Category Archives: reviews

Pathfinder Rise of the Runelords Minis, I Haz Them

I was in a local game store and discovered they had the new Wizkids Pathfinder Battles Rise of the Runelords minis!  I grabbed some boxes and thought I’d share.

I got one Huge box that came with a Storm Giantess,

then each of the normal boosters had a Large; I got an Ogre Brute and Malfeshnekor himself;

and then each normal booster had three medium/smalls in it – from left to right, Lucrecia, a wraith, a faceless stalker, Lyrie Akenja, a goblin commando on a goblin dog, and an ogrekin.

And here they are in ensemble to show relative sizes.

The sculpts are very nice and the painting is very nice, I like all these figures, they’re very distinctive.

I am disappointed a little in the Huge, however.  For $25 there’s no real fine painting work – her cloak, for example, is one big ol’ swath of the same purple and her trident is a homogeneous green (and made of a much more flexible plastic than the rest of the mini, it’s quite warped and not able to be made convincingly straight.  On a Huge I expect more detail than that.  The Large ogre brute is really nice and has more detail and nice washes – he looks better than the Huge; heck that whore with the cat (Lyrie) has more detail than the storm giantess.  Lucretia’s high cheekbones and piercing eyes are really, really good

But there’s a lot of improvement from the already good Heroes and Monsters minis – go see my old review of those and compare the ogre and goblins to this ogre and goblin – the ogre in particular is like 1000% better sculpt and paint.  And the small boosters having 4 rather than 1 mini is much better.

What they did right, they kept up – the bases are nice and flat, none of that D&D Minis falling over/warped base crap. Easy to unbox, all were in fine shape.

They’re high quality and nice.  I am not sure I plan to buy a lot though – they are expensive as crap! I just dropped $60 on these 9 minis.  Sure, you can get discount cases blah blah – I might do it if I were about to run Runelords, but other than that I’ll get a couple and use my rich legacy base of minis, Reaper kickstarter unpainteds, and pawns to fill in the gaps.

RPG Stack Exchange Launches!

After a long 600 days, RPG Stack Exchange (RPG.SE) is out of beta.  It has a spiffy new design and is ready for your RPG questions and answers.

For those of you not familiar with the Stack Exchange concept, the original Stack Overflow was born out of a hatred for how crappy forums are when you have a real question that needs an answer – not people threadcrapping, or telling you your choice of language isn’t right, or people babbling on about irrelevant stuff, or flamewars over “the best,” and you maybe getting a decent answer on page 10.  SO was a huge success, and they’ve expanded (via community voting) to many other kinds of topics.

So if like me you’ve gotten sick of the sheer noise when trying to pose a real question on RPG.net, ENWorld, or the Paizo forums, give RPG.SE a try.  You post a question, which can get commented on or edited by you or high rep users, and then answers get voted up/down as well. No babbling or flamewars, just answers, and you get to choose the most helpful and the community gets to vote up the ones they consider the most helpful. I don’t go to forums any more unless I just want to hobnob – the SE format has made me impatient with trying to conduct real Q&A there.   Check it out.

You can also follow it as @StackRPG on Twitter!

Pathfinder Minis: Heroes and Monsters Review

Earlier this week I read this review on ENWorld about the new prepainted plastic Pathfinder minis licensed from Paizo to Wizkids. I was in my FLGS today and they had a batch, so I picked up a large and normal booster to see what I thought.

I was lucky in that my normal booster, which can have either one medium or two small minis contained two goblins, and the large booster, which has one large, contained an ogre. The goblins and ogre are very iconic monsters in Pathfinder and have a different and distinct look to them than in earlier D&D.

The figures came out well – in D&D Miniatures boosters figs were usually pretty bent up, and often they don’t stand straight (either the base being bent or the figure doing the “V8 lean” on the base). These figures have nice hard bases and the goblins’ little weapons were striaght and good-looking.  The ogre’s club was slightly bent (he came out of the plastic shell while still in the box) but one bend and it was true.

The sculpts are good and the paint jobs pretty detailed.  The one weakness is that the big primary color they use on each mini, usually for the skin, needs a little more something – a wash or whatnot, it looks very homogeneous.

Here’s some large scale pics for you to check out.

The ENWorld review complained a lot about the amount of wrapping they come in. I was ready to ding them on it too, but really it’s just a box with a plastic blister in it – not even the little annoying plastic baggies that D&D Miniatures used. I do wish that they had boosters with more minis in them – buying one or, in rarer cases, two to a pack is a little annoying – but here’s my “trash picture” to compare to the ENWorld one.

Basically I put the plastic blister back in the boxes and then put the small box inside the large one and closed it. Voila. Less packaging is always good but I think the guy was being a bit of a drama queen about it – of course if you’re buying cases worth you’re going to have box detritus. If you want them to just put a dozen minis in a ziploc and send them to you I suspect you’ll have a lot of complaints about other stuff in return. But I was happier with the packaging here than with D&D Minis because the unpack process is “open box top, pull out mini, done.”

In fact, I just went and bought a brick from RPG Locker because I enjoyed these guys so much! I’ve never bought minis “in bulk” before…

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Five

Whew, only halfway done and it’s already fading into the past, I need to pick up the pace.

Fantastic Fest 2011! Day five! Monday! Most of the filmmakers bail out, and it’s second screening time for the hot tickets.

Two Eyes Staring (8/10) – A little Dutch film about a little Dutch girl in a little Dutch house! (Well, Belgian, but that’s where we’d go to the grocery when we lived in Holland). Two Eyes Staring is a horror thriller, in which nine-year-old Lisa and her mom and dad move back to the ancestral home, and odd secrets start coming out… Like about her mom’s twin – did she kill her? Is she haunting the cellar? Does the mom not want Lisa? Are bad things about to happen? Yep!

I probably can’t give this movie a “fair” review. I lived in Holland for three years when I was young, I have a nine-year-old girl, and her mom, my ex, was a little on the haunted past/self centered side. So this movie landed right in my wheelhouse. It has a very slow build, but the twists are effective. I liked the interaction between the mom, dad, and kid – of course things don’t just go from zero to blow-up immediately, that’s how families work – and when weird/mildly bad things happen, you usually just have to live with it.

It’s not Paranormal Activity and doesn’t try to be; the horror elements are there but definitely made subsidiary to the family drama. To be fair, this is probably a 6/10 to those who haven’t lived in Holland and don’t have a little girl this age. But I do, so I guess I’m the target market!  Woot!

The Squad (2/10) – Okay, the previous movie proves that I don’t mind a slow pace. But The Squad totally sucked.

I was ready for some military horror.  I like me some military horror. After 10 minutes of film council logos, we open on a Columbian commando squad.

In fact, let me stop there.  A couple of the South American movies did this, but I’m going to complain about it here because this was the worst one.  What is up with the fricking logofest at the start of the movie?   OK, in some American movies you get a couple – Lionsgate!  Brought to you by Whoever! Produciton company! OK, fine, up to three I will tolerate. But these South Americans just run screen of logo after screen of logo.  Audience members started laughing after the same goddamn film council’s logo came up for the third time (no, seriously)!  Note to Columbia, Argentina, etc. – that shit has to stop. It’s like how your military strongmen have chests full of 200 bizarre medals – it makes you come across as corny, not cool.  FYI.

Now back to the sucking. This squad clearly has the military discipline of your average Boy Scout troop; they’re all violating orders and running out where they can get wounded within two minutes. They take over an empty abandoned base (apparently sending a squad of guys in by foot is the only way anyone gets in or out of this giant installation that clearly took heavy equipment to build) and they start to think oh maybe it’s witches or something, then they turn on each other. None of the actors are charismatic and the narrative doesn’t settle on any as a main character you can latch onto.The setting is awful, it’s mud + fog 90% of the time and the other 10% it’s unremarkable prefab buildings. The cinematography is dark and muddy and jerky. The characters are all goons; you’d think a Columbian death squad would have one intact pair of cojones amongst the lot of them, but it’s not to be. There’s just nothing good I could grab a hold of and say “Yes, but at least the.. characters, scenery, military tactics, cinematography, sound work… was good…”  In the end there is no tension, no release, no twist.  The ten minute MRE distribution scene was the most memorable, in retrospect. And it wasn’t good.

This movie is kinda like The Thing, without a Thing, and without Kurt Russell, and without John Carpenter directing. So it sucked is what I’m saying.

A Boy And His Samurai (9/10) – I was demoralized after The Squad, lucky I was about to be rescued by Yoshihiro Nakamura!  Nakamura-san’s movie Fish Story was my favorite of Fantastic Fest 2009, and I really liked Golden Slumber from Fantastic Fest 2010. So I couldn’t help but go see his latest at FF2011.It’s based on a manga, apparently.

A Boy And His Samurai is a family comedy. A kid and his barely-coping single mom run across a samurai who got zapped into modern day by praying at a Buddhist shrine. Now he has no idea what to do.  They take him in and he becomes a domestic ninja, so to speak. It’s funny and tender, and there’s conflict stemming from expected gender roles (without stupid Mr. Mom kinds of jokes). Even near the end, when the “young punks” scene jumps the shark a little bit, it’s a fun movie. And they’re not afraid to use the little kid to tug your heartstrings.

I described the movie to my daughter and she asked me who the “bad guy” was. That took me aback. I realized there usually has to be some bad guy or at least opposing foil in similar American movies to create tension.  But not in this case, everyone’s pretty much of good heart, and it highlights how even normal people trying to do the right thing are brought into conflict by the nature of the world.

Anyway, this just solidifies Nakamura in my mind as being a god of movies. I’ve seen one a year and every time they leave me moved and thankful. I can’t wait to watch this one with my daughter, once it’s released in some form!

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (7/10) – This Brazilian movie reminded me of District B-13 in that you can’t miss that’s a sequel. I’ve never seen the original, and it became obvious that it would provide some more perspective on the plot and relation to the characters that they don’t bother to provide you with inside this one.  Once you get over that, it’s a reasonably engaging criminals vs police vs the system tale (again, very District B13-like). There’s some great scenery and music, since it’s set in Brazil.

Whew, only three more days to go, but plenty more good movies!

RPG Movie Review: The Wild Hunt

I was bored and looking through Netflix for something to watch, and it recommended to me The Wild Hunt – an independent movie where Canadian LARPers go a little mental. It had won a couple film festival awards, so I figured what the heck.

The setup is that Erik, an Icelander in Canada, heads out to a big ol’ LARP weekend in the woods to try to get his worthless girlfriend back. He’s not a LARPer but his brother is really big into it; Viking heritage, Norse sagas, the whole bit. The whole batch of LARPers are very, very, very serious about it – it almost converts over into cool, actually. You have other movies like Role Models where the people are into LARP but it’s still very cheesy and you’re like “whatever, diversity yay, ponce around all you want,’there’s nothing wrong with that’, but eek.” But here they are all so into it and put a lot of work into it – if you can make LARP seem cool, this movie comes closest to doing it.

It’s a pretty interesting  movie. It starts out weak mainly because of the unsympathetic main characters – Erik is a certifiable wuss, his girlfriend is a bitchy whore, and the initial crop of LARPers you meet are reasonably insane – but evens out its keel once you get to know more of the (better, and more interesting, frankly) secondary characters and they quicken the pace. It’s a low budget thriller set in an isolated setting where romantic hassles etc. end up cascading into Lord of the Flies. The ending is a lot more dark and brutal than I would have expected from the first act. About a third of the way through, I wasn’t sold and wondered if I should bail, but after seeing the whole thing I’d give it a 5/10, decent.

Of course some roleplayers are worried that this will “demonize the hobby.”  To that I say bah, many of the movies/TV shows with killers, they are doctors and lawyers and cops and moviemakers and other such. It should just be a rush to see your own niche thing breeding killers for a change. And it’s not like anyone will actually be afraid of this happening for real; they’re Canadians for God’s sake.  Everyone knows Canadians can’t kill anyone; they don’t have the constitution for it. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Alternity Book Report: Zero Point

My third Alternity novel set in the Star*Drive universe is Zero Point, but Richard Baker. It is better written than Gridrunner, the book that preceded it, but it shares a number of unfortunate similarities that aren’t to its benefit.

In Zero Point, bounty hunter Peter Sokolov snatches his mark Geille Monashi to bring back to Pict territory on Penates. But they have to make a blind hyperjump and come across a previously unknown alien ship. They are then caught in a feeding frenzy of those who want to exploit it…

I found this book especially interesting because in our Lighthouse campaign, we have actually met and allied with these aliens, the warlike Medurr (or “draco-centaurs” as we like to call them). They keep all kinds of slave races and have a kind of infinite energy drive (“zero point”) that makes all kinds of brute force tech possible. Also, Sokolov is cybered up and you get to see that at work (clearly using the game rules for it). The novel also reveals a lot more about AIs in the setting than previous novels; Sokolov’s ship has an onboard AI named Peri that is a secondary character. For all the alleged hacking in the previous novel, this one has a lot more rubber-hits-the-road examples of hacking ship computers, AIs, and Sokolov’s onboard nanocomputer.

However, I also found it somewhat tiring because of the relationship between the leads – it was weak in general but was more annoying because it was the exact same dynamic as in Gridrunner.  Powerful man captures skilled woman, falls for her for no good reason, they bang, then they alternately betray and/or bail each other out in turn for the rest of the novel.  It’s a little obnoxious once, and a back-to-back dose of it was doubly so.  I mean, I know that when I abduct women they always fall in love with me, but who else could be so gifted? Plus, Sokolov spends an awful lot of time as a prisoner (like half the novel) – good for character interaction and explication purposes, I guess, but it becomes tiresome.

The book was better written than the previous two, though, and besides the aliens and cyber you get to see a variety of Star*Drive cultures at work – more about Lucullus/Penates, the Union of Sol, megacorps, space pirates… Very helpful for players and GMs of Alternity Star*Drive to get a feel for the setting.

Alternity Book Report: Gridrunner

The second in my stash of Alternity Star*Drive books, Gridrunner, details the exploits of Lazarus, a CIB man (space cop), and his prisoner-cum-love interest Sable. She is of course a misunderstood soul who has been forced into the life of a criminal courier by a bad man who has her brother prisoner.  “Gridrunner” is the Star*Drive term for a decker/cyberspace hacker. They perform various undercover work in Port Royal, on the criminal-run planet of Penates in the Lucullus system. We spent a lot of time there in our campaign dicking with the Jamaican Syndicate and Picts and other colorful characters.

This novel is a mixed bag. It’s reasonably engaging, but in the middle there’s this 50 page long heist/Mission Impossible intrusion sequence that gets really boring.  From a RPG point of view I guess you could mine it for ideas on how to run a scene like that with plenty of technical work and skill checks, but it would still be a bit long for that. The love interest between Lazarus and Sable develops somewhat artificially and is of the “oh I am making career- and/or life-risking decisions because of this broad I met a day ago” type.

The descriptions of Gridrunning are pretty interesting, I can’t help but think “Second Life,” which is fair enough since this was written way before SL came out. It’s a pretty typical Snow Crash kind of setup, with people’s “shadows” in a VR world.

I was a little surprised at the (mild) rape/torture content – I don’t mind it, but usually WotC type stuff is pretty tame. So far between this and Two of Minds the Star*Drive universe is portrayed as pretty darn gritty.

On a personal gaming level, the most interesting part was the description of the Corner, a bar on the space station Lighthouse – my warlion character in our Alternity campaign owns the place.

All in all, this was OK and helped flesh out the milieu (especially Penates, the Lighthouse, and Gridrunning), though the 50 page thievery scene definitely forced me to start skimming for a span.

Alternity Book Report: Two of Minds

I was looking through my bookshelf and realized that I own five, count them, five old Alternity novels!  As I’ve been playing in Paul’s Alternity campaign for more than two years now, I thought it was high time to root them out and read through them!

The first is Two of Minds, by William H. Keith, Jr. The story features Spacer, a tunnel rat living on the crappy Total Recall-esque mining colony of Lison, who wants a bigger life among the stars. A guy he’s conning gets wasted by VoidCorp (evil megacorp) agents and next thing you know he’s joined up with a typical adventuring party and is headed for the planet of Storm to interface with freaky aliens and get shot at by VoidCorp.

It’s decently written, though a couple times I wished the writing “grade level” was a couple higher. The plot keeps on moving and the characters manage to be just a smidge more interesting than they are flat. They have a couple more main characters than the writer can handle well. Although I was entertained by the Rigunmor guy who basically did nothing but occasionally be a jerk until he sacrificed himself to help everyone in the end – mainly because that’s how Bruce’s Rigunmor character in our campaign is.

Really the main point of interest is how Spacer uses a “holotarot” (space tarot) deck his grammama gave him to interpret and predict events, something the fraal (Grey psychic alien) in the group posits is linked to a latent kind of psychic power. I found it inspiring for Pathfinder games as well, where Harrow (fantasy tarot) decks and use thereof play a big part in the world of Golarion.

It’s also pretty good for inspiration for plots about exploring hostile planets and meeting new aliens in a discovery-oriented campaign. The aliens in Two of Minds are very alien and it definitely reveals the setting as being one where there are some pretty cosmic-scale weird things.

The novel does do a pretty good job of establishing a “look and feel” of the Verge, which is helpful for Alternity Star*Drive players. I would call it cinematically gritty – the Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall is probably the best comparison. The book is an average sci-fi popcorn read in general, but to an Alternity player is definitely worth reading.

Pathfinder Tales – Plague of Shadows and Prince of Wolves

In the second in my series of book reports from my vacation in Bulgaria, I thought I’d review the two Pathfinder Tales novels I managed to lay my hands on.  These things must be popular because I’ve been waiting for them to show up at Half Price Books and it’s taken a long time.  (I don’t buy paperbacks at full price…)

I’m a big Pathfinder and world of Golarion fan, so I wanted to see how the novels treat it. I enjoyed them both.  Neither is going to become part of the Western canon or anything, but they were better than, say, every Greyhawk novel ever. (Rose Estes is the worst RPG novel author ever, and Gary Gygax, God love him, isn’t as bad as she is but he isn’t the best either.)

Prince of Wolves, by Dave Gross, covers the adventures of Pathfinder and Chelish nobleman Varian Jeggare and his erstwhile tiefling companion Radovan wandering about in Ustalav.

Plague of Shadows, by Howard Andrew Jones, details the attept by elf-raised-by-humans Elyana to save her old adventuring buddy/lover, the now-married and now-Lord Stefan.

The Good

Prince of Wolves had an interesting conceit, where the chapters alternated being from the perspective of Jeggare and Radovan respectively. They get separated early (well, the book jumps back and forth in timeline a little) and then go about their own solo adventures till they join back up about 2/3 of the way through. In general the action progressed nicely, though there were some repetitive parts. It was well written and engaging in general.

Plague of Shadows was a little weaker in the writing department. I was feeling “meh” about halfway through but then there were some big twists and I was interested through the end. I liked the initial setup where it was an adventuring group that had grown apart and was coming together much later, and not all as friends. I had a 2e campaign that was like that, and it gives a feeling of a lot of rich history.

Both novels used Golarion to good effect.  Plague of Shadows did a lot with Galt and the French Terror-esque revolution there, and Prince of Wolves used the gothic nation of Ustalav and the gypsy-like Sczarni. They illuminated the world nicely.

The Bad

Both of the novels suffered from D&D.  Or from Pathfinder.  Mainly the magic system.  They use the game system’s rules too obviously in their fiction. “Time to rest to regain my spells!” “I don’t have that memorized today!” Suck. And they kinda went that way with the magic items too, though Shadows was a little more clumsy about that than Wolves. The mechanical wonkiness of D&D spells do not good storytelling make – Jack Vance used it but these guys are no Jack Vance. At least these authors don’t do like Gygax does in his Greyhawk novels where his storytelling is dictated by the combat rules too (seriously, Gord got 3 attacks every 2 rounds, and he let you know it), but the D&D magic system – for all its in-game merits – invariably comes off as lame in fiction.

And a small nit – I didn’t like the big Golarion glossary in the back. If your writing doesn’t stand on its own, definitions aren’t going to help you. I think it’s much more interesting to wonder about parenthetical references than have them defined for you – hell, that’s how Lovecraft and Howard and those guys’ prose captured the imagination. I am sure they’re trying to help, but cut that out of future novels please.

Conclusion

Both were better than most gaming fiction. I’d give Wolves 4/5 and Shadows 3/5, maybe. Fans of Golarion will enjoy them because of how they showcase the world, and normal fantasy fans should find them diverting enough. I definitely plan to hunt down the rest (though am not inspired enough to start paying full price for them).

Myth & Magic Playtest Underway

Myth & Magic is a 2e retroclone under development and it’s looking good!

In retrospect, the much maligned 2e was probably, in my opinion, close to the best version of D&D. Shocking claim, I know.  But a lot of the stuff in 0e (race as class?) certainly deserved to die, and 1e was pretty Byzantine. 2e cleaned it up but was still light enough that people could house-rule and “ruling, not rules” reliably. I was really sold on 3e when it came out, and it definitely had some nice bits, but over the years it led to some mighty undesirable things (CharOp, Christmas Tree Syndrome, etc.).  A cleaned-up 2e might just do it for me!

You can download the Myth & Magic Player’s Starter Guide and GameMaster’s Starter Guide for free (forum registration required) now, they’re a playtest covering levels 1-10.

Player’s Starter Guide

It’s not just a slavish reprint of 2e, which is good. They’ve adopted the to-hit bonus and AC ascending from 10 from d20 instead of the less intuitive THAC0.  And they’ve added a seventh stat, Perception.  I think this is just wonderful; I ran with a Perception (and sometimes Luck) stat for most of 2e’s run. In general it’s 2e but cleaned up.

They also add “class talents” which are kinda like feats but scoped down a lot and limited to specific classes. You can spend proficiencies on them. I like some things about that approach, though I worry that powergamers will just take those and not actual NWPs.

There are still some wonky bits I’d like sanded off, like different XP tables per class – that’s just complexity that adds no value.  I don’t require classes be “balanced” but let’s avoid those different-for-the-sake-of-it bits that littered early D&D. If you want thieves to advance X% faster, give them the same XP table and just give them X% more thief skill points a level. Voila, same effect, less complexity.

On the other end, the only modernization I’d remove is the point buy character creation.  That is the gateway to optimized character builds, which in turn are the root of all evil. Yeah, it was an option back then, it was still bad.

GameMaster’s Starter Guide

The GMSG kicks off with the usual but keeps it short instead of meandering in for hundreds of pages, and even includes the first raft of monsters, which is good. It goes bad, however, when it incorporates the 3e approach to balanced encounters – ELs and XP budget.  “The XP budget tells you the maximum amount of XPs you can tally to an encounter.” That’s some 4e bullshit right there and needs to go.

On the monsters, they have a “CAM” (Combat Ability Modifier) which seems overly simplistic – it’s a single modifier for all skills and attacks and physical attribute checks in combat. It replaces all the stats but Int and Per. I’m about streamlining but that’s a little much, it makes monsters too homogeneous. Everything’s as strong as it is dextrous as it makes Will saves. And it’s always equal to the monster’s HD, which begs the question of why it needs to be an additional separate stat with an oblique acronym in every listing.

It does have random treasure determination tables; I get pissed off every time I run Pathfinder and want one, so props there.

Both

The art is sparse but good,the graphic design is simple but good, and it’s copyedited better than many pro products I’ve bought.

The game is definitely a good innovation on and return to 2e; with some more work I could see it being competitive with e.g. Pathfinder which I really like. And I like it better than the 0e clones, I never got that, 1e is the first real edition, and even in a cleaned up version like Castles & Crusades there’s still a little bit too much “Oh I’m a first level cleric and have… no spells.  I suck.”

13 Assassins

Here’s a movie you don’t want to miss.  I saw 13 Assassins back at Fantastic Fest last year and now it’s in limited release in the US; here in Austin it’s showing at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. I went to see it again last night and again was blown away at the brilliance of the film.

13 Assassins is directed by Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Sukiyaki Western Django) and stars Koji Yakusho (Memoirs of a Geisha). It’s a traditional samurai movie in many respects, the kind there used to be scads of but isn’t really made much any more (technically, jidaigeki).

The general setup is that there’s a noble who is a degenerate Caligula style freak who is committing all kinds of atrocities, but he’s the Shogun’s half-brother so can’t be held to account. In fact, he gets nominated to be the Shogun’s chief advisor and once he travels back home from Edo, will take office and be untouchable. Finally the Chief Justice has to do something, and he approaches a samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada, and asks him to take care of this problem. Shinzaemon recruits 11 other samurai willing to risk their lives for the sake of taking out the sadistic noble and they plan an in-route hit, culminating in them taking a small village and turning it into a prepared kill zone. In an unfortunate turn for them the noble’s head samurai, who knows Shinzaemon, is forewarned and gets more troops, so the opposing force is 200+ clan samurai. This does not of course dissuade the samurai, who just hold up a banner stained with the bloody tears of one of the noble’s victims that reads “TOTAL MASSACRE” and then proceed to kick a legendary amount of ass.

The film is very, very well done. It has an economy of motion about it very fitting for a samurai movie.  There aren’t wasted scenes or movement; the momentum of the film builds strongly even through the early recruitment and planning scenes and doesn’t spin out or go over the top even in the end fight scene that’s an hour long(!). The violence is not done in a “cheap” way like in many, where the super-protagonist just kills an unlimited number of people because, hey, it’s a movie and they’re the star.  And it’s not turned into a big epic costume drama either. It is a very personal movie.  I was impressed that the 13 protagonists (they are joined by a hunter they find tied up in the forest, though he is a lot more than he seems) were all distinct characters without being broad stereotypes – that’s hard to do even with smaller ensemble casts.

It is refreshing after a diet of Hollywood movies where all you can really say is “Well, I’m glad it wasn’t awful” – like Thor and everything else I’ve seen this year really – to see something skillfully done, a movie made like a movie can be, with drama and violence and some humor and executed completely faithfully to its theme.

And also – you get to see an unparalleled samurai bloodbath.  Woot! Go see it.

RPG Review: Coliseum Morpheuon

My newest review is up on RPG.net! Here it is for your viewing pleasure.

Coliseum Morpheuon is, in its own words, “an Extraplaner [sic] plug-and-play mini-setting and adventure for 16th-20th level characters, wholly compatible with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.” It’s a patronage project by Rite Publishing, and the primary designers are Clinton J. Boomer (of D&D PSA and RPG Superstar fame) and Jonathan McAnulty. It’s a 128 page PDF and my review copy came with a number of separate PDFs with terrain and paper minis specifically for the adventure, which was a really nice touch.

Look and Feel

The front and back cover art is very nice, though the back cover text has a startling number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I found that a bit off-putting. Luckily the rest of the book doesn’t have that high a rate of editorial flaws. Inside, the layout is nice if not brilliant (I especially like the border art, but am dubious about the font choices especially within boxed text) and the interior art is good if not super frequent.

Contents

Chapter One is about the Plane of Dreams, where all this takes place, from the Shores of Sleep to the Slumbering Sea. It owes a lot to H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands. It explains it briefly in both fanciful and technical game terms.

Chapter Two explains the art of “Dreamburning,” which is an interesting mechanic. A character’s hopes, aspirations, and dreams are turned into actual game effects in the lands of Dream, and can be used up by the character, or even destroyed or stolen. It’s a good mechanic – you have a limited number, so those who don’t roleplay at all have a resource management mechanic to play with, and also burning or gaining Dreams is reflective of actual changes to the character’s psyche, so if you are into the roleplaying it can be extremely interesting. And especially for a high level game, it adds some additional strangeness and risk that can add a new dimension to the usual grind.

Chapter 3 describes four denizens of the Dream. These range from the “chittering dream eater” to the iconic denizens of Leng.

Chapter 4 gets into the Island of the Coliseum Morpheuon itself, a land of coherent dream afloat in the Slumbering Sea, and its demented and depraved ruler, the Khan of Nightmares. It hosts a large bazaar-city whose most salient feature is the Great Coliseum where the Games go on endlessly, which contains charming locales like the Pagoda of Patricide. As a cosmopolitan city, it serves as the Waterdeep/Sigil/Sharn/Absalom of the setting. It’s pretty cool, but described only very briefly.

Chapter 5 narrows down to focus on 16 major denizens of the Coliseum itself and provides full writeps and stats for each. This is where a lot of meat is generated, and that’s good, because you can always make up more weird dream locations but NPCs for a 16-20th level campaign are hellishly hard and a lot of the work for an GM. This one chapter is as large as all four that came before put together.

Anyway, these NPCs aren’t your usual cast of characters. They are as weird as you’d expect high level denizens of a dream realm to be. The Dragon of the Ghostdance meets Jack of Diamonds, a “Lifespark Psion-Killer” who looks like an anime robot critter out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. There’s Kahnzadeh Sukhbataa, an “Advanced Transforming Shield Guardian Clay Golem Fighter 3,” the Solstice King, and the Pasha of Swirling Ashes. None are stock high level goons, they are all lovingly crafted in their complexity. There’s a lot of high level goodness packed into this chapter, and it’s worth looting for high level extraplanar NPCs or opponents on its own.

In Chapter 6, we move towards the adventure part of the program, with an overview of the Damnation Epoch, a specific tournament with the Cup of Desires as its prize, that is the primary adventure hook. Since they assume you have complex 16th level characters with huge backstories of their own coming into this, the authors take a toolkit approach and let you piece together a plot with chunks they provide instead of laying out a linear adventure path. The PCs, as a team in the tournament, are given a benefactor (one of the heavy hitters from Chapter 5).

Chapter 7, An Invitation to Damnation, is the first part of the adventure proper. It introduces the PCs to the realms of Dream, the Coliseum, and the games. It’s a lot more linear than the rest of the product, but I suppose that’s somewhat inevitable.

Chapter 8, The Tests of the Coliseum Morpheuon, is a set of adventure seeds for PCs once they’re established in the place. Then Chapter 9, The Tests of the Damnation Epoch, is about what actually happens in the arena – a set of 10 specific trials that the tournament consists of. Many teams participate, but few make it out. Chapter 10, Secrets of the Coliseum Morpheuon, is about larger plots to weave into the campaign. You could just run the Tests of the Epoch in Chapter 9 and have a straightforward “kill and kill again” campaign, or sprinkle in the Tests of the Coliseum in Chapter 8 to mix it up more, but it’s the Secrets of the Coliseum that proposes more high level goals the PCs may be trying to accomplish the and milestones towards them.

Then we have three appendices. The first two describe a couple opposing teams in detail, the Dirges and the Gray Feathers, one evil and one good, but both worthy opponents. They are fully statted up and have intriguing backstories. The third has four pregen characters, also complex and weird – no “Hi I’m Bob the 16th level fighter” guys here. If you don’t need pregens, you could use them as another opposing force. My only complaint here is that they don’t cite their references, making it hard to go find more information. Like one PC is a “Wyrd” and another is an “ironborn.” Are those from some other book? (Probably so, the OGL declaration in the back mentions a bunch of other works). But which? Having some codes that show where the various bizarre race, class, feat, and other power options are from would be invaluable.

Conclusion

I found myself wishing Coliseum Morpheuon was about three times longer than it is. It takes on an extremely ambitious scope in 128 pages, and as a result you often get very terse coverage of its contents. The text is very evocative, however, and provides a great framework for you to create a fantasia upon. And the hardest part, the high level opponents, are done up in detail, so the work you have to do is more the fun stuff than the soul crushing detail work of high level builds.

It’s just the bare bones of a setting, but more than enough to get started, and at that level tossing in a weird location and so many interesting and detailed NPCs means the adventures write themselves.

Coliseum Morpheuon is a rarity – a viable campaign for very high level PCs. It’s innovative and very well written. I give it a full 5 for substance. I have to dock it one point for style because of the lack of referencing and awful rear cover typos. I hope they fix those before they go to print; it sets an unfairly bad impression to see that on the outside of a work. But overall, it’s excellent and I would definitely run it for my gaming group.