Friday, 24 June 2022

Spelljammer - "Gutter Stars" Stream, Episode 1 - Major Remington-Smythe III's Journal

Episode can be found here: Gutter Stars #1 - Please Mr Postman


 The Regimental Journal of Major Alphonse Remington-Smythe III

29th of Sun's Dawn, Year 147 of the 17th Era

Bally plagues still making the rounds,  unfortunately. Old Winsborough ended up cancelling his brunch appointment with me due to a brief brush with the Malingerers Cholera, so I was at a bit of a loose end today – was rather worried I'd be trapped inside with the hamster all the blighted day. Young Gilbert came through, fortunately, found us some courier work to keep our company occupied. Idle hands, and all that. If I can't keep theses youngsters active, who knows what kind of trouble they'll get themselves into.


Job was simple enough. Some bigwig publisher by the name of Fandar wanted us to deliver a letter for him. Young Flynn's eyebrows nearly hit the ceiling when he heard the fee though – 10 Gold just for delivering a letter. The publisher seemed nice enough, at any rate – well-dressed young elf with an impeccably kept desk. As my old Commander always said, you can tell a lot about a man by how he keeps his desk. It seems his usual couriers had fallen ill, and he needed us to deliver a letter to a writer friend of his in their place. He paid up-front as well, so we took possession of the letter and headed along the specified route.


The delivery route was predictably dull, unfortunately. Nearly got cut off by some priestly procession, and had to take a shortcut through a group of belligerent midgets hurling curses at each other, but everything went smoothly with Flynn's intervention. More's the pity there – I'd been hoping for a good scrap to keep the blood pumping. At least Flynn's a capable negotiator – no doubt he'll soon blossom as a soldier under my expert tuition.


The writer was a half-elf by the name of Cavan Luskio. A big name by all accounts, some kind of professional tourist or some such rot. A load of poppycock – give me a good arms manual to curl up with instead any day. He was a twitchy so-and-so for a writer too – kept telling us about how he'd “seen too much”. I politely offered to find him a healer to sort out his brain issues, but the chap seemed to take offence at that for some reason. Seemed quite taken with Flynn though, once the young lad confessed to being a fan. Told him he'd supposeably found a “gate containing a door” out in the phlogiston. As if that was supposed to impress us – where else would you find a door except for in a doorway?


He gave us a recipt for the message, at least, and we decided to leave before he started frothing at the mouth. We had intended to pick up another job before heading back – a friend of mine from the tea shop said there was a Giff regiment in port waiting for a delivery of arms and similar. Before we could pick up the goods though, we were accosted in the street by someone claiming to be a priest of Ptah. Gave young Gilbert a letter saying it was from a young maiden, but it turned out to be an invitation to a clandestine meeeting of some kind. Deeply suspicious – if young Flynn turns out to be a spy of some kind, I shall be most dissapointed in him. In any case, I suppose we should at least make an appearance of some kind. The letter said we'd be paid just for hearing them out, and someone has to keep Spark's bally hamster fed.

This is Major Remington-Smythe III, signing off. If some blighter shoots me during this meeting, could whomever finds this log please ensure it reaches the proper authorities.


Thursday, 10 March 2022

Graphic Novel Reviews: "New 52" Volume 1s - Action Comics, Nightwing, Shazam!

New 52 Action Comics Volume 1: Supermen and the Men of Steel

W: Grant Morrison (Sholly Fish on backups), A: Rags Morales & Andy Kubert (Brad Walker & Chrisscross on backups)
This is one of the most enjoyable collections for several reasons, but one is just the luxuriant bulk: 8 issues, plus backups equivalent to 1.3 issues. For – by one measure(*) – the senior title in the stable, largely written by one of the premiere comics writers of all times, this is generous.
This is the “5 years ago” long version of the Superman origin story in the New 52. Morrison got a solid run – 19 issues, I think – but not a “legendary” one. However, it’s all well rated, and justifiably.
Chronologically, we should start with Issue #5 (“Rocket Song”), Issue #6 (“How Superman Learned to Fly”)”  and then the two backups written by Sholly Fish and drawn by Chrisscross: “Baby Steps” and “Last Day” (covering the Kents getting married up til they find Clark, and Clark leaving Smallville to move to Metropolis, respectively). This is Morrison’s definitive take on the actual origin, and 40% isn’t by him, which is a strange sensation – he intentionally glossed over it in All-Star Superman. Here, Issue #5 (actually in 7th place here due to a necessary reordering) gives 14 pages to a very solid Krypton – though with no DCAU-style vistas or wider background – and, more charmingly, Jonathan and Martha finding Clark, arguing about whether to investigate the crash, and then working out a way to fake out the US military. The deformed calf they plant in the rocket ties in to the wider “present day” plot. The scene from Issue #6 (here 8th) is less significant – it involves how young Clark (age 5? 8?) was taught to fly by the Legion of Superheroes. It’s a nice scene, and very Morrisonian in those two issues to drop in slightly puzzling flashbacks via time travellers from the future talking in the present, but fairly insubstantial.
Fish’s “origin” work is actually rather better. Seeing the sorrow of the Kents at their fertility issues and the failure of treatments, the preparation for a long wait to adopt, the excellent exchange with their pastor (who, remarkably in ‘70s Kansas and most likely in a Baptist church), is African-American, Jonathan’s utter commitment to Martha and to hope – these are genuinely moving. Seeing Clark’s rocket descend, about to change their lives, is all the sweeter for this. So, too, is Clark spending time with Lana and Pete as they pack up the house before Clark goes to college – this is a “dead Kents” continuity, not my favourite, but done well here – and dwelling on the memories that have made him.
Morrison’s run, beyond the origin, consists of two plots – first, Lex trying to take out Superman, including an alliance with Brainiac (here drawing on the DCAU version of Brainiac as a Kryptonian AI, I think), and second, a Legion of Superheroes story where the Legion goes back in time to rescue “early career” Clark from a threat (from a certain imp) to the Rocket.
Both are good. Lex Luthor here is a monomaniac, obsessed with the alien threat – he’s a McCarthyite parody, in some ways, and working with General Lane to capture and experiment upon Superman. Clark is the more interesting character here; initially in t-shirt and jeans, cocky, the bleed between “campaign journalist” and “protector of the poor vigilante” quite clear. This is not Morrison’s All-Star Clark. There is an echo, in fact, of his Buddy Baker/Animal Man – eco-warrior and activist actor, as Clark here is an investigative journo who targets the wicked rich. The characterisation of young cocky Clark is well done, and Morales’ is mostly enjoyably bombastic in drawing it – though here we run into various fill-in artists within multiple issues, which does rather jar (Brent Anderson, Gene Ha, Brad Walker – all perfectly respectable, for what it’s worth).
Andy Kubert draws the other two issues, which is Morrison in his “reflective and confusing” mode, as already alluded to. Kubert is a superstar in his own right, and his designs for the Legion are great fun, but – and this is true of Morales too – none of it is in “blow you away” territory. His young Clark out in Kansas is fun, though.
To conclude, the other backup covers what happens in Metropolis after a section is stolen by Brainiac – focussing particularly on John Henry Irons, who originates as Steel in the main comic. These are both solid – Steel is a great character – but are not as attractively drawn or as compelling as the Kansas backups.
Overall, Morrison establishes his world well, characterises well, and builds his cast well – aside from the Kents, Clark, and Lois, we get allies (Steel and the Legion) and enemies (Lex, Brainiac, the imp, and arguably General Lane) set up memorably. One already regrets that he won’t get many more than these 8 issues to build his Superman – his writing is always sharp (if sometimes in a “dagger to the brain” sort of way), and his understanding of the mythologies of his characters is nonpareil.
Collects Action Comics #1-8.
(*) = Detective Comics is older, but Superman debuted in Action Comics before Batman did in his title.
New 52 Shazam! Volume 1

W: Geoff Johns, A: Gary Frank
Originally a Phase 2 and 3 Justice League backup, this has no chronological links to that point in the timeline, so can be safely read alongside Phase 1 books – and you should, because it’s very, very good.
Shazam!/Captain Marvel – here solely Shazam! – had had a funny history in the decade or so preceding the New 52, popping up here and there. This is a careful reinvention and expansion of the mythology, which Johns got to build on not just in some tie-ins and one-shot issues in Forever Evil, Convergence, etc, but also in a 15-issue standalone run from 2018-2020 which, whilst not quite to this standard, is still well worth reading.
The chief features of the reinvention are that Billy Batson is an embittered kid in care, bounced from foster home to foster home; and that his new foster home involves not just the usual Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel characters (Freddy and Mary), but three other foster siblings who end up becoming part of the Shazam family and sharing Billy’s power. They face up against an alliance of Doctor Sivana and Black Adam, with Mister Mind teased at the end – the whole major Rogues’ Gallery (Mister Mind is the main antagonist in the later ongoing series).
This brims with joy – Johns’ scripts are bouncy and fun, his characters are distinctive (I can actually say what distinguished all 6 kids, which is tough on a team book!), Frank’s line art is clear and cinematic in a Modern, post-Jim Lee way, and Brad Anderson’s colours are an excellent and bright selection from the mid-range. Basically, better than much of Johns’ actual Justice League run – and leans into Johns’ strengths round intimate moments and character relationships.
Collects backups from Justice League issues #7-11, #0, #14-16, and #18-21 of Justice League – 12 “half-issues”, equating to 6 issues, a fairly standard New 52 TPB.

New 52 Nightwing Volume 1: Traps and Trapezes

W: Kyle Higgins, A: Eddy Barrows
Kyle Higgins really gets Dick Grayson’s voice right. This is one of the best New 52 books I’ve read for actually capturing character voice – better, say, than Lemire’s Animal Man, which is otherwise a stronger book than this.
What works here – and a lot works – generally revolves around Higgins’ grasp of Dick’s character, and Barrows’ fun, dark-toned but glossy art. Barrows does seem to go off-model semi-regularly – Batgirl’s appearance is very inconsistent – but he does a few great portrait pieces and is very strong on Nightwing himself, as well as the action.
The plot is a “Dick goes back to the circus” type – but this time, he’s handed ownership by old Mr Haley, and begins to find layers of secrets...ultimately tying in to the Court of Owls and Batman Volume 1’s plot. A particularly nice moment late in this collection is a direct parallel to a scene in Batman, where Bruce strikes Dick, loosing a Court tracking device – but here, from Dick’s perspective, we get a completely different emotional tenor. It’s very clever.
Collects Nightwing #1-7.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

Graphic Novel Reviews: "New 52" Volume 1s - "Batman", "Aquaman", "Swamp Thing

New 52 Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls
W: Scott Snyder, A: Greg Capullo

Snyder and Capullo start a justly famous run here, and pull off something quite special: “reboot” Batman without actually discarding continuity. (You’ll see the timeline problems pointed out by those invested in that pre-New 52 continuity, but in the self-contained world of the book, they don’t come across.)
An example: this is positioned as a starter issue, as somewhere where we see Batman’s identity discussed, where his (largely) adoptive family is introduced, where he hits all his high notes – detective work, tech use, fighting. But the family includes three Robins (Nightwing, Red Robin, and Damian Wayne as “Robin Proper”), and the mystery is one grounded on the longevity of Batman’s character – a nasty surprise lurks within Gotham. This would be too much for an *actual* origin issue, and it could easily go wrong as a soft reboot – but Snyder’s plotting and Capullo’s clean art land the plane.
The book starts with Batman in Arkham beating up his Rogues Gallery – this trades on familiarity to a degree, but also uses those villains to sum up negative conceptions of Gotham. Gordon is introduced next to the Batsignal. We see the classic Batcave with a giant penny and an animatronic dinosaur, as well as far too many Batmobiles. The Robins are all introduced in the same panel, as Bruce’s new retinal computer identifies them and their security clearance (High). We are given glimpses of “minor cast”, really there for the longtimers – Vicki Vale, Leslie Tompkins. Finally, a retinal ID on Alfred (security clearance: Highest – this is very efficient communication from Snyder).
Snyder trades on a little background familiarity, though efficiently communicates concepts to the theoretical alien from outer space. He doesn’t rely on any detailed plot knowledge, as long as you’re willing to accept the shorthand. You may think Dick Grayson is the only Robin, but there’s two more, and one of Bruce’s son. Okay? Okay.
The actual story is justly famous, too, as Bruce’s conception of Gotham as defined by Batman is wrecked by the emergence of an urban legend into the light – the Court of Owls, with safehouses across the city in hidden spaces in famous buildings. The Court send one of their necromantically-empowered assassins, the Talon, to kill Bruce, to stop his plans to improve Gotham, and Bruce’s first real issue is that he doesn’t believe in the Court of Owls. They threaten his self-conception.
This is very effective, and Snyder and Capullo both do their work very well. Snyder is economic, despite being famously “talky” – his many boxes and bubbles do not waste space or time. That does make this sometimes more cerebral than a given other book, but that’s no bad thing, and this still isn’t Morrison or Moore. Capullo has a muscular and clean style, though always shaded well. He manages to simultaneously “originate” the new characters well, present the sunny side of Gotham (there are a few daytime scenes here!), and get some good horror and action-in-the-dark scenes in, too. There is the occasional awkward angle or pose, but nothing terribly noticeable.
The chief Bat Family members to get a runout here are Nightwing (who turns out to have been an intended recruit for the Talons, but foiled long ago by Bruce; this is picked up in Nightwing Volume 1, which even has a parallel scene but from Dick’s perspective) and Alfred. Lincoln March, new mayoral candidate and seemingly a fellow believer in Bruce’s vision for urban regeneration, also debuts here, and is an effective babyface.
The New 52 was good (and fun) for trying out fringe concepts, and was actually more liable to struggle with re-establishing main characters and long-running continuities – but Batman is a triumph.
Collects Batman #1-7.

New 52 Swamp Thing Volume 1: Raise Them Bones
W: Scott Snyder, A: Yannick Paquette/Marco Rudy

Scott Snyder’s other big New 52 book was Swamp Thing, which gave a soft reboot to Alan Moore’s continuity and linked Swamp Thing into a wider mythos, crossing over particularly with Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man and Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. in the “Dark” range of New 52 books. Moore’s Swamp Thing turns out to have been a stopgap avatar of the Green, the life-locus of vegetative life (as the Red is for animal life); Alec Holland was meant to be the avatar, the warrior-king, in an upcoming apocalyptic battle, but his accidental death led to the creation of the bestial Moore Swamp Thing. Now, via Flashpoint, Holland is back, and the Green want him to take on the mantle, and go fight the Rot.
This volume largely features Holland as Holland, not Swamp Thing. He doesn’t want to be a monster-avatar-king for a force of nature, but the Rot won’t leave him be, and of course he is eventually convinced to take up the cause. As in Batman, Snyder expertly restarts continuity whilst retaining it: we are told everything we need to know about the past whilst still being clear this is a fresh start, no past reading required. Via Alec having confused memories of key supporting cast and storylines – particularly around Abigail Arcane – we, the audience, are introduced to facts with Alec. The mythology rewrite, as with Animal Man, brings everyone in on the ground floor together. This is all technically very successful.
Paquette’s art is vibrant and superbly detailed in a modern style. Rudy does a very fine Paquette imitation – there is much less noticeable difference than between Foreman and Pugh in the equivalent Animal Man volume, though Pugh is a very good artist in his own right – but I am glad Paquette managed to stay on for a fairly long run, where Travel Foreman dropped from sight. If it’s possible, Paquette is more visceral and horrid than Foreman (and Pugh) – perhaps Snyder is to “blame” for this, but nonetheless it is Paquette drawing dead children. This certainly hints that the age rating is, if anything, higher than Animal Man. Nonetheless, none of this feels gratuitous.
This falls short, though, of being quite as brilliant as the first volumes of Batman or Animal Man¸ for different reasons the obvious comparisons. Holland is a much flatter character than Buddy, whose reality and depth Lemire immediately asserts. The environments are certainly less compelling than Snyder’s Gotham. The stakes here are perhaps muddier than in either “Court of Owls” or “The Hunt”. But it is still very fine.
Collects Swamp Thing #1-7.

New 52 Aquaman Volume 1: The Trench
W: Geoff Johns, P: Ivan Reis, I: Joe Prado

Aquaman’s first volume is comfortably better than Justice League’s equivalent. Popular wisdom on JL is wrong – it’s perfectly good at introducing the characters, with its real struggle lying in the actual plot of the book, the botched use of Darkseid and the rest of it. Aquaman both introduces the key characters – Arthur, Mera, and to a lesser degree Dr Shin, this one doggo, and maybe a lady called Jennifer – and offers a fairly enjoyable antagonist/plot for the first half of the book (it arguably falls apart a little in the back half).
Johns presents Aquaman as a reluctant Atlantean Prince and a misunderstood superhero – plenty of jokes are made by landlubbers about Aquaman and his ability to speak to fish and the like. It’s easy to look back, after Jason Momoa’s success, and think: was it necessary to construct an apologetic for Aquaman, when he could just be, you know, cool? That is to miss both the difference in media and the difference in audience involved. Aquaman is here earning his place to a solo book amongst an ambivalent fandom.
Mera – trained to kill Arthur, now his lover – is an able enough secondary character, though her solo issue at the end of the collection suffers from a comically poor “bad guy” (a creepy supermarket manager whose arm she breaks). The moment at the end between shopgirl Jennifer, Mera, and the dog who Arthur has adopted works well, though – Johns is good at intimate moments, at grounding superheroes in “the real”.
The main plot running through the first four issues revolves around coelacanth-humanoids who swim up from the Atlantic Trench in search of food – which has become very scarce near their home. Of course, their preferred food is red meat! There are some solid horror and action scenes around this, and the actual revelation of their “society” is good, as is the follow-up investigation of what they were or what went wrong to drive them to the surface. Some moments stretch credulity – Arthur and Mera go down alone, not just to investigate, but eventually to storm the actual home of these beings – and the philosophical consideration of, uh, whether or not to commit genocide is a little stunted (though not without any value). However, it still works well, and places Arthur in both his worlds, wet and dry.
Ivan Reis and Joe Prado offer a heavily textured and fairly dark art style (coloured by Rod Reis). It’s as competent and flashy as the names involved would have you expect, if (forgive me) a little “cartoony” at points – but then, Jim Lee, co-publisher at DC at the time, industry legend, and artist for Johns’ JL, is exactly the same. It was a style very popular for a period either side of the New 52, and can be enjoyed more in that light.
Collects Aquaman #1-6.


Friday, 4 February 2022

Graphic Novel Reviews: "New 52" Volume 1s - Justice League, All-Star Western, & Animal Man

The antipathy for the New 52 relaunch by DC was unsurprising but not always earned - there were many problems, of course, but it wasn't as if there were no problems in the line pre-Flashpoint. In this passing world below, perfection is not to be expected. However, I've found the Trade Praperback line a really enjoyable way into various DC heroes - though there are some clunkers! - and have a good collection of them. I thought I'd write some short reviews to discuss them. I'll also review other books in future, not just New 52. Tell me what you think.

New 52 Justice League Volume 1: Origin

W: Geoff Johns, P: Jim Lee, I: Scott Williams
The inauguration of the New 52 – though Flashpoint is the first story in the continuity – and a solid enough entry. This isn’t terribly well-reviewed as a collection, though not quite panned, but I think the critiques I see miss the mark.
The problem here isn’t the “repetition”, the titular origin of the Justice League (set five years before the “present day”) – the individual characters are introduced nicely, and I actually enjoyed the slightly bombastic early rivalries between Batman, Lantern, and Superman (with Lantern helped by Flash, who then mediates along with Batman). Nor is there a disjuncture, for me, between the relative interiority of Johns’ writing, compared to the blockbuster stylings of Lee – it’s not quite a perfect match, but both elements are good on the whole. (And the collection cover, from issue #1, is fantastic.)
The real issue, and the blame lays with both headliners, is that the actual story here is bad and badly presented. There are nice elements – Batman coaxing Hal Jordan into a leadership role, a brash young Superman, as well as silly elements – the sheer rapidity of Cyborg’s elevation – but the villain and his “arc” are just naff. Darkseid was the real Big Bad of the DCAU – he was built quite carefully from rather chilling subsidiary appearances in two minor episodes before appearing as an invader in the famous Apokolips...Now!, and his role in the universe went all the way through to the end of JLU. Here, the paradaemons pop up and invade due to exploding Boomtubey boxes, they kidnap people, and Darkseid turns up to fight the Justice League. He is hamfistedly introduced, his role is purely instrumental, and he comes off as lame. He is an “Avengers-level threat”, yes, but only by dint of us being hammered over the head with how bad this situation is. There’s no inner life to this story.
There is an epilogue here bringing in Pandora and the Gray Phantom, and some “background” prose pieces on the heroes, as well as sketches and covers. The main backup, Shazam!, is collected separately.
Collects Justice League #1-6.

New 52 All-Star Western Volume 1: Guns and Gotham

W: Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, A: Moritat
Jonah Hex teams with up with Amadeus Arkham and takes on the “Cult of Crime” in Gotham in the 1880s. This is, on the whole, really quite good, if limited by a reliance on easter eggs and perhaps not quite exploiting Hex’s Western genre roots.
I’ll address the final point first: aside from a couple pages at the end, and the included backups (Barbary Ghost and El Diablo), this is set entirely in Gotham, or underneath it. Both the volume’s title and Hex’s presence indicate a Weird Western – whereas this is “culture clash” Western at best, with the outlander coming to civilisation and struggling. Hex’s voice is sometimes overblown in its Cowboyness, precisely to contrast him with Gotham – but that simply adds a further jarring note.
On the other hand, the plot and setting are often good on their own terms. Moritat is uniformly good at drawing Gotham (more variable at drawing characters; an excellent Hex cover on issue #1 is not matched consistently in the pages themselves), and the Cult of Crime is an interesting and disturbing subtext to the plot of child-snatching. This, perhaps unfortunately, reminds me of BTAS’ “The Underdwellers” – but the real Sewer Kings here are the cabal of rich and powerful, who kidnap the Police Chief after he refuses to join. Another non-joiner is Alan Wayne, of course. This – and its sequel volume – ties in at various points to Scott Snyder’s concurrent exploration of Gotham’s secret history (including Alan Wayne’s role in it!) in Batman.
We do get a lot of “this is Gotham before Batman” stuff – Alan Wayne, Amadeus Arkham, Mayor Cobbleplot, giant bat in an enormous cave network beneath Wayne Manor, and the rest. This is usually okay but at points a little much. Using a Hex story to set up Batman material doesn’t feel fair on Hex.
Hex is captured quite well, though, as a man caught between light and dark, a Han Solo claiming to be a rogue, but motivated at points by higher duties. Arkham, too, is neurotic, nerdy, but willing to try to keep up with Hex.
The backups are both good fun – Barbary Ghost is original to Gray and Palmiotti, and is a nice addition. The art in both (not by Moritat) is very respectable. Barbary Ghost is not actually a Weird Western, but a tale of a San Francisco Chinese woman avenging her family upon the Triads in the late 19th century, using smoke and mirrors to project a ghost-like persona; El Diablo is a Weird Western, and a satisfying one about a Ghost Rider/Hulk-type who can give over control to a demonic rider, to exact justice against the wicked. This has zombies in it, too. It’s good!
Collects All-Star Western #1-6.

New 52 Animal Man Volume 1: The Hunt

W: Jeff Lemire, A: Travel Foreman (John Paul Leon on one segment)
A great glory of the early New 52 – alongside Batman, Action Comics, Shazam!, and All-Star Western, amongst others – is the interlinking “Dark” stories of Animal Man, Swamp Thing, and Frankenstein & The Agents of S.H.A.D.E. The latter two were by Scott Snyder of Batman, who was on a hot streak for the ages; Buddy Baker the “Animal Man”, able to take on the powers of any animal, is taken by Jeff Lemire, who may end up as one of the real top tier of the writing canon. Turns out when you hire good writers (and give them good artists), special things happen.
Buddy is a washed-up superhero here, having just done a Mickey Rourke and starred in a film about being a washed up superhero (directed by “Ryan Daranofsky”, in fact!). His conflicted identity – his uncertainty about whether he wants the suit or not – clashes with his family life, where there are definitely tensions. This, naturally, is quickly exacerbated by his daughter turning out to be the Avatar of the “Red”, the true granter of Buddy’s powers, and one of the primal forces of nature (here, animal life; the “Green” of Swamp Thing represents plant life).
Hunting him are the Hunters Three, horrifying villains who serve the “Rot”, the anti-life equation of this particular story. They come after Buddy’s family, whilst Buddy and his daughter are drawn away to visit the Red and discover their destiny.
Lemire’s introduction of the characters and stakes, though at times brief, is much more artful than Johns in Justice League, and much more integrated with the wider story than in All-Star Western. Buddy – the harassed family man, the nascent mid-life crisis, the natural hero – is perfectly captured here, and Lemire’s new mythology and monsters work perfectly.There is scarcely a wasted word, let alone panel – this is surely one of the best New 52 books from a writing perspective.
It is matched here by Travel Foreman’s atmospheric and disturbing art – normality is flat-planed, suburban, but collapses into intricate horror, especially with the Hunters Three. The colorist, Lovern Kindzierski, must be given especially credit here too – the washed-out pastels match the tone of disturbed domesticity perfectly. It’s a shame Foreman didn’t draw many issues beyond this one, but it is an excellent start.
Collects Animal Man #1-6.

Monday, 8 November 2021

Saving Throw Derivation and System Assumptions in Old School Games

I’ll try to keep this brief. Saving Throws have been present in five of the six main iterations of D&D (Original/Basic, 1e, 2e, 3e, and 5e), and represent active avoidance of dangers, where AC represents a more passive defence. Really, of course, the two blend – AC represents dodging, and Save vs Spells/Will Saves represent mental endurance and resilience as well as active defence (thus Dwarven resistance).
An interesting insight into the mechanical assumptions behind different D&D editions is achieved via looking at how Save values are derived (or, indeed, in 4e, how non-AC defences are derived).
In OD&D, Basic, 1e, and 2e, there is one key defensive stat derived from an Ability Scores: AC. Raw AC is improved by a Dexterity-derived moodier. Having high Dexterity means you dodge better. You can then add on armour, shields, and so forth. The other defensive stats – the five Saving Throws – are not derived from Ability Scores, but by Class. (Save vs Spells is often altered by a Wisdom-derived modifier, but not always; in 2e, Save vs Death/Poison can be altered by a Constitution-derived modifier, but only vs Poison, and only with very high Con.)
You can very often get the “base” class you want, given the core Ability Score requirement for the four “core” classes which define Saves (Fighter, Wizard/M-U, Thief, Priest/Cleric) is 9 in the relevant Score. If there is any choice about arranging Scores, a player can basically guarantee entry into their choice of the core four.
Now, in practice, old school Save arrays are sometimes a bit abstract – why is this class better than that class at this slightly vague Save category? There’s a lot to like in the threefold Save system of 3rd Edition (lese-majesté!). But the essential point I want to make is: early editions actually put a big choice in the player’s hands. The newer systems flatten that out (though free stat arrangement means that in 5e people focus on Wis and Con Saves rather than Str or Int).
This leads, I think, to two conclusions: Firstly (and this is fairly uncontentious), class differentiation is more important in old school systems than base statistical differentiation. Secondly, I think old school systems often *do* emphasize player customisation in a way that gets neglected in some of our discussions. I’ll probably write on this more soon, when I defend 2e Kits (gasp!).

Thursday, 28 October 2021

The Gygax Time Machine, Part 5: New Players and AD&D

A player has joined our 1st Edition game, playing a Half-Orc Fighter and a Human Barbarian (Dragon magazine version). He’d never played any RPGs before, including computer games. He’s played two sessions so far: one session in the Workshop of the Gnome Artificers, which was mostly a combat; and an investigative session in Hommlet, finding the saboteur who was slowing down the building of Burne’s castle.
He’s a smart guy, and so at that level it’s not surprising he grasped key concepts quickly. But I was struck at just how quickly and easily he picked things up. Of course, I was front-loading a lot of the work – he had well laid-out character sheets (using Anthony Huso’s macro-enabled custom sheets), he had a simple character, he had a fairly straightforward situation (combat in a fairly simple room vs fairly simple opponents, two Automata of different types).
But nonetheless, isn’t AD&D hard? Isn’t it inferior to Basic or 5e when it comes to introducing new players?
Well, look, probably. Certainly it’s literally more complicated than Basic, and so when you’re showing a new player their character sheet there’s more to get wrong in Advanced. (As a very easy example, Advanced uses different damage codes vs Small/Medium and Large opponents for each weapon. When you tell a new player “here is what damage your weapon does” in Advanced, you are teaching them twice the information in Basic, or, indeed, 5e.)
But it’s a fairly small percentage increase in complexity in practical terms. The basic concept you’re teaching – “you are an adventurer exploring a ruin looking for treasure, or investigating industrial sabotage” – is simple and intuitive. You tell the player they can try to do whatever they think their character could do or try in that situation. You emphasize that player exploration, investigation, and skill are the priority – so it’s an information game where the player has to ask questions about the environment. You perhaps tell them “often you use a d20 to check for success, aiming to roll high; sometimes you roll a d100 for the same purpose; sometimes you use other dice for other reasons”. What else do they need to know before setting off? Well, maybe the sort of character they’re playing. “He’s a tough warrior who can fire his light crossbow from a distance and use a halberd or longsword up close.” The new guy is ready to play.
And that basically was enough. Of course there was emergent teaching, too – what weapons are good against what armour, how do you position yourself well in combat (for AD&D I try to use minis and maps), and so forth. When the need for a Saving Throw actually comes up, you explain the general concept (but that’s an easy mechanic to learn). You have to teach the combat round, but again, how hard is that? “Each side rolls a d6 for Initiative. Whoever rolls higher goes first. I’ll assign speeds to what you’re doing. Generally you can move and either use a weapon or cast a spell or do some other complex action in a turn, but you might be able to fit more in if everything is very quick.” Given how much of AD&D – especially 1e – is presumed to go on behind the DM’s screen, the player doesn’t need to know much more.
So anyway, my new player got that just fine. The combat was not a bad opportunity to get some rules basics down, though in that session the player didn’t get to see much of the game’s scope. (It’s a short-session game, and they did a very little exploring before and after; that said, the combat, though long for 1e, was still about half the length of the equivalent 5e combat.)
The second session was much more varied, didn’t include the up-front rules learning, and really saw the game lifting off. The new player basically took responsibility for leading the investigation. Of course, not all new players are so forward, but given the complete lack of experience this guy has with RPGs, it was remarkable anyway. (Then again, I recently taught my friend’s 9-year-old daughter Basic, and she very quickly got into the swing of things.) Basically, to repeat, the game is conceptually intuitive. The new player understood that someone might be manipulating the work orders, causing material shortage (at this one of my veterans, an accountant, did grin/groan “this is just what I play D&D for, auditing worksites”). He reckoned the best bet was to follow the suspect around. He worked out who might be good at it, and they went and investigated.
They IDed the perp, and crept out of the woods to follow him around – but here a wrinkle entered. The perp realized he was being followed by strangers (failed Move Silently for the Thief leading the way), and so he hid in a work hut. Unbeknownst to the players, the perp barricaded himself in a little and prepared to attack anyone who broke in – he judged that he had been made, and wasn’t going quietly. The players, though, decided it was best to wait him out and watch the hut – intuitively understanding the possible dangers involved and avoiding them.
The perp snuck out at nightfall, with the PCs well hidden. The PCs had reported back to the rest of the party and set up a cordon around the village already. Long story short, the PCs watched the perp go back to his contacts (the Traders in town), and then head out to the north to leave the village, avoiding the intentionally visible group on the northern road. This actually just pushed him towards a group hidden in woods near the mill (in the centre-north of Hommlet), who sought to follow him further, but upon being spotted in the moonlight switched to nonlethal weapon attack and knocked the guy out. We used the Hommlet map with minis for this, gaining approximate distances and so forth from that. The party took their prisoner to Burne and got him to detain the perp, with an interrogation the next day revealing a little more of the evil plan. The new player came up with a way to turn the perp into a double agent.
D&D is always, if played thoughtfully, an open game – it’s also not a hard game to learn, generally. In fact, AD&D, for all its reputation, isn’t really much harder than other editions. Further, I wonder how far the open and creative play in the investigative session was enabled precisely by the way AD&D provides rules for some things but not others – by giving fairly tight and intelligent rules for combat, all the way down to Weapon Type vs AC, it manages the most complex and contentious variable, but by limiting investigation rules to specific Class or Race abilities, it encourages players to just do stuff. And my new player got that straight away.
There’s life in the old girl yet.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

The Gygax Time Machine, Part 4: Pummelling Rules(!)

Zeb Cook makes things make sense in the 2nd Edition books. Things are listed in some kind of comprehensible order. All the encumbrance information is in one place! Erratic subsystems are purged or integrated or simplified. Great!
My 1e table (Greyhawk) returned for the first time since last summer. We’ve had a few sessions, and they’ve been a blast. I’ve also been running 2e (Planescape), and enjoying that, too. And at both tables, there have been some unarmed/nonlethal combat efforts on the part of the players. I really enjoyed both (closely-related) systems, and think they say something about the games involved, including Gary’s own rules style.
Undeniably, the 2e version (PHB pp97-98) is much simpler. Punching and Wrestling involves an Attack Roll, potentially modified by the attacker’s Armor type if Wrestling. The die result of this attack, if it succeeds, then (in a quite Gygaxian efficiency) is crossreferenced to a table which details the result. Punching involves damage and a KO% - ¼ of the damage is “real”, ¾ is temporary Punching damage. Wrestling involves flat damage and defining whether or not the result is a Hold which can be maintained. Overbearing is also an attack roll, with three possible modifiers. Weapons used for subdual (in the same section and worth comparing) take a -4 To Hit penalty, and produce ½ real and ½ temporary damage.
This is more complicated than later editions, of course, but it is still integrated with the main rules system. Each attack type relies on a normal To Hit roll with a limited set of modifiers: Punching takes none; Wrestling may take a penalty based on opponent Armor; Overbearing considers comparative Size, number of legs (!), and number of Overbearers; and Nonlethal Weapon use takes a straight penalty.
The 1e version (DMG pp72-73) uses more words, is not integrated with the main systems, and uses far more modifiers. Each uses a percentile roll rather than a d20 roll. Pummelling (that is, Punching) has a base chance of “success” based on opponent’s ACx10. This then takes 8 modifiers – attacker’s Dexterity and Strength improve their chances, as does the AC value of any real armour; opponent conditions (e.g. Slowed)  also boost chances; opponent high speed and Haste reduce chance. IF the Pummelling hits, a second roll is made to determine damage (which is rendered ¼ to ¾ as in 2e), modified in various ways by armour, condition, and even what is being used to pummel (e.g. mailed fist, metal pommel); this roll may allow a second attack by the attacker, may stun the opponent, or may even allow the opponent to counter, all depending on the quality of the damage roll. Either way, there is usually a second chance to Pummel per round anyway.
Grappling (Wrestling) also uses a percentile die system, with similar modifiers (though only Dexterity, not Strength, matters for the attack roll itself), but the Defender’s Armor type acts as an additional modifier, because bulkiness makes wrestling easier. Then there is a “Hold gained” table, Similar to the Pummelling damage table this takes several modifiers, including whether the opponent is wearing a helmet or carrying a shield or is taller or shorter than the attacker. Wrestling then permits a counter-grapple by the defender.
Overbearing is comparatively simple; there is a base percentile score to hit determined by both attacker and defender Strength, contextual modifiers, height and weight difference, etc. This becomes the damage result as well, which is a step shorter than the other two categories.
So two of the Nonlethal attack forms are two-step in 1e, rather than one-step; none uses the normal To Hit system; they each have many more modifiers; and the actual “attack routines” are completely different to normal combat (Pummelling produces two attacks per round, Grappling involves a Counter stage).
Is the 2e version simply an improvement? Undoubtedly it is quicker to remember everything and run; undoubtedly it has some elegant features; it has one element which really is more Gygaxian than Gary’s system, with the quality of the To Hit roll determining the actual Punching or Wrestling result. But we run the risk of misunderstanding the purpose of the 1e subsystem.
It’s what the kids now call a “minigame”. Cook retains some of the flavour of this, with the separate damage table for Punching and Wrestling, but the fact that nonlethal combat uses different dice and takes many different modifiers points us to the simulationist, wargame background involved. Gary is offering a different way of engaging with the game and with the problems the PCs face, here – the specificity is the point.
My 2e players go to Overbear a little Spinagon guard; they roll a To Hit roll – I check for the three possible modifiers. It feels a little different. It’s just another mechanical moment, though, to serve the wider game.
My 1e players throw a blanket over a Spelleater worm, and then start pounding it to capture it. We turn to a different system; a different mechanical challenge presents itself, with a different rhythm. The game palpably shifts in feel for the Nonlethal attackers. A different type of mastery is available, and a different diversion is experienced.
I think it’s quite natural to prefer Cook’s version, and I liked it. But it’s hard for me not to appreciate the angular Gygaxian form – it has a certain kind of artistry and focus which is lost by simplification.
There is, actually, at least two other obvious comparisons here. In 2e, THAC0 becomes a single line by class, with a natural 20 always hitting and a natural 1 always missing; Weapon Specialisation (from Unearthed Arcana aka 1.5e) becomes an important secondary modifier making it easier for monoclass Fighters to hit and do big damage. These more or less directly replace the assumptions of the 1e PHB&DMG, which use full two-axis tables for THAC0 and which assume use of Weapon Type vs AC (which in 2e becomes a rather perfunctory and unattractive optional rule about Armor Type which is fairly little like the original, but much simpler to use).  The full table, of course, still heavily favours the natural 20 (a 1st Level Fighter hits AC-5 with a 20), though there is no automatic fail and a To Hit required can be negative. Weapon Type vs AC is quite complicated and is massively eased by modern macros on Excel! (See Anthony Huso’s 1e sheet for that.) You see the reason for both of Cook’s changes there – but there’s some loss, too, particularly in terms of the skill of choosing weapon type to combat different armour types.
The second comparison is Psionics (which, whatever he said, Gary liked enough to rejig and reformulate in his own later rulesets). 1e Psionics (PHB pp110-117) has a bunch of clarity issues, and got a whole issue of Dragon dedicated to fixing it – but the mechanically distinct way of generating Psionic ability, the separate “magic” system of Psionic Strength Points, and the full attack matrices (DMG pp76-79) all repeat the same pattern of mechanical distinction and elaboration that Nonlethal Combat and To Hit do in 1e.
In 2e, Psionics is reserved for PHBR5, where it comes with a new Psionicist class (which arguably draws one or two ideas from the Dragon magazine Psionicist for 1e). There are a lot of similarities – PSPs are used, for example – but the default for Psionics is a specialised class who automatically has the ability, with Wild Talents generated separately. The Psionic powers themselves – very easy and very powerful to use in 1e if you had the PSPs – receive balance using a version of Nonweapon Proficiency rules (a Cook innovation, though PHBR5 is a Steve Winter book). Mental combat is simplified, though not by as much – though there aren’t multiple attack matrices and effects tables, there is a new system to learn that isn’t identical to normal procedures. (This would be “rectified” in 2.5, in Player’s Option: Powers, which introduced MTHAC0 and MAC.)
AD&D is always mechanically baroque and dense, but for Gary this is at least in part out of an irrepressible instinct to offer mechanically varied ways to engage with the problems the players face – yes normally fighting uses THAC0, but here’s a whole new system for Nonlethal; yes normally magic looks like this, but actually different classes use that system differently, and Psionics is a whole different system; yes the basic THAC0 roll is this, but have you considered your weapon and their AC? Mechanically the game is varied and demanding, pushing players to enjoy and master different methods.
2e takes inspiration from this in one direction (a direction I mostly like, too): multiplication of splats, options, specialisations. That can be taken to the absurd, and can be abused, but it is a legitimate extrapolation. But 2e “modernizes” and moves away from the Gygaxian legacy in its general preference for mechanical unification, and that has been undeniably the prevailing direction of travel since.

Spelljammer - "Gutter Stars" Stream, Episode 1 - Major Remington-Smythe III's Journal

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