Saturday 31 May 2014

The Harrow Handbook

One of the greatest challenges with making new options for Pathfinder games is making those options stand out, making them memorable and different from what has come before. The sheer volume of books available for Pathfinder (especially when you include all the Campaign Setting, Player Companion, and Adventure Path books) can be intimidating and it makes it difficult to remember every single new option available. Most end up forgotten and never used. Even when they are remembered, it’s difficult to remember which book to find them in. Several recent Pathfinder books have done well in presenting new options that really stand out. From the Alchemy Manual to Inner Sea Combat and Inner Sea Gods, these books use their new options to develop the campaign setting, drawing on the setting’s flavour to enhance the mechanics, and using the mechanics to enhance the setting’s flavour. And now, The Harrow Handbook adds on to that list.

The harrow has always been one of the defining aspects of Golarion. Every campaign world has fighters and wizards (well, the vast majority of them, at any rate), but no other campaign world has the harrow. Of course, as the harrow is based on real-world tarot, other settings could certainly have tarot-like cards and fortune telling, but they would have their own versions and something quite different from the harrow. But the harrow is more than just Golarion’s version of tarot. It is uniquely tied to the mechanics of the Pathfinder game itself. Harrow cards have six suits. These suits represent in-game characteristics, but also the six basic attributes of all Pathfinder characters. The cards are also tied to alignments—a system that is very defining of Pathfinder and its progenitor, Dungeons & Dragons. By tying the harrow so closely to metagame mechanics as well as in-game aspects, you have something that can be exploited by players for their characters—and with that, an opportunity to create some truly original characters not seen in any other campaign world.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Doctor Who and the Time Warp

They call this a parody. It's really more of an ode in my opinion. This brilliant production by the Hillywood Show pairs Doctor Who with the "Time Warp" from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. It stars Hilly Hindi as the tenth Doctor, and while she does a great job, particular accolades must go to Elliot "Ell Shmell" Crossley, who does the Doctor's voice. It's an uncanny impersonation of David Tennant's voice.  Have a watch!

In other news, the first teaser trailer for the new series of Doctor Who (which starts in August) was released a few days ago. It truly fits the word "teaser" as there's really nothing much to it. Compared to the above, it's an anti-climax, but here it is anyway.

And for a much better trailer, here's a fan-made one from the same person responsible for "Wholock" and "Stone".

Thursday 22 May 2014

Dark Dungeons Trailer

A teaser trailer was released a couple of months ago, but now the full trailer for the movie Dark Dungeons is out! Based on the Jack Chick tract of the same name, it teaches the world the evils of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons. It premieres at Gen Con on August 14 and will be available on DVD after that. I can't wait!

That said, I'm still waiting to be inducted into the inner circle of D&D players, those who get to cast real spells. Jack Chick promised me thirty years ago that it would happen if I played D&D and I'm still waiting. Why's it taking so long?

Anyway, here's the trailer. RPG! RPG! RPG!

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Cosmos - The Immortals

This week’s Cosmos is one of the more speculative episodes so far, delving into the questions of life that we don’t fully have the answers for yet. But that makes it no less a beautiful and enlightening episode than any other so far. In many ways, speculation is one of the most important parts of the scientific process. Certainly, speculation can be (and often is) wrong, but without the speculation, there is little to drive us to the truth. “The Immortals” looks at one of the biggest questions of all: Where did life come from? But more than that, it looks at where life is going. Does humanity have what it takes to survive, or will it, one day, just be added to the list of extinct species?

Humanity has often looked for immortality—a way to escape the shackles of of an individual’s short time on this planet. But there are different kinds of immortality, and even though “The Immortals” opens with the question, “Are there beings in the cosmos who live forever?” the episode doesn’t concern itself with the idea of a single individual being able to literally live forever. Instead, it takes the route Cosmos has taken previously where records of an existence (from pictures to writing) are a form of immortality. The episode takes us back to ancient Uruk and the Akkadian priestess Enheduanna, who was one of the earliest known poets and authors, and the first person to ever sign her name to her work, ensuring that her name would be recognized long after her death. From there, we learn of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is the earliest example of the hero’s journey. Gilgamesh sought immortality, and in a sense, he found it because his name is still known today. Writing and stories are a way of preserving the past, and so, are a way of keeping their subjects alive potentially forever.

Monday 19 May 2014

Inner Sea Combat

I’m a bit surprised it took as long as it did for Inner Sea Combat to come out. After all, it’s been over two years since Inner Sea Magic was released, and the two books seem obvious companion books (in the same sort of way one can think of Ultimate Magic and Ultimate Combat as companion books). However, whatever the reason for the long gap between the books, it’s good to see combat in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting getting the same attention that magic has already gotten.

Inner Sea Combat provides a ton of new options for combat-oriented characters. But this is more than just a book of new feats and other new rules options. Everything in this book is tied to the Golarion setting and, while it’s certainly possible to separate the new options from the setting and use them without the context, I honestly think most of them will lose a great deal in such a case. There’s a wonderful amount of flavour to the options in this book, and they all build on aspects of the campaign setting—many of them things that have been mentioned in other books but not dealt with in detail until now. The book is organized similarly to Inner Sea Magic, opening with a descriptive look at combat across the Inner Sea region (including a list of prominent NPCs), then providing details on variant forms of combat, new character options including a couple of prestige classes and a ton of new archetypes, and ending with an extensive selection of new magic items. People who criticize Ultimate Combat for having a spells chapter will be happy to know that there are no new spells in this book.

Friday 16 May 2014

Cosmos - The Electric Boy

There are a lot of things that we take for granted in our modern world, the ability to communicate over vast distances almost instantaneously being one such thing. Phones are ubiquitous everywhere. Computers and televisions bring us entertainment. We can hear or read other people’s thoughts by pulling up websites like this one, or buy things without ever having to enter a store. But how do we do that? How do these items work? “The Electric Boy”, the tenth episode of Cosmos answers that question by delving into the life of Michael Faraday, the scientist who unlocked the secrets of electromagnetism and invented the first electric motor, amongst numerous other great achievements. As host Neil deGrasse Tyson says, while other people probably would have eventually made Faraday’s discoveries, if Faraday had never lived, the world we live in today would likely be a very different place.

In some ways, this episode is similar to “The Clean Room”, in that it focuses so heavily on the life of just one scientist. While it starts with a brief mention of Newton, who, after coming up with his laws of planetary motion, was stumped by what causes that motion, the vast majority of the episode focuses exclusively on Faraday, who was the first to solve that problem that Newton couldn’t. Unlike “The Clean Room”, however, there’s a bit more look at the science itself in the vein of most Cosmos episodes.

Mummy's Mask - Empty Graves

In my review of The Half-Dead City, I referred to it as a “calm” adventure. It is a well-made dungeon crawl with a gradual build-up to the adventure path’s main plot—a plot the PCs are barely aware of by the end. In the second part of Mummy’s Mask, Empty Graves by Crystal Frasier, the PCs get their first real taste of the overall plot as things start to heat up considerably when the dead of Wati suddenly animate as undead. It is a very open-ended adventure, allowing the PCs the opportunity to make names for themselves as heroes, to build up alliances and relationships with key people in the city, and to eventually track down the source of this strange undead uprising and put an end to it.


Thursday 8 May 2014

Cosmos - The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth

Change is an immutable part of life. As we go through our lives, we see change all the time, from changing fads and fashions to changing technologies. Some of it is quick and some of it is more gradual, but we can’t fail to notice that it’s there. Yet there is some change that is harder to spot, even invisible to an individual. We tend to think of our lives as being quite lengthy. Some of us even manage to live past a century. Yet, compared to the age of the Earth, even a century is but a tiny fragment of time, a mere blip out of billions of years. As such, we tend to think of the world as a stable environment. Sure, the weather may change from day to day and the seasons cycle through the years, but the overall patterns remain the same—reliable and unchanging. But if we could view time through a wider lens and see it over thousands and millions of years, we would see just how much change it goes through. Species evolve and die off. The climate changes. Ice ages come and go. Levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere change. The world we live in is not the same world that existed in the distant past.

The ninth episode of Cosmos, “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth” takes us on a journey through the long lifetime of our world and gives us brief glimpses of the many worlds Earth has been over its long life. In doing so, we learn of the mechanisms that influence and guide climate change, along with the catastrophes that can sometimes happen as a result. It’s an episode that is particularly relevant to us today, as we live in a world in which those slow, invisible changes are starting to become visible. Climate change is happening at an unprecedented rate, due in no small part to ourselves.

For me personally, this is one of the most educational episodes of Cosmos so far, as it covers several periods of Earth’s history I was previously unfamiliar with, starting with the Carboniferous era, approximately 300 million years ago. This was the time when trees first evolved. They developed a substance called lignin that was both strong and flexible and allowed them to grow tall over top of the other plants of the world. However, lignin was also indigestible to the bacteria and fungi of the time. As such, when the trees died, they didn’t decay. Instead, they became buried under the ground as the millennia passed. Without their decay, their carbon was not returned to the air to balance out the oxygen the trees created while alive. This meant that oxygen levels rose higher than they have ever been during any other period on Earth, leading to the evolution of unbelievably large insects. Indeed, my first instinctive reaction to the computer animation of those insects was that it had to be an exaggeration. It’s not.

Alchemy Manual

Third Edition Dungeons & Dragons introduced the Alchemy skill to the game, and along with it a few alchemical items that characters could buy and use while adventuring (earlier editions had alchemical items but didn’t really have codified rules for them). The 3.5 rules changed the skill to be a branch of the Craft skill, but otherwise retained the same structure. Over the years, as the game added more and more options (new feats, spells, etc.), alchemy was strangely one of the neglected areas. Very few new alchemical items were added to the game and the ones that were there from the start were low-powered, making alchemy something generally only employed by low-level characters before they gained access to high-level spells and other powers. Pathfinder, however, has been gradually adding more and more alchemy to the game. Ultimate Equipment has a sizeable section for alchemy and numerous other books have added a few items (including more powerful ones) here and there. The recent Undead Slayer’s Handbook, for example, has quite a few new alchemical items in its pages. Most notably, the Advanced Player’s Guide added an entire class devoted to alchemy: the alchemist. This has made alchemy a much more prevalent part of Pathfinder than it was before. Nevertheless, alchemy is still an area that has not seen as much new material for it as other areas like feats, spells, archetypes, and traits. But now, the Alchemy Manual helps to redress that balance a little.

In a game awash with so many options that most will rarely, if ever, see use, the Alchemy Manual stands out as a book that is likely to see a lot of use. A first glance, it may seem like a book for the alchemist class—and in a way, it is, as alchemists will certainly get a lot of use out of it. However, one of the nice things about alchemy is that it can be picked up, learned, and used by just about any character. Craft is a class skill for virtually every class, and alchemical items don’t have limits on who can use them, unlike many magic items, even though they often create near-magical effects. The Alchemy Manual focuses on the skill, Craft (alchemy) and the items produced by that skill, and not on things like alchemist discoveries, which are limited to the alchemist class. In fact, some people might be a little surprised to discover that there isn’t a single new alchemist discovery in this book. This is a book usable by everyone, and that’s one of the best things about it. It has a huge number of new alchemical items (broken down into different styles of alchemy) along with a few new feats and tools to expand the versatility and options available to users of the Craft (alchemy) skill.

Monday 5 May 2014

Undead Slayer's Handbook

Undead are an iconic part of fantasy roleplaying. There are few campaigns that won’t, at some point or other, include a few undead, be they mindless skeletons and zombies or more powerful undead like vampires and liches. Many campaigns will feature undead quite frequently and may even focus on them. The PCs may consist of vampire hunters, carefully stalking the creatures of the night. Or perhaps they seek out restless spirits like ghosts and spectres in order to send them to their proper rest. The Undead Slayer’s Handbook is a book that is geared specifically towards these kinds of characters. It provides tools and options for Pathfinder characters who hunt the undead.

While the Undead Slayer’s Handbook is a bit of a niche product, it still has a fairly broad scope, as undead are bound to show up at some point in just about any campaign. This makes the book more widely usable than a book like the Dragonslayer’s Handbook. Even in campaigns focused on dragons, PCs aren’t likely to encounter a lot of them. However, even in campaigns that aren’t focused on undead, PCs are still likely to encounter quite a few undead creatures, from zombie minions to vampire overlords.

Thursday 1 May 2014

Inner Sea Gods

The gods and their followers make up an important part of any fantasy campaign setting. They provide the myths and legends of the world, and their religions help define the ways the people of the world go about their lives from day to day, month to month, and year to year. In Pathfinder and many other games, the gods also provide their most favoured servants with power, often in the form of spells, but also other unique abilities as well. Thus, having a well-defined pantheon of gods is integral to creating a coherent setting.

The gods of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting world of Golarion have been developed over several years now, beginning as just a list of names and domains in the original Rise of the Runelords Player’s Guide, but were then gradually expanded upon with occasional articles dedicated to individual deities appearing in Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes. It wasn’t long before they got a book dedicated to them in Gods and Magic. But that book, at 64 pages, could only hold so much. It’s an overview, really, and as the campaign world has expanded and developed, that book has become less and less useful. There is far more detailed information available in the aforementioned Pathfinder Adventure Path articles and books like Faiths of Purity, Faiths of Balance, Faiths of Corruption, and Faiths & Philosophies. But one problem with all this information is that it is scattered across more than twenty different books, which can make it difficult to find when needed.

Inner Sea Gods, a massive 336-page hardcover tome, helps rectify that problem and introduces lots of new material for both GMs and players. To be fair, some people may see a lot of the material in this book as a retread. It does compile the Pathfinder Adventure Path articles on the 20 core gods of the Inner Sea Region into one place, and that fills up the entire first half of the book. The information on the other gods is also mostly compiled from other sources, leaving about a third of the book to completely new material (mostly game options like new feats, spells, traits, and prestige classes). However, the book has done more than just compile the older information. It has also revised that information to bring it in line with the way the setting has developed and even changed since the material was first published. Gone are paladins of Asmodeus (well, actual lawful good paladins, that is; people claiming to be paladins of Asmodeus are still very much present) and Erastil’s misogyny, and numerous other small revisions can be found by those who look closely enough.

Inner Sea Gods is really quite a remarkable book. The interior layout is absolutely gorgeous. More important than that, the content is full of flavourful information that will leave GMs with tons of material to create new NPCs and plots with. And although there’s a huge amount of information to absorb, it’s a fun and entertaining read from beginning to end.

April Round-Up, Star Wars Episode VII, and Never-Ending Cosmos Praise

So, the big news in April came just a couple days ago with the announcement of the cast for Star Wars Episode VII. I must admit I’m unfamiliar with most of them except the original trilogy cast (obviously), Andy Serkis and Max von Sydow. However, I couldn’t help noticing (as did others) that the new cast contains lots of men (mostly white men at that with one token black guy) and one woman. Sticking to tired old formulas, Star Wars? So much for progress. Still, following the fact that lots of people noticed this, it was revealed that there is still another “substantial” role to fill. That’s good news, I suppose. I do have to wonder, though, just how substantial this role actually is, given that they didn’t feel the need to wait for it to be cast before announcing the other actors playing substantial roles. Time will tell, I suppose, but let's be honest, even two is not a great number. Women do make up 51% of the population after all.

Honestly, even though I was a Star Wars fanatic as a child and well into my young adult years, it just doesn’t hold the same sense of wonder for me that it once did. Personally, I’m far more excited about the ongoing series of Cosmos! It has made a much greater impact on me this month, as can be seen with my ongoing coverage of it on this site. I was starting to fall quite a bit behind in my episode reviews, but managed to get completely caught up in the last week. Altogether, this month saw reviews of episodes four, five, six, seven, and eight. I eagerly look forward to the remaining five episodes. Although it’s not exactly Cosmos, here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a kick-ass answer to a rather stupid question about whether genetics plays any role in the lack of women in science:

In gaming, April 5th was International Tabletop Day, and Wil Wheaton’s Geek & Sundry series, Tabletop began a campaign to raise funds for its third season. They’ve already made their initial goals and will be producing a 20-episode season. However, if they reach $1 million total, they will also produce a spin-off series based on roleplaying games. There are only ten days left, but they are very close to that million dollar mark. Tabletop’s a great show, and I would really like to see the RPG spin-off. Let’s hope they’re successful!

I only wrote one Pathfinder review this month: the opening to the new Mummy’s Mask adventure path, The Half-Dead City. The lack of further reviews is down to the fact that next one is of the massive 332-page hardcover, Inner Sea Gods. That took awhile to read through, but I’m done now and my review should be up within the next few hours.

This month, I also discovered the wonderful documentary The Delian Mode, about Doctor Who composer Delia Derbyshire. It’s a must-see for all Doctor Who and electronic music fans. Finally, I also made a brief post about the short video, “Stone”.

Here’s to a great May!