"Vanished Lands: Vistel's Expedition" Session 39.44 — "Ride the lightning"

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for “Vanished Lands” Session 39.44, which Jason E.R. hosted in Reading, Mass., on Monday, 4 August 2014:

In one ancient world, there was a region where strange majicks and demihuman races thrived. The “Vanished Lands” were blessed by the gods and cursed by prophecy. Travelers became adventurers, and adventurers strove to be heroes in the face of many perils and wonders.

Various groups of mercenaries and diplomats have fought humanoids in the northwestern borderlands, encountered pirates on the Sea of Nagendwa, and wandered the hostile Halmed Desert and the wide Plains of Sathendo….

“Vistel’s Circus,” Player Character Party 39 in Gene D.’s " Vanished Lands " heroic fantasy campaign, using the D20 Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Pathfinder, and FATE3e Legends of Anglerre, as of summer 2014:

  • Giacomo ‘the Mysterious’ Du Vane [Beruk A.]-male Hifalendorin human Mage (Gypsy Wizard) and stage seer, embittered by experiences in Hesolin’s Magisterium; with homunculus familiar Gerald; NGc, Lvl. 9
  • Scully Strongbow [Sara F.]-female albino Gnoll (Flind) Ranger, archer, knife thrower, and scout, with owl “Owlicious”; NGl, Lvl. 9
  • Tempestade [Josh C.]-male Barbari human Monk (Battledancer/capoeirista from outside the “Vanished Lands”), former roustabout, now a follower of Otih; CGl, Lvl. 9
  • Elsa Fairbottom [Rich C.G.]-female Hill Dwarf Druid outcast, cook/brewer, and animal handler with Banuq (winged cat) Penryn; NGc, Lvl. 9
  • Rhys Davies [Drew S.]-male Tinker Gnome (Minoi) clockwork gadgeteer; TNg, Lvl. 9
  • Corwin Windsong [Bruce K./absent]-male Half-Elf Bard, runaway aristocrat, ladies’ man, and former ringmaster with a mandolin; CNg, Lvl. 9

Guests:

  • Radius [Jason E.R.]-male Modron Paladin of Primus, lord of Nirvana; exiled to the Prime Material plane; LGn, Lvl. 5
  • Brendan Quinn [Brian W.]-male Saganim (proto-Celtic) human Rogue, explorer; NGl, Lvl. 9
  • “Brogar the Barbarian” [Brian S.]-male Skaevingol (Viking-style) human Barbarian, happy warrior; NGc, Lvl. 9

(See previous notes for “Hamfast” [Brian W.], “Melchior” [Byron V.O.], and “Sir Torrel” [Alex W.].)

“15 to 16 March 1884 A.D./C.E.:” The sometime circus performers had journeyed thousands of years to help Tempestade rescue fellow slaves from Pais Doce, his former plantation in Brazil. They met a priest and an imp and put on a magically enchanced show. The group also fought vampires and an Outsider while trying to avoid alerting mechanized guards….

Giacomo points out that the adventurers need to regroup before helping any of the human slaves escape. Scully returns from her fight with an assassin, and Tempestade leads the way to the workers’ huts.

Elsa wants to explore the manor’s cellar and possible tunnels for more Undead, but fleeing house servants have raised an alarm. Rhys is happy to have collected some clockwork, and Corwin translates and guards the rear.

Meanwhile, Radius senses another disturbance in the Multiverse. He stops by the kingdom of Saganim to pick up reinforcements to help his onetime traveling companions. Brendan and Brogar readily agree to join the good fight.

The trio travels through time and space aboard Radius’ chariot, Vector, drawn by his steed, Tangent. Upon arriving in a 19th century Brazil, the would-be heroes cross sugar fields and meet their first automaton.

Radius quickly introduces old and new friends. Rhys mistakes the Modron for an Atlantean, but Scully and Elsa realize that Brendan is a fellow member of the Royal Society for Cartography in Thadenis.

Rage against the machines
“Vistel’s Expedition” finds two overseer mechas and six automatons guarding the slave quarters. Brogar draws his great sword and charges. The ragingBarbarian badly damages one of the larger contraptions.

Ranger Scully fires arrows to support Brogar, and Druid Elsa casts Heat Metal , affecting five of the six drones! Wizard Giacomo, whose spells are spent, circles around. Martial artist Tempestade jumps onto the second overseer walker and cracks open its cockpit.

Rogue Brendan joins Tempestade but gets hit by bullets from an automaton. Artificer Rhys pulls out a wrench and gets to work on one of the metal walkers. Paladin Radius charges up the middle, destroying a drone with his flaming sword.

The slaves emerge from their huts but hang back and watch the battle. Bard Corwin magically explains that his group has come to free them. The driver of one overseer breaks out of Tempestade’s choke hold, but he gets thrown out of his vehicle.

Brogar and Radius lay waste to the remaining drones, and Scully finishes off one overseer. Elsa Wild Shapes into a dire bear and opens a path for the freed plantation workers. Corwin readies Disintegrate but doesn’t have a clear shot.

Giacomo recalls his alchemy and notes that Heat Metal may interact with the constructs’ power source and ammunition, and a few do explode, spreading shrapnel. Tempestade slays of the sentries with a punch, and Brendan uses his lockpicking skills to slow a walker.

Rhys takes control of one of the overseers and follows the 100 fugitives and their liberators across the fields. However, more sentry drones emerge from the perimeter, plus three more mechas and a huge clockwork dragon!

Pathfinder mini

clockwork dragon

Dragon duel
Hill Dwarf Elsa casts Call Lightning, which seems to damage the metal monstrosities more than weapons. Radius calls out the “interloper from Mechanus” and charges. Saganim human Brendan pole vaults onto the dragon’s back and covers its face with a bedroll, keeping it from taking flight.

Tinker Gnome Rhys operates the machine guns in his walker, firing at one of the late Yves d’Agneau’s other overseers. Local son Tempestade runs to the dragon to look for a hatch in case it has a pilot, but he doesn’t find one.

Skaevingol human Brogar charges, and with Half-Elf Corwin translating,summons the escapees as his horde. Hifalendorin human Giacomo cuts himself to cast Magic Missiles at the enemy mecha drivers. Flind Scully casts Heat Metalon one of the overseers.

The dragon slaps at Brendan on its back with its tail and claws at Radius and Tempestade. It also breathes fire through the bedroll, killing eight slaves. The overseers shoot two more and injure Scully. Corwin and the surviving freed slaves take down the smaller automatons.

Elsa invokes Mekkil (Gaia) for a Positive Energy Burst to heal her allies. Radius casts Blade Barrier to protect the Brazilian horde, and Rhys maneuvers against the other walkers. Tempestade sticks a dagger in some of the dragon’s gears, slowing it.

Brogar rages and hacks off one of the dragon’s wings with a mighty blow. Giacomo protects himself and sniper Scully with Shield as they move up one flank. The clockwork beasts and human slavers hesitate as Elsa and Radius Call Lightning, even as their spells affect some of their companions.

Brendan jams another dagger into the damaged dragon, which topples onto Brogar, who selflessly pushes Tempestade away. The group pulls them free before the clockwork construct blows up, but Radius is briefly knocked out. The remaining guards flee, and the former slaves cheer.

Giacomo casts Sleep on one mecha pilot, enabling Rhys to swap his nonfunctional walker for a less damaged one. Brogar and Corwin gather the survivors so Elsa can heal the wounded. Rhys tosses Elsa his Bag of Holding so she can gather up as many machine parts as possible.

Tempestade and Scully signal Armadeiras Fonseca, the leader of the Mocambos (rebel band) in the jungles of Mina Gerais. He and 20 capoeiristas take the growing group to the port of Rio de Cidade, where the sorcerous Rogerio Ribeiro waits with his steamboat.

Seizing the ship
However, Radius recognizes white-suited Ribeiro as an evil Outsider and draws his sword. Rhys and Brogar hold but are ready to follow the Paladin’s lead, even as the others are reluctant to break the deal they had made to return to their own time.

Scully and Tempestade move the escapees away from the duel on the docks, and Giacomo, Elsa, and Corwin prepare protective spells. Brendan realizes that this fight is out of his league.

Ribeiro casts Circle of Protection From Good, and Radius counters with Dispel Magic. The imp summons four Osyluths (bone devils), one of which hits Brogar, sending the Barbarian into another rage.

Radius casts Dispel Evil and charges. The diminuitive redhead shrugs off the spell and casts Finger of Death at Radius, who successfully resists. Brogar wades into the fight with his great sword, and Rhys uses his walker to shoot at the demon and devils.

Radius avoids Ribeiro’s Baleful Polymorph, and Brogar finishes the fight. The Osyluths disappear, and Giacomo verifies that the Outsiders are dead or at least banished back to their home planes.

A grateful Radius heals his allies, but Scully and Elsa worry that he has cut off their way back to the “Vanished Lands.” The Modron reassures them that he can use Vector and Tangent to evacuate everyone aboard the imp’s former ship.

Scully and Brendan check the steamboat and find several booby traps. Rhys is happy to claim the craft and confirms that the river vessel has enhancements that would allow it to become an airship, but Radius is needed to make it travel through time.

Tempestade and Armadeiras usher their friends aboard, and Elsa casts Find the Path to help Radius navigate. As the boat slips between worlds, arcanists Giacomo (whose cursed tattoo acts up) and Corwin become disoriented.

“Vistel’s Expedition” and the rescued slaves soon find themselves on the Sea of Nagendwa, with the green coast of Saganim in sight….

Thanks again, Jason, for hosting “JasonCon 2014 B!” I hope that you and Brian S. enjoyed sitting in on our fantasy session, and Brian W., we’ll miss you and “Hamfast.” Bruce, we missed “Corwin,” but as you see, all’s well that ends well!

Our groups decided to take next week (Aug. 11) off, but I look forward to continuing thePathfinderEberron/Reign of Winter” miniseries, eventually resuming the “Vanished Lands: A New Dawn” telecom game, and starting the next chapter for “Vistel’s Expedition!”

Guardians of the Galaxy review

On Saturday, 2 August 2014, Janice and I met Beruk A. and Thomas A.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for an early dinner at Summer Shack and Guardians of the Galaxy at the Apple Cinemas Cambridge. Several other members of the Boston-area social/gaming groups saw the latest Marvel Comics-based movie this past weekend, and we all enjoyed it.

Plot: Guardians of the Galaxy starts out with a young Peter Quill, who is given a mixed tape by his dying mother and is then abducted by aliens. The rest of the movie follows an adult Quill, who has renamed himself "Star Lord" after traveling with space pirates.

A heist gone wrong lands Quill afoul of the Nova Corps (interstellar police) and in jail with a bunch of misfits. They join forces to break out and try to save the galaxy from the evil Thanos' minions. More hijinks ensue.

The overall outline of the story should be familiar to fans of westerns, samurai flicks, and space operas from Star Wars to Firefly/Serenity. At the same time, the characters come from Marvel's cosmic comics, giving the cast and crew more creative freedom because they're not as well-known as, say, Spider-Man, the Avengers, or the X-Men.

Actors: Community's Chris Pratt is newly buff as Star Lord but still the cheerful, bumbling everyman he played in The Lego Movie. Unlike many modern antiheroes, the roguish Quill would rather talk his way out of a fight than kill anyone, and he is the heart of the movie.

The band of interstellar adventurers Quill gathers includes Zoe Saldana's comely assassin Gamora, wrestler Dave Bautista's bruiser Drax, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as talking raccoon Rocket and humanoid tree Groot, respectively. Audiences love the banter between the irascible (computer-animated) Rocket and laconic Groot.

Interstellar adventurers

Disney/Marvel's latest success

Noteworthy supporting cast members include Michael Rooker as Quill's piratical mentor Yondu, John C. Reilly as Nova corpsman Dey, and Glenn Close as Nova Prime. While they're recognizable from numerous other movies, they all seem to be enjoying themselves here.

The bad guys include Lee Pace (from Pushing Daisies and The Hobbit) as Ronan the Accuser, Benicio Del Toro as the Collector (also seen at the end of Thor 2), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) as Gamora's blue-skinned nemesis Nebula. In addition, Josh Brolin plays Kirby villain Thanos, who'll likely be appearing again in Avengers 3.

Direction and cinematography: James Gunn does a great job of keeping the plot moving, focusing on the appealing characters, and maintaining a fun tone — even with some tragic backstories and the fate of billions at stake — throughout the movie.

Gunn's love of the 1980s is evident in Guardians of the Galaxy's light touch, the many shout-outs to popular culture and science fiction of that era, and the soundtrack (more on that below). He also included numerous "Easter eggs," or allusions to other Marvel characters.

The action scenes are actually exciting, if still somewhat busy and predictable, and Guardians of the Galaxy reminded me favorably of predecessors such as The Fifth Element, which also had exotic aliens, scruffy underdogs, cool space ships, and planet-hopping capers. As a longtime space opera buff, I'm glad to see such space-based adventures again.

Soundtrack: As the trailer already demonstrated, some 1970s and '80s music goes a long way to setting an upbeat mood and suspending disbelief. Quill's mixed audiotape provides the backdrop and impetus for several scenes, and even if I listened to different genres back then, I can appreciate today's visceral reactions.

Rating: I'd give Guardians of the Galaxy, which is rated PG-13 for violence and unnecessary language, a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or four out of five stars. Just as interest might be flagging in the current superhero boom on television and in the movies, Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates Disney/Marvel's savvy exploration of other styles.

Its plot may be predictable, but the cast and characters are likable, the pacing is solid, and I wouldn't be surprised if Guardians of the Galaxy ends up being the strongest movie at the box office this summer.

"Vanished Lands: A New Dawn" Session 40.26 — Separating the nobles

Fellow role-players, here are my notes for “Vanished Lands” Session 40.26, which was held on Sunday, 3 August 2014:

Long ago in a distant land, spirits and men directly traded bamboo, silk, and steel. Wars to the west, twisted monsters, and power-hungry sorcerers threatened the eastern kingdoms, so the call went out for new heroes of honor and tact….

Player Character Party 40 in Gene D.’s Vanished Lands: A New Dawn” Asian-style telecom campaign, using the D20 Basic Fantasy Role-Playing Game andAdvanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Ed.) Oriental Adventures, plus house rules,Skype, and an online dice roller, as of summer 2014:

  • Souji Nobuto ‘Sonny’ Yoshimitsu [Beruk A.]-male Shengtese Tian Kensai (eastern human weapon master) from a dishonored house in the Lion Clan, specializing in chain weapons; LNg, Lvl. 7
  • Toshiharu ‘Toshi’ Sembutsu [Byron V.O.]-male Shan Sao Wu Jen (eastern Halfling Wizard) with tiger companion Amaya and a destiny; NGc, Lvl. 7
  • Ember Talon [Sara F.]-female Crane Hengeyokai Wu (shapeshifting Druid), actually a young gold dragon banished from the Celestial Court; NGl, Lvl. 7
  • Soske’ Tiatoshe [Geoff C.]-male Shengtese Tian Shukenja (eastern human Cleric), priest of Shang-ti and animist from the Phoenix Clan, prophesied to do great things; LNg, Lvl. 7
  • Moon Jung-mo [Dexter V.H.]-male Nannuattan Ninja (Msamaki, eastern Dark Elf Assassin) who has left the Shadow’s Claw clan and is posing as a River Spirit Folk Yakuza (eastern Grey Elf Rogue); LNg, Lvl. 7
  • Saigo Kasugi [Bruce K./absent]-male Bamboo Spirit Folk Samurai (eastern Sylvan Elf Cavalier) discreetly serving his daimyo; LNg, Lvl. 7

“18 to 19 May 1227 B.C.E.:” The wanderers prepared to leave Sogewa, capital of Tong Sheng. Jung-Mo checked in with a countryman, Sonny kept an eye on Gokuri emissary Lady Yun Aei-Yong, and Toshi contacted arcanist colleagues. Ember warned a Samurai suitor, and Soske’ prayed for guidance.

Saigo was attacked in the House of the Red Lotus, but Toshi helped him escape, heal, and shop. Back out on the eastern Plains of Sathendo, the group escorted Lady Yun and Prince Zu Ji’s retinue and notified imperial troops of its itinerary.

Shengtese human Sonny says he doesn’t trust the crown prince or Lady Fu Hao, whose army is approaching Sogewa. By contrast, Toshi thinks that the general, who is the favorite of Emperor Zi Zhao’s 60 concubines, is more honorable, if somewhat bloodthirsty. The Shan Sao suggests waiting to see how any confrontation unfolds.

Bamboo Spirit Folk Saigo recommends ditching Prince Zu Ji as soon as possible, regardless of Lady Yun’s offer of asylum on behalf of neighboring realm Gokuri. Hengeyokai Ember doesn’t want the prince to be murdered by his stepmother, who may have her own plans for succession.

Shengtese human Soske’ agrees with the idea of sending the prince back to his father in distant Yin for judgment. Spirit Folk Jung-Mo is more concerned about his companions’ survival than who might win in a battle — Prince Zu Ji and Lady Yun Aei-Yong on the one hand, or Lady Fu Hao and part of her army on the other.

While disguised as one of the prince’s 50 armored guards, Jung-Mo observes that the troops are nervous, even if they are not privy to the conversations among the Shang nobles. Sonny takes watch as the caravan camps for the night, about a day’s ride north of Sogewa.

Toshi studies spells in a tent, while Saigo sleeps heavily after some late nights. Ember also stands watch, and she is not surprised when Jung-Mo just happens to bump into her during his own patrol.

Meanwhile, Soske’ slips out and pointedly asks the prince why he is fleeing.Prince Zu Ji admits that he is afraid of the warrior queen but doesn’t reveal the details of any differences between him and the emperor.

Scout Jung-Mo notices that the prince’s soldiers are on alert, and Druid Ember communicates with their horses, who don’t like being saddled at night. Kensai Sonny notices activity around the tent of the court mages, and he notifies Toshi.

The Wu Jen recognizes that they are preparing a Mass Teleport ritual, which can quickly transport about a dozen people hundreds of miles. Soske’ rejoins the group, which heads toward Lady Yun’s tent.

The Wizards and the prince disappear in a flash of light. Lady Yun confirms that Zu Ji has escaped to Gokuri, and the Nannuattan notes that she has not yet had any direct communications with Lady Fu Hao, so as a foreign diplomat, she cannot be held responsible for any disputes within the Shang/Shengtese aristocracy.

Saigo is frustrated and storms off, but Toshi reassures his friends that even if the noblewomen fight, they’re now less likely to use scapegoats for a potential assassination. Jung-Mo and Ember are confused by human intrigues and bellicosity.

The next morning, the remainder of the prince’s guards head back to Sogewa, leaving Lady Yun and her escort to continue north toward Akilu Castle. Ember flies ahead in crane form. The shapeshifter spots three men dressed as Tsucharim (Mongol-style) riders.

They stop the carriage, and Lady Yun steps out to introduce herself. The scouts are suspicious, but one seems swayed to trust the manipulative Nannuattan. His cohorts try to knock some sense into him.

A larger group of Shang troops arrives and lowers spears at Lady Yun. Lieutenant Xiu Yu says the eastern Dark Elf should be killed on sight, but Sonny informs him that the latest war is over, and Lady Yun presents her credentials as a diplomat negotiating the truce between Gokuri, Tong Sheng, and the Zedu kingdom.

Lieut. Xiu is still reluctant to let the party pass, and he asks Soske’ to cast an Augury. The priest communes with abusive ancestral spirits, who confirm that Lady Yun’s mission is one of peace, “insofar as any Nannuattan says what they mean.”

Soske’ also reiterates that the army’s quarry — Prince Zu Ji — has fled beyond its reach and won’t be captured with magic. Lieut. Xiu is about to order his soldiers to leave when Toshi suggests that Lady Yun request an audience with Lady Fu.

Lieut. Xiu and his liang (unit of 25) bring Lady Yun’s caravan to a larger force of two zu (about 250 soldiers). All prostrate themselves before Lady Fu Hao. Lady Yun introduces herself, but Lady Fu cuts the pleasantries short and angrily accuses the Gokuri emissary of aiding the errant prince.

The fierce Fu dismisses Lady Yun and Samurai Saigo, but Sonny and Ember suggest that she can restore order in Sogewa without casualties by reinstating Duke Kou Fei Seng. They also remind Lady Fu to beware of the Dragon and Crane clans.

She says she’ll consider their advice. Since Ember’s true nature as an exiled dragon was revealed in a previous meeting with Lady Fu, Jung-Mo hangs back. Lady Yun shrugs off the loss of face, implying that the general has spent too long at war.

As one oracle to another, axe-wielding Lady Fu offers Soske’ any aid he may need in quelling the chaos in the countryside, as long as he finds its sources. He realizes that he is one step closer to his visions of the future and prophesied destiny.

Toshi offers his services to Lady Fu, who accepts and orders him to provide regular reports on the mission to escort Lady Yun to the capital of his homeland, the Zedu kingdom….

It was good to see most of you at Guardians of the Galaxy or “JasonCon 2014 B,”and Bruce, we’ll need to figure out the rest of August. We missed “Saigo” (and “Corwin”), but at least your team avoided getting caught in a bloody confrontation!

Note that the “Vanished Lands” campaign won’t be meeting for the next two weekends, but I hope to resume on Sunday, Aug. 24.

Lucy movie review

On Sunday, 27 July 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. at the Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., for a matinee of Lucy. We liked this action movie, but it's more science fantasy than science fiction.

Lucy 2014

Luc Besson directs Scarlett Johannson

Plot: As you may have seen from the trailers, Scarlett Johannson plays a young woman in modern Singapore who becomes an unwilling drug mule and develops superpowers after exposure to a synthetic hormone. Lucy has to stay one step ahead of a criminal gang, and she travels to Paris to meet with Prof. Norman, a scientist played by Morgan Freeman.

Lucy does repeat the myth that most humans use only 10% of their brains. While much of the organ's processing power is still mysterious, we know that bodily functions and consciousness require an impressive neural network.

In addition, expanded awareness and intelligence isn't the same thing as being able to manipulate reality, tap into wireless networks, or use telekinesis, telepathy, or teleportation, but it's fun for a metahuman movie. I am glad that Lucy didn't show the so-called singularity (merging of human and technology) as necessarily good or evil.

Cast: Johannson plays a naïve blank slate who becomes more than human, continuing her genre streak from The Avengers and Under the Skin. She may not exhibit great emotional range, but she is attractive and manages to convey the physicality needed for Lucy's transformation.

As he did in The Lego Movie, Freeman plays his usual sage self, gently spoofing his narration of nature documentaries. Some movie buffs will recognize Min-sik Choi as crime lord Mr. Jang, and Amr Waked is a sympathetic French detective, who is much more competent than usual for a police officer in such movies.

Direction/cinematography: While Disney/Marvel and Warner Bros./DC may be reluctant to produce a female-led superhero movie, Luc Besson is unafraid of such heroines, as seen in La Femme Nikita and The Fifth Element, one of my favorite genre films of the past 20 years. (On television, Orphan Black covers similar territory well.)

I thought some Prof. Norman's exposition and the surreal flashes were a bit heavy-handed, and while Besson brings up some big questions about the human condition, evolution, and the responsibility of power, he doesn't try to answer any of them. Still, the action scenes are satisfying, and car chases involve massive collateral damage, but at least no cities are doomed in Lucy.

Rating: Overall, we liked Lucy, which I'd give a 7 out of 10, three stars, or a "B." Of the two movies I saw last weekend, I enjoyed Hercules slightly more. Lucy was rated R for violence and language, and I'd recommend it to fans of transhuman fiction, superheroines, and action. Up next is Guardians of the Galaxy!

Catching up: Hercules 2014 review

Where did the time go? It seems like only yesterday that I was planning to blog about the then-current genre television season, the various books and comics I've been reading, the convention scene, and upcoming movies and tabletop RPGs.

Granted, I've been busy with work, weekly games, and seasonal festivals, but before they all blur together in memory, let me review some recent films.

On Friday, 25 July 2014, I met Jason E.R. and his son Eric for dinner at Fuddrucker's and an IMAX 3-D showing of Hercules. We enjoyed this sword-and-sandals movie, which starred Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson.

Hercules 2014

Mighty heroes

Plot: Since I had read the Radical Comics miniseries this movie was based on, I wasn't surprised that the 12 labors of Herakles weren't as prominent as in the trailers. In fact, the plot takes the tack that the labors were exaggerated tales of a non-magical band of adventurers.

In this respect, I'd compare 2014's Hercules with the 2004 King Arthur, but with more of a sense of humor. Johnson already proved a worthy successor to Conan: the Barbarian's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hercules: the Legendary Adventures/Kull the Conqueror's Kevin Sorbo in Scorpion King.

The Rock's shaky computer-animated avatar in The Mummy Returns was one of the few weak spots in that pulp adventure flick. I'd also compare Hercules favorably with the over-the-top 300: Rise of an Empire (but if you like Frank Miller, just wait for Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For). I'd even argue that Hercules was more faithful in spirit, if not in specifics, to its source material than Jason Momoa's Conan or the dour Man of Steel.

Cast: Even if Hercules' script is occasionally weak or predictable, Johnson is ably supported by Ian McShane as fatalist mystic Amphiaraus, Rufus Sewell as mercenary Autolycus, and John Hurt as aged Lord Cotys. Joseph Fiennes follows in his brother's footsteps (Ralph was Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise) as the scheming King Eurystheus.

The younger actors are also decent, including Askel Hennie as traumatized Viking Tydeus (it's fantasy, don't sweat it), Reece Ritchie as Hercules' kinsman and storyteller Iolaus, and Ingrid Bolso Berdal as the Amazonian Atalanta. The White Queen's Rebecca Ferguson is Princess Ergenia, and model Irina Shayk is Hercules' wife Megara. Some viewers will recognize character names from Greek mythology, TV's Legendary Adventures, or even the Disney animated musical, but this is a different take on most of them.

Direction/cinematography: It's too bad that years of computer-assisted effects have left us jaded to visions of monsters, large armies maneuvering on battlefields, and feats of strength and acrobatics. The action scenes in Hercules were generally well choreographed, and the movie was well paced.

I liked the glimpses of mythical beasts, the use of phalanx and archers on chariots, and even the cheesier moments of Hercules in chains. The Steve Reeves and Ray Harryhausen classics have nothing to worry about, but it's still nice to see a deconstruction that doesn't completely tear down fun, larger-than-life spectacle.

Rating: Jason, Eric, Byron V.O., and I all liked Hercules more than fellow role-player Rich C.G. I'd give Hercules a 7.5 out of 10, a solid "B," or four out of five stars. This is the sort of movie I'd classify as a "gamer flick," with an entertaining ensemble of misfits doing heroic deeds but not necessarily aspiring to subgenre greatness.

I've heard that this movie was better than the other Hercules film of earlier this year. Although Luc Besson and Scarlett Johannson's Lucy (more on that later) beat Hercules at the box office, I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel featuring Johnson and that first superhero team, Jason and the Argonauts. Now, who to cast?