Monday, May 30, 2011

Leigh Brackett's original 1978 "Empire Strikes Back" script

Leigh Brackett's original script for "The Empire Strikes Back" is something I've sought after in a lifetime of being a Star Wars fan. This wasn't just another movie, it was the high point of the entire franchise. What secrets did the script contain?

Recently, I read it and I got a chance to find out. It was not what I was expecting at all.

Who is Leigh Brackett?

Leigh Brackett was all of seventy years old when she wrote the original script for the Star Wars Sequel (the name hadn't even been picked up), and one of the many people from Hollywood's Golden Age who was tapped in the 1970s when blockbuster, mass market pictures came back into vogue, just like "Exorcist" director William Friedkin was a student of Howard Hawks.

Brackett wrote the scripts for arguably the greatest Western and film noirs of all time: Rio Bravo and the Big Sleep.

Brackett is one of those authors, like Hemingway, that's bigger than the stories they wrote. She always "power-dressed," long before that expression came into vogue, loved driving her red sportscar way too fast on California curves. There was a famous story were Leigh played volleyball with the boys in Muscle Beach, California and held her own.

Saying you're a fan of pulp science fiction of the Golden Age is tantamount to admitting you're a fan of Leigh Brackett, just like saying you like Silver Age Marvel Comics means you like Jack Kirby. People forget that the vaguely denigrating term "space opera" started out as praise, a way of separating the wheat from the chaff, a way of telling apart the usual hokey "Adventure" sex-and-shooting romps from the Leigh Brackett-type moody, atmospheric adventure science fiction thrillers.

It was especially shocking to read Leigh Brackett and discover she wrote (anti-) heroes in a voice shockingly similar to Star Wars's scene-stealing, coolest character, Han Solo. One particular antihero character, Rick in "Nemesis from Terra," had a moment so "Han Solo" it was a little chilling, especially when you imagine it was written in 1944.

While on the run in a cave network under Mars with his lady friend, he reached in the darkness and grabbed her.

"Which wrist did I grab?"


"We go left. And baby, we'd better hope you're lucky!"

Since the prequels came out, I had another reason to want to read the Leigh Brackett script for "Empire Strikes Back." With the prequels, it was absolutely inarguable that George Lucas had absolute creative control. And those lousy movies were the result? A lot of fans started to wonder if maybe George's role in the success of the original movies was a little overrated. If Star Wars wasn't great because of his contributions, then who else was it? Laurence Kasdan? "Empire Strikes Back" director Irving Kirschner? Producer Gary Kurtz?

It's become a common argument among fans that Leigh Brackett, not George Lucas or screenwriter Laurence Kasdan, was responsible for the strong story of "The Empire Strikes Back." In an interview in Starlog around 1980, George Lucas claimed that it was Leigh Brackett's idea that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. Ever since Brackett's death in 1978, Lucas has given her a gradually smaller and smaller role in the history of Star Wars; currently Lucasfilm claims that Brackett's script was rejected in its entirety as unsuitable, and George Lucas only kept her name on the script credit as a favor to her widower husband, "Planet Smasher" Ed Hamilton. That's a pretty interesting claim considering that the screen writers' guild rules determines when a writer gets credit!

The Structure

First things first: the basic structure of the Brackett script is ultimately identical to the finished film. The differences are in the details.

All the beats of the final film are there: Luke is captured on an ice planet, the Rebels have to evacuate because of upcoming Imperial attack (although in this script the Rebels can't buy a break and get a double-whammy of Imperial troops and unstoppable, unfriendly ice monsters as well), and there's an escape into asteroids, Han and the Princess fall in love, and Luke goes to train as a Jedi Knight under some mysterious weirdo. All roads lead to Cloud City, where Darth Vader has captured Han and Leia due to Lando selling them out, and ultimately the climax is a lightsaber duel between Luke and Darth Vader where Luke is tempted by evil.

Yoda is there (named "Minch," a froglike old bog planet dweller that trained Obi-Wan), as is the Emperor…here he's his usual self as a hood wearing old sorcerer. Apparently this was the point where the idea the Emperor was a powerless figurehead pawn of a powerful military junta, present in the original Star Wars novelization among other pre "Empire Strikes Back" places, was ditched.

One of my favorite scenes shows something I was always curious about: Darth Vader's castle. Darth Vader has some gargoyle-like pets that he feeds, delighting in their greed and cruelty.


The most surprising element of the script had to do with Lando, here called Lando Kadar. As opposed to a charming but untrustworthy rake who tried to go legit and became successful, Lando in Leigh Brackett's script is a man who "went native," like Jake Sully in "Avatar," accepted by and becoming a leader of a tribe of primitives who live on the Cloud world and fly aerial manta rays.

A lot of people believe Lando was created for a very cynical reason: a big criticism of the original Star Wars was there weren't any black people in it. But there's not a single word about Lando's race in the script. The description of Lando Kadar is that he was so good looking, like Rudolph Valentino, he seems almost a little unreal.

Originally we hear that Lando Kadar was some kind of refugee from the Clone Wars. That's when the bombshell is dropped: Lando Kadar was a clone, from a planet of clones.

Han Solo, Dialed Back

One of the more disappointing things about the script is that Han Solo in this movie is a seriously subdued, "big brother" figure that seems very bland, without his trademark pride, gambler's arrogance, coolness and desire for independence. Han Solo is strongly on the Rebels' side, and isn't conflicted about it at all. Some of his character defining moments, like running the blockade of Imperial ships, leading them into an asteroid field and so on, are absent. This was one of the biggest surprises because practically every single hero Leigh Brackett ever wrote was basically Han Solo. Obviously I wouldn't expect a first draft to be perfect, and a few more rewrites were needed.

Han got a really interesting piece of business: we learn his estranged stepfather was a wealthy interstellar shipping magnate that might be the most powerful person in the galaxy after the Emperor and Darth Vader, and the Rebels need his help. This mission is set up at the end, where Han leaves in the Falcon. I always thought this was interesting because what little we've heard about Han's stepfather reminds me of the Fu Manchu-esque Prince Xizor in "Shadows of the Empire," who was also a shipping magnate and was also the third most powerful and influential guy in the galaxy.

There is one important character that isn't mentioned at all: Boba Fett, and there was no dark cliffhanger with Han Solo trapped in chocolate. Considering the original version of the Star Wars script had Darth Vader as an evil, quiet and menacing bounty hunter, I'm inclined to think this might have been Lucas's idea.

Luke Skywalker is "Rocky"

It's hard to imagine how a boy pilot who blew up the Death Star could possibly be an underdog again after proving himself in such an amazing way, but the Brackett story knocks Luke down a peg in the beginning to build him up. By the end of the story he's humbled, more aware of his shortcomings, but also more adult and wise.

The story starts with Luke getting his ass kicked by ice monsters, just like in the final film. And it goes downhill from there – he tells Leia he loves her and she rejects him, because of her duties (leaving him to think "she's a princess and I'm a farm boy from Tattooine"). And then, in a very subtle way, she leaves Luke to "help out" (ha, ha) Han Solo…

One of my favorite parts of the original Brackett script was how Luke drew his lightsaber to fight an ice monster and got his ass kicked.

Han Solo then tells Luke that Ben Kenobi was a good guy but he filled Luke's head with nonsense, and even for the Jedi Knights, lightsabers were entirely ceremonial weapons and are not the most practical in real fights. This is really funny to me, because I always found the idea that someone with a sword was invincible against people with guns was just a little unbelievable, and come the prequels, the lightsaber was so overused and overpowered it became boring. To have someone at this early stage flat out say they're romantic and sentimental but not a very practical weapon, well, it rings absolutely true.

Therefore, when Luke starts training on the unnamed bog planet, when the ghost of Ben Kenobi tells him he has potential and greatness, Luke was a little suspicious of him. "I'm nobody," he says.

Leigh Brackett's Star Wars sequel script had an infinitely more complex and intriguing view of the Force than the later films. When Luke asks what the Dark Side of the Force is, Yoda tells them the Dark Side isn't something external, but your own personal Dark Side and worst characteristics, insecurities, wrath, hatred and vices. Giving in to these traits is destroying yourself.

Was Darth Vader Luke Skywalker's Father?

Short answer: no, not in this script.

If Luke being Darth Vader's son was Brackett's idea, it wasn't here. And it isn't just a question of that line not being there. In one scene on the bog planet, Obi-Wan introduces Luke to the ghost of his real dead father. The moment is as earth-shattering for Luke as it is for us.

Amazingly of all, Luke's Father tells him he has a sister, who in the script was given the name "Nellith."

During the final confrontation, hoping to unleash Luke's evil side, Vader taunts him with the knowledge that he killed his father.

"You don't stand a chance against me. …No more than your Father did, anyway."

Vader plays to Luke's vanity as well as his rage and wrath, hoping to get Luke to use the Dark Side so Luke could say he killed the great Darth Vader. In the end Luke gives in to wrath and rage, and as a result, he betrays his Jedi oath, a crushing moment where Luke believes he ought to die.

All in all, Darth Vader's temptation of Luke was much better done in this script because he had something to tempt Luke with.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hero System Review Tuesday: "Conquerors, Killers and Crooks"

Maybe you're one of those that doesn't like the Champions Universe. You'd rather create your own, or say, set the game in your favorite comics world like the Marvel Universe.

I said the same thing myself. Don't worry, you'll set a game in the Champions Universe eventually. You will!

Either you'll realize it's insanely labor intensive to write out six or seven character sheets every single game and you find yourself wishing for support so you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time, or you'll get deep into the game world the more books you buy and realize you're left out of the fun with bad guys like Ankylosaur, Shrinker and Foxbat.

It's literally impossible for anyone that calls themselves a GM to read Champions, Killers and Crooks and not come up with five million ideas for your own group.

That brings me to the single most sterling recommendation for Conquerors, Killers and Crooks: because a roleplaying game is all about player characters, a Champions superhero setting is pretty much defined by who the villains are. Which leads to a very unusual situation in RPGs, where the villain book is the only really "required" sourcebook for an entire setting! If you want to set a game in the Champions Universe, this is the only one you really truly need for that Champions feel – the Champions Universe book itself and the Champions setting book are more or less optional, just for the completist. If you're on a budget, this is the book you need.

I love this book. I can't recommend it enough. It's useful for developing something a GM should have, which is an intuition about what makes someone dangerous and lethal and what makes for a cakewalk fight, something you may not have if you make your own bad guys from the beginning. For that reason it's good to peruse even if you don't intend to use the Champions Universe. One of the single most difficult and unpredictable things about a superhero game is the ability to determine challenge.

In general, this is a book you can "trust." If it says a villain is super-deadly and requires a team to fight, he probably does. A bad guy's DEX and CON ratings usually "feel" right. I've seen some dumb-ass, useless and unusable bad guy character sheets by energetic, prolific amateurs like Sam Bell where nobody's PD or ED was ever above 3 and if a DEX was 20, they must be a Dexmonkey King of the Ninja or something.

Best of all, Conquerors Killers and Crooks seems to be the one place that avoids the magic fetish everyone else writing in this cosmos seems to have. Magic villains are no more or less represented than any other kind of bad guy, like mutants or aliens. Color me surprised to see there was an American Indian character, Warbow, that (shocking for this edition) didn't have Shaman Ancestor Powers! It may be the case that a lot of these baddies were created before Champions was all-magic in the 5th Edition, so they're grandfathered in, in something close to their original forms. I'd hate to imagine what they'd be like if created just for this edition. Danish politician Fiacho would probably get his powers from the EPCOT version of Viking magic like every other asshole.

Come to think of it, the 5th Edition Dr. Destroyer does look a little like Sauron, doesn't he?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The strange case of Elizabeth Brady Cabot Winslow

She's got one of these over-the-top Boston Brahmin names, "Elizabeth Brady Cabot Winslow," which ranks up there with Thurston Howell III, and on her own blog on Friendster, she is self-described as "one of the 50-100 most intelligent people in the world."

Despite all that, she claims a giant conspiracy is against her - one that caused her to be electrocuted at a public telephone, among other things.

She gives a rapid-fire account of all the things she's done in the world: an editor for World Book Encyclopedia, she was a former Vegas showgirl and once stopped an entire sporting event when she entered because she was that gorgeous. She was a super-genius and member of MENSA besides, a polymath in many fields, and was the heir of a family that became the basis for the movie. A member of a rich and politically connected family, she has an alphabetically listed "enemies list." One of them, her cousin Ted Knappen, I was able to find. Just like she said, he was a vice-president of Greyhound Bus.

I have to admit, I was intrigued by this person's story - mostly because she used the term "impecunious" correctly. I can man-up and admit when I don't know something, and I had to get a dictionary and look that one up (it means "poor"). That's not exactly a word that rolls off the tongue of your usual bum.

Ms. Winslow's names and contacts were so specific that I found it unlikely her stories of being connected and from a good family were entirely false.

What I suspect happened to Ms. Elizabeth Winslow is, she was a genius, attractive and successful young woman who, around her mid-forties, was the victim of a very real medical condition: paranoid schizophrenia.

This condition alienated others and left her impoverished. Being poor, she lived in areas where there was a lot of crime and she was often the victim of crimes and robbery. In short, she isn't someone to make fun of, but a victim of mental illness that wrecked her promising life. I feel a great swell of pity for Elizabeth Winslow and I hope she finds the help she deserves.

There was one part of her story that I could check out personally. She claimed to have gone to Coral Gables High School for one year in 1959. I'm not a teacher anymore, but I knew the area and I substitute-taught there once and did observation hours as an undergraduate education student. For those that don't know, Coral Gables High School has the reputation of being a "rich kid" school in a "rich kid" area. Anyone that lives in the Coral Gables neighborhood, a district of Miami that is pretty wealthy, would in fact probably be well-off.

I managed to find two references to an Elizabeth Winslow in the 1959 Coral Gables Yearbook. She was indeed on the swim team, just like she said she was on her website. And it certainly is possible she was a Vegas showgirl.

Eizabeth Winslow is the second from the left on the bottom row.

More research may be needed; a wealthy, attractive and intelligent girl that fell into poverty due to mental problems would make for a good story.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hero System Review Tuesday: "Champions Universe"

Do you like magic?

Well, apparently, so do Steven S. Long and Darren Watts, the people that brought the Champions Universe into the 21st Century.

Magic is (seriously!) responsible for all superpowers, even mutants and accidental origin types (say what?).

Atlantis is full of magic, and so are the Champions Universe's Mole Men equivalent race, who also use magic. The main martial artist NPC uses magic swords (possibly +3 Shocking Burst Vorpal, but let me check the DMG tables again). The other dimensions are filled with magic and the book even points out only mages are suited for interdimensional travel – which is weird because the most famous other dimensions in "real" comics are "alternate universes" and the Negative Zone. Depending on the sourcebook, there are more magic bad guys than any other origin. There's even a city full of magic, Vibora Bay – especially irritating in that it broke the Champions Universe's long-time prohibition against fictional, DC style American cities.

Almost every single hero outside of America gets their magic powers from the region's local magic folktale, representing the EPCOT version of that world culture. If you think this means the continent of Africa is packed with soul brothers with tribal lion-command powers, you'd be right.

Magic, magic, magic. I think Julius Schwartz is getting chafed from all the 360's he's doing in his grave.

This blew my mind. This was where I realized things were out of control. Just in case you think I was exaggerating above.

To summarize: "magic makes mutants and power armor work because of the Nazis."

Say what? By the way, this insane page is contradicted by the fact that later on they talk about how technology is relatively higher in the Champions Universe earth because of superheroic inventors. It's like even the book realizes how Medichlorians-level terrible an idea this is and rejects the idea like a viral infection mere pages later.

By the way, if the idea was to bring Champions in with the meta-setting, it choked there, too. There must have been at least as much magic during their Brand-X Conan or Middle Earth age in the meta-setting, and yet I'm betting there were no mutant powers and powered armor then. Maybe it's because there were no Nazis.

I know comics have wizardry involved from time to time but…how many super-mages are there in "real" superhero comics? I mean, can we do a head count here? Guys, this is disproportionate representation.

I play superhero roleplaying games because I've had about a bellyful of fairy-and-dragon fantasy games. I have great memories of running D&D games for my friends in middle school, but if I never run another D&D game again as long as I live it'd be too soon.

Despite the obvious raging boner the creators have for magic, the book is a pretty useful introductory guide to the Champions Universe, and explains what "Hunted: PSI, 8-" on character sheets actually means. It provides an introduction for newbies, and is a great place to start. I'd recommend it, but if you can get it by borrowing it once from your GM for a weekend so you know who ARGENT is, that'd be the best course of action. A lot of it is filler, naturally: a lot of the world setting is about characters that aren't important. Who the heck was Beowulf or MicroMax? The only character from the Justice Sentinels that stands out to me was Diamond, and that's because he was obviously inspired by the Thing.

One thing this book has going for it, though: that may be the awesomest cover of any roleplaying game product ever. They did George Perez in all the right ways!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Julian Perez At the Movies: Thor

It's weird to say, but Thor is a smaller personal story than you'd expect. Compared to how "big" Iron Man 2 was, for instance, it had relatively fewer battles and special effects scenes and worked at a smaller scale than one would expect for someone like Mighty Thor. I was surprised at how short and tight the movie was.

The Thor movie is a lot like the first Iron Man in that it is about a guy who changes from the start of the movie to the end because he gets put through the wringer and realizes he made mistakes. Thor starts off as a hero with a lot of flaws: he's a bolsterous guy with a big personality but he likes to fight way too much, which is a problem for a guy who might be King, because a wise king shouldn't look for trouble.

He's proud and easily offended and haughty, and like a lot of proud people he gets revenge for insults a wise person might just ignore. At the end of the movie, Thor shows how he's changed because he actually fights to save some former enemies because he figures over the top retaliation isn't right!

The Science Fiction Elements

One dirty little secret about Mighty Thor that even comic book fans don't get at times is that Mighty Thor was never, ever entirely Tolkien or Gaiman esque mythic fantasy, but was kept off-balance and interesting because it had unusual and incongruous science fiction and a cosmic element to it that felt more science fiction than fantasy. Thor was never "Lord of the Rings," it was something weirder and cooler than that because it had alien invasions, giant unstoppable robots, and science fiction villains like Ego the Living Planet, Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, and the High Evolutionary and his Dr. Moreau beastman city.

It was almost Joseph Campbell mindblowing, with moments like a guy on a horse galloping through space. Jack Kirby always drew shining Asgard less as a giant Viking town than as yet another secret society future city, just like the Inhumans' Attilan.

Though Thor started out as based on Ancient Pagan stories, it was always something altogether different and it says something that the most interesting characters even in Thor's world of Asgard were totally without precedent in folklore: Beta Ray Bill – an alien with the power of Thor, the Enchantress and the Executioner, the Warriors Three, and so on. Even when something was taken from folklore, it was juxstaposed with either modern New York (like that Walt Simonson story where Thor chased the indestructible dragon Fafnir through the subway system and then fought him on the Empire State Building) or outer space (like that one where Thor, the Lady Sif and Beta Ray Bill fought Surtur the Fire-Giant, but he was leading an invasion of an alien planet).

After Stan Lee and Jolly Jack left Might Thor, super-literate English lit major Roy Thomas tried slipping in some classic references to pagan stories, like how Mighty Thor actually had a chariot pulled by goats – a detail most other writers "forgot" about mostly because it looked pretty stupid. The more folkloric a character is in Thor, the more likely they are to be dull in the comics. Balder the Brave, who in Pagan belief was a sort of Jesus-figure who died and came back to life, had no real personality in the comics apart from being a loyal friend.

All that brings me to this movie. They went in exactly the right direction with Thor, which astounded me: I figured they'd "play it safe" and do Thor like "Lord of the Rings" or "Narnia." Here, they made Thor even more science fiction than before: the other dimensions are now planets (apparently the Frost Giants now have their own planet), and the Rainbow Bridge of Bifrost is now a wormhole gadget that looks like the Asgardians borrowed it from Doctor Who.

Loki is described as a "wizard," but that must mean something different to Asgardians than to us because his "magic" is mostly tricks like the hologram gadget from "Total Recall."

In the comics, though Thor often battled science fiction menaces, Thor was unambiguously exactly what he said he was: an immortal deity. Fighting him was more like taking on a force of nature than a person. Here, he's more like a superpowerful alien mistaken for a god by primitive humans.

Make no mistake: the science fiction elements were a theme of Mighty Thor that this movie just made more explicit than usual, a case of a movie "getting it." They pushed that angle front and center in the trailers, which is weird. I think it might have been to say, "I know he's based on paganism, but look! It's really science fiction! So, please, please, please don't skip out on our movie, people from the South!"

The Bad Guys: Loki and the Destroyer

The villain of the movie – Loki - is fascinating because he's so totally different from any other bad guy in superhero movies.

All the major twists and turns of the movie are due to him, which is why, despite the fact he's so great it's hard to talk about him without spoilers. Just when you think you've figured out his motivation, there's another level to his scheme in operation; you don't even really "get" the character until one last line he gives that explains everything.

In the end Loki comes off as strangely tragic because he wasn't evil so much as someone that went wrong somewhere. Loki is sympathetic because his motive is he has something to prove to everyone, despite the fact people accept and like him; he's insecure and sees distrust and hate where there just isn't any.

The costume was great, too: there was one shot that was just a shadow of Loki on a wall; with that curved horn helmet of his, Loki was immediately recognizable just by silhouette.

Loki must be Norwegian for liar, because that's exactly what he does, and everyone believes him. In fact, he's so good at lying and pulling strings, so subtle, that the first scene he manipulates other people it's possible to not even realize he did it. Loki wins fights by sneaking and cheating and playing on other people's emotions. In one scene he looks like he's about to fall to his death and asks his brother Thor to save his life. Surprise! It was a hologram trick that lets Loki stab Thor.

Loki lying can be more crushing and destroying than any proton beam: one of the worst, crushing scenes in the movie was one where Loki goes to Thor and tells him their mother doesn't want Thor to ever come back to Asgard.

The Destroyer was just about perfect in this movie. He was huge and unstoppable and totally silent and intimidating and reminded me of Gort, the robot from "The Day the Earth Stood Still." I saw someone at the premiere with a 7-11 Destroyer cup, which makes perfect sense: opening night of Thor is the only place in the world you can possibly be comfortable drinking out of a plastic robot in public. I totally expect that in the future, statues of the Destroyer will be sold at science fiction conventions next to busts of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Comedy

One thing the trailers probably didn't tell you about Mighty Thor: it's funny. Just as funny as Iron Man, in fact, which is really a relief because if it didn't have a sense of humor it'd be insufferable. Thor bonds with a scientist because the pair of them drink heavily (and competitively!), and the pair come back stumbling drunk. The human characters help Thor become a decent person because he sincerely wants to help Jane Foster, as Thor knows she's right.

I was super-nervous about Kenneth Brannaugh because I thought it might be the Ang Lee "Hulk" all over again: another case of a "highbrow" director who makes a bad movie because he looks down on the material. This didn't happen here at all, and I'm delighted. Still, Brannaugh is a classy guy and he brought a lot of polish: notice that in all of his scenes all the actors are doing something instead of just staring blankly, and because of his direction he made some jokes work that should be unfunny on paper.

Nobody that really appreciates or understands Shakespeare could possibly be a snob. As genius as the guy was, Shakespeare wrote his plays like the better Hollywood blockbusters; there was plenty of stuff for the literate but his target audience was the lowest common denominator so there was always plenty of attention-getting sex, violence and functions comedy (farts and midgets). If Shakespeare lived today he'd be perfectly at home doing surprisingly high-quality stuff in the studio system.

The Casting

Kenneth Brannaugh is a color-blind casting guy; in "As You Like It" he made Keanu Reeves and Denzel Washington brothers.

A lot of people wondered about the Asian Hogun the Grim, which bugs me because that critique is actually downright comics-illiterate; even in the comics he was not from Asgard but was a bitter outcast from a country to the South, a sort of Mongol type pan-Asian place with genies and flying carpets. Hogun was the first of the Warriors Three to get a solo story because he was so popular: he had a lot of cool mystique as a quiet, antisocial guy who thought his life was cheap.

If I have a critique of that movie it's that the minor characters went underdeveloped. Surely some cute character bit, even if it was one line, could have been given to Volstagg (who seemed curiously thin in this movie), Fandral the Dashing was just there, as was someone as cool as Hogun.

Idris Elba did just fine. He got the best costume in the entire movie, bronze-gold space armor that looks like something Darth Vader would wear if he was a good guy. He has a great growly voice and accent, and together with oddball hazel-gold contacts, he let his voice and the costume do all the work. He doesn't look Asgardian but he sounds like it. I guess if you want an explanation for his un-Asgardian looks, Heimdall might have been a "naturalized citizen" to Asgard, originally from someplace else, like Hogun the Grim.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Polybius - the world's spookiest video game

One of my all-time favorite, spookiest urban legends involves a mysterious arcade game whose existence was never substantiated, Polybius. It's a great window into the early days of video games, a horror story that developed around the anxiety people have around a new, unfamiliar technology seen as scary, youth-corrupting and addictive.

It's easy to imagine the Polybius story as a schoolyard telephone game that got bigger and bigger, a pearl that formed around the sand grain of a real life scientific phenomenon that was poorly understood at the time: some people go into epileptic fits when certain lights flash in sequence.

These days we all know about how flashing lights and intense concentration lead to epileptic seizures, but imagine how terrifying it must have been to see something like that happen in the early days of video games. You're at an arcade with a friend and in front of dozens of witnesses he foams at the mouth and collapses to the ground in a fit after constantly playing a video game.

Imagine seeing all this and not understanding why it happened.

Because the game, Polybius, if it existed at all, was put out by a manufacturer that can't be traced and no machines exist, it's very possible there's no basis for it at all. Nonetheless, the fears the game played on were very real, and the story tells us a lot about what people were afraid of at the time.

The usual versions of the urban legend goes something like this: in 1981, seven arcades in rural Portland, Oregon received a mysterious black with green joystick, undecorated arcade game named "Polybius" after the Ancient Greek founder of modern cryptography. The company that produced it was the previously unknown Sinneslöschen Publishing (a German term meaning "sensory-extinguishing").

Introducing a game in limited quantities isn't suspicious in and of itself since it was normal to test market arcade games before a wider release, and because the gaming industry was very new at the time, it wasn't uncommon for unknown publishers to get into the action either. The game itself was innovative by all accounts: most people (supposedly) remember the game being a Tempest-like tunnel-shooter.

According to the urban legend, the trouble started immediately after the game arrived, those that played it suffered from feelings of dread, terrifying nightmares, night sweats, an inability to sleep due to constant screaming, and amnesia or memory loss. Different stories say that many people just stopped playing video games, and one became an anti-video game activist. One teenager first became moody and violent after playing Polybius constantly and even committed suicide.

Many people reported seeing men in black suits around the Polybius machines, not collecting quarters but removing data of some kind. A few reported the screen flashed with subliminal messages - "Obey," or "Work Eight Hours, Play Eight Hours, Sleep Eight Hours."

And mere weeks after it first appeared, Polybius machines were taken away and never heard from again. No arcade collector owns a Polybius machine, and the general consensus is that either Polybius never existed or the evidence is inconclusive about it ever existing.

What was Polybius, if it even existed? What's the truth behind the legends?

One of the more interesting theories is that Polybius might be a confused memory of the vector-graphics tube-shooter Tempest (interesting that the gameplay should be described as a lot like Tempest!), which had to be revamped because it gave vulnerable people seizures.

It is entirely possible that instead of some scheme by an X-Files agency, Polybius was just an ordinary game. According to this interview with a guy that claims to be the designer of Polybius, the game was test-released in Portland, Oregon, and as a result of a boy that got an epileptic seizure from the game, a panicky company, not used to selling something like video games that was a lightning rod for parents' groups, overreacted and pulled the plug on the Polybius's wider release and scrapped all the arcade machines that exist. The "men in black suits" were people from corporate that examined the machines for safety purposes.

Without a single working copy of the game it's difficult to take the story seriously, but nothing in it was all that outrageous or unbelievable: just a game a lot of people took time and effort to create that was the victim of a rumor mill because of a poorly understood real-world medical reaction, the litigation for which made the parent company overreact and yank all the machines out. The story of a kid who got sick from a game was passed around by a local rumor mill and became bigger and bigger, and the removal of the machines was seen as confirmation of all the scary stories.

Everything about this story, from the power the threat of litigation has on cowardly companies, to the tragic way creative people get trampled, to the lack of paranoia or all has the unpleasant stink of believability. Without proof, it's all hard to believe especially with the way people try to attach themselves to a famous story like that of Polybius, but reading the interview, my bullshit detector never went off once. I sincerely hope Steven Roach's story will put an end to this over the top urban legend once and for all.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Champions (Hero System 5th Edition) Product Review Tuesday: Aaron Allston's "Champions: Superpowered Roleplaying"

Better late than never, right?

I'm proud to introduce a regular feature – Champions Review Tuesdays, which focus on the old 5th Edition, which is overrepresented in my collection. Every Tuesday I'll get another one up like clockwork of another Champions (Hero System) product.

Seriously, the necessity for reviews of this type dawned on me when I realized the quality of Hero System productions swung around so wildly that some books were must-haves and others were terrible to the point of absolute uselessness. I also realized that most of the webrpg reviews were done by sycophantic fanboys incapable of providing useful or thoughtful information.

Champions: Superpowered Roleplaying (By Aaron Allston)

When I first got this book I thought it was pretty friggin' useless, and a rip-off for the dough I forked over.

For heaven's sake, I already know how superheroes work, what a "brick" and an "energy projector" character are. I had a basic sense of how the genre worked, like the difference between a Master Villain (say, Doctor Doom) and a Henchman Villain (say, Whirlwind, Tigershark or the Wrecking Crew), defining characteristics of the Silver Age and Bronze Age, and things like skintight costumes and what a superteam government liason does. All of which, by the way, are explained in the book. I'm not joking – there's a whole page on how superhero costumes work. Take a look so you don't think I'm lying:

It felt like they were trying to explain superheroes to people on another planet where there were no superheroes. The book also suffers from things like an attempt to explain romance and comedy in superhero comics, which feels like word-count padding and filler, probably because it is.

Since then, though, I've played with enough people that don't "get" superheroes…and I've been on Champions Online, a game theoretically about superheroes ruined by a playerbase that instead creates furry weirdness like rainbow winged wolf-women and vampire faggotry for the no-longer-cool-or-relevant World of Darkness.

It was then that it dawned on me. The Champions Sourcebook is actually necessary because some people actually don't get superheroes and all this has to be spelled out for them.

It sounds weird, I know, but it reminds me of an anecdote told about Joe Orlando, a guy that was principally a horror and EC comics guy who transitioned into superheroes with great difficulty.

Joe Orlando once wrote a memo where he asked a plotter, "why does the Thing have to smash through a wall? Can't he use a door?"

To which the exhausted writer responded, "look, Joe, you either get this stuff or you don't."

It gets even more interesting when you consider that because Champions has been around for such a long time, there are people that play Champions and don't read superhero comics at all, just like there are people that play D&D and don't read fantasy novels. The Champions Universe started off as a store-brand version of Marvel Comics but acquired a life of its own. To an old school comics fan like me, it's inconceivable, and a perverse reversal of the natural order, that someone could be more familiar with Mechanon than Ultron or Doctor Destroyer over Doctor Doom. It reminds me of people that think Drow are really in world myth, instead of being a creation of Gary Gygax.

Suddenly I understood why, for example, the superteam in this book, the Champions, had powers, vehicles and bases that were so very generic: they're supposed to be that way, to work as "examples" of how you build, say, a Batman type hero, a brick-type invulnerable hero, a power armor hero, an energy projector, and so on. This is especially important and meaningful because the purpose of examples is to show what the system can do.

In an unusually prescient move that shows these people actually play their own game, there was even a Worf-type alien hero. I have almost never been in a group and not had at least one person not want to be a "today is a good day to die" Worf guy. They even give him a Phys Lim to represent unfamiliarity with earth culture. It's like the characters were created with a "how to do this" list in hand. If you're a newbie and aren't sure how to do something, this can be very, very helpful.

If you're an overworked dog of a man like I am, you can do what I do: steal the Champions' V-Jet and use it for whatever superhero team jet's in your own game (all superheroes need a jet, right?), borrow the stats for their wisecracking HAL 9000 AI computer and use it for the one in your superhero base (all superheroes have one of those, too). I hate to interpret designer intent, but I believe that's literally what they're there for, people!

That reminds me. Where the book really shines are the crunchy game bits, and there are a lot of them. The templates are huge packets that make superhero comics easier. They include game bits that are absolutely indispensable: team communicators. Comic book technology like blaster pistols, rocket packs, and character sheets for generic evil minions. Speaking from experience as a GM in a labor-intensive system who believes in working smarter, not harder, that evil minion sheet in back has literally been the henchman sheet for dozens of very different baddies.

The templates are a lifesaver because there's no reason to reinvent the wheel with basic character concepts like the Earth Control Hero, Growing Hero, Scientist, or Martial Artist. When you become a GM, these will be your best friend. Many of them even have things you didn't think of. My favorite was the Multipower for telekinesis heroes, which had Darkness (representing whirling local dust and debris to make a blinding smokescreen). I hadn't thought of that, but that's just cool.

There is also a no-frills Batmobile type supercar, and at least five types of bases: urban base, space base, and an underwater base complete with computers, all with pretty common options. If you think this will save you work, you'd be right. File off the serial numbers and you can pretty much Xerox this and hand them out to characters "right out of the box."

My advice? If you know superheroes, skip the flavor text in front and then go right to the crunchy bits, which you can then file the serial numbers off. I really hate to do "time is money" comparisons, but let's get cold and logical about this: how much would you pay to save yourself hours of unnecessary work? Seriously, let's attach a dollar amount to GM labor. If you say you'd pay anything from from $5-$20 an hour to save you the equivalent amount of work, this book will still pay itself off eventually if you run a campaign longer than a few weeks.

The optional rules are interesting, although they conform with intuition. For instance, the rules on the "Fastball Special" are basically what you'd expect: a character does a Move-Through maneuver based on the velocity of the inches of throwing. You can probably guess that's how it would work if you've ever been a GM for Champions for any length of time, but it's nice to have that in writing. The Directed Knockback rules measure what happens when knockback is used to hit one character into another: namely a second attack roll against a target in the path of the knockback, which gives damage based on inches of Knockback on a 1" = 1d6 basis. This is such an intuitive way to handle it that I'm not entirely sure this even counts as a new rule.

When building characters I always turn to the Vulnerability Frequency tables. How often do cold attacks come up in your average superhero world, anyway? Mental powers? Again, good to have it in writing. Though I notice there is a slight Marvel emphasis on a lot of these tables. For instance, Cold/Ice powers are judged as uncommon, and fire and heat powers as very common. That's one big difference between the Marvel and DC Universes: Marvel has tons of fire people and relatively few ice characters, while DC has tons of ice people and relatively few fire people.

Finally, in back there are some great classic villains for a variety of campaigns, in addition to the famous Utr – er, I mean, Mechanon. Green Dragon, a villainous kung fu expert, is a great character because he can with very few alterations be retweaked into the character sheet for literally dozens of "costumed athlete" martial arts types with very little effort.

It's at this point I ought to admit a prejudice I have that colors my appreciation of the book. I don't like "genre toolbox" supplements that give you an overview of a genre or milieu so you can create your own setting with them. Universal systems, or games like Champions that play-act at being universal systems, are pretty much plagued with books of this type. The non-crunchy parts of these kinds of books are irritating to read because as I said, they waste your time telling you things you already know.

The worst part is when toolbox books of this type take a view that genre simulation is the absolute top priority, and if simulation is the priority, things end up becoming parodies of themselves because they never break new ground.

The best and most interesting things ever done with superheroes, and with anything else for that matter, are the ones that "break the rules." The FF didn't have secret identities, for example, which was a pretty ironclad comics rule until then.

Because genre simulation is paramount, the books give frankly horrible and embarrassing advice I can't see any real GM taking. Typical of this is a section on fads and creating fad-themed superheroes with disco and skateboarding themed powers. Does it occur to anyone else that maybe accurately simulating the genre is ultimately not as important as not being retarded? Because having disco and skateboard themed characters sounds pretty retarded to me.

This gets even worse with other Hero System products. My favorite is another toolkit book, Pulp Hero which gave the most dysfunctional advice imaginable on handling race and sex. When it came to women, it said that "because pulps like Adventure made an effort to portray females as smart, strong and sensible, there are many examples to fall back on when creating as many heroines and capable female NPCs as you like."

Okay, fine, but later on, they discuss racism, and give three possible options for a game master and group, all of which are equally insane: the first is setting a game in the 1920s and ignoring racism and sexism as existing in society entirely (!); the second is making all characters white and male to "accurately simulate the pulps," (!) and the third is a "compromise" (their words) possibility where "Oriental" is used instead of "Asian" and "if there is a nonwhite player character, there should be only one."

What blows my mind about this is not how horrible the advice is (pretending racism and sexism didn't exist in the 1920s, or requiring players to make all-white male heroes?) but it never even occurs to them that maybe it's possible to create smart and capable racial minority heroes, or even an all-minority party, even if there is no precedent for that in the pulps themselves? In other words, the reason women heroes can be smart and not useless is only because Adventure magazine did it!

Another reason I don't like books of this type is that they take a backwards approach to how, in practice, the creation of settings work. They start with making someone ask big questions that in practice most people creating a setting, roleplaying game masters or otherwise, don't answer immediately, like what the status of superhumans and the law is, or the history of superheroes.

In a homebrew game, it's a very rare game master that has everything fleshed out from day one. Thinking about the history of superhumans isn't the first thing you should be thinking about when starting a game or a setting. I understand different GMs work in different ways, but is starting with a chapter like "Timeline" about the history of the entire world really the way most GMs do things? Is that even the most helpful way to think?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Heroes that worked for the bad guys

Mr. Moto

Talk about a supporting cast member that steals the show. Mr. Moto is a weird, funny looking little Asian man with bad taste in clothes and a tendency to wear golf suits. He never raises his voice or is impolite.

And he's Imperial Japan's greatest secret agent. He desperately tries to win and defeat huge swaths of territory for his masters, those friendly folks that brought us World War II and Pearl Harbor. He wants to help conquer China for Japan.

Despite his obvious affiliation with the forces of darkness (one book makes him a personal friend of Emperor Hirohito) Mr. Moto is interesting because you wouldn't expect a guy in a bad golf suit and glasses to have such a casually matter of fact, practical attitude to killing, execution and assassination. He's a supercompetent secret agent with a dozen skills, but he doesn't look it or act like it.

Once you figure out the real character of the unassuming Mr. Moto, you're always a little nervous about him because he's got his own agenda and sometimes that involves him helping you and sometimes it doesn't. If you have a conversation with Mr. Moto, he'll smile and be polite, but you'll come away thinking you just told him everything and he didn't tell you anything at all. He's patient, outwardly polite, and even tempered. He's a cryptic guy that never shows his real feelings; it's obvious "Mr. Moto" is a pseudonym; what his real name is, we just never learn. Even though he works for the baddies, it's impossible not to like a guy this cool.

By the way, it's worth pointing out for Martial Arts buffs that Mr. Moto knew and used Judo, which was given by name and its general properties accurately given (grabs, throws and joint-locks). The only earlier appearance of Asian martial arts in fiction I can think of might be Sherlock Holmes's use of Bartitsu, which barely counts because Bartitsu was created by a Brit.

Mr. Moto is obviously a take on Charlie Chan, but one who went far enough in his own direction to be interesting, in much the same way the start point for Conan the Barbarian was obviously Tarzan.

The Mr. Moto books have a great sense of humor, which is another thing to recommend them. In terms of unpredictability, there were some that a mystery buff like me can figure out all the twists well ahead of the author ("Your Turn, Mr. Moto") and others where I was genuinely surprised ("Think Fast, Mr. Moto").

If you've read one Mr. Moto book, you've pretty much read them all. Some down on his luck American/Western main character living in the Far East bumbles his way into international espionage and must be saved by secret agent Mr. Moto. There's usually the beautiful evil spy lady, of course, a vague MacGuffin, and some (usually) evil Chinese secret agent.

The books are filled with the usual claptrap "inscrutable east" Fu Manchu stuff that macho post-pulpsters will desperately try to tell you isn't racist. The phenomenon at work here is an attraction to the most sensational elements of a culture to the point a real place becomes a cartoon version of itself. I for one would love to read at least one detective mystery set in New Orleans that doesn't somehow involve voodoo magic, for instance.

There's an argument that lots of adventure stories rely on luridness and sensationalism. That's fine, luridness and sensationalism I don't have any gripe with. The problem with things like "inscrutable east" is that it shows a real laziness of intellect. Anyone that ever threw their hands up and said we can never understand the primitive mind in jungle adventure stories is being intellectually lazy - same thing with inscrutable "who can ever figure out these Orientals" stories.

The truth is, there's a difference between the unknown and the unknowable. If you want to make a good impression on some Chinese clients, for instance, buy a book of Chinese culture, manners and etiquette. Figuring out other cultures isn't hard if you decide to take the effort.

Before Pearl Harbor, the allegiance of a huge part of the mainstream American public, not just German American Bundist types, was with the Fascists. Sure, they were efficient and Anticommunist, but never underestimate the American public's ability to sympathize with winners and hate on losers. The Chinese, though conquered and horribly exploited by the Japanese, in the Mr. Moto stories, were overwhelmingly represented by backward and lawless Warlords.

By the way, the Mr. Moto books are a perfect example of what I think is one of the most insufferable characteristics of modern libraries: the insistence on good books over popular ones. John P. Marquand was an established Pulitzer prize-winner who dabbled in mystery, espionage and thriller novels, yet despite his credentials his most famous creation was Mr. Moto. I could never find any Mr. Moto novels growing up, but all of his dense Pulitzer-winning stuff nobody read today was everywhere in every library I knew. It was enough to drive a man crazy.

It reminds me of a story about one inner city girl that wanted to find Nancy Drew stories, but they weren't available in her own library. Librarians: I understand the library profession has a special obligation to make available the great works that make up our Western culture. But if some inner city kid wants to read some Nancy Drew books, for the love of God, let her have them!

SUN KOH - The Son of Atlantis, the Man of Destiny

"Hey Jules...did you ever hear there was a pulp hero, published in Germany in the 1930s, that was like sort of a version of Doc Savage, except he was a Nazi that wanted to take over the world for Germany?"

I remember a fellow pulp-loving friend of mine told me that and I thought he was crazy because it sounded too weird to be true. But I looked into it and apparently Sun Koh actually did exist.

Even though the stories want us to think he's a noble heroic type, everything about Sun Koh is unintentionally sinister in the extreme. A Doc Savage type hero called "The Perfect Aryan" (creepy!) with blonde hair and big muscles, what sets Sun Koh as different, other than his allegiance to Nazi Germany, is that his backstory is filled with Nazi crackpot alternate history and mysticism.

Sun Koh fell from the sky, a legendary prince of the Kingdom of Atlantis (a land filled with blonde haired whites related to modern Germanic people, naturally - it's laughably mentioned he's related to "Mayan Kings"), sent to warn our time about a coming ice age like the kind that destroyed Atlantis, a cataclysm only the Aryan race can survive and therefore he is sent to ensure its dominance over the planet. He has a tattoo on his back of hidden kingdoms and mysterious places, and a lot of his stories involve going into weird lands in India and using Indian mysticism and yogic techniques. He performed acts like removing ice from Greenland (in accordance with Nazi myths about "Ultima Thule"), going into the Hollow Earth via a hidden ancient tunnel and also bringing sunken Atlantis up from the Hollow Earth so Aryan peoples have more living space.

By the way, I'm pretty sure reading that previous sentence gives you schizophrenia. Sun Koh's stories are so full of discredited racist pseudohistory that if he lived today he'd spend all his time fighting vaccination and looking for Obama's birth certificate. That kind of bothers me because Doc Savage's world was interesting but purely rational.

Incidentally, I've always found it an interesting trait of German science fiction that despite how the technology got incredibly over the top, there was very little space travel at all. After all, when you've got both that AND the Hollow Earth you're just getting greedy.

Sun Koh is a shockingly casual killer. He often rips off artifacts from ancient cultures and takes them without apology. He operates according to "protagonist centered morality," in the sense that what's right and wrong is determined by the main character; opponents are bad guys because they stand against him. In one story, he actually advocated enslavement of a native people at the Hollow Earth. In short, he was an absolute monster. What's creepy about these stories is not how different he is from pulp heroes, but how similar.

Sun Koh has a few allies: two sidekicks including a servile bellboy, as well as a big Negro prizefighter. Later on the pulp introduced Jen Mayen, a fellow inventor and mad scientist that is more his mental equal (and even got a spin-off dedicated to him and his vehicles), and Joan Martini, a sexy woman daughter of an archeologist who was thought to be a crackpot because of his belief in Atlantis and other hidden kingdoms.

By the way, the black American prizefighter sidekick died off a year after the strip started at the request of Nazi officials. The guy got a heck of a sendoff: Sun Koh gave Nimba great wealth which he used to support the Ethiopians against Italy, and he was eventually killed in battle. His last words? "Say hello to Atlantis for me." Not a bad fate for an ethnic sidekick with a lot more dignity than usual - but horrible that it had to happen at all. It's interesting to note this sidekick died the same year Jessie Owens embarrassed the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics.

Sun Koh was obviously a rip-off of the Doc Savage type technology and science hero. Both series lasted over 150 books long, and both started with him going to the Yucatan peninsula, finding a lost civilization of Mayans, and ends with our hero taking back enormous treasure that means he doesn't have to work a 9 to 5 and can just fight evil all the time. Except Doc Savage's Mayan friends gladly gave him the treasure in gratitude, whereas Sun Koh just took it.

What's exasperating about Sun Koh is that unlike Doc Savage, Conan, Tarzan and other far superior American adventure characters that fizzled out without the Gotterdammerung they deserved (damn - there's that Wagner imagery, I've got to stop reading these), Sun Koh actually got a "final story," an "ending" where he conquered the Hollow Earth and Atlantis, long since prophesized, rose from the sea. I want to never stop kicking this guy in the nuts with my all-kosher feet for this: this racist douche got something my favorite hero Tarzan never did.