Is your hate pure?
Posted by Ron Edwards
Some game design thoughts percolated recently. Can it be there yet breathes life in the superhero vigilante? Last year’s blog series with Steve Long, and my recent revival of thought about it, suggests to me there is – or at least, that I want to design a role-playing game about such things. And produce some more comics.
My patrons have already seen some promotional ideas about it, and even received the prototypical system design, so they can start playtesting on their own. Want in? Sign up for the Patreon please (over there on the right, at the top) – no minimum level. I’m aiming at a better Patreon/blog process for play and discussion.
As a reader, the vigilante hero has rarely been attractive to me, and I found nearly all the late-80s comics/supers versions kind of shitty, sometimes outright stupid. For example, the whole upholding the law by breaking the law, the alleged “moral ambiguity,” was framed all backwards – instead of going, ooh, contradiction, my response is that there’s nothing good about “upholding the law” as such in the first place. I’d be more impressed if you simply set the standards for what you’ve avenging or whom you’re punishing without “Criminals! Criminals!” (this is why Milgrom’s litterbug-punishing Punisher makes more sense rather than less, to the horror of the readers)
The laziness, as opposed to a productive tension, turned into the new normal around 1986. Shooting people as the best way to make things right? Sure, if coincidence and being right all the time are on your side. Unshaven and grim? Very cool, if you’re fourteen. At its worst, it veers into a pissed-off white guy blowing away “scum” who happen to be low-income and nonwhite.
But after last year’s counterpoint project with Steve Long, I think I found why I do, in fact, find the characters compelling some of the time, and why some creative people have been creatively itched by it to the point of defining their careers. One solid point – perhaps the grain – essentially an irritant – around which the pearl forms, is that what looks like law-and-order preservation of “the system” against those who would disrupt it, is most effective and admirable when it is shown to be disrupting an unjust system, fighting corruption. My points about Captain America vigilante turn in Born Again are about that grain, and as was Steve’s insistence that we finish the series of counter-posts with the Foolkiller.
It also illuminated the history for me: specifically that this … complex of ideas, or system of identifiable satellites around an idea or itch … is intrinsic to American comics and even to comics-as-literature, and that the resurgence in the mid-80s wasn’t a one-off deviation. At the risk of invoking naturalism (which I do not want to do), the deviation was the 1940 DC Code, and its more visible expression, the 1954 Comics Code Authority, and the reappearance of blazing pistols, ice-cold/white-hot ruthlessness, and an at-best troubled relationship with the law was a restoration.
I also took a closer look at vigilantism by the strict meaning of the word. From my comment on one of the earlier blog posts:
I’m talking about the relationship of a person to institutionalized law. The first part of the definition means conducting the activities of that instititution without its support.
By that definition, all “masked crime-fighters are vigilantes!” Yes, they are. Also by that definition, a cop who murders someone isn’t a vigilante if the department and the general justice system supports him. This part of the definition is flatly amoral.
The second part brings in the common feature, for many terms, that assigning the label is part of the definition. If someone can make the label stick, on for example the murderous cop, then whoopsie, he is a vigilante and outside the law. Which is of course reversed in reality from how we say it, meaning if the law as an institution doesn’t support him (and brazen out the accusation, effectively saying “whaddaya gonna do about it, he was cleared”), then he’s a vigilante.
So yes, all costumed crime-fighters (which is not all superheroes; Thor isn’t, for example) are potential vigilantes insofar as the label sticks. And it’ll stick if they lose the public trust. The first 100 issues of Spider-Man are an exquisite, beautiful portrayal of every side of this argument, including its limitations. And before you say “Spider-Man never crosses the line,” consider the drug pusher beatdown and the time when he frightens Jameson into a heart attack. Neither is played for laughs in the slightest.
There’s a larger picture too which helps to establish a much more coherent matrix to include the Dark Knight in the same set of questions. It is when the entire legal institution is considered by the populace, or a great deal of it, to be inadequate – whether “not enough” or “illegitimate.” In this case the term vigilante takes on its root meaning, from vigil, to take on the actual role of desired/real/legitimate law enforcement in terms which either cannot be acknowledged by the overt institution, or are treated by it as raw anarchy and rebellion.
To separate those two branches:
The first goes like this: (i) the legal institution is hobbled or weak and needs the people’s help, (ii) a bunch of us will help it do its job or do the job that it is too weak to do at all, and (iii) some of us are insiders in it and thus make the rest of us doing is “real” anyway = the Klan.
The second goes like this: (i) the legal institution is nothing more than organized crime and victimizes us, i.e., we are subject to banditry and abuse and there is no actual law here; (ii) a bunch of us will police our own community as it needs, and (iii) we act in direct defiance of the Law-in-name when we can and with no apology for using force = the Deacons for Defense.
Each of them purports to represent the real Law in the absence of institutional integrity.
See how it ties back to my point about criminality? “Crime fighting,” basically acting as a proactive deputy, is a very weak context for the activity. Hiss about the “the weed of crime” as the Shadow might, he’s striking against forces and foes who are in no way defined by this-or-that malfeasance in legal terms. It does, however, make for interesting characters: the Punisher’s conviction that he and the cops are really on the same side is part of his personal pathology and keeps him from unloading on more people than he might.
I submit that many of the tropes associated with “comic book vigilante” are not defining features. The only one, or rather, once vigilante is properly defined, the only one is the … see, there it is. You can call it the rage, the pain, the drive, the will, the edge, the ruthlessness, but what it really is, is the hate.
Hence my provocative post title. It’s a slight paraphrase of a famous quote by the late Alexander Cockburn, which you can read about here. It recently received some reflections regarding intelligence rather than purity, which I found useful, here. For present purposes, I’m aiming at a mix of purity and intelligence I’ll call clarity: that the vigilante hero isn’t confused, or striking out reflexively, or for lack of a better word, stupid. The hate is ruthless because it’s utterly articulate. He or she has standards both for the chosen targets and for what exactly he or she will and will not do about it. I’m not saying “and therefore it’s OK!” or “and that’s why he’s a hero!” Those standards are specifically tuned toward the … (here it comes) problematic; you’re not supposed to accept them as “really OK” or justified. I’m simply and strictly saying that the vigilante hero is identifiably focused, unswervingly so, rather than louting around.
Couple points about how this interacted with superheroes as such. First, I don’t think it has anything to do with powers or their magnitude. Going by the three characters who, in and out of comics, represent the “pure” strain, they are superheroes: the Shadow, the Spider, and the original Spectre all have explicit powers, especially those which brood at the edge of the occult and mystical. And all the alleged “no powers” versions have so much coincidence and perception on their side that they qualify as powers.
Second, although there is no clear boundary between the costumed heroes with their echoes of science fantasy and physical culture and the “ssss! I fight evil from the shadows!” guys, explicit versions of the two occupied the same stories through the vagaries of ownership rather than authorship, and co-existed uneasily. The obvious solution was to bowdlerize the vigilante, as quickly seen with the original, very short-lived Spectre and as thoroughly seen with Batman (remember, the 60s TV show was a parody of the good-guy 50s comics hero, i.e., there was something there to parody). The Shadow and the Spider, not owned by comics companies, escaped this fate.
Then there came an extended halfway-period in which the Comics Code and the (I hate this word) archetype did a curious and often compelling dance, turning the uneasy co-existence into a feature. It strikes me now that it was heralded by the Ditko’s Mr. A and the Question, and the Fleischer/Aparo Spectre in 1968, but is best known through the O’Neil, Goodwin, Wolfman, Conway, Wein track, with Miller joining it: “the” Batman of about 1970, the Conway/Wein Punisher of 1974 and a while after, the Moench/Sienkiewicz Moon Knight, the Miller Daredevil (and Punisher), and arguably Cloak and Dagger. In the mid-80s, add Baron and Grant by way of the Badger, Nexus, and Whisper, and Dixon, for the 1986-and-after Punisher and amped-up crazier Moon Knight. Elaborate and twist things with the Dark Knight Batman, Rorschach, the re-tooled Question, and the Vigilante.
In looking this fifty-year experiment over, certain variables are revealed to be dials: occultism/mysticism, the facial mask, a special or iconic outfit or symbol, the full range of lethality (with guns at the far end), sanity relating to rage or identity or both, ordinary human function (which isn’t the same thing as sanity), the full range of wealth, and super-powers as such. The one thing that’s not a dial is the Cockburn-style hate – and that switch is on.
I’m intrigued and compelled to stay with this zone, but also to get off the dedicated O’Neil track a little, not because it’s bad, but because it’s .. well, it’s complete. Further work of this kind on Batman, Daredevil, et al., is iteration, not experimentation. It’s more-or-less the same for the Punisher, perhaps even more so because he’s already a commentary on himself. And not to be too nasty about it, but that particular track happens to be a very white one and framed in a specific set of political terms which I don’t think are very helpful.
That takes me to the lesser-known or at least less-cited characters: Tim Truman’s Prowler, introduced to me by Steve; Cloak and Dagger, perhaps more so as pop-up or interfering characters than protagonists; the Impact Comics brief run of the Black Hood; Ghost … to me, the unrealized potential and/or less-effective stories among these are far more inspiring than polishing the Daredevil apple yet again.
It also brings me to the more-recent and the now, like Luke Cooper’s Hollow Girl, Joe Casey’s Codeflesh, Elijah Henry’s Striker, and my Sword of God, which I’d very much like to get back to one of these days. Looking at these and similar titles, I find them striking and compelling – despite indubitably belonging to that co-existence between vigilantes and comics-heroes, not retreads at all.
Now, didn’t I say something about role-playing? It turns out that the system I’d like to develop is already extant: Ram Hull’s The Path of Journeys, which appeared at the Ashcan Front booth of GenCon 2007. It was printed in 40 copies only, and is not otherwise available, except for what Ram’s permitting me to distribute on the QT for playtesting only.
Briefly, it’s a game in which your character becomes much more effective by focusing and abstracting their motivations – and whether that’s a good thing or not. To reinforce the latter, the system is also strikingly effective at generating “oh really?” situations and reflecting upon what happened. Why I haven’t been playing Daredevil sensu lato with it for all these years, I can’t say.
Whether I’m merely skinning the existing game, using it as a departure point for writing a new one, or something in-between, is currently a design question of its own. At the moment, I’m going with it precisely as written in 2007, paired with this promotional prep-for-play page, to see what people do with it. People meaning patrons, who have access to the PDF of the rules. I know the system pretty well through play, so I have my notions of what can be tweaked (not much actually) and what’s missing in practical how-to terms – but this step of playtesting is intended to discover what others find along those lines.
Hey, try this: make a quickie character for me. Pick one specification per row, even more-or-less at random.
- mask / outfit / mask + outfit
- non-lethal / lethal but not guns / guns
- homeless / regular Joe-or-Jane / wealthy
- “plot” powers / minor super-powers / big ol’ super-powers
But also, crucially, tell me what the character hates. Make it intelligent and pure. It won’t count unless you feel it in your guts too. I’ll use the comments to show you what the character looks like in Path of Journeys terms.
Personal news: We’ve been in Sweden for a whole month! The house renovations are done for now, or at least, paused until we cut a hole in the back and add more rooms later this year. We’re enjoying electricity, plumbing, dishwasher, laundry machines, and more – the kitchen counters and tiles are done, so it just needs wiring. And all that stuff from the States arrived safe, now filling the two main rooms on the lower floor. Swedish car, internet, bank account, underwear. Kids visited the school and loved it; wife’s job starts in mid-July. Residency application proceeds step by step.
Next column: No pants necessary (June 25)
About Ron EdwardsGame author, publisher, consultant, teacher
Posted on June 18, 2017, in Supers role-playing and tagged Alexander Cockburn, Batman, Codeflesh, Daredevil, Foolkiller, Hollow Girl, Punisher, Ram Hull, Shadow, Spectre, Spider, Steven S. Long, Striker, The Ashcan Front, The Path of Journeys, vigilante. Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.
First — great post, Ron! An excellent coda to our series from last year. Clearly that fresh Swedish air is good for you.
Second — glad to hear you’re using your thoughts to explore the RPG side of things. For some years now I’ve been tinkering with an RPG project that I describe as “what if I designed Dark Champions as an indie-style RPG?”. I never have gotten it to gel the way I want it to, unfortunately — but every now and then I go back to it, review my notes and ideas, make some more notes, and think about it some more in my spare time. Maybe one of these days I’ll get to the stage of having something I can playtest.
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Thanks Steve! I hadn’t quite realized before how important the Spectre is to all of this too, so I have a post coming up about him.
I remember talking about your tinkering a few GenCons back. I’d like your eyes on this thing as I work on it.
I’ll bite! Here’s a quick character:
Mask, non-lethal (but vicious), regular Joe, minor super-powers.
I’ll call him Riposte. He’s a torturer of torturers. He punishes violence against defenseless victims, especially when the practice is ignored/allowed by society/the law. School bullies, abusive parents/partners, professional interrogators, violent cops, railroading dungeon masters… His retaliation is more violence: Riposte inflicts pain, severe trauma, permanent injuries but he never kills. Super-powers are the ability to make the mask appear and disappear at will, and the ability to make anyone forget his visage.
Does this work?
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I stress that these are player’s choice, not a GM’s. The point here is to show what variables and terms are brought into play by The Path of Journeys.
May Court role: The Fool, whose basic tension lies between the joys of change vs. the fears of change. Riposte’s specific version of this might be peace/bully.
Motivations (note, lower values are more effective)
I hurt bullies 2
I want to defend the weak 3
I defy the law 2
Traits (in this case, higher values are more effective): Sadistic 2, Mysterious 3
I’m not providing skills because it’s beyond my “feel” for the character
Potential challenge statements for scenario preparation include “Is there ever enough” “Can he change?” “When, and into what?”
I’ll post later about how Motivations work in the game. The phrasing is precise but not in a legal sense.
Outfit, non-lethal, regular Joe, minor super-powers, hate for objectivation of people, meaning not accepting the possibility of empathize with the Other: abusing, attempting to control and direct without letting choice occur (which maybe is a definition for abuse), killing, desqualifying people, injustice (meaning, specially, not letting people express themselves and at the same time cathegorizing them in a label that predicates a form of expression).
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May Court role: The Courtier whose basic tension lies between inspiration and apathy. The specific version for this character might be self-discovery vs. self-loathing.
I defy dehumanizing labels 2
I want to free the victims of dehumanization 3
I want to empathize with everyone 3
I might want to discover a new way, it seems impossible but what else can I do 5
I can’t do much with Traits and Skills given the info in this case, no big deal. (That’s not really the point of the current exercise.)
To clarify a bit more about the Motivations: note that each is centered on a very definite, understandable verb. To reduce its value (increase its effectiveness), it becomes more generalized and abstract, with the extreme value being the naked verb at 0, e.g., “Free.”
Motivations can temporarily shift downward (lower in value) during play in a couple of different ways, but always at the player’s choice when eligible. You don’t have to do it, e.g. you might choose the more neutral path of improving a skill instead. But if you do, then there’s a chance for it to become permanent … you might end up with a more effective and iconic character, which is good, right? … Right?
I found the “hate” part to be the harder one. I decided to start there. What can I hate, from my guts? I have an answer; it’s ridiculous because it’s part of a joke I’ve been telling for years. I still want to follow it to see where it goes. So, I always say I have no prejudices against any particular group, no matter race, nationality, etcetera. Then I say, except for this one, and it’s supposed to be funny because it’s not really a group. But I do despise the young men who work as… How do you put it, in English? The closest thing I can think of are camp counselors. I think I need to establish more context.
So, in the part of Argentina where I live, you make a class trip at the end of the last year of high school. This is privately arranged and doesn’t involve the school in any capacity or responsibility. The students choose between a few available companies (always smallish, and they tend to go bankrupt every four or five years, mostly to avoid legal responsibilities over failure to deliver on their contracts), and the company takes them on a 10 day trip. They stay in a hotel in a tourist city, they go out to dance each night to a different venue, they get almost no sleep, during the day they ride horses or go karting or ski, they try to drink as much alcohol as they can get and they think they’re all going to have a lot of sex on the trip. (Besides trying to have sex with each other, they can try to have sex with the million other students from different cities who are all in town on similar trips.) All the while, they’re taken care of by “coordinadores”, say a couple per class of 30 students. None of them is older than 21. One of the perks of the job, supposedly, is the availability of young women to have sex with. The other is being able to go back again and again to the experience of the end-of-class trip, supposedly something you only live once.
So I’ll start with a character who hates coordinadores, without delving too much for now on how much of it is envy, outrage or resentment; neither on what weights more heavily, the sex-with-minors angle, the abuse-of-a-position-of-power one or the doing-business-at-the-expense-of-innocence one. Nor will I care if this turns into a form of comedy, parody or farce. I’m going forward with frankness and seeing where it takes me.
mask + outfit
So it’s a young Batman of the mountain. As a young entrepeneur, he wanted to make a difference by establishing a competing teen-travel company, one that could get the others out of the market while providing better services (i.e., having coordinadores that don’t try to sleep with the class girls all the time, and not trying to get the teens drunk all the time so they don’t realize they’ve been ripped off on what they paid for hotel facilities; also, actually delivering what they paid for). The startup was doing fine, but his business partner crossed him, got him out of the company and turned it into what all the other ones were. It’s now a monopoly. However, Mariano (let’s call him Mariano) still has tons of money, if not his company; he sets up a secret base inside of a mountain, the mountain where all the student trips go, and proceeds to scare the hell out of everyone, disguising himself as some sort of mountain monster. His mission: to turn the tourist city into a place no one wants to travel to. Also to get enough information to take his company back, because he knows that if he just keeps pushing in the former angle and succeeds, they’re simply gonna take the tourism to another city. (It’s not so easy, though: the city, let’s just use the real one: Bariloche, is built around the commerce of teen tourism.)
Also, hey, you know what? Now that I’ve said Bariloche, et’s just make his mountain hideout an abandoned Nazi secret base. I can’t believe I’m falling into the very stereotype you told me Americans had about Argentina, but the fact is Bariloche IS one of the places preferred by the Nazis who hid here, and it may actually be fun to throw that in. So he didn’t build it, he found it and built upon it, and it’s got a lot of 50s-style sci fi stuff, like the Hydra installations in the Captain America movies.
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May Court role: the Magistrate, who walks the line of brilliance vs. sustainability. The specifics seem quite easy: innocence/corruption.
I want destroy the coordinador system 3
I protect the innocent2
I might want to live a normal life again; it’d be good to finish this, but the power is sweet 5
Traits: Filthy rich 2, Scary 2, Strategic 1
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(I’ll have to see what I can do about Patreon, next payday.)
The Cockburn reference made me go “ooh” when I saw it.
Character design is easy. I’ve had one sitting in my head for a decade or more, and recent events have revived my hate.
mask + outfit
non-lethal (except in extremis)
big ol’ super-powers
Hate is easy.
“Capitalism” doesn’t tell you much, so let’s say: the kind of fuckers that let Grenfell Tower happen. Writing this is trivializing it, but incandescent rage is exactly what you are looking for, I think.
Rage against a system that puts profits before human lives.
Rage against the politicians that enable this.
Rage against the State apparatus that supports and defends this.
Rage against the media that tries to shift the blame.
Rage against… well what have you got?
(And rage against the Alt-Right, racists and Klan-school vigilantes.)
Just writing this has got me quite worked up.
How crazy? Well, not enough to go on a big rampage. Probably a case of “people need to liberate themselves” in the big picture, with vengeance on those who try to hide, and defense of those at risk on a personal level.
Name: The Scarlet Spectre.
Yes, that’s a Communist Manifesto joke. Why not? It would put a bit of fear into deserving hearts.
Where did he get his powers? I dunno. Maybe he was given them by aliens from the Fourth Interstellar. (Trotskyist joke.)
General effect: actually, now I think of it, a bit of a Red Lantern. I was originally thinking O’Neil Green Lantern with a different colour scheme and costume.
Incidentally, I’d check the dates on the Spectre. He was revived in the 60s, but the Fleisher/Aparo run was in the 70s.
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Yay for CounterPunch!
May Court role: the May King, walking the line between creation vs. destruction. The specific conflict for the Scarlet Spectre might be dreams/atrocities.
I avenge the victims of Grenfell Tower 2
I want to prevent it from happening again 3
I want to help people 3
I might want to destroy profiteering capitalism; it’s too big to consider sanely, but man do we need it gone 5
Traits (this is easy this time!): Righteous 2, Cosmic forces 3
I’m not explaining the point system in detail, but all the schemata I’m posting here follow the rules. Briefly, a Motivation at 5 or 3 costs 1 point. These are either “want to” for 3 or “might want to, reasons why not, but” for 5.
Motivations at 2, 1, or 0 reduce the phrasing to the verb – somewhat spookily, from 2 to 1, you lose the verb’s object, e.g., “I avenge the victims of capitalism,” to “I avenge.” (The Spectre exists in this transition.) Motivation 2 costs 2, Motivation 1 costs 3, Motivation 0 costs 4, although in practice, starting with values of 1 or 0 doesn’t make sense to most players, and rightly so.
I do rather like the idea of a character with a Motivation at 5, very human, conflicted, and provisional, and one at 0, inhuman in its intensity, utterly broad in its applicability.
You’re right about the Spectre. I got the wrong idea while reading an interview with Fleischer, my own fault because the interview I read just before it concerned 1966-68 DC.
(Ron – feel free to ignore the character part of this if what you’ve already got achieves your goals)
The vigilante talk always makes me think of late 70’s-early 80’s NYC, Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels. I recently ran across a Mother Jones article where Stan Lee talks about modeling a group called “the Brigade” after them, in a newspaper Spiderman story (hey! that’s a place I read comics as a kid/teenager – and I vaguely recall there were SOMETIMES ongoing superhero stories) involving Thurston Thurwell, a right-wing oil billionaire running for president. In the strip excerpted in the story, Thurwell gets pissed at Jameson for publicizing the Brigade, because the Thurwell campaign relies on people looking to HIM to fight crime (through his group MALO, Mainstream Americans for Law and Order).
I’m not a scholar/expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s a load of, um, bulldroppings in many of the stories Sliwa has told about himself and the Guardian Angels. But as inspiration for fiction, they should work just fine. So with that, I steer into the problematic with:
Kurt de Silvo – son of South American immigrants
Outfit, non-lethal, Regular Joe, “plot” powers
Hatred: Lots of ways to label it – hatred of bullies. Hatred of muggers, of gangs, of not feeling safe in the friggin’ subway, not being able to live our lives in peace. Hatred of losing any sense of control of our fate. Hatred of a system that doesn’t care, too – that in hard times pulls the few police in around the wealthy, that abandons the rest of the city to fend on its own. Well, we’ll fend on our own, alright. I’ll show them – the exploitive criminal them, the uncaring system them, all the “thems” that use us but don’t value us. WE’LL show them, Black, White, Hispanic, united by the dojo and our commitment. I am a Street Guardian. My green felt newsboy cap lets people know why I ride most dangerous rail lines and walk the streets of the worst neighborhoods in the depths of night. My skills and my commitment will let me overcome my enemies. The world may be falling into the abyss, but we’ve tied on a line, grabbed ahold of it – and I’m not letting go.
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Easy to see the May Court role: The Advocate, who walks the line between being prepared for conflict and inviting it. (Incidentally I am not surprised for one second, Gordon, that your concept gravitated toward this particular role.) The specific conflict is unity/ego.
I unite people 2
I want to show all the “thems” 3
I control my fate 2
Traits = Guardian organization, Maverick (I like the way these are contradictory)
Skills (among others): No-holds-barred martial arts, Promotion
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