Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Mistborn

Right before finals, I finished up Brandon Sanderson‘s book Mistborn (Amazon). I have to say, I was genuinely impressed. I started reading it after getting a recommendation for The Way of Kings via @feliciaday, though I wasn’t prepared to buy a new hardcover. Not when I could get an earlier trilogy for even cheaper. And I was curious to see what kind of author puts the “Epic” back into “Epic Fantasy.” And I’m going to say, while I don’t know that he did it in Mistborn, I can definitely see that he’s capable.

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Review: Arcane Power

Okay, I’m not the internet wizard I thought I was.  I just got back from a vacation (to Disney World!) and none of my posts auto-posted to the future.  So, I’ll be posting them over the next few days.  Sorry about that!

First off, I’ll be reviewing Wizard on the Coast’s Arcane Power, their second power source supplement.  If you’ve read Martial Power, then you know exactly what you’re getting into – builds and powers, paragon paths and epic destinies.  All good stuff in this one, though the power creep is starting to… creep.

My first beef is the presence of the bard in the book.  I mean, I get why and how and so forth, but when a book presents new options to a class that was introduced a mere month before, I kinda feel like I’m being taken for a ride.  That being said, I’ve always felt like playing Wizards’ games was a ticket to a very glossy ride anyway, so it wasn’t too much of a surprise.  Not only that, but the bard’s pictured in the book don’t seem to have any instruments.  I mean, unless a giant flaming sword and a bow and arrow are now musical instruments, in which case there’s a band I need to form.  And many of the bard’s powers have little to nothing to do with… barding.  Firemetal Shot, Wall of Anguish, and Arrow of Destiny all sound like kickass powers… for my ranger. And as for the other powers…  adding the word “cadence” or “euphonic” do not make it bardy, they just make you a tool.  But the Half-Elf Emissary seems pretty sweet – the Gambit power, partnered with 4E’s new minions mean that those bonuses are going to be huge.

The sorcerer gets some new gizmos, and I like ’em.  Storm Magic is simple yet awesome, much like the thunder and lightning upon which the class build draws its theme.  I like it.  The Cosmic Magic build seems cool, but seems a little… catch-all for my tastes.  But some people who fancy themselves to be cosmic and deep will probably love it.  Moon Cage seems nice.

I can’t really speak to the swordmage, because I haven’t really gone through my copy of 4E Forgotten Realms yet, and haven’t run a Storm Mage, so… YMMV.

The warlock is where the shit hits the fan.  The Vestige Pact seems… begging to be broken.  Basically, your benefits are always changing, but seem to be about as powerful as the other pacts.  So, instead of 1 pact, you get dozens, depending on what you need.  (Well, you start with the choice of two, but you can get more with powers.  The whole Augment seems to be the veritable definition of creep.)

The new builds for the wizard are great.  After a decade of hating the Illusionist (it was meant as an example people, not the only school specialist), I have to admit I’m glad to see them come back.  And a Summoner?  Hell yeah.  Getting “Summon Fire Warrior” as an ability at 1st level just screams at me to be picked.

The arcane options are pretty… creepily fantastic as well.  I’m particularly fond of “Phantom Echoes,” which allows an Illusionist (or any wizard) to maintain combat advantage against an opponent for… well, pretty much ever.  Familiars are back, and in a big way.  I’m worried 4E familiars are going to creep up, but so far, with only four feats (one required to get the familiar), we’re probably safe for a while.  I feel like Wizards is listening to the complaints about the lack of fluff – little bits like the “Familiar Quirks” table seem to be a response to this.

The Epic Destinies seem to be getting a little more specific, with the awesome “Archspell” going all the way to letting you focus on one spell.  (Though, getting to use a Daily Power as an Encounter Power is pretty nice.)

Overall, Arcane Power is exactly what you expect – if you’re playing an Arcane-based class, you’re going to need to pick this up to keep up, but nothing too radical.


He That Believeth In Me

Battlestar Galactica is back!

I know I’m a week late, but that’s what DVR is for! I just want to say that I was floored by last Friday’s Battlestar Galactica episode, the premiere of the fourth season.

Okay, I’m going to be discussing an episode of television. It’s going to involve spoilers. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Consider yourself duly warned.

The Adamas from Battlestar Galactica

Now, the beginning of the third season had my jaw being propped up by my hands. The end of season two, when Baltar puts his head on the table and then picks it back up one year later… I haven’t been that blown away by an episode of television since the end of season six of TNG, when it turns out the Borg are being lead by Lore. So, it was hard for season four of BSG to pick up at the same tempo.

And yet…

Starting the new episode off at the moment season three ended was fantastic. I know it’s a daunting challenge to do that. Most shows like to let a little time pass from the end of one season to the beginning of another, to account for haircuts and other signs of time passing. So when I see a show go from one moment to another over the course of a summer (like Barney Stinson’s summer spanning LEGENNNNDARY), I’m always impressed.

Tyrol and Anders have always been some of my favorite BSG characters, so it was pretty sweet to find out they were cylons. And the scene where Tyrol slaps Anders around and gets him in the cockpit… I was reveling in it.

Starbuck’s temporal displacement? Nyeh. It was fine. She seemed far wiser at the end of the third season, but I’ll get over it.

Baltar’s sex cult? Awesome! And I have to say, the creation of Baltar, of all people, as a Christ figure, nay, a Christ figure slash pimp, well, that was genius. Pure, unadulterated genius. (Unadulterated. Did you see what I did there?) When Charlie Connor attacks Baltar in the bathroom, I loved it. I loved that it was right after Baltar shaved (I love BSGs use of straight blades for so many reasons), with Baltar both shedding the Christ symbolism, aesthetically, and taking up a more active role as a Christ figure by pleading with God to take his life on behalf of the child’s.

The scene with Starbuck and Anders was deft, if not inspiring. Roslin’s inherent distrust for Starbuck seemed a little forced, but I blame that more on Mary McDonnell than on the writers. (Don’t mistake that for a dislike of either McDonnell or Roslin – I’m fond of both.)

I have one chief complaint against the episode, which also functions as a nice segue into how this relates to good Dungeon Mastering. My chief complaint is the episode ending with Starbuck pointing a gun at Roslin. Lame. I hate how shows do this. Unless Starbuck shoots Roslin (and as much as I enjoy the character of Roslin, Starbuck shooting her would be AWESOME!), it’s just unfulfilled hype. It creates an expectation that Starbuck might shoot Roslin, but we know she won’t. I mean, we have precedent with Boomer shooting Adama, but that’s different. Ending an episode with a cliffhanger like that? Uninspired. That kind of cliffhanger only works if there’s a belief that maybe, just maybe, she might pull the trigger. And without that expectation, it’s just seen as a ploy.

Overview – 39,698 out of 50,298 survivors.

So, the segue. How does this apply to role playing and Dungeon Mastering?

You’ve got to pull the trigger. Not always, but sometimes.

Your Players have to believe that you might. If they think that you might, even if only once in a dozen or five dozen times, you can pull off those cliffhangers. You can scare them. If you can’t threaten your Players, if the only thing that scares them is scarier and scarier and yet scarier monsters, you’re failing to really bring the drama to your table.

Most of my established Players know that I tend to kill someone off about once a year. Might not be in their campaign. Might be with another group. But it does happen. And it’s not always with a big, bad monster. I’ve given characters wasting diseases, poisoned them, had them stabbed in their sleep, the whole of it.

Now, I can hear a few DMs and Players saying that this isn’t fair to Players, that they have an investment in their characters and that you should consult them first.

Horse puckey.

I’ve had Players, who were playing a big, strapping warrior character make one or two off hand comments during a session that it would be fun to play a cerebral wizard or a sneaky thief, and then come up to me after the session and try to clarify that they didn’t mean it. Because that’s all the justification I need.

Sometimes I’ll consult with a player, ask if they want to try a new role. Rarely is it totally out of the blue. It’s usually tied to a Players desire to change, even if only indicated by a comment or two. And it’s rarely if ever unavoidable. Diseases and poisons can be cured and assassins can be thwarted. But it’s difficult. I take it seriously. Because, and here’s the clincher, I make sure the character’s downfall is caused by the character’s actions.

A wasting disease caught from an affair with the mayor’s husband. A poison slipped to them in a magic potion they stole from a cleric. An assassination bounty put in place due to their wanton disregard for an annoying merchant prince’s demands. I’m a big fan of hubris – rocks don’t fall out of the sky and kill characters unless the character said he couldn’t be killed by falling rocks.

Let me make this clear – I don’t do this often. I can count the number of times I’ve done non-combat killings of character (combat includes traps and other dungeon disasters) on two hands, for my entire Dungeon Mastering career. But I’ve done it, and my players know it. And when an NPC threatens their family or friends or them, they know that it’s not hollow Evil Overlord ranting – people die.

And I’m not just talking about death. I take away magic items, I destroy towns. I do bad things as a DM. Again, rarely. But it makes all the posturing and threatening I do the rest of the year that much more intimidating.

Do it. You’ll add drama to the table, drama you need.


No two see the same Maro.

I stopped playing Magic: The Gathering a long time ago. Most of my time playing the game was in middle school. I picked it up again for a few months my sophomore year of college, when a dorm-mate of mine had such a monstrous collection of cards it was hard not to get into it. (And, admittedly, when I was in middle school, I was always wowed by gold cards, no matter how useless they might be. And my sophomore year happened to line up nicely with the Invasion release.)

Anyway, it’s been years since I played. But I still head over to the website, once a week, every week.

Why?

Mark Motherfrackin’ Rosewater.

Maro, the Magic CardHis column “Making Magic,” which comes out once a week every Monday, is a treasure trove of useful ideas. His column is useful even if you’re unfamiliar with Magic, because, unlike the other columns posted on the site, many of Mark’s columns are only tangentially related to the card game. Many of his posts are about game theory and game design in general. And these are things that are useful for any DM.

While Mark may be referring to restrictions breeding creativity in regards to the five colors of mana in Magic, the general idea allows me to examine my own campaign, looking for ways to turn what had previously been restrictions into opportunities for exploration.

His reference to game space may actually refer to the library, the hand, the graveyard, but from it I infer a greater relevance to my campaign setting, looking for areas of the setting or the system or the Players own quirks that I haven’t diligently explored and ruthlessly exploited.

Virtually every article Rosewater writes gives me some inspiration for my current campaign. Even when he’s really, really in the thick of the Magic, and not so much in the middle of the game design theory, I can usually glean one or two tidbits for use. Sometimes, I get nothing more than the artwork for a card he references inspiring one or two truly epic encounters down the road. However, other times, I use an article of his as an outline for an entire series of adventures, a campaign within a campaign, if you will.

I haven’t figured out how to add these articles to my RSS feed. I don’t think I can – I think they want you to go over and read it and maybe click on some links to other things they sell. That’s okay. Do it. Go over there and read Making Magic – it’ll be one of the best free investments in your Dungeon Mastering creativity you’ll make this month.

Overall – 5 out of 5 mana! A must cast!


Bright of the Sky

So I just finished Kay Kenyon‘s novel Bright of the Sky. And it was fantastic.

The novel is the first in her Rose and the Entire series. The Rose and the Entire are also the setting. The ‘Rose’ is our universe, and the ‘Entire’ is a parallel universe of truly epic proportions.

Kenyon does a fantastic job of blending science fiction and fantasy. The Entire is a world with a wholly different set of physics than our universe. At the same time, it’s a scientifically sound universe in and of itself.

The beginning of the book, which involves a distant future and a bit of science fact, is laid out in such a way that I, an English major with minimal scientific knowledge, was able to get what she was saying, the nitty gritty details of the scientific plausibility of the world she was revealing. It was deft, and it was appreciated.

Bright of the Sky CoverThe Entire is a world unlike anything I have ever read. Though it is science fiction, the sheer scope of its alien characteristics made it feel like it was a fantasy world. Weird creatures, unique customs, and a system of mysticism that borders on the magic, all combine to make you wonder at it all.

Now, the protagonist Titus Quinn (who gets the award for most badass name of a protagonist of a book read by me in the last six months) is your standard fish out of water. He’s from the Rose (our world) and he goes to the Entire (their world). His internal commentary give us a point of reference. So far, pretty standard. But Kenyon takes it a step further – ten years before the book even started, he was there. (These aren’t spoilers.) He’s suppressed these memories, and as he explores the Entire, they come back to him. So rather than being your standard stranger, he’s actually quite famous over there, and has to deal with that. A very nice twist on an established trope.

Best of all is Kenyon’s writing style. In addition to making the science incredibly accessible, Kenyon’s words just flow past you. There are occasional sound bites of truly beautiful prose, but for the most part, the words are ignored and all you take away is there meaning. For me, with a novel about a concept world like the Entire, that’s the way I like it. Every paragraph flows seamlessly together into a constantly streaming narrative. It’s really craftsmanship of the highest order.

Overall: 5 out of 7 Roses.


Dreamwalker Revised

Via the Consonant Dude, I took a peak at Peter C Spahn’s new Dreamwalker Revised. And let me say, I liked it. I didn’t love it, but I liked it.

I can’t speak to the game’s production value, since I’ve only read the free online version, which is missing a lot of the artwork. That being said, the game still has a lot more artwork than many other free or not-free digital rpgs I’ve seen lately. Clocking in at over 200 pages and less than $0.01 to purchase, there’s really no reason not to go peak at it. I am rather fond of the inclusion of incredibly pertinent and apropos quotations at the top of the chapter headings, from Aliens to It to the Dark Tower.

Dreamwalker Revised Cover

Spahn says that one reviewer described it as “. . .one part The Matrix, one part The Cell, and two parts Quantum Leap with a healthy dose of Stephen King sprinkled over the top!” I would say that thematically, that’s pretty accurate. Unfortunately, structurally, the expansion to D20 Modern feels like it might have been written by Kevin Siembeda.

Spahn’s world is one where dreams can come alive, and it feels a lot like the World of Darkness (or of the Matrix), in that a select few are in the know, and the rest of the world stumbles along blindly, unaware of the war being fought in their backyards. Spahn has deftly created a universe where any number of genres can be effortlessly pillaged for extra value. The game obviously lends itself to a cyberpunk/gothic horror mythos, but since the backdrop of the game is dreams, your characters can enter a dream on the Starship Enterprise or the Land of Mordor with ease.

Once, when I was in middle school, first getting into D&D and role playing, a friend of mine (friend of a friend, really, but I was a nerd and couldn’t be picky) wanted me to fight a Turask. You know what I’m talking about. In the end, so that he didn’t kill my character (whom I loved more than my parents), it was all a dream. It was a really stupid idea. In Dreamwalker, it would have been nothing more than a poorly structured adventure.

Of special note is the Denouement, a rather insightful creation on Spahn’s part. Every adventure, in theory, has a point. Group of Heroes intends to accomplish Goal by overcoming Obstacle. (Okay, in middle school, I may be been on, and run, a few pointless adventures. See above.) Spahn has incorporated this goal into the Dreamwalker Cosmology – the Denouement is the dreamer’s intent, and the players frequently have to assist, or occasionally thwart, this goal. It’s a very nice piece of work, and something of which Spahn should be proud.

The Brood, the Taenia Spiritus, are the villains. It feels a little heavy handed, but it’s a good construction. It makes the game a little black and white for my tastes, but I’m sure it’s right up the alley for some. The different Broodlings are all well described, though their ephemeral nature as dream-kind seems to leave a lot of work up to the DM to design them.

The organizations in Dreamwalker Revised are solid. The Sword of Gaia and Project Dreamwalker are modeled perfectly on the Platonic Ideas of templars and government agencies. The Lost City of Revead is fantastic, feeling a lot like Sigil. And the Kingdom of Malice… kind of speaks for itself.

My one complaint is some of the more mechanical aspects. My main complaint is with the “advanced classes,” also known as prestige classes. Many of them feel a little… extraneous. I’m looking at you, “Government Agent.” The Government Agent class really doesn’t feel like it’s needed. I admit, I haven’t spent a lot of time with D20 Modern, but I’ve spent enough, and I don’t feel like the Government Agent adds anything that a bunch of feats couldn’t do. The Influence Memory ability might need to be broken down into two feats, but otherwise, there aren’t really any awesome abilities in the class.

The other prestige classes aren’t that awesome, either. The Tomb Raider (yes, that Tomb Raider) is a class that has almost nothing to do with the Dreamwalker mythos. Certainly nothing to do with the world of dreams mechanically. The Paranormal Investigator seems hackneyed at best. The Totemist and Arcanist are both interesting classes, but really don’t feel like they belong in the Dreamwalker Revised book.

Part of this is my problem with prestige classes in general. I feel like the entire concept creates a Palladium like atmosphere, where each book necessitates the addition of new classes, each more unique and powerful than the last, until the entire concept is relatively meaningless. Some of Dreamwalker Revised’s prestige classes really work, like the Dream Weaver and the Dream Warrior. Others, like the Brood Hunter and the Brood Slayer, feel like overused tropes that have to be included and tailored to this specific setting.

But enough. Over all, the supplement is fantastic. If you run D20 Modern campaigns, or any kind of “paranormal” campaign, then I highly recommend you go out and shell out for the full version of this game. Buy it and support it. If you don’t run those kind of games, download the free version and steal one or two idea for your next adventure.

Overall – 9 out of 13 stars.


The HERO System

Last night’s post about the PS238 RPG made me realize I should probably disclose something, in the interests of editorial transparency.

Full Disclosure: I LOVE the HERO System. The HERO System is my favorite role playing system, and I am reluctant, borderline loath, to run any other system. I will gladly sit down at another DM’s table and play anything. Even Whitewolf or worse, if I have to. But I will really only enjoy running HERO.

HERO is not for everyone. It’s not a perfect system. HERO can do anything, literally anything, but it can rarely do things simply. It can be a very complicated under some circumstances, but it makes up for it in being able to handle any circumstances.

For those of you unfamiliar with the HERO System, think of it as a superior and cheaper version of GURPS. Like GURPS, the HERO System can be applied to any genre – scifi, fantasy, superheroes, horror, whatever. It’s a little more complicated than GURPS, so that might be a drawback. But unlike GURPS, you only have to buy one book. One book for the player, one for the DM. One book for the monsters, one book for the spells, one book for the superpowers, one book for the spaceships, one book for the prestige classes, one book for the cybergear… you get the idea. Not one book for each. One book, period.

As a DM, and as a player, I love HERO. It’s an incredible system, and while it’s not for everybody, it is for me. It requires a mature group, since it can occasionally be prone to munchkining. And it requires experienced players, who are comfortable with RPG rules. But with the right group, there’s nothing better.

And now is a fantastic time to be playing HERO. It’s been around for over twenty-five years, either as HERO or as Champions, and we’re in a Golden Age. While the tabletop RPG market may be struggling, HERO seems to be in a good position. DOJ Games, the current owners of the franchise, led by Steve Long, are incredible stewards. They’re Fifth Edition did wonders to the game. I’m a little nervous about the upcoming Sixth Edition, but we’ll see. The books they’re churning out are awesome. The forums are unlike any I’ve seen – Steve Long chips in every day. I mean, constantly, as do many other members of the team. Feedback is constantly being received and assessed. And to top it all off, the Champions setting, the granddaddy of superhero role playing, is being turned into a new MMO by the makers of City of Heroes. Champions Online could be huge.

This is kind of turning into a review and a plug, as much as it is a disclosure of my tastes.

I intend to make this blog as friendly as possible to all system.s But I thought I’d let you know that my heart is not measured in love, but in Active Points.