Monday, February 18, 2019

Starfinder Space Goblin T-Shirt [RPG]

Because of the popularity of skittermanders, space goblins don't get much love in Starfinder.  That might be for the best, but this shirt is still pretty cool.  From the classic dogslicer to the junk laser to the helmet held together with a (generic)
band-aid, everything about this picture says "Goblin . . . in Space!"  That, and the Starfinder logo at the top, makes for a simple, straightforward design.  There's nothing on the back, it only comes in black, and that's about it.  It has seemed to fade more than I might expect after not that many washings, but all in all it's a quality shirt with fun artwork.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Pathfinder Player Companion: "Champions of Purity" [RPG]



Champions of Purity is a sort of sequel to the earlier Faiths of Purity.  Whereas the previous book was primarily about the gods and their devotees (clerics and paladins), Champions of Purity has a broader theme: characters of good alignment generally.  Since PCs of any class can be on the side of good, a book designed for those characters makes sense.  But although there are certainly some useful class options here and there, the book as a whole adopts the scattergun approach of throwing a lot of stuff out there and seeing what sticks.  Written mostly by a crop of freelancers, the book is a loose collection of shallow two-page entries on vaguely-related topics.  It doesn't really have much in the way of depth, but that seems to be the norm for many of the books in the Player Companion line.

Still, to give credit where it's due, we have to admire the great cover of Seelah cutting through a horde of monsters.  The inside front cover is a table of good-aligned deities in Golarion that includes the usual suspects from the Core Rulebook along with some that are lesser-known, including several from the Asian-themed Dragon Empires.  The inside back cover does an odd thing and introduces a new feat, "Summon Good Monster," that allows good-aligned spellcasters to substitute a good-aligned creature from the accompanying table in place of what the spell would normally allow, and to give them Diehard to boot. Not too shabby!

The book proper starts with a two-page introduction, "Why Be Good?", that talks about some more specific motivations for PCs, like freedom, honor, justice, mercy, order, and more.  It then goes on to give some suggestions as to where characters with those goals might hail from geographically.

Next, each of the three good alignments (Lawful Good, Neutral Good, and Chaotic Good) are  discussed in a separate two-page entry which is divided into Philosophies (Lawful Good PCs might be seen as Crusaders or Guardians, for example, while Neutral Good PCs might be seen as Mediators or Redeemers), Advantages & Challenges (in terms of role-playing), Opportunities & Allies (ways those PCs might fit into Golarion specifically), and finally Traits (three new ones each).  One of the criticisms I have of the book is that its treatment of alignment issues only barely skims the surface: there's no mention, for example, of how hard it is to play a truly good character when the lowest common denominator is lazy players with a "kill things and take their stuff" mentality.  Characters of good alignment face hard decisions and restrictions that other alignments don't, and this can create problems for groups.  These are some of the issues that would be worth discussing.

The remaining two-page sections consist of the following:

"Paragons of Virtue" has a line or two on good-aligned races (Aasimars, Catfolk, Elves, and Samsarans), good-aligned organisations (like knightly orders), and good-aligned homelands (like Andoran), but it's a very cursory treatment and of very little use to those familiar with Golarion.  Four new traits are included.

"Good Characters in Bad Situations" raises the classic "what do you do with goblin babies" quandary and then suggests (in a sentence or two each) some "bad places" that good characters could come from.  Again, the book has identified an interesting issue but has a shallow and wishy-washy treatment of it.  Don't look for any deep insights into alignment and RPGs here. (I do love the artwork of the samurai with the goblin babies!)

"Heavenly Virtues" presents one new feat called "Virtuous Creed" that has different effects depending on which specific virtue the PC identifies with (such as humility, courage, freedom, etc.). In a way, it's like six feats in one, which is interesting, but the different virtues have very different power levels in a mechanical sense.

 "Redemption" presents a rules sub-system for tracking an evil creature's progress towards becoming good, along with a variety of penances they can do to help atone.  I'm skeptical of these little sub-systems that I know will never be referenced again or expanded upon.  This one looks a bit rough, but I guess it does add some content and perhaps guidance to a GM dealing with the issue.  I wouldn't follow it too strictly, however.

"Divine Influence" introduces seven new clerical subdomains: Cooperation, Dragon, Imagination, Judgment, Redemption, Revelation, and Revelry.  Each subdomain replaces the domain spells and granted power of a specific Core Rulebook domain.  It looks like there are some good options.

"Fighting the Good Fight" is a miscellany: a new barbarian rage power (Celestial Totem), two new inquisitor inquisitions (Final Rest and Recovery), six new feats (including one very useful one to keep you from accidentally killing enemies outright and a silly one that adds a single point of damage when you hit with a good-aligned weapon), and a sidebar on subduing and binding opponents (no new rules, but it's useful to have the material all in one place).

"Grace and Guile" has a handful of new alchemist discoveries, a couple of bardic masterpieces, and three new rogue talents.  The book really is trying to have something for everyone!  The alchemist discoveries seem reasonable, one of the bardic masterpieces seems crazily overpowered (blinding and deafening, or even stunning, all evil creatures that hear the performance and fail a save), and I really like the rogue talent Sacrifice Self that allows a rogue to ignore the effects of their evasion ability to help shield an ally from harm.

"Sublime Spellcraft" has a couple of new summoner evolutions (I wouldn't touch summoners with a ten-foot-pole, so I have no opinion of these), three new witch patrons (which are apparently just bland lists of replacement spells), a few new hexes, and two new wizard arcane discoveries.  I mostly liked what I saw here.

"Spells of the Just"  includes ten new spells, most of which are for both divine and arcane spellcasters.  I really liked the little story in the sidebar about how these spells came to be known, and I wish there were more attempts like this to explain the appearance of new spells and magic items.

"Tools for Good" introduces several new magic items.  Although damned expensive, I really liked the Devil's Key (allowing you to follow an outsider to its home plane to kill it for good) and the Equalizer Shield (creating an antimagic field to stymie those pesky spellcasters!).

I think books like this have little enduring value because there's hardly any interesting setting lore or discussion, and readers will just cherry-pick a new spell or class option from an online database.  Buy this one if you need to for PFS, but otherwise you can safely give it a pass.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Starfinder Pawns: Base Assortment [RPG]


I don’t imagine being the guy who has to write the blurbs for Paizo products is always an easy job: how do you sell something like a bag of little circle bits of plastic to hold pawns upright?  Well, I have to appreciate anything that starts with a good pun like “Base Invaders.”  The Starfinder Pawns: Base Assortment bag includes 18 Medium bases, 5 Large bases, and 2 Huge bases.  All of the bases are black, except for one that comes in a random color.  I already have a ton of bases floating around so initially bought this just for collection purposes, but I’ve actually come to use it a lot.  Often the Starfinder pawns I have out for a game don’t come with their own bases, so I can just grab this and know that it has enough bases for everything that’s realistically likely to come up in the session.  The one thing that would make this product better is if the bag was resealable so I wouldn’t have to worry about them spilling out all over the place.  All in all though, this will take care of your base-related needs.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Jonathan # 1 [COMICS]

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Jonathan # 1
(Dark Horse, one-shot 2001)

Creators: Jane Espenson (writer), Cliff Richards (penciler), Andy Owens (inker), Clem Robins (letterer), Guy Major (colorist)

Setting:  "This story does not take place during Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fourth season."

T.V./Movie Character Appearances: Jonathan, Buffy, Xander, Anya, Giles, Spike, Willow, Riley,

Major Original Characters: None.

Summary

Jonathan Levinson, international movie star, philanthropist, inventor, and vampire-slaying protector of Sunnydale rescues a kidnapped European princess.  In the process, he discovers the Zada, a secret Soviet counterpart to the Initiative (the American project to harness the power of demons).  The Zada subjects have escaped the Soviet Union and, now well-organised, have come to Sunnydale to seek the power of the Hellmouth.  Jonathan gathers his crew—the self-doubting Buffy, the enamoured Anya and Xander, Riley, Willow, Giles, and Spike—to accompany him to the tunnels beneath Sunnydale high in search of the Zada.  Jonathan single-handedly slays several of the vampires, with the rest of his crew watching his back.  When Giles gets shot, though, it’s lucky that Jonathan’s expert medical knowledge can save the older man’s life.  With the Zada destroyed and everything right with the world, Jonathan retires to his mansion accompanied by a pair of super-models.

Review

Written by Jane Espenson, the writer of the Season Four episode “Superstar,” this story is great fun.  It’s set in the same vein of that episode where Jonathan has made an occult bargain to gain fame and respect.  The story itself is interesting (a Soviet counterpart to the Zada is a cool idea), and there are a lot of great little humorous touches scattered throughout.  The action scenes are gloriously over-the-top.  There’s also, though the narration, enough self-awareness on Jonathan’s part for him to realize that he doesn’t really deserve everything that’s happening and that he’s going to have to pay a price for it someday.  All in all, a really enjoyable little one-shot.

Notes

·       *  I liked the opening scene, with Jonathan falling out of a burning plane without a parachute only to somehow dive back into the cockpit and land it before it crashes.  It’s exactly the opening stunt to a James Bond movie.

·       *  A line I didn’t even realize the significance of the first couple of times I read the issue: when Jonathan and the gang return to the ruins of old Sunnydale High, Buffy says “Even the clock tower is gone.”  Jonathan says “Good.”  It’s a reference, of course, to the famous episode where Jonathan is about to commit suicide.


·         * Jonathan’s pseudo-Batman narration is great: “Mayhem.  I was in my element.  I unleashed my fists of fury.”

* My favourite narrative passage: "I am a man with a lot to be grateful for: my home, the patent I hold on velcro, my looks."

* Movie marquee:  "Jonathan Levinson in . . . The Matrix"

* Apparently, there are also "gold-foil" and "silver-foil" versions of the photo cover.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Pathfinder Map Pack: "Ruined Village" [RPG]

I’ve used the Ruined Village Map Pack in a couple of scenarios now.  I think it offers a nice array of detailed locations that all fit on the theme of an abandoned village.  There’s a nice little cemetery (I’m surprised Paizo hasn’t made flip-mats for graveyards, considering how often adventurers go to them), a weed-choked fountain, and several houses and buildings of various sizes with broken furniture, cracked flooring, and debris everywhere.  It’s definitely much more interesting and evocative than someone could draw with a marker.  Most of the tiles could fit together to make one large village, with the exception being the two broken bridge spans crossing a river.  I can envision a lot of uses for this Map Pack: a campsite the PCs come across just at sunset, an old hermit’s hut, a bandit hideout, a ghost-infested ruin, or even just an ordinary village that has fallen on (really) hard times.  Its versatility and design quality makes it a solid product worth purchasing.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: "Inner Sea World Guide" [RPG]


To put it simply, the Inner Sea World Guide is *the* setting book for Pathfinder.  There are several other books (softcovers) that provide more insight into particular areas, but this is the book that introduces the whole shebang.  Weighing in at 318 pages, it provides an overview of everything that makes up Pathfinder's official campaign setting: the Inner Sea region of the planet Golarion.  There are entries on each of the core races and human ethnicities, overviews of each of the nations of the region, a chapter on gods and religion, miscellaneous information like holidays and languages, an introduction to some major organisations that PCs might belong to (or fight against), player-facing material like new equipment and prestige classes, and finally a handful of new monsters for the GM. In short, there is a *lot* of information in the book and I've come to rely on it heavily.

In terms of overall production quality, a reader won't be disappointed.  It's attractively laid out, with tons of maps, artwork (some of it recycled from earlier Paizo products), sidebars, etc.  It's clear that a lot of love and attention to detail went into the book, which makes sense as it's one of the premier products in the Pathfinder line.

An Introduction (4 pages) kicks things off.  One page is a map of the entire Inner Sea region.  The theme of the setting is encapsulated nicely: against all prophecies, the God of Humanity, Aroden, has died suddenly, leading to a world "where nothing is foretold, and anything can happen."  From another perspective, that's really what Golarion is: a kitchen-sink setting where no matter what kind of fantasy game-play your group wants, it can find a place for it--whether it's gothic tales of horror, swashbuckling tales of pirates, barbarians with laser-swords, steampunk gunslingers, or more traditional elves and wizards.  The sum really is greater than the parts, and somehow it all works.  The entire setting has a surprisingly rich and detailed history, which helps to tie everything together into a more coherent whole.  The Introduction also contains a really nice in-game summary of the Pathfinder Society and a short sidebar explaining how the Inner Sea World Guide has expanded upon and updated the two previous overviews of the setting (the Gazetteer and Pathfinder Chronicles Campaign Setting, respectively).

Chapter 1 is Races (22 pages).  It starts with a *very* brief overview (a sentence or two each) of where some of the uncommon humanoid races (like tieflings or kobolds) fit into the Inner Sea before devoting a single-page to each of the human ethnicities of Golarion (many with sensitively-handled analogues to real world cultures) and then the other core races like elves, dwarves, etc..  I'm not necessarily a fan of this way of handling things, as it gives the appearance that only humans have different ethnicities while all the other core races are homogeneous.  Still, the chapter does succeed in adding a ton of Golarion-specific lore that is absent from the setting-neutral Core Rulebook.

Chapter 2, "The Inner Sea" (184 pages) is clearly the heart (and, by page-count, a full half) of the book.  It starts by explaining that the Inner Sea consists of the continents of Avistan and (northern) Garund, explaining that the planet of Golarion contains several other continents that are outside the scope of the book.  There's a detailed timeline of the setting's in-game history, which makes for interesting reading once some additional context is provided.  The bulk of the chapter consists of four-page entries on each of the major countries/regions of the Inner Sea.  Each entry starts with a sidebar giving basic information (like notable settlements, rulers, population, etc.) and is then sub-divided by topics: history, government, and a gazetteer of notable locations.  There are 41 of these entries in alphabetical order, so it's pretty hard to cover them adequately in a review like this.  I think the best thing to do is repeat my earlier point that there's a place for almost everything somewhere: revolutionary America has an analogue in Andoran, revolutionary France is Galt, Osiron is ancient Egypt, etc.  But there are also some very original countries, like Razmiran (a theocracy ruled by a con-man), Rahadoum (a country that has turned against the gods and where worship is illegal), the Worldwound (a wasteland devastated by the presence of an open portal to demonic planes), the Mana Wastes (where magic doesn't work, and technology has stepped in), and so much more.  If nothing else, each entry serves as a nice overview to give the area some basic flavour, and then a GM who really wants more detail can look for the matching softcover campaign setting line book for more depth.  I was particularly intrigued by the eight page "Beyond the Inner Sea" section, which is more detailed than I would have thought (and definitely worth expanding someday, Paizo!).

Chapter 3, "Religion" (32 pages), contains a half-page introduction to each of the "Core 20" deities of the setting.  Other gods get a paragraph or two, but there's also space devoted to archdevils, demon lords, elemental lords, dead gods, and philosophies.  It's enough to get started, though serious players and GMs will likely want more detailed information.  In terms of game-play mechanics, two new clerical domains (Scalykind and Void) are introduced here.

Chapter 4, "Life" is sadly just ten pages long.  This is the chapter that covers the calendar, holidays and festivals, languages, weather and climate, and distinctive flora and fauna, among other subjects.  There are some nice samples of things that make Golarion distinctive, but it would be good to someday have an "Inner Sea Almanac" that expanded on the little things that don't seem exciting but help add a major degree of verisimilitude to the setting.

Chapter 5, "Factions" (14 pages) provides a two-page introduction to five different organisations: the Aspis Consortium (an unprincipled group of colonialists & merchants), the Eagle Knights (anti-slavery freedom-fighters), the Hellknights (extremely strict "law and order" types), the Pathfinder Society (explorers and treasure-hunters), and the Red Mantis (assassins).  Several lesser groups also get a one-paragraph overview.  Overall, the chapter again serves nicely as a brief introduction, though more detailed information on each of the groups is available elsewhere.

Chapter 6, "Adventuring" (30 pages) is for the players.  It starts with suggestions on where in the Inner Sea various classes might hail from. It then introduces four new prestige classes: the Harrower (a cool fortune-teller with an interesting suite of special abilities), the Hellknight (an armored juggernaut), the Low Templar (a sort of cowardly knight; it's hard to envision this one appealing widely), and the Red Mantis Assassin (maybe more for GMs than players, but with some eye-raising abilities).  The chapter introduces several new feats; most of them are forgettable but a couple (like Rapid Reload and Fey Foundling) have become crucial to some builds and are, frankly, probably overpowered.  The chapter provides updated rules for several pieces of equipment introduced in earlier adventure paths, including goblin weapons like dogslicers, Shoanti weapons like the Earth breaker, and more.  It also briefly covers firearms, which are suitably rare and problematic (until someone plays a Gunslinger).  Finally, there are some new spells (the most famous of which is infernal healing) and magic items (many of which are essential to parts of the campaign setting, like the final blades for Galt, the sun orchid elixir for Thuvia, and wardstones for the Worldwound).  On the whole, I don't think buying the book purely for the "crunch" would be a good idea; the material in this chapter is only a supplement to what's essentially a "flavour/fluff" book.

Chapter 7, "Monsters" (14 pages) starts off with a nice overview of the role that various traditional groups of monsters (like dragons, trolls, ogres, etc.) play in Golarion.  It then goes on to introduce seven new monsters, each with a 1-page Bestiary-style entry.  Potential players will be interested to see that two of them, Gillmen and Strix, are given rules to make them playable races.  Rise of the Runelords GMs may be interested to see full stats for the Sandpoint Devil.

As I write this review, Pathfinder Second Edition is on the horizon and Paizo has said they plan to update the official setting with the "results" of all previous adventure paths.  For now, however, the Inner Sea World Guide is the best one-stop resource to get started on anything involving the Inner Sea.  Lots of books have more on a single given topic, but no book has so much on so many different topics when it comes to the Inner Sea.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Captain Atom (DC, 1987-1991) # 51-57 [COMICS]

Here we go, the final issues of Captain Atom!  This series has never been reprinted, so search out those dollar bins (or, my favourite thing in the world, 25 cent bins) to assemble your own set.  Because you can't have mine!

A well-composed, intriguing cover starts off Issue # 51.  We once again have a different creative team, and it tells a tale where Captain Atom has only a minor part.  Instead, the story revolves around "Pops", a new character with strange powers that he tries to suppress until he's witness to a murder and the kidnapping of his son by gang violence.  It's a good story.  The letters page has a nice goodbye from Weisman and Bates.  I know a series can't always end just because the original creative team has finished, but sometimes I think it's a classy thing for low-to-mid ranking titles to do.

Issue # 52 brings in a different writer, Dan Raspler, for a frankly kinda goofy tale about an alien left over on Earth from the big Invasion! crossover.  The alien, a Dominator, has been "helping" a think-thank but actually using it for a nefarious drug-dealing scheme.  It's original, I 've gotta give it that, but original doesn't always mean good.

The cover art has been pretty good the last few issues, including Issue # 53, even with different writers.  It's hard to beat "Attack of the Zombie Dolphins!" as a cover line, guest-starring Aquaman.  It's a fun, standalone story with a really fun scene involving a battle against a ginormous zombie whale.  Not exactly high-brow literature, but comics don't have to be everything all the time.

Issue # 54 is the series' swan-song (a phrase the origin of which dates back to Plato's Socratic dialogues, says the learned listener of a podcast on philosophy).  It's the first in a four-issue arc called "The Quantum Quest" written by John Ostrander.  The cover art gets ugly again, however.  You might recall the concept in DC comics from this period that different super heroes were actually "elementals"?  Swamp Thing was the plant elemental, Red Tornado the air elemental, Firestorm the fire elemental, etc., with Captain Atom being the "quantum elemental."  This issue dives into that idea as the Phantom Stranger guest stars to lead Captain Atom to meet Rasputin (!), but a battle against an evil villain named "Shadow Storm" gets C.A. blasted into the quantum zone.  He can create and recreate the quantum zone to his wishes, and so makes one where Nathaniel Adam was never convicted of treason and lives happily with his wife and kids.  It's surprisingly good.

Power  is addictive, as C.A. finds in Issue # 55.  With the ability to snap his fingers and retroactively change any unhappy moment in his new life, he more and more reduces his loved ones into mindless automatons.  And every time he changes reality, feeds a dark doppelganger.  Two issues in a row with my note "surprisingly good" scrawled on the backing board.  Hmm!

Captain Atom suffers from severe abdominal abnormalities according to the cover art to Issue # 56.  But worse, he has to fight his evil doppelganger in his quantum world while in the "real" world, Shadow Storm wreaks havoc.  I haven't mentioned that the "real" Rasputin is, for some reason, also in C.A.'s quantum-verse.  Atom tells Rasputin of his family's history, and it's surprisingly dark, involving a father abandoning his family, a mother who's a drunk, and a car-wreck in which his sister was killed.  Ironic that the first real glimpse of Adam's background comes near the very end of his run.  But it's done well here.

It all comes to an end in Issue # 57, which is (unfortunately) a "War of the Gods" crossover issue.  It's a largely incoherent mess that starts with several 1-page pin-ups.  Captain Atom returns to the "real" world and defeats Shadow Storm, the most cliched villain around.  Something else vague and incoherent happens, and C.A. flies off to his (infamously stupid) non-fate in Armageddon 2001 # 2.  It's a really poor, disappointing ending, and makes me think the series should have just ended at # 50 after all.