Saturday 1 July 2017

Doctor Who - World Enough and Time

Doctor Who finales (since 2005 at any rate) tend to be large and epic, often with the fate of the universe at stake. Series 9’s finale took the Doctor and Clara to Gallifrey and to the end of the universe itself. Way back in Series 5, the entire universe had to be rebooted to save it. Series 10 looks set to end quite epically, though perhaps at not quite so large a scale. So far, it is more in the style of the Series 1 finale, which only involved the fate of one solar system rather than the entire universe.

But the entire universe doesn’t need to be under threat for the stakes to be high, and the stakes are certainly high in “World Enough and Time”, the first part of the two-part Series 10 finale by Steven Moffat. While “World Enough and Time” certainly bears many similarities to first parts of previous finales, it also stands apart. It is certainly one of the darkest Doctor Who stories (not just finales), filled with an unrelenting sense of impending doom. Clocks are seen ticking forwards in this episode, yet the feel nevertheless is one of a countdown—a countdown to a terrible catastrophe. Catastrophe is certainly a hallmark of many Doctor Who stories, but rarely does it feel so tangible and so close—not just close to the characters, but to the viewers as well.

There’s a lot to unpack in “World Enough and Time”. It’s a dense script based around some complex scientific topics (and in typical science fiction fashion, not entirely accurately portrayed) and also has a heavy reliance on the show’s past (which is not always to its benefit). Of course, the next episode (the actual Series 10 finale episode) will likely have an effect (either good, bad, or both) on how many of the elements of “World Enough and Time” ultimately work, but looked at on its own, without knowledge of what is to come next (beyond the “Next Time” trailer), it is a hugely enjoyable—if highly morbid—episode that keeps me captivated until the end and has left me eager for the next. Yet it is also a highly problematic episode that also gets a little too caught up in its own self-references.


Thursday 29 June 2017

Doctor Who - The Eaters of Light

Many people have written for Doctor Who over the years. Some have penned only a single script and, for various and sundry reasons, have never written another. Some have written two or three, and still others have written many. Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks were among the most prolific writers of the classic Doctor Who series. Since the show’s return in 2005, there have also been several writers to write many episodes, including Mark Gatiss, who wrote this year’s “Empress of Mars”. Russell T Davies wrote many episodes during his time as showrunner, and Steven Moffat wrote several episodes during Davies’s time and has written numerous since taking over as showrunner.

However, until now, there has been no writer to have written for both the original and revived series. Rona Munro is the first to fill this role. Munro wrote the final story of the original series’ run, 1989’s “Survival”. This year, she has returned to Doctor Who with the delightful episode, “The Eaters of Light”.

In several of my reviews for this year’s episodes, I have commented on Series 10 being the most consistently good series in some time. To be honest, over the previous two episodes, I was beginning to waver on that opinion. “The Lie of the Land” was frustrating, and “Empress of Mars”, while a decent episode, was not all that great either. “The Eaters of Light”, however, has restored my faith in the series. It returns to delivering what the early episodes of this series delivered: excitement, humour, great characters, an engaging plot, and everything needed for a great Doctor Who episode.


Wednesday 28 June 2017

Inner Sea Races

The Pathfinder Campaign Setting world of Golarion is a diverse world, full of numerous different races, cultures, and ethnicities. This goes beyond just the core races of humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, half-orcs, and halflings. There are tieflings, aasimars, goblins, ratfolk, and more. There are even androids and aliens from other worlds. As the setting has expanded over various books, more and more of these races have received expanded detail, from cultural information to options to play them as player characters. But much of that information is scattered across numerous different books, making it sometimes hard to keep track of it all.

Inner Sea Races brings much of this information into one spot. In doing so, it takes the opportunity to revise and expand on that information, becoming the definitive book on the varied peoples of the Inner Sea region of Golarion. And it’s chock full of tons of useful information that will help bring both PCs and NPCs alike to life.

Inner Sea Races is a 256-page hardcover book. In layout, it’s arranged similarly to the Advanced Race Guide, in that the chapters are broken down based on how common the races are. However, the similarities mostly end there. Whereas Advanced Race Guide is a book of primarily game mechanics options with a bit of generic flavour text for the races it covers, Inner Sea Races focuses almost entirely on flavour text, covering such things as history, society, faith, and relations between races. In fact, there is no mechanical information at all in the first three chapters. The fourth chapter does introduce some new mechanical options, but this is a relatively small portion of the book. People looking for a vast array of new character abilities may well be disappointed with Inner Sea Races, but people, like myself, looking for more flavour text will likely be happier.

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Doctor Who - Empress of Mars

The Ice Warriors have an unusual position on Doctor Who. Pretty much any list of iconic Doctor Who monsters will include the Ice Warriors on it, generally around position four (after the Daleks, Cybermen, and Sontarans), yet the Ice Warriors haven’t actually appeared in all that many stories—only four in the original series (the last of which was “The Monster of Peladon” in 1974) and one in the new series (“Cold War” in Series 7). It’s pretty telling that a group that has had so few appearances has made such an impact. And I think it’s with good reason. In my review of “Cold War” a few years ago, I briefly explained why they are one of my favourite Doctor Who monsters, the primary reason being that they have more depth than most of the show’s aliens.

It was pretty much inevitable that the Ice Warriors would eventually return to Doctor Who again, especially since they are also one of the favourite monsters of Mark Gatiss, who has written and continues to write many Doctor Who stories, including “Cold War”. In “Empress of Mars” (again by Gatiss), the Ice Warriors are encountered on their home planet of Mars for the first time (all previous Ice Warrior stories have been on Earth or Peladon), and this time, the humans are the invaders.

Truth be told, “Empress of Mars” is not an incredible episode, but it is a decent one. It has all the elements that go into making a good Doctor Who story, but doesn’t really take any risks that might elevate it to the level of a great Doctor Who story. Nevertheless, it’s fun, entertaining, and an enjoyable way to spend 45 minutes.


Doctor Who - The Lie of the Land

There are good Doctor Who episodes and bad ones, great ones and terrible ones. Most are a mixture of these qualities, with the good generally outweighing the bad, but with a few the other way round. Every once in a while, though, an episode comes along with a frustrating mixture of good and bad and everything in between, making it extremely difficult to provide an overall opinion of the episode. Even averaging it all out to “mediocre” doesn’t truly convey the experience of watching the episode.

The Lie of the Land” by Toby Whithouse is one such episode. There is much about the episode that is really good—individual moments that thrill and entertain, a compelling concept and setting, some great performances, and more. Yet there is also so much that just doesn’t hold together—scenes that don’t add much to the overall story, a compelling setting that’s never really explored, and more. As the conclusion of a three-part epic, the episode falls completely flat. The story begun and developed in “Extremis” and “The Pyramid at the End of the World” suddenly seems superfluous and those two episodes kind of pointless, as “The Lie of the Land” doesn’t really do anything to build on them, particularly in developing the Monks, who in this episode become relatively generic villains and lose all that made them work so well in the previous two.


Tuesday 30 May 2017

Doctor Who - The Pyramid at the End of the World

Last week’s episode, “Extremis”, introduced us to Doctor Who’s latest monstrous alien species, beings we don’t really know the name of yet, but referred to as the monks for their robed appearance. In “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, we begin to see their plans unfold, but it’s a very different style of alien invasion compared to what we’ve seen before—but the monks are very different aliens to what we’ve seen before as well.

What results is a compelling and often tense episode that has many of the markings of a classic. Unfortunately, it also has a number of flaws that hold it short of hitting that mark, including several rather wooden characters, and a few too many contrivances to allow plot events to happen than are easily believable. There are some great concepts and moments, though, and it certainly leaves me eager to see more.


Monday 29 May 2017

Doctor Who - Extremis

Note: Although the episode after “Extremis” has already aired at the time of posting this review, at the time of writing, I have not yet watched “The Pyramid at the End of the World”. This review is written without knowledge of what comes next.

I mentioned in my review of the previous episode, “Oxygen”, that I’ve found Series 10 to be the most consistently good series of Doctor Who in a long time. This opinion has definitely not changed. However, one of the things I’ve particularly liked about the earlier episodes of the series is that they have stopped focusing heavily on the show’s past and instead have started looking forward to new ideas and new journeys. In “Extremis”, the show does start looking to the past again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, Doctor Who should never completely disregard its past; looking to the past ought to happen from time to time.

Extremis” handles this very well. Its use of the past helps to build its future. However, “Extremis” is also a somewhat less accessible episode to newer viewers than the previous five have been. Considering that this series has been deliberately structured to be an ideal “jumping-on” point for new viewers, I do wonder if “Extremis” might be a bit of a misstep—not a big one, but a little one. It will depend a lot on what happens in future episodes.

Whether it is or not, “Extremis” is still an excellent episode that I enjoy immensely. It has a wonderfully foreboding atmosphere, and introduces a creepy new set of monstrous aliens. It has a more complex plot than the previous episodes of the series, but everything ties together well and events are fully understandable by the end. There are also some interesting developments in the series’ arc. Overall, “Extremis” continues the high quality of Series 10 so far.


Saturday 20 May 2017

Dirty Tactics Toolbox

Dirty fighting” is a bit of a nebulous concept. In general, it tends to mean using techniques that are less than honourable—tricks, ambushes, poison, and so on. Yet what one person considers honourable isn’t necessarily the same as what another person does, and truth be told, if you’re in a fight to kill, is anything truly honourable or dishonourable?

Dirty Tactics Toolbox talks briefly about the “Ethics of Fighting Dirty”, pointing out that dirty fighting isn’t necessarily evil, and that context and culture can play a large role in determining what is considered dirty fighting. The book as a whole doesn’t make any judgements on whether any particular methods of dirty fighting are good or evil (even poison use), and instead merely focuses on offering various new options for Pathfinder characters to make use of.

Dirty Tactics Toolbox follows in the vein of its predecessor “Toolbox” books: Ranged Tactics Toolbox and Melee Tactics Toolbox. And much like those two other books, I have the same basic issues with it. While it’s a perfectly functional book, there’s not a lot in it that really stands out and is memorable when compared with the vast amount of other options already available in the game. That said, I do think it edges out the previous two books by a small margin by having a few more things that did catch my attention and a few more instances of nicely integrated world flavour.

Friday 19 May 2017

Giantslayer - The Hill Giant's Pledge

One thing I really like is when adventures provide dynamic locations—places that aren’t always exactly the same no matter when the PCs arrive. The monsters and NPCs move around and interact with themselves, and not just with the PCs. They are places that make the PCs feel like part of a living world, even if that world is full of enemies that the PCs must fight.

Of course, good gamemasters can make any adventure site be this way, but some adventures are better than others at assisting GMs in this regard. Just from reading the text, the locations come alive, full of characters with motivations causing things to happen. The second part of the Giantslayer Adventure Path, The Hill Giant’s Pledge by Larry Wilhelm is such an adventure. It contains a wide assortment of interesting NPCs (both villains and allies), each with fairly detailed back-stories and motivations. It makes for a wonderfully dynamic adventure that can play out in a multitude of different ways depending on what the PCs do. There are a couple of inconsistencies here and there that don’t work quite so well, but on the whole, it’s a very good continuation of the adventure path.


Monday 15 May 2017

Doctor Who - Oxygen

It’s been a long time since I was last so pleased with a Doctor Who series. I was happy with much of Series 8 and 9, both of which I continue to feel were significant improvements over Series 5 through 7, but nevertheless, they had their ups and downs. There were some excellent episodes, like “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Heaven Sent”, but also some really bad ones, like “Kill the Moon” and “In the Forest of the Night”, along with more than a few mediocre ones. Series 10, however, has been the most consistently good series since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner.

It’s probably important that I clarify that last statement with so far. There’s still a little over half the series to go and it is entirely possible that the remainder could be horrible—but I don’t expect it to be. There may well be a weaker episode or two, but the strength of the episodes so far is very encouraging for those to come. I have high hopes that Series 10 will be a very strong series when looked at as a whole.

The fifth episode, “Oxygen”, perfectly demonstrates the qualities that have helped make this series so good: strong characterisation of the leads, better pacing that allows the stories to develop more organically (albeit with some slightly rushed endings), and not dwelling heavily on the show’s past. On top of that, it also throws in some very effective scares, has a nice political message, and also manages to be one of the most scientifically accurate Doctor Who episodes (Doctor Who will never be hard science fiction, but this episode edges closer than most). In true Doctor Who fashion, it even throws in some comedy along the way. It is, without a doubt, a great episode to watch, and I can easily watch it over and over.


Saturday 13 May 2017

Iron Gods Poster Map Folio

Like most other map folios, the Iron Gods Poster Map Folio comes with three full-colour poster maps suitable for use with the Iron Gods Adventure Path, but also usable with other campaigns set in Numeria.

There is a map of Numeria itself. As is standard for country maps in these folios, it is done in the style of a map the PCs might actually use in-world and can be freely shown to players. It is beautifully illustrated with pictures of monsters and very setting-appropriate robots. I am also happy to say that, unlike the map of Osirion in the Mummy’s Mask Poster Map Folio, this one has labels of cities, towns, and other major landmarks like Silver Mount. This makes it much more useful in actual play and not just something pretty to look at.

The other two maps detail Starfall, the capital city of Numeria, and Torch, the town Iron Gods begins in. The map of Starfall is rather uniform in colour, (mostly shades of brown) making it less interesting to look at, but it remains useful for gameplay. There is a lot of brown on the map of Torch as well, but the town’s smaller size means more variation and detail can be included, making it not quite so uniform as Starfall.

Overall, the maps are definitely worth it for any campaign set in, or passing through Numeria.

Friday 12 May 2017

Site Mutations

You may have noticed some changes to the site over the past couple of days. I’ve been tweaking the look, mostly altering colour schemes and fonts. Over the years, while I’ve received many comments on the content of Of Dice and Pen (most of it positive, thankfully), I haven’t received much response about the look. However, what comments I have received have almost universally been to say how much they dislike white text on black backgrounds.

I’ve done a little research and discovered that there is a pretty intense debate about the benefits and disadvantages of white-on-black versus black-on-white. Personally, I prefer white-on-black and actually find that easier to read than black-on-white, and so that’s what I went with for Of Dice and Pen originally. However, white-on-black really does seem to cause problems with some people, whereas black-on-white doesn’t seem to cause as many, and so I’ve gotten rid of the white-on-black scheme.

I may continue to fiddle with the look of the site over the next little while, so don’t be surprised if things change a bit from visit to visit. I do welcome any feedback you might have.

Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes

Orcs are a staple of fantasy. Yet their presence tends to be as little more than background fodder. Tolkien’s orcs serve as little more than “faceless” adversaries to be killed in large numbers. Adversaries similar to orcs appear throughout fiction—from Star Wars’ Storm Troopers to Doctor Who’s Daleks—enemies who have little in the way of individual personalities and are often almost literally faceless (hidden behind a mask or within some sort of casing). This lack of individuality allows them to die in large numbers without the audience feeling sympathy for them and allowing the protagonists to feel no guilt.

Yet while these faceless adversaries might allow for some impressive action sequences, ultimately they can get somewhat repetitive and just a little boring. It can make for a much more compelling story when the adversaries have a little more depth and exist as more than just corpses-to-be. As such, I approve when roleplaying games provide more in-depth background to their monsters.

Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes should have been an opportunity to do this for orcs in Pathfinder, and to be fair, it makes a couple tokens attempts to do so. However, on the whole, it misses out on the opportunity, instead focusing mostly on describing locations and adventure sites, many of which happen to have orcs in them. It does little to give the orcs any real character beyond violent killers or to differentiate one orc tribe from another. By the end of the book, orcs remain pretty much as faceless as they’ve always been, just fodder waiting for for the PCs to kill them.

Wednesday 10 May 2017

Doctor Who - Knock Knock

Performances can make or break a programme. While there are many things that go into making a television show or movie (script, direction, cinematography, etc.), the performances are frequently one of the principal things by which the final product is judged. A bad performance can lessen the audience’s enjoyment even if everything else is perfect. Similarly, a great performance can elevate an otherwise weak programme. That’s not to say other aspects are not important (goodness knows I frequently take issues with the scriptwriting in my reviews) and can’t also similarly weaken or elevate a product, but performances do tend to stand out just a little bit more. They are, after all, what the audience most directly experiences.

The latest Doctor Who episode, “Knock Knock” by Mike Bartlett, would likely be a fairly enjoyable, yet not particularly memorable episode with most actors in the main guest role. However, with David Suchet (best known for playing Agatha Christie’s Poirot) in the role, it becomes absolutely phenomenal. Suchet gives one of the greatest performances the programme has seen, and that’s not something I say lightly. Doctor Who has had a lot of good actors giving great performances over the years, but Suchet stands above most of them.


Giantslayer - Battle of Bloodmarch Hill

Giants are amongst the most iconic fantasy monsters. Indeed, one of the most famous Dungeons & Dragons adventures of all time is Against the Giants, published in 1981. It is a compilation of three shorter adventures originally published in 1978. All three were amongst the first adventures ever published for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Since then, giants have gone on to feature as antagonists in many fantasy roleplaying adventures.

Pathfinder has been no exception in this regard. Giants feature as significant antagonists in several parts of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, for example. And it’s probably no surprise that giants feature in the Giantslayer Adventure Path as well, which begins with Battle of Bloodmarch Hill by Patrick Renie. This opening adventure offers an engaging mystery for the player characters to solve, and is a strong beginning to the adventure path as a whole.


Friday 5 May 2017

Doctor Who - Thin Ice

We’re only three episodes into Doctor Who Series 10 and I have to say, without a doubt, the pairing of the Doctor and Bill is the best Doctor/companion pairing since the tenth Doctor and Donna, and Bill is my favourite companion since Donna. There’s a naturalness to the relationship between the Doctor and Bill that wasn’t there with Amy or Clara.

It is in large part due to the fact that Bill gets to be a normal person, rather than a mystery to be solved. She reacts to travel through space and time in an original, yet also very relatable way. She asks questions that have never been asked—questions that make you wonder why no one’s asked them before. She experiences joy, anger, sadness. She’s inquisitive and intelligent, willing to stand up to the Doctor when needed, but also willing to acknowledge and accept his greater knowledge and experience.

The third episode, “Thin Ice” by Sarah Dollard, continues to build on the Doctor and Bill’s relationship, and to develop Bill as a character. Bill’s first trip into the past exposes her to some of the darker realities of travel with the Doctor—realities she must come to terms with. Yet despite some dark undertones, “Thin Ice” is also a light-hearted adventure with numerous fun moments, a diverse cast of characters, and incredible costumes.

Some might call the story thin on plot, but I wouldn’t say that’s entirely accurate. Its plot is straight-forward, yes, but this allows for greater emphasis on the characters, particularly the Doctor and Bill. There’s also quite a bit going on despite the straight-forward plot. Overall, the episode is highly entertaining and moves to a satisfying and emotional conclusion.


Tuesday 25 April 2017

Doctor Who - Smile

“Happiness will prevail!”

That is the motto uttered several times by the titular group in the 1988 Doctor Who story, “The Happiness Patrol”. It is a story set on a future Earth colony where sadness is outlawed, and those caught unhappy are executed. Methods of execution vary but are sometimes via a robot made out of licorice all-sorts.

I was reminded of “The Happiness Patrol” early on while watching the latest Doctor Who episode, “Smile” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Truth be told, beyond the mandatory happiness and death-by-robot, the two stories are actually quite different, and I don’t want to sound like I’m accusing the more recent story of copying the earlier one. That said, there is another way in which they are similar: They are both reasonably entertaining, yet flawed, stories.

“Smile” starts out strongly enough. It does a good job of setting the scene, and there is a lot of great interaction between the Doctor and Bill. There are some wonderful visuals and the episode maintains a suitable atmosphere that is a mix of both creepiness and wonder. However, the resolution appears and is gone in the space of mere moments. It’s almost as though the story spends so much effort on the set-up that it forgets it needs to reach a conclusion until its 45-minute duration is almost up, and so just tacks on something last moment. It doesn’t help that, apart from the Doctor and Bill, the characters are one-dimensional and entirely unsympathetic.

“Smile” is Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s second script for Doctor Who. His first was “In the Forest of the Night” from Series 8, an episode that I never got round to reviewing; however, in summary, my opinion of that story is, I didn’t like it. “Smile” is certainly a significant improvement on Cottrell-Boyce’s earlier story. However, its rushed ending leaves me with a sense of disappointment after such a good start.


Saturday 22 April 2017

Doctor Who - The Pilot

Over the last few years, I have been very critical of Steven Moffat, and I have written more than a few scathing reviews of his vision of Doctor Who. In the last couple of years, since Peter Capaldi took over, my reviews have generally been more positive, as I feel Moffat has greatly improved, but there are still things in his writing that have continued to bother me.

But then there are times that Moffat just gets it right. The Series 10 première episode, “The Pilot” is one such occasion. Gone is the overly frantic pacing typical of a Moffat-penned series opener, and in its place is a calmer, yet nevertheless exciting and moving episode. There are hints of the future and a series arc, yet it doesn’t overwhelm the viewer with complexity and confusing “timey-wimey” paradoxes. Instead, it present a straight-forward and very personal story to draw in viewers, both old and new, before leaping into the larger, more complex universe of the series.

Moffat likes to include lots of nods to the programme’s past in his episodes and “The Pilot” is certainly not an exception in this regard. However, in this case, these nostalgic moments occur in such a way as to not impede the experience for newer viewers who might not be aware of every detail of the show’s long history. And through the introduction of new companion Bill Potts, new viewers encounter the Doctor and his wider universe for the first time in a way that hasn’t happened since “Rose”, making “The Pilot” an ideal first episode for brand new viewers.

In short, “The Pilot” is an incredible episode of Doctor Who and is definitely one of Steven Moffat’s best since becoming showrunner. It’s pretty near close to a perfect episode, and that’s not something I say lightly. It’s fun, engaging, moving, and I just love it to pieces.


Wednesday 25 January 2017

Qadira, Jewel of the East

As much as I love the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, I have had a recurring criticism of many of the books describing the world. While I generally come away from the books knowing a great deal about what it’s like to adventure in the particular land being described, I often don’t know much about what it’s like to live there. Of course, the adventuring part is very important. The game is all about adventuring and the player characters themselves are generally referred to as adventurers. As such, the adventuring part is actually crucial.

Actual game play spends less time on day-to-day living. In fact, these sorts of things are often skimmed over. If they weren’t, it would take interminably long to play any campaign. For this reason, people might be inclined to think that information on what day-to-day life is like in the world would be less important—maybe even unimportant—in a setting book. I argue quite differently. While these are background details, they are also the kinds of details that bring a setting alive. Small details like the food the characters have for dinner, the kinds of clothes locals wear, or the customs they have for greeting strangers help to paint a picture of where all these adventures take place. They allow the players to better empathise with the world, and that in turn makes it all the more satisfying to the same players when their characters help to save that world and the people in it.

Yet Pathfinder Campaign Setting books often skimp on these details of daily life. An example I’ve commented on before is that several books contain the information that Prophets of Kalistrade have strict dietary restrictions, yet none of these books ever say what the restrictions actually are. So when a book comes along that breaks with this mould, I’m quick to praise and draw attention to it. Qadira, Jewel of the East by Jessica Price is such a book.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

Plunder & Peril

One of the great things about fantasy roleplaying adventures is the vast variety of locations you can set them in. From the dungeons that started it all to forests, mountains, cities, and even bizarre planes of existence, the options are virtually limitless. Yet perhaps one of the least represented is the seafaring adventure. That’s not to say that they are never seen, just that the vast majority of Pathfinder and D&D adventures tend to be set on solid ground. The Skull & Shackles Adventure Path is a notable exception, and so is the adventure Plunder & Peril.

In fact, Plunder & Peril is presented as three mini-adventures that can be linked together to form one longer one or played separately. However, despite this presentation, I question how effective these adventures would be as stand-alones. The first would work reasonably well on its own, but the other two are too dependent on the set-up of the ones before it. As such, they will be far less effective run on their own and much more satisfying if run together.

The quality of the three adventures does vary though, with the first two being good and the third being weaker. Put together, they make for an adventure that starts strong, stays relatively strong, then ends weakly, making the whole average out to about mediocre. There are also a lot of ways in which the PCs can “derail” the adventures and there aren’t a lot of options for what GMs can do if this happens.

SPOILERS FOLLOW (including minor spoilers for Skull & Shackles)

Sunday 15 January 2017

Sherlock - The Lying Detective

Sherlock can be a frustrating show sometimes. It is a show that is hugely enjoyable, yet at the same time can be infuriating as it gets too caught up in itself or tries to do too much. This was a major issue I had with the Series 3 finale, “His Last Vow”, and it is an issue I have with the second episode of Series 4, “The Lying Detective”.

Written by Steven Moffat (who also wrote “His Last Vow”), “The Lying Detective” is full of absolutely wonderful moments, with great performances (particularly from Toby Jones as Culverton Smith), tense scenes, and some clever plotting. But they work best as set pieces. As a whole, the episode jumps from moment to moment, often through time with flashbacks and flash-forwards, never pausing for a moment to breathe, and never allowing the audience a chance to get to know and empathise with its characters. And while it does have some clever twists and reveals, it relies far too heavily on Sherlock Holmes making deductions that are even more impossible than what he’s generally capable of. In short, there is a lot of wonderful eye candy, but it all doesn’t quite hold together as a coherent whole.


Thursday 12 January 2017

Distant Shores

The Pathfinder Campaign Setting is focused primarily on the Inner Sea Region. This includes the continent of Avistan and northern portion of the continent of Garund. The majority of lands that have been detailed to date lie in this region. However, this amounts to a relatively small portion of the entire world of Golarion. Avistan is one of the smaller continents and while Garund is a much larger continent, only a small portion of it lies in the Inner Sea Region. There are several other continents as well. One of these, Tian Xia, has received an overview treatment in Dragon Empires Primer and Dragon Empires Gazetteer.

There have been some brief forays into other lands. The Hungry Storm, the third part of Jade Regent, for example, contains information on the Crown of the World, Golarion’s north polar region, which connects Avistan to Tian Xia, and the Inner Sea World Guide has brief overviews of all the continents on Golarion. Distant Shores, one of the most recent books to look beyond the Inner Sea Region, examines six very different cities from various different parts of the globe, and offers tantalising hints about the lands that they are part of.

Paizo has always strived for diversity in its campaign setting, which is a great thing. Numerous different real-world cultures, races, and ethnicities have analogues on Golarion. However, the fact remains that most of the cultures of the Inner Sea Region have their roots in white European cultures. Moving beyond the Inner Sea provides the opportunity to tip the balance slightly away from that, and this is exactly what Distant Shores does.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Sherlock - The Six Thatchers

It’s been three years since Sherlock Series 3 aired, three years that viewers have waited for the resolution of the cliffhanger ending of “His Last Vow”. There was the special, “The Abominable Bride” last year, but that was a little different and certainly didn’t resolve the cliffhanger, so the world continued to wait the full three years. Now, Series 4 has begun with “The Six Thatchers” (based loosely on the Arthur Conan Doyle story, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”) and the cliffhanger... Well, I’ll leave discussion of that until the spoilered section.

Written by co-creator Mark Gatiss, “The Six Thatchers” marks a great return for Sherlock. Although I have some issues with it, which I’ll get into in a little bit, it’s a strong episode with some great character moments. Indeed, it’s very much a character-based episode with the mystery playing a rather secondary role. The focus here is on the relationships of the principal characters. There are moments of humour, seriousness, levity, and tragedy, all of which serve the overall purpose of character advancement. In particular, Sherlock himself sees some much-needed advancement as he finally starts to discover there are consequences for his actions.


Sunday 8 January 2017

Giant Hunter's Handbook

I must confess that I have grown somewhat tired of the Pathfinder Player Companion line. Over time, the line has become more and more focused on mechanical character options, and less and less on world description and flavour—pretty much the exact opposite of what I am personally looking for. Several months ago, for financial considerations, I had to cut back on how many books I was buying and, as such, Player Companions were amongst the first to go. I have not purchased any of the most recent books in the line. However, I do still have a backlog of Player Companions to get through, and I intend to read and review all of them.

When I opened up Giant Hunter’s Handbook, I expected more of the usual: new archetypes, feats, spells, etc. Those are certainly in there, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much setting flavour and background there is. In fact, the first new mechanical options (in this case, new uses for skills—something these books rarely do much with) don’t appear until page 11. Until then, it’s entirely practical information and advice that giant hunters in the world of Golarion need. Even when the book gets to the new feats, spells, and so on, there is still a lot of setting information to go with them.

The book opens with an introduction to the most common types of giants, separated into categories of “evil giants” and “nonevil giants”, as well as a sidebar with the most basic information that everyone knows about giants. After this, the book moves into more specific details about giants and how to effectively hunt or fight them. Each chapter is two pages long (a typical length for Player Companion books) and covers a specific topic.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Curse of the Crimson Throne

Over the years, Paizo has published a significant number of adventure paths. The current one, Strange Aeons, is in fact the nineteenth (not including the three published in Dungeon Magazine before Pathfinder Adventure Path was born), and there will likely be many more in the years to come. Yet one of the most memorable is also one of the earliest: Curse of the Crimson Throne. Originally published in Pathfinder Adventure Path Volumes 7 through 12 in 2008, it has gone on to gain a reputation as one of the best—and with good reason.

One of the things that always stood out for me with Crimson Throne was its fully realised setting and cast of vibrant NPCs who remained relevant throughout the entire adventure path. The detail simply made it come alive. Indeed, I have always considered it one of the more dramatic adventure paths. I could imagine cinematic scenes playing out in my head as I read it—not that such things never happened with other adventure paths, but somehow this was just a little more so with Crimson Throne. The adventure path did have its faults, but the whole certainly rose above them.

However, one thing that has made Curse of the Crimson Throne a little less accessible is that the game system it was written for has changed in the years since it was released. In fact, the system changed the very next year with the release of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, where Crimson Throne was written for the 3.5 Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Conversions between the two systems are not particularly difficult, but they can take a bit of time, which can be a bit of a turn-off for someone without the necessary time and wanting an adventure they can use with minimal adjustment.

Three years ago, another of the very early and popular adventure paths, Rise of the Runelords was re-released in an updated hardcover compilation. This was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Paizo as a company and the fifth anniversary of the Pathfinder name. The anniversary edition of Runelords updated the adventure path to the Pathfinder rules and also took the opportunity to expand it slightly and work out kinks in the original product.

It was perhaps inevitable that Curse of the Crimson Throne would one day also receive a similar treatment. There’s no special anniversary to celebrate this year, but does there really need to be? Much like its Runelords predecessor, the new hardcover compilation of Crimson Throne updates the adventure path to Pathfinder rules and also expands on the story where beneficial and streamlines in other areas. It also takes advantage of the most recent rules supplements, making use of newer monsters, classes, and feats where appropriate.

At nearly 500 pages in length, it is actually a substantially larger tome than the hardcover Runelords (a good 50 pages or so longer), and its extra length is certainly put to good use. Indeed, it manages to make one of the best adventure paths even better.