Category Archives: Reviews

A Quick Review of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

I am not the biggest fan of the Forgotten Realms and effectively ignored whatever was happening in the setting throughout 3rd edition and 4th edition. This book also snuck up on me because it was out before I’d even really read much about it or realized it was on the way. I didn’t even know that Green Ronin had a hand in developing it. But I’m a big fan of 5th Edition D&D and I gladly picked this book up despite the mixed reviews I’d been seeing for it. So here’ my attempt to add a positive review, with a few minor gripes.

Setting Material
As someone who hasn’t read FR fluff since the 1990’s, this was actually pretty fun to read. It was just enough information about the area and its changes to make me feel comfortable in the Princes of the Apocalypse game I’m currently playing in by introducing me to the Realms, 2015-style. I can’t say much more than that as I am not a Forgotten Realms expert. I found the writing to be decent, enjoyable, and concise enough that I didn’t get bored.

One gripe. The maps are terrible. My biggest pet peeve, something that drives me crazy in many fantasy supplements… why would you ever take the time to produce attractive and professional maps of your setting and then not add a distance scale? There is no excuse for this. How far is it from adventure site A to town B? I have no idea! Useful.

Mechanical Material
I am a big fan of the design and layout of the 5th edition rule books. The hardcover adventures are not well organized at all but the rule books are nicely done. This book does not continue that layout tradition quite as well as the core rulebooks, but it’s alright. I struggled with identifying different headers and the breaks in sections sometimes in a meaningful way, but not so much as to make the book a struggle to read.

Overall, I found the class material offered (and the fact that they didn’t feel compelled to offer new shinies to every class just because) to be well balanced and interesting. There are quite a few new class options – mainly centered around the idea of the Archetypes classes separate into at early levels. The new Arcana domain for clerics is just plain neat. The new monk options are cool, and the FR-specific content is handled very well because it is written with the idea in mind that players and DMs may want to use this mechanical material in their own home games, not just the Forgotten Realms. This is much appreciated and doesn’t really cost much word count.

The section of new backgrounds was very fun reading, I’ve wanted a few more options over what the PHB has to offer and these are all interesting and adaptable. The new spells on offer are welcome, though the lack of new cleric spells of any sort continues to be frustrating.

Nothing in this book seems likely to break a game, requiring using any options you aren’t comfortable with (feats, for example), and provides new PC options while not changing any fundamental tenants of 5E design.

I know this is a mighty short review, but overall, I’d give the SCAG a solid B+. This would have been an A if the maps had distances on them… at all.


Car Wars: the Card Game, A Quick Review

I’ve always been a periphery kind of Car Wars guy. I like the game, have the old Deluxe Box Set, and spent many hours pouring through Uncle Al’s catalogs. But I was never really a hardcore player and it was a game that dropped off my radar over the years. So when I saw the card game advertised, I was surprised to find out it was a third edition of a game that had previously been released in 1991 and 2001. My experience is only with the current version of the game, so I’m not sure how it stacks up or doesn’t with previous iterations…

First Impressions
Even if I didn’t know that Car Wars was a Steve Jackson Games property, I could probably have guessed it from the production values of the game. Steve Jackson stuff has a quality to it that really is unique. This is neither a good or bad thing, just an observation. The game doesn’t have the ultra-slick components of a Fantasy Flight game but everything is well-made, attractive, a little bit retro in style, and inviting in a kitschy sort of way. On a more personal note Creede and Sharleen Lambard wrote my favorite adventure of all time making this an easier purchase for me seeing their names on the box.

3rd Edition (2015)

Basically, all the things I think of when I think of SJG and Car Wars were front and center when I opened the box, so that’s a good thing. Regarding the “ultra-slick” components bit… I was also happy to see that the game consisted of cards and cars. No crazy bits for the sake of crazy bits. Simple straightforward rules. We were ready to go in five minutes. Perfect.

Awesome Stuff
Players get a car and a hand of cards. There is some drawing and then you attack. Then play proceeds to the left. You fight until only one car is left in the arena and then you play another round until one person wins by accumulating enough victory points.

It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that. It’s a game about shooting other cars with flamethrowers and autocannons. It has a good ratio of attack to defense with the randomness of drawing cards making for the possibility that some rounds are very offense heavy, some are defense heavy, and some are balanced out. This is definitely a plus.

If you don’t attack on your turn or play some kind of special card, you must discard at least one card which I think is a great mechanic because it forces the deck to keep churning and represents that “missed opportunity” for taking a shot or defending yourself and helps thematically with making the game feel like cars moving around the arena instead of just four people playing cards.

The game can get tense. Once your armor is breached, every turn is a moment of holding your breath to see if you’ll skate through another round or if it’s time to bail out. This is a byproduct of that relentless hand churn and even more relentless attacking that happens each turn. And the more players you have (the game takes up to 6) the more brutal it can get.

Overall, I love the flow of the game and how fast and loose it plays. The special cards have some slightly complicated interactions but nothing that disrupts play or overly confuses people. Looking back, I can see one place where I think we were playing something wrong but it’s an easy fix.

The Not So Awesome
A simple, straightforward card game about cars killing cars is hard to find fault with. But there is one thing that detracts from the experience a little. Because the game is played over multiple rounds, with players attempting to be the first to accumulate 60 Victory Points, there can be significant down time for players who are eliminated early in a duel. In our four player games, we often had at least one car eliminated quickly and usually, the last two cars would play cat and mouse for a long time before one could finish the other off. This left two players – at one point – with about 15 minutes of downtime while the remaining two cars attempted to end the round. This isn’t always the case but it can happen. It happened often enough for our group that it was noticeable.

A little lag is not a bad thing when players can sit at the table, watch the rest of the duel play out and enjoy the back-and-forth of the remaining cars but when it drags on for too long, players can lose interest and focus.

I really enjoy this game. Fast playing, hits good Car Wars notes, is exactly as complicated as it needs to be and no more, and it has a strong thematic feel during play. I can’t really ask for much more. During play we laughed, we groaned, we got excited, and we got crushed. Overall, I recommend giving this a try and just really letting yourself get into a car-killing mood. Just don’t let your opponents kill you too fast.

Thanks for reading.

The New Mad Max: Fury Road is Breathtaking

Still a little shell-shocked. This movie, man. Wow. It was breathtaking. It was awesome in its visuals, with action sequences that were simultaneously riveting examples of modern technology while also sharing a sensibility that would have been at home in any 80s action movie.

I find myself wanting to use words like stunning. I don’t often find myself wanting to use such words. It’s tough to figure out what else to say though. There were moments when I found myself trying to crawl out of my seat because of what was happening on screen.

First, I’ll say this… there is not much to “spoil” in this movie. The plot is simple – I believe in a very intentional way – with a spine that is primarily an extended chase sequence across various types of challenging terrain. I’d also love to see this movie again and really examine exactly how much dialogue was in it – cause it ain’t much. But just in case you are worried about any levels of spoiler-y detail, here’s where I’ll leave you – This movie is well worth your time.

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The Hobbit: I didn’t like it much…

I thought I’d save anyone who didn’t want to read a negative review the trouble and just put it all in the title. Full disclosure – I’m not really sure how you can have “spoilers” on a story as old as The Hobbit but I’ll just say – there might be information below that might upset someone who hasn’t seen the movie yet… so you’ve been warned.

Additional disclaimer… in Peter Jackson’s previous trips to Middle Earth he’s 1/3 with me. I loved Fellowship but hated Two Towers and Return of the King.

My wife didn’t like the movie much either. She disliked different things than I did – but the more I think about her point of view, the more I actually agree with her and think many of my problems with the film are rooted in the problem she critiqued. She said she felt like the movie didn’t have an identity. That it didn’t really know if it wanted to be “super-heroic fantasy” or “slightly comedic fantasy” or something entirely different — with the result being that it all crept in and eventually became something of a wash.

The more I consider this point, the more I agree with it and think she’s dead on.

For myself… well… I could list the number of things I actually did like with one finger. Gollum. The portrayal of Gollum was pretty much the only redeeming quality of Return of the King (the movie) for me and it was the one part of The Hobbit that I actually found myself warming to and loving.

Everything else was wasted film in my opinion.

Well, that overstates the case a little. I very nearly loved Thorin’s character and thought the portrayal was spot on until that final, ridiculous showdown with the completely pointless super-goblin “from his past.” Why, exactly was that albino monstrosity with the stupid prosthetic necessary? How, exactly, did his presence enhance the story of The Hobbit?

Right – actually, scratch that, because that’s the other really important point to mention. Despite all assumptions to the contrary — you know, it’s in the title — the “Hobbit,” Bilbo Baggins is actually not the main character in this story. Thorin seems to – in fact – be the main character in this movie. Bilbo was second fiddle – and a distant second fiddle at that. As the movie went on and that realization sunk in I became more and more disappointed with the film.

I’m not one of those that holds to the “it’s a children’s book” theory. I think the Hobbit is an excellent tale for all ages with layers of meaning that you glean as you read it in new ways across your life (that sounds way more overblown than I mean it to — I’m making the point that “UP” or the story of Thanksgiving mean different things at different points in your life too — so does the Hobbit. I really hope that was even a little clear.). The point is, The Hobbit is this fancy little story with a little bit of whimsy, a little bit of longing, a fantastic adventure, a few monsters, a plucky hero in over his head, and a few wild moments of just fun. The Hobbit film I saw this weekend was not that story. It was a strangely disjointed movie with some stilted performances, a rampaging horde of pointless cameos (I mean really, why were C3P0 and R2-D2 in the prequels?), that replaced whimsy and wild fun with ridiculous overblown action sequences that had all the charm of a rabid squirrel, and a pretty strong sense of well, I’m Peter-freaking-Jackson so I’mma do it my way even if my way bears only a passing resemblance to the heart and soul of the story I’m making a movie of.

Also, I’m not a fan of all the “stuff” they packed into the film. Why did we need the opening sequence with Frodo? That could easily have been collapsed into “Bilbo sits down to write…” “fade to Sixty Years Earlier” and shaved about 10 minutes off the running time that really only existed because PJ wanted to put a little more of Fellowship back in a different movie. Why did we need the council seen or the ridiculous fight between Radagast and a ghost? Why did we need “epic battle scenes of epic dwarves fighting epic goblins in epic battle?” Seriously – you could have shaved a good hour off of this film, kept everything essential, and been in great shape. Especially because that would have allowed you to spend all that money you spent on those scenes plucking up the scenes you had left…

Which was another problem. For a movie that really should have had nearly a blank check for a budget, the special effects left a lot to be desired. Most of the time when live action and CG were mixing it was painfully obvious and looked surprisingly cheap. Some of the character animations were ridiculous in the way they stood out from their surroundings, and even the Great Eagles looked kinda lame. I could go on an on about the special effects – but honestly, they aren’t really that important to me. Radagast and his Rabbits were so absurd and pointless that I really don’t care that the CG sucked… I didn’t even want to watch the scene anymore. The bad CG just made an already bad thing worse.

So many things wrong. So few things right.

I could rant about the absolutely mind-boggling stupidity of the stone giant fight. I could gripe for days about the fact that the Great Eagles should be more than just big birds. I could try to figure out what the heck PJ was thinking with that awful final fight scene with Bilbo tackling a goblin… there’s a lot to gripe about… But it’s all really sort of pointless… what’s done is done and the Hobbit is now a movie and we can’t “take it back.”

Let’s just leave it at… The Hobbit: I didn’t like it much…

Panty Explosion Perfect

Three things. Yes, Panty Explosion Perfect is the title of an RPG. Yes, I’m worried about the kind of traffic that title might generate. No, as far as I can tell, the RPG’s title has little to nothing to do with the RPG itself…

That said, despite the title, P.E.P. (by atarashi games) is an intriguing little game. It’s a little digest-style book, about 50 pages, has examples of play in the form of comic strips, and it is about Japanese schoolgirls killing demons (who are also possibly psychic. The schoolgirls, not the demons…)

It’s a game that could be said to fall into the category of “FATE-lite” but I find that the mechanics don’t really bug me the way most FATE-style games do. Characters are made up of a name, 2 Details, a choice of Friend and Rival, and a Goal. In a way, there is also a relation to Fiasco here. In fact, if FATE and Fiasco had a baby, it might be P.E.P. but that starts to get really weird again.

Part of the Fiasco similarity stems from the fact that each game session revolves around a set number of scenes — 2 for each character. And effectively, it’s an almost diceless game. I say almost because most play simply goes on with each PC working through one of their scenes (or being involved in the scene of another PC) and they can simply declare what they are doing until… someone issues a challenge. The GM (called the Superintendent) and PC’s rival can declare challenges and force a player to roll for something. After rolling — and here’s where the narrative control bit comes in — if you succeed, your Friend determines what the outcome is. If you fail, your rival narrates the outcome. Oh, and your roll is harder or easier based on your popularity… go figure.

Play proceeds through the scenes, with challenges being called out, until the girls meet the Demon. At the heart of each session of P.E.P. is a confrontation with the Demon, the ultimate challenge. Players are working to achieve their character’s goal for the session (which can change every session) and to defeat the demon! Also, you can decide at any point to out yourself with a use of your PSYCHIC POWERS!

I’m probably not doing it justice — because the whole psychic schoolgirls genre is pretty lost on me — but from the point of view of admiring the simplicity and yet the completeness and interesting quirkiness of the rules set, I’m very impressed. To cram such an interesting game into such a slim book, to give it an interesting twist, and to marry concepts from two other games I’m not as fond of and have the whole come out as a game I’m actually interested in playing (despite the psychic schoolgirls) is amazing.

Ultimately, if you are a fan of simple but interesting rules, psychic schoolgirls, or panty explosions, this is probably a game you should check out. If you are interested in all three? Then this is exactly the game you have been waiting for. All kidding aside, it’s a very well-written game with cool, super-easy mechanics, an interesting twist on the limited session and narrative control, and it could easily be adapted beyond psychic demon-killing schoolgirls. I give it a 5 out of 5.

Pathfinder: Advanced Race Guide (A Few Thoughts)

The Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide is a fine looking book. I really shouldn’t be surprised, Paizo really does know how to put out a great looking, functional, well laid-out product. If nothing else I can say that Pathfinder books are probably some of my favorite gaming books just to sit and flip through. When I first brought this one home I gave it a day or two where I just picked it up and perused it a few times before diving in and reading. Is that weird? I don’t know, you tell me.

Seriously though, I’m also not really a fan of “splat” books. I find that player-focused crunch content is one of my least favorite trends in gaming. That said, another compliment I can give to Paizo is that in the five years that Pathfinder has been on the market they have kept the number of “in-house” splat books to a minimum. I’m not counting all the 3rd party stuff. So, another point for Paizo.

But what about the Advanced Race Guide?

Well, the book is pretty much as advertised. I’d best describe it as a one-stop shop for all the playable PC races so far introduced in Golarian. And it works very well in that regard. The information covers the basics but also hits lots of new points as well and brings interesting twists to the races. The book is divided into four sections — with the first three sections covering the Core Races, the Featured races, and the Uncommon races. The core races are the standard PHB fare – humans, elves, dwarves, etc. The featured races move on to such races as Aasimar, Catfolk, Drow — that kind of stuff. The Uncommon races are all over the place, Changelings, Kitsune, Merfolk – and even weirder stuff. Not only does this division work well to differentiate the races for players and DMs in a game system sense but it also serves to set a bar for how far into the weirdness factor players can go. I’ll admit that flipping through the book I love the idea of just handing it to players and saying, “Go nuts.” I am a fan of weird races and the mix here is well balanced and interesting. I can’t really tell you how much I want to play a Vishkanya.

The fourth section is where the book goes a little flat though. The fourth section of the book is a “race creation” system. Unfortunately, it is riddled with strange design choices and poor math. The value of certain choices you can select for your custom race just boggle the mind sometimes compared to another choice. Race abilities are separated into three categories: Standard, Advanced, and Monstrous. Sometimes it’s very confusing why certain abilities are in their assigned categories. Probably the least useful part of this section though is the fact that — for the most part — the abilities are only those already found on an existing race. Instead of a set of tools it’s actually just a set of lists. This could have been so much more.

Overall, I really like this book and I think it represents a lot of what can be good about splats without ever being too much. The race creation system is a disappointment but doesn’t detract from the other excellent parts of the Advanced Race Guide.

Agree? Disagree? Have a comment about my weirdness? Let me know. And thanks for reading.

Prometheus (spoilers here)

So, I went to see Prometheus. I will admit to being pretty stoked about it from the marketing campaign. And it wasn’t the worst movie I’d ever seen, but I was disappointed.

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John Carter (of Mars)

I really want to write about Madicon weekend… the fun, the games, the Battletech Pink Slip tournament, demoing the Zpocalypse board game, and all the other Stuff(!) that went on but I’m still recovering… so today I thought I’d kick off this week talking about the last fun activity of the con weekend — seeing John Carter.

There might be spoilers in what follows. You have now been warned.

I’ve read some mixed reviews of the movie so far and I agree with points made both good and bad. For my own part, I really enjoyed myself seeing this movie and I’m debating seeing it again. I mean, I really enjoyed it.

The Good Stuff
It was beautiful to look at. The Tharks looked great, the costuming was excellent, the landscapes were stark and wondrous. Pretty much everything about the visuals was inspiring and awesome to behold. Did I mention the Tharks? Great. I liked the white apes, the therns, the set dressing, the airships, everything.

I’ve heard mixed reviews on the music as well but I’m going to say that I loved the soundtrack. I thought it was nicely understated and at several points I found myself thinking, “I’d play this during a game…”

The actors were all good for their parts, some really stood out and some were good but only worked with what was there for them… more on that in the bad. John Carter was well played as a slightly worn Civil War veteran who had lost his family. It was a different take on the character but one I could get behind. I live in Civil War country in Virginia and it’s still a period of our history we are conflicted about. I can understand why the writers of the film felt the need to approach the war as something that stained Carter. Lynn Collins was a stand out as Dejah Thoris. She was funny, serious, warm, fierce and just a little bit vulnerable too. And I appreciated that they chose an actress who is beautiful but perhaps not entirely conventionally so… I found her the most enjoyable character on the screen — EXCEPT — for Tars Tarkas. He really made me happy. I wish we’d had even more screen time with Tarkas. I found myself smiling a lot when he was on screen and that’s a good sign.

The story was a mish mash of bits from the original stories plus original material and I found it to be a good story except for a few noticeable things… The evolution of the character relationships was interesting, the conflict between Zodanga and Helium had potential. Honestly, we didn’t need the Therns at all and we could have had a much more interesting movie… which is a good place to jump into the bad stuff.

Bad Stuff
The Therns. The best thing I can say about the Therns is “erm.” The Therns were a problem for this movie. Not only would they have been better served by a sequel appearance instead of being in the first movie but they really didn’t work for me as used in this movie. Their master plan was somewhat incomprehensible. They wanted a marriage but honestly, the marriage was a sham… and they didn’t care about the marriage, just destruction… and then they’d move on to Earth… it was sorta messy and not well thought out. Seriously, cut the Therns, make the Zodanga/Helium conflict central to the story, put Helium more on the losing end, the marriage plot still works, and you can even drag in more parallels to the Civil War for Carter’s character. Better.

Dominic West (Sab Than) was a great villain… except that he wasn’t actually the villain. He had a really classy presence on screen and was dominating and interesting in equal measure. I would have loved to see him as the actual villain of the movie. He didn’t really have enough to do. I mean, the scene where he presents Dejah Thoris with his sword was fantastic but ultimately meaningless because he wasn’t the bad guy, he was just a tool. It hurt the movie.

And that’s the bit about working with what they had… I think this problem pervaded the movie. If the writers had stripped away the awkward Thern master plot and stuck with Carter, Thoris, Than, and the Tharks they would have been far better off. When those characters were on screen, interacting with each other the movie was great. Whenever one of the Super Science Power Bad Guys were on screen the movie would turn awkward.

Final Thoughts
Again, overall, the verdict of this movie for me is still really good. I enjoyed myself, I laughed and smiled a lot, I got into Carter and Thoris. I loved Tars Tarkas and Kantos Kan. The movie was visually inspired. Really, there is a lot to love here. And it was a great adventure. But it suffered from the bolted on super-villains that just got in the way of the fun.

Thanks for reading and I can’t wait to tell you about Madicon… coming soon!

Marvel Heroic Roleplaying: The Basic Game (First Thoughts)

Not really a review so much as my initial impressions of the game, I wanted to take a quick tour of the new Marvel Superhero game from Margaret Weis Productions.

First Impression: Physical Appearance and Layout

The book is beautiful. Of course, I only have the PDF, but even so, it’s actually enjoyable to read on my laptop (as opposed to many game PDFs which I often find frustrating to read.) The presentation is clean, the colors are bright and enjoyable to look at without detracting from readability. The visuals in terms of presentation of game content and examples of dice pools, etc. are all well done and the superhero art is well chosen and improves the quality of presentation of the book.

Layout is often a consistent complaint for me with some modern games but the layout and design choices here all seem to enhance the reader experience rather than detract. Also, I haven’t read the book in minute detail yet, just two relatively quick reads for content but the editing of this product seems at first blush to be very well done as well. Poor editing in RPGs is a constant problem and MWP seems to have put in the work on this one to make it great.

Basic Dice Pool and Simple Mechanics Talk

I don’t want to overly analyze the mechanics until I have the chance to actually play the game but on the surface I found them — again, after reading the game — to be interesting and innovative without being divorced from the expectation of players of other RPGs. The dice pool mechanic is a little bit of a mix of a “roll and keep” system with an effect die (like Dragon Age RPG’s Dragon Die). The rolling of 1s on the die is also important to the system and generates dice for the Doom Pool — a collection of dice used by the Watcher in place of Plot Points (which villains don’t have).

The use of plot points can manipulate either of those (the pool/kept dice or the effect die) and in multiple ways. Plot Points are a vital currency of the system flowing back and forth between players and Watcher (the very Marvel term for the GM). In this way I am reminded of the use of points in FATE style games but without all of the baggage that always bothers me in FATE games.

The basic dice pool resolution (with application of Plot Points) covers the majority of actions in the system (including combat) and is easy to keep up with. Whether you make the same connections I did above or you are a relative newcomer to RPG play, this dice system should be simple but robust enough to remain consistently interesting in play.

Heroes, Character Creation, and Powers (and Stuff)

I’ll admit, I’m still learning the powers system. I get the way it works. I think it will work well at the table. But I’m not going to wax on about it beyond saying… I like it, I like how free form and open it is and the availability of crafting powers on the fly. This system seems to make it very easy to balance the game no matter what powers you give to the characters… I think at one point the book mentions that they system is very forgiving and it really is. I think the power system and the hero and villain profiles reflect the comics well. I was impressed with these.

Now, I’ve read a couple of other reviews (here and here) that mention the oddness of the character creation rules. But here’s the thing… if you read the book, there are no character creation rules. Or, at least, there are no rules for “new” heroes. The rules in the book (more like guidelines) are really there to suggest how to make a profile for an existing Marvel character you want to adapt. That’s what they are designed to support. Now, can you make original heroes with this? Absolutely. But it’s not what the book is set up for and if you are looking for any kind of “balanced system” that tells you “how many powers you can have, etc.” you won’t find that here.

Other Notes

This is my first Cortex system game (I played the Leverage Quick Start but that hardly counts). I had put off diving into the game because, as much as I love Firefly and Leverage, I knew I would never get to play them, so I had no impetus to buy them. But superhero games are an easy sell to me — and the Marvel Saga System (old card-based version of the game) is probably still my all time favorite superhero game. The best thing I can say for this game is that if it performs as well at the table as it seems like it will in the book, it will easily become my new favorite.

Except for one thing. I wish it had been DC. Because now I have another Marvel System I have to convert all the DC characters I love into because they aren’t here… Oh well, I guess I should get on that.

6d6 RPG: Quantum Flux

After some consideration, I realized that my personal experiments with making characters in 6d6 RPG could be discussed as a sideline to some thoughts on the 6d6 module: Quantum Flux. Since my posting has been a little anemic the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting to write about this too long.

Quantum Flux is an adventure for the 6D6 RPG. It’s a big document, 122 pages for the pdf proof I was working from. Some of that chunk is made up of the card decks for the pre-gen characters provided for the adventure as well as the various aliens and such. I’d say this is one weakness of a pre-written module for 6D6. Printing out and assembling the card decks (or simply the inclusion of them in the module) creates a bigger commitment of resources to “NPC stats” than say, a few stat blocks at the back of more traditional system’s adventures. This is not a huge issue, just something that occurred to me as I was reading things through.

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