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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Star Trek Reviews: '90s Trek TV

Part Three of my reviews for all of the Star Trek shows and movies, split across several posts for each “stage” of Trek:

  1. Early Trek (TOS, TAS)
  2. TOS Trek Movies (ST MP through ST VI)
  3. ’90s Trek TV (TNG, DS9, Voyager)
  4. TNG Trek Movies (Generations through Nemesis)
  5. Enterprise
  6. Trek Reboot Movies
  7. Streaming Trek (Discovery, Picard, Trek shorts)

See the first post for an explanation of my letter-grade ranking system. The short version: C is average, something I have no strong feelings about one way or another. To avoid uncontrollable rage, please remember: Average is not Bad. It’s just average.

This post is all about ’90s Trek, the TV shows that aired mainly in the early '90s, although '90s Trek really begins in the late '80s with…

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Rating: B-

Again, there was an exciting announcement: Trek is finally coming back to TV! Not the Star Trek Phase II or whatever it was called that they once talked about, but a new crew on a new version of the Enterprise, farther in the future.

And again, there was a little disappointment. After watching the first few episodes of The Next Generation, I gave up on it for a long time. Came back just in time for “The Best of Both Worlds” and started watching regularly. The series was better by then, but it still had bad spells. I eventually saw the episodes I’d missed and realized I hadn’t missed much. A couple years ago, I started re-watching all the episodes, in order, more than once, to make sure I filled in all the gaps. And I still have mixed feelings.

I gave TNG a lower grade the first time I rated it. First, because the first two and a half seasons are generally bad, mostly C quality, some D quality, and only a few that rise above that. Second, because the pacing in so many episodes, even in good ones, is slow, sometimes plodding along until you scream “Just get on with it!” It’s a bad sign when most of your hour-long episodes could be compressed to fit a half-hour time slot and would actually be improved by the effort.

But let’s face it: there are a lot of B and A-quality episodes in TNG. Some of the best Trek episodes ever, like “Darmok” or “Tapestry”, are TNG episodes. The fact that it has more C and D episodes than any other Trek should lower the rating a little, but not drastically. It’s still a very re-watchable series.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Rating: B

I only watched the first one or two episodes of DS9 when it first aired. It didn’t “grab” me, so I gave up. I knew people who praised DS9 and claimed it was the best of Trek, but I couldn’t be bothered.

But when I filled in my gaps on TNG, I also watched all of DS9. I’m still not enthused about the series, although there are a couple episodes I like. But regardless of my feelings, I still recognize that it’s a very well-made series, especially in comparison to TNG. It does have longer, more carefully crafted plot arcs, although that’s a major reason why I don’t feel enthused. It takes too much effort to get into DS9 compared to something more episodic.

One thing I do not like is the space battles. My feeling about space battles is that, space being as big and empty as it is, tight formation space battles or attempts to barricade a space route are just ridiculous. And I’m just not the kind of person who likes lots of explody action. The space battles in DS9 and late TNG mark the point where I stopped liking a lot of the military conflicts in Trek.

Still, I rate DS9 as a B. Originally, I had it lower, but that was only because I sorted all the series into tiers, assigned TAS a C grade, and made all other ratings relative to TAS.

Star Trek: Voyager

Rating: B

When Voyager was announced, I had the same reaction as many: “It sounds depressing, like Lost in Space. Not very much like Trek at all.” But I watched the first few episodes, stuck with it longer than DS9. Missed some chunks of episodes, but I liked it better than DS9. When I went back and fill in my gaps later, I decided I liked it better than TNG, too.

It’s not a great series. It has fewer A-grade episodes than TNG and less plot development than DS9. It has some of the same pacing problems as the other '90s Trek shows. But here’s the thing: it’s more consistent in quality throughout the series run. Everything’s fairly close in quality. When you get to a bad episode, you don’t discover it’s the first in a long string of bad episodes. And honestly, if we’re going to have nerd fights about who the better captain is: Kirk is the more interesting captain, Picard is the more diplomatic, but Janeway is the best overall.

Next Post: Back to the big screen.

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Monday, August 3, 2020

Star Trek Reviews: TOS Trek Movies

Continuing my reviews for all of the Star Trek shows and movies, split across several posts for each “stage” of Trek:

  1. Early Trek (TOS, TAS)
  2. TOS Trek Movies (ST MP through ST VI)
  3. ’90s Trek TV (TNG, DS9, Voyager)
  4. TNG Trek Movies (Generations through Nemesis)
  5. Enterprise
  6. Trek Reboot Movies
  7. Streaming Trek (Discovery, Picard, Trek shorts)

See the first post for an explanation of my letter-grade ranking system. The short version: C is average, something I have no strong feelings about one way or another. Anything I would seek out and re-watch gets an A or B.

Spoiler Warning: This is the post that’s probably going to shock people the most. When I did the quick version of these posts on Twitter and Facebook, people lost their minds over how I rated the movies. I don’t hate them, but I don’t really enjoy them all that much. I’m not sure what’s going to shock people the most: the fact that I don’t rate some fan favorites as highly as people think I should, or the fact that I don’t see as much difference in quality between the movies.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Rating: C-

Like Star Trek: The Animated Series, I was very excited at the news that there was going to be a Star Trek movie, with the original cast. And like the animated series, I wasn’t too disappointed at first. I mean, the new Klingons looked interesting, and that first scene with them had some pretty good music and special effects.

But yeah, even at first, I didn’t think it was a great movie. Not especially bad, but it’s kind of slow-moving, and basically it’s just “The Changeling” redone for the big screen, with a romance between two completely new characters that we never really cared about. And the new uniforms are pajamas.

When I first rated this movie a few months ago, I gave it a C, but I’ve lowered it to C- because yeah, it’s obviously at least a little below average. I’m in no rush to see it again.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Rating: C+

People lost their minds over my rating of this, but bear with me. A C is average, not bad. I have no strong feelings about a C-grade movie. I can watch it and be entertained. And a C+? That’s a little above average. So I’m not saying Wrath of Khan is a bad movie. And I liked it better the first time I saw it.


Something noticeable in Khan and many Trek movies is that the characters are a little off and the stories are a little dull. They feel like really stretched-out hour-long TV episodes. And I’d compare the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationships to those in the animated series: where the animated series made everyone seem angry at each other all the time, the movies seem to overcompensate and have them delve in to how much they care about each other. Yeah, they’ve been friends and colleagues for a long time, but that could have been worth a couple lines in a scene about something else. We already know these characters. We don’t have to explore stuff we already know, over and over. Just the new stuff.

ST II is a little better storywise than the other movies, so that’s why it’s a C+ instead of just a C. And it still has the best starship battle anywhere in Trek (other than “Balance of Terror”.) But I’ll explain that more elsewhere.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Rating: C

I know I’ve seen at least part of it, but did I even finish it? Why do I not care?

This is what I mean about a C rating meaning I have no strong feelings about a film or series. If it were on and I had nothing else to do, I might re-watch ST III. But I can’t muster the will to deliberately re-watch it. Even though Spock is my favorite TOS character, I don’t care about The Search for Spock.

Star Trek: The Voyage Home

Rating: C

This one I’m a little more certain I watched all the way to the end, but I’m still not 100% sure. I’ve definitely forgotten a lot about it. So, it’s in the same bucket as ST III. I just don’t care if they get a whale or not.

Star Trek: The Final Frontier

Rating: C

Definitely saw all of this. Definitely do not care.

Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country

Rating: C

Still don’t care. It’s especially dull at the beginning. They should really stop doing Starfleet meetings in Trek, because fleet procedures aren’t interesting.

I know this is shocking, because most people talk about either ST IV or ST VI being their favorite, or even claim that the even-numbered films are good and the odd numbers are bad. But really, aside from the first one being slightly worse and the second slightly better, they all feel the same to me and sometimes I get confused about which scene comes from which movie.

Next Post: New ships with new crews.

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Star Trek Reviews: Early Trek

Before I start my journey into the Star Wars, I should probably do some reviews of some other things I’ve binged recently, beginning with Star Trek. I’ll split this across a couple posts, one for each “stage” of Trek:

  1. Early Trek (TOS, TAS)
  2. TOS Trek Movies (ST MP through ST VI)
  3. ’90s Trek TV (TNG, DS9, Voyager)
  4. TNG Trek Movies (Generations through Nemesis)
  5. Enterprise
  6. Trek Reboot Movies
  7. Streaming Trek (Discovery, Picard, Trek shorts)

But first, a brief look at my ranking system.

  • A or B: Above Average, Worth more than one watch. Anything with an A rating is of exceptional quality, but B is pretty good, too.
  • C: Average. It’s OK. Wouldn’t call it an essential re-watch.
  • D: Below Average. Might be bearable at least an object of mockery, but otherwise, not something worth watching.
  • F: Bottom of the Barrel. So badly made it can’t possibly be recommended except as an example of bad craft.

First time I rated Trek stuff on social media, I ranked each film and series (not individual seasons or episodes) relative to each other, then figured out which tier was “average” for me. I’ve tinkered with my ratings since then. Films start with a base letter grade and then get a + or - if it has a couple moments that really stand out as better/worse than the movie as whole. I rate a series as a whole, then give it a + or - if there’s a substantial number of episodes that are better/worse than the typical episode.

Spoiler Alert: I didn’t rank any Trek show or movie D or F, although judging by the rage I got on Facebook/Twitter, you’d think I had. I could give individual episodes a D grade, but no Fs. It’s actually pretty rare for me to give something an F. Even Ed Wood or Coleman Francis movies get at least a D.

Star Trek: The Original Series

Rating: A-

This is what I grew up with. I think I actually saw bits and pieces of TOS when it originally aired, but I was so young that all that stuck in my mind was the face of Balok at the end. But when it went into syndication, I was definitely watching, and I was a devoted fan.

I don’t watch it as much any more, and I’ll admit it sometimes feels a little creaky in places nowadays, which is why I’ve lowered it from my original A rating. But many of the episodes are solid TV and good storytelling that moves at a good pace. When we criticize TOS, it’s the hammy speechifying and some of the outdated attitudes that stand out, not the quality of the stories themselves.

I’ve said more than once that the first ten or so episodes stand out for me. They hadn’t established The Federation in their world-building, and not many alien races had been added yet. This is a human-dominated “United Earth Space Agency” that has traveled to the edge of the galaxy, but perhaps hasn’t explored 90-95% of the territory within their range. Most of the galaxy is a big mystery, and to a certain extent, the crew is out there alone. As later episodes filled out the background, adding the Federation, adding several alien races, adding trade routes and alliances, the galaxy seemed less empty. People famously refer to TOS as “Wagon Train to the stars”, but the earliest TOS episodes are more like Lewis and Clark than Oregon Trail.

There are a few inferior episodes: “Turnabout Intruder” is a D episode, worse even than the quintessential “bad” episode “Spock’s Brain”. People sometimes claim all of third season is bad, but there’s a couple A and B episodes in that season, like “All Our Yesterdays” and “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”

Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Rating: C

I remember being very excited when I heard the news: there was going to be a new Star Trek show! A Saturday morning cartoon! With the original cast!

And I enjoyed it as a kid, but looking back at it, it’s not so great. Certainly higher quality than most other Saturday-morning fare. But it’s the usual cheap animation. The character are also “off”: Kirk is more violent and Spock is more of a stubborn jerk, and the interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy seems fueled more by anger than friendship.

The feel and tone of early Trek gets completely lost in TAS. They zoom from one end of the galaxy to the other regularly, even outside the galaxy, and there’s no real sense of scale. Fortunately, none of the later Trek offerings take the same approach.

The stories are mostly so-so, with a few good episodes like “Yesteryear”. The most amazing thing is that they accomplish more in half an hour than any of the hour format shows do. The quality actually doesn’t vary that much; it’s a fairly consistent series, with not many episodes outside the C+ to C- range. “The Practical Joker” is probably the worst episode, worth a D rating, but it does have the distinction of introducing the holodeck.

Next Post: We’re going to the movies.

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Monday, July 27, 2020

In Lair, Or Not?

There’s been a big discussion about how to use the “% In Lair” stat from Monsters & Treasure (table on pages 3-4) and in other books. A lot of it is a series of very detailed arguments, some points being based on references in other sources like Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign, which in my opinion is not official rules, but Arneson’s “Here’s how I do it” book. There are no official rules on how to place and stock lairs, because it’s up to GM taste and the needs of the group.

So, I don’t think “% In Lair” is meant to be anymore complicated than “Are the PCs exploring the lair of the monster? Is the monster home right now, or out hunting?” But I have some ideas on how to handle random lair placement, which I thought I’d repeat here.

First: If you have a special lair to place on a map, place it first. It’s like placing special rooms in a dungeon vs. randomly stocking other rooms. You want to figure out where Castle Greyhawk and the Tomb of Horrors are before you decide where the den of a random wolfpack is. I don’t even count typical dungeons as “lairs”, even though they technically are the lairs of the monsters that live in them.

Second: How many lairs are in the area? Assuming you’re rolling up the contents of a hex or wilderness area, you’d want at least a few lairs, but no need to go crazy. I’d set the base number of lairs as d6/2, dropping fractions, to get a range of 0 to 3, with 1 or 2 being the most common result.

I’d actually roll two dice. In rural areas or anything else close to civilization, I’d pick the lowest roll. In true wilderness, I’d pick the highest.

Third: Where are the lairs? Any place that looks usable, actually. Since I consider lairs to be smallish, not necessarily worthy of a map, it’s more a matter of terrain and monster preferences. Basic lair types are:

Dice Roll Lair Type
0 to 1 Natural Shelter
2 to 3 Modified Shelter
4 to 5 Cave (1-4 “rooms”)
6+ Structure

Natural Shelter could just be a shallow hole inside a thicket, a spot between two boulders, or a hollow tree. The modified form is basically a multi-chamber burrow, a nest, or a campsite for bandits or other intelligent groups. Structures may be newly made, abandoned and repurposed by wild animals, or just the ruined remnants.

Either pick a suitable area on the map that matches the monster type or roll: d6/2 for plains, desert, swamp, or forest, d6 for hills/mountains (+/- 1 based on closeness to civilization, current or historic.)

Fourth: Is the encounter in the lair? If it’s a wandering monster, no, but you could roll a d6: on 5+, it has a lair nearby. Otherwise, it’s looking for a new lair. If the party finds the lair first, rather than the monster, that’s when I’d make the “% In Lair” roll to see if it’s home or out hunting. I’d roll again periodically as the PCs explore the lair, to see if it returns.

How do PCs find lairs? Usually by tracking creatures, or backtracking where a dead creature came from, if they encounter the monster first. If there are people living nearby, they might have clues as to where to look. There’s always magic, too. But if we’re not talking about wandering monsters, it’s mostly a matter of dumb luck: PCs see something they want to explore, perhaps to set up camp, and it turns out to be occupied. If it’s the lair of bandits or the like, PCs might see smoke from a campfire and head towards it. If the PCs are following a treasure map, the map destination may now be occupied.

Finally: What happens when PCs clear a lair? Monsters pick lairs because they need shelter or a place to store their stuff. If the monsters are killed, any other creatures looking for a lair may move in. I’d use the same 5+ on 1d6 chance to determine if a lair has a new occupant when PCs revisit it later. If the new occupant gathers treasure, it probably won’t have much of anything when it first claims the lair. A good guess: after one month, a monster will have acquired 10% of the usual treasure for its type, plus 10% per month. If you want a roll, use either a flat d10x10% or 2d6x10% roll (treating 6s as zero,) but cap the result based on the number of months.

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Blog Post of Note: Element Generator

The Weird & Wonderful Worlds blog has a Javascript-based Element Generator that is worth a look. I would probably tinker with the tables, for my own use, but it's a solid way of generating a random element or three for a distinctive fantasy world, or as the basis for a unique elementalist class.

I may have more to say on the concept later.

Monday, July 20, 2020

How to Watch Star Wars Follow-Up

I thought I’d follow up my How to Watch Star Wars post requesting help on how best to give the Star Wars storyline a fair chance. Thanks, everyone, for the suggestions. I compared the lists of Joseph, Troy, and Big McStrongmuscle to make some decisions on how to go about this, which I will get to in a moment.

But first: I think people may have missed some important points about my project.

  • I’ve already seen the original trilogy and even a couple newer movies. So, spoilers are not an issue. I already know who Darth Vader is and who Luke and Leia are, guys. Not gonna be a surprise, no matter what order I choose.
  • I don’t plan to be a completionist. I don’t care about tracking down every piece of Star Wars media. I’m mostly concerned with giving the emotional and artistic elements their due. I’m not interested in filler for the backstory.
  • This is not really about watching Star Wars. It’s about getting my money’s worth out of Disney Plus. That means I’m not paying extra for anything, nor will I spend time tracking down bootleg cuts that don’t include later changes.

I’m not a Star Wars fan. I thought that was obvious, but maybe people didn’t realize what this means. I’m not going to be affected by the same things fans are. For example, I’ve seen both the “Han Shot First” and “Han Shot Second” versions of A New Hope and didn’t really notice who shot first either time. It also means I’m not going to follow the Machete Cut just to skip over movies some fans object to.

If you can make a good case for re-arranging the order, that’s different. If the emotional impact is better if you start with Machete order (4, 5, 2, 3, 6) and then finish with the other movies, that’s worth thinking about. But I will watch #1. Will watching #1 after #6 make it a better movie? Or does it not matter when I watch #1?

After looking over the suggested order list, I’m now considering two possible orders:

  1. Strict Chronological for Live-Action Theatrical Releases. followed by The Mandalorian, then a sample of others, depending on interest.
  2. Chronological by Arc, resembling release order with some modifications. Start with Rogue One, move on to films 4 to 6, then to films 1 to 3, then Solo, then films 7 to 9, followed by The Mandalorian.

Note that I’m going to pass on a lot of the animated material. I checked out some reviews/criticism of the Clone Wars material and decided to do a hard pass on the CGI theatrical film, but might try the first two episodes of each animated series until I get bored or take an interest in one.

When I start watching, I plan on doing a review of each film as I finish, from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t a fan, but giving each film my full attention and judging it on its own merits.

Oh, and after I finish all the theatrical films, I might consider picking up some of the RiffTrax “Just the Jokes” releases for them and giving them a rewatch, so I can review the riffs.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

A TSR-D&D Venn Diagram

Here’s my Venn diagram illustrating the definitions and concepts behind some of the names for TSR-era D&D. Most of you will probably already know this, but it may still be useful for discussion.

The red circle is Original D&D (OD&D.( This starts with the woodgrain (brown) box that hardly anyone has seen in person and moves into the whitebox era and its supplements (Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldritch Wizardry, and Gods, Demigods and Heroes.

The yellow circle is Classic D&D. This is a name that evolved in early online discussions like on the Dragonsfoot forums or the Usenet news groups and it describes the various “Basic” editions that descend from OD&D, distinct from AD&D. Basically, everything that Arneson was awarded a share of as a result of the lawsuit. OD&D material is compatible with Classic, but there are changes and additions to Classic that were not in the original, so it can be considered its own distinct thing.

The orange intersection of those two circles is Holmes Basic. It was created as an introduction to OD&D and is almost completely identical to those rules, but there are a few minor unique points. It also fits the definition of “Classic”, though, so it is sometimes considered OD&D, sometimes considered Classic, sometimes both, and sometimes its own thing.

The blue circle is Advanced D&D (AD&D.) This is the D&D rewrite begun by Gygax to be distinct from OD&D and Classic and thus not something Arneson deserved a share of the profits for. The first edition of the Monster Manual still adheres to some OD&D dice guidelines and so can be used with OD&D without much problem, which explains the overlap. The rest of the first edition books have enough changes to the rules that they are not fully compatible with either OD&D or the Classic line, although they are close enough that you could create conversion guidelines. However, you will encounter people who use “Classic” in a much looser sense of “anything from the early days”, which is what the ghostly dotted pseudopod labeled “1st Ed.” refers to.

The Survival Guides are in their own subset loosely connected to the first edition group. These start adding material that marks a distinct stage in the development of AD&D that some people call “1.5 edition”. Oriental Adventures and Unearthed Arcana could arguably be included here as well, but I didn’t want to make the diagram into an unholy nightmare, so I just suggested that there was some kind of minimal divergence from early first edition AD&D.

2nd Ed.” is a rewrite of first edition that incorporates the “1.5e” changes and later complicates things further with the “kits” approach. At this point, AD&D and the basic lines have diverged so much it would be hard to justify calling 2e “Classic”, so I moved it to the bottom area of the diagram, to visually suggest its conceptual distance from those versions of D&D.

All of this is TSR-era D&D. WotC-era D&D shares some terminology and a few structures/mechanics that might be recognizable as being descended from OD&D/AD&D, but in the same way that Tunnels & Trolls or Palladium’s games are descended from them. Adaptation is still possible… because adaptation is always possible. But they obviously are not compatible.

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Monday, July 13, 2020

How to Watch Star Wars

Not really RPG related, but what the hell… I need some help. I’m planning on giving Star Wars another chance.

I did not see Star Wars when it first came out. Couldn’t go to many movie theaters back then. Saw it on VCR and Laser Disc, of all things. And I thought “Eh, it’s OK, I guess.” It never really struck a chord with me. And as a result, I never really got into the craze that followed.

Naturally, I didn’t try to see any of the other movies, because I just didn’t care. But I did see most of them. Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, when they showed up on TV. Attack of the Clones in an actual theater, because my friends wanted to see it and I like my friends. Rogue One and The Force Awakens on VOD. And good chunks of Phantom Menace, Revenge of the Sith, and even the animated Clone Wars thingie. And so far, I haven’t really liked any of it except the holiday special, and that’s because of the RiffTrax version.

(On the good side, this means that I don’t hate the same movies that the fans hate. I honestly can’t tell the difference in quality between them. They all feel kind of meh.)

But I recently paid for a year of Disney Plus, because I had some extra money and really wanted to watch Avengers Endgame, which Disney has been hoarding away, as well as any Marvel movies/shows I missed (Currently working my way through Agent Carter.) And since I’ve got access to all this material, I’ve been thinking: Maybe should give Star Wars another chance? Try to watch them all again all the way through, in the proper order, from Phantom Menace to Rise of Skywalker?

But here’s where I need the help. I’m not sure where to put some of the auxiliary material. I know the basic order should be:

  1. The Phantom Menace
  2. Attack of the Clones
  3. Revenge of the Sith
  4. A New Hope
  5. (Rogue One)
  6. The Empire Strikes Back
  7. Return of the Jedi
  8. The Force Awakens
  9. The Last Jedi
  10. The Rise of Skywalker

Now, I’m not entirely sure where to place Rogue One. Before A New Hope, or after? I’ve seen them both and know part of it happens before, part during. Not sure what position would be best for maximum impact on a rewatch, though.

And I know Solo goes before both of those. Is 3.5 a good location?

Not sure whether I will actually try to watch the animated stuff or not, but if I did, where would it go? 2.5?

Where does the holiday special go? Before Empire, or after? Should I watch it unriffed, if available?

And I don’t even know where The Mandalorian goes in this sequence, although I’m thinking I might want to delay it if it’s too early. I don’t want to get bogged down in a series that relies heavily on fan knowledge while I’m trying to make my way through the basic Star Wars starter course.

Which raises the question: are there any other changes I should make to the proper order for pure aesthetic effect, to increase impact?

Haven’t even checked what else is available on Disney Plus. I probably will skip any cartoons, but is there anything that is a real must-see, as far as you true fans are concerned?

I want to give Star Wars a decent chance this time. Really focus on the material, without distractions, and try to see its true spirit and understand why fans love it so much. If you love Star Wars, what do you think is the best way to learn to love it?

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Blog Post of Note: The Top Ten Emblematic D&D Monsters

Today, I'd like to point people to this blog post: False Machine: The Top Ten Emblematic D&D Monsters. I would agree with many of the rankings on that list, but more important, I understand them. The list is a mix of monsters every player faces, especially at the beginning, and those that are unique to D&D and well-known.

I don't think I have much reason to comment further on it. Just read the post.