Monday, September 20, 2010

Spoiled by computers?

The Lords of Tyr has always been pretty technologically savvy group of gamers.  The original lords were all IT professionals who met through work.  While the group soon grew beyond the founders, we still tend to use technology into our games liberally.  For character creation we use tools like the D&D Character Builder.  Rather than a battle map and miniatures we use RPTools.  We even broadcast our games using UStream and allow remote players to join using Skype.

I am starting to wonder if this is a good thing.

This is a concern I have had for awhile, but it really came to the forefront a few weeks back when we were playing a Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 game.  One of the lords had been gone for a few sessions and didn’t realize we were running a new game.  He didn’t have a character so he had to make one up on the spot.  After awhile it became obvious that he couldn’t.

The problem was that he generally used E-Tools to create characters for D&D 3.5, but he didn’t have it loaded on his laptop.  After I noticed he was struggling, I helped him load PCGen to help get him started.  Once he had a character creation program in front of him, even an unfamiliar one, he was up and running.

This feeling was only exacerbated when I heard my fellow lords talk about the Heroes of Hesiod game Tyrwench ran on September 11th.  The game was run without any of the technological tools we normally use.  Everyone present talked about how nice it was to play old school with pen, paper, and tokens.

On the other hand, our embracing of technology has provided us with many benefits.  Despite my comments above,  the Character Builder does make character creation much simpler.  The Rules Compendium has allowed us to run games without lugging around a backbreaking amount of books.  Using electronic maps and initiative trackers has sped things up at the table.  More importantly, the remote capabilities of these tools have allowed members who might not be able to attend the session otherwise to at least be able to attend virtually. 

In fact, the success of these tools have lead to a Wednesday night game which is entirely remote.  The Lords of Tyr are scattered throughout the Greater Chicagoland Area.  There is no way we could get together on a Wednesday night to game for three hours if we had to include travel time.  Without the technology, that game wouldn’t even be possible!

I am not suggesting that the Lords of Tyr abandon technology completely.  Maybe we just need to step back from the edge from time to time, similar to the Heroes of Hesiod game.  Throwing a low tech game in every so often might be a nice change of pace.  More importantly, it might remind us why we fell in love with pen and paper gaming in the first place.

So how has technology affected your gaming?  Do you loathe it when someone cracks open their laptop or are modern gaming tools a convenience that you would not want to go without?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Forgotten Realms Issue 17 – Fallen Idols (Part 3 of 4)

The real question is why am I wearing half a suit of armor The issue begins with Agrivar deep in thought.  He is troubled by Labelas Enoreth’s plan to retrofit the Realm’s Master and turn it into a weapon with which to storm the heavens.  He is also suspicious of the god’s motives.  Although Labelas does not detect as evil to his paladin senses, he realizes the god is not all that concerned about their little mortal problems.

The rest of the Realm’s Master crew seems to have fallen in line though.  Even Minder, who watched Labelas destroy her god just last issue, seems to have come around to Labelas’ point of view.  This change of heart seems mostly to be because of Labelas’ healing of Captain Omen, who Minder has always been shown as especially close to.

Labelas does little to earn such trust though.  When a clumsy dockhand almost drops a beam on Labelas’ head, he prepares to take his horrible vengeance on the sap.  Agrivar intervenes and prevents Labelas from disintegrating the dockhand on the spot.  This doesn’t keep Labelas from doing it once everyone’s back is turned though.

Before this can be discovered, Venus Flytrap Men attack the town.

Best halfling swear ever!

Concerned that these aberrations may damage the ship, Labelas demands everyone clamor aboard while Minder gives it the old heave ho.  Once they are out to sea, Labelas decides that it will cost him too much magic to save the town.

The Realms’ Master crew seems fine with leaving the people of Ruathym to die until Agrivar realizes Foxy is still back there.  When Labelas refuses to go get him, Agrivar strips down to a loincloth and swims to shore.

Agrivar the Barbarian

Agrivar arrives in the nick of time to prevent Foxy from being eaten, but soon the situation begins to look grim for the both of them.  Ishi begs Labelas to help, and ultimately appeals to Vartan who still exists deep within the god.  Rather than fight a psychic battle with himself, Labelas chooses to use his powers to wipe out the Flytrap Men.  Labelas arrives just in time to save Agrivar and Foxy, although it is pointed out that all of the villagers are dead at this point.

I bet at least one villager is hiding in a cupboard or something!

Labelas unceremoniously deposits the pair on the deck of the Realms’' Master before paying a visit to Ishi.  Since he saved them at her request, he feels she owes him a little “sexy time” below decks in return.

This is from a time when rape in comics was still rare.

Agrivar attempts to intervene again, but is casually slapped away by the deity.  This gives Ishi a chance to scratch Labelas’ face.  This enrages the god, who uses his power to put Ishi into “a dreamless sleep”. 

Agrivar then challenges Labelas to a sword fight.  Not wanting to expend more godly energy, the god agrees.  Agrivar briefly gets the upper hand, but Labelas shows Agrivar a bit of Vartan which causes the paladin to hesitate.

Vartan is such a drama queen

In a moment of pure maliciousness, Labelas uses his powers to amplify Agrivar’s addiction to alcohol.  This causes Minder to intervene, which is bad news for Minder because the annoyed god shatters her golem form!

This may take more than a simple Mending spell to fix


  • Vartan’s god is named Labelas Enoreth.  In the previous two issues of this arc, everyone referred to him as Enoreth.  Starting with this issue, everyone refers to him as Labelas.  Jeff Grubb is still listed as the writer, so I wonder what caused him to make this change?
  • Speaking of the creative team, this is the first issue not drawn by Rags Morales.  No offense to Tom Raney, but I definitely miss Rags art style.
  • This issue contains the first reference to the Demiplane of Fear, the pocket dimension where Captain Omen cosigns his artifacts, in awhile.  This is obviously setup for next issue.
  • I like the concept that Labelas is less evil than uncaring, but it is not really borne out by his actions.  His vaporizing the dockworker even after he was calmed down and his increasing Agrivar’s addiction to alcohol both seem purely malicious acts.
  • I am a bit disturbed by the treatment of the poor people of Ruathym in this.
  • Next time I play a halfling, I am going to use the curse “Sweet Bandobaris on a Bender!” if I can.  I don’t care that the god no longer exists in D&D 4E.
  • Not a fan of the Agrivar the Barbarian look.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Looking at the Essentials Assassin

This is an awesome picture! When I first weighed in on Dungeons &  Dragons Essentials, I wondered if we would start seeing revamped “Essentials” versions of existing classes.  With a couple of days left until Heroes of the Fallen Lands and the Rules Compendium hit the shelves, the revamped Essentials Assassin has hit Dragon Magazine.

Well that certainly didn’t take long.

Nevertheless, the Essentials Assassin is especially interesting to me because it provides both a first look into both the Essentials format and into the kind of changes we will see to the existing classes.

The New Format

It is obvious that a lot of effort went into making class descriptions much more friendly for the new player.  In the new format, at each level the player is walked through exactly what choices they need to make.  This is a small change, but one that should make leveling up substantially easier for the newbie.

On the other hand, it will lead to a lot of repetition in the books.  For example, every class description will tell you that at 4th level you need to increase two ability scores by 1.  In the Dungeons & Dragons 4E Player’s Handbook, this information was only mentioned once.  Multiply this by the rest of the redundant leveling information and you have a lot of additional pages per book.

Also interesting is that the class description refers you to Heroes of the Fallen Lands rather than the Player’s Handbook or any other source.  I suppose this makes sense since Wizards of the Coast sees the Essentials line as their new evergreen product.  Still, it seems a bit like they are trying to pretend that the older books never existed.

Changes to the Assassin Class

The changes to the assassin class are more substantial than I was expecting.  The class is much more focused on martial weaponry and poison use.  The shroud mechanic for striker damage is gone.  It has been replaced with the Assassin’s Strike encounter power, which is like a more powerful Sneak Attack which is more limited in use. 

Similar to Essentials martial characters, the assassin lacks encounter and daily attack powers.  Instead, the assassin gains special abilities which make their at-will and basic attacks more effective.

While the assassin still uses shadow magic, its use is limited to certain utility powers.  In fact, depending on what utility powers you choose, it is possible to completely avoid using shadow magic at all until ninth level.

These changes actually give the Essentials Assassin a more classic feel.  The Essentials Assassin seems like a direct descendent of the AD&D 1E Player’s Handbook assassin with a few elements from subsequent editions thrown in.  I can definitely seeing this version appealing to certain people who were turned off by the previous 4E version of the assassin.

Final Thoughts

It is hard for me to separate my thoughts about the new assassin from my thoughts on the Essentials line as a whole.  The changes it makes to the assassin class are pretty substantial, much more than I would expect out of a new “build”.  It does nothing to allay my fears that D&D Essentials is a stealth edition and that all new content we will see out of Wizards of the Coast will have an Essentials bent to it.

Still, I can’t argue that I don’t find the new build to be an improvement over the original.  I am much more interested in making an Essentials Assassin than I ever was in making the previous version.

I figure that says something.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

When do you write your character background?

I discovered something interesting about myself.  I can no longer create a character without creating a character background.  The background may change significantly during the character creation process, but it informs so many of my choices that I simply cannot continue unless I write something up.

In case you don't recognize it, this is the Holy Symbol of Wee Jas This really became clear to me a couple of weeks ago when I had to make up a character for a D&D 3.5 game that a friend of mine was running.  I had already decided I was creating a Crusader/Cleric of Wee Jas who would be aiming towards the Ruby Knight of Wee Jas prestige class.  That is a pretty strong direction from the start, so I decided that I would skip writing my character background until after I finished the character.

Well, it seemed like a good idea.  I soon found that my character creation stalled when I was trying to determine skill and feat selection.  There seemed to be a number of equally good choices, so I waffled between them.  I then began to second guess ability score placement.  Finally I stopped the character creation process and decided to focus on the character background instead.

After I finished the character background I was able to finish the rest of character creation easily.

I know I tend to be a bit more into character background creation than some of my fellow Lords of Tyr, but I have to admit I was surprised how important character background had become to the overall character creation process to me.

So I was wondering, when do you create your character background?  Do you find it essential to the character creation process or is it jotted down as an afterthought?  Are your backgrounds elaborate or is “I was an orphan who took up the sword to make his fortune” sufficient?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Random Reviews: Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths is a direct to video animated movie featuring the Justice League versus their counterparts in the Crime Syndicate.  It has a bit of an odd history as it started its life as an entirely different direct to video animated movie called Justice League: Worlds Collide

Don't let Ultraman's prominience fool you, watch out for the guy with the "O" on his chest Justice League: Worlds Collide was part of the DC Animated Universe continuity and was intended to bridge the gap between the Justice League animated series and its replacement series Justice League Unlimited.

Ultimately, Justice League: Worlds Collide was never produced because they lacked the staff to produce both the movie and the television show simultaneously.  The storyline was too good to leave on the shelf indefinitely though, so references to the television show were removed and it was released as a stand alone movie with a different animation style.

This unusual history does make Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths a bit of an odd watch for fans of the DC Animated Universe Justice League though.  While there are no overt references to the show, several plot threads carry over.  Specifically, the expansion of the Justice League and the origin of Wonder Woman’s Invisible Plane are addressed.  On the other hand, the league lineup is somewhat different, so it can’t be viewed as a lost episode either.

Despite this, the important question is how does Crisis on Two Earths hold up on its own?  Thankfully, the answer is very well.

The basic premise of the movie is simple.  The Crime Syndicate is a group of evil doppelgangers of the Justice League from an alternate earth.  Ultimately, the evil Crime Syndicate comes in conflict with their heroic counterparts in the Justice League. 

Despite this simple premise, it is the little details that make this movie.  One nice touch is that each member of the Crime Syndicate is the head of their own criminal organization.  Each of these organizations is filled with evil versions of existing DC heroes.  For the DC Comics fan, this provides a ton of Easter Eggs as you try to determine if that is really an evil version of Vibe that just came on screen.

Another highlight is that James Woods puts in an amazing performance as Owlman (a Batman analogue).  Cold, calculating, and utterly nihilistic, Owlman is more chilling than an animated character has a right to be.

If you are a fan of the DC Animated Universe or simply a fan of DC Comics in general, Crisis on Two Earths is definitely worth taking a look.  With a story as good as this one, I can see why Warner Brothers decided not to let it sit on the shelf forever.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Divorcing role from class

Dungeons & Dragons Essentials is bringing many changes to fourth edition.  One that I had not heard about until recently is that the concept of role is being divorced from class.  Builds like the the slayer fighter (striker), the hunter ranger (controller), and the sentinel druid (leader) will break from the traditional role associated with each class.

To be honest, I am not sure how I feel about this.  I am normally a big fan of more customization, but to a large extent I saw the classes in Dungeons & Dragons 4E as defined by the role they played.  Both the paladin and the cleric are holy warriors.  To me, what kept the paladin from being simply another cleric build was the fact that paladins are defenders.  Almost all of the primal classes seem to be the druid as seen through the lens of a specific role (the seeker being a notable exception).

It seems like the addition of these options may dilute the entire concept of role in Dungeons & Dragons 4E.  A sentinel druid will be able to pick up a lot of controller focused powers if he chooses.  A hunter ranger might still be more striker than controller based off power choice as well.  Similar to what occurred when hybrids were introduced, this will allow the creation of more generalized characters who don’t fit well into any role.

Now I know some people will argue that this is a good thing.  They found the concept of roles distasteful and antithetical to character choice.  Personally though, I came to enjoy the freedom that came with well established roles.  Prior to roles, there was a strong belief that each adventuring group needed to contain the iconic four classes (cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief) in order to be successful.  Other classes were often seen as second class citizens in the party, only to be added in once the iconic classes were covered.

In Dungeons & Dragons 4E, a lot of design focus was placed on making sure characters with the same role from different power sources were still equally good at fulfilling the role.  It was never a problem that our Scales of War game lacked a cleric because we had a warlord.  Roles allowed for viable groups that might lack any of the iconic four classes.

Allowing the creation of characters that are only “weakly” attached to a role is not the end of the world, but it does mean players will will have to be even more conscious of how their power choices affect the group.  If a sentinel druid is the groups only leader, then filling up on controller focused druid powers is probably a bad idea.

Nevertheless, I expect class builds that cross role lines to become more prevalent in the future.  I would not be surprised if there are some classes introduced which don’t have a single role associated with them at all.  Instead role will depend on what build you choose.  At which point the class build will become a “mini-class” which determines role much like class used to. 

Which I suppose would bring us full circle.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Forgotten Realms Issue 16 – Fallen Idols (Part 2 of 4)

Our issue begins with Vartan screaming the name of his god as Labelas Enoreth pours his divine essence into his body.  Agrivar charges forward and strikes at the elvish bard with his longsword, hoping to stop the assault on his friend.  To everyone’s surprise she explodes into a cloud of dust when he does so.

Obviously she is merely a high level minion

It is a little known fact that Enoreth is also the god of terrible hair It is too late though, as Vartan stands before them transformed into an avatar of Enoreth.  It is then exposition time, as Vartan proceeds to explain the events of the Avatar novel trilogy the crew.

For those of you who were not obsessive readers of Forgotten Realms novels in the eighties, the Avatar trilogy was a series of novels meant to explain the changes between AD&D 1E and AD&D 2E in the Forgotten Realms.  They introduced a cosmic entity known as Lord AO who existed above the gods and maintained the balance between their portfolios.

Lord AO became angered when the Tablets of Fate were stolen from him.  In his anger he cast all of the gods, with the exception of Helm, from the heavens.  As a result, the gods were forced possess mortals in the Forgotten Realms and possessed only a fraction of their normal powers.  Helm was set up to guard the entrance to the outer planes from incursions by these deities.  

The effects of the gods being cast down from the heavens was devastating.  Divine magic ceased to work at all, while arcane magic was horribly warped.  In addition, all manner of aberrations were were created as wild magical energies warped the bodies of normal creatures.

By the time the Avatar trilogy was done, many of the gods had changed and magic had stabilized into what it would be like in AD&D 2E. 

We are not quite there yet in the comic though.

After explaining the Avatar trilogy, Enoreth explains how he had prepared Vartan as a vessel for his essence ever since the two met via the Chalice of Dreams during “The Dragon Reach Saga” way back in issue six.  However, he was unable to enter Vartan because he was trapped with the rest of the Realm’s Master crew mid-teleport for a virtual month last issue.

This forced Enoreth to enter the form of the elvish bard.  However, her body was not up to the task and she rapidly began to deteriorate.  He says as her mind collapsed she caused great damage to the town.

Agrivar believes that the same fate will befall Vartan, regardless of what Enoreth says.  To convince Agrivar of his sincerity, Enoreth briefly allows Vartan’s personality to surface.  Vartan explains to Agrivar that this is his god and it is his duty to serve him in any way possible.  Once Agrivar accepts this, Enoreth abruptly seizes control back and begins asking about the ship.


He touched me in an inappropriate manner! Captain Omen initially seems reluctant to talk about the ship, but Enoreth uses his powers to remove the wasting disease inside of Omen and store it in a jar.  Enoreth does the same with Foxilion’s addiction to Cheeeese and offers to remove Agrivar’s alcoholism as well.  Agrivar is suspicious of such an easy solution to his problems though and balks at having the deity take care of them with a wave of his hand.

Enoreth is not done granting miracles though.  He begins to offer Ishi the, ahem, ride of her life before Agrivar senses his intent and intervenes.  Enoreth then turns his attention to Minder, offering to restore her to human form… until he realizes she is actually a dwarf.

This realization amuses Enoreth and causes him to be just about as insulting as possible to Minder.  Enoreth also launches into a rant about how stupid the dwarven gods are, and in true sitcom fashion one of them chooses that now is the time to show up.

Three heads are better than one! That god is Clanggendin Silverbeard, the dwarven god of war.  Clanggendin’s avatar form is apparently a giant creature made of earth with three dwarves at its  core.  Minder is overawed by the appearance of his god, but Enoreth quickly tosses Minder aside like a sack of potatoes to keep the Dwarf-Golem out of the fight.

Enoreth then grows to the same size as Clanggendin to confront him.  The two battle, and Clanggendin reveals he is aware of Enoreth’s plans for the human ship and is here to stop him.  Enoreth ultimately prevails in the battle by vaporizing the dwarven bodies powering the avatar.

Minder is of course horrified by the fact that Enoreth has just killed his god.  Enoreth casually overpowers and humiliates Minder, while claiming that he only cost Clanggendin his mortal form and that the god will (probably) return once the time of troubles is over.

Most of the crew is just about fed up with this god, but Captain Omen, who seems to have a mixture of pragmatism and fear regarding Enoreth, intervenes before things come to blows. 

After things have cooled down a bit, Enoreth tells Captain Omen that he has need of the Realms’ Master.  Captain Omen is quick to ask, “What does God need with a starship?”, but Enoreth has an answer for him.

Say what you will about Enoreth, but at least he doesn't mince words

Well, that answers that question!


  • This issue suffers from the amount of exposition needed to explain the Avatar Trilogy.  It really grinds the middle of the issue to a halt.
  • I remember when I first read the Avatar Trilogy that I wondered where all the non-human deities were.  This issue of the comic helps explain that by noting that they seem to see the Time of Troubles as a human deity squabble and are lying low for the most part.
  • Despite my love of Rags Morales’ artwork, I was not a fan of the “big hair” rendition of Enoreth’s avatar form.  I loved the look of Clanggendin though.
  • I love the beatific look on Captain Omen’s face once he is cured.  It really sells the scene to me.
  • I think Enoreth suffers from being too evil too quickly in this.  I wish he seemed a little more genuinely decent early on in order to make the inevitable conflict with the crew that much more dramatic.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Who is the target audience for the Red Box?

No sinister conspiracy theories here, but I have been wondering who is the target audience for the Dungeons & Dragons Fantasy Roleplaying Game Starter Set

For the record, I really do love Larry Elmore art! At first it seems obvious: new players.  The box set only includes rules for a limited number of classes and races up to level three, which probably doesn’t appeal to experienced D&D players.  However, it also includes pretty much everything you would need to start a game: character sheets, power cards, tokens (in place of minis), a double-sided dungeon map, and even a set of six polyhedral dice.

Not a bad starting point for a group of new players to the game.  Especially if it is a group where no one, not even the DM, has played Dungeons & Dragons before.  However, if this is really the target audience, the choice to make the exterior of the box set a clone of the 1983 D&D Basic Set seems a bit odd.

Unlike me (and probably most of the readers of this blog), a new player won’t have any nostalgia for the old stuff.  Why not go with a new image on the cover?  As much as I love Larry Elmore’s art, it isn’t going to match up well with the art style inside the box.  An art style that was a deliberate attempt to modernize the fantasy look and attract a new audience by the way.

Obviously, Wizards of the Coast believes the potential for sales to people who are truly new to the hobby are somewhat limited and are hedging their bets.

The nostalgia factor will help sales with a few groups.  The biggest is probably existing D&D players who will purchase the box set entirely because the presentation, not because they actually need the contents inside.  This is not a knock on these people- heck I keep waffling over whether or not I want to buy it for just this reason.

Dragonborn?  WTF? I suppose another potential purchaser is the lapsed player.  If I hadn’t played D&D in over ten years, the new books might look a little alien to me.  Conversely, the new D&D Starter Set would look very familiar and would contain a familiar mix of races and classes inside. 

Holiday gift givers seem like another good source of sales for this product.  If I had a nephew or niece I wanted to introduce to D&D, buying this product for them seems like a much better choice than giving them a Player’s Handbook.

None of this is a knock on Wizards of the Coast.  The need to sell product, so building the new D&D Starter set to appeal to as wide an audience as possible only makes sense.  Plus anything that even has the potential to bring new players to the game is only good for the hobby as a whole.

Still, I think it is a shame that one of the best ideas Wizards of the Coast had to get someone new to try D&D is buried in their website.  This would be the “Test Drive D&D” webpage.  Free quick start rules, a couple of free adventures, and even the trial version of the Character Builder all in one place.  Throw in a few printable tokens and you have your own starter set for free!

Personally, I wish Wizards of the Coast built a “Play D&D for free” ad campaign around this idea.  Even if they majority of people who decided to check it out never bought a product, certainly the players they did gain would be more than worth it?

Then again, maybe I am just being naive.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Gamma World may just be the “Beer & Pizza” game I am looking for

With all of the recent announcements about D&D Essentials and the Castle Ravenloft Box Set, I have to admit that Gamma World flew under the radar for me.  This is probably because even though the original Gamma World was one of the few non-D&D TSR games I played (the other being Marvel Super Heroes), I figured that a post-apocalyptic mutant filled world didn’t hold the appeal for me that it once did.

gammaworld Then I read Bart Carroll’s write up on it in this months previews and my mind was blown.

The biggest change seems to be one of tone.  While the original Gamma World had more than its share of goofy elements, at its core it was a serious game.  Set after a nuclear holocaust, the setting had a “Mad Max” feel to it except with more mutants and better tech to loot.

The new game tweaks the origins of “Gamma Terra” a bit.  Instead of nuclear Armageddon, the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider cause something known as the Big Mistake.  The Big Mistake causes an infinite number of realities to merge together and form something new.

And some of these realities are off the chain!  To quote from the introduction:

In some of these universes, little had changed; it didn't make a big difference which team won the 2011 World Series, for example. In other universes, there were more important divergences: The Gray Emissary, who was carrying gifts of advanced technology, wasn't shot down at Roswell in 1947, the Black Death didn't devastate the known world in the 14th century, the dinosaurs didn't die out, Nikolai Tesla did conquer the world with a robot army, and so on. The Cold War went nuclear in 83 percent of the possible universes, and in 3 percent of the possible universes, the French unloaded their entire nuclear arsenal on the town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, because it had to be done. When reality stabilized again, an instant after the Big Mistake, the familiar Earth of the 21st century was replaced by one formed from many different realities.

You had me at “Nikolai Tesla conquered the world with a robot army.”  I can only hope Atomic Robo was leading the charge.

Character creation seems similarly goofy.  To start with, you roll twice (yes, random rolls in character creation) on the character origin table.  These represent your primary and secondary origin, which also determine your power set.  It is up to you to determine how your newly created “Felinoid Ratswarm” or “Seismic Cockroach” came about.

I have been looking for something fun to play that I could run between major arcs in my D&D campaign.  This game seems like something that could be a lot of fun to throw together and play for a few sessions.

So bravo Wizards of the Coast.  You have actually have made me excited about Gamma World!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Random Reviews: Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Everyone has their guilty pleasures.  Jolly Blackburn, the creator of Knights of the Dinner Table, has spent an inordinate amount of time praising the low-budget fantasy flick Hawk the Slayer.  Chris Sims of the Invincible Super-Blog has sung the praises of Gymkata, the movie which combines “the skill of gymnastics with the kill of karate.”

Love the Ultra-Patriotic artwork  My guilty pleasure is Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.  Since the movie recently became available on Netflix’s streaming service, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to review it.

Loosely based on The Destroyer novel series, Remo Williams recounts the adventures of a New York City cop and Marine Corps veteran who is unwillingly recruited into a secret government organization known as CURE. 

The bulk of the movie involves Remo being trained in the ancient Korean art of Sinanju.  According to the movie, Sinanju is the source of all modern martial arts. Its practitioners have acted as assassins throughout history, killing such notable people as Napoleon and Robin Hood (a bandit!).  Much of the humor and charm of this movie comes from the interactions between Remo and Chiun, which manages to (somewhat) surpass the stereotypical East meets West conflict it begins as.

Ultimately Remo ends up on a mission to take down George Grove, a corrupt weapons manufacturer whose money and power leaves him beyond the reach of traditional  justice.  While I won’t go into the details here, suffice it to say Remo emerges victorious and ready to star in a number of sequels which never came about.

The Good

  • Remo Williams provides a number of interesting set pieces for its action sequences, most notably the scaffolding around the Statue of Liberty during its cleaning.
  • The main mystery involving the HARP weapon is actually fairly interesting.
  • There is decent chemistry between the main cast, especially Remo, Chiun, and Major Fleming (a.k.a. Mrs. Columbo, a.k.a Captain Janeway).
  • The movie does not take itself too seriously.

The Bad

  • Chiun is yet another case of Yellowface in American Cinema.  Of course the movie was released in 1985, so I am willing to cut them a little more slack than I would a movie released in 2010 (like The Last Airbender).
  • Pretty much all the villains exist just to be villainous.  This is especially noticeable in the minor bad guys like the teamsters at the Statue of Liberty.
  • The plot is… well, frankly the plot is somewhat thin.

Final Thoughts

I know that a lot of my affection for Remo Williams comes from the fact that it is a movie I enjoyed as a teenager.  If I came to it for the first time today, I might not be as charitable.

Nevertheless, I stand my my opinion that this is a fun, if somewhat goofy, action flick.  If you have Netflix streaming and have a couple of hours to kill, you could do much worse than spend it with Remo.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Forgotten Realms Issue 15 – Fallen Idols (Part 1 of 4)

Run Foxy Run! This issue begins with Foxilion Cardluck running for his life.  He has the fabled Timepiece of Dragons hoisted over his head and is being pursued through caverns by a highly diverse group of goblinoid creatures.

Luckily for him, the rest of the Realms' Master crew is waiting for him at the mouth of the cave.  The crew makes quick work of Foxy’s pursuers-- at least until reinforcements show up.

Deciding discretion is the greater part of valor, the Realm’s Master crew beats a quick retreat out of the cave and into the daylight.  Knowing the goblin races never venture into daylight the crew figures they are pretty safe.

Then comes the solar eclipse.

The goblins are on Team Edward

Nevertheless, the crew makes it to the Realm’s Master.  Casting off, they figure they will be safe once they make the jump to light speed use the Astrolabe of Nimbral to teleport away. 

Where is R2 when you need him?

Unfortunately, the astrolabe fails to teleport them anywhere.  Even worse, the goblins apparently really want their timepiece back and are boarding the ship.  Captain Omen put Foxilion to work fixing the astrolabe and heads topside.

Arriving on deck, Captain Omen sees that the situation is a bit grim.  Nothing that a little magic can’t solve though, so he decides to summon a water elemental.  This proves to be a mistake though, as his spell causes elemental forces to go completely awry.

It looks like the elemental chaos in 4E!

The elemental maelstrom is proving dangerous to both friend and foe, so Vartan tries to cast a Control Weather spell to take control of the situation.  This effort merely causes him to collapse to the ground, clutching his head and repeating “Get Back” over and over.

With magic apparently going berserk, Captain Omen suddenly realizes that Foxilion is still trying to activate the artifact in ship’s hold. 

Foxilion does good work...

Racing below, Captain Omen arrives just a moment too late.  Having located the loose gemstone, Foxilion pulls the lever and the ship teleports away.

... maybe too good.

The story picks up two days later when Vartan awakens.  The ship has ended up deep at sea rather than its intended location.  Although only two days have passed, Captain Omen estimates they have lost a month of time.  Magic is unreliable and the sea is eerily becalmed. 

This creeped me out as a kid

While discussing their next move, the crew is unexpectedly attacked by a flock of one-eyed birds. 

As if humanoid cyclops weren't enough!

Vartan manages to dispatch them with a miscast, but still dangerous, Spiritual Hammer.  Immediately after the incident, the Realm’s Master begins to move of its own accord.

Well that was easy...

The ship brings them to Rauthym, an island of shipbuilders.  The crew finds the town deserted, with not even a single ship left in the harbor.  The crew wanders through the ruined village, and eventually comes across a crazed old man with one glowing eye and one black as pitch.

All he needs to find now is the kingdom of the blind

The old man recounts his story to the crew.  How the grandmother of all storms came through destroying their fleet and leaving them stranded.  When it ended, a large stone came down from the heavens, leaving a large crater in the middle of town.

Everyone in town kept their distance, except for a traveling elven bard.  She was drawn to it and found something glowing at the bottom of the crater.  Whatever the object was, it changed her.  Half the town was dead in a moment, with the rest transformed into one-eyed wretches like the old man.

Glowing objects that fall from the sky are never good news

At this point the crew crew decides to investigate the town square, promising the old man they will return for him soon.  As they leave, the old man realizes that they must have come on a ship; A ship he can use to escape! 

As he runs towards the dock he is suddenly disintegrated.

His plan was not well thought through

When the crew arrives at the center of town, it looks like something out of a horror movie.  The elven bard is ordering her one-eyed servants to burn the dead in the fire pit that now sits where the crater once was.  She also demands that they bring her holy relics from the Temple of Selune to be melted down.

...and after that get me a pastrami sandwitch with no mayo!

Agrivar, in full paladin mode, tells the elf that her reign of terror is over.  This does not end well for him, as he narrowly avoids being blasted to atoms by a wave of her hand. 

Maybe you don't piss off the elf with god-like powers next time

Vartan is more freaked out by the fact that he recognizes her voice.  As she pours her own essence into him, she tells him to “speak her name.”

That looks painful

The name is Enoreth.  Vartan has just met his god for the second time.


  • As always, Jeff Grubb and Rags Morales do great work.
  • While I am not a fan of this entire arc, I thought this was a strong start.
  • With the “space slug” in the TSR Worlds Annual and the “malfunctioning hyperdrive” here, I am starting to wonder if the references are intentional.
  • The image of the becalmed sea is a very striking one.  I also enjoyed that Rags made Selune (with her trailing “tears”) look different from our own moon.
  • The empty town and the old man are genuinely creepy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sandman as a TV series?

I imagine the first thing to go in the TV series would be the freaky eyes. I am a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series.  Ostensibly the series is about Dream of the Endless, one of seven immortal beings who embody the basic concepts of the universe.  In reality though, the series was more of a meditation on the nature of storytelling itself.  It is definitely a series that grew beyond its initial premise and it showed me how much potential comic books have as a medium.

Since Sandman is both popular and critically acclaimed, it is not surprising that there has been talk of adapting it to another medium.  Several movie screenplays have been written, but so far all attempts to bring it to the silver screen have failed. 

Currently Warner Brothers Television is in talks with Eric Kripke, creator of the Supernatural TV series, to bring the series to the small screen

I will admit I have my concerns about this for several reasons.

The special effects budget would be murder

The Dreaming is a strange and wondrous locale.  Its inhabitants are rarely human in appearance.  Objects are often animate and prone to change without warning.  Non-sequiturs are common.

In effect, every appearance of the Dreaming should seem like you are walking through an actual dream. Doing it correctly would require a special effects budget beyond that of a TV show.

The only alternative would be to either tone down or limit the appearances of the Dreaming.  I believe either choice would be detrimental to the show.

Sandman has a huge cast

TV shows traditionally have relatively small reoccurring cast members who are guaranteed a certain number of episodes per season.  Sandman has a huge reoccurring cast, but their appearances are often infrequent.  Even Dream himself has been known to skip out on the majority of a storyline.

Oddly, the only TV show I can think of with a large but infrequently appearing reoccurring cast is The Simpsons.  Of course The Simpsons has the advantage that it maintains a relatively small stable of voice actors who can play a wide range of characters.  A live action TV show would not have that advantage.

What is Sandman anyway?

Sandman is a dark supernatural drama.  Or maybe it is anthology series?  Perhaps it is a family drama with a twist?

One of the wonderful things about the Sandman comic series is that it really was whatever Neil Gaiman wanted it to be when he was writing it that month.  He used it as a launchpad to tell the kind of stories he wanted to tell.  What was amazing is that he managed to do this and still make it into something that formed a coherent whole when he was done.

I think this would be even harder to pull off in a TV series.  I remember reading that Paramount nixed having the sixth season of Deep Space Nine occur off the station for fear that a casual viewer would tune in and become confused. 

I can only imagine what the network would think of a show where one episode might have a serial killer convention while the next featured the dreams of cats.

Final Thoughts

I do wish Eric Kripke the best of luck if he decides to adapt Sandman to television.  I love the comic series and hope he can manage to capture some of that magic to share it with a wider audience.

I just think the road before him is a difficult one.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition’s greatest innovation

Last weekend I found myself playing Dungeons & Dragons 3E for the first time in nearly a year.  I was happy to get the opportunity since I consider myself pretty neutral in the edition wars and I was happy to get the chance to flex my D&D 3E muscles again. 

I will admit though that after a year long hiatus I found myself missing one feature of D&D 4E.  You may wonder: Was it the powers?  The clearly defined party roles?  Skill challenges?

Nope, didn’t really miss any of them.  What I found myself missing was that a level no longer equaled a level which no longer equaled a level.

I’ve been playing wizards in D&D since they were called magic-users, so I tend to be pretty blind to how confusing differences in character level, caster level, and spell level could be to the new player.  Knowing that you get your third level spells at fifth level seems as natural to me as breathing.

This time though, I looked at it from another perspective.  The game was starting at third level, so I created a Crusader 2 / Cleric of Wee Jas 1.  Suddenly, I found myself having to determine what level maneuvers my third level character could take. 

This was based off of initiator level, which was calculated from adding half of my other class levels to my maneuver granting class and rounding down.  I would then compare that number to a chart to determine what level maneuvers were available to me.

This really isn’t any more confusing then character level, caster level, and spell level are.  It was just new to me.  It did make me to wonder why determining what level maneuvers I could use couldn’t  be as simple as: “A second level crusader can use second level maneuvers.”

Which is of course how it is done in D&D 4E.

So now I know what I will miss if I ever revert back to D&D 3E (or Pathfinder) full time.  Of all the changes that were made between the editions, its something as tiny as level consistency that I would miss the most.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Have I been too hard on Essentials?

Plus, I am a huge fan of the Rules Compendium format I have talked a bit about the upcoming D&D Essentials on this blog before.  Mostly about how I think it is a stealth edition and how I think the rules updates are coming a bit too fast and furious nowadays.  What I haven’t spoken much about is what I think about the proposed changes that we have seen so far.

I actually think most of the changes that Wizards of the Coast has shown us are positive ones.

Considering my complaining about the Essentials products so far, this may seem a bit odd.  So let me talk a bit about what I like.

Changing up the play experience while keeping it balanced

In my opinion, one of the most valid complaints about D&D 4e was that in striving to maintain game balance the character classes became a bit too interchangeable.  In essence, there was little mechanical difference between playing a fighter or a wizard. 

I think the changes they are making to the way martial classes like the fighter run primarily off of basic attacks (as opposed to powers) are a good thing.  It makes playing different classes feel different while (hopefully) keeping the math balanced.  Not to mention it addresses a complaint I heard from many traditional fighter players when they first played D&D 4e: “Why can’t I just hit him with my sword?”

More options on placement of ability score bonuses

In D&D 4e most of your powers run off of a single key ability score (or possibly two).  From a pure math point of view, you want to boost that ability score as high as possible.  Of course, the easiest way to boost an ability score is to choose a race which gets a +2 bonus to that score.

The problem is that it skewed the importance of racial choice when choosing your class a bit too much for my tastes.  Since most races were built with a fixed +2 to two ability scores, it really meant there were just a handful of viable options built into the rules.

(Not that this stopped me from making a few less than optimal racial choices for roleplaying reasons.  I was just very aware of what I was sacrificing to do so)

The new model is a little more flexible.  By giving each race a +2 to one ability score and a +2 to one of two ability scores, the number of viable builds have opened up substantially.

Magic Item Rarity

I have to admit I was somewhat ambivalent about magic item rarity until I read Mike Mearls article on the subject.  I am now a fan of rarity for one big reason: It eliminates the limitation by milestone on magic item daily powers.

I always thought that this mechanic was a bit on the clunky side.  It was a difficult concept for some of my players to wrap their heads around and it added a layer of bookkeeping which didn’t need to be there. 

Limiting the number of magic items with daily powers in the hands of the players accomplishes the same thing and avoids several headaches for me.  I am always in favor of that.

Final Thoughts

My problem has never been with the content of D&D Essentials, just with the way it was presented to us.  Wizards of the Coast acted as if the fans were crazy for seeing Essentials as another edition (or at least .5 of an edition).  I stand my my earlier posts when I say that the changes are at least as substantial as the ones that occurred between D&D 3.0 and 3.5.

Of course, I thought the changes D&D 3.5 brought to the game were mostly positive as well, even though I saw D&D 3.5 as a pretty blatant money grab.  So maybe my somewhat schizophrenic attitude about D&D Essentials is not that surprising.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Apparently I do my best work in 140 characters or less

Damn you Elminster!  You are the reason I will be working as a Walmart greeter when I am 90. As anyone who has reads my blog or listens to the Lords of Tyr podcast knows, I have a tendency to be a bit long-winded at times.  This is partially because I have have a desire to be as complete as possible when I am addressing a subject, and partially because I just like the sound of my own voice.

I now have definitive proof that I should limit myself to 140 characters at a time.

It has just been announced by Wizards of the Coast that I have won the Elminster Must Die Twitter contest.  My winning tweet was:

@WotC_Novels #elminster must die! At 1267 winters old he is personally responsible for bankrupting Social Security in the Realms.

Succinct and to the point.

Now this alone might not be considered proof that I should limit my writing to 140 characters or less.  However, this is not the first Twitter contest I have won.  Last year I entered ChattyDM’s About My PC Twitter contest. 

I won the “Most Evocative PC” category with the following:

Almirith, Lord-in-Exile of the Willow Court. Scion of an Eladrin noble and elven huntswoman. A half-blood on the throne? Never! #aboutmyPC

So maybe I should just give up on long form writing entirely?

Nah, I don’t see that happening.

On a more serious note, there were a lot of great tweets in both of those contests.  I am honored that I was picked.

Plus, I guess this means that unless something completely unforeseen occurs, I should be attending GenCon in 2011.  So maybe I will have a chance to meet up with some of you there!