Dark Omen

DARK_OMENSeptember 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

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About Ron Edwards

Game 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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I never did get around to trying WGP, I should remedy that some time. So far, Marvel Heroic is the only supers game that really worked for me, but to be fair I haven’t played many.

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  2. This was a great season. Glad to see Dark Omen get a well-deserved illustration. The Armor of Faces is very metal. I love the Cosmic cape! So regal and operatic.

    Your point about Cosmic Zap endings is well-made. The scope of events is so sweeping and so profound, it feels as though the endings should be so impactful as to really fundamentally change the characters and everything about them. Of course, the realities of the comic business means that will never happen.

    My personal experience, leads me to wonder if these characters in particular are better read in a fractal pattern, rather than straightforward linear. I started on Cosmic Zap with very early ’90s Thanos Quest and The Infinity Gauntlet. Together, those 8 issues tell the story of Thanos taking his love for Death to its ultimate extreme, still being rejected, and after all is said and done finding appreciation for life–and a simple one, at that.

    It’s a good story, and, for me, at least, it holds up to rereading decades later from different points in my life. When you put it together with all the Thanos stuff that came later, it cheapens the meaning of that story. But some of the stuff that came after is good, too–when considered on its own, not relative to all that has come before. I mean, I’ve lost count of how many times Adam Warlock has emerged from a cocoon. But if you read each one as if its the first time, there is often value to be found.

    Which may say something about the subject matter that Cosmic Zap plays with. When we go searching for “who we *really* are” at 40, is it not is some way the same thing we did at 20? Informed by the past, certainly, but also a retread of the same old thing.

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    • I cannot agree more with your fractal commentary. To regular readers, it’s probably no surprise that I’m not only representing, but advocating this way of reading comics. Each “sector” or story (if that qualifies) becomes its own thing, produced in its own historical moment, and the degree to which past stories are honored or included or even phrased is strictly a local phenomenon.

      In past discussions, I’ve found that comics fans are way too all-or-nothing about this. They say, “it’s canon!” or “it’s a spin on the archetype,” and both are – as I see it – pretty mindless positions. Nor am I posing an equally mindless in-between vague claim either. In looking simply at the process and what’s done to put out a comics story, the creators of the moment dip into whatever of the past material they want (usually in an unconsidered way), and they write whatever they want this time. It isn’t any more complicated than that.

      With that in mind, a Thanos story may utilize past material, but it doesn’t have to honor it in terms of its original meaning (otherwise Thanos would be unavailable), nor does the appearance of this new story have to overturn or force a re-interpretation of the past one. I don’t have to read Thanos being turned to stone in 1977 as “well that’s gonna change,” knowing there are going to be stories written in the future. I can still read it as a final ending. I do not think the concept of abrogation applies to this medium or set of stories.

      Whereas in canon-centered fandom, abrogation is God, or better, it’s the Cosmic Lawyer, always simultaneously rewriting the past and using it as an argument hammer, the ultimate sophist.

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  3. Hey Ron, this is neat!

    I was really frustrated with the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion (the series and the first movie, I haven’t made up my mind yet if I’m gonna risk the remake movies). My RPG experience with cosmic encounters (quite far from comics, more or less related to Cthulhu-like gaming) has been very hit and miss. I was wondering if the very idea of cosmic-scale stories wasn’t inherently wrong headed, until you wrote here that there exist FIVE examples of working cosmic zap endings. I’d very much love to know which those titles are, for my own enlightenment!

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    • Not so fast. I said “on one hand,” not “all five fingers on one hand.” Nor did I say anything about counting quickly. I may have to concentrate for a while, so patience, please.

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      • OK, books …
        Roger Zelazny’s Creatures of Light and Darkness with a possible nod to the swirly lights taking over, and only barely possibly The Courts of Chaos if you don’t mind half the conclusion consisting of making up what actually happened.
        Terry Bisson’s Wyrldmaker
        E. R. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros except for the very very end
        Tanith Lee’s Volkhavaar does not qualify, but her Night’s Master does as long as you think sex is cosmic
        Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer might be the only unqualified success of the lot

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  4. I think that “cosmiz zap” is very rare, really, in Marvel Comics apart from the 70s. I loved these early stories with Thanos, up to his “Death” in Marvel Two-in-one Annual (and including his post-mortem appearance in the Death of Captain Marvel graphic novel), reading these (and probably taking into account my age at the time) it felt really… well, “cosmic”. Englehart’s Doctor Strange stories too, and others of that age.
    Then the 80s arrived. And “cosmic” was a way to sell toys (Secret Wars), you have a endless list of new character more “cosmic and powerful than all the rest” to ridiculous excesses (see the Beyonder and all the Gauntlet spam). It didn’t feel cosmic anymore, at least for me, it felt boring, like overworked writers with no new ideas telling the same stories again and again increasing a nominal power level (after a certain point, you can’t show it without having the new character kicking the ass of the old, ruining it as a viable menace, because otherwise how can you show an omnipotent character as more powerful than another omnipotent character?)
    Thanos’s return in the 80s was underwhelming, with a Starlin on an endless autorepeat of situations without the earlier nihilism. When we got to the point of the Infinity Gauntlet, I was so fed up with that…. “Cosmic Pink Slime” that it was one of the last straws, I stopped reading Marvel Comics in a few months.

    Yet, Michael is not the only person I have seen describe The Infinity Gauntlet not as the usual fanboy wank, but with words that I could have used for these 70s stories. Are they really that different, or it’s the age of the reader (myself) and the amount of stories with these boring omnipotent characters the difference? If I could read again the 70s stories now as new stories, would I find them boring too?

    Maybe is not the stories, but the accumulation of ending that did not end. The first two death of Thanos felt “final”, it was still not a cash cow as now, and character at that time still stayed dead mostly. You read these stories and you believe that the story is really ended. After the 80s the premise “everything will change” and the thought of believing any of these stories having an ending was ridiculous.

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  5. Me = only the 70s stories; I found the above images by searching back in 2007 but don’t know the actual comics
    Michael = only the later stories
    You = all of them with distinct emotional attachments or rejections

    It’d be fun to look them over as a trio. But I definitely think the first thing to jettison is continuity or any judgment which tries to hook them together.

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