... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, October 26, 2020

Cross-Species Racial Construction

I’ve talked before about creating custom races and half-breed races, for example in this explanatory post and the posts linked to it. But those posts talk about half-breed races – human plus elf, for example – from the viewpoint of OD&D and compatible systems. But here are my thoughts on fantasy half-breeds from a system-neutral and “cosmology-neutral” approach.

A half-breed character has one parent from one race and another parent from a different race. They are not necessarily the biological offspring of those two races, as you would normally understand it. For example, in a fantastic or mythic setting, if a god, demon, or magical being changes shape or possesses the body of a human and then has a child with another human, the child can be considered to have three parents, instead of two. In an even more fantastic setting, a spider or other creature that frightens a pregnant woman could even be considered a parent. In fantasy, science fiction, or superhero genres, an unnatural encounter could reshape a previously normal human, essentially causing them to be reborn, and the encounter itself acting as a new “parent”.

Half-breed characters will have the physical features of their mother. They will also have one minor physical feature of another parent, and may have up to three features as long as they are all minor and all but one are purely cosmetic.

If one of the parents has unnatural abilities, the half-breed character will have weak versions of those abilities.

Cultural (learned) abilities will match the culture they grow up in. They might be taught an additional language by each of their parents from outside the culture, plus one learned ability from outside their culture.

Constructed Beings can be treated as a special case. A constructed being is made in a laboratory or similar artificial manner and may not have a literal “mother”, so the being’s creator is free to choose whatever physical form is preferred. The physical “parents” of a construct are the mystical essences or biological DNA samples used in the construction, but the creator is the “mental parent” and provides mental abilities to their constructed offspring.

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Saturday, October 24, 2020

More on the Dragonlance Lawsuit

I have some things to say about the Dragonlance lawsuit, but first wanted to link to another blog's take on the complaint: Hack & Slash: On Dragonlance Denied
 

I'm not going to comment on who I think is in the right in this case. I'm not a lawyer, I don't have access to the contract, and have no inside knowledge of what actually went on. 

However, when I heard that the authors blamed the breach on other difficulties Wizards of the Coast has been having lately, I thought: I wonder if I do some Google searching, will I find any recent controversies over racial insensitivity and sexist behavior? 

It turns out that yes, WotC had to terminate their relationship with a frelancer who has admitted he's a sexual predator. And they had to apologize for a Magic the Gathering card that used white supremacist symbology. And they've been accused of racial prejudice in their hiring practices, and creating a hostile work environment for people of color. 

WotC may not be in the wrong for any of this: maybe the accusations are false, maybe they had no knowledge that something was wrong in the other cases. My point is not to say that WotC has done something wrong. However, they are obviously having some image problems, and as a consequence may be backing out of previously-approved plans that look questionable. 

And maybe they are doing this the right way, or maybe they're doing it wrong. I don't know. What I do know is that I've seen the same reaction in the D&D community that I've seen before, for example when WotC removed all negative racial ability modifiers a couple months ago. "Oh, it's because of those horrible SJWs, protesting the way fictional races like orcs and goblins are being treated, as if they were real people!" 

No, most of their troubles are not with people protesting fictional racial injustice. They are choosing to address non-critical issues instead of admitting to possible real-world injustices of a more serious nature. 

And again, maybe what they are doing is fine... but the reaction of the typical D&D fan doesn't seem fine at all.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Dragonlance/WoTC Lawsuit

Since we've been talking about this on the OD&D forum, I might as well link to this here. It's a lawyer's analysis of a lawsuit filed by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss suing Wizards of the Coast.

 
 

I've never been a Dragonlance fan, and WotC hasn't made any game materials I've been interested in for a very long time, but I do have an interest in (1) lawsuits related to intellectual property, and (2) what's happening or might happen in the future to the caretaker of the D&D brand. I might have further commentary later, but it's late.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Marvel RiffTrax Reviews

I started my Marvel Cinematic Universe reviews with Phase 1. But here’s a surprise! I also bought three RiffTrax “Just the Jokes” commentary tracks for Phase 1 movies!

RiffTrax, for those who don’t know, is the company founded by Mike Nelson, one of the former “human” hosts of Mystery Science Theater 3000. He is joined by other MST3k colleagues, Bill Corbett (the second Crow) and Kevin Murphy (the second Tom Servo) as they make jokes about what’s happening in various movies. For big-name Hollywood movies that they would never be allowed to release modified copies of, they record just an audio track, called “Just the Jokes”, which you sync with the movie by hand or with the aid of their mobile app.

In my personal experience with these commentary tracks, I found that I have to adjust them a tiny bit one way or the other a couple times in the first 20 or 30 minutes to get them right, but afterwards they stay in sync. For manual sync, I do this by keeping one hand on the video remote and one near the computer so that I can pause and unpause whichever one is too far ahead.

This is a review of three of those “Just the Joke” tracks. Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Iron Man

Rating: B

Like the movie it’s paired with, the Iron Man “Just the Jokes” riff track starts off a bit shaky, and a couple of the jokes seem in poor taste. But starts getting funnier fast, around the time they start making fun of Keanu Reeves. (No, really. Keanu Reeves.) The fake character names they come up with (like “Cheesely”) make me snort every time. I could have done without the decision midway through the movie to make jokes about Gwyneth Paltrow’s character being stupid, though. Despite that, it’s a pretty decent riff track.

Favorite lines:

“That would be handy on the set of ‘The View’.”
“Hardly seems like the time, Whiplash One, but have tried upping your fiber intake?”
“Boy, she’s got a shrill voice.”

Thor

Rating: C+

Since the movie doesn’t have much to work with for a while, the jokes take a while to get good. It’s mostly just jokes about the lighting and some pop culture references for a while. The jokes start getting funnier when we get to the horse jokes. After that point, it’s stretches of jokes worth a chuckle or two sprinkled with some funnier bits. Enjoyable, but not necessarily something I’d say people need to hear.

One thing to remember about Marvel RiffTrax tracks: just as MCU movies have scenes after the credits, RiffTrax has jokes to match. Don’t quit early even if the track is silent or, as in this one, a robot is screeching a song (which turns out to be one of the funniest bits about this track.)

Favorite lines:

“Ah yes, the traditional Asgardian ‘stop and get off your horse 100 yards before you’re there’.”
“TV’s ‘My Two Dads’ soars across the big screen!”

Captain America: The First Avenger

Rating: B+

Starts off much better than the previous two, with more laugh-out-loud lines early on that keep coming faster and faster as the movie continues. If you want to try a RiffTrax track for an MCU movie, but can only afford one, this is the one you should get. (Well, of the first three. Haven’t bought others.)

Favorite lines:

“Thank you! Who’s ready for some… Puppetry of the Penis?”
“Thanks to the serum, any excrement inside him will be far greater than any before!”
“Blu-Ray technology was deadly back in the early days!”
“Years later, the villagers below would talk of the day a delicious meat sauce rained from the sky.”

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Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Art of (Mis)Speaking

In my posts about forgery and disguise, I detailed a way to handle deceptions using these steps:

  1. Keep track of all “facts” involved in the deception.
  2. Roll 1d6 for time needed to complete the deception.
  3. Roll for reaction, shifting reaction down/up for special factors.
  4. On Good reaction or better, deception works. It fails on a Bad reaction or worse. Otherwise, roll 1d6 to see through it after 10 to 40 minutes (1-4) or immediately (5+).

But the same process could be added to miscommunication, where the goal is to avoid getting the facts wrong.

Step One: Define the Message
When a player wants to give instruction or commands, or ask for information, and either the speaker or the listener (or both) is not completely fluent in the language used, clearly define what points the player is trying to make.

A character is fluent in their native tongue unless described otherwise. Other languages are ranked this way:

Languages spoken from childhood (“racial” languages): semi-fluent at Int 3-5, fluent at Int 6+

Languages learned later: add Int and months of study in a language. Halve that total unless completely immersed in just one language while studying it.

  • Fluent at 18+
  • Semi-Fluent at 9+
  • Not Fluent otherwise.

Step Two: Convey the Message
Getting a message across either through speech or writing takes minutes for simple instructions. Roll 1d6: 5+ means the shortest possible time, otherwise add 1 to result and multiply by the base time. Pick the base time from this list, based on how long it takes to say in your native language:

  • 1 to 5 minutes
  • 10 to 50 minutes
  • 1 to 5 hours
  • 4 to 20 hours (4 x 1 to 5 hours)
  • 1 to 5 days

Increase the base time (move down list) for any of these bad conditions:

  • talking in a noisy environment
  • writing (but not reading) instructions
  • one or both sides semi-fluent in language
  • one side not fluent (below semi-fluent) = two shifts downwards
  • one side Int 5 or less

You can reduce the time (move up list) if one or both sides are Int 13+.

If the situation isn’t critical (can’t cause a problem if one side misinterprets instructions,) you can skip all other rolls and assume the extra time is due to repeated communication attempts.

Step Three: Interpret the Message
If the situation is critical (message must either be understood quickly or a misunderstanding can cause a problem,) make the reaction roll.

  • Good or Better: Message understood.
  • Normal: Message understood on 5+ (1d6), otherwise takes extra time.
  • Bad: Misunderstood. Roll 1d6: on 5+, tries to figure out a different way to communicate (get a translator, try writing things down, etc.) On 1 to 4, gets that many facts from Step One wrong.
  • Very Bad: Complete communication breakdown. If PC is cursed or has low Charisma, listener is offended. Otherwise, listener gives up on the conversation.

As usual, move the reaction category down for bad circumstances, for example “communicating with gestures and a handful of words, instead of a language that’s at least minimally understood.”

Any topic (fact) that the listener doesn’t understand also moves the reaction down. Asking the medieval knight where to buy nuclear weapons will, in most game worlds, lead to confusion or chaos.

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Monday, October 12, 2020

Marvel Reviews: MCU Phase I

Time to start reviewing the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the time of this writing, I’ve watched every MCU movie and series, excluding animated material, with the exception of The Punisher Season 2 and the final season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. A new series, Helstrom, will drop later this month.

I decided to bundle the film reviews, sorting them by Phase. Between each Phase will be a review covering shows that were released around that time. There will be a couple surprise extra reviews.

Full explanation of my ranking system is here. Summary: C is average, A/B is recommended, D is badly made, F is something to avoid.

Iron Man

Rating: B
Shaky Start, Steady after 25% Mark

I’m not completely thrilled with this, but the fight scenes are restrained, compared to some other superhero films, even if a little pervy about explosions. It has a good opening scene, but the rest of the film’s first quarter bounces up and down in terms of quality. Eventually, the movie settles into a steady pace. Not too special, in terms of plot, but a few character moments stand out compared to other superhero portrayals. A decent beginning to Phase 1.

The Incredible Hulk

Rating: C

Couldn’t find a way to watch this a second (third?) time, and it’s one of those movies I think I haven’t seen, but it turns out I did. Checked out the Honest Trailer for this and verified that yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s just nothing special. Watch it if you absolutely have to watch everything, but don’t worry about it if you have other stuff to do.

Iron Man 2

Rating: C

I just watched this a month or two ago, and I still had to check out the Honest Trailer for this as well. Couldn’t remember if this was the one about the guy with the whip, or the other guy.

It was the one with the whip.

Basically, same advice as for Hulk.

Thor

Rating: C-
Slow Moving Throughout

I liked Thor when I was a kid, because I was into Norse mythology and thought it was cool that Marvel had a comic influenced by it. Even liked Marvel’s take as an adult, bought a limited series of Baldur the Brave, although I’ve forgotten the story now.

But maybe it wasn’t as good as I remember, if I were to use this movie as a guide. The movie looks great design wise, although the meaningless use of tilted camera shots lowers the quality. The real problem is that most of the action is tedious. It just plods along without real excitement. There are hints of some good stuff from the future of the Thor franchise, but I think it’s easily skippable.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Rating: B

For something that’s clearly more on the “punchy” end of the superhero spectrum, I actually liked this the most of the Phase 1 movies before The Avengers. I think there’s a couple reasons for this:

  1. A punchy hero as basically special ops during WWII actually makes more sense than many other punchy hero concepts.
  2. I have kind of always liked Cap’s pure morality more than grimdark troubled superheroes.
  3. There’s something just perfect about actual Nazis as villains. Especially Nazis with superweapons.

Another reason why I might like this despite it being about a punchy superhero is that there aren’t all that many punchy/shooty scenes. The movie really dives into the origin story, so there’s a heavier focus on his motivation, his pre-Cap army training, and the process of becoming famous as a symbol way before he actually gets to fight Nazis. And aside from Cap’s big rescue operation and the final confrontation, most of his career is only hinted at – an odd way to use a montage, but there you go. So if you find origin stories too boring, take that into account.

The Avengers

Rating: B-
Shaky During Big Battle

I think I’m going to go with a B- instead of a C+ for the first Avengers movie because there’s quite a lot I like about it, It just turns into a cloud of CGI nonsense during large chunks of the big battle scene. This is a complaint you’re going to see a lot from me: I don’t like “busy” scenes with lots of stuff flying in every direction that you can’t quite focus on. I prefer the moments where you can see a clear interaction between characters and clear decision points.

I definitely recommend this movie if you are planning on trying out the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Art of Disguise

The rules I did for forgery could be adapted to another form of deception: disguise.

Step One: Define the Deception
Focus on which facts about their appearance the PC is trying to hide or change. Make hair look old and grey? Cover exposed skin to change its color? Wear uniform to pass oneself off as the city guard?

Some things are going to be hard without the right materials or situations. Changing the shape of your nose with a lump of clay won’t work in broad daylight, but if the character wears a hood and sticks to the shadows, it might work.

If a PC is recognizable and trying to avoid recognition, that’s an additional fact.

Non-human races should be counted as one fact for each difference in appearance. Green skin + pointed ears is two facts, not one fact for “wood elf”.

Step Two: Dress the Part
Anyone with training in disguise or High Int (13+) can create a decent disguise. 5+ on 1d6: it takes one hour. Otherwise: 1 to 4 additional hours. Reducing the time to minutes, or just not being trained or smart, results in a makeshift disguise, similar to a poor forgery.

Step Three: Play the Part
A Good or better reaction means a decent disguise passes examination. An Average reaction means someone might see through the disguise (5+ on 1d6,) but even if this doesn’t happen immediately, prolonged scrutiny will eventually reveal the truth: the disguised person has 10 to 40 minutes with any given observer before the disguise is blown.

It’s probably easiest to roll the reaction once and let it stand for all encounters with average viewers, only rolling again for special individuals. Just roll a d6 or shift the standing reaction up or down when appropriate.

Things that shift the reaction downwards:

  • makeshift or poor quality disguise
  • losing part of a disguise
  • observer has special knowledge (pretending to be an elf in front of elves, for example)
  • pretending to be old, opposite gender, different profession, etc., without mimicking at least one visual detail for that appearance (no gray hair or wrinkles when pretending to be old, for example)
  • disguising yourself as a specific individual

Things that shift the reaction upwards:

  • taking advantage of the environment (using a hood or shadows to cover up disguise deficiencies)
  • changing the way you walk, move, or stand (requires High Dex or training as an actor/mime)
  • changing the way you talk (requires High Charisma or training in mimicry)

Certain knowledge will completely blow the PC’s cover. The most obvious example would be trying to pretend to be a specific person while that person is in the room.

Bad or Worse Reactions
As usual, a Very Bad reaction means immediate hostility and probably an attempt to expose the fraud to others. But a Bad reaction might be possible to recover from, depending on what the PC’s intent was.

If the PC is trying to avoid capture or sneak into someplace they don’t belong, there’s not many ways out of discovery other than silencing the person who saw through the disguise before they tell others. This can be physical (restraint, knocking unconscious, murder) or otherwise (bribery.) If the person needing to be silenced is not necessarily on the side of the authorities, it might only take a conversation.

If the PC is just avoiding unwanted attention, it might be easier to convince the discoverer that no harm is intended. Think: Aliens trying to live secretly among humans.

Avoiding Recognition
If the PC is recognizable, the goal of a disguise is to appear as anyone other than oneself. What matters is: What description are the authorities or the enemies using to find the PC?

PC is blond in an area where blonds are rare? PC must include change of hair color in their disguise.

PC is an elf with pointed ears? PC must hide ears.

Some witnesses might not have all the details of the PC’s appearance. If most people focus on looking for an elf, but not for a blond elf, hiding pointed ears but not changing hair color will work as planned, but a guardsman looking for a blond elf will shift the reaction down.

Witnesses who have met the PC in person automatically shift the reaction down. Those who know the PC well are considered to have certain knowledge and will automatically see through a disguise if they have direct interaction, but might still need a reaction roll if for example they only see a hunched-over cloaked figure shambling away from them.

Entertainment
Another special situation would be one where the goal is not to literally hide one’s identity, but to create a character as part of a performance. The audience knows they are being deceived, so obviously Bad or worse reactions won’t result in being seized by the town guard (well, maybe…) The audience is looking for a talented deception.

Any disguise gets an unmodified reaction roll. The only factors that shift the result down are the central features of the character that are the opposite of the performer’s features: young actor playing an old man without makeup or a wig, human actor playing a famous elf without using pointed ears, and so on. The reaction result is how the audience judges the performance. On an Average or Bad reaction, the GM could describe a moment in the performance when the PC is obviously losing the interest of the audience and let the player come up with a method of regaining their interest.

In Summary

  1. Be certain what the disguise is meant to hide or change
  2. Roll 1d6 for time needed to complete the disguise
  3. Roll for reaction, shifting reaction down/up for special factors
  4. On Good reaction or better, disguise passes examination. Otherwise, disguise may be seen through (5+ on 1d6 or after 10 to 40 minutes of scrutiny) or lead to exposure of the deception

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Monday, October 5, 2020

The Art of Forgery

I saw someone asking how to handle forgery and other kinds of deceit in an old school class and level exploration fantasy adventure game, so I thought about how I’d do it.

Step One: Define the Deception
A forgery or similar deception is basically trying to convince a “mark” that one or more “facts” are true. The player has to clearly state what they are trying to do. This doesn’t have to be stated in-character, but it must cover everything the player thinks the forgery should cover. One or more statements like:

The forgery is an official royal document certifying the bearer is authorized to enter The Forbidden Tower and return with the Crown of Kings.

The GM at this point may want to note which false facts are actually involved. In this case:

  • Who “created” the document (the royal court)
  • What the document does (authorizes entry)
  • What else it does (authorizes returning with the Crown)

The two bold statements are pretty much mandatory: every forgery pretends to be “from” someone it isn’t, who is saying or doing something via the document. The statement in italics is optional and adds another thing the document is trying to do.

Step Two: Forge the Document
Anyone with training in forgery or with High Int (13+) can forge a document. Roll 1d6: on 5+, it takes one hour, otherwise it takes an additional 1-4 hours (result of the die roll.) A hypothetical character class with a forgery class ability would do this in minutes, rather than hours. If the document has to appear to be in a specific person’s handwriting or has to bear an official seal or other special identifier, the forger must also have High Dex (13+). An art forgery would fall in this category as well.

Those with no training and average Int or lower can try to forge documents, too, but the documents are considered poor forgeries. The same applies to an otherwise skilled or gifted forger who tries to forge a signature, official seal, or other feature that requires High Dex as well as skill or talent. This will have consequences when trying to pass off the forgery.

Step Three: Pass Off the Forgery
Whoever uses the forged document must present them in an appropriate manner to the person they are trying to convince. Make a reaction roll: a Good or better reaction means the forgery is accepted.

Even an Average reaction will work for high-quality forgeries, but a mark with a High Int or better, or a mark who is also trained in forgery, has a chance to spot mistakes: 5+ on 1d6 means the mark spots the forgery.

Some targets will be harder to convince. Anyone who regularly receives royal documents, for example a captain of the royal guard, will shift the reaction result down one category. So will anyone personally familiar with the handwriting of the supposed author of the document. Each “fact” noted in Step One is a potential pitfall as well: if the mark has some knowledge about that topic, the result is shifted down. If the mark has certain knowledge that contradicts the forgery (if they know the Crown of Kings was removed from the Forbidden Tower last week, or if a document with a royal seal is unknowingly handed to the king who is in disguise,) the forgery automatically fails.

A poor forgery shifts the reaction down one category all by itself, or shift it down two categories if one of the problem areas mentioned in the previous paragraph also applies. Likewise, anyone with a bad reputation known to their mark will have trouble passing off a forgery, just on basic principle.

In theory, other factors might shift the reaction result up a category, or cancel out a downward shift because of the factors listed above. For example, the person passing off the forgery could arrange a distraction to prevent the mark from thoroughly examining the forgery. Or, someone who already has a good personal relationship with the mark might be trusted more than other typical encounters.

Bad and Very Bad Reactions
Any mark with legal authority (like a guard) will arrest the person trying to pass off a forgery if their reaction is Bad or worse. Other victims with no legal authority will usually only demand the deceiver’s arrest (or seek vengeance) on a Very Bad reaction; if their reaction is only Bad, they have serious doubts and definitely won’t give the deceiver what they want unless someone they trust confirms the document (in other words, the forgery has to pass examination by a second person.)

If the player opts to give up at this point, they may be able to leave casually without triggering suspicion. The GM secretly rolls 1d6: on 5+, the player can leave without a problem. Otherwise, the player has 10 to 40 minutes (die roll x ten minutes) before the mark decided to involve the law. If the forgery was poor, time is reduced to only 1 to 4 minutes.

In Summary

  1. Be certain what the forgery is trying to prove
  2. Roll 1d6 for time needed to forge the document
  3. Roll for reaction, shifting reaction down/up for special factors
  4. On Good reaction or better, forgery is accepted
  5. On Average reaction, some victims spot the forgery (5+ on 1d6)
  6. On Bad reaction, convince another mark or roll to escape before victim is suspicious
  7. On Very Bad reaction, victim is immediately suspicious and demands vengeance or legal action

There are a couple other applications that could use this same basic framework, which I may return to in future posts.

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Friday, October 2, 2020

Superhero Thoughts: Addendum

One of the main goals of writing My Thoughts on Superhero Cinema was to make some broad statements about superhero TV series. Then, I thought, “Nah, I’ll include that in the review(s) for the Marvel TV shows.” And now that I’ve published yesterday’s essay, I thought, “That’s going to make the reviews longer than I’d like.”

So, I’m writing this addendum.

The MCU TV shows break down into these categories:

  1. The network broadcast shows (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Inhumans)
  2. The Netflix shows (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Punisher)
  3. The teen shows (Cloak and Dagger, Runaways)

The new shows being made for Disney+ might form a fourth category, but none have been released yet. Of those that have been released, I’ve seen everything except the last few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (haven’t checked if they are available yet) and the second season of The Punisher.

The reason why I break them down into those categories is not really related to where they are shown, but shared characteristics centered on punchiness and connectivity.

Superhero stuff, as I explained yesterday, is usually “punchy” in a broad sense, focusing on fighting bad guys, but some MCU material focuses much more on physical fights – actual punching, plus some kicking and headbutting to keep the fights “creative”, and some gunfights as well. This is in contrast to superheroes who fight using super powers or supertech.

The other characteristic is how connected a show is to the rest of the MCU: crossover characters, references to events or characters in other stories, foreshadowing of events in another show/movie that hasn’t been released yet.

The “Network” category has martial arts and guns, of course, but includes super powers and supertech. They aren’t afraid of special effects. They also tend to have better connectivity to the movies.

The “Netflix” category is much more punchy and has a minimum of powers/tech that require fancy effects. There’s some indirect connectivity with the movies, mostly a few references to general events. They do interconnect with each other. They wind up feeling like a shared world of gritty mystery/crime drama characters who have a passing knowledge of Marvel comic books.

The “Teen” category is less punchy than the “Netflix” category and allows more super powers and special effects. Connectivity is at a minimum: they have one crossover episode between the the two of them and a handful of obscure references, mostly to a couple company names.

As a result, both the “Netflix” and “Teen” shows act like their own private universes cut off from the rest of the MCU.

You are probably going to notice a pattern in how I feel about the three categories as a whole when I do my reviews.

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