Posted by Ron Edwards
September is Cosmic Zap month here at Doctor Xaos Comics Madness. Today brings talk of a role-playing session using the game With Great Power … by Mike Miller, which featured Dark Omen, wielder of the Power of Negation, holder of the Eighth Chair, wearer of the Armor of Faces.
First! The excellent Juan Ochoa has provided the portrait you see here, more-or-less brainstormed during our recent conversation about the character. Second, I discussed the game mechanics in some detail in Scratch pad. Third, I’ll be quoting from and referencing my 2007 posting at the Forge about the game session, Cosmic zap at GenCon.
One of the nifty things about making up the villains for this game is that you choose an Aspect from the hero the villain is targeting, and use some direct attack on it to make up the villain’s Aspects. In other words, you tailor your villains to the hero’s currently designated at-risk features. In the case of a mondo-cosmic villain like this one, as opposed to “peer” villains, I loaded him up with an anti-Aspect for each hero. Which means to talk about Dark Omen, you first have to know about:
- the Scion of Seven Suns (Mike) – lantern jaw, golden hair, cape; the protector of the star systems mentioned in his name, and lackey to an annoyingly fusty galactic council
- Creche (Paul) – a lone, melancholy alien with a Kirby widget on his head, rivets down his arms, and the eggs of the next generation of his whole species in his abdomen
- Traxis the Starlight Hunter (Ralph) – who used this ridiculously technological bow and whose steed’s front half was a horse and back half was a comet
- Olivia the queen of the space fairies (Kat) – sorta just what the name says, ramp up “queen of the fairies” to the spaceways and you’ve got it
Easy enough, then – Dark Omen either actively or incidentally ruins the lives of each of these heroes in some way. It has a lot to do with negating things, which of course makes that pretty easy to fill in the blanks. [quick aside: Dark Omen Games is the publishing imprint used by a friend and fellow role-player named Seth Ben Ezra; I was referencing him off for fun because I realized what a great villain name it was] Here’s some text from the Forge thread:
I put a fair amount of effort into making Dark Omen worth our time. My point of reference was Thanos. How the hell do you play an RPG character worthy of recognition like that? Well, I tried. Dark Omen as a power embodied negation. His ideal was universal entropy, energy dispersed evenly to the point where nothing happened or could ever happen. To get there, he even imposed peace and boring harmony on the fractious and rather mean-spirited Council, for instance; this led to a great 70s vibe of Scion getting more and more willing to jettison the selfish, exploitative establishment he served, and thus moving closer to “agreeing” with Dark Omen.
But Dark Omen as a person had to glimmer through a little bit too. At one point in the fight with Scion, he switched to really harsh physical in-fighting, elbows and so on, as a direct contrast to the operatic reality-shifts and superpowered, casual back-hand he’d used so far. His dialogue at that moment: “I was human, once.”
That also leads to my understanding of the fruitful void in playing With Great Power, which is no more nor less than the occasionally-achieved fruitful void of the entire Marvel Comics endeavor itself: the truth that is inherent in ambiguity, which provokes constant reflection upon one’s current path of action, even in the presence of an urgent need for action. It applies to the greatest of the villains as well as to the heroes, both large and small. Thanos is all about this, when he’s not just a bunch of heavy metal imagery filtered through Jim Starlin peaking on acid, or an excuse to sell an action figure.
Oh, it has its failures – for one thing, the constant self-doubt and during-action blithering that often characterizes Marvel action, and the tendency to devolve into whining and the dumb brand of soap opera. Not to mention losing its political edge entirely around 1980, although since that criticism applies to our culture as a whole, I suppose that’s understandable. But its triumphs are pretty damn powerful.
So … what was Dark Omen about, then? Nowadays I’d probably go visceral, listen to this:
and take it from there. But more analytically, two issues have arisen about that game session in my thinking, and about the genre. I’ll work on them here for introduction, and continue with yet another game-grown mighty cosmic villain in the next post.
Rising action, endings, and defeats
As played, our story included poor Traxis being stomped and devastated, the humiliation of the Scion and the destruction of another sun, and the looming possibility of quite a few less space fairies in space. But the game was built in a way which would tip the villain’s overall mechanical advantage to the heroes soon, and in some ways, the character who suffered the most would be the most effective later. It’s a damn shame we didn’t get to play through the whole mechanical arc of a With Great Power … story, because I’d like to know if the built-in structure of the game could help overcome the biggest problem with zap villains: the weird no-win trap of ending a story with them in it. If they’re defeated, there’s so much closure that one feels like a whole episode of life is over, never to be revisited. If they’re not, then the “this is it! the very cosmos hangs in the balance!” is obviated.
It’s a damn hard thing to write and pull off well. One either ends up with … oh well, Big Purple Supervillain is Defeated Once More Until the Next Mondo-Crossover, or, a Gainax Ending which may well be plain stupid and empty once you get past the pretty lights. I can count the truly good cosmic zap endings on one hand, and I’m talking about movies, comics, books, et cetera combined.
This effect is also exacerbated by the weird way in which the zap is both in and not in the current matrix or stew of material available across a range of comics titles. It almost needs a fragmented, grab-and-go matrix of stuff to exist among,giving it something to transcend … but being in that stew means being subject to the needs of those titles to continue and for those characters to be validated, whereas being out of it means this story needs to have a more final, more powerful ending than the typical heroic comics story.
Example: I’m still undecided whether bringing in Spider-Man to help resolve the climactic fight with Thanos in 1977 was a barely-tolerable artifact of the fact that Starlin was writing for Marvel Comics and forced to use nominal leading-character tie-ins to finish the story at all, or whether it injected a note of ordinary humanity and a venue for the moving final page of dialogue.
The fascism fetish
Not all the cosmic villains are identifiable with a human institution, but a lot of them are. Galactus is a good example of one that isn’t; what makes him interesting is that his human needs and views are rendered inhuman strictly on the basis of scaling up in magnitutde. For the ones who are, the best or most coherent in these terms is The Magus, who embodies all the kinetic and inertial energy of organized religion. But Thanos – particularly his 70s version – and Darkseid make me squint a little.
They shouldn’t, right? Both are world-dominating dictators with a horde of thuggish goons, who oversee authoritarian empires which cannot exist without ongoing conquest, and whose economies rely on slave labor, colonialism, and ever-proliferating war technology. Each completely identifies his personal success and unchallenged leadership with the success of the society itself. It’d be megalomania except that it doesn’t seem to be delusional. This isn’t hard! Hitler! They’re Hitler! (boy, that was easy, one Godwin and it’s done)
… except … somehow, that doesn’t work. It should. All the details are there. But in each case the villain is simply not deranged and vicious, not even when he does in fact do something so heinous that for any other character, in any other way, it’d be so absurdly “over the line” that it would risk making the story unbearably bad. I’m not sure why I can explain why these guys manage to avoid that fate, and the associated one of being just another OMG Nazi Dictator Kill Him With Fire.
And that’s related to a bigger question too, concerning the unfortunate fascist fetish that’s widespread among comics and SF and gaming aficionados. If the appeal of Thanos and Darkseid were merely an indulgence of this phenomenon, then what we’d see is much like the “Stormtroopers are so cool!” situation – which to my mind moves past simple appreciation of a story and its components, and enters a zone I do not like to be in or near. (Note for puzzled people: I am not discussing “fascist!” as an unthinking epithet nor as mere right-wing extremism; fascism does not exist as policy until it overtakes the political center.)
But again, my puzzlement comes from something else is going on with these characters which obviates or replaces or somehow otherwise transcends this very effect. The appeal of Thanos and Darkseid is rooted in something that’s not the same thing. I wish I knew what it was.
That’s really where Dark Omen didn’t come into his own, though. I had the psychology down, more or less a correspondence with Thanos’ death romance, but I didn’t have an institution identified with him, or even a sense of whatever morality or society he might have come from or been about. Maybe some day, though. Like our game session as a whole, he was a good start.
Next: Time travel trippin’ up
About Ron EdwardsGame author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor
Posted on September 20, 2015, in Storytalk, Supers role-playing, The great ultravillains and tagged Adolf Hitler, cosmic zap, Dark Omen, Dark Omen Games, Darkseid, fascism fetish, GenCon, Kat Miller, Michael S. Miller, Paul Czege, Ralph Mazza, Spider-Man, Thanos, With Great Power RPG. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.