Posts Tagged ‘4e’

It Came From Toronto After Dark: Lloyd the Conqueror

November 2, 2012

Toronto After Dark is here, and once again I find myself skulking in the spider haunted shadows of the Bloor Cinema, madly scribbling down profane ideas birthed by the weird and wonderful sights revealed on the silver screen…
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration (if you’re in the GTA Oct. 18-26 be sure to check it out).  Many 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, that 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).

Lloyd the Conqueror

College student Lloyd and his slacker roommates are on the cusp of losing their financial aid, all thanks to a failing grade in the dastardly Derek’s English Lit. class.  Taking advantage of their misfortune to further his own twisted goals, Derek offers the trio a deal: they can pass the course if they agree to join Derek’s LARPing (Live action Roleplaying) league.  With the help of the sage owner of the local game store, a beautiful martial artist and a full complement of foam weaponry, Lloyd must navigate this new world and put an end to the dark forces of the evil Derek.

These are the Lines You Will Hear at Game Tables for the Next Year

Lloyd the Conqueror isn’t perfect, but at its worst, its heart is in the right place, and at its best it will have you laughing your ass off.
I’m not a LARPer myself, but given that I write a blog about rpg monsters, I’m no stranger to nerdly pursuits, so I know how ridiculous my passions can appear to the outsider.  Even given the natural rivalry between tabletop and live-action role-players I didn’t want to see Lloyd kick sand in the face of my brothers in arms.  A few cheap shots aside, I was impressed with how writer/director Michael Peterson handled the subject matter.  Hanging out with your friends and pretending to be an elf (whether dressed up or gathered around a kitchen table) is inherently absurd and rather than just pointing and laughing, the film runs with it wholeheartedly, taking it to its ridiculous extremes (and no one’s better at laughing at themselves than nerds).
Lloyd is the typical nice guy hero, familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an 80’s comedy, trying to grow as a person and get laid in the process.  That journey provides a solid framework and gives the film’s secondary characters a chance to shine.  Derek, the villain, played by Mike Smith (familiar to fellow Canucks as Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys) is suitably mustache twirling and over the top.  He’s got some great lines, but the true comedic gold of the film is concentrated in comedian Brian Posehn’s character, the wise game store owner who takes Lloyd under his wing and acts as Yoda to his Luke (though anyone who’s seen the film should know better than to compare ‘epic fantasy’ to Star Wars).  Posehn delivers classic lines in trademark deadpan style.  I wish the rest of my gaming group had been at the screening because they are not going to know what I am talking about when I repeat Posehn’s jokes ad nauseam at our next session.  Harland Williams is also hilarious in a scene stealing cameo role as a Vulcan (completely unscripted according the Q&A after the screening).
The problem is that these guys are so funny Lloyd’s roommates end up seeming dull and flat.  As Lloyd’s comic foils these characters are wasted and I hate to say I spent most of their screen time awaiting the return of Smith, Posehn and Williams (the unicorn was pretty awesome too).  It might just be the gamer in me, but I also wanted to see a little more of the imaginary setting the LARPers adventures were set in (there’s a pretty sweet looking map of the city in full old-school style during the opening credits).  There’s a lot of random banter but you never really get the impression of how the world hangs together as a whole (now I’m absolutely sure that’s the kind of thing only a gamer would worry about).
The big action sequences are suitably silly and fun, simultaneously mixing the melodrama of high adventure with the absurdity of throwing little tinfoil balls at people.  The thing that’s most surprising about Lloyd though, is that it made the whole hobby seem like a blast… I came that close to reconsidering my opinion about running around in the woods with foam swords (I didn’t change my mind, but I doubt any movie would).
Lloyd the Conqueror is recommended for a night of shameless nerding out.  It’s a must see for rpg players of all stripes – you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t get the reference when someone in your group asks for the ‘1000-sided die’.

RPG Goodness

There’s more for gamers to take away from Lloyd the Conqueror than just a boatload of in-jokes.  At its heart, the film is about a group of friends getting together and bonding while playing let’s pretend.  Amidst the edition wars, simulationist vs. gamist arguments, and sandbox vs. adventure path debates it’s easy to forget that, and I’m happy Lloyd the Conqueror is there to remind me why I’m so passionate about this hobby after so many years.  It may sound corny, but the friends I have made through gaming have been the strongest and longest lasting in my life.  At the risk of waxing poetic, I think that we reveal a lot about ourselves when we pretend to be other people (there’s a Shakespeare quote in there somewhere).
One of the things I’ve always loved about D&D is how much the game has supported that ‘anything you can imagine’ attitude.  Like Lloyd the Conqueror, Gary Gygax fully embraced the absurd nature of the game when he created D&D, but always presented it as-is rather than as a joke (since really, the entire game could be taken as a joke).  Sometimes the results stayed in the realm of the absurd, such as the pair of adventures based on the writing of Lewis Carol (Dungeonland and The Land beyond the Magic Mirror).  What I find really interesting are the other times, when the absurd became canon and a ‘serious’ part of the game.  The thoul is such a case, one of my favorite monsters from B/X D&D.  The name first appeared in the ‘little brown books’ of OD&D as an entry in the monster table, but wasn’t given a detailed write up.  The reason for this is simple, it was a typo.  However, fans of the game demanded to know more about the creature, and rather than admit the mistake a new monster was invented for the game (a magical crossbreed of hobgoblin, troll and ghoul).  It is in that spirit that I present the krakentroll, born of a few lines of throwaway dialogue from the film but never pictured (at least I don’t think it was – it’s hard to tell with the LARP costumes).  I’m pretty sure the word ‘kraken’ was used to invoke the otherworldly and give the monster a Nordic flavor, not actually associate it with the giant squid monster of the same name… but where’s the fun in that?


Lumbering monstrosities with rows of shark-like teeth and barbed tentacles for arms, krakentrolls are creatures of insatiable hunger and capacity for violence.  Krakentrolls share the regenerative power and strength of common trolls, but are possessed of a wicked intelligence.  Tribes of their lesser brethren often gather to worship a Krakentroll as a living god, scouring the land for tributes of meat.

Nature DC 20:
The first krakentrolls were created in the aftermath of the battle between the gods Deep Sashelas and Panzuriel.  When the elven deity severed Panzuriel’s foot, his troll soldiers, overcome by hunger, descended on the limb and devoured it.  The deific flesh reacted with the troll’s natural regeneration and twisted them into new, more powerful forms.
Although they have many aquatic features, krakentrolls are just as comfortable on the land as they are underwater.
Nature DC 25: Elder krakentrolls are rumored to have the power to invoke Panzuriel and call down vengeful storms capable of capsizing ships.

Krakentrolls in Combat
Krakentrolls are deceptively intelligent, using strategy far beyond what one would expect from a troll.  Their favorite tactic is to distract enemies with a savage mob of followers while the krakentroll lies in wait.  Once their foe’s resources have been depleted, the krakentroll wades into combat, destroying leaders and healers first to prevent its prey from mounting a counterattack.

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

June 29, 2012

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.

Classic Monsters: Coffer Corpse

May 25, 2012

Note: ‘Classic’ is a pretty subjective term, when I use it here I mean to say: monsters that have survived through the editions of D&D that I think are cool.  In this series of articles I look at the development of a classic monster over time and try to add a ‘crunchy’ piece of my own to the creature’s canon.

I’m posting this second installment of Classic Monsters as part of The Going Last Gaming Podcast’s May of the Dead blog carnival.  There has been a shameful shortage of undead on Ménage à Monster, and the blog carnival seemed like the perfect opportunity to rectify that (and a great excuse to write another article in this series – the eye of the deep was getting pretty lonely).
I first encountered the coffer corpse lurking in the pages of the Fiend Folio and was instantly drawn to the fantastic Russ Nicholson illustration (click on the images to view full size).  While the coffer corpse doesn’t get the same kind of fan recognition as the death knight (also introduced in Fiend Folio), I’ve always felt its low power level and unique mechanics gave it a certain charm.  Like the Monster Manual’s vampire and mummy, the coffer corpse was also one of the few undead creatures in the game whose background jived with the mythology of the restless dead in horror films.  While arguably a little obscure, the coffer corpse’s great mechanics, art and story combine to make the monster a classic.


Like many of the monsters in the Fiend Folio, the coffer corpse first saw print in the pages of White Dwarf as part of the ongoing Fiend Factory column (issue 8, 1978).  In its infancy White Dwarf was a general gaming magazine with a focus on D&D, which makes sense given that Games Workshop (the company that produces the magazine) was at that time the UK distributer of the D&D game.  Since the AD&D Monster Manual had only just been published in the UK, the creatures in the Fiend Factory column were created for the OD&D game.
The White Dwarf version of the coffer corpse sets out the parameters for all of the incarnations of the monster to follow.  Cursed to undeath by incomplete or botched funeral rites (or as the author puts it, when a corpse fails to return to its ‘maker’), these animate corpses are often found floating on waylaid grave barges.  The coffer corpse attacks by choking the life out of its victims, and can only be harmed by magic weapons (which inflict half damage).  If the creature is struck with a normal weapon, it falls to the ground, apparently destroyed, only to rise up a round later in a display so horrible NPCs must succeed at a save vs. fear or flee in terror (the editor, Don Turnbull, notes at the end of the entry that this is probably an error and that PCs should also have to save vs. fear as well).
The coffer corpse was created by Simon Eaton, a name I’m not familiar with, as the only other credit I can find attributed to him is the witherweed (also featured in the Fiend Folio).

1st Edition

The coffer corpse was given an AD&D makeover for its inclusion in the Fiend Folio (and D&D canon).  Its origins remained unchanged but a few of the monsters abilities were tweaked.  Magic weapons do full damage to this version of the coffer corpse, and it falls to the ground if it is hit for 6 or more points of mundane weapon damage (instead of the ambiguous “if struck on the head” of the previous version).  When the coffer corpse reanimates, all who are in melee must save vs. fear, not just NPCs.  Additionally, the strangulation attack of the coffer corpse is upgraded from a simple 1d6 attack to one that inflicts automatic constriction damage each round, which is especially deadly since “nothing will release the grasp of the coffer corpse once it has locked its hands in place.”

2nd Edition

The coffer corpse next appears in 2e’s Fiend Folio Appendix for the Monstrous Compendium.  While generally identical to its 1e incarnation, most of its abilities are expanded and explored in greater detail: this coffer corpse has resistance to some weapon types (magic slashing weapons inflict normal damage with no bonus, blunt weapons inflict full damage and piercing weapons inflict half damage), and it is possible to break free of its strangling grip (but with a strength of 20 it’s still very difficult).
The most important addition to the coffer corpse in 2e is an attempt to utilize the creature’s origins as a way for clever players to defeat it: “If the unfinished death ritual which binds the coffer corpse to undeath can be completed, the creature will be released and effectively destroyed.”  The mechanics of how players might go about discovering and acting on this information is left to the DM’s discretion (and this bit is buried in the habitat/society section of the write-up), which is too bad since I think this is where the coffer corpse’s true potential as a classic monster lies.

3rd Edition

The coffer corpse never saw an official release for 3e.  The Fiend Folio is generally regarded as a mixed bag and, in an effort to excise some of D&D’s sillier monsters from the game (the flumph is almost a clichéd example), many great monsters from this book, including the coffer corpse, were not updated for this edition of the game.  However, Necromancer Games included the coffer corpse in their Tome of Horrors book, which updated just about every monster from 1e that WOTC had left behind (an admirable effort – though I think the carbuncle should have been abandoned to the dustbin of history).  This version is more or less a direct translation of the coffer corpse from the Fiend Folio for 3e rules (damage reduction instead of immunity to normal weapons, and standard grab and constrict rules for the coffer corpse’s strangulation).  It is a solid adaptation but, by sticking so closely to its 1e incarnation, I think it was a missed opportunity to expand and clarify the ‘unfinished funeral rite’ that the 2e version touched on (also, why they maintained the 25% chance for the coffer corpse to wield a weapon from previous editions is a mystery to me – the fact that the monster strangles people to death is what makes it interesting).

4th Edition

Not having a memorable appearance in 3e, and with 4e’s proliferation of low level skeleton and zombie breeds, it is hardly surprising the coffer corpse is absent from this edition.  I do think that 4e’s skill challenge mechanic is particularly well suited to simulate the pitched struggle of a Cleric trying to complete funeral rites while the undead monster strangles her companion, which makes the coffer corpse the perfect candidate for entry into 4e’s canon.

Coffer Corpse

Barred entry into the afterlife by incomplete funeral rites, the coffer corpse is cursed to a restless eternity, its only desire to squeeze the hated spark of life from anything that crosses its path.

Religion DC 15: Although they superficially resemble zombies, coffer corpses aren’t animated through necromantic rituals, but are created as a result of a divine curse.  Their deathlike grip is exceptionally strong, making escape all but impossible once the coffer corpse has wrapped its bony fingers around your throat.
Religion DC 20: Cursed by an incomplete funeral ritual, a coffer corpse is difficult to destroy, often springing back to life only moments after being felled.  Only by completing the creature’s burial rites can the curse be lifted and the tortured soul granted peace.

Coffer corpses can be encountered floating aimlessly in a waylaid funeral barge, slumped over a half dug grave, or lying in a coffin awaiting the completion of an interment ritual that never comes to pass.  They are often part of a group of undead, created as part of the larger tragedy that interrupted the creature’s funeral.

Coffer Corpses in Combat
Every moment of existence is torture for a coffer corpse, so these undead monsters fight without regard for their own well-being.  Even as they strangle and destroy they often liplessly whisper for release in their victim’s ear.


For those looking for a classic interpretation of the coffer corpse, Necromancer Games has updated their 3e book Tome of Horrors Complete, and the coffer corpse, for the Pathfinder game (and since its part of the OGL you can get this version at the Pathfinder System Resource Document).  If you like the ideas in my 4e version of the monster though, I have used it as the blueprint for this Pathfinder translation of the coffer corpse that builds on the creature’s 2e presentation.  The flavour text and lore from the 4e monster are system neutral enough to be used as is.

Queen of the Black Coast – Part Two

April 17, 2012

Instead of a classically defined monster, I thought I would use this installment of Monsters of the Hyborian Age to look at one of the obstacles Conan faces in Queen of the Black Coast and what is probably one of the most iconic species of flora in Howard’s writing – the black lotus (plus a bonus lotus).  In keeping with the way the black lotus is used in the story, I think the best way to represent the plant is as a fantastic terrain feature (I could have gone with a natural hazard trap, but there didn’t seem to be enough mechanical meat to the black lotus to justify this).
As far as I can tell three other types of mystical lotus plant are mentioned in the chronicles of Conan (the purple, yellow and golden lotus – which makes the lotus a bit like the Hyborian equivalent of kryptonite), but only the black and purple varieties are suitable for D&D fantastic terrain.  The juice of the golden lotus and dried yellow lotus incense are better used in-game as magic items.  When Monsters of the Hyborian Age is finished, I would love to do a post with a few of the magic items Conan encountered during his adventures.
For the summary of Queen of the Black Coast, as well as the Winged One monster, click here.
Spoiler Alert!  All of these Hyborian age posts are going to be filled with spoilers.  From the summary, to the monster stats they are going to ruin any surprises as to what the monster is, when it appears in the story and how and why it is killed.  You’ve been warned.

Fantastic Terrain

Black Lotus

“He recoiled, recognizing the black lotus, whose juice was death, and whose scent brought dream-haunted slumber.  But already he felt a subtle lethargy stealing over him.” – Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast.

The lustrous, heavy flowers of the black lotus cling to rocks and other vegetation and can be combined with any other mundane terrain feature.  Any creature that ends its turn on or adjacent to a square of black lotus inhales the sinister plant’s narcotic pollen and is slowed (save ends).  Creatures that fail their first saving throw become unconscious (save or the target takes damage ends).  Unconscious creatures receive strange, disturbing dreams that are often prescient or retro-cognitive concerning the area the black lotus grows.
Creatures immune to poison or who do not breathe are unaffected by the pollen of the black lotus.

Purple Lotus

“Tsotha displayed a broad ring of curious design from his finger.  He pressed his fingers together and on the inner side of the ring a tiny steel fang darted out like a snake’s tongue.
‘It is steeped in the juice of the purple lotus which grows in the ghost-haunted swamps of southern Stygia,’ said the magician.  ‘Its touch produces temporary paralysis…” – Robert E. Howard, The Scarlet Citadel.

Clumps of purple lotus can grow in any wet or swampy location.  The juice of the plant’s sap is a powerful paralytic, which makes weapon play dangerous in their midst.  A creature in a square with purple lotus that takes physical damage from an attack is immobilized (save ends).  Creatures that fail their first saving throw become paralyzed (save ends).
Creatures immune to poison are unaffected by the sap of the purple lotus.


“Hey… black lotus… Stygian… the best!”

I couldn’t resist.
This took me a little longer than expected (maybe I should  have used some of that black lotus).  I am determined to have an illustration for each Monsters of the Hyborian Age entry, but truth be told I was just not that motivated to make a picture of a flower.  In the end I came up with a composition that didn’t  bore me to tears, and I’m pretty happy with the visualization of the lotus’ spores, but I really hate what I did with the background…

Queen of the Black Coast – Part One

March 19, 2012

It’s been far too long since I returned to the stories of Robert E. Howard, and now that a new edition of D&D looms on the horizon, I have something of a deadline to finish this project.
Queen of the Black Coast is one of my favorite Conan tales.  It shows a different, more complicated side to the Cimmerian and features a powerful and engaging female character who is at least Conan’s equal (and it’s pretty easy to argue that Howard positions Belit as Conan’s superior).  There’s a real epic quality to the story, and the vast span of time it covers begs the imagination to fill in the blanks.  It’s not surprising Queen of the Black Coast also features some very inventive monsters (and its strange were-creatures may be one of the inspirations for D&D’s cornucopia of lycanthropes).
Spoiler Alert!  All of these Hyborian age posts are going to be filled with spoilers.  From the summary, to the monster stats they are going to ruin any surprises as to what the monster is, when it appears in the story and how and why it is killed.  You’ve been warned.


Howard begins his tale with Conan in the thick of it, hurtling down the streets of an Argossean port city on a black stallion towards the docks.  One step ahead of an angry magistrate and his men, Conan rides to the very edge of the wharf and leaps from his saddle onto the deck of the Argus, a trading galley just pulling away from the dock.  After a few threats from the Cimmerian, the ship’s master agrees to take Conan along.  The waters the Argus must ply are thick with pirates and Conan’s experienced blade defending the ship will put the rest of the sailors at ease.
The captain’s fears are justified, for once in Kushite waters, the Argus is set upon by the pirate ship Tigress, and her infamous master, Belit – called Queen of the Black Coast.  The Argus puts up a valiant fight, but it is no match for the Tigress and the merchant vessel is soon overtaken and boarded.  Bloody carnage breaks out and Conan, knowing this is his last stand, is determined to take as many of the pirates to hell with him as he can.  There is something about the exotic northerner’s naked ferocity and bloodlust that intrigues Belit.  She orders her men to spare Conan and offers him the chance to join her bloody rampage on the high seas.  Conan is likewise drawn to the Shemite woman, not just for her unsurpassing beauty, but by the raw power of her unbridled passion.  With the crew of the Argus dead, Conan joins Belit.
Time passes.  The ferocity of Conan and Belit’s love is equalled only by the destruction the pair wreaks.  The Queen of the Black Coast and her icy eyed consort become legends, their names cursed by the survivors of the Stygian ships laid waste by the Tigress.  In an outburst of fevered desire, Belit promises Conan that her love burns so fiercely that not even death can keep her from the Cimmerian’s side.
Guided by rumours and forbidden lore, Belit orders the Tigress up an unnamed river, deep into an impassable, toxic jungle.  The waters of the river become poisonous, and have a strange effect on the surrounding flora and fauna.  Pressing on, the crew finds the ruins of a city older than mankind itself, whose former occupants Belit names ‘the old ones’.  Landing, the pirates sack the ruins, finding both deadly traps and glittering mounds of treasure.  Among these is a necklace with weird gems the color of clotted blood.  Seized with a kind of madness, Belit becomes obsessed with the necklace, and begins acting strangely.  What’s worse, the old ones are not as extinct as the pirates had hoped.  The last of their kind still haunts the city, a degenerate, winged, ape-thing, who sabotages the Tigress’ supply of fresh water.
Under the effect of the necklace, Belit is unmoved, caring only for her newfound treasures.  Conan, more sober minded, takes a small contingent of warriors into the jungle in search of fresh water.  Tragedy strikes Conan, who succumbs to the sleep of the pollen of the black lotus plant.  While he slumbers he is tormented by visions of the city’s long and terrible history.  He awakens to find that the winged creature has slaughtered the entire pirate crew, including his beloved Belit, who hangs from the mast of the ship, strangled by the cursed necklace.
Filled with cold, black, fathomless rage, Conan climbs a ruined pyramid and awaits the monster for a chance at revenge.  The Cimmerian is first set upon by the winged creature’s servants, a pack of were-hyenas the monster cursed in the long past.  Conan is victorious, but during the melee he becomes pinned under a piece of rubble.  Seeing its opportunity, the winged creature swoops down to finish Conan off, but Belit is true to her word, and her apparition appears, blocking the path between her murderer and her lover.  The monster is momentarily stunned, Conan frees himself and in the bat of an eye cleaves the beast in twain.
Silent and grief stricken, the tale ends with Conan watching the Tigress sail away, alight with the flames of Belit’s funeral pyre staining the horizon.

The Winged One

“With fearful speed it was rushing upon him, and in that instant Conan had only a confused impression of a gigantic man-like shape hurtling along on bowed and stunted legs; of huge hairy arms outstretching misshapen black-nailed paws; of a malformed head, in whose broad face the only features recognizable as such were a pair of blood-red eyes.” – Robert E. Howard, Queen of the Black Coast.


Nature 15: Superstition holds that the souls of evil men and women are imprisoned in the bodies of apes as punishment for their crimes.  The vilest of these sprout wings so they can take to the air and continue to torment the living.
Nature DC 20: In the dawn of prehistory existed an exalted race of winged beings known only as ‘the old ones’.  Their people reached its cultural zenith before humankind had yet crawled out of the muck, but like all civilizations, was destined to fall.  A series of natural disasters rocked the old ones’ city state and polluted their drinking water with a foul substance.  Those who did not die were changed, and after generations of mutation and degeneration, the twisted creatures fell on each other in a frenzy of infighting and cannibalism.  Those few winged ones who still cling to hateful life are incredibly old, and know some of the weird magics of their ancestors.

The Winged One in Combat

Though devolution has robbed the winged ones of much of their people’s former intellect, they have an evil cunning that makes them dangerous foes.  Before engaging an enemy directly, a winged one prefers to use distraction and sabotage (often with the aid of its servants) in an attempt to divide their enemies into more manageable groups.  Often a winged one will destroy an invader’s supply of food and water, forcing them to drink from the polluted river or face the poisonous denizens of the surrounding jungle.  When combat breaks out, a winged one always tries to curse the strongest looking warrior, flying off to a safe distance so it can enjoy the spectacle of the were-hyena attacking and devouring former friends.


Winged ones haunt the jungle ruins of their former civilization, torturing themselves by watching their race’s greatest achievements slowly crumble to dust.  A winged one curses any who dare intrude on its lonely vigil, transforming them into bestial were-hyenas.  These creatures, as well as packs of gnolls, are often mystically bound to the area and answer the winged one’s call.  The winged one reserves its bitterest rage for those foolish enough to try and steal from the temples and palaces of the old ones.  The creature will stop at nothing to track down and murder these thieves, displaying their corpses as a warning to future delvers.


Like Thurgra Khotan, I think the History skill is more appropriate for Lore checks regarding the winged one, instead of following the 4e convention and using Nature checks for all creatures with the natural origin.
Inspired by the work of Tony DiTerlizzi (especially during his Planescape years) I tried my hand at coloring the illustration with traditional watercolors rather than using digital color as I have in the past.  I think I need a bit more practice, but I’m pleased with the results.

Toronto After Dark: Just the Crunchy Bits

February 16, 2012

Wow.  Eighteen films, 34 000 words, and about two months longer than I thought it would take to write it all up – and that’s without even mentioning the great short films that played before the screenings or the cool people I spent a week in line with.  I had fully planned for the posts to be quick and dirty, but the films were just too damn interesting for me not to overdo it.  Based on the amount of ‘crunchy’ material the films of the festival inspired in me, I hope my fellow gamers are encouraged to check some of the movies out for themselves and be inspired in their own games.
But it wasn’t all just the movies.  I’m very proud of that crunch, so to give it its proper moment in the spotlight, I’ve created this catalogue that organizes the After Dark posts by game material instead of by film.

Dungeons and Dragons

Skill Challenge: The Great Race
Ward Characters
Falling Barbed Cage Trap
The Mother of Toads
Haemophage Disease
Random Fey-Pact Events
Adventure Outline: Castaways of the Sargasso Prison
Power Sources and Monster Traits
Alignment Complications
Haunted Location Trap

Gamma World

Frankenstein’s Monster
Romero Zombie
The Zed Virus
Romero Zombie Template
‘Borg Template

It Came from Toronto After Dark: The Innkeepers

February 16, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it 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.

The Innkeepers

This film tells the tale of the last days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, an old New England hotel with an illustrious past but dwindling clients.  For employees and amateur ghost hunters, Claire and Luke, the hotel’s closing weekend is also their last chance to finally capture proof of the Inn’s supernatural activity.  They will soon wish they had left the old building in peace.

Great Characters, Sub-Par Scares

I had high hopes for the screening of The Innkeepers.  A good old-fashioned ghost story felt like the perfect note to end an incredible festival.  Unfortunately, Ti West’s film falls disappointingly flat.  The shame is, it isn’t terrible and I can’t help but imagine the great movie it could have been.  The Innkeepers has a lot in its favor; it just seems that somewhere along the line West forgot he was making a horror film.
The film benefits from some great characterizations, especially by Sarah Paxton and Kelly McGillis, who are genuinely funny (and in spite of what some people may think, comedy is important in a horror film – it breaks the tension and allows you to sympathise with the characters).  If you’ve ever had to work a minimum wage job in the service industry, you’ll sympathize with Paxton’s character Claire who manages to capture that perfect blend of boredom, resentment, and lack of ambition that comes with the job.  There is a deceptively simple scene in The Innkeepers where Claire has to take out an extra heavy garbage bag to the trash that captures that feeling absolutely perfectly.  The banter between her and her co-worker is great, and helps to pull the viewer into their world.  The funniest lines in the film though are given to McGillis’ character, an aging, bitter icon trying to reinvent herself as a new age healer.  I’m sure she drew on her lifetime spent in film and television to provide the acidic edge that makes the character so memorable.
I appreciate the amateur ghost chaser angle to The Innkeepers, as it makes the film timely (as a comment on recent reality shows like Ghost Hunters), while at the same time linking it to such classic films as Poltergeist and The Haunting (and less classic films like Hell House and Amityville 3-D).  It’s a promising set-up and the back story of the film’s ghost is tragic and interesting enough to hook the viewer in and keep them watching.
The pacing is very slow, which isn’t bad in itself as the characters are interesting, and you definitely get the sense that the film’s energy is building for a big climax.  Unfortunately, West never delivers on that big climax and the buildup is wasted.  Sure, there are some creepy, tense moments in there, but it never culminates in the big payoff you would expect.  In the Q+A after the screening, West expressed that he wanted to create a film where the existence of the ghost was ambiguous, and that the audience could walk away with either a mundane or supernatural explanation.  That’s a pretty cool concept, but one I don’t think The Innkeepers accomplishes, or even tries to.  The film is shot in such a way that the audience sees more than the characters do (and this technique actually generates one of The Innkeepers’ better scares), so there is never a question whether the ghost is real or a figment of Claire and Luke’s imaginations.  Instead of making a psychological horror film where the audience questions their own senses and experiences the fear and doubt of the characters, West has made a slow moving ghost story that isn’t very frightening.
I’ve also got to call out The Innkeepers for its depiction of asthma.  As a person with chronic asthma, it’s always bothered me how the condition is depicted in film and television.  The Innkeepers is hardly the worst culprit (that’s probably The Goonies), but since I’ve lived with asthma for most of my life, I feel a strange kind of ownership of it, and it drives me crazy when filmmakers misrepresent the illness so badly.  First, asthma can be controlled with regular medication.  Attacks that leave you panicked and gasping for air are dramatic and scary, so I understand why storytellers want to make use of it, but should be (if you aren’t sick, and are taking you medication) relatively rare.  If I have several attacks like that in the same day (most movies have four or five), then something is seriously wrong and I’m going to head for the emergency room immediately (the equivalent would be a character with diabetes falling in and out of diabetic coma throughout the film).  That’s a plot point you should only hit once.  But it’s hardly surprising that Claire has so many asthma attacks in The Innkeepers when I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character with ‘movie asthma’ take their medication properly.  After using an inhaler, if you immediately breathe out, you’re expelling the medication from your body before it has a chance to act (which is why some asthmatics use a tube that looks like an ‘inhaler bong’).  I’ll admit that The Innkeepers isn’t entirely deserving of this ire, but West makes use of asthma enough that his film is far from exempt from my ranting.
The Innkeepers is not recommended as a horror film.  It’s not a bad movie, but if what you are looking for is a scary ghost story you’re much better off looking elsewhere (Absentia, Insidious and Paranormal Activity are all great choices).  If you are a huge fan of Ghost Hunters and have a hankering for an hour and a half episode with better acting and good dialogue however, then The Innkeepers may be what you’ve been looking for.

RPG Goodness

Ghosts are one of those creatures that are very hard to translate into D&D terms in a way that emulates how hauntings are depicted in film and television (including The Innkeepers).  Throughout its history, each edition of D&D has dealt with ghosts differently and used different mechanical approaches to representing the tropes associated with hauntings: tormented spirits repeating activity in a loop, unfinished business, and revenge.
Old-School ghosts can possess the living, but are otherwise just powerful monsters (although possession can be used by DMs as a way for ghosts to try and bring closure to unfinished business).  During the 2e era ghosts are given a much fuller treatment in the Ravenloft campaign setting, especially the Castle Forlorn boxed set, which features a castle that loops through different periods of time to tell the story of the tragedy that took place there.  3e reimagines the ghost as a template that modifies existing creatures, which means that the undead spirit more directly reflects its living self, with the same abilities and the addition of ghostly powers.  My favorite part of the template though, is that ghosts reform a few days after being destroyed – the only way to truly rid an area of a ghost “is to determine the reason for its existence and set right whatever prevents it from resting in peace”.  4e abandons the template idea and treats ghosts as straight monsters (which is fine – the ghosts of commoners should be just as scary as the ghost of an adventurer).  The Open Grave supplement for this edition also introduces the concept of using traps and skill challenges to mechanically represent hauntings in the game.  It’s a fantastic idea, but I feel the sample skill challenge in the book is too abstract for the action of a ghostly adventure, and the traps listed don’t give the same sense of unfinished business that the ghosts from 3e embody.  The haunted location trap is my attempt to bridge that gap.

Haunted Locations

Sometimes the location of an especially tragic suicide or gruesome murder becomes infused with the anguish of the spirit of the deceased, too tormented by its own pain to move on to the Shadowfell.  The location becomes a beacon for the undead, and until the tormented spirit is laid to rest, is a perilous place for the living to dwell too long.
A haunted location requires more work on the DM’s part than a normal trap or hazard.  The DM must determine ahead of time what tragic event caused the site to become haunted, what object or set of circumstances will lay the spirit to rest, and what triggers the spirit to become active.
The haunted location can take the form of anything from a single room in the dungeon of a castle to a dilapidated mansion on a lonely hill.  This trap works best when combined in an encounter with a group of undead creatures of the appropriate level.  These monsters are all that remains of the spirit’s past victims, now absorbed into the haunted location’s malevolence.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: VS

February 3, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it 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.


This superhero thriller jumps headfirst into the story, opening with former teammates Charge, Cutthroat, Shadow and the Wall kidnapped by their arch-nemesis Rickshaw.  The four heroes awake in a small town, their powers nullified by a mysterious injection and the populace tied to clusters of high explosives.  In order to save the trapped innocents, and themselves, they must complete a series of fiendish tests before Rickshaw detonates the bombs and obliterates the entire town.

Super Hero Action Meets Dark Thriller

VS is another ambitious indie film (I like this trend) that shoots for the moon.  It stumbles, but there is genius there, and its sheer ballsy-ness makes me want to overlook the film’s shortcomings.  Throwing superheroes into a Saw-esque thriller, is an idea worthy of the Joker (in spite of being a Marvel standard bearer, there are a few DC characters that I like) – so is writing, directing and starring in your film, but Jason Trost manages to pull it off without it looking like a vanity picture.
Because of the look of the costumes, it’s easy to compare VS to Kick-Ass.  They may share some similarities, but they are as different as night and day.  Both films draw on the ‘real-life superhero movement’ for aesthetic inspiration (hence the similar costumes), and both are a comment on the superhero genre.  However, Kick-Ass is a spoof that throws superheroes into our world to send up the inherent ridiculousness of the entire genre (that’s not a slam against Kick-Ass – I happened to like it quite a bit), while VS is a straight superhero tale that draws on the language of horror films to showcase a truly sadistic villain.
And what a great villain to showcase.  Veteran James Remar steals the show as Rickshaw, having fun with the role and making it crazy enough to be entertaining but keeping it this side of cartoony (a little over the top is fine – it is a superhero movie).  In the Q+A Trost revealed that Remar is an old family friend and did the film as a favor (he liked the script too), which is a good thing for VS; because in the hands of someone the film could afford, I’m not sure the character would have worked.
The tests that Rickshaw puts the heroes through are fantastically evil, and as I mentioned, are very much in the tradition of Saw.  There’s also a long tradition of these kinds of traps in comics, particularly the kind that involve difficult decisions that put the heroes’ morals in jeopardy – so the mixing of the two genres works perfectly and is the film’s real genius.  Convoluted traps and villains toying with their prey seem completely at home in a superhero film without straining credibility (in fact, the audience expects it), while the dark and gritty horror film trappings tell the viewer that the stakes are much higher than a traditional comic book film and that the body count likely will be as well.  This gives the characters’ actions a lot of weight and boosts the dramatic tension much more than you would expect from a film about superheroes.
VS’ second moment of genius, and the part of the film that makes it required viewing for any Hollywood director looking to adapt a comic book for the screen, is how Trost deals with the heroes’ backstory.  Instead of spending the first half of the film detailing how the characters acquired their powers, and formed their team, VS just cuts to the interesting part of the story (waking up powerless in a town filled with deadly traps) and trusts that the audience is smart enough to fill in the blanks as the story unfolds.  Through short flashbacks and character chatter we’re given all we need to know without lots of boring exposition and wasted screen-time.  With VS, Trost proves once and for all that it is possible to make an exciting superhero film right out of the gate.
With the low budget Trost wisely wrote out the costly use of superpowers, and relied entirely on practical effects and stunt work.  Normally I would have wanted to at least see someone fly or lift up a car in a comic book movie, but the low-fi look really fits with the dark and grimy atmosphere of the film.
Where VS stumbles is in the film’s pacing.  Each of the tests is timed, and the heroes must race against the clock to both overcome the challenges and find Rickshaw before the countdown expires and the whole town blows up.  That’s a great device to create natural tension, but unfortunately, every time the viewer starts to worry VS shoots itself in the foot by having its characters get into a drawn out conversations and arguments.  There were times when I felt like yelling at the screen, “at least walk and talk, you’re all going to die!”  I couldn’t help but wonder as the horrible consequences of the countdown unfolded, that it all could have been avoided if the characters hadn’t been so chatty.
VS is recommended for superhero fans, especially those that are ready for a fresh take on the genre.  If, like me, you‘re also a fan of horror films, then VS is happily a chocolate and peanut butter situation.  It isn’t perfect, but the high points of VS are well worth the lows.

RPG Goodness

If you play a superhero rpg and want to run a game with the grittiness of the Punisher, but prefer costumes to guns, then VS is the best guidebook you can find.  I can totally picture combining the D20 version of Mutants and Masterminds with the list of traps from the Dungeon Master’s Guide to create an adventure very similar to the scenario in the film.  Even though the movie doesn’t contain any supernatural elements, I think VS would also work as an introduction to set the tone for a mash-up of Palladium’s Beyond the Supernatural and Heroes Unlimited (I’m not sure if anyone has ever played that – but now that I mention it I kind of want to try it out).
Outside of the film’s obvious inspiration for superhero rpgs, I think that VS highlights an issue in D&D that has been dealt with very differently across the editions of the game – nullifying PC powers.  While I don’t think there are any adventures that feature the PCs getting injected with a potion that prevents them from using their abilities, many of the old-school modules are filled with walls that can’t be climbed by Thieves, damage that can’t be healed by the Cleric, and lists of spells that Magic Users are barred from casting to bypass an obstacle (the classic adventure Tomb of Horrors is big on this).  Starting with 3e, this kind of adventure design was frowned on and often criticised.  DMs were encouraged to work with a PC’s powers rather than work around them.  When it comes to this issue I am unapologetically in the camp of the new school.  Having your character’s abilities hamstrung just so an adventure can railroad your actions is not fun.  I would just as soon have choices I can’t use removed from the game rather than have the illusion of choice.
As strong as my stance is on negating PCs’ powers in adventure design, when it comes to monsters I feel differently.  I love the beholder’s anti-magic cone, a ghast’s resistance to turning and the thought eater’s special attacks against psionic characters -even though all these creatures nullify class powers in their own way.  This might seem hypocritical, but I think the difference between a monster and an adventure is that the monsters in these cases are rare (although if you had an adventure with nothing but ghasts it wouldn’t be much fun for the cleric – or anyone really), their powers are discreet, and rather than reducing a character’s options to a single path (you can’t pick that lock or use a knock spell, you have to find the magic key in room 18 to proceed), these monsters interact with each of the classes in a unique way that makes them frightening and interesting (a golem is immune to most spells, but a few thematic ones affect it in unique ways).
In 4e, which introduced the concept of power sources, this is the feature I expected to interact with those classic monsters, an exciting possibility I thought was wasted (as it turns out, power sources weren’t used for much of anything) – something I’ve lamented before.  To remedy this, I’ve created a sampling of traits that can be added to monsters that can transform them into ‘kryptonite’ for certain classes.

Power Sources and Monsters

The following traits can be added to a monster to modify the way the creature interacts with the power sources of the PCs.  These traits are minor enough that adding one as-is shouldn’t alter a monster’s level or experience value, although in certain powerful combinations you may instead use it to replace an existing trait or power.  Care should be used in placing these traits – there is little point giving a monster anti-magic shell, if there are no arcane characters in the party and the turning class feature will seem pointless if every undead opponent the party encounters has turn resistance.

It Came from Toronto After Dark: Manborg

January 26, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it 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.


In this comedic love-letter to eighties b-movies, the world has been conquered by Draculon and his demonic armies.  The nations of earth have fallen, and only a rag-tag group of freedom fighters stands between Draculon and absolute, eternal power.  Just when things are at their bleakest, a new hero rises to aid the freedom fighters and save the human race – enter Manborg!

More Wacky Retro-sploitation from Astron-6

I’ll admit up front that without the festival pass, I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to see Manborg, and even with the pass I almost skipped it.  I figured it would be a laugh, but I’ve seen enough real bad movies that I’m not that keen on fake bad movies.  I won’t say that Manborg completely converted me, but I had a good time watching it; and what more can you ask for?
Director Steven Kostanski prefaced the screening with “Do you guys like crappy VHS movies from the eighties?  If you do, I think you’ll like this.”  I can’t think of a better statement to prepare viewers for the madness that is Manborg.  When I was a kid looking for affordable Christmas presents for my brothers, I discovered the bargain VHS bin at K-Mart (yes VHS and K-Mart, I am old).  Out of this treasure trove of schlock I picked out an obscure title featuring a very young Jackie Chan called Fantasy Mission Force.  It featured sub-par acting, abysmal effects, awkward slap-stick humor, the craziest, most random storyline I have ever witnessed – and my brothers and I watched it a dozen times.  Manborg is the spiritual inheritor of Fantasy Mission Force; it’s a tribute to the movies we watched as kids, which ignited our imaginations before we realized a lot of those films were pretty bad (Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone also comes to mind).  Kostanski plucks his characters directly from that childhood repository.  You’ve got your martial arts master (“only a ninja can stop a ninja”), your angry Australian (remember Jacko?), your badass future chick (like Melanie Griffith from Cherry 2000), and of course the manborg himself (if it didn’t have ninja’s in it, you can be guaranteed a b-movie from this era had a cyborg).
The visuals are appropriate, with lasers and digital effects circa Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, but after the laughter and nostalgia wears off, are pretty difficult to watch.  On the other hand, most of the monsters were created using some very nice stop-motion animation, which helped to sustain my interest throughout the film.  There are some brief uses of this technique in Father’s Day (for which Kostanski did the effects), but seeing it used throughout Manborg reminded me why I love stop-motion so much and why films like Clash of the Titans still hold up to modern viewing.
Manborg’s greatest strength, and what sets it apart from other spoofs, is that you never get the impression Kostanski is on the outside looking down at his subject, but is right in the thick of it, reveling in every cheesy, glorious minute.  You could almost call this self-depreciating humor, since the laughs are generated by a love of the subject matter and a knowing wink between Kostanski and the audience that we’ve been caught enjoying a guilty pleasure.
At the end of the day though, I’m not sure if the joke can sustain a film for even Manborg’s shortened sixty minutes (not matter how nostalgia-laced those minutes are).  I think the movie would have been better in a more condensed form, with the weaker material cut out, leaving it thirty minutes of concentrated mayhem.  Given that I’m not exactly the target audience of Manborg, this might not be a fair assessment – I am sure there were those at the screening who wished the film was a full ninety minutes or more.
Manborg is recommended for diehard fans of schlock cinema – this is pretty much as perfect a tribute as you can make to 80’s b-grade sci-fi films.  For everyone else, the stop-motion animation is fantastic, and the movie is genuinely fun to watch, I’m just not sure you’ll be able to endure how true Manborg is to the source material from start to finish.

RPG Goodness

Manborg had me thinking about (what else?) cyborg characters in rpgs.  The setting of the film, taken at face value and removed from its retro-cheese,  is about as close as we are ever going to get to seeing Rifts on the big screen (given that Palladium books has been trying to make it happen since the nineties, the forecast doesn’t look promising).  You’ve got the world overrun with demons, high technology, and a group of heroes that seem picked at random from the Palladium megaverse: a Ninjas and Superspies chi master, a gunslinger, a special-ops mercenary, and of course a full-conversion ‘borg.
I always thought that bionics and ‘borg characters in Rifts games were missing something.  The game has a great modular bionics building system, but is missing a key element in the place cybernetics would hold in the game world.  There are a whole lot of rules for replacing lost limbs and organs, but there are no mechanics in the game to inflict that kind of damage on the PCs.  Other than just wanting to chop off your arm to get one with a gun attached, there is very little reason to become a cyborg unless you start the game as one.
The problem with characters beginning the campaign as a cyborg is that in most of the popular culture cybernetic heroes are reborn as a ‘borg.  The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Robocop, and Manborg, all feature cybernetics as a technology that either saves the main character’s life, or resurrects them.  This bothered me when I ran Rifts, so I used a house rule that mega-damage in excess of a character’s armor, blew off a limb rather than completely atomizing them (it also helped to mitigate the problems of the mega-damage system in general).
Of course Rifts isn’t the only game that is guilty of missing a great story opportunity for cyborg PCs.  Gamma World is my preferred post-apocalyptic rules system (see my articles on Gamma Rifts), and it also features PCs who start as cyborgs from day one.  Given that Gamma World tends to be more deadly than regular D&D (because of the lack of consistently available healing), and since the game has no method of bringing dead PCs back to life (unlike D&D’s raise dead) a post character creation cybernetic option seems like a perfect fit.
Here’s how it would work.  When a PC dies, give the player the option of resurrecting the character as a cyborg.  Perhaps the rest of the party finds a hidden Ancient medical facility whose cybernetic repair bays can be jury rigged with some cannibalized Omega Tech to rebuild their fallen comrade (a perfect opportunity for a Skill Challenge); or maybe the PC’s corpse was discovered by a mysterious cryptic alliance who transforms the PC as a part of their own shadowy agenda (which is why the PC now unwittingly carries a tracking device).  A cyborg PC removes their secondary origin, as well as any traits, powers or critical effects tied to that origin.  The PCs’ new secondary origin becomes Android (or AI if you are using Famine in Fargo).  Add any traits, powers and critical effects a character of the PC’s level is entitled to.  Changing a character’s secondary origin may also result in new ability scores (as a result of the character’s new mechanical components).  If the ability score associate with your old secondary origin is different from your cyborg origin, roll 3d6 and assign the total to that ability score.  Change the ability score associated with your cyborg origin to 16, unless it is the same ability as your primary origin, in which case it is raised to 20.  Resurrected PCs should also lose any Omega Tech cards they are carrying and draw a new card.
There is no reason that PCs should be the only ones to benefit from bionic technology.   Cyborgs make great Gamma World opponents, and the ‘Borg template allows you to create cybernetic versions of Gamma World’s already deadly list of monsters (as well as modifying the library of traditional D&D monsters – imagine alien cyborg beholders invading the earth retro flying saucer style!).  The rules for using templates in Gamma World can be found at the end of my review for War of the Dead.

‘Borg Template

“It can’t be bargained with.  It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear.  And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

Apply this template to a creature that has been transformed into a cybernetic killing machine through the use of Ancient or alien technology.  ‘Borgs fight using the same weapons and abilities they possessed before the change, only they are tougher, faster, and their machine minds possess a level of emotionless, single minded focus most organic beings find frightening.
Some ‘borgs show occasional flashes of their former personalities, haunting the crumbling buildings they once called home, searching for something they can’t quite remember, before resuming their program of systematic extermination.
“’Borg” is a template that can be added to any humanoid or beast.  It works best when added to a creature with a strong melee attack, like a brute, skirmisher, or solider.  This template represents the most common type of cyborg encountered across the wastelands of Gamma Terra; it is doubtless that other versions exist.
Prerequisite: Humanoid or beast; level 5.


I cribbed some of the ‘borg template’s powers from the cyborg monsters in Legion of Gold (and since that adventure is all about cyborg marauders on an aggressive campaign of ‘recruitment’ they really should have been given the template option there), but I prefer a Steve Austin style bionic leap to a jet-powered one.  I also wanted the ‘borg to have the single-minded focus of the terminator, so I gave it a power similar to the fighter class’ ability to mark in D&D (but couldn’t use it exactly since there is no marking in Gamma World).

It Came from Toronto After Dark: Absentia

January 13, 2012

These It Came from the DVR articles are going to be a little bit different.  As an early Christmas present to myself, I picked up a festival pass to the Toronto After Dark film festival.  So the first difference is that these are new movies, on the big screen, instead of old ones and niche programming on the small screen.  The second difference is that these are going to be short.  I’ve got eighteen films to see in seven days (as well as dressing up for the annual zombie walk), so I’m not going to have a whole lot of time to write, and I want post these while the blood is still fresh.
Toronto After Dark is a horror and genre film festival oozing with gobs of monster and rpg inspiration, but most of the films it 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.


The story begins with Tricia, grappling over the decision to declare her husband ‘dead in absentia’, after he mysteriously vanished without a trace seven years ago.  The legal declaration seems a first step to healing and moving on with her life but, instead of helping Tricia put her life together, she is tormented by the apparition of her missing husband.
Things are complicated by the arrival of Tricia’s younger sister, Callie, come to lend moral support but has problems of her own.  It isn’t long before Callie finds an eerie pedestrian tunnel that she believes is connected not only with Tricia’s missing husband, but with a much older pattern of disappearances.

Creepy, Instant Indie-Horror Classic

I’m not one of those jaded horror fans that claims not to be frightened by movies.  When they are good, scary movies scare me, which is why I go and see them (honestly I’m not sure why people who aren’t scared like horror movies – it’s a little like being an aficionado of tear-jerkers but never feeling sad).  A good horror movie gets your blood racing in the theatre, but a great one stays with you as you leave and makes you walk a little faster on your way home from the subway station.  Absentia had me hyper aware of all the weird little noises my house makes for a few days.
Part of what makes Absentia so effective is Mike Flanagan’s blending of the best parts of a ghost tale and a monster story.  The ghost story elements give the film its melancholic atmosphere and sense of building dread, while the monster provides the clammy handed fear and jump scares only a creature skittering in the dark can.
Flanagan also knows how to really take advantage of the isolation one feels in the suburbs.  Speaking as someone who grew up in the ‘burbs, I can attest to the strange quality they possess – at certain times of day, even if your rational mind tells you the rows of houses are filled with people, you feel like the last man on earth – a quality Absentia captures.   Incidentally, my neighborhood also had a scary pedestrian tunnel (which I had to brave in order to get to my friend’s house), so the focus of the film had my inner childhood fears working overtime.
With a tiny budget (the movie was funded by kickstarter, which should be familiar to gamers as the funding source of choice for rpg start-ups), Absentia wisely leaves the heavy lifting to the excellent cast rather than special effects.  I was especially impressed by the portrayal of sisters Tricia and Callie.  Actresses Courtney Bell and Katie Parker did a great job filling their portrayal with the kind of knowing barbs (as well as loving support) only adult siblings can throw at each other.   It had the added benefit of having their relationship to unfold for the viewer rather than artificially laying it out at the beginning of the film.
The concept of Absentia’s monster is very clever, and it unfolds in much the same way as the characters.  Flanagan could have easily used a long expository scene (complete with a convenient scholarly expert opening up a giant tome full of woodcuts) in order to drive his ideas home, but thankfully resisted the temptation and took a much less forced approach.
Absentia is strongly recommended to all horror fans.  The creep factor is in high gear and reminded me of the best parts of Insidious (the parts before the spirit world).  Watch it with the lights off, and see how long you can sit in the dark alone when it’s finished.

I do have one criticism of Absentia, and I hate to bury it under a spoiler tag (like I did with Some Guy Who Kills People) since it has nothing to do with the plot, but I really don’t want to take any of the threat of the monster away from those who haven’t seen the film yet.  Absentia left me needing to see more of the monster, enough that after the last scene I felt a tiny bit ripped off (just a bit – nothing like how ripped off I felt not seeing any aliens in Contact).  I didn’t want to see the creature in broad daylight, I think that would have ruined it, and I understand why Flanagan didn’t include the traditional monster movie ‘reveal’.  I’m not sure if it was entirely an editorial decision or a budgetary one.  I just needed a little bit more.  I realize a love of monsters is one of my idiosyncrasies, so it might not bug others like it did me.  Ultimately, showing too much would have weakened the film so, even though Flanagan was stingy with the creature, he came down on the right side of that decision.

RPG Goodness

There is a definite trend in modern D&D products to move the fey away from their 1e roots as benevolent (or at worst neutral) forest spirits toward something much more dangerous and sinister.  This trend can be seen in WOTC’s recent Heroes of the Feywild, but stretches back at least to the end of 3.5e with Paizo’s Carnival of Tears adventure.  It’s a trend I happen to like, and one that might also be playing out on the stage of popular culture if Absentia is any indication (as well as Grimm and Lost Girl).
Without spoiling the clever ideas that I alluded to in my review of the film, Absentia is required viewing for any game master that wants to see how frightening the fey really can be.  At first I thought the move to make fey dangerous was purely a pragmatic one – combat is a major component of the game, so it seems a waste to include game statistics for a bunch of flower sniffing pixies you aren’t going to get in a fight with.  Other than harassing my players with some leprechauns (they appeal to the same side of me that thinks Snoti the snotling champion is awesome), I don’t think I’ve ever used a blink dog, brownie, or killmoulis in any edition of the game, so there might be something to that theory, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.  While watching Absentia, I was reminded that the recent thematic transformation of the fey might actually be a revival of a much older view of faerie creatures.
Gary Gygax’s (and the rest of western culture’s) perception of the fey was probably informed by their Victorian interpretation (he did include Lord Dunsany in his list of inspirational reading, appendix N) as whimsical, fun-loving, child-like beings.  However, there is an older interpretation of the fey, one that places many of the faerie creatures in the same mythological niche as vampires, ghosts, and demons.  It is that tradition that I think Absentia and recent D&D products are tapping into.
Through this lens even the most benevolent fey of D&D’s past are transformed from innocent practical jokers to wild creatures filled with alien emotions and dangerous magic.  As a DM you can play this up for full effect.  Perhaps there is a sigil, or special herb the common folk put on their doors to ward against Eladrin, whom they view as unpredictable and dangerous – barely a step up from the murderous drow.  A leprechaun’s legendary treasure is actually a pot filled with gold teeth, pilfered from corpses during the faery’s nightly grave robbing (a habit that puts them in close associating with ghouls).  Brownies may help a desperate cobbler make shoes, but there is no telling what payment they may demand later on (anything from a silver plated laugh to the cobbler’s first born).
In such a world, making a pact with an arch-fey is just as dangerous as signing a contract with a devil or studying the maddening portents held in the movements of the stars and planets.

Random Fey-Pact Events

For those who have seen the feywild, its colours and smells are so vibrant and real it makes the mortal world seem like a sad reflection.  It is no wonder the immortal beings that thrive in that atmosphere, the arch-fey, are so difficult to understand.  Whatever their inscrutable motives for doing so, the arch-fey are known to lend some of their arcane secrets to mortals who interest them.
Unlike devils who frequently draw up well delineated contracts (if confusing and opaque) to entice mortal Warlocks, the unpredictable and mercurial arch-fey hold little stock in formal agreements (and frequently have a different understanding of them than mortals).  More often than not, fey Warlocks aren’t even aware of the agreements they’ve entered into.  The boundary between the worlds is thin in some places, and at these locations a mortal may accidentally leave a ritual offering or violate a sacred space, attracting the attention of an arch-fey.  The fey Warlock walks a dangerous path.  The relationship responsible for their newfound arcane powers is governed by alien whims and strange protocols.  There is little the mortal mind can do to predict these fluctuating patterns.  Instead the fey Warlock must learn to cope with the intrusion of the faerie world into their life, just as an infernal Warlock must learn to live with the eventual loss of their soul.
DM’s should roll on the following table every 2d6+2 days to determine the effects of the warlock’s arch-fey patron on the mortal world.  Optionally, this table can also be used for Witches and other characters that have attracted the attention of an arch-fey, such as those with the Tuathan and Unseelie Agent themes (all from Heroes of the Feywild).