The Letters Page: Episode 68
We create something without any preparation! Will we make a hero? A villain? An environment? Something else entirely? We don't know yet!
Run Time: 1:47:26
We recorded this episode live with the help of our Patreon Contributors! The episode is much better than the live recording, as Trevor has cleaned up the audio and also cut a bunch of dead time when we were just reading the chat and things like that. Still, if you want, you can watch the live video here. Want to be a part of our future live episodes? Check out our Patreon!
After some explanation and laying of ground rules, we start our collaborative brainstorming about 4 minutes in.
Around the 22 minute mark, we finally figure out what it is that we're talking about, and begin crafting the mythos of that story.
We dig into questions from both the submission form and the Discord chat starting a bit after 56 minutes in.
The future segment begins at around an hour and 34 minutes.
At the end, I mistakenly say that we're recording both the Inverse Universe episode AND the Sunrise Story Arc episode on Friday of this week. Nope! Just the Inverse Universe episode. However, next week, we'll be recording Sunrise, Editor's Note #18, AND the first episode for June. What's that first episode? We don't know yet, but the voting for what episodes we'll do next month will be up on our Patreon today, so keep an eye there!
Thanks for listening!
- Prime Wardens
- Miss Information
- The Southwest Sentinels
- La Capitan
- Mr. Fixer
- Zhu Long
- The Dreamer
- The Master, Xian Niu
- Kaargra Warfang
- Baron Blade
- Dr. Medico
- Captain Cosmic
- Iron Legacy
- They will occasionally go to the Patreon Discord for suggestions, but the choice they make will be the thing that interests them/that they like the most, not the first response and it's not subject to a vote.
- They aren't just taking a bunch of characters we already know and make up a story for them. They want to make something new for this podcast.
Where to Begin?
- Discussion of timeline to pick a good place to put a new story. Ra's War of Heliopolis story was in the mid-to-late '90s, a lot of '90s action "kind of culminates" in the Sunrise arc. Then we get the Fall of the Prime Wardens, some Biomancer stuff, Parse's transition to space adventures, and some early La Capitan shenanigans in the early '00s before the Miss Information stuff in the mid '00s (with the "Vengeance: Returned" story in the late '00s and the introduction of the Sentinels in the early teens). Christopher thinks that the early-'00s between Sunrise and Miss Info is a good slot. The '70s have a lot of long-running stuff introduced, but the '80s and '90s are just packed and everything after about the early teens is kind of accelerating-to-OblivAeon mode.
- Because whatever they come up with here didn't make it into the card game, it's by definition not going to be some major event in the pages of Sentinel Comics in the Multiverse Era; just something kind of notable that happened, but wasn't a big deal. What they're thinking is that this could set some stuff up for the Future (one way or the other).
- Decision regarding that end-goal: where do they want to have something new come in? RPG Core Rulebook is problematic as it's kind of too far along to be adding stuff to it at this stage. They agree that making a hero for the eventual Dark Watch source book is a decent target. This book is about the RPG iteration of the Dark Watch team, but also will feature other heroes, villains, at least a one-shot adventure, environment details, character creation options, etc. - just generally the gritty, noir, street-level source book for the game. Note that NightMist would still fit the "Dark Watch" vibe even though her power load-out and fighting-a-demon-god mission - not every hero appropriate for the Dark Watch book is necessarily going to be a "street level" hero.
- So, this sets up the point of this episode: to tell the backstory/setup for a character to explain their eventual appearance in this "Streets and Sorcery" source book for the RPG at a later date.
- RPG heroes they've locked in for this book so far: Dark Watch team members Slim Walker, Harpy, Expatriette, and Setback along with the one hero they've announced for this supplement but who's not on the team - Night Hunter (post-OblivAeon role for Ansel G. Moreau [see the Ambuscade episode's Future section for details on what that's like]). How to "round out the set"? Maybe another anti-hero type as this setting is relatively "friendly" to that kind of character? A reformed villain/minion? A reformed disciple of Zhu Long (poison/alchemy/magic rather than martial arts)? Would have to be careful to not step on the toes of Harpy or Dragonclaw.
- So, Zhu Long is doing some expansion into Rook City in the RPG stuff. What if this is some kind of magical creature/monster/thing that had been captured and held in the Temple of Zhu Long and the acolytes were drawing magical power from it in some way ("eye of newt" style) and had brought it along as part of the incursion and it escapes? Then the story they could tell here could be post-Death of Mr. Fixer story that details this thing in some way as part of the subsequent Zhu Long-related plots and/or flashbacks. So, they're heading back to the early-'80s (before the introduction of "Mr. Fixer" in the mid-'80s) in the bimonthly Mystery Comics era as that's an appropriate time for some east-Asian flair for pop culture [Big Trouble in Little China gets name-checked] and the concept thrown out is that it's an Oni.
So, What's an "Oni" in the World of Sentinel Comics?
- It's generally translated from Japanese as "demon" or "ogre" or similar term, but how to nail this down better for this setting?
- Several (increasingly enthusiastic) false starts from Christopher before he suggests that this is the "Japanese demon equivalent of a creature born of Void Magic" but then they both consider for a moment before determining that, no, they have a pretty good feel for what Void Magic is like and this shouldn't qualify (also dismissing Blood Magic and the Host in the process - Zhu Long's not involved with these things and so it'd be out of place here, belonging more with Prime Wardens stuff). Zhu Long is working with "the oldest expression of Natural Magic" (not "Nature", but something like "Arcane Magic", "Sorcery", or "Wizardry").
- Looking at the Discord chat: possession via an Oni mask (neat idea for a Relic, tabled for later), Kitsune rather than Oni - but that would require more of a "trickster" vibe, which isn't as fitting for the DW book, maybe Prime Wardens or even G.L.O.B.A.L.
- So, should Oni be people, some kind of naturally-occurring magical monster, or... maybe that mask idea - there's no such things as Oni in isolation, only once a person puts on one of these cursed masks they become one (permanently). The Oni can then make additional masks and leave them around somewhere so that somebody will find it and try it on themselves rather than the Oni putting it on somebody. They need to find a way to explain why they're not all over the place, though - one suggestion is that they're solitary/don't like one another, but it takes more than one of them working together to make a new mask.
- Also, the Granite Oni from the Dreamer's deck can also retroactively become a reference to something else existing within the setting.
- What do they want? Doing some Wikipedia research, in traditional folklore they were originally some kind of spirits, taking on the ogre aspects later, but also some "guardian" aspects.
- Spitballing ideas: some magician a long time ago was trying to raise a loved one from the dead, to bind the spirit to a mask that they could then put on the body to return it to "life". This did not work and so the mask was discarded. Eventually a begger found it in the trash and, lacking options, was going to resort to robbery (using the mask as a disguise). However, the dead person's spirit was successfully bound to the mask and, this being an unnatural state, is furious. The mask bonds to the beggar, twisting his body into the stereotypical form as it possesses him. So, we've got two spirits in one body, they're both mad about it, but become very territorial in the process (thus the "guardian" connotations as they guard their area - in this first Oni's case meaning "protecting" the home of the sorcerer by basically killing anybody who goes there). As they develop this concept the decide that Oni aren't the ones making the masks, but that "a wizard did it" - they like the idea of Zhu Long making use of these things. It's not Blood Magic, it's still somewhere on the spectrum of "spells" like NightMist would use, but it's right in line with Zhu Long's existing tendencies to mess around with life and death.
- Then the idea comes in that since the beggar was going to use the mask for nefarious purposes, that some kind of ill-intent is necessary. That if a street performer had picked it up to use in a show to delight children it wouldn't have done anything.
- So. A wizard makes a mask and casts the various arcane spells on it. Then puts the mask on a dead body and casts a final spell to bind the spirit of the dead to the mask. As they consider how Zhu Long makes use of them they abandon the earlier idea that the mask has to be used in ignorance or that it couldn't be given directly to somebody. Zhu Long's disciples are given masks as a last-ditch tool. If they're failing in a mission, they can put on the mask as a kind of "cyanide pill" - they will cease to be as they become the Oni (a composite being; neither the original person nor the trapped spirit), but they'll possibly give their opponents a lot of grief before they're taken down. Zhu Long isn't the only person capable of making these things, but he's a source of them (and is good at them). Maybe the Master could have made some at some point. Is it possible that Zhu Long was the first to make them (or the only one - maybe at least it's a secret kept by some of his disciples who he's taught so he's not spending his own time to make them)? They might have to come back to this idea later.
What's the story, then?
- They've got three stories that have come out of this so far. [Ok, I'm going to have to throw my hands up at this point to some extent - they seem to go off on some tangents here, so if people disagree with how I'm laying this out, say so.]
- The first story told is a Mr. Fixer story before his death. He's fighting a bunch of ninjas like he has many times before before the last one pulls out a mask and becomes an Oni. This is probably in the late '80s somewhere (Black Fist-era is too early for this kind of thing). [Also discussion for the Art Update that there should be an Oni somewhere in Mr. Fixer's deck.]
- The second story is during the Death of Mr. Fixer story when we get a scene where Mr. Fixer runs into a bunch of these things at once (imagining a splash page with him at the bottom of the page looking out at just a crowd of either Oni or at least people all putting on/about to put on the masks). It's also suggested that maybe they were involved in Zhu Long's minions killing the Operative around this time as well - or maybe an additional art element of just when we see various Zhu Long disciples that some of them have masks on their belts.
- The third story about them is when we get to learn all of the backstory/mythology about how they work. This is in the Master Dragon story because that's the one that really gets to the nitty-gritty of "this is how Zhu Long-related stuff works" as the Operative has to come to grips with it following her own resurrection. As they develop this they decide that she would have tried on a mask as a way to escape her situation, but it doesn't work - the "ill intent" develops into "ill intent towards others" as this kind of self-harm mentality wouldn't activate it (unless the self-harm itself is a way to hurt somebody else).
Quick Discussions Stemming From The Discord
- Can the Oni be controlled (by Zhu Long) or are they just rage demons? Rage demons. Using a mask is kind of like a suicide bomber.
- Was the Operative killed by Oni then? No, because they don't have the rational capacity to use a bow and arrow, but they were involved in the fight - they likely sent in a few of them to soften her up and distract her while the archers took her down.
- Could you free one by hitting the face and breaking the mask? No, after the transformation there isn't a mask anymore, it's just their scary monster face.
- Is there some specific thing that's necessary to kill them (decapitation, striking the heart, etc.)? Christopher's initial idea is that after the transformation there aren't really essential organs anymore and that the Oni is something between a demon and a zombie. [See next question for further developments.]
- What happens to an Oni if the person transforms and then there isn't anybody around to kill them? Do they need to eat? How long could one last in isolation? Christopher posits that they eventually self-destruct in some way (the transformation starts on the surface - head and skin - and works it's way inwards; the pain of this process is part of what feeds the "rage monster" thing as they want to pass this pain onto the world, but once the transformation reaches their heart and is complete they explode/shatter/something). Adam takes this and runs with it: after the initial part of the transformation, it's the rage and violence they inflict that drives the transformation further - eventually, after enough killing, they'll self destruct somehow. An Oni in isolation will still be full of rage and will try to inflict some pain (the scenario is somebody who transformed on a mountaintop, charging down the mountain in a rage). Eventually, once the transformation reaches the heart, they crystallize and explode in sharp shards. Thus we come back to the previous question - the heart is the only vital organ remaining; you must destroy the heart before the transformation is complete to avoid the explosion.
- Now that you've created a new element for the Sentinel Comics setting, how would you "tell the story" in SotM? At this stage, it would probably have to be a Zhu Long villain deck (or rather, a "Forces of Zhu Long" deck as they wouldn't want to have him be the villain himself) that would incorporate Oni into it. The Villain Character Card would have to be Zhu Long, but not have him be a Target (i.e. no HP on either side) and not have any damage or anything originating with that card - it's a setup card to run other things and have alternate win/loss conditions, but the idea is that he himself is not present to defeat by punching him. Maybe the loss condition could be either stealing the Voss mechanic of "too many minions" or having it interact with the environment somehow novel. One other idea could be to have the Villain Character Card represent a bunch of ninjas and have the flip side be them as Oni instead, but if they're sticking with the Zhu Long Villain, then he could have a side-deck of Oni cards (like Kaargra's Title Deck) and Zhu Long would replace the first minion destroyed each round with a card from the Oni deck. Maybe have an Ongoing card that could trigger similarly (the first time a minion is destroyed, put an Oni card into play and destroy this card). Alternately - At the Start of Zhu Long's Turn replace any Villain Targets with 2 or fewer HP with an Oni card (or on the Front side, they only Oni up if they're at exactly 1 HP and the Back does it if they're lower than their Maximum HP - they tie the flip to whatever "incursion" Environment-related mechanic is involved, although they don't want to do too much Akash'whatever direct Environment Deck manipulation, maybe "whenever an Environment Target is destroyed, put an Oni card into play" to represent them making masks out of whatever casualties are happening). This shouldn't be the core mechanic of the deck, but would be a way to incorporate the Oni element of the setting. It sounds like it'd be an interesting deck, but it doesn't fit into the events of the history of Sentinel Comics as this kind of "incursion" by Zhu Long doesn't happen in the Multiverse era.
- How do different types of games let you tell different kinds of stories (like, what kinds of stories are more suited for SotM vs. Tactics/Prime War)? Things that are more location/positioning-specific are easier with the latter system. Take Mad Bomber Blade: they manage to model the bombs being everywhere by converting one type of card in his deck into damage, but that sort of story is more easily represented in a Tactics-style game as they can just say "Here's a map and there are bombs [at these locations]" and have that work. This hypothetical Zhu Long story could be represented with him moving around the map doing stuff, but his minions in play also have a last-ditch ability to turn into Oni. The RPG is the easiest as the mechanics are less part of it (the GM being present to adjudicate things takes some of the load off the mechanics) - you just tell the story. This question returns to an idea discussed in an earlier episode - they had ideas for a teleporter character for SotM, but that power set is so location/position-dependent that it doesn't make sense for SotM and so it wouldn't work to tell that story in that game system.
- When creating a character, what aspects are developed first (appearance, powers, personality, story arc, relationships with other characters, etc.)? Inspiration! In today's example, they started down a few tracks ("we should make something from the early '00s", "we should lay the groundwork for a character in the Dark Watch supplement for the RPG") before coming across an idea that actually sparked something creatively that they then developed as a concept/piece of the Sentinels setting. They haven't even gotten to the Future section where they'll work out how they plan on using this in an actual product. Now, for the original game set they intentionally sat down and came up with a list of heroes who would fill specific roles in the game, and this necessitated starting with the Archetypes (e.g. Legacy = Leader, Flying, Super Strength) with character starting after that. Pretty much everything after that was inspiration-first (including Adam just coming up with something interesting looking and them coming up with what that even is).
- Preference for coming up with new stuff or further development of existing stuff? Both. It's not really a fair comparison ("Which do you like more: pie or barbecue?") - they're both great things that they love, but what they enjoy about them are not directly comparable.
- Creating heroes, villains, or side-characters? See previous answer.
- Do you go with "We want to have this hero, fight this villain, in that place," and then create the context for that event afterwards or does the story context happen that naturally draws in specific characters? Usually context first. The situation to the contrary would be when Adam's done some card art that has specific characters (Dr. Medico, Bunker, and Captain Cosmic fighting Apostate in Mordengrad) and then they'll come up with the context, but generally it's the other way around.
- Have there been ideas brought up by other people that they liked enough to incorporate into the setting? Well, the mask thing today. Then there's the NightMist/Gloomweaver stuff by Richard Launius, but even then they re-wrote most of it to get it to fit [plus the create-a-villain contest that resulted in Kismet and Miss Information and Dr. Medico started as a joke response to a forum question]. They do take stuff from the collective unconscious all the time - even reading other comics they don't take ideas directly from them, just the general background concepts of the collective corpus of superhero media in toto.* Do Oni assume the gender of the base person or are they neutral? "Gender" is a tricky word to assign to them, but the morphology of the body that puts on the mask is carried over.
- Could a skilled enough sorcerer separate the two entities that become the Oni? It's an irrevocable change. Once it's done, it's done. They even describe a situation where you kill an Oni and put a new mask on it to try to trap whatever spirit was animating it and they come down on the position that this won't work. Both the bound spirit and the person who puts on the mask are destroyed in the process of becoming an Oni. This is a horrible thing to do.
- Is the heart in the same place in an Oni? Roughly; the human heart is already pretty central (if lopsided/asymmetrical), but they want the imagery of it being dead-center to be present (both for the aesthetics of where characters strike an Oni and for the outside-in transformation process ending at the heart) so it might be a little off from "normal".
- Is Zhu Long using living vengeful souls or dead souls to power the mask? There are two souls involved, one when making the mask and one when it's put on to transform into an Oni. To do this you need to be powerful wizard/sorcerer who knows the process/spells for doing this in the first place. Then you need the body of a person who died in such a way as to create a vengeful spirit (say, somebody who died violently or with some kind of unfinished business such that the spirit is retaining a connection to the corpse) and you put a circle of salt around it. Then build the mask and put it on the body and cast the spell. The spell traps the soul in the mask, but corrupts it in the process so that the soul is essentially destroyed from the perspective of the original person - they come up with the term "anti-soul" (like antimatter) to describe this end result that occupies the mask. The combining of this "anti-soul" with the mask-wearer's soul destroys them both, and the resulting eldritch energies are what creates the Oni.
- When you created Sentinel Comics, how did you hold back the impulse to try to get all of your ideas out there at once in the excitement of creation (and running the risk of alienating the potential audience)? Part of it was the limits of having card decks as the physical representation of things (the inherent limits of hero decks being made of around 14-17 unique cards limits the amount of story/setting detail that it's possible to convey). A lot was also the belief that they were not actually going to get through to the end. Since they thought that the farthest they could reasonably expect to get in the story (after the initial game took off, which they didn't really expect in the first place) was the Iron Legacy event, that helped temper their expectations. They set micro-goals. The core game should be its own thing, but also feel like it sits on decades of comics history - so they just did outlines of stories as a framework to hang the core set on. Each expansion after that had the potential to be the last, so each was similarly set up - they could achieve what they needed to be, while fleshing out the framework more to the extent necessary to have it make sense if that expansion was the end of the game. The endless serialization of (mainstream) superhero comics is a weakness of the medium, but it's similar to what they did - tell a story, leave it open-ended.
- Any tips for keeping track of dangling plot threads you've created? How much detail do you come up with as you're creating? If you have tips, they'd like to hear them. There has been a fair amount of just going back through decks to see what's there. They didn't do a great job keeping track as they went. As a creator, don't be afraid of leaving things unresolved, though. Not everything has to mean something and there will be things that you don't ever find out what they mean. If everything is wrapped up neatly, then your world is probably pretty small. Good stories do as much to spark your imagination as they quench your thirst.
- Have any of your characters done something that surprised you (arriving at a plot point and only then do you come up with what they would do because of who they are as a character)? Yes, all the time. They do so much background work at the character/personality level that this happens a lot for them. Some linked examples: Tempest's outburst at Sky-Scraper after his return and the follow up events at the Celestial Tribunal defending her were both this sort of thing emerging naturally from the characters.
- Is coming up with unique, non-copyright-infringing names difficult? Names are super hard. They care way more about names than a lot of people do (see how much they cared about Paul being the one to come up with the name "Sentinels of the Multiverse" where Paul himself seemed less interested in that as a historical event). They check the names against other lists, but there are names that have occurred in other comics before (and other times they use a name first and later comics writers wind up using it after). When there is overlap, they make sure that their character is nothing like the existing one. An example between a few existing IPs: there is a DC character and a Transformers character both named Bumblebee. They keep a list of potential names on a whiteboard - they once had a full-day conversation back in 2014 or so when they came up with the name Luminary for the heroic iteration of Baron Blade. Then they neglected to write it down and forgot it. As they were having the discussion about the OblivAeon Kickstarter materials in late 2015 they couldn't recall what it was and had to go through it all over again before they came up with it (again).
- What is the expected lifespan of an Oni? Just that fight? Maybe a few days if planned appropriately? Like an hour? Maybe that guy on top of the mountain might last 3 or 4 hours charging down to the city at the bottom assuming no misadventures on the way that might enrage him further, accelerating the transformation (tripping on a rock and falling down might cut a half hour off the time all on its own).
- Can Oni talk? The body would still have a larynx and whatnot, but there isn't going to be any communication going on as they're just rage monsters.
- Can Oni be redeemed? Generally no, but maybe...
- Mist Storm Universe: due to the short term nature of the Oni transformation and the types of stories going on, they're not likely to show up.
- Sentinel Comics Universe: Zhu Long's going to be around and doing stuff, and Oni will definitely be on the table. Additionally, there's something they wanted to flesh out for this part. There's space in the game for a person who puts on a mask, but some powerful magic user casts a spell to interrupt the process immediately. They create a kind of ward on the mask to keep the "anti-soul" separate from the person wearing it, although not before the mask has fused with the person. Then the partial-Oni would need to keep their rage in check - remaining serene and centered keeps the transformation pushed back to just the outer levels, but as they give in to their anger it can progress - possibly to the point where it reaches their heart and kills them. If they can calm down and re-center, they can push the transformation back again.
- Creating that character: none of their saved names are appropriate, so they will come up with something off-the-air. This is going to be a character for that Dark Watch book as discussed earlier. Is Harpy the one who saves the person? That sounds right. It can't be one of Zhu Long's minions, though, as that doesn't change the fact that this is a bad guy wanting to cause trouble. Let's say that Dark Watch is fighting some Disciples of the Dragon, who all have these masks. In the course of the fight one of the masks gets knocked away (possibly Harpy casts the spell that wards the mask that a minion is about to put on at which point it's knocked away) and falls down a storm drain and out of that story. Later somebody else finds it, but coming up with how to make "some bystander" finding it an interesting story is something that they probably can't work out live, unfortunately. Too many spoilers for upcoming content would probably be involved and it's a tricky situation to begin with, but that should be enough to give us the idea for how this is going to go.