Jeremy's Reviews Blog

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Dick Francis - Under Orders (Novel)

I'm not sure how long ago I started reading Dick Francis's novels, maybe 6-7 years or so. But in that time I read pretty much everything he wrote, so I would look forward to his new ones. But then his wife passed away, and he stopped writing for a while. (There were some rumors about his wife actually writing the books). But now he's back with a new one after a few years.

Like pretty much all his novels, (since he was a jockey), it's somewhat related to horses. This features his only (I think) recurring protagonist, Sid Halley, a jockey turned P.I. (for lack of a better word) after his hand gets crippled in a steeplechase accident, in I think his 3rd novel. Usually his novels feature brand new people, so I wonder if he picked Sid Halley because he felt comfortable with him, or perhaps if he wanted to make sure he gave him one last go-round (so to speak) (since Mr. Francis is not getting any younger himself).

At any rate, it's definitely a Dick Francis novel. Perhaps a bit less brutal than the previous Sid Halley novels (which were kinda gorey), but still somewhat violent. While I'm not sure the plot makes all that much sense, it's an enjoyable read full of fairly interesting and sufficiently villainous characters. Also very modern in terms of technology, much of it revolves around internet betting. Not his best work, and if you aren't already a Dick Francis fan, it probably wouldn't convert you, but enjoyable for his fans (like me).

Rappan Athuk Reloaded (first draft)

Product Background:

Rappan Athuk: Reloaded is a compilation of Necromancer Games' previous Rappan Athuk d20 system modules, combined with some new material, all in a boxed set. It's priced at a staggering $75, partly because it's a limited edition product, with only 1000 copies being printed, each numbered and signed by the heads of Necromancer Games.

There was some controversy about this. Firstly because it was originally meant to be competitively priced hardback ($40-ish, given the page count), with a decent sized print run. That would have been my first choice as a consumer, then changed to a limited edition, high priced boxed set.

Secondly, the head of Necromancer stated that would not be getting any copies (relevent because offered an insanely low pre-order price of $22). However, that not only turned out to be false, in that they did get some copies and honored that pre-order price, they've been offering copies of it well after the initial pre-order period, albeit for a somewhat higher price ($47).

Some feel this was an honest mistake, others feel it was merely a ruse to get more people to pre-order direct from White Wolf/Necromancer themselves. Who knows? All I know, is I was convinced not to pre-order from, but did end up getting one there (#200) at the higher price. So I still got a pretty good deal.

Thirdly, while this is available in PDF form, the price of the PDF is quite high - $50 or so, higher than the price for the print product.

I think the whole mess has left some fans somewhat irked at Necromancer. Myself included. So take the rest of this review with that in mind, though I try to be objective.

The Product Itself...

Rappan Athuk is designed to be something of a killer dungeon. Not the largest, perhaps not even the deadliest, but it's called the "Dungeon of Graves". Not because it's run by Peter Graves, but because of its lethality. Apparently from the notes, it was the megadungeon in the game of one of the heads of Necromancer games, and is about 25 years old, and has killed about 500 player characters in that timespan.

It's basically set in a mountain, and is about 15 levels in size. More actually, because some levels have multiple sections. It's not a linear or completely horizontal, but vertical, and there are difference entrances and exits to various levels. So to a certain extent, players can explore it in various different manners, and come and go (rather different than the other megadungeon on the market for d20, the World's Largest Dungeon).

The backstory is fairly simple - basically a group of followers of Orcus (the demon-god of Death) lost a war vs the armies of good, and fled. They found a hollowed out mountain (apparently old volcano) and set up shop. And thus Rappan Athuk was born. (No explanation for the name itself, though).

As such, much of the dungeon is filled with worshippers of Orcus, or various minions of his.

You get 3 books with this. One big book, which describes the 15 levels. One smaller book, which contains stats for the monsters and NPCs in the dungeon. And one small book, which contains the maps of the dungeon.

The Dungeon: Levels One through Five

Level 1: The Lair of the Dung Beast (4 pages)

The main entrance (sorta) for RA. This for lower level PCs, but has a couple complications. First off, the Dung Beast, which is a mimic who often poses as a toilet. He's basically unkillable. Also a bunch of wererats. Kind of a dull level. 4 pages

Level 1a: The Temple of the Final Sacrement. (6 pages)

This is another entrance to Rappun Athuk, but is somewhat hidden, and generally for mid level (10 and above) parties. This is a more interesting level, in that there are various tests and puzzles the parties must past to get through it. 6 pages

Level 2: Marthek's Place & Ambro's Base (5 pages)

This is a short level. Marthek is a crazy barbarian, Ambro is a stupid ogre.

Level 3: Beware of Purple Worms (6 pages)

As you might guess, this is full of purple worms. But also rats and umber hulks. And a Rakshasa

Level 3a: The Well - Zelkor's Lair (7 pages)

This level is the home of Zelkor, a spectre of a wizard.

Level 3b: Down the Well (11 pages)

This level is for very high level character (18+), and is the home of the Ravager, a rather nasty sort of critter which is nigh on unbeatable. Basically, the PCs shouldn't go here because they will almost certainly get killed.

Level 4: The Upper Temple of Orcus (6 pages)

This is the 1st of 3 Orcus temples in the place. As you might guess, it's full of Orcus's followers, as well as Max, a "surprisingly intelligent" Otyugh. Meant for 10th level or so characters.

Level 4a: The Upper Caverns (5 pages)

Not much here, pretty cavernish stuff - fungus, goblins, basilisks. Toughest bit are a vampire and his girlfriend.

Level 5: Banth's Lair & the Wight Catacombs (6 pages)

Banth is an evil wizard, who does experiments on dead critters. He's been given protection by Orcus, thus the wights and zombies around the places. He is the first of two evil wizards to have an apprentice who is not evil, but a slave.

Level 6: The Maze (6 pages)

This is obviously a maze, and houses a couple interesting locations.

Level 6a: Caves & Caverns - The Lair of the Spider Queen (5 pages)

More caves and cave stuff. The Spider Queen here is actually just a human wizardress.
There's a Who reference here - a spider named Boris.

Level 7: The Gates of Hell (7 pages)

If the PCs want to take out Orcus, they have to go to here. This is the first step on the path. There's actually a 3 headed dog guarding the place, but also some Mind Flayers

Level 7a: The Hall of Kazleth, the Phase Mintaur King (3 pages)

Has a nasty Minotaur and his crew - they can phase in and out. Also some goblins and a tomb

Level 8: Caves & Caverns - The Tomb of the Evil King (5 pages)

More cave stuff. Some scorpions and a Beholder. Some more goblins, and the evil King himself, who is undead. The backstory for him is a bit confusing, because it makes reference to a living Halfling in Bard's Gate, but that seems too recent to me.

Level 8a: Tomb of the Beacon (9 pages)

Now this is one of the levels in the dungeon that is really different. The Beacon in the title is a magical artifact which is housed here, along with the remains of its former owner, who was entrapped on this level by the forces of evil that built the dungeon. (Finding the artifact is easy enough, but freeing it is another matter).

What makes it different, is that it's inhabited by a colony of Flumphs. Flumphs have been callest the most useless (or maybe most pointless?) monster ever. They are sort of floating jellyfish.

Also on the level is an Beholder and a Roper, which are at odds with the Flumphs.

Level 9 - The Lower Temple of Orcus (4 pages)

The 2nd temple of the big O in this dungeon. Fairly standard, but has a few twists like a maze and a pack of displacer beasts.

Level 9a - Caves & Caverns - The Hydra's Lair (7 pages)

While pretty much self explanatory, besides the hydra, there's a bunch of other interesting places, like a tomb and a gate.

Level 9b - The Well of Agamemnon, Upper Level (5 pages)

No, it's not THE Agamemmnon, it's a different one. This one is a wizard (although sometimes in the text called a sorcerer), not a tragic Greek king. There's sort of a Greek link to him, his girlfriend was a priestess of Hecate, who got turned into a statue.

Level 9c - The Well of Agamemnon, Lower Level (5 pages)

This is where Agamemmnon actually hangs out. He's a vampire now, so he apparently doesn't do much but stay in his crypt (Oh yeah, I know if I were an immensely powerful immortal sorcerer), that's what I'd do)

Level 9d - The Bloodways (21 pages)

By far the biggest level of the dungeon. This actually has no map, it's everchanging, so the PC's passage through it is handled by a flow chart

Level 10 - The Lava Pit (5 pages)

Level 10a - The Great Cavern (10 pages)

Level 10b - The Goblin Outpost (5 pages)

Level 10c - The Talons of Orcus (8 pages)

Level 11: The Waterfall and Akbeth's Grave (6 pages)

Level 12 The Slave Pits (10 pages)

Level 12a - Grezneck (or, The Goblin City and the Hall of the Titan Cyclops) (14 pages)

It's not just a dungeon! There's a city of Orcus worshipping goblins in it as well. Apparently the PCs are supposed to befriend these goblins somehow, and use this city as a base of operations. Although this seems only plausible for evil characters.

Level 13 - The Portal of Darkness (4 pages)

If the PCs want to battle Orcus himself, they have to go to this level to enter a portal to take them to Level 15, where he awaits.

Level 13a - The Goblin Barracks

Level 14 - The Chapel of Orcus (4 pages)

This is the 3rd temple of Orcus in the dungeon. It's pretty small.

There is a portal here that go to the first large Necromancer Games dungeon, Tomb of Abysthor (also a much better dungeon).

Level 15 - The Den of the Master (3 pages)

This is the lair of Orcus himself. Or at least his "Avatar" (I hate that "Avatar" stuff, way too 2nd edition in feel). At any rate, he's pretty tough. In theory, he's supposed to be beatable, if the PCs have destroyed his 3 temples in the dungeon, because his stats aren't as high.

Even then, it seems unlikely that 20th level chracters could. Epic would be more of a match.

Final Thoughts (I really need a catchier name for the last part of the review)

I think it suffers from a lot of problems. Both the dungeon itself, and the product form.

First off, the dungeon doesn't have a lot of variety. 3 levels are basically the same thing, temples to Orcus. Oh sure, the specifics are different. But not that different.

Even some of the NPCs are basically the same. Like two different NPCs forced to be apprentices to evil bad guy wizards.

Secondly, it's not the easiest to use in a game. It's fairly high level (probably 10th minimum) and the PCs have to make the trek to it, where there are a number of fairly high level beasties. I really cannot see many players wanting to do this.

Lastly, the product form is less than ideal. Having the entire dungeon in one rather stiffly bound, perfect bound, softcover book, makes it very hard to use. Unless you want to break the spine, you can't lay it open on a table. Thankfully the maps are in another book.

I also think that the main dungeon book seems "padded" by the format they chose to use. By having something like 32 different chapters for the dungeon, you end up with well, almost 32 pages of white space when you consider the chapter header and the last page which is usually not close to being full. The outer margin isn't exactly small, either.

Ultimately, this is really only a product for collector's, I think. While parts of the dungeon are certainly useable, I think most people looking for an adventure will not find this product terribly appealing.

Deadly, yes, so DMs wanting to kill PCs might like it. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine that playing in it for more than a few sessions would be much fun. Too deadly without much in the way of reward, and far too repetitive, dull, and static.

From what I've read of the action 1st edition (and earlier) dungeons of Gygax, and Arneson and company, the designers of Rappan Athuk have completely missed the point.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Activision Hits Remixed (Final)


The Atari VCS (or 2600) was the first really popular video game console. I actually owned a pong/squash/lightgun machine before it, but the VCS was cool because it was in color, and you could buy different games for it.

Most of the early games were done by Atari themselves, but 3rd parties started making them in the early 80s. Activision was perhaps not the best of these 3rd parties, but probably the most successful. This game is basically a compilation of all the Activision games for the 2600 (minus a few arcade conversions licensed from other companies).


How well do the games hold up? Well, most of them, not so well, honestly. Part of the trouble is, Activision was mostly known for colorful graphics more than gameplay. So most of the games are extremely simple, and the graphics still look pretty crude by todays standards (if still somewhat more colorful than other old games).

There are only a couple complex games - Space Shuttle, in which you pilot a space shuttle to a space station and return; and Starmaster, which is basically an action version of the old Star Trek style games, where you had a big map and would have to travel sector to sector to kill a certain amount of aliens and manage your energy.

Most of the other games really only have one screen, or gameplay type. Still, like most old games, the shooters still hold up pretty well. Chopper Command, basically a Defender clone; Megamania, basically a vertical shooter like Space Invaders (but faster paced) is okay, but at least on my PSP, there's some blurriness due to the LCD. Spider Fighter is pretty fun. It sounds like a Centipede clone, but plays almost more like a Galaga style game (minus the ship capturing).

Pitfall and Pitfall 2, probably the first two platform style games, still hold up fairly well as well. Basically you jump and run past objects, or swing on vines to go from screen to screen. Pitfall is pretty much just a repetition of the same screen over and over, but Pitfall 2 is a full fledged "world" that you explore, with a myriad of enemies and objectives.

Also something of a Platformer is Keystone Kapers. Basically you play a cop and have to catch a criminal who has just robbed a shopping mall. You have to go through the mall dodging things like balls and model airplanes and radios. I thought Keystone Kapers was overrated then, and now, it still isn't much fun, because it's basically the same thing over and over, it's just each time they add one more obstacle. One of the prettiest 2600 games though.

There's only a couple of board games, Checkers and Bridge. I don't know how to play Bridge, and I don't like Checkers to begin with, so I haven't tried them. Some of the sports games are still kind of fun. Tennis plays almost exactly like modern day Tennis games, very little has changed, except the graphics. Hockey is sort of fun. Boxing is pretty bad.

There are some other famous games. Laser Blast, which basically consists of a UFO blasting tanks in a wave of three. This is one of those games that is more about endurance than skill, since you can play forever once you know how. Stampede, where you round up cows (not much fun). Barnstorming, where you fly through barns and avoid windmills. River Raid 1 & 2 - the first really is a shooter, but the 2nd tries to be more of a flight sim, but ends up being annoying to play.

Besides just Activion games, it actually has a few Imagic games. In its day, Imagic was probably the 3rd most popular developer after Activision and Atari, and probably my favorite. They had sort of "shiny" graphics, hard to describe, but it was a pretty cool looking style. This includes some their better games, Atlantis, which is basically sort of like Missile Command; and Demon Attack, a vertical shooter sort of like Phoenix (and quite good); and one of their worst games, Moonsweeper, which seems to be Gravitar clone. (At least I think it's the worst, others seem to like it).

Sadly, no Cosmic Ark which is one of the best 2600 games made and the sequel to Atlantis. (After Atlantis gets destroyed, you see the Cosmic Ark fly off into space).

One thing though. I don't know if its me getting old and my reflexes are slower, but some of the games seem faster than I remembered. Which makes them somewhat harder.


This is where the product really shines. Considering it's a budget title, they could have gotten away with doing a simple port of Activision Anthology. But they completely re-did the interface to fit the PSP and its controls, and took advantage of the large memory card size to allow you to save the game-state of all the games. That is, it lets you simply stop playing a game, and return to it later right where you left off. It even uses this as the screenshot when you scroll through the games.

Speaking of scrolling, that's probably the only real complaint I have - there's 40-something games in it, and you have to scroll through them one by one. They are in alphabetical order, and it scrolls fast (no loading at all in this once the main program loads), but still can be annoying.


The graphics are exactly like the original games. So are the sounds, as near as I can remember. The game default to the original ratio, but you can expand it out to fill the entire screen (this reduces the access to some of the controls, so you can't really play all games like this)

There's a 12 song 80s soundtrack, including some of my favorites, "Take On Me", "Safety Dance", "It's My Life", and the short version of "Tainted Love". Could have been better, and it definitely gets repetitive, but for a budget release, it's extremely good (and how many of these compilations actually have a soundtrack to begin with?). Unfortunately, you can't skip a song while playing, you have to exit to the main menu and skip. Only takes a few seconds, but could have been done a little better, maybe.

Final Thoughts:

I really didn't like the original Activision Anthology for the PS2 much, because it was something of a hassle to use, in terms of loading speed, and honestly, a lot of these games weren't that great to begin with 25 years ago. This on the other hand, is much better. And I think the portable format simply fits playing old classics better, since most of them are simple and can be enjoyed in a few minutes.

I'm still not crazy about most of the games, but this is just about as good as a old compilation of Activision games could be (only real way to be better would be to include more Imagic games, and Activision games from other platforms from the era, not just 2600). So I'm giving it a B+, or 8/10 here.

(I'm tempted to give it a 9/10, but having Atlantis but no Cosmic Ark is just wrong. It's like Cagney without Lacey. Or Ponch without Jon)

Hot damn! Emergency! Season 3 is announced...

I was afraid they had pulled the plug on the DVD releases for Emergency! The first two seasons came out within 6 months of each other, but now there's been like a 15 month delay, I think. But due out in Feb 2007.