Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Horror-ible, Part XXIII, and Kid's Stuff, Part XXIV : RIP #1

Halloween POST-A-DAY, October 19, 2016

A book that's part story and part game and zero fun

This was the middle of the end for TSR.

Way back in 1973 when Gary Gygax couldn't find anyone to publish his amazing fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, he and Don Kaye founded their own company, dubbed Tactical Studies Rules. They brought in Brian Blume in December of that year as an equal financial partner to bankroll it with them. Soon his father Melvin invested in the fledgling company as well. Melvin bowed out, giving his other son Kevin his shares. The company redefined gaming for the next decade

TSR ran into financial difficulties in 1983 and the Blume brothers were out and TSR Vice President Lorraine Williams was in. She engineered Gygax's ouster from TSR two years later. For a decade the company prospered, but by 1995 it had fallen behind its competitors in sales. Facing rising publishing costs, it was near insolvency. In 1997 Wizards of the Coast swooped in and purchased TSR. By 2000 the TSR moniker was dropped with the release of D&D 3rd edition.

What I have here is from a series of book-plus-game "comics modules" that TSR produced in 1991. Primarily aimed at their rebranded Top Secret spy roleplaying setting, which was rebranded 13:Assassin, these were to introduce their smaller selling titles to new audiences. There were also ones for their future tech game setting using the Buck Rogers XXVc licensing too, but most were built around 13:Assassin.


I'm going to admit to having played only one adventure of Top Secret back in my RPG days and it did NOT go well. It's hard to play a game where your character knows things that you the player can't possibly know. We were supposed to prevent a rocket from being blown up, yet had no cover to get on the military base. It took all night of trying various things to sneak our way in which did not work until we finally gave up and our characters went to bed. Not us, the people in the game we are playing got frustrated and tucked in for the night. Because we no longer cared.

Yeah, the rocket blew up.

I can see why they would rebrand the game. For hack and slasher players, the modified rules made little sense to us. As did being blocked at every turn from doing the things James Bond or Matt Helm would do in their respective movies. It was a narrow crossbeam to walk. And not a fun one at that.

So with R.I.P., TSR was trying to add some horror elements to Top Secret/13: Assassin, which might have been cool.

Except this book is a total and complete failure on all sides.

Let's start with the comic book story piece first. There were four issues of this title, by the way. I have no idea who bought the other three because this one book has the most gaud-awful storyline you will find anywhere.

Look at that gorgeous cover though. Zombies, right? And really fun looking zombies. You pick this up and you will have your hands full of bash-and-run survival horror, you expect.

There isn't one damn zombie in the entire book.

What there is inside is a ghost. A single, non-corporeal ghost that barely anyone can hear. And those who can hear him ignore him. It is the least scary thing ever.

Oh and some demon succubii. But don't get too excited just yet, they end up being almost as boring as the ghost.

See what the story lacks here is something called a "protagonist." You know, a character that we follow throughout the story who has struggles and overcomes a big conflict. We don't have that here.

Oh on page one, we think we do. We think it is this guy.

Meet our unnamed ghost. Yes, he gets about seven pages of story and not once does he speak his own name. Not once are we told who he is. What do we know about him?

One morning he wakes up dead.

This is that morning. His guts are oozing out and the side of his head is bloodied, but he has no idea what happened to him. He appears to be in some kind of limbo that souls must pass through that looks like the back lot of an abandoned movie studio.

The shambling fellow dead around him ignore him so he tries to make them listen to him.

We find out he's a television game show host, as he literally shakes a guy to pieces. It isn't until the bottom of page three that he finds someone to answer him back out of this grisly parade of mangled bodies. The response comes from a dead naked woman with a meat cleaver.

She doesn't tell him anything he doesn't already know and by now I'm getting kind of bored. This isn't horror, it's just frustratingly slow storytelling. FINALLY someone explains the plot hook and the conflict we are supposed to invest in.

We have it! A reason to invest in this character. Sadly this story is NOT about him. He has no active part in it and does nothing to affect anything that occurs. He ISN'T our protagonist. He's a bystander, which makes his part in everything to come so frustrating that I wanted to throw the book against the wall.

Who is writing this crap?

No credit was mentioned in the story for art or writing. Oversight? Maybe. But the back page ad for these lists out the writers of each comics module and the artists.

And the answer is: Marv Wolfman! No! Really? The guy who wrote Amazing Spider-Man, Teen Titans and fricken Crisis on Infinite Earths? I am knocked down.

Something must have happened here. He is an awesome writer and this story is so…so…all over the place. I am seriously bummed.

At least Pat Orlif's art gives me something pretty to look at. Or rather "gory" to look at.


Okay, back to eviscerating this mess so we can move on to the GAME portion of the book.

Nameless Ghostly Narrator now goes back to find the world has moved on without him. His game show is an odd sort. It is like ABC's old "The Dating Game" television show that Chuck Barris put on. Basically it worked like this, there were three bachelors/bachelorettes behind a wall. The host and a young contestant of the opposite sex would ask a series of questions to the bachelors/bachelorettes. They would answer and based on their answers alone, the contestant would choose one of the three to go out on a date with.

I suppose the ultimate aim was to take looks and career out of the equation. That kind of makes sense, in that anyone going on the show in LA would probably be attractive anyway and probably not a hobo.

But there are a couple of differences in The Dating Game and whatever this mess is. We will get to those in just a minute. First though let's dispense with the little clues we do get about our narrator's demise. Seeing the set reminds him of his final night, provided here in flashback to us.

And I've got a hunch that Henry is our killer. Just go with me on this. Next we get a shot of narrator getting the axe.

This is a GREAT setup. At this point on first read-through I hooked in…and then the rest of the story happened. We go back to the "Love & Marriage" game, which presents the first of many problems to me: The game is STILL going on with the SAME contestant. The same woman, Loray, is still choosing between guys. She is on every week and gets her pick of the three to go out with and that includes an all-expense paid vacation each time.

The second problem is this one: all the info about each of the bachelors is revealed to the contestant. Or rather, just to Loray, as she appears to be the ONLY contestant. But no matter who is in that seat, it is easy to pick the most handsome bachelor or richest bachelor instead of which one most aligns their responses with yours. But it has to work out that Loray can tell who she's picking for this plot to work.

A plot that has absolutely NOTHING to do with that great setup we just watched unfold. Nope. It is all this red herring/wild goose chase, that starts here, with Loray's latest date off the match game.

First Loray doesn't wait for the trip to start. As soon as camera's stop rolling, she snuggles up to her pick, a top executive named Michael, and begins to seduce him. This ends up with both of them at his apartment in just a few moments.

There does appear to be one conversation topic that she keeps hammering away at…

…over and over, when suddenly things go from kinky…


…to flat out exceedingly strange. She sucks his life force out and turns him into some kind of mind-controlled, living-dead zombie-thing.

This is why I don't date around anymore. Too many women turning men into their zombie-slaves. It just isn't right. And get this: Loray is using the TV show to specifically target single executives in high ranking company positions. She encourages Michael to get his friends to go on the show so she can make them zombie slaves too. Right now though Narrator can only rant at newly made slave Michael.

And just to diverge from the book for a moment, but philosophically isn't this what all women do? Turn a man into a zombie slave for their own amusement and profit? I think the only mystery we are uncovering here is the one of why I'm still single.

Meanwhile Loray does pointless exposition which seems like she's talking to Narrator and discloses that there are MANY of these women succubii working to undermine the structure of society.

I kinda already knew that was the way life was working. Anyway, Michael goes back to work (his eyes return to looking normal) and tells all his friends, who really want to go on after meeting Loray which leads to Michael feeling a twinge of jealousy.

The next guy, Joe something or other, gets the old "hot tub" treatment, which basically means naked sex in a hot tub. It goes a bit wrong for both of them, as Joe fights back using the metal bucket used to chill the champagne on her.

Loray fights back though and rips Joe's head in two. 

Right at that moment Michael calls because he's upset with Loray at going on the show again and picking another date. He has, in a bizarre twist of logic so pretzel-ly, with him a fellow executive named Jack that he has convinced to go on the show (the show that he is upset that Loray is on and that she appears to have no interest in NOT being on). Just goes to show you how pussy-whipped those mind-controlled zombie men are. Or as we call them: married guys.

So Michael drops by, pledges his love for Loray, and agrees to take her out, sans Jack. Jack doesn't take this to well and Loray lashes out at him.

Most people would take the hint at this point and call an Uber. Jack however decides to sneak into Loray's house via the back yard to check her out and he comes across Joe floating in the bottom of the pool.

Appears he twern't so dead after all. Jack is safe from him though, but not safe from Loray's "friends" who drop by to take care of the mess.


And here's the main thing – WHERE THE HECK IS OUR &%$#@ING PLOT?

Who is the protagonist here? It can't be Narrator. He can't interact with anyone at all. Michael seems a likely person to pick, but he isn't introduced until page 9. Who am I supposed to be rooting for?

I don't think even the writer knows at this point. It's like they took two storylines and, for no reason, mashed them together. Whatever the case, we finally get Narrator to have some small impact on things way down here on page 19. It happens at the funeral for Jack. Narrator is getting a bit peeved.


He hitches a ghost ride back with Loray and Michael. Michael wants them to go away for the weekend because he's in zombie mind-control love. Loray tells him she can't because she's going on the show again. He loses his cool and demands she not go on...

That's not really a huge event, but it is something. Now you'd think Narrator's story would start to work toward a resolution. Well, you'd be wrong.

We take a side trip to Joe, who has been patched together with what I can only assume is duct tape, back at work shredding files that will somehow help him get promoted.

He's approached by a senior VP, impressed with his skills who decides to help him out. Joe reacts to this with a bit of stabbing wit.

Or just plain stabbing. There is so much story getting in the way of whatever it is we are supposed to be caring about. So many distractions that build up to nothing. How does Joe clean up this mess? Why didn't the she-bitches just leave Joe dead or missing or disappeared? How is any of this relevant to our murdered narrator? Why should I care? I just don't know anymore.

Meanwhile Loray has scored another show date from "Love & Marriage" with a captain of industry. They should change the name of the show to "Loray needs a date this week." Michael is pretty upset and busts in on her sucking the guys…"lifeforce".


Things get ugly from there…

Yesh! Dude, your girlfriend is a dog! I guess you love her anyway, but seems she thinks you’re a bit too possessive.


So much for Michael's killer girlfriend. And Michael too. Please note he is "killed."

Miles looks to be taking Michael's place as Loray puts the undead wammy on him, and then as they leave…this happens:


I do NOT UNDERSTAND this comic anymore. The guys she kills can't die, I suppose. But shouldn't Loray be more careful with carving up their bodies and just leaving them laying around. Note the Narrator is there too and he STILL is having no effect on anything in the story.

Michael pays a surprise visit to Loray on the set of "Love & Marriage" where she is filming yet ANOTHER "pick the guy to turn into an undead menace." His arrival, gored and gutted proves Loray is an undead monster and she transforms accidentally in front of the camera's she so upset. 

Side note here: our narrator should have figured out by now that this is not his killer. If it had been, he would still be walking around and not a ghost. His killer (my educated guess, anyway) has to be the contestant that has been on the show 90-some-odd times and never gotten picked. Transparent plotting there.)

Anyway, Loray steps out into the hot studio lights, which must somehow affect her differently in this form, and she goes up quicker than a Galaxy 7 running Pokemon Go (Reminder: get new phone).


Our epilogue to all this mess is this: Loray shows up in the 50's themed afterlife diner and has this convo with our Narrator.

This was all one big red herring. To add to it, she gives him a clue that is another red herring. A huge wild goose chase with him unable to affect the story at all. I am seriously let down by all this.

BUT the book came with a card game too: The Battle for Smithville. You just hack these two back pages into cards (yeah, even though I think this book worthless, that ain't happening) and then find a friend for some player vs player action, where one side is the humans and the other the monsters.


But I do have a copier on my printer/scanner and in a couple of minutes I had a full game deck to pay with. The cards are of two types: a human or monster character OR a card which gives a bonus to a human (weapon card) or a monster (haunt card). The game is played a bit like a children's memory game: put all the cards face down on the table, you flip over a card, if it is one of your "side's" characters you continue, hoping to get a corresponding bonus card and then an opposing character card. Then you each roll a six sided dice and add any bonuses to get higher than your opponent's score. Highest score wins and gets to remove the opponent's card.

Since nothing moves, the more you remember where things are on the board, the easier it will be to wipe your opponent out.

I sat down to a game of this with my 11-year old and we thought that on first play-through the game was pretty simple. I realized given there are certain monsters that start out with a high point advantage, those would be the ones to target and take off the board using bonus cards first. My son won because he took out my high point cards in the first few rounds, before we really got a look at how much each was worth. By then my low level monsters were no match for his Van Helsing character and he had found a couple of bonus cards to target the mid-level monsters.

It was fun for a short period of time, but the game isn't very deep. After a few hands, players would realize it all comes down to the luck of finding the high value assets first.

One thing definitely wrong: the game mechanics would work a lot better if the Haunts, which add additional points to your monster attacks, were not printed in dark colors. Cards like Full Moon and Foggy Night might provide large bonuses to certain Monsters, but the writing is obscured because it is black-on-black ink. Sad.

There is also a two page essay on how to adapt 13:Assassin RPGs to different horror genres and it is generally thought provoking, however not worth the negative of having to read the comic that precedes it. In all I'm giving RIP #1 a failing grade. That story is just agony to get though for what will, in three more issues, work out to a very predictable ending.

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