Armagideon Time

Knowin’ what to keep

September 20th, 2018

On a warm summer’s eve
On a shuttle bound for the outlet mall
I met up with the tailor
We were both too tired to sleep
So we took turns a-starin’
Out the window at the Tire Center
The boredom overtook us,
And he began to speak

He said, “Son, I’ve made a life
Out of fillin’ people’s closets
Knowin’ what their waistlines were
By the way they carried their guts
So if you don’t mind me sayin’
I can see you need a new wardrobe
For slightly less than retail
I can probably hook you up.”

So I told him my measurements
And he took out his tape
Then double checked my inseam
And the chalk he used was white
And the night got deathly quiet
And his face lost all expression
He said, “If you’re gonna wear the clothes, boy
You gotta learn to wear them right

You’ve got to know when to tumble roll ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to run a cold cycle
So the colors won’t run
You never adjust your waistline
After eating a full Roaster meal
There’ll be time enough for adjusting’
When the poopin’s done

I went into the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay with a truckload of reservations, but ended up genuinely impressed that revised game managed to improve upon the original in almost every regard. So impressed, in fact, that I decided to check out Green Ronin’s other big foray into the fantasy RPG realm —

– the Blue Rose setting and system, released in 2005.

The chatter around the game informed me that it focused on “romantic fantasy” and that it had generated a bit of controversy in some quarters. It shouldn’t be shocking to anyone familiar with the geek scene that the latter was due to the former.

“Romantic fantasy” is the polite way of referring to what my adolescent circle of nerdboys used to call “that girly crap.” Think the “Earthsea” books or Mists of Avalon or Mercedes Lackey’s novels — character-driven which emphasize social/personal relationships over faux medieval muscleboys sticking their (figurative or literal) swords into shit. The subgenre tends to be fairly diverse — in terms of authorship, readership, and material — with a strong slant towards what the kids today call “wokeness.”

Blue Rose is set in a fantasy world where an egalitarian monarchy and its allies face challenges from rival nations and peoples who, for the most part, are more ignorant than evil, more oppressed than malevolent. Magic is an everyday thing, talking animals are common, and cultural tolerance is a given. The game’s art direction is suitably wispy and ethereal, evoking an Alphonse Mucha meets Charles Vess kind of vibe.

The game made use of the “True d20″ system, a variant of the familiar d20 rules streamlined for both ease of use and a greater emphasis on social interaction. The handful of character classes follow familiar archetypes, but modified to fit the setting and given an open-ended progression structure. (It’s very much along the lines of the customizable “templates” from Mutants & Masterminds, another Green Ronin offering.) Besides laying out the structure and details of the game world, the gamesmaster section of the core rulebook also addresses topics such as accessibility and player maturity in terms of handling some facets Blue Rose‘s themes and setting.

In a lot of ways, it’s the type of system I was seeking when I tried adapting Talislanta towards a more JRPG/anime focus. You could easily create the cast of the original Phantasy Star videogame with just the core character creation rules. Blue Rose is a conscientiously crafted take on a popular subgenre which had been woefully under-served in the role-playing realm. Though the end results may have been a little on the twee side, it ably accomplished with it set out to do.

So of course a vocal segment of knuckledraggers dedicated a portion of their sad lives towards whining about it. I mean, god fucking forbid there exist one fantasy gaming system that didn’t directly pander to their interests or was aimed at a target demo of “not necessarily them.” “The setting isn’t realistic,” complained dipshits who had no problems with wizards lobbing fireballs at giants or bags of holding or all the other nonsense they will spew if you’re stupid enough to give them a chance to. Blue Rose wasn’t going to to erase your Pathfinder character sheet, lads and I’m pretty certain no one is going to draft you into their romantic fantasy campaign, either.

My favorite thing about Blue Rose has nothing to do with the setting or themes or manchild tears, however. The book uses the same font and similar formatting as Green Ronin’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay releases. Most of the time, the context makes it easy to tell them apart, but there have been moments where I’ve glimpsed over at a fluff fiction sidebar expecting an overwrought edgelordy tale of some chaos warrior eating babies and found a bittersweet story about the romance between two genderfluid villagers.

The role-playing scene could do with more moments of cognitive dissonance such as that.

You had better do as you are told

September 18th, 2018

The text:

They say you better listen to the voice of reason.

My mental image:

But they don't give you any choice 'cause they think that it's treason.

Back around the turn of the Millennium, Rhino issued a set of compilations titled The Postpunk Chronicles. The three-disc series followed up on the label’s previous DIY, Just Can’t Get Enough, and Faster & Louder collections, offering meticulously curated snapshot of a bygone scene accompanied by detailed liner notes.

Despite the title of the series, postpunk — as per the commonly understood meaning of the genre tag — was only part of the package. The individual installments weren’t short on spiky, minimalist odes to emotional detachment and political alienation, but those tracks were rounded out by scores of other jams pulled from the “college radio” playlists of the Eighties. Postpunk, synthpop, melodic indie rock, and “Paisley Underground” fare were tossed into the over-the-counter version of the mixtapes mopey undergrads used to circulate during ancient times.

I bought all three discs when they first came out, mainly because I’m a sucker for one-stop omnibus jobbers of familiar and new-to-me material. The former rekindles (or reinforces) my love and also greases the rails for the latter, setting up new avenues for exploration and discovery. The set has seen some pretty heavy rotation over the past twenty years, and mp3 rips of the comps occupy a permanent place on the jump drive where I keep a small stash of “essential” albums for listening-on-the-go.

They’re exactly the type of thing that I’d play the hell out of on my turntable, the epitome of “drop the needle and drift away” listening, but they — like the rest of Rhino’s Nineties punk/wave comps — never saw a vinyl release.

So I did the next best thing and sought out the single versions of my most favorite tracks from the set. Along with some Nineties Era techno jams, they marked the initial stage of my single-buying mania — and, like those dance mixes, I picked up the 12-inch versions because they were easier to shelve than 7-inchers at the time. The process is still ongoing (see: the Modern English 12″ with “Gathering Dust” and “Smiles and Laughter” I bought last weekend) but the inaugural wave consisted of three must-haves which have been getting frequent play over the past few months.

The Comsat Angels – “Eye of the Lens” – This exercise in mopey paranoia is one of the best postpunk tracks ever recorded. It’s definitely the finest work by the Angels, who gradually mutated into an Big Pop embarrassment by the mid-Eighties.

Medium Medium – “Hungry, So Angry” – Postpunk dance funk — dig that sax and slap bass — with a title/chorus that has joined my litany of internal mantras.

Pigbag – “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” – According to my wife, this instrumental jam sounds like the music a group of devils would play in a black and white cartoon from the 1930s — and that’s precisely why I adore it.

A photo-essay for Friday

September 14th, 2018

Andrew's Default Expression #3.

For this installment of our ongoing chronology of Charlton’s “Action Heroes” era, we going take another dive into pre-Ditko Blue Beetle run. For the most authentic experience, please imagine me issuing a deep sigh after each sentence.

The cover of Blue Beetle #51 embodies the essence of the series — Tony Tallarico’s suet-limbed concept of human anatomy framed by what resembles a sitcom prop wrangler’s vague concept of a “superhero comic cover.” It’s also the high point of the issue, which inelegantly stumbles downhill from there.

The story centers around one of writer Joe Gill’s favorite tropes — the embittered nerd whose insecurities lead him to lash out against his perceived tormentors. Playing the role of the harried dork in this go-round is Professor Clugg, a brilliant scientist who is mocked by his students and suffers from severe self-image problems.

Despite this cartload of problematic baggage, Clugg somehow manages to attract the affections of a certain Miss Appleton. The shapely blonde is smitten by the harried academic, though Clugg’s rotten self-esteem prevents him from reciprocating her love. After witnessing Appleton chatting with the square-jawed Dr. Garrett, Clugg’s toxic stew of resentments steer him towards drastic action — never realizing that Appleton and Garrett were only trying to figure out the best way to help Clugg deal with his problems.

Clugg’s plan is simple. He uses the power of SCIENCE to imprint his consciousness on a bulky robot which appeared to be assembled from surplus HVAC components. The construct’s name is Mentor — hence the giant serifed “M” on its chestplate — and is a rough amalgam of tropes lifted from Frankenstein and Faust. Mentor is both servant and manipulator to Clugg, encouraging the professor’s worst impulses while providing the means to act upon them.

While Miss Appleton stumbles onto the scene shortly after this weird happening, the co-dependent duo are more interested in the strange azure scarab Dr. Garrett carts around in his pocket. By means of a flimsy ruse, Clugg manages to pilfer the artifact from Garrett’s office and take it back to his robot pal for further analysis. What they discover is…

…that neither Mentor or Clugg are capable of putting two and two together.

They decide to confront Garrett directly about the scarab’s powers. Using Clugg’s previously unmentioned mastery of hypnosis (presumably learned via the mail order ad on the opposite page of the comic), they extract a long and excessively loquacious recap of the Blue Beetle’s origin and superpowers from the entranced doctor. After the infodump finally ends, the scarab transforms Garrett into the Blue Beetle for an awkwardly rendered dust-up between super-hero and super-robot.

It ends when Blue Beetle asks Clugg to put a stop to this nonsense and Clugg courteously complies…

…or does he?

Clugg uses the break to beef up Mentor’s capabilities in unspecified ways, finally unleashing him to…

…break into Garrett’s apartment where he talks smack for a while before deciding to impress Miss Appleton by stealing a WHOLE BAR OF GOLD FROM FORT KNOX.

Mentor’s may have set his sights pretty low, but his souped up capabilities are more than adequate for the task. The robot returns to taunt the still-pajama’ed Garrett with the gold bar before swinging by Miss Appleton’s pad to drop off her gift and maybe blast “In Your Eyes” from his onboard speakers while standing outside her window. (this is how things were done before social media existed, okay?)

I should probably mention that Clugg himself has totally vanished from the story by this point. A few passages of dialogue imply that the professor found a way to physically merge with Mentor, but it isn’t explicitly stated. Perhaps it was meant to be a profound metaphor about the dehumanizing effects of technology. Or maybe Joe Gill’s busy schedule precluded giving a fuck about these sorts of details.

Appleton isn’t impressed by Mentor’s antics and asks for the return of her beloved dumpster fire crush. Mentor decides to go for another few round with Blue Beetle instead. The two titans tussle over the ocean. The Navy gets involved with some artillery fire. Beetle almost loses his scarab again, but is saved by his magical pharaoh benefactor’s modest intervention. Beetle slams his pectorals into Mentor’s metallic crotch. A defeated Mentor plunges into the watery depths, never to be seen again.

Back at the campus, a day of mourning is held for the presumably deceased Clugg. The professor’s former students lament the abuse they heaped upon him, and Miss Appleton sheds a few tears for the misunderstood genius (before embarking on her romantic back-up plan of writing love letters to serial killers on death row).

The frickin’ end.

(“Mentor the Magnificent” written by Joe Gill, pencilled by Bill Fraccio, and inked by Tony Tallarico. Typeset letting.)

The first edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was supported by a decent number of supplements, though the majority of these were campaign scenarios or one-off adventure modules. The few genuine expansions that did get released were odds ‘n’ sods collections of White Dwarf articles, and covered niche topics with limited utility for the game as a whole.

In contrast, WFRP’s second edition release was followed up by a host of bona fide sourcebooks designed to expand the scope of the game into previously uncharted territory. The flow of supplements posed a dilemma for me. I really wasn’t keen about burning cash on extras for a game I would never actually play, but the prospect of finally getting full write-ups for things that had been previously consigned to the realm of marginalia was oh-so-tempting.

I eventually hit upon a compromise where I’d limit my purchases to a handful of must-have sourcebooks, specifically the ones covering the lands of Bretonnia (Warhammer France) and Kislev (Warhammer Russia) which both included rosters of new region-appropriate careers for player characters. The bargain was merely the justification to take the first steps onto a very slippery slope. Since I bought those two books, I might as well by the one covering the monstrous creatures of the Warhammer World, right? And the one that expands the arcane magic rules? And the one dealing with the various religious sects and their divine gifts? And…well, the end results can be seen on the the bookshelf at the top of the our stairs.

One supplement I did restrain myself from picking up for a good while was the Tome of Corruption, covering the influence and effects of Chaos in the Warhammer realm. While the chunky, spiky iconography of axe-wielding Chaos Maurauders was responsible from pulling my younger self away from AD&D’s more traditional take on heroic fantasy, I never cared that much for the notion of Chaos as the primary in-game adversary. I freely dropped bits and pieces of it into my campaigns, but in the role of occasional adversaries rather than the existential threat faced by a doomed world.

The Warhammer take on Chaos felt a bit too over the top for me, and my adolescent self wouldn’t have understood the concept of restraint if it had bitten him in the ass. The game mechanics were lethal enough to induce dread among the players. Throwing the pervasive threat of physical corruption and ultimate futility just felt cruel, farcical, or both at once. I was already familiar with the cliched domains of the four major Chaos Gods and didn’t feel an urge to drop forty bucks on two hundred and fifty pages of further elucidation about that nonsense.

That was the gist of my response to a pal who’d also jumped on the second edition train and had asked if I was going to buy Tome of Corruption. Then he told me it included an entire chapter covering Warhammer’s Norse tribes, and my resistance was shattered. I couldn’t help it. My latent Scandinavian pride took over.

Tome of Corruption turned out to be my favorite of all the second edition supplements, and by far the one I’ve flipped through the most. The book was a direct homage to the old Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness sourcebook — a loosely organized assortment of tables, stats, and backmatter covering mutations, cursed artifacts, strange creatures and a daemonic host of other topics. Sidebars and callout boxes abound with ancillary material while the main text jumps from topic to topic with only the slimmest connecting threads. The quantifiable rules covering random weapon enchantments or chaos champion careers are somewhat orderly (despite several printing errors), but the fluff bits covering iconic locations or cursed works of art are simply crammed into wherever they might possibly fit. It can be confusing if you’re trying to locate a specific passage, but perfect for idle browsing.

The book tries to be as comprehensive as possible, which is a difficult task given Games Workshop’s ever-mutating franchise canon. References to fallow or out-of-favor factions and entities are presented with an odd vagueness which would be infuriating in other contexts, but only adds to the atmosphere.

And then there’s the Norse chapter, so well read that my copy of Tome of Corruption opens to it by default. The first edition Norse were simple Viking analogues who held the line against the Chaos hordes pouring down from the north. The second edition, drawing from developments in Warhammer Fantasy Battle lore, places them as occasional allies and frequent adversaries of the harried “civilized” lands of the Old World — an assortment of tribes who dwell in a harsh frozen land where natural laws are subject to the waxing and waning of Chaos’s influence.

Though Norse warbands raid alongside the rest of the Chaos hordes, their culture is presented with more nuance than Yet Another Evil Fantasy Race. They are violent yet adhering to individual codes of honor determined by tribal loyalties and a patheon consisting of Chaos gods, primal aspects of Old World deities, daemons, and ancestor spirits. It’s a realm where lycanthropy is common, reality is mutable, and resources are scarce. Norse society reflects this for both good and ill. It’s an intriguing take because it exists in opposition to the traditional Warhammer setting but not apart from it, where the atmosphere of lethal dread and corruption is embraced rather than feared.

I’m rambling about it because the chapter inspired my last serious itch to put together a WFRP campaign, one centered around a less fervent Norse community and the coastal villages it raided. Nothing came out of it (because the old crew have gone off on their own paths), but it was fun to feel that old spark again for a while.

Detroit Rock Realty

September 11th, 2018

We’ll show you everything on the lot
New central AC if the room gets hot
You make a bid, we’ll consult the owner
You ask about the closet space
This place has walk-ins that go on for days
You make a bid, we’ll consult the owner
You keep on wafflin’, you keep on wafflin’

I wanna get an offer tonight and close the next business day
I wanna get an offer tonight and close the next business day

You keep on saying you’ll check with your spouse
C’mon dude, are you a man or a mouse?
You make a bid, we’ll consult the owner
Hey, buddy, there’s no need to pout.
Just fake blood it will wash right out.
You make a bid, we’ll consult the owner
You keep on Wafflin’, you keep on wafflin’

I wanna get an offer tonight and close the next business day
I wanna get an offer tonight and close the next business day

(inspired by a Sotheby’s ad in the 11/28/1981 issue of Billboard)

Back to Wax #35: In my area

September 10th, 2018

Aside from a few “ironic” purchases and some vintage punk jobbers, I never bothered with 7-inch releases during the earlier phase of my record collecting days. The glut of used vinyl during the early Nineties meant that most LPs could be purchased for a couple of bucks, making them a more compelling choice when it came to value for money and physical condition. Getting used to the album version of a familiar new wave standard could take a few dozen plays, but it beat risking nearly an equal amount of cash on a 45 yanked from a pile at the back end of the shop.

This attitude persisted even after I got back into the hobby in 2016. The idea was to be able to throw on some cherished favorite and let it spin while I did some housework, read a book, or relaxed on the sofa. Getting up to flip sides or switch records every three-to-five minutes didn’t mesh with that agenda. Finding space for my growing stack of albums was enough of a hassle without trying to accomodate a stack of singles in the limited space available.

Over time, however, my position began to soften under pressures from multiple fronts. My engagement drifted from “interesting afterthought” to “active pursuit.” The grind of maintaining a daily music blog had drained my enthusiasm. It had been coming back in fits and starts in the years since, but obtaining a turntable kicked the process into overdrive. The old thrill of listening and discovering returned with a vengeance.

My existing collection of records was fairly expansive, but reflected a time and set of tastes that were twenty-odd years gone. I’d evolved since then, and there were scores of omissions in need of backfilling. After filling my basket with the lowest-hanging fruit, I turned towards more elusive fare.

There were classic new wave one-offs like Robert Hazard’s “Escalator of Life” and Class Action’s “Blast Off.” Disco faves like Van McCoy’s “The Hustle” or Donner Summer’s “I Feel Love.” Old school rave and industrial jams like KLF’s “It’s Grim Up North” and LA Style’s “James Brown Is Dead.” Turn of the Millenium dance tracks like Alice Deejay’s “Better Off Alone” or Lange feat. the Morrighan’s “Follow Me.” These were essential-to-me cuts which existed apart from the full album ecology.

Single releases also provided an affordable alternative to expensive LPs, especially from the mid-Nineties to mid-Aughts span before the format came back into vogue. I’d love to have Arab Strap’s The Last Romance or Ladytron’s Witching Hour on record. But until I find affordable copies of either, I’m willing to settle for single releases of the most swoon-worthy songs for roughly one-tenth the asking price.

When it comes to the stuff of weapons-grade childhood nostalgia, 7-inchers are a wonderland-on-the-cheap. For the price of a copy of Lush’s Gala LP, I was able to score Fischer-Z ‘s “Marliese,” a copy of Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” and Looking Glass’s “Brandy” in near-mint condition. It’s the sort of material I used to seek out on various K-Tel comps, but either the track was truncated or missed the mass market compilation boat entirely. There isn’t album’s worth of filler to skip over, just a compact blast of sonic bliss with the occasional skip or pop…

…and more disco-fied versions of Seventies movie/TV themes than can be listened to in a dozen lifetimes.

Publicly embracing a niche fandom means having a dozen people inform you whenever there’s some new development within that fandom.

That’s not a complaint. While it can be a little reductive in the sense of “you = thing you consume,” it’s nice to discover folks know and care enough about your nonsense to connect with a well-intentioned heads-up. I’ve been on both ends of phenomenon, so I can’t be too judgemental about it. Plus, it’s (arguably) better to be known as the “world’s biggest Jack of Hearts fan” than not to be known at all.

This is why, sometime in the latter half of 2004, I started getting emails and chat messages from old friends and current acquaintances informing me that Games Workshop had tapped Green Ronin Publishing to launch a second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

I had a mixed reaction to the news. My WFRP fandom stretched back to the game’s launch in the late Eighties, helped propelled me into presidency of my college’s Sci-Fi Club, and remained one of the few fixed points of my tabletop RPG fandom. The game’s rules may have been incomplete, poorly supported, or downright broken, but it held a cherished place in my heart. I had grave reservations whether the new generation of glossy RPG design could do the franchise justice. Would it drop the baroque career system? Would it succumb to hegemony of the “d20″ mechanics? Would it retain its aura of gothic horror and existential dread?

I wasn’t confident, or at least confident enough to justify buying the pricey hardcover rulebook when discretionary funds were at a low ebb. I managed to maintain my refusenik stance for half a year before succumbing to the usual arc of “Don’t want it/Kinda interested in it/Just sell me the damn thing, already” which governs most of my dumb impulse purchases.

Though I went into the thick hardback looking to find fault with the presumed ways the revision fell short of the blessed original, I only made it through the first couple of chapters before the “that makes a lot of sense, actually” became a muttered litany. The folks at Green Ronin managed to retain nearly every aspect of WFRP’s first edition, reworking them into a streamlined and more intuitive form.

The massive roster of character careers was simultaneously consolidated and expanded. Redundancies were folded into broader archetypes, new careers reflecting the “flavor” of the setting were added, and all paths were rebalanced to ensure that all had a useful selection of abilities and characteristic advancements. Characteristics and bonuses were also simplified, with “dexterity” now falling under the “initiative” stat and “coolness” under “willpower.” d10/d100 became the default dice for the game (with d6 used in certain circumstances) adding further consistency and clarity.

The only major rules revision in the second edition was a long-overdue overhaul of WFRPs “permanent placeholder” magic system. The creaky magic point mechanics were replaced with spell domains based on Warhammer Fantasy Battle‘s color-themed Colleges of Magic and the game world’s various divinities. Casters needed to hit a specified target number to use a spell. Higher level casters could roll more dice to cast, but at greater risk of rolling multiples of the same number — causing unpleasant side effects ranging from ghostly voices mainesting to being pulled screaming into the warp by a daemon. It fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly, although the spell lists continued to favor combat applications pulled from the wargaming side of the franchise.

At the time of the original WFRP’s release, the world-building backmatter was little more than a basic framework pulled from the wargame and a fantasy-themed take on European history. The fleshing out of what would eventually become the “Warhammer World” took place over the course of two decades across various franchise supplements, spin-offs, and White Dwarf articles. When the second edition of WFRP rolled around, this “fluff” had grown to eclipse the games which had given rise to it, becoming a profitable (and self-contradictory) canon supporting a multimedia juggernaut.

A good portion of the second edition rulebook is given over towards shoehorning the game back into that canon, specifically the aftermath of the catastrophic “Storm of Chaos.” It made sense for a Warhammer RPG to be extremely Warhammer-y, but I wasn’t thrilled by the tight integration between setting and rules. I didn’t get into WFRP because I loved Warhammer (because honestly, it was a shade too edgelord-y for me even when I was an adolescent edgelord), but because the game’s late-medieval, high-lethality grubby fantasy approach was such a radical departure from the rigid and generic realm of AD&D.

With WFRP’s second edition, the rules got smarter while the setting got stupider, and it was much more difficult to decouple them from each other.

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