Sunday, June 20, 2021

Operation Unfathomable Covers

 Jason Sholtis tells me that the work on the remaining Operational Unfathomable Kickstarter items is drawing to close, which is good news to a lot of people. Jason requested I send him all of the cover designs I had brainstormed for the various products. I had not looked at any of these in 4 or 5 years, but once I dug them up and thought they were worth sharing, though none of them may get used on the actually products.

This was my first design for the Completely Unfathomable omnibus. I mainly just wanted to give it an omnibus sort of feel.

This is for the same book, but thinking a bit more out of the box. It's meant to look like an old bubblegum card wax pack wrapper. 

This is the is the second design I did for Odious Uplands. It's meant the reference the sort of WPA national park posters. 

This was my proposal for the DCC version of Completely Unfathomable. It references the Skywald Publishing horror magazine style (even with a riff on it's "horror mood" tagline). It's my least favorite of these.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Dark Sun: The Templars


We're told in the original Dark Sun campaign setting that the Templars are "clergymen devoted to the sorcerer king of their city. Like other priests, they are granted spells in return for their worship." Also, they "dominate the king's bureaucracy." The revised box set expands on this slightly saying they serve as city guards and in the army, they oversee the city's administration, and they "maintain the illusion that the sorcerer king is a god by using their absolute power to enforce worship and homage to their ruler."

The problem with these portrayals is it seems at odds with what we are told about individual city-states and their sorcerer-kings. Some sorcerer-kings are viewed as gods, it's true, but some (we are explicitly told) just style themselves as rulers or whatever. Also, despite their name implying the existence of temples, we are not, across all the city-states, given any indication of temples' existence or what the practices within them might be. The first Dark Sun novel, Denning's The Verdant Passage supports the view of the setting material, with Kalak of Tyr viewed as a king and little evidence he is worshipped by anyone (though there is a mention of the templar's leading his "veneration.").

Without providing a unified "origin" for the templars and their role, I feel like not only should their exact nature vary from city-state to city-state, but also their name. I suppose for ease of discussing them as a class, templar serves as  well as anything, though. For most city-states I like the approach of the setting material and the novel: sorcerer-kings are venerated but not worshipped. (The distinction, may admittedly, be a fine one, but it exists.) The sorcerer-king forms the core of the city-state's civic religion: it's holidays, festivals, and foundational myths. There are no gods on Athas, but there is an afterlife, so perhaps fidelity to the sorcerer-king is tied in dogma to reward in the hereafter. The templars officiate at public observances (except when the sorcerer-king is present) and punish those who don't appear sufficiently devoted. As bureaucrats they also have a role in legal preceding that interact with the civic religion. 

Many of the city-states are probably a bit more fascistic than ancient world cities in the popular imagination. I feel like scarcity of resources would tend to push them the direction of Immortan Joe's Citadel in Mad Max: Fury Road. I could see some smaller ones having a cult (used in the modern sense) kind of character.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Streets of Fire and the 50s-but-80s Setting

On other social media, Paul "GRIDSHOCK 20XX" Vermeren mentioned he had watched Streets of Fire for the first time after hearing that it was influential to Mike Pondsmith. I've seen people call it "proto-cyberpunk" which means, I guess, that they see it as punk without any cyber. While I can see how aspects of it would influence the aesthetics of cyberpunk, I think it's difficult to say it's "proto" anything. It's really more like an evolutionary dead-in; a path that wasn't taken.

I do think, though, that taken on something closer to it's own terms, it would suggest a pretty interesting rpg setting, not by adding cyber or other fantastic elements, but rather doing action or adventure stuff in a world that never was. For lack of a better descriptor, a world where the 80s was more like the 50s. Or maybe the 50s was more like the 80s would work, but I think the former is better.

The styles of cars and clothes resemble the 60s, but the urban sprawl is more like the urban decay of the 70s into the early 80s--where it isn't exaggerated for fanciful effect. There was a long war, which was aesthetically perhaps more like Korea, but the public perception of its pointlessness and the difficulties its soldiers had upon return resemble more the popular conception of Vietnam. The gangs that are sometimes the bogeymen of 80s films just look more like the gangs in The Wild One than the gangs in Fort Apache the Bronx. I feel like the media presence Chaykin pushes in American Flagg! (which is, of course, set in the future but like most sci-fi speaks to the fears/concerns of its era, the 80s) or The Dark Knight Returns, could be interesting translated to 50s television without loosing much.

So what would the characters do other than what we see the characters do in the film? Well, just pick any present-day set 80s action movie and give it a bit of a 50s veneer.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Wednesday Comics: DC, September 1980 (wk 1, pt 2)

I'm reading DC Comics' output from January 1980 (cover date) to Crisis! This week, I'm continuing my look at the comics at newsstands on the week of June 12, 1980. 

Secrets of Haunted House #28: I don't understand the ending to the first story by Kelley and Rubeny. A Hollywood agent plans to jumpstart his career by pulling a recluse former star out of retirement. On the way to get the star back in the game, the two are in a car wreck and the star dies. Luckily, an island shaman shows up and offers to revive the star, but it will require another life in his place. One assistant's demise later, the star is ready for his close up. Trouble is, it takes periodic deaths to keep him alive. Eventually the agent tires of all this and goes back to the shaman to beg him to end the star's life. Twist! The shaman is in cahoots with the star, and it's the agent that meets his end. But why? It was established previously that just not killing for him would lead to the star dying. 

Next, Barr and Cruz give us a hillbilly Romeo and Juliet among feuding mountain families, except there's also a corrupt revenuer framing them for making moonshine. Ultimately, the apparition of a burning man (in this case the revenuer, on fire) is just the omen the families need to bury the hatchet and have themselves a wedding! The last story, by Kelley and Carrillo in the most EC-like of this issue. A bullied, young warehouse worker loses his tormentors to something in a deep freeze. When forced to confront it himself, he finds a vampire that he dispatches through quick thinking.

Superman #351: This continues Conway's and Swan's story of the fallout from Prof. Tolkein (not that one) demonstrating his "genesis machine," and instead empowering some sort of creature from the subconscious. If this were a Marvel Comic of the era, the creature would be wrecking all kinds of havoc, and though it does fight Superman, there isn't really a sense of danger to it. Lana talks with Tolkein to piece together what happened, and it turns out he tried to create a psychic circuit from the minds of students (without their consent) back a decade ago, and re-activated it to power the genesis machine at the reunion. The trouble is, the circuit didn't work right because Clark Kent wasn't a part. He's immune to hypnosis, naturally. Once this is revealed, Superman joins the circuit, allowing it to discharge safely. Everyone's mind is sort of reset, so none of the participants remember what happened. 

In the backup story, written by Denny O'Neil Mr. Mxyzptlk causes trouble at a circus, and Superman has to fill in to keep the performances going for the kids. In the end, Mxyzptlk is undone by one of the children's favorite toy, a tape recorder. This is lightweight, but fun and has Garcia-Lopez art.

Superman Family #203: I will say this for this title, it makes the members of the Superman Family seem more interesting to me than they have historically. I wouldn't say I'm eager to read about their exploits, but it does make Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen more worthwhile as characters. Harris and Mortimer/Colletta provide the Supergirl story this issue, which is more horrific to me than what they intended. A young woman who has been in a coma for 7 years (miraculously thriving, though she doesn't eat) suddenly wakes up and thinks she's Supergirl. And she has the powers to prove it. X-kryptonite is the culprit and the woman got exposed to it at Supergirl's crash site. There's some nonsense with an industrial spy who Supergirl deals with, but tragedy of the woman who lost her childhood  after contact with an alien technology is sort of glossed over, focusing on the reuniting of the family rather than the loss. Tales from the Loop made whole downer episodes from that sort of material!

Next Bridwell and Tuska treat us to a really trivial Mr. and Mrs. Superman story where Lana Lang arrives at the Daily Star and gets a job as a tv critic. After a poison pen review, a tv writer tries to kill her (and Lois) in an elevator. I'm uncertain when this story is suppose to take place. I would have guessed the 70s based on the fashion, but Earth-2 Clark and Lois are still pretty young, and TV seems to be in black and white. The early 60s maybe? The Clark Kent story by Rozakis and Janes has Clark helping a movie star whose developed the power to predict disasters. "Helping" in this case means convincing her she really doesn't have the power anymore, so then she really doesn't? 

Rounding out the issue, we have Lois and Jimmy stories. In Wolfman's and Oksner's Lois Lane piece, Lois is captured due to a trick elevator (bad elevators are a theme). A deprogrammer with a high tech apparatus steals her memories for some shadowy someone. Before they can kill her, she escapes. Suffering from amnesia she meets a widower haunted by the past, and they have a whirlwind romance-- Before goons show up to try to kill her. To be continued. Jimmy Olsen overhears a plot to kidnap a congressional candidate, but he has a hard time getting anyone to believe him, particularly after the criminals feed him false information to discredit him. Ultimately, it's revealed that the candidate too good to be true is really in league with the criminal element, and Jimmy has a target on his back.

Weird War Tales #91: I'm a bit surprised by the first story here because it's about the U.S. (conventional) bombing of Japan in WWII, and it takes a critical view. I wouldn't have expected that in a kid's comic in 1980. JM DeMatteis and Ernesto Patricio present a sadistic bomber captain, a young Japanese boy with pyrokinetic powers, and the war-weary bomber crewman that somehow helps facilitate the boy's revenge for the loss of his family. It's only marred by the narrator hitting us over the head with the fact that all the principles died, both righteous and wicked, because "this is war--where their is no justice--no happy ending--only death!"

The next story by Bernstein and Ayers and Adkins is much more standard issue. Some Italian soldiers decide they're done with the Germans and seek to surrender to the Allies. The Germans don't take too kindly to that and pursue them into the catacombs to kill them. Ancient Roman bones rise up to defend their descendants. In the next yarn, Haney, abetted by Sutton's intricate art weaves the tale of the doom of Harold, the Norman Invasion, and a certain comet. Finally, a futuristic tale of prejudice that I think I may have seen as a kid. Kupperberg and Ayers/Celardo present a post-apocalyptic world where "muties" with skins like California raisins are mistreated by a racist soldier--until he is cast down after his wife bears a mutant child, thanks to the mutants placing a source of radiation under his bed. Seems like neither side takes the high ground here. The future is like a weird mix of cod Roman Empire and modern day which the art fails to sell.

Wonder Woman #270: I'll be brief with this Conway/Delbo reset. Diana saves Steve Trevor's life, again (not the one from her Earth than had died, but another one). Then, she wins the right to be Wonder Woman again in a competition. Then, she leaves with Steve Trevor again for Man's World. Years of continuity dumped with no fuss, no bother. There's a backup story starring the Huntress by Levitz and Staton which isn't bad.

Two digests the first half of June: Best of DC #7 focused on Superboy and DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #4 full of Green Lantern stories.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Weird Revisited: Zone Commandos!

The original version of this post appeared in 2017.


THE SETUP: In 1985, a deep space probe returns to Earth after being thought lost in a spacetime anomaly. It returns to Earth, dropping otherworldly debris in its wake. Across the globe, zones on anomalous phenomena and monstrous creatures are created!

Twenty years later, only special UN troops stand between humanity and the destruction of civilization as we know it!

It’s Roadside Picnic meets 50s monster and sci-fi movies/kaiju and 60-70s action figures like G.I. Adventure Team and Big Jim.

THE HEROES are mostly buzz cut military men like the MARS Patrol but with code names and personalities more like 80s G.I. Joe. Their ranks many be augmented by beings that appeared from an anomaly (Kirby-esque amazons, aliens) or people enhanced by barely understood and dangerous technology acquired from them (Atomic Man, THUNDER Agent sorts)

THE DANGERS are strange environments, monsters of all sorts of 50s and 60s sorts, from Zanti misfits to human mutates to giant mutant dinosaurs.

This is a refinement/re-imaging of my Rifts 1970 campaign idea, just a little more militarized and more informed by the early 60s.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Mutants of Dark Sun


Under the description of humans in the original Dark Sun campaign setting it's noted that:

On Athas, centuries of abusive magic have not only scarred the landscape—they've twisted the essence of human appearance, as well. Many humans in Dark Sun look normal... Others, however, have marked alterations to their appearance. Their facial features might be slightly bizarre; a large chin or nose, pointed ears, no facial hair, etc. Their coloration might be subtly different, such as coppery, golden brown, hues of grey, or patchy. The differences may be more physical, such as webbed toes or fingers, longer or snorter limbs, etc. 

This interesting tidbit doesn't really get much play in the rest of the 2nd edition version of Dark Sun. The revised campaign setting doesn't mention it at all. The 4e campaign setting does not that Athasian humans have unusual traits and exaggerated features, but it only hazards that it might be the effects of the magic that brought ruin to the land.

This might not count as minor

I think this is a feature that enhances the post-apocalyptic element of Dark Sun and further plays into the theme of magic as ecologically ruinous. It would be particularly good way to set apart the tribes of the wastes or hinterlands from the people of the cities. Perhaps some prejudice exists against those too tainted in some city-states? (It would fit with their generally oppressive, slaveholding, heavy-stratified nature.)

In any case, it gives us an excuse for an array of Masters of the Universe or Carcosa style people with unnatural skin tones, a variety of Star Trek alien foreheards/ear shapes and the like.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dark Sun: Sorcerer-King Ascension

 "I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat."
- Job 30:29-30

One thing I forgot to touch on in my last Dark Sun post--and it's a key trait of the Sorcerer-Kings--is their transhuman state. The first box set gives us very little on this, other than it's references to the dragon, but by the time of Dragon Kings, it is established that all defiler mages can potentially walk a path to becoming the monstrous personification of destruction, a dragon. Preservers, it turns out, can become the the mothman-looking avangions.

This is presented somewhat differently in the novels between the first box set and the hardcover. In Crimson Legion, Hamanu appears as a leonine creature. In Amber Enchantress, Nibenay is sort of immense arthropod-type monstrosity. Later works will suggest Hamanu can appear however he wishes and retcon Nibenay to having a dragon-type form. 

Admittedly, there is room to interpret their appearances in the novels as not their actual forms. They are mighty sorcerers and psionicists, after all. It seems just as likely to me, though, that the original plan was to have every Sorcerer-King have a unique transformation. In any case, there's nothing stopping me from running with that idea, whatever their intention. Maybe they're all going to be "dragons" (so as not to change the terminology), but dragon is a broader class of forms than a single, reptilian-humanoid body plan? It certainly dovetails with the elements I want to emphasize to look at it that way.