Friday 28 February 2014

Osirion, Legacy of Pharaohs

In northeast Garund lies a country that is one of the oldest still-surviving in the world of Golarion. Based loosely on real-world Egypt, Osirion is a desert land full of ancient tombs and pyramids that hold artifacts and secrets dating back thousands of years into Golarion’s past. Osirion was the setting of a couple of early adventures published by Paizo (Entombed with the Pharaohs and its sequel, The Pact Stone Pyramid) and an early Player Companion supplement, Osirion, Land of Pharaohs, all of which came before the release of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and were thus written for D&D 3.5. There has not been a lot done with the location since then, but the upcoming adventure path Mummy’s Mask (starting next month) is set in Osirion, making now a ripe time to revisit the location. Osirion is one of the three countries looked at in Pathfinder Player Companion: People of the Sands (which I recently reviewed) and it also gets its own dedicated book in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting volume, Osirion, Legacy of Pharaohs.

This is a very informative book. It both updates and expands on the information in Osirion, Land of Pharaohs, going into considerably more detail than the earlier book (which, to be fair, is a much shorter book, so just doesn’t have the space that this one has). One of the most important qualities on which I judge a setting book is how many ideas it starts creating in my head. Legacy has simply flooded my head with ideas, enough to run three or four different campaigns set there, and so passes this criterion with flying colours. It’s densely packed with information on cities, adventure sites, denizens, and more.

Monday 24 February 2014

People of the Sands

It’s been awhile since Pathfinder products turned to the southern continent of Garund for further exploration. However, with the upcoming Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path being set in the Egyptian-themed country of Osirion, the time is ripe to turn setting-based products towards that region of the world. People of the Sands takes a player-centric look at the three countries along the northern coast of Garund: Rahadoum, Thuvia, and of course, Osirion. This is not the first supplement to look at Osirion. One of the earliest releases in the Pathfinder Companion line (before the name changed to Pathfinder Player Companion) was Osirion, Land of Pharaohs. While People of the Sands does have some overlap with that book, it does have quite a bit of new material as well and the overlapping material has been updated to the Pathfinder RPG rules (as Osirion, Land of Pharaohs was written for 3.5).

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that region-based supplements tend to be my favourite ones, and People of the Sands certainly doesn’t disappoint. As part of the Player Companion line of products, it contains a lot of new mechanical options (as well as updates to things like the living monolith prestige class). However, it also contains a good balance of fluff, with background information on the histories and peoples of the region it covers, making it a book that is entertaining and informative to read, and useful for gameplay.

Friday 14 February 2014

Doctor Who and Race

Last May, just before Doctor Who and Race was published, elements of the British press went wild with a story about how the book decried Doctor Who as “thunderingly racist”. The reports took portions of the book and quoted them out of context to paint Doctor Who and Race as an over-the-top condemnation of the entire series, making the book look to be something quite different from what it actually is. Doctor Who and Race, edited by Lindy Orthia, is a collection of essays that do look at race in Doctor Who, but the book doesn’t set out to tear the show down. Yes, some of the essays do look at the moments of the programme that have been problematic, but calling an individual moment or story racist does not equal a condemnation of the entire series. But Doctor Who and Race looks at a lot more than just the problematic moments. It also looks at the things that Doctor Who has done right or the moments when the show has attempted things with the best of intentions but has faltered. The essays’ authors are not a group of people who despise and hate the show. Rather, these are people who show a great love for Doctor Who. Indeed, several are well-known names in Doctor Who publishing, including Robert Smith? and Kate Orman. This is a book written by fans for fans. It just happens to deal with a few things that fans might find uncomfortable.

It is true that the words “thunderingly racist” appear in the book. They appear in a sentence quoted in most of the press reports: “Accordingly, perhaps the biggest elephant in the room is the problem, privately nursed by many fans, of loving a television show even when it is thunderingly racist” (295). The sentence appears near the end of the book’s Conclusion, written by Orthia. Taken out of context, it does look a little like it’s calling Doctor Who a racist programme. However, in context, the sentence is actually referring to the difficulty of loving a show even during the moments when it is thunderingly racist. This is a big difference and it’s important that people understand this when deciding whether this is a book they want to read. Personally, I don’t want to read a book that says Doctor Who is a horrible, racist programme. However, I do want to read one that does not shy away from acknowledging when the show takes a wrong turn—and moments like those absolutely do exist.

There is no doubt in my mind that Doctor Who and Race is a very important book, and one that I think every fan should read. Admittedly, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. These are academic essays, and while there are a large variety of them (in length, style, and subject matter), they are thorough analyses of what may sometimes seem to be minor points. Many of them also don’t shy away from using some specialized academic vocabulary. People not used to this kind of writing may find the essays hard to get into (although the book does open with mostly short essays specifically to help ease people into it), but it’s worth the effort. Doctor Who and Race is important partly because it’s the first book to look specifically at the topic of race in Doctor Who. There have been books devoted to gender (such as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Chicks Unravel Time), queer issues (Queers Dig Time Lords), or a plethora of other topics of critical analysis. Race has also shown up in its intersection with these other topics or in individual essays that are part of a larger work. But race has never held the sole spotlight.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth

Mazes are a staple of mythology and fantasy fiction, dating back at least to the story of the Minotaur. Yet mazes in roleplaying game adventures are often...well, to put it bluntly, boring. There’s only so long one can discuss turning left or right yet again at the latest intersection. On top of that, the use of miniatures (which is pretty much necessary in a Pathfinder game) makes it hard for a game master to make a maze challenging since the players have an overhead view that their characters don’t have. In the foreword to Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, James Jacobs talks about this very problem and the conundrum this creates with an adventure path that takes the PCs to the realm of Baphomet, demon lord of minotaurs. An entire plane that is one giant maze is a fascinating concept, but can it work as the setting for an adventure?

The answer is a resounding yes. It entails a different approach to mazes than what many roleplayers may be used to, but it’s one that manages to retain the awe and mystery of mazes without the tedium of describing every single turn. In doing so, Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, written by Wolfgang Baur, manages to be one of the most original and exciting outer plane adventures I’ve read in some time. While The Midnight Isles, its immediate predecessor in Wrath of the Righteous, is rather ordinary as far as planar adventures go, Herald brings back the mythic feel that was present in the earlier instalments of the adventure path. This is an adventure where the PCs face off against some of the deadliest foes in the multiverse, but also leaves ample room for investigating, roleplaying, and drama. And it brings with it some incredible rewards for the PCs—assuming they succeed, of course.


Friday 7 February 2014

20 Years of Babylon 5

It’s hard to believe that, until now, I have never once mentioned Babylon 5 on this blog. That’s partly because I talk mostly about contemporary things and Babylon 5 has been over for quite a while now, but still... I should have mentioned it at some point. It was an inspirational and ground-breaking series, and one of my favourites of all time.

It’s also hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since the show first began (it’s actually been nearly 21 years since the pilot first aired on 22 February, 1993, but the regular series didn’t start until 26 January, 1994, nearly a year later). It’s doesn’t feel that old. I don’t feel that old. In an odd sort of way, Babylon 5 reaching twenty years seems a little more landmarking then Doctor Who recently reaching fifty years, and that’s because Doctor Who has always been old. I know that’s not literally true, but from the perspective of my life, it has always been around. When I was born, Doctor Who was already turning ten years old. By the time I was becoming a hardcore fan, it was turning twenty (and to a ten-year-old boy, twenty is ancient).

But with Babylon 5, I was there from the beginning. I remember a time when there was no Babylon 5. It didn’t exist yet, and quite possibly wasn’t even an idea in creator J. Michael Straczynski’s mind yet. I watched the pilot the day it aired—wasn’t all that impressed by it to be honest. But despite the pilot’s flaws, there was something about it that drew my interest and I kept up on news about when the series itself would start and began watching it right from the beginning too. I was hooked after the first few episodes and I followed the series through its entire five-year run and Crusade’s unfortunately much-shorter run. So the fact that it’s now twenty years later creates just a little bit more “Has it really been that long?” than fifty years of Doctor Who does.

Babylon 5 made a huge mark on science fiction and on television in general. It was the first show to have an ongoing story arc in an era of television when everything was episodic. During any particular episode of any other programme, that story’s problem would be resolved and the characters would return to their lives exactly as they were at the beginning of the episode. Characters rarely changed or grew. Babylon 5 changed all that, and that is, without a doubt, one of the biggest things that drew me to it and kept me watching. It helped, too, that I found the characters compelling to begin with, as well as the intricate storytelling. I was disappointed when Commander Sinclair left (and yes, I’m one of those rare Babylon 5 fans who, to this day, prefers Sinclair to Sheridan), but I accepted that change and development were what made the show so good. Other shows started to learn from Babylon 5 and soon started including ongoing plots as well. Today, it’s pretty much the norm.

I’ve rewatched the series all the way through a few times since its original airing. The latest was about three years ago when I finally got the full run on DVD (until then, I had been relying on degrading VHS tapes). My wife and I watched it through together and it was her first time seeing the show. I don’t think we’ve ever made it through any other show (of similar length) so quickly. As one episode would end, she would insist we watch the next immediately. It was my only real experience with “binge watching”. If I remember correctly, we got through all five seasons, plus the TV movies, Crusade, and the various direct-to-DVD specials in the space of just a few weeks. She liked the show that much.

I would love for there to be some more Babylon 5 some day—a revisit or two, perhaps even a resolution for Crusade (please!). But even if there isn’t, I’m very happy with what there already is. It’s a show I can easily go back to time and time again, and still enjoy every moment.

Sherlock - His Last Vow

I rarely come away from watching something without a decent idea of what I think of it. I’m often unwilling to voice my opinion immediately, as I’m often thinking about a number of small details in my mind, but nonetheless I have a clear overall opinion. Subsequent viewings may modify that opinion a little (as I notice things I may have missed the first time), but that doesn’t mean I was confused about my original opinion. On rare occasions, however, when the end credits of a programme roll, I have little to no idea what to think of what I’ve watched. The finale of Series 3 of Sherlock, “His Last Vow” by Steven Moffat, is one such time.

In my review of the previous episode, “The Sign of Three”, I commented on the fact that the middle episodes of each series tend to be the weakest. I pondered whether this would be true of “The Sign of Three” as well. I considered it weaker than the series opener, even though overall I liked the episode. If the drawn-out jokes were cut down (making the episode somewhat shorter), it could have been a brilliant episode, so there was still the possibility that it might buck the trend and not be the weakest episode of the series. Having now seen “His Last Vow”, I suppose I can say that this series has indeed bucked the trend—if only because “His Last Vow” has completely muddled things.

After a couple viewings of “His Last Vow”, I can say that I do enjoy it—more or less. In fact, there’s a lot that’s brilliant about it. There’s so much in this episode trying to burst out and be seen and heard, so many interesting plot turns and story ideas. But that is the major problem with the episode as well: so many. Too many in fact. Like a lot of Steven Moffat’s writing, “His Last Vow” tries to do too much. The story jumps around all over the place, with plot twists, flash-forwards, and flashbacks. By the end, you no longer seem to be watching the same show you started watching at the beginning. Major revelations are dropped in virtually out of nowhere—including a totally out-of-the-blue cliff-hanger.

So I now realize the source of my confliction after my first viewing. I do enjoy the episode. It’s fun and exciting. But it’s not satisfying. All those fun and exciting things fail to develop sufficiently because each one has to be quickly shoved aside to make way for the next exciting twist. The story lacks the heart that both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” have in spades. “His Last Vow” just sort of is. It comes along, you have some fun, and then it’s gone. And afterwards you’re left wondering, what exactly was the point?


Tuesday 4 February 2014

January Round-Up

I’m a little late with the round-up this month. I’ve actually decided to move them from the last day of the month to the first day of the next month (yes, I know that still makes me late!). That keeps them visible in the site’s archive links to the right (the default of which only has the current month open).

The big thing in January was, of course, the return of Sherlock after a two-year hiatus. I have reviewed both “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three” so far. I have now watched (twice) “His Last Vow” and will have a review for it in the next day or two. I will make no comment on it until that time.

In the world of Doctor Who, filming has started on Series 8, the first with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. We have also been treated to the first official picture of Capaldi in costume—a costume I like a great deal. The first pictures from the filming have started to show up as well. I tend to avoid most of those as I don’t want to get too spoiled. However, the picture at the top of this post is a pretty non-spoilery one.

In the world of roleplaying, I reviewed several Pathfinder products in January, including Magical Marketplace, the Inner Sea NPC Codex, Wardens of the Reborn Forge, and The Midnight Isles. I also reflected a little on the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons.

I usually include a little something extra with these monthly round-ups, but I must admit I don’t have anything this month. All things considered, it was a pretty quiet month and I wasn’t sure what to include. So, have a great February, everyone!