Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dollhouse: Season Review

Eliza, please reward my faith in you! Since Dollhouse has been renewed for next season, I have decided to do a review of the first season as a whole.  I will admit, I have found Dollhouse to be a difficult show to review.  I found most of the first half of the season to be merely mediocre.  If Joss Whedon hadn’t built up such good will with me on shows like Buffy: TVS , Firefly , and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog , I probably wouldn’t have stuck around past the first few episodes.  I am glad I did though, since the quality of the show improved dramatically over the second half of the season. 

Still, I would qualify the second half as "good but not great”.  What is frustrating is that I really think that there is a great show inside struggling to get out.  You see flashes of brilliance shine through every so often.  The dialogue, which often seems strangely wooden, will occasionally show the wit and humor I have come to expect out of Joss. 

It still seems to me that the basic premise is has flaws.  Namely, that it seems that there are much more logical uses for programmable humans then those presented on the show.  The rich should be able to get sex a lot cheaper than the Dollhouse charges for it.  Even a high-end dominatrix can’t cost as much as having Topher make Echo into one for you.  Don’t even get me started on the concept of hiring an illicit organization to program a person to be an expert midwife rather than simply hiring an expert midwife!

Lets ignore this for the moment though and talk about what I thought about the individual episodes:

Ghost: The pilot episode.  Sadly, I felt that this was a rather lackluster outing.  While I thought Eliza Dushku did pretty well at portraying Echo’s numerous personalities, I didn’t care about any of them.  The high point of this episode was Harry Lennix’s portrayal of Boyd Lagton.  He managed to convey an awful lot of complexity into this character without a whole lot of screen time.

The Target: Echo is pimped out to a outdoorsman looking for some sex in the woods.  Turns out he is looking to re-enact The Most Dangerous Game .  Sort of advances the Alpha subplot since he turns out to be behind everything.  Boyd Lagton continues to be the most interesting character on the show.

Stage Fright: The implausible premise of hiring the Dollhouse to build you a backup singer to act as a “sort of” bodyguard for a pop singer makes me nominate this as the worst of the season.  This feels more like an episode of Quantum Leap than of Dollhouse.

Gray Hour:  Alpha wipes Echo in the middle of a bank job.  I begin to worry that Alpha is going to be behind everything.

True Believer: Another Quantum Leap episode.  This time she is a blind cultist.  I called that Echo would suddenly regain her sight and be hailed as a miracle as soon as the “eye camera”  introduced.

Man on the Street: I consider this to be the turning point where the episodes start to improve.  The show finally begins to tackle the rape issue head on.  Agent Ballard begins to become interesting.  I do wonder what ever happened to the exposé of the Dollhouse though.

Echoes: This episode is more important for the exposition it provides than the plot.  We finally learn about Caroline Farrell and why she signed up with the Dollhouse.  It also introduces the Rossum Corporation, which is revealed to be the parent organization of the Dollhouse.

Needs: This episode was a letdown for me.  I thought the basic premise of certain actives waking up with their original personalities was a fun one.  Unfortunately, they hit the reset button at the end, revealing that it was all planned by the Dollhouse in order to let them “resolve” the issues they were having.  WTF?

Spy in the House of Love: This was a fun episode.  It uses the inventive storytelling technique of following each active through their day from the time they are imprinted.  As a result, the full story, including  who is the spy, is revealed in layers.

Haunted: A dead woman who has been backing up her personality is placed in Echo’s body.  She decides to use this extra time to solve her own murder.  A decent episode, mostly because Eliza Dushku manages to pull off being an older woman in a younger woman’s body.

Briar Rose: A very good episode.  I enjoyed the parallels between Sleeping Beauty and Echo, especially as it foreshadowed how hollow Paul Ballard’s efforts to save Caroline would be.  While I felt it was fairly obvious early in the episode that “Stephen Kepler” was Alpha, Alan Tudyk was fun enough in the role that I didn’t care.  The final shot of Alpha and Echo strolling out of the Dollhouse, in a manner reminiscent of Spike & Dru at their best, had me waiting impatiently for the season finale.

Omega: Perhaps it was inevitable that this would be a bit of a let down after the high expectations of the previous episode.  While Alan Tudyk did an excellent job with Alpha, I felt that Eliza’s portrayal of Omega was relatively bland for someone who was supposed to have dozens of personalities.  I also felt that Paul Ballard agreeing to join the Dollhouse as a consultant was completely out of character, even in exchange for freeing November.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t a bad way to end the season, and I am hoping the revelation that Dr. Saunders was an active will lead to an interesting character arc for her next season.

Looking over my episode reviews, you probably wonder if I actually liked the show.  I’m not sure if I did either.  One thing I am sure of though, is that the show has a lot of potential.  Looking back, I was not a huge fan of the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer either.  While I would watch the occasional episode when I could, it didn’t become “must see TV” for me until season two.  Now that Dollhouse has been renewed, lets hope it can pull off the same trick!

Pen & Paper Gaming Online

My regular gaming group usually has a few members attending the gaming session remotely.  While we prefer to meet in person, with the distances involved and other obligations, it is often impossible for everyone to make it in person on any given day.

For remote gaming we currently use a hodgepodge of tools:

UStream: This is primarily used to allow remote players to see the battle map.  It also allows us to record the session for later playback.

Skype: This is used for voice communications with remote players.

Gtalk: This is used for private conversations and notes to the DM.

Google Docs: We use a shared spreadsheet to keep track of initiative.

Despite the somewhat ad hoc nature of this set of tools, it works relatively well for allowing the occasional remote player to attend. 

However, we have recently begun talking about running a separate “online only” game.  The theory is that we would run this game more frequently (i.e. probably weekly), but for a more limited timeframe (i.e. 2-3 hours).  Since this game is going to be completely conducted remotely, I believe we will need a more robust toolset.

Currently, I am looking into using RPTools to run this game.  RPTools includes a MapTool for the digital battle map, a TokenTool for the virtual minis, a CharacterTool for keeping track of character info, an InitiativeTool, and DiceTool.  It seems like a nice all-in-one solution for pure online gaming.

I would like to know what other people in the RPG community are using though.  I know some people are big fans of other online game tables like OpenRPG and KloogeWerks.  What do you use in your group?  Any tips on how to make a remote-only game more enjoyable?  Any suggestions would be appreciated!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Multiclass Take Two v2.0

The hybrid rules made it through the first round of playtesting, and got a major overhaul as a result.  I was a pretty big fan of the rules when they were first introduced.  While I still think 3E had the most innovative Multiclass rules, hybrid characters are a vast improvement over the limited multiclass rules currently in 4E.

So what has been changed?  First, a few of the numbers were tweaked.  For example, the hybrid fighter now gets 7.5 hp at first level instead of 7.  Any fractions are dropped when the results are added together.  This is a minor change, but probably a helpful for those fighter/paladin type combos.

Another change is that the Hybrid Talent feat has been more narrowly focused.  In the first iteration of the hybrid rules the Hybrid Talent feat simply allowed you to pick-up a class feature which you did not already have.  The new version only allows you to pick up the hybrid talents specified for the class under the hybrid version of the class.  This seems like a necessary change to prevent the hybrid classes from outshining the normal versions of the class.

A new addition is the concept of Paragon Hybrids.  This is very similar to the Paragon Multiclass rules, with the exception that you gain the Hybrid Talent feat for free at 11th level.  Honestly, this bonus feat doesn’t compare to the class features and unique powers you will be giving up by not choosing a paragon path.  However, it does seem to be a step in the right direction.

In fact, modifying these rules might provide a decent basis for an improved version of Paragon Multiclass.  Give character the a hybrid version of a class feature for class they are multiclassed into when they would normally get a paragon path class feature.  This would definitely help make Paragon Multiclass a more viable alternative to choosing a Paragon Path.

While these changes are minor, I do feel that they are improvements over the original version of the hybrid rules.  I expect we will see more tweaking as this version continues to churn through playtesting.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that hybrid versions of all character classes from the PHB I & II are now available.  If you ever wanted to try an Avenger/Invoker or Druid/Shaman, now is your chance!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Random Reviews: Corsair

Do I get extra XP for this dramatic pose? I recently picked up Richard Baker’s new Forgotten Realms novel Corsair.  It is the sequel to Swordmage, and continues the adventures of Geran Hulmaster.

I enjoyed Swordmage a lot when it came out, even though it suffered from being the first 4E Forgotten Realms novel.  As a result, it felt like it spent a lot of time providing exposition for things like the Spellplague, spellscars, and changelands that were at best tangentially connected to the plot.

On the other hand, Swordmage did a very good job at fleshing out Hulburg and its environs.  The book got me to care about the town and its inhabitants.  It also seemed to be a great playable environment for D&D, and I am seriously considering starting a campaign there sometime soon.

Corsair picks up several months after the events of Swordmage,  Geran Hulmaster is still in Hulburg, helping the city recover after the events of the first novel.  Unfortunately for Geran, he has managed to pick up many enemies over the years.  This means his presence in Hulburg is more dangerous to the city than helpful.  Kind of like Luke Skywalker being part of the rebel strike force on Endor brought unwanted attention to them.

The most obvious problem facing Hulburg are pirates threatening the shipping routes.  In true player character fashion, Geran decides the best course of action is to gather the party together, commandeer a ship, and confront the problem head on.  What Geran doesn’t realize is that there are a number of much more insidious plots directed against both him and the city.

The villains are probably the best part of Corsair.  Most novels give you one major villain, possibly with a henchman to help them out.  Corsair is teaming with fully-realized bad guys, all of whom have their own goals and motivations.  The villains make alliances of convenience to accomplish their goals, but each one seems to consider himself the mastermind and the other villains mere pawns.    

This leads to a great deal of overlapping plots and dastardly deeds.  Just like Swordmage provided a great campaign setting, Corsair provides a great example for DM’s on how to layer threats against the PC’s in a believable manner.  Even better, this layered approach to villainy allows the PC’s to take out the occasional big bad without completely derailing the campaign.

So I heartily recommend Corsair, especially if you are GM.  It is not only an entertaining read, but a great inspiration for your tabletop game.  Plus it has pirates.