On the off chance I have any readers, I’m posting to explain why I’ve been awol. The first reason is the arrival of Mad Men 2 on Blu Ray. The second is that I have a funeral to attend. Promise I will be back on Monday.
On the off chance I have any readers, I’m posting to explain why I’ve been awol. The first reason is the arrival of Mad Men 2 on Blu Ray. The second is that I have a funeral to attend. Promise I will be back on Monday.
I received my pre-ordered copy of The Day After Ragnarok last week. Five days later, I have devoured the book and want to write about it. So in this case I’m early to the party. Sue me.
The Day After Ragnarok (DAR) is a Savage Worlds setting by Kenneth Hite. Referred to as Conan: 1948, DAR paints a world that is struggling to survive in the wake of a near-apocalypse caused by the Nazis. This isn’t any old atomic apocalypse, either. Nope. This is a world that may have just dodged Ragnarok. The poisonous body of the Midguard Serpent lies prostrate over much of Europe and North Africa, America east of the Rockies is a poisoned wasteland filled with mutated monstrosities born of serpent venom and Josef Stalin is spreading Communism with an army of duped Frost Giants.
DAR blends classic pulp adventure with sword, sorcery and super-science. Suggested campaign types include:
The Thing Itself-
The Day After Ragnarok (DAR) is a wee black and white tome running 128 pages. It is one of the few RPG books I know that are smaller than the Savage Worlds Explorers Edition, so don’t plan on using it as a weapon. There isn’t much in the way of art and the text is dense, but well laid-out. No space feels wasted, which is important in a book this size.
DAR is divided into a Players section which is subdivided into 9 chapters and a GM’s section with 3 chapters and an appendix. The GM’s section includes the bulk of the fluff for the setting and I’m unsure why it is separated from the players section. Perhaps the idea of a GM’s section containing only two chapters felt a little silly.
There are the usual custom and customized edges and hindrances in DAR, with a sprinkling of background, combat, and professional edges adapted to the setting. As a Canuck, I appreciated the inclusion of a ‘Mountie’ profession edge that makes sense in terms of the setting’s logic and the pulp genres it emulates. DAR also tweaks the Arcane Backgrounds, effectively making miracles, sorcery and super-science available, but at a price.
In terms of crunch the other highlight of DAR is the ‘Ophi-tech’ chapter. This chapter is basically five pages of pulp inspired gadgets fueled by or culled from the carcass of the Midguard Serpent. Still, if I were to run a straight Pulp game using Savage Worlds, I wouldn’t hesitate to strip out the flavour text and drop these gadgets into any pulp setting.
I find the world of DAR extremely compelling. It’s retropocalypse provides nugget after nugget of unique gameable ideas. Hite does a great job provide evocative sketches of various hot-spots and locales around the globe that could provide no end of fun for Players. Want Air-Pirates? Go to North Africa or China. Barbarians fighting giant Gila Monsters in the ruins of a five and dime? I hear Chicago is nice this time of year.
Moreover, Hite manages to give many locations a quick brushstroke or two that is evocative without it feeling like he is hemming GMs in. Hite also provides a number of tools to help GM’s generate adventures on the fly or get over writers block. There are the ‘Savage Shortlists’ sprinkled throughout the GM’s section that detail things like the ‘Top 5 Places to Stomp Nazis.’ And of course there are the usual random adventure and event tables which are common to Savage Worlds games but are exceptionally well executed in DAR.
If I have one complaint about DAR’s fluff, its that there isn’t enough of it. Don’t get me wrong, Hite gives us a global tour that sets this GM’s mind spinning with ideas, but there are definitely gaps. The New Konfederacy, for instance, is mentioned throughout the book as a major adversary and yet no details are given about the organization. From what I’ve gleaned it is envisioned as a Serpent-worshiping KKK army bent on conquering the Poisoned Lands, but I would have appreciated a sentence or two more on them.
That said, this certainly isn’t a setting where a GM is going to feel like they are playing in someone elses sandbox. Instead, DAR evokes and teases ideas for a more detailed setting and leaves a lot of room for GM’s to customize the world. On the whole, this is a great thing.
The Day After Ragnarok is probably my favorite Savage Worlds setting at present. Maybe it just has its finger on the pulse, but I find the notion of Sword and Sorcery adventuring in the ruins of a retropocalpyse pretty appealing. My only complaint is that I want more…which is a pretty great complaint to have!
The Good- An extremely evocative setting, a great, if small, crunch section that is easily adaptable to other settings, a low price point and a lot of room for GMs to build.
The Bad- A few setting details could have been–well–detailed. I only wish it had been in color.
Substance: 4.5 out of 5
Style: 4 out of 5
So you’ve had a heavy dose of Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Matt Fraction’s Casanova or even the Venture Brothers and you feel like running a little Super-Spy Action. Now you need to ask yourself: what’s worth stealing and how should you implement it.
For my money, here’s what I tend to take away from it:
1) It’s Always about the Awesome- Start your adventure in media res with your team moving in on an enemy agent who happens to be aboard a gondola in the Alps. Have them all roll their their ‘speak ____ skill’ as law enforcement officials kick in their hotel door and chase them out onto the rooftops of Marrakesh. Make them react and keep setting up opportunities for them to be awesome. Don’t let your group spend 30 minutes haggling over pistols or debating plans. Cut to the next scene and keep things moving.
2) Gadgets are a Girl’s Best Friend- As I read Steranko’s Nick Fury run, I was struck by his use of ‘oxygen-providing buttons,’ ‘invisibility pills’ and a ‘magnetic repulsor watch.’ While these gizmos were far more fantastic than anything Sean Connery wielded, there was a certain D&D logic to their use. Nick only had a handful of items and they were nearly all one-use items. I recommend passing them out to players like candy initially, but restricting refills to add a little drama. Basically, gadgets should be the Vancian magic of the Super-Spy genre.
3)E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. is better with Acronyms- Word play abounds in the genre. From double entendres to overly elaborate acronyms, GMs should shameless dive into this practice in order to set the mood. Give your organizations, characters and locations suggestive names (S.E.R.P.E.N.T., Lady Isatramp and the No Go Dojo, for instance) and don’t look back. Oh, and for the record: I have no idea what S.E.R.P.E.N.T. stands for.
4) Diabolical Deathtraps- Honestly, I have the hardest time with this. Luring players into deathtraps without the use of ‘knockout’ or ‘railroad’ gas is a challenge. That said, if you are straight with your players and they are into the genre, I think it is fair to ask if they want to wind up in a deathtrap or not. Most of the time the answer will surprise you. When it comes time to design your trap, I advocate shameless stealing from any source you can get your hands on. My current favorite is a no grip underwater chamber half-filled with a vicious man-eating giant octopus.
5) Never Underestimate the Power of a Jumpsuit- Hydra agents wear green jumpsuits with a hood, members of A.I.M. wear yellow beekeeper costumes and the Yellow Claw’s people wore a strange Roman-like armour. All distinctive costumes that give the armies of mooks an identity and lend themselves to PC disguises. And if you can make each antagonist organization unique in its costume, goals and M.O., you can even pit them against each other for more mayhem. Nothing like dropping the PCs into a battle royal of different jump suit wearing fanatics!
There are a million other bits of brilliant in the genre, but you can’t steal them all. Or at least not all at once. But if you can cram the above elements into your game, you will have a great start to regular game or a fantastic one-shot.
And when in doubt? Go back to the source-material and steal even more!
PS- S.E.R.P.E.N.T.? Strategic Extortion Robbery and Persecution Engineered for Nihilistic Terror
On Monday, I outlined the initial pitch, influences and family-burning for my current Burning Wheel game. With the family’s territory picked and their strengths and weaknesses defined, the next step was character creation.
To prep my players, I sent them the following guidelines:
“All of the PCs will be members or affiliates of the Valdemar family. The Valdemar’s are a great noble house in a kingdom that might be about to undergo a dynastic change. For the campaign to work I’m going to need one player to play as the family’s heir. This character will also start off betrothed to a child of another noble house. I’d also like at least one and no more than two magic users (who can be either a family member or a House Mage).”
A few days later, we got together and, in the chaos that is group character creation, hashed out the following PCs-
Lady Isla- Her character concept is Angel-Faced Demon and that really says it all. The family’s heir and social skill monster, Isla is extremely manipulative and loves to use her ‘aura of innocence’ trait. She also bought a strong affiliation with the Troubadour’s Guild and a forbidden lover in the form of one of her ladies-in-waiting. Isla is 32.
Augur- A bastard half-brother sent off to learn magic. Magic is fairly rare in Thurn and largely controlled by the sanctioned ‘Scholars of the Shackled Tower’ and the shadowy ‘Weavers’ Guild.’ Inevitably, Augur’s player chose neither and instead has crafted an elaborate and exceptional back story. As a character, Augur is trying to take the role of sage advisor, but his tendency towards advocating total war and strategizing make him more of a mover than originally intended. Augur is 31.
Roland- One of the twins, Roland is arguably the ‘Danny Devito’ to Rodolf’s ‘Arnie.’ Roland is like Lord Byron: mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Roland has a reputation and a small pirate fleet to back it up. Roland spent the last decade as a blackmailer, duelist, and pirate in the rich southern lands and is only returning for his sister’s wedding. A born opportunist, my favorite of Roland’s instincts is ‘if the odds aren’t on his side, he takes the money and runs.’
Rodolf- The other twin. Rodolf has the ‘massive stature’ trait and–along with his instinct to never back down from a challenge–it defines his character. Rodolf bought a small cadre of mercenaries that prowls the duchy’s northern border, keeping it safe from savages and raiders. Rodolf’s player insists that his second-in-command does most of the actual commanding, leaving Rodolf to be a rallying point and symbol in most battles. The twins are 28.
Elanore- The final Valdemar, Elanore is the outsider of the family. She spent most of her life in the wilderness of the north, keeping villagers safe from the horrors that are beginning to awaken after centuries of slumber. She also has a very handy former love interest. We decided that this former lover would be an elf who has also awakened from a half-millena of sleep. Elanore is insanely good with her crossbow and wilderness skills. On the other hand, she has a distinct lack of social skills, money or literacy.
So that is the family Valdemar. Next time, I will give a bit more information about the setting they are playing in and a summary of their first session (a session that was very much stolen from KTnG’s ‘Everyone Loves a Wedding.‘
Wild Gadgets, Terrorists in Jump-suits, Breakneck Plots and Acronyms all in Sexy, Swinging, Sixties Style.
Jim Steranko’s run writing and illustrating Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel may still be the most visually dynamic and outré take on the Super-Spy genre. Books like Casanova and Planetary have paid tribute to this run, but neither can really capture that fresh sense of the impossible that leaps from Steranko’s every page. Casanova comes very close (and should be loved in its own right), but it consciously stays in dialogue with Steranko’s concepts and styles (along with the work of Michael Moorcock and a thousand other references).
For my money, the best way to experience Steranko’s Nick Fury run is by getting your grubby hands on one of the trade paperback collections Marvel has cranked out over the last decade or two. Although currently out of print, they shouldn’t be that hard to find online or at your local library (if you are lucky).
One warning: Don’t read these stories too closely. There is an awful of lot of text and dialogue on these pages and, frankly, most of it isn’t so good. Steranko’s Nick Fury run is better enjoyed on a visual level with the text scanned only for acronyms and gadget names if possible. It’s better felt than understood.
So if the recession is getting you down and you need sexy women, sharp suits and super-spies in the most stylish fashion Marvel managed: pick up a copy, make a martini, turn on your hi-fi and enjoy!
Inspired by the Podgecast’s ‘Kingdom: the Next Generation’ I sold my group on running a Burning Wheel-fuelled Noble House game. I made it clear that all the PCs would be members of a Ducal family in a kingdom teetering on the verge of civil war.
The flavour for the original pitch went a bit like this:
A childless king sits on the throne
Sorcery is one the rise once more
Street prophets claim an era of change and strife is upon us
The Burning Season is about to begin.
Will your family be the next to rule the land?
For my part, I set up:
I got my players together, put the map in front of them and asked them which Duchy was theirs (they chose the North, even though only one of them had read A Game of Thrones).
Then I had the players rate their territory on the following scale (I have kept the description I later added):
|Agriculture||Loyalty||Other Wealth||Hidden Potential||Population|
|2- Your peasants are generally fed, if not fed well.||4- Your people and vassals are loyal to your family. While there is some dissent and the occasional uprising or betrayal, nearly everyone in the north serves you gladly.||3- The iron and steel of the north is the finest in the kingdom. Your merchants do well if not fantastically.||5- As the Burning Age continues more and more of your land is becoming arable. And there is something and/or someone in your territory that can change the shape of the kingdoms.||1- Your territory was not heavily populated to begin with and it has been depopulated by the war. Your lands have still not recovered. There are vast stretches where one can ride for days without seeing a village.|
After this, I had them follow a similar procedure to help define their Noble House:
|Claim||Relation to Church||Relation to Arcane Societies||General Reputation and History||Martial Reputation|
|3- You have a direct claim to the throne by way of the old dynasty. Enough of a claim to be confident if the matter of a vacant throne was settled by law||1- Polite hostility. The church strongly disapproves of your tolerence of the old ways and would like to see you replaced.||2- Neutral. To the scholars of the Shackled Tower you are another great house to be aided and advised. To the Weaver’s Guild you are another customer to be assisted if the gold is right.||4- Your family is the stuff of myth. You can trace your line back to the Summer Kings and have a proud history that is sung of far and wide. Yours is the oldest house in the kingdom.||0- Disgraced. Your father and grandfather were routed. Your lands were decimated. No one has faith in your prowess.|
From here, they settled on a name (House Valdemar), agreed on who would make the heir to the Duchy and picked the House’s colours and symbol (the Wolf)
On Wednesday, I will tell you about who the Valdemar’s are and then what kind of trouble they have already gotten themselves into!
So I listened to the Podgecast episode 049 on my way to a job interview this morning. Generally, I love the podge, but this episode was a lesson in hurt. Some things were said during the recording of the episode that were, to say the least, hurtful.
Now I have my own reasons why this incident sticks in my craw, largely due to my own experiences of the New Depression. That said, it points to a good rule in life, work and gaming: Be careful when you make private disputes public.
Generally, if you have a personal issue with another member of your gaming group (or work or what have you) the first person to take it public loses. No one wants to get dragged into a pissing match between two people, especially if they are both friends. So do your best to keep personal conflicts personal and try to resolve them without appeals to the group or any other external authority.
Should that prove impossible, either because of a lack of control on the part of one of the principles or some inevitable spill over, do your best to conduct yourself with restraint. If you start lashing out or calling someone else a jackhole, then you are going to look like a schmuck in the situation. No one has ever lost the esteem of their peers by politely declining to engage in a public shouting match or refusing to fling mud.
So remember: conflicts and disputes come and go, but you still have to look your friends, your co-workers and your gaming group in the eye afterwards.
January 1st, 1976.
The west coast has fallen into the sea, albino mutants prowl the southwest, and a crooked president is clinging onto power. In perfect suburbs, factory built families are slowly replacing their flawed human neighbours. Swinging New Age Gurus preach radical selfishness while secretly preparing for the return of ancient alien astronauts.
And, to top things off, the leading presidential candidate may just be the first born child of the devil.
That’s the premise of Damnation Decade, a campaign guide by Robert J. Toth that was released by Green Ronin in 2006.
Damnation Decade is 144 pages of inspiring material for any GM with a love of 1970s pop culture. The book is broken down into five chapters with two appendices. The introduction and first three chapters (about half the book) cover an overview of the setting and setting-specific character creation rules.
The character creation chapters are the only parts of Damnation Decade that make me sad inside. I am not a fan of the D20 system or True 20, so the lists of setting-specific feats are largely wasted on me. On the other hand, it is always good to see a setting that has a distinct class for Truckers and Urban Cowboys. That said, if I ever get the chance to run this campaign again, I would adapt it (easily) to Savage Worlds.
The remainder of Damnation Decade is an extremely useful campaign guide for the Me Decade obsessed GM. The ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’ section breaks down 12 major threats taken from 70′s pop culture that, unstopped, will trigger an apocalypse on Dec. 31st, 1979. Smaller threats and quirky locations–like a flesh-eating Charles Manson or an Island where Fantasies are fulfilled–are peppered throughout this section, providing further inspiration.
The history, immediate plans and end games of each major menace is detailed and possible adventure hooks are also provided. These antagonists are a pretty mixed bag. They range from Omega Man-like mutants and a ‘Hugh Hefner meets Damien figure’ to reawakened ancient Sleestaks and whirling super-computers out to control the world. While some of these antagonists seem to overlap at times, they provide a wide range of threats to throw at your PCs in a wide range of tones.
Which brings us to a crucial point for anyone thinking of running Damnation Decade: follow the advice of the author and take a dim sum approach to the setting. Only use the threats you are interested in and ignore the rest.
Similarly useful suggestions are given on how to run the game with differing levels of seriousness. One can go for the creeping horror of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the wild approach of Avenging Disco Godfather or anywhere in-between (I tried to feel something like the Cornelius Chronicles and Winter Kills).
The only real issues I have with Damnation Decade feel like nitpicks. Beyond the use of the D20 system there is the naming. Toth has renamed everyone and every place in the world. Seriously.
This works for me when it comes to the people. Somehow using Stanton Spobeck instead of Richard Nixon makes it feel more like I’m running a film like the Parallax View. For places, on the other hand, it grated on me. I just can’t call New York ‘Fun City’ with a straight face.
Beyond these minor quirks, I strongly recommend Damnation Decade for anyone interested in running an apocalyptic game in the disco-laden, depressing and decadent era of the 1970s.
My wife bought me the Frost Nixon interviews on DVD. 400 minutes of shockingly frank conversation with one of America’s most controversial presidents. Yeah, yeah, I could have watched the dramatic adaptation, but that’s like buying a greatest hits album by a cover band.
One bit that I saw last night wound up focusing on Nixon’s use of language that may have been inspired by old Gangster flicks. Which made me think: how would Nixon, or many other Presidents, done as gangsters?
You always hear about how Al Capone could have been a great executive, but you rarely see executives evaluated as potential Mob Bosses. So here are a couple of thoughts:
Nixon- Tricky Dick would have run into the same problems in either career stream. Over complicated schemes and a refusal to let his henchmen swing. He’s like Capone that way.
JFK- As much as I dig Kennedy, I have to say that he’s another fella who would have had the same fate as a gangster. Charming, but when the Mob, the Cubans (pro and anti Castro), the CIA, and the KKK all want you dead as president; it shows a talent for making enemies. I’m thinking he’d be another Bugsy Siegel.
George Bush Jr- Clearly the front man for a much cleverer boss. Or a master of putting on the idiot front so no one suspects he’s the real boss. Like Jr. Soprano or Ronald Reagan.
FDR- More of a Republic Serial or James Bond villain than a mob boss: ruling a criminal empire from behind a desk with a cigarette holder, a wheel chair and a revolutionary vision.
LBJ- A Tough-talking big-man capable of being his own enforcer. Would eventually get tired of his perpetual battle with rivals and retires to vineyard. Dies suddenly. Think Vito Carleone.
Seriously, if the JFK gang warring with the Nixon mob doesn’t inspire the ‘Nazi’s Riding Dinosaur’ part of your brain, I would suggest seeing a professional.
Martin is the perfect cure for the Twilightization of the vampire. It may even be a good defense against the Anne Rice/Goth vampire. Even if at first glance that may seem absurd.
Martin is either an 84-year-old vampire making his way in 70′s America or he’s a mixed-up kid who is convinced that he’s a vampire. Either way Romero makes it clear that he is a monster.
‘Emo’ or not, Martin’s razor blades aren’t for himself.
Martin‘s low-budget quality adds to the film’s radical interpretation of the vampire story. There is nothing supernatural about Martin, as Martin himself constantly reminds us. Martin can look in mirrors, eat garlic and walk in the sun (although, like many teens, he doesn’t like it). Martin can’t mesmerize people, turn into mist or overpower them. Nope, Martin has to rely on his wits, drugs, razor blades and a fairly impressive understanding of forensic procedures.
In the end, the film leaves the question of Martin’s vampiric status open. For all that, it remains a tight thriller and warped coming of age story more than it is a straight horror flick. I found myself cheering for this mundane monster shuffling through a world without magic.
GM’s out there…Martin is a great inspiration for an urban fantasy/horror game that doesn’t conform to expectations. Martin’s distinct lack of ‘kewl powers’ combined with his ruthless ingenuity make him a clever low-powered adversary. Moreover, I know I would love to capture the ambivalence about whether Martin is, in fact, a vampire or merely a human. By stripping away the familiar trappings and outward displays of power, you can keep your players guessing. And a paranoid player is a fun player.