Shadowrun 5E “Not With a Whimper” Session 3 Report

The thrilling conclusion to our first Shadowrun adventure ends with a showdown in the automotive garage.

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Note that since my players will read these I have to avoid spoilers and background information while the current mission is still in session. Look for our epilogue episode and write-up for more in-depth analysis and feedback.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

Read the Session 1 Report
Read the Session 2 Report

Last week we had to end our session at a tense moment. The players’ stealthy infiltration into Jay-T’s Automotive repair shop and garage had failed, and they’d managed to dispatch the two roto-drones that attacked them in response, though not without taking some damage.

The immediate combat encounter had ended, though the feeling of adrenaline pumping action when you’ve been found out had dissipated in the week in between sessions. We have relatively shorter sessions for most tabletop roleplaying gatherings at about two and a half hours and the players needed some gentle nudging to get them back on track with the severity and immediacy of the situation (one of them was actually trying to go off and loot the store).

I found it rather humorous that although they’d been caught by the security camera and fought drones, the players continued to act cautiously and stealthily. While the decker was trying to loot the store (something I’d have to remind them to do when they were leaving) I had their target flee to his nearby car in the garage. The elf was looking through the door’s window at the time and caught him. He attempted to sneak out and engage him in conversation, which definitely seems like the standard modus operandi for our sneaky-social elf adept/face.

A successful dice roll got Jay-T to listen briefly, but he was definitely in fight or flight mode, and not yet interested in negotiating or talking. I really enjoyed the banter that my curt responses elicited from the players as they tried to surmise if he was the guilty party in the bombing, and/or if he’d just turned traitor or if he was blackmailed.

Jay-T, in his modified, weapon-mounted Toyota Gopher truck could be considered the boss battle of the adventure. I was worried I might have overwhelmed myself by including a getaway car and all kinds of unique rules for this final moment. I had given myself as much information and statistics as I could regarding the vehicle and its parts, and that definitely came in handy. The players reacted cleverly, knowing they didn’t want the vehicle to leave the garage.

Not With a Whimper Scene 5

Up until this point I’d been rolling fairly spectacularly. The previous drone fight saw the drones dodging attacks and laying on the hurt, and most of the players were forced to use Edge to take them down. Even simple tests like the elf sneaking with 9 dice and me rolling 4 dice on a perception test and beating him were happening more often than not. My luck finally ran out during this boss battle in a rather epic way: Our first ever critical glitch.

Jay-T’s truck was just starting up, and I used his first initiative pass to fire his rear mounted grenade launcher at the doorway, where most of the players were gathered. I needed to get 3 hits to hit the spot, otherwise scatter rules apply. I missed, and one of my players helpfully pointed out that I’d also glitched, rolling 1’s for half my rolls. Miss + Glitch = Critical Glitch! What should’ve been a horrifying attack instead ended with the mounted weapon sputtering, smoking, and crashing down off its mounts into the bed of the truck. Jay-T cursed inside.

With no drone support in the garage the players could all surround the truck and attempt to disable it before Jay-T could escape into the car yard. The troll shaman cast a ball lightning at the truck, though its armor absorbed half the damage. The street sam sprayed the truck and its hefty armor negated all the damage. The decker jacked into the matrix and began putting marks on the vehicle. The adept thought a bit outside the box, and smashed the window of the truck on an impressive 4 success roll versus the glass’ armor and structure rating, breaking the window on the passenger’s side.

This could’ve lead to all kinds of interesting possibilities, but it was the street sam’s turn next, and she decided to take advantage of the now clear path to take a shot at Jay-T himself. I admit that while the players were all deciding on increasingly dangerous and risky ways to capture him alive, I did mention that just attacking him and doing damage could put him down without killing him. Probably.

The street samurai picked up on this, shouldered her high-powered hunting rifle, and shot Jay-T right through the car window. I allowed him a defense test but with a negative modifier, as he was a sitting duck inside the not-yet moving vehicle. He took the full brunt of the attack, and with a 12DV and -4AP, it ended up doing 10 damage after resistance, putting him at 0 physical health. His head slammed against the steering wheel, horn blaring. The fight was over after a single combat turn.

We took a break and came back to the players investigating Jay-T’s office and computer while also using First Aid and Healing spells to stabilize him. I didn’t let them actually revive him (Shadowrun has pretty strict healing rules) but they could at least save his life for the time being, but unable to question him. I did have contingencies for a dead (or might as well be dead) or escaped Jay-T in his computer. The decker was able to hack into his emails and messaging and I teased some information on who he might’ve been involved with.  Without being able to talk to Jay-T directly, however their ultimate resolution would be limited.

Jeremiah ReddThey called up Redd and met at a safe spot to hand over Jay-T’s bloody body. Redd was concerned but satisfied that he was left alive, and the players had been nothing but straightforward and helpful to him throughout the adventure, earning his trust (Loyalty +1 as a contact) as well as their promised payment for investigating the bombing. I also doled out the karma rewards which I’d broken down into steps for completing various tasks, like aiding bombing victims and tracing the car bomb back to Jay-T’s Automotive.

Thus our very first Shadowrun mission concluded! “Not With a Whimper” was something I put together myself, wanting to involve street gangs and get the players involved with a reliable ally and fixer (quest giver) for future missions. I was very satisfied with how the players generally stuck to my script, and pleasantly surprised at some of the crazier tactics they used to handle the various situations.

Stay tuned next week for our full Epilogue and Recap breakdown episode where I recount the entire run as my players give their feedback, comments, and concerns. I will lift the veil somewhat in the hopes of improving the experience and learning what worked and what didn’t. After that we’ll move onto our next adventure!

Image Comics Final Thoughts – Saga, Vol. 2

Saga’s sophomore volume continues to teasingly expand the fascinating sci-fi world while keeping the focus on the burgeoning family dynamic and relationship between our two star-crossed lovers.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Of course, occasionally I may even explore comics outside of Marvel if they come highly recommended or simply peak my interest. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

saga volume 2Writer: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Issues: Saga #7-12

I’m one of those lame comic book fans that still mostly only thinks of Marvel/DC and superheroes (and Transformers!) when people mention comics. The fact is there are a ton of really fantastic sci-fi, fantasy, noir, etc themes and genres out there just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid comic fan.

I’m still in the tentative early stages of exploring comics beyond Marvel, and Image Comics’ Saga represents my first real steps outside of my comfort zone. I couldn’t be more impressed. Brian K. Vaughan’s fantastically relatable and grounded writing coming out of Fiona Staples’ insanely creative alien mouths is an amazing combination. Saga’s sophomore volume continues to teasingly expand the fascinating sci-fi world while keeping the focus on the burgeoning family dynamic and relationship between our two star-crossed lovers.

Volume 2 picks up right where the first volume left off: Marko’s parents magically teleported to his and Alana’s treehouse rocketship after he breaks the family sword. Marko introduces them to his wife, a winged Landfall woman that is his people’s sworn enemy, and they are understandably not amused. Before they can even sit down, Marko teleports down to the nearest planet, where his mom had banished the ghost teenager Izabel that was acting as baby Hazel’s babysitter and soul host. This is getting crazy to type and would be absolutely impossible to follow without reading the previous volume. Saga is definitely made in the mold of modern serialized television shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead where the ongoing narrative assumes you’ve kept up since the beginning.

Saga #7

For the first few issues our family splits between Marko and his mom Kara on a hostile planet, and Alana and her father-in-law Barr back on the ship. Barr and Alana’s relationship starts out tense, but quickly warms up as he’s surprisingly accepting of her. His skill as an armorer comes in handy as he crafts Alana a form-fitting, bullet-resistant outfit, and the two quickly form an adorable bond.

Marko’s mom is decidedly less thrilled with their actions, and the two butt heads even while running into giant naked alien ogres and creepy witches with upside-down faces. Fiona Staples’ masterful art style particularly shines with exotic and crazy alien creatures and Volume 2 presents several delicious opportunities to show them off. Thanks to a trick dream sequence we also get to see more of my favorite alien from Volume 1, the spider-like The Stalk.

While Marko’s and Alana’s stories deal with the older generation, the hired bounty hunter The Will continues on his journey to hunt them down, and gets the majority of the B-story line. He’s still thinking about the underage slave girl back on Sextillion, the one he wanted to rescue but couldn’t. A representative of the Wreath council that hired him shows up to personally persuade him to continue the job, even while he wades in despair after The Stalk was mistakenly murdered by Prince Robot IV in the first volume.

Saga #8Her name is Gwendolyn, and she happens to be the ex-fiance of Marko, whom we’d only been teased about previously. She becomes a major cast member as she joins The Will and Lying Cat, helps rescue the slave girl using both her political acumen and magical skills, and reach the tree-ship right as all hell is breaking loose on the nearby orbiting planet.

Marko and Kara had found Izabel and returned to the ship, just in time to see Barr succumb to his terminal heart condition from pumping more magical power into the tree-ship. Poor Barr, and poor Alana for briefly meeting what would’ve been a fantastic grandfather to Hazel. And poor Kara I guess, though we’re not really given a chance to glimpse beneath her stony and aggressive exterior just yet.

The planet breaks apart and hatches a giant space creature. Gwendolyn, fueled by her own personal vengeance toward the man who spurned her, fires a missile at Marko and Alana. They decide to ram the missile, knowing it wouldn’t explode that close to its own ship. The missile bounces off and hits the space creature, who retaliates by blowing a hole in The Will’s ship. The entire sequence is action-packed and exciting, and a fantastic way for our two main storylines to converge without even having the two sets of characters meet each other.

That sequence happens in issue #11, so we get one more to end out the volume. Issue #12 finally returns to a major character from the first volume, Prince Robot IV, who has an old-school television set for a head. I’m honestly not sure if we’re suppose to sympathize or hate his character, and his backstory and situation seem complicated and much more embroiled in the wider politics of the ongoing war compared to the others. He essentially represents the winged Landfall faction’s hunt of Alana & Marko while The Will obviously represents Wreath’s.

Saga #10Prince Robot visits his only lead on his hunt for the AWOL prison guard Alana and escaped prisoner Marko – the author of the cheesy romance book that Alana was crazy about. There’s some fun flashback sequences in nearly every issue of Volume 2, including when Alana and Marko first met. Apparently she was super into this book that represented two different alien creatures coming together to love each other. Prince Robot hunts down the one-eyed author on a remote planet, and the two have a tense and interesting conversation on the nature of war, peace, and writing.

It’s revealed at the end that the whole situation is a bit of an Anne Frank/Inglorious Basterds moment, as Alana and company hide out upstairs during the exchange. Volume 1 ended with the cliffhanger of the grandparents appearing, and I was satisfied and intrigued that Volume 2 continues with another great lead-in to the next Volume, which I’ve already purchased!

Saga continues to impress, making me fall in love with its characters and reread nearly every page to absorb the fantastic art and writing as much as possible. I simply cannot recommend this series enough if you love really creative science fiction.

Shadowrun 5E “Not With a Whimper” Session 2 Report

Our first Shadowrun 5E role-playing adventure continues with tense negotiations and a bombing investigation.

Note that since my players will read these I have to avoid spoilers and background information while the current mission is still in session. Look for our epilogue episode and write-up for more in-depth analysis and feedback.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

Read the Session 1 Report

Our sophomore session for our very first Shadowrun adventure picked up during the briefest of down times. My players were attempting to question their new captive and get the DocWagon vehicle started when they were accosted by a roving band of Halloweeners. This was set up as a semi-randomized battle with three main outcomes – 1) the players fight off the gangers, 2) the players talk them down or negotiate or, 3) the players drive away.

Given the aggressive tendencies of my players I predicted we would go with outcome 1, but when the players decided to try and drive away (which would’ve been a very difficult Pilot Ground Craft test), I had the lead ganger grow impatient with his knocking, ripping the rear doors off the vehicle and having everyone roll for initiative (I rolled an astonishing 8 success for his test to open the doors).

The elf adept, who also acts as the group’s face with superior social skills, acted first thanks to his crazy high initiative score, and he immediately decided to bargain with the lead ganger. This actually segued us into outcome 2, and the elf quickly negotiated for their release. The Halloweeners wanted the fancy vehicle, so after a successful negotiation test, I allowed them to trade the vehicle for their lives. To my surprise the players accepted, gingerly stepping out of the vehicle and practically waving goodbye as they strode down the path with their NPC captive, avoiding an entire battle.

Shadowrun Now Without a Whimper Scene 3

Without their vehicle and stranded in a bad neighborhood my contingency plan kicked in, and I had an NPC we previously met in the bar roll up in an armored truck to help out her boss. Jeremiah Redd was still being protected by the runners through this grand mess and he finally got a chance to give the actual mission to this new rag-tag team: investigate the now destroyed bar and figure out who was behind the bombing.

The investigation allowed me to reuse the previous scene pf the half-destroyed bar, which was wonderfully helpful to cut down on building and crafting in Roll20. Also I spent a lot of time building that scene and was damn proud of it!

I layered in a bunch of clues that the players could’ve found throughout the bar and tried to leave this section much more open. They approached cautiously, which I had warned them about, though I had no intention of including any combat in this scene. Up till now the entire adventure had been a series of crazy events and I wanted to give them some down time and use investigation skills and inference rather than social and combat skills. They also got a fun chance to actually talk to each other and formally meet each other’s characters.

A combination of Perception, Demolitions, and Hacking skills lead to the rear alleyway, a barely functioning security camera, and a blown out car registered to a Jay-T’s Automotive. The players did the right thing in calling up Redd once they collected some evidence, though I had Sue-Z pick up the comm and had a fun bit of mysterious role-playing.

Shadowrun Now Without a Whimper Scene 4

At this point the players made it a bit farther than I expected them to this session, mainly as they had avoided a potentially lengthy combat sequence earlier! They made it to Jay-T’s, a set that had numerous entrances with an emphasis on a stealthy approach.

Disappointingly, the runners immediately went for the front door and disabled the lock and alarm using a combination of Locksmith and Hacking. The elf adept stealthed his way inside with 2 hits on 9 dice, but I rolled a killer 3 hits on only 4 dice on the nearby video camera on the opposed Perception check. Feeling bad I gave the player a chance to do one action before the camera swiveled over and spotted him. He dove into the room behind a shelf but rolled only 1 success, and the camera spotted him, tripping the alarm and activating a pair of roto drones.

Combat in Shadowrun has a lot of annoying complexities. Tons of environmental and range modifiers come into play, as well as melee attacks, cyberdeck hacking, spells, etc. It’s overwhelming and we’re all definitely still learning, so any combat sequence takes us quite awhile. I’m sure we played things wrong (indeed some times realizing on the next round) but the Roll20 character sheets help kept the pace flowing for the most part.

The drones were all offense and no defense and that was definitely reflected in the brutal and fast combat sequence. One drone did some significant stun damage to both the elf and the troll while the other was dispatched in an Edge-boosted roll from the Street Samurai’s rifle. In a funny moment the elf had his revenge by killing the other done with his knife.

I was very thankful that I wrote down a bunch of notes as drone stats are slightly different than metahuman foes. I was able to use a character sheet for the roto-drones with all the appropriate programs and stats which helped immensely. Even then I was scrambling to figure out what their defense was versus the decker’s hacking attempts.

Although the runners were in the middle of a hostile environment, one that was now aware of their presence, we had to take a break there as we’d gone past our normal cut-off time of midnight. We had to look up a lot more rules in this session, particularly pertaining to combat modifiers and Matrix hacking. I need to get more familiar with how deckers operate and also which rules we actually want to use as I’m pretty sure we weren’t playing the decker correctly in terms of hacking into the Matrix and using the VR Initiative.

The adventure should wrap up next week, and depending on time we may just do the epilogue and recap portion as part of that session.

Gaming Backlog Final Thoughts – Retro City Rampage

Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore.

I have finished another backlogged game via Rogue’s Adventures. You can read my latest Final Thoughts below and also on my gaming blog on Game Informer.

Developer: VBlank Entertainment

Publisher: VBlank Entertainment

Release Date: October 9, 2012

My generation seems especially infatuated with their nostalgic childhood. The 80s had an explosion of cartoons, kid-centered commercials and advertisements, action figures, brands, and movies. And of course, the birth of the modern video game industry.

Retro City Rampage squeezes every last drop of 80s pop culture into an 8-bit, top-down Grand Theft Auto-style city. The player character, named “Player,” looks exactly like the coiffed, leather jacket-clad silent protagonist from Grand Theft Auto III. After a fun and zany bank robbery tutorial, you happen upon the phone booth time machine from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, then meet up with Doc Choc driving the DeLorean while fleeing from the T-Team and a familiar group of green-skinned turtles emerging from the sewers wielding ninja weapons.

Retro City Rampage is brazenly unafraid of assaulting you with every reference you can imagine from that era. You do a chain of missions for the Go-Go Busters, a clean-up crew that deals in slime and goo from…er…human bodies. Shops are called “Pizza Gaiden,” “Skate ‘N Buy,” and “Toadstool Tatoo.” The local anchorwoman looks like Chun-Li. There’s a series of missions involving Bayshore High, working for Principal Balding and dealing with a familiar group of high school students. It’s a rapid fire assault with a razor sharp focus on wink wink, nudge nudge style comedy, and it permeates everything from the dialogue and situations to the gameplay and background artwork. Your love and familiarity with the 80s will directly affect your appreciation of the entire game.

The actual gameplay is very reminiscent of the old Grand Theft Auto games (that would be the first two, before they evolved 3D open world gameplay forever with Grand Theft Auto III). The city is alive with cars and pedestrians, and you’re free to assault random people, jack their cars, and run them over. Police response is fast and quite deadly if you’re on foot (they always go for the roadkill) but a handy mechanic that results in them dropping cloaking coins upon death gives a huge incentive to fight back, then run away – a concept that I would love to see in every actual GTA game.

Driving takes a bit to get used to, as all top down driving games have that same awkward driving scheme that orients your directional control to your car, regardless of which way your car is facing. I rarely had any problems driving and the camera thankfully shifts in whichever way you’re going, giving you plenty of room to adjust on all but the fastest vehicles. Standard cars like taxis and muscle cars are plentiful alongside a couple fun joke cars like the Yoshi-inspired Bikosaurus and covered wagon Dysentruck.

On foot the 8-bit game is given a nice modern day upgrade with lock-on capabilities and a cover system, neither of which I used much due to the fast-paced zaniness of most combat encounters. Dodging the little white bullets when there’s more than a few foes on screen becomes almost impossible, and often the best course of action is to simply dive into a horde of enemies using your Mario-inspired stomp attack. I suspect the developer realized how useful this simple ability was, as during the finale you get a super-powered upgrade that allows you to stomp down with explosive force.

There are a bunch of collectibles to grab: hidden packages, phone booths, and the rather funny discovery of all the invisible walls used throughout the adventure. Many of the shops can actually be entered and used to customize your little 8-bit avatar with different amazing 80s-inspired hair styles, hats, sunglasses, and tattoos. I rocked the sombrero for awhile before settling on the Last Action Hero mullet and bandanna look.

The biggest activity are the rampages. These should be recognizable for any GTA fans and operate in exactly that style: you’re given unlimited bullets to a certain gun and told to do as much damage as you can in a limited time. Some tasks get a bit inventive – there’s a rocket launcher challenge that only rewards air time from the blasts and a hover suit challenge (which looks exactly like the raccoon tail from Super Mario Bros. 3) that tracks all your stomp attacks. They’re a fun and slightly structured diversion from just free roaming chaos or completing the story missions.

Like GTA there is a main set of missions that take you through the story in addition to wrecking havoc around the city. Unfortunately any hope of getting a clever plot is wasted on a story that simply involves collecting all the various parts to the broken time machine. The missions themselves range from fun to frustrating and often open up additional side missions that can be completed, like working for the aforementioned Go-Go Busters (who’s electron proton pack gun is fan-freaking-tastic).

The final mission started out great – getting attacked by a horde of police forces with tanks and helicopters, then having to fight your way out of a sadistic murder-happy reality show. Its scope and grandeur is frustratingly misplaced once you reach the final castle area. The combat quickly gets repetitive and more difficult than fun. At one point an entire dungeon is reset with enemies armed with rocket launchers and I easily died a dozen times just trying to walk around. I did appreciate that VBlank shoved as many NES levels as they could into this lengthy finale – an underwater Super Mario Bros. section, a side scrolling Battletoads venture, a 3rd person driving finale a la Pole Position.

That driving bit at the end was just awful by the way. I never enjoyed those old racing games much as they come down to having to repeat and memorize sections, and Retro City Rampage combines that with a frustrating boss battle that fires missiles while you drive. It took me at least half an hour on this last section alone, and I was so over it by the time I was done that it really soured my entire experience.

Despite a lot of frustrations with the difficulty and combat, the open-world city and 80s theming were pure joy to explore. An open world game that doesn’t take itself seriously is nothing new to Saints Row fans, but embracing the spirit and attitude of the 80s so completely is an impressive feat nonetheless. It’s fun to grin and laugh over the classic Metal Gear translation errors. I loved hopping on a bike and playing through a Paperboy level. These nostalgic trickles work well because they’re short and sweet and hit all the right notes without being long enough to be frustrating.

 

Pros

  • 8-bit style looks and feels great
  • Brimming with 80s pop culture references and classic NES gameplay
  • Lots of collectibles and fun rampage-style challenges
  • Top down driving is fun and intuitive
  • Humorous writing that works more than it doesn’t

 

Cons

  • Main story is funny but forgettable
  • Combat with many enemies on screen becomes a chaotic mess
  • Too many story missions involve waves of foes, making combat repetitive and frustrating
  • One of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever experienced

 

Final Say: If you loved growing up in the 80s you’ll find a lot to like in this 8-bit GTA-style adventure.

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – New X-Men: Childhood’s End, Vol. 5

With a completely new, distinctive art style and the darkest plot and action yet, the five-part “Quest for Magik” story serves as an epic finale to the New X-Men’s adventures.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

new x-men childhood's end vol 5Writers: Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost

Artist: Skottie Young

Issues: New X-Men (2004) #37-43

In what would sadly become their final major story arc, the wonderful writing team of Kyle and Yost once again put their intriguing New X-Men team through the ringer – this time putting them literally through hell.

The story of the demon lord Bellasco and Magik (Illyana Rasputin, Collossus’ younger sister) is mysteriously told by the mutant Blindfold to the other young students, setting the stage for our heroes to soon be pulled down into limbo, separated into different groups and fighting hordes of demon spawn. With a completely new, distinctive art style and the darkest plot and action yet, the five-part “Quest for Magik” story serves as an epic finale to the New X-Men’s adventures.

When Bellasco attacks Xavier’s Institute in his relentless search for Magik, our heroes get separated into three different teams. Dust, X-23, Mercury, Trance, Elixir, David, and the Cuckoos are directly captured by the demon lord, and spend most of the story fighting him and in turn being tortured. Rockslide, Pixie, Anole and others are sent to Limbo where they fight off demons and meet Magik, who’s not entirely on their side. Finally Surge and Hellion are left on the surface, eventually teaming up with an O*N*E sentinel and fighting their way to the others.

new x-men #40bJuggling all three situations means there’s always something big and crazy happening, from giant demon battles with creatively grotesque-looking creatures to Bellasco’s horrifying tortures and killings. If things were dark and serious before (which Kyle and Yost have never been afraid to tackle) they go the extra mile here. Bellasco is a demon lord and has no qualms about straight up murdering children, including melting X-23 into a pile of bones and plunging his hand into David’s chest and pulling out his heart. Holy. Shit.

The main story happens with the Magik team. I’m wholly unfamiliar with the character and her demonically-challenged situation, so must of what she said went over my head. Something about soulswords. She’s a nifty character, though: a previously innocent soul permanently corrupted by demon influence. She’s got the key to save everyone but she can’t exactly be trusted, and she ends up ripping apart Pixie’s soul to forge a soulsword (which the rest of the team interrupts, so it makes more of a soul dagger).

There’s now a whole lot of complexity to the story – a group is captured by Bellasco and the rest try to rescue them in their own ways. Magik (who goes by Darkchild now and rocks some hooves, horns, and tail) teaches Pixie a teleporation spell using her soul while Surge and Hellion hop aboard a sentinel and use Trance to fight their way through demons into Bellasco’s lair. Five issues actually feels slightly drawn out, compared to the rushed feeling I usually get from most story arcs. The main advantage we get is lots of great characterization for our ‘new’ members of the team.

new x-men #40

For the previous volumes of “Childhood’s End” (which began when Kyle and Yost took over on issue #20, and also when I started reading) our main team consisted of Hellion, Surge, X-23, Dust, Mercury, Rockslide and Elixir. This was the main team for several long story arcs, give or take a few side characters. “Quest for Magik” expands the roster to include more of those recurring side characters, especially Anole and Pixie. Taking a fairly robust team roster and adding in more characters is a risky move but it definitely adds to the epic story-telling, and nicely highlights the fact that there really are dozens of kids at the Institute. Kyle and Yost do a fantastic job making them all interesting and giving everyone important things to do.

Easily the most striking aspect of this volume is the art style. For the entire volume New X-Men picks up artist Skottie Young, whom I recognized from the crazy cover art in the latter half of Deadpool and Cable Book 3. Young’s art style is very anime-inspired but in a dark and twisty fashion. At first I found it completely jarring but by the end really enjoyed it, appreciating it for both its uniqueness and style. Even seeing classic X-Men characters like Wolverine and Beast drawn in this crazy style is interesting – and I’m usually a stickler for the classic looks.

It probably helps that Young does an amazing job with the demons, and Bellasco is drawn and staged in very menacing poses and mannerisms – like a combination of Batman’s Joker and Final Fantasy VI’s Kefka. Previous New X-Men volumes generally played it safe with the art, using a bright, youthful style that meshed well with the tone, but this darker cartoon look is really something special.

New X-Men #37b

“Quest for Magik” ends at #41, which leaves the final two issues as both an epilogue to our cast and a precursor to New X-Men’s tie-ins to Messiah Complex. “Children of X-Men” (#41-42) explores the intriguing drama when the students are mostly just sitting around licking their wounds, as well as the rare glimpses of them interacting with the senior staff of the Astonishing X-Men

Kudos again to Kyle and Yost for making teenage drama surprisingly riveting, funny, heartfelt, and enjoyable. Surge tries to get David (formerly Prodigy before depowered after House of M) by kissing Hellion. X-23 freaks out and tries to understand these odd human emotions she’s feeling toward Hellion. Rockslide and Anole have an ongoing ribbing camaraderie that’s always fun to watch. Hellion and Elixir both brood in their own ways, giving off some bad boy vibes without being eye-rollingly annoying about it.

“Childhood’s End” has been an incredibly fun ride. Taking the New X-Men on their own missions and dealing with the incredible harsh realities of a post M-Day world has been a fantastic angle for a series, and really allowed the New X-Men to stand out as  one of the best X-Men series at the time. It’s a huge shame then that the series ends with the mega crossover event Messiah Complex. Apparently some of the cast continued in another spin-off series called Young X-Men, but it looks like it’s pretty universally reviled and was canceled after the first year. Disappointing to say the least, as I’ve really grown to love all of these characters.

new x-men #43

 

Marvel Comics Final Thoughts – Thunderbolts Ultimate Collection

Thanks to some fantastic art, killer action scenes and wonderful characterization, this new Thunderbolts run was easily the best thing to come out of Civil War.

With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.

Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!

Thunderbolts ultimate collectionWriter: Warren Ellis

Artist: Mike Deodato

Issues: Thunderbolts (2006) #110-121, Civil War: The Initiative #1

House of M had created lots of interesting new series, both limited and ongoing for the X-Men and various mutant teams, but Civil War, marvel’s next big crossover event, didn’t seem to achieve the same level of success with its new series. The event itself was a resounding success and the aftermath changed the state of the Marvel universe for years afterward. The one series to receive a major post-Civil War makeover was Thunderbolts, the dysfunctional team of former supervillains that leapt at the chance to join Tony Stark’s gestapo and hunt down unregistered heroes.

The issues leading up to the Warren Ellis and Mike Dodato run were a confusing mess for someone like me that tried to jump in at issue #100, and their Civil War tie-ins were nothing special. In the one-shot Civil War: The Initiative (included in the Ultimate Collection TPB) we’re introduced and teased to this new Thunderbolts team, lead by Norman Osborne (Green Goblin), consisting of Songbird, Moonstone, Radioactive Man, Swordsman, Venom, Penance, and Bullseye. They take down their fleeing unregistered hero with ruthless efficiency and professional organization – not at all what happens during their official run when Warren Ellis takes over to jump start this series into one of the most action-packed and interesting series I’ve ever read beginning with issue #110.

“Faith in Monsters” (#110-115) actually starts off a bit slow. Ellis takes his time introducing the D-list heroes that our nanite-controlled ex-villain team are tasked with apprehending. Frankly I don’t need several pages of Jack Flagg’s emotional state, nor American Eagle talking politics. The drama bubbling up within Thunderbolts Mountain is much more interesting. These individuals are mostly volatile, conniving, and a few meds or pokes away from going crazy and murdering everyone (save for previous Thunderbolts members Songbird and Radioactive Man, the only two that seem to want the team to work).

thunderbolts #114

Each team member fills out an important role, both on the team and in the drama. Venom is the caged animal, the giant beast that’s drawn like a rippling Hulk. Penance is pure firepower, though his emotional state and character drama makes him dangerously unreliable. Bullseye is the ace in the hole – yes, Warren Ellis somehow makes Bullseye a terrifying psychopath. He’s so dangerous and unpredictable they don’t even use him on the regular team – he’s unleashed when no one else is around for when things get really out of hand.

The reason Bullseye is kept in the shadows is because Thunderbolts is a very marketable, TV friendly task force. Ellis embraces the political implications and discussions that naturally follow the state of fear in The Initiative era of a post-Civil War Marvel universe. Montage panels of political talking heads are used in nearly every issue to discuss the ethics of using former villains as a government task force. Norman Osborne and Moonstone have to constantly wrestle with running the team while also putting on an appropriate show for the TV cameras (which is ironic considering the Civil War’s inciting incident started because of a superhero reality TV show).

thunderbolts #111bThe real treat throughout the entire run is the incredible art by Mike Deodato. Artistic preference can be a difficult thing to vocalize, but most people know what they like and what they don’t. Often I come across art styles that I hate and love, but never encountered anything that completely blew me away in every other page. Deodato is a god living amongst mere mortals. The staging of panels in action scenes is brilliant and inventive – often laying them slightly askew to give a sense of motion, or layering them into a bigger, two-page spread dripping in explosions, scene-filling characters or brutal fight scenes.

Few times when comic characters fight do I believe anyone’s actually getting hurt, but Deodato excels at really putting characters through the ringer. In the first arc alone, Bullseye has his neck snapped, Swordsman is shoved through a window and into a television, and Venom tears the arm off of the Steel Spider. It’s exhilarating in a way few action-packed comics come close to achieving. I’m sure it helps that the roster is much more malleable than traditional Avengers or X-Men teams as well.

thunderbolts #115

“Caged Angels” (#116-121) switches focus from the team fighting and capturing heroes on the streets (and mostly fucking it up spectacularly) to fighting each other. A group of telepaths cleverly get themselves captured on purpose, then begin wrecking mental havoc with our already edgy anti-heroes.

Penance nearly kills a heckling prisoner before Moonstone knocks him out. Norman begins seeing the Green Goblin mask beckoning to him in his desk drawer. Swordsman goes off the deep end, shaving his head and bribing the guards and blowing up the Thunderbolts plane. Venom’s inner animal is unleashed, fully taking control of Mac Gargan’s body and devouring guards left and right.

thunderbolts #119c

 

Everything builds up to an epic climax when Norman finally dons the Green Goblin uniform and goes after Swordsman (who managed to take down Venom). He’s portrayed as very Joker-like, relishing in his insanity. Soon it’s just Songbird and Green Goblin left, and the two have a knock down, drag out fight that ends with both on the ground.

thunderbolts #120Bullseye actually saves them all. After his neck was snapped in the previous arc, he spent the majority of the comic being repaired and steps onto the stage to swiftly kill the imprisoned telepaths after all hell has broken loose. Surprisingly the team is still together in the aftermath and they manage to keep everything that happened under wraps, writing off Green Goblin’s appearance as pure rumor and conjecture.

The art throughout these action-packed scenes is nothing short of stunning. Warren Ellis does a great job making these characters interesting, and drawing a line between likeable (Songbird, Radioactive Man, Penance) and detestable (everyone else) while still making everyone fun to watch and read about it.

Penance particularly has a wonderful side story involving Doc Samson delving into his own psychosis and hang-ups (he’s indirectly responsible for the explosion at Stamford, which triggered the SRA and the Civil War). What could’ve been a sad-sack character is actually made starkly relatable and very human.

Sadly this Ultimate Collection ended Deodato and Ellis’ run on Thunderbolts; it will be interesting to see how different creative teams continue to breath success into the series, as it ran for an incredible six years (going all the way to 2012).

Thanks to some fantastic art, killer action scenes and wonderful characterization, this new Thunderbolts run was easily the best thing to come out of Civil War. My only complaint was that it really should’ve started over with a new #1 numbering system, as it’s completely different from the previous Thunderbolts team, story, and creative staff. Highly recommended if you love amazing art and interested in an unconventional super-team when some of Marvel’s most dangerous villains try to work together.

thunderbolts #111

 

Shadowrun 5E “Not With a Whimper” Session 1 Report

For our first Shadowrun role-playing session I throw our street-level runners in the middle of some good old-fashioned gang warfare, cyberpunk style.

Note that since my players will read these I have to avoid spoilers and background information while the current mission is still in session. Look for our epilogue episode and write-up for more in-depth analysis and feedback.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!

Last month I teased a return to online, live streaming tabletop role-playing, and last night marked our first official session in the wonderful world of Shadowrun. It was also the first time I GM’d a session outside of the Quick Start beginner mission.

Although a bit overwhelming, I decided to write our first mission from scratch. I have a bunch of well-written and interesting missions to pick from various source books and I plan on eventually using them either mostly verbatim or heavily borrowing their themes in the future. For our first mission, however, I wanted something that would introduce our new players into the world of Shadowrun, provide an action-packed introduction, and throw our street-level runners in the middle of some good old-fashioned gang warfare.

So our runners all coincidentally found each other at a bar, and then I had a bomb go off.

The resulting chaos and destruction provided many opportunities for role-playing, and I was pleased to see that everyone snapped into hero mode and tried to help the injured NPCs. I didn’t put too much prep time into this initial scenario, allowing the players to guide the action, and I came up with random injuries and deaths for NPCs on the fly.

Redd's Bar

Most importantly the players rescued Jeremiah Redd, the owner of the bar, and followed him into the awaiting DocWagon vehicle to receive treatment and hear his job offer. I had a contingency plan in case they didn’t want to enter but thankfully we could go with my initial plans. This lead to an interesting close-range fight inside the moving all-terrain ambulance as our DocWagon medics turned out to be hostile.

The feaux medics were horribly outnumbered (only three total, and one was driving the whole time) so I figured it would be a fairly quick outcome. Combat lasted longer than I expected, and when the shotgun wielder emerged from the cockpit and nearly killed the runners’ beefy troll shaman in a single blast, I was growing worried. Thankfully the player used an Edge point to re-roll the fails, and managed to cut the damage in half. The rest of the team sprang into action raining down bullets and leaping with knives, while the decker smartly attempted to wrest control of the vehicle.

The uniquely crammed quarters proved interesting but sadly I hadn’t built a proper map or grid, instead using a stock photo of the vehicle. I certainly didn’t expect combat to be as long or involved as it ended up being, and we were just moving tokens around a picture. I did have a pretty good grasp of how the inside looked, and could describe the area and situation after each initiative pass.

Doc Wagon Vehicle

Surprisingly the players were not nearly as violent as I expected, attempting to reason with their foes and trying to get them to surrender. I didn’t expect that, and the enemies were having none of it, fighting to the bloody end (which they quickly received). The driver finally surrendered after a successful Charisma check and looked behind him to see the runners standing over his fallen comrades. The decker brought the vehicle to a stop after it had nearly careened out of control (I was very close to crashing the players – they nearly gave control back to the driver to make him pull over and stop the car – ha!)

We ended our session right as the vehicle came to a stop at an unknown location, with one of the foes still alive. It’ll be interesting to see what information they can pry from their captive, and see what Redd has to say about all this. It’s been a rollercoaster ride so far and the players have barely had a chance to even talk to each other yet (they made their characters separately), which was part of the plan. I anticipate that this run will take another two sessions based on how far they got, and so far seemed like everyone has really enjoyed it. Kudos to Roll20 for being such an easy to use system, and the amazingly convenient built-in character sheets that handle tons of macros and details so we can focus on the fun.

Watch our sessions live on twitch.tv/gorbash722 every Sunday night beginning at 9:30pm Central!