Thursday, April 30, 2015

Atlas Super-Heroes Roleplaying

When contemplating a new superhero campaign, the choice is usually between creating an original setting or playing in an established comic book universe. It occurs to me another option be playing in a failed or defunct superhero universe: you get the advantage of having some established elements to pull from (not to mention art), but few people will have strong enough attachments to it and the worlds are unlikely to have last long enough to really constrain you with canon. You get to build your own house but with a foundation and all the building materials supplied.

No has-been or never-was universe became so as spectacularly and quickly as 70s Atlas Comics (or Atlas/Seaboard). I won’t delve into the history (you can read it here) but suffice to say despite prestigious talent and money no Atlas title lasted more than 4 issues. Conventional wisdom would hold that this failure was because the Atlas characters weren’t very good and their stories possibly worse. I would submit, however, that uninspiring or mediocre comic book characters are pretty much the stock and trade of supers rpgs. Game characters don’t need concepts that swing for the fences, they just need to get on base. That’s why Marvel and DC B and C-listers are the sweet spot for using as game characters—and Atlas’s “superstars” are pretty much at that level.  Let’s look at the standouts in turns of gameability:

Jeff “the Cougar” Rand is a stuntman that battles supernatural or weird menaces that keep cropping up in LA. He’s sort of Colt Seavers: The Night Stalker.

A Viet Nam vet joins a cult and gifted with supernatural powers, including a cape that serves as a portal to a pocket dimension. He turns on the cult when he found out thy’re out for Xenogenesis, and the advent of Demon-kind on Earth. This is pretty much the same character Rich Buckler would introduce at Marvel as Devil-Slayer.

The Destructor is young criminal whose scientist father gives him an experimental formula to save his life. He gets powers a bit like a combination of Daredevil and Wolverine. He’s sort of like a Peter Parker gone wrong, out for vengeance on the Syndicate who killed his father.

An astronaut rescued by aliens steals a super-powered suit from them and escapes, then fights to stop the aliens from destroying mankind. Phoenix has a bit of a Green Lantern or Captain Marvel vibe, with a little von Däniken/70s UFO conspiracy garnish.

18th Century Highway is released from Hell by Satan serve as his agent in the 20th century, sending the souls of evil-doers straight into Perdition’s flames. He’s sort of the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh by way of Spawn.

Not exactly the “new house of ideas,” but not that bad, either. Well, most of these characters got a big shift in the last issue, so the thought would be: take the first issue or two as “canon”, then build your own universe from there, using things from later stories as fodder for inspiration. PCs could have latitude in how to develop their characters further from their comic roots, perhaps doing some “retcons” to the backstory over time, just as would likely have happened had the comics kept being published.

There are other Atlas characters, some that could be good PC material with a “bold new direction” here or there. There are also several barbarians, a few horror characters, tough cops, and two future dystopias that can help fill out the universe and inspire further development.

What crashed and burned in the world of comics publishing may soar in gaming. The Atlas Age just might be here!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wednesday Comics: Essential Ultron

With Avengers: Age of Ultron opening this week, there's no time like the present to get caught up on Ultron's greatest hits. Here are some stories you should probably check out, in no particular order:

The Rise of Ultron
Avengers #54-58
You get the Masters of Evil, the first appearance and origin of Ultron, and the first appearance of the Vision.
Collected in: Essential Avengers vol 3Avengers Epic Collection: Behold the Vision (starts with #57).

The Return of Ultron
Avengers #66-68
Ultron's back, cementing his status as a major villian. This time, he's got a new body of adamantium.
Collected in: Essential Avengers vol 3Avengers Epic Collection: Behold the Vision

The Bride of Ultron
Avengers #157- 166
Ultron, in all his Oedipal glory, kidnaps Wasp and makes his own robot bride based on her--Jocasta.
Collected in: Avengers: The Bride of UltronAvengers Epic Collection: The Final Threat

Ultron Mark 12
West Coast Avengers vol. 2 #1-2, 4-7, and Vision And Scarlet Witch vol 2 #2
Ultron turns good? Perhaps the most unexpected Ultron story of all!
Collected in: Avengers: West Coast Avengers Omnibus vol. 1

Ultron Unlimited
Avengers vol. 3 #19-22
Ultron at his most evil. He decimates a city, turning the dead into an army of Ultron clones.
Collected in: Avengers: Ultron Unlimited (this one's pretty pricey; the issues might be cheaper!)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Our Heroic Age

Though we played a lot of fantasy games (mostly AD&D) in my middle and high school years--probably more than anything else--our longest campaigns (defined as the same characters in the same setting/situation) were in superhero games. While we'd played with Villains & Vigilantes and with the first editions of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes and Mayfair's DC Heroes, our "Heroic Age" really got started in '86 after the release of the Marvel Super Heroes Advanced Set.

Our first and longest running team was called the New Champions (taking the name from the L.A. based team of the Bronze Age and the idea of a new iteration from The New Defenders, which had just ended the year before). Our characters were street-level/near street-level characters, some of which were reformed villains. We picked the characters from the pages of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, for the most part, rather than going with well-known characters. I used Paladin, my brother, Puma, and our friend Al, Hobgoblin (the former Jack o' Lantern version). That was the core group of players and characters, but other players and other Bronze and early Modern C-listers joined the New Champions ranks at some point: White Tiger, Madcap, Shroud, and Unicorn, among others I've likely forgotten. The team had a West Coast era (borrowing from West Coast Avengers, which I had a subscription to), as well, and probably at least one "all-new, all different" period--but it was also part of the same continuity.

The second edition of DC Heroes, was probably our last gasp of superhero gaming. The Marvel games had mostly been over the summer and with a crew somewhat different than my usual gaming group, since none of us were able to drive yet and it was tough to get together when we weren't in school. By '89 though, that wasn't the case, so the DC group was largely the same as my Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS crowd. This time, we made up our own characters and our own super-hero universe. Lower key, more "realistic" superheroes were the order of the day. About half of the group (which was never named as a team, really) didn't wear costumes, and the villains were are somewhat quirky, and many of them didn't wear costumes either. I suspect the primary inspiration was the Wild Cards universe, but Thriller, the New Universe, and Doom Patrol might have been in there, too.

We played some 4th edition Champions after that and maybe some GURPS Supers, but neither of them had the ease of use of MSHRPG or DCH so they didn't last long. These two campaigns created some truly memorable characters--or at least memorable sessions.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Faeborn of Virid

I finally got a chance to look through the Elemental Evil Players Companion to see if there was anything that jumped out to me to add to my Land of Azurth campaign. I've already written about the Azurthite version of Aarakocraa, so I probably won't be using them as a PCs race. Deep gnomes are different, so they'll take a bit more adapting first. The Genasi work pretty well, we'll call them the Faeborn.

In the Land of Azurth, people with faerie ancestry are uncommon outside of the Country of Virid. Lady Desira, the Enchantress of Virid, is herself of fae descent. The most common sort of Faeborn folk are those who have ancestors among the elemental faerie who worked for Gob, the great craftsman, and Queen Azulina in fashioning the land of Azurth. Each of these types occupies various subkingdoms within Virid.

While they're variable as other folk, their personalities tend toward the humor associated with their element.

Each of the faeborn subkingdoms has a prince or princess and most of these are friends and/or former suitors of Lady Desira:  Parald, Ariel, Jin, Seraph, Gobe, Necksa and Nixi. They took part in the many adventures of her youth: ,

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Shuttlecraft to Traffic Control..."

So, how about a peak at some new Strange Stars art? I had originally planned not to get any new art for the gamebooks, but the sales of Strange Stars have gone a little better than expected, so I felt better about outlaying a bit more money for (just a few) black and white images. The piece above is by Reno Maniquis. You can also expect to see stuff by David Lewis Johnson and Adam Moore, who did the well-received DMG/King Kong homage in Weird Adventures.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wednesday Comics: Weirdworlds and Slayers

Marvel has release a couple of new collections of interest both to the Bronze Age comic fan and the tabletop rpg playing comics enthusiast.

I've covered Weirdworld here before. Inspired by the work of Tolkien, It was the creation of Doug Moench and initially brought to life by the art of Mike Ploog. This is the first time all of the Weirdworld stories have been collected in one place.

Skull the Slayer is a bit pulpier. It involves a Vietnam vet in a plane crash in the Bermuda Triangle, which you might thing is about as 70s concept you can get, except that the other survivors are other 70s stock characters (angry black man, rebellious rich kid, downtrodden young woman trying to get liberated), and the world they've found themselves mixes The Land That Time Forgot with Chariot of the Gods. It's no Warlord, but if you like Warlord, it's probably in your wheelhouse.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Fate Strange Stars Page

Here's another page from the work-in-progress Strange Stars Fate gamebook. The text is by John Till, the picture by David Lewis Johnson, and the layout by Lester B. Portly.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

More Savage Worlds Strange Stars

Mike's latest efforts over at Wrathofzombie:

from the Vokun Empire, the Kuath, ibglibdishpan, voidgliders, and the Yantrans; and the nomadic Star Folk.

Check them out.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Azurth Monster Review

Yesterday's tigerpillar was only the beginning. Here's some other entries from the bestiary you might have missed:

Deodand, Hirsute and Gleimous varieties.
Dragonborn are a different thing in the deserts of Sang.
Manhound. "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."
Moon Goon arrives in a lead balloon.
Super-Wizard ancient, ultra-powerful alien wizards.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Azurthite Bestiary: Tigerpillar

by B.R. Guthrie
Tigerpillars are horrible because they are always hungry. Owing to their magical nature (their creation blamed on one ancient and obviously depraved sorcerer or another), their organs are all mixed up--in one place tiger-like and another more like an inchworm--and they can never get fully satiated. They make their lairs in remote places in the wilderness or underground not because they prefer these places, but there they can devour whatever unfortunates might happen by with less interference.

Some say the tigerpillar metamorphizes into an adult form--a tiger moth or slaughterfly, perhaps--at some point, but others say this is nonsense.

large monstrosity, unaligned
AC 13 (natural armor)
Hit Points: 51 (6d10+18)
Speed: 30 ft.
STR 17(+3) DEX 13(+1) CON 16(+3) INT 3(+4) WIS 12(+1) CHA 8(-1)
Skills: Perception +3, Stealth +3
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 13.

Keen Smell. The tigerpillar an advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks relying on smell.

Pounce. If the tigerpillar moves at least 20 ft. straight toward a creature then hits it with a claw on the same turn, that target must succeed on a DC 13 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone. If the target is prone, the tigerpillar can make one bite attack it as a bonus action.

Multiattack. The tigerpillar makes two attacks: one with its claws and one with its bite.
Bite. +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d10+3) piercing damage.
Claws. +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit 7 (1d8+3) slashing damage.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wednesday Comics: Timelines, Sliding and Otherwise

These panels are no longer in continuity. Best forget reading them!
The advance of years has led Marvel and DC to pull make changes to keep their characters young. In 1968, Marvel took the first steps toward what would come to be known as a "sliding time scale" where the amount of time from the beginning of the heroic age stays the same, even as more and more adventures get forced in, and the beginning of that age never gets any farther away from the present. This has been coupled with an increasing avoidance of specific references to current time or events--"topical references--though there are exceptions (like right after 9/11). DC does something similar now, too, but that wasn't always their approach. Earth-Two was invented as the home of their Golden Age heroes, so it was natural for it to also become the home of Golden Age versions of their never-launched characters like Batman and Superman. For a while, this allowed DC's characters to stay "topical" and tied to the real world, though they seldom took advantage of it.

Before "Marvel Time" completely took hold--throughout much of the 70s--Marvel characters stayed somewhat topical. This is best exemplified by Claremont's run on the X-Men. Magneto's past is tied to Auschwitz and the Holocaust. We are told Ororo "Storm" Munroe was born in 1951 and that was orphaned by the Suez Crisis. Jean Grey's tombstone gives the extent of her life as "1956-1980."

Did Professor X let a 13 year-old fight Sentinels?
This can't be the Jean Grey that first appeared (likely as a high school sophomore) in 1963, though. (In fact, it doesn't seem likely that it's the same Jean Grey in that talked about meeting the Sentinels in '1969' in X-Men #98--don't know what Claremont was doing there.) Like the Golden Age Superman slowing melding into the a Silver Age one, the Silver Age Jean Grey slowly became the Bronze Age one while nobody was really paying attention.

A lot of people might not agree, but I kind of wish the DC approach had been stuck with by both companies. Instead of squishing and distorting things to fit a sliding time with very little to link it to real history, why not just switch the particular version of the characters you're chronicling every decade or so? The Silver Age Reed and Ben that fought in World War II would eventually become the Bronze Age Ben and Reed that fought in Korea or Vietnam, and the Modern Age ones that weren't in any war, You can keep the things they wanted and reboot others for each era.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Basic Strange Stars Tech

Art by Don Maitz
Despite its somewhat retro trappings, the actual technology of the Strange Stars owes more to modern science fiction. Across worlds and habitats it varies, of course: some places are at a Stone Age level while others border on post-scarcity. Here's a rundown of the common technologies available to the average citizen of the "standard" world or habitat:

Metascape: Most people experience the world through an augmented reality overlay. It contains useful information for travels, social media messages, and lots and lots of spam. Nobody walks through a public square without their filters on, lest they be bombarded by all sorts of virtual messages. Clothing is enhanced--or even sometimes completely generated--in the metascape. Some jurisdictions make it a crime to view the world infiltered by metascapes as this is seen as an unwarranted invasion of others' privacy.

Noosphere: The cyberspace of the far future, essentially, encompassing traditional internet activities, the metascape, and the living environment of infosophonts.

Implanted Cyberware: brain-computer interface is as common as smartphones are today and used for similar purposes. The typical pre-programmed software allows metascape interface, noospheric connectivity, communication (where messages can either be read or heard as read by an avatar or the sender or anyone else), chronometry, basic calculation, and interface with most modern devices. Most individuals don't navigate their own apps, but use a personal daemon--a nonsophont ai--as an advanced "Siri" and an answering service. Some cultures (like the Vokun) find implanted devices distasteful as do some individuals. They use wearable devices for the most part.

Fabber (or mini-fabber): A nanofabrication unit--essentially an advanced 3D printer--assembling at a molecular level, finished products from raw materials. These aren't exactly portable, but they are near ubiqitous household and shipboard items and public units can be used for a fee. Anything from foodstuffs (though this would only be done on long space voyages) to starship parts can be made given enough substrate and the necessary "blueprints." Commercially available models can be "jailbreaked" to make illicit drugs or weapons, but its generally easier just to buy or steal such common items.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

12 Monkeys and the Temporal Investigation Game

I after the first episode, I though SyFy's 12 Monkeys series was going to be an episodic "hunt down the lead of the week" sort of thing. I was not totally wrong, but I didn't anticipate the interesting background mythology the writers would weave into the show or the clever twists they had in store. With season one over, I think its a great example of how an investigation/mystery game could be done with points in time taking the place of physical locations.

This sort of setup requires time travel to be limited in its utility. No Dr. Who-esque traveling to anywhere in space and time. Limited the number of times a person can time travel helps. Also, having the timeframe of the mystery roughly delineated so that it covers a period of a few years or decades at most.

Like when developing a hexcrawl or a pointcrawl the events (and clues) available at every time point should be planned out before hand, so that PC's can investigate them in any order they want to, Obviously, time travel institutes the possibility that PCs might do something to change the past (or the present). The easiest way to handle this is to have changes sprout alternate timelines, so the original clues remain untampered with. The problem with that is, it removes an easy reason PCs would have to be doing this travel to begin with--to change the future.

Another way to do it would be to add new points and new clues to accomodate PC changes. The antagonists have to react to the PCs actions, perhaps though, they're helped by a tendency of the time-stream to resist change.

Finally, if you're going to go to the trouble of time traveling to solve a mystery, the stakes need to be high and the clues evocative and strange. Besides shows like 12 Monkeys, Lost, Helix, and to an extent True Detective, are good at doing this sort of thing. Getting players to wonder about the location and nature of the Night Room or who the Magic Man or Jacob is will help keep PCs interested even with setbacks or leads that don't pan out.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Another Savage Friday

In what's becoming a regular feature, let's again turn to channel Wrathofzombie as Mike has been hard at work again this week adapting Strange Stars for Savage Worlds:

Neshekk: privacy obsessed bankers.
Gnomes: eusocial asteroid miners.
Deva: mysterious, angelic, post-humans.
Blesh: alien bioroids with the minds of long-dead humans.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

In the Vicinity of Vega

The setting for DC Comics Omega Men. The links here will take you to detail about some of the locations, but of course, it might be much more game-useful to make up your own details.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wednesday Comics: Multiversal Spotlight: Earth-19

Concept: Earth Victoriana/Steampunk
Pictured: (left to right) Bat Man (Bruce Wayne), Accelerated Man, the Shrinking Man, the Wonder Woman (Diana).
Sources/Inspirations: Gotham by Gaslight (1989) and Batman: Master of the Future (1991) collected in Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, Wonder Woman: Amazonia (1997), Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer: Gotham by Gaslight #1 (January 2008).
Analogs: Pre-Crisis Earth-1889 was the home of Victorian Batman as established in Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths (2006); post-52 Earth-19 features Batman plus several more Victorian analogs as shown in Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer: Gotham by Gaslight (January 2008) #1; Post-52 Earth-34 was the setting for Wonder Woman: Amazonia as revealed in Countdown to Adventure #1 (October 2007).
Comments: Gotham by Gaslight, with its story of an 1889 Batman facing off with Jack the Ripper, started the whole Elseworlds franchise (though its first printing predated the label). It's sequel has Batman fighting a Robur the Conqueror stand-in in 1892.

The Elseworlds Wonder Woman: Amazonia is set in an alternate 1928, which presents a different identity and history for Jack the Ripper (he becomes King after killing Victoria and her family). How these two distinct worlds are melded in Earth-19 has yet to be revealed.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Hyehoon, Ksaa and Kosmoniks

Mike continues his Strange Stars adaptations for Savage Worlds.

Check out the avian Hyehoon, the scheming "Cold egg" ksaa, and the star-roving Kosmoniks.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Azurthite Bestiary: Super-Wizard

Before there ever was a Land of Azurth, an ancient race known as Super-Wizards strode the various worlds as demi-gods, bending the forces of matter, energy, and time to their inscrutable and sometimes nonsensical will. They built strange cities and monuments and worked weird wonders, and they among themselves and with primordial monsters. It was hubris that led to their end. Either by their own hand they unleashed forces that even they could not master, or their arrogance troubled the sleep of the Slumbering God enough that his dreams conceived their doom. In any case, their very planet that once occupied the sphere between Mars and Jupiter was lost in a cataclysm.

The Super-Wizards' power being what it was, there is always a chance, however, that some escaped the fate of their world and are plotting with immortal patience their re-ascendance. It is the official position of the most learned arcane scholars of Azurth that the Super-Wizards are no more. However, the Wizard of Azurth and the Mysteriarchs of Zed are known to pay handsomely for an information about the Super-Wizards, particularly as might hint to their continued existence.

The following stats represent an "average" member of the Super-Wizard race. Exceptional individuals will be far more formidable.

medium humanoid, any alignment
AC 17 (natural armor)
Hit Points: 139 (13d10+74)
Speed: 30 ft.; fly 90 ft.
STR 18(+4) DEX 18(+4) CON 18(+4) INT 17(+3) WIS 17(+3) CHA 18(+4)
Saving Throws  Con +8 Cha +8
Skills Arcana +7, Insight +7, Perception +7
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical weapons, cold, necrotic
Senses passive Perception 17

Spellcasting. Most Super-Wizard's are 10th-level spellcasters, with a number of spell slots equivalent to a Sorcerer of the same level. Their spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 16, +8 to hit with attack spells). Their spells never requirement material components. They The following spells are common:
Cantrips (at will): Friends, Light, Mage Hand, Message1st level: Comprehend Languages, Disguise Self, Thunderwave2nd level: Alter Self, Detect Thoughts, Scorching Ray3rd level: Blink, Haste, Protection from Energy4th level: Dimension Door5th level: Teleportation Circle
Magic Resistance. A Super-Wizard has an advantage against spells and other magical effect.

Multiattack. A Super-Wizard can make two melee attacks.
Melee Weapon. Super-Wizards employ a variety of over-sized or exotic appearing simple or martial weapons which function like standard ones of their type.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Ethereal Prison

The Ethereal Plane as written in D&D is a transitive plane. It's a place you travel through or the medium stuff floats in. What if it were a bit less accessible--on purpose? What if, like the Phantom Zone is DC Comics, it was a prison? Maybe the gods or super-wizards of ages past had imprisoned renegades, criminals and monsters there?

If you aren't familiar with the Phantom Zone, read about here, The concepts a pretty simple one, though, even if you've never heard of it. Imprisoned creatures float around like ghosts.

This would have the advantage of differentiating the ethereal more from the other transitive planes and establish some interesting mysteries for PCs to look into.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

More Savage Strange Stars

Mike aka Wrathofzombie has been on a tear. If you're a Savage Worlds fan, his progression toward likely mental breakdown is your gain. Check out these Strange Stars adaptations:

Engineers Cybernetic crustacean builders of Vokun technology.
Bomoth Caterpillar-like musicians.
Smaragdines Green-skinned psionicists.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wednesday Comics: Multiversal Spotlight: Earth-33

Concept: Earth-Prime
Pictured: Ultra and everybody
Sources/Inspirations: Flash #179, Flash #278, Justice League of America #123-124, Justice League of America #153, DC Comics Presents #87.
Analogs: Earth-Prime of the pre-Crisis universe, first appearing in Flash #179 (May 1968); post-52, Earth-Prime was home to Superboy-Prime and a version of the Legion of Superheroes as seen in Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds #5 (July 2009)
Comments: Earth-Prime started out as the place where the stories of DC Comics were read and written. In Flash #179, the Flash winds up their and enlists the help of Julius Schwartz, then writer of his title, to return to Earth-One. Flash #228 introduced the wrinkle of the writers on Earth-Prime not just chronicling the adventures on the other earths but influencing them, as well. In Justice League of America #123 (1975), Cary Bates briefly becomes a megalomaniacal super-villain on Earth-Two thanks to this power. That would set the stage for tragedies to come.

In Justice League of America #153, Earth-Prime stops being our world when he gets its own superhero, Ultraa. Still, Ultraa decides Earth-Prime just isn't ready for superheroes and migrates to Earth-One. Even though Ultraa had a similar origin to Superman's, Earth-Prime gets its own Superman in the Crisis crossover DC Comics Presents #87 (1985) in the form of Superboy(-Prime).

Earth-Prime gets destroyed by the Anti-Monitor in Crisis and Superboy-Prime gets raptured to superhero out of continuity heaven with Earth-Two Superman and Alexander Luthor at the events end. The ending doesn't last, as he's back as a maniacal, genocidal villain in Infinite Crisis.