Friday 28 September 2012

Knights of the Inner Sea

The latest release in the Pathfinder Player Companion line of supplements, Knights of the Inner Sea provides players with an overview of what they need to create characters who either are, or are destined to become, knights. It contains information on the most prominent knightly orders in the Inner Sea region of Golarion, their mandates and backgrounds, along with character roles, traits, new magic items, and even a few new spells. It’s important to be aware that, if players are looking for an in-depth treatise about a specific knightly order (including detailed hierarchical structures, lists of prominent commanders and other characters, lists of outpost locations, etc.), they won’t find it here. However, what they will find in Knights of the Inner Sea is a plethora of starting points from which to develop interesting character ideas, along with options for developing those characters throughout their careers (with things such as the new Squire feat). In this manner, Knights of the Inner Sea is a successful and extremely useful book for anyone who wants to create a knight from the Inner Sea region.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Jade Regent - Forest of Spirits

The fourth volume of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, Forest of Spirits brings the player characters onto the continent of Tian Xia, and ever closer to their final destination of Minkai. But naturally, there are delays and obstructions that they must deal with along the way. Overall, Forest of Spirits looks to be a fun adventure, with moments of light-heartedness early on, followed by an opportunity for the PCs to make their first major strike against the central villains of the entire adventure path. Like the previous instalment, The Hungry Storm, it is very much a travel-from-point-A-to-point-B adventure, but unlike The Hungry Storm, it handles it in such a way as to give a greater sense of purpose to the PCs’ actions by tying it much more thematically to the land in which it’s set and by providing the PCs with a greater sense of accomplishment and resolution.


Tuesday 25 September 2012

Doctor Who - The Power of Three

I’m feeling a lot better about Doctor Who at the moment. Last week’s episode, “A Town Called Mercy”, brought back some of the magic I’ve felt has been missing recently. And it’s stuck around into this week as well. I’ve frequently been critical of Chris Chibnall’s scripts, but with “The Power of Three”, he’s delivered his best Doctor Who story yet, on par with his later Torchwood episodes like “Exit Wounds” and far better than his recent “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”. “The Power of Three” is not a perfect episode, but its strengths (the story of the Ponds’ lives and the effect the Doctor has had on them, as well as their effect on him) far outweigh its flaws (the rather weak resolution). It’s a great character story that finally provides some logical and needed development for Amy and Rory, while at the same time paying tribute to one of Doctor Who’s most beloved characters through the first televised introduction of one of that character’s closest relatives. In short, this is a wonderful gem of an episode only marginally let down by its weak ending.


Sunday 23 September 2012

Paths of Prestige

During the lifespan of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the game was inundated with swarms upon swarms of prestige classes. While the initial concept of prestige classes was innovative and made a great addition to the game, the sheer number that eventually became available lessened their very “prestige”. Many became extremely generic, while others filled such obscure niches that it was unlikely anyone would ever want to play one. Worst of all, many of them just became more powerful versions of the core classes, granting new, powerful abilities while at the same time continuing to grant all the abilities of the core class they were best suited for (spellcasting prestige classes fell frequently into this trap). As a result, many gamers (myself included) began to tire of them and, ultimately, ignore them.

With Pathfinder, Paizo has steered clear of the prestige class “bloat”, taking the stance that prestige classes should be tied specifically to a campaign setting and represent unique abilities of organizations and factions within that campaign world. As such, the rulebook line has presented very few prestige classes (only the Core Rulebook and the Advanced Player’s Guide have any), focusing instead on archetypes that can fit any setting. Golarion-specific products in the Campaign Setting, Player’s Companion, or Adventure Path lines have presented occasional prestige classes when appropriate to help flesh out the world, but the number has remained relatively small. With Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Paths of Prestige, Paizo has produced its first full book of prestige classes, thirty of them in total, all of them brand new for the world of Golarion.

Friday 21 September 2012

Jade Regent - The Hungry Storm

In every adventure path, there always seems to be at least one volume that doesn’t live up to the quality of the others. For Jade Regent, that volume is The Hungry Storm. It’s a shame because this was one I was particularly looking forward to (I’ve always liked adventures set in the far north and I was particularly eager to see its treatment of the Erutaki, Golarion’s version of the Inuit). There are a lot of good ideas in it, and it’s the first one so far to make heavy use of the caravan, around which the adventure path is supposed to centre. However, those ideas are either not given enough depth or they just don’t string together well. The Hungry Storm is not a bad adventure—I’ve certainly seen far worse ones out there—but it’s not particularly great either. It’s somewhat mediocre overall, and when compared with the two excellent opening volumes, mediocre really stands out. That said, I do believe that in the hands of a competent GM, this adventure can still be a lot of fun for the players, who may not even notice its shortcomings.

The biggest difficulty The Hungry Storm has to deal with is the fact that it is a journey-from-point-A-to-point-B adventure. I both love and loathe these kinds of adventures. I love them because I like seeing the characters outside their home turf and how they react to situations there (and this, when it comes down to it, is the basis of the entire Jade Regent Adventure Path). I loathe them because it’s very difficult to string a coherent narrative across them since the PCs can easily wander quite far afield. Indeed, sometimes it’s better to not bother with a narrative at all and just let the PCs explore. However, to do that in a published adventure just results in a clone of The Isle of Dread transplanted to a different climate. That sort of thing has been done a hundred times before and doesn’t really need to be done again. So The Hungry Storm tries to include a central narrative. As a whole, Jade Regent has been doing quite well stringing out a coherent narrative over what is essentially a journey-from-point-A-to-point-B campaign. Unfortunately, The Hungry Storm on its own doesn’t manage this nearly as well.


Thursday 20 September 2012

Doctor Who - A Town Called Mercy

Simply wonderful.

There’s been a lot of negativity in my recent Doctor Who reviews, so I wanted to make it clear up front just how much I love this episode. It has everything it needs: an intelligent script, fleshed-out sympathetic characters, great performances, and emotional resonance. “A Town Called Mercy” by Toby Whithouse is Doctor Who at its best. The only other episode as good as this in the last two years is Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife” from last year. For the first time in ages, I was utterly enthralled while watching this episode, and having just watched it a second time before writing this review, I remain on an absolute high. Welcome back, Doctor Who!


Tuesday 18 September 2012

Viking Says Yes to Gay YA

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a post on the representation of Minority Characters in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. It was primarily in response to authors Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith's attempts to find an agent for their post-apocalyptic young adult novel and how they had been asked to either make a gay character straight or drop the character from the novel entirely as a condition for the agent to represent the novel. Well, according to this post on Genreville, the authors have successfully sold their novel to Viking Press--without having to edit the character's sexual orientation. The book, entitled Stranger, is scheduled for winter 2014.

Varisia, Birthplace of Legends

The Pathfinder Player Companion line of books has been a bit hit-and-miss at times. Some of the early entries (before Player was added to the line’s title) seemed uncertain whether they were intended for players or GMs, and almost all of them have been limited by a layout format that worked for some but not for others. I’ve liked many of the books in the line (Gnomes of Golarion is one of my personal favourites), but Varisia, Birthplace of Legends elevates it well beyond anything that has come before. It débuts a new format, one that is more flexible and better-suited to conveying the information the book needs to convey. It is a book that will be a must-have for any player (and GM) about to embark on a campaign set in Varisia or just creating a character who comes from Varisia.

Monday 17 September 2012

Doctor Who - Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

There are great Doctor Who episodes and awful ones, others that fall somewhere in between, and some that are a combination and average out as mediocre. Chris Chibnall’s scripts tend to be in the latter category (although his later Torchwood episodes are pretty good). “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” follows that trend, though in a way that is perhaps more infuriating than usual, making it very hard to classify. On the one hand, it is full of absolutely brilliant concepts, some stunning visuals, and even a wonderful new character. Yet on the other hand, it’s all held together rather flimsily, with a cartoonish villain, two dull and superfluous characters, and a couple of very clumsy attempts to be deadly serious in the midst of an otherwise slapstick adventure.

Good? Bad? I suppose I’m stuck with averaging it out at mediocre, but I’m not sure even that’s a satisfactory decision.


Sunday 16 September 2012

Doctor Who - Asylum of the Daleks

My earliest memory of Doctor Who involves the Daleks. It is from the Jon Pertwee story, “Day of the Daleks”, the moment when the Daleks exterminate the Controller for betraying them. His last words as the Daleks screech “Exterminate!” are, “Who knows? Maybe I’ve just helped to exterminate you.” That scene had a very powerful effect on me. It scared the living daylights out of me! For quite some time, Doctor Who and the Daleks became synonymous with horror as far as I was concerned. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I saw that episode. The story was made in 1972 (a year before I was born), but TV Ontario (which was the most likely station I saw it on while my mom was watching it, although it might have been a PBS station) at the time was generally a couple years behind in broadcasting the series, and then would repeat stories yet another couple years later, so in all likelihood, I was around three or four years old.

I find it interesting to compare the responses people have to the Daleks. In my experience (which I know doesn’t really count as a conclusive survey of all viewers, but bear with me), people introduced to Doctor Who as children (such as myself or a few of my friends) were terrified by the Daleks and today, although not so terrified anymore, consider the Daleks as the iconic adversaries of the Doctor, brilliant and awesome. People introduced to Doctor Who as adults (such as my wife) think the Daleks are laughable, dull, and utterly un-scary, and are sick to death of them showing up over and over again (although this is actually now their first appearance in two years).

In recent years, there has been some criticism amongst even the most hardened Dalek fans that the Daleks have lost a lot of their scare factor. Although the Dalek stories of the Russel T Davies years were epic in scope, with modern special effects finally allowing massive Dalek armies to appear on screens, there is valid criticism that the Daleks were too easily defeated. Huge armies look great, but they have to be stopped, so they are all wiped out...only to return next time with a bigger army and a bigger plan...then get wiped out again. The Daleks’ last appearance in “Victory of the Daleks” was meant to reverse that trend somewhat, by allowing the Daleks to not get wiped out at the end. Unfortunately, fans did not respond well to “Victory of the Daleks”. The story was poor, the characters nothing but caricatures (especially the Santa Claus version of Winston Churchill), and the new design of the Daleks themselves was horrible.

In the season’s opener, “Asylum of the Daleks”, Steven Moffat promised to return the scare factor to the Daleks, to return their chills and thrills, and to make viewers want to hide behind the sofa once more. Has he succeeded? I think for children, without a doubt. For more critical adults, perhaps not so much. There are definitely some chilling moments in this episode, some thrills and excitement, and an excellent performance from its surprise guest star. Overall, I’d have to say the episode works. It’s far from perfect and there are some significant issues with it, but I did enjoy it. It’s without doubt a step up from many recent episodes (particularly the dreadful Christmas special), and it makes a decent season opener.


Doctor Who - The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe

I’m a bit late with this one (it aired last Christmas), but I felt it was important not to miss reviewing any episodes now that I’ve managed to get this blog up and running again. Doctor Who is an important part of my life, and that should be reflected in this blog. It’s a shame this particular episode is just so downright poor.

As a Christmas episode, it has to be given a certain amount of leeway. The Christmas episodes are made for a slightly different audience (considerably more people tune into the Christmas specials on average than the regular series episodes). This audience has different expectations. In general, the Christmas audience is looking for something a little lighter, with more comedy, more “fluff”, and more sentimentality. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, written by Steven Moffat, certainly delivers these things, but it does so in a way devoid of interesting plot or characters. I get the impression that Steven Moffat was responding to criticisms that 2010’s special, “A Christmas Carol” (which I thought was brilliant), was too complex for a Christmas Day audience and ended up going too far in simplifying this year's special.

When I first watched the episode last December, I was left feeling incredibly unsatisfied in a way that I’m still not really used to with Doctor Who (even though it seems to be happening more and more often). Right away, I considered it the weakest of all Christmas specials to date, and one of the weakest episodes of the series ever. I had hoped to get this blog going again around that time, so I started thinking about how I would review it, and as I plotted the words, I began to wonder whether I was being too harsh. Maybe a faulty memory and sense of nostalgia was elevating the quality of previous years in my mind. So I decided to rewatch a previous Christmas special that I had not seen in ages, 2008’s “The Next Doctor”. I had always considered “The Next Doctor” one of the weakest Christmas specials, but my memory still rated it higher than “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”, so it seemed the ideal one to double-check. Part of me truly expected to discover that, in comparison, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” really wasn’t that bad. I was wrong. The two episodes are roughly the same length, yet so much more happens in “The Next Doctor” despite still having an uncomplicated plot. It has fully fleshed-out characters who are real and believable, and not the caricatures of “Wardrobe”.

As it’s been nine months since “Wardrobe” aired, I rewatched it before writing this review, and I naturally wondered if maybe the gap in time might make me appreciate it a little more. Alas, my opinion has not changed.


Back from the Dead

Okay, I wasn't really dead, but I might as well have been for people checking in on this blog. At any rate, I'm back now, and I'm back to stay. I'm pleased to see that I've actually gained followers in my long absence. I certainly hope the wait has been worth it.

The reasons for my absence are long and personal, so I won't be going into them here at this time. However, I do apologize to any of you still checking in.

I will shortly be posting a couple of new Doctor Who reviews, including a long belated review of the Christmas special, "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe". Over the next week or two, I'll be getting caught up on the most recent episodes, as well as a bunch of Pathfinder reviews, an essay or two on social concerns within media, and anything else that I happen to feel is relevant to this blog.

So, without any further ado, on with the show...