The Five Worst-Named Products in Roleplaying

Last week we looked at the five Best-Named products and as warned, now it’s time for part two. The flipside. The missteps, mistakes and wtf moments in titling over the last forty years. As always, this isn’t about the product, just the name. A rose by any other name would still have new class feats, right? Things that inherited bad names because of a pre-existing license are off the hook, too, and so are people trying to avoid last minute threats of litigation. The first one means I can’t ping Dragon Age for having very few, if any dragons. The last one means I have to be merciful to Lejendary Adventures. And yet it sickens me to even type that. Direct all bitching to the internet, it loves that stuff.

#5: The Annoying Acronym – G.U.R.P.S.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with acronyms, but like everything good, geeks love them so much it becomes creepy and wrong. As a result the RPG industry is full of unnecessary and painful acronyms and abbreviations, from companies like BTRC and ICE and LUG and TSR to games like FUDGE and FATE and ORE and CORPS and QAGS and JAGS and the poorly fudged CHIL-L (the last L didn’t stand for anything). Maybe we weren’t supposed to pronounce EABA (it sounds like someone popping a hamstring while pooping), but after GURPS could we ever be sure? GURPS became a household name which proves it doesn’t matter if you sound like a bowel movement if your content is good enough. Maybe you think I’m being unfair but the final nail in the coffin comes from the games full title: the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. Generic and Universal is very redundant. No points.

(Yes I know it originally stood for “the Great Unnamed Role-Playing System”, but that’s no excuse. TORG originally stood for The Other Roleplaying Game and it sounds much less like belching, and doesn’t stand for anything.)

Acronym Runner Up: OSRIC. Because not only does it have nothing to do with minor characters in Hamlet, it also has none of the letters of Dungeons and Dragons which it is basically a rehashing of, and it takes me ten hours to remember what any of the letters mean. The 5 slot would have gone to OSRIC but it slides on the technicality of not actually being a product.

#4: The Unpronouncable – SLA Industries

We’ve done some truly horrible things to the English language and its list of characters to make game titles. The endless love affair with colons and ampersands lasted well beyond the boundaries of good taste, but then there was the pointless inanities like the little, up in the air “o” in C*ntinuum (which I can’t even write on this blog), or the lower case reversal of deadEarth or the dollar sign in Vampire$. Or the never-explained circle in Mark Rein-SPLAT-Hagen’s name. Dear game writers: stop that, it’s incredibly annoying, and it’s also bad business. I don’t want to pick up a game that I can’t read, or have trouble trying to pronounce. But there was no greater offender then the game that wanted you to pronounce things incorrectly to make it work. In no universe ever would the word SLA be pronounced “slay”. It looks like a hard A, it quacks like a hard A. At best it could be SLAW Industries, which might explain the guy with the pumpkin on his head.

Unpronounceable Runner Up: H.O.L., unless it was a deliberate parody of SLA, which is definitely plausible, forcing it to sound like a hole in the ground was just annoying. Everyone I have ever met uses the name to rhyme with “toll”. Again though, maybe that WAS the joke.

#3: The Terribly Under-Selling – Underground

Okay, so imagine the best cyberpunk setting you’ve ever seen, something that is built on the rules of political and social satire at its fundamental level, like Transmetropolitan and Judge Dredd got married and had a super-powered baby. And it poked fun at roleplaying as well, casting the PCs as in-genre murder-hobos, cybernetic superheroes built for war and now turned lose on the streets with nothing but bystanders to kill – but subtle and low-key, unlike other satires like Violence! and Power Kill. And more playable too. And clever. And sexy. And with awesome rules. Now name it Underground. I guess it’s about moles? Or alternative music?

Under-Selling Runner Up: Feng Shui. Most people get that it’s not about moving furniture. Eventually. Eeeeeventually.

#2: The Inanimate Object – The Window

Okay, maybe I’m being unfair. The Window was a system, so it didn’t have any cool ideas from a setting to use for its title. The Window was free, it didn’t have to try and sell itself. It was a metaphor about a window into drama, or narrative. Sorry, not good enough. Even if it’s just a generic system, that’s no excuse to name it after an inanimate object. Even a game engine deserves a good name. Like The Amazing Engine. That works. D20 is succinct and clear, and doesn’t make me feel like the sequels will be called Door and Wall. There was, of course, an RPG called The Ladder, but it actually had a justification for that in its dice ladder. The Window doesn’t justify itself at all, but does – ironically – make heavy use of a ladder.

Object Runner-Up: Burning Wheel. It’s just plain false advertising. There’s no fast cars, no auto-racing, and the rules offer no real guidelines for chariot duels. The Wheel is vaguely hinted at as being involved in the system, kind of like the ladder, but they don’t try very hard, and it ends up feeling like it was named by a random generator. Two more rolls and it might have been the Fisting Banana. Man, I would play that.

#1: The Oh My God Did Nobody Edit This At All Insanity – Panty Explosion

Seriously.

It has a new name now, because obviously. I know hindsight is 20-20, but you should at least squint into the future sometimes. Try and make out the blurry shapes. One of them is a train coming to punish those stupid enough to play on the tracks.

Oh My God Runner Up: there is a supplement for Silver Age Sentinels called Country Matters. That’s old fashioned slang for fucking, made famous by Hamlet, the most famous thing ever. The book is also about female superheroes because we wanted that book to have the letters C U N and T right front and center to make that clear. Is that better or worse than the gynecological exam of Exalted’s Savant and Sorcerer? You decide. I still need to point out that nothing in the Forgotten Realms seems to have been forgotten…

Oh, and one final thing: nobody has ever, EVER, called Denver the City of Shadows. And nobody ever will, no matter what your setting says.

 

The Five Best-Named Products in Roleplaying

Because the listicle is Cthulhu: it rises and we worship it, and we need more of them about RPGs. Now, understand this has nothing to do with the quality of the product. Just the name.

#5: The Imperative – All Flesh Must Be Eaten

Nothing’s better in a title than an imperative. It grips you by the throat by its very nature. Verbs are exciting but turning them to the imperative commands attention like nothing else. And this is isn’t any small demand. Eden Studios Zombie RPG is very clear that ALL flesh is involved, and it needs to be goddamn eaten. This is as unpleasant as it is all-consuming, if you’ll pardon the pun. You’re left with no false illusions. All flesh is going to be eaten. Whose flesh? YOUR flesh. Chills the blood just to say it.

Imperative Runner Up: Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind by Mind Ventures. This little-known horror title had a doozy of a command, with a great reason. But it’s a little long, and when it comes to a command, you want it punchy. Of course, length can also be a plus, as we see below…

#4 The Quote – Lawyers, Guns and Money

True story: I discovered the music of Warren Zevon because of this supplement for Unknown Armies. Oh sure, I knew Werewolves of London, but that was it, and boy, was I glad I found out. And Lawyers, Guns and Money is one of the best of his incredible collection, which is important: if you’re going to do the quote, you have to take from the best. Zevon’s catalogue tends to deal with rogues, vagabonds, mutineers, losers, sinners and junkies, plus the occasional undead machine gunner and psycho killer, so its amazing he’s not an RPG on his own, and that it it took twenty something years to borrow from his work for a title. Tynes, you are a glorious son of a bitch.

Quote Runner Up: Nasty, Brutish and Short. It was a good joke applying Hobbes’ quote to a book about orcs, but it was for Columbia Games’ Harn so nobody gave a damn, and also, depending on when you saw the book, the pun got pretty old.

#3 The Insanely Literal Description – Cute and Fuzzy Cock-Fighting Seizure Monsters

Sometimes, legal injunctions and similarity to licenses cause terrible copywriting disasters (Lejendary Adventures, anyone?). Sometimes, though, it causes genius. When it came time for the clever people at Guardians of Order to turn their anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth to the wonderful world of Pokemon, Digimon and Monster Rancher and all the rest, they decided to explain exactly what was going on with a duty to precision that leaves the reader gasping for air. It’s like being bitch-slapped with a dictionary, and you’ll never think of Pokemon as anything other than that. For the sake of propriety, some were issued without the Cock-Fighting in the title, allowing gamers to righteously walk into their stores and demand more cock.

Insanely Literal Runner Up: TWERPS, aka The World’s Easiest Roleplaying System. Gutsy, and precise in what it is gutsy about. And it tried hard to live up to the claim.

#2: The Exotic – Comme Il Faut

There’s an old saying that if you served boiled boots in a restaurant but put them on the menu in French, they’d taste fantastic. The same pretty much goes for roleplaying games. But it’s not just that it’s a classy French phrase that suits a classy-as-all-fuck game like Castle Falkenstein so perfectly, it’s that it’s a French phrase that says it better than English. Literally it translates as “As it Should Be” and it refers to etiquette and appropriate behaviour. What made Falkenstein so special was how it made social manners front and centre of the gaming experience, like say, Pendragon, but in a very different way. A way that needed an entire supplement to communicate. A way that could only ever possibly be expressed in French.

Exotic Runner Up: Parma Fabula. It might sound like a ham and salad sandwich but anyway you slice it it’s more exotic than “GM’s Screen”. Ars Magica doused itself in Latin, but nowhere so perfectly in making something that sounds stupid sound mysterious and otherworldly.

#1: The Exquisitely Mysterious – The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues

A title is like lingerie: it’s what it hides as much as what it shows that makes it so enticing. This behemoth that graced a Paranoia supplement suggests a great deal of specification – the box is black and only available to Yellow Clearance clones or higher – but then again, tells you nothing at all, because what’s in the box? What’s in the box??? Brad Pitt would later say the same thing as your players did back in 1987, and with the same mixture of dread and sure knowledge. And what’s more, this title has cadence. It trips off the tongue. You can dance to it. Heck, you could write a song to it. I got the blues, you got the blues, we got them yellow clearance black box blues….

Mysterious Runner Up: Deeds Not Words. Scott Lynch’s minor entry into D20 superheroing evokes great depth with three tiny words, but leaves all the details hidden – but you want to know more.

That’s my list, but like any list, it exists to miss things out and include heresies. What did I miss? What did I wrongly include? Let me know in the comments! And tune in next week for the five WORST named products in roleplaying!

The Stevies for 2013

Yes, it’s that time again, where I fight the holiday blues by viewing the year through a lens of terrifying meritocracy to sift out the very best things it had to offer. And as always, the rules are simple: it’s all about me. It doesn’t matter what year it was made or released, it matters when I encountered it. These are the best things Steve found this year.

Best Science

This goes to isolating the Higgs Boson. Finding the electron made the modern age possible. This sucker could give us a future we literally cannot imagine. Honorary mention to the fusion drive engineer and the people working on warp speed, just because of the enormous “fuck you” to people who said they were impossible.

Best Politics

Malala Yousafi, Edward Snowden, Wendy Davis, it was a hell of a year for politics. But behind it all was grass roots stuff and the power of Twitter and social media. Thanks to those, millions of people around the world witnessed someone change the official time record to try and shaft Wendy Davis. And it was the engine behind taking Indi away from Sophie Mirabella and into the hands of Cathy McGowan. It’s not the only solution and the big players will try to turn it against us but it’s changed the landscape. Some more examples of grass roots power from the excellent twitter-warrior Van Badham are here.

Best Movie

A great year for SF, and a special note must go to Elysium for generating more irony in audience reactions than a gigantic furnace of pure irony-burning-coal, but this goes to Gravity. Simple, perfect, wonderful. Powerhouse performances for a gorgeous story in a genre oft-forgotten but one of my favourites (man vs nature). Nothing more to say.

Best Comic

A great year was some truly amazing stuff landing on my bedside table. Special props to Saucer Country and Letter 44, for both being about aliens and American politics in two completely unique and compelling ways and blowing my mind both times and demanding I read the rest. And yet, pipped at the post this goes to CHEW by John Layman and Rob Guillory. Chew is hard to explain. It’s basically a dark police procedural set against a conspiracy landscape in a world where chicken is outlawed and food is a metaphor for everything, but it’s also a silly story about a psychic who can tell you everything about whatever he eats. It combines two of my favourite genres: the ridiculously silly and gritty police procedural in a way that diminishes neither, and that’s why I love it. It bestrides both genres like a colossus in a way few dare, fearing that the comedy may undercut the drama, but it doesn’t. Also, it has a building conspiracy arc, perfect pacing and reads like the best TV series ever made. If Bryan Fuller wasn’t already making Hannibal, I would have picked him to make Chew…

Best Table Top Game

For birthday and Christmas I got pretty much every game I was interested in at this end of the year, and there are some super contenders in there, and some I haven’t played yet (like Legends of Andor). I adore how easy it is to get a game of Love Letter and of Hanabi – games I can carry everywhere and sell to anyone. I loved how Eldritch Horror and Elder Sign (on the table and on the pad) reengaged me with the wonder of Arkham Horror, which is still marvelous and almost won just for inspiring those two. Heck, Elder Sign itself justified the purchase of my android device on its own. But I’m giving this to Pandemic. Picked up the new edition and two supplements spending $150 on a game I already owned because I felt it deserved it. Arkham Horror gets more iterations of play, but Pandemic has more pure elegance to it, and taps that modern setting thrill like nothing else. Saving the world feels better when it’s more cogent to our reality, and nothing does it like Pandemic.

Best RPG

I’ve given up reading and playing RPGs but not writing them because I a) still enjoy that and b) get paid to do it, so really the Stevie is going to go to the thing I got paid the most to write and had the most fun doing. I’m very proud to have won two Ennies for my work on Dr Who last year, and to be part of the incredible list of celebrities who worked on Hillfolk but mostly I’m proud of the setting I worked up for Action Cortex in The Hacker’s Guide. I have many more details about that setting in my head, but I got it down nice an succinctly and I love it and I got paid for it.

Best TV Show

The Wire. It’s not television, it’s poetry.

Best Computer Game

For the first time in years this is hotly contested and it’s because of one reason: multiplayer ascendant. I used to hate shooters, but thanks to the elegant design of Team Fortress 2 and the ability to play it with my friends and ONLY my friends I’ve learnt to love the better examples of the genre. And it didn’t cost me a cent. The same multiplayer power has also led to enjoying a platformer, in the excellent Trine 2, something I never believed would ever happen in this universe. But the virtue of multiplayer combined with just wonderful solo play in the clear winner this year: Civilization V. Two excellent expansions have led to game play evolving and staying interesting and it’s a computer game that even without friends, has held my interest long enough to not just keep away the demons but forget they exist. It has nursed me through terrible insomnia. It has fought down the depression. It has carried me through the long dark tea time of the soul and the mind-shattering emptiness of the holidays. And it costs less than the therapy. Hold me closer, Civ 5, for the darkness rises. And if anyone wants to join me for multiplayer, you know how to find me.

Steve out.

 

 

A Pantheon

For my D&D 4E game. Yes, the gods are dead in that, but I figure it’s worth knowing what’s missing. Possibly a reference to something (ohwhatagiveaway)

Fryd is the Lady of Light, the Queen of all the Gods, and the God of Supremacy itself. She is fire and light, the clear sky and the open path – and the will to ford beyond them. She is leadership and kingship, courage and determination, the will and the way. Without Fryd, nothing can be accomplished, and indeed, from her, all the other gods spring forth. Her colours are white, yellow and blue.

Her consort is Daphos, the Prince of Beauty. His is nature and the feywild, art and poetry, love and sex – and magic. This is the romantic version of nature – the rough and rugged force of life is governed by the Beast. Daphos is worshipped by craftsmen and lovers, and has little to do with politics. His main duties are to stand in his dark violets and blood reds and look pretty next to Fryd.

Fryd’s chief advisor is Velos, the craftsman, the god of knowledge, science and eningeering. He is short, squat and half-blind from his work in the forge, but there is no riddle he cannot solve, no lie he cannot expose, no secret he cannot uncover. He is the chief diety of the dwarves, who call him The Ever-Changing, the one who sees the rock of nature, and knows it cannot be enough as it is, who seeks always to build and improve. Velos’ colours are brown and ochre and black, the colours of earth and stone.

Fryd’s counterpart is Shay, the god of fear, chaos and undoing. She is the antithesis of her sister. She unravels all plans before they begin, she breaks the heart before it even tries. But she is not evil: she taught men to fear the darkness and the monsters within it, and without destruction, nothing can be built anew. And if our enemies know not fear, then we cannot break them. Her colours are pale green and dusty grey, colours of sickness and madness. She is usually alone from the others, which only heightens her reputation for being evil among those outside the faith.

Shay’s only companion is The Beast. He is all of man’s vices and sins, and indeed, those of all creatures. He is hunger and sloth, lust and depravity, greed and self-interest. He wants nothing more than pleasure: a fat belly and a satisfied libido. The elves say that the Beast is no god, just mankind’s inability to face its true nature. Indeed, though he wears the head of an animal, the Beast is perhaps the most human of all the gods, and when he visits parties and feasts, he is most welcome.

In the human faith, they are called The Mysteries, so their personas are never separated from the stories they tell.  And the priests would worship them around a great cauldron or font, the Mystery Sink.

All Chargen Is Random Chargen

If you want it to be. You can make it random. Which is heaps fun.

There are two basic objections to random chargen. The first is it removes total, absolute control over the character creation process. And that’s fair enough. If your fun arc depends on you having a perfect pre-conceived idea of who your character is in your head to begin with, and then creating a system to fit the image, birthing it Athena-like from your brain, then I get how leaving anything to chance would get in the way. The second object is that it produces characters that are unplayable and unfun. Generally, this objection comes from the fact that when people hear “random chargen” they think of D&D’s random chargen where the randomness causes the power level to be random, so some players end up a bit ahead of others. That can be unfun, but of course random chargen doesn’t have to do that. Random chargen can be perfectly balanced, and indeed, you can use point-buy systems to make sure your random chargen is balanced.

The last part is the bit we only realised recently because we are Slow Of Mind. G and I adore random chargen, we love sitting down and rolling on tables and seeing whole new universes appear out of nowhere, but only so many games have random chargen – or so we thought. Last night we came to our senses. We got out Savage Worlds and made Novice level characters using a totally random system. Every time it came to spending a point, we would roll randomly to find out where to spend it. Suddenly, point-buy became random, and as usual, it was glorious.

For example, you have five attributes, and five points to spend. Roll 1d5 five times, once for each point, to see where it goes. Granted, it becomes fairly ridiculous when you do it for equipment buying but otherwise it worked surprisingly well for something as simple and rules-light as SW. Without any cheating at all, they are highly playable and mostly make sense!

Below are the characters we created but I’m really blogging this so others can use the idea. I wouldn’t want this awesomeness not to be used around the world just because other people think point-buy games can’t be random, like we did.

Water-Walker

Race: Mantis-Man

Agility: d6  Smarts: d6 Spirit: d4 Strength: d8 Vigor: d8 (Parry 4 Toughness 8)

Fighting d4, Area Knowledge (The Swamplands) d4, Shooting d6, Healing d4, Investigation d6, Persuasion d4, Swimming d6, Boating d6, Driving d4, Tracking d4, Streetwise d4

Edges: Carapace (2 points Natural Armour), Mantis Leaping (x4 normal distance), Arcane Background (Miracles)

Hindrances: Outsider, Curious, Pacifist (Minor), Doubting Thomas

Miracles: Detect/Conceal Arcana, Boost/Lower Trait. 10 Powers points.

He’s basically a scout/indian agent type – lots of outdoors skills plus low-level faith magic. I pointed out that it was weird that I had no Faith skill, necessary to use the Miracles power, so maybe I could use a substitute. Mr G brilliantly suggested I use Boating or Swimming, and together we decided that I was less a mantis and more a Jesus Bug, and that my religion was based around the philosophy of spiritual surface tension. Just like the lake, the universe is full of fluid, and we must walk softly  on it. Those who are heavy with evil or sin, or drive their weight harshly against the surface, soon plunge beneath and find nothing but death. Alas, their descent causes waves which can cause even good, softwalkers to stumble, so those of the faith must help others stand, and keep the surface smooth and taut. Such an incredible idea! We wondered why I was also a Doubting Thomas (no belief in the supernatural) but we had two options there – either he just sees supernatural things as some lies of the devil, or he is so into his beliefs and his natural environment he doubts civilisation exists.

If I was going to actually play him, I’d get rid of maybe Persuasion and Streetwise to get a few more dots in other skills and maybe swap Spirit and Smarts, but otherwise, he is ready to go! I want to play him and am sad I can’t….

G’s char was:

Race: Dwarf

Agility: d6 Smarts d4 Spirit d6 Strength d6 Vigor d6 (Parry 2, Toughness 5)

Climbing d4 Knowledge (Journalism) d4, Taunt d6, Persuasion d8, Riding d4, Shooting d4, Guts d4, Boating d4, Gambling d4, Investigation d4

Edges: Low-Light Vision, Tough

Hindrances: Slow, Young, Quirk, Vow (Minor)

With the ability to climb, taunt and persuade added to Journalism, we knew instantly that this character was a paparazzo, who would get the shots of the celebrities no matter what. (We hadn’t specified any setting, SW doesn’t do that) So we made his Quirk “Never Without A Camera” and his Vow “Never To Give Up On A Story/Photo”.  The Lowlight vision would come in handy in the darkroom (or could, in fact, just his night-scope fitted camera!). We discussed briefly which fantasy settings would have paparazzi or similar, and how they might be translated to worlds without press or photography. A gossip paparazzo is not unlike a bard, after all….

Two awesome characters, a bundle of great ideas, all from a system that – on the surface – doesn’t appear to be random. Today’s lesson is: DON’T LET THAT STOP YOU.

Fragments of Old Game Design

Was cleaning up some old notes and found an outline to an old game idea I had about ten years ago. The idea was a game based on trick taking, but with the twist that you could add more cards than just one to each hand – but of course then you’d have nothing to play at the end of the round if others still had cards. Like a weird combination of cribbage and whist. Never really got the mechanics working but I decided the setting would be a bunch of mad Scottish clans doing Gaelic Wrestling or something. And the one thing I really like doing in game design is coming up with flavour. So what I did back then was sit down and come up with four clans and their 12 members each. (I chose those numbers so I could play test the game with an ordinary pack of cards, see.) Anyway, I still have the names, so here they are for your enjoyment, or possible window in game design.

Clan Tankerus

Kilt Bill

Gundam McRoss

Savage McTavish

Mel, The Woad Warrior

Connor McWickening

Connor Seanery

Biaoughie McSlayer

Dirty MacGonagal

Di Haird

Vinn Dalziel

William Warbles

Siobhan Siobhoff

 

Clan Derstine

Ewan McHobeewan

“Doc” Mactardis

Laddie McBeth

Patrick Fitzinwell

Conner Commover

Ewan Mee

Haggis Itwitchoo

Fluyed Macanix

Apple McIffon

Meghan Mogg

Dinah Fashe

Hairy Nobb

 

Clan Samwych

Brenda Fender

Duncan Dellishers

Ronnie McDonald

Steamy William

Enormous Richard

Bloody Annoying Mary

Moira Lesse

Livia Withongions

Ozzie the Bruce

Haddie Biglunshe

“Whiskey” O’Goughgough

Ann O’Therun

 Clan Tasstick

Len And MacCartnee

Glen Orglender

Ben Toomie

James Tiekirk

Tickel M’Sporran

Skyclad Sally

Tam O’Shantern

Rob Roy Rogers

Bess Tiensho

Old Ock Waintens

Katie Lang

Johnie Coomlaitly

A musing on my two favourite genres

Just the other day, while watching Shakespeare Do The Thing He Does in Two Gentleman of Verona, I suddenly realised that my two favourite genres, farce and caper, are really very similar. Farce at its best works on the audience knowing more than the characters (Bob is hidden behind the screen THE WHOLE TIME) and Caper works on the audience knowing explicitly less than the characters (Bob switched the suitcases before the whole thing began).

It’s no wonder I love those genres, being a roleplayer, because the main reason I like roleplaying is it causes an interesting interface to occur between character, author and audience. That’s also why I like breaking the fourth wall, too. But the interesting thing about both farce and caper is you can’t actually every really roleplay them successfully, because they both depend on the audience having different information from the characters, and the fundamental principle of roleplaying is the audience are the characters at the same time.

Now sure, you can separate them in your head, but it’s not quite the same thing. It can never be. And some narrative/authorial-focussed rpgs have worked well to keep them separate, which is awesome. Again, this is one reason I adore Smallville: not only can you have “I have no idea my brother is trying to betray me, so I trust him completely” written on your actual character sheet, but the system heavily rewards you putting yourself in a situation where your complete trust is totally reversed – that reversal powers you up immensely. If there was ever a system built for farce, it is Smallville.

And of course, my love of those two genres is why I find it silly when hard-core immersionists insist that authorial mechanics totally destroy all sense of immersion. I can watch a stage and feel everything the characters experience as acutely as if I was them – yet also see the stage and the actors on it. I can see a simple cloak and know it makes a man invisible to all the other characters on stage, even though real people can see him clearly – because we can. I know stage left is a distant island while five feet from stage right which is Venice. And I know the author has set up a familiar, well-structured farcical device while at the same time feeling every ache of character embarrassment and shock as they feel nothing but chaos swim between their feet.

It’s not quite the same thing, maybe. They do say that if you see the author, it always pulls you out of the story. Unless you’re a writer, of course, because then you can never stop seeing the story. And if you’re like me, someone who you can shift back and forth between the fourth wall as if on a bungee cord. For those of us like that, authorial mechanics can only improve immersion, not destroy it.

If anything a lack of authorial control makes things more like real life – and I can’t believe in that, it’s far too facile.

In Predator We Trust

It’s time to rethink the Predator, people. Warrior-nobility aside, we’ve been casting them as the badguy. And I’m not sure that stands up. Walk with me:

Point the first: They are “drawn to battlegrounds”.

In the first and second films, the predators are drawn to the most dangerous places on earth – in the first film, the drug war in South America, in the second, the drug war in slightly-futuristic Los Angeles. The suggestion is it goes to those places because all the carnage and killing makes it likely they’ll encounter plenty of warriors to make good hunts. But that doesn’t hold up to hunting logic. If you want to get a good challenge from a grizzly bear, you don’t go to the grizzly bear arena where grizzlies are fighting each other to the death, because then your average target will be half-chewed and eaten before you get near him. If you want a challenge, you find a quiet lone grizzly at his full strength, and you kidnap his daughter. You know, like in Commando. You don’t wait for him to come to South America and waste ammo on some drug dealers first.

And this “ultimate hunter” thing runs into trouble with point 2 –

2) They “take trophies”.

Or do they? Yes, they skin their victims and take heads. But they don’t take them home with them. The pick up vessel in Aliens vs Predator doesn’t stop to collect all the skulls the last predator must have been storing somewhere. When Arnie arrives in Predator 1, the predator has skinned his victims, yes, but he’s tens of miles from that site and shows no intention of going back after he kills his victims. So he skins people, but where does he put the skins? In a pouch?

So here’s an alternative idea: he skins his prey to scare the hell out of everyone else in the area.

Now we’re starting to get a new idea of the creatures. They go to the worst warzones on earth. They identify and track down the worst killers in the area, defeat them effortlessly and then leave their mutilated bodies around – as a warning to others.

Now hold that thought as we go through some other points:

– they’re invisible, and move in mysterious ways

– but they can be sensed by voodoo priests (Predator 2) and Native American Shaman types (Predator), so they have some kind of spiritual presence

– they have dredlocks, perhaps indicating a strong sense of spirituality and connection to Rastafarianism.

– they have been visiting earth since before the last ice age (AvP)

You see where I am now.

The Predators are gods, or aliens masquerading as gods, and they are here to HELP US. When humans are swarmed by too much warfare, and look to be consuming ourselves, an invisible force descends, butchers all the best warriors and terrifies everyone else into ceasing fighting. They are trying to save humanity from our own destructive ways. They are HIPPIES. That’s also why they skin corpses, they are probably trying to recycle the carcasses into nice hats or wallets or seat covers or something.

I know what you’re going to say: if that’s true, then why did they bring the Aliens to the South Pole for training exercises? But that’s not the right question. The question is: why did they bury everything at the South Pole under a thousand tons of ice? See, I think they brought the aliens to earth to STUDY them (assuming they didn’t just find them here already – Prometheus may have something to say about where the “jockey” came from – there were giants in the old days, people), then one day they discovered humans. Being gentle creatures and not wanting to kill the alien queen, they froze her and buried her deep under the ice so she couldn’t harm humans until they could find a way to safely extract her. By the time they had done that, they realized that the alien was not only dangerous to humans, but so were the humans themselves. This amazing new species was on the verge of wiping itself out. The solution is to become invisible and watch from the sidelines, and interfere when it became necessary. Sometimes they could be subtle, other times, they needed a nuclear bomb (hence Sodom and Gomorrah).

Some accidents occurred along the way that caused us humans to worship them as gods. Some stories leaked through. This is why all ancient myths have something like the titanomachy, where the monsters/evil serpents are destroyed by the gods, but lurk around, waiting to insert evil into us again. Only the gods can save us – immortal, invisible, dredlocked spirit masters of beyond. Predators? No: PROTECTORS. And every time we run into them, we kill them with a tree of some sort. Or Danny Glover.

And the lord sayeth, this is my blood, shed for you, and Jesse Ventura said, if it bleeds, we can kill it….

Skronch and Hrm: Or time to join the opining mob

Or my problem with the Watchmen prequels. I’ll try to keep it short for everyone’s sake.

My problem with the Watchmen prequels is this: the world of literature, not entirely wrongly, has a decided bias against serial media. And so do I. One of the great things about Watchmen is it is entirely self-contained, and thus free from that bias.

Now sure, Dark Knight Returns is pretty stand-alone, because it’s a what-if. That helps. But it is a book very dependent on what has come before. If you don’t know who Oliver Queen is, the guy with the bow and arrow seems pretty odd (I know, because I didn’t when I read it) and comes out of nowhere. It is a work that is undeniably part of the Batman mythos. And that weighs it down.

A big – a huge – part of why Watchmen can be an American Classic is because it stands alone. You don’t have to know anything about comics or superheroes to read it. Indeed, I can make a semi-cogent argument that the comic superhero commentary is relatively uninteresting and mostly unimportant to the worth of the work. Certainly its place in comics history is undeniably unimportant to the work itself. Yes, if you want to study it context helps, but again, the point of a classic is it stands up without study. Or relatively so. You can read and love Huckleberry Finn without knowing anything American History. Same goes for To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You don’t have to know that Kesey’s Nest was a codifying of anti-establishment sentiments of the counter-culture movements of the late 1960s to get what the book is about. Some teacher can throw you any of those, give you a five minute spiel and you can see that the thing is literature without touching the Cliff Notes.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Moore’s Swamp Thing qualifies as literature as well, but there’s a very good reason why at the front of his first volume he includes a primer to superheroes for those who have come to the comics via the horror genre. And the appearances of the JLA will always be a millstone around its neck from being say, as historic and eternal as say, The Scarlet Letter.

And of course this HAS happened to great literature before. There have been sequels, by even the authors themselves. There were books published after the Great Gatsby came out, unofficial sequels in which Gatsby and Daisy run off together and have children and live happily ever after. I’m not kidding. History forgets. Sometimes it forgets rightly. And one way it is easier to forget is if things aren’t part of a series.

Of course these new prequels are optional. But in this world of high-merchandising, is anything optional any more? The Star Wars prequels are optional, and can never harm the gorgeousness of the masterpiece of Irving Kirschner, Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan. Hopefully, history will one day forget some of the things that surround it.

And hopefully, history will forget Before Watchmen. Hopefully nobody will throw around words like “the Watchmen Universe” and “canon” and “continuity”. But this is comics, where if you sneeze on a page it can end up as continuity that somebody will later retcon into important dramatic backstory. This is comics where I have been assured by fans that they literally have no control over their actions and will buy any product with X hero in it no matter what, as an issue of pseudo-religious pride and compulsive addiction – and those people love collectors editions. This is comics where we talk not of books or worlds or stories but just “runs”, when the comic was written by X – and then gets lost in the general mishmash of the oncoming tide of future runs. So I am worried.

You might say, but they could be awesome. Of course they could. Len Wein and Brian Azzarello know their shit. But I hope history forgets them anyway, because a series is a millstone around the neck of a classic that can stop it from being remembered as capital-l literature. It’s hard enough to tease out Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. Imagine if we have to try and do the same for Moore’s run on Watchmen.

Or we can sit back and wait for From Next Door to Hell, the adventures of Several Victorian Hookers On Their Day Off. There will be an animated series. And toys.  Oh there will be toys…