenloft supplement from TSR that took its name and loose inspiration from the Edgar Allen Poe story, but moved the time period to the 1890's and incorporated many elements of gothic horror.

The D20 version has the typical trade dress and focus on horror elements of many of Sword & Sorcery Studios' Ravenloft offerings of the time (including some really difficult to read cursive fonts that I can't stand), but what makes this stand out is the setting - a late 1890's era setting called "Gothic Earth" which is very similar to our own earth with a similar history, but one that includes magic and also the encroachment of an evil entity called the Red Death. The Red Death, as detailed in the history at the front of the book, is actually responsible for many events in world history including the fall of Rome and several different wars throughout the centuries. Standing against the Red Death are a secretive group of small qabals that have learned of the Red Death's presence that work semi-independently from each other to try to fight its influence, all while trying to maintain their anonymity lest they be discovered by agents of the Red Death.

The book is oozing with Gothic atmosphere and does a good job of updating the technology level of a typical D&D fantasy game without adding an over-abundance of rules. Of the 290 page book, less than half is reserved for rules (with the majority of those rules being descriptions of the different kinds of character roles/classes).

There are the typical D20 stats here including a look at the different classes for the setting, which include variations on the typical D&D classes such as Charlatans, Occultists, Explorers/Scouts, Parons, Physicians, Mediums, Dandies, Journalists, Mechanics, and Performers. There is a real focus on "non-combat" type classes including scientists, intellectuals, and dandies in addition to the standard soldiers, shootists, and criminals. There's an overview of new skills and feats, which (even if you don't use them for the rules) do help to give a sense of the setting. Feats with names such as Ancient Knowledge Expert, Light Sleeper, Perfect Pitch, and Pugilism, really help to describe the types of characters that would live and adventure in this setting, even if you don't use their mechanics. That is, again, one of the main themes of my blog - you can find inspiration from a variety of different sources, regardless of the system involved. Don't avoid looking at something just because you don't like its system. 

The real treat of this book for those interested in Victorian-age adventuring is a section toward the back called "A Practical Guide to the 19th Century" which, in about 22 pages, covers social classes, race relations, the role of women in Victorian society, clothing styles, health and fitness, burial customs and mourning, leisure time, inventions, literature and journalism, travel and exploration, secret societies, and codes and ciphers. Obviously you shouldn't go out and buy a 290 book to use only 22 pages, and you could find much of this information by doing online research. However, in this case, the authors have focused on those key elements that are likely to turn up in-game or could be capitalized on by enterprising players seeking to really immerse themselves in the setting.

Additionally, the rest of the book is quite good. The alternative history that incorporates the Red Death throughout major world events is an entertaining read and likely to spark many ideas for your campaigns, regardless of whether you plan to use the "Gothic Earth" setting and the Red Death as presented here. There's also a nicely detailed Atlas of Gothic Earth which covers all the major continents and describes the main cities therein, providing a history and a section on the "forbidden lore" of each city.

In the Appendices, you get a fun section on the Villains of Gothic Earth, including descriptions of Dracula, Imhotep, Frankenstein's Monster, Professor James Moriarty, and more. There are also details and explanations on various "monsters," which are grouped into categories such as "Creatures of the Weird" which includes Lost Boys and Hollow, and "Creatures of the Hunt" which includes Haunt Beasts and Shadow Hunters. Additionally appendices cover Lairs of Evil and tips for creating adventures in Gothic Earth (covering topics like sources for inspiration, techniques for creating terror, developing adventure ideas, etc.).

All told, this is a very focused, detailed book for creating Victoria-era horror adventures in an alternate earth (but one that is very close to our own). It makes a great resource for standard Victorian adventure games but obviously would be very appropriate for horror-type games as well.

Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death

  • Format: 290 Hardback (also available as a PDF)
  • Where to Buy: The print version if out-of-print but you can find used copies on Amazon.
  • Price: I found a copy on Amazon for $47.69, which is a bit high. I'm sure with enough searching online at used book or game stores, you can find it cheaper. The official PDF version no longer seems to be for sale, but again, if you do an Internet search you can find it (I won't link to it here because none of them seem to be "legal").
  • System: This was created for the 3.5 Version of D&D
  • More Information: There's a Wikipedia page about the Masque of the Red Death setting here.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Water
Listening: "Barrio Beats" by Michael Tello
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