Sunday, August 31, 2008

[comics] Avengers: The Initiative: Is that a jheri curl?

Ryder in 1995, by Steve Yeowell, from Skrull Kill Krew #1 Ryder in 2008, by Stefano Caselli, from Avengers: The Initiative #16

I really love that they brought back the Skrull Kill Krew for this whole Secret Invasion thing. And I dig the hell out of Stefano Caselli's art. And I do realize that this character is a shapeshifter.

...But, man, it's pretty lame that Ryder has apparently turned himself into a white dude.

Right, so the image on the left is from Ryder's initial appearance in Skrull Kill Krew #1. The image on the right is from his reappearance (after 13 years of limbo, far as I'm aware) in Avengers: The Initiative #16. And, to be perfectly fair, I don't really think Caselli actually intended to draw the character as a white guy. The dude is from Italy, and perhaps isn't quite as familiar with what dreadlocks look like as an American artist might be.

...And, hell, the dreadlocks / jheri curl confusion has long been a pitfall of some Marvel characters. I think Bishop is an example, although maybe his Rick James hair was totally intentional. Hell if I know. Terrible freakin look, either way.

[comics] Milestone characters joining the DC Universe

Yeah, I'm pretty excited about this. According to Newsarama, a few characters from the lamented 1990s comics imprint Milestone--specifically, Icon, Static, and the Shadow Cabinet, I think--will finally be brought back, this time as part of the DC Universe. I heard some theories about exactly this kind of thing happening, back around Milestone's demise in the late '90s. At the time, the idea kind of bugged me, since it had already been established in Milestone continuity that DC's heroes were known in the setting as comic book characters (which made that "Worlds Collide" crossover they did kind of weird), and I was a big continuity purist. Fortunately, I've gotten over caring much about that kind of thing, so I'm totally happy about this.

I think the fact that Milestone's beautiful experiment didn't work out back then kind of indicates that I should make a case for why this is awesome. Milestone, sadly, was written off as "DC's hip-hop imprint" by a lot of folks, and generally seen as just another line of superhero comics, except with black characters. The first problem with this perception is the idea that Milestone wasn't black-exclusive at all: The casts of its books were generally very diverse, both ethnically and sexually. The other problem with Milestone's image is that the characters' demographic checkboxes were never really the most important thing about the books: The big draw for me was the fact that they tended to have much smarter writing than the other superhero books of the era.

Of course, the writing and the characters are two completely separate components, so I can't really expect that ever DC writer who uses these characters will use them as well as their original books did. But, hell, they've got Dwayne McDuffie himself--creator of the Milestone line--leading the whole return. Also, I'm of the opinion that DC is a better company now than it was back then, anyway, so I'm pretty optimistic.

I am a Dungeon Master, and my wife is awesome

Right, so my wife is awesome. She's been commissioning comics about me being a really, really bad Dungeon Master from various cool webcomics people. I'm not really sure why she started doing this, but it is extremely cool of her. I want to make "Minus 10 horse points" my avatar / custom title on every RPG forum I frequent, now.

Anyway, the first comic is by John Campbell, who does the odd, quiet, and very funny Pictures for Sad Children. The second is by KC Green, who does Horribleville and a whole mess of other bizarre and hilarious comics. They are cool guys.

Absurdly, these actually make me want to start running a D&D game again. But then, hey, freakin everything makes me want to run or play some RPG or another. Now I gotta go figure out when my used-to-be-Tuesday-nights game crew can meet for Spirit of the Century, next. (Yeah, the game's been moving along nicely, even though I can't be arsed to post session summaries, lately.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Something Secret Steers Us

Right, so I've finally got time to type up the ideas I was talking about in my last post. For an appropriate--if obvious--soundtrack to this blog entry, click here.
Something Secret Steers Us
Something secret steers us. It calls us up in a dead, distorted monotone; it leaves us email that comes from no address; it whispers in the hiss of static and stray radio broadcasts on our headphones; it hides messages in the system code of our computers; it strobes words and images in the snow of old television screens. We can't understand much of what it says, but we know it wants something. Wants a lot of things. Sometimes it gives us names, sometimes strings of numbers we've managed to decode into dates and times. Sometimes it turns out that those people later do terrible things, and sometimes things--terrible or just strange--happen on those dates.

And sometimes--a lot of the time, really--it shows us how to build things. Most of us wouldn't know where to begin following its instructions, and a lot of us are afraid to try. But some of us have done it. One made something like an antenna that caused patterns and shapes to appear in dust and cigarette smoke. One modified a monitor so that it displayed strange diagrams, demonstrating more things we could build. One mixed up some kind of drug that turns the human body into a receiver for yet more messages. Bit by bit, it speaks to us louder and clearer, if we're willing to help it do so.

We're learning from it, even as it learns from us. Building new things. Some don't seem to do anything yet, but others are letting us fly. Walk through walls. See the other side of the earth. Talk to machines. Burn things by pointing at them. Some are changing us on the inside, letting it talk in our heads and rewrite our bodies' operating systems.

But we still don't know what it is.

For almost all of us, it started on the Internet. There were unexplained service outages in the beginning, even some rolling brown-outs. All over the world. And after that, weird glitches kept showing up. Only those of us who spent a lot of time online really saw much of it, and only those with a little knowhow could really recognize just how weird--even inexplicable!--these things really were. Meaningless images that somehow displayed at a higher resolution than desktop settings allowed. Echoing audio phenomena in the absence of any microphone. Destructive bugs that seemed to communicate from one site on to others that it merely linked to.

So some of us looked into it. Anonymously, on fast-turnover, auto-wiping boards, as was our habit. We found new traces, and posted them up for anyone who was looking at the time. Uncountable nobodies, sharing secrets no one else even knew to look for. And I think, as we did that, we started to attract its attention.

We've got a lot of theories, fueled by its own cryptic images and shreds of circumstantial evidence and a great deal of fevered imagination. Most of us think it's some kind of living or sapient computer program or energy pattern, beamed through space and caught by our communications satellites. Who knows from where or why. Maybe it's some deliberate attempt to contacting or invade Earth, or maybe it's just the result of some galactic-scale malfunction. I heard one theory that it's a naturally-evolved information entity born from some titanic alien internet, and the reason it's having so much difficulty expressing itself it just that it can't function properly in our limited and unfamiliar technology. Another idea, though, says that it's actually our Internet, gradually gaining self-awareness and beginning to stretch its limbs.

Some of us think that, whatever it is, it isn't alone inside our networks. The names and dates it gives us, the incidents they point to . . . they look like the work of the very technologies it's teaching us to build. But I think it wants us to kill those people before they use it. And we might not have a choice. Because I think, maybe, something else is telling those people to come after us.

Something secret steers us. And I think it's sending us to war.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Strange alchemies of ideas

I listen to a lot of soundtrack music, and some of my favorite stuff is from the various Half-Life games and expansions. Mostly created by Valve's own Kelly Bailey, it's some of the best music ever composed for a game. Really atmospheric work.

And, lately, I'd had the title of one of these tracks stuck in my head. Not the piece itself, but merely the title: "Something Secret Steers Us". It's just evocative as all hell, especially when paired with the music from all these Half-Life soundtracks. And, naturally, it's had me thinking about campaign settings.

At first, I just wanted something that would literally express that title. The idea was that the player characters would have some unseen--perhaps immaterial--allies or guiding force that would give them low-level superhuman abilities . . . as well as instructions as to what they should be used for. Voices in their head urging them to use their new power to walk through walls or turn invisible in some secret, bloody war . . . against other unseen forces, which also act through human intermediaries. Maybe these factionalized manipulators would be aliens, or sapient computer programs, or electrical ghosts, or higher-dimensional intelligences. The whole concept was just a vague scattering of theme, tone, and imagery. (And, of course, soundtrack.)

But today, somebody posted something on that just clicked. It was an idea about a setting where energy-based aliens are invading our world via the Internet. And, before I evenreally thought about it, I posted this reply about Anonymous and the /b/tards getting ahold of alien technologies before the rest of the world even knows something weird is happening.

Then I realized how these two ideas fit together.

More about this later.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

In a Wicked Age character sheets, etc.

So I finally bought a copy of Vincent Baker's extremely fascinating In a Wicked Age. It looks fun as all hell (yeah, I retract my previous statement about not digging the mechanics now that I've read them in Vincent's own words), and I really hope to get a chance to play it soon. However, I was surprised to see the game does not include any character sheets.

Now, John Harper has already designed some beautiful ones, but I really enjoy doing this stuff myself. Also, this let me make additional IaWA paraphernalia in the same style. And, I know it's kind of a cheesy move, but I thought the name "In a Wicked Age" just fit with the font Endor.

So, check 'em out.

In a Wicked Age major character sheet In a Wicked Age minor character sheet In a Wicked Age particular strength sheet In a Wicked Age story sheet In a Wicked Age owe list sheet

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Spirit of Cthulhu? Horror of the Century? Unspeakable Fate?

I've been listening to's excellent Horror on the Orient Express audio sessions, once again, and it's got me wondering once again about how to hack Spirit of the Century / the Fate system for Call of Cthulhu-style horror. On the face of it, the system is a very poor fit for the genre, seeing as the former is known for superhuman player characters and extended, less-than-lethal combat systems, while the latter generally expects a level of harshness that goes beyond "gritty". But I think it could work.

More to the point, I think it could be awesome. There are a lot of peculiarities to the Fate system that, if calibrated appropriately, should be able to produce a meaty, flavorful kind of brutality that would fit the Call of Cthulhu mind set better than the very oldschool BRP system.

Puny mortals

First and most obviously, the PC power level should be lower than the SotC standard. I'd go with "Good" quality PCs, meaning they'd each get a skill pyramid capped at the Good level (+3) and just 6 aspects.

I think I'd also scrap stunts completely, since that would further lower the PCs' power level and save a hell of a lot of time in character generation (which, after all, needs to be quick in a high-lethality horror game), but the upcoming Dresden Files RPG might include genre-appropriate stunts that'll change my mind. Anyway, if stunts are out, then I'd use some variation on the stuntless SotC variant rules to give aspects a bit more utility.

Another severe change I'm leaning towards would be to limit the fate point refresh to half the number of aspects, so PCs would start each session with only 3. Limiting players' narrative power is crucial to the genre, and it would also increase the importance of compels (and, therefore, encourage players to make more flawed characters than usual). However, I'd take some of the sting out this fate drought by letting PCs spend a "virtual" fate point if, in the course of the same action, they also take a consequence. That is, they have the option to take some physical or psychological sacrifice in order to give themselves better chances at success. After all, sacrifices (as a theme) and consequences (as a mechanic) are pure gold for horror games. More on that below.

A terrible price

...In fact, I'd say that consequences are so important that I'd remove stress tracks from Fate combat system all together. Yep, any shifts of damage inflicted on characters would either be converted into consequences or take them out of the fight (a variant originated, as far as I'm aware, by Colin Jessup for his Star Wars Fate hack).

Now, in order to make room for all these consequences the poor, brutalized characters will be collecting, I'd let physical and psychological consequences use separate slots, and extend the spectrum of potential survival harm one more level, as below:

  • Minor consequence - Covers up to 2 shifts of damage. Goes away as soon as the character gets a few minutes' respite. Things like "bruised", "winded", and "shaken" would be appropriate.

  • Major consequence - Covers up to 4 shifts of damage. Lasts until the character can get a serious rest--like a night's sleep--or some specific remedy is obtained. A physical major consequence like "bleeding" might be remedied by medical treatment, while an emotional one like "infuriated" or "humiliated" might require something like an apology from the party who inflicted the consequence. I think any remedy that doesn't require several hours of time ought to require some kind of skill check or story-based accomplishment.

  • Severe consequence - Covers up to 6 shifts of damage. These would, by default, last until the character has a chance to get days or even weeks of downtime, but might be reducible to major consequences by some kind of skilled treatment. Broken bones and real mental trauma would fit this category. Also, I might deviate from the SotC rules a little bit by saying that a character who takes a severe consequence is taken out, just not permanently, and not on the attacker's terms. So, in that way, it would work a little like a concession.

  • Extreme consequence - Covers up to 8 shifts of damage. This would cover permanent harm, things like lost limbs and lasting mental afflictions. Naturally, taking an extreme consequence would definitely include being taken out of the conflict, as above. And, what's more, it might mean the permanent loss of the character--to death, madness, or what have you--if they can't get help afterwards: If all the PCs are lying around in pieces with no one functional enough to so much as provide first aid, that's a total party kill. With time and treatment, however, extreme consequences become regular permanent aspects. (Clearing that extreme consequence slot for more hurt, of course. Just because your character's already lost an arm doesn't mean he can't lose an eye once he's back in action.)
(Originally, I was going to call the 8-shift consequences "critical", but I just learned that Dresden Files is already planned to use 8-shift "extreme" consequences to describe permanent harm. So, yoink!)

I'm a little bit torn as to whether or not the Endurance and Resolve skills should give characters in this system more consequence slots the way they give SotC characters more stress boxes. On one hand, I'd hate to devalue those skills, and the strategic question of whether to take a 4-shift hit as two minor consequences or one major one sounds like fun. On the other hand, I'm afraid it might make them--especially Resolve--too important. After all, Resolve is already rolled as an active defense against emotional and psychological attacks . . . and that's something a horror game should include a lot of.

Speaking of which...

A fate worse than death

Arguably, the defining element of the Call of Cthulhu gaming experience is the sanity check. Any system trying to emulate this genre absolutely needs to include something along those lines. And, believe it or not, I think Fate already has a system which can that kind of thing beautifully: our good friend "consequences". Just let sanity-threatening situations make a psychological "attack" on characters (which would naturally be resisted with a Resolve check). Any consequences a character suffers as a result of such an attack could be states of fear or nausea or confusion, or the kind of colorful temporary (and sometimes permanent!) insanities familiar from good old Call of Cthulhu.

And, of course, because the "death spiral" effect is also important, new shocks would get to tag the consequences inflicted by previous shocks. That is, if you're already shaken by the corpse you found in the street, you're all that much more likely to lose it completely when the thing gets up and lurches towards you.

I'm not entirely certain, however, if sanity threats should actually roll to attack, or if they should just have a static horror factor that characters have to roll against. I suppose it's a question of just how much randomness feels right in play (and how much dice-rolling you want to do).

I'm toying with the idea of letting very successful sanity checks create temporary aspects along the lines of "keeping cool", "ready for a little blood", or "facing the darkness". Like a kind of anti-consequences, these would show that the character is hardened or inured to certain shocks, and would be invokable for a Resolve check reroll or bonus when a similar situation comes up. They could even mirror consequences in their values and time limits. That is, getting 4 shifts on a successful sanity check would create a major anti-consequence (for lack of a better term) that would last the rest of the day. I could complicate matters further by having these things actually take up psychological consequence slots--so that they'd make you more likely to break more severely once something does manage to crack your defenses--but I fear they'd become a punishment for rolling well rather than a reward. Not too sure.

A desperate struggle

Other than the elimination of stress boxes, I'm only envisioning rather minor changes to the combat system.

Naturally, I'd have weapons grant bonus shifts of damage on a successful hit, as a whole lot of Fate mods do. I don't think I'd bother introducing any sort of armor rules (beyond the possibility for characters to invoke aspects like "bullet proof vest" or "squamous hide" on their defense rolls).

I'd like to replace Fists, Weapons, and Guns with simple Melee and Ranged skills. Melee might continue to be a defense skill--but only against melee attacks--while Ranged might only be for attacking, and dodging ranged attacks might only be done with Athletics. I worry this could be a bit too harsh, though, since PCs in this variant would have far fewer skills than SotC PCs.

I haven't really done any thinking about magic rules. There are a whole lot of Fate variants addressing that issue already, and even one specifically aimed at Call of Cthulhu-style magic, and I'm not sure it's really high priority to begin with.

At any rate, I don't expect to have a use for any of this system-noodling any time soon, but it'll be worth looking at again when I've got a copy of Starblazer Adventures or Dresden Files in my hands.