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Updated: 2 weeks 3 days ago

Cinematic Superhero Rpg Universes

Sun, 03/28/2021 - 14:30


While we may be past the era of "peak television," we seem to be entering the era of peak superhero TV. The CW and HBOMax have got new DC shows, and Disney+ has the latest Marvel offerings. Then there's a few other things on Amazon Prime like The Boys and Invincible. The superhero dominance of the box office got put on hiatus by the pandemic, but it has gone on long enough now to get backlash.

All of this makes me wonder when we'll get a superhero rpg with more of a cinematic vibe, much in the the same way we got a number of rpgs with a "animated series" aesthetic (some of that could be pragmatic, though. There may be more artists able to do a cartoony style willing to work at rpg rates). Of course, you don't have to want for a new game to run a cinematic style campaign. You could even reboot an old campaign in a cinematic version.

What would "cinematic superhero universe" mean in a rpg context? I haven't really fully formulated an answer to that but their are some traits I can think of:

  • Fewer superhumans (though they are getting more all the time!), particularly villains
  • Lower power levels (in general), but...
  • Fewer "skilled normal" masked heroes. (Captain America seems super-strong in the CMU; Falcon as more gadgets)
  • Fewer secret identities, fewer masks
  • Less colorful costumes
  • A smaller array of possible origins
  • Heroes more likely to engage in potentially lethal action
In general, cinematic universe changes seem similar to "ultimate universe" changes. They are more "realistic" versions of the characters.

Flashback: DC at Marvel Collected Edition

Fri, 03/26/2021 - 11:00
The original version of this post appeared in 2018...

In case you missed the previous installments, here's a collated list of the posts I've done so far based on the idea that the staff at Marvel in the late 50s early 60s got to revamp DC's Golden Age characters (except for those that never stopped being published). The idea was introduced here.

All the characters presented so far are statted for the TSR Marvel Superheroes rpg:

The Atom The Nuclear Man!
Green Lantern Most Cosmic Hero of Them All!
Hawkman Master of Flight!
And a couple of villains Silver Scarab, the nemesis of Hawkman, and Star Sapphire--is she Green Lantern's lover or his enemy--or both?


Wednesday Comics: DC, March 1980 (part 2)

Wed, 03/24/2021 - 11:00

Continuing my read through of DC Comics output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around December 20,1979.


Action Comics #505:
Bates and Swan bring us a tale of a puppy-eyed, hairy hominid from space, who charms children and can wallop Superman. In a twist I did not expect, the creature turns out to be a synthetic being from Krypton. The story is continued to next issue. I kind of dug this one.

Adventure Comics #469: The Starman story here has a bit more of classic space opera vibe than the previous installments, which is a welcome change of pace. The Plastic Man story is the same old stuff. I can't say I'm really excited about either of these features.

Brave & the Bold #160: With Superman and Batgirl teaming up early this month, now it's Batman's and Supergirl's turn. Burkett and Aparo have Batman do some mentoring with Supergirl, which works well. The story suffers from a bland villain who doesn't seem like he'd be a challenge for Batman, much less Batman and Supergirl.

Green Lantern #126: O'Neil and Staton ended last issue with an impending Qwardian invasion of Earth, and now...well, we get the Shark. Sure, it turns out the Qwardians are employing the Shark, but it seems unclear why they would need to do so. It seems like it's just stalling before the main event.

House of Mystery #278: The cover story by Jay Zilber and Rubeny goes out of its way to make the parents of a kid with the power to pull things (weapons mostly) from out of the TV the bad guys, when anyone would be sensibly worried about the kid. The other two stories have sort of dumb morals: truth-telling isn't always good, and old people can be bad, too!


Legion of Super-Heroes #261:
Conway and Estrada complete this LSH undercover circus mystery. Doesn't seem like it really warranted a two-parter. The basic idea was good, but the story is lacking.

New Adventures of Superboy #3: A nerd jealous of Superboy and Clark Kent, uses a device to project back his mental energy to make himself cool in the past. What's interesting about this one to me is that it clearly sets the present of Metropolis in "winter 70-80," with this story in Clark's high school years prior.

Sgt. Rock #338: Rock and the boys from Easy try to take a few days R&R at a ski lodge, only to be menaced by ski Nazis. We get the almost obligatory, semi-honorable German commander, though that doesn't mean he makes it out alive. There's more continuity than I remembered: Kanigher has this issue pick up directly after the events of last issue.

Super Friends #30: Grodd and Giganta are employing a ray to change humans into gorillas as a bid for world conquest. Fradon's art is charming as always.

Unexpected #196: The first there stories in this are nonsense, but Mike Barr and Vic Catan Jr. present a somewhat clever twist on the sell your soul to the Devil plot in a story about a doctor willing to do anything to stop a deadly, global pandemic.


Unknown Soldier #237:
A rabbi, a black guy, and the Unknown Soldier cross German lines dressed as the Magi. It's not a joke; it's a Bob Haney Christmas story! Like many war stories of this period, it tackles racism, but also has a extra bit of "all men are brothers" holiday oomph to it. It's silly in ways, I guess, but one of my favorite war stories since I started this project. The second feature is pretty good too. I liked the art by Tenny Henson.

Warlord #31: I talked about this issue here.

Weird Western Tales #65: An anti-war story is unexpected in a Western book, but it works reasonably well. Conway's story also picks up right after Scalphunter bids farewell to Bat Lash following their team-up last issue.

This month, we also had two digest books: Best of DC #4 was a quartet of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stories (who knew DC had so many?), and  DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #1, which featured four reprints staring the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Sentinel Comics RPG Session 1: "Itsy Bitsy Spiderbots"

Mon, 03/22/2021 - 11:00

Roll Call:

Action Jack: Man of Action--Man Out of Time!
Fibbit: Manic Pixie Extradimensional Dream Girl!
Infranaut: IR-Powered Celebrity Hero!
Il Masso: The Rock-Solid Hero of Little Italy!
Space Racer: Cosmic Speedster!

Supporting Characters: Zauber the Magnificent (flashback only)

Villains: Spiderbots (first appearance)

Synopsis: Individually, enjoying a day in Empire Park, our heroes are startled by an attacked of spider-shaped robots emerging from the sewers, which seem to be particularly targeting them. Our heroes destroy the robots, and join forces. During the melee, Fibbit catches gets images of a peculiar industrial building and a man dressed as a magician, who ages before her eyes. Space Racer had a flashback to a vague memory of a dead world, somehow displaced in time.

Action Jack recognizes Fibbit magician as Zauber the Magnificent, a magician and crime fighter from the war years.

Fibbit also warns the others that she also sensed a malevolent force in the direction of the spiderbots' origin--and it seemed to sense her back!

Again, The Giants! Collated

Sun, 03/21/2021 - 14:30

Art by Jason Sholtis
Back in 2017, I did a series posts doing adventure sketches re-imaging Against the Giants. Here's the complete list:

Wedding of the Hill Giant Chief

Sanctum of the Stone Giant Space God

Glacial Gallery of the Frost Giant Artist

What I Want in A Superhero Rpg

Thu, 03/18/2021 - 11:00


When it comes to superhero rpgs, I've played and enjoyed a few of them over the years starting with Villains & Vigilantes and going through the Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game, DC Heroes rpg, Champions, GURPS Supers, and Mutants & Masterminds. I've owned and read numerous others, including Heroes Unlimited, Wild Talents, Silver Age Sentinels and ICONS. I'm about to give the Sentinel Comics rpg a whirl.

I don't think I've ever found the perfect supers game for me, though. At least, not perfect for what the 2021 version of me wants out of one. These are the things I think I'm looking for:

Low to Medium crunch. I'm not interested in rules heavier games like Champions or GURPS currently. I would suspect medium crunch games would probably give the best balance between covering what needs to be covered, but not doing too much.

Emulates comics. I'm interested in something that supports creating the sort of thing we see in comic books (or superhero film) not "a world with superheroes." Some of my following points sort of flow from this one.

"Every member of the Justice League gets to do something important." Older superhero games, to me, make the mistake of wanting to tailor attributes/power levels to benchmarks, winding up with disparate power levels. Sure, things like Karma/Hero Points address some of this, but in comics it mostly seems that power levels wind up being more about how characters tackle problems than whether they can tackle them. The Fantastic Four beats Dr. Doom, but so does the Punisher (or close enough). They just do it in different ways.


Heroic Normals are viable. Because of the ability score benchmarks, guys like Nick Fury or the Challengers of the Unknown tend to come out pretty samey in abilities because the normal end of the scale gets shortened. A system that gave them more variation would be nice. Of course, if you wanted a campaign of these folks, one could just play a nonsuperhero game, so this perhaps isn't as important to me as other points.

Variable Villains. Ever noticed how villains tend to be tougher or weaker depending on the hero or heroes their dealing with? I suppose it could be argued the heroes change and the villains stay the same, but anyway it might be nice if supers rpgs had mechanics for this difference.

Powers not overly detailed, but not quite freeform. Honestly, I lean toward more of a "just tell me what is does take", but you need to certain mechanics attached to powers to use them in the game, and you also need suggestions for people modeling powers, so for that it seems like completely freeform isn't the way to go. 

Supreme effort. This is one supers games seem to consistently pick up, but it bears repeating. There should be a means of a hero giving it that extra oomph in a dramatic moment.

There's probably something else I'm not thinking of, but that's all I've got now.

Wednesday Comics: DC, March 1980 (part 1)

Wed, 03/17/2021 - 11:00
I'm continuing my read through of DC Comics output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis. This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around December 6,1979.
All-Out War #4: I'm still not impressed with the Viking Commando, but otherwise this is better than last issue, with a decent Black Eagle story, and a good Force 3 tale by Kanigher and Grandenetti. The non-series tales are better, to with the Korean War story "Road to Sunchon" by Archie Goodwin and evocative art by Ernesto Patricio tackling the common war comic theme of racism. Goodwin reaches for a little too much in the last panel, but it's otherwise solid.

Batman #321: This one starts off promising with a cover by José Luis García-López, and delivers a solid tale of the Joker's birthday by Wein and Walt Simonson. The best issue of Batman yet in the 1980s cover dates.
DC Comics Presents #19: O'Neil and Staton offers up a goofy yarn of a hawk-headed mutant psychically causing a violent reaction at a dinner party. Good thing Superman and Batgirl are there! O'Neil's script keeps referring to Batgirl as the "dominoed daredoll." I wonder if it bothered him that nickname never caught on?
Flash #283: Cary Bates is making each issue better than the last, I think, and Don Heck is supporting that. Not a lot has happened these 3 issues, admittedly, but they aren't decompressed, more like movie serial cliffhanger installments. Anyway, Reverse Flash tries to kill the Flash just as Flash is returning from the future with knowledge of Iris' killer. The Flash doesn't die of course, and lays into Reverse Flash who, in fact, is the murder. Of course, he gets away in the end, so everything is continued/
Ghosts #86: More ghostly tales with the conceit of being true. The most "high concept" (heh) tale has to be the one by Kashdan and Henson about a murderous stunt pilot who gets his comeuppeance when his dead partner's body drops into his airplane's cockpit decades later.

Jonah Hex #34: Our first Christmas story of the month! Fleischer and Dan Spiegle serve up and unusually humorous tale for the normally fairly grim world of Jonah Hex, where Hex is on the trail of some murderous robbers, and finds his father acting as sheriff in a haven for outlaws. He forces his no-account, abusive father to play Santa Claus for the kids at the orphanage.
Justice League of America #176: The whole JLA takes on Doctor Destiny in a classic "split in pairs and collect something" plot. Not terrible, but nothing special.
Men of War #26: Harris and Ayers give us a crossover. Gravedigger leads the combat-happy joes of Easy (minus Sgt. Rock) on a mission. Harris does a pretty good Kanigher imitation, but it's lightweight, late era, DC war stuff.
Secrets of Haunted House #22: Destiny narrates two tales. The most unusual of the two is by Kashdan and Ruben "Rubeny" Yandoc and is like Fantastic Voyage if the blood clot was a witch doctor.
Superboy Spectacular #1: This is mostly reprints, but it does include a map of Krypton, and a cutaway view of Superboy's house. The only new story is a "solve-it-yourself mystery" by Bridwell and Swan, which I won't spoil.
Superman #345: Time on Earth gets reversed due to the action of aliens. Conway and Swan serve up  a fairly Silver Age "puzzle" yarn.

Superman Family #200: This is a high-concept entry anthology, tales of the future at the "turn of the 21st Century" when Lois and Clark have a 16 year-old kid, and Linda "Superwoman" Danvers is governor of Florida. All the stories take place on the Kent's anniversary. Conway writes all of these stories but a number of artists appear.
Weird War Tales #85: J.M. DeMatteis and Tenny Henson deliver tale of alternate realities, where the enemy is various alternate United States. An interesting departure from the usual stuff from this comic.
Wonder Woman #265: An "untold tale" of Diana Prince's time with NASA, featuring a shuttle crash, aliens and dinosaurs by Conway and Delbo. The Wonder Girl backup has nice art by Ric Estrada.

Star Trek Ranger: Here Be Dragons (part 2 & 3)

Thu, 03/11/2021 - 12:00


Player Characters: The Crew of the USS Ranger, Federation scout ship:
Aaron as Lt.(jg.) Cayson Randolph
Andrea as Capt. Ada Greer
Dennis, as Lt. Osvaldo Marquez, Medical Officer
Paul as Cmdr. D.K. Mohan, Chief Helmsman
Synposis: While posing as travelers from a distant land, the Ranger away team manages enter the grounds of Count Angmox's castle and discover where the draconic Ksang ambassador is being held. They pass him a communicator hoping it will be of use later. The transporters are still having trouble with the strange energy fields, though. Ranger's sensors, however, are able to pinpoint a local source of the disturbance in the Count's keep.
Mohan pretends to be a wizard from a foreign land--a ploy that appears unusually succssful as they are admitted to the keep and given an audience with the court wizard, Nilras. Unfortunately, it's a ruse. Nilras strikes them down with a strange energy from his wand.
Nilras realizes the Ranger crew is from somewhere else and just wants them to leave his world. He's willing for them to take the ambassador with them, but doesn't wish to embarass the Count. The Ranger crew makes a pretense of trying to solve this dilemma, but under the guise of a test of Nilras's ability to lower the transporter-blocking field, they just beam themselves and the ambassador out.
Mohan accompanied by Ensign O'Carroll heads back to the planet in a shuttlecraft to retrieve the shuttle they left behind and destroy the Ksang shuttle. The energy fluctuations are even fiercer now and their shuttle is damaged. They are forced to take the initial shuttle back to the ship and destroy the other two, creating a larger than they would have hoped for explosion. 
Commentary: General Order One (The Prime Directive) was bent pretty far this adventure, but probably not broken. The Ranger crew recognized that the wizard was actually employing advanced technology, and noted that he was of a group genetically distinct from the general populous, but not alien, but they never discovered the wizards' secret.

Wednesday Comics: DC, Frebruary 1980 (part 2)

Wed, 03/10/2021 - 12:00

I'm continuing my read through of DC Comics output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis. This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around November 20,1979.


Action Comics #504
: Another overly complicated Cary Bates story, but at least this one uses it (maybe!) to better purpose than last month's. Superman encounters a mysterious armored foe, then Clark Kent is saved by a man with "prana-power" gifted to him by his father who has an origin not unlike Iron Fist, but with powers of the mind as the ancient Eastern secret rather than martial arts. It turns out the armored criminal is really the guy's girlfriend who's been hypnotizing him to make him imbue her with prana-power for criminal misdeeds. 

Adventure Comics #468: I've never thought about it before, but the Levitz/Ditko Starman almost reads like a comic book tie-in to an 80s toyline, and the Wein/Staton Plastic Man could sort of be an "all ages" approach. The combination gives this book a more kid-aimed feel.

Brave & the Bold #159: O'Neil and Aparo have Batman team-up with his greatest 70s nemesis, Ra's al-Ghul to find a scientist who has developed the formula capable of turning any substance into crystal--I feel like this was inspired by ice-nine in Cat's Cradle. Anyway, an average story.


Green Lantern #125
: I think this is my first story with pre-Crisis Qward. I had seen pictures of their warriors with the lighting bolt weapons, but never the Weaponers or their world. Anyway, the O'Neil and Staton story is another confrontation with Sinestro and the prelude to a Qwardian invasion of Earth. This feels most like a Marvel Comic of the era than any other this month.

House of Mystery #277: The lead story here by Kanigher/Pasko and Chaykin/Milgrom about an actor who gets too into his roles after a deal with dark powers isn't very good. There's a short one about a vampire in a crypt getting the upper hand on a would-be vampire slayer that's a decent one-off joke. It has nice art by Mar Amongo, who I've never heard of before. The last story is a Cinderella riff by Kashdan, made better by interesting art by Nards Cruz and Joe Matucenio.


Legion of Super-Heroes #260
: Conway and Staton have the Legion going undercover to solve a murder in a 30th Century circus. This one feels like a bit of a throwback, but it's fun.

Sgt. Rock #337: "A Bridge Called Charlie." Standard Kanigher Sgt. Rock tale about a doomed,  heroic stand, in this case, even recognized by the enemy who pins an iron cross on his corpse. 

Super Friends #29: Bridwell and Fradon present a story that feels very Silver Age in its goofy/trippiness. With aliens set on using radiation to destroy all life on Earth, Wonder Woman using her spinning lasso, vibrating at a certain frequency, to move the Super Friends partially into another dimension, so they look like costumes walking around with no person inside. The Wonder Twins backup continues the Silver Age silliness.


Time Warp #3
: These stories really nail the vibe of EC titles like Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, albeit with updated artistic sensibilities. It's nice to see Steve Ditko bring a bit of his Dr. Strange/Shade the Changing-Man trippiness to the tales he draws.

Unknown Soldier #236: This story by Haney and Ayers has the Unknown Soldier freeing a Japanese American from an interment camp to go undercover with him. The Nisei is ambivalent in his role and betrays the Unknown Soldier, but then changes his mind again and helps him. Haney makes an effort, but his story doesn't deal with these topics with the depth or subtlety they deserve.

Warlord #30: See an in-depth commentary here.


Weird Western Tales #64
: Conway and Ayers continued the Scalphunter/Bat Lash team-up from last issue, with Bat Lash explaining to Scalphunter why he betrayed him. I like to see the DC Western characters team-up, but otherwise this story is forgettable.

World's Finest Comics #261: All of these stories are pretty goofy, though some are goofy and enjoyable, others less so. Conway's Green Arrow/Black Canary story about an elderly lady given superpowers by toxic exposure to become "Auntie Gravity" is in the "less so" category, and made worse by Saviuk's inability to draw an old woman. O'Neil and Buckler's Superman/Batman team-up involving the Penguin and Terra-Man hypnotizing some actor into thinking he's the real Butch Cassidy is just too much of a puzzler to accurately assess. The Bridwell/Newton Mary Marvel story is about what you expect from 70s Marvel Family stuff. The Black Lightning story by O'Neil and Tanghal is the most serious but still has clowns on a boat.

Bob Haney's Marvel Universe, A Comics Counterfactual

Mon, 03/08/2021 - 12:00
I've previously speculated in a couple of different ways about DC done in a Marvel manner, but it seemed like a good time to think about things in the other direction: what if somehow DC had managed to take over Marvel just as the Marvel Age was getting off the ground?

Talking about this with my friend and occasionally fellow blogger, Jim Shelley, we came up with several ideas, but since several came down to "Bob Haney," I figured that was worth a post in and of itself. This, of course, is just idle speculation, but I could see it informing a very interesting supers rpg campaign. Maybe it will look that way to you, too.


The HulkIn this timeline, the "hero and villain in one man!" dynamic that Haney brought to Eclipso (first appearing in May of 1963) will instead get applied to Marvel's Jekyll and Hyde character, the Hulk. The Hulk would retain his more villainous "gray hulk" persona through the entirety of his short run, and Banner would be his antagonist. Just like in the real world, this series doesn't last long, so in Tales to Astonish in 1964, Haney and artist Ramona Fradon bring the camp and whimsy they would have brought to Metamorpho to the Hulk. Bruce Banner becomes stuck in Hulk form, but still tries to woo Betty Ross, while being under the thumb of her father who ostensibly has Banner on a short lease "for his own good," but doesn't hesitate to exploit his abilities.


The X-Men
"Dig this crazy teen scene!" The X-men had a rocky start, so Haney was given title, along with a new artist, Nick Cardy--the original Teen Titans team in our history. Haney made the X-Men "hip" teens and gave them new foes like the Mad Mod, and more than one motorcycle gang. The male X-Men often refer to Marvel Girl as "Marvel-chick" as a term of endearment.
The Haney/Cardy team kept the X-Men from going all reprints, though the title wouldn't really catch on until the arrival of the New X-Men, same as in the history we know.

Weird Revisited: Four Sinister Sorcerers

Sun, 03/07/2021 - 16:00
From the world of the City, here are five wielders of magic to challenge any party of adventurers:

The Algophilist: He’s older than current civilization, and he wants to make you hurt. His mistress is a goddess of pain, dead since the sinking of Meropis. Every tear evoked by her devoted servant, every scream and anguished cry he draws forth from his victims, brings his goddess incrementally closer to raising. Having learned (and suffered) at his goddess’ several hands for seven times seven years, the Algophilist knows numerous and varied ways to get his sacrifices. He can be met anywhere where the shadows make it easier for him to find victims, but he’s discovered a “backdoor” in and out of the alien city that overlaps with Hoborxen and often strikes from there, taking whoever mets his fancy to his sadist’s dungeon demiplane.

Hieronymus Gaunt: Lich and bon vivant (bon mourant?) currently on a world tour of debauchery and mayhem with a gang of followers in a stolen elephant-shaped hotel. In addition to his own sorcery, he's got a store of stolen magic items from all over the world.

Cheroot: Croaker (medicine man) and mugwump of a large hobogoblin tribe in the Steel League. He holds court in a large dump outside of Sunderland where he nightly incites the ‘goblins to ever greater crimes against humans. He wears a worn tophat which has the power to animate anything it is set upon (as long as it stays on it)--and Cheroot can command the animate to his service. The trash heap where he makes his throne is actually a garbage golem which will rise and fight for the shaman if needed.

The Unpleasant Woman in the Basement: What she lacks in looks, she doubly lacks in personality.  She squats like a gigantic toad amid the packages, correspondence, and pneumatic tubes in the basement mailroom of a midtown office building in the City. She's been there for fifty years and three building owners.  Those who displease her die in bizarre accidents or by suicide.  Nightgaunts fly at her whim. Scorpions will grow from her shed blood.

Twilight: XXXX

Thu, 03/04/2021 - 12:00
With Twilight: 2000 on it's way back in a new edition, it seemed like a good time to think about retro-apocalyptic alternate histories other than the official one.

Twilight: 1945
Germany gets the bomb, but it isn't enough to save the Third Reich, just enough to take basically everyone else down with them. The players are allied troops stranded in Europe, just trying to make it it back home.

Twilight: 1984The worst fears of the early 80s are realized and there's a limited nuclear exchange, but enough to send everything crashing down. Here the action might be stateside, in the fractured United States (much like the state of the U.S. envisioned in the regular game).

Wednesday Comics: DC, February 1980 (part 1)

Wed, 03/03/2021 - 12:00

 I'm continuing my read through of DC Comics output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis. This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around November 8,1979.

Batman #320: O'Neil suggests that when there isn't enough crime in Gotham, Batman scans the international papers for international crimes to solve. He's off to Italy to deal with murders of priests. This is sort of a giallo in the confines of the comics code.

DC Comics Presents #18
: I've always liked this 70s Zatanna costume. It's a shame they've never done an updated version. This team-up with Superman, Zatanna, and her dad by Conway and Dillin, again emphasizes Superman's vulnerability to magic, and suggests its due to his nonearthly origin and therefore complete lack of Homo magi genes. However, Superman recalibrates his a spectrometer device he has to detect magic "at the far end of the spectrum" with smaller wavelengths even that cosmic rays.

Detective Comics #448: This is the inheritor of the Batman Family setup. The Batman story by Burkett and Newton features the Spook, a character I only knew from the Who's Who. Batgirl actually helps out a street gang while lamenting her recent failed bid at Congressional re-election in a story by Harris and Delbo. Harris aided by unexpected but welcome art by Schaffenberger has Robin taking down kidnappers targeting his college's campus. The other two features are more humorous tales of a Gotham City cop on the day of his retirement and a Elongated Man yarn. This may be the best issue this week.
Flash #282: Continues from last issue, Bates and Heck have the Flash escaping form the deathtrap Reverse Flash left him in. Meanwhile, Reverse Flash is toying with Green Lantern back in 20th Century Central City. Somehow, the yellow of Zoom's costume is such that Green Lantern can't catch him even when he is dressed as the Flash, which makes Green Lantern seem pretty weak.


G.I. Combat #218
: These three Haunted Tank stories make me feel like I don't like the Haunted Tank very much. Not any worse than the other war comics this month, I suppose, but some variety might have helped.
Ghosts #85: This issue has a conceit of all of it's stories being based on true events which was absent from the last issue. The stories are a bit better this time around too, with more creative use of the ghost conceit: a murder is run down by a ghost car in a junkyard, a fiery ghost of a man pushed into a volcano comes for his murder and his faithless wife.

Jonah Hex #33: Hex is witness to a family tragedy while trying to take out some outlaws in this tale by Fleisher and Eufronio Reyes Cruz. Both the father and son make some boneheaded decisions, so it seems like tragedy was inevitable, honestly.


Justice League of America #175
: Conway and Dillin are channeling Marvel and Roy Thomas' Vision stories with "But Can an Android Dream?" Red Tornado frets about his lack of humanity and reconnects with his sort of foster daughter and former girlfriend to form a family. Doctor Destiny provides some menace. A solid issue for the time.

Men of War #25: Continuing from last issue, Gravedigger gets to save FDR, then for his trouble gets given another deadly mission that would have otherwise gone to the Unknown Soldier. I guess that's a win? We got more of Rosa's origin, but also the indication he might not be truthful. This character piqued my interest, and I like Grandenetti's art. It's a shame there wasn't more of it.

Secrets of Haunted House #21: More EC-esque yarns. The first is a perplexing yarn about a ghost that isn't. I would say it was dumb, but the plot-twists indicate Carl Wessler put some thought into it, for better or worse. The second is a cautionary tale about the the highstakes world of rural scorpion fighting. The last is sort of the Island of Doctor Moreau, but not quite. 

Superman #344: Superman stories of this era like to throw magic at him a lot. Maybe it's the presumed vulnerability? In this Wein/Levitz story drawn by Swan, Superman combats Dracula and Frankenstein for the life of a young medium. Superman uses heat vision and super-pressure to turn a hydrogen balloon into a miniature sun to get read of Dracula, but not before Frankenstein robs a bakery delivery truck.


Weird War Tales #84:
The goofiest tale this issue is by Mike Barr and Charles Nicholas wherein the ghost of Woodrow Wilson prevents the assassination of DeGaulle by Nazi saboteurs. In the other two stories a Russian general sells his soul for victory in WWI, only to get killed in the Revolution, and American troops from WWII getting transport to Camelot to loosen up the sword in the stone with explosives. 

Wonder Woman #264: Conway and Delbo have the Gaucho employing robotic rheas (roborhea) to bedevil Wonder Woman. I think that says it all, really.

Colonel Gander's Mutant Recipe

Mon, 03/01/2021 - 12:00


This is a session report for two Land of Azurth 5e games: January 31st and last night. 

The party was still exploring the weird chicken factory complex in the deserts of Sang. Exploration had led them to discovery of both the birthing area of the mutant chicken folk, and a living mutant. Trying to find out something of the history of the place, they interrogated him, and he pointed them in the directions of the communication center. There they were able to play some sort of hologram off something like looked suspiciously like a super-VHS tape (it was, of course, not recognizable as such to the party). 

The hologram was of one Colonel John Harcourt Gander, foundered of Gander Foods. He revealed that his Civil War veteran grandfather, John Gander, had been whisked away by some magical doorway to Sang from a place called America. In Sang he had won the love of a princess and founded a kingdom. He also discovered that something made animals grow large in Sang, and exotic Sang spices tasted really good on chicken. These insights and a stable gate back to Earth allowed his descendants to create a poultry empire based on commerce between the worlds.

These revelations made the party more sympathetic to the mutant chicken who had otherwise been acting completely murderous and so were responded to in kind. 

Then, they discovered the master computer running the facility, who offered to store the factory to functioning if only the mutants were exterminated. The party was noncommittal but did follow the computer's directions to the surviving mutants. They found the chickens supervising a robot's attempt at surgery on one of their wounded fellows.

Dagmar healed the injured chicken, earning the party the chickens' attention for parley. The chicken were receptive to being given the factory as a homeland, but when the party suggested they might still grow nonmutant chickens for human consumption, things took a turn, and Dagmar the Cleric decided they might as well attack. Soon, the chicken's were slaughtered and the party had thrown their lot in with the computer.

They did let the chicken Dagmar had healed live, but left him to figure out exactly what to do with him later.

In exploration, Waylon opened a safe containing fuel pellets and apparently exposed himself to radiation, but he was sure his hardy frogling constitution would save him. The computer directed them to the only other surviving mutant who was in the control room of the station's atomic reactor.

The party went to get him too, but wound up tangling with a beef security bot in the mutant's control.  Once the robot was destroyed, they prepared to enter the reactor room.

Underground Freaks

Sun, 02/28/2021 - 15:30


Paul "Gridshock 20XX" Vermeren used to talk about running Operation Unfathomable as a superhero thing. I don't know exactly what he had in mind, but I think it would be most interesting to do something with weird powers bizarre deaths underground that combines superheroes with an old school D&D mentality.

Marvel published a comic in the 80s by Peter Gillis and Brent Anderson called Strikeforce: Morituri about a group of individuals given powers to fight an alien invasion. The catch is that they will die within a year as a side effect of the process that empowered them.

With something like my modern Operation: Unfathomable idea where a group of volunteers (or maybe a suicide squad of "volunteered" criminals) get exposed to chaos and mutated into something more than human in order to complete a mission in the Unfathomable. I'm sure there's some old school based superhero system that could provide powers. Perhaps just a random table of spell or monster trait inspired powers would do.

Omniverse: Fear Itself

Thu, 02/25/2021 - 12:00
This Omniversal speculation originally appeared on Google+ in January of 2018. 

Scarecrows will be a recurring motif, and the first of those is one of the Fear Lords, a group of mysterious gods or demons, who (as the Book of Vishanti states): “are not motivated by base cravings for human worship or for dominion over lowly creatures, but by the desire for greatest, purest fear-which is sustenance and life itself to them.” Until Dream was freed from his prison and reined in his subordinate, Nightmare had a place among them. So does that renegade protector of humankind known as the Straw Man or Scarecrow, the demon patron of the fear of the numinous.

When psychology professor Jonathan Crane first decided to strike a blow against the society he hated via extortion and murder, he relied on his scarecrow costume alone to create fear. He confronted Batman only twice during the 1940s. By the time he resurfaces in 1955, he is making use of a powerfully hallucinogenic fear chemical.

Crane didn’t have the scientific background to synthesize the chemical. Somehow, he must have acquired it from Hugo Strange, who had employed a much weaker version in the 40s. Crane’s experimentation may well have been responsible for the increased potency of the drug, however.

Almost a decade later, wax museum owner Zoltan Drago donned a frightful costume and begins a criminal career as Mr. Fear. He employs a fear gas not dissimilar in effects to Strange’s original compound. Drago’s story was that he intended to make a chemical to bring his wax statues to life as a criminal army, but accidentally made the fear gas instead. It seems clear that Drago was mentally ill, but whether he was a mentally ill genius or liar is unknown. It has been suggested that psychic contact with the Fear Lord known as the Dweller in Darkness influenced Drago’s costume design, so perhaps it also led to his madness? Such things have certainly happened before.


After Drago’s death, at least 3 other individuals took on the Mr. Fear identity and employed the fear gas. Ariel Tremmore, the daughter of the last one, injected herself with a formula made from the fear chemical residue extracted from a sample of her father’s skin. It turned her into a monster, or perhaps made a certain inner monstrousness manifest. In any case, she too gained the ability to cause fear.

But back to scarecrows, again. Ebenezer Laughton was the second costumed criminal to take up the name and costume of the Scarecrow. He was a former sideshow contortionist (perhaps the illegitimate son of the the original Flash’s foe, the Rag Doll). Like Crane, he originally relied on the costume and his natural abilities alone, initially, to commit his crimes. He went insane, or more insane, and became a serial killer. Even serial killers have their uses, it seems, as a shadowy organization had him surgically altered to be able to produce pheromones which caused a panic reaction in those exposed.

Wednesday Comics: DC, January 1980 (part 2)

Wed, 02/24/2021 - 12:00
I'm continuing my read through of DC Comics output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis. This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around October 25,1979.
Action Comics #503: I struggle to see where Cary Bates was going with this story of a fake TV psychic using stolen technology, time travel, and a giant, upright vacuum cleaner from the future. Well, it isn't really a vacuum cleaner, but Curt Swan draws it to look one. This is no doubt the worst Superman story this month, and that is saying something. Interestingly, there is no Lois Lane here; Lana Lang is the snooping the tv reporter in this era with Kent on the nightly news.

Adventure Comics #467
: delivers the adventures of Plastic Man and Starman III (depending on who you count; it's Prince Gavyn). Neither story is particularly substantial, but the Plastic Man story written by Wein and charmingly cartoony art by Joe Staton and Robert Allen Smith. The Levitz Starman story is clunkier, but has Steve Ditko art.
Brave & the Bold #158: Conway's second team-up book this month has a one off, gimmick villain that the cover tries to sell as a big deal. The art by Aparo is good, and I like comradery Conway puts in Batman's and Wonder Woman's relationship. It wouldn't be done that way these days! By the standards of team-up books at the Big Two, this is a solid, if in no way noteworthy, issue.
Green Lantern #124: by O'Neil and Staton was one of my favorite titles of the month, though I can't say it lacks in a bit of goofiness. Sinestro attacks some aviation event for no reason, Green Arrow is mad at Green Lantern and they aren't talking about it. What works, though, is Jordan's journey to Korugar (Sinestro's homeworld) and the discovery that Sinestro's old man is a drug peddler, essentially, operating a Null Chamber that allows death by yellow ray, then resurrection, for the thrills. It's the kind of throwaway idea Morrison could do something with in his run. 
House of Mystery #276: Better than the two horror anthologies earlier in the month, it's still not great. It's got a Blue Beard retread by Wein and Ditko, a sword & sorcery yarn that isn't horror by Mannart and Nasser, and one decent "ghost story" by Joe Gill and Nestor Malgapo.

Legion of Super-Heroes #259
: Conway (again) and Staton (again) deliver a story whose primary purpose seems to be having Superboy leave the Legion so they can finally have the book to themselves, and Superboy can move to a solo this month. The villain has a weak reason for attacking them, and is perhaps offensive to the mentally ill by modern standards (he's called "psycho"-warrior through out, and the issue is cringingly titled "Psycho War") but Conway does seem to be groping toward saying something about trauma and survivor guilt.
New Adventures of Superboy #1: Bates and Schaffenberger deliver another one of those stories that will seem quaint in just a few years, but it may actually be the best non-team-up Superman story of the month, which doesn't say much. From a continuity standpoint, it shows Clark's 16th birthday, and suggests he debuted as Superboy as age 8. Eight year-old Superboy manages to trick some immortal aliens, so he's precocious.
Sgt. Rock #336: Kanigher and Frank Redondo (Nestor's brother) have the Joes from Easy meeting up with a brave, but doomed contingent of Canadian hockey players turned soldiers. In the second story, Kanigher and Estrada churn out a really generic war comic meditation on heroism. Standard DC war comics stuff, but unremarkable.
Superfriends #28: The forerunner of the animation style comics DC would do in the 90s following BTAS. This may not be as good as those, but its fun and has nice Ramona Fradon art to go with its Nelson Bridwell story.

The Unexpected #195
: This anthology has stories under the banner of other (now defunct) DC horror books: Doorway to Nightmare, The Witching Hour and House of Secrets. It's the best horror anthology of the month. Kashdan's and Jodloman's "Weave A Tangled Skein of Death" feels like it could have been a Warren feature. O'Neil's Craig's "Deadly Homecoming!" is gratifyingly nasty (within a Comics Code approved context) and mildly surprising.
Unknown Soldier #235: I don't know why, but this one was disappointing. The Unknown Soldier covers always looked cool to me as a kid, but this issue isn't great, other than the unintentionally on the nose plot point of having a Nazi war criminal hiding out as a drill instructor of a Southern military academy near a Civil War battlefield. The second story is a better than it ought to be allegory for the lasting effects of trauma.
Warlord #29: I talked about in detail here.
Scalphunter #63: Conway and Ayers have Brian Savage looking to rescue his friend Bat Lash, but falling into a trap at the hands of Confederates, with the cliffhanger of Bat Lash denouncing him as a murderer in court. It's got me interested enough that I want to see how part 2 plays out.
And that's DC Comics for a January 1980 cover date! Fourteen of the 29 publications are non-superhero, which is a contrast with Marvel this same month that has only 9 non-superhero (if Master of Kung-Fu isn't a superhero) publications out of 37. Marvel has no war or western titles and only Man-Thing to represent horror, whereas DC has 13.

Superhero Concepts

Mon, 02/22/2021 - 12:00


Superhero characters in rpgs that feel like characters from comics (and now probably film) can be tough for players, in my experience. Most supers rpgs try to make this easier by suggesting archetypes, but these archetypes are typically based on power types (blaster, elementalist) or role (brick). 

I think the best way to construct authentic feeling superhero characters (This is always assuming emulating comics in this fashion is the goal. If you want to just play people with powers, well that's cool. too.) is to construct them from parts of familiar characters. Here's a couple of examples:

The Atom: This character was part of a series where I imagined how Stan Lee and 60s Marvel staff would have revamped DC's Golden Age characters, like a Mighty Marvel version of DC's Silver Age. This Atom was a socially awkward, 98-lbs. weakling (Peter Parker like), who got transformed in an experiment into a green monster at first (like the Hulk) but later was able to contain his power is a special suit and control it (Captain Atom and Solar have had this aspect at times).

Damselfly: Is half of an alien cop duo who came to Earth chasing a criminal (like the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl/woman). She broke with her partner and has a power set more like the Wasp. She has an African American appearing civilian identity and is a empowered female character in the 70s mold (both aspects of Bronze Age social relevance.) 

So for both of these Power, Origin, Motivation/Background come from different places. Many of these traits could be genericized, to be sure: "accident" is the origin of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain Atom, and Solar, for instance. But I think pulling details and instances from actual characters provides a richer substrata perhaps than reductive llists.

But what if someone isn't a comics reader? Well, in 2020, more people have probably developed an interest in superheroes and superhero gaming through movies. I don't think this sort of "cannibalizing for parts" is limited to comics--or even necessarily superhero media.



Weird Revisited: Alternate Prime Material Planes

Sun, 02/21/2021 - 15:30
The original version of this post appeared in 2015...
 
One of the complaints against the standard D&D Planes is that, while conceptually interesting perhaps, its hard to know what to do with them as adventuring sites. One solution would be to borrow a page from science fiction and comic books and replace them with a mutliverse of alternate worlds. These would be easy to use for adventuring purposes and could put an additional genre spin on the proceedings. Here are a few examples:

Anti-World: An alignment reversed version of the campaign setting. Perhaps humanoids are in ascendance and human and demihumans are marauding killers living underground.

Dark Sun World: In this world, the setting underwent a magical cataclysm in the past and is now a desert  beneath a dying sun.

Dinosauria: Mammalian humanoids are replaced by dinosaurian humanoids.
Lycanthropia: The world is cloaked in eternal night and lycanthrope has spread to most of the population.

Modern World: This version has a technology level equal to our own (or at least the 1970s) and the PCs have counterparts who play adventurers in some sort of game.

Spelljammer World: A crashed spacecraft led to a magictech revolution and space colonization.

Western World: Try a little sixguns and sorcery and replace standard setting trappings with something more like the Old West.

Six More Days to Get Gridschocked

Fri, 02/19/2021 - 13:13


Paul Vermeren's 80s-chromed post-apocalyptic, superhero setting Kickstarter has just 6 more days for you to jump in. While it hasn't funded yet, it's getting close. You can help it reach it's goal.

At the base level you get all 4 32 page zines in pdf for $19, which is a pretty good deal given what I've seen in Zinequest as a whole.

This setting is really a labor of love for Paul (some might say an obsession!), and having be privy to much of the design discussion over the years, I can say it is unique, while at the same time being completely accessible due to a lot of familiar tropes.

It's got great 80s invoking design by Paul's brother Chris and awesome art by Steven de Waele, too!

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