Saturday, November 29, 2014

Jill Trent, Science Sleuth in "Truth or Dare" (part 2)

As I mentioned previously, I wrote a comics script a few months ago for the blog Superdames, a site devoted to celebrating female heroes, of Comic's Golden Age.  The site is compiling an anthology of new stories featuring one of these heroes, a beautiful and brilliant detective named Jill Trent, who creates amazing inventions to solve crimes.  My script was not one of the few chosen, alas, but I'm sharing it here.

In the first part, JILL TRENT and her friend DAISY SMYTHE are visiting a colleague, DR. WILLIAM MOULTON MARSTON, a psychologist who has done important work in developing the polygraph, (as well as being the creator of Wonder Woman, but we don't specifically mention that).

Dr. Marston isn't in at the moment, but Jill and Daisy meet his wife, ELIZABETH and their friend OLIVE.  Suddenly, a couple of THUGS barge into the house.  They have been sent to grab an expert on lie detectors.  Jill claims that she is "W.M. Marston" in order to protect the others and agrees to go with the thugs, but insists she be allowed to take some equipment from her car along with her.

Daisy is worried, but Jill assures her that she has a plan...

And now, the thrilling conclusion::


ACTION:  Inside the THUG’s car.  THUG #2 is driving.  Behind him, in the back seat, we see JILL, with a blindfold over her eyes.  THUG #1 is seated next to her with his gun drawn, just in case she decides to get funny.

1 JILL:  So, why do you palookas need a polygraph expert anyway?

2 THUG #1:  You’ll find out soon enough!

3 THUG #2:  I thought she was an expert on lie detectors! 

4 THUG #1:  Shaddap, dope!

ACTION:  Inside a warehouse.  JILL’s blindfold has been removed, and the THUGS are escorting her – none too gently – into the presence of BOSS KREZNIK, a tall, broad-shouldered gangster in an expensive, well-tailored suit.  KREZNIK addresses his THUGS angrily.

5 JILL:  (thought balloon):  My, my!  Boss Kreznik!  He’s wanted for questioning about that bank robbery last week!

6 KREZNIK:  What in blazes?  I told you lugs to get Doc Marston!

7 THUG #1:  This is Marston, boss!

ACTION:  JILL faces KREZNIK, putting up a bold front.  KREZNIK eyes her skeptically, clenching a cigar in his teeth.

8 JILL:  I usually publish under a male pseudonym, because some people don’t think a woman can know anything about science.  If you agree, you can take me home and find another expert.

9 KREZNIK:  Keep yer shirt on, toots!

ACTION:  Close up of KREZNIK, grim and threatening.  He jerks his thumb in the direction a group of other THUGS standing behind him..  (Two of them we’ve met; there is also a HANDSOME one and a WEASELLY-FACED one)

10 KREZNIK:  It’s like this.  Last week, my boys pulled a bank job and took 300 grand.  Thing is, 50 grand of that went missing!  Someone’s been skimming my take!

11 KREZNIK:  Naturally, they all deny it.  So I want you to hook ‘em up to a lie detector and see which ones are telling the truth!

ACTION:  JILL turns to head toward the exit.  KREZNIK smirks, standing with his arms folded.

12 JILL:  I’ll just need to get my equipment.  I had your boys bring it in their car…

13 KREZNIK:  No need for that, toots!

ACTION:  KREZNIK gestures proudly to a polygraph machine set up behind some wooden crates.  (I included some links to visual references at the end, but since real polygraphs are rather small, we might want to make this bigger and more intimidating; say, the size of a photocopier).  JILL puts her hand to her cheek in dismay.

14 KREZNIK:  I already got the lie detector!  I had my boys swipe it from the D.A.’s office this morning!

ACTION:  JILL explaining thing, trying to be as persuasive and logical as possible.  KREZNIK reacts with anger and frustration

15 JILL:  You have to understand; a polygraph doesn’t actually detect lies; it detects changes in the body, like increased heart rate or sweaty palms, which often accompany lying.  But those changes could simply mean that the subject is nervous!

16 KREZNIK:  Then that gizmo’s useless!

16 JILL:  Not quite!  I can modify your polygraph so that it analyzes the parts of the brain where lies are created!


ACTION:  JILL is crouching next to the polygraph, connecting it to a couple other devices which are in boxes so that their exact purpose is not clear.

1 CAPTION:  Soon…

2 JILL:  (thought balloon):  What a load of banana oil!  But they bought it!

3 JILL:  (thought):  Hooking up this wire recorder to the polygraph should provide some nice evidence for the police – If I can get out of here!

4 JILL:  (thought):  I just hope my other gadget works!

ACTION:  JILL has finished tinkering with the polygraph.  She gestures towards the chair next to it, inviting KREZNIK to have a seat.  KREZNIK stands with his arms folded and seems amused.

5 JILL:  Before I test your men, I want to calibrate the machine; have a different person make some truthful and false statements to make sure it’s operating properly.

6 JILL:  Would you like to do the honors?

7 KREZNIK:  Ha hah!  I have a better idea, toots!

ACTION:  Close-up of JILL, looking shocked

8 KREZNIK: (off-panel):  You can be the guinea pig!

ACTION:  Similar to the splash panel on Page 1, although perhaps a bit less dramatic.  JILL is sitting in the seat next to the polygraph; (a regular chair, not an electric chair).  A cuff is around her arm to measure her blood pressure, and a band is around her head with electrodes attached to the machine.  She looks apprehensive.  A WEASELLY-looking thug is monitoring the polygraph needle.  KREZNIK stands over JILL, holding a microphone attached to the machine.

9 KREZNIK:  Let’s see how this works.  We’ll start off with a simple question.  What is your name?

ACTION:  Close-up of JILL in the chair. Her eyes are shut and her brow furrowed in concentration.

10 JILL:  My name… my name is… Jill Trent!

ACTION:  KREZNIK is startled.  He did not expect her to say that!  In the foreground, WEASEL watches the line drawn by the polygraph needle spike.

11 KREZNIK:  What?  The Science Sleuth?

12 WEASEL:  No, Boss!  Lookit the needle!  The machine says she’s lying!

ACTION:  Tight close-up of JILL allowing herself a sphinx-like smile.

13 JILL:  (thought balloon):  Actually the machine says I’m nervous!  But since they think I was lying, now I can relax!

ACTION:  Scene in the Marston living room.  DAISY is operating  a RADIO SET while ELIZABETH and OLIVE stand around her.

14 CAPTION:  Meanwhile, at the Marston home:

15 RADIO:  (spiky radio balloon):  Ha ha.  That’s right.  Really, I’m Doctor Marston.  You kidnapped me to help you recover the money you stole from the bank.

16 RADIO:  (radio balloon):  I know all that!  Let’s get on with it!

17 DAISY:  I don’t know how Jill set up that radio transmitter right under their noses, but if she can stay on the air, I can pin-point their location!


ACTION:  Now a HANDSOME THUG with a Clark Gable mustache is in the seat hooked up to the polygraph.  The polygraph needle is again spiking as HANDSOME flirts with JILL, who is seated by the machine and holding  the microphone.  Behind them, KREZNIK is pulling his hair in frustration

1 CAPTION:  Back at the Warehouse

2 HANDSOME:  Sure, doll, I’d be glad to tell you about the bank job.  You doin’ anything later?

3 KREZNIK:  Nuts!  This isn’t getting us anywhere!  I think you’re stalling for time!

ACTION:  THUGS #1&2 burst into the room, frightened.  KREZNIK is so startled he drops the cigar from his teeth.  In the foreground, we see JILL in close-up, smiling!

4 THUG #2:  Boss!  The cops just showed up!  This place is surrounded!

ACTION:  KREZNIK is in the process of pulling a gun on JILL, but she clocks him with a sock to the jaw.

5 KREZNIK:  You did this somehow, you filthy little --


7 JILL:  Never underestimate a scientistOr a woman,  “Toots”!

ACTION:  The POLICE are here and arresting KREZNIK and his THUGS and putting them in handcuffs.  A POLICE DETECTIVE, dapperly-dressed, handsome, but a bit condescending, chats with JILL as DAISY stands nearby.

8 DETECTIVE:  This was one of your crazier stunts, Trent!  Broadcasting the crook’s confessions on the Police car radio band!

9 JILL:  It got you here, didn’t it?

ACTION:  A more intimate panel of JILL talking to DAISY.  DAISY laughs.

10 JILL:  I’m sorry I put you through all that worry, Daisy.  It must have been terrible waiting to hear from me.

11 DAISY:  That’s all right, Jill!  I’ve thought of a way you can make it up to me!

12 DAISY:  Y’see, while I was waiting, I was reading some of Dr. Marston’s funnybooks

ACTION:  Circular panel, suggesting an “iris out”.  Close-up of JILL and DAISY, not directly facing each other, but glancing in each other’s direction.  JILL has a look of surprise on her face.  DAISY has a mischievous smile, and she holds a coiled lasso in her hands.

13 DAISY:  You were right; he does have some interesting ideas!

14 CAPTION:  Fin

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Jill Trent, Science Sleuth in "Truth or Dare!" (part 1)

One of the blogs I follow is called Superdames, and is devoted to heroines from the Golden Age of Comic Books.  This past summer, the site ran a contest for new stories featuring one such character named Jill Trent, Science Sleuth, a beautiful and brilliant scientist who, along with her best friend Daisy, uses her fantastic inventions to fight crime  She's one of many obscure characters from that period who have fallen into the Public Domain.  Superdames selected her as the subject for a comics anthology of new stories.

The story I submitted was not one of the ones chosen for the anthology; but since I never like letting material go to waste, I decided to post my story here.



by Kurt Wilcken


ACTION:  Splash panel showing  JILL TRENT strapped into what looks like an electric chair. A grim-faced figure hunches over a piece of electrical apparatus connected to the chair.  She is surrounded by several THUGS, including BOSS KREZNIK, who stands over her, gloating.  Perhaps DAISY SMYTHE looks on in shock as another THUG holds her back.


2 CAPTION: Jill Trent uses her keen intellect and scientific skills to solve mysteries and fight crime; but when one of her ingenious devices is used against her, can she outwit her own invention?


4 CREDITS:  Story by Kurt Wilcken; Art by _____________

ACTION:  JILL and DAISY are driving along a country road in a sleek convertible.  JILL is behind the wheel.

5 DAISY:  So, this William Moulton Marston we’re seeing, is he the one who writes those funny-books?

6 JILL:  Ha!  He’s more than that, Daisy!

7 JILL:  He’s also a psychologist who has done a lot of work with polygraphs.

ACTION:  Closer view of JILL and DAISY in the front seat

8 JILL:  He has some interesting ideas.  You’ll enjoy meeting him.


ACTION:  The living room of the Marston home, a well-to-do house with 1930s style deco furnishings.  Perhaps, if there’s room, there might be a framed copy of a SENSATION COMICS comic book on the wall.  JILL introduces DAISY to ELIZABETH MARSTON.  OLIVE, a attractive, athletic-looking girl, stands nearby.

1 JILL:  This is Elizabeth, Dr. Marston‘s wife, and their house guest, Olive.  Elizabeth, this is my friend Daisy Smythe.

2 DAISY:  Pleased to meet you

3 ELIZABETH:  I’m so sorry William isn’t here yet.  He phoned to say he’d be delayed.

ACTION:  Several THUGS burst through the front door with guns drawn

4 THUG #1:  Okay, youse dames!  Don’t nobody move, and no one gets hurt!

5 THUG #2:  Where’s Doc Marston?

6 DAISY:  Holy cats!

ACTION:  OLIVE, her fists balled up and ready to fight, confronts THUG #1, who has his gun trained on her.

7 OLIVE:  What do you want with Dr. Marston?

8 THUG #1: We just need to borrow him.  The boss wants an expert on lie detectors.  As long as he co-operates, no one has to get hurt!

ACTION:  Small, dramatic pane.  JILL puts her hand on OLIVE’s shoulder and steps forward to face the viewer.

9 JILL:  I am Doctor Marston!

ACTION:  The THUGS are puzzled.  She is obviously much curvier than they expected the Doc to be.  JILL is brazening it out.

10 THUG #1:  You’re W. M. Marston?

11 THUG #2:  But you’re a dame!

12 JILL:  Good eye.

ACTION:  Close, intimate view of DAISY whispering to JILL, worried.  JILL reassures her.

13 DAISY:  (whispers):  Are you crazy, Jill?

14  JILL: (whispers):  Shh! We have to protect the Marstons!  Don’t worry, I have a plan!

ACTION:  JILL takes command, pointing towards the door (off-panel).  In the foreground, DAISY is going off in the direction she points.  DAISY’s face is to the viewer and she can see the smile she’s concealing from the THUGS; she guesses what Jill’s plan is.  The THUGS are bewildered that their “prisoner” has started giving orders.

15  JILL:  I’ll need some of my equipment.  Daisy, get the apparatus from the trunk of the car.

16 THUG #1:  Wot the--- ?

17 JILL:  You want my help, don’t you?


To be continued !

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Department of Filk: The Literary Mack the Knife

Okay, dipping once again into the Filk file for a bit of literary silliness.  Swing it, Satchmo!

The Literary Mack the Knife
(tune:  "Mack the Knife" (of course!))

Oh the Shark has
Pretty teeth, dear
And he shows them
Pearly white,
You won't meet him
In the bookstore
But you might meet
Mack the Knife

When the shark bites
With his teeth, dear
Scarlet billows
'Gin to spread;
MacHeath’s lethal
Like the shark, dear,
But he's also
Quite well-read

By the shores of
Used to go;
Now Nikomis
Sits there weeping;
Mack please say it
Isn't so...

Once upon a
Midnight dreary,
Weak and weary,
Pondered I;
Is that tapping
Just a raven
Or is Mackie
Stopping by...?

Mistress Em'ly
Belle of Amherst
Once sat writing
After tea;
"Since I could not
Stop for Death, dear,
Mack, he kindly
Stopped for me..."

It was Brillig,
Slithy Toves did
Gyre and Gimble
In the Wabe
Vorpal Mack went
Snicker-snack, dear
Jabberwock lay
There outgabe...

Captain Ahab,
That fanatic
Sought to kill that
Monster whale;
But who really
Sank the Pequod?
Mack says "Call me

Once an Old Man
Caught a “Beeg Feesh”
As he struggled
‘Gainst the Sea;
When the sharks bit,
With their teeth, dear,
Mack said “Leave a
Bite for me!”

Rev'rend Dimsdale,
Sinning Hester,
Justice Pynchon
Sweet Goodman Brown
Mister Hawthorne
Set them up, dear,
But our Mackie,
Mowed 'em down.

Our great authors
Wrote us stories
Full of death as
Well as life;
Don’t be napping
While in Lit Class
Or you might miss
Mack the Knife!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Department of Filk: The Vampire's Daughter

Here's another piece of filk I decided to drag up from my archives  The tune is an obscure one, unless you happen to like old Warner Brothers cartoons, and even then you might not associate the title with the melody.

The original song, "She Was An Acrobat's Daughter", was used in an early Porky Pig cartoon of the same name set in a movie theater.  Carl Stalling, the composer who scored most of those Warner cartoons, liked to incorporate snatches from old songs into his scores associated with stock situations, and he frequently inserted this one any time a cartoon involved acrobats, trapeze artists, or sometimes even just floating though the air with the greatest of ease.  (No, wait, that was a different song).

But for this filk, I decided to give the lyrics a Halloween theme.  Yes, Halloween was over a week ago; but I still hope you enjoy it.

The Vampire's Daughter
(to the tune of:  "She Was an Acrobat's Daughter.")

She was a vampire's daughter
She wasn't just looking for sex
   Her Friday night dates
   Met with terrible fates
And wound up with two holes in their necks;
She was a vampire's daughter
Lugosi had nothing on her,
   'Til one night in the sack
   A werewolf bit her back
And she woke up all covered with fur.

She was a lycanthrope's daughter
We went out one evening to spoon
   But she gave me a scare
   When she let down her hair
And proceeded to howl at the moon;
She was a lycanthrope's daughter
Our love-life had only one hitch
   Our romance was sublime
   Save each month at that time
She turned into a terrible bitch

She was Doc Frankenstein's daughter
In college she majored pre-med
   But they called her a crank
   In a sorority prank
When she tried resurrecting the dead
She was Doc Frankenstein's daughter
And that's why I have to complain
   When I offered my heart,
   She said "No, not that part;
I want you, dear, just for your brain!"

She was King Ihmotep’s daughter
She had a seductress's smile
   A flirtatious young minx
   And just like the sphinx
She hailed from the banks of the Nile
She was King Imhotep’s Daughter
Her beaus had to fear for the worst
   Her embrace, although lusty,
   was also quite dusty
And if "Mummy" found out they'd get cursed.

She was Van Helsing's daughter
A fairly nice girl, you'd presume,
   A pretty young miss
   And quite pleasant to kiss
Once you got past her garlic perfume
She was Van Helsing's daughter
So she preferred playing it smart
   Any Tom, Vlad or Dickie
   Tried to give her a hickey
They'd find with a stake through his heart.

This song has a definite moral
You'll pay it some heed if you're wise
   If the girl of your dreams
   Provokes nightmarish screams
Better off hanging out with the guys!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Onward and Upward; or, Self-Improvement the RPG Way

(originally posted on "Live and Let Dice", Dec. 18, 2006)

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
--Émile Coué

I got an early Christmas present from my wacky brother Steeve when he and his wife visited us this Thanksgiving: the DVD of the first season of Stan Lee’s Who Wants to be a Superhero? We watched it while they were visiting and it was great fun.

There’s a scene in an early episode where Stan toasts the contestants with his trademark motto: “Excelsior!” When the hero wannabees return the toast, Stan asks them, “None of you knows what that means, do you?” They sheepishly shake their heads.

Stan explains: “It means, ‘Ever onward and upwards to greater glory.’”

There’s a Japanese business philosophy called “Kaisan”. It means “Continuous Improvement”. The idea is that in order to stay successful, a business needs to constantly work at improving itself.

Both “Kaisan” and Stan Lee’s “Excelsior” are familiar concepts for role-players, because improvement is what a lot of games are all about. Role-playing games don’t have “winners” and “losers” the way traditional games do; (something which boggled my brother-in-law the one and only time I invited his wife and him to game with us; “how do I win?” he asked). But most RPGs have some sort of mechanism to record and measure character advancement. Mike Pondsmith, in his classic wacky teens ‘n’ anime RPG Teenagers From Outer Space, puts it this way: “While we’re of the considered opinion that having a good time playing the game should be reward enough, we recognize the need for Pavlovian reinforcement in a well-run game.”

I suspect that the principle for most types of character advancement was based on video games. For every Blormian you shoot, you score so many points; if you reach a certain number of points, you get an extra life, or a new attack, or snazzy new graphics.

That’s roughly the way the granddaddy of all RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons works. In the old AD&D system, each monster was worth a set number of Experience Points (or XP). In addition, the Dungeon Master would arbitrarily award additional points to players for things like good role-playing, achieving quest goals and remembering to bring chips to the table. In one group I played in, the DM would have each player write down what they thought were the significant actions their character performed that game and then he would judge how many points each action was worth. In the newer editions of D&D, the set XP from the old Monster Manuals have been replaced by a Challenge Rating system, so that the points you gain from a given encounter depends on the difficulty that encounter presents for your party’s level.

Levels are another integral part of D&D. When a character gets so many Experience Points, he will Go Up a Level. This gives him extra Hit Points and, depending on his Character Class and what Level he’s at, could also give him attack bonuses, extra skills and abilities, or new spells.

In the old First Edition, each level had its own special name, so that a Thief would start out at the first level as a “Rogue.” At the next level he would become a “Footpad”, and then progress through “Cutpurse”, “Robber”, “Burglar”, and “Filcher”. In theory the idea seems cool and even makes a certain amount of sense. In actual practice, however, it just seemed silly. (“Filcher”???) Later editions eliminated the named levels.

One drawback with this system is that it tends to encourage Leveling Up Syndrome: “Dang! I’m only 100 points short of my next Level. I’m going off into the forest to kill a few kobolds so I can level up.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself; a clever Game Master can throw together a quickie encounter or two to make the kobold hunt more exciting; or better yet, devise some way for the kobold hunt to lead into the adventure he had planned out before his player decided he needed more XP. But every now and then you’ll come across a player who wonders aloud how much XP he’ll get for offing that peasant walking down the road. When that player is playing a Paladin, you know you’ve got problems.

Another problem is that since characters have the potential to become obscenely powerful as they advance in levels, the system makes them pitifully weak when they start out. This is particularly the case with the Magic-User class. In the old AD&D system, Wizards started out with the least number of Hit Points, were allowed to cast only one spell per day, and were prohibited from wearing armor. Not surprisingly, a lot of players just skipped over the first few levels and started off their characters at a point where they could actually do something.

Not all game systems stratify character advancement into levels. Point-buy systems, such as HERO or GURPS, allow players to use earned Experience Points to buy improvements to their characters; adding new skills or abilities, or bumping up stats, or even buying off disadvantages. These games typically recommend that the GM give out only a couple points per player per session, as opposed to D&D which can award hundreds or even thousands of points per encounter. But in GURPS you can make some significant improvements to your character with only a dozen or so extra points where it can take several thousand points to hit the next level in D&D.

I know of at least one game system where experience actually makes your character worse! In Chaosium’s classic Call of Cthulhu, each character has a certain amount of “Sanity Points.” Each time he encounters an Eldritch Horror or a Thing Man Was Not Meant to Know, he loses some of his sanity. Ultimately all the characters will go mad and become NPCs; their only hope is to stop the Horrors before it’s too late!

I have to admit, I’m usually kind of lax about passing out Experience in the games I run. Unless I’m running a D&D campaign, I often forget all about it. I picked up this habit from the Champions campaigns my friends Bryon and Cath used to run when I lived in Darkest Iowa.

They had a library of nearly a thousand character sheets, (that was when I first met them; they eventually surpassed the thousand mark), converting nearly every character from the DC and Marvel Universes into HERO stats. Each sheet was laminated, because it made them easier to file, because it protected them from soda and pizza stains, and because Bryon had access to his schools laminating machine. Being preserved for the ages in imperishable Mylar meant that the character sheets could not be changed, but that was okay. “Comic book superheroes rarely change,” Bryon explained to me. What changes a character might undergo in the comic, (when the Hulk became grey and smart, for example, or when Superman acquired his “electric look”) were usually significant enough to warrant a totally new character sheet.

(Note: this applies only to American super-heroes. Japanese comics are more likely to follow a character’s development from rookie to uber-hero. The heroines of Magical Knights Rayearth, for example, start out as ordinary schoolgirls who have to grow into the roles of defenders. Goku, from the popular Dragonball series, is a poster child for kaisan and takes the concept to ludicrous lengths).

So in their various Champions campaigns, Bryon and Cath never handed out XP at the end of gaming sessions. Instead, they’d reward players through the social interactions their characters would have with other characters and with NPCs. Cath in particular did her darndest to cultivate romantic sub-plots for characters. Not all players like this approach, but I think it gave a more organic, satisfying feel to character development than a mere shoveling on of hit points every thousand miles would.

Then there’s always the alternative experience system suggested in Teenagers From Outer Space: “Have you ever considered paying your players off in M and M’s? Instant gratification can work wonders.”

Hey, if it works, it works.