Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dorkland! Roundtable with Brandon Blackmoor

The creator of Legacy: War of Ages and the upcoming super-hero RPG Bulletproof Blues, talked with me about his past as a gamer and designer with me on the final Dorkland! Roundtable for 2012. We also talked about his job at OneBookShelf, the owners of DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, and the last 15 minutes or so gives some interesting reveals to OneBookShelf's next gaming-related venture.

Happy New Year, everyone. This will most likely be the last post I make for 2012 (unless something utterly amazing happens suddenly). Next month is 2013, and more importantly it marks the 10th anniversary of the Dorkland! Blog (even though I have been a blogger for slightly longer than that). I am hoping to have some special stuff in the upcoming year, to mark what is a pretty significant anniversary in blogging. I would like to do some giveaways over the next few months, and maybe visit some more conventions than normal to celebrate.

It has been an interesting time. Ten more years, maybe?

Troll Lord Games' Amazing Adventures

If you like the pulps, and I know I do, then this just might be the role-playing game that you have been looking for. I'm going to get this out of the way right from the get-go, Jason Vey is an (dare I say it?) amazing designer. If you haven't seen his work on the Unisystem stuff from Eden Studios, or his own retroclone Spellcraft & Swordplay, you are surely missing out.

If you're not familiar with the heroic pulps of the 30s and 40s, they were a precursor to comic books that featured crime-fighting men and women who became embroiled in global whirlwind adventures. Some of the best known of the characters from the heroic pulps would be Doc Savage, The Avenger, The Spider and The Shadow. Other famous literary precursors to the pulp traditions could be characters like Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Nick Carter or the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. More modern neo-pulp characters could be ones like Indiana Jones, Buckaroo Banzai or even someone like Jack Burton. Big, bold, larger than life characters against a backdrop that is just as large, and as dangerous, as they are.

Valiant Preview: Shadowman #3 Explores the Depths of Deadside

I haven't shown a Valiant Comics preview in a while, so I thought that I would go with Shadowman #3. The "old" Shadowman had some cool stuff to it, particularly in the revamped version by Garth Ennis, that it looks like this run is borrowing from. I think there's some cool stuff to be found, particularly for gamers in this preview.

The Stuff From Valiant
Valiant is proud to present an advance preview of Shadowman #3 by acclaimed creators Justin Jordan (The Legacy of Luther Strode) and Patrick Zircher (Captain America, Hulk)! Shadowman's first clash with the minions of Master Darque is about to cross the border between worlds and spill into the terrifying way station between our reality and the next… Welcome to the uncanny dominion known as Deadside!
Trapped in the Deadside with no hope of rescue, Jack Boniface is on the run from the otherworldly horrors that dwell there. Meanwhile, his new friends and allies are at the mercy of Mr. Twist, whose plan to restore Master Darque is very nearly complete. But Jack is about to find help from some very strange and very unexpected sources… Could a light from Jack's past could still be shining in the depths of the Deadside's darkness?
On January 9th, the true scope of Shadowman's role in the Valiant Universe will stand revealed as Jack Boniface confronts the source of the unassailable evil that plagues his city, only in Shadowman #3 – in stores the same day as the Shadowman #1 Zircher Second Printing Sketch Variant! Find out here why Shadowman is the sold-out series that Fangoria calls "a fantastic continuation of an already strong superhero legacy."
Art & Cover by PATRICK ZIRCHER (NOV121340)
Variant Cover by DAVE JOHNSON (NOV121341)
$3.99/T+/32 pgs.
Art & Cover by PATRICK ZIRCHER (OCT128368)
$3.99/T+/32 pgs.
The Preview Art

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Howard Chaykin and David Tischman's Bite Club

It is probably easy to figure out, if you have been reading this blog for a while, that I am a fan of Howard Chaykin. Yes, he's done his share of clunkers, like pretty much any creator but when he is on, he is capable of telling some very cool stories. One of the times that he was on was 2004's Bite Club, through Vertigo. Chaykin and Tischman also collaborated on the American Century mini-series for Vertigo, but that one was not as interesting for me.

David Hahn's art brings a lot to the table with this comic, and it was as much of a selling point when I bought it as was Chaykin's name on the cover. Hahn has a clean, illustrative style that is almost a counterpoint to the noirish crime story that Chaykin and Tischman are telling in this comic. His art is very reminiscent of Jamie McKelvie's art, of which I am also a big fan (as readers of this blog will also probably know). Hahn has also done art for arcs of Fables and Lucifer for Vertigo.

Bite Club is a story about vampires, family, organized crime and Miami. Any of those are enough to make any story complicated. The story starts with the murder of Eduardo Del Toro, and his being thrown from a Miami high-rise. This brings prodigal son Leto, America's first ordained vampire Catholic priest, back home to deal with the death and his family. Conflicts start almost immediately with Leto's sister Risa and mother Arabella. Leto is given control over the family's businesses by his father's will, setting the conflict against his life as a priest with that of the head of a criminal organization.

One of the primary money makers for the Del Toro family is a drug called Phantasmagoria, a synthetic drug that is like crystal meth for vampires.

A lot goes on in this six issue mini-series, without the book coming across as cluttered. It sold well enough to spawn a second mini-series, so I must not have been the only fan. Chaykin and Tischman bring a lot of plot threads together in this: from the murder of Eduardo to the return of Leto's last girl friend before the priesthood to the conflicting loyalties of family and church in Leto's head to Risa's jealousies and less that pure feelings towards her younger brother. All of these balls, and a few others, are kept in the air with a deft touch by the writers. This story is so much more than the buzz words of saying this comic is True Blood meets The Sopranos. Despite their being vampires and murderous criminals, Chaykin and Tischman create a cast of characters that you care about and are interested in seeing what they do next.

The ending is a bit of a shocker. I won't give it away but I will say that just as Leto figures out who he wants to be and what he wants to do with his "life," it is taken away from him, in proper noir style. This isn't a comic for the faint of heart, or those who are easily offended. It is not an all ages comic. There is murder, gratuitous bloodshed, violence, interesting and unique sexual activities (to those who have mainstream attitudes towards sex), a touch of an incestuous relationship between the brother and sister, a lot of nudity and drug use. Like I said, not for everyone. Of course, I would probably be disappointed with a vampire story that didn't have at least some of the items off of that list in it.

Is it worth picking up for yourself? Definitely. This is a vampire story that does not revel in the cliches of the genre, nor does it try to be "ground breaking" by violating those cliches in a stupid way. The characters of the story are well-realized and have motivations that drive themselves and the plot of the story. I own this in a smaller than comic-sized format that packaged all six issues for $10. It is worth that price, and more. This is a comic that I find myself re-reading whenever it happens to catch my eye on the book shelf.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dynamite Comics' Masks 1 + 2

This is one of those comics that should come as a no-brainer for me. The Shadow. The Spider. The Green Hornet and Kato. Chris Roberson writing a neo-pulp story based around these characters and set in the classic pulp era of the late 1930s.

Masks is an eight issue mini-series from Dynamite Entertainment that teams up their licensed pulp characters: The Shadow, The Spider, The Green Hornet and Zorro (Zorro in the 1930s?) with golden age heroes like The Black Terror, Green Lama and Miss Fury. This is a recipe for success...or great failure. I'm hoping for success.

Roberson's story is based around the classic Empire State stories from The Spider Magazine, three novel-length interlinked adventures from 1928. The Empire State stories were a thinly veiled analogy of Nazism, and how it could take root in the United States. Historically, these stories are interesting because they are some of the few pulp stories to tackle the evils of Nazis. In a nutshell, the original plot of the Empire State stories was that a cabal of criminals and corrupt politicians were able to push laws into effect and voted their Justice Party into power in the state of New York. Eventually this Justice Party took over the state and, using their Black Police were able to strong arm everyone into following them. Of course one man stood up to them, The Spider, and led a revolution against their oppression.

Chris Roberson takes the seeds of the Empire State stories, having the Justice Party rise to power in this shared universe of pulp and comic book hero greats. Now, instead of just The Spider fighting against the Justice Party and its Black Legions, a team of great heroes rise up to fight against these villains. Despite the Empire State stories predating it by decades, this story so far reminds me of The Dark Knight Rises, but maybe that is just because I finally watched the movie recently. The parallels are there: criminals and terrorists take over the city in an apocalyptic manner, rout the police forces and institute a near lawless regime where their words are taken as law. I think that these similarities come from the long lasting influence of the pulps on the comic books of today, and their cinematic offshoots.

Unfortunately, the story of these two issues is a bit disjointed. I honestly expected better from Roberson, after his work at DC Comics (I will admit that I haven't read any of his recent creator-owned works from Monkey Brain). These first two issues are a bit disjointed, and for a comic that is supposed to be only eight issues, I honestly expected more story in these comics. The first issue puts most of its efforts into building the connection between The Shadow and the Green Hornet, only to throw in The Spider in an almost random manner near the end of the issue. I am assuming that an Hispanic character introduced in passing in the first issue will eventually be revealed to be the pulp Zorro. To be honest, even though I love the character I think that his inclusion in this story seems to be a bit of a stretch, but I am hoping that Roberson pulls it off.

The art in these issues is a bit disjointed. Alex Ross does the first issue in his painted style, while the second issue is done by Dennis Calero. This is a bit disappointing. After Ross' great renditions of the characters in issue one (I love his Shadow and Lamont Cranston portrayals), seeing Calero's style in the second issue is jarring. Is that the secret origin of the Black Bat we are witnessing? For me, the art of the second issue was disappointing, mostly because in a mini-series I want to see a consistent art style throughout the book, and if you have to mix artists at least pick ones that have similar styles. Calero's style in the second issue does not appeal to me. It comes across as rushed and unfinished in places, particularly after the set up of Ross' photorealistic style in the first issue. However, Calero could very well just be suffering in comparison rather than due to the actual quality of his art.

I will stick with this book, because I think it has potential. I am looking forward to the re-re-introduction of the Green Lama and the Black Terror. I have loved these characters for a long time, and I really enjoyed their last use from Dynamite in the Project Superpowers books. I just hope that the characters aren't just abandoned this time around like they were before.

Overall, I liked these two issues despite the flaws.  Roberson's dialogue in the issues is superb and gives each of the characters their own unique voice. The story could have a faster pace, but that could be because I am comparing them to the source material, and Spider pulps were some of the fastest paced pulps written in the day. If these books suffer, it is not because of Roberson's writing on them. I do hope that the pace picks up a bit with the next issue, and they settle on a single artist for the rest of the story.

My main concern is that Masks is intended primarily as a world-building tool, much in the same vein as the First Wave comics that DC Comics put out, featuring Doc Savage, The Spirit, Batman and The Avenger. First Wave was a cool idea that ended up not living up to it's potential because I felt that the writer just didn't get writing characters like Doc Savage. Chris Roberson does not have this disadvantage. He gets these pulp characters and knows how to write them, clearly and with distinct voices. I just hope that he is allowed to write a story on its own merits, rather than one conceived to sell other merchandise and spin off new comics. Masks has the potential to be so much more than that, if the powers that be at Dynamite let it happen.

Below are some sample pages from the issues.  The first two pages are Ross' art from issue one and the next three are Calero's art from issue two. I think that the sample pages demonstrate the jarring differences between the issues, art-wise.

Do I recommend purchasing these comics? I will have to say that my answer is a qualified yes.  They are definitely worth checking out if you are a fan of the pulps, the neo-pulps or the golden age of comics. I would not suggest having too high of expectations from them, however. They make for a good yarn, but I am not entirely sold on their long term readability. I think that $3.99 an issue is asking a lot for the content you get, in places. I still have high hopes for Chris Roberson's capabilities as a writer to pull all of this together and deliver a stronger story than these issues have so far demonstrated. Hopefully, I won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Atlantis! An Old School Fantasy Role-Playing Game

Back a year or so ago, in the early days of my involvement with Google+, I started thinking about a game that was a hack of the Swords & Wizardry Whitebox rules. I called this game Atlantis!, and yes the exclamation point was intentional. I found an appropriate piece of art and the concept cover was born (you'll find the most recent version of that concept art at right).

I like the Whitebox rules for Swords & Wizardry. They are simple and to the point, streamlined and yet they give you plenty of options for playing a fantasy game. My only complaint is that there isn't a thief class, which is understandable since the original game that it is emulating didn't have one either, but it is easy enough to fix this.

I ran a Whitebox game for a while on G+ Hangouts, until we "upgraded" to the Core version of Swords & Wizardry. I have a lot of respect for what can be done with a very few rules in a game. I went through my period, like a lot of gamers I think, during the 90s when I wanted a lot of rules in my games, even when I didn't really use them. The rules were comforting in a way, letting us all know that thing were covered if we needed them to be. Nowadays, that style just isn't my thing. I've played this way for a while now, but I have definitely become much more comfortable with a "rulings, not rules" style of play over the last few years. There's a trust there that everyone at the table is there to have fun and not screw each other around that I kind of like again.

So, Atlantis!

Most of my Swords & Wizardry gaming has grown out of my enjoyment of a sort of pulp style of fantasy fiction: Moorcock, Carter, Leiber, and Howard forming a lot of my ideas for what fits into a fun fantasy role-playing game. This makes sense since it is the sorts of fantasy that the designers of D&D were reading as they played and created the game. It is a fun style of fantasy, heavy on action and magic (some of the times), and people living their lives large. Beautiful women used their charms to bewitch the heroic leads, almost always against the backdrop of a world of ancient, decaying graces that are giving away to a new age.

That is what I am looking at with this game. Atlantis is sort of like my analogue to Moorcock's Melnibone. Except where Melniboneans were cruel and inhuman monsters subjugating the world through terror and magic, the Atlanteans brought culture, society and order to the world. This sets the stage for the Law versus Chaos conflict in old school fantasy games, with a world where the premier civilization is in its twilight days, but the light has not yet gone out. A world where chaos and weird monsters are again peaking out from the shadowy corners of the world, those things that will take stalwart adventurers to hold back. The great cycle of the conflict between Law and Chaos turns, and the world is changing....but into what? That, of course is up to those bands of adventurers that are around the world, trying to hold back the night.

From the Far East, there are the blue-skinned Strangers, with their sky ship and their strange weapons, and stranger magics. Some have even seen that there are Strangers with more than one set of arms, even. There are disenfranchised Amazons, wandering the world and seeking to right the wrongs within this darkening world, and bring their strange Amazonian ideals of peace and love through strength to the rest of the world. Barbarians are everywhere, causing destruction and seeking the chaos that can be found in the world. There are still the Atlantean Sword Brothers and Sisters, some of the best warriors to be found in the world, selling or giving the swords and their bodies to keep the light of civilization from winking out completely. There is magic. There are monsters.

One thing that I find about an old school fantasy approach, particularly with older versions of D&D, is that they tend to be happening during the apocalyptic times, when things are going bad but there is still a chance for change. That is one of the things that influences Atlantis! in my mind. This is not some idyllic time. This is not an age after things have happened and people are trying to survive. This is the time of change, the time of battle, when strength of mind, of body, of will can make a difference to those who are willing to try to make a change in the world. And that, to me, is one of the things that makes RPGs so much fun. You can be that person who steps up and says "None shall pass!" and make that stand, whether or not the odds are in your favor. Hopefully, this will come through in the final version of Atlantis!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tomorrow People, Where Is Your Past?

The other day I pitched to my G+ Hangout group doing a Fate-based game for a bit, using the playtest files from the Fate Core Kickstarter. After I sent them all a message, I was nosing around YouTube when I found an old video from the British TV show from the 70s, The Tomorrow People.

This science fiction series featured a group of kids, and young adults, who were the next step in human evolution: Tomorrow People! The Tomorrow People had evolved mental powers (revolving around the powers of telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation). These Tomorrow People also had the genetic disposition towards non-violence, which meant that there wasn't a lot of fighting or big guns in the show. The most offensive that the Tomorrow People would get would be using stun guns at times.

This is sort of the seed of the game that I have pitched, with the characters being similar to Tomorrow People. The non-violent natures will make for interesting play as it will force the players to think outside of the box of how gaming traditionally deals with conflict, which is typically violence.

So, I am looking at a 70s style of science fiction, probably in a more contemporary setting. We will use the setting creation tools of Fate Core to fill in some of the blanks of this setting, starting from these seeds.

Also, David Bowie will probably seep into the mix as an influence as well.

We have some loose ends to tie up in the Swords & Wizardry game before we get to playing this, so we're not looking to start until middle or late January. It will be nice to shift gears for a bit and give a different type of gaming. It will be a good way to recharge the creative batteries.

Dorkland! Rountable with James Raggi

I spoke with James Raggi, of Lamentations of the Flame Princess (both the game and the company) about his history as a gamer, getting into game design and some of the differences between gaming "culture" in America and Finland.

Who knew that Finland considered internet access a basic human right? Anyway, there is some good stuff in here. I tried to dig around in some of his influences, both in fiction and in heavy metal music, to get at the root of the whys behind his creation of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess game, as well as his various adventures. His aesthetic is an interesting one, and it gets at the root of the differences between the approach of his game and some of the other retroclones out there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dorkland! Picks: Some Of My Music Favorites From 2012

Yeah, I've never really been a fan of "year's best" lists. They tend to be weighted heavily towards whatever has been on the commentator's CD player/turntable for the last few weeks or months, forgetting the stuff that might have come out earlier in the year. And when you have as big of a musical year as you did in 2012, there is a lot of stuff that can just disappear without knowing it. So, instead, I'm going to do a post about some of the albums that came out this past year that were my favorites (with an occasional nod to a single or two, and some non-traditional releases as well).

This isn't a "top" anything list, other than being some of the stuff that I enjoyed listening to over the last twelve months or so. They aren't listed in any particularly order, just how they pop out of my mind and how they showed up in my Winamp player.

I own a lot of music, in a lot of formats and in a lot of styles. Hopefully this list will reflect that. I will share links to some YouTube videos, where I can, for those of you who may not have heard all of the bands that I am going to talk about today. Strap yourselves in, folks, we are in for a bit of a bumpy ride.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Swords & Wizardry on G+

This past weekend a new "function" rolled out on Google Plus, called communities. Communities are sort of like forums, but in the same style and formatting as G+ proper. It is a nice functionality because it does away with some of the things that I hate about online forums and it allows you to interact with new people that you may not know, without having to leave the relative safety of your Google+ stream.

The Swords & Wizardry Discussion community sort of exploded (in a good way), but we are looking for more people to join in on the discussions. Matt Finch and various of the Frog God Games people are already active in the community, as well as some of your favorite Swords & Wizardry bloggers. Click on the image, and come join us.