Comics long

Safat HaAvaddim

Chris Sim’s Invincible Super-blog is a celebration of the awesome daftness of comic books, in particular the awesome of superheroes punching each other in the face.

Earlier this month, he ran a two-part retrospective on the appearances of Conan in the pages of Marvel’s What If…? series, which features alternate realities based on such burning questions as What If… Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben had Lived? (that’s actually a good one, but the majority are, as Chris points out, rather lame). However, this lameness is not an issue here, Because the answer to pretty much any question that starts with “What if Conan…” is always the same: somebody would get their ass kicked.

In the second part, Chris survey’s Conan’s visit to the 20th century, and gives you the pleasure of seeing Conan tossing a Volkswagen and wearing a pimp suit, but in the first part, where he discusses Conan fighting Thor and (later) Wolverine in the Hyborian Age, I noticed this panel of Conan’s arch-enemy, the Stygian wizard Thoth-Amon, chanting over Thor’s hammer.

Thoth Amon, from Conan vs. Thor

Chris describes it as everyone’s favorite Hyborian necromancer, Thoth-Amon, seen here wearing what appears to be Loki’s headgear and talking nonsense, but of course, it’s not nonsense, it’s Hebrew: בואי ברק, מן השמיים – “come lightning, from the sky”.

Hmm. I tried to check who the writer of that issue (What If…? #39) was. According to the site (in Turkish?), it was Alan Zelenetz. According to Wikipedia (or probably IMDB), Zelenetz was the “Judaica advisor” to the movie Pi, so he probably knows Hebrew.

Now, Thoth-Amon is a Stygian wizard, and Stygia in Conan’s Hyborian age is the ancient evil version of ancient Egypt. So basically, Thoth-Amon is speaking Safat HaAvaddim, The language of the slaves as it’s called in the Mummy:
From The Mummy screenplay:

Imhotep moves forward, his one hand trying to stop the molten
mummy guts from oozing out of the large shotgun hole in his
side. Beni drops his gun and grabs at the CHAINS around his
neck, RELIGIOUS SYMBOLS AND ICONS dangle from each chain.
Beni holds the first one up: A CHRISTIAN CRUCIFIX. He quickly
makes the sign of-the cross and blesses himself in English:

May the good Lord protect and watch
over me as a shepherd watches over
his flock. And may Satan in all his
forms be vanquished forever.

It has no effect on Imhotep, who continues forward. Beni
quickly grabs at the other symbols and icons, holding them
out towards Imhotep, one after the other, trying to slow his
progress: an Islamic Sword and Crescent Moon necklace; a
Hindu Brahma medallion; a small Buddhist Bodhisattva statue.

All while blessing himself in Arabic, Hindi, Chinese and
Latin. Nothing works. Imhotep’s skeletal hand reaches for
Beni’s throat. Tears run down Beni’s cheeks he’s so freaked.

And that’s when he holds up THE STAR OF DAVID and blesses
himself in HEBREW. Imhotep stops in his tracks. His hand
lowers. His grotesque new eyeballs stare at Beni.

The language of the slaves.

Looks at him quizzically. Imhotep takes a step back.

(in Hebrew — subtitled)
I may have use for you. And the
rewards will be great.

Comics long Roleplaying

Hobbies for old people

I was thinking recently how roleplaying is going through the same sort of process that the comics field has gone through, namely, it’s catering more and more to an aging audience. Overall this is a good thing. If you are in that aging audience. For the hobby, though…

Let me elaborate.

You can tell your audience is growing older when instead of asking “Who’d win in a fight, the Hulk or the Thing?” they ask “Will Peter Parker ever marry Mary Jane?” Or, when instead of asking “which spell is the coolest?” they ask “how does the economy work, and where can we get a better deal on a 10′ pole?” (answer: eBay) When your fan base is obsessed about continuity and metaplot, when they read comics for the complex soap opera and new readers can’t figure out head or tail, when you need a stack of supplements and magazine articles to roll a character, well, you’re catering to the faithful, and not winning new converts.

Once the companies realized this, they try to maximize the revenue generated by the steadily shrinking audience with spin-offs and crossovers and splatbooks. And the audience buys this, for a while. Until they realize that they’ve become collectors instead of readers or gamers, and that they have shelves and boxes of unread comics and unplayed games.
Yes, I’m looking at myself, obviously.

Of course, the adaptation continues, and instead of parasitizing, the hobby industry actually starts to provide value to these older gamers and readers. So in comics, you have series “written for the trade”, because a sizable audience is going to buy the story in convenient trade paperback collections, and the collections have a long and healthy shelf life, much better then the single issues that have this bizarre life-cycle where they go from disposable ten-minute reads directly to an existence as either mylar-bagged “collectibles” or bargain-bin pickings. And in roleplaying games, you see, I think, games that are slowly adapting to the format of providing a short campaign with a simple, high-concept set-up for busy people with adult lives. Actually, I’d say gaming is lagging behind in this department, because it means more retooling then just breaking out a piece of story into a collection, but you see signs of this. Stuff like the Savage Worlds books, which are a setting and adventure combined, and the limited-scope lines from various publishers (White Wolf’s Orpheus), and the single book settings for GURPS. Of course, a lot of the indie games are optimized for this, often just a cool idea for a one-shot adventure with some very lightweight (and tightly focused) rules.

I think there’s a pretty coherent list of things that older gamers will like in a game that will make them enjoy playing it: simple (and familiar) rules, simple (or familiar) setting, high-concept, fun-now, characters drawn in big bold strokes, that sort of thing. Or maybe that’s just me. Textured settings, deep characters, angst and long spell lists, whether you’re talking of old Gloranthan Runequest (A game for graduate students) or nineties-ish Amber/White Wolf, that’s for younger people who have more time.

D&D, of course, is for 30 year olds with kids whose wives don’t let them build toy train sets.

On the other hand, in games they don’t really play, older gamers might value other things. I picked up Weapons of the Gods, Mage: The Awakening and White Wolf’s Chicago source book at the last Bigor, and I did it mostly because they were beautiful books. Hardcovers with (in the case of WotG) full color interiors or sleek exteriors. The two rulebooks here are pretty heavy with way too many rules for me to digest. This is the sort of product which makes you feel you’ve got good value for your money, but which I’ll never read thoroughly enough to play.

The sad side to this, as I hinted in my opening paragraph, is that while it’s good that the hobby industry is actually adapting itself to accommodate its aging audience, it’s depressing to see how the main players in the field are actively erecting barriers in front of newer, younger audiences. The wonderful Batman and Justice League animated TV series have got kids all excited about these comic superheroes; my nieces adore Wonder Woman. In the comics, Diana has just snapped Maxwell Lord’s neck (somewhere in the labyrinthine reaches of the Infinite Crisis mega-multi-crossover). Oh, and this series also really emphasizes that Batman is an asshole. Meanwhile, you need the convincing charm of mud to get my nephews excited about Dungeons and Dragons. But is there a red box type introductory set anywhere to be seen? Well, there might be something, but it’s in English. And just creating characters is such an arduous fiddly process that I imagine they’ll fail their fortitude saving throw before they roll up their constitution score.

So, animation, video games and CCGs trump comics and roleplaying, and the latter seem to be destined to be considered more and more geek hobbies from days of yore.

Blather long Roleplaying

Shadow of My Playtest

So yesterday I had Ori, Itamar, Boaz and David over to try and play my game. Well, David actually wanted to play Munchkin, but we overruled him. In retrospect, I’m not sure that was the right choice…

It was strange having guests. David remarked that the apartment has a strong feeling of someone’s presence (as if it’s haunted?) I just think it’s the rat trap for old people to die in ambience…

We spent about 2 hours on character creation, mostly on coming up with Objects of Desire. Then David left, and we played a bit (well, first I unloaded the big complicated explanation of the Adversity rules I had written the night before; it would have really helped if I’d let people read the rules instead of trying to guess how these worked). In the scene we ran, Boaz’s character, a sort of Amberite Fonz (an eternal high school king), traveled to a pseudo Victorian London to “milk” a legendary extinct “Blue Burmese Deer”, which was supposed to produce a magical salve that would cure acne; in the London Zoo he ran into Itamar’s character (a weird scientist, himself a failed experiment of the eccentric Biomancer Momir Vig), and they both discovered the “deer” was actually a Peryton. It took me way too long to realize that my/our subconcious was totally dominated by the Stag’s head hanging over our heads (the most prominent thing in my living room, aside from the shelves of dusty comics).

In the cold light of the morning-after, the problems I had with the game – which start with the character creation process, but spill on to why this makes play very different from what I hoped for – were very clear to me. In fact, so clear that I regret wasting people’s time. I could probably have solicited people to create characters on the internet to discover these basic problems.

A central idea to Shadow of My Desire is that characters are defined by what they want. So I wanted to start the game by having each player come up with an Object of Desire for his character, even before describing the character. The problem is that because of how I set this up, people went about creating powerful magic artifacts. Boaz started by choosing “My Cool Muscle Car” as his first object of desire, and gave it 3 qualities that were more like stats then what I had in mind. I should have thought about this, of course: anything numeric is going to be treated as something mechanical. This then escalated, with Ori creating a world-spanning spy network as his “Object of Desire”, David creating a magic ring which granted his character 3 psychic powers of magic knowledge (with plans to mix astral projection and mental domination in there) and Itamar creating research papers that contained information on everything. In round two, Boaz created a leather jacket of holy-relic magnitude, with dimensional pockets, cheat notes, and bulletproof protection; Ori created a Zen garden that was very much an Amberish private (mini) shadow, David created a “Flying Space Harley” (and tried to make “flying motorcycle” just the description, so he could add 3 extra powers as the actual qualities), and Itamar created “The Weird and Wonderful Failed Experiments of Dr. Momir Vig”, a horde of bizzare and otherworldly creatures that appear out of nowhere in an awe-inspiring stampede just when needed.

The actual characters – Bo’s Fonz of Amber, Ori’s spymaster, Itamar’s failed experiment and David’s somewhat-incoherent traitorous ex-advisor of Caine (yes, the Vampire: The Masquerade Caine; he knew VTM, but not Amber) – were somewhat flat (Ori put this down to the initial focus on artifact-creation). In the post-game post-mortem, Itamar and Ori mentioned that the lack of a defined setting was a problem; that I needed something to tie the characters together better, and give them more of an interest to interact. Also, if Objects of Desire were so important, this needs to be built into the game more strongly. Perhaps stealing essence from other People’s Objects of Desire is possible, or even tempting. Ori said I needed some social structure, like the strict codes of the Camarilla (or the anarchy of the Sabat) to make play more social.

Now, since I’m the only person who knows what I was looking for, it’s clearer to me what the problem was: Objects of Desire weren’t working the way I wanted. When I thought of “test cases” for this, I was thinking of players inventing silly Objects of Desire and abusing them for the Essence gain, but in play, no one used any Essence: instead of using Objects of Desire to gain Essence so they could use cool powers, they just built the cool powers into the objects of desire for free and used them.

So, what I think needs to be done is to flesh out completely the section on Powers in the game text; a lot of things that the Objects created in this game did should be powers, fueled by Essence. Knowledge artifacts? That’s Scrying. Pockets that work like Merlin’s Logrus tendrils, letting you pull any object out of them? That’s some variant on Shadow walking, and should be priced accordingly. The actual abilities of Objects of Desire will be scaled down, and at least some loopholes need to be closed.

One option is that when an Object becomes “real”, it can be upgraded to be more similar to the Objects created in this session. Just like a person becomes PC-material when the spark within them awakens, so objects can become artifacts, like the leather jacket and the magic ring, and places become abodes (suggestions for a better term most appreciated), which are more like personal shadows with special powers.

I also need to find rules for dealing with defining a large group as an “Object of Desire”, for example the spy network or the horde of failed experiments. I’m inclined to deny such multiple Objects of Desire as either too abstract or open to abuse. In the specific case of these two examples, I would have allowed them in as background elements, perhaps. Or maybe I need to have a system that lets you purchase allies for your character, like advantages, merits, etc.
I don’t have a good solution for this just yet.

One thing that is pretty clear to me: if Boaz is comfortable in this game, it isn’t working as planned… ;-)

long Roleplaying

Cranium Rats review

This is a review/critique of Guy Shalev’s game Cranium Rats. My comments relate to the draft labeled 1.1 (beta version), which he was kind enough to give me a printed copy of at Bigor 6.

Cranium Rats is a game for 3 players and a GM. Each player plays a different aspect of a single character’s personality; how the character reacts to a given situation posed by the GM is determined by the dominant aspect, and the players can compete for the position of dominant aspect. The game mechanics deal then with two types of conflict and resolution: external problems the character tries to overcome and internal struggles between different aspects of the character’s personality.

For the sake of symmetry, the idea is to have 3 characters in the game, and for each character, each player plays a different aspect. A good recommendation the game offers (page 6) is for these characters not to share scenes, which could really bog the game down. Instead, it is recommended that the individual characters’ storylines take place in parallel, and affect each other indirectly.

The 3 aspects the players portray are called Rat, Dirt and Water. Rat is probably the easiest to intuitively understand, and therefore roleplay: it represents animal urges, raw survival instinct, and a direct, visceral approach. Dirt represents stability, stasis, and a cerebral approach. Water represents dissolution, change, but has a very passive, path-of-least-resistance side to it. On first read it seemed that Rat is the fire under a character’s behind, with the other aspects dragging him down; on second read, it looks more like Rat as instinct vs. Dirt as reason, with Water a third wheel or hindrance.

Each character is created by the player of that character’s Dirt Aspect, who gives the character a name, brief description, possible specialties (what in other games would be skills or advantages) and divides 8 dots between the character’s 3 traits – Physical, Social and Mental. The Rat and Dirt players each pick a goal for the character that is suitable to their Aspect. Each Aspect starts at a rating of 5, and has a dice reservoir equal to the Aspect’s rating which can be used both to boost the character’s chances of success in external conflicts (if you are the active Aspect) and in inter-Aspect struggles. Each Player (not Aspect) is also given 3 Tokens (and the GM is given 5) per session, which can be used to aid or bribe other players or the GM. I understand this to be a player-to-player reward mechanism, like Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures.

The game has some fairly involved rules for both resolving external conflicts and the struggles between the 3 Aspects. One thing that confused me was inconsistent terminology, in particular that used to describe struggles between Aspects. The rules for this appear under a heading called “bidding”, but the struggle is also referred to in various places as a “flood scene”, which I think is the preferred term. A flood scene is one in which the three Aspects battle for control of the character, and also try to strengthen themselves either at the expense of the other Aspects – by “attacking” an Aspect and (if they win) stealing a “dot” from its rating, or by competing for unassigned dots: an Aspect’s rating can be reduced without another Aspect increasing (in cases of ties or when no one rolls any successes on their dice), and this dot can be up for grabs in later conflicts; in addition, character creation is immediately followed by the award of an unassigned 16th dot, which precipitates an initial flood scene as the Aspects compete for that dot.

While most of the rules seem quite solid, and the rules text manages to convey the interesting combination of highly collaborative storytelling with highly competitive “board” game that I think Cranium Rats is striving for, I felt that some of the rules were either murky and confusing, or evoked a “what’s the point?” reaction. In particular, some rules which Guy acknowledges were inspired by other games seem to me to be akin to “Web 2.0 features” on a modern website. Just as not every webpage needs pastel gradients, rounded corners and AJAX, so too this game doesn’t need an option to “rack up the stakes” (by spending a token) to zoom in from Conflict Resolution (Win/Lose) to Task Resolution (Hit/Miss). While that might be a nice feature in a heroic action game, I think in this game it would just bog things down – with the multiple options for internal and external conflict, prolonging external conflicts seems to me to be too much of a hassle. In the indie RPG spirit, you’ll also find a discussion of scene framing (which reminded me of Primetime Adventures) and a distinction drawn in both types of conflict between which player wins the conflict and which player narrates the results. I think the latter can be jettisoned without taking away anything from the game (and giving the players one less bit to remember).

Other fiddly bits I’d question are Aspect ratios – the relative strengths of the 3 Aspects cause bonuses and penalties in both external conflict and flood scenes (I think); who can use what tokens (you can use other players’ tokens but not your own); what tokens are good for (there’s a rule where you can give a player or the GM a token in return for narration rights, but they aren’t obliged to accept it); a tricky rule for “stealing” dice which costs you a token and a die (so how is that stealing?), and the rule about success in external actions, which states that “an Aspect rolls an an amount of dice equal to his Dots, each die that comes up equal to or lower than the relevant Trait is a success. If the number of successes is a multiplier of the Aspect (not including Aspect=1) then multiply the number of successes by that multiplier.” Since the number of successes will be less than or equal to the Aspect, one wonders how it could be a multiplier; although I realized that this might be possible by adding dice from advantages (GM call), specialties (the character’s skills), contributed tokens and the Aspect’s dice reservoir, I still found this confusing.

Besides issues with unclear text in the rules, the big weakness of this game is the players’ goal. The introduction (which cites films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as inspiration) and the example of play (on page 4) give the impression that the focus of this game is characters in crisis, and the gradual breakdown of their personalities. But the next sections, Background and In Between, seem to take the game elsewhere. Background consists of 4 short fable-like vignettes, while In Between describes the 3 Aspects, or rather tries to make you “grasp” them intuitively. Together, they provide an ethereal weave of pseudo-mystical, quasi-mythic ideas, which I am willing to accept as “background”, but which I find sorely lacking as “setting”, which apparently is what they are intended to be. The whole thing is too subtle for me, and this lead me to be confused by the next section, Rules, which open with a mystifying glossary – an unhelpful slew of terms which really need to be defined in context and in a logical order, not as disconnected items. In particular, I was confused and annoyed by the term “Enlightened”, which is the game’s term for GM, but also a bit of superfluous setting-related terminology. Apparently, the characters in play are divided into those seeking Enlightenment (and being manipulated by the Rat/Dirt/Water Aspects) and the “Unseeking” (NPCs).

I really think the game lacks a good discussion of the idea of a quest for Enlightenment, because it turns out to be a central idea of the game: while each player will be striving to increase their own Aspect, this will end up dooming the character – when any of the Aspects reaches 10 or 0, the character is destroyed (perhaps only metaphorically). On the other hand, if the character’s Aspects remain equal after 5 different flood scenes, the character becomes “Enlightened” and “wins” the game. In fact, each time a struggle between the Aspects ends with the three in balance, the character advances – gaining one dot in a trait, assigned by the player of the Water Aspect (thus fulfilling this Aspect’s role as the “force of change”, and perhaps compensating a bit for this role being the most passive as far as goals and narration are concerned).

The concept is promoted further by the idea of “Magician” characters, who manage to maintain the balance between their three Aspects and reap the benefit for this in the form of Kewl magic powers. This is mentioned as only an option, and I did find it somewhat at odds with the initial naturalistic image (from the example of play) of a romantic nebbish caught in an armed robbery.

The clash here between player (Aspect) goals and the good of the character is the key dynamic of the game, I think. Do the players pull together to save the character, or focus on winning and watch the character tear apart? Both options will probably result in some good stories.

Overall, I found this an interesting game, with an intriguing idea and comprehensible mechanics, which could benefit from a tighter focus on “what this game is about?” and a good rewrite of the rules. The “setting” material, while colorful, should perhaps be reworked or countered with a stronger emphasis on “people in crisis” rather than the quest for enlightenment (or, enlightenment should be framed more strongly in terms of personal crisis and sudden moments of clarity).

long Roleplaying

Cast a giant shadow

The dilligent John Kim has a site called An Encyclopedia of Role-Playing Games, which tries to list every roleplaying game ever. A nice feature is that he’s got them organized by years. I once gave a talk on the history of roleplaying games, and noticed that both Champions and Call of Cthulhu came out in 1981, and both Amber Diceless and Vampire: The Masquerade came out in 1991. I think it’s really not a stretch to claim that eacvh of these pairs of games had a gigantic influence on roleplaying in the decade that followed it. I could (and probably should) elaborate.

Champions had one of the most influential mechanical engines in RPG history (aka The HERO System), in particular as far as character creation went: the idea of point-allocation design instead of random rolls; the concept of disadvantages as allowing and encouraging the players to involve their characters in the background story of the world, with relationships, allies, enemies, etc; the idea of effects-based design, and a broad base for player creativity in defining special abilities and powers.

Call of Cthulhu gave us cosmic horror and the sanity mechanic, investigative scenarios, detailed historical backgrounds, tension and, well, tentacles.
Amber and Vampire both bear the influence of these two earlier games, I think, although these have already been very strongly integrated into the DNA of the hobby that you might miss them. But they also cast a huge web of influence.

Amber gave us absurdly powerful characters, diceless roleplaying – i.e, shifting to the GM (and group consensus) as the principal resolution mechanic, a focus on obsessive character development (not that this is really new), and player homework to make your character more powerful.

Vampire really encouraged social interaction as the main point of adventures, extending the investigative scenario of CoC to the social scene. It also gave us the Splat model. And managed to somehow make gaming almost sexy. Which is a far more valuable contribution than tentacles and point-based character generation. But I digress.
A few words about how I gauge influence: each of these games had a strong fan following, each of them presented in well-developed form some very strong ideas, which influenced both other game designers and the roleplaying community. Each of them provoked, in its way, a critical dialogue, which engaged and inspired further creations. Just like countless “fantasy heartbreakers” are responses to D&D, so many games are responses to these four; whether it is because of the genre the game claimed – you can’t do superheroes without addressing Champions somehow, or horror without addressing Call of Cthulhu, and we wouldn’t be running conventions that are 90% freeform diceless if not for Amber.

So. To get to a point. I looked at the games from 2001. And unlike the other two examples, I can’t see any two games that are dominating this decade. Maybe the hobby has just morphed into something too fuzzy for me to make that observation, or maybe I’ve drifted too far from the excited core of gamers that are grokking this stuff. I see Dying Earth and Rune, two very innovative game designs from Robin Laws, but I think neither of them managed to spark real passion or form a community. I see, how ironic, Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer, which is a good example of a game that is reacting in it’s own way to both Vampire (dark urban fantasy, the Humanity mechanic – and the whole idea that’s tied into it of internal horror as the character grows more and more unhuman), and Amber (system does matter!). But the community formed by Edwards isn’t focused on this game, and the actual printed book isn’t really the best source text for any of his interesting ideas.
Maybe the big game is actually Exalted, which repackages fantasy roleplaying for a generation that grew up on anime rather than Tolkien, and which did provoke a big community reaction and extended interest. I admit that I haven’t read it, but I think it’s more a snapshot of the current state of the art than a real innovative game.
Maybe the whole idea of the games of the decade is silly, that 1981 and 1991 are just flukes. I can’t say I have enough data. The earliest game Kim lists is 1st edition Chainmail, the prototype of Dungeons and Dragons (1973). It came out in 1971.

PS: review of Cranium Rats coming up. Soon.