Thursday 8 November 2018

Giantslayer Player's Guide

In order to get an adventure path going, the players need characters, and ideally, they’ll create characters that are suited for the particular adventure path they’ll be undertaking—characters who come from the appropriate region(s), and have relevant skills and abilities. In the case of the Giantslayer Adventure Path, they should come from the town of Trunau in Belkzen or have a reason for being in Trunau, and they should be interested in fighting giants.

The Giantslayer Player’s Guide provides players with the tools they need to create such characters. And it does a reasonably good job. One of the difficulties adventure path player’s guides can encounter is providing enough information to let players create characters appropriate to the entire campaign—not just the opening—while not giving away too much about later parts of the campaign. In the case of Giantslayer, this means making it clear that the PCs will be fighting giants (it’s in the name of the adventure path, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to the players even though it may be to the characters) and that they will be travelling through the Mindspin Mountains.

Like most adventure path player’s guides, the Giantslayer Player’s Guide opens with a brief overview of the campaign. This includes some suggestions on how the characters might already know or come to know each other. It then moves on to some basic character tips, including suggested archetypes, animal companions, bloodlines, favoured enemies, and so on. Since it’s not mandatory that PCs come from Trunau (although it is strongly recommended that at least one come from Trunau), it also includes a section on possible nearby places of origin.

Giantslayer Poster Map Folio

I can never have too many maps in my games. Particularly the big ones. I love unfolding them, laying them out on the table, and pointing to one location or another. I love the context they provide for where things are happening in the game world. And sometimes, they’re just pretty to look at. As such, I appreciate the map folios that come out for each adventure path. They help me get my fix of pointing at maps. They’re also generally useful for any games set in the same region, not just the adventure paths in their name.

The Giantslayer Poster Map Folio is no exception. Like most other adventure path map folios, it comes with three fold-out poster maps, each showing a location relevant to the Giantslayer Adventure Path. The first is a map of Trunau, the town that the adventure path starts in, and where the player characters might call home. The second is a map of the Mindspin Mountains, the region where the adventure path expands into. Trunau is located towards the northeast corner, and from there, it’s possible to trace out the route the remainder of the adventure path takes. Both these maps are useful, functional, and attractive.

The third map in an adventure path map folio tends to be a more artistic piece. Often, it’s a map of a country or region done in the style of a map the characters in the game might actually purchase and use, rather than one designed for gaming purposes. In this folio, it is a map of Skirgaard, the location of the fourth adventure. In this case, it’s more than just a map; it’s also an illustration of the entire village. Skirgaard is a small enough location that it’s possible to not just show where each individual location is, but to also sketch out every location in detail, complete with people moving about and smoke rising from chimneys. The map shows the village from the vantage point of a little bit above and to the south. When PCs arrive at the village, GMs no longer need to describe what they see. Instead, they can just show the map and say, “This is what you see.” The map is breathtakingly beautiful to look at, and I think it’s probably my favourite of all the artistic maps in all the adventure path map folios.

The Giantslayer Poster Map Folio makes a great addition to a Giantslayer campaign, and to any campaign set in Trunau and/or the Mindspin Mountains.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Doctor Who - The Tsuranga Conundrum

Doctor Who episodes can run the gamut from serious to funny, dramatic to silly, joyous to sad, terrifying, exciting, emotional—heck, sometimes even a little boring. This isn’t just a change from one episode to the next. Doctor Who frequently mixes many or all these things into a single episode. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, the results can be incredibly fun. And that’s the best way I can sum up “The Tsuranga Conundrum” by Chris Chibnall: fun. It’s fast-paced, tense, funny, silly at points, and just plain fun. I love every moment of it, from beginning to end.


Thursday 1 November 2018

Doctor Who - Arachnids in the UK

One thing Doctor Who is well known for is including lots of creepy chills and scares. This week’s episode is the kind that gives the show that reputation. Just in time for Hallowe’en, “Arachnids in the UK” presents us with giant spiders creeping out from under people’s beds, crawling along dark corridors, and spinning lots and lots of webs. It’s the kind of episode arachnophobes might want to avoid. In true Doctor Who fashion, however, the episode also provides moments of humour to soften the terror, and lots of great character moments.

Coming immediately after the incredible heights of “Rosa”, it’s not surprising that “Arachnids in the UK” does not reach those same heights, but it’s still a highly enjoyable episode. Unfortunately, it does have a somewhat weak resolution, which can make it feel a bit disappointing, especially in comparison to “Rosa”. However, the resolution aside, the episode has many great strengths, particularly the initial build-up of threat and the characters, which include our first introduction to Yasmin’s family. Overall, I’d say it’s my least favourite episode of Series 11 so far, but considering how strong the series has been, this does not make it a bad episode at all.


Sunday 28 October 2018

Aching God

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this novel from the author in return for an honest review.

Fantasy can be a genre in which it’s difficult to stand out. There’s a lot out there, both good and bad, and a lot of it can be very similar, following the same basic tropes and formulas. Indeed, it’s often expected to follow those tropes and formulas. Aching God is a novel with many of the usual trappings of fantasy, particularly those established in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. It involves a quest (perhaps the most iconic trope of fantasy). There is lots of magic, some of which is practised by sorcerers who have different kinds of specialisations. Other magic is used by followers of the various different gods, who grant their priests spells that can heal or protect. While there are many gods, their worshippers tend to follow one solely rather than worship them as a pantheon. The world also has warriors and roguish types, and of course there are monsters and other kinds of threats and challenges for the heroes to face.

I will confess, it took me a little while to get into the book because, at first, there didn’t seem a lot to differentiate it from all the other very similar fantasy out there. However, it wasn’t all that long. After a couple of chapters, the book begins to establish its own identity as we begin to learn a bit more about the world. By around the fourth chapter or so, I was hooked.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Doctor Who - Rosa

When Doctor Who began in 1963, its original purpose was to be an educational adventure series to teach children history and science. It soon drifted away from that purpose. Over the years, it has tackled a variety of different types of stories, subjects, genres, and styles, though a focus on adventure has always remained. And during those years, some periods or individual episodes have stood out more than the others. This week’s episode is one of those.

I have loved Series 11 so far. It’s brought back a thrill for watching Doctor Who that I haven’t felt in a long time. “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” and “The Ghost Monument” are both great episodes, and I stand by that. But “Rosa” blows them both away. It is, quite simply, one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever.

It’s also an episode that quite firmly returns to that original purpose to be educational. Doctor Who has often set stories in historical time periods, but “Rosa” is a kind of historical the show hasn’t done in a long time. In the first couple years, it was relatively common for stories to be what have come to be called “pure historicals”. Stories like “Marco Polo”, “The Aztecs”, and “The Reign of Terror” not only took place in historical times, but also involved no science fiction elements beyond the Doctor, his companions, and the TARDIS (and the TARDIS was only involved as a means of landing them there and taking them away at the end). There were no aliens, no other time travellers trying to change history, no fantastical elements of any kind.

By the end of William Hartnell’s time as the first Doctor, the pure historical stories were already becoming less frequent, replaced in favour of science fiction action stories. Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor only had one pure historical, his second story, “The Highlanders” in late 1966. The next pure historical wasn’t until 1982’s “Black Orchid” with Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor.

And there hasn’t been one since.

However, over the years a type of story now often referred to as a “pseudo-historical” started to appear occasionally—a story set in some period of history, but which also included science fiction elements such as changing history (like “The Time Meddler” from 1965) or aliens (“The Time Warrior” from 1973). The degree of focus given to the period can vary, but it is always at least part of the backdrop.

Since 2005, one form of historical story that has become popular is the “celebrity historical”, which not only takes place in the past, but also involves some well-known figure from that time, like Charles Dickens in “The Unquiet Dead” or Agatha Christie in “The Unicorn and the Wasp”. However, all the celebrity historicals since 2005 have also been pseudo-historicals.

Rosa” is not a pure historical. However, it is the closest Doctor Who has come to one since “Black Orchid”. While it does have science fiction elements, they are minimal, and the historical story of Rosa Parks remains at the forefront. Obviously, however, it is a celebrity historical.

Rosa” is not an easy episode to watch. It will make you uncomfortable (at least, I hope it does). It’s designed to make you feel uncomfortable. It shows a frank and brutal depiction of Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s, pulling little in the way of punches, apart from softening some of the language to keep it viewable by children. It is definitely the most real historical the show has had since 2005, possibly that it has ever had. It powerfully depicts the reality of the racism that existed at the time, while also reminding us of the racism that still exists today. It offers hope for a better future, while also reminding us that we have to remain vigilant and that change takes work. The world we live in today may be better in some ways than it once was, but it’s not perfect.

Tackling a sensitive topic like Rosa Parks and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is not an easy task for any show, but especially for a show like Doctor Who which deals frequently with time travel and manipulation, and that has a white lead character. It could easily go very wrong—easily become a “white saviour” story (a story in which a white character rescues people of colour from their plight).

Of course, as a white person myself, I am not really the most qualified to evaluate how well “Rosa” succeeds in presenting its material with sensitivity, and how well it avoids potential problems. As such, before writing this, I made a point of checking out what several black Doctor Who fans on Twitter (including , , and ) had to say. On the whole, their responses have been very positive. The thoughts and opinions in this review are my own, but I have tried to measure my opinions with those of the people most affected.

It should be noted, too, that “Rosa” is written by Malorie Blackman (with a co-credit by Chris Chibnall), who is the first person of colour ever to write for Doctor Who. The fact that Doctor Who has taken so long to have a non-white writer is rather depressing, and it is perhaps appropriate that Blackman write an anti-racist story at this time, as Doctor Who struggles to break down its own systemic barriers.


Sunday 21 October 2018

Doctor Who - The Ghost Monument

When I was young, I got a unique thrill out of watching a Doctor Who episode for the first time. It was always there, even if the episode wasn’t particularly good. The show just excited me in a way that’s difficult to express—a way that just didn’t happen with any other show. This is not to say no other show or movie could thrill me. Many did, just not in the same way. Doctor Who’s thrill was something very different. When Doctor Who returned in 2005, that thrill returned with it, and it stuck around through Series 1 through 4.

Sometime during Series 5, that thrill began to diminish and eventually vanished altogether. I was becoming more and more dissatisfied with Doctor Who. I still enjoyed the show, but it no longer seemed to have that quality that—for me—elevated it above other shows. It was actually one of the things that eventually motivated me to start this blog—so I could organise all my scattered thoughts in one place.

Over the next few years, that thrill didn’t return (except maybe for “The Day of the Doctor”), even when I thought the show was getting a lot better again. As much as I really liked Series 10, that thrill still didn’t return. To be honest, I had pretty much forgotten the thrill had ever existed.

However, last week, about midway through watching “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” for the first time, I suddenly realised I was feeling that thrill again, and it produced a moment of joy unlike any I’ve felt for a long time. I didn’t mention it in my review of “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” because, honestly, I was a little afraid it would go away again. However, I am thrilled (I use that word deliberately) to say that it was still present for the most recent episode, “The Ghost Monument.” Of course, there’s always the possibility that things could completely turn around again, but having that thrill there for two episodes in a row is a pretty big thing, and worth celebrating.

Now comes the difficult part of analysing just what it is that creates that thrill for these episodes, and not for the last several years. But I think I’m up for the challenge.

The Ghost Monument”, once again written by Chris Chibnall, is a wonderful episode that mixes tense excitement with heartfelt character moments, some humour, and a touch of creepiness. Jodie Whittaker has settled fully into the role of the Doctor and simply excels. The Doctor’s companions friends (I’m having difficulty getting used to the change of terminology) are similarly great, particularly Ryan and Graham, as are the guest cast. It also looks visually breathtaking, with incredible alien vistas and impressive special effects. On the whole, I like this episode even more than “The Woman Who Fell to Earth’, although I also feel it has more issues than last week’s episode.


Wednesday 10 October 2018

Doctor Who - The Woman Who Fell to Earth

It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but change is one of the few constants on Doctor Who. There are very few other shows out there where after just a year or two, the entire cast might be completely different. Companions come and go; the Doctor regenerates. The people behind the scenes, from writers to producers, change too. The new people bring with them new ideas, new styles, and new aesthetics. Sometimes there might be little to no change in the cast and crew, but the current people working on the show simply decide to do things differently. Even one episode to the next can bring marked changes. It’s simply a matter of fact that change is ingrained into the very structure of Doctor Who. It has been since the second season in 1964 when the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan left the show and the cast changed for the first of countless times.

One of the great things about this is that is that it allows Doctor Who to be so many different things to so many different people. If the current version doesn’t have what you’re looking for, you know it’s only a matter of time before it changes and maybe the next version will have what you want. It’s one of the things that have kept the show going for so long.

Doctor Who has changed again. And this time, it’s one of the bigger changes. Not only is there a new Doctor (who also happens to be the first female Doctor), there are also three new companions, a new showrunner, new writers, a new music composer, and quite a lot else new both in front of and behind the cameras. Oh, and there are new cameras too, a new aspect ratio, and a completely new look. Indeed, this is probably the biggest change since 2005 when Doctor Who came back after sixteen years off the air.

The changes this time also bring with them the perfect jumping on point for new (and lapsed) viewers. Doctor Who can be an intimidating programme to come into if you’ve never seen it before. With nearly 850 episodes produced over 55 years, there’s a massive backlog of history and (often contradictory) continuity that can seem overwhelming. But the simple matter is, you don’t need to see all that. Over the years, the show has had numerous spots where new viewers can easily start in without having to worry about anything that’s come before. That’s the case this year. The show is starting afresh. There are no returning plot-lines, villains, or monsters from previous years. Everything is completely new. The show hasn’t forgotten what came before, but it’s not relying on its past.

It’s been a bit of a wait since the last series. Not sixteen years, obviously, but it has been fifteen months since Series 10 ended. Jodie Whittaker was announced as the thirteenth Doctor just after that on 16 July, 2017, and she made her début in the closing moments of last December’s Christmas special “Twice Upon a Time” when Peter Capaldi’s twelfth Doctor regenerated into Whittaker’s thirteenth.

So, with all the changes, was the wait worth it?

The answer is unequivocally yes.

The Woman Who Fell to Earth” by Chris Chibnall is not a perfect episode (if such a thing even exists). I have criticisms of it (which I will get to in due time), but overall, I absolutely love it. It is an easily accessible episode with great, relatable characters, a lot of emotion, and more than a few thrills. The plot is fairly simple and straight-forward, allowing it to focus on introducing the new characters and to ease viewers into the world(s) of Doctor Who.

One thing people who have seen recent series of Doctor Who will almost certainly notice very quickly about this episode is how grounded it is. Former showrunner Steven Moffat aimed for a “fairy tale” style to the show. It was high fantasy (in a science fiction framework) with fantastical plots and fantastical characters. New showrunner Chris Chibnall’s newest iteration of Doctor Who has obviously not dispensed with fantastical elements entirely, but when I say that it is more grounded, I mean that it focuses more on setting the fantastic amidst a backdrop of realism. There’s a greater focus on showing the everyday lives of the characters and developing them as people viewers might actually meet. The opening scenes show the characters dealing with real-life concerns and issues before involving them in the plots of aliens. And even once the aliens show up, it never loses touch with that sense of reality.

One way it achieves this is through the use of something that I have sorely missed in recent years on Doctor Who (and long-time readers of my reviews will be familiar with me mentioning on many occasions): consequence. Actions have effects that reverberate into people’s lives and change them. People also die in this episode. And they stay dead. There’s actual tension as a result, and the alien menace feels like a real threat.

But there’s humour and fun in the episode too. The humour is more subdued than recent years. There are fewer witty quips, notably. However, there are still quite a few very funny moments, and while the episode does get a bit dark (not just visually, although much of it is set at night, so visually too) and bleak at times, there are light-hearted moments, too, helping to keep a sense of fun.

A lot of that fun comes from the Doctor herself. Jodie Whittaker is absolutely wonderful. She has great presence and energy. Within moments of her first appearance, she establishes herself in the role. There is no doubting that she is the Doctor.

There are a lot of great things to be said about her companions too, and the actors who play them. And the specifics of the story. And so much more.

Also a few quibbles.


Thursday 20 September 2018

It's About Time - New Doctor Who Trailer

It feels like it’s taking forever for October and Doctor Who Series 11 to arrive. I haven’t felt this stoked about a new series of Doctor Who in quite some time, but I’m on edge for its arrival!

A couple of weeks ago, we finally learned the air date of the first episode: 7th October. The BBC also released a short teaser trailer to go with the announcement. Bizarrely, despite being called a “Release Date Trailer”, the YouTube version (which I’ve embedded just below) doesn’t actually include the date! The date is included on the version loaded to other platforms though.

The teaser contains a fun little nod to breaking the glass ceiling, which, predictably, upset a certain subset of fans.

The date marks a move to Sundays. With the exception of Christmas specials and “The Waters of Mars” (which was also a special, though not a Christmas one), since Doctor Who came back in 2005, it has always aired on Saturdays (though at highly variable times in the UK in recent years). The classic series usually aired on Saturdays as well, except for a few seasons in the 80s. Here in Canada, Saturday has always been the typical night as well—although YTV showed the Sylvester McCoy years on Sunday evenings in the late 80s, so Sunday won’t be completely unprecedented for me. It will seem a little strange at first, though.

However, the air date is not the main purpose of this post! Now that there are only a couple of weeks left before Series 11 starts, the marketing campaign it starting to get into full swing. Over the last couple of days, there have been a lot of newspaper and magazine articles released containing interviews and hints at what to expect—though this year’s pattern of providing far less information than in previous years continues and I like it!

And today has seen the release of a new full trailer!

This trailer is the first to include a bit of actual dialogue from the new series, as well as brief glimpses (mostly blink-and-you’ll-miss-them glimpses) of guest stars and monsters, including a giant spider! I will admit that the music grated a bit when I first heard it in the Release Date Trailer. It’s very atypical for Doctor Who. However, it’s kind of grown on me. The lyrics fit, and it actually works really well in this new trailer. It does drive home the point that this is a new era of Doctor Who. Things are going to change.

What I particularly love about this trailer, though, are the visuals! Much like the previous full trailer, this one highlights some absolutely gorgeous visuals, and it has a truly cinematic feel to it. The new aspect ratio helps a good deal in this regard. Series 11 looks like it could be the best visually appearing series of Doctor Who ever. I can’t wait!

Anyway, to finish up, here’s a fun video of Jodie Whittaker responding to tweets about her casting!

Saturday 25 August 2018

Giantslayer - Shadow of the Storm Tyrant

Throughout the Giantslayer Adventure Path, the player characters have taken on the servants of Volstus, the Storm Tyrant and the forces they’ve been building in the Storm Tyrant’s name. In Shadow of the Storm Tyrant by Tito Leati, the PCs finally make their way to the Storm Tyrant’s cloud castle and take the battle directly to him.

I’ve had mixed opinions of the instalments of Giantslayer so far—some have been good, others not so good—but Shadow of the Storm Tyrant works well as the culminating adventure. It’s primarily a dungeon crawl, but has a good sense of urgency and variety that its predecessor, Anvil of Fire, is missing. It also has some epic-feeling encounters and combats appropriate for a high-level party, and it makes good use of its setting, which helps to turn what could have been just a bog-standard dungeon crawl into something much more unique.


Friday 24 August 2018

Cohorts and Companions

While conflict with villains and monsters is a significant part of any roleplaying game, the game would be considerably less interesting if the PCs didn’t have friends and allies as well. Whether they’re a local inn-keeper providing the PCs a room to sleep in or a loyal cohort who accompanies the PCs on their adventures, these friendly characters help fill out the rest of the world and provide variety beyond evil and/or monstrous opponents. Pathfinder Player Companion: Cohorts and Companions focuses on the followers and allies who aid the PCs in various ways throughout their adventuring careers.

As the book’s name implies, cohorts (gained from the Leadership feat) are a significant focus, but the book also goes considerably beyond these. The “Companions” part of the title can refer to animal companions, but also to pretty much any other person, animal, monster, or even object that in some way accompanies or aids the PCs—and there is quite an impressive breadth of options covered.

The book opens with a two-page discussion about why NPCs might follow PCs, and how PCs might go about gaining followers. This includes things like hiring NPCs as well as NPCs just following along for their own reasons. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of discussion about the Leadership feat, as well as mention of the variant Leadership feats that can be found in other products: Squire from Knights of the Inner Sea, Torchbearer from Dungeoneer’s Handbook, and Vile Leadership from Champions of Corruption. There is also a very good sidebar on “Who Controls Cohorts?” which discusses how to decide whether the GM or player (or a combination of both) gets to control cohorts’ actions.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest

Just under two weeks ago, the Pathfinder Playtest launched. This is an open playtest for the 2nd Edition of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. It includes the Pathfinder Playtest Rulebook, the Pathfinder Playtest Bestiary, and Doomsday Dawn, an adventure made up of several sections, each focusing on a specific aspect of the game for playtesting. You can download free PDFs of all of these, plus other materials like character sheets from the Pathfinder Playtest website.

This is not a review. It doesn’t really seem appropriate to write a review of a work-in-progress. However, it does contain some of my thoughts about the game (which I suppose is review-like). Since I concentrate fairly heavy on Pathfinder products on Of Dice and Pen, I figured my readers may be just a little curious about my thoughts and why I won’t be talking much about 2nd Edition Pathfinder for the foreseeable future.

When 2nd Edition was announced, I was cautiously excited. I believe the game is due a new edition. I have commented in many of my reviews that it has grown to a size where it’s impossible to keep track of things. There are so many choices that the vast majority are never used. The game is also convoluted with overlapping, redundant options or even sometimes contradictory options. Pathfinder has been out for nearly ten years now (and will have been by the time 2nd Edition launches fully next year) and a lot of material has been published for it, so it’s not surprising that it’s become somewhat bloated. However, I also think Pathfinder is still a very playable game. It just needs a bit of consolidation and a few alterations and fixes here and there.

After the announcement of 2nd Edition, Paizo began releasing regular previews of the game on the Paizo Blog, and I followed along, eager to see what the game would be like. At first, I liked a lot of what I was seeing (the action economy system, for example, based on the one from Pathfinder Unchained, which I already use in my games). Unfortunately, it soon became clear that the changes were far more extensive than what I was looking for. This wasn’t so much a revision of the game as it was a complete rebuilding of it—more like the change from D&D 3.5 to 4th Edition D&D instead of 3.5 to Pathfinder, which is more along the lines of what I want. I have a lot of Pathfinder products that I haven’t had a chance to use yet—adventure paths I’d like to run, for example—and converting them to the new edition would be just too large a task that I don’t have the time for.

And while there are things in the new game that I like, there are also several things that just don’t appeal to me. “Resonance” is one such thing. This is a new mechanic for limiting magic item use and replaces things like magic item slots. Basically, every character has a number of Resonance Points and using or “investing” (for worn items) a magic item requires spending Resonance Points. If you run out of Resonance Points, it becomes more difficult to use a magic item and you need to make checks. The idea is that the character needs to use a little bit of their own innate magical talent to activate a magical item. My problem with Resonance is not on the mechanical side. For me, it changes the entire feel of the game. Pathfinder and D&D before it have always had some items that can be picked up by anyone and used. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a game or setting that requires expending innate ability to drink a potion, but that’s not Pathfinder to me. I changes the dynamic and that doesn’t appeal to me.

I will not be using the Playtest rules with any of my games. All my current games will keep with 1st Edition rules for the remainder of their campaigns. I will absolutely take a look at the final rules for 2nd Edition when they release next year, and depending on how they develop, I might consider using them for future campaigns. However, I suspect I will be remaining with 1st Edition. As I said, I’ve got lots of books waiting to be used—more than enough to last me for many years worth of gaming. There are also a whole pile of books left that I haven’t yet reviewed here, so I’ve got lots to keep me busy on here for quite some time too.

Please note that, while I don’t intend to switch to 2nd Edition at this time, I have nothing against Paizo for producing it or anyone who plans to make the change. As I said, I think the game is due a change. It just so happens that change has gone in a different direction to what I personally would have preferred.

Monday 13 August 2018

Giantslayer - Anvil of Fire

Every adventure path has a low point. It’s pretty much unavoidable. There’s always going to be something that doesn’t work quite as well as everything. Of course, the hope is that any low points are still high—still good and fun, just not quite as high as the other points in the adventure path. If this situation is met, you have a winning adventure path. Unfortunately, Giantslayer isn’t an example of this. Even more unfortunately, its low point sinks especially low.

After Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen, I worried that the adventure path was becoming repetitive. Three instalments in a row all follow a very similar style where the PCs need to infiltrate much larger and potentially overpowering forces in order to achieve their goals. I worried that this repetition could start to bore the players. Anvil of Fire by Sean K Reynolds, the fifth part of the adventure path, is only superficially similar in this regard and mostly breaks from the pattern established in the last three parts. Unfortunately, it’s repetitive in an even worse way: with itself.

Anvil of Fire is one long dungeon crawl with battle after battle after battle—with almost every encounter being virtually identical to the one immediately before it. There is very little opportunity for pause (except if and when PCs decide to retreat from the dungeon to recover) and even less opportunity for interaction with NPCs in any way other than combat. There is so much of the same in this adventure, I can’t imagine any group of players not being completely bored by the end. Even the most avid “hack’n’slash” players will likely be dismayed at the lack of variety in the combats.


Tuesday 31 July 2018

Planes of Power

Fantasy roleplaying games allow an escape from reality. They allow us to play out stories with magic, elves, and dragons that could never happen in the real world. Yet they retain elements of the real world, often taking aspects of real world history and cultures to inspire the peoples and societies that populate them. These elements allow the game to retain a certain sense of familiarity, and a certain sense of reality amidst the fantasy.

But sometimes, you just want to abandon reality altogether, get rid of the familiar as much as possible, and create something truly different. This can be through travel to other worlds or even other planes. Planar travel has been a mainstay of roleplaying since its earliest days. It’s often something only embarked upon by high-level characters who have acquired the greater powers needed to make the jump from one plane to another, but it doesn’t have to be. The old 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting, Planescape made PCs natives of other planes and incorporated plane-hopping right from first level.

The Pathfinder Campaign Setting first outlined its planar structure in the old Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting book (later updated as Pathfinder Campaign Setting: The Inner Sea World Guide). The information in that book was later expanded upon in The Great Beyond. But even that book could only provide the barest details. The planes are more than just other worlds; they are entire other universes with enough space in each one to hold millions of entire campaign settings.

Planes of Power is a more recent book that takes a much closer look at just four of the many planes that make up the Great Beyond—specifically the Elemental Planes of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. Of course, this book can still only scratch the surface of these planes, but it is able to provide enough of a backdrop to whet GMs’ creative juices and allow them to expand beyond what’s presented.

Monday 30 July 2018

All the Birds in the Sky

What is the difference between science fiction and fantasy? The two are often grouped together. Fans of one are usually fans of the other as well, and indeed the two often overlap. Much that is labelled science fiction contains things that are outright fantastical. The Star Wars series is one of the most extreme examples of this. Called science fiction, it follows the formula of epic fantasy, complete with wizards (jedi), monsters, and heroes fighting the forces of evil. It uses the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, faster-than-light travel, lasers), but without any actual science behind them. The reverse happens as well, with many fantasies containing scientifically plausible ideas. So where is the line between the two? Does that line even really exist?

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders plays around with the separation between science and fantasy. It jumps back and forth from one side to the other of that hard-to-define line, all the while effortlessly deconstructing the idea that there’s even a line in the first place, demonstrating that, in the end, both science fiction and fantasy are just story-telling.

It does this for more than just science fiction and fantasy, too. It tears apart the lines between comedy and serious drama, being both hilarious and deadly serious, fun and emotional. There are moments of action that wouldn’t be out of place in a Transformers movie, while also being a book about normal everyday life, from children dealing with bullies at school to the sex lives of young adults. Indeed, the book defies most attempts to slap a genre of any kind on it, and it is all the more delightful because of it.

It even defies expectations on a meta-textual level. The book is written in third person limited (meaning it focuses on the point of view of one character at a time), alternating chapter-by-chapter between its two protagonists. Except every once in a while, when the two characters are together, the perspective switches back and forth between them from one paragraph to the next. On other occasions, the perspective widens out to other characters. Even though this can be unexpected (third person omniscient is rarely used these days), it’s never jarring. Anders makes it seem completely normal and natural—she makes you think you were expecting it.

Sunday 29 July 2018

Cosmos: Possible Worlds

Long-time readers of this blog may recall my excitement four years ago when Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premièred. Both an update and a sequel to Carl Sagan’s ground-breaking 1980 series Cosmos, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and covered a variety of topics concerning humanity’s place in the universe, from the smallest atoms to the largest galaxies, and everything in between. It was both beautiful to watch and highly educational. It’s a series I strongly recommend for gaining a better understanding of science and the world around us.

It’s been a while, but the great news is, Cosmos is coming back for another season! Cosmos: Possible Worlds will air next year. I’ve known about this for some time now, but what I’ve only just learnt is that a new trailer came out last week. Have a watch!

Educational programming is important, and in many ways, science programming is especially so. Cosmos is far from the only science show out there (and there are many good ones, too), but it is one of the most high-profile, and that helps bring it to a larger number of people. We live in a time when science is more and more frequently coming under attack. In the United States, in particular, people in power try to place topics like climate change under the heading of “fake news” and push creationism as being on the same scientific level as evolution.

It’s not limited to the States, though. I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Here in Ontario, we have recently elected a new conservative government that is already seeking to scrap environmental protections put in place by the last government and is fighting against the federal government’s attempts to keep those or similar environmental protections in place. This same provincial government is also scrapping a newly established sex education programme for Ontario students and replacing it with an out-of-date programme from 1998. And they’re doing this for reasons based entirely around misinformation (see here for a good overview of this situation).

As a teacher, I welcome any attempts to bring science and education to people young and old. One of the best ways is to present science in a way that is entertaining and stimulating. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey does this through the use of thrilling visuals. It is truly a feast for the eyes, on par with the numerous fictional shows and games vying to grab the attention of viewers. Along with these visuals, Cosmos also presents its subject matter in a straight-forward, easy-to-understand manner. You don’t need a PhD in physics to understand the show. You don’t really need any background in science at all. Yet even for those with a background in science, it still has much to offer, covering such a diverse array of subjects as it does. One of the great things about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is also how accessible it is to people of many different ages. I’ve used Cosmos in a classroom with 12-year-old students and have seen it captivate adults as well.

From the preview, Cosmos: Possible Worlds looks to contain these same things—thrilling visuals accompanying an accessible and entertaining discussion of scientific topics. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Things are about to get epic.” I can’t wait!

Friday 27 July 2018

Giantslayer - Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen

Every adventure path has a particular theme and style to it, which identifies it and makes it distinguishable from other adventure paths. Iron Gods has technology and aliens, while Mummy’s Mask involves exploring ancient tombs and battling undead. Giantslayer, not surprisingly, is all about giants. Adventure paths also need a certain amount of variety, though, as too much of the same thing can start to feel stale. Stray too far from the core concept, however, and the different segments of the adventure path might no longer feel like a connected whole. It can be a fine line between how much “same” and how much “different” an adventure path needs to work.

With Giantslayer, I’m starting to feel that it’s leaning towards too much of the same. The fourth instalment, Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen by Jim Groves is structurally very similar to the two adventures immediately preceding it, The Hill Giant’s Pledge and Forge of the Giant God. That’s not to say that Ice Tomb is a bad adventure. It’s actually pretty good and there’s a lot I like about it, but in it, the PCs must undertake a mission of infiltration and sabotage just like they’ve done twice already. Of course, as they’re higher level now, they have more options for how to go about their mission and they face more powerful opponents, but in the end it still feels repetitive. It’s exacerbated by the fact that this is not just the third time overall, but the third time in a row.

That aside, there’s a lot that’s very good in Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen. It has a dynamic and vibrant setting that provides a good sandbox location for the adventure to take place in, and it has lots of interesting encounters to challenge a party of 10th-level characters and entertain their players. It also has an innovative system for determining how their giant opponents respond to the PCs’ actions.


Thursday 19 July 2018

Would You Be My New Best Friends? - Doctor Who Series 11 Trailer

Since “Twice Upon a Time” and the twelfth Doctor’s regeneration into the thirteenth (played by Jodie Whittaker), it has been very quiet on the Doctor Who front—that is, until this week. A few days ago, we got the first teaser for the forthcoming Series 11, and today comes the first full trailer (watch it below) as well as the first peak at the new sonic screwdriver (see above). (Yes, I know a few pictures of the sonic screwdriver leaked at little while back, but this is the first official look.)

The trailer is pretty straight-forward as trailers go, with a succession of short moments from the new series and a narration by the Doctor over the top. There’s less to unpack from this than there was in the teaser from a few days ago, but what this trailer definitely has in spades is a sense of wonder and excitement. The shots and scenery viewed are simply gorgeous. Intriguingly, there isn’t a single look at any monsters or aliens. It focuses on the Doctor and her three new friends, without even a single other character appearing. But that’s okay, as far as I’m concerned. I like the greater secrecy being kept over this series than in previous years. It helps increase the excitement factor. I, for one, can’t wait till it starts!

Oh, and to answer the Doctor’s question, my answer is unequivocally yes!

(Edit: A few other characters do appear in the trailer beyond just the Doctor and her companions. They appear during blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments, but they're there.)

Sunday 15 July 2018

The Universe is Calling - Doctor Who Series 11 Teaser

The new series of Doctor Who is still a few months away, but publicity is starting to gear up. The newest issue of Entertainment Weekly features Doctor Who as its cover story and, today, the BBC released the first teaser for Series 11.

This is not a trailer showing scenes from the upcoming series. Instead, it’s a specially filmed sequence to help whet the appetite for more (and it’s probably not a coincidence that it uses food to do so). On the surface, it says very little about what to expect from the new series—and that fits the more secretive style of new showrunner Chris Chibnall, compared to both Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies before him.

But looking beneath the surface, there’s a lot more to glean from this trailer. The new Doctor appears to have something of a mischievous streak to her: Through what appears to be some sort of time manipulation, she steals some of Ryan’s food and replaces Graham’s newspaper with a Beano issue (intriguingly, the same one the 11th Doctor hides behind in “The Rings of Akhaten”). But she has a kinder side too. When Yasmin discovers there’s no pizza left, the Doctor helpfully replaces it. Finally, the Doctor’s smile at the end shows a great deal of warmth and fun. There’s also the television announcer. While ostensibly talking about sport, the words—“They’ve got the makings of a really great team. They’ve got great energy. They’ve got great flare...I’m really excited to see what happens”—also apply quite easily to the new TARDIS team.

In just a few seconds, this teaser conveys a fairly clear feel for the new series. I’ve already been quite excited about the new series, and this teaser has definitely made me more excited!

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Inner Sea Faiths

Clerics have always been one of my favourite classes. I like getting into the mindset of people who devote their lives to serving greater powers. As such, I also love books that focus on those powers—what their religions are like and what drives their followers. One of the most-used Pathfinder books in my games (apart from the central rulebooks) is Inner Sea Gods, which provides detailed information on the core 20 gods of the Golarion setting (along with additional character options).

However, Golarion has considerably more than just 20 gods. Inner Sea Gods contains details on many of the others, but no book has unlimited space, so these additional details are understandably brief—half a page at most, and often no more than a single paragraph. Some of these additional gods have received more detailed write-ups in other sources, such as volumes of Pathfinder Adventure Path, but ever since Inner Sea Gods came out, I’ve hoped that there would eventually be another book that would collect together these other gods into one place.

Inner Sea Faiths is just such a book. It provides details on 15 of the lesser-known gods of Golarion, such as Brigh, Hanspur, Kurgess, and Sivanah. All 15 are given write-ups in the same style as the ones for the core 20 gods in Inner Sea Gods. Inner Sea Faiths is not as big a book as Inner Sea Gods. The write-ups are 6 pages long each instead of 8, and it doesn’t contain any new prestige classes, magic items, spells, etc. It’s also not a hardcover book. However, it is still a bigger book than most in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line—96 pages long instead of the standard 64.

Tuesday 3 July 2018

The House on Hook Street

I love roleplaying adventures that fully integrate into their settings and make full use of those settings. Generic adventures that can take place anywhere are not necessarily bad (and there are certainly many very good ones), but there is something special about an adventure that can’t easily take place anywhere other than where it’s set. The setting helps add to the adventure’s flavour, and can make the adventure more memorable than one with a generic setting.

The House on Hook Street by Brandon Hodge is such an adventure. Set in the Bridgefront neighbourhood of the city of Korvosa, it makes heavy use of concepts and rules from Occult Adventures, and brings to life one of the poorest, most poverty-stricken places in the Golarion setting. It would be possible to use The House on Hook Street with a different campaign setting, but to do so, you would pretty much need to transplant the entirety of Bridgefront (and with it, much of the rest of Korvosa) into the other campaign world. You could change the names of Bridgefront and the locations in it, but it would still be essentially the same place. Without its setting, The House on Hook Street would be a very different adventure.

Of course, the setting is only one part of a successful adventure. A good adventure also requires an exciting plot with interesting encounters and villains, and The House on Hook Street certainly has these. It embroils the PCs in a tale of drugs and lucid dreaming, and brings them into conflict with creatures of nightmare. It can be difficult to do horror effectively in a roleplaying adventure, but while The House on Hook Street isn’t strictly horror, it does contain some incredibly creepy moments that may strike fear in even the hardiest of heroes.

It is a complex adventure, and GMs should be sure to have read and reviewed it thoroughly before play, but it’s one of the best adventures I’ve seen in a while.