Saturday, October 31, 2009

Forgotten Realms Issue 14 – Liches in Love

As is appropriate for Horror Month, this comic begins with a bejeweled skull (a demilich?) playing matchmaker for a lich.

Shrek totally stole this bit!The demilich expounds upon the virtues of various women in the Forgotten Realms, especially those with possible crossover appeal to readers of the Forgotten Realms comic book.  In the end, like all right-minded individuals, the lich chooses Jasmine as his future bride.

Well, perhaps I spoke to soon in calling the lich “right-minded” as the lich toddles down to warn the rest of his brides to expect company… and they turn out to be a bunch of frozen corpses.

I wonder if the lich’s name is Bluebeard?

The scene then cuts to Jasmine and Ishi walking on a snowy mountainside.  Ishi is quite enchanted with the natural beauty of their surroundings, while Jasmine can’t wait until they are able to get back to civilization. 

At this point Agrivar and Minder make their way down the slopes carrying the Shield of Mithrak.  Ishi is about to bring up Jasmine’s complaining, but with Agrivar present Jasmine quickly changes her tune.  In fact, she says her only complaint is that, “There is not enough adventure in these cold lands for hot-blooded women.”

Of course, at this point they are attacked by a tribe of barbarians who worship Render the Bear God.

What a handsome bunch 

The battle goes pretty quickly, with the barbarians fleeing after the Realms’ Master crew dispatches the polar bears.  The demilich watches the proceedings and decides that just to be on the safe side he had better separate Jasmine from her companions before he tries to abduct her.  Luckily for him, the barbarians provide him with inspiration.

At the barbarian camp, there is dissention in the ranks.  The chieftain argues that they lost the shield because they were unworthy, and that they must purify themselves with ritual and sacrifice.  On the other hand, Arvan believes it is a sign that they need new leadership.  The argument between the two is cut short by the appearance of the demilich in their fire.

The demilich claims to be an emissary of Malar the Beastlord, which he quickly changes to Render the Bear God when the chieftain points out his error. The demilich tells them that Render wants the winged woman as a sacrifice.  If the tribe wants to get back into the favor of the god, they must capture the girl and deliver her to the skull.

Arvan is quick to believe the skull, but the chieftain is skeptical that the skull’s claims.  The demilich then provides a answer for the chieftain's concerns.

I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?

This argument proves persuasive to the rest of the tribe.

On board the Realms’ Master, Jasmine and Ishi enjoy some hot drinks together.  It doesn’t take long for Jasmine to rub Ishi the wrong way.  Ishi grimly states that it is lucky that they are crewmates, or she would be forced to challenge Jasmine over her continual insults.  Of course, Jasmine twists this to her advantage.

INTisIshisDump 

Poor Ishi never knew what hit her.  One minute she is in the familiar territory of threatening her teammates and the next she finds herself in a game of seduction she is ill-equipped to handle.  Jasmine quickly lays down some self-serving ground rules for the duel of hearts, most notably that if either of them dies, the other automatically loses because, “you can’t compete with a ghost.”

Elsewhere on the ship, Vartan, Agrivar and Omen argue about returning to Halruaa.  Captain Omen thinks that Halruaa is the only place with the resources to look into Vartan’s condition (namely that his god keeps possessing him).  Captain Omen is also hoping to get an opportunity to defend his good name in front of a more neutral court.  Vartan thinks that Captain Omen must be nuts to want to return to a country run by his ex-girlfriend.  Vartan is also not thrilled at the prospect of having even more wizards poking at him.  At this point the argument is ended by a barbarian boarding party.

Thank goodness Captain Omen is not wearing his customary short skirt

The Realms’ Master Crew finds itself in pitched battle with the barbarian raiders.  The barbarian’s new chieftain Avran admonishes them to kill all of them “except the girl”, who Ishi is quickly able to surmise is not her. 

Jasmine quickly finds herself surrounded by barbarians.  She takes to the air in order to escape them, but this proves to be a mistake.

A bird in the hand 

Using his handy new body, the demilich clubs Jasmine over the head and stuffs her in a net.  The barbarians flee immediately, but the demilich takes a few minutes to taunt the Realms’ Master crew.  Ishi engages the demilich in battle, but it teleports away with Jasmine as soon as the tide begins to turn.

Knowing that she “can’t compete with a ghost”, Ishi is now very determined to bring Jasmine home safely.

SaveJasmine 

Thoughts

  • It is awfully convenient that the woman the lich chooses as his new bride happens to be on his doorstep.
  • I really enjoy the interplay between Ishi and Jasmine.The two seem to be born to rub each other the wrong way.
  • I am glad the chieftain wasn’t fooled by the demilich, even though it lead to his gruesome demise.
  • This is the last we will see of Jasmine in this comic, as the story continues in the abominably bad TSR Worlds Annual.  I will be recapping the events of the Forgotten Realms portion next time, but I just can’t bring myself to talk about the rest.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dollhouse Recap: Belonging

Belonging is a rare episode of Dollhouse which focuses on the supporting cast, especially the character of Sierra.  It fleshes out her backstory, which which was first explored in last season’s mediocre episode Needs.

I liked the episode... just not sure I buy the turnaround in Topher

The episode starts with Topher. He looks like he is in bad shape and keeps repeating, “I was just trying to help her” over and over.

The scene abruptly switches to one year ago. Priya, who we know as Sierra, is selling paintings at the beach. Priya is talking with a nearby vendor, who notices that Priya has an admirer. This admirer is Nolan, from the episode Needs. He ultimately walks over to talk to Priya, and offers to commission a painting from her.

Flashing forward, Priya is at a party being hosted by Nolan. She is obviously uncomfortable interacting with the idle rich who are in attendance. Echo and Victor are both there as well, obviously imprinted with personalities designed to help funnel Pryia towards Nolan. In fact, all either of them can talk about is what a wonderful catch Nolan is.

Nolan is across the room talking an executive of the Rossum Corporation. Nolan obviously has some business relationship with Rossum, which is why he gets some leeway with how he uses the Dollhouse. The executive wonders why Nolan is bothering with this elaborate seduction rather than just have the Dollhouse make the perfect woman for him. Nolan scoffs at the idea because he doesn’t want “a Doll”, he wants Priya.

Despite Victor’s tendency talk about Nolan, Pryia is obviously attracted to him right from the start. Bored, Priya decides to leave the party with Victor. Nolan notices this and tries to stop her. When she won’t listen to his pleas, Nolan gets violent. Priya strikes him and tells him, “Nothing in this world could ever make me love you.”

Back in the present day, Sierra is leaving her most recent engagement with Nolan. He kisses her passionately, before taking a picture of her. After Sierra leaves, Nolan dumps the picture in drawer, filled with a pile of photos he has taken during their previous engagements.

Back at the Dollhouse, the Sierra and Echo are painting. Sierra is painting a bird, which was a motif of her art as Priya. However, Sierra is painting a big black blotch next to the bird. This concerns both Echo and Victor when they notice it.

Echo brings Topher Sierra’s picture. Echo tells Topher that Sierra always comes back sad after her visits with the “bad man”. When Topher pleads ignorance, Echo informs him that he simple isn’t looking hard enough.

Echo’s talk obviously has some effect because shortly thereafter Topher is questioning Boyd about Nolan. Boyd seems bemused that Topher is concerned about this particular client. Topher confesses that Sierra is a special interest to him because she was a paranoid schizophrenic when she came in. She was an interesting case and he was pleased because he was able to “help her” using his technology.

Boyd seems more concerned with the fact that Echo is the one who brought the painting to Topher’s attention, as he obviously sees that Echo is developing beyond her default state. When it becomes equally obvious that Topher is not going to pick up on his true concerns, Boyd tells him to check into Dr. Saunder’s files on Sierra.

Dr. Saunders did notice the dark shapes on Sierra’s paintings. Unfortunately, she seems to have brought her own prejudices to the table, as her report concludes the dark shape represents Topher Brink.

Echo stumbles upon Victor gathering up all of the black paint because Sierra “doesn’t like that color.” He wonders if it is wrong, but Echo tells him to “take them all.” Boyd notices this from the balcony and does not seem happy about it. He seems even more concerned later when he notices her reading a book.

Topher is investigating Sierra and realizes that she was not psychotic when she was initially brought in. Instead, she was on drugs that made her appear to be psychotic. He tells Boyd and Adele about the situation.

Now that she is aware of the full situation, Adele brings Nolan in and hypocritically berates him as a “raping scumbag.” She tells him he will never lay a hand on Sierra again. Nolan is unfazed by this and tells Adele that she will imprint Sierra for him permanently, if she wants to keep her job.

It appears that Nolan is right to be confident, as Adele receives a dressing down from her superior Mr. Holland. When Adele refuses to permanently imprint Sierra on moral grounds, Mr. Holland casually confronts her with her Ms. Lonelyhearts indiscretion with Victor, the hypocrisy of her high moral ground in the first place, and ultimately threatens her with an “early retirement”.

Sierra comes upon Victor attempting to wash all the black paint down the drain in the shower. When Sierra asks Victor what he is doing, he admits he is doing it because she “doesn’t like that color”. She takes the opportunity to playfully paint some of it on his face, saying he looks like an Indian chief. He reciprocates, but unexpectedly has flashbacks to being in a war. Victor collapses in the shower while Sierra tries to comfort him.

Topher is, somewhat surprisingly, very opposed to permanently imprinting Sierra. A somewhat drunken Adele tells him they have no choice. She also tells him that everyone in the Dollhouse was chosen because their morals were compromised in some way, everyone but Topher. He was chosen because he has no morals. Adele tells Topher that he has always seen people as playthings. While he has always taken good care of his toys, Topher will just have to let this one go.

Boyd is searching Echo’s sleep pod and finds where she has hidden a book. More importantly, he sees she is using a leaf as a bookmark. Not being a fool Boyd quickly realizes this means that she can remember things. Boyd’s investigation is interrupted by a phone call from Adele. She is concerned that Topher is not going to follow orders and is dispatching Boyd to make sure Topher does as he is told.

Boyd leaves immediately so he doesn’t notice that Echo has scratched notes to herself about her previous engagements.

Nolan comes to pick up his newly permanently imprinted Sierra. He takes her home, where everything seems to be going well at first. However, it is soon revealed that Topher has imprinted her with her original personality and Pryia is there to get her revenge.

Boyd confronts Echo about her reading. She initially makes up some lame excuses but Boyd bluntly asks her when learned how to lie. Boyd cautions her that she is playing a dangerous game, pushing the other actives and staff into action. While he is willing to turn a blind eye, others might notice and take action. Echo makes no excuses. She says that a storm is coming, and everyone will have to wake up if they want to live through it.

Back at Nolan’s penthouse, Pryia taunts Nolan. She talks about how she doesn’t remember anything about him, but that she somehow managed to fall in love with someone else, even in her brainwashed state. Nolan gets violent and the two struggle. In the end, Pryia stabs him to death with his own knife. Standing up, her shadowed form appears as a “black blotch” against the painting Nolan initially commissioned for her.

Topher receives a call and rushes to Nolan’s penthouse. He finds Pryia bloody and sobbing in a corner. Boyd arrives onsite, having intercepted Pryia’s call. Boyd quickly and efficiently begins covering up the crime and disposing of the body. This eventually brings us back to the opening sequence where a horrified Topher is using a hacksaw to dismember Nolan and dump him in a bathtub full of sulfuric acid while repeating, “I was just trying to help her.”

Boyd calls Adele and tells her that Nolan has apparently left the country, but for some reason has not taken Sierra with him. Adele seems suspiciously unsurprised by this turn of events.

Back at the Dollhouse, Pryia is obviously traumatized by her experience. She sees Victor walking below Topher’s office and realizes that he is the man she loves but has never met. In the end, she submits to being wiped but asks Topher to “delete this day, if you ever bring me back”.

Back in the sleeping pod area, Echo finds Boyd has returned her book. Instead of a leaf as a bookmark though, it has an all-access keycard with a note that says, “For the storm.” As the shot pans back, it shows Sierra and Victor are lying together in one of the pods.

The Good

This was probably the best episode of the season so far.  Some of the high points:

I loved Adele’s hypocrisy in this episode.  She really seems to drink her own Kool-Aid about the Dollhouse and is always devastated when the reality of what they do is thrown in her face.  She also seems to have a disturbing tendency to turn to drinking when this happens.

Harry Lennix reminded me why he is my favorite actor on Dollhouse. Probably my favorite scene in this episode is when Boyd questions Topher about Echo giving Topher the painting. Topher completely doesn’t realize what Boyd is concerned about, but as viewers we do.  Harry Lennix conveys a lot in that scene just using his tone and body language.

Unlike the previous three episodes I was pretty happy with Eliza’s portrayal of “default” Echo.  Hopefully this is a precursor of things to come.

Victor taking away all of the black paint was an awesome scene.  The shower scene was also well done.  His flashback to the battlefield makes me wonder if he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and, like Sierra, he was taken out of a mental institution.

The scene of Topher freaking out while Boyd has him dismembering Nolan’s corpse is also a great one.  Although Topher makes a good point that this kind of work seems disturbingly routine to Boyd.

The ending scene where Echo discovers a keycard in her book was well done.  Although I am not why she needs it since she already seems to be able to walk in and out of the facility at will.

The Bad

I thought Topher’s concern for Sierra’s well-being was a bit of a stretch.  This is the same guy who told Boyd in season one to think of the actives as pets, not children, because if your child talks, you are proud, but if your dog talks, you freak out.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for character development.  I just think this was a bit too much a bit too fast.  I might of been more willing to make the leap if he was initially interested in Sierra’s case because he realized he had made a mistake on reading her brain scan and was only drawn into it emotionally once he found out how horrific her situation was.

In Conclusion

While this wasn’t as good as Epitaph One or Briar Rose, this was a very strong episode.  I was initially going to give it a 4.5, but what the heck?

5 out of 5 dolls

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forget Backseat DMing: I can’t stand Pushy Powergaming!

I know powergaming gets a bad rap, but in general it doesn’t bug me too much.  I have found many experienced players powergame to some extent.  It is certainly is possible for it to go too far and end up with Pun-Pun Jr. in your campaign, but I have found that most of the players in my RPG groups tend to self-regulate.  Instead, I find the bigger problem is what I call “pushy powergaming”.

I know you were planning on a Gnome Warden, but trust me this makes more sense The traditional powergamer confines himself to min-maxing his own character.  The pushy powergamer wants to min-max the other player characters as well.  While this may seem almost altruistic on the surface, it can be incredibly detrimental to the morale of the group in the long run.

If present while other people are creating characters, the pushy powergamer will often try to veto choices he thinks are non-optimal.  The pushy powergamer will disregard any thoughts the hapless player has about character concept in favor of what he believes will make the most effective character.

During combats he will often tell the other players what powers they should use and where they should move.  This goes beyond simple advice.  The pushy powergamer will argue his point vociferously if the player in question dares ignore the advice.

Pushy powergamers tend to target new players and casual gamers.  This is probably because these types of gamers are most likely to give into the pushy powergamers demands.  Unfortunately, these players are also the most likely to quit gaming altogether once they get frustrated at not being able to play their own characters.

Pushy powergamers don’t intend to drive players away from the game.  In fact, they usually think they are helping.  They figure if they can bring the newbies and casual gamers “up to their level” that everyone will have more fun. Unfortunately, this ignores the fact that most people don’t enjoy being told what they can and cannot do.

An example of pushy powergaming happens in the Dead Gentlemen’s fan-made film The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.  When Joanna first brings her new character Daphne into the game, pushy powergamer Cass immediately tries to get Joanna to rewrite her character.  He even attempts to appeal to the Dungeon Master, explaining that having an ineffectual fighter in the group is just as bad as not having one at all.

Of course, this being a movie Joanna’s character Daphne is eventually revealed to be comically effective in combat.  Her combination of abilities and feats take advantage of the kind of cheese that would make the most battle-hardened powergamer drool. 

While Daphne being an unexpected badass is an exaggration, it contains a kernel of truth.  Non-optimized characters can be very fun to play.  While they may miss out on some plusses, the fact that they are off the beaten path often makes them memorable.  Thek the half-orc wizard is more likely to be remembered than elven ranger #1278.

So what do all of you think?  Are pushy powergamers a problem in your games?  If you are a DM, how do you deal with it when you see it happening?  Or am I just blowing things out of proportion?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Hero Twice a Month becomes www.aherotwiceamonth.com

Just a quick note to my readers that I am transitioning A Hero Twice a Month from aherotwiceamonth.blogspot.com to www.aherotwiceamonth.com .  The old address should work for the foreseeable future, but I would still recommend updating your old bookmarks.

I should also take this opportunity to thank all of the readers of this blog, especially those of you who take the time to leave a comment.  It is the ability to communicate with other people who share my passion RPG’s, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Comic Books, and other nerdy pursuits, which truly makes writing this blog a pleasure.

Thanks again.

Rob

a.k.a.

A Hero Twice A Month

Forgotten Realms Issue 13 – Triangles: Trials (Part 3 of 3)

Having just witnessed the apparent death of Captain Omen, the crew of the Realms’ Master stands ready to do battle.  They are quickly informed by one of the Perfection’s crew that Captain Omen isn’t dead, he was merely teleported to the deck of the Perfection to stand trial.

They have apparently never watched Star Trek

The point of contention seems to be how Captain Omen acquired the Astrolabe of Nimbral.  According to Captain Omen, he was entrusted with the the Astrolabe by Netyarch Kirkson as part of his mission to recover and dispose of powerful artifacts.  According to Captain Grimwald, Captain Omen crept into Netyarch Kirkson’s manor like a thief in the night and stole it.

I love these two pictures!

Well, actually this is just the excuse for the trial.  It is obvious that this confrontation is personal and that the charges against Captain Omen are just the excuse Captain Grimwald needed to harass him.

Captain Omen logically points out that a few divinations should clear everything out.  Captain Grimwald counters that divination spells have proven dangerous lately, rendering their casters mindless.  In fact, this is what happen to Netyarch Kirkson.  The conversation also makes it clear that the current Netyarch Gabrella and Captain Omen had some form of romantic relationship in the past, but that they did not part on the best of terms.

Realizing that he is not going to get out of here by talking, Captain Omen casts a shout spell knocking down the crew.

Captain Omen is certainly showing a lot of leg

Back on the Realms’ Master, Ishi and Agrivar decide the commotion on the Perfection gives them the perfect opportunity to turn the tables on their captives.  Easily taking down the low- level mages with the sweet science, Ishi realizes their victory will be short-lived once the crewmember still aboard the perfection realize what happen.

Sometimes, crewing a ship with wizards is a bad thing.

Having Foxilion retrieve some scrolls, Ishi figures coercing one of the young wizards into casting a Phantasmal Force will buy them some time.  It is Jasmine who really seals the deal though, threatening to slit the throat of the wizard unless he cooperates.

There is always one in the party

Back on the deck of the Perfection, Captain Omen has been subdued.  Captain Omen remains defiant though, taunting Captain Grimwald by reminding him of the proverb, “Insult a wizard, harvest his vengeance!”  Grimwald seems more concerned with the hostages, but one of the Perfection’s crew tells him everything looks fine below.

Below decks on the Realms’ Master, the crew considers their next step.  Ishi has taken over guarding the prisoner, hoping to match Jasmine’s bloodthirsty nature.  Jasmine considers flying to shore for help, but Agrivar suggests it will take to long for help to arrive.  Jasmine then wonders why this is their problem anyway?  Since they are just passengers, can’t they just scarper off and leave Captain Omen to his fate.

Agrivar merely comments, “Odd.  So much of your mother in appearance… I am sorry you do not match her spirit.”  The comment angers Jasmine, causing her to lash out at Agrivar, wondering what good her mother’s “valor” did her?  That it is not cowardice to run when the other side is more powerful!

This is a great scene

It is only when the prisoner agrees and tells the crew that fleeing is their only chance to survive that Jasmine decides she may be in the wrong.

Agreeing to help, Jasmine asks what she can do.  Minder suggests that she could use the potion of invisibility to fly up and take out the Perfection’s Astrolabe.  The only problem is that it is a complex procedure and Minder will not be able to accompany her.  To which Jasmine replies with a smile, “Actually, you can.”

Back on the Perfection’s deck the trial continues.  Everyone is so engrossed in the proceedings that no one notices as a small window opens and then closes. 

No thieves means no listen checks in AD&D 1e

Once inside, the invisible Jasmine uses a magical key to open a portal to an extra-dimensional space… from which Minder emerges.  The two proceed to sneak below decks.

I imagine he has a courtmartial in his future Back in the bowels the Realms’ Master, the crew is anxiously waiting for Jasmine’s return.  Agrivar speaks in wistful tones about Jasmine’s mother Roseblood, which distracts Ishi long enough for the wizard to escape.  Running to the deck, the wizard dismisses the Phantasmal Force and grabs the attention of his crewmates.

On the deck of the Perfection, Captain Grimwald orders water elemental to kill the Realms’ Master crew.  Captain Omen attempts to break free of his captors, but receives a severe blow to the head from a smug Captain Grimwald.

Grimwald has a mean left hook

Below decks on the Perfection, Minder is carefully examining the design of the Astrolabe.  Finding a blemish on the dorsal crystal, Minder causes it to expand with a small tap.  Jasmine is unimpressed, saying that she could have done that herself.  Minder merely comments that she could have blown herself up as well.

Flying Deathtrap

Things are not going as well for the Realms’ Master crew which is having difficulty dealing with the huge water elemental.  Ishi screams at Vartan to dispel the elemental, but Vartan hasn’t memorized a dispel magic that day.  However, he is suddenly overcome by the spirit of Labelas Enoreth who dispels the elemental for him.

God vs Water Elemental

On the deck of the Perfection, the fight between Captain Omen and Captain Grimwald continues.  Captain Grimwald is distracted by his crewmembers running in terror and screaming to abandon ship.  Captain Omen takes advantage of this to make his escape over the side.

The reunited crew watches as the Perfection explodes in the sky above them.  Captain Omen orders them to fire up their own Astrolabe and they warp away.

A teleporting ship can be useful at times

The Realms’ Master reappears in the arctic.  Vartan is wondering what they should do about Captain Omen being a fugitive. Omen is in no mood to talk about it though, merely congratulating Vartan on taking down the water elemental… leaving Vartan to ponder how he cast a spell he didn’t have memorized.

Agrivar and Jasmine have a bit of a heart to heart.  They talk about Jasmine’s parents and how she has tried to flee their heroic legacy.  She also talks about her wings, which she thinks make her look like a pixie. They embarrass her so she hides them, preferring pity to laughter.  Agrivar is sympathetic, but subtly turns the conversation towards her making her peace with Ishi, which she agrees she should do.  Agrivar gives her a fatherly peck on the forehead before leaving.

Awww... How sweet

Joining Ishi by the railing, Jasmine begins to make her peace with Ishi.  Jasmine asks if there is something between Ishi and Agrivar that she should stay away from.  Ishi isn’t really sure if there is, but would hate to lose whatever they do have.  The two begin to bond while talking about Agrivar’s good qualities.  In the end though, Jasmine just can’t help herself.  She deflates Ishi’s good mood by noting that Agrivar “sure kisses funny though.”

Jasmine is awesome

Thoughts

  • I liked the differing accounts of how Captain Omen acquired the Astrolabe of Nimbral.
  • I thought Captain Grimwald was a fun villain for Captain Omen.  It is a shame this subplot was never followed up on.
  • On that topic, the Avatar Trilogy crossover is almost upon us.  Sadly, like a lot of big crossover events I feel this really derailed the series.
  • Jasmine’s wings change color from the black they were in previous issues to an off-white in this issue.  This appears to be just so she can utter the line, “this lot packs more magic than I have little white feathers.”  They are black again next issue.
  • I really like the romantic rivalry between Ishi and Jasmine.  Especially because Agrivar is so oblivious to it.
  • That was a hell of an explosion.  Those flying ships really are flying deathtraps.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You have to love those crazy gypsies!

The original Ravenloft module introduced gypsies as a plot device, with the fortune telling of Madam Eva being a way to change the module in small ways and to increase replay potential.  They were also added for flavor, as their relationship with Strahd was obviously meant to echo the relationship of the gypsies with the titular character of the novel Dracula.

Personally, I like the evil eye in the crystal ball When Ravenloft was expanded into a full-fledged campaign setting in 1990, the gypsies also got an expanded role.  They became the Vistani, the only beings in Ravenloft capable of travelling the Mists safely.  Having a strange relationship not just with Strahd, but with the Dark Powers themselves, the Vistani were both mysterious and powerful.

The Vistani became the ultimate plot device.  Their very nature allowed them to appear and disappear as needed by the DM.  They were capable of spouting accurate but cryptic prophesy on demand.  Perhaps most importantly, they generally had enough mystic might to keep annoyed players from killing them on sight.

They were never really intended to be player characters, but like drow elves and dragons, it is perhaps inevitable that people wanted to play them.

Players first got their crack at playing members of this mysterious race when Van Richten's Guide to the Vistani came out for AD&D 2e.  When White Wolf took over the setting in D&D 3e, they introduced Half-Vistani as one of the core races for the setting.

In this month’s Dragon, we get to see the D&D 4e take on playing a Vistani.  I am certain that some Vistani purist will cry foul, but all in all I think it is an interesting updating of the concept of what it means to be a Vistani.

Vistani are no longer a separate race.  Much like the Dhampyr presented in an earlier Dragon, they are considered a bloodline.  To become a Vistani you only need to pick up the appropriate bloodline feat.  This feat then opens up a number of bloodline feats that can be used to enhance your class abilities.

Because the Vistani are now a bloodline, they can be of any race.  They become Vistani after being subjected to the Vistani blooding ritual.  This ritual is usually performed on children who are absorbed into the clan, but it can be performed on an adult who performs a great service for the Vistani as well.

While this seemed a bit weird to me at first, I think it is a good idea to make the Vistani a bit more cosmopolitan.  In a world with a large number of sentient races, I like the concept that a Vistani caravan may include halflings or tieflings in its number.  The common bond of being outcasts outweighing the difference in race is a powerful concept to me.

As for the Vistani feats, they are very interesting.  The initial bloodline feat gives the character the Evil Eye of the Vistani feat power.  This power is a ranged charm attack vs Will which grants you combat advantage versus the target and prevents them from willingly moving closer to you until the end of your next turn.

What is interesting is that many of the bloodline feats you can pick up give you special abilities you can use against the target of your Evil Eye of the Vistani power.  These often play off of existing class abilities, like Warlock’s Curse or Oath of Emnity, and grant additional abilities when used against the target of the Evil Eye.

Probably my favorite bloodline feat is the paragon level Prophetic Preperation feat.  Once per day, it allows you to swap a daily attack spell and a utility spell you did not prepare for one that you did prepare.  The rational is that your prophetic visions led you to choose the spell you needed.

I am a little surprised that they didn’t tie the Vistani into the Shadowfell in some manner.  Since the Shadowfell is where the D&D 4e version of the Ravenloft setting is located, and the Vistani are so traditionally tied in to Ravenloft, it seems like it would be a natural fit.  It is easy to see how an ancient pact with the Raven Queen could be used as an excuse for them to wander between the Domains of Dread with impunity.

I can only assume that with WOTC exploring the shadow power source in recent issues of Dragon with races like the revenant and classes like the assassin that they were loathe to tie the Vistani to the Raven Queen and the Shadowfell as well.

Perhaps this is for the best.  With a little tweaking, the Vistani can now become an interesting part of any campaign, not just a horror themed one.

Anyway, there is nothing stopping you from placing a Vistani Revenant Assassin in your game if you want to.  Well, nothing other than good taste.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dollhouse Recap: Belle Chose

In keeping with the theme of Horror Month, Belle Chose is a thoroughly creepy episode.

The hammer is my (surrogate) penis

The episode begins with a man, who you later find out is named Terry, dressing female mannequins in a scene of them playing croquet. Terry is having an increasingly creepy one-sided conversation with them, addressing them as family members.

It soon becomes obvious that they are not mannequins, but women who are somehow being compelled to stay perfectly still. “Aunt Sheila” finally collapses, and then slowly begins to crawl away. When Terry sees this, he becomes agitated and says “It isn’t very sportsmanlike to walk off just because you don’t like the way the game is going, is it?”

Terry reaches into a medical bag and injects her with what is later revealed to be a potent animal tranquilizer. Although obviously barely conscious, she manages to grab the discarded hypodermic and jab it into his leg in retaliation. It isn’t enough to take Terry down immediately though, and he proceeds to club her to death with a crochet mallet.

Terry says he needs a new Aunt Sheila and heads out to the crowded city streets to find one. He entirely focused on his goal and seems only peripherally aware of the drugs coursing through his system. Terry finally seems to find a woman that can be his next “Aunt Sheila” and walks towards her. Unfortunately for him, in his impaired state Terry fails to realize he is walking out into the middle of traffic and is hit by a car.

Back at the Dollhouse, Paul Ballard is looking for Echo. Since this is Dollhouse, he finds her in the showers. He is a little flustered to see her naked and quickly offers her a towel. Echo begins to walk away when Paul belatedly remembers what he is there for and asks her if she would like a treatment. She agrees she would enjoy one.

Adele and Boyd are doing another of their walk and talk meetings. Adele asks Boyd if he has had any luck in locating their “troubled and missing employee.” Boyd tries to imply that Claire (Dr. Saunders) isn’t really missing, she merely left. Victor hears them talking about Dr. Saunders and suggest that she can help the man “who is not his best” in the medical facility.

Entering the medical facility we see the man from the opening sequence on a bed with a number of electrodes attached to him. Topher is trying to figure out a way to use the Dollhouse technology to wake him up. Boyd openly wonders if they should wake this man up with his criminal record, but Adele reminds him that this is the nephew of one of Rossum’s biggest shareholders. Just as Adele leaves, Topher sees something on the brain scanner that worries him and calls Boyd over.

Meanwhile Echo is being imprinted by Ivy for her next engagement. Ivy goes over the details of the engagement with Paul, who is not thrilled to find out Echo is being programmed as Kiki, a student a community college who is programmed as the sex fantasy for a professor there.

Topher and Boyd come to Adele’s office to talk with her about the coma patient. Showing her Terry’s brain scan, he points out the “black” areas on the scan (meaning he doesn’t use those areas). These areas include the portions of the brain where empathy and compassion come from. Even Topher has ethical problems waking up a probable serial killer.

Ballard takes Echo to get dressed for her engagement, leading to some humorous interactions with the staff of the clothing department.

Back in Adele’s office, she has a meeting with Bradley Carrence. Adele asks Bradley why they should help revive Terry, especially since their examination reveals he may recover with conventional treatments. Bradley tells Adele it is a matter of time. Bradley is aware that Terry may have victims who are currently still alive, and is hopeful that living victims can have their silence bought. That is not an option if the press gets wind of a bunch of corpses.

Back at the clothing department, Paul Ballard sees Echo emerge and looks like he is entertaining some school girl fantasies of his own. His reverie is broken when Boyd walks in. He tells Ballard that he is taking over Echo’s engagement. They need Paul’s skills to profile a serial killer. Paul is actually relieved at this.

Back in the lab, Victor is imprinted with Terry’s memories. He is placed in a holding cell, where he is being observed via closed circuit camera by Adele, Topher, Paul, and Bradley. Bradley doesn’t understand why they just won’t let him speak to him, but Adele notes that Mr. Ballard was trained by the FBI. In this case, they will defer to him.

Paul begins by interrogating Bradley. Going over the missing person reports, he notes that there is no pattern he can discern. Since Bradley obviously sees one, Paul simply asks what he is missing.

The scene abruptly cuts to Echo attending class. The professor is lecturing about medieval literature, and how the sense of self was much less of a concern than in today’s society. He also returns their essays on the Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath to the students.

Nice touch. The professor obviously has a sense of humor

Echo has received an “F” so she immediately goes to talk to the professor after class. A few lines of dialogue paint her as a blithering idiot. This is apparently just what the professor was looking for, and he invites her back to his office to “discuss” her grade.

In addition to his love of medieval literature the professor obviously also has a love of cheesy pornos.

Back at the Dollhouse, Victor is still waiting for someone to talk to him. He begins complaining loudly that the cuffs are cutting off his circulation. Paul Ballard enters the room and begins interrogating him. He shows them the pictures of the women and asks him where they are.

Back in Adele’s office, Bradley protests that they are taking the wrong approach to interrogate Terry. He says that Terry needs to know you are on his side, not see you as an antagonist. Adele chooses this time to ask Topher to show Bradley how they are taking care of his (real) nephew Terry, although it is obviously just a ploy to get him out of the room.

Back in the interrogation room Paul continues to grill Terry. Things escalate to the point where Paul finally shows Victor a video of the real Terry in a hospital bed. Initially Terry doesn’t believe it is him in the bed, but then he sees his Uncle Bradley enter the hospital room.

Paul pushes Terry on the location of the women, but soon realizes there is something different about the woman Terry thinks about as Aunt Sheila. When pressed on it he basically confesses that he murdered her.

Back in the professor’s office, Echo and the professor discuss The Wife of Bath. Echo states that Alyson, the wife of Bath, is a whore, but the professor disagrees. He says she understands the “power that all women have.” Echo notes that Alyson would know how get her F turned into an A, which causes the professor to say “You’re learning.”

This conversation would have enough of an “ick” factor on its own, but it is intercut with Victor talking about how the women in his life never have enough time for him and they make him do what he does. The combination is pretty chilling.

Paul makes his way back up to Adele’s office to discuss what they have found out so far. While he is there she gets a call that Terry is coding so they rush down to the medical center. When they get there they find out that it is a false alarm but quickly realize Bradley is nowhere to be found.

To no one’s surprise Bradley used the confusion to break his nephew out of the Dollhouse. Adele calls Bradley, saying that his actions are completely unacceptable. Bradley, who is driving in his car with Victor in the passenger seat, simply explains that Adele’s methods weren’t working and that Terry is just going to have a chat with his uncle.

Of course Victor uses this opportunity to smash his uncle’s face into the steering wheel. He casually walks off after the car crashes into a car parked on the curb.

Adele is frustrated that Bradley won’t pick up anymore, but sees the silver lining. Paul’s profile of Terry indicates that he will return to his victims. Since all of their actives are tagged, they will simply follow him back to his victims.

Unfortunately, Adele finds out that Victor isn’t tagged anymore. Apparently it was removed before they began Victor’s facial reconstruction. When Doctor Saunder’s abruptly left, the fact that he needed to be retagged was lost in the shuffle. Paul realizes that while Victor might not have a GPS tag, Bradley’s car might.

Meanwhile Terry’s victims are recovering from the paralytic agent. They are terrified that Terry will return but vow to fight him when he does.

Paul arrives on the scene of the accident. Paul has a hunch that Terry’s lair is not too far from where he got hit in the original accident. He decides to make his way there.

Adele doesn’t want to take any chances. She wants Topher to perform a remote wipe of Victor. Topher believes it can’t be done. When she reminds him the Alpha did it, Topher points out he did it over the phone, and they don’t have Victor’s phone number. Adele is not taking no for an answer though, and tells Topher to “think of another way and think of it fast.”

Back in the creepy professor’s office, Echo is reading the Wife of Bath. She gets up and turns on some music, which the two of them dance to. She asks if the professor is feeling her “Bathy girl power” and suggest that they “talk about this F.”

Back in the van, Boyd looks at the monitor and realizes the “romantic” part of the engagement has begun. He receives a call from Topher to let him know that they will be taking down the biolink feeds for a bit. Boyd asks why and gets a succinct description of the story so far. They are taking down the other actives feeds because Topher is hoping to use Victor’s feed to send the remote wipe.

Topher initiates the wipe, which is obviously having some effect on Victor. At that point the servers crash and the lights go out.

Back at the professor’s office, the two are dancing cheek to cheek. Echo then stabs him in the neck. Seeing herself in the mirror Echo, who is now obviously imprinted with Terry, realizes that he is now in a woman’s body.

Adele calls Boyd and lets him know that all of the Dollhouse’s systems are down. She wants all of the actives brought in until the situation is resolved. Boyd says he will put the word out. As he is making calls he sees Echo speed past him in an SUV.

Realizing something is terribly wrong; he breaks into the professor’s office and finds him lying on the ground. Calling an ambulance, Boyd looks up to see that the mirror had the word whore written in blood.

Back at the Dollhouse they are attempting to assess this new information. If Echo now has Terry’s personality, Adele idly wonders what happen to Kiki’s personality.

We don’t have to wonder because we see Victor at a local club now imprinted as Kiki. He dances around enthusiastically and attempts his best to seduce a group of club guys. This eventually leads to a small fistfight. Luckily Paul Ballard, who was tracking Victor, has finally arrived on the scene. Victor, who as Kiki thinks Paul is her handler, runs into his arms.

Back at Terry’s lair, the women have finally broken out of their cage. When Echo arrives they are initially relieved that it is not Terry, at least until she clubs one of the women with a mallet and declares that she is him.

Terry’s personality imprint is becoming increasingly erratic and she begins to attack the other women as well. She thinks they all should take a lesson from “Aunt Sheila”, who is currently a corpse laying on the floor. Just as she is about to strike a killing blow, Echo shudders and says, “Did I fall asleep?”

Back at the Dollhouse, Topher finally gets the system up and running. He quickly brings up Echo’s GPS tag and locates her in Beverly Hills.

Back in Terry’s lair, Echo tells the captives that he is still here. She drops the mallet and tells them that they will have to kill him before he kills them. She then grabs her head and begins screaming that he is coming back.

One of the victims begins to attack Echo with the mallet, but another one of them stops her. Echo feels Terry’s persona attempting to assert dominance and tries to convince the victims that they need to kill her to stop Terry from hurting them anymore. She provides them with details about their abductions and it almost works… before Dollhouse operatives swoop in.

Paul Ballard runs to Echo and asks if she is OK. She doesn’t think so, but agrees to go with him for a treatment.

Back at the Dollhouse Echo, in her default state, wanders into the medical center where Terry is still in a coma. The scene makes it obvious that she still has a part of Terry in her, just like the rest of her imprints.

The Good

The scenes in the beginning with Terry were nicely creepy.  While they had a somewhat stereotypical serial killer vibe, the fact that he posses women like dolls was a nice touch.  It helped drive home the fact that for all of Adele DeWitt’s fancy talk, she is just as guilty of dehumanizing people.

I was humored by the scene with the handler waiting for his Active to get out of the dressing area.  We have all been there.

Victor as Kiki was also pretty funny.  I especially enjoyed Paul Ballard’s, “You got a problem?” when people were staring at Victor clinging to him.

Speaking of which, I have to admit that despite some telegraphing, I didn’t see the imprint switcheroo coming.  I am glad that they had something more interesting than “Victor kidnaps Echo” in mind

The ending was great.  I am glad to see the downside to the fact that Echo is beginning to remember her imprints.

The Bad

It seems pretty unbelievable that the college professor could afford an Active.  That being said, the engagement itself was nicely creepy, especially in the little details of the professor’s fantasy.

Despite being off the grid and being a completely self-contained environment, the Dollhouse apparently has no security whatsoever.  People can just wander in or out whenever they choose.

In Conclusion

A better than average episode with some nicely creepy bits.

4 out of 5 dolls

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Quick Look at the Seeker

From the depths of the forest comes a primal hunter.  Whispering words that were ancient when the world was young, he binds the spirit of decay into a slender arrow.  Taking aim at an orc, he lets the arrow fly and watches as it hits its mark.  The orc can do nothing but watch in horror as spores erupt from the point of impact, coalescing into four fungal blooms around him, filling the area with their poisonous presence.

To me, this picture works better for a seeker than a ranger A new primal class, the seeker, is the most recent debut content from Wizards of the Coast.  Like the druid, the seeker is a primal controller.  In theme though, the seeker is closer to a ranger than a druid. 

A preeminent marksman, the seeker has powers which revolve around use of a ranged weapon.  He uses his evocations to bind spirits to his weaponry, which he can then use to  supernatural effect.  These effects often create bursts or zones at the point of impact, allowing the seeker to fulfill his role as a controller nicely.

The seeker is also highly mobile, capable shifting as a minor action as long as he is not wearing heavy armor.  This is a very nice ability, as any Dungeon Master who has used kobolds against the party in Dungeons & Dragons 4e knows. 

If they had given this ability to shift to the archer build for rangers, they would probably not be scorned as “underpowered” by so many gamers.  In fact, I might just have to create a feat specifically for archer rangers that grants them a similar ability.

I like the seeker a lot.  The concept of a primal warrior who binds spirits into his weapons is undeniably cool.  I have also wanted to see a weapon based controller for awhile now. 

In fact, while I have long maintained that my next Dungeons & Dragons 4e character will be an archer-build  ranger, I am now leaning towards a seeker.  Frankly, controlling the battlefield appeals to me more than high amounts of damage.  Also, powers like Fungal Blooms are wonderfully evocative.

Of course, if they decide to release hybrid rules for seekers I might not have to choose!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Dollhouse Recap: Instinct

With the new status quo in established in Vows, the episode Instinct is our first glimpse of what an “average” second season episode will look like.  While this episode is far from perfect, I have to admit that I liked it more than I thought I would based on the trailers.

First episode she was a bride, in the second a mom.  My how time flies!

The episode begins will Paul Ballard walking around Topher’s lab.  Specifically, he is checking out The Chair.  He sits down on it just when Topher walks in and asks him if he would “like a treatment?”  After a little banter, Topher begins talking about how much of genus he is (as always).  Specifically how he was able to alter Echo “on a glandular level” for her new assignment.  Topher believe this is a major breakthrough possibly leading to a cure for cancer or at least seafood allergies.  Paul seems skeptical.

Topher also reveals that the chair cannot be used to fiddle with the minds of non-Actives.  He couldn’t just fiddle with certain memories on a normal person.  They have to be wiped clean first, and that the new memories added must be part of a complete personality.

Meanwhile, the camera pans across piles of discarded clothing, which is always a good sign that Echo is about to make an appearance.  Sure enough, Echo is in a bed with her client, although both are asleep.  Echo wakes up and quietly makes her way through the house until she reaches the nursery.  Seeing her “son” Jack is awake, she decides to nurse him.

So, you can see what Topher was so worked up about.

The next morning Echo, imprinted as Emily Jordan,  is making coffee. You get your first good look at her creepy husband Nate.  Why creepy?  Well Nate has a tendency to pop up around corners unexpectedly and he can’t seem to stand spending more than a few seconds around his own son.

Later in the day, Echo is taking Jack for a stroll and talking with Sierra who is apparently imprinted to act as Echo’s friend “Kelly”.  Echo expresses her concerns about Nate’s lack of any bond with Jack and with his continuing absence around the house.  She also begins to fret that he may be having an affair.  Echo even worries that Nate might be involved in something illegal because she sees a black van parked outside all the time.

Great work at being subtle Paul.  I hope you were better at stakeouts when you were with the Bureau.

Sierra does her best to dismiss Echo’s concerns, as she is undoubtedly programmed to do.  Echo pretends to agree, but as soon as she gets home she begins rifling through her husband’s desk (seems to be a theme).

That evening when Nate gets home he finds Echo waiting for him in the dark.  She confronts him with pictures of Nate and another woman.  Echo demands to know who she is, even holding up a picture of Nate and the mystery woman at the place “we went on our honeymoon!”

Nate is visibly shaken as these are obviously photos of him and his real wife.  Still he manages to calm Echo down by telling her a near truth.  Basically, Nate admits that she was someone he knew and loved before he met Echo and that she died.  Nate convinces Echo to get some sleep and that they will talk about it in the morning.

Echo takes his advice, but is awakened by the sound of Nate talking to someone angrily over the phone.  She goes to investigate and arrives just in time to hear Nate telling whoever he is talking to to just “get rid of her” and “I will get rid of the baby.”

Back at the “Residence of Senator Daniel Perrin Alexandria, Virginia”, we get to see Senator Perrin looking over several papers dejectedly.  He is bemoaning the fact that since he had his press conference, all of his sources against Rossum Corporation have dried up. 

Senator Perrin seems a bit despondent about this turn, but his (very political) wife Cindy does her best to bolster his confidence.  Their talk is interrupted by the doorbell, which she goes to answer.  When she returns, she tells him than no one was there, but is holding a mysterious package that was left behind.

Also out and about is Adele DeWitt.  She is going to visit Madeline a.k.a. November.  Apparently Madeline is now rich enough that she doesn’t have to work anymore and she is seeing someone special.  That is not what Adele is there for though; she is there because Madeline hasn’t been in for her diagnostic.  After a little bit of somewhat antagonistic chatter, Madeline appears to agree.

Back to Echo, she is attempting to leave the house surreptitiously with Jack.  Nate is waiting for her though, and and manages to keep her from leaving.  First Nate suggests they have breakfast together.  When that doesn’t work he uses a succession of lies to keep her at home.  Nate also tries to take Jack with him for some “man time.”  Echo doesn’t buy any of it, claims Jack needs a feeding, and retreats back to her room.

Lacking options, Echo calls her friend Kelly and begs her to drive over and pick them up.  Echo waits anxiously, and is visibly relieved when she sees Kelly come up the driveway.  Well, at least she is until Kelly is met by a black van and she passively gets in it.

Paul Ballard walks into the house and follows the sound of the crying baby to the nursery.  He knocks on the door and asks her if she would like a treatment.  It is all for naught though as he is only hearing the baby monitor Echo left behind.  Jack and her are already out the window and driving away in Kelly’s minivan.

Back at the Dollhouse, Nate is understandably upset that Echo kidnapped his son and that he paid a lot of money for that “privilege.”  Adele attempts to calm him down, reminding him that Echo thinks she is Jack’s mother and would never harm him.  She also reminds Nate that he hired Echo in the first place because he couldn’t bond with his son after his real wife died in childbirth.  That he was hoping that this bond would help Jack feel loved through his formative months.

Yes, it is somewhat clumsy exposition, but I guess they feel it necessary to explain the plot to anyone who didn’t pick up on what was going on earlier.

Meanwhile, Echo parks the minivan so she can raid the ATM.  When she turns around though, she sees she is being followed by one of the Dollhouse’s comically conspicuous black vans.  She sees some police officers and explains that she is being followed and that her husband is trying to kill her.  The take her back to the station.

Once there Echo is giving her statement to a female detective who is obviously sympathetic to her.  Just when Echo thinks she is going to get the help she needs, she sees Nate and Paul walk in to the station.  The female detective notes that they are talking with her captain and goes out to see what is going on.

Echo gets suspicious of how long they are talking and goes out to confront them.  However, the cops are obviously now aware that Echo is not Jack’s real mother.  One of the cops manages to get Jack while Paul and an officer drag Echo away from her “son”.

Back at the lab, Madeline is getting her diagnostics done by Topher.  When she is about ready to go Paul Ballard drags a struggling Echo into the room.  She breaks loose and knocks Madeline down in her attempt to escape.  Echo doesn’t get far before security swoops in and tranquilizes her though.

Ballard is surprised to see Madeline there and takes her down to see a doctor.  The two talk for awhile and Paul is surprised to find out about her background, especially her dead daughter.  He is even more surprised to find out that Madeline is apparently content about her time as an active since she “doesn’t remember a thing.”

Back in the lab Topher wipes Echo.  Something obviously is wrong though because she knocks Topher unconscious when she wakes up.

At the “Residence of Senator Daniel Perrin Alexandria, Virginia”, we get to see Senator Perrin overwhelmed by the evidence about the Dollhouse that was left on his doorstep.  Realizing that Rossum is up to much worse things than mere medical misfeasance, he briefly wonders if he should quit the pursuit.  After talking things over with his wife though, Senator Perrin decides his goal to bring Rossum down is more important than ever.

Back at the Dollhouse, Paul Ballard, Topher Grace, and Adele DeWitt are attempting to figure out what went wrong with Echo.  Paul suggests that when Topher “changed her “on a glandular level” that he created a maternal instinct that was too powerful for a standard wipe.  While she might not remember Jack’s name or her own, she has a need to be with her child that is overwhelming. 

Paul makes his way to the Jordan household where Nate finally seems to be warming up to his son.  He gets a call from Adele telling him to leave the house, but like any good horror movie it is too late for a warning by the time he gets it.  He rushes back to Jack, only to find Echo holding him in one hand and a knife in the other.

There is a creepy lighting filled scene where Nate attempts to reason with an increasingly irrational Echo before she hurts either him or his son.  He confesses that he knows that she loves Jack and that this is all his fault.  He also tells her about his real wife Karen and how she died in childbirth.  Echo gives Jack back to Nate just as Paul and his Dollhouse cronies walk in.

Outside Paul and the (semi-) wiped Echo talk about her experience.  Echo explains that she is very sad, that she had a baby and now she doesn’t.  Paul tells Echo that he can let Topher know what is really going on with her so that she will forget.  Echo refuses this option though, saying that feeling nothing would be worse.

The Good

I enjoyed most of Eliza Dushku’s performance this time around.  I thought the scene where she confronted Nate about the photos was especially good. 

I was also glad to see Echo run to the police when she thought she was being followed.  I also liked the police.  The clichĂ© would have had the cops dismiss Echo as crazy, instead they seemed both rational and helpful without seeming like “super-cops”.

The Bad

I felt that the “I changed her on a glandular level” excuse as to why she wasn’t wiped was a bit lame.  On the other hand, since it might have been hokum Paul Ballard was spinning to keep them realizing how badly Echo was glitching, it might not be that bad.

I wasn’t a fan of the scenes with Madeline a.k.a. November.  Her dialogue seemed completely unnatural and the scenes with Paul lacked any chemistry they had last year.

Also, after this episode, why hasn’t Adele decided enough is enough and sent Echo to the Attic?

In Conclusion

Ultimately, the first “average” episode of the second season is thoroughly average.

3 out of 5 dolls

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Five Horror Archetypes to use in your campaign

More than most genres, a good horror story requires a good villain.  With that in mind, here are five horror archetypes to use in your campaign.

The Creepy Child

The little sisters are classic minions of a boss monster creepy children There is something truly unnerving when you take the innocence of a small child an juxtapose it with a malign intelligence.  A creepy child has knowledge beyond her years and usually manipulates the adults around her with terrifying ease.  A creepy child doesn’t always have to be evil, but should never be truly good either.

A good role for a creepy child is to dispense information.  Having psychic or oracular powers is plays to the child’s role as an innocent who knows to much.  Alternatively, an immortal child, like a vampire, might know too much just because they have been around for a long time.

A creepy child can also be used as the main villain of the piece.  If used as the main villain, it is probably best wait until the climax to reveal the child as the villain.  Give the players plenty of time to interact with the child first, in order to maximize the shock and horror when they realize the child is not as innocent as they believed.

A creepy child works well alone, but they can be used effectively as minions of a “boss monster”.  Imagine a malignant gnome who lures children into the woods and removes their souls.  During the final confrontation he could call his children to defend him, leaving the heroes in the uncomfortable position of having to mow down children to get to the real threat.

Dungeons & Dragons is filled with monsters that make good creepy children.  Child vampires, doppelgangers, fey changelings, and demonic possession are only a few examples.  On the other hand, keeping the reasons for the child’s behavior a mystery can be effective as well.

The Handsome Fiend

The lack of a pulse should have been a tip off. Beautiful and charming on the outside, the handsome fiend has a soul as black as pitch. Vampires are the quintessential handsome fiends, but demons in human form, doppelgangers, and beautiful unseelie fey all can all play this part.

A handsome fiend should be a charmer, quite possibly literally capable of putting others under his spell.  Unlike many monsters, the victims of handsome fiends often give themselves over him willingly.

A handsome fiend is usually intelligent.   He is unlikely to risk his life in a pointless combat.  Conflict with a handsome fiend usually comes when the heroes run afoul with one of the handsome fiend’s plots.  Even then, they are much more likely to attack the heroes with pawns, especially in the early battles.

Sometimes handsome fiends can can be a bit too overconfident though.  They are used to getting their way and are not used to the kind of persistence seen in the average adventuring group.

To truly play up the horror factor of a handsome fiend, it is important to emphasize just how vile the handsome fiend really is.  They must perform depraved acts that are totally at odds with their beautiful exterior. 

This should not be a character that the players feel they can compromise with.  Maybe he is a vampire who feeds exclusively on young children.  Maybe he is a fey lord who enjoys seducing young women and driving them to suicide for his own amusement.  He may even be stuck in a cycle of betrayal like Strahd, where he is forced to relive his depraved crimes again and again.

The Sympathetic Monster

A face only a mother could love.  It is a shame he doesn't have a mother. The sympathetic monster was not born evil, but was driven to it by unfortunate circumstances or by simple bad luck.  There should be a sense that if things had gone just a little bit differently that a great tragedy could have been averted.

Frankenstein is the quintessential sympathetic monster.  As a result, golems, warforged, and other constructs work well in this role.  Lycanthropes also are good choices, since they may be decent people who have succumbed to the beast within. 

Of course a sympathetic monster doesn’t need to be inhuman.  A great warlord who is a great hero to his people but makes dark bargains with infernal creatures to “protect” his homeland can fall into this archetype as well.

To make the sympathetic monster effective in a horror campaign, he must cross the point of no return.  While your players may empathize with the monster, at some point the monster should make a choice that puts him beyond redemption.  In Frankenstein, this point was when the monster chose to murder Victor Frankenstein’s fiancĂ©e.  In the module Ravenloft, Strahd can be seen as sympathetic until he chose to murder his brother Sergei out of his obsessive desire for Tatyana.

The Monster Within

The party was starting to become suspicious of the constant werewolf attacks during Sir Kevin's shift on watch Most monsters are an external threat.  The monster within is an internal one.  Unknown to even the character (and quite possibly the player), he is actually the villain of the piece.  This is a lot like the Sympathetic Monster, except the monster within brings the horror home.

Good candidates for the monster within include lycanthropes (if you still use the infected variety), possession (demons, ghosts, and the occasional evil wizard), or even a psychotic break (perhaps after exposure to an evil artifact or Lovecraftian horror).

The monster within works best when the clues slowly pile up until the truth becomes undeniable.  Done well, this archetype can bring the horror to a very personal level.

While all horror requires buy in from your players, make sure that you don’t pull this one on someone who would feel their character has been violated beyond redemption.  Of course you can always work with your player to spring this archetype on the other members of the group.

After all, some twisted players would enjoy playing a demon possessed Elven wizard or a Halfling lycanthrope.

The Unstoppable Killer

Beware of the golem of Prague! When you kill something, it is supposed to remain dead.  The unstoppable killer doesn’t know this.  No matter how many times you take the unstoppable killer out, he just keep coming back for more.

Undead, from lowly skeletons and zombies to hate-filled ghosts fill this role well.  Golems also make natural unstoppable killers.  Unlike most of its kind, the unstoppable killer usually has some kind of regenerative capabilities that keep them from being easily dispatched. 

Perhaps the skeletons the party is fighting continue reform until an evil artifact within the room is destroyed.  Maybe a vengeful ghost will inevitably reform until her killer is brought to justice.   Sometimes the golem will not fall dead, no matter how many hit points of damage the party inflicts, until the word Emet is changed to Meit on it’s forehead.

While they are tenacious, unstoppable killers are rarely great plotters.  The puzzle should come from figuring out how to finally put them down once and for all.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Forgotten Realms Issue 12 – Triangles: Rivals (Part 2 of 3)

This issue begins in the magical nation of Halruaa.  It follows Netyarch Gabrella and her advisor Lovis having a walk and talk meeting through the halls of her palace.  A messenger from the priests of Mystra tries twice to get her attention before ultimately just yelling out that he has a message at the top of his lungs.

I didn't know they let halflings in Halruaa. 

This initially looks as if it will be the last mistake he will ever make, but when Gabrella hears the message, that “The carp has bitten”, she suddenly smiles.  Gabrella asks Lovis if they have any ships operating around the Sea of Fallen Stars and is gratified to hear the Perfection is in the area.  She tells Lovis to dispatch it immediately to Saerloon with orders to bring the thief and traitor Dwalimor Omen to justice.

We then return to the bedroom confrontation between Agrivar, Ishi, and Jasmine.  At this point, only Ishi is fully clothed, so she comes to the conclusion that she has interrupted an assignation between Agrivar and Jasmine. 

Vartan looks like an incredible pervert in this picture

Agrivar sputters denials, but Jasmine sees a chance to escape and tells her “dearheart” that they will have to continue their “rendezvous” another time before flying out the window.  Agrivar then tries to explain himself to Ishi, but you can see how that goes yourself.

Yeah, I probably wouldn't buy that story either

At that point the time for talk is over because the patrons of Lady Rae’s have overpowered Minder and are using her iron body as a battering ram to get into the room.  Seeing few options, the group dives out the window (obviously figuring that 1d6 falling damage won’t seriously hurt them).  The group then scatters in an attempt to escape the (awfully violent) patrons of Lady Rae’s and make their way back to the Realms’ Master.

Meanwhile, Jasmine is preparing to flee the city for good and setup shop as a hunchback elsewhere.  When she takes to the air she is shocked to see an airship up in the clouds.  She briefly wonders if it might be her ticket out of there, but dismisses that theory when she is shot at.

Maybe it is just a case of friendly fire?

Onboard the ship, Captain Grimwald explains that when they  locate Captain Omen they have been ordered to give Omen a chance to surrender first.  However when, not if, he refuses they are to kill him…  messily.

Back on the streets of Saerloon, Jasmine lands in an alley.  Unfortunately for her, Foxilion and Ishi have been watching the skies and spring on her.  Jasmine fights dirty, feigning injury, throwing sand, and taunting Ishi about her “boyfriend”.  The latter tactic backfires though as Ishi becomes enraged and severely beats Jasmine.

Great way to treat the daughter of Agrivar's old friend.

Foxilion stops Ishi before she seriously injures Jasmine.  Shocked by her own behavior, Ishi apologizes to Jasmine and lets her have a free swing if it will make her feel better.  Jasmine is not about to let this opportunity pass and gives Ishi a quick kick to the face. 

All of lifes problems can be solved by a kick to the face

When Jasmine finds out that they have a ship she sees an opportunity to leave town and goes with them back to the Realms’ Master.  When she presents herself to Captain Omen, he is initially not interested in taking her aboard.  His tune changes once he realizes she has wings.

After the Realms’Master leaves port, they find themselves attacked by a huge water elemental. 

That is much bigger than your normal Water Elemental

Grimwald As the elemental holds the ship aloft, Captain Grimwald projects an image of himself down on the deck.  Captain Grimwald lays out the charges against Captain Omen and demands his immediate surrender. 

The two wizards bluster at one another for a bit when it is revealed that the Perfection’s wizardly crew has boarded the Realm’s Master invisibly.  Captain Grimwald gives Captain Omen one last chance to surrender.  Captain Omen does, but demands justice.  Captain Grimwald tells Captain Omen that he will have justice before apparently disintegrating Captain Omen on the spot.

Thoughts

  1. I like the scenes that take place in Halruaa.  It looks exactly as I always imagined it to.
  2. I also like that all of wizards from Halruaa where the three dots that Captain Omen does.  It is a nice touch, especially since it is consistent. 
  3. I also like that it is Ishi and Foxilion who finally corner Jasmine.
  4. Ishi really has some anger management issues, doesn’t she?
  5. I really like Jasmine and I think she adds something to the crew.  It is a real shame she isn’t going to last.
  6. I like the look of Captain Grimwald.  I really can’t say the same for the look of the crew of the Perfection though.
  7. Did anyone seriously believe Captain Omen was dead at the end of the issue?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Flavors of Horror: Lovecraftian Horror

When starting a horror adventure or campaign, it helps to know what particular flavor of horror to you are attempting to evoke. One of the most common sub-genres, Gothic Horror, has a proud history in Dungeons & Dragons.  This is probably because of the influence of the classic module I6: Ravenloft and the subsequent campaign setting it inspired.

Ocean is more ancient than the mountains, and freighted with the memories and the dreams of Time. An interesting alternative is Lovecraftian Horror, which gets its name from the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraftian Horror also has roots that reach back to the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons as well. Mind Flayers, Sahuagin and Aboleths are some of the most obvious creatures to draw from this tradition, but all creatures we would now call “Aberrations” as well as the alien terrors of the Far Realm are all inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

There are many important themes to keep in mind if you are planning on running a D&D game inspired by Lovecraftian horror.

The Irrelevance of Mankind

Humans like to think they are the center of the universe. Lovecraftian Horror makes the assumption that humans are utterly irrelevant.  Humans are subjected to the whims of alien and unknowable beings, and there is nothing they can do to change that.

When building adventures based on Lovecraftian Horror, it is important to keep this in mind.  While the player characters may be able to unravel a mystery or enact change on a small scale, that the big picture remains unchanged is essential.  Reminding the players that ancient evils continue their plots unabated and that ancient cycles continue unchanged goes a long way towards driving this theme home.

Uncaring Gods

Related to the irrelevance of mankind is the fact that the great powers, whether gods, primordials, archfey, or terrors of the Far Realm, care nothing about the fate of man.  Lower than even pawns, humans are completely inconsequential to their machinations.

If you are creating an entire campaign based on Lovecraftian Horror, this will probably have repercussions on how you present the gods and on characters with the divine power source.  The ideological battles between the deities are fought without care for how they affect mere mortals.  Even “Lawful Good” and “Good” gods should be focused on their own affairs, and unconcerned with how their actions affect the natural world.

As for their worshipers, there should be little to no communication with the gods, even by the highest levels of the clergy.  The tenants of religion are human constructs.  In fact several opposed denominations may spring up with each denouncing the others as heretics.  In such a game, the gods will not deign to make their opinion on the subject known.

Fragile Sanity

There is a reason why the old Call of Cthulhu game had a sanity mechanic.  Many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories featured protagonists who were pushed to the brink of sanity or beyond by the sheer horror of what they encounter.

An easy way to introduce this into an adventure is to present the characters with Non-Player Characters who have been driven mad by what they have encountered.  Choosing to set portions of the adventure in insane asylums or similar locations is another common way to evoke this feeling that there are some things that simply should not be known.

If you are planning a campaign based on Lovecraftian Horror, it is probably worthwhile to add some form of sanity or madness mechanic to your game.  For inspiration you may consider looking at Call of Cthuhu (Chaosium or d20), Ravenloft (TSR or White Wolf), and Heroes of Horror.  Also, be sure to check back at A Hero Twice A Month, since you can expect updated rules for Fear, Horror, and Madness in D&D 4e during Horror Month.

The Ocean is Evil

Practice using words like cephalopod, squamous, and mucocutaneous in a sentence.  If you can use them convincingly, you may have a chance of sounding authentically like H.P. Lovecraft.

H.P. Lovecraft took great inspiration from creatures of the depths when designing the elder evils that inhabit his universe.  Tentacles, slime, scales, and giant unblinking eyes are all common elements.  Luckily, Dungeons & Dragons is filled with creatures with these attributes.

Just make sure to emphasize these elements when describing them to your players.  Saying that “You see two mind flayers” is different than “You see two inhuman creatures.  They they have gaunt unnatural frames and their heads have an unnatural octopoid shape.  Grey lidless eyes stare at you and where their mouth should be is a writhing mass of tentacles.  The creatures’ skin is a sickly mauve and glistens with a mucocutaneous substance.”

Unanswered Questions

Good horror lets your mind do the hard work, and Lovecraftian Horror takes this to an extreme.  It is best to hint at deep horrifying truths, but leave making the connections up to the players themselves.

This requires a high player involvement, but when it works it is much more effective.  Simply telling the player something lacks the same impact.

Final Thoughts

If you have the temperament for it, Lovecraftian Horror can add a unique feel to your game.  Since some elements of Lovecraftian Horror have been present in D&D since the beginning, it can be added with a minimum of fuss.

Well, except for learning how to pronounce mucocutaneous.

Facebook