Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Non-Fiction Review: Dark Tide: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Stephen Puleo's book Dark Tide covers a remarkably forgotten tragedy. On January 15, 1919, a 2.3 million gallon tank of molasses collapsed, spilling its contents in Boston's North End in a wave traveling some 35 miles per hour. Twenty-one people lost their lives and some 150 were injured. It almost sounds comical until you consider the horror such an event would no doubt present. Consider how horrible it would be to literally drown in molasses. Yes this is an event that is not in the popular history of the nation or even Boston. 
Dark Tide is divided into three sections. The first, "A Monster in Our Midst" deals with the construction of the tank. Rather than being an exercise in engineering discussion it instead explains why it was built and what the nation and city were like at the time. Puleo explains how the United States Industrial Alcohol Corporation (USIA) distilled molasses in various plants, with one such plant being in Cambridge. A portion of the molasses would be distilled into grain alcohol for rum but the great bulk of it would be distilled into industrial alcohol to be used in the manufacture of various high explosives. However, USIA lacked a large storage facility near its Cambridge distillery forcing it to purchase its molasses from third parties, cutting into its profits. With the World War going on, even without the United States as a participant, USIA was missing out on potential profits. In 1915 they built a tank but as in many construction projects, they ran into countless delays, resulting in the tank being finished barely in time for its first January 1916 delivery. We learn of the corners cut, the lack of testing performed, all to maximize profit. The result was a tank that leaked molasses constantly, with neighborhood children often gathering molasses with buckets as it dripped out of the enormous tank.
Beyond just dealing with the tank itself Puleo devotes a fair amount of text to the lives of many of the people who worked and lived in the vicinity of the tank, from an employee who constantly warned his management chain about the risk of the tank rupturing to firemen in the area to immigrant families. He also talks about the security concerns around the tank, especially once the United States entered the World War. The world in general had been dealing with violent anarchists for several decades, with President McKinley being felled by an anarchist's bullet back in. Boston's North End, with its large Italian immigrant community, was a hotbed of the anarchist movement with such notable anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and a series of bombing and bombing attempts in 1916 such as a failed bombing of the Massachusetts State House, a Woburn factory bombing, and the bombing of a Boston police station.
1919 saw more anarchist activity, with the year starting with anarchist threats. In this environment Puelo gives us his second section, dealing with the actual disaster. USIA was anxious to make one final big financial score. With the war over and Prohibition on the verge of ratification (with a one-year grace period after ratification), they wanted to churn out grain alcohol for the final year of legal alcohol. It was shortly after a major delivery that the tank ruptured. Puelo covers the ordeals of those people he introduced earlier in the book as well as many others and covers the rescue and recovery efforts.
The final section deals with the legal proceedings against the company. USIA claimed their tank was safe and the disaster was a result of anarchists. This was not difficult to believe, as 1919 and 1920 saw continued anarchist bombings, with a massive wave in late spring of 1919 leading to the "Palmer Raids" - Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's effort to deport anarchists, a process that did not spend much time worrying about the civil rights of the accused. Much of this section is from the perspective of the preliminary judge, a World War veteran as well as the prosecuting and defense attorneys. This "preliminary" hearing lasted several years, with the judge to render his initial recommendation, a recommendation likely to carry strong weight. During this long trial anarchists detonated a bomb in Wall Street, giving some apparent credibility to the defense's theory of events. This took place under the backdrop of the extremely pro-business Harding and Coolidge presidential administrations.
Overall it made for a very interesting read. Puleo does an excellent job showcasing the world this disaster took place in, letting us get to know the people of this world, their wants and their concerns. He does delve into the occasional glimpses of the thoughts of the participants, most likely a necessary convention in this type of work. He also gives a very useful bibliography for a variety of topics such as Boston of the time, the anarchist movement, court records, etc.
One thing which struck me is the similarity of this world to our own, especially the early years of the 21st century. The United States during both periods was in an extremely pro-business mood after a two-term Democratic administration. And both periods dealt with a terrorist threat which prompted some extreme fear-based responses.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Boston in the Cthulhu Mythos

With the Call of Cthulhu RPG most commonly being set in the fictional Miskatonic Valley of Massachusetts (with trips all over the world a possibility), it always surprised me how comparatively little Boston has featured in the Call of Cthulhu RPG. In the United States there are sourcebooks for San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and New Orleans. Cubicle 7 has been doing a fantastic job showcasing the British Isles in their Call of Cthulhu supplements. Miskatonic River Press published a fantastic book of adventures for New York City and Golden Goblin Press followed in their footsteps with a New Orleans adventure book.
That's not to say that Boston has been entirely absent from the RPG. For example, the adventure Shadows of Yog-Sothoth begins in Boston. The Unspeakable Oath magazine did have an article giving an overview of Boston. But those resources seem to be few and far between.
In one sense it's not too surprising. It's tough to find much on Boston of that time period in general. New York City, Chicago, and New Orleans, for example, have a wealth of material about them, both in fiction and in non-fiction. With Boston you've got to dig a little deeper. There's material out there but not to the extent that you'll find for the other cities I've mentioned. I got excited once when I was doing a search on the yog-sothoth forums and discovered an old thread of someone asking about 1920s Boston. Then I discovered it was a thread I had started several years prior...
Without intending to over the past several years I've noticed my knowledge of Boston of that era has been increasing. An historical knowledge here, a documentary there, some non-fiction books, vintage guidebooks - over time I've been getting an informal education on late 1910s and 1920s Boston.
I add late 1910s as one thing I've learned is that there was a lot going on in Boston just before, during, and after the Great War. Boston was a hotbed of anarchy, with an entire police station blown up by anarchists! Over 6,000 Bostonians died from the Influenza Pandemic. People died in floods of molasses or in riots after nearly the entire police force went on strike. Moving to the 20s proper, Boston was home to one Charles Ponzi, originator of the Ponzi Scheme (who didn't see that one coming...) The police at one point blockaded all of Chinatown, not letting anyone in or out.
I just kicked off a Call of Cthulhu game which I hope will be a continuing campaign. Though we are starting off with the Chaosium adventure No Man's Land, set in the closing days of the Great War, shortly after that we will transition back to civilian life in the United States. Assuming the campaign gets some momentum, the plan is for the characters to form the core of an organization of investigators of the supernatural. The exact nature of this organization is still to be determined but the plan is to set the game in the Miskatonic Valley. I'm hoping to get some good action out of the city of Boston as well - by rail Arkham would only be a brief trip away from Boston.
I'll likely do some blogging about the types of things I have learned (and will learn) about Boston of the period and how I made use of it in Cthulhu adventures. I'll also share the resources I make use of and my opinion of them - for example, in the post immediately preceding this I discussed Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, a fantastic inspirational source for late 1910s Boston.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fiction Review: The Given Day

Boston in the late 1910s was a fascinating time. The North End was plagued by anarchists. A police station was destroyed by anarchists. Influenza struck the city hard in 1918. 1919 saw both a giant molasses tank spill over the North End with a horrible death toll and also bore witness to the underpaid (below the poverty line) police force go on strike.
When one thinks of the Roaring Twenties (the period just after this book's) in the United States there are a number of places that come to mind. First and foremost there is the Chicago of Al Capone. There is the New York City that appears in countless novels, television, and movies - for me F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby immediately comes to mind. Over the past several years HBO's Boardwalk Empire has given us a view of Atlantic City of the 1920s, with trips to Chicago, New York, and many other places.
Two places which do not tend to come to mind are Boston, Massachusetts and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Maybe Boston but to be honest I can't think of a ton of 1920s historical fiction set in Boston - though I'd love to discover I'm mistaken. Dennis Lehane setting a book in Boston is far from a surprise. Though I'm fairly new to his fiction (this was the third book of his I have read) his passion and knowledge of Boston shines through on every page. Boston is a character in his works. An important character at that. Tulsa, Oklahoma was not a location I had expected however...
In any case, let's get down to talking about the novel itself. The Given Day has two primary characters. The first is Luther Laurence, an African-American figuring out his place in the world. Our first encounter with Luther is when Babe Ruth and his fellow major league ballplayers run into Luther and some of his friends and play a pickup ballgame against them. When it seems the white major leaguers might lose to a group of black players they begin cheating, with Babe Ruth finally siding with his white teammates on a controversial call despite knowing they were in the wrong. Luther is not a man who is easily contented. He is not happy with his race's position in American society. Later in the book when talking to an Irish police officer about immigrants in America Luther points out, much to the displeasure of the cop, that he and his people are not immigrants - they've been Americans for generations. Luther also has a lot of growing to do. He gets his girlfriend pregnant and something just short of a shotgun wedding is arranged. He loves his wife and looks forward to being a father but at the same time he is terrified of being trapped, causing him to live his life somewhat irresponsibly. He's not a monster - he stays faithful to his wife, doesn't do the hard drugs his friends do, but it's like he needs to get something out of his system. He'd be a lot safer had he just stayed away from those friends. This choice of friends makes him run afoul of a black gangster in Greenwood, the affluent black section of Tulsa, forcing him to go on the run. A run which takes him to Boston...
Already in Boston is our other protagonist, Danny Coughlin. Danny is a first-generation Irish-American - born in the United States to parents who immigrated from Ireland. He is the eldest of three brothers. His father is a captain in the Boston police department and Danny is a up-and-coming police officer, in pursuit of a detective's badge. Like Luther, Danny is not content with his place in life. While his parents and brothers have moved out of the North End as it became more Italian, settling in an affluent neighborhood, Danny has an apartment in the North End. Unlike many of his peers he comes to understand the grievances of the communists and socialists he is pressured into infiltrating. He does, however, have no patience with anarchists; he nearly lost his life when they blew up a police station. But he finds himself having a hard time deciding where he truly belongs. He eventually becomes a major player in the Boston Social Club, the unauthorized police union. Yet for all his love of the common man and the immigrant, he shies away form his relationship with Nora, a woman whom his father rescued from the streets several years ago and went on to become something between a family member and a housekeeper. Danny learns some unpleasant things about her past and can't accept them, breaking off the relationship before the novel begins, though we don't know precisely what he learned at first.
Luther finds his way to Boston and goes to work for the Coughlin household while also being sheltered by a wealthy African-American family. He is involved with the construction of the Boston NAACP headquarters but also runs afoul of a close friend of Thomas Coughlin.
The story takes us through various events in Boston - the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, anarchist bombings, the Molasses Flood, all building up to the 1919 police strike. We get occasional glimpses of what is going on through the eyes of Babe Ruth who serves as a sort of backup viewpoint character, behind Luther and Danny. Babe Ruth is having his breakout season with the Red Sox as he gets the opportunity to focus on his hitting but he finds himself wanting better compensation. (Spoiler - he becomes a Yankee...)
Luther becomes close friends with both Nora and with Danny. Luther often calls Danny to task about his inconsistent views, not wanting to be Danny's token black friend. By keeping the characters true to themselves we get to see fully realized friendships develop. We also get to see just how difficult life could be for minorities and the poor in early 20th century America. Reflecting on the period, it is easy to understand the attraction of socialism and communism and even anarchy to the downtrodden. Just taking the police, you had people whose role it was to protect the population of Boston, yet working 80 hour weeks for a sub-poverty wage. It does not come as a surprise they unionized and went on a desperate strike.
Anyone with a basic familiarity with American history or access to Wikipedia will know the police strike does not end well, neither for Boston as a whole nor for the police. Calvin Coolidge's harsh treatment of the police catapulted him onto the national stage, making him Warren Harding's vice-president (and later, president). But the police strike serves as a climax for both Luther deciding to go home and how he will do it and for Danny to finally take a firm stand.
Throughout the book Lehane pulls no punches with the racism of the day - and also reminding us that the Irish and Italians were not quite considered white themselves. But we also see real people. Though there is much conflict between Danny and his father and we tend to sympathize with Danny, his father nonetheless has understandable motivations and does not come across as a bad man. This style makes for a very enjoyable read about a world which still resonates to this day. We too deal with terrorism, conflict between rich and poor, white and black.

First Thoughts on Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Even though I go through various other games, sometimes for a while, sometimes for a brief spin, I keep on finding myself working my way back to a Call of Cthulhu game. I've recently just finished my first session using the newest incarnation of the game, the 7th edition.

I've noted before in this blog that there's tons of shinier games out there. What I've found is Call of Cthulhu has the virtue of just being darn playable.

One thing Call of CtThulhu has been known for is how little changes from edition to edition. An edition war in Call of Cthulhu  is pretty much unheard of. I've used adventures from the 2nd edition of the game in a 6th edition campaign with conversion, even on the fly, being wholly unnecessary.

So though I've talked about Call of Cthulhu here before, let's do a little recap. The Call of Cthulhu RPG is based on the writings of early 20th century writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Lovecraft's central premise was that humanity is ignorant of its insignificant place in a vast and uncaring universe populated by beings so alien they may as well be considered gods. And this ignorance is a good thing, for those who learn too much tend to go insane.

The Call of Cthulhu RPG got its start back in 1981. Looking at the stats for a Call of Cthulhu character and you see a lot in common with D&D of its day - characteristics like Strength, Dexterity, etc. in a range around 3 to 18. Unlike older versions of D&D though the game is centered around a skill system, with your rating in a given skill based on a score of 1 to 100, giving your chance at success when applying a given skill. It sometimes needed to be emphasized that you only roll when failure is a realistic possibility - you don't need to roll a Drive Automobile skill to park at the local mall. On the other hand, to maneuver your car in a high speed chase - then you need to make a roll. Unlike most games Call of Cthulhu stayed clear of difficulty ratings. It used hit points, though even as you advance they don't go up - your hit points represent your ability to absorb physical damage. They are not the abstraction they are in D&D. To avoid getting hit you would typically use your Dodge skill.

Perhaps more important than hit points are your sanity points. Run out of them and you are permanently insane. Indeed lose too many at once and you'll be facing bouts with insanity. You lose sanity from casting spells, seeing horrible things, etc. And your Cthulhu Mythos skill, the only skill which defaults to 0%, places a maximum cap on your sanity points. The higher it is, the lower your sanity cap is.


There's been some trepidation about this new version of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. It would be reasonable to say that this new 7th edition represents the largest change in the game since it was first released. Since I've been talking rules thus far, I'll continue to do so prior to giving a big picture view of the new game.

I'll preface this by saying that even with a change as large as this I was able to use a 5th edition adventure with no difficulty at all. I made changes to the adventure, but they were not based on problems with the rules but rather tweaks I made as GM that I felt would better fit the game.

So what are the big changes as far as rules go?

  • Characteristics are now ranked from 1 to 100, just like skills. You generate them the same way you did in previous editions (3d6 and 2d6+6) but you multiply the result by 5. The idea is to get everything to a percentile.
  • Skills have three ranks. You've got your main skill rank. You've got your skill divided by 2 for Hard skill tests and your skill divided by 5 for extreme skill checks.
  • In addition to the above difficulty, specific circumstances can give you one or more penalty or bonus dice. Either way, you roll multiple instances of the tens digit of the percentile dice. With penalty dice, you keep the highest, with bonus dice you keep the lowest.
  • The resistance table is gone. There are two ways to handle matching against an opponent.
    • In most cases you make a skill roll. If your opponent's opposing skill is under 50 it is standard difficulty. If it is up to 90 it is Hard and above that Extreme.
    • Or you both roll. Whoever gets the better success wins, with ties going to the person with the better rating (except in certain combat situations).
  • Bonus and penalty dice get used a lot in combat. For example, if you are firing a semiautomatic weapon multiple times you get penalty dice. Spending a round aiming gets you bonus dice. Dodging multiple opponents gets penalty dice. Point blank range gets bonus dice.
  • In hand to hand combat, you have two ways to defend.
    • You can counterattack. In such a case you also roll to hit your opponent. Whoever gets a better success does damage. Ties go to the attacker.
    • You can dodge. In this case ties go to the defender.
  • In most cases you can reroll a failed skill or characteristic roll by pushing. In such cases you get a reroll though the keeper will warn you of some additional consequence of failure should that roll fail as well.
I'm sure there is more but those are the big ones I can think of off the top of my head.

How does it play? From my first session with a mix of people I've gamed with before and people new to me, it seemed to play an awful lot like older versions of the game. It is not a crunchy game - in our 150 minute long session I don't think we had any long periods of dice rolling like in a combat-heavy game - and our adventure took place during World War 1!

The presentation is rather different. There are now two main books. There is the Investigator Handbook and the Keeper Rulebook. The Investigator Handbook is built for players and centers around character generation, occupations, skills, how to adventure, organizations you might join/form, etc. The Keeper Rulebook covers a lot of the same ground in the sense it has occupations, skills, etc. but it is far more geared towards keepers. There are less character generation options, discussions of adventuring organizations, etc. and instead sections on combat, task resolution, sample adventures, creatures, spells, etc. A keeper doesn't need the Investigator Handbook but it is very handy to have.

I can't speak towards the physical books as they currently exist only in digital form. The digital versions of the books come in four forms (all bundled together - briefly they were sold separately but Chaosium quickly changed to bundling them). They are:
  • PDF - a reproduction of what the physical book will look at
  • PRC - Can't speak to this, haven't looked at it.
  • Mobi - Kindle-compatible format.
  • Epub - Nook/Google Play Books/Kobo-compatible format.
I'll focus on the PDF. It is a gorgeous book. For the first time the Call of Cthulhu game is presented in color in its English version (I believe the French and perhaps German versions have had color editions). The art is new to me and seems very nice. The text is easy to read and the PDF files are nicely bookmarked with lots of internal linking. The mobi and epub versions keep all of the illustrations and are also nicely bookmarked and linked. Someone spent a lot of time preparing first rate digital versions and I am very pleased with the presentation. I've loaded them into Google Play Books for my Android devices and have also taken advantage of the mobi files on my Kindle reader. The only negative is the mobi files are a bit big - the rulebook being too big to add to my Kindle library (i.e. the Amazon cloud storage) but I was able to transfer via usb easily.

One negative. Much to my surprise, the classic adventure "The Haunting" is not part of the main rulebook (though it is available in the free quickstart for the 7th edition.)

I'll talk more about these as my gaming with this edition continues. My main takeaway is that while it does represent the biggest change in the Call of Cthulhu rules since its inception, I consider those changes to be more along the lines of cleanup/refinements rather than the massive changes seen in different versions of D&D over the past few years. Combat is still incredibly dangerous, sessions can be played with a minimum of dice rolling, and intelligent play still works better than going in guns blazing. I'd have to say it's still my favorite RPG.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lovecraft and the World Fantasy Award

HP Lovecraft (from wikimedia)
I've been following some of the debate around the World Fantasy Award trophy for various forms of fiction being a bust of HP Lovecraft. The controversy seems to have taken off when Nnedi OkoraforNigerial-American Nnedi Okorafor one the award for best novel in 2011. Another writer, Daniel Jose Older, began a petition for the bust to instead honor African-American writer Octavia Butler.

Why the controversy? As it turns out, Lovecraft was a racist. I would say he was one even beyond the standards of his time, a far from enlightened time, which saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan (an organization he professed to admiring). You can sense his fear of corruption from mixing of the races throughout his works. "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", probably my favorite Lovecraft work, is a particular example of this, with interbreeding between humans and Deep Ones. I'll let one of Lovecraft's poems speak for itself:


On the Creation of Niggers  (1912)by H. P. Lovecraft 
When, long ago, the gods created EarthIn Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;Yet were they too remote from humankind.To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,Filled it with vice, and called the thing a Nigger.

Similarly Lovecraft wrote in a 1931 letter to James Morton:
Now the trickiest catch in the negro problem is the fact that it is really twofold. The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist. But, it is also a fact that there would be a very grave and very legitimate problem even if the negro were the white man’s equal. For the simple fact is, that two widely dissimilar races, whether equal or not, cannot peaceably coexist in the same territory until they are either uniformly mongrelised or cast in folkways of permanent and traditional personal aloofness.

Was he a product of his time? I hear that a lot and I'm not so certain. Compare him with Samuel Clemens who, writing as Mark Twain, grew to abhor the American past of slavery and the racism which continued after it. Shelley Fisher Fishkin's article Mark Twain's Inconvenient Truths explores how Clemens grew to moral awareness as an adult concerning issues he had been ambivalent about. She writes:
When Twain began writing Huckleberry Finn he thought he was writing another boy’s book, a sequel to Tom Sawyer. But Twain soon found himself with several hundred pages of a manuscript like no book anyone had ever written before. It was about a child who grows up in a world in which no one—including that child—questions the God-given legitimacy of a society in which people who think of themselves as supremely civilized endorse a system that is uncivilized, illegitimate and inhumane.


One can argue that it is not fair to judge Lovecraft for not transcending the values of his day. For example, one can find a rather casual form of racism in Victor Appleton's Tom Swift stories. The African-American character of Rad fulfills a number of negative stereotypes and exists primarily to show how kind Tom Swift is to help out such a foolish and lazy character. At the time I suspect it was well intentioned but to modern eyes it can make for an uncomfortable read.
"What's the matter, Rad?" Tom asked. 
"Mattah, Mistah Swift? Why, dere's a pow'ful lot de mattah, an' dat's de truff. I'se been swindled, dat's what I has." 
"Swindled? How?" 
"Well, it's dis-a-way. Yo' see dis yeah lawn-moah?" 
"Yes; it doesn't seem to work," and Tom glanced critically at it. As Eradicate pushed it slowly to and fro, the blades did not revolve, and the wheels slipped along on the grass.
"No, sah, it doan't work, an' dat's how I've been swindled, Mistah Swift. Yo' see, I done traded mah ole grindstone off for dis yeah lawn-moah, an' I got stuck." 
"What, that old grindstone that was broken in two, and that you fastened together with concrete?" asked Tom, for he had seen the outfit with which Eradicate, in spare times between cleaning and whitewashing, had gone about the country, sharpening knives and scissors. "You don't mean that old, broken one?" 
"Dat's what I mean, Mistah Swift. Why, it was all right. I mended it so dat de break wouldn't show, an' it would sharpen things if yo' run it slow. But dis yeah lawn-moah won't wuk slow ner fast." 
"I guess it was an even exchange, then," went on Tom. "You didn't get bitten any worse than the other fellow did." 
"Yo' doan't s'pose yo' kin fix dis yeah moah so's I kin use it, does yo', Mistah Swift?" asked Eradicate, not bothering to go into the ethics of the matter. "I reckon now with summah comin' on I kin make mo' with a lawn-moah than I kin with a grindstone--dat is, ef I kin git it to wuk. I jest got it a while ago an' decided to try it, but it won't cut no grass." 
"I haven't much time," said Tom, "for I'm anxious to get home, but I'll take a look at it." 
...
Tom took hold of the handle, which Eradicate gladly relinquished to him, and his trained touch told him at once what was the trouble. 
"Some one has had the wheels off and put them on wrong, Rad," he said. "The ratchet and pawl are reversed. This mower would work backwards, if that were possible." 
"Am dat so, Mistah Swift?" 
"That's it. All I have to do is to take off the wheels and reverse the pawl." 
"I--I didn't know mah lawn-moah was named Paul," said the colored man. "Is it writ on it anywhere?"

Such controversy still continues with modern writers. For example, Orson Scott Card has written some fantastic science fiction, including the classic Ender's Game but at the same time I find his views against homosexuals reprehensible. I personally find it much easier to separate my enjoyment of Lovecraft's fiction from his racist views than I do with the works of writers who are still with us. Put simply, Lovecraft derives no personal benefit from my support. He's been in the grave for decades and left no heirs. On the other hand, every Orson Scott Card book I purchase provides him with some financial benefit.

As far as do I feel ok enjoying such works, absolutely. It is possible, in my opinion, to enjoy a work on some merits yet nevertheless disapprove of it or its author on others. I suspect D. W. Griffith felt that way about his own work, the KKK-praising The Birth of a Nation, as his next film was Intolerance, showing the effects of intolerance in different time periods.


As far as the World Fantasy Award honoring Lovecraft goes... I wonder if it is advisable to honor anyone aside from the winner in such an award. I absolutely understand this awkwardness and hurt this can cause winners. I've heard the argument "well they don't have to accept the award if it offends them" but I don't think that's fair - if writing is your profession you should not be in the awkward situation of refusing an award that can boost your standing in that profession. It would be one matter if a Lovecraft-themed organization were presenting an award but for a genre-based award it does not even seem necessary to me to tie the award to anyone. Again, make the award about the winner, not the racial views of a long-dead writer.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Remain Calm. Trust in Science. Atomic Robo Overview.

My gaming group has been experimenting with Evil Hat's Atomic Robo RPG. I've been itching to try out Fate for ages. I'm somewhat surprised to discover Aromic Robo as the setting, being as it is a comic book series I only had peripheral awareness of. Essentially, what I'd heard of the RPG as a good introduction to Fate got me to check out the RPG, figuring even if I didn't use the setting I could mine it. But the RPG is designed to greatly emulate the comic which caused me to go on a Comixology binge and obtain all of the digital Atomic Robo collections. I was hooked pretty quickly.

I'll be talking about the RPG in the future (I hope - I also still plan on writing about some of the Delta Green stories I've read and my update frequency has been horrible of late.) Here I'll want to talk a bit about the Atomic Robo comics.

Atomic Robo is the creation of writer Brian Clevinger and artist Scott Wegener. Atomic Robo is the creation of Nikola Tesla, "born" in 1923. The comic books follow his life through different eras of history. Though physically he does not change, Robo's personality does change depending on the era. Stories set in the 1930s have him acting like an older teen rebelling against the father he still loves. The 1940s see lots of war stories, with Robo matching up against Nazi super-science. After the death of his father Tesla Robo founds the Tesladyne Corporation which evolves into an organization dedicated to science - action science. Lots of smashing things, dealing with various threats such as horrors from other dimensions, leftover Nazi superweapons, mobile pyramid monsters, artificial intelligence dedicated to destroying all life, etc. As he grows older Robo becomes more confident of his ability to handle crises and becomes a mentor to the employees of Tesladyne (though still often goes out in the field, being near indestructible).

The key to these stories is both the planning and execution. The stories bounce throughout Robo's life. Some all take place in one period and others span multiple periods, such as when he confronts a monster  from beyond space-time. The creators have mapped out (and even published) this timeline, avoiding the dreaded cosmic retcon so common to comic books. Beyond the great planning the stories are just fun to read. They embrace the eras they are set in with guest stars like HP Lovecraft, Charles Fort, Thomas Edison, Carl Sagan, Bruce Lee, Annie Oakley, etc. The stories are optimistic - to quote the creators -
ATOMIC ROBO is not a comic that will be 100% sunshine and jokes, but we aren’t going to delve into melodrama either. You are not going to see Robo mope about his lack of emotions, or pine to be human, or throw a tantrum over daddy issues.
The creators also have a "no cheesecake" clause. Women are drawn will realistic proportions and wearing realistic clothing. Women Action Scientists wear the same outfits in the field as their male counterparts, an all female fighter squadron in the aftermath of World War 2 wears normal aviator clothing with their mechanic wearing a non-formfitting jumpsuit. I do wish they would make use of more historical female characters - the historical domain guest starts have been overwhelming male but the original female characters have been written and drawn excellently.

The stories have a love of science. That seems obvious but with all the mistrust placed on science in the political arena over the past several years it is refreshing to see. We see Tesla embracing failure as a step in the path to knowledge. The stories don't shy away from the fact that science can be used to build weapons but our heroes use science for the betterment of humanity (even when they destroy things with science - they're bad things!)

And the stories themselves are fun to read. Lots of action, fun dialogue, and awesome baddies. My own favorite is Dr. Dinosaur, an intelligent time-traveled velociraptor right out of Jurassic Park. He claims to be a velociraptor but Atomic Robo doesn't believe him, pointing out he's little in common with the fossil record and a lot in common with Jurassic Park. Robo suspects him to have been genetically engineered but as of now his origin is still a mystery. However he's always a blast to read with his obsession with crystals and his bizarre logic.

I can see why Evil Hat wanted to do an RPG based on Atomic Robo. Fate, with its emphasis on narrative play and player control is an excellent fit for the setting.

Reading what I've written it seems I've written a commercial for the comic book. No one asked me to - it's just a ton of fun. And the good thing is you can check it out for free - the Atomic Robo website has its Free Comic Book Day comics archived. Also if you use the ComiXology app they have the Free Comic Book Day comics for free as well as all issues and collections. Completed stories are also collected into volumes which you can find at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

Friday, March 14, 2014

RPG Review: The Big Crime

This post isn't a first impressions review of the new Spectrum Games RPG The Big Crime.

A few disclaimers. The first is that while I've never met one of the authors, Cynthia Celeste Miller, she is someone who I've corresponded with a lot on Facebook and I admire a great deal. Moreover, our interests are pretty close together - 80's cartoons, comic books (especially of the Silver and Bronze ages), etc.

The second disclaimer is more administrative just in case I never get around to a more full review reflecting actual play or additional details (I have some Delta Green reviews I'm meaning to do as well). Life of late has been more intense than usual. My wife's school closed down at the end of last October and being a person who has anxiety problems in the best of times, the last few months have been rough. The past week or two has seen an improvement - I've been paying more attention to my own mental health and my wife has secured a long-term sub position that starts next week which has been preceded by being a daily sub for that school. Plus she's been working part-time as a tutor. Meaning money has gotten a bit less tight but time has gotten awfully crazy.

Anyways, let's talk about The Big Crime. It is an RPG dedicated to mimicking the film noir genre. Films of the 1940s and 1950s. I can't say what the book is physically like as I only have the PDF. It's a book of 183 pages with a fairly small page size and a largish font. It looks nice - not so large that you think they're trying to increase the page count but keeps this dude's aging eyes from straining. The background is a rather appropriate gray and it is heavily illustrated with some very appropriate public domain images of the city, criminals, detectives, etc. The size of the book makes it work nicely with smaller sized tablets like my 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX. My only real annoyance with the presentation is its lack of bookmarks - as someone who has become increasingly digital over the past several years, I really prefer PDF files that are well-bookmarked. Makes "flipping" through the book much easier.

The book begins with a discussion about what film noir is. This is probably more needed here than it is in other genres as it is a term that gets thrown around a lot. There's a quote about characters that I really that I think sums up rather well who you'll be playing:
For the most part, the characters in film noir were normal, everyday people just like you and me. They weren’t action heroes in the modern sense, nor were they always individuals that could easily be labeled as “good guys” or “bad guys”. Those concepts were relatively rare in film noir. No, the characters found here were normal folks, albeit normal folks with a turbulent future ahead and, just as likely, a turbulent past as well. In most cases, they were flawed (sometimes cripplingly so) and morally questionable. The characters had gambling problems, alcohol addictions, abusive tendencies, hateful demeanors, or a weakness for dishy dames with long gams.
There's also a list of eight essential film noir examples, with an eye towards making them useful for gamers. They are:

  • The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • The Big Sleep (1946) - one of my favorite films!
  • Raw Deal (1948)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • Born to Kill (1947)
  • Out of the Past (1947)
  • Touch of Evil (1958)
The game system is designed to closely emulate the genre. There's deliberately no rules for advancement which may be a sticking point for some, though examples of film noir tend not to have sequels and even if someone like Philip Marlowe appears in multiple films there is no attempt at continuity between them. Like many RPGs, adventures are intended to be broken into three acts though unlike most RPGs the rules ratchet up the level of danger from one act to the next.

Characters have several types of traits:
  • Shade - How deep a shade of grey is your character
  • Abilities - Normal RPG stuff like Body, Finesse, Smarts, and Spirit. Three ratings - Poor, Normal, and Good.
  • Aspects - Skills for the most part. Each is attached to a specific Ability and is binary - you have it or you don't.
  • Temptation Tracks - Measures how corrupted you are in Guilt, Desperation, and Alienation.
  • Hooks - Three things that make you unique. Can be physical traits (in a wheelchair), related to your background (war veteran), goals, personality, or psychological problems. You get rewarded in Genre Points for playing these out.
  • Genre Points - A sort of hero point tool for the game.

When acting you roll a variable number of d6, d8, or d10. Poor gets d10, Normal gets d8, Good gets d6. By default you roll four dice, though Aspects, Temptation, and other circumstances can add or subtract from the dice you roll. You are trying to get as many matching sets as you can. 

The game supports different kinds of scenes with its rules:
  • Drama Scenes - Verbal interaction, with a goal of trying to get your opponent to collect four setback tokens. Nice to see verbal sparring given as much attention as physical. Bogey is a master of this.
  • Fight Scenes - Whipping out he guns and fists, again trying to give your opponent setback tokens.
  • Chase Scenes - Just what it says on the tin.
To improve your odds in the short-term you can give in to various temptations - but doing so requires acts of betrayal, dirty tricks, immoral actions. 

Genre and Director points allow the PCs and Director (the GM) to modify the game. As the game goes into different acts the Director gets more points. In Act Two PCs become vulnerable to death (and Act Three may prove a bloodbath - after all the protagonist does not always win in film noir). There's rules for replacing PCs in a hurry should you lose one before the climax.

Next up are rules for character creation. Your characters Shade plays into how much (if any) temptation you start with, you've got various rules for tweaking your characters, and Special Rules - a lot like stunts in Fate RPG - where your background gives you various rule-altering abilities.

After this we've got guidance for PCs and Directors - probably more useful here than in many other games as it discusses various genre conventions and how best to inject them into the game. The Director guidance includes advice on both creating the mood (camera tricks, sets, characters) and on how to build your own films (adventures). 

Finally we've got "Search by Night", an example film ready to play. Speaking of examples, one thing we've got in this whole book that I really like is lots of examples after a rule is introduced. 

Impressions? This looks like a fun game to play. It is strongly dedicated to emulating its genre. I'm not sure of its suitability for long-term play but I'm also not sure that's even an intention of the game. But I could easily see running numerous one-offs with this game, perhaps all related to one another, sometimes using the same characters or rolling over characters from one story to another. The film adaptation for Frank Miller's Sin City comes to mind as I think of it. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get my cigarette, whiskey flask, fedora, and trench coat.