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Tag Archive: Art Schmidt


Review by Art Schmidt

This week the team over at Wizards of the Coast that produced the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is coming out with the newest addition to the line of hardcover books which make up the rules and playable content for the game.  Fifth Edition is by far the most popular and widely-played edition of the grandfather of all role-playing games for the last few decades and may be the most popular edition ever.  This newest book is titled Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and its primary function is to provide nearly 150 new monsters for use in the game’s adventures, but the book itself is so much more than that.  Previous editions have focused their monster books on stuffing as many creatures into them as possible.  The more monsters, the more players will find the book useful, and (presumably) the more copies will sell.  What the current team has excelled at is deviating away from that “more stats are better” mentality, and instead focuses on the “why” of the monsters instead of the “how many”.  And Wizards of the Coast continues to pull this off beautifully in Tome of Foes.

Whereas previous D&D editions would have had the Monster Manual, and then Monster Manual II, followed by Monster Manual III, etc., 5th Edition has the requisite Monster Manual (reviewed here) but then wowed fans with Volo’s Guide to Monsters (reviewed here).  Essentially a book full of monsters, Volo’s deviated from previous norms and expectations in that it provided a wealth of information (re: text) about the monsters, their origins, histories, societies, clans and behaviors rather than just their hit points and ever-more-creative ways to wreck a party of characters.  And people bought in, big time.  The stories behind why mind flayers eat brains and how they manage to have a functioning society, or about the different kinds of giants and how drastically different their societies were and how they view their own roles amongst giants and their gods, were fascinating, and provided many a DM (and player) ideas for running their campaigns and players.

Limited edition, alternate-art cover by Vance Kelly.

At its core Tome of Foes still is a book full of monsters, but the background information it provides is just as deep and satisfying as that found in Volo’s.  The chapters on The Blood War and the Elves are especially valuable in providing players with more sparks for their imagination.  There are many new player options available in Tome of Foes in the form of playable races and sub-races.  Of particular note are the new options for tieflings (a playable race from the Player’s Handbook) and the gith (a D&D favorite dating all the way back to the 1st Edition Fiend Folio).  The gith are a race with two sub-races who roam the Astral plane with their silver swords, marauding and fighting each other in an endless conflict that sometimes spills over into the players’ world.  Tieflings currently have only one race option in the Player’s Handbook, as compared to other playable races such as elves, dwarves, and halflings, who each have two or more sub-race alternatives to customize their characters.  In the Player’s Handbook all tieflings are described as being infused with the essence of Asmodeus, the ruler of the Nine Hells in D&D lore, and they have one set of abilities for their race.  In Tome of Foes tieflings are provided with eight other alternatives, one for each of the rules of the eight layers of Hell that are ruled in Asmodeus’ name (he himself rules the bottom-most, or ninth layer of the Nine Hells).  These options provide a wide range of play for tiefling characters, specifically different stat modifiers and innate spellcasting abilities.

For the gith, the playable race is an interesting addition to the game, with two sub-races, the githzerai and the githyanki, the two original 1st Edition races of gith.  The gith are structured as other races, with a major and minor stat bonus (depending on sub-race chosen), additional abilities, alignment tendencies (though again, as with all previous 5th Edition publications, no restrictions or mandates), and of course, psionics.  As with previous psionic abilities, these are spellcasting abilities with a “psionics” attribute, which allows for casting without components.  In other words, a mental method of casting.  Although many players continue to clamor for a psionics mechanic in this edition, it seems as though the designers are sticking to their guns: psionics is just spellcasting without mumbling, hand-waving, and balls of bat guano.  And in the current version of the game, which nicely balances a wealth of meaningful character-building choices with rules mechanics that are easily accessible to the game-playing public at-large, this seems a wise choice.

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Review by Art Schmidt

Wizards of the Coast has been judicious in releasing a measured, steady flow of materials for the 5th Edition of the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Role-Playing Game,” Dungeons & Dragons (commonly referred to as “5E” by the roleplaying public-at-large).  WotC releases two adventure campaign books per year, one every six months (give or take), in addition to one rules supplement per year.  Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is the latest offering of new character subclasses, spells, magical items and a meaty section for the Dungeon Master (i.e. the person running the game for all of her players).

Aimed primarily at players who are looking for new classes to play, new spells for their characters to cast, and new ways to define their avatars inside the collaborative storytelling game, Xanathar’s Guide (or XGE, as I’m sure it will be come to be called) hits all of the expected marks.  Drawing on a wealth of material released by the D&D creative team via their popular Unearthed Arcana section of the D&D website and reprinting materials, primarily spells, from the Elemental Evil Player’s Guide, Xanathar’s Guide provides thirty-two (32!) new sub-classes for all of the current class types, including some new sub-classes not previously seen in the Unearthed Arcana material.

Unearthed Arcana was a hardcover book waaaay back in the early first edition of the game.  Similar to Xanathar’s Guide, the original Unearthed Arcana was an expansion of material from the Player’s Handbook, the standard players guide to the character classes and mechanics of the game itself.  This book title has been re-used throughout D&D’s over forty-year history, and its latest incarnation is the online “alternate rules” or playtest material which the D&D Team puts out for players and dungeon masters to use, experiment and, well, play with.  The Team asks for feedback from users on the material, trying to gauge game balance, player likability, and general “fun factor” of this material.  When material is popular, well-balanced, and fits a niche in the player character milieu that the D&D Team feels makes it worthwhile, it’s include in a hardcover book.  Such was the case with the previously released Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide for 5E, and it is the case again with Xanathar’s Guide, though on a much bigger scale.

In fact, Xanathar’s Guide re-prints a handful of classes from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide as well, such as the Swashbuckler and the Storm Sorceror.  Ordinarily, one might fault a company for expecting their customers to pay money for a new sourcebook which includes a wealth of material already found in other sources.  And one might be correct.  Except that in the case of D&D, these re-prints make a fair amount of sense.  As far as the Unearthed Arcana material, the subclasses in Xanathar’s represent an updated, tweaked and in many cases streamlined class which is now officially playtested and provided with rules, which will make the material enjoyable and avoid headaches for players and dungeon masters alike.  Also, Unearthed Arcana material is not “legal” for the Adventurer’s League, since it isn’t play-tested, so those players who enjoy organized play have no access to any of those options until they are printed in an official capacity, usually through a hardcover book.

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By Art Schmidt

Dungeons and Dragons has long been the most famous and widely-enjoyed of all fantasy role-playing games (RPGs), and for good reason; the various folks who have been behind the brand for the last forty-some-odd years have been putting out quality adventures that capture the imagination and set the standard for RPG campaigns.  From Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson to Tom Moldvay and Dave “Zeb” Cook,  Frank Mentzer, Lawrence Schick, Tracy Hickman, Bruce Cordell and countless others, they all knew one thing: that while the rules are necessary to provide a common framework for play, it’s the adventures that capture the imagination and draw the player into the story.  A good adventure is like a delightful story shared among friends; it entertains while you are lost inside it, and it sticks with you afterward.

Every six months for the past three years, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has published a thick hardcover campaign book containing an over-arching storyline full of locations, quests, monsters and exotic treasures have which provided players and their dungeon master with countless hours of excitement and enjoyment.  The first was the two-book Tyranny of Dragons campaign, or “storyline” as the publisher calls it, taking player characters from lowly first-level nobodies and allowing them build up through a series of interlocked adventurers into the world’s most formidable heroes.  Then the story pitted those heroes against a five-headed dragon god named Tiamat in a bid to save their world from enslavement and darkness.  Exciting stuff!

Subsequent storylines have followed the same basic formulae, although in vastly different and colorful ways; one storyline pitted the players against elemental cultists bent on (you guessed it) taking over the world, another trapped the heroes deep beneath the earth in subterranean labyrinths in a quest to not only escape the Underdark, but also save the world in the process (of course).  Yet another whisked the heroes away to another dimension ruled by a dark lord, a vampire rivaling Count Dracula in his evil power, and the heroes had to defeat their undead overlord in order to escape.

The last storyline involved rampaging giants wreaking havoc and destruction across the countryside in a bid to rule their kind, and all of the little folk in the process.  Again, players created neophyte adventurers and ran them through a sandbox world full of colorful peoples, quests both simple and majestic, nasty monstrosities and wondrous treasures, bastions of light and dungeons full of darkness, all in an effort to save the world from giant rule.

But not really.  Sure, saving the world is the main goal of the characters in the story, and that’s all well and good.  I don’t know many fantasy novels where the heroes spend three hundred-plus pages saving a kitten from a tree, or ordering takeout, or trying to find the best deal on car insurance.  Saving the world is a noble goal, and will likely be the objective of story-driven fiction for the foreseeable future.  But the objective of an RPG adventure is, first and foremost, to have fun!  This is the main goal of the players, and anything the characters happen to accomplish along the way is just plain gravy.

In addition, the previous storylines all so far have lacked one thing which long-time players have been craving; a big, fat, old-timey dungeon crawl.  Sure, there have been dungeons in some parts of the previous five storyline campaigns, but none really more than a small section of the overall adventure.  After all, dungeon-crawling doesn’t easily lend itself to a big, wide-world-saving tale.  It’s fun and all, but saving the world often requires traversing it to different locales and interacting with the folks of said world which you are striving to save, most of which are above ground.  But still, the call persists.  “Dungeon Crawl, guys!”

NOTE: Yes, the forth storyline “Out of the Abyss” was essentially one huge dungeon crawl, in that the entirety of the adventure took place underground in the “Underdark.”  But really, that wasn’t one big dungeon, it was a world unto itself, beneath the earth, and had very few traditional “dungeons” in it.

So it comes as no surprise that the folks at WotC might be looking to put together a campaign hardcover that maybe, just possibly, doesn’t have an over-arching storyline quest to save the world.  Who would have thunk it?  But that’s just what they’ve gone and done.

Tales from the Yawning Portal is the sixth of the storylines in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons campaign books, and it is the first to leave out the “storyline” part in favor of providing DMs and their players with seven updated classic dungeon crawls for their enjoyment.  And these are some of the most famous adventures ever written for the game.

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Meeting Lee Majors

Hey, looks like we made it!

Five years ago today, Elizabeth C. Bunce, Art Schmidt, Jason McClain, and I had already spent a few months talking through the technical details for the launch of borg.com.  What should it look like?  What should we write about?  How do we get to there from here?  Then it all came together on June 10, 2011, and I sat down and just started writing.  Should this be a weekly thing?  Once I started I just couldn’t stop and we cemented borg.com as a daily webzine.  And readers started showing up every day.  Soon we had hundreds of followers, and hundreds of thousands of visits per year.

The best part?  Working with friends and meeting new ones each year.

We’ve had plenty of high points.  Cosplay took off in a big way in the past five years.   Elizabeth and I hit the ground running at San Diego Comic-Con in July 2011 with our Alien Nation/Chuck mash-up and you can find us all over the Web in photos taken by others at the show.  Our years were dotted with the random brush with coolness.  A retweet by actress Alana de la Garza, coverage of Joss Whedon visiting the Hall H line at 3 a.m. outside SDCC in 2012, Zachary Levi calling out Elizabeth for her cosplay at Nerd HQ, interviewing the stars of History Channel’s Vikings series, our praise for the Miss Fury series appearing on the back of every Dynamite Comics issue one month, tweets from Hollywood make-up artist family the Westmores commenting on our discussion of Syfy’s Face Off series, our Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (negative!) review featured on the movie’s website, that crazy promotion for the Coma remake mini-series, planning the first Planet Comicon at Bartle Hall and the Star Trek cast reunion, attending the first Kansas City Comic Con and the first Wizard World Des Moines Con, hanging with comic book legend Howard Chaykin, Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer Darryl McDaniels, cast members from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Star Trek, bionic duo Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner.  And borg.com gained some well-known followers (you know who you are) along the way.

sdcc-whedon-c shot

We’re grateful for some great Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and other feedback over the years from Felipe Melo, Mickey Lam, Michael Prestage, The Mithril Guardian, Francesco Francavilla, Adam Hughes, Judy Bunce, Mike Norton, Jack Herbert, Mike Mayhew, Rain Beredo, David Petersen, Rob Williams, and Matt Miner, and for creators we interviewed including Mikel Janin, Penny Juday, Tim Lebbon, Kim Newman, James P. Blaylock, Freddie Williams II, Jai Nitz, and Sharon Shinn.

Bunce Alien Nation cosplay x

What did readers like the most?

We amassed an extensive archive of hundreds of book reviews, movie reviews, reviews of TV shows, and convention coverage, thanks in part to the good folks at Titan Books, Abrams Books, Lucasfilm Press, Weta New Zealand, Entertainment Earth, Dynamite Comics, IDW Publishing, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, BOOM! Studios, and several TV and movie studios and distributors.

McClain and EC Bunce

My own favorites?  Sitting down to come up with my own five all-time favorite characters with the borg.com writing staff.

Schmidt and Bunce at PC 2015

Thanks to my family, my friends, especially my partner in crime Elizabeth C. Bunce, Art Schmidt and Jason McClain, my support team, and William Binderup and the Elite Flight Crew.

Onward and upward!

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg.com

curse-of-strahd

Review by Art Schmidt

Count Strahd von Zarovich is having guests for dinner – and you are invited.

The latest storyline in Dungeon & Dragons 5th Edition debuts this Tuesday, March 15, 2016, and much like the three previous storylines (Tyranny of Dragons, Elemental Evil and Rage of Demons), it takes a tried-and-true theme from the original edition of the “world’s greatest roleplaying game” and re-vamps it, adding in more flavor, updating the theme, and expanding it with many more areas to explore.  Curse of Strahd takes one of the most beloved adventures from 1st Edition D&D’s Castle Ravenloft and presents a large, in-depth and exciting reincarnation of the classic adventure for players and game masters of all levels of expertise.

The campaign book for the Rage of Demons storyline, entitled Out of the Abyss, was an excellent adventure, but that manual is thick with rules and can be difficult to run in several places, lending itself to a more experienced game master and players.  Curse of Strahd is just as well thought-out and immersive an experience, but can be handled by those with less experience and even, dare I say, newbie game masters looking to cut their teeth on a meaty adventure.  And CoS has the meats!

Waaaay back in the first iteration of Dungeons & Dragons (before anyone thought to call it “First Edition” because, hey, that’s all there was!), adventures were typically narrow of scope and limited to a couple of locations.  They were meant to be played in a single or handful of sessions, and then the game master would have to look elsewhere for another challenge for their players.  And most of these adventures were the stuff of pulp fiction; simple goals, thin plots and lots of monsters to hack your way through in order to gain the treasure and gold.  And everyone loved that.

RAVENLOFT

Then along came Tracy Hickman (of Dragonlance, Darksword Trilogy and Death Gate Cycle fame) and he had the audacity to think “Why are these monsters here?  Why are they trying to defeat us?  What’s their story?”  Tracy and his wife Laura came up with Count Strahd von Zarovich, a tragic but thoroughly evil and menacing figure modeled after the original vampires of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel and Nosferatu of early cinema.  Then they wrapped an immersive story around this figure, with NPCs (non-player characters, for the uninitiated), locations and lesser foes who made sense, who thoroughly belonged in the adventure and had more depth than a set of statistics to be overcome by the power-hungry party of adventurers.  To top it off, they added a groundbreaking 3D map (shown below) and guidelines for adding an ambience to the story that no other adventure had ever provided before.

Thus was born Ravenloft, one of the most popular and loved adventures (and then series) in all of tabletop role-playing game history.  It has been re-created and expanded in almost every edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever since, for better or worse (as these things always go, more worse than better).

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Jones 1

By Art Schmidt

Netflix debuted the first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones last Friday, November 20, 2015, in the same one-hour (roughly), thirteen-episode format as many of its other hit series including House of Cards and Marvel’s Daredevil.  The fourth official Marvel Cinematic Universe property to hit the small screen in live-action format since the success of the first Marvel’s The Avengers movie in 2012, Jessica Jones takes the edgy, sexy, delightfully menacing feeling of Daredevil and adds in more edge, more sex, and more menace.

And the result is more awesome.

FYI, from now on, we’re going to drop the “Marvel’s …” in front of every-friggin-thing because: A) Even Matt Murdock could see the heat from the Marvel logo coming off of a flat screen, and B) We get it, we even agree, Marvel has done a fantastic job with its properties these last several years, but even us ardent fans of all things Marvel are starting to get sick of seeing that red-and-white logo plastered in front of every-friggin-thing.

Whereas the well-written Daredevil series focused on a heroic figure trying to overcome the odds and clean up the streets in the neighborhood where he grew up, Jessica Jones is almost a character out of a bad crime novel.  She’s a borderline alcoholic private dick who huddles in alleys and hangs from fire escapes to get dirty pictures for the seedy, pitiful clients she gets from the law firm full of sharks she contracts out to.  She lives in a run-down apartment which barely doubles as her office, she turns to the bottle when she can’t sleep and then goes out late at night, not to fight crime but to take more pictures of people at their worst so she can make more money to buy more booze.

Jones 2

At this point you might be asking: Where are the super powers?  Where are the super villains?  What is this show?

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Atari box

Atari, the company that brought us the Atari 2600–the game system that revolutionized what it meant to be a zombie–offered families in the early 1970s the benefit of the neighborhood arcade without that annoying quarter-gobbling component.  Adults who shake their heads today at kids zoning out over their smartphone games forget what it was like when they first zoned out over  Combat, Air-Sea Battle, Duck Hunt, Asteroids, Yar’s Revenge, Berserk, Pitfall, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and all their pixelated friends.

When Space Invaders was introduced, kids lined up at Woolco stores for hours on end to play the in-store demo model to try to beat the current high score.  The earlier Pong and Breakout games were revolutionary–and addictive–but Space Invaders was exciting, nerve-wracking, and required a different take on an old skill.  Hand-eye Coordination became a new, finely-honed, almost magical power.  Wielded the best by teenagers.

Then something strange happened.  We got distracted by something else.  Most of us didn’t even notice when Atari vanished.  When modern video games playable on PCs via compact discs came around we all went searching for the original Atari games and for years, nada.  What happened to Atari anyway?

Pac-Man game over    ET video game

If you didn’t track the business pages for Atari back in the 1970s and 1980s, a new documentary will get you caught up.  Atari: Game Over is a nostalgic look back at the first video game designers and how one designer created the first great game for Atari, and later the last, and then vanished into anonymity.  His journey parallels several die-hard fans’ strange and curious search to prove or disprove an urban legend–that Atari lost so much money on the E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial video game for the Atari 2600 (thought by many to be the single worst video game of all time) that Atari dumped at least a million of the unopened boxes in a desert town landfill back in 1983.  It’s also a story of one of the first Dot Com economic busts long before there were Dot Coms.

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Ant Lucia

In addition to great creators from outside the Midwest, like Black Widow artist Phil Noto (as we mentioned here at borg.com yesterday), the great thing about returning to a Con year after year is running into all our friends who write, sketch, or paint incredible works for a living.  Planet Comicon 2015 was no different.

Take for instance Des Moines artist Ant Lucia (pictured above).  Three years ago Ant was just beginning to put together great genre characters like DC superheroes and Star Wars characters in a unique retro style of poster art.  Flash forward to 2014 and an entire month of cover art at DC Comics was devoted to his creations, and statues based on his DC Bombshell designs are selling off the shelves in every town across the country.  Ant’s beautiful designs are second to none, and there’s not a more deserving guy to achieve such success from his ideas.

Other creators at Planet Comicon this weekend with national success included Jason Aaron, who had his own rock star sized line of fans getting his new Star Wars series autographed, as well as artist Freddie Williams II, drawing sketches for fans and signing copies of his Legendary Starlord series, among other works.

Jordan and Fyffe

Pictured above are artists Damont Jordan and Bryan Fyffe.  Damont had a new “spirit fox” print available that blew us away, and he churned out sketches for fans all weekend long.  And we noticed other artists at the Con were coming to Bryan’s booth to buy his framed art for their own homes.  Bryan has the best eye for design of anyone we know, and creates a variety of inspired multi-media works.  His most recent commercial illustration was for some major franchise properties, as well as the cover of John Renehan’s new novel The Valley.  Check out some of his work at his website here.

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Pic 1

Review by Art Schmidt

Peter Jackson’s final installment of his screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel The Hobbit is a breathtaking piece of film which aspires to the almost insurmountable heights that his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King achieved.  The goal is a worthy, if almost unrealistic one, and Jackson spares no expense in trying to soar to those heights where he took us ten years ago.

I’m of two minds about this movie, and have been struggling to combine them into a single piece for you, our faithful readers.  But like Jackson with this trilogy, I am not quite up to the task.  And so, like Jackson, I will split something that should be in a single piece into multiple pieces, and although I am aware that they will likely not equal the sum of what a whole, single review should, I will try nonetheless because I have too much to say on the subject and am utterly unable to edit myself.  Much like a certain director we all know and admire.

Review by a fan of fantasy cinema

The Battle of the Five Armies is a really good film.  Is it great?  Well, that will be up to each viewer, honestly.  It is big and bold, and gives good screen time to the multitude of characters we have come to know over the course of the last two films in the trilogy.  The movie opens where the previous film left off, a different approach from other films in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, which tended to open with flashbacks or clever recaps to bring the viewer back into the world of Middle-earth which may have faded slightly since the previous film.  Not so here, as the audience is plunged directly into the story right where we exited it last year.

Pic 2

The dragon Smaug, scary and crazy in the second Hobbit film which bears his name, is magnificently rendered and feels vibrantly alive in the dark theater, the screen aglow with dragonfire and the air electric with his howls of rage and vengeance.  Benedict Cumberbatch captures the right amount of menace and vanity, bringing the drake alive in ways that superb CGI just could not do on its own.  The poor people of Laketown would surely stand in awe of Jackson’s creation if they were not fleeing for their very lives before it.

Martin Freeman knows how to play the everyman, which is essentially what Bilbo Baggins represents.  An everyday man who is snatched up from his comfortable if boring life and thrown headlong into the exciting, unpredictable and oft-times dangerous unknown.  His subtlety and good humor shine through his portrayal of the Hobbit and it is to Freeman’s credit that he can simultaneously stand up to the chiefest and greatest of calamities and also stand up for himself to Thorin, pointing out the sickness that everyone else can see but dare not mention.  The dwarves are also a humorous, entertaining lot, but far too much time would be required to provide the multitude of them a lot of individuality or backstory.  The few who are selected for the spotlight are well worth the time.  Lee Pace, Richard Armitage and Luke Evans play three leaders of different races whose loyalties lie to their people but with widely different styles and personalities.  As with the previous films, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and even Christopher Lee as Saruman himself all put in appearances, though not in a way most might expect!

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