Wednesday 29 January 2014

40 Years of Dungeons & Dragons

It’s hard to believe that Dungeons & Dragons has been around for just about as long as I’ve been alive. It’s hard to put an exact date on its anniversary, but according to this analysis, the closest approximation would be this past Sunday, January 26th. With so much focus on Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary last fall, I almost let this one pass me by—indeed, it was only seeing people tweeting about it on the weekend that reminded me! But roleplaying has been a major part of my life since I was 9 years old, and I could hardly let D&D’s 40th anniversary go by without at least mentioning it.

A couple of years ago, I prefaced my review of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Beginner Box with a recollection of how I first got into the game, so I’ll let people read that rather than repeating it here. Of course, I don’t strictly play Dungeons & Dragons anymore. My game of choice is Pathfinder. I was not particularly taken by Fourth Edition D&D, so when the Pathfinder option presented itself, I was an easy convert. But Pathfinder is really just a revised Third Edition D&D, published under the Open Gaming License, so in that sense I’ve never really left D&D. But it does also mean that I haven’t really kept up with what is current with the game that still carries the name Dungeons & Dragons. I know Fourth Edition is out and “D&D Next” is on its way in, but I’ve not been keeping up with news about the new edition. I sometimes regret that a little, but it’s a matter of time that I just don’t have.

What I can say, though, is I will be playing Dungeons & Dragons in some form (either as Pathfinder or some future regeneration of the game) for the rest of my life. When I die (assuming I don’t manage to live forever), it will either be watching Doctor Who or with a d20 in my hand. In the meantime, here’s an early (and kind of scathing) 1974 review of the original Dungeons & Dragons game that was posted this weekend on EN World:

Wrath of the Righteous - The Midnight Isles

As Pathfinder (and D&D) games reach higher levels, it becomes quite common for PCs to take their adventures to other worlds and planes of existence. Planar travel has been a long-standing part of the game since its earliest days, with many adventures set in various locations across the multiverse (and even an entire campaign setting, Planescape, designed around planar travel). The Worldwound area of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting contains a direct portal to the abyss, through which demonic forces have been able to invade. With the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path set in and around the Worldwound and dealing with the crusades to end the demonic invasion, it was only inevitable that eventually the PCs would take the fight to the Abyss itself—which is precisely what happens in the fourth instalment, The Midnight Isles by James Jacobs and Greg A. Vaughan.

As the first adventure path to utilise the mythic rules, Wrath of the Righteous, thus far, has maintained a suitably mythic feel. Indeed, The Worldwound Incursion accomplished that without actually adding anything mythic until the very end. While all adventure paths are, in a sense, mythic in scope (by virtue of dealing with a storyline covering an entire campaign, one in which the PCs are likely to become well-known heroes), Wrath of the Righteous has managed to go one step further. It’s not just the presence of more powerful monsters (made necessary by the fact that mythic PCs are just a little bit more powerful than non-mythic PCs); it’s the intricate storyline where the consequences of failure are just a little greater, as well as the diverse cast of fully fleshed-out NPCs who create the opportunity for intricate relationships and roleplaying opportunities. The PCs go from barely surviving a demon attack on the city of Kenabres to being the saviours of that city to then liberating a city long in the thrall of the demons. They have found and rescued a redeemed succubus, and have uncovered the details of the demons’ terrible plans.

As such, it’s a little bit surprising that, as they now head off to the Abyss itself, The Midnight Isles is the first adventure in Wrath of the Righteous to lose that mythic quality and feel like just another adventure. It’s a decent adventure, sure, but it doesn’t stand out the way the other instalments in this adventure path have. In part, this is because planar adventures already have many of the qualities that make an adventure feel “mythic” and so, in order to make them stand out even more, they have to have something more than other planar adventures have—and I really don’t think this one does. In part, it’s also due to the fact that this adventure feels rather “done before”. It bears a lot of similarities to some earlier Paizo adventures, particularly parts of the Savage Tide adventure path. Of course, to a certain extent, all adventures reuse common patterns and tropes, but this one seems to do so to a greater extent. In his foreword, James Jacobs explains that the reason there are two authors on this adventure is because he and Greg A. Vaughan helped each other out due to both of them have very busy and tight schedules. It’s therefore not surprising, I suppose, that in order get it completed, they had to rely on reusing tried-and-true tropes. But alas, tried-and-true does not make for a mythic feel. The result is a planar adventure that seems rather ordinary when compared to the adventures that have led up to it.


Monday 27 January 2014

Twelfth Doctor's Costume Revealed!

The BBC have released the first official picture of Peter Capaldi in costume as the Doctor. And he's looking sharp! From the press release:

The Doctor has a new look as Peter Capaldi’s era officially begins.  In a picture released today by the BBC, Capaldi can be seen in the costume that will define his time as the Twelfth Time Lord in one of TV’s biggest roles.  Sporting a dark blue Crombie coat with red lining, dark blue trousers, a white shirt as well as black Dr. Marten shoes, the look was created by Doctor Who costume designer Howard Burden. 

Commenting on his costume, Peter Capaldi said: “He's woven the future from the cloth of the past. Simple, stark, and back to basics. No frills, no scarf, no messing, just 100 per cent Rebel Time Lord.”  While lead writer and executive producer Steven Moffat added: “New Doctor, new era, and of course new clothes. Monsters of the universe, the vacation is over - Capaldi is suited and booted and coming to get you!” 

Filming for episode one of series 8 began earlier this month, after 10.2 million tuned-in on Christmas Day to get their first much-anticipated glimpse of Capaldi’s Doctor.  Charlotte Moore, Controller of BBC One, commented: "Peter Capaldi's Doctor is officially recorded in history today with the unveiling of his new costume.  It's sharp, smart and stylish - The Twelfth Time Lord means business."
The costume has definite hints of Jon Pertwee's costume, something I highly approve of. I've said before the I'd really like to see some more Pertwee influences in the Doctor. New Doctors frequently cite Patrick Troughton as one of their greatest influences, but never Pertwee. It's time for some Pertwee influences, I think. Of course, a costume influenced by Pertwee's costume does not necessarily indicate a personality influenced by the third Doctor. Still, it's something.

However, while the costume clearly has Pertwee influences, it's much more subdued than what Pertwee typically wore, and I like that, too. It's simple and straight-forward, and it makes its mark without having to resort to anything gimmicky. It stands out, but doesn't look out of place. I can't wait to Capaldi in action in it!

Saturday 25 January 2014

Sherlock - The Sign of Three

There seems to be a bit of a trend in Sherlock for the middle episode of each series to be the weakest of the three. “The Blind Banker” from Series One was weaker than the episodes before and after it. In Series Two, “The Hounds of Baskerville” was not as good as the two stories that surrounded it. I haven’t watched the final episode of Series Three yet, but so far, “The Sign of Three” seems to be following that trend. It’s not a bad episode, but it’s certainly not as good as “The Empty Hearse”.

Of course, with such short series (only three episodes each) and only three series to date, it’s a little too soon to call this a pattern. Still there’s a hint of one, and it’s easy to see why one would occur. The first episode has the task of setting up the entire series to come and, in the case of Series Two and Three, resolving the cliffhanger of the previous series. The third episode has the task of resolving everything for that year (and quite possibly setting up a cliffhanger for the next series). Both episodes have to accomplish big things, while the middle episode is situated...well, in the middle. It can feel a bit like filler. Of course, “The Sign of Three” is certainly not filler. It deals with a major even in the lives of Sherlock, John, and Mary, and serves as an important character episode for all three. However, it does suffer from problems that nonetheless make it feel like filler, and that’s a bit of a shame, as there are otherwise some really good things in the episode.


Monday 20 January 2014

Wardens of the Reborn Forge

The world of Golarion is something of a kitchen-sink campaign setting. By that, I mean it has a little bit of everything. The numerous countries and lands across the Inner Sea region allow for a wide variety of campaigns and styles from classic sword and sorcery to Vikings in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings and Gothic Horror in Ustalav. There are the classic fantasy dwarves of the Five Kings Mountains, but also science fantasy with lasers and robots in Numeria. You can visit Egyptian-style pyramids in Osirion or deal with genies in Katapesh. And a little farther south, nestled between the magical nations of Nex and Geb, are the Mana Wastes, lands wrecked by centuries of magical warfare, where mana storms make the casting of magical spells a difficult, sometimes even impossible, task. Within the Mana Wastes lies the city of Alkenstar, the home of gunslingers and steampunk technology.

It is in this unusual fantasy location that Wardens of the Reborn Forge by Patrick Renie takes place. Yet, despite the fact that Alkenstar and the Mana Wastes are a very non-generic setting, Wardens is a surprisingly generic adventure. Oh, it has all the trappings of the setting. There are Mana Wastes mutants, clockwork leviathans, guns, and even a mana storm. However, it uses all these things in a generic dungeon crawl adventure that could otherwise take place just about anywhere.

This isn’t a terrible adventure. It’s functional and would probably be entertaining to play. However, it just doesn’t particularly stand out. Of course, not every adventure should. And oddly, given the unusual aspects of the setting, for a campaign set in Alkenstar and the Mana Wastes, perhaps a rather generic adventure would actually stand out. But that really only works if there are other adventures to compare it to. As Wardens is the first published adventure set in this location (not counting any Pathfinder Society scenarios that might have been set in Alkenstar), I would have expected something that made greater use of the setting, either the city or the Wastes around it.


Tuesday 14 January 2014

Sherlock - The Empty Hearse

Two years ago, in “The Reichenbach Fall”, Sherlock Holmes fell from the top of a hospital in London, in front of numerous witnesses including his friend John Watson. The world thought him dead—well, the fictional world did. Viewers in the real world knew that it was some sort of trick. We got to see Sherlock still standing, quite alive, at the end of the episode, watching Watson at his grave. But for two years, we’ve all been trying to figure out how he did it.

In “The Final Problem” by Arthur Conan Doyle, the original Sherlock Holmes faced off against his greatest enemy, Moriarty (who never actually appeared in any other Doyle story), and the two of them fell to their deaths from the top of Reichenbach Falls. It was Doyle’s full intention that this was the final end for the great detective. Doyle wanted to concentrate on other things; however, public pressure brought him round to resurrecting Holmes several years later in “The Adventure of the Empty House”. At that point, it was necessary for Doyle to find a way for Holmes not to have died at the Reichenbach Falls after all. A lack of eyewitnesses at Holmes’s death made this relatively easy for Doyle.

The TV series Sherlock, however, one-ups its source material by having Holmes fall to his death in front of witnesses while also knowing, in advance, that Holmes will somehow survive. Of course, that method can’t be revealed to the audience immediately. Throw in two years of waiting for the next episode, and you have the two years of fans trying to figure out the mystery for themselves. It was certainly something I contemplated more than a few times. It was always clear that Molly was involved somehow and I figured there was a good chance that Mycroft would be (especially since Mycroft is one of the few who know of Sherlock’s survival in Doyle’s stories), but I must admit, I could never come up with an explanation I was satisfied with. I could always finds holes in anything I came up with, although, to be honest, I always figured there was a good chance the explanation the writers came up with would have holes in it as well.

But the long wait has finally come to a close as Sherlock has made a triumphant return to television screens. Like the viewers, it has been two years for the characters and most of them have moved on with their lives—until Sherlock Holmes suddenly returns. I have to say, this episode was worth the long wait. “The Empty Hearse” by Mark Gatiss (the title being a play on Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Empty House”) does an excellent job of re-establishing the major characters and where they are now in their lives, while introducing (and resolving) a brand new mystery, and hinting at the story arc for the season. Indeed, it’s rather impressive how much happens in this episode without it all becoming a jumbled mess, making for ninety minutes of highly enjoyable television.


Saturday 4 January 2014

Inner Sea NPC Codex

A little over a year ago, in the slot that had previously always gone to Bestiary releases, Paizo released the NPC Codex, a hardcover tome with hundreds of ready-to-use NPCs, one for each core class at every level, plus numerous examples of prestige classes and NPC classes. Around the same time, they also released the Inner Sea Bestiary in the Campaign Setting line. While smaller than a hardcover Bestiary, this product helped satisfy the urge many people might have had for a new Bestiary that year while also providing the Golarion setting with a host of monsters unique to it, full of the setting’s flavour.

This past fall returned to the pattern of previous years with the arrival of the hardcover Bestiary 4. However, for people who may have been hoping for an NPC Codex 2, there is instead the Inner Sea NPC Codex, full of generic NPCs from all across the Inner Sea region of Golarion. All of these contain full stats and can be slipped into an ongoing campaign at a moment’s notice, just like using a monster straight out of a Bestiary. I was ecstatic at the release of the NPC Codex, which I felt was a product long overdue in the game. I’m similarly happy about the release of the Inner Sea NPC Codex.

To be fair, this is not the first book of NPCs for the campaign setting. There was previously the NPC Guide, which contained a selection of NPCs arranged by geographical area. There is also the Rival Guide, which contains several NPC adventuring parties that can work as rivals or even villains for the PCs. While I’ve gotten a fair amount of use out of the Rival Guide, the NPC Guide is a book that has gone mostly unused in my games. This may seem a bit odd considering how useful I declared the NPC Codex to be in my review of it. However, the NPCs in the NPC Guide consist primarily of specific characters with individual histories and personalities, and it takes some advance planning to use them in campaigns. They can’t simply be dropped in at a moment’s notice. While the second chapter does have generic NPCs, the organization and rather abrupt stats and descriptions make them difficult to find and use easily. However, the NPC Codex organizes things more like a Bestiary, with each character getting a separate page (or half a page in some cases), making it much easier to quickly find the type of NPC needed. The Inner Sea NPC Codex follows the organization style of the NPC Codex. Similarly, it’s a book of entirely generic NPCs, making it far easier to grab one for use with little to no advance notice.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Magical Marketplace

There has been a lot of debate over the years about the ease with which magical items can be bought or made in Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Some people feel that the existence of magic shops takes away from the wonder and mystery that magic represents, while others feel that, in a world with so much magic (and there’s little denying that D&D/Pathfinder worlds have a lot of magic in them), it makes sense that people would attempt to sell it. It’s just human nature. But whatever any individual’s opinion on it, the default assumption in the game is that characters can buy and sell magic items.

Yet despite this, there hasn’t been much attempt to actually describe what some of these magic stores might be like. Do they specialize in certain kinds of magic items or do they just sell everything? Can you sometimes get special deals, or does everything really always cost the same no matter where you are? The rules for designing cities given in the GameMastery Guide provide some guidelines on the kinds of items (based on value) that can generally be found in a particular settlement, but beyond this, the specifics about buying and selling magic items have generally been glossed over.

That’s what makes Magical Marketplace stand out. At first glance, the book might appear to be just another book of new magic items. With books like Adventurer’s Armory (which is in the same Player Companion line of books) and especially Ultimate Equipment already available, Magical Marketplace might seem superfluous and unnecessary. However, while Magical Marketplace does indeed contain many new items, it does something very different to either of those previous books. Rather than just a list of magic items arranged alphabetically with their descriptions, this book adds colour to something that is often just part of the background (the buying of equipment) by presenting these items as the contents of specific magic stores across the Inner Sea region. Fourteen separate stores each receive two pages of description, from general information on the store’s history and owner, to the types of items sold there, to methods of payment (including ways to get special discounts), and even to new abilities characters can learn from the store’s owner and/or employees. The book provides a creative way to give players lots of new mechanical options while simultaneously allowing GMs to spice up boring shopping expeditions.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

December Round-Up Plus Doctor Who Deleted Scene, Wholock, RPG Superstar, and Funny Searches

So, 2013 has come and gone. December was not my most productive month ever, but certainly not my least. My big regret for the month is that I was not able to watch the remaining episodes of the second series of Wizards Vs Aliens, and likewise review them. The season has ended now and I am placing watching and reviewing them as a top priority for January. I will get to them!

December was another big month for Doctor Who, of course, as Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor came to a close. In the lead-up to his departure, a couple of trailers for his final story arrived, as well as three separate clips. Just before the Christmas special aired, I wrote a piece expressing my concerns over the Doctor’s loss of regenerations. Then, on Christmas day, Matt Smith took a bow in “The Time of the Doctor”. You can read my review of that here. In the days following the airing, BBC America released a deleted scene from the episode, which you can watch here:

Although Doctor Who Christmas specials have become a standard since the series returned in 2005, there weren’t any during the original series’ run. However, in 1965, Doctor Who’s regular schedule fell on Christmas Day. The episode that aired, “The Feast of Steven” was the seventh episode of the epic twelve-part story, “The Daleks’ Masterplan”. Yet this episode stood apart from the remainder of the story. It didn’t even have any Daleks appear in it! Instead, the Doctor and his companions get caught up in a couple of light-hearted mini-adventures on modern day Earth—on Christmas day. The episode is infamous for its closing moments when the Doctor breaks the fourth wall and wishes all the viewers a merry Christmas. The episode is sadly lost from the archives, but like other missing episodes, the audio survives. Here’s a fan animation of the closing moments using the existing audio:

Today, January 1, 2014 marks the long awaited return of Sherlock. I haven’t actually seen the first episode yet, but will be watching it soon. I hope it’s good! But to help build anticipation for it, a prequel, “Many Happy Returns” came out last week. For people interested in the idea of a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover, here’s a phenomenal fan video called “Wholock”:

In the world of roleplaying games, the Advanced Class Guide Playtest came to an end this month. We now need to wait until August to see the results! Paizo’s annual RPG Superstar contest also started this month. Although the deadline for entries was today, it’s now possible for the public to vote in the contest. Each round of the contest will narrow the number of competitors down until the final one wins a commission to write a Pathfinder adventure module.

I reviewed three Pathfinder products this month: Bestiary 4, Demon’s Heresy, and Towns of the Inner Sea. There are several more waiting in the wings. Expect the first, Magical Marketplace, to appear tomorrow.

Finally, I thought I’d round things off this month with a selection of the latest bizarre search terms that have brought people to this blog. As always, any spelling errors are repeated exactly.

best pens for doctors – Well, with pen in the blog’s name and lots of Doctor Who stuff, I can understand it, I guess.

google steven moffit sexist - I just found this humorous because whoever did the search felt the need to include the word google in it.

doctor who sex games – Yeah, I still don’t know why people looking for sex keep ending up here.

matt smith’s boner lets kill hitler – Um, does he have one in “Let’s Kill Hitler”? I’m afraid to go back and check.

dices that communicate with demons – No comment.

ford transmissions - I have absolutely no idea.

Happy New Year everyone!