Wednesday 31 July 2013

July Round-Up and 2 Short Reviews

And so, another month has come and gone. July was my most productive month for the blog in some time. I mentioned last month that I had fallen behind on Pathfinder reviews. This month, I began the task of getting caught up with reviews of Chronicle of the Righteous, We Be Goblins Too!, Rasputin Must Die!, Fey Revisited, Kobolds of Golarion, and Quests & Campaigns. There’s still quite a bit more to get through, but it’s a good start. Next up is a review of Castles of the Inner Sea. Expect that in the next day or two.

On top of those Pathfinder reviews, I also delved into reviews of the latest releases for the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space game. Two of them, The Time Traveller’s Companion and Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, were first announced a few years ago and finally saw release in the last few months. Luckily, they were well worth the wait. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with The First Doctor Sourcebook and that has dampened my enthusiasm for getting any of the books dealing with the other Doctors (of which The Second Doctor Sourcebook is already available). If I do eventually get them, I’ll review them here, but it may be a long wait.

Outside of roleplaying reviews, there wasn’t a lot happening this month. No television reviews. I haven’t been watching anything recently. There are several things I do want to check out (particularly Orphan Black) but I just haven’t had the time, unfortunately.

Even though I’m not primarily a news site, I do occasionally report news that catches my interest. This month there was the intriguing news that the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special is going to be simulcast worldwide. There was also the opening of the York Maze, which this year is shaped like a Dalek. Finally, there was the first preview of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new Cosmos series. Carl Sagan’s original is a brilliant work, and I am eagerly looking forward to this new one.

My reviews on this site tend to be quite in-depth. I like to look at every aspect (well, as many as possible) of things and critically analyse them to best of my ability. However, this does take time and it means that some things I might like to review I end up not reviewing because I just can’t fit them into my schedule. So I’ve decided, every once in a while, to write a few short, quick reviews and gather them into one post, just to draw people’s attention to their existence. I thought I’d start with a look at a couple of RPG periodicals that I find particularly good and useful.

First up is Wayfinder. This free fanzine is published biannually under the Pathfinder Community Use Policy. The most recent issue, #9, was released earlier this month. The magazine is made by Paizo Fans United and bills itself as a “Pathfinder Fanzine made by Fans for Fans”. Although it’s fan-produced, it often has forewords or even articles written by Paizo staff and/or writers. Each issue contains a staggering array of articles, new optional rules ideas, and short adventures, as well as fiction and artwork. The latest issue focuses on the Darklands of Golarion and contains things like new drow magic items, the secretkeeper prestige class, and more. As with any publication with a large number of authors, there is some variability in the quality of different articles, but for the most part, articles are well-written and enjoyable.

For players and gamemasters (primarily gamemasters) of any of the various Doctor Who roleplaying games, there is the Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games published by the Earthbound Timelords. This fanzine often contains reviews of Doctor Who merchandise as well as convention reports. However, its main focus is on adventures and gamemaster advice for roleplaying in the worlds of Doctor Who. All three Doctor Who games (FASA’s game from the 80’s, Virgin’s Time Lord, and the latest game from Cubicle 7) get attention in the magazine with most articles providing stats for all three versions. The FASA game does tend to get a little more attention, as the authors and publishers have long-lasting campaigns dating back to when the FASA game was the only one available and thus have done a lot of work of their own on that game. Nevertheless, the fact that Doctor Who games tend to be more narrative-based than mechanics-based means that just about everything is easily used with any version of the game.

Every issue contains several adventures, some fully detailed and some shorter synopses that GMs can expand as they please. The more detailed adventures often fall into the trap that a lot of Doctor Who roleplaying adventures fall into—that of assuming certain outcomes to various events. I’ve run a few of their adventures in the past, and I’ve found the best ones are often the less-detailed ones since there’s more leeway there for players going off in all sorts of unexpected directions. Nevertheless, one thing all the adventures are great for is providing creative ideas and concepts.

Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games used to come out roughly once every month. However, the last few issues have had very long delays. There was a four-month gap between issues 18 and 19, and then a nine-month gap before the most recent issue 20 came out this month. Until 20 showed up out of the blue, I had actually pretty much given up hope that there would be any more issues. I’m not sure what this means regarding the frequency of future issues. However, all twenty currently existing issues are still available for free download and I highly recommend them.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Quests & Campaigns

The publication of Ultimate Campaign in May opened up a wide variety of new options for gaming, from tables to help players detail their characters’ backgrounds to a complete downtime system for determining what characters do when they’re not adventuring, not to mention the kingdom building and mass combat rules. All of these are things that have only had the barest of attention (if any) paid to them in the past. But Ultimate Campaign is a generic supplement, meant to be usable with any campaign world, whether published or homebrew. As such, it is easily usable as-is with the world of Golarion. However, some people may be looking for a Golarion-specific spin to the rules and options in Ultimate Campaign and that’s where Quests & Campaigns comes in.

Quests & Campaigns is a very handy companion book to Ultimate Campaign. However, I should note that it will be of minimal use to people who don’t own or use Ultimate Campaign. While there is some material that doesn’t rely on the systems in Ultimate Campaign, many of the new feats, spells, and magic items in the book specifically affect things from the downtime, kingdom building, or mass combat rules. Those who use Ultimate Campaign, though, will find Quests & Campaigns an excellent companion.

Friday 26 July 2013

Kobolds of Golarion

Kobolds have always been one of my favourite “low-level” monsters. There’s something appealing about small, physically weak creatures that succeed through cunning and sheer force of numbers. And despite their status of being adversaries for low-level parties, it’s also possible to slap a few class levels onto them once in a while and challenge higher-level groups, making them quite versatile monsters. So it was with some anticipation that I opened up Kobolds of Golarion and dove right in.

I have to say that Kobolds of Golarion is a delight to read. It’s both informative and entertaining. It provides an illuminating insight into the kobold mindset and society, while also providing a wide range of new options for kobold characters, many of which can easily be used with non-kobolds as well. As a Player Companion, the book is unsurprisingly geared towards options for using kobolds as player characters, but the material is equally usable for NPCs, making this an extremely useful resource for GMs too, even GMs who aren’t fond of the idea of players running monster races as characters. These new options take the form of archetypes, traits, feats, spells, and so on. Most importantly, the book is loaded with new options for traps—the things kobolds are well known for being masters at creating.

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special to be Simulcast Worldwide

The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special will air on November 23rd and people around the world will all be able to see it at exactly the same time regardless of where they are. The exact time of the broadcast is not yet known, but it will presumably be somewhere in the vicinity of 7 p.m. in the UK (a typical Doctor Who broadcast time). This means viewers in North America will see it around midday to early afternoon and viewers in Australia and New Zealand will see it early in the morning on the 24th.

Both the Radio Times and the Doctor Who News Page are reporting that the episode has been sold to 200 countries (edit July 28: the Doctor Who News Page has removed the reference to 200 countries). There's something a bit odd about that number since it quite possibly exceeds the total number of countries in the world (the exact number of countries can vary depending on the criteria used to count them, but commonly accepted values put the number around 195 or 196). I suspect there has been an error somewhere in the reporting and that 200 should probably be somewhat smaller. Whatever the case, this looks set to be the biggest drama simulcast in history, potentially reaching more than 100 million viewers.

I'm really quite stunned. Just ten years ago, I would never have dreamt Doctor Who could become such a massive phenomenon. It's still hard to wrap my head around it even now. Here's to the next 50 years!

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Fey Revisited

As part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting books, there’s a line of periodic Revisited books. From the first one, Classic Monsters Revisited, to the more recent Mystery Monsters Revisited, this series looks in detail at a selection of monsters related by a specific theme. Each of the books seeks to add new insight and sometimes even redefine its subject creatures. Classic Monsters Revisited, for example, introduced Pathfinder’s take on goblins, and that take has gone on to become an iconic part of the game. Misfit Monsters Redeemed (slightly different title, but essentially part of this series of books) managed to take ten of the most ridiculous monsters in the game and make them both interesting and playable, and more importantly, viable threats to put in PCs’ way.

While I’ve generally considered all of the Revisited books to be excellent resources (particularly for games that heavily feature creatures from a particular Revisited book), the most recent one, Fey Revisited, is something of a disappointment. As the title suggests, this book focuses on ten kinds of fey. The book is designed and formatted in much the same style as previous Revisited books, but what’s lacking here is content. Sure, there are just as many creatures examined in the same number of pages, but whereas the previous books always provided new insight into their selected monsters, I came away from this book feeling like I hadn’t really learnt much new about the fey within. Most of them still seem somewhat nondescript, even characterless. On top of that, the book misses the opportunity to make clear distinctions between some of the very similar kinds of fey it examines.

The First Doctor Sourcebook

This book is not what I expected. To be honest, however, I’m not entirely sure what I expected. I figured there would be information on the first Doctor and all his companions, probably also the key aliens and villains from that era. There would probably also be advice about playing during the first Doctor’s time along with some adventure ideas. Most of these things are present in The First Doctor Sourcebook, but they take up only a very small portion (maybe 30 pages or so total) of the book. Beyond these things, I don’t really know what I expected, but I certainly didn’t expect what the book delivers. The vast majority of this 160-page book is devoted to presenting each of the first Doctor’s television stories as adventures that people can play out in their Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space games.

There are a lot of different ways you can play Adventures in Time and Space. You can play as one of the Doctors and any of his companions. You can create unique companions to travel with the Doctor. Or you can create your own original Time Lord characters to use instead of the Doctor. Alternatively, you can play the game without a Time Lord at all and have an all-human group, perhaps a UNIT or Torchwood group, or a group of time agents from the 51st century. There are limitless possibilities, but one possibility I never once considered was playing out a television story as a game adventure. And honestly, after reading the book, I would still never consider it.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Cosmos Returns!

Carl Sagan's Cosmos is one of the pinnacles of scientific and academic programming. The 13-episode series originally aired on PBS in 1980 and has since gone on to become one of the most viewed science documentaries ever. In it, Sagan invited viewers to journey the cosmos on the Spaceship of the Imagination. Throughout the series, Sagan explored life, the universe, and everything, combining scientific fact and speculation with awe-inspiring visuals and spellbinding music. It was a series that helped instil a love of science and learning into a great many people and still does today. Anybody who hasn't seen the original Cosmos series should do so NOW! 

However, it has been over 30 years now since the series first aired, and while it is still incredibly relevant today, scientific discovery has marched on somewhat and some of the series is thus out-of-date. It's time for a new series of Cosmos, one to update and expand on the original, and to tell new tales of scientific discovery. The new series, fully titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, will air in 2014 and will be hosted by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson. The first trailer for the series has now been released (embedded below). I'm hugely stoked for this show, especially because Tyson is doing it, as I can't think of a better person for it (yes, I'm something of a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan).

The series will air on FOX, which at first glance is a little worrying since FOX (rather deservingly) has a bad reputation when it comes to science reporting. However, Tyson (as reported by IO9) has said that he's happy about FOX's involvement as he doesn't want to preach to the converted, but rather wants to reach the mainstream.

Friday 19 July 2013

Reign of Winter - Rasputin Must Die!

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. In fact, a few months back, I even wrote a post about how much I was looking forward to it. I said then that it had the potential to be either a complete disaster or the most amazing thing ever. After all, mixing Pathfinder-style fantasy with historical Earth is not an easy task. There are all kinds of difficulties that have to be considered, not the least of which is the fact that the very attempt is bound to turn some people off in the first place. Mixing genres is just not some people’s cup of tea. But even for those who enjoy mixing genres, there’s still a lot that could go wrong. Well, of the two possibilities I suggested, it turns out not to have been a complete disaster. Indeed, Rasputin Must Die! by Brandon Hodge may well be one of the most amazing things ever! It is without a doubt one of the best adventures I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I dare say it’s likely to be long remembered as an all-time classic.


Monday 15 July 2013

Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook

The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (or Unified Intelligence Taskforce as it’s been renamed in recent years*) has long been an iconic element of Doctor Who. In fact, apart from the TARDIS and the Doctor himself, UNIT is perhaps the most enduring element of a show that is all about change. Companions come and go. Even the Doctor changes his form and personality. But UNIT keeps reappearing. It was most prominent in the Jon Pertwee years, of course, but has nonetheless appeared in some form with the vast majority of Doctors at some point or another.

With UNIT playing such a major role in the history of the television show, it only makes sense that any game based on Doctor Who should need to address and describe the organization so that it can be used in the game, too. This is where Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, a supplement for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, comes in. The book gives an in-depth look at UNIT and how to use it in Doctor Who roleplaying games that feature UNIT in any way, from games completely about UNIT where there is no Time Lord character and all the PCs are members of, or affiliated with, UNIT to games where UNIT only appears on rare occasions, to everything in between. The book contains material, too, that is applicable beyond just UNIT, such as some of the new traits and gadgets, as well as the expanded firearm rules. Defending the Earth continues the trend of high-quality, well-thought-out books for the Adventures in Time and Space game.

Saturday 13 July 2013

Giant Dalek Invades York

This is awesome! The York Maze is one of the largest mazes in the world, and this year, it is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. When viewed from above, the maze creates the picture of a giant Dalek, along with the faces of William Hartnell (the first Doctor) and Matt Smith (the current Doctor). The Dalek is the world's biggest-ever Dalek image, measuring 300 m long. The entire maze is 18 acres and is cut out of over one million maize plants. There are 10 km of pathways that visitors can make their way through.

Sixth Doctor Colin Baker was on hand for the opening as can be seen in the two videos below (one the press launch and the other a BBC report on the maze). I really wish I could go to this and wander around. Alas, I'm stuck across the ocean, but it's fun to imagine. For people for whom it's in reach, the maize maze is open from today, July 13 until Monday, September 2. There will be a special "Sci Fi Day" on July 27th.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

We Be Goblins Too!

A couple of years ago, Paizo released We Be Goblins! for the 2011 Free RPG Day. It is a short adventure in which players get to take on the roles of goblins (traditionally a villainous monster race). It is fun and comical, and good for a one-off session or just a break from the norm. It would also seem to have been a popular adventure since this year, Paizo has released a sequel, We Be Goblins Too!, in which players continue the adventures of the goblin heroes they played in We Be Goblins! Although Free RPG Day came and went last month, those who didn’t manage to acquire a free copy of the adventure then (and even those who did) can download a free pdf of the adventure from Paizo. The print version of the adventure is also available for $5.


Chronicle of the Righteous

It is true that fantasy roleplaying books about non-human races tend to focus on the villainous ones. This is really not that surprising. Since the player characters are generally heroes, they need a steady supply of villains and monsters to defeat. It’s only natural that most supplements will focus on these opponents since the PCs are bound to encounter a lot of them. However, there are still good people around and the PCs need allies too. So it’s good to see a book that looks at some of the good-aligned creatures of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting.

Chronicle of the Righteous by Amber Scott is a companion book to the three-volume Book of the Damned. Those three books looked at the three main fiendish races of the outer planes. The first volume, Princes of Darkness, examined devils. Lords of Chaos, the second volume, looked at demons, and the final volume, Horsemen of the Apocalypse, looked at daemons. All three of those books provided information on the societies, hierarchies, lords, and home planes of their respective fiendish races in great detail. Chronicle of the Righteous looks at the fiends’ opposites: the celestials. In particular, it looks at the four principal celestial groups: the agathions, angels, archons, and azatas.

Now, it’s probably fairly noticeable that these four groups are all squashed together into one book, whereas the fiendish races each got a separate volume. This is no doubt due to the fact that GMs need information on villains more than they need information on heroic allies. As such, four separate volumes of Chronicle of the Righteous probably would not sell as well. However, despite having squashed so much into just one book, I dare say Chronicle of the Righteous is just as good as the best of the Book of the Damned volumes (which would be Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Princes of Darkness a close second). In particular, Chronicle manages to provide a wealth of detail on a large array of Empyreal Lords (the rulers of the celestials, equivalent in power to archdevils, demon lords, and the horsemen of the daemons), of which there has been very little detail previously available. Some have had their names mentioned here and there, but with little to no other information available. Many of the Empyreal Lords listed in this book have not even been mentioned anywhere else.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

The Time Traveller's Companion

After Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space first came out a few years ago, a couple of other supplements soon followed it (a GM Screen and Aliens and Creatures) and others were announced. It was exciting for people who were both roleplayers and Doctor Who fans as it had been a long time since a Doctor Who roleplaying game had been in print. However, after those first few releases, the game entered a sort of limbo. The announced products remained announced but not actually available and nothing new was released. Word came through that the game needed to be retooled for the arrival of the eleventh Doctor. But the eleventh Doctor arrived and even had a couple full seasons and still, there were no new products for Adventures in Time and Space. Then, last year, the revised eleventh-Doctor version of the game finally arrived, and Cubicle 7 assured fans more products were still on their way.

And at long last, those products have started to show up. The Time Traveller’s Companion and Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook (the two products that waited in limbo for a long time) are both available, and a series of supplements covering each Doctor has also begun releasing with the supplements for the first and second Doctors currently available and further Doctors still to come. Once again, it’s time for Doctor Who roleplaying fans to be excited.

The first of these books, The Time Traveller’s Companion is a massive 240-page tome full of information about time travel, Time Lords, TARDISes, and more. Pretty much everything to do with time and its potential use in-game gets discussed in quite a lot of detail. Most of the book is descriptive detail, from a complete history of Gallifrey to temporal mechanics and space-time phenomena. Adventures in Time and Space is a rules-light game and this book maintains that, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any new rules elements here. These are mostly in the form of new traits (particularly Time Lord and gadget traits) and new gadgets, but there are also detailed rules for piloting TARDISes, regeneration, and more. I’m actually extremely impressed by just how much detail there is in the book. It has definitely made the long wait worth it.