July 28, 2010

Dave's Unspoilt Capsules and Awards

The Week's Picks and Pans, plus Awards of Dubious Merit Standard Disclaimers: Please set appropriate followups. Recommendation does not factor in price. Not all books will have arrived in your area this week. An archive can be found on my homepage, http://www.eyrie.org/~dvandom/Rants Target reset their toys this week, got a bunch more new Transformers. Items of Note (strongly recommended or otherwise worthy): Nothing. "Other Media" Capsules: Things that are comics-related but not necessarily comics (i.e. comics-based movies like Iron Man or Hulk), or that aren't going to be available via comic shops (like comic pack-ins with DVDs) will go in this section when I have any to mention. They may not be as timely as comic reviews, especially if I decide to review novels that take me a week or two (or ten) to get around to. Icons Superpowered Roleplaying: Adamant Entertainment - AKA "Steve Kenson takes another stab at the Villains & Vigilantes style of superhero game," this time with a DC-Animated flavor to the art and presumably the intention of capturing the same sort of loose-and-classic-but-still-new feel of the art in the mechanics. By "Villains & Vigilantes" (henceforth V&V) style, I mean that the approach to character generation focuses more on the "how they work" aspect of powers (i.e. flame powers, gravity control, psychic manipulation) rather than the "what they do" aspect (i.e. hurt someone, protect yourself, move from point A to point B). V&V was probably the first big superhero RPG to use the How-style of character generation, where Champions was the leading poster child for What-style (Superhero 2044 was also a How-style, but didn't get the multiple editions and general success of V&V). How-style games require less work at the front end, because the "powers" are often bundles of abilities under a common heading, such as Flame Control giving attack, defense and movement abilities all in a single power. On the other hand, they're less customizable, if you want to play a guy who surrounds himself in a flaming aura but runs really fast instead of flying, you have to step into the murky realm of House Rules. (Aside: this specific example is not relevant to Icons, as there is in fact a guy in the villains section who bursts into flame and runs fast.) What-style systems are better at getting exactly what you want, but tend to get handwavey around minor effects like "Well, if it's fire then he can light up the room for free, but can be knocked out of the sky by a rainstorm." Anyway, while Kenson's previous work (Mutants & Masterminds) was a fairly even balance of What and How, Icons veers more firmly back into How territory, including V&V-style random power generation tables. Random generation really favors How systems, since you're tending to get thematically consistent chunks rather than lone powers most of the time, and it's easier to make them fit together. And this is, as such things go, a pretty lean system, with all of character generation taking place over 46 relatively low-density pages. Sure, V&V took fewer pages, but with dense text blocks and larger pages (Icons has pages the size of a standard comic book). There's a very rough balancing system that requires you spend two power slots for the really nasty abilities, but otherwise you get the usual random build problem of a weaker version of a power still counting as a power (i.e. Chameleon is explicitly a weaker version of Invisibility, but both count as a single power). While there's a paragraph or two on how to use the game as a point-build system, the emphasis is on random generation, including a brief bit singing the praises of how trying to make all this random stuff work will get the creative juices going. And to be fair, it's overall a bit tighter than V&V was, so the odds of a Super Mess Man result are much lower. Everything uses six sided dice (task resolution using the now-familiar plus/minus dice mechanic, most tables being 2-12 bell curves, and the power charts being "sixtiles" where you roll one die to narrow the chart down to a a third or a half of the total options and then another die to pick among that fraction), which mainly has the benefit of reducing randomness. (I don't buy the argument that using d6s makes a game more accessible to outsiders, so long as games are mainly only available at places that sell gamer dice. But sticking with d6s does reduce the option clouds.) Now, this review is based purely on reading the game, I haven't had an opportunity to play it yet. But even on a first skim, I can see that the editing could have used some work. It looks like part of the attempt to trim it down to 128 smallish pages ended up cutting too much, and it's not to hard to find things like "reminders" of rules that haven't shown up before. And important rules are assumed rather than clearly stated, like how damage is can be Physical, Energy (or one particular kind of energy, like radiation), Mental, Magical, etc., but you have to dig through the power descriptions to find that out...it's not in the combat rules. Some defenses only work against one kind of damage, but I couldn't find any consolidated list or taxonomy. Heck, the Absorption defensive power picks from one list, while Resistance picks from a similar but different list. Additionally, while the production values are slick, the art is at best uneven. As if several of the artists were trying to "dumb down" to the style and overshot, getting stuff that would have looked bad compared to the "All our real artists are off in Europe" comics of the WWII era. It may simply be that Dan Houser was feeling his way through the style in the course of the book, but wasn't able to go back and redo the earlier pieces once he got the hang of it. I decided to see how easy chargen is before reading the rules fully, given the lack of an index and the aforementioned editing issues. It was pretty quick despite all this, and I got an okay character...and also got a high starting Determination score. Determination is a Hero Points mechanic that the game uses in part to balance out the possibility of getting the short end of the stick in character generation...if you don't have many powers, your starting Determination is higher (at the start of a session, your Determination resets to the starting score if it was lower). This is one of those places where I really can't say without actually playing if it works...if it turns out to be pretty easy to gain Determination points in play, then the starting value won't make as much of a difference. One hole in the game, and it's pretty common among random-generation How style games, is lack of an advancement system. There's the bare bones of one suggested in half a page, and it's essentially a variant of the old Marvel Super-Heroes Karma system: you have to choose between being able to affect die rolls and being able to make permanent changes to your character. You can gain points of starting Determination (no real guidance is given as to how to do so) and then spend them on improvements. Since gaining a power costs two Determination and you only get at most one Determination at character generation for having one fewer powers, I can see this system being a problem for characters who rolled poorly in generation, since it will tend to wipe out their compensation after a few advancements. When you get down to it, though, the advancement system is pretty much, "Come up with house rules, here's a suggestion." Friends who have played this game say it's fun, but I don't know if I'd recommend this for new players who haven't got several other superhero RPGs under their belts. There's just too many places where you have to inject house rules or assume "phantom rules" (i.e. a rule that's in most other games, but they forgot to actually print here, like the distinction between physical and energy attacks), a newbie group would get frustrated pretty quickly. There's a lot of nifty ideas (like ConfederApe), and good inspiration for experienced gamers, but it coulde definitely have benefitted from another 16-32 pages just to collect the mechanics in one place and fill in the gaps. $29.99. Batman Under the Red Hood: DC/Warner Brothers - The latest DC direct to video movie, this time presenting the new Red Hood story. Since it's aimed at a broader audience than the comics, it has to work from the assumption that viewers don't know much beyond the existence of Batman & Robin and MAYBE some dim recollection that Robin got killed by the Joker at some point. The opening scene does a good job of laying out the basics beyond that, establishing that the Robin being beaten by Joker isn't the first one to go by the name and giving just enough background that those who don't know Death in the Family have some idea what's happening. And for those who do know the story, it sets of some differences (set in Sarajevo rather than Iran, for instance). Just enough so the comics fans know not to expect a 100% exact telling of the story, right off the bat. No pun intended. Dark, but very restrained in the blood and gore, sometimes implausibly so (i.e. someone gets their head bashed into a wall and then through a sink and there's not even a bloody lip?). The power level is about the same as Batman: the Animated Series...true superhumans are around, but mostly background. Amazo appears, but is having a very off day. That sort of thing. Neil Patrick Harris has fun with the Nightwing role, although he's only in the first half. The other voice work is good, although DiMaggio's Joker is somewhat understated (and that's not a good thing for the Joker). All in all a good (if downer) story that manages to avoid the bloat that plagued the comics version. The two-disc version also has the obligatory featurettes (a history of Dick Grayson), Bruce Timm Presents some BTAS episodes (unsurprisingly, "Robin's Reckoning"), a first look at the upcoming Superman/Batman Apocalypse (adapting the longtorso-Supergirl origin story from the S/B comic, with Darkseid...I think I'll be passing on this the same I passed on Public Enemies), and a Jonah Hex short in the DC Showcase line (like the Spectre short). The Jonah Hex story is an adaptation of one of the comics, dark and violent and generally well-told and acted, but not really in the same league as the Spectre short. Note, even though the second disc is pretty thin (one featurette and the Robin's Reckoning eps), the single disc edition is missing a lot of the stuff that's on disc one of the two-disc version. I got the Best Buy exclusive, with little Red Hood figure. This one is in the pattern of the the Hal Jordan from Final Frontier or the Owlman figure from Crisis, glued to his base and with only shoulder and neck articulation. It's nice enough, but not really worth dropping an extra five bucks over what other stores are charging for the two-disc set. Simply not as interesting a design as Owlman. In general, though, getting some version of the movie is recommended. $19.99 for the Best Buy exclusive, prices vary otherwise. Time-Shifting: Sometimes I get a comic a week or two late because of Diamond's combination of neglect and incompetence. If it's more than a week late, though, I won't review it unless it's very notable. Additionally, I will often get tradepaperbacks long after publication or even sometimes before Diamond ships them, and those will go here. If I'm reasonably sure I'm reviewing something that didn't ship this week, this is the section for it. Marvelman Primer: Marvel - Not a late book, just not one I originally planned to get. But when I saw I had NOTHING on the upcoming ship list for this week, I grabbed this off the shelf on a lark before it could be shoved into the Recent But Not New shelving. As an actual primer, it's pretty weak, with a bare minimum of information on only six characters, and some short histories of British comics with a slight focus on Marvelman. It's essentially paying $4 for an ad, something Marvel likes to do. But it not only failed to interest me in the upcoming reprints and new material, it actually turned me off to the property. Perhaps if the new material had been more than variant covers it might have had a chance, but it just drove home how Marvelman is a weak imitation of the goofier Fawcett books. Don't bother with this. $3.99 Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #3: Marvel - Captain America gets the cover and the logo. Of course, as seems to be the pattern, he's not the focus of the story. Heck, of the main team, only Iron Man gets less business this issue, which is mainly Vision's story, with Black Widow and Nova playing significant roles. Tobin manages to juggle a bunch of storylines smoothly, though, and other than Iron Man everyone does get at least some plot advancement. And now I know where Vision's girlfriend from #4 came from, as she's introduced here. Recommended. $2.99 Age of Heroes #3 (of 4): Marvel - This ons actually came in last week, but due to management changes at my store a lot of stuff that started two to three months ago never made it onto my official pull list, and I picked up my books last week before the shelves were stocked. The main story has the three Avengers team liaisons (Hill, Carter and Hand) dealing with a drunk Crusher Creel in a gimmicky and generally mediocre story. The second big one involves Blue Marvel, the other retconned-in Superman riff (albeit with a slightly more interesting twist than Sentry) of recent years, in a singularly boring story that doesn't make me want to read anything else about him. Van Lente gets what amounts to a two page ad for the upcoming Taskmaster series, which looks interesting although I don't care for the art. And Slott's single page involves Squirrel Girl and a change in direction for the Great Lakes Avengers (guess they're back to that name). All in all, not much of an issue. Neutral. $3.99 New Comics: Comics and comic collections that I got this week and were actually supposed to be out this week, as far as I can tell. These reviews will generally be spoiler-free, but the occasional bit will slip in. Nothing. Seriously. If it hadn't been for the effective skip week they pulled after Christmas last year, it'd be my first week since high school with no new comics coming in. Gone Missing: Stuff that came out some places this week and that I wanted to buy, but couldn't find for whatever reason, so people don't have to email me asking "Why didn't you review X?" (If it's neither here nor in the section above, though, feel free to ask, I might have forgotten about it!) Current list as of 7/28/10: Invincible #72, Prince of Power #2-3, Brody's Ghost vol 1, Tranquility One Foot In The Grave #1, Phoenix Force Handbook. Awards: "Icon Himself Would Be A Little Too Powerful To Make In This System" Award to Icons Superpowered Roleplaying "You Know Your Climax Is Overwrought When The Joker Decides He Has To Hang A Lampshade On It" Award to Batman Under the Red Hood DVD "Wouldn't Have Made It Past The First Issue In Today's Legal Climate" Award to Marvelman Primer "Do Emo Androids Dream Of Electric Sheeple?" Award to Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #3 "Mordo's Not Exactly The Toughest Foe Right Now" Award to Age of Heroes #3 (of 4) Dave Van Domelen, "Hey Steve...can I get DIPLOMATIC IMMUNITY?" "No." "Dang." - Nova and Captain America, Marvel Adventures Super Heroes #3
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