Category Archives: reviews

D&D 5e Basic Rules First Thoughts

The “free version” of the new fifth edition D&D rules are out – 110 pages of pdf, available at Wizards of the Coast.

My initial reaction is that I like it.  Background: I’ve played D&D from the original BECMI “Red Box” Basic through 1e AD&D, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, hated 4e, play Pathfinder. (Plus many other games of course).

Things I think it does right:

1. As a free PDF, it will really help draw in new/casual players. Game stores can have a couple copies laying around. You can forward a copy to a friend who has expressed interest in the game. It’s not as nice for future in-play use as the free hyperlinked SRD approach of Pathfinder, but it’ll be very accessible to new players.

2. The three pillars of adventure are listed as exploration, social interaction, and combat.  They list combat last and try hard in this PDF at least to not give it primary billing, which may result in less pure hack and slash than in the future. The Combat section itself is only 9 pages! (Obviously there’s rules affecting combat everywhere else, but that was nice.)

3. Clear call-outs to GM discretion.  GM describes, you say what you want to do, GM narrates the results. That gives me hope that we won’t see the return of the rules that cater to the over-legalistic players, which leads us to…

4. Light rules.  Now, we’ll see how much of this is because of the short format and how much they’ll run over this once the PHB is out, but this is pleasingly not all legalistic and rules heavy.  There’s already people fretting over the “Rules of Hidden Club” and other “rules as written” minutia as they have in past editions, even though the Basic rules say clearly “you know, GM discretion whether you can sneak up on someone, man.”  The spell descriptions take a couple steps back towards being sane in length, with type, casting time, range, components, and duration being the only “required fields.” I’ve written before on the relative sizes and bloat across the editions – using the Knock spell as a benchmark, this one is 132 words, shorter than 3.5e’s 206 words but longer than BECMI’s 122. Replacing 100 fiddly bonuses with advantage/disadvantage – seems fun, we’ll see how it works out (I imagine smart min-maxers will find a way to have enough advantage that it’ll always cancel out any disadvantage).

5. Inclusivity.  They totally even one-up Paizo on this, by openly saying in the Sex section “You don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender. The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon’s image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character’s sexual orientation is yours to decide.” It’s just a short statement saying “Yes, you all can play too, and play characters like that if you want.” If backed up with art and more diverse characters in stories, then maybe we’ll get more women, people of color, people of differing sexualities, etc. into gaming, which I think is fine and dandy.

6. Hits the high points that made D&D such a classic in the first place.  It doesn’t try to sell “some new thing we made up just for this edition” like Dragonborn, it is the big 4 classes and big 4 races. Not sure of the need for the subraces, especially the dwarven ones (“the hillbillies and the mountainbillies are fighting again,” said no one ever), but perhaps that’s more included just to show that it’s possible.

The negatives:

1. The art. First of all, there’s not any.  It’s not that we’re “entitled” to it and sure, “it’s free what do you expect” – but this is being put out to try to be a thread to draw people into the game, and it would benefit from a freaking cover with a picture on it. We all know that blog posts, articles, etc. of all descriptions convert readers a lot more when there’s media in them. Same goes for when you forward a PDF to an RPG-curious friend. Second of all, the one piece is in the back and it’s from the Basic set cover; I’ve seen some of the other cover art online. What’s with the art style, it all looks like you’re viewing it through static? It’s not like the pop-off-the-shelf Elmore stylized colors of the 1980s, and it looks like every other damn fantasy cover out there.  I think they’d be better served going a little more of a modern direction on it, some anime influence, at least some more vivid colors and lines.

2. They jacked with the PDF so you can’t cut and paste out of it.  Really, Wizards? That just makes me *want* to pull it up an Acrobat and fix that little problem and re-disseminate it.  I had to retype in even the small quotes in this review. Weak. [Edit: Apparently you can cut and paste out of the "printer friendly" version. Thanks waxeagle.]

But other than that, I like where they’re going with it.  If only there will be restraint such that the rules stay light (more content is fine – having more classes is great, having more rules for everyone to keep in mind and follow isn’t) then I’ll be tempted to use it because I am so tired of spending hours rules-wrangling on Pathfinder.

Aside

If you haven’t played the super sweet coop superhero card game Sentinels of the Multiverse, you should!  It’s our gaming group’s favorite non-RPG currently.

Skull & Shackles Minis

OK, after I got all my Reapers Bones minis I tried to tell myself I didn’t need any more minis. But then Paizo/Wizkids came out with their Pathfinder prepainted plastic Skull & Shackles minis that are all piratey.  And I’m still running  my years-long Reavers pirate campaign

So I gave in and got a brick from my favorite cheapest-on-the-Web source, RPG Locker. They came in and they’re sweet!  Lots of pirates, but also the Large minis are a lot more impressive.  In each booster is 3 small/mediums and one Large. None were broken or missing and unboxing was simple. [Ed. Later when looking at mini pics online I have come to realize my Greater Host Devil is broken and missing his wings.]

I’m getting set to run Razor Coast and pretty much all of these minis are perfect for it…

Without further ado here’s some pics! First some pirates and folk.  Some of those are “named characters” and some aren’t, but they’re all just as well done!

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The sharks really impressed me, especially the hammerhead. Really thick, has a threatening plumpness to him. Note the paint job on the multiple rows of teeth on the other shark!

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Now some of the larges. Check out the naga!  There’s also a medium version.

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And the scrag, or sea troll.  The land troll looks a little small and wimpy, but this guy is huge!

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When I opened this box I screamed “OH GOD NO WHAT IS IT!?!”  Apparently a “drowning devil.”  The largest and most menacing of all of them.

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And a lady-faced spider.  Not an aranea.  Not a phase spider.  Yet another, a “Paeta.”  But ignore that and use the mini for all of them!

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Action shot with a medium guy facing off against them!

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A bunch of really nice minis!

D&D Next Early Thoughts – It Works But It’s Boring

DD-Next-Image-660x499As I’m sure you know, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, branded as “D&D Next,”  is in open playtest. I brought you stunning coverage of the 4e debacle and resulting edition wars, so surely I need to chime in here! Here’s my take on Next.

I liked and have played Basic, 1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder in their turn. I hate 4e and eschew it. I said earlier what I’d like to see in 5e – moving back to a really stripped down core more at 2e levels of complexity. And it sounds like they’re doing that.

The D&D Next rules seem fine to me. I welcome a more light approach and removing a lot of the minmax frenzy from 3e+.  When 3e came out I was really excited and migrated from 2e but now in retrospect the rule bloat, christmas tree syndrome, legalism, and min-maxing made me sad and I like what I see in the D&D Next rules per se. Not everything is how I’d design it, but it’s well within the scope of “rules that will work for D&D.”

However, they are committing the cardinal sin of game design – it’s boring.

I can barely make myself read through the playtest packets. I think they’ve miscalculated badly in having no art, no layout, no fluff in there. I’m sure they’d say that’s by design (ignoring how much of a positive impact that had with the Pathfinder playtest – to this day Paizo makes sure to put all playtest docs through layout). But even without that, the text just has no voice.  It could – Savage Worlds, for example, presents a ruleset about the same size with some flair and savoir faire – but reading the Next playtests is like reading a really boring car manual.

Maybe that’ll all be in there when it launches – maybe.  Maybe Aleena the cleric gets whacked by Bargle again and gives us a hate hard-on for him and pulls us into the action. Maybe the art will be inspired and not just aping Pathfinder or using the current “I airbrushed this on my van” art style they seem to like. But even just the writing style does not say “Adventure!” to me, it says “Technical manual!”

Part of a playtest should be to whip up enthusiasm, but like many of my friends, I downloaded and eagerly read packet #1, I downloaded and skimmed #2, I downloaded and didn’t bother opening #3, I didn’t bother downloading #4 at all… It’s not the rules’ fault, and I’m sure if I playtested it my group of good roleplayers would have a grand old time. We know how to add “zazz” on top of any system you put before us.  But if I gave it to some 12 year olds who haven’t played an RPG before? Are they going to bother to finish reading even the reasonable and short page count? Will their imaginations be fired up by what they read – because mine’s not being?

Guys – lean doesn’t have to mean boring.  Someone at WotC, please force the Next design team into a room at gunpoint and tell them they can’t come out until they can tell you the most badass D&D story ever, and then make them write the rules around that story.

Geek Movie Review: Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 was an impressive movie, in my opinion possibly the best of the Iron Man franchise – and that’s high praise, because Iron Man is the best of Marvel superhero franchise films going. This picture sums up the movie.iron-man-3-tony-stark-robert-downey-jrAs we begin, Tony Stark is suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder stemming from the events of the Avengers movie.  Aliens, gods, destruction of Manhattan – he has retreated to his home and holed up, neurotically building Iron Man suit after Iron Man suit and having panic attacks. It’s a good riff off the Tony Stark of the comics, who would have drunk himself into a coma – I guess they decided that wasn’t good for the kids or something but this works.

A terrorist called The Mandarin, who looks all bristly and ringed and scary, not green and quite so Yellow Peril-y as in the comics but threatening as he releases his oddly paternal press releases upon commission of various bombings and other acts of terror.

As you already know from the trailers, Stark tries to stay out of that for a while, then gives the Mandarin some stick, and gets his house blown up good with him and Pepper in it.  And thus it begins!

The movie is a lot more about Stark’s journey than about Iron Man, so it gets to leverage Robert Downy Jr’s acting skills heavily – one of its key advantages over the otherwise puddin’-faced  Marvel lead actors (Captain America and Thor, I’m looking at you). There’s a great set of scenes where Stark is interacting with a precocious 10 year old kid, and it’s hilarious because he doesn’t know how to talk to a kid so he just treats him like Tony treats an adult. Like after he shares his little moppet story about his dad leaving, Stark replies, “Dads leave. No need to be such a pussy about it.”

I was wondering how they were going to avoid “jumping the shark” with the introduction of the Mandarin. Sure, the overall Marvel universe has every kind of weirdness in it, but they rightly try to usually keep it down to 1 or 2 even in a given comic, and Joe Sixpack is going to bail out if the Marvel movies ladle it on too thick.  I’m not going to spoil the big plot twist here, but I absolutely love and approve of what they did with the Mandarin in this movie. I will note that Ben Kingsley is unexpectedly hilarious.

They kept Tony out of the armor for a lot of the time, and that worked very well. There was one armor-holocaust fight scene, and that was nice, but they made a much stronger movie by not just “amping it up” for a third movie.  In fact, I’m even more impressed as I wonder how they got that to fly at all.  I can imagine the discussion with the Hollywood exec.  “Iron Man 3!  So we’re going to have like 4 story tall Iron Man right? And bigger explosions, we upped the effects budget by 250%!” “Uh, no, we were thinking Tony would be out of the armor and dealing with psychological stuff and talking to kids and stuff.”  The level of blackmail and extortion that must be required to make an actual good movie as the third in a blockbuster series is dizzying.

Anyway, we get to see A.I.M. in action (no MODOK, sadly) and their creation of Extremis, a bio-nanotech superjuice that isn’t all that unrealistic really. They don’t wear the cute little yellow suits though.

AIMI’m not saying any of the main actors should get an Oscar, but for a blockbuster/superhero movie, Iron Man 3 is remarkably well written, directed, and acted.  I give it 4 out of 5 M.O.D.O.K.s.

Geek Book Review: Liar’s Blade

liarsbladeI just finished reading Liar’s Blade, one of a batch of Pathfinder Tales novels I got recently. This is a line of novels set in Pathfinder’s Golarion game world.

This is a well-crafted novel, not standard tie-in fiction fare by any means. It’s a story of a scoundrel named Rodrick and his magical intelligent sword, Hrym. They get hired by some weirdos to go across the River Kingdoms and Brevoy to get some mystery artifact.

The writing is good, with less of the tortured translation of game rules into prose than is customary (I hate that…). The banter between Rodrick and Hrym (and to a lesser extent with their other traveling companions) is really fun.  The two people who hire them, the dour priest Obed and his freaky companion Zaqen, remind me of the tag-along bad guys from the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path, who we affectionately referred to as “The Boner Squad” – Shadow Count Sial was the dour one, and then if you kinda combine the perky Laori Vaus and the chain devil into one person, you get a bit of the same dynamic.

Rodrick as a rogue was a well-realized character.  He wasn’t uber competent or a hopeless schlep, and he was avaricious but not vicious, scheming but occasionally letting his emotions get away with him. And Hrym is pretty funny, he’s a sword made of living ice who can’t really remember all of his millennia of life; he’s fond of sleeping on piles of gold coins and of Rodrick’s “twisty little mind.”  In the afterword Pratt credits Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser as the inspiration for his two characters’ adventures, and the main characters’ bromance in Liar’s Blade definitely puts one in mind of Leiber’s characters.

The travelogue through the River Kingdoms and Brevoy is also nice. The fight scenes aren’t anything to write home about, but since Hrym is super-magical many of the fights end quickly with a blast of ice magic, so we don’t have to dwell on many of them.

I’ve read a half dozen of these novels and this is definitely the best-written. Liar’s Blade is very entertaining, I give it 8 goblins out of 10!

Geek Book Review: The Big Book Of Adventure Stories

Big Book of Adventure StoriesI was in the library and saw the lurid cover to the left and figured what the heck, there might be something in there good for a laugh.

What I found was awesome.  It’s like a Penguin book of pulp classics, if Penguin wasn’t so stuck up that they didn’t have such a thing!  This massive 874-page tome contains everything from stories I read in high school English like “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Soul of a Regiment,” “To Serve Man,” Jack London’s “The White Silence,” and Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” to representative stories from just about every pulp property you’ve ever heard of, from Tarzan to Zorro to Sheena to Buck Rogers! It’s a complete canon of pulp adventure fiction.

I’m not well versed in the pulps and so had never read the original stories for many of these – some yes, but others I know know through movies or general cultural osmosis. You have in one volume Lady Fulvia, Conan the Barbarian, Khlit the Cossack, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Peter the Brazen, The Spider, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Wandering Smith, Singapore Sammy, Beau Geste, Zorro, Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Rogers, The Cisco Kid, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, King Kong, Bulldog Drummond, Aubrey St. John Major, Allan Quartermain, and more! Plus stories by Clark Ashton Smith, H.G. Wells, O’Henry, Philip Jose Farmer, Sax Rohmer, and various other luminaries. Great, great stuff.

This is an awesome collection.  I may have to find and buy a copy; I already have recommended it to friends who have bought copies. I owe my library so much in fines now, it took me a good while to churn through this – it’s big and in small print.

It’s funny, the presentation is really over-lurid – the cover above, and it’s broken up into internal sections like “Future Shock,” “Yellow Peril,” and “Megalomania Rules”… I mean, perhaps it’s against their spirit to take pulps too seriously and present it like it’s a Penguin book but I really didn’t expect the sheer amount of truly great writing this book was going to contain from its cover. Otto Penzler did a great job with this too – it’s not all the “most famous” of each author’s works; there’s a generous selection of “never published before” in here too.  I am going to have to check out more anthologies this guy’s edited because he knows what the hell he’s doing for sure.