Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tabletop Roleplaying Review: RuneQuest 2nd Edition

    I cut my teeth on “Worlds of Wonder” from Chaosium, which used their Basic Roleplaying System. That’s the same core game mechanic (rules) as “Call of Cthulhu,” “Stormbringer,” and of course, “RuneQuest.”  And I know that I used to flip through the "RuneQuest" books when I was first starting out, looking for little ideas and variations I could use in my own games. But I don’t think I ever really embraced the game or its world, Glorantha.

    When I heard that the folks at Moon Design were working with Chaosium, including some of the original developers, to bring back the classic edition of the game, I figured I had to chip in, so I supported their Kickstarter campaign. My hardcover copy recently arrived and I’ve been picking through it for the last week.

The first thing I noticed is that this game is very much of its time. Now, I don’t mean that to be too harsh, but as I read through it, I was reminded of a lot of the things about early roleplaying games (rpgs) that were problematic or frustrating for me. Thankfully, the core mechanic of this game is fairly easy and intuitive. But explanations can get a bit obtuse, and frankly, the game is far, far more ‘crunchy’ than I enjoy. (Crunchy is a term applied to games with more complicated, often math heavy rules). There are still some pretty strong traces of strategy games and miniature combat rules floating through the book.  That’s fine for folks who are into that kind of thing, and the gods know, "D&D" is still sick with it.  But it’s not my thing, and I don’t feel like it’s as present in some of the other Basic Roleplaying System games ("Call of Cthulhu" being the one I’ve had the most experience with). I kept finding myself thinking; “well, I wouldn’t use that,” or “I’d cut that whole bit out.” Not that there’s anything wrong with modifying rules to fit your style, I just found myself doing more mental editing of these rules than I’ve done to any in a long time.

    The second thing that struck me about "RuneQuest" that I really didn’t remember from reading it as a lad is that it’s a Bronze Age game, not a Medieval game. It’s a very, very High Fantasy Bronze Age game.  Magic and gods are real, frequent, and important to everyday life. There are parts of it that feel almost like Tolkien’s “Silmarillion,” they’re so out there. And while there are obvious callbacks to Tolkien and European mythology, the setting has its own vibe going on. There are hints of Sumerian and Greek, bits of maybe Mesoamerican, and other stuff that’s just pure fantasy. In this High Fantasy/High Magic world, there are lots of different intelligent species, and things we’re not used to being intelligent that can talk and do other things. It’s certainly not my usual type of Fantasy setting, having more of Narnia than expected. But it could be interesting for a change of pace. It’s probably the closest to a "Dungeons & Dragons" game I’d likely run (well, maybe "Earthdawn"…). But at least it doesn’t have levels and alignments.

    Overall, "RuneQuest 2nd Edition" is a nice little look back at the early days of gaming, and a much better alternative to "D&D." But it’s also a reminder of how far games have come, and I don’t know how likely I am to ever run it. Too much number crunching, too much paperwork, and maybe a bit too much regimentation. Still, I find the Glorantha setting intriguing. It’s very much not the kind of Fantasy I tend to like, and very much not the sort I’d be inclined to run a game in. But it has enough of that ‘old school gaming’ vibe, without the terrible base mechanics of "D&D" (or "Rolemaster," or some of the others of the era). I don’t know. Maybe, if I had a group of friends who wanted something more in the vein of 70s rpgs...Maybe I’d give it a go. I’d still probably strip some of the more unwieldy bits.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Comic Review: Wonton Soup

    A couple years ago, I read James Stokoe’s awesome “Godzilla: Half-Century War” and knew that here was a comic artist/writer to watch. A lot of comic artists think they can write and are totally wrong, so it’s nice to see one who actually can. With “Wonton Soup” Stokoe lets his imagination and bent sense of humor off the chain. Someone called it a mix of “Iron Chef” and John Carpenter’s “Dark Star.” OK. I’ll give him that. But I also see a lot of the kinda cruel humor of “Lexx,” too.

    The story is about a couple of space truckers, one a prodigy chef who’s left school to taste life, the other a spaced out sex fiend losing himself in narcotics and anyone (or thing) that’s willing. They go around getting into trouble, eating and smoking whatever they can get their hands on. It’s stoner comedy, with meta references and a wild sense of fun (tinged with some bitterness).  The art is surprisingly vibrant for black & white, with Stokoe’s usual sense of strange.

    My only complaint about the book is that it’s sort of food porn, but the food is all Dr. Seuss nonsense.  I mean, it makes sense in the context of the story, but part of me kept wanting the cooking scenes and food parts to be more serious and real. Probably a completely unfair expectation, but I couldn’t help it. I found the sometimes extensive food porn parts less exciting because I couldn’t sample anything or use any of the techniques myself. Silly, huh?

    Years ago, I worked with an artist to write a short comic called “ProxyFight.” We worked long and hard on the six pages. Both of us were fans of “Lexx” and other weird science fiction films, TV shows, and books. Reading “Wonton Soup” made me so nostalgic for my time working on “ProxyFight” and all the other stuff the artist and I had planned to follow up that short with. Alas, that never happened, but I still have those memories.  By far the best collaborative experience I’ve had. It made reading "Wonton Soup" oddly personal.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Comic Review: American Barbarian

“I’m heading out to kick some more ass, but I need an army...Anybody want to come with me?”

    If you enjoy the wilder side of comics, you have to look to Tom Scioli.  Clearly an artistic descendant of Jack Kirby, Scioli’s storytelling is balls-out crazy. I first came across his work on Godland, a wild take on The Fantastic Four.  But after meeting him at a convention, I had to read The Myth of 8-Opus, which was marvelously weird.  And then...And then he took on Transformers VS G.I. Joe.  Holy Mother of Crap. I’ve been sitting on American Barbarian for a while, now.  But this week, it was time.

“I’ve got God’s balls right here!”

    Like some kind of 70s, Saturday morning cartoon, jacked up on some hard drugs, and pumped up with unchained comic book imagination, American Barbarian tells an odd tale. The red, white, and blue haired warriors who have traditionally defended a good kingdom have produced an ultimate incarnation.  When a giant, evil, Egyptian Pharaoh with tanks for feet roars across the world, only one man can stand in his way.  Well, one man and a bunch of other weirdos he recruits for the efforts.


    It kept reminding me of weird stuff like the Thundarr The Barbarian cartoon and Killraven comics.  But with Scioli’s particular brand of over the top weirdness. It’s a refreshing bit of fun that absolutely revels in the comic book medium, blazing with colorful splash pages and likes of insane dialog.  A must read.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Comic Review: Battling Boy

    Paul Pope is one of those names in the comic field I’ve heard bandied about for many years, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from him.  I saw Battling Boy go by once upon a time and purchased it with little reason. I finally picked it up this week and gave it a go.

    Playing with various comic tropes and variations on classic characters has become almost a subgenre in itself.  This one takes us to a world kinda like our own, but with a dieselpunk twist. A major metropolis (here called Arcopolis) is under siege by a chaotic wave of various monsters. It is protected by a Rocketeer-type hero, but things don’t go well. In the meantime, the son of a Thor-like god-hero is nearing his coming of age, and is sent down to this troubled world to become a man. Pretty simple, but it works. There are a lot of little nods to comic book traditions.

    The art is weird and a bit ugly, but in a charming way. And it’s colorful, with a peculiar color palette. It works fairly well for the story and setting, especially when it comes to the monsters. There is some clever work in the dialog and a pretty good story. If I can complain about anything, it’s that the book doesn’t feel complete. I don’t just mean that it’s open for continuation, but that it feels like it should have been half again as long, with a bit more of a conclusion.  Still, it’s good and worth a read.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Comic Review: Old City Blues 2

    Giannis Milonogiannis takes us back to New Athens, 2049. More cases of cyber-crime hit the city, and the Special Police have to figure it out and take it down. The second volume of this old-school style cyberpunk comic series is more of the same. But that same is some very enjoyable stuff.

    The writing is quick and confident. The art leans far more into the realm of manga/anime than I like, but not so far that I couldn’t make my way through. A lot of Cyberpunk anime draws pretty blatantly from William Gibson specifically among genre titans, and this does the same. I was frequently reminded of Count Zero and some stories from Burning Chrome.  Evil megacorporation; scientist pushing things too far, cyber-psychosis, the slums, cyborgs, and some explosions. But it’s all handled well, and worth reading for genre fans.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: Old City Blues

    I’m a longtime Cyberpunk nerd.  William Gibson, Blade Runner, the works.  Giannis Milonogiannis dives into the classic tropes of the genre, filtering it through the Cyberpunk anime of the 80s and 90s, without picking up too many of the latter’s bad habits.

    The story is pretty typical of this sort of thing.  Cops VS corporations, corruption and cyborgs, and of course, A.I. and transcendence. But it’s all a lot of fun to read, and with a good use of rough artwork to create a mood. And the setting, a post flood, reconstructed Athens, Greece is certainly different.

    The stories are efficiently told, without seeming too rushed.  It took me back to some of the things I enjoyed in Cyberpunk years ago. If you’re into it, too, check out Old City Blues.

-Matthew J. Constantine

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Book Review: Cthulhu’s Reign

    “When the stars are right…”  Throughout the ever expanding Lovecraftian circle of weird fiction, there is an impending doom.  People who set themselves against the powers of the Great Old Ones and various cosmic menaces are fighting a holding action, a war of delays.  Eventually, the Universe will shift and Humanity as we know it will fall.  In some versions, we will become so alien ourselves that we will simply meld into the inhuman world to come.  In other versions, we will be swatted away like gnats.  But that doom lurks inevitably in our future.  With the Darrell Schweitzer edited anthology Cthulhu’s Reign, that future has come.  Here are stories set during or after that ending of all our tomorrows.

    After recently reading the really solid anthology Rehearsals For Oblivion, I was surprised and happy to find another anthology filled with solid stories. Not every one was a classic, but I don’t think there was a dog in the bunch. I’m not a fan of authors playing with tense, I’ll admit. So Mike Allen’s ‘Her Acres of Pastoral Playground’ didn’t thrill me.  I’m a traditionalist.  I like third person or first person, past tense; and first person only when done well.  But that’s my own literary prejudice.  Anyway, many of the stories were quite good, capturing very different moods and different versions of life under the crushing heel of apocalyptic revelations.  Brian Stableford’s ‘The Holocaust of Ecstasy’ is probably the weirdest, most out there of the stories.  Fred Chappell’s ‘Remnants’ leans further into the realm of outright science fiction than you often get with Mythos stories, which I enjoyed.

    If you’re into Cosmic Horror or Apocalyptic Fiction, this book has plenty to enjoy.  It’s a different take on themes Lovecraftian, a different angle to enjoy the Mythos from.  And there are lots of interesting ideas in it for readers who also enjoy tabletop roleplaying in the sandbox of Lovecraft and his disciples, as I do.

-Matthew J. Constantine