Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Next week, I'm running a camp for 7 to 9 year old boys through the bookstore. It's called Booyah for Boys camp, and I'm hoping it will rock. I've broken the days up into themes, things like Space, Pirates, or Castles, and I've been reviewing material. Each day I hope to have some fun running around stuff (making maps and burying treasure on Pirate day, for instance) plus some crafts (make your own spaceship out of cardboard boxes!) and games, maybe even some storytelling. I'm reviewing material, sorting through my old resources, and I've come across some things that just make me yearn for what I no longer have and no longer can do... like play the Prince Valiant Storytelling Game. But before I get to that, let me tell you how awesome Prince Valiant is.
Hal Foster began the comic strip Prince Valiant back in the 30's, which is when 80% of all the best comic strips ever were created. Prince Valiant is unlike any other strip you've ever seen: full panels chock-a-block with lush details, more "narrated illustrations" than comics, because there were never any word balloons and the panel to panel transitions were more about capturing broad epic moments than any particular sequence of events.
The title character began as a young squire seeking glory and honor in King Arthur's court. eventually, over thousands of episodes, he grows into a knight, pursues his lady love, and has epic adventures that ranged across the globe. Hal Foster's illustrations are some of the best any comics page has ever seen, and he meticulously researched the visual aspects of every element that appeared in the strip. Simply gorgeous, awesome comics with great characters and a unique perspective, Prince Valiant sort of languished for several decades, in my opinion, as it hit the end of the century. Squished into the Sunday quarter page, falling victim to its complex and long internal continuity, the strip felt, honestly, dusty and irrelevant.
Not so anymore. A little under a decade ago, the great Gary Gianni, an illustrator and cartoonist who has drawn, among other things, some great Hellboy stories, took over the strip, and, along with the writer Mark Schultz (a phenomenal artist in his own right), has breathed new life into this classic of the comics page. Andrews McNeel publishers, who put out most of the syndicated comic strip collections these days, sensed a good thing and has released the first big chunck of the Gianni Schultz collaboration in a recent volume called Prince Valiant: Far from Camelot. This is fantastic, and returns the classic Prince Valiant character and epic storytelling to bookstore shelves where everybody can see.
And classic it is: Gianni has made it so easy to slip back into the strip, whether you've read a few strips or hundreds or thousands of Prince Valiant pages, you'll easily pick up on what's going on. Gianni's fabulous art easily withstands the enlarged, prominent arrangement on the page. I got it shortly after it came out last year, and couldn't put it down. Also, even though it's full color, the book is paperback and affordable.
Anyways, so looking at the book took me back to my late teens, when I'd become jaded about lots of things I'd loved when I was younger, including games. I was a big roleplayer, having cut my teeth on Top Secret, Villains and Vigilantes, and yes, Dungeons & Dragons. But after awhile, the games seemed to get bogged down in rules upon rules, with subsections and tables for every weapon, how they were held, if the character was a sorcerer, wizard, magician, glamourist, etc. etc. etc. They all seemed to fail at the basic reason for roleplaying: getting a group of friends together to tell awesome stories. So I just about gave up on RPGs.
Not long afterwards, I came across Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. This was unlike any game that was out at the time it was released: a slim, one-volume game that geared all it's mechanics to step out of the way of the storytelling. Filled with the fantastic art from the strips, it paired down character's statistics to just a few abilities and skills, easily modified for any situation, and substituted an intuitive, versatile "heads vs. tails" system for dice. Wow, was it graceful and elegant and exciting. I was desperate to play it; unfortunately, I never did because I moved away to college and never found anyone interested in playing it. Everyone I described it to was either uninterested in the setting ("Prince Valiant? What's that?") or thought it sounded too simplistic.
Fools. Eventually, I gave away or sold the rules. But now, I'm thinking about these boys. And how awesome that castle day is going to be. And how I can sit them around in a circle, and tell stories of glorious knights on epic quests. I'd love nothing better than to look each of them in the eye and say, "Now what, valiant knight of the realm--now what do you do?"
Unfortunately, the book is long out of print. But maybe I can hunt up a copy of those old rules in a few days. Or maybe, just maybe, they were elegant and memorable enough, I can recreate them on my own...