Thursday, July 22, 2010

Balancing Between Exalted and Wushu

I mentioned in a comment the other day that I was now doing some drudge work in writing Heroes of Industry; namely, writing of the powers descriptions.  That reminded me of what a delicate balancing act I'm doing on this project.  Truth & Justice proudly describes itself as designed with a "Do It Yourself" aesthetic.  In opposition to the HERO and Mutants & Masterminds design of page after page of detailed power or effect descriptions, T&J gives some general advice on powers, a rather idiosyncratic list of  power only a few pages in length, and a brilliant little system for stunting.  Which is great.  Well, I think the powers list is a little too idiosyncratic - no telekinesis, but two different attack powers distinguished by "Beam of (Something)" and "Bolt of (Something)" - but, still, all in all great. 

I think about a game like Exalted whose central appeal is "being awesome".  But what is weird to me about Exalted is that the mechanics are mostly centered around telling the players how they may be cool i.e. Charms lists.  Exalted is designed around the assumption that a player wants someone else to tell them how to be awesome. 

Exalted: Here's a Charm that lets you flip over and catch arrows between your toes!

Player: Awesome!  Oh, hey, can my prehensile digits grab onto tree-branches, too? 

Exalted: Well, no, you don't have that Charm; I've told you how to be awesome, don't try thinking up new stuff.

Absolutely opposed to that is the brilliant little game Wushu, which is designed entirely around the requirement for the player to tell everyone else in what way he is awesome.  I was once involved in an interesting debate at with an Exalted savant - a guy whose gaming reports and thoughts were indeed truly awesome; so much so that he almost made me want to play that game.  But what was fascinating was that he was stunned when I suggested that it would be much more fun to play a game in the Exalted setting using the rules of Wushu i.e. a game wherein the player would create all the awesome things that he could do.  He just didn't get that.

Now, I'm not going to pontificate and say that one style of play is inherently superior to the other.  On the other hand, it would be disingenuous to say that I don't believe that one style is superior; I just recognize that my bias isn't normative.  But what really interested me in that virtual-debate was that I could not simply dismiss the other fellow as not imaginative enough to play my kind of game.  Because he was and is a really imaginative guy who I suspect would be great fun to game with.

And that's where I get back to my game.  As much as I like the absolute freedom given by a game such as Wushu, I don't think that every game must go that far.  And, let's be fair, some days, you don't feel as imaginative as others.  So I set myself this design goal: to write a gaming book that makes T&J as available to Exalted players as to Wushu players.  And that, my hypothetical readers, is a bit tricky.  It means that I can't just say, "Like make up some powers, man, you know, like cool".  If nothing else, that doesn't work when you have a Random Powers method of creation.  But at the same time, I can't (and don't want to) spell out every little nuance of every single power.  I can't even pretend that I have thought of every single power.  That way leads to madness and a two-volume HERO System.

So how do I do this?  Well, that's the work I was speaking of at the beginning of this post.  I've adopted a multi-faceted approach by having several different ways to view Powers.  A game such as Villains & Vigilantes describes powers by their cause: Power Blast is an entirely different power than a blast of flame, which is a different power from a bolt of electricity and so on.  They roll different dice for damage, have different chances to hit, and different odds when used for  defense.   Conversely, Champions pioneered the now virtually ubiquitous effects-based description whereby all of those things are the same power - Energy Blast - simply distinguished by flavour text (and Limitations and Advantages, but let's not confuse the issue).  In HoI, I describe both a power's Category (cause) and its Effect (uh...effect). 

But more importantly, I have tried to describe each power in such a way as to explain it's basic use and suggest further applications (through suggested Stunts), without pretending to be comprehensive.  Each power is listed this way:
Name (Breadth, Category, Effect) – Description.
Sometimes (frequently) the Breadth is noted as “Focused/Meta” meaning that differing versions of this power are common and a specific one should be decided upon or rolled during character creation. In that case, the Effect is listed as “*” since it can vary.

Here's a pretty simple example:

Resistance  (Focused, Body Power, Defense) – The possessor is, in some fashion, highly resistant to injury. This might be supernaturally tough skin, a suit of armour, or a personal force field. Resistance adds it’s MOD to defense rolls against straight-forward physical attacks. It also absorbs TN ranks of Grief inflicted by normal-scale attacks.

And here's a much more involved example:

Air Powers (Focused/Meta, Energy Power, *) – The possessor can control the ambient air. This is usually understood to be the air around us on the earth’s surface (the troposphere), but the GM and player may want to consider whether or not this power affects other layers of the atmosphere (can it control the stratosphere?) and the atmosphere of other planets.

If using the Random Roll Method of character generation, the player must roll on Table 9, Power Breadth to determine whether the power is Focused or a Meta-Power. If using the Modeling Method, then the player is free to choose.

The Focused version of this power allows Air Push i.e. moving objects with gusts of wind as telekinesis. Common Spin-Off Stunts include:

• Air Blast – Generate a punishing blast of wind to attack.
• Air Shield – Create a bubble of energy that functions as a force field.
• Airy Flight – Whip up a vortex of air to allow for flight.

The Meta-Power version of this power would likely include the above as sub-powers. It might also include the ability to transform the hero’s body into a Gaseous Form.

Less common stunts or sub-powers that may or may not be appropriate to any particular game would involve doing something with the dissolved oxygen in water to allow humans to breathe comfortably, removing the air from someone’s lungs to knock them out, or even playing with the exact composition of the air so as to increase the amount of oxygen (an area with excess oxygen would be highly inflammable and also does funny things to people’s thinking).

A common Power Limitation would be that powers don’t function in a vacuum.  If the power is mystical in orientation, the possessor might have a Vulnerability to attacks from an opposing element (perhaps Earth) or a Limitation against affecting that element.

I hope this strategy is worthwhile.  Not least because of how much time it's taking.  In nay case, this is why posts of startlingly brilliant game design are likely to be in short supply for some while.  I've pretty much done all rules stuff, but the powers are going to take me a while.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I'm Writing This Super-Hero Book

I can’t recall exactly when I began to read comic-books.   It was the mid-70’s though.   I had already been exposed to something of that exuberant world through the live-action television program Batman (which I didn’t realize was camp) and the animated Spider-Man (with the greatest theme song ever). Still, I was in for something of a shock when I plunged into what is now referred to as the Bronze Age of Comics.

One of (if the not the) earliest comics I read was 1971's The Amazing Spider-Man No. 99 (an apocalyptically numbered issue if ever there was one) with a story entitled “Panic in the Prison”. I can still see the cover very clearly: there was my friendly neighborhood Spider-Man confronting not some garish goon, but a bunch of normal guys in prison uniforms. They were in the yard of a prison to which Spidey himself had probably sent several. There was a strange current of desperation in that cover illustration. And inside, we see the web-head confronted with rioting in-mates who don’t want to take over the world or even rob banks: they just want to be treated humanely. Okay, there was a real villain in the piece, who was using the other in-mates, but he was kind of incidental; the real opponent here was “the System”. The cover of this issue isn’t regarded as iconic for the Bronze Age; that appellation usually falls to Green Arrow surprising Speedy in the act of shooting up or Spidey confronted with a drugged-out Harry Osbourne. Still, when I think comics, this cover is what immediately springs to mind.

And thus this supplement. Because wherever the strange world of super-heroes has gone in the ensuing decades, there is a part of me that still thinks they live in the mid-70’s somewhere, confronting social injustice, bizarre cults, the Energy Crisis, and disillusionment with the government. In the Bronze Age, the heroes began to face off with the most insidious villain of all - our own worst selves. Plus Disco.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Trouble and Problems

[This is an updated mechanic for Heroes of Industry.  The why's of this post are contained here.]

Troublesome Qualities
Sometimes, a Quality causes problems for character too. In fact, a good, flavourful Quality offers up as many potential troubling aspects as helpful ones.  This troubling can happen in any of three ways:

-Forcing an Action: If the GM thinks that a Quality would make the character take some course of action different from what the player has chosen, he may offer 1 Hero Point to convince you to change your behaviour. The player may decline if he wishes, but then player has to pay 1 HP to exercise control.

-Strength is Weakness: If the Quality could have an impact upon a character’s efficacy, the GM may offer Hero Points equal to the Quality’s MOD in exchange for which the Quality exerts a negative MOD equal to it’s usual positive MOD. So, a hero with “Excellent +2 Bad-Ass Dude” could be forced to take a -2 MOD when trying to calm down the leader of an alien armada about to destroy the earth.

-This Only Happens to Me: If the Quality could result in other people doing bad things to your character, the GM may pay out 3 HP to have that happen. This is essentially a Revoltin’ Development specifically tailored to a character’s Quality, which results in the player earning an extra HP.

Troublesome Qualities are an important source of Hero Points in play, which is why a player may wish to have Qualities that are so broadly defined that it comes up with great frequency. Qualities with negative sides are also an excellent source of drama for those so inclined.

Indeed a player may wish to take a Quality that seems nothing but troublesome. For instance, Spider-man generally seems to have the Quality “Perceived by the public as a menace”. That really only works in a bad way. If a player takes such a Quality he is effectively asking the GM to give him trouble of this sort and lots of it. And players may wish to consider this: the GM can give you a Revoltin’ Development anytime he likes, so why not be the one to choose what kinds of bad things happen by selecting a potentially troublesome Quality and earn the extra Hero Point when it bites you in the ass?

On the other hand, some players don’t care for heroes with problems. In that case, they may define their Qualities so narrowly that it is difficult for them to cause trouble (and so seldomly supplies any Hero Points). That’s cool too.

Finally, note that players are free to suggest times when their Qualities trouble them. That’s a good thing: listen to them and screw them over upon request.

There is a notable exception to the general abstractness of combat in HoI. Whatever Quality takes the first downshift in a conflict generates a Problem. A Problem is a temporary Quality that is always and only troubling. Unlike the usual troublesome Quality, though, players do not get Hero Points for their pains. A Problem can never be used to help the character (i.e. add it’s Rank to die rolls) and cannot take Grief.

The exact nature of the Problem is determined by the Quality that took the first hit. If The Presence takes the first downshift in a conflict to his “Inhuman Aura” Quality, then the Problem has to be concerned with that. The player is allowed to specify the Problem, subject to GM approval. In this case, the player of Presence decides that his character is feeling depressed at his inhuman state, which reduces his effectiveness in conflict. He gives himself the Problem “Depressed at Inhuman State”.

Like any other Quality, Problem has a rank. When first generated, a Problem is Good +1 rank. If the same Quality takes the first hit in a subsequent conflict, then instead of generating a new Problem, the existing Problem goes up one rank. So, in a later battle, the Presence loses a roll and elects to take the first hit to “Inhuman Aura” again. Now his Good +1 Problem “Depressed at Inhuman State” becomes “Excellent +2 Depressed at Inhuman State”.

Which is a bummer, so most heroes will be anxious to rid themselves of Problems. They can do so by playing out a reasonable way of assuaging the situation and paying out Hero Points equal to the Problem’s rank. This can only be done in a later adventure than the one in which the Problem was generated or increased. Doing this gets rid of the Problem, but it also means that hero is down that number of Hero Points when he has his next conflict. There is a trade-off, which is why some players might elect to let Problems rise for awhile.

Example: The player of the Presence doesn’t want to let his Problem get worse than Excellent +2, so he decides to deal with it at the next opportunity. At the beginning of the next adventure, he decides that the Presence disappears from a meeting with his super-pals and reappears atop a mountain in the Himalayas. There he sits, oblivious to the howling winds and ponders the meaning of “humanity”. The GM likes this and continues it, having a mysterious monk appear and lead the hero to a hidden monastery. Seeing the existence of men in such circumstances and feeling their goodwill, the Presence feels restored. He pays out 2 Hero Points, removes the Problem, and waves goodbye to his new friends as he returns to the city. The game has now had a nice little soap-opera moment plus a mysterious new element has been added to the game. Just who are these hidden monks? Any GM worth his salt will have them show up again, in perhaps a surprising manner. Also, of course, the Presence returns to his duties to find himself in confrontation with the Raptor and lacking two vital Hero Points. He’s really going to need those to defeat his foe.

On Kallos in Game Design

The Classical Greeks ascribed to a notion of a beautiful symmetry.  Their word for it was kallos.  Greek sculpture is probably the paradigmatic example of this, although mathematical equations, rations, and the like (such as the Golden Mean) may be even better at exemplifying the concept.  In the realm of game design, I am a Classical Greek through and through.

I recognize that this is not at all an "old-school" characteristic, with it's "make it up as I need it" and "whatever works" ethos that gives you, among other things, the glorious mess that is nowhere better displayed than Gygax's 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.  Obviously (I hope), I'm not hostile to the Old-School philosophy.  But I can't design that way.  And as much fun as I have had even with AD&D, I can't admire the design strategies behind it.

This striving towards beautiful symmetry may have been apparent in my work on Under the Dying Sun.  Just look at the agon over coming up with a Weapon vs. Armour Class table that was "right" i.e. kallos.  If it wasn't apparent, look at the entries for Axe and Sword, from which everything else depended.

All of that is by way of an explanation for revisiting the damage concept from Heroes of Industry.  As I had originally written in Grief and Trouble, whatever Quality takes the first hit in a fight generates Trouble.  The idea is okay, but it's been gnawing at me for awhile because it was just too ad hoc, to asymmetrical if you will.  I'm thinking particularly of this: "Trouble is a special kind of attribute that partakes of both a Quality and Grief."  That might well play just fine, but it has no beautiful symmetry.

So, I've renamed and rewritten it and, in so doing, not only improved that, but was then prompted to improve upon another mechanic.  Let me be clear: this is not from my burning passion to design the greatest game ever.  I have no such illusions.  Nor is it because I just can't let go.  The truth of the matter is that I derive pleasure from finding kallos in game design.  The design is a means to an ends (playing a good game), but it is also an end unto itself  for me.

I'm reminded of a comment I received a while ago to the effect: "Stop trying to get the best mechanic and just play the game."  To me, that's the a defensible Old-School approach: the rules work well enough and you can always change them in play if you need to.  But that's not the point for me in designing a game.  "Well enough" has no beauty.

Does this mean that I am substantially less productive than other folks?  Yes; substantially.  But that's okay.  Beauty is eternal.

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Long and Sordid Relationship with the HERO System

I do not believe that I have mentioned my history with the game Champions.  Despite finding Villains & Vigilantes terribly interesting, V&V was not the supers-game my group played the most.  My friend John bought the 2nd edition of Champions (the boxed set expansion of the original hand-produced game) in 1983 (or maybe 1984) when we were in Middle School.  I recall thinking how much uglier it was than V&V which had Jeff Dee's infectiously enthusiastic art.  

However, once I started reading the rules, I was blown away.  Seriously.  I now find the basic design of Champions (and pretty much all point-buy systems that feature extra points for disadvantages) deeply-flawed, but I wouldn't pretend for a moment that I wasn't amazed at the time.  And it really was revolutionary.  Younger readers may not grasp it, but the idea that you could build anything -- any power, any skill, any device, any-fricking-thing -- with those basic rules was just mind-blowing.  Like 2001: A Space Odyssey mind-blowing.  

And let's recall that this book was all of 80 pages long.  The current edition of the HERO System is so bloated that it is published in two bloody volumes like a god-damn encyclopedia, but the original game, however much it isn't old-school in most ways, hewed much more closely to the classic design-length of the Basic /Expert Dungeons & Dragons Books (which only came out the year before the 1st edition of Champs and clocked in at 64 pages).  Those 80 pages -- well, it really was revelatory at the time.  You mean that I can buy Energy Blast and call it a Lightning Bolt or Power Blast or freakin' rocks falling from the sky?  Awesome.

Less immediately apparent, but potentially more meaningful were Disadvantages.  Now, recall that in a game like D&D, you would never want to have something about your character suck (unless you were one of those damn role-players who thought it was great fun to act out your PC's faults and make everyone else sit and listen to you whinge like a second-rate Elric or a third-rate Hamlet and screw over the party because "it's what my guy would do!"  And yes, that was me at the time so I have no reservations in making fun).  V&V made you take a weakness, but you had the option of ditching it if you didn't like it and losing one of your powers, so the idea that "sucking was to be avoided" was maintained.  But in Champions, you wanted to suck.  Sucking at something meant you got more points to buy your Lightning Bolt / Power Blast / Freakin' Rocks.

Lord, the seductiveness of that idea.  And the unforeseen consequences.  Because, it quickly became apparent that there was a game in picking out Disads; one that could definitely be won or lost.  The game was to pick Disads that didn't actually -- you know, disadvantage -- your character (note: we did not ever play the game like John Wick.  Would never have occurred to me).  I don't think that i ever saw a guy with Vulnerability, for example; it was hard to game that one since it outright hurt you.  But Hunted by...?  Oh yeah, that's the one.  After all, is the GM really going to spoil his adventure by having one of your stupid Hunteds showing up out the blue?  And if he does...what, you just get extra screen-time as your arch-foes show up and let you beat them up.  Even better were Psychological Limitations.  Ah, the beauty of the Psych Lim in the dawning days of the Iron Age.  "Likes to Kill"?  That's a  disadvantage how exactly when that's what you plan on doing anyway?  Damn, I recall making a Rorschach-knockoff called "the Harbinger" who actually maintained a blacklist of people who needed killing.  Top of the list? Madonna.  And yeah, I killed her.  Geez, that's, I mean, "Grim n' Gritty".

The central problem to all of this is that taking a Disad makes your hero objectively more competent than one without whether the Disad ever actually means anything or not.  And so character creation became this whole separate game in which you tried to come up with Disads (and Limitations) that made economic sense: that is, you got the most benefit for the least cost.  Now, I've mellowed a lot on the subject of economics over the years, but not in terms of character creation, or, as it became known, "efficient character builds".  

Goodness how I grew to hate playing Champions.  I found myself just recycling the same characters over and over again, rather than face the task of efficiently building something new.  I had friends who loved that game.  Some call character creation in such a system a "mini-game", but I don'.  It took me more time than actual play.  To me, it was an entire separate game that I had to play before I could play the real game.

I know that I have written about how Truth & Justice opened up indie-game design ideas to me and showed me how old-school isn't that far removed from indie.    I still recall confronting T&J and trying to absorb that idea that Disads don't make you more powerful, but give you meta-game power when and only when they actually cause some kind of inconvenience.  I don't think I can actually express how revelatory that was.  It was on the same level as my initial exposure to Champions but utterly refuting that first apocalypse.  As the years go on, it just seems more and more...well, I hesitate to use the word "correct", but it sure as hell feels that way to me.

And yet...

And yet, the pull of Champions is strong.  And I keep finding it creeping up on me while working on Heroes of Industry.  For example, I have been grappling with powers that seem objectively less good than others and how to handle that.  It's come up a lot while working on Body Powers such as Growth, Shrinking, and Density Increase.  I even went so far as to type up a whole new mechanic where you could substantially limit a power and get an extra rank for it.  Thank god that Tim Kirk of Silver Lion Games, a guru on super-hero gaming, talked me out of that.  

I find it kind of fascinating how these things work.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Matter Powers

I continue to plug away here. back to fiddling with the Random Powers Tables which are maybe 80% done now. At least until I change my mind again. Anyway, I'm going to be taking most of next week off to play with the kids, but I thought I might just post the tables for another category today to give more of the sense of where things are headed.

Table 4 is Matter Powers.

(Yes, I just noticed that I have Table 4.1 mislabelled as 2.1. Oh well).

I'm still not sure about Exotic Matter.  That seemed neat when I wrote it, but looking at it now, I think I would be stumped as a player if I rolled it.  And that's counter to the purpose of the tables which is to spur the thought process.  Otherwise, I think that I've hit about what needs to be hit here.  

Love to hear what anybody thinks.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Back to the Bronze Age - Part One

One thing that seriously only dawned on me recently is that I can reasonably expect some readers to not only be unfamiliar with the Bronze Age of comics, but to have not even been alive then.   Man.  So I've spent the last week working on the section on what makes a Bronze Age comic story.

This is a fun, but consuming section.  I keep wanting to write more than I probably should, specifically in coming up with connections:  connections between themes in the comics (how the social issues ties into all those wacky cults); connections between movements in the real world for those who didn't live through them (such as the cult scares of the 70's, which grew out of the spiritual searching of the 60's; and , of course, connections between the real world and the comic world (such as how wide-spread concerns about groups such as the Unification Church aka "the Moonies" translates into things like Brother Power and Sister Sun, who appeared in Spectacular Spider-man No. 12 (1977)).  I blame this on my former life as professional historian.

So I'm enjoying this even as I am wearing myself out.  I'll have to take a break on this soon and probably go back to the working on the Power Tables to avoid turning my game into an essay.  But I thought that I might post some of the work here and see if it makes sense to folks and seems helpful.  There is more to the section than this, but it's not presentable yet.

Back to the Bronze Age
Comic book historians describe the period of time covered in this game as the Bronze Age.  Unlike some of the periods in comics, there is no very clear line between the preceding Silver Age and the Bronze Age (although that doesn’t hinder virulent arguments about when the Bronze Age “really” started).  Rather, it was an evolution in which certain themes and ideas came to the fore while others receded.   It was both continuity and change.

But if you want a simple summation of the what the super-heroes of the 70’s faced, you could do worse than this: social injustice, student protests, Satanism, the Energy Crisis, Women's Lib, lonely Space-Messiahs spouting poetry in psychedelic space-scapes, classic monsters, disillusionment with the Government, Golden Age legacies, barbarians, Vietnam fallout, wacky cults, drug problems, Alien Astronauts, and the power of Kung-Fu.

Simple, no?

Well, maybe we could flesh that out a little.

We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
Silver Age comics were very focused on defending the status quo.  The government is good, the police are good, American society is good.  Communists are bad, Bad Guys are bad, and violence beyond the cartoon level is bad.  This was in part a legacy from the comics reaching their height during World War II and in part a requirement of the Comics Code.  The point is that super-heroes in the Silver Age fought attempts to change things.

In the Bronze Age, heroes began to discover that some things might need changing.  Those student radicals taking over a campus might have a valid point to make.  Heck, rioting convicts had a point about inhumane treatment in the American penal system; Spider-man found out and went live on the Johnny Carson show to tell the whole country.  The super-heroes of the time confronted issues of social justice, economic justice, and the gender divide.  Sure, a lot of those folks were villains, but not all, and even the ones who were crooks seemed to have some justification for what they were doing.  As the Green Lantern learned to his dismay when he tried to protect a sleazy slum-lord from his aggrieved tenants, he had been so concerned with helping out the purple skins and the green skins that he had forgotten the needs of the brown skins.

But more than that, heroes began to find that bad guys did not always wear distinctive clothing and might well hide behind the façade of the corporation or the government.   The mood of the times was very much against “the Man” and He turned out to have His fingers in all sorts of pies. Particularly the kind of shady operations that had proliferated in the Viet Nam vortex.  The Rand Corporation, a think tank spun off from the military years earlier and still tied to them, was a good target for nefarious machinations within the halls of power.

The point is that the Bronze Age heroes stopped being automatically reactive defenders of the status quo, bringing them back full circle to the very beginning of the genre, when Superman was an agitator out to clean up corruption.

It wasn’t just society that turned out to be flawed; the heroes and their pals found themselves prey to inner demons that would never have shown up in earlier eras.  Marvel Comics laid the groundwork in the 1960’s with it’s less than perfect characters, but this only took full flower in the Bronze Age when the Comics Code was flouted to feature a storyline in which Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osbourne suffers from drug addiction. The competition went one better when the Green Arrow walked in on his sidekick Speedy preparing to shoot up.

Now, not every single hero turned out to be an alcoholic (just Iron Man, I think), but the idea was established that flawed hero meant more than just arguing with your partners.  Guilt and sin were prominent themes, whether portrayed realistically (Spider-man’s guilt at Gwen Stacy’s death) or metaphorically (The Ghost Rider is pretty easy to read as a religious parable).

Space Odyssey; or see Kirby, Jack
Outer Space had not been ignored during the Silver Age; indeed, that was a very science-fiction oriented period when previously mystical characters such as the Green Lantern were retooled into sci-fi characters.  Aliens of every conceivable shape, size, and four-color tone proliferated during the period.  This was a generally pulpy, Buck Rogers kind of science fiction.

In the Bronze Age, space turned out to be pretty trippy man.  Just as the film 2001: A Space Odyssey had brought the unfathomable, mind-altering qualities of space to the fore, the comics were doing the same thing.  This was a sort of “cosmic mysticism”, full of existential and religious themes.  And it had it’s Space-Messiahs, like the Silver Surfer and Warlock, who wandered the stars seeking enlightenment and an end to violence while still finding time to kick some bad guy ass.  But even there, the bad guys might turn out to be a vaguely-scientific looking reinterpretation of Satan (like Darkseid).

Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods was published in 1968 and proved to be a popular theme in comics.  This is the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis that extraterrestrial life-forms had visited the earth in the ancient past and influenced the development of human beings in some fashion or another.

These space odysseys could turn up in the most unlikely of places: Thanos the death-loving Eternal premiered in the pages of Iron Man of all places.  And poor Rick Jones, who had begun life as the Hulk’s sidekick ended up sharing bodies with Captain Marvel through the power of the Nega-Bands.  The most notable expressions of all of this were Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books for DC and the very same Jack Kirby’s Eternals stories for Marvel. Considering that he had pioneered this stuff in the Silver Age with Galactus and the Watcher, that should come as no surprise.

Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting
Kung-Fu was big in Bronze Age comics.   In earlier periods, heroes were better fighters because they had a mean right hook.  Neither Captain American nor Batman fought in a style that, in any way, was not good old Yankee fisticuffs.  If you read the comics from Cap’s revival in the 1960’s, you see that he is constantly called “an acrobat” and Batman is referring to his style of combat as “street-fighting” as late as 1970.

But the Bronze Age brought in the Fu.  Five years after that street-fighting reference, Batman is suddenly referred to as a master of judo, kung-fu, and aikido (in addition to plain old fisticuffs). Martial Arts heroes sprouted everywhere, even the 30th century (the Karate Kid in the Legion of Super-heroes). Despite that last example, though, the Martial Arts heroes of the Bronze Age did tend to inhabit their own “street-level” sub-culture. They did not usually fight aliens or gods or powerful master-villains (well, except for Fu Manchu); instead, they fought street gangs, corrupt businessmen, and Martial Arts villains.

Kung-fu wasn’t just about fighting, though. There was a great deal of interest in “alternative spiritual traditions” (i.e. not the Western monotheisms) and this played an important role in Kung-Fu stories. Again, you can find the roots of this in the 60’s, particularly in the faux-Eastern mysticism from Doctor Strange.  The Kung-Fu characters from the Bronze Age often brought with them images of Chinese temples, meditation, and a quest for peace--although, being the comics, this quest for peace could only be preceded by extreme ass-kicking.

It’s worth noting that this was all pretty Sino-specific; the omnipresent ninja of later years didn’t really pop up until the early 80’s and “batarangs” were still actually boomerangs in the 70’s, rather than the shuriken they would eventually become.

All You Need is Love…and Satan
More than just the philosophy of Kung-Fu, the Bronze Age stories paid a lot of attention to variant religions, which had been pretty much absent during earlier periods (perhaps because the comics were created by a lot of Jewish fellas writing for predominantly Protestant audiences?). The favourite depiction was the cult and the cult was usually one ostensibly proclaiming universal love or brotherhood or spiritual enlightenment or one of those hippie-things and then turning out to be a front for neo-Nazis or master villains or alien squid-men (yes, alien squid-men.   See Nebulon’s Celestial Mind Control movement, which also involved it’s participants wearing Bozo the Clown masks.  See, this is what I’m talking about: the Bronze Age was awesome).

A special kind of cultist is the Satanist and these fellas were also coming out of the woodwork in the 1970’s, spurred on in part by the popularity of movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and the Exorcist.  There were lots of evil Satanists as antagonists, whether or not the object of their affection was “Satan” strictly speaking or not.   For instance, there was "Satannish, which would sound like the adjectival form of Satan, but was his own…er, demon.  His cult, called “the Sons of Satannish”, involved wearing funny masks and adopting scary names.   It was sort of a diabolic LARP.  He also made Faustian bargains with individual diabolists.  Other maybe-Satans included Mephisto, who bedeviled Thor and was constantly tempting the Silver Surfer, and Trigon, who played the Rosemary’s Baby gambit to produce the new Teen Titan Raven.

That last example points to one of the stranger phenomena of the Brozne Age: super-heroes with diabolical origins. If DC had the demonic Raven, Marvel went one better in having a hero actually called “the Son of Satan”, who was just as advertised on the box (he also had a sister called “Satana” not to be confused with the musician).  More famous today is the Ghost Rider, a human who made a deal with someone (let’s call him Satan for the hell of it) and had a demon bonded to his soul as a result.  This guy could never have been a hero in the Silver Age.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Would It Be More Fun To Have An "Inhuman" Sub-Table?

I posted the table and sub-tables for Body Powers.  I mentioned that the Inhuman Power was an undefined Meta-Power where the player gets to choose in what way he is inhuman.  But, would it be more fun if I had a sub-table for this?  It would have entries such as:
  • Robot
  • Human-variant (for your Eternals, Inhumans, Deviants, and, specific to my setting, the Ultra)
  • Mystic Construct (i.e. Golem)
  • Alien
  • God
  • Energy Being (like Wonder Man in certain versions or someone composed or living flame)
Does that seem more fun than just letting the player define it?