Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Gaming: Excellent. Most Excellent

The Excellent Traveling Volume  A Fanzine of M.A.R.Barker's World of Tekumel

It should not be a surprise to readers of this blog that I am a big fan of M.A.R. Barker's Tekumel and its first public incarnation, the Empire of the Petal Throne boxed set from TSR. I wrote about it way back here, discussing all its updates new rulesets, and probably have to update it further since new and exciting material, like Jeff Dee's Bethorm has shown up on the scene, and Brett Slocum's Heroic Age of Tekumel is in the offing.

But what I really want to talk about right now is fanzines. I'm a fan of fanzines, in particular since they drill right down to a specific, almost obsessive, level. On the creator's side, they are a labor of love, rarely money-makers, closer to hobbies, and contain only that which the the creators themselves wish to see. On the consumer side, they are for a very, very small group who have a deep interest in the particular subject. One without the other, and the fanzine ceases to be by or for fans.

Enter The Excellent Traveling Volume by James Maliszewski, who formerly ran the late, lamented Grognardia blog. It is a Tekumel fanzine, and even further concentrates on the original TSR (later reprinted by Different Worlds) versions of the game.

TETV is a hand-crafted music box of a 'zine, each issue laying out expanded content for the game. The original set concentrated on Tsolyanu, but the booklets increase character creation for the Red Hats of Mu'ugalavyani, the Salarvya, and the descendants of the dragon-riders of N'luss (No, I'm not putting in the accent marks. Live with it.). This expanded section gives both personal names and clans of the nations, and bits about their culture and religions, and how they compare back to the Tsolyanu that most fans are comfortable with.

Maliszewski also delivers in each issue patrons who can be the foundation of overland adventures. One of the challenges of Tekumel in its various incarnation has been a lack of what you do when you get there, though there have been definite attempts to rectify this. The patrons provide that vibe, very much in an old Traveller-style mode, where you get the background on the character, the job that is being offered, and then several options on what is really going on. It is both a good read and provides good hooks for the game.

Also in the issues to date have been small adventures, originally part of a larger dungeons for more traditional adventuring, but now expanding to a full tomb or abandoned spaceship (why yes, they have spaceships in Tekumel - didn't you know?) Again, this hits up the old canard for GMs unsure about what to do with their characters. Lastly, there are articles about new monsters, or races such as the Mihalli, or various Underpeople. All within 32 pages of nicely dense text.

And the art. It is charming in its own right, and evokes earlier zines like the early Unspeakable Oaths and old-school games like Arduin Grimoire. The cover shown above is by Zhu Bajie (A pseudonym from Journey to the West?), and interiors range from OK to excellent.

I am actually of two minds in recommending this 'zine. On one hand, it is very, very good, and if you are a fan of Tekumel, and the original EPT,  then it is worth the cost (ten bucks a pop, Paypal only). But one of the greatest dangers of a fanzine it is its own popularity. Success often drives improvements to the work, but often robs it of its charm. I loved the original digest-sized, color-paper cover versions of the Unspeakable Oath, for Call of Cthulhu. It felt like from fans, for fans. That 'zine still exists in a glossy, irregularly-published version with more ads from the increasing Cthulhu market, but it's not the same.

TETV is produced at Mr. Maliszewski's own speed, which produces excellent work but not a strict schedule (Call it Quarterly-ISH). There is no subscription (and with that no pressure to produce on a treadmill, allowing the work to grow), but he has a mailing list for announcing when the next volume is out. He has been making older issues available, and it is worth checking them out.

The Excellent Traveling Volume succeeds in its greatest form - it makes me want to play in Tekumel again. And that is high praise.

More later,

Thursday, June 09, 2016

DOW Breaks 18000!

I don't know if this is the weakest recovery from a recession, but it sure is the grumpiest. When confronted with good economic news of any stripe, we tend to view it in the worst possible way. It's too small. It's too weak. It's good but its temporary. Reminds me of an old joke.

Grandmother and her grandson were at the beach. Big wave comes in and sweeps the child out to sea. Grandmother falls to her knees and prays "Lord, please bring back my beautiful grandson. I will honor your name. I will pray daily. I will volunteer weekly. I dedicate my life to your service. Just bring back my grandchild!"

Another big wave comes in, and when it recedes there is her grandson, unscathed, with his sandpail and little plastic shovel. The grandmother looks up to sky and says. "Lord,  when he LEFT, he had a HAT, you know."

That's sort of the way we look at economic news. He had a HAT.

More later,

Monday, June 06, 2016

Comics: Uncivil

Civil War II #1, written by Brian Michael Bendis, Art by David Marquez, Marvel Comics.

OK, Jeff. You're intrigued by DC's Rebirth and impressed with the new Captain America. Is there anything that gets your dander up in the current universes?

Well, this.

Civil War II is the latest of the big Marvel cross-overs. They are coming so fast and furious these days that they don't even bother to clean up the mess left from the previous cross-over. The old order keeps changing at a rate that most of the supporting books are continually derailed into the current crisis, not allowing them to build up much of a head of steam. No sooner than the universe get remade, than suddenly SHIELD was locking up supercriminals using a newborn Cosmic Cube, and the dust hasn't really settled from that before we're looking at another big epic and mores super-hero punchery.

OK, here's the Spoiler Upon Spoiler Summary for Civil War II #1:

A  young Inhuman is discovered who can see the future. He warns everyone about a big attack. All the superheroes get together and save the day. Then they have a party. Tony (Iron Man) Stark freaks out about an Inhuman who can see the future, leaves in a huff. Later, the Young Inhuman has another vision, about Thanos coming back. The Ultimates, headed up by Captain Marvel go up against him. In the battle, Tony's best friend Rhodey (War Machine) is messily and permanently killed. She-Hulk is last seen going into cardiac arrest. Tony freaks and flies off, intending to "do something" about all this.

First thing you'll note is that the summary is a lot shorter than the ones I did for Captain America and Rebirth. That's because, while there is a lot of action and explosions and banter, there isn't a lot happening here. It's a first issue, but it doesn't really lay a lot of ground work. The assumption is that you already know these guys (Labeling is a big thing these days, just in case you don't). I could probably shorten that previous paragraph down to: "Tony Stark freaks out about something, intends to do something about it."

Dream Girl - Freaking out
Tony Stark since 1964
Is Tony Stark freaking out his new super-power? It seems that this and making poor personal choices are more his power than repulsor rays. In the original Civil War, he freaked out and ushered in Super Human Registration Act, which pretty much trashed Reed Richards as a heroic character. I'll grant that in the most recent Captain America movie, Tony's freaking out is pretty much justified, and there he actually generates sympathy and shows some character growth. And now here he is, freaking out about a new Inhuman with a new power.

And it's not that amazing a power. Dream Girl from the Legion of Super Heroes has this power, and you don't see her team freaking out. She's never wrong, but she's often mistaken. And we know from the front end of the book that the Young Inhuman's predictions are not foolproof, and can be avoided.  Yes, people died when they tried to be pro-active about it, but that's not exactly the Young Inhuman's fault.

And let's talk about the deaths, because that is what ultimately grinds my gears - permadeath for established characters as cheap rationalizations of actions. James "Rhodey" Rhodes was introduced back in the seventies, and took on the Iron Man suit when Stark was unavailable/ unwilling/ drunk. He got his own suit, and actually had a personality and some character development (with bonus points for dating Captain Marvel). He even earned a place in the movie universe. In a genre where the "fill-in guy" usually has a lifespan measured in mere issues (often dying just to have justification for the hero to take up the mantle again), he was a success story.

And She-Hulk? Sheesh, she was an excellent character in her own right. Like Rhodey, she was a character existing in the shadow of a more marketable hero (she was Bruce Banner's cousin, injected with his blood), and to be honest, she did better. Her original run wasn't particularly sharp (Her big enemy was Man-Elephant), but as a member of the FF and in her later book, she really took on her own nature and blossomed. She was comfortable in her green skin, was a professional woman, and looked like someone who could actually fight. And when she didn't have her own book, she was part of team or a great supporting character, currently in A-Force and Hellcat. And she was often the grown-up in the room, neither cosmic nor grim.

And yes, killing War Machine and potentially bumping off She-Hulk (simply to move forward a weak plot) bothers me more than Captain America saying "Hail Hydra".

Good things about the book? Well. I like the banter. Bendis banters with the best of them, and I can read his banter all day. But when he gets to people saying things that are important, defending their actions, yeah, we break down fast. Tony's arguments are weak and, in a universe where things get remade on a regular basis, just plain weird.

But for the most part, I'm going to drift through this one. Pick up the books I normally pick up, avoid the other tie-ins. This too will pass, as all things do.

More later,

PS: Oh yeah, and now we're keeping an eye on Captain America. What does he say? What does he do? Is he manipulating people? Handing out Hydra's business cards? That's part of the fallout of messing around with your major characters.

[UPDATE: Well, Issue 2 is out, War Machine is still dead, She-Hulk is just comatose, which it turns out is just a plot necessity since the next big dream is that the Hulk is going to kill everyone, something which, oddly enough, they mentioned as a possibility in issue one. Foreshadowing. Maybe this will turn out to be a Red Skull plot as well.

But I will say something nice about all this - They have committed to the bit. The tie-ins have been direct tie-ins to the events in the main book, in that we get the big horrible fight seen from a number of different angles, and the characters are debating about the pros and cons of having serious knowledge of the future, Sooo yeah. Still feel the death of War Machine is there as the needless death of a close friend in order to drive the hero forward (or, in Tony Stark's case, drive the hero nuts).]

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Comics: Yaheydere, Hydra!

Steve Rogers Captain America #1 written by Nick Spencer. Art by Jesus Saiz, Marvel Comics.

This is the one that has kicked up all sorts of dust. In an industry where bumping off Superman is a semi-regular feature, the reveal at the end of this one has caused massive internet rage. Which is a pity, because it is a very well-written book.

I've been a Marvel fan for many years, though I will freely admit that there are entire wings of the company I don't pay much attention to. I fell out with Peter Parker when they diabolically annulled his marriage to Mary Jane, and lost touch with the X-Men when it seemed like there were just too many of them. But Cap's pretty much been along for the entire ride since college, even including some of the stranger eras. Captain America is a favorite character, but I recognize that one of the reasons is that he is continually challenged, and rise up against those challenges. 

Here's the spoilerful summary. If you don't want spoilers, look away!

We start in a flashback - 1926, where Steve Roger's mom is being slapped around by her abusive husband. Mom and Steve are rescued by a woman with a kind heart and impressive martial arts skills. In the present Captain America fights a bunch of Hydra thugs on a runaway train. Driving the train is a young man who, like Steve, comes from an abusive home, but he ended up in crime, and eventually was recruited by the Red Skull. Cap stops the train, but the young man says "Hail Hydra" and blows himself up anyway. Then, along with two small-time patriotic heroes, Jack Flag and Free Spirit, Cap goes after Baron Zemo to rescue a scientist. Baron Zemo is defeated by Cap and Jack Flag, but Cap is unhappy Jack is there to help. We bounce back to 1926 one more time, where the mysterious guardian angel reveals she works for Hydra, and recruits young Steve Rogers into their ranks. Back in the present, Cap pushes Jack Flag out of the aircraft to his supposed death, then utters in the final panel "Hail Hydra."


So, has Captain America, symbol of liberty, always been a bad guy! Hydra has been taking it on the chin for years, solely to put Captain America in the deepest of deep cover! It is amazing! Exasperating!  Maddening!

And what really is maddening is that this is a very well-written and well-presented book. It moves smoothly, has a lot of character moments, and feels firmly grounded in the Marvel Universe. Parts of the subplot involve a recent pan-company team-up involving the Cosmic Cube (which, um, changes reality, so that may be a hint to what's going on) and also drenches itself deeply with Captain America lore (including the fact that minor hero Jack Flag had been a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy). Also, comparing the situation of young Steve Rogers and the Hydra suicide train driver strengthens the main character, so the final reveal doesn't drop totally out of the blue.

The book is extremely texturally dense. We get a full-page rally speech by the Red Skull that you could actually see someone buying into. A two-page Maria Hill/Sharon Carter debate that frames the challenge of SHIELD in the modern world while passing the Bechtel test. Breakroom camaraderie between Flagg, Spirit, and Rick (Everyone's sidekick) Jones. Even a flippant, almost comic, Baron Zemo, who comes across as playing by an outdated rulebook.

The art is excellent as well. The flashbacks are duotintes in shadows and bright red. There are a huge number of characters in book, and they all have their own feel and personalities. The moment-frozen combat with the Hydra thugs is impressive. Great art here. 

And I think that's one reason that people are upset by all this. Spencer and Saiz sells the idea that Cap is a traitor perfectly. They set it up how someone can go over to the dark side, show the moral qualms with dealing with superheroes, and they deliver that final punch. If it was less well-done, there would not have been so much anger and so many pixels spilled on Facebook.

Hydra have become Nazi-analogs for our fictional world. And while they first showed up inspired more by Dr. No than the Third Reich, they were founded/controlled by a bunch of former Nazis like Baron Strucker, so, yeah, close enough to army work.  But what Hydra hasn't had previously has been much of a pre-WWII heritage. Yet here they are in 1926 running the equivalent of the German American Bund. And from some the guardian angel's comments about how Steve will someday be remarkable, I smell time travel. For a story that really did its homework, the timeshifted Hydra is odd.

I was so upset I made a meme about it
The other weirdness is the Red Skull in the basement. The Red Skull is currently one of the most powerful telepaths on earth, having had the brain of Professor X surgically implanted in his skull (don't ask. just ... don't). Yet he's running a rally in some basement? OK, that's weird, but so was Kingpin running a Las Vegas gang for the Red Skull, and that's canon as well.

Now, this may all go away next issue, comics being what they are. But Marvel has been resisting that particular reset button trope of late. They brought the original young X-Men into the present, and everyone assumed they would send them back. They haven't. By the same token, they did an entire universe reset recently where some things changed (Tony Stark was a bad guy, Kitty Pryde became a cosmic became being. Everyone knows that Matt Murdock was Daredevil - none of those things are true anymore). but others did not (Sabertooth is a good guy, Iceman is gay). What this gets as a result is a sense of uncertainty among the fans - How long is this Hydracap going to go on?

Its a good book in that it raises the stakes to an incredible degree. and does it effectively, hitting readers so emotionally that they have have had an amazing reaction, even if that reaction is anger. Now, comic book universes (and Marvel in particular) have been good at setting things like this up, but lousy at resolving them. So I really want to see how they (and Cap) work their way out of this one.

More later,

[UPDATE: So, issue #2 showed up, and the winner is ... Cosmic Cube Mind Control! Cap hasn't been a Hydra agent all these years - he just THINKS he's been a Hydra Agent all these years (and given the damage he's done to Hydra, that must mean he's the WORST HYDRA AGENT EVER). The title of the second issue should be "How I Did It by R. Skull" and consists of an involved tale of how Mr. Skull befriended a small child who was really a cosmic cube and convinced her the right thing to do to help people was to make them Hydra agents ('cause Hydra is cool!). The issue also declares the recent SHIELD attempt to mind control bad guys and turn them into the road cast of the Music Man (Another horrible idea) was also part of the plot.

OK, it's not time travel, and it is a pity when fandom's ideas of what happened are cooler than what turned out. Still doesn't explain fully why the Red S, who has the mental powers of Professor X, is mucking about with such a convoluted plot against Captain America when he has, well, the brain of Professor X at his disposal. They sort of put a lampshade on this in the text, with a couple characters asking, a la Scott Evil, Why Don't You Just Shoot Him? So, like the Red Skull in the basement, it is still weird.

As mind control, I wonder if they are going to get into the cognitive dissonence that Cap will face where his past actions don't line up with his current mindset (Punch Hitler? Why would I ever punch Hitler?). On the other hand, if Cap remains a pillar of virtue, wouldn't there be a threat that he would turn Hydra into a voter registration and daycare center? That he would not take over the organization and use its resources to help the flood-ravaged counties of West Virginia? I don't know if he would do either, but if he does, you read it here first.]

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Comics: Relaunching

DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH #1 by Geoff Johns, Art by Gary Franks and others, DC Comics

It's been a long time since I've talked about comics in this space. I've still been a regular reader for decades, of course, and my tastes fluctuate over time. At the moment, I've been reading practically NO DC books, an unhealthy amount of Marvel, and a lot of Indies. So when DC launched a new "reboot"/"relaunch"/"retry" I decided to take a look.

[Digression the First: This article is going to be filled with spoilers. Up to the brim and overflowing with spoilers. Spoiley-spoiley spoilers. Because I want to get into some of the nitty gritty and analyze the bloody thing, both from a standpoint of the meta-universes and the writing itself. I waited a week, but if you want to NOT get your stuff spoiled, banish this article from your computer. I won't mind.]

 I had been drifting away from DC for years, but things really pitched off a cliff with two recent initiatives - Flashpoint and the New 52. Their brilliant idea was to end the current universe and then rebuild it.  New stories! New challenges! New customers! The truth of the matter is that this trick rarely works. Inevitably the inertia of both creatives and fans brings things back to a supposed "normal". For me, this New 52 approach resulted in a lot of characters that were suddenly strangers, and I moved on. That's OK. I have way too many longboxes of the old stories downstairs.

That's where I stand walking into this. Here's the spoilerific summary:

Wally West (once Kid Flash, once Flash) has been in exile outside the current universe, in the speed force (the source of the Flash's superhuman speed). He manifests back in the current universe, re-appearing to Batman, who doesn't recognize him. Wally bounces through the universe, trying to find someone who remembers him in this strange new universe. He despairs. Finally Wally appears to Barry Allen, the once and current Flash, who  recognizes Wally and keeps him from being fully absorbed by the speed force. Wally explains that someone else is responsible for the strangeness of the New 52. Meanwhile, back in the batcave, Batman finds the iconic, blood-smeared smile button from the Watchman series. In an epilogue, we get quoted lines from Watchman indicating that Dr. Manhattan, a godlike being, may be responsible.

[Digression the Second: Back in the eighties, the local paper out of Chicago posted "This Week in Soaps, which tells everyone what happened in the various soap operas ("Monica reveals to Brad her relationship with Candice, while Summer continues to stalk Montgomery"). We really need this for comic books.]

Anyway, that's pretty heavy stuff - the universe is, if not broken, definitely sprained. And the one responsible is from a popular comic series from another DC property that is now part of the DC Universe (maybe).

This is a launch book, so it poses more questions that it answers. As Wally bounces through time, we get teases for all sorts of stuff that will hopefully be paid off in future parts of the universe. The JSA may come back. Maybe the Legion of the Superheroes. The current Superman is dead (talk about burying your lede) but there is a secret Superman from another universe running around. There are three Jokers running around. The current Robin turns 13. Some guy stares at a fish tank (OK, you got me on that one. No idea what that means).

In researching all this, I discovered
that the WATCHMAN comics button
and the WATCHMAN movie button
were different. Go figure.
Normally such scattershot vignettes are frustrating and smack of plugs for other books, but by grounding it in Wally's story, they pull them all together under the general category of "something is amiss". And Wally's story is what's important here - returning him to the universe, challenging him, bringing him to brink of failure, forcing acceptance of his fate, then bringing him back with hope. Yeah, that's the sort of spirit I miss. Wally's Flash was a favorite of mine, much more so than the Barry Allen Flash I grew up with. It is good to have him back.

One thing of interest in all this. We get a LOT of backstory on Wally here, which makes sense given that he may be a forgotten figure for a lot of fans who have shown up in the past few years. His entire backstory (and that of the DC Universe from the Silver Age to introduction of the New 52) is laid out. But the final tease, laying the responsibility on the doorstep of Dr. Manhattan, relies on not only knowing the unseen Dr. Manhattan character (telekinetic, fascination with watches,lives on Mars), but in knowing lines from the final issue of that book.

Two other small things that I haven't noticed being mentioned elsewhere that happen in this book.

1. Hands. DC has a thing with the hand as a symbol of creation. The origin story of the universe for many incarnations involved a hand (that of god) coming out of nothing, creating the universe. The DC Universe's big bang. Check the cover (above) to see a hand coming out of the lightning. we see another hand, reaching out as a threat, with the assumption that it's Dr. Manhattan.

2. Watches. The story opens with a broken watch (Wally's), and closes with the watch being repaired (telekinetically) on Mars. The thing is, after the watch is repaired, it runs backwards. Don't know if that's a thing, but it seems pretty major, and not a lot of people have noticed.

So now this "soft reboot" and so far doesn't change what has happened in the most recent, "New 52" universe, but it does try to re-steer the tone and conversation of the universe, and bring it back towards a more comfortable, positive edition. The story is solid, even if it has more hooks that a fisherman's tackle-box. It writes a lot of checks, and now challenges the rest of the line to see it they cover them.

And I'm willing to give them a chance. More later,