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Sunday, 31 January 2010

DVD Of The Week: Midnight Chronicles (2008)

There is a major flaw in Midnight Chronicles that isn't addressed in the movie (and is only hinted at in passing in the trailer)... this is not a complete story, but part of a series.

Sadly there is no indication of when, if ever, the remainder of the story will be told.

Perhaps it is supposed to be a "set-up" for a roleplaying game campaign (which would be pretty cool if it was) as the movie, made by Fantasy Flight Studios, is based on Fantasy Flight's Midnight setting for Dungeons & Dragons.

The backstory is a clever spin on Lord Of The Rings (and Peter Jackson's trilogy is clearly homaged, in a low-budget way, especially in the establishing exposition sequence): what would a fantasy world be like if the bad guys won?

In Midnight Chronicles, the world of Aryth has fallen under the thrall of the wicked god Izrador, the elves have fled to their forests and the dwarves disappeared underground, leaving mankind to be ruled by Izrador's dark priests, the Legates, and his legions of orcs.

An infamous Legate, Mag Kiln (Charles Hubbell) is on a mission to track down a missing priest, assisted by the annoying, hedonistic Kruce (Sam Landman), but they are diverted by acolyte Chuzara (Dawn Brodey) to the town of Blackweir - to investigate why the town's temple still hasn't been completed after a hundred years... and whether attacks by a local brigand known as the Hunter are to blame.

And this is where a second fault with the film begins to reveal itself, a fault tied very heavily into the first, that there is simply too much going on in the story for the audience to keep track of. Compound that with the surfeit of 'otherworldy' names and characters and it's no wonder the full story couldn't be told in 100 minutes.

There's a "monster" (or is it a force for good?) lurking in the temple, but it's exact nature is never explained, and there are hints of a heroic warrior - who doesn't know his destiny is to be the counterbalance to Mag Kiln's rise to power - but he barely registers in the story and is quite possibly redundant to the plot of this movie.

The film makers clearly accept that they are working on a limited budget and don't try to overstretch their special effects, limiting the non-humans, such as the orcs and elves (dwarves are talked about, but never seen), to pretty decent masks and make-up and CGI effects to attractive backdrops and subtle magical effects.

However, the script is clearly written by a gamer rather than a professional scriptwriter because, as I have said, a lot is set-up that never pays off - which is fine in an RPG because the characters can always go and explore those avenues at a later date, but a film script really needs to be self-contained.

The blurb on the DVD case says the film is "the epic narrative that tells the tale of two legendary characters - one for the cause of good, the other for the cause of evil. This is the story of their rise, their struggle and ultimately their fate, as their destinities become intertwined with that of the world and the dark god that occupies it".

That's a lie... kind of. That's the plot of the whole 'epic' that this is simply the prologue of. And if the series ever gets made, I'd gladly watch it because there's a lot of detail in this world that has the potential for some thrilling storytelling.

What we actually get here is the first two episodes (a 'pilot' as it were) for a potential television series that never took off. Given the success of Legend Of The Seeker - in which I have recently rekindled my interest - there would definitely have been a market for this, but I suspect that boat has sailed.

Unfortunately I don't think the rest of the story will ever be told because Midnight was a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons setting, from what I can recall, and the gaming world has moved on from there. Fantasy Flight has turned its attention to Warhammer, Anima and Grimm these days and isn't supporting Midnight anymore.

Which is a shame, because this movie certainly has potential. The script and the acting certainly aren't Oscar worthy, but the effects don't grate and the setting has the strong verisimilitude of all good game worlds.

So instead of the launch pad for a television series that could have become the role-players' equivalent of Lord Of The Rings (maybe), Midnight Chronicles stands alone as a quirky experiment by a games company that will probably, sadly, fade into gaming lore as time continues to move on.


UPDATE (8.30pm): Over on Facebook, Angus Abranson of Cubicle 7 told me:"I believe that this was made as a pilot to tout around various TV networks. Also Midnight is an IP that FFG own themselves and are quite fond of (they've already used the Midnight setting in one of their Runebound Board Games too) so don't be surprised to see other 'Midnight' related products appear outside of the RPG market at somepoint."

Two Dragons, No Dungeons...

Who would have thought anything could have gone wrong with a sword and sorcery film starring Dollhouse's delightful Amy Acker, supported by B-movie stalwarts such as John Rhys-Davies and Arnold Vosloo?

Unfortunately what I failed to notice about The Dragon Chronicles: Fire & Ice, until it was too late, is that it was directed by Pitof, the man who gave us Catwoman (and not much else).

Acker is tomboy princess Luisa, whose father is the beneficent and liberal King Augustin (Vosloo) of the peaceful kingdom of Carpia.

Out of nowhere a fire dragon attacks the kingdom - the first attack in 20 years - and plagues the town for three months before Luisa decides to slip off into the woods and try to track down disgraced dragonslayer Allador...

Instead she discovers his son, Gabriel (Tom Wisdom), living rough with his manservant Sangimel (Rhys-Davis). Sangimel is a bit of an inventor and I could accept his creation of chemical explosives, firelighters and fancy weapons but all credibility went out the window when he produced his medieval cine-projector to give an animated talk to Augustin on the life-cycle of dragons!!!

And the great plan these geniuses cook up to defeat the fire dragon? Release a more powerful ice dragon - sleeping under a glacier - to kill it! Clearly they hadn't thought this through, but even I can see a major flaw in that plan.

However, the ultimate resolution of the situation is as wonderfully ludicrous as it is creative and kudos to the film makers for trying something a bit different.

The film takes an interesting stance on dragons, presenting them as gigantic flying manta-rays constantly enveloped with their 'element of choice'.

Made in Romania, the scenery is fantastic, the script less so and the cast aren't helped by some pretty shoddy lipsynching that suggests much of the movie was shot in another language (Romanian probably) and then badly dubbed back into English, like a '70s kung fu flick.

Produced by Media Pro Pictures - the Romanian company that also gave us the far superior Attack Of The Gryphon featuring another Whedonverse alumni Amber Benson - this was their first special effects/CGI film for their national television station ProTV in 2008.

There's even a novelisation of the movie available, written by award-winning Romanian children's author Stelian Turlea.

It has a similar story background to Attack Of The Gryphon, in that the action takes place between two small feuding kingdoms, but lacks the pizazz and chutzpah of its equally low-budget predecessor (dig the funky woolen chainmail armour or the painted cardboard masquerading as stained glass in the castle windows).

The Dragon Chronicles: Fire & Ice
started off quite poorly and doesn't really get much better during its 82-minute duration, but there's a certain innocent naivety and charm about it that won me round in the end.

Certainly not one I'll be recommending to anyone who takes their film watching overly seriously, but as cheap beer-and-pretzel fodder for gamers and those with an interest in the genre it's a mild piece of harmless amusement, if not a classic.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The Awesomeness Of DMing...




Instead of another episode of Record Of Lodoss War, for today's Saturday morning matinee, I bring you (for those who haven't already seen it on either Geek Ken or the WoTC site) this really neat documentary, by Wizards Of The Coast, about "Dungeons & Dragons' Dungeon Masters".

I don't know if this was an attempt at a spoiler before the release of The Dungeon Masters or just 'happy' coincidence, but WoTC's 22-minute film is everything I'm hoping for from Keven McAlester's feature length piece (but not convinced I'll get).

Considering it's a WoTC production, it's not even that evangelical about 4e - it gets mentioned a couple of times, and there's a bit about "balancing encounters" which I disagreed with, but generally it's just about how inspirational, social and creative D&D can be.

It's a great advert for Dungeons & Dragons-style gaming in general as well as having some useful tips on running games and getting them organised.

I wish it was that easy to find players over here in Tonbridge (UK) - I can dream, right?

However, I can confidently say that, while I don't use the exact same system as these guys, I'd happily play in any of their campaigns.

And, by leaving out the hard sell and opting to promote the hobby instead, Wizards has gone up in my estimation as well because of this.

Ladies & Gentleman, Joining Us Tonight Will Be The Esteemed...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your continued support.

The latest new member of the HeroPress superteam is:

* A Paladin In Citadel of A Paladin In Citadel.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Fleamarket Friday: Booty And The Beasts...

My current revisiting of my early days of gaming dredged up memories of a fantastic, little tan book I must have picked up from The Dark Tower one time (Tunbridge Wells first dedicated roleplaying store).

The booklet - similar in design to the first Arduin booklets (and just as 'out there') - was an official supplement for Dungeons & Dragons.

I remembered it vividly for its stylish Erol Otus artwork and the fact that it had no qualms about mixing heavy doses of science-fiction in with its fantasy - the 'booty' section, for example, included laser guns, while the 'beasts' section had the 'Neila' (xenomorphs from the film Alien, thinly disguised... by reversing the letters!).

But I couldn't for the life of me remember what it was called - because now, of course, it seems a perfect fit for the ideas I have for my Tekralh III pseudo-planetary romance, old school campaign - or even what had happened to my copy (no doubt foolishly sold off for pennies during one of my many gaming purges over the decades).

I was even going to write an article a few weeks back appealing for help in recalling the name of this lost treasure.

Until I came across Surprise Delivery: Brown Box Original D&D on Randall's RetroRoleplaying: The Blog, in which he talks about a recent generous donation to his cancer charity fundraising drive that included this very same little booklet among a slew of other incredible gifts.

Armed with the name, I set out to investigate further and very quickly discovered, according to Wayne's Books And Old School Games RPG Reference site that it was published by Fantasy Art Enterprises in 1979 (I'm thinking I must have picked it up the year it came out then) and is now considered "extremely rare".

Not only that, but the market price seems to be about $250 at the moment... so I'd better start saving!

Wayne's Books has this blurb from Booty And The Beasts (which just makes me want to own a copy again even more):

"Contained in this volume are new monsters, including demons, robots, and parasites, and new magical and technological treasures.

"Many of these monsters and treasures are of a more powerful nature than will be found in most fantasy role-playing campaigns.

"This is intentional, for we feel that this will provide a greater challenge and incentive to those more experienced players who, since fantasy role-playing has been around now for a number of years, must be acquiring higher and higher level characters.

"We also include less powerful monsters such as Fungus Men, Termite People, Goons, etc., and low power items such as the Doorknob of Unrestrained Entry, Vibroblade, Breathing Device, etc.

"In addition, we provide several charts and lists in the back of this book to aid in the playing of these monsters and treasures.

"Finally, these monsters and treasures are not intended to stand by themselves but rather to add to the hundreds of monsters and treasures already available".

There's a quite snooty review on RPG.net, from 2007, that seems to miss the point of this booklet (although perhaps I'm remembering it through rose-tinted geek glasses) that games 'in those days' were meant to be fun (he even has a bit of a dig at Arduin). However it is useful for getting a flavour of some of the many gonzo ideas contained within the pages of Booty And The Beasts.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

HeroPress Picture Parade (January)

In the genuine belief that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (cf. The Lair Of The Evil DM and Calvin's Canadian Cave of Coolness, two fellow magazine-style blogs that have already been hugely influential on HeroPress), I present the first, monthly selection of quirky images that have been languishing on my hard drive gathering dust.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Supernatural: It's A Terrible Life

Suddenly with six episodes to go in this season of Supernatural, the story takes an unexpected detour into alternate reality land.

Dean is now Dean Smith, a salad-munching yuppie director of sales & marketing for Sandover Bridge & Iron Inc., while Sam is Sam Wesson, a lowly, cubicle-dwelling tech-support guy.

Both have been there three weeks, although they don't know each other. Sam has been having troubling dreams about fighting ghosts and vampires, and is sure he knows Dean from somewhere, but Dean just thinks he's coming onto him... until a spate of suicides in the office forces them to team-up (Smith & Wesson, geddit? As opposed to Winchester...).

After facing down what they come to believe is the ghost of the company founder, P.T. Sandover (John Hainsworth), Sam and Dean turn to the Internet for answers and advice about "real ghost hunting", which leads them to the Ghostfacers website.

Armed with this new knowledge they take the fight back to P.T. Sandover's door and having defeated the ghost, Sam now believes they should carry on doing what they did - but Dean just wants to get back to his life behind a desk.

No matter how hard writer Sera Gamble tries to tie this story back into the main thread of the season - and, unsurprisingly, she does it very well - It's Terrible Life (the title being a twist on the classic movie It's Wonderful Life where an angel shows Jimmy Stewart how bad life would have been in Bedford Falls without him) is always going to come up a poor second against the sublime Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, Normal Again, where the Buffster is lead to believe that her adventures in Sunnydale have all been hallucinations brought on by a psychotic episode.

I get the purpose of the episode - and it was both interesting and humorous to see the Winchesters tackling what would normally have been a straight-forward case for them but without their years of knowledge and finely-honed skills - but something about it didn't quite gel with me.

This was possibly because the early stages of the episode felt like an old X-Files rerun and while I have no experience of working in that kind of office I guess I tend to see that environment as one of my ideas of 'hell on Earth' anyway and so couldn't find myself relating to this new, alternate take on Sam and Dean.

Supernatural: On The Head Of A Pin

When seven angels are murdered, Castiel (Misha Collins) and Uriel (Robert Wisdom) hijack Dean to turn the torture skills he picked up in Hell against their captive demon, Alastair (Christopher Heyerdahl).

As we head into the final act of the season's "angels versus demons" war, On The Head Of A Pin takes the Winchester brothers to new lows - as Dean is forced to relive his time as Alastair's apprentice in The Pit, Sam turns to Ruby for help and we discover that he has become addicted to drinking her demonic blood.

It's up to fallen angel Anna (Julie McNiven), last seen in Heaven And Hell, to confront Castiel and ask if "torture is God's way?" and try to make him question if the orders he is receiving are actually coming from The Lord Almighty.

When Alastair escapes his imprisonment and it's left to Sam to ride in like the Seventh Cavalry and defeat him, Castiel begins to wonder if Anna might have a point - is there a traitor in the angelic ranks?

The Winchesters don't actually appear in the final showdown of this episode, although Dean shares the coda with Castiel as he discovers it was he who actually set the Apocalypse-shaped ball rolling when he, as a "righteous man", first spilled blood in Hell and Castiel tells him he is therefore the only man who can stop it.

Supernatural: Death Takes A Holiday

In a small Wyoming town people have stopped dieing and the Winchester brothers go to investigate. After a bit of legwork, they deduce that the local 'Reaper' has vanished.

There's still some friction between the brothers after the number the siren did on their friendship in the last episode and Dean questions whether they should be doing anything at all because, should they succeed in recovering the Reaper, innocent people will start dropping down dead again - which Sam points out is the "natural order".

And Supernatural does it again! I'd feared that this episode might be a terribly light-hearted, almost slapstick affair, kind of Grand Guignol sans the final payoff, but what we get instead is a really creepy ghost story that is plumb-centre of the season's big "angels versus demons" storyline.

The Reaper has been kidnapped to be part of a sacrificial ceremony to break another seal, edging the demons one step closer to being able to allow Lucifer to walk the Earth.

This is a story full of 'old faces': the brothers call in their blind psychic friend Pamela (Traci Dinwiddie) to 'astral project' them into ghost form; demon Alastair turns up (albeit in a new body) and even the Reaper who pursued Dean in In My Time Of Dying (Lindsey McKeon) puts in an appearance.

What I had mistakenly thought was going to be a bit of a fluff episode turns out to be an examination of the power of lies and self-deceit, as Sam and Dean both begin to realise that things probably aren't going to end well for them.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Top Of The Pile: Conan - The Weight Of The Crown (one-shot)

The Weight Of The Crown is a wonderfully brutal morality tale - almost a fable - detailing young Conan's first experience of royalty.

Having once again left his homeland of Cimmeria, following the murder of his beloved Caollan, he seeks to drown his sorrows in the physical pleasure of bloodshed and wenching.

He arrives in the Aquilonian border province of Gaul and takes up arms for the renegade 'Mad King' Zauron, only to see the warlord killed in battle before him. Instead of passing the crown to Zauron's son, the locals decide they would rather have the mighty warrior Conan leading them.

And this is where things start to go wrong, because Conan is still immature in certain ways and only sees what he can get out of his new position - loot, women, pleasure etc - and doesn't pay any heed to the responsibilities of the role.

The lessons he ultimately learns here will serve him well in later years when he seizes the crown of Aquilonia for himself.

Delightfully, gruesomely, illustrated - and written - by Darick Robertson, The Weight Of The Crown is another of Dark Horse's current batch of one-shots (which include Dr. Horrible and Willow), that serve either as a solid jumping-on point for a title, a good way to lure back lapsed readers or simply as great, self-contained stories.

While suitably sparse on dialogue, The Weight Of The Crown is still quite text heavy, although nowhere near as bad as Roy Thomas' verbose ramblings from the 1970s.

Conan was another title cut from my pull-list for financial reasons, reasoning that it would be cheaper to invest in the trades when they hit the (virtual) stands (of Amazon.co.uk), but this issue's fine blend of blood, guts and character work shows that the title is still going strong and continuing to do Robert E Howard proud.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Weidersehen, Goodbye...

He may no longer be The Doctor on television, but David Tennant has one last outing as our favourite Time Lord in the original audio adventure The Last Voyage from BBC Audiobooks.

Written by Dan Abnett (which is a good start as he penned the best of the recent original audios to date, The Forever Trap), the ominously titled Last Voyage has the TARDIS materialising on the maiden voyage of an "Interstitial Transposition Vehicle" traveling from Earth to the furthermost reaches of the Human Empire - an outpost on the planet Eternity.

There are similarities in setting to both the dog's dinner that was Voyage Of The Damned and the overrated Midnight, but where the former shamelessly ripped off The Poseidon Adventure (but set it in space), The Last Voyage homages '70s aviation disaster movies such as Airport and Airport '77.

The Doctor is soon drawn into a mind-boggling mystery when about 90 per cent of the crew and passengers on the ITV suddenly vanish and spooky, alien blob-monsters start to seep through into his reality from other dimensions.

There's some delightful technobabble explaining how the ITV works, but Abnett's poetic grasp of the English language makes its wholly convincing, as the plot twists and then twists again keeping the listener on tenterhooks, building up for a grand finale.

And that's where I have my only complaint. I get the point that sometimes The Doctor has to fight off alien creatures that even he doesn't know, or understand, but the climax of the story - after a couple of hours of amping the story up - is rather sudden and, well, anti-climatic.

After a while, it's also not too hard to second guess the main twist of what's happened to the other passengers and crew as well.

We know The Doctor is going to triumph, but usually he has to pay some price. Here there doesn't seem to be one. Several people are killed early on, but they're never people we have had a chance to really get to know or care about.

He is assisted in his investigations by a perky flight attendant, Sugar MacAuley (surprisingly Tennant's American female voice isn't as annoying as it could have been), who shows much more spunk and imagination than Astrid Peth in Voyage Of The Damned and yet there is never any indication that he is considering her for the role of 'new companion'.

She is also a very well-rounded character, rather than a pointless piece of stunt casting. I would have welcomed a few more adventures for the team of Doctor and MacAuley.

While not a patch on The Forever Trap, The Last Voyage stands as a fitting tribute to the vitality and joie de vivre that Tennant brought to his portrayal of The Doctor, and is a fine symbolic send-off for the character - no matter what faults there may be with the actual story itself.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Week In Geek (Extra Serving)...

A second round-up of geeky news you might have otherwise missed...

(1) Ghosts May Be Appearing Soon: The long-delayed Ghosts Of Albion roleplaying game, by Tim Brannan, using the Cinematic Unisystem, could now soon be published .

(2) There Is A God! Lucy Lawless repeats her desire to make a Xena: Warrior Princess movie.

(3) Challenging Iris: Conan Doyle's Professor George Challenger turns up in the forthcoming Iris Wildthyme collection of short stories, Ms Wildthyme & Friends Investigate.

(4) Grab Your Castle: The first update of 2010 for the ongoing Castle Of The Mad Archmage project is now available for those looking for some old school D&D excitement.

(5) Old School Meets New School: Looking for a roleplaying game that combines old school aesthetics with new school gimmicks? Then maybe Myd20Lite is the game for you.

(6) Face Your Fears: The first issue of Lionsgate's online magazine Fright Club is now available, featuring an interview with Clive Barker and exclusive pictures from Saw VI.

(7) Aliens Might Want To Kill You: A British astronomer warns that if we contact alien life there is a chance they may not be friendly!

(8) Clash Of The Trilogy: If the revamped Clash Of The Titans does well at the box office, the director hopes it will launch a trilogy of movies based on Ancient Greek myths.

(9) Selling Out: I've opened a pretty basic book, graphic novel and DVD store on Amazon (The HeroPress Store), which is probably of more use to my UK readers - but I guess there's nothing stopping visitors from other countries ordering through Amazon.co.uk...

The Week In Geek...

Blue Monday Special: A round-up of geeky news you might have otherwise missed...

(1) Mega-Bundle Help For Haiti: DriveThruRPG is offering gamers over $1,000-worth of pdfs for $20 which will go straight to Doctors Without Borders to support their post-earthquake Haiti relief efforts.

(2) Runequest II Is Here: Mongoose's second stab at getting one of the oldest roleplaying games, Runequest, 'right' is now available.

(3) Torchwood Goes Stateside: Russell T Davies is helping Fox develop Torchwood for American audiences, but no news yet on whether it's a reboot or a continuation of the BBC series.

(4) Remembering Gary: Fundraising has begun to erect a memorial in memory of the late Gary Gygax, co-founding father of Dungeons & Dragons.

(5) Genre Movies: A preview listing of the bigger sci-fi, superhero, fantasy and horror movies due out this year.

(6) Outcasts Welcome: The BBC has commissioned a new eight-part science-fiction drama called Outcasts about the last survivors from the destruction of Earth arriving on an already colonised planet.

(7) Meesa Wanna New Home: Win your own life-sized Jar-Jar Binks statue.

(8) Mel Gibson Cameo For Mad Max IV? Maybe... Mel Gibson, the one and only, original Mad Max, has spoken with franchise creator George Miller about the fourth installment in the popular movie series and hasn't ruled out an appearance.

(9) BBC's Drama Village In Wales: The BBC is seeking planning permission for a "drama village" in Cardiff Bay to house all its production facilities. This would double the amount of television production in Wales by 2016, if it gets the go-ahead.

(10) Batman Might Break Record: A copy of Detective Comics #27, the first appearance of Batman, is up on for auction on February 25 and could break the record for the most money paid for a single comic book issue.

(11) Webb For Spider-Man: Marc Webb, director of the wonderful (500) Days Of Summer has been hired to direct Spider-Man IV, the start of a new rebooted series of Spider-Man movies.

(12) Dr Who Tops Bestsellers: Cubicle 7's Doctor Who: Adventures In Time & Space was the best-selling RPG in December, according to Previews magazine's Top 25.

(13) John Carter Could Have Beaten Snow White: Rare test footage from a John Carter Of Mars animation which would have been the first, full-length animation ahead of 1937's Snow White, if it had been completed.

(14) Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Avatar: A new, 23-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Avatar has gone live.

(15) No More Heroes Anymore? Viewers are giving up on Heroes in large numbers as the ailing show's ratings continue to plunge to new lows.

(16) Pirates Of Hawaii: The fourth Pirates Of The Caribbean movie will be filmed in Hawaii this summer, for release in 2011.

(17) Bedlam Breaks Out: Plain Brown Wrapper Games has released Bedlam City for Savage Worlds, a superheroes campaign setting.

(18) Walking Dead Are Go: AMC's adaptation of the comic book zombie serial Walking Dead has been given the green light for a pilot episode.

(19) Primeval's Back: We all knew Primeval had got a second lease of life, but the good news is the new season starts shooting in March. No clue when it'll air, though.

(20) Ianto Right At Holmes: Torchwood's Gareth David-Lloyd stars in the latest mockbuster from The Asylum, Sherlock Holmes, alongside CGI dinosaurs, giant robots and a steampunk Iron Man. This is not the Sherlock Holmes I saw recently at the cinema!

(21) From Ronon To Conan: Stargate Atlantis'
Jason Momoa has been chosen to play Conan in the upcoming movie about Robert E Howard's most famous creation.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

At The Fleapit: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

For our first cinema trip of the year this afternoon, I'd narrowed the choice down to Avatar and Sherlock Holmes, and as both Rachel and I were quite lukewarm to Avatar we went with Guy Richie's reworking of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic investigator.

As it turned out all the afternoon screening of Avatar (both 2D and 3D) were sold out anyway!

But I believe we made the right choice anyway because Richie's movie was simply fantastic.

With Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) remoulded as an action man - almost a superhero - chasing down the supposedly dead leader of a black magic cult (Dr Watson had pronounced him dead after witnessing his hanging), ably assisted by Dr John Watson (Jude Law) and helped/hindered in equal measure by Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams).

Mark Strong was suitably sinister as manipulative Lord Blackwood, seemingly using the "dark arts" in his Machiavellian scheme for control of the British Empire - almost, but not quite, as cunning as Holmes himself.

The script was a clever balancing act of wry humour, all-out action and mind-twisting mystery, with Holmes strolling, almost casually, through the snowballing chaos picking up clues left, right and centre for the final big reveal.

There were many magical moments throughout the movie, but I was particularly impressed with Holmes/ trick of visualising confrontations in slow-motion - working out blows and counter-blows to a swift and satisfactory conclusion - before the actual punches were thrown. It was a pity we only saw this skill used a couple of times.

Both Downey Jr and Law were perfect in their roles, Jude Law in particular being surprisingly adept in his role as the put-upon Watson, desperately trying to carve a life away from the influence of Holmes and yet always being drawn back in to his friend's machinations.

Even the lesser role of Irene Adler was woven so tightly into the plot that even those who are not up on their Holmesian lore would have been able to quickly pick up who she was and why she was crucial to the matters unfolding.

The story also mixed in a dash of 'scientific romance', almost steampunky, inventiveness to add some retro-modernity to the movie, and the whole thing was stitched through with a sequel-baiting faceless, tease of Holmes' arch-nemesis.

While I haven't heard tell of any planned sequels as yet I'd be more than happy to travel back to 19th Century London in the company of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law for the further adventures of these very 21st Century Victorians.

DVD Of The Week: Dorian Gray (2009)

Who doesn't know the basic conceit of Oscar Wilde's famous novel: The Picture Of Dorian Gray? A young man plunging into the depths of depravity in Victorian England, yet maintaining his health and good lucks while his portrait grows ever more haggard and revolting.

In the recent movie adaptation, now out on DVD, Ben Barnes plays young orphan Dorian, the piano virtuoso arriving fresh-faced and innocent in London upon the death of his abusive grandfather, to collect his enormous inheritance.

He soon befriends artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), who offers to paint a portrait of the handsome musician.

Through Basil, Dorian is introduced to Lord Henry Wotton (Colin Firth), who becomes a mentor to Dorian, leading him through the seedier parts of London and encouraging the young man to live life to the full.

However, as Dorian becomes more and more drawn into the world of sex, drugs, decadence and self-abuse, he becomes less and less the man he was and increasingly cold-hearted, until an "unfortunate incident" encourages him to leave the city, and the country, and embark on a world tour of debauchery.

He returns to England many years later, in the early years of the First World War, still the fresh-faced gentleman he was when he left, while all his former acquaintances have grown old - and slightly bitter.

Sir Henry's grown-up daughter, Emily (Rebecca Hall), a feisty suffragette, catches Dorian's eye and suddenly Sir Henry is faced with the consequences of the monster he created returning to his door.

Toby Finlay's script is a wonderful, powerful, truthful reworking of Wilde's famous story, bathed in period glory by director Oliver Parker.

Dorian Gray succeeds in being terrifying, exciting, erotic and a superb character study, peppered with sparkling dialogue dripping with Wildean witticisms and cutting observations, making for a thoroughly enthralling hour and a half of cinema magic in the comfort of your own home.

It is the perfect encapsulation of the adage: be careful what you wish for.

Not having actually read the original work, I suspect this film is inspired more by the 'idea' than Wilde's actual subtext, but nevertheless it has been reimagined as a metaphor for our own current obsession with shallow celebrity.

However you take it, Gray's ultimate tragedy is still emotionally engaging and the two central performances by Ben Barnes and Colin Firth capture the verisimilitude of the piece as imagined by scriptwriter Finlay, if not exactly what Wilde had in mind.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Record Of Lodoss War... part three!




Episode Three of Record Of Lodoss War. As always we have YouTuber W3reW0lf to thank for these, which I post in my continuing effort to get more people to embrace this incredible anime series from 1990.

Having now seen all 13 episodes of the first story I can assure you it's very "Dungeons and Dragons", complete with a party of diverse adventurers, underground adventures, detailed background story, twisty-turny plot, hosts of recognisable monsters etc

As I said yesterday, it was inspired by Ryo Mizuno's own Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, but I can find out little about the man himself.

According to Wikipedia: "Ryo Mizuno (born July 13, 1963) is a Japanese author and game designer. Mizuno created Record of Lodoss War, Rune Soldier, Sword World RPG and Starship Operators. He was also involved with the Galaxy Angel manga. Mizuno recently worked on Tri-Ace and Square Enix's action-RPG [video game] Infinite Undiscovery. He has shown talent in both dramatic and humorous genres. He was one of the founding members of Group SNE."

For a different take of the world of Lodoss check out this "guest post" on the always-fascinating Havard's Blackmoor Blog, which studies the history of and gameplay in Dave Arneson's unique OD&D campaign world.

It's nice to find another blogger who sees elves in his game as "Lodoss elves". I wasn't really a fan of elves of late (they were a "lost race" in my original Tekralh setting, but snuck back in when I converted the game from Castles & Crusades to a more 'by the book' Labyrinth Lord setting) - but now having met Deedlit, elves in any future fantasy games I run will be "Lodoss elves".

Ladies & Gentlemen, Please Show Your Appreciation For...

January appears to be a "joining" month, for which I am very grateful. The latest member of the HeroPress superteam is:

* Aslan Collas of Earth Alpha.

Friday, 22 January 2010

More Medieval Horror Madness!


So many films, so little time! This is Season Of The Witch, due out March 19.

The synopsis reads: "His faith broken by years of battle as a crusader, [medieval knight] Behmen (Nicolas Cage) returns to central Europe to find his homeland decimated by the Black Plague.

"While searching for food and supplies at the Palace at Marburg, Behmen and his trusted companion, Felson (Ron Perlman), are apprehended and ordered by the dying Cardinal to deliver a young peasant girl believed to be the witch responsible for the Plague to a remote abbey where her powers can be destroyed.

"Behmen agrees to the assignment but only if the peasant girl is granted a fair trial.

"As he and five others set off on this dangerous journey, they realize with mounting dread that the cunning girl is no ordinary human and that their mission will pit them against an evil that even in these dark times they never could have imagined.
"

Fleamarket Friday: Sword World Sourcebook...

After last Friday's eBay-heavy postings (reminiscing about old HeroPress stuff and looking at a new eBay visual browser), I'm tentatively launching a new, sporadic feature called Fleamarket Friday where I can talk about recent eBay purchases or drool over items of interest that are out of my price bracket.

This week I'm posting up some lovely images of the Sword World RPG World Guide from Japan.

As already mentioned on HeroPress, Sword World is the roleplaying game that grew out of Ryo Mizuno's Record Of Lodoss War anime and manga, which in turn was inspired by his own games of Dungeons & Dragons.

The well-illustrated book was going for £27.99 (plus £5.91 postage to the UK), but all the text is in Japanese, which rather restricts its use for us non-kanji readers (I hope I've said that right, I don't want to annoy any Japanese readers I might have!)

It certainly looks like a world I'd like to adventure in.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Supernatural: Sex And Violence

Domestic violence has been used as a 'way-in' to paranormal manifestations a number of times in Supernatural, but Sex And Violence brings the threat closer to home than usual for the Winchester brothers.

Their investigations into a string of seemingly unrelated incidents of men killing their wives leads Sam and Dean to the Honey Wagon, a strip club all the men visited, and they soon discover that a "siren" is at work, seducing the men with visions of their "perfect partner" and then leading them to murder the person closest to them.

Posing as FBI agents, Dean teams up with FBI agent Nick Monroe (Jim Parrack), also investigating the case, while Sam becomes entangled with a hottie doctor, Cara Roberts (Maite Schwartz).

Once the siren discovers the Winchesters are on its tail, its turns its attention to driving a wedge between the brothers and trying to trick them into killing each other - which doesn't take much, as Dean is already suspicious of Sam after he discovers his younger brother has been phoning Ruby secretly. During the ensuing argument Sam reveals that he and Ruby have been trying to track down top demon Lilith to kill her.

Like Dean I was excited about the prospect of a story involving strippers - although this being American primetime TV you barely see any flesh, the strippers being more dressed than most runway models - and so was surprised by the rather homoerotic twist in the siren's take on Dean's "dream partner".

And yet, ultimately, it is believable.

Putting the show back on track, this story simultaneously moves forward the emotional sub-plot of the season's overarching story while still presenting the Winchesters - and the audience - with an engaging (if not wholly original for Supernatural) story.

Supernatural: After School Special

Given that the last episode ended with Sam and Ruby heading off in a sports car to parts unknown, the fact that After School Special makes no reference to that, or even to the season's overarching plotline, is rather disappointing.

This episode instead sees Sam and Dean going undercover at a school they attended for a month back in the late-90s, during their turbulent, on-the-road upbringing, investigating a spate of pupil-on-pupil violence.

One of the attackers claims she was "possessed", but the Winchester brothers find no indication of demonic activity, instead they begin to believe that the ghost of someone Sam knew during their time at Truman High is responsible.

While the episode is filled with fascinating flashbacks to the childhood of the Winchesters - and looking at how both coped in their own way with their atypical upbringing - the main story is very mundane for this period of Supernatural.

On one hand it's good to see that the boys still have the time to keep "the family business" going, on the other hand this is exactly what Ruby was talking about in Criss Angel Is A Douchebag - don't they have more pressing matters they should be tackling, leaving cases such as this to other hunters, maybe?

The personal connection certainly justifies the Winchester's involvement, and the rather heavy-handed examination of what's under the surface of their characters is interesting, but this self-contained tale is rather a sudden bump in the road of the whole "angels versus demons" story that this season has been setting up.

After School Special is a good enough story, but would have been better placed in earlier years of Supernatural - here it rather stands out from the crowd as being "the odd one out"; rather pertinent for a story reflecting the social pressures of High School life for teenagers.

Book Of The Month: No Such Thing As Dragons

The problem I have with Philip Reeve's two semi-historical novels - Here Lies Arthur and No Such Thing As Dragons - is that they are not part of his steampunk portfolio that I hold so dear.

It's a ridiculous prejudice, but I love his Mortal Engines and Larklight books so much that a part of me wants him to spend the rest of his life just writing more books in those two series!

But that is doing No Such Thing As Dragons, his most recent published piece of work, a great disservice.

A beautiful childrens book set in the late Middle Ages in Germany (I'm guessing from the clues, no time or even location is ever specified), it tells the tale of a young mute boy, Ansel, who is sold off by his father as a lackey to knight errant Johannes Von Brock - a self-proclaimed dragon-slayer.

The truth is Brock is a good natured conman, playing on peasant superstition, and using a crocodile skull as a fake dragon skull to prove his kills.

However, he and Ansel are in for a shock when they venture up Drachenburg mountain, at the behest of a local nobleman, in pursuit of a "dragon" that has been plaguing local villagers. They soon find themselves trapped on the treacherous mountain, with a cowardly priest and a girl, and Brock's confident claim to Ansel that there's "no such thing as dragons" is sorely tested.

It's not a great surprise - as there's a massive dragon's claw on the cover of the book - but the revelation for the characters is still a powerful one, changing their world view. It's how they react to this that shows their true nature.

Reeve's smooth flowing prose doesn't talk down to his young target audience and doesn't flinch from using potentially difficult words (such as in his geographical descriptions or detailing Brock's armour), and as with his other works he still manages to slip in some passing references that are meant for older readers only.

The core of the book is as much a Boys Own Adventure yarn of man against the elements, as our heroes struggle against the snow and ice on the mountain, as it is a fantastical tale of battling a dragon on its home turf.

And cleverest of all, as the reader heads into the final third of the book, Reeve manages to switch the audience's sympathy - as he does that of Ansel - so that the beast Brock is hunting can be seen as a lonely animal defending its nest, rather than the Satanic hellspawn that the villagers believe it to be.

A thoroughly enoyable, atmospheric read... and not a steam-powered engine in sight!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Supernatural: Criss Angel Is A Douchebag

After the full-on horror of the last episode, Criss Angel Is A Doucebag is a babystep back towards the season's overarching plot.

The Incredible Jay (Barry Bostwick) is an old washed-up stage magician who, overnight at a magic convention, finds he can suddenly do what appears to be real magic and perform feats of impossible escapology.

Unfortunately, he is unaware that there is a cost - every near-death experience he slips out of, another magician at the convention dies in the manner Jay should have.

Sam and Dean arrive to investigate the first mysterious death and soon realise that the deaths are centred around Jay and his friends, but they can't figure out who is actually causing them.

Ruby (Genevieve Cortese) pops up at one point to corner Sam and ask why he is wasting his time on this case, when Lilith is merrily walking around free breaking the seals that will eventually unleash Lucifer and Hell On Earth.

The main story isn't one of Supernatural's strongest - and this is particularly noticeable in the wake of Family Remains - with the logic of the actual bad guy's powers not really holding water under close scrutiny. The secondary plot, about Ruby and Sam is also rather undermined by being restricted to a few scenes.

If anything, this story reminded me of early Buffy The Vampire Slayer - and not in a good way. It had the requisite twists and some funny moments, but didn't really connect.

Where Criss Angel Is A Douchebag works is in forcing Sam and Dean to look at their own lives and wonder how they are going to end up? Will they still be chasing demons and monsters when they are in their 60s or will they have gone out in a blaze of glory long before then?

Also, not being an American or a particular follower of stage magic (outside of showmen like Derren Brown and David Blaine), I have no idea of who Criss Angel is, why he's a douchebag or what he really has to do with this episode. All I know of the man is that he dated Hef's ex, Holly Maddison, for a while.

Roleplaying Is Hobbit-Forming!

BREAKING NEWS: Doctor Who: Adventures In Time & Space publishers Cubicle 7 Entertainment and Sophisticated Games have just announced that they are jointly developing The One Ring: The Lord of the Rings® Role-playing Game.

The One Ring is based purely Tolkien's original Lord Of The Rings trilogy and The Hobbit, and not Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning cinematic adaptation or the forthcoming Hobbit movies.

“We’re tremendously excited about The One Ring,” said Dominic McDowall-Thomas, Cubicle 7 Director. “Our aim is to give our audience an authentic Middle Earth gaming experience, one that really captures the feel of Tolkien’s world.”

The designer and lead writer of this project, Francesco Nepitello, is a games industry veteran, best known for the hugely successful and critically acclaimed War of the Ring strategy board game, which he designed with The One Ring co-designer Marco Maggi and Roberto di Meglio.

A recipient of the International Gamers Award, War of the Ring is recognised by many ‘Lord of the Rings’ enthusiasts and hobby gamers alike as one of the most engaging recreations of the world-renowned fantasy saga by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Francesco and Marco are the designers of other immersive board game titles like Marvel Super Heroes and Age of Conan, but started their game-designing careers creating Lex Arcana, the most successful and popular fantasy role-playing game published in Italy.

Francesco has designed the new LOTR RPG game system to make sure that players are completely immersed in Middle-earth from the moment they begin creating their characters.

As an experienced designer of games based on JRR Tolkien, as well as being a lifelong devotee of the Tolkien works, Francesco brings a dimension -and a depth- to this RPG which has probably never been seen before in a LOTR game.

Robert Hyde, head of Cambridge (UK) based Sophisticated Games said: “When we first acquired the rights from Tolkien Enterprises to publish this RPG - as part of our wider LOTR book-based board game license - we had no hesitation in approaching Francesco to conceive a completely fresh LOTR and The Hobbit RPG, and for him to be the writer.

"We knew that he possessed both these skills and that the game would be in very safe hands. His presentation of Middle-earth, along with stunning artwork from John Howe and others, brings this incredibly evocative and exciting world to life.

“We also approached Cubicle 7 to be our publishing partners on the new The One Ring RPG because we loved the quality of their previous publications and felt that Dominic and Angus [Abranson] had both the experience, and with the creation of Cubicle 7, the role playing game resources, to bring LOTR and The Hobbit to a very wide audience.”

The One Ring: The Lord of the Rings® Role-playing Game
will be published in the second half of 2010.

Angus told HeroPress this afternoon that the game's mechanics will be unique to The One Ring: "It is a brand new system that has been designed specifically for Middle Earth."

For more information on The One Ring: The Lord of the Rings® Role-playing Game please contact Cubicle 7 on info@cubicle7.co.uk

Supernatural: Family Remains

Having confessed what went down in Hell, Dean is keen to keep him and Sam busy and so they head off to investigate a 'locked room' murder at an isolated farmhouse.

Unfortunately, soon after they arrive, so do the new owners of the property - a family with two kids and a dog, looking for a 'new start' in the country after the death of their eldest son in a car accident.

But what Sam and Dean find haunting the house is far more disturbing than a typical ghost and Family Remains quickly turns into one of the most powerful and shocking episodes of Supernatural to date.

Drawing on elements as diverse as Jodie Foster's Nell and Silence Of The Lambs and real world horror stories such as the Fritzl case, this episode also reminded me of the Torchwood tale Countrycide thematically if not in execution.

The story took a quite typical Supernatural set-up and managed to quickly and convincingly spin it into something unexpected; upping the horror ante by having the all the action unfold over a single night.

Brilliantly acted by all concerned, credibility was only tested towards the end - when daylight came - and the survivors of the night time ordeal seemed perfectly happy to stay in the house. I would expected them to be running screaming back to the welcoming bosom of civilization.

Doctor Who: The Monster Of Peladon (1974)

In the penultimate tale of the Pertwee era, The Third Doctor returns to Peladon - scene of his earlier adventure The Curse Of Peladon - accompanied by Sarah Jane Smith (Lis Sladen).

While some things have changed - camp King Peladon has died and his supercute daughter, Queen Thalira (Nina Thomas), sits on the throne and Peladon is now a member of the Galactic Federation - the planet is still riven with superstition and the class struggles inherent in a feudal society.

Not only that, but someone is again using fear of the "curse of Aggedor" to cause trouble and stir up tension in the miners working in the caves under the castle.

The miners - with their two-tone 'fro hairdos - are digging out the precious mineral trisilicate (previously only found on Mars) which is crucial for the Galactic Federation's war against the mysterious Galaxy Five.

The Federation has sent in mining expert Eckersley (Donald Gee) with the new high-tech sonic lance to speed up operations, but the Peladonian miners don't like the idea of "alien technology" being brought in to do their jobs and tension is running high.

Eckersley is assisted by a satyr-like native from Vega (Gerald Taylor) whose eyes, rather disconcertingly, point in different directions, but he is soon killed by a manifestation of Aggedor and the troubles snowball from there, until it gets so bad that Ambassador Alpha Centauri (yes, the wonderful monocular hermaphrodite is still there) panics and calls for more Galactic Federation troops.

That's when the ice warriors show up and things only get worse...

At first, The Monster Of Peladon plays out like a carbon copy of The Curse Of Peladon, with a new narrow-minded, blinkered High Priest, Chancellor Ortron (Frank Gatliff), using religious bigotry and ignorance (no matter how well intentioned) to muddy the waters, as his predecessor did in the earlier tale, but when the military force of ice warriors show up The Monster Of Peladon takes off in an entirely new direction.

Where Curse was an allegory for the drawn-out negotiations to get the UK into the EEC, Monster was Brian Hayles' allegory for the miners' strikes of the 1970s and even though the story unfolds over six episodes, it's still more exciting - with the general to-ing and fro-ing of the characters as sides are established and allegiances change - than our first visit to Peladon.

There are still some cringeworthy moments, such as Sarah Jane explaining "Women's Lib" to the Queen or The Doctor's brawl with zealous miner Ettis (Ralph Watson) when we can clearly see it's a stuntman and not Jon Pertwee, and while the plot is - possibly unnecessarily - complicated rather than complex, like Curse it's clear the show's producers have a lot of enthusiasm for this story.

The arrival of the Galactic Federation has seemingly boosted the technology of Peladon, but the story still carries the glorious aroma of planetary romance, and even a touch of Dungeons & Dragons, in the large amount of time it devotes to the underground catacombs that honeycomb the mountain the castle sits on and the primitive weaponry of the natives against the blasters and gadgetry of the newcomers.

However, where Curse was a Gothic mystery interwoven with political and religious tension, Monster is more of a Scooby-Doo romp. Personally I actually preferred the latter in its execution - although I would have thought I'd have gone for the former - but your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

H.P. Lovecraft's The Silver Key...


A clip from the forthcoming silent short The Silver Key, directed, shot and edited by Gary Fierro. Based on the adventures of HP Lovecraft's famous dreamer Randolph Carter the film follows Carter as he regains the key to the gate of dreams, leaving behind the waking world forever and crossing into the realm of dreams.

My only issue would be, as a 'period Lovecraftian tale', I'd have preferred it shot in black and white - but perhaps the HP Lovecraft Historical Society have spoiled me with their marvelous monotone.

Doctor Who: The Curse Of Peladon (1972)

The Third Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) take the TARDIS for its first test drive - after The Doctor's enforced exile on Earth - and end up on the pseudo-medieval world of Peladon.

They stumble into the middle of a conference between King Peladon (David Troughton), his advisers and assorted alien dignitaries negotiating Peladon's admission into the Galactic Federation, and The Doctor is mistaken for the delegate from Earth.

While young King Peladon is trying to be a progressive, his world is locked in tradition, ceremony and superstition and someone - or something - seems determined to disrupt the proceedings.

Peladon's High Priest, Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone) claims it is the "Curse Of Aggedor" at work, because the young king is turning his back on "the old ways", but The Doctor believes the source of the problem is less supernatural - he blames the delegation of ice warriors from Mars.

Although The Curse of Peladon is set-up as a Gothic murder mystery, Brian Hayles' script doesn't really make much of an effort of obfuscate the identity of those working behind-the-scenes to undermine the conference.

Throw in a slightly stilted and uncomfortable romantic sub-plot between Jo and the King and The Curse of Peladon sadly doesn't deliver on its initial promise.

It's all very earnest, and the various political and religious machinations are fascinating, but Pertwee's first set-bound Doctor Who adventure is too claustrophobic to give a real sense of the high stakes that everyone keeps talking about.

On the other hand - furry Aggedor aside - this is a rare Doctor Who tale that features a variety of well-rounded alien beings, as well as the ice warriors, the conference includes: a delegate from Arcturus (Murphy Grumbar, voiced by Terry Bale), a kind of proto-dalek with a tentacled head in a protective dome on top of combined life-support and mobility unit; and the over-excitable, hermaphroditic Alpha Centauri delegate (Stuart Fell, voiced by Ysanne Churchman), a six-armed creature with a single, giant eye.

Alpha Centauri is one of the most striking alien designs from the early years of Doctor Who and I, for one, can't wait for Character Options to bring out that particular action figure!

There is even an admirable air of planetary romance about the story with its faux fantasy setting of a cold castle on a cliffside (which makes the native costume of short trousers rather strange), monsters in the catacombs, trials by combat etc

The Curse Of Peladon
tries hard to be better than it is, but is constantly undermined by odd moments like the prolonged fight sequence - between The Doctor and the King's Champion, Grun (Gordon St. Clair) - in episode three or The Doctor's Venusian lullaby.

It is also supposedly a political allegory for the 12 years of negotiations it took for the UK to enter the EEC (European Economic Community), which was happening just around the time that The Curse Of Peladon was made. But sadly almost four decades later that subtext is lost on a modern audience for whom such matters are just a minor blip of dull politicking from the 1970s.

And, of course, as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace proved, trade politics makes for such a thrilling backdrop for science-fiction!

You can see what the production team were trying to achieve with The Curse Of Peladon, and kudos for the effort, but it doesn't quite pay off in the final telling.
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