Saturday 29 December 2012

Doctor Who - The Snowmen

It’s become a staple now. Every 25th of December, Doctor Who returns to television screens for a between-series—or, in this case, since the series is split over the fall and spring, a mid-series—special, all of them ostensibly a Christmas special, although some with more obvious Christmas trappings than others. As the Christmas specials need to appeal to a wider audience base than the standard series episodes, they tend to be fairly disconnected (no arc plots, for example) and more light-hearted. They tend to aim more for pure fun than for thinking. There have been a few exceptions, of course, that are more connected to the main series and more significant. “The Christmas Invasion” had to introduce a new Doctor, for example, and four years later, “The End of Time” had to write that Doctor out. This year’s special, “The Snowmen” by Steven Moffat, is another one of these significant specials, having to appeal to its wider audience, introduce a new companion, and fit in with the continuity of the series it comes in the middle of. Given my general disappointment with many recent episodes, I went into this special with a certain amount of trepidation, but also a great deal of hope. This was an opportunity for great changes, but also an opportunity for things to go dreadfully wrong. At the very least, however, I was confident that it could not possibly be any worse than last year’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”.

And thank goodness I was right about that. It’s considerably better than last year’s special (although my wife feels that it’s even worse, so go figure). That’s not to say that it’s a perfect episode. Indeed, it’s quite far from that. There are a number of problem areas from two-dimensional characters to a groan-worthy resolution. However, it is possible to watch the episode and feel entertained, laugh a few times, and even experience a moment or two of tense excitement. I would still consider it amongst the weakest Christmas specials, but it’s not all bad.


Sunday 23 December 2012

Blood of the Night

Vampires have always been a popular part of fantasy and gothic horror. Recent years have certainly seen a surge in vampire-based fiction, from True Blood (based on The Southern Vampire Mysteries book series) to—shudder—the Twilight series. Roleplaying games have also not been bereft of vampiric undead. Vampires have shown up as everything from generic monsters to the centrepiece for entire games and/or campaigns, such as the Dungeons and Dragons Ravenloft campaign setting, which was based on an adventure of the same name.

As Pathfinder is an evolution of the Dungeons and Dragons game, naturally there are vampires in the game. The Golarion campaign setting even has an entire country, Ustalav, which is centred around gothic horror elements like vampires. There are also numerous other areas of the world in which an encounter with a vampire is not an unlikely thing. However, while there has been quite a bit of information about some of these areas (such as Ustalav in Rule of Fear), there has not been much on vampires themselves (even Undead Revisited does not have a section on vampires). Pathfinder Player Companion: Blood of the Night is the first product to focus specifically on the vampires (and vampire descendants) of Golarion.

Friday 21 December 2012

It's the End of the World as We Know It...

Apocalypses are funny things. Every time we get past one, there’s always another one just around the corner. They happen for all sorts of different reasons, from asteroid impacts to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions to the arrival of the Anti-Christ. There was even the Prophet Hen of Leeds in 1806, who laid eggs with the phrase, “Christ is coming,” on each of them (it was later found to be a hoax).

And as every apocalypse passes and every new one around the corner is announced, there are always throngs of people ready and waiting to believe. Personally, I’ve never really understood how each doomsday prediction manages to gather the followers that it does, but I’ve learnt to accept it. I content myself with the fact that, while many may believe, far, far more people don’t believe. With that, I can relax in the knowledge that humanity as a whole really isn’t that gullible.

But there’s something a little different about this “Mayan Apocalypse” that’s supposed to happen sometime today (I’ve seen no sign of it yet, but there are still many hours in the day left, not to mention other time zones that are behind my own). It’s not that this one is any more likely than any of the others. It’s not. Nor is it that there are more people who believe it. While I don’t have access to accurate statistics, I suspect the number of believers this time is comparable to the number of believers of other well-known apocalypse predictions. No, it’s the fact that people believe there was ever a prediction in the first place.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Sexism in Steven Moffat's Doctor Who?

Doctor Who has been a part of my life for just about as long as I can remember. Even before I started watching it regularly, it had imprinted itself on me. I was terrified of it, of course, at first, but even then, something drew me to it and fascinated me about it. At age 10, I fell in love with Doctor Who and never missed an episode again. Eventually, I even gained the opportunity to go back and watch all the earlier ones I’d missed (or, at the very least, listen to them in the case of missing 60’s episodes).

What exactly drew, and still draws, me to the show is hard to narrow down. Tom Baker’s mesmerizing presence certainly played a role, but he wasn’t actually the first Doctor I ever saw—Jon Pertwee was—even if there was a period when I didn’t realize Jon Pertwee had ever been there and Tom Baker had superimposed himself on my memories of the third Doctor. Until Tom Baker took over, there was still something drawing me to it. I’ve always had a proclivity towards science fiction and fantasy, so that’s undoubtedly a very major part. Around the same time I was falling in love with Doctor Who, I also discovered Star Wars and fell in love with that, too. The action and adventure definitely kept me coming back. Yet I’ve fallen out of love with Star Wars in recent years (and I’m not referring to any opinion on the quality of the prequels—I’m referring to the original, non-special-edition trilogy), but the same hasn’t happened with Doctor Who. I have also watched many other science fiction programmes and movies over the years (many of which I consider myself a fan of), but none have ever held the same place as Doctor Who. Something sets Doctor Who apart from all the others. To be honest, I’m not sure I can accurately say exactly what it is that draws me to the show, be it the sheer breadth of possibility the show covers, the writing, the acting, the concepts, the action, or the characters. The show has changed so much over the years, yet still it draws me in.

Of course, just because one loves something doesn’t necessarily mean one finds it perfect, and Doctor Who is no different. To criticize something does not necessarily indicate dislike. And fans tend to criticize. Personally, I don’t just criticize things I’m a fan of. I watch and read everything with a critical eye. Some people might say I go over the top, but I actually believe it to be very important. Something can be good and still have flaws, and I think it’s important to acknowledge those flaws. Similarly, I believe there is a difference between the two spectrums of like/dislike and good/bad. We can, and often do, like things that we know are bad (often called “guilty pleasures”). Likewise, we can dislike things that are good (although in these cases, we often go out of our way to try to prove that the things in question are actually bad in order to justify our dislike rather than just admit it’s a matter of personal taste).

Doctor Who has had its ups and downs. It’s usually good, but sometimes bad. A lot of the time that it’s bad, I still like it, but every now and then, it does an episode that I just plain don’t like. Throughout it all, I’ve always still loved the show as a whole. People who have read my reviews of recent episodes will know that I have not felt the last couple of years have been Doctor Who at its best. I have taken issues with a number of things, particularly poor character development. However, there is one issue that has been lying heavily on me for some time, one that has become a hotbed of argument amongst fandom: the presentation of women since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner.

Monday 17 December 2012

Doctor Who - Vastra Investigates

A new prequel for the forthcoming Doctor Who Christmas special is now on-line. "Vastra Investigates" doesn't actually involve any investigating on Vastra's part. The entire scene is set after the investigation is over, making the title a little odd, but oh well.  It's cute. That's really about all I can say about it. It's cute. But it's not meant to be anything more than that, so that's fine. Here it is:


Friday 14 December 2012

Shattered Star - Beyond the Doomsday Door

I’ve stated before that I can be rather critical of dungeon-based adventures. It can be very easy for such adventures to become sluggish, too drawn out, and ultimately just a succession of monster-killing that lacks dynamics or purpose. As such, I haven’t been overly praising of Shattered Star, which is an adventure path centred around dungeon crawling. Not only that, it’s one with only a fairly loose tie joining each adventure together, making it feel less like an adventure path than a succession of stand-alone adventures. The first adventure is competent, but uninspiring. Curse of the Lady’s Light (the second instalment) is an excellent adventure in its own right, but one that I think I’d rather just run by itself without the rather loose connections to the rest of the AP. And I found The Asylum Stone quite disappointing. Fortunately, the fourth instalment, Beyond the Doomsday Door by Tito Leati, delivers another excellent adventure. It’s not perfect—there are some confusing inconsistencies in its setting’s history, for example, and it does start to feel a little drawn out by the end—but it contains a fascinating, dynamic setting, and a truly unique villain. It’s a dungeon crawl where you might not want to kill everything you meet along the way, and that’s the kind of thing I love.


Thursday 13 December 2012

Science is Fake

It isn't really. But for some strange reason, a lot of people seem to think it is, or that significant amounts of science are fake. I often wonder where these people think their cell phones and computers come from. Or their television sets and cars. The Guardian has a great article lambasting people who believe in scientific conspiracy theories (such as believing that the moon landings were faked). It's quite funny and well worth reading.

When I was young, I was often ridiculed by friends and family for being too "closed-minded". From their perspective, I too rigidly stuck to science and wasn't willing to open my mind to other possibilities (like that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens or my brother's brief obsession with pyramid power). From my own perspective, I simply couldn't understand their perspective. As far as I was concerned, I was quite open-minded. And I still believe that. The thing is, to truly be open-minded, you have to be critical of what you see, hear, and read. This doesn't mean dismissing everything without a second thought. It means determining whether there is reasonable evidence to support it. That includes being critical of legitimate science as well. Any scientist will readily admit that. After all, it's what science is all about. Scientists don't just sit around and make stuff up. It has to be checked and re-checked, and duplicated under controlled conditions. If it survives peer review, then it starts to get accepted, no matter how bizarre and unbelievable it might have seemed at first. Just look at quantum physics for a glimpse at how truly strange and utterly non-intuitive the universe is. It is not something easy to accept.

Monday 10 December 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - The Last Day

The first series of Wizards Vs Aliens has had its ups and downs, but on the whole, has trended more towards the ups. In the final two episodes, “The Last Day” by Phil Ford, it reaches a new height by providing the most emotional story yet and resolving a couple of mysteries that have carried through the whole series so far. The story manages to combine a little bit of spookiness, great atmosphere, action, excitement, and good character development all into one compelling tale. Yes, it does overdo it at times with the sentimentality, but not egregiously so, and as that sentimentality does play into the triumphant and uplifting ending, I’m willing to forgive it for going just a little over the top. Overall, it’s a delightful and fitting finale for the first series and paves the way for the second series to come.


Wednesday 5 December 2012

Shattered Star - The Asylum Stone

One of my all-time favourite parts of Golarion is the city of Kaer Maga, also known as the City of Strangers. It’s a wonderful mix of some of the most bizarre and creative ideas I’ve ever seen in a fantasy setting. I’ve seen some people liken it to Mos Eisley from Star Wars due to the sheer mix of creatures that reside there. Naturally, this sort of place isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I adore it. I have devoured the contents of the book, City of Strangers, multiple times and I always find something new and interesting to spark the imagination. A couple of published adventures have been set there (including the excellent Godsmouth Heresy), and one of my most fondly remembered campaigns was set there too (alas, it ended all too soon with a tpk). So I was naturally looking forward to The Asylum Stone, the third part of Shattered Star. Not only was it set in Kaer Maga, but it was written by James L. Sutter, the creator of Kaer Maga and author of City of Strangers (as well as the author of the absolutely brilliant Distant Worlds). What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a bit, it seems. Unfortunately, The Asylum Stone just doesn’t live up to the possibilities, primarily because it tries to present too many possibilities all in one go. Just as Kaer Maga itself is a hodgepodge of numerous races and organizations, the adventure is like a hodgepodge of disconnected set-pieces with only the thinnest thread linking them together. But while the city of Kaer Maga brilliantly ties all its disparate parts together into one working whole, The Asylum Stone unfortunately doesn’t. There’s simply too much in Kaer Maga to include in one adventure, especially one where the PCs are just passing through. What would work much better is to focus on one aspect of Kaer Maga (much like The Godsmouth Heresy does) with only hints of the rest. What we get instead is an adventure which takes the PCs from one Kaer Magan “gang” to the next with little to no opportunity to interact with each one, only to throw the PCs up against one of the setting’s major villains at the end without ever developing the threat of that villain or its impact on the setting. The adventure ends up feeling like a succession of random encounters and completely loses the magic of Kaer Maga.


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Fall of the Nekross

The two episodes of “Fall of the Nekross” by Gareth Roberts, are perhaps the two most event-packed episodes of Wizards Vs Aliens so far. A lot happens in these two episodes, and they move along at quite a break-neck pace right from the opening moments of Part One. Overall, they form an excellent story: exciting with good character moments, a few revelations, and some seriously dark moments. Unfortunately, “Fall of the Nekross” does have some significant flaws to it, but despite these flaws, it manages to remain highly entertaining, and that, in the end, is the most important thing.


Thursday 29 November 2012

NPC Codex

One of the great things about Paizo and the Pathfinder RPG is their willingness to try new things, be a little experimental, and not just put out more and more of the same. Third Edition D&D became glutted with huge amounts of feats, spells, and prestige classes. Virtually every book seemed to be made up of mostly those three things. Later books started adding new base classes, but it was still more of the same. Only very late in 3.5’s time did the books start to try new things, but those tended to involve entire replacement systems (such as Magic of Incarnum or Tome of Battle) rather than things that simply gave new options for existing material. Pathfinder has had its share of new feats and spells as well, but virtually right from the start, Paizo began to pull back on the amount of prestige classes. Pathfinder may have started as a revision of D&D 3.5, but it very quickly began establishing an identity of its own by expanding the game in new and creative ways. The GameMastery Guide added things like haunts (originally from the Pathfinder Adventure Path series) and updated them to the new rules. The Advanced Player’s Guide introduced archetypes (which admittedly there has been a bit of a glut of since) as well as new rules options for any character, such as additional types of combat manoeuvres and traits.

Of course, the game is built upon certain expected tropes, and these haven’t been abandoned. There have been new classes (and while the added 3.5 classes tended to be “fixes” for existing classes, these have been completely new classes that expand the game instead of rewrite it), new feats, new spells, etc. And of course, there have been new monsters. Each fall since the release of the CoreRulebook, Paizo has released a Bestiaryuntil now (well, this fall does have the Inner Sea Bestiary, but that’s part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line). Last year saw the release of Bestiary 3. That makes three hardcover rulebooks full of monsters—hundreds of monsters. I’ve heard it said and seen it written that you can never have too many monsters, and in a sense that’s true. Monsters are fun, and the fun of seeing new creations and variations will never die out. They can be sources of inspiration as well, forming the bases for endless adventure ideas. But in another sense, it’s completely false. You really can have too many monsters. In the first three Bestiaries alone, there are more monsters than anyone can reasonably expect to use in a lifetime of gaming, and that’s not including the numerous new monsters added in Adventure Path volumes and various other sourcebooks.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Friend or Foe

In my reviews of Wizards Vs Aliens, I’ve commented on potential. In a young show, this is perhaps one of the most important things, as it’s that potential which might allow it to go on to do great things. In “Rebel Magic”, I felt the show was starting to realize some of its potential, as it started to develop the characters a little and build a bit on its own mythology. In the fourth story (seventh and eighth episodes), “Friend or Foe” by Clayton Hickman, this definitely continues. The story is really quite a delight with real character and story progression, and some truly heartwarming scenes. It’s still bombastic and fun with some nice touches of comedy, and it still has its over-the-top performances from Brian Blessed, joined this time by guest-star Ruthie Henshall. However, the show is starting to elevate beyond that without losing those qualities. It’s starting to change from a show to watch for mindless entertainment into one where you actually start to care about its characters. Perhaps the best thing about “Friend or Foe” is that you also start to care about one of the Nekross.


Monday 26 November 2012

The Science of Red Dwarf

I doubt many people would think that Red Dwarf, comedy that it is, would contain much in the way of real science. Science fiction as a whole tends to not contain much real science, so it's not surprising people would think this of a sitcom. Nonetheless, I've always noted that the show has a slightly more realistic approach to space travel than most other science fiction programmes out there. As such, I'm not surprised to learn that Doug Naylor put some thought into the science behind Red Dwarf (such as the design of the ship itself). In this interview, conducted by Robert Llewellyn (who plays Kryten on the show), Naylor discusses the science behind the series. It's an entertaining and informative, and I recommend watching it.

Friday 23 November 2012

Happy 49th Anniversary, Doctor Who

Doctor Who fan that I am, I didn't want to let this day go by without a comment (as I managed to let it go by last year). On this day in 1963, the BBC aired the very first episode of Doctor Who, "An Unearthly Child". Of course, my own introduction to the show came much later, as I wasn't born for another 10 years. I discussed my introduction to the show and my earliest memories of it in my review of The Sarah Jane Adventures episode, "Sky", so I won't repeat them here at this time (although I might do a more detailed write-up on the topic for the 50th anniversary next year). Suffice it to say, this show has been a major part of my life for a long time. While I've been very critical of the last couple years of the show, I still watch because I do still enjoy and love the show, and despite the problems I may think it has, I still consider it better than most other stuff out there.

And here's "The Great Detective", the prequel to this year's upcoming Christmas special, "The Snowmen". I'm not writing a full review of "The Great Detective" as it's too short and, more importantly, too incomplete. All it does it set the scene for the Christmas special. However, I will say that I enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to the "The Snowmen".


Thursday 22 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Rebel Magic

I’ve commented that I see a lot of potential in Wizards Vs Aliens. I enjoyed the opening story, “Dawn of the Nekross” immensely. Despite a few issues, it was fun and imaginative. I had a somewhat lower opinion of the following story, “Grazlax Attacks”. While I could still see the potential, it did a fairly typical second-story thing, which is to do nothing with that potential. I’m glad to say that with the third story, “Rebel Magic”, the show is starting to realize that potential. Oddly enough, the actual plot of “Rebel Magic” is quite unoriginal. It’s a pretty standard tale where the young hero is tempted down the wrong path by an irresponsible new arrival. Nonetheless, it manages to rise beyond this and present its oft-told tale in an engaging and satisfying way. It also looks a little more into the background of the principal characters, including some actual development of the individual Nekross characters, as well as new revelations about the nature of magic itself. There’s even a hint of darkness underlying the general fun style of the series. It’s not a perfect episode by any means, but the good in it certainly outweighs the bad, and it starts to provide the show with a direction as it starts to lay hints of thing to come (both subtle and in-your-face hints).


Tuesday 20 November 2012

Shattered Star - Curse of the Lady's Light

In Curse of the Lady’s Light by Mike Shel, the second instalment of the Shattered Star Adventure Path, the player characters set out to find the next piece of the titular Shattered Star, the Shard of Lust. This quest takes them to the Lady’s Light, an ancient monument to Sorshen, the Runelord of Lust. Like Shards of Sin before it and the rest of the adventure path still to come, it is primarily a dungeon-based adventure. As I mentioned in my review of Shards of Sin, I can be somewhat critical of dungeon crawls. However, when they’re good, I give them the praise they deserve. Curse of the Lady’s Light is definitely one of those good dungeon crawls. While the actual dungeon itself is somewhat linear, the events that can occur within are surprisingly non-linear, with a wide variety of options for how things might progress. Most importantly, it has a selection of interesting and compelling NPCs. In fact, its two principal villains are amongst the best villains I’ve seen in an adventure path instalment: one sympathetic and tragic, the other irredeemably evil yet uniquely insane. This adventure is definitely a step up from the competent, but not-particularly-awe-inspiring Shards of Sin and could prove a good sign for the rest of the adventure path to come.


Friday 16 November 2012

Wizards Vs Aliens - Grazlax Attacks

I was quite impressed by “Dawn of the Nekross”, the opening story of the new CBBC series, Wizards Vs Aliens. While I had a few reservations, I felt there was a lot of potential, and it was a great deal of fun. With the second story, “Grazlax Attacks”, I still see that potential. Alas, it has yet to realise itself. In many ways, “Grazlax Attacks” is a typical second episode (technically, it’s the third and fourth episode, but with the two-part structure for each story in the series, it behaves as a second episode), following patterns seen in many, many shows. The second episode is generally a “stand-alone”, light-hearted, doesn’t do a whole lot to advance the show in terms of character development or meta-plot, and pretty much leaves things exactly the way they were after the first episode. To a certain extent, it’s understandable why shows tend to follow this pattern. It allows audiences to become comfortable with the “status quo” of the series before introducing any significant changes or development. Unfortunately, it can also leave audiences with a feeling of, “Well, that was kind of nice, but the first one was better.” This is very much the case with “Grazlax Attacks”. There’s some very minor development of Tom and Benny, and we are introduced to Benny’s parents, but nothing of any real note happens in the story. It’s not bad, but overall, I’m left feeling rather indifferent about it. Like so many second episodes out there, if it had been the first story, I probably wouldn’t have continued watching.


Wednesday 14 November 2012

Murder's Mark

I’ve always liked adventures that do something a little different, ones that provide adventuring parties with something that transcends or even ignores the typical tropes associated with Dungeons and Dragons-style games. A well-made dungeon can be fun sometimes, but adventures that actually involve characters with the setting and don’t even go near a dungeon (or ruined castle or ancient caves or whatever large, indoor establishment you can come up with) are often better (assuming they’re well-designed, too). Murder’s Mark by Jim Groves is such an adventure. It’s a charming, low-level adventure centred around a Varisian circus and a murder mystery. It contains a wide assortment of well-detailed and interesting NPCs, each with their own motivations and goals, and lots of opportunity for roleplaying and setting immersion. There are surprisingly few fights in this adventure; however, there are numerous other things to keep the party’s attention and to keep them searching for the answers to the mystery. Alas, the adventure does has one significant problem that could completely ruin things if you have any rules lawyers in your group. However, if you have a group that is simply willing to go with the flow and not worry about a niggling rules detail, Murder’s Mark could make a great adventure to start a new campaign with.


Tuesday 13 November 2012

Red Dwarf X - The Beginning

Wow! What a great episode! In my reviews of the Red Dwarf X episodes, I’ve often commented something along the lines of, “While not the best Red Dwarf ever, it’s still a good episode.” I made a comment like this with the first episode, “Trojan”, and stated that it was a great start to the new series. With the final episode, I have to change the pattern. In this case, I would easily place it as one of the best Red Dwarf episodes ever, and, ironically, “The Beginning” is a great end to this year’s series. It has all the best aspects of Red Dwarf and none of the weaknesses: strong characterization, excellent performances, funny jokes that aren’t forced, and a good story that is excitingly paced. It’s definitely the best of Series X, and as I said, ranks among the best Red Dwarf of all time.


Friday 9 November 2012

Shattered Star - Shards of Sin

The current Shattered Star adventure path is a first for the Pathfinder Adventure Path series. It is the first “sequel” adventure path, the first to assume that any previous adventure paths have occurred. Paizo has been consistent in their stance not to have the game world constantly changed by the events of adventures, APs, or novels. This keeps the campaign setting accessible to new players. People can pick up the Inner Sea World Guide, read through it, and be able to use any published adventure with it, without discovering that everything’s changed and that they now need to pick up twenty other books to keep up with it. As such, all adventure paths have been stand-alones, not contradicting, but not assuming that the events of any other adventures paths have happened. The closest there has been to a sequel is Jade Regent, which reuses some characters (Ameiko and Shelelu) from Rise of the Runelords, but there is nothing about the AP that requires the earlier one to have happened. Maybe it did, or maybe it didn’t. It doesn’t affect Jade Regent in anyway. However, as part of the celebrations for the 10th anniversary of Paizo Publishing and the 5th anniversary of the Pathfinder brand, Shattered Star looks back to the past and becomes the first AP to break the trend and assume that a previous AP has occurred—and not just one previous AP, but three: Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, and Second Darkness, the first three adventure paths published in the Pathfinder Adventure Path series.

That said, Shattered Star is not intended to be run with the same characters as the three paths it follows on from (especially as none of those were meant to be played with the same characters either). Like all adventure paths, it begins with new, 1st-level heroes. As such, there’s no requirement to play through the earlier APs before playing through Shattered Star (although the players may come across some spoilers for those earlier APs), so even someone with no knowledge of the earlier adventures could easily pick up Shattered Star and start running it. Indeed, the links to those early APs in the first adventure, Shards of Sin, are pretty small. Only Rise of the Runelords is referenced directly, and then only to form the basis for why the PCs are setting off on their quest: to ensure that the world has protection should events similar to Rise of the Runelords ever happen again.

Another notable thing about Shattered Star is that, in a nod to the past and the origins of gaming, all six instalments are focused around dungeons. This is very much a dungeon-crawl AP. While there are dungeons in every adventure path, they are usually only the focus of one or two of the instalments. But just like every adventure path has a theme, the theme of Shattered Star is dungeons, and so every adventure focuses around a dungeon. All six instalments also take place in Varisia, which served as the location of the first three adventure paths, so another nod to the past.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Red Dwarf X - Dear Dave

I don’t have a whole lot to say about “Dear Dave”. It is the most inconsequential episode of Red Dwarf X so far (and with only more episode to go, probably of the whole series). I don’t say this as a bad thing. Not every episode can be deep and meaningful, and an inconsequential episode here and there can actually be fun. However, it does leave very little to discuss. It is a Lister-focused episode, with a minor subplot focused on Rimmer, but neither of the plots really explore anything new about the characters or develop them in any meaningful way. We get to see Lister trying to deal with the loss of the human race, but this is something he has always had to deal with, so it treads no new ground. “Dear Dave” is also the least-funny episode of Red Dwarf X so far (although there are a couple of hysterical moments), but conversely, it has the best performances from the cast so far this series. So, on the whole, I’d say it was a decent episode, but it’s not an episode that is likely to stand out as particularly memorable. This is perhaps deliberate so as not to overshadow the finale next week, but at the same time, it’s a little surprising. I would have expected a little more to help create hype for the finale. Whatever the case, I think “Dear Dave” ends up, as a result, the weakest episode of Series X.


Wizards Vs Aliens - Dawn of the Nekross

Wizards Vs Aliens is a new children’s series from creators Russell T Davies and Phil Ford, the same team behind The Sarah Jane Adventures. And it’s very much in the same vein as Sarah Jane: a small group of characters defend the Earth from evil threats, in this case, the alien Nekross. There are, of course, significant differences between Wizards Vs Aliens and Sarah Jane, notably the titular wizards, but the influence of the earlier series over the newer is quite clear and easily felt. It’s well known that Davies and Ford had plans for more Sarah Jane (at the very least, the remainder of the fifth series; it was only Elisabeth Sladen’s untimely death that ended the show when it did), and I suspect many of those plans have been given a slight facelift and shifted over into Wizards. Indeed, I can totally imagine Sarah Jane Smith delivering the speech that lead character Tom gives at the closing of part two of “Dawn of the Nekross”. It’s completely in the same style as numerous little speeches she gave in her own show. Indeed, the entire show seems at times almost like a tribute to Elisabeth Sladen.

I’m a great fan of The Sarah Jane Adventures—indeed, I think the fourth and fifth series of that show are better than the fifth and sixth series (which aired at roughly the same time) of its parent show, Doctor Who—and the similarities Aliens Vs Wizards has with Sarah Jane mean that I can’t help but like this show a great deal, too. It’s cheesy and over the top (even moreso than Sarah Jane), but it revels in that cheesiness with wonderfully bombastic performances by Brian Blessed and the other Nekross. It knows its premise is silly and absurd, and runs with it. Yet at the same time, it treats that absurdness with just enough seriousness to make it believable, wrapping the viewers in and making them care about the events. The characters might be a bit like caricatures at the moment, but there’s a lot of depth hinted at in the first two episodes that I have no doubt will develop over time.

The premise is simple: Wizards exist and have been secretly coexisting with the rest of humanity throughout all of history. Tom Clarke is a teenage wizard, who hasn’t quite learned responsibility yet (he still sneakily uses spells to do his homework or win football games). He finds himself caught up in an alien invasion. The aliens have come to drain the Earth of all its magic.


Wednesday 31 October 2012

Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition Player's Guide

With the release of the first instalment of each adventure path, Paizo has also released a short player’s guide. These guides provide players with some initial background, selections of campaign traits, and a variety of other things appropriate to the particular adventure path. The idea is to help players design characters that are suited to the adventure to come. With the early adventure paths, including Rise of the Runelords, the guides were printed books. Starting with Council of Thieves, the guides became pdf-only releases. The attractive part, however, was that they were free downloads. The new Rise of theRunelords Anniversary Edition Player’s Guide is in the style of these later guides, a free pdf download.

The original guide for Rise of the Runelords was somewhat different than all the guides that followed it. It was less a guide to Rise of the Runelords (indeed, it was called simply Pathfinder Player’s Guide on the cover, only mentioning Rise of the Runelords on the inside title page) than it was an introduction to Varisia and Golarion. Golarion was a brand new campaign setting at the time, and so this book needed to cover things like the gods and the domains offered, and race and class information. Obviously for the new Player’s Guide, details such as these are no longer necessary, so the book is free to deal a little more with the campaign itself. It includes long-sought-after campaign traits (traits had not yet been created when Rise of the Runelords first came out) and tips on the most useful skills to select. These are followed by a more extensive gazetteer of Varisia than the original Player’s Guide had.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Red Dwarf X - Entangled

With the latest episode, Red Dwarf X is now two-thirds over, and it continues along quite strongly. “Entangled” is an episode that focuses quite squarely on the crew, particularly on the relationship between Lister and Rimmer, but it’s really Kryten and, especially, Cat who steal the show. While some jokes are little too drawn out (particularly Rimmer ones), it’s a very funny episode with some absolutely hilarious moments involving Cat and Kryten being “quantum entangled”.


Disney buys out Lucasfilm

This is news that is probably spreading like wildfire across the net. Disney is buying out Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion (USD). A full press release can be found here. Star Wars: Episode VII is already being planned for 2015. According to IO9, Disney plans to make a new Star Wars film every two to three years.

I'm not really sure what to think of this. On the one hand, I think it's good that George Lucas is willing to pass on the baton. But of all the places to pass it to, Disney would not have been my first choice. Nor my second. Or third. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

Monday 29 October 2012

Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition

This year is the tenth anniversary of Paizo Publishing and the fifth anniversary of the Pathfinder Adventure Path. A lot has happened in both those time periods. Paizo began by taking over the publishing of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and at the time, many people mistakenly believed they were just another part of Wizards of the Coast (WotC). It was during their time publishing Dungeon that they began developing the concept of the “Adventure Path”, a series of linked adventures that spanned an entire campaign. Three full adventure paths were published in Dungeon before WotC decided not to renew Paizo’s license (later learned to be in preparation for the then forthcoming 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons): Shackled City, Age of Worms, and Savage Tide. The adventure paths were successful enough that, when it came time for Paizo to decide what it was going to do when it could no longer publish Dragon and Dungeon, they decided to take the adventure path concept and expand it into its own full publication. And thus the Pathfinder Adventure Path was born.

Although still a periodical, Paizo abandoned the magazine format and published the Pathfinder Adventure Path under the Open Gaming License (OGL) as a full book in its own right. Each instalment was bigger and more detailed than the individual instalments in the Dungeon adventure paths. However, instead of spreading out each adventure path over twelve instalments like in Dungeon, they decreased the count to six instalments, allowing them to publish two full adventure paths per year. The first of these was Rise of the Runelords, and its first instalment was Burnt Offerings.

It was an interesting time for people like me. I had been a long-time buyer of Dragon (since the late 80’s/early 90’s) and in the last couple of years (since Paizo had taken over) had started buying Dungeon as well. However, for most of those years, I had never actually subscribed. While I bought the majority of issues off the shelf, I had always wanted the option to skip an issue if it didn’t appeal to me (that and producing the funds, even with the subscription discount, for a full year or more of issues all at once was an intimidating task at the time). But when Dragon came under Paizo’s control, I started to notice that I was buying every issue, not just most issues, and I had even started buying Dungeon, which had never impressed me before then, but I now considered better than Dragon. So I finally decided to subscribe. Then, only a few months later, Paizo announced that their licence had not been renewed and that the magazines would be ending—well before my subscriptions ran out.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Give a Scary Book for Hallowe'en!

I commented briefly on this great Hallowe’en tradition last year (okay, so it’s only been around for a couple of years and is mostly unknown, so it doesn’t really count as a tradition—yet), but thought I should draw attention to it again, as Hallowe’en is approaching once more. All Hallow’s Read is basically about giving someone a scary book for Hallowe’en. As Neil Gaiman explains in the introductory video, this isn’t meant to replace candy. It’s simply giving somebody you know (or don’t know) a scary book, any scary book (although it’s best to choose a book appropriate for the person you’re giving it to). It’s just a little way to help circulate more books in a day and age when the internet dominates our entertainment.

Learn more at the All Hallow’s Read website and help spread the word!

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Red Dwarf X - Lemons

While the previous two Red Dwarf X episodes each focused primarily on one of the crew (“Trojan” on Rimmer and “Fathers and Suns” on Lister), this week’s episode, “Lemons” is more of an ensemble piece, with each of the main cast getting more-or-less equal screen time (although Cat probably gets the least). The character focus of this story is instead on the episode’s guest star, making for a bit of a change of pace from the previous two stories, made especially so by the fact that this is the first episode of Series X to have some fairly serious social commentary going on in it as well. The episode is a bit slow to start, with a few forced jokes, but once it gets into full swing, it’s very entertaining and quite funny—not as fall-out-of-your-chair funny as I found “Trojan”, but still funny enough to leave me quite pleased by the episode as a whole.


Friday 19 October 2012

Jade Regent - The Empty Throne

In Jade Regent, the PCs have set out from their home in Sandpoint, a small town in southern Varisia, trekked north with their caravan to Kalsgard in the Linnorm Kingdoms, then ventured across the frozen Crown of the World to the continent of Tian Xia, crossed through the Forest of Spirits, and arrived in Minkai, the homeland of Ameiko Kaijitsu’s family. Now, having gathered allies, they must set out for the capital city, Kasai, to overthrow the Jade Regent and place Ameiko, the rightful heir, on the throne, in The Empty Throne, the sixth and final instalment of the Jade Regent Adventure Path. Written by Neil Spicer, the adventure has the unenviable task of wrapping up an entire campaign with a suitably epic conclusion, whilst simultaneously allowing for the possibility of more should individual gaming groups wish to continue with their characters. Overall, it manages this pretty well, especially given the difficulties high-level adventures can present to designers. Gaming groups who have played through the entire adventure path will likely find this conclusion exciting, thrilling, and most importantly, satisfying. While the adventure isn’t perfect, few things are, and players aren’t likely to notice its imperfections, especially in the hands of a skilled GM.


Monday 15 October 2012

Red Dwarf X - Fathers and Suns

The tenth series of Red Dwarf got off to a great start with “Trojan”, heralding a triumphant return of the show. Unfortunately, the second episode, “Fathers and Suns”, does not live up to the heights of the first. That’s not to say it’s a bad episode. It deals with some clever and funny concepts, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, while I laughed, it didn’t have me in stitches the way “Trojan” did. Nonetheless, I still think Red Dwarf X is off to a very good start indeed, and I remain eager to see the remaining episodes.


Friday 12 October 2012

Doctor Who - P.S.

People who have been following my Doctor Who reviews will know that my favourite new addition this year is the character of Brian Williams, Rory’s father. Although he was only in two episodes, he added an immense amount of humanity to the story of Amy and Rory, a story I’ve been very critical of. I still feel strongly that he is a character who should have been included in the show ages ago, but at least we got him towards the end of Amy and Rory’s time. After Amy and Rory’s departure in “The Angels Take Manhattan”, I was left somewhat disappointed that Brian had received no closure and isn’t even mentioned in the episode. However, the BBC have now released a short unfilmed scene titled simply “P.S.” It is a collection of story boards with some written narration and a voice-over by Arthur Darvill, who plays Rory. Written by Chris Chibnall, who wrote the two stories in which Brian appears, the scene provides that needed sense of closure for the character. For people who haven’t seen it, I’ve included the scene here so you can watch it before reading the rest of my response (although there’s not really much in the way of spoilers anyway).

Simply put, this would have been a beautiful scene, and I really wish it had been filmed. After “The Angels Take Manhattan”, I didn’t really expect to see any follow-up on Brian in the show. Although I really hoped that maybe some future episode would look in on him, it’s just not in the style of the series at the moment to follow up on secondary characters like this. The release of this scene in this format pretty much cements that Brian will never appear on the show again, but at least he has some closure now.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Red Dwarf X - Trojan

I’ve been a fan of Red Dwarf ever since I first discovered it playing on YTV in the early 90’s here in Canada. It was a brilliant mix of science fiction, great characters, and absolutely hilarious comedy. The fact that it was a science fiction comedy series when science fiction comedies were extremely rare (they still are) certainly helped make it stand out, but it had much more going for it that made it unique: the last human alive, travelling with a very small band of misfits, three million years away from Earth. I was hooked right away.

The series went through a number of changes through its original eight years. Series I and II had the feel of a standard sitcom that just happened to take place on a spaceship in deep space. While there were many science fiction elements, the focus was very squarely on the relationships between the characters of Lister, Rimmer, and Cat. Series III began making the science fiction elements more overt and upped the slapstick and silliness factors considerably. It also added the android Kryten to the main cast. The next few years kept to much the same pattern, although even so, there were changes, such as the gradual fading out of the computer, Holly, and the complete loss of Red Dwarf itself in Series VI. In general, Series III through VI are the most highly regarded by fans (although I and II certainly have their defenders, too). It is certainly true that some of the best and funniest episodes (like “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”) come from that period, although the same could be said of some of the worst (“Meltdown” comes to mind).

Sunday 7 October 2012

Dragon Empires Primer and Dragon Empires Gazetteer

Since the earliest days of roleplaying games, gamers have been fascinated by Asian settings, particularly Japanese settings with ninja and samurai. Even though its default setting was based on mediaeval Europe, that didn’t stop first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons from including monks as one of the classes—not European-style cloistered monks, but rather “kung fu monks”, capable of amazing feats of martial arts. It wasn’t long before the publication of Oriental Adventures, a sourcebook which introduced samurai, ninja, and several other Asian-inspired classes to the game, along with the setting of Kara Tur (later added to the Forgotten Realms setting). Since then, Asian settings have continued to be popular and debates have raged about whether the samurai should have its own class or if it’s just another form of fighter. Numerous games and settings from various companies have appeared (and disappeared) in the market. Even the original Oriental Adventures eventually reappeared, revised and updated to 3rd edition D&D.

When Paizo released the first Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes,they began developing their new campaign setting, the world of Golarion. Even though those earliest volumes were set in Varisia, they already contained hints of a far-off land called Tian-Xia. One of the major NPCs in Sandpoint, the home town of the very first volume, was Ameiko Kaijitsu, whose family originated in that distant land. As the campaign setting developed, Tian-Xia received occasional brief mentions, including a brief description in Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting (and its later revision as the Inner Sea World Guide). Last year, however, Paizo returned to the seeds planted in the earliest Adventure Path volumes with the release of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, which took PCs across the Crown of the World to Tian-Xia and Ameiko’s homeland of Minkai. Shortly after, they also released Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Dragon Empires Gazetteer, and then Pathfinder Player Companion: Dragon Empires Primer, both books providing the first extensive detail on Tian-Xia.

Friday 5 October 2012

Jade Regent - Tide of Honor

In Tide of Honor by Tito Leati, the fifth instalment of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, the PCs finally arrive in Minkai, the country of their destination. There they need to begin gathering allies to help them overthrow the Jade Regent and place the rightful heir, Ameiko, on the Jade Throne. Tide of Honor is something of a change in style for the adventure path. What has been primarily a journey from one point to another now starts to set up a home base. Instead of fighting clearly defined enemies blocking their way, the PCs must now engage in a significant amount of diplomacy to win the trust and assistance of people who might be willing to help them, or might not. There are still obvious enemies to fight, but there are also a number of people who could go either way or just remain neutral. There’s a great deal of roleplaying potential in the adventure, more so than any of the previous instalments (with the possible exception of Night of Frozen Shadows), and for groups who prefer that sort of thing, I think this adventure has the potential to be one of the most enjoyable and memorable of the entire adventure path. However, for groups who prefer a more combat-oriented approach, there’s still lots to keep them happy, and GMs can easily gloss over the diplomacy stuff in such cases.

For the first time in Jade Regent, PCs are able to start taking real control of their destinies. Up until now, they’ve been following a trail laid out for them, defeating enemies sent to stop them, and making the occasional blow against the main enemy, but for the most part, they haven’t had a lot of say in what they needed to do. They had missions to complete and a destination to reach, and that was it. There have been rewards along the way, but by the end of the fourth adventure, some groups might be starting to feel a little railroaded. This adventure is sure to change that as the ball starts to move very firmly into the PCs’ court. Naturally, there are still missions to complete and enemies to defeat, but this time, the PCs have a lot more choice in how they approach the missions and what order they complete them in.


Thursday 4 October 2012

Doctor Who - The Angels Take Manhattan

When the weeping angels first appeared in Doctor Who in “Blink”, they were an instant hit. And not surprisingly. They were one of the most inventive and original new alien races to appear on the programme. While never speaking a word or making any sound at all and while literally just standing there, they left viewers with an incredible sense of dread. The idea of things that only move when you’re not looking was downright terrifying. The simple phrase, “Don’t blink,” suddenly took on a terribly ominous quality. For very good reason, “Blink” was widely regarded as a masterpiece, and many fans still consider it one of the best (if not the best) Doctor Who episodes ever.

It was inevitable that they would return. And return they did two years later in the two-part story, “Time of the Angels”/”Flesh and Stone”. It was also inevitable that any such return would eventually weaken the concept, and that happened perhaps faster than might have been expected. “Time of the Angels” did well building on the mythology while not contradicting it, but in “Flesh and Stone”, the rules started changing. Suddenly, the fact that the angels freeze when observed (described in “Time of the Angels” as an involuntary quantum lock, something part of the very nature of the angels) became something that could be “fooled”. As long as you could convince the angels you could see them, even if you couldn’t, they would freeze. And so we got blind Amy walking amongst dozens of angels trying to convincingly look as if she could see them. She was not in the least convincing, and yet the angels remained frozen until she tripped. On top of that, suddenly the angels could see each other without freezing. The entire resolution of “Blink” centred around the fact that the angels couldn’t even look at each other, thus why they spend most of their time with their hands over their eyes, yet in “Flesh and Stone”, there are entire swarms of them moving in sight of one another, yet not freezing. (I’ll ignore for the moment the directorial decision to show them moving to the viewers. “Blink” was much more effective for not doing that, but this is something that doesn’t really affect them “in-world”.)

Now, the weeping angels have returned for Amy and Rory’s swansong in “The Angels Take Manhattan”. The episode manages to regain the oppressive and ominous atmosphere of “Blink” (a very good thing) while maintaining the plotholes of “Flesh and Stone” (a not-so-good thing). It has some very effective sequences and some genuinely chilling moments, along with good performances and some genuine emotion, but in the end gets bogged down by its plot gimmick, that of the overused sci-fi cliché of the time loop and the predestined future, resulting in a story where characters do things for no real reason other than “they’re supposed to”. What could have been a very powerful episode ends up something of a let-down in the end.


Is Doctor Who a Religion?

While I don't think I would ever describe it as a religion myself, this is a great video, and I felt it important to pass it along.

Monday 1 October 2012

Artifacts & Legends

Since the earliest days of Dungeons and Dragons, there have been magic items with powers well beyond what most magic items have. Known as artifacts, these items have often become focal points of entire campaigns. Player characters have taken on grand quests to acquire or destroy one or more of them. Many are now considered an iconic part of the game and hold a special place in the memories and hearts of gamers everywhere. Nonetheless, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game has not done a lot with artifacts so far. The Core Rulebook contains stats for many of the most famous (open content) ones, and some Golarion sourcebooks have introduced a few Golarion-specific artifacts (some with more information than others), but with Artifacts & Legends, the Pathfinder RPG takes its first concerted look at these world-changing and game-changing items.

At first glance, one might wonder about the “& Legends” part of the title as, apart from a brief introduction on “Artifacts in Your Game”, the book is packed front-to-back with descriptions of artifacts. There’s no section of the book on legends. However, on closer examination, it becomes clearer that the legends are the artifacts themselves. After all, these are items that spawn tales about them all across the game world, and so the full title of Artifacts and Legends is most apt for this book.