Book Review: Splinter of the Mind’s Eye

220px-Splinter_of_the_Minds_EyeI try to change genres often when I read, and having just completed Dragons of the Hourglass Mage, the last book in the Dragonlance Lost Chronicles, I was due for some science fiction. I’d had my eye (pun!) on this book for a while, so I took the plunge.

Back in 1978, people were starved for Star Wars. I suppose in some sense, people still are starved for it, but back then it was different. There was the Marvel comic series (with the infamous green space rabbit, Jaxxon), and that was about it. No movie series, cartoon spinoffs, video games, or any of that. This was the year that the Star Wars Holiday Special came out, which tells you all you need to know about how folks wanted ANYTHING Star Wars.

And so, Alan Dean Foster served up the first novel with new Star Wars content. And fans everywhere rejoiced. Or so I suppose they did, I was only four years old at the time. Looking back on it forty years later, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is more interesting as a historical relic than as a good Star Wars story.

Luke and Leia are on their way to recruit some rebels when they crash land on the jungle planet Mimban. They come across a secret Imperial mining operation and meet a force-sensitive old woman named Halla. Halla has a piece of the titular Kaiburr crystal, and even this small piece is enough to greatly magnify Force powers. Luke and Leia get captured, then meet a couple Yuzzem, Wookie-like creatures, and Luke conveniently speaks their language. With Halla’s help, the heroes bust out of jail and head off in search of the crystal. Naturally, a certain tall, dark bad guy shows up with a bunch of stormtroopers.


The story is as generic as it gets. It doesn’t really feel like a Star Wars story. Of course, when it was written, there was only one real Star Wars story, and much of the mythology hadn’t been introduced yet. Take out the thin veneer of Star Wars elements and John Carter or Buck Rogers would be right at home. Given the pulp influences of the franchise, this isn’t a big problem. But Splinter is small in scale and fairly boring when compared to the first movie. Foster has stated that the story was intended as a potential low-budget sequel if Star Wars didn’t take off. That’s the likely explanation for the lack of anything epic.

There are a host of story elements that feel distinctly out of place given what followed. The elephant in the room is the romantic tension between Luke and Leia. Luke just barely manages to restrain himself from planting a big ol’ kiss on Leia more than once. Knowing they are siblings after, this is REALLY AWKWARD. Still, it was a natural direction for the series to go at the time it was written. Also out of place are Luke using power packs to charge his lightsaber and his puzzlement at whether the saber will work underwater. Vader has a blue lightsaber, too. Weird, right?

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye got some things right, though: for the first time, we see a Force-sensitive person using telekinesis. (If you don’t count Vader force choking Motti, that is.) Halla moves a salt shaker, and it’s heavily implied that Luke subconsciously moves a large rock to dispatch a foe. In Empire, Luke and Vader both use telekinesis, and it’s common from then on. Unfortunately, Vader never uses the awesome Street Fighter-style force ball attack he uses in Splinter. Kit Fisto did, though, in an excellent Clone Wars animated short, which you should track down in you haven’t.


The Kaiburr crystal is the Maguffin of the story, allowing Luke to channel its power to become a far more effective combatant than he otherwise would. I won’t spoil the ending, but the battle between Luke and Vader at the end goes much differently than the modern reader would expect. The Kaiburr crystal concept was mostly abandoned, but the idea was more or less translated into kyber crystals, which are now a big part of Star Wars lore.

While Splinter of the Mind’s Eye didn’t absolutely blow me away, it was an interesting read. The story itself is vanilla, to be sure. But reading it is almost like a puzzle. It’s fun to pick out what shouldn’t be there, but the most enjoyable part to me was seeing things that turned up later in the saga. I may go back and read the early Marvel comics soon, for the same reason. The Star Wars galaxy is incredibly rich and dense now, so dense that I can’t hope to keep up with everything. Looking back to a time when that galaxy far away was much smaller is very comforting.



Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

godzilla-resurgenceEarlier this month, I was quite excited to watch the newest Godzilla movie. For many, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but for me, it was a very special day. I enjoyed the last American Godzilla movie in 2014, but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Japanese series. The last of those, the poorly named Godzilla Final Wars, came out in 2004. Twelve years later, Toho Studios  is back with Shin Godzilla. We drove three hours to the nearest theater showing it, the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. It was a great experience, start to finish.

I wouldn’t usually mention the theater itself in a movie review, but the Alamo Drafthouse is worth talking about. It was my first time at one of these establishments, and it was probably the best trip to the movies I’ve ever had. Instead of playing boring commercials before the show, we were treated to a delightful series of Godzilla-related shorts. Several vintage trailers for older Godzilla movies made up the bulk of the pre-show. There was a brief bit of a Godzilla Island episode (a late 90s TV series that used actual action figures for the monster scenes). I especially loved the Spectreman clip and Bambi Meets Godzilla. All the quirky stuff they showed us got me even more hyped for the film itself.

I’ve been to exactly one theater that served food other than popcorn and pretzels before. It was less than amazing to eat bad chicken tenders and average french fries while sitting in a standard theater seat. The Alamo Drafthouse does it much differently. A helpful waiter took our order before the movie began. Just as the theater darkened, he returned, delivering our drinks and popcorn unobtrusively. There was a narrow table running the length of each row, very convenient for holding drinks and food. About a half hour in, our burgers arrived. They were fantastic. Connor and I had fries, while my wife chose to have hers on a bowl of greens and other salad-like stuff. Our drinks and popcorn were refilled every twenty minutes or so. Never once did the wait staff interrupt the movie, even when helping other people. The food was much better than I was expecting, and just added to the wonderful time we had watching the movie.

So what about the movie then? Was Shin Godzilla any good? I think it was great, and I’ll tell you why. We are now entering a spoiler zone, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading.






p9-schilling-shingodzilla-a-20160804-870x490Ever since the first Godzilla in 1954, all subsequent movies called back to the original monster. Even when the series was rebooted in 1984, 2000, and beyond, there was always a plot point about the return of the creature. Shin Godzilla abandons this concept. For the first time in over five decades, Godzilla is brand new, something never seen before, without any historical precedent. It’s refreshing to see Godzilla treated in this way. When you don’t automatically know it’s a giant radioactive reptilian monster, it adds to the sense of dread and danger of it all.

Compounding the sheer terror about what Godzilla might be is the shifting appearance of the creature throughout the film. At first, Godzilla is more a meteorological phenomenon, causing floods and such. Then a gargantuan tail and spiky back appear, causing panic. When Godzilla finally makes landfall, it looks far more alien than any version we’ve seen before. Initially, you see large, googly eyes which are almost comical, but then the undulating, tadpole-like nature of the beast is revealed and it’s horrifying. Over time, Godzilla evolves into more and more dangerous forms, before eventually taking on the more traditional bipedal stance. Even in this iteration, however, Godzilla is a far more revolting abomination than it has ever been before.

The historical theme for Godzilla has always been the dangers of nuclear weapons. In Shin Godzilla, the focus shifts away from the threat of external nuclear powers. The context is clearly the Fukushima disaster from 2011. Again and again, the government is portrayed as slow and ineffective in its response to Godzilla. These same concerns have been voiced concerning the release of radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear plant after damage from a tsunami. In Shin Godzilla, bureaucrats are indecisive when dealing with the threat of the monster, and their ineptitude costs many Japanese lives. After one particularly grueling scene, many of the “old guard” politicians are killed, leaving behind only minor officials who are even less prepared to deal with Godzilla. It’s refreshing to see these new themes being used in a Godzilla film.

downloadOne of the best things about a giant monster movie is seeing a huge creature tear up a city. In Shin Godzilla, the level of destruction is off the charts. Not only is Godzilla now bigger than any previous iteration, it has more raw power than ever before. The classic atomic breath is brilliantly realized, and both awesome and awful in its use. The new ability to shoot beams from the back spines and tail is somewhat controversial, but I felt it made sense and was executed well. There is a sense of absolute hopelessness when seeing the sheer entropic force that Godzilla has. There is a sense of an ever growing death toll, something that is often glossed over in other kaiju films. This gives the scenes of destruction much more emotional impact than you’d expect.

As far as the special effects go, Shin Godzilla easily has the best of any previous Toho film. It compares quite favorably to the 2104 Godzilla, though Shin Godzilla had but a fraction of the budget of the American film. Not once did I think “MAN IN SUIT” while watching. Suitmation was likely still used but it looked brilliant, regardless. The cinematography was quite unique, much different than the standard monster movie fare, and the soundtrack was a great balance between classic themes and modern style. It’s easily the most cinematic film in the series since the original way back in the 50s.

I simply adored Shin Godzilla, and can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a big change from previous films, for certain, but not an upsetting one. The film seems to have been a big hit, and the ending was quite ambiguous, making it likely that a sequel will eventually come. I am very excited to see what direction Toho goes in the next Godzilla film. The little kid in me just can’t wait to see this new, creepy Godzilla take on another monster, if indeed that’s the direction they go. But they might not. That’s fine too, as there are still plenty of interesting stories that could be told with just the Big G alone…


Movie Review: Captain America (1979 TV Movie)

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.31.06A couple weeks ago, my son and I started rewatching the Captain America and Avengers films in anticipation of Captain America: Civil War. I had actually not purchased Cap 2 or Avengers 2 on blu-ray, so I hopped over to Amazon and snagged them. One of those “Other Suggested Items” caught my attention: a DVD with both late 70s Captain America made for TV movies on it, for $4. How could I argue with that price? The day after we watched Civil War, I popped the DVD in and selected the first movie, to my son’s protest. “Just give it ten minutes,” I asked, and we did that, and more. It is one of those strange movies that are so bad they are good. Think Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, or The Giant Claw, but with a superhero instead of bad monster effects.

Cap ’79 begins with a scintillating sequence of a custom conversion van driving on the coast. This lasts for several minutes, and is accompanied by generic 70s era music. There are lots of aerial shots here. The producers clearly wanted to get as much mileage out of their helicopter rental as possible, because there are several such sequences wasting time over the course of the film. Occasionally, the camera zooms in enough to see a blond guy driving the van. He might or might not be Steve Rogers, for all we know at this point.

Steve Rogers (and Captain America later, no need to swap actors!) is played by Reb Brown. Mr. Brown is tall, broad shouldered, and handsome enough, but, at least at this point in his career, has no stage presence whatsoever. He is the cinematic equivalent of a potted plant; he looks pretty good, but doesn’t really do much other than take up space. We learn that the TV movie version of Steve Rogers is an ex military guy who is wandering the land, trying to find himself, or some such thing. I think mostly he just wants to drive that sweet van around. (Side note: I wonder what Steve would think of the A-Team van?)

After a scene where Steve draws a picture for a beach bum friend, the bad guys first appear. Said bad guys try to kill Steve by spraying fresh oil on the highway. What a diabolical and reliable scheme! Their motivation for attempting to murder Steve isn’t clear at this point in the film, and after watching it all, I’m still uncertain why they’re doing this, other than It’s In The Script. Steve survives the wreck (which was more accurately a fender bender), then uses a motorcycle for a while instead. I think maybe he was a pro motorcyclist or something? When he had time for that in between tours of duty, who knows, but whatever.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.32.44The country’s best scientist, Dr. Simon Mills, portrayed by Len Birman, gets in touch with Steve. I like Dr. Mills, the actor is very good, really the best thing in the movie. Doc informs our “hero” that years ago, Steve’s dad had created a super steroid (yes they straight up call it that) called F.L.A.G. (Full Latent Ability Gain). I take it back what I said about Len Birman, I think that acronym is the best thing in the movie. Anyway, these steroids worked fine on Steve’s dad, but since he was murdered, no one has been able to make F.L.A.G. work. Not without killing a bunch of lab rats, anyway. Dr. Mills asks Steve to help them by giving blood and whatnot so that they can try to perfect the steroid formula. As a patriotic veteran, and innately noble soul, Steve graciously volunteers, even at great personal risk to himself.

Wait! No, that’s not what happens at all. This version of Steve Rogers wants nothing to do with any of it, he just wants to drive around, visit beaches, and be a starving artist. For real. Some hero this dude is.

Later, the bad guys corner Steve and he is gravely wounded. Dr. Mills, for some reason, is the presiding surgeon. He decides that the only way to save Steve’s life is to administer F.L.A.G. to him. Without Steve’s permission, of course. Within moments of his injection, Steve recovers. F.L.A.G. works as well on him as it did for his father. He’s up and around in record time. Feeling the emotional toll of his near death experience, a grateful Steve dons the costume and goes off in search of the bad guys to foil their plot.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.35.47Nope, wrong again! Steve is outraged at Dr. Mills for saving his life! The anger he shows is probably the most animated Reb Brown gets in the whole movie. It’s unfortunate that he only really acts when his character is being a jerk! The guy has no interest whatsoever in being a hero. It’s only after he gets out of the hospital and is attacked a THIRD time by the baddies (in a meat processing plant, naturally) that he changes his mind. He spends a day at the beach in some uncomfortably small swim trunks chatting it up with Dr. Mills and his lovely assistant Dr. Day. Steve and Day kiss once, and never really talk to each other again. Are they now a thing? I don’t know. It’s weird. Steve draws a picture of a star spangled costume, showing that he accepts his fate. And thus, a hero is born. Wow. What an inspiring origin!

Remember the sweet van? It’s back, this time, outfitted with a motorcycle launching mechanism. Dr. Mills and all the other secret science folks were busy while Steve was at the beach, I guess. You can’t really talk about Captain America without mentioning his shield, right? It’s absolutely iconic, and a huge part of the character. It would have been easy for the creators to skip the shield, but they don’t, and I appreciate that. Instead of being made of a vibranium-adamantium alloy, it’s clear bulletproof plastic of some sort. Eh, okay. It reminds me of the energy shield Cap wielded for a while back in the 90s. Dr. Mills shows Steve that the shield can be both a defensive tool as well as an offensive weapon. The doc gives the shield a heave, and it flies for a bit as depicted by some very sketchy special effects before Steve catches it. That’s the first, last, and ONLY time anyone ever throws the shield in the movie. THE DOCTOR GETS TO THROW IT, NOT CAP. I changed my mind again, Dr. Mills really is the best thing in the movie. My brain is hemorrhaging from confusion at this point.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.36.24Another cool feature of the shield is that it is the windshield for the bike. I will admit that this motorcycle is sweet. It’s red, white, and blue all over the place. There are jets to get the speed up when needed, and also a silent mode that eliminates all engine noise. Steve, being an accomplished motorcycle rider, takes his sweet new toy out for a spin. A very, very long spin. Handily, there are some ramps and stuff on this super secret government base for him to play on. I know Evel Knievel was the bee’s knees at this point in history, but all this motorcycle stuff is excessive. It’s Captain America, not Ghost Rider, for crying out loud! Lo and behold, a helicopter full of bad guys appears, and they chase Steve down. He uses a ramp and the jets on the bike to jump into the helicopter and dispatch the evil guys. I’m still not sure why they feel he’s such a threat to their plan, which we’ve learned by now is something about a bomb. Like I said before, it’s unclear.

We have now been watching this movie for an hour and ten minutes, and finally thing are starting to move along. Drs. Mills and Day, along with some super hearing assistance by Steve, figure out where the bad guys are. Mills drops a bombshell, telling everyone that people used to call Steve’s dad Captain America, teasing him, I suppose. Yes, a nickname used to BELITTLE HIS FATHER is taken as the son’s superhero call sign. (I can’t even.) Dr. Mills tells Steve to “shove Captain America down their throats” which makes everyone uncomfortable, and then, at long last, Steve dresses up in his superhero suit (based on the drawing he made earlier, a mashup of Evel Knievel and the classic costume). What does he do first? He drives off on an extended motorcycle scene, of course.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.37.58

Finally, FINALLY, we have Captain America taking on some bad guys in hand to hand combat. Or, you’d think we would have it, but he ends up sneaking around the oil refinery bad guy HQ more than anything. He can jump really high, you see, and even though he is clearly visible on the outdoor catwalks, no one notices him until it’s too late. One thing I nearly forgot that simply must be mentioned is the sound effect that accompanies every display of Cap’s superpowers. It’s the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman noise, almost exactly. Come to think of it, this Cap’s origin has more in common with astronaut Steve Austin than it does the comics.

In a very odd sequence, Steve breaks an oil pipe and sprays it all over a patch of ground. The inept security guards run right into it, and we are treated to slipping sliding hijinks. Cap watches from afar, laughing at them. I can see it now: when the creators wrote this scene, they were like “hey, remember how at the beginning they tried to kill Steve by spraying oil on the road? What if he sprayed oil back on them at the end? Man, that would be far out, right? Like, a thematic tie or something.” And then they went out for lunch at a fancy restaurant because they are Hollywood Writers and they are Important Creative Talent. The whole scene comes off as a Three Stooges bit. It’s totally awkward and out of place.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.38.45

Wasn’t there something about a bomb? Yes, indeed there was. Turns out the bad guys are sending a bomb somewhere else, and Cap has to go stop them! You know what that means: more motorcycle scenes! After several grueling minutes, Cap catches up to the truck hauling the bomb. He leaps off his bike in order to climb aboard, and inexplicably leaves his shield behind! There’s no way a bulletproof shield would in any way be useful from this point on, why even bother with it, you know? Cap uses an exhaust pipe to literally smoke out the head bad guy in the trailer with the bomb. Dr. Mills shows up, I think they disarm the bomb, and all is well.

Steve decides that he will now carry on his father’s work even more closely, by using the exact same costume Pappa Rogers used during his bad guy fighting days. Yes, that’s right, apparently Steve’s dad actually dressed up in a costume while crime fighting, and no one ever said anything about it until three minutes before the end of the film. I don’t get it, either, but the whole costume thing does explain why they called daddy-o Captain America. We are treated to a final scene of Cap riding on his motorcycle in his new costume, which more closely resembles the comic book version. He and Dr. Mills have a brotastic handshaking moment, and the credits roll.

Screenshot 2016-05-09 15.39.12Wow. This movie is really something. They managed to strip away almost every important attribute of Captain America. The key theme of the super soldier serum bringing out the inner qualities of Steve Rogers is totally abandoned. This dude is buff already, plus a motorcycle ace and an ex-soldier before he ever uses F.L.A.G., and that ruins it. Unlike the “real” version, this Steve doesn’t believe in helping other people and doing the right thing, either. He doesn’t even choose to use F.L.A.G., remember? Even when, due to events outside his control, he gets super powers, he still protests. Captain America is a lot of things, but a reluctant hero is not one of them.

This Cap doesn’t feel particularly patriotic, either. You get the feeling that he regrets his time in military service since he just wants to wander around doing nothing. Even when he does don the costume, he doesn’t fight America’s military enemies, just corrupt business men. There are no Nazis or even Soviet threats here. A Cold War era Red Skull reimagining would have made sense and could have been cool, but no. The villains feel like something from The Incredible Hulk TV series, which I am sure was a large influence on this movie. I believe it was supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a Cap TV show, but the ratings weren’t there, and instead it spawned only a sequel TV movie.

If the creators hadn’t ignored what makes Captain America such a great hero, the movie would have been better. It could have inspired a decent TV show that was fondly remembered today. Instead, we got a bizarre mashup of the Bionic Man and Evel Knievel that doesn’t really work. Do I regret watching it? Not for a moment. It is perhaps the most 1979 thing you will ever come across, from the music to the fashion to the low budget. This Captain America movie isn’t good by any means, but the nostalgia factor and the excessive liberties (if you’ll excuse the pun) taken with the core character concept make it interesting. I’m curious as to how the sequel turned out, and when I watch it, I’ll be sure to share my thoughts here.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Clear Plastic Shields


D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

May of the Dead: Ravenloft Silver Anniversary Edition Review

This month, several RPG blogs are participating in May of the Dead. All month long, undead-themed posts will be available for zombie-crazed readers to devour. For my offering, I wanted to look back at a classic D&D product with a strong focus on the undead: the Silver Anniversary Edition of Ravenloft.

As I wrote about in the very first D&Development column, my introduction to roleplaying was via a diceless playground session during one afternoon recess my 5th grade year. My friend, the Dungeon Master, ran the adventure from memory, and likely took many liberties with it. Though the details are fuzzy, I still remember encountering Count Strahd and his creepy castle home. I never played the original Ravenloft module more formally, though I did spend much time playing and DMing in the Ravenloft campaign setting in the early 90s.

Last fall, I was perusing the used item shelves at my local game store during a 50% off sale. While the selection was heavy on the hardcover AD&D books, it was very light on adventures, which I was most interested in. I did manage to find a copy of the Silver Anniversary Edition of Ravenloft, for a reasonable $5 on sale. I’d have preferred an original, but still, you can’t beat that kind of value.

While Ravenloft was originally released for 1st edition AD&D back in 1983, this Silver Anniversary version was published in 1999, the 25th anniversary of the D&D. (It’s hard to believe we are coming up on 40 years so soon.) This version of Ravenloft has been converted to the 2nd edition rules that were in effect at the time. Though I don’t have an original to compare to, I suspect that the layout is new, and that non-mechanical tweaks have been made throughout. Still, it’s a very nice presentation, as is fitting for such a well-known piece of D&D lore.

Upon even a casual reading of the module, it’s clear that the main focus of the entire adventure is on the villain. Strahd von Zarovich is a great character, for many reasons, so I suppose his prominence makes sense. He is interesting from a gameplay perspective, with a formidable blend of vampire and necromancer abilities. Another interesting aspect is Strahd’s ties to the land; in a sense, the entire environment is an extension of Strahd himself. The vampire lord’s tragic backstory, revealed as events unfold, gives him far more personality and motivation than the stereotypical dungeon boss. Strahd is one of the definitive NPCs in D&D’s history.

Another standout feature of Ravenloft is the innovative use of playing cards. Madame Eva, an NPC Vistani seer, performs a reading for the PCs. The module presents two different methods for this, one with a partial and the other with a full deck of standard playing cards. Tantalizing tidbits of information about what is to come are presented based on which cards the PCs draw. Props are always a great way to draw players into the game, and in this case, it couldn’t be any easier to find the prop, yet it’s still great thematically. The locations of key items, and even Strahd’s villainous goals themselves, change depending on what cards are drawn. This randomization adds a welcome level of replayability to the adventure. The Tarokka deck reading adds to the mystique and sense of immersion in Ravenloft.

The legendary maps are very impressive. There are two covers to the module. On the inside of each are two maps detailing Castle Ravenloft. They are, quite simply, gorgeous. Rendered in a slick three-dimensional view, these make the graph paper style maps of most other modules from the time look very plain in comparison. A more traditional hex map of the land of Barovia adorns the outside of the inner cover, printed in color. This map seems like overkill. There really isn’t much to it, due to the small scope of the environment, consisting mainly of the castle and a small village. Ravenloft is famous for having great maps, and the 3D views of the castle, in particular, certainly live up to the hype.

The bulk of the module is devoted to the castle itself. For the most part, it is very much like a traditional dungeon crawl. However, the choices for monsters, and the tone of the very descriptive boxes of flavor text, give the “dungeon” a gothic horror feel. As you would expect, there are all sorts of undead, plus a good variety of wolves, spiders, and bats, for the PCs to fend off. When you are used to the longer, small number of fights in 4th edition D&D, it’s strange to see a dungeon like this, with dozens of encounters listed. It reflects a different era in D&D history, and I look forward to trying to adapt a trip to Castle Ravenloft using the D&D Next ruleset.

Though Ravenloft is unquestionably an excellent module, easily one of the best adventures of all time, it is not without its flaws. The initial hook is weak; the heroes walk through some magic fog, and end up in Barovia. There is a significant amount of railroading, as well. The party is hamfistedly prevented from leaving until Strahd is defeated. It’s clear that there is an emphasis on the plot, particularly Strahd’s actions, almost to the point that the PCs involvement is secondary. Combat and interesting encounters are largely absent, and quite simply not the point. These issues, though obvious, aren’t so distasteful that they detract from the overall excellence of Ravenloft.

Many times, things that we are nostalgic for are disappointing when we experience them again. Many video games I remember spending many hours on as a child seem shallow and boring today. I was somewhat apprehensive that this would also be the case with Ravenloft. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by how unique and well crafted the adventure was, even almost thirty years after it was originally published. Strahd is a great villain, the maps are superb, and the use of props was certainly unique. The art, as well, is excellent, and among Clyde Caldwell’s best. I look forward to running a few sessions set in the gloomy environs of Castle Ravenloft in the near future.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

“Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons” Review

It has been quite a while since I reviewed any D&D material. As my campaign met more and more infrequently over the past months, I found myself purchasing fewer new products. So, I decided to look through some of my earlier items for review, and the first that came to mind was the first 4th Edition installment of the Draconomicon, focusing on Chromatic Dragons.

As we look to D&D Next, it may seem strange to look back at what was a relatively early book in 4E’s development. According to the product page for the book, it came out in November 2008, less than half a year after the core 4th edition books hit store shelves. From the perspective of a person who came into 4E through Essentials, the book looks quite different than what I am used to. For the most part, though, the book is still very useful, particularly the non-statistic content.

The first section of Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is titled “Dragon Lore”, a broad category that covers many separate topics. The first half of this section reads a bit like a biology textbook, detailing the physiology and life cycle of dragons. I felt the book gave a bit too much detail, stuff that was not immediately useful in a campaign, but the following pages on draconic motivations, society, and the relationships of dragons to the gods are more easily integrated.

The second section of “Dragon Lore” looks at each specific variety of dragon in depth. The differences between the various dragon colors have been emphasized in the past few editions of D&D, from an art perspective, at least. These pages give lots of information about what, apart from looks, makes each color unique from the rest. I appreciated this very much, as will most DMs who use a variety of evil dragons in their campaigns, and who want them to feel distinct from one another.

The “DM’s Guide to Dragons” is the second major portion of the supplement. Unsurprisingly, these pages are among the most useful in the entire book. Sample encounters are provided, in both combat and skill challenge form. A few new traps are listed, most appropriate for dragon lairs but easily dropped into any adventure. I am especially fond of the pages devoted to adventure hooks, quests, and even two full-length campaigns all heavily involving dragons. Regardless of which version of D&D (or, I suppose, any other RPG) you are using, there is plenty of inspiration to be had here.

Another excellent resource in this “DM’s Guide to Dragons” is the detailed rules for creating a dragon’s treasure hoard. Though intended for the large treasure parcels associated with dragons, these charts and guidelines are useful for any large hoard. Sample parcels for each level are included, but the best part are the different options and suggestions for interesting valuable items. Using art objects or fine materials instead of piles of gold coins in your treasures makes your fantasy world seem that much more real. A handful of draconic artifacts, including the Orb of Dragonkind, a favorite of Dragonlance fans everywhere, are also detailed here. The guide wraps up with new rituals and a nifty section on the magical properties of dragon parts.

Next, the Draconomicon spends a hefty number of pages on “Dragon Lairs”. This section is a mixed bag. Though the background information and maps are quite useful, it’s painfully obvious that the encounter design is very early in 4E’s development. Still, there’s plenty of good stuff here, but be prepared to do some serious tweaking before taking it to the table. Nine different adventures, each eight pages long, are presented.

  • Ruins of Castle Corvald – 5th level, young white dragon
  • Cliffside Lair – 6th level, kobolds and a young gray dragon
  • Feywild Lair – 9th level, eladrin and a young green dragon
  • Where Shadows Fall – 16th level, Shadowfell based vampiric dragon
  • Heart of Darkness – 18th level, Underdark lair of an elder purple dragon
  • Volcano Lair – 19th level, elder red dragon guarding a “doomsday device”
  • Tomb of Urum-Shar, 27th level, underground ziggurat of an ancient brown dragon
  • Abyssal Lair – 28th level, a deathmask dragon in the Blood Sea
  • Regnant Fane – 29th level, Tiamat’s eggs guarded by a dracolich and polychromatic black dragon

The remainder of the book, just under half of the total page count, is devoted to “New Monsters”. I got the impression that everything draconic that didn’t fit into the first 4E Monster Manual was crammed into this section. Sadly, the statistics for these monsters are in the early monster block format, very hard to use in play. Also, this was written before the MM3 changes, so extensive alterations might be needed, particularly for paragon and epic tier foes.

Details about brown, gray, and purple dragons begin this section. These creatures are hardly new to the game, previously being known as sand, fang, and deep dragons, respectively. Stats for various ages of these beasts are provided, as well as tactics, lore, and sample encounters for each.  Following the “new” chromatics are entries for wyrmlings of the various colors, in case you want your PCs to beat up on a baby dragon sometime.

Planar Dragons come next. Dragons, as such an integral part of the game, can be found on almost any plane your group might visit. The dragons listed run the gamut from incredibly evocative to quite mundane in theme. An example of the former would be the Frostforged Wyrm, a white dragon captured by demons and forced to wear painful armor plates, constantly being nailed on by small imps. An evocative image to be sure! Blight dragons, shadow dragons, and the various Feywild dragons are also worthwhile additions to your adventures. The dragons of the elemental planes, too, are quite interesting, and thematically appropriate given dragons’ strong ties to elemental magic. The dragons from the astral plane, though, seem quite vanilla compared to the others. They deviate very little in theme or mechanics from their standard brethren.

Several varieties of undead dragons are also presented. The fan favorite dracolich appears in no less than four separate varieties. A few other standard monster types are grafted onto dragons as well, including wraiths, zombies, and vampires. Following these horrors are a few dragon related monsters, and these are hit and miss. More kobolds are always nice, and the Kobold Victory Table is as awesome as it sounds. Abishai are here, and rightly so. But some of these monsters are really stretching it; draconic parasites and drakes are dull, at best. On the other hand, living breath monsters, embodiments of draconic elemental power, certainly make up for the less compelling creatures in this section.

Perhaps the best part of the Draconomicon, from a lore perspective, is the “Dragon Hall of Fame”. Eight different dragons, well detailed and suitably villainous, are available to be used in your campaigns. Each one of these would be a fantastic catalyst for an adventure, or perhaps even as the theme for an entire campaign. My favorites include Ashardalon, Cyan Bloodbane, and of course Tiamat herself. While the mechanics on these villains are probably woefully outdated, the motivations, backstory, and tactics presented for each are very inspiring, no matter what edition of D&D you are playing. A few templates and alternative powers are the last pages in the book.

So what’s the final verdict? There is so much fluff here, it’s hard to not find something you like. If you play D&D, chances are you like dragons, and the Draconomicon is a vast resource for story and potential villains and encounters. It’s unfortunate that the book came out so early in 4E’s lifespan, as most of the crunch included here really needs updating before it can be used directly in your game. To me, I found the fluff elements alone worthwhile. Being an older book, it is likely available used at your FLGS or online; I paid around $12 for my copy a year ago. If you plan on using dragons heavily in your game, and don’t mind adjusting or, in high level scenarios, entirely remaking stat blocks, Draconomicon: Chromatic Dragons is certainly worth a look.

D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

“Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium” Review

As I’ve stated here many times before, I came into 4th Edition through the Essentials Line. Starting with the new Red Box, and moving on through the DM Kit and both Monster Vaults, I’ve learned much about running a 4E game. One area that I missed out on, however, was magic items.

No one in my group ever purchased the “Heroes of…” books, and so the only insight I had into magic items came from the rarity system in the DM Kit. While the Compendium and Character Builder have been helpful, I always felt like there was something missing. Various posts in the D&D community, as well as my own experience, led me to believe that the Essentials rules for magic items weren’t exactly what they need to be.

As you might expect, then, I was very much interested in what Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium had to offer. A tome full of new magic items using the Essentials design sensibilities is just what I needed. I managed to find a copy at my local game store, and picked it up, hoping it would be just the thing to fill the holes in my magic item expertise. The Emporium did just that, and quite a bit more.

The most striking thing about this book is the style of writing used throughout. Most of the books in my admittedly small 4E collection are quite clinical, and read like technical manuals, which is exactly what they are intended to be. That’s fine for learning to play the game, but the dry explanatory text is tedious to read at times. Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium uses a far different style, written as if it is a secret copy of a powerful tome. Flavor drips from every page, from the faux historical introduction to each chapter down to the creative descriptions of the various magical items. While there are dozens of stat blocks for these items, most have interesting expository text that gives DMs lots of ideas. This shift in writing style makes the Emporium stand out as the easiest reading 4E book on my shelf.

The first two chapters cover the most popular types of items, the ones that really get players excited: armor and weapons. As a 2nd edition veteran, I was thrilled to see classic armor sets like studded leather and splint mail included in 4E for the first time. Unusual weapons are also provided, such as the falchion, rapier, and morningstar. In addition to the items themselves, new feats are also provided, including an interesting system for power strike weapon specialization. Slayers will find these additional options quite welcome. Besides the mundane gear, a wide range of magical armors and weapons are listed, including some that have been in the game for decades, like the flame tongue, frost brand, and maul of the titans. The grognard inside me was grinning when I read the names of these awesome weapons once again.

The third chapter details new implements for spell casters. Superior implements and their requisite feats provide some decent boosts that will make mages happy. An enormous variety of holy symbols, magical orbs (including the awesome Prismatic Orb, which calls to mind a favorite spell from the old days), rods, staffs, tomes, and wands are all presented. Even shamans get some love with three new types of totems.

Chapter four is the longest in the entire Emporium. Types of magical gear for every slot from head to toe are cataloged inside its pages. As with previous chapters, there are many callbacks to items from earlier editions, including but not limited to boots of elvenkind, true gauntlets of ogre power, and even ioun stones! My favorite new item is the horrific the helm of seven deaths, a creepy piece of equipment, for sure. Any character can find some cool new ability or trait to improve their character in these pages. Many items have story hooks provided, giving the DM an easy method to work them into the campaign seamlessly. The wondrous items section is just as the name implies: wonderful, with fun, clever items like the broom of flying, climber’s rope, endless quiver, and instant campsite. I personally love crazy, off the wall, non-combat items like these, but they may not work well in more realistic, gritty, low-magic campaigns.

I am a huge fan of potions, and my players are too. They love them because they can use them with a minor action. I love them because a few healing potions here and there let me get away with some threats I might not otherwise be able to use on my healing-light party. The extensive list of great potions and other consumable items in Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium will be of tremendous use in my game, and I suspect for many others as well.

Chapter Five deals with Artifacts and Curses. Again, the real emphasis here is on the story elements instead of just the gameplay effects. Probably the best section in the entire book, as far as DM advice goes, is the discussion of Story Items. No stat blocks are listed here, just six full pages of unique ideas for using special magic items as plot points in your campaign. There is some excellent material here that can be used as the basic for individual adventures or even longer campaign arcs.

The remainder of Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium takes on non-magical items, those that are still useful but aren’t necessarily infused with enchantments. From the small (ball bearings, caltrops) to the large (palaces and castles), all manner of purchasable items are listed, including alchemical preparations. The appendices provide rules for hiring henchmen, and several pages worth of charts of various purposes. The book clocks in at a reasonable 160 pages.

Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium is an extremely useful book. For an Essentials DM, it really expands on an aspect of the game that isn’t covered well in the DM Kit. For the old-school D&D fan, it’s full of throwback items that will call to mind the glory days of yore. I highly recommend the book for any DM, and also for players who are looking for more cool magical items to bolster their character. Let’s hope that future books continue the high standard of Mordenkainen’s tome!




D&D, DM Advice, Dungeons & Dragons, Roleplaying

“Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale” Review

In my opinion, one of the best products from the Essentials line is the Monster Vault.  There’s just so much to love!  It includes a huge assortment of tokens representing all of the included monsters.  “Cairn of the Winter King” is a superb adventure, with a great story hook, interesting encounters, and nifty magic items.  I adore poster maps, and the one included in the Monster Vault is a nice one.  As if that wasn’t enough, the book itself is perfectly-sized and chock full of detailed monster lore and improved stat blocks.  It’s a great item and well worth a purchase for any DM.

However, when the second Monster Vault was released this summer, I was very hesitant to pick it up.  I was disappointed that the book was neither a full sized hardcover, nor a digest sized paperback.  I wasn’t particularly impressed with the preview articles, either.  And did I really need more tokens?  Worst of all, there was no adventure included.  Why did I need to buy this thing when I had access to all the stat blocks in DDI anyway?

Obviously, I eventually changed my mind and picked up Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale.  I am happy to report that, despite my initial concerns, it is a great product.  While my nitpicks about the actual format of the book itself still remain, the content more than makes up for it, as do the stellar extras included in the package.

The included poster map is double sided, with two half-sized maps on each side, for a total of four different encounter areas.  The detail on these maps is amazing, easily the best of any that I own.  In addition to looking pretty on the table, the layouts themselves are interesting.  There are all manner of choke points and hiding places that make for compelling tactical decision making.  The four battle maps include a hilly forest clearing with rock outcroppings, a small cave dungeon with a stream and a huge crevice, an urban building that could easily be modified on the fly to represent a temple or warehouse, and my favorite, a small hut next to a swampy marsh.  Each map is generic enough to be used repeatedly throughout any campaign, which is a definite plus.

As far the tokens, they continue the strong precedent set by the first Monster Vault: they are excellent.  There are eight sheets worth of tokens, representative of each monster or villain in the book.  The art is simply fantastic on these, and they are an improvement over prior tokens in that the name of the monster is shown on the bloodied side.  I like having the name on these for more efficient storage and ease of access, but they are slightly less useful in a generic sense as a result.  If you like tokens, you’ll love this set.

The meat of the product, of course, is the large softcover Threats to the Nentir Vale book itself.  The 128 pages of the tome are glossy, like 4E hardcovers, and the binding and cover feel very sturdy.  Inside the book are dozens of monsters and villains, all created using post-MM3 math.  As an old school D&D fan, I was thrilled to see old standards like the gory penanggalan, the vicious peryton, and the eerie hound of ill omen.  I do wish there were more of these generic creatures from D&D history in the book, particularly those from MM1 and MM2 that really need updating.  (It appears that Wizards has decided to use DDI for these kinds of revisions.)  The rest of the book is dedicated to specific, “named” monsters and villains scattered around the Nentir Vale.

As a new DM, with little experience in the Nentir Vale setting, which itself is intentionally vague and ill-defined, the lore and history represented here are invaluable.  In truth, these details will have more of a direct impact on my campaign than the stat blocks ever will.  The Nentir Vale is fleshed out and given the substance that it sorely needed.  Bands of humanoid foes like the Daggerburg Goblins, the Bloodspear Orcs, and the lizardmen from the Witchlight Fens now feel less like random groups of stat blocks, and more like organic parts of a natural, realistic, yet still fantastic setting.  Villains like the Iron Circle and the Tigerclaw Barbarians are given similar treatment.  Each entry is so full of good information that I suspect you could run an entire campaign based on fighting one group alone.  The book is extremely readable, highly useful, and fills the gaping need for a Gazetteer-style resource in the Essentials line.

Are there any drawbacks to the package?  There are, but they are quite minor.  I’ve already mentioned the format issue; it’s a bit of a hybrid that doesn’t fit with small Essentials books nor with the hardcovers.  The bulk of the monsters are heroic level, with the remaining minority at paragon level.  If you want epic monsters for your campaign, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  I also wish it was packaged in a box like its predecessor instead of just wrapped in a flimsy sleeve.

All in all, though, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale is an amazing addition to any 4E DM’s library.  The Nentir Vale setting is generic enough that any of the entries could be used in other worlds fairly seamlessly.  The battle maps are top notch, the tokens are excellent, and the book itself is simultaneously full of fluff and packed with crunch.  This set is worth every penny and my only regret is that I didn’t pick it up sooner!