Armagideon Time

A gut feeling

January 25th, 2019

Some friends and I were chatting the other day about how certain funnybooks evoke vivid “sense memories.” If you’ve been into the hobby for a long enough stretch of time, you’ll know what I’m referring to — flipping through some back issue from your formative years and getting a double-barreled Proustian blast of tastes, sounds, or smells from a bygone era. The artifact that triggered the discussion, for example, was an early Eighties issue of Daredevil that had me tasting strawberry Tangy Taffy and hearing the audio of the Atari 2600 Vanguard port like the past thirty-six years never happened.

Most of the time, these little nostalgia trips are pleasantly nostalgic interludes and I have specifically picked up stray bits of quarter bin flotsam in hopes of kickstarting one. The most memorable and intense of these comics-related reveries, however, is rooted in the stuff of gut-churning nightmare.

1984 was the year when my universe expanded dramatically, moving from the confines of a small wedge of North Woburn to wherever our department store BMX bikes could carry us. If the weather was good and we had enough quarters to spare, my pals and I would hit up the arcade in Wilmington during the brief window between the end of the school day and the beginning of dinner. We made forays up to the Burlington reservoir and runs into Woburn Center. And, because it was the Eighties, we went to the mall.

The Woburn Mall wasn’t any great shakes from a tweener’s perspective. Its smallish mezzanine was mostly given over to clothing and shoe stores, and my days scouring the TSR rack at Booksmith and the cassette cut-out bin at Lechemere were still a couple of years in the future. Barring the occasional “hobby show” where coin and comics vendors set up tables with their wares, there was no real reason to hang around the place — and yet we still did.

The mall did sport a CVS whose magazine rack featured a small selection of Marvel and DC comics. The title choices were a bit random but did include the double-sized issues and annuals the newsstand in the center of town refused to stock, which made it worth checking out on occasion. It was where, in the late summer of 1984, I dropped sixty cents on a copy of Avengers #249.

The story wasn’t anything mind-blowing, just a transitional tie-in to the “Casket of Ancient Winters” arc unfolding in Thor. The most notable things about it were the odd-to-my-eyes cover lay-out and the return of Hercules to the Avengers’ roster. That was where the series was at during the first couple of years of Roger Stern’s run — an ensemble crossroads-slash-clearinghouse that leaned heavily towards continuity maintenance. It’s the reason why I adored the run as a kid, even though the individual installments tended to be underwhelming.

I paid for the comic, then my friends and I strolled over to the McDonald’s on the other side of the mall for pool our pennies and buy the cheapest shit on the menu. Normally, we’d nurse our soft-serve sundaes, small fries, and fountain drinks until we got bored or were asked by a manager to depart the golden arches, but this time was different.

In a bid to draft on the triumphalist sentiment of the 1984 Summer Olympics, McDonald’s launched a “They Win, You Win” promotion where folks where scratch cards were handed out with every purchase. If the U.S. happened to score a medal in the event listed on the card, the lucky winner could turn it in for a small drink (bronze), fries (silver) or a Big Mac (gold, the only step of the prize hierarchy I recall for certain).

Basing prize payouts on external circumstances is always a dicey proposition. (Note how no one up this way does the “if the Red Sox win the World Series, your big ticket purchase will be free” promotion anymore.) When the Soviets and other communist countries pulled out of the ’84 Summer Olympics, it became a cash-hemorrhaging clusterfuck of free-of-charge junk food for Ronald and the gang.

Even stupider, turning in a prize card would net you another card to scratch off and check against the leaderboard standee across from the registers.

In the space of fifteen minutes, my friends and I — with the help of a Cold War dick-waving contest — had amassed a small mountain of Big Macs ringed with a forest of fries and fountain drinks. It was enough food to feed a family of fifteen, divided up between three gangly pre-teens in tattered heavy metal raglans.

We were young, we were foolish, and we were psyched about our unexpected good fortune, so you bet your ass we finished off the entire pile. At that age, in that place, “getting McDonalds” meant your parents bringing you back a basic hamburger or cheeseburger. Anything above that on the menu was reserved for sophisticated adults with cash to burn. The first time I ever seriously considered that I had “come of age” was when my mom brought me back a Quarter Pounder for the first time. Big Macs were the food of kings, and there was no way we were going to let that feast go to waste.

We stepped out into the muggy blast furnace of an August afternoon in New England and mounted our bikes. We made it to the outskirts of the industrial park that separated our neighborhood from the mall before the mass of grease, gristle, salt, and starch in our distended bellies decided to add an explosive finish to our triumphal procession.

….and that is why I can’t look at the cover of Avengers #249 without experiencing an aftertaste of vomit in my mouth immediately afterward.

Funeral party like it’s

January 24th, 2019

On being a highlight reel of items from the January 1999 issue of Spin, which will induce crippling existential dread in folks of above a certain age and utter bafflement in those below it.

Management assumes no responsibility for any incidents of spontaneous desiccation that may occur.

After tackling the Inquisition, Rogue Traders, and Space Marine chapters, the folks behind the Warhammer 40k RPG system decided to remove crank to the edgelord dial to 13 with Black Crusade

…a standalone component system in which players could embrace the darker side of an already grimdark franchise by assuming the role of Chaos-touched enemies of the Imperium.

The character creation rules offer a decent array of human and space marine “archetypes” covering heretical tech priests, nomadic renegades, charismatic apostates, and brain-blasted warp- dabblers. The space marine options are significantly more powerful than the baseline human ones out of the gate, but the game tries to mitigate that by granting the latter a bit more versatility in terms of skills and talents, but hardly enough to offset playing a nigh-unkillable superhuman who can chew through steel bars and headshot a gnat at five hundred meters. A wise gamemaster would be better off basing a campaign around either marines or regular schmoes, but any conscientious gamemaster would probably steer clear of Black Crusade to begin with.

Character advancement in Black Crusade is entirely open-ended. Any developmental advancement can be purchased as long as the player has the fairly modest prerequisites and experience points to burn. In a clever (but ultimately futile) attempt to impose some balance on this free-for-all, each skill, talent, and characteristic bonus is tied to one of the Warhammer pantheon’s quartet of chaos gods. Multiple purchases from the same domain will align the player with its associated divinity, reducing the cost of further advancements from their pool but increasing those from other gods. The split boils down to martial prowess and physical durability versus arcane power and guile, which would be a reasonable trade-off in a system with less of a focus on resolutions via combat. Unfortunately, Dark Heresy isn’t really that game.

The thrust of Dark Heresy’s default campaign narrative centers around a small band of heretical malcontents working their way up Chaos food chain in order to ascend to daemonhood, lead a titular “Black Crusade” against the Imperium of Man or both. Because there’s no “we” in “genocidal warlord,” backstabbing and hidden agendas among the PCs are expected and encouraged.

The metrics of players’ long-term success are tracked by two scores known only to the gamemaster, corruption and infamy. Corruption represents how deeply the taint of Chaos has ensnared the player character, eventually manifesting as physical “malignancies” and mutations. Infamy is essentially a reworking of Rogue Trader’s “profit factor” — a fluctuating tally of a character’s resources and reknown which also doubles as Black Crusade‘s answer to the previous systems’ mulligan-granting “fate points.” The ultimate goal is to hit maximum Infamy (and gaining control of galaxy-shattering power) before hitting maximum Corruption (and being reduced to a amorphous glob of screaming protoplasm).

These mechanics put a (mostly) fixed duration on Black Crusade campaigns. There is a specific endgoal — and punishment for failing to meet it — above and beyond those held by the individual PCs. It puts the game in a weird place between the one-off fatality funfests of Call Of Cthulhu and Paranoia and the evolving epics of longform ongoing campaigns. The approach is interesting though I can’t personally ever imagine myself running or playing Black Crusade for real.

I’ve never been particularly jazzed about “evil” campaigns, either on the tabletop or in choice-heavy computer role-playing games. Playing a heel, even as make-believe, just makes me feel kind of gross. (Why, yes, I am a guy who prefers Captain America and Superman to the Punisher and Batman. What made you ask?) Too may of my experiences as a gamemaster involved having to rein in a bunch of desperate-to-impress adolescents’ worst impulses. The thought of indulging — or, worse, encouraging a group of players — to indulge in a carnival of fictional atrocities for “fun’s sake” is anathema to me.

As a working game, Black Crusade was decidedly not-for-me. Yet I still purchased the core rulebook, because I was curious, had gotten into the habit of picking up every new 40k RPG sourcebook, and because the fluff bits make for great bathroom reading.

“In the grim darkness of the early 21st Century, there’s something comforting about browsing descriptions of Demon Worlds while squatting on the shitter.”

The period from 1993 through 1999 saw my musical tastes broaden tremendously, thanks to punk losing its puritanical stranglehold on me and a twenty-first birthday gift of CD-playing boom box. I kept on buying used vinyl up through 1995 or so, but the bulk of what hit my ears was delivered digitally.

Having become the dominant format for recorded music, compact discs moved beyond the triple-platinum pop and audiophile sets and into stranger and deeper realms. The hour-and-change capacity made CDs an excellent medium for compilations and collections, and Rhino Records went wild with that added runtime. I specifically picked up the label’s DIY series of late Seventies punk and powerpop on compact disc because each entry included a couple of tracks which couldn’t fit on the cassette version. Then came the first proper (yet still incomplete) release of the Valley Girl soundtrack, which was followed up in turn by the fifteen-volume Just Can’t Get Enough chronology of the “new wave” sound.

Even better, they dropped as slightly less expensive midlist offerings whose sticker price was further offset by Tower Records and Newbury Comics coupons pulled from the stacks of student-aimed publications dumped every week in the campus lobby.

My favorite of the lot was the three-volume Postpunk Chronicles set released right on the eve of the new millennium. Despite the title, the series covered the full spectrum of Eighties “college rock.” It was a glorious time capsule featuring everything from “Paisley Underground” sounds to neo-janglepop to noise rock to, yes, straight-up postpunk gloom — meticulously curated and served up with copious liner notes in typical Rhino fashion. The discs got countless plays at home and in the Sony car stereo whose value far exceeded that of the 1990 Cutlass which hosted it. They also triggered an outward burst of ancillary music purchases as I chased down additional material from particularly promising new-to-me artists.

They were the type of albums I could throw on whenever and feel good about my decision. This would’ve made them ideal candidates for a present day vinyl purchase…except they never got a vinyl release. I thought about buying up the various component albums, but gave up on the idea after scoring copies of Green on Red‘s and The Three O’Clock‘s debut LPs. The expense, combined with a lack of shelving space and the sad realization most of the bands only had one track I actually wanted to listen to, made it feel like a fool’s errand.

…and then, several months later, I realized that most of the cuts had been single releases. More importantly, they were single releases that were fairly inexpensive on the secondhand marketplace. Things were kicked off in the middle of last summer with a triple purchase of Most Favorite Jams from the Postpunk Chronicles set. All were bought as 12-inchers, mainly because I didn’t have a place to rack 7-inch singles at the time.

Maura told me “Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag” sounds like “Satan playing cartoon music,” which is both accurate and no insult from where I stand.

Medium Medium’s “Hungry, So Angry” is the type of postpunk dance jam I would’ve sneered at during my punk rock heyday. Because I was a complete and utter fool.

“Eye of the Lens” is what happens when a lone single release embodies the sound and vibe of an entire scene, and nothing by its artist or any other postpunk act will ever match those four minutes of atmospheric perfection.

Space Marine chapters had been one of the main obstacles — alongside Games Workshop’s habitual fickleness — to the creation of a cohesive 40k themed role playing game. The Adeptus Astartes had been the de facto mascots of the franchise, with their original beaky-faced plastic figure kit preceding the original set of tabletop rules. The Astartes were too significant to omit as a playable “race,” but their superhuman powers and regimented militant-monastic chapter organization made it difficult to incorporate them into heterogeneous adventuring parties without breaking game balance or the franchise’s established lore.

Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader sidestepped the issue by focusing on aspects of the in-game universe where the marine chapters were the awe-inspiring stuff of NPC encounters. (A later Dark Heresy supplement did add rules for playing Astartes characters from the daemon-slaying Grey Knights, but these were buried under scores of caveats which only highlighted the headaches such characters could cause in a campaign.) The modular nature of the 40k RPG system, however, did make it possible to center an entire component system around player character Space Marines through the Deathwatch ruleset.

In 40k lore, the Deathwatch functions as the chamber militant of the Imperial Inquisition’s alien-fighting Ordo Xenos. It is an Astartes chapter drawn from existing chapters, which loan out battle brothers to the organization to honor ancient pacts and serve as a form of professional development. As each standing Astartes chapter possess its own culture, traditions, and deviations from the “Codex” norm, the ad hoc structure of the Deathwatch allowed players to create characters from whichever canonical or custom-generated chapter they wished while providing a lore-correct throughline and the seeds of internal “Kill Team” drama. (Think of it as “the slobs versus the snobs” but the snobs are puritanical zealots and the slobs ritually eat the corpses of their slain foes. A LAFF RIOT!)

The game’s setting ties back to the previous 40k RPGs through an ancient warp gate discovered in the conduit between Dark Heresy‘s troubled Calixis Sector and Rogue Trader‘s wild Koronus Expanse. The gate leads to the Jericho Reach, a long isolated stretch of space on the opposite side of the galaxy. Formerly an Imperial sector, centuries of separation have seen humanity’s domains fall to the expansionist anime-fans of the Tau Empire, Chaos-worshiping reaver legions, and a splinter fleet of the world-munching Tyranid hordes. Unable to win a decisive victory, yet unwilling to retreat, the Imperium of Man embarks on a multi-front war of attrition to keep the gate from falling into enemy hands — and the Deathwatch are just kind of hanging around helping out as they see fit and pursuing some mysterious agenda. The point is the Reach provides a rich source of adventure seeds against various factions and challenges, as any decent default setting should.

The character creation and development mechanics were yet another evolutionary step from the original Dark Heresy rules, only up-scaled to reflect the greatly increased power levels of the individual characters. Creation and progression moved away from levels in favor of a multifaceted focus on (rigid) home chapter and (fluid) specialization pools of skills, talents, and characteristic advancements.

Wargear is requisitioned on a per mission basis, persistent buffs can be granted alongside experience in the form of “battle honors,” and combat against massed minions is handled through a “horde” mechanic which bundles the opponents into a single unit in terms of giving or receiving damage. Depending on the composition and “cohesion” (distance from each other), members can evoke “orders” which proc situational advantages of limited duration.

The system is extremely weighted toward blasting and blowing shit to pieces, which can feel a bit narrow but is in keeping with the spirit of the source material. If that kind of action isn’t your deal, then you’re probably not the type of person who’d play Deathwatch in the first place. The game also has some dodgy gender politics going on, thanks to the established lore stating Space Marines are an exclusively male organization because of made-up “future science.”

Yes, the rules do some performative hand-wringing about it and put forth high-level Inquisitors or members of the Adeptus Sororitas (i.e. “battle-armored space nuns”) from Dark Heresy as suitable options for those seeking a distaff option for character creation, or simply saying “fuck the canon” and opening up the Astartes ranks to any gender, but that kind of end run really should be necessary in this day and age.

Times have changed quite a bit since 1987. Warhammer used to be the punk-metal upstart against the stodginess of D&D. Now the latter system has been undergoing a diversity driven renaissance while the Warhammer franchises have become synonymous with developmentally arrested neckbeards and edgelords. Games Workshop hasn’t had any problem with radical lore revisions when it comes to adding new lines of product to sell (or drop). I’m not sure why that they can’t (won’t?) apply that to the more retrograde remnants of their franchise lore.

So shall you receive

January 14th, 2019

I suppose it’s time to ease back into the habit of regular posting, and what better way to do it than the slow pitch of a belated “what I got for Christmas” piece?

Our holiday season was a good one, right up until Christmas Day when Maura’s mother’s health took a turn for the worse. Before that, though, there were lights and a tree in the front porch (where the cats couldn’t mess with them), hot cocoa and favorite seasonal movies under cozy blankets on the sofa, and multiple spins of the Christmas records I’d added to my library.

Despite (or because) of the grim omens lurking on the periphery, we went a little wild this year with the gifts. Here’s my haul from Maura…

A vinyl copy of The Misfits’ Walk Among Us had been on my wantlist since I started buying records again in 2016, but I somehow kept missing the infuriatingly small window between small-run reissues and exorbitant after-market price hikes. This year, my dream of listing to “Hatebreeders” on Christmas morning finally came true.

The boxed Micronauts thing was a SDCC exclusive including mostly accurate remakes of the classic (and extremely breakable) silver-domed figures. Only the sarcophagus rockin’ Pharoid has been liberated from the box so far, while I figure out what to do with the rest of the set’s elaborate display packaging.

The D&D art book has been getting a lot of buzz, and deservedly so. Working my way through the parts that lined up with my years as an active D&D player was a weird experience — lucid flashbacks to the “Red Box” and “orange spine” days annotated with historical commentary about the system’s late Eighties decline. Hell, seeing a period I can still remember clearly treated as ancient history was enough to generate existential dread of the most wistful variety.

Strange Stars was a surprise extra Maura threw in, because she knows me so well. I skimmed through some relevant-to-me chapters and was impressed by what I saw, though I noticed a few glaring blind spots as well. (Blind spots? In music journalism? Hard to believe, I know.) A small Star Wars Lego set has somehow become a yearly tradition, along with the Kinder Egg and some Hickory Farms meat and cheese product.

In return, I gave Maura a Fire tablet (with Alexa shut down immediately after boot-up) after her desktop computer at home unexpectedly shit the bed. I figured it would make a decent substitute until the replacement machine came, except the new PC was delivered a couple of hours after the tablet arrived. She still loved it, as her Kindle was getting up there in years and she has never warmed up to using a laptop. This was rounded out with an import “masterpiece” Mospeada figure of Scott Bernard and his transforming motorbike and a vintage Ginny doll she’d been coveting. I also threw in the follow-up to Viv Albertine’s autobiography because she really dug the first installment.

She seemed thrilled with it, so mission accomplished.

Wellness check

January 9th, 2019

What was supposed to be a short holiday hiatus turned out to be longer than anticipated due to some family stuff. Maura’s mom passed away and my dad was hospitalized for numerous health issues including a minor stroke.

I considered taking this as a sign that the chapter of my life which this site played no small part of had come to an end, and maybe it was (long past) time to move on. Then I admitted that nothing short of a global apocalypse will ever do in this stupid blog.

At the very least, I feel obligated to see Role Playing With the Changes given a proper — if overdue — conclusion.

On the twelfth day of Clash-mas, my true love gave to me…

…twelve seconds to midnight…

eleven roads to nowhere

ten years a’stewing

nine to nine stabbin’ time

eight pips a’showing

seven warning bells a’ringing

a midnight to six man

five to ten, but I said double that again….

four grim omens

all three of my rights

two sevens clashing

…and a message of ambiguity.

“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Clash-mas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Strummer Joe observed, ‘Are you going backwards or are you going forwards?’”

On the eleventh day of Clash-mas, my true love gave to me…

…eleven roads to nowhere…

ten years a’stewing

nine to nine stabbin’ time

eight pips a’showing

seven warning bells a’ringing

a midnight to six man

five to ten, but I said double that again….

four grim omens

all three of my rights

two sevens clashing

…and a message of ambiguity.

On the tenth day of Clash-mas, my true love gave to me…

…ten years a’stewing…

nine to nine stabbin’ time

eight pips a’showing

seven warning bells a’ringing

a midnight to six man

five to ten, but I said double that again….

four grim omens

all three of my rights

two sevens clashing

…and a message of ambiguity.

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