Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Running Supernatural Killer Games

The Supernatural, Immortal and Invincible Serial Killer in Fantasy

There’s something to be said for an occasional game in which the horror ticks up to thirteen and the blood starts flowing freely as the hedge trimmer gets a thorough shakedown in Murder 101. What follows is some advice I can offer on how to take a movie like Friday the Thirteens or Nightmare on elm Street and turn it into a fantasy horror tale worth remembering…

Start with the Mechanics and Establish the Genre Rules

D&D and Pathfinder are quite fair in their expectation that adventurers tend to face foes of like strength, though it is by no means required and in fact works against the grain of some styles of campaign (sandbox, for ex.) All editions of the game do support mechanical features that allow for some deadly foes if presented against a party of sufficiently lower level with few or no magic items. A ghost or vampire presented to a party of 1st to 3rd level in any edition is a sure sign of a looming TPK. Any single demon in the game vs. a party of low level adventurers with no magic is going to be terrifying. That said….it’s rarely enough to just take a stock monster and stick it up against some low level adventurers. For the supernatural killer genre you need something more unique.

One way to thoroughly shake up a party of erstwhile adventurers is to throw something horrifyingly traumatic at them: in D&D and Pathfinder this usually means something which won’t die, and which in turn is uncannily effective at instigating TPKs and which is unrecognizable to anyone in the group. It might look like something they all know….and that only makes it worse! If it looks like a zombie but moves quickly and with intelligence….and gets up again and again….and is immune to daze/stun effects….that’s a pretty terrifying creature.

There’s honestly no easy way to introduce an invulnerable regenerating monster without feeling a bit unfair, so when you plan on integrating a Jason Vorheese-like serial killer zombie in your game you also need to establish a precedent. One way to do it is to have everyone roll up some side characters; traditional D&D these days is all about heroic adventurers who have a chance at life if they play their cards right. An even better way to do this is to have a bunch of disposable pregens ready for the evening’s horror gaming.

There are a couple other styles of gaming in D&D that lend themselves to this mentality as well: the archetypal mentality of the OSR manifesto allows for the possibility of the unkillable and unstoppable monster as a de facto expectation; you’re barely supposed to want to (or be able to) fight something as simple as a swarm of kobolds, on average….so a supernatural monster that suffers no harm from the adventurer’s weapons is actually baked into the rules, really.

The other way is the “implied setting” approach. In 1st and 2nd edition we were introduced to Ravenloft, a land where the evil dark lords rule and even set the norms of reality according to their twisted personalities. 3rd edition introduced Midnight, arguably one of the best of the crapsack worlds (look it up in TV Tropes) in which despair and misery were par for the course. There are many other examples of such worlds out there. Pathfinder has specific regions of Golarion where Bad Guys rule and horrible things are the norm, as well.

Once you’ve established location/expectation in a way that will at least avoid the sense on the players’ parts that tonight’s game is not about heroes but victims, you can move forward with your diabolical plan to murder them all with an unstoppable zombie menace. So how to go about doing this without making it feel entirely like a crude encounter built around the one-sided premise of “GM wins, everyone dies?”

Just throwing the players into the mix with a supernatural killer isn’t going to cut it, trust me. You need to establish the following ideas for your murderous Halloween plot to make it full of horrific genre fun:

Here are the bullet points for Supernatural Killer Games:
Location – Victims – Personalities – Motive -  Direction - Secrets - Murder! – Achilles’ Heel


Jason and his cronies tend to frequent certain locales. It might be Lake Pleasant, or perhaps it’s the old school house, the abandoned refinery, or something more abstract like dreams. The villain needs a location to which it’s attached somehow, for some reason. The players will need a motive for going there, or being stuck there. In a fantasy setting this is easy: the tomb, castle, haunted mansion….all easy fodder for supernatural killers. If you’re playing Pathfinder take a look at the haunting rules in the Gamemastery Guide; they can come in handy for setting a location with some spooky properties.

Double points if you pick a locale that’s also just plain old dangerous. Often in this genre the area itself lends to the mayhem.


Victims are what drive the story and get everyone into trouble. Jason doesn’t just kill anyone; he kills teenagers who are overly egotistical and promiscuous. Freddy hunts the children of the parents who burned him to death in their dreams. These killers usually have revenge, or an unresolvable desire for punishment driving them.

If you’re making pregens this part is easy; you can structure the “why” of the murder part into the PC backgrounds. If you let players roll up their own or use pre-existing PCs (with foreknowledge that they are in “evil domain X” or at least aware that the conventional D&D genre is being set aside) then you can always craft some background hooks that relate to their established personalities. “You remember your aunt Tabitha, who was burned as a witch in your youth; she cursed the whole village, but looked you in the eyes and said that the children would pay for what the fathers had done” type stuff.

Ideally, you may want to have 1 or even 2 backups for players, so when their first character dies they can wander in with backup #1. If you don’t do this, then treat the game like a sort of elimination match….last man standing gets the prize!


It’s far from a requirement, but the genre of supernatural killer horror is usually punctuated by exaggerated or deserving personalities. From the promiscuous cheerleader to the quiet goth type who hides in her room all day and  broods about death….the victims have lots of personality, sometimes in sync with what the killer hates most.

One way to handle this is to hand out (or randomly roll) on a list of excessive or exaggerated personality traits; if your players are creative just tell them to pick something a bit over the top. If you’re using pre-established characters then maybe they already have some personality quirks that work; if not, suggest that the players play it up a bit.

If you want to make the whole process a bit more spontaneous and organic, just indicate you’ll be passing out kudos or rewards (extra XP if they survive) for the person who hams it up best  or brings the most to the table.


Motive is two sided: you need the killer’s motive (see victims, above) as to why he does what he does….his back story. Then you need the PC motive about why they are creeping around the abandoned castle or the old sawmill looking for trouble and stirring up the undead. Motives in this genre of fiction can often be very basic: a gang of foppish nobles out for a little fun and hanky panky go to the old sawmill where thirty years ago everyone was slain by the son of the old witch said to have been possessed by a demon….and who of course still lurks there! The possibilities flow easily with a bit of thought. If you choose motives, pick ones that the players are both comfortable with and which are easy for them to respond to without feeling rail-roaded.


Direction refers to how you pace your plot. The supernatural killer theme lends itself very well to single game sessions, which means you need to keep players on focus, usually by starting them in the place you want them to be with their ducks all in a row already. Alternatively an ambitious GM could run the game open-world style and populate a region with several such supernatural killer events and other horrors (a la Ravenloft).

You want to avoid a railroad event when you set up this sort of game. Sometimes the easiest way to avoid a railroad (or sense of such) is to just start the game where you want it to be. Don’t put everyone in the proverbial tavern and then force them to haul their butts out to the sawmill (unless you want to let them choose more than one path, or have more than one option anyway)….if the destination is the sawmill then start them at the front door with some backstory. Get right to the action, and avoid confusing the issue. It’s not a railroad if they start at the destination, only if you need them to go there and then pretend like they have the option to do otherwise.

If you’ve built a story with a more open scope, then this becomes less of an issue. If (to use the Freddy Kreuger example) the villain strikes in dreams then the scope of your locale is infinite, essentially. If the monster haunts the entire city, then you need not worry about getting them to Lake Pleasant. This style of story works better for multi-session events, especially if the planned scope of the game can expand beyond just the specific horror theme you’ve decided to go with. Here then you could create the sandbox horror setting, with multiple supernatural killers and horror events lurking in the shadows.


Every supernatural killer story has some secrets, even if they are simple ones (i.e. finding out Freddy was really a dream-demon back from the dead to gain revenge, or the deadites being kandarian demons summoned by the tape of a scholar who probed too deeply into the unknown…)

Secrets can involve the PCs as well, such as the gang of adults who remember the hobo they murdered a decade ago, the weird hobo with the pentagram on his chest. In fantasy it’s easy enough: perhaps they all belonged to the same mob that murdered the witch woman, or were all descended from families that seven generations earlier had made a pact with Evil and then reneged on their part of the bargain….or agreed to condemn the souls of future generations in exchange for immediate power.

Secrets are something you can find to lend clarity to the murdering going on, something which can serve as a big reveal, an explanation, or an ironic twist…


And then there is the murder. In the supernatural killer genre of horror murder isn’t just a thing that happens, it’s sort of The Thing that Happens….it’s the driving force behind much of the tale. Murder in these stories is never clean and simple….it’s bloody, eviscerating, involves unconventional weapons, and even if the supernatural killer gets it, he’ll come back, moments later, unphased by the holes in his body. Likewise, when the adventurers die, they die grisly, sordid deaths that may or may not have an ironic, camp, and always gory twist to them.

Think of a dozen or two unusual murder instruments and grizzly deaths. Keep those in mind, write them down, and look for ways to execute them during the course of the game. Bonus points for putting the action in an environment that just leds itself naturally to gory deaths. Butcheries, dwarven smelting chambers, a trap-laden mansion of evil…you name it. Remember that if there’s a river it should have zombified piranha in it. If there’s a forge it should be uncomfortably easy to fall into when fully lit. If there’s ornamental weaponry on the wall it should take no more than a shove to become impaled.

Achilles’ Heel

There’s one great and final secret which should become evident over the course of the session, perhaps in sprinkled clues, or as a side effect of dialoguing with various NPCs in the know, or even from the ramblings of the murderer himself: the way to kill the thing…or at least stop it for another year.

When you’ve presented an unstoppable monster with DR 15, SR 33 and Regeneration 5 to a party of level 2 adventurers, it’s hard to dispute that you’ve created an impossible beast for them to overcome. What you need is the thing they must do….be it a ritual, a sequence of events, a discourse, the location of an artifact or the means of revealing the true horror of the creature to itself to at last put the monster to rest.

Perhaps a ritual to close the dark portal from which the creature trods is buried in the tomes of the old witch who summoned the thing by accident. Maybe the elder of the village remembers that restraining the beast and impaling it on the tree where it was originally hung will force the demon back into the dead wood. Perhaps the only thing that will sate its murderous lust is to find the elder nobleman who escaped its wrath forty years earlier. Hell: maybe it just needs 12 victims for the night and then it’s happy.

The means of defeating the beast should ultimately be part of the plot, and something potentially attainable, even if it requires the adventurers to question their own moral compass at some point.


Hopefully this advice will help you, too, carry out some classic supernatural murder tales at your Halloween game table…!

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Dead Trigger

Dead Trigger

Despite owning a Nexus 7 and recently acquiring a PS Vita (it’s pretty neat) I haven’t spent any time discussing the range of portable gaming options out there. Since we’ve got a horror-themed October, now seems like a good time to mention one of the better free options out there, Dead Trigger from Madfinger Games.

Dead Trigger is a freemium game, which is to say you download and play for fun and spend some money to acquire in game “gold” which can be used to gain extra equipment, items and perks. The free core game is actually pretty robust, and you won’t soon find yourself required to purchase anything. There’s a curious little casino event tied to daily free tokens for play which might net you some cool gear or gold coins to spend, but it’s more of an aside to the actual game…..easily ignored, though the prospect of winning a few medipacks is always worth playing your free daily tokens.

Aside from the little gambling side trek the game has a variety of items which can be unlocked through gold purchases. I found that you could get pretty much everything you could want for about $10-$15, leaning on the low side if you take advantage of some ways to acquire free gold through the typical advertiser partnership program so many of these Android app games participate in.

So: free game can be played without spending a dime and you’ll feel well rewarded, and if you do like it you can spend $10-$15 for in-game currency and buy pretty much all the game has to offer in the way of optional gear and perks. As freemium Android games go this is downright charitable.

Enough about the pricing structure….what about the game itself?

Dead Trigger is a first person shooter, built around a storyline involving your survivor in a city overrun by a zombie plague. The game overlays missions on a city grid, and you can go do one off missions, missions for gold, arena-style survival events and pursue the story missions at your leisure. The game makes judicious use of well-designed locations, which are repeated for the one-off missions and also the story missions. I’ve sunk quite a few hours into the game and haven’t gotten tired of it.

Most missions involve one of the following goals:

Survive – kill X number of zombies and live (or survive for X amount of time)

Protect – keep one or more locations, usually vehicles or barricades, safe from zombie attack

Gather – locate resources or equipment and deliver said goods to a drop spot while fending off zombies

Within that structure the game keeps you very busy, and the touch screen controls are surprisingly smooth and usually effective; about the only issue I run into isn’t with the game’s responsiveness at all but the limits of the touch-screen on the Nexus 7, which can get uppity if my finger isn’t pushing/sliding “just right” due to any roughness of the skin at all.

Aside from the running around and killing zombies the main gameplay element is one of resource acquisition and management. You don’t find a lot of resources during a scenario except for dropped cash and ammo, but between games you spend money to acquire gear and weapons that will help you out as well as perks as you level up; you have a certain number of slots over time, and you can load up on the gear you think will get the job done. If the choices don’t work then you can mix it up a bit and try a different approach.

While the game lets you buy almost everything with in-game currency it does let you purchase gold to buy resources. However in my experience this was never necessary; the regular everyday use gear was affordable on the cash earnings from each mission without ever resorting to purchased currency.

Each little mission is filling in a snack-game sort of way; play a survival mission for five minutes and feel like you had a decent shooter mini adventure. It’s great pick up and play gaming, and the graphics are excellent; unlike most garbage games on the Android marketplace Dead Trigger feels like a real game….something you’d find on a real game console.

The story is pretty basic but told through text sequences before and after each mission, setting up a lengthy tale of survival and escape. I’ve been playing the game for many, many hours now and still haven’t gotten to the end of the story mission, although that’s because it’s so easy to get distracted by all the side quests.

If you would like a little zombie survival horror action on you Android device, you could do worse than to pick up Dead Trigger. Dead Trigger 2 came out yesterday as well, and I have played the opening missions…it’s an even more polished experience but makes some changes to the formula that are rather curious, so the verdict is still out on whether I will like it better than the original. I suggest you try the first and then move to the second afterward….they’re both great pick-up-and-play survival horror games that feel like genuine, robust graphically intense gaming experiences for your tablet. If you have a Moga (mobile gaming controller) as well Dead Trigger also supports it and works great.


Friday, October 25, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Revenants in D&D Next

Revenants in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

The revenant was first introduced as a playable race in an issue of Dragon Magazine, and quickly adopted as a full option later on. The Revenant appeared in “Heroes of Shadow” which remains one of my favorite 4th edition era books, full of good stuff for use with a macabre campaign centered in the Shadowfell.  It was part of the post-Essentials line of 4E books, one of the first in fact, and so was a bit divisive among some 4E fans that preferred the style/feel of the pre-Essentials content vs. the post-Essentials approach.

I can say this much: the revenant is a cool concept, a sort of undead who has been given a new lease on life, usually by a divine power (The Raven Queen in 4E) with an interest in using a determined agent in the mortal plane to get some task done or some wrong righted. Revenants could be a product of any god of the dead or undead….Orcus, Pluto/Hades, Nergal, Morrigan, Ereshkigal….you name it. Any god could grab a petitioner of their court and turn them into a revenant, destined to accomplish some long term goal that requires a free-willed undead.

Converting the revenant to 5th edition (the September Final Playtest version) is pretty easy, actually. I have retained a few of the 4E-isms in the conversion because they don’t break the system in any way (i.e. having a choice of two stats to apply a bonus to) and done the rest as a “design appropriate” conversion to reflect the 5th edition principles and mechanics.

Revenant Adventurer Statistics:

Modifiers: Dex +1 and choose one: charisma or constitution +1

Size: medium

Speed: 30 feet

Revenant Properties:

Lowlight vision: Revenants have lowlight vision, and are able to see in low light with the same ability as elves and other species with the same trait.

Language: common and one other that may be appropriate to whatever the revenant knew in his or her former life.

Undead Traits: like other undead revenants are immune to disease, poison and necrotic damage. Revenants cannot be put to sleep, and do not in turn need sleep (though they need four hours of meditation as an elf to recover magic). Revenants do not  eat or drink except as they choose to.

Past Life: revenants may take on an aspect of their former life; choose one race with which to identify from the revenant’s former living existence and gain its qualities for purposes of nature. Thus an elven revenant would be typed  as an elf for purposes of effects that relate to elves.

Unnatural Vitality: when you would be unconscious or dying you retain consciousness, not dropping until actual death (but you continue to act as you would with negative hit points otherwise for purposes of mortality checks). During this period you may take actions as normal but are at disadvantage on all actions.

Dark Reaping: revenants can syphon a portion of death energy away from an individual who has died or is near death. When a creature within 25 feet of you hits 0 hit points you may add 1D6 necrotic damage to your next attack. This ability can be regained after use following a short rest.

Sample Revenant:

Varaman dann Praedor
Octzellan knight, human revenant, fighter                
Level     1                             
Alignment:         neutral good
Background:       Noble                   
Homeland:         Octzel (Capitol)
STR         16 (+3)
DEX        13 (+1)
CON       16 (+3)
INT         10 (0)
WIS        9 (-1)
CHA       10 (0)
HPs        13
Proficiency +1
AC          16 (chain mail)
Move    30’ (25’ in armor)

Languages: Common (middle tongue), orcish, Old Tongue

Skills: Athletics (STR),  History (INT), Insight (WIS), Persuasion (CHA)

Fighter Traits: Great Weapon Fighting (deal STR dmg on miss), Second Wind (1D6+fighter level temp hit points for 5 minutes)

Noble Traits: 3 retainers: Jorvune Grayson, butler; Tamarin Dane, squire, and Lady Arianna Tovalish, publicity agent

Equipment: fine clothes, signet ring, sealing wax, scroll of pedigree, riding horse, saddle, bridle, grooming kit, feed (1 wk), 29 GP, 5 SP

Chainmail armor (AC 16, -5 feet move, Disadv. Stealth)
Greatsword (2D6+3 slashing, heavy two-handed)
3 hand axes (1D6+3 slashing, light thrown 20/60)

Varaman dann Praedor was a foppish noble who had trained in the martial arts at his father’s behest but was in fact a natural rake, always chasing women and getting into trouble. His death was ignominious; while riding drunk along the street adjacent to the Dreaming Wall in Octzel with two lasses he fell from his horse and broke his neck.

Hermes, assigned the task of dragging his unworthy soul to the underworld for judgement took pity upon the man, and decided to let him return with one missive: he must commit to four great deeds to make himself worthy before the gods. With that Varaman dann Praedor awoke, a revenant, and now only his most dedicated servants continue to work with him, aware of his true nature, to help the wayward knight ascertain what his second chance calling will amount to.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Reading 5th Edition's Final Playtest: it's got me now

If D&D holds its course with the September Final Playtest.....if the game ends up fairly close to what is effectively the final version of the game we will see before an actual print edition hits sometime next year....then I think they have me hooked.

I've been reading the latest playtest carefully, and designing a metric ton of characters for it. I've been tinkering with scenarios (kind of easy to be honest) and poking and prodding it to see how it behaves. It's honestly working very well for my needs, and is surprising me in a few distinct ways.

Some examples?

First: there have been two camps on the 4E influence in DDN: you either see it or you don't. This version of the playtest puts stake to that divide, though; I do not see any more 4E DNA in the game anymore; in fact they seem to have gone through great efforts to painstakingly excise as much as they could from the 4E comparison list. I think the only "4Eishness" I can find is an occasional reference to a short rest to recover certain abilities....meaning certain traits and powers are actually "encounter" abilities, in 4E parliance...but you'd have to be looking carefully to notice them, and also be more than a bit familiar with the 4E methodology to find the comparison noteworthy.

Magic Missile? Back to a level 1 effect. Lance of Faith? apparently excised from the game entirely...or at least the playtest. Yeah...not even a priest of light gets to play laser cleric anymore (although the holy hand grenade is now present in the form of an impressive light channeling effect option).

Hit points? Something we can all recognize. Healing? A smidgen of 4E DNA lies here with the hit die recovery mechanic. It's considerably less offensive to one's sense of verisimilitude than the old healing surges were but still may take some effort for old schoolers to get used to.

Skills were briefly extracted from the playtest but they are back in force and a simple mechanic that ties skill effectiveness to class proficiency, a catch-all number for improving score in attacks, skills and saves. This allows for skills to be more meaningful and in depth, while still making skill checks on attributes a thing. It's really very elegant.

I'm not so sure about the whole "tools" concept but need to explore it more before I cast judgement.

I have managed to roll up about 5 D&D characters in forty minutes. That's a new character...fully statted and an average of 8 minutes apiece. Wow.

The spells are great so far. I like how most all of them work in execution. The elegance on the system is starting to's a very intuitive set of rules, actually. It's a big mass of different PDFs and yet it feels very elegant, it makes me want to play it. That's a very good sign.

The monster stat blocks continue to look good, continue to be simple and effective, and the math is starting to look coherent. They've got (most of) their numbers under control's much, much better than the early stages of the playtest when the numbers were all over the place and made no sense.

I'll be resuming another playtest campaign this Saturday. I plan to make this my only game system for Saturdays from now on. I'll let the Pathfinder players enjoy their Wednesday....for now....but eventually, D&D 5E is going to replace Pathfinder for me; it's too close to what I really want in D&D, and I'm really impressed that they managed to do it. This game system feels so much better, so much more intuitive than the last two editions....and it's more modest, pulls back to the style (if not exact mechanics) of 1st and 2nd edition.

I still think D&D 5E has a tough wall to climb with Pathfinder and the entrenched OSR fandom....but I feel it has a far better chance of finding its own niche than I did a few months ago.

Yes, this means you'll be seeing a lot of 5E stuff in the blog from here on out. I am that predictable!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Ten Things I Feel I Should Mention That Everyone Already Knows About

There are some films, books and games I've mentioned that I know are popular but for various reasons I had a lot to say about them anyway (i.e. The Thing). And then there are things I feel like I ought to include in these reviews, but realize that just about anyone reading a blog like this has probably already seen and formed an opinion would I really, ultimately, be contributing much by babbling on about them?

To get these off my chest, here's a "Nutshell Countdown!" in which I give said demons a just banishment with a one sentence commentary. Here goes!

#10. Zombieland
   Great movie, can't imagine any fan of road trip films or zombie apocalyptica hasn't seen it.

#9. 28 Days Later
   A great movie that does have zombies in it (unless you prefer to restrict your definition of zombies exclusively to the obviously reanimated) and reserves all its really disturbing horror bits for the human element. (I have not seen 28 Weeks Later, so maybe I'll review that later on)

#8. Silent Hill 2
   The best sequel to the franchise and a morbid tale of a man torn by the sickness that killed his wife, while wandering a haunted town; out in a remastered HD version for those who missed it the first time.

#7. Predators
   I liked it, but the movie still didn't have the thing which made the original so great (namely that it was new and a surprise).

#6. Dawn of the Dead
   Doesn't matter if we're talking remake or original, this one's got to be at the heart of all zombie fans regardless of which version you prefer.

#5. Day of the Dead
   Same deal, with the exception being that the sequel was an okay zombie flick that had nothing to do with the original in any reasonable way, and the original still stands on its own as one of the great zombie films of all time.

#4. Shaun of the Dead
   Sort of like Zombieland, it's a contemporary undead epic for our time, and sort of defines the satirical horror comedy (though to perfectly honest I always felt this one was a bit over-rated).

#3. Anything by Guillermo del Toro
   First, if there was something he did which I didn't like I don't know about it...and second, if there is someone out there who doesn't know about him then truly that fellow must be some sort of deceptive poser masquerading as a geek. (Exception: I'll recant this ban if he resumes making At the Mountains of Madness into a film!)

#2. Hellraiser
   If you haven't seen Hellraiser then...why....I don't suppose you'd like to see the basis from which a great many future horror films ripped off the concept of the evil BDSM demon, would you? I pity the soul who watched Cabin in the Woods yet has never seen Hellraiser! If you saw CinW and caught the boomer cameo but missed the Cenobite visitation then...oh man, just go see this one, please. For Frank! (okay that was more than one sentence)

#1. Night of the Living Dead (the original)
   I can refer to it endlessly, but to directly address this one would be a tedious waste of time; it's a movie that has served as the frame and context for forty four years of an entire subgenre...'nuff said! (sequels and remakes are fair game)

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Lost Planet 2

I felt like I was reaching a bit to include the original Lost Planet under the pretense it had horror elements, but I feel like I'm really reaching now with LP2. However I have had so little time to watch films, read books or otherwise engage with anything fun and not work-related that I'll settle for what I can get. Besides...the horrors of war on an alien world against an evil corporation that wants to do Bad Things to the whole planet sort of fits the bill, right?

If you finish the game and understand exactly what the fellows at NEVEC were planning please let me know....I think it involved popping the grand daddy of alien bugs full of thermal energy, while using a satellite station laser cannon to do it (or something) which was especially confusing since that's sort of what the good guys did in the end, too. Amidst all this are the true victims of the game, the eponymous akrid of the series which are tenacious and predatory but not in the least bit evil or horrific and just want to live, even if it means smashing all the humans in to paste.

Lost Planet 2 was something of an experiment when it came out, providing six chapters of story broken into multiple regions, each one designed from the get-go for multiplayer gaming in a "drop in, drop out" style, which meant no named characters for the most part and no distinct icons outside of the general look and feel of the Lost Planet 2 vibe. The end result is a ever escalating series of missions that are playable solo or (surprisingly even today years after its initial release) with random strangers who seem to die a lot. Well before I got to the last mission I was at some point scratching my head on the how and why of what was going on....the game was so busy being a co-op shooter adventure that the barebone thread of plot interwoven through occasional videos and lots of radio chatter was at times about as incomprehensible as anything you could find in a Modern Warfare title. All you end up knowing for sure is: there's dudes shooting at me, so I must kill them first and activate various beaons and triggers until the game lets me get to the next region.

To be fair, like it's predecessor LP2 plays extremely well and handles the whole "colonial marine who can jump into a big mech suit and smash alien akrids" thing really damn well. So if you just want a decent play experience, and have a fancy for plodding third-person adventures about guys wearing too much body armor, this game is like a sultry maiden waiting for you on a bed of soft leaves.

Winners of the "most uncomfortable armor" contest

If, however, the idea of plodding space marines in cumbersome armor jumping around and shooting innocent indigenous lifeforms that have committed no crime other than being efficient predators and Very Very Large...if that sounds like maybe you're tired of this formula, then perhaps you might want to look elsewhere?

I had fun with LP2, and was pleased to at last complete the game in solo mode (though I occasionally dabbled in multiplayer usually by accident) right up to the crazy-ass grand finale which involves blowing up the biggest akrid on the planet before Nevec does....or to spite Nevec? I really never did figure out why the solution to everyone's problems was to blow it all up. Release all that thermal energy I guess before Nevec harvested it, maybe. Ugh...the space opera fantasy logistics of the tech in Lost Planet breaks down quickly if you think about it at all, which is weird because without the thermal energy nonsense most of the game's tech at least looks plausible, if awkward.

If you can find it for $5 and are intrigued you can't go wrong! Just remember: the plot to LP2 is like the spoon: not really there.


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Lost Planet Extreme Condition Colonies Edition

I wasn't sure I'd bother reviewing this as part of the Many Days of Horror thing I've got going, but it's been a tough month and Lost Planet is technically in some corner of the venn diagram where survival horror overlaps with space marine action and alien invasions. That said....there's not really a lot of horror (or attempt at such) in Lost Planet beyond the chilling cold of the ice world that is EDN III and the vast array of indigenous life forms that want to eat you, along with the obligatory evil corporation that wants to terraform the planet by wiping out all life on it.

Lost Planet is a few years old now, and a "Extreme Condition Colonies Edition" was released sometime after the original game that is allegedly better. I think this may be true; I remember getting frustrated with LP on the Xbox 360 when it first came out, but the bargain basement copy I got on PC was pretty fun to play.

The plot in a nutshell: you're Wayne, frozen in ice for a few days, weeks, months or maybe decades (it's a bit nebulous as to just how long) equipped with a special devices that harvests the enigmatic thermal energy which is the only life-sustaining source of power Lost Planet monsters can run on, apparently. The entire premise of this series is actually centered around the following bullet points, actually:

1. Humanity comes to EDN III and finds it a painful place to live. Discovers the so-called thermal energy which is basically like transformer Energon (i.e. fictional and not science-based) which they can ship back to Earth. Or something. It's a bit fuzzy to me.

2. First post-terraform colonization fails, ice age ensues? Ice pirates arise!

3. Evil corporation NEVEC gets involved in terraforming the planet in a way that's terminal to existing residents. Your hero emerges to explain to them at the point of a mecha barrel why this is a bad idea.

This game had some pretty big boss monsters. Aside from the whole "Nevec sucks" part of the dialogue there was a story about a guy who was working for Nevec but then he wasn't but then they kidnapped him anyway and then your protagonist shoots everyone with large calibre rounds from his giant robot.

This game is commendable for having fun and intuitive combat mechanics, albeit with the slow and plodding third-person feel of Gears of War....except with big ass mechs everywhere you can jump in to, and a grappling gun. The storyline is tenebrous thread through which one glorious set piece of action and mayhem erupts into another. The giant boss monsters are there because it's more fun when the planet is plagued with an infinity of giant monsters in an ecosystem that seems to operate around storing up magic thermal energy in their abdominal sacks, which stays comfortably there until you perforate said abdomens with lots of bullets and then soak up the energy. The absorption/processing efficiency of human devices is abysmal, by the way. On harder difficulty levels its easy to run out of thermal energy and freeze to death.

Speaking of which, just play it on easy mode, you'll find the game more tolerable and genuinely fun; this is Capcom, after all! Easy mode means "tough as nails mode for Americans, but a cakewalk for Japanese men married to their pillow brides."

So is it horror? Ummmm probably not quite....but it's got a survival horror feel to it on occasion, albeit stunted by the anime-esque CGI and the proliferation of heavily armed robots lying randomly about waiting for a pilot. Solid fun from a game that was an early arrival in the last-gen console lifespan, but worth checking out considering you can find it for $5 or less on PC these days.


I've since played and finished Lost Planet 2 and am working on Lost Planet 3. Lost Planet 3 is actually a lot of fun, albeit in a "this plays like Dead Space and not Lost Planet" sort of way. Lost Planet 2 was a different beast entirely...more later!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Batman: The Black Mirror

I wouldn't ordinarily suggest a costumed vigilante/superhero comic or graphic novel for a horror review, but the truth is that Batman: The Black Mirror is downright disturbing. Honestly, the fact that the protagonist is a capable crime fighter makes some of what goes on in the book even more horrific. Sometimes, the worst sort of evil hides way below the radar of costumed justice.

Batman, albeit apparently one Dick Grayson (former Robin turned Nightwing) filling in for a year while Bruce Wayne is off....doing....something? --it's not really explained in this GN-- is the lead for this adventure, a lengthy tale which spanned at least a dozen issues of the old Batman comic (pre New 52, I think). Written by Scott Snyder, this book apparently got accolades for his storyline, and it shows. The art style is distinct as well and fairly consistent, between "Jock" and Francesco Francavilla. I only read comics these days, I don't usually follow the personalities behind them anymore unless someone's work really stands out. Well guess what! Scott Snyder & co., their work stands out, and I will be looking for more of his writing in the future.

The plot in a nutshell: Bruce Wayne has taken off due to odd plot reasons typical of comic book continuity, and Dick Grayson has hung up his Nightwing garb to play Batman for a while. Meanwhile, a menagerie of more disturbing psychopaths and monstrosities have come to town to plague Gotham City, including The Dealer, who specializes in procuring the odd weaponized artifacts of other criminals for the black market. The worst of the lot by far is no less than Comissioner Jim Gordon's young son from his first marriage, James, who is a diagosed psychopath, and over whom lingers a disturbing reality: the criminals who don't get dressed up in costumes? They're the ones that most easily fly under the sonar of The Bat.

If you want a good read with excellent visuals, pick up The Black Mirror. It's one of the better Batman tales I've seen in a long while, and almost disappointing that Dick Grayson apparently didn't get to continue being Batman after Snyder's run as writer.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Many Days of Horror! - Cryptworld

I could almost call this month "The Many Days of 80's Horror Memorabilia" and pretty much be about right. Cryptworld owes its existence to a gutsy publisher in the 80's called Pacesetter, which was founded by people who thought the best way to tackle the RPG market was in the same manner as TSR, by publishing accessible games in boxed sets aimed at mass distribution. They produced Timemaster, Chill and Star Ace, with many supplements for each. Oddly their lineup did not include a direct competitor to D& fantasy Pacesetter game, in other words. Instead they were competing with Star Frontiers, Call of Cthulhu and (apparently) nothing because outside of Man, Myth & Magic I don't think anyone was crazy enough to aim at some sort of historical time traveling game back then (or now for that matter....)

Chill survived its founding company, to return in a second edition through Mayfair Games which was a late 80's/early 90's icon of gaming for many (myself included) with both Chill, DC Heroes and a plethora of Role-Aids adventures and source books designed for unofficial use with AD&D. Eventually Mayfair succumbed and shrank to whatever sort of board game company it remains (board gamers probably can speak much more on this than I) and Chill died with it. Rumors and website suggesting a revitalization lurk in the woodwork, but meanwhile Daniel Procter went and did one better: can't get the Chill license? Who cares! Buy Pacesetter whole cloth along with the core mechanics. Boom: first Rotworld, a zombie survival game and now Cryptworld, a Hammer Horror simulator are back on the scene and the Pacesetter game system is officially a thing again. I eagerly look forward to the not-Star Frontiers-alike that is hopefully in the near future! Did Goblinoid Games get the full Star Ace license, maybe? That would be cool.

So what is Cryptworld? I liken it to a classic movie monster and Hammer Horror simulator. It can reasonably do any horror, sure...but the game's monstrous roster is slanted toward the classics --and before any young'uns ask, no the Mythos aren't really considered a part of this camp. Think Bram Stroker, Bela Lugosi, the Swamp Man, Frankenstein and all that. Cryptworld moves the horror dial slightly ahead as well by including some noted cryptids and a few other analog monsters representing a myriad variety of contemporary threats from film and fiction, such as cannibal hillbillies, the chupacabra, "criswells," and more.

How does Cryptworld play? If you're the target audience then you probably have fond memories of checking off circles/boxes for stamina and tracking percentile-based stats while referring to an action table. This is the same game system, and the action table has only been modified to reflect gray scales for differing degrees of difficulty/success. The game system is really very simple and straight-forward. Its more suited to short stories and campaigns of a few sessions in length (imo) but character advancement rules are an option, in which you accrue lots of XP and spend it to gain incremental bonuses in your stats.

The Cryptworld/Pacesetter system is skill-focused and you wont find any feats or special abilities here, just normal people against the tide of evil. Rules are included for paranormal talents, which largely consist of abilities you'd see in genre fiction and film prior to 1979. There are optional rules for handling fear as a mechanic, too.

The rest of the game mechanics are no-nonsense and can simulate a variety of contemporary or historical genres easily enough. The art throughout the book is good. There's a nice little section on running horror games. The whole book comes in at 90 pages, but its absolutely everything you could want to run a fun session or ten of macabre horror adventures, simulating anything from schlock Hammer Horror films to something more modern and X-Filesish.

Cryptworld will appeal greatly to fans of light but robust game systems that come entirely in a single tome. It's fully compatible with Rotworld, so you can use one to enhance the other as well. The core mechanics are solid and function well for their intended purpose. If you already have a default go-to system (i.e. BRP) for such games I'm not sure Cryptworld will sway you away from using them (though it might inspire you), but if you've been looking for something like a dedicated non mythos horror system that also eschews the weirder contemporary horror tropes in favor of classic takes on the theme, then I think you ought to investigate Cryptworld further.