Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Who's That Girl?

Could it be .. AMERICANA!

David Acosta just showed me this awesome concept sketch for Americana and I could not help but show it off. It's so exciting to work with amazingly talented people.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Arthur Lives!

So I have a new game out. Some of you have heard far too much about this game, others may not have heard anything at all. I had great fun writing it, it turned out very well, and the first part has gone on sale at RPGNow.

AL! (as we call it around the house) is a game of cinematic adventure, occult conspiracy, and urban fantasy. Players take on the roles of Arthurian characters who have been reincarnated in the present day. Character creation is wide open -- if you don't want to play a famous Arthurian hero, you can play a minor character with a shot at the big leagues, or a brand new character of your own invention whom we have never heard of until now. AL! is envisioned as a series and this book kicks off Season One; the Narrator's Guide and an introductory adventure are in the pipeline and, if response is good, Season Two will follow.

If you were a playtester for AL! and I haven't already mailed you a copy of the published .pdf, shout out now for your well-earned game swag.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Teaching Literacy through Comics, Cont

By way of the comments, this very interesting documentary film project on using comics to teach literacy. Can't wait to explore the website further. The blog has been added to the Doctor Comics roll!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Teaching Literacy through Comics

I've spent the last few days working up a partial bibliography on this topic. I thought some folks might find it useful, so I'm posting it up here.
This collection of scholarly resources on the subject of teaching literacy through the use of comics is not intended to be definitive nor to include every possible article on the topic. These resources do, however, touch on a surprisingly broad array of questions and approaches, from the role of family in the teaching of reading to conscious arguments against the perception of comics as purely remedial writing, as well as complex notions of multimodal literacy and how comics excel in that particular mode.

Bitz, Michael. (2004). The Comic Book Project: Forging alternative pathways to literacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47 (7), 574-586.

Bitz’s wonderful project brought dozens of after-school instructors together with hundreds of students grade 5-8 with the aim of improving literacy by creating comic books. The instructor training, challenges, adaptation and results are well documented in both this article and a fully developed website: http://www.comicbookproject.org/. Bitz had some partner assistance from Dark Horse Comics, but his best resource was his many instructors, who experimented with many different approaches to art, writing, and planning during the month-long project. The Comic Book Project parallels my own much smaller project as part of the Cesar Chavez “Celebration through the Arts” program in California, 2002-2003, especially in the results: not only did the student literacy increase, but the topic of their comics was surprising: their preferred mode was a story of urban life and the depiction of challenges such as gang violence, drug culture, and family tension. Backed up with examples of what the students created, survey data, and more, the Comic Book Project is a must-read.

Davidson, Sol. Educational comics: A family tree. Imagetext, 4 (2). Retrieved August 3, 2009 from .

Not strictly speaking an article about the teaching of literacy through comics, Davidson’s work is instead an invaluable bibliography of educational and non-fiction comics. Some of these primary sources are exceedingly rare. Obviously, many will be of use to any instructor wishing to teach literacy while, at the same time, touching on social topics, science, or the arts.

Jacobs, Dale. (2007). More than words: Comics as a means of teaching multiple literacies. English Journal, 96 (3), 19-25.

Jacobs, Dale. (2007). Marveling at The Man Called Nova: Comics as sponsors of multimodal literacy. College Composition and Communication, 59 (2), 180-205.

Jacobs is the only author with more than one article on this list. Both of these are very accessible and useful; their points are related but distinct. In the first, far shorter, piece Jacobs uses a few pages of Polly and the Pirates to illustrate the notion of multiple literacies: linguistic, visual, audio, gestural and spatial. Further, multimodal literacy is increasingly the kind of literacy which students need, surrounded as they are by a multimedia age. Jacobs also argues that while we can admit comics are useful in remedial literacy instruction, to see them purely as a kind of simplified or debased literacy is both counter-productive and untrue. In Jacobs second, more conceptual essay, he unpacks multimodal literacies in more detail and traces the origin of the term to the New London Group. Jacobs examines the role of the literary sponsor – that is, the agency, group or individual who is pushing the literacy and who has, implicitly, something to gain from it. In this case, Marvel Comics taught a particular kind of multimodal literacy through its comics, a specific kind of literacy which prompted readers to buy more Marvel Comics. Jacobs uses examples to clarify that while all literacy has some kind of sponsor, that does not necessarily demean the value of the literacy or debase the literacy instruction. In any case, both these articles are quite useful and well-supported with textual evidence. The argument for using comics to teach multiple literacies in the classroom is persuasive.

Lenters, Kimberly. (2007) From storybooks to games, comics, bands and chapter books: A young boy’s appropriation of literacy practices. Canadian Journal of Education, 30 (1), 113-136.

This is a fascinating case study of one eight-year-old boy’s literacy practices and the role of his family and peers in the growth of that literacy. Comic books play a role, as “Max” chooses the anti-authority Captain Underpants comic and his parents decide to endorse, rather than refute, that choice. This leads to Max creating his own Tushyman comic derived from Underpants, and eventually his role as leader of a social circle of boys his age devoted to making comics. This process – which Lenters describes as Apprenticeship, Guided Participation, and Participatory Appropriation – seems to echo the experience of other instructors who have successfully used comics in the classroom and in after-school projects. Lenters also emphasizes a broad definition of literacy, along the lines of the multimodal literacies described by Jacobs and the New London Group.

Lin, Chia-Hat. (2005). Literacy instruction through communicative and visual arts. Teacher Librarian, 32 (5), 25-27.

Lin’s brief article touches on comic strips even more briefly. The emphasis is on the use of comics for elementary and middle school reading instruction, bolstered by the facts that they are economically accessible both in daily newspapers and online and also of great interest to children. Some classroom experiences using comics to teach reading in this context are discussed.

McVicker, Claudia J. (2007). Comic Strips as a Text Structure for Learning to Read. The Reading Teacher, 61 (1), 85-88.

McVicker is an enthusiastic proponent of using comic strips to teach elementary school grammar and as a remedial instruction tool for literacy in general. Like Lin, she notes the accessibility of comic strips, including such sites as www.garfield.com, which she used to create in-class puzzle games which prompted students to first assemble a strip in the proper sequence, then answer questions relating to vocabulary and prompting students to infer from the text they have reassembled. For those who wish to use comics to teach basic reading and grammar skills, McVicker is an excellent guide.

Ortiz, Robert W. and Laurie L. McCarty. (1997). “Daddy, read to me”: Fathers helping their young children learn to read. Reading Horizons, 38, 108-115.

I believe this may be the only non-peer reviewed article on this list. Nevertheless, the authors make a useful point about the willingness of fathers to read to their children, provided the text involved is interesting or is something the father feels is within his ability. Comic strips come up in this context, and the case is backed up by Lenter’s article on Max and his father’s role in the boy’s precocious and creative literacy. Again, the economical advantage and ubiquitous nature of comic strips contributes to their usefulness.

Ranker, Jason. (2008). Using comic books as read-alouds: Insights on reading instruction from an English as a Second Language classroom. The Reading Teacher, 61 (4), 296-305.

Demonstrating yet another approach to the use of comics in literacy instruction, Ranker discusses the role of comics in ESL classrooms, focusing on the classroom activities of a former student and current elementary instructor as she uses Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wild Girl in a class of largely Hispanic 1st graders. But in addition to using comics – both those mentioned and also comics made in class by instructor or students – to teach basic literacy, the comics are also used to educate on topics of story organization, of narration vs. dialogue, and to increase awareness of social issues such as gender roles and assumptions. The instructor’s struggle to find comic books with strong female role models is something any comics scholar can identify with. Another excellent example of comics being used to teach in unexpected fields and directions, simultaneous with literacy instruction.

Articles and Books of Possible Interest

Time being a limited thing, I have not had the chance to read these additional, very promising, resources. Several are cited by the articles discussed above, and touch on topics such as ESL instruction, multiple literacies, or the construction of comics in the classroom as a literacy-building exercise. I would also especially note Carter’s recent collection of scholarly essays on our topic and Greenberg’s very practical collection of grammar exercises using comic strips.

Cary, S. Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 2004.

Carter, James Bucky, editor. Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2007.

Crawford, Phillip. (2004). A novel approach: Using graphic novels to attract reluctant readers. Library Media Connection, 22 (5), 26-28.

Dorell, Larry. D., Curtis, Dan. B., & Rampal, Kuldip. R. (1995). Book-worms without books? Students reading comic books in the school house. The Journal of Popular Culture, 29, 223-234.

Goldstein, B.S. (1986). Looking at cartoons and comics in a new way. Journal of Reading, 29 (7), 657-661.

Greenberg, D. (2000). Comic-strip grammar: 40 reproducible cartoons with engaging practice exercises that make learning grammar fun. New York: Scholastic.

Haugaard, Kay. (1973). Comic books: Conduits to culture? The Reading Teacher, 27 (1), 54-44.

Koenke, Karl. (1981). The careful use of comic books. The Reading Teacher, 34 (5), 592-595.

Liu, J. (2004). Effects of comic strips on L2 learners’ reading comprehension. TESOL Quarterly 38, 225-253.

Morrison, T., Bryan, G. & Chilcoat, G. W. (2002) Using student-generated comic books in the classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45 (8), 758-767.

Norton, Bonny. (2003). The Motivating Power of Comic Books: Insights from Archie Comic Readers. The Reading Teacher 57 (2), 140-147.

Schwartz, G. Graphic Novels for Multiple Literacies. Reading Online. Retrieved October 5, 2006, from www.readingonline.org/newliteracies/lit_index.asp?HREF=jaal/11-02_column?index.html.

Versaci, Rocco. (2001). Howcomic books can change the way our students see literature: One teacher’s perspective. English Journal, 91 (2), 61-67.

Wright, G. & Sherman, R. (1999). Let’s create a comic strip. Reading Improvement, 36 (2), 66-72.

Yang, Gene. Comics in Education. 2003. Retrieved August 29, 2006 from http://www.humblecomics.com/comicsedu/index.html.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Via Andrew Sullivan, these posters are going up around LA.

Sullivan was confused by this depiction of Obama as the Joker:
It's graphically striking, but politically obtuse. The Joker is a wild man; Obama is no-drama; the Joker is an anarchist; Obama is a community organizer. Obama's careful politicking, his almost painful resistance to emotionalism, are worth lampooning, because they at least show an understanding of him, which is essential to successful mockery. But portraying him as an anarchist white terrorist recently made famous by Heath Ledger? To prove what exactly? Or is even asking for a reason at this point a silly thing to do?

It's not a silly question. But the answer has nothing to do with politics, socialism, or anarchy. Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker was, at its core, an amazingly effective portrayal of evil. With his scarred, blood-red grin, his constant lies, his brilliant scheming and his casual murder, the Joker seized the imagination of audiences who discovered the character for the first time, and completely re-defined the character for those who only knew the Joker as a goofy purple-clad straw man.

The creator of these posters wishes to portray Obama as evil, manipulative, and smug over his ability to deceive all of us. And Heath Ledger's Joker is the first, most visible, and memorable image of that evil that any movie-goer thinks of. The fact that Ledger is dead, and won a posthumous Oscar for his efforts, contributes to the visibility of this particular image of Evil.

Trying to read the politics of "The Dark Knight" is just a drive down the wrong intellectual highway when it comes to these posters. And, to be honest, the film's politics are actually quite muddled, with Batman eavesdropping on all of Gotham City as Bush did, but yielding these "war powers" to an ally who destroys them after use, only to see Batman martyred and made into a villain to be hunted down by the city that unjustly vilifies him. It's all a bit too Bush-Apologist for me, thanks.

Hm, maybe the politics of the film have more to bear on this than I thought.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Maker's Schedules

Via Sullivan, this article on the difference between the way managers use the day and how creative people use their day. This is absolutely applicable to me. I need half a day alone to work on a project. If I have only an hour and a half between classes, there are a thousand ways to while away that time, but forget about writing anything worth a damn.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Being Heroic

We talk often about what makes a superhero "super." It's not always about powers, and its not always about a costume, though it often is about these things. Pete Coogan, of course, has a well-developed argument about the definition of the superhero which he published recently as Superhero: The Origins of a Genre. Jess Nevins, author of Fantastic Victoriana and those wonderful annotations to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has a useful counter-argument which he presented at this year's Popular Culture Association conference. And both of them are ultimately arguing against Frank Miller's perfectly quotable definition of the superhero: "A person in a funny costume saving innocent people from bad things."

But I don't want to talk about what makes the superhero "super." I've been wondering what makes him a hero. I don't think this is a silly question, even though we take the heroism of characters for granted much of the time. When we say we want our heroes to be more heroic, what exactly do we mean? The answers are, I think, more complicated than they first appear, and often contradictory.

Overwhelming Odds
We like our heroes to face overwhelming odds and triumph. Note that the form of these overwhelming odds can vary tremendously, even for a single character or within a single story. In the recent "Dark Knight" film, for example, Batman is almost always confronted by multiple foes at once, be they Joker goons or SWAT members or Arkham inmates. No sooner does he defeat this batch but he immediately leaps/swings/glides to the next half dozen and lays into them. But overwhelming odds does not have to be represented solely by sheer numbers; sometimes the hero faces a single foe who is, as far as we can tell, vastly superior to him. We see this in Iron Man, for example, when Stane's Iron Monger armor is huge compared to Tony's, and we see it again in Norton's Hulk, when the Abomination is similarly over-large. (Hollywood likes to rely on "big" as short for "more powerful.") The "Matrix" trilogy uses both types of overwhelming odds in sequence, with Agent Smith set up throughout the first film as an unbeatable foe, only for him to be relegated to an army of minions in the second.

Power Loss and Recovery
Related to the notion of "overwhelming odds" is the concept of "power loss." A hero often loses his powers, and must either defeat the hero without them. This makes the hero's struggle more dramatic, and makes his victory more satisfying. Again, see the finale to Iron Man, when Tony's energy supply fails in the battle with Stane, forcing Tony to rely on good old fashioned explosions to save the day. Power loss often occurs as a kind of sacrifice or denial on the part of the hero, who decides the cost of being a hero is greater than he is willing to pay. Bruce Wayne gives up being Batman once Harvey Dent proves he can take on the Mob, Peter says "Spider-Man no more" so that he can be with Mary Jane and have success in school, and Banner gets rid of the Hulk just as the rampaging monster becomes necessary. These instances of the hero giving up his own powers so that he may later reclaim them under duress seem to be a variant of the classic "hero's choice," in which the hero is forced to decide between saving someone close to him personally on one hand, and an anonymous stranger on the other. In this case, the "anonymous stranger" is a stand in for the heroic life in general. The hero is forced to choose between selfish and selfless behavior. And this leads us to ...

It's tempting to call the hero a martyr, but that word has many negative connotations in our modern capitalistic society, and it is perhaps less loaded to simply call the hero a consciously selfless individual. That is, the hero wants what we all want, he needs the same things we all need, and he would like to take the easy road through life just like we all do. However, the burden of being a hero means that he must do what is difficult, not what is easy. He must sacrifice things important to him in order to be the hero. This often manifests in damage done to his personal relationships -- his marriage is a shambles, his children are alienated from him, his home is a soulless den. While he wishes for a time when he does not need to be the hero, and even occasionally tried to deny his heroism, his moral code is such that he must take action when confronted by cruelty and injustice. When he takes this action, it sets his own friends against him either because they do not know that he is a hero, or because they do know and they fear for his life. Now, related to this is the hero motivated not by a sense of altruism or a moral code, but instead by revenge. This is an old trope. Shakespeare milked it for thousands of lines, and he didn't invent it. It's not unrelated to the concept of Selflessness, but seems to be a reactive version rather than an active one. That is, the Revenge Hero still suffers the loss of personal relationships -- family, loved ones, friends -- but this all happens before he becomes a hero, so that he has nothing left to lose and this is what makes him dangerous. The revenge hero is not heroic because of his need for revenge, he is heroic because in the quest for his revenge he also faces overwhelming odds, looses his power and regains it, or what have you. His revenge is, if anything, an anti-heroic quality -- which probably accounts for why so many people like revenge heroes.

Great Power
And here, I think, is where it gets complicated. Because we want our heroes to face great numbers and terrifying foes, we want him to sacrifice, and we want him to persevere even when he has no powers at all, but we also refuse for him to be a powerless wimp. And before everyone gets up in arms about how a hero doesn't need "powers" to be a hero, of course I am talking about powers in a relative sense. In a world like that of the Batman films, Batman has powers -- his incredible martial arts skill, his arsenal of gadgets that include everything from body armor and spring-loaded batarangs to ultrasonic bat-callers and cars that drive on top of buildings. Within the context of the science fiction trappings of the Iron Man movies, Tony Stark has powers -- he's smarter than everyone else.

In any case, try to imagine Tony Stark who wasn't all that brilliant, and the whole house of cards sort of collapses. Bruce Wayne actually has his moment without powers when Ras finds him in the Chinese prison. At that moment, Wayne is just a brawler. He's just a man who beats people up. That's fine, as far as it goes, but what he really needed was the power to become invisible, the power to terrify. There are films which investigate this question of the non-powered hero, the everyman, the schlub. Mystery Men comes to mind. But ultimately by the end of Mystery Men the characters have demonstrated that they do, in fact, have powers, and those powers are what led them to succeed. I think the only one who actually gives up being a hero is the Bowler, who unwisely decides to go back to grad school. I thought she was smarter than that.

Looking back, its easy to see why suddenly writing heroic stories is a lot harder than it seems to be at first glance. We want our heroes to have extraordinary ability, but they can't be too good, because if they walk through a dozen foes without breaking a sweat that gets boring fast. The hero has to have some kind of power, but also want to give up that power in order to be an ordinary person. He has to be selfless and think of others, but his preoccupation with his own powers means he is also always thinking of himself. We want our heroes to be recognizably like us, and yet also overmen who are unfazed by all those petty concerns which annoy us in real life. The hero is wish fulfillment on one hand and catharsis on the other, both greater than any of us, and yet somehow more stepped upon, more taken for granted, and more a victim than any of us would dare to allow.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Comic Book Combat

I had some thoughts on comic book/cinematic action, specifically how it relates to computer gaming. However, because my discussion includes Champions Online in occasional detail, I had to gate it behind the Preview Forums firewall.

If you have access to that game, you can read the post here. If not, well, I talk about Thor a lot. So just go read Journey Into Mystery instead.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


A recent conversation on the CO Preview forums (which, alas, I cannot link to) brought up that old canard that superheroes are basically reactive creatures while villains are proactive ones, and this explains why everyone likes supervillains better. I got to thinking about this, and partly out of a desire to pull my weight, but more out of a desire to get back into a good writing habit, I thought I would tease out that notion a little bit, put some pressure on it, and see how it holds up.

First off we have to acknowledge that this idea is pretty ingrained in comics culture, ingrained enough that writers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, a couple of pretty smart guys, have intentionally crafted books that go against this idea, with the goal of being innovative and different. The Authority was pretty clearly this sort of book from the get-go, with Sparks and later Hawksmoor making clear an intent to change the world. There have been many other books like this, some glorious (Squadron Supreme), some in- (Force Works, anyone?). This does not tell us that the premise that heroes are reactive creatures is true, but it does tell us that many writers act as if it is true, and then it tells us that the product of these writers thwarts that premise. This is something you learn fast about superhero comics analysis: there have been so many stories over the years that you can find an illustrative example for just about any thesis, and usually you don’t even have to look very hard.

Which is, of course, what I am going to do, because pro-active superheroes are far older than The Authority. Let’s start with something like the Armor Wars, perhaps Iron Man’s second-best story arc after the Obadiah Stane reprise of the original Demon in a Bottle. (Having re-read Demon in a Bottle recently for my dissertation, I am obliged to note that a story in which Tony fails to become a drunken bum is not nearly as good a story as one in which he does). Tony discovers that virtually every high-tech villain in the Marvel Universe uses equipment based on Stark designs, so he arms himself with special anti-Stark limpet mines and goes hunting them one at a time over the course of a year. Obviously, Stark’s sudden desire to go out and beat up the Beetle instead of waiting for the guy to rob a bank or, you know, actually do something bad was just a pretext for a long line of brawls with armored foes, but the fact that this was a marketing ploy intended to raise sales does not, in itself, make the story any worse. The end does not injustify the means. Tony’s willingness to go outside the boundaries of the law on his quest to make the world safe has become extended by later authors into a broad arrogance about Tony, a “my way or the highway” attitude which we see in many other stories, from his willingness to mind control everyone on Earth in order to conceal his secret identity to his role in the Civil War. And, to some extent, that attitude, that arrogance, has become something which many fans like about him. He doesn’t take any shit. And that attitude is admired by the same people who insist that villains are the proactive ones, and heroes just sit on their butts waiting for the Batphone to ring.

But we don’t have to linger on Iron Man to find proactive heroes. The Fantastic Four got their powers when an enterprising scientist led his family onto a rocket rendezvous with destiny, and those writers who have understood the FF in the many decades since have consistently written them as explorers, as “imaginauts” who travel through space, time, the Negative Zone, the Microverse, etcetera etcetera ad nausueum. This isn’t a book about stopping crime, it’s a book about Boldly Going. The X-Men were founded not to prevent bank robberies, but by a schoolmaster, an academic, who envisioned a future in which mankind and mutants lived together peacefully. The Xavier school was created to make that future into reality. Its hard to get more liberal and progressive than that, and more proactive. But I think the ultimate demonstration of Action/Reaction has got to be Peter Parker. When that blonde Ditko crook ran past Spidey and shot Uncle Ben, Pete learned that a true hero could not wait for the bad guy to do something before taking action. The hero does not linger or loiter. Any hesitation could result in an awful tragedy from which there is no recovery. And so Peter sacrifices everything, his personal life, his family, his career, so that he can patrol the streets by webline looking for Ditko crooks.

The trouble is not that superheroes are reactive, it’s that they’re so damn busy. They don’t have time to come up with complicated schemes designed to trap the villains before the bank has been robbed. That’s because, unlike the villain, the hero is on 22 pages every month, and if he’s not doing something on every one of those pages, the reader gets bored. We want our heroes to be constantly pulled in a dozen different directions at once – trying to get Gwen Stacy back from that jerk Flash Thompson, hiding from cops when you’ve been framed for a murder you didn’t commit, trying to pass your classes at New York University, pay your rent and still catch the Shocker. Only off-stage characters, mostly villains but sometimes notable vigilantes like Punisher or (a great example of proactivity for you) the Scourge of the Underworld have vast leisure time in the gutter in which they can plan, scheme, and conspire to make the world a better place. The exception to this rule is a story like Armor Wars, in which the hero drops everything else in his life in order to focus on bringing down the bad guys before something awful happens. We like those stories, not because the hero is suddenly proactive but because they are tales of sacrifice. If Tony wants to catch the Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man and Red Ronin all in one day, he’s going to have the pay the cost, and that cost is not bruises and broken bones, it’s broken relationships, a suffering company, the alienation of his friends and colleagues and a spiritual withering that comes from a man who is too focused on the job. Read the first issue of Astro City and I dare you to call the Samaritan “reactive.” If watching a hundred re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has taught me anything, it’s that we do love our sacrifice stories.

Stories of proactive heroes like this tend to work well as limited runs. Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis could write their stories about the Authority changing the world, and then they could just turn the results over to someone else. Because now that the world has been changed, the heroes are once again trying to defend it or protect it from whatever comes next, and any claim to an innovative proactive narrative is gone. The original Squadron Supreme miniseries started with the Squadron’s efforts to change the world and ended in a cataclysmic bloodbath; see Kingdom Come for a prettier but less complex version of the same story. Both these comics end in the failure of the hero’s grand scheme, and there’s a reason for that; as with Tony Stark, these kinds of “proactive” stories are really about all-consuming arrogance. Superman and Wonder Woman think the current crop of superheroes is inferior, so they go about rounding them up and putting them in a concentration camp. Hyperion decides the world would be safer without any weapons, so he rounds them all up and destroys them. Our world is not that simple, and when these plans fall to pieces, the writers are showing they understand that. You cannot simply make people do what you want them to do. How many MidEast nations do we have to invade before we learn this? You have to negotiate. You have to persuade. You have to find common ground. And all that sort of thing takes time, time the superhero does not have.

Fans who say they want their heroes to be proactive are not only blind to the fact that the characters actually are already pretty proactive, they also are asking for arrogant anti-heroes who don’t ask for permission or forgiveness. You want to know what’s down that road? Azrael dressed up as Batman, that’s what, and all the rest of those ‘90s dark-and-gritty Watchmen wannabes, including a great many otherwise interesting heroes who suddenly never found a suit of combat armor they didn’t like. Yes, Daredevil, I’m looking at you. Superheroes don’t want to spend their day sitting around waiting for crime to happen; only peeping toms like Martian Manhunter volunteer for monitor duty. They have lives, lives which we see unfold for us every month. If you put a villain in the same situation, he suddenly looks pretty “reactive” too; suddenly all the little bits of life which used to happen off-panel are on. He’s not only got to kick that poseur off the throne of Latveria and fight SHIELD with an army of robots, he’s also got a weird love/hate thing going on with a sexy rival and he’s surrounded by an entourage of hangers-on and fanboys who all insist he get involved in their personal issues. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and if you want to focus your attentions like a laser beam, you had better plan on making it a story arc that’s easily shelved in a trade paperback, because as soon as you finish up and give the character back to another writer, he’s going to shift gears and move on in a Bold New Direction.

Because there are monthly sales goals to meet, and “changing the world” is a story you can only tell once.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Words, Words, Words

There has been no shortage of wonderful topics to blog about over the last few months, from political issues like Palin’s sudden resignation or that delightful business about flying to Argentina to get a little sum’m sum’m to comics-related topics like the Shakespeare & Comics book I am working on with Kate Laity at the College of St. Rose, to gaming topics like my personal D&D campaign or my upcoming project from Vigilance Press, Arthur Lives! Yes, there are many, many things I could have been writing about but did not. No excuses offered.

I’ll start with something I have been having a lot of fun with lately, the Champions Online Beta test. Now, for contractual reasons, I can’t go into any detail about what the game is like, other than to say that I am enjoying it immensely, having logged probably around 25 hours on the game at this point. What I can talk about is Champions in general, which for years was simply the game which I preferred, played, and ran above all others, from junior high all the way through my undergrad years and beyond.

I discovered Champions at OrcCon sometime around 1980, when it was a 1st edition boxed set. I picked up the game and a couple of adventures, “The Island of Doctor Destroyer” and “Stronghold,” my first exposure to the “super villain prison” idea which would eventually see its result in “Escape from Alcatraz!” To that point I had played a lot of AD&D and a little bit of other games like Traveler, Gamma World, and various home-made systems, but nothing like Champions. Let’s face it, I learned how to read on comic books and they will always remain the genre closest to my heart, beating out even Tolkien if forced into a blood-for-money cage match. My first Champions character was Doctor Starr – I guess I wanted a doctorate even at the age of 12 – a super-agile staff-fighter who wore a five pointed star medallion that, in hindsight, looks like sort of a hippie bling thing. I drew him, I painted him a lead miniature complete with painted pin for a staff, and I don’t know if I ever played him more than once or twice.

That’s because I was always the GM for Champions, and when I moved to a new high school I took Champions with me and soon had a whole circle of friends defined mostly by the fact that they were my Champions group. I don’t remember a single adventure I ran for them, but there were a lot of them. The game was evolving in fits and starts back then, with additional rulebooks coming out which expanded the game’s core. Champions II and Champions III gave us vehicle rules, a few new powers, a random character generator which I never much saw the point of, rules for mental combat, and a cover which had upon it a picture of Flare bearing breasts so large that I was actually embarrassed to be seen with it. Champions II got hidden inside my notebook a lot.

I went to college in Reno and somehow, I have no idea how, it turned out that Champions was very popular there. I fell in with a couple of guys who had been playing the game even before the rules had come out, and for the first time got to play instead of GM. Champions became more or les the official game of our science fiction club, Ad Astra, and was popular enough that I used it to raise attendance at the meetings. I would run a Champions game at the end of every meeting, and you could only play if you came to the meeting. The tactic worked too well, as I had 20 players in the game that followed. For those of you that have ever played Champions, let me assure you that trying to run it for 20 players at once was a real experience and really got me thinking about how to be a better and more efficient GM.

As an undergrad, our biggest Champions project was a shared world which we called Earth-7. There were several of us who ran the game, and we each took a different city in the same world, allowing characters to move around and interact from one city/campaign to another. I had LA. Personal relationships heated and cooled – you know how it is in college – but Earth-7 remained a gravity well around which we all circled. I was still a GM far more often than I was a player, mostly because I enjoyed it, but I did finally get a character up past 100 experience points in James Mueller’s Earth-7 game. That was Manhunter; he was the son of Fiacho, a master criminal from the Champions Universe, and his only power was a devastating eyebeam, backed up by some martial arts training and a lot of skill. Manhunter had some interesting mechanics, a fun back story, and an effective role. I remember him fondly indeed.

My great failure as a Champions GM was that I could not seem to sustain a campaign beyond about 4 1/2 months. Now that I look back, that’s pretty much one semester of school, but perhaps that was just a coincidence. Anyhow, after graduation I finally managed to break that record with a new Champions game set in Europe. Earth-7 had pretty much become James’s baby by then and I wanted to play in a world which I could drastically alter once play had begun – something that was obviously problematic when you were sharing said world with other GMs. I was also able to create a central storyline and make the heroes very important in the setting, which was hard to do in a shared world. The game ran for 9 months and I was very proud of breaking my record. I still have notes for that campaign sitting in my old computer files.

It was during this time, and in the year or so that followed after I moved to Vegas to run a bookstore, that I began writing projects for Hero Games with an eye towards publication. I did a couple of articles for Adventurer’s Club, no big deal, but spent a lot more time on “Blades,” which was originally a bunch of bad guys and their magic swords scheduled for “Organizations Book IV.” Those of you who are old time Champions hacks will know that there never was an Organizations Book IV, though not for lack of trying. At the time I was working with this guy named Monte Cook, who was the editor for the Hero Games line at Iron Crown, another company which had partnered with Hero because Iron Crown had printing presses and Hero did not. There just wasn’t enough money to rationalize another Organizations Book, Monte eventually decided, so he sent my material back to me with playtest notes and suggested I seek out third-party companies who published Champions material. Instead, I completely rewrote the book and it was published by BlackGate for their cyberpunk/Highlander mash-up, Legacy. That was my first respectable RPG publication, and I remain pretty proud of it, even if no one ever played Legacy.

The next and larger project I did for Champions was a sourcebook based on the Tarot and inspired by Scott Bennie’s wonderful Viper sourcebook. TAROT: Agents of Destiny was a massive book with 70+ characters, a large collection of equipment and vehicles, and multiple adventures. Jerry Grayson did most of the art for the book, but I was told at one point Hero was commissioning a different artists to do the 22 Major Arcana characters, which I thought was something of a shame and which suitably ticked off Jerry, who felt like he had slogged through dozens of boring Wands, Cups, Swords and Staves only to be denied the reward. But then Hero Games and ICE parted ways. While this was a good thing in many ways, as Hero Games had not been in control of its own destiny and ICE had not paid many freelance creators, this also meant the bottom fell out of whatever budget Hero once had. TAROT was put on hold and never did come out, even though the manuscript and art was complete.

I became somewhat disenchanted with Hero and Champions after that. There were a lot of other games out there to experiment with, and in Vegas I had players willing to try whatever I threw at them. I ran a Dark Champions campaign set in my city of Victoria, but it died at the 4 1/2 month mark (again!). Time passed and life went on, I moved back home for a little and then back to Vegas to get married, and this was a time when Vampire and its relations were the game everyone wanted to play. Then D&D 3E happened and that led to Mutants & Masterminds, which is just so much easier than Champions and arguably even more fun that I don’t expect to ever run or play the game again.

At least on the tabletop. Champions was always a fairly intimidating game system to learn. Even Ken Hite, who managed to rave about it, acknowledges that he has never bothered to actually learn how the game works. He just lets everyone else at the table learn the rules, and they tell him what to roll and when. The latest edition of the Hero System is just getting crunchier and crunchier, which is great for the people who are devoted fans, but lousy for introducing new players. I have seen far too many eyes glaze over for me to ever try to teach Champions again. But this is exactly what makes it perfect for an online game, because now a computer can do all those mechanical things for you, and you can just play. You can fire your energy blast, and let electrons do the heavy lifting. It’s a perfect match, in my opinion. Champions has a solid setting, a long history, and much personal appeal for me. I’ll be one of those players who sticks with the game for a long time just because I recognize it. It’s comfortable, familiar, and fun at the same time.

I haven’t kept in really good touch with all the old Champions gurus, despite writing on Rogues Gallery (the Hero Games zine) for several years. I bumped into Bruce Harlick at the first GenCon West, but that’s about it. How wonderful it must be for all the Hero Games folks to see their world made into an exciting MMO. Bruce is pretty much responsible for Foxbat in the first place (I’m not entirely sure; there are conflicting origin stories), and Steve Long has labored for years to make the Champions Universe as strong as he possibly can. Now those heroes, plots, adversaries and even the innocent victims are there for millions of players to experience in a way they never would have. I read that Steve is working on a new edition of the game meant to capitalize on the MMO. It’s going to be even “grainier” than ever; a decision I can’t say I understand, but it’s not my game. All I know is that Champions is still going to be making eyes glaze over, only this time it will be from spending too much time staring at a video game, instead of from trying to understand how to allocate the points in your Variable Power Pool.

Monday, April 13, 2009

PCA 2009

What with the difficulty of the job market, the expected financial difficulties in the Tondro household, and the initial skepticism with which my book proposal was greeted by University Press of Mississippi, I went to this year's PCA conference in a pretty pessimistic mood.

But in fact I found the conference surprisingly invigorating. Indeed, despite a grueling schedule of some twenty panels, I think this may have been -- on a personal level -- the best PCA conference ever. In previous years, I had so much work on my plate from seminars, exams, and the dissertation that I went to PCA without much conviction. I could share whatever I was doing, but I was not there to learn. I mean, really, who had time for that? But now all those things are behind me, and I listened to panels and papers with new eagerness.

Many of these papers were on topics which I had opinions on, which will come as a surprise to none who know me, but now I can actually write on them, which I never had time to do before. Among my pleasant surprises at the con was the agreement of Kate Laity to co-edit an essay collection with me, on the subject of Shakespeare & Comics. I am reserving the Tempest, because darn it, it was my idea.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Champions Online

The closed beta for Champions Online has started up and I'm not in it. Like a kid who wants a puppy, all I can do is stare in from the outside, my hands plastered up against the window, my breath fogging the glass.

Cryptic has put up a "Rate my Champion!" game, which does allow us to see the characters the current testers are making and I confess I am stunned by the scarcity of anything actually resembling a superhero among them. I expected the comedy factor to be high ("Tony Shark" remains my fave, an Iron Man suit with a shark head), and I suppose we can blame the high frequency of monsters and robots on the game's broad costume design options. (It's like playing D&D, really. Players want to be "different," so they pick a nonhuman race. They don't have to think about character concept beyond "I'm the dwarf" or "I'm the orc." In CO, it is "I'm the cyborg" or "I'm the guy with the head of an alligator.") But there's also just a large number of meaningless name/look combinations: a guy in blue battle armor named Svart. Who the hell is Svart? Why should I care?

Anyhow, if you have not seen the game yet, check it out, because Svart aside, it's a very exciting project.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Yes, Me Too

By the time I crawled out of bed and remembered it was Inauguration Day, the speech was already half over. I went and took a shower, came back, and watched it on YouTube. I was listening, paying attention, impressed but not -- you know -- overpowered, until he invoked Washington huddled on the Potomac in winter. And then, I guess that was when it turned into poetry for me. I could empathize with those men and women, freezing their asses off for the Revolution, and I admired their defiance and the defiance the President conjures in all of us. So yeah, that was when I cried.

I'm a big baby, I guess.

Tomorrow is my phone interview for Alcorn State University. It's not the ideal position; indeed, it is one of the lowest paying tenure track positions I could possibly get. However, it is tenure track at a four year university, and there is some opportunity to be found in moving to a historic black college in the same year as we elect the first black President. Whoever gets that job will be there at a very interesting time.

I'll post something tomorrow after its over.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Hate These Guys...

I was very uncertain about incorporating a Nazi element into the Arthur Lives! cosmology since, like so many other occult elements (ie: Templars), it seems terribly overdone. But I am determined to look on this as a challenge and opportunity rather than a limitation. I've used Nazis before to good effect, and if that experience burnt me out on them, well, its time to get over that burnout and see how I can use them in a way that is somehow not entirely derivative.

All of this led to Sophie von Ribbentrop, the latest Unwanted Ally in Arthur Lives! She's also the highest level character in the book by far; all the other foes are within the capabilities of low-level heroes. But Sophie is not actually intended as an antagonist and so her high level doesn't necessarily pose the speedbump it otherwise would. I did notice one particular danger writing her up, and that is that I refer to a number of other practices, terms, and individuals which probably require further explanation but which I simply name-drop (Montauk Chair, Otto Skorzeny).

But I do not have unlimited time, and let's face it: you can Google this stuff yourself.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Meanwhile, in Paragon City...

I just finished a two week free trial of City of Heroes for the Mac. The first thing I noticed was that the game runs much better on the Mac than it ever did when I was using Boot Camp to boot my machine in Windows. I am no expert, but presumably whoever did the Mac port-over really knows how to make the mediocre graphics card built into a Mac laptop do things which the Windows version is blind to. In any case, it ran faster, and with considerably improved graphics settings.

However, we all have to acknowledge that City of Whatever is a very repetitive game. It's fun to see your character use super-powers, and since I am in love with the genre the game has a lot of gut instinct appeal to me, but the floorplans, the missions, the foes, they're all the same and one tires of them in short order. In addition, for a superhero game, there are simply not enough powers available. For any other genre, City of Heroes would offer a great number of options, but the supers genre demands more creativity and choice when it comes to character abilities than any other genre. This is not a new lesson; tabletop supers games have wrestled with it for years, and that's the reason why the Hero System rulebook is thick enough to stop a bullet. For a thematic player like me -- who wants his powers to fit into a logical whole and not just be a bizarre combination of razor-sharp spines and ice powers, there are even fewer options. There isn't, in fact, a single "Controller" combination which I can bring myself to play. None of them make any god-damn sense.

City of Heroes has some neat thematic elements, and I want to give credit where it is due. Arachnos is 98% pure genius. Every other superhero world has the Ubiquitous Snake Guys: Viper, Hydra, Cobra, the Serpent Society, ad nauseum. But, probably because Spider-Man would sue all rivals for copyright infringement, there has not been till now a very good Evil Spider Organization, despite the obvious strengths of the idea. And while Arachnos not only combines high-tech weapons, martial training, cybernetics and bizarre magic (those Mu guys, bound in chains and floating around, are awesomely creepy), they do it all in a way that makes them look incredibly cool. The only weak spot in Arachnos? Lord Recluse himself, because let's be honest: I know they were trying to refer to the Brown Recluse spider, but it really sounds like Captain Hermit, or maybe Doctor Dysfunctional.

There's also no question that City of Villains is a better game. The neighborhoods are more visually interesting, the dungeons are more varied, and robbing banks is more fun than protecting them. Several of the villain archetypes are built to encourage a fast play tempo -- when the more you fight, the stronger you get, you are inclined to keep pushing yourself and not rest. This is in distinct contrast to the heroic archetypes, who are more likely to rest between fights because, well, they have nothing to lose but time. Standing around resting is boring.

I have said this before, but I think I have said my last goodbye to City of Heroes; the next update will provide a way for players to make content for other players, which does appeal to my GM instincts, and I do admire some aspects of the game. But it's worn pretty thin, and the lure of a game that doesn't force my superhero to use MMO archetypes (Champions Online has no "classes" or archetypes, so that you can choose whatever power theme you wish) is pretty potent.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rogues Gallery

I've spent the last couple days making antagonists for AL!, including a Freemason mastermind vaguely inspired by the Mason in National Treasure (or, as we like to call it in our house, The deFranklin Code), an Illuminati double-agent, and "Mr. Invisible," a vicious hacker visually modeled on King Mob.

In other news, my interview with Alcorn State is finally scheduled: next Wednesday morning. I'm also applying for tenure-track positions at RCC; it's not a glamorous spot, but it would be a good place-holder till something better comes along, and we could use the money (and benefits).

And finally, the fine ratmmjess has at last granted me a desire I have nourished for years: a copy of Fantastic Victoriana. It has been long out of print, and it was this book that got me >this< close to running a Victorian MUSH. A computer copy is not quite as good as an actual book, but hey, I will gladly purchase a real copy if/when it ever comes back into print.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ah, Alignment

Gamers who dislike D&D often bring up alignment as evidence to back up that dislike, and it is certainly true that alignment debates have a tendency to be long, sticky, and argumentative. On the other hand, I have spent many an afternoon in a game store, whiling away the hours arguing about whether it was lawful good for the paladin to punch the dryad in the face. My weekly group got two new players last night and, as often happens, differing play styles prompted an alignment debate. In this case, I exacerbated the situation by throwing a Moral Dilemma (tm) at the players.

The makers of 4e have gone to great lengths to minimize the potency of the "I hate alignment" argument. (Perhaps we should call them "alignment-deniers.") Alignment has no effect on your powers. There is no way to detect alignment and no spells which target foes of a particular alignment. Clerics and paladins have some alignment requirements when the character is made, but the character can then change his alignment. The only requirement in the Player's Handbook is that player characters not be Evil or Chaotic Evil; D&D is at its heart a game of cooperation and heroism. Both of these things are inimical to the Evil and Chaotic Evil alignments.

The goal here is clear: to make alignment a very broad roleplaying tool with no game effect whatsoever. I think it succeeds at that, but then I never had much problem with alignment in the first place. I've generally been successful at explaining the difference between alignments by using famous examples from film or books. King Arthur is Lawful Good while Robin Hood is Chaotic Good, for example. (Superman/Batman is another useful tool, for those who prefer the movie version.) But last night and this morning I have been thinking of a new way to explain alignment, through the use of a very simple thought experiment.

* Let's say there's a guy. His name is Joe. He has a gun. (In honor of the presidential election, I suppose we must call him Joe the Shooter.) He is pointing his gun at another guy, whom we will call Jeff. Jeff is my friend. I have a gun. To protect Jeff, I draw my gun and shoot at Joe.My alignment is ... Unaligned. I am attacking Joe out of personal loyalty to my friend Jeff. Note that Jeff may be an ass; he may be a saint. In this case, these possibilities are irrelevant. I'm attacking Joe simply because I like Jeff better than I like Joe.
* Same situation, except now Jeff is a stranger to me. He's not my friend; I don't know him from Adam. Joe threatens to kill Jeff, as before. I draw my gun and shoot at Joe to defend Jeff. Now I am risking my life for someone I don't even know. My alignment is ... Good.
* Same situation as before. Jeff is a stranger. Joe has a gun and is threatening to kill Jeff. I have a gun. But I do not use it. I put it away. I approach Joe peacefully and try to talk him down because I don't want anyone to get hurt. I negotiate a hostage swap with Jeff, so he goes home and now Joe is pointing his gun at me. I still have my gun and I will use it on Joe if I must, but I do not want to hurt him even though he is threatening to hurt me. My alignment is ... Lawful Good.
* Now that Jeff has gone home, let's go back to Joe and I. Joe has a gun. I have a gun. Joe points his gun at me. I shoot Joe. I am fighting in self-defense. My alignment is ... Unaligned.
* Take away Joe's gun. Instead, Joe has a shiny new watch. I have a gun. I shoot Joe and take his watch. Maybe I give it to one of my friends. Joe is weak and has what I want. My alignment is ... Evil.
* Finally, there's poor Joe. He has nothing, and is a complete stranger to me. I have a gun. I shoot Joe. Die, Joe, die. My alignment is ... Chaotic Evil.

In my recent story, the mother of one of the player characters assassinated the Duchess of a distant land in order for the local Baroness, whom the mother was sworn to protect and who is the target of a local assassination plot herself, to get out of the country and ascend to the throne of that Duchy. She murdered Duchess Meralthea to get that Duchy for someone else. The only difference between this and mugging Joe so I can give his watch to my buddy is one of scale.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Working Again

A few days off and I am eager to get writing again. One thing that True20 has not done well to this point is Narrator advice. There's almost no guidance at all on how to outline a story, how to get the players interested, how to create and preserve suspense, and how to build to a satisfying climax. I look forward to doing some of this for AL!, using as a framework what I call "Whedonisms," elements of Joss Whedon television like Buffy, Angel and Firefly. If anyone out there wants to speak up about the kind of stories you think Whedon tells, speak up.

In other news, my Sunday 4E game has resumed after a too-long holiday break, and I'm very glad to be introducing a couple of new players to the team.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Real Superheroes

OK, so, I saw this on the Huffpost and it's an article in Rolling Stones about the "Real Superheroes" phenomenon. It looks like the Mystery Men stepped off the screen and into our homes. This is far out, and I have got to learn more about these people.

Maybe, with my training, I can become their secret mentor or something.


Far from the Fields We Know

Most Arthurian games leave Spenser more or less out of it. I had to include him. Frankly, I love Spenser, and one of the reasons I love him so much is because he is so damn difficult. Also, he was an incredible Arthur geek. I did not realize the extent to which he was an Arthur geek until I discovered King Ryons in Book III, and realized that this was the same Ryons who battles Arthur in the Prose Merlin.

Anyhow, my conception of the world of Faerie in Arthur Lives! is one part Spenser, one part Shakespeare, and one part Dunsany. And a little bit of Wagner, because I don't know Wagner as well. Maybe Dunsany doesn't really belong, because he's too late and doesn't talk about Arthur anyway, but darnit, he's just too good. People should read more Dunsany, dammit.

Faerie can be found here.

Friday, January 2, 2009

More on Religion in Gaming

I want to write a bit more on the presentation of real religion in RPGs. Somewhere in here is a meta-commentary about shoot-from-the-hip stream of consciousness blogging of the sort Andy Sullivan maintains, as opposed to a compositional blogging style of the type which, frankly, I more prefer. I leave it to interested parties to unwrap that particular package. I want to talk about God.

Or God in gaming, specifically. I do think that SJG's "Yrth" setting, which must surely have begun as the house game but which first saw print in the Man-to-Man rules and then later was expanded into GURPS Fantasy, was the first significant attempt to portray real-world religions in a manner that was consumed by neither parody nor personal agenda. Religion in Yrth was exactly like religion in reality: messy, complicated, prone to human foibles, and based on faith. I think this last is important; if the gods you worship appear in the city square or fight in battle, that religion is not confronted of the basic question of faith which all mortal religions are faced with. An inhabitant of Greyhawk would be an idiot the claim the gods don't exist. A hero in the Dragonlance setting of Krynn may not believe the gods care, but he'll never doubt they live.

Contrast this with Ars Magica and Pendragon which, while less well-known, is very similar to AM in this degree. In these games, there are mechanics for God. His existence is never in doubt, but the game succeeds in treating the subject in a complex and interesting way because -- while you don't have the question of faith which Yrth had -- you do have a real world religion presented in a "straight" manner which is historically accurate to the source material. I have no idea if Greg Stafford is a Christian or not, or any of the many smart people who have worked on Ars Magica over the years. They could be Scientologists for all I know. That's because the games they have created depict Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in an accurate and faithful way, without polemic or agenda.

The World of Darkness -- at least the original one, which remains the only one I at all know -- did not try to present an accurate picture of modern day religion. Syncretism ran amok, so that every religion was depicted as a colorful but essentially meaningless patina over a central inner truth which all religions shared in common but which no book ever seemed to articulate. The awesome influence of the Byronic hero on Vampire: the Masquerade and its descendants meant that there was a kind of glorification of the "villains" in the Catholic story who, while still evil-with-a-little-e, were mostly misunderstood and tragic. It's not hard to see why this was done; gamers are traditionally pretty secular and the audience for World of Darkness was even more so. These were Goth punks who wanted to sneer at organized religion, not treat it seriously. An opportunity for education may have been hidden here, but it's hard to say. I don't know if I could have, for example, gotten some of the Vampire players I knew to treat a Catholic priest as anything other than a figure for derision.

The best representation of religion in D&D is not, as many will tell you, the Forgotten Realms. While that setting has a myriad of warring gods and story potential galore, religion in the Realms is ultimately more like rooting for your local team than anything which exists in real life. No one asks if these gods exist, they ask who is stronger, who is gonna win the playoffs. Once you pick a team, you're honor bound to stick by that team rain or shine, winning season or losing one. You put a block of cheese on your head in the shape of a moon or seven stars, and cheer your throat raw. It's robust and energetic, but it's not faith.

No, the place to go for an interesting depiction of religion is Eberron, where Baker made the smart decision to put the gods so far off stage that no one knows if they actually exist. There are plenty of big-ass forces which can plop their feet down on Eberron and be seen, but the gods aren't among them. If you believe in a god, that's a leap of faith. And that puts your character at risk. What if you're wrong? And because the alignment of priests, paladins, and worshippers was divorced from the alignment of the faith, the followers of each religion were free to be human again: good, bad, stupid and indifferent.


I remember way back when Steve Jackson Games set their fantasy in "Yrth," a world colonized by real people from our own middle ages. Why was this ground-breaking? Because Yrth's inhabitants did not practice made-up religions which resembled our own but had all the serial numbers filed off. They were Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Well, most of them. Who knows what the Sahud were.

As common as it is now to have games which portray real religions, GURPS was quite daring at the time. The memory of "Mazed & Monsters" was still around, you know. There were accusations that D&D was Satanism. Game designers did not put real religion in their work, it was just asking for trouble. GURPS used the Crusades as an engine for plot and character development, and Ars Magica did the same thing. Then you got the whole World of Darkness thing, in which vampires may or may not have been descended from Cain, and in which all religions are basically one religion, which may have been the modern incarnation of the original lazy failure.

Anyhow, I bring this all up because Heaven and Hell are non-negotiable elements of Arthur Lives, though unlike D&D players aren't likely to travel there for adventure. Now Faerie -- there's a spot people could go to, and that will be much more fun to write. And a lot more work. But for now ... here's to Yrth.