Friday, 22 January 2016

Steven Moffat Leaving Doctor Who

The BBC announced today that Steven Moffat will be stepping down as Doctor Who's showrunner after Series 10. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of online response from Doctor Who fans, with responses ranging from jubilation to heartfelt sadness and everything in between.

Readers of this site know that I have been highly critical of Steven Moffat's time on the show. I've criticised his portrayal of women, poor characterisation, his avoidance of consequence (through characters dying and coming back to life shortly thereafter), and numerous other things. That said, I wouldn't still be watching the show if I hated it, and there has been a lot of very good things during Moffat's time. There have been stand-out stories, great performances, some great writers and directors, and more. In particular, I think there have been a lot of improvements in the last couple series and indications that Moffat has been paying attention to the criticisms against him and trying to improve. Series 9 has some of the most diverse casting in all Doctor Who, for example.

But whether you love or hate (or anything in between) Steven Moffat, his departure is ultimately a good thing—not because of any criticisms I or anyone else might have of him, but because Doctor Who is all about change. Upon the completion of Series 10, Moffat will have overseen 6 full series of Doctor Who as well as numerous Christmas specials and, most significantly, the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” (one of the highlights of his time, in fact). This is a great run, longer than most others (only John Nathan-Turner oversaw more seasons), and he has left an enduring mark on the show. But just like companions move one, and just like every few years, Doctors move on, so to do the people behind the scenes move on. This includes the producers and showrunners. Doctor Who thrives on new blood and this time, I have no doubt, will be no different.

Taking over from Moffat will be Chris Chibnall, who has written several Doctor Who and Torchwood episodes in the past. What he will bring to the show as showrunner remains to be seen, but I can be confident of one thing: he will bring something new. I, for one, will be watching.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Daleks Versus Toys!

Earlier today, the BBC Archive tweeted this little gem: “Toy Fair 1966”. I don't really know any details about it—indeed I never knew it existed until today. However, I can say that it is wonderfully creepy and, if expanded upon, might make a brilliant full episode of Doctor Who. Enjoy!

Lost Treasures

Treasure is an important part of Pathfinder games. Players often get very attached to their characters' equipment—enough so that being the target of mage's disjunction, a spell that destroys magic items, is often considered a worse fate than dying. At high levels, death is not that hard to reverse in Pathfinder. Replacing powerful magic items can be much more difficult. It is a bit unfortunate that acquiring monetary wealth is such a principal motivator for PCs, but the fact is, the ownership of magic items is tied into the very mechanics of the game. PCs need wealth just to keep up. Fortunately, there is lots of treasure to be gained on adventures.

Unfortunately, when treasure is so prevalent, it starts to become very generic. A +1 longsword doesn't seem all that special, when virtually every adversary has a +1 weapon of some kind. I've had players comment on the sheer volume of rings of protection they find during an adventure path. Each time another one comes along (and more come along quite frequently), they redistribute the ones they have and mark the leftovers with the lowest bonuses for sale. Although these are technically magic items, their sheer “normalness” makes them seem not very magical at all.

Of course, it can be very difficult to make every item unique. It would take a huge amount of work to do so, especially given the amount of magic characters are expected to possess once they reach higher levels. As such, it's natural that significant portions of that magic will become somewhat generic. However, that does mean that when a more unique item does come along it can really stand out. One avenue the game has for more unique items is through artifacts. The book, Artifacts & Legends provides many sample artifacts for GMs to use in their games. However, artifacts tend to be very powerful and can unbalance games if not carefully handled. They work best in high-level games. So what about less powerful magic items in lower-level games?

This is where Lost Treasures comes in. This book provides a large number of unique (or nearly unique) magic items, complete with background stories and adventure ideas for using them. It's a good book for GMs looking to add a few treasures into the game that stand out from the typical +1 weapon or cloak of resistance. A few are powerful items; many others are considerably less powerful; some aren't even magic items, but just mundane items of high value or historical importance. However, all the items have their own individual character to them and will add a ton of flavour to treasure hauls. Even the mundane items here are anything but mundane.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Pathfinder Unchained

Although Pathfinder started its life as a revision of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, it has grown very much beyond it roots, introducing ideas and concepts completely new to D&D. As early as the Advanced Player's Guide (one of the earliest rules expansion books for the game), Pathfinder was already starting to chart its own identity with new classes not seen before (like the oracle and inquisitor) and new ways of using existing rules (like the new combat manoeuvres). Since that book, the game has only continued to develop more. Mythic Adventures and Occult Adventures each add whole new layers to the game making it less and less like the D&D editions that came before it. While I still often think of Pathfinder subconsciously as D&D, there is no doubt that it has attained its own identity separate from the game that birthed it.

Indeed, I've always been impressed by Paizo's willingness to take Pathfinder in new directions. Not every idea works out perfectly, but that's okay. Without innovation, the game will only stagnate. Yet as much as Pathfinder has gained its own identity, there are many aspects of the rules that keep it cemented to its 3rd Edition D&D roots. The core d20 mechanics are still there, and many of the decisions made during the initial development of Pathfinder were made to maintain “backwards compatibility”. This was absolutely the right route to take. After all, the initial audience for Pathfinder was made up of 3rd Edition players who wanted to continue to use their 3rd Edition books, which the large changes to 4th Edition D&D had made impossible. The intent behind Pathfinder was that those books could be used with only minimal adjustments.

Yet these legacy aspects of the game can come under a certain degree of scrutiny. Do they help define the identity of the game, or do they actually hinder it in some way? There are limits to how much the 3rd Edition classes could be changed without giving up that backwards compatibility, leading to complaints that some classes, such as rogue, are just not up to par with the others. Then there the mechanics of how the game-play itself works. What might have happened to those if backwards compatibility had not been necessary?

Pathfinder Unchained takes the opportunity to explore these questions. If the shackles of backwards compatibility are removed, what can happen? While this is a book full of rules options, it's not a book like the aforementioned Advanced Player's Guide or Ultimate Combat. Whereas those books mostly add new options to the game, Pathfinder Unchained changes the options that already exist with alternative versions of several classes and new ways of handling skills, alignments, combat, and more. Some of these are ideas that have been explored before in books like 3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana, while others are entirely new. It's not possible to use everything in Pathfinder Unchained the way it is with a book like the Advanced Player's Guide, as the book often provides multiple alternatives for the same thing. For example, there are several alternative ways of handling skills, some of which are in complete opposition to each other. The intent with Pathfinder Unchained is to pick and choose the rules alternatives that will work best for the style of game your particular group is trying to run, or to experiment with different options until you find the ones that work best for you.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Occult Realms

One of the key things about the occult in Occult Adventures is that it is mysterious and different from everything else in Pathfinder campaigns. This is not easy to achieve when there are already scores of different kinds of creatures, abilities, and magic in the game. Yet Occult Adventures pulls it off pretty well. Since publication of that book, other books have also dealt with the occult, including Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary. Plus, Occult Mysteries, from awhile back, ties into it all as well. With each new book published, there is a danger of it losing that sense of difference.

Occult Realms is the latest book published to tie in with Occult Adventures, and thankfully, it manages to maintain that sense of mystery and the unknown. While Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary are tied to the world of Golarion, they are primarily books of mechanics. Occult Realms does have some new mechanics in it as well, but its focus is much more on descriptive detail that brings the occult fully into the campaign setting. And the mechanics it does have exist entirely to support the flavour and feel of the setting.

I have to say that I hugely enjoyed reading Occult Realms. It offers wonderful glimpses and insights into areas of Golarion that have only received a small amount of attention previously, even a place or two where you might not expect the occult, such as Razmiran. Some of the places are quite small, sometimes just a single building, but the small areas mean that the details can actually be more specific. There is a better sense of a lived-in world from this book than from some other Pathfinder Campaign Setting books, which tend to focus more on providing a list of locations than on what it's like to live there. The approach here is still on listing locations, but there is more room for detail about those locations.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Doctor Who - The Husbands of River Song

When I write my reviews for this site, I don't include numerical marks of any kind. I don't give something 4 stars or something else a score of 9 out of 10. However, when I post links to my reviews on other sites that include such markings, I will often grudgingly apply one. But the truth is, I prefer not to give marks, so that's why you don't see them in the reviews themselves.

This is for a couple simple reasons. Primarily, it's because I find that a simple number doesn't really tell a lot. There's far more nuance to anything than a single score could ever provide. Not only that, different people assign different meanings to scores. One just has to look at the various review threads on Gallifrey Base to see this. One person can call a particular episode terrible and still give it a score of 6 out of 10, while the next person will offer all kinds of praise and give exactly the same score.

But even if everyone were to agree on how good any particular score is, there's still a lot not conveyed by it. If “5 out of 10” means mediocre, does it mean that the whole thing is mediocre or that it's mostly really good but let down by some major part being poor? Perhaps it's the reverse of that, mostly bad but with a major redeeming feature? Or is it all over the place and just sort of averages out to 5? Since all these things need to be explained anyway, I feel it's just better to go ahead and explain them and not worry about assigning a number to go with them.

I've often commented that Steven Moffat's Doctor Who stories can be a mix of brilliance and annoyance, and “The Husbands of River Song” is a definite example of this, and one for which a numerical score would definitely not convey any indication of how good or bad it is. It's definitely an entertaining episode, which is ultimately its main objective and thus is a success. It has some funny moments, some touching moments, and great performances from its two leads. But it also has some terribly unfunny jokes, a paper-thin plot, poor characterisation, and some rather poor performances from several of the guest stars. It also manages to make you both love and hate River Song at the same time—which may, I admit, be intentional. It all makes for a bit of a confounding episode.


Thursday, 24 December 2015

A Look Back at Doctor Who Series 9

Since I started writing Doctor Who reviews in mid-series 6, I have generally only reviewed individual episodes. While, within those reviews, I might comment on the overall direction of the series (and particularly on the resolution in my review of a series finale), I haven't previously reviewed an entire series as a whole. I generally haven't felt the need to. However, this year, during Series 9, I noticed an unusual thing happening: I was rating individual episodes quite highly, yet my feelings for the entire series were much lower, and they seemed to sink lower as the series went on, despite the fact that my opinions of the individual episodes were often getting higher. While this isn't entirely unprecedented, it seemed to be a much greater dichotomy than usual this year, and so I began to think that I should write a follow-up review after the series finale that looks back on the entire series. This is that review.

My main issue with Series 9 is the series arc story, which is, to say the least, poor and unconvincing. Series arcs are an interesting phenomenon, a product of modern television storytelling that old, “classic” Doctor Who didn't have to deal with. In those days, seasons of any show on television just sort of ended. They didn't make a big deal of the conclusion. Similarly, there wasn't a continuing story arc joining multiple episodes (or, in Doctor Who's case, serials) together. Each story was distinct and separate from what came before and the only continuity was character continuity (and even characters didn't do much developing from one story to the next).

Doctor Who experimented with a couple of arcs back in the day. There was “The Key to Time” arc of Season 16 and “The Trial of a Timelord” for season 23. Occasionally, a season might have a linking theme, such as entropy in Season 18, or a couple stories in a row might be linked together in some way, such as the Black Guardian trilogy in Season 20. But on the whole, each story was separate and contained, and the final story of a season wasn't treated any differently than the stories that came before it.

It was in the 90s, while Doctor Who was off the air, that this started to change and story arcs that continued over multiple episodes became more common. Babylon 5 was at the forefront of this change, presenting a show that had a continuing story that went from its first to last episode over five years. Other science fiction and fantasy shows began to follow Babylon 5's lead. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and others began introducing ongoing story arcs, some that lasted over multiple years, others that would run a single season before concluding and allowing for a new arc to start the following season. By the time Doctor Who returned to television full-time in 2005, story arcs had become the norm for much of television, beyond just science fiction and fantasy programmes. Doctor Who really had little choice but to take part.

I don't want to make it sound as if I think this is, in any way, a bad thing. I actually think it's been a change for the better in television. Although they have the downside of making it more of an issue to miss an episode, story arcs provide more of a reward for the viewers. They give a direction to the show and to the characters, and allow viewers to travel with the characters through a developing world, one where the events of one episode impact the episodes that come after it, and there's a greater sense of accomplishment when the end of the arc is reached. That said, story arcs were something new for Doctor Who, and I'm not sure the show has ever fully acclimated to the format.


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Familiar Folio

Many stories and fables place a “familiar spirit” at the side of a wizard, witch, or other practitioner of the “dark arts”. These familiar spirits are often some sort of demonic force that has taken on a corporeal form, usually that of a small animal. The image of a black cat at a witch's side has thus become an iconic one, and thus it's not surprising that spellcasters in fantasy roleplaying games should have the opportunity to have one of these familiar spirits as well. In Pathfinder games, familiars are generally more benevolent than their counterparts in the stories and aren't generally demons in disguise (though the more fiendish kinds of familiars can also exist). Nevertheless, familiars fulfil a similar role: they aid their masters in various tasks and, in the case of the witch class, are the source of their magical powers.

Despite the fact that familiars have been part of the game since the days of the find familiar spell in 1st and 2nd Edition D&D, they have gained a bit of a reputation for being a bit...well...useless. While not a reputation I fully agree with, familiars are relatively weak and are of extremely limited help in combat, where they will die very easily if not carefully protected. Of course, not everything should be strong in combat, but even outside of combat, familiars provide only limited benefits to their masters. Familiars can be great for roleplaying as characters to interact with (and I have seen many very fun familiars in my own games), but beyond that, they are very limited in what they can do. Ever since Pathfinder introduced options for wizards and sorcerers to not have familiars, I've found—in my own games, at any rate—that most players have gone for the alternatives, such as the bonded object for wizards.

I think some of the issue may come from the fact that there have been few options for modifying familiars in the way that so many other things in the game can be modified. The Improved Familiar feat exists along with a smattering of other feats and spells that affect familiars, but for the most part official sources haven't really done much with familiars (although third-party publishers have occasionally tackled familiars). Beyond a minor skill bonus variance based on the type of animal chosen for familiar, every familiar is pretty much the same. Even a witch's familiar, which is an integral part of the class doesn't offer much in the way of new abilities.

Animal Archive began to rectify this situation by introducing archetypes for familiars, along with new feats, new kinds of familiars, and various other ways to modify characters' familiars. But Animal Archive covers animals in general, not just familiars, so there is limited space in that book to greatly expand the options for familiars. Familiar Folio is the first official Pathfinder book dedicated entirely to familiars, and takes the needed step to expand familiar options considerably with new archetypes, feats, spells, magic items, and more.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Iron Gods - Valley of the Brain Collectors

Brain collectors have always been an iconic Dungeons & Dragons monster to me, although they're probably not amongst the first few monsters that spring to most people's minds when they think of the game. Nevertheless, they have been around a long time, first appearing way back in X2: Castle Amber, one of my favourite adventures from my childhood. I must have run that adventure fifty times back in the day. If I recall correctly, there is only one brain collector in Castle Amber and, like most monsters in that adventure, its appearance is rather random. Nevertheless, it made an impression on my young mind—an impression that has stayed with me ever since.

Castle Amber was an adventure for the Expert Rules set of the “Basic” Dungeons & Dragons game, back in the day when there were two separate games: Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (“Basic” is a misnomer as it only technically refers to the first of what would eventually become five sets of rules, yet many people persisted in calling the entire game “Basic D&D”). It wasn't until the Mystara Monstrous Compendium was published that brain collectors first appeared in AD&D (when the Mystara setting was updated from a D&D setting to an AD&D setting). After that, brain collectors eventually showed up in the more generic Monster Manuals for 3rd Edition, even appearing as an epic version in the Epic Levels Handbook. Brain collectors first showed up in Pathfinder in Bestiary 2, under their actual race name which has tagged along with them since Castle Amber: neh-thalggus.

My fascination with brain collectors is such that any adventure with them in the title is likely to grab my attention. Thus, ever since Valley of the Brain Collectors was announced, I've been eager to reach and read this instalment of the Iron Gods Adventure Path. Yet obviously, it takes more than an appearance of a neh-thalggu or two to make an adventure good and fun. Indeed, brain collectors never seem to be used well or serve much purpose in adventures I've seen them in. The fact is, while I do consider Castle Amber to be a good adventure, it's not its random selection of monsters, including the brain collector, that make it so.

In my last couple of reviews for Iron Gods, I've commented on the important role setting plays in any adventure. With its science fiction trappings, Iron Gods relies a great deal on setting to impart its flavour. Lords of Rust uses its setting to particularly great effect, while The Choking Tower does not do as good a job. Valley of the Brain Collectors has the most contained setting of all the adventures in Iron Gods so far, and that works to this particular adventure's benefit. It is also the most alien of the locations the PCs have visited so far, but it comes alive almost as well as Lords of Rust's setting does, with well-developed characters who have well-developed, if alien, motivations. And while it is an adventure that relies almost entirely on site-based encounters, the denizens encountered never come across as if they have just been sitting in one spot waiting for the player characters to arrive to fight them—a problem that many site-based and dungeon crawl adventures don't succeed in overcoming. Instead, the denizens of this valley have relationships—both allied and antagonistic—and adjust to the events around them. In short, the setting of Valley of the Brain Collectors feels actually lived in, making Valley a very good adventure indeed.


Friday, 18 December 2015

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom

Of all the countries in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Andoran has, perhaps, the greatest reputation for being uninteresting. It is a land that is seen as being somewhat idyllic, a country that has worked out most of its problems. Rather unusually for a fantasy setting, it is a democracy, where everyone is theoretically treated equally and everyone has a chance to live the American dream (I use that terminology deliberately, for Andoran's real-world influence is quite obviously the United States of America; Andoran was formed by people who rebelled against the oppressive power that formerly ruled over them). While a country with few problems may be a great place to live in, it is perhaps not the greatest place to adventure in. It can seem dull, even boring.

But that's just the surface of Andoran. The country certainly isn't perfect, and there are many things going on under the surface in this land that keep it from truly reaching its vaunted ideals. While it may appear quiet and dull, there are opportunities for adventurers to make their mark—particularly in politics. That said, it can still come across as somewhat “standard” with little other than its democracy making it stand out from other fantasy settings.

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom is not the first book published on this country. A few years ago, there was Andoran, Spirit of Liberty, part of the Pathfinder Player Companion line (then just Pathfinder Companion). Before that, there was Guide to Darkmoon Vale. That book showed just how much opportunity for adventure there is within that particular region of Andoran, and presented a setting that rose beyond its somewhat standard surface appearance. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap between the three books, but not nearly as much as one might expect, particularly between Birthplace of Freedom and Spirit of Liberty, which both nominally cover the entire country. Birthplace is twice the length of Spirit of Liberty for a start, but even so, Birthplace repeats very little from Spirit. Indeed, the two books compliment each other in a way very few Pathfinder Campaign Setting/Player Companion books do, with the earlier Spirit of Liberty offering many of the things I would otherwise criticise Birthplace for not containing.