Saturday, August 29, 2009

Forgotten Realms: Issue 9 – Minder’s Story

Captain Omen is having a bit of trouble getting up this morning.  The exertions of the previous day have not been kind to his old and diseased body.  He sits down in the cabin, looking forward to a nice quiet day devoted to cataloging information on artifacts.

Foxilion then bursts into the captain’s cabin raving about what a beautiful day it is outside.

I hate morning people!

Captain Omen’s dispatches the halfling with hastily cast a Gust of Wind.  Considering how obnoxious Foxy is, I think I can forgive Omen for being a bit on the grumpy side.

Noting Foxilion’s inauspicious exit from the captain’s quarters, Minder goes in to investigate.  She finds Captain Omen literally doubled over in pain.  Minder quietly begins tidying up the cabin and asks Omen how bad the pain is today. 

Omen openly wonders, “why do I go on like this?”  Minder simply answers, “you’re too important to me not to.”  The odd pair then clings to one another for support.

This was a very well done and tender scene.

Back on the main deck, Ishi and Agrivar spar with wooden swords.  Foxilion thinks he is the fight’s announcer while Vartan tries to catch up on some sleep.  The first round goes to Agrivar, who powers through Ishi’s defenses with brute strength. 

Vartan is just thinking what we are all thinking.

Agrivar graciously allows Ishi to pick up her sword.  This time around Ishi uses her superior agility to take down Agrivar.  She is less gracious and declares victory over the paladin.

During the after battle banter between Agrivar, Ishi, and Foxilion, an eavesdropping sahuagin overhears an oblique reference to treasure.  Like a bad sitcom neighbor, he misunderstands what he hears and hurries off to get some friends.

On the deck, Vartan accidentally asks about Minder’s origins.  This prompts Foxilion to tell his companions what he knows of Minder’s story.  Both Ishi and Agrivar listen with rapt attention while Vartan drifts off into sleep.

No beard = female dwarf. In Omen’s youth, he traveled with a beautiful warrior woman and a stout dwarf.  The three set off on a quest to find the legendary Astrolabe of Nimbral.  The Astrolabe was hidden in a fortress guarded by men in glassteel armor and powerful golems.  They were able to sneak past most of the golems but ran afoul of a powerful Crystalgriff in the treasure room. 

The companions prevailed, but at a great cost.  One of Omen’s companions was dead and the other was gravely wounded.  Omen could not heal his friend, but used his magic to place his friend’s spirit into the body of one of the iron golems.

Meanwhile, Vartan’s slumber proves not to be very restful.  He dreams of his dead companions, who were devoured by gnolls prior to his first meeting with Agrivar.  He then dreams of his current companions fighting a kracken and dying horribly.

At this point Labelas Enoreth appears in the dream.  He informs Vartan that he is in danger and that this dream is a warning.  The god needs Vartan to survive the upcoming battle… but seems less concerned about the fate of Vartan’s friends.

Labelas sure is buff!

Vartan awakens to see his nightmare becoming horribly real as a kraken is attacking the ship.  A sahuagin leader offers to spare their lives in exchange for their treasure, but Agrivar vows that they will never bow to pirates.

I have no idea how that saddle is supposed to work!

The group battles against the kraken but is having difficulty fighting the powerful beast.  Vartan does take advantage of several clues imparted by the dream to save his companions lives though.  Captain Omen is only packing divination spells this day, but realizes they need to be a bit creative to save the ship.

How do you explain this to your insurance? So Captain Omen heads below decks to the Astrolabe.  Disengaging the safeties, he teleports the ship fifteen feet straight up.  This turns the Realms’ Master itself into a weapon as it comes crashing down on the Kraken!

All that is left of the assault is dead squid, which Ishi insists Agrivar will have to cook since he lost their duel.

Notes

  1. This is the first “done in one” issue of the Forgotten Realms comic.  I enjoyed getting a little of Omen’s and Minder’s history, but I thought the sahuagin attack seemed tacked on.
  2. I thought the sequence of Captain Omen getting up and Foxilion’s unwanted intrusion was very well done.  I really felt for Omen.
  3. I enjoyed the duel.  I also enjoyed Foxilion and Vartan’s reactions to it.
  4. In the flashback, they really tried to make you believe that Minder was the female warrior.  I thought it was obvious though, especially since Minder cried out the name of the dwarven god Clanggedin Silverbeard in the first story arc.
  5. The dream sequence was nicely done.  The foreshadowing to the upcoming Time of Troubles tie-in was also nice.
  6. Omen sure likes to drop heavy objects on creatures to kill them, doesn’t he?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Random Reviews: Dollhouse: Epitaph One

Epitaph One is a bit different from your average Dollhouse episode.  Written by Joss Whedon’s brother Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen, they had several restrictions to keep in mind when creating the script:

  • Since no one was sure if Dollhouse would be picked up for a second season, they wanted to make sure that it could serve as an enjoyable conclusion to the series without closing off any doors if they were renewed.
  • It needed to be shot on a tight budget, partially so that Fox could see that the show could be produced for less and still look good.
  • It had to be light on the main cast, especially Eliza Dushku, since it was being filmed at the same time as the episode Omega.

This is a tall order, but one that the writers and actors achieved admirably.  I will be touching on how they accomplished many of these points during my in-depth review below.

Please note that like my review of Echo, this will be a very in-depth review and will contain many spoilers as a result.  So please do not proceed if you want to be surprised by the many plot twists in the episode.

If this is the future, maybe it is best that Penny didn't survive to see it.

The show opens on the streets of Los Angeles  in the year 2019.  The last ten years have not been kind to the city, because things are looking a wee-bit on the post-apocalyptic side.  A young woman named Mags is making her way through the chaos and talking over a walkie-talkie with a man named Griff.  He wants to know if there are any “Wielders” around, but she tells them there are only “Butchers” and “Dumb Shows” about.  

She meets up with the rest of her group, which consists of two men who go by Griff and Zone, another young woman named Lyn, a child named Iris, and her father Mr. Miller, who has had his personality wiped (a.k.a. a Dumb Show).  They are looking for a way to get back underground, although Zone argues they should head for the desert where there is no tech and thus no chance to get imprinted.  Lyn quickly counters that China could send another blanket signal.

Using the path reconnoitered by Mag, the group makes their way through the sewers.  During this time Zone discusses killing Iris’ father, since they only roll with “Actuals” and normally put Dumb Shows out of their misery.  It soon becomes apparent that Iris has only been with them for a short time, and Mag and Griff argue that they should give Iris some time to get used to the concept before killing or ditching her father.

The finds a small tunnel leading down into an large abandoned complex.  Of course, the viewers recognize it as the Dollhouse.

I have to admit I liked this opening.  In a very short period of time they give a real feeling for what has happen to the world and how desperate things have gotten.  I will admit that the names bugged me a bit though.  It is only 2019, so if these are their real names I would expect them to be closer to names we would see today.  If they aren’t their real names, well that makes little sense considering the importance the Actuals place on identity.

While investigating the Dollhouse, the group comes upon the chair that was used to imprint the Actives.  They quickly realize what it is for, but that it is different from the imprinting technology they are used to.  After some argument they decide to load some memories, but not full personas, into Mr. Miller to see if they can determine what this place is.

They begin slowly by downloading a single memory into Mr. Miller.  This memory is of Adelle explaining what the Dollhouse is to a prospective client.  Zone is incredulous that the technology for imprinting was originally used to create “more believable hookers.”

I have to admit, I was glad that Zone pointed out how ludicrous using imprinting to create “more believable hookers” is.  After all, his was one of my big complaints about the first season.  While this doesn’t truly address the issue, I was glad that it was at least brought up.

Feeling that they are on the right track, the group begins to download more memories into Mr. Miller.  This time they download Topher Grace’s first day.  He is unimpressed with the current imprinting process which requires hardwires and takes several hours.  Using micro-pulse technology Topher believes he can imprint an Active in less than ten minutes.

This new way of imprinting that Topher develops will become a plot point later on.

Meanwhile, Lyn is taking Iris to find a bathroom.  Along the way she stumbles into the communal shower the Actives used to use, complete with hot running water.  Apparently Lyn has never seen any horror movies, because she tells Iris to use the bathroom around the corner while she takes a quick shower.  Not surprisingly, she is bashed over the head with a flashlight while she is showering.

This scene bugged me a bit, just because it is such a horror cliché.  I understand that Lyn hadn’t had a shower in years, but her actions here seemed seriously stupid.  Rather than being character driven, it really seemed like she showered just because the plot dictated it.

Back to the memory transfers, this time we get a memory of Echo being imprinted with a recent Russian immigrant as part of her assignment to infiltrate the Russian mob.  Paul Ballard is her handler, so this scene is the first “flashback” that is actually a flashforward from season one.

When Paul and Echo enter the elevator, it is revealed that Echo can somehow resist being fully imprinted.  While she has all the memories of the “Russian girl with the big American dream”, she also apparently has Caroline’s personality as well.  Blocking the imprints is taking its toll on her though, as she is suffering from increasingly bad headaches.

This scene feels like a preview of the upcoming second season.  Joss Whedon has said that the show has a five year arc that will progress from season to season.  Having Caroline learn how to avoid having her personality overwritten seems like a natural step after the events of Omega.  I was also glad to see that Paul Ballard is still working cross-purposes with the Dollhouse.  I felt he caved way to easily in Omega and I am glad to see that he still has designs on taking them down.

At this point the group in 2019 hears Iris scream.  They discover Lyn’s body and decide to hole up in the room with the imprint chair.  Zone thinks this is crazy, but Mag insists that room holds answers.  They also decide it is time to “Birthmark” Iris.

Back to the memories, Boyd is going on the run.  Doctor Saunders is helping him pack and obviously seems broken up that he is leaving.  However, he won’t tell her where he is going because he doesn’t want to put her in danger, like he did with Echo.  Before he leaves, Boyd tells her that he will come back for her one day.

Just for the record, it seems obvious from this scene that Boyd Langton and Doctor Saunders are in some form of romantic relationship.  In the DVD commentary, Jed Whedon says they tried to leave it vague, but if they did no one told the actors!  I can’t complain though, since I felt there was some real chemistry between the two.

Back in 2019, Zone is tattooing Iris Miller’s name on her lower back.  This practice is known as Birthmarking.  It is a practice among Actuals to verify their original identity in case one of them is imprinted.

I thought that the practice of Birthmarking is a nice touch, especially later when you discover how it started.  It is obviously a far from perfect method to identify the Actuals from those who have been imprinted, but it seems to be less about that and more a way for them to claim back their identity in a world where the very concept of self has become fluid.

Griff and Mags discuss the possibility of holing up in the Dollhouse permanently, if they can find whatever killed Lyn.  At this point Whiskey, the former Doctor Saunders, walks into the main area covered in Lyn’s blood.

The group surrounds Whiskey with their weapons.  Zone is pretty determined to blow her away for killing Lyn.  Whiskey claims only to have found their friend “sleeping.”  Still, it looks like they are going to plug her when she asks if they are seeking “Safe Haven.”  This stops them in their tracks, as the word obviously has special meaning for them.  She promises them that she can show them the way, so they reluctantly let her live.

I thought this was a very dramatic scene, especially when coupled with Boyd promising to come back for her in the earlier flashback.  Her knowledge of Safe Haven is is especially chilling when combined with her blank Whiskey persona.  In many ways she comes of as some form of oracle or mad prophet.  Very effective.

Whiskey leads them right back to the imprinting chair, which almost causes Zone to shoot her on the spot.  However, Mag believes that Whiskey is telling them that they are on the right track, that the memories they are imprinting on Mr. Miller will lead them to Safe Haven.

Back to the memories, Adelle comes down to see Victor eating lobster while an unusually subdued Topher stands off to the side.  She quickly realizes that Mr. Ambrose, the head of the Rossum corporation, is imprinted in Victor’s body.

He informs her that they will now be providing permanent anatomy upgrades to select clients for a lump nine-figure sum.  Adelle is horrified at this concept and, ironically, concerned about its legality.  Mr. Ambrose reminds her that they have never been concerned with the law, but tells her that this will all be legal within the year anyway.  After all, anyone with any real power is either a client or will be replaced.

Back in 2019, Iris is watching Griff use the chair on her father.  She asks him a few questions about how it works, and whether at can put “people in other people”.  When he answers yes, she shoots him dead and places the gun in her father’s hand.  She then calmly walks to the corner and begins to scream.

Zone and Mag run in to find Griff apparently dead at Mr Miller’s hand.  Zone takes Mr. Miller off to shoot him someplace away from Iris.  Whiskey calmly tells Mag that she will help them find Safe Haven and sits down in the imprinting chair.

The memory Whiskey receives has Dominic confronting Adelle.  He has her at gunpoint, but she reminds him that she “sent” for him, a.k.a. had him released from the Attic.  The two talk about what has happen for a bit.  While things obviously haven’t degenerated as far as they have in 2019, the imprint technology has gone public and is being abused.  Dominic asks Adelle what it is like to have destroyed the world, but Adelle still has hope to save it, since Caroline has developed a block against the technology.

Mag loads another memory into Whiskey.  This time it is Victor and Sierra, although they are both apparently back to their original personalities.  They also both apparently have learned Caroline’s blocking techniques, as Sierra is complaining about the headaches.  They talk about how dangerous it is above ground, and Victor notes that he doesn’t want her to end up like November.  It is implied that Sierra started the Birthmark trend among Actuals.  In an attempt to cheer her up, Victor shows her that they have backed up all of their personalities in the Dollhouse.

Back in 2019, Mag and Zone search for the location of the personality backups from Whiskey’s last memory.  Zone also gives Iris a gun, since there are only three of them now and they have to watch each other’s backs. 

Mag finds the personality backups.  They bring them back up to the imprint chair where they intend to load them into Whiskey one by one until they find Caroline.  Before they can though, Iris points her gun at the two of them.  She reveals that she is not an Actual, but rather a woman who was imprinted in the body of a little girl. 

She sees the imprint chair as her way out of her current predicament.  She intends to take Mag’s body as her own, and plans to imprint Whiskey with Caroline to get her out.  She decides she doesn’t need Zone though, so she shoots him.

At least she tries to.  Unfortunately for her, Zone gave her an empty gun.  Before she can react Zone grabs Iris and dumps her in the imprint chair.  Mags activates the chair, wiping away Iris’ personality. 

Mag wonders how Zone knew that Iris was the killer.  Zone reveals that after he killed Mr. Miller he saw his Birthmark… and his name wasn’t Miller.

I have to admit I found it both cool and chilling to see the chair used as a weapon.  I also enjoyed that the Birthmark tipped Zone off that there was something fishy going on.

A final flashback shows Adelle watching the former Actives praying.  Doctor Saunders then asks her to look in on Topher.  Recent events have evidently driven him mad.  He begins rambling how ultrasonic emitters can program someone over the phone.  That one robo-caller can create an army in an instant, creating a war with two sides: those who answered the phone and those who didn’t.  He breaks down completely when he realizes his advances in micro-pulse technology paved the way for everything that happen.

I liked this scene a lot because it shows the ultimate progression of Topher’s character.  In the first season, Topher is a deliciously amoral character.  He doesn’t care how the imprint technology is used as long as he gets to play around with it.  The flashbacks (flashforwards?) in this episode show a different side of him when Mr. Ambrose begins using the technology to sell immortality to the highest bidder.  Topher is very subdued in that scene, as he is beginning to realize the Pandora’s box he has opened.  It all comes to a head here, where he realizes he is responsible for destroying the world and simply cannot take it.

Back in the memory, someone breaking through the bricked up entrance to the Dollhouse.  As the sledge hammer breaks through the wall, the intruders are revealed to be Caroline and Paul Ballard.  Caroline has returned to rescue her fellow former Actives.  She reveals that they have a place that is safe from the imprinting, but the technology that protects them there is not portable.  She implies that Alpha is responsible for the tech, although whether Alpha is now an ally or still an enemy is not certain.

Caroline tells Doctor Saunders that she needs her personality to be backed up on a hard drive.  Only she knows where they are going, but someday others will need that knowledge.  At this point Caroline wakes up in Iris’ body.  Caroline is ecstatic to see Dr. Saunders until she realizes that she is in her Whiskey persona.  Caroline seems saddened, but not surprised by this revelation.

This is a powerful scene because it is implied that Whiskey deliberately did this to herself, that she chose to live this life in order to send others to Safe Haven.  In the flashback, Caroline was trying to figure out how she would lead others to her personality, the key to their escape.  She also tells Mag that Whiskey knew that if she stayed that she would “lose her mind.”  This really sets up Whiskey as a noble, but tragic character.  It also doesn’t bode well for Boyd Lagton’s survival.

About this time Butchers break into the Dollhouse.  Mag, Zone, and Caroline flee, but Whiskey insists on remaining behind.  As the Butchers swarm the complex Whiskey activates some form of gas defense, then calmly watches as the Butchers succumb to it. 

This scene is especially poignant because of its ambiguity.  It is uncertain if the gas is fatal and Whiskey is simply resigned to her fate, or if she will simply wake up, clean up the mess, and start the whole cycle of waiting over again.

Meanwhile, Caroline, Mag, and Zone make it up the elevator shaft to an abandoned office building.  When Mag reflects on everything that has been lost because of the imprint technology, she bitterly asks “if it was worth it.”  Caroline replies that they were simply “Children playing with matches… and they burned the house down.”

The remaining three come upon a remembrance wall which contains pictures of most of the main cast.  Caroline picks out her picture and says “I hope you find me alive.”  They then climb a rope ladder out of the office building to an unknown fate.

This episode really impresses me.  I am now almost sad now that Dollhouse has been renewed for a second season. The cynic in me doubts that the show will get a full five year run to finish Joss Whedon’s planned story arc, and it seems unlikely that they can craft a better farewell to the series than this. 

Nevertheless, the optimist in me remain hopeful.  After all, if the writing staff and the actors can bring this level of quality to the second season, you never know what can happen.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Random Reviews: Dollhouse: Echo

Thanks to the recently released Dollhouse: Season One boxed set, I finally had opportunity to watch both the original unaired pilot Echo and the unaired thirteenth episode Epitaph One.  These episodes were fascinating viewing which provided some insight into both where Dollhouse has been and where it is going.

Considering the unusual nature of these episodes I figured I would give them both in-depth reviews.  I will be reviewing Echo below and Epitaph One in an upcoming post.  This review will be spoiler heavy, so consider yourself warned.

I love Victor's slightly confused expression.

Supposedly this episode of Dollhouse was shelved after test audiences found it “too confusing and dark.”  I just don’t see it.  In fact, I find it far superior to Ghost, the pilot which actually aired on Fox.

This episode begins Adele explaining what an active is to a prospective client.  It then cuts to a bar where a dealer/pimp named Eddie is attempting to convince a young woman to “share” herself with a couple “friends” of his.  His attempt is interrupted by Echo, who has been programmed to with the personality of a former girl in Eddie’s stable.  After she chases Eddie off, Echo attempts to convince the young girl to clean up and stop selling herself.

The episode immediately cuts to a wedding where Echo has been programmed to be the perfect date for Richard, the ex of the bride.  Echo is obviously there to make the bride jealous, and she succeeds spectacularly.

There are a couple of more assignments shown, including one which Boyd is seen monitoring Echo.  This first cut is the strongest one though, as it addresses prostitution issue that bugged me so much in the early episodes of Dollhouse head on.  It also highlights the hypocrisy of Adele and the other members of the Dollhouse staff. 

The impressive thing is that it does this all before the opening credits roll.

After the credits it cuts to Agent Ballard walking through a penthouse pool party.  He locates Victor, who is currently in his Russian mobster persona.  Victor tries to convince Ballard that the whole Dollhouse thing is a myth, but as is typical for Ballard he cannot be convinced.

Back at the Dollhouse, we see Sierra being patched up by Doctor Saunders after an engagement gone wrong.  Afterwards, Sierra sits down for breakfast with Echo and Victor.  Topher notices this and calls Boyd over to observe the three together.  Namely, he is concerned that the three of them have ate their meals together three times in the last week.

This is one of the many scenes from the pilot which was used in a later episode, but I liked it here much better here.  For one thing, the scene is greatly expanded from the version eventually aired, and goes a long way towards explaining things that bugged during the first half of season one.

One thing that comes out of Topher and Boyd’s conversation is that Doctor Saunders is responsible for some of the Active’s more altruistic and pro bono, assignments.  This is important for me as it goes a long way towards explaining later episodes which feature inexplicable assignments like imprinting Echo to be a midwife. 

The scene also does a great job at establishing Topher’s , Boyd’s , and Doctor Saunders’ personalities in a very short span of time, even though Saunders isn’t present!  Doctor Saunders’ concern for the well-being of the Actives comes through clearly.  Topher gets a great speech which sums up his views the ephemeral nature of morality and what we perceive as free-will.  Boyd comes across as a former idealist who has been beaten down over time into a pragmatist.  The scene is amazingly good and it should be a crime that the full version of it didn’t make it into an episode.

Back at the FBI, Agent Ballard gets an envelope containing a photo of Caroline (Echo) with her name written on the back.  After some begging, he gets another agent to run her through the FBI database.  This triggers a flag which alerts the Dollhouse that someone is looking for one of their Actives.  Adele realizes that Agent Ballard hasn’t been thrown off the scent, and Adele and Dominic discuss what to do about it.  Eventually, they decide they need to neutralize him as a threat permanently.

Victor’s Russian mobster personality is revived to lead Agent Ballard into a trap.  He is sent to an abandoned hotel where Echo is waiting for him.  She is imprinted as a woman named Shauna Vickers who is looking for her missing sister.  She manages to elicit Agent Ballard’s sympathy and he brings her back to his apartment.

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher and Doctor Saunders have an interesting scene where they talk about the altruistic pro bono assignments she has been putting some of the Actives on recently.  She notes that after these assignments that the Actives are coming back better, both cognitively and physically.  She believes this is because there is a physical need in human beings to do something other than fulfill the needs of the rich.

This scene is another one which goes a long way towards explaining the altruistic assignments.  They are obviously Doctor Saunders’ pet project, and she can justify them to the Dollhouse higher ups with her data that they are improving the Actives. 

This scene also makes plain how antagonistic her relationship with Topher is.  In the episode Omega, after Doctor Saunders discovered she was an active, her first question to Topher was, “Why did you make me hate you so much?”  This scene shows her hatred of him more clearly than anything that actually aired during the season.

Back at Agent Ballard’s apartment, he becomes suspicious of “Shauna’s” story and pulls a gun on her. He asks her if she is Caroline and tells her he is going to take her down to lockup and get some prints.  She manages to disarm him and shoots him twice at point blank range.

Boyd hears the shots and comes up to investigate.  Boyd is surprised that Echo was capable of assassination under her current Shauna persona, but finds out from Topher that she was actually programmed as an assassin and merely was pretending to be Shauna as part of her assignment.  The two flee the apartment before the police arrive, but not before Echo sees the picture of herself as Caroline lying on the floor.

When they get to where their pickup should be, Boyd gets a call that the word from the hospital is that it looks like Agent Ballard is going to make it.  Echo is not willing to leave the job unfinished and goes to the hospital to finish the job.

Adele gets a call from her superiors telling her to call Echo off.  The only question now is whether or not Echo can be stopped in time.

At the hospital, Echo runs across the young girl she saved from the pimp earlier in the episode.  Echo obviously recognizes her on some level.  This causes her to hesitate long enough for Boyd to catch up with her and tell her the job is off.

Back at the Dollhouse, Adele expresses her concern that Echo failed in her initial assassination attempt.  Since Echo had the proper skills, she feels it is quite possible that Echo purposely failed to kill him.  She feels this is a sign that something is up with Echo, and asks that Boyd and Topher watch Echo closely. 

Meanwhile, Echo prepares for bed.  As she lies down in her pod, she says the name “Caroline” softly to herself.

In my opinion, this is a much better ending than the aired pilot.  Having Echo shoot Agent Ballard at point blank range was shocking and effective.  It also showed how far the Dollhouse was willing to go to protect its secrets and that Adele was not the ultimate authority at the Dollhouse.  Echo is already showing signs of self-awareness and rebellion, which makes her much more relatable than she is in Ghost.

I also thought seeing so many of the scenes that showed up in later episodes in their original context was fascinating.  Not surprisingly, most of them worked better in the context of the episode they were originally shot for than in the episodes they appeared in later.  In fact, I wonder if attempting to reuse some of this footage in later episodes helped contribute to the wooden feel so many people complained about in the series.

Honestly, I just can’t understand what possessed Joss Whendon to shelve this episode.  I really feel that if this pilot had been aired, that the show would have been better received both by Joss Whedon fans and the general public.

Ah well, rather than focus on the mistakes of the past, I think it is time to focus on the future of the show.  For a taste of what that might be like, tune in tomorrow for a review of the Epitaph One!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Forgotten Realms: Issue 8 – The Dragon Reach Saga (Part 4 of 4)

The comic opens up with Priam Agrivar and Murilantilathenes coming upon site of battle between the flight of dragons and the Tarrasque.  From the look of things, the battle did not go well for the dragons.

The full two page splash is even more impressive!

When investigating the scene, the rest of the Realms’ Master crew is found to be alive and well, if buried under debris.  None of them look too happy to see Agrivar, who in all fairness did leave them to die in battle by themselves.

Of course the Iron Golem doesn't care about air.Ishi quickly recaps how the dragon’s battle against the Tarrasque went (poorly), and how the Realms’ Master crew managed to survive (dumb luck).  At this point Vartan goes off on Agrivar, questioning both his honor and his courage.  Agrivar responds with a left hook and a speech recapping what happen to him last issue.

Ishi is quick-witted enough to figure out that Murilantilathenes had engineered the wolf-cougar-deer dilemma to bring Agrivar to enlightenment.  Murilantilathenes is touched that that Ishi understands his role in bringing back the wayward paladin.

This is where half-dragons come from. Meanwhile, back at Elminster’s tower, Shaerl is in labor.  Unfortunately, Lhaeo reports that Hoareb the Healer is occupied delivering triplets across town.  He also tells Elminster that he should check his scrying pool.  Elminster leaves, but not without being threatened by Shaerl if he fails to return quickly.

Not Shaeral at her most attractive. In the scrying room, Lhaeo shows Elminster and Captain Omen the horrifying sight of a Tarrasque rampaging through the countryside. The two wizards prepare to rush into battle when Shaerl grabs Elminster by the beard.  It seems she is not so keen about going through a pregnancy without either a midwife or a 27th level-wizard to assist.

Reluctantly, Elminster lets Captain Omen go to do battle with the Tarrasque.  He is obviously not confident of Omen’s ability to take down the beast, but has little choice.  At this point, Foxilion reveals his experience with birthing children, to mostly incredulous looks.

The problem is most people don't trust halflings with their silverware, let alone their unborn children.

Meanwhile, Captain Omen chooses to Magic Missile the Tarrasque, which backfires horribly.

D'oh!

This failure brings him to the attention of the Outcast though, and the two engage in battle atop the head of the foul beast.  At this point, Murilantilathenes and the Realms’ Master crew arrive on the scene loaded to bear.  The outcast attempts to use his beheading staff on Murilantilathenes, but Vartan uses Dispel Magic to stop the vile magic cold.

Here comes the cavalry... er, again!

Agrivar jumps from the dragon to join Captain Omen in battle against the Outcast.  However, he is stymied by a hastily conjured Wall of Force.  Captain Omen chooses to switch tactics, telling Minder to dive towards the Tarrasque.  Captain Omen then dispels his Polymorph Any Object spell, transforming Minder into the equivalent of a medieval  cruise missile.

Minder of Mass Destruction!

Nice legs Omen. This is enough to stagger the beast.  More importantly, it disrupts the concentration of the Outcast, allowing Agrivar to strike a blow.  The Outcast pulls an Obi-Wan Kenobi and disappears leaving only his robe behind.  Luckily for the everyone, the Tarrasque disappears when he does.

Agrivar tells Murilantilathenes to tell his fellow dragons that the dragon-killer has been dealt with.  He flies off without ponying up any of the treasure he offered in the first issue of the storyline.

When the crew arrives back at Elminster’s tower, they find Foxilion smoking a pipe outside.  The delivery of Lord Mourngrym and Shaerl’s son went without a hitch. 

Eliminster offers his gratitude to Captain Omen and his crew for dealing with the Tarrasque and lets them know if there is ever anything he can do for them, he will.  Captain Omen uses this offer to get a list of various artifacts and their locations from Elminster.

Notes

  1. Opening up with the aftermath of the battle between the dragons and the Tarrasque was a strong way to kick of the issue.
  2. Using Shaeral’s labor as a way to keep Elminster from simply taking care of the situation himself was about as good an excuse as they could have come up with.
  3. I like that Foxilion took care of the birthing.
  4. I enjoyed seeing Vartan using Dispel Magic to protect Murilantilathenes from the contrived beheading staff.
  5. Is it just me, or did the Tarrasque go out like a chump?
  6. I was not a fan of the Outcast mysteriously disappearing as soon as Agrivar cut him down.  He is really more of a MacGuffin than a character in this story.  He comes out of nowhere, we never learn anything about him, and he returns to nowhere.  If this was setup for a later issue I would be fine with it.  Unfortunately, this is his only appearance.
  7. Once again this issue goes out of its way to set up the premise of the series with Elminster himself providing the location of various artifacts in the Forgotten Realms.  However, this premise is quickly derailed by the upcoming tie-in to the Time of Troubles.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on the upcoming Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Game

I have only been in a handful of Warhammer Fantasy campaigns, but I do have fond memories of them.  The games I played all used the Hogshead Publishing version of the rules, and I should note that I enjoyed them despite the rule system.

I did buy the updated version of the Warhammer Fantasy game that was published in 2004.  While never had an opportunity to play or run this version of the system, I must admit I liked the new rules.  The game designers streamlined a lot of the mechanics that used to bug me in the old edition.  More importantly, they kept their hands off the career progression system, which I always liked.  They also reworked the magic system, something I thought was necessary.  I was impressed with this edition and thought it was a good update of an old classic.

After awhile the covers of all Fantasy Roleplaying Games start to look the same.So despite not being a huge Warhammer Fantasy player, my interest was definitely piqued when I heard a new version is going to be released by Fantasy Flight Games.  Would it remain close to what had come before it or would it blaze a new path?

Just looking over what information has been released so far, I am guessing that this new edition will be at least as divisive among fans of Warhammer Fantasy as Dungeons & Dragons 4E was among D&D players.

It costs how much?

The first point of contention will likely be the price.  The core boxed set retails at $99.95.  Now, you get a lot in this boxed set including 4 rulebooks, 30 custom dice, 300 cards, and three “character keepers”.  Honestly, for everything you get, this is probably a fair price.

I still see a lot of players balking though.  At this point it doesn’t look like there will be a version of the core rules available outside off the core set.  This is probably because Fantasy Flight Games expects that only one copy of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay set will be purchased per group.

Specifically, the Fantasy Flight Games website says that the core set is best suited for one Game Master and three heroes.  Why is this the magic number?  Primarily because the boxed set contains enough careers, party sheets, and action cards to support three players. 

So what do you do if you have more than three players?  Well, that is what The Adventurer's Toolkit is for.  This supplement will additional careers, party sheets, and action cards for the game.

So I suppose whether or not $99.95 is too much to pay for the core set depends on how you look at it. If you look at the boxed set as a group purchase, it is actually cheaper than each player and game master buying just a Player’s Handbook apiece in D&D.  The problem is, while this paradigm is accepted in board games like Talisman, I see many traditional RPG gamers balking at not having their own copy of the rules.

What do you mean I need special dice?

Another change to the new edition of Warhammer Fantasy is that it uses its own specialized dice set.  According to Fantasy Flight Games website the game uses a new task resolution system that provides more information and flavor than just whether you hit or miss.  Rather than having numbers, these dice have various symbols that appear on each face.  There are more than thirty custom dice included in the box set.

The new system sounds innovative.  I also enjoy that you can choose a stance that is either reckless or conservative that will affect you roles.  Still, I imagine custom dice will rub a lot of people the wrong way.  Some common concerns I see being raised:

  • Since the dice use symbols rather than numbers, there will probably be a learning curve while the players learn to interpret them.
  • Some players grow rather attached to their dice, and they will not enjoy having to use ones provided by the Game Master.  Even if they embrace the concept of custom dice, they will probably want their own set.
  • Dice also have a bad tendency to get lost.  Maybe the cat bats a set under the couch or your three-year old takes them to a friends house on a play-date and they never return.
  • Some players don’t like to carry around a lot of dice and prefer games that only use one kind of die.  Since the last edition of Warhammer Fantasy used only d10’s, there may be some players of this type among its adherents.

Hopefully Fantasy Flight Games will sell these dice separately and not only as part of the boxed set!

Not more freaking cards!

One common complaint I hear about D&D 4E is the use of power cards.  These players believe that power cards are a perversion of the D&D rules and a sign that Wizards of the Coast is trying to turn D&D into Magic: The Gathering.

Well, it looks like Warhammer Fantasy will be embracing cards more than D&D 4E ever did.  The Boxed Set includes over 300 cards for use with the game.  Per the Fantasy Flight website:

“You can quickly reference the full-colour action cards to see what your abilities and innate skills can accomplish, allowing players to spend more time focusing on the task at hand. From spells, blessings, and attacks to social gambits, and reactions, and acrobatics you will have the actions you need to tell your character’s tale.”

I personally don’t have a problem with cards, since I think having snippets of the rules on the cards does cut down of players needing to flip through the book.  However, I know some players who hate cards with a passion.  To them, seeing action cards “infect” Warhammer Fantasy is an abomination of the first order.

This isn’t Warhammer Fantasy anymore!

I imagine this will be the biggest complaint from some longtime Warhammer Fantasy players.  The 2004 release of Warhammer Fantasy was much closer to the previous version than D&D 3E was to D&D 2E.  Despite this, I still know some hardcore Warhammer Fantasy players who won’t make the move.

This new incarnation of Warhammer Fantasy seems far enough from the previous editions that it makes D&D 4E look old-school by comparison.

I see this being a real problem for some Warhammer Fantasy players.  If anything, I have found them to be more set in their ways than your average D&D player.  If you think about it, this makes sense.  D&D is by far the market leader in fantasy roleplaying games.  If a Warhammer Fantasy player didn’t enjoy the Warhammer Fantasy rule set, there is a good chance they would just be playing D&D.

Parting Thoughts

Looking at the cover art, they are certainly emphasizing the “Fantasy Roleplay” part and de-emphasizing the “Warhammer” part.  This may be a sign that the primary marketing push is not going for the traditional Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay player.

The fact that they are adopting the board game paradigm of “one box for multiple players” is also interesting.  I really am not sure if this will gain acceptance among traditional gamers, but at least it is something different.

On that note, I found it interesting that the website specifically addressed “quick and easy cleanup” as part of the design.  Specifically it mentions:

“Inside the Core set are three character keepers designed to hold everything your hero will need each session. From your dice, actions cards, and character sheets to any wounds, items, or skills your hero acquires, you will have a convenient place to store everything after a session.”

Once again, this sounds like the concern of someone used to playing board games rather than traditional roleplaying games.  At least among the groups I play with, concept of players leaving the characters behind in the box after a session is a bit foreign.

So what do I think?  Well, I would definitely love to give it a try at some point.  I am just not sure if I will love it or hate it when I do!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Son of Gleemax!

As has been reported elsewhere, Wizards of the Coast is upgrading their forums this week.  According to the stop page you get if you try to access the forums they are upgrading to “a system that includes a host of new features like friends lists, groups, an invite system and calendar, blogs and wiki.”

All of you will fall before the might of a brain in a jar!When Gleemax (R.I.P.) first came out, I thought it was an awesome forum for D&D… if it was 2001.  Sadly, it was 2007 and time had already passed the site by. 

Gamers have a lot of choices for where to go for their online content nowadays.  Gleemax found itself up against deeply entrenched community sites like EN World, not to mention the ever-growing blogging community.

So it is little surprise that Gleemax failed in its quest to become a hub for roleplayers of all stripes.  What is impressive is that it failed so spectacularly that they had to knife it in the back and disavow any knowledge of its existence. 

In essence, Gleemax had become their Windows Vista.  Much like Windows Vista, the Gleemax name had become toxic.  They realized that no matter how much they improved the service, it could never overcome the poor public perception of it.  So it had to die.

Still, it would be foolish to think that Wizards of the Coast had abandoned its ambition for becoming the hub of the RPG community.  Notably, Randy Buehler had the following to say about the death of Gleemax back in 2008:

"The mistake that I made, however, was in trying to push us too far too fast. I still think the vision for Gleemax is awesome: creating a place on the web where hobby gamers (or lifestyle gamers or thinking gamers, or whatever you want to call us) can gather to talk about games, play games, and find people to play games with. But I've come to realize that the vision was too ambitious. We've made progress down about ten different paths over the past eighteen months, but we haven't been able to reach the end of any of them yet."

I think this is why the upgrade to the forums has been so low key.  If you look at what they are adding, the feature list is impressive.  Friend Lists, Blogs, Calendars, and Wikis?  It sounds more like a RPG social networking site than a mere forum.  More importantly it seems very close to the vision of Gleemax that Randy Buehler is describing above.

So we are seeing the birth of the “Son of Gleemax”.  It is obvious that Wizards of the Coast has learned their lesson and is trying to under-promise and over-deliver this time around. They are hoping that by creating a feature-rich user community first and worrying about branding and advertizing later, that gamers will begin to flock there naturally.

I wish them the best of luck.  As I have stated before, Wizards of the Coast has historically never done a great job in creating digital products (E-Tools anyone?).  They also horribly mishandled the launch of DDI. 

They are getting better though.  The Character Builder and (beta) Monster Builder are surprisingly usable.  I also have to admit that the feature set of the new “forums” they are creating sound interesting. 

So who knows, perhaps Gleemax will get his final revenge from beyond the grave?  I suppose that is appropriate for an alien brain in a jar.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Random Reviews: Coraline

I suppose I should start by specifying that this is not a review of the book Coraline or the graphic novel Coraline.  Rather, it is a review of Coraline the 2009 animated movie adapted by director Henry Selick from Neil Gaiman’s original novel.

This scene is actually from 'Being John Malcovich"

The first thing I have to say about Coraline is that I wouldn’t recommend it for very small children.  Things get pretty intense at certain points.  While I am not going to say keep kids away from the movie, I would advise you to take the PG rating very seriously.  If I was a parent I would definitely view the movie first and then decide if my kids were ready for it.

Without getting too deeply into spoilers, Coraline and her parents recently moved into a new home.  Well, new for them.  The house itself is quite old and has quite a bit of history.  None of this matters to Coraline, who misses her friends and is feeling uprooted.  The situation is made worse by the fact that her parents are very busy with their jobs and getting situated after the move.  As a result, Caroline feels somewhat neglected. 

It is then that she discovers a locked door in the house that has been wallpapered over.  Eventually, she finds that the door leads to another world.  This world contains versions of her parents, called Other Mother and Other Father, who always cook homemade dinners and are attentive to her every need.  It seems to good to be true, so I don’t think I am spoiling anything by saying that it is.

When asked what the message of Coraline is, Neil Gaiman said: "People who love [you] may not pay you all the attention you would like, and people who give you all the attention you would like may not have your best interests at heart."

Personally, this is one of the things I really liked about the movie.  Many movies start out with distant workaholic parents who make a turnaround to become completely focused on their children.  This is a lovely sentiment, but perhaps a bit unrealistic.  In Coraline, the parents probably do need to spend a bit more time with their daughter, but it acknowledges that they still need to spend some time working to pay the bills too.

Incidentally, for those of you who care, the script is pretty close to Neil Gaiman’s original novel.  One significant change is that it introduces an entirely new character named Wybie Lovat.  According to interviews with both Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman this character was added because Coraline spends a lot of time alone with her thoughts in the novel.  To translate this to film would require her either narrating the film or breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience. 

Personally, I don’t find either of these alternatives a good fit for the story.  So giving her someone to talk to was probably the best choice.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I enjoyed the movie a great deal.  It has the feel of a dark fairy tale, probably more so than any recent film besides Pan's Labyrinth. However, I tend to go for that sort of thing anyway, so your mileage may vary.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Settings with a difference: The Outlaw Campaign

While it may be a stretch to describe the average player character as an upstanding citizen, most campaigns do assume that they are not actively at odds with the law.  Turning this assumption on its head can lead to a memorable campaign.

The first thing to consider when creating an outlaw campaign is why the characters are outlaws.  Some characters may be wrongly accused.  Others may be outlaws because of a crisis of conscience.  Of course, some characters may simply be outlaws because they actually are criminals.

Wrongly Accused

One advantage running a campaign where the characters are wrongly accused is that it can happen to anyone.  It doesn’t matter whether the character is the most noble paladin or the most shady rogue, both have to deal with the consequences of being accused of a crime that they didn’t commit.

The wrongly accused hero is a common trope in fiction, from characters like Jean Valjean in Les Misérables to James Bond in License to Kill.  Because of the serial nature of a campaign, it might be best to explore TV shows like The Fugitive, The A-Team, and even The Incredible Hulk for inspiration. 

In all of these cases, the protagonists are constantly looking for a way to clear their names.  However, the story often involves them being  drawn into helping other people with their problems.  This is to keep the plots from becoming to repetitive.

These shows also involved the protagonists staying one step ahead of their pursuers.  Having the characters being actively pursued, especially by a reoccurring antagonist, makes sure the campaign doesn’t lose its flavor.

It is probably a good idea for the characters to get an opportunity to clear their names before the campaign comes to a close.  If the campaign ends without this opportunity, it will probably leave the players feeling unfulfilled.  On the other hand, if the characters finally clear their names after numerous sessions of life on the run, the campaign will probably be one that the players talk about long after it is over.

Crisis of Conscience

Probably the most famous example of the crisis of conscience outlaw is Robin Hood.  In most modern versions of the myth, Robin Hood becomes an outlaw because cannot abide the suffering being inflicted on the poor, but he cannot work within the corrupt system to stop it. 

This campaign premise requires at least one character to be moral enough to make the initial decision to break the law to uphold its spirit.  Not every character needs to stand on that high moral ground, but most should be working to achieve the same goals.  After all, it doesn’t make sense that a single moral man (or woman) would be working with an entirely immoral group.

One advantage that a crisis of conscience campaign has over the wrongly accused campaign is that the characters have a good reason to stick around and fight.  While characters in the wrongly accused campaign will often be looking to flee their pursuers, characters in a crisis of conscience campaign would never have become outlaws in the first place if they didn’t have a reason to stick around and fight.

A crisis of conscience campaign should eventually allow the characters the chance to right the injustice they became outlaws to fight.  Like the wrongly accused campaign above, the players will probably be left feeling unfulfilled unless they get their chance to make things right.  On the plus side, overthrowing a corrupt government makes for a truly epic way to end the campaign.

Criminals

The easiest way for the characters to end up on the wrong side of the law is to run a criminal based campaign.  A campaign based around a thieves guild or piracy would be an easy way to assure that the characters are on the wrong side of the law.

Of course, this requires the characters be the type that would be law-breakers in the first place.  I would suggest shying away from completely evil and depraved characters.  While such characters may be fun in a one-shot game, in a campaign they are often problematic.  Looking to antiheroes like Jack Sparrow or to the multi-layered mobsters of The Sopranos is a good source of inspiration for characters in this kind of campaign.

One difficulty in DMing a criminal campaign is that criminals are traditionally more proactive than heroes in literature.   While a hero may come across a heist and disrupt it, a criminal is the one who actually plans the heist to begin with. 

Placing your protagonists in a criminal organization will help with this issue.  Regardless, it is probably a good idea to prep several mini-adventures suited to the criminal mindset.  That way, if the characters decide they wish to rob a merchant or blackmail a noble, you can have something prepped and ready.

Oh, and talking with your players in advance to figure out what they want to do with their characters is probably a good idea too.  If the players are willing to work with you, they can drive the plot while you deliver the twists!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thoughts on Ultimate Comics: Spider-man #001

I have enjoyed the Ultimate Spider-Man comic book over the years.  Sure, it suffered a bit from decompression and the dialogue was occasionally long-winded, but it was a decent reimagining of the Spider-Man mythos for the new millennium.

So I was a bit worried when it was announced that all of the Ultimate comic books would be coming to an end with the Ultimatum event.  The few titles to survive the event would be relaunched under the Ultimate Comics brand.

It turned out my worries were at least partially justified.  The Ultimatum event hijacked Ultimate Spider-Man issues #132 and #133, turning them into barely coherent garbage.  Seriously, I hate few things more than when you can’t follow a comic book you have read for years straight because it is tying into an event.

They followed this up with two Ultimatum: Requiem: Spider-Man issues (say that three times fast) which seemed to be an excuse to dump some filler issues that wouldn’t work anymore.  I mean, it has a repentant J.J. Jameson writing Spider-Man’s eulogy and he chooses to write about some time Spidey battled Hydra in Tony Stark’s office?  Please.

Marvel, if you want me to read fill-in issues, please don’t be so brazen as to call it a “mini-series” and charge me $3.99 an issue for it.  This merely insults my intelligence and makes me less likely to buy your comics in the future.

Man he has a big head! Not surprisingly, when I picked up my comics this week I actually intended to drop Ultimate Spider-Man from my pull list.  However, since the comic shop guys had already pulled Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #001 for me, curiosity got the better of me and I figured I might as well read it.

I am stunned to say I actually enjoyed it.  Starting six months after the Ultimatum: Requiem: Spider-Man, the book manages to ignore most of the garbage that was Ultimatum.  Brian Bendis did use the six-month gap introduce a couple of plot twists for longtime readers.  He also killed off a character that I did not expect him to in the final few pages of the first issue.  In any case, after so many months of disappointment I was very impressed with this comic.

So will I stick with it?  I am not sure.  The biggest factor against sticking around is the price.  The first issue was $3.99, and frankly that is too much to be paying for a mere twenty-two pages of entertainment.

Another problem I have is with the new artist David LaFuente. In general, I enjoy his work in the comic.  Unfortunately, his art style has one fatal flaw that is tough for me to let go: his Spider-Man looks extremely cartoony.  Spidey’s head is extremely large in proportion to the rest of his body.  In fact, his proportions often seem closer to those of a Warner Brothers cartoon character than to a comic book character.

Since I don’t mind stylized art, this probably wouldn’t bug me as much if it was consistent.  However, Spidey is the only character who seems to suffer from this issue, which makes it stick out even more.

Still, maybe I will get used to Spidey’s big head over time (or David LaFuente will tone it down).  On the other hand, the price is not going to go away.

Maybe I should just start picking it up in the trades?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Forgotten Realms: Issue 7 – The Dragon Reach Saga (Part 3 of 4)

This issue begins with the Outcast standing on a cliff and bemoaning how he is so evil that other evil people shun him.  Sucks to be him I guess.

I am so evil and alone *sniff*

I should note that for the rest of the comic the main story follows what is going on at Eliminster’s tower while the bottom of each page has a panel containing silent story following what is going on with Agrivar, Ishi, Vartan, and Minder.  I will recap these tales separately.

At Elminster’s tower, we are presented with two drunken wizards swapping bad jokes.  Lord Mourngrym is still nervously fidgeting and asking Elminster permission to check on his wife Shaerl.  Elminster tells Lord Mourngrym to stay put since Shaerl had yelled at him earlier for getting underfoot.

Honestly, he needs someone to tell him that one of the perks of being a lord is that he doesn’t need Elminster’s permission to see his own wife. 

Foxilion asks permission to use “the little halfling’s room.”  Of course being a halfling this is code for “rob the place blind”, but only Lhaeo seems to understand this.  So the wizards continue to get drunker, Lord Mourngrym continues to fidget, and no one notices as Foxilion unleashes an assassin from the bottle he was imprisoned in. Oops!

Ah, Foxilion.  You really should have started on another shelf.Ouch! Foxilion makes a run for it and manages to run headlong into Lhaeo, who had come looking for the halfling.  The assassin catches up to them and is ecstatic to have finally found his prey, “the last heir of Tethyr”

For those of you who are not steeped in Realms’ lore, Eminster’s scribe Lhaeo was actually the last of the royal line that traditionally ruled Tethyr.  When his family was killed in a coup, Lhaeo went into hiding and eventually ended up under Elminster’s protection.  Elminster works hard to keep Lhaeo’s true identity secret, to avoid situations like this.

Anyway, Lord Mourngrym has had enough of drunken wizards arguing about the comparative powers of various artifacts and decides to slip out the side-door.  He runs right into the assassin (there is a lot of that happening), and the battle begins in earnest.

Drunk as they are, Elminster and Captain Omen eventually realize that there is a massive melee happening in the hallway and they should probably do something about it. 

I love Elminster's expressions in these panels.

This is a great picture. Faced with two wizards, the assassin decides that discretion is the better part of valor and flees.   On the way out of the tower, the assassin stumbles across the very pregnant Shaerl, who had come to the tower to seek out her husband.  He takes her hostage, but is unprepared for her mean left-hook.  Elminster uses this opportunity to imprison the assassin again. 

Just as Captain Omen starts to question who the assassin was, Shaerl then announces that she has gone into labor.  Captain Omen announces that everyone should prepare for a long night.

Back to the silent story.  It begins with the Realms’s Master crew and remaining dragons making plans to assault the Outcast in his lair.  Well, everyone but Agrivar, who quit at the end of the last issue. 

Agrivar watches his friends go, but then sees a mountain lion being threatened by a pack of wolves.  Agrivar jumps down into the fray and helps the mountain lion drive off the pack.  The man and the cougar share a quiet moment before the mountain lion sees a deer and runs of after it.

The sequence of events makes Agrivar think back to his confrontation with the red dragon.  He realizes that the red dragon was merely acting according to his nature, but that there is a bigger picture at work.

Unbeknownst to Agrivar, the cougar turns into the bronze dragon Murilantilathenes who had assumed that form to teach him a lesson.  Murilantilathenes makes his presence known to Agrivar and the two fly off to join their comrades.

I love the equals sign.  Just in case you didn't get it.

Unfortunately, the battle against the Outcast is not going well.  When couple more dragons sacrifice their heads to the outcast’s staff, the ground begins to tremble.  Out of the earth itself springs the legendary Tarrasque!

 Look at the way he backhands that blue dragon!

Notes

  1. OK, I admit that I don’t like the Outcast much.  For the villain of a major story arc, he seems awfully underdeveloped.
  2. Personally, I was glad to see a storyline dealing with Lhaeo being the last heir of Tethyr, even if it was a minor plotline in a comic book.  As far as I know, this is the only place it was ever dealt with.
  3. I am also glad that Lhaeo had the good sense not to let Foxilion wander free for too long.
  4. Personally, I liked the split storytelling technique used in this issue.  Even if Captain Omen’s “Its always a long night… when a new life comes into the Realms!” comment was a little forced.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dark Sun Campaign Setting for 4e D&D Announced

After much speculation, including some incorrect speculation from my colleagues and I over at Lords of Tyr, Dark Sun has been announced as the new campaign setting for 4E D&D.

Say what you will, this is an awesome cover! It is definitely an interesting choice.  Dark Sun has a very strong fan base, which should make this book a decent seller.  Dark Sun also has a very distinctive feel, probably more so than the other old school campaign settings.

It also seems to me that the D&D 4E rules are better suited for Dark Sun than D&D 2E ever was.  In general, the classes are less equipment focused, although the plusses from weapons and implements are probably more vital than ever.  I also think the clear demarcation between different power sources, especially the primal power source, will work well with the central druid versus wizard dynamic.  The primordial versus divine split will also probably work well in a game where the gods are dead and primal forces have run amok.

I do wonder if all of the D&D 4E races and classes will be making an appearance in Athas.  Supporting everything published has been Wizards of the Coast’s modus operandi when introducing new settings so far. 

However, according to a tweet from the great RPG blog Critical Hits Bill Slavicsek said “We are going to try very hard not to shoehorn 4e conceits into Dark Sun.”

I am not sure what that means exactly, but my best guess is it means that you might not see an bard in Dark Sun just because they were published in the PHB 2.  Then again, maybe you will.  I suppose we will just have to wait and see.

All and all, I am pleased by the choice of Dark Sun as the new setting for 2010.  I never got into Dark Sun when it first came out in 1991, but I am glad they decided to revitalize an old setting rather than try to create a new one.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Robin Hood Series One Review (Part II)

I reviewed the first seven episodes of BBC’s Robin Hood in the post Robin Hood Series One Review (Part I).  I split this review at that point not only because it was near the middle, but because there is also definite shift in the focus.

Would you trust these men with the life of the king? The first seven episodes understandably focused on setting up the setting and the characters.  However, the focus changes as we move towards the the final six episodes.  We see less of the sheriff’s depredations at home and more of his plot to kill King Richard.  This is a theme that will be further expanded upon in Robin Hood Series Two.

So without further adieu, here is what I thought of the final six episodes:

Tattoo?  What Tattoo?

This episode begins with a flashback to Robin’s days in the Holy Land.  A group of Saracen assassins make an attempt on King Richard’s life.  During the battle, Robin injures one of the assassins with his sword, leaving a wide gash across a tattoo on the assassin’s arm.

Back in Locksley, Robin Hood and his Merry Men crash a party that Gisborne is hosting in celebration of the king’s birthday.  They successfully make off with the guest’s riches, but there are complications two complications.  First, Robin sees that Guy has a tattoo with a scar through it, meaning he was one of the men who tried to kill the king.  Second, when they are forced to flee, Djaq gets captured.

Gisborne rides into the forest after the outlaws, but Robin gets the drop on him.  He is just about to slit Gisborne’s throat for attempted regicide when the rest of the Merry Men stop him.  They feel that Robin shouldn’t act as judge, jury, and executioner.

Meanwhile, Djaq attempts to escape her cell using a vial of acid she had secreted on her body.  The sheriff is fascinated, and attempts to coerce her to make more of the stuff.

Ultimately, a prisoner exchange is setup.  When Robin brings up that the tattoo on Gisborne’s arm is proof that they are involved in a plot to kill the king, the sheriff uses the acid he confiscated from Djaq to burn it off.

This episode was interesting because it highlights the darker aspects of Robin.  He is also starting to lose his inhibitions about killing the sheriff and Guy of Gisborne, which will lead to the new deal at the beginning of Series Two.

4 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

A Thing or Two About Loyalty

A scientist and friend of Guy of Gisborne named Lambert invents “Greek Fire”, presented here as a highly explosive form of black powder.  He is willing to sell it to the sheriff, but only if he promises to use it only for peaceful purposes like mining.  This attitude gets him thrown in the dungeon.

Robin and his men make attempts to rescue the scientist, but don’t have much initial luck.  Guy, who still feels loyalty to Lambert, attempts to convince him to go along with the sheriff’s plans. After all,the alternative is suffering and death.

An important, if somewhat implausible, sub-plot involves Much.  When Robin finds out about the scientist’s predicament, he formulates a plan which involves Much getting himself thrown in prison so he can gather information.  However, rather than jail him, the sheriff has Much made into an Earl with his own estate and a personal spy/jailer/servant girl named Eve.  The sheriff hopes that Much will either slip up and spill some information about Robin or be tempted by riches and power to betray him. 

Not surprisingly, this plan backfires.  Much is such a decent man that Eve finds she doesn’t have the heart to betray him.  Instead, she helps the Merry Men by sending false information back to the sheriff.

Meanwhile, Marian tries to convince Guy of Gisborne to let his friend escape the dungeon.  Guy considers it, but decides his loyalty is to the sheriff and not his friend.  Lambert is ultimately tortured to death. 

Robin and his Merry Men retrieve a ledger containing all of Lambert’s notes on making Greek Fire.  After some argument, the decide to destroy it.  However, unseen by anyone but Robin, Djaq retrieves it from the campfire before it can burn.

This episode explored the themes of loyalty in numerous ways.  Guy’s loyalties to his friend and the sheriff, Much’s loyalty to Robin, and Eve’s transfer of loyalty to Much are only a few examples.  An excellent episode.

5 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

Peace? Off!

A man named Harold is setting fire to churches, poisoning wells, and other antisocial activities.  Robin and Much realize he is a former crusader suffering from “Crusader Sickness”, a.k.a. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  They subdue him and take him back to camp where he is cared for by Much.

The merry men locate a cart stuck in the mud.  Searching it, they locate an evil looking black mask and a map to Nottingham Castle.  The superstitious band comes to believe that the sheriff is hosting an evil magician at the castle.

In reality, the sheriff is hosting Prince Malik, the brother of Saladin who is on a mission of peace.  Prince Malik wishes an audience with Prince John, but he is being delayed by the sheriff.  The sheriff has sent messengers demanding a ransom from Saladin.  What no one knows is that Prince Malik is there without permission and that Saladin’s reply will consist of deadly assassins.

Not surprisingly, Robin and his Merry Men manage to sort everything out.  Prince Malik reveals that the black mask is used for acupuncture, which he uses to assist Harold with his PTSD.

This episode was pretty average.  Also, acupuncture heals PTSD in one treatment?  I bet a whole lot of combat veterans wish they knew that!

3 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

Dead Man Walking

Guy of Gisborne and his men are collecting taxes when they accidentally discover Luke the Cooper has been supplying Robin Hood and his Merry Men with bows.  Luke is arrested along with his stepson John, who is also the natural born son of Little John.

Robin Hood and Little John just happen to witness the arrest.  Little John is understandably upset and rushes to the attack despite being outnumbered.  As a result, he is captured as well.

Little John speaks with his son in prison, although John’s son is unaware he is speaking with his father. After all, John was always told his father was dead.  When Little John’s former wife Alice, is thrown in prison as well, the truth comes out. 

The family is scheduled to be tortured in front of some minor nobles, but Robin Hood and his men rescue them before they are harmed.  John’s family then goes to start a life elsewhere, but Little John’s son tells his father that he will never forget him.

This episode was nice if a little bland.  The scenes with John and his son were very nice.  I also enjoyed that Luke the Cooper was such a decent man.

4 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

Return of the King

The word on the street is that King Richard is returning from the Holy Land.  Robin is more determined than ever to find proof that Guy of Gisborne tried to kill the king.  Since a secret trip to the Holy Land would have taken a long time, Robin begins to investigate Guy’s alibi.

During the time Guy would have been in the Holy Land, he claims an illness kept him bedridden.  The only person who saw Guy during that time was his physician Pitts, who would check in on him daily and bring him food. Robin confronts Pitts, who admits he was covering up Guy’s absence but claims ignorance of the plot against the king.

Meanwhile, Marian is preparing to marry Guy of Gisborne.  She is uncertain of Robin’s claims that he is a traitor and believes that she can bring out his more noble qualities (a clue: no).  However, she is planning on a final fling as the Night Watchmen before settling down.

So Marian, as the Night Watchman, decides to rob her future husband.  Unfortunately, things do not go well and she is stabbed in the stomach.  Robin and his Merry Men arrive to rescue her and get her back to the forest. 

Allan-a-Dale and Will Scarlett get separated from the others during the commotion, but also escape with a good deal of gold.  Allan notes that once the king is back and Robin is the lord of Locksley again, there is not much room for commoners like them.  So the two decide to scarper off with the money.

In the forest, Marian takes a turn for the worse.  Needing a doctor, Robin Hood rounds up Pitts.  They take him back to the camp, not realizing that he is leaving a trail of bandages behind for the sheriff’s men to follow.

Once at the camp, the doctor attempts to save Marian.  Robin realizes that Pitts left a trail and obliterates it, but the sheriff’s men are already too close.  Running back to the camp to warn his men, he finds out that the doctor has failed and Marian is dead.

I thought that Allan-a-Dales actions in this episode are a nice precursor to the role he plays in Series Two.  Not much else to say about this one except it is a solid episode which ends on a heck of a cliffhanger. 

4 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

A Clue: No

Surrounded by the sheriff’s men, the situation seems grim for our heroes.  Still grieving over Marion, Robin springs into action with brutal efficiency.  Up to this point, Robin has avoided killing people, using his uncanny accuracy with the bow to pull off amazing trick shots.  This time Robin uses his accuracy to kill, and the sheriff’s men die like lambs lead to the slaughter.

The situation turns worse for the sheriff when Will Scarlett and Allan-a-Dale rejoin the fight.  Will had second thoughts about Allan’s plan to take the money and run.  So the two men returned just in time to lend aid.  The tide having turned, the sheriff and Guy retreat.

Back at the camp, Djaq notices that Marian is not actually dead.  The physician had given her some hemlock before operating on her, which induced a coma-like state in her.  She comes out of it, much to everyone’s surprise and relief.

Meanwhile, the sheriff reveals to Guy that the king who is arriving is not really King Richard but an impostor.  It is all a plan to ferret out the nobles who are against him.  Since most of these minor lords have never seen the king in person, he will be able to see who turns against him once the “king” has returned.

Suffice it to say that Robin and his Merry Men disrupts both the sheriff’s plot and Marian’s wedding.

This is a decent way to end Series One.  While Marian’s “death” and subsequent resurrection was a bit of a cheap way to generate sentiment, the way Robin flew off the handle illustrates the depth of his feeling for her.  I also liked the sheriff’s plot, especially that it hinged on most people simply not knowing what the king looks like.

5 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Robin Hood Series One Review (Part I)

Wearing Green? Check. Bow and Arrow? Check. Hood? Check.  Robin Hood at your service! I first heard about the BBC Robin Hood series from the trailers that run at the beginning of Doctor Who DVD boxed sets.  Being a fan of Robin Hood in various forms, I was very intrigued.  Once I looked into it though, I was a bit concerned by the mixed reviews I read.  So it was with some trepidation I added it to my Netflix queue.

I was pretty lukewarm on the series at first, but I have to admit it grew on me.  It probably isn’t for everyone.  The writers seem fairly unconcerned with anachronisms, using modern dialogue liberally and playing a bit fast and loose with history.  I can understand why this would bug people. 

For me, these problems pale when compared to the sheer fun of the series.  Robin Hood delivers plenty of derring-do leavened with a healthy dose of humor.  However, it isn’t afraid to get serious when it needs to, and rash actions often have serious consequences.

So what did I think of the individual episodes?  I look at the first half of the Series One below:

 

Will You Tolerate This?

Robin of Locksley has returned from the crusades along with his servant Much.  On the road home, they save a man named Allan-a-Dale who is being threatened by soldiers.  Robin and Much save Allan, even though he is obviously a thief and a liar.

Robin and Much continue home, but are shocked by what he finds there.  Among other things, Robin is horrified to find out an old family friend, the carpenter Dan Scarlet, had his hand cut off as punishment for his two sons stealing.

Robin rides out to speak with former Sheriff of Nottingham, hoping he has some influence over the new one.  However, Edward want little to do with Robin as he is just trying to keep himself and his daughter Marian safe.  During this time Robin reconnects with Marian

Things come to a head when Will and Luke Scarlett are caught for thievery again.  Vaisey, the new Sheriff of Nottingham, demands Robin give the order to hang Will and Luke Scarlett. The recently jailed Allan-a-Dale, who made the mistake of tying his fate in with the two boys, is also going to hang.

Although they get as far as the gallows, Robin ultimately refuses to order the hangings.  Robin and Much free the group and they all flee into to the forest.  Unfortunately, rather than safety in the forest, Robin and his men encounter a group of ruthless outlaws led by a man named Little John.

This episode did a good job of setting the stage for future episodes.  Robin is shown as being war-weary and unwilling to kill, which explains why he just doesn’t shoot the sheriff in later episodes. 

3 out of 5 bull's-eyes

Sheriff Got Your Tongue?

The episode begins with the sheriff riding into Locksley.  The sheriff believes in a carrot and stick approach.  His carrot is offering a substantial reward for anyone willing to tell them where to find Robin.  His stick is that he will cut out the tongue of one villager per hour until he gets the answer he wants.

Well, at least the title of the episode makes sense.

In Sherwood Robin and his men match wits with Little John and his outlaws. After a comedy of errors involving each side getting tied up, they hear about the atrocities going on at the village.  The group rides out to see what they can do.

When they arrive at Locksley, John’s wife Alice is the next in line to have her tongue cut out.  Robin Hood shoots the clippers right out of the hands of the sheriff’s man.  Unfortunately, he is not quite good enough to keep from getting captured. 

Eventually, the (future) merry men band together and rescue Robin.  He does take the opportunity to threaten the sheriff on the way out, letting the sheriff know that he will shoot him dead if continues to torture people to get to Robin.

This episode sets up the dynamic between Robin Hood and the sheriff which would carry them through the remainder of series one.  It also cements what a vile person the sheriff is, and that he is really only holding back at all to keep Robin Hood from killing him.

4 out of 5 bull's-eyes

Who Shot the Sheriff?

A surprisingly kindly tax collector is killed by an arrow.  Robin Hood obviously gets the blame.  Robin believes the culprit is the Night Watchmen, a mysterious masked figure who delivers food to the poor.

The bodies begin to pile up and Robin finds the people are turning on him.  The sheriff and Robin make a deal to catch the killer.  It turns out to be a castle guard with a grudge, although along the way Robin discovers that the Night Watchman is Maid Marian.

I really feel that the twist of having the Night Watchman being Maid Marian was a poor choice.  In my opinion, she is much better when acting as a spy for Robin than as an action heroine.

2 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

Parent Hood

Robin during a skirmish with Guy of Gisborne in the forest, Robin discovers an infant who has been left to die.  During the same skirmish, Roy, one of little John’s men, is captured and brought back to Nottingham Castle.

While in the castle, Roy befriends a young scullery maid named Annie.  He finds out that she has secretly given birth to Guy of Gisborne’s illegitimate child.  Guy took the child away to be “raised by a kind family in the country.”  Roy puts two and two together and realizes this must be the abandoned child they found.

Things get worse for Roy when the sheriff gives him an ultimatum: “Kill Robin Hood or your mother will hang”.  Roy “escapes” and returns to the gang.  Back at the camp he attempts to kill Robin but fails.

Once the gang hears the whole story, they decide to attempt to rescue both Roy’s mother and the scullery maid Anne.  Their plan almost works, but Roy ends up sacrificing his life so that everyone else can escape.

At the start of this episode I was expecting a bit of sitcom fluff with Robin and the Merry Men trying to take care of the baby.  What I got was an extremely enjoyable story about betrayal and redemption.

5 out of 5 bull's-eyes

Turk Flu

The sheriff holds an archery competition in an attempt to lure Robin Hood out into the open.  Robin obviously wants to go, but knows it is a trap and decides it would be the perfect time to rob the sheriffs silver mine.

On the way they encounter a slave trader who is bringing a new batch of Saracen slaves to work in the death trap of a mine the sheriff is running.  Robin concocts a plan to infiltrate the mine with his men disguised as slaves.

The plan is going smoothly when Robin lets the slave trader go.  Much realizes this is because Robin wants to go to the tournament while the sheriff and his men are rushing to the mine.  It might work, but Little John falls down a covered shaft.

With a little derring-do, Robin and his men manage to save Little John, win the archery competition, help a young man whose family was killed in the mine, and gain a new member of the gang when the Saracen woman Djaq joins them.  Not bad for a days work.

I generally felt this episode was a weak one.  However, I did like Robin Hood’s arrogance, especially how he was determined to go to the archery competition for ego’s sake.

2 out of 5 bull's-eyes

The Taxman Cometh

Robin and his men stop the taxman on his way to collect the taxes from Nottingham castle.  They force the taxman to lead them to the supposed riches, only to find out it is a trap.  The sheriff is pleased by the taxman’s initiative and promises to reward him greatly.

However, the taxman turns out to be a con man.  With the help of a woman posing as the Abbess of Rufford, they double-cross the sheriff and make off with his tax money. 

During the confusion, Robin and his Merry Men escape.  Later, in the forest, Robin and his Merry Men relieve “the tax man” of his money.

I felt this episode was entirely forgettable.

1 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

Brothers in Arms

Allan-a-Dale’s brother Tom arrives on the scene.  He and his gang team up with Robin Hood, but have trouble following orders and repeatedly endanger the lives of the Merry Men.  Eventually Tom and his men get captured by the sheriff.  The Merry Men set up a rescue attempt, but find the sheriff hung them an hour ahead of schedule.

In the Marian sub-plot in this episode, Guy finally comes to suspect she may be acting as a spy for Robin Hood.  To prove her loyalty, she agrees to marry him as soon as King Richard returns.

I enjoyed the sheriff pulling one over on Robin Hood by hanging Tom and his men ahead of schedule.  Even though you never really care about Tom, you do care about his brother Allan, so the failure to save them still has an impact.  The rest of the episode was mediocre.

2 out of 5 bull’s-eyes

 

To be continued in Robin Hood Series One Review (Part II)

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