October 28, 2007

Halloween Treats

Halloween weekend in my house always includes a few frightening movies, played back-to-back and viewed with friends (beer, coffee, and chips also in abundance). This year, in addition to a few “scary” Three Stooges shorts inserted to break up the gloom, were two offerings I had never seen before: The Descent (2005) and Saw (2004). I often prefer older, classic movies—such as The Omen—so this year I went for the new(ish).

The Descent

This movie involves a group of six women who partake in a yearly adventure-sport outing. Shortly after a white water rafting trip in Scotland, Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) loses her husband and young daughter to a grisly automobile accident. Her strong-willed friend Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince her to join the next expedition—a caving excursion in a scarcely populated area of North Carolina.

After arriving and entering the cave system, things begin to go badly wrong. The women are trapped by a cave-in, and Juno admits that, rather than exploring the ‘boring” cave system they had planned to visit, that she purposefully led them to an unmapped, unexplored cave system. The ladies hunt for a way out, struggling with injuries, short supplies, and each other, and just as things can’t apparently get worse they do—something else in the caves is alive and wants to feed on them.

The film worked for me. This is straight-up horror. The film-makers don’t bother with gratuitous topless scenes or silly humor—this is pure horror, like it or not.

The six characters, while not all well defined, are realistic and reflect all stripes from the reckless and headstrong to the meek and over-cautious. All the major food groups of horror are represented: claustrophobia, darkness, fear of heights, painful injury, being trapped, being hunted, and friends you cannot trust. Jump-at-you scares are coupled with rising dread well. My biggest complaints: at times, especially as the action picks up in the last third of the movie, it’s difficult to tell whom is with whom or where people are in the caves; the creatures also could have used a slower revelation, in that once the women become clued in that they may not be alone, the creatures are there in abundance attacking them. The creatures themselves, described as “crawlers” in the credits, were well played and frightening. Watching this film definitely helps put the fright back into visions of RPG explorers wending their way through dark cave systems.


This film has become a popular franchise, so a I knew it was just a matter of time before I saw it. For the uninitiated: the plot of this first installment finds two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell) awaking in a dirty room, chained to the wall. Neither one appears to know the other. They discover cassette tapes in their pockets and, after obtaining a recorder clutched in the palm of a corpse lying between them, play the tapes. They are being held captive by Jigsaw, a serial killer know for placing his victims in devious deathtraps where they must undertake almost unthinkable actions to survive. Following slim clues, they find hacksaws that are too thin to cut the heavy chains that bind them … but perfectly adequate for cutting off their feet. Meanwhile Dr. Gordon is told that he must kill the increasingly untrustworthy Adam by 6-o-clock—or his family will die.

For a series of films known for its gore (the third installment is reputed to be particularly gruesome) I found this film very “blood light” and far more of a mental exercise. This is not to say it doesn’t work—it does. At times the plot gets stretched a bit thin, and the film must be viewed tongue in check, but watched in that light I thought it to be an effective, interesting bit of psychological horror. I was happy to see Danny Glover in the role of an obsessed detective, and Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannel (who also co-wrote the movie) turn in reasonable performances.

I wish everyone a Happy Halloween!

October 21, 2007

Bringing a Map to Life

It was with great delight that I saw the recent-most work of None the Wiser, an architectural illustrator by profession, on the Goodman games message boards. None has already lent his expertise to Wildsgate from Into the Wilds (DCC # 28) and Kyarovsk (and other far wilder locales) from Talons of the Horned King (DCC #36), so I couldn't wait to see what he could do with The Scaly God. I certainly wasn't disappointed! Check out a sample:

None also included several awesome "beauty shots" and should be posting more SG work after he works on other projects. I can't wait.

The main thread on the GG boards may be found here.

Ever since Ravenloft castle, and Sutherland's incredible map of Strahd's castle, 3-D maps and level break-aways have proved invaluable to players and DMs alike in conveying a better sense of layout and view that simply cannot be reflected in flat, static maps on graph paper. I encourage DMs to make use of sketches, alternate views, 3-D views, physical props—I once plopped down a working, medieval-style hand crossbow on a table during a session to imply the threat made by a guard, and I've brought crystal balls and bags of gemstones to use in sessions as well—anything that can help your players visualize the fantastic realm they are exploring. The architectural (and structurally accurate!) renderings that None produces are a wonderful example of such a tool that makes the dungeons more real.

Here's to None the Wiser and his outstanding work!

October 04, 2007

1e, the Good, the Mixed, and the Ugly...

Here’s a few observations—nay opinions, and strong ones at that!—about First Edition:

The Good

1. It was first.
I could dedicate a whole post (or blog) to my wonderful memories of First Edition. For many of us, it was our first experience with a role-playing game, and, in my humble opinion, D&D is still the best. I’ve experimented with other game systems, but I always find my way back to good old D&D.

I love the old adventures, some of which are shockingly old and shockingly deadly, and sometimes I wonder just how much nostalgia comes into play when folks say they like a particular old module. Was the Tomb of Horrors really the best “killer tomb” ever—or simply the first killer tomb that player ever experienced? Like the Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

2. Simplicity.
Drawing up a 9th-level character for a one-shot even couldn’t be easier. If it’s a fighter-type, deciding on equipment and magic items will probably take longer than actually rolling up the PC.

Likewise, adjusting bad guys isn’t anything to break a sweat over. Need a gnoll commander? Bump up his hit dice and hit points, give him better armor and perhaps a magic spear and you’re done. No fancy Excel sheets needed, thank you very much.


3. Total DM control.
For all the charts and tables, 1e left a great deal of power in the hands of the DM. There are no attacks of opportunity … unless the DM wills it. Criticals? Ask the DM. How are magic items created? Ask the DM. Special maneuvers? Say it with me now … ask the DM!

The game experience could vary wildly on the flavor of the DM’s home world or campaign style (something that hasn’t changed completely, but has lessened).

4. Plug and Play.
Don’t like a smaller part of the rules? You can probably pull it out and ignore it. Don’t like weapon speed factors—throw ‘em out! (Gygax did! He never played with them.) On the flipside, this led to a crazy quilt game of sorts, with various disparate parts that never seemed to be part of one seamless whole. Roll d20 for this, roll d100 for that, roll d6 for secret doors and surprise … it was dice chaos.


5. Weak spellcasters.
Gary Gygax’s master plan for spellcasters—mages specifically (or Arcane casters for you 3e folks)—was for them to start off the weakest but to ramp up their power level until they were the strongest character type in the game by 12+ level. It was a cool idea, having varied power progressions. Every 1e player soon learned that thieves raced through the early levels, whereas clerics and fighters were steady and sub-class fighters, monks, and magic-users followed their own, often slow, pace. Yes, cool concept. Trouble is, most players never reached 12th level or higher with their magic-users. Level advancement was slow in those days, and because mages were so damned frail they rarely lived long enough to cast fireballs, forget time stop.

6. Fighters were a bit too strong.
A part of this leads in from number 5 above, but the high number of magic items for buffing fighters and their higher number of hit points makes this the class to beat at least until 6th level or so. Unlike 3e, there are no penalties for wearing heavy armor so the “meat shield” theory is taken to the max here. Wear platemail, run for miles, and swim? Sounds good (unless the DM rules otherwise; see number 3). The addition of some powerful, no time limit/charge magic items—the girdles of giant strength come immediately to mind—could make an average fighter into a real killer too.

7. Poor pummeling/grappling rules.
I guess some things never change!

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