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ALIGNMENT CHECK!

RPG Blog Carnival, March 2017:

THINGS IN THE DARK

 

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This month’s RPG Blog Carnival theme is “Things in the Dark”. Much like MoebiusAdventures, the host of this month’s theme, I’m going to focus my post on a creature – actually, a race* of creatures.

This was really my first thought as I read the theme description for this month’s Carnival, because I’ve been working on a race of literally dark beings for a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition game I’m currently running. So, I’d like to thank MoebiusAdventure for showing that was an acceptable approach; otherwise, I might have thought it was too far afield.

So, ever since the I first saw the entry for “Shade” in TSR’s Monster Manual II for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons edition waaaaaay back in 1983, I’ve been kind of fascinated with them, and really it was this image that captured my young imagination:

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SpooOOOooky, huh?

Basically, by the book, Shades are a not-quite-a-race of beings that other races can be transformed into under the right – or wrong, depending on how you look at it – circumstances. But for me, my first impression from that image was of Shades as a race unto themselves, with a powerful connection to some primordial essence of darkness or shadow. Young me thought that was pretty cool.

So, yeah – that stuck in my head…for about 30 years!

I started actually developed my version of them for a 13th Age game I ran a few years ago. Races are really easy to write up in 13th Age, so I was able to create a basic representation of my idea. In the fantasy cosmology of that homebrew setting, they were one of the very first races, one that existed even before light illuminated the world.

But for the game I am currently running we’re using the Celtic mythos and cosmology as a basis for the setting, and so I fit the origin of the Shade into that. In a common Celtic creation myth the mother and father of the gods, Danu and Donn, are formed out of a cosmic chaos, love each other, and become inseparable. They have children who eventually become some of the bigger names of Celtic mythology – but these children cannot truly grow without first escaping the womb-like embrace of their parents. They do so by running Donn through with a sword and sundering him into bits that form the Earth.

In that womb-like darkness I saw a perfect place for the origin of the Shade. In this version, there was disagreement among these First Children about how to break out or whether to do it at all, at the risk of killing one of their parents. Among the dissenters was Scaedh (skage). Scaedh saw value in the dark, and sought to further explore its reaches untainted by the light of what would come should one or both of their parents be destroyed. In the end, Donn was slain and the world was made. Scaedh fled to the darkest reaches of this new world, high and low, and from Scaedh sprang a race of shadow-people.

Culled from various versions of the Shades for various editions of D&D, here’s my write-up as it stands now, for the purposes of our current game. There are a lot of darkness-related abilities I could give them, but I’m trying to strike a balance of benefits and restrictions that matches the overall power-level of the core races in the D&D 5E Players Handbook. This is my first try at this, so it could easily have many issues. I haven’t introduced Shades as a racial option for characters yet, and since I’m basing a lot of the setting on choices the players make I don’t have any solid ideas regarding Shade culture and history.


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Shade

Shades are descended from Scaedh, one of the First Children – the original offspring of Donn and Danu.  Scaedh preferred the original darkness of the inseparable Donn and Danu to the harsh light of the world that was made when Scaedh’s siblings slew Donn to gain their freedom from that dark womb-like existence.

Shades are human in size and shape, but their skin and features are all a barely-reflective black. Even the clothing they wear and items they carry take on a similar shadowy appearance. The longer an item has been in close contact with a Shade’s body, the longer it will take to regain its normal appearance when removed from their presence.

A Shade’s body is made partly from the essence of shadow and darkness. They weigh less than what a normal creature their size might weigh and produce less body heat. They require little food or drink, and in fact have little sense of taste or smell with which to enjoy such things.

Shade Names

Shades use names common to wherever they are living at the time. They also have a Shade name which is a treasured and closely-guarded secret. Shade outcasts are formally stripped of their Shade name and all Shades are thenceforth forbidden to use it in any way.
Female Shade Names often end with -el, -em, -en, -eth, and -ith,: Gilel, Kivem, Velen, Seseth, Nilith.
Male Shade Names tend to end in -ef, -ek, -en, -eng, -ev, and -ik: Vekef, Velek, Ekden, Geneng, Grenev, Villik.

Shade Traits

Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2, and your Wisdom score increases by 1.
Age. Shades mature very slowly compared to humans, reaching maturity by 100 years of age, and can live as long as 1000 years or more.
Alignment. Although leaning toward chaotic alignments, Shades find distinctions between good and evil and law and chaos rather small-minded.
Size. Shades are generally between 5′ 6” and 6′ 1 “. Your size is Medium.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 35 feet, 45 feet when in shadows or darkness.
Shadowsight. You can see normally in dim light and even total darkness, both magical and non-magical.
Light Aversion: You have disadvantage on any Concentration checks when you are in brightly-lit environments. You are not able to cast spells with the ‘fire’ or ‘light’ descriptors.
Darkling Form. You have resistance to poison and cold, but vulnerability to radiant damage. You only need  4 hours of sleep per day, but you cannot regain hit dice or hit points in brightly-lit environments.
Shadow Step. When you are in shadow or darkness, as a bonus action you can teleport up to 60 feet to an unoccupied space that you can see that is also in shadow or darkness. You then have advantage on the first melee attack you make that turn.
Whispers in the Dark. As an action when in shadow or darkness, you can whisper a message to a single creature within 120 feet who is also in shadow or darkness. The target hears the message and can reply in a whisper, that only you can hear. The whisper can pass through solid objects if you are familiar with the target and know it is beyond the object(s). This ability is subject to magical silence spells and their effects.
The Stuff of Shadows. You have advantage in stealth checks made to hide in shadows.
Proficiencies: Arcana, Intimidate, Stealth
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Shadic, Common, Undercommon, and Primordial.
Shades are classified as the humanoid creature type.

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That’s it! Like I said, this is my first try at this, so please comment below with any thoughts or suggestions.

*For those unfamiliar with the usage, the term “race” in fantasy roleplaying games is used to distinguish elves from humans, hobbits from dwarves, etc., rather than in the modern, very unscientific usage which seeks to distinguish one ancestry of homo sapiens from another.

ALIGNMENT CHECK!

STAR WARS: EDGE OF THE EMPIRE 

An evolving review, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the game
Part 4

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In my past 3 posts on the subject of Fantasy Flight GamesStar Wars: Edge of the Empire role-playing game, I discussed the rules’ unique and dynamic dice mechanic. I haven’t mentioned FFG’s other products in that line, Star Wars: Age of Rebellion and Star wars: Force and Destiny, or the Beginner Game boxed versions of each of those three titles because I have no experience with them. However, all their Star Wars rpg products use the same system, so my thoughts about EotE would apply to the entire line.

This post will focus on ways I would simplify the rules by focusing on the most compelling aspect of the game’s dice mechanic, regardless of whether one is using the game’s dice mechanic as-is or some alternative

As-is, the system uses three kinds of dice with positive results on them, and three kinds with negative results on them. The most commonly-rolled dice have the most common results on them (Success and Failure), the less-often rolled dice have a mix of those most-common and some less-common results (Advantage and Threat), and the rarest dice have more of the least common results (Triumph and Despair).

I think the three-tiered scale of outcome severity is a sweet-spot for a game trying to emulate the pulp drama sensibilities of the Star Wars movies and animated series.

My basic proposal is to use that scale for everything. I’ve discussed my frustrations with the system’s existing dice pool system, and how it seems like a barrier to new, casual, and less mechanically-minded players, but here I’m going to focus on this three-tiered idea.

As far as I can see, the possible results of an attack on a character in the Star Wars movies and tv series are as follows:

  1. Miss; no damage.
  2. Grazed; superficial damage; no real damage,  but a point has been made: things just got real!
  3. Stunned, dazed, or otherwise temporarily debilitated but still basically functional.
  4. Unconscious or otherwise taken out of action.
  5. Dead. Possibly cut in half.

Setting aside “miss” and “dead”, we have three common possible negative results.

Looking at SW:EOTE’s three tiers, though, there’s actually six possible outcomes (three pairs), so what if we add three possible positive outcomes of being attacked?

  1. Alerted: this offers the attacked character a free use of an appropriate skill to assess the situation.
  2. Some kind of advantage.
  3. Turning the tables.

I admit that those last two examples are pretty vague. I don’t know how exactly to implement that, and the system as-is already includes possible negative outcomes for the attacker other than just failure. I think what I’m imagining is a system where each roll represents an exchange of attacks and defenses, rather than each roll representing each attack or action. I think that’s pulpier and more Star Wars-y, but I’ll have to think on that some more.

Let’s look at ranged attacks. In something as pulpy as Star Wars, the range of a target is one of the following:

  1. Zero: punching, kicking, lifting people up off the floor by their throats.
  2. Nearby: hurling grappling hook swinglines, throwing someone a weapon.
  3. Shooting: blasters, bowcasters. (Hey, that could be a game: Blasters & Bowcasters!)
  4. Long-range shooting: specialized and/or large ranged weapons, like sniper rifles and mounted weapons.
  5. Out of range.

So, again, dropping “zero” and “out of range”, we have three levels.

You would need a separate scale for space ship combat, when it comes to range as well as damage.

Where I’d really like to infuse the system with this concept is to rate all weapons, armor, and equipment in either the number of extra dice that the item grants you, or in a number of one or more of the six possible dice results you would add to a roll involving that item. For instance, a blaster pistol might give you an extra one of the lowest level of positive dice,  a blaster rifle gives you an extra two of those, and a mounted blaster gives you those two as well but also a mid-level positive die. Or you could have a blaster give you one extra Success, a blaster rifle gives you two extra Successes, and a mounted blaster gives you two Successes and an Advantage. Again, I’m just spit-balling here.

Armor would be rated in the number of Successes it negates, or the number of negative dice it adds to the attacker’s roll.

By putting everything on the same scale and relating everything to those six possible outcomes, you eliminate the bigger numbers the system has for various damage thresholds and other stats for weapons, armor, and other equipment.

Come to think of it, let’s take a step back, actually, and look at the Characteristics that are one of the primary ways SW:EOTE characters are defined: Brawn, Agility, Intellect, Cunning, Willpower, and Presence. Conveniently, that’s six, but I’m tempted to cut it to three. You would lose some of the distinctions between characters, but it might be best to express that through SW:EOTE’s Skills and Talents anyway. So, for now I’ll go with Body, Mind, and Spirit.

To express further distinctions through Skills, I wouldn’t attach each Skill to a specific Characteristic the way the game does as is, but allow a system where a Skill can be connected to whatever Characteristic seems appropriate for the situation. So, for instance, you could connect a “Guns” skill to Body for shooting, but to Mind for attempts at repair or assessing the market value of a weapon.

That’s about all I have on that for now.

Next: probably my last post on SW:EotE for the time being. I’ll be discussing Obligation, Motivation, and designing games based on well-known, highly popular, mass media properties.

ALIGNMENT CHECK!

RPG Blog Carnival, February 2016:
HOW DO YOU INSPIRE YOUR PLAYERS?

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This is either my first RPG Blog Carnival post or my first in a very long time. I’m just going to answer the questions posed in the February, 2016 monthly topic intro post.

What do you do to get players excited and eager to play each session?

On a session-by-session basis, I don’t, and that’s something I should look into. I guess I’m assuming too much, that if they turn up then they must be interested and motivated to continue playing. That’s a reasonable assumption, but shouldn’t be taken for granted.

How have you gotten players keen to dive into that new campaign you just spent weeks preparing?

I just pitch a few ideas and run with whatever garners the most interest. Increasingly, I involve the player’s more in setting creation.

Once in a while, I’ll find something like this D-Day paratrooper jump scene from Band of Brothers, which I showed my players before the first session of a short-run Godlike game I ran, or the opening theme sequence from the 2001 Justice League animated series, which I showed before running a four-color Mutants & Masterminds game.

What approaches do you take to keep players’ faces out of their cells phones and focused on your game?

I’m constantly on the lookout for waning interest or lack of focus in my players and in myself. I try to never stay on any one action or decision for long, whether it be mine or something in the player’s hands.

What do you do to inspire your players?

In the big scheme of things, I only run settings or genres that have cache with my group. On a smaller scale, I try to feed them what they want in the moment, altering my short-term plans at the drop of a hat.

Do you make handouts, use technology, suggest books to read, GM a certain way, use player surveys?

I’ve rarely had a group that would read anything unless forced to.

I’ve been looking at infinitely-scalable map-making using something like Mischief, as a gaming resource that could be built up over time and fun to interact with and contribute to.

I’ve also been building boards on Pinterest lately, but haven’t actually run the games yet that would use them. Those boards consist of images of races and species, creatures, character ideas, and locations. I would make the races or species stuff available to the players, and share the rest as the players encounter those people and places.

ALIGNMENT CHECK!

STAR WARS: EDGE OF THE EMPIRE 

An evolving review, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the game
Part 3

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I’m going to start getting more into my critique and evolving, probably incomplete hack of Fantasy Flight GamesStar Wars: Edge of the Empire roleplaying game. I’ll be talking about the game’s dice mechanic, but for a detailed explanation of how that works in the game as published, see my previous blog post.

Basically, SW:EOTE uses a dice pool system for task resolution. There are six kinds of dice – seven if Force Dice come into play.  Those six kinds of dice each have a different color, so it’s easy to grab the ones you need, but the exact number of each kind of die will change with every new situation.

Those six kinds of dice come in two types: positive dice and negative dice.

There are six different possible results on them: Success,  Advantage, and Triumph are the positive results, and Failure, Threat,  and Despair are the negative results.

Each of those six possible results are more common on some of the six kinds of dice than on others.

Some negative results cancel out positive results.

Some die faces have more than one result on them.

One or more faces on each die are blank, with no result.

Every time I describe this dice system, no matter how I slice it I’m struck by how awkward it is. There are aspects of it that would become second nature with practice, but that seems like an unnecessary barrier to new and/or casual gamers. Being such a high-profile, cross-media, all-ages popular culture powerhouse, a priority in designing a Star Wars roleplaying game should be accessibility.

But what I also see are seeds of a simpler, more streamlined system that integrates the excellent three-tiered positive and negative results idea throughout the system. More on that later.

Now, I am not qualified to analyze the probabilities of rolling any given result on N number of dice of X types, so I’m hesitant to suggest an alternate dice system. Any alterations are going to change the odds of one thing or another, but what follows are three options I’ve come across that could be improvements.

Trentin C. Bergeron (user name: TreChriron) offers an option on the rpg.net forums that uses common six-sided dice only, in just three different colors. That simplifies the dice themselves right off the bat. A base “chance roll” of 3d6 is rolled simultaneously with positive and negative dice, the net result of the latter two adjusting the former.

Basically, you come up with two totals and adjust one with the other. The net result is compared to a target number of 13 to determine how well you succeed or fail. Rolling doubles gets you your Advantages and Threats, and rolling triples gets you Triumph and Despair results. I’m a big fan of rewarding multiples on a roll.

Overall, it seems a little awkward still and rough around the edges, but worth pursuing.

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Over at Yaruki Zero Games, Ewen Cluney has created Destiny Dice, his own open license dice mechanic modeled after SW:EOTE’s dice pool system. Destiny Dice is designed for use in Evil Hat’s Fate games, but could easily be used for FFG’s Star Wars rpgs as well. He’s come up with much more obvious, intuitive symbols for the six possible results, and uses customized 6-sided dice only. He hasn’t eliminated much of the awkwardness of reading the results, though.

He also replaces the Triumph/Despair poles with Hope/Despair which both makes more sense and is a nice reference to what started it all, A New Hope. One could also go with Triumph/Defeat, which also makes more sense. This might all be the pedantic grammarian in me coming out, though.

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Bill Edmunds’ Meta Dice are also a promising replacement for SW:EOTE’s dice, and have exciting applications for many other games as well. Definitely worth a look.

If I were to choose or design an alternative dice mechanic to replace FFG’s – which, as I mentioned above, I do not feel qualified to do – I would want fewer kinds of dice, only one result per die face, more intuitive icons, and maybe no blank faces. I would base the negative dice on the stats (Characteristic scores, Skill ranks, etc.) of the opposition.

However, I’m getting into the topic for my next post: changing how characters are built, and integrating character and other stats into the existing dice mechanic.

ALIGNMENT CHECK!

STAR WARS: EDGE OF THE EMPIRE 

An evolving review, deconstruction, and reconstruction of the game
Part 2

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For my previous and first post on Fantasy Flight GamesStar Wars: Edge of the Empire, go here. SW:EOTE uses unique, proprietary, colored dice for its task resolution system. There are “positive dice” and “negative dice”, meaning dice that you roll to reflect strengths and advantages your character has, and dice you roll to represent weaknesses and challenging conditions.

AnP
Basically, if your character has a Skill, that Skill has an associated Characteristic. The Characteristics are the bare bones of a character in EotE, and Skills are, well, skills. Together, they determine the number of green Ability Dice and yellow Proficiency Dice you roll to accomplish things.

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If you have a significant advantage in the situation at hand, you might also add light blue Boost Dice.

Together, those are the 3 kinds of positive dice.
You will probably also have to roll some negative dice:
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There’s purple Difficulty Dice for basic problems or resistance, black Setback Dice for unusual complications, and red Challenge Dice for big-time threatening situations.

This assemblage of dice constitutes your dice pool for the situation at hand. You roll them and then start figuring out the results.

I say ”figuring” because there’s some complexity to reading these dice.

If you’re feeling lost, just ignore everything I’ve said so far, because it’s kind of irrelevant – which I admit is a weird thing to say, but I think it’s true. I will get into that more here, but mostly in upcoming posts on this topic.

So, there are three levels of possible positive results:
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    Success     Advantage   Triumph

There are also three levels of possible negative results:
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     Failure       Threat        Despair

 

Success and Failure results are the most common, Advantage and Threat results are less so, and Triumph and Despair even less so.

The basic guideline for reading the dice is that negative results cancel out positive results of the same level. So, each Failure result cancels a Success result, and each Threat result cancels an Advantage result.

The number of Successes or Failures indicate how well or poorly you meet your goals for that roll.

Advantages and Threats indicate short term side-effects or little twists to the challenge at hand, separate from whether you succeeded or not.

Triumph and Despair results can turn the tide of a battle and dramatically change the nature of a situation.

That’s about it for how the dice work…except…

Some die faces have one symbol, some have no symbols, some have two of the same symbols, and some have two different symbols.

If you’re a visual, tactile person like me, this means that when you see dice that cancel each other out you take them and put them away from the dice with meaningful results.


Then (again, if you’re like me, you poor thing), if you have a die showing a Success and an Advantage on a single face AND a die showing a Threat, you want to rotate the die showing a Success and an Advantage until it shows just a Success symbol, since the Threat negates the Advantage but not the Success.

Then you can read the dice.

Make sense? Don’t feel bad if you’re confused – let’s take a look at a sample roll.

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Let’s pretend you rolled this. What does it all mean? Well, it’s complicated.

One of those two Threats on that purple die cancels out the Advantage on that light blue die, so rotate the purple one until it shows only 1 Threat, and the light blue one is outta there!

Also, The Failure on that black die cancels out one of the Successes on that yellow die, so rotate the yellow so it shows one Success and get rid of that black die.

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Hmm, that remaining Threat on the purple die could cancel the Advantage on that top-most green die that has two symbols on it, so rotate that green die until it shows just an Advantage and dump that purple die for good.

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Now – one of the Threats on that red die could cancel out the Advantage on that bottom green die, so…

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Here’s your final result! 2 Successes and a Threat!

Does that seem like a lot of work? It does to me.

Naturally, some of all that becomes second nature after a while. Some people are able to just quickly “mental math” all that right off the bat or with some practice. I’ve been running the game for months, though, and this process still feels clunky. I can’t be the only one, can I?

Don’t get me wrong: the dramatic dynamic of Success, Advantage, Triumph and Failure, Threat, and Despair is VERY pulpy and Star Warsy! I love it – I really do. However, I think the implementation is overwrought.

So, next time I’ll start getting into some alternatives and how I want to re-write this game, both in terms of dice mechanics and how characters are built.

ALIGNMENT CHECK!

alignment

RPGaDay 2015

12th: Favorite RPG Illustration

The world is full of beautiful, striking, evocative roleplaying game illustrations by canny, talented artists living and dead, but here are the first two rpg images that came to mind…

MMIIIShade

The Shade first appeared in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual II, published in 1983 by TSR, Inc.

I don’t know what it is about this image. The simplicity and amount of black in the image leaves much to the imagination. There’s a strong suggestion of fierceness and determination in the figure’s stance and countenance, but also of brazenness: he has a helmet, sword, and shield – but no shirt! What’s his deal?!? Clearly he is not to be messed with.

Also, they are supermysterious! From the Monster Manual’s description:

“…the shades are, or were, normal humans who through arcane magic or dark sciences have traded their souls or spirits for the essence of shadowstuff…no one knows if shades are connected with…some power or substance from the Plane of Shadow.”

oooOOOooo! Cool!

Subsequent editions of Dungeons & Dragons have elaborated upon and explored the Shade a bit. I’ve been a little obsessed with the idea of using the Shade as a player character race in a game for decades, and finally got around to it in my 13th Age game – possibly because making new races for 13th Age is so easy!

Of the four artists credited for interior art in Monster Manual II, my educated guess is that this image was drawn by Harry Quinn. Mr. Quinn is still keeping busy with Visual Rhythm Design and Harry Quinn Portraits.

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From the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Screen, this is the player’s-side gatefold illustration by the late David A. Trampier.

Let’s just say I spent WAY too much time in the mid-to-late ’80s facing whatever the Dungeon Master was cooking up on the other side of this screen.

It’s a bit of a jumbly composition, but the foreground-right figure still looks cool to me, and the three figures huddled around the treasure chest is still delightfully evocative.

Upcoming exhibition @ Gather in August!

My talented and lovely wife, Ellen Starr Lyon, has yet another exciting opportunity to show off her mad paintin’ skilz, this time at a gallery show in August! She is furiously slinging oil paints in preparation…

MULTIVERSAL OVERDRIVE! – What Is It With Wonder Woman, Anyway?

(This article can also be read over at the most excellent DC Entertainment fan site, DC Infinite!)

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WHAT IS IT WITH WONDER WOMAN, ANYWAY?

Author’s note: I find it strikingly appropriate that I began writing this on the 15th anniversary of the wedding of myself to my own wonder woman, Ellen Starr Lyon, a magnificent artist, wife, mother, daughter, sister, and all-around human being. She’s pretty awesome.

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It all started back when new Wonder Woman artist David Finch said some pretty awkward things about Wonder Woman’s connection to feminism. The ever-impressive Janelle Asselin (whom I worked with a couple times when she was an editor at DC Comics) addressed the incident and the issues really well, so you should really go read this, and then come back here.

Finch’s comments really got me thinking about the character again, but I didn’t feel especially qualified to comment on the thorny details. I sketched out my thoughts, but after a while it was no longer a “hot” topic. Then Marvel  announced a new, female Thor. Then the San Diego Comicon got closer and closer, and I was sure the first image of actress Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice movie would be released there. It was, but more on that later.

So…I performed an informal survey. I was on a 4th of July and wedding anniversary vacation with my wife and kids and another family of friends. All told, we had two adults in their 30s, three in their 40s, two in their 70s, and four kids ages 8 to 12. I’m a life-long fan of super-hero comics, and my kids have been exposed to more than their usual share of geekery through me. My wife isn’t a fan as such of super-hero media, but appreciates it and always has great “outsider” insights. The rest of the people, like most, don’t read super-hero comics and have not seen most of the super-hero films of the past 15 years.

Individually and in small groups, I asked them a few questions about Superman, Spider-man, Wonder Woman,  Captain America, and Batman, and then asked them to name any other female super-heroes and tell me anything about them.

The questions were:

1. What do you know about the character’s origin?
2. What characters do they interact with who aren’t super-powered?
3. Can you name some villains they go up against? (I avoided the word “fight”)
4. What are their powers?
5. What are their stories usually about? What kinds of things happen? (most people had little to say on this subject)

I will arrange the answers for each character in approximate order from most- to least-common responses.

For Superman the answers were what you might expect: mentions of Krypton, Krypton exploding, dead parents, put in a rocket by his parents and escaping, learned stuff in the rocket (Superman: The Movie, I’m looking at you!), found by old people, raised on a farm, he can fly, has super-strength and is super-tough, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, those three bad-guys from Krypton, he has a good relationship with the public and is looked up to, heat vision, x-ray vision, and freeze breath.

Just about everyone knew Spider-man was bitten by a radioactive spider, that he climbs walls, and shoots webs (a couple of people mentioned that he made the web-shooters himself). Many mentioned dead parents and living with his aunt and uncle, and that he’s a kid struggling with everyday problems. The younger the respondents the more they mentioned Gwen Stacy, the Lizard, the Green Goblin, and Doctor Octopus, clearly influenced by recent movies and marketing.

With Batman, most (but not all, which really surprised me) knew about his parents being shot in front of him by some random guy (my son knew the name Joe Chill). There were mentions of his gear, of batarangs, bat-themed gadgets, the Batmobile, being a millionaire, having an inventor working for him (again, recent movie influences), that he works kind of with the police, Alfred the butler, “the police chief” or Commissioner Gordon, Robin, the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Bane.

Most people knew about Captain America’s shield and his origin being during WWII. One person thought he grew up on a farm in the Midwest, but knew that he was the product of a government experiment. Fewer mentioned Nazis, the Red Skull, and Hydra, and fewer still Bucky and Nick Fury.

Here’s what four people in their 30s, 40s, and 70s – all of them women – said when I asked about Wonder Woman’s origin:

“She has one?”

“Well, she’s Superman’s friend, right?”

“Wasn’t she irradiated?”

(Laudably, my wife knew about 10 times more than the other three! I love her!)

Others could mention an invisible plane or jet, her lasso that controls people or zaps them or something, her tiara, the bracelets, spinning around, and that she’s strong and tough.

Other female characters from most- to least-often mentioned were Supergirl, Elektra, The Wasp, Storm, Spidergirl/Spiderwoman, and the Scarlet Witch. No one could list more than one or two things about any of them.

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So, what can we glean from all this?

Lots. I could go into more detail by age and individual respondents, and it was fascinating in lots of different ways. Here are some observations I and some of the adults made:

The kids most readily knew the names of supporting characters and villains. We can thank tv and movies for that (and me raising my kids on a steady diet of comics!).

Nearly all the female super-heroes that respondents came up with were Marvel characters.

Unlike the traditionally best-known super-heroes, Wonder Woman has no tragedy built into her origin. Wonder Woman’s parents aren’t dead, but then no one really knew anything about her origin, let alone anything about her parentage.

Everyone drew a blank regarding her supporting cast and “rogues gallery”. Wonder Woman’s traditional supporting cast have left little to no impression on the public consciousness.

So, basically,  most people know next to nothing about Wonder Woman.

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But…why don’t they?

As I see it, there are two explanations for this familiarity gap. One, Wonder Woman defies many of the classic super-hero tropes. Her backstory is not traditional super-hero stuff. Her motivations do not originate in tragedy, cataclysm, regret, or guilt. Even Superman, whose tragedy lies in his infancy, is – in most film and tv versions – partly spurred to action by the death of “Pa” Kent. Wonder Woman inherently represents another way, another path. Women take on difficult, thankless, under-appreciated, un-heralded heroic work all the time.

Valerie Alexander points out the ridiculous unfairness in using male standards and achievements as the default values in society, and we need to think long and hard about this, because the things we’re used to in our super-hero stories are not the only way to go about it. Wonder Woman has little need for the angst or complications of a dual identity, or for feeling compelled to hide a “dangerous”, mysterious, alter ego. (Pictures taken during filming of the Batman v Superman movie and the IMDB listing for the movie indicate that Wonder Woman will be using her traditional “Diana Prince ” secret identity in that film.)

My wife rolls her eyes and groans every time the “I have to distance myself from the people I love in order to protect them” trope pops up in a super-hero movie. So common in male-centered tales of heroism, this behavior is an immature response to the emotional complexity of relationships. Any fool off the street can be dark and sad and mysterious if they hide important parts of who they are. This takes the power to help away from others, so it’s both controlling and self-defeating.

Most of the respondents who remembered the ’70s tv series remembered a secret identity, but in that portrayal there were no important or difficult struggles associated with that identity. In fact, the notion of hiding one’s true, most-powerful self is pretty selfish and terribly limiting, and for my money Wonder Woman is all about selflessness and being all you are and can be.

In most if not all versions of her origin, Diana of Themyscira (the hidden, island home of the Amazons) earned her super-hero-y skills and prowess through hard work and training. In some ways this should be as big a part of who she is as Batman’s intense training and discipline – except, again, Wonder Woman didn’t pursue these skills inspired by a tragedy. She sacrifices her elite status to compete anonymously with other Amazonians basically for the privilege of being an explorer, an emissary or ambassador to the outside world, representing a different way. She leaves her family, friends, and her entire society, for the honor of exploring “man’s world” and of representing her society and its values, for adventure, and for an opportunity to do good in the broader world outside if her cloistered, insular upbringing and comfort zone. That, my friends, is what we call heroism.

Superman, Spider-man, and Batman are commonly associated with this secret identity angst, whereas Wonder Woman is not. In the minds of the people I talked to, Wonder Woman is who she is – which I think is one of the great, appealing things about the character. Interestingly, this reflects how she has been portrayed by writer Brian Azzarello in the New 52 version of Wonder Woman, wherein she has no secret identity at all. I think he tapped into something here, something that jibes with the public’s perception (or lack thereof) of Wonder Woman.

Also, unlike most super-heroes the average person could name, WW was raised in an “alien” society. She’s not “like us”, and yet as an outsider it seems like she should be someone we can all identify with.

Secondly, Wonder Woman is underexposed in media, and I think that’s partly because she doesn’t match up with our ideas of what super-heroes are, what they do, and how and why they do it. She was in the Justice League animated series in the early 2000s, but that show had nowhere near the cultural impact of the ’70s live-action series starring Lynda Carter – and that was 40 years ago. Beyond that, there are a few direct-to-video animated movies – mostly with the Justice League, but she did get one of her own – in the past 10 years or so, the Superfriends cartoon from (again) the ’70s, and…that’s it. Those are the only places the general public has encountered Wonder Woman stories, and little if any of those are things most adults have ever heard of, let alone seen. Also, her supporting cast have had very little if any exposure in any of those media.

It’s been 20 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess, so Wonder Woman’s lack of exposure is kind of embarrassing. Just yesterday my wife asked if Wonder Woman has ever been in any comic book movie. She hasn’t, of course – EVER. This is nearly criminal as far as I’m concerned. The fact that my wife had to ask says something all by itself about the character’s weak media presence.

I know sometimes us geeks find it hard to believe that the general populace doesn’t know these characters, but it’s true. The most common reactions when I tell non-geeky adults that I color comic books are a) to immediately refer to “comic strips” because they don’t fully understand what I’m talking about, and b) express surprise that comic books are still being published.

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I could write about the theoretical difficulties in adapting Wonder Woman to tv and movies, but it’s easy to critique that when it has rarely even been attempted. There are any number of ways to make it work, and no one “right” way.

Personally, I’ve often thought that Wonder Woman could be to the DC universe what Thor is to the Marvel universe. Thor stories – and the most recent film starring the character, The Dark World, is a good example – are often big, sprawling, tales that span worlds and mystical realms, with lots of cosmic drama and petty gods and mythical beasts. Basically, Wonder Woman comics could feel like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s runs on the Fantastic Four and Thor over at Marvel, and Kirby’s “Fourth World” stuff at DC. I think the New 52 depiction of Wonder Woman takes a big step in this direction. All that sounds ready-made for modern super-hero movies.

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Costumed super-hero tv shows have had, until recently, a bad track record, and female-led super-hero tv shows have been practically non-existent. Those kinds of shows perch so precariously at the edge of an abyss of goofiness. Note how hard even the most successful ones work to avoid traditional super-hero costumes, and put their heroes in something as close as possible to normal-looking clothes or a military/mercenary outfit.

Most super-hero costumes have two main colors and an accent color: Superman has blue and red and some yellow bits;  Batman wears blue-black, gray, and some yellow bits; Spider-man has blue and red and  (pretty brilliantly) white at the eyes; the Flash is red and yellow with just a bit of white; Iron Man is generally red and yellow/gold; granted Captain America has red, white, and blue all over, but his costume is the wonkiest of those listed here – notice how the movie version uses white as the accent rather than as a major component.

 
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Wonder Woman’s got red, blue, yellow, and white – and some of that white is actually silver and all of that yellow is actually gold. As a colorist usually trying to work with realistic lighting and rendering, her costume reads as red, blue, gold, white, and chrome. That’s five as far as I’m concerned, and it’s a bit of a chromatic mess as traditional super-hero costumes go.

For my money, the best costume redesign of the New 52 was dropping Wonder Woman’s costume down to just red, blue, and silver. I have to admit, though, there’s something iconic lost in her look when you remove that gold/yellow. Yellow is a bright, warm color that does a lot to draw the eye and add visual interest. However, in tv and film, you want the attention on the actors’ facesb, so those bright colors are a distraction.

Because the big screen practically demands more detail, costume designers add the kinds of things that makes a costume seem more like real – albeit stylized and/or ornate – clothing and gear.

Now.

This.

 
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Yes, we can get into why a warrior super-hero would not wear heels, and why female superheroes often have more skin exposed than male super-heroes, but I’m going to set that aside for now, as tempting as it is.

I know right next door to nothing about Gal Gadot as an actress. Like many, I scratched my head a bit when she was cast, because of her slight build – Wonder Woman is a character most people expect to look…well, like an Amazon. We have almost no idea how the character has been written in the script or what Gadot will bring to the role, so I have nothing to say on that, either.

I think the costume works really well, though. The minimal straps or belts break up the traditional Wonder Woman “bodice”, distracting from the inherent oddity of there being a bodice there in the first place. The bodice itself references the classic costume, with some Greco-Roman armor and modern design elements fused together. It balances the eagle and “WW” designy bits. The short-sword adds a great ancient warrior element, which maybe tells us a little about the film’s portrayal of the character. I tend to dislike versions of her costume that make the tiara/headband bigger or turn it into a piece of armor, but costume designer Michael Wilkinson (who has worked with director Zack Snyder for many years now) has done a good job of getting the right size and shape for a larger headband that works on Gadot. The Greco-Roman armor skirt is a nice addition (common in fan-made redesigns), although it’s a bit silly the way it’s tapered to specifically not cover the upper thighs. The bracers do this neat thing where it looks like they’re attached to straps that go around her palms. I could say things about the boots – which I don’t care for – but I have this theory about super-hero costumes that I learned as a colorist: no one really cares about the character’s feet.

Basically, allowing for the relative skimpiness of Wonder Womans usual duds and the trends in super-hero movie costume designs, this is a really solid design. I’m pleasantly surprised. I wish the film-makers had made the bold step of giving her more a full-body outfit like the male superheroes, but then I step back and think about the brazen, “this is what I am” quality that makes Wonder Woman who she is, to some degree, and that she comes from a culture that doesn’t have our culture’s body issues. The image as a whole shows Wonder Woman in a primeval-looking, volcanic setting, and again, that sword says something. She looks like she just stepped out of a myth, and that’s pretty awesome.

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That’s a lot of costume talk, but I’m a visual guy and this ish the first official image we have from the first major motion picture ever to feature this very important female character. There’s a lot you can do with her costume and the various iterations of it used in the comics over the years, so the choices they’ve made here can tell us something about how Wonder Woman is going to be portrayed in her first big screen appearance, and thus how most people (those without much in the way of preconceptions) are going to think about her.It’s a huge responsibility Snyder, Gadot, and screenwriter David Goyer have taken on, and one I hope they take seriously.

VILLAINS MONTH! Superman 23.2 and Action Comics #23.2!

 

This week – today, even! – you can find these two lovely items at your local comic book store. I colored them, from Gene Ha’s mighty pencils and inks. Published by DC Comics.

All of DC’s “New 52” comics this month are part of their “Villains Month” event, wherein all the comics in September feature stories focusing on villains common to each respective title – and ALL of them have 3-D covers! ALL OF THEM! This is a massive undertaking, and I commend DC on their bravery and glorious insanity!

3-D covers are quite complicated to produce, as you might imagine – both from an illustration and a production/printing viewpoint. Gene produced 3 illustrations for each cover with different dimensions and proportions than for a regular cover. I needed to assemble and color each illustration and provide DC’s production department with three separate, finished files for each cover. In a normal 2-D illustration you would not see things that are behind something closer to the viewer, but in 3-D you can sort of see behind objects, so that normally-hidden stuff has to be there as finished art.

Below you will see the three layers of line art Gene so magnificently produced. For Superman 23.2 I provided DC’s production department with two options: one with a colored background and one with a mostly white background. There was some confusion about how to execute these covers, I guess, and at one point near my completion of the Superman cover I was informed that the backgrounds needed to be white. So, I gave them both and let them work it out.

I finished the Action cover after I was informed of this white background thing, and luckily I had planned on making the background very light and minimal anyway, so I just went even further in that direction with it. I wasn’t happy with the background, but I thought it was what they wanted.

I guess there was some communication break-down or change of plans, because a different background was added. generally I’d say it looks better this way, although the color choices are too similar to the foreground and middle-ground colors, which kind of mitigates the “pop” of those colors. Of course, in 3-D getting the colors to “pop” is maybe not so big a deal.

I should stress that I don’t fault anyone at DC for any of the confusion involved. It’s a minor miracle that any comic gets into your hands without errors or mis-steps, there are so many things that can go wrong. This is why I bow before the good people in the industry’s production departments.

Go check out the covers this month – they are super-snazzy!


Coloring Presentation at 12-Hour Comic Book Day

On July 27th, 2013, the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington, Indiana (where I live and breath) held it’s 6th annual 12-Hour Comic Book Day. Each year, young women and men between the ages of 10 and 20 write and illustrate comics of their own creation within a time limit of twelve consecutive hours.  MCPL’s Children’s and Teen Services teamed with our local comic book store,  Vintage Phoenix Comics, and provided art supplies, food, and surprises – like me! Prizes were awarded for every three hours of comics-making. Participants can work individually or collaboratively. Many of the resultant comics can be seen at the event’s Flickr site, here.  My kids and I are in photos 2-6!  My son created “Evil Limbs” and “Punch Me“, and my daughter whipped up “Aliens Attack!” and “Party Pooper”.

Those two pictures of me are from the presentation I did for the kids about comic book coloring.  I don’t know why I never contacted anyone about the event in previous years, but this year I did – albeit with little time to spare.  I figured most kids would know about the Justice League or at least some of that teams members, so I opened up the full, working file for Justice League #20 (written by Geoff Johns and published by DC Comics) pages 4&5 and got to work.  Those 2 pages are a 2-page spread of the JL battling some toothy, ravenous, mindless minions, but it had a lot of special effects and I thought it would be a good, big, simple way to show the layers of work involved in coloring a modern, mainstream super-hero comic book. I talked through each layer of art, from the initial black-and-white line art to the last streaks of rain. The kids were adorably and goofy and awkward and smart. They had good questions, and a couple of them hung around after my presentation to ask even more smart questions.

There are articles about the event here and here and here. Thanks to Chris Hosler of MCPL’s Adult and Teen Services for being friendly, helpful, and in charge!

Here are the images I used in the presentation. Click on the first one and then just click through the slideshow!

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Citizen Dame

The intersection of filmdom and feminism

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did I just say that? (adventures in stream-of-consciousness writing)

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