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.


Monday 2 July 2018

June Round-Up Plus Doctor Who Gets a New Composer

It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these (see here for an explanation of my absence if you haven’t seen it already), and there’s not a whole lot to cover in the past month. But it does feel good to be getting back into the swing of things again.

Much of my recent stuff has involved getting caught up on things I should have done ages ago, so that means finally getting a review up of the Doctor Who Series 10 finale, “The Doctor Falls”, as well as last December’s Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time”, featuring David Bradley as the first Doctor and introducing Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth.

I also began catching up on the large number of Pathfinder products I intend to review, beginning with a return to the Giantslayer Adventure Path with the third instalment, Forge of the Giant God, as well as Adventurer’s Guide.

Pathfinder and Doctor Who have tended to make up the bulk of my posts (and there will continue to be lots of those), but I want to expand into covering more of other things as well. In particular, I’m intending to have a few more reviews of novels, and I started this past month with a review of The Savior’s Champion by Jenna Moreci.

Perhaps most exciting for me, however, is my own novel, which I am currently looking for beta-readers for! The Child of the Volgs is an epic fantasy novel that I have been working on for quite some time, and beta-reading is an important stage in the development of any book. It allows the author (in this case, me) to get feedback from a variety of different people, which the author can then use to help in further revisions. For the beta-readers themselves, it presents an opportunity to see and be involved in the process of creating a book. You can help make the book into the best book it can be! I’ve got several beta-readers already, but I could definitely use more. If you’re interested please check out my Beta-Read page for full details.

Looking to the future, I’ve got a review of the Pathfinder Module The House on Hook Street coming up in the next couple days. I’ll also be getting to more Giantslayer this month and hopefully a few other things as well. There will also be another novel review. With Doctor Who not currently on the air, there won’t be any new reviews (unless I finally mange to get back to finishing my Series 8 reviews), but I do hope to do a couple of Doctor Who-related posts, including a look back at the entirety of the Steven Moffat era of the programme. That might not happen in July (it’ll depend on how much time I have), but it is definitely a goal before Series 11 starts around October (no confirmed start date at this point). Of course, I’ll probably cover any major Doctor Who news that comes out.

That said, so far, there’s not been a whole lot of news about what to expect in the new series (which I kind of like—it maintains the surprise), but a few things in the year I was gone that I didn’t cover included the actual announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor and then, later, the reveal of her costume (see picture at top of post), which took a brief time to grow on me, but I now really like. There was also the announcement of who would be playing her companions: Bradley Walsh as Graham, Mandip Gill as Yasmin, and Tosin Cole as Ryan. It’s been a long time since the Doctor has had three companions (the last time was during the fifth Doctor’s time with Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric), so I’m very intrigued to see how the series handles the larger TARDIS crew.

It was also announced some time back that Murray Gold, who has composed the music for Doctor Who since it returned in 2005, would not be returning for Series 11. Just a couple days ago, it was announced that Segun Akinola would be the new composer. I generally liked Murray Gold’s music for the show, but he was there for a long time, and Doctor Who has always thrived on change. With the début of a new Doctor (particularly the first female Doctor), this is as good a time as any to change up the music, and I look forward to hearing what Akinola brings to the series. As far as I’m concerned, there are exciting times ahead for Doctor Who and I look forward to October (or whenever the new series starts).

Anyway, thanks to everyone who reads this blog! Have a great July!