Monday, April 29, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: Black Beetle

Artwork ©2012 Francesco Francavilla
Continuing in my posts of pulp-era themed games, books, comics, movies, and TV shows, today's post covers a relatively new comic by Dark Horse Comics called Black Beetle. For more pulp era posts, check out my Pulp Noir tag.

Black Beetle is a monthly limited series, called "No Way Out," that's currently on issue #3. There was also a #0 issue that was a sort of a stand-alone introduction to the character that collects his appearances from Dark Horse Presents

As always with these types of overviews, I will attempt to avoid spoilers for those who plan to read the story.

What Is It?
Black Beetle is about a masked crime-fighter adventurer who lives in the fictitious Colt City in a 1930s-era time frame. As a character, he at times appears to be a sort of mix of the original 1938 Batman but with the sarcastic sense of humor of Indiana Jones - in fact, the 0-issue has him facing off against some Nazis who are attempting to steal some ancient artifacts from a museum exhibition.

The main storyline of "No Way Out" is pretty much a straight-up detective story involving local gangster type characters. Black Beetle uses his wits, along with some pretty cool gadgets, to fight the gangsters and a sort of super-villain character, the mysterious Labyrinto.

The use of period dressing and language really helps to ground the series firmly in the pulp era. In one scene, the main character, in his civilian disguise, visits a jazz club to dig up some clues, and meets the sultry lead singer of the band, who asks our dashing hero if he has any plans for the evening. He responds, "I had a coupla things, but you made me forget them, sweetheart." It's pitch-perfect for the setting and mood the book is trying to evoke.

Who Is the Creative Team?
Popular Italian comics artist Francesco Francavilla does double-duty here as both the writer and artist on the series. 

Aside from this creator owned series, Francavilla is probably best known for his pulp-inspired comic books covers, mainly for publisher Dynamite, such as The Shadow, Green Hornet, and Zorro, and also for his work with writer Scott Snyder on a late run of pre-New 52 Detective Comics that features one of my favorite stories, "The Black Mirror."

Frequent readers of my blog may also be aware of Francavilla's blog, Pulp Sunday, which I've linked to over in the side-bar under "Comics Blogs and Online Comics." His current post is really fun - a re-imagining of Batman circa 1972 with a 70's exploitation/grindhouse type of theme - Batman wears a turtleneck and leather jacket, smokes, and drives a souped-up American car. There's also a re-envisioning of Catwoman as "Foxy Catwoman." You should check it out. The art on his blog is pretty much what you'll find in the pages of Black Beetle, so if you like that style, you should love the art in the comic.

Note that Francavilla also has a separate blog dedicated specifically to the Black Beetle, which you can find here

Who Will Like It?
This is a broadly appealing comic that will appeal to fans of pulp-era adventure, art-deco inspired art, and crime fiction. People who like the old-school original Golden Age Batman should also like this book quite a bit - there are a lot of similarities between the two characters, but the difference is that Black Beetle is really grounded in the setting and the time period and uses the story mainly as a way to showcase Francavilla's art.

I can't say enough positive things about the art - Francavilla's style combined with his layout choices are just perfect for this kind of story. He makes some interesting choices, such as having the panels "tumble" along with Black Beetle as he falls into a nest of rats, or an upward-slanting to the panels as Black Beetle climbs back out. People who appreciate strong visual story-telling should really give this book a chance.

Any Good Fodder for My Role-Playing Games?
There's plenty of great stuff in here for a pulp-era game using pretty much any system you choose - Savage Worlds, Gumshoe, d20 Modern, or even the old-school TSR classic Gang Busters.

The comic, as with last week's entry (JSA: The Liberty Files), is also a good example of how to introduce a pseudo-superhero type of character or theme into an otherwise straight "real-world" crime/pulp adventure. Black Beetle does not have any super-powers and his gadgets are pretty grounded in reality - there's no science-fiction or alien technology at work here.

GMs can also use the broadly drawn characters types, both good guys and bad guys, as inspiration for creating NPCs. There are plenty of names and personality traits you can steal, and you can show your players pictures of the characters right out of the comic so they know what they look like.

Is It Good for Kids?
Black Beetle doesn't seem to be rated by the Comics Code, so you'll have to use your best judgment. It's a crime-fiction adventure story with comic book violence (fisticuffs, some guns, knives, etc.). The language is tame, and there is no sex shown or (to date) even implied. The official website says it's for ages 12+, but I'd say this would be fine for a mature 7 or 8 year-old. It all depends on your tolerance for violence, but honestly the violence in this book is pretty tame compared to other books on the market.

  • Format: 32-page full-color monthly comic (limited series)
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. To find your closest shop, visit the Comic Shop Locator and enter your ZIP code. If you don't have a shop near you, you can buy the digital version on the Dark Horse website or always search around for it online. 
  • Price: $3.99 per issue
  • Rated: Ages 12+
  • More Information: Dark Horse Comics' page on Black Beetle.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Currently nothing, but drank a Firestone Walker Wookey Jack while writing the majority of this post yesterday.
Listening:"Rocker" by Miles Davis

Thursday, April 25, 2013

80's TV Thursday: The Master

Remember this one?

It was sort of a "buddy" series featuring an aging "Ninja Master" and the brash and inexperienced youngster whom he takes under his wing and trains in the mystic Eastern arts of way of the ninja.

Yes, you're correct. This series actually did come out the exact same year as "The Karate Kid."

The Show Background
Lee Van Cleef plays John Peter McAllister, a World War II vet who stays in Japan following the war and is trained as a ninja into "the Butterfly House." Their enemies are members of the Snake House, although it's mentioned during the series that there are many different competing Houses.

As the show begins, McAllister, now an elderly man, returns home to the United States to try to track down a daughter he didn't know he had. Eventually, he comes into contact with the young drifter named Max Keller and the two slowly form a mentor/mentee buddy type of friendship, with McAllister eventually agreeing to train Keller in the ways of ninjitsu.

Elements of the 1970s "Shazam" show come into play as the two end up traveling around in a customized van and roaming the country getting into various adventures while searching for McAllister's daughter, who is never found by the end of the series.

Members of the Snake House, as well as one of McAllister's former pupils, a guy named Okasa, show up periodically throughout the series to fight with McAllister, giving us some real ninja-on-ninja action.

A Product of Its Time
Ninja-related stuff was becoming really popular right around the time this show debuted. I remember it was right around this time that I'd gotten a copy of The Best of Dragon: Volume I which recapped a bunch of stuff from the first 20 issues or so, including a Ninja "NPC" class (I'm sure no one ever used it as a playable class) and that was, I think, the first time I'd ever heard of a ninja and I wanted to know more about them. Voila! This TV show debuted and I thought it was perfect.

The popularity of "The Karate Kid" also had to help a bit... the show's format of the older guy and younger sidekick developing a buddy relationship while they go on adventures to help less-fortunate people is totally cliche, but also safe and a tried-and-true classic format that people were, and still are, comfortable with.

The Portrayal of Ninjas
This was the 1980s - it's all about action, kick-ass martial arts, and some pseudo-Eastern mysticism thrown in for good measure. This is a "romanticized" version of ninjas, based more on myths and legends than on any historical facts. The whole idea of the Butterfly and Snake ninja "houses" seems to be made up from whole cloth for the show.

Other than a few nods to the actual spiritual aspects of ninjitsu, most of the ninja portrayals are done for the sake of action with the familiar trappings of martial arts, ninja-tos, and shuriken.

How Cheesy Is It, Really?
Let's be honest - it was the 1980s. It was a cheesy action buddy series. It was actually lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000, so it has that going for it.

That said, as I mentioned above, it was a product of its time. This was the time of "The A-Team," with which "The Master" actually has a lot of similarities in terms of the actual storyline of the series. It's really focused more on being an action adventure series than a true depiction of an actual ninja master-student relationship.

There's also a recurring gag of the character Max being thrown through various windows.

Any Good Ideas for RPGs?
Well, sure. If you have a fantasy-Asia equivalent in your campaign world, or even just an idea that's reminiscent of the ninja, there's plenty of inspiration you could grab from this series.

The character of McAllister as portrayed by Lee Van Cleef is also a fun, easily-imitated idea of an aging master reluctantly pushed into passing on his accumulated experiences and knowledge to a younger generation. It's the same idea of Mr. Miyagi and Daniel or even Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke, but Van Cleef plays it a bit differently and provides a good archetype for an "older statesman" type of character that, frankly, I don't think we see enough of in RPGs. Most people are so focused on playing the charismatic, dashing young action hero that we forget that at times it's fun to branch out and try to play someone of a different age.

Is It Okay for Kids?
It's pretty harmless, cheesy 1980s style action, but there's plenty of fighting, both hand-to-hand and with weapons, and some of the pseudo mystical/spiritual aspects would probably be a bit hard to grasp for younger viewers. It all depends on how willing you are to expose your kids to the idea of "fighting can sometimes solve problems." Ultimately, the "good people" are helped by the wandering McAllister and Max, and usually cleverness wins out over brute strength, but there is fighting.

And there is a main character constantly being thrown through a window.

Here's the opening credits:

I'd love to hear your thoughts on your memories of this show.

For more posts on genre shows from the 1980s, just check out the Television label.

  • Format: 13 one-hour episodes (really about 45 minutes without commercials)
  • Where to Buy: As far as I can tell, this series has never been released on DVD but was released on VHS a long time ago. A few of them seem to still be available on Amazon from 3rd party sellers. You can also find some episodes on YouTube broken up into various parts of around 10 minutes each.
  • Price: N/A
  • Rated: Not rated
  • More Information: Wikipedia "The Master" entry

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: just tap water right now
Listening: "Treasures" by Thievery Corporation

Monday, April 22, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: JSA - The Liberty Files

As mentioned previously, Monday's posts for the time-being will be reserved for talking about pulp noir influences from a variety of media, whether TV shows, movies, games, or comics. For a full list of previous pulp noir posts, check out the Pulp Noir tag here.

Today I'm going to cover another comic with a cool pulp noir feel, with a twist. It's DC Comics' 2000 series JSA: The Liberty File #1 and #2, and 2003's JSA: The Unholy Three #1 and #2, all four of which are collected in a trade paperback called JSA: The Liberty Files. Note that this trade seems to be out-of-print right now, but you can find copies relatively easy on Amazon from third-party sellers.

This short review avoids spoilers while still pointing out what makes this a cool pulp noir resource.

What Is It?
JSA: The Liberty Files is a World War II era spy thriller that tells the story of three DC "superheroes" - Batman, Hourman, and Dr. Midnight, who are here re-imagined as government agents known as "the Bat," "The Clock," and "The Owl." Their secret identities are still in place - "The Bat" is still Bruce Wayne. However, their methods and their personalities are slightly different than what you'd be used to from mainstream comics.

I suspect that many of my readers are unfamiliar with the Golden Age heroes Dr. Midnight and Hourman - these guys were some of the original superheroes who were invented in the rush by comics companies to create new heroes in the wake of the success of Superman (who, it should be noted, first debuted on the scene 75 years ago last week in Action Comics #1) and who were part of the original Justice Society of America (JSA) - the precursor to today's Justice League of America. You don't need to know the origins or powers of these guys to follow the story - all becomes clear in the story.

Our three heroes, as mentioned, are government secret agents operating during and directly after World War II. There are appearances and slight nods to some other Golden Age heroes and heroines in the story, but I'll leave it to you to discover those when you read it.

In the story, the agents are sent to capture an albino smuggler named "Jack the Grin" and stop him before he sells the Nazi's greatest weapon to the highest bidder. That's the first part of the story, and it has a really awesome surprise ending that I actually didn't see coming.

The second part of the story is a Cold War spy thriller that introduces some new agents as the "Unholy Three" (the code name of The Bat's secret agent team) is brought out of retirement to stop some KGB agents from discovering the most powerful weapon on Earth with the potential to destroy everything. Again, there are some really interesting and creative twists in this story and I loved how it played out.

Who Are the Creative Team?
The stories are written by Dan Jolley and Tony Harris, with the pencils done by Tony Harris.

Jolley is an author who has penned many genre titles, including comics (Firestorm, Twisted Journeys), manga (The Lost Warrior), novels (an original young-adult science-fiction espionage series called Alex Unlimited), and video games (Fallen Earth, a post-apocalyptic MMORPG).

His work on JSA: The Unholy Three earned him an Eisner Nomination in 2003 for "Best Limited Series."  

Harris has been in the comics industry since 1989, and has illustrated such works as Iron Man, Ex Machina, and Starman, which led to an Eisner Award with co-created James Robinson.

In addition to his comics work, Harris also did some production design work for the movie, The Mummy.

I should point out, in the interest of full-disclosure, that Harris is at the center of an online controversy begun last Fall when he posted a rant on his blog about female cosplayers, which led to accusations of misogyny by many publications. I leave it up to you to do the research and decide for yourself.

Cool Bits
I can't get too much into what I think is cool without getting in to major spoilers, but I can say that it's really fun to see some favorite comic book superheroes re-imagined as secret agents (complete with all of their super-powers) during a pulp setting like World War II and the early stages of the Cold War. While the time period does stretch the definition of "pulp" a bit (I generally think of pulp noir as falling around 1920-1930s), it's still in the spirit of pulp.

The story is very clever and keeps you guessing as you read it, and the twists aren't really "gimmicks" like in an M. Night Shamalan movie, but instead natural progressions of the story. They fit in and once they're revealed, they're fun without being annoying or overly complicated.

The artwork is fantastic - tons of art deco stylings in the backgrounds and in the heroes' technology (automobiles and weapons and such). It's just a blast to see these guys operating back in the time period during which they were originally invented, and yet in stories that aren't campy or silly. This is a "serious" (not heavy or preachy - I just mean it's not silly like most of the original 1940s superhero stories) spy thriller that keeps you guessing to the end.

There's also a sequel mini-series that's currently being published entitled JSA: The Whistling Skull. It's monthly and started coming out last Fall, but I have to be honest that I don't really like it as much. The characters are all different (the Unholy Three as missing, for example, and they aren't replaced by other well-known Golden Age heroes), and the artwork is in a complete different style, that I don't like as much, even though it's by the original artist (Harris).

Who Will Like It?
This should appeal to your average comics fan, especially ones who have a fondness for some of the older, original heroes (like the original Justice Society of America). Spy/thriller story lovers would also most likely enjoy this tale, as it's woven together very well and doesn't rely on superpowers or campy heroics to save the day. As usual, Batman (or, "The Bat" in this case) is just a regular guy who has to rely on his wits and powers of deduction and investigation versus just punching guys in the face.

And, as with all the subjects of my Pulp Noir Monday posts, people who have an interest in the pulp era should definitely enjoy this tale, particularly the visuals that evoke a classic art deco pulp feel.

Any Good Fodder in Here for My Role-Playing Games?
As always with comics, or really with any other non-game resource you look at, there can of course be inspirations in the source material for your tabletop RGPs if you want to look for it.

In particular, JSA: The Liberty Files has tons of great ideas for anyone playing a Supers or a Spy type RPG. And, it's a great example of how to play a fairly "straight" Supers campaign in a setting that's as dark as World War II, or even during the Cold War, which I think is a relatively untapped well of fun ideas for RPGs.

Is It Good For Kids?
This is a trade paperback, so it's not actually covered by the Comics Code, and therefore there's no "rating." The current JSA sequel carries a rating of "Teen" so let that be your guide. There's definitely a lot of gun violence as well as straight-up hand-fighting and some scary parts including portrayals of heroes that are not always in the most savory light, which could be very off-putting to younger kids who want to look up to their heroes.

  • Format: 264-page full-color trade paperback
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If it's no longer available, you'll have to search online. I found mine on Amazon.
  • Price: $19.95 was the list price
  • Rated: Teen
  • More Information: DC Comics' page on JSA: The Liberty Files.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Nothing
Listening:"East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)" by Stan Getz

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

New Comics Wednesday: Uncanny Avengers (Marvel NOW!)

Image © Marvel & Subs 2013
I've mentioned before that I'm really more of a DC fan than Marvel when it comes to actually reading comics (the movies are another issue), but for today's New  Comics Wednesday I'll be reviewing a Marvel title with a new issue that came out today - Uncanny Avengers.

Many of you probably did a quick double-take when you read the name of the title, or might have assumed I made a typo. But, nope, the book is called Uncanny Avengers and it was one of the very first title's in Marvel's "Marvel NOW!" initiative from last fall, when they relaunched most of their titles with new #1 issues (sound familiar? Maybe they should have called it "NOW 52" or something like that. And, yeah, I think Marvel NOW!, complete with exclamation point, is a stupid name, too).

So, let's get into the book and see if it's something you might be interested in.

What's It About?
The book is a direct follow-up to Marvel's big 2012 event called "Avengers vs. X-Men." If you haven't read that story, you don't necessarily need to go look for it in order to read Uncanny Avengers, but you might want to at least check out a Wikipedia article on the storyline. It's also recently been republished in an inexpensive trade paperback version.

The main thing you'd need to know is that at the end of AvX (as the hip kids call it), the world is somewhat divided between the mutants and non-mutants. A lot of stuff happened to make people, once again, fear the mutant population, even though only a small handful of them actually did anything bad and many mutants actually tried to help make the situation better.

Captain America, in particular, realizes that as the leader of the Avengers, he and the team have actually not done enough to help the mutants to integrate better into society and to show humanity that they really have nothing to fear from mutants even though they're "different." So, he starts a new initiative - the Avengers Unity Squad - which is to be made-up of a few members of the Avengers and a few members of the X-Men, and he picks the mutant Havoc (aka Alex Summers, brother of Scott Summers, better known as "Cyclops") to lead the team.

The team members consist of Captain America, Thor, the Scarlet Witch, Wolverine, Rogue, and Havoc. A few new members were added in the last issue (#5), including Sunfire, the Wasp, and Wonder Man.

There's a lot of great character development in the book, as we see how the heroes deal with the mistrust that it's obvious they still have against each other, as well as coping the death of a "very important person" in the fallout of AvX, and realizing that most humans still hate and fear them. It's also very interesting to see Captain America take a back seat to Havoc, and having difficulty not correcting Havoc when he sees the mutant make a leadership decision that is most likely a mistake.

Who Are the Creative Team?
Fan-favorite author Rick Remender writes the series, freshly off his critically acclaimed run on Uncanny X-Force (the version just before Marvel rebooted it for Marvel NOW!).

The art for issues #1 -#4 was done by John Cassaday, an award-winning artist with many works under his belt, particularly a highly nominated and awarded run on Astonishing X-Men. Cassaday's work is almost cinematic in style, but with a nice level of detail.

In issue #5, Olivier Coipel provides the pencils, inked by Mark Morales. Coipel's style is a bit different from Cassaday's - cleaner, a little more flowing, and somewhat more stylized.

Issue #6, which just came out today, features yet another artist - Daniel Acuna, who provides both pencils and art. I'm not exactly sure why Marvel keeps making changes in the art on this book, and I haven't gone to my shop to pick up today's copy yet so I can't comment on the art in this issue.

Cool Bits
I pretty much covered this above, under "What's It About?" but it actually is kind of cool seeing a team made up of members of both teams working together, but not necessarily always getting along. Plus there are lots of great scenes that pay-off long-time comics fans with little nods to things that have happened in the past in Marvel Comics, such as why people still mistrust Wanda (the Scarlet Witch), why Alex Summers was specifically chosen to be the face of the team, the difficulty of Logan (Wolverine) convincing Sunfire to join... these are all things that can of course be ignored by a first-time reader, but they are nice additions to people who have been following comics for a while.

Who Will Like It?
This book is actually a great stand-alone title that can help you jump into the "new" Marvel universe (which is actually not really new in the same sense that DC's universe is new in the post "New 52" world). Of course, it definitely ties into many other titles Marvel is currently publishing, so you can quickly find yourself reading (or wanting to read) many of the other X-Men related titles, in particular All New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men. But it's a great introduction to the post-AvX world that all of Marvel's main titles now take place in.

If you like comics, particularly superhero comics, then you'll love this book. It's got great writing, a good story, strong character development, and (at least for the first four to five issues), really great artwork that showcases the various heroes.

If you're brand new to comics and have never read a comic before, I'd hesitate to recommend this title only because there is a lot of background and history that could turn off the casual reader who might become frustrated by constant references to things that they haven't read or heard about. That said, as I mentioned before, I fell away from reading monthly comics for more than 20 years - only reading the occasional trade paperback or out-of-continuity storyline - and I picked this up pretty much right away.

Any Good Fodder in Here for My Role-Playing Games?
Well, obviously, if you're running a supers-type game, there's plenty you could grab from this and use as inspiration for your game.

The bits on how the team came together (which is pretty much always a requisite in a #1 issue of any team-oriented book) could definitely provide some ideas in how, as a Games Master, you can have your party come together no matter what genre of game you're using. The old "you meet at a tavern" has just been done to death, so this could give you some new ideas.

The first main storyline, which runs through issues #1-4, has some great examples on how people with mind-control powers can be used in games - either as ideas for a player character or as an adversary for your players. Again, this can be applied to many different types of games that have the potential for mind control powers (whether via spells, psionics, latent mutant genes, etc.). There's some really interesting and clever things in the story involving a long-time Avengers adversary and how he goes about amplifying his mind control powers.

Is It Good For Kids?
I'm going to say "no," but as always, it's up to the individual parent. The book itself is rated as "Teen +" and it of course features comic-book violence, and there are some definitely scary parts that could be off-putting to little kids - the mind control bits, in particular, where you see heroes under the control of the villain and they watch them attack other heroes. It's not always exactly explained what's happening but as a reader, you just kind of figure it out. There are a few disturbing scenes involving some surgeries and organ transplants, and that kind of thing.

  • Format: Monthly 28-page full-color issue
  • Where to Buy: Try to buy it at your local comics shop. If you don't have one, try a bookstore or convenience store, or you can also buy digitally on Comixology and read it on your mobile device.
  • Price: $3.99 per issue, which also includes a digital download code for a free issue of another Marvel Comic on Comixology
  • Rated: Teen+
  • More Information: The official Marvel Site for Uncanny Avengers

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Daisycutta (Featuring Kool Keith" by 7L & Esoteria

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Design Decision Tuesday: "Magic"

I've been devoting my past few Tuesday posts to the design decisions I made when crafting my on-going World of Samoth campaign. I started work on a proto-Samoth campaign back in my high-school days, and then began developing it in earnest during my Winter Break as a college Freshman at UC Riverside.

I began using it as an actual active game setting starting in May 2001 using D&D 3rd Edition rules, and we're still playing to this day in the same campaign, using a sort of modified Pathfinder/3.5/Trailblazer rules set.

Today's post is about how I've chosen to handle magic in the World of Samoth.

As I've mentioned before, most of my primary influences that impacted how I crafted the world included pulp fantasy like the tales of Conan and Tarzan, as well as Arthurian legends, a bit of Lord of the Rings, and the main resource, real-world history.

One of the things that all of the sources have in common is a relative lack of magic, or (with the exception of real-world history, of course) perhaps a better definition is the preservation of the mystery and rarity of magic.

In Conan's world, nearly every sorcerer type is evil. Their magic consists of summoning demonic creatures or stealing peoples' souls. Magic in Arthurian England, with the notable exception of Merlin (who in many stories is treated more like a Druid anyway), is handled in much the same manner - it's used to gain power at the expense of other people.

Magic in the Lord of the Rings saga is actually pretty minimal, in terms of the D&D definition of "casting spells" and looking at the effects. Gandalf and Saruman cast a few spells, sure, but they're somewhat vaguely defined. Then you've got your magic swords and rings, but their power, based on a D&D scale, is again somewhat low.

In real Earth history, I was always intrigued by ancient societies and some of their ceremonies that were "magical" in nature, and how a certain small group people could wield political power by claiming to practice sorcery. I liked the idea of potentially having a society's belief that magic would work actually being the catalyst for causing it to work in the first place. It's similar to the way D&D used to deal with deities - a deity who loses followers starts to lose power. With no one to believe in it, a god eventually loses all of its divine power. I thought treating magic the same way would be an interesting twist to my world.

Using these ideas, both historical and fictional, as my background, and also influenced by a recent copy of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (a low-magic setting) that I'd picked up, I began designing how magic would work in my world, and I definitely wanted it to be low-magic. I wanted magic, even priestly magic, to be treated with fear and respect by the commoners. They don't know how it works, and chances are only a small percentage have actually even seen the effects of a spell before, and they actually like it that way. The thought of someone casting a spell near them would be enough to frighten the average peasant for a long, long time.

Some of my original notes on Magic for the
World of Samoth in my green Steno notebook.
© Martin R. Thomas, ca. 1986.
My first drafts included breaking magic up into certain "sources" - how a practitioner accessed the magic. The sources included things like the Elements, Fey Magic, "Nature Spirits," Demons and Devils, and the "Life Cycle" of birth-life-death.

I also created two systems of how mages (I called them mages instead of magic-users, even though this all dates back to late 1st Edition rules) learned magic. There was the Classical/Traditional method, whereby a mage had to study to learn the intricacies of magic. I also had what I called the "Degenerate/Fallout"  method, which was in actuality a form of "inherent" magic - the practioner just had the innate ability to cast spells by virtue of being born in the fallout zone of a magical war that had taken place millennia before. It was sort of a riff on the X-Men and their "mutant gene" along with my own independently created version of what became the Sorcerer class in 3rd Edition D&D - someone who could cast magic without having to memorize spells from a book.

Practitioners of either Classical or Inherent magic could then "augment" their spells by dabbling into stuff like Elemental, Fey, or Demonic magic. Demons were particular adept at manipulating people into augmenting their spells with a demonic overlay, because it was the "path of least resistance" toward true power, but it also helped the demon in question to gain a foothold in the world - the practioner ended up acting as a "gateway" of sorts where the demon could leave its demonic plane and enter the real world. Repeated use of demonic augmentation would eventually taint the user and turn them evil. It's so funny - I read through these old notes now and see so many things that have been used in other games or supplements, such as the concept of Taint which showed up in the 3rd Edition Unearthed Arcana book. I don't know if that makes me exceptionally clever and ahead of my time, or if it (more likely) just points to the fact that there are only so many ideas that are going to be recycled over and over.

During these formative stages of my campaign world, I didn't separate between arcane and divine magic, and had decided that it was really just a function of how the practitioner saw him-or-herself. If the person thought of himself as a priest/cleric, then his magic would manifest that way and affect the types of spells he had access to. If he thought of himself as a standard mage/sorcerer, then he would end up casting different spells, because he believed those were the only types of spells he could cast. Much of magic was just based on the beliefs of the caster as well as the beliefs of those around him when he cast his spell. What a person thought would be the result of a spell would actually end up affecting the actual result. In terms of mechanics, this had no change, but it was just how I saw magic working in my world.

By the time my campaign got started in earnest, we were 18 months or so into D&D 3rd Edition, and that had a huge impact on how magic actually came to be worked in my world - that is to say, nothing like what I had imagined. I was a relatively inexperienced DM (having mostly played up until that point), and I'd worked on my campaign world for far too long without actually using it as a backdrop for game play that it had veered a bit too far away from practical applications in-game. D&D 3E and its descendants place a major difference on divine versus arcane magic, and also the game itself is built upon as assumption that players will have access to certain spells and magic items at each level of play in order to make the "Challenge Rating" and "Encounter Level" system work out. The designers of the game assume that, for example, a 5th level party will be able to fly because they will have a 5th level wizard in the party who will have taken the Fly spell.

I tried to take out some stuff like flying and its related spells, as I didn't envision my world having mages flying all over the place. I also curtailed divination spells because, as a "story-element" in my campaign, I didn't want my characters able to spy on other people or use spells that could quickly reveal the answers to "mundane" questions like "who was the murderer?" I wanted them to figure that stuff out through game-play, not from spells. I also wanted to greatly reduce the amount of resurrections and raise dead spells. In short... I wanted a low-magic world but I was trying to build that using a system that's intended for a high-magic world. Things didn't quite work out.

Eventually, my players have somewhat agreed to just kind of follow my lead when it comes to magic, but I still think there are too many magic items in the game for my taste and also way too many spells that kind of shatter the illusion of them living in a dark fantasy, low-magic setting. Much of that is due to my lack of confidence when I started DM'ing the game while trying to grasp the new rules and figure out how everything worked, but much of it is also due to the way that D&D 3E, et al, is designed. That's not a fault of the game, per se - but looking back, I think that perhaps it was the wrong system to emulate the type of setting I was trying to  create.

How have you used magic in your campaigns - "by the book", or have you made any major changes like I tried to make? How did it turn out?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pulp Noir Monday: Weird Adventures (Review)

WEIRD ADVENTURES © 2011 Trey Causey
Way back in 2010 or so when I first discovered so-called "old-school" gaming blogs, one of the first I came across was Trey Causey's From the Sorcerer's Skull - a blog filled with various "fantasy meditations", including one of my favorites -  "Warlord Wednesdays" (reviewing issues of DC's old Warlord comics).

But, what really captured my imagination on the site were frequent posts detailing various aspects of something referred to as "The City." These musings were perfect combinations of evocative imagery and creative re-imaginings of vaguely real-world people, places, and objects with a slightly dark fantasy overlay.

After reading several posts about "The City," I began to want more and was thrilled when the author mentioned that he was going to be putting together a lot of his previous posts plus all-new material into a 160+ page book. I remember one time even commenting on his blog about how it was taking too long to get the book published because I really wanted to read it.

Weird Adventures was published in both PDF and print formats in December 2011 and is the subject of today's Pulp Noir Monday review. Previous posts for Pulp Noir Monday include the TV show, Tales of the Gold Monkey, an RPG gaming supplement, Heroes of Rura-Tonga, and the fantastic comic book limited series, Masks.

What Is It?
Weird Adventures is a 165 page book (including covers and the Open Game License) that provides a campaign setting for adventures that take place in a world of "traditional fantasy role-playing game tropes in an era reminiscent of our world between the two world wars. More specifically,
it’s reminiscent of our world in that era as it has been portrayed in fiction, particularly
fiction published in pulp magazines." [Excerpted from the Introduction].

In the book, you get background on the history of the world, calendar, descriptions of the various types of inhabitants, religion, magic, some basic information on the planes, a map, and overviews of the various continents and countries in the world. All of that takes up the first 58 pages or so.

After that, you get very detailed information on "The City of Empire" (aka "The City"), the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, and which is composed of five baronies. Each barony gets a separate chapter in the book which details things like various buildings, parks, people, and encounters that you could have. All of this information is presented in roughly 80 pages or so.

After this is a section on "Weird Menaces" (new creatures and encounters, such as Brain Invaders, Crabmen, and Ghost Towns), which lasts for roughly the remaining 20 pages.

Cool Bits
If all of the above sounds fairly mundane and what you'd expect from a campaign setting, you couldn't be more wrong. What makes Weird Adventures so unique is its presentation of the City and how it makes use of real-world places, people, and events, then reinterprets them in a "modern" fantasy setting. However, this isn't revisionist history or some kind of alternate Earth. It's its own creation.

An example includes the city of Hoborxen, an alien city that appears to be made of fluorescent glass and which shows itself on moonless nights on the other side of the river. However, the next morning, the fantastic glowing city is missing, replaced by the regular gray smokestacks of plain old Hoborxen. While this sounds just like standard fantasy stuff (a "city of dreams" and all that), the author goes on to detail a bit more about what's actually going on, which involves the disappearance and eventually reappearance of single buildings, whole blocks, or the entire city, and some "foul-mouthed, cinereous, and moth-winged" creatures that buzz around. Sometimes you can hear a women crying or laughing softly. Items lost in other parts of the world sometimes inexplicably turn up here. 

There's also a neighborhood called "Little Carcosa," a mysterious ethnic enclave of narrow cobblestone streets, exotic smells and even more exotic inhabits, famous for its street festival featuring masked participants forming a processing behind a group of somewhat grotesque clowns. 

Causey does a magnificent job of writing up the various areas in the City in a similar fashion - each ripe for exploration, investigation, and discovery. Reading through the book, I kept saying to myself, "I want to know why Hoborxen disappers and where it goes" or "I want to know more about what happens at the end of the procession during Little Carcosa's street festival and who the guy in the pale mask and yellow tattered robes is."

Another thing that's sprinkled throughout the book are little side-bar lists of things, each one of which could be the source of its own adventure. Some examples are "Ten Things Found in the Alien City", the last item of which is an illustrated children's book wherein a little girl and a sinister looking stuffed animal discuss the murder of the book's finder - and the last two pages of the book are missing. That's just one example, but hopefully it properly conveys the amount of dark fantasy atmosphere that's just oozing throughout the book.

Besides buildings and neighborhoods, the author also includes other elements that are reminiscent of 1930s Pulp era New York City, such as jazz clubs, subversive "Red agents," subways, ferries, Cathedrals, immigrants (complete with a "Random Immigrant Encounter Table"), large park areas, taxmen, exterminators, loan sharks... the list goes on and on.

Carefully woven into the setting are the "standard" fantasy races, so we get things like some dirty hobgoblins who get tossed out of an all-night diner, or a "hill-billy giantess" who sits crying while holding a battered suitcase.

A short review like this can't possibly cover all of the adventure hooks included in this book, nor should it. To really get the full potential from the wealth of material in this setting, you need to experience it for yourself in the context in which it's presented.

Who Will Like It
Given the type of setting this is, it should have a relatively broad appeal. Fantasy of the 1930s pulp era should thoroughly enjoy this fantasy take on the genre, and with minimal changes could easily adapt many of the encounters to even "straight" pulp games like d20 Past, Gumshoe, various Savage Worlds settings, or even some old-school Gangbusters by simply stripping out the fantasy elements.

By keeping some of the dark fantasy tones and taking out the races like goblins, dwarves, and the like, the setting could easily be incorporated into a pulp-era Call of Cthulhu game using your system of choice.

Fans of the fiction of China Miéville and its modern fantasy genre should also respond favorably to Weird Adventures. As the author notes in the introduction, at times the book reads like a Travel Guide to the world, and many entertaining hours could easily be wiled away just going to a chapter on a particular barony and reading it as though you planned to travel there.

The setting is loosely based on the d20 System's Open Game License, but in reality there are very few mechanics in the book, and those that are there are intended for old-school rules-light systems such as Swords & Wizardry or Labyrinth Lord, and could very easily be adapted to any system you choose.

 Really, if you're a regular reading of this blog and love new and different presentations of fantasy settings, then you'll love Weird Adventures.

  • Format: 165-page PDF, soft cover, or hard-cover, including the covers, or in print
  • Where to Buy: RPGNow or DriveThru RPG
  • Price: $10.99 (PFD), $15.99 (soft cover), or $21.99 (hard cover)
  • System: d20 Open Game License (relatively system-neutral but designed for OSR type retro-clones)
  • More Information: From the Sorcerer's Skull Weird Adventures announcement page

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: A "brave companion" (bourbon, lemon juice, vanilla simple syrup, and creme to cacao)
Listening: "Bizarre Love Triangle" by New Order

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Tribute

As far back as I can remember, Mom always encouraged me to use my imagination and be as creative as I wanted to be.

Mom had a real creative side to her, which manifested itself mainly in sewing, some scrap-booking, and cooking, and which I took in a very different direction with art, music, and more recently, with writing. And of course, I used my creative talents for things like role-playing and miniatures games. 

Mom's encouragement of my less-mainstream passions always helped me feel "safe" in a world that, back when I was growing up, didn't always look so kindly on boys who were into superheroes and action figures more than they were into playing baseball and wrestling. Nowadays, with the pervasive influence of video games and comics that have entered pop culture, these things usually aren't even given a second thought. But, back in the 70s and 80s, it was considered... let's just say "weird."

Mom never made me feel weird about what I was into. When "Star Wars" came out back in May of 1977, she and Dad took my sister and me to go see it. I was, of course, instantly hooked and the mythos of "Star Wars" has influenced my life up to this very day. It was the first movie I ever saw twice in the theater, as it was re-released that same year around Christmas time and Mom asked my dad to take me to see it again since she knew how much I loved it.

The first Star Wars figures my mom gave me.
That following Easter, she got me the special 8-pack of Star Wars figures that came with the special display stand. That got me started on a massive collection of the original Kenner Star Wars figures that lasted well into my early teens, with Mom often going out of her way to visit stores with me to make sure that we got all of the new figures when they came out. I was also fortunate that she convinced my dad to get me some of the cool accessories, like the land speeder, X-Wing, and Darth Vader's Tie Fighter. I was one of the only kids I knew who had the old Kenner Death Star, much to my friend's chagrin.

My first 6 "Star Wars" comics from Marvel.
Gift from Mom, 1977.
My love of all things Star Wars prompted Mom to get me started on another hobby - comics. She came home from the store one day with a pack of the first six issues of Marvel's "Star Wars" comics, which adapted the first movie. I was instantly hooked and continued reading Marvel's Star Wars tales for another year and a half before I moved onto other things, but those comic images and ads for teams like the Invaders, Defenders, and Avengers stayed with me for a long time, eventually turning me into a reader and collector of comics, something which I still do to this day. I'll never forget Mom driving me around in the snow in the middle of Winter to try to find a store that had a copy of the limited series Punisher #3. I'd somehow collected all of the other issues (#1, #2, #4, and #5) but couldn't find that one, and we spent the entire afternoon and early evening after school one day visiting every convenience store, book store, and every other kind of place looking for that thing.

Mom also made it easy for me to pursue other creative interests, including playing piano, art, and reading. She was very good at watching my sister and me and learning what we were into. When she saw me paying attention to my older sister's piano lessons and then sitting down at the piano to play everything I'd heard after the teacher left the house, she decided that I should also have lessons and continued to pay for them all the way up through high school. When I developed an interest in drawing and art, she enrolled me in Summer art programs and gave me art pads, art books, colored pencils, markers, and pastel chalks as gifts for Christmas, Easter, and birthdays. She encouraged me to read, and I developed an appetite for a wide variety of subjects like astronomy, mythology, history, archaeology, and of course fiction of both the fantasy/science-fiction and "regular" type.

Mom's choice of toys always encouraged creative play, such as the home-made Star Wars costumes she made for my sister and me, or even the sets of Legos she bought, along with those really cool old "Lego Idea Books" that had tons of cool, and challenging, ideas in them for using your bricks in a different way than the directions in the box.

These are the first Playmobil figures. Mom gave me the Knight guy.  
Copyright 2011. This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons. 

Once, having noticed my interest in reading about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, she ordered a special new toy that had just come out of a knight with a spear and shiny helmet and armor. It was from a new company called "Playmobil" and Mom thought I might like it.

Perhaps Mom's greatest encouragement of my imaginative side was our trips to the library growing up, which was almost a weekly thing with my sister and me. We'd get tons of books, starting out with kids stories, of course, but as we got older I was getting things like histories of Marvel Comics, fantasy novels, and, when they had them, D&D books.

I've talked about how I first got into D&D a few times on the blog, but one of the things I never mentioned was how Mom got to know and understand just how much I loved the game, and secretly did research on what types of things I might like (such as looking at the ads in my Dragon magazines when I wasn't home - a magazine subscription that she asked my Grandma to get for me, by the way), or even calling or visiting stores to ask them what new things had come out, so she'd know that I wouldn't have them yet. Like searching for new Star Wars figures or elusive back-issues of comics that I couldn't find, mom would, again, go out of her way to drive me around town to visit the meager game-store pickings in suburban Salt Lake City so I could try to find a new game or accessory for my role-playing habit.

As I got older, Mom continued to help me embrace my geekier side, never once expressing anything but love and even pride that I was as creative and imaginative as I was. When the new Star Wars movies came out in the late 90s and early 2000s, Mom was back at the stores, picking up as many new and different figures as she could find and giving them to me when I came over to visit. 

She might not have always understood some of the things I was into, or necessarily liked them herself, but Mom could always be counted on to be quick on her feet with a joke or comment when the opportunity presented itself.

Once while home visiting her and my dad, I was watching the premiere of the new "Superman: The Animated Series" program. Mom stood a few feet away in the kitchen doing the dishes while I, now a 25 year-old young man, sat glued to the TV.

Image from
An image of a young Clark Kent, in white t-shirt and jeans, appeared on the screen as he expressed some amazement upon discovering that he could fly.

"Who's that?" Mom asked, as she hadn't really been paying attention.

"That's Superman. Well, it's Clark Kent before he becomes Superman. He's in college, and he just discovered his powers."

Mom skipped a beat, then asked, "How come you didn't discover any powers in college?"

Often around this time, Mom would surprise me when I came to visit with something completely unexpected, such as a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards that she "just happened to see" while she was out shopping, and knew that I was collecting them.

My Flash Converse Hi-Tops. Gift from my Mom.
September 2012.
Most recently, for my last birthday back in September of last year, Mom gave me the coolest pair of shoes I could want - some Flash Converse high-tops. She knew that although I had tons of Batman and Superman stuff, that the Flash was really my favorite character. I wear them pretty much every day.

* * *

My mom very unexpectedly passed away back on February 6th. It was a complete shock to the entire family, and truth be told, we still haven't recovered. I don't suspect we will for quite a long time.

This little tribute can't even possibly convey one-tenth of the myriad things Mom did to help make me the person that I am today, but as I look back, I am constantly reminded that had it not been for her encouragement, love, and understanding of my somewhat offbeat hobbies... well, I wouldn't have this blog, for one thing. I wouldn't have the friends that I do today, almost everyone of which I have bonded with over discussions of Star Wars, comics, and fantasy fiction. And I wouldn't have the desire to continue creating worlds to share with my family and friends.

Thanks for everything, Mom. I miss you.

My Mom and me for her 70th Birthday. December 2012.
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