Friday, August 31, 2007

An Un-Civil Review: Civil War

I have finally got around to reading the tpb of Civil War, Marvel's recent blockbuster event. It's something that I have put off for a while because I really haven't been enjoying Marvel's product at the moment and this, alongside the debacle of Avengers:Disassembled, were the cornerstones of that lack of enjoyment. Still, it's unfair to judge something without having sampled so I read on.

To it's credit there are some rather good bits in the story. Any full page panel of Hercules, Mjolnir and Thor, loads of violence and the line 'Thou Art No THOR!' is going to get me slightly damp in the panty regions. Some of the language was good too - I particularly liked the two word interchange between Spidey and Reed Richards 'Amazing','Spectacular'. Not only was it a nice nod to the names of the Spiderman comics, but it was also a pleasantly acceptable rip from the end of Infinite Crisis#7 when Superman states (and I paraphrase) 'Its not about what you wear, it's about what you do, it's about Action'. I enjoy clever wordplay like that. It makes me smile. The art was also exceptional, with some excellent renditions of characters and good action sequences. I'll be looking out for McNiven's stuff in the future. And some of the characters came across REALLY well - especially Sue Storm, Spiderman and strangely, Tony Stark. Yes, I can accept that Iron Man is that much of an asshole. He always has been.

However, thats where the good bits pale into insignificance for me. And that little bit at the end is probably the most pivotal bit - for me - because I think that Civil War (and it's otherworldly cousin, Infinite Crisis) mark a sea change in modern comic books. I think certainly for Marvel it is a story that has opened a Pandoras Box, one that will be almost impossible to close.

In modern British politics, it is often said that the three main parties have very little to differentiate them for one another and the two main parties are so similar that if they changed government no-one would notice. I think for many years, editorially, this could have been said for Marvel and DC as well. Sure they did things differently on an operational level, but really they were following the same comics paradigm. Superheroes in superworlds with supervillains. It's almost as if Dan Didio and Joe Quesada sat down and decided that the status quo had to change. They flipped a coin. Didio took his company back towards it's Silver Age roots whilst Quesada jumped the rails completely, had Sentry punch out the Fourth Wall and planted the Marvel Universe firmly in the real world.

Thats the concept of Civil War - in light of an ill-timed attempt to capture some villains by a neophyte superteam hundreds of children were killed by an exploding villain. This tragedy triggers a reaction by the US Government to register superheroes and have them paid, trained and accountable to the taxpayer as federal employees. Some people agree. Some disagree. They fight. Shit happens and then in the face of members of the emergency services physically intervening, Captain America (the face of the resistance) stands down and the 'free' superheroes 'lose'. End of.

In some ways this is a fantastic read because it faces you with inescapable logic based on the workings of our modern society today. In a world where a young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt can instill fear and dread simply by his presence on a street, what chance harmony if that same young man could throw cars around? You would want that destructive potential trained, controlled and registered. You would want some say as to where that potential existed in your community. You would want to control it. We see this in our media and on our streets every single day nowadays and it is mirrored amazingly in the comic. There is one character, the mother of one of the children, who appears in the comic and makes these blanket emotional statements that you simply cannot argue against... but you have to. Something deep inside you tells you that there is something wrong here but you cannot put your finger on it. And then when 'Black Goliath' is killed whilst resisting arrest, she says that it was his fault because he was breaking the law and the finger begins to be put on it. Its that 'any means necessary' attitude. Thats what grates slightly. Thats what makes you sit, ill at ease.

And then the Pandora's box is opened up. The King no longer has his new clothes. Suspension of disbelief has occured because Millar has placed a veneer of real world morality upon a superhero scenario. You can't stop with registration. What happens next? If you can mirror issues such as teenage killings, gangs, gun control etc (all of which are analogised in Civil War) then really you need to be looking at issues such as immigration, world hunger, real natural disasters, military dictatorships, global warming - and I am sure we have seen some of this already before in Kingdom Come, Squadron Supreme and Rising Stars.

The problem is, all of them are either alternative reality or out of continuity stories. This is the mainstream Marvel Universe. This is arguably the biggest comics company in the world. It has to follow through with it. It cannot now ignore what it has done. Real world issues now effect the Marvel Universe and 90% of it's heroes are federal agents. Telepaths working homicide duty? Weather controllers averting tropical storms around New Orleans? Reed Richards and Hank Pym putting their minds to cures for cancer and the common cold? If YOU were the Head of SHIELD, what would YOU put them to work upon?

Its a sobering thought

And therein lies the problem, for me. The concept is very strong but almost too strong. There is no way that I can see that Marvel can legitimately retrace their steps now. There is clear blue comic shop between DC and Marvel. DC is printing (amazingly violent) traditional comics and Marvel would appear to have moved it's focus into the world of the pseudo-real. For me, thats not what comics are for. I have always been a big fan of keeping real world and comics world seperate. Answers to real world issues are too easy with superpowered solutions. It makes a mockery of our trials.

And indeed, nothing could be more apparent as a stamping of this than what happened to the moral centres of the two companies in these stories. In Infinite Crisis, the world is going to pot - it's dark, it's scary and really it's very bad. And then Superman comes to the rescue. Not just any Superman. THE Superman. As if to remind everyone of the moral code and fictional conventions that underpin the DCU. And in the reprecussions of Civil War what happens?

Captain America is killed. Shot on the steps of the Court House.

And who is the new popular moral centre of the MU? Iron Man, the instigator of the Civil War.

No greater statement could be said.

I'll revise my statements however. Civil War is not a bad story as a trade paperback. Any comic that can make anyone think this much about the implications and the themes of the story has to be pretty well written.

I will therefore retarget my ire at the editors. What a bag of shite. Guys, look. Its dead easy. When you have one of these big crossovers in one TPB, and you insist on writing the story so that the reader has to read some of the crossovers to get the bigger picture, please, for the love of god, do some extra exposition pages?

Why is Cable here? Why does he suddenly become a pussy half way through the book?
Thor? Clone? When? Where? How? PLEASE EXPLAIN?!

And my favourite...

Decades ago one of the more potent characters in the MU, Captain Marvel, died of cancer. He has, in the most part, remained dead. In this story, he returned in a one-shot special called 'The Return'. NONE OF THIS WAS MENTIONED IN THE TPB. We just got a shot of Captain Marvel, as part of a larger group of superheroes. WHAT THE FUCK?!

Choppy, shoddy, horrible HORRIBLE editing with no eye to creating a fully flowing story made this painful to read in places and it fails as a tradepaperback.

So there you have it - Civil War - quite possibly one of the most important stories ever told in the Marvel Universe IF they can maintain their stance on the very important issues they have raised.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Front Rank Fire!

Well, finally, I have managed to put together something that seems like a pseudo-playable document for Duty and Honour. OK, so the first thing that you read is a list of all of the bits and bobs that are MISSING from the game but thats a good thing. Why? Because it means that I managed to get my shit together enough to be able to see the wheat from the chaff, the proverbial wood for the trees - I now have my target and I am ready to rumble towards it.

You can download the file from if the urge grabs you. If you have any feedback, that would be awesome.


Monday, August 27, 2007

GenCon 2007: Highs and Lows

Well, one week after returning from GenCon I think I have managed to assimilate everything that has gone on enough to post about it lucidly. It was an absolute experience - and yes, I mean that in every way that it can be read. Some parts of it were pure, unadulterated awesome whilst other parts of it were confusing, frustrating and downright painful. So lets take the low road and the high road there and back from GenCon, shall we?

High Road: There's something quite empowering about a road trip, allowing a nice slow build of excitement towards the main event. Apart from a twin/double room mix-up, the arrangements for the journey went perfectly. All of the flights were relatively on time, all of the rooms were decent and not once did we get the 'I'm sorry sir, there's no-one booked under that name' look.

Low Road: Manchester Airport is a dive and their 'food village' is a joke. American Airlines is a very nice airline but in the end their seats are not made for people the width of Andrew and I, not the height of Pete. Eight hours of uncomfortable squirming and in-seat taichi each way made me want to lose weight more than ever. Add to that the ridiculously tight transfer time across O'Hare airport (you would think that two and a half hours would be long enough, wouldn't you?) and it wasn't as easy as we would have liked it to be. Still, a little drama never hurt anyone!

High Road: America is always an amazing place, but it is moreso when the currency has been pummelled into nothingness. £1=$2 makes a massive difference to the purchasing power we had over there. Nothing was too expensive. NOTHING. Want a top of the menu steak dinner? Thats £9. Want an extra round of drinks? Thats £1.50. Want to try that game? Thats just £10 so why not. Even the generic con tickets were only £0.75. Everything was a bargain. Oh, and the weather broke just as we arrived, taking the temperatures down from the humid high 30s to the dry mid 20s. Still hot enough to be pleasant, but not so hot as to be offensive.

Low Road: I shake my head at a country of excess. As many of you are aware, I am not a small person and I quite like my food. However, when I cannot finish a STARTER because it is too substantial, you know that there is something very very wrong. The portion sizes were just ridiculous and we were assure by the waitress that they were not sharing starters and that average mid-west yanks did indeed order a starter, main and dessert. I mean honestly! That explained some of the people we saw at the con. Anywhere when I can be considered average sized has to be a little over-consumed!

High Road: It was great to see all of my CCG buddies again - the Raw Deal players and the RD alumni that have graduated onto other games. I've waxed lyrical in other blog posts about the bittersweet nature of these meetings, but by now I have realised that I think I will be back again and I will see these people again. There was nothing quite like entering the RD room and being greeted so warmly by players despite my long hiatus from the game. I got to eat with Antigoth and Matt Hatcher and Jason Griffey. I got to chat to Zev again and I got to attend an MLX again. It was good times indeed.

Low Road: I'll say it here, publically - Raw Deal is in a whole world of pain at the moment. Seeing the Comic Images 'booth' and the presentation of the World Qualifiers in comparison to the presentations by companies like Sabretooth Games and UDE really underlined that there is something lacking. There was just no big game feeling to the events, no real investment in the games future and no ... heart. It was heart rending really, as the people that were playing were obviously still loving playing the game. I would say that something has to change, but I think it might be too late to turnaround such a dire situation.

High Road: Oh the Exhibitors Hall! It's more than I could ever imagine and then some. Want to see CCGs? New ones? Old ones? Yup. Want to play MMOs? Try the new WoW expansion? Play the amazing Pirates of the Burning Sea? See Age of Conan? Warhammer? Yup, thats all there. Want to try new RPGs? Oh my GOD! So many games. So many fookin games! And so cheap. The only way I can describe it is a shop twice the size of something like Memorabilia at the NEC with loads of demos and boardgames and nachos vendors and ... oh it was brilliant!! I could have happily stayed there for the entire convention. And indeed, I nearly did.

Low Road: Too much, too quickly - and my feet gave up. Despite wearing my very most comfortable shoes, I got a horrid big blister on the bottom of my foot, which became nicely infected. I was wondering why I could only manage to do one or two things and then need to sit down and rest. Not just rest because I was tired - really REST, because I was going to collapse otherwise. Well, I had a nice shivers attack on Sunday night and fevered until Monday morning. In the end I was diagnosed with a soft tissue infection of my toe that was crawling nicely towards my ankle. Nice. Needless to say that if I hadn't been laid low with this malady, I would have managed to do a load more stuff.

High Road: So what did I manage to do? Well, we had a demo of Cold City by the creator Malcolm Craig which really sold us on the game. Andrew and I also had a very nice man from BWHQ show is the ins and outs of Burning Wheel combat - unveiling the simplicity behind a very complicated looking system. I talked with a number of people that I have talked to online - indeed, the best thing I did was write 'You may know me online as Vodkashok' on my badge. I also got interviewed by the Sons of Kryos for their podcast, which was a load of fun. I played some Primetime Adventures which was great.

Low Road: I never really got to grips with Games on Demand, which is actually 'Games when Available'. I never managed to get myself to the Embassy for the evening games sessions. I never really played much at all. I did go out drinking one night which was a total mistake as my illness and a hangover nearly killed me. In the end, this GenCon felt like a scouting mission for a larger, more focused mission in the future. Now I know some of the tricks of the trade - like getting your badge on Wednesday, preordering Generics, getting EVEN MORE COMFORTABLE SHOES and most of all, getting a hotel nearer the venue - I reckon I can get a lot more out of it.

High Road: What else happened? Well, I was there, in the room, when 4th Edition was announced for Dungeons and Dragons. That was kind of cool. I had a very good chat with some of the indie games guys about the ins and outs of self-publishing which was one of my desires for the con anyway. And I had a really really good time. That was the main reason for going - to have fun. And despite my bodies great attempts to make things otherwise, I did. And I will again.

Oh.. and what did I purchase?

A Faery's Tale Deluxe - signed by the writer for the girls
10 Faery's Tale specific dice
GURPS Age of Napoleon - Duty and Honour research material
Giants - an Ashcan of a game of giants and their communities
Burning Wheel: Jihad - Its Dune. Even the BW guys admit it's Dune
Burning Wheel: The Blossoms Are Falling - BW does Bushido
Full Light, Full Steam - oh, it's brilliant. Just brilliant! Better than that!
Cold City Companion - more cold war goodness


Monday, August 13, 2007

The Matrix Revelation

I had a bit of a revelation as I was watching The Matrix with the kids at the weekend and it had to do with emulation, system and narration in roleplaying games. With full knowledge of what was coming, I sat ready to watch 'the lobby scene' and then I started thinking - how would you do the lobby scene in a game?

My initial thought was about the mechanics that would be needed to create the same effect in a game - the guns, the avoidance, the acrobatics etc. No, thats not going to work is it, because the very nature of most mechanics heavy systems would decimate any immediacy of the action. Then I turned to some mook rule system, but that too just seemed too clunky and indeed maybe a little out-0f-genre for the movie where anyone can be a danger. This naturally took to the other extreme and the idea of narration and the dread conflict resolution. But even then when I thought about it I could not see how the system would recreate that scene.

And then the revelation came. Of course the sytsem wouldn't be able to emulate or recreate that scene. Lets face it - how many times have you played through anything as good as that in a game? How many times has any given system delivered that impact and 'WoW!' factor? Never. I would wager.

Thats because it isn't the system that 'delivers the Awesome' - its the players.

And sometimes thats a thing I think we forget. The players are going to add that X-Factor to a game that will make it or break it. As a designer, we cannot build that into the game as everyone's Lobby Scene will be different - all we can do is make sure that the mechanics we do have don't get in the way of that marvellous invention. As Games Masters we have to recognise when a player is about the throw back his trenchcoat and blow seven colours of shit out of the game with a large Awesome cannon and we have to let them run with it. As players, we have to simply not accept the mundane in the games that we play. We have to push the envelope if we are going to deliver memorable moments.

To quote the film in question:

Trinity: Neo... nobody has ever done this before.
Neo: I know. That's why it's going to work


Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sharpe Bricks?

Inspired by this thread whilst pottering around Tynemouth Market this morning, I spotted something amazing. When I got home, I flew onto the web and after a little search-fu, I found the rest. Oh My God!
You can get Napoleonic Lego Minifigs! You can get them in English red, French Blue and some Spanish looking ones too. Standard redcoats and 'command' figures. I have no idea what I can do with them, but I must be able to do SOMETHING.
Oh and you can also get some really REALLY cool 'Spirit of the Century' style ones too.

Blast from the Past!

Little trip down memory lane for the Gaming Guys. Found this hiding on some ftp space I was clearing out.