Sunday, July 28, 2013

From Here To Eternia

Masters of the Universe Preview, 1982, Artist: Curt Swan and/or Dave Hunt

When most people think about the He-Man mythos (assuming they think about it at all) they recollect the 1983 Filmation series, but the Masters of the Universe had a history before the series – one with significant differences from what would become 'official' canon.

When He-Man was just an action figure, mini-comics accompanied MOTU merchandise.  Although called mini-comics, the early ones were more like mini-story books, with a single graphic covering most of each page and a few lines of text beneath.  Regardless, the point was to provide the basis of play – a narrative stage that established a fictional environment, the identities of the characters, and the ways in which they interacted.  Alfredo Alcala was the artist for the first series of mini-comics and Don Glut was the author.  Glut is a man with a variety of talents and interests.  Listing his many creations is beyond the scope of this post; however, as an example of his inventiveness, allow me to say he is the person responsible for Tragg and the Sky Gods (among other Gold Key titles).

“They will add to your strength, use them wisely...”
In the mini-comics, He-Man hails from a primitive tribe.  Having “jungle-bred strength,” he leaves his tribe because “Evil forces exist on our planet Eternia.”  It turns out that Eternia is a post-apocalyptic world.  After He-Man rescues “the Sorceress,” she provides him with vehicles and devices (and boots it seems) that “were made centuries before the Great Wars by Eternia's scientists.”  Notice in the illustration above that the Sorceress has green skin and is adorned with serpent-motif accessories – symbolic of knowledge.  The snake costume would become associated with Teela.  At the time Glut wrote these stories, no female characters were planned for the toyline; when Teela and the Sorceress were included, they were represented by the same figure.  As a result, the distinction between the characters was less than clear.  Teela was considered to be a “warrior-goddess.”

Note the golden unicorn fighting Skeletor
Below we see Skeletor's origin according to Glut and Alcala.
“...magic fires, created by ancient scientists and sorcerers...”
The notion of two 'magic swords' that join together to create an artifact of great power is very reminiscent of Filmation's earlier Blackstar series.

In 1982, still prior to the Filmation series, DC Comics published actual MOTU comic books.  These were written by Paul Kupperberg  who (along with Jan Duursema) created Arion, Lord of Atlantis prior to scripting the MOTU comics.  At the time, Arion was your humble host's favorite title.  Alas, it was Kupperberg who implemented the idea of Prince Adam as He-Man's “secret identity.”  Keep in mind that Kupperberg's version of Adam had incredible strength.

So, He-Man is a blond, incredibly strong dude with a Dutch boy hairstyle and Prince Adam is a blond, incredibly strong dude with a Dutch boy hairstyle.  You would think that people would be suspicious.  Oh wait, Prince Adam has a cowardly green-and-yellow tiger who talks while He-Man has a courageous green-and-yellow tiger who talks.  Yeah, I guess that's enough to throw off anybody.  Another thing I dislike about Kupperberg's Eternia is the technological disparity between the aristocracy and the peasants.  To my knowledge, Skeletor never capitalized on this.

In late 1982, Mattel approached Michael Halperin to write a 'bible' for the Filmation series.  Halpern came up with the good idea of Adam/He-Man's mother being an astronaut from Earth, but not all of Halpern's ideas became canon.  In Halpern's story, Evil-Lyn, Beast Man, and Tri-Klops were originally 'normal' Earth humans (and Beast Man's name was Biff – no lie).

If there was any one thing that ruined MOTU for me, it was Orko.  I appreciate the 'need' for a comic relief character, but why Orko?  I'd rather have Gwildor.  For that matter, a dozen Trobbits would be preferable to Orko.  It is Halperin we have to thank for Orko; however, in Halperin's bible he's called “Gorpo,” which is a more fitting name I think.

Halperin seems to have been familiar with D&D.
Where else would he get 'quasit' from?  Halperin also includes dwarves, trolls, gnolls, manticores, wyverns, basilisks, and giant centipedes in his bible.  In the following passage, we are told that Beast Man can supposedly control orcs.

Orcs (or at least creatures called orcs) appear in one of the later mini-comics.

“Orcs” in masks.  Can you tell they're evil?

Skeletor doesn't use this ability often enough in my opinion.
Skeletor, “Dark Lord,” channels Darth Vader

Sunday, July 21, 2013

When Is a Role Playing Game Not a Role Playing Game?

Image from BoardGameGeek

An established RPG publisher with a proven capability for adapting licensed properties obtains the RPG rights for a popular toy-line/TV cartoon.  What could possibly go wrong?

...

I can only speculate as to the reasons, but with The Masters of the Universe Role Playing Game (hereinafter MOTU RPG) published by FASA in 1985, I can emphatically state that things went wrong; very, very wrong.  The person ultimately responsible for allowing the game to be sold in its final form ought to be removed from gene pool and forced to plant saplings for the rest of his life in partial atonement for all of the trees killed for this thing's manufacture.  Toilet paper would have been a far more worthwhile product for all of that wood pulp.

But hey, I can't complain!  I can squeeze a few a posts out of this atrocity!

The cherished reader will kindly note that the MOTU RPG link above goes to BoardGameGeek and not RPGGeek.  The worthies associated with those sites have deemed this product to be a board game, not a role playing game.  Their logic is valid; MOTU RPG has no rules for character generation and allows for only one playable scenario.  Nonetheless, I will treat it as a role playing game because that is how the game identifies itself.  Of course, even as a board game, this thing is a travesty...a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham.

Here's what I think happened.  It's only supposition, but it's the only version of events that permits me to believe that human beings – while fallible – are not inherently evil and the universe is not a cold, dismal place of unceasing despair.  Anyway, FASA gets the rights to publish a Masters of the Universe RPG, but it needs to be introductory – and therefore simple – because the age requirement will be “8 and up.”  A full-fledged RPG suitable for 8-year-olds is a tall order, but they had the idea of putting out a simple game, one the kids can grasp, then follow up by publishing an 'advanced' version that addresses everything a 'real' RPG needs to address.  Hey, it worked for other RPGs.  I think they then had trouble making the game simple enough and – with deadlines and whatnot – a less than ideal set of rules was inflicted upon purchasers of the game.

Included with the box was a card with the title “OOPS!”  It read:
We goofed on the magic spells. When you read over the Character Record Cards, you will find that there are spells listed that do not appear on the Magic Spells Table. These spells are for an advanced version of the Masters Of the Universe Game and are not used in this game.

The Masters Of The Universe Advanced Role-Playing Game should be released in the fall of 1986. To make sure you are informed of the release of this game, just fill out the form below and send it to us. You will receive a catalog of FASA products now, and when the advanced game is ready, a letter informing you it is available.
Not surprisingly, the “advanced version” never saw the light of day, and the world is left with a sad mess of rules for MOTU RPG.  Compounding matters was that the rulebook is presented in a comic book format illustrated by the professionals at First Comics.  Now, in and of itself, game-rules-as-comic-book is a good idea, or at least can be.  However, making layout alterations to accommodate eleventh hour rule changes is difficult enough normally, but when when the layout is a comic book page, a last minute rule change is downright impractical.  It is thus that we are left with the likes of the following:

...My Friend Player...
I guess the rules for 'illusion dust' were too complicated, so they used a panel to indicate that one of the game tokens is extraneous.

Alas, some transgressions are unforgivable.  Please, PLEASE, just say no to ALL CAPS.

WTF? ...should be maded?
I guess the Gods of Eternia removed the proofreader.
YES, MUCH OF THE TEXT OUTSIDE OF THE ILLUSTRATED PAGES IS IN CAPITAL LETTERS EXCLUSIVELY.  MAYBE IT WOULD NOT BE SO BAD IF THERE WERE OCCASIONAL PARAGRAPH BREAKS, BUT THEN AGAIN, MAYBE NOT.  THIS GIVES ME A HEADACHE.

Use a question mark when you say that son.
In the comic book, the Sorceress summons 'the player' and He-Man explains the rules (such as they are).  'The player' is meant to be a reader identification character representing the target demographic.  Apparently, the target demographic is extremely androgynous youth.

Can this kid be any more effete?
Seriously, what were they trying to accomplish?  Did they use an epicene cipher so as not to alienate girls who might want to play a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe game?  Really?  All they managed to do was alienate people who don't wear eye-liner, or they would have if the game was worth a damn.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Super Rules for Superhero 2044


L to R:  Spy Smasher, Bulletman, (the genuine) Captain Marvel, Minute-Man, Mr. Scarlet     
Image from the cover of America's Greatest Comics #1 (public domain)

In the sixth issue of Different Worlds (Dec 79/Jan 80) appeared an article written by the inestimable Brian Wagner, “Super Rules for Superhero:  44.”  According to Wagner:
As enjoyable and interesting game it is, it's not without its rough spots.  The basic systems of the game work well but there are parts which need to be elaborated upon or outright changed.
These “rough spots” did not permit Superhero 2044 to enjoy a decided popularity, much less maintain a significant market presence after other games in the genre – more polished games – were published.

In the article, Wagner addresses what he considers to be the shortcomings of the game.

First, he provides supplementary details about some of the organizations with which player characters may choose to associate.  (Discussed, to some extent, in an earlier post.)
Köln Institute:  It was your humble host's supposition that Superhero 2044 creator Don Saxman included the Institute as a background option – a way for player characters to obtain services provided by the alumni organization at the cost of a tithe and by following a code of ethics.  Wagner supplies information on enrolling in the Institute during play.  A complete program lasts two years and the cost and commitment are substantial; 20,000 Psuedodollars and two six-hour blocks five days per week, respectively.  In addition to the alumni benefits, graduates increase many of their requisite scores by 1d4.
The Hunters Club (called the Hunter Club in the rulebook):  Wagner indicates that the weekly allowance mentioned in the rules is 80 Psuedodollars.
Science Police:  Again, your humble host thinks that Saxman intended this entity more as a plot device rather than an organization to which player characters would want to belong, especially as Science Police operatives “are psychoconditioned to remain loyal.”  Yikes!  Still, Wagner presents details for the benefit of characters who choose to be operatives.  Training is similar to that provided by the Köln Institute and an operative's weekly salary starts at 600 Psuedodollars.  Also, when on missions, operatives are subject to “dangerous encounters” (i.e., deathtraps).
Uniquex:  Wagner states that this organization will purchase “germ plasm of proven merit” from Uniques.  The price paid can be 100 - 3,500 Psuedodollars depending on a modified die roll.  It is possible that Uniques with “common” abilities may not have their germ plasm accepted at all.  Regardless, each Unique can only submit germ plasm once; there's no returning to the well.

With regard to combat, Wagner recommends the use of hit locations for direct physical attacks as well as projectile attacks.  He also supplies a 1d20 hit location chart as opposed to the 1d10 description in the rules;  percentages remail the same, but a separate roll is not needed for determining right or left limb.  He also recommends 1d20 rather than 3d6 be used for hit determination.

In terms of damage, Wagner recommends a variable range of damage through the use of dice rather than applying “flat blocks of damage” as specified in the rules.  Although the rulebook discusses recovery from injuries, Wagner addresses the monetary costs associated with hospitals.  Aside from room costs, Wagner explains medical expenses as a function of Psuedodollar “Cost Per Vigor Point Repaired.” For instance, medical expenses for a limb injury are less than that of a head injury when both locations have lost the same amount of Vigor.

Wagner also provides “The Quick Deathtrap Resolver.”  The rule book presents an example of a deathtrap, but does not provide any advice on devising them.  Wagner accurately states that his method “reduces it all down to an unromantic die roll,” but at least it is a method and, as he also says, “it is quick.”  In a game  like Superhero 2044, one needn't apologize for an unromantic die roll.  Anyway, Wagner suggests a 'saving throw' where a requisite value is multiplied by 0.75 and that is the number or less needed on a roll of 1d20.  To determine which requisite must be used to escape a given deathtrap, 1d12 is rolled.  More than one requisite may be indicated; if so, the values are averaged for saving throw purposes.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Inspiration: The World of Wulf the Barbarian


The Atlas (Seaboard) line of comic books was introduced in 1975.  By 1976, the line had vanished.  (The line was briefly 'revived' in 2011; this post does not address that incarnation.)  Most of the books were forgettable, but a few had potential – at least at the beginning of the Atlas endeavor.  One of those few was Wulf the Barbarian.  Certainly, it had its share of clichés and tropes, but it is not unworthy of consideration.

According to the first Atlas bullpen page, “[T]he saga of WULF THE BARBARIAN is set on a planet the size of which is beyond mortal comprehension.”  This aspect of the setting is never addressed in any of the four published issues of Wulf, neither is mentioned the name of the planet.  In the third installment, a map is provided; named simply 'The World of Wulf the Barabarian.'

The map as shown in WULF THE BARBARIAN #3



I have it from good authority that your humble host is mortal.  Since I seem to be able to comprehend the area that this map describes, I am forced to conclude that the map does not depict the entirety of Wulf's world.  It does, however, show the various locations that Wulf visits in his abbreviated saga as well as many locations he does not, such as Ulm, Kwan Jhoon, and the exotic Newark.

The same map, altered for legibility
Whatever charm Wulf the Barbarian held was supplied by artist/writer Larry Hama.  Alas, Hama did not continue beyond the second issue.  Still, we can reflect upon what we have.

Wulf is a Northern barbarian who goes on adventures in the lands to the South.  That part may sound familiar, but Wulf is really the heir to a kingdom.  Very well, that part probably sounds familiar too; however, after he witnesses the murder of his parents, he is raised by a family retainer and dedicates himself to vengeance.  Yeah, OK, that part is not exactly original either.  The thing is,  Wulf's ultimate goal is to defeat the evil wizard who has deprived him of his rightful domain...  Look, not everything can be original, it's how the concepts mesh together that's important.

Balik, the Eye of Mordek
Anyway, an army of trolls wearing “the sigil of Mordek Mal Moriak, the sorceror” (sic), attacks a hunting expedition of “Lord Wulfgar, Thane of Baernhölm and Master of Castle Silver Keep.”  Wulfgar and his wife, “the Lady Lenore,” die valiantly.  “Count Stavro Dar Kovin, Fencing Master of the House of Wulfgar,”  rescues the young heir, the titular Wulf.  Being a badass, Stavro kills Balik, “The Eye of Mordek,” (see depiction to the left) and makes off with his dragon.  Stavro and Wulf fly more-or-less South and pass some noteworthy locales (see illustrations below).  Eventually, the wounded dragon expires and Stavro and Wulf take up residence in the city of Azerbajia.  Stavro becomes a street performer, juggling knives, to generate a subsistence income for the orphaned prince and himself.  Of course, at night Stavro trains Wulf to be a badass in his own right.  After a montage of training panels, some exposition and a flashback, Stavro is killed by the same troll that killed Lenore.  Wulf, now a well-trained young man, gets vengeance and rides off in search of adventure and, in his own words, “To slay a sorcerer!”  (In proper barbarian style, almost everything Wulf says ends with an exclamation point.)  Thus ends the first issue.
Wulf's journey
In the second issue, Wulf meets up with some supporting characters, “Berithe of the Free Swordsmen's Guild...Rymstrydle the Blader, also of the Guild...and Zemba, a magician of Abba-Maroja.”  The foursome travel to the city of Rama-Kesh, which has suffered from the enmity between the two water merchants that control all of the city's wells...
These were men of wealth and power...one was Melekantis, a vain man motivated by pride...The other was Rasselas, whose only love was power, a bitter man driven by greed...Their animosity blossomed into violence and both men had armed gangs of hired thugs clashing in the alleyways...Some thought a stalemate had been reached but Rasselas dabbled in sorcery!  And he called forth a Nameless Thing to slay Melekantis!  But the very powers he unleashed had driven Rasselas over the boundaries [of] sanity!  And in his madness, he delved deeper into his sorcery...'twas Rasselas' magic what emptied the wells of Rama-Kesh...and loosed strange gibbering creatures upon the nighted streets.
Like any party of player characters worth their salt, our protagonists resolve to surreptitiously enter Rasselas' lair and – in Wulf's words – thrust “a yard of cold steel in Rasselas' gut.”  However, once they gain entry to the palace, our heroes find that the sorcerer's madness has warped the interior into an Escher-esque labyrinth.  Yes, the characters prevail and evil is defeated, but not until Wulf exclaims “Blood and Iron!” two more times and one of the characters dies in a noble sacrifice.


...A Sorcerous Manifestation of Rasselas' Insanity!

Sunday, July 7, 2013

HAZARD IPSP/ISIS Official Map 7


Exposed as a clone of Marlene Dietrich, Bird Girl is despondent.
Meanwhile, an escaped Captain Cerulean parade balloon begins to deflate.

HAZARD IPSP/ISIS Official Map 7 has the distinction of being the only accessory released for Superhero 2044 (despite the implied existence of at least six other official maps).  Released by Judges Guild in 1980, this supplement is actually a 22” x 34” sheet folded into an 8½” x 11” package.  One side is a hex map of a large section of the Pacific Ocean.


The red outline is a rough approximation of the borders of the Hazard map.
The yellow area represents the portion of the sheet devoted to the product cover.

Inguria is shown between the southern tip of Japan and the northern tip of the Philippines.  In the south-east, there is a 'new continent,' the northern reaches of which are not presented on the map because of the cover.  The map legend displays the following phrase,“® 2044 IPSP/ISIS Printed in New Sidney.”  The other side of the sheet has a more practical 1980 Judges Guild copyright notice which, presumably, also applies to the map side.  'New Sidney' is the capital (or “capitol” as the map legend would have it) of 2044 Australia.  In 2044, New Sidney occupies the site that Port Augusta occupies in 2013.  Although consistently spelled 'New Sidney,' given the spelling errors that abound in the product, perhaps the author meant 'New Sydney.'  Inguria's Bloomberg is also misspelled as 'Bloomburg.'

The IPSP – detailed last week – is the Inguria Protection and Service Program, a government aid program for crime fighters.  ISIS is the 'International Survival Intelligence Service,' an organization – apparently associated to some extent with the IPSP – that seems primarily concerned with the collection and dissemination of geopolitical information.  Although IPSP is a government program, ISIS is apparently funded by subscription fees.  At least some of those fees go toward paying informants.  “Let us remind you,” Hazard states, “that we are still extensively dependent upon individual contributions of intelligence materials.”  The value of information supplied to ISIS is determined by a “panal [sic] of Intelligence Experts” that are “impartial.”

The side of the sheet opposite to the map displays text and some illustrations.  One-eighth of the sheet (equivalent to one page) is a Judges Guild product listing.  One would hope that game stats would be provided for the characters and creatures referenced in the text; however, this is not the case.

The text is loosely grouped into what could charitably be called 'articles.'  The largest such article gives a brief overview of various societies that inhabit regions depicted on the map.  For instance, “the Syndic” is an area on “the newly-risen sub-continent.”  The denizens there “wished to avoid the questions of politics” so, the societal “model they chose was a highly romanticized Mafia of the nineteen-thirties, with all the bad parts – Hit Men, Enforcers, Narcotics Traffic – removed.”  Because, you know, there aren't any politics in the Mafia.  I don't think 'politics' means what author Robert Bingham seems to think it means.  Oh, and the 'removed' bad parts?  “The Syndic produces and trains its own Enforcer Teams” and there is a “nationalized Smuggling System.”  Maybe not so removed after all.

We learn that Australia's “population was depleted by 85% during the six-day war” and Aborigines have “become totally extinct.”  Kangaroos have evolved to possess near-human intelligence and are often kept as household servants.  Other mutated Australian fauna include:  the Land Piranha (“a radically changed Wallaby with the habits and dental structure of a Shark”), the Geep (“a mutated Goat with hair that suspiciously resembles polyester”), the 'Wambat' (a wombat that is eight feet long, capable of gliding, and has claws with anesthetic poison), and “at least 37 separate species of Rabbit” ranging “from the tiny carnivorous Hellbiter to the giant (6 foot) Pink Pooka.”

RPGGeek lists Bob Bingham as the 'designer' of Hazard.  It so happens that Hazard is the only linked item on Bingham's RPGGeek page.  That page lists 'Robert Bingham' as an 'alternate name' even though Robert is the name on the product, not Bob.  There's a separate page for 'Robert K. Bingham' (no alternate name), which says “Unlikely the same as the artist Bob Bingham.”  However, Bob Bingham isn't listed as an artist.  Robert K's page has only three linked items; three issues of The Dungeoneer to which he contributed.  Interestingly, for two of the issues, Robert K is listed as an artist.  Sorry, but I have to bust out Occam's razor and conclude that the Robert Bingham associated with three 1979 issues of a Judges Guild periodical is the same Robert Bingham associated with a 1980 Judges Guild product.  I cannot conclude that Bingham consumed 'narcotics' during the creation of Hazard, but I think this is safe to assume.