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.