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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Doctor Who - Smile


“Happiness will prevail!”

That is the motto uttered several times by the titular group in the 1988 Doctor Who story, “The Happiness Patrol”. It is a story set on a future Earth colony where sadness is outlawed, and those caught unhappy are executed. Methods of execution vary but are sometimes via a robot made out of licorice all-sorts.

I was reminded of “The Happiness Patrol” early on while watching the latest Doctor Who episode, “Smile” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Truth be told, beyond the mandatory happiness and death-by-robot, the two stories are actually quite different, and I don’t want to sound like I’m accusing the more recent story of copying the earlier one. That said, there is another way in which they are similar: They are both reasonably entertaining, yet flawed, stories.

“Smile” starts out strongly enough. It does a good job of setting the scene, and there is a lot of great interaction between the Doctor and Bill. There are some wonderful visuals and the episode maintains a suitable atmosphere that is a mix of both creepiness and wonder. However, the resolution appears and is gone in the space of mere moments. It’s almost as though the story spends so much effort on the set-up that it forgets it needs to reach a conclusion until its 45-minute duration is almost up, and so just tacks on something last moment. It doesn’t help that, apart from the Doctor and Bill, the characters are one-dimensional and entirely unsympathetic.

“Smile” is Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s second script for Doctor Who. His first was “In the Forest of the Night” from Series 8, an episode that I never got round to reviewing; however, in summary, my opinion of that story is, I didn’t like it. “Smile” is certainly a significant improvement on Cottrell-Boyce’s earlier story. However, its rushed ending leaves me with a sense of disappointment after such a good start.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot


Over the last few years, I have been very critical of Steven Moffat, and I have written more than a few scathing reviews of his vision of Doctor Who. In the last couple of years, since Peter Capaldi took over, my reviews have generally been more positive, as I feel Moffat has greatly improved, but there are still things in his writing that have continued to bother me.

But then there are times that Moffat just gets it right. The Series 10 première episode, “The Pilot” is one such occasion. Gone is the overly frantic pacing typical of a Moffat-penned series opener, and in its place is a calmer, yet nevertheless exciting and moving episode. There are hints of the future and a series arc, yet it doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with complexity and confusing “timey-wimey” paradoxes. Instead, it present a straight-forward and very personal story to draw in viewers, both old and new, before leaping into the larger, more complex universe of the series.

Moffat likes to include lots of nods to the programme’s past in his episodes and “The Pilot” is certainly not an exception in this regard. However, in this case, these nostalgic moments occur in such a way as to not impede the experience for newer viewers who might not be aware of every detail of the show’s long history. And through the introduction of new companion Bill Potts, new viewers encounter the Doctor and his wider universe for the first time in a way that hasn’t happened since “Rose”, making “The Pilot” an ideal first episode for brand new viewers.

In short, “The Pilot” is an incredible episode of Doctor Who and is definitely one of Steven Moffat’s best since becoming showrunner. It’s pretty near close to a perfect episode, and that’s not something I say lightly. It’s fun, engaging, moving, and I just love it to pieces.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Qadira, Jewel of the East


As much as I love the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, I have had a recurring criticism of many of the books describing the world. While I generally come away from the books knowing a great deal about what it’s like to adventure in the particular land being described, I often don’t know much about what it’s like to live there. Of course, the adventuring part is very important. The game is all about adventuring and the player characters themselves are generally referred to as adventurers. As such, the adventuring part is actually crucial.

Actual game play spends less time on day-to-day living. In fact, these sorts of things are often skimmed over. If they weren’t, it would take interminably long to play any campaign. For this reason, people might be inclined to think that information on what day-to-day life is like in the world would be less important—maybe even unimportant—in a setting book. I argue quite differently. While these are background details, they are also the kinds of details that bring a setting alive. Small details like the food the characters have for dinner, the kinds of clothes locals wear, or the customs they have for greeting strangers help to paint a picture of where all these adventures take place. They allow the players to better empathise with the world, and that in turn makes it all the more satisfying to the same players when their characters help to save that world and the people in it.

Yet Pathfinder Campaign Setting books often skimp on these details of daily life. An example I’ve commented on before is that several books contain the information that Prophets of Kalistrade have strict dietary restrictions, yet none of these books ever say what the restrictions actually are. So when a book comes along that breaks with this mould, I’m quick to praise and draw attention to it. Qadira, Jewel of the East by Jessica Price is such a book.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Plunder & Peril


One of the great things about fantasy roleplaying adventures is the vast variety of locations you can set them in. From the dungeons that started it all to forests, mountains, cities, and even bizarre planes of existence, the options are virtually limitless. Yet perhaps one of the least represented is the seafaring adventure. That’s not to say that they are never seen, just that the vast majority of Pathfinder and D&D adventures tend to be set on solid ground. The Skull & Shackles Adventure Path is a notable exception, and so is the adventure Plunder & Peril.

In fact, Plunder & Peril is presented as three mini-adventures that can be linked together to form one longer one or played separately. However, despite this presentation, I question how effective these adventures would be as stand-alones. The first would work reasonably well on its own, but the other two are too dependent on the set-up of the ones before it. As such, they will be far less effective run on their own and much more satisfying if run together.

The quality of the three adventures does vary though, with the first two being good and the third being weaker. Put together, they make for an adventure that starts strong, stays relatively strong, then ends weakly, making the whole average out to about mediocre. There are also a lot of ways in which the PCs can “derail” the adventures and there aren’t a lot of options for what GMs can do if this happens.

SPOILERS FOLLOW (including minor spoilers for Skull & Shackles)

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sherlock - The Lying Detective


Sherlock can be a frustrating show sometimes. It is a show that is hugely enjoyable, yet at the same time can be infuriating as it gets too caught up in itself or tries to do too much. This was a major issue I had with the Series 3 finale, “His Last Vow”, and it is an issue I have with the second episode of Series 4, “The Lying Detective”.

Written by Steven Moffat (who also wrote “His Last Vow”), “The Lying Detective” is full of absolutely wonderful moments, with great performances (particularly from Toby Jones as Culverton Smith), tense scenes, and some clever plotting. But they work best as set pieces. As a whole, the episode jumps from moment to moment, often through time with flashbacks and flash-forwards, never pausing for a moment to breathe, and never allowing the audience a chance to get to know and empathise with its characters. And while it does have some clever twists and reveals, it relies far too heavily on Sherlock Holmes making deductions that are even more impossible than what he’s generally capable of. In short, there is a lot of wonderful eye candy, but it all doesn’t quite hold together as a coherent whole.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Distant Shores


The Pathfinder Campaign Setting is focused primarily on the Inner Sea Region. This includes the continent of Avistan and northern portion of the continent of Garund. The majority of lands that have been detailed to date lie in this region. However, this amounts to a relatively small portion of the entire world of Golarion. Avistan is one of the smaller continents and while Garund is a much larger continent, only a small portion of it lies in the Inner Sea Region. There are several other continents as well. One of these, Tian Xia, has received an overview treatment in Dragon Empires Primer and Dragon Empires Gazetteer.

There have been some brief forays into other lands. The Hungry Storm, the third part of Jade Regent, for example, contains information on the Crown of the World, Golarion’s north polar region, which connects Avistan to Tian Xia, and the Inner Sea World Guide has brief overviews of all the continents on Golarion. Distant Shores, one of the most recent books to look beyond the Inner Sea Region, examines six very different cities from various different parts of the globe, and offers tantalising hints about the lands that they are part of.

Paizo has always strived for diversity in its campaign setting, which is a great thing. Numerous different real-world cultures, races, and ethnicities have analogues on Golarion. However, the fact remains that most of the cultures of the Inner Sea Region have their roots in white European cultures. Moving beyond the Inner Sea provides the opportunity to tip the balance slightly away from that, and this is exactly what Distant Shores does.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Sherlock - The Six Thatchers


It’s been three years since Sherlock Series 3 aired, three years that viewers have waited for the resolution of the cliffhanger ending of “His Last Vow”. There was the special, “The Abominable Bride” last year, but that was a little different and certainly didn’t resolve the cliffhanger, so the world continued to wait the full three years. Now, Series 4 has begun with “The Six Thatchers” (based loosely on the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”) and the cliffhanger... Well, I’ll leave discussion of that until the spoilered section.

Written by co-creator Mark Gatiss, “The Six Thatchers” marks a great return for Sherlock. Although I have some issues with it, which I’ll get into in a little bit, it’s a strong episode with some great character moments. Indeed, it’s very much a character-based episode with the mystery playing a rather secondary role. The focus here is on the relationships of the principal characters. There are moments of humour, seriousness, levity, and tragedy, all of which serve the overall purpose of character advancement. In particular, Sherlock himself sees some much-needed advancement as he finally starts to discover there are consequences for his actions.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Giant Hunter's Handbook


I must confess that I have grown somewhat tired of the Pathfinder Player Companion line. Over time, the line has become more and more focused on mechanical character options, and less and less on world description and flavour—pretty much the exact opposite of what I am personally looking for. Several months ago, for financial considerations, I had to cut back on how many books I was buying and, as such, Player Companions were amongst the first to go. I have not purchased any of the most recent books in the line. However, I do still have a backlog of Player Companions to get through, and I intend to read and review all of them.

When I opened up Giant Hunter’s Handbook, I expected more of the usual: new archetypes, feats, spells, etc. Those are certainly in there, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much setting flavour and background there is. In fact, the first new mechanical options (in this case, new uses for skills—something these books rarely do much with) don’t appear until page 11. Until then, it’s entirely practical information and advice that giant hunters in the world of Golarion need. Even when the book gets to the new feats, spells, and so on, there is still a lot of setting information to go with them.

The book opens with an introduction to the most common types of giants, separated into categories of “evil giants” and “nonevil giants”, as well as a sidebar with the most basic information that everyone knows about giants. After this, the book moves into more specific details about giants and how to effectively hunt or fight them. Each chapter is two pages long (a typical length for Player Companion books) and covers a specific topic.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Curse of the Crimson Throne


Over the years, Paizo has published a significant number of adventure paths. The current one, Strange Aeons, is in fact the nineteenth (not including the three published in Dungeon Magazine before Pathfinder Adventure Path was born), and there will likely be many more in the years to come. Yet one of the most memorable is also one of the earliest: Curse of the Crimson Throne. Originally published in Pathfinder Adventure Path Volumes 7 through 12 in 2008, it has gone on to gain a reputation as one of the best—and with good reason.

One of the things that always stood out for me with Crimson Throne was its fully realised setting and cast of vibrant NPCs who remained relevant throughout the entire adventure path. The detail simply made it come alive. Indeed, I have always considered it one of the more dramatic adventure paths. I could imagine cinematic scenes playing out in my head as I read it—not that such things never happened with other adventure paths, but somehow this was just a little more so with Crimson Throne. The adventure path did have its faults, but the whole certainly rose above them.

However, one thing that has made Curse of the Crimson Throne a little less accessible is that the game system it was written for has changed in the years since it was released. In fact, the system changed the very next year with the release of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, where Crimson Throne was written for the 3.5 Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Conversions between the two systems are not particularly difficult, but they can take a bit of time, which can be a bit of a turn-off for someone without the necessary time and wanting an adventure they can use with minimal adjustment.

Three years ago, another of the very early and popular adventure paths, Rise of the Runelords was re-released in an updated hardcover compilation. This was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Paizo as a company and the fifth anniversary of the Pathfinder name. The anniversary edition of Runelords updated the adventure path to the Pathfinder rules and also took the opportunity to expand it slightly and work out kinks in the original product.

It was perhaps inevitable that Curse of the Crimson Throne would one day also receive a similar treatment. There’s no special anniversary to celebrate this year, but does there really need to be? Much like its Runelords predecessor, the new hardcover compilation of Crimson Throne updates the adventure path to Pathfinder rules and also expands on the story where beneficial and streamlines in other areas. It also takes advantage of the most recent rules supplements, making use of newer monsters, classes, and feats where appropriate.

At nearly 500 pages in length, it is actually a substantially larger tome than the hardcover Runelords (a good 50 pages or so longer), and its extra length is certainly put to good use. Indeed, it manages to make one of the best adventure paths even better.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Doctor Who - The Return of Doctor Mysterio


It’s been an entire year since “The Husbands of River Song” first aired, and in that time, there has been no other Doctor Who at all, until now with “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. It’s been a very noticeable gap. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, there hasn’t been another year quite like this one. There have been years with a smaller-than-usual number of episodes, but never one with an episode count of only one (not even the so-called “gap year” in 2009 had so few episodes). Indeed, this is the first time two Christmas specials come back-to-back in episode order.

However, a long gap can increase the desire to see new episodes and that certainly was the case with me. I was eager to watch “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” as soon as it aired. But I was also worried. I had to watch it at my parents’ place, which meant making them watch it too, and my parents have little love for Doctor Who these days (despite my mom being a big fan of the original series). By the end of the episode, my fears were confirmed. My parents talked quite a bit about just how terrible the show is these days, and there wasn’t much I could say to argue with them because I kind of agreed—for this episode, at least.

On initial viewing, I was not that impressed by “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. However, on a second viewing a couple days later, my opinion improved somewhat (which is a trend I’ve noticed happening with episodes by Steven Moffat). I found more things to like about it, even though my initial issues remained.

It’s not really that bad an episode. There have certainly been far worse ones, but there have also been much better ones, too. For a Christmas episode, it does what it needs to do, which is provide light-hearted entertainment and be accessible to casual viewers. It has lots of fun moments, with some knowing nods to superhero tropes. Yet at the same time, it has some rather paper-thin characterisations and alien villains that manage to be both creepy and boring (their basic concept is creepy, but they have no personality). Overall, it’s a rather mediocre episode and not one that’s likely to prove all that memorable, but it is enjoyable.

SPOILERS FOLLOW