Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Monitor Sphere: Surveying Sex Ciminals Volume 1

© Image Comics 2014
Welcome back to The Monitor Sphere the CCtD weekly look through all things involved in the world of sequential storytelling, which just so happens to be nowhere near current, week by week, and as promised in last week’s column I did one of the two possible things I said I would do and that was to take a look at Sex Criminals Volume 1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky.

The story is fantastic, for those of you who haven’t read Sex Criminals yet, like I hadn’t, you really should. I am a big fan of hero comics, I have more of those in my collection than anything else, and while I would consider this story comedic there are a lot of other layers to it, including a somewhat heroic one.

It starts off right in the middle of the *ahem* “action” with our protagonists Suzie and Jon involved in the titular act. We are then treated to some backstory for our heroes. I’m not going to go into all of it, but rarely, in all my years of reading comics, have I learned so much about the characters so quickly. Almost immediately we are shown the formative years of our heroes and, in a neat turn of events, how the protagonists discovered their hidden ability to stop time upon reaching climax (something they both share). So they decide to use this power to rob banks as any normal person would do.

It is rare that you discover a comic with as much heart as Sex Criminals, and it even has some to spare. There were quite a few pages that made me stop and consider my own life as the comic dealt with thing ranging from puberty, sex, school, depression, and the working world. All that said though the best moments are probably the amazing and incomparable comedy scenes. The two that jump to the front of my mind involve defecating in an office plant, and an amazing panel reminiscent of Family Circus in which a young Jon runs through a sex shop appropriately named Cumworld.

Normally, I would be slightly critical of artwork like this in a comic, but for some reason it really works in this case. Now don’t get me wrong that isn’t to say that the artwork is bad, Chip Zdarsky is a much better artist than I could ever hope to be, it just wouldn’t work in most comics I like to read, but this is the perfect comic for it. The comedy elements are matched perfectly by the cute, funny, cartoony artwork.

All things considered Sex Criminals volume 1 is a book that I absolutely loved that had me laughing just as often as it had me sitting in quiet contemplation and, to be honest, I will probably pick up volume 2 sooner rather than later. If you haven’t read this series yet, dear reader, you really should.

Now, that was going to be the last part of my article for this week but it turns out that as I was writing news came out about DC’s Rebirth event(?), cash grab(?), reboot(?), hope to fix everything they did wrong in the post-Flashpoint Universe(!). And while I don’t really have any good ideas about what they will do I have hopes about what they could do. While I won’t go into all of that here, unless there is an overwhelming demand for it, but I will tell you one thing, I hope Rebirth brings back some of the color and the feel that made DC Comics my brand of choice for almost my entire life. I hope Rebirth gets rid of so much of the grim, gritty, “realistic”, darkness that has plagued DC in recent years and replaces it with the hope, and love that made DC what it was for years.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

That which we acheive too easily, we esteem too lightly - Questing for magic items.

Of course it's a good idea!

                A few articles back, I talked about giving players quests in order to have them gain magic items. A question was posed to me in the comments which asked how I suggest game masters go about such a task. This is something that I had to think about, because, primarily, what can I suggest that has not been talked about by other people? As always, the best I can do it to present some solutions with which I have had success in my own campaigns. With that in mind, here are the (admittedly limited) methods I have used successfully. As a caveat, while most of my ideas are used in the low-fantasy, sword and sorcery settings that I am personally obsessed with, it stands to reason that these should work well in any setting. And remember, as always, tweak these ideas like there is no tomorrow.
              Before I dive in, I would encourage you to read my other posts on magic items in a low-magic setting. The ideas laid out in those posts directly inform the strategies I will discuss here and are, in my opinion, necessary components thereof. In case you don’t have time/don’t feel like going back and reading articles on magic weapons and alchemical items, allow your humble servant to give you the tl;dr version: 1) Magic items should have names because they are special; 2) magic items should not be easily acquired for they are rare; 3) rarer still is the person who can craft such items; 4) items should have properties beyond bonuses “to hit” and damage; and 5) the more magnificent the item, the more costly (not necessarily monetarily) it should be to obtain it.

Hand wave it

Sometimes the easiest way to get something done is to just do it yourself. Players can be downright unpredictable, and if the storyline you have written (or a character’s long-term goal) hinges on the possession of some item or another, it is easiest just to hand wave the thing and simply give it to the player character. I am not, however, suggesting that the item be found in the treasure hoard of some normal (or even deadly) encounter in the course of the normal adventure. That would undermine the very idea of magic items being difficult to come by. Rather, the Game Master could construct a narrative in which the acquisition of the necessary item is described.

There are, I think, two ways of doing this. The first would be to write a well-thought through piece of prose wherein the event is described in evocative detail. The other way to hand wave this process is by simply summing up what happened as a short expository speech. This all depends on the play style of your gaming coterie. Either way, hand waving may be more efficient, but it is usually not very satisfying.

Blue booking

Similar to hand waving, blue booking allows the player character to acquire the item in question while allowing the main narrative of the campaign to continue. This method is especially useful for groups that are not able to meet often. In order to blue book successfully, parameters need to be set for the manner of the interaction between Game Master and player. There should be a time frame established, as well as an agreement on the depth of writing involved. After all, it is never fun to be the person contributing a disproportionately large amount of effort.

Blue booking should begin by the Game Master writing a prologue that involves some information about the quest itself. Then, the player can contribute a short explanation of his/her initial actions. After this, the game master explains the first encounter the player faces. The player writes how his/her character would deal with the situation, and then the Game Master writes up the next encounter. The key is to not get bogged down trying to write encounters on a turn-by-turn basis; that way lies madness and frustration. Because blue booking can take weeks or months at a time, it may be useful to give the player character the item, advance the main game by an appropriate length of time, and continue on with the whole party while you and the PC in question hash out the details.

One-on-one sessions

Assuming you have the time, a one-on-one session is my preferred method for having a single player go on a quest for a magic item. Adventuring parties conceivably need to split up from time to time, and the competent Game Master can come up with plenty of activities for the various members to do. After all, everyone should have a fleshed out enough backstory to enable their characters to have goals outside of the main plot. Perhaps the fighter is going to clear that land for his keep, the magic-user may actually have time to research that new spell, or the thief may have the opportunity to get in good with the local Guild. A series of short adventures could be constructed for each of these characters in order to pass the time, or (for things like clearing land or spell research) blue booking provides a suitable means for getting characters through the “down time”.

The main reason to have a one-on-one session is when the majority of the party wants to keep adventuring, but the the quest of a certain character is one that is either of a highly personal nature, or one that other members of the party simply have no interest or personal stake in. If something like this happens, my advice is to simply allow it. For instance, in my AD&D game, were I to send the paladin on a quest for a Holy Avenger, the rest of the party (made up almost entirely of chaotic, murder-hobos) would have no interest in going along. In this case, I would provide a separate adventure for the remainder of the party, and have them establish a rendezvous point for when they are ready to return to the main plotline.


The easiest way to incorporate the quest for a magic item into your game is to simply use it as a sub-plot. Need to get to Sigil? Perhaps the party must first find a gate key of some kind. Summon a demon? Have an adventure wherein the player characters quest for the necessary ritual components. There is not really a wrong way to do this. I, however, tend to stay away from item quests as sub-plots because, most of the time, the item being sought after is only important or, ultimately, usable by one character. If you drag everyone in the party along, there is a good chance the players might get salty about not receiving magical items of their own. Of course, this is only a significant problem if you are a low-fantasy junky such as myself.

Strong on his mountain (er…at his desk),

Friday, February 12, 2016

CCtD Presents: The Monitor Sphere - By Way of Introduction

High above CCtD Mountain floats a gold (except in that one issue of Teen Titans when it was grey) sphere that sometimes phases in and out of our reality so it can view events in others. Aboard that craft sits a being that is not only out of phase with our reality, but a being that views time differently than you or I, a being simply known as Jix Loatan.

First things first, I would like to tip my cap to the Grand Poobah of Crom Count the Dead for allowing me to park my sphere made of cardboard long boxes and bags and boards above his property, and for giving me the freedom to write about my thoughts on recent (to me) comics of the past, present, and future.

Secondly, I would like to welcome each and every one of you, the readers, to a new (hopefully) weekly column about my ever expanding back catalogue of comic books as well as other things that belong in that realm. I’m in a weird situation myself, when my daughter was born I found myself falling further and further behind in my comic reading, but I continued to buy comics at a similar rate so I’ve wound up with quite a quandary here aboard The Sphere.This first article will just be to give you a background of the situation I find myself in and hopefully the next article will be about something interesting I’ve stumbled across in my Murdonian (a little shout out to CGS) stack.

So here is where I’m at: I am up to date on the Mark Waid Archie, and that is the only thing I find myself “current” on. I have a DC Comics Presents from back in July of 84 that I found for a dollar at an antique mall that is sitting, unread, in a stack next to the recently finished Bizzaro series. In my DC reading I am about to start Convergence. In my Marvel reading I have a bunch of New X-Men to get through, and then I will jump to just before Secret War 2015. I’ve got all of Warren Ellis’ Injection to read and about half of his Trees still to get through. The last comic I read is issue 18 of Morrison and Morales’s Action Comics. My favorite characters are Brainiac 5, Animal Man, and Moon Knight.

I hope to have more for you next time on CCtD Presents: The Monitor Sphere where I will hopefully be talking about Sex Criminals volume 1, but it might be the new film Deadpool if I make it around to seeing it. I hope you’ll join me for the long haul on this wild ride through comic books that find themselves (alongside me) out of phase with time.