Sunday, 4 October 2015


This past Thursday, the BBC made a big announcement. Well, first they announced that they were going to make a big announcement about Doctor Who later in the day in order to get fans speculating. Naturally, there was quite a bit of speculation, ranging from the next companion to the find of more missing episodes and more. Then the announcement itself came, and I admit I was amongst many who felt the announcement was not quite as big as it was made out to be.

Coming in 2016 is a new Doctor Who spin-off series: Class. It might seem strange to think that a Doctor Who spin-off would not be a big announcement. But I found myself wondering, Where is the Doctor Who in this Doctor Who spin-off. To quote the announcement:

Class is a YA series set in contemporary London. Incredible dangers are breaking through the walls of time and space, and with darkness coming, London is unprotected. With all the action, heart and adrenalin of the best YA fiction (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games), this is Coal Hill School and Doctor Who like you’ve never seen them before.

The 8-episode series is being developed by YA author Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking trilogy and A Monster Calls), and it involves the students at Coal Hill School, the school where the Doctor's granddaughter, Susan attended and his first two companions, Barbara and Ian taught, the same school where Clara now teaches.

I suspect many fans thought that if there were to ever be another Doctor Who spin-off, it would involve Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. I'm not personally fond of those characters, but a lot of people are and it would make sense for them to helm a new series. Previous spin-offs (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Torchwood) have followed well-loved characters from the show on their own adventures. The only thing this series will have linking it to its parent show is the school. It is conceivably possible that Clara will make an appearance or two in Class, but as the announcement doesn't mention her, it seems that she will not have a major role. Instead, Class will focus on the students of the school. Yet so far, the only student at Coal Hill School that we've gotten to know is Courtney Woods, who played prominent roles in “The Caretaker” and “Kill the Moon” in Series 8 (and appeared briefly a couple other times). The other students have been mostly background characters (except for some in “In the Forest of the Night” who never appear in any other episode). As such, the students of Coal Hill School seem an odd choice to build a spin-off series around as there's not a lot of connection to Doctor Who to bring in the Doctor Who fans. It makes me wonder if this is truly a Doctor Who spin-off or if the BBC is simply appending the brand name of Doctor Who to it in the hopes of luring in a larger audience.

I suppose if they are, it will probably work. There will be people (probably including myself) who will tune in simply because the name Doctor Who has been associated with it. But will they stick around? That depends on whether the show is any good (I've never read any Patrick Ness, so I really have no idea what to expect). I sincerely hope it is.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Doctor Who - The Witch's Familiar

Click here to read my review of “The Magician's Apprentice”, the first part of this two-part story.

It is nice to see a return of multi-part stories, which until “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven”, we had gone quite some time without. Cliff-hangers are a classic part of Doctor Who. They create anticipation for the next episodes, and the truly good ones can leave you on the edge of your seat for the whole week you have to wait. Of course, they also leave you wondering whether the second episode will live up to the first (assuming you liked the first). Sometimes the conclusion can let you down; it's just not what you hoped it would be. But other times, the conclusion manages to outdo the beginning, taking something that was perhaps mediocre and making it good, or something that was good and making it great.

The Witch's Familiar” is one of these latter cases. I found a lot of good in “The Magician's Apprentice”, yet as much as I enjoyed it, there were a number of things about it that I was less than happy with (see my review linked above). “The Witch's Familiar”, on the other hand, is a much better episode, and it manages to avoid many of the flaws that plagued the first episode. It's better paced and better focused, without the nostalgic diversions of “The Magician's Apprentice”. As such, it's also a much more accessible episode to newer viewers (assuming they aren't put off by the first episode). While it builds on some of Doctor Who's history, it sticks to the history that is relevant to the story without bombarding viewers with a whole pile of other, unrelated history. And while “The Magician's Apprentice” throws a huge cast of characters at viewers, most of whom are only on screen for a short period of time, “The Witch's Familiar” focuses on a small cast, giving viewers the chance to get to know these characters and to become invested in their stories. In short, “The Witch's Familiar” is a damn good episode.


Friday, 2 October 2015

The Long Absence Ends

Greetings, everyone! It's been a while, a much longer while than I expected or intended. At the end of October last year (almost a year ago!), I posted a short update on the slower pace of the blog. I was back at school upgrading my education, and that was keeping me exceptionally busy, but even then, I expected to get a few reviews and things written over the passing months, particularly over the December break. Alas, while it was a great program and I loved just about every moment of it, the schedule was exhausting and by the time December break came round, I was too exhausted to do anything other than rest. Then things restarted in January and were even busier.

The program finished a few months ago (I graduated with honours, by the way, and got my B.Ed. and official Ontario teacher certification, yay!), at which time I intended to take a couple weeks to rest and relax and then get back to updating this blog. But then various other things cropped up. A number of personal and family issues have gotten in the way. There have been several occasions where I thought things were all back to normal, but then didn't work out. Indeed, in early August, I responded to a comment on the blog asking if I'd be doing any more reviews, saying that I'd be back the very next day. I honestly meant it at the time! I had my review of the Pathfinder RPG Strategy Guide partially written and fully expected to have it finished and posted the next day. Then life happened, and nearly two more months have gone by.

Well, things have finally stabilised and posting has recommenced—hopefully to continue unabated. I realize that I've certainly lost readers in the long absence—it's not like they had anything to come and read—but with a little luck, maybe some of them will hear of my return and find their way back. I've actually been quite amazed that, even though the daily number of views for the blog have gone down considerably since last year, I've still been getting 100-200 views a day. My older posts still draw interest, it seems!

At any rate, looking to the future, here are my plans:

I had another extended absence in early 2012 (due to my wife's health issues). On that occasion, when I came back, I just skipped over everything I'd missed during that time. For example, I didn't review any Pathfinder books that were released during that gap. This time, I intend to do things differently. This time, I intend to cover everything I've missed, though it could take awhile because I've missed quite a lot.

For Pathfinder and other roleplaying reviews, I'm probably going to jump around a bit. I'll try to cover some recent releases as well as things released during the gap (such as my review posted yesterday of the Strategy Guide, which was released last spring). I'll be covering Adventure Paths in order, though, so those will start off with the first part of Iron Gods, Fires of Creation. I also intend to look at some of the more recent releases for the Doctor Who – Adventures in Time and Space game, recently renamed simply the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game.

Speaking of Doctor Who, I also intend to finish reviews of Series 8. I only got as far as “Time Heist” last year, leaving seven more (and the Christmas special) to complete. As you can see, though, I've already started into Series 9, which is currently airing. My review of “The Magician's Apprentice” is already up and I'll have a review of the second episode, “The Witch's Familiar” up sometime tomorrow (for real!). From here, I'll be reviewing each episode as I normally do, in the days immediately following their airing. At the present time, I don't know exactly when I'll get round the remaining episodes of Series 8. It might not be until after Series 9 has finished. However, since I've received a few requests for it, here are my very brief reactions to the rest of Series 8.

The Caretaker – I really loved this one. It was a great examination of social issues in the context of Doctor Who, and I really like Courtney.

Kill the Moon – Ugh. I didn't like this one much at all. It just didn't grab me. I was also rather annoyed that after building up Courtney in the previous episode, this one tosses her into the sidelines and does nothing to expand on her character. I was also later disappointed that she was pretty much discarded after this episode.

Mummy on the Orient Express – Great episode. Thrilling, well-paced. Loved it.

Flatline – Probably the stand-out episode of the series. It had a great concept, absolutely amazing monsters. Loved it.

In the Forest of the Night – This was basically “Kill the Moon” all over again. It was way too similar to “Kill the Moon” to come so soon afterwards. It also suffered from many of the same problems, including an unsatisfying, difficult-to-believe resolution.

Dark Water/Death in Heaven – I enjoyed this one quite a bit. I would say it's Moffat's best series finale so far. However, as much as I enjoyed it, I have a lot of nitpicks for this one. Individually, they're minor and ignorable, but there are so many of them that they become impossible to ignore. Still, a fun story, and even though it employs another “love saves all” ending, the emotional pay-off actually works this time (although the whole idea that “love is not an emotion; it's a promise” is just nonsense).

Last Christmas – Enjoyable, but nothing particularly special. It also had too many endings.

And so there you have it. Of course, I'll be throwing in a few posts on other things that catch my fancy, as I always have.

It's good to be back!

Addendum: You also may have noticed that the site's address has changed slightly as this blog now has its own domain! You can still reach the site from the old blogspot address as well.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Strategy Guide

One of the biggest criticisms that can be made against the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is that it is difficult to learn. It's a complicated game with a lot of rules and options. At over 550 pages long, the Core Rulebook's sheer size can make the game seem intimidating to new players. Its size aside, however, the Core Rulebook is still not an easily penetrable tome. Its layout is not the most intuitive. Making a character requires jumping around to various parts of the book in order to find appropriate descriptions. For the most part, the layout of the book is based around categories (feats in one section, skills another, spells another, and so on). This works great for players who already know how to play, but much less so for people new to the game. And that is its greatest weakness: it assumes people already know how to play and gives only the barest acknowledgement to learning how. This is due, in part, to the fact that with so many rules, there just isn't room for instruction. It's also due to the fact that Pathfinder is a revision of 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons and its initial target audience was people switching from that game, and thus, already knowing how to play.

But times change. Pathfinder has grown well beyond its roots and is attracting lots of new players to the game. A few years ago, Paizo released the Beginner Box, which presents a streamlined version of the rules aimed at introducing new players—particularly young ones—to the game. The Beginner Box is a wonderful product (see my review linked above) and is easily one of the best introductions to a D&D-style game I have had the pleasure to read. However, the Beginner Box is still a beginner game. It doesn't contain all the rules and options available in the full Pathfinder game, and at some point, people are going to want to make the jump from beginner game to full game.

Going from the Beginner Box to the Core Rulebook is certainly easier than going straight to the Core Rulebook without anything before it. However, it still means going from a rulebook that is easy to understand and beautifully laid out to one that is much more dense and less forgiving of rules ignorance. And what of people who don't want to play a beginner version of the game and just want to go straight to the full game, while still being able to learn the rules? That's where the Strategy Guide comes in.

Doctor Who - The Magician's Apprentice

First, a quick note: Due to various factors, I've been away for quite some time. But I'm back now! Hooray! The extended absence, however, has meant that I have never finished reviewing Series 8 of Doctor Who. I do intend to finish those reviews, although I don't have a schedule for that at this time. However, I also wanted to respond right away to current episodes, so I'm not going to delay Series 9 reviews while waiting to finish the remaining Series 8 ones. Thus, I'm starting my return straight off with a review of “The Magician's Apprentice”!

I will be doing similarly with Pathfinder and other reviews. More details to come soon.

I've been quite excited for the return of Doctor Who this year. I was very happy with Series 8 overall (something that was probably already apparent from the reviews that I did complete and which I will expand more on when I complete the remaining ones), and I've been hoping to be similarly pleased, or even more pleased, with Series 9. With “The Magician's Apprentice”, I'm not disappointed, though perhaps a little concerned. It's a great first part of a series finale! Except it's not the finale. It's the series opener.

One might wonder what difference that makes. If it's great, it's great. How does its position in the series order affect that? The problem comes from its accessibility to casual and new viewers. The episode throws a lot of things at the viewer very fast and expects the viewer to simply know what they are. Long-time fans of Doctor Who, those who are familiar with its entire long history, will have little problem in this regard—they'll likely even be pleased and excited by many of the references. However, newer viewers are likely to find it confusing. If this were the finale, there would have been a whole season to (hopefully) introduce viewers to the concepts in this episode. As a series opener, on the other hand, it needs to provide a starting-off point for new viewers, and “The Magician's Apprentice” really doesn't do that. Instead, I worry that it will turn potential new viewers away, and that's not really a good thing.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advanced Class Guide

I will start with a confession that I wasn't particularly looking forward to this book. In fact, the Advanced Class Guide is the first book in the hardcover rulebook line that I seriously considered not getting. This is because its basic premise doesn't really offer me anything I want or need for my games. It's not that I'm opposed to new classes. Rather, the particular classes in this book don't fill any niches that I feel needed filling.

The Advanced Class Guide introduces ten new “hybrid” classes for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. As hybrid classes, they combine two existing classes together, offering a selection of abilities from both classes as well as new abilities that fit their combined flavour. These classes essentially provide a way of multiclassing without multiclassing. This is the fundamental reason why these classes mostly don't appeal to me. While they do have some new abilities, they don't offer any new flavour. In all cases, it's possible to create characters in the same style with the existing multiclass rules. Now, I should probably also confess that I like the multiclassing rules. Yes, there are problems with them (particularly with multiclass spellcasters), but as long as you can get away from the idea that “class” is synonymous with “profession”, you can create a huge variety of character types with them—and yes, they can even be effective characters. As there is already a way to combine the abilities of different classes, there really doesn't seem to be a place for hybrid classes. New classes should be exactly that—new. I have the same problem with the magus from Ultimate Magic, to be honest.

As well as multiclassing, the game also uses archetypes as a way of providing characters with a smattering of abilities from other classes. Archetypes provide ways to create characters that are just slight variants of existing classes, so that an entirely new class isn't necessary. The new classes in the Advanced Class Guide feel a lot like archetypes in many ways. In fact, in the original playtest document, they were alternate classes of both their parent classes. (Alternate classes are archetypes that change a large number of things about their parent class and so get a complete write-up while not being actual new classes.) However, this was changed in the final book, so they are now fully separate classes. I personally liked them better as alternate classes—though, honestly, even as alternate classes, these classes still felt mostly unnecessary.

Nevertheless, despite my misgivings, I did decide to get the book, feeling that there would likely be other parts of the book (like new feats and spells) that would be useful to me, and—who knows?—I might even decide that I like the new classes after all. Alas, it didn't quite work out that way. I'm not saying that the Advanced Class Guide is a bad book. It does what it set out to do, and it does it pretty well. It's just going to see very little use in my games. I might use the swashbuckler and shaman, though.

All that said, let's take a look at what it has to offer and examine both its strengths and its weaknesses.

Friday, 31 October 2014

A Note on Updates (or Lack Thereof)

People might have noticed a distinct lack of updates to this blog lately. In my August Round-Up, I briefly mentioned being back at school this year and that that was going to keep me very busy. Well, it's kept me far busier than I imagined. I'm in a practicum assignment on Mondays and Tuesdays. Then I have full-time classes from Wednesday to Friday. I also have to complete a couple hours of community service each week as part of the program. Of course, when I get home each day, I then have readings and assignments to attend to. It's a great program, but it's leaving me with very little time left over (and I'm also trying to earn a bit of money to live off of from part-time work as well). This all means, the blog updates have fallen way behind.

But don't worry. There will be more! They just won't be frequent for a while. When they do come, they will likely be in small bursts. For example, there will be at least two (hopefully three) new reviews up by the end of this weekend. I also have three weeks off in December, so I hope to do lots of catching up during that time. There are likely to be more reviews of programs like Doctor Who than of Pathfinder and other books (although one of this weekend's forthcoming reviews will be a Pathfinder review). This is for the simple fact that it takes less time to watch a program (even watch it twice, which is what I prefer to do when reviewing something) than it does to read an entire book.

My program ends in mid-May, at which time, I'll regain enough of a life to resume more frequent writing for this blog. In the meantime, I hope people will be patient with only occasional posting. Despite having no other posts this month, October has still managed to have the third-highest number of views ever to this blog, so I know people are still coming by. Thanks so much to everyone who reads!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Doctor Who - Time Heist

In just a few episodes, Series 8 of Doctor Who has delivered a wide variety of styles. The fifth episode of the series, “Time Heist” by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat continues the trend by presenting a somewhat convoluted bank-robbing adventure tale. Overall, it's a fairly fun story, but tries to be a little too clever for its own good. While it's reasonably entertaining and certainly much better than Thompson's last offering, “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”, it's also ultimately kind of forgettable—which is oddly fitting for a story where amnesia plays a pivotal role in the plot.


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Doctor Who - Listen

There is frequently a lot to criticize about Steven Moffat's writing, whether that's overused ideas, shallow characters, or more, and I've never been one to shy away from such criticism. However, I've also never shied away from giving praise where praise is due and stating the things that Moffat writes that I do like. I didn't expect to like “Listen” as much as I do, but it drew me in almost immediately and kept me mesmerized throughout. It's not perfect, of course—but what ever is? It contains a few of Moffat's more problematic tendencies, and reuses a lot of ideas, like scaring through the senses (in the vein of the Weeping Angels or the Silence) and “timey-wimey” plot-lines and paradoxes. In fact, there's really nothing new about “Listen” at all. Everything in it, Moffat has done several, if not numerous, times before. Yet despite all its repetition of old ideas, “Listen” surprisingly manages to become something completely different, something Doctor Who has never done before, breathing new life into a number of, frankly, tired ideas.

Kudos should also go to the production team for this story. Director Douglas Makinnon has created a suitably eerie and surreal atmosphere and the performances are top-notch throughout. The overall result is an episode unlike just about anything the show has ever produced, certainly since 2005. Some people will be dissatisfied with the ending, but nonetheless, I would rank it as one of the best stories since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner and certainly the best that he has scripted himself in that time.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

Doctor Who - Robot of Sherwood

Doctor Who is a show capable of various different styles, from light and campy to dramatic to dark and foreboding. Yet even at its darkest, it always has a sense of humour. It might be the Doctor cracking macabre jokes in last week's “Into the Dalek” (“Top layer, if you want to say a few words”), or the zany antics of this week's “Robot of Sherwood”. It's somewhat fitting that, after a couple of rather dark episodes, the series should turn now to a light-hearted romp with Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It helps to show that, while Peter Capaldi's Doctor may be a darker, more serious Doctor, this is still Doctor Who and it can still do anything it wants.

Alas, even Doctor Who can take it too far sometimes, and “Robot of Sherwood” is an example. I would never want Doctor Who to lose its humour and it absolutely is possible to have a silly, fun, and ludicrous story that works. Doctor Who has certainly done it many times. “Robot of Sherwood”, however, tries too hard to be funny, and it does so at the expense of character. There are some genuinely funny moments in the episode, and Peter Capaldi and Tom Riley (who plays Robin Hood) have some brilliant moments together. Their rivalry is very entertaining to watch. Yet the episode frequently devolves into slapstick and nonsense, resulting in a story that, while entertaining, is ultimately unsatisfying. It's not a terrible episode and it has its moments, but it could have—and should have—been so much more.