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!