Wednesday 30 December 2015

Doctor Who - The Husbands of River Song

When I write my reviews for this site, I don't include numerical marks of any kind. I don't give something 4 stars or something else a score of 9 out of 10. However, when I post links to my reviews on other sites that include such markings, I will often grudgingly apply one. But the truth is, I prefer not to give marks, so that's why you don't see them in the reviews themselves.

This is for a couple simple reasons. Primarily, it's because I find that a simple number doesn't really tell a lot. There's far more nuance to anything than a single score could ever provide. Not only that, different people assign different meanings to scores. One just has to look at the various review threads on Gallifrey Base to see this. One person can call a particular episode terrible and still give it a score of 6 out of 10, while the next person will offer all kinds of praise and give exactly the same score.

But even if everyone were to agree on how good any particular score is, there's still a lot not conveyed by it. If “5 out of 10” means mediocre, does it mean that the whole thing is mediocre or that it's mostly really good but let down by some major part being poor? Perhaps it's the reverse of that, mostly bad but with a major redeeming feature? Or is it all over the place and just sort of averages out to 5? Since all these things need to be explained anyway, I feel it's just better to go ahead and explain them and not worry about assigning a number to go with them.

I've often commented that Steven Moffat's Doctor Who stories can be a mix of brilliance and annoyance, and “The Husbands of River Song” is a definite example of this, and one for which a numerical score would definitely not convey any indication of how good or bad it is. It's definitely an entertaining episode, which is ultimately its main objective and thus is a success. It has some funny moments, some touching moments, and great performances from its two leads. But it also has some terribly unfunny jokes, a paper-thin plot, poor characterisation, and some rather poor performances from several of the guest stars. It also manages to make you both love and hate River Song at the same time—which may, I admit, be intentional. It all makes for a bit of a confounding episode.


Thursday 24 December 2015

A Look Back at Doctor Who Series 9

Since I started writing Doctor Who reviews in mid-series 6, I have generally only reviewed individual episodes. While, within those reviews, I might comment on the overall direction of the series (and particularly on the resolution in my review of a series finale), I haven't previously reviewed an entire series as a whole. I generally haven't felt the need to. However, this year, during Series 9, I noticed an unusual thing happening: I was rating individual episodes quite highly, yet my feelings for the entire series were much lower, and they seemed to sink lower as the series went on, despite the fact that my opinions of the individual episodes were often getting higher. While this isn't entirely unprecedented, it seemed to be a much greater dichotomy than usual this year, and so I began to think that I should write a follow-up review after the series finale that looks back on the entire series. This is that review.

My main issue with Series 9 is the series arc story, which is, to say the least, poor and unconvincing. Series arcs are an interesting phenomenon, a product of modern television storytelling that old, “classic” Doctor Who didn't have to deal with. In those days, seasons of any show on television just sort of ended. They didn't make a big deal of the conclusion. Similarly, there wasn't a continuing story arc joining multiple episodes (or, in Doctor Who's case, serials) together. Each story was distinct and separate from what came before and the only continuity was character continuity (and even characters didn't do much developing from one story to the next).

Doctor Who experimented with a couple of arcs back in the day. There was “The Key to Time” arc of Season 16 and “The Trial of a Timelord” for season 23. Occasionally, a season might have a linking theme, such as entropy in Season 18, or a couple stories in a row might be linked together in some way, such as the Black Guardian trilogy in Season 20. But on the whole, each story was separate and contained, and the final story of a season wasn't treated any differently than the stories that came before it.

It was in the 90s, while Doctor Who was off the air, that this started to change and story arcs that continued over multiple episodes became more common. Babylon 5 was at the forefront of this change, presenting a show that had a continuing story that went from its first to last episode over five years. Other science fiction and fantasy shows began to follow Babylon 5's lead. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, The X-Files, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and others began introducing ongoing story arcs, some that lasted over multiple years, others that would run a single season before concluding and allowing for a new arc to start the following season. By the time Doctor Who returned to television full-time in 2005, story arcs had become the norm for much of television, beyond just science fiction and fantasy programmes. Doctor Who really had little choice but to take part.

I don't want to make it sound as if I think this is, in any way, a bad thing. I actually think it's been a change for the better in television. Although they have the downside of making it more of an issue to miss an episode, story arcs provide more of a reward for the viewers. They give a direction to the show and to the characters, and allow viewers to travel with the characters through a developing world, one where the events of one episode impact the episodes that come after it, and there's a greater sense of accomplishment when the end of the arc is reached. That said, story arcs were something new for Doctor Who, and I'm not sure the show has ever fully acclimated to the format.


Tuesday 22 December 2015

Familiar Folio

Many stories and fables place a “familiar spirit” at the side of a wizard, witch, or other practitioner of the “dark arts”. These familiar spirits are often some sort of demonic force that has taken on a corporeal form, usually that of a small animal. The image of a black cat at a witch's side has thus become an iconic one, and thus it's not surprising that spellcasters in fantasy roleplaying games should have the opportunity to have one of these familiar spirits as well. In Pathfinder games, familiars are generally more benevolent than their counterparts in the stories and aren't generally demons in disguise (though the more fiendish kinds of familiars can also exist). Nevertheless, familiars fulfil a similar role: they aid their masters in various tasks and, in the case of the witch class, are the source of their magical powers.

Despite the fact that familiars have been part of the game since the days of the find familiar spell in 1st and 2nd Edition D&D, they have gained a bit of a reputation for being a bit...well...useless. While not a reputation I fully agree with, familiars are relatively weak and are of extremely limited help in combat, where they will die very easily if not carefully protected. Of course, not everything should be strong in combat, but even outside of combat, familiars provide only limited benefits to their masters. Familiars can be great for roleplaying as characters to interact with (and I have seen many very fun familiars in my own games), but beyond that, they are very limited in what they can do. Ever since Pathfinder introduced options for wizards and sorcerers to not have familiars, I've found—in my own games, at any rate—that most players have gone for the alternatives, such as the bonded object for wizards.

I think some of the issue may come from the fact that there have been few options for modifying familiars in the way that so many other things in the game can be modified. The Improved Familiar feat exists along with a smattering of other feats and spells that affect familiars, but for the most part official sources haven't really done much with familiars (although third-party publishers have occasionally tackled familiars). Beyond a minor skill bonus variance based on the type of animal chosen for familiar, every familiar is pretty much the same. Even a witch's familiar, which is an integral part of the class doesn't offer much in the way of new abilities.

Animal Archive began to rectify this situation by introducing archetypes for familiars, along with new feats, new kinds of familiars, and various other ways to modify characters' familiars. But Animal Archive covers animals in general, not just familiars, so there is limited space in that book to greatly expand the options for familiars. Familiar Folio is the first official Pathfinder book dedicated entirely to familiars, and takes the needed step to expand familiar options considerably with new archetypes, feats, spells, magic items, and more.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Iron Gods - Valley of the Brain Collectors

Brain collectors have always been an iconic Dungeons & Dragons monster to me, although they're probably not amongst the first few monsters that spring to most people's minds when they think of the game. Nevertheless, they have been around a long time, first appearing way back in X2: Castle Amber, one of my favourite adventures from my childhood. I must have run that adventure fifty times back in the day. If I recall correctly, there is only one brain collector in Castle Amber and, like most monsters in that adventure, its appearance is rather random. Nevertheless, it made an impression on my young mind—an impression that has stayed with me ever since.

Castle Amber was an adventure for the Expert Rules set of the “Basic” Dungeons & Dragons game, back in the day when there were two separate games: Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (“Basic” is a misnomer as it only technically refers to the first of what would eventually become five sets of rules, yet many people persisted in calling the entire game “Basic D&D”). It wasn't until the Mystara Monstrous Compendium was published that brain collectors first appeared in AD&D (when the Mystara setting was updated from a D&D setting to an AD&D setting). After that, brain collectors eventually showed up in the more generic Monster Manuals for 3rd Edition, even appearing as an epic version in the Epic Levels Handbook. Brain collectors first showed up in Pathfinder in Bestiary 2, under their actual race name which has tagged along with them since Castle Amber: neh-thalggus.

My fascination with brain collectors is such that any adventure with them in the title is likely to grab my attention. Thus, ever since Valley of the Brain Collectors was announced, I've been eager to reach and read this instalment of the Iron Gods Adventure Path. Yet obviously, it takes more than an appearance of a neh-thalggu or two to make an adventure good and fun. Indeed, brain collectors never seem to be used well or serve much purpose in adventures I've seen them in. The fact is, while I do consider Castle Amber to be a good adventure, it's not its random selection of monsters, including the brain collector, that make it so.

In my last couple of reviews for Iron Gods, I've commented on the important role setting plays in any adventure. With its science fiction trappings, Iron Gods relies a great deal on setting to impart its flavour. Lords of Rust uses its setting to particularly great effect, while The Choking Tower does not do as good a job. Valley of the Brain Collectors has the most contained setting of all the adventures in Iron Gods so far, and that works to this particular adventure's benefit. It is also the most alien of the locations the PCs have visited so far, but it comes alive almost as well as Lords of Rust's setting does, with well-developed characters who have well-developed, if alien, motivations. And while it is an adventure that relies almost entirely on site-based encounters, the denizens encountered never come across as if they have just been sitting in one spot waiting for the player characters to arrive to fight them—a problem that many site-based and dungeon crawl adventures don't succeed in overcoming. Instead, the denizens of this valley have relationships—both allied and antagonistic—and adjust to the events around them. In short, the setting of Valley of the Brain Collectors feels actually lived in, making Valley a very good adventure indeed.


Friday 18 December 2015

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom

Of all the countries in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, Andoran has, perhaps, the greatest reputation for being uninteresting. It is a land that is seen as being somewhat idyllic, a country that has worked out most of its problems. Rather unusually for a fantasy setting, it is a democracy, where everyone is theoretically treated equally and everyone has a chance to live the American dream (I use that terminology deliberately, for Andoran's real-world influence is quite obviously the United States of America; Andoran was formed by people who rebelled against the oppressive power that formerly ruled over them). While a country with few problems may be a great place to live in, it is perhaps not the greatest place to adventure in. It can seem dull, even boring.

But that's just the surface of Andoran. The country certainly isn't perfect, and there are many things going on under the surface in this land that keep it from truly reaching its vaunted ideals. While it may appear quiet and dull, there are opportunities for adventurers to make their mark—particularly in politics. That said, it can still come across as somewhat “standard” with little other than its democracy making it stand out from other fantasy settings.

Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom is not the first book published on this country. A few years ago, there was Andoran, Spirit of Liberty, part of the Pathfinder Player Companion line (then just Pathfinder Companion). Before that, there was Guide to Darkmoon Vale. That book showed just how much opportunity for adventure there is within that particular region of Andoran, and presented a setting that rose beyond its somewhat standard surface appearance. Not surprisingly, there is some overlap between the three books, but not nearly as much as one might expect, particularly between Birthplace of Freedom and Spirit of Liberty, which both nominally cover the entire country. Birthplace is twice the length of Spirit of Liberty for a start, but even so, Birthplace repeats very little from Spirit. Indeed, the two books compliment each other in a way very few Pathfinder Campaign Setting/Player Companion books do, with the earlier Spirit of Liberty offering many of the things I would otherwise criticise Birthplace for not containing.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Doctor Who - Hell Bent

To read my reviews of the two episodes leading into this one, click on the following links: “Face the Raven” and “Heaven Sent”.

Doctor Who finales these days tend to follow a certain pattern: There's a universal threat, a reunion of various characters, the resolution of some sort of pre-ordained event in time, and often the destruction of the universe itself (although last year's “Death in Heaven” dropped the destruction of the universe part). I've commented before (particularly in my review of “The Name of the Doctor”) that there is a perceived need to make every series finale bigger than the one before, as if only bigger can be better. For once, “Hell Bent” moves away from that pattern a little. Oh, most of it's still there as backdrop, but it centres in on a far more personal story than typical of Steven Moffat's finales (with “Death in Heaven” again being something of an exception). Despite its massive backdrop, it doesn't feel bigger. It feels smaller. And that's a good thing. Unfortunately, there are still many things to take issue with in the episode.

Like so many of Steven Moffat's stories (especially finales), “Hell Bent” is a mixture of brilliance and annoyance. There are wonderful ideas and individual moments that make me want to clap or cry out in joy. But there are also moments that make me groan. And unfortunately, like so many finales of recent years, all the various wonderful ideas and moments don't hold together particularly well when examined at anything beyond a surface level. As a whole, “Hell Bent” is rather underwhelming—and that's a shame because there are truly some amazing moments, particularly towards the end, where the story almost, but not quite, redeems itself (and in the eyes of many people, including IO9's Charlie Jane Anders, does redeem itself). It's a shame, too, because the two episodes leading into it, especially “Heaven Sent”, are such good episodes.

Hell Bent” does get better on subsequent viewings, something I've found also tends to be the case with finales written by Steven Moffat. Perhaps it's because I know to expect the parts I don't particularly like and can ignore them more easily. A while back, I wrote about the ways people react to spoilers. I think, for me, Steven Moffat's finales are stories where I should just let myself be spoiled in advance, despite my general preference to avoid spoilers. Nevertheless, I will provide the appropriate spoiler warnings here.


Friday 4 December 2015

We Be Goblins Free!

We Be Goblins! is clearly a very popular adventure module. Published by Paizo for 2011's Free RPG Day, it has, not surprisingly, resulted in two sequels: We Be Goblins Too! in 2013 and now, We Be Goblins Free!, each for its year's respective Free RPG Day. PDF versions of all three adventures are available for free from Paizo's website.

We Be Goblins! is certainly deserving of its popularity. It's an inventive, fun, and funny adventure. We Be Goblins Too! is similarly fun and funny, although as I point out in my review (linked above), it does suffer a bit from being too similar to We Be Goblins! However, if they're not played back-to-back, both adventures can remain extremely entertaining. We Be Goblins Free! is...well...just like its two predecessors. Unfortunately, it's reaching a point where the repetition starts to become stale, even with gaps between playing the adventures. Perhaps it's time to do something new with the goblin adventures. Or even bring them to an end.


Thursday 3 December 2015

Doctor Who - Heaven Sent

It's rather remarkable that, after 52 years, Doctor Who still has the capacity to surprise. I've talked before about its ability to change and be numerous different things, but even so, after 52 years, you might think that there wouldn't be much left to do that hasn't already been done. Not so. There's still so much more that is new and surprising. “Heaven Sent” is an example of that.

A couple of weeks ago, Doctor Who did a very experimental episode: “Sleep No More”. It wasn't particularly well-received by the general audience. While I enjoyed it overall, I also acknowledged where it was flawed. In “Heaven Sent”, we get another highly experimental episode, but this one knocks the ball out of the park with what is one of the best Doctor Who episodes in some time. There's very little to criticise about it, which is rare for me and a script penned by Stephen Moffat. Quite simply, “Heaven Sent” is wonderful Doctor Who. It is captivating, atmospheric, thoughtful, and moving—quite the delight!


Tuesday 1 December 2015

November Round-Up, Pathfinder Adventure Path #100, Doctor Who Christmas Special, and Sherlock

The end of the year approaches and December looks to be a big month for science fiction and fantasy fans. The new Star Wars movie comes out, of course, but there's more going on too. But first, a look back over the month that's passed...

November was a good month. While I always seem to be just a little bit behind what I hoped for (I planned to have one more Pathfinder review up by now), I'm still on target to catching up with everything in about a year from now, and I have high hopes I'll get a lot of extra work done during the holidays this coming month. In November, I completed another seven Pathfinder reviews. They included this summer's big hardcover release, Occult Adventures, which introduced psychic magic to the game. Following along with that theme, I also reviewed a couple of the other recent occult-themed releases: Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary. I will have a review of Occult Realms sometime in December. I also continued my way through the Iron Gods adventure path in November with Lords of Rust and The Choking Tower. Along with those, I reviewed the Technology Guide, which is indispensable to people running the adventure path. Finally, I looked at Champions of Corruption, the third of the alignment books, this one looking at the evil alignments. Coming up next will be a review of this year's Free RPG Day release, We Be Goblins Free!

December sees the release of Pathfinder Adventure Path #100! Part of the current Hell's Rebels AP, it's an extra-large volume to commemorate the milestone. It's hard to believe that I currently have 99 volumes of Pathfinder Adventure Path sitting on my shelves. They take up much less space than you might expect, actually. It's still quite a bit though. When Dragon and Dungeon magazines came to an end a few years ago, I still had several issues left on my subscription, so I used the option Paizo provided at the time to convert the remainder into credit towards their new Pathfinder release. I was hooked pretty quickly and just kept on getting them. Unfortunately, given how far behind I am, it will be awhile before I get round to reading and reviewing #100, but I couldn't let this monumental event pass without at least mentioning it.

Series 9 of Doctor Who continued throughout November, and I kept on with my reviews of each episode. These included the two-parter that began with “The Zygon Invasion” and concluded with “The Zygon Inversion”, the experimental “Sleep No More” and the tragic “Face the Raven”. This past weekend saw the airing of another very experimental episode, “Heaven Sent”. I'll have my review of that up soon. After the conclusion of Series 9 this month, I intend to do something I haven't done previously, and that's to do a separate write-up on the entire series. This is because, while I've highly enjoyed many of the individual episodes, I've felt the series hasn't really held together very well. The overall narrative arc has been quite poor, I've felt, and I want to take the time to look at that in more detail.

For some fun news, just yesterday, Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) posted a video about the long-standing rumours that he might direct an episode of Doctor Who. The video was recorded recently when Peter Capaldi was in New Zealand for a convention. There's every chance that the video is just Jackson and Capaldi having a bit of fun, but perhaps—just perhaps—it's a tease before an official announcement that Jackson really will be directing an episode. See my post from yesterday to watch the video.

In other Doctor Who news, the title of this year's Christmas special has been announced: “The Husbands of River Song”. While I have my criticisms of River Song, I am looking forward to seeing her and the 12th Doctor together for the first time. I expect Alex Kingston and Peter Capaldi will be amazing on screen together. Although it hasn't actually been announced, one other thing about the special is discernible from the publicity picture (at the top of this post): the Doctor apparently has a sonic screwdriver again! I'll be happy to see the last of the sonic sunglasses (assuming they'll be gone completely—there's nothing really stopping the Doctor from having both).

Also coming over the holiday season is a Sherlock special: The Abominable Bride. This will air on New Year's Day. Set in Victorian times, it's not technically a continuation of the Sherlock series, but it does contain all the same cast. Here's the latest trailer:

If for nothing else, this will be worth watching for Watson's spectacular moustache!

So December looks to be quite the month (okay, so Sherlock is technically in January, whatever). I'm looking forward to it!

Monday 30 November 2015

Peter Jackson Directing Doctor Who?

There have been rumours for some time about Peter Jackson (director of The Lord of the Rings movies and many more) directing Doctor Who. Jackson is well-known to be a life-long fan of Doctor Who and a couple years ago, it was confirmed that he was interested in directing the show—just so long as he received his own Dalek as payment.

Well, Peter Jackson has recently uploaded a video to his Facebook page, which many people are seeing as a confirmation that he is now officially directing an episode. The video certainly seems to imply that, although it never actually comes out and directly says as much. It's possible that he and Peter Capaldi (who appears in the video) are just having a bit of fun with the rumours. But it could well be a tease before an official announcement.

Assuming it is happening, I am very intrigued. I love The Lord of the Rings movies, but I'm much less enthralled by The Hobbit movies, so we'll have to see—but I suppose that's true of any situation. Nevertheless, I look forward to it.

Apparently, I can't embed a Facebook video without a Facebook account, so I'm embedding a copy someone else put up on Youtube. You can watch the original at this link if the Youtube one gets taken down.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Champions of Corruption

At its heart, Pathfinder (and many other fantasy roleplaying games) is about playing heroes who go on great quests to vanquish the forces of evil. Along the way, the heroes develop great powers and acquire awesomely powered magical items. Of course, there can be a lot more to it than just this: the heroes form relationships with other characters, both other heroes (the other player characters) and various other people (the non-player characters); the heroes can create items of their own; they can open businesses; they can fall in love. The breadth of possibilities is huge, but for the most part that heart of good heroes fighting evil remains.

Yet even that doesn't have to be immutable. Not every character a player creates in the game is necessarily good. There are nine alignments and only three of them are good, after all. Three fall in the neutral range, and many players will choose those alignments for their characters. They allow for characters who may not be bastions of goodness, but still rise up to fight against evil and save the day. But what if players don't want to save the day? What if they want to be the ones the heroes would normally fight against? What of the three evil alignments?

I'm not a big fan of evil campaigns myself, though I can see the draw. After all, the game is about pretending to be someone you aren't, and playing evil is perhaps the ultimate expression of that. And even if it's not the sort of thing you want to do all the time, playing an evil character just once to give it a try is a tempting lure (I have certainly done it). The difficulty with evil campaigns is that evil characters can have a hard time working together. It only takes one PC to turn on the others and suddenly the whole game falls apart—and possibly even the gaming group if some players aren't happy with what has occurred. But if you can get past the difficulties, then an evil campaign can have its own rewards.

Champions of Corruption is the third Pathfinder Player Companion book to take a close look at the alignments in Pathfinder and offer options for players playing those alignments. I was very impressed with the first two books, Champions of Purity and Champions of Balance, and so was greatly looking forward to this book. Even if evil campaigns are not my cup of tea, a discussion of evil in the game is an important thing, especially when there has already been a discussion of good and neutrality.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Iron Gods - The Choking Tower

There is a downside to every adventure path being the same length. While having six adventures per adventure path creates a consistency so that players and gamemasters know what to expect, it also forces every story into a predefined length whether the story really works at that length or not. This is certainly not an uncommon problem. Television programmes have to fit every episode to set number of minutes and seasons tend to run the same number of episodes. It's ultimately something of an unavoidable problem, but it can lead to individual instalments feeling rushed or like filler.

The Choking Tower by Ron Lundeen feels a lot like filler. Of course, as it's only the third part of Iron Gods and I haven't read the remaining three volumes, it's hard to judge the adventure path as a whole, but this adventure doesn't seem to add a lot to what we've had so far. While its overall goal is important to the rest of the adventure path, the events of the adventure itself are rather peripheral.

The Choking Tower is certainly not a bad adventure. It will likely provide hours of entertainment for any group. But there's also little about the adventure that really stands out. On the whole, it's run-of-the-mill, with a fairly linear plot and NPCs who are mostly forgettable (although the main villain is a notable exception). It also lacks the vibrant setting of its immediate predecessor, presenting instead a setting that is pretty standard despite its science fiction trappings.


Tuesday 24 November 2015

Doctor Who - Face the Raven

As the end of Series 9 approaches, it's not surprising that events on Doctor Who are beginning to build towards the finale. The overall direction and theme of the series has not been as clear this year as in other years, but there have been a few hints and they are starting to play out.

Face the Raven” by Sarah Dollard begins the move towards the finale quite dramatically and even a little shockingly. It starts as a seemingly standard stand-alone adventure for the Doctor and Clara that then turns into something much different. It's a very good episode and very emotional. Unfortunately, it's let down—not by its own faults (mostly) but by the episodes that have come before it. They have failed to effectively bring the series to the point it reaches here. As a result, it's not quite as affecting as it could have been.


Friday 20 November 2015

Occult Bestiary

While reading Occult Adventures, some people may be surprised that it doesn't contain any new monsters. Roleplaying books of this sort will often contain a selection of new monsters that serve both to illustrate how the new rules are used and to provide GMs with some ready-made opponents for PCs built with the new rules. Mythic Adventures, for example, has a small selection of mythic monsters for just these purposes, yet Occult Adventures has none.

The introduction to Occult Bestiary reveals that the original plan was to have a few monsters in Occult Adventures, but the limits of space meant that it just couldn't be. To have included the monsters would have meant leaving out something else. As nice as new monsters can be, it's a decision I'm glad they made as there is so much flavourful material in Occult Adventures, that there's very little I could imagine leaving out. Nevertheless, the new rules cry out for monsters that use them, and Occult Bestiary answers that cry.

Occult Bestiary contains all the monsters originally planned for Occult Adventures, plus dozens more. Now, the book is part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line, which means that the monsters within are tied to Golarion, whereas Occult Adventures is setting-neutral and thus any monsters that had appeared there would have been setting-neutral as well. However, it makes little difference in the end. While Occult Bestiary does use a few Golarion terms and locations, all the monsters within are easily divorced from the setting. Indeed, most of them make no explicit reference to Golarion at all. As such, this book is easily used with any campaign setting.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Technology Guide

Advanced technology has been present in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting since the very beginning. The old Pathfinder Chronicles: Gazetteer contains a 1-page entry on Numeria and its crashed spaceship (albeit referred to as a “great metal mountain”). It was inevitable that more detail would be forthcoming. Eventually, Numeria got its own dedicated book, Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars, and an adventure path, Iron Gods, that takes place there and exploits its science fiction aspects.

But adding technology into a fantasy game like Pathfinder takes more than just including some guns and computers in an adventure book. Not only do these things need statistics, but there also need to be consistent rules governing their use. Much like with magic items and spells, players are bound to be interested in having their characters acquire more of such items or even create them themselves. The game needs to have ways to cover such eventualities. Yet a book like Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars simply doesn't have the room to detail these kinds of rules in any extensive manner—not and have any space left over to talk about the setting. The same goes for Adventure Path volumes. Technology needs its own separate book.

That's where the Technology Guide comes in. It provides both rules necessary for integrating technology into a Pathfinder game and a plethora of sample items—big and small, low-powered and high-powered—for villains to use and player characters to acquire. Although the Technology Guide is published as part of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line of books, this is actually a relatively setting-neutral book. It does focus on fitting its content to the flavour of Numeria and does have occasional references to places in Numeria (and elsewhere on Golarion), but for the most part, the material is generic enough for use in any campaign setting that features technology of any kind. And it's for good reason. As much as I praise world-specific content, there needs to be a baseline for the world-specific to build on. The baseline also allows people to create their own campaign worlds that use technology. It's therefore not surprising that the rules and items from the Technology Guide have been added to the Pathfinder Reference Document, which is usually reserved for material from the setting-neutral hardcover rulebooks.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Doctor Who - Sleep No More

I've commented many times before on Doctor Who's ability to do just about any style or genre. It can be something completely different from week to week. Sometimes it sticks to old formulas; other times, it tinkers with something new; still other times it dives head first into the experimental to come up with something completely different and bizarre. I love this aspect of the show, but that doesn't necessarily mean I love every experimental episode. Some try really hard, but don't quite succeed (see “The Rings of Akhaten”, for example).

I will admit that I was expecting “Sleep No More” to be one those ones that fails. This was partly because of the found-footage format, which is a style I'm not fond of. The second was because it's written by Mark Gatiss, whose past contributions to Doctor Who I've generally found to be mediocre at best (although “Cold War” is pretty good) and sometimes downright bad (“Victory of the Daleks”). The combination of the two left me with low expectations for this episode. That was, perhaps, unfairly biased of me—especially considering I ended up enjoying the episode somewhat.

Sleep No More” is a bold experiment and not the kind of thing Doctor Who should be doing every week. But once in a while, bold experiments are exactly what the show needs. Intriguingly, aspects of “Sleep No More” are actually very formulaic and follow paths seen in the show many times before. But it takes those formulaic aspects and plays around with both the presentation and the viewers' expectations of how they will resolve. The execution isn't perfect and there are many flaws in the story—but oddly, some of those flaws actually help enhance it. “Sleep No More” is an episode that many people will dislike, some of them intensely. It's certainly not an easy episode to digest, or make heads or tails of. However, I suspect it will be an episode that is talked about (for good or bad) for a long time as it defies attempts to categorize and rate it.


Sunday 15 November 2015

Occult Origins

Pathfinder products are published under several different lines of books. There's the Roleplaying Game line, which consists of the hardcover rulebooks. There's the Pathfinder Campaign Setting and Pathfinder Player Companion lines, and of course, Pathfinder Adventure Path amongst others. Each line gives an indication of what people can expect from the books published in it—rules material, adventures, etc.

However, within the lines, there are sometimes smaller series—not generally officially marked as such, but with naming patterns to indicate them. There are the Revisited and Unleashed books in the Campaign Setting, or the Blood of... books in the Player Companions. One of the smaller groups like these is the Origins books, with Mythic Origins, Advanced Class Origins, and now Occult Origins. These books are companions to rulebooks (Mythic Adventures, Advanced Class Guide, and Occult Adventures respectively), with each one introducing the concepts of their respective rulebooks in the world of Golarion and, primarily, offering lots of new player options. I've commented in my reviews of the last two that Origins is a bit of a misleading name, as they don't really discuss the origins of the new material or even the origins of characters using that material. That said, Occult Origins is better in this regard and actually does briefly discuss how characters become some of the occult classes.

In fact, Occult Origins is definitely the best of the Origins books to date. Paizo has refined the series with each successive book. Occult Origins is a book of mostly “crunch” (i.e. mechanical rules options for characters), but it is the best kind of crunch—the kind that supports the flavour of the setting as well as giving characters fun new options. The material in this book is full of flavour that both expands the world of Golarion and expands our understanding of it. And this only serves to enhance the gaming experience.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Iron Gods - Lords of Rust

Setting is an important part of any roleplaying campaign. Different people may like different levels of detail, but there is always, at the very least, an implied setting, a place where everything is happening—even if it's just the dungeon the characters are currently adventuring in. Setting grounds the characters in a certain reality. It creates certain expectations and lays down certain limits. It helps define where the characters come from, who they are, where they're going, and what they want. Generally, a well-defined and memorable setting paves the way for memorable adventures.

Adventures can use settings in different ways. Sometimes, the setting is little more than window-dressing, with little effect on the adventure itself. It might also be a relatively generic setting, one that can be easily modified or inserted into another more detailed setting. It's important that there be adventures like this. Gamemasters often need adventures that they can grab on a moment's notice and use with little to no adjustment. These adventures need to fit in regardless of the setting any particular GM needs.

But sometimes, adventures are tied much more closely to their setting, to the point that the adventure really couldn't happen anywhere else—not without some major changes, at any rate. Obviously, adventures like this will only work if the GM is using the particular setting, and they're not the sort a GM can just grab at a moment's notice. They need to be a planned part of the campaign. Yet, these adventures are often amongst the best and most memorable of adventures. That's not to say adventures with a more generic setting can't be great and memorable—just that those with a highly detailed setting enjoy a bit of an edge in the race.

Lords of Rust by Nicolas Logue, the second part of Iron Gods is an adventure where the setting is all important. It is a sandbox adventure in pretty much the truest sense of the term (something that is difficult to do in an adventure path). The player characters can pretty much proceed however they want and the setting is almost entirely what drives the action. A poorly detailed setting could break the whole adventure. But this adventure doesn't have a poorly detailed setting. Instead, it has one of the most memorable settings I've seen in a fantasy RPG adventure, and it makes for what will likely be an extremely memorable adventure for any group of players.


Friday 13 November 2015

Doctor Who - The Zygon Inversion

Click here to read my review of “The Zygon Invasion”, the first part of this two-part story.

I commented last week that, of all the opening episodes of two-part stories so far this series, “The Zygon Invasion” was the most dependent on its follow-up episode. While this is certainly true, it is interesting that “The Zygon Inversion” is rather different in style. Where “The Zygon Invasion” is a world-spanning thriller with a large cast of characters, military action, and more, “The Zygon Inversion” is a much more personal tale, focusing on just the few key players. This is rather fitting, given the title. It inverts your expectations.

For the most part, it inverts them in a good way, too, for this is a strong story with a powerful message at its core, and, in one scene in particular, Peter Capaldi gives one of the most amazing performances of any Doctor ever. The story is not without its flaws. Indeed, there are quite a lot of them, but its good points are strong enough that those flaws are not very noticeable unless you take the time to analyse what is going on (admittedly, something that I just can't help but do).


Tuesday 10 November 2015

Occult Adventures

First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons had a strange little add-on at the back of the Player's Handbook: psionics. Through a very lucky die roll during character creation, your character could get a mind power that made your character considerably more powerful than everybody else's characters. Psionics were an optional part of the game that I personally never used and I never played in a game that used them. However, they were clearly used by some people because later editions of the game kept bringing them back, and revising and refining the rules for them. Psionics were always mind powers, but it varied whether they were completely separate from divine and arcane magic, or just a third kind of magic. But whichever approach was taken, they always used completely different mechanics than spellcasters—such as the power points used in Third Edition.

Psionics have remained absent in official Pathfinder products (until now); however, that hasn't stopped publishers of Pathfinder compatible material from adapting them. Dreamscarred Press has released several very popular products on psionics, for example. But as popular as a third party product might get, there are always those players and gamemasters who want to see official support.

So along comes Occult Adventures, released this past August, which brings psionics—sort of—into official Pathfinder. The “psionics” in this book come in the form of psychic magic, which is a third form of magic controlled entirely by the mind. The thematic overlap between psychic magic and psionics is clear, even though the book never actually uses the word psionics. Renaming psionics as psychic magic separates this version completely from Third Edition—important as psychic magic uses completely different mechanics from Third Edition psionics, unlike core Pathfinder, which is a revision of Third Edition. In fact, psychic spellcasters use exactly the same mechanics as arcane and divine spellcasters, bringing psychic magic completely in-line with the rest of the game. This also has the added benefit of making it possible to use both psychic magic and psionics from companies like Dreamscarred Press in your games (there'll be a lot of thematic overlap, but the systems remain distinct).

Sunday 8 November 2015

Doctor Who - The Zygon Invasion

Note: Even though the second episode has already aired at the time of posting this review, it was written without seeing that episode. A number of unforeseen factors simply delayed posting it until now.

When I first started this blog in 2011 and first started writing my Doctor Who reviews, I debated with myself how I would handle multi-part stories. Should I review each episode individually, or should I wait until they had all aired and respond to them as a whole? I couldn't quite come up with an answer, but it turned out, I didn't need to—at least, not right away. My first review was of “Let's Kill Hitler” which began the second half of Series 6. There were no multi-episode stories for the remainder of the series. There were none in the entirety of Series 7 either. There were none until “Dark Water”/“Death in Heaven” came along at the end of Series 8. However, at that time, I was on my unplanned hiatus. At the time, as I was still hoping I could somehow get caught up, I figured I would review both episodes together to make my job a little easier. But I didn't get caught up. When Series 9 started, I noted that there were going to be a lot of two-parters, so I had to make a final decision. I decided to review every episode individually.

So far, it's worked out pretty well, I think. The opening parts of the two-part stories (“The Magician's Apprentice” and “Under the Lake”) have stood pretty well on their own, even if not technically complete. However, the latest episode, “The Zygon Invasion”, is considerably more dependent on its second episode, which is still to come. It doesn't stand alone in the way previous first parts this series have. As such, it's somewhat harder to review. That doesn't mean there's nothing I can say about. In fact, I have a lot to say about it. It just means that it comes with the caveat that I could end up reassessing large portions of it once I've seen “The Zygon Inversion”.

All things considered, “The Zygon Invasion” is a gripping story and highly enjoyable. It brings Doctor Who back to modern day Earth and straight into a political thriller. In some ways, the episode feels reminiscent of later Torchwood episodes, and some Russell T Davies-produced Doctor Who. The episode does have a number of flaws, particularly in terms of character development; however, it's a good start to what may turn out to be a great story.


Sunday 1 November 2015

October Round-Up, K9 Movie, and David Tennant and Catherine Tate Return!

It has now been exactly one month since I got things back up and running on Of Dice and Pen, and things have been going pretty well. I've actually had one of my most prolific months—which is good, considering I have a lot of catching up to do.

Talking of catching up, I've been developing a plan to get me through the high volume of Pathfinder material waiting for me. If everything works out, I hope to have myself fully caught up in about... 13 months. It's a long time, but considering I have about a year's worth of material to get through and there will be another year's worth of material released while I'm doing it all, another 13 months seems reasonable. As I mentioned a month ago, I plan to move about in the release schedule a bit, mixing up earlier and more recent releases. However, I will go through Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes in order.

In October, I got off to a good start, with reviews of the Strategy Guide and Monster Codex hardcovers, two excellent books (check out the links if you haven't already read the reviews). Other Pathfinder reviews were of People of the Stars, Inner Sea Monster Codex, Advanced Class Origins, and Iron Gods—Fires of Creation. I also wrote a review of the Pathfinder Compatible product, Monk Unfettered. Due to time and money issues, I don't get the opportunity to read and review very many 3rd-party Pathfinder books (my only other review of such a product was Random Urban Encounters in February 2013), so it was nice to do so this month. I hope to do more in the future as there are a lot of very good options out there.

Pathfinder reviews coming up soon will include Occult Adventures, Occult Origins, and the second part of Iron Gods, Lords of Rust. I had actually intended to have the first two of those out already (meaning that, technically, my schedule has already fallen a bit behind). They should be up in the next couple of days. I also intend to get to a few non-Pathfinder roleplaying reviews in the next month or two, including the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space Limited Edition Rulebook (published for the 50th anniversary).

Of course, Doctor Who returned to screens this month! Yay! I have reviews of the first six episodes: “The Magician's Apprentice”, “The Witch's Familiar”, “Under the Lake”, “Before the Flood”, “The Girl Who Died”, and “The Woman Who Lived”. Check them out if you haven't already. I'll have a review of this week's seventh episode, “The Zygon Invasion”, up in a couple of days. Regarding the remaining episodes of Series 8 that I still need to review, I will get to them after Series 9 has finished.

Earlier this month, the BBC announced news of a new Doctor Who spin-off series, called Class. See the link for my initial thoughts on that. More recently, news has come of a possible Doctor Who-related movie: K9—Time Quake. This is not a BBC production or something being made through license with the BBC, but rather through one of K9's co-creators, Bob Baker. This means that, like the Australian TV series K9, it won't be able to directly reference Doctor Who. However, it will also feature the return of Omega (from the Doctor Who stories, “The Three Doctors” and “Arc of Infinity”). Bob Baker is also co-creator of Omega, meaning, like K9, he retains some rights to the character.

I have my reservations about this movie. The Australian TV series was not very good (see this post for my more detailed thoughts on it), and while this movie may only be superficially related to the series, it doesn't give me high hopes. But also, part of the problem of the series was that K9 really doesn't work as a lead character. It's why even K9 and Company, a show named after the robot dog, was really going to be a series about Sarah Jane Smith with K9 as her sidekick. The later Sarah Jane Adventures also kept K9 as a side character and not a major focus. This is really what K9 ought to be. I just don't think K9 has what it takes to be the lead of a full movie.

All that said, that makes two Doctor Who-related announcements this month that I'm rather wary of, and it's a bit of an odd feeling. I remember well the wilderness years of 1990-2005, when there was only one new official filmed Doctor Who production. Back then, the news of any spin-off—K9, Class, whatever—would have had me and other Doctor Who fans jumping for joy. How times have changed.

So, for some exciting news to end off with this month, David Tennant and Catherine Tate are returning to Doctor Who! Not in the television series (although they featured in a flashback sequence in “The Girl Who Died”), but in Big Finish's ongoing series of audio adventures. For the longest time, Big Finish was limited to only Doctor Who from 1996 and earlier. But recently, they've acquired the rights to several new series characters, such as Kate Stewart and John Hurt's War Doctor. Now the tenth Doctor and Donna have been added to the list. I'm pretty excited! Now, I just have to find the means to afford to actually buy some. Sigh.

Anyway, it's been great to be back this month, and I look forward to great times to come! Thanks to everyone for your continued reading!