Read my epistolary zombie short story!

A bit of fun news! I am genuinely humbled and thrilled that a short story I wrote has been included in an anthology of epistolary zombie short stories. The anthology is (delightfully) titled Sincerely, Departed and my story, “When It’s Done,” is one of 15 short stories within. You can grab it in print or ebook formats at Amazon.

I actually just received my copy of the book, and it’s fantastic–the publishers/editors (Cat Voleur and Angel Krause, hosts of the Voices from the Mausoleum show) did an amazing job formatting each story to fit the medium in which it’s told.

When Sincerely, Departed came out, they hosted a “launch party” on Youtube that included videos from several of the authors (including me) and lots of discussion about the anthology. My story is featured at the 25:30 mark, but the entire show is worth watching.

It was a privilege to work with Cat and Angel, whose editing improved my story; and it was fun to get a little creative project actually across the finish line. If you check out this anthology, I’d love to hear your feedback on “When It’s Done”!

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Tips for running the “Alien: Destroyer of Worlds” RPG campaign

In 2020, Free League Publishing released Destroyer of Worlds (DoW), an adventure for their new and well-regarded Alien roleplaying game. It’s the second published adventure for Alien (if you don’t count the short scenario included in the core rulebook).

In contrast to the relatively claustrophobic scale of Chariot of the Gods, the first adventure, DoW is incredibly expansive and action-heavy. That makes it a great purchase for any Alien RPG gamemaster—there’s enough material in here for months of gaming. But ironically, its very “bigness” can be a weakness. There’s simply so much going on in this adventure that it’s tricky to run.

I ran DoW across three game nights (about 10 hours total) and have some advice for other GMs thinking about running it for their Alien game group!

A quick note before we dive in: this isn’t an “is it bad or good?” review of DoW. That kind of review can be found elsewhere online. I really enjoyed running DoW, but after we finished, I knew that if I ever ran it again, I would approach it differently in some specific ways. I hope you find these suggestions helpful, or at least worth considering.

Tip #1: Take your time

As written, DoW is intended to take “at least three sessions to complete.” I’d like to emphasize the “at least” part of that!

There’s a lot to do and encounter in DoW. Running it across three sessions required my group to barrel through extremely complicated situations and encounters at high speed. While keeping the pace does provide some cinematic tension, it also meant that the players didn’t have time to engage with any of the adventure’s events or NPCs in anything but the most superficial way.

My advice is that you plan from the outset to spend at least four, and more probably six, game sessions with DoW. With all of the factions and agendas at play, you could actually make this a full-blown campaign and spends months in it–but 5-6 sessions is a good middle ground between making it a full-fledged sandbox, and ramming the players through it at breakneck speed.

If you know you’ll be spending more time in the setting, you can also be a little more deliberate in introducing some of the many major plot-propelling events that occur regularly throughout DoW. Many of the semi-random events in DoW are designed to close off areas/stories and push the PCs into the next act of the story; they’re a useful way to prevent PCs from noodling around aimlessly and losing track of the plot, but they can also feel like they’re roughly shoving the PCs down the plot pipeline. Take a note of the specific cataclysmic events that seem most interesting to you, and trigger them intentionally at points that fit the pace your game table wants.

Tip #2: Expand the player options to include non-Marine locals

DoW’s setup is that the player characters are Marines sent to track down a band of AWOL soldiers in a mining colony town that is sitting on the brink of collapse (due to an assortment of looming threats). That’s a fine setup that has the virtue of giving the PCs a clear goal and some helpful constraints on their actions.

The downside is that this setup means the PCs arrive on the scene of this collapsing colony with no personal connection to anything that’s going on. But wouldn’t the plot twists and dramatic moments hit harder if the PCs have personal stakes in the colony and its fate?

I highly recommend expanding the player options to include non-Marine locals. Any of the character archetypes in the Alien core rulebook (pages 38-54) would work well. Here are some examples of how you could plug more archetypes into DoW:

Colonial marshal: it makes sense that the colony’s sheriff would accompany or even lead a search for AWOL marines who have disappeared into the colony population. In fact, there’s an NPC marshal in DoW already (p. 26) who could easily be a PC.

Kid: did you like the dramatic elements that Newt brought to Aliens? It’s easy to imagine that in the chaos of the collapsing colony, a clever local kid might wind up in a group of PCs. Maybe they were separated from their family in the evacuation. And maybe they know the secret ins and outs of the colony better than the grown-ups do!

Medic or scientist: there’s a small hospital in the colony staffed by “one doctor, an intern, and a medtech”—those all sound like perfectly viable (and useful) PCs!

Pilot: DoW has a sideplot involving two spaceships that might be escape routes off the planet–one medical frigate and a freighter grounded with a damaged reactor. The freighter’s captain is an NPC who can be found drowning her sorrows in the colony bar. She’d make a good PC, especially if you want to allow for the possibility of the PCs repairing, hijacking, and/or escaping on one of those ships.

Roughneck: the colony is populated by gruff oil refinery workers. One or more might be deputized to help track down the AWOL soldiers, especially if they know the colony and its hiding places well.

Adding just one or two of the above civilian PCs adds a personal connection between the PCs and the doomed colony, and add a lot of roleplaying possibilities. Any of these civilians could have secret agendas of their own—the roughneck oil worker could be a secret communist sympathizer, for example. I highly recommend expanding the PCs to include more than just marines.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that civilian PCs won’t necessarily have access to all the firepower that marines do. This will obviously affect how they’re able to respond to the inevitable alien outbreak. For this reason, you might want to adjust the types and numbers of aliens in the adventure to accommodate a less-well-armed group of PCs. More on the aliens later!

Tip #3: Focus on just a few major threats and agendas

Trim down the list of factions in play.

Did I say there’s a lot going on in DoW? Let’s take a look at a slightly simplified list of the different groups and factions pursuing their agendas in this adventure:

The aliens: obviously there are aliens here—in fact, there are a lot of them. We’ll talk about the aliens in tip #4 below.

The military: There’s a huge military presence near the colony in the form of Fort Nebraska. Although the adventure notes that it’s down to a “skeleton crew” of troops, that’s still about 200 personnel—a significant force. The commander in charge (who gives off real “Colonel Kurtz” vibes) is intent on evacuating with secret illegal alien research and wiping out all evidence of it on the way out. The military base is a huge “dungeon” filled with complications like a restrictive AI, a quirky android, and an unstable nuclear reactor; it could be the site of an entire adventure all by itself. Its space elevator is the “escape route” that DoW really wants the PCs to use to get off-planet at the end of the adventure.

The corporations: Mallory Eckford is a Weyland-Yutani corporate agent also looking for the AWOL marines; she has dispatched a team of hunters to find the missing soldiers before the PCs and/or the army do. She serves as a sort of wildcard in DoW and could be an alternating enemy and ally to the PCs.

The AWOL marines: four marines who have escaped from Fort Nebraska—some of whom have been infected/implanted by different strains of alien—are laying low around town, looking to escape and possibly blow the whistle on the alien research.

The UPP: The Union of Progressive Peoples (space communists) is planning a full-scale military invasion of the colony to seize the alien research in Fort Nebraska. This invasion occurs about halfway through the adventure as written.

Desperate civilians: the remaining population of the colony is in a panic to escape before the UPP invasion. Some are crowding at the local starport to find a way off the planet.

UPP sleeper agents: the local population has been infiltrated by UPP agitators who are spreading unrest and laying the groundwork for the coming UPP invasion.

Unidentified bombers: partway through DoW, an unidentified spacecraft appears and blankets the entire colony with the alien “goo” (as seen in Alien: Covenant). DoW deliberately does not tell the GM who this faction is or what they want, but it’s implied that they may be the bad guys from Heart of Darkness, the third published Alien RPG adventure.

That’s a lot of factions and agendas at play, and many of those agendas have been forming in the months before the PCs arrive on the scene. The PCs have no stakes in most of them. Think about the best Alien movies—how many competing factions do they feature? In most of the movies, you have two or three agendas that clash with and complicate each other. Having 6+ factions at work in one adventure is overkill.

Instead, consider choosing (say) three of those agendas and focusing on them, setting the others aside for now. The factions and agendas you choose can help you achieve a specific “feel.” For example, focusing on the UPP invaders and spies could add a Cold War “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” vibe. Focusing on the manhunt for the AWOL soldiers through a frozen, partly-abandoned colony could evoke some of the isolated frozen horror of The Thing. Focusing on the military and corporate shenanigans would highlight the dystopian hyper-capitalism of the setting.

My point is that choosing a few of these agendas and focusing heavily on them, rather than diluting all these themes by using them all at once, will give your DoW game a more coherent theme.

Tip #4: Use fewer aliens

Just like there are a few too many factions at play in DoW as written, there are too many aliens in it.

I know that probably sounds like heresy when talking about an Alien adventure. But DoW contains nearly every type of alien that has ever appeared in an Alien film, and a few that haven’t. Here’s the alien situation in the colony:

Regular xenomorphs: the PCs’ first encounter with an alien is likely with a single “regular” xenomorph, which they’ll hunt (and be hunted by) through the colony. This part of the adventure feels the most like Alien.

“Black goo” abominations: the PCs’ second encounter with aliens is likely to be with one or more of the “abominations” seen in Prometheus. These are humans that have been mutated into disturbing hybrids by exposure to the “black goo.” At some point the entire colony gets blanketed in this goo, turning the planet into a mutating hellscape.

An alien hive and queen: a whole hive of aliens, led by a queen, has taken root in the depths of Fort Nebraska. (The timeline of how and when this nest formed is a little fuzzy, like some other timeline details in DoW.) Assuming the PCs are evacuating via the space elevator, they’ll have to navigate a military complex overrun by an Aliens-style swarm of xenomorphs.

A “crusher” alien: in the alien hive is a special xenomorph called a “Charger,” a gigantic tank-like alien that would be an interesting “final boss,” except that there’s already a queen alien.

In addition to these, one or more PCs are highly likely to be infected by or impregnated with aliens, so you can count on at least one “Nostromo dinner table” scene.

I love all these aliens, but I think putting the entire Aliens bestiary into one adventure is too much. As with the factions in tip #3, I recommend choosing just a few alien types and centering the adventure around them.

The types of alien you choose will greatly affect the theme and even genre of the game you’re running. Choosing a few lone xenomorphs—setting the hive and Prometheus aliens to the side—will produce a tense, terrifying hunt atmosphere and would work well with mostly-civilian PCs.

Focusing on the hive as the main alien threat evokes the action of Aliens, especially if some of the PCs are heavily-armed marines.

Focusing on the Prometheus-style black goo aliens can emphasize body horror/transformation themes, and is a good way to keep the players on their toes (since the “life cycle” of these aliens is less well-defined and probably less familiar to the players).

Use the “charger” as a terrifying revelation for players who have seen all the movies and want something new.

When it comes to aliens in DoW, keep it simple! You can always complicate things later by throwing extras into the mix. As with the factions above, being intentional and spare with your alien threat lets you give your game a more consistent theme.

Bonus tip #5: Skip the opening briefing

This is a quick one, but: go ahead and skip the introductory “cutscene” where the PCs are briefed, then sent to Fort Nebraska to equip their search party. The briefing is a gigantic wall of text that you don’t want to read at your players. Instead, skip right to the action: start as the PCs step out of the cold and into the colony bar that will almost certainly be the first stop in their investigation. You can fill in briefing details as needed. If I had done this in my game, I would’ve cut out at least 30 minutes of meandering gametime that didn’t contribute much.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful! If you’ve run DoW and have made alterations of your own to it, please share them below. DoW is a great adventure—it’s even better if you spend some time customizing it to deliver the exact experience your game table wants.

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What’s the point of randomness in Diablo?

The inimitable Matt Wilson has posted some fascinating observations about how Diablo IV might benefit from the application of specific principles from the tabletop RPG world. He mentions, among other things, the game’s struggle to wed a largely linear gameplay experience with procedurally-generated content. 

I’ve been playing Diablo games since the playable demo of the first Diablo game appeared (at the time, I was snobby enough to consider it a shallow ripoff of Nethack. You had to be there!). And here is a question I’ve never been able to answer: 

Why does Diablo bother with randomizing content at all? 

(I should note that I’m not sure whether the proper term to use here is “randomization,” “procedural generation,” or something else. I’ll use “randomization” and those of you who know better can just mentally translate that into the correct term.) 

Randomized content has long been an integral feature of the Diablo series. Randomness in Diablo is used primarily to do (at least) three things: 

  • Randomize the layout of the dungeons and areas you explore 
  • Randomize the architectural features and interactable objects in these areas 
  • Randomize the monsters you encounter as you explore these areas 

(There is another major way that randomization is used—in the distribution of loot and equipment acquired from defeated enemies—but that feels less like procedurally-generated content and more like a carefully-tuned slot machine; while it’s not the type of randomness I’m talking about above, it’s perhaps the only random feature that delivers on its gameplay goals.) 

The problem is that for all these presumably complex systems that randomly generate content and gameplay elements, the randomness has a negligible impact on the experience of playing the game. 

The random layout of the dungeons has little effect on your game experience, as Matt notes: “Oh, they use a lot of art, turns, s-curves, etc. to try to disguise this from you, but every dungeon I saw was either a literal line or a line with one or two small offshoots.” Exactly. Slight tweaks to the ways that identical-looking hallways are connected do not make for a unique experience. 

The random placement of architectural features and interactable objects similarly has little effect on your experience. Diablo dungeons are littered with randomly-placed objects that seem like they might turn the tide of a battle—a collapsible pillar, an explodable barrel, a drop-able chandelier—but they don’t actually do anything meaningful. They never do enough damage, or sufficiently affect the environment, to be worth interacting with instead of just standing there and mashing your attack buttons. 

And likewise, the randomly-placed monsters almost never result in meaningfully different combat experiences. Diablo battles are fast and furious; they’re often so frantic that simply keeping track of what is happening is difficult. Different Diablo monsters might have different powers and weaknesses, but those differences rarely, if ever, prompt you to approach one fight differently from another. In almost all cases, your best strategy is to rush forward while firing your various attacks and spells as rapidly as you can. 

What this all amounts to is that two different people playing through Diablo will never have meaningfully different stories about what they’ve experienced, despite all that randomness. None of the random elements are given enough scope to change your experience of the game, or for the narrow uniqueness of your playthrough experience to even register. 

See? Just like Diablo! (Screenshot from Nethack: Legacy on Steam.)

Contrast this to Diablo’s ancient roguelike ancestor NetHack; in NetHack, two players traveling through level 5 of the same dungeon would have massively different stories to tell about the experience. One player might have been pursued through a maze of twisty passages by a single relentless foe, using spells to survive until they could find the staircase to escape the level; while the other player might have had to dig his way through walls while avoiding hidden traps and fighting off hordes of tiny replicating enemies. Both players had an experience that was recognizably NetHack—they can relate to each other’s experience—but each player has a unique story about what they experienced (as well as a great incentive to replay dungeon level 5 to experience more fresh content). By contrast, two players who fight their way through the Halls of Agony in Diablo 3 would struggle to differentiate their experiences in any meaningful way; the dungeon layouts were different only in a very technical sense, and the fights were all a blur of button-mashing. 

I should note that I don’t exactly mean to criticize Diablo for this. Diablo has its thing that it’s trying to do and it clearly works, since we’re still playing this series a quarter-century after its inception. It’s more that it simply baffles me: why build a complex system of interlocking randomness generators if, at every turn, you restrict the type of experience that randomness can create to a single flatly repetitive gameplay loop? If Diablo’s systems are meant to homogenize the gameplay experience and make it predictable, then the presence of all that randomness feels like a vestigial limb left over from a very different, 25-year-old vision of what Diablo might have been. 

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Marvel’s GI Joe Retrospective, Issue #1b: “Hot Potato”

“Hot Potato” is a short story appended to issue #1, “Operation: Lady Doomsday.” It’s fairly slight, but sufficiently interesting and different that I decided to talk about it separately.

“Hot Potato” opens in media res with a fantastic full-page scene that pulls you right into the action:

What’s the story?

A team of Joes has infiltrated a nameless “emirate” in the Middle East and gotten their hands on a tape of information that will defuse a tense political situation. When they’re attacked and outnumbered by emirate soldiers, a succession of Joes must relay the tape—the “hot potato”—across the desert to the border. Each Joe in the relay chain hands off the tape to the next, then races back to help defend (and ultimately rescue) the wounded and encircled original team.

What’s noteworthy about this issue?

Duty and sacrifice. The running gag here is that none of the Joes wants to abandon the encircled team, although their orders require them to prioritize the safe delivery of the tape over the lives of their fellow Joes. So each Joe in turn (grudgingly) obeys orders but then doubles back—because they haven’t been ordered not to—to help the friends they left behind. Scarlett in particular aggressively reminds the Joes of their duty, even though those orders mean leaving her behind to die. Nobly following orders like this is a standard action-hero trope, but we also learn from this (and from similar grousing about orders in issue #1) that the Joes are first and foremost a military unit that is beholden above all else to the chain of command; they’re not just a roving band of do-gooders.

No sign of Cobra. Except for one throwaway sentence mentioning that Cobra is bankrolling the corrupt emirate, there’s no sign of the Joes’ traditional enemy. This suggests that the Joes won’t always be fighting costumed supervillains—sometimes they’ll be dealing with more “real life” enemies and hotspots. I’m curious to see if this is a rare occurence or a running theme.

The enemy here appears to be the regular army of this fictional Middle Eastern nation—not the Taliban-style guerillas and terrorists that would likely be the villains were this issue written today. The appearance of Gaddafi-like uniformed colonel and a few references to the harshness of the emirate’s “justice” suggests a represssive but legitimate state like Iran or Saudi Arabia led by a Saddam Hussein-style dictator. To a 1982 reader, this would have evoked the Arab factions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which had flared into shooting wars several times in the decades before this issue’s publication. Little details like the Soviet-style MiG flown by the emirate’s army reinforce this.

Deeply nuanced enemies, these are not. And the trope of nameless, fanatical non-white enemies—not much different in 1982 than it is in 2022—feels icky. But I’m intrigued that already in issue #1, we’re dealing with non-Cobra enemies that clearly reference real-world places and situations.

Scarlett’s just part of the team. Scarlett is the only female Joe we’ve met so far, and refreshingly, she is portrayed as… well, just a regular Joe. Her character design isn’t particularly sexualized, she’s not there as a love interest (although Rock-n-Roll mentions that Snake-Eyes might be interested, we don’t hear that it’s reciprocated), and if anything, she’s shown as a particularly committed and serious team member. It’s not weird yet! Let’s hope this continues.

It’s a little grim. Despite the overall lightheartedness of the “hot potato” theme, the story takes at least one dramatic swerve into grim territory, as Scarlett (wounded and unable to retreat) prepares to kill herself rather than be captured:

That escalated quickly!

That’s a bit grim for a kid’s comic! But it reminds us, here at the outset of the series, that the Joes are mortal and that death is (at least in theory) a possibility in these stories.

Favorite panel: I love the facial expressions and details in this sequence of panels showing Rock-n-Roll getting angrier and angrier at his orders to abandon Scarlett:

That’s about all there is to say about this short (just 10 pages) story. Next time, we’ll tackle issue #2, “Panic at the South Pole.”

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Marvel’s GI Joe Retrospective: Issue #1, “Operation: Lady Doomsday”

This post is part of a series revisiting Marvel’s 1980s GI Joe comic books. Here’s an introduction to this series.

This is issue #1 of GI Joe, released in June 1982. It’s a big issue, with lots to talk about. Let’s get started!

What’s the story?

A prominent scientist—and controversial whistleblower who is publicly condemning a sketchy U.S. government weapons program—is kidnapped by Cobra, a stateless terrorist military force. GI Joe, the “sensational new special missions force for the ’80s,” is dispatched to raid the island fortress where Cobra is holding their prisoner. This setup turns out to be a Cobra trap (the first of many to come over the decades) intended to bait GI Joe into the open where they can be destroyed. Working in several small teams, a team of about a dozen Joes infiltrates the island, evades the trap, and rescues the scientist—although they fail to capture (not for the last time) a fleeing Cobra Commander and his sidekick, the Baroness.

What’s noteworthy about this issue?

The “real military” feel. Whereas some later incarnations of the GI Joe franchise veered into superspy or even near-superhero territory, with colorfully-costumed characters and sci-fi vehicles and weaponry, the GI Joe of 1982 is a fairly grounded affair. GI Joe is presented as a sort of elite extension of the regular military; they wear (mostly) regular-looking army fatigues; they have ranks, roles, tactics, and weapons that evoke the real military. Larry Hama, the revered Marvel talent who wrote and developed the GI Joe line for many years, was a Vietnam vet, and he brings a very noticeable “grunt’s eye view” to the franchise that will persist even as the stories, characters, and technology get more outlandish in later years.

That is not to say that this is a realistic story. The plots, villains, and action sequences are fanciful comic-book affairs with a light coating of real-world military terms and concepts sprinkled on top. Everyone here is a one-man army with access to sci-fi gadgets, but they act like grunts—grumbling about food in the mess hall, commiserating about boneheaded orders, etc.—and it gives this story and series a vibe that sets it apart from superhero stories.

Cobra is a nasty piece of work. In the later television cartoon, Cobra and its leadership are depicted as buffoonish clowns. Here, they’re a ruthless terrorist group with apparently a standing army (I recall that questions like “How is Cobra funding all these troops and gadgets?” are addressed to some extent in the series’ future). Their motives are left vague, but one gets the impression they’re mostly in this for the money, and that they plan to financially profit off of the info they can extract from their scientist prisoner.

Two named Cobra enemies appear in this issue—Baroness (who carries out the kidnapping with the help of her disguise/infiltration skills) and Cobra Commander, wearing a blue hood that evokes the KKK. Both are portrayed as ruthless jerks and murderers. Cobra Commander actually comes across as reasonably smart—he’s anticipated the government response to the kidnapping and accurately guesses how the Joes will go about their attack.

The Baroness is an unpleasant person. (I love the facial expressions in this panel!)

Cobra soldiers are masked, making them look like faceless hordes in contrast to GI Joe, whose members don’t (in most cases) hide their faces. I’m sure there’s plenty of psychological messaging to be unpacked there. Cobra’s vehicles and equipment resemble Soviet designs from the 70s and 80s. If the rows of goose-stepping, nameless soldiers didn’t do it, the MiG-like aircraft would definitely have evoked “enemy of freedom” vibes in the imaginations of 1980s readers. Soon, Cobra will get their own quirky and weird vehicles to match those in the GI Joe arsenal; I’ll be interested to see how long this Soviet aesthetic lingers. Certainly it’s an easy visual shortcut to let American readers in 1982 instantly recognize the bad guys:

Check out those Soviet, I mean Cobra, MiGs!

The bullets are real! People can get killed in this comic! The guns are shooting real bullets! This is not a grim and gritty story of violence and its consequences, but it does feel important that already in issue #1, the Joes and Cobras alike are shooting to kill. Cobra appears to kill several bystanders during their kidnapping, and later executes the entire population of a village to prevent them from lending aid to the Joes (we see bodies strewn about in one mildly chilling panel).

That said, battle scenes are pretty tame—there’s no gore or realistic depictions of violence on display. And in one amusing scene, it’s suggested that the Joes, at least, are pulling their punches just a tad.

But this isn’t a cartoon world of blue and red lasers that never hit anything, where aircraft crew always manage to bail out when their plane is shot down.

In later years, keeping up with trends in the comic world, GI Joe will move in a grittier and more violent direction. For now, everything is overall quite tame, but the presence of real bullets establishes some stakes.

The politics are muddled and weird. The setup here is that a scientist has been tricked by the US government into working on technology for a project she finds morally abhorrent—a “doomsday machine”:

That seems pretty morally straightforward, right? A device that would incinerate the world’s population in response to a nuclear first strike is a bad thing, I think most people would agree. (The Soviets reportedly implemented just such a system in 1985, a few years after this comic hit the stands.) So the kidnapped whistleblower scientist is the hero of the story, right?

Well, not according to this comic. Upon hearing the news of her kidnapping, here are the responses suggested by the heroic members of America’s elite freedom force:

First, General Flagg suggests intentionally bungling a rescue operation to goad Cobra into executing their prisoner.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present America’s greatest heroes!

Other Joes chime in:

  • Stalker sneers at the idea of rescuing “a woman who’s practically a traitor.”
  • Snake-Eyes suggests carpet-bombing the entire island where she’s being held with B-52s to kill everyone there (including the civilian population). Scarlett later has to remind Snake-Eyes that killing the kidnapped scientist “with one well-placed shot” isn’t the plan.
  • Short-Fuse describes the scientist as a “traitor.”

Yo, Joe!!!

To be fair, I think this issue is trying to find a middle ground here. In 1982, when this issue was published, the reputation of the US military and its government leaders was likely pretty low after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandals. (And at the time of this issue’s publication, the US president was engaged in a startingly illegal and immoral arms sales scheme to circumvent Congressional disapproval, although Hama wouldn’t have known about that yet.) It’s impossible not to wonder if Larry Hama, drawing on his experiences as a veteran, is trying to remind us that the real-world US military is comprised of good and moral people—people who would risk their lives to save the life even of somebody who criticized the military.

In the end, the kidnapped scientist expresses remorse that she assumed she had a “monopoly on scruples.” I appreciate that she doesn’t back down from her views:

We’ve all learned a valuable lesson today.

But there’s no reciprocation from the other side; no Joes acknowledge that the scientist is just as much a patriot as they are. I think that “We’ll come to your aid, even if you’ve criticized an ethically dubious military project!” is not the most inspiring slogan for America’s elite freedom force.

Ultimately, I think Hama is trying to deliver a nuanced message here, about the presence of fundamentally good people on different sides of a societal debate about America’s military operations and the people carrying them out. And in future issues, I think we’ll see him tease out this nuance more effectively. Here, it’s clunky and somewhat off-putting.

Favorite panel: I like this image of Cobra Commander parading around on a horse like a tin-pot dictator. It tells us that Cobra is a weird organization. Is it a would-be nation-state? A terrorist force motivated by ideology? A cult of personality? We’ll find out in future issues!

Next up: The Joes travel to the Middle East in “Hot Potato.”

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Revisiting Marvel Comics’ GI Joe

Remember GI Joe?

The image that probably springs to mind is that of the goofy 1980s cartoon, in which garishly-costumed members of GI Joe struggled to stop Cobra from enacting devious schemes like carving a picture of Cobra Commander’s face on the moon.

But that wasn’t the GI Joe I knew and loved in my awkward and nerdy youth.

Every week, on the way home from piano lessons, my mom would take us to the corner store to pick up a Slurpee. But my heart wasn’t in the Slurpee. It was in the rotating rack of comic books, which I would peruse every week in the hopes that a new issue of Marvel’s GI Joe had come out.

Marvel’s GI Joe was an amazing soap opera aimed at kids my age. It had convoluted backstories for characters, intricate plotlines that played out over a dozen issues, and stories that occasionally touched on real-life issues like grief, family, and what it meant to be an American in emotionally and morally turbulent times. I read and re-read every issue. I savored every line of dialogue, scrutinized every illustrated panel. It was this, and not the silly mid-80s cartoon, that was the real beating heart of GI Joe.

Could this comic book series have possibly have contained this much depth? Or is this my nostalgia speaking?

Let’s find out as I revisit the first year of Marvel’s GI Joe comics. Because knowing is half the battle.

First up: The Joes grapple with the nuances of Cold War ethics in “Operation: Lady Doomsday.”

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RPG boss monster analysis: the Balrog of Moria

For as long as I can remember, I’ve done the same thing every time I’ve acquired a published adventure for Dungeons & Dragons or any other roleplaying game: I flip to the very end to see what the adventure’s Final Boss is.

So you can imagine my joy when I first got my grubby teenage hands on the ultimate fantasy megadungeon and feverishly flipped to the end of the book to read up on the most famous dungeon boss of all. I’m talking about the Mines of Moria, and the famous Balrog that lurks in its depths.

That’s right: in 1984, Iron Crown Enterprises published Moria: The Dwarven City, a 72-page sourcebook detailing Moria for the Middle-Earth Role Playing game (MERP) and its sister game Rolemaster. And sure enough, there at the end are stats for the Balrog.

So could your plucky band of adventurers actually take out Durin’s Bane? Let’s find out!

Reducing Durin’s Bane to a bunch of numbers

Here’s the Balrog’s game statistics and powers:

stats for the Balrog

Egads, that’s a lot of gibberish. What does all that information mean?

Well, for starters, the Balrog is level 66. (Confusingly, the game rules handle it as level 36 for certain attack purposes, hence the number 36 in there.) The Balrog is much higher level than your characters are or ever will be. The longest-running MERP campaign I ran, way back in high school, stretched on for a couple years and when it ended, the PCs were in the level 15-20 range. I think it’s safe to say that unless you’re playing with the world’s most generous dungeon master, you’re never going to get a MERP character leveled up to match the Balrog’s power level.

A 1977 illustration of the Balrog by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt.

The rest of those numbers all boil down to this: the Balrog is extremely powerful in combat and very hard to kill. It’s got a huge amount of hit points and high defenses; combat skills so high that it’s virtually guaranteed to land a one-shot killing blow against anything it swings a weapon at; and the ability to mentally control enemies and/or freeze them with fear. It also has limited flight (the game designers have taken a stand in one of the internet’s oldest debates.)

Does it have weaknesses? Well… the Balrog is a bit of a one-trick pony; it’s an insane combat monster but has few powers that aren’t related to fire or killing. It knows lots of fire-related magic (fireballs and the like); but the other spells at its disposal have less utility in combat, and seem to be geared toward negating obvious player tricks (like an invisible character sneaking up on it…) or keeping track of its domain. When it comes to magic, an extremely powerful wizard (like Gandalf) would have some advantages… as long as they could keep away from the Balrog’s sword and whip.

The Balrog does have one single relatively low statistic. That’s right—just as you suspected, the Balrog lacks empathy. (Bad joke aside, Rolemaster’s “empathy” stat governs a character’s affinity for divine and healing magic. No surprise that’s not the Balrog’s strong suit.)

Most significantly, because it’s a being of fire, its strength and powers are significantly muted if the Balrog is completely submerged in water. A waterlogged Balrog will probably still pulverize you, but it won’t be able to set you on fire while doing so.

Is this faithful to Tolkien’s depiction of the Balrog?

As adaptations go, it’s not bad! From scattered references in various Tolkien texts, we know that Balrogs are pretty much just really tough, mean fiery guys (who can maybe fly). There’s not much depth to them beyond that, either here in the game or in Tolkien’s novel. As statted up here, the Balrog is certainly physically powerful and on fire, and its ability to terrify victims is in keeping with what we see in The Fellowship of the Ring. (It also fits the Tolkien theme of evil as the imposition of one’s will on somebody else.)

If anything, the designers may have even gone a little overboard with the Balrog’s physical power. But it’s hard to get an accurate read on exactly how deadly Tolkien bad guys are in a fight, because so many of them are “plot device” monsters (more on that below).

Is it killable?

The quick answer is “no.” In a straight-up fight with a party of typical player characters, it’s hard to see how the Balrog could lose. Any enemies that got within combat range without being dominated or frozen in fear would quickly get incinerated and/or annihilated.

But of course, the longer answer is… “maybe.” Every experienced dungeon master has watched in horror as players managed to take down a powerful monster by surrounding it and hammering it with spells and attacks; no dungeon master should assume that a lone enemy, even one this powerful, is invincible. The Moria sourcebook anticipates this by noting that the Balrog is accompanied by a host of trolls, demons, and orcs—all of them much less powerful than the Balrog, but easily able to bog down a team of adventurers while the Balrog picks them off.

But in the end, a group of high-level characters, while not a direct match for the Balrog, command significant powers and abilities; it’s very hard to predict the kind of advantages they could create for themselves by working in concert. You can bet they’ll be coming up with ridiculous schemes to drop the Balrog into a lake, or collapse a few hundred tons of cave ceiling down onto it, or something else. An indirect, story-driven approach that avoids physically battling the Balrog is the only way I could possibly imagine a band of adventurers taking down Durin’s Bane.

If it’s not killable, what’s it doing in the game?

Mostly I think this is just a fun exercise to “stat up” one of fantasy literature’s most famous boss monsters. Certainly, I enjoyed poring over these numbers as a teenage gamer, imagining what a Balrog showdown would look like. Be honest: you’d be disappointed if you picked up a roleplaying module about Moria and it didn’t have stats for the Balrog.

But how would you actually use the Balrog in a regular game? MERP is mostly interested in defining the Balrog by its tactical combat abilities, which are far beyond the typical adventuring party’s. But although the module doesn’t discuss it, the Balrog is really a “plot device” monster, like most evil overlords in fiction. Most of the evil bosses in Middle Earth seem nearly invincible in combat but can be defeated by a hero who works out their unique weaknesses and exploits them for narrative effect. Think of Smaug (weakness: that one missing scale), Shelob (weakness: Elvish magic, hobbit tenacity), Sauron (weakness: the Ring), the Witch-king of Angmar (weakness: women), etc. It could be very satisfying to watch the players work hard to uncover the Balrog’s one weakness and use it to banish or destroy the demon without getting into a big physical fight. Finding that weakness would be an epic quest in itself, which sounds perfect for a roleplaying game.

If you’re itching to see the Balrog’s +240 whip attack in action, though, there are a few possibilities. One could see the appeal of an extremely high-level “Balrog hunting” game, in which players control canonical movers and shakers like Gandalf, Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel in a high-powered raid on Moria. Those characters are statted up in other MERP sourcebooks, and as a team would be a match for the Balrog.

And lastly, bold lower-level characters traveling through Moria might have a close brush with the Balrog without actually engaging it in combat. A group of extremely clever and lucky characters might try stealing treasure from its lair and making a mad dash for the exit before it notices or catches them, much as Bilbo Baggins did with Smaug.

But mostly, it’s just fun to stat up the Balrog.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

New Roll for Topic episode: “Romance and Shopping”

Episode 32 of Roll for Topic is out! This time we were joined by Donn Stroud, an RPG designer and freelancer. Of the various things Donn has worked on, Mothership and Dead Planet are the two I’m most familiar with—I fell in love with Mothership last year at Gencon. It’s a lightweight RPG designed to emulate space-horror games in the vein of Alien, and it’s set apart by a combination of great writing and fantastic visual design.

The topic for this episode is an odd one that was added to the list of topics at least partly as a joke by a past guest. It is often the case that Chris and I (and our guests, when we have them) look over the table before we begin recording and wonder aloud what on earth we would have to say about, say, romance and shopping in RPGs. But those slightly weird topics often end up being the most fun to discuss, and that was the case here. Anyway, give it a listen and let me know what you think!

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Disadvantage: Enemy (Secret Service)

Cover image of GURPS Cyberpunk

Here’s a nice writeup of a famous tale from the game industry: the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games in which they confiscated the manuscript for GURPS Cyberpunk.

It was perhaps not our country’s finest hour:

In spite of the fact the rulebook contained rules for having your consciousness transferred to a gender-swapped clone, when [Steve Jackson] spoke to them the day after the raid he was told that his company was publishing “a handbook for computer crime”. When he protested that it was clearly made up, he was repeatedly informed: “This is real.”

I’ve heard versions of this story retold over the years. According to this article, GURPS Cyberpunk was a target of opportunity, not the official reason for the raid: the Secret Service was poking around, equally ridiculously, for evidence that Steve Jackson Games was connected to some suspected BBS shenanigans. They grabbed the GURPS book when no other nefarious evidence presented itself. From a SJ Games post about the raid:

Their agents were very critical of [GURPS Cyberpunk], and on March 2 in their office, one of them called it a “handbook for computer crime.” Since their warrant was sealed, and they wouldn’t comment, our best guess was that they were trying to suppress the book. They did suppress it, but apparently it was through bureaucratic inertia and stonewalling rather than because it was a target of the raid.

Imagine if terrorists had gotten hold of the information in that or any GURPS tome—they’d know exactly how many one-inch hexes away from a target they can be before they get a -4 penalty to pickpocket attempts unless they paid 50 character points to replace their arms with telescoping cybernetic limbs. I feel safer already.

You know, it’s crossed my mind over the years that the game-prep Google trail of a typical gamemaster probably sets off all kinds of red flags in the various Orwellian surveillance systems keeping tabs on us. “Siri, how much C4 would you have to use to topple the Statue of Liberty onto a shoggoth that’s rising from New York Harbor?”

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Encountering Cthulhu in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum

I recently decided to re-read Umberto Eco’s strange, dense novel Foucault’s Pendulum. I was pleased to discover that it not only holds up over the decades since I first read it way back in high school, but that I found much more in it to appreciate now that I’ve had a few dozen additional years of, well, “life and stuff” to color my perspective.

Much of the book consists of a very convoluted tour of occult beliefs and conspiracy theories—at times it’s just a firehose of information from Eco’s very widely-read mind. It’s hard to imagine any bizarre historical belief, no matter how obscure, slipping by without at least a brief mention in Pendulum.

And so as I read, I found myself waiting hopefully for a mention of… Cthulhu. While most of us read Lovecraft for the cool slimy monsters, bits of the Cthulhu mythos (or at least, its infamous tomes) have been co-opted by real-world belief systems. Mostly (I presume) in a winkingly self-aware postmodern kind of way. That’s exactly the sort of oddball thing that should crop up alongside all the other crazy beliefs Eco explores. And anyway, it’s hard for me to imagine that Lovecraft wasn’t represented in the pulpy pop culture that Eco appreciated.

Friend, I was not disappointed. In the final pages of Foucault’s Pendulum, a shout-out:

Iä, indeed!

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