Monday, April 30, 2018

80 Years of Superman

[Note, I started this post last Wednesday 4/25]

Earlier in April saw two major milestones, both of which are firsts within the realm of superhero comics. First, the character of Superman celebrated its 80th anniversary of his creation by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel on Thursday, April 19th. Second, issue #1000 of Action Comics was published a day earlier on Wednesday, April 18th (almost 80 year to the day of the first appearance of Superman).

[To be fair, DC unfortunately decided to re-number all of their comics back in 2011 when they re-booted their line as "The New 52" so the original numbering of the first volume of Action Comics stopped at #904 and the comic started over as Action Comics, Volume 2, #1. After about five years of that, with the debut of DC Rebirth in the summer of 2016, the original numbering resumed with Action Comics #957, and the publication began shipping twice monthly].

These are very significant events, as Superman was the first true comic book "superhero." Without Superman, there arguably would not be a Batman, a Wonder Woman, a Captain America... the list goes on. Sure, there had been pulp heroes and newspaper comic strip characters, but they weren't "superheroes." The creation of Superman also created a genre which has become an integral part of America's pop culture, and created an American mythology that is no less culturally important to Americans today than the myths of ancient Greece or Egypt were to the cultures of their time.

From a publication standpoint, Action Comics is one of the very few superhero comics books still in publication that can trace its on-going publication history all the way back to the creation of the superhero genre. Shortly after World War II, superheroes fell out of favor and most superhero comics, even popular characters thought of as popular such as the Flash and Green Lantern, ceased publication. The only ones from DC Comics that continued publishing were Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. In the mid-1950's, DC revisited a lot of their old heroes like Flash and Green Lantern, revised them for the "modern" age, and created the "Silver Age" of superheroes. But, all along, the "trinity" of Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman had continued as usual. It's fun to celebrate something that's been continuously published month in and month out (or sometimes, weekly, and as noted, twice-monthly currently) for 80 years.

Given all of the hype and excitement about Superman, for my regularly scheduled New Comic Book Wednesday post, I thought it would be fun to talk about some of my favorite Superman stories over the years, and hear what some of yours are.

Superman is a tricky character to write well, and most people these days seem to prefer darker, grittier, more "realistic" heroes like Batman. I don't always agree with those people. I definitely enjoy Batman stories a lot, but I don't like him because I somehow think he's more realistic than, say, Superman or the Flash. None of the superheroes in comics are realistic. Yes, Batman doesn't have super-powers, but anybody who actually attempted what Bruce Wayne does would be killed in probably less than a week. And that's not even counting the physical toll on his body and the mental and emotional damage he's doing to himself.

Superheroes are not meant to be "realistic." As I mentioned above, I subscribe to the premise that superheroes are a new type of American mythology, something that is unique to our cultural make-up. The heroes of Greek myth were not admired because people thought they were real. They were gods and demi-gods with extraordinary powers, and their exploits provided moral life lessons that we could learn from and try emulate in our daily lives. The 12 Labors of Hercules teach us that, as humans, we need to learn how to control our anger, lest we be consumed by it and do something horrible that we regret while we are in a rage. People didn't hear those stories and think, "I want to be strong enough to kill a lion!" What they got out of that story was that we shouldn't let our emotions control our actions. Superman has the strength to eliminate Lex Luthor and take over the world and run it as a dictatorship (what he would most likely think is a benevolent dictatorship, but that's aside from the point). However, he doesn't do so. Despite his great power, Superman tries to figure out ways to outwit Lex and also to provide proof of Luthor's wrong-doings within the context of the law so that Lex can be punished by a jury of his peers. The lesson we are intended to take from this is that might does not make right.

Unlike the "Man of Steel" movie (which I did originally like, but now with hindsight, I have soured on quite a bit), the best Superman stories should inspire us, and allow us to see a refugee from another planet who came to earth and made it his adopted home, who does good works and always looks for the best in people, and who uses his great gifts to provide hope for those who are less fortunate. That said, here are a few of my favorites.

Superman for All Seasons. This is a beautifully illustrated book, originally published as four monthly issues, with each issue representing a different season. It was a follow-up book to the creative team's very popular Batman: The Long Halloween, a limited series based on the months of the year. Superman for All Seasons is a wonderful coming-of-age tale, which also deals with themes such as the end of childhood and finding one's place in the world. The art features many large format double-page spreads to show the grandeur of Superman. 

Superman: Secret Identity. This is such a clever concept by writer Kurt Busiek, of Astro City fame, and artist Stuart Immonen. It is a non-continuity story that tells the tale of a young boy in a world without superheroes or super-powers,but one that does have comic books. The boy's favorite comic book hero is Superman. Then one day, the boy discovers that he has powers like the Superman from the comics, and he sets out on a path to do good deeds, while keeping his identify a secret. It's a masterfully told tale and one that will resonate with younger kids as well.

Superman: Red Son. Another very clever concept, in an "Elseworlds" format (stories that exist outside of main DC continuity). In this story, written by Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar, the premise is that Superman's escape rocket from Krypton crash-landed in Soviet Russia instead of in Kansas. Rather than fighting for "truth, justice, and the American Way," the Soviet Superman is described as championing the common worker, Stalin, and socialism. The story spans the timeframe from 1953 - 2001, along with a futuristic ending, and also features alternate versions of most of the main DC characters such as Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, and Lex Luthor, as well as real-world people such as President Kennedy and Joseph Stalin.

Superman origin sequence from the first
page of All-Star Superman, Issue #1
The All-Star Superman. This is by far my favorite Superman story, told by fan favorite writer Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely. This is another out-of-continuity story that tells a very moving, emotional story of Superman, who [minor spoiler alert, but this happens within the very first part of the story] realizes that he is dying, but doesn't want the world to know, and goes about spending as much time as he can with Lois (who doesn't know, in this story, that he is Clark Kent), and accomplishes a series of tasks that help humanity and remaining Kryptonians (such as those in the Bottle City of Kandor), and interacts with all of the important characters from Superman's long history, both in his guise as Clark Kent and as Superman. It's a wonderful story that succinctly tells just what it means to be Superman, and also includes perhaps the most elegant, concise, and beautifully illustrated one-page, four-panel re-telling of Superman's origin.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Superman, what you like and don't like about the character, and also what you would list as your favorite Superman stories. Put a comment below or on Google +.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "Somethin' Else" by Cannonball Adderly

Friday, April 13, 2018

Old School AD&D Game II - Thoughts on 1st Edition AD&D and an Old Session Recap

Long-time readers of my blog might remember that back in 2011/2012, I started running an old-school AD&D game as part of our "Friday Night" games (which have recently switched to Saturday nights). These games are intended to be a bit less "serious" than my on-going World of Samoth game, and they are also an excuse for me to dig out a lot of old-school B/X and 1st Edition AD&D modules that I've had for 35+ years, but have never had a chance to run.

I first ran S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and then moved on to S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. I've had S4 since I was in my early teens. Way back then, shortly after I discovered D&D thanks to some friends at my junior high school, I started trying to acquire and read as much stuff as I could. I really responded to the idea of creating worlds and characters that populate them, and I was a voracious reader back then - in my "downtime" before I started reading comics and game books, if I had finished all of my library books, I would end up reading my parents' World Book Encyclopedia (1964 Edition) just for fun. So, discovering the world of D&D added a ton of new things for me to read and explore. 

Back then, I didn't have a lot of discretionary income (or, technically none, because I didn't have an allowance), so actually acquiring modules and rule books was a lot more difficult than it is today. My mom helped by purchasing the Moldvay Basic Set and the 1st Edition hardback rulebooks for me, but for modules I was kind of out-of-luck until I discovered that I could borrow them from my friends and my dad could photocopy them for me at his work, which he patiently did on several different weekends over the years. Although I have now properly and legally acquired these old treasures, I still get a smile from seeing all of my old photocopied modules (all of which I kept) and remembering all of the work my dad put into copying those, even though he probably didn't really understand what he was copying for me. 

In any event, S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth always held this very special place in my heart, and I dreamed of running it for a group one day. The interesting and complex mix of wilderness adventure and dungeon-crawl, with the competing political groups all racing to discover the lanthorn, and fun touches like referring to a druid as the "medicine man" of a tribe of mountain men, really struck a cord with me. I began envisioning how much fun it would be to run this adventure, which is essentially a mini-campaign. 

Of course, the reality of the situation could never match my expectations, so when I finally had a chance to run this game, which I offered to do while the main DM of our Friday Night group needed to take a break, the actual experience has so far been less than stellar. It's not totally dissimilar from my experiences running S3, but I think a lot of that has to do with my expectations and the kind of game I was envisioning running for these type of one-off module explorations of 1st Edition AD&D, and the players' preferences for more long-term, story-based games where characters grow in importance over time and become powerful and influential leaders in society. Things like "save or die" and "the bats automatically do damage no matter how many of them you kill" do not compute for this group of players, and it's caused a ton of post-game email discussions about what kind of games we'd prefer to play. 

With that out of the way, after the last time I blogged about a game recap from our S4 sessions, back in August 2012, we played one more time and then the game went on hiatus until about a month ago (an almost six year hiatus!). 

Below is a short recap of the last three sessions (including the last one from way back in 2012), along with my commentary on the things that the players didn't like and what kinds of discussions we had.

As I noted in the previous write-ups of our game sessions, the information below does provide spoilers for anyone who hasn't played this adventure. 

3rd Session: Sometime in late 2012 or early 2013
After Estian's botched accent attracted the suspicion on the Kettite Border Patrol Captain, Lord Flemin, Dwarf from the Principality of Ulek, begrudgingly opted to speak with the Captain, all the while muttering under his breath about the incompetence of his adventuring companions. After the situations was rectified, the Border Patrol Captain let the company continue on their way.

After this, they made quick work of figuring out the quickest path to the entrance of the caverns based on the aerial reconnaissance accomplished by Dolok the druid while wild-shaped as an eagle the day before, and entered the caverns.

Descending into the entry of the lesser caverns, the company were confronted with six passageways adjacent to six large bas-relief caverns of different, grotesque faces with strange features such as tusks, doglike ears, drooping wattles, etc. The characters examined the faces from a distance, and after a cursory determination that there were no clues as to which face indicated where the correct path lie, they chose to work with the old adventurer chestnut of "start on the right and work our way around."

Entering the far right tunnel, they marched in a northern direction through a fungi-filled corridor where they encountered a swarm of bats. After failing to move quietly, and with their torches full a-glow, the adventurers awakened the bats, and were mercilessly attacked until they finally moved through the corridor, which then led them into a long galley pock-marked with large holes on either side. As the company advanced through the corridor, they were attacked by "cave morays" that lunged out of the holes in the corridor walls. The characters took considerable damage from the cave morays and bats, but finally maneuvered through the corridor, and entered a large cave.

Inside the cave, the company were attacked by two large formorian giants, who had heard all of the ruckus outside their cave and prepared themselves accordingly. After a fierce battle, the company was victorious against the giants, but then upon investigating the treasure inside, the company cleric, Benedictus, donned a cloak that radiated magic, only to find that it was a "cloak of poisonousness," whereupon he died immediately.

It was at this time, after Benedict died, that the company realized that he was no human cleric after all, but a bizarre, otherworldly humanoid type creature with flat, gray-skin and amorphous features.

[DM Note: After the last old-school game through module S3 ended with all of the character's deaths at the hand of a group of doppelgangers, who killed all of the characters and took over their shapes, I decided that I would run S4 as though it were 100 years after the events of S3, and that the doppelgangers from S3 were actually an alien species living on the crashed ship, and that one of them had been mimicking a human form for so long that he had actually gone partially mad and would occasionally forget who he was. I gave the player notes to indicate that at the start of each day, the character was to make a Wisdom check on a d20 to see if he could recall who he really was; if not, he would act the part of a human cleric perfectly. But, if not, he would remember that he was an alien and that he hated humans and their demi-human allies, and would do his best to try to maneuver into situations where he could kill his comrades. That actually never occurred in the game, but the player really liked the idea of the character. In the write-up I gave the player, I mentioned that he collected and drank only jars of honey - that was his only sustenance, and in the other character write-ups, for a few of them, I mentioned that they had noticed this and thought it was peculiar, but nobody chose to follow-up on it.]


That ended the third session, and after that, it would be over five years before we resumed this campaign.

During this particular session, a lot of things came to light, which are greatly impacting the direction of playing through this module, as well as the overall enjoyment of all parties involved (the players as well as me as a DM):

  • Wilderness Adventure: This part of the module was added much later when TSR published this module in 1982; the original tournament adventure did not include this section. However, it was in reading the wilderness section as a kid that I really fell in love with this module. While I'd seen wilderness adventures before (notably X1: Isle of Dread), the unique encounters in S4's wilderness section really sparked my imagination. However, for many of my players, the wilderness encounters seemed annoying. A few players in particular kept asking, "How long until we actually start playing?" or "why can't we just go directly to the caverns?" The idea of them having to search for the entrance to the caverns was a bit foreign to them, and not something they enjoyed. They were notably frustrated after the first two sessions that they "hadn't made any progress." I'm not sure where this mentality comes from, other than the idea that I set this up improperly. I had also intended that this particular module could take several play sessions, but I think some of the players were anticipating that it was only going last one or two sessions as most. Additionally, while I found that the role-playing opportunities were most notable in the wilderness section, the players really just wanted to explore the caverns and few of them had any interest in interacting with NPCs that were seemingly distracting them from the "main objective."
  • Searching & Problem Solving: This particular topic has come to the forefront lately, but what I've discovered is that while this group of players are all guys in their late 40's or early 50's who started playing RPGs in the early to mid-80's (with one exception), there is definitely a demarcation line between those of us who started playing "pre-Dragonlance" and those who started with Dragonlance.  That really seems to be the difference between "player skill" and "character skill." I've discussed this with my players after the last two sessions in particular, but it had come to the forefront all the way back in 2012/2013 when we first started playing this. I explained to them that they needed to "describe" their search, not "roll" for it. That seems to have thrown a lot of my players for a loop, which explains why, when they entered the cavern with the six faces, they did not perform a detailed search of the area. I didn't offer anything, but the faces actually do communicate, but only if you approach within three feet and interact with them. These players did not do that, and just randomly decided to start out on the right hand tunnel. I do understand the benefits of things like a Search skill, or the idea that a character with an 18 Intelligence might know something that a player might never think of. That's fair - we don't expect a player who has a character with an 18 Strength to perform a physical task in order to succeed in attacking someone, but I do think that the reliance on simple die rolls to accomplish mundane tasks like searching a room have removed a lot of player ingenuity and skill in the game. I'm all for giving characters with higher Intelligence a clue if their description of what they are doing warrants it, but I'm not going to just say "Roll a d20 and if you roll under your Intelligence, you figure it out." To me, that's just lazy. 
  • Pre-Generated Characters: While I created the pre-gens for this game primarily from the desire to help my players out and make it easier for them to not have to learn a new system to create a character, I also really enjoy creating the relationships that exist between characters and giving them little role-playing quirks for my players to work with. The company of the Lucky Fools and Gloaters (the name of the adventurer group for my game in this module) include a cannibalistic druid who eats the bodies of any creatures he kills, lest they be raised as undead; a human cleric who was actually an alien from a crashed spaceship - using the rules of a Doppelganger; and a Martian, disguised as a "red elf" who accidentally got stranded in Greyhawk via a portal malfunction and has been searching for a way home. However, one thing that has come to light is that these players have a hard time getting into character, even though I am providing them plenty of role-playing hooks, when they don't create the characters themselves. A few of them have also mentioned that they don't have a lot of interest in playing a character that they aren't doing to use again (and who therefore can't grow and become more important) and also who might die at any moment due to the savage 1st Edition rules with things like "save or die" or even "put on this cloak and die with no save." Those types of situations have removed a lot of motivations on the part of the players to role-play their characters much. 

I'll post the recap from the previous two sessions later. In the meantime, I'd love to hear peoples' comments and thoughts. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...