Category Archives: Reviews

These are various reviews of books, TV shows, movies, and so on. Agree or disagree? Comment to let me know.

XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery Review


Disclaimer: I should say up front that I have known Tracy Hickman for many years. Despite that, I shall endeavor to give this book a fair review. 😉

XDM: X-Treme Dungeon Mastery is written by New York Times bestselling author and game designer Tracy Hickman and his son Curtis Hickman, with illustrations by Howard Tayler. According to editor Sandra Tayler, Tracy and Curtis “wanted to find a way to help role playing gamers remember to enjoy their games rather than get caught up in the mechanics of systems.” This book does just that.

Throughout XDM, one theme is clear: ditch the rules, the fiddly bits, and anything that gets in the way of having a good time at the gaming table. XDM explores making the game the best it can be, both from the player’s standpoint and from the XDM’s. Yet the book does so with the right touch of humor to set the tone.

I should probably mention that several of the chapters in this book are based on seminars that Tracy Hickman has given over the years. Much of this is familiar to me from the GenCon I spent stalking Tracy at his various seminars.

After the obligatory introductions, the book begins with the “Secret History of XDMs.” This chapter is an account of the “history” of XDMs, from ancient Babylonian times up to the modern day. This chapter is just for fun, but it gets into the mood of the book.

We move on from there to Getting Started as an XDM. This section deals some with some fun initiation material, but has a really good page on what an XDM does and what he doesn’t do. This is an invaluable tool for understanding the content of the book.

The next section is on the theory of XDMing. There is a good section on the types of players an XDM may have at his table. While not as detailed as what we’ve seen from Robin Laws or in the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, the three archetypes presented here are a fairly accurate summary of the types of gamers.

We move on from here to a section on storytelling, which is one of the gems of this book. This includes a variant of the Campbellian Monomyth, designed for use for storytelling. I’ve been using the monomyth in my current game, and the results have been great!

We move on to designing games for story, which takes the premise of story and moves it to practical gaming application. The next few chapters adds on to the foundations of the prior chapters.

From there, we move on to a section where we go beyond normal game mastery to the realm of the Ultimate XDM. Imagine adding sound, lights, lasers, holograms, and fog to your game! And yes, there’s even a bit of pyrotechnics.

What throws the book off, though, is the next chapter, on magic. This chapter talks a lot about various magic tricks, but doesn’t really explain much about how magic tricks deal with a role-playing game. This chapter really felt like it disrupted the flow of the book, and was hard to get through.

However, the book is saved once again with the next chapter on Killer Breakfast, a fun event that Tracy runs at GenCon. I’ve played in Killer Breakfast for several years, and this is a nice behind-the-scenes on how to do it. I’m not certain this is something you can do with friends, but it would be great for a game at a convention.

We then move on to another gem in the book – How You Play the Game. Tracy’s GenCon seminar on this very topic has been quite inspirational to me. One story in particular regarding a barbarian Tracy once played really set the mood.

From here, we go into the next chapter on the XD20 role-playing system. It exemplifies XDM principles in its simplicity. Despite knowing what the authors had in mind, it just wasn’t engaging to me. In a way, having a game system may run counter-intuitive to what this book does best – giving advice on making your game great.

The book finally ends with an afterword called “Waiting for Gygax.” Truthfully, this section should have been the forward. It sets the tone perfectly, and would have been a great place to start. In fact, many of the ideas in this book would have been better served if organized differently. I think some editorial reorganizing would have helped tremendously.

The illustrations helped to make the book what it is. Each one was fun and funny, and I had a good time going through them. It’s too bad that the book wasn’t in full glorious color.

Overall, this book has a lot of great ideas. Yet it has a few flaws, too. The biggest flaw of the book is the excessive amount of typos. It is my understanding that the book was produced in five weeks. It shows. Grammar mistakes run rampant throughout the book, making it distracting. Likewise, the book comes with footnotes. A few here and there would have added just the right spice to the book, but I felt that there was so many footnotes that we were drowning in flavor. Plus, the paper stock reminded me of the type of paper used in the 1st edition AD&D books.

The book seems to be designed for players and GMs who have played RPGs for a while. It’s also a great resource if you’re a Tracy Hickman fan, or a fan of adventure writing.

This book is a masterful resource, one that every GM should have. However, the book is in need of some editing to make it shine. Certainly, for the information inside, it is a valuable and indispensible resource. Yet the book comes across as a bit of a diamond in the rough.

I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Drive Review

driveWhen I first heard of Drive, I knew I would like it. I grew up on car shows and movies, such as The Dukes of Hazzard, Cannonball Run, and Smokey and the Bandit. Plus, this show had one of my favorite actors in it – Nathan Fillion. Now perhaps Nathan’s character in Drive acted a bit much like Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, but that’s okay. Both had lost something very important to them. The difference is that Malcolm Reynolds had little to live for save for flying another day while Alex Tully was obsessed with finding his kidnapped wife.

The basic premise of Drive is that contestants are forced into an illegal cross-country race with high stakes backers behind them. The star of the show is Nathan Fillion as Alex Tully, whose wife has been kidnapped by the powers behind the race. He has a secret past, one which drew him into the race. What’s sweet is that he drives a 1972 Dodge Challenger.

Other contestants are two half-brothers who recently found out about each other, a soldier and his girlfriend, a mother who is trying to protect her child, a father-and-daughter duo, and several others. There’s even a lady who got into the race due to a race that happened a generation earlier, one that had profound repercussions on her life. Oh, and the guy who is playing the representative of the race is priceless.

Drive is a fantastic show, and FOX played true to character by canceling it before its time. The decision to cancel Drive once again makes me ask…what the FOX?

The Verdict

THE GOOD: The show is highly character-driven, and was making some real progress into character development before its untimely demise. The high action adds to the clever dialogue. Truly, this was a car show for the new millennium, providing a fast-paced, visually attractive, and story-driven series.

THE BAD: The show falters in that it probably shouldn’t have been a TV show to begin with. I could see getting a season or two out of it, but in the end, the premise is better suited for a movie or mini-series. It is a finite story, one that must eventually come to an end. Furthermore, FOX made a huge mistake by only airing four episodes then having the other two only available through their site.

Crystalmancy: The Powers of Gems Review

Crystalmancy: The Powers of Gems is, simply put, a sourcebook on crystal magic. Overall, I thought this book was great. It was simple, to the point, and refreshing. One of the big selling points is that the zip file includes both a color and a black-and-white copy, just in case you don’t have access to a color printer. Just a note to those who print this out – be sure to print as ‘landscape’, rather than ‘portrait’. At first, it looks a bit odd in a 3-ring binder, but I think that adds to the charm.

Chapter One is about the Crystalmancer, a new base class modeled after the Player’s Handbook wizard. Scribe Scroll is replaced with a Spellcrystal ability, and the bonus feats are replaced by various Crystal Mastery abilities. What unbalances this class, though, is that it adds several trinkets at every even level, some of which are near equivalents of metamagic feats.

Don’t want to add a new base class to your campaign? No problem! One can always use the variant Crystalmancer prestige class instead. This is, unfortunately, the only prestige class in the book. I would have liked to see more. Perhaps something akin to the Crystal Proselyte in Malhavoc’s Mindscapes.

This chapter ends with two new feats (Craft Spellcrystal and Create Crystal Familiar), and a Knowledge (Gemology) skill, as well as a sidebar on spellcrystals. This section could have been better labeled, and would benefit from some touch-up layout work. It isn’t clearly labeled otherwise.

Chapter Two is Magic of the Gems, a guide to all sorts of new spells. What I like about this chapter is that it not only has a sorcerer/wizard/crystalmancer spell list, it also has one for bards, clerics, and druids as well. In other words, one can be nearly any spellcasting class (save for paladin and ranger) and be able to use crystalmancy spells. There’s tons of great spells in this chapter, including a particular nasty called Crystallize Blood. That one sends shivers up my spine.

Chapter Three is Crystal Items. This provides an assortment of magical weapons, armor, and other items, including some artifacts as well.

Chapter Four is Locations and Personalities. This chapter includes the Plane of Crystal, a place similar to our world, but made of crystal. There’s a map, as well as various places of interest. Meet Tresmril, Lord of the Crystal Realm while you’re there. Plus, there’s some adventure hooks. There’s also a group of Crystal Keepers, various Crystal Lords, and even a nifty language called Crystil. The alphabet corresponds to the English alphabet, which makes for a fun tool for game masters to add flavor.

Chapter Five is Gem Beasts. This has several new monsters, including a Crystal Creature template and sample Crystal Worg. There’s various other monsters, including a gem dragon. One can even play the Berylis as a player character race.

Overall, this book was a great read, and a lot of fun. Most of my criticisms are nitpicks (i.e. layout on the skill-and-feats areas), and the only real area of concern is game balance for the Crystalmancer base class. I would have liked to see more prestige classes, and it may have been nice as well to delve into the relationship of crystalmancers and psions, especially on how they each use crystal. This is not really necessary, though.

This book was simple, to the point, and covered what it intended to cover (the magic of crystals) quite well.

The Verdict

THE GOOD: I found this book to be quite fun and refreshing. It’s hard to find new ways to keep spellcasters fresh, but this book does it well. There’s an underlying thoughtfulness for those who buy this, not only for player options but for the color and black-and-white versions.

THE BAD: This book could stand a bit of touch-up on layout (and that’s really a nitpick), and could stand to have more prestige classes. It may have been nice as well to delve into the relationship of crystalmancers and psions, especially on how they each use crystal.