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.