Sunday, December 29, 2019

TIMESTORM (Part III) (spoilers)

Prior to the Battle of Antietam, Union forces obtained Confederate plans.  For purposes of Timestorm, this occurred because Union Private Leroy Elkins frightened a Confederate courier into dropping said plans.  Unfortunately for Time Corps continuity, the Time Storm has deposited Elkins into the cartoon world of Wabbit Wampage before he has a chance to make history.  (Elkins has a significance rating of 300; Robert E. Lee has a rating of only 250.)  The Player Characters are supposed to encounter Elkins after they bring back Thugs Bunny and kin from ancient Rome.  Of course, the next logical step is to return Elkins to where he belongs.  However, Demorean agents have infiltrated the Wabbit parallel.  Their purpose is to “have a source of indestructible warriors – which they could in turn unleash upon all freedom-loving creatures of the Continuum, especially Time Corps agents.”

When the Time Storm removed Elkins from Maryland on September 11, 1862, it deposited “a wizard named Thutamon and three of his warrior bodyguards.”  For reasons unexplained, Thutamon and company “began rampaging toward Washington D.C., destroying whatever they found in their path.”  One of their heinous acts was to murder an entire family in cold blood.  Union forces assume this is the work of Confederate raiders and, as a result, they prepare to retreat to the nation's capital.

Meanwhile, the player characters are suspected of being Confederate spies and are brought to a house serving as the headquarters for General McClellan.  This is where the adventure gets kind of weird.  An aspect of the Time Storm – in the form of a tornado – takes the house and everyone within it to Munchkin Land.  (Oz exists as Parallel M-491.)  The player characters arrive “just before Dorothy is due” and wind up killing the Wicked Witch of the East.  The Munchkins express their appreciation by attempting to enslave the player characters and force them to work in their “armament factories.”  You see, the vagaries of the Time Storm have caused the Munchkins to become Nazis.  Don't believe me?
The only way out of Oz is to use the witch's slippers.  Mark Acres adopts a convention of the cinematic Oz in that the slippers are ruby.  (In the book, the slippers are silver.)

Assuming the player characters manage to return to Maryland, they are obliged to stop Thutamon and his warriors and return them to their point of origin:  “Aug. 27, 10198 B.C. Earth, Parallel R-259.”  It is on this Parallel that the Demoreans initiated their master plan to create the Time Storm.  To wit, they caused Thutamon to create a dimensional hole.  Arriving on R-259, the player characters and the others find themselves in said dimensional hole and are subject to attacks by Demoreans.  One of the characters is transformed “into a man-sized toad.”  This fate cannot be avoided, it is part of the plot.  After two rounds, “The PCs find themselves falling toward a grassy plain.”  On this plain, the players encounter Merlin.  Astute readers will recall that Merlin is one of the pre-generated characters players are encouraged to play.  The pre-generated Merlin is from Parallel M-212, the non-player character Merlin is from Parallel T-1 and is referred to as Merlin T-1.  We learn, “In any critical situation, such as combat, Merlin T-1 does exactly what Merlin (the PC) does . . . [but] Merlin T-1 does these things a half second later.”  Wacky hijinx ensue.  We also learn that Merlin T-1 is part of the T-1 Time Corps and “he hopped ahead of the wave effects to 5000 A.D. and read a history book.”  As a result, he knows “that a well-organized rebellion should overthrow a wizard-king named Almarius this year.”  It turns out that Thutamon is the leader of this revolt, but the Time Storm induced amnesia in him and his bodyguards.

So, the player characters are required to assist Thutamon – a cold blooded murderer – with his rebellion.  The first step is to travel to the city of Kish where Duke Tremayne – an ally of Almarius – has imprisoned the King and his daughter.  Tremayne has jokingly stated that he “will yield control of Kish to the King [if] the King shoots an apple from his daughter's head.”  The adventure tells us, “The most likely course of action is to disguise one PC as the King and have him or her shoot the apple from the Princess' head.”  The adventure assumes the player characters accomplish this.  At this time, the Princess kisses the player character who was transformed into a toad, but to no avail.  The player characters should also be able to obtain Tremayne's flying lizards – called iglanos.
A typical iglano measures 20 feet in length, stands about 10 feet at the shoulder, and weighs about 2 tons.  The beasts are normally docile, although they are carnivorous and their bite can inflict a serious wound.  They are speedy, once airborne, able to fly and glide at up to 225 feet per round (30 miles per hour).
Using the iglanos, Thutamon and the player characters can travel to Thutamon's army, which is besieging Almarius' Desert Castle.  (This is where the dimensional hole is.)  Meanwhile, Thutamon regains his memory, I guess.  The conclusion of adventure indicates:
If Thutamon's army captures the Desert Castle, the PCs have restored history on this Parallel.  They may eliminate the fact that one of them was turned into a giant toad by using the anomaly field generator or looper to warn themselves not to hop to the dimensional hole.
As part of a back-up plan, the Demoreans have established another dimensional hole on a separate Parallel.  However, clues to the next adventure can found after the battle.

The Demoreans need xantium, “a rare mineral [that] powers the type of drive required to transport magical dimensional holes.”  They obtain their xantium from “the year 101 million B.C.” on Parallel R-555.  Here, the player characters can negotiate with cavemen and/or intelligent dinosaurs.  Upon capturing the Demorean facility, the PCs find out:
The xantium is being sent to the Cassandra II system on Parallel T-6 from June 2 through June 30, 3612 A.D. [sic]  A massive time travel drive is being constructed on a space station positioned outside the atmosphere of the planet Cassandra II.  The drive, which is augmented by a dimensional hole, will be powered by the energy released when Cassandra II's sun becomes a supernova on July 2, 3162 A.D. at 10 p.m.  Destroying the space station pastward of this moment will prevent the Time Storm from occurring.
I think 3162 is supposed to be the correct year.  Anyway, the final adventure consists of a single encounter; it takes up just over two pages of the book.  The player characters use their TCA-4A chronoscooters to attack the Demorean space station.  Since the Demoreans have “Advanced Space Age Fighters,” the adventure is essentially “a board-game style battle.”  The text helpfully informs us, “This combat is to the death.”  Interestingly, at the beginning of the encounter, each player rolls 3d10 to determine his or her chronoscooter's “time on target.”  Once a chronoscooter's “time on target” is exhausted, there is a ten percent chance per round that the vehicle will run out of fuel.  Fortunately, rules are provided for rescuing pilots.

I guess at some point, Merlin T-1 drops out of the picture.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Book Review: Sign of the Labrys (spoilers)

On page 8 of the Players Handbook, Gary felt the need to explain the usages of the term level:  “Level as an indication of character power . . . Level as used to indicate the depth of the dungeon complex . . . Level as a measure of magic spell difficulty . . . Level as a gauge of a ‘monster's’ potential threat . . .”  We learn that, “It was initially contemplated to term character power as rank, spell complexity was to be termed power, and monster strength was to be termed as order . . . However, because of existing usage, level is retained throughout with all four meanings, and it is not confusing as it may now seem.”  Of course, since then, ‘monster level’ has given way to challenge rating, but the term for dungeon stratum is immutably Level.

Gary specifically listed Margaret St. Clair's Sign of the Labrys in Appendix N.  Although the notion of successive underworld levels is as old as religion, there is an assumption that the 1963 novel contributed to the D&D concept of dungeons.  I can't argue against this assumption yet, honestly, had I been told Sign of the Labrys influenced a role-playing game but not which game, I would have associated the novel with Paranoia.

In his review of Sign of the Labrys in the March 1964 issue of Analog, P. Schuyler Miller states, “I have an idea this is a ‘sleeper’ that will hang on over the years, growing with rereading.”  (He also lamented, “. . . it catches a case of Van Vogts and goes all complicated.”)  If Sign of the Labrys is a sleeper, then it's still dozing.  Regardless, Sign of the Labrys has fared better than The Shadow People, having been reprinted as part of Dover's ‘Doomsday Classics’ series.  Sign of the Labrys is categorized as science fiction rather than fantasy.  Specifically, the ‘Guide to Subject Analysis for Fiction and Drama’ subject headings for the book are “science fiction,” “occult fiction,” and “dystopias.”  The Library of Congress Subject Headings are “Witches – Fiction” and “Paranormal fiction.”  Lastly, the ‘Book Industry Standards And Communications’ subject headings are ”Visionary & Metaphysical” and ”Occult & Supernatural.”

According to the back cover copy:
This Wiccan-themed science fiction novel was cited by Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons.  Enthusiasts of the role-playing game will recognize the forerunner of Castle Greyhawk and its labyrinthine setting of multiple levels connected by secret passages. . .
Most of the action in Sign of the Labrys takes place in a underground complex.  Apparently, the complex was inhabited as a result of the “great plagues” which transpired ten years prior to the start of the novel and killed 90% of humanity.  People regularly visit the surface without ill effect, but they choose to reside in the complex.  Although the plagues “have been in abeyance for years now,” the fear of contamination has caused people to isolate themselves from one another.  “People satisfy their sexual needs in fifteen-minute contacts,” we learn, “and run away from each other afterwards.”

One of the upper levels “consists of an apparently interminable series of interlacing arched arcades, part natural and part artificial . . .”  With regard to levels, the protagonist narrates:
     It is important to understand what a level is.  It is not much like a floor in an office building.  A level may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep, and subdivided into several tiers.  Also, access to them is not uniform.  The upper levels are simple and straightforward; one gets to and from them by stairs, escalators, or elevators . . .
     As one goes down, it gets difficult.  Entrances and exits are usually concealed.  The reason for this, I think, was partly to protect the VIP's in the lower levels from unauthorized intrusion, partly to provide a redoubt in case the ”enemy” was victorious, and partly because of the passion for secrecy that characterizes the military mind.
Aside from “stairs, escalators, or elevators,” there are also matter transmitters and anti-gravity tubes, but the existence of such things is not mentioned until the protagonist interacts with them.  Also, the transitions among the deeper levels tend to have guardians.  The protagonist seeks out a witch named Despoina even though he realizes she “might or might not have any real existence.”  In his journey, he descends to lower and lower levels.

Levels are identified by letters rather than numbers.  Tiers are indicated by a number after the letter.  The protagonist declares, “I walked along the dim corridor until I came to F1 (this is a tier, and different from F, which is a separate level).”

Level G is an ecosystem complete with groves of trees and a beach with “salt water and sand to sunbathe on.”  A denizen announces, “We even have tides.”  The level is inhabited by people (and their children) who were VIPs at the time of the great plagues.  Assuming the plagues were instruments of warfare, they sealed themselves off waiting for the end of a non-existent war.

The protagonist reaches Level H with the assistance of a dog with an extra brain.  Enduring hallucinations, he wanders through a stone labyrinth “for at least two days,” eventually reaching on office intended for the president of the United States.  The protagonist then descends to what turns out to be Level I (“the hidden nadir level”) with a floor of ice and with “great pillars, partly hewn and partly natural, that supported the roof.”  He then briefly encounters the witch before losing consciousness.

Later, the protagonist starts to develop Wicca powers as he becomes an initiate.  He is a reincarnation of “the male counterpart of the high priestess, the other focus of power in the circle.”  He recalls some sort of racial memory and is possessed by a “‘pattern of power’ that had been a man once, millennia ago.”

The experiences of the protagonist in Sign of the Labrys are similar to those of the protagonist in The Shadow People; he has a heretofore unknown mystic heritage and undergoes hallucinations while wandering underground.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

TIMESTORM (Part II) (spoilers)

Art by Stephen Sullivan

The commander of the Time Corps' Last Resort Division is named Bora and she is one of the Kleibor – an alien race from Pacesetter's STAR ACE® role-playing game.  Bora “looks like a giant, highly intelligent polar bear.”  Just what makes a polar bear look “highly intelligent” is left unstated.  Glasses?  Pocket protector?  Anyway, Bora assigns two missions to the player characters.  First, a Temporal Disaster Wave will “presumably wipe out the Time Corps' existence” in 18.5 SDS hours.  Second, the player characters must cope with a Time Storm by finding “the Parallel, time, and place where this Time Storm erupted, and prevent the storm from starting.”  Also, the player characters should “make whatever repairs [they] can to the Parallels [they] visit along the way.”  Actually, as the text makes apparent later on, preventing the Time Storm also undoes all of its effects.

The Temporal Disaster Wave (or TDW) evidently began when Arabic numerals were introduced to Augustan Rome.  As a result, “Mathematical science explodes. . .[and] the Roman Empire still thrives” until the 21st Century, at least.  A mission team was deployed two days previous.  Since they have not reported, “obviously, they did not succeed.”  So, the player characters must go back in time, tell the first team to desist, and assume their mission.  The send-off for the player characters is rather brusque in keeping with the urgency of the situation; however, they are also insulted as the briefing ends:
She glances at the side door, and it slides open to admit four alien agents.  (Kleibors have innate skills in telekinesis.)  Two 12-foot bears and three 8-foot brown lizards step inside.  They glance at you haughtily, and one asks,Gees, we aren't teaming up with them are we?
(I suppose 'Gees' is the diminutive form for the spiritual savior of 8-foot brown lizards.)  I would be inclined to reply with something like:  “Excuse me, I have to go save the Continuum – I hope your penny ante species manages to survive.”  Reptilians can be such jerks.

When the player characters go back in time and address the previous mission team – by astounding coincidence – the Time Storm touches down at the landing site.  Unless the player characters manage to get out of the way, they are taken by the Time Storm:
Whirling helpless in a black, disorienting void, you tumble and careen past countless other writhing, spinning beings.  Some are alien, some humanoid, but all are panic-striken and powerless.  Their screams are deafening, though it is difficult to separate the cries of other victims from the piercing howl of the tempest itself.
Eventually, the player characters find themselves on Parallel A-1023.  Herein lies the likely reason Timestorm™ has not been republished even though the rest of the TIMEMASTER™ catalog is available.  Parallel A-1023 represents the reality of Wabbit Wampage, a board game published by Pacesetter in 1985 and designed by Marc Acres.  You might as well cross-sell if you can.  Presumably, in order to republish Timestorm™, one must also have the Wabbit Wampage license.

Wabbit Wampage simulates a television cartoon with characters like Thugs Bunny.  One of these characters is depicted on the Timestorm™ cover, hand-in-paw with Cleopatra.  The Wabbit Parallel is one of “Violent, senseless mayhem,” as befits a cartoon.  We learn that “creatures on A-1023 never die; they simply get 'whomped,' soon returning to action.”  However, visitors to the Parallel – such as the player characters – remain mortal.  In a mailbox, the player characters find a note from their future selves who have (or will have) mail ordered cartoon chronoscooters from the Acme Company.  Once the letter is read, the cartoon chronoscooters arrive via parachute, which the player characters can use to continue the adventure in ancient Rome.  The letter contains the phrase:  “After a few hair-raising adventures. . .”  Given the puns of Wabbit Wampage, Acres should have used “hare-raising.”

Does this mean there's a Parallel for every game?  Is there a Parallel that consists of a chess (or chaturanga) board and beings that are the equivalent of the pieces?  More importantly, is there a Hungry Hungry Hippos Parallel?

The Temporal Disaster Wave was engineered by “Le Voleur, the infamous, mysterious renegade.”  Le Voleur's scheme was to threaten the existence of the Time Corps, demanding that they release his compatriot renegades from the Prison Parallel in order for him to negate the TDW.  Of course, a threat is only effective if the target is aware of it and Le Voleur has delayed issuing the threat.  This is because Le Velour “doesn't know how quickly the wave is advancing, and he wants to to leave the Corps with as little room to maneuver as possible.”

At the onset of his scheme, Le Voleur sent two henchmen to Al Capone's death and injected him “with a 58th century drug.”  Said drug had the effect of making “Capone appear lifeless, while holding his body in a state of suspended animation.”  The henchmen exhumed Capone the day after was buried and took him to Rome.  There, “Le Voleur revived Capone and cured him of his disease,” although he lacks medical skills.  Le Voleur then convinced Capone “to start up gangster operations” in Augustan Rome.
. . . Capone revelled in the chance to relive his “glory days” in an environment with, as he put it, “no feds and a wide open city.”  He recruited the lowest, most violent scum from the Roman streets, making them “soldiers” or “button men” in his new organization.  With the help of Le Voleur's band of renegades, he imported handguns, automatic weapons, [cars,] and clothing from the American 1920s.  He even received language implants from Le Velour's labs, so his men would look and speak just like “old time” Chicago gangsters.  In six months, Capone had taken over most of Rome's gambling operations.  Soon, his organization would conquer the liquor and slave trades too.
Remember, the Temporal Disaster Wave was started not by firearms or internal combustion engines in ancient Rome, but Arabic numerals.  We learn that the Praetorian Guard “would be willing to put an end to both [Capone] and his band of thugs, but the Emperor won't allow it (for what reason, the soldiers cannot imagine).”  The Emperor's reason is never disclosed.  In the course of the adventure, Capone attempts to double-cross Le Voleur and steal a time machine, but Le Voleur tries to escape, going back in time so as to “cancel the abduction of Al Capone.”  Which means the Temporal Disaster Wave would not have occurred.

Whether or not Le Voleur escapes, the Time Storm brings to Rome “three 4-foot cartoon rabbits” armed with a shotgun and chainsaws.  They appear at the dénouement of the TDW plot.  “Obviously,” we learn, “the wabbits are displaced from another Parallel, and the PCs should (as part of their Time Storm mission) return them to their natural home,” which is the Wabbit Parallel.  Returning the wabbits requires that the player characters defeat them.  The prospect is not easy since – as cartoons – they don't “seem the least bit dampened by. . .wounds.”  In order to conclude the mission successfully, the player characters must deliver the wabbits to Parallel A-1023, where the next adventure in the campaign takes place.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow People (spoilers)

Art by Jeff Jones

The Shadow People was published fifty years ago and it does not seem to have been reprinted in English; although an electronic version was made available a couple of years ago.  Why should I care about this book?  Well, I heard that it involved elves and the CIA.  Anything like that needs to be part of my life.  (Unfortunately, even though the CIA is mentioned in story, its actual presence is speculative.)  Perhaps more importantly, why should you care about this book?  The Shadow People is one of two Margaret St. Clair books listed in Appendix N.

First, let's talk about the cover.  The illustration is a worthy painting by Jeff Jones, but it's not something created specifically for the book.  The protagonist does use a sword; however, in the book's sixth paragraph, we learn that he has a “luxuriant moustache.”  As Schlock Value is wont to point out, the cover text is equivocal.  The front cover proclaims, “They came from Underearth to take over the world.”  The back cover exclaims, “The invasion of the hallucinogenic people from Underearth!”  Also on the back cover:
They had existed from time immemorial, hidden in a space warp far beneath the surface of the earth. Until now, their only form of nourishment had been a strange hallucinogenic grain.  Now they hungered for human flesh.  The earth was to be their stockyards and mankind their meat. . .
Rather than Tolkien elves, the elves in this book are more like the elves of folklore. They are creepy bastards that reside in Underearth (also called Otherworld).  At times, they venture into the world of men to steal items or people – hardly an invasion.  They consume a grain, atter-corn, which is hallucinogenic (and addictive).  The grain is hallucinogenic, not the people.  Also, atter-corn is not “their only form of nourishment.”  Aside from what foodstuffs they steal, they occasionally eat human flesh and have done so for ages. The elves couldn't form an invasion force if they wanted to, because when they scent their own blood (which has a “faint blue phosphorescence”), they start attacking one another.  So, there is no invasion, no taking over the world, and the earth is not to be their stockyards.  Then there's the “space warp far beneath the earth.”  There's no indication of a “space warp.”  It is possible that Otherworld may occupy a space distinct from physical reality, but it is usually described as something contiguous with our surface.  “Otherworld is big,” one character describes, “bigger than any of us on the surface realize, and it has many entrances. . . [and] runs in a belt around and under our world.”  The upper world is called the Bright World, the Clear World, and even Middle-Earth.

I suppose selling the story as an invasion with the future of humanity at stake is necessary marketing.  The actual story transpires on a much smaller scale.  In essence, the protagonist ventures into Underearth in order to rescue his girlfriend.  Acknowledging the basis of this plot, St. Clair has one of the characters refer to the  protagonist as “The new Orpheus.”  More broadly, the story is a quintessential hero's journey.

There are several types of elves:  white, black, gray, and green.  We are not educated as to the distinctions among them but “Green is the worst.”  One of the antagonists – Carl Hood – is a green elf who passes as human.  Elves and humans can interbreed, so he doubtless has some amount of human heritage.

The story begins in late 60s Berkeley and the hero, a journalist named Dick Aldridge, realizes that his girlfriend, Carol, is missing.  After spending the initial chapter trying to find her, he takes the advice of a woman named Fay and ventures into Underearth via the basement of the hotel where he resides.  Given her name, it will come as no surprise that her elf associations are eventually revealed.  Fay advises him to follow a “cold-odor-moisture gradient” which acts as a path to Otherworld.  Although the path is usually through “a chain of basements and cellars,” it sometimes surfaces.  He comes across one of Carol's earrings; this removes any doubt that Carol has indeed been kidnapped by elves.  Eventually, he finds a sword which turns out to be magical.  I found it suspicious that the hero would have such an easy time seeing in darkness and sensing the gradient, but happening upon a magic sword seemed downright contrived.  Yet it all has a good explanation.  After the Aldridge retrieves Carol and as they approach the water barrier that separates “the Bright World from Underearth,” Carl Hood re-appears.

Hood explains that Aldridge is “of elf descent,” but Aldridge doesn't believe him.  (“Your name – 'Aldridge' was originally 'eldrich,' or elfish – ”)  Fay warned Aldridge not to eat Otherworld food, but Hood causes Aldridge to ingest some atter-corn through a clever tick.  As a result, Aldridge is trapped in Underearth.  Hood also explains that he is the owner of the magic sword and he left it for Aldridge to find.  Since Aldridge can't return, he asks Hood to escort Carol back to the Bright World.  Carol doesn't like Hood, but she falls under his power.  This was all a convoluted plan by Hood to get Carol for himself.

Aldridge has various adventures in Underearth and even encounters two elves “copulating dog style.”  Through a fortuitous accident, Aldridge overcomes the effects of the atter-corn and he returns to the Bright World.  Although it seems to him that he spent only a few weeks in Underearth, nearly three years have passed in the Bright World.  St. Clair's projection of the future was clearly colored by the times in which the book was written.  America has become a police state where everyone is required to wear an “identity disk.”  Fay hides Aldridge in her apartment and manages to obtain an identity disk for Aldridge.  She conveniently works in a data center where she can “forge a record.”  His new identity is Richard Eldridge.  Eventually, Aldridge rescues Carol from Hood.

The Bright World is also called Middle-Earth because there is an over-world beyond human ken.  In the climax, we are treated to this description of this Macrocosmos:
The walls of the room seemed to shake like a curtain made of painted cloth.  Reality – the reality of our world – was being twitched aside.  In that moment I felt – I knew – that everything in our universe – galaxies, viruses, time, matter, energy, space, everything – was nothing but a flimsy cover for the horrors and splendors of a vaster cosmos than ours.  And these horrors and splendors were funneling down indescribably on the spot in which I stood.
One of the problems with The Shadow People is that it continues too long after the climax.  The story could have ended with chapter 16, but let's allow a chapter or two to wrap up the loose ends.  Chapter 18 presents appropriate closure but the book continues for three more chapters.  Perhaps the publisher demanded St. Clair bolster the page count.  A new character, Howard, is introduced on page 155.  Aldridge and Carol believe that Howard works for a “shadowy power.”  Likely possibilities include “[the] Mafia, CIA, [and the] internal-security agency.”  Howard obtained from Hood a small sample of atter-corn.  Howard's employers examined the sample and they want more; in fact, they want to cultivate it.  Hood is no longer around and Howard thinks Aldridge has information about the grain.  Howard addresses our hero as Aldridge, even though his name has been Eldridge since his return from Underearth.  This might be an indicator that Howard is aware of Aldridge's history but, since it's never followed up, it could just as easily be sloppy writing.

In the last chapter, Aldridge and Carol obtain a magic item – the Glain:
It was a dull, translucent pebble, like unpolished moonstone, about an inch and three-quarters in length.  One side was perfectly plain, the other bore a series of three concentric bosses.  There was no other marking.  The pebble had an air of great antiquity, of something that had been formed when tools were few and rude.
When activated:
There was no sense of limit or confinement in it; we stood within a deliciously glowing sphere, radiant as moonlight.  It was no color, all colors, the moon melted up and diffused into a glorious rainbow of colors.  They are different from the colors of the sun.
Regarding the effect of the item:
Carol didn't seem to be standing within anything.  There was no light around her, nothing.  She was just standing quietly in the thickening darkness.  But when I put out my hand toward her, I failed to touch her.  My hand didn't connect with her.  It was like an error of refraction.  She wasn't at the spot where she seemed to be.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


Art by Stephen Sullivan
Over the course of a page, the Timetricks supplement describes a theoretical concept called a Time Storm (two words):
A Time Storm is a series of completely random, unpredictable changes that could affect any number of Parallels, even intermixing people, things, and events among the Parallels.  To get some idea of what a Time Storm would be like, imagine a box of dry spaghetti.  Take the dry strands of spaghetti out of the box and lay them out, one next to the other, on the surface of a table.  You have a rough model of the Continuum now:  each strand of spaghetti is like a Parallel.   Now, imagine that you’ve cooked all those strands of spaghetti and dumped them in a heap on a plate.  That’s roughly what the Continuum would look like after a Time Storm.  And, just to make matters interesting, it is possible (at least in theory) that a Time Storm would never end; the tangling and mixing of people, things, and events from all Parallels could go on forever.
In 1986 – the year after the publication of Timetricks – Pacesetter released Timestorm™ (now one word).  At 96 pages, “Timestorm™ is a short campaign of six adventures, each one playable in an evening or two.”  The back cover admonishes, “These adventures are so tumultuous, so wild, and so deadly that we recommend you don't use regular Time Corps agents.”  Included with Timestorm™ are “eight ready-to-play heroes from the Corps' infamous 'Last Resort Division'. . .”  Timetricks describes this division:
          The Interparallel Tactical Command for Temporal Realignment is the most exclusive, elite force in the Time Corps.  This division consists of 500 hand-picked agents recruited from throughout the Continuum.  Included in the division are the duplicates of some of the greatest heros [sic] from both history and literature in over 100 Parallels. . .
          This division is reserved exclusively for two types of missions:  those that other agents have already tried and failed to accomplish, and those considered so dangerous, difficult, or both, that no other group of agents would have any chance for success.
With regard to the player characters provided in Timestorm™, we learn that “each one is a 'duplicate' of a hero or heroine from Earth's history.”  'Duplicate' in this sense means an analogue from a Parallel where the person had negligible influence on the timeline.  These characters are preferred for the Timestorm™ campaign in that each “has a special ability that PCs from the Earth Specialty Division do not have.”  Although eight characters are provided, “The optimum number of PCs is six.”  Half of the characters are male and the other half, female.  Here are synopses of the eight characters:

Presuming a lack of name recognition on the part of the consumer, the back cover informs us that she is “a Celtic warrior queen.”  In addition to Paranomal Memory (which all of the characters have), Boudicca has the Ignore Pain talent.  Her special ability is an “ancient Celtic battle cry,” which causes a single opponent to be terrorized if the opponent fails a Willpower check.  This ability can be used “against a given foe only once per encounter.”  Other than skills a Celtic warrior queen might be expected to have, Boudicca has the following skills at Master level:  Time Corps Stunner, Pilot, and Investigation.  (All of the characters have Time Corps Stunner and Pilot at Master level.)

Sgt. Striker, U.S.M.C.
About Striker, we are informed by the first sentence of his description:  “a gung-ho sergeant from the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I, is an almost unstoppable human fighting machine.”  Actually, there are suggestions that Striker is a veteran of WW2 rather than WW1; he was born in 1905 and his Historical Specialty is “United States and Japan, 1805 - 1945.”  His additional talents are:  Ignore Pain, Paranormal Talent Detection, Parallel Identification, and Temporal Tracking.  When Striker suffers an injury in combat, he takes only half damage with a successful Luck check.  (His Luck score is 56.)

Amelia Earhart
Timestorm™ describes her as:  “One of the greatest pilots of all time.”  Actually, Earhart was not a great pilot; she was a capable pilot with a knack for self-promotion.  If I were choosing a team of adventures and the fate of the Continuum was on the line, I would be reluctant to select someone whose career ended as hers did.  Fortunately, there are alternate, contemporaneous aviatrices; to name merely three:  Ruth Nichols, Elinor Smith, and Pancho Barnes.  Earhart's special ability regards aerial combat:  “she can choose which side has initiative in a given round” and she has a +20 attack modifier.

Robin Hood
“Since he is one of the greatest longbowmen of all time,” Robin can “fire two arrows at the same time” and he can “ignore completely the reload time required of other characters.”  His Longbow skill is 131, one less than his skill with Polearms or Swords.  (His Time Corps Stunner skill is 133.)  His Agility score is 80, which is the normal maximum, and his Dexterity is 78.  I can't find fault with Robin Hood, but I might be more inclined to select an archer with experience on a cosmic level; someone like Shen Yi.  If I had a concern with female representation in the party, I would consider Annie Oakley.

We learn, “Egalitarian values seem unnatural to her, and even as an agent of the Corps, Cleopatra longs for days when she held power on an almost world-wide scale.”  For a more 'egalitarian' heroine, I would select Mata Hari or either of the Claflin sisters.  Anyway, Cleopatra's special ability allows her “to gain the special attention and favor of individual human males.”  Her Personality score is 80 and she receives +20 modifier when making a Personality check.  An “NPC male falls in love with Cleopatra” on a “C” result.  Her paranormal talents include:  Telepathic Probe, Significance Sensing, Adaptation, Telepathic Sending, and (somehow) Demorean Telepathy.

This version of Merlin has adapted to technology since his recruitment by the Time Corps.  His skills include:  Computers, Demolitions, and Advanced Temporal Engineering.  Given that the Timestorm™ Introduction states that Advanced Temporal Engineering is necessary for the campaign, it would seem that Merlin is a requisite member of the party.  His special ability equates to three magic spells:  Dragon's Breath (projection of fog that Merlin and his companions can see through), Enchant Weapon (a melee weapon gains a +20 modifier), and Change Appearance (“This spell changes the appearance of one person or creature. . . [which] can be made to appear up to 50% larger or smaller than actual size.”)

Agatha Marple
Agatha Marple is a fictional personality “once removed.”  She arose from a spoof of the mystery novels written by Agatha Christie . . . who created the character Miss Jane Marple.  Unknown to Christie, Agatha Marple became part of historical reality on Parallel M-14. . .
Seriously?  Miss Marple?  The very Continuum is threatened and Miss Marple is on the 'Last Resort' team?  If Reality is about to be destroyed, I want a detective who can bust heads and take a punch; someone like Mike Hammer.

The description for this character begins, “Hercules originated on Parallel M-7, a Parallel where T-0's Greek mythology is a part of historical reality.”  Of course, Hercules isn't part of Greek mythology; he's part of Roman mythology.  Just go with Roman mythology if you want to use Hercules; otherwise, use his Greek name – Heracles.  Anyway, “Hercules” has a Strength of 100 and a Stamina of 120.  The normal maximum for both of these abilities is 80.  Whether Hercules or Heracles, I would rather not leave the fate of the universe in the hands of someone who flipped out and killed his family.  Why not give other strongmen a chance?  Milo of Croton, for instance.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Role-Playing Game as Marketing Gimmick

Art by Alex Lopez

Earlier this month, Wendy's – the restaurant chain – released a tabletop role-playing game, Feast of Legends (hereinafter Feast).  It is available as a free PDF.  (A hardcopy version was available at the New York Comic Con.)  Now that I've time to digest it, I provide my thoughts in this post.

First and foremost – Why?  Evidently, “There are 4.7 million RPG fans across the U.S. and 13.8 million worldwide, according to Google Analytics data cited by Wendy's.”  This fact and the extent to which RPGs have encroached upon popular culture are apparently sufficient for an ad agency (or marketing consultant or whatever they call themselves nowadays) to convince Wendy's that this demographic is important enough to solicit.  According to Ad Age, advertising agency executives playing RPGs is a thing, so it was only a matter of time until something like this saw the light of day.

At 97 pages, Feast is the product of eight months of work.  Although infused with tongue-in-cheek humor, Feast is a professionally rendered product with a workable system influenced by Fifth Edition.  (No writing credit is given and there is no concession to the Open Gaming License.)  Aside from the PDF, the Feast home page has a thirty second YouTube video, a rudimentary die roller, and the requisite DoorDash link.  What about the droves of hamburger consumers who aren't familiar with RPGs?  The Feast page also has a “New to This?” link.  However, page two of the PDF does a better job of concisely describing how role-playing games work.  Game Master advice (on page 36) includes appropriate statements like “The most important part of being a GM is to make sure the group is having fun” and “This is simply your template to create the best game possible for the players.”

Feast presents itself as both a rulebook and campaign.  The rulebook is 19 pages and the campaign, “Rise from the Deep Freeze,” has 35 pages.  The remaining pages consist of the covers, introductory material, art, a map of the setting, a character sheet, and five pre-generated characters.  The setting is Beef's Keep...
     ...where the nations have been splintered over major disagreements in how to treat the realm’s people.  Creepingvale and the United Clown Nations have led their people into a collective darkness known as The Deep Freeze.  While the world currently feels like a cold and desolate place, you reside in the one nation that remains a true beacon of hope: Freshtovia.
     Freshtovia is known for its lush fields; signature dishes; and redheaded queen, Queen Wendy.  As queen of Freshtovia, Wendy has clapped back at all attacks on her borders.  She is strong and has maintained her nation’s integrity despite the growing pressure of the other nations.
The marketing message is obvious; Wendy's serves only wholesome, fresh beef while the competitors foist ungodly, frozen beef upon their unsuspecting customers.

The basic mechanic of the system is to obtain a high result on a d20 roll.  A roll of 1 is considered “a big oops.”  A roll of 20 causes a character to enter “FEAST MODE,” the best possible outcome.  In combat, this means maximum damage and an additional roll with advantage.  Instead of short rests and long rests, there are snacks and meals.  Feast characters have “five main stats” (Strength, Intelligence, Charm, Arcana, and Grace).  For the most part, they are self-explanatory, but Strength represents both “physical and mental strength.”  To determine the score for a stat, 4d4 are rolled.  (This is supposed to reflect Wendy's “4 for $4” promotion.)  All five scores are  determined before assigning them.  Even an average roll (i.e., 10) offers a +1 bonus.  Starting Hit Points are also determined by rolling 4d4.

Instead of classes, there are 14 Orders – each based on one of Wendy's offerings (e.g., Order of the French Fries, Order of the Baconator, Order of the Asiago Ranch Chicken Club, et al.).  Orders provide:  Base Defense (like ascending Armor Class), Additional HP (if any), Other Bonuses (to stats), Skilled With (armor and weapons the character can use – characters receive a +1 on attacks with weapons with which they are skilled), and Cannot Use (prohibited armor and weapons).  Orders also provide one or more skills per level.  For example, 'Two Beef Patties' is a Level 1 skill of the Order of the Double Stack (“You can dually wield any weapons that don’t require two hands”).

Characters start with ten gold pieces.  There is no other coin denomination, which means that a nail costs 1 gold – the same as a blanket, a weaponized spoon, or ten feet of rope.  Characters “also start with a basic outfit, which can include clothing or armor that matches your character’s skills...a basic weapon or two if the Order you choose permits it...other basic tools or items that make sense for your character to carry...” and possibly a shield.  Examples of equipment that can be purchased include ukelele (7g), pigtail wig (4g), and strawberry lemonade (10g) which heals 1d12 hit points.

One important aspect of Feast is that the behavior of a player in real life can affect game mechanics that apply to his or her character.  Eating various Wendy's items will grant bonuses “for the entire duration of play for the day.”  These are called “buffs.”  As an example, eating Wendy's french fries confers “+1 to your Intelligence stat.”  By eating an item that matches the character's Order, the character will “gain advantage on all attack rolls for the day.”  This seems overpowered.  There are also “debuffs.”  A player eating food other than Wendy's during gameplay may detrimentally affect a character for the duration of the session.  A sub sandwich causes a -2 modifier to all Strength rolls (including attack rolls).  Consuming tacos inflicts a -2 modifier to all Arcana rolls.

I won't disclose spoilers for the multi-part adventure, but it includes puzzles and various activities.  We learn, “Each square on the table represents 5 feet of movement,” but no scale is provided for the maps.  Characters can encounter people with names like Chilbo Bacons and Frostina LaSpoon.  At various parts of the adventure, player characters gain a level.  Regardless of Order, each character gains 2d4 + 4 hit points upon reaching a new level. The adventure takes the characters to fifth level.  Since the Order descriptions only lists skills through fifth level, there is no means of improvement for characters once they finish the adventure.  Yet there is a larger world beyond the adventure; part six of the campaign is titled “Continued Adventuring.”  It describes additional locations and activities.  Page 83 provides a 'Karaoke Charm Rolls' table.  Characters can obtain exotic steeds at the Spicy Stables.  The listed attack for camels is 'spit' (1d6 damage).  The 3.5 SRD description of camels does not mention spitting; Feast is therefore superior in at least one aspect.  (1d6 damage might seem to be excessive, but Feast characters do not perish upon depleting their hit points, instead they “pass out from hunger.”)

Players are encouraged to describe their characters:
     Writing down a physical description of your character will help you and your party members be fully immersed in the experience.  Use your class [sic] to help inform the look and feel of the character you want to create.
     Oh, and don’t forget to give your new hero a super dope name.  People are going to be calling you that for the entire game, after all.
Yet the character sheet does not have a place to write such a description, although it has sections for Photo and Bio.

Presenting a free PDF is well and good, but if Wendy's wants me ordering their food, they need to provide premiums.  People in the YouTube comments are clamoring for figures.  I have another idea.  Page 7 has a representation of a d20 with a Wendy's cameo depicted on the '20' side.
This should be a real thing.  They can even call it a Wend20.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Return of Comic Book Creatures

Infrequently, your humble host provides examples of monsters from comic books now in the public domain.  (The previous posts are here, here, and here.)  Just in time for your Halloween edification, here are ten additional comic book creatures.

Captain Science #4; 1951, Youthful Magazines;
Art by Joe Orlando & Wally Wood
Great Klameth

Captain Science learns from a robot brain that “danger lies in the east [and] once more, men are being roused in fanatical fury by a promise of power.”  The person responsible is a ‘yellow peril’ villain with the wonderful (yet unlikely) name of Doctor Khartoum.  “His purpose,” the robot brain exclaims, “to take over the world!”  To this end, the insidious doctor “has set up headquarters in the ruins of the ancient temple of Klameth in the forgotten city of Btuh, deep in the Gobi Desert.”  The ancient priests evidently “found a way to bring SOMETHING  from another DIMENSION” via an altar/portal.  This extra-dimensional something is Klameth.  Like the ancient priests, Doctor Khartoum sacrifices young, nubile maidens to Klameth.  Captain Science and friends see this by means of “the viewing screen.”  The robot brain declares, “You must journey back into time and stop this danger before Doctor Khartoum has a chance to use it!”  Accordingly, the robot brain tells Captain Science how to make a time machine. The robot brain additionally states, “You must also learn the language of the Ancients, have dress like theirs, and a weapon to destroy this evil!”  Captain Science dutifully follows these instructions and, after traveling thousands of years back in time, “blasts the monster tentacle with hy-sonic rays, withering it . . .”  The hy-sonic (also spelled hi-sonic) rays “are also from another dimension” and are thus able to harm Klameth.  In an explosive incident, Captain Science makes use of a “tube,” the rays of which cause the temple to collapse and seal “the entrance off for good!”  After “rescuing the girls who were to be sacrificed,” Captain Science returns to the present just in time to witness Doctor Khartoum attempt to summon Klameth.  “Suddenly,” we are told, “there is a cataclysmic explosion and Klameth disappears forever and with him Dr. Khartoum.”  Captain Science explains that the robot brain had him “fix it so that whoever called Klameth forth again would be disposed of by hi-sonic rays.

Captain Science’s jaunt into the past was predicated on Doctor Khartoum’s successful summoning of Klameth.  (He saw it on the viewing screen.)  The reader may well wonder why the hy-sonic rays did not take effect at that time.  The reader should be assured that this is SCIENCE and if the reader had a robot brain, said brain could explain the details effusively.

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Tales from the Tomb #1; 1962,
Dell Publishing Co.; Art by Frank Springer
Mister Green

Speaking of extra-dimensional horrors, our next creature lives “within” a hooked rug.  For the comfort of Harry Felt, one of her boarders, kindly, old Mrs. Wittly places the rug “right by the bed, so’s you won’t have to put your bare feet on the floor.”  In reality, whatever comes into contact with the rug disappears with a loud snap.  When Harry accidentally drops a book on the rug, Mrs. Wittly assumes he has fallen into Mr. Green’s clutches.  Realizing this is not the case, Mrs. Wittly states:
Oh dear!  Mr. Green must have missed!  Well . . . so much the worse for you, Harry – Now Mr. Green will have to come out after you!  It makes Mr. Green quite peevish to have to come out after a body . . . He’s quite clumsy out of the rug . . . not nearly so efficient!  It’s always so . . . messy this way.  I’m sorry, Harry, Mr. Green must be fed!
We also learn that “Mr. Green needs one a night” and that he “can’t stay out too long!”   When out, Mr. Green seems nearly blind.

Once Mr. Green has fed, the rug can be touched with impunity.  Fresh stains are the only indicator that Mr. Green has dined.  The relationship between Mrs. Wittly and Mr. Green is curious.  She treats him like a pet, but it’s not as though they can ever interact.

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Amazing Man #26 (Meteor Martin feature); 1942, Centaur Publishing; Art by Basil Wolverton
Insect Monster of Gorikon

Square-jawed space hero, Meteor Martin, “was attacked by Martian warships while on moon patrol duty.”  A curious property of the “Martians’ blast ray disrupts atoms in such a way that all objects the ray strikes are turned into a negative condition,” causing such objects to transition to “a negative world – an invisible world inside our native universe!”  Said universe is occupied by Gorikon, an air-filled “galaxy of tiny planets.”  Unfortunately, Meteor and his companions find themselves in an insect’s trap – essentially a pond of quicksand.  Of course, if there’s an insect’s trap, there must be a responsible insect.  In this case, the insect is the size of an elephant.  Despite the injunction voiced in the illustration provided, the insect does indeed “get Rana!”  The insect rushes off “to toss Rana into a fiery pit . . .”  Armed only with a club, Meteor pursues.  Can Meteor prevail against the monster?  Will Rana be saved from blazing doom?  What will happen to the other fellows in the insect’s trap?  Sadly, we shall never know since the adventures of Meteor Martin did not continue past this installment.

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Weird Comics #6 (Blast Bennett feature);
1940, Fox Feature Syndicate; Art by Don Rico
The Unknown Horror

While walking in his garden, Lex, beloved ruler of New-America, is “bitten by the deadliest of all snakes – the winged snake!”  (“The winged snake!,” a physician exclaims, “Great thunder – not that!”)  We learn that, “Far off in the unexplored planet of Kolzo, there is a monster whose blood will cure Lex – but that monster is ‘The Unknown Horror!’”  So, contrary to the notion of “unknown,” there is an awareness that the horror (1) exists, (2) resides on Kolzo, and (3) has blood with curative properties.  Blast Bennett – last seen on Planet Alpo – is recruited to obtain some of The Unknown Horror’s blood.  (Although Lex is “mortally wounded,” he can apparently resist death while Blast goes on a “long trip . . . into unchartered [sic] space.”)  Blast and his youthful sidekick, Red, come across “a planet that isn’t on any of our maps!”  Blast jumps to the conclusion that “it must be Kolzo!”  After landing, Blast and Red soon encounter a monster “blowing smoke and fire from its nostrils!”  Somehow, they realize this monster is The Unknown Horror.  The monster easily resists one shot from Blast’s “explosion gun,” but eventually succumbs to two shots that Blast fires from behind.

A normal person sent to retrieve a blood sample would likely carry a container intended for such a sample.  Yet Blast Bennett is not a normal person; he “scoops up . . . blood in his glove” where it remains for the duration of the “long trip” back.  Rather than a nickname, perhaps “Blast” is a pejorative (as in “Blast, Bennett . . . What were you thinking!?”).

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Strange Suspense Stories #55; 1961,
Charlton; Art by Bill Molno & Vince Alascia
Winged Snake

Although having the same name, this winged snake is a much larger variety than the New-American type referenced in the above listing.  In fact, rather than a winged snake, this creature seems more like a giant eagle with a snake tail and scaly highlights.  Although it is twice referenced as “the crawling bird,” the monster flies about “in a hot, brilliantly lighted mammoth cavern” within an Andean mountain.  Said cavern is connected by tunnel to an Incan sun temple.  Stuart Baintree, an American archeologist fires a shot at the monster.  Because the winged snake “passed too close to the heat . . . or one of Baintree’s slugs grazed its head . . . the flying horror landed on the cavern floor!”  Baintree checks to see if it’s dead and monster comes to life, taking off with Baintree on it’s back.  An English speaking Incan princess toss a scepter to Baintree, who uses it to bludgeon the the creature to death.  Now that the winged snake is dead, the princess “can leave here at last!”  (Yet, the princess appeared out of the cavern earlier in the story.)

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White Princess of the Jungle #4; 1952, Avon Periodicals; Art by ?
Swamp Beast

Speaking of princesses, Taanda, “white princess of the jungle,” is the enemy of the swamp beast.  Regarding its origin:
     Five million years ago a small particle of matter swooped down from space and fell into the ocean.  There it remained, dormant and harmless - -
     - - - Until a storm lashed the planet in gigantic fury.  This was no ordinary storm - - planet Earth was undergoing physical and chemical changes! - - And the spore began to evolve - - -
     Eons of time passed - - Slowly, Earth’s surface changed - - Oceans grew larger and deeper.  Slowly, the spore developed into an embryonic creature that gulped down whatever swam by - -
     As the years went by it increased in stature - - Finally, it ventured out of the water - - strong enough to devour any jungle beast - - -
The swamp beast is brought to the attention of Taanda after it devours several villagers.  “It is like Karnok, the octopus,” the jungle princess observes, “yet it has the body of a giant slug!”  Thrown spears “fall harmlessly from the hide of the swamp beast.”  Fire doesn't bother it.  Planes are called in to defeat it, but to no avail.  Taanda concludes, “We must try trickery!”  Fortunately, Tanda notices the monster's “red spot.”  She swims underneath the thing and stabs it (presumably in the aforementioned spot) causing it to die.  So, a white jungle princess accomplishes what bullets and bombs could not.  Let that be a lesson to you.

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Weird Thrillers #4; 1952,
Ziff-Davis; Art by George Tuska

We learn, “The octeel is part octopus and part electric eel!”  It thrives in the water caverns of Genero, a “small planet in the second universal orbit!”  An “electro-bolt gun” is useless against it because “the bolts of current are merely absorbed by the rubbery flesh of the octeel!”  A “brilliant young scientist” arranges the defeat of the creature by using a cable to connect a “jet spar” to a space ship's generator.  After he “plunges [the makeshift harpoon] deep into the monster's flesh,” electric current from the generator kills the octeel.  The scientist explains:
. . . I guessed right that that the monster's body current was positive!  That bolt of negative current from the ship's generator worked perfectly!  When that harpoon hit it, the circuit was complete!  My freind, we short-circuited the octeel . . .
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Alarming Tales #1; 1957,
Harvey Comics; Art by Jack Kirby
Plant Men

Professor Horace Googer, “tops in bio-chemistry,” developed seeds that “were human in form!”  Googer cultivated these plant men in his “chemical gardens,” likening the process to the legend of Cadmus.  (Kirby would would use the term again in his later work for DC Comics.)  Googer wants to monetize his “boys” and describes their usefulness to a business man:
They never tire!  They like to fight - - They’re powerful and aggressive - - Oh!  One other detail...bullets can’t hurt them, you know! - - You can’t destroy plants with bullets - - and that’s what they are - - plants!
Googer meets an untimely end, having “turned a wrong valve or something during an experiment and blew himself sky-high!”  Twenty plant-man survive the accident and the aforementioned business man decides to “assume full responsibility for them!”  What practical use does he put the Googer’s creation?
The plant men took to competitive athletics like ducks to water! . . . They’re unbeatable in the pro-football leagues! . . .One of them became a contender for heavyweight champion of the world!
◇  ◇  ◇

Gorgo #16; 1963, Charlton; Art by Steve Ditko

These creatures are also examples of humanoid vegetation, but unlike the plant men, the chloryllfids came into existence as a result of an atomic explosion:
...In the ocean depths where the center of the bomb had detonated in a huge kelp bed, a strange mutation had taken place . . . a living, biped vegetable grew rapidly in the smashed kelp bed, a fetid horror, spawned by radiation from the deadly bomb . . . They grew to huge size then broke free of their roots and stalked the ocean floor!
The chloryllfids are dangerous and voracious.  Upon invading an island, they consume all of the animal life there, including a jaguar.  (You know, one of those south seas jaguars.)  A scientist claims, “I cannot find a way to kill them . . . and I’ve tried everything!”  We learn that, “Each new lethal plant would spread its own seed until millions of the men-killers would be harvested to swarm over the Earth destroying all that man had built in centuries, destroying man himself!”  How can mankind survive such a threat?  Just have giant, prehistoric reptiles eat the chloryllfids.  (I guess the scientist doesn’t consider giant, prehistoric reptiles to be part of “everything.”)

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Forbidden Worlds #3; 1951,
American Comics Group; Art by King Ward
Atomic Creatures

An atomic bomb is also prominent with regard to these beings.  Even given the peculiar circumstances of comic book creatures, these atomic creatures are outstanding in their strangeness.  Their origin – to the extent I can comprehend it – follows.  So, there’s this two-fisted American scientist in charge of an experiment to detonate an atomic bomb “twenty miles up into the stratosphere!”  Commies attack the army base in a desperate attempt to sabotage the experiment.  As a result of the fracas, the high altitude balloon carrying the bomb launches.  Along for the ride are the scientist and his fiancée, who manage to survive in outer space.  The scientist guesses, “we’ve absorbed enough atomic rays from the fissionable material inside the bomb to enable us to withstand the extreme cold and lack of oxygen!”  (Also, the scientist’s voice somehow carries in a vacuum.)  Eventually, “the balloon and its deadly burden settle on a weird of the small nameless planets that sometimes enter the solar system from the outer limits of space!”  The subworld is inhabited by spirits (?) who were once human evil-doers.  By exploding the bomb, these spirits believe they will be changed into “mortal beings,” allowing them to invade Earth.  (Still with me?)  The explosion indeed causes the spirits to become mortal but “the creative force of the atomic blast” brings into existence entities “black and brutish - - as primitive as the rock from which they were formed.”  Although having “mute and groping minds,” the atomic creatures are opposed to evil and the confront the one-time spirits.  Once the former spirits are defeated, the scientist opines about the atomic creatures:  “They may not have minds or souls, but they sprang from the basic matter of the universe - - - the very source of life!  That means they’re good - - - ”  After the scientist uses “repeated gestures,” the atomic creatures project a molecular beam that carries the scientist and his fiancée “through space to the Earth’s atmosphere!”  Upon reaching Earth, “an invisible force checks the hurtling flight.”

The fiancée queries, “Do you think we’ll ever be able to explain what we’ve been through…?”

To which the scientist replies, “I’m not even going to try, honey!”

I doubt even a robot brain could make sense of this.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Timemaster Screen (spoilers)

Many role-playing games of the early 80s offered a Gamemaster Screen as an accessory and TIMEMASTER™ is no exception.  However, in its case, the proper name is Timemaster Screen.  I guess they thought 'Continuum Master Screen' had too many syllables.  The screen itself is three panels of cardboard.  The CM's side has a black & white Action Table and various tables of movement and combat modifiers.  It conveys pertinent information capably.  How may wound boxes does a medium horse have?  13.  Helmets have what Immunity Type?  B.  How many rounds does it take for a specialist to reload a crossbow?  10.

The players' side is not as fulsome.  On one panel is displayed the skills chart which is useful when creating characters.  However, in the Travellers' Manual, the skills chart extends over two pages.  To condense the chart to one panel, some information was removed; specifically, the 'Date Avail.' column is absent.  Yet the Notes related to that column are still displayed:
Date.  The earliest time period in which the skill was available.  This affects the skills available to newly created characters.
Any non-American.  This skill is not available to newly created characters born in the Americas before 1521, when the Spanish introduced the horse to the continents.
This is somewhat simplistic.  It's not as though horses were immediately available throughout the Americas as of 1521.  What about places other than the Western Hemisphere?  Horses weren't in Japan until the late Yayoi period and they didn't reach Australia until 1788.  This defies the notion of “any non-American.”  Sometimes it's better to forgo detail and prevail upon common sense.

The other two panels of the players' side are actually the front and back covers of the product.  Some of the back copy reads:
The TIMEMASTER™ Screen puts the important charts and tables from the TIMEMASTER game right at the CM's fingertips.  Inside you'll find four blank character sheets and MISSING: PT 109 – a high-action mini-adventure that features new rules for combat at sea.
As usual for Gamemaster Screens, a “mini-adventure” was included as an additional feature.  Design of the mini-adventure is attributed to TSR veteran Carl Smith, who is also credited with 'Additional Design and Development' in the Travellers' Manual.  Smith's name appears on the front and back covers.  The top of the back cover reads, “TIMEMASTER™ SCREEN by Carl Smith.”  Presumably, this refers to the mini-adventure, not the screen itself.  A significant portion of the back cover is devoted to a map (shown left).  Unfortunately, it's not needed for the adventure and lacks important details like 'scale' and 'north'.  Otherwise, the back cover has some teaser text describing the Amagiri - PT 109 incident.  This is followed by a notice that Nixon was elected in 1960, suggesting some sort of cause and effect relationship.

The 16 page booklet packaged with the Timemaster Screen contains the mini-adventure as well as the “four blank character sheets” mentioned above.  Each character sheet has on its reverse an Action Table and essential combat details.  The four character sheets comprise the eight center pages of the booklet.  They are perforated so that they can be easily separated from the booklet and one another.  Other than the material on the reverse, the Timemaster Screen character sheet differs from the Travellers' Manual version by having nine additional lines on the “Skills” and “Times Visited” columns.

The much vaunted “new rules for combat at sea” are attributed to Mark Acres and they occupy one entire page.  As opposed to the scale for land combat, naval combat has hexes of 300 yards and each turn represents a minute of time.  Of note are rules for new weapons (like torpedoes) and naval vessel damage (one possibility is “Hull hit; ship will sink in 2d10 hours unless repaired”).

Two-thirds of the last page of the booklet is devoted to credits and two pre-generated characters:  Timothy O'Malley (an Irish veteran of World War I) and Michael Whitehorse (a Native American of the 19th century).  This leaves 6⅓ pages for the mini-adventure.  A special rule for Stealth is included “that is not a regular part” of the TIMEMASTER™ rules.  “Throughout the adventure,” we read, “characters may use this skill for the benefit of the entire party, not just themselves.”

In the Time Corps briefing, the player characters are informed that John Fitzgerald Kennedy died in 1989 and was an “Oil magnate whose dealings with Third World countries contributed to the decay of the Western economies.”  They also learn, “The Sentinel reports that Kennedy's life is pinpricked with a slew of Demorean contacts.”  Apparently, the Sentinel determines that the “Demorean penetration occurs on Olasana Island, just before the crew of PT 109 arrives.”  So, the player characters – in the in the guise of U.S. Navy personnel – go to “the Soloman (sic ) Islands” on August 4, 1943.  “Another Time Corps team has left a PT boat” for the player characters to pilot to Olasana Island before Kennedy and crew encounter the natives that will bring about their rescue.  Supposedly, “under the most likely conditions [the player characters] will have one day” to disrupt the Demorean plot.

The point of having the player characters use a PT boat is so they will engage in combat encounters (using the new naval combat rules) against the Japanese.  This allows the mini-adventure to be “high-action.”  I mean, if the player characters operated a medical vessel, they could avoid combat.  Female characters could plausibly be on a medical vessel, but certainly not a PT boat.

The Demoreans have established a faux Japanese POW camp on Osalana Island.  If the player characters are defeated in the combat encounters, the Japanese will take them to this camp.  How do the Japanese know about this camp given that (1) it was established “just before the crew of PT 109 arrives” and (2) it is not a legitimate Japanese facility?

The player characters' PT boat has three combat encounters.  The first encounter is with a destroyer.  Although it is not specifically named as the Amagiri, the historical changes chart at the end of the adventure implies it.  If the player characters sink the ship (or continue to damage it after it is disabled), they are penalized significance points.  The second encounter is with two Japanese patrol boats.  The commander of one of them is named Lt. Fubuki.  (The Amagiri is a Fubuki-class destroyer.)  The player characters are penalized significance points for each death they cause among the crew.  The last encounter is with a Zero.  The player characters lose significance points “if they shoot down the Zero after it has begun its retreat.”

Kennedy is unconscious in the POW camp as one of the Demoreans attempts to “Dominate” him.  Domination is one of the Demorean paranormal talents.  “To use this PT,” the Travellers' Manual states, “a Demorean must first spend one full day near his victim...”  If the Demorean successfully uses the talent, then domination over the victim progresses in stages.  At Stage 5, “The victim follows any suggestions or plans the Demorean gives him.”

If the player characters fail their mission, history is altered in various ways.  One possibility is that “Japanese domination of the world automobile market is delayed five years” because one of the soldiers killed “would have become a top automotive engineer.”  In the worst possible outcome:
The end of World War II is delayed by six months, allowing the U.S.S.R. to enter the war.  Soviet expansion in the Pacific is checked during the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, but proceeds apace after his death in 1963.  A major war over Pacific holdings erupts in 1969; the nuclear holocaust of 2054 occurs in 1970 instead.
Wait, wasn't the whole point that JFK doesn't become president?