Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dark Circle's The Shield By Wendig And Christopher

This cover is awesome. I had to pick it up.

I think that one of my favorite things about comics, one of the absolute cornerstones of the medium, that keeps me coming back to it is the heroic legacy of characters. This has nothing to do with continuity. Fuck continuity, most of the time it just calcifies storytelling and leads to empty wankery.

Today at the comic store I picked up The Shield #1 from Dark Circle Comics (aka the fine people who bring us Archie) and the new creative team of Chuck Wendig, Adam Christopher and Drew Johnson.

I have been anticipating this comic since it was first announced. I have been a fan of The Shield and the various "Archie Super-Heroes" since the 80s revamp of the characters under Rich Buckler and the Red Circle Comics. Then in the 90s I loved the Impact! Comics featuring these characters put out by DC Comics. I even liked the 2000s revamp from DC Comics. These characters may not always stick with comic readers, but they represent a legacy that goes back to the golden age of comics and that is (in part) what makes them so important.

The reason why legacy is more important than continuity is because the world of today isn't the same as the world of the 1940s, or even the 80s...or the 90s. Comic book characters, for better or worse, work best when they are a reflection of their time, rather than trying to imitate some earlier time period because of nostalgia or a yearning for a time that really never actually existed. Those Shield stories from the 40s and the 80s, and etc.? Those stories have already been told. And read. And they aren't going anywhere. New times calls for new stories. Fans of popular entertainment forget that sometimes.

This is a new Shield for a new era. This new comic upholds the legacy of the old comics, while rebuilding it for new ideas and new sensibilities. The Shield was the first patriotic hero in comics, and that isn't forgotten in this book. This new Shield is patriotic and proud of her country, but not in a jingoistic way. The patriotism of this books isn't an "America right or wrong!" type of patriotism. It is a patriotism that comes from loving your country, and loving the fact that other people want to be a part of your country, and that with loving your country comes the responsibility of doing the right thing for it...and on the behalf of it.

I don't know if that makes much sense, but I was brought up to love my country because its people weren't afraid to do the right thing, even at great personal consequence, not because it would bring accolades or fame, but because it was the right thing to do. This is also at the root of the concept of super-heroes, and why super-hero comics are predominantly such an American thing. This desire to do the right thing out of love for your country and super-heroes are so deeply entwined that comic book super-heroes start to falter when you move away from that base line of doing the right thing.

So, what does this have to do with The Shield? Well, the comic embraces that aspect of being a patriot, and being a hero, without being jingoistic and showing that doing the right thing is sometimes the only choice that a hero has. We learn fairly quickly in this first issue that there is a toll to be paid for being The Shield, for being a hero, but Victoria Adams, the heroine of our story, knows that she must be a hero regardless of the outcome. It is the right thing to do.

Wendig and Christopher's writing manages to create a character in Adams who is both grounded in the real world of the 21st century, and who is also larger than life and legendary. Johnson's art helps with this in no small part. The three of them create a world for our hero (and yes, she is very much our hero) that manages to be both realistic and epic at the same time.

Why is a heroic legacy so important to storytelling? When done right, they can show us how we can do grand things and be larger than the world around us. With The Shield, Wendig and Christopher have created a larger than life character who lives up to the legacy of The Shield. They have created a hero who is ageless and a product of their contemporary world, just like every other good super-heroic concept that outlasts its creators. This was a comic that thrilled me while I was reading it, yet made me sad that I have to wait 30 days in order to see what was going to happen next. That feat alone is something that doesn't happen every day in my comic reading, and that is why I will be back for more next month with The Shield.

If you like super-hero comics you really should be reading The Shield. Put it on your pull list and demand that your store stock it, if they don't already.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Delta Green #RPG Now On Kickstarter

I'll be honest. I have a definite bias in favor of Delta Green. And, if for the only reason that the timeline of the setting will finally be pushed past 9/11 and into the new century, I support a new iteration of Delta Green.

Many, many years ago, when I was still living in Cleveland, I went one day into a newsstand/magazine shop (something that you don't see very much of anymore) and I found something peculiar. I found a gaming zine. A. Gaming. Zine. I had heard of this zine in passing because it actually shared a printer with another zine that I bought when I could, the official Cyberpunk RPG fan magazine called Interface.

I could go on about Interface, but it is only tangentially connected to the story at hand. The other zine was one that focused on Lovecraftian material, and had quite a bit of support for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. This magazine was called The Unspeakable Oath, and it was published by some people who called themselves Pagan Publishing. This particular issue of The Unspeakable Oath was interesting because it was a sort of cross over between it and Interface. There weren't any articles or characters that crossed over, just concepts.

See, as I said these people all shared a printer. While working out having their respective zines printed, the creatives from both of them met. This lead to talks about the thematic similarities between Cyberpunk fiction, and the Chtulhu Mythos fiction that H.P. Lovecraft and his circle of writers spawned. So, they decided that they should cross pollinate in their zines.

Interface had an issue that brought the Mythos into the realms of the Cyberpunk RPG. It was an interesting piece, and I won't lie...I used material from it in a Cyberpunk campaign of mine once. It was well written material. The Interface issue is currently in a box in storage, and I hope to see it again one day soon.

The issue of The Unspeakable Oath had something pretty cool in it too. It had a modern day (modern day to when the issue came out) Call of Cthulhu adventure featuring government agents investigating a UFO siting that, unfortunately for the investigators, turns out to really have to do with the Mythos. This adventure was the first time that Delta Green made a public appearance. It was an awesome adventure, and for someone who enjoyed Cthulhu, conspiracy and weird alien shit in my gaming it was as if doorways opened up in my mind. I wanted...I needed more.

Keep in mind that The X-Files hadn't aired yet at this point.

I'm not sure how much later it was but the people at Pagan Publishing put out an immense setting supplement for the Call of Cthulhu RPG called (you guessed it) Delta Green. It had all sorts of options for running a Call of Cthulhu game in the modern era (a time period that Chaosium mostly stayed away from in favor of the eras of Lovecraft's fiction). It was great. Then, a bit later, they put out a supplement for their supplement that was bigger than the initial book. Delta Green: Countdown expanded the world and the conspiracies in it. The writers expanded the role of the Mythos god Hastur, and talked more about Robert Chambers' eerie King In Yellow. These books were some of the best things ever written for the Call of Cthulhu RPG.

Now, it isn't a secret that the once and former Chaosium wasn't a paragon of professionalism. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that when we fast forward to today that the people who have been publishing Delta Green material all these years might want to be able to have more control over their game and what they publish, and not be at the whims of Chaosium's nature. Note that this is just conjecture, and not based on anything that the people at Pagan Publishing/Arc Dream Publishing have ever said, but knowing the hole that the previous Chaosium had dug for itself, it honestly wouldn't surprise me.

This isn't the first crowdfunded Delta Green book (I have two books that they put out before Kickstarter existed), and I doubt that it will be the last. However, if you are a fan of any of the things that I have talked about in this post, you really should get out there and support the Delta Green Kickstarter. These people have consistently done some of the best Lovecraftian RPG material on the market, and with your help they will keep on doing it.

Talking Stormbringer

Recently I came into some stuff for the early editions of Chaosium's Stormbringer game. This fills a hole in what I actually do collect in gaming because, even though Michael Moorcock is one of the few fantasy writers whose work I enjoy, because I never really liked the early editions of the game. What I wish that I could tell my younger self is that a game can still be good, even if it doesn't fulfill what it is trying to do.

I'm sure that's a confusing sentiment. Hopefully, I will make it clearer as I put this post together.

I picked up on the second edition of Stormbringer, and the supplement/stand alone game (don't ask, it was the 80s) Hawkmoon, both adapted from the works of British fantasist Michael Moorcock, when a friend brought them to college with him. I was already familiar with Chaosium's horror game Call of Cthulhu, because I had picked up one of the boxed sets while I was in college, and I had a passing familiarity with Runequest at this point, but Stormbringer was new to me. I borrowed the two boxed sets that he had in his dorm room and read them (each game is probably less than 100 pages of text, so this wasn't that hard). My diagnosis? I hated the game. I felt that, despite being a well made game, it did a bad job of simulating Moorcock's works, and because of that I wasn't interested in the game. I wouldn't come back to the game until the Elric! edition (probably closest to being a 4.5 edition of the rules) a number of years later.

While I still think that the first few editions of the game aren't very good at simulating Moorcock's works, I do think that Stormbringer (talking the first through third editions) is probably one of the best dark fantasy games, perhaps second only to first edition Warhammer) that the RPG "business" has managed to produce.

I admit that I have never really been a huge fan of the Dungeons & Dragons stream of fantasy role-playing games. Class and level based games just don't get me as interested, which is why I am more interested in the games that Chaosium has produced over the years. I love dark fantasy. Whether we're talking about Moorcock or Smith or Howard or any number of other writers in the genre, that kind of fantasy gets me a lot more interested than the works of Tolkien or his imitators. This is why I regret missing out on Stormbringer for so many years.

Really, we have two "streams" of Stormbringer. I don't want to call them editions (since there were in fact five or so editions of the game), but there was definitely a philosophical shift in the game between the third edition (produced by Chaosium in conjunction with Games Workshop...which would inspire the creation of their house game Warhammer) and the fourth edition. While the game did move closer to the source material with the fourth edition, it also managed to somehow become more generic at the same time. I'm not really sure how that happened. For the rest of this post, I'll refer to the first three editions as Early Stormbringer and 4th, Elric! and 5th edition as Later Stormbringer. There's no real judgment in this split, it just seems the best way to break up the conversation.

Why do I think that Early Stormbringer is such a great dark fantasy game? Where other RPGs had magic-users who could throw fireballs, Early Stormbringer would have your sorcerer character summon and bind a fire elemental to their will and then compel it to throw fire at your opponents (or perhaps you could even throw an elemental at people, even though this would be a wasteful use of an elemental). This flavor difference alone makes for a whole new gaming "ballgame." In the Later Stormbringer, this was diluted by the addition of spells with more traditional effects.

"Classes" in the game aren't really classes in the sense of D&D, and they aren't yet quite the Professions or Occupations that we will find later in other Basic Roleplaying Games, either. They are a cluster of skills and bonuses to skills that make character generation go quicker. When you have a class-based game and you want a "Fighter," you just pick the appropriate class, roll up some attributes and go. In games like Runequest this process can take longer because you have to pick out all of the relevant skills and everything else. Stormbringer shortened this process with their classes. Combined with random determination, it might actually make Early Stormbringer characters as fast to make as an early edition D&D character. And considering how fragile characters could be in either game, fast character generation could be important.

As often as not in the early days of gaming, I think that Ken St. Andre and Steve Perrin accidentally created a game that was so much better than the one that they intended to create. For example, Stormbringer characters were much more "heroic" than early edition D&D characters, without being the "super-heroes" that a lot of old school gamers disdain. I like a "heroic" character much more than I like the zero-to-hero approach. I want to play Conan or Elric. I don't want to play the guy who is going to be Conan or Elric.

I think that much of the stripped down and quicker approach of the rules owes itself to the design sensibilities of St. Andre. His Tunnels & Trolls rules were the definition of stripped down, in an era when even D&D didn't have a lot of rules. His approach to gaming is to keep things simple. Combined with the sensibilities that would bridge between how D&D was played and how Runequest would be formulated (Perrin came up with the highly influential and widely adopted D&D house rules known as the Perrin Conventions that would inform the creation of the Runequest rules), Stormbringer is a tight little example of how a game can be simple while still being a highly robust engine.

If I had to state a preference between Early Stormbringer and Later Stormbringer, it would probably have to be for Early Stormbringer. The simplicity, the ingenuity and the robustness of the design all combine in a game that hits a sweet spot for me. The best part is that the fact that, for me, it didn't do a good job at simulating Moorcock's work just means that it all that much better of a game to use for a variety of campaigns that I would like. I wish that I could go back and tell my younger self to get over it and play the damn game. This way I would have decades of fun with this game behind me, and I probably would have spent a lot less time looking for "the right game" for my fantasy needs. Luckily, that isn't a worry anymore.

I think that I want to add a Red Sonja game using Early Stormbringer to my gaming bucket list now.

If you're interested in a "clone" of Later Stormbringer (the Elric! version and 5th edition), be sure to check out Chaosium's excellent Magic World game. This is (basically) Stormbringer 5e with the specific Moorock-related IP stripped out, leaving behind a really good set of fantasy rules. Unfortunately no "clone" of the earlier, more rollicking, editions of Stormbringer yet exists. Stormbringer also still exerts an influence on contemporary role-playing games. The seminal indie game Sorcerer by Ron Edwards shows an influence of the demon summoning from Stormbringer in its own demon summoning rules.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Necronomicon FL Schedule

Amidst all of the hustle and buzz of the moving and the house selling, I am emerging from my cave for a few days to attend Necronomicon in Tampa on October 9th & 10th. My availability will be limited, so if you want to meet up, or play a game, contact me in advance so that we can work something out.

Here's my schedule for the con:

2:00:00 PM
White Ibis South
High SF
10:00:00 AM
SHC South
How to Get Started Publishing Games
11:00:00 AM
SHC South
What Makes a Game Fun
12:00:00 PM
SHC South
What's New in Gaming
5:00:00 PM
Audubon C
Space Opera Then/Military SF Now

I'll be hosting the Space Opera Then/Military SF Now panel, so my expertise isn't as important to that. The block of gaming panels will likely be entertaining, as least I hope so. If anyone wants to meet for a late lunch or some gaming midday on Saturday, get in touch.

The convention will be at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, on Bayport Drive.

Hopefully I will see some familiar faces.