Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dear Sweet Lord

OK, so my schedule this week just got totally f'ed up beyond all belief, so sorry True Believers, I've gotta drop this on ya now.

I just had to do this. I did.

But I can't just drop the Feared Friday (Now Sunday) Post on y'all without some sort of heads up. It would be cruel on so many levels. So without further ado, I now bundle up all the credibility and goodwill I've ever had on the comicsblogoweb (shaddup!), tie it up in a basket, and dangle it by a single thread over a pit of alligator ninja pirate robots.

In a word: gulp.


Before City of Heroes, City of Villains, HeroClix, Vs., or all that, way back in the halcyon days of 1986, outside of a few (mostly crappy) video games your choices for comics-related gaming were limited.

Unless, of course, you were able to grab a few of your close comic friends and sit down for a good old fashioned dice-rollin' stat-keepin' game of Marvel Super Heroes, the official Role-Playing Game of the Marvel Universe.

I was not "cool" enough to have friends that would play this game. The jury's still out on whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

"DAMN YOU, MARVEL!" I shouted at the heavens time and again. "How on Earth can I enjoy comic-related gaming goodness on those frequent occasions when I find myself wishing I had a few comic geek friends conveniently around in a gaming mood?"

(I was quite the verbose 11 year old.)

And yea, verily, Marvel heard my prayers and shouts and delivered unto us:


Marvel Super Heroes Gamebooks.

Finally! An opportunity to star in the comic adventures of my favorite heroes! In convenient paperback book format!

Oh man, did I love these things.

The idea was simple: it's a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but with more math.

Each one of these dandies (there were 8 published, I believe) took you through the adventure of a certain hero; Spider-Man, Captain America, The Thing, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Wolverine, etc. You got a "character bookmark" included with each one that was absolutely indispensable, for reasons that will become apparent.

For example, check out the bookmark from Daredevil: Guilt By Association.

I love how after all the "standard" hero stats (Fighting, Agility, etc.) they always threw in some "hero-specific" stats that absolutely no other hero would even think of getting rated in. Like on Daredevil's character you've got "Agility With Baton". Captain America had "Shield". You think Spider-Man sat around worrying about his "Shield" rating? Hell, no. He was too busy pumping up "Webbing" or "Angst".

(Side note: not having ever played the full-on MSH roleplaying game, I never knew what kind of scale these numbers were on. All I knew was that higher was better, and if Daredevil rates a "15" on "Agility With Baton", then most of us normal folk probably rate a "-23".)

(Additional side note: I'd like to think that if I had a MSH Character Bookmark of Myself, that I'd have skills like "Eating Tacos: 14" or "Napping: 11".)


The mechanics were simple: Read a passage in the book, roll a die, fudge the numbers according to what the book told you, turn to the next passage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Another neat feature was Karma points, that were basically a form of sanctioned cheating with moral repercussions. You had a set number of Karma points that you could use to affect die rolls, add health points, etc. Being smart and helping people meant this:

Doing un-Presidential things like this:

Usually ended up like this:

It's a neat little device to keep you in the "Hero" mood, assuming that you were still actually playing by the rules by halfway through the book.

Oh, did I mention the damn die-rolling and statkeeping and erasing got incredibly tedious after a while?

See, let's say you rolled a 4, added your "Psyche" stat which made it 8. But the passage would say something like, "Make a Psyche Check. If it's 9 or less, turn to 123. Otherwise, turn to 456."

Higher is always better, right? So you just knew that if you kept that 8 you rolled then the next passage would say "Your head has exploded. You are dead", or something like that. And then you'd get pissed, because you totally forgot to keep a finger on the original passage so you could just go back and roll again and pretend that everything was copacetic, but dammit now you've lost your place and HAVE to start the damn book all over again! ARGH!

And who wants that?

This is where the bookmark became truly indispensable: cheating death. You could just go back, pretend that friggin' lying die roll never happened, and continue on your merry way, because you are sure as shit NOT spending another 45 minutes flipping back and forth through passages you've already read just to get here again, nosiree.

The really neat thing about these books is that every now and then it really did feel like the comic. Check this shit out:

Holy shit! Viper's hypnotized Captain America! I am so screwed!

Reading them nowadays is like being transported back into Marvel Comics circa 1987 or so; for example, in the Cap book the Avengers making guest appearances are Wasp, Namor, and Captain Marvel. Peter Parker isn't married. Wolverine's not a complete dick. And by and large it's all straightforward superhero storytelling, part novel, part geekazoid dice rolling.

The really strange thing? I set out to dig these up to make fun of them (and me) in sort of a 'ha ha, look at what I thought was the shee-ot back in the day' kind of way. But take away the admittedly silly die rolls and stats and just read it through as a Choose-Yer-Own-Adventure, and...they're surprisingly decent. It's like finding two or three old-school Marvel comics in a quarter box; the purple prose is kept to a minimum (mostly), and the stories typically keep everyone in character (by 1987 standards)! (They're kind of like Anti-Bendis Serums.)

I wish I could say more good things about the art. But I can't. It's...OK, but by and large it was clearly an afterthought. Every now and then you had some cool half-page black and white panels describing a passage (and often spoiling ones you hadn't read yet...argh....), but mostly it was repeated images to break up blocks of text, like this:

No, I don't know what the significance of the gun is either, unless it's the author exhorting us to keep reading the book or die.

Peter David actually wrote one of these things, a Spider-Man one called "As the World Burns". Computer game designer Warren Spector wrote The Thing: One Thing After Another. I am actively hunting for these books, like a mongoose stalking its prey. But all the authors generally did a pretty good job with these.

The real innovation in MSH gamebook design came with the X-Men book, where you got to play as FOUR DIFFERENT X-MEN! It was shit-hot when I was reading these as a kid, and on Sunday I'll lead you all through the wonder that is "An X-Cellent Death", where we'll play as Not-A-Dick Wolverine, Mohawked Storm, Plot-Device Nightcrawler, and Punk-Rock-Hair Rogue! It's such an odd book. You'll have to see for yourself. It's probably the best example of the coolness and the geekiness and the just plain weirdness that these books offered.

(No, I won't actually be blogging the whole book. That would be torture on levels you can't even do on the Internet. But I'll hit the, erm, high points.)

So stop by Sunday; I'll bring the bookmark, kay? Hey, where's everybody going? Guys? Guys?!?


Blogger Spencer Carnage said...

Best. Post. Ever.

Seriously, though, I played me some crazy Marvel Super Heroes when I was, uh....young. It was simple, fun, and totally awesome. I could easily go into the deep end about all this, but I won't.

7:35 PM  
Blogger CalvinPitt said...

I object to the term Plot-Device being used in conjunction with Nightcrawler. Not that strenuously mind you, as I have no clue what you mean by it, but still, it needed to be said.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

No worries, Calvin. I meant it only the context of the upcoming gamebook. I dig Nightcrawler greatly; but in the book he's...well, you'll see. :-)

10:29 PM  
Blogger Jeff_Grubb said...

Oh. My. God.

You know, this is like someone digging up that prom photo of you wearing that powder blue leisure suit. I mean, I thought looked cool in those days, regardless of the photographic evidence.

I have been following your blog for about a month (looking for good comics blogs), and was incredibly surprised to find MY work under the microscope. I feel like a piece of comics history, now.

So I'm glad you liked the books. I did the first Spider-Man book, and my Lovely Bride Kate did the Cap and X-Men books. Yes, we're comics geeks, and loved the old books.

Jeff Grubb

12:15 AM  
Blogger joncormier said...

I guess you can now all refer to me as Jon "Viper" Cormier after reading the excerpt from page 173...

I remember getting a sword and sorcery book like this for a summer vacation at a cottage. It was great for rainy days but it didn't come with either a book mark or dice. You were meant to cover your eyes and drop a pencil onto a number grid. Luckily I was geeky enough to have some D&D dice.

Fun post.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Jeff: Holy Crap! Thanks for checking in! In what will seem like shameless sucking up but isn't, the first Spider-Man, Cap, and the X-Men book were (I thought) the best examples of the line, (which is why I used them in the post). Dude, you and Kate are _so_ a part of comics history!


Jon: The alternate solution recommended in the MSH books was to tear up slips of paper and number them 1-6, which seems a little intensive to me. (sigh) Yeah, I had dice too.

8:33 AM  
Blogger I ROCK!!!!! said...

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1:34 PM  
Blogger Spencer Carnage said...

No fair! You can't have the guy who designed the Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying Game comment on your blog! You don't even know what a power stunt is!

3:04 PM  
Blogger kelvingreen said...

Jon, I recall that particular mechanic. I think that was from the Lone Wolf series. Some of them are online here.

For what it's worth, I preferred the laate-90's SAGA version of Marvel Super Heroes.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Allen Varney said...

I'm way late in discovering this thread -- I saw the link in Jeff Grubb's blog -- but I can wax nostalgic with everyone else. I wrote the Doctor Strange gamebook in that series, "Through Six Dimensions." though the editor chopped the first 30+ pages into hash, the book still works as a valentine to one of my favorite characters.

I still remember writing along, having Doctor Strange fight aliens invading Earth through a dimensional warp, when suddenly he sees them hauling a mysterious device through the portal. And the aliens say, "You have no chance against Sighald's Battery!" And I, the author, sitting there at the word processor, stared at the screen and said, "What the hell is Sighald's Battery?" So then I had to figure out what it was and work it into the plot. It's always a weird and arresting moment in any writer's career when his characters slip their leash.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Warren Spector said...

Allen Varney just pointed me at this little trip down Marvel Memory Lane and I figured I'd add my two cents.

Writing One Thing After Another was--and remains--one of the cooler things I've done. I mean, I was always a huge (HUGE) fan of the Fantastic Four, and especially the Thing. It's hard to describe how cool I felt when I got to type the words, "It's clobberin' time!" and that excitement paled next to what I felt when we got the word back that the folks at Marvel approved the book--Stan Lee might have read my Thing book! (Okay, probably not, but I can dream, can't I?...)

Anyway, I haven't even looked at One Thing Afer Another in, like, decades. It might be absolutely terrible. But I sure had fun writing it and I was proud as heck of it, when it came out.

Only sad thing: I wanted desperately to buy the original cover art (by TSR artist, Jeff Butler). Couldn't afford it back then. Jeff, if you read this, drop me an email. I'd still like to own that artwork!

1:07 PM  

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