Sunday 30 March 2014

Cosmos - When Knowledge Conquered Fear

I continue to be awed by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Each episode just gets better and better, and the third episode, “When Knowledge Conquered Fear” is no exception. Even though I already know most of the information it’s covering, I continue to be entranced by its presentation. And that’s not to say I haven’t learned anything. This episode, in particular, taught me a lot about Edmund Halley and Robert Hooke that I didn’t previously know. What’s more, it continues to be a great introduction to all there is about science and a perfect spiritual successor to Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos.

In “When Knowledge Conquered Fear”, Tyson takes a look at the human ability of pattern recognition, both in the ways that it has helped us and hindered us. The episode starts with a discussion of comets and how early civilizations interpreted them as omens of disaster, then moves into the reality of what we know about comets today, taking us on a journey out to the Oort Cloud and introducing us to the not-well-known Jan Oort, whom the Oort Cloud is named after.

Tears at Bitter Manor

Paizo’s RPG Superstar is a yearly competition open to anyone who wants to try their hand at roleplaying game design. It starts each year in December and runs through into the new year. The public gets to vote on the submissions for each round, whittling down the competition first to 32 competitors, then 16, then 8, then the final 4 (originally, the first round was decided upon entirely by Paizo’s in-house judges, but in recent years, the first round has been opened up to public voting as well). The first round requires entrants to design a new magic items, while in the last round, the finalists submit an adventure proposal. The rounds in between vary from year to year, but often include tasks like designing a new monster, an NPC, an encounter location, etc. The winner of RPG Superstar gets a commission for his or her adventure proposal, gets to write the full adventure and see it published. In recent years, the runners-up have also received commissions to write a Pathfinder Society scenario. Many past RPG Superstar winners and runners-up have gone on to become regular contributors to Pathfinder adventures and books. This year’s winner is Victoria Jaczko, but it will be a while before her adventure sees publication. However, last year’s winner was Steven Helt, and his adventure, Tears at Bitter Manor is the latest Pathfinder Module.

Tears at Bitter Manor is about a group of retired adventurers who reunite once each year to celebrate old times. However, this year, two of their members mysteriously fail to show up, and so they hire the PCs to investigate what has happened. Although there is a bit of a mystery, it is a fairly straight-forward adventure overall. It’s a functional adventure and will likely be fun and entertaining to play, but despite its rather original premise, there’s not a lot about it that really stands out from other adventures.


Sunday 23 March 2014

Cosmos - Some of the Things that Molecules Do

I expected Cosmos to be good, but it has far exceeded my expectations. This is a wonderful series that absolutely everyone should be watching in order to gain a rounded view of science and the world. What works so well about the series is that it’s clear and accessible, presented in terms that people with no former knowledge of the subject can follow, while still being entertaining to others who may know some or a lot of the topic. It’s a visual feast that absolutely everyone can enjoy.

The second episode, titled "Some of the Things that Molecules Do", delves into that giant of science: evolution. It begins with a look at artificial selection by discussing the history of dog breeding. Dogs are the perfect choice here—not just because I happen to be a dog lover and utterly adore dogs (I have two of my own), but because dogs are things that all the viewers will be familiar with. Many will own dogs of their own, but even if they don’t, they’ll have encountered dogs in numerous ways throughout their lives. Indeed, dogs are a much better choice than the crabs of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos because viewers will relate to them better (except perhaps for crab fishers and some biologists). They can see examples of this artificial selection right in their own lives, and that helps to make the concept of natural selection more accessible.

Friday 21 March 2014

Dark Dungeons: The Movie

It’s really happening. Coming this summer is Dark Dungeons, a movie based on Jack Chick’s infamous tract of the same name. The movie had a successful Kickstarter last year and the finished epic will see release in August. If you’re unfamiliar with the original, it is one of many comic-strip tracts from Chick Publishing. These tracts aim to teach people about the evils in the world (such as Dungeons & Dragons), but really just spread hatred and bigotry. Dark Dungeons tells the tale of Debbie, who joins a D&D group, only to slowly learn that the game is a gateway into real occult power. But when her friend kills herself after her character dies, Debbie repents and returns to the Lord. The tract was originally published in 1984 and is still in circulation to this day.

As I commented when the Kickstarter was running last year, I’ve been playing D&D and other roleplaying games for over thirty years. No one’s offered me real spells yet. I’m very disappointed.

Dark Dungeons, the comic, is hilarious for its absurdity, but also disturbing and frightening because it’s written in full seriousness. It’s pure fear-mongering. Thankfully, Dark Dungeons: The Movie is fully aware of what it is. It is from JR Ralls and Zombie Orpheus Entertainment, makers of The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (one of the funniest movies about tabletop roleplaying games ever) and JourneyQuest. It will be glorious and I can’t wait!

Check out the new trailer below and the movie’s website!

Champions of Balance

I’ve been looking forward to Champions of Balance for some time. Over the years, there have been many books published covering the topic alignment in Dungeons & Dragons/Pathfinder games. However, these book have tended to focus on good and/or evil. There has been a dearth of books covering the alignment that sits between the two: neutral (there also haven’t been a whole lot looking at law and chaos). To an extent, neutrality’s position as an in-between alignment makes it harder to define and discuss. Yet, in many ways that makes discussing it all the more important. I was also quite impressed with Champions of Purity, which looks at good alignments in Pathfinder, so this is another reason I looked forward to the arrival of Champions of Balance.

The wait was certainly worth it. Champions of Balance is quite a remarkable book and exceeds my already high expectations of it. As I’ve said before (in my review of Champions of Purity, linked above), I’m not a fan of alignment overall, and I honestly think the game could be improved without it—though it would entail quite a bit of work to make the change. However, if it’s going to be there, you might as well make the best of it. Yet alignment can be a difficult thing to adjudicate. Good and evil can be hard to fully define, and if you can’t define good and evil, then how do you define what fits between them? In the real world, these are just abstract concepts. Everyone has their own concept of what good and evil are, and they bring these concepts with them into the game. Yet in the game, alignment is not so abstract; indeed, it is an absolute concept where one can be objectively defined as “lawful good” or “chaotic evil”. In the real world, most people will agree that other people can behave in evil ways, but virtually no one would ever actually admit to being evil, as no one actually believes themselves to be evil. There are always justifications and reason for actions. Yet in-game, a detect evil spell can state quite clearly that someone is evil and there’s little one can do to argue against it. Outsiders representing the ideals of particular alignments exist in the multiverse. These powerful beings’ very existences are centred on, and defined by, their alignments. As such, the game needs a clear definition of what good and evil are. I’m not sure that that definition has been fully attained—it probably hasn’t, as there will still be disagreements between players—but books like Champions of Purity and now, Champions of Balance have moved things a little closer to achieving that definition.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Bastards of Golarion

Bastards of Golarion is a bit of an odd book because it’s not immediately apparent from the title what the book is about. It appears to be in the style of the race books, like Dwarves of Golarion and Kobolds of Golarion, but the race(s) covered is not entirely clear. A perusal of the back cover leads one to believe it’s primarily about half-elves and half-orcs. While a significant amount of space in the book is indeed devoted to these two races, it’s not limited to them. The interior of the book makes it clear that its intended focus is on outcasts of all kinds from any race, not just half-blood races, but even there, it wavers from this intent a little by spending some time discussing half-elves and half-orcs who are not outcasts. The intended focus, however, is a bit closer in meaning to the word bastard than a book strictly about half-elves and half-orcs would be, but it’s still something of a misuse of the word, and can lead to confusion amongst potential readers. It’s telling when a book needs to have a sidebar on the first page explaining the way the word bastard is used in the book. It leads me to think that book needs a better title. To be fair, though, I’m at a loss for what that title would be.

Title confusion aside, Bastards of Golarion is a rather better book than I was expecting, even if it does at times seem unsure of its focus. It contains a lot of advice and suggestions for creating characters who are either half-human characters or outcasts from society in some way or another. As with any Pathfinder Player Companion, there are quite a few new mechanical options, but these are mostly limited to new traits that help support the “fluff” of the book. The emphasis of the book is very much on the background information, and this pleased me a great deal.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

In 1980, PBS broadcast Cosmos. The 13-episode series was hosted by Carl Sagan, who was also one of the principal writers. The series went on to become one of the most widely viewed and most influential science programmes ever. It inspired a generation of people to learn about the universe and our place within it. No doubt it inspired many to go on to become scientists themselves and to help add to the sum total of human knowledge.

I, personally, didn’t see it when it originally aired. I don’t quite remember when I saw it for the first time, but it was quite a few years later. By that time, I was already highly interested in astronomy and cosmology, and it pretty much cemented my desire to continue in that direction. Of course, I ended up going in a different direction once I hit university, but I never lost my interest in the stars and Cosmos remains one of my favourite science programmes.

Although the original Cosmos series is still very relevant today—perhaps remarkably so given that over 33 years have passed since it first aired—science has advanced in that time and parts of it are out of date. But now, there’s a new Cosmos. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey began airing last Sunday. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, this new series updates the old for a new generation of viewers, educating us once more about our place in the universe. But it’s not just for new viewers. While it covers much of the same material as Sagan’s Cosmos, it also has much that is new, making it just as compelling viewing for people who have already seen the original. And naturally, the new series has been made with modern special effects, making it a spectacle for the eyes as well.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Wrath of the Righteous Player's Guide

The player’s guide for an adventure path is an important book for setting up the campaign and getting the players started. The successful guides help players to create characters that will fit into the adventure path, have a decent chance of surviving it, and be enjoyable to play. A less successful guide might give players a wrong impression of what the adventure path is about, resulting in characters that don’t fit. The Wrath of the Righteous Player’s Guide is certainly one of the more successful ones. It makes clear what the adventure path entails and gives useful background information, although it is lacking a bit in the advice department.

Like many adventure paths, Wrath of the Righteous tries out some new ideas and new mechanics. The most obvious, in this case, are the rules from Mythic Adventures, but the campaign also makes use of rules from Ultimate Campaign, in particular the downtime and mass combat rules. Wrath of the Righteous also tries something new with campaign traits. As usual, the six campaign traits provided in the Player’s Guide provide backgrounds for the characters that tie them to the adventure path in various ways. Each trait is also tied closely to one of the six mythic paths. Choosing a trait does not mean that the character must later choose its associated mythic path, but rather that the trait and the path compliment each other well. But what makes these traits different than the usual campaign traits for adventure paths is that each of these traits leaves something unresolved from the character’s past—something that will come into play during the adventure path itself.

While I think this added aspect of campaign traits has a lot of potential to enhance the adventure path, it also brings with it a couple of problems. I spoke of these problems in my review of Demon’s Heresy, but I’ll discuss one of them here again in a less spoilery way. The biggest problem they introduce is what to do in the event of character death or new characters joining (due to a change in players). It’s recommended that every character have a different campaign trait, but there are only six altogether. There are suggestions with each trait on how to handle multiple characters having them, but in all cases, these suggestions are for multiple starting characters. If new characters are introduced during the campaign, there’s a very good chance they won’t have one of the campaign traits, which will make more work for the GM when the time comes for the traits to be resolved. This same problem can also occur if one (or more) of the players simply isn’t interested in any of the traits and chooses not to take one of them. On the whole, this is not an insurmountable problem, but one that both players and GMs should be aware of so that accommodations can be made if necessary.

Wrath of the Righteous - City of Locusts

The Wrath of the Righteous adventure path is the first of its kind. Not only is it the first Pathfinder Adventure Path to take characters all the way to twentieth level, it’s also the first to make use of the rules from Mythic Adventures, and thus the first to take characters to power levels even 20th-level characters cannot match. It also attempts to tell a tale of larger impact than most other adventure paths, one where the fate of the world is at stake and the PCs must confront the ultimate of evils. In this latter regard, it is mostly successful. The adventure path starts with a bang in The Worldwound Incursion, which is a truly phenomenal adventure. It keeps the stakes up throughout with only momentary falters. It manages to be mythic in more than just the sense that it uses mythic rules—it is mythic in scope and style. And it deserves a finale that is epic and climactic in scope.

Unfortunately, City of Locusts, the final instalment, by Richard Pett, falls short of this. In one regard, one shouldn’t judge it too harshly. It had an incredibly lofty to goal to accomplish, one that is extremely difficult to achieve, and it does come close. On the other hand, however, after the brilliance of the adventure path’s opening and its most recent instalment, Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, City of Locusts ends up feeling like something of an anti-climax. Despite the massive amount of power at the PCs’ hands and the unbelievably powerful foes they must face, the adventure is lacking an important aspect, one that is ultimately a flaw of the entire adventure path (but hasn’t really been noticeable until now), and not just this adventure alone.

I should make it clear that I do think City of Locusts is a good adventure. It’s just not a good enough finale.


Tuesday 4 March 2014

February Round-Up, Pathfinder Legends, and Wrath of the Righteous Poster Map Folio

Another month has come and gone. It was a fairly quiet month for me here on the blog, particularly in the world of Doctor Who. However, I did review the excellent and very important book Doctor Who and Race. I highly recommend people read it! I also wrapped up the third series of Sherlock with “His Last Vow” and took a little look back at Babylon 5 in honour of its 20th anniversary. In the world of Pathfinder, I looked at three products: Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, People of the Sands, and Osirion, Legacy of Pharaohs.

In some exciting Pathfinder news, this month sees the release of the first Pathfinder Legends, a series of audio dramas from Big Finish, who are most well known for their Doctor Who audio dramas. The first release is Rise of the Runelords: Burnt Offerings, based, of course, on the first Pathfinder Adventure Path volume. You can listen to a trailer at the link. To be honest, I’m not all that impressed by the trailer, which surprises me as you would expect the trailer to showcase the very best of the production. Still, Big Finish has a very good record with their Doctor Who audios—enough of a record that I am very confident in their ability to do a very good job with Pathfinder Legends. You can purchase copies from Big Finish or from Paizo. Alas, much like with Big Finish’s Doctor Who material, personal budgetary constraints mean I’m not going to be able to pick any of these up in the near future. Hopefully one day, though. One day...

I’ll wrap things up with a short review. Here’s to a great March!

Wrath of the Righteous Poster Map Folio

As with most map folios for the adventure paths, the Wrath of the Righteous Poster Map Folio comes with three large, full-colour maps. One is a map of the Worldwound, the area where most of the action of Wrath of the Righteous takes place. The second map is of Kenabres, the city where the adventure path begins in The Worldwound Incursion. Both of these maps are high-quality and beautiful to look at, while also being highly useful for playing the adventure path. Admittedly, the map of Kenabres is really only useful for the first adventure, but the map of the Worldwound will be useful right up to the final instalment.

However, the stand-out map of this set is the third one: a map of the Abyss (which the PCs travel to in the fourth and fifth instalments of Wrath of the Righteous). Mapping out the Abyss is a daunting task—no, more an impossible task really, considering the Abyss is essentially an infinite plane made up of countless other planes. What this map does instead is provide an artistic rendition of the various Abyssal realms and “where” (metaphorically speaking) they are in relation to each other. Admittedly, the map doesn’t have a lot of utility in actual game-play. However, I don’t really care. The map is utterly beautiful to behold and can easily serve as an in-game representation of the Abyss—something the players’ characters might actually see. Ultimately, this map provides a visual element to enhance game-play. It gives both players and GMs just a little hint on what their characters are seeing, allowing the imagination to fill in the rest. It also makes a great poster to hang on the wall.