Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - A Distinct Lack of Staying Power

Going back over the games I ran in college, I realize I ran a lot more stuff than I thought at first. It's just that much of what I ran ended up being one-shot games. I've already mentioned the Morrow Project disaster.

One Halloween, I decided to have the guys over to my apartment where I ran a one-shot Villains and Vigilantes game inspired by a convention game I've talked about before. I had the players basically generate themselves as V&V characters, then the game began on one of our typical Saturdays on campus. As they were coming back from a meal break at Burger King, they heard sirens. Gunmen ran past them, making for a getaway car. In the process of the getaway, the players' friend Fraze was shot and lay bleeding the streets, mumbling the crooks' license plate number and clutching a mask he pulled off one of them.

Following the clues led them to a costume shop, which was a front for a secret organization known as the First Kingdom. The bad guys were seeking some source of cosmic power known as the Bloodgems, located in multiple parallel dimensions. At some point, the players encountered a guy who ran an occult bookshop, the dude who was battling the First Kingdom to protect the Bloodgems. He recruited the players to help him find the gems first, and off they went through a dimensional portal.

They awoke in a forest. The forest was very big. Or it would be more accurate to say that they were now very small. Bunnies, in fact. The bunnies had to find the old Owl, who owned the Bloodgem, while avoiding traps, a hunter, and one of their First Kingdom foes, a demonic bear. Retrieving the gem gave them the ability to open a new portal, which took them to their next world.

The players arrived in a space cantina, just ahead of an alien First Kingdom warrior named Sunbow. They learned of the recent theft of a huge, blood-red diamond called the Royal Star, and had to retrieve it with the help of the Starjammers from X-Men. Upon retrieving the diamond, their next portal opened.

They appeared in a medieval fantasy village, where a crowd of people watched a small group of heavily-armed heroes journey toward a castle. The players fell in with the heroes. One of the folks seemed to have a device that functioned remarkably like a movie camera. He told the players that he was Danny, the Documentary Filmmaker, and introduced the rest of the party: Phil the Fighter, Marian the Mage, Karl the Cleric, Thaddeus the Thief. The players noticed one other member of the group, a guy clothed all in black, dripping poison onto the blade of a scimitar.

"Who's that?" they asked.

"Oh, that's Al," said Danny.

"Al the Assassin?"

"No, he's a druid, actually," Danny answered. "He doesn't really fit in."

The heroes entered the castle and were promptly thrashed, after which the players entered to battle the final enemy, a demonic wizard. Once they retrieved the last of the gems, the portal opened to their final destination.

The game was meant to conclude the following week, but I never finished writing it up. I got too ambitious, planning to run a superpowered At the Mountains of Madness, but I let my ambition overwhelm me yet again. It was okay. Whatever I did would pale after Al the Druid.

At one point, Dragon Magazine published some variant rules for Top Secret called (IIRC) Crimefighters. It was meant to be a pulp-era game, taking place in the 30's. I thought it looked awesome and ran an adventure with it. The big bad was a knife-wielding murderer who was a straight-up rip-off of Michael Myers from the "Halloween" films. But the players never really got to that final confrontation, for in the process of trying to interview a mob boss, they got in a gunfight. One of the players then decided he would throw some dynamite that he had written on his character sheet. He storked his roll to estimate how much fuse he would need, with the result that the dynamite went off in his hand. Thus setting off the other sticks of dynamite he was carrying and blowing up the entire penthouse floor. Result: TPK, except for the one person who decided to stay with the car.

Sometime later, I think I ran the adventure again, with the group actually finishing it this time. That led into another adventure with the same characters, investigating a funeral home in New Orleans that was turning corpses into zombies, an adventure which led the party to the Caribbean and a search for Atlantis. The players wanted to continue the campaign, but I was hard up for adventure ideas, especially since they wanted to go to China, and one of the players was originally from Hong Kong. I was so intimidated by the idea of getting China completely wrong that I quit running instead.

But I still liked the idea of a pulp-style game, so I kept my eyes open for pulp-style systems. One which excited me when I first looked at it was Stalking the Night Fantastic, so I bought it and ran it.


It was a disaster.

Next week.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Movie Monday - Superman, 1948, Chapters 9-12

Continuing our recap of the first Superman serial from 1948:

In the last chapter, Superman was racing to save a train from being derailed. As Chapter 9, "Irresistible Force!", opens, Superman stops the train seconds before it passes over the bomb that would have made it derail (of course, Hancock more accurately showed what would happen to a train forced to stop that suddenly).

Then Superman returns to the armored car, where the Fabulously Gay Duo have been deterred from freeing their fellow thugs by the arrival of the police. Clark Kent climbs back up to the road just as the driver notices that he's missing.

Back at the Daily Planet, Lois is jealous of Clark's scoop, so Perry assigns her to meet the Reducer Ray's inventor, Dr. Graham, at the train station for an interview. Meanwhile, the Spider Lady, furious at the failure to steal the Ray, comes up with a new plan. She will kidnap Dr. Graham and force him to build her a ray.

How will she do that? Well, turns out the Spider Lady has a deadly secret.

She's not a blonde! She'll pose as Lois (dressed basically the same but in a sillier hat) and get Dr. Graham to come with her, while Hackett disguises himself as Graham to fool Lois and get into the lab where the ray machine is being kept.

The plan goes off perfectly. A well-timed fender bender delays Lois while the Spider Lady meets Graham, then Lois continues to the station (where we learn from the license plates in the parking lot that Metropolis is in California), where she waits in front of a rear-projection screen to meet Hackett-disguised-as-Graham.

The shadows on the rear-projection screen are really obvious in this sequence. Then Jimmy Olsen hides behind a car to shoot a photo of Dr. Graham, apparently because he's camera-shy or something.

When they arrive at the lab, Hackett gets in using Graham's credentials. He tries saying goodbye to Lois, but she invites herself in, claiming she hasn't finished getting her story yet. So Hackett allows her to accompany him to the lab, where he pulls out a camera to take photos of the Reducer Ray machine.

Lois gets suspicious at all the photos and notes Hackett is taking, so she excuses herself and leaves. She pauses on the stairwell and hears the other thug ask Hackett if Lois "suspects anything?" Lois then grabs a phone on the wall and starts to dial the police, apparently not realizing that if you can hear them, they can hear you.

Meanwhile, Perry hands Clark the photo that Jimmy took of Hackett-Graham. Clark uses his X-Ray Vision to see through Hackett's disguise (?) and rushes off to save Lois as cartoon Superman. After having tied Lois to a chair, Hackett sets the Reducer Ray to overload, then leaves Lois to die. Bwa-ha-ha! Hackett bids goodbye to "Mrs. Lane" then leaves as the needle approaches the Extreme Danger Point!

In Chapter 10, "Between Two Fires," Superman arrives and flies behind a glass car window that renders him invisible.

Superman shuts off the machine (with a brief cut where Kirk Alyn was apparently burned by the arcing electricity of the prop). Then he switches to Clark and drives an unconscious Lois back to the Daily Planet.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Olsen is following up the story when he runs into Hackett (now out of disguise) at a filling station. He poses as an attendant and fills their tank (and also flattens their tire for no apparent reason), then follows them to the laboratory where Graham is being held. However, Hackett and friend knew they were being followed and take Jimmy prisoner.

Graham tells Jimmy that, under the guise of building a new Reducer Ray machine, he has built an ultra-short-wave transmitter. He uses it to send out a distress signal in Morse Code. Clark and Lois are assigned to the story of what is causing a disruption in the local phone lines, and Clark recognizes the coded message. He and Lois use the phone company's spare equipment (which looks like it might be an electrocardiogram machine, from the name Medi-Sine) to trace the signal.

Meanwhile, the bad guys figure out what Graham's up to and leave the lab, but leave the radio equipment turned on. One of the thugs, played by Rusty Wescoatt, who would later show up as one of the Wizard's thugs in Batman and Robin, sets a trap for whoever might follow the radio signal to its origin. The bad guys leave with Graham and Jimmy, but Jimmy makes a daring leap out of the car. Lois arrives soon after and is trapped by flames!

As Chapter 11, "Superman's Dilemma," opens, Clark loses contact with Lois on the radio and decides she needs help. He changes to Superman and rescues Lois. Meanwhile, the Spider Lady threatens Graham that he'd better build her a Ray Machine or else! And after a little torture, Graham agrees to do just that. But he'll need a very special ingredient--a chemical called Mono-Chromite. The Spider Lady sends a couple of her thugs to get it from a chemical engineer named Frederic Larkin.

Larkin checks his index card file for Mono-Chromite, and learns that it is a special substance invented by Dr. Graham. "Restricted Substance. If Asked For Without Credentials, Notify Proper Authorities," says the card. So Larkin says it will take him two hours to make the stuff. The thugs leave, and Larkin immediately grabs the phone to notify the Proper Authorities. Who does he call? The FBI? The OSS? The Department of National Security?

No, silly. He calls Perry White, of course, who sends Clark over to get the story. Unfortunately, Lois overhears and decides to play hardball on getting the story this time. First, she delays Clark by hiding his hat. Then she has her car reported stolen. Then she takes the Planet coupe and tosses Clark the keys to her car. End result? Clark is arrested for grand theft auto while Lois and Jimmy advise Larkin on which Proper Authorities he's supposed to call.

Their answer? Put Jimmy in a crate marked Mono-Chromite so he can figure out where the Spider Lady's hideout is. And it would have worked, too, if it hadn't been for those twisty mountain roads causing the crate to fall over. Meanwhile, Clark changes to Superman and busts out of jail.

The truck pulls to a stop (clearly revealing the painted-over Columbia logo on the door of the truck)...

and a thug gets out to check the crate. He sees Jimmy's fingers pulling the door closed and reports to his buddy that there's someone in the crate. So the two thugs go back and open fire on the box, blowing holes in it. Buh-Bye, Jimmy.

At least until Chapter 12, "Blast in the Depths," where we see Superman arriving just after the truck stops. When the thug comes back to check on the crate, he sees Superman's fingers pulling it shut (this despite the fact we were clearly shown Jimmy inside the crate when the thug went back to talk to the driver last week). But in this parallel universe, the thug doesn't go talk to the driver. Instead he pulls out his pistol and shoots the crate by himself, alerting the driver to come join him.

Superman pops out of the crate and captures the crooks, then heads back to jail in time for Clark Kent to be released.

Spider Lady is pissed and demands that her underlings come up with another plan. Hackett suggests locating a mine where they can get Mono-Chromite ore and refine it themselves (this despite last week's mention of Mono-Chromite as a chemical that any competent chemical engineer could fabricate in a couple of hours--now it's a special mineral requiring special ore). Spider Lady sends the Fabulously Gay Duo to visit a mining engineer named Collier (and yes, the Duo are still dressed alike).

FGD-Alpha (fitting, since his name is Anton) goes in to question Collier while FGD-Beta (fitting, since his name is Brock) stands guard outside. Collier refuses to play ball, there is a struggle and Collier is shot. The FGD beat it, planning to return later.

Perry sends Lois over to Collier's office to get the story on the shooting. She prowls around the empty office and discovers a map to the Mono-Chromite mine at Question Crossing. TheFGD arrive and discover her hiding on the window ledge. They take her prisoner and haul her with them out to the mine, but not before she scratches "?+ " on the window as a clue (and then breaks the window during a struggle-Lois is not real bright). Clark and Jimmy arrive later and discover the clue. Clark figures it out quickly by consulting a mining engineer's handbook containing a list of mine locations.

So Clark and Jimmy head to the mine, where Clark is captured by thugs and handcuffed to a bound and gagged Lois (talk about overkill). When Clark removes Lois's gag, she immediately asks, "How did you find me?" Um, by following the clue you left and accidentally managed not to destroy when you broke the window? It was only a couple of scenes ago, don't you remember?

Outside the chamber, the thugs light some explosives and leave the mine, knocking out Jimmy for good measure. Equal shares of doom for everyone!

Conclusion next week!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Halloween Is Coming

So we're coming up on Halloween pretty soon. And unlike last year, I want to concentrate on Halloween-themed posts in the run-up to the holiday. I know some people don't like the overcommercialization of holidays, drawing them out for maximum profit, but if you can't do it for Monsterday, then what's the point? So expect October's editions of Out of the Vault to carry monster and/or horror themes. Expect the Superman recaps on Movie Monday to suspend once we finish with the current serial next Monday and switch to some horror-related movies as well. And as for Big Game Wednesday?

I'm not sure. Would you rather hear about horror-themed games, or would you like a return to Big Video Wednesday with some episodes of Night Gallery or something, or would you even perhaps like a brief return to Big Audio Wednesday?

And in between, expect some filler material that should satisfy your Halloweeny cravings, leading up to a big event for the holiday itself. I don't want to say too much about it, except that if anybody has experience with or would like to try their hand at voice acting...

Well, let's just say that ideas are being weighed, but there will definitely be something.

Oh, and though it won't be as all-encompassing, Halloween will definitely be felt over at Hero Go Home as well. Just saying.

If you've got suggestions or requests, let me know.

Out of the Vault - Warriors of the Shadow Realm

1977 is a banner year for a lot of fans, because that was the year of "Star Wars." But 1977 was also the year that fantasy returned to the public consciousness in a big way. That year saw the publication of two hugely successful fantasy novels in The Sword of Shannara, a Tolkien-lite fantasy by Terry Brooks, and Lord Foul's Bane, the first of the Thomas Covenant novels by Stephen R. Donaldson, as well as the publication of The Silmarillion , a collection of Lord of the Rings source material written by J.R.R. Tolkien and edited after his death by his son, Christopher. That same year marked the airing of the Rankin-Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit.

So it should not be surprising that there followed a flood of me-too works in the years immediately following. Some, like Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, were clearly a matter of timing, since Bakshi had been trying to get the movie made for years and was clearly not jumping on any popular bandwagon.

But some, like Marvel's 1979 magazine-sized event comic, Warriors of the Shadow Realm (published in Marvel Super-Special issues 11-13), clearly were a case of cashing in on a popular trend (illustrated by the words "In The Fantasy Tradition of Tolkien" on the cover of the first issue).

The story was actually an extension of a couple of earlier one-shot stories which had appeared in other Marvel anthologies. Written by Doug Moench and drawn by Mike Ploog, the "Weirdworld" stories had an interesting fairy-tale feel to them, though the main character--an elf named Tyndall who has no memory of his past, only the knowledge that he comes from someplace called Klarn--gets tiresome very quickly.

But with the revival of interest in Tolkien after the publication of Silmarillion and the Bakshi movie, as well as the success of the very-Tolkienesque Shannara novel, Marvel decided to take their interesting little fantasy property and blow it up into an event. Mike Ploog left Marvel while drawing a planned 60-page third installment, and the decision was made to turn it into a three-issue, 100-page extravaganza drawn by longtime Conan artist John Buscema, inked by Filipino master Rudy Nebres, and airbrush-painted by Australian artist Peter Ledger. The resulting product was beautiful, but disappointing.

Marvel hyped the holy hell out of the color art in this book, publishing John Buscema sketchbook pages and behind-the-scenes articles on how the art was produced in every issue. It must be said, though, that they had every right to be proud of how it looked. The art was gorgeous.

This is a pretty typical depiction of Weirdworld. John Buscema set aside his usual, distinctive style and followed the aesthetics that Mike Ploog had established in his earlier stories. The swamp serpents (pictured above) and nightfangers (giant batlike beasts) looked the same as when Ploog drew them, and the landscapes had that same 70's surrealist feel of a Roger Dean album cover. Nebres's feathery colored inks give the drawing a unique texture, while Ledger's airbrushed colors have far more depth and atmosphere than the kind of flat coloring that was standard at the time (in American comics at least).

One big feature of the artwork that I haven't included is the prevalence of two- and even three-page spreads (the three-pages fold out like a Playboy centerfold). But when the artwork is at its best, it is simultaneously solid and convincing, while still maintaining that edge of fantastic wonder, as in this scene where the wizard Zarthon coaxes a mystic image from the magical Darklens Gems.

On the other hand, occasionally the combination of Nebres's inks and Ledger's airbrush would overcomplicate the art, leaving it muddy and hard to reproduce.

Still, even the bad panels are pretty good. Overall, the art was excellent.

The writing, however, leaves much to be desired. Doug Moench said he had never read Tolkien's work, and whether I believe that or not, it really doesn't seem to have had much influence on Warriors of the Shadow Realm. Which is not to say that the story doesn't contain elements that feel very derivative of Tolkien, such as a good wizard who glows white, or another good wizard who is corrupted by the temptation of power, or an even more evil wizard who died long ago, and whose followers (known as, seriously, the Dark Riders) seek a special magical artifact infused with a portion of the evil wizard's spirit with which to resurrect him.

But those are plot elements that Moench could have picked up from the movie. What WotSR lacks is the indefinable spirit of the books, substituting instead your standard Marvel juvenility (I think I made up a word). For instance, when the Dark Riders catch up to a mysterious barbarian elf they've been chasing for the first half of the story, they suddenly turn into Nazgul Ninja.

Tolkien's Nazgul inspired a kind of awe. Moench's Dark Riders make you say, "Yeah, that's pretty cool, I guess."

The pacing is off, as well, with the first half of the story moving terribly slowly (including several pages of useless rehashing of the earlier Weirdworld tales), only to find the second half terribly rushed, climaxing in a hugely unsatisfying Battle of the Dei Ex Machinae.

The main characters, Tyndall and Velanna--the Klarn elves who cannot remember anything about their homeland except for the name--are boring as hell. Worse, their characters are the worst kind of convenient cliche, constantly telling us how their memories are a complete blank, until the story needs them to remember a convenient detail. "By the White Wolf of Salvation!" Velanna exclaims at one point, though she claims not to know where she learned the expression. By incredible coincidence, a White Wolf literally appears out of nowhere to save them moments later.

Even worse is the elves' comedy relief companion (a new character who did not appear in the previous Weirdworld stories), a dwarf named, I shit you not, Mud Butt. If there is any way to further distance yourself from Tolkien than naming one of your three main characters Mud Butt, I'd like to hear it. Even worse, someone at Marvel apparently thought Mud Butt would be this huge breakout character or something, because they featured him in a special full-page inside front cover illustration (though to be fair, it was a really good illustration), featured his character development in John Buscema's scrapbook, and promised to reveal his backstory in a future tale. I know they did a couple more Weirdworld stories, but I don't know if Mud Butt's origin figured in either one of them.

And then there's the dialogue. Oh, the dialogue. Let's face it, in the late 70's, nobody in comics was writing good dialogue. But there must be a special place in hell for those who write stuff like this. For instance, it gets really annoying having characters (who presumably grew up in this land, and so consider it normal) continuously refer to it as "Weirdworld." We may call it Weirdworld, but why would they? And then there's the question of how many times you can put a character's name in a single speech balloon?


And really, none of this would be much of a problem if this were a normal comic. Warriors of the Shadow Realm was basically your average Marvel comic, combining mediocre writing with outstanding art. The problem was the hype. Every issue featured articles and editorials telling us that we held in our hands the wave of the future, the best that the comics industry had to offer, a story which would set the standard for years to come.

And while it was true in a sense--the production values of WotSR presaged major changes in printing techniques and standards for the entire industry--in a larger sense, it wasn't. The art was excellent, but by no means perfect, and the writing was substandard. And even the excellent production techniques would look pretty average by the mid-80's.

Far more influential in that regard would be the magazine first advertised on the back cover of these issues, Marvel's Heavy Metal wanna-be titled Epic Illustrated.

This is a pretty good painting by Ledger, and at the time, it had me practically panting for the release of the magazine. Now though, I want to laugh when I look at it, because it mainly reminds me of this.

Friday, September 24, 2010

HGH Update

It's Friday, which means there's another chapter of Hero Go Home live here.

Also, in case you haven't been following along, here's what you've missed so far:

Chapter 1: Skintight blue jeans and hovering don't mix.

Chapter 2: It helps if both ends of a conversation know the code. Also, there's a mission from God.

Chapter 3: Singing purple dinosaurs might still try to eat you.

Chapter 4: There's really no way to prove someone doesn't eat his own poop.

Chapter 5: Being a mascot isn't so bad, if you can blow stuff up.

Chapter 6: Stench and misery are part of the Digger mystique. Also, Yodaville.

Chapter 7: Secret identities suck almost as much as too much exposition. Didn't you know?

Chapter 8: Fighting supervillains isn't football or checkers or tic-tac-toe. Well, maybe Australian rules. What are the Australian rules for tic-tac-toe?

ETA: There's something else that's subtly different, as well, though if you haven't visited before, you won't notice. But you'll notice next week...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - Aversion Therapy

Last week, I discussed Gary's short-lived attempt to run a by-the-book AD&D campaign. After he quit running, I decided that I was one of the few members of the group who had not yet stepped up to run D&D and decided to try my hand at it. However, my campaign wasn't going to be by-the-book like Gary's, not by a long shot. Nor would it be the same extended ultra-killer Monty Haul power trip dungeon crawl of Paul's game.

No, my game would be closer in spirit to what Homer had done, in trying to bring the flavor of his favorite novels to the gaming experience. I've mentioned before that I'd had a very ambitious plan for my first V&V campaign that I never came close to fulfilling. Well, this time would be different. I had more time and experience under my belt, and I had a better idea of how I wanted my games to run. And I already had a campaign world in mind.

I had actually tried to start the campaign a couple of months before, as a Dragonquest game. Dragonquest was a roleplaying system put out by SPI, the wargaming publisher. SPI published lots of games that simulated battles in the Civil War and World War II, but also put out some other odd games in other genres, like the mini-game classic, "The Creature That Ate Sheboygan" and even a game based on the prime-time TV soap opera Dallas. Dragonquest was their version of a role-playing game, with the rules written in numbered sections, just like their wargame rules, for easy reference.

I hadn't played Dragonquest much, but I liked the many ways in which it was different from D&D. Everything was rolled on 10-sided dice, which was simple. It emphasized a wide range of skills that D&D didn't include. Magic was not a Dying Earth-style fire and forget system, but a point-based system that split magic into several different disciplines, so that you could never know exactly what spells a given wizard might know.

So at some point during Gary's campaign, I announced that I was going to start a Dragonquest campaign in the evenings, but for many reasons, it didn't happen. Instead, I decided to make it easier on everybody and stick with a rules system we were all familiar with.

This was going to be a huge, epic campaign. The idea was that the party of adventurers would start out low-level nobodies, like any other D&D game. But, influenced by Raymond Feist's D&D-adapted novel Magician, as well as game-mastering advice absorbed from the many Champions books I'd been accumulating and an interview with the brilliant Aaron Allston that I'd read somewhere (The Space Gamer, I think), I decided to put my players on an epic quest.

Actually, several epic quests. They would start out as adventurers from the same village sent on a quest to solve the mystery of a poisoned spring. Then they would have a few more adventures to season them and spread their fame, including at least one adventure that would gain them the attention of a high-ranking noble. Then they would travel to the capital of the Empire, where they would come to the attention of the Emperor himself, who would send them on a quest to recover his lost seven years, which would put them at odds with corrupt nobles, evil clerics, anti-paladins and an ancient demon.

The first adventure went very well, if a little too quickly. The players were sent to discover the source of the poison tainting their village's water supply. It turned out to be blood from a wounded Gold Dragon that was causing the problem. The characters drove away the Lizard Men harrying the dragon, then went on a long journey in search of the rare Snow Lily to make a healing potion for the slowly-seeping wound. The search was supposed to take several sessions, but they did it in one. I didn't have nearly enough side-quests set up, and the ones I did, they didn't really follow.

That should have been my first warning.

Weeks of game time went by in one long afternoon-evening-night session, and when it was over, everyone agreed that they'd really enjoyed themselves. The next game, I set up another not-quite-as-epic quest for them to follow--a horde of Wemics (lion-centaurs), nomadic tribes from the plains, had gathered under a single leader who had discovered a royal seal from the ancient kingdom . The Wemics were threatening war against the Empire in a bid to set up a new kingdom in the plains. The characters were sent in as a sort of special ops force to steal the seal. Think of the Seven Samurai infiltrating Sitting Bull's camp and you're in the ballpark.

It was crazy, suicidal, but I had decided I was going to run things more like Champions than D&D. The characters were the heroes of the story, and it was my job as the DM to help them achieve coolness, not try my best to destroy them. So I fudged a lot, and made much out of the Wemics drunken confusion to keep the players from being overwhelmed, and everybody agreed it was intense, but fun.

So now I was on a roll, but I could tell that the whole "There's this awful menace threatening the world that you can only stop by finding this one rare McGuffin" approach would wear thin really fast. So I did a change-up. The characters traveled to a nearby city for training and supplies, and I informed them that the city was going into curfew because of a visit by the Emperor's Inspector General.

The plan was that the Inspector General would learn of them through some adventure in town, and then send them off on another adventure that would gain them a powerful friend in court.

Unfortunately, as soon as Gary heard the words "lock down" in association with "Inspector General," his paladin panicked. He insisted that the party camp outside the city, then run in the next day, buy their stuff and take off. He wanted nothing to do with the I.G.

This, of course, would leave me with nothing to run. The in-town encounter wouldn't happen, they wouldn't meet the I.G., they wouldn't get the clue to the dungeon--a clue I was particularly proud of: a music box with a jeweled lid in which the jewels formed a map of the region leading to a lake, and the shape of the box itself matched the shape of the lake with the dungeon being located at the point on the shore that matched the latch on the box--and all my work would be wasted.

One of the other players (I believe his name was Robert) realized that, yeah it was a railroad, but if they didn't get on the train, they couldn't enjoy the ride. So his thief snuck into the city and broke into the palace where the I.G. was staying. And got caught, leading to the rest of the party being arrested. The I.G. then basically forced them to go off to the dungeon and bring back what they found there to prove their innocence or something, which led to hard feelings in the group and Robert's character being banished from the party by the paladin.

The players solved the puzzle, found the dungeon, cleared it out and found the item the I.G. wanted. But instead of going back to the city and gaining a powerful ally, the paladin decided to beat feet in the other direction. I had based my world very roughly on a map of North America, with the city the players had been sent away from being either Houston or New Orleans (memories fade and the maps are long lost). Gary and the others basically took off west, heading for the Rocky Mountains.

Which left me double-fucked. Not only could I not get them into my Seven-Years Quest, but I had never really filled in the map on the Western side. I had no idea what was out there. Not only that, but I had the feeling that no matter what adventure seeds I threw out there, Gary's Brave Sir Robin of a paladin would flee screaming from them. I was triple-fucked.

I think I ran one or two more perfunctory adventures, where they ran into lost temples on the far frontiers of the Empire or something, but my heart wasn't in it any more. I had designed the entire world to lead up to an adventure that now wasn't going to happen because the players didn't trust that I wasn't going to try to wipe them out, and the idea of running a fleeing fugitives campaign didn't appeal. So I let the campaign drop.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Over on Hero Go Home, this week's Extra is a grungy Digger wallpaper. If you want a peek, you have to click.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Movie Monday - Superman, 1948, Chapters 5-8

Continuing our recap of the first Superman serial from 1948:

The Story So Far: Superman was sent to Earth as an infant, last survivor of a doomed planet. He was raised on a farm, where he decided to use his incredible powers for the good of mankind. He went to Metropolis, where he became a reporter for the Daily Planet, along with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. He also ran afoul of the Spider Lady, an evil mastermind bent on stealing the super-destructive Relativity Reducer Ray.

At the end of Chapter 4, Lois was a captive of the Spider Lady, being electrocuted by her Electro-Web. As Chapter 5, "A Job For Superman" opens, the Spider Lady shuts down the web, leaving Lois unconscious on the floor. She has decided it's best not to kill Lois here, despite the fact that in the last chapter, Leeds's assistant Morgan was killed in exactly the same way just moments before. But that's what a week between chapters is for, to give us time to forget. She sends Lois off with a couple of thugs to be killed at a warehouse or something.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has called the Planet to report Lois's kidnapping. Clark goes to meet Jimmy. They decide to follow the street the thugs took, and run across the bad guys coming the other way. Clark sees Lois in the car (apparently with his X-Ray vision), so he tells Jimmy to drop him off so he can call the cops. He changes to Superman, stops the thugs (by letting cartoon bullets bounce off his chest, then doing his patented move of lifting two bad guys up simultaneously and thumping them together to knock them out) and saves Lois.

Later, the Spider Lady taunts Superman over the police radio that she is going to steal the Kryptonite. Say what you will about the Spider Lady (like how stupid she is to keep announcing her plans ahead of time), she's nothing if not self-confident.

Lois goes to meet Professor Leeds, who still has the meteorite (which he had promised to destroy after running some tests - he's apparently still waiting on Morgan to come back and finish them). Suddenly, a car crashes in the street and catches fire; the trapped driver's terrified screams draw away the museum guards. Superman arrives and blows out the car like a birthday candle, but discovers the screams came from a record player in the car!

That's one seriously robust record player. Not only did the record not melt in the fire, but the needle didn't even skip when the car crashed. My record player used to skip when you sat on the couch too hard.

The Fabulously Gay Duo, meanwhile, have used the distraction to break into the museum with an electrified welding torch or something. They also use it to break into the safe and take the Kryptonite, but are caught in the act by Lois and Leeds (He's a Professor, She's a Reporter--Together, They Fight Crime!). Lois and Leeds are knocked out, and the FGD take off, leaving the torch to wave menacingly in the air like some kind of spastic snake. Danger!

As in "Superman in Danger!" which is the title to Chapter 6. Superman hands the record player to the cops and pursues the Fabulously Gay Duo, but Lois comes out of her faint just long enough to scream at the torch, then faint again. Superman rushes back and saves Lois, then flies off to stop the Duo. But he doesn't count on the Kryptonite, which causes him to pull a Lois and faint.

Now that Superman is no longer a serious threat, the Spider Lady and Driller discuss their plans to steal the Reducer Ray. The Spider Lady decides she needs scientific help and plots to break mad genius Dr. Hackett out of prison. Hackett will soon become this serial's equivalent of Lex Luthor. The break-out itself is never shown; one second, the Spider Lady says they need to work out a plan to get him out of prison, and the next, he's out. Brilliant plans work so much better when you just assume they worked without sweating the details.

Perry White assigns Clark to the Dr. Hackett break-out. Clark heads straight to Hawkins, the stool pigeon. Hawkins is scared off by the sight of the FGD, however, and gives Clark the brush-off. So Clark follows the Duo.

Lois arrives just as Clark is leaving and gets Hawkins to tell her what's going on by buying him a spaghetti dinner. He's such a cheap date.

Meanwhile, Clark, driving his inconspicuous Daily Planet car,...

follows the FGD to a cabin where Hackett is being held. The FGD give Hackett bandages to wrap himself up in and take off to fetch a fake ambulance so they can bluff their way through police roadblocks. After they leave, Clark ties Hackett up and calls Perry to send the police, then wraps himself in bandages to be taken to the Spider Lady's hideout.

Lois arrives moments after the fake ambulance leaves and discovers Hackett tied up. Not knowing who he is, she unties him. D'oh! Hackett pulls a gun and takes Lois prisoner.

Meanwhile, the FGD discover Clark isn't Hackett. But apparently, head bandages work just like Kryptonite, because the FGD beat Superman senseless...

and dump him over a cliff that is similar to, but not the same as, the cliff where Batman got hit with the CrazyLegs Ray!

The FGD head back for Hackett, while Clark recovers and decides to change into Superman. Meanwhile, Hackett and Lois pass the ambulance going the other way. Hackett tells Lois to stop, but she grows a pair and keeps the car moving, daring him to hurt her. He knocks her out and jumps out of the car, which hurtles toward the edge of a cliff. Hey, this is starting to look a lot like Gotham!

In Chapter 7, "Into the Electronic Furnace," Clark switches to cartoon Superman and saves Lois. And as much as I make fun of the cartoon special effects, this is actually a pretty nicely executed shot, matching the movement of the car nicely and even matching the puffs of dust pretty well.

The Spider Lady greets Hackett and tells him about the Kryptonite. Hackett comes up with a plan to trap Superman using one of his friends as bait, say, that Clark Kent fella.

However, when they set up Hawkins the stoolie to make the call, Lois intercepts it. Being the weasel she is, she takes Jimmy to the meeting, thinking to scoop Clark. Instead, it's Jimmy who gets scooped up by the crooks.

The thugs then call Clark at the Planet and tell him to get word to Superman. When Clark demands they prove that Jimmy's still alive, instead of putting him on the phone even though he's in the same room with them, they instead set up a secret rendezvous with Clark.

The meeting is at the corner of 9th and Columbia, which I figure was an in-joke for the guys on the backlot, naming the street after the studio.

Clark goes to the meeting (secretly followed by Lois), where he is handed a paper by a passing extra. Hey, it's Professor Hammil from Batman and Robin!

The paper has a note in it that tells Clark where to meet the bad guys, who take him to their hideout. Clark has told the bad guys that Superman will come to them after they release Jimmy, but the bad guys decide to hold Clark as well, in a 2-For-1.

They show Clark the Kryptonite fragment (much smaller than the original meteorite) that they intend to use against Superman. Clark tries to fight, but the crooks knock him out (is this more bad writing, or is Clark just faking--hard to tell, the way it's cut). The crooks dump Clark's unconscious body in another room, but Jimmy slips his bonds and tries to escape, so they knock him out and throw him onto a conveyor belt leading Into the Electronic Furnace! Hot!

In Chapter 8, "Superman to the Rescue," Clark changes to Superman and attacks the thugs. One of the thugs pulls out the Kryptonite and throws it at Superman (brilliant plan). He misses, and it goes Into the Electronic Furnace, causing clouds of Kryptonite vapor that make Superman stagger and faint (maybe that was the plan--it worked, anyway).

But then the crooks hear a police whistle outside and beat it out the back way. Superman staggers into the other room. Jimmy comes to and sees Lois walk in, with the whistle she used to fool the bad guys. They find Clark on the floor in the next room, where Superman told him to wait. Lois is disgusted at his unmanliness. Clark tells them about Spider Lady's plan to steal the Reducer Ray.

Hackett derides the Spider Lady's plan as "clumsy and stupid," despite the fact that was actually, um, his plan. He says he will devise a weapon using the remaining Kryptonite that will work better. The Spider Lady tells him he'd better succeed. She leaves the room, and one of the FGD offer Hackett the chance to escape. Hackett refuses. The Fabulously Gay Uno reports to Spider Lady. It was a trap!

Superman is told by the Secretary of National Security that the Reducer Ray is to be moved to Metropolis University for testing. Superman suggests they make the information public to lure the Spider Lady into trying to steal it. It's another trap! (And incidentally, the exact same trap Batman will use against the Wizard in next year's Batman and Robin, from the same producer, one of the same directors, and much the same writing team).

Spider Lady sends her forces out to steal the ray machine, with the FGD providing cover using Hackett's Kryptonite rocket launcher. At the last moment, Spider Lady learns the real ray machine is on a train, not on the truck her men are intercepting. But she can't reach them on the radio, because they're listening to music. That damn swing music is corrupting our youth!

The truck arrives, with Clark Kent riding shotgun. This plan is only marginally less stupid than the plans Batman and Robin came up with in the other serial. The only way Superman can appear is to somehow have Clark Kent disappear. Luckily, a thug obliges by knocking Clark into some bushes.

Clark switches to Superman and flies up atop a nearby rock formation, all the better to be shot at by the FGD, who are still in the same outfits. Seriously, do these guys never change clothes or what?

But Superman catches the rocket and throws it back at them. Then he stops the thugs robbing the truck, just in time to overhear the Spider Lady on the radio, calling her men to stop the truck operation, because they're going to derail the train at Jones Crossing in 30 seconds. Better hurry, Superman!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Product Placement

Product placement, the effort by advertisers to get their products included in a movie or TV show as a sort of embedded commercial, has been going on for decades. Sometimes it's subtle, as when James Bond just happened to drive an Aston Martin in "Goldfinger." Other times, it's blatant, as in the first season of Heroes when Claire threw a screaming fit of joy over getting to drive a Nissan Rogue, while Hiro insisted that the clerk at the car rental place give him a Nissan Versa and only a Nissan Versa.

The world of animation has been generally different. Sometimes the shows themselves are nothing more than 30-minute commercials for a given toy line, but you generally don't see American-style product placement in animated shows. But while waiting for the fall season to start, I've been watching more anime lately on Hulu (Baccano! is a sweet little show, BTW, although skipping around between three separate timelines can make it seriously hard to follow at times), but while watching a show titled Darker Than Black, I was struck by this.

You see the Pizza Hut box between them? I know that the logo is illegible in this shot--which is what movie and TV productions often do to give the flavor of a real-world product while not using the actual label--but it struck me that in an earlier shot on a train, the logo had been perfectly legible. And that wouldn't have been a big deal, except that in the next episode, it happened again.

And again, this time with an added "Look!".

And so on for several episodes in a row.

It's pretty obvious that the makers of the series made a deal with Pizza Hut for some product placement, which I just don't remember ever happening in an anime series before. Is this a first or can someone help me out?

Corinne Bohrer wants to know.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Out of the Vault - 1984

In 1978, Warren Publications, publishers of Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, put out a new comic magazine named after one of the great dystopian science-fiction novels of all time, 1984. However, the dynamic cover art by Richard Corben, featuring a battle in space between two rival alien races, made it clear that this 1984 would bear no resemblance to George Orwell's bloodless allegory.

So exactly what approach would this new magazine take? Would it feature the nonsensical, yet vaguely artsy sex fantasies of Heavy Metal, or would it more closely resemble the updated EC stories of its sister publications, Creepy and Eerie? In the end, it did a little of both, mixed with liberal doses of gore and comedy. The final result was not pretty.

The inside front cover of the first issue is perhaps the worst case of false advertising ever in the history of ever. Under the title "Remember the Good Old Days? Who Would Have Thought They'd Return... in 1984?," the copy speaks of the good old days of classic adventure--Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, the Shadow. It speaks of the desire to return to those days of fun and adventure, without the modern weight of "relevance" to slow the stories down and make them depressing.

We, at 1984, are trying to recapture some of the fun of old. We've taken a dash of adventure, a smidgeon of excitement from the golden years of our youth, and mixed it with a healthy dose of relevant irreverence of the day. We've tried to recapture the spirit of a time that didn't take itself as seriously...

Wow, that sounds pretty good, and the cover certainly looks awesomely action-packed. Let's take a look at the first story and see how that turned out?

"Last of the Really Great, All-American Joy Juice" is pretty typical of what went on in the pages of 1984. Basically, the Soviets have devastated Earth with a weapon that sterilized all the males in the U.S. Naturally, there was retaliation, and now the human race is dying out. A space freighter, sent into space with the remnants of the last sperm bank in existence, comes under attack from a force of women out to knock themselves up. They are overjoyed to discover not just the sperm, but possibly the last functioning human male plumbing in existence. Unfortunately, the guy it's attached to isn't exactly cooperating.

"Poontang-pushin' prevert" is about as good as the humor gets in 1984, and that type of stuff dominates virtually every single panel of every single story. The editor of the magazine was a guy named Bill DuBay, who also did much of the writing, and who wasn't above rewriting other people's stories to make them fit into his vision of the magazine.

Probably the most egregious examples of this were stories from the first two issues, "Quick Cut" and "One Night Down on the Funny Farm," with art by the great Wally Wood. According to this page, the art for the two six-page stories came from one 12-page story by Wood titled "The End" which DuBay butchered, not only completely rewriting the dialogue to make lame jokes like this one ("Just like a woman...")

but also completely reordering pages and panels and adding captions to make the second story completely unrelated plot-wise to the first (while also adding even more awful "humor," such as dialogue for Japanese characters like "I clome to take you away flom it all! Hold hland."--apparently, Japanese people not only confuse L's and R's, but also add random L's to the first syllables of words).

Wood never worked for Warren again.

Apart from the cover, Richard Corben also did stories in the first few issues, an ongoing serial titled "Mutant World" where twisted people scramble for food in a dangerous environment where sometimes the food eats back.

Good-looking work, but oddly (both for Corben and for 1984) there were no tits to be found.

The first issue also featured a proto-steampunk story by Jim Stenstrum and Luis Bermejo titled "Faster Than Light Interstellar Travel," featuring Professor Elias Zong who developed a space-travel-capable riverboat that took a tour of the galaxy. Not being written by Bill DuBay, it was not a six-page thesaurus of sexual insults and profanity, but instead a lighter tale featuring sophisticated humor like this (I have left the yellowed paper uncorrected to give the story a sepia-toned look).

I actually bought the second issue of 1984 as well. It was mostly memorable because, although it was advertised on the back cover of issue 1 like this (dig that crazy slit-scan lettering, man)...

the actual cover looked like this.

No idea why the brunette was changed to a blond, other than to imply that she's having more fun.

Beyond that, it was more of the same: a post-apocalyptic war between the "Glows" (radiation-infected men whose semen causes instant death to their partners) and the "Hung" (barbaric brutes with big and non-lethal organs), interstellar wars between all-male alien races over human females, a gory ad for a customized suicide kit, an alien sex researcher who has had sex with virtually every type of female in the galaxy (except backward, bestial humans of course), another "Mutant World" chapter.

The best story in the second issue was "Janitor," an amusing sex romp mainly notable because it was completely silent--no dialogue, no captions. After having to deal with the eyeball-scrape that was DuBay's writing in virtually every other story, "Janitor" was a blessed relief. And the women were sexy.

But even I wasn't masochistic enough to buy a third issue. Somebody was ,though, because the magazine kept going. Starting with issue 11 in 1980, the title changed to 1994. When I saw it on the newsstand with the new title, I figured they'd just realized that the actual year 1984 was getting pretty close and no longer felt so futuristic, but apparently, it was to avoid a lawsuit by the George Orwell estate. Either way, the magazine managed to keep cranking until 1983 when, after 29 issues, Warren went bankrupt.