Tuesday, October 5, 2010

B/X Companion is Mine!

I had this cool plan of doing some 4E writing tonight.  A couple of things that have been stewing in the back of my head.  That is till I came home to this:

Yes that is the B/X Companion in all her glory.  The product I think I have been waiting for for close to 30 years.  Sure I have had books that have covered the same ground, and books that made this book obsolete, but somewhere, deep in my psyche there is still that 12 year old version of me wishing he could take his cleric to 15th level.  

The B/X Companion does not disappoint.  Let me just say that if this isn't exactly how it was going to be, then I'd be hard pressed to know what it would have been.  I am reading through it all now and I am purposefully NOT comparing it to the BECMI version of the Companion rules.  Maybe later, maybe even later but before this is posted.  But right now I only want to compare it to the B/X books of which is it is, well, a companion too.

The cover of course is very much part of the original scheme.  The three principle characters, the fighter and the two wizards (or maybe she is a cleric, that could be a "light" spell, though she has a torch too) stand in front of their followers.  They braved the dungeon, the wilderness and now they are ready for the next adventure.  So are we.

For those of us that grew up with the Moldvay/Cook Basic and Expert sets, the Companion book feels very familiar.  The layout is similar, the flow is similar and even the art has a familiar feel.  If you own the Basic or Expert books then finding something in the Companion book is trivial.  I turned right to the character rules and took a glance at all the tables.  Yes sir they run from 15 to 36, just like promised.  Clerics still top out at 7th level spells, but eventually they get 9 of them.  Wizards still go to 9th level, and get 9 of those too.
Fighters get more attacks per round (as they should) and thieves get more abilities.

There are plenty of new spells here.  Many look like they take their inspiration from the products that came after, the Player's Handbook or the D&D Rules Cyclopedia, but nothing is an out right copy.  It does have the feel like Becker sat around one day and thought, what are some good spells and what level should they be.

There new monsters and advanced versions of some others.  The Greater Vampire nearly made me laugh out loud as I had done the exact same thing after reading and playing the Expert book for so long.  My Greater Vampire was a photocopy of Ptah from Deities and Demigods with some fangs drawn in.  I never claimed to be an artist.  Te monsters all seem to be appropriate for the levels, though a few more in the 30 HD range might have been nice, but not really needed.

The BIG additions here though are the ones that were most "advertised" back in the day. 
Running a High Level Game  is great advice for ANY edition of the game.  It gives this book the same place as say, the Epic Level Handbook for D&D 3.0 or even the Epic Tier for D&D 4.  Chances are very, very good I'll be using the B/X Companion in my next D&D 4 game in fact.

Related are running a domain and running large armies.  Battlesystem would later give us these rules for AD&D, but here they are much simpler to use.  Again, something to consider to port over to other versions of the game.

I loved the new magic items and can never get enough of those.  I also liked the part on the planes and how it is totally left up to design of the DM.  I wonder how many people out there will re-invent the Gygaxian Great Wheel for their B/X/C games?

Others have reviewed this book already and my insights won't add or subtract to those.  A particularly insightful one is by James over at Grognardia.  I concur with a lot of what he had to say, with the possible exception of his take on demi-humans and frankly I have no idea what I would have done in Becker's place as I am not fond of level limits or even demi-humans as classes.  That being said lets put this product in context.

I would have liked thicker covers to be honest. This book I am afraid will not wear so well.  I would also LOVE to have it as a PDF.  I don't bring a lot of books to the table anymore, I bring a laptop.  So can you hear me JB!  Sell me a PDF! :)

Companion to Basic/Expert Rules
Obviously this is where it works the best.  But there is something here that I don't think others have tapped into just yet.  Companion makes the Moldvay/Cook rules a complete game.  With these three books you now have a complete D&D game.  The only thing really missing is a "C1" module or maybe a BXC one.

Companion to Labyrinth Lord/Basic Fantasy
The new Becker Companion has a lot it owes to Labyrinth Lord (LL) and Basic Fantasy (BFRPG).  While maybe not directly, these two games showed that there is a market out there for "Basic" styles of play.  Both LL and BFRPG take the modern 1-20 level limit for human classes.  Companion is 15 to 36.  So some adjustments need to be made.  There are a few differences in the how each of these books calculate XP per level, and how they do spells.  But nothing so complicated that a a good DM couldn't figure out.  
Personally if I were playing a LL/BFRPG game, I'd go to 15th level and then switch over to B/X Companion. for the next levels to 36.  OR even go to 20 and use B/X Companion as a guide to levels 30 or even 36.
Frankly the homebrewiness of it all has me very excited for anyone that has decided to throw their lot in with "Basic" D&D.

The B/X Companion vs. the BECMI Companion
Ok, I know I said above I wasn't going to do this, but after re-reading James's post over at Grognardia and his post on the Mentzer Companion I felt it was worth a look.
Now I am no expert on the Mentzer era of the rules.  I had moved to AD&D by the time they were out and I never owned them.  I picked up the Rules Cyclopedia a while back and got all the BECMI boxes on PDF back when Wizards sold them on DriveThru.
Both Companions cover similar ground.  The spell progressions and XP look about the same (given that they use simple math, no surprise).   The BECMI Companion only goes to 25th level, not 36 like the B/X Companion. The BECMI Companion generally speaking has more detail than the B/X one, but that is not really a nitpick since the abstraction of the rules in B/X is greater to allow more with less; just like the B/X books it was modeled after.  

Final Tally
I like this book. A lot.  It makes me want to pull out my ratty Basic and Expert books and play Moldvay/Cook era Basic D&D again.   In the mean time, I think I'll just have to satisfy myself with converting some D&D 3.0 or 4e characters over to Companion,  just for the fun of it.

One thing that did disappoint me though was the lack of the OGL.  There is a lot of really cool stuff here and it could be shared.  I suppose that something like this, talking to Johnathan Becker is always the best the way to go.  

October Movie Reviews: Son of Dracula 1943

Dracula also had a son it seems. Fitting title (or was it contrived that way) for the son of the Man of Thousand Faces who also almost was Dracula.

With this movie I think we are getting into what most people think of as the Universal Monsters. Lon Chaney Jr., more modern settings and an American setting.  Plus we are getting into that Golden Age of Hollywood, with the stars and the glamor and, in the case of this film, some more special effects.
This is the third movie of Universal's "Dracula Trilogy" and it is also something of a transitional piece.

Son of Dracula (1943)
The setting for this film is New Orleans, a full 40 years before anyone else will associate it with vampires.  Hungarian Count "Alucard" arrives invited by one of the daughters of a plantation owner.  I am not 100%, but nearly so that is the very first time we see the Alucard alias.  Something that will be later used all over the place.   Alucard seduces Katherine Caldwell, the daughter, when they had met previously in Hungary.  Soon her father dies, leaving her the plantation Dark Oaks and her and Alucard are quickly married; much to the chagrin of her fiancée and sister.
Her distraught fiancée Frank confronts them and shoots Alucard, only for the bullets to pass through him and kill Kate instead.  He runs to Dr. Brewster's home, a family friend, and admits he killed Kate.  Dr. Brewster goes to Dark Oaks to see a seemingly alive, but very pale, Kate.  Alucard as the new "Master of Dark Oaks" warns the Dr. off  saying the he and his new wife wish to left alone.
Dr. Brewster, noticing the Dracula/Alucard parallels contacts Hungarian Professor Lazlo, who comes to Brewster with the suspicion of vampirism already formed in his mind.  The police head out to Dark Oaks during the day where they find Kate's dead body and lock up Frank.
Kate visits Frank in his cell and Alucard visits Brewster and Lazlo.  Kate convinces Frank that the only way they can be together is to destroy "Dracula".  She helps him escape, while the two men of science fight Alucard.
Frank  heads out to the Dark Oaks plantation ahead of Brewster, Lazlo and the police.  He manages to destroy Alucard's coffin and leaves Alucard to burn in the morning sun.  He then rushes to where Kate is.  When everyone else has caught up to him we see Kate's coffin ablaze as well.

Ok despite a somewhat simple story there is a lot going on here.
First this is Lon Chaney's first (and only) outing as the Count.  I was impressed with his ability to look very different here, he certainly had some of his own father's skills.  But I have so associated him with Larry Talbot and the Wolfman that it was hard to see him as Dracula.  He just didn't seem European enough.  Yes, I mentioned that in the book Dracula took great pains not to sound Transylvania, but here Dracula sounds like he was the Mid West.  It wasn't just the accent; he didn't seem royal, he didn't sound like Dracula.
And that is the other thing.  Was this supposed to be Dracula or his son Alucard.  The movie is a tad ambiguous, but I felt for certain that he was supposed to be the true Count.  I think the "Son of" appellation here was more due to Universal and due to the actor himself.  Lon Chaney Jr. after all was the son of the man that almost got the role of Dracula in the 1931 film.
We got more special effects this time than the last two films combined.  Lots of Dracula turning into and from a bat here, an effect that would be used to great effect (and profound impact on my young mind) in the later "Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein".  While that one is notable, there was the less dramatic, but no less cool, Dracula and Kate turning into and from mist or fog.
I mentioned above that this is a transitional movie for Universal. Transitional in that we are now moving farther away from the source materials (Dracula and Frankenstein novels) and more into modern re-tellings.  For the first time Dracula is setting foot on American soil (and is given good reasons for it in the plot).  It is also the last of the proper "Dracula" films before moving onto the "Monster Mash" films that Universal became known for.  "House of Dracula", the next Dracula film on my list, features Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and even a hunchback and mad scientist.

We are missing a Van Helsing in this one, mostly due to it begin modern (1940s) times, but we do have Dr. Brewster in the obiligator Seward role and Prof. Lazlo as our ersatz Van Helsing.  Prof. Lazlo was actually quite an interesting character and would make for a great vampire hunter on his own.

I can't recall if I have ever seen this one or not.  I am sure I must have, but that could have been 30+ years ago really.

Tomorrow. It's a monster mash.

Monday, October 4, 2010

October Movie Reviews: Dracula's Daughter 1936

Next up for my reviews is one of the firsts of a major trend in horror movies; the sequel (though Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was the first true sequel) . This one is is a sequel of sorts to Dracula. We also get a few other firsts: The angst vampire and the lesbian vampire.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

Dracula's Daughter is an interesting flick.
This time our hero Van Helsing is up against Countess Marya Zaleska, played by Gloria Holden, who is Dracula's Daughter and also a vampire herself. Like daddy, she also has a taste for pretty girls. Though unlike daddy, Zaleska abhors her state as a vampire. I am reminded of the Marvel Comics, Lilith the Daughter of Dracula (not to mention one of the female victims of this film is a model named Lili). She had a similar relationship with her father and her condition.

The plot is similar to the the Stoker story of Dracula's Guest, or the first part of Dracula. But there is more to that. I like how Zaleska wants to ritually destroy Dracula's body in hopes it will cure her.

The film has it's moments, but in the end it is not as good or memorable as the Lugosi effort, which is of course too bad given where the the female vampire in cinema would take us during the Hammer years and later into the 80's. Zaleska is the spiritual forerunner to Miriam Blalock. Though heavily glossed over with the censors of the 1930's.   I have read reports about this film long ago in the Celluiod Closet, but the reality of film is much for subdued than the reviews claim.  It's subtle, but there is a subtext there. 

There is no Dracula in this one, but we do have Van Helsing.  Something we will see again with Hammer and "The Brides of Dracula".  

As a monster you end up feeling sorry for Zaleska more than anything.  Holden has a why of making you feel like she is the victim here.  Mind you that doesn't stop her from mistreating her servant (to her ultimate demise) or attaking the young couple, there is a quality about.  She actually reminds me a bit of Betty Davis here.  Smoky beauty with a hardened heart.

This biggest issue I think here is the movie is slow, even for the time I think.   I'd love to see a high quality remake with a modern cast. 

Next up. Dracula also had a son.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

October Movie Reviews: Dracula 1931 (Spanish version)

For my October Reviews I am now moving to a real classic.

Continuing with my delving into the great 1931 Dracula, this time the Spanish language version.

Drácula (1931)

Drácula was a Spanish language version of the Tod Browning movie, filmed on the same set at night.  The effect was a much moodier look and tone to the movie.  If you can speak Spanish (and even if you can't) check this movie out.  It has everything that the English language has, but just seems so much cooler.
According to the audio commentary on Dracula and the documentary, Road to Dracula, the "B" team would film at night on the same set as Dracula.  The director would watch the "Dailies" from the Browning/Lugosi crew and cast and work to improve on them.  They also cleaved closer to that actual shooting script.
The differences are subtle, but still noticeable.  
This production for example seemed to learn from the mistakes of the previous day's shooting.  Also because the censors didn't care about the Spanish version, they got away with more sex appeal.  For example the dresses revealed more cleavage and Lupita Tovar's  performance as Eva (Mina) in general.
In the end this is a hard one to review since I don't speak Spanish and what I see is so close to the Bela Lugosi one that I instead look at them as a whole.  But I am glad I finally got to see it.  Carlos Villarias will never really get mentioned in the same breath as Bela Lugosi, save as a comparison, and his acting was not great.  But there is something about the roll that he also made his own; despite what looks and sounds like a Bela Lugosi impression. In Spanish.

If you are a Dracula fan then I think you need to see this at least once.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

October Movie Reviews: Dracula 1931

For my October Reviews I am now moving to a real classic.

When watching these movies I try to keep in mind the time that they were made.  What we consider horror is not the same thing as 20, 50 or 80 years ago.  Every generation remakes the classics and leaves their imprint on them.  The 30's gave us two great examples.  Today, Dracula and tomorrow the Spanish language Drácula.

Dracula (1931) (and audio commentary and documentary)

This is the one that gave us Bela Lugosi as the immortal count.  Lugosi's performance is a bit over the top, but he does give us the suave Dracula.  Some scenes of this movie are so iconic that they have almost outlived the context they were presented in.  Dracula on the stairs in his castle is one, and the meeting of Dracula and Van Helsing in the library is another. Dracula spreading his cape like a bat, or heck even the cape at all.  Here is a question, did Dracula ever say "I never drink ... wine." in the book or play?  No.  That came from this movie and it also appeared in the 1979 and 1992 versions.  I also think, more so than the book or play before it this movie really personalized the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing.  Something that was taken to a new level in the Hammer films.

Lugosi got his start playing Dracula on the stage, something that Frank Langella would repeat almost 50 years later.  Though unlike Langella, he never quite escaped the roll.  For better or worse he has been so entwined with the roll that when watching the movie you should keep this in mind.  A lot of what we associate with the roll comes from right here.

Reinfield replaces Harker here in the begining, or rather they are combined into one character. Despite this Dwight Frye is a great Harker-like character. We do get a Harker later on.  The coach ride to Castle Dracula is very reminiscent of the similar ride in the 1992 movie.  Mina is Seward's daughter, again from the stage-play.

Audio Commentary:  Given that I have seen Dracula before, I wanted to watch this with the audio commentary on.  Things I didn't know:  They are speaking Hungarian in the movie.  There is a lot in this movie that never happened before in movies.  Some of the shots used here, which we take for granted, were new here.  Lon Chaney was supposed to be Dracula.
Listening to the audio commentary it is interesting,  a lot of what is now well known of Dracula lore came about by complete happenstance.  Dracula speaking in Eastern European accident came about because the director of Broadway play could not afford his first choice and he had to hire Bela Lugosi, who could barely speak English. For the movie Lugosi earned $3500.00 for 7 weeks of filming.

The Road to Dracula: A very interesting documentary on the making of Dracula and the Spanish language version.  It talks about a lot of the same things mentioned in the audio commentary, only in much greater detail.  We hear from film historians, Bela Lugosi's son and Clive Barker among others.  It's very cool.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Dragon and the Phoenix: Episode 6

Episode 6: Tainted Love

Xander: You know what, prophecies are really beginning to piss me off!
- Willow and Tara: The Dragon and the Phoenix, Episode 6 "Tainted Love"

February 14, 2003. Friday

The cast becomes the guinea pigs of a Governmental psychological experiment. The Cast learn of the Bureau, another Initiative like operation whose goal is to control demons and vampires via a means of psychological conditioning. Spike learns he, like all former Initiative subjects, has a remote controlled explosive buried in his head.
Story arc elements: Deal with loose threads involving love. The stress in Willow and Tara’s relationship forms because of her return. Buffy feels she is loosing sight of her own humanity and that everyone around her is moving on and growing up, but she is stagnant. Learn more about the Slayers and their relationship to the fallen angels.
Willow and Tara each discover something about the final battle, but keep it from the other since it involves either the death of Tara or the eventual return to evil for Willow.

Game Design elements: Retcon the scientifically ridiculous Initiative control chip into something that makes sense.
Soundtrack: Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Tainted Love”, Elvis “You Were Always on my Mind”

Notes and Comments:

The first of the "unpublished" adventures. This one should be obvious, it was full of information from Military Monster Squad. We could not get the episode out for the longest time while the material was being written and then longer when the book was further delayed.  Of course we hated "the chip" so I decdided to use something I knew very well, psychology, and say Spike was submitted to a Clockwork Orange like treatment, only with cattle prods.

This was our "dark Valentines Day" epsiode. Everyone's love life was in a lull in the story and we wanted to make it a bit darker. There were a lot of gues stars and really a lot of stuff going on here. Almost too much really. The episode is big, so we decided it was the first "mid season sweeps" episode. Lots of enemies to deal with especially some older ones. Dru comes back and I gave the Cast the opprutunity to stake her if they wanted, but she got away. The first clues on Spike's role are revealed here as well. Plus we wanted to confront the issues of his attempted rape. While all of this was going on the players of Spike and Buffy discovered a means of defeating nearly any foe thrown at them with various combo moves. So much so that when we went to work on Ghosts of Albion it was one of the things we wanted to address.

Here are some more crunchy bits for you.

Revised Initiative HST Control Chip3-Point Drawback (Psychological) The HST Control Chip, installed into many demons, vampires and other non-human lifeforms is a ruse. The chip itself is nothing more than a small tracking device connected to a small, but efficient explosive.
The behavior modification works not because of high-tech nonsense and techno-babble, but rather old fashioned psychology. Through a combination drugs, imagery and liberal amounts of electroshock torture and what is termed “aggressive behavior modification therapy” the HSTs are classically conditioned to not harm humans. While the Initiative was happy to leave it there, the Bureau went the next step and conditioned many HSTs to become a fighting force. Strong, nearly deathless, immune to bullets and an array of natural weapons the idea seemed foolproof. And it was. While eventually the Initiative controlled HSTs would begin to exhibit often dangerous psychoses, the Bureau controlled subjects maintained their conditioning over long periods of time.
Wired into each chip is a locator device, capable of sending and receiving signals up to 100 km with a handheld locator and globally with the use of GPS satellites.
The signal is constant, using a small LiION battery with motion recharge abilities, and a masking signal to cloak it’s true purpose.
Each “chipped” subject also has a small package of a controlled explosive, not enough for collateral damages, but enough to remove the head of the chipped subject. Treat as an automatic decapitation.
The conditioning associated with this chip is a 3 point drawback.
Removal of the chip was never a design feature. Once the chip is active any exposure to oxygen will cause the explosive device to trigger.  Once the frequency is discovered (getting past the cloak) constructing a remote detonator can be easily built with parts from any local Radio Shack.

Next episode I blow up the Bronze. For good.

October Movie Reviews: Nosferatu 1922

For my first of the October Reviews I want to start with a classic.

Now I have been huge Dracula fan for as long as I can recall, but the one thing about the mythos I hate is the desire to make Dracula a misunderstood or even worse a tragic hero. Now I get the desire to make him suave and sexy and even a desire to connect the mythical Dracula to the historical Vlad,  but lets get serious here.  This is Dracula, not Twilight.  He is a monster.  He killed Lucy, her mother, tried to kill Johnathan and Mina and pretty much everyone else in the book.

That being said you can see the evolution on the thoughts of the character by viewing him through the eyes of the popular films.

Nosferatu (1922)

The first major cinematic release.  If you have not seen this movie then put it on your Halloween must see list. This movie is silent, black and white and an absolutely a classic.  There are issues with the script, mostly due to the insistance of the Stoker estate.  So Dracula became Count Orlock; and Orlock is a monster.  He is rat-like, bald and devoid of anything that could be considered "sexy".  This is a good thing, I think.  The cinematography in this movie is fantastic.  The special effects are state of the art for the time and any time you see Dracula's shadow move without him you have this movie to thank.

The characters outside of Dracula/Orlock are not as good, of course some of that over acting was due to the medium and style of the time.  Like most of the movies there are characters are missing, though not as many as future movies.
The movie though remains a classic, not because of it's age, but because it is still quite good.

There is something very, well, German, about this film.  It's has enough angst to knock the perm right out of Edward Cullen's hair, but yet not overwrought.  Or at least a different overwrought.  This can be seen in the later re-interpretations Nosferatu (1979) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000).