Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Review: Smallville RPG by Margaret Weis Productions

Smallville RPG by Cam Banks and Josh Roby (and Team)
Margaret Weis Productions
218 pages
Watermarked PDF from Drive-Thru RPG.

Every hero has a beginning… The SMALLVILLE Roleplaying Game lets you experience all the superpowered action and coming-of-age drama of the hit show on the CW Network. Whether you're struggling against your heritage, your humanity, or your heroic responsibility, you'll need the support of friends and family in order to embrace your destiny. Players may choose to take on the role of Clark, Chloe, Lois, Oliver, or their own original characters in the world of SMALLVILLE. http://www.margaretweis.com/

I believe that many folks judge a product based on their experiences with it filtered through the looking glass of expectation. If we expect X and get Y, we are often upset and our reviews of it tend to reflect that.

I think the expectations of the Smallville need to be straight up front else the experience will suffer.

This Autumn there are other “Supers” RPGs being released. Smallville is considerably different in favor from the others in focus and vibe.

To get an idea of what the Smallville RPG is about consider the tele-drama it is based upon: young adults and all the weird social issues young people have. Add to these a variety of secrets and plots surrounding exceptional people and you almost have it. Make those exceptional people super-human…and it hits the mark.

While super heroes and super powers are a factor, I think it’s safe to say that they are flavor and useful as tools to deal with social issues and complications rather than the fix-all. This isn’t Mutants and Masterminds, Champions or DC Adventures. Those game all have an audience and fill a particular niche for people who love supers. This game, Smallville fills an altogether untapped area: largely social interactions, social issues, and interpersonal relations…on the backdrop of the DC Universe.

Having played the game, it plays smoothly. The very base of the game is the backbone of the Cortex system. Have a handful of bits to use like Attributes, Skills, Traits etc…. all rated by die types. Rolls some dice, keep the best couple beat a target number. Pretty standard Cortex fare. Here’s the difference: The focus of many of these traits are split up in to very important sections like Resources, Drives, Values, Relationships, Distinctions, Gear…all sorts of things that really define the character, based often on statements like “Defend Tess” or “Keep my secret identity from Lois” etc. The Watchtower (GM) also has access to a pool of complications which are there to make things fun and challenging for the PCs.

As always there are Plot points to be used. Again Cortex proves to be a very characterful system that takes a very simple core mechanic and adds real character flavor to it.

It becomes apparent that while the core mechanic of Cortex is the same (and is largely the same in every iteration/ licensed product) it is tweaked and catered to fit the distinct vibe of the material presented. Just as the Supernatural RPG make you want to listen to classic rock and drive a hot-rod to the scene of a haunting so you can sort out the problem with thoughtful application of salt, fire and Solomon’s Seal…Smallville feels like playing a 20’something in the show, making trouble for Lex, looking out for your buddies and keeping your secrets safe from prying eyes…while probably saving the city at the same time.

There is a lot of fun material on Character Pathways which make it super simple to grow the characters (this is a sort of “coming of age” show/ game). As expected, the game plays out in episodic fashion. Just like the TV show. Seasons, plots and story arcs, leads, extras, etc. It really works. The characters sheets for the major TV show characters Clark Kent are simple, easy to read and simple to use as an example when it comes to making up a character for yourself.

Great info is included on how to play as the Watchtower: frame scenes and really get the most out of all the nifty traits and complications. There’s even info on playing a game online. Towards the end is a wealth of info on the series from characters, places, an episode guide, really…everything someone would need to make a campaign fit in to the Smallville mini-universe.

Coming back to where we started, what are you looking for?
If you’re interested in an RPG that really focuses on the social dynamics of a small group of young adults coming in to their own…then this is the game for you. No doubt. Love the show? This is the one? Want to play a game that plays out like the show, with the same flavor, same feel, same vibe…this is THE game for you.

If you are interested in superheroes fighting stuff, leveling up, detailed effects and powers…you may want to look elsewhere. There are games built for everyone and a wide variety of tastes. This game is more geared towards telling a story and giving a very particular feel to it…which it does in spades! It is NOT a replacement for folks in to Champions or Mutants and Masterminds…unless you feel that they aren’t spinning you up on the social aspect.

I think if do so some shopping around and pick the game for you and the game you want is true to the core material, the Smallville tele-drama…there is no other choice. The Smallville RPG delivers!

Very dependent on your expectations. If you want a standard “Supers” RPG fare, roll dice, beat up guys, beat the bad guy and level up…this is NOT for you.

If you want episodic play and a story that works out like the show…this is THE game for you.

Presentation- 4 of 5 (Largely photography from the show…makes sense as it is far closer to the Smallville TV show than say the DC Universe canon/ comics. The charts can be overwhelming.)
Rules- 5 of 5 (It hits the niche perfectly.)
Price- 3 of 5 (Kinda spendy but still par for the course)
Game Play- 4 of 5 (Can be a little awkward to get your head around if you’re not familiar with the show.)

4 out of 5 Stars.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Review: Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross

Pathfinder Tales: Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross
Paizo Publishing
262 pages
Advance Reader Copy

For half-elven Pathfinder Varian Jeggare and his devil-blooded bodyguard Radovan, things are rarely as they seem. Yet not even the notorious crime-solving duo is prepared for what they find when a search for a missing Pathfinder takes them into the gothic and mist-shrouded mountains of Ustalav. Beset on all sides by noble intrigue, mysterious locals, and the deadly creatures of the night, Varian and Radovan must use both sword and spell to track the strange rumors to their source and uncover a secret of unimaginable proportions, aided in their quest by a pack of sinister werewolves and a mysterious mute priestess. But it’ll take more than merely solving the mystery to finish this job. For shadowy figures have taken note of the pair’s investigations, and the forces of darkness are set on making sure neither man gets out of Ustalav alive... http://paizo.com

The Pathfinder Tales are a series of novels set in the fantastic new Pathfinder RPG Campaign Setting. Having read several tie-in novels for a wide variety of settings/ games I was excited to give this a shot. I think my excitement was well placed; the novel is a lot of fun and a fantastic “first look” in to rich Pathfinder setting.

The author does something we see little of these days (it seems) in utilizing the first-person perspective. Admittedly it took a chapter or so to warm up to it, but it seemed to really work. The first person perspective makes the events of the story seem a bit more personal and the author did a fine job in making some really interesting characters.

Characterization, or rather a lack of it is one of my pet peeves. If a character is in the novel, especially a protagonist/ antagonist I want to feel something for them. I want to understand why: get in their head a bit. There is an expectation of the author having strings to pull on the reader, and Dave Gross takes advantage of that nicely.

I can honestly admit, I really liked Varian and Radovan. Their faults and errors in judgment, awkward feelings, missteps make them feel real…and I’m a sucker for real-feeling characters. It makes me as a reader sympathetic. I admit it, I was hooked.

The setting itself is described nicely. I know every says “show don’t tell” but to be honest, a bit of it is reasonable in this case as it is really the first glimpse many folks will see of the setting. A bit of exposition is understandable. Actually, I wish the story was longer so I could absorb more of the setting, but there will be more novels, so I’ll be sated later. The novel feels like a “taste” of a much bigger world.

The cover art is well done. Well suited to the genre. Dan Scott did a very fine job and the visual presentation works nicely!

Since I have an ARC (advance reader copy) I don’t know if any changes will be made to the final version that ships to the stores. If I could make a recommendation, I’d put a good map up front and maybe a “cast of characters” as well for easy reference.

In summary, Dave Gross does a wonderful job in telling a compelling story with characters that are rich and colorful. The plot unfolds in unexpected ways (bonus!) and doesn’t resort to lame gimmicks: it’s just a damn good tale.

A very impressive opener! I can’t wait to read more Pathfinder Tales! Now I’m anxious to do some gaming in the setting: explore further.

4 out of 5 Stars.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Review: Sword of Justice by Chris Wraight


Sword of Justice by Chris Wraight

Black Library Publishing

414 pages


Fresh from the slaughter of the Emperor's enemies in the north, Ludwig Schwarzhelm, Emperor's Champion, is sent to Averland to oversee the inauguration of a new elector count. Beset by greenskins, and hampered on all sides by the ambitions of rival magnates, he is soon fighting to keep the fractious province together. But the rot runs deep. Powerful forces in Altdorf seem determined to see him fail, and suspicion falls on even his most trusted allies. When all is at its bleakest, the mark of Chaos and the full horror of his task is finally revealed. Alone, doubted by those closest to him, this will be Schwarzhelm's greatest ever challenge, one on which the destiny of the Empire itself depends. http://www.blacklibrary.com


Sword of Justice is the opener for the Warhammer Heroes series of novels featuring the Emperor’s Champion Ludwig Schwarzhelm.

The novel starts out with a bang and really never lets up. Short of spoiling the novel I’ll say that like many stories set in the Warhammer universe, the opening scene revolves around a battle. This is handled in a very deft manner showcasing some pretty ordinary, grunt-level characters that grow in to something more as well as some characters that we know little about, but grow to really admire as the story goes on.

One thing I have to point out is the superb manner in which the author describes the characters, the scenes and how the characters are …human. One thing that I feel sets a good novel apart from a great one is having characters that are fallible, that make mistakes; especially when we see them coming and even when we don’t. I loathe Mary Sue characters, Golden Child characters, “the Chosen One” who really is a superhero in all but the cape…usually. Putting it mildly, the characters in this novel are all flawed in one way or another.

Another thing that sets this apart from other good novels is that we see some of the plot coming, and knowing the characters aren’t omnipotent, they blunder in to things. Not stupidly (or overly so) but in ways that any of us would. Add to this Chris Wraight throws us a few curves. Nicely handled I must say. Not in the M Night Shyamalan velveeta-kind of way but in a well thought out way that we stub our toe on…look down and realize we just lost a foot-kind of way.

There are some fun twists and exceptional descriptions of the setting. Actually, the description of the empire from top to bottom is the best I’ve seen yet; especially the description of Altdorf and the other main cities. Brilliant!

The descriptions throughout were really well done. From the thought blurbs, to scents, sights, all the senses were covered without seeming overworked or trite.

Cover art: Wow. Cheoljoo Lee really pained a fantastic cover piece. It would make a beautiful print, poster. Man, it really is gorgeous. Well done!

There is a map at the beginning, good, always like a map so I can keep an idea of where things are but there is no “Cast of Characters”. It’s a fairly good sized cast and it can be a bit confusing. Thankfully the main characters are pretty distinct.

I have to admit; I’ve fallen in love with the characters, and added their figures to my GW wishlist. Now I need to work on my Empire guys. I’m painting up some Reiksguard and Averlander troops! DAMN!


Just…wow. Blew my doors off. I’m anxiously awaiting the next book in the series!

4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Review: The Last Airbender

Based upon the Nickelodeon series Avatar- The Last Airbender.

First off, I watched season one of the series over the past few weeks and am watching season two currently. I love the series. Totally awesome work.

This review is of the currently released film directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

The story follows the adventures of Aang, a young successor to a long line of Avatars, who must put his childhood ways aside and stop the Fire Nation from enslaving the Water, Earth and Air nations.

Is this going to a be a super hit? An Academy Award winner? A deep drama?
It's a 400+ minute series truncated in to 100 minutes of special effects.
Everyone will bicker about parts of the series being clipped off, combined with others parts, parts shifted. Which parts were most important to you? The cabbage vendor? Mang the gap-toothed fan-girl who called Katara a floozy?

Everyone will have a favorite part, and in a film adaptation you can guarantee those sacred cows will be slaughtered in the name of condensing the film in to one easily chewable bite for the target demographic.

I think if I could have one wish for the film, it is that I wish it was about three hours long so they had time to really delve in to the characters and the events that shaped Aang, Katara and Sokka etc.

That wasn't to be. The target demographic is the short-attention span generation and 90-100 min was all they had to tell a really long and deep story, which is a crying shame.

Without spoiling things I'll say that series events are shifted around. Parts that were originally Katara's became Aang's. Some bits were chopped off. Some bits were shifted slightly. I feel that the overall vibe was there, and the cuts and shifts made were due to time constraints to build on Aang's character as we had little time for anything else. I would have loved to see more characterization, but again, time constraints.

Show don't tell. I hear that all the time and in this case it was necessary. There was a lot of ground to cover (literally) and a bit of back story was necessary.

Effects. Awesome. Choreography, awesome. Acting, some was a bit flat, some good. Plot, largely the same as the original series and largely true to it. I believe that the writer and director did a fine job in dealing with the constraints they had. If they had more freedom it could have been better. Just remember that their hands are tied in many ways on this.

Whitewashing? I call bullshit. While the original series was entirely Asian in many ways, the film is more regionalized: some nations being Asian, some Indian, some Caucasian, some mixed. Some sigils were neutralized. Still the overall flavor was right. It's still the same story, with the same theme. The regionalization is there to make it palatable for everyone: Whites, Asians, Indians, Blacks, everyone, not just a single culture, which I think is reasonable.

Pronunciation of names? Seriously people? That's a pretty lame nit-pick. Gimme a break.

I think I would have liked a fat uncle Iroh, but Shan Toub did an ok job with it. Noah Ringer did a fine job as Aang. Dev Patel was good as Prince Zuko. Nicola Peltz (Katara) and Jackson Rathbone (Sokka) were a bit flat, but they didn't have a lot to work with either. They didn't really get a chance to shine.
M. Night Shyamalan directed without his usual tricks, switcheroos, and whammies.

The Grade:
Overall, the film was enjoyable but felt rushed. Like the whole thing was a montage or a highlight reel of the series. The kids in the theater cheered and said it was awesome, so that is great. If it does it's job it'll get people to watch the series for more of the good stuff as this was just a taste.

Did it suck more than anything has sucked before?
Fans of the series will likely be let down as their expectations will not be met. Then again, fans are always bastards to make an adaptation for. Everyone judges an adaptation by the original material and not on its own merits. It's called an ADAPTATION for a reason. Still, you can never please some people.

I give it 2.5 stars out of 5.