Previews Archive | 4/10/2008
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April and Beyond
Bart Carroll

Hi folks,

Everyone with any interest in gaming was deeply saddened to hear of E. Gary Gygax's passing last month. Tributes have been widely published around the world, and we've been maintaining a short list on our memorial video page, including the following:

It's a small, belated gesture to add my own condolences, but I would still like to nonetheless. And I'll start by first explaining just how bad I was as a child at baseball.

How bad was I, you ask?

My lasting memory of Little League remains what would become my final, inglorious turn at bat. Before I stepped to the plate, the coach gave me very specific instructions for when to swing and when not to, depending on the pitch count -- it was a similar speech to the one Monty Burns gave Homer Simpson (in the "Homer at the Bat" episode), and it was just as much gibberish to me as it was to Homer.

It may have been an important at bat for the team, and it may not have been; I've blocked most of the details from my psyche. But when I finally did step up to bat, I decided to just go ahead and swing at every pitch -- no matter what it was -- and hope for the best.

Two pitches, two strikes.

And then the third pitch came . . .

And hit me. Like Homer, a base on balls, the best of a bad situation, right? Wrong. Like I said, I was determined to swing at every pitch . . . even the one that hit me. Yes, I swung at that pitch, too.

And as I stood there crying, more from the humiliation than the pain (though I do remember the pain as well), watching the coaches and the umpire trying to work out if it was a strike-out or a base-on-balls (they ruled strike-out, I think mostly to get this crying kid off the field), I was reaffirmed of the fact that sports were not for me.

So growing up, I didn't have that support structure that sports would have provided. I had to find my own "tribe," and that's exactly what D&D provided me. I also grew up an Army brat, and moving around every three or so years made it that much more difficult to maintain a group of friends. Thankfully, at every base I went to there were always a few kids into D&D, and those invariably became the kids I hung out with . . . friends that were crucially important to my development, that became my roommates in college, the best men in my wedding, the guys I still call on weekends to catch up with -- essentially, friends I would not have had without the connection provided by Dungeons & Dragons.

So drawn were we to the game, my friends and I started playing in the 2nd grade, mostly making up the rules we overheard from the older kids, one of whom (a friend's older brother) would actually spend an afternoon helping me make my first official character. From there, I started with the red-boxed set, and on to 1st Edition. Inspired by another thread, I just wanted to thank Gary for all the memories (and my current job now) by listing a few of my favorite things from those earlier editions:

  • Bags of holding
  • Portable holes
  • Putting one inside the other to see what happened
  • Artifacts
  • Ioun stones
  • Coloring in the black-and-white illustrations of my Monster Manual
  • Obsessively memorizing facts we didn't even use in the game
  • White Plume Mountain
  • Elven fighter/magic-user/thieves (a.k.a., every one of my characters)
  • 18/00 Strength
  • Gaining access to 3rd-level wizard spells (fireball, lightening bolt, summon monster, fly!)

Postscript: I actually did start participating in sports, first in high school (wrestling), then later in life. I tried rowing, fencing, dodgeball, and recently captained an adult kickball team.

One kickball game last summer, I found myself at bat again. Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded (I'll cut to the chase, folks: this story does not end well). The other team had actually brought a boombox and were playing the theme to The Natural -- to psyche themselves up, to make me that much more nervous, I don't know. It's adult kickball; there's a lot of drinking going on as well. In any case, it couldn't have been a more obviously perfect moment if I crushed that stupid red rubber ball straight out of the park.

Instead, I fouled out on two pitches (them's the rules in kickball, folks).

Well, at least I still had my D&D campaign. So thanks for that, Gary.

Delegates Program

If you didn't have a chance to hit D&D Experience and try out 4th Edition for yourself, here's good news: The product demonstration team here at Wizards of the Coast is planning a series of 4th Edition sessions at your local gaming store.

Dates are everywhere between March and May, so check out the list of participating locations (and keep checking -- this list is updated periodically).

April: D&D Minis Dungeons of Dread

Last month, we showed you three figures from the Dungeons of Dread expansion (and for that matter, a photograph of all the figures in the set): the Kobold Archer, the Warforged Infiltrator, and the Oni. This time around, the set has just released with the full gallery up on the DDM site; still, we wanted to showcase a couple of brutes and their stat cards from the set. Let's call these two "push" and "pull."

Hook Horror

"The tunnel opens into a large, pear-shaped cavern. Huge, vulture-like creatures stand around the cave, growling and squawking…. Each has the head of a vulture, and the hide of a black rhino. The creatures walk on clawed feet, and they have thick, single talons instead of hands." So begins the hook horrors' introduction back in 1st Edition's XL-1: Quest for the Heartstone module.

Since then, the hook horror has become a quintessential dungeon dweller, appearing in the 1st Edition Fiend Folio, 3rd Edition Monster Manual, and even as a character in R.A. Salvatore's novel Homeland (albeit as an innocent peck transformed into a hook horror) -- not to mention, in DDM's Aberrations set. Dungeons of Dread's version is a sleeker, more dynamic (and in my opinion, better sculpted) hook horror than Aberrations'. And while the Aberrations version used Rend against its enemies (as many Large, clawed creatures did), this version has its own special attacks: Latch On to reach over, grab an opponent (for tremendous damage), and pull them closer.

Champion of Baphomet

From Baphomet's initial description, in the 1st Edition Monster Manual II: "Baphomet's horns are large and curve out and forward. His body is covered with black hair, and his hands and feet are broad and thick with stubby fingers and toes. His tail is bovine."

That's the Demon Lord himself (thank goodness we know what his tail looks like); here's his champion: a minotaur that hits even harder than the hook horror, and with the added impact of shoving his victims away. He hits them so hard, in fact, that they attack their own allies! The 4th Edition Monster Manual presents several versions of minotaurs -- a soldier, a leader, and a brute -- any one of which is ably represented by this champion.

May: Star Wars Threats of the Galaxy

Continuing with the Saga Edition, the second sourcebook for the Star Wars RPG releases this May -- and it's absolutely packed with all manner of characters, creatures, and droids for your game. From the introduction:

"Part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars is the richness of the galaxy, the sense of wonder evoked by the countless worlds, the fantastic creatures, the compelling characters, and of course the droids. There is a sense of something larger, that the Star Wars universe is a thriving place filled with endless possibility. The detail is astonishing—each character, place, and thing has a history, a purpose, and a role in the larger universe, and together, they create the backdrop on which the heroes' stories are told.

"Threats of the Galaxy is a companion volume to the Star Wars Saga Edition Roleplaying Game, offering an enormous selection of creatures, droids, and people with which you can populate the galaxy. With entries drawn from nearly every era of the Star Wars universe and spanning every level of game play, this book is a comprehensive volume that gives you even more tools to create exciting and compelling encounters worthy of joining those on the silver screen."

As a reference for GMs (and a guide for players), Threats of the Galaxy allows you to drop in everything from assassin and sabotage droids, krayt dragons, a sarlacc pit, even Aurra Sing into your next session. Developer Rodney Thompson also provided the following excerpt, which covers the M-3PO and TC protocol droids:

May: Adventures

Just before the release of the three core rulebooks, May offers the first official 4th Edition adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, penned by Mike Mearls and Bruce Cordell.

"Realms, both wondrous and dire, border the world. One such realm is the Shadowfell. Although not inherently evil, the Shadowfell is fraught with dangers, and the barriers between worlds can be thin. Sometimes the darkness breaks into the light."

So begins the preface to the adventure, designed to take characters from 1st to 3rd levels. Keep on the Shadowfell includes not just encounters in the Winterhaven region (the setting for the adventure), but also a Quick-Start Rules book (which includes a very handy conditions list), sample characters to try, as well as tips, advice and adventure hooks for the DM running the show (such as handling scenes between combat).

If you're looking for even further adventure content and can't wait until July's continuation, H2 Thunderspire Labyrinth, we'll also be posting Chris Tulach's Escape from Sembia, one of the scenarios from this year's D&D Experience. This version will have been revised and edited to the final rule set, thanks to R&D's Jeremy Crawford -- so here's your chance to recreate one of the first scenarios folks had of 4th Edition in action!

D&D Insider

So what else can you expect from the D&DI website in the following months? Let's start with the D&D Podcast: Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls have been in the studio and shooting on location for an upcoming "very special episode." In this case, we mean filming a video podcast showcasing a 4th Edition game session in action.

We've spoken a lot concerning the Heroic Tier (levels 1-10). Now we wanted to show you how a higher-level game plays, using Paragon Tier (levels 11-20) encounters. And who better to run the mad gauntlet of encounters designed by Dave and Mike themselves (of course!) than fellow members of the D&D Team. How will they fare? Questionably -- after all, Dave and Mike have not exactly promised to take it easy on their co-workers. We hope to have this podcast live by early May, for your viewing pleasure.


Gamer Lifestyle

Movie: The Mist

There was a point in time not too many years ago that virtually anything Stephen King wrote would be adapted for the screen . . . for better or for worse. The Mist, based on the short story of that name (look for it in Skeleton Crew as well as a standalone novella released with the film), is among the latest batches to hit the screen . . . for better or for worse.

Directed by Frank Darabont, this is his third King project after Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. The film opens with a sudden storm, a gathering of neighbors at the local supermarket . . . and a strange mist rolling into town. Once the townsfolk are trapped in the supermarket, the movie follows a fairly straightforward horror film timeline of events:

  1. Party A: For God's sake, don't go out there.
  2. Party B: I don't believe you. I'm going out there anyway.
  3. Monster(s): Chomp! Chomp!
  4. Party A: I told you not to go out there. Now look what happened.
  5. Party A: Nuts. Due to circumstances beyond my control, and with (a) a small child, (b) my new love interest, (c) innocent lives, (d) all of the above in danger, I now have to attempt to escape out there as well.
  6. Monster(s): Chase! Chase!

In the film's favor, I will say that it closely follows the original story, a personal favorite of mine among King's collections. The monsters are mostly very creepy, the townsfolk nicely fleshed out, and the dangers successfully presented. I'd also recommend the black-and-white version, featured with the recently issued DVD.

Spoiler Alert: Against the film, I'll also say that the new ending -- added by the director and approved by King -- struck me as offensively overboard. In the original story, the protagonist (The Punisher's Thomas Jane) is left to drive away in the mist. We don't know what ultimately happens to him or his fellow survivors -- and to me, that's terrifying. Now in the new film version, Jane runs out of gas and uses his last four bullets to execute (a) a small child, (b) his new love interest, (c) innocent lives, (d) all of the above. He then heads out into the mist, only to learn that a military rescue was just moments away and he must now live with his well-intentioned but horrifying actions.

It's an ending of such gratuitous tragedy as to turn me against this film, especially in consideration of what I felt to be a much stronger original ending. Take another example. In the opening shots, Jane's paintings are on display, including one for Carpenter's 1982 The Thing -- at the end of which, the last two survivors find themselves alone in Antarctica with no hope of rescue. Again, that's terrifying. If Kurt Russell had mercy-killed Keith Davids only to be rescued a moment later -- well, that would have been terrible, and that's the ending we're given in The Mist.

As a final aside, the set-up for the story involves a military installation that has opened a window to another dimension, inadvertently allowing said dimension to come pouring through in the form of the mist, and terrible things within the mist. In a case of life imitating art, a recent lawsuit looks to prevent the Large Hadron Collider atom-smasher from inadvertently doing somewhat the same. For your D&D game, the set-up can work just as easily. A wizard's experiment, a spell gone horribly wrong (or horribly right, depending on the intentions of the caster), a bag of holding placed inside a portable hole . . . whatever the cause, another dimension is now spilling into the PCs' world, and it must not only be survived, but it must also be closed.

Books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

By Junot Diaz

Sidebar: Shrek the Third On the subject of gamer stereotypes, I offer the following. Of the maligned "3rd" sequels of last summer (along with Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End), Shrek the Third is included here on "geek-watch" -- guilty of using roleplaying as cheap shorthand for geeks. In this case, two high-school kids are roleplaying in the school quad, and later the film presents young King Arthur as such a loser that even they pick on him.

Oh, for the days of a positive, even neutral, view of roleplayers in the media. It's lazy writing, as stereotypes are . . . and (admittedly) it still managed to elicit a laugh from my wife as well as a nudge in my ribs.

Beyond that, Shrek the Third is actually a worthy continuation of the series (the Gingerbread Man's random flashback of his life alone is priceless). Personally, I have great fun with the concept of mixing all faerie tales together, in the same spirit as Vertigo's Fables comic series, or Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Two things about this novel chafed me as a reader.

First is its style of catastrophic fiction: the plot, concerning a family of Dominican Republicans, tends to move from one looming disaster to the next, whether it's Oscar's grandfather attempting to shield his daughter from a lecherous dictator, or Oscar's own suicide attempt, despondent on the thought of dying a virgin. R&D's Chris Youngs has said much the same about the novel he's currently reading, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible: That it's exceedingly well written and captivating, but largely because you're simply waiting for The Next Horrible Thing to befall one, or all, of the characters.

Second, the title character is an almost complete assemblage of every negative gamer stereotype, everything from using an overinflated vocabulary, to his failure with girls. That said, here's what I did appreciate, and did deeply appreciate, about Brief Wondrous Life (or Oscar Wao, or however best to shorthand the title): Oscar is not the only one immersed in gamer culture. If he were, I'd revile this book for the stereotype it fosters. However, the narrator of the story (Yunior, later revealed as one of Oscar's more sympathetic roommates) interjects as much leet speak and gamer vocabulary in his writing as Oscar does in his speech (with constant allusions to Lord of the Rings, Marvel comics, Alan Moore, as well as a very healthy dose of D&D terminology). Add to that, the story is worth reading for a brief, though rather horrific, history lesson on the Dominican Republic.

Well, let's add in one more quick, additional criticism. The narrator's historical asides are given in the form of footnotes, a style also seen in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell and The Bartimaeus Trilogy. It's a means of adding information that's separate from the narrative, but at the cost of periodically separating the reader from the narrative. I'd appreciate finding an author who's discovered another way of including such notes without the resulting break in story.

Books: Cold Print

By Ramsey Campbell
Review by Michael Tresca

I met Ramsey Campbell at a recent World Fantasy Con and -- overcome with fanboy glee -- asked him where he found the inspiration for Y'golonac. I was babbling at high speed, making a fool of myself, when Mr. Campbell cut me short. "Oh I can't remember, honestly," he said with good humor. "That was over forty years ago."

Now Mr. Campbell is not that old; I guessed he couldn't be older than 60. His comment made me stop short. First, my brain couldn't comprehend the implications of what that meant . . . was he just being rude? Was he blowing me off? Why would he say such a thing?

Regaining my composure, I kept asking him questions about horror writing. Campbell has done far more than his Lovecraftian contribution in Cold Print, but it was precisely the Lovecraft entries that most intrigued me. Campbell graciously listened to me, made some suggestions about what to read, and was really very patient.

Later that day I got my hands on Cold Print (a signed copy) only to discover that his first short story was published in 1962. Campbell was born in 1946. Doing the math, I realized that Campbell was SIXTEEN when his first short story was published.

SIX. TEEN.

No wonder the man couldn't remember his original inspiration . . . it really was forty years ago!

Campbell's short stories are mostly here, but in the preface he admits that four are missing: "The Plain of Sound," "The Return of the Witch," "The Mine on Yuggoth," and "The Stone on the Island." Even though Campbell felt they weren't worth reprinting for Cold Print, the four stories are sorely missed.

It should be pointed out that my version of Cold Print is a hardcover with a black dustjacket; the cover has a blue tentacled beast possessing one eye. JK Potter illustrated it. I suspect Amazon.com points all versions of Cold Print to the same set of reviews. This is relevant because there's an error in my version (see below).

Campbell's style of Lovecraft is breathtaking. He improves on Lovecraft's purple prose, with characters that react a bit more modernly (understandable, given that Campbell is writing more recently) and yet retains the alien and strange nature of encounters with the mythos. Almost unilaterally, his protagonists have difficulty thinking clearly; they are lonely outcasts who all suffer from headaches, migraines, bizarre hallucinations, and strained relationships. The monsters, when they appear, are more forces of nature than entities. When two or more protagonists are together, one of them inevitably succumbs to the dark lure of the unknown.

Of all the short stories, "Faces at Pine Dunes" is probably the most disturbing. JK Potter's artwork is a real gut punch, with a suitably horrific beast displayed on the page just as it is revealed in the text on page 180. Unfortunately, on page 179, the text breaks down with odd spacing at the very last paragraph on the page and then the text resumes on page 181, skipping over a part of the short story. Although it's really quite a Lovecraftian thing to do, it's aggravating, especially since the missing scene is where the monster is revealed. It's enough to drive a man mad, MAD, I TELL YOU!

Ahem.

"The Moon-Lens" is also frightening in a paranoid, they're-all-out-to-get-me sort of way. The thought of a being that doesn't actually kill you, but instead gives birth to a new you . . . that's worse than Geiger's Alien, which at least killed you eventually.

"The Voice of the Beach," the last short story, is so esoteric as to be difficult to read. It provides a new level of Lovecraft that's almost mathematical in its conception, a horror of patterns and nature that subverts the usual beauty of a beach. Mostly though, it's about the protagonist having dreadful headaches.

JK Potter's art suffers a bit from revealing The Big Moment™ in every illustration. When a monster suddenly pops up, Potter's work is very effective, such as the aforementioned amalgam creature in "Faces at Pine Dunes" and the mouth-in-hand of Y'golonac in the "Cold Print" short story. But when it's a more complex being, such as "The Voice of the Beach" that causes men to dance in madness at the sound of it . . . well, let's just say a picture of a shirtless long-haired guy dancing in jeans looks like Keith Richards on a bender -- which is pretty hilarious, but not very scary.

I'm giving the book five stars, since Campbell's work really has to be read to appreciate how he evolved Lovecraft's style into something of his own (starting at sixteen!). But it gets four stars for the errors and lack of the four short stories, which I think (at least I hope) have been corrected in the latest version of Cold Print.

For your D&D game, Lovecraftian horror can always be mined for suitably creepy effects and creatures (you might also consider The Mist, above). On that note, Dungeon Magazine recently posted Ari Marmell's Last Breath of Ashenport, as well as Robert J. Scwalb's Touch of Madness, both nightmarish adventures of the first order.

Game: Assassin's Creed

Review by Andrew Hanson

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed is an action/adventure following a historical fiction/sci-fi plot. The game is set in two time periods: present day (albeit an alternate reality, which functions as the story mode to set up and advance the plot), and during the Third Crusade, when King Richard attempted to take back Jerusalem from Salah al-Din. While in the past, you play a man by the name of Altair (all-TIE-ear) who is a member of "The Assassins," a group attempting to bring peace to the Holy Land through spot removal of high profile agitators and warmongers.

In my opinion, the gameplay left an overall positive impression, with some breathtaking vistas and excellent swordplay. One of the recurring game mechanics is the need to climb tall structures so that Altair can survey the area; the resulting views are impressive both for their graphics and the fact that they're entirely playable land- or cityscapes, not just painted backgrounds forever out of reach.

The fighting is also well done. The controls are intuitive and allow your character to finish off his opponents with block and counter moves or combos, both of which use action sequences to show off Altair's prowess with the blade and which differ by the weapon and situation they're used (brawl vs. stealth kill).

For the more meticulous, the historical accuracies of the game are impressive. Obviously, it's not too difficult to correctly use names like Richard the Lionheart or Saladin, but the creators do well with what could be considered smaller historical details such as the presence of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the correct usage of terms such as amir and Seljuk. Even Altair's organization seems of authentic origin -- if I'm not mistaken, he's one of the hashishin or hashishiyyin, a 12th-13th century group that promoted its designs through assassination and whose name is actually the root for our word "assassin."

A couple of areas that the game could have been better are in its repetition and its ending. All missions include climbing view points, completing a few minor objectives around the city (for example, eavesdropping, pick-pocketing, and interrogating), and then going after the main target. The only real differences are in the difficulty of the missions and the minor geographical details of the cities. As for the ending, it resolves very little and leaves the opportunity for a sequel wide open.

For the D&D player, this game could serve as great inspiration for a rogue, monk, ranger (especially the urban ranger from Unearthed Arcana), or any other kind of character that wants to run and climb everywhere he can. For a DM, the plot might provide ideas for the intrigues that surround medieval war and the discovery of powerful artifacts. But really, if you just like medieval action, Assassin's Creed will be right up your alley . . . maybe waiting with a hidden wrist-blade.

Music: FaerieLore

By Llewellyn
Review by Christopher Heard

I'm always on the lookout for new "mood music" to add to my collection, so I was delighted to stumble across Llewellyn while browsing through a selection of New Age albums. Llewellyn doesn't specifically aim his music at gamers, but DMs who play the music at the gaming table can find some gems in their catalog; I recently listened to three of their albums with D&D sessions in mind, and came away with mixed feelings.

FaerieLore includes seven bright, hopeful tracks whose names and musical themes cluster around elves and faeries (as Llewellyn conceives them, obviously). If your 4E game includes bright or happy moments among the eladrin or elsewhere in the Feywild, one or more tracks from FaerieLore can be used to help make the players feel peaceful and happy. "The Singer in the Stream," for example, features unobtrusive, lilting vocals (no words, just vowel sounds) over rippling water along with New Age instrumentals, and it could perfectly accompany an encounter with a friendly river spirit.

An earlier album, Journey to the Faeries, explores similar themes with similar results. The track "Faerie Cottage" manages to be mysterious but nonthreatening, as does "The Crystal Caves." Somehow, though, the strangely familiar "Gnome Woods" evoked neither gnomes nor woods for me. Still, if your D&D adventures lead the PCs into peaceful or playful contact with the Feywild, you may find just the mood you're looking for with these two albums.

Unfortunately, the third album, Ghosts, just isn't spooky enough to set a suitably dismal tone for the Shadowfell. Most of Llewellyn's "ghosts" seem too upbeat, too happy, for an engaging D&D adventure. A couple of the tracks might do for encounter areas that the PCs should find "hauntingly beautiful," but not frightening. If you want creepy, disturbing, or hair-raising music for an incursion into the Shadowfell or a night in the PCs' local cemetery, though, you'll need to look elsewhere.

About the Author

Bart Carroll is loathsome beyond description and has no redeeming features. His body resembles that of a huge, bloated buffalo and gives off an offensive odor. The author's neck is long and thin, and perched atop it is a big head uglier than that of a warthog. His legs are thick and stumpy, much like a hippopotamus. The author's tail is strong and snakey, however, and moves with amazing swiftness to strike enemies.