Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Plot Twist Cards [RPG]

The premise behind Plot Twist Cards for Pathfinder is that they allow players to influence the story in ways other than what their character directly does.  Each card has a theme, a picture to accompany the theme, a flat mechanical effect, and then four plot-related suggestions that could happen.  For example, the "Bad News" card shows a picture of a burning building, has the flat mechanical effect of "Target gets a -4 penalty on a single roll", and then has these plot suggestions:  "A messenger brings bad news", "An ally faces peril or death", "A favorite refuge is destroyed", and "Something important is stolen."  Players can use the card either for the flat mechanical effect or for one of the story suggestions; the latter use requires GM interpretation and decision-making, and the instructions are quite clear that the GM should feel free to modify the suggestion (or even refuse it) as necessary for the story.  The deck comes with 51 different plot twist cards, two cards of rules, a card with the Open Gaming License, and a card that's an advertisement for other products.

I've been using the Plot Twist Cards for about 20 sessions while running an adventure path.  Instead of giving one to a player every time their PC levels up (as per the instruction card), I've been more cautious and handed out one to every player at the beginning of each chapter of the AP (and drawing one myself to use against them!), with unused cards going back in the deck.  My players have used the cards to do some fun things, like have the "Broken" card cause the floor of an abandoned building to crack open, the "Sanity Check" card to have a tentacled water monster appear in the river, etc.  In my limited experience, PCs don't use the flat mechanical bonuses and instead use the plot suggestions, saving the cards for when they're needed in an important fight and centering their suggestions on things that can hamper the enemies or help their allies.  On the whole, I'm of mixed feelings about them.  I really like the surprising twists that the card facilitates and it's great for the players to have a little something hidden away for a rainy day.  On the other hand, it's often challenging as a GM to interpret the card and the player's suggested twist in a way that respects the integrity of the concept while also being careful not to trivialize an important encounter.  I think I would suggest the cards are good for a group that is a little easy-going and understands the role of GM discretion, but they'd be a bad idea for a very strict "Rules as Written" group.

Starfinder Lanyard [RPG]

What kind of a nerd would write a review about a lanyard?  One who is more excited about Starfinder than a 13-year-old girl is at a Justin Bieber concert, of course!  Made out of ultra high-tech futuristic materials (aka a fabric ribbon and a metal clip), this lanyard has the Starfinder logo on it fourteen times so you'll never look down and be confused about which lanyard you put on when you got dressed in the morning!  Clever nano-circuitry inside the lanyard is host to an A.I. who whispers things in your ears, or I could just be delusional.  You decide!  In any event, if you need a possibly magical item to occupy your real-world "neck slot", the Starfinder Lanyard is the way to go.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

River System [RPG]

The River System Pathfinder Map Pack delivers exactly what it promises: 18 full-colour tiles that you can connect to form a meandering river.  I have to give credit to whomever writes the description of the product on the back of the pack, as they make it sound much more exciting than it actually is.  Most of the tiles have a three-square-wide river down the center with a square of mostly featureless riverbank on either side.  A width of 10-15' for a river is fine for the sort of encounter where PCs are in the forest and attacked from the far side and have to figure out how to get across, but I think it's too narrow for a serious river-based adventure.  The pack would have been better if the river were wider, even if not as long (rowboats, barges, and keelboats would barely fit on the regular river tiles, and certainly wouldn't have room to pass).  Apart from the standard tiles, there are a few special ones:  a couple of tiles that have 90' turns, three tiles that are oriented the other way (with the river 7 squares wide but not as long), a tile with a few small rocks in the middle, and a tile with a log bridge spanning it.  The artwork is adequate but not the sort of thing that is going to draw "oohs" and "aahs" from your players.  Like with the Road System Map Pack, despite my terrible artistic skills
I'm not convinced that this one is a major improvement over simply drawing two parallel lines on a blank grid-mat.  It's okay, but for $ 14 there's probably a better gaming product to spend the money on.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The House of the Seven Gables [NORTON]

The House of the Seven Gables is one of those books that has to be classified as an interesting failure.  Nathaniel Hawthorne began writing it several months after The Scarlet Letter was published, and the theme he chose was an interesting one: the effect of the wrongs of earlier generations upon the present.  The plot concerns the eponymous house built upon land that an aristocratic New England family effectively stole from a working-class family generations ago, and the way the crime and the house has shaped the two bloodlines since.  Hawthorne worked in elements of murder, witchcraft, mesmerism, and all sorts of things that could have been grist for a fascinating story, but unfortunately it mostly falls flat.  The book has a mix of fully realized three-dimensional characters and featureless ciphers with key roles in the story (like the male half of an inexplicable romance).  The ending is trite and would seem intentionally satirical if Hawthorne wasn't such a sincere fellow.  Unfortunately, whether standing alone or compared to The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables becomes a forgettable disappointment.

The Norton Critical Edition has the usual collection of contemporary reviews as well as later scholarship.  The critical consensus is that the book is indeed a failure, though there are one or two pieces trying to defend it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 18 [RPG]

[Lamashan, 4707]

In the month following the second failed raid on Thistletop, the adventurers go their separate ways.

Arnald spends many of his days drinking and looking for work.  Occasionally, he assists Shalelu Andosana in trying to verify sightings of a “silver-haired witch” in the Sandpoint hinterlands.  On one such venture, he and Shalelu are ambushed by a group of goblins in Mosswood.  The last surviving goblin flees and tries to climb a nearby tree, but Arnald has no difficulty catching up to it.  “Wait!” the goblin screeches.  “Axeman and the Hunter Elf!  I can help you!”  The goblin has just enough time to say something about “Longshanks Silverhead” and the Bloodfangs before Arnald mercilessly chops its head off.  When Shalelu catches up and asks what the goblin was shouting about, Arnald replies simply “nothing important.”

Ome devotes her time to singing melancholy songs at the Pixie’s Kitten and collecting dossiers on certain members of the Sandpoint community.  One afternoon late in Lamashan, Ome arrives at the Pixie’s Kitten to see that a staff meeting is underway: discussion is being held about how to respond to a new push by Titus Scarnetti, conservative head of one of Sandpoint’s four founding families, to have prostitution made illegal in the town.  Scarnetti has posted fliers about a public meeting on 4 Neth at the town hall, and rumors are spreading that he and his backers are going to start a “name and shame” campaign against the clients of the Pixie’s Kitten.  Although some of the bouncers and working girls think Scarnetti is all hot air or that Sheriff Hemlock’s “being sweet on” Kaye Tessarani will be enough to protect the brothel, the establishment’s proprietor is clearly concerned.  Ome listens and offers her support, but the meeting ends inconclusively.

Bey has spent the last several weeks helping her old friend Brodert Quink continue his study of Old Light.  Quink remains convinced there must be chambers underneath the rubble, but after laboriously moving heavy stone blocks and examining every surface for runes, the pair’s efforts to find anything has so far come to naught.  Near the end of the month of Lamashan, Bey is working at the site one day when she sees Madame Mvashti slowly trudging across the street towards her with the help of a cane.  The aged Varisian seer seems unconcerned by the fact that a wagon pulled by two strong horses is bearing down on her quickly, and that the wagon’s driver is busy shouting at someone behind him!  Bey moves quickly and dashes in to save Madame Mvashti, but she need not have bothered: instants before a fatal collision would have occurred, the wagon throws a wheel and the horses drag it to a stop with inches to spare.  Madame Mvashti mumbles something about having told the wagon’s handler to get that wheel fixed and then shares with Bey her purpose for coming.  “What started five years ago ain’t done yet, cheri,” she says.  “Sandpoint’s gonna be in flames, no stoppin’ dat, but you an yer friends can keep it from getting’ too bad.”  Madame Mvashti goes on to say that although she was already old when Sandpoint was founded over forty years ago, this is her last winter and the town will need someone with their inner-eye open to help guide it when she’s gone.  Bey is completely nonplussed by the seer’s words.

Artemis Lahs
Meanwhile, over fifty miles away in the metropolis of Magnimar, a member of the City Watch named Artemis Lahs has just finished giving testimony against an offender in a courtroom in the Pediment Building.  Artemis is a tall, muscular man with an odd line of scales along the sides of his face and a pronounced ridgeline on his brow.  Once Artemis leaves the courtroom, he’s surprised to see his watch captain, Gibble Fank, waiting for him.  Fank explains that something unusual has come up, and that Artemis has received new orders.  Moreso, a member of the Justice Court (the city’s highest court) has instructed Artemis to come to his chambers.  When Fank and Artemis reach the elegant oak door bearing the nameplate “Justice Ironbriar”, Fank stops and actually looks a bit nervous.  “In ya go, lad,” he says.  “Mind yer manners in there!  Ironbriar’s been alive longer than both of us put together, an ya don’t wanna cross him!”  Eventually, a law clerk leads Artemis into a massive office dominated by looming bookcases and a wide desk.  The person sitting behind the desk is a stern-faced elf wearing an elegant red and purple cloak.  He doesn’t stand up when Artemis enters, but instead says in a crisp Chellish accent “Staff Sergeant Artemis Lahs.  You have a clean record.  Three commendations for valor.  A wife, no children.  I think you’ll do.  You’re being transferred.  Sandpoint.  You’ve heard of it, yes?”  When Artemis replies in the affirmative, Justice Ironbriar explains that the Shoanti sheriff of the town has made several dubious reports lately about goblin armies, demon cults, and more.  Artemis is to keep an eye on the situation and personally report, by letter, to Ironbriar every week.

[1 Neth 4707]

In Sheriff Hemlock’s “war room” in the town garrison, an unlikely combination of people have gathered at his request.  Present are Arnald, Ome, Bey, and Artemis.  As, apart from Sheriff Hemlock, only Arnald and Ome have met each other previously, introductions are made.  Sheriff Hemlock explains that, just hours ago, a goblin bearing a white flag arrived in Sandpoint hoping to claim part of the bounty on Nualia, the demon-touched former resident of Sandpoint responsible for masterminding attacks on the town.  The goblin said that Nualia has been living with the Bloodfang tribe in southern Mosswood at the foot of the mountains.  Sheriff Hemlock says that he’s received strict orders from Magnimar to “avoid arousing the anger of the surrounding goblinoid inhabitants.”  Thus, Hemlock can’t take any official action to investigate the sighting.  He mentions, seemingly off-hand, however, that the bounty on Nualia is 2,000 gold pieces, dead or alive.  Further, he says that Artemis isn’t officially on duty until Hemlock signs his commission papers, and that southern Mosswood would be the perfect place for a hunting and fishing trip this time of year.  Hemlock then dismisses the group.  Artemis and Ome instantly get the hint and explain it to Arnald, while Bey is consumed by one of her mystical visions.

Artemis has prepared for his secondment to Sandpoint by studying maps of the local geography and is able to lead the group towards Mosswood with little difficulty.  The journey east along the Lost Coast Road is uneventful, and in just a few hours, the group is at the northern borders of the forest.  It’s a beautiful autumn day, and the leaves on the trees have turned into gorgeous shades of red and yellow.  With little to go on besides word that the Bloodfang family of goblins lives near the mountains in the southern portion of the forest, the group pushes into Mosswood itself.  Their progress slows as they move off the road.  Several times they see signs that goblins and other creatures are in the area, but luck or the imposing sight of four heavily-armed warriors keeps anything from attacking.  Eventually, the bounty-hunters decide to set up camp near a stream so they’ll be fresh to push on for the Bloodfangs the following morning.

As dusk begins to fall over the camp, everyone present can hear the distinctive shrill voice of a goblin approaching.  The goblin is loudly lamenting his chore of fetching water and is oblivious to the fact that he’s almost walked right up to the campsite!  Artemis and Ome instantly take cover, but Arnald rushes the goblin, axe at the ready, and terrifies the creature into utter submission!  The goblin, who gives his name as Gurthak, is hard to get useful information out of given his low intelligence and bewilderment at his situation, but Ome is able to extract additional clues about the location of the Bloodfangs.  The group decide to pull up stakes in case other goblins use the stream.  They head further south, dragging Gurthak with them.  A couple of hours’ journey into darkness, they set up another campsite.  A debate ensues about what to do with Gurthak:  Arnald wants to kill him for the bounty on goblin ears, Artemis says it’s too dangerous to let him go, and Bey says the pathetic creature shouldn’t be murdered in cold blood.  Eventually, Ome kills the terrified creature with a point-blank arrow shot and Arnald cuts the ears off Gurthak’s corpse.

[2 Neth 4707]

A dire bat
The group’s journey south continues.  While crossing a portion of the forest composed of rocky, forested hills, the group pass by a small cave and unwittingly frighten a giant, furry bat nearly the size of an ox!  The creature, a dire bat, screeches and attacks, but Ome’s and Artemis’ archery skills combined with Bey’s bardiche are enough to fell it.

The travellers come upon a stroke of luck a little later in their journey.  They crest a small hillock and see that below them is a small clearing to the south that contains a handful of huts and a large bonfire.  With small mountains in the distance, the group rightly suspect this could be the location of the Bloodfangs.  Artemis climbs a nearby tree to get a better vantage point, and is able to discern a single goblin walking around the near side of the clearing.  In the hopes of killing the sentinel silently to pave the way for his allies to approach, the Magnimarian watchman takes careful aim with his bow and releases an arrow, but the goblin is still hundreds of feet away and the shot narrowly misses.  The goblin, realizing it is being attacked, rouses the camp!

Arnald charges into battle, while Artemis and Ome stay behind and rely on archery.  Bey, alas, has slipped into another mystical trance and provides no assistance.  At first, the Bloodfangs are confused about where the attack is coming from and scatter.  But they’re clearly more disciplined than the rabble the invaders have encountered before, and soon Arnald is surrounded!  The Bloodfangs have teeth stained a frightening shade of red, and, unbeknownst to the attackers, are part of a cult devoted to the demon-goddess Lamashtu.  One of the Bloodfangs runs to summon their chief while the others attack.  Arnald fights valiantly and is able to kill several of the goblins with his greataxe while Ome and Artemis stay hidden and fire arrows.  Even the Bloodfang’s pet wolverine is slain!  But suddenly Arnald is paralyzed as Big Chief Wortus, leader of the Bloodfangs, casts a spell and reveals he has approached while invisible!

Ome is close enough for Big Chief Wortus to see and thus draws his attention.  The goblin chief used the early seconds of the battle to prepare, and illusory duplicates of himself consistently foil the outsiders’ attacks.  Fortunately, Artemis and Ome keep Big Chief Wortus distracted by the hail of arrows long enough for the badly-hurt Arnald to shake off the malevolent enchantment and withdraw. The axeman decides to change his tactics and draws his own composite longbow.  With a single pull of the bowstring, he succeeds in doing what his allies couldn’t!  Big Chief Wortus dies with Arnald’s arrow protruding from his throat.

With all visible opposition slain, the group enter the Bloodfangs’ campsite.  Arnald tries to persuade Ome to magically heal his wounds, but instead the tengu offers to sell Arnald healing potions at the guileful price of 49 gold pieces each or two for 99!  The dim-witted mercenary takes the deal.  Ome casts a minor divination to discern that Big Chief Wortus carried an enchanted falchion and two magic wands in addition to other valuable, non-magical treasure.  Ome and Artemis persuade Arnald, who is still badly hurt, to take the lead in searching the huts one by one.  One hut contains a stack of polished human skulls, while another seems to be a crude workshop for the manufacture of dogslicers.  A third hut is barred with a wooden door and its outside is covered with layer after layer of tar, blood, and leaves to prevent even the smallest light from penetrating.  Arnald cleaves the door in twain with one swing of his greataxe and sees a flash of silver hair in the darkness inside!  But good sense overwhelms instinct, and Arnald refrains from attacking immediately.  Instead, he hurls his ever-burning torch into the hut and realizes it is not Nualia he has found: but instead, Shalelu, bound and gagged, her hair alchemically dyed silver!

The protectors of Sandpoint have defeated the Bloodfangs and avoided a cunning trap to rescue an ally they hadn’t even realized was in danger.  But are they any closer to finding Nualia?
Director's Commentary (19/06/2017)

This was the first session of Chapter 2, and the first session back after some weeks off for the winter holidays.  The timing of the real-world break coincided nicely with the in-game break advised by the AP after Chapter 1, and I used the optional Downtime system from Ultimate Campaign to reflect this.  I also had one solo RP encounter for each PC set during this period to foreshadow some coming events.  

Since Bey's player was back after a while away and Xeveg/Nedrin/Eugeni's player was debuting a new PC named Artemis, I again thought it might be a good idea to start the chapter off with a more straightforward one-session adventure to help the group bond before launching into the main storyline in the next session.  I also wanted to remind the players about Shalelu (since she otherwise wouldn't appear in this chapter) and tie in Nualia's escape at the end of the previous chapter.  I used the "Bloodfang Goblins" encounter from the first hardcover volume of the Pathfinder comic as a basis.  The encounter was fun and reasonably challenging without being overly difficult.  I was pleasantly surprised the group avoided (what I thought was) Nualia's clever trap of trying to get the PCs to kill Shalelu.

Having a member of the Magnimar City Watch as a PC was fantastic for story purposes and really added some extra dimension to later events in the chapter.  I had Justice Ironbriar appear now so that the revelation he was the head of the Skinsaw Cult would have some extra impact, because as the AP is written, he might be a perfect stranger to the PCs.  As an unrelated PC note, whenever the recaps describe Bey as "going into her mystery" or "entering a trance or vision", that's code for the player needing to do either babyminding or taking a nap--it's hard to game as the parent of an infant!

I'm still surprised by the bloodthirsty end of poor Gurthak, a goblin I made up on the spot when the random encounter table told me that 1d6 goblins would approach and the die result was a 1.  I liked the poor little guy, and I thought his end was rather cold and cruel.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

PaizoCon 2012 Pin [RPG]

I definitely wasn't at PaizoCon in 2012, but I decided to buy this metal pin from the Paizo website for two reasons: 1) It has the cool seven-pointed star ("Sihedron") immortalized in the Rise of the Runelords adventure path which I'm running right now; and 2) it was only fifty cents!  The "blades" of the stars contain images from the covers of each volume of the adventure path, while the center contains a certain infamous arch-mage.  It's a really cool design.  The actual pin (unlike the picture) has the Pathfinder logo at the bottom and the words "PaizoCon '12" near the top.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Buff Deck [RPG]

The Buff Deck for Pathfinder is a cheap but extremely handy way to remember all of those temporary little bonuses that are otherwise easy to forget about during an encounter.  The deck consists of 54 cards, 49 of which each contain the effects of a spell, ability, or action that gives a character a benefit to attacks, AC, or saves.  All of the usual buffs from the Core Rulebook are represented (like haste, bless, inspire courage, total defense, barbarian rage, etc.) but there are also several buffs from the Advanced Player's Guide (like alchemist's mutagen, cavalier's banner, etc.).  The face of each card is divided into six sections: the title of the buff, its duration, its source (including book and page number), a list of effects, a table showing the type and extent of bonus to attacks and AC, and a table showing the type and extent of bonus to saves.  It was an excellent choice by the designers to include the type of bonus (e.g., morale, deflection, enhancement, etc.) so that it's easy to see which buffs do and do not stack with each other.  The presentation is attractive and easy to read even across the table.  In addition to the 49 pre-made cards, there are 5 cards with the same formatting but no content so that a GM or Player can add a buff commonly used that isn't in the deck--for example, I added a card about the effects of a ranger's favored terrain when I regularly had a ranger PC at the table.  This might seem like a little thing, but it adds to the deck's longevity given the vast number of spells and abilities that come out every year for Pathfinder.

As for downsides, I don't have much.  Each card has the same artwork on the back, and it's kinda cartoony.  Some of the buff cards aren't precisely accurate: the card for protection from evil doesn't mention the added defence against mind-control effects or versus summoned creatures, the prayer card leaves out the fact that it imposes a penalty on enemies (which is technically a debuff, I guess), the invisibility card doesn't mention the 50% miss chance or +2 bonus on attacks, etc.  Still, the vast majority of cards accurately summarize the effects of a given buff.

I've used the Buff Deck for several years now, propping up a card in effect so that everyone at the table can see it.  Although not foolproof (even the cards can be forgotten when encounters get harry), they are quite useful and speed up game play.  What more could you want?