The Monster Does Fan Expo – Part 2, Gaming Seminars

As I mentioned in the first part of my coverage of this year’s Fan Expo, it was nice to see gamers being catered to specifically in the convention’s programming and guest choices.  While I enjoy the buffet approach that Fan Expo takes, tabletop gamers are definitely in the minority among the other fandoms, so there’s a worry that our interests will be overlooked.  That fear was unfounded, as there were plenty of treats for gamers to fill their plates with (and Fan Expo has had some great gaming guests in the past – it’s where I had the chance to meet Gary Gygax before he passed away).
Although time constraints prevented me from chucking some dice in the game room (I was only there for the Friday), I was able to attend two of the con’s gaming seminars: Robin’s Laws of Gamemastery and the Gamemaster Master Class.  Both seminars had excellent turnouts, were a lot of fun, and in spite of having read stacks of Dragon magazine articles on the subject (many of them written by the seminars’ panelists), I still found them informative.  It just goes to show that there is always something for old Dungeonmasters to learn.  I took the opportunity to jot down the most interesting points of both seminars to share them with those who missed out (yeah, this would have been a good time to record a video of the whole thing, but that’s beyond my tech level and honestly, I find of few paragraphs of highlights more interesting than two hours of video).

Robin’s Laws of Gamemastery

Toronto’s own Robin Laws hosted a solo panel (an oxymoron I guess, but I can’t think of a better term) on GM advice, fielding some pretty tough questions from the audience and taking the conversation in unexpected directions.
He had an interesting take on the place of ‘story mechanics’ (that is, mechanics in a game that deal with social interaction or other non-combat activities) in rpgs.  In games with these kinds of mechanics (say 3e D&D or Pathfinder), Laws sees a player’s character sheet as an order slip for the DM.  If a player chooses to create a sub-optimal combatant by taking ranks in brewing, music or bargaining, she is telling the DM that she wants those things included in the game.  The player won’t mind that they are a little weaker in combat if they can feel important and shine when later in the campaign she can brew a legendary beer for the king, compose a famous symphony or broker a peace agreement.  I really appreciated the fresh perspective (and a player-centric one at that) on the moldy old role-playing vs. roll-playing debate, especially since I favor those mechanics and still consider myself a role-player.
Laws also had some great advice for how to handle rolling those social skill checks at the table if you feel they are an impediment to role-playing.  Instead of having the player state what their character is going to say and then making the roll (which is what I do, with a bonus or penalty based on what the player says), have them make the roll first and role-play it out based on the outcome.  Then, when the Rogue with the eighteen Charisma rolls a 1 for her Diplomacy check, have her decide why she uncharacteristically failed so badly.  Perhaps she is racist against Dwarves, or has a hard time talking to people of the opposite sex…  This is a trick I’m definitely going to talk to my players about bringing to our game.
When asked his opinion about ‘killer dungeons’, Laws brought up what he called the Tomb of Horrors paradox, which I thought was pretty funny.  Tomb of Horrors is seen as an anathema to new-school sensibilities and is often used as an example of how not to design a scenario (what with its arbitrary puzzles and instant-death traps).  Yet everyone seems to have a gleeful Tomb of Horrors war story, recounting fondly how their entire party was killed by this crushing room or that grinning devil face, so there has to be a place in the gaming world for this kind of adventure.
Finally, I managed to sneak in a question of my own about monster design.  I asked Robin; out of all the creatures he has created for rpgs, what monster was he the most proud of?  Like most writers, his favorite was his most recent (we’re a fickle bunch): a strange otherworldly hairball for the Esoterrorists game that possesses corpses and turns them into serial-killers.  Apparently, he wanted to try and include as many horror tropes as possible in a single monster.  I’m not sure about the whole ‘hairball’ thing, but the rest intrigued me enough to look up the game.

Gamemaster Master Class

While the second seminar I attended covered a lot of the same ground as the first, the change in format (five panelists instead of one) gave it a very different feel.  Panelists Ed Greenwood, Monte Cook, Malcolm Sheppard, and the Chatty DM weren’t able to get as in-depth on every topic as Laws was (that’s just the nature of splitting the time between so many people), but the riffing between the four of them was very entertaining and often hilarious.  Also, I was pretty psyched to finally meet Ed Greenwood, who I’ve always ‘just missed’ at these kind of events, and get Monte Cook to sign my copy of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (which he was gracious enough to do, even as the event organizers where trying to kick us out of the room).
Most of the time was spent discussing what I call ‘player management’ (things like problem players, meta-gaming, player expectations, etc.), which while interesting and a boundless source of humor, isn’t all that useful to me, since I game with close friends whom I’ve played with for years (going on twenty plus years for some of them).  We’ve worked out most of the kinks when it comes to things like that, and besides, they’re awesome (in case they read this).  I will admit to enjoying a certain amount of schadenfreude listening to other DMs’ horror stories though.
The most interesting bits came when the panel were asked about running memorable villains.   Malcolm Sheppard suggested using what he called the ‘devil’s advocate method’ – getting a different player to run the villain each session.  It’s a very cool idea, and I love that it harnesses players’ competitive nature.  If the villain is the player’s character, even if only temporarily, he will do his damnedest to keep it alive – probably more effectively than the DM.  Sheppard did give this advice with a pretty funny caveat though: he warned DMs to underpower their villains, since in his experience, players were much better at dreaming up ways of killing each efficiently than he ever could.  While I don’t think my group is ready to wholly embrace this technique (who wants to give up their own character in a fight with Big Bad?), I think it would work perfectly for players whose character has just died, keeping them involved in the game instead of waiting bored on the sidelines.
Ed Greenwood warned against focusing so much on a single villain if you want the campaign to continue beyond their demise.  When you invest so much character motivation into a single enemy, they become the source of the game’s momentum, and without them there is no movement (I believe Thulsa Doom said it best in Conan the Barbarian: “I am the wellspring from which you flow…”).  Greenwood’s solution to this dilemma, which you can see played out in his game-world the Forgotten Realms in spades, is to make sure that the characters occasionally get entangled with unrelated side-villains.  When the PCs’ nemesis is defeated it’s easy for one of these enemies to pick up the mantle of arch-villain.
Conversely (I believe his words were “even though Ed Greenwood told you not to”), Monte Cook had a sneaky trick to help transform any recurring villain into a character the players will hate with every fibre of their being (and really, it might be weird, but DMs live for that).  Basically, Cook’s advice is to have everything the PC’s do be a part of the villain’s plan, even (especially) when they win.  Rescued the Princess from bandits?  Excellent, now the villain can blackmail the King into offering her hand in marriage.  Slew the dragon?  Perfect, it was guarding a magical gate the villain needed access to.  The trick here is to let things play out as they will naturally, and figuring out how it fits into the villain’s plan in-between sessions.  Admittedly it’s a bit of a cheat, but I think it nicely replicates the highly organized mind of a manipulative and super intelligent antagonist.  Besides, I can attest first hand that when I used a slightly modified form of this in a Planescape campaign that it generated a healthy dose of hate, and there’s no stronger engine to drive your campaign forward.

The Monster Does Fan Expo – Part 1, Highlights

I have a lot of love for conventions (I even wrote a play about one – 2007’s GeekGasm at the Toronto Fringe Festival).  Getting caught up in the atmosphere of positive energy at these events really recharges my batteries.  If you’ve never been to a con, I can’t recommend it enough.  At the risk of sounding flaky, they really do feel like a gathering of the nerd tribes, and I think a lot of what I love about the atmosphere comes from the carnival-like vibe and the opportunity for those attending to openly express their geeky passions without self-consciousness or irony.
This weekend I was a part of the horde that descended on downtown Toronto for Fan Expo (cheers to all the folks I got the chance to chat with).  For those unfamiliar with the convention, Fan Expo is essentially Canada’s version of Comic-Con with the unique feature of bringing together the fandoms of comics, science fiction, anime, horror and gaming under one roof.  That mixing of genres is one of the reasons I try and attend Fan Expo every year – not only do my own interests cross many of those borders, but I appreciate the opportunity to be exposed to something new that I wouldn’t necessarily have encountered in my own circles.
As usual Fan Expo did not disappoint, and I’m happy to say that gamers were especially well represented this year with an excellent roster of celebrity guests and seminars (I’ll cover that specifically in part two).  For now, here are the highlights (please excuse my crappy photography).


I am continually impressed by the great costumes I see at cons.  Seriously, these costumes aren’t only a great showcase of artistic talent and attention to detail but also a triathlon-level display of endurance and fortitude (shuffling around for eight hours with thousands of people is hard enough when you can breathe properly and use the bathroom easily).   I salute you! (click to enlarge)







Hasbro were in full effect with a large pavilion on the show floor and some great Lego displays.  Too bad WOTC weren’t there to join them.



There was a wicked Frankenweenie pavilion with sets and stop-motion models from the upcoming film.  The level of detail was incredible, and since most of it will probably be impossible to see in the movie it was nice to have the opportunity to appreciate it up close (any props you see with writing on them are actually legible – most filled with references to Burton’s body of work).




Toronto After Dark

A personal highlight at this year’s Fan Expo was finally meeting Adam Lopez and the rest of the folks from the Toronto After Dark film festival for a face to face chat.  Not only did they have one of the coolest t-shirt designs at the con (Cthulhu devouring the Bloor Cinema), I was able to get the scoop on the festival’s first 10 films: Rec 3: Genesis, Excision, Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (featuring the return of Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude-Van Damme!), Grabbers, A Fantastic Fear of Everything, Dead Sushi, Doomsday Book, Wrong, Lloyd the Conqueror, and Sushi Girl.  A very promising lineup.  With the addition of the Darkcade (a showcase of indie video games), things are shaping up very nicely for the festival in October.

Random Encounters: Time Travelling Magic for Pathfinder

In my recent It Came from the DVR article on the film Detention, I outlined how to run a campaign centered on time travel (it’s after the movie review), but all that advice isn’t very helpful without a means for the PCs to start time trekking.  As promised, I present the fulcrum of ages, a time travelling artifact for the Pathfinder game.  As a bonus, I’ve also included a new spell, detect temporal flux, which should prove useful for burgeoning time lord PCs.  What’s more fun that slaying an orc and taking his stuff?  Preventing an orc from being born and taking his great-grandparents’ stuff.

The Fulcrum of Ages

Aura overwhelming conjuration and transmutation; CL 22nd.
Slot none; Weight unmoveable
This complex arcane machine occupies the better part of a small room, it’s most distinguishing feature a massive hourglass held in the grip of a quartet of petrified monsters.  By manipulating the fulcrum of ages’ menagerie of gears and levers, the user can transport themselves and anyone in the room that houses the fulcrum back in time (a maximum of 8 medium creatures).  The fulcrum can facilitate travel only into the past; users appear as if by teleportation, in the room that houses the artifact, albeit in some previous time.  Each trip into the past lasts for 48 hours, after which the user and any who travelled with her reappear back in the present, a moment after they left, in the room that houses the fulcrum.  This travel can cross planar barriers, and cannot be impeded by any physical or magical obstacle.  There is no known means to shorten or extend the 48 hour time limit. The fulcrum of ages will only work for users in the present – time travellers cannot use the artifact in the past to make a series of jumps.
The fulcrum of ages is difficult to master.  To activate the fulcrum the user must spend 10 consecutive rounds manipulating the device, after which she makes a Knowledge (history) or Use Magic Device check.  The result of this check determines the upper limit of how far into the past the user can travel.

Check DC        Historical Age
20                      Months in the past
25                      Years in the past
30                      Decades in the past
35                      Centuries in the past

The fulcrum of ages is affixed to the very fabric of space and cannot be moved out of the room that houses it.  It cannot be disassembled or damaged.  The only way to destroy the artifact is to travel into the dim ages of prehistory and prevent the fulcrum’s powerful creators from completing the fulcrum’s construction.

Detect Temporal Flux

School divination; Level bard 1, cleric 1, druid 1, sorcerer/wizard 1
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range 60 ft.
Area cone shaped emanation
Duration concentration, up to 1 min./level (D)
Saving Throw none; Spell Resistance no
You can read the auras of things that are outside of their regular place in the timeline.  The amount of information revealed depends on how long you study a particular area or subject.
1st Round: Presence or absence of temporal flux.
2nd Round: Number of different auras in flux and the strength of the most potent aura present.
3rd Round: The power and location of each aura.  If an aura is outside of your line of sight, then you discern its direction but not its exact location.
Aura Strength: An aura’s power depends on how far the subject is outside of its regular place in the timeline.  If an aura falls into more than one category, detect temporal flux indicates the stronger of the two.
Aura Power
   Faint                                 Moderate                  Strong                             Overwhelming
Months out of synch.   Years out of synch.   Decades out of synch.      Centuries out of synch.
Lingering Aura: An aura in temporal flux lingers afters its original source is destroyed.  If detect temporal flux is cast and directed at such a location, the spell indicates an aura strength of dim (even weaker than faint).  How long the aura lingers at this dim level depends on its original power:
Original Strength       Duration of Lingering Aura
Faint                                   1d6 rounds
Moderate                           1d6 minutes
Strong                                1d6 x 10 minutes
Overwhelming                  1d6 days
Each round you can turn to detect temporal flux in a new area.  The spell can penetrate barriers, but 1 foot of stone, 1 inch of common metal, a thin sheet of lead, or 3 feet of wood or dirt blocks it.


I intentionally left the creators of the fulcrum vague.  Depending on the campaign world they could be the artificers of ancient Netheril, the Suloise mages of power, or the Rune Lords of ancient Thassilon – any group of beings far enough in the past to be extremely difficult to reach and of a sufficiently legendary power level that only high level PCs would even consider the challenge.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: V/H/S

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA don’t miss the main event, October 18-26).  Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration.  Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).


A group of maladjusted vandals and budding snuff filmmakers are hired to break into a lonely old house and steal a unique VHS tape.  A simple enough job, complicated by a creepy room filled with random tapes, a wall of televisions, and something even more disturbing.  As the vandals watch the tapes, looking for their prize, they are given a window into a frightening world that threatens to drag them in.

Anthology and Found Footage Combine for a Deliciously Scary Peanut Butter Cup of Film

V/H/S was conceived as a creative challenge to a group of independent filmmakers to revitalize the saturated sub-genre of found footage horror.  Like any anthology, there are hits and misses, but overall the film succeeds at what it set out to accomplish – providing some truly frightening moments that had me gripping the armrest in the theatre.
First, if you haven’t seen the film yet I strongly urge you to avoid the trailer if at all possible since it spoils some of V/H/S’s best parts.   It won’t ruin the experience, but I found myself waiting for scenes from the trailer to pop up during the screening, which sort of killed the surprises a few of the segments had to offer.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of horror anthologies, and I really enjoy a good found footage film (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield come to mind) so I had fairly high expectations going in to V/H/S.  I wouldn’t say the filmmaking of the individual segments exceeded those expectations (and in some cases didn’t meet them), but what made V/H/S really stand out was how well it utilized both formats and how well those formats complemented one another.  In fact, I would go so far to say that V/H/S has spoiled me, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to see another found footage film without thinking that it probably would have been better cut down to fifteen minutes and included as part of a larger anthology.  The general problem with found footage films is that they tend to be slow, with the worst having huge chunks of filler, and that slowness gives the audience plenty of time to question the verisimilitude of people continuing to film themselves during horrible events (the main conceit of the sub-genre).  V/H/S avoids that pitfall by nature of the format leaving little room for filler.  Each segment cuts to the chase fairly quickly and, in addition to some pretty good justifications for the protagonists filming themselves, the audience really doesn’t have a lot of time to question the suspension of disbelief.
I really dig the concept behind the wraparound tale by Adam Wingard.  It provides an excellent framework for the film, which is actually pretty rare in an anthology, and moves the viewer from one segment to the next efficiently and smoothly (overall I have to commend the filmmakers for using visual styles, that while different, didn’t clash with one another).  There are some odd pacing choices that I wasn’t expecting and, given how despicable Wingard makes his characters, I was a little disappointed he made their comeuppance so unspectacular (off screen for the most part).
The first segment by David Bruckner, about a trio of frat boy types with a set of spy-cam glasses is predictable but has a good payoff (and monster), some excellent practical effects work and a nice punchline worthy of Creepshow 2.
After the lacklustre The Innkeepers, I’m starting to think that Ti West and I just don’t see eye to eye.  His segment here, which documents a young couple’s cross country road trip, takes one of the most unsettling hooks I’ve seen in a long time and throws it away with an ending that isn’t just lame, but also cheats the whole found footage format.  It’s really too bad, because if it had been executed better, West’s story could have had real staying power, clinging to the audience’s subconscious long after leaving the theatre.
Joe Swanberg’s segment, a series of haunted Skype conversations between long distance partners, also stumbled during its finale, but was so original and had some of the best scares in the entire film that it’s easy to overlook its shortcomings.  There’s a really killer reveal at the end but it’s just a bit too long and shows just a bit too much.  This segment freaked me out while I was watching and a more subtle ending would have amplified that fear, rather than helped to dissipate it.  I’ve also got to call out Swanberg for the gratuitous boob shot in what is essentially the segment’s epilogue.  I get that found footage taps into the whole amateur porno aesthetic (there is an 1980’s era slasher flick level of breasts in this film), but it just felt tacked on and a little silly in what was otherwise a super creepy end note (a nit-pick of mine I’m sure many others don’t care about).
Glenn McQuaid’s segment presents a unique take on the ‘college kids camping in the woods’ story that both tweaks film convention and has an unexpected justification for the protagonists filming it.  The best part is how McQuaid explores the medium of found footage and its place in the horror continuum while still delivering the entertainment goods.  Plus it introduces a super cool monster with a concept I don’t think I have seen before.
The final tape in the anthology is also my favorite.  The Radio Silence collective show how to do a haunted house story right with their segment about a group of friends on Halloween looking for a party.  The pacing here is perfect, starting with some nice subtle creeps and building to a great climax.  When things start to get crazy, we are treated to a smorgasbord of supernatural sights and sounds that I won’t be surprised to see imitated by other horror filmmakers very soon.
V/H/S is recommended and is a must see for fans of The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity series.  I’m not sure it will change the minds of die-hard haters of found footage, but it stands amongst the better entries of the sub-genre and is a good reminder of why those films are an important addition to the horror lexicon.

RPG Goodness

One of the reasons found footage works so well in a short format is that it has a very noticeable point of view, which gives the audience a lot of information quickly about the character filming it just by how it is shot without the need for exposition.  It’s a technique DMs can utilize themselves by incorporating ‘found documents’ (standing in for found footage) into their campaign.
I’m a bit of a handout junkie in my games, so I don’t really need an excuse but, in my experience, found documents require only a little effort on the DMs part to create and add a tremendous amount of atmosphere to the game.  There is a long history of using found documents as adventure hooks in D&D (the Return to the Tomb of Horrors mega adventure has some of the best), and running across a scroll or stack of papers that documented any of the tales in V/H/S would make a very memorable adventure (Joe Swanberg’s segment would be hard to reproduce but could be created as a series of correspondence).  My preferred method of including found documents in a game though is as an item of treasure.
Most adventures involve thwarting a villain’s evil scheme or stopping a (sometimes complex) plot or conspiracy from coming about.  The only problem is that most of the time the players only learn the broad strokes of what they are dealing with, and then move on to the next adventure.  The finer details and the villain’s motivations are often left to be enjoyed only by the DM (unless you’re running a supers game and do the whole ‘now that you’re captured, let me tell you about my plan’ thing).  By introducing found documents into the monster’s lair you can share this information with the players and give them a glimpse into the mind of the foe they have just fought.
The form such a document takes is important to keep in mind as it will help get across as much information about the one who created it as the point of view the camera tells the viewer in a found footage film.  Organized, methodical minds (i.e. Lawful) might make a journal or a detailed ledger of accounts while unorganized or insane minds (i.e. Chaotic) might make rambling manifestoes or smear poetry on the walls in an unwholesome substance.  Just remember you don’t need to recreate a whole document in order for it to get the point across to the players.  V/H/S shows just how much story you can tell with a short excerpt (although in found journals I do like to include one or two short entries with no solid information but that helps to paint a portrait of the author’s personality).
The other thing DMs can take away from viewing V/H/S is inspiration for new monsters – scads of them (over email Toronto After Dark festival director Adam Lopez joked that you could create a whole game out of the monster material in V/H/S, and he’s not far from the truth).  My favorite was the creature from Glenn McQuaid’s entry, presented for the Pathfinder game below.  It’s a tiny bit spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, check it out before using the new monster in your game.

Shadow People

Your eyes can’t seem to focus on your pursuer, though glimpses out of the corner of your eye of its bloody attack on your camp give you the impression of a dark, humanoid shape… indistinct images that even now begin to slip unnaturally from the grasp of your memory.

The shadow people are enigmatic and malicious magical creatures that dwell in lonely wilderness locations and abandoned ruins.  They are extremely territorial, viciously attacking and tormenting any intelligent creature that passes too near their homes.  Any fortunate enough to survive an attack by the shadow people and resist their magical aura can be guaranteed a lifelong enemy, for the creatures’ greatest fear is that outsiders will spread word of their existence to the outside world.
Consequently, there is very little information regarding the nature or origin of the shadow people beyond general warnings that a particular patch of woods is haunted.  Brave adventurers moving through shadow people territory though might find faded pictograms, or ancient runes carved into crumbling pillars that tell the story of a group of assassins, cursed by the gods for slaying a beloved priestess to be forever erased not just from history, but from memory itself.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Detention

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA don’t miss the main event, October 18-26).  Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration.  Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).


It is the worst day of high school student Riley Jones’ life: her leg is broken, her IPod is stolen, dreamboat Clapton Davis has fallen for a cheerleader and she’s now officially the second most unpopular teen in the history of the school since that girl was caught having sex with the school’s stuffed mascot.  On top of that, a murderous psycho dressed up as horror movie icon ‘Cinderhella’ is slashing his way through the student body.  With a little help from her friends and some judicious use of time travel, Riley just might survive long enough to get to the bottom of the mystery, get out of detention and make it to the prom.

A Relentlessly Funny Work of Mad Genius

I had a criminal amount of fun watching Detention.   Thankfully the rest of the audience at the screening agreed, because I was laughing so hard I was in danger of creating a Homer Simpson-esque spectacle of myself(like that’s ever stopped me).  I love comedy, but it’s rare for one to connect with me as personally as Detention did.  Given that the film is a crazy mash-up of teen movies, horror, and science fiction, that might seem a little strange, but there you have it.  It doesn’t look like Detention will see any kind of theatrical release in Canada, but I don’t think that will stop this film from finding its audience.  For nerdy, pop culture junkies of a certain age (that’s thirty somethings for those who are counting), this is the film we have been waiting for since Heathers.
Here’s the thing though.  You can compare the film to the dark social commentary of Heathers, or the horror meta- humour of Scream, or the nod and a wink genre playfulness of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – and Detention is like those movies – but it is also very unlike them at the same time.  The comedy in Detention is extremely dense and extremely fast.  Writer/Director Joseph Kahn works multiple levels for a machine gun pace of laughs.  By the time you finish laughing at one thing, the script has already moved on to another joke, and you are also now just getting what one of the characters was referencing two minutes ago.  Rather than wear the viewer down, this approach infuses the film with an infectious, manic energy.
Detention is at times incredibly clever (seriously, when was the last time you saw a movie that used The Smiths and Morrissey song titles as part of a running word-gag), and incredibly stupid in the best possible way (there’s some excellent physical comedy and a silly segue about an intergalactic space bear).  A bastard child of the wiki-age, it reminded me of getting lost clicking through the links on  Never mistake Detention as random, though, even if it feels chaotic.  Where Kahn shines as a filmmaker is how well constructed the movie is amidst its seemingly kitchen-sink approach.  There’s a strong (if convoluted) plot, and things that seem funny for one reason at the beginning take on a whole new meaning by the end (the film’s obsession with the 90’s at first seems to be a comment on the accelerated self-cannibalizing nature of pop culture but then transforms into an actual plot point once the time machine enters the story).  Unexpectedly, even the time travel works in terms of Detention’s internal logic, and there’s a nice homage to Heinlein’s classic short story “-All You Zombies-“.
The best trick Kahn is able to pull off though, and his real genius, is Detention’s ability to simultaneously celebrate and critique everything it touches.  The constant riffing on other films, from Breakfast Club to Back to the Future, reminds the audience why we love the filmic universe of teenagers, chasing it with a shot of nostalgia that blurs the line between remembering when we first watched that world on the screen and remembering when we lived it.  At the same time Kahn also reminds us why we hate the (annoying) teenagers of today (the introduction is especially brilliant in this regard), and lets us glory in that judgement with some over the top slasher style kills.
Predicting the fickle set of circumstances that create a ‘cult classic‘ is impossible and ultimately futile.  However, I’m going to be a hypocrite and say that Detention has cult classic written all over it (at the very least it’s deserving of the title).  I highly recommend this film, especially for fans of Heathers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.  Grab it when it’s released on DVD (I’ll be doing that just so I can go back through it and catch the parts I missed).  But do get the friends together – otherwise you’ll feel strange laughing that hard alone.

RPG Goodness

For all its craziness, Detention reminded me of an ambitious campaign idea that’s been kicking around my head for years, one that I have always wanted to run but never had the chance – the time travel campaign.  Now I’m not talking about a game where modern characters wind up fighting the Battle of Britain or hobnobbing with Romans (the Doctor Who – adventures in time and space rpg is probably the best suited game for that).  I’m talking about a campaign that centres on a group of characters moving back and forth from past to present, changing things and dealing with the consequences.  For example, in the original Neverwinter Nights game, you have to travel back in time to the age of the Old Ones in order to alter dungeon features to bypass an obstacle in the present.  In a time travelling campaign, this sort of thing would be happening all the time.
There are many classic overarching storylines that can be used to bring a time travelling campaign together.  Perhaps a Lawful Evil tyrant researches a time travelling dweomer and is using it to subtly damage the timeline in such a way that they are the undisputed lord and master of the game world in the present.  Only a group of time travelling PCs has any hope of defeating such a unique threat.  A different take on this would be that the characters are caught in a feud between several power groups, each with their own philosophy on how history should unfold (and if the players aren’t averse to a little inter-party conflict, one or more of those groups might be sponsoring select PCs).  DMs can also use a time travelling campaign to add a twist to the tried and true ‘adventure to prevent the end of the world’ scenario.  In this case the end of the world is already happening, or cannot be stopped, and the PCs must make a series of trips to the past in order to prevent the catastrophe that afflicts the present.
A time travelling campaign presents DMs with a set of unique opportunities and challenges.  These guidelines should help the campaign run smoothly:

Open Temporally, Focused Geographically
Since tracking the PCs movements through time is going to be enough work for the DM, it’s a good idea to focus the campaign on a tight geographical area like a large city or mega-dungeon.  This will help keep the players focused on a clear set of goals (which will discourage random wandering in the timestream), and allow the DM to easily resolve the effects of the PCs intrusion on the timeline (the wider the geographical area, the more kingdoms, political groups and deities are involved, which makes the DM’s job exponentially more difficult).
One area where you’ll be able to save on work is by re-using location maps with only minor changes.  Part of the fun of a time travel campaign is getting to see different ‘versions’ of the same encounter areas in different contexts and with different opponents.

Plan Only in Broad Strokes
It’s best to think of the time travel campaign as a sandbox style game, only the PCs are exploring different periods of time instead of hexes on a map.  Other than the overarching motivation for the campaign, specific planning should be left session to session to account for the sometimes unpredictable changes the PCs are going to be making (and unmaking) to history.  Even more so than other campaigns, planning too far ahead when dealing with time travel can easily result in a lot of wasted work (or worse, shoehorning results out of the PCs actions).

Throw Away Canon
If your game world has a developed history, or you are playing in a published setting, accept now that time travel is going to ‘wreck’ the world.  That’s the whole fun of time travel.  As soon as characters are able, they are going to want to go back in time to kill D&D’s equivalent of Hitler (that could even be the goal of the entire campaign).  Let them.  If you are too attached to maintaining canon history, and don’t let the PCs change significant events, there is no point in running a time travel campaign.

Catastrophic, Unexpected Consequences
Of course that doesn’t mean things always work out the way the players expect.  Don’t be afraid to throw a few curve balls of your own into the campaign in the vein of A Sound of Thunder (although don’t make it happen because of a crushed butterfly – it will seem a little too arbitrary and, with the mayhem that follows typical PCs, you’re going to have a lot to work with without resorting to that).  If the PCs decided to assassinate the young warlord Iuz before he becomes a demigod, then have them return to a present where Vecna has risen to reclaim his spidered throne – the plot succeeding because his rival wasn’t there to stop him.

Use Time Travel Against the PCs
At some point in the campaign, the PCs should be on the receiving end of meddling time travellers.  It helps to keep time travel from becoming trivial and reminds the players of the tremendous amount of power they have over the campaign world.  The classic such scenario is a race against the clock to protect the PCs’ parents from a murderous time travelling villain before they are erased from history and completely disappear (see Back to the Future and Time Cop).  For a slightly different challenge, have the PCs witness changes to history in real time in the present.  This could play out in a climactic encounter that begins very easily, and changes as the battle progresses, with new opponents appearing, monsters increasing in power or equipment, and by having the environment altered in the enemies’ favour.
The effects of time travel can also be used as an ace in the DM’s sleeve if things get out of hand.  If you’re like me and try your best to avoid ‘total party kills’ (especially as a result of a few bad rolls or over-caffeinated bad judgement), you could have a future version of the party suddenly appear to pull the PCs’ fat out of the fire.  This kind of thing only works once, but it can be fun for the characters to briefly meet themselves and provides a nice in-world solution to the mulligan.


I had originally intended to include a bit of crunchy time travelling magic for Pathfinder in this article (a useful spell and a time travelling artifact), but seeing as the length of this It Came from the DVR article got a little out of hand, I’ll save it for a post later in the week.  I like to think of it as evidence of the creative wellspring these films represent to DMs rather than my increasing tendency to long-windedness as I get older.

It Came From Toronto After Dark: The Pact

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA there’s still a chance to catch the second night of screenings on July 11 – Detention and V/H/S).  Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration.  Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).

The Pact

After their estranged mother’s death, Annie’s sister convinces her to return to the family home and help put the estate in order.  A reluctant Annie arrives only to find her sister missing and a growing, frightening supernatural presence.  Emotionally raw, with plenty of reminders of her painful childhood, Annie attempts to uncover the mystery of her sister’s disappearance.

Solidly Delivers on the Creeps

The Pact isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind with originality (and the most clever parts of the script are the things I thought were the weakest – more on that below) but it does what it does extremely well and that’s deliver an extraordinarily creepy atmosphere.  It’s got all the trappings audiences have come to expect from supernatural suspense films: eerie figures moving off screen from the corner of the frame, apparitions suddenly appearing behind the protagonist, a medium who goes into paroxysms of terror when she enters the house, spirit photography and, of course, a Ouija board that moves on its own.  Nothing ground-breaking.  Then again, those tropes are repeated so often in the genre because they work, and writer/director Nicholas McCarthy knows how to use them effectively.  For example, McCarthy does an excellent job letting the audience know that a certain door in the house is very bad, just through the use of composition, music and the reaction of Annie.  It’s a great technique that is hard to pull off well (the 1963 version of The Haunting is another great example), but one that is excellent at ramping up the tension.  That build-up is essential in supernatural suspense because the actual jump-out-at-you scares are sparse; you’re kept glued to the screen by the threat that something bad could happen at any minute – and McCarthy uses this to make a dated suburban bungalow seem as creepy as on old gothic manor.
McCarthy’s best ally is actress Caity Lotz in the role of Annie.  Lotz’s ability to project the character’s emotional scars, without tons of script exposition, gives Annie an unexpected depth that I found engaging and sympathetic.  She was also fantastic at supercharging her character with the kind of expressive fear that really sucks the audience in – you can get away with just standing there and hysterically screaming in a slasher (they’re supposed to be a bit cartoony) but suspense thrives on authentic emotion.  Lotz’s reactions felt real, and I almost cheered when during her first encounter with the supernatural, she reacts by blindly lashing out at her attacker and getting the hell out of the house as fast as she possibly can.  I really hope she continues to work in the horror genre.
While I was hooked into the creep fest that was the first three-quarters of this film, I felt that the last act of The Pact fell short.  Much of the creepiness of the movie flows from not knowing, but the inevitable reveal of the film`s mystery robs The Pact of its scariest elements (which is the inherent trap of any mystery – not revealing anything would have been even worse).  During the film’s climax when I should have been biting my nails, I almost felt kind of safe, since the sense of dread McCarthy had built up so well was completely dissipated (see more under the spoiler tag).  The Pact is not alone in making this kind of mistake; I felt that to a lesser extent even Insidious suffered from this, so McCarthy’s work is at least in good company.
Despite of my complaints, The Pact has enough going for it that I recommend it to those that like the suspense horror genre and don’t need a big scary ending to enjoy a film.  If you’re spending the evening in on a dark and stormy night, I think it would make a great double bill with Stir of Echoes.

As I mentioned previously, the big revelation in The Pact is the film’s most original moment, and is cleverly executed, but is also its weakest point.  Once you realize that the supernatural force is merely trying to warn Annie, and that the real threat to those in the house is decidedly human, the film got a lot less scary.  I might be in the minority, but a mundane flesh and blood killer is much less frightening to me than a haunted house with freaky ghostly manifestations where anyone who spends the night disappears without a trace.
I do have to give kudos to McCarthy for not cheating the plot though; everything about the revelation made sense without invalidating the first three quarters of the film (even the sounds made sense, an excellent little detail I really appreciated).  When I see so much lazy writing on film and TV, especially where any kind of mystery is involved, it’s very refreshing to see something thought through from the beginning.  I just wish it hadn’t sucked all the scariness out of the film for me.

RPG Goodness

The Pact is a great resource for DMs who want to inject some supernatural suspense into their games since it’s a veritable dictionary of the tropes of the genre – and more importantly – shows how to execute them effectively.  As I mentioned in my review (with the example of the sinister door), one of the ways that McCarthy creates suspense is through the use of indirect information.  Incorporating this trick into the DMs toolbox is a little counterintuitive in a game with a long history of ‘read aloud’ boxed text, but is one that can help to create a really creepy atmosphere for the right kind of adventure.  Continuing with the example of the door, a similar situation at the game table might traditionally go something like this:

“The door at the end of the hall radiates palpable waves of fear and dread.  As you move closer the feeling intensifies and you have to clutch your weapons tightly to keep from trembling.  You press on even as every instinct screams that there is something very wrong here…”

There is nothing wrong with running an encounter this way (and it’s a pretty good in-game cue that there’s some kind of fear effect in play without being too gamey), especially if it isn’t pivotal to the adventure.  However, if the door is central to solving a mystery, and if the party are going to pass by the location several times, it helps to build suspense by slowly layering indirect information to the players instead of coming right out and telling them the door is bad.  Here are some examples of indirect information using the aforementioned sinister door:

  • If the characters make a point of keeping the door closed, have them find it open and vice versa.
  • Familiars and animal companions won’t overtly freak out, but always move in such a way that they avoid the door (a Perception check might reveal this to observant characters), and won’t cross its threshold unless forced.
  • Characters walking by the door might get a sudden chill and see their breath in the cold pocket of air.
  • A character who makes a moderate Knowledge (engineering) check realizes the door is in an odd location in relation to the rest of the structure and isn’t something most architects would build.
  • Characters who put their ear up against the door to listen hear someone on the other side whispering things about them, but the room beyond is empty.
  • Instead of their usual effect, divination spells regarding the door result in ominous automatic writing.
  • Characters searching the area who succeed at a hard Perception check notice a single torn and bloody fingernail lodged between the stones of the door’s sill.

Inheriting a Haunted House

The Pact (as well as the Poltergeist series), has another great lesson for DMs – the best hauntings are by multiple spirits with distinct personalities and goals (something especially important in D&D given the way that ghosts work mechanically).  This keeps the PCs on their toes, sows confusion if they assume they are dealing with a single spirit, and helps to up the creep factor by having an in-built narrative (with more than one ghost wandering around there’s got to be some kind of story there).
The easiest (and most classic) way to introduce this kind of adventure into the game is to have one of the PCs inherit property that turns out to be haunted.  Alternatively, the party could be asked by an NPC contact to protect an inherited estate from wandering brigands while they put their affairs in order (and as payment they are welcome to whatever knickknacks and baubles are lying around).
To be a true haunted house, it should be the lair of at least two or more ghosts.  Perhaps in life, one was murdered by the other out of jealousy and the murderer, now a ghost herself, prowls her hard won acquisition to keep intruders out and her crime a secret (and won’t rest as long as her reputation is publicly intact).  The murder victim tries to warn those who spend any time in the house but as a ghost, his communication is limited to the frightful moan ability (and won’t rest until his body is retrieved from its shallow grave in the cellar). If you’ve seen The Pact, then the last quarter of the movie holds a further complication that can be recreated in a haunted house adventure (one that I think would work a lot better in a D&D adventure than it does in the film).

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been lurking at the Toronto After Dark film festival’s summer screenings (if you’re in the GTA there’s still a chance to catch the second night of screenings on July 11 – Detention and V/H/S).  Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration.  Most of the films the festival showcases won’t see wide release – so in addition to extracting some rpg goodness from each movie, I’ll also give them a bit of a critique, so fellow gamers can know what they need to track down and what to avoid.  I’ll try and keep spoilers to an absolute minimum.
Roleplaying games helped foster an unhealthy love of monsters, which hooked me at an early age to genre films, which in turn help to inform my tabletop games (in a weird kind of feedback loop).  This ongoing series of articles takes these influences and mashes them together to create a strange hybrid I call It Came from the DVR (although I seem to be in the theatre more often than in front of the television, but I’m not complaining – they have better snacks).

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos)

In Havana, ne’er-do-wells Juan and Lazaro find themselves in the middle of a zombie outbreak sweeping across Cuba.  Amid the chaos, Juan tries to make amends to his estranged daughter, survive, and if he plays his cards right, maybe even turn a profit while he does it.

Surprisingly Fresh for a Film about Walking Corpses

Juan of the Dead surprises on many levels – and keeps you laughing while it does it.  The first thing I noticed was how good it looks.  Cuba doesn’t export a lot of movies, so walking into Juan I had every expectation that a zombie flick from Cuba would out of necessity have to be put together with bubble-gum and stock footage.  It turns out my assumptions were completely unfounded (or Cuba has some pretty awesome magic bubble-gum).  The zombie make-up looks great, there is ample blood (some of it CGI but there’s enough practical gore to satisfy horror lovers), and filmmaker Alejandro Brugues manages to use the visual language of classic zombie films (machetes, baseball bats, and crouching undead feasting on the entrails of the fallen) while expanding the repertoire with some really creative and fun kills (both zombie and human).  The film had the support of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) so, in addition to the better than expected cinematography Brugues also had access to many of Havana’s most recognized landmarks which provided some beautiful visuals all their own.
The involvement of the Cuban government is surprising not just because Juan is a horror-comedy, but also because a lot of its humor is driven by political satire (in the film, government officials refuse to recognize the zombies as undead, calling them ‘political dissidents’ instead).  Perhaps the film’s political grumbling is palatable when mixed with a heavy dose of physical comedy, genre commentary (after they realize what they’re up against, the main characters have a great conversation about the nature of the undead), and general zom-com fun and silliness.  I find the context in which the film was made fascinating.  It adds a tension to the whole thing that works very well with the suspense and dread inherent in any apocalyptic tale (even a comedy).
The group of misfits at the film’s core are funny and instantly likeable, in spite of their sometimes despicable actions and questionable personalities.  In another context they might easily be villains, but the script’s humor and the actors’ charisma are enough to charm the viewer into almost liking the characters because of their failings (something viewers of Shameless will be familiar with).
After great movies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and Deadheads, I was worried the sub-genre would run out of juice, but Juan of the Dead’s final surprise is that zombie comedies still have fresh things to say and new ways to entertain.  Sure there’s some overlap (and I caught a great shout out to Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive), but no more than between any given group of romantic comedies.  Juan of the Dead is more than just the Cuban take on the zom-com (although it is also very much that), it’s also a film about fatherhood.  Through Juan’s relationship with his daughter, Brugues explores the competing interests of being your own man, doing what you need to do to survive and transforming into the kind of role model our children want us to be (all while never taking itself seriously).
Juan of the Dead proves the zom-com is here to stay.  I highly recommend this film – there are plenty of brains yet to be eaten and laughs to be had at a crumbling civilization’s expense.

RPG Goodness

Plot twists (and back stories) involving the PCs’ parents are familiar (and fun) territory when it comes to ‘campaign complications’Juan of the Dead (and my own steadily growing age) got me thinking in a slightly different direction.  What if, like the main character of the film, the PCs’ lives are complicated by the appearance of an estranged child?
Of course this campaign complication comes with its own unique obstacle – the small matter of the child’s origin.  If the player is willing to have their PC begin the campaign a little older than most starting characters, then it’s easy to introduce the child as an established part of the character’s backstory.  If not, it’s easy to imagine the wild adventuring lifestyle producing an unplanned child or two at some point in a PC’s career (what with tempting succubi, charming assassins and amorous demigods running around).  When the campaign calls, settling down to be a responsible parent is not in the cards (and is about as fun to role-play as operating a fruit stand), and the friction begins.
The storytelling possibilities for this kind of complication are near limitless, and if the player is willing to go along with it, can provide a lot of drama, comedy, and fun at the table.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • After hauling chests full of a slain dragon’s hoard back to town, one of the PC’s is tracked down by their bastard daughter, who immediately demands her right to inheritance.
  • A larcenous and chaotic PC’s son is a devout worshipper of St. Cuthbert (or other Lawful deity), who checks up on his parent from time to time in order to make sure they remain ‘on the straight and narrow’.
  • The PC’s daughter has gotten herself involved in the Cult of Elemental Evil (or some other villainous organization).  Is she a lost cause or can the PC repair their relationship and convince her to abandon her wicked way of life?
  • One of the PC’s is confronted by their son, who has just married into a wealthy and powerful family.  He is embarrassed by his parent’s adventuring life and asks the character to retire or change their name.  If they are aren’t willing to do either he uses his newfound coin and influence to ‘convince’ them to do so.

One of the things I really like about complications involving children is that even in an antagonistic situation; combat isn’t always the easy choice.  I once pitted my gaming group’s party against a band of wild orphans, led by a sorcerous twelve year old (she attacked with animated toys).  It was obvious to the players that although they were suffering damage, the children were merely acting out, their leader in the throes of a fierce tantrum.  Since the PCs didn’t want to have the slaughter of children on their heads, subdual, diplomacy and bribery were the strategies of the day.

Variant Zombies for Pathfinder

Juan of the Dead isn’t just about parents and their kids; there are also quite a few zombies – the classic kind of zombie that doesn’t die unless you shoot it in the head.    I really like the zombies that are presented in the Bestiary for Pathfinder.  I think the fast zombie and plague zombie variants that are included go a long way to bringing the D&D zombie more in line with the tropes of horror cinema.  At the risk of setting off an edition war (not here please, I like both editions plenty) though, I think that the 4e Monster Manual may have done it better.  In this edition of the game, zombies are especially vulnerable to critical hits, which just screams ‘shoot it in the head’ to me.  Fortunately, it isn’t hard to bring that mechanic into Pathfinder via a variant zombie simple template.  I even think it’s possible to improve on the 4e design by emphasizing how hard the walking dead are to kill unless you destroy their brain.

Unrelenting Zombie

“Just shoot them in the head!  They seem to go down permanently when you shoot them in the head.”

Some zombies are possessed with a particularly relentless and evil will.  These creatures shrug off most wounds, and only complete bodily destruction or the obliteration of their putrid brain can stop them from their pursuit of the flesh of the living.
Defensive Abilities: An unrelenting zombie gains DR 10/-.  This ability replaces DR 5/slashing.
Weaknesses: An unrelenting zombie gains the following weakness.
Critical Vulnerability (Ex): A confirmed critical hit roll against an unrelenting zombie destroys the monster’s brain, reducing it immediately to 0 hit points.  Additionally, any attack against the unrelenting zombie with extra sneak attack damage applied, bypasses the zombie’s damage reduction.


When combined with the plague zombie simple template (minus the change to DR), I think you’ve got the perfect Romero (or Juan) style zombie for Pathfinder.  With both templates applied, add +1 to the creature’s CR.

Random Encounters: The Shackled City for Pathfinder (Chapter Two Drakthar’s Way)

Currently I am running a Pathfinder campaign for my gaming group, and since I never got the chance to use my copy of The Shackled City hardcover while we were playing 3.5 I figured it wouldn’t be too much work to convert to ‘3.75’.  In spite of Paizo’s claims of backwards compatibility, you can’t really use 3.5 D&D adventures off the shelf for Pathfinder.  Most of it works, but the monsters and NPCs in particular are too weak to be a real challenge to a party of Pathfinder characters.  Converting the stat blocks isn’t impossible, but it does take time, and since I’m doing the work anyway (I’m a bit of a stat block perfectionist) I thought I would share (click on the pictures at the end of the article to download PDFs of the updated stat blocks for all the monsters and NPCs as well as some additional handouts I created for the second chapter).  You can find a conversion of the first chapter of the adventure path, Life’s Bazaar, as well as Pathfinder-style versions of the Greyhawk gods here.
Obviously there are a ton of spoilers here, both for the campaign and the adventure.  So if you plan on playing in The Shackled City, peeking ahead is going to ruin a lot of the fun.  If you are one of my players, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t read any further.  You’ve been warned.

Drakthar’s Way

The following changes should be made to the adventure for it to play smoothly using the Pathfinder edition of D&D.   Click on the pictures at the end of the article to download a PDF of Pathfinder stat blocks for every NPC and monster in the adventure (when I DM I like to have the monster stat blocks in front of me, instead of having to flip to the back of the book or shuffle through Bestiaries), as well as a few additional handouts useful to the adventure (a remade copy of Terseon’s letter using my version of the Cauldron arms as a seal; the symbol of the Cagewrights burnt onto the storage crates; and a few examples of goblin graffiti – I tried to keep them primitive and crude).

Jil’s Tip
Jil’s total bonus to Disguise, including all modifiers and her disguise self spell, is +25.  She has a Challenge Rating of 5 instead of 6.

Rats in the Bathhouse
Orak’s challenge rating is reduced from a 4 to a 3.  I kept him the same level in spite of this, since even at CR 4, Orak isn’t much of a real threat to a well-equipped party (he hasn’t got any armor or a decent weapon).  The wererats, who are the real combatants in this encounter, are the proper challenge rating.

Wandering Monsters
I used Tricky Owlbear Publishing’s version of the ethereal filcher from the PFSRD, which is only a CR 2 instead of the called for CR 3.  Rather than beefing the creature up, I kept it as is, since an encounter with this creature is all about preventing it from stealing your magic items – not protracted combat.

6. Storage
The rules for determining CR for creatures with class levels are slightly different in Pathfinder than 3.5e, which means that 1st level goblin rogues only have a CR or ½ instead of 1.  To compensate, I gave them another level in rogue.  Alternatively you could keep them as level 1 rogues and increase their numbers.

13. Adept’s Lair
Like the goblin sneaks, in order to maintain a CR of 3, I increased the level of the goblin adepts.  Since this only results in more spells, not a new spell level, it shouldn’t be problematic.

17. Silent Wolf Goblins
Normally I try and maintain feat choice between the 3.5e and Pathfinder versions of NPCs.  In this case I broke that rule and substituted Mounted Combat for Dodge.   The adventure states that the silent wolf goblins get off their mounts to fight on the ground in combat, but I ignored this for a few reasons: it seems like a waste letting the goblin’s high ride checks go unused; the cramped layout of the map means that combat space is at a premium; and most importantly, the image of a dual-wielding goblin riding into battle on the back of a worg is just too awesome to pass up.  I also added an extra level of rogue to maintain the creature’s original CR.

26. Mercenary Quarters
To maintain Chorlyndyr’s CR of 4 I added another level of Sorcerer (since it doesn’t result in a new level of spells).  However, I kept Kallev at 4th level and lowered her CR to 3 – even with the pair bickering, this is a tough encounter and Kallev has a ton of hit points.

31. Drakthar’s Throne Room
Drakthar’s throne, a unique creature, seemed heavily based off of the 3.5e version of the skeleton, so rather than attempting to translate it, I used a Pathfinder version of the skeleton with enough hit dice to reach CR 3, and added a pair of claw attacks (with damage appropriate to the CR) as well as blindsight.
To create Drakthar I added the vampire template to a stock bugbear (even though technically it should only be added to a creature with at least 5 hit dice), substituted putrefy corpse for create spawn and lowering his energy drain to a single level (the standard two levels seems high for a party of 3rd level characters, and his fast healing is challenge enough all by itself).

35. Half-Orc Mercenaries
Like most of the monsters with class levels in this adventure, I added a level of expert to Xoden and a level of fighter to the Half-Orc mercenaries to maintain their CR.

A Note on Magic Items
In my previous post on the Shackled City, I never explained the strange codes in the lists of NPC gear.  It isn’t a typo.  One of the practices I picked up DMing 3e games that I’ve carried over into Pathfinder is coding all the magic items in the campaign.  There are so many magic items (especially one-shot items like potions and scrolls) that it’s easy to forget where they came from in the time between ‘looting the body’ and getting the item identified.  To help keep track of everything, I simply give the players the item’s code when they find it, and refer back to a master list when the item is identified.  For potions I also add a visual descriptor to help identify the concoction by sight.  Each particular type of potion has a standard description, which helps provide some internal consistency to the game world and speeds up the identification process (my players now know that when they find syrupy, red potions they can start using them immediately to heal).

Toronto After Dark, Now With Appetizers

I’ve got a lot of love for the Toronto After Dark film festival – last year the festival inspired a few months’ worth of posts, and scored me my first interview – so I was pretty excited by the news that this year the festival is getting even bigger (and the prospect that there are a lot more weirdos like me lurking in the shadows of old T.O).  Not only has the actual festival expanded to nine nights (Oct. 18-26), but two summer screening ‘appetizers’ have also been added to whet your genre appetite before the fall.
I’m a little bummed out that the festival is leaving the Toronto Underground Cinema to go back to The Bloor (now called the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema).  The Underground seemed like such a good fit for the festival, even if the Bloor is a lot nicer (especially after the renovations), has some really great places to eat across the street (Sushi on Bloor!), and is near my super-secret place to park for free in the Annex (OK it’s not that secret).  Then again, maybe returning to the festival’s birthplace isn’t the worst idea.
The summer lineup looks promising too: Juan of the Dead (a Cuban zom-com filmed in Havana) and The Pact (a haunted house flick with a creepy trailer) screen June 27; Detention (high school slasher comedy with Peeta from The Hunger Games) and V/H/S (an anthology film tied together by a great premise) screen July 11.  If you’re in the GTA check them out – buy a double pass and the tickets are less than a regular movie.  If you already plan on going, I’ll see you next Wednesday.


Lego Embraces Steampunk Horror

One of the advantages to being an uncle to a small army of nieces and nephews is keeping up on the latest toy news (it’s a nice excuse).  While flipping through the summer Lego catalogue I ran across Monster Fighters, the company’s latest series of themed sets, and I thought I would share.  The story that ties the Monster Fighters sets together has the evil Vampyre (admittedly a horrible name) gathering the world’s monsters in an effort to collect the mystic moonstones necessary to carry out a ritual that will forever blot out the sun (a plotline that should be familiar to D&D players as it was used in both 2e’s Illithid trilogy of adventures and 3e’s Second Darkness adventure path).  Opposing the monsters are a group of steampunk and pulp flavored heroes (dig that pith helmet and blunderbuss!), some of whom even have pneumatic looking prosthetics.  Check out this awesome collection of minifigs (click to enlarge)!

Lego has some pretty awesome sets – the Star Wars and upcoming Lord of the Rings series are things of beauty – but I am overjoyed to see the company embracing classic movie monsters.  Is Lego predicting a resurgence in interest in the monsters of old, or have Frankenstein’s Monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Wolf Man already begun to percolate back into the pop culture mainstream (and I wasn’t told)?  I embraced a similar monster mania revival in the 80’s, so I have high hopes it will catch the interest of one of my nieces or nephews… it’s a good excuse for a trip to the Lego store and a night of monster movies.  The only thing that Lego could do to make this cooler would be to follow it up with a Cthulhu mythos themed series next year (that gill man could stand in for a deep one pretty easily).  Then again, maybe Lego bricks aren’t up to the task of constructing the non-Euclidean geometry of R’lyeh.