Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Year in Review: My Five Favorite Posts of 2014

Today is New Year's Eve, meaning another year has come and gone. Nearly two years ago I created Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old as a way for me to express myself and have some fun. While I've had some rough spots here and there, I think I've achieved that goal.

Although I'm looking for to the new year and seeing this blog grow more and more, I thought it would be fun to take a moment to look back on 2014 and some of the posts I made over the past twelve months. These are my five favorite posts of the year. They're not ranked in any particular order, they're just the posts I enjoyed writing the most and I felt deserved pointing out.

This November post is the newest post to be included on this list, but I felt like it deserved mention because I truly believe the message I was espousing here. While I have some serious problems and quibbles with Shadowrun 5th Edition's rules, I've managed to have fun running it due to my love of the setting and my decision to just go with the flow and ignore any of the minutiae that would normally cause the game to come to a screeching hault so we could look something up. It's a lesson I'll remember whenever I'm running another crunchy system in the future. 

Generally, I enjoy writing posts that take a look at some of the sacred cows of Dungeons & Dragons and similar games, arguing for or against them. I wrote a few of those this year, but I feel like my favorite has to be this piece about why I defend the decision to give the paladin an alignment restriction. Although I've recently lightened up on my stance on this topic slightly, feeling like paladins with a restriction of "any good" wouldn't be so bad, I still enjoyed writing this piece and felt like it belonged on this list. 

Anyone who knows me knows my utter disappointment with Paizo's Advanced Class Guide. I personally feel like it's the worse book Paizo has published, both in the rules and editing department, and I feel like the "hybrid classes" were either completely pointless and unnecessary (like the Arcanist or the Hunter), or poorly executed or hampered by the odd biases of Pathfinder's design team (like the Swashbuckler). This post details my attempt at reworking one of the classes, and I feel like I did a good job. This was also my first attempt at designing a class, so I have fond memories of it for that reason alone. 

This is one of the older posts on the list, having appeared on the blog back in February. Within the post, I discuss the sub-genre of "Dark Fantasy", how much I love it, and why many people seem to misunderstand it and let it devolve into a "grimdark" nightmare. The reason why I decided to include it here is because I believe it's one of my better post and it espouses ideas I feel more people read and remember when attempting to create dark fantasy stories or campaigns. 

THE HEROES OF SANDPOINT SERIES
Okay, I'm cheating somewhat here. This isn't one post, but a series of five posts detailing my unfortunately short Heroes of Sandpoint campaign. These were my first attempt at recapping my gaming sessions, and I feel like I did a decent job of that. While they were easily the hardest posts to write, since trying to make session notes entertaining to read is rather difficult, but I have a fondness fobr them and they bring back good memories. If I had to pick one, I probably would go with Strange Happenings at the Old Light, feeling like it was the best written and most entertaining to read. 

I'm truly excited for 2015. I already have some post topics lined up for the new year, and I have big plans for the blog itself. Hopefully some of those plans will come to fruition. I hope everyone has a good New Year's, and I'll see you all on Friday. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Tinkering With Party Games

Sometimes, I like to tinker with my board & card games. Occasionally, I do it to fix a rule I feel ruins my ability to have fun with the game. However, I mostly do this to see what the game would be like if you switched something out or swapped one theme for another. I find party & social games are the easiest to do this with.

Since this is the holiday season and I figure people will be playing a lot of games this Wednesday night, I thought I'd post two of my favorites. I'm sure I'm not the first person to come up with these, but I thought I'd post them anyway. Have fun with them, and feel free to post your own experimentation with the subject in the comments below. 

APPLES AGAINST HUMANITY
Do you play Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity a lot? So much so that you've seen a lot of the card combinations and want to liven things up a little? Try mixing the two together! You can either replace the black cards in Cards Against Humanity with the green cards from Apples to Apples, or you can switch out CAH's white cards with A2A's red cards. You might be surprised how well the two work together. Especially if you own the Apples to Apples Party Box 

THE RESISTANCE: ALIENS AMONG US
Like The Resistance, but want to see what the game might be like with a different theme? Maybe one a little reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Thing? Try this variant I've been toying around with. When dealing out loyalty cards, only include one traitor into the initial allotment. This traitor is a shapeshifting alien that possesses the ability to assimilate and corrupt other players. 

Take the remaining traitor cards and place them at the center of the table. During the phase where everyone closes their eyes, the Alien replaces a number of players' cards with the traitor cards, "assimilating" them. Once this is finished, everyone moves the card in front of them a little (as you would in One Night Ultimate Werewolf), and each player takes one final look at their cards. The game plays out as normal, using the same rules as The Resistance. However, to get the most out of this variant, the players should really embrace the horror of the situation, sowing paranoia throughout the game. 


Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Holidays From Dungeons Deep & Caverns Old!


Hello everyone! I have a quick announcement to make. Due to this week being the week of Christmas, I'm going to take a very short break from the blog to honor the season and allow me to relax just a little. However, I didn't want to just disappear without saying anything. So, I just want to say Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to everyone who reads this blog. I hope you have a good time with your friends & family, play some awesome games, and enjoy the season. Take care, and I'll see you all next week.

~Cody

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pathfinder Musings: Card-Based Initiative

Occasionally, I like to experiment with different interpretations of familiar rules. Usually, I do this to see if an alternate method might be better than the official rule. However, I sometimes just mess with the rules to see what will happen. 

This is one of those times.

While the initiative system presented within the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook works fine, I wanted to see what an alternate initiative system might look like, one loosely based off the initiative system found in Savage Worlds. Feel free to use it in your games. Just remember this is mostly an experiment and hasn't been tested yet. 

This variant requires the use of a regular deck of playing cards with the Jokers removed. At the beginning of combat, each player is dealt a number of cards equal to 1 + the player's Initiative modifier. For the time being, ignore the positive or negative elements of the modifier. This means a character with a -2 Initiative modifier would receive three cards, even though the character possesses a negative modifier. 

Once the cards are dealt, the players with positive modifiers keep the one with the highest value while players with negative modifiers keep the one with the lowest value. For the purposes of this variant, aces are treated as a result of one. The player with the highest value card goes first, with each player following them in order of descending value. Players who receive cards that possess the same value act in order of the suit of the cards (Spades > Hearts > Diamonds > Clubs). 

For those wishing to include the Jokers, use the following additional rule. Players who are dealt a Joker ignore the other cards, keeping it no matter what. The player with the Joker decides where they fall in the Initiative order. If two players were dealt Jokers, the player with the colored Joker chooses first. Game Masters looking to shake up combat can deal out new cards each round, gathering the old cards and re-shuffling the deck. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

New Monster: Krampus

KRAMPUS
Large Monstrosity, Chaotic Evil

Armor Class 14 (Natural Armor)
Hit Points 76 (9d10+27)
Speed 40 ft.

STR 18 (+4), DEX 11 (+0), CON 16 (+3), INT 10 (+0), WIS 16 (+3), CHA 9 (-1)

Skills Perception +7, Religion +4, Stealth +4
Senses Darkvision 60 ft., Passive Perception 17
Languages Abyssal, Common
Challenge 3 (700 XP)

Krampus' Sack. Once per round, the Krampus can attempt to force a creature within 5 ft. of him into the magical sack strapped to his back. The creature must be at least Medium sized or smaller for this to work. The Krampus' target must make an opposed Strength check, with failure resulting in them being forced into the bag and receives the restrained condition. Every round thereafter, the creature can attempt a DC 14 Strength check to escape the bag.

Reckless. At the start of his turn, the Krampus can gain advantage on all melee weapon attack rolls it makes during that turn, but attack rolls made against it also have advantage until the start of his next turn.

ACTIONS
Birch Bundle. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d8+4) bludgeoning damage.

Gore. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 13 (2d8+4) piercing damage.

Alignment Insight. The Krampus targets one creature it can see within 30 ft. of it. The target must make a Charisma (Deception) check against the Krampus' Wisdom (Insight) check. If the krampus wins, it magically learns whether the creature is Good, Neutral, or Evil.

DESCRIPTION
The creature known as the "Krampus" is a fiendish beast who supposedly kidnaps bad children, using incredibly gruesome methods to punish them. Although many believe the Krampus to simply be a dark fairy tale told to children to frighten them into behaving, a handful of individuals who inhabit the more rural areas of the world have sworn they've witnessed the creature stuffing a naughty child into the sack perched upon its back, carrying the poor soul off into a nearby forest.

Although the Krampus is evil and sadistic, the creature does have a strange sense of morality and will only purposefully harm those he deems "naughty". Some even believe the Krampus can be reasoned with and you can make deals with him to save one of the children he has kidnapped, trading on punishment for another. However, these stories have not been verified.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Tricking Out Your Board Games

You would have to be crazy to prefer blocks over these.
Don't you hate it when a really great board game happens to be packaged with some truly lackluster components? While I love Lords of Waterdeep and Pandemic, I hate that both games utilize boring, colored cubes instead of something more interesting or thematic. Sometimes, the little things DO matter, especially when you're trying to invoke theme with something. 

Thankfully, options exist for tricking out board games to make them much cooler and maybe even a little unique. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term "tricking out", I'll do my best to define it. People who are "tricking out" something are adding additional or replacement elements to make the product cooler or more visually pleasing to them. They might also want to personalize the product, making their copy of said product more unique. Usually this term is used when talking about customizing cars, but you can do it for your board games too, and there are some cool products you can pick up to make the job easier. 

The Broken Token, for example, offers some pretty cool products for customizing your board games. Looking for a good replacement for those stupid cubes in Lords of Waterdeep? Pick up their awesome DnDeeples. When you need to get some Fighters for that frustrating mandatory quest you need to complete, you can now grab pieces that actually look like warriors. Also, you get a hundred of them for about $25. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. 

Another company offering some pretty cool products for tricking out your games is LITKO. Love Pandemic, but hate the virus cubes and boring pawns? Well, LITKO offers some cool virus tokens and upgraded player pawns. While purchasing both products will cost you roughly $55 ($40 for the tokens & $15 for the pawns), I believe the price is worth it.

However, you don't have to purchase specialized bits & pieces to customize your game. For example, you can purchase a pack of petri dishes to store your recently acquired Pandemic virus tokens for about $10, you can pick up some cool miniatures to replace the crappy cardboard monster tokens in Betrayal at House on the Hill, or some cool fake coins to use for Settlers of Catan's welfare variant. 

I hope this post inspires some people to customize & trick out their board games, making them more awesome. I can highly recommend The Broken Token & LITKO for professionally made additions and they have so much cool stuff. Also, keep your eyes open for other cool stuff that you can use with your board games to add theme or make the experience better. We customize so much of our products. Why not do the same with our board games? 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Do You Wanna Build a Planet?

Now that I have you singing an imaginary parody of "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?", I want to bring something really cool to your attention.

Through a link post on Go Make Me a Sandwich (which is a cool blog you should check out), I found this pretty awesome program that allows you to randomly generate your very own planet!

I think you would have to be truly dead inside to not find this awesome. Who wouldn't want to make their own planet out of oddly shaped hexagons? Boring people, that's who.

Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to go back to humming Frozen songs. Don't judge me.

Pathfinder Musing: Magical Exhaustion

Who doesn't love playing a spellcaster in Pathfinder? You're wielding powers that can alter reality. What's not cool about that? Well, running out of spell slots is the answer to that question. Because Pathfinder uses the more traditional Vancian spell system, spellcasters will occasionally run out of spell slots and not be able to cast their more powerful spells until they take an 8 hour rest. 

With that annoyance in mind, I've been toying with ways to allow spellcasters to continue casting spells after they've run out of spell slots. The idea I finally came up with is a pretty simple one: magical exhaustion. 

Spell slots within the rules represent the character's spellcasting limits, how far they can safely push themselves without tiring themselves out. Why not take that idea a little further? What if characters could continue casting spells after they've run out of slots, but at the cost of hurting themselves? How would that work mechanically? Well, I have two different possibilities. 

The first is a little more complicated. Once a spellcaster runs out of spell slots, they can attempt to cast additional spells at the cost of possibly exhausting themselves further. After casting each additional spell, the character must make a Fortitude save with a DC equal to 10 + the spell's level. If they succeed this save, nothing happens. However, if they fail, the spellcaster becomes fatigued. If they fail again, they become exhausted. If they fail a third time, they drop unconscious. 

The second method is much easier and is inspired by the kineticist's burn mechanic. Once a spellcaster runs out of spell slots, they can continue casting spells by taking nonlethal damage. The amount of nonlethal damage the character takes is equal to the spell's level. That's it. 

I personally like the simplicity of the second method, but like the limitations placed on the number of times you can cast said spells created by the first method. However, these are simply ideas and I don't know how they'll actually work at the table. Feel free to use them in your games if you want.

Which method do you prefer?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

5e Musings: 0-Level Characters

Although I haven't played it as much as I would like, I absolutely love Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC). I love the tone, the craziness, and how lethal the game is. Part of the charm of DCC is the character funnel, where each player randomly generates four 0-level characters which they run through a funnel. Most of the characters will meet a grisly fate, but one or maybe two will manage to escape the dungeon alive and possess enough experience to reach 1st level in one of the seven classes.

Because I find this element of DCC so entertaining, part of me wants to work a similar method for character creation into 5e. These rules are a rough attempt at doing that. I haven't playtested them yet, and probably won't be able to for awhile seeing as the next game on my GMing docket is a Fate Accelerated game. However, I thought I'd go ahead and post them here so others might give them a try. Feel free to use them in your games and give me some feedback. 

Using this method, characters begin with no class level. Instead, they start as simple individuals who have just started down the path of the adventurer. When creating a 0-level character, use the following rules:
  • Generate your ability scores using one of the methods listed in the D&D Basic Rules PDF or the Player's Handbook
  • Select one of the races listed in the D&D Basic Rules or the Player's Handbook
  • Select one of the backgrounds listed in the D&D Basic Rules or the Player's Handbook
  • Start with 4 hit points, modified by your Constitution modifier. 
  • Start with a +1 proficiency bonus, training in the skills associated with your background & race, and any weapons associated with your race. 
  • Automatically proficient with daggers, darts, slings, quarterstaffs, & light crossbows. 
  • Start with the equipment associated with your background and any other equipment you can purchase with the gold given to you by your background. 
Once you've gained 100 XP, you obtain 1st level in a class of your choice, gaining the benefits of that class. Your proficiency bonuses becomes +2 and you receive a number of additional hit points based on your selected class' hit die (+2 for d6, +4 for d8, +6 for d10, & +8 for d12). 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Initial Impressions of Star Wars: The Force Awakens Teaser


The first teaser trailer for J. J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. I first saw it while visiting my FLGS when one of the owners had it playing on the TV that sits one one of the many shelves behind the counter and I've seen it several times since then. I thought I'd give my initial impressions and what I hope to see in the theaters next December. 

While this is just a quick teaser, I can already say I'm way more optimistic about Episode VII than I ever was about Episodes I, II, or III. Mostly because George Lucas isn't directing or writing it. However, the effects also seem to be more in line with the original trilogy than the prequels, possessing that lived-in quality that the sleek CGI of the prequels desperately lacked. The film also seems to be visually interesting, which is a plus. However, I'm still curious about the story and the characters. I hope they're just as interesting. 

Finally, I want to address the elephant standing in the desert: the black storm trooper. When I saw the teaser, I knew the racist geeks would be furious and I wasn't disappointed. Personally, I'm glad we're moving away from the "all storm troopers are clones of the same guy" crap. However, if you need an explanation, just assume the Empire recruited some extra manpower to strengthen their troops after the death of the Emperor and Darth Vader or decided to vary the stock of their clones. 

Anyway, what did you think of the teaser? Are you excited, or are you more cautious? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pathfinder Musings: Material Components

Material components in Pathfinder are one of those ideas that I like in theory, but never enjoyed the actual execution at the table. I feel like material components could be cool things that add a more esoteric feel to magic and could help limit the power of said spellcasters. However, actually trying to track a spellcaster's material components adds another level of bookkeeping that I'd rather not add to an already complicated game and figuring out the prices of said material components can be a nuisance as well.

I could simply ignore this part of the game, but part of me wants to try and find a way to make the concept work. I've been toying with different ideas for a while and I think I have one that might work. Its heavily influenced by the Occultist class from the Occult Adventures playtest.

In this proposed system, each school of magic would possess a list of possible material components. For example, material components associated with divination spells could be crystal balls, a Tarot deck, augury stones, or anything else that is usually tied to divination abilities. When casting a spell from that school that requires a material component, you must use at least one of these components when casting the spell. You can cast the spell without the component, but the spell is much weaker than it normally would be. Its DC is lowered, the time it lasts is reduced, and other variables are lessened.

I was also thinking about adding another layer to this system, one that would allow spellcasters to add specific kinds of components to receive additional benefits to the spell. For example, let's say a wizard is about to go on an adventure where she knows she'll be fighting a lot of demons. She then purchases a few angel feathers from one of her magical contacts, adding the component to her evocation spells. Now, those spells receive additional bonuses against evil outsiders. This addition could also give players cool things to look for and GMs can build adventurers around characters trying to find a rare material component to help them deal with a specific enemy.

This system is still very much a rough outline and I need to figure out how certain things will work. How will the Eschew Materials feat work with this system? What should the exact penalties be for casting a spell without its school's material component? What should I do for the spells that are balanced around the specific components required for the spell? However, I felt like posting this anyway to see what people thought of the idea and get some different opinions on it. What do you think?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Marvel Dice Masters: Initial Impressions

Recently, my local FLGS jumped onto the Marvel Dice Masters bandwagon after a generous customer donated a large number of cards and dice to the store for people to learn how to play. Being a comic book fan and a lover of dice-based games, I found myself tempted by the new shiny. Eventually, the temptation broke through and I decided to give it a whirl.

Designed by Mike Elliot and Eric Lang, Marvel Dice Masters is a collectible dice building game. Its very similar to Elliot and Lang's previous outing Quarriors, but obviously switches out the fantasy theme for a super hero one. Some of you might be asking a perfectly legitimate question: "What's a dice building game?" Well, I'll tell you. A dice building game is similar to a deck building game, but players purchase and draft dice instead of cards.

At the beginning of the game, each player will be given a bag containing eight white dice inside it. These dice are known as your "Sidekicks" and can be used to bolster your offensive & defensive capabilities or purchase better dice later in the game. On your turn, you will reach into your bag and pull out four dice. You may roll these dice no more than twice each turn. After rolling your dice, you can field any dice showing characters, spend energy to purchase other dice, or use any other ability you possess. After spending your dice, you place them in the used pile and place them back into your bag once its empty. That's pretty much the basic mechanic.

However, Marvel Dice Masters does possess a decent amount of depth to it. Like a deck building game, you have to decide which dice your going to purchase, how many of those dice will you get, and when should you pick them up. There's also the decision of which heroes or villains to bring into the game with you and how they interact with each other. For example, you might decide to bring Angel & Falcon with you to the table because they both enhance your sidekicks and work well with each other. You might also throw Psylocke in there too to knock out your opponents characters, preventing them from attacking or defending on their next turn.


Combat also adds another layer of strategy to the game. During your turn, you can attack or defend with any sidekick or character you have fielded. If you block a character and never character dies, they return to the field zone. If they did die, they are KO'ed and move to the prep zone where you get to roll them with your four dice next turn. If the character slips through your opponent's defenses and deals damage to your opponent's life total (either 20 or 15), they are moved to the used pile. The first person to knock their opponent to 0 life wins the game. Sounds easy enough, but you have to think about your actions. Do you swing all out, dealing a devastating blow to your opponent's life total, but leave yourself open to an equally devastating attack? Maybe you hold back some of your characters, dealing less damage but keeping yourself better protected. Which characters do you attack with and which do you leave behind to defend? Decisions, decisions.

Hopefully you've picked up on it by now, but I absolutely love Marvel Dice Masters. I love how simple it simple the rules are, but still possess some tactical depth. I love the cool looking dice and the art on the cards looks awesome. Finally, the theme really does come out while you're playing the game. I love constructing a team of superheroes, seeing how they work together and all the different powers fit each character they're assigned to. My only real complaint is the bags packaged with the starter set are atrocious and I'd advise picking up a cheap dice bag with your purchase. You might want to pick up one of the player mats as well, just so you remember where everything is supposed to be on the table and it makes keeping your life total much easier.

I also don't mind the collectible element either. I know some people avoid collectible games like the plague, seeing them as nothing more than a money sink. I understand that sentiment and I'm sympathetic towards it. Hell, its one of the reasons why I stopped playing Magic: The Gathering years ago (although I recently got back into it). However, the starter sets give you enough to play some smaller games of it and the booster packs are only 99 cents. If that isn't a deal, I don't know what is.

Marvel Dice Masters definitely has my seal of approval. If you like dice games, super heroes, and were a big fan of Quarriors, you will most likely dig this game. If you're looking for a game with some easy to learn rules but some strategic depth, you'll like it too. The starter sets are about $15 and I feel they're definitely worth it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

New Monster: Bone Mage

BONE MAGE (CR 4)
The skeletal creature standing before you is draped in rotting robes, holding a well-crafted staff in its talon-like hands while an evil red light rests within its empty eye sockets. 

XP 1,200
NE Medium Undead
Init +6; Senses Darkvision 60 ft.; Perception +11
DEFENSE
AC 16, Touch 12, Flat-Footed 14 (+2 Dex, +4 Natural)
HP 37 (5d8+15)
Fort +4, Ref +3, Will +6
Defensive Abilities channel resistance +2; DR 5/bludgeoning & magic
Immune cold, undead traits
OFFENSE
Speed 30 ft. (6 squares)
Melee mwk quarterstaff +4 (1d6/x3) or
            slam +3 (1d4)
Special Attacks channel negative energy (DC 14, 6/day), unnerving gaze
Arcane School Spell-Like Abilities (CL 3rd; Concentration +6)
            6/day - grave touch (1 round)
Spells Prepared (CL 3rd; Concentration +6)
            2nd - command undead, levitate, touch of idiocy (DC 15)
            1st - cause fear (DC 15), protection from good, ray of enfeeblement (DC 15), true strike 
            0 (at will) - detect magic, mage hand, ray of frost, read magic 
Opposition Schools conjuration, illusion
STATISTICS
Str 11, Dex 14, Con -, Int 17, Wis 15, Cha 16
Base Atk +3; CMB +3; CMD 15
Feats Combat Casting, Command Undead, Improved Initiative, Spell Focus (Necromancy)
Skills Intimidate +11, Knowledge (Arcana) +11, Perception +11, Spellcraft +11
SQ Arcane School (Necromancy)
Languages Abyssal, Common, Draconic, Infernal, Undercommon
ECOLOGY
Environment any
Organization solitary
Treasure standard (masterwork quarterstaff, other treasure)
SPECIAL ABILITIES
Arcane School: A bone mage specializes in one school of magic, just like the wizard. A bone mage is considered a 3rd level wizard when determining which school abilities he has access to and how powerful they are. Furthermore, he must also select two opposition schools too.
Spells A bone mage casts spells as a 3rd level wizard. The above example possesses the Necromancy school.
Unnerving Gaze (Su) A bone mage can make a gaze attack that strikes fear into the hearts of all creatures within a 30-foot radius that can see the bone mage. These creatures must succeed at a DC 15 Will saving throw or be shaken for 1d4 rounds. This is a mind-affecting fear effect. The save DC is Charisma-based.

A bone mage is an undead spellcaster whose mastery over the arcane arts allowed him to utilize dark magics to survive beyond death, even long after his flesh has rotted away.  Due to his power, the bone mage retains his intelligence and spellcasting abilities. Most bone magi are obsessed with gaining more magical power, whether it be through esoteric study or other dark deeds.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Pathfinder Musings: Background Skills

Something that's always annoyed me about Pathfinder (as well as its predecessor 3.5) is that certain classes tend to get the short end of the stick skill-wise. It sucks being a fighter and only have two or three skill ranks to spend each level, meaning you have to be more picky with your skill choices. You want to select a Craft or Profession skill for background reasons, but you'd be better served selecting something more useful like Perception or Intimidate.

There are a few ways to fix this problem, with the easiest being a 2 skill rank bump to class' that only receive 2 + INT mod. skill ranks each level. While this works, I have another idea in mind for my own games. The following house rule is a popular one and this is my version of it. My goal is to keep it simple and easy to use.

Skills are now divided into two broad categories: Adventuring Skills and Background Skills. Adventuring skills are skills that tend to see the most use while adventuring, like Climb or Perception. Background skills are skills that represent a character's previous life and what they did before becoming an adventurer. The background skills are Craft (Any), Knowledge (Any), Linguistics, Perform (Any), and Profession (Any).

At 1st level, and every level thereafter, each player receives two additional skill ranks they can assign to any two background skills of their choice. These background skills are considered class skills for the purpose of any ability that requires such distinction (meaning they also receive the +3 training bonus as well). If you're using the Advanced Player's Guide's option trait rules, any skills granted to you by traits are considered background skills for you as well and you can assign your background skill ranks to them as well.

The point of this house rule is to give players the ability to purchase those skills that represent their character's history and background, but still allows them to spend their main pool on skills that will probably see more use at the table. So, now your fighter who used to be a farmer can pick up Knowledge (Geography) and Profession (Farmer) without having to sacrifice skill points they could be dropping in Perception or Survival.

The addition of the trait rules was made because it just made sense. Traits are supposed to be mechanical representations of your background and past experiences, so it makes sense that the skills granted through these traits should be added to your personal list of background skills. I also thought about adding a few other elements, like humans receiving a bonus background skill rank to spend, but I felt like that might too much and take away from the simplicity of the rule. However, if you want to take this rule and add that element, go ahead.

What do you think? Is this a house rule that you'd use in your games? What house rules have you made to the skill system? I think I might make this into a sister series to 5e Musings. Its fun talking about house rules and the results of my rules tinkering. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Shadowrun, or How to Have Fun in Spite of the Rules

Having decided to take a break from my usual Pathfinder shenanigans, I've been running a bi-weekly Shadowrun campaign instead. Although I love the game's setting and adore the 16-bit RPG for the SNES, I've never actually ran Shadowrun before because I'm not the biggest fan of the system the game uses.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good dice pool system. Who wouldn't enjoy grabbing a fistful of dice and watching them bounce across the table as you wait to see if you succeed or fail spectacularly. However, I've always felt Shadowrun adds so many unnecessary elements that only bog the game down. I've tried adapting the setting to other systems before, like d20 Modern and Savage Worlds, but never got really far. However, I finally decided to bite the bullet and run Shadowrun (using the most recent edition) after my players showed interest. 

Although I still believe the system is far from perfect and could benefit from some serious streamlining, I strangely don't hate it as much as I thought I would. I wonder why that is? Well, I do have a theory. I think I enjoy the setting and style of the game so much that I can enjoy running despite my misgivings with the rules. I love its blending of cyberpunk and fantasy tropes, I like how the game focuses more on the criminal aspect with everyone playing scoundrels willing to do incredibly dangerous things for some quick cash, and I enjoy being able to change things up and run something other than your typical fantasy game. 

While I'm currently running a micro-campaign that I plan to end in either January or February, I can definitely say that I'll be running more Shadowrun games in the future. I will probably never be the biggest fan of the game's system, but the cool setting and interesting feel really grab me and allow me to put aside my misgivings with the mechanics. 

Do you have games that you love running despite the rules? What do you find so cool about the game? Leave your answers in the comments below. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Three Games to Play on Halloween

Halloween is my favorite holiday. Christmas is great and all, but the horror fan living inside of me has to love the one day of the year where I can fly that weird flag high without being judged for stupid reasons. While I usually celebrate the season by watching numerous horror movies, I like to play some horror-themed board games as well.

With that in mind, I thought I'd post a list of board games you can play today to celebrate the holiday. Remember, these are based on my own tastes and opinions, so don't feel bad if your favorite game isn't on the list or if you disagree with one of my choices. Feel free to make your own list of suggestions and leave it in the comments below.

DEAD OF WINTER
Check it out HERE!
Designed by Jonathan Gilmour & Isaac Vega, Dead of Winter is a psychological horror game where each player controls a group of survivors working together to survive a world overrun by flesh-eating zombies during the dead of winter (hence the game's name). While you are mostly working together, everyone also has a secret goal they're trying to achieve that could possibly conflict with the group's overall goal. Zombie games are a dime a dozen, so you really have to do something cool or interesting to really stand out among the horde. Thankfully, Dead of Winter does exactly that due to the tension it manages to build due to the traitor-like mechanic and the stories that bloom during play.

ELDRITCH HORROR
Check it out HERE!
Eldritch Horror is a Cthulhu Mythos-themed cooperative game designed by Corey Konieczka & Nikki Valens. Like its older sibling Arkham Horror, the game has the players take on the role of globetrotting investigators working to solve mysteries, gather clues, and protect the world from an elder being intent on destroying our world. Some of you might be wondering why I didn't put Arkham Horror on this list. The answer is very simple: I enjoy Eldritch Horror more. Its not as bloated, its not as long, and I prefer the global scale over the focus on the town of Arkham. However, if you want that longer experience, consider Arkham Horror a honorable mention. 

FURY OF DRACULA
Check it out HERE!
Designed by Stephen Hand & Kevin Wislon, Fury of Dracula is a semi-cooperative deduction game where one player assumes the role of Count Dracula while the others play vampire hunters attempting to slay him. The player playing Dracula utilizes a deck of location cards to secretly move across Europe while the others try to locate him using the limited amount of information they have. Fury of Dracula is incredibly thematic, with the board looking like something from the nineteenth century its fun trying to piece together the mystery of where Dracula is and what kind of horrors has he left in his wake.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Occult Adventures Playtest: First Impressions

Yesterday, Paizo released the playtest document for Occult Adventures, the hardcover rulebook they will be releasing next Summer. This book will contain rules for more occult topics, like auras and occult rituals, give advice on how to incorporate such topics into your Pathfinder campaign, and introduces six new classes that utilize a new form of magic: psychic magic. 

Having read the playtest document and the six new classes, I thought I'd give my first impressions of each. Unlike the previous Advanced Class Guide playtest, my overall opinion is much more positive this time around. Each class feels unique, possessing interesting flavor, and really can't be replicated by an already existing class (with probably one little exception). Also, since I personally find the subject matter interesting, I was almost guaranteed to like this. Anyway, with that out of the way, let's take a look at the new classes: the kineticist, the medium, the mesmerist, the occultist, the psychic, and the spiritualist.

Kineticist
The kineticist possesses the ability to call upon her inner power to manipulate elemental forces and the world around her. The keneticist is the only non-spellcaster in the document. Instead, she receives "wild talents" that she can use and enhance by accepting points of non-lethal damage (called "burn"). While I feel so people will dislike the burn element of the class, I personally find it cool. This class is basically a bender from Avatar: The Last Airbender & Legend of Korra. If you ever wanted to play a character like that, you can do so now.

Medium
Similar to the shaman, the medium weals and deals with spirits. However, the medium performs seances that allow these spirits to inhabit his body, granting him unearthly powers for a price. This is a 4-level caster without a fast base attack bonus progression and has the possibility to be one of the most complicated classes in the game due to influence. Each medium knows a number of spirits (based on Harrow cards), which have points of influence over him. The more points that spirit has, the more power the spirit has over the medium. If their influence gets too strong, the spirit takes over the medium for a short time. The flavor for the class is great, reminding me of 3.5's binder. However, I feel like it still needs a little work because it feels a little weak at lower levels. 

Mesmerist
The mesmerist manipulates the mind of allies and enemies alike through the use of his hypnotic gaze, creating powerful illusions and enchantments with his psychic powers. This seems to be the "trickster" class for Pathfinder, reminding me of 3.5's beguiler. While you could mimic this class with some of the others, the mesmerist offers some neat abilities. For example, they can use an ability called "hypnotic gaze" as a swift action to give opponents 30 feet away a penalty to Will saves, making them more susceptible to his enchantment and illusion spells. Since I've been wanting such a class for awhile, I'm pretty happy and will probably be running one the next time I get to actually play. 

Occultist
I'll admit, it took me a few minutes to understand the occultist. The class utilizes objects of personal or historical significance, using them as implements for his psychic powers. The occultist seems to be a class built around psychometry (a psychic ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object). I had trouble understanding the nature of implements, but once it clicked, I found myself loving this class. Its filled to the brim with flavor and I can already see so many interesting ideas coming from this class. It definitely has my approval. 

Psychic
The psychic is probably the most boring of the six classes. The psychic focuses on the power of the mind, allowing them to wield the mightiest of mental magics to crush her enemies and explore the deepest reaches of thought and consciousness. The class remains me of the arcanist, seeing as they possess a pool of points they can use to amplify and modify their psychic spells. However, it doesn't hit my "ban this sucker" button as hard as its slightly older cousin did. Also, the psychic's disciplines are pretty cool. One has your psychic power originating from aberrations and "malign entities that dwell in the voids between the stars." That statement just makes me happy inside. 

Spiritualist
The spiritualist is similar to the summoner. The class is forever bound to a phantom, which can reside in her mind or manifests in the physical world with a ectoplasmic form. However, unlike the summoner, you do not build your phantom from the ground up. Instead you select an emotional focus for the phantom, like anger or jealousy. Part of me wonders if this is a preview of the reworked summoner for Pathfinder Unchained. Seems interesting enough and could be pretty cool. 

Have you read the playtest? If so, what do you think of the classes? I'd love to hear your opinions and thoughts. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fun Times at the Tyler Rose City Comic-Con

Look what I found beside the pool.
I wonder if its bigger on the inside than
the outside?
This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of attending the Tyler Rose City Comic-Con as a volunteer for my FLGS' room. This was my second time attending any kind of convention, with the first being my slightly disastrous trip to the Dallas Comic-Con last year. I think its safe to say this was definitely the better experience.

However, you'd never expect that from how the day began. Due to my inability to read directions properly, I ended up driving around in circles for nearly an hour before finally finding the Holiday Inn. Once I arrived and checked in at the ticket booth, I made my way back to the "Phoenix Room" where the fine folks from Halflings Hideaway would be selling board games, roleplaying games, Magic: The Gathering cards, and running game demos. We also happen to be sharing the room with the Pathfinder Society's local chapter, causing the already small room to be pretty cramped throughout the day.

After taking a quick walk around the show floor, checking out the other booths and admiring some of the awesome cosplayers, I made my way back to the Phoenix room to play the Shadowrun 5e I signed up for. Unfortunately, only two other people signed up so we couldn't run through the actual adventure. Thankfully, the two people running the game didn't miss a beat and ran us through a humorous little encounter they called "Food Fight", showing what happens when a group of shadowrunners try to pick up some fast food late at night. While short, the game was pretty fun and my shaman kicked some serious ass.

Shortly afterwards, I was asked if I could run a session of Cubicle 7's Doctor Who RPG, a game I've never run before and have only taken the occasional glance at. However, wanting to be helpful, I decided to give it a shot. While I fudged a lot of the mechanics and improved a good amount of the adventure notes given to me, the group of mostly new players seemed to have a fun time.

Running Doctor Who and telling someone where the bathroom is.
A master of multitasking.
After a short break to help with promoting the remaining demos, I moved onto my second game of the day: Deadlands. Originally, I was going to run Numenera, but I felt Savage Worlds would be a better fit for a convention setting. Thankfully, I was correct. All of the players were new to the setting, but dug the concept and enjoyed the game. The game ended with our huckster setting the big bad on fire with his magic by blowing up a jar of whiskey in its hand and causing so much havoc. It was easily one of the most entertaining sessions of Savage Worlds I have ever GM ran.

With my GMing duties for the day over, I decided to kick back and relax with a few of the other volunteers, talking about games and goofing off. Afterwards, we checked out the fire dancing show out by the pool and the cosplay contest. The night ended back at the Phoenix room, killing time with a friend until he could finally call it quits for the day and go to bed. Once that was done, I gathered my stuff and made my way back home. 

Although I only attended the con for a day (which I now regret since I missed the chance to play with Jim Ward, the designer of Metamorphosis Alpha and one of Gygax's original players), I had a blast. I'll definitely be attending next year and will definitely be there for both days. If you're in the area next year, I suggest checking it out as well.

Friday, October 24, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Directed by John Hough, The Legend of Hell House is a British horror film based off the Richard Matheson novel. Physicist Lionel Barrett is enlisted by an eccentric billionaire to investigate the Belasco House, a location supposedly haunted by the spirit of a sadistic man, hoping to prove the existence of life after death. Barrett is accompanied by his wife Ann, mental medium Florence Tanner, and physical medium Benjamin Fischer (who is also the solve survivor of a previous visit to the house). The team must survive a full week in isolation, and solve the mysterious of the notorious "Hell House".

While watching certain films, you can automatically tell which decade they were made. When watching The Monster Squad, you know it was made in the 80s. Pick up Scream and you'll definitely know its a 90s slasher film. The Legend of Hell House screams 70s haunted house film, embodying the best and worst of that subgenre during that decade.

The Legend of Hell House, like many 70s haunted house films, prioritizes atmosphere and interesting visuals over cheap scares. The film's setting is simply gorgeous, looking like something from a gothic horror story. It also builds a creepy tension and remains visually interesting throughout the film, utilizing spinning shots and strange camera moves very well.

The acting's pretty solid as well. While some of the characters are better written than others, the actors and actresses do a good job with the parts given to them. Roddy McDowall easily gives the best performance, really bringing the character to life and making him endearing.

However, the film does have its weaknesses. At times, it feels like the movie thinks its more clever than it actually is. The characters sometimes act in strange ways, like Dr. Barrett refusing to accept the survival of personalities after death, even when the evidence proofs him wrong or Florence Tanner refusing to leave the house after being physically harmed. The ending is also pretty lackluster.

Although I'm somewhat biased towards 70s horror and haunted house films, The Legend of Hell House is definitely a classic that deserves to be seen at least once. While its not perfect, the atmosphere it creates, the performances, and the visuals are worth the ride.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Riding the Bullet (2004)

Directed by Mick Garris, Riding the Bullet is yet another horror film based off a Stephen King short story. While hitchhiking back home to visit his sick mother, Alan Parker is picked up by a mysterious stranger. As the ride goes on, Alan uncovers a terrible secret about the driver, who then gives him a choice. A choice between life and death.

Riding the Bullet feels like a Twilight Zone episode stretched out to 98 minutes. If Rod Sterling had appeared at the beginning and end of the film to give his signature monologues, I wouldn't have been surprised. Well, I might be a little surprised since he's dead and all. However, it would definitely have been a more lackluster episode with a slightly unfocused and confusing narrative.

The plot is simple enough, with a college student receiving rides from strange individuals and having weird incidents along the highway. However, certain scenes feel like someone having a somewhat tame acid trip. Just weird enough to be confusing, but not weird enough to unique or memorable.

Riding the Bullet's acting is also somewhat hit and miss as well. Jonathan Jackson's performance is alright, but a little dull at times throughout the movie. David Arquette goes a little over the top, but he's at least having fun and it works for the film's tone. Although she's only in a handful of scenes, Barbara Hershey is definitely gives the best performance. I just wish she showed up more and most of her scenes weren't repeated clips.

However, I strangely found myself enjoying Riding the Bullet despite its faults. Maybe the weirdness worked for me, maybe I liked the story hidden underneath the strange narrative structure, maybe I just liked it visually. I really can't explain it, but I thought it was alright and would probably watch it again. Its not my favorite Stephen King adaptation, but its okay.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

5e Musings: Dealing With Incorporeal Undead

Fighting incorporeal undead just sucks. At higher levels, its not as bad due to most characters likely possessing a magical weapon by then. However, at lower levels, its frustrating to be a fighter and be fundamentally useless because that sword your carrying will simply pass through the ghost's intangible form. While 5e does lessen the frustration by only giving the ghost resistance against nonmagical weapons (meaning you'll still deal at least a little damage), I thought it'd be fun to create a different way you can handle these bastards without resorting to magic. 

The idea would require a little more work from the DM, but I feel it could be pretty interesting. Most ghost stories have the titular spirits attached to something or someone, so attached that it prevents their spirit from passing on to the next life. What if a player finds someone tied to the spirit's previous life, something they cared deeply about, and that object allowed them to have power over the creature? 

For example, let's say the ghost possessed a special necklace that once belonged to a very closed friend. The PC could find that object and present it to the ghost as an action in combat, forcing the creature to make a DC 15 Wisdom save. If they fail the save, the ghost is considered incapacitated. Every turn thereafter, the undead makes another Wisdom save for free, allowing them to act as normal if they succeed. 

While the character isn't damaging the incorporeal undead, they at least can effect it in a significant way. Also, it creates an interesting way for characters to deal with ghosts and other incorporeal undead besides combat. The players might have to delve into the spirit's past, hunt down one of these objects (maybe even a relative), and use it against the creature. 

October Horror Movie Challenge: The Monster Squad (1987)

Directed by Fred Dekker and co-written by Shane Black, The Monster Squad is a horror comedy film that acts as a humorous love letter to the Universal monster movies. Sean Crenshaw and his best friend Patrick are monster movie fanatics. Along with their portly friend Horace, junior high bad boy Rudy, Sean's little sister Phoebe, and little Eugene they come together in Sean's treehouse and talk about monsters. 

But when Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and The Mummy come to their small town to retrieve a mystical amulet that will allow them to take over the world, Sean leads his friends into action to defeat the forces of evil.  

The Monster Squad is probably one of the silliest, cheesiest films I have ever seen. The story suffers from serious lapses in logic, its tonally confused, and has to be one of the most 80s films to come out of the 80s. 

However, none of that matters because The Monster Squad is just all kinds of awesome. 

On paper, The Monster Squad should be god awful. However, the film manages to achieve a special level of silliness that causes the film to loop back into the territory of awesomely entertaining. Its like Dekker and Black kidnapped a horror fanatic, dissected that fan's brain, found what every one of us has dreamed about, and filmed it. The Monster Squad is basically The Goonies for horror geeks.

The Monster Squad is a film that every horror fan should see at least five times. Its perfect Halloween marathon material and is filled with heart and fun. This movie, like the Wolf Man, has 'nards. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Silver Bullet (1985)

Directed by Daniel Attias, Silver Bullet is a horror film adaptation of Stephen King's novella Cycle of the Werewolf. Normally, the small town of Tarker's Mills is an incredibly peaceful place where nothing extraordinary happens. However, this changes one night when a series of bizarre murders begin. The townsfolk believe a maniacal killer is one the loose. Marty, a young handicapped boy, believes the killer is something else entirely: a werewolf. After encountering and wounding the creature, Marty and his older sister Jane hunt all over town for the man they believe is the werewolf.

At first glance, Silver Bullet appears to be just another run-of-the-mill werewolf film. The special effects are decent and its story is interesting enough, but the film doesn't seem like anything special. However, Silver Bullet possesses one thing that does make it stand out among its lycanthropic peers: the relationships that exist between the main characters and the chemistry between their actors and actresses.

Maybe it's due to the low expectations I had going into the film, but I was pleasantly surprised by Silver Bullet's performances. Corey Haim gives a solid turn as Marty Coslaw, a young paraplegic boy who has probably one of the coolest wheelchairs ever. He's very likable and manages to hold his own in the more emotional moments, especially when paired with Megan Follows as his sister and Gary Busey as his wild uncle. The three have very good chemistry on screen and you feel like they're an actual family. Heck, I'd even say the scenes with Haim spending time with his uncle or riding his motor-tricycle are the best in the movie and the werewolf stuff takes away from that.

Speaking of werewolves, Silver Bullet's special effects aren't half bad either. They're nowhere near the same level as something you'd see inside American Werewolf in London or The Howling, but they are definitely decent. The film also knows when to hide or not focus on the less effective effects, or keeping the werewolf mostly hidden until the end of the film. Also, you can't help but love the utter cheese that is the werewolf church seen. Its something that you just have to see, but you will understand why its awesome after watching it.

However, Silver Bullet does have some obvious weak spots. For example, the film has this weird narration from what is supposed to be a future version of Marty's sister, making the film appear to be a story she's telling someone else. However, there's we never see this person she's talking to and it feels completely unnecessary. Also, Silver Bullet can feel a little slow at times.

While its by no means a perfect film, Silver Bullet has some good stuff going for it. If you like werewolf films with some good performances and decent effects, check out Silver Bullet.

Monday, October 20, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Tremors (1990)

Directed by Ron Underwood, Tremors is a humorous monster movie about a pair of quirky handymen who live in the small desert community of Perfection. After stumbling upon some bizarre phenomena a couple of grisly deaths, the two discover a terrible local secrets: the desert is inhabited by worm-like creatures that travel underground, surfacing only to eat whatever they can grab with their tongue-tendrils.  Due to Perfection's isolated location, the citizens must find a way across the desert while avoiding these "graboids" who happen to be stalking them like landlocked sharks.

Tremors is a loving tribute to the monster movies of the 1950's. The film is cheesy and the acting is somewhat over the top at times, but that just makes it more entertaining. It doesn't hurt that the special effects are pretty good and the direction is equally solid.

As with most monster movies, Tremors lives and dies on its special effects. Thankfully, they are top notch. The graboids look great, like something from a more primordial era that's been lurking underground for centuries, waiting for the perfect time to surface and strike. Also, the tongue-tendrils are pretty cool too, reminding me of the Xenomorph's tongue from Alien.They also manage to make its underground travel look believable and cool.

The acting's not half bad either. While some of its definitely over the top, you can't help but like the characters. Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, and Michael Gross give great performances, creating interesting characters that you want to see survive these attacks. Especially Gross, who's Burt would end up becoming the main character of later films in the series.

While Tremors isn't particularly scary, its definitely entertaining due to its special effects and fun characters. If you're looking for a monster movie with a lot of hard, you could do a whole lot worse than Tremors.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Cujo (1983)

Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Cujo is a horror movie directed by Lewis Teague. Cujo is a happy St. Bernard until he is bitten on the hose by a rabid bat and slowly begins to manifesting the symptoms of his fatal illness. As his condition deteriorates, Cujo begins to attack those who cross his path. This culminates with Cujo trapping a woman named Donna Trenton and her 5 year old son Tad in her Ford Pinto, trying his hardest to get inside to kill them both.

Although Stephen King's literary work tends to be highly acclaimed, the film adaptations of his stories tend to be a bit more...varied in the quality department. Some, like Misery or The Shawshank Redemption are fantastic films and considered classics. Others, like Sleepwalkers or The Mangler, are less fantastic. Cujo seems to fall somewhere in the middle of those extremes.

Cujo has a lot of good qualities. Both Dee Wallace and Daniel Hugh Kelly give great performances. Wallace plays a character struggling to find what she truly wants from her life who is suddenly thrust into a situation she's not prepared to handle very well and Kelly does a good job playing the loving father trying to figure out how he's going to handle a complicated situation.

The film's third act is pretty tense as well. Two characters are locked inside a small car with a vicious animal lurking outside, waiting to strike when the time is right. Each time he tries to get into the car, and almost succeeds, you get tense and hope Donna will be able to stop him. You also know she'll have to leave the car eventually, but you don't know when and the tension just builds and builds.

Unfortunately, Cujo shoots itself in the foot with its slow pacing. While the first half does a good job making the people and the town of Castle Rock feel real, I would be lying if I said it wasn't a little boring and you just want to fast forward to the third act.

If you can overlook its slow pacing, Cujo has some solid performances and a pretty good third act and climax. Its not bad, but there are much better King adaptations to watch.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Oculus (2013)

Oculus is a supernatural horror film directed and written by Mike Flanagan. Ten years ago, tragedy struck the Russel family, leaving the lives of teenage siblings Tim and Kaylie forever changed when Tim was convicted of the brutal murder of their parents. Now 21 years old, Tim is finally released from protective custody and wants to put the past behind him. However, Kaylie is still haunted by that fateful night. Unlike her brother, she's convinced her parents' deaths were caused by something else: a malevolent force originating from an antique mirror. With the mysterious entity back in their possession, Tim and Kaylie soon find their sanity slipping away as they experience terrible hallucinations and relive their childhood nightmare all over again.

When I first saw the trailer for Oculus, I wasn't too impressed.At first glance, it just looked like another generic horror film using a weird concept. I had no confidence in it, so I decided to skip it while it was in theaters.

However, I started hearing a lot of positive buzz surrounding the film. People were saying it was actually pretty good, that it was interesting and not bland like I feared it would be. I decided to finally bite the bullet and watch the film. Thankfully, I'm glad I did.

Oculus is a film that relies more on dread and psychological horror over unnecessary gore and cheap jump scares. Like Jacob's Ladder, Oculus plays with time and reality, making the characters question their own sanity and whether they are actually experiencing the things they're experiencing. Very few films seem to go this route nowadays and Oculus feels like a breath of fresh air because of it.

Ignore the trailers and see Oculus, especially if you enjoy horror films that are more psychological. Take the chance and pick it up. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Shivers (1975)

Shivers (also known as They Came From Within) is a science fiction horror film directed and written by David Cronenberg. While investigating the strange murder-suicide of a scientist and a teenager, a doctor discovers that the scientist was doing experiments on the use of genetically engineered parasites as organ transplants. However, something has gone terribly wrong. Instead of replacing failed organs, the parasite creates an uncontrollable sexual desire in the host, one that manifests violently. The scientist tried to destroy it, but the parasites are now loose in the building and the doctor and his girlfriend must escape before they become infected too.

Cronenberg is one of the principal originators of what is commonly known as the "body horror" subgenre. This subgenre typically explores people's fear of bodily transformation and infection, usually intertwining the psychological with the physical. Shivers is one of Cronenberg's first entries in the genre.

The parasites in Shivers represent venereal diseases. The creatures generally pass from one host to another through sexual contact. While its not the most subtle metaphor, it definitely works. The film presents a situation where a scientist created these parasites with the noblest of intentions, but the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. The parasite seems to unlock this primal, sexual urge within the host, one that dominates their mind and demands to be quenched (violently if need be). While the parasite facilitates this, the true horror of the situation is that our bodies would be so susceptible to this, unable to fight it and be dominated by our base impulses. Shivers delivers that message and delivers it well.

Really, Shivers' only weaknesses are based on it being one of Cronenberg's first films. You can see it as a young director experiment with ideas and theme, seeing what works and what doesn't. There are weird shots that really have no context (like a random first person perspective at one point) and weird moments of slow motion. The characters are a little bland and the film's narrative is not as tight as Cronenberg's later efforts, with the ending being rather weak and underwhelming.

However, the film's concept is really the driving force behind everything. This really isn't a film you watch for an enjoyable experience. You watch it to investigate this interesting idea and experience the horror of the situation. The characters and narrative are really second nature to the concept. With that being said, I'll freely admit that's not everyone's cup of tea and that's totally fine.

Shivers is an interesting film with a neat concept, but its story and characters are somewhat lacking. If you can overlook that and embrace the film's basic premise and the horror of the situation, you'll probably like Shivers.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: American Mary (2012)

Directed by the Soska Sisters, American Mary is a Canadian "slasher" film that tells the story of Mary Mason, a medical student who's growing increasingly broke and desperate. After a strange encounter at a strip club, Mary enters the messy world of underground surgeries and body modification which leaves more marks on her than her equally desperate clientele.

American Mary is a film that has garnered a decent amount of praise throughout the horror fandom. Fangoria even called it a modern horror masterpiece. This response just leaves me confused. While American Mary has its moments, it suffers from some sloppy pacing, uneven acting, an underdeveloped narrative, and an a climax that's ultimately unsatisfying.

I really don't understand the amount of love this rather mediocre horror film gets. Am I just missing something?

I'll admit, American Mary's first half isn't half bad. The film does an adequate job establishing its plot and characters, quickly introducing us to Mary's primary motivation and why she eventually passes the point of no return. However, after she takes revenge for something that happened earlier in the film, American Mary goes downhill fast.

The plot begins to unravel, the pacing becomes clunky and uneven, eventually leading you to the boring climax that doesn't even feel like an ending at all. This is especially sad because Katharine Isabelle actually gives a pretty decent performance. She's entertaining to watch, captures the character perfectly, and seems to embrace the subtle dark sense of humor lurking within the film's text. I feel like she's too good for this movie.

Amerian Mary is a film that had some interesting ideas, but ruined them with its shoddy execution. While its definitely not a horrible film, it doesn't deserve the praise it seems to constantly receive. Watch it only if you like Katharine Isabelle and have some time to kill.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Trick r' Treat (2009)

Directed by Michael Dougherty, Trick 'r Treat is an anthology horror film consisting of four interwoven stories that occur on Halloween: A high school principal has a secret life as a psychotic serial killer; a college girl might have just met the perfect guy for her first time; a group of teenagers pull a mean prank on a social outcast; an old curmudgeon is visited by a peculiar trick or treater.

Since its delayed "Direct-to-DVD" release in 2009, Trick 'r Treat has rapidly become something of a modern Halloween classic. The film's garnered a strong cult following and finds its way onto a lot of Halloween marathon lists. Its kind of shocking at first to think about how many people embraced this little film, but you quickly realize why after watching it.

Trick 'r Treat is easily one of the best anthology films of the past decade. It's stories work, they're woven together nicely, and utilizes its Halloween theme properly.

Most Halloween films tend to use the holiday theme in one of two ways: use it as simple setting that barely affects the overall narrative, or routinely beats their audience over the head with its theme. The best Halloween films fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. Trick 'r Treat embraces the holiday,  having it influence each story in a specific way, without going overboard with it. Whenever I pop this film into the DVD player, I immediately find myself feeling the spirit of Halloween (even if its January or July).

Trick 'r Treat utilizes the same method of anthology storytelling that Pulp Fiction does. All four stories exist within the same town on the same Halloween night, influencing and affecting each other. For example, one story will introduce a plot point that will become more relevant later, or we might see characters who will show up in a different story. The only thing connecting all four stories is the mysterious trick or treater Sam, who seems to be the literal Spirit of Halloween ("Sam", which could be a shortened version of "Samhain"). While some stories are obviously better than others, causing Trick 'r Treat to suffer the same consistency problem that haunts almost every anthology film, they are all good in their own ways and they never overstay their welcome do to the interwoven nature of the narrative.

I'm happy to see Trick 'r Treat get the recognition that it deserves. Its one of the best Halloween films ever made and it will always have a place on my Halloween "Must Watch" list. If you're looking for a Halloween-themed movie or a well made horror anthology film, give Trick 'r Treat a chance.

Delta Green Beta Playtest Begins!

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu is one of my favorite roleplaying games (even though I rarely get to play it). One of the first supplements I ever purchased for it was Arc Dream Publishing's Delta Green, which I've always described as "The X-Files Meets the Cthulhu Mythos". I love its more modern setting, I love how it utilizes conspiracy theories in interesting ways, and I have a weakness for "Secret Organization" games.

Yesterday, Arc Dream Publishing released the beta playtest documents for their upcoming Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game. While I just started a Shadorun 5e campaign, I might try running a few Delta Green one-shots before the playtest ends. If you're interested, you have until November 23rd to give them feedback.

If you're interested in the Delta Green playtest, click HERE.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Chillerama (2011)

Chillerama is a horror anthology film with each segment being written and directed by a different director and paying homage to different genre and style. The first is "Wadzilla", a monster movie spoof where a gigantic sperm terrorizes New York. The second segment is "I Was a Teenage Werebear", a musical short about a closeted teenager who turns into a vicious werebear after being bit on the ass during a wrestling match. The third is titled "The Diary of Anne Frankenstein", a short about Hitler discovering the diary of Dr. Frankenstein and using it to create his own monster. The framing story that ties the segments together is about a small drive-in theater hosting a marathon of lost films (the three segments) while the patrons slowly turn into sex-crazed zombies.

I feel somewhat conflicted by Chillerama. Anyone who knows me knows I love anthology films and I find its concept interesting. However, the film's executions keeps me from fully loving it and listing it among my favorite genre films. 

Like most anthology films, Chillerama's segments are somewhat lopsided. "Wadzilla" has its tongue planted firmly within its cheek and "The Diary of Anne Frankenstein" is enjoyably over the top. However, "I Was a Teenage Werebear" is long and bad in a less entertaining way and "Zom-B-Movie" is too chaotic for its own good at times and the awkward movie quotes with only one in every twelve making thematic sense became irritating. 

Anthology films live and die on their segments, so its problematic when half the stories are good and the other half are less so. However, I don't want to call Chillerama a bad film. Even though I dislike "I Was a Teenage Werebear" and "Zom-B-Movie", there are parts to them that I do like and I feel they do embody the different styles they were honoring. Also, like Creepshow, Chillerama possesses its own personality that helps it stand out among the crowd. 

The anthology's cast isn't half bad either. Some of the actors and actresses' performances are obviously weaker than others, but everyone seems to be having fun with their roles and even the weaker ones fit the "So Bad its Enjoyable" tone of the segments. Richard Riehle deserves particular note. Playing the drive-in theater's owner, Riehle possesses one of the few serious scenes within the film (where he is contemplating suicide due to losing the one thing he had left in this world) and he makes it shine. 

Its far from perfect and incredibly uneven, Chillerama is a fun anthology film that lovingly honors the B movies and horror schlock of yesteryear. Its definitely not for everyone, but check it out if you like cheesy movies that tend to be so bad they're enjoyable. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Friday the 13th (1980)

Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, Friday the 13th is considered by many to be one of the first "true" slasher films. After being cursed for years with nothing but murderous bad luck, an entrepreneur decides to re-open Camp Crystal Lake. Unfortunately, things don't end well for the young and nubile counselors, who all begin to die extremely bloody deaths at the hands of an unseen killer during a rainstorm which isolates the camp.

Friday the 13th was the first in a long-running series of slasher films, helping define the subgenre and influenced many subsequent films. It has received so much criticism over the years, referring to it as nothing more than horror schlock that only became popular because stupid people enjoyed it. I'm not kidding, I've actually read a review that claimed that. Although its far from being the horror movie equivalent of Citizen Kane, Friday the 13th remains effective to this day because its actually pretty good and shows you what to do if you want to make a decent slasher flick.

First, Friday the 13th realizes the characters need to be likable. If they're total douchebags with absolutely no redeeming qualities, we won't care what happens to them. On the contrary, we'll actually be begging the film to kill them as soon as possible. Thankfully, Friday the 13th offers us a cast of likable characters who do the kind of stuff you'd expect young counselors to do at a summer camp: goof off, drink a few beers, possibly fool around in the bunks. The actors and actresses do a decent job with their roles, making us sympathize with them, meaning we don't want to see them die, making their death scenes more tense and horrifying.

Friday the 13th also utilizes the "less is more" principle rather well. The film has this odd reputation as a sadistic bloodbath, but that's really not true. While some of the death scenes are "bloody", they aren't the gore show some would lead you to believe. The filmmakers simply use these scenes as great punctuation marks throughout the film, making it feel more gruesome than it actually is. The fact that we see most of the murders through a first person perspective (putting us in the killer's shoes) probably enhances the film's "gruesome" feeling.

Finally, the reveal of the killer is perfect and still works today (albeit for different reasons). While watching Friday the 13th, you'd never suspect the killer is actually a grieving mother who just wants vengeance for the death of her disabled child. It plays with our expectations in a smart way, giving us a different kind of slasher. The reason this still works today is because most people tend to associate Jason Voorhees with the name "Friday the 13th", so assume he's also the killer here as well.

Although the film is far from perfect, Friday the 13th has entered the cutural zeitgeist for a reason. It helped establish the slasher subgenre, started an incredibly popular horror franchise, and influenced many films to come. It doesn't hurt that its also rather enjoyable and decently made. Sometimes, mainstream critics can be a little too harsh on a film. I believe that's the case here. For once, ignore the "professional consensus" and check out Friday the 13th. You might be pleasantly surprised.