Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Doctor Who - The Woman Who Fell to Earth

It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but change is one of the few constants on Doctor Who. There are very few other shows out there where after just a year or two, the entire cast might be completely different. Companions come and go; the Doctor regenerates. The people behind the scenes, from writers to producers, change too. The new people bring with them new ideas, new styles, and new aesthetics. Sometimes there might be little to no change in the cast and crew, but the current people working on the show simply decide to do things differently. Even one episode to the next can bring marked changes. It’s simply a matter of fact that change is ingrained into the very structure of Doctor Who. It has been since the second season in 1964 when the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan left the show and the cast changed for the first of countless times.

One of the great things about this is that is that it allows Doctor Who to be so many different things to so many different people. If the current version doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you know it’s only a matter of time before it changes and maybe the next version will have what you want. It’s one of the things that have kept the show going for so long.

Doctor Who has changed again. And this time, it’s one of the bigger changes. Not only is there a new Doctor (who also happens to be the first female Doctor), there are also three new companions, a new showrunner, new writers, a new music composer, and quite a lot else new both in front of and behind the cameras. Oh, and there are new cameras too, a new aspect ratio, and a completely new look. Indeed, this is probably the biggest change since 2005 when Doctor Who came back after sixteen years off the air.

The changes this time also bring with them the perfect jumping on point for new (and lapsed) viewers. Doctor Who can be an intimidating programme to come into if you’ve never seen it before. With nearly 850 episodes produced over 55 years, there’s a massive backlog of history and (often contradictory) continuity that can seem overwhelming. But the simple matter is, you don’t need to see all that. Over the years, the show has had numerous spots where new viewers can easily start in without having to worry about anything that’s come before. That’s the case this year. The show is starting afresh. There are no returning plot-lines, villains, or monsters from previous years. Everything is completely new. The show hasn’t forgotten what came before, but it’s not relying on its past.

It’s been a bit of a wait since the last series. Not sixteen years, obviously, but it has been fifteen months since Series 10 ended. Jodie Whittaker was announced as the thirteenth Doctor just after that on 16 July, 2017, and she made her début in the closing moments of last December’s Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time” when Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor regenerated into Whittaker’s thirteenth.

So, with all the changes, was the wait worth it?

The answer is unequivocally yes.

The Woman Who Fell to Earth” by Chris Chibnall is not a perfect episode (if such a thing even exists). I have criticisms of it (which I will get to in due time), but overall, I absolutely love it. It is an easily accessible episode with great, relatable characters, a lot of emotion, and more than a few thrills. The plot is fairly simple and straight-forward, allowing it to focus on introducing the new characters and to ease viewers into the world(s) of Doctor Who.

One thing people who have seen recent series of Doctor Who will almost certainly notice very quickly about this episode is how grounded it is. Former showrunner Steven Moffat aimed for a “fairy tale” style to the show. It was high fantasy (in a science fiction framework) with fantastical plots and fantastical characters. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s newest iteration of Doctor Who has obviously not dispensed with fantastical elements entirely, but when I say that it is more grounded, I mean that it focuses more on setting the fantastic amidst a backdrop of realism. There’s a greater focus on showing the everyday lives of the characters and developing them as people viewers might actually meet. The opening scenes show the characters dealing with real-life concerns and issues before involving them in the plots of aliens. And even once the aliens show up, it never loses touch with that sense of reality.

One way it achieves this is through the use of something that I have sorely missed in recent years on Doctor Who (and long-time readers of my reviews will be familiar with me mentioning on many occasions): consequence. Actions have effects that reverberate into people’s lives and change them. People also die in this episode. And they stay dead. There’s actual tension as a result, and the alien menace feels like a real threat.

But there’s humour and fun in the episode too. The humour is more subdued than recent years. There are fewer witty quips, notably. However, there are still quite a few very funny moments, and while the episode does get a bit dark (not just visually, although much of it is set at night, so visually too) and bleak at times, there are light-hearted moments, too, helping to keep a sense of fun.

A lot of that fun comes from the Doctor herself. Jodie Whittaker is absolutely wonderful. She has great presence and energy. Within moments of her first appearance, she establishes herself in the role. There is no doubting that she is the Doctor.

There are a lot of great things to be said about her companions too, and the actors who play them. And the specifics of the story. And so much more.

Also a few quibbles.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

It's About Time - New Doctor Who Trailer

It feels like it’s taking forever for October and Doctor Who Series 11 to arrive. I haven’t felt this stoked about a new series of Doctor Who in quite some time, but I’m on edge for its arrival!

A couple of weeks ago, we finally learned the air date of the first episode: 7th October. The BBC also released a short teaser trailer to go with the announcement. Bizarrely, despite being called a “Release Date Trailer”, the YouTube version (which I’ve embedded just below) doesn’t actually include the date! The date is included on the version loaded to other platforms though.

The teaser contains a fun little nod to breaking the glass ceiling, which, predictably, upset a certain subset of fans.

The date marks a move to Sundays. With the exception of Christmas specials and “The Waters of Mars” (which was also a special, though not a Christmas one), since Doctor Who came back in 2005, it has always aired on Saturdays (though at highly variable times in the UK in recent years). The classic series usually aired on Saturdays as well, except for a few seasons in the 80s. Here in Canada, Saturday has always been the typical night as well—although YTV showed the Sylvester McCoy years on Sunday evenings in the late 80s, so Sunday won’t be completely unprecedented for me. It will seem a little strange at first, though.

However, the air date is not the main purpose of this post! Now that there are only a couple of weeks left before Series 11 starts, the marketing campaign it starting to get into full swing. Over the last couple of days, there have been a lot of newspaper and magazine articles released containing interviews and hints at what to expect—though this year’s pattern of providing far less information than in previous years continues and I like it!

And today has seen the release of a new full trailer!

This trailer is the first to include a bit of actual dialogue from the new series, as well as brief glimpses (mostly blink-and-you’ll-miss-them glimpses) of guest stars and monsters, including a giant spider! I will admit that the music grated a bit when I first heard it in the Release Date Trailer. It’s very atypical for Doctor Who. However, it’s kind of grown on me. The lyrics fit, and it actually works really well in this new trailer. It does drive home the point that this is a new era of Doctor Who. Things are going to change.

What I particularly love about this trailer, though, are the visuals! Much like the previous full trailer, this one highlights some absolutely gorgeous visuals, and it has a truly cinematic feel to it. The new aspect ratio helps a good deal in this regard. Series 11 looks like it could be the best visually appearing series of Doctor Who ever. I can’t wait!

Anyway, to finish up, here’s a fun video of Jodie Whittaker responding to tweets about her casting!

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Giantslayer - Shadow of the Storm Tyrant

Throughout the Giantslayer Adventure Path, the player characters have taken on the servants of Volstus, the Storm Tyrant and the forces they’ve been building in the Storm Tyrant’s name. In Shadow of the Storm Tyrant by Tito Leati, the PCs finally make their way to the Storm Tyrant’s cloud castle and take the battle directly to him.

I’ve had mixed opinions of the instalments of Giantslayer so far—some have been good, others not so good—but Shadow of the Storm Tyrant works well as the culminating adventure. It’s primarily a dungeon crawl, but has a good sense of urgency and variety that its predecessor, Anvil of Fire, is missing. It also has some epic-feeling encounters and combats appropriate for a high-level party, and it makes good use of its setting, which helps to turn what could have been just a bog-standard dungeon crawl into something much more unique.


Friday, 24 August 2018

Cohorts and Companions

While conflict with villains and monsters is a significant part of any roleplaying game, the game would be considerably less interesting if the PCs didn’t have friends and allies as well. Whether they’re a local inn-keeper providing the PCs a room to sleep in or a loyal cohort who accompanies the PCs on their adventures, these friendly characters help fill out the rest of the world and provide variety beyond evil and/or monstrous opponents. Pathfinder Player Companion: Cohorts and Companions focuses on the followers and allies who aid the PCs in various ways throughout their adventuring careers.

As the book’s name implies, cohorts (gained from the Leadership feat) are a significant focus, but the book also goes considerably beyond these. The “Companions” part of the title can refer to animal companions, but also to pretty much any other person, animal, monster, or even object that in some way accompanies or aids the PCs—and there is quite an impressive breadth of options covered.

The book opens with a two-page discussion about why NPCs might follow PCs, and how PCs might go about gaining followers. This includes things like hiring NPCs as well as NPCs just following along for their own reasons. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of discussion about the Leadership feat, as well as mention of the variant Leadership feats that can be found in other products: Squire from Knights of the Inner Sea, Torchbearer from Dungeoneer’s Handbook, and Vile Leadership from Champions of Corruption. There is also a very good sidebar on “Who Controls Cohorts?” which discusses how to decide whether the GM or player (or a combination of both) gets to control cohorts’ actions.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest

Just under two weeks ago, the Pathfinder Playtest launched. This is an open playtest for the 2nd Edition of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It includes the Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook, the Pathfinder Playtest Bestiary, and Doomsday Dawn, an adventure made up of several sections, each focusing on a specific aspect of the game for playtesting. You can download free PDFs of all of these, plus other materials like character sheets from the Pathfinder Playtest website.

This is not a review. It doesn’t really seem appropriate to write a review of a work-in-progress. However, it does contain some of my thoughts about the game (which I suppose is review-like). Since I concentrate fairly heavy on Pathfinder products on Of Dice and Pen, I figured my readers may be just a little curious about my thoughts and why I won’t be talking much about 2nd Edition Pathfinder for the foreseeable future.

When 2nd Edition was announced, I was cautiously excited. I believe the game is due a new edition. I have commented in many of my reviews that it has grown to a size where it’s impossible to keep track of things. There are so many choices that the vast majority are never used. The game is also convoluted with overlapping, redundant options or even sometimes contradictory options. Pathfinder has been out for nearly ten years now (and will have been by the time 2nd Edition launches fully next year) and a lot of material has been published for it, so it’s not surprising that it’s become somewhat bloated. However, I also think Pathfinder is still a very playable game. It just needs a bit of consolidation and a few alterations and fixes here and there.

After the announcement of 2nd Edition, Paizo began releasing regular previews of the game on the Paizo Blog, and I followed along, eager to see what the game would be like. At first, I liked a lot of what I was seeing (the action economy system, for example, based on the one from Pathfinder Unchained, which I already use in my games). Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the changes were far more extensive than what I was looking for. This wasn’t so much a revision of the game as it was a complete rebuilding of it—more like the change from D&D 3.5 to 4th Edition D&D instead of 3.5 to Pathfinder, which is more along the lines of what I want. I have a lot of Pathfinder products that I haven’t had a chance to use yet—adventure paths I’d like to run, for example—and converting them to the new edition would be just too large a task that I don’t have the time for.

And while there are things in the new game that I like, there are also several things that just don’t appeal to me. “Resonance” is one such thing. This is a new mechanic for limiting magic item use and replaces things like magic item slots. Basically, every character has a number of Resonance Points and using or “investing” (for worn items) a magic item requires spending Resonance Points. If you run out of Resonance Points, it becomes more difficult to use a magic item and you need to make checks. The idea is that the character needs to use a little bit of their own innate magical talent to activate a magical item. My problem with Resonance is not on the mechanical side. For me, it changes the entire feel of the game. Pathfinder and D&D before it have always had some items that can be picked up by anyone and used. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a game or setting that requires expending innate ability to drink a potion, but that’s not Pathfinder to me. I changes the dynamic and that doesn’t appeal to me.

I will not be using the Playtest rules with any of my games. All my current games will keep with 1st Edition rules for the remainder of their campaigns. I will absolutely take a look at the final rules for 2nd Edition when they release next year, and depending on how they develop, I might consider using them for future campaigns. However, I suspect I will be remaining with 1st Edition. As I said, I’ve got lots of books waiting to be used—more than enough to last me for many years worth of gaming. There are also a whole pile of books left that I haven’t yet reviewed here, so I’ve got lots to keep me busy on here for quite some time too.

Please note that, while I don’t intend to switch to 2nd Edition at this time, I have nothing against Paizo for producing it or anyone who plans to make the change. As I said, I think the game is due a change. It just so happens that change has gone in a different direction to what I personally would have preferred.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Giantslayer - Anvil of Fire

Every adventure path has a low point. It’s pretty much unavoidable. There’s always going to be something that doesn’t work quite as well as everything. Of course, the hope is that any low points are still high—still good and fun, just not quite as high as the other points in the adventure path. If this situation is met, you have a winning adventure path. Unfortunately, Giantslayer isn’t an example of this. Even more unfortunately, its low point sinks especially low.

After Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen, I worried that the adventure path was becoming repetitive. Three instalments in a row all follow a very similar style where the PCs need to infiltrate much larger and potentially overpowering forces in order to achieve their goals. I worried that this repetition could start to bore the players. Anvil of Fire by Sean K Reynolds, the fifth part of the adventure path, is only superficially similar in this regard and mostly breaks from the pattern established in the last three parts. Unfortunately, it’s repetitive in an even worse way: with itself.

Anvil of Fire is one long dungeon crawl with battle after battle after battle—with almost every encounter being virtually identical to the one immediately before it. There is very little opportunity for pause (except if and when PCs decide to retreat from the dungeon to recover) and even less opportunity for interaction with NPCs in any way other than combat. There is so much of the same in this adventure, I can’t imagine any group of players not being completely bored by the end. Even the most avid “hack’n’slash” players will likely be dismayed at the lack of variety in the combats.


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Planes of Power

Fantasy roleplaying games allow an escape from reality. They allow us to play out stories with magic, elves, and dragons that could never happen in the real world. Yet they retain elements of the real world, often taking aspects of real world history and cultures to inspire the peoples and societies that populate them. These elements allow the game to retain a certain sense of familiarity, and a certain sense of reality amidst the fantasy.

But sometimes, you just want to abandon reality altogether, get rid of the familiar as much as possible, and create something truly different. This can be through travel to other worlds or even other planes. Planar travel has been a mainstay of roleplaying since its earliest days. It’s often something only embarked upon by high-level characters who have acquired the greater powers needed to make the jump from one plane to another, but it doesn’t have to be. The old 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, Planescape made PCs natives of other planes and incorporated plane-hopping right from first level.

The Pathfinder Campaign Setting first outlined its planar structure in the old Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting book (later updated as Pathfinder Campaign Setting: The Inner Sea World Guide). The information in that book was later expanded upon in The Great Beyond. But even that book could only provide the barest details. The planes are more than just other worlds; they are entire other universes with enough space in each one to hold millions of entire campaign settings.

Planes of Power is a more recent book that takes a much closer look at just four of the many planes that make up the Great Beyond—specifically the Elemental Planes of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Of course, this book can still only scratch the surface of these planes, but it is able to provide enough of a backdrop to whet GMs’ creative juices and allow them to expand beyond what’s presented.

Monday, 30 July 2018

All the Birds in the Sky

What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? The two are often grouped together. Fans of one are usually fans of the other as well, and indeed the two often overlap. Much that is labelled science fiction contains things that are outright fantastical. The Star Wars series is one of the most extreme examples of this. Called science fiction, it follows the formula of epic fantasy, complete with wizards (jedi), monsters, and heroes fighting the forces of evil. It uses the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, faster-than-light travel, lasers), but without any actual science behind them. The reverse happens as well, with many fantasies containing scientifically plausible ideas. So where is the line between the two? Does that line even really exist?

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders plays around with the separation between science and fantasy. It jumps back and forth from one side to the other of that hard-to-define line, all the while effortlessly deconstructing the idea that there’s even a line in the first place, demonstrating that, in the end, both science fiction and fantasy are just story-telling.

It does this for more than just science fiction and fantasy, too. It tears apart the lines between comedy and serious drama, being both hilarious and deadly serious, fun and emotional. There are moments of action that wouldn’t be out of place in a Transformers movie, while also being a book about normal everyday life, from children dealing with bullies at school to the sex lives of young adults. Indeed, the book defies most attempts to slap a genre of any kind on it, and it is all the more delightful because of it.

It even defies expectations on a meta-textual level. The book is written in third person limited (meaning it focuses on the point of view of one character at a time), alternating chapter-by-chapter between its two protagonists. Except every once in a while, when the two characters are together, the perspective switches back and forth between them from one paragraph to the next. On other occasions, the perspective widens out to other characters. Even though this can be unexpected (third person omniscient is rarely used these days), it’s never jarring. Anders makes it seem completely normal and natural—she makes you think you were expecting it.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Cosmos: Possible Worlds

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my excitement four years ago when Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premièred. Both an update and a sequel to Carl Sagan’s ground-breaking 1980 series Cosmos, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and covered a variety of topics concerning humanity’s place in the universe, from the smallest atoms to the largest galaxies, and everything in between. It was both beautiful to watch and highly educational. It’s a series I strongly recommend for gaining a better understanding of science and the world around us.

It’s been a while, but the great news is, Cosmos is coming back for another season! Cosmos: Possible Worlds will air next year. I’ve known about this for some time now, but what I’ve only just learnt is that a new trailer came out last week. Have a watch!

Educational programming is important, and in many ways, science programming is especially so. Cosmos is far from the only science show out there (and there are many good ones, too), but it is one of the most high-profile, and that helps bring it to a larger number of people. We live in a time when science is more and more frequently coming under attack. In the United States, in particular, people in power try to place topics like climate change under the heading of “fake news” and push creationism as being on the same scientific level as evolution.

It’s not limited to the States, though. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Here in Ontario, we have recently elected a new conservative government that is already seeking to scrap environmental protections put in place by the last government and is fighting against the federal government’s attempts to keep those or similar environmental protections in place. This same provincial government is also scrapping a newly established sex education programme for Ontario students and replacing it with an out-of-date programme from 1998. And they’re doing this for reasons based entirely around misinformation (see here for a good overview of this situation).

As a teacher, I welcome any attempts to bring science and education to people young and old. One of the best ways is to present science in a way that is entertaining and stimulating. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey does this through the use of thrilling visuals. It is truly a feast for the eyes, on par with the numerous fictional shows and games vying to grab the attention of viewers. Along with these visuals, Cosmos also presents its subject matter in a straight-forward, easy-to-understand manner. You don’t need a PhD in physics to understand the show. You don’t really need any background in science at all. Yet even for those with a background in science, it still has much to offer, covering such a diverse array of subjects as it does. One of the great things about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is also how accessible it is to people of many different ages. I’ve used Cosmos in a classroom with 12-year-old students and have seen it captivate adults as well.

From the preview, Cosmos: Possible Worlds looks to contain these same things—thrilling visuals accompanying an accessible and entertaining discussion of scientific topics. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Things are about to get epic.” I can’t wait!

Friday, 27 July 2018

Giantslayer - Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen

Every adventure path has a particular theme and style to it, which identifies it and makes it distinguishable from other adventure paths. Iron Gods has technology and aliens, while Mummy’s Mask involves exploring ancient tombs and battling undead. Giantslayer, not surprisingly, is all about giants. Adventure paths also need a certain amount of variety, though, as too much of the same thing can start to feel stale. Stray too far from the core concept, however, and the different segments of the adventure path might no longer feel like a connected whole. It can be a fine line between how much “same” and how much “different” an adventure path needs to work.

With Giantslayer, I’m starting to feel that it’s leaning towards too much of the same. The fourth instalment, Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen by Jim Groves is structurally very similar to the two adventures immediately preceding it, The Hill Giant’s Pledge and Forge of the Giant God. That’s not to say that Ice Tomb is a bad adventure. It’s actually pretty good and there’s a lot I like about it, but in it, the PCs must undertake a mission of infiltration and sabotage just like they’ve done twice already. Of course, as they’re higher level now, they have more options for how to go about their mission and they face more powerful opponents, but in the end it still feels repetitive. It’s exacerbated by the fact that this is not just the third time overall, but the third time in a row.

That aside, there’s a lot that’s very good in Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen. It has a dynamic and vibrant setting that provides a good sandbox location for the adventure to take place in, and it has lots of interesting encounters to challenge a party of 10th-level characters and entertain their players. It also has an innovative system for determining how their giant opponents respond to the PCs’ actions.