Saturday, 28 November 2015

Champions of Corruption

At its heart, Pathfinder (and many other fantasy roleplaying games) is about playing heroes who go on great quests to vanquish the forces of evil. Along the way, the heroes develop great powers and acquire awesomely powered magical items. Of course, there can be a lot more to it than just this: the heroes form relationships with other characters, both other heroes (the other player characters) and various other people (the non-player characters); the heroes can create items of their own; they can open businesses; they can fall in love. The breadth of possibilities is huge, but for the most part that heart of good heroes fighting evil remains.

Yet even that doesn't have to be immutable. Not every character a player creates in the game is necessarily good. There are nine alignments and only three of them are good, after all. Three fall in the neutral range, and many players will choose those alignments for their characters. They allow for characters who may not be bastions of goodness, but still rise up to fight against evil and save the day. But what if players don't want to save the day? What if they want to be the ones the heroes would normally fight against? What of the three evil alignments?

I'm not a big fan of evil campaigns myself, though I can see the draw. After all, the game is about pretending to be someone you aren't, and playing evil is perhaps the ultimate expression of that. And even if it's not the sort of thing you want to do all the time, playing an evil character just once to give it a try is a tempting lure (I have certainly done it). The difficulty with evil campaigns is that evil characters can have a hard time working together. It only takes one PC to turn on the others and suddenly the whole game falls apart—and possibly even the gaming group if some players aren't happy with what has occurred. But if you can get past the difficulties, then an evil campaign can have its own rewards.

Champions of Corruption is the third Pathfinder Player Companion book to take a close look at the alignments in Pathfinder and offer options for players playing those alignments. I was very impressed with the first two books, Champions of Purity and Champions of Balance, and so was greatly looking forward to this book. Even if evil campaigns are not my cup of tea, a discussion of evil in the game is an important thing, especially when there has already been a discussion of good and neutrality.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Iron Gods - The Choking Tower

There is a downside to every adventure path being the same length. While having six adventures per adventure path creates a consistency so that players and gamemasters know what to expect, it also forces every story into a predefined length whether the story really works at that length or not. This is certainly not an uncommon problem. Television programmes have to fit every episode to set number of minutes and seasons tend to run the same number of episodes. It's ultimately something of an unavoidable problem, but it can lead to individual instalments feeling rushed or like filler.

The Choking Tower by Ron Lundeen feels a lot like filler. Of course, as it's only the third part of Iron Gods and I haven't read the remaining three volumes, it's hard to judge the adventure path as a whole, but this adventure doesn't seem to add a lot to what we've had so far. While its overall goal is important to the rest of the adventure path, the events of the adventure itself are rather peripheral.

The Choking Tower is certainly not a bad adventure. It will likely provide hours of entertainment for any group. But there's also little about the adventure that really stands out. On the whole, it's run-of-the-mill, with a fairly linear plot and NPCs who are mostly forgettable (although the main villain is a notable exception). It also lacks the vibrant setting of its immediate predecessor, presenting instead a setting that is pretty standard despite its science fiction trappings.


Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Doctor Who - Face the Raven

As the end of Series 9 approaches, it's not surprising that events on Doctor Who are beginning to build towards the finale. The overall direction and theme of the series has not been as clear this year as in other years, but there have been a few hints and they are starting to play out.

Face the Raven” by Sarah Dollard begins the move towards the finale quite dramatically and even a little shockingly. It starts as a seemingly standard stand-alone adventure for the Doctor and Clara that then turns into something much different. It's a very good episode and very emotional. Unfortunately, it's let down—not by its own faults (mostly) but by the episodes that have come before it. They have failed to effectively bring the series to the point it reaches here. As a result, it's not quite as affecting as it could have been.


Friday, 20 November 2015

Occult Bestiary

While reading Occult Adventures, some people may be surprised that it doesn't contain any new monsters. Roleplaying books of this sort will often contain a selection of new monsters that serve both to illustrate how the new rules are used and to provide GMs with some ready-made opponents for PCs built with the new rules. Mythic Adventures, for example, has a small selection of mythic monsters for just these purposes, yet Occult Adventures has none.

The introduction to Occult Bestiary reveals that the original plan was to have a few monsters in Occult Adventures, but the limits of space meant that it just couldn't be. To have included the monsters would have meant leaving out something else. As nice as new monsters can be, it's a decision I'm glad they made as there is so much flavourful material in Occult Adventures, that there's very little I could imagine leaving out. Nevertheless, the new rules cry out for monsters that use them, and Occult Bestiary answers that cry.

Occult Bestiary contains all the monsters originally planned for Occult Adventures, plus dozens more. Now, the book is part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line, which means that the monsters within are tied to Golarion, whereas Occult Adventures is setting-neutral and thus any monsters that had appeared there would have been setting-neutral as well. However, it makes little difference in the end. While Occult Bestiary does use a few Golarion terms and locations, all the monsters within are easily divorced from the setting. Indeed, most of them make no explicit reference to Golarion at all. As such, this book is easily used with any campaign setting.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Technology Guide

Advanced technology has been present in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting since the very beginning. The old Pathfinder Chronicles: Gazetteer contains a 1-page entry on Numeria and its crashed spaceship (albeit referred to as a “great metal mountain”). It was inevitable that more detail would be forthcoming. Eventually, Numeria got its own dedicated book, Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars, and an adventure path, Iron Gods, that takes place there and exploits its science fiction aspects.

But adding technology into a fantasy game like Pathfinder takes more than just including some guns and computers in an adventure book. Not only do these things need statistics, but there also need to be consistent rules governing their use. Much like with magic items and spells, players are bound to be interested in having their characters acquire more of such items or even create them themselves. The game needs to have ways to cover such eventualities. Yet a book like Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars simply doesn't have the room to detail these kinds of rules in any extensive manner—not and have any space left over to talk about the setting. The same goes for Adventure Path volumes. Technology needs its own separate book.

That's where the Technology Guide comes in. It provides both rules necessary for integrating technology into a Pathfinder game and a plethora of sample items—big and small, low-powered and high-powered—for villains to use and player characters to acquire. Although the Technology Guide is published as part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line of books, this is actually a relatively setting-neutral book. It does focus on fitting its content to the flavour of Numeria and does have occasional references to places in Numeria (and elsewhere on Golarion), but for the most part, the material is generic enough for use in any campaign setting that features technology of any kind. And it's for good reason. As much as I praise world-specific content, there needs to be a baseline for the world-specific to build on. The baseline also allows people to create their own campaign worlds that use technology. It's therefore not surprising that the rules and items from the Technology Guide have been added to the Pathfinder Reference Document, which is usually reserved for material from the setting-neutral hardcover rulebooks.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Doctor Who - Sleep No More

I've commented many times before on Doctor Who's ability to do just about any style or genre. It can be something completely different from week to week. Sometimes it sticks to old formulas; other times, it tinkers with something new; still other times it dives head first into the experimental to come up with something completely different and bizarre. I love this aspect of the show, but that doesn't necessarily mean I love every experimental episode. Some try really hard, but don't quite succeed (see “The Rings of Akhaten”, for example).

I will admit that I was expecting “Sleep No More” to be one those ones that fails. This was partly because of the found-footage format, which is a style I'm not fond of. The second was because it's written by Mark Gatiss, whose past contributions to Doctor Who I've generally found to be mediocre at best (although “Cold War” is pretty good) and sometimes downright bad (“Victory of the Daleks”). The combination of the two left me with low expectations for this episode. That was, perhaps, unfairly biased of me—especially considering I ended up enjoying the episode somewhat.

Sleep No More” is a bold experiment and not the kind of thing Doctor Who should be doing every week. But once in a while, bold experiments are exactly what the show needs. Intriguingly, aspects of “Sleep No More” are actually very formulaic and follow paths seen in the show many times before. But it takes those formulaic aspects and plays around with both the presentation and the viewers' expectations of how they will resolve. The execution isn't perfect and there are many flaws in the story—but oddly, some of those flaws actually help enhance it. “Sleep No More” is an episode that many people will dislike, some of them intensely. It's certainly not an easy episode to digest, or make heads or tails of. However, I suspect it will be an episode that is talked about (for good or bad) for a long time as it defies attempts to categorize and rate it.


Sunday, 15 November 2015

Occult Origins

Pathfinder products are published under several different lines of books. There's the Roleplaying Game line, which consists of the hardcover rulebooks. There's the Pathfinder Campaign Setting and Pathfinder Player Companion lines, and of course, Pathfinder Adventure Path amongst others. Each line gives an indication of what people can expect from the books published in it—rules material, adventures, etc.

However, within the lines, there are sometimes smaller series—not generally officially marked as such, but with naming patterns to indicate them. There are the Revisited and Unleashed books in the Campaign Setting, or the Blood of... books in the Player Companions. One of the smaller groups like these is the Origins books, with Mythic Origins, Advanced Class Origins, and now Occult Origins. These books are companions to rulebooks (Mythic Adventures, Advanced Class Guide, and Occult Adventures respectively), with each one introducing the concepts of their respective rulebooks in the world of Golarion and, primarily, offering lots of new player options. I've commented in my reviews of the last two that Origins is a bit of a misleading name, as they don't really discuss the origins of the new material or even the origins of characters using that material. That said, Occult Origins is better in this regard and actually does briefly discuss how characters become some of the occult classes.

In fact, Occult Origins is definitely the best of the Origins books to date. Paizo has refined the series with each successive book. Occult Origins is a book of mostly “crunch” (i.e. mechanical rules options for characters), but it is the best kind of crunch—the kind that supports the flavour of the setting as well as giving characters fun new options. The material in this book is full of flavour that both expands the world of Golarion and expands our understanding of it. And this only serves to enhance the gaming experience.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Iron Gods - Lords of Rust

Setting is an important part of any roleplaying campaign. Different people may like different levels of detail, but there is always, at the very least, an implied setting, a place where everything is happening—even if it's just the dungeon the characters are currently adventuring in. Setting grounds the characters in a certain reality. It creates certain expectations and lays down certain limits. It helps define where the characters come from, who they are, where they're going, and what they want. Generally, a well-defined and memorable setting paves the way for memorable adventures.

Adventures can use settings in different ways. Sometimes, the setting is little more than window-dressing, with little effect on the adventure itself. It might also be a relatively generic setting, one that can be easily modified or inserted into another more detailed setting. It's important that there be adventures like this. Gamemasters often need adventures that they can grab on a moment's notice and use with little to no adjustment. These adventures need to fit in regardless of the setting any particular GM needs.

But sometimes, adventures are tied much more closely to their setting, to the point that the adventure really couldn't happen anywhere else—not without some major changes, at any rate. Obviously, adventures like this will only work if the GM is using the particular setting, and they're not the sort a GM can just grab at a moment's notice. They need to be a planned part of the campaign. Yet, these adventures are often amongst the best and most memorable of adventures. That's not to say adventures with a more generic setting can't be great and memorable—just that those with a highly detailed setting enjoy a bit of an edge in the race.

Lords of Rust by Nicolas Logue, the second part of Iron Gods is an adventure where the setting is all important. It is a sandbox adventure in pretty much the truest sense of the term (something that is difficult to do in an adventure path). The player characters can pretty much proceed however they want and the setting is almost entirely what drives the action. A poorly detailed setting could break the whole adventure. But this adventure doesn't have a poorly detailed setting. Instead, it has one of the most memorable settings I've seen in a fantasy RPG adventure, and it makes for what will likely be an extremely memorable adventure for any group of players.


Friday, 13 November 2015

Doctor Who - The Zygon Inversion

Click here to read my review of “The Zygon Invasion”, the first part of this two-part story.

I commented last week that, of all the opening episodes of two-part stories so far this series, “The Zygon Invasion” was the most dependent on its follow-up episode. While this is certainly true, it is interesting that “The Zygon Inversion” is rather different in style. Where “The Zygon Invasion” is a world-spanning thriller with a large cast of characters, military action, and more, “The Zygon Inversion” is a much more personal tale, focusing on just the few key players. This is rather fitting, given the title. It inverts your expectations.

For the most part, it inverts them in a good way, too, for this is a strong story with a powerful message at its core, and, in one scene in particular, Peter Capaldi gives one of the most amazing performances of any Doctor ever. The story is not without its flaws. Indeed, there are quite a lot of them, but its good points are strong enough that those flaws are not very noticeable unless you take the time to analyse what is going on (admittedly, something that I just can't help but do).


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Occult Adventures

First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had a strange little add-on at the back of the Player's Handbook: psionics. Through a very lucky die roll during character creation, your character could get a mind power that made your character considerably more powerful than everybody else's characters. Psionics were an optional part of the game that I personally never used and I never played in a game that used them. However, they were clearly used by some people because later editions of the game kept bringing them back, and revising and refining the rules for them. Psionics were always mind powers, but it varied whether they were completely separate from divine and arcane magic, or just a third kind of magic. But whichever approach was taken, they always used completely different mechanics than spellcasters—such as the power points used in Third Edition.

Psionics have remained absent in official Pathfinder products (until now); however, that hasn't stopped publishers of Pathfinder compatible material from adapting them. Dreamscarred Press has released several very popular products on psionics, for example. But as popular as a third party product might get, there are always those players and gamemasters who want to see official support.

So along comes Occult Adventures, released this past August, which brings psionics—sort of—into official Pathfinder. The “psionics” in this book come in the form of psychic magic, which is a third form of magic controlled entirely by the mind. The thematic overlap between psychic magic and psionics is clear, even though the book never actually uses the word psionics. Renaming psionics as psychic magic separates this version completely from Third Edition—important as psychic magic uses completely different mechanics from Third Edition psionics, unlike core Pathfinder, which is a revision of Third Edition. In fact, psychic spellcasters use exactly the same mechanics as arcane and divine spellcasters, bringing psychic magic completely in-line with the rest of the game. This also has the added benefit of making it possible to use both psychic magic and psionics from companies like Dreamscarred Press in your games (there'll be a lot of thematic overlap, but the systems remain distinct).