Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Suzy Solar Perfect Trance 2.0 (semi-middle draft)

Suzy Solar's first cd was a very pleasant surprise. I hadn't heard of her before, but I recognized most of the artists on it and it was more or less the sort of trance I like - melodic and uplifting, with lots of beautiful female vocals.

Her first cd was mostly german/swiss trance (like say Taucher or DJ Mind-x). Which is good, but has a certain synth sound that can get a bit old after a while. This is a bit more varied in style. There's even some acid trance on here (kind of)

It starts off on a lush, almost ambient note, then goes into what I think was the best trance song of 2002 - Andain - "Summer's Calling (Airwave Progressive Mix)". Thankfully, she plays most of the song, about 8 minutes of it, which was necessary to really capture how good a song it's hauntingly beautiful, and very slow building (like most Airwave songs). (This is actually the only song on the cd I had, though I had heard "Angel" someplace, somewhere, sometime, but I can't remember when, where, or how)

The next song is much more upbeat, so it's a bit of a contrast between the too.

Sunstorm's Fable seems to be a cover (of sorts) of the old Robert Miles song, Fable (which is mostly famous for being used in the movie trailer for Everafter, or something like that)

Faysal - The Look Of Love 2002 (Summerchill Instrumental Mix) is absolutely mind-blowing. Much of it is basically acid trance, but the breakdown features this really different sounding synth, almost like a steel guitar. But it echoes, so it's very wild. One of the more striking songs I've ever heard - I've never heard anything quite like it.

About the only song I didn't like was "Can I Touch You There", which seemed a bit inane. I sort of feel the same way about "The Fall", kind of dumb. But neither is really really annoying.

"Stars" almost sounds like a Thrillseeker's song. (Good thing).

"Angel" is a really nice song. It uses a technique in which the vocals are sung slightly differently in the left & right channels (the Moody Blues used this a lot). Very cool.

Perfect trance? Yes, if you like uplifting, melodic trance.

It might sound like she screwed up a bit on the mixing of the last song ("Angel"), at one point the high-hats and beat is out of sync (which can happen when mixing when you've killed the bass on one channel and it then drops out of phase) but the original song is actually like that. Her mixing on the album is actually very good - sounds live, too, unlike many so called DJs who use pro-tools or some other computer program to mix the songs together.

She also shows one of greatest traits a DJ can have - when to play a lot of the song, and when to not. The best songs on this cd (Stars, Summer's Calling, The Look of Love) are played the longest, and some of the songs that are mostly good but have some boring bits (Time to Fly) are cut short.

Way of the Witch (preliminary draft - probably won't finish)

I like witches. At least, I like fantasy witches (as I've said in previous reviews of witch books, I tend to find wiccans to be pagan versions of Ned Flanders), and I like having witches in D&D.

Witches have been around in D&D since almost the begining, though typically in an unofficial capacity, either as a write up in Dragon magazine (3 different versions, I believe) or in an unauthorized supplement (Mayfair's Witches). Even the original little brown book had a picture of a witch in it, but no witch class.

Anyway, about three different witch books for d20 (D&D 3rd edition, really), appeared around the same time, from three companies. One from Mongoose, one from Green Ronin, and one from a smaller company, Citizen Games, which I believe has no relation to the watch company. There are also witchs in a variety of other d20 products, from Mystic Eye Games' Gothos setting, to a 3.5 one in The Hamlet of Thumble, in Slaine, and in AU. So they are everywhere. I finally bought this, because I bought something from a seller on ebay, and I wanted to get something else so I could combine shipping (ebay sellers really screw you on it)

I bought the Mongoose one first, because it was the biggest, and the cheapest in terms of value, and I believe the first one out, and I actually liked it a lot. I later picked up the Green Ronin one for a reasonable price, and also thought it was good.

The design is probably the best thing about the book. It's really really nice looking. Which is surprising, as it says the Interior Design is done by Ken Whitman.

Experts (incomplete draft)

Experts is a 112 page softcover sourcebook from Skrimisher Press. I hadn't heard of it until I read a positive review on RPG Net. The Skirmisher website is well, a bit weird, and I get the impression its more sort of a local role-playing club than a real company. (Though this book was carried at FRP Games, and it has an ISBN, and they apparently just put out a second d20 book)

The physical quality is a bit poor. It reminds me of the sort of books you'd get in elementary school that you were meant to write in (like books on spelling). Sort of thin, yellow-ish paper, perfect bound. I really only mention this because my 2 pups got a hold of it, for about 5 minutes, and tore 1/3 of it to shreds. (Similarly, they also got 7 Cities from Atlas, and the new Harry Potter book, but didn't really damage it other than teeth mark on the cover. I guess this one reason gamers usually tend to just have cats - at worst, cats steal your dice and sleep on your books)

I like the Expert class a lot, but it's not quite for PCs (not surprisingly, as it's an NPC class). In my own game, to make it a player class, I give them extra feats, same as a fighter gets. Another book (the Sovereign Stone d20 campaign setting), made a specific type of the Expert, the Sailor, a PC class by giving it a number of special abilities suitable for a Sailor. I was sort of hoping that this book would do that - basically give special abilities to the various flavors of Expert.

It actually does this. But rather than a full fledged array of powers or special abilities, they get only a couple. This is not bad, just not quite what I was hoping for, but again, not bad. These are still just more suited for NPCs, not PCs.

For the architect, as examples, they cite Mike Brady (of the Brady Bunch) and the character Charles Bronson played in the Death Wish movies. I think they were trying to be amusing.

I tend to be leary of new skills, as I like how d20 tends to group skills into fairly broad categories. But thankfully, most of the 'new' skills in this book are actually just more detailed versions subsets of the Knowledge, Profession and Craft skills, complete with sample Difficulty Classes (DCs). For instance, Craft (Taxidermy) or Profession (Archaelogist)

This is incredibly useful, probably the most useful part of the book.

Where they go outside the 3 metaskills, they misfire. For instance, "Smelting". That probably could have been a profession skill rather than a skill on it's own. And "Utilize Magic Item", basically a more limited version of the existing "Use Magic Item" is redundant.

Shadows over Baker Street semi-middle draft

Shadows over Baker Street

This novel basically combines the Cthulhu Mythos with Sherlock Holmes. This is not a new concept, there was the Cthulhu by Gaslight sourcebook which I think had him in it.

It starts off rather poorly, I thought. While many people are fans of Neil Gaiman, I am not one of them, and while I was amused by his notion of Queen Victoria as a Great Old One, the story didn't work very well. Too cute-sy, and I don't think he took the whole thing very seriously.

Steve Perry, who in my opinion, is among the world's most awful writers. And true to form, he didn't disappoint! I'm not even sure he writes stories, so much as comes up with a way of describing super-women (he even did this in his Star Wars novel, creating a female sex-bot/assassin droid). Which I guess is an improvement over just bimbos, but still comes off as very 12 year old boy-ish. His story in this basically consists of Sherlock Holmes staring at a woman's chest for 20 pages. (There is a connection to the Mythos. The 'heroine' is to the Mythos what Buffy is to vampires). He also names it like it was a Perry Mason story, not Sherlock Holmes. Ugh.

However, they do get better.

Probably my favorite was "A Case of Insomnia" by John Vourlis, in which an entire town is well, sleepless. Also very good and memorable was "The Mystery of the Hanged Man's Puzzle", which is hard to describe without giving away the premise, but starts with a curious map given to Holmes by a condemned man.

Still, many of the stories are merely re-writes of existing Mythos tales, at least the plot. If you are a HPL fan, you can probably spot them right away. Great Race of Yith, mind transferrence, etc, though a few have some twists.

Also, and this isn't really a plus or minus, but some of the stories are at odds with Call of Cthulhu's depiction of the Cthulhu mythos. For instance, in the game itself, the "Voorish Sign" is a very simple thing used to help with magic. In a story in this, it's apparently completely different and much more dreadful. Similarly, in one of the stories, the Elder Sign is not something that keeps out Mythos critters, but is apparently something negative.

One story is based on HPL's Herbest West, Reanimator story, and although it has a really nice twist at the end, seems to borrow some imagery from the dreadful movies.

All in all, while it has it's literary flaws, it's a great resource for Call of Cthulhu GMs, especially those actually running games in that era, as there are literally dozens of adventure/scenario ideas in it. And you can borrow NPCs as well.

Lords of the Night: Liches (2nd draft)

Lords of the Night: Vampires is quite possibly my favorite d20 book. At least d20 sourcebook. But then I have a thing for vampires (I even liked the movie Underworld. Heck, right now, I'm listening to the Alucard mix of Robert Nickson's "Spiral", though other than the name, it has nothing to do with vampires).

But Liches, well, Liches just don't do much for me. I mean, when you think of vampires, I now think of Kate Beckinsdale in a skintight outfit. When I think of Liches, well, it's more like Kate Moss in a skintight outfit. I mean, they're basically skeletons, with bits of flesh on their bodies, not very attractive (unless your Johnny Depp, I guess).

Honestly, if LOTN: Vampires weren't so great, I probably would have passed on this. Except, I was interested in more of the Lords of the Night metaplot, and figured at the very least, it would have some info that would tie into the vampire book. While it does have some tie in, it's also one brilliant book by itself. Even if you really don't like liches.

Basically, in the Lords of the Night universe (which is sort of a meta setting, that can be inserted into the background of your world), there seems to be two basic forces, that of creation or order, apparently called "The Arcane", and that of entropy, or the Void. Liches are largely servants of the Arcane.

Not really the "good" guys, so much as people more concerned with their own ends, which is their own power. The forces of the Void threaten them. While the book is a bit heavy on background material, it's pretty easy to ignore the Void vs. Arcana metaplot, and just concentrate on the Liches themselves. Generally speaking, the rules are pretty well separated from the plot stuff.

Basically, Liches belong to a different order, and each have a different age or state of decay (the more dead, the more powerful. Like with rock stars).

It's a very beautiful book. Almost a bit too beautiful in some cases.

Gnomes: Masters of Illusions (final draft)

Gnomes are sort of out of place in the fantasy world. While in the real world, everyone knows what a gnome is, and they are fairly popular (even occasionally appearing in TV commercials), there is not much of a role for them in a fantasy world, as there is a crowd of other short people. On the "good" side, there are dwarves and hobbits and halflings and kender and smurfs. On the "bad", there are goblins, ewoks, and kobolds. It's hard for gnomes to find a niche. Sometimes they are poor man's dwarves, sometimes hobbits with a big nose, sometimes something else (1st edition AD&D made them into illusionists and tricksters.)

This book presents 3 major types of gnomes. Hill Gnomes are basically like Hobbits, sort of rural folk. Moutain Gnomes are basically like Dwarves, only with a Scottish accent to them, and a sense of humor. Imperial Gnomes are by far the most original concept, being Gnomes that have a Japanese or Korean style culture.

Each gnomish culture gets a very detailed description. Social structure, customs, clothing, etiquette, pastimes, just about everything you'd want to know. The government types are painstakingly detailed. Even their clothing is detailed. Almost more than you'd want to know about gnomes, by the end of the chapter I was almost saying, "gnome mas".

I found Hill Gnomes to be the most likeable sort of gnome. As mentioned, they remind me of Hobbits, or the traditional sort of Halfing (before they were changed to hyperactive children in 3e).

Mountain gnomes, besides being somewhat dwarf like, have a strong caste system. They're supposed to be lawful good, but I'm not sure how that jibes with a caste similar (which IMHO, is inherently unfair, and thus, not good).

Imperial Gnomes get the most pages devoted to them. As mentioned, they are asian flavored gnomes, presumably based on the Japanese empire (at least, there's samurai and such).

I found this sort of gnome to be a bit sureal, especially the pictures of the Gnome Samurai. (Gnome Ninjas I can handle, but Samurai? ). Still, it works out surprisingly well.

It is somewhat odd, while these gnomes get the biggest description of any gnome type, there is really no mention or tie in to them in the rest of the book (the spells, classes, magic items, etc, except for some of the mundane items in the equipment section). While classes and such from "Oriental Adventures" are not open content, the rules stuff from AEG's "Rokugan" sourcebook is, and it happens to have many classes (like the Samurai and the Ninja). It would have nice to have some tie ins with those.

After the chapters on the main gnomish cultures, there's a chapter that is a grab bag of gnome stuff: minor variants, gods, feats, and diseases.

Three more gnome variants get briefly mentioned (and statted up). "Frightlock" gnomes, which are sort of are to Gnomes what the Addams family is to humans, sort of spooky, necromancer types. Then there are the "Oakcap" gnomes, which are basically wilderness or outdoors sorts of gnomes. They actually are like the gnomes I used in my home brew world (as it's the obvious development of the garden/lawn gnome). There's also the "Toedirt" gnome, which seems to be aimed at making fun of poor people, being based on their stereotypes. (As I live in a poor, rural community, needless to say, I didn't find these all that amusing). These are all short entries, and probably deserved to be fleshed out more.

There's a whole gnomish pantheon. While the concepts/archetypes of the gods are pretty solid, some of the names are a bit silly, even for gnomes. For instance, the goddess of the house is called "Hazel Broomsweep". The god of law they worship is called "Continuo". The goddess of nature of theirs is called "Knotaleafa". The big or main god, is called "Oserien Anntilien Mareleos", which sounds like a name a Goth would take. But to a certain extent, you do expect gnomes to have silly names.

The feats are something of a mixed bag. A lot of them seem to be broken, or in some cases, similar but worse to existing feats. For instance, several feats give a +2 skill bonus to a skill, but only in some cases, like only to feys or big people. So it's generally not as good as many skill bonus feats (the general rule is, +3 to one skill, or +2 to 2 skills), it's more limited in application.

Similarly, later on in the book, I thought some of the prestige classes are a bit unbalanced or not fully thought out, rules wise.

For instance, "The Stump Knight", a sort of gnome that is expert at attacking tall people. It got all great saves, plus the best base attack bonus, plus a slew of special abilities. Prestige classes should be somewhat better than a core class, but not that much better.
The "Burrow Savage" is also probably too good. Some of the spell casting prestige classes, though better, power wise, have non-standard save progressions, which is something that bugs some people (at least me).

The part I liked the most about the book are the magic items for gnomes. They are perhaps a bit silly, but fit more in my notion of a gnome (though not really the gnomes in this book). For instance, there's a variety of magical gnomish hats (those conical floppy things), which they tend to wear in my game world, but which they don't seem to in any illustration in this book.

Many of the new spells and magic items are directly named after a specific gnome who created them. I really liked this, because each one has their own specialty. For instance, the spells by Bandycook "The Clean" Thigwistle deal with cleanliness or cleaning. The named spells are perhaps not the most obviously useful, but in the generic section, there are a lot of illusion spells that could find a use. And the weird spells are great for filling up spellbooks your PCs might find.

Many also are puns. Gnome being one of the most pun-able words around. For instance, there are a couple of items called "Gnome Ann's" so and such. (Gnome Ann being an island, not a gnome. Think about it).

Physically, the books is pretty good. The layout is clean, and it's easy to read. There's a table of contents and an index.

The art is excellent, and there is a lot of it. The two artists are both very good, but have a contrasting style. One uses mostly line art, that is, just black & white, and is a bit comic book-ish, while the other has a more realistic style, not photo-realistic, a bit more stylized, but real looking, and uses shading or textures (I'm not really up on my art terms).

Well, the book is somewhat rough when it comes to rules - especially the feats - it definitely needs a d20 rules expert revising it (though it's still better than Fast Forward products). But I did like many of the ideas, and the magic items. And it's well illustrated. C, if not for the rules problems, it would be higher. Like many smaller press products, what it lacks in polish is more than made up for in enthusiasm, which makes the book enjoyable to read.

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