Monday, June 27, 2022

West Coast Avengers: The Last Resort


I've got interested in trying Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, the years out-of-print game based on the Cortex Plus system, and we were between games in one of my groups so it seemed a good time to give it a try. As MHR is geared to playing characters in the Marvel Universe, I decided to adapt a module from TSR's old Marvel Superheroes game, and since I could find MHR stats for all the characters online, I went with possibly the only MSHRPG module I ever played, The Last Resort by Kim Eastland, which stars the West Coast Avengers--a team I have some nostalgia for, since I subscribed to their comic. 

Paul, Aaron, and Andrea were the group or the season playing Hawkeye, Wonder Man, and Tigra respectively. The stats, unfortunately, weren't period perfect, being based on the versions of the characters from 30 years later, but that's to be expected and only mildly offends my sense of nostalgia, really. 

The story involvements Iron Man and a group of Boy Scouts going missing during the hero's appearance at a Jamboree in Idaho. The other Avengers must investigate, and of course, discover nefarious doings.

I'll reserve my full judgements for both the system and the adventure until we've completed the latter, but some initial thoughts on both: I liked MHR on my read through of it, and so far it has held up well in play, moving fairly fast despite our lack of familiarity with it, but for the simplicity of its base mechanic it does have a lot of exceptions and options to keep track of. The module is silly in concept and detail, and not silly in a way that is congruent with what would be likely to occur in the comics, but it has thus far served its purpose of allowing us to test out the system.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Power Scale in Superhero Comics

 Superhero rpgs often wrestle with the scale of super-power characters. This typically manifests itself in attribute benchmarks like in FASERIP-derived games or Mayfair's DC Heroes, but some games like Mutants & Masterminds have "levels" or even a separate scale trait. In all cases, it's some means of separating the capabilities of more normal heroes from cosmic or godlike ones.

There's another factor that could be called scale that is observable in superhero comics. It is not an "in-world" element; the characters aren't aware it exists, but its existence presents a barrier to superhero rpgs being able to emulate the comics (if that's something you care about), and I think its existence is just sort of an interesting observation about superhero universe comics storytelling in general.

It's pretty noticeable when you look at Batman.

In Batman's solo stories he is often given a hard time or gotten the better of by his rogue's gallery (most of whom are not superhuman and seldom as proficient in combat as him) or street thugs and the like. In Batman's team-up appearances or in his appearances as a member of the Justice League, he is far more formidable. He holds his own or triumphs against very powerful foes. Batman in his solo stories is almost a costumed, pulp vigilante in the vein of the Shadow or the Spider, but Batman in the Justice League is a superhero.

Spider-Man is sort of like this, too. The Enforcers given him a hard time in his own comic, but then in Secret Wars #2 he makes the X-Men look like amateurs, at least briefly.

Superman and Supergirl (and I think Thor and Iron Man) work in the opposite way. In Bronze and Silver Age comics, a Kryptonian can do almost anything the plot requires. Supergirl kicks the moon out of orbit in Superman Family #204...

...but she seldom seems that powerful in team-ups or crossovers.

The narrative reasons for these shifts, I think, are pretty clear. If Superman can solve any problem himself, what does the Justice League do? The type of stories that are classically told with Batman or Spider-Man as solo characters require them to be more vulnerable.

I'm not sure these sorts of "scales" in portrayal exist for all characters but they are certainly pretty common.

Could something approaching this be implemented in a supers game? Sure, in some sorts of rpgs. Marvel Heroic already has "Affiliation" (Solo, Buddy, Team) which doesn't do the same thing, but it could. Still, unless a campaign was going to include a lot solo character adventures as well as team adventures, I don't know that it would be particular necessary.

Still, I think it's interesting.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, September 1981 (wk 2 pt 2)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around June 18, 1981. 

Detective Comics #506: This whole issue has a bit of a (comics code approved) giallo vibe, I think. In the main story by Conway and Newton/Mitchell, 10 months ago, Batman saves a woman from a burning car. The woman is horribly burned, but alive. The car seems to have been bombed. In the present, men in the fashion industry are being killed, and Bruce Wayne winds up in an altercation in a dance club with a woman with immense strength who snaps the neck of a fashion designer with one hand. The woman, the Manikin, removes her coat and mask and appears incased in an articulated, full-body, metal outfit. The clothes she leaves behind are designer and not of the commercial produced variety. Batman goes to question the designer of the garment in question, but the Manikin attacks again. She is too strong and fast for the Batman, and eventually tricks him and knocks him out. To be continued.

In the Batgirl backup by Burkett and Delbo/Giella, the hunchback killer believes he's killed Batgirl, so he leaves her alone when she is merely unconscious. Noticing the hands of a cellist at a concert, Batgirl realizes that the hunchback is a musician of a stringed instrument due to his calluses. Guessing he is a mandolin player, she manages to track his likely identity by checking music stores in the areas the hunchback has operated. She gets lucky and discovers the hunchback look is merely a costume worn by the musician who believes his Muse only speaks to him after he kills. Slipping on a page of sheet music gets Batgirl captured again, he plays his haunting music for her, but then kills himself.

Legion of Super-Heroes #279: We reach the conclusion of the Grimbor story. With most of the LSH neutralized or captured by Grimbor, Princess Projectra and Karate Kid try to take out the energy chains with the Kid's weakness locating abilities, while Reflecto takes on Grimbor. Our heroes triumph, of course, and Reflecto is revealed to be not Ultra-Boy as the story has been leading us to think but Superboy! Thomas gets solo writing credit on this one, Conway having moved on, I guess.

New Adventures of Superboy #21: Bates and Schaffenberger present a pretty rare situation outside of Kryptonite: Superboy being uniquely susceptible to something. In this case, it's the tone frequencies of the voice of a wheeler-dealer business man named McKay. He gets Superboy in a contract that has him performing "charity" benefits weekly. Meanwhile, there's some sort of semi-corporeal creature in a lake whose touch turns things to crumbling mineral. In the end, Superboy returns the creature to space where it belongs, and Pa Kent points out Superboy is a minor and couldn't enter into the contract with McKay, voiding it. In the backup, Superboy builds a ship with the help of his slug sapient friends and escapes the planet under a red sun.

Sgt. Rock #356: In the first story (in a pattern not uncommon in this book), a by-the-book lieutenant learns a thing or two from Rock after he forces the sergeant to stop taking point all the time. They have to go into a French town overrun by Germans to get back the soldiers that got sent ahead instead. In a story by the Veitch brothers, three green and somewhat frightened troops are sent on a mission with a corporal famed for his bravery. When he is captured, they find their courage to rescue him, and also choose to keep his memory untarnished by not revealing he cracked under torture. In the last story, Rock recalls a nameless loner in Easy who nevertheless died making a heroic sacrifice for the unit.

We have no issue of Super Friends this month. That's because last month's was the final issue, and I forgot to note it at the time.

Unexpected #214: No Johnny Peril this issue (in fact, the Johnny Peril revival is over. Outside of Who's Who he won't be seen again until the 1990s), and the issue is better than average. In the first story by Kashdan and Panaligan, an archeological swindler gets buried in the fake tomb he had built by angry native peoples. In the cover story by Kelley/Bissette and Gonzales, a prizefighter is booked to fight a minotaur in a Greek cave by his avaricious son. Then there's a nonhorror pseudohistorical bit of nonsense about Teddy Roosevelt in the old west. The last story, written by Mishkin and Cohn with art by Gonzales/Colletta, is an atypical werewolf yarn. A tagger with dreams of making a name for himself as a graffiti artist instead becomes a hero when a well-placed spray can spray thwarts a subway werewolf.

Unknown Soldier #255: Haney and Ayers/Tlaloc continue the Soldier's adventures in China with his new lady friend, the pirate Lady Jade. Their beached ship is overrun by the troops of the Warlord Chang. Chang intends to use the artillery the Soldier was taking to the Chinese fighters to breach the citadel of Ur Jal. On the festival of Ching Ming he's got to sweep the tomb of his family. That works out ok because Ur Jal is exactly where the Soldier intended to go as the Japanese are using it as a munition depot. They breach the Citadel and Chang sweeps the tomb--before the Unknown Soldier blows the fortress up to destroy the munitions. Jade returns to her piratical ways, and the Unknown Soldier heads off to his next mission.

The Captain Fear story has a pirate fighting a ninja, which is pretty much all the comics reading youth of the early 80s could ask for, I think. The conflict is over the scroll Fear captured last installment where a samurai clan requests the help of the British in overthrowing the Shogun in return for helping fund the war against Austria. Fear doesn't know this though because he can't read, but a Spanish governor and ninja in the service of the Shogun want the scroll for themselves. The art by Simonson is great here.

The last story is a Dateline: Frontline story by Burkett and Estrada. Things are getting desperate in Bataan, with low food and high numbers of sick and wounded. The U.S. general surrenders, and it seems there may be worse things to come.

Warlord #49:  Read about this issue here. In the Claw the Unconquered backup by Harris and Yeates, Claw does battle with the demon his demonic hand originally came from. The battle seems to be a stalemate until Shalieka, the woman he met last issue, suggests she can perform a ritual to return their hands, though one will die. They agree, but Claw double-crosses the demon, cutting off his human hand and casting him into the maw of the Lord of Death. Claw enters the city the conquering hero, but a robed figure watching suggests Shalieka's actions have all been in the service of the Lords of Shadow. We never find out to what end, as this is the last Claw the Unconquered backup.

World's Finest Comics #271: Superman Thomas, Harris, and Bridwell write the sort of continuity heavy story Thomas is known for with art by Buckler/McLaughlin. Superman dreams of a masked man that shoots him with Kryptonite beams, and weirdly, that happens the next day as Atoman is released from a coffin. In trying to determine the identity of Atoman, Superman and Batman remember all the times they met for the first time (in their alter egos, etc.). Finally, they figure out Atoman is from Earth-Two. The defeat him there with the assistant of Superman and Robin from that world.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The F.R.E.E. Lancers Cinematic Universe

"The idea was to bring together a group of of remarkable people to see if they could become something more. To see if they could work together when we needed them to, to fight the battles that we never could."

- Nick Fury, The Avengers

I figure at least some of you remember F.R.E.E. Lancers, the Top Secret/S.I. setting supplement from 1988. The game takes place in a fractured America of 1998 with where low-powered supers exist powered by cybertech, biotech, and psychic powers. It's the sort of idea that was kind of in the Zeitgeist of the era, with Marvel's New Universe, Misfits of Science, and some direct market comics offering up low-powered supers, realistic supers, or the like.

It's not an approach much in vogue today, but it isn't a bad one.

An interesting thing I noticed about F.R.E.E. Lancers the other day, the breakdown of the U.S. Federal government began when a politician tried to build a wall along the border with Mexico. In this case, it was a fictional governor of Texas and the year was 1994, but it got me thinking: one way to update F.R.E.E. Lancers would be to make it an alternate present. 

Of course, it would need an update in some ways. Computer tech, the internet, smartphones. Technological advances since that time would have made some of the "superhuman" characters seem all the more plausible:

Other things like psi powers would still remain in a more fantastical realm. I think it would be an interesting mix.

Of course uniforms/costumes would be updated to the current "realistic" style of superheroic movies and tv shows.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Weird Revisited: Random Rampage Table

On occasion, someone in the City can be heard to ask, incredulously: "What's climbing to the top of that skyscraper?!":

1. nonhuman hominid or primate
2. Gargantuan crustacean (lobstrosity)
3. Fifty-foot showgirl
4. Gi-ant
5. Flesh golem compose of parts of 1-6 other giant creatures
6. Animated statute
8. Man mutated by thaumaturgic accident
9. Gigantolycanthrope
10. Ghost of another creature (roll again to determine which)
11. Amorphous blob or slime
12. Mega-flumph

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Wednesday Comics: DC, September 1981 (wk 2 pt 1)

My goal: read DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm looking at the comics at newsstands around June 18, 1981.

Action Comics #523: It's a good thing the DC Who's Who didn't pay as much attention to alien species as the OHOTMU did, otherwise they would have needed a whole appendix for the aliens in Conway's Action run alone. Is it editorial that keeps Superman's adventures here so formulaic? Or just simply nostalgia for the 50s by the writers? Still, I've got to commend their inventiveness in terms of the variety of shenanigans the aliens of the month get up to. This time, a shapeshifting alien shows up and claims jock doofus Steve Lombard is really his long lost brother. Tests seem to support the claim, and Lombard goes off to his homeworld. Superman follows and finds the aliens are stealing the athletic abilities from the galaxy's best physical specimens--but really Lombard was just a means to get Superman in a trap. Supes saw all this coming though and defeats them, returning Lombard to Earth. 

In the Rozakis/Saviuk Atom backup, the tiny titan falls back in time to the extreme hurricane season of 1938. There he manages to meet his parents as younger people and help his future father rescue his future mother from the storm. He is able to climb the cable back into 1981 and take out the Calculator by having the professor press all the buttons on Calculator's chest plate at once.

Adventure Comics #485: Really nice Perez cover on this one. On the inside, well, we get a shadowy big bad introduced this issue that may signal a shift to an overarching story. Or maybe not. Anyway, this issue sees said Shadowy "Master" sending a team of villains called the Evil Eight against our heroes in a series of skirmishes in an attempt to get their Hero dials. They do not succeed. Oh, and the kid's friend who ran away and joined a gang because his parents were getting divorced, finally gets away from those delinquents.

Brave & the Bold #178: Brennert and Aparo come up with an interesting villain design in the form of the Origami Man, who pretty much looks like you might think except you might not imagine his really angry looking eyes. Anyway, Jack Ryder is concerned that Clayton Whetley a fellow commentator at WHAM is beginning to take aim at minorities. Meanwhile, Batman is trying to track down the so-called "doll killer" who leaves paper dolls at the scene and also tends to target minorities. The Creeper and Batman manage to corner the Origami creature, but it's too tough for them. Analysis of the paper it's made up of shows that it's a special paper used for origami, likely known only to collectors--like Whetley. Batman and the Creeper confront Whetley, but the creature attacks again. Whetley realizes that he is responsible for creating the monster and has been unwittingly channeling the hate of his audience to fuel the creature's rampage. Whetley's horror and rejection of what he has done causes the creature to burst into flame. In the end, the Creeper points out that the real murderers are of course still out there, and all they need is another focus for their hate.

In the Nemesis backup, our hero is in the hands of Samuel Solomon who wants to use him to take down the other members of the Council to consolidate his power. To ensure Nemesis' cooperation, Solomon's clamped a device to his heart that can induce a heart attack. Nemesis manages to escape, and he hopes Solomon believes he's dead so we won't use the device.

All-Star Squadron #1: Thomas, Buckler, and Ordway follow-up from last month's preview, still introducing their large cast of characters. Hawkman and Plastic Man try to find out what happened to Hawkman's JSA buddies and run afoul of some other villains that are likely time displaced. The two heroes head to Washington to answer Roosevelt's summons. 

Meanwhile, vulcanologist Danette Reilly and the Shining Knight run into Per Degaton and his villainous crew in Hawaii. Soon, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurs and Danette's brother Dan is apparently killed.

Hawkman and Plastic Man meet up in D.C. with Dr. Mid-Nite and the Atom. Johnny Quick and Liberty Belle weren't summoned, but just happen to be there anyway. FDR asks them to mobilize all costumed heroes in an All-Star Squadron. They should go to the West Coast to deal with further attacks.

They may not make it. Per Degaton and his forces are making a submarine attack on San Francisco.

House of Mystery #296: The first story here is a real bit of anti-homeless paranoia by Conway and Infantino. A doctor in a emergency department becomes curious about the bag ladies from the subway tunnels she treats. She goes looking for them and discovers it's one big coven of witches. She joins up, sacrificing her life and looks for secrets of the universe, and we last see her aged and disheveled so much as to be unrecognizable, picking from the garbage and putting stuff into her shopping bags. 

The next story by Kashdan and Randall/Blaisdell has a rebel in a dystopian, robot-controlled future sentenced to give up his brain for the very robot he smashed in the head. In a silly story by Kupperberg and Carrillo, an actor on a soon to be cancelled Gothic soap summons an angel of death to put an end to the talk show host beating his show in the ratings. The angel must take a soul, so when he's pointed to the talk show that happens to be airing a rerun, the actor is taken instead. 

In the final story by Mishkin/Cohn and Hall/Celardo, a struggling community in a post-nuclear war America inadvertently brings a serial killer into its walls after a foraging expedition into the ruins. Ultimately though, it's fear and suspicion of outsiders and the desire to resort to violence to salve that fear that does more damage to the community than the killer by pushing it to isolationism.

Green Lantern #143: Wolfman and Staton have Hal and Carol bid goodbye to the Omega Men and head back into the less interesting "Carol's father makes Ferris Aircraft great again" storyline. An old mentor of Jordan's brought in to replace Carol, so Carol and Hal storm out again and coincidentally run into the Tattooed Man. He does a lot better against GL than you might think because there's "yellow ink" in his tattoos or something. Ultimately, he's shot and killed by whoever the shadowy foe is he's on the run from, and Jordan vows to avenge his death.

In the Sutton/Rodriguez Adam Strange backup, Adam leads an assault on Alva Xur's base with the help of the aquatic folks he met earlier in this arc, and they free Alanna and defeat the badguy.

Superman Family #210: This is a title where the stories are often well-crafted (though not always) but also just not the sort of thing that people read superhero comics for in 2021--not just in the anthology aspect but in the focus and style of a lot of the stories. Sort of good this issue is the goofy Supergirl story by Rozakis and Mortimer/Colletta where it turns out the sports commentator who is somehow making people act badly at sporting events is doing it because he secretly hates sports because he was never any good at them. Supergirl prevails in the end, of course. The Pasko/Delbo Jimmy Olsen story has Jimmy accidentally getting into a cab with 3 lookalikes. It turns out a guy who feels Olsen's reporting ruined his life has hired four stand-ins to ruin Jimmy's! 

The less good: The Mr. and Mrs. Superman has the Earth-2 Lex Luthor (the one with hair) using some tribal mask with magical powers to get back at Superman. The Clark Kent story has the intriguing (ok, mildly interesting) conceit of him writing the story about how Superman stops a bomber before he goes out to actually do it. A mistake on Superman's part when spying on the bomber sends him to the wrong place, and he almost doesn't stop the bomb. The Conway/Oksner Lois Lane story has her thwarting theft at a dog show. A dog show.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Marvel Superheroes RPG Derivates

 Lately, I've been been looking at games employing the old Universal Table. That is derivates of TSR's Marvel Superheroes Roleplaying Game, sometimes called FASERIP, which is potentially confusing as one of these derivatives is name FASERIP. I haven't made an exhaustive study of them, but I have gotten a feel I think for what the authors were looking to update or add to them.

Interestingly, the Karma system is tweaked in all three of them, suggesting the way it works in the published editions is high on the list of thinks to fix.

Anyway, here's my brief rundown:

FASERIP: This one hews the closest to the original. Mainly it seems to switch out the original powers and their descriptions for a semi-"effects based" system system derived from Icons. It also changes advancement to be based around "milestones" and the pushing of abilities. I hear the character generation system is based on Golden Heroes, but I'm not familiar with that game.

Astonishing Superheroes Book 1: The Basic Rulebook: This is the newest of the three. In fact, it's not really complete yet, though the the published books and a Beta of the second book give you enough to actually play it. It occupies a middle position of the three. It's changes/innovations include adding a mental/spiritual health score called Resolve, and rolls for social interactions like persuasion and the like. It's Karma system cuts character's initial Karma by 10, but makes up for it by more greater rewards based around character personality traits/ideals/ believes. It's power system is a looser than FASERIPs, though perhaps not looser that the original games, other than drawing attention to this looseness by discussing how you would create new powers.

Marvel Superheroes Nth Edition: Is a bit like a mashup of Fate and MSHRPG with a bit of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying in there. Like more than one MSHRPG "heartbreaker" or fan-tweak it adds more ability ranks (more than most others I've seen) and a critical failure level on the universal table. It also adds more attributes, making them more specific in their focus. Talents also get expanded ranks. It adapts the "Four Actions" of Fate, and ditches Karma entirely for a system of Drama Points based on invoking Distinctions, traits that define the personality and backstory of characters. Like ASH, it adds a mental/spiritual stress track (Sanity) and rules for social interaction.

Nth Edition has some interesting ideas, but there's just too much there for me. It's like it wants to be a crunchier MSHRPG and a more narrative one. I'd prefer it picked one or the other. FASERIP is probably the game for those that just want a cleaned up MSHRPG, but really, unless the author's concerns are exactly congruent with your own, it seems like it's playing with someone else's house rules. Of the three, Astonishing Superheroes seems like it overall balances putting some modern innovations into the game without making it alien to the people who love it.