Friday 27 June 2014

Doctor Who Returns 23 August

The BBC has confirmed that Doctor Who will return on Saturday, 23 August, 2014 with a feature-length episode entitled "Deep Breath". There doesn't seem to be any indication yet exactly how long "feature-length" is. To go along with the announcement, the BBC have released a new teaser trailer as well. It's a little more compelling than the earlier one. At the very least, it has a bit of dialogue and motion in it.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Blood of the Elements

In my recent Pathfinder reviews, I’ve commented quite a bit on the sheer volume of options that are now available for the game, and how many of those options tend to end up forgotten because they don’t stand out and there’s just too much to remember. However, when I’ve brought this up, it’s generally been to praise new material for managing to stand out from the crowd. Several recent books in both the Pathfinder Player Companion and Pathfinder Campaign Setting lines have achieved this. Books like the Alchemy Manual and The Harrow Handbook blend together flavour and mechanics to create truly memorable and interesting concepts. Unfortunately, the new Blood of the Elements fails to continue that trend.

The book looks at the geniekin races (ifrits, oreads, sulis, sylphs, and undines), providing background and character options for each. It also goes beyond this and looks at the four elemental planes, as well as the famed City of Brass on the Plane of Fire—and this is part of where the book goes wrong. There have been a number of Blood of... books and the best ones (Blood of Angels, Blood of Fiends) have had tight focuses, while the weaker ones (Blood of the Night) have tried to do too much. Thirty-two pages really isn’t enough space to adequately cover five races and include a gazetteer of the elemental planes, making Blood of the Elements one of the ones that tries to do too much.

Monday 23 June 2014

Mummy's Mask - Shifting Sands

So far, in the Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path, the PCs have explored ancient tombs and temples, and stopped an undead uprising in Wati. At the end of Empty Graves, the PCs came into possession of a mysterious and powerful magic item. Now, in Shifting Sands by Richard Pett, the PCs must uncover the history of this item and learn why certain other groups are desperate to get their hands on it. To do so, they must travel to the city of Tephu and sift through its expansive library while also successfully staying on the nobility’s good side.

There’s a lot to like in Shifting Sands, but I must admit, it’s left me with something of a mixed opinion. I absolutely love certain aspects—in particular, its ingenious new method for handling research, which makes the research far more interesting than just a few Knowledge checks. It also has some great opportunities for roleplay, as the PCs must secure for themselves permission to use the library in the first place. Unfortunately, much of that roleplay is with a rather one-dimensional NPC whose actions vary little regardless of what the PCs do. The concluding part of the adventure allows the PCs to do some exploration of the desert, and works pretty well, but does feel a touch tacked on.


Friday 13 June 2014

Cosmos - Unafraid of the Dark

The Library of Alexandria was a prominent virtual location on Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series. It is fitting, therefore, that the final episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series should begin in that location. Tyson uses it as both a tale of caution and one of inspiration. Before its destruction, the Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest repositories of knowledge in the world. It was a representation of the incredible things humanity could achieve. Yet it was only available to a privileged few, unlike the knowledge that we can download at our fingertips today. There were very few to defend it when the time came.

One of the key themes in “Unafraid of the Dark” is that scientific knowledge should be freely available to all, for that is the only way to ensure that it is used responsibly. Scientists are human beings and capable of error. They’re also capable of corruption. Only by others cross-checking data and theories can the errors be found and corruption weeded out. But there’s a bigger, more encompassing theme, to this final episode, and that is the fact that human knowledge is incomplete. There is so much about the cosmos that we simply don’t know. In fact, when Martin Behaim made the very first globe of the Earth in 1492 (a globe that only contained the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa), people then knew relatively more about the Earth than we know now about the universe as a whole. Yet we shouldn’t be ashamed of this. Indeed, Tyson presents this fact as a point of inspiration, a reason for us to continue the search and to learn more, for there can be nothing more exciting than discovering something new—something that seems to rewrite reality as we know it.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Occult Mysteries

As much as I like the Pathfinder Campaign Setting of Golarion, I’ve often felt that one area of weakness is in conveying what typical inhabitants’ lives are like. The products do a great job of setting a general tone for various areas of the setting and filling in geographical details and history. We learn a lot about the places you can visit, but a lot less about what you can do there, from the festivals and pastimes of the locals, to styles of dress, to art styles and cuisine, and to personal beliefs. I’ve mentioned more than a few times in my reviews my frustration at the lack of explanation of just what a cavalier order is—how it fits into the setting, how it interacts with governments and other organizations. The Prophets of Kalistrade are mentioned in numerous supplements as having strict dietary and sexual prohibitions, but those products never—not once!—actually say what those prohibitions are. These might seem like minor points not worth mentioning, especially since the focus of the game is on adventurers having adventures, not adventurers having normal, everyday lives. However, it’s often the little details that add the most flavour. They may be background elements, but they help to make the setting seem more real and alive.

Occult Mysteries is a product that takes a step towards addressing some of these issues. It doesn’t answer the questions about cavalier orders and the Prophets of Kalistrade, and it doesn’t give information about day-to-day life in any particular part of the world. However, it does offer incredible insight into the beliefs of the people of Golarion, and into their thought processes. The book looks at a number of “mysteries” from across the world—the strange things that people haven’t quite been able to explain, but have many hypotheses about. These include creation stories, the exodus of the gnomes, and the missing Volume 5 of the Pathfinder Chronicles. The book also looks at traditions like astrology and numerology, secret societies, and infamous texts of great power.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Cosmos - The World Set Free

The world is a beautiful place, full of awe-inspiring sights and teeming with millions of lifeforms. Yet the world is a fragile place, too. Life has evolved within a very delicate balance of elements in the atmosphere. Alter that balance just a little and things can change drastically. We have known about global warming for quite some time now, but we have been slow to do anything about it. Indeed, there are many who deny its implications or even its entire existence. They dismiss the overwhelming evidence simply because it doesn’t fit their world-view. Climate change is a gradual process, and even at its current accelerated rate, it’s not something noticeable to the naked eye from day to day or year to year. And because we can’t see it, it’s hard to accept. But simply because something is hard to see doesn’t make it untrue.

A few episodes ago, in “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth”, Cosmos explored long-term climate change, looking at the many different kinds of worlds the Earth has been. Most of that climate change has been completely natural. Climate does change on its own over thousands and millions of years, and even without human influence, it would continue to change. That episode also touched on modern climate change, drawing attention to the fact that we are releasing carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuel at an incredible rate, and it was the release of carbon from the Carboniferous period that ended the Permian and drastically altered the world’s climate.

In the most recent episode, “The World Set Free”, Cosmos returns to the topic of climate change and this time looks closely at human-created climate change and the phenomenon of global warming that we must deal with today. There is absolutely no reason any of this episode should be controversial, and yet there are many that will make it so. Still, this is knowledge that we must absorb and Cosmos, in its usual way, presents it clearly and accessibly, and in an entertaining fashion.

May Round-Up, Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, and Doctor Who News

May and June are always busy months for me. It’s the end of the school year and that keeps me occupied preparing students for exams and final projects. Then comes the quiet of summer. I like the quiet of summer.

But no matter how busy I get, I always make certain to get some gaming and writing in. Here on the blog, I took a look at several Pathfinder products in May, including the hardcover release, Inner Sea Gods, as well as the Undead Slayer’s Handbook, the very good Alchemy Manual, Empty Graves, Inner Sea Combat, and my favourite of the bunch, The Harrow Handbook. I also got (and still am) very excited over the trailer for Dark Dungeons.

In related gaming news, the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons now has release dates for its initial products, beginning with a Starter Set in July, the Player’s Handbook in August, Monster Manual in September, and Dungeon Master’s Guide in November. A couple of adventures, Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, both from Kobold Press, are interspersed with the other releases. Similarly to 4th Edition, the new edition is not being marketed as “5th Edition” or “D&D Next” or anything else, but simply as Dungeons & Dragons.

While the release of the new edition is likely to be big news, I’ll be honest and state that I won’t be switching to it, even though D&D was my first ever roleplaying game and I’ve been playing it in some form for over 30 years now. This isn’t because I don’t expect it to be any good. I haven’t actually been keeping much track of news about it, so I have very little idea what to expect from it. It might be good, it might be terrible, or it might be anything in between. However, the fact is, I’m quite happy with Pathfinder at the moment and see no need to change. I’ve also invested a lot of money in Pathfinder and have enough products now that, even if Paizo stopped publishing tomorrow, I’d have enough material to last me for decades yet. New stuff is fun, it’s true. I love getting new stuff. But I’m also not made of money and I have to decide carefully where my money goes. I will likely look at the new D&D in the store and I’m certainly not averse to playing in a game one day (although limited time will make that difficult), but I won’t be running games of it myself. I may well pick up one of the books one day, though, and if I do, I might just post a review.

In non-gaming news, I continue to be super excited about Cosmos, and I was disappointed that it was pre-empted on May 25th, which is why I haven’t posted a response in the last couple weeks. However, over the month I did write responses to 9th, 10th, and 11th episodes, “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth”, “The Electric Boy”, and “The Immortals”. My review of this week’s episode, “The World Set Free”, will hopefully be up shortly after I get this post up.

The big Doctor Who news for the month is that the new series will première sometime in August (exact date still to be announced). The BBC released a very, very short teaser trailer for the series, which I mentioned in this post, along with the much more interesting Doctor Who parody production from the Hillywood Show. In the world of missing episode, no more missing episodes have been announced; however, an early recording featuring Jacqueline Hill (who played Barbara, one of the Doctor’s very first companions) has been found. It’s a production of the play Requiem for a Heavyweight, and also features a young Sean Connery from before he became famous as James Bond. You can read more about it on the Doctor Who News Page.

Have a good June, everyone!