To the Gellesian Fields Part 9


For our previous novelized gaming sessions, please go to the bottom of this post.

Theren Meliamne…

We stood atop the largest of the Bailey Hills as Lexa Lyoncroft departed with the demon’s skull that Althalus had been so obsessed with.

“There’s something you should all know,” Bor Boskin said when she was out of earshot.  “Lexa…she’s one of the Sisterhood of the Sword.

“That purged priory?” Arius said.  “They betrayed the church, that much I know.  Their members were excommunicated and their leaders executed.”

That may have carried weight with our paladin, Arius had a blind eye when it came to the dealings of the church.  I was not so misguided as a druid.  The church had been attempting to do the same thing with us, erase us from history.  So far, they had had failed.  I wondered though – what had happened with the Sisterhood of the Sword to lead to such a violent reaction from the church?  Was it something they were guilty of – or had they been played as guilty of some crime they had never committed?   In many respects, she may be facing the same wrath of the church my own people had been dealing with. “At least that explains that curved sword she had.”

Althalus nodded.  “Nothing good ever comes with people carrying big curved swords,” he said, as if his words carried the weight of law. I would have argued with him, but the memory of her with that sword in her hands was enough to hold my tongue.  This time the warlock was right.

“So where do we go from here?” Bor asked.  “We have the message now.”

Our course was clear to me.  “We were sent to complete the ride of the Gray Rider.  We take the message to Lord Sklaver at Karn.  We give him the message and we are done.”

“Karn eh?” Arius said, turning around and looking back down the road through the Gellesian Fields from which we had traveled already, twice. “I have to admit, I’ll be happy to put this place behind us.  And to get there, we have to go back home.  I will be good to return for a day or so, resupply, rest up. This place wears you out, from those trying to kill us to these strange hell-spawned creatures we have seen.”

It was hard to argue with a longing for home – even for a day or two.  I had seen much since leaving our village and had much to share with my fellow brothers.  I looked at my bonded brothers and they all nodded.  “So we go home – then onto Karn.”

We set out that day, making good progress.  The Gellesian Fields was wearing on our nerves though.  Our sleep was always restless in this place, no doubt because of the tormented spirits that lurked there.  The second night as we headed south, we came across a reminder of the horrors of where we were.  We heard a shuffling near our camp, from a small copse of trees.

We had learned that such sounds rarely were friendly and we were up and armed quickly.  As we moved in, a horrible abomination emerged.  Pale grayish blue skin, a sickening tongue – it had to be a ghast, from what little I knew of such thing.

The creature sprang on Galinndan, biting him on the same spot that the zombie had torn into his shoulder.  He reeled back in agony.  I struck it with my staff, which seemed to be lighter and stronger than ever before – no doubt the result of that water I had dipped it in several days earlier.  The wood ripped a nasty gash on the beast’s flesh, but it was seemingly unphased.  Althalus unleashed his eldritch blasts, but they only leave a shouldering hole in its upper left body – and an angrier look filled its eyes.  As it turned to go after Althalus, Bor sprung at it with his warhammer Skull Ringer.  His swing was so swift and true that it cut into the body of the creature, shattering its spine as his swing exited.  The ghast stared at us with confusion as its body folded in half at the furrow that Skull Ringer had cut.  It dropped.  I would say that it was dead but with such creatures, it had to be more than dead.  What is it when the undead die?  Good…yes.  But are they really dead?

The next day we came across a small carved stone pillar along the road.  Somehow we had missed it on our journey north.  There was a clay urn on top, sealed with wax.  We checked it and found no markings.  My thought was that it was some sort of offering, no doubt to some dead warrior or people that had fought in the Fields.  Galinndan pried it open and we found very old coins, platinum, gold, and silver.  We dumped those in a backpack.  I was wary of taking them but it seemed foolish to leave such treasure along the road.  At the same time I wondered if disturbing such an offering was to have consequences.  As it turned out my concerns were well founded.

On the fourth day since leaving Lexa Lyoncroft we left behind the Gellesian Fields.  As we glanced back we noticed an ominous darkness that seemed to hover beyond the stone arch.  It was as if thunderclouds were obscuring the sun over those troubled lands.  I pointed it out to the others.  “Did you notice that before?”

“Nay,” Arius said, leaning on one of the halberds we had captured from the orc patrol.  “It does not surprise me.  That place was an open wound on the land – a place where evil festered.  That Lexa, she was one of the nicest beings we saw there – and she tried to kill us.”

He was wrong of course.  I am a druid, the land, the creatures, and growth of the world are part of my fiber.  The land was not the problem with the Gellesian Fields, I was sure of that.  It was the heinous war that had been fought there, the corruption of magic and death that had been perpetrated there that had made the lands seem so dangerous.  The races of the world, not the land, had made those fields so hazardous.  I didn’t correct Arius though.  The last thing I needed was the perspective of the church and another one of our endless debates.  The problem with paladins, their lives are centered on the fact that they are always right.

Lexa…she had a story that we simply did not know.  I also felt that we would be seeing here again too.  Bor thought that same, so he confided to me.  Next time, I swore, the odds would be more even.

It took us three more days to reach Whiterock and home.  We returned to home and the people that we had left looked at us at first as if we were strangers, then they recognized us and greeted us warmly.  Even the portly burgomaster rushed to us to ask us if we had been successful.

“Yes,” I said.  “We recovered the content of the message that the Gray Rider had been robbed of.”

“What was it?” he asked excitedly.
“A message for Lord Sklaver’s eyes alone,” Arius said.

“Then you will be leaving for Karn?”

I nodded.  “Yes.  We need to rest up from the creatures we have fought in battle.”

“Then rest you shall get!” the burgomaster said as if he could will such a thing.  “We are all happy that you have all returned home.  We look forward to your stories.”

“Not tonight,” I said.  My private solace in my forest was all I wanted.  Once there, I knew I could gather the strength for the next leg of our journey – the Road to Karn.

Thus ends the latest segment of our campaign.  I hope you are enjoying this as much as I am writing them up. Below are previous episodes:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Character Background Material

My New Campaign


Review of A Taste For Murder by Burl Barer


I’ll open with the proviso that the publisher of this book, Wild Blue Press, is the same publisher that is printing our next true crime book.  They did not solicit this review – I saw their notice for a flash-sale on this book for 99 cents and picked it up.  (If you follow them on Facebook, they do these kinds of sales often and obviously you can score some good true crime cheap.)  So, this is an unbiased review.  Also, I will give no spoilers. 

Burl Barer sucked me in early on with this book.  Frank Hernandez dies at home, dying a most horrible death…apparently from poisoning.  His wife suspected a colleague of the crime.  From there, Barer takes you on a joyride into the bizarre.  From the opening of this crime this seemed cut-and-dry, but it is like riding the Hulk rollercoaster at Universal Studios.  You think you’re going one way and bam! You’re suddenly spinning the opposite direction.

Mr Barer does an outstanding job of putting the reader in the community where this murder took place, Montebello, CA. Adding to that was the details of what this poisoning did the victim. This is not a clinical read, but one that helps you understand just how horrific this murder really was.    

I have never read any of Burl Barer’s books but I became a quick fan.  He leads you down a dark corridor, lantern in hand, on a journey that I didn’t expect at the start of the book.  I devoured chapter after chapter, not ever losing my interest.  After the first third of the book, it was as if there was a new twist every chapter or two.  Barer masterfully takes you on the long journey from murder to conviction. 

To say that this case was full of bizarre behavior is an understatement.  The murderer seems to be running con jobs within con jobs at times. 

About halfway through the book I realized I actually had heard something about this case.  That didn’t diminish it in the least for me. 

Is this a good solid true crime book?  Absolutely.  I give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.  Well worth your time to consume (pun intended). 

Review of Falling Stars RPG and Tactical Game System by Lock ‘N Load Publishing


I just notice that the female is walking away on the cover…which was a hint at what I should have done

I am an old school gamer.  I own dice older than most of the contemporary players.  I remember those heady days of Traveller – of my characters dying during creation.  I remember first edition Gamma World and Metamorphosis Alpha.  My first Star Wars RPG used six-sided dice…and I’m proud of that.  FTL 2448 was good too in its own weird way.  Then came Star Frontiers – and a plethora of other early game systems. For a while it seemed that space-opera-ish games were the rage.

The old games all had a framework they followed.  The universe was big.  Man was just one of the races.  There were aliens with psionics – which was the magic of the sci fi RPG genre.  Thanks to George Lucas, the games all had smugglers and aliens that were, for the most part, quasi-human.  You had to have cybernetics too – because that was a thing (thanks to The Six Million Dollar Man.)  They all claimed to be space operas (including the game Space Opera).  I always felt like most (with the exception of Traveller) just were cardboard-like clones.  “Take our fantasy RPG, swap out lasers for crossbows, psionics for magic, and ta da!”

So when I saw Falling Stars, I thought, “Hey, maybe this is a new spin on space operas, with some grit, some depth, some cool stuff.”

God I was wrong.

I rarely blast game products in reviews but this one compelled me to change that policy, if not for me but to save someone the cost of purchasing this system.  First off I’ll tackle the elephant in the room.  The book is 462 pages paperback and costs $54.99.  It is grossly overpriced for what you get.  The layout is a san serif font at around 14 point that looks all boldface, which just made the book too long and hard to read visually.   No RPG should make your eyes hurt – yet this one does…on multiple levels.

The game is well written, but it breaks no new ground.  In fact, it is boring retread of a lot of classic space opera stuff and things lifted from popular media.  The difference here is that the game universe is flat and dull.  Guess what, there’s cybernetics and a psionic race.  Wow. The cybernetics are nowhere as cool as Shadowrun.  The races are uninspiring, unthreatening, and dull.

The combat system is skill based except for a confusingly written Setting the Target Number set of rules. It’s supposed to be a big differentiator for them.  It’s not exciting.  In fact, I wanted to get clarity on it but, and here’s a surprise, there’s no written example in the combat chapter on a few rounds of combat.  I’ll grant you I’m no genius, but I’ve written a LOT of game books (and designed RPG’s myself) and I find examples to be, I don’t know…USEFUL.

The character classes are so bad I felt as if I threw up a little bit in the back of my throat when writing this review.  Example of the fluff text.  “Their cargo is technically considered to be contraband and subject to seizure without warning and for no reason other them being who they are.  Even with all of these dangers and pitfalls, most smugglers tend to make a very good living.”  How is this the case? We’ll never know – there are no rules for merchants and smugglers.  Oh, and the class bonuses?  “Never tell me the odds…” “She can make that run in a unit of measurement that doesn’t actually apply to this analogy.”  I’m not kidding.  This is no homage to Star Wars where they clearly lifted their inspiration – it’s an expensive knock off that lacks any depth.

The spaceship building rules work, but have all of the complexity and thrills of an Excel spreadsheet.  At least with BattleTech there are inherent tradeoffs you have to make – armor, speed, firepower.  With this you purchase modules and I guess they just fit in your spaceship frame.

The artwork is okay – actually, it’s a redeeming feature in the book.  It is all done by the same artist so everything has the same look at feel.  That was good.  What sucks is how they abused the art.  To describe extra arms, they took an image of an alien with extra arms (used elsewhere in the book) and faded everything but the extra arms.  It was as if the designers felt that people wouldn’t know what extra arms were so they gave you a visual reference.  I will grant you, some players may struggle with that concept – but not at my table.

This game needs and overhaul or, better yet, needs to die the same death of many of its other predecessors in the genre. No burial.  Cremation is the only solution for this system.

My review is one out of five stars and I am struggling to be that generous.  There are some interesting nuggets here, but the price to get to those concepts is far too high.  I won’t even taint my other RPG’s by putting it on the shelf with them.  This book should have been titled, “Failing Stars.”  As my mother would say, “This is why we can’t have nice things.”

Review – Killing Fields Season 2


Killing Field
There are no cold cases…only unsolved cases…

I am a junkie for good true crime and TV has let me down a lot this year.  Part of that is being an author of true crime books, but the majority is me being a fan of the genre.  After the OJ series on FX, I was hopeful to see more good prime-time true crime.  There was some, but most of the series came across as cheap, exploitative, or designed to sway public opinion (i.e. the Jon Benet series on A&E).

Discovery Channel, however, does not fail with the second season of Killing Fields.  Our boys are still working the case of Eugenie Boisfontaine but this season they shifted to a local man, Tommy Francise, who is implicated in not one murder but two.

Few series out there show you how investigations work as well as Killing Fields.  The dogged pursuit, the following of where the evidence takes investigators, and the cooperation with prosecutors.  This is a great series that takes you through small-town America, warts and all.

Tommy Francise is a bad apple all around.  Frankly I was stunned he wasn’t arrested for the murder of at least one of these men – he confessed the murder to one of the officers, Rodie.  I won’t ruin this season for you, but it ends with a big event, one you find yourself rooting and cheering through.

Tips for Eugenie Boisfontaine are still coming in too.  I personally hope our two officers in the series get an arrest soon on that case.

There are two other things that make this series a winner.  One is the filming.  You get lots of neat angles, drone-shots, etc., that just put you there in Louisiana with the investigators.  The second thing is the dialogue between officers Aubrey St. Angelo and Rodie Sanchez.  These two are opposite sides of the same coin.  They are funny and filled with steely determination.

The series is short and available on Discovery Channel or On-Demand.  Watch it – soak it in.  This is hope for everyone out there who wants to see cold cases resolve.


Review of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager


I picked up this book hard copy – a rarity for me, in the airport coming home from vacation and had it completed by the time we landed.  Granted, I’m a fast reader, but the message here is that this is not a deep book.  It is one, however, that is a good geopolitical read.

My printed copy clearly had some issues, with two inserts covering up errors or putting in text that was missing in the final copy.  There were a good number of pictures and maps, which were useful.  This was a foreign war against a terrorist state where religion played a part.  Hmm, the parallels to today seem pretty obvious. 

The authors do a fair job of giving you the context – both overseas and in the US at the time.  It was good to know, but what makes this book, as with most history, is the characters.  This had some outstanding heroes and some villains that seemed to have come from central casting.  The war itself was oddly balanced – the fledgling US against a well-established albeit minor state.  It is a strange balance but one that works.

As a military historian, I wanted a little more. I didn’t get the feeling of being there, though I am sure from the footnotes, that there was a wealth of material that could have been brought to bear in this regard. There were plenty of opportunities to provide readers with a wealth of detail that simply were overlooked.  The authors clearly wanted this to be an overview of America’s first foreign conflict…and therein lies the rub.  

If you are looking for the definitive book on the war with the Tripoli pirates, this is not it.  There is not a wealth of new material here on the subject.  In fact, I didn’t learn anything new and that left me wanting.  Again, I’m a history reader and writer – so I always want new data. 

If you only have passing knowledge of these conflict, I recommend this book.  Otherwise this book doesn’t break any new ground – but it is well written.  Personally, I wanted more.  As such, I give it three out of five stars. 



The Worthless Lessons I’ve Learned From Star Trek – Or Why I Would Never Beam Down Anywhere

Let’s face it, we all have put on the red shirt at one time or another

A while ago I wrote a blog post on the leadership lessons I got from Star Trek  The Leadership Lessons of Star Trek I wanted to do a blog post at one time about the practical lessons you learn from watching Star Trek.  In other words, by watching Star Trek, what life lessons do you gain – mostly from a cynical perspective.

Let me begin by saying I’m a huge Star Trek fan.  By the same token, there’s some stuff that really drives me nuts about the universe.  When you objectively look at some things you notice as trends in the IP (Intellectual Property) you cringe a little. I know this is sacralidge with my fellow Trekkers, but let’s be real – some things DO seem odd.  These are things I’ve learned from my observations of the TV series and movies:

Most alien races are dangerous, evil, and should be attacked immediately.  Obnoxiously, most aliens that are encountered are not benign or even friendly. It is best to shoot first, negotiate treaties later.  Most of Deep Space Nine could have been resolved with a nuke-the-site-from-orbit-first approach.

The Prime Directive is hopelessly flawed and often ignored.  The Prime Directive is like the speed limit.  It’s a law, but everyone disregards it.  And frankly, it’s a douchebag law.  So the Federation has all of this technology and knowledge and does not share it with less advanced cultures.  Why?  What’s so great about them evolving naturally?  Remember, the Federation had outside influence of the Vulcans and that turned out okay, but they deny other cultures that same opportunity.  Seems pretty sleazy to me.  Killing the Prime Directive would have made Star Trek Voyager far more entertaining.  Only the Q seem to get it – they interfere in a big way.  The Klingon’s aren’t burdened with the Prime Directive and are just as powerful as the Federation – implying you really don’t get a lot out of having a Prime Directive.

All members of any alien race all act and behave the same.  All Romulans are all schemers.  There are no snowflake Klingons.  Only humankind (and the Ferengi) has any variation as a race.  So what’s with that?  There should be some redneck Romulans or some gangsta Klingons don’t you think?

All aliens speak the same language.  I’ve been to places in my own country where I cannot understand the language being spoken, but in space, it’s all generic.  Don’t whine about “universal translators” to me either.  There should be at least some different accents.  A little Creole Klingon would be cool – kinda like Swamp People meets American Ninja Warriors.

Mankind moving beyond the need for monetary gain, is still pretty much a bunch of egotistical, power-hungry asshats.  The Federation has removed money as a motivator, implying of course it is evil.  What has it gained?  Nothing.  The Federation has a number of corrupt leaders out after power.

A lot of the worlds we see in the franchise wouldn’t be worth visiting.  There’s a lot rocks and scrub brush, but few really beautiful places.  Most planets that we see on screen rate right up there with a tour of Death Valley.

With hundreds of worlds and seemingly endless resources, all governments are interested in securing more territory – more planets.  Why?  How many Class M worlds do you freaking need?  Is overpopulation an issue?  After the first dozen, why not say, “We’re cool.”  You could stop exploring, which we have seen is inherently dangerous, and focus on domestic programs.  Exploration equates to death in Star Trek, ask anyone wearing a red shirt…oh right, you can’t – they’re all dead!  Exploration brings on encounters with hostile races and apparently adds very little to your civilization.

The future lacks cars, tanks, boats, etc.  In a universe built on voyages, nobody has personal vehicles – only starships.  That seems, well, impractical.

Why would you ever beam down to anywhere?  It seems that with transporters and communications systems, it is much safer to just never go down to another planet.  The start of everything bad in the Star Trek universe begins with someone beaming down to some planet, ask any red shirt.  As we’ve seen, when you beam down you will be killed, accused of crimes you didn’t commit, kidnapped, tortured, killed, get sucked into a war, involved in a terrorist attack, lose your memory, get killed, get a deadly disease, get chased, travel in time, get poisoned, fall in love and have her die, get forced into an archeological dig, and get killed.  (I know I mentioned killed a lot, there’s a reason for that.)  The only reason you need a doctor on your ship at all is if you beam down.  Stay aboard the ship and call it in.

Technology causes more problems than it solves.  Star Trek has taught us that many of the hazards of space travel are caused by the technology.  The transporters is the worst.  I mean seriously, would anyone use one of these things given their unreliability and casual breaches between universes?  The stuff that technology does resolve in an episode is usually caused by technology in some way.  It’s as if there’s still a Microsoft in the 23rd century, forcing reboots of starships every so often.  Worse yet, technology is often the villain – i.e. the Borg.

While we’re on the subject of technology, aside from cloaking devices and quantum torpedoes, there is no new technological advancement in decades of the Star Trek universe.  Sure tricorders got 22% smaller, big whoop.  We had a genesis device that could make entire planets (which was awesome), but that supposedly just got locked away and forgotten.  Ships pretty much look the same and do the same things after decades of the series.

Starships are complicated and control panels are dangerously explosive.  The interface controls for starships is all buttons and touchpad controls.  Lots of buttons and controls that require physical interaction.  Wow.  That’s what we have now.  So you’re limited to the speed of human reaction.  In reality, interfaces would be massively simplified – even aboard something as complex and big as a starship by the 23rd century.  You should be able to drive a starship with your iPad.  On top of their complexity, in battle, these control stations explode.  It is probably just me, but that does not seem people friendly in their design.

The governments of the Star Trek universe are pretty stagnant.  Despite all of the wars in Star Trek, only the Cardassians ever really got their assess whipped, and they totally deserved it.

No one uses camouflage in space.  Why have a gray-white starship?  Wouldn’t it be harder to hit if it was, I don’t know, black?

The same thing with uniforms.  Oh, you’ve made it easy for me to identify and target your command staff by the color of their uniforms…thanks! And no pockets except for Star Trek: Enterprise.  These polyester unitard uniforms really seem too tight to be comfortable.

Time travel has been cracked, but almost nobody abuses it.  Assuming there is some parity between the governments in the known universe, only the Borg have said, “Screw it, let’s go back in the past and mess things up.”  For me, that would be my opening move the minute everything started to go wrong in an episode.  Apparently you can travel in time in any old starship, even a Klingon Bird of Prey loaded with two whales, but nobody does it.

Starfleet operations does a crappy job of assigning ships.  There’s far too much of this, “we’re the only ship in the quadrant,” BS.  Even a cop rolling up on a suspicious vehicle does so with backup.  It’s like StarFleet subcontracted United Airlines to arrange their flight schedules.  In Star Trek that concept seems to be lost on StarFleet Command.

Mankind is the superior race in the Federation…no alien race has actually elevated the Federation more than man.  Any substantive race in Star Trek is considered evil.  The Borg, who merely want efficiency and equality are bad.  The Klingons who favor a martial tradition are bad  The Romulans are all bad too.  Don’t even get me started on the Cardassians.  Only those races that are subjective to mankind (example:  Vulcans) are considered good.

Despite StarFleet, despite the technology, Earth and other words are virtually defenseless.  Oddly the only world that had a real defense was Cardassia and we all saw how that ended.

None of the real old civilizations survived.  There’s hints of other older civilizations that sounded pretty cool, but they all die out.  It’s as if the Mayans were trendsetters in the universe. The older civilizations and races just freaking disappear.

Every starship travels on the same plane of flight.  When ships meet in space, they are not askew but always appear to be flying on the same invisible plane.  Space, the last time I checked, is three dimensional.  (I double-checked – yes, it still is!)

No one is fat in the future (except Harry Mudd).  If you had replicators that could make anything, you’d be eating a lot of foods I’d think.

Somehow human names like Romulus and Remus are adopted and used by alien races long before contact with mankind.  That should raise a few eyebrows.  We certainly didn’t name things after the Klingons – BEFORE WE KNEW THEY EXISTED.

The only redeeming race is the Ferengi.  That’s right.  They run casinos and bars, have dancing girls, holosuites, you name it.  Humans are boring in Star Trek.  You want to have fun – it’s with the Ferengi.

This reminds me of a motivational poster I saw in the office.  

I know the true-believers out there will tear me apart for this…I get it.  Star Trek is sacred to most of us.  But everyone should question their faith – in a TV series – every now and then.

Review – HBO Documentary Beware the Slenderman

When urban legend becomes folklore becomes murder attempt

This HBO documentary is compelling, chilling, disturbing and frightening all at the same time.  We’ve probably all heard about the case – two young girls who attacked and nearly killed a friend of theirs because of a fictitious character on the internet called Slenderman. 

As a true crime writer, I knew that the media only marginally was telling the story…and I was right.  This documentary is not just about the crime, it is about how some urban legend takes becomes folklore that is trusted and believed.  I was familiar with this phenomena, having written a book on the Scottish cannibal, Sawney Bean.  Slenderman doesn’t exist, but thanks to the internet and Photoshop, this mythical strange tall kidnapper of children has developed a near cult-like following. 

This is a story of two quite normal young girls that get caught up in the stories about the Slenderman and believe they must kill their friend to prove themselves worthy of him.  Separately, they are seemingly normal kids.  Together, they became a single killer. There are elements here that harken back to Capote’s In Cold Blood

You may be quick to blame the parents for letting them on the web sites, but when you watch the show you come to realize that these were not negligent parents.  They simply had no idea of the power of images and words might have over their daughters. 

The filming of this documentary is outstanding.  If you watch Killing Fields on Discovery, you will get the same vibe here – lots of drone shots and angles of neighborhoods that cast a sinister shadow and add to the ambiance.  The use of the interrogation footage of the two would-be murderers is creepy all on its own.  One girl was more concerned about the distance she had walked before her capture rather than what she had done to her friend. The victim had been stabbed 19 times.  It’s gut wrenching and you can’t shut it off because it is so well done.    

This documentary is not the complete story – the victim and her family did not participate in the filming – for obvious reasons.  It is complete enough though….so much that you will never let your kids onto the internet again.  That cannot be a bad thing.  Some of the footage is so disturbing and captivating that you come through the viewing emotionally wrung out. 

While the Slenderman is digital folklore, his impact in our reality is quite tangible…and chilling.  I give this a solid five of five stars.  Kudos HBO!