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Story Time Mickey Huyck Review by
Michael T. Huyck Jr.
By Bruce Ballon
Guardians of Order
ISBN 1-894525-70-1

In the mid-to-late 70s I played Dungeon and Dragons (D&D) with the whatall that came in a box set. Back then printed pads for used character development, I think. And pamphlets were used to collect rules and critters and what have you. I think it was pamphlets, because I don't remember any real books. Funny, but I don't remember any dice, either. Could D&D have been without them? Naw, it's probably my poor memory. Later on, though, I'm certain it did. Then I had a set of crystals, kept 'em in a leather bag with a corroded brass ring to hold it shut (found at a garage sale). Sometimes, during an especially long and dirty campaign, I'd carry them in my pocket. All of them: 4d, 6d, 8d, 10d, 12d, and 20d. Just in case one of the other characters, no, players, one of the other players, got hot about the game there at school. If they wanted to kill someone during homeroom, or steal a crossbow with bolts in the middle of a math test.

Regular, everyday gaming is as far as I went. Never did get into wearing a black-hooded robe, smoking a skull pipe with a skeleton claw holding it, or bringing dried bird bones to toss and "read" during the game. But there you go. Guess I'm one of the slow ones.

Back in the old days, when the concept of the role-playing game (RPG) was pretty new, there were a few ideas floating around. One rose up above the rest back then, mostly through solid structuring and clear guidance in character development. That was D&D. These days it's a different world (no pun intended). Do we want dragons? Sure, but they're old hat. So are worlds with space ships and in colonies on distant planets that mix high science with the medieval. There's ghosts and witches and lycanthropy. And Hell, why keep all the fun to die and little pewter figures? There's card games (remember Pokemon?) and online games like Neverwinter Nights, where folks play with three dimensional characters moving and speaking and fighting in real time across thousands of miles of phone lines, satellites, cable hookups, and a multitude of different types of modems. There's MUSHes and MUDs and MOOs and other M-acronyms. It really is an endless world of fun now.

Enter Bruce Ballon and his body of work. Besides being a psychiatrist (so yes, you can call him Doctor Ballon), he's a longtime RPG player himself. Between his homepage links to Chaosium's "Call of Cthulhu" and his past work UNSEEN MASTERS (nothing less than a phenomenal roll playing gamer's book that reads like fiction narrative) - he comes across as one seriously dedicated dark side gamer. Which makes him all right in my book. But I'm not here to critique him, I'm here to critique FROM THE FILES OF MATTHEWS GENTECH. So let's get to things.

Our first matter is the book's name. It's too long to repeat over and over. Can we call it MG for short? Good. I don't want to give up my word budget repeating the title. Sure, it works for the purchasers and the players and the masters, just not for the guy writing this review.

MG is neither a work of fiction, a book supporting "Call of Cthulhu", or an addition of any sort to Ballon's fantastic UNSEEN MASTERS. No. It's part of an RPG that I'm not, regrettably, the least bit familiar with. It's called Silver Age Sentinels, a superhero RPG from Guardians Of Order, Inc.

Superhero, you say? Not my ochre-soaked crumpet, thank you, you say. I don't do tights, you say.

Well, yeah, I said that too. Especially the "not doing tights" part. The last I wore them I…uh…never mind. To rephrase, when I visited the web site guardiansorder.com and checked into the Silver Age Sentinels link I saw that it all had to do with Empire City, the good guys, and the bad guys. My heart sunk a tad bit more. First tights, now this! I'm trapped in a Saturday morning cartoon!

My tummy stopped sinking when I realized that I was missing the point. Yeah, so here's a city with a slew of bad guys and a slew of good guys, just like every superhero comic book, television cartoon, or 50s through present day movie we've all seen. But this time there's a difference, a clear difference. Just because all of the good guys and, until now, bad guys, all of the bad guys are spot-on Saturday morning entertainment doesn't mean that it has to stay that way. The next round of bad guys could hover in the shadowed juxtaposition between Empire City and the greatest psychological nightmare. Why not?

And that's what Bruce did.

MG is a glossy, saddle-bound full sized (but slim) collection of the kinda bad guys you won't find on any Saturday morning cartoons. Not even on Scooby-Doo.

The first thing that catches you about the book is the cover - its artistry, collaged and digitally painted by Matt Harpold, fits much better in its native black and white than it ever would with color (not that there's no color to the cover - it's just not in the art). Inside, embedded in a personal record of Gentech's CEO Samuel Matthews, you get a chance to learn right up front what the dealio is. See, Samuel Andrews Matthews is angry about his mother's passing and he's angry at, well, everybody. More specifically, he's pissed at a superhero known as Lady Starbright and another bearing the very cool moniker of Mother Raven, but it's clear he's got enough hate to go around the world twice with hate to spare. So now he's putting it to work.

Creating monsters with his "command of genetics" and "knowledge of ancient, forbidden, alchemical secrets", he targets an army of creatures that'll be capable of ridding Empire City of its "metahuman abominations" …another name for the good guys, the Silver Age Sentinels.

Like UNSEEN MASTERS, one can read FROM THE FILES OF MATTHEWS GENTECH just as if it were a work of fiction. There're 30 or so pages in this 8.5 x 11 handbook, with about ten pages of narrative facts, creature development, strengths (rarely weaknesses, but then Matthew Gentech isn't fallible, is he?), attack modes, etc. I found myself reading the detail closely, looking for hints or clues to failure mechanisms and maybe background detail on the battle in Empire City. He (he being Matthew) blames the superheroes for his mother's death. Why? When? So what? Enquiring minds want to know…but I'll be damned if this enquiring mind figured it out. I wish you luck.

The creature attributes are detailed in a manner that I'm not accustomed to, but then I quit on RPG almost two decades ago. Things are bound to change. It's not complex, though, and since the game lists itself as being both Tri-Stat System and d20 System compliant, I'm pretty sure the rest of y'all won't be as clueless as me.

An interesting collection of art consumes eleven pages - black and white renditions of MG's creatures, each done more or less in wispy smears of light and shadow. Occasional scientific B&W pictures intercede, like square and sine wave traces from an o-scope or the skeletal reflection of creature x-rays. Strange - but not strange in a bad way. All in all, they fit the atmosphere of the odd super-genius and his war on all those bad, bad, good guys in the Silver Age Sentinels.

I can't rank MG for its playability assistance or necessity of detail, because it really doesn't fit the campaign model I'm used to. Or that I was ever familiar with. The character detail is more than adequate, and, even better, the character development throughout the manual is unique and disparate. Bruce uses his background as a psychiatrist to build creatures that attack with tooth, claw, and thought. Creatures that, when they stand in front of you, could very well convince you you're trapped in a nightmare. Pinch yourself…go ahead. It won't work.

Just to keep on the edge, as if you weren't there already, Ballon has thrown in a creature who develops self-recognition and intelligence a la "Charly" in Daniel Keyes' FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. Like Charly, this creature is an animal - a bear this time - instead of the mouse that Algernon was. The bear keeps a diary of short notes that appear, sequentially, along the bottom of occasional pages in the manual. The bear's spelling improves; his thoughts grow from obtuse to naïve to simple understanding to deeper and deeper levels of intelligence. To wit - he's everything a psychological menace should be.

What, you think I'm going to tell you everything? That's all you get, buddy. All you get.

So, in short, Bruce's manual is really a collection of two narratives and a nasty critter compendium. Narrative one says all that needs saying about Matthews Gentech himself, though it's expressed through liturgy. A liturgy of awful anger and a docket of vile Gentech varmints. Narrative two, the development of Montgomery AKA Monty AKA ursine pet AKA Charly, carries on from Monty's point of view. How he will shadow his maker and make everyone his own slave. Who said there is honor among thieves?

Of course, the critter compendium is the meat of this manual. I've not discussed any of their details, and that is intentional. You wouldn't want to wander into a MG gaming session already knowing all the bad guys and how to make them turn away, would you?

Yeah, right.

It's all very beautiful, from the art, to the quality of the publication, to the story and creatures and Monty insertions. The only complaint I have is all this quality should have been reserved for a full-sized effort. A manual the size of Ballon's previous UNSEEN MASTERS would do. Certainly the ground plowed here is fertile and more creatures could be harvested. Certainly Monty has room to explore some of his intelligence beyond the simple acknowledgement of the next step. Most certainly the development of campaigns would know a larger universe should Matthew and Monty and all the creatures behind them are set free on, say, San Francisco? I'm not trying to write a prescription for the patient…no, I'm going for some self-motivated holistic healing. See the opportunity. Water it and fertilize it; let it grow. Who knows, maybe it'd become larger than Empire City and its tight's-adorned good guys and move out into the country, ready to explore itself.

Then again, I said something earlier about not caring for superheroes, right? Maybe this view is my own bias…what'ya think?



This review copyright 2004 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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