Originally posted over on G+, but also here in case I want to refer back to it:
?+Epidiah Ravachol was speculating on why John Carter has not done so at the box office. The discussion has just crystalized my own ideas on the subject.
My own first reaction to the movie was “I really enjoyed this, but it’s too geeky for most people to like.” By “geeky” I mean that it has a high barrier of entry. It takes some work to wrap your head around it. It’s super-hard to get the broad movie-going public to identify with, and enjoy, a story set in a world that never has and never will exist. The three huge exceptions, that thread the needle, are Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Avatar. Here’s why all of them have easier points of entry than John Carter.
CHARACTER: Luke Skywalker is presented as a farm boy with big dreams. People know what that is. Hobbits aren’t humans, but they are presented very much as a stand-in for human children. Jake Sully is a wounded warrior who wants to walk again. That “frustrated desire in the real world that is fulfilled in the fantasy world” is a big red carpet of identification.
John Carter is a Civil War officer. The Civil War is a hundred years deeper in history than it was in ERB’s day. In the movie version, he lost his wife and daughter, but we don’t know that until halfway through the movie. He’s harder for a 21st century audience to identify with.
SITUATION: Luke wants to go on an adventure against the Empire, that is very, very bad. Frodo has a big responsibility thrust upon him. If he doesn’t do it, no one will, and everyone will suffer. The big, faceless company is trying to steal the land from the Na’vi. Jake is the only one who can help them. Everyone’s dreamed of adventure, everyone’s had responsibilities thrust upon them. Everyone’s been screwed over by corporations.
John Carter is transported to a strange world where there are many different groups of people, all wanting different things. He wants to go home, even though his life at home sucks. I just don’t see much that resonates with common experience.
SETTING: Star Wars’ setting is not Earth, but Lucas’ greatest accomplishment is using visual cues to subtly communicate to the audience just what their expectations should be. “These guys where full face helmets and their officers look like Nazis. They’re evil.” “This place is filled with all kind of weird looking things you never imagined. It’s a seedy bar.” The setting is made visually digestible.
Middle Earth is also broken down into easily digestible chunks. Jackson gives us all those closeups of the ring, looming twenty feet tall on the screen, to show us how important it is. He spends lots and lots of time slowly introducing us to the more exotic elements of Middle Earth, like Moria and Mordor.
Avatar has the most accessible setting of them. It has Marines and corporate suits and scientists going native (with the same actress that played Jane Goodall!). The bizarre elements of Pandora are introduced slowly and one at a time.
Barsoom does not easily map to anything we already know. You can easily enough say that the Tharks are like Native Americans and Zodenga is the industrialized northern US, with Helium being the noble, aristocratic Confederacy. But you have to squint to see it, and there are no visual clues to tell us this. The red martians all dress like ancient Greek warriors with only a little strip of blue or red cloth to tell them apart. Stanton spent a lot of effort to make sure we knew who was a Thern in disguise, but not enough showing us who the bad guys were.
High barrier to entry on all three fronts = not many people are going to get over that barrier and enjoy the movie and recommend it to their friends.

Had a great time this weekend at Dreamation 2012. As always, the Double Exposure staff put on a great convention. The players are always top-notch and this year was no different.


I started off the con playing Monsterhearts, MC’d by Brendan Conway. The game is built on the Apocalypse World chasis and sinks its fangs deep into the genre of teenage supernatural melodrama. We crafted a surprisingly tight story of a wish-made-flesh, and the unnatural forces the force of that wish had released upon the world. I played the brainy girl from the wrong side of the tracks who had finally figured out how to make magic work. As often happens in convention games, the events of the story escalated quickly until we had people vanishing in front of witnesses and a high school kid devouring the flesh of his enemies in the mall parking lot. However, we tied everything up by convincing the NPC whose original wish had unleashed the occult forces to “wish that today had never happened.” We woke up with complete memories of the day, but with nothing having yet happened. It felt very much like a story set two or three episodes into a TV series. It would serve to foreshadow coming events, and dramatize just how far these characters could go. It was a great game, certainly the one I enjoyed most on the player’s side of the table.


I started off the day running Time & Temp. I had neither run nor played the game before, but a few months ago I had an idea for a Shakespearean time traveling adventure, and the light tone of Time & Temp seemed a good fit. As it turned out, virtually everyone signed up strictly to play Time & Temp, and my quickly dashed off event description was all but ignored. Which was fine, because the game was a blast to play.
I had brought pre-gen characters to the table. Most of them had some sort of humorous Shakespearean connection. There was a survivor of the futuristic nuclear wastelands of Scottland named MacDyff. There was the fourth daughter of King Lear. And, since boys played the women’s parts in Shakespeare’s day, there was a female Elvis impersonator.
I was fortunate that nearly all the players were familiar with the game, and extremely energetic and creative. We laughed a lot, and they saved Shakespeare’s reputation as the world’s greatest playwright.
After a quick lunch at the cafe in the convention center, I played Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, facilitated by Connie Allison. The game was quite a surprise, and nothing at all what I expected. Admittedly, I knew very little and went into the event wanting to learn about the game. I had not realized that the game centered on crafting a written story line-by-line with no room for character play or dialogue. My pilgrim was Cunning Cord. I got into trouble by making things too complex, and helped people by tying impossible knots. We ended up ending the war between the forest and the ocean, but I really had no investment in my character, or the others.
One curious thing happened during the game. I had essentially become secretary, writing down the sentences that the group came up with. We were about half way through the game, and I think that much of the group was beginning to understand that gameplay was going to consist of yo-yoing from being in trouble to being out of trouble until we checked off all the words from the required list. Since I was writing down the sentences, I started to alliterate them. It started as an off-hand comment from another player, but soon took on a life of its own. One of my sentences was “Pilgrim Perfect Penguin pestered the people’s poor parenting procedures, properly putting himself into a positive posture.” In retrospect, I think I was rebelling against the constraints the game was making on me. Since we could have no creative input apart from writing the single, solitary sentence, I was going to pour my energy into stretching that form. Or something. I’m still not sure why I did that.
There was much laughter and I certainly enjoyed the session. The game itself was very thought-provoking, and interesting. I hesitate to say that “I had fun.”
After a disappointing meal from the burrito place (we need to remember to not go there next time), I ran my second session of Time & Temp. This time, the players were not already familiar with the game. My own unfamiliarity became a more glaring flaw, and the game did not quite gel as well as the earlier session. The players missed wiping out all of reality as if it never had been by a single die roll. The all claim to have had fun, and so did I. I guess I just felt that I had let them down.


Saturday morning I ran my newest Mouse Guard scenario, “Drought.” It’s a great little setup where a family of weasels have taken a whole village hostage by seizing a dam during a drought. The first session had a nice mix of veteran players and newbies. About an hour and half into the session, the started interrogating one of the town mice about what was going on, and I thought I’d throw in a brief, little scripted conflict for the argument as a way to show the game off to the new players and prepare them for the big fight. Both sides rolled amazingly well on their disposition rolls and we played out this argument for over an hour! It was fun, but it would have been more fun to use a simple versus test for the argument and not be so rushed with the fight with the weasels. But all in all, certainly a good session!
After some rushed, but much-needed takeout from the pizza joint across the street, I played the new Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game from Margaret Weis Productions, run by Michael O’Sullivan. The introductory scenario, a supervillain breakout from the Raft, was nothing to write home about. But Mike ran the game with energy and enthusiasm and I got to play Captain America, so how could I complain? The scenario gave a decent overview of the game system. It has fused together the best bits of many different game systems, and would have blown my mind had I encountered it in 2000. I’ll probably pick up a copy for research.
After Saturday night’s traditional dinner with our friend Bill, I ran Mouse Guard again. This time, the group was all pretty well new. And my dice were hot, and the weasels dined well on the tails and ears of several guardsmice. The game was fun, particularly due to the embellishments of my friend Philip, who portrayed the arrogant teenage tenderpaw Sloan. During the game, he wrote a series of diary entries that painted her as the sole competent member of the patrol. We laughed a lot.


Sunday morning I playtested a game in development called Becoming. I knew nothing about it, except for the event description that indicated a thematic hero’s journey, and some sort of group GM role. It’s a strictly four person game with one player portraying the hero, and the other three portraying the hero’s fear, doubt, and pain (called “the Chorus”). The hero has a number of virtues, rated in dice. The Chorus has poker chips. In every scene, one member of the chorus lays out an obstacle and puts in chips to set the difficulty that the hero’s die roll must beat. But, the hero can bargain with the other members of the chorus to help him, in exchange for advantages over their fellow chorus members. At the end, victory points for a chips, dice, virtues, and numerous other factors are tallied to determine which single player wins.
The heart of the game is in the horse-trading. The bargains struck are binding, and they serve for a lot of hard-headed figuring of probabilities and making deals, and shifting alliances. Which is all fine and good for the type of game Becoming actually is at this point in its development. It’s just not the game I thought it was. The fiction is utterly irrelevant to game play. The group got so caught up in the horse-trading that we often had started into the next round of bargains before we remembered to go back and establish how the previous scene had ended.
Personally, I didn’t enjoy the game. But I hope that I was able to offer the designer some things to think about as he continues to develop it.
All told, the convention was an incredible time, and a strong reminder of why I do this stuff. Now, if I can only hold onto that reminder as I return to my regularly-scheduled game-fasting, I might be able to really start on designing a game.

I went to RECESS yesterday in NYC. It is just about the longest trip I will make for a single day of gaming fun. And a lot of fun it was.

First, I played Lady Blackbird. I had never played before, so it was interesting to see the New Hotness of 2009 in action. It was interesting, and once I figured out how to play my character, it was good. I wound up with Kale, the sneaky mechanic, and I suck at playing sneaky characters. Plus, the dice hate me, as usual. Twice I rolled eight dice or more and got only a single success. I can see why people love this game. It’s like licking the spatula covered with cake frosting: pure confectionary sweetness. The simplicity of straight forwardness of character advancement is great. But that fact that there is really nothing else to the game besides character advancement left it feeling a bit hollow to me.

After my trivia team lost badly, I played Steal Away Jordan. I had never played before, and the setting was not the traditional pre-Civil War American south. It was late seventeenth century Brazil, a period I had known nothing about. We played rebel slaves who had set up our own strongholds in the Amazon rain forest, faced with the arrival of a Portuguese military force intent on wiping us out. It was an interesting setup.

We had King Zumbi, the warlike leader of the rebels. We had a martial artist possessed by his god. We had a young man bought and sold for his beauty, ready to throw away his life for a chance to kill one of his oppressors. We had a young girl gifted in the ways of magic. And I played a spy on the plantation, with regrets about a man he had killed to try to win a woman’s heart. Oh, and I could turn into a panther. The game ended up with a big fight scene where we routed the Portuguese and saved the day!

The game mechanics were also interesting. The way the dice work, it’s more likely that you’ll wide up with negative numbers than positive ones. So we had a number of conflicts where one side ended up with negative five and the other side had negative three. While, mathematically it doesn’t matter, it also imbues a sense of powerlessness into the game. You fight and you struggle and you make preparations and you get … a negative three! I didn’t get to chat with Julia after the game, but I imagine that was a deliberate design decision.

Also, the way that the dice combine made help interesting. In essence, you roll a bunch of d6s. Every single 1 you roll is worth -1. Every pair of “Lucky Sevens” you roll is worth +1. A “Lucky Seven” is a pair of either 5 +2 or 3+4. 6s count for nothing, and after you pull out all your scoring dice, you must take one more reroll of your non-scoring dice.

If you were really looking at succeeding, you probably didn’t want help, since every roll is more likely to come out negative rather than positive. Your helpers are more likely to drag you down. This morning, my game designer brain is chewing over the possibilities. I kinda want to explore the possibilities that you can trade individual dice with your helpers. So, if I’m left with some 4s that I don’t have any 3s to match them with, I want to be able to take a 3 from my helper and give him a 1 in exchange. If our totals don’t add, but we each suffer our own consequences, this would produce higher numbers and choosing to give someone help would have a lot more dramatic weight to it.

Of course, I’d want the whole question of who helps whom to be decided by the bargains that took place in earlier scenes. So, if I agree to be your helper in task X, in exchange for you being my helper in task Y, then I know that task X is going to be painful for me. But I also know that I have a better chance of success on task Y. I’d also have something about if you are subservient to another, you have to take their trades. To refuse to do so is an act of revolt and dangerous.

I’m not sure if it was the unfamiliar historical setting, or the action movie aesthetic that the GM was going for, or the rushed nature of a convention game, but I didn’t feel like there was much danger in the game, as much as arbitrariness. Which was likely another deliberate design choice. It’s an interesting game. I think I’ll order a copy.

Thanks to all for making RECESS a great day of fun!

I woke up with an idea for a story. It’s set in the Liberty League universe that I have used for my With Great Power… convention events. What do you think?




“The Cold, Hard Truth”

by Michael S. Miller

The Armor of Truth was going to fail. Already a dent in the shoulder plate kept me from raising my left arm. Soon, even the enchantments of Veracity that held the mystic metal together would not be able to ward off the blows of The Crusher’s reptilian fists. The Armor was going to fail.

When the Armor failed, nothing would be able to stop The Crusher from killing Constance Carrier. His genetically enhanced muscles, razor-sharp scales, and sinuous snake-like tail would work quickly. Smart, funny, beautiful Connie would die. And it would be all my fault.

The whistling of another thrown car headed my way snapped my attention back to the problems at hand. The car was headed straight for a group of panicked bystanders. I soared over, hitting the car squarely with the my still-solid right shoulder plate. Steel screeched against mystic metal and I could feel the armor tearing against itself–tearing against my soul.

The car and I crashed into a truck near the bystanders. They fled, unharmed, as I pulled myself from the wreckage. What would Wayne do? I wondered. The Armor sharpened my memory. It was as though in that instant I could see Wayne Mason–my mentor, the closest thing to a father I ever knew–standing before me.

“Even with the Armor of Truth at full power,” Wayne had lectured, “I can’t go toe-to-toe with a behemoth like The Crusher. The Armor isn’t that type of weapon. The Truth is neither the hammer, nor the anvil, Earnest. The Truth is the fire of the forge itself.”

Wayne was always saying things like that. And I thought I understood his wisdom. I thought I could take up The Stalwart’s mantel after Wayne died. I thought I could protect people. I thought I could protect Connie. I was wrong.

I looked up and saw The Crusher rip open the side of a van, near where I had stashed Connie. It was now or never. But how could I be “the fire of the forge itself”? Fires brought heat. Heat only enhanced the reptilian DNA in The Crusher, made him faster and stronger. Unless…

I knew what to do. As The Crusher’s ten-foot-tall form loomed over the SUV that I had hidden Connie underneath, I soared over to land on its roof. “If you want the girl, Crusher, you’re going to have to go through me.”

The Crusher’s snake-like mouth twisted into something approaching a grin. “I thought you’d never ask. Yer gonna be the ‘smear of truth’ when I get done with you.” Both his arms lunged at me, wrapping around my already-battered shoulders. With no legs, The Crusher’s long tail wrapped around my legs and began to squeeze. I could feel the mystic metal squeal under the assault. The Armor would fail in a minute, at most.

With The Crusher anchored firmly to me and not the ground, I took to the skies. We weren’t far from the Central Park Reservoir. It was still early spring. I plunged into the water with The Crusher coiled around me. I felt a rib crack under the pressure.

The ice had just melted, but at the bottom of the reservoir the water was still just a few degrees above freezing. The Armor kept me insulated from the cold, but The Crusher had no such protection. I was betting that the bone-chilling cold would sap his irresistible strength, maybe even send him into some sort of hibernation. But would it work fast enough to save me?

Seconds passed. The crushing force did not let up. My left shoulder plate gave way, crumpling like paper.

My shoulder exploded with pain.

I screamed.

And then, the squeezing stopped.

The Crusher released his grip and began to swim weakly for the surface. With my good right arm, I grabbed his tail and held him until I was sure that all his strength was gone. Although every move was agony, I hauled him to the surface, and checked that he was still breathing.

The city was safe. Connie was safe. The Armor of Truth had not failed. And I swore, I would not fail the Armor. Not again.

This weekend I went to the Burning Apocalypse convention in New York City. Finances dictated that it could only be a one day trip, but what a great day it was! I left the house at 6:15 AM and got home at 1:10 AM. Even today, my legs feel like they’re about to fall off. But it was well, well worth it.

After geographic misadventures in the Garden State, I reached the con before the first game slot began. All around me were old friends I had not seen in months or years! Even though I had been traveling for three hours by the time I walked in the door, it was very much like coming home.

Due to a spate of last-minute cancellations, the first slot threatened to be short of player seats. I offered to run Mouse Guard if needed, but the call to duty never came. I was able to slide into a game of Apocalypse World. My deeply flawed memory for names reared its head. I can’t recall the MC’s name, but Matt Wilson played a cool-headed “Can’t we all just get along” gun-lugger. Dave played a skinner who read Tarot cards and incited trouble wherever she went, and Jamal played an operator named Jesus (NOT pronounced “Hey-zeus”) who was trying to broker peace between two rival hardholders. I was the driver. My guy looked like Paul Newman in greasy overalls. His prized Mustang had been stolen from him by a rival gang, and he was driving Jesus’s short yellow school bus until he was able to get his beloved “Betsy” back.

The game itself went okay. I could see that the MC was used to weaving a story over a number of sessions, and our four hours flew past in a flurry of bullets and double-crosses. We got into a fight at the food court of the burned out ‘all over a mysterious box. We went on a road trip through the blasted landscape. We barfed forth some apocrapha. I got to see how the game works. There are lots of fiddly bits to keep track of with all the different moves, and their interactions, but it does a good job of pushing that responsibility onto the players, leaving the MC free (and diceless) to always push the adversity.

In some ways, it feels a bit like my D&D 4th edition in that way. The DM doesn’t worry about making the players’ characters rules-legal or knowing how their powers work. The DM just throws problems, and monsters, at the party and trusts them to know how to play their characters.

After a quick run to the nearby “best Thai food in NYC” place, I ran my Mouse Guard alternate setting scenario: “Winter 1892: Gaslight and Ghouls.” I was trying a lot of experimental stuff for this scenario, as the setup was a Victorian crime-sleuthing situation. Not only had I rewritten the Mouse Guard setting several centuries into the future, but I was testing some unplaytested mechanics for doing scripted investigation scenes. My thanks to my patient, creative, and enthusiastic players for making this my best session of the convention!

I’ll be discussing how the session went over on the Mouse Guard forums. In short, our session ranged from a Victorian CSI to a Victorian The Wire. The Mouse Guard as the police force of a sprawling metropolitan Lockhaven delved into the details of grisly murders plaguing the city. They left no stone unturned in their quest for justice. And vengeance, too. Let it be know that nobody messes with the Mouse Guard, the biggest, baddest gang in the city! I love it when players sink their mousy teeth into the scenario and spend their player’s turn tying up loose ends.

In this one, the conspiracy behind the murders was dismantled and arrested (and their repulsive beast slain) during the GM’s turn. But I had earned a concession. I had the mastermind get away. Well, the players had earned enough checks to track him down to his tropical estate, infiltrate his home, and nab him from his very smoking room! They always get their mouse! Plus, Thor had failed a circles test early on, and earned the ire of a local crime boss. Thor’s character got tossed out of the boss’s pub on his ear. In the player’s turn, he returned for sweet, sweet revenge, burning the pub to the ground.

Although some of my more experimental mechanics ideas are still solidifying, it was a great, great session.

After another quick food run, I was able to slip into a game of In a Wicked Age, with Bret, Judd, Chuck and Bill(?). I was a simple guard who had been murdered simply because he might have overheard nefarious dealings. I played as a spirit who had to make my killers pay for their crimes in order to pass on. The other PCs were the assassin who had murdered me, the diplomat who had arranged a peace treaty and betrothal, and the princess who was betrothed to seal the treaty. There was an brutal and bloodthirsty general who had ordered my execution and was determined to see that there was no peace. In a tight, quick spiral of violence, the assassin murdered the princess, the diplomat killed the prince for his obstinant blindness, and then hired the assassin to kill the general, as my ghost set the bodyguards to take care of the assassin. There can be no peace where brutality reigns.

I hadn’t played In a Wicked Age before, and the rules system took some getting used to. I felt very much at the mercy of the dice, trapped sometimes. I think that’s because the first, last, and only conflict I was a party to, was about the assassin who had killed me wanting to kill the princess. With the death of another player character on the line, there was very little room for negotiation. I kept losing, which eroded my highest dice, which made the next round so much more difficult or impossible to win. In the end, it did end with a compromise that he was able to kill the princess, but left behind evidence of the general’s involvement. I think if it had been a longer session, or part of a longer story where there were multiple things that characters wanted, the dice would lead to more negotiation and a better story.

The convention was a great day. I am so glad I went, and so grateful to my wife for arranging things. And it reminded me of why I game, where the fun is, and how I’m good at this stuff. I want to keep gaming. And more than that …

I want to design!

METATOPIA was this weekend. I was skeptical before we went. By the time we left, I was a convert. This was a great convention, and I had a lot of fun!

For us, the convention started on Saturday morning, running late as usual. Bill White’s “The New World” was also running a bit late, so Kat, Michele, Brendan, and I were all able to play out the saga of a history that never was. A group of “piney Aztecs” had built a sophisticated, urban civilization in the sub Arctic forests. They worshipped the animals around them as pure manifestations of divinity, but were also divorced from nature in their cities. Huge ceremonial hunts would wipe out every living thing in giant swaths of forest, exporting the skulls back to the city as status trophies and displays of religious piety. A group of Templar-analogs that worshipped the the Radiant Queen of the sun had found its ways to our shores and were attempting to found a colony there. The third society was the outsiders. They were a separate species of human that had evolved to live in underground tunnels, with huge eyes, pale skin, and clawed hands. They used gold for its reflective abilities, to bring light to the darkness. Of course, the Templar-analogs wanted gold for its religious significance as a sign of their Queen’s divine favor.

We played a single turn of the game, and then critiqued. The Templar leader was captured by the young matriarch of the piney Aztecs. However, while she was gone from the city, her cousin had staged a coup and placed herself as matriarch. It was going to be a fun second turn. I thought the game had a good base, and there were some procedural edges that still needed to be filed off. I look forward to seeing more of it.

Later, I played Joshua A. C. Newman’s alternate rules for Mechaton called “Mobile Frame Zero.” I lost badly, but even in Mechaton, losing badly is pretty much fun. The new rules focus on making the Spot ability much more powerful, and it certainly made the game more deadly and move more quickly. I liked it a lot. We played with four teams, and it eventually devolved into a pair of one-on-one battles, which is what I don’t think that Joshua wants. It’s possible that Mobile Frame Zero is and should be listed as a three-player wargame, and just leave it at that. I’ve got a few more ideas to throw Joshua’s way.

After a tasty dinner at the Famished Frog, I came back to the hotel to play a dice-mechanics-only playtest of Kenneth Hite’s “Casey Jones is Dead.” When the full game is done, it will be a stew of the occult secret history stuff that is Ken’s forte, and nineteenth century life on the rails. Sort of Deadlands on rails. Sounds cool.

But this playtest was just about one of the dice minigames. It was more fun than it sounded. There’s a nice mathematical tension between driving the train so fast that you can make up lots of time, and risking a derailment. As the dice minigame was designed by James Ernest, it was like getting to play a new Cheapass game, which is always a fun thing.

After that, I did a focus group on Matt Gandy’s game in development “Heartbreaker.” It’s still very nebulous at this stage, but was full of intriguing ideas about the ways that story and game mechanics mix with one another, the game design values of a deck of cards, and the priority of things to consider when designing a game. I know we dumped a lot of stuff to think about on Matt, and I’m excited to see what he makes of it.

Sunday morning, I was finally able to playtest Kat’s newest incarnation of “Tangled Fates.” It’s a great toolkit for making stories at the table. My ambitious bastard knight failed at every attempt he made to seize the throne. He ended up as a wandering caste knight that wandered the world seeking and stealing treasure for the further enrichment and glory of his religious order. I really enjoyed the tarot-derived cards. They gave just enough push to incorporate a new piece of inspiration.

All in all, even though I did not come back from METATOPIA inspired to playtest my own designs, I came back remembering the joys and tears of the playtesting process. And being reminded of how good it feels to be inspired.

And wanting that feeling again.

I’m putting together my Mouse Guard event for Luke and Vincent’s Burning Apocalypse convention. I started discussion over on the Mouse Guard forums. Any and all comments welcome.

I recently watched the DC animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood. It’s a six year story, but still a warning is warranted: Spoilers throughout this piece, so consider yourself warned.

I was particularly struck by the parallels between this and the Captain America: Return of the Winter Soldier story. Both Cap and Batman are human-power-level characters. Both date from the Golden Age. Both have a long, mixed history with sidekicks. And they both stayed dead for longer than any superhero character has any right to.

Both Jason Todd’s return as the Red Hood, and Bucky Barnes’ comeback as the Winter Soldier parallel their respective mentors in interesting ways. They become the dark mirror of the men in whose shadow they were raised.

Bruce Wayne suffers the trauma of watching his parents murdered in front of him, and builds himself into a terrifying persona that strikes fear into the underworld. Jason Todd suffers the trauma of being beaten to death by the Joker, and when brought back, builds himself a terrifying persona that cuts a swath of fear, death and destruction through the underworld.

Steve Rogers undergoes a secret government procedure to enhance his physical abilities. Frozen in ice for decades, he survives into the present day, still fighting the enemies of his government. Bucky Barnes, rescued from the ice by a Soviet submarine, is subjected to a secret government procedure to enhance his physical abilities. Frozen in hibernation, he survives to the present day, activated only to serve the lethal needs of the government that has brainwashed him.

Both revamped sidekicks use lots of guns, weapons that their bosses refuse to touch. Both take their mission to extremes where their mentor will not tread. Batman will not voluntarily kill his enemies. The Red Hood murders dozens of criminals when it suits his needs. Captain America serves the American dream first, the American government second. He will question orders and refuse those he finds immoral. The Winter Soldier is an unquestioning, unthinking assassin.

If Batman and Captain America are legacies of comics’ Golden Age, the Red Hood and the Winter Soldier show what those same concepts would have been, had they been created with a 1990s sensibility. Guns, leather, murder. What does it say about the way comic readers perceive the world?

Or am I reading too much into this? Were they simply brought back as anti-heroes for the dramatic purpose of allowing their mentors to fight them, and then the added horror of discovering their true identities? Or as dramatic illustrations of the road not taken?



A week of ups and downs, but my game chef entry is finally done: Exiles of Will is away. Here’s the intro:

The glories of the canon are past, but five wandering characters live on. Although their plays have finished, and their epilogues have been spoken, some characters have still not found peace. They have been exiled from their homelands. They seek completion, and a curtain call of their own. No longer upstaged by the gaiety of others’ wedding feasts, or the woes of others’ funeral pyres, these wanderers are the Exiles of Will.

I was rusty, but I powered through and finished!

Just watched Shadow of the Vampire, a movie about an obsessive visionary director making the classic silent film Nosferatu. The twist is that the director has hired an actual vampire to pretend to be an actor playing the vampire. The movie was okay, but not great. A great deal of dramatic tension in the first and second acts is about the crew not knowing what kind of danger they are in, and the director making sure that no one finds out. When they finally do learn that the lead actor is a vampire intend on draining the lead actress dry … they do nothing. They just keep doing their jobs exactly as they did throughout the movie.

It leaves a hollow, unsatisfied feeling. The characters aren’t acting like believable people. There is a revelation, and no consequences follow from it. It breaks the dramatic contract. If there is no splash, why drop the stone in the pond?

In RPGs, lack of consequences for action surface in many ways, and all of them sap player interest and excitement.

  • NPC reactionsA character gives a long, impassioned speech on an important issue and everyone else continues their steadfast denials.
  • Fight resultsThe group is faced with a combat encounter that is far beyond their abilities, and have no chance of making so much as a scratch.
  • Predetermined plotsThe players concoct the most ingenious plan ever to circumnavigate the GM’s carefully prepared finale, so the plan arbitrarily fails.
  • Misread flagsA player crafts a character who is the long-lost prince, but the game never addresses this fact.
  • Rules-Genre disconnectThe group is all there to wage heroic battles against foul beasts, but the game only has rules for poetry slams.

Any of these will strain the suspension of disbelief, weaken interest in the fiction, and sap enthusiasm for the game itself.

Camp Nerdly was a wonderful, awesome time this year. So very, very glad we went. Much thanks to all I played with, chatted with, or just smiled at. All of you reminded me why we do this thing called “play.”

It’s been a while since I played. Nearly none since Dreamation three months ago. So my pre-convention jitters were in full swing this week, building up to Friday. We overpacked the car, set off two hours later than planned, and were on our way south of the Mason-Dixon for gamer-geek fun. With fuel stops and traffic and some directional snafus, we didn’t check in until 8PM. Which was far better than our 10:30 check-in at Camp Nerdly 1.

After unloading our stuff, I joined a game of Shadow Hunters with a bunch of folks I barely knew and enjoyed the social level of the game. It was a nice way to ease into the weekend. I had never played before, and Shadow Hunters is one of those BANG!-like bluffing games where you need to sniff out other players’ factions. I’m not a big fan of that genre of game, and some of the nitty-gritty didn’t seem to add much. But I enjoyed the experience greatly.

Tired from our drive, Kat and I turned in early. Tossed and turned a bit, but finally managed to get to sleep by 2:30 AM, which is when Bill White came a’knockin’ at the cabin door. Seems he just got in, and needed to get to his room, and I had thoughtlessly latched all the doors from the inside! It was kinda like the reverse rapture, with gamers appearing out of nowhere!

Saturday morning started with a nice leisurely breakfast (BTW, thanks so much to everyone who cooked! Everything was wonderful!). Rob Bohl had mentioned that he was really looking forward to playing My Life with Master with me. The best time slot was right that morning, so we gathered a great group of players (Rob, Sam Z., Buddha, Tim and Zack) and got started. Most had played before, but some had not. We changed the setting to 60s counter-culture drug cult. The town was a remote logging village in Washington state. The Master was a charismatic genius who was testing proto-LSD, and far stranger pharmaceuticals on the townspeople. He needed to keep the approval of his paymasters in the Pentagon, or else they’d send him back to ‘Nam. We had very cool minions like the brutal drug smuggler who could convince anyone of anything, as long as he was in his van. And the chemistry graduate student who couldn’t say anything unless he could provide a proper citation.

Due to the late start, car moving, and the like, we didn’t get to finish before lunchtime. It was a good experience, but the game itself would have gotten so very much better if we’d had another 90 minutes to play!

One delectable lunch and a bit of chore-time later, I could have wedged myself into Kat’s awesome-looking Everway game, but didn’t want to dilute the fun. Two folks were running a game I read over a decade ago, but never got to play: Puppetland. I was seriously tempted to play, but I also wanted to try out the game of Microscope that Andy K was going to be demoing an hour later, so I just watched. It looked like a heap of fun.

Instead, I played Microscope. We knew we were breaking the game before we started, as bringing seven players (Andy K., JACN, Rob, Seth, me, Julia, Giulianna, and Will) to a game intended for three or four is not the best choice for awesome play. But as the purpose was demo, more than play, we all accepted that and worked on the story of how the refugees from a religious war eventually rebuilt a high-tech hunter-gatherer society on their own world and reconnected with interstellar society at large. It was an interesting story. Perhaps a bit too cerebral, but we were all thinking hard about learning the rules.

On the whole, I was a bit underwhelmed by Microscope. Not by the fiction we created, that was cool. I was hoping for something more robust in the rules beyond structured brainstorming. While the strict guidelines on when you can collaborate and when you can’t are interesting, I’m not sure that they really serve to enable the group to explore material they wouldn’t have, simply by sitting down at a table and talking. Still, I might buy the PDF and look it over.

After a tasty ziti dinner, I managed to take a seat in one of my new favorite convention games: A Taste For Murder. We had a fantastic group: Joanna, Connie, Sarah, Rachel and Dave Cleaver. We portrayed the backstabbing, incestuous Bridgewater house. I was the droll butler Wilberforce. Sadly, not enough players hated me enough to kill me, and as I somehow rolled very well when Inspector Chapel looked into my past, I’m sorry to say that this time the butler did not do it. Instead, the busybody family friend was done in by her own daughter, who didn’t know she was her daughter. As often happens, the game slid toward silly territory as the night wore on. But I didn’t mind. I was too busy laughing.

After a better night’s sleep, a fine breakfast, and some delectable chatting with friends, we headed back north. But Camp Nerdly 5 can’t come too soon for me!

My head cold is just as bad now as it was when I arrived at Dreamation, but I feel a whole lot better.

After one of the most trying months of my life, we managed to make it through the wilds of New Jersey on Friday night, with barely an hour to spare. I ran my tried-and-true Mouse Guard scenario “The Spring Thaw” with five great players, including Ralph Mazza and Andrew Morris. While it didn’t quite soar, it was a good solid run, with the mice decimating the fox and then convincing the selfish town captain to abandon his wicked ways. It likely should have been a bit more challenging, but with the stress and the cold, I didn’t have it in me.

Saturday morning was Ganakagok. When the schedule was forming up, I noticed that no one was running Ganakagok or With Great Power… Those two games had been run at every IGE at Dreamation since we started in 2005. I didn’t feel that they should both go down the same year, so I signed up to run Ganakagok. And I’m sure glad I did. The game has never failed to deliver for me. Something about the imagery of the tarot manages to effortlessly bring everyone onto the same page. As before, my adversity may have been a bit weak, but the Medicine economy more than made up for it. The hearth-fire of judgment rose, and melted all the unworthy Nitu, leaving Ralph’s urgent prophet to become the new divine leader.

Saturday afternoon afforded me the opportunity to play in a game. Luckily there was a seat in Kat’s “A Taste for Murder” game. It was my first time playing, and I really enjoyed it. Our household was a rank nest of dysfunction, debauchery, and betrayal. Jeff Collyer’s cook turned out to be the murderer, but we were terrible people, all of us.

Saturday night enabled us to have dinner with Bill Segulin at the Famished Frog, which is a grand, rejuvenating tradition. It was great to see Bill, even if only briefly.

Saturday night, I was supposed to run Mouse Guard and had a full complement signed up, but only Sam Zell actually appeared at the table. He quickly found something cooler to do, and so did I. Buddha Davis, George, Jason Morningstar and I adjourned to a quiet suite to play Love in the Time of Seið. I’m so far out of the loop these days, I hadn’t even heard of the game. But playing it I can see how it builds on older designs, with a strong game design aesthetic of its own. I played The Princess, and really enjoyed watching as, over the course of 3 hours, she matured from a naive and romantic girl, to an overreaching young woman unsure of her own power, to a powerful, decisive beast who still had the heart to mourn for what she had lost. It’s a great game.

Sunday morning we had another heaping helping of angst for breakfast, in a great game of Serial Homicide Unit. The profile was “people working on our second chances.” It’s cool to see patterns in your games when you run them enough. With six players (which we had), there’s always at least a bit of silly. This time it was the balloon animals that the serial killer left at the crime scenes. But, the game also consistently delivers at least one moment of full-fledged audience investment and sympathy for one of the civilians. This time, it was a male-to-female transgender person just trying to get a fair shake from her boss. She succeeded and everyone cheered. And the next moment we opened a small envelope to learn she had been cruelly murdered. I really, really love that game.

I barely got to chat with anyone. I didn’t get to play or shop or hang out nearly as much as I wanted to. But that’s okay. I dusted off my gamer-skin, and tugged it on, and it still fit. As life requires me to put it back in mothballs for a few more months, just the memory of its return will be a comfort.

Thanks to all who helped make such a great con.

We’ve thrown open the door to organizing the Indie Games Explosion at Dreamation 2011. Here’s the thread.

All good things must come to an end. Over the next few weeks, Incarnadine Press will be shutting down operations. My life has changed considerably in the last six months, and I have found myself unable to devote any time to game publishing. I believe that when the party’s over, somebody ought to turn out the lights.

Incarnadine products will be coming down from IPR and the Un-store. I have a few physical copies of Serial Homicide Unit remaining. If anyone’s interested in those, let me know.

We’re not away completely. Kat and I still intend on running the Indie Games Explosion at Dreamation 2011.

Thanks to everyone who enjoyed With Great Power… and Serial Homicide Unit (and Discernment and War Stories, too) over the years. I’m glad we could help you have a bit of fun.

As for this blog, I don’t know. I might post about my real life stuff. I might chime in with gaming-related thoughts from time-to-time.

Going to a Double Exposure convention is always a little bit like going home. You see friends you haven’t seen in far too long, you talk until your voice goes raw, and you smile until your face aches. Or at least I do.

We were doing convention prep until the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, so getting up early for the drive to Morristown was a bit of a challenge. Luckily it was a challenge well worth it. Kat was running Everway in the morning timeslot. She hasn’t run the game in over a year, and it’s always a treat. This time she experimented with leaving her Fortune Deck at home and running with straight karma. Her setup was the same as the “Dragon-napped” scenario she ran for With Great Power… earlier this year. It has an evil king, an innocent princess in peril, and a dragon in disguise as a knight. I (playing the dragon) got to put forward the dubious legal theory that everyone in the kingdom belonged to me, because I could eat them at any time. Since they were still alive, I must be sparing them for later and thus, they were still “mine.”

A quick lunch with Kat and Joanna, and then it was time to take to the skies! Bill White ran a playtest of his structured freeform game “Romance in the Air,” a pleasure jaunt aboard a floating airship hotel in a Europe that never was. Bill explained that it was partially designed as a rebuttal to the assertion that “you cannot make a Jane Austen roleplaying game” and that this was the very first time it saw play. It was rather rough going in places, but there is definitely potential there, and Bill is absolutely fearless in digging through the results of his experiment to get the good stuff at its heart.

Kat and I had a quiet dinner at the italian place across the street, and then I returned for a wild and crazy experiment of my own. I ran the Marvel Super Heroes RPG published by TSR in 1986! I hadn’t pulled the books off my shelf to play for about 20 years. And all the players said something similar. The power of nostalgia was strong at the table!

My initial idea for the game was to run in it with the superheroes Kat and I had come up with for the With Great Power… scenario “A League of Their Own.” We’ve been running it at cons for several years now, and I wanted to see how my nostalgic memories of MSH would apply to these great characters. An interesting experiment, right?

Interesting, yes, but an experiment quickly completed. In explaining the rules, I went through a sort of Danger Room-esque capture the flag setup. It quickly became apparent that the system was going to support more bus-throwing than these characters were capable of, while leaving their various angsts unacknowledged. Luckily, we were barely an hour into the timeslot, and I already knew what I wanted to know.

So, I looked at the guys at the table, and said “The experiment is a success, these characters in this system absolutely DOES NOT work. But, we’ve got three hours, let’s have some fun!” And I broke out the character cards for classic Marvel heroes, circa 1986. And thus we had Captain America, Spiderman, Storm, Box, and The Thing defend New York from the Hulk on a rampage, a Doombot, and a couple robotic minions. There was much laughter and die-rolling and villain-bashing and reminiscing over ancient comic book geekery.

I don’t think I need to play MSH again for another couple decades, but it did give me food for thought. Just creating the characters for the game reminded me that thinking through a character’s superpowers and how they work (which WGP currently lacks) can provide grounding to the story and worthwhile play material. Also, I refreshing myself on the rules showed me the roots of some very cool mechanics in more recent games. I’m looking at you: SotC’s zones, and BW’s Resources and Circles.

Friday morning found me running “A League of Their Own” the way it was meant to be run: using With Great Power… We had a great session, highlighted by Gerald’s portrayal of Debris struggling with the difficulties of being an ex-cop while being a woman made of living granite. Also a great scene featuring The Stalwart. Our hero, known also as the Defender of Truth, is actually living a lie: he is the Stalwart’s sidekick who has put on the Armor of Truth and claimed to be The Stalwart returned from the dead. Tim had a great scene where he’s looking at himself in the mirror, saying over and over “I am The Stalwart. The armor makes the hero. I am The Stalwart!” trying to convince himself. All the while, he’s checking his armor’s built-in Lie Alarm to see if he’s telling the truth. Good solid angst!

Friday was also Kat’s birthday. (Which reminds me: Happy belated birthday, Rob!) To mark the occasion, she ran an Everway-themed LARP called “Queen for a Day.” In it, it was the Queen’s birthday, and to celebrate, she was throwing a party for her subjects. She would even name one of them “Queen for a Day” and allow them to make a single proclamation. We got a fair turnout, and much rivalry, scheming, and mixed up birthday presents ensued. I played the merchant, with the magical ability to enchant anything imaginable, but it would only function for 10 minutes. Coming up with all the birthday presents was a blast! Plus, I got to call in a web of favors to ensure the “proper” candidate became Queen for a day! After the scheming was done, there was even cake. Remember, everyone: if you play in Kat’s birthday LARP, you get free cake!

Between cleaning up the birthday LARP and the latness of the hour, getting everyone to dinner at the Famished Frog was a bit confused, hurried, and stressful. But the dinner itself was great, as Bill Segulin was able to stop down to join us.

I had nothing planned for the 8pm slot, and that was the first of three Shock: games that had needed to be reassigned. Connie was brave enough to step up and facilitate the game, and I figured I’d help her out. Neither of us knew much of anything about the Human Contact setting, and one of the players was particularly interested in it. As it turned out, Jason Godesky was a life-saver, stepping up to explain the setting and steer the group through the rules. Thanks so much, Jason!

Stepping away from the table, I found myself with time to play a board game with Kat and Bill, and sketch some ideas about the WGP revision. The Whites had to leave the con early, so I stayed up late in an effort to fill in for Mel’s Ganakagok game, but I ended up having too few player (note the singular) to actually play.

The only negative thing about DEXCON moving to Morristown from New Brunswick was that the weekend changed. Now the con always falls at the same time as my family reunion. I skipped the reunion last year, but cleared my schedule this year so I could do the hour’s drive to the reunion and see some family members I hadn’t seen in years. Not sure if I’ll do it next year, but it was nice.

Saturday evening found us dining at the Famished Frog once more (we should really buy stock). Then, I was all set for some crowd control, as my 8PM Mouse Guard game had 5 players and 2 alternates signed up. 4 people showed up at the table, and 2 of them hadn’t realized that it was the same scenario they had played at Dreamation. This left me with 2 players in a scenario meant for 5. But, these two brave mice faced down a ravenous fox, losing a tail and an ear in the struggle, but never giving up!

After the game, I got a chance to catch up with Judd and chat about a great many things. He described his awesome plans for the eventual format of 1st Quest, which focused on bringin his strength at setting, character, and situation creation directly to the table. I heard myself saying something in reply that’s been turning over in my brain ever since: “Not every game needs to teach people how to fish in a whole new way. Sometimes people just want a fish that’s prepared in a way only you can do.”

Talking with people is awesome that way, and I need to do more of it. Even if I need to force myself to do so.

I usually leave Sundays for unscheduled car-packing, room checkout, and the like. But I’m really glad that I ran Mouse Guard again on Sunday morning. I had a full complement of 5 players, all of them awake and eager to learn the game. Only one had read the comics, and a different one had read the game. I was kinda teaching these folks the details of how to fish, and we had a great time doing it. They really sunk their teeth into their characters and chewed the scenery with little mousy teeth. Perhaps my most low-down, underhanded GM trick was to invoke the emnity clause on a Resources roll. They needed to buy medicine for an ailing governor, and they flubbed the role badly. So, I had them be sold a very reasonably priced vial of medicine from a very sleazy-looking mouse. Loads of fun.

Then there was just the good-byes. Thanks to the awesome-as-always Double Exposure staff for facilitating this great event. And thanks to everyone who came out and made it such a good time!

Mauro Ghibo just translated my essay “A Manifesto on Mastery” into Italian, available here. I think that’s the third or fourth language for the Manifesto. Pretty cool!

Maybe so many years of really, really great years at Origins set the bar too high. Maybe the staff and software changes at GAMA came too late to be truly integrated into convention management. Maybe the stars were just wrong. Whatever the reason, Origins 2010 was plagued with numerous drawbacks and pitfalls. On the whole, the people made for a positive experience, but I was left wondering if we’ll return next year.


Tuesday was a mad, hectic rush for last-minute preparation. Bill came out and we stayed up too late, but somehow everything got done. Not much different than any other convention.


Wednesday is the day to drive, and drive we did. Bruce, Michele, Bill, Kat and I all piled into Bruce’s minivan and set out away from the rising sun. We made good time, reached Columbus by 4:00pm, and soon learned of the chaos that awaited us.

In the events book, none of Kat’s events listed a GM name or a location. None of the seminars listed a location. None of the events listed a game system. Evidently, this lack of location had been caught shortly before the convention started, but the revised information was not disseminated to anyone we were able to speak to. We spoke to people at GM/event HQ, at RPG HQ, at Customer Service, and we continually got variations of “I don’t know. The person who would know is around here somewhere, but I don’t know where.” This was the beginning of frustration incarnate.

Because of these scheduling issues, ALL of Kat’s games had no players. With no game system listed, people who wanted to try out With Great Power… or Serial Homicide Unit couldn’t know that the events were in those game systems. With no GM name listed, players who had played in Kat’s games previously could not know that she was running them, and that they’d be fun no matter the game system. It was very, very rough on her to sit at empty table after empty table.

A note to myself for future big cons (like Origins and GenCon) that have a long a storied history of screwing up event registration. It consists mostly of breaking their registration rules, because they don’t follow the rules themselves.

  • Include the name of the game system in the event title. Even if the instructions say not to.
  • Include the name of the game system in the event description. Even if the instructions say not to.
  • Include the GM’s name in the event description. Even if … etc., etc.
  • Publicize your events yourself as much as possible. Include a fallback location where interested players who follow you online can meet up with you if the convention staff screws up. I’ll need to set up Twitter for this.

Okay. Vented about that enough, I think.

Even though Kat’s Wednesday night event folded with no players, I had five great players for Mouse Guard. I ran “The Pirates of Rustleaf” which is a cool introductory adventure where the players get to fight red-furred mouse pirates. The players had various levels of familiarity with the comic and the game, but they all knew what they were doing by the end, and we had a great time. I believe I got asked “Are you the same Michael Miller that wrote With Great Power…” which is always surprising and gratifying.


Thursday morning I ran the classic With Great Power… scenario “A League of Their Own,” where the heroes have no hero licence, and need to earn one. I had five enthusiastic players, and we had a great time. I haven’t actually GMed WGP in close to two years, and it was enlightening to see it from such a distance. I can see what really works and makes the game sing, and what simply pushes my buttons, but confuses and distracts most people. All that stuff will go into the revision.

Thursday afternoon was supposed to be Kat’s LARP, but after that disappointing lack of turnout (we had one player), I spent the rest of the time trying to find out where Luke and Jared’s seminars were supposed to be. Again, the same worthless wall of ignorance, with only one volunteer taking any initiative to say “I don’t know where it’s supposed to be, but I know that this room isn’t used, so I’ll do everything I can to direct people in here.” Thanks to Luke & Jared’s mastery of Twitter, the seminars were fairly well attended, and went well. Afterward, I chatted w/ Luke, Thor, and Dro, then Kat and I retired early.


Eight o’clock Friday morning found me running Mouse Guard again. This time, the scenario was “The Spring Thaw,” which is essentially “Deliver the Mail” from the rulebook with a few Miller-ian twists. Again, a varied group of experience with the rules and setting material. It’s always fun when I’m explaining things and someone says “can I FoRK in my wise?” because I know exactly where their experience comes from. A great experience.

Friday afternoon was (finally) lunch at the North Market! Then some shopping, which was curtailed because I had run out of people to buy gifts for (had trouble finding anything I wanted for myself), and mostly because my foot hurt like the Dickens. (Did I mention that my first gout flareup in over 2 years started on the Monday before Origins? Fun.) I rested for a few hours, and then went to dinner w/ my roommates.

After dinner, Michele, Bill, Joanna, Philip and I played in a pickup session of the With Great Power game Kat was scheduled to run that morning. It’s a fantasy comic book scenario called “Dragon-napped” where no one is quite who they seem to be. We had a lot of fun, but with an 8:00AM game on the schedule, I had to hit the hay before the game was over. Good, juicy, melodramatic stuff, though.


My last Mouse Guard game was another rousing rendition of “The Pirates of Rustleaf.” Another fun time, but I think I’ve made the scenario too morally ambiguous, as the session descended into discussion of “what should we do about this.” I wasn’t on the ball enough to force them into a duel of wits at the table, which would have solved it, but that felt more like a BW solution rather than a MG one.

Got to do some shopping with Kat that afternoon, and then sat in for Luke and Jared’s “Game Design is Mind Control” seminar, which was good and thought provoking (and well attended! 35 people). I got to watch the group play Action Castle! and observed the interesting social dynamics that develop. Luke and I then did our “Self Publishing Crash Course” seminar where we barrage the audience with nearly two decades of game publishing experience in less than two hours.

After that, a quiet dinner with Kat, and then we got to observe a Luke, Dro, Thor, and Kira playing Danger Patrol. It’s a fairly loose game with lots of cool-stuff-generation baked right in. Still some rough spots, though. It was fun to watch the guys plays and taunt each other. Dro is exceeding dangerous with his love beam.


Packing, shopping, chatting, and driving. And driving. But we made it home and on the whole, it was a good con. There were just a whole lot of bumps along the way. Will we return next year? Only time will tell.

The fine folks over at Minions of the Monster Master have podcasted their actual play of With Great Power… and blogged about it. Check it out! I love how they use minis on the pages of conflict to illustrate who’s fighting who.

I’ve been unhappy with superhero comics for a number of years. Part of it is due to a lack of a browse-able comic book store in the area. As titles I liked came to an end, I wasn’t able to find new things to like. Every now and then, I’d pick up the odd issue of something or other, and feel disappointed when I was done reading it. Surely the “good stuff” in superheroes couldn’t have been all used up before the mid-90s?

So, I subscribed to Marvel’s online digital comics site. For $10/month, you can read as many comics as you want. They don’t have everything they ever published online, but they do have hundreds (maybe thousands) of issues. It’s only a few days, and the little poking around I’ve done has shed some light on why I’ve been disappointed all this time.

I read Uncanny X-men #136-137 (climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga) from 1980 and Captain America #1-14 from 2005. Wow, what a difference!


Modern comics are really written with the graphic novel in mind. They take a slow, cinematic style to build up mood, and put in a mystery that isn’t addressed for a half-dozen issues. A mystery at the heart of the plot, mind you! I mean, I’d say that 6 issues of a modern comic equal the plot of 2 or 3 of the comics I grew up with. It’s strange. There are fewer costumed goons knocking over banks and jewelery stores, but somehow there’s more meaningless fights.

Thought Balloons

And the thought balloons are almost entirely missing. I know that they’re usually rendered as captions these days, and I don’t mind that. But there are so very few of them! They’re almost entirely contained in quiet, introspective scenes where the hero is reflecting on the battle to come, or the villain is plotting.

I suppose the idea of more modern style is that the pictures are supposed to give context of what’s happening in the fight scene, and we’re supposed to understand the hero’s predicament from that. In the older comics, the thought balloons and word balloons would often reiterate what was going on in the panel. They often illustrate that inner self-talk that everyone does everyday.

A modern comic might show a villain punching the hero through a wall. It might take several panels, possibly an entire page for the attempted dodge, punch catching the gut, hero flying through air, going through wall, wall collapsing, hero pulling himself from rubble. The older style might show the same thing in a single panel, with a thought balloon like: “He’s so quick! Caught me nappin’ and this wall’s paid the price! Gotta keep on my toes.”


Modern coloring techniques have completely redefined the look of comic pages. The strong, clear black lines of the flat-color era are gone. Since computerized coloring allows so many shades and textures, it seems like the colorist does much of the job that the penciller and inker used to do. The colors are so muted, but uses a lot more single-color saturation, where a dozen different shades and tints of one color are used, often to convey mood. The older style had a more limited pallette of colors, and had to use contrast to make things stand out from their background.


The new coloring techniques have opened up the way for greater “realism” in illustration styles, as well. Captain America has pretty much always worn an armored shirt as part of his costume. In the older comics, this would be show by a few half-circles scattered here and there on his torso. The actual outline of his chest and arms remained that of a naked human body, colored red, white, and blue to differentiate it from all the other characters with the same sillouette. Now, Cap’s scale mail shirt is illustrated in each and every panel, with every single scale deliniated. The outline of his upper body shows the ridges that the scales make. His cowl has two seams that run down the back, where it used to be illustrated as smooth. Seams on a superhero costume!

And the facial expressions! With the subtleties of modern coloring and the larger panels, newer comics can show greater subtlety of facial expression then the older line drawings. I guess this is also a reason for the demise of the thought balloon.

There are fewer panels per page, but each panel is rendered in greater detail. Part of it is probably due to a greater availability of reference images to artists via the Internet. Part of the Captain America storyline was set in Philadelphia, a city I’m familiar with. I was expecting that the only thing that would let us know it was Philly was a caption, some dialog, and maybe a sketch of Independence Hall in the background. Boy, was I wrong! The sequence starts out with a jet coming in low over the Philly skyline, and it’s actually the Philly skyline! The buildings whose names I don’t know, but whose outline I’ve seen every time I head into the city are right there, drawn in every detail.


It’s kind of strange that as most other types of media are speeding up (compare a fight scene in an action movie from 1980 to 2010), comics are slowing down. I can see how the change in technology has made this possible. At this point it’s primarily an interesting observation, and a warning to myself. Don’t expect as much from a single issue. The trade paperback is the unit of story these days, not the issue. I wonder if telling the same story within a larger page count is a symptom of the influence of manga upon American mainstream comics?

Of course, my sample size is extremely limited. I’m going to be reading more. Are there other comics I’m missing that buck this trend?

Last night, I spoke with Clyde on his cool podcast, Theory from the Closet. He let me ramble on for the better part an hour about Serial Homicide Unit, Discernment, and related topics. Give it a listen and let me know what you think!