Sunday, July 31, 2022

Decisions and Revisions That A Minute Will Reverse

I LOVE the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It is about a middle-aged guy who is paralyzed by his fear of what others are thinking, or of making the wrong choice, or of going in the wrong direction. He'd rather stay where he is than take a risk, because what if it fails? What if things get worse? I will stay right here, thank you very much.

Do I dare disturb the universe? Do I dare, indeed.

It's such a great poem. I don't know that the 15- and 16-year-olds that I read it with can truly understand what it means to have a lifetime of plans that didn't quite work out how you planned. I do. That's why I love it.

That said, decisions need be made or no progress can happen. I've already spoken about my art flow and layout issues, and I'm happy with how that series of choices has panned out. I'm happy to keep working in Microsoft Paint. I've learned how to maximize it, and I think that the limited options force my hand with creativity a little bit; I have to push it to see what I can get out of it. There's something artistically... noble(?) about that. I don't know. But I like it. I like the limited palette I've decided on (black and white linework with grayscale backgrounds). I like that I'm thinking in half-page increments, 2100 pixels wide and 1500 pixels tall. I like that I'm thinking of varying between short character-centered stories and longer narratives that move some sort of story forward.

I hate a grind. I cannot do a grind. I've tried grind. I cannot do it. But I like a regular schedule. I want to keep a regular schedule. I think that a regular schedule is a good thing for everyone.

Plus, my childhood. Everything comes back to my childhood. I knew when the new issue of GI Joe was coming out, and I knew when I could expect it in the mail; it often appeared at the grocery store a day or two ahead of making its way to my mailbox, so I sometimes ended up with two copies of an issue because I couldn't wait the extra day. I finally canceled my subscription when I realized that the guy at the flea market sometimes sold new issues as much as a week ahead of the newsstand. 

I like the idea of a monthly publication. So, I'm not sure what it looks like yet (okay, I know that it's not print but will be some sort of either pdf or web site or comic forum or something that is available online). I want to release something on the first of every month; it might be a chapter from the longer narrative I'm working on, or a shorter complete story. It might be a greatest hits collection or the complete handbook of the Army Ant Universe or I don't know what. But, it will be something that is somewhat COMPLETE. It will be a satisfying read on its own. It will move the needle 'forward' in some meaninful way. It will be a 'complete issue' of 'comic book'. 

I'm thinking that, minimally, this will be 8 pages (4 full pages in print) with a very short story on the order of one of my earliest stories, 'Food Fight'. More likely, it will be on the order of 'Slab Smash', which is 16 pages (8 full pages in print), that tells a longer story. Sometimes, it might be as long as one of my original comics (which were 16 full pages, so that would be upwards of 32 half pages). I doubt that I can be that productive, but I also know that I have sudden bursts of creativity sometimes that allow me to pound out 30-ish pages in a week or two. So, it could happen.

This commits me to SOMETHING. It commits me to telling a story of some size once a month, but that's it. My stories don't lend themselves to the drip-drip-drip of regular one-page updates, and I'm not going to try to force them into a format they don't feel like they belong it. 

If this is going to work, I need a few quick victories. I need a handful of short stories 'in the can'. I don't necessarily want to release these right away, but if I have a tough month or need a few extra days to get together the story I really want to release, I'll have a few 8-pagers in my folders that I can draw from to publish that month. I need at least two or three of those at the ready so that I don't fall behind in the first six months of this endeavor. I would like this to build some momentum, but I'll have to build in some security to ensure it will. 

One more decision before I go: The new "Army Ants" should launch on September 1. That gives me thirty days to get all of my ducks in a row and get some work done. I think if I can end the month with a plan, a place to publish, and at least three stories ready to go on September 1, I'll be in good shape.

I love it when a plan comes together...

But I don't HAVE a plan yet.

I have a little bit of a vision, though. However, I'll start by being completely honest about what I'm not going to try and do.

I am not trying to build an audience or gain popularity - to get more eyes on my work. This has been, historically, my overriding goal. I've tried to do what I thought might be popular, or might get a few more likes, or what someone on a webcomic forum said, or what the prevailing wisdom was... but not what I really wanted to do. 

I've been told that to build an audience and gain popularity, you need to release often and consistently. Or you need to be in full color. Or you need to be on this social media. Or you need to market in this way. Or you need to have this sort of focus. Or you need to... ad infinitum.

But none of it has ever worked. I've tried it all in some capacity. The worst direction I ever received was from a jaded older director in college who told me, 'do it again, only BETTER'. The prevailing wisdom has been, again, that I released weekly, but nobody cared... if I released TWICE a week, that would help. So, I tried twice a week. And nobody cared. Release on Tuesdays and Fridays. No. Release on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. But release in the evening. 

Actually, the problem is your idea. If you find YOUR AUDIENCE and target your comic to them specifically, you'll be successful. I did that. Nobody cared.

So, it's my turn not to care. I mean, I hope you like my comics and games. I really do. I hope you love them and share them on social media and tell your friends and decide to tip me a few dollars a month at some point. But if you don't, I'm not going to change what I do and how I do it in some vain effort to convince you to do so. If army ants is meant to reach an audience of a million people, it will. If it's meant to stay where it is, then that's what it will do. But I'm not going to make decisions that will have me do what I don't want to do in order to maybe get more readers.

My wife keeps saying I need to be on Instagram. I don't like Instagram. I think it's a waste of time and energy. If I can find a way to maintain a presence on Instragram with almost zero effort; I will do that. If Instagram is going to ultimately require daily check ins and maintenance and follow-up, I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to pretend I might. I already know I won't. 

I keep being told to go where my audience is. I have no idea who or where my audience is. Maybe I don't have an 'audience' beyond some tried-and-true peeps who've been reading my stuff for decades. You are all awesome, and if it's just us going forward, that's cool.

I suppose that I'll take the plan one piece at a time, and see where it leads. I'm not sure yet... but at least I know what it won't be.


Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Storm Page 2 Work In Progress

 Here's page 2 of "The Storm" with no dialogue yet. I lean a little too much on cutting and pasting images so far, but I am doing this to get some rhythms. The 'beats' work best if there are few changes between the images.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Before And After: The Storm Page 1

I have twice started a story called "The Storm", but I'm going with the whole "third time's the charm" thing. I cannot find the second version which I started about five years ago, but I did find the original page from 2001. I figured I'd put it here along with the new page 1 I just did today... you can see how different my style is, even though some of the basic things in my drawing are unchanged. I'm pleased with how clean and crisp my drawing is now, even though it may not have as much energy as it did. That is one of my goals - to get some of the kinetic energy back into my style that I've lost since I've been working digitally. However, the modern work is (to my mind) vastly superior in almost every way, so I'll take the temporary setback with dynamism on the page. 

The original page is a picture I took; I didn't feel like dragging out the scanner and then re-formatting the page. It's a bit blurry, but you get the idea...

F is for Fonts and Formatting

I went back and took the top half of my previous page one, re-formatted it into the new half-page orientation, and played with some layout and font options. Here are variations one through four...

In variation one, I just moved the existing elements around; I changed the frame on the second image from a square to a circle for variety's sake. 

In variation two, I mirrored the image and moved the dialogue around. I think that this is overall better; I like the second panel being to the right, but then the dialogue gets clunky. It is more important that you know how to 'read' the page. Option one is not quite as clear about what order to read the balloons (do you start at the far left, or at the top? the answer is at the top, and then reset to the lower left corner; but it could cause confusion); option two makes it quite clear, going left to right and top to bottom.

In variation three, I swapped out the Anime Ace font for the Creative Block font. Anime Ace is cleaner; Creative Block is closer to my original lettering, and is the one I've been using for the 50+ pages of remastered pages I've done. 

In variation four, I went back to the original layout, but moved the circle panel to the middle, widened the first panel, started the dialogue in the first panel, and then allowed the remaining dialogue to flow left to right. I think I like Creative Block better (it's 14 point here), and this is probably the strongest layout of the four...

Comic Formatting Thoughts

First things first: this is post #133 for 2022, which ties my all-time annual record (133 posts in 2013). One more post, and I'll have set an annual record for myself... with five months remaining. I like my odds. However, this also marks all-time post #989, putting me eleven posts away from lifetime post #1,000. I want to do something special for that post once it gets here... I know what post #999 is about (the past, duh), but I'd like post 1,000 to be about the future in some way. I suppose I'll know when I get there...

That said, I'm trying to plan for my future by learning from my past. I am pretty sure I want to work on Army Ants comics and game support (duh again), but what the looks like is still a debatable topic. I'm going to focus on the dilemma about comics for now... I'll get to the RPG stuff soon enough.

In terms of design, I go back and forth between planning full pages and half pages. There is a fundamental difference in how I visually design when I'm working in one or the other. With the full page, I tend to think more vertically, while with the half page I tend to think more horizontally. Full pages are more traditional, but half pages have their own traditions; these are more akin to classic comic strips, and also to the way that Carl Barks and his ilk have worked - they publish full pages, but work in half-page increments.

I also like half pages for reading on screens; I know that most people are reading on a phone now, so it doesn't matter, but I still spend a lot of time on my Surface Pro, and horizontal alignment is the default for me. Also, we read from left to right, not top to bottom, which suggests to me that there is an inherent benefit to approaching things that way.

Most importantly, the evidence I've got is that I've done my best work in half-page increments. My favorite Ants stories used that approach. In some instances, even when I was drawing full pages, I was thinking of the page as a top and bottom with a break across the middle of the page. I run into layout problems sometimes when I have a full page to work with; I end up with moments where it's not clear what 'direction' to move in visually as you cross the page. The half page design puts up some guard rails from my own weaknesses as a page designer. Here's a revised image from my remastering of Slab Smash that shows what I mean... I love this particular layout.

This means that the two pages I've done for New Frontier will have to be re-configured, but that's no great shakes. 

The other issue is dimensions...

My ant pages have used the traditional 2x3 comics orientation. Traditionally, artists worked in 10" x 15" original pages. I did all of my original ant pages on 11x14 bristol board, with original art that was 8" x 12". This is still that 2:3 ratio (66.6%).

However, more modern approaches (specifically manga) are over 70% as the default. I've run into trouble printing my books, because my original art is too 'square' for most publishing formats, meaning that my pages have a lot of white space at the top and/or bottom when printed. 70% is better for a more modern look and for modern print options.

This means that, if a print image is going to be 7 increments wide and 10 increments tall, then half pages should be 7 wide and 5 tall. The gutter between the two when published would put it to the nearly 71% of manga, which is just about right. If I'm converting this to pixels, let's go with a x300 multiplier; this gives me original art that is 2100 pixels wide and 1500 pixels tall. If the plan is to print these at maybe 4.5" wide (the widest you could really get into a 6x9 trade paperback), then I'm looking at print versions that have over 460 pixels per inch, which is solid and should look good.

Whew. Okay, some decisions are made. Next time, we'll talk fonts! Hooray for that.  

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Let's Read MTDAA The RPG: Part 4B

I've been going through some of the original comic pages and doing some re-mastering... and then about twenty pages in I went back and started over, because I realized that the font I was using was just too large, and the pages needed more breathing room. THEN I went back and realized that on the 50+ pages I'd already re-mastered, the font was a little too SMALL... so I started fixing THOSE pages, too. So now I have about 20 pages that have been re-re-remastered, and they look pretty good. Some pages I wish the font was a little bigger, and some pages I wish it was a little smaller, so I suppose it's just about right. I am using Creative Block for the comics I'm remastering, but I'd been using Anime Ace for the pages I was creating new... so I'm not sure what to do. I like Creative Block better with how my style used to be, but I like Anime Ace better with how my style is now... which is weird. I might keep playing with Creative Block for the newer pages, because it is closer to my natural lettering style, which is pretty sloppy; but Creative Block is a 'sloppy' looking style, so it works for me. Anime Ace looks more polished, so it fits with my more polished current drawings.

It's a conundrum.

But, I needed a break from that, so decided to head back to the RPG and gather some more thoughts. I've already posted a bit about vehicle and speed rule changes, so I bear that in mind as I go through this section.

In pages 63-72, we get a good selection of military vehicles and some (to me) interesting bits about the history and development of ant warfare. Most of the mechanics and statistics for vehicles are going to change, so this section is going to be antiquated once the supplement I'm taking notes for comes together.

However, one thing that I didn't include in the previous commentary on vehicle rules was about weapons systems... I've had this x10 scale for vehicle weapon damage; a vehicle weapon that deals 1D6 damage actually deals 10-60 points if it hits an ant. Fortunately, Quora had a great conversation about this topic, and I was able to learn a lot. In short, anti-vehicle weapons are bigger, yes, but more importantly they have exploding shells that are designed to deal significantly more damage. So, my use of the x10 scale for vehicle vs. bug damage is a pretty good approximation for how this actually works. I like it because it allows the numbers to scale starting from zero, and keeps the top numbers small. 

There are references in this section to Mechanics checks being required to upgrade vehicles, but I don't see the specific rules for how this works... that's something I need to investigate and play test further.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Re-mastering the Ants

Two years ago, I started a project that I never finished - the idea was to re-master the original pages. I was going through a page at a time: tougching up art, re-doing the lettering, cleaning up dialogue where I could. The pages were coming out well, and I got through almost three issues before I ran out of gas on the project. However, I see now that it is worth continuing and finishing; I was actually through the most difficult pages in terms of art (these were the weakest pages I was going to deal with), and the lettering work was pretty fun to do, since it's all digital. It gave me warm fuzzies to fix some of the clunky dialogue of those earlier issues... and it gave me hope to have a complete, good looking omnibus of 300+ pages of army ants comics that I was proud of.

My dive back into that work started with this image - I re-drew what is to me the 'classic' cover to MTDAA #1, including Slab and Honeydew, who to me became as much a part of the team as the core five. I can see both how far my drawing has come, and how much it retains of work I was doing 25 years ago. Ultimately, this is definitely the cover to whatever omnibus sort of collection I do. I really like it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

An Army Ant Retrospective

Is it weird to write an analysis of your own comic book series? 

Yes, it probably is.

Oh, well. Here we go anyway.

In working on the beginnings of a new series involving the Army Ants, I'm a bit older, and a bit better as a writer, and far better in terms of my understanding of storytelling and pacing and tone and all of those things... and I spent a little time perusing some of my army ant work. I wanted to decide what, exactly, made this book what it is to me, and what things were 'essential' to keep going forward.

In this process, I have realized that there are two 'types' of army ants stories. They are fundamentally different. 

The first type is loosely based on Carl Barks and Ducks. These are short stories, entirely self-contained, that are more like extended comic strips. They rely heavily on visual humor, puns, and fast pacing. They don't move 'the story' forward, because there's no story to move forward. These are just the ants being army ants. The larger story is in the background, but stays there. The exemplar of this, to me, is Slab Smash, which I threw together in like three days and still think might be my best comic book story. It's got everything I want out of an army ants short - some genuinely clever bits, good action, nice character beats... there's a lot to like here. I really want to find the best files I can for this and re-do the lettering; in retrospect, my art was usually a step (sometimes more than a step) ahead of my lettering - the use of digital fonts is a game changer for me; lettering is my worst attribute as a cartoonist. I wish I was better at it, because I think great lettering is a hallmark of a great cartoonist, but I just couldn't get there. Incidentally, I pulled one of my Carl Barks Donald Duck collections just to read through and... it's not very good. I mean, there's not much in there that's genuinely funny or clever. I read the introduction first, and was expecting some laugh-out-loud moments. It was actually a bit disappointing. I know that there is a great reverence for Barks, but I just didn't see it this afternoon. Maybe I just don't appreciate good stuff? No idea. In these sort of Army Ant stories, it's interesting to me that they are largely about Vince, Phil, and Slab. Those are my C-3PO, R2-D2, and Chewbacca. They are who they are. They generally don't change much, and tend towards comic relief.

Anyway, the second type of Army Ants story is the graphic novel. This is longer (duh), but deals with and develops themes around friendship, loss, hope, family... these are generally more serious, where story comes to the fore and I'm more concerned about character development and structure. It is interesting to me that these stories have pushed the characters of Gunner and Zak to the forefront. These are the characters who grow and change, and who have the most complexity to them. They are my Han Solo and Luke Skywalker characters. Vince, Phil, and Slab are there, but they are secondary characters, tending to fade into the background in large part.

So which one is 'really' an army ants story? That's been my dilemma. I've been drawn, at different times, to working in one style or another; part of me thinks that the army ants work best as short bursts of chaos, while other times I think they lend themselves to deeper meditations - that they are my own personal Watership Down.

Ultimately, I've realized that it's both. Army Ants is best when the two genres work side by side, balancing each other. They are the Yin/Yang that makes the series whole to me. I don't know why, but that realization is really helpful for me. I want to tell stories like "The Storm", which will work best jammed into the fewest pages possible; I also want to tell a sprawling story like "New Frontier" that is going to meander a bit and take its time getting where it wants to go. I am going to do some considerable world building with New Frontier. 

I am excited that, maybe at long last, I've given myself permission to do both.

What does that look like? Not sure yet. But at least I know how it should feel.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

MTDAA New Frontier: Pages 1-2

Okay... I totally found my rhythm in page 2, then went back and fixed page 1. I really like this. I am going to end up re-drawing the helicopter in panel 1; the shape isn't right yet. However, the rest of this is looking good.

MTDAA New Frontier: Chapter One, Page One


MTDAA Legacy Actual Play: Aero's Away Session 1

I never actually put together Aero’s stat block. I’m going to house rule that you always start with your full body (there’s actually no direct mention of this at level 1, although the level up rules make clear that you get your body die every level; you should start with full health. I also cleaned up his picture and added some heavy blacks. He’s looking good.

First Lieutenant Aero
Level 1 Ant Pilot; SN 13579-12
Hits 4; Feat +1; Clout 35
Body D4; Mind D6; Prowess D6; Spirit D6
Aeronautics +2 (+1 shift); Mechanic +1; Moxy +1
AM-38 Pistol (D4; 3 cm); satchel; provisions; bedroll; entrenching tool; flight suit; flashlight (3 cm); utility knife

The Wasp Chaser, Aero’s A-180 Lightning (275 clout)

Control +2; Frame D6; Speed +1; Durability D6; Cannon D4

Aero reports to the Hill’s briefing room for the first time. Sarge is there, giving out missions. I think of this looking a lot like the briefing room from Hill Street Blues - a little bit of chaos and bickering as missions are given out. Sarge welcomes him, and two other pilot graduates, into the live team. They have lots of area to patrol and maintain, and few forces to do it. The Back Yard is in considerable chaos, so foot patrols will be staying here. The helicopters will be moving into the border territories to help establish order and re-establish the ant presence. It is important for other insects to see that the army of ants has returned, and that some peace and order are returning to Seven Fields. Aero is going to head east; he’ll be patrolling the graveyard, the grounds around the old church, and the dead willow.

Well. I had always intended to treat this area as a bit of a supernatural land of the dead where you could encounter… not zombies exactly, but insects that were closer to death. I think that the locusts would be here, living in old temples and awaiting a sign to begin the end of days… that sounds pretty cryptic. Googling insects that deal with death, we are also going to be running into some flies and carrion beetles. I like this so far. Okay - we’ve got the Carrion Beetles who are the gravediggers and vault builders who are tunneling into ancient grave sites of dead creatures (humans, of course) to raid these tombs for resources; the bottle flies are constantly raiding their sites; the locusts are squatting in old temples and ruins (or maybe on that dead willow?) waiting for the sign of the apocalypse. M‘kay then. Gnats can be running around the countryside causing mischief, and they can provide the key threats at level 1 while I work out some of the larger logistics here. It's got a whole Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe that I'm digging (get it? DIGGING? oh me).

I’m going to use the solo play engine I’ve developed to build the game here; it’s possible he has a more specific mission than just ‘patrol and see what happens’, but you never know. I go with likely to have a specific mission; Yep. Rolled a 1. Very specific. Is it to go to a dig site and check in with a beetle leader who is allied? 1 again. Heck yes.

His name is Gustav, and he is overseeing a massive excavation 50 meters due east of Shadow Hill. Aero's helicopter has a travel speed of 90 cm per second with him piloting; this means that he can travel the distance in about ten minutes. All good. I’m going to say that there is a 1 in 6 chance of an encounter of some kind every minute; at minute 5, I come across something. Is it a predatory animal? 6. No. Is it another insect? 3. Yes. In need of help? 6. No. Engaged in criminal activity? 5. No. Suspicious activity? 2. Yes. Is this ruins of something or a disabled vehicle of some kind? 3 Yes. We’ll go with that. Air vehicle that crashed? No. Land vehicles? No. Water vehicle? 3 Yes. 

On the island in the middle of the creek, he sees a barge with Wasp Empire insignia that seems to be stuck against the small rock in the middle of the water. He sees bugs - we’ll go with gnats - swarming around it. He lowers the chopper to maybe 5 cm up and activates the PA system. He announces that he is from the ant army, and asks for the gnats to stand down as he comes for a brief inspection. 

I’m thinking as a rookie, he is excited to be an army ant and to bring order to everywhere he goes, even when he’s an idiot for doing it. When I was in fifth grade, I was made a safety patrol for the back hall stairwell, and I was drunk with power in wanting younger students to go back to the bottom and walk up without skipping stairs, because SAFETY (and power).

Aero is not drunk with power, but he sure likes wearing a new uniform and telling everyone it’s okay, because a real army ant is here now. So, yeah.

The gnats are up to no good, but he’ll need a Spirit Feat (DT 6) to notice this. I roll 5. Nope. He thinks he’s got this situation under control. Does he have this situation under control? 6. Not. At. All.

Okay, the gnats found a barge that was abandoned by the bees in the final days of the Wasp Empire. It was being used to transport mostly scrap to a dumping ground further south; however, it also has some older weapons and explosives, and the gnats are pillaging it for military surplus. Aero knows that any old Wasp Empire stuff should be destroyed, and his plan is to check the barge, get the gnats to leave, and call in a request for a demolitions team to destroy this. 

Something tells me that plan is not going to work out. There are 9 gnats here (ugh), and 6 of them are armed with cheap light rifles. 

Aero sets down about 5 cm from the barge, and turns off the propeller. He asks the gnats to come out and set down weapons, if they have them. 3 gnats come forward, but the 6 with weapons stay hidden. They all have to make Spirit checks against Aero, who is looking for them. Aero rolls a Prowess Feat and gets 5, which none of them can get to without a die explosion; the first two fail, so Aero knows that there are several here; two of the six are successful; Aero gets back on the PA and tells them to all come out, and he activates his cannon. There is a little game of cat and mouse here, and Aero waits out the ones he can see. There is a small chance that each of the two hidden gnats stays hidden; one does, and one does not. Aero now sees 8 gnats who have put their weapons down, and he feels comfortable leaving the cockpit. He draws his pistol but has it down. 

He asks the leader of the gnats to identify himself. A gnat steps forward and they have a chat. Does the gnat lie? Yep. He claims that this barge is full of medical supplies and non-military gear such as tents, bedrolls, and cooking utensils. He claims that the gnats need these things, and asks the ant to step aside and let them please take these for their survival. 

Aero makes his Prowess Feat and realizes they are probably lying. This is a military-grade barge, and is unlikely to have aboard what the gnat claims. He’s going to inspect, and tells the gnats to step away from their weapons and face towards the creek. It’s likely that the gnats attack at this point… 1. Yep. 

It’s initiative. Aero gets 5, and the gnats get 11 due to some dice explosions. Drat. The hidden gnat jumps out and opens fire while the unarmed gnats scurry for cover and the ones who had set their rifles down go to pick them up. The attacker rolls 4 to hit, and Aero rolls 2 to evade; dang. He gets tagged in his first combat; it’s another dice explosion, so he suffers 10 wounds. 

Well THAT was quick. He’s at -4. He rolls 4 for his Body Feat (EEK!) and is stabilized.

The gnats see him drop, and my best guess is that they grab a few things and flee (get it? FLEA? Oh, the insect humor). 4. No. They do something else. Do they finish pillaging and then go? No. Uh oh. Do they decide to take a prisoner and see if they can get a ransom for him? No. Do they try to steal his helicopter? 1.

Oh crap. 

The leader of the gnats goes to try and figure out how to start the helicopter. He’ll need to make a DT 6 Mind Feat just to figure out how to turn it on (there are lots of switches and dials and buttons on the console). He gets a 1. Duh. No chance.

Another gnat gives it a try. He gets a dice explosion but then rolls 1… so he gets a 5. He manages to get an engine to fire, but without activating other systems first, it just wheezes and sputters out. 

Someone suggests stripping the helicopter for parts. They are going to jawa the thing. They decide not to - someone realizes that ripping apart an ant helicopter is going to draw a lot of attention; they are already in over their heads having killed an ant officer (which they think they did). They are back to grab a few things and bounce. They do this.

Aero recovers 5 hits in a little under an hour, and wakes up. The gnats are gone, and he’s covered in blood. He pulls out his med kit and bandages his wounds. He’s stable, but not feeling well. The bullet went right through his shoulder. Live and learn, right?

He’s missed a check in with the hill, and gets on his radio to report what has happened. He’s tempted to lie, but I think Aero is a sincere if a bit naive ant - telling lies on his first mission is just not what he’d do. I think he would face the consequences rather than lie to cover up. 

He reports in and has an uncomfortable conversation with mission command. Is mission command going to pressure him to change his story? Likely. Okay… we go… yeah. 2. Totally.

Their dialogue follows…

Aero: Mission Command, this is the Wasp Chaser.

MC: Wasp Chaser? You okay? You missed check in.

Aero: Roger. Had an altercation with a group of fleas and suffered a gunshot wound. Am stable now. 

MC: Sorry, Wasp Chaser, did you say you had radio difficulties? 

Aero: Negative. Suffered gunshot wound. Awaiting orders.

MC: Sorry, Wasp Chaser. Your radio is cutting in and out. Suggest that you continue on mission and leave any minor details about this communication error out of your log. It’s not worth the paperwork. Hate to see you busted to cadet on your first mission. 

A pause. 

Aero: Roger, mission command. Will continue on mission and will be more diligent about checking in and maintaining radio equipment.

MC: Roger that. May the Queen protect you. Mission command out.


Okay, none of that was as expected, but all’s well that ends well. That was fun. We’ll see what he decides to do next time… part of me thinks he’s going to end up chasing after some gnats and recovering his self esteem… we’ll see.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Aero Session 0 (The Need for Speed)

The idea I have for a comic series continuation is the late spring - Aero is an experienced ant pilot who gets an experimental helicopter and goes on a long solo mission that ends up as a hybrid of Knight Rider and Airwolf. Air Rider or Knight Wolf or something. Airrider Knightwolf.

However, I also want to do an actual play to try out some new rules, and just to give me something to do! I’m not done with my ‘let’s read’ series (I’m only halfway through the book, so I still have some reading to do), but figured I can multitask. I definitely want to work on the vehicle rules more. I know that he’s going to be fresh out of flight training and be assigned to an A-180 Lightning helicopter. I hope he can afford it!

Okay, let’s go through the character creation steps (page 17 of the MTDAA: Legacy RPG, for those playing along at home)...

  1. My guy is going to be level 1. That’s the whole point; I think that when I meet him in the comic story I’m currently working on in broad strokes, he’ll be around level 3. Play testing at level 1 is the best idea.

  2. His speciality is going to be pilot. I’m thinking of adding more specialties in the companion book I’m starting to tinker with, but helicopter pilot as a flavor of pilot seems needlessly redundant. Pilot it is.

  3. I check the suggested starting build for a pilot (page 23). I suppose that is as good as anything. I could push Prowess to D8, but would have to give up 2 CPs in skills to do that; and since I want both Aeronautics and engineer, I’m going to let it be. Default factory settings it is.

  4. Traits are as above - factory settings.

  5. His rank - he is going to default to second lieutenant, but there’s a small chance he starts as a first lieutenant. I roll his Mind and get a 6 (explosion) followed by a 5 (that’s an 11); against a DT of 8, that’s success for first lieutenant. Wow. He’s a 1st Lt. out of boot camp, with 300 clout (200 for being a pilot, +50 for each rank he’s just earned). Noice. I was almost tempted to go with the whole Wild Bill GI Joe Warrant Officer thing, but decided I’d just stick with the traditional officer structure. 

  6. I can get my helicopter (250 clout) and have 50 clout left. The starting gear is decent, and my helicopter has to have at least a basic communications setup. I could upgrade my pistol (strongly tempted to because that D4 damage kinda stinks), and/or try to upgrade my chopper. If I spend 25 clout on a pistol, I also have 25 clout to spend which is worth 1 vehicle point…

Sidebar: I really love the rules in Shards of Tomorrow for vehicles in terms of breaking down, upgrades, and reliability; the idea that vehicles are not all the same, but each has its own character and charm and quirks is deeply ingrained from Star Wars, but it’s also closer to history as well; in Unbroken, he speaks about their particular bomber, along with its quirks and tendencies. The idea that the vehicle is a character too is more compelling from both a story and game perspective. Consider those en route.

Before I can upgrade my helicopter, I suppose I have to revise it for the new vehicle rules I’m proposing (and play testing - so I better use them).

And… Ruht-Roh. I see some problems with the speed and movement rules, because I use the concept of a turn as a hard measure, but define turn as one thing you do during a round; you take a ‘turn’, but it’s not a defined measure of time. And, honestly, the speed rules are a little overly clunky.

I think getting rid of a lot of this ‘game speak’ around time would be helpful. If we go with seconds, minutes, and hours, that would help. Insects respond very quickly, and their lives are very short. A fly can respond in hundredths of a second to a shoe coming to stomp on it; revising to a second as the default for a ‘round’ makes a lot of sense considering some of your enemies (like fruit flies) have a life cycle measured in hours.

Let’s start from the real world. In the real world, a red ant walks 9 body lengths per second. If our ‘typical’ ant soldier is 6 mm tall, that equates to about 50 mm per second, or 5 cm. A bee can fly 20 miles per hour (so that would break down to .0056 miles per second, or a little over 9 meters per second). That, to scale, is FAST. Basically, everything moves at (comparative) superhuman speed in this world.

Let’s try some simple rules for movement to see how they work:

Insects and walking. Most insects have a speed of 1. This means that the insect can walk 1 cm in one second and do something else (fire a weapon, explore, activate a device)... If you want to sprint or run, you have to do only that, add your Prowess die rating to your speed that round; a D6 prowess character moves 7 cm per second at a decent jog. That’s a ballpark of the real world, and easy to track.

You can travel your maximum speed for a number of minutes equal to your Body die, then you need to rest for 10 minutes before trying again. You can walk (1 cm per second) right away, but can’t sprint again.

There’s no reason that land vehicles wouldn’t then have the same rules; an insect is often as fast as a land vehicle (an ant moves the equivalent of 30 mph at human scale); however, a vehicle can travel reliably over longer distances. Vehicles don’t need to stop every few minutes and rest.

Insects and flying. Most flying insects also have a speed of 1. This means that the insect can fly 10 cm in one second and do something else (fire a weapon, explore active a device)... if you want to fly full out, and do only that, you add your Prowess die rating (in 10 cm increments) as above; our D6 prowess fly gets to fly 70 cm per second (about 15 miles per hour). Again, this ballparks the real world pretty well and is easy to track. You could fly at top speed for a number of minutes equal to your Body die (as with walking/running).

This means that a vehicle would basically emulate the speed of existing flying insects. Therefore, a flying vehicle with a speed of 1 has a basic flight speed of 10 cm per second (scouting, patrolling, etc) but can go to the operator’s Prowess die rating + Pilot trait. This actually makes a lot of sense. It’s balanced, easy to track, and feels intuitive. A simple pilot with little training is going to add at least 4 to the vehicle’s travel speed from the D4 Prowess. 

I think that I want to play test with Frame (instead of chassis) being a dice value and not a rating. This is the outside of the vehicle, and this is how much damage is soaks when it is hit. I was going to go with fuselage or hull, but those are specific to different vehicle types; hull is closer, but it’s still weird. I think frame encompasses the concept better. 

A simple vehicle then starts with the following ratings:

Control +1 (25 clout); Frame D4 (25 clout); Durability D4 (25 clout); Speed 1 (25 clout)

This might be something like an ATV or a paraglider for 100 clout. This is a bit cheaper than the core rules have these, but it’s not too far off. I mean, I guess a paraglider or raft could have Frame of 0 and just take it to the chin every time… a life raft would have only durability of D4 and that’s it, so it would be 25 clout.

Clout costs

Rating Die Cost

+1 D4 +25 Clout (25 total)

+2 D6 +50 Clout (75 total)

+3 D8 +100 Clout (175 total)

+4 D10 +200 Clout (275 total)

+5 D12 +400 Clout (675 total)

This is better, because it gets rid of the ‘conversion’ system that required you to convert to vehicle points, and then count these. 

This means that our A-180 Lightning Helicopter now is built on 225 clout:

Control +2 (75); Frame D4 (25); Speed +1 (25); Durability D6 (75); Cannon D4 (25)

I like this. Back to Aero; he had 300 clout to start with, and has now spent 225, with 75 remaining. He cannot turn in his pistol, because he has D4 body! Oops. Okay then. The 75 can go right into the vehicle; let’s go with a bonus to Frame, bringing that to D6.

The Wasp Chaser, Aero’s A-180 Lightning (275 clout)

Control +2; Frame D6; Speed +1; Durability D6; Cannon D4

Just for fun, let’s try a tank. 

Tank (675 clout)

Control -2 (-75); Frame D10 (275); Speed +1 (25); Durability D10 (275); Cannon D8 (175)

Not too far off from the core rules. You can take negative control to get bonus clout elsewhere. There’d have to be some rule that you cannot have more than half your vehicle’s value come from this penalty; otherwise, you could get a 675-clout vehicle that just happens to have -5 control for free.

Friday, July 15, 2022

Vehicle Combat in MTDAA the RPG

In my summer school class, I am reading Unbroken with my students. It's the first time I've had a chance to read it, and I find its descriptions of going on bombing raids and what things are like inside of a bomber fascinating. There are two big takeaways in terms of emulating such combat in a RPG like Army Ants...

  1. The vehicle doesn't always protect those inside. My default assumption has been that, if you are inside of a vehicle, you are generally protected from suffering damage until the vehicle itself is disabled - or close to being disabled. That is, clearly, historically inaccurate. 
  2. Vehicles don't have 'hit points' like I've traditionally used them; a vehicle could take a little shot that hits a sensitive system or ruptures a fuel line, and your problems suddenly multiply. Or, as is the case in the book, a vehicle can sustain unbelievable damage, several members of the crew can be horribly wounded, and the thing can keep on flying. You land and then the wing falls off.

It seems logical to replace an armor class and hit point system with a series of saving throws (or Feats as I label them). Since MTDAA relies on escalating dice, and allows dice to explode, you could use a pretty simple mechanic that includes a handful of ratings. I think that a vehicle really only needs control, chassis, and durability ratings in terms of combat applications.

Control is a check the pilot makes any time something bad might happen, including getting shot down, evading a missile strike, landing in difficult conditions, or the like. A vehicle has a modifier to checks, which are based on the pilot's abilities and the circumstances.

The chassis would be a lower number, between 2 and 10. This would be the minimum damage an enemy would need to do to possibly disable the vehicle. Let's go with a combat helicopter for our example. It's not exceptionally armored like a tank, but it's got some plating. We'll go with 4 for its chassis. Any damage below this amount is negligible.

The durability is a dice value. A low-durability vehicle (a glider or raft) has D4, while a jeep might be D6, and a tank might be D12. We'll put our combat helicopter at D8.

A vehicle's damage starts at 0, and increases as it suffers damage in combat.  

Combat Helicopter: Control +2; Chassis 4; Durability D8

Let's say that a basic anti-aircraft gun has D6 for damage. Our helicopter moves within range of such a gun, and takes fire. For our purposes, we'll say that, before it can get out of range, the helicopter gets hit three times by this gun (there were five attacks, but three of these were beyond the pilot's Prowess + Pilot + Control checks). 

The first attack deals 3 damage, and since this below the chassis of 4, there's no significant damage. Everyone inside is fine.

The second attack deals 5, and since this is above the chassis of 4, the helicopter suffers 1 damage. This forces a durability check, and as long as you don't roll below 1 (which is impossible), all is well. So, all's well by default. 

However, someone inside might have been injured anyway. We'll say that any time a vehicle sustains damage, there is a chance that those inside are injured in some way. Everyone should attempt a Prowess Feat, DT 6 + the damage suffered that round. In this case, that would be DT 7. We can say that any vehicle damage that affects a passenger would deal a standard D10 damage (easy to remember, and the potential to be pretty signficant); this die can explode. We'll say that everyone makes the Prowess Feat and gets lucky.

However, the third shot is a natural 6, which explodes, followed by another 6, also exploding followed by a 4. This is a total result of 16. This is is more than 10 beyond the Chassis, it's 2 damage, bringing the total damage to 3. Now, there's some concern; the pilot cannot roll a 1 or 2, because then the helicopter is potentially disabled. Let's say that the pilot rolls a 2; the helicopter begins spraying fuel from a ruptured line.

This requires a control check. We'll say that these checks are always based on 6, and then modified from there by the damage. In this case, the DT is going to be 9 because of the 3 damage the helicopter has sustained. The pilot makes the check (his Prowess D8 + Pilot 3 + Control 2, and he rolls 5 for a result of 10), and is okay. He manages to turn off that fuel injector and re-route to another line. 

Additionally everyone inside must attempt a Prowess Feat, CR 6 + the damage sustained that round. In this case, the damage was 2, so the Feat is DT 8. Anyone who fails that Feat suffers D10 damage, and that damage can explode. We'll say that of the crew of three (pilot, gunner, and navigator/engineer), the gunner is hit for 10 damage, which explodes for another 6. This is enough to reduce him to negatives, but he survives. 

If the pilot had failed, the helicopter would have lost fuel, and would crash in 1D6 rounds; the pilot would need to make another control check to set the helicopter down without sustaining more damage, and without those inside making more Feats to keep from taking horrible damage in the crash. 

In short, this system is mechanically pretty simple, aligns with existing game mechanics, emulates vehicle combat as it actually happens, and increases the drama of vehicle combat quite significantly. That's all win to me.

I also think that there are opportunities to involve other characters; your engineer might be able to make a roll that the pilot fails; the pilot failed to control the helicopter as the fuel line was ruptured, but the engineer is able to manually throw the valve that stops that line. In addition, an engineer might be able to repair damage on the fly; a successful engineering check might be able to reduce damage by 1; this would be a cool mechanic to add in, meaning that a good engineer could allow your vehicle to sustain incredible damage and keep on plugging along.  Every time the engineer begins a repair, it might take 1D4 rounds (and this die will not explode). If he gets interrupted before that time is up, the repair fails. 

I'm starting to think I want to do a sourcebook for the game with expanded rules for things like vehicle combat and rules for fighting predators. I think that I've found a way to make vehicle combat feel different from front-line ground combat, which is a huge step. The next piece will be to work out fights with predators, which I was never happy with in the original rules, but I accepted it for what it was. 

This would end up replacing maybe twenty pages of existing rules with broader and more expansive rules, but would leave the vast majority of the existing rulebook intact. That seems to be a pretty solid tradeoff considering it's been a decade since the game was released.   

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Let's Read: MTDAA Part 4A

Continuing through my fresh eyes reading of MTDAA: Legacy the RPG. I'm moving on to the weapons and gear section... this covers pages 46-62 (before we get into vehicles).

This section is quite successful in doing what I would want it to do, which is give a variety of weapons and gear options while also building in game flavor. I think that the little flourishes about the history of weapons and the various ways that the ants approach weapon design are helpful in the larger world building that goes on around the game. I think this stuff is indispensible now that I read it anew. There is a good selection of weapons and gear. 

I don't know that the section on cybernetics is needed or that I'd want that the be part of most games. I was sort of backed into it by virtue of having a recurring villain be a cyborg, so not having rules for it would be a bit of an oversight. I don't dislike the rules, but I don't love them. I would just not include them in most of my games; I feel like they add a layer of complexity that doesn't give any real bang for the investment.

However, let me reflect on a larger thing here - this game is a bit more crunchy than I tend to like, but the nature of the game and the comic lean into that a bit. The granularity shows up in weapons, where there are enough mechanical differences between weapons that you can see and feel it. This is important; I know that when we were playing our first RPGs at 11 or 12, the differences between an M-16 and AK-47 were important to us as we played. The game does a decent enough job distinguishing these things. The gear section is not in any way exhaustive, but it still feels pretty complete. There's nothing I see as a glaring hole... the other thing is that your clout is going to be a finite resource; adding a whole bunch of filler you could spend clout on would only waste resources for the players. Simple things like a canteen or belt pouches are just a given; your standard issue gear is the fundamentals of what you might need that have non-combat applications. 

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Let's Read: MTDAA the RPG Part 3d

Finally finishing part 3 (pages 34-45)... there is very little that is mechanical in nature (excepting the rules for promotion), and much of this is background/setting/flavor. I LOVE it. In a few pages, I get the gist of the world and the tone the game strives for. I had previously tried to use a set of comic book pages to establish the tone of the game, and that was successful... but this is much stronger. I like a lot of this very much. There's not much I see that could be improved upon. It's quite solid.

On a related topic, I like how the art holds up. I can see that in some ways, art has come around to me - the black and white style I used is now comparable to black and white anime comics in many ways. The entire industry has shifted in a direction that is favorable to me; while there was the expectation twenty years ago that a 'real' comic would be full color, this is no longer the case, and black-and-white work earns shelf space and younger readers. Those are big wins in my book.

I do see an opportunity in my work to layer in gray-scale backgrounds. I like how the characters are in black and white line work, but some of my favorite images put these against a textured background. I can now simply drop in shades of gray to backgrounds to create fuller-looking images where the foreground characters pop better. Some of my images run into a little trouble where the background has the same line weights and texturing as the characters, making for more visually muddy images. It's never BAD, but sometimes it's a little work to separate the character from a piece of rock or blade of grass; using gray backgrounds would solve a lot, and actually be much easier to create. I spent a lot of time cross-hatching sky and ground and walls; that would all just be a drop of gray (or a few shades thereof) - easy peasy.

I do see the possibility of getting my process down to maybe 2 hours per page (or even one and a half hours), which makes the idea of re-launching a comic a little more enticing. If I can turn out a few pages a week with a moderate time commitment, that might be worth pursuing. I might pop together a short story or two just to try this out and see how it goes... 

Edit: I threw together this drawing in about four minutes... this is not bad at all for the basic look of the comic going forward. Wheels are turning...

Monday, July 4, 2022

MTDAA: New Frontier?

So I have a set of notes and the beginnings of a comic script for "Michael T. Desing's Army Ants: The New Frontier", which I guess is a comic but maybe is a play test character, or maybe it's both. Or neither. I am not sure yet.

For a long time, I've had the idea of a prototype helicopter and a solo character or small team going on a series of missions... based largely on my memories of Airwolf, which I will admit are limited to 'cool helicopter doing cool stuff'. I really couldn't tell you the first thing about the series - and I'm scared to find an episode and see how bad it probably was. That said, here's my first stab at a design for the prototype helicopter that would be the center of this storyline/play test... full disclosure: I have always hesitated to include vehicles heavily in my comics, because I was always bad at drawing them. Then, during the design of Shards of Tomorrow's most recent edition, I somehow 'figured out' how to draw vehicles, and started to like drawing them once I could see them in my mind's eye correctly. This is definitely a first draft, but it gives an idea of what I'm thinking. I think that the trick was I stopped trying to picture them as geometric shapes and allowed them to be more organic with rounded corners and less strict linework; that opened up a world of possibilty for me. 

Let's Read: MTDAA the RPG (Legacy Edition) Part 3b

Now, let's read through the section on traits (pages 25-33)...

In general, this section is sharp. It's relatively concise, but it feels very complete. I can see a lot of options for things I could use, and opportunities here to build unique characters. Here is where I start to see the replay/long term campaign play possibilities emerge. I can see how characters get better, and how you'd be working towards improving traits to unlock other abilities. I like but don't love the idea of aspects here; it is a good solution, but not perfect. For some of the more wide-ranging traits, there are specialized application you can unlock and purchase once you get to a bonus of +3 in the trait. They are not all equal, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I kind of want to change it so that for 1 point you unlock all of them, but then the idea of your character being a specialist in something diminishes. There's give and take with both options.

Mentalism and Mysticism are companion traits that suggest supermantural abilities; mentalism hews closer to Stranger Things, but doesn't feel like it fits as well as mysticism. I know that the idea is that mentalism would be the one where insects in secret labs are conducting experiments, while mysticism is the one you encounter in lost temples deep in ancient gardens. So, they are fundamentally different, but mysticism feels like it fits the vibe of the game and comic better. I know there is a place for mentalism, but I haven't really pushed it yet. I guess that's an opportunity for further growth of the game and comic... hmmm.

Technology BEGS for further clarification. I think that there is a lot of opportunity here to use technology as a debuff - you can  disorient foes with specialized sonic attacks, cause delays in enemy responses by disrupting their coordination, and sow confusion among enemy ranks by interfering with their communications networks. The foundation is here, but the game needs a number of options for specifics that would really push both this talent and the communications specialist to the fore and make them very useful. As written, there is some cool implied stuff, but not much concrete to sink your teeth into as a player. That is a definite opportunity for expansion. A creative player can probably make an argument that the rules allow for this and could push the GM to allow for these things, but the rules would be very helpful by spelling out exactly what this looks like. This is the first time I wish that I'd written one more paragraph - it would have added a lot.

The Speed trait is making me look at the basic movement rules again. I have learned in the intervening decade to grab existing mechanics and values to use in other places; you don't need a new number if you've got an existing number that will suffice. In this case, it seems like Prowess gives a good baseline; you should be able to move half your Prowess die cm in one round if you do nothing else. At Prowess D12, that allows you to travel 6 cm in one round. Since a round is 'a few seconds', I am going to interpret this as generally around 3 to 5 seconds; so you are running the equivalent of 60' in 5 seconds, which is not really that fast (but it's quick in a combat situation with full gear). This is better than the existing rule of 2... this is definitely an opportunity to make some updates. It's a small thing, but for a game that is presumed to be somewhat tactical in nature, movement rates and how fast you can travel are pretty important. I want to review this to get it right.

So far, at 33 pages in, I only see 2-3 minor things I want to update. I'm feeling great about this so far - it needs an Unearthed Arcana not a 2E to get cleaned up at this point.