Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Big Game Hunting - The penultimate... fight scene?

So, you’ve got background, you’ve got character, you’ve got stats... what’s last?

The only thing we’ve not talked about so far is fighting and other rolls to ‘gain’ something. Contested checks are great fun, but unless you have a great grasp of the underlying basis of your game, and what you *want* from it and its setting, contested checks are also the hardest thing to design.

And unfortunately, they’re also the area I’m weakest in. So instead of explaining how they work, I thought I’d save you a bit of time and tell you about a disaster I had designing my CSI style game.

So, picture the scene. I’ve got this kick ass mechanic that lets you accurately decide how long something is going to take to solve, and a chart that lets you ‘rank’ your investigation by how long it takes to solve something – there’s even a mechanic to decide if the person escapes or commits another crime. It all works. I’ve got rolls for science checks and XP bonuses for people to award if the description and ‘jargon’ is right.

And then I got onto capturing the criminal, if she/he hasn’t escaped.

The problem I encountered was that I could not weight the rolls to show that the criminal was/wasn’t a mastermind and was/wasn’t adept. Some crimes were vicious – others were planned. And unless the GM had separate tables to roll against, invariably, the CSI’s, no matter how weedy, kicked his/her ass.

The thing is, the more varied the game, and the encounters, the harder the contested rolls will be to design. In the end, I left that freeform – it’s part of the GM set up right at the beginning. There’s 12 tables to pick from, and the GM picks one from each row of three – and that covers every conceivable event that you’ll hit for ‘fighting’ – and that forms part of the ‘bad guy’ character gen. It’s not the most satisfying solution, but it works. So, I’d say that if you’re not getting what you want approaching it head on, try it from another side. You never know – it might work better if you make it more rigid – or if it’s too rigid – make it less rigid.

This week, Kai lied last week and is still on FINAL, LAST CHANCE edits for Glass Block. She’s also thinking hard about what to write next week And yes, she’s considering how to share the CSI game too – if her brain doesn’t asplode first.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Lion's Share - the road to Avengers Vs X-Men

Marvel need a win. Blackest Night trumped Siege in 2010 and the New 52 has crushed Marvel this past winter. All eyes are on the potentially epic knockdown, drag out, battle royale the House of Ideas is about to unleash upon us: Avengers Vs X-Men.

Some of the top creators on Marvel's roster come together to craft a story that will have potentially massive ramifications. Many years in the making, Avengers Vs X-Men sees the return of the Phoenix force, an entity that first appeared in the late Seventies and is synonymous to many comic fans with the character Jean Grey. An incredibly powerful energy being, the Phoenix often bonds with a host as it did with Jean and later her daughter Rachel Summers. The seminal work in this instance is certainly the Dark Phoenix Saga, now available in hardback.

The Phoenix itself has been a lingering influence throughout the X-Men comics in recent years, but hasn't been an overt presence per se. Then during last year's Point One one shot, there was a chapter featuring a Nova centurion (possibly Richard Rider, although could it be his brother Robbie?) fleeing ahead of the returning Phoenix Force - as it destroyed whole worlds in its path. The Phoenix is heading for Earth and has already chosen its new host. The so-called mutant messiah, Hope Summers. Solicitations for Avengers Vs X-Men suggest that the mutant superheroes believe this will be a good thing, despite past negative experiences with the Phoenix Force entity. The Avengers believe it will mean the end of all life on Earth and all evidence seems to support this!

So who is Hope Summers, the young woman at the heart of this coming maelstrom? To answer that question, we need to wind back to 2004 and Avengers Disassembled, the beginning of the modern Marvel Universe metaplot. In this book - the first Avengers story arc by Brian Michael Bendis - the heroes are torn apart by shocking tragedies. In the final act we discover that mutant Avenger the Scarlet Witch was responsible for these horrors. Driven insane by grief, Wanda's unstable mind has begun to blame her fellow Avengers for the loss of her children and so she lashed out with her reality altering chaos powers. She is taken away by her father Magneto and the Avengers were forced to disband, reuniting later as the New Avengers, adding fan favourites Spider-Man and Wolverine to the roster.

The story of Wanda picks up with House Of M, as the X-Men and the Avengers come together to confront Magneto and Professor X, who have been sheltering the Scarlet Witch following the events of Disassembled. Killing her is discussed as the only viable option, leaving her brother Quicksilver distraught, and in desperation he convinces the emotional vulnerable Wanda to remake the world nto one which could make everyone happy. The House Of M world is one ruled by mutants - in particular Magneto. Over time - and with the help of a strange girl called Layla Miller - the heroes regain their real memories, once more assembling to challenge Master of Magnetism and his children. Realising that Magneto's dream of mutant supremacy has always been more important than his love for his children, Wanda puts the world back to normal, but with one startling difference. No more mutants.

Overnight, the world population of mutants totalled only 198. All the others had lost their powers, an event that became known as Decimation. To make matters worse, the mutant birth rate fell to zero. The Beast went to incredible and frantic lengths to verify the extent of Wanda's actions in a story collected as X-Men Endangered Species. Then, just as the mutant race seemed to facing total extinction, the mutant detecting computer Cerebro exploded - overloaded by the birth of a powerful new mutant in Alaska. Scrambling to investigate the X-Men find themselves embroiled in a battle with the Purifiers and the Marauders for the life of the baby.

This was complicated by the arrival of the future mutant cop Bishop, who has once traveled back in time to try to prevent his dystopian world. Bishop had sought various potential culprits but now felt that this baby would become the monster responsible. X-Men Messiah Complex is a bloody, brutal read and well worth your time. Finally the time travelling paramilitary son of Scott Summers, Cable, took the baby and disappeared into the future intending to raise her as his daughter, naming her Hope.

Over the course of five volumes (Messiah War, Waiting For The End Of The World, X-Force/Cable Messiah War, Stranded and Homecoming), Cable and Hope move further forward in time, constantly pursued by a determined and deadly Bishop. In a clever narrative conceit, each volume seems Hope growing older and becoming more experienced - getting ready to embrace her destiny. Finally, she and Cable return to the present day in an incredible story called X-Men Second Coming, a story which ended with the seeming death of Cable and the acceptance of Hope Summers into the X-Men.

Since then, Hope has struggled to find her place in the world. Her arrival was followed by the detection of five new mutants - the first since her birth. She can also seemingly activate emerging mutants though so far she has been unable to help those who lost their powers during the Decimation. Perhaps because of this there are those who see her as a destroyer and not a potential saviour, especially after numerous ominous signs and portents. And now the Phoenix Force is coming for her.

If that wasn't enough, the Scarlet Witch is back. Her first appearance after she disappeared at the end of House Of M was in New Avengers 26 - the Ballad of Clint Barton & Wanda Maximoff (collected in New Avengers Vol 6: Revolution) - as a seemingly innocent young woman, stripped of her tortured memories and devastating powers. Since then she has been seen in Avengers The Childrens Crusade with some fairly interesting revelations and unsettling ramifications.

Finally as a precursor to the Avengers Vs X-Men storyline, Avengers X-Sanction is currently on the shelves - a four part miniseries showing us the true fate of Cable. Ravaged by the techno-organic virus that has plagued him since birth, Cable's intended final act was to save Hope by sending her back to the present day. He then disappeared into the timestream expecting to die. Awakening in the future, Cable found his old mentor Blaquesmith with an ominous prediction about Hope's future fate at the hands of the Avengers. With less than 24 hours left to live, Cable has made one last timeslide, intending to neutralise the Avengers before they can harm his daughter. Wonderful foreshadowing for the coming events of AvX.

This brings us up-to-date and ready for Avengers Vs X-Men. Two mutant powerhouses are on a collision course as it is - and throwing in the Phoenix Force will have dire consequences for the Earth's population. No wonder the Avengers feel required to intervene!

Explore the Marvel history of the past decade and get ready to choose your side, or simple dive in with your gut feeling! Either way, this year looks set to be something special for Marvel.

Ben Fardon suspects that the epilogue to Avengers Vs X-Men will lead to a reboot for the whole Marvel Universe. What's good for the goose might be seen as good for the gander after all. Mixed feelings about that possibility.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

New Beginnings - Transformers

As a child of the 80’s I had a staple diet of Saturday morning cartoons. One such cartoon was Transformers. This was followed by the sticker books, the toys and the T-shirts. I was hooked. Watching every week you couldn’t help but wonder “So which will actually win? Autobot or Decepticon?” Even Michael Bay hasn’t really answered that question with rumours of a fourth film rife.

However, in the end it was the comics that answered the questions.

Transformers, in the comic sense, has been a foster child of a series. Initially it started with the toyline from Hasbro and Marvel introduced them in comics. Later on Dreamwave, a spin off of Image, launched Transformers and then after their demise in 2005 IDW were granted the licence to the comic.

Now after 125 comics a new era under the strong helm of IDW begins with a one-shot and two new titles.

In typical storybook fashion good has triumphed, the Autobots have been successful in not only winning the war but also in using the Matrix to revive Cybertron itself. With their world alive again and no one left to fight, what is a robot to do?

Transformers: The Death of Optimus Prime tries to open and answer this. Beginning where the comics left off with Optimus pushing the Matrix into Cybertron and “dying”, it tries to answer and pose questions at the same time. Optimus had been consumed by a great white light and now awakens in the future with the Matrix split in half.

Instead of trying to reinvent a conflict between two opposing sides a new line has been taken. Optimus may have lead the Autobots to win the war but the battle for the planet now begins. Most importantly this isn’t between good and evil but in fact between thoughts and feelings. Refugees from the war are returning with no affiliation to either side and no regard for a new regime especially as they feel they don’t owe anything to the victors of a conflict they didn’t want.

It’s quite a fraught situation and one that demands very hard decisions as well. The Autobots are fractured, Optimus is not the revered leader the people want and a big difference of opinion creates a divide so large that Rodimus leaves taking a large number of well known characters apparently to their deaths.

Although not a fantastic story, the one-shot works best as a vehicle to introduce the two new spin-off titles - Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye and Transformers: Robots In Disguise. These replace the previous ongoing Transformers series.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that James Roberts didn’t commit to the title as he has gone onto write on MTMTE, however as an issue it is a bit something and nothing. The artworks harks back to the Eighties animated series which I relate to most but doesn’t always hold to it.

Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye, is where Roberts transitions to. What I find very frustrating is that I know that the MTMTE title is going to be dedicated to Hot Rod and his quest to find the Knights of Cybertron, but it spends so little time actually doing that. It’s more of a scene setter and works in the favour of John Barber’s Robots In Disguise by solidifying the incredible volatile and unstable setting that Cybertron has become. The frustration and rift between Bumblebee - now Autobot leader - and Hot Rod is built well to create tension but what should be a shock moment where the departing ship “explodes” is lost quickly.

It’s only in the last few pages where Hot Rod’s sense of duty towards his crew, the “not on my watch” attitude, that you get a real sense of what this title is going to be about. Flung across the galaxy by a surprise quantum jump and losing 40 friends in the process gives him purpose, but as I said due to it only being a couple of pages no depth. All of this has been used to create deeper back stories and settings for what will become needed in the future issues.

Nick Roche joins Roberts to provide the artwork for the issue. I think the strange thing about this, as well as the other two comics, is that Transformers have no defined structure or predetermined look. This means that thin limbs, odd shaped faces or blocky square torsos are completely normal. There are the odd occasions when you do think this is stretched a little too far but on the whole this isn’t bad. Also considering you are dealing with characters that are almost 30 years old and you can easily recognise them all. It’s bright, colourful and full of innovation.

Transformers: Robots in Disguise focuses on Bumblebee’s struggle to unite the inhabitants of the now living Cybertron - the story takes a more political and worldly approach. It also goes a long way to showing that regardless of your environment or your race the same problems and prejudices can and will affect you.

Fighting an internal struggle on three fronts, Bumblebee has to keep the Autobots together, rehabilitate the Decepticons and prevent the civil unrest that is brewing with the non-affiliated Cybertronians. All of this is compounded by his own feelings where he constantly fights to step out of the huge shadow Optimus has left behind. What I’ve really liked is that it has parities to so many real life events and situations. Discrimination is a huge player in this comic with all of the Cybertronians, who are neither Autobot or Decepticon dubbed as NAILS – Non Affiliated Indigenous Life FormS. It is setting up for a gritty and harsh storyline especially as a Decepticon can’t change its paintwork.

In a similar fashion to MTMTE, the artwork in RID feels more engaging. It keeps with tradition but feels comfier somehow. I can’t quite put my finger on why but it just does.

Overall it’s a tricky call on these comics. The one-shot is not essential but certainly worth a read as a (re)introduction if you’ve not been following them before. The two spin offs are good and RID is certainly entertaining me so far, MTMTE has a little way to go but has definite potential in a similar way that Lost In Space or Star Trek Voyager did. My concern is that my love of a childhood favourite blindsides me slightly.

The new ongoing series are definitely worth picking up but I think favourites will be chosen based on who you are and the sort of stories you like.

Matt Puddy knows that one shall and one shall fall.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Big Game Hunting - Sully their character!

Game designers are, let’s face it, responsible for most of the initial shouting and swearing that goes on around the table in general, and also some of the biggest hilarity before people actually gets into the game itself. That's right, this week I'm talking about the player character design process.

Depending on how people choose characteristics, both good and bad, will dictate how they play their character in game. Also, you’re giving the GM fuel at this point – the truly savvy GM listens to how people describe their characters, and how others discuss and react to the information they share.

Abilities and skills are interchangeable in the minds of players, but it’s important to understand when designing games that there are three sub types of designing a character. It’s key to explore a couple of systems before settling on how you’re handling this bit – you can either have something that’s really ‘rigid’ but actually generates the right range of characters for the game, or something really loose and give your players the chance to rely on luck and common sense.

Positive and negative are difficult to consider in terms of characteristics. So once you’ve generated the vital ‘statistics’, (whether bought or via dice roll), the next step is almost always to choose from a list of characteristics. Of course, for the game writer, it’s not as easy as ‘just picking’. Depending on the mechanic of the game, you’ll design it in one of several ways.

Both ways are basically based around XP though – the GM will give the gamers a pool of points to buy stats from. And this is the game designer part - you have to think about how your player is going to design the character they’re going to play. And to do this, you have to think about archetypes.

Archetypes are the stereotypical ‘meta’ characters that people can create. Warrior, mage, healer, rogue, etc. Each of these character types have strengths and weaknesses. This is your ability/attribute/skill set pool. So, you can create the characters, brain storm over the elements you think you might need, and playtest, playtest, playtest! And then, add a splash of personality. So, you’re a fighter and you’re good at it – you’re probably going to be an arrogant toad. So, add arrogance (and give that stat a consequence – you could add points back into the pool to buy something else, but it could mean that in certain rolls, you have a penalty. Positive stats cost more to buy, but add to rolls, or give automatic successes etc.)

There’s a final part to this – you need both the positive, and the negative. Without negative traits characters aren’t only one dimensional, but they’re difficult to play, and mostly unsatisfying. So, ensure that there’s some nasty in with all that nice.

D Kai Wilson-Viola is on FINAL EDITS for Glass Block and is genuinely wishing her senile cat would stop the pre-dawn chorus.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Digital Canvas - The Long And The Short Of It

In the world of webcomics, there exists a great divide that isn’t seen in ink-and-paper comics. Two camps, two different styles of writing, split right down the middle of the web and (coincidentally) my brain; the Long-Form webcomic, and the Gag-A-Day webcomic. You don’t really see this distinction anywhere else, because the Gag-A-Day format only really works on the internet or in newspaper strips. But which camp are you in? Which is best?

Long-form webcomics have the advantage of actually having a story to follow. In most of the better cases, the author has even planned ahead and knows what’ll be coming up, leaving the opportunity to foreshadow and plant several Chekhov’s Guns along the way. This format also has the space to establish characters and really give them development, as well as establish a setting, giving readers a firm sense of place. And talking of development, longer form webcomics give the artist the opportunity to grow in skill, especially when they’re practicing with the same characters or settings for a while. In a nutshell, readers of long-running paper-and-ink comics will probably enjoy long-form webcomics.

Todd’s Long-form quick picks:

On the downside of the Long side, it can sometimes be a pain to go back through a huge established archive and start from page one, knowing that it’ll take at least a few days to get through the whole story AND the story is still updating for those few days. If you read through the archive too slowly, you start feeling like Achilles in the philosopher Zeno’s famous paradox of Achilles vs. the Tortoise. Another downside to some Long-Formers is the fact that they never seem to want to end, or at least never end naturally with a proper conclusion. This can be down to the perceived pressure of keeping the readers entertained, or for the love of a fairly consistent pay check, or simply because the author never wants to stop! In bad cases this can lead to uncomfortable story-stretching, and endless filler.

Gag-A-Day comics (or more accurately, Gag-A-Page) have the advantage of accessibility. It usually doesn’t matter where you start reading, you’re already laughing. Indeed, some of these webcomics even have a “random” button that’ll take you to a random comic from the archive. But Gag-A-Days can have fun with continuity as well; running gags and cameos of favourite one-time characters are used to great effect in this genre, rewarding the long term readers. Gag-A-Days also have the opportunity to be “relevant” - they can quickly riff on the news of the week to get a laugh out of whats happening right now, without having to divert a long-running storyline just to fit. Indeed, the skill to do just this is evidence of a quick thinking author with good writing skills. In short, if you have a low attention span, or just need a quick fix of funny, Gag-A-Days are for you.

Todd’s Gag-A-Day quick picks:

Unfortunately, relevancy can also be a downside. A comic that ties into todays news won’t necessarily be funny in a few years time, with some jokes ageing very quickly. Imagine clicking that random button and reading all those “THIS. IS. SPARRRTAAA” jokes all over again. Yawn! And of course, even the first time round you read it, there’s no guarantee that every punch line hits the mark 100% of the time.

So each has its pluses and minuses, personally I read a selection of both types! But is there some sort of middle ground out there, some sort of ideal compromise? A few webcomics attempt to alternate, telling a long story interspersed with a few gag pages, and I have read a few of these. I’ll quote a good friend of mine, who says “it reaches a point where the quality of one comes at the sacrifice at another, my personal effigy being Sluggy Freelance.” I haven’t read it myself, but apparently it’s the gag pages that are lagging behind the epic story pages. This is of course personal opinion, so your mileage may vary.

Something I find a lot more enjoyable than this alternating technique is the use of story arcs to tell a series of contained tales, but can also lead on from one another. This way you get the ease of finding a good jumping-on point at the start of each arc, the closure of the end of each arc, plus the joy of a longer continuity to follow. And the author can throw in a gag arc between other stories if they feel like it.

Todd’s Story Arc quick picks:

So back to the original question: which is ‘best‘? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder my friends. I’ll let you make your own minds up!

Todd’s been agonising on where to categorise webcomics with “chapters”: are they Story Arcs or pieces of a Long-Form?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

New Beginnings: Dark Matter #1 and Prophet #21

Both Image and Dark Horse comics are ones that always interest me. Image comes up with a number of different titles such as Super Dinosaur, Walking Dead and the recently reviewed Fatale. Dark Horse always tickles my love of sci-fi with Aliens and AvP titles. So it is safe to say when new comics from either of these publishing houses come about I take notice.

This is exactly what has happened with both over the last few weeks. Image comics has brought us Prophet and Dark Horse has created Dark Matter.

Both comics focus on protagonists who arrive in an unfamiliar time and place, essentially being born into uncertainty. Whilst there is a drive for them all to move forward the surroundings, people and dynamics working around them mean that the movements they make are instinctual at best but blind all the same.

Prophet, from Image, started a long time ago in fact. The rebirth element is not only the opening pages but the title itself. Rob Liefield originally created it back in the Nineties where it was an innovative title for Image (coming out not long after Liefield left Marvel). Now after a substantial break and a change in direction (John) Prophet has returned under the watchful eyes of Brandon Graham.

The story is quite straight forward in an almost Planet of the Apes sense. The opening scenes depict the arrival of the main character in a future when man has devolved and aliens have turned them almost into livestock. Thrust into this new – but old – land John knows that he must move forward towards his goal of restarting the Earth Empire and renewing the human race.

There is a definite feeling of loneliness and isolation to it with most of the story being portrayed through narrative. It’s a tricky thing to balance and can be detrimental if not done right, but Graham has worked it well. Instead of it being an internal monologue the use of third person perspective means that there is a distance between the reader and John. The beauty of it is that the only explanation of the scenario is what you see, which is exactly the position Prophet is in too.

Graham has teamed with Simon Roy for the artwork. Whilst it’s not the cleanest or most precise, Roy’s work sits well with the story. It’s a dirty new world without the conveniences of our “modern” technology. What used to be a relatively known environment has been turned into an alien landscape complete with the newly associated flora and fauna.

Dark Matter is also a leap into the future. In a similar fashion to Prophet, Mallozzi and Mullie’s characters are thrown into a familiar yet unknown environment after being dropped out of hypersleep.

The change here is that whereas Prophet is a stranger in a strange land, our characters in Dark Matter are strangers in space.
For those who don’t recognise the names from other comics, Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie may still seem familiar. Together they have written a vast number of episodes for the various Stargate franchises, so the science fiction background is pretty well covered by them both.

As a first glance there is a definite “Alien” feel to this title. A huge ship passing through space with a crew in stasis. Something has happened though and they are all rudely awoken by a rapidly failing life support system. Once the crisis is averted the real dilemma presents itself.

What do you do when you have no memory of the five people around you? Even worse still, what do you then do when you know nothing about yourself too?

Waking with amnesia, all of the crew (if that’s what they are) don’t know who they are, where they are and most importantly why. The comic is designed to establish a few points and ideas but strangely nothing personal about the people involved. This creates automatically a certain tension as you always want to know more, but if it were you in the situation would you ask and if asked would you answer?

I like that instead of simply telling you who everyone is you are given a story which leaks traits and personality flaws, leaving you to create your own thoughts about the different characters, much as they would have to do themselves.

To then further increase the pressure around them closing with an attack can only lead to a much bigger story coming into play.

Garry Brown is the artist on the title and without wishing to sound derogatory in any way his artwork strikes me as typical of the Dark Horse brand. It lacks detail and definition - especially around the feet I noticed randomly - and spends most of the emphasis in the foreground. The palate is muted and dark but this plays further into the isolation of the comic so together works in its favour greatly. The characters are realistic and not overly emphasised but still invoke the Colonial Marines in their design.

Both of these titles show some great potential and promise and to be honest a lot comes down to personal preference. For me I’ll be following the Dark Matter miniseries and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on Prophet too.

The two comics are both great and if this is a benchmark for 2012 then I’ll be a happy comic reader.

Matt Puddy is looking forward to Dead Space 3.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Watcher - Sherlock, Season Two Finale

On Sunday night, a nation of viewers sat gripped as Sherlock grappled with his final problem and those events that led to his inevitable fall. The final episode of Sherlock season two ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ seemingly chronicled the last few months of the titular hero’s life, as told by a tearful Watson, as he related a terrible plot by arch-nemesis Moriarty to turn Sherlock’s reputation against him and drive him to the brink of despair.

To say that the impressive twists and turns of the episodes plot is not even the most impressive aspect of Steve Thompson’s script, a clever adaptation of Conan Doyle’s original story ‘The Final Problem’ is actually a compliment, given the context of an episode which is the perfect culmination of the groundwork laid over the last two series.

Beginning with a brief montage which highlight’s Sherlock’s growing fame and Watson’s growing discomfort as his friend simply ignores the increasingly intensity of the press scrutiny, the groundwork is already being laid for a tense finale. We then cut to Moriarty who artfully carries out multiple raids on some of London’s most secure sites, for motives which remain a mystery.

Stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman seem so comfortable in the roles by this point that they no longer simply seem like the latest pair in a long line of actors to portray Conan Doyle’s famous sleuths, but in fact have made these roles their own. The emotional beats and character scenes, which are many and intense in this week’s episode, are heartbreakingly sincere and manage to elicit intense feelings without being overplayed, such is the rapport the pair have built up over the preceding two series. That isn’t to say that Holmes and Watson don’t still get to have some fun, and there are still one or two moments that bring the pair’s physical comedy and easy chemistry to the fore.

Credit also goes to director Toby Haynes who manages to fuse some of the series key visual and musical cues seamlessly into a satisfying whole. A scene in which Sherlock surveys a mental map of London is saved from being routine, as the following events remind the audience, rather shockingly that in Holmes’s world, not everybody takes his genius for granted. The music too, has finally worked its way sufficiently into one’s unconscious that at points you might even find yourself humming along the series trademark theme, proof that composers David Arnold and Michael Price have done their job well. It wouldn’t be surprising to find this theme placed alongside the likes of Doctor Who and The Avengers in nostalgic looks back at British cult television.

Many of the series supporting characters turn in equally charged and suitably weighty performances for this eventful episode, but sadly, Andrew Scott’s Moriarty still remains a frustrating enigma. True to form, the viewer can never quite see what lies behind the camp veneer of Scott’s performance, which is either genius or madness, but never wholly satisfying.

Luckily, this final episode is so thrillingly good that any shortfalls can be easily overlooked. And finally, it may come as no surprise that showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have revealed that season three is in the works. It will however, take a true genius to explain Holmes’s inevitable return.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is pondering his theories on just how Holmes survived...

Friday, 13 January 2012

New Beginnings - Scarlet Spider #1

Christopher Yost is well known within Marvel as a writer on comics such as X-Men, X-23 and X-Force, but he started in animated shows and his credits include Avengers: Earths Mightiest Heroes, Iron Man: Armoured Adventures and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

There have been other dabblings in Marvel (and to a lesser degree DC) so to see Yost appear on the cover of the new Scarlet Spider title is a very settling thing. The pedigree that he has built for himself in only ten years means that for what could be quite a hit and miss title he brings a certain credibility to it and opens the door for a few possibilities.

As with the Scarlet Spider's past there is a level of confusion that can be expected - this is not Ben Reilly.

For those unaware, there has been somewhat of a clone problem running throughout Peter Parker’s history which has left him doubting who he is, leaving and passing the mantle fleetingly to his “brother”. This was his clone Ben Reilly who became the original Scarlet Spider.

There was also a group referred to as “the Scarlet Spiders” after Civil War, but these were three individuals in armour as opposed to empowered individuals.

The new Scarlet Spider is none of the above though. Instead this is the former criminal Kaine who (as another Parker clone) fought against Spider-Man. This is his chance for personal redemption and he is going to take it, leaving his personal history behind, in so much as any man can ever escape his past. As such this makes the comic’s tagline so much more fitting - "All of the power, none of the responsibility."

Even to begin with Stegman has emulated an iconic cover to try to invigorate this new title right from the word go. Then moving into the comic itself the illustration and layout hold you. It’s almost like a film opening where you get flashes or strips of pictures with the opening credits posted within them. A grand opening for the reader to get stuck into. The continuing artwork and colouring is bright and open on the whole making it for a light “read” on the eyes. At times it can border on, and look a little similar to, work by Ramos (Yuck! BF) but thankfully this is only flashes and hints.

The story itself is tricky. For a new reader the introduction of Kaine is more than a bit confusing. In the past he’s been manipulated and controlled into acts of violence and revenge. He’s a killer (notably of Doctor Octopus for example (though like most comic characters good ol' Otto pulled through! BF)) and a sadistic hunter, but equally he’s been heroic especially in the recent events of Spider Island. When he first became an adversary of Spider-Man he was stronger, faster, tougher and almost precognitive as opposed to simply having a Spider Sense, but now he's working on a reduced powerset following Spider Island. So I have to wonder, was trying to address this all in a first issue necessary? It can’t all be explained and essentially re-inventing the character changes the dynamic completely anyway.

But - and this is important - it was needed. Kaine is not some sort of anti-hero like Eddie Brock has become. He’s also no longer a villain and his removal of his beard and long hair is symbolic of this. Without sounding too clichéd, Kaine’s revival has been exactly that - so he's taking it and using it to try to at least make some things right again.

This is a first issue that opens a new story without sticking to the normal conventions of your friendly neighbourhood spider. It even pokes a little fun at that too. But the underlying sentiment is that things can change but it’s not easy. Kaine is tormented by his past and uses it for a driving force.

I’ve liked the opening as it’s not all squeaky clean and straightforward. I’m concerned that it may not be one that can continue without finding its own path and forges ahead - though something which Yost is capable of - so I hope it happens.

Matt Puddy has been given the gift of a couple of hyphens by his editor.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The first DC New 52 casualties and six new challengers...

DC announced today that six titles from the new 52 will cease publication in April. The ending titles are Men of War, Mister Terrific, O.M.A.C., Hawk and Dove, Blackhawks and Static Shock. No surprises there in my opinion - I predicted the end of Mister Terrific in my original write up of the New 52 ("this has cancelled within a year written all over it").

In their place, DC are launching six new comics:

  • BATMAN INCORPORATED – Writer: Grant Morrison. Artist: Chris Burnham. The acclaimed ongoing writer of ACTION COMICS, Grant Morrison, presents a fresh take on BATMAN INCORPORATED, in which the Batman brand is franchised globally in preparation for a major international threat.

  • EARTH 2 – Writer: James Robinson. Artist: Nicola Scott. The greatest heroes on a parallel Earth, the Justice Society combats threats that will set them on a collision course with other worlds.

  • WORLDS’ FINEST – Writer: Paul Levitz. Artists: George Perez and Kevin Maguire. Stranded on our world from a parallel reality, Huntress and Power Girl struggle to find their way back to Earth 2. Perez and Maguire will be the artists on alternating story arcs.

  • DIAL H – Writer: China Miéville. Artist: Mateus Santoluoco. The first ongoing series from acclaimed novelist China Miéville, this is a bold new take on a cult classic concept about the psychological effects on an everyman who accidentally gains powers to become a hero.

  • G.I. COMBAT – Writer: J.T. Krul. Artist: Ariel Olivetti. Featuring the return of a classic DC Comics series, THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT, along with rotating back-up stories and creative teams – including THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, with writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Dan Panosian; and THE HAUNTED TANK, with writer John Arcudi and artist Scott Kolins.

  • THE RAVAGERS – Writer: Howard Mackie. Artist: Ian Churchill. Spinning off from TEEN TITANS and SUPERBOY, this series finds four superpowered teens on the run and fighting against the organization that wants to turn them into supervillains.

I'm most excited about Dial H - the previous H.E.R.O. series was a tragically overlooked gem and with an acclaimed fantasy writer on board, this new version looks set to be as awesome as Resurrection Man.

Reservation customers can place their orders now.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Watcher - Sherlock, Season Two

The New Year saw the triumphant return of Doctor Who alumni Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s Bafta Award winning ‘Sherlock’ as the second series made its debut on BBC1. The first series not only received critical acclaim for its clever reinvention of stories and concepts, already familiar to generations of readers from the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, but it also cemented recently appointed Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat’s reputation as a master storyteller.

Perhaps the clearest example of the show’s success is its treatment of the central duo of Holmes and Watson, who are thoroughly inhabited by stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Transplanting the 19th century duo to the present day both freed the writers from the temptation to be completely slavish to the source material whilst also giving the audience a pair of heroes with who we could firmly identify, with Watson’s sense of bewilderment on his recent return from Afghanistan and Holmes’s constant struggle with addiction and frustration as the glare of the public eye dogs his every step. Supporting characters Mycroft Holmes, ‘DI’ Lestrade and ‘Jim’ Moriarty, also received a welcome shot of modern credibility from Mark Gatiss, Rupert Graves and Andrew Scott respectively.

Having established a successful formula with their first series, episode one of series two, ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’ ups the ante in fine style, as Moffat stitches together several stories to introduce sometime antagonist Irene Adler, played with panache and no little amount of sex appeal by Lara Pulver. The introduction of a character with whom Sherlock can truly match wits draws the character into new territory as the constant one-upmanship is as close as our hero might get to entertaining a love interest, but it also makes for thrilling character development as the breathless double bluff of the closing minutes sees Holmes in positively heroic form.

The episode also continues with the successful reinvention of the familiar, as Holmes’s trademark deerstalker hat is introduced as the pair attempt to avoid paparazzi – a masterstroke which acknowledges the hat’s place in familiar Holmes lore whilst also pointing out that this was in fact not the detective’s particular hat of choice.

If anything, this week’s adaptation of the first full length Holmes novel ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the title a slight tweak of the original in established Moffat/Gatiss tradition), might threaten to stagnate the developments of the series debut as Gatiss tackles the most famous story of all. It seems however that the writer’s desire to get under these character’s skins is a firm decision and the removal of the pair to Dartmoor to investigation the titular ‘hounds’ actually serves to strengthen their bond through adversity.

The story itself is another reinvention that sees traditional elements filtered through modern fears and the series trademark bait and switch style, and so the hounds of the piece are somehow connected with secret genetic experiments - the Baskerville estate in fact a government installation. Ironically, the updating of the stories, a key strength initially might have become the most predicable element of the series, together with the writers’ running gag that the main characters are often mistaken for a couple.

The only real weak link for this reviewer is the presence of fan favourite Russell Tovey, who’s undeniable charisma is somehow stifled either through the rather stiff writing of his character, or his struggles to make a decent fist of the posh accent – a character element which hardly seems necessary given the modern day setting.

All in all, series 2 of Sherlock is a triumph of modern television drama, a flagship British series to sit alongside Doctor Who, who audience figures continue to grow, episode 2 having been watched by 11.16 million viewers. The only question is, will it see a third series given the rather ominous title of next week’s episode ‘The Reichenbach Fall’?

Robert Barton-Ancliffe has decided to forgive the poor CGI as a deliberate conceit of the storytelling rather than shoddy workmanship.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Carrier bags and charity - Shelter

Hi folks,

Last week marked not only the end of the calendar year, but also the end of the current financial quarter and the end of the latest period of collecting money for charity from our sales of carrier bags.

This is our third full quarter and together we raised £10.31!

Last time I made a donation to Cancer Research UK. This time, I'm making a donation to Shelter.

Thanks everyone. The next carrier bag donation will be just before Easter. If you have a charity you'd like Proud Lion to support, please email me at shop@proudlion.co.uk.

Digital Canvas - On the Subject of Webcomics

For someone who’s never read any webcomics, maybe just stuck to physical paper and ink, net-scribbles can seem like a daunting new competitor to their beloved variant covers and trade paperbacks. I hope to enlighten you all with the major pros of this relatively new medium, and hopefully counter some of the cons!

So yes, first of all, webcomics are a major competitor to traditional comics, perceived to be stealing away custom from comic book shops. The way I see it, any competition is good for the marketplace! Just like the storylines comics tell, you need a bit of conflict to stir things up, or risk being stagnant and same-y every week. And also, we’re starting to see some cross-pollenisation cropping up. Dark Horse have recently been releasing trades of popular webcomics such as Doctor McNinja and Axe Cop alongside its usual fare, and of course the bigger boys in the webcomic market have released their own trades through online shops. It's like flicking through pages of the internet in your hands!

The next and most common criticism I personally hear about webcomics is: “Webcomics? Isn’t that just gamer/gaming stuff with in-jokes I wouldn’t get; fanfic of already popular franchises; self-published childish scribbling and pencil porn?”

To which the answer is yes, plus everything else. The true joy of the digital landscape is freedom; freedom to write/draw what you want, freedom to make your comic however you like (including with moving GIFs if you’d prefer), and freedom of choice. It takes very little to start up a webcomic: site hosting, a little bit of technical know-how to make your site look nice and learn how to update with new pages, and a few ad-banners to (hopefully) pay for the hosting. Of course, very few webcomics actually become popular enough to become self-sufficient and start selling collected graphic novels, t-shirts, and merch.

This is because freedom of choice is - of course - a double edged sword. Lurking on the web are examples of all the above complaints, and the dross does unfortunately outweigh the gold. Gaming webcomics do tend to make up the majority of the diversity piechart (in my personal experience anyway, it depends on which corner of the internet you explore). But then internet people are tech-savvy mostly, and poking fun at gaming is easy and fun to do!

And yes, there are a few webcomics that flirt with the danger of copyright infringement, they think they can get someone else‘s character to do all kinds of things. And of course, some are just scribbles of madmen. Do not fret though! There is gold in them thar net-hills! And as I hinted at earlier, the freedom of the internet means that some outstanding designs are possible that could never be attempted on paper. When you have unlimited space to draw, the sky’s the limit. And animation is a wonderful thing in webcomics, as seen in the above strip from Playr 3 by Cool Surface! From simple GIFs to mighty Flash files, it's possible to blend still image and movement to create something better than its parts.

You see, the main good thing about the freedom of webcomics is the freedom to experiment, with very little financial risk and no editor breathing down your neck waiting for an excuse to cut costs. Take for example, Daily Dinosaur Comics over on qwantz.com. Who would have ever thought to keep the pictures on the page the same every day, but just change the speech bubbles! And yet it is one of the most popular websites on the net, and you can actually feel the dino-characters growing in personality as you progress through the archives.

Oh yeah! Another HUGE plus point for webcomics are the digital archives. This is one of those things you wish could work for everything in life, especially paper and ink comics. Just click a button, and you go straight back to the very beginning of the story! No “jumping-on point” required! It’s a simple thing, but to me its one of the first things that attracted me to webcomics. Reading an epic story from beginning to end, without having to root around in car boot sales and secondhand stores for the first issue.

Of course, not everyone has the time to trawl through a vast archive of story, desperately trying to catch up with ‘today’. To those people I say Gag-A-Day comics are the way to go. These are webcomics whose pages rarely follow on from each other, instead providing a new punch line every day for a quick fix of funny. Try to go for the long-running ones, it’s a sign of quality when you can be consistently funny day after day, and not run out of jokes after the first week. xkcd is a great example.

Now I admit, the world of webcomics can seem quite daunting. The best way to start is to see if a favourite comic artist or writer is involved in a webcomic. A few of them use the internet to stretch their writing/drawing muscles, practicing their art and trying out new things whilst building a fan base online. For example; Doug TenNepal, the creative mind who invented Earthworm Jim, has a recently started webcomic called Ratfist that you might like to peruse. And from there, it’s a simple process of checking if your chosen artist/writer’s webcomic site has a page of links called “Affiliates” or “Friends” or “Webcomics You Should Read” etc. This is a great way of building up a portfolio of similar comics (or at least similar quality comics, even if the subject matter isn’t), and if you explore the links pages of those webcomics, pretty soon you’ll have your master list to read weekly. Notice the webcomics that are on several lists of links. Those are the doozies.

An alternative method is to check out the various sites whose main function is to provide a list of webcomics that can easily be skimmed through to find a good one. Places like thewebcomiclist.com, or topwebcomics.com where comics are voted up or down so you can easily see which ones have the best voting incentive - uh I mean which ones are best! Also, check out sites that act as merch shops for many webcomics at once. They usually only accept membership from relatively well known (and therefore financially less risky) webcomics, so their webcomics are more often than not the best the web has to offer. Try topatoco.com, that’s a good collection of webcomics, and a great shop as well!

So that’s it! Your introduction to webcomics, and my introduction to writing articles!

Todd is worried he might have used the word “webcomic” too often.

Friday, 6 January 2012

New Beginnings - Fatale #1

I have recently really started to get into new and different comics. Mark Millar struck a chord for me with his creator owned comics - a move away from mainstream Marvel comics that has seen me reading titles like Superior and Nemesis, before branching out into things such as the beautifully crafted Monocyte. So when I see a big name like Ed Brubaker on the front of a new title from Image, I’m immediately interested.

Fatale is one such new comic and is a collaboration with Sean Phillips providing the artwork. For those in the know, the collaboration of Brubaker and Phillips is one which has obviously worked in the past as between them they have created titles such as Criminal, Sleeper and Incognito. For those not in the know, like me, then this is a new experience.

Opening with a current day prologue the comic quickly draws you in and introduces you to the main character Joanne, through the funeral of Dominic Raines. Nicolas Lash is also presented to you but soon takes a back seat as the story flicks back to the 1950’s.

The main story plunges you into a tale filled with normal people and the occult; it’s a semi gothic horror or at least it can or will be. Even though you’re enveloped in the story and get involved with it a lot there isn’t a huge amount that you are given or told. This leaves you with a variety of questions and hooks to drag you in further which is remarkable. One of the other nice things about it is that it doesn’t play itself down to a common denominator or dumb things to a layman's level, it treats the reader like an adult and addresses things in a common way that you can understand because it’s straightforward and realistic.

Sean Phillips’ artwork is very fitting for the piece. This is a dark story surrounded by a murky veil and the palette reflects this completely. There is a lot of work done with the shadows too. I’m happily ashamed to say that I actually caught myself trying to peek around a frame to try and see extra detail that I knew was never going to be there. But how could I resist?

Something else that I think is of merit is the way that the comic physically feels too. Now I’m not sure if this is the normal for Brubaker’s comics but in this instance it only enhances the whole thing. It’s got an almost rough unfinished quality to it and this kind of dates the comic further. Putting this together with the story and the artwork makes quite an emotive production.

Put all this together and what you also have is a comic that quite literally every adult comic book fan should read. Just for something of a contradiction in that it’s new clean and shiny, yet feels odd, dirty and gratuitous. It won’t hit with any of the younger readers but then again it’s not meant to! This is a mature comic for mature people to enjoy maturely.......or at least with a naughty little smirk.

Find this comic, buy it, treasure it and most importantly read it!

Matt Puddy is still peering into the darkness.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Big Game Hunting – Meet the Munchkins….

Our illustrious leader, Ben, filled me in very briefly today about the kerfuffle that Fantasy Flight caused when releasing a new game that, apparently, hadn’t been play tested to a rigorous standard. So, instead of talking about characters this week, I thought I’d talk about something that usually comes much later in the design process, but you really need to start planning for from the outset.

Play testing.

It’s actually quite fun. I’ve had one play tester ask for a ‘look good naked’ skill and discovered, while doing the final playtest of another game that falling from a kerb is actually lethal. And apparently, that that newest release for Mansions Of Madness (which is being very quickly errata'd and fixed), needs two rooms... printed on either side of one piece of card. And that’s just one thing I was told about.

It might not seem like much, but play testing is one of my wish list, big-ticket gaming items – and one that I don’t actually do very often. I like play testers to find holes in my games – much like I like my beta readers to find holes in my plots, so I thought I’d share some play testing wisdom – perhaps, it’ll help you design characters and scenarios.

1) Never expect people to play it straight – in fact, if you’ve got a friend that likes to ‘munchkin’, let them. It’ll stop the conversations later on of ‘I can’t win’, which no GM likes to hear. Or worse, a GM having to fill the holes themselves.

2) Deliberately cheat when play testing – how obvious is it if the GM cheats? How about the players? Look at every hole you’ve got and try to drive that MAC truck through it. That way, you know what to adjust.

3) Go to extremes. Play a game where one round the players are lucky (automatic critical successes) – does it make the game impossible to play later because they’ve won stuff that they shouldn’t have. And then, play the same round the other way and critically fumble the rolls. Again, does it really shaft the players? Then, middle of the road? What happens.
Finally, roll actual results a couple of sets of times. What’s the average outcome?
If you do this for several key mechanics in your game, you’ll probably get a feel for where the system is unbalanced, before your players do. Which is a very good thing.

This week, Kai can barely walk, having broken herself. There’s no dice roll to fix that, but, on the bright side, she’s pokemonning for all she’s worth.