Monday, July 14, 2008

[comics] Justice Society of America: Drastically lame atheism portrayal

Justice Society of America #17, page 12, written by Geoff Johns and drawn by Fernando Pasarin
Right, so this is from Justice Society of America #17 (written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Fernando Pasarin). And I'm really digging the current JSA storyline; it's about this giant, god-like entity called "Gog" who's walking across Africa performing miracles and being awesome to people, while the superheroes all hang around wait for the other shoe to drop. I'm hoping against my own judgment that they've got a more interesting resolution planned than "Ha ha ha! Now the people worship me and I will conquer the world!", but it's definitely a cool ride at the moment.

But, damn, this scene between Michael "Mister Terrific" Holt and Pieter "Doctor Mid-Nite" Cross is just cringe-worthy. I think the setup hear is that the blatantly god-like Gog didn't respond to the atheist Mister Terrific's attempts to communicate. Now, I'm gonna ignore how deeply bizarre it is for anyone to be an atheist in the DC universe when they've got actual damn angels flying around in public as members of super teams, but the way they're portraying Holt's atheism here pretty grating.

They've got him saying "I don't have faith in God because I don't want to." in one panel, and "I wish I had faith . . . I wish I believed in this with all my heart." in the next. I'm not alone in seeing a contradiction here, am I? Was there a word omitted from that first line, maybe? Like "lack"?

And they end with Holt angsting about how he can't "understand" spirituality. Shit, man, he was just wishing he believed he'd see his dead wife again in the panel before that! I'd say that's about all you need to understand.

Maybe I'm expecting the wrong kind of belief system from a world where "atheist" kind of can't mean the same thing it does to me. And I'm almost certainly expecting too much depth and logical consistency from a character who runs around with the words "FAIR PLAY" written on his sleeve. But, damn, this scene just rubs me the wrong way.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Planet of War

My last post was about a setting inspired by William S. Burroughs. Today, I've got a setting inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is purely coincidence.

Planet of War

The gimmick here is a pulpy, sword-and-planet version of Mars, amped up to God of War or 300 levels of crazy, over-the-top violence. Major trappings would be taken from the various occult correspondences new agey types associate with the planet: war, iron, blood, fire, strength, wrath, vengeance, competition, that kind of thing. I'd also make shameless use of the usual pulp Mars tropes: It's an ancient, fallen world, a desert dotted by the ruins of more noble and advanced civilizations.

  • hot, arid environment, warmed more by underground fires than the sun
  • dry canals, ruins, fossilized vegetation, the dust of dead seas
  • subterranean water reservoirs
  • civilization generally in its iron age
  • planet, conveniently, is loaded with iron
  • lots of other fun, weird, powerful fantasy McGuffin materials, both naturally occurring and created through alchemy (not above Herculoids-style "energy rocks", here)
  • primitive guns, along the lines of carryable cannons
  • crazy alchemical weapons, like swords that burn when exposed to the air, and hammers that generate a jolt of electricity on impact
  • low gravity, so jumping really far is a major element of locomotion, and very crazy architecture is possible
  • lots of huge, dangerous fauna (possibly unnatural), including beasts bred and armored (and alchemically mutated?) for battle
  • warring empires, rival clans, blood debts, ancient enmities

Naturally, a Burroughs-style take on Mars necessitates multiple races of Martians. And, of course, that's also the kind of thing that's a lot of fun in RPGs. It seems a little unlikely for a whole mess of sapient species to emerge independently, though, so I'm gonna say my Martians are all technically one species divided into several wildly divergent bloodlines, possibly through some millennia-long eugenics program in the planet's forgotten past.

Iron Tribe
  • sense and generate magnetic fields (powerfully enough, in many cases, to deflect sword blows)
  • consume raw metal ores and refine them in their bodies
  • hairless, dark gray skin, made shiny and tough by iron content
  • can encode and read information in the magnetic fields of small bits of ferrous metal
  • more vulnerable to non-ferrous weapons (and, for the same reason, often carry at least one non-ferrous weapon for use against their own kind)
  • tend to wear armor made of brass, as it doesn't interfere with their magnetic capabilities
  • known for aloof and superior demeanor when dealing with other tribes, consider personal honor paramount
  • currently a powerful force on Mars, and sometimes claimed to be the tribe that dominated the planet's lost Golden Age

Stone Tribe
  • large, powerfully built
  • tough skin, which thickens to plate-like carapace on back, shoulders, other areas
  • yellow-orange-brown coloration, tusks, blunt features, stiff manes of hair
  • great craftsmen of sturdy, solid stone and metal constructions, such as buildings and simpler weapons, also known as sculptors
  • highly traditional, formalized culture, where uncontrolled emotion is looked down on
  • little political ambition; willing to work as soldiers or craftsmen for other groups without any qualms
  • great respect for scholarship and history
  • hold particularly stable territories, where they are responsible for much of the world's agriculture

Sand Tribe
  • like smaller cousins to the Stone Tribe
  • tough skin, but no carapace, agile rather than powerful
  • pink-red-brown range of coloration, no tusks, short tails
  • incredibly sharp senses, and able to absorb and process a massive amount of detailed information at once, good memory
  • traditionally nomadic, living in caravans that chase good weather and good hunting, with some permanent encampments in reclaimed ruins
  • adaptable, pragmatic, fall easily into any cultural niche, but rarely found in any position of power over other tribes
  • known as ingenious scavengers, even thieves, unrestrained by personal dignity or moral compunctions
  • associate easily with other tribes, and always eager to trade
  • skilled at riding, and breeding beasts for war, convenience, or consumption

Wind Tribe
  • small, lightly-built
  • using powerful legs and tails, able to jump great distances
  • extrude temporary gliding membranes from their backs, like sheets of spider silk
  • natural skin color is a soft brown, but somewhat able to change color to match environment
  • armed with small claws, better for climbing than fighting
  • tend to wear loose, neutral-colored, abbreviated clothing, to avoid impeding gliding membranes and camouflage ability
  • traditionally live in high, difficult-to-reach areas, separate from more integrated Martian societies
  • work as messengers, spies, and assassins in integrated societies
  • paint faces and bodies as a sign of security, power, and honesty ("I don't have to be able to hide.")
  • deadly ambushers, prefer poisoned javelins hurled silently from great heights, en masse

Smoke Tribe
  • tough, deep red, somewhat scaly skin
  • resistant to heat, poison, and disease
  • decent night vision, and typically live in caves and subterranean settlements, frequently in close proximity to the fire caverns which heat the planet's surface
  • mine and refine much of Martian society's exotic alchemical materials, and are known as the planet's greatest gunsmiths
  • not especially light-sensitive, but tend to be nocturnal for the advantage their night vision gives them
  • typically wear dark, thick, concealing clothing
  • ambitious, often at odds with the Iron and Water Tribes

Water Tribe
  • fully amphibious, as effective underwater as on land
  • pale, pinkish, slick-skinned, hairless, adorned with elaborate fins and crests
  • very powerful night vision, somewhat vulnerable to direct sunlight
  • low-level magnetic sense, a much weaker version of the Iron Tribe's ability
  • almost strictly subterranean, controlling most of the Martian water supply, as well as having underground farms and access to precious gems
  • powerful force on Mars, limited by their aversion to the light and dryness of the surface, often acting through hired servants and mercenaries from other tribes
  • ancient rivalry with the Smoke Tribe, who also seek to control the deep places of Mars
  • holders of some of the Golden Age's lost secrets, particularly medical and biological sciences

The various tribes traditionally (since the end of the Golden Age, anyway) live apart, but come together in some of the few powerful, cosmopolitan cities, and in bandit nations made up of the exiled refuse of other settlements. They're capable of interbreeding, but attraction between tribes is uncommon. Also, hybrid children tend to lack either of their parents' strengths (although they do sometimes display some wholly their own).

The sort of plots I'd run a Planet of War game with would be straight out of Conan and Greek myth: clashes of civilization and savagery, the disputes of powerful families played out between nations, ancient secrets misused, settlements menaced by monsters and bandits, and so on. I'd want to do both violence and intrigue, so ideally all characters would be capable in a fight and also have a bunch of stuff they can do outside combat.

I'm not entirely sure what system I'd use. Exalted seems like it could easily be perfect, but I've never used it myself. Same story with Feng Shui. Naturally, I really dig the idea of using Spirit of the Century, and that's definitely an option. SotC is crazy-ass-stunt-friendly, it would save me the hassle of actually coming up with stats for all the different tribes, and Mike Olson's Spirit of the Sword hack would be a great resource for the sword-and-sorcery stuff. Of course, if I do feel like doing crunchy work, some flavor of D&D could work nicely. Planet of War would be a nice way to experiment with 4e, at last (although, honestly, I should probably run 4e straight before I start messing with it).

Man, I am digging this whole idea. I don't know if I'll ever end up doing anything with it, but I'll definitely add it to the pile for future reference.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Edge City

As always, I've been thinking about campaign settings. I'm kicking around ideas for two, at the moment, but the first one isn't exactly new.

Edge City

I'd originally thought of this setting as being some kind of vague real-world-but-exaggerated bit. Some kind of William S. Burroughs supernatural elements / magical realism was part of the plan, but I didn't really know where I intended to go with it. Now I'm reading Naked Lunch, though, so I've got some new ideas.

First of all, Interzone--the otherworldly omni-city of Naked Lunch--is a blatantly, obviously awesome setting for a roleplaying game. Get a load of how Burroughs describes it.

The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian -- races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body.


The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market.

Minarets, palms, mountains, jungle... A sluggish river jumping with vicious fish, vast weed-grown parks where boys lie in the grass, play cryptic games, Not a locked door in the City. Anyone comes into your room at any time.


All houses in the City are joined. Houses of sod -- high mountain Mongols blink in smokey doorways -- houses of bamboo and teak, houses of adobe, stone and red brick, South Pacific and Maori houses, houses in trees and river boats, wood houses one hundred feet long sheltering entire tribes, houses of boxes and corrugated iron where old men sit in rotten rags cooking down canned heat, great rusty iron racks rising two hundred feet in the air from swamps and rubbish with perilous partitions built on multi-levelled platforms, and hammocks swinging over the void.

Expeditions leave for unknown places with unknown purposes. Strangers arrive on rafts of old packing crates tied together with rotten rope, they stagger in out of the jungle their eyes swollen shut from insect bites, they come down the mountain trails on cracked bleeding feet through the dusty windy outskirts of the city, where people defecate in rows along adobe walls and vultures fight over fish heads.


In the City Market is the Meet Cafe. Followers of obsolete, unthinkable trades doodling in Etruscan, addicts of drugs not yet synthesized, pushers of souped-up Harmaline, junk reduced to pure habit offering precarious vegetable serenity, liquids to induce Latah, Tithonian longevity serums, black marketeers of World War III, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit, investigators of infractions denounced by bland paranoid chess players, servers of fragmentary warrants taken down in hebephrenic shorthand charging unspeakable mutilations of the spirit, bureaucrats of spectral departments, officials of unconstituted police states, a Lesbian dwarf who has perfected operation Bangutot, the lung erection that strangles a sleeping enemy, sellers of orgone tanks and relaxing machines, brokers of exquisite dreams and memories tested on the sensitized cells of junk sickness and bartered for raw materials of the will, doctors skilled in the treatment of diseases dormant in the black dust of ruined cities, gathering virulence in the white blood of eyeless worms feeling slowly to the surface and the human host, maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war.... A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum... Larval entities waiting for a Live One...

I could definitely work with this. Or something like this. The idea of a city outside the normal world--one which is the apotheosis of all cities, where all things and all peoples can be found--sounds extremely fun and game-friendly.

First of all, it's about time I actually defined Edge City itself. It wouldn't be my Interzone ripoff, but instead a relatively normal city on Earth. Specifically, it'd be something like a little New York located on the American West Coast, a jumped-up suburb near L.A., reborn in the 1950s after a vast crack opened up in the earth, swallowing up a quarter of the town and cutting the rest off from easy access. The remains of the settlement--popularly renamed "Edge City"--went a little weird after that, developing an odd, insular culture of its own through its partial isolation . . . and constant exposure to the influence of that great rift in the Earth.

The earthquake, of course, wasn't wholly geological in nature. It was largely the result of an intermittent dimensional weak spot which opened up at a fault line at exactly the wrong time, dumping thousands of tons of bedrock and several square miles of American city into a ragged, spacially-convoluted continuum between worlds. Haven't got a good name for it, really, so I'm just calling it "the Between" at the moment. I'm picturing it as an endless, cluttered gulf of psychedelic sky, with a breathable atmosphere and something of a do-it-yourself gravity situation.

The indigenous life of the Between tends to look like abyssal and prehistoric sea life, often with strong tendencies towards infectious, parasitic, mutational, and addictive qualities (all very Burroughs, of course). In some places, it mirrors Earth life forms in ways that suggest the Between doesn't follow the familiar processes of evolution or inheritance.

Different regions of the Between are "closer" to different worlds, so stuff that falls through from Earth tends to end up in the same general area. And this is where the Interzone shtick comes in. People from (and pieces of) Earth have been finding their way to the Between one way or another throughout all of history, and they've come together as a sort of composite city, a drifting cluster of broken landmass, linked by ropes and chains and iron rods, all encrusted by architecture in every conceivable style, some it it reclaimed from terrestrial wreckage, and some of newly built in the Between out of alien materials. I'm not sure what to call this city--Croatoan? Limbo? Gateway? The Tatters?--but I do know that getting a chunk of (what later became) Edge City added to its bulk half a century ago had a significant impact on its culture. Along with that slice of 1950s urban/sub-urban landscape, it also got a number of armed and experienced 1950s gangsters. They became a powerful new political faction in the Between, and introduced a new kind of drive and organization to its inhabitants.

The old mob from the '50s has since fragmented and mutated, inevitably being changed by the Between as much as they changed the Tatters (or whatever). Now there are Maoris and Germans and weird, semi-translucent fish-things all wearing pinstripe suits and fedoras, wielding tommyguns and smuggling goods from a hundred different worlds. Some of the old guys are still alive, sustained by alien drugs, but they're looking less human than the fish-things, these days.

And they don't just confine their operations to the Between. It's actually easier to get back to Earth than it is to get to other free-floating islands. So various types of shady individuals from the Tatters tend to come through to Edge City--via the Crack, of course--from time to time, creating in a cross-dimensional black market in alien drugs and weapons, and some very, very strange pornography.

...So the angle I want to work in Edge City itself comes from some of the elements of Jack Kirby's Intergang, along with some episodes of Angel, and Torchwood. Oh, and Unknown Armies, of course. Basically, the whole otherworldly underworld bit, where there's this large, weird, hidden subculture fighting amongst themselves for power and profit, all without the world at large ever knowing.

One complicating element might be the fact that matter from the Between isn't quite the same as matter from proper dimensions. In places like Earth's universe, it just doesn't last. So humans who've lived in the Between for a while, subsisting on food made out of local matter, tend to have trouble if they return to Earth for too long. Those born in the Between have it even rougher. And native life forms, of course, have the most trouble outside of the Between, having a tendency to simply dissolve within hours or days if they can't consume and metabolize a great deal of local matter very quickly.

Just how one gets to the Between and back is something I'd have to figure out, of course. The Crack at Edge City started off as a minor contact point which became much more significant when the earthquake dumped a huge amount of mass through it. I like the idea of heavy or prolonged usage making gateways more reliable, and also frequent passage making crossing over easier for a given individual. Maybe if you've been across often enough, you don't even need to find an existing gateway, but instead can just push through by yourself. Also, maybe consuming food (or, of course, drugs) from the Between makes it possible to find or make gateways, or to see otherwise-invisible alien artifacts. There's a bit in Naked Lunch about "Black Meat, flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede", traffickers in which "exhibit paralyzed crustaceans in camouflage pockets of the Plaza visible only to the Meat Eaters". For Burroughs, it's obviously a big junky subculture metaphor, but I really love it as a sci-fi concept.

Okay, this post is already too long, and I haven't even gotten around to discussing the other idea I've been toying with. I'll try and post about that soon.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Wordle, William S. Burroughs

So there's this awesome, pointless little Web toy I've been screwing around with a little bit: Wordle. Found it through Rob Donoghue's blog a while ago, and I think a lot of folks have probably seen it, by now. Still, I have to talk it up now because I just found some fun text to material into it: the full text of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.

Click for bigger, of course.

So, what Wordle does is take a pile of text and count up occurrences of each word. Then it assembles a big cloud of those words, making the more common words larger. The great big "like" in the middle of this cloud is the result of Burroughs' love of similes such as the following:

"like an obscene, festering mouth"
"like an Aztec Earth Goddess"
"like a great black wind through the bones"
"like a gorged boa constrictor"
"like a picture moving in and out of focus"
"like a old rotten cantaloupe"
"like music down a windy street"
"like an invisible blue blow torch of orgones"
"like death in the throat"
"like an Eskimo in heat"
"like an overloaded thinking machine"

I'm digging on Burroughs all over again, lately. I've got an audio version of Naked Lunch I've been listening to, but the damn thing's abridged. It's also read by the man himself, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. So, for the sake of completeness and clarity, I've also been following along on a text version I found on some Hungarian website.

And, man, Interzone is such a roleplaying game setting. I've been thinking a lot about what I could do with it, or with some bastardized, RPGed-up version of it.