Saturday 31 December 2016

Doctor Who - The Return of Doctor Mysterio

It’s been an entire year since “The Husbands of River Song” first aired, and in that time, there has been no other Doctor Who at all, until now with “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. It’s been a very noticeable gap. Since Doctor Who returned in 2005, there hasn’t been another year quite like this one. There have been years with a smaller-than-usual number of episodes, but never one with an episode count of only one (not even the so-called “gap year” in 2009 had so few episodes). Indeed, this is the first time two Christmas specials come back-to-back in episode order.

However, a long gap can increase the desire to see new episodes and that certainly was the case with me. I was eager to watch “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” as soon as it aired. But I was also worried. I had to watch it at my parents’ place, which meant making them watch it too, and my parents have little love for Doctor Who these days (despite my mom being a big fan of the original series). By the end of the episode, my fears were confirmed. My parents talked quite a bit about just how terrible the show is these days, and there wasn’t much I could say to argue with them because I kind of agreed—for this episode, at least.

On initial viewing, I was not that impressed by “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”. However, on a second viewing a couple days later, my opinion improved somewhat (which is a trend I’ve noticed happening with episodes by Steven Moffat). I found more things to like about it, even though my initial issues remained.

It’s not really that bad an episode. There have certainly been far worse ones, but there have also been much better ones, too. For a Christmas episode, it does what it needs to do, which is provide light-hearted entertainment and be accessible to casual viewers. It has lots of fun moments, with some knowing nods to superhero tropes. Yet at the same time, it has some rather paper-thin characterisations and alien villains that manage to be both creepy and boring (their basic concept is creepy, but they have no personality). Overall, it’s a rather mediocre episode and not one that’s likely to prove all that memorable, but it is enjoyable.


Saturday 23 April 2016

Pearl Mackie is the New Doctor Who Companion

As the title says, Pearl Mackie has been announced as the new companion, Bill. The BBC released a short trailer featuring her, the Doctor, and the Daleks, which you can see below. Full episodes of Doctor Who will return with this year's Christmas special and then Series 10 in 2017.

Friday 18 March 2016

Ships of the Inner Sea

One of the great things about fantasy games like Pathfinder is the sheer number of different styles of adventuring that are possible. There's a lot more than just dungeons and dragons (pun intended). You can explore the wilderness, journey through tangled jungles, climb towering mountains, get involved in politics, lead armies and overthrow empires, and more. The opportunities are endless. One of the many environments ripe for adventure is the open sea, where you can be travellers to distant lands, merchants carrying goods to various ports, or pirates who plunder what the merchants are carrying. Indeed, shipbound adventures can be amongst the most exciting and fun.

Ships of the Inner Sea provides material for gamemasters to use in seafaring campaigns. It describes seven ships that sail the Inner Sea, including details of their layouts, histories, and crews. Some of the ships and crews might be allies of the PCs, or the PCs might even join their crews; other ships contain enemies and villains to fight. All the ships make for interesting encounters, either one-off or recurring. Ships of the Inner Sea doesn't just have to be for seafaring campaigns either. Even campaigns that are mostly landlocked may spend some short periods at sea as the player characters travel from one location to another, and such an occasion could also be a perfect opportunity for an encounter with one of the ships from this book.

I generally like these kinds of sourcebooks as they provide material that GMs can draw on when they need something last-minute, while also being supplements they can build entire campaigns around. For the most part, Ships of the Inner Sea doesn't disappoint. There's a good variety in the types of ships presented and all of them contain enough ideas and adventure seeds to keep any group occupied for some time. It's certainly a resource I will turn to if I run a seafaring campaign at some point in the future.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Bestiary 5

You can't really have a Pathfinder game without monsters. Fighting monsters has been one of the central conceits of Dungeons & Dragons since the beginning and Pathfinder is no exception. Yet after a while, fighting the same monsters again and again can become dull. Kobolds and goblins can be great fun once in a while, but eventually people want something different. So it's not surprising that people are constantly thinking up new kinds of monsters to add to their games and surprise other players. And it's also not surprising that books of monsters can creep up to five volumes with probably more to come.

The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Bestiary 5 adds over 300 more new monsters to the Pathfinder game. With every Bestiary volume containing in the vicinity of 300 monsters, that makes approximately 1500 monsters just from the Bestiaries (and not counting the numerous other sources that introduce monsters). In my review of Bestiary 4 a couple years ago, I pondered a bit on the thought of when does the number of monsters become too big. I suppose the only answer is either when people grow tired of them or when the new monsters stop being original and interesting. Bestiary 5 does not seem to be at either of those points, though I wonder how far off that point is.

In fact, I like Bestiary 5 a great deal. On an initial look-through before reading it more thoroughly, there were numerous monsters that drew my attention, that made me want to know more about them, and screamed to be included in one of my games sometime down the road. There's a wide variety of monsters present, with every type represented and the spread between them being fairly even. Ooze is a monster type that is often under-represented, but there are quite a few new oozes in this book. Along with that there are lots of magical beasts, constructs, undead, vermin, fey, and so on. In addition, there are several mythic monsters, and Bestiary 5 is the first hardcover book to contain monsters using the occult rules from Occult Adventures. The monsters cover a wide variety of challenge ratings as well, from 1/6 to 24. The bulk of the creatures are in the low- to mid-CR range, but there are also a sizeable number of high-CR monsters as well.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Mummy's Mask Player's Guide

Note: I recently noticed that I missed this one back when I reviewed the adventures in Mummy's Mask. I started this review around the time that I had to disappear for a while due to overwork. Since the book only exists in PDF form and doesn't have a physical copy (unless you print it out yourself), it's never been on my “to review” shelf, and so I completely forgot that I had never finished and posted it. At any rate, I have now finished it and so here it is.

One thing that has often (perhaps surprisingly) varied in adventure path Player's Guides is how much direct advice they give on character creation. Some offer only brief descriptions of how each character class might fit in. Others go into more detail, offering suggestions on specific feats, spells, skills, and other abilities that would work well for their particular adventure paths. The Mummy's Mask Player's Guide is one of these more detailed ones, spending several pages on suggested options for characters.

I like the layout chosen for this as well. Instead of going through classes in alphabetical order, it looks at categories, such as suggested archetypes, animal companions, favoured enemies, and so on. It also covers the languages that will be useful, common religions, and even suggestions for skills, feats, and traits beyond the campaign traits that are introduced later in the book. Another very useful inclusion is some suggested gear to purchase at character creation. Since much of the first adventure will involve searching through ancient tombs and buildings, this includes the types of things that are useful in dungeon crawling, such as candles, chalk, magnifying glasses, and rope. Players would be wise to take note of what's on the list and try to acquire as much of it as they can.

Monday 7 March 2016

Iron Gods Player's Guide

The Iron Gods Adventure Path is one of the more experimental adventure paths, in that it deals with aliens and technology in a fantasy world. In this way, one might expect that its Player's Guide would have to introduce a lot of new rules material to cover this. However, the adventure path is also about the player characters encountering technology gradually. They don't start in possession of it, but learn of it through play. As such, the Player's Guide actually has a bit of an easier job than those that do need to include many add-on rules.

All things considered, the Iron Gods Player's Guide does a very good job of setting the scene for the players and preparing them for what is to come. It gives just enough information to help them create characters that will fit the adventure path, without giving away too many spoilers of what will happen during it. The first part of the book contains a quite extensive section on “Character Tips”, including archetype suggestions, appropriate animal companions, favoured enemies, languages, and so on. There is also a sidebar on where GMs and players can go for additional information pertinent to the adventure path (books like the Technology Guide, People of the River, and Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars).

Tuesday 1 March 2016

Melee Tactics Toolbox

The first thing I noticed upon opening Melee Tactics Toolbox is the inside front cover, containing a list of schools teaching mêlée tactics that can be found in the Inner Sea Region. Four schools are listed: the Aldori Academy, the Crusader War College, the Grand Coliseum, and the Tempering Hall. A bit of the Inner Sea map accompanies each description and shows the rough location of the school. This immediately made me a little better predisposed to the book, as it's not one I was particularly looking forward to. I was expecting something that wasn't going to particularly stand out, much like Ranged Tactics Toolbox, which this book is an obvious companion to. World flavour is something I really wish Ranged Tactics Toolbox had more of, so seeing that flavour right from the start in Melee Tactics Toolbox raised my hopes a little.

Turns out, there's not a whole lot more world flavour beyond this, but there is a bit more. Like Ranged Tactics Toolbox, Melee Tactics Toolbox is primarily a book of character options, this time focusing on mêlée combat. Like its companion, it doesn't actually spend a great deal of time on the tactics of its title, but does have scores of new feats, weapons, magic items, and more. Also like its companion, it seems to be desperately trying to create new things for something that doesn't really need any new things added to it. By itself or in conjunction with Ranged Tactics Toolbox, Melee Tactics Toolbox will likely be a useful resource for players, but in conjunction with the scores of other books out there, it will likely be mostly forgettable. It's not a bad book; it just doesn't really stand out.

February (and December/January) Round-Up Plus Pathfinder Humble Bundle

So it's been an interesting couple of months. A number of things, particularly family health issues, have meant that I've completed a lot less writing than I intended to, and I've fallen considerably behind schedule on getting caught up on all the reviews I need to do. However, the situation is improving and the frequency of reviews should improve along with it!

Since my last round-up, Doctor Who Series 9 came to an end with the amazing “Heaven Sent” and not-so-amazing “Hell Bent”. Then, just a couple weeks later, there was the 2015 Christmas special, “The Husbands of River Song”. During that time, I also wrote a review looking back on the entirety of Series 9. In that, I made mention of a planned retrospective on Clara as a companion and said to expect it in early January. Obviously, that hasn't happened yet, but I still intend to write it, and hope to have it up in the next week or so—definitely before the end of March. I'm also looking to get back to my Series 8 reviews by late March or early April.

In January, news came that Steven Moffat will be leaving Doctor Who after Series 10. In the wake of that news, there has been a lot of speculation on whether Peter Capaldi will be leaving as well and who might replace him. So far, however, there has been no actual announcement of his departure and I, personally, hope he sticks around for another year or two. Of course, we'll have to wait and see, but just because then-current David Tennant left when Russell T Davies left doesn't mean Peter Capaldi has to leave with Moffat.

Also in January, for a bit of fun, I posted this little 60's gem.

On New Year's Day, the new Sherlock special, The Abominable Bride, aired. I haven't reviewed it yet. I will though.

On the roleplaying side of things, since my last round-up, I've written reviews of We Be Goblins Free!, Andoran, Birthplace of Freedom, Familiar Folio, Occult Realms, Lost Treasures, and Ranged Tactics Toolbox. I also looked at the hardcover Pathfinder Unchained and completed the remaining instalments of the Iron Gods Adventure Path: Valley of the Brain Collectors, Palace of Fallen Stars, and The Divinity Drive. Be sure to check out any you haven't read. Coming up next will be Melee Tactics Toolbox and the Iron Gods Player's Guide.

In other Pathfinder news, until March 9, you can purchase a ton of Pathfinder books (including the Core Rulebook) through Humble Bundle. Over $350 worth of books are available for...whatever you want to pay. Some require a minimum amount to unlock, but as little as $25 will get you them all. They are all PDF copies of the books plus a physical copy of the Beginner Box (if you unlock it; postage not included). It's an absolutely amazing deal, and proceeds go to charity (Humble Bundle even gives you the option to choose which charity). They have apparently raised over $500 000 so far. A small warning: This deal has apparently been more popular than expected, resulting in Paizo's site being overwhelmed by extra traffic. Downloading your purchases might be a bit slow, but worth the wait.

Here's to a great March!

Monday 29 February 2016

Iron Gods - The Divinity Drive

The final instalment of an adventure path brings with it high expectations. Not only does it need to present an enjoyable high-level adventure (something that can be difficult on its own), but it must also bring together all the threads of the previous five adventures to a satisfying conclusion, while accounting for the myriad different things different groups of player characters might have done along the way. All things considered, it's a rather monumental task, one that may not actually be possible to do perfectly. As such, it's perhaps not surprising that the final instalments of many adventure paths often don't seem quite as good as the instalments that came before them. They can never quite reach those lofty expectations.

The Divinity Drive by Crystal Frasier does a better job than many of reaching those unreachable goals. It's a good adventure in its own right and, as the finale of Iron Gods, it provides a suitably climactic resolution, as the player characters (hopefully) save the world from a unique and rather terrifying threat. That said, it is a surprisingly linear adventure compared to how open-ended most of Iron Gods has been (with The Choking Tower being an exception). It also comes across as something of a lengthy combat-fest, with only limited opportunity for diplomacy and roleplay. There are fewer shades of grey than in the other adventures; enemies are enemies and allies are...rare. Its more linear nature also means that it makes a number of assumptions about how the PCs have progressed through the previous adventures, and gives gamemasters little to no guidance on what to do if things have progressed differently. This is particularly unfortunate in such an open-ended adventure path.


Monday 22 February 2016

Ranged Tactics Toolbox

When the Ranged Tactics Toolbox first showed up on Paizo's schedule, I must admit it did not excite me. A book with new options for ranged combat in a game that already has huge numbers of options for combat did not strike me as something particularly innovative. Rather, it seemed more like...well, scraping the bottom of the barrel, to put it bluntly. Like ideas were starting to run out. The announcement of further books with “Toolbox” in the title only strengthened this impression.

After reading the book, that initial impression hasn't changed all that much. Don't get me wrong. This isn't a bad book and there are some interesting options in it. However, I do have to question what it really adds to the game, and I'm not sure I can come up with a good answer. The Player Companion books are supposedly part of the Golarion setting, and while this book has a few things keyed to certain lands and cultures, it doesn't really expand on the world much. Admittedly, this is somewhat in keeping with other Player Companion books, which have become more and more about character options than player-oriented world material. But its character options also don't really stand out amongst the myriad other options already out there. Although they are technically new, they feel more like retreads of things that have been done many times before.

It is an unfortunate fact that the more new options are added to the game, the more likely those options will end up never used. I find this particularly true of the Player Companion books. With a few notable exceptions, after an initial reading, the vast majority of them end up sitting on my shelf and never touched again—except when sifting through to look for one of those few exceptions, and then it's only to move them out of the way. I suspect Ranged Tactics Toolbox, despite what interesting things it does have, will end up being one of those never used books.

Of course, many people out there don't own every book and there will certainly be people for whom Ranged Tactics Toolbox may be the only book beyond the core Pathfinder books they own. Such people may well get quite a lot of use out of the book. I think it's important to keep this in mind, and I try to review products from both the perspective of how they work on their own separate from all other products, and how they fit into the larger whole. And that's why I say Ranged Tactics Toolbox isn't a bad book. It certainly has good and interesting things when looked at by itself. It's just that, when viewed as part of the larger whole, it kind of vanishes in the sea of options.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Iron Gods - Palace of Fallen Stars

One of the things that has really struck me about the Iron Gods Adventure Path is how PC-driven it is. A lot of adventures and adventure paths follow the model where an NPC or group of NPCs hires the PCs or otherwise sets them on their path. In an adventure path, these NPCs often continue to reappear from one instalment to the next, helping to guide the PCs to their next destination. Of course, this isn't universally true and the degree to which it occurs varies from one adventure or AP to another. However, it tends to be true to some extent. Alternatively, various events will occur that push or direct PCs along a certain course of action.

With Iron Gods, however, the PCs have had to be mostly self-motivating. They still encounter NPC allies, of course, but these allies don't really direct the PCs in any way. Fires of Creation has an initial set-up to draw the PCs in, but after that, they're pretty much on their own. Each instalment relies on the PCs deciding on their own to head into the next. This is particularly true of Lords of Rust and Valley of the Brain Collectors, but even The Choking Tower, the least sandboxy of this AP so far, still relies on the PCs' self-motivation to get started. The fifth instalment, Palace of Fallen Stars by Tim Hitchcock is also no exception. Of course, by this point, the PCs are probably quite invested in seeing things through to the very end. Motivating themselves shouldn't be that difficult.

Like Lords of Rust and Valley of the Brain Collectors before it, Palace of Fallen Stars is very much a sandbox adventure. How things play out is almost entirely dependent on the actions of the PCs, from the order of events, to their results, to which NPCs live and which die. It's even technically possible to bypass this adventure and jump to the sixth one before coming back and completing this one (albeit, that way would likely be considerably deadlier). The text does a good job of accounting for the many different possibilities and for how NPCs might react, while never forcing any particular path. All in all, it makes for a very good adventure, one that's going to be very different for every group that plays it.


Friday 22 January 2016

Steven Moffat Leaving Doctor Who

The BBC announced today that Steven Moffat will be stepping down as Doctor Who's showrunner after Series 10. Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of online response from Doctor Who fans, with responses ranging from jubilation to heartfelt sadness and everything in between.

Readers of this site know that I have been highly critical of Steven Moffat's time on the show. I've criticised his portrayal of women, poor characterisation, his avoidance of consequence (through characters dying and coming back to life shortly thereafter), and numerous other things. That said, I wouldn't still be watching the show if I hated it, and there has been a lot of very good things during Moffat's time. There have been stand-out stories, great performances, some great writers and directors, and more. In particular, I think there have been a lot of improvements in the last couple series and indications that Moffat has been paying attention to the criticisms against him and trying to improve. Series 9 has some of the most diverse casting in all Doctor Who, for example.

But whether you love or hate (or anything in between) Steven Moffat, his departure is ultimately a good thing—not because of any criticisms I or anyone else might have of him, but because Doctor Who is all about change. Upon the completion of Series 10, Moffat will have overseen 6 full series of Doctor Who as well as numerous Christmas specials and, most significantly, the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor” (one of the highlights of his time, in fact). This is a great run, longer than most others (only John Nathan-Turner oversaw more seasons), and he has left an enduring mark on the show. But just like companions move one, and just like every few years, Doctors move on, so to do the people behind the scenes move on. This includes the producers and showrunners. Doctor Who thrives on new blood and this time, I have no doubt, will be no different.

Taking over from Moffat will be Chris Chibnall, who has written several Doctor Who and Torchwood episodes in the past. What he will bring to the show as showrunner remains to be seen, but I can be confident of one thing: he will bring something new. I, for one, will be watching.

Thursday 21 January 2016

Daleks Versus Toys!

Earlier today, the BBC Archive tweeted this little gem: “Toy Fair 1966”. I don't really know any details about it—indeed I never knew it existed until today. However, I can say that it is wonderfully creepy and, if expanded upon, might make a brilliant full episode of Doctor Who. Enjoy!

Lost Treasures

Treasure is an important part of Pathfinder games. Players often get very attached to their characters' equipment—enough so that being the target of mage's disjunction, a spell that destroys magic items, is often considered a worse fate than dying. At high levels, death is not that hard to reverse in Pathfinder. Replacing powerful magic items can be much more difficult. It is a bit unfortunate that acquiring monetary wealth is such a principal motivator for PCs, but the fact is, the ownership of magic items is tied into the very mechanics of the game. PCs need wealth just to keep up. Fortunately, there is lots of treasure to be gained on adventures.

Unfortunately, when treasure is so prevalent, it starts to become very generic. A +1 longsword doesn't seem all that special, when virtually every adversary has a +1 weapon of some kind. I've had players comment on the sheer volume of rings of protection they find during an adventure path. Each time another one comes along (and more come along quite frequently), they redistribute the ones they have and mark the leftovers with the lowest bonuses for sale. Although these are technically magic items, their sheer “normalness” makes them seem not very magical at all.

Of course, it can be very difficult to make every item unique. It would take a huge amount of work to do so, especially given the amount of magic characters are expected to possess once they reach higher levels. As such, it's natural that significant portions of that magic will become somewhat generic. However, that does mean that when a more unique item does come along it can really stand out. One avenue the game has for more unique items is through artifacts. The book, Artifacts & Legends provides many sample artifacts for GMs to use in their games. However, artifacts tend to be very powerful and can unbalance games if not carefully handled. They work best in high-level games. So what about less powerful magic items in lower-level games?

This is where Lost Treasures comes in. This book provides a large number of unique (or nearly unique) magic items, complete with background stories and adventure ideas for using them. It's a good book for GMs looking to add a few treasures into the game that stand out from the typical +1 weapon or cloak of resistance. A few are powerful items; many others are considerably less powerful; some aren't even magic items, but just mundane items of high value or historical importance. However, all the items have their own individual character to them and will add a ton of flavour to treasure hauls. Even the mundane items here are anything but mundane.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Pathfinder Unchained

Although Pathfinder started its life as a revision of 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons, it has grown very much beyond it roots, introducing ideas and concepts completely new to D&D. As early as the Advanced Player's Guide (one of the earliest rules expansion books for the game), Pathfinder was already starting to chart its own identity with new classes not seen before (like the oracle and inquisitor) and new ways of using existing rules (like the new combat manoeuvres). Since that book, the game has only continued to develop more. Mythic Adventures and Occult Adventures each add whole new layers to the game making it less and less like the D&D editions that came before it. While I still often think of Pathfinder subconsciously as D&D, there is no doubt that it has attained its own identity separate from the game that birthed it.

Indeed, I've always been impressed by Paizo's willingness to take Pathfinder in new directions. Not every idea works out perfectly, but that's okay. Without innovation, the game will only stagnate. Yet as much as Pathfinder has gained its own identity, there are many aspects of the rules that keep it cemented to its 3rd Edition D&D roots. The core d20 mechanics are still there, and many of the decisions made during the initial development of Pathfinder were made to maintain “backwards compatibility”. This was absolutely the right route to take. After all, the initial audience for Pathfinder was made up of 3rd Edition players who wanted to continue to use their 3rd Edition books, which the large changes to 4th Edition D&D had made impossible. The intent behind Pathfinder was that those books could be used with only minimal adjustments.

Yet these legacy aspects of the game can come under a certain degree of scrutiny. Do they help define the identity of the game, or do they actually hinder it in some way? There are limits to how much the 3rd Edition classes could be changed without giving up that backwards compatibility, leading to complaints that some classes, such as rogue, are just not up to par with the others. Then there the mechanics of how the game-play itself works. What might have happened to those if backwards compatibility had not been necessary?

Pathfinder Unchained takes the opportunity to explore these questions. If the shackles of backwards compatibility are removed, what can happen? While this is a book full of rules options, it's not a book like the aforementioned Advanced Player's Guide or Ultimate Combat. Whereas those books mostly add new options to the game, Pathfinder Unchained changes the options that already exist with alternative versions of several classes and new ways of handling skills, alignments, combat, and more. Some of these are ideas that have been explored before in books like 3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana, while others are entirely new. It's not possible to use everything in Pathfinder Unchained the way it is with a book like the Advanced Player's Guide, as the book often provides multiple alternatives for the same thing. For example, there are several alternative ways of handling skills, some of which are in complete opposition to each other. The intent with Pathfinder Unchained is to pick and choose the rules alternatives that will work best for the style of game your particular group is trying to run, or to experiment with different options until you find the ones that work best for you.

Friday 8 January 2016

Occult Realms

One of the key things about the occult in Occult Adventures is that it is mysterious and different from everything else in Pathfinder campaigns. This is not easy to achieve when there are already scores of different kinds of creatures, abilities, and magic in the game. Yet Occult Adventures pulls it off pretty well. Since publication of that book, other books have also dealt with the occult, including Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary. Plus, Occult Mysteries, from awhile back, ties into it all as well. With each new book published, there is a danger of it losing that sense of difference.

Occult Realms is the latest book published to tie in with Occult Adventures, and thankfully, it manages to maintain that sense of mystery and the unknown. While Occult Origins and Occult Bestiary are tied to the world of Golarion, they are primarily books of mechanics. Occult Realms does have some new mechanics in it as well, but its focus is much more on descriptive detail that brings the occult fully into the campaign setting. And the mechanics it does have exist entirely to support the flavour and feel of the setting.

I have to say that I hugely enjoyed reading Occult Realms. It offers wonderful glimpses and insights into areas of Golarion that have only received a small amount of attention previously, even a place or two where you might not expect the occult, such as Razmiran. Some of the places are quite small, sometimes just a single building, but the small areas mean that the details can actually be more specific. There is a better sense of a lived-in world from this book than from some other Pathfinder Campaign Setting books, which tend to focus more on providing a list of locations than on what it's like to live there. The approach here is still on listing locations, but there is more room for detail about those locations.