Tuesday 28 December 2021

Remnants of the Nameless Empire: more monsters from City of Spires

More monsters that my players have run into during my current City of Spires campaign. These ones lean further into science fantasy, as one of the key conceits of the campaign is that it's a fantasy setting built on top of the ruins of an SF setting. The deeper you dig the more likely you are to start running into all the malfunctioning cyborgs and radiation zombies left over from previous ages of the world. 

Worm Cultists: AC leather, 1-5 HD, damage by weapon, morale 7.

Long ago, the Nameless Empire procured the egg of an alien worm-god for study. At some point after the fall of their empire, this egg hatched, giving birth to the enormous alien monster known as the Great Worm. It remains trapped to this day in the subterranean vault it was originally stored in as an egg, but its dreams and magical radiation are powerful enough to bleed into the world outside.

Worm cultists are those wretched individuals who strayed too close to the Great Worm's prison, and found their minds overwhelmed by the power of its alien dreams. Compelled by its will, they dig themselves as deeply as they can into the rock and earth that entomb it, bathing themselves in the bizarre radiation that it emits until they are utterly changed, body and soul. Their bodies and limbs become slimy and segmented, studded with bristly hairs that allow them to sense vibrations in the earth and air. They can still just about speak, though their voices sound as though they're gargling with slime. At the apex of their transformation they tear out their own eyes, their empty sockets becoming hollow, slime-filled pits in what were once their faces. Mortal sight would only be a distraction from their new senses.

Worm cultists retain human-level intelligence, though the submersion of their minds in the dreams of the Great Worm tends to make them rather unhinged. They are utterly devoted to the Worm, and work tirelessly to free it from its prison. Their boneless bodies can squeeze through any space wide enough for them to get their heads through, and they can tunnel efficiently through soil and dirt. Their bristling hairs allow them to sense motion, making them hard to evade: they can also instinctively sense radiation, including the background radiation found throughout nature, and can recognise different substances from their differing radiation signatures. They are still blind, however, and cannot easily distinguish between e.g. one human and another unless they hear them speak. Drying out is very painful for them, and they take an additional 50% damage from heat- or fire-based attacks. They prefer to remain in cool, wet, dark locations whenever possible.

All worm cultists double as priests of the Great Worm, and have the spellcasting abilities of a cleric with levels equal to their hit dice. 

Image by Artur Owsnicki, after an image by Devon Cady-Lee.

Worm Men: AC leather, 2 HD, damage by weapon, morale 6.

This is what worm cultists eventually degenerate into after soaking up too much magical radiation. Their legs atrophy into vestigial stubs, while their arms warp into long, boneless, wriggling tendrils. Any hint of neck or waist disappears: apart from their arms, they now resemble giant segmented worms with distorted human faces at their apex. Their radiation-fried brains are only semi-intelligent, and they cannot speak. They have the same sensory abilities as worm cultists, and are even more proficient as tunnellers, but lack their spellcasting powers. They usually fight with crude clubs or spears.

Worm men are hermaphroditic, and are capable of breeding with one another, though their irradiated state means that their fertility is very low. They instinctively obey worm cultists, who use them as warriors, labourers, and guardians.

Image by Patrick Reinemann

Zomborgs: AC chain and shield, 3 HD, damage 2d6 (blade hands) or 4d6 (energy blaster), morale N/A.

Cybernetic zombies built by the Nameless Empire to guard the resting places of its honoured dead. They resemble embalmed corpses held upright by cybernetic skeletons: their right arms terminate in a variety of blades (to allow them to assist with embalming work), while their left hands have been replaced with short range energy blasters. These blasters require three rounds to reload between shots - zomborgs will try to keep their distance while their blasters are reloading, but if their enemies close with them they will fight with their blade-hands, instead.

Zomborgs sense intruders via motion sensors built into their eye sockets, whose blinking red lights are easily spotted in the darkness of their ruined vaults. They have no other senses, and are oblivious to noises, smells, lights, etc. They have no intelligence beyond their preprogrammed 'guard-hunt-kill' and 'autopsy-embalm-preserve' routines, and are incapable of learning from experience. (My PCs mostly dealt with them by luring them into traps.)

Stranglers: AC chain, 1 HD, damage 1d4 / 1d4 (2 claws), morale 5.

These hairless subterranean humanoids are a deliberately devolved caste of engineer-slaves created by the Nameless Empire. Their stature is dwarfish, averaging only 4' high, but their bodies are lithe and muscular and they have freakishly long arms ending in long, clever, multi-jointed fingers. They can see in the dark, and underground they are as agile as monkeys, effortlessly climbing and swinging along walls and ceilings. They are capable of squeezing their bodies through narrow cracks like contortionists, and their nests are usually found in spaces only reachable via fissures so narrow that only they can squeeze through them. They possess only animal-level intelligence, but have an instinctive knack for mechanical labour if commanded to undertake it via the correct machine-noise signals.

Stranglers get their name from their secondary function, which is to protect the areas they inhabit against intrusions from unauthorised personnel, i.e. anyone without the correct subdermal microchips. When they sense intruders into their ruined underground complexes they will creep stealthily down upon them, aiming to sever ropes, douse lights, and otherwise render their victims blind and vulnerable: then they will leap down upon them in chattering swarms and try to claw and strangle the life from them. If a Strangler hits the same target with both claws in the same round it has its hands wrapped around their throat, and will proceed to throttle them for an automatic 2d4 damage per round in place of its normal attacks until either it is defeated or its victim dies. (Obviously, this special attack only works on enemies who have necks and need to breathe.) They attack only from ambush and in packs, and will retreat if faced with determined opposition. 

Stranglers are usually found in the wreckage of Nameless Empire factories and laboratories, some of which still house semi-functional AIs dozing through the centuries on sleep mode. Explorers who manage to fight their way through the Stranglers and contact such an AI may be able to persuade it to microchip them if they can convince it that they are there on legitimate imperial business, though the AIs may demand that they perform other tasks in return in service of their long-dead empire.

Friday 10 December 2021

That's what Shi said: race, gender, and 1990s comic books

Who here remembers Shi?

I certainly didn't until recently. As my dalliance with Mutant Chronicles demonstrates, however, there are few limits to my tendency to become fascinated by whatever 1990s pop culture ephemera happen to cross my path. In this case, all it took was a stray link to a recent kickstarter and the fact that the comics turned out to be on sale at Drivethru. 

In many ways, Shi turned out to be a kind of bottled essence of mid-1990s nerd culture. A sexy Japanese woman in a stripper costume, written and drawn by a white American man, engages in bloody martial arts battles against urban criminal gangs while quoting Sun Tzu and pontificating on the nature of Bushido, all against a backdrop of Japanese corporate takeover of American business. It has everything: violence, Orientalism, urban decay, mercenaries, ex-Special Forces vigilantes, objectified 'action girl' heroines, guns, katanas, rampant fetishism. It even finds room for the then-current preoccupation with Catholicism that was so much a part of other 1990s action-girl comics like Magdalena, Fallen Angel, Warrior Nun Areala, and Avengelyne.

What surprised me about Shi is that, despite all this, it actually had some real merit. It almost manages to tell a story worth telling: not a narrative for the ages, by any means, but a good, pulpy tale about the self-consuming nature of violence and the futility of revenge, with strong roots in both Christian morality and Japanese pop culture. The art, at its best, manages to accomplish an effective fusion of Manga stylings, Floating World prints, and the Western superhero comicbook tradition. In places it comes close to being a cross-cultural success story, an example of an Italian-American Catholic artist developing a fascination with Japanese Buddhism that gives rise to something greater than the sum of its parts. But it never quite managed to cohere.

Here, as elsewhere, the hallucinatory Japanese warriors Ana sees around her in battle mirror the way that the comic itself is haunted by the Floating World imagery upon which it draws. 

Here's the story it wanted to tell: some time in the 1970s, a Japanese martial artist marries an American woman, converts to Catholicism, and retires from his old life to run a small business. One of his rivals sends a Yakuza hitman, Arashi, to hunt him down. He overpowers Arashi, and is about to kill him when his daughter, Ana, runs out, yelling 'Thou shalt not kill!' Arashi takes advantage of the distraction to shoot him dead, and then flees.

Traumatised by her father's death, Ana goes to her paternal grandfather for martial arts training, planning to shape herself into an avenger. Arashi, meanwhile, emigrates to America and builds himself a criminal empire. Years later, Ana hunts him down and starts killing his henchmen, but finds herself increasingly shocked by the human toll her violence is taking: after all, the men she's killing have wives and children, too. She tries to abandon her mission, but she's in too deep, and her attempts to disentangle herself only end up with more people getting killed. Finally, sorrowfully, she concludes that she has to see this through. 

Meanwhile, Arashi's powerbase is starting to crumble under the impact of Ana's assassinations. His enemies circle and the loyalty of his followers wavers, culminating in a coup attempt in which his own lieutenants rise up against him: Arashi wins, but is left broken-hearted, having killed his own closest friends in order to preserve his power over an empire that is already falling apart. Ana arrives to kill him, they fight, and she loses, but Arashi no longer has the heart to kill her, recognising her as a truer embodiment of the martial virtues he once aspired to than he ever was. Instead he commits symbolic seppuku by calling the police and framing himself for the murders she committed, while she abandons her avenger identity and walks away, her traumas resolved. The end.

At its best, Shi manages to be a rather humane story about the way in which violence can estrange us from ourselves: a story in which every fight scene has real psychological weight for the heroine, rather than just being meaningless padding of the 'and then ninjas attack!' variety. Its moral core is a struggle between three sides of Ana's personality: the religious morality that calls her to forgive, the honour code that calls her to avenge, and the primordial bloodlust embodied by the figure of the demon-samurai which haunts her, that calls her to just keep killing people because killing people feels fucking awesome. But anyone who has the slightest familiarity with 1990s comics will be completely unsurprised to hear that this core story kept getting buried under mountains of utter gibberish. There are conspiracies and misunderstood mutants and ancient orders of secret warriors and more fetish fuel and cod-Asian mysticism than you can shake a bokken at. 

Shi had honourable beginnings. The early editorials keep emphasising that it wasn't like those other 'bad girl' comics, with their meaningless violence and gratuitous fanservice, and at first it was sort of true. Billy Tucci had an actual story he wanted to tell, supported by real characters and an above-average-for-1994 level of understanding of Japanese culture, and these helped to make Shi a hit back when it was still just a struggling indie comic coming out at irregular intervals a few times a year. It got mainstream recognition: Tucci wrote proudly about the coverage he'd received in The New York Times and Elle magazine, notice that he attributed to his heroine's 'style and sophistication', approvingly quoting a description of Ana as 'the Audrey Hepburn of comics'. He was obviously frustrated with the way that Shi kept getting lumped together with what he viewed as inferior works, a perspective that Shi: Shiseiji (1996) was written to refute, as its editorial makes clear:

[A]s he spies upon Ana's adventures as Shi, our shiseiji has no idea of the complex moral issues that drive Ana's quest to avenge her family. Consequently, all he sees in Ana is a 'super ninja-bitch'. In this respect, Shiseiji is very much like a lot of fans in the comics community who write Shi off as another 'bad girl' book. The fact of the matter is that Ana isn't bad at all. She's not a ninja, either.

By 1997 Tucci was riding high, and unwisely tried to make Shi the lynchpin of a whole new comics franchise, with everything that implied in the late 1990s: spin-offs, crossovers, trading cards, alternate covers, the works. There were even plans for a Shi movie starring Tia Carrere, whom readers of a certain age will remember as Cassandra from Wayne's World. But the audience wasn't there, and the comics industry was in crisis, and by 1998 it was obvious that the entire enterprise was in deep trouble, with cancelled series and plaintive editorials begging readers to tell them what they were doing wrong. By 1999 the whole thing had collapsed into ruin.

It's easy to critique Shi. Critiquing Shi is like shooting fish in a barrel. Ana's whole character design is an exercise in fanservice - one comic even lampshades this by having her visit a strip club, where everyone naturally assumes, based on her costume, that she's one of the performers. Her fighting style apparently consists mostly of jumping into the air while sticking her butt out. The dilemma her character is built around rests on awful essentialising stereotypes that juxtapose kind humane western Christianity with alien and implacable Asian honour codes. (Moments where Ana starts talking about her giri tend to be particularly bad.) For a story supposedly built around a 'strong female character', a surprising amount of the plot consists of men taking decisions on Ana's behalf while she flops around having existential crises. The ancient secret orders of the Nara and Kyoto sohei, whose feuds drive much of the plot, are portrayed as murderous idiots, a kind of parody of Western stereotypes about Eastern religion, forever killing each other over trivialities and committing ritual suicide at the drop of a hat: it's impossible to believe that such organisations could hold together for a single generation, let alone a thousand years. (The 2004-5 miniseries Shi: Ju-Nen - which inexplicably featured costume designs by Anna Sui, of all people - showed them finally wiping each other out: the only wonder was that it hadn't happened sooner.) And the series never knew what to do with its secondary protagonist, Tomoe, whose narrative rapidly devolved into stream-of-consciousness mad-libs even by comic book standards. Not even the queer-baiting between her and Ana ever amounted to anything.

'I love you, Tomoe! But in a totally Platonic, heterosexual way, because it's still 1997! Now let's have another scene where we hug while we're both half-naked!'

The attitude of the whole franchise towards its Asian sources is deeply conflicted. On one hand, Tucci was clearly fascinated with all things Japanese, intrigued by Shinto and Buddhism, visually enraptured by kimonos and samurai armour, and delighted by the expressive potential of manga. (Shi had a manga spin-off in 1996, an era when manga was still relatively little known to the mainstream American comic-book market.) He proudly printed an endorsement from Stan Sakai, creator of Usagi Yojimbo, who praised Shi for being more respectful of its source material than most of its competitors, and who described it as 'captur[ing] the spirit of the buyuden - tales of valor popular in medieval Japanese literature'. Tucci even collaborated with the Korean-American writer Hank Kwon on the short-lived series Horseman (1996), whose story of an immortal Korean warrior predated the arrival of Hallyu culture in America by several years. 

At the same time, though, Tucci kept condemning the very Asian cultures that he drew upon so heavily, returning repeatedly to the cruelty of the historical Japanese persecution of Christianity, and to Ana's need to reconnect with her mother's Catholicism as an antidote to the violence and inhumanity of BushidoEven when he was publishing his own manga series it was at pains to distance itself from association with the wrong kind of manga, keeping its own brand of softcore fanservice carefully distinct from the form's reputation for more extreme pornographic content. As the editorial to the first issue explained, 'Weird monsters, giant robots, invaders from space... you name it, we'll do it (although, we'll skip emulating some of the racier stuff, like LA BLUE GIRL or DEMON BEAST INVASION. Sorry, but Shi just isn't that kind of gal).'

OUR manga isn't porny at all!

The frustrating thing about Shi is how close it kept getting to becoming something more. Take these passages from the 1995 comic Shi: Senryaku. Here's Ana, aged seventeen, learning a harsh lesson about why the white American boy she likes keeps smiling at her -  

"Let me guess," Mike offered. He let an insinuating tone creep into his voice. "You've heard some things about Oriental girls, you were wondering if they're true, and since I'm married to a Japanese woman..."

"Hey, I knew you'd understand," Ted said. The leer in his voice echoed Mike's. "The guys in my frat say that Asian women are, like, totally submissive and they'll do anything! Y'think Ana would be like that?

"Gee, Ted, I guess you'd better ask her", Mike responded, as I stepped out of the office. Ted gaped at me, astonished and ashamed. I glared at him. He turned to Mike, realized he'd been set up, and stormed out.

Full marks to Mike, right? Except that after becoming Ana's substitute father figure, and sharing all his sorrows, he shows his true colours as well:

I felt so sorry for him. Suddenly we were embracing. I was rocking him, trying to comfort him... and he kissed me.

I froze, mortified. What was he doing? He kissed my eyes, my hair, he whispered in my ear. It was okay, he said, Mariko didn't understand him, our bond was so special, so deep, and then he said: "Ana, you're so beautiful... I've been waiting for this since the day you walked in..."

He'd been waiting for this since the day I walked in. Which meant he'd been planning for it since then. Which meant that everything he'd been for me was a lie to make me vulnerable so that this could happen...

I broke away from him. I couldn't speak. I trembled with fury and anguish at the incredible depth of his betrayal.

This is pretty insightful stuff for a 1990s comic book, offering not just obvious critiques of racial stereotyping and fetishisation, but also a more subtle awareness that just because a man seems to transcend such vulgar prejudices doesn't mean he's not waiting to exploit you the moment he gets the chance. But this appears embedded in a series whose entire marketing strategy essentially boiled down to: 'HEY! LOOK! BUSTY ASIAN CHIX! CHECK OUT DAT A$$!'

See what I mean?

But under all the nonsense there's some real strength, both in the writing and the imagery. Shi, I fear, was a graphic novel manqué, undone by the realities of mid-1990s commercial comic book publishing. If the strongest elements of The Way of the Warrior, Shi: Kaidan, Shi: Senryaku, and Tora No Shi had been distilled down into a single series of about twelve issues, it could have been great, a kind of red-and-gold counterpart to David Mack's astonishing black-and-white Kabuki: Circle of Blood: a lurid martial arts crime drama about a traumatised girl taking on the legacy of her legendary ancestress in a half-crazed bid for revenge and redemption, haunted by a hallucinatory swirl of Japanese folklore and Catholic religious imagery, oni and angels, leering tengu and bleeding saints. But drawing it out to over sixty issues, and diluting it with all the superfluous characters whom Tucci hoped to publish spin-off series about, just let all its strength dissipate, reducing Ana to the status of yet another 90s action girl with too many katanas and not enough clothes.

The moral of the story is that if you only have one story to tell, then for heaven's sake just tell that story. 

The application of this moral to RPGs is left as an exercise for the reader.