Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Another reason why I love The Incredible Hercules

I know I just reviewed this comic, but the “recap” page in the front of issue 135 was just too cool not to share.

I have to admit I probably would have played this as a kid... especially if it was a TSR product.

This is a really captures the look and feel of those old school modules.  Even better, it ties into the story inside as Amadeus Cho fights his way through multiple realities at once, one of which is him playing the “Master Mind Excello RPG” against a literal killer GM.  Another reality pits his player character fighting against Dr Japanazi, The Man with Two Evil Axis Brains!

What’s not to love?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dollhouse Recap: Vows

As the second season opener for Dollhouse, Vows has a lot to accomplish.  It has to establish the new status quo for the season, giving the viewers an idea of what to expect.  It needs to deal with the fallout from Omega, especially the revelation that Doctor Saunders is actually an active.  Most importantly it needs to hook new and existing viewers, getting them to commit to the upcoming season.  Vows mostly succeeds at these goals, although it is not without it is flaws.

As something borrowed, the bride has chosen her personality

The episode begins with Echo being wiped of the thirty-nine personalities she was imprinted with by Omega.  Topher assures Ballard that there won’t be any glitches just as an image of the bride of Frankenstein appears on his monitor.  Topher assumes it is Doctor Saunders messing with him, as she has apparently been doing since she found out she is an Active.

Adele and Boyd discuss the Echo’s most recent engagement and the fact that they are working with Ballard.  Boyd is not very happy with it, but Adele shoots him down.  She notes that the engagement is part of the deal that they made with Ballard to keep him from exposing them.  Either they honor the deal or they will be forced to kill Ballard to shut him up, a prospect Adele would rather avoid.

Adele and Boyd run into Victor, who has been receiving treatment for his scars.  Adele ostensibly checks out how Victor’s scars are coming along, but she basically fondles his face, a fact that does not go unnoticed by Boyd.  Boyd takes one more opportunity to express his distaste for Echo’s current assignment, calling it “sick.”

We then cut to Echo’s assignment. She is walking down the aisle in a wedding dress.  When she reaches the altar, the priest intones, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are gathered hear today…” before it cuts to the opening credits.

This opening sequence is basically an effort to tie up the loose ends of Omega before moving forward.  It seems a bit rushed, but I am glad they at least are talking about the unlikely turn the show took by having Paul Ballard join the Dollhouse.

After the credits, we get to see the rat's nest that is Topher’s bedroom.  He wakes up and makes the thirty second commute to his office.  Topher’s assistant Ivy is there, trying to work through the backlog of actives.  While Topher and Ivy talk about Autumn being the busy season, Sierra walks in requesting a treatment.  Topher says he needs his morning caffeine and leaves Ivy to handle it.

The situation is a bit odd since no one called ahead to say Sierra was coming and because she is still wearing the outfit from her previous engagement.  Ivy begins to question the situation when Sierra tells her she would prefer a treatment from someone other than an “oriental” like Ivy.  This causes Ivy to rush Sierra through the process.

Topher returns to find  rodents in his cupboards.  He realizes this is Dr. Saunders messing with him again.  Topher confronts her over the phone, but Dr. Saunders simply taunts him by reminding him that she is, after all, his creation.  If she is acting out, maybe Topher simply isn’t as good as he thinks he is.

On her end, the call is interrupted by Boyd.  He is bringing in the results of Victor’s reconstructive surgery and uses the opportunity to ask why she doesn’t get her scars treated.  She bluntly states that if she gets her scars treated they might just put her back into service as an Active.  Boyd assures her that he would never let this happen, but she defuses his arguments by noting that he never was that interested in her until he found out that she was an Active.  She wonders if his newfound interest is pity or simply a kink.

Boyd throws Dr. Saunders off balance by asking her out to dinner.  She tells him that she never leaves.  That she hates crowds, sunlight, and open spaces. She bitterly notes that she is “simply built that way”.  Boyd tells her that everyone is “poorly constructed” and has excuses that hold them back, but that in the end they are all merely excuses.

I would just like to note that Amy Acker does an amazing job in these scenes.  Doctor Saunders is clearly starting to crack up, and Amy portrays this with an incredible amount of nuance. 

Back at the wedding, Echo and her husband Martin talk like newlyweds while Ballard listens on.  The scene then shifts to Echo’s wedding night, where we get to watch her husband undress her before shifting to a surprisingly long sex scene.  Sequences of Ballard waiting around are intercut with this sequence, including the disturbing (if humorous) scene of him doing push-ups while Echo’s husband pumps away.

The next day has Echo coming to visit Ballard at his stakeout post.  It soon becomes obvious that Echo was imprinted with the personality of another FBI agent and that they are performing a sting operation against Martin, who is apparently an arms dealer. 

They are interrupted by Echo’s handler, who is bringing in Echo for a treatment.  He notes that these long-term assignments are tricky, and they need to check out “the wiring” and “the plumbing”.  Ballard says he wants her back as soon as possible, to which Echo’s handler ironically notes, “You’re the client”.

Speaking of which, a defaulted Echo is shown getting “the plumbing” checked by Doctor Saunders.  While she is getting checked out, Echo flashes back to a previous engagement where her and Whiskey were apparently checking each others plumbing out in a less clinical fashion. 

Echo suddenly calls Dr. Saunder’s “Whiskey”, which elicits shock and a bit of horror from her.  Echo notes that Whiskey was “number one”, but that she doesn’t remember the rest.  Dr. Saunders bitterly notes that Alpha cut up her face so that Echo could be number one.  Disturbingly, Doctor Saunders’ hands linger over a scalpel as she says this. 

The scene then turns to a press conference, where Senator Daniel Perrin announces that he is investigating the Rossum Corporation for “withholding medical advancements”.  Adele and Boyd are watching the press conference on TV with some concern.  The assume someone leaked information about the Dollhouse to him, and Boyd is suspicious of Ballard.  Ballard, who conveniently enters at that exact moment, brushes this off and casually accuses Boyd. 

Meanwhile, Adele attempts to recruit Ballard to be Echo’s new handler.  Ballard unconvincingly says, “I don’t work for you.”  This causes Adele to retort, “No, you work for the betterment of mankind.  Fighting crime by listening to Echo have sex.  It’s incredibly noble.”

This is a great line.  It sums up Ballard’s increasingly suspect moral certainty and his bizarre obsession with Caroline in one simple sentence.

Meanwhile, Echo returns to Martin’s house.  Martin gently chides her about being gone to long and the two head upstairs for more newlywed sex.  Elsewhere, Martin’s right-hand man has managed to snap some photos of Echo and Ballard together.  Obviously, the whole house of cards Ballard has built is about to come tumbling down.

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher wakes up to find Dr. Saunders, who is wearing nothing but a black slip, nuzzling him.  He freaks out while she tries to seduce him.  As Topher tries to figure out what game she is playing, Dr. Saunders tells him this must be why he programmed her to hate him.  The end game must be to make her fall in love with him, right? 

Topher tells her that she was designed to challenge him and fight for her beliefs, but that he didn’t program her to hate him… she chose to do that herself.  Dr. Saunders breaks down at this point, uncertain of how she can go on knowing she is just a man-made imprint.  Topher suggests that Adele may be willing to re-imprint her original personality, but this gives Dr. Saunders no comfort.  Whoever she was is not who she is now, and she doesn’t want to “die” even if she isn’t sure how to live.  Dr. Saunder tells him that she is nothing but “a series of excuses”.  Topher disagrees, telling her that she is “human”.  “Don’t flatter yourself,” is her reply.

Echo wakes up and realizes Martin is not at her side.  She immediately begins snooping around, but Martin walks in on her.  She tries to play it off, but he smashes her head against a desk.  He then confronts her with the picture of her standing next to Paul Ballard.  Echo makes a good effort to play it off.  In fact, she almost has him convinced until she glitches and calls herself by the wrong name.

A short while later, Echo and Martin are in his limo where he shows her some miniature explosives he is selling to a client who hopes to use them to build dirty bombs.  He is obviously keeping her close until the deal is done, but it is clear he intends to get rid of her as soon as he can.

Ballard calls Topher concerned about a spike in Echo’s bio-signals.  Echo’s handler had dismissed this as more sex, but Topher quickly identifies it as pain.  Topher wants to send in the cavalry, but Ballard is worried that Martin will kill her if they do that.  Instead, he decides on a “much worse plan”, namely to go in alone.

Well, at least he recognizes what type of plan it is.

Ballard walks in and demands they let Echo go.  When the confrontation gets intense, Echo begins to glitch into other personalities.  Realizing what is going on, Paul begins to get angry with her, even striking her repeatedly.  Eventually he screams at her, “the Chinese Restaurant, you remember that!” 

Ballard is hoping she will switch into the killer personality she had when she attacked him there. This has the desired effect as she immediately switches into assassin mode and begins kicking ass.  She takes down several heavily armed guards and her husband without breaking a sweat.

A short while later at the Dollhouse, Echo is back in the chair, getting her mind-wiped.  Adele notes that Ballard “got his man”, and that he caught clues that Echo’s handler missed.  Boyd goes to visit Dr. Saunders, but only finds a note saying, “I am running out... of excuses”.  She is shown driving away from the Dollhouse.  Victor is shown with his face fully healed, and him and Sierra are shown walking while holding hands.

Ballard walks over to Echo to apologize for not “being his best.”  He tells her that he is only trying to do what is right, but he no longer seems to know what that is.  He admits he should have gotten her out right away and apologizes for what he put her through, even though she doesn’t remember.

To his shock, Echo tells him she does remember.  She knows that sometimes she is someone else, and says that she still feels them inside.  She asks Ballard which one is the real her, and he tells her her name is “Caroline”.  Echo says she wants to find her, and help her fellow actives find their lost selves as well.  She asks Ballard to help her.

The episode ends with Paul Ballard becoming Echo’s handler.

The Good

Amy Acker made this episode for me.  When I saw Omega I was hopeful that hoping the revelation that Dr. Saunders was an active would lead to an interesting character arc for the character.  I just didn’t expect the payoff to be so soon.

Dr. Saunders is cracking up, and is it any wonder?  She found out not only isn’t she real, but she was created by someone she hates.  No one wants to meet their Maker only to find out he is a “sociopath in a sweater vest”.

Dr. Saunders is also smart enough to realize there is no happy ending for her, even if she hasn’t seen Epitaph One.  She knows her body belongs to someone else.  Dr. Saunders has to assume that when her contract runs its course, Adele will restore that she will cease to exist and be replaced by the original owner of the body. 

The Bad

I felt the main plot of the episode was somewhat lacking.  It felt like something to fill the time and an excuse to have Eliza strip down to her underwear from a wedding gown.  It also got downright ludicrous at the end.  Seriously, the arm dealer’s bodyguards should have put an end to Ballard’s antics long before he got Echo to glitch.

Eliza’s portrayal of Echo also seemed a bit off to me in this one.  I think my biggest problem is with her “default” Echo persona.  In first season you could instantly tell if you were dealing with a default Echo or an imprinted Echo.  The line is much fuzzier this time around.  I know should blur as she is becoming self-aware, but she simply seems a bit too aware.  Hopefully Eliza will be able to nail this as the season progresses.

In Conclusion

Not a bad season opener.  I wish it had been a little friendlier to new viewers, but it certainly delivered for the existing ones.

4 out of 5 dolls

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Random Reviews: The Incredible Hercules

I have a confession to make.  When I pick up my comic order every month, the first comic book I read is The Incredible Hercules.  No other comic book I read consistently delivers action-adventure with such a quirky sense of humor.  Well, at least not since Darwyn Cooke’s run on The Spirit.

As Herc would tell you, real men wear skirts If you had told me five years ago that one of my favorite comic books would be starring Marvel Comic’s Hercules, I would have thought you were crazy.  Heck, I doubt I would have believed that Hercules could headline his own comic, let alone that I would be reading it.

Enter writer Greg Pak and artist Fred Van Lente.  In the wake of World War Hulk, Hercules and boy genius Amadeus Cho are on the run from S.H.I.E.L.D. for aiding and abetting the Hulk in his plans to seek revenge against those who have wronged him (a.k.a. pretty much everyone).  They are being pursued by the Mighty Avengers, particularly Hercules’ half-brother Ares, the god of war. The book follows the pair’s misadventures as they run from the law, blunder into a war between the Earth and Skrull gods, and end up fighting against an Amazonian invasion.

What is great about The Incredible Hercules is that it does a great job of mixing mythology and Marvel Comics continuity together.  When enumerating the reasons why Ares hates Hercules, Greg Pak draws a direct line from the original Greek myth to the Champions of Los Angeles without ever seeming forced.  While the tone of the book is lighter, the effortlessness with which Greg Pak pulls this mix of comic history and mythology off is reminiscent of Walt Simonson on Thor.

The book also succeeds as a buddy comedy.  Hercules, the strongest (but not the brightest) of the gods, and Amadeus Cho, the seventh smartest person in the world, is obviously a great comic mismatch.  What makes it work is the fact that the two friends obviously need one another.  Without someone like Amadeus Cho around, Hercules simply lacks direction.  As Hercules tells Amadeus Cho himself, he has always been more of a follower than a leader. 

On the other hand, Amadeus Cho has no problem taking initiative.  Instead, he needs someone like Hercules to pull him back from the brink.  He needs someone to be his conscious, someone to tell him that just because you can destroy S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t mean you should.

If you are looking for a fun action-adventure super hero comic, I can’t recommend The Incredible Hercules enough.  Even better, unlike most comic books I have reviewed on my blog, The Incredible Hercules is currently an ongoing monthly title.  So for once you may be able to enjoy this comic at the full cover price instead of picking up the reasonably priced trade paperbacks.

Hmmm… Maybe this is not the worlds best selling point.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Forgotten Realms Issue 11 – Triangles: Jasmine (Part 1 of 3)

Agrivar knows what the ladies like As we join our intrepid adventurers, Foxilion Cardluck has performed an extreme makeover on our favorite paladin, Priam Agrivar.  It really is a different look for the paladin, featuring such bold color combinations as green and purple, a daring pink scarf, and topped off with a jaunty hat.

I love Vartan's inability to stand up Needless to say, the rest of the Realms’ Master crew get a big laugh out of it.  Agrivar is anxious to change back into more subdued clothing, but Captain Omen insists they leave at once to recover the Horn of Valos from the nearby Sembian city of Saerloon.

The crew enters a local merchant’s shop hoping to purchase the horn.  They interrupt a transaction between the merchant and a young hunchbacked woman.  She decides to wait in the back room until the Realms’ Master crew finishes its business.  Agrivar is intrigued by her, feeling that she is oddly familiar.

Paladins are always detecting evil first and asking questions later 

Look at the size of that thing Purchasing the horn goes off without a hitch, much to the chagrin of Vartan as he was hoping for a little action.  Captain Omen decides to oblige him, creating an improved phantasmal force of a beholder.  Ishi and Vartan leap into battle, allowing Agrivar to have a hearty laugh at their expense this time.Aparently Ishi doesn't like a man who can laugh

Back at the shop, the merchant and Jasmine, the hunchback girl, discuss business.  The merchant pays her to take a message to the Temple of Mystra.  Agrivar and Foxilion are watching through a window, and Agrivar comes to the realization that she looks like someone he knew back in Waterdeep. 

As she leaves the building, Foxilion suggests they simply ask her if she knows Agrivar, but Agrivar disagrees.  The woman he knew is dead, so he opts for caution and the pair follow her.  However, she is aware they are following and leads them through some twisting alleys.  Soon, Agrivar and Foxilion reach a dead end to find she has disappeared.

Man that outfit is hideous

Meanwhile on the Realms’ Master, Captain Omen consigns the Horn of Valos to the Demiplane of Fear.  Still smarting from being punk’d by the beholder, Ishi confesses to Vartan that she now feels bad about mocking Agrivar.  Before Vartan can think up a smart remark, he breaks into prophesy about powerful magic at an establishment called Lady Rae’s. 

Don't quit your day job Vartan!

Captain Omen thinks it may be worth checking out and dispatches Vartan, Ishi, and Minder.

Having delivered her message, Jasmine is leaving the Temple of Mystra when she is spotted by Agrivar and Foxilion.  Deciding Foxilion may have been right in the first place, Agrivar decided to simply talk to Jasmine.  Unfortunately, he spooks her when he calls out to her and she flees into the town square.

Screaming for help, she accuses Agrivar of being the Zhentarim assassin who killed her parents.

Those are some mean looking merchantsThis causes Agrivar to belatedly realize the reason Jasmine looks like his friend is that Jasmine is her daughter.  It is too late to do any good though because he now faces an angry mob.

Agrivar fights his way free of the mob, but not before tearing up the new outfit Foxilion made for him. 

Mommy, why is that clown fighting the baker?Once Agrivar has escaped the merchants, Foxilion waves him into an alley.  Agrivar is annoyed that they lost Jasmine, but luckily Foxilion saw her duck into the pub Lady Rae’s during the commotion.

At this point Vartan, Ishi, and Minder arrive at Lady Rae’s.  The tavern turns out to contain only female adventurers, so Vartan is is in heaven.  Well, at least until he gets into a fight with the bouncer, who happens to be wearing a girdle of storm giant strength.  Minder intervenes with uncharacteristic hostility, leading to a full-fledged bar brawl.

Personally, I would not have taken my eye off the golemOn the roof of a nearby building, Foxilion and Agrivar have identified which room Jasmine is in.  Agrivar decides to swing in through the window doing his best Earl Flynn imitation.

This may not be Argrivar's proudest moment

Inside the bar, the patrons hear Jasmine scream as Agrivar comes crashing through her window.  Ishi recognizes Jasmine as “the flower” from Vartan’s bad poetry and runs to investigate while Vartan and Minder hold off the mob.  She flings open the door to find Agrivar, whose clothing is mostly shredded at this point standing next to a half-naked and winged Jasmine.

IshiSitcom

Unfortunately, for Agrivar, all Ishi seems to notice is that Jasmine is half-naked.

Notes

  1. Foxilion’s new outfit for Agrivar was hilarious.  What is funniest is that I could almost see Foxy wearing.
  2. I enjoy the developing relationship between Agrivar and Ishi.  Especially the scene where she feels guilty for laughing at his expense.
  3. The series continues to build towards the Avatar Trilogy Tie-In.  Not especially subtly either.
  4. On the other hand, I liked that Minder says that she “doesn’t like giants or their magicks.”  I know this is meant as another clue that she is a dwarf, but it is one of the better ones.
  5. Unfortunately, I was completely spoiled on the fact that Jasmine had wings because of the Spelljammer house ads that were running at the time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Are motion comics important?

Like a lot of print publications, comic books are in trouble.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Marvel or DC to go belly-up anytime soon, especially since they both have a stable of licensable characters and are owned by much bigger companies.  I am more concerned about the fate of individual comic book issues which you buy off the shelf.

The economics of comic books are broken in the digital era.  The problem is that the costs associated with printing comic books continue to rise.  As readership declines, this increased cost is passed on to the consumer via increased cover prices. 

Unfortunately, these cover prices can only go so high before they drive consumers away.  Looking over the comics I picked up this month, the majority are $2.99 while a few are $3.99.  This seems a little pricey for a mere twenty-two pages of entertainment!

I will admit that if the price point hits $4.99 I will probably bail out on comics altogether.  As it is, I have cut back on what comic books I read considerably.

The people in the comic book industry are not idiots.  They are aware that price point is a problem and have been trying different tactics to fix the issue.  DC has been placing eight page backups in certain titles, allowing them to charge a little extra while increasing the perceived value.  Marvel has started a subscription based digital comic service which allows customers to read any title on the service, which is not their full line, for $9.99 a month (less if you pay annually).

One potential solution that both Marvel and DC have dabbled in is releasing titles as motion comics.  A motion comic is similar to full-fledged animation, except that it relies heavily on static images against moving backgrounds.  This gives the illusion of motion without incurring the cost of fully animating it.  If you want to see an example, check out the Spider-Woman motion comic preview.

Late last year, DC released the Watchmen motion comic on DVD, on X-Box live, and on iTunes to help generate buzz around the Watchmen movie.  Marvel has been a bit more aggressive on this front, releasing Spider-Woman to iTunes at the same time as it hits the stands.  More importantly, at $1.99 an episode or $8.99 for a “season”, it is selling for less money that its physical counterpart.

Despite this, I feel that motion comics will continue to be a niche market.  Standing uncomfortably between animation and comic books, I don’t feel they will appeal to a broad enough market to justify the cost of making them.  Its true that they undoubtedly cost less than traditional animation since they are reusing art created for the comic. 

Unfortunately, I feel that this very fact will prevent them from being an adequate replacement for paper comics.  Right now, the creative costs are shared between the paper and digital version of the comic.  If the motion comic had to shoulder the full cost by itself, I imagine the profit margin would clear up pretty quickly.

I will admit that there is a lot of curiosity about Spider-Woman motion comic at the  moment.  However, this seems to be because of the novelty of releasing the motion comic concurrently with the traditional comic.

The question then becomes, if motion comics are not the future of comic books, then what is the future?  I foresee a couple of possibilities:

One is that traditional comic books will become like most web comics, free online but supported by ads.  This may be unlikely in the short term (i.e., in the next five years), but in the long term it is not as far-fetched as you might think.  After all, characters like Batman or Spider-Man are much more valuable a licensable characters than as comics nowadays.  If it comics cease to become economically viable to produce, generating mindshare for the characters may trump other concerns.  Not to mention that the big names will probably not have issues finding advertisers to support them.

Another option may be an iTunes like model.  Illegal file-sharing of CBR files is rampant on torrent sites.  As I have mentioned before, this kind of rampant file sharing means there is an interest in your product, just that consumers feel that the price is disproportionate to the value.  iTunes has proven that it is possible to enter a market where piracy is rampant by providing a reasonably priced legal alternative.

Of course, this all assumes they don’t cripple their future digital offerings with overly onerous DRM!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The treatment of women and minorities in D&D

I recently ran across a thread talking about the treatment of women and minorities in Dungeons & Dragons in Astrid’s Parlor on Wizards of the Coast’s new Community Website.  Once I began thinking about the subject, I realized that I had enough to say on the subject that it warranted a post.

Dungeons & Dragons has a very Eurocentric feel to it by default.  When they first created Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson drew heavily from European myths.  So the fact that the fantasy world feels like a fantastic version of medieval Europe should be no surprise.

As a result, how women and minorities are portrayed in D&D can be a pretty tricky subject.  I would argue that Wizards of the Coast, as well as TSR back in the day,  have tried a number of methods.  Considering what a touchy subject this can be though, I feel none of which work perfectly.

The first is what I will call the color-blind method.  For whatever reason, this tends to be used most concerning female and Black characters in D&D.  The duke might be Black or that the captain of the guard might be a woman. Real world social constraints that might have limited the advancement opportunities of these minorities are simply ignored in the fantasy setting.

A good example of the color-blind method in TV is BBC’s Robin Hood series. Occasionally, Black actors are cast in roles, like a noble or an abbess, which would traditionally go to Caucasians considering the setting of late twelfth-century England.

There are some advantages and disadvantages to this method.  One major advantage is that it avoids bad stereotypes (more on this later).  It also cuts down on player frustration over limits being placed on their characters.  After all, Dungeons & Dragons is a game and not a simulation.

The problem is that the color-blind method also eliminates the cultural identity of the minorities it is applied to.  If the duke is Black, but acts and is treated exactly like any other medieval duke, it can be argued that it is pointless to make him Black in the first place.  It can even be argued that it is harmful as it propagates the mindset that minorities are fine as long as they act exactly like Caucasians. 

The other method Wizards of the Coast uses is to create a “stand-in culture.”  Kara Tur and Zakhara in the Forgotten Realms are examples of stand-in cultures for Asia and the Middle East.  This has the advantage of preserving a distinct cultural identity for these minorities while still finding a way to fit them into the Dungeons & Dragons world.

The biggest pitfall with this method is that it is easy to fall into stereotypes.  After all, Asia or the Middle East are huge areas with complex histories and numerous distinct cultures.  There is no way that any game book can do these diverse cultures justice, so they tend to be painted with very broad strokes.

Wizards of the Coast is obviously aware that this is a fine line and is treading cautiously.  For example, they decided to eliminate the Ki power source, when they realized the only common thread between classes sharing the Ki power source was their Asian influence.  I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the decision to place the lost continent of Abeir over Maztica was at least partially motivated by the desire to remove a somewhat embarrassing mishmash of Mesoamerican myth from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting.

So what is the correct answer on how to handle minorities and women in Dungeons & Dragons?  I don’t have one.  For reasons I  can’t explain, I tend to favor the “color-blind” method with regard to women and the “cultural identity” method for different races and ethnicities.  I will admit to having used both methods in my own campaigns though, and I know that both methods are far from perfect.

So what do you think?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Thoughts about the Assassin

The heroic tier of the assassin made its appearance in Dragon yesterday.  As exclusive content it is only available to D&D Insider subscribers and those who use BitTorrent. 

(As an aside, I wonder if any exclusive content will find its way into a future Dragon Magazine Annual?  It would definitely be a way to boost sales on that kind of book!)

This man foolishly tried to enforce the "No shoes.  No Shirt. No service." policy at his tavern. Back to the topic at hand.  The assassin is the first class using the new shadow power source.  An assassin has traded part of his soul to the Raven Queen for power.  The goddess infuses the missing portion of the assassin’s soul with a dark reflection of the assassin’s true self.

The assassin can manifest this reflection as part of their shade form power, which allows them to become insubstantial for short periods.  The assassin also gains a shadow step power which gives them a short range teleport by stepping through the shadow of one creature and into another.  Together, these two abilities mean that the assassin is a highly mobile striker who is able to reach hard to get to targets.

Assassins also have an assassin’s shroud ability which allows them to do more damage.  Placing a shroud on a creature allows the assassin to more clearly see the creatures weak points.  Multiple shrouds can be placed on a single creature, but the assassin can only target one creature this way at any given time.

When the assassin chooses to invoke one or more of these shrouds, he will gain extra damage per shroud expended.  This means that the assassin can do a lot of damage in a single round, but it may take a longer time for the assassin to build up to it than most strikers.  I should note that certain assassin powers will interact with a shrouded target without expending the shroud though.

Speaking of the assassins powers, not surprisingly they are strongly shadow themed.  They focus on stealth, teleportation, and bypassing defenses.  An assassin is probably more mobile than any striker except the monk.  With the ability to sneak past minions and other defenses to deliver a massive amount of damage, assassins have “boss killer” written all over them.

Of all of the strikers, they are probably most similar to avengers since their assassin’s shroud ability will encourage them to focus on a single target.  Assassins do have a sneakiness which avengers lack, even though avengers are probably the sneakiest class of the divine power source.

So what do I think?  Well, a more appropriate name for them might have been “Shadowdancers done right!”  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, as I always felt shadowdancers were and interesting concept which just wasn’t executed well.

Honestly, I just wish the assassin was debut content rather than exclusive.  After all, my opinions on exclusive content are well known.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill – Best ‘Freak Out’ Module Ever?

Before the Ravenloft Campaign Setting was a twinkle in TSR’s eye, the original Ravenloft module had already proven itself to be a classic.  Although it was originally intended as a stand-alone module, Ravenloft proved popular enough to warrant a sequel: Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill.  Like many sequels, this module never quite reached the classic status that the original did.

Strahd always had an eye for the ladies I think Ravenloft II gets a bad rap.  It is definitely not as tightly woven a storyline as the original Ravenloft, probably a result of the many authors who were working on this project simultaneously.  It also doesn’t help that Strahd seems shoehorned into a storyline that would likely have worked better with a brand new villain.

Despite these flaws, I feel the storyline of Ravenloft II is rich and provides many opportunities for roleplaying.  It was also one of the first modules I remember where time was a major factor.  The Creature’s timeline would would progress whether the players worked to foil his plots or not.  The concept that the plot would not wait for you was novel and helped to build a sense of urgency among my players.

Taken separately from its predecessor, I feel Ravenloft II is a decent module.  However, I think the “Dreams of Bavoria” option presented in the module gives it the potential to be the greatest “freak out” module ever.

I suppose I should explain what I mean by “freak out.”  Many longstanding Sci-Fi and Fantasy series (especially TV series) have had at least one episode where a main character questions his or her sanity.  To list just a few of my favorite examples:

  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had an episode where Captain Benjamin Sisko found himself caught between a reality where he was the captain of a space station and a reality where he was a struggling sci-fi writer in the 1950s.  This episode was revisited later, and it was revealed that “Benny Russell” had ended up in an insane asylum because of his delusions.
  • Farscape had (multiple) episodes where John Crichton found himself on Earth as if he had never left it.  In each of these episodes he had to puzzle through what was happening and if his life in space had just been a hallucination.
  • Buffy: The Vampire Slayer had an episode where Buffy found herself waking up as a troubled girl in an insane asylum.  Her doctor explained that she was delusional and prone to violent outbursts while in that mental state, while ranting about being a “vampire slayer.”

I could go on, but I assume you get the picture.  Used sparingly, the “freak out” story can be an interesting way to explore a character’s psyche. 

However, the concept is a difficult one to transplant to Dungeons & Dragons.  The disorienting effect of shifting between two realities is a difficult sell to people already playing a fantasy roleplaying game.  If you have the characters wake up in a parallel world, it is likely they will just try to return to the “real” one as soon as possible.

The “Dreams of Bavoria” option in Ravenloft II solved this problem by presenting the characters with two “equal” realities that are very different but obviously linked.  The delirium built into Ravenloft II provides an easy mechanic to shift the characters back and forth.  Best of all, the two modules already had characters who were familiar but different. This adds to the disorienting and dream-like nature of the two worlds. 

I would love to get an opportunity to run these modules together.  While many of my long-time players know the plot of Ravenloft by heart, I am certain Ravenloft II is a much less certain and distant memory for them. 

Linking these two modules may just be the way to breath new (un)life into an old classic.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Forgotten Realms Issue 10 – Head Cheeeese

This issue begins with Foxilion wandering around a seemingly endless black space.  Foxilion initially calls out to his companions, but upon getting no answer he tries to remember how he got there in the first place.

Initially, Foxilion is wondering if Rags just got lazy and didn't want to draw any backgrounds.

After screaming at the darkness for a bit, a door suddenly appears.  He is a bit discomforted by its sudden appearance, but remembers the old Halfling saying, “If doors weren’t made to be opened, they would have been walls instead.”

Halfling have the best sayings.

Opening the door he finds himself looking down on his comatose body.  His companions are all gathered around him, but neither Vartan’s clerical magic or Agrivar’s paladin abilities are having any effect.

Having had enough of this, Foxy decided to walk through the door and rejoin the land of the living.  Unfortunately, it has decided to become a wall and he finds himself trapped as an onlooker.

Got to love physical comedyIn the real world, Agrivar, who is a recovering alcoholic himself, is the first to get a clue as to what is really going on.  Agrivar notes that when he found Foxy in the alleyway he also found some disgusting looking green cheese next to him.  The crew hypothesizes that he may be the victim of food poisoning. 

Green cheese and ham?During this discussion, Vartan notes that “Halflings aren’t particular about their food.  They’d eat stones with the proper wine.” 

We all know it is true Vartan, but you don’t need to say it out loud! This prompts one of his companions (you never see who) to ask, “Vartan, are you naturally insensitive or do you practice?”

Meanwhile, ghost Foxy is horrified when he sees the “Cheeeese.”  Apparently, it is a powerful drug which only affects Halflings.  He realizes that he must have taken some Cheeeese and is in La-La land for the duration of the trip.  Just as Foxy is feeling sorry for himself, the a mysterious robed figure appears.

Foxy figures that the robed figure is a hallucination, but also figures there is no harm in talking with it.  The robed figure reminds tells him that the best thing for him to do is remain calm and not think of anything.  When Foxy asks him what he “shouldn’t think of", the robed figure tells him it is best not to think of the past and what happen the last time he took Cheeeese.

Never trust a guy in a robe.

Of course, this is like telling someone not to think of pink elephants.  Foxy immediately begins having flashbacks with the robed figure playing the “Ghost of Christmas Past”.

Foxy finds himself back in Luiren, the land of the Halflings.  He is part of an entirely Halfling adventuring party who encounters a human named Joribel near the borders of their lands.

Well, he looks trustworthyJoribel invites the adventurers to a feast at his castle.  Afterwards, he offered his Halfling guests some Cheeeese.  The Halfling adventures had such a grand time they decided to stay for awhile.

How can you have any pudding if you won't eat your cheeeese? Once they had become addicted, Joribel began holding out on them unless they did his bidding.  Soon they were stealing, looting, and killing at his command.  Foxy wasn’t cut out for this, so he ended up in the arena to provide entertainment for Joribel and his guests.

Foxy protests that he stood firm and eventually broke free from the hold Cheeeese had on him.  The robed figure reminds him that the only reason he stopped taking the Cheeeese is that a bigger and stronger Halfling began taking his portions.

He looks like he is half-dwarf The turning point for Foxy was at another of Joribel’s feasts, although Foxy was a beggar at this one.  Foxy sees Joribel’s most recent Cheeeesed out recruit and believes her to be an old flame of his (she isn’t).  Nevertheless, Foxy grabs a knife and mounts a rescue.

Man Joribel looks like a dirty old man The element of surprise allows him to grab the girl and flee.  He topples a tray of Cheeeese to stop his pursuers, but the Halfling bully continues to pursue him.  Foxy triggers the portcullis as he runs through the castle gate, killing the bully as it falls on him.

That has got to hurt! Foxy literally runs into Captain Omen and Minder.   He tells Captain Omen what was going on in Joribel’s tower.  Captain Omen takes care of it, and by taking care of it I mean he uses powerful area of effect damage spells.

At this point Foxy grows increasingly dissatisfied with the condescending and sarcastic tone of the robed figure.  Convinced that the robed figure is nothing more than his guilty conscious, Foxy disrobes it and gets a nasty surprise.

Rather than himself, the robed figure is revealed to be a giant spider!  It claims that Foxy is not the only one to travel to “this land.”  Foxy flees from the spider and eventually manages to return to consciousness.

Worse than Freddy KruegerImmediately upon awakening, Foxilion grabs the remaining Cheeeese and throws it overboard.  He then sits on the rail of the ship looking out over the ocean.  Captain Omen comes up, asking Foxy if he is alright.

Foxy moonlights as a pitcherFoxy rebuffs Captain Omen’s attempts to talk, so Agrivar decides its his turn.  Agrivar relates the story of “a friend’s” battle with alcoholism.  Agrivar tells Foxilion that it all boils down to the fact that his friends will be there for him no matter what.

Foxilion doesn’t rebuff Agrivar as harshly as he did Captain Omen, but the Halfling still looks miserable.  This prompts Vartan to give his words of wisdom, which I will just let you read below for yourself.

I would watch a Dr. Phil style talkshow staring Vartan any day!

Notes

  1. This is the issue of the Forgotten Realms comic book that everyone remembers.  Whenever I speak to anyone about the series this is usually the first story that comes up.
  2. I seem to say this every episode, but Rags Morales’ art is simply amazing this issue.  Since most of the issue occurs in Foxilion’s head, Rags felt he free to experiment with his artistic style and the page layouts.  The result was spectacular.
  3. Even though this episode deals with one of the main characters having a drug addiction, it is so character focused that it never feels like a “very special episode.”  Kudos to Jeff Grubb for walking this line successfully.
  4. I like that the spider was (possibly) a real creature.  In D&D I like the concept of creatures preying on people having an out of body experience.
  5. The characterization of Agrivar at the end is spot on.  I couldn’t help but notice that he was a bit too proud to just come out and say he was “the drunk.”
  6. I also like that it is Vartan’s sarcasm that finally jolts Foxilion out of his funk.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Baba Yaga’s Hut found!

After my last post, I was a little chagrined when I suddenly remembered that Baba Yaga does exist in Dungeons & Dragons 4e.  Specifically, she is mentioned as one of the Archfey in the Manual of the Planes.

Now this picture is from Dragon Magazine 83 Baba Yaga lives in the heart of Murkendraw, a swamp as large as a sea.   Evil cultist, warped creatures, and all manner of horrible twisted life exist in this realm.

Baba Yaga’s appearance, attitude, and hut are not very different from how they were described back in Dragon Magazine #83 (or as they are described in Slavic mythology).

I still think my last post was valid, and that their has been a definite move away from traditional mythology towards a D&D specific mythology.  I am glad to see that Baba Yaga managed to buck this trend.

Perhaps I shoudn’t be too surprised to see her in the Feywild, as I have often thought that it was one of the best additions to Dungeons & Dragons 4e.

The fey were never handled well in previous editions of the game.  They were presented as mostly friendly creatures who at worst were harmless tricksters.  They seemed informed by the (sadly) modern view of faeries as half-naked tiny women flitting around on butterfly wings.

This always bugged me because the fey in mythology were always regarded as dangerous.  They were called “The Fair Folk” not because of their beauty, but because you did not wish to incur their wrath.  The slightest could result in you being horribly cursed or worse taken under the hill never to be seen again.

I am glad that this is the type of fey we find in Dungeons & Dragons 4e.  The section on the Feywild in the Manual of the Planes reinforces this by presenting a us with a dark mirror of the natural world.  It is a realm of both terrible beauty and abject horror.  More importantly, it is a dangerous place for mortals to roam as even the slightest mistake can bring down the wrath of its capricious inhabitants.

In fact, if I have a complaint about the Feywild in D&D, it is that I want to see more of it!  I would love to see a book similar to the Draconomicon or Open Grave which detailed the Archfey.  Of course, the realist in me realizes it probably wouldn’t sell well enough to justify the cost of producing it. 

Oh well, I suppose that is what Dragon and Dungeon are for.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Where is Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut?

I love mythology.  I am not sure if this love is a result of playing Dungeons & Dragons at a young age or if I began playing Dungeons & Dragons at a young age because I love mythology.  In the end I don’t think it matters though since these two interests fed off of one another.

This is not the cover of Dragon Magazine #83.  It is cool though. Dungeons & Dragons definitely lead me into mythologies I would not have experienced otherwise.  One notable example is Slavic mythology.   I remember reading The Dancing Hut adventure in Dragon Magazine #83 and loving it.  I ended up going to the local library (this is before the Internet) and finding related myths like stories of Koschei the Deathless and Vasilissa the Beautiful.

Slavic mythology is something I highly doubt I would have sought out at age twelve by myself! 

Of course, this isn’t the only bit of real world mythology I was inspired to seek out after first encountering it in Dungeons & Dragons.  Deities & Demigods inspired me to seek out Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Arthurian myth.  Reading about how the Gauntlets of Ogre Power, a Belt of Storm Giant Strength, and a Hammer of Thunderbolts combined into a super combo caused me to learn mythic Thor was somewhat different than comic book Thor.

The fact that the Dungeons & Dragons source material wasn’t afraid to dump myths from disparate sources together definitely influenced my early game worlds.  If I wanted my characters to compete in the Olympics, then by Zeus they could go to “Aegis” and compete.  If I wanted them to search for the Holy Grail, then they were off to “Odeland” and the court of King Artorius.  I wasn’t worried as much about consistency as I was about creating a mythic melting pot where Apollo, Loki, and Set could coexist side by side if the story required it.

This is something I think Dungeons & Dragons 4e has lost.

To be fair, this concept was pretty much dead in Dungeons & Dragons 3e as well.  In an attempt to create a more self-consistent world, Dungeons & Dragons has been moving from an“anything goes” fantasy setting towards a more “myth neutral” outlook.  Rather than directly incorporating Earth mythology, Wizards of the Coasts is building its own mythology.

In many ways this makes sense.  This gives them a great deal of control over their pantheon and cosmology, which they can then tailor for maximum usefulness in a game.  It also allows them to avoid debates like whether or not Hercules should be Chaotic Evil or if he could defeat Thor in a smackdown.

Heck, if I was a game designer at Wizards of the Coast I might even go he same route.

On the other hand, real world myths are probably more meaningful to the casual gamer.  Having an avatar of The Raven Queen show up may mean little to the player who just reads the parts of the Player’s Handbook that they need know in order to play.  The same player may be awed by an avatar of Hades simply because of name recognition.

Thankfully, this is a relatively easy problem to fix yourself.  Inserting real world mythology back into your game is not hard.  The easiest way is to simply insert the myth with little or no explanation.  While your game world may lose some internal consistency, it may be worth it for the additional flavor. 

Of course, if you feel the need to explain the mix of mythologies, there are plenty of ways to do it.  Perhaps there are portals between the real world and your game world, much like the old-school Forgotten Realms setting had.  Real world gods may be interloper gods who followed their worshipers from the old world to the new.

Another option is to have the Earth mythologies as competing factions. These factions may even have gone through a war for dominance, leaving a “super-pantheon” which is a mish-mash of different Earth pantheons behind.  Both the Knights of the Dinner Table and the Order of the Stick comics have used this concept to great effect.

All this talk of real world myth has made me realize how much I miss it.  I may just have to dig up my copy of Dragon Magazine #83 to convert The Dancing Hut adventure to Dungeons & Dragons 4e. 

It has been too long since my players have had an encounter with their “little grandmother”.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Skill Powers: A small step towards a classless system?

The concept behind Skill Powers, Dragon’s most recent debut content, is exceedingly simple.  Skill Powers are utility powers which you gain access to by being trained in a certain skill rather than from your class.  In other words, if you are a fighter trained in Athletics who levels up to second level, you can either gain your utility power from your class like Get Over Here, or from your Athletics skill like Bounding Leap.

It makes sense from a design point of view.  Mike Mearls mentions in the article’s commentary that skill powers are an easy way to make certain options available, “without having to repeat ourselves across a number of different classes.”

What I find interesting is that it represents a step away from the class structure which has been at Dungeon & Dragon’s core since the very beginning.  Possibly the biggest step since the introduction of Feats in Dungeons & Dragons 3e.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think there is a plan to ditch the class system in the works at Wizards of the Coast.  That is one sacred cow I don’t believe they are willing to turn into tasty steak yet. 

I do think that this represents a definitive weakening of the class system though.  Keep in mind that character design in Dungeons & Dragons 4e revolves around your choice of powers.  They represent the biggest way to customize your character in the game.  Up until now, power choices have always been primarily governed by your class. 

Skill Powers change this dynamic in a fundamental way. 

If you think about it, there is no real reason that this concept needs to be limited to skills.  Utility powers only open to members of a specific race, seem like a logical next step. It is possible to go even farther afield though.  How about utility powers tied to your character’s region for a Forgotten Realms game?  Maybe even powers tied to your character background from PHB2?

I would be surprised if Wizards of the Coast didn’t explore at least some of these options in upcoming books.  This is not necessarily a bad idea, as long as these additional powers don’t overpower the existing class based ones.

Of course, I have never been one to balk at more options in character design.  Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A few thoughts on Marvel being bought by Disney

On the off chance that you haven’t heard already, Marvel Entertainment Inc. is being purchased by Walt Disney Co. for the tune of $4 Billion. This is good news for Marvel stockholders since it values Marvel at about 37 times its 2009 earnings.

I can’t say I am surprised Marvel was bought. In fact, while Marvel was a big fish in a small pond, I have expected them to be swallowed by a bigger fish for awhile.  Up until recently, I assumed that bigger fish would have been Sony.

Why Sony?  Well, they made a lot of money off of the Spider-Man movies.  Sony also seemed to enjoy using Spider-Man to promote their products, something Marvel took them to court for back in 2003.  Even though there are still several Spider-Man movies Sony can make under its current deal with Marvel, I figured they might just buy Marvel to ensure these rights remained in house. 

Of course, this would have made more sense for Sony around the time of Spider-Man 2, when the franchise was at the height of its popularity.

I didn’t think about Disney, but it makes a certain amount of sense from their point of view.  Disney has always scored well with young girls, from their “Princess” brand to Hanna Montana.  They have never scored quite as well with young boys though. Marvels cast of characters should fill this need nicely though.

The Marvel characters are also eminently licensable.  Marvel has learned this in recent years.  In fact, you could argue that their comic business is kept on life support in order to keep their stable of characters available for movies and licensed products.

Despite some deft maneuvers on this front in recent years, compared to Disney, Marvel is a mere piker.  I expect to see an explosion of products with the Marvel characters over the upcoming years.

I haven’t decided if this is a good thing or not.  On the one hand, I want Marvel to make money so that they can continue to put out comics for me to read.  On the other hand, I do worry that the characters may suffer from over-exposure though.

Still, Disney has a pretty decent track record of allowing acquired properties to do their own thing.  The Muppets retain their unique feel despite being under the Disney umbrella for years.  Pixar continues to put out top notch movies despite being under the Disney tent.  So it seems like Disney can be hands off when it needs to be.

I do have to ask Disney for one favor though.  In the grand tradition of Disney on Ice, they need to create a brand new musical extravaganza:  Disney on Ice starring Captain America in Ice!

Disney, if you use this I want 10%

The story writes itself.

For more info about Disney and Marvel

Comic Alliance talks about strange owners Marvel has had in the past

Comic Alliance compiles Comic Pros reacting on Twitter

Lori, the Comic Book Goddess tells everyone not to panic

Caleb at Every Day is Like Wednesday wonders if this will even impact him?

Stan Lee thinks it is a stroke of genius (no surprise)

Marc Graser of the Houston Movie Examiner talks about what is known about the deal

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