Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Making a Marvel Cinematic Universe -- in the 1980s (part 3)

With Fantastic Four 3 still in production, 1989's line-up would debut two new properties -- a Thor movie and a Spider-Man movie.

For the Thor film, it was decided to highlight the Shakespearean nature of the character (not actually present in the earliest stories, but a significant feature later on) by hiring a Shakespearean actor.

Kenneth Branagh was directing and starring in Henry V, but Universal was certain that Kenneth was perfect for the role of Thor and convinced him they could accommodate his Henry V schedule by filming in England (instead of on location in Norway), and using Don Blake instead of Thor as much as possible in the film. Kenneth also insisted that, in future films, his friend and frequent collaborator Brian Blessed would get to play Odin. Kenneth could not bulk up for the film, so some modifications were made to Thor's costume, such as giving it armored sleeves (and a long blonde wig, of course).

Previous adaptions had been able to stick pretty close to the original source material, only combining two issues at a time and fleshing them out with more detail, character nuance, and interaction. This time, they were making a 117 minute movie which they had promised Kenneth would only feature Thor in 60 minutes of -- and they only had one issue to work with because Thor's second appearance (stopping a new civil war in Spain being instigated by Russians) was garbage.

The solution was to bring in Nurse Jane Foster early (she was not featured in Thor's original origin story). To lend gravitas to the story, Don Blake was not on vacation in Norway, but was returning to his ancestors' homeland to die. His nurse had come, then, not on vacation, but to be his caregiver in his final weeks. When what seems to be a meteor strike causes horrific damage in Norway, Don and Jane pitch in to help the injured (this is borrowed from the set-up of Thor's second appearance). Of course, the strike is actually the ship of the Stone Men landing. This time, instead of being an isolated invasion, these are the shock troops of the Skrulls (tying all the Marvel movies together so far).

Since the "will they/won't they" relationship between Don and Jane has to carry more of the movie, Meg Ryan was cast as Jane Foster (she was still an unknown, as When Harry Met Sally came out a few months later) based on the strength of her audition. Don Blake was cast as Tim Robbins, who had just made it to the big time last year with Bull Durham. Tim famously lost a lot of weight for the part so he would look sickly and weak, worrying the physicians who were on hand for the filming.
Lastly, though animatronics for the previous movies had been handled by smaller companies, it was decided with Thor that Jim Henson Studios had to be brought on board to provide the animatronics from now on. To stretch out the film, the Stone Men were given characters and conflicting agendas, which meant the audience had to be able to be able to empathize with them -- something Jim Henson had pioneered with nonliving characters.

The soundtrack was largely orchestral, featuring tracks from Wagner's operas, one of the biggest laughs in the movie is when Peter, Paul, and Mary break into "If I Had a Hammer."

Though critics hailed this as the most cerebral superhero movie to date, the studio was concerned that combination of romance, fantasy, and science fiction was a lot for audiences to process. However, Thor raked in $100 million, the best for a Marvel movie so far. This would have been cause for celebration normally, but 1989 was a big year for movies and $100 million did not even break into the top 10. Further, the smash hit Batman made Universal concerned that they might be on the wrong track with fun, heartwarming superhero films, when Warner Brothers won big by going dark...

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Beatles: One More Album

A while back, I was thinking of the tribute band American English's great CD 1971 and wondering if they didn't go forward too far.

The Beatles' last LP was released in May 1970, not long after the band officially broke up, but by the end of 1970 the individual members had plenty of material between them to have put out a second album together, had they wanted to. And let's face it, McCartney and Plastic Ono Band were shallow albums from artists who were maybe not quite ready to go it alone yet.

So what if things had turned out differently? What if Paul and John had swallowed their egos and given George more space on the next album -- which they could have done and still George could have produced a two-disc All Things Must Pass! Further, when slick lawyer Allen Klein came between the Beatles, had he been exposed sooner as a hack to John, George, and Ringo sooner, they might have realized that Paul had their best interests at heart when he lawyered up independently from them. And best of all, if John had just put more professional distance between the band and Yoko Ono, there would not have been that tension between them. In such a more pleasant work environment, the Beatles might have felt like producing even more albums together!

So what would the last 1970 album be called? They had already done The Beatles, but by 1970 they weren't feeling like The Beatles anymore. All splintered in different directions, the Beatles might have decided to embrace this by naming their next album John, Paul, George, and Ringo

The first side would lead off with "Power to the People" -- a nice, upbeat anthem from John. Then they'd switch things up with Paul's "Every Night," followed by George's "My Sweet Lord."  Paul's little songs from McCartney would instead serve as bridges between bigger songs on this album, so next up would be Paul's "That Would Be Something," leading into John's "Love." Then we'd get a medley of Paul's "Junk" combined with "Teddy Boy" -- two songs with lots of potential that never really made it on their own. Then side one would come capped up with another great George song, "Isn't It a Pity."

Side B would lead off with Paul's best song, "Maybe I'm Amazed," followed by John's "Hold On." Then The Beatles would stun their fans with not another, but three more George songs in a row -- "What Is Life," "Let It Down," and -- because it's too good to pass up -- "All Things Must Pass." Lastly, Ringo would get to pursue some of his growing nostalgia with a closing cover of "Night and Day."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Making a Marvel Cinematic Universe -- in the 1980s (part 2)

We left off with Universal making a Hulk reboot for theatrical release with the help of Bill Bixby. The problem is, Bixby would be 53 when this movie came out in 1987, too old to be rebooting the franchise.  Bixby would graciously agree to let someone else take over the role in exchange for being able to direct the movie.

Richard Gere would be picked to play Bruce Banner, and they would pick him up cheap because he was still three years from having a hit movie.
Lou Ferrigno would keep the Hulk role, saving the movie a fortune on special effects.

Jessica Harper would take a break from television movies to return to the silver screen as Betty Ross.

The teenager Rick Jones would be played by Jason Bateman, then adored for many television roles as teenagers, while still unsuccessful transitioning to films.

General "Thunderbolt" Ross would be played by Burt Reynolds.

While lacking the pathos and emotional heft of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk would offer suspense, with a bestial, raging Hulk threatening everyone but Betty and Rick in the origin story/first act, the mystery of who the Gremlin is really working for ("If it's not the Russians, then...?") in the second act, and then the Cold War escalation of Gen. Ross wanting to send forces into Russia to retrieve his daughter when Betty and Rick after they were captured by the Gremlin's agents. It would turn out that the Skrulls are behind escalating the Cold War, tying this movie into the FF movie preceding it.

Another historical piece, taking place in 1962, the soundtrack would feature "409" by The Beach Boys" (or "Rick's Theme," as it would become known) and "Crying in the Rain" by the Everly Brothers.

The film would run 108 minutes and make $42 million at the box office, twice its budget, and while that would not be enough to push it into the top ten highest-grossing movies of 1987, it would just meet the threshold for Universal to continue a Hulk series, though the original plan of producing a sequel for 1989 would be pushed back to 1991.

Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four sequel would already be in production. The breakneck pace of a new FF movie every two years would be possible by filming scenes for the sequels during the earlier filmings (a technique that would not actually be used until the Matrix films). Titled Fantastic Four 2: Return of the Sub-Mariner, the movie would begin with a 15-minute opening extended montage set in 1939-1942 and establishing who Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner was.

As for who Namor really was, that would be young actor Billy Zane, then best-known for a small part in Back to the Future.  The story would pick up in early 1962, with the FF tracking down the Skrull's leader, claiming to be a human called the Miracle Man. Super-hypnosis would make the FF think they were fighting generic movie monsters, but the Torch would accidentally blind the Miracle Man during the fight. The Miracle Man would flee and find an amnesiac Namor in a slum building and sic him on the FF. The Namor-Reed-Sue love triangle debuts, culminating in Namor summoning Giganto to wreck Manhattan. The Miracle Man is crushed by Giganto, but Namor gets away, setting them up for the next sequel.

The soundtrack would feature "Monster Mash", but also "In the Mood" during the opening flashback sequence.

Debuting in early 1988, Fantastic Four 2 would do even better than the first movie at the box office, quadrupling its $22 million budget at the box office with $88 million, coming just shy of pushing Die Hard out of the #7 slot for the year. At 118 minutes, this would be the longest Marvel movie to date, giving more time to quieter moments between characters and impressing the critics.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Making a Marvel Cinematic Universe -- in the 1980s (part 1)

This idea has been mulling around in my head since last June. We all know the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a huge commercial success since the Iron Man movie of 2008 -- but could this have been possible two decades earlier? Could it have begun in 1986? Were the movies not ready for Marvel Comics, or was Marvel Comics just not ready for the movies?

But it makes no sense to begin with Iron Man; the Fantastic Four is the cornerstone of the Marvel Universe and the movies should have started with the FF. But the FF also shows us that Constantin Film -- the company that produced the 1994 Roger Corman film -- was either not able or interested in launching a blockbuster series of movies. Someone with deeper pockets would have had to buy the license from them.

Let's say Universal, flush from the success of Back to the Future, felt what few movie companies have ever felt -- both confidence in the superhero genre and respect for the original source material. So they bought the license to the Fantastic Four from Constantin, budgeted $20 million for the movie, and green-lighting their movie immediately.  A script would be written combining the first two issues of The Fantastic Four, giving them an origin story, keeping it a period story set in 1961, and having them discover the Mole Man and Monster Isle, a place where alien Skrulls have been creating monsters. The period detail would be exact, duplicating the hairstyles, clothes, cars, and buildings of the 1960s. The soundtrack would be largely orchestral, but also break into pop hits of the day like Del Shannon's "Runaway" and "Blue Moon" by The Marcels.

Because Universal would need a big special effect budget, they would try to cut costs on casting by staying away from big names. For Mr. Fantastic, they would go to television and cast Robert Urich. Although a critical failure in movies to date, Urich was on fire on television in Spenser.

The casting of The Thing would seem an unusual one, but bear in mind that the actor would be wearing a full-body costume for much of the movie (and animatronics would handle The Thing's face in close-ups), so this actor would have to be able to act mainly through his voice.
That's why they would choose veteran voice actor Frank Welker to voice Ben Grimm (and Frank kind of looked like Ben Grimm too, for the origin scenes!).

This is a bit hypocritical of me -- I have faulted the 2005 Fantastic Four film for over-sexualizing the matronly Invisible Girl -- but I cannot resist the chance to cast Rebecca De Mornay as Sue Storm.
Rebecca may have been sexy, but I think she had the acting chops to balance that with being a mother figure -- for family is key and must be at the heart of any Fantastic Four film.

As for the Human is no secret that Johnny Storm is not a deep character, and for half of the movie he would be covered by animated flame (traditional cell animation, of course), so it is least important that Johnny be played by a big name actor.

I'm really going to go out on a limb here and cast then-unknown teenager and skateboarder Matthew Lillard as Johnny. Many years later, Matthew would show incredible talent by turning himself into a living cartoon character, as Shaggy in the Scooby Doo movies.  And having two connections to Scooby Doo (Frank Welker voiced both Fred and Scooby Doo) in the movie amuses me.

The Mole Man would be played by Tim Conway, getting to play a heavy for the first time on his career.  His monsters would be a combination of men in rubber suits, stop-motion animation, and animatronics (based on what the scene required).  The Skrulls behind all these monsters would be actors wearing rubber suits, ala Star Wars. When the FF steal a Skrull ship and go up into orbit to confront the advance ships of what might be an invasion fleet, the FX would also be reminiscent of the model work in Star Wars.

This movie would be about 109 minutes long, average for a top-grossing movie in 1986, and a huge success -- if it was as successful as the Iron Man movie of 2008, it would be the 8th most successful movie of 1986, edging out Eddie Murphy's The Golden Child and earning, oh, let's say $80 million.  The four times their investment back would be almost identical to Iron Man's 2008 returns.

Work would begin on a sequel to the hit Fantastic Four movie already, which would come out two years later in 1988 (as fast as Star Trek movies were coming out at the same time). But, to keep momentum going, Universal would already be pushing through a Hulk movie.

Roger Corman's New World Television company already had plans to make a "The Incredible Hulk Returns" TV movie with Bixby-Brandon Productions. Universal had already had faith in The Incredible Hulk in the 1970s, as it was their TV show.  Now it would be an easy way to continue the Marvel Cinematic Universe, would buy into this project, give it a $21 million budget, and get it a theatrical release.

Rather than continuing the 1970s' TV show, this would be a reboot taking place in 1962. Like the Fantastic Four movie, this one would follow the original comic books closely -- Bruce Banner would be a scientist working for the U.S. Army, he would be irradiated by a gamma bomb while saving the life of Rick Jones, would hide his transformation into the Hulk from Betty Ross, while being hunted by General "Thunderbolt" Ross. Bruce was betrayed by an assistant working for a Russian known as The Gremlin, but The Gremlin would turn out to be an agent of the Skrulls. The Skrulls would take the place of the Toad Men from Hulk #2. Bruce would be on one of the Skrull ships seen in the Fantastic Four movie and crash the ship after turning into the Hulk on it.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

GaryCon IX - part 3

I had to miss day 3 of GaryCon entirely this year, as I had a prior commitment to the Schaumburg Library ComicCon that day.

Sunday, the Mrs. wanted to come back with me to GaryCon and give it another try. The plan was just to have her attend as a free observer.  This time, there was no trouble with getting to the con on time and we arrived early to the table where I would be playing Dragon Lairds with Tom Wham. Also at the table was Kifflie Scott, wife of Steve Sullivan, and "Zenopus", who I know from the OD&D Discussion Board.  Tom was great and let Megan participate. Dragon Lairds, a combination board and card game, was a more complex game than I was expecting and there were a lot of individual cards to learn about. The two hour time slot was not long enough to get more than halfway through the game at our slow learning pace, but everyone had a good time and Tom even had candy bars for everyone at the end -- so we were all winners!

Better yet, Steve sold a poster map he had made of Lake Geneva to one of the other players, and it was made to look like an Old School D&D map. I just had to have one too!

After the game, I figured Megan and I would spend two hours touring the exhibit hall and running into people...but there were a lot fewer people to run into on Sunday and we finished the hall in less than 30 minutes. I did buy some more great stuff, like the "new" version of Palace of the Vampire Queen by Pacesetter, and upgraded my El Raja Key Archive basic DVD to the standard model (which I verified I could do at the con, instead of mailing it back in, after talking to the TLB Games guys to make sure. We walked all around the convention, watching people play games and enjoying the con ambiance, something I always enjoy. But we still wound up at my table very early to set up for running James Bond 007.

While setting up the game, an old friend, Justice Carmon, came over from watching Jeff Dee play and chatted with me for awhile. Luckily, I was feeling pretty confident for my session, as I had seven pages of notes, adapting the solo introductory story from the 1984 rulebook. I had not run the game, as I confessed later to my players, since the 1980s, but I had been studying the rules a lot and felt as comfortable as I could with what I had long considered a clunky game system.

And I expected a full table too; this was the only one of my three games that had been fully booked online in advance, and had two people on a waiting list to boot!  But one person was a no-show, and two people decided to leave and go find a different game to play with their friend, and the two waiting list guys just happened to be there and took their spots.

And those notes I'd carefully taken? The notes assumed they would head right away for the island (the scenario was called "The Island of Dr. No", after all), but for the first hour I had to wing everything as they did lots of serious spywork in Tobruk, Libya tailing suspects, bugging phone booths (this was the 1980's), and catching an assassin sent to kill them. That part actually went great. It was when they trailed the second assassin to the island that things started to fall apart.

Two of them went in undercover to the island, which is what the majority of my notes had anticipated, but the other three snuck onto the island the night before, including their one good sniper...but a sniper who wasn't very good at being stealthy. He was caught and taken prisoner, leaving the player stuck waiting for awhile to get rescued.

One of the two agents in the building went into the duct work to look for the captured agent and the missing agent (their original mission!), just as I had prepared for in my notes. Meanwhile, the other agent inside and the two agents outside tried to create diversions. The agent inside got in a fight with two engineers in the building and -- since his agent was more of an engineer type himself -- it was a slap fight that ended with the agent knocking them both out with a rock.

Outside, one of the two agents got knocked out and was taken prisoner, while the remaining agent was wounded, stole a golf cart-like vehicle, and was involved in a low-speed chase around the island with guards chasing him on foot. Despite my best attempts at keeping the game serious, bad rolls at critical junctures had led us into this Austin Powers-like farce. Luckily, we were getting close to the end of our three-hour time slot anyway. I let the agent inside the duct work find the prison level and rescue the two agents. They joined up with the engineer-beater and rescued the recently captured agent from a single guard, then met up with the driving agent and escaped the island together by stealing a boat. They never did find Dr. No or find out what he had planned or did anything to stop it, but we just assumed James Bond showed up on the other side of the island just as they were leaving. Most everyone had a good time (maybe not the guy who got captured earlier) and, at 5 pm, we all said good-bye to each other and to GaryCon.

But the experience in Lake Geneva wasn't over just yet. Megan and I drove around town with Steve Sullivan's map. For the first time, I got to see the childhood home of Gary Gygax, his home where he first wrote D&D, and the house Dragon Magazine was produced in. We took pictures and video at each to make the occasion, then headed back into Illinois for dinner.

I have long admired the quiet-looking communities I drive through on Rt. 12 going to and from Lake Geneva, like Richmond, Fox Lake, and Volo. I have often thought I would enjoy spending a day just driving up through those towns. But, as we drove around Richmond and Fox Lake looking for a place to eat, we were disappointed to see how few options there were other than bars and restaurants with video gaming. Eventually we settled for a gas station that had a Mr. Submarine attached. I had not eaten in a Mr. Submarine in years and it was sad to find out that, at least this one, was not as good as I remembered. So that was the one dark spot, right there at the tail end of an amazing GaryCon.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

GaryCon IX Report - part 2

Day 2 of GaryCon started -- with me already running behind! Sluggish and unable to get out the door when I was supposed to, I headed back up to Lake Geneva from Chicagoland, arriving there a bit after 10 again. This was particularly unfortunate because the game I wanted to play that morning started at 8 am, when Carlos Lising was running a pick-up game of his own fan-made sequel to the Slave Lords modules. He had, through his connections, secured not only a quiet board room to run his game in, but roped celebrity player Luke Gygax into playing!  Better still, my collaborator and Castle Greyhawk webcomic artist Mike Bridges was there with his good friend Jayson. And David Hill, a name I recognized from Facebook groups I belong to, was there.

We had to be out by 11:30, which left me less than 90 minutes to play the illusionist I picked out. Sadly, I was the 13th player in a chaotic hunt for Markessa (the villainous Slave Lord from module A2) that had already devolved into about three separate groups. Carlos was doing a good job of keeping track of everything and role-playing familiars each character had (for some reason), but the hectic pace didn’t give me much time to shine. We also failed to find Markessa (I do like to think my ESP and Invisibility spells were integral to stopping her lieutenant, the Man in Black, though). Besides the star-studded players, Carlos had put together an adventure chock-full of winking nods to the original A series of modules.

Afterwards, Carlos, Mike, Jayson, and me all hung around each other and went to the exhibit hall. Mike got his copy of the Greyhawk map from the folio signed by Darlene. Carlos picked up a paining he had commissioned Jeff Easley to do for him that will be the cover to his fan-made module. Everyone was impressed -- I have seen professionally published work by Easley with less attention to detail than this painting. We wanted Carlos to continue touring the hall with us, but he was a little incoherent after being stunned by his amazing painting. We left him floating on cloud 9 while we perused various booths. I picked up the Hirelings board game for a steal and proudly carried that around with me the rest of the day.

Mike, Jayson, and I stayed together for lunch, leaving the con and heading to Claw’s Hot Dogs, a place I had discovered just the night before when I was briefly turned around trying to leave the con. It seemed a remarkably appropriate name for a restaurant within a short driving distance of convention focused on Dungeons & Dragons (only Claw/Claw/Bite Hot Dogs would have been better).  The food was good, served fast, and came in good-sized portions for the price.

Mike and Jayson had to get me back to the convention quick, though, because at 2 o’clock I was signed up to play “The Wyrd Museum.”  I didn’t know the DM, Robert Fredona, from Adam, but I was hooked by the event catalog’s description of “OD&D with a Victorian twist.”  It exceeded my expectations. I knew I was in for a treat when, not limited to well-known Victorian characters, I got a chance to play Carnacki, the original ghostbuster in fiction. I naturally jumped at the chance. Every detail of this scenario was meticulously, even lovingly crafted, from the custom character sheets that resembled the original 1975 D&D character sheets, to the museum brochure full of clues we were offered at the start of the game, to the table-sized map that had every major object in every room on display as a miniature. I have seldom used the word "sumptuous" with a gaming session, but this was sumptuous immersion. 

The play itself went very well, though that was equally attributable to the players as to the DM's preparation. The scenario itself was almost too straightforward for a four-hour time slot, but The Invisible Man's player wisely turned on us at the end to give us a new antagonist and a more dramatic climax. When someone's character was killed, they got to come back into the museum right away with a London bobby. Rasputin's player, who lost both Rasputin and his first bobby, was an especially good sport.

If there was one flaw in the event, it was Robert's decision to name a "best player at the table" at the end and give out a prize. This was bound to leave hard feelings, especially when the player who (*ahem*) was responsible for coming up with Plans A, B, and C for thwarting the aliens was overlooked, in favor of giving the prize to the only woman at the table, who's performance as Mr. Hyde was no more nuanced than throwing things at people constantly.  *sigh*

No matter; it was time to move on to my last scheduled event of the day -- running the Hideouts & Hoodlums adventure, "Sons of the Feathered Serpent."  And that almost didn't happen.  I had one player arrive very early, and two players arrived on time -- the same couple that showed up at the previous night's S&W game I ran. I felt, though, that the scenario would be too challenging for less than four heroes and everyone was comfortable with my canceling the event if I needed to.  And, in fact, I was tempted to do so because I might have joined Carlos, Mike, and Jayson for dinner if I had.

Exactly at 6:10, as we were all standing up from the table, a fourth player arrived. And after that, we were joined by Timothy LeMaster, who had played H&H with me last year at GaryCon and had been playing in my online H&H campaign since then. 

That is not to say that everything went smoothly once we had enough players. The beginning was a lot of fun, with the heroes all meeting at a fire, having some "Marvel misunderstanding" fights, and then coming together to save a woman. Their investigation led them straight to the hideout and they did fine on the west side of the first level. Of course, that was the easier side. When they had a prisoner lead them to the more populated east side, the heroes found themselves outnumbered and lost their courage.

Now, normally when I've run this game, heroes leave, rest up, and come back to hit the bad guys harder. But this group was keen on thinking outside the box (they were also now down a man because one of them had to leave early). Instead of bearding the villains in their lair, they wanted to find things to do that didn't require going back into the hideout. 

I had to do some physical pacing and some mental shifting of gears, but we got back on track when one of our players came up with a clever plan to offer to work for the main bad guy. This got the 2nd in command to show up to meet the heroes, and two heroes went back with him to meet the main bad guy (gal, in this case). The other two heroes tried to follow them into the hideout. One was captured. The other one was seriously beat up, but managed to escape the hideout. The main bad guys were tough, but more interested in escaping when attacked by the two heroes that accompanied them all the way down to the third hideout level. The 2nd in command was captured, the two heroes escaped out of the hideout with him, then they went back in with the third hero who escaped and rescued the fourth hero. Then they delivered their prisoner and their evidence to the FBI, and ended the game -- after four hectic hours of play -- with me saying they all reached 2nd level and went back with the FBI to raid the lair. 

It was a remarkable session thanks to my players. I expected them to sample, not beat, the whole adventure. No one had ever done it in four hours before, but they managed it. 

Now, my plan was to go home and get some much needed sleep at 10 pm. On my way back through the building, I ran into my friend Will Schumacher and his wife. But it was after that short chat that I saw a sign about a celebration downtown at the Horticultural Hall and free shuttle rides there. Well, I couldn't pass that up. Better still, I found myself alone on the shuttle ride with Allen Hammack and got to chat with him the whole way there. We talked about Awful Green Things from Outer Space and he acted as my tour guide, pointing out places I should know. 

This was my first time in Horticultural Hall, the birthplace of GenCon.  There were tables all around with memorabilia. I had my only chance to talk to Dave Megarry at the con there and I thanked him for adding me on Facebook. Carlos was there and was gracious enough to hang out with me. I got to talk to Paul Stromberg, the brains and the wallet behind GaryCon, because I was next to Carlos. I got to talk to someone about Empire of the Petal Throne. And I made a mess on my face with free cheesecake. By then, I was exhausted, and took the last shuttle back to the con with Carlos and Darlene so I could head home for some much needed sleep.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

GaryCon IX Report - part 1

My 2017 GaryCon IX adventure began a day early. I had decided to accept the open invitation of Frank Mentzer to come to Frankenparty, the huge gathering at his Wisconsin home the night before the con. It was a little adventurous just getting there from Chicagoland, as I missed a turn and got lost briefly right around the border, but I soon found my way there by another route.
A lot of people were already there by six o’clock, who all seemed to know each other, so I was feeling pretty shy and ready to hide in a corner when I got inside. Luckily, Carlos Lising was there and spent some time sitting with me and talking about comic books. With his encouragement, I hung around Frank Mentzer’s office, listened to him tell stories, and got to touch Gary Gygax’s desk. I completely botched the treasure hunt, though, even with several people offering me help. Frank and Debbie were such gracious hosts that I would definitely like to go back next year.
The next day was Day 1 of GaryCon.  That morning, I left again from Chicagoland, this time bound for Lake Geneva. A wrong turn took me to Grayslake and I thought I would miss my first event at 10 am, but I made excellent time through Wisconsin thanks to their speed limit of 70 and I made it to the Grand Geneva Resort just 10 minutes late. I did not even have time to pick up my tickets and name tag; I had to slip away in the middle of the session to go get those.
My first event was an AD&D (1st ed) adventure called “A Debt of Honor.” My friend Will Schumacher had recommended the DM and I thought he would be playing with me, but Will had dropped out the week before.  Right away, while looking at the characters available to play, Eli triggered one of my pet peeves --  too much house ruling. When I sign up to play a certain game at a convention, I expect to play that game as-is, not someone else’s modified version of it. But the halfling thief looked unaltered; I gladly accepted it even though, in my experience, thieves tend to be unimportant past low level.

The scenario was decent, though the back story was too hard to figure out.  I was glad for so many traps in it, since it kept my thief relevant. Some of the traps were ingenious, though the placement of them was repetitious. As is sometimes the case with these convention scenarios, it’s the fellow players at the table who made the game special. I graded the event with a B and left the table at 2, thinking this was an encouraging beginning, despite my frantic arrival.

Next, I had a ticket to observe Jim Ward's Celebrity Metamorphosis Alpha event (having failed to secure a player ticket). I explained to him in advance how my plan was to observe just the first half of the game before checking out the exhibit hall. This was my first time observing Jim game mastering and was struck by his natural charisma and charm. I picked up some good ideas from him, like letting the players pick any 10 items they want to carry, and shuffling index cards with players’ names on them instead of having people roll individual initiative.

All was going well after an hour (even for the players - only one character death by then), until I found I had some recycling to throw away. That led to a long quest to find a receptacle marked for recycling that ultimately ended in failure. Later, I was told that the bins with tan bags inside were for recycling, but since no one knew that I found they were always filled with mixed trash. Only in this way did the Grand Geneva Resort let me down all weekend.

Because I had wandered so far afield with an empty and unwanted water bottle, I had found myself too close to the exhibit hall. Now, in just a few hours of being out of service range, my phone was rapidly sucking it's battery dry. I was hoping my friend Carlos would have a compatible charging cord, and knew I would  find him in the hall. This would, surely, just be a brief diversion.

I stopped to say hi to Terry Pavlet - always a pleasure. I soon found Carlos again, sitting with his GaryCon companion, the artist known as Darlene. But Carlos had to leave to go pick up a pizza, and Darlene invited me to sit with her.

Now, I have been on the vendor side of a table before, but never at GaryCon, and never has a celebrity asked me to come sit with him or her anywhere. So I abandoned my stuff back in the boardroom with Jim Ward, just trusting my stuff was safer than the characters in Jim’s game, and stayed with Darlene. I told her my personal story of how I discovered Greyhawk and what gaming was like in my teen years. Then, fearing I was boring, I borrowed a story Terry had just told me a short while earlier (I did credit him with the story and didn't try to pass it off as my own). Luckily, Carlos was on the longest pizza run in world history, so I even got to stay and enjoy watching Darlene chat with other celebrities, like Allen Hammack.

She even left me in charge of the table once! Now, I had met and talked to Darlene 3-4 times by now, but she hardly knew me. I realized, though, that this confidence in me wasn't due to my own charisma. Darlene trusted me because Carlos trusted me, and that's how much she trusted Carlos.

Eventually, Carlos did return with the pizza, but then had to run off to help someone else. So now I got to stay and have pizza with Darlene in his stead. Incidentally, Carlos did not have a compatible charging cord, but I could scarcely care, as full as I was with generously shared pizza slices.

One remaining problem though, was that I lost all power on my phone and had no other timepiece on me, and I did not want to be late for my 6 o’clock game of Swords & Wizardry - so I gathered my things (which had been safe in the boardroom) and moved to my reserved table an hour early.

My Swords & Wizardry game was “Jungle Ruins of Madaro-Shanti”, which I had written for Mythmere Games and was published through Frog God Games when they merged. I had seven players, including a couple who dropped in to play because the guy remembered enjoying my OD&D version of “The Invasion of Arun’Kid” last year. One player was Ryan Thompson, who writes his own S&W material and gifted me a copy. Speaking of copies, Michael Badalato stopped by to drop off copies of S&W Light for everyone. Although I’m sure he meant well, this led to some confusion later, as I was running S&W Complete, but my players kept referring to the S&W Light pamphlets in front of them.

Other than that confusion, the game went great. SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW!  The noise level in the room actually helped me (actually, it was mainly from the rowdy bunch playing Keep on the Borderlands next to us) for a change, because they could not overhear each other’s rumors. This party decided to go with most of the expeditionary force of NPCs the town offers them, and it became a running gag for half the session, putting the jungle guide in danger. We got bogged down a little at the gatehouse because they thought it was important to win the fight with the borsin tribe, though most groups figure out to just run from them. They did succeed in finding all the treasure in the gatehouse, though, which most groups don’t do. They completely ignored the well (most groups at least examine it, but no one has ever figured out the whole well complex). Like everyone else, they always assume there must be something good in the temple ruins -- I should really write a supplement someday for the temple ruins instead of just saying it’s empty or making up something.

The druid spent a little too much time scouting alone in animal form for my liking, leaving the rest of the players waiting, but I understand how it was strategically sound to do so -- it even let them avoid some really dangerous giant spider encounters when they finally got to the palace. By the time we finally got to the palace, they went down into the dungeon right away and were really rushing through that first level, as we were running out of time. We stopped after four hours, with two-thirds of the first dungeon level cleared out, and the players seemed to be very happy.

After that, it was time for me to head home. I needed a good night’s sleep back in Chicagoland before the next day’s exciting adventures!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Chronology of Events for a Silver Age Marvel Super Heroes Campaign

Many years ago, I tried to run an ambitious, open-ended Marvel Super Heroes campaign set in 1967. What follows are my scheduled events for the first day and a half of campaign time.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Watching the 20th Century, 1912-1913

It's been awhile since I've watched a film from the Edison studios. It's clear that the directors here have learned a lot from D.W. Griffith, in regards to staging and building pathos on film. This is the sad, and a little weird, tale of a poor boy in the big city, mistreated by his mean old grandmother (possibly the first wicked grandmother character in film history).

One day, he gets a chance to go along with a church group out into the country and sees the world outside the inner city's slums for the first time. He hears a story about fairies and we're treated to a story within a story of the same boy, imaging himself in Tudor garb, being led to a magical place by fairy women.
The story is a strong condemnation of inner cities, and it's inspiring that the boy feels empowered by fantasy fiction, to want a better life after hearing it. But it's also a little weird that the positive change in the boy's life we get to see is him running away from home (actually, drifting off to sea in a rowboat, which seems even more dangerous!).


No, it’s not a horror story; the house is an insane asylum. The doctor’s wife learns that her piano playing serves as musical therapy for her patients. At first, the patients are shown sympathetically, but it soons become evident that the inmates are in this drama to give it an irrationally violent villain. There is some interesting casting here -- this is the earliest movie I’ve ever seen Lionel Barrymore in. Here he plays the doctor and, for those of us who grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s hard to believe Lionel was typecast as playing good guys until that movie. Lillian Gish is wasted as a nurse with a part that’s little more than a walk-on cameo. Charles Mailes is a convincing villain.

There is also effective use of slow fades to black in this film.

D. W. Griffith teams up with Lillian Gish again for this ...well, it was probably intended as a tear jerker. Lillian is an innocent young bride of a poor husband who succeeds at business and then wants the better things in life, without her. Lillian seems poorly cast as the dowdy, cast-off wife -- at least until her crowning moment when she learns her husband is cheating on her and you can see the innocence melt away from her face. Why is it called The “Mothering” Heart? About two-thirds of the way through, we finally see a baby. Lillian is raising the baby on her own, but there’s no explanation for where the baby came from and we never saw Lillian pregnant. Were they separated for nine months during what seemed like only one dinner date with the mistress? Spoilers -- things don’t go well for the baby, giving Lillian a chance to show some more emoting, though less convincingly. And there’s an annoyingly contrite reconciliation at the end.

If you thought Christmas needed more witches and devils in it, this 1913 Russian film is for you! Vakula the Smith is the village nerd -- despite being ridiculously strong, he’s rejected by the prettiest girl in town and mocked by her friends at her Christmas party. The girl teases him by agreeing to marry him if he brings her the tsar’s wife’s shoes.

Meanwhile, the sexy village witch (we know she’s sexy because she bares her forearms) is consorting with a devil (possibly The Devil). She’s perfectly okay with consorting with devils, but is hugely embarrassed at the thought of being caught with male visitors. In the film’s best and truly funny scene, as a string of male visitors come around to call on her, she stuffs them one by one into sacks and hides them (including the devil) in the corner of the room as each subsequent caller shows up.

Finally, Vakula comes to the witch for advice and, while she steps out, he stumbles across all these sacks. Thinking he’s doing her a favor, he picks up all the sacks at once (I did mention he was ridiculously strong) and plans to take them back to his shop. He drops all the sacks with men in them along the way, to the embarrassment of each man as they are found by other villagers.

In the film’s weirdest and least important to the plot scene, Vakula stops at the home of the village magician, a pig-like man who can make food float into his mouth. Still wanting advice, Vakula is told to seek out the Devil, unaware that he already has a devil in the bag he’s carrying.

Vakula finally encounters the devil when he stops for water at the village pond. The devil pops out of the sack and attacks him, but -- did I mention Vakula is ridiculously strong? Vakula reverses the devil’s hold and...well, at the risk of being crude, he kicks the devil’s a-- and makes him his b----. Vakula rides the devil like a flying horse to the tsar’s palace. Refreshingly, Vakula uses flattery instead of magic to get the tsar to give him a pair of his wife’s shoes.

Meanwhile, everyone in the village thinks Vakula drowned in the pond because his coat was found there. The girl feels so guilty that when Vakula shows up, triumphant, she agrees to marry him before she even sees the shoes. The devil returns to H--- where he’s tormented by other devils and is never reunited with the witch he loved.

It’s weird, it’s funny, and it’s surprisingly complex for a 37-minute movie, with subplots that converge. It also has almost nothing to do with Christmas, although we do get to see what Russian carolers and Christmas parties may have looked like in 1913 Russia.

And, unless it was made up for the film, we see an unusual Russian wedding ritual. Apparently, not only did the men have to get permission from the fathers to marry their daughters, but the men had to submit to any beatings the fathers wanted to give them, to prove how committed they were.

Mildred is the granddaughter who loves her grandad. Granddad, though, is a whiskey man and Mildred’s new stepmom is morally opposed to liquor. The stepmom gets so disgusted with his drinking that she shames him into leaving. Later, Mildred spots Granddad in the poorhouse. Meanwhile, the dad learns from a retired Army colonel how Grandad had saved his life during the civil war and was a hero. The dad insists to his wife that his father should get to come home. Later, Grandad dies, surrounded by family and friends, and is given a hero’s burial.

Now, it’s clear from the story that Grandad is meant to be a sympathetic figure and the stepmom is the “villain”...but Mildred lies to her parents about Grandad’s drinking and enables him. But then, in an extended flashback we see some of the horrors of war Grandad witnessed and understand why he drinks to forget. It’s all surprisingly gray for a black and white movie.