Sunday, September 5, 2010

Department of Filk: The Hogwarts Hymnal

It's been a while since I put anything up here, so let's dredge through my files and dig out some pieces of Harry Potter filk I wrote a while back. First of all, let's put on the Sorting Hat and see what house we get:

(tune: "Camelot")

When looking for a house in which to dwell in,
The Sorting Hat responded with a grin;
And said, "We have a place for you, my felon,
In Sytherin."

Where we admire Caligula and Nero,
Where ruthlessness is never thought a sin;
Lucretia Borgia's counted as a hero
In Slytherin!

It's where ambition is the rule;
In Slytherin,
The keenest house at school.

Where how you play the game is not important;
The only thing that counts is that you win!
In short there's never been
As Machiavellian
A place for guile and cunning as there is in

* * * * *

(tune: "Edelweiss")

Held in awe
By her resident students;
Sharp as tacks,
Filled with wisdom and prudence;

Mensa material
'Till the end;
We'll be friends forever;
True of heart,
Very smart;
We're so terrible clever!

* * * * *

(tune: "Baby Face")

We are the lion's house
We're Gryffindor;
We're strong and brave and loyal
To the core,
Hear us roar!
That's our alma mater
We're the house of Harry Potter

You've read about us in the
Books of Hogwarts lore;
You're going to shout "encore!"
Each time you see us score;
We're the team called Gryffindor!

* * * * *

(tune: "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy!")

Well they sat me down, put a hat on my head,
I felt real nervous and my face turned red;
They gave me a house, and that's when I said,
"Yes sir, I'm a Hufflepuff!"

Well, life in Huffle House is mighty fine,
'Cause Huffles stick together like grapes on a vine;
Ol' Fat Friar is a close friend of mine;
Yes sir, I'm a Hufflepuff!

Well, some dress plain and some wear a ruffle;
Some dress fancy, some kinda shuffle;
They'll give you a hug if they know you're a Huffle;
Yes sir, I'm a Hufflepuff!

Well, some call us dull, and some call us ploddin',
Our ways aren't fancy and we don't go maraudin';
We keep our eyes open and you won't catch us noddin';
Yes sir, I'm a Hufflepuff!

Our blood ain't blue and our line ain't royal,
'Cause just like the badger we're sons of the soil;
We stick to our friends and we're not scared of toil;
Yes sir, I'm a Hufflepuff!

Well, some dress plain and some wear a ruffle;
Some dress fancy, some kinda shuffle;
They'll give you a hug if they know you're a Huffle;
Yes sir, I'm a Hufflepuff!

* * * * *

And now a few words about our faculty:

(tune: Theme from "Underdog")

When Harry Potter and his crew
Have bit off more than they can chew
And face the wrath of You-Know-Who
It's time to send and owl too...

Dumbledore! (Dumbledore!)
Dumbledore! (Dumbledore!)

Foe of Darkness,
Friend of Harry;
Head of Hogwarts

Dumbledore! (Dumbledore!)

* * * * *

And finally, because he's my wife's favorite:

(tune: "Mame")

Who's ready with a sarcastic quip?
Who thinks that Harry Potter's a drip?

Who drives the Slyth'rin girls so mad
'Cause he is so sexy and so hot?
Who wants the D.A. job so bad
That he'd kiss a weasel for the spot?

Who might be working for You-Know-Who?
Who really ought to change his shampoo?

Whose nose is long and thin and yet
Easily gets bent right out of shape?
Whose glances are so witherin'?
Who has no use for ditherin'?
Who puts the Sin in Slytherin?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Conversation with Phil Foglio

One thing that Alex, the Primary Pop Thinker at Pop Thought, tried to encourage me to do with my "Live and Let Dice" column was interviews. I think this is probably because he did a lot of interviews and was pretty good at it. The first interview I did for "Live and Let Dice" was with one of my favorite cartoonists, the legendary Phil Fogilo; and actually it was one of those pieces that got partially eaten by the Great Chinese Siege. Fortunately, some far-sighted benefactor had the sense to archive the lost half of it. So here is my reconstructed conversation with the boy genius behind GIRL GENIUS:

A Conversation With Phil Foglio

January 3, 2005

When I belonged to a science fiction club in college, back in the antediluvian '80s, each month someone would bring the new issue of DRAGON Magazine to the meeting. We'd all take turns pawing through it, and invariably, we'd start by turning to the back where the cartoons were. The first thing I'd always read in DRAGON was Phil Foglio's "What's New" strip. Well, I'd also try to figure out if there was a point to "Wormy", but I gave "What's New" priority. In his strip, Phil and his semi-fictitious partner Dixie Null, would explore the weird world of Fantasy Role-Playing Games.

Since then, Phil Foglio, (the "g" is silent, like in "polygnostic") has had a long and varied career, touching upon just about every aspect of fandom imaginable. Currently, he is drawing a comic book entitled GIRL GENIUS, about a brilliant young inventor in a Victorian-Era world of steam-powered uber-tech, (as seen in our last thrilling episode).

We meet Phil on board his palatial airship fortress, hovering somewhere above the Carpathian Mountains.

You started out doing fan art. What were some of the other things you did before and during your DRAGON days?

Phil: A little bit of this, a little bit of that. During this period I was illustrating the Mythadventure novels for Donning/Starblaze, doing monthly cartoons for Swank Magazine, and various freelance illustrations. Enough to keep my rent paid and my cats fed.

What kind of art background did you have?

Phil: I always liked to draw, and was actively encouraged by my mom, who had wanted to be an artist herself, but didn't get the chance. I didn't really think about becoming a professional artist until high school, when I realized that everything else required too much math. Once that was decided, I went to the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, where I got my BFA in cartooning, with a minor in animation.

How did your association with Robert Asprin come about? And the MYTHADVENTURES comic you did for WARP Graphics?

Phil: During college I was very active in science-fiction fandom. I went to a lot of conventions. Another person who went to a lot of cons was Bob Asprin. You see the same people week after week, you start to hang around with each other. When they needed a new illustrator for the MythAdventure book series after Kelley Freas quit, Bob said, "Hey, I know this guy who'll work cheap." When he sold the comic rights to WARP Graphics, they asked him if he could recommend someone as artist, and again, he thought of me. It's true, kids, it's not what you know, it's who you know.

I'm sure a lot of people associate you with fantasy because of your work in DRAGON, but one of your early, and long-running characters was pure space opera. Tell me about BUCK GODOT, Zap Gun For Hire. How did he come to be?

Phil: I was between projects, and wanted to write and draw SOMETHING, but I didn't really like anything I was producing. Then I read a short underground comic story by Rich Larson featuring the crew of the BUN-E. I had an epiphany. You could write perfectly good stories about about perfectly dreadful people (what can I say, I was young and impressionable) and they could still be good stories. As it happened, I had a friend who was a good person who liked to present himself as a dreadful one. Using him as a role model, I created the first Buck Godot strip. My only requirement for that first story was that there had to be a fight or an explosion on every page. Naturally, no one wanted to publish it, but I liked the character, did a few stories to keep my hand in. I was thrilled when he actually saw print, and even happier when people liked him.

You've always shown, let's say, a healthy appreciation for biology; most notably in your adult anthology series XXXENOPHILE. I've drawn the occasional adult story myself, and I've always tried to follow your example. There seems to be a joy in these stories; a sense that sex and fun go together and if both parties aren't enjoying themselves then they're doing it wrong. Do you have a philosophy behind these kinds of stories, or am I over-thinking this?

Phil: Not at all. XXXenophile started because while I am fond of the IDEA of adult comics, there were very few that I could stomach. Most creators seem unable to keep "taboo" subjects properly compartmentalized, so when they try to do a sexually explicit story, they feel they can throw in some excessive violence, or dismal "real life" consequences or some political satire or whatever, and seem to be unable to understand why this can make it unappetizing. I was bitching about this and said bitching ran along these lines; "Why the hell can't people just write nice happy stories about people having happy sex? That's what I want, and I bet a whole bunch of other people want it too. There's a real market for this. Why doesn't some fool realize this? Hey..wait a minute...I could be that fool!" The rest is history.

You also co-authored a novel with Nick Pollotta: ILLEGAL ALIENS, a science fiction comedy about a First Contact gone wrong. Can you tell me about that? Have you done any other non-illustrated writing?

Phil: I was hanging around with Nick at the time, and one day he said, "I had a weird dream last night, where this street gang was fighting a giant robot armed with a mop." A discussion ensued as to why such a thing might have happened, and the result was 'Illegal Aliens' now available from Wildside Press. Buy two. I've done other prose writing, some articles, a couple of short stories in Amazing Stories, and my wife and I are in the process of novelizing Girl Genius. The big news however, is about a book called 'Dealer's Choice' by James Ernest, Mike Selinker, and myself, that is coming out this spring. It's a book about poker. Not casino style high stakes Texas-Hold-'Em like you see on TV poker, but a book about running a game in your own home, and instructions on how to play the hundreds of stupid, wild card games that people like to play at two in the morning, like Night Baseball, Frankenstein, and Hamlet Meets the Three Stooges. And yes, we have the definitive rules for Strip Poker in there as well.

One of the most unexpected places I've ever seen your work turn up was in DC Comics. You did three limited series for them: ANGEL AND THE APE, STANLEY AND HIS MONSTER and I believe PLASTIC MAN. So, who did you blackmail to get them to let you do this?

Phil: Mike Gold. He had just moved to DC comics from First Comics, and pretty much was allowed to do whatever he wanted. I went in and pitched a few ideas about, and he liked them. I have to say I found working for DC unsatisfying; of course, this was back in the eighties and nineties. I'm assurerd that things have changed. The Plastic Man gig I got through Hilary Barta, who was ramrodding that through DC. He wanted me to help with the writing and scripting, and it was a lot of fun.

The Heterodyne Boys, the legendary heroes from the backstory of GIRL GENIUS, have popped up in your works before; I remember references to them in your STANLEY AND HIS MONSTER miniseries. Were they inspired by any specific literary works?

Phil: The Heterodyne Boys started out as a joke. I was visiting some friends in Kalamazoo and in a used book shop I saw some old 'Boy's Adventure' type stuff, like the original 'Tom Swift' and the 'Radio Boys'. I was reading some of the titles out loud, because they were so delightfully stupid, (Tom Swift and His House on Wheels! [today we call them 'trailers'.]) and when I ran out of real ones, I made up 'The Heterodyne Boys and their Anthracite Burning Earth Orbiter'. One of the characteristics I cherish in my friends is their childlike gullibility, and several excited minutes were spent trying to actually find this book. That night, we played Charades (This party was Rockin') and it was my contribution to the book titles list. Everyone liked it so much that I drew up some pictures of them, basing them on two more friends of mine. They got a radical overhaul when we built Girl Genius, the only part remaining is their names, and the titles of their adventures.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

Phil: I'm very fond of the classical fantasists. Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell. I like mysteries by Dashell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, William Marshall and Robert van Gulik . Nowadays I'm fond of Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Greg Bear, John Barnes and George MacDonald Frasier. As far as comics go, I like Neil Gaiman, Aaron Williams, Stan Sakai and Pete Abrams.

What artists do you most admire?

Phil: Alphonse Mucha, Charles Dana Gibson, Hayao Miyazaki, Sergio Aragones, J.C. Leyndecker.

What are your favorite books, whether novels or comics?

Phil: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and for comics, the series 'Roxanna and the Time Bird' by Letendre and Loisel.

Do you do a lot of research for visual references in GIRL GENIUS, or does it all come out of your own fevered imagination?

Phil: A little of both, as I have tons of reference material for machines, and castles and towns, and folk costumes and eastern European landscapes, which I pour through every now and then, and then I take those elements and draw what I think these things SHOULD be like.

My wife, Lute, and I have collaborated on a few of my own stories. (And on occasion, people just seeing her name on our byline have also mistaken her for my brother). How did you and Kaja meet?

Phil: Very traditionally. We had mutual friends who knew I was looking for a girlfriend, and thought Kaja would fit the bill. These clever girls were the bridesmaids at our wedding.

How do you work together writing GIRL GENIUS?

Phil: Pretty well. We start out talking about the story, trying to figure out who is who and what should happen, taking notes the whole time. Then I do a rough layout of the issue, showing what happens on each page. Then we discuss that some more. When we're happy with it, I rough out the issue, getting a rough idea about page layout and dialog pacing. When we're happy with that, I pencil it. It gets scanned into the computer and those files are sent to the colorist. Meanwhile Kaja adds the dialog. I look it over and we discuss whether we need any changes. She also lays out the cover and interiors, and does all the graphic design. When the colors come back Kaja assembles it all for the printer, and off it goes.

In addition to your comics, you've done a lot of game illustration. In fact, Agatha Heterodyne, the heroine of GIRL GENIUS, originally appeared in GURPS: IOU, an anime-inspired RPG from Steve Jackson. What other games have you worked on?

Phil: Yeah, we'd been working on Girl Genius for a couple of years when the GURPS IOU job came along, so we thought it would be a hoot to stick her in. I've worked on a slew of games. The biggest of course was Magic: the Gathering. Both Kaja and I did a lot of art for that. I put out the XXXenophile Trading Card Game, which lost a pot of money, and with James Ernest, a Girl Genius Game called The Works, which is doing well. I've done a lot of work for Cheapass Games', James' company, and we had two big games from new publishers come out this last year, 'Sucession' and 'Emperion'. I've also been busy doing stuff for Steve Jackson Games. Besides IOU, I did the art for Strange Synergy, Greedquest, I just finished up a card game called S.P.A.N.C.(Space Pirate Amazon Ninja Catgirls) and along with the Girl Genius GURPS, he's also interested in reviving a version of the XXXenophile Card Game.

What can you tell us about the upcoming GURPS: Girl Genius suppliment?

Phil: It'll have a lot of background information we haven't revealed in the book itself.

Okay, time for a Total Geek Question: GIRL GENIUS: THE MOTION PICTURE: Who would you cast?

Phil: Hayao Miyazaki. We would so like this to be animated. If we had to go live action, I'd hold out for Tim Burton to direct. As for actors? Sorry, I don't really follow actors, though a few years from now, when he's been aged a bit by politics, I could see Schwartzenegger playing Klaus Wulfenbach.

Thank you for time. As I said before, I've enjoyed and admired your work for many years, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you.

Phil: Sure. Thanks for the interest.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Follow the Bouncing d20

From November 29, 2004, one of my "Live and Let Dice" columns exploring the intersection between gaming and filk. What is filk, you may ask? Read on, if you dare!

Follow the Bouncing d20

According to legend, the name came from a typo. A science fiction convention scheduled a time slot for folk singing, but when the program book was printed, it said FILK singing. Fans being what they are, they embraced the flub as something special; a term to signify folk songs that have been mutated to reflect the Fannish Experience.

Most filk songs are inspired by science fiction or fantasy novels, or on Movies or TV shows. There are some gaming filks, like "There Were Orcses, Orcses" and "You Kill the Balrog and I'll Climb the Tree", but not a lot of them. Or perhaps I just have not been hanging around the right filkers.

Of course everyone acknowledges that music has an important part in the Role-Playing Experience. Gaming books will often suggest playing background music while playing in order to provide a suitable atmosphere. Soundtrack albums for action movies make good choices for this.

My wacky brother Steeve once took this to the ultimate: He made his own musical. He was running a game called It Came From the Late Late Show, a silly beer & pretzels game in which you play an actor in a cheesy B-grade horror movie. Not a character, an actor. You get to do things like call for stunt doubles and sulk in your trailer and argue with the director over motivation as well as hack, slash and get killed by the Monster. Anyway, once for a convention he worked up a Musical for his "Late Late Show" game. He compiled a CD with an eclectic mix of songs and from time to time the action of the game would stop for a musical number, to which the players would have to lip synch. The title of the musical was "Nature Trail to Hell", from the "Weird Al" song. Another show-stopper in the musical was the Village People's "YMCA". As I said, it was an eclectic mix.

Granted, that was an extreme case for a special occasion. but I have never done anything like that myself. I don't set up candles and atmospheric lighting in my gaming area too, or make campaign maps on simulated parchment. These are all fun things to do, but me, I'm lucky if I can get the dining room table cleared off in time for company. An organized GM I am not.

But I have written RPG-based filk from time to time, and sometimes I inflict it upon my players. The first filk I ever wrote was based on a phrase in my head and the mental image of a hobbit playing a string bass. Unlike most filk, this one is not based on an existing tune, so just try humming a basic 12-bar blues line.


I'm a halfling, and my woes are as big as I'm not;
I live in a long, lost place, what most folks forgot;
And I'm tryin' so hard to lose --
-- I got them Halfling Blues.

Wizards and elves assume that I'm not wise;
And even the dwarves make jokes about my size.
No one shares your views --
-- You got them Halfling Blues.

Halfling Blues
Are buggin' me;
I'm just about as low as low can be.
I walk aroun'
Wearin' funny clothes;
An' I got hair on all of my toes

I mean my present state has got me so confuse';
I have paid my dues --
-- Singin' them Halfling Blues.

I'm sick and tired of tryin' to talk to people while starin' them in the knee;
And it's hard playing basketball, when you stand three foot three!
Nothing can excuse;
Your feet hurt 'cause you don't wear shoes,
How I long to lose --
-- Them crummy li'l Halfling Blu-uuuuuues...

(J.R.R. Tolkein, come on give me a break!!!)

Years later, when I was playing in a CHAMPIONS group in Iowa, I decided that our campaigns needed their own theme songs. We were rotating between three or four games at the time and I came up with a filk for each. Probably the best one was for a game based on the Marvel super-team THE AVENGERS:


(sung to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries")

They're the Avengers,
They're the Avengers,
Vanquishing Evil,
That's what they do;

Yes They're the Avengers,
Mighty Avengers,
Stouthearted members,
Noble and true!

When danger is near
They always appear;
So let's give a cheer,
Avengers are here!!!

I have to admit, the tunes I pick for my filk are not always sittin' 'round the campfire with your guitar material, but I try to choose melodies that fit the subject matter; and what better composer for a team which includes the Mighty Thor is there than Richard Wagner?

Sometimes the tunes get a bit obscure. For our Victorian Era Monster Stompers campaign, I chose a song from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta Ruddigore. That's one of the problem with the world, there's not enough Gilbert & Sullivan.


(sung to the tune of "The Ghost's High Noon")

When the night comes down,
On London Town
And the streets are dark with dread;
Creatures of fright
Lurk in the night
Where footpads fear to tread.
When the werewolves walk
And the undead stalk,
We'll send 'em right back to their tombs;
For we are the Fearless Monster Hunters,
Demon and vampire's doom!

Of course, not all my songs were obscure. I wrote a theme for the JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL campaign I was running at the time based on "It's A Small World After All." I only got a couple bars into singing it when the other players started throwing things.

I have had games where songs became a part of the plot. I had a long running TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE campaign, an insanely silly game inspired by anime series like URUSEI YATSURA and RANMA 1/2. My TFOS campaign suffered in a way from social darwinism in that I had a couple of really good players who would take plot bits and run with them and often I, as GM, had to scramble to keep ahead of them. My good friend Russ was also in that game; a good and creative gamer, but not quite as aggressive. While the craziness was running rampant, he would often sit back, apparently overlooked, and quietly devise his own craziness -- eminently logical, but no less crazy -- and then spring it on the rest of the group.

In one TFOS game I had the group starting a garage band to enter a contest; your basic zany teen plot, right out of ARCHIE. Russ decided that his character, (An amoeboid alien name Dwerl), would write songs for the group; so while the other characters and I were chasing the plot, he was sitting by himself composing atrocious lyrics for the band.


by Dwerl Abzolveric (Russ Collins)

Don't be BLUUUUUE!

...And so on.

Dwerl's songwriting became a running joke in the campaign and he kept coming up with new ones; almost all of which contained the word "Babaloo". Another running gag was Lynn Minmei, the bubble-headed pop singer from ROBOTECH; (or SUPER DIMENSIONAL FORTRESS MACROSS, for you purists), possibly the first anime series to combine cute girl idol singers with mecha-blasting space battles. Anyway, one of the players was a ROBOTECH fan, so whenever the plot required a celebrity to come to town for a concert, or for there to be a song on the radio, I had the performer be Lynn Minmei. I also wrote a song to be her signature piece. I like to imagine it as the ulitmate bad karaoke song. I also wanted to write a romantic ballad that includes the phrase "deploy electronic countermeasures".


My love is like a small white dragon;
Exploding mecha fills my heart.
When your arms reach out like corkscrew missiles,
I know we'll never part.

My love is like a small white dragon;
Romantic shrapnel fills the air;
When your eyes pierce mine like mega-lasers,
It goes to show the love we share.

When you deploy electronic countermeasures
To jam my signal of desire,
What more can I do? My target's locked on you:

My love is like a small white dragon'
And in my heart, you'll always be,
When cluster bombs ignite our true love's fire-fight,
A small white dragon of love for me.

I don't know if there's any moral to all this, other than that some people want to fill the world with silly orc songs.

What's wrong with that?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

RPG Resources: The Once and Future RPG

And here we have another chapter in my ongoing project to salvage what I can of the "Live and Let Dice" column I used to write for Pop Thought. This piece originally ran September 9, 2004

The Once and Future RPG

"RPG Resources" is an occasional feature of this column where I talk about books and such which might not necessarily be directly related to role-playing games, but which provide useful backround and source material for games.

It's difficult to imagine, but there was a time before Gary Gygax, before J.R.R. Tolkein, before even the Science Fiction Book Club. In that antediluvian era, the beginning and end of Fantasy Adventure was the Legend of King Arthur. Oh sure, you had your Robin Hood and your Arabian Nights too, but for real heroic fantasy nothing beat King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

I did some dipping into Arthurianallia this Summer as research for Alex's Review Club and decided to re-read one of the classic retellings of the Arthur Myth: T.H. White's The Once And Future King. I read it in high school and enjoyed the first part, but found much of it rather thick. In the name of deepening my understanding of Chivarly, however, I gave it another try.

I'm glad I did. The book is still depressing; as White observes, Thomas Mallory didn't call his version "The Death of Arthur" for nothing; but mixed in with the tragic tale of three lovers is a splendid tapestry of medieval life, or at least how medieval life should have been.

The Once and Future King is divided into four books. (Actually, White wrote a fifth one, "The Book of Merlyn", but it was not published until after his death). The first book is probably the most familiar because of the Disney film based on it: "The Sword in the Stone". It tells about the boy Arthur, (or "the Wart" as he is called by his adopted family), and his marvelous education by the wizard Merlyn and of the miraculous sign which revealed him as Rightful King of England. The second book, "The Queen of Air and Darkness", shows Arthur early in his reign, trying to put down rebellion and find a way to end the cycle of wars which have plagued the island. It also introduces Morgause, Arthur's half-sister, a beautiful but self-centered sorceress whose children become poisoned by her family's hatred of the House of Pendragon. The third book, "The Ill-Made Knight", brings us to the heart of the Arthur legend: the Knights of the Round Table and the tragic affair of Lancelot and Guenivere. It also tells about the greatest of the knightly deeds, the Quest for the Holy Grail. The final book, "The Candle in the Wind", tells of Arthur's twilight; of the treachery of his son Mordred and the war which turned the Round Table against itself.

Until I re-read Once and Future King, I never thought about how much of D&D is really taken from Arthurian lore. Everyone knows that the game swipes Tolkien; I shouldn't be surprised if a lot of people outside the hobby think that The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons are the same thing. People who are more fantasy-savvy recognize elements of Conan the Barbarian and Elric of Melnibone; but a lot of the game's setting and structure can be found in the Arthurian romances.

For the role-playing Game Master, The Once and Future King provides a wealth of background detail. White's version of Arthurian Britain is a romanticized version of the Middle Ages, as is the world of D&D.

"The Sword in the Stone" gives us life in a small country castle. The descriptions of life as a squire-in-training, of a Yule-time boar's hunt, and of the Great Forest Sauvage can give the GM ideas for flavoring his campaign. There's even a neat little 1st-Level Adventure in which Wart and his adopted brother Kay venture into the buttery castle of Morgan le Fay to rescue some captives. (Yes, I said buttery. Long story).

As we go further, we get other views of the period; the dreadful state of pre-Arthurian Britain, when autocratic barons waged war for sport and committed atrocities simply by virtue of their power to do so; Arthur's revolutionary approach to warfare; the splendor of his court and daily life in Camelot; the adventures of his knights and the quest for the Grail.

More importantly, we see Arthur grappling with the problem every GM has to deal with: how do you channel the warrior's aggressive impulses into something constructive that benefits society? Arthur is not only inventing the Knights of the Round Table, from a D&D perspective he is inventing the Lawful Good Alignment and the character class of Paladin.

Anyone who wants to understand the Paladin class could do worse than read "The Ill-Made Knight", the third book of the volume. Galahad fits the popular conception of the Paladin; noble, pure and insufferable. White only shows us Galahad through the eyes of other knights and they, on the whole, can't stand him. (Although Arthur does reflect that it is his most worldly knights who dislike him most). But Lancelot, for all his sins, is a Paladin too, and White spends a lot of time opening his heart to us so that we can understand why he is what he is, the good and the bad.

The Once And Future King is a thick book and not always an easy read. The lightness and whimsey of the early section can be a little off-putting and give the erroneous impression that the book is a child's story. "The Sword in the Stone" is indeed an excellent children's story of the best kind. As C.S. Lewis observed, no book is worth reading at the age of eight which is not also worth reading at the age of eighty. This is such a book. The lightness of tone continues into the later section, but darker, more adult themes emerge which, by the books end, threaten to swallow the optimism and hope of the beginning. But the hope remains. Arthur is defeated, but not forever.

Arthur's dream lives on. He will return.

"Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone?" Merlyn tells him early in his reign, "Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quandum Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king."

Monday, July 5, 2010

RPG Resources: The X-Men

I haven't updated this blog for nearly a year now. It's high time I fixed that. For a while I was using it to archive some of the "Live and Let Dice" pieces I wrote for a site called Pop Thought. Unfortunately, most of the material I posted there were corrupted when the site was besieged by Chinese spammers back in 2008 and I lost a lot of data, including some of my best pieces. Ah well. Some of them are still intact. Including this one, which is a review of sorts.

From June 23, 2004:

RPG Resources: The X-Men

I don't normally do a whole lot of research for the role-playing games I run. This is mostly because of laziness, but also because most of my RPG's either are based in worlds I am already pretty familiar with or have a GURPS supplement for, or which are complete fantasy so I can pretty much run it on the fly. Every once in a while, though, I need to do some actual research.

That was the case with the 'Uncanonical X-Pals' game I began running with my wife some months ago. Now I've never really been a Marvel Zombie. My wife read Uncanny X-Men back in the '80s during the Chris Claremont era, but most of my knowledge of the Marvel Mutantverse came second hand or from the movies and the two Saturday morning animated series. I know who the characters are, what their powers and personalities are like, but that's about it.

Now this isn't necessarily a problem. I wasn't planning of closely following the comic book's continuity any more than the movies or the cartoons did. My philosophy of RPGs is rather similar to what the Muppets said in their version of Alice in Wonderland: "Don't be surprised if you see Captain Hook / 'Cause our version won't always follow the book!" But still, I thought running this game would make a good excuse to delve into Mutant Minutiae.

As any serious scholar will tell you, the most important source for a project like this is Primary Research: the original material itself. My wife has a few dozen Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants from the 1980s and a couple of the early graphic novels. Her treasure, though, is a graphic novel reprinting the Dark Phoenix storyline from Uncanny X-Men including the first appearances of Dazzler and Kitty Pryde, the first battle with the Hellfire Club, ladies in lingerie, and the Tragic End of the Carrot People which led in turn to the Trial of the Phoenix and the (First) Death of Jean Grey!

The edition we have is out of print, but the "Dark Phoenix" Saga has been again reprinted as part of the black and white Marvel Essentials series and is well worth reading.

Another obvious source for running an X-Men RPG, strangely enough, is the X-Men RPG. Last year Marvel published a new Marvel Universe Role-Playing Game and so I picked up the MURPG's Guide to the X-Men game supplement. The book covers a lot of material in a slim 94-page volume and I have found it very useful. It gave me helpful information on the nation of Genosha and a lot of material on the Morlocks, (the supplement includes an RPG adventure set in the Morlock tunnels). Each character it covers gets a full column write-up.

It's a very slick-looking book. These days hard covers and snazzy graphic design are essential to role-playing games. The layout of this book is sharp but not so splashy that it competes with the content as some more artsy books do.

The down side is that this is a supplement. The Guide to the X-Men has no listings for Magneto, Beast, Jean Grey or even Cyclops. That's because they've already been listed in the MURPG's core rulebook. They assume, rightly, that you wouldn't be buying the Guide to the X-Men unless you already had the MURPG and wanted additional information not included in the main rules. That's what the word Supplement means.

Another disappointment is that the book is very brief. As I said, they pack a lot of information into it, but there's a lot of material which is only skimmed over. Each character gets an illustration, usually the most recent appearance available. Which means that Iceman for example, instead of his classic "body-of-ice" look, is portrayed looking like a thug in a leather duster. A fan more familiar with the X-Men of the '70s and '80s, or even of the '90s, is likely to look through this book and say "What the hey? What did they do to Banshee? And why is he wearing the same costume as Avalanche?"

They also give a lot of space to characters from X-Statix, an X-Men title I was completely unfamiliar with. It looks very interesting and surreal but the characters are drawn in a thick-line cartoonish style that, while appealing in itself, clashes horribly with the artwork for the rest of the characters. I suppose for completion's sake X-Statix needed to be included, but I could not convince myself that the characters existed in the same universe.

What I've seen of the MURPG's rule system looks interesting. It's a diceless system. Instead of rolling randomly against an Ability score, each character has so many points called "Stones" which may be allocated to different Abilities each turn. Oh, and it also refers to each unit of time as a "Panel", which is cute and I'd be happy to give the games points (or Stones, or whatever) just for that conceit alone. I was tempted to hunt down the core rulebook, but by the time I picked up the X-Men supplement I had already started running my own game using GURPS rules. Still, if I come across a copy of it, I just might pick it up.

We were well into the campaign when we came across the Marvel Encyclopedia: X-Men in a bookstore. This is the second volume of the Marvel Encyclopedia and in many ways is a superior source of information than the MURPG book. At 240 pages it is longer and lacking the need to include game mechanics it has the elbow room to do the Mutant Universe more justice. We get the complete team and detailed descriptions of all the major characters in the X-Men books and a good number of minor characters as well.

If I have one complaint about the Marvel Encyclopedia, it's in terms of its organization. The characters are categorized by group affiliation. Within each group, first the major characters recieve a page, or in the case of really important characters two pages. Then the secondary characters get a half page each. Then the tertiary characters are listed three to a page and the minor characters four to a page. Each grouping is arranged alphabetically. The arrangement is logical, but makes it difficult to find anyone in particular. Is Mastermind listed under the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, or under the Hellfire Club? Is Sabertooth listed with the Marauders or with Weapon X? In order to find a particular character you need to use the index, and the index does not differentiate between primary and secondary entries. The index entry for the mutant-hating rabble-rouser Senator Kelly cites pages 80, 81, 196 and 201. You'll have to check them all to find his main entry, unless you're lucky enough to guess checking the last one first.

A lesser complaint is the same as my complaint about the MURPG's illustrations. In fact, the Marvel Encyclopedia uses the exact same ones. It does however take advantage of the greater room to show the illustrations off to their best advantage and most of them are very good. The minor characters, however, don't get the star treatment and their pictures are down to near-postage-stamp size.

One aspect of the Encyclopedia that I did really like was that each super-powered character, even the minor ones, gets a capsule listing of powers and weapons and a chart rating them on a one-to-seven scale in terms of intelligence, strength, speed, durability, energy projection and fighting skills. Another chart in the back of the book explains what each ranking means.

The Encyclopedia easily beats the MURPG in terms of breadth, and also in terms of depth for the major characters. The lesser characters, however, are only mentioned in passing with little more than a thumbnail illo and a sentence or two of description. When I needed info recently on the villain Omega Red, I actually found much more in the MURPG than in the Encyclopedia. The MURPG also has more maps and diagrams, as you would expect from a RPG supplement.

Using both books to cover each other's lacunae actually went pretty well and I didn't really need any additional reference to run my game. But I got one anyway. I just couldn't resist.

X-Men: The Ultimate Guide from DK Publishing originally came out in 2000. The more recent Updated Edition which I picked up incorporates some new material including photos from the movies and material on the Morrison run on the series. It's a big coffee-table book with gobs of illustrations.

This is the book I really wanted, because it presents a historical overview of the X-Men from the very beginning. The book is arranged chronologically, starting with the team's first appearance in 1961. Most of the characters get whole double-page spreads and multiple illustrations showing how they looked in various eras. We get to see the Beast, not just in his current puddy-tat incarnation, but also his original, "big feet" neanderthal look and his classic more ape-like appearance.

It's a big, beautiful book. Once again, it is not quite as broad as the Encyclopedia; it won't list all the members of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, for example, but what it covers it does with a wealth of detail both in terms of background and illustration. I heartily recommend it.

Oh, and now I've started buying Astonishing X-Men too. This game is turning out to be the most expensive campaign I've ever run!

* * * * *

"The Uncannonical X-Pals" turned out to be a fairly successful campaign. It ran for a good long time and my wife, Lute, enjoyed it a lot. Her character started out as a normal reporter working the mutant beat and getting involved with the X-Men. For a time her character developed a romance with Hank McCoy, the Beast. Ultimately, it was revealed that she herself was a mutant (not something we originally planned, but that's how it worked out), and that brought her to the attention of Magneto. Lute has always been a fan of Magneto -- she has a thing for charismatic megalomaniacs -- and her character and Magneto eventually married. It was a wild, roller-coaster of a campaign.