Monday, May 20, 2013

On Ubiquitous Sorcery

Opinion by Harcourt Runcible, Esq.
(as published in the Gazette two weeks ago)

It would be of no great inaccuracy to state that magic is everywhere in the Wampus Country, yet such a proclamation yields no real useful information.  Equally fatuous would be to suddenly notice that fish tend to be surrounded by water.  Of more use to the keen mind is careful consideration of those tangential points at which our society touches the raw, feral sorcery which thrums throughout the warp and woof of the frontier - and it is upon that subject which I shall now enlighten the Gazette's gentle and ignorant readers.

Thrust your mind backward in time, if you will, to the most recent occasion upon which you felt the need to consult a wonderworker of any stripe or hue.  Perhaps you partook in a minor restorative ceremony at the local church (no doubt surrendering several bills in the process) - or perhaps you sought out a local wizarding-type for some specific aid.  Everyone has a need now and again, and as a wise man once said, the business of Wampus Country is business; thus for each need, a commercial enterprise has arisen, in some cases specialized, in others, more general.

A few scant blocks uphill of my picturesque office, here in River-Town, there meanders a crooked, grey-cobbled street which is host to no less than seven different thaumaturgical businesses.  And why not?  These are the days when any man can hang his shingle and ply a trade - or an illusion of a trade - allowing the market to decide who prospers, and the hindmost tumble into the Midnight Sea.  Two of the gentlemen who claim to be wizards along that stretch of road are general practitioners.  One specializes in astrological counseling, one in fairy matters; another claims to speak to the dearly departed in exchange for the dearly minted, and another hawks his dowsing-ability to find not only well-water but also missing keys.  The seventh worker, a raven-tressed sorceress of dubious morality, is said to have truck with all manner of nightmares.

Cogitate, if you will, on the sort of society which would allow all seven of these bent minds to not only survive economically, but even thrive!  The days of bearded ascetics stomping about in musty towers are behind us, surely, when any civilized man with a pocket full of dimes can procure a reasonably efficacious love-potion.  And yet, still, something is missing.  The petty storefront wizards of River-Town are little more than fashionable apothecaries!  Where is the true wonder of sorcery?  I shall inform you, dear reader - it lies deeper into the frontier.  Tuxedoed wags scoff at the lonesome pines and waving grasses of the Wampus Country proper, eager to rant over a pint or two about how River-Town is the sole bastion of true civilization in this part of the world.  And if it is, then civilization can hang - for I say River-Town is, in truth, the sole vestige of the old ways, a crippled greybeard hobbling through a sea of eager children, shouting in vain.

I have myself made numerous sorties into the wilderness, and lived to tell about it to those with the patience to truly listen.  And I tell you now, it is in the wilderness that the magic lies.  What use are patent medicines that proclaim to contain a scant drop of gorgon's blood?  If you can purchase it in a store, my friend, there is little magic in it - for magic is wonder, and wonder can be harvested only from the unknown.  Remain "civilized", if you wish, and content yourself with venal magic in little green bottles pasted with pre-printed labels bearing the name of some university graduate -- I have seen savages transform bodily into predatory cats by means of wooden masks soaked in the blood of their ancestors.  Just as a man who has truly known the sweeping emotions of love looks back on a grade-school crush, so too do I wistfully acknowledge the small sorceries of the city: just as distant, just as meaningless.  Ubiquity minimizes meaning, my friends - compare the omnipresent dust on your mantle to a distant mountain peak; such is the disparity between the civilized sorceries and the raw, unbridled majesty of frontier magic.  The wizards of River-Town are little more than pathetic con men, pawning off the finger-painting of lobotomized gibbons as avant-garde artwork.

(printed in the Gazette this week)

Well-known author and frontier explorer, the learned Mr. Harcourt Runcible, was reported missing from his bedchamber yesterday by his long-time maidservant...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Money of Wampus Country

Although in many localities barter is common, it is the dollar which makes Wampus Country go 'round.  Gold, silver, and copper coins are in circulation, as well as paper notes with a value equal to multiple gold coins.  Most frontier adults are savvy enough to recognize obviously fake or clipped coins; don't be surprised if some of your gold pieces have bite marks in them.

COINAGE is minted by multiple concerns, including the Silver Scorpion Casino in River-Town - which, as you know, is run by religious-types.  The Red Bear Lumber Company also mints its own coins.  Some mercenary groups or other collectives mint their own coins as well.  Any coin which is 'known' to be of the proper weight and value is generally accepted throughout the Wampus Country; counterfeiters have a tendency to meet with grisly ends.

Coins from the Western Kingdoms don't last long in Wampus Country without being overstruck or melted down.  Just as it is considered rude to even discuss the 'old countries', it is bad luck to carry Western coinage, and a grave insult to attempt to pay using it.  Strange foreign coinage (from Khelibesh, or Kax Ak, or someplace weirder or possibly off-world) is acceptable in most places so long as it's the proper weight - but even extraplanar money will eventually be overstruck by someone, or melted down as part of a $30 gold bar.  Some merchants keep a scale handy - if necessary, they can bite every coin, pile them onto the scale to get the total weight, and then discount the gold based on the vibe presented by the customer.

GOLD PIECES (1gp, $1) are minted in yellow or reddish gold, and are about the same size and weight of a modern American dollar coin or quarter.  The Silver Scorpion Casino (and associated Scorpion Cult) strike dollar coins with a scorpion on the obverse and varying designs on the reverse.  The Waterfront Collective (a merchants' guild in Frogport) issues gold pieces which are clad on the reverse in copper with the image of a frog; these pieces tarnish rapidly, as copper is wont to do, and are known as 'greenbacks'; despite this decoration, they are still valued at a single dollar each.  Several years ago, a fad arose whereby ladies and gentlemen of means would purchase (via catalog) a hand-crimping machine and contract a local artist to sculpt and cast a personalized die, so they could overstrike coins themselves.  This development has led to a wondrous proliferation of gold-coin designs recently, and helps explain some of the stranger ones seen in circulation.  Wealthy individuals may go so far as to strike commemorative birthday coins or the like, which they then hand out to party guests as a sign of their largesse.  A hand-crimp for overstriking, along with two custom dies, will set you back about $200.

SILVER PIECES (10 to the dollar) are similarly minted in silver or some amalgam; occasionally "silver" pieces which are primarily nickel or some other metal turn up, and these are typically valued at twenty to the dollar if they have appreciable silver content.  COPPER PIECES (100 to the dollar) are often well-worn copper slugs with little or no ornamentation.  Most are circular in shape, but those pennies flattened into oblong novelty talismans - at places like Thunderbolt Black's Action Show, or the Diamond Peacock bordello - are still considered acceptable currency.  Pennies are only rarely called "pence" in Wampus Country.

PAPER MONEY is fairly common on the frontier as well.  Several large businesses print their own paper notes, redeemable for coin, as a means of settling debts or paying their employees.  Paper money has some advantages in terms of portability, and tends to be printed in larger values.  Most paper notes are horizontally-printed on cotton paper and are of comparable size and shape to the modern American note.  Intricate and grandiose designs in colorful inks are common for paper money.

The notes vary in value (usually $10, $20, $50, $100) and color; many issued notes have acquired nicknames based on their value or appearance, such as the "lobster", "loon", "beaver", etc.  The "Fin", for example, is a five-dollar bill printed in blue and yellow and bearing the image of several fish.  The "Saw-Buck" is a crimson and orange paper note, worth $10, issued by the Red Bear Lumber Company and in use widely throughout the north.  The obverse depicts two loggers using a massive two-man saw to fell a tree; the reverse shows a majestic ten-point deer.  Although not often seen these days, there was previously available a hundred-dollar bill which showed a galleon at sail upon a raging ocean (a "sea note").

MONEYCHANGERS, as a profession, are quite rare in the Wampus Country, as they are culturally superfluous.  There are businesspersons who will gladly melt, mint, or overstrike someone else's coinage for a small fee, however.  PRIVATE BANKS are a new concept on the frontier - there are two young banking establishments in River-Town, both of which have begun issuing their own currency - which, of course, is in line with customer expectations as far as size, shape, and value of the notes.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Marvel Kerfuffle

A couple really long days at work means the blog gets a rant.  That's just blog physics.

Unless your internet has been living under a rock lately, you're probably aware that the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (MHR) game line has been cancelled.  You've probably also seen some commentary here and there - on the Plus, on various fora of ill repute - regarding this modern-day tragedy.  This industry development - and the fact that I sat down with a copy of the core rules directly after it - brings us to this post.  I don't usually do "industry stuff", but here 'tis, my (uninvited) thoughts on the matter.

I love superheroes, so it only makes sense that I enjoy the idea of supers rpgs - and I like Marvel Super Heroes (MSH, the FASERIP game) the best, for a number of reasons - chief being ease of use.  I disclose that now, for fear of appearing unduly biased moving forward with this post.

Here's the thing about the MHR cancellation: people straight-up freaked out.  Wailing, gnashing of teeth, the sort of thing we often see when a game line (or beloved television show) gets cancelled.  We also saw some individuals getting really grumpy at Marvel (and in some cases, Disney by extension), for apparently being horrible corporate meanies focused on profit instead of genius (see also: Firefly fandom and Fox, and all the good it did them).  Let me be clear about this: be mad at Marvel if you want, but it takes two to tango.  Margaret Weis Productions (MWP) signed some sort of contract and licensing agreement to get use of the Marvel IP for rpgs, and they knew full well what was in whatever agreement they signed.  Period.  Was MWP too ambitious?  Did something go wrong with the rollout of the line?  Short of getting MWP staffers really drunk, I'll never know, and that's fine (and it's none of my business anyway) [1].  Speculation is probably more fun than knowledge, that's a human nature thing.

I had flipped through the core book when it first came out, and put it back on the shelf.  It didn't seem to be for me.  Rereading it in the last week, that judgment stands - MHR isn't what I want in a supers rpg, and that's okay. Now brace for the compliment: MHR is exactly what MWP wanted it to be [2].  What do I mean by that?  It's a narrative-driven rpg affixed to an Event-driven marketing scheme (which mirrors the way Marvel's been doing comics for some time now).  MHR has lots of clever bits in it, I'll gladly acknowledge that (much in the same way my wife, allergic to cinnamon, can appreciate the beauty of the latticework on an apple pie, I suppose).  There is an elegance to the mechanics that even I can see, and I've no doubt that it does precisely what it was meant to do; but what it's meant to do isn't what I want a supers rpg to do.

Things that jump out at me about MHR that signal it's not a game for me:

* The narrative nature of it - plotting character arcs - doesn't scratch my itch.  Some folks dig that, and good on 'em.  I'm not going to whine that it isn't an rpg - but it's certainly on the avant-garde end of the spectrum, that's fair, right?

* The game is not laid out in a way which is friendly to new roleplayers whatsoever; it's full of fiddly bits which are not explained in a matter that makes it easy for an inexperienced rpger to pick up the concepts.  This dovetails into the (now well known, and only sort-of-accurate) complaints that MHR lacks 'proper' character creation.  I don't see the point in arguing about whether it does or doesn't, I think it's safe to say that the game certainly does not put the creation of original characters front and center.  Nor would it, as that wasn't a design goal (that much is evident).  I've seen some people complain about the "same-ness" of PCs, and I can see that, but I think that, too, was a design goal.  MHR is intended to be about the characters as ...well, characters in a story arc, not as PCs.   They're PCs, too, but they aren't measured by their ability to interact with the game world, they're measured by their ability to interact with the story which takes place in the game world.  There's a difference there. [3]

* The solo/buddy/team mechanic is clever, and is obviously in place to emulate certain aspects of comics writing-physics, but since I haven't actually played the game, I have no idea whether they actually work.  The core rules don't really address solo play, and I think a supers game that calls out the difference between "Spider-man in his own book" and "Spider-man when he's in an Avengers book" probably should - missed opportunity there.  This is just one feature of the game that I don't think gets enough explanation.

* The Event-based releases and marketing really turn me off, because they highlight the fact that the game is designed to default to 'theme park' rather than 'sandbox'.  Believe me, if there were better terms than those two, I would use them, but that's pretty much what I'm getting at.  The Event marketing is a big reminder that MHR is, at its heart, not about creating your own characters.  Would MWP have ever gotten around to releasing something that covered gadgeteer characters and building a superhero HQ?  These kinds of things are, to me, central to the supers rpg experience.  They take a back seat (like, three miles back on the highway) in MHR.  I think that strikes a mighty blow against player investment in a campaign.

We can ruminate all day on "what went wrong" with MHR, but really, it's not about what went wrong -- MHR does everything the designers wanted it to do.  It just isn't much of a supers rpg, in a wider sense.  Now, don't get me wrong, I know lots of people love the game and have run successful campaigns with it, and that's awesome (and I hope they continue to get good use out of the material post-cancellation).  But MHR is not for newbies, and it's not for kids.  And, again, that's the point.  A supers game like Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP!) emulates the comics of its era (light, fun, four-color, action-driven, easy to pick up); whereas MHR, instead, emulates the comics of the last few years, after the advent of Bendis et al (dark, "adult", talky, character-driven, "serious", not as easy to jump into).  Which means I can easily (maybe too easily) make the same complaints about MHR that I tend to make about 21st-century comics and the seeming decline of that industry. [4]

And that, my patient rant-readers, brings us to the "what would I have done" part of the show.  What good is speculation without woulda-coulda-shoulda, right?  A very natural exercise, and one in which we certainly must partake - especially given the success of the Marvel movies.  It's totally reasonable to look at the MHR run and think "How could anybody have the Marvel IP and not make money?".  (Side-note: presumably MWP did indeed make some money with the IP - the situation is more complex than armchair quarterbacking, I get that - but second-guessing strangers on the internet is a thing we do.)

Okay, armchair quarterback helmets on.  How to do a Marvel rpg "right"? [5]

* Choose your target audience and design accordingly.  Note that MWP did this, they just chose a target audience of experienced hipster roleplayers (or maybe Quesada's people mandated that they target current comic book aficionados between 25 and 40, I don't know).  I would instead aim for a younger crowd, and design a simpler game.  If the simple game is successful, you can add complexity in degrees later.  Put it in a smallish box, call it the Avengers Adventure Game or something, and go from there.

* (Probable pipe dream) Work with Marvel to market your product as widely as possible.  The shelf at Wal-Mart and Toys-R-Us is your goal, not the shelf at the FLGS (sorry, FLGS).  If you have a younger-skewing intro type product, this looks more possible (but still a pipe dream, I know, I know).  Don't aim for people who have reserved boxes at the comic shop, you'll get them anyway.  Aim for the kids who watch Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-man.  Aim for the kids who were reading Marvel's (really quite excellent) all-ages books. [6]  Hell, you could do it all with art recycled from those books if you wanted, and you'd have a nice multicultural Avengers to play with instead of the "why is there only one girl and she has no powers" version we have in the movies; although tying-in with Earth's Mightiest Heroes (which is still published) would be awesome.

* I'd go boxed, given the option (this lines up with the Wal-Mart argument), and I'd put dice in there and little plastic superheroes and/or paper fold-ups, and a fold-out map to go with them.  Lots of different boxes (Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Spidey, whatever), matching six-siders (red with gold pips for Iron Man, you get the picture).  Different box art and titles, but they all have the Avengers Adventure Game logo in the corner, and the basic rules (VERY SHORT) in the box, plus a book of adventures and villains, and the assorted doodads.  Collect 'em all.  If my Mom buys me Iron Man: Revenge of the Mandarin, and Johnny gets Captain America: Against HYDRA for his birthday, we're compatible and ready for a team-up immediately when we go over to Suzy's house and she runs the adventures from her copy of Incredible Hulk: Gamma Planet for us.  Bing-bang-boom, roleplaying game for kids, or for nerd-parents to play with their kids.  Put a Marvel comic (reprints, of course) in EVERY BOX.  Keep the price point as low as possible.  Do up a website with new content (an adventure, or villains with fold-ups, or assorted proper-scale papercraft) every week.  Think long and hard about how many people have incredibly fond memories of Heroquest as a gateway to 'proper' roleplaying.

The bottom line is that the future of Marvel fandom is not held by people my age arguing about how awful the Sentry is. [7]      It's here:

The MHR fans will get their Cortex Plus, and they'll be fine, and I wish them all years of great gaming with whatever system and setting they love best.

[1] - MWP staffers, I'm in Baltimore.  We have bars here.  We can make this happen.

[2] - The horrible snarky version is, of course, "MHR is everything MWP wanted it to be, except wildly profitable".  But that was on the mean side, so it goes down here in a footnote like some kind of confessional.

[3] - Again - and I guess I can't say this enough - MWP was very successful in achieving their design goals, that much is evident.  It's just that I don't (apparently) share any of their goals, so I don't get anything out of MHR.

[4] - MWP staffers, when we get trashed together, you'll hear this rant, as well as my Quesada impression.  Nothing to write home about, but probably pretty funny once we've been drinking.

[5] - You'll note how much of this resembles choices TSR made with MSH.  Complain about TSR all you want, but for a stretch there they really knew what the hell they were doing as far as riding the wave of the rpg fad and marrying that to a good license.  (You hush about Indiana Jones, obviously that's the counterpoint, but also look - the Indy game also made the suspicious choice of presuming you would play canon characters and not make up your own, which was surely a death-blow to WAITAMINUTE)

[6] - They have Stature ("Giant Girl") in them.  That is the coolest thing ever.

[7] - Really, really, awful.  Even before "the Rogue thing".

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Wild Cornucopia of Gloriana Majestrix

Many on the frontier pay passing homage to the goddess Gloriana, sometimes styled Majestrix, for she embodies the exploration of Wampus Country in many ways.  Gloriana is the bounty of the wilderness - the idea that all this food, lumber, and living space are just out there for the taking if one only has the courage to reach out and grab it.  Some farmers maintain a small shrine to Gloriana, for although they be agents of agriculture, they are keenly aware that their tamed land has been parceled out to them by the wilderness Herself.  Some adventuring-types also bow their heads to Gloriana Majestrix, although they may take her "go out and grab it" philosophy in a slightly different direction.

The goddess herself is pictured as a young (or sometimes matronly) woman clutching a cornucopia, sometimes accompanied by a shield on one arm or mounted upon her back.  Although sometimes drawn wearing a massive fruited bonnet, and other times with russet locks flowing in the breeze, she is inevitably barefoot.  On occasion she is accompanied by one or more brightly-colored birds, or by a swarm of bees.  Copper charms bearing the image of the Majestrix are sold in most towns as luck-charms, and wards against starvation while traveling.  In some ways Gloriana resembles a hearth goddess, using similar terminology - it is she who sits at a loom and weaves the fabric of the land, for example, she who stokes the fires beneath the mountain to keep the world warm.  Festivals acknowledging Gloriana Majestrix are held in the Spring and Autumn, and are themed around the planting and the harvest.  More than once in the past decade these festivals have been interrupted by black-clad assassins of death determined to act against the cult of Gloriana.

Clerics dedicated principally to Gloriana are but a mere handful, but they certainly make their presence known wherever they go; here they are delivering warm speeches on streetcorners, there they are tagging along with a posse of ne'er-do-wells and dragging something valuable out of the woods.  Some time ago in Thistlemarch, a priest named Roland made a bit of a name for himself around town by discovering, along with his fellow gentleman-adventurers, the forgotten subterranean abode of a long-dead sorceror.  Roland was affable, well-liked in town, and known for applying his cleverness to the constant problem of "how can we profit from this seemingly-unsellable loot?"  Sadly, he and his companions have not been seen in town in over a year - perhaps they are off on another quest, or perhaps they have been devoured by wampus-cats somewhere.

Townsfolk dress in elaborate food-related costumes for the Spring festival.
Gloriana's spirit-messengers are said to be resplendent avians which guide men to treasure or safety.
In a later installment we shall investigate the connection between the Gloriana cult and the rainbow-striped zebras, and perhaps look into a certain rare type of brutish lycanthropy associated with her worship.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Wampus Art!

The below sketches come from Theo Evans - very excited to have some art "in the can" for the Almanac (which proceeds sloooowly, but proceeds).

A dandy wizard of the Wampus Country

A dangerous lady.

A dapper fish-man of the Lakeborn.

Procuring art is its own adventure, especially for someone who's never done it before.  One of the things I've had to think about is a 'style bible' for when I start really commissioning artwork.  It's counter-intuitive for me - I would prefer to keep things as 'Marvel method' as possible, with minimal art direction, but because there are certain setting specifics, I'm probably better off having some guidelines on hand.  It's one thing to tell an artist "fantasy western", but if they come back with an illustration that contains a train in the background, that's a problem.

I'm trying to collect art to which I have publishing rights, and have compensated the artist.  There are plenty of gaming buddies who have volunteered free art, and that's an amazing thing to hear, but since the Almanac is intended to be a paid product, I'm leery about taking art donations at this time.  Down the line we'll probably be in "sketch for a free dead-tree copy" territory for those hardy volunteers, but that's down the line.