Monday, July 28, 2014

Money. The Lovely Horrible Stuff.

Longtime games writer Simon Parkin has a solution, but first he must convince us there is a problem.

His point in a piece for the New Statesman appears to be "we need to talk about creative successes as much as we talk about financial successes so indie* devs will feel comfortable pushing the boundaries of art."

(Summary is barbarism. I know, I know.)

In context, it's just as presumptuous. The artistic temperament is a thing that will create independent of critical pats on the head. If the further argument is potential devs will get blinded by the tall stacks of indie games dollars, I'm skeptical. If the argument after that one is the devs looking for truly insane amounts of cash or a seven figure PayPal account leave after their first attempt doesn't set them up for life, I'm not sorry to lose their creative energies. If the next argument is "but devs/artists won't create without being told their work is rainbows and unicorn giggles," (and I believe it is) Parkin's got a real low opinion of devs/artists.

Mr. Parkin is wrong four times over:
1) The critical discussion already exists on social media and outlets he no longer writes for.
2) Option paralysis is real and constraints often help jog creativity. (Doom 3's flashlight.)
3) Hearing developers talk about making their business sustainable at a conference for developers is a legitimate topic of inquiry and doesn't preclude serious discussion of craft.
4) "People come into an industry desirous of easy success" isn't a sign of the end times so much as a fact of of life in any human endeavor from art to sewage treatment.

In a comment, Parkin continues, his feature isn't about insulting indie devs, but instead around "the dominant stories around games creation."  Whether that's true or not, it contains the moralizing nugget that artists shouldn't be concerned about earthly lucre, they should instead concern themselves only with the thing that will enrich our lives.

This is precisely the opposite of what we should (I used the word should. I ought to tread lightly.) be telling artists. We should be telling artists, focus on money, not exclusively, but know what you want to say and know what vehicle is most effective in allowing you to subsidize your ability to express yourself. I trust that if you're an indie dev making a game, you're making something you want to make, putting out art into the world that you believe ought to exist in it. Parkin, apparently, does not.

What can you create that you can finish, polish and still have money left over to produce enough copies to sell? Remember: Art is a misnomer. Art is a mantle put on your work by another person. Phillip K. Dick only enjoyed mainstream accolades after his death. The Renaissance masters had patrons. Greek storytellers told stories for food, shelter and coin of the realm. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime. Yes, make it because it means something to you (I assume "you're" doing that already,) but don't get drawn into an art before commerce discussion.

Worrying only about art doesn't free you up to create, you'd be creating anyway. Perhaps your dreams might appear in higher resolution, but what matters is that those dreams get out at all.

Be cordially mercenary, because Art is fickle, critics even more so and the way you get to keep saying what you want to say is by releasing things. And "focusing on art" does not help with releasing games. And each thing you release, incidentally, is art. Maybe not incredible art. Perhaps not boundary pushing. But small releases grow your confidence so when you do feel your oats, you have the dexterity and experience to push your vision. But first you must get to the point where you have dexterity and experience and that requires money and stability.

To get crass: An unlimited budget without constraints gave us Duke Nukem Forever. A budget of roughly $1.2-1.5 million gave us Shadowrun Returns. It's clear which one is the artistic success, but let's not forget that it's also the financial success, too. Why? Shadowrun has less to recoup and hard knowledge about what they could make given a discrete budget. Harebrained Schemes gets to make another game. 3D Realms doesn't.

Focus on the best work possible within the deadline. Art (or a particularly elegant manifestation of your creative vision) will come as a consequence.
 
 *indie of course being a marketing term and a funding mechanism.









The title of this piece is a graphic novella by the illustrious Eddie Campbell. You know what this song's gonna be. Art Is Hard, by Cursive.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Blissfucker, Alone

Don't let that moron from The Needle Drop fool you: Blissfucker is great.

Darker Handcraft was a record I liked because it wanted you dead and wanted to get to killing you immediately. Since people in genre can recognize Left Hand Path but not Suicide Invoice, Darker Handcraft is a record that got defined with the idea of crust, those three grind-ish songs everyone praises but no one listens to, Evictionaries, and The Facts.

Blissfucker is more sludge. Now, sludge isn't new to Trap Them. Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds is the most obvious one to me, but Drag The Wounds Eternal and Scars Align are also precursors. Maybe Gutterbomb Heaven On The Grid also? What matters is that Trap Them is de-emphasizing grind on their most recent record. And it's hardly that, they're just writing longer, fuller songs!

Yes, there isn't the pulverizing four minute triptych at the end of Blissfucker. There's just that two odd minute blast beat frenzy as the second fucking track. And also the opening to Lungrunners? (And the first two thirds of Former Lining Wide The Walls!) If you want it, Blissfucker's still got you, but it's also doing different things. Ryan McKenney's broken glass yawp is still an assault on the listener's ears, but against the longer, more traditional metal of Blissfucker, his yawp changes the proceedings from ominous to actual danger.

Put differently, his vocals maintain a high threat profile. You can hear producer/engineer Kurt Ballou get more adept at recording by virtue of how clear Mr. McKenney's vocals come through. Mr. McKenney now fully sounds like the night terrors of whatever New Hampshire town he was born in. Mr. Ballou uses the old metal trick of burying the vocals in the mix, giving the listener the impression that they're struggling to get through.

My bandcamp download did not come with a .pdf of the art (and even if it did, band hasn't been putting lyrics in those things since Seizures…), but I'll throw a ten spot on the guess Mr. McKenney is yelling about the empty formalities of family/community ties, the horrors of violence and the broken humans left in the blast radius of war. Maybe zombies? That part I'm less sure of.


What I am sure of, and couldn't tell you why, is that Blissfucker feels like guitarist Brian Izzi's opus. Maybe it's the length. Maybe it's the fact that there's moments of solos, or something like them. Blissfucker feels new, even if I can point to places in earlier records that suggest this shift. Shift is the right word, but I ought to be careful on the emphasis. Trap Them remains a Swedish-style thrash band, anchored by a hardcore punk vocalist.

Blissfucker, as a whole, feels, strange to say, imperial. There's a grandness and scope to Blissfucker which previously was only an ambition in the band's discography. And if metal/hardcore/punk fans hate anything, it's ambition. The storyline of "grind/d-beat band makes another fast, obliterating full length" is easy. From Seizures... into ...Handcraft into Blissfucker, the songs have been getting longer, while maintaining that energy. Seriously. I listened to Seizures... for context. Blissfucker's got it.

It is a shame, of course, that drummer Chris Maggio is no longer with Trap Them. Whether it is my imagination or something approaching truth, his drum work on Darker Handcraft seemed to be hyperactive and kept the Trap Them machine moving at an exhilarating speed. Brad Fickeisen, the new guy, is no slouch himself (is that the second ex-The Red Chord member Trap Them's rotated in?) His steady work in my imagination makes it easier for Mr. Izzi to write his epic, but Mr. Maggio unleashed Trap Them in a way that leaves an impression. At the live show, of course, he fed off of and into Mr. McKenney's boundless, evil energy.

tl;dr Mr. Maggio is missed. Mr. Fickeisen is capable.

Former Lining Wide The Walls hides a melody in the final 40 seconds of the song that is worth the price of admission, upstaged by Mr. Fickeisen's delirious drum fills. The first two+ minutes is a thing I'd like to hear played at half time just to figure out how the hell they do it so precisely.

Seeing Blissfucker as a statement is seductive. Mr. McKenney abandons the "Day [NUMBER]:" portion of song titles, it's been three years since the last one, It's one and one half as long (roughly) as the previous record, there's maybe solos, and there's verbiage in the press release to support the theory. I'll agree, to a point. Less a statement than a reminder?

I know two things: I know Blissfucker isn't what I expected and I know I like it. Blissfucker is the full metal record that they've been threatening to write since The Iconflict. Blissfucker is what we believed and hoped they had in them.







Former Lining Wide The Walls, this time around. I've described it before, but just wait for that glorious, glorious swing.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Wicked & The Blissfucker



The time period is late 2010-mid 2011. I am running around Europe, but not nearly enough.

I have two things in my head, Phonogram and Trap Them. I am lost and confused and more or less alone. I go out to Thought Bubble in November 2010 to see the Phonogram team, and some Borges style magic happens. I return to England in April or May 2011,  to see them again at a London comic book convention called Kapow, but to do so, I must miss Trap Them when they come through Rome.

While in London, I have the new Trap Them record Darker Handcraft, and it keeps me settled and together while I navigate the hamster habitat of the Tube. My review of Darker Handcraft ends up being one of the reviews I'm proudest of ever. I got a gift of 10 pounds from Kieron Gillen in November, and felt obligated to pay him back, which was largely the reason I attended Kapow. When I wasn't with friends in London, I had Darker Handcraft and not much else. I found bookstores and waited.

I have to talk about both Blissfucker and The Wicked & The Divine at the same time before I will ever figure out what I think of either of them individually.

The time period is now mid-2014. I live in the United States, but not nearly enough.

 
I believed Blissfucker and The Wicked & The Divine came out the same week and wrote this hurriedly. A quick Google search tells me Blissfucker came out the week before, meaning I held off on Trap Them for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie again. Blissfucker is more sludgy than Darker Handcraft, but turbocharged by Ryan McKenney's crusty/d-beat yawp. You will not mistake any part of Blissfucker for drone. The Wicked & The Divine is a more refined (and vulgar) version of that team's recent works.*


In The Wicked & The Divine, heads explode in a pop art fashion, in what I believe highlights the intrusion of visible, but not fully graspable magic into the story's real world. Producer Kurt Ballou understands Blissfucker is a guitar record and lavishes attention on Brian Izzi's instrument. Matthew Wilson's colors on The Wicked & The Divine are flawless. When called upon, they're not merely bright but vivid. I find The Wicked & The Divine's first issue cliffhanger to be underwhelming. A judge (less a character than a object against which Lucifer [nee Luci] can monologue) dies and it appears Lucifer did it. Lucifer claims innocence.
Blissfucker slows down and it works. Darker Handcraft was a record that went for the open, unguarded throat in the first quarter second of the first song. That sets a precedent that Blissfucker does not maintain. The first track, Salted Crypts, introduces itself with a dirge that is all menace. The Wicked & The Divine opens with a full page splash of a hand on a skull. The comic manages to go through a couple different fonts, each feeling correct and precisely placed, so I'm assuming that means letterer Clayton Cowles did his job well.



I didn't know what I was expecting with The Wicked & The Divine, but I ordered it sight unseen. Since then, I read too many interviews so I knew what was coming and that lessened the blow. By comparison, I'd heard three, maybe four songs from Blissfucker and I love it, especially the sludgy parts that aren't what the public thinks of when they think about Trap Them. Trap Them's discography is broader than most people realize (Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds prefigures the 7+ minute Savage Climbers, Bad Nones could be described as a palate cleanser made a full song, see Sordid Earnings) so Blissfucker doesn't entirely wreck the line of best fit. In short, they're still a Swedish thrash band before they are anything else.


But Blissfucker is new and it isn't what a lot of critics were expecting. A crusty/d-beat thrash metal band is not unknown to our ears and is easy to put in a neat little box. (The box is marked "fast drums, no solos, do not color outside the lines.") The Wicked & The Divine is new and it is, with scientific accuracy, what a lot of critics were expecting.



Mouthy dandies with superpowers? Check.
Who happen to be gods? Check.
Meta-commentary on creators and fans? Check.
It's probably about myth**, the importance of producing the largest volume of /your/ work before you die and a few really good costumes? Check, check and check.

Blissfucker is a new taste or at least a different taste from a group known for something else. The Wicked & The Divine is a superior edition of a taste I was expecting. A different review would say that it synthesizes the lessons from Kieron Gillen's more hype Marvel bibliography. But what I really mean is it's an easy jump from Young Avengers into The Wicked & The Divine.

A major piece of the first issue doesn't connect with me for ideological reasons. ("She's looking right at me! I swear, she's looking right at me!" v. "These are three chords, now form a band"***) It connected with a lot of other people, though. And those people love it. It hits their notes and not mine. I suspect that I'll like the comic when it gets more wicked and less divine.



At bottom: I didn't know what to expect with Blissfucker and I liked it. I knew what to expect from The Wicked & The Divine and I criticized it. They're both constructed meticulously. I'd recommend either to casual (and hardcore) fans of the metal genre or the medium of comics. For my part? I'll need to stop reading so many interviews.








One of the conceits of The Wicked & The Divine is that it is about gods that live for two years and then die, to be reincarnated every ninety or so. I'm of the opinion a character called Lucifer has a nefarious plan, so, I'm waiting for that other shoe to drop. While not on Blissfucker, Dead Fathers Wading In The Bodygrounds has a line that while it doesn't fit perfectly, fits just nicely enough: "We are the old graves, digging the new." For those people who actually want to listen to Savage Climbers (find it above) and then Dead Fathers... (find it below,) enjoy.







*And yes, I know the next problem is that Blissfucker arrives as a complete package whereas The Wicked & The Divine is one issue of something much, much larger. I'm aware.

**There is a thing here that I am asked to keep quiet about, but I think a friend of mine has the team figured out on a major thing in the comic. I'll copy paste it in when this friend gives the all clear.

*** Before we get to "there's more to music than things with guitars," pretend it reads "here's Fruity Loops and a YouTube tutorial, now write some songs."

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Punknews 100

I wrote a couple things for the now-announced Punknews 100. It was an attempt to do a top 100 albums of the years 2000-2010, and it almost came together. This being 2014, people in my ear tell me this thing may finally see the light of day.

I'm mostly posting this to shame the Punknews hivemind to continue to collate the list, because I want to see the discussion that will come of it. If I had the opportunity to write up a list again, it would be very different, but I suspect that's the trouble with lists. There's large swaths that remain the same, but it changes and mutates (or ought to) with breadth of experience and age.

Spelling errors and other things are left intact because, well, that's how they went out.

I was initially bummed that I didn't get a couple of my all-time favorites, but found out later that Jordan got the truly important ones and I'd end up with my personal favorite, Career Suicide, a couple months down the line.

It was an honor to be thought of and included. Thank you, gents.








Scrambles

There's something disarming about Jeff Rosenstock's "inclusive alienation" lyrics that matches the frantically played (and excellently composed) music on Scrambles. The economy sucks, I lost my job, NYC is too expensive, my friends are all successful are turned from self-pitying wankery to a unifying celebration of the freedom and terror of 20-something modern life. The ska-punk framework makes it easy to throw in little touches that humanize the record, whether it's far too many syllables in "(Shut) Up the Punx!!!" or the ODB sample at the end of "25!"

Released for free digitally in early 2009 (and for money physically later that year on tentpole Asian Man Records), Scrambles set punkews commenters on fire not because of how it was released, but because of the content: the synthesis of unapologetic ska-punk, dead on lyrics, overwhelming heart and PBR-lubricated camaraderie. Other records on this list might be more technically proficient, more carefully recorded, more deftly worded, but you know what? Scrambles captures the essential soul and the grimy spirit of punk rock and that comes out crystal clear.




I Am the Movie

In 2003, everyone was incredibly serious. Mall screamo was small enough to drown in the bathtub, Drive-Thru Records approached the height of their ubiquity, Bad Religion was back with a bullet and finally Rise Against, Thrice and Thursday looked at major label waters after Less Than Jake gave the all clear with their most sobering record.

I Am the Movie then, blew up because of its neon colored soul. It was as sincere as anything released that year, but brighter, stranger and more intimate. "The Future Freaks Me Out Out" finally perfects the bedeviling Weezer cum Get Up Kids alchemy, complete with now-mystifying pop-culture references (Will and Grace?) . "My Favorite Accident" is as morose today as it was back then "Don't Call It a Comeback" still breaks land speed records with moog flourishes intact, while "Modern Chemistry" slyly cops to Justin Pierre's half-measures at sobriety.

In its bipolar about-faces between despondent and thrilled, Motion City Soundtrack proved that authenticity comes in more than shades of gray; it also comes in Day-Glo.



the Troubled Stateside 
 
The Troubled Stateside was Crime In Stereo's Long Island hardcore disc, the moment when they first began to calibrate their own filter through which to view the world.

Vocalist Kristian would stretch his range on later records, but here Crime In Stereo plays with the trappings of the LIHC genre and found there was room to grow and stretch, like the "dying in a hospital"-aesthetic of "Gravity/Grace." But the jewel in The Troubled Stateside crown is the all-encompassing final track, "I, Stateside". In five and a half minutes, the band blitzes through the themes of the last 11 songs, with the chorus, a fevered, supercharged hosanah, "God, please save these troubled states."

The Troubled Stateside is a record that is influenced by living in Bush's America, but remains important today because it could go from macro to micro and back without losing intensity or focus. It's about growing up in a country you thought you knew and not liking what you found, played with nothing held back or close to the vest.




Ruiner

One of Rob Dobi's bleakest design jobs, Ruiner is as straight-forward as its title and "birds attack boy" art would have you believe. Buoyed initially by the release of "Me Vs. Morrissey" on the that year's Warped Tour compilation (like He-Man going through a Chinese phone book, as one critic put it), the question at the time was, the forthcoming Ruiner couldn't be better than Mute Print, could it?

About that: Yes.

The instrumental intro to the opening track, "The King Is Dead" was just a tease: It simply got faster and maintained the intricacy, a display of virtuosity meant only to show the listener they didn't know what's coming. That song's first words are a reference to autoerotic asphyxiation, and the song itself is about committing suicide by hanging from the garage.

The rest of Ruiner was almost equally humorless, most songs memorializing a disintegrating romance with a vulgar, pitiless focus that emitted little emotional light. It's a bummer of a record that way, but the only way you can slow down enough to tell is long after Ruiner finishes and that just means you should play it again.





Career Suicide

Sincerely believed histrionics in bullet points:

-Vulgar without being trite.

-Virtuosity without ostentation.

-Weary, but not exhausted.

-To skate to and to be held by.

-Bad Religion being recorded by Kerry King.

-The final, towering shot in Nitro's brief, nearly unfuckwithable salvo of career making records.



It ain't magic, kid. It's as pedestrian as the culmination of hard work, talent, relentless touring, learning from mistakes, willingness to be in debt and leave lovers. A Wilhelm Scream aren't miracle workers.

Mundane as it is, those are the reasons Career Suicide is so good.

 (Well, that and the Blasting Room.)

 Career Suicide is more intricate because they dared to write the songs they thought would one up Ruiner. It's faster because they had the personnel to sustain it.  It’s surprising because A Wilhelm Scream broke, again, what we thought was their ceiling.

What makes Career Suicide so special is how evenly it blends speed, technical prowess and metric volumes of compressed, focused, gotta-get-it-off-my-chest emotion. The balance of those elements is flawless and the recording sprightly enough to capture it all.

Yeah. Nitro went out on a good one.






The '59 Sound

It starts with the crackle of vinyl, for fuck's sake.

It's really tempting to view The '59 Sound as reactionary, or as if it must be an opposing party to whatever surrounded it in the pop landscape. It isn't. It's a record about girls, Saturday nights, driving, Maria and records. They're dudes that like Springsteen, Miles Davis and Otis Redding more than Rancid and produced a record that reflected those influences.

It really is that simple. The ’59 Sound wormed its way into listeners’ hearts the way hardly anyone ever talks about: great songs played without shame or a knowing wink at the listener at a time when the style isn’t in favor.

There's telling details like the diner staff comping Fallon a side dish with his coffee, waiting for a woman that won't come. With a lyric like "Broken Bones Matilda left a note and a rose…" one simply understands "Film Noir" was titled not only correctly, but also as an aspiration.

Their earnestness paid out beyond their wildest dreams. Springsteen didn't just let Gaslight Anthem kiss his ring, but went one further and joined the band for the title track in Europe during 2009. There are subtler influences and it’s ultimately what makes this uncomplicated record so surprising and resonant. Anyone can get Springsteen, but the Cure on "Old White Lincoln?"

Listen again...








A fully enumerated list of which songs on these records broke my skull open and forced me to think differently about music would keep me here forever, but man, I've been partial to the cane sugar sweetness of Motion City Soundtrack for years, so have the sub two minute banger "Don't Call It A Comeback." WE DON'T LIKE ENDLESS CYCLES...
 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

What Did You Read Yesterday?

I bought the first two volumes of "What Did You Eat Yesterday" by Fumi Yoshinaga at a con.


It's a manga about a gay Japanese couple in their early 40s, centered around the food they eat. I bought it,

1) because it got recommended with the highest praise, from a friend of mine who actually knows the genre (hi sunriseline!)
2) because it sounded interesting
3) because I knew it would mess with my friends expectations of what I'd buy.

In describing "What Did You Eat Yesterday" to people who actually read the genres in question, I say I like the manga (I keep typing comic) because of the strong character work. And while that's not wrong, those characters, a volume and a half in, are why I'm there, saying "strong character work" feels like a bit of an easy out. I feel like saying "strong character work" is not giving the manga its full due. The pencils are meticulous, the asides are well placed, and the sketches of supporting characters are precise and evocative. The two men in question each have flaws, but also personalities that would interact well. I confess to not being finished with the second volume yet, but what's there so far feels authentic. The descriptions of the food and preparation of dishes reveal character, but also make me want to try my hand at cooking. It's a great manga. If it is not too long, I will purchase it all, like I have with Pluto.

But the more I describe "What Did You Eat Yesterday", the more I feel I'm stepping around the fact that I don't have a vocabulary to talk intelligently about the genre. This is a problem, because in comics, black and white slice of life works are things I actively avoid, much the same with Young Adult material. I have no trouble, when I'm running my mouth of course, passing judgment on those things. And I've got a friend on Twitter (hi Katie Locke!) that loves YA material and will often make the very reasonable point that if I don't read the genre then it makes it hard to pass judgment on its effectiveness or legitimacy as such.


In talking about YA, or Yesterday, or b/w slice of life (hi Adam Witt!), when I am forced to praise them, I talk only about fundamentals. Do you have a plot that's interesting? What motivates the characters? Are the characters compelling? And so forth.  Which, again, feels passing over something politely, or not giving the idea its full respect. I feel my omission.

I can say oh man, China Mieville's a great writer, praise those same fundamentals, but with infinitely more enthusiasm. China Mieville does cool shit. There's monsters! And Serious Ideas! And nightmare fueled panic, white-knuckling an entire final quarter of a novel. I don't have those same things to talk about with ...Yesterday, YA or, b/w slice of life. It is hard to get away from the judgment in my head. To indulge my judgment: What overarching plot is there in "What Did You Eat Yesterday?" Someone, find me some. Really. Go for it. I'll wait. The plot appears to be "a Japanese couple who is gay navigate the labyrinthine code of Japanese formal niceties. Also: Every chapter, a new food dish." That's it.


That's what makes my pleasure in reading "What Did You Eat Yesterday" so striking. I believe I'm having a Nixon goes to China moment here. Enjoying "What Did You Eat Yesterday" and trying to talk about it reveals just how provincial I am. That's the opposite of the how I present myself. I'm looking at my bookshelf right now, it's Faulkner to Foucault to Fuentes. I'm very cosmopolitan. I promise.

(All three Serious, Important Male Authors. I'm aware.)

To say I like "What Did You Eat Yesterday" as a palate cleanser also feels like an omission, a sly insult, as if the stories are not a complete meal on their own. This is a long way of saying I took a chance on something new, and like all great media it rewarded and challenged me in equal measure. I don't know how to talk about this stuff and at bottom, I really ought to.







Been on a Danger Days kick, and while I'm pretty sure I've used Summertime before, I don't believe I've used Vampire Money. Allegedly, a song about turning down a spot on the New Moon soundtrack, and with an opening stolen from Ballroom Blitz. One of the best songs on that record.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Top Of The Deadly Class

The first panel contains a Bad Brains reference, typeset in the San Francisco skyline. Writer Rick Remender knows how to set a tone.



Remender's mainstream comics work (Captain America, Uncanny X-Force, Uncanny X-Men) comes with a heavy first person narration and it returns fully here. Marcus, the main character, is a teenage gutter punk with a mouth beyond his years. His family was killed by a suicidal schizophrenic jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Marcus drifts between stealing from sanctimonious businessmen and flinging himself off the same bridge his parents died under.

It's not a good life and while Remender doesn't write <i>that</i> in the sky, he has no trouble showing and then telling us.

Penciller and co-creator Wes Craig is heavily indebted to Hawkeye penciller and Valiant concept artist David Aja, or whomever Aja is himself indebted to, and it works wonders. (There's an especially effective scene where colorist Lee Louridghe uses the Hawkeye flat purples as Marcus contemplates suicide that is so obvious as to be homage.)

Little details like bleeding the gutters a little into a panel to highlight the person walking away, or how a female character's face has shades of Paul Pope make the thing sing. Some panels are set at an angle, one, I suspect to heighten storytelling and to mimic San Francisco's famously steep geography.



What's also notable is just how many panels are on a page, as high as 17, and instead of an average of 6-8, it's closer to 9-12. I hesitate to say much about the story. Marcus is enrolled into a school for assassins, called King's Dominion Of The Deadly Arts.

A comparison to Morning Glories, another Image comic about a high school with ill intent, is a red herring. Last I checked, the school in Morning Glories has imperial designs over time and space (I cashed out after the third trade) and with the second issue of Deadly Class, it appears Deadly Class' school is merely a place where teenagers become killers for hire.

I texted excitedly to Adam Witt (from whom I now steal the phrase "breakout-caliber" to describe the pencils of Mr. Craig) that this was the Rick Remender project I've been waiting for. Here, finally, I think is the comic where Remender's history with and love for punk suffuse the work.



The police are mentioned here quite a bit. They're always the antagonists, and referred to as pigs and fuzz and a number of other likely period appropriate slurs. At first blush, it sounds corny, but given the students and the time period, it rings true. They would say that. They would sound like kids trying too hard, they're in assassin high school!

(Speaking of trying too hard: Deadly Class can be described as Stray Bullets robs The Invisibles at gunpoint.)

To acknowledge it's been a couple months since the first issue came out: I thought the ending to issue two was unsatisfying (Will Marcus kill a person now that he's enrolled in assassin school?), but issue three startled me to the point where I gasped as I read it on the train. I blush and smile as I see myself in the straight edge high school student. There is an almost-Phonogram level of music nerdery in issue three. It shows character.

Remender leans very heavily on the idea that the comic is authentic to his life and his own lived experiences in the backmatter. Only he knows, but even if (or especially if) not one single detail of Deadly Class was inspired by a life experience, what matters is that, like all good fiction, Deadly Class feels true. If you can lie that well, that's how you know you're a good storyteller. If it happened to you? Shit, that's almost cheating.

Deadly Class is currently up to issue four, with the first collection announced for a release in July.







Have I really not put Minor Threat onto this blog yet? Well, wait a little while longer. Have Thrice do an especially messy and glorious cover of Seein' Red and Screaming At A Wall. Recorded during the meticulous Vheissu sessions, Thrice blows off some steam here. It feels like home.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

One Shot, Two Step

I was on the Critical Success podcast (episode forthcoming) with two infinitely better players and game masters (GMs,) Kat Murphy and James D'Amato and the topic was building better boss encounters. The conversation was good, I hopefully interjected well enough to keep the ball moving and just passed it off to Kat whenever I could.

But the conversation jogged my mind afterwards and there are two ideas that are crawling up the walls of my skull. The main big idea is this: A session is an experience you create for your players. In other words, it's a gift.

There are better and worse gifts, of course. Some show signs of deep care and others are gift cards or "I didn't know what to get you." Craft an session with your players specifically in mind. (And for the record, not everything a GM does is a gift. That way lies self-aggrandizement.)

Discussed, often, is "you want to create challenge for the players" and that is often interpreted as "crank up the Challenge Rating." And to be fair, there's something to that, for the people that  sincerely enjoy the math components of tabletop. I do not. I find the game less interesting now that I see the math behind it.

Skill obstacles, again, are another non-combat challenge. Also good, and it rewards people that put points into things or role-players. Role-playing eludes me.

Challenge, applied best in my opinion, is not when it's a direct numbers game, but instead when a GM successfully gets inside the heads of the players and crafts something that pulls them in strange ways.  Give them a goal and then multiple avenues to achieve it, or do not cut off an avenue to the goal that you haven't thought of. This is where One Shot (a podcast where improv comedians play tabletop, of which Critical Success is a spinoff) is most instructive: sessions are often rules-lite improvisation. Give the players what they need and riff off them.

This leads to the second idea: Borrow from videogames. If the above paragraph sounds a whole lot like a Deus Ex or a Dishonored level, well, good, that's the idea. Those spaces are poured over to facilitate vastly differently forms of play. The obvious example: Heist. Any GM worth their salt will have a series of dexterity and thievery checks as one avenue. Full frontal assault is also popular. But what about diplomacy and streetwise? Can the party (or one duly appointed member) talk their way into the room and get someone else to turn off the security system? But also: Dwarfs, not normally considered a sneaky race, can be useful here. Why? Dungeoneering.

(And etc etc. Be limited only by your player's imagination and even then, limit very loosely.)

For boss encounters, specifically borrow from Call Of Duty multiplayer. Multiplayer maps and boss encounters, fundamentally are both combat arenas. Treat your boss encounters that way.

This leans on the boss encounter portion of the podcast, but multiplayer shooter levels are designs with a couple things in mind, but three of the main things are verticality, locations that grant advantages and lanes that players are shepherded through. The terrain in a multiplayer shooter level is not neutral. Your boss area shouldn't be, either.

The Call of Duty specific portion here is the shield class. I hate Call Of Duty, because everyone there is better than me and most of them are bigoted or children. But! With the shield class, I can take more hits than an average player, be super annoying and still charge in with my players and contribute to the team's success. Apply that to boss encounters. Even if the player character (PC) can't be as useful to the party as whomever dishes out a lot of damage, create opportunities for the not-so-useful character to contribute.

If you set a fight in a quarry, then take away a barbarian's huge axe, maybe talk the PC into using her athletics skill to climb up to a bunch of rocks and kick a whole bunch down to wipe out a couple minions. Caster stymied by an anti-magic field? Perhaps reinforcements ought to arrive in a form that makes it easy for the caster to hit them. Don't nerf the player without giving them something awesome/dramatic to do instead.

The rest follows, I think.











Mostly for the drum tattoo that opens this song, but also because Save Ends is a band that has a lot of D&D nods, but isn't a D&D band. Plus, they come through town next week. I'll say hello.






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