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Justice League: Throne of Atlantis

I’m a big fan of the DC animated movies, so when I noticed that our library had a new one in I had to give it a try. The title sounded promising, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis.

Then I realized that this was a sequel to Justice League: War, a movie that I have little affection for. How did this new movie turn out?

I considered summing up the movie in one sentence but I couldn’t decide between, “Not as bad as War,” and, “The fields of Atlantis are burning.”

The characters are not quite as unlikable as they were in War, but I’m still left with the feeling that if these are the heroes defending my world I would not sleep well at night. It’s enough to make me think that Lex Luthor has a point. Unfortunately this is what DC thinks we want in our heroes.

Buried within this mess of sub-plots that go nowhere is a serviceable origin story for Aquaman. One that would be better served if they cut out all the parts with the Justice League and used that time to flesh out Aquaman, Mera, Ocean Master, and Black Manta. It’s a standard plot of treachery, usurpation of the throne, and the true heir fighting to claim his birthright, but there is little time left to connect with the Atlantian characters and the central plot feels rushed.

Among the more glaring plot problems with Throne of Atlantis are several smaller points that bother me:

When on the ocean floor Cyborg and Flash need masks. Hal does not, which makes sense, but neither Superman nor Wonder Woman need them to breath or talk normally. This is never explained.

Several league members are very liberal (one might say gratuitous) with the use of lethal force. This is never commented on.

Superman and Wonder Woman go out on a date in their secret identities. Lois Lane shows up and cattiness ensues, because of course it does. This has no bearing on the story.

When Ocean Master invades Metropolis he leads off with a massive tsunami, but then casts it aside before it hits the city. I’m okay with this because it’s a great evil villain move. “I’m so powerful I don’t need to flood your city! I have eeeeevil showmanship skills!” However he follows this up with an invasion force that isn’t very large and whose technology isn’t that much better than our own. I was left wondering why the Justice League was needed to repel the Atlantean forces.

Black Manta initiated the war by launching a torpedo attack on Atlantis and blaming it on the surface dwellers. In the process he wipes out many Atlanteans who were out tending their crops. The fields of Atlantis were burning.

The fields… of Atlantis… were burning…

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2015 in Movies & TV, Reviews

 

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Ye Olde Gaming Shoppes

Greetings Programs,

Life has been quite hectic recently, which has left less time for blogging and a lot less time for gaming. So posting will continue being less consistent than normal (as if it was ever consistent). However, even though I haven’t been gaming I have had the opportunity to hit some really good stores.

First on the list is Yottaquest. Located on the north side of Cincinnati this is a store I’ve known about for a while but just visited for the first time. It’s a good sized store with a friendly staff who were happy to talk. The front of the store is dominated by Warhammer and similar miniatures displays, as well as popular gateway board and card games. Moving deeper you’ll find a wide variety of offerings to suit whatever geekish tastes you prefer, and in good quantities. Role playing games of all types are represented, including a decent selection of Dungeon Crawl Classics products. Board and war games fill several shelves and there is a generous selection of comics and manga. I am particularly delighted that they sell used and out-of-print games, just the thing to warm my OSR heart. I am impressed by how the store manages to embrace current gaming store trends while keeping an old school game store feeling. Yottaquest is definitely on my “to visit” list for future trips.

Next on my list was re-visiting two of my old haunts. One of Cincinnati’s small communities is Mt. Lookout, which boasts a nice collection of locally owned restaurants and shops. I used to make regular trips down to Mt. Lookout to grab a burger at Zip’s Cafe and hit the stores, but it’s been a good ten years since I’ve last been there. When I found myself in the area with some time on my hands I jumped at the chance to drop by, with two stores in particular as my goal.

Boardwalk Hobby Shop is a nice store with its own distinctive style. The biggest draw at Boardwalk is modeling and there are kits of every type available, as well as all the paints and tools you could want. They don’t carry any miniature gaming figures but they have a better selection of paints and brushes than most stores that are dominated by Warhammer. Aside from the models they also have a good selection of board games, ranging from classic and family games to more “gamer” oriented fare. Boardwalk also offers a section of puzzles, including a better selection of 3D puzzles than I’ve seen in a long time.

Unfortunately for me, since my last visit they have moved away from carrying role playing games. They only offer a small number of 5th Edition D&D books where once two aisles were filled by D&D, GURPS, and Chaosium titles. But if you are looking for a board game, model, or painting supplies, Boardwalk is a good place to visit.

Last is the jewel in the crown, the place I most wanted to visit again, that store which makes my wallet tremble in fear. The Dust Jacket.

The Dust Jacket is not a gaming store, it’s a rare book store. The first thing you see when you walk in are shelves filled with leather bound tomes, set collections, and 1st edition books. Moving deeper you’ll find an impressive collection of books on all subjects. Their world and military history sections are particularly good. This place is a treasure vault for bookworms that goes beyond a simple used bookstore. You’ll find books on World War One written in the 1920’s, poetry books from the 19th century, novels that have never been reprinted, and more.

If we lived in a Call of Cthulhu world this store would either be our last hope or the place where the end of humanity begins.

If I have any nits to pick with The Dust Jacket, it’s that their science fiction section is unimpressive. However the wonderful selection of history books more than makes up for it.

Often when you revisit an old favorite store you find that things have changed or that they aren’t as good as you remembered. In the case of The Dust Jacket, I swear the store is even better than I remembered. I will not let another decade go by without returning, no matter how much my wallet begs me to do otherwise.

Agent13small

My Favorite Yottaquest Acquisition!

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2015 in Cool Stuff, Gaming, Reviews

 

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The Secret of Bone Hill

“Danger lurks in the Lendore Isles. Bands of evil creatures prowl the hills overlooking the town of Restenford, seeking unwary victims.”

-The Secret of Bone Hill, front cover

If you ask an old Dungeons & Dragons player what module best represents the game you’ll get plenty of answers. For many it’s The Keep on the Borderlands, home of the iconic Caves of Chaos. Others will say In Search of the Unknown, or The Village of Hommlet, or maybe even Tomb of Horrors. These are fine choices, but for me the answer is module L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.

Written by Lenard Lakofka and published in 1981, Bone Hill has a dose of everything a D&D party could want. The module is designed for 2-8 characters from levels 2-4, which makes it suitable for adventurers with some experience under their belts, looking to face bigger challenges. It provides a modest sized wilderness area with several different locations containing both random and set encounters. There are some dynamic threats for the DM to use, such as a group of brigands and a pack of gnolls, and places weird and fantastic that may provide aid instead of danger to a party that minds its manners.

There is the town of Restenford, which is well mapped and completely keyed out, rivaling the village of Hommlet for completeness. All the townsfolk, including the inhabitants of the baron’s castle, are given names and stats. Only a few are given descriptions beyond this, but it’s easy to build motivations on top of what the Dungeon Master is given and if the DM is inclined towards intrigue then it won’t be hard to incorporate into the lives of the townsfolk. Restenford is an archetypical D&D fantasy town, mostly human with a smattering of other races living alongside them. Magic is also not too uncommon, with several magic-users living within the town and more than one person armed with low powered magical weapons and armor.

Then there is Bone Hill itself and the ruined castle looming over the countryside. There is a good mix of standard and new monsters lurking within its depths and two factions that have an uneasy coexistence. This is a well realized dungeon site, not very large but well thought out and stocked with a generous amount of treasure for those who survive its dangers.

The module also uses plenty of old school concepts in its design. Most importantly it makes no assumptions about the party’s motivations, beyond that they seek adventure. There are no quest givers with exclamation marks hovering over their heads, waiting to tell the players what needs to be done. It is up to them to explore Restenford and its environs and it is up to them to unearth the stories that will lead them into danger.

That’s not to say the adventure doesn’t give them some direction. In true old school fashion Bone Hill has an extensive list of rumors that the party can hear during their interactions around the town. How much they can trust those rumors is another decision the party will have to make and a wise group will be cautious about what they believe.

One related detail that I enjoy is that a few of the illustrations depict scenes from the rumor table that are not true. It makes me wonder if these rumors are based on things that happened in the author’s gaming group.

There are two other details that I appreciate about The Secret of Bone Hill. The first is that the castle of Restenford is completely mapped out and keyed, with rumors around the town that the ruling family’s wealth is secured within. As I mentioned, the module makes no assumptions about the adventurers’ motivations and the castle is not simply a place to go and receive quests from the baron and baroness. A group may prefer to try their luck at robbing the castle instead of risking the horrors of Bone Hill.

The other detail I love is found at the ruins on Bone Hill. The history of the ruined castle is not told within the module, but a lot of its story can be discerned from the map and the location descriptions. The remains of siege engines can be found outside of ruined walls. There are areas that show substantial fire damage, including burn circles marked on the map. Many skeletal remains can be found around the siege engines and within the courtyard, telling of a fierce battle between bugbears and humans. We don’t know the details, but the clues to the castle’s history are compelling, all the more because they are told through what the party sees and can deduce.

If there is one criticism I have it’s that the main threats lack an element of the fantastic. There is no dragon, no demon lord, no alien monstrosity that strikes terror into the players when their characters come face-to-face with it. Nothing that is epic by its existence alone. This can be remedied by developing the personalities of the intelligent villains and making them a more aggressive threat to the characters and the region.

Of course, you can also add a horrifying threat of your own.

The Secret of Bone Hill encapsulates what I think of in old school Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a small sandbox where low-to-mid level characters can make their own way, free from any expectations beyond their thirst for adventure. There are mysteries, there are opportunities for role playing, there are unforgiving threats, and a wealth of treasure to be discovered.

The Secret of Bone Hill is available in .pdf format on dndclassics.com. Give it a look, you won’t be disappointed.

BoneHillCover

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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The Intergalactic Nemesis

“The year is 1933. Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloan and her intrepid research assistant Timmy Mendez team up with a mysterious librarian from Flagstaff, Arizona, named Ben Wilcott. Together, they travel from Rumania to Scotland to the Alps to Tunis to the Robot Planet and finally to Imperial Zygon to defeat a terrible threat to the very future of humanity: an invading force of sludge-monsters from the planet Zygon!”

The Intergalactic Nemesis: Target Earth

Last night my kids and I enjoyed a unique stage show called, The Intergalactic Nemesis. The show is the live performance of a graphic novel done in the style of an old science fiction melodrama. It’s a fantastic blend of performance where all the aspects of the show are on stage for everyone to see.

At one end of the stage they have a live pianist who improvises the score for every show. The center stage is dominated by the folly artist and her table, giving the audience a rare glimpse at the art of producing sound effects as part of the performance. Above her is a large screen on which they project panels taken straight from the graphic novel, which are controlled by a board operator who is also on stage. She also handles organ music. Finally there are the three voice actors, up front with their microphones, each actor deftly handling a total of about 30 characters.

The story is something straight from a pulp novel, where Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would feel right at home. There is murder, intrigue, a mind controlling master villain, alien invaders, a square jawed heroic librarian, a fresh faced kid from Texas, and a woman reporter with enough moxie to impress Lois Lane.

There is also humor. Lots of humor. The story has tongue in cheek without drifting into outright satire. This is a love note to pulp fiction, not a parody, and the enthusiasm the cast projects is contagious. An infection they enhance by encouraging audience participation. The audience is encouraged to cheer the heroes, boo the villains, and gasp in shock.

My children had a tendency to cheer for the villains. This should surprise no one.

The Intergalactic Nemesis is the brainchild of Ray Golgan and Jason Neulander, who came up with the idea back in 1996. The project evolved many times over the years and the current incarnation has been touring the world since 2010. In addition to their stage performance they have three dramas available on CD and two in graphic novel format with the third book slated to be released soon.

My kids and I immensely enjoyed the performance and I recommend you catch the show if they show up in your area. Information about the show, tour dates, and copies of their merchandise can be found on their website, The Intergalactic Nemesis. They even have a YouTube channel where you can watch their performances!

It is a joy to see people with a love for the genre who have found such a unique way to share it with audiences and I hope their schedule will bring them back to our area in the future.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Books and Comics, Reviews, Science Fiction

 

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The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

“Four miles east of Saltmarsh, just inland of the old coast road and looking out to sea, stands the Haunted House. Until twenty years ago it had been the residence of an aged alchemist/magician of sinister reputation, and even then had been shunned by reason of its owner’s mysterious occupations. Now, two decades after the sudden and unexplained disappearanceof its occupant, the house has acquired an even greater air of evil and mystery with the passing years.”

-The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, pg. 3

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was written by David J. Browne with Don Turnbull and was published in 1981 by TSR’s UK division. It’s an excellent introductory module, designed for levels 1-3 and filled with enough twists and turns to keep the players guessing.

This was another of our go-to modules back when I started gaming. The haunted house aspect gave it a different flair from the other dungeons we ran and the mystery gave the adventure extra allure. If you’re not familiar with this module you may want to give this review a pass, as the titular secret is an important part of the scenario and there will be spoilers ahead.

You have been warned.

The adventure focuses on the abandoned mansion of an evil alchemist who vanished 20 years ago. Stories of mysterious lights appearing in the house, coupled with unearthly shrieks and other hauntings, have caused the people of Saltmarsh to shun the building. These tales are bolstered by locals who are all to eager to share stories of their narrow escapes from ghosts or vampires, especially if prompted by a few pints of ale. However there is also speculation about the missing alchemist’s wealth, which may still be hidden somewhere inside.

With a crumbling mansion on a cliff high above the sea combined with legends of lost treasure and evil spirits the setup is worthy of a Hammer horror film. However the true secret of the mansion is much more prosaic. The house is not haunted, it is the shore base for a group of smugglers who are lead by an illusionist. He uses his spells to perpetuate the myths about the house.

The mansion’s map is well done. The upper floors are creepy enough to keep the party on edge, a sensation bolstered by the illusionist’s spells. In true old school fashion the layout offers several ways to explore the house, and two secret ways to access the hidden lower chambers where the smugglers have their headquarters. Also within the lower halls is a sea cave where the smuggler’s ship can be found at anchor.

“You have entered a room which is so unlike anything else you have seen in the House that for a moment you pause, somewhat taken aback. The illumination here is good since several lighted torches are held in shoulder-high brackets around the walls. This was obviously a cellar, but equally obviously it is now used for an entirely different purpose; your first impression is that it is the living quarters for about ten people.”

-The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, pg. 11

I have never failed to get a rise out of the party when they discover the truth about the house. The twist from Hammer horror film to Scooby Doo caper is what makes this adventure unique and memorable. It’s a fun mix of exploration and mystery with several fine additions thrown in, such as a room barricaded by the smugglers that contains some of the alchemist’s creations or the hidden laboratory where the alchemist’s final fate can be discovered.

The writing in the adventure is flowery and verbose, even compared to adventures written by Gary Gygax. I enjoy this and it makes the adventure fun for the DM to read. Unfortunately it also spills into the boxed text.

A note about that; unlike many in the OSR I am not against boxed text descriptions in modules. My friends and I didn’t learn D&D from older players, we were 12 and 13 year olds who figured it out on our own. As such, boxed text was helpful in teaching us how to describe things to our players. That’s what good boxed text should do, help the DM give the players an evocative description that also allows them to make decisions.

What boxed text should not do is tell players what their characters are doing and that happens a lot in Saltmarsh. Frequently the text tells the players not only what they see, but how they react to it, or how they approach it. For example, in one case the text assumes that the adventurers enter from the hallway and makes no sense if the characters are coming down the back staircase. However this is a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent module.

Aside from being a good adventure, Saltmarsh provides opportunities for further escapades. With its sturdy construction, secret chambers, and hidden sea cave more than one party has decided to turn the mansion into a base of operations. Some have restored the structure and lived there openly while others have picked up where the smugglers left off, especially if they capture the ship intact.

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was written as a lead-in to a three module series that includes Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy. However it is perfectly fine as a stand-alone adventure. If you’re looking for a classic module that combines traditional dungeon crawling with an interesting twist I recommend tracking down a copy. It’s available in .pdf from www.dndclassics.com and print copies shouldn’t be too hard to find.

SinisterSaltmarsh

 

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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Board Game Bits

Greetings Programs,

I’ve got three bits about board games; two reviews and one news item.

We spent New Years with friends in Columbus, OH and on New Years day we ventured out to one of my friend’s favorite gaming/comic shops, Packrat Comics, in Hilliard, OH. Packrat is a great store, well organized and clean, with a wide variety of comics, games, and other geekish toys. They’re light on role playing games, but other than that it’s an excellent store with a friendly and helpful staff. They also have a good stock of games for customers to try out and the staff is happy to set them up and teach people how to play.

I don’t have a friendly local gaming store so I don’t get to play games in stores very often. Not board games, not role playing games. So I was happy to jump in and play one of their demo games with my friend and his two daughters. The game?

Castle Panic: Published in 2009 by Fireside Games (how have I missed out on this game for so long?) Castle Panic is a cooperative board game tower defense game, in the literal sense. The game board consists of a series of circles divided into six zones and three colors. In the center circle are six towers and walls. The first circle is labeled swordsmen, the second for knights, the third for archers, and the farthest is the forest. On each player’s turn several things happen, including drawing monsters and placing them in the forest, advancing creatures towards the towers, and playing cards to fight back against them. Monsters are placed by rolling a D6 and placing the creature in that zone, then advancing them one ring each turn. Players fight back by playing cards. A card of the correct ring name and color will do damage. For example, if a monster is in the Knight ring of the Red zone, a corresponding card can be used to damage the creature. Play continues until all the monsters are killed or all the towers are destroyed.

The game is fast and furious. The rules are elegant, easy to grasp, and are exciting for both children and adults. Our game came down to a nail-biting finale, with us slaying the final creature just before losing our final tower. This is also a game that would be fun to bling out, either by digging out my old lead minis or printing up some paper figs, perhaps giving me an excuse to get more Okumarts sets.

Castle Panic is a fun game that has earned a place high on my wish list. Packrat was sold out, or one would have been coming home with me.

High Noon Saloon: A game that they did have in stock was High Noon Saloon. This game has been on my wish list for a while, so it was coming home with me. Published in 2011 by Slugfest Games (which may be my new favorite company name) High Noon Saloon is a light, fast playing game about bar fights in the old west. The board depicts the titular saloon, divided into several sections where the characters can duck under the bar, take cover behind the piano or an upturned table, or dive off the balcony. Characters have unique special abilities and players hold a hand of items and actions that range from knives and whips to six guns and rifles. Of course there are also chairs that can be smashed over someone’s head.

Ammunition is a precious commodity and each time you put a gun into play you draw a random bullet card to see how many rounds it has. Other cards allow you to “call out” an opponent, putting both of you into the center of the bar to duke it out, a risky maneuver since there is no cover there.

I do have one small complaint in the components. The cards are fine. The tokens are adequate, not great but not bad. However the board is too small. The character tokens are about the size of a nickle, but even at that size the board gets crowded when more than one character is in the same location. The small scale makes it difficult if you want to swap the tokens for figures. The board also feels too light and I wish they’d used a heavier stock.

High Noon Saloon plays fast and fun. Slightly more crunchy than Castle Panic, it’s still quick to learn and easy to play. It’s a delightful game and I am very happy to finally have a copy.

Greater Than Games: Big news from Greater Than Games. Their recent unsuccessful Kickstarter has not slowed them down. Instead they just launched three pre-order campaigns for their superhero games. Villains of the Multiverse is the latest expansion for their amazingly fun cooperative superhero game, Sentinels of the Multiverse. The expansion will pit the players against an all new villain team, using the same team mechanics in the earlier Vengeance expansion.

The other two pre-orders are for expansions to Sentinel Tactics, their superhero miniatures game. Sentinel Tactics: Battle for Broken City can be played either as an expansion or a stand-alone game. Sentinel Tactics: For Profit is an expansion usable with either Battle for Broken City or the original Flame of Freedom game.

 

The Wraith(1)

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2015 in Gaming, Reviews

 

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Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure

“The module you are about to read contains the basis for one of the most difficult adventures that my character, Mordenkainen the Mage, ever underwent.”

-Gary Gygax, Special Preface to WG5

Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure was co-written by Robert Kuntz and Gary Gygax as module WG5 of the “World of Greyhawk” adventure series. It was meant to be a stand-alone adventure set in the ruins of Maure Castle, not far from the Free City of Greyhawk. The module is based off an adventure created by Robert Kuntz when he took on the role of co-DM for Gary’s original Greyhawk campaign.

“Primarily, although not exclusively, I created my Castle, ‘The Ruins of El Raja Kye,’ from which this dungeon is derived, for Gary Gygax, who deserved an opportunity for some extensive play because of all the judging (in between all the writing) he had done for the players in his Greyhawk Campaign.”

-Robert Kuntz, Introduction to WG5

I love getting glimpses like this into how the Lake Geneva gaming group worked. It’s a wonderful reminder that Dungeons & Dragons was created by gamers just like us, with the same concerns at the table that we still have today. These were our people, or perhaps I should say we are their people.

It’s also nice to see that Gygax wasn’t the only one who had a fondness for long, comma filled sentences.

The OSR has talked extensively about many classic modules, but Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure seems to be mostly overlooked. This surprises me, because it has always been one of my favorites. I ran it several times for my first gaming group (remember re-running modules?) and used it again with my first university group. I suspect that its late arrival on the scene is why it doesn’t receive more attention, 1984 being beyond what many gamers consider to be the golden age of D&D.

Which is a shame because WG5 is a classic dungeon in every sense. The maps twist and turn and it’s three levels are dense enough that careful cartographers will be able to spot hidden areas. There are tricks and traps aplenty, some quite deadly while others can despoil the characters’ hard won treasures. The dungeon is largely a hack & slash with few options to negotiate with the dungeon denizens, but that’s not to say it doesn’t require thought. Adventurers who simply kick in each door and start swinging will have a harder time than those who use tactics and caution.

WG5 can be classified as a “funhouse dungeon” but not a completely arbitrary one. There is enough story to tie events together if the players pay attention to the clues. The castle was a legendary center of magic before it fell into ruin. Since then a powerful and evil wizard named Tomorast has taken up residence in the dungeon and surrounded himself with minions, apprentices, and the demon-cult he has formed. A cult whose numbers have been dwindling due to Tomorast’s penchant for using them as sacrifices to the greater demon Kerzit. Kerzit is a guardian demon who Tomorast has summoned to protect his greatest treasure, a grimoire known as the Tome of the Black Heart. Tomorast has used the dungeon as a laboratory and storehouse for his magical experiments and now his own deadly creations have mixed with those remaining from the castle’s history.

There are many other things about WG5 that I like. The adventure opens with a two-page section called, “The Adventure Begins,” which guides the players through their journey to the castle ruins and describes their initial decent into the dungeon. It’s clearly written assuming that the players are using the pre-generated characters and feels forced, which I normally wouldn’t like. However the pre-generated characters are legendary figures from Gary’s campaign, Mordenkainen, Yrag, Bigby, and Riggby, and it feels like this is based on what actually happened when Gary was a player.

That feeling is certainly worth a short railroad.

The dungeon itself is well laid out in the classic style. It’s three levels deep, which makes it large enough to pack in plenty of adventure but not so large that it takes over a campaign. Though by its nature there are plenty of options for the DM to expand it on their own. Each section begins with a short description of the general feel of that level including notes on the construction, which helps the DM to describe the environment and provide some clues on the dungeon’s history. For example the stonework on the third level is noticeably more recent, indicating that Tomorast has been expanding the dungeon to suit his needs.

That’s not to say the module is flawless. There is only one way to descend from level one to two and it is hidden behind a secret tunnel. I tend to look at designs like this with a practical mind and the dungeon’s creators wouldn’t have put up with such a difficult design. I’d add a more accessible way to reach level two, but I might bar the second path with a magical gate that can only be opened from below, or perhaps have it filled by a tunnel collapse. There are three paths between level two and three, but they don’t line up on the map correctly. It’s so far off that I wonder if it was intentional, indicating some kind of magical teleportation such as you find in the Castle of the Mad Archmage, but this is never stated.

The adventure is designed for characters level 9-12, which I like. It’s powerful enough to be epic but still within the range of what most gaming groups can legitimately reach through regular play. Danger is present from the moment the characters enter the dungeon and the module doesn’t hold off on true peril, with one of the most deadly (and spectacular) challenges found on the first level. Treasure abounds within, including potent magical items, but most of these objects are designed to be interesting and cool rather than overpowered.

The Tome of the Black Heart itself is no simple spellbook. Instead it’s a manual with instructions for creating objects and summoning powerful otherworldly beings rather than simply providing more spells for the wizard’s arsenal. I particularly like this, as this makes obtaining the Tome feel less like the completion of an adventure and more like the opening of several new quests.

This concept is reflected throughout the dungeon and fires the imagination of both the players and the DM. Every quest completed, every great treasure obtained, is just the key to the next adventure.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Gaming, Reviews

 

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Outrider!

Greetings Programs,

Being an old school Car Wars fan I’m interested in any game that lets me crush some cars. Preferably with high powered weapons. So when I learned that Dice Fest Games is running a Kickstarter for Outrider, their autodueling game, I had to check it out.

Outrider has existed for a few years as a print-and-play and print-on-demand game available through Drive Thru RPG. The Kickstarter campaign will allow them to do a full production run complete with expansions. I own a .pdf of the print-and-play starter deck so I fired up the printer, grabbed my knife and glue, and went to town cutting out cards and counters.

And counters.

And more counters.

There are a lot of counters. Most of them are small squares designed to be double sided. You could leave them single sided, but it’s easier in play if they are double sided and the added thickness of two layers of cardstock makes them easier to handle. It was worth it, but the counters will haunt my dreams.

Outrider is played using cards, but it is not a card game. Instead the cards are used as playing pieces on the board. One card represents your vehicle and displays its name, weapon arcs, and any special attributes like improved handling or armor bonuses. Another card represents your dashboard, tracking your cars abilities, damage status, actions, and skill points. Your car has four stats; Engine, Drive, Armor, and Weapons. You receive four different dice; a d6, d8, d10, and d12, and you use these to customize your vehicle by assigning one die to each statistic. The assigned die is what you roll during game play to take actions; maneuvers based on Drive, resisting damage based on Armor, etc… This offers a lot of customization options based on how you assign the dice each game, while at the same time balancing the vehicles nicely. Each car also has bonuses that add to different statistics, but these are not overpowering and are never more than a +2. This gives the cars an interesting variety without any vehicle being overpowered.

An interesting byproduct of this is that your dice allocation has a much greater impact on performance than car selection. A car whose image looks like a tank may actually have weak armor and great acceleration, while one that looks like a dune buggy may have the highest armor and biggest guns on the road.

You map out your car’s movement using maneuver cards which you lay in front of your vehicle’s card, building a track that shows where you are going. Each maneuver card has a difficulty number and once you’ve laid out the whole track you add up the total and that becomes the target number you need to beat. You then roll your Drive die and add any applicable bonuses. If you make the roll you move to the new position and if you fail you lose control.

The movement process goes quickly and we spent more time shuffling through the maneuver cards looking for the right ones than we did planning our actions. In the future I’ll try sorting the cards into different stacks instead of keeping them in a single deck.

Combat is also an easy process. If an enemy card is within range (three card lengths) and within the firing arc of your weapons, you hit automatically. Then your target rolls his or her Armor die while you roll your Weapon die. If you roll higher than your target, the target takes a point of damage. Each car has six damage points.

Outrider is fun, easy to learn, and plays quickly. Two of us were able to figure out the rules and play two games in about 2 1/2 hours.

It’s inevitable that I compare it to the venerable Car Wars and while both games will satisfy your autodueling itch, they each do so in a different way. Car Wars is more simulationist while Outrider is more of an arcade game. Movement, construction, and combat are all more abstract in Outrider, and it has less setup. When you want a meatier game go for Car Wars but if you want a quick shot of automotive adrenaline, Outrider is just the ticket. Both are outstanding games that bring different approaches to the genre and I’m glad to have Outrider sitting on my shelf.

There are still six days left on the Outrider’s Kickstarter and the current starter game can be found on Drive Thru RPG, where they have a sale going. The Print-and-Play version is on sale for $1.99 and you can get the combo Print-on-Demand and Print-and-Play games for $9.99.

Give it a look!

Outrider

 

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in Gaming, Reviews

 

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19th Level Reviews Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

The blog 19th Level has done a nice review of Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition.

I’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu since 3rd Edition was the new, shiny hotness. The game has been a staple of our group for decades and we are deeply invested in the system. One of the things I and my group have appreciated is that all six editions have been compatible. Rules changes have been minor and the differences between some editions has been little more than organization and clarifications. I could pick up a book written for 1st Edition and use it in a 6th Edition game with ease.

When we heard that 7th Edition would be making significant rules changes my group and I were concerned. Thoughts of the D&D edition wars came to mind and the specter of that game’s 4th edition were hard to shake.

However 19th Level’s review has helped ease my sanity-deprived mind. While the changes described are significant, it sounds like the core of the game remains intact and that while conversion will take effort, it will still be possible. Unlike new editions of D&D, where compatibility after 2nd edition is virtually non-existent, it appears that Call of Cthulhu will still allow you to mix-and-match your old horrors with new offerings.

Make sure to give his review a look!

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2014 in Gaming, Horror, Reviews

 

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Super Shows

Currently I’m trying to keep up with three TV shows, which is a lot for me. It should be no surprise that all of them are based on comics.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I continue to love this show. I was hooked from its slow and rocky beginnings, when I considered it the Coulson and May show and couldn’t even remember Agent Pretty-Boy’s name. My how things have changed. Ward has become one of my favorite villains and the additions to the cast have been excellent. The guest stars haven’t hurt either and they are taking full advantage of their connections to the greater Marvel cinematic universe. That’s something most shows can’t draw upon and I’m glad to see them leverage it for all it’s worth. It also helps that since the ending of last season they’ve kicked the pacing into high gear.

I like the characters, I like the setting, I like the action, and I like the twisty plots. I’m also very glad that they’re moving ahead with the central mystery. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the show I’m most invested in and I love it.

The Flash – Wow, a DC superhero property that manages not to suck all the fun out of comic characters? Could it be that they’re finally catching on that “grim and gritty” is not the only way to present heroes?

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had pacing problems when it started. Appropriately enough that has not been an issue for The Flash, which dove straight into superheroic action. Giving Barry Allen a healthy dose of Peter Parker-like luck and background hasn’t hurt the story either, making Barry Allen more relateable and interesting. Another interesting difference is that while S.H.I.E.L.D. hides the major plot twists to surprise the viewer, The Flash is telegraphing them. The audience already knows who the evil mastermind is and we get to enjoy watching the chess game between him and the unaware good guys.

They’ve also done a good job of putting Flash up against a strong stable of his classic Rogues Gallery. One of my biggest complaints about a lot of past superhero TV shows is that they lacked supervillains. The Flash does not have this problem, with Barry squaring off against new metahuman challenges each week.

However I still have some complaints. The first is that they keep killing off their villains. This has improved somewhat by the introduction of the metahuman prison under the ruins of STAR Labs, but they’ve still killed off most of the villains they introduced. The prison also introduces an ethical question that hasn’t been touched on. Our heroes are imprisoning people indefinitely and denying them any due process. I wish they would at least address this, make it an ethical dilemma, and let them argue about it. Instead they ignore it, and that bugs me.

They’re fallen into “Villain of the Week” syndrome. I do love that they have so many super battles, but so far each villain has been neatly dealt with in one episode. They could stand to have a two-part episode once in a while, or a villain who escapes to come back later. Also they waited way too long before they gave the titular hero his correct name. Until the most recent episode they were calling him “The Streak”. Why they waited this long to call him Flash is beyond me.

Of course we need to have a love triangle, which is a plot cliche I have no interest in. Though I am happy that the other guy is a good character. I like him and I don’t think he’s going to turn evil, which means he’ll probably die.

Constantine – Back when Vertigo Comics first launched, John Constantine’s Hellblazer was the title that I latched onto and couldn’t stop reading. I was a teenager and the anti-hero in Constantine blew me away. He was a jackass, he had crushing self-doubt that he covered with bravado, he would win but take so much of a beating that it didn’t seem like a victory. The plots were graphic, dark, raw, and more explicit than what I was used to seeing in comics. It was also very much a product of the late 80’s and early 90’s, channeling the feel of the black magic horror movies tof the time. Movies like The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Prophecy, and Prince of Darkness.

When I heard they were bringing Constantine to TV I had my doubts. I wondered how well it would translate to television.

As it turns out, not too bad. First off, they nailed the look. From how the actor talks and dresses to the colors that they use, John Constantine looks like he walked out of a comic book. The atmosphere is fatalistic, with foul rituals and dark magic at every turn. Many classic characters from Hellblazer have shown up, including Chas, Zed, and Papa Midnight. John is a jackass, full of himself and milking a reputation that is far more fearsome than his actual abilities. Despite the dark and horrific nature of the world, they also manage to inject a sense of the absurd and dark humor.

Constantine is also not without a few flaws. Stories feel rushed and the characters feel a bit unnatural. I never quite forget that I’m watching actors when I should be connecting with the characters. I also worry that the show might turn modern audiences off due to its irreverent take on various religions, which gives me concerns about its future. There are things you can get away with in a niche comic that won’t fly in the mass media. We’ll see what happens.

*****

That’s what I’m watching, and for me that’s a lot. I’m getting good mileage out of the superhero boom and I can’t remember when we’ve had so many good non-animated genre shows on the air. Honorable mention also goes to Doctor Who, which I don’t so much follow as DVR and binge-watch once the season is over.

What have you been watching?

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2014 in Books and Comics, Movies & TV, Reviews

 

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