Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Treasures Buried in Time

Metagaming's Microgame series, which began with a now-classic sci-fi wargame, quickly expanded to include the realms of fantasy. The company released the medieval/fantasy combat game Melee as its third microgame in 1977, and the sequel, Wizard (#6), a year later. Melee pitted human and humanoid fighters against one another in an arena, with barebones statistics for the combatants (just Strength and Dexterity), melee rules that linked most game dynamics to those stats, and a hex map to govern movement. Wizard added a new statistic, Intelligence; a point-based spellcasting system; and an array of fantastic creatures. Both games came from the mind and pen of Ogre's designer, Steve Jackson, who disliked the complexity of early fantasy boardgames and wanted a more elegant system. Grognards doubtless considered both titles lightweight. Today we can see them, in their simplicity, as ahead of their time.

Melee and Wizard sold well enough to generate a spinoff series of solitaire adventures, known as MicroQuests, and a role-playing game, The Fantasy Trip. The former were mostly conventional dungeon-crawls, but two, Treasure of the Silver Dragon (#4) and Treasure of Unicorn Gold (#6), had some exceptional features. These titles were programmed wilderness adventures that each contained clues, supposedly, to a real-life buried treasure. I shouldn't say "supposedly," as a gamer named Thomas Davidson discovered the treasure in Silver Dragon (a silver statuette and a $10,000 check) just a year after the adventure's release.* I don't believe anyone found the Unicorn Gold treasure before Metagaming folded, though there are some online rumors about its possible location.

The other spinoff, The Fantasy Trip, comprised three cheaply-made softcover books, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and a GM's guide, In the Labyrinth. All added more "chrome" to the original microgames - more weapons and spells, magic items, monsters, a set of skills/proficiencies for adventures, and rules for underground adventuring - along with a few eccentric minor features, like black-powder firearms and intelligent goblins. TFT did not become a great success. Designer Steve Jackson disagreed with the company's production decisions and left Metagaming shortly thereafter to set up his own company. Metagaming hung onto the property but decided to reboot it as a sequel to another, separate Microgame, Keith Gross's Lords of Underearth (#18). The 1981 base publication was an agreeable wargame pitting dwarves, humans, and orcs against each other and various monsters, within an underground city displayed on a geomorphic map. Metagaming followed this with Dragons of Underearth, which combined LOU with a streamlined version of the combat and spellcasting rules from TFT. Conquerors of Underearth, the prospective role-playing rules, sank with the rest of Metagaming's works-in-progress when the company went bankrupt. Steve Jackson, meanwhile, took some of the features of The Fantasy Trip and incorporated them into a rather more successful role-playing game, GURPS, in 1985.

* The statue was buried at Sunspot, New Mexico, near an experimental solar power station; one of the clues in the adventure was the nature of the eponymous silver dragons, which gained life energy by absorbing sunlight into their scales.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Miscasting the SANDMAN: Early Nineties Edition

Reviewing my last post on Sandman and Stone Cold, I recalled a game that my fellow comic-book fans* and I enjoyed playing in the early ‘90s, “Who would you cast in the movie?” I don’t believe anyone was planning to make a film adaptation of Sandman twenty years ago, but it wasn’t entirely improbable; the success of Keaton and Burton’s Batman had revived Hollywood’s interest in comic-book heroes, and The Crow would soon demonstrate the appeal of tragic-gothic heroes with excessive eye makeup. My inner Imp of the Perverse asked “If the Sandman movie had come out in the early ‘90s, and had starred Brian Bosworth, just how bad would it have been?” To which I mentally replied “It would depend on who else got cast in the film.” And then I wondered: just how inappropriately could one have cast the major roles in Sandman, using actors and actresses from the first half of the 1990s? Here are some thoughts:

Morpheus: Joe Pesci

“Are you saying that confronting me in my domain AMUSES you? Do I look like some sort of clown to you?” (Pause) “Well, maybe I do! But an ANGRY clown.”

Desire: Pauly Shore

“I could MAKE you want one, Buuuh-huh-uhhh-dee.”

Destruction: William Hurt

“My fleeting image appears in Scene 53 – and in every ad for the movie.”

Despair: Victoria Jackson
"My hook, it is in your heart, and your hope, it is draining away, tee-hee." 

Delirium: Mayim Bialik

“I'm having a hallucinatory episode! A Very Special hallucinatory episode."

Death: Rosie O'Donnell

“Yeah, manic pixie goth girl here. Blow me.” 

Destiny: Brian Bosworth

“I want you to…stay out of...the old…”

Yeah, I know, I'm going to Hell. At least it's under new management.

*Mainly my brother, my friend Sean, and my mother, who REALLY liked Watchmen.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Morpheus, Prince of the Dreaming, is STONE COLD

I’ve been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, partly for a forthcoming essay on the series’ politics, partly out of nostalgia. I began reading the comic in college, around issue #13, and my memories of the story arcs intertwine with those of my undergrad and early grad school years. Gaiman’s cast of deities, superheroes, transcendent Endless, and other arcana, all with their own schemes and flaws, provided a welcome diversion from the mundane forces (parents, professors, a bad economy) that controlled and deformed my own small world.

Reading the original comics reminded me, too, of a time when Sandman wasn’t a wildly popular graphic novel series with a global following, but a comic book, marketed to a relatively small and predominantly young-male audience. Here are two images from issue 27 ("Season of Mists" Part 6), one sublime and one ridiculous, that make this point.

The first image was a left-hand page showing a turning point in the story and the larger mythos. Lucifer has abdicated and given Morpheus the key to Hell, whose demons and damned souls he had peremptorily expelled. Now the Supreme Being has decided that Hell must reopen under the control of his loyal Angels. The Kelley Jones paintings on this page capture the anguish of Angel Remiel as he begins to realize the fate in store for him.

The second image, which appeared on the facing page, advertises the kind of movie Gaiman’s readers presumably liked and planned to watch: a schlock action picture with an ex-football player, a reactionary tough-on-crime message, a Nazi biker gang (to pre-empt charges of racism, I assume), and a heaping helping of violence. I confess I had to look up Brian Bosworth, whose acting career never took off, and I don’t remember seeing Stone Cold in theaters. In fact, I don’t recall seeing it mentioned anywhere outside of Wikipedia. (Though it apparently co-starred Lance Henriksen, who always deserved better roles than he got.) 

The Sandman became one of the more influential fringe-cultural artifacts of the 1990s, influencing comics, goth culture, even music videos. The sensibilities of its publishers, for most of the series’ run, remained anchored in the 1980s*, when comic books were for adolescent boys and their readers ostensibly liked football, violent movies, and video games. Cultural change always takes more time than we think.

(Photos above by the author, and, yes, they are deliberately low-res and grainy.)

* Seriously, just look at that hair.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No Galactic Civilization for You (Part Four): Space Mormons

In some earlier entries I’ve expressed doubts about the likelihood of humans creating a galactic civilization. Interstellar colonies, perhaps, but not a great web of them extending throughout the Milky Way. The motives that would propel human colonists toward so grandiose a (Manifest) Destiny just don’t seem strong enough. Population and demographic pressure tend to decline with advanced technological development. Interstellar trade could perhaps take place between a few nearby star systems, but past a few dozen light years the light-speed limit and compound interest (or the future equivalent) would destroy its profitability. Setting up a biosphere haven, a New Earth to serve as a backup for our old one, is a worthy goal but a difficult one. Finding an Earthlike planet, whose lifeforms are compatible with our own, will likely take decades if not centuries of effort, and I doubt very many of them exist naturally in our galaxy.

Let me suggest another factor that, in science fiction at least, often drives interstellar colonization: religion. Colonies of Space Mormons, Space Muslims, Space Rastafarians, and the like featured prominently in ‘70s and ‘80s SF (see Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium books, or John Barnes’s slightly later and more sophisticated Thousand Cultures series). It’s a fair assumption that people of faith might succeed in settling other star systems where secular people, driven only by a fragile profit motive or declining population pressure, would fail. Religious zeal certainly drove the Puritans and the Mormons, to name two groups from the United States’ history, to colonize parts of North America that their “gentile” contemporaries bypassed.

Establishing an interstellar colony, however, will require far more resources and trained specialists than planting settlements in North America. Specialists will need to maintain the colony’s life-support system, purge locally produced food of allergens or toxins, maintain an ecological equilibrium with local life forms, medically counter the deleterious effects of high radiation or high gravity, and otherwise help the colonists survive. And one of the distinguishing features of religious groups, as Rodney Stark noted in The Rise of Christianity (1996), is the direct relationship between their zeal and the difficulty of becoming a member – the sect’s “entry cost.” The larger and more inclusive a particular church or sect or movement becomes, the less fanatical its members become. A band of co-religionists motivated enough to plunge into the interstellar abyss and risk death on a new world will tend toward both zealousness and exclusivity. The likelihood of finding people who both meet the entry requirements for the sect and the educational requirements to run a successful interstellar colony will be low. Our Space Pilgrims may have to recruit outsiders to help support and finance their colony, much as the seventeenth-century Pilgrims recruited "Strangers" to help the "Saints" build Plymouth, and much as the Saudi theocracy relies on the labor and education of millions of foreigners.

Religious colonists will also find it difficult, absent very sophisticated conditioning or genetic engineering technologies, to raise their children to meet both of the necessary standards (religious and technical) for a space theocracy. The Puritans discovered that relatively few of their children and grandchildren met the exacting standards for church membership, and rather than condemn their progeny to outer darkness they chose to relax the standards. Over time a religious colony, if it survives and grows, will have to lower its entry requirements to accommodate children whose religious fires burn lower than their parents' - or throw those children out, if there is room for them elsewhere on the parent planet. It is likelier that the spacefarers' New Zion will pitch out the few zealots who refuse to compromise their religious principles for the sake of later generations. I suppose the zealots could hire a starship to travel to a Newer Zion, presuming they have the capital to do so, but they will almost certainly face the same pressures to secularize as the "apostates" they left.

I suppose it's also possible some alien god might intervene on the Space Pilgrims' behalf. In science fiction, at least, that rarely goes well


(I have not read the novel illustrated above, but its reference to Space Catholics was too good to pass up.)