Monday, August 13, 2018

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Lost Kingdoms [RPG]

Golarion is often known as a "kitchen sink" setting, with areas (if not whole countries) effectively devoted to specific themes or genres.  I remember, years ago, being turned off by the notion, thinking that it sounded very generic.  But the more I've read about Golarion over the past few years, the more I've come to appreciate how much depth underlies the setting.  Lost Kingdoms is a perfect example.  The book, a 64-page entry in the Campaign Setting Line, provides an overview of six different ancient nations whose legacies continue to influence the "present."  Adventurers always need mysterious ruins, long-buried threats, and fantastical ancient treasures to encounter, and this book does a great job grounding the "present" of Golarion into its "past."

To get the formalities out of the way, the inside front cover shows the geographical extent of each of the ancient lands overlaid on a map of the Inner Sea.  The inside back cover reproduces the front cover sans text.  There is a two-page introduction that gives a one-paragraph nod towards some of the other "lost kingdoms" not covered in the book (notably, Azlant and Shory), as well as a timeline to help organize some of the major dates mentioned later in the book.

Now to the heart of the book.  Each of the ten-page-long country entries is divided into sections: how the area was historically, how it is today, its denizens and dangers (past and present), and the treasures and rewards that await exploration.  Each entry also includes a map of the ancient realm, general descriptions of some adventuring sites, at least one new monster or NPC, and a much longer, two-page description of a major locale.  The artwork throughout is impressive (in particular, look at the picture of Areelu Vorlesh on page 46--it just doesn't get any better!).  Six ancient empires are covered: the Abendego Gulf, Ancient Osirion, Ghol-Gan, the Jistka Imperium, Sarkoris, and Thassilon.

The Abendego Gulf is one of those topics I never really thought about: what existed before the massive, permanent, and cataclysmic storm known as the Eye of Abendego formed?  The answer is a nation called Lirgen, whose leaders and populace were devoted to astrology and fortune-telling, and its breakway region, Yamasa, whose residents had to eek out a much more practical life in a swampy land.  There's a thematic irony that the Eye formed when Aroden died and prophecy failed, meaning that an entire nation of fortune-tellers couldn't predict the destruction of their own nation!  Today, the region is littered with sunken cities in which great treasures can still be found (as 90% of the inhabitants of Lirgen and Yamasa died when the Eye of Abendego formed), but it's a dangerous land filled with small bands of ruthless scavengers.  The chapter introduces a thematically appropriate spell (Embrace Destiny) and details a flavourful adventure setting called the Dim Gate (an ancient observatory that, perhaps, can create a portal to Eox!).

The entry on Ancient Osirion covers the Egyptian-themed country's long, long history.  Fortunately, it's an interesting history, though I wonder if another "lost kingdom" should have been covered instead, since Osirion is already the subject of a Campaign Setting book ("Osirion, Legacy of Pharaohs").  On the other hand, a *lot* of modules and adventures are set in the region, as it's hard to resist the lure of recently-uncovered pyramids and the like.  A few things that stood out for me in this entry was the Ubashki Swarm (a swarm of undead cats!), a drug called mumia (made from  . . . you guessed it), and an NPC patron who often sends adventurers out on digs and explorations (except he's secretly a ghoul!).

Ghol-Gan is one of the lesser known lost kingdoms: an empire ruled by cyclops!  It has a classic rise and fall (into degeneration) arc, but it frankly doesn't sound that interesting for exploration.  It needs a cooler hook to set it apart from other, more flavourful areas.  And although I've already mentioned how good the artwork is, the portrait of a new monster in this section (a one-eyed sort of organgutan called a Ngoga) is a bit too much on the silly-side.

The Jistka Imperium, on the other hand, has a fascinating history full of founding myths (complete with scriptures), marvels of golem-building artifice, clashes with Ancient Osirion, and the terrors of unstoppable plagues.  Although largely invisible and forgotten to those living in Golarion today, there are some really great possibilities for adventure here.  Need I mention they once built a golem so large it carried a castle on its back?

I already knew a bit about Sarkoris from the Worldwound Campaign Setting book.  In essence, Sarkoris was what existed before reality was torn asunder to let the demons of the abyss pour into the area, rendering it a nightmarish hellscape.  Sarkoris is described as being the birthplace of the kellid peoples (before they spread elsewhere) and as having hundreds of faiths, cults, spirits, and village idols (a really different approach to "religion" that I wish appeared more in fantasy literature).  The section describes a surprising site: a small town named Gundrun that has somehow been reborn in the Worldwound and is populated by descendants of Sarkoris who dream that someday  the nation might rise again.

Last up is the area I have a special affection for since I've devoted the last couple years' worth of Sunday nights to running Rise of the Runelords: Thassilon.  It's great to see the whole thing laid out in such a clear overview and to see the forest for the trees.  So much fantastic lore (and cool monuments) are presented in this section.  A new monster, an "Inverted Giant", has the most awesomely perverse backstory, and I really liked the extended description of an monument called the Emerald Chambers (999 rooms of death, and 1 of untold wealth!).

Of the six entries, I would say the ones on the Abendego Gulf, the Jistka Imperium, and Thassilon are the most interesting and important.  Ancient Osirion and Sarkoris already have some historical coverage in other sourcebooks, and the Ghol-Gan empire just wasn't particularly interesting.  On the whole, however, this is a really solid book that has moments of brilliance and enough lore to add depth to countless adventure hooks and stories.  It's definitely worth purchasing.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Starfinder Society Scenario # 1-14: "Star Sugar Heartlove!!!" [RPG]


I think it’s safe to say you’ve never played anything quite like Star Sugar Heartlove!!! before.  It’s a really clever, light-hearted scenario that has a memorable climax players won’t soon forget.  I ran this at Subtier 3-4 (with the four-player adjustment) and found that, although it was probably too easy and had a couple of technical flaws, the storyline was so much fun that any flaws could be overlooked.  Admittedly, it won’t be to everyone’s taste and I wouldn’t want every scenario to be like this, but I’m really glad to see Starfinder Society trying out the wide-variety of tones available in the setting.  This one alternated between hilarious and beautifully bittersweet, something I can’t think of adventures doing before.  Try it so you know what everyone’s talking about!


The gist of Star Sugar Heartlove!!! is that the PCs are attending a massive concert by the “sugar-pop” band Strawberry Machine Cake.  When a secret agent working for a malevolent conspiracy linked to the Scoured Stars incident uploads a computer virus to kill everyone at the concert, it’s up to the PCs to uncover what’s going on before, in a dramatic finale, taking the stage to do battle with a holographic transforming mecha!

The scenario starts with something I’ve asked for in previous reviews, and I’m glad to see implemented here: a briefing that’s more than the run-of-the-mill info dump.  The PCs are on board a shuttle headed towards Songbird Station, the asteroid-temple devoted to Shelyn where the concert will take place, along with faction leaders Historia-7 and Zigvigix whose budding . . . something has been developing subtly for several scenarios now.  Zigvigix is stoked about the concert and exited that the PCs are there to enjoy it with him, especially since too many of the friends he originally invited have disappeared within the Scoured Stars system.  When Zigvigix heads into the shuttle’s cockpit to make final preparations, Historia-7 lets the PCs in on her ulterior motive for coming on the journey.  She’s identified one member of the conspiracy linked to the Scoured Stars debacle and has tracked him to the concert.  Because the conspirator, a man named Hira Lanzio, will be without his security entourage, it’s the perfect opportunity to kidnap him and pump him for information!  Historia-7 doesn’t want Zigvigix to know about the secret mission, and only if the PCs press will she reveal that he’s been suffering from degenerative injuries and really shouldn’t be in the field at all.  It’s all a really nicely done progression of subplots that rewards people who have been following along with the scenarios in order from the beginning.

When the PCs get into the concert hall itself, their search for Lanzio is structured in a really interesting way.  In essence, there are six mini non-combat encounters that they can experience, each of which might just be a fun role-playing opportunity, a chance to earn a boon, or a chance to get information about Lanzio’s whereabouts.  My favourites include a couple of vesk teenagers who are outwardly haters of Strawberry Machine Cake (because they think hating whatever is popular makes them cooler) but secretly love the band; an “uber-fan” who has every piece of SMC merchandise except for the one thing a PC might have and trade them (a great pay-off of an earlier boon); and, perhaps my favourite, a security guard whose job is so completely redundant that he's depressed because of it.  The idea with this last part is that the guard’s job is to check concert patrons for weapons and ask them to turn them over; but he has no legal authority to search or detain anyone, and is routinely ignored.  To further his misery, there’s a magical field that prevents lethal violence being done within the concert hall, so even if he does collect any weapons, it’s probably unnecessary.  And finally, he has merciful fusion seals to give out--but because of the magical field already in place, they won’t do anything! (and even if they did, they can be turned off and on easily!)  GMs who play the guard as the saddest sad sack in the world should have a good time.  (the one bit about this that I’m not sure was intentional or not is that, by the book, fusion seals take 24 hours to activate; there’s a big debate in the forums and I think clarification is necessary; if they don’t even activate in time for the concert to start, then the guard’s job is even more hilariously useless.)  Anyway, these little encounters should end up with the PCs getting two crucial bits of information: Lanzio’s address (in the residential section of Songbird Station) and the fact that the station’s reactor cores are glitching and need to be stabilized or the concert might have to be cancelled.

The take-down of Lanzio is pretty easy, as he’s a low-level Envoy guarded by one (or two) security robots.  The PCs will probably be at full health and outnumber him and his entourage.  There’s a bit of drama with him setting his computer to self-destruct and the PCs trying to stop the countdown in time (which, oddly, allows for Engineering, Computers, or Mysticism skill checks to stop), but unless they’re really negligent at adventuring, they shouldn’t have any trouble.  Lanzio doesn’t say much, but does admit to putting a magical virus in the reactor core.

PCs investigating the reactor core (before or after encountering Lanzio) discover that it’s infested with hespers.  Hespers are fey who congregate near major power sources for motives that are as mysterious and alien as their origins; sometimes they help maintain and improve the sources, but sometimes they’ve been known to sabotage them to cause drama.  This was an interesting encounter because the PCs could easily assume the hespers are to blame for the reactor glitches and go in guns blazing, and, even if they don’t, the hespers may try to mess with them in an ultimately non-harmful way (through their “mutating touch”) that might be interpreted as hostile by the PCs.  Through either violence, diplomacy, or (in my PCs’ case) distraction and speed, the Starfinders have to extract a sample of the alien virus so that Historia-7 can analyse it and figure out what’s going on.  I liked that the encounter had multiple ways of resolution.

Once Historia-7 has information from Lanzio and a sample of the virus from the reactor, she realizes that Songbird Station is under threat and will have to be evacuated unless a plan (so crazy it might just work!) can be implemented: using Strawberry Machine Cake’s holographic concert projectors, she can temporarily give the magical virus physical form on stage so that the PCs can battle it!  It’s really technobabble hogwash, of course, but plot-wise it succeeds in setting up a great final encounter.  First, so as not to alarm the audience, the PCs have to dress up in costumes appropriate for SMC “background performers”: the four choices are hilarious (like a heavy metal one, a glam one, etc.) and it was really fun to imagine each PC dressed up in their choice.  Once on stage, Historia-7 makes the virus manifest, but it takes the form of a massive mecha that can transform into a freaking (pink) tank!  My one regret is that I didn’t have it transform into tank mode because it would have been tactically disadvantageous.  The PCs’ chosen costumes given them particular bonuses in certain rounds depending on what riffs SMC is playing, which adds to the effect.  This, more than any other scenario I can think of, is one in which the GM should find some good music to play during the final encounter.  (BabyMetal’s “Chocolate” was a consensus favourite on the forums, and I agree.)

Assuming the PCs are successful, they’ll each get a chance for the spotlight and a shout-out while on stage.  Holograms of Zigvigix’s missing friends are displayed, and there’s a really well-written wistfulness to the moment.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next in the storyline, and I’m invested in finding out!  Overall, there are a couple of nit-picky things that could have been improved (like the whole fusion seal confusion) but I wouldn’t let it detract from an awesome experience.  If your players don’t get a kick out of this scenario, they are made of stone.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 53 [RPG]

[24 Kuthona 4707 continued]

Although there’s a welcome respite from the rain, a chill fills the air as Innes Falkenrath and Katzumi venture deeper into the Shimmerglens, guided by the pixie Yap.  Yap keeps up a constant barrage of chatter, not even noticing that his charges are falling behind in the treacherous landscape that he so easily flies over.  Barely a mile into the swamp, tragedy strikes in the form of a pool of quicksand.  Both Innes and Katzumi walk into it unaware, and then realize they’re stuck and slowly sinking!  Katzumi somehow manages to swim to the edge and pull herself out, but Innes’s full-plate mail pulls him under in seconds.  Katzumi desperately runs for a nearby tree, cuts down a branch, and extends it over the quicksand, but to no avail.  Innes is lost in the darkness deep below the surface, and, despite his valiant efforts, eventually succumbs without ever again reaching the surface.  Yap, who had flown far ahead and had no idea what was happening behind him, breaks down in tears to discover his saviour is dead.  He says that maybe “mistress” could help.  Katzumi builds a pile of sticks to mark the spot, and lets Yap lead her further into the swamp.

Meanwhile, at the massive dam known as Skull’s Crossing, Artemis, Goragar, and Kang enter a dome-shaped superstructure.  The first chamber they see is clearly a recent battlefield, as it’s covered in bits of flesh, broken weapons, splashes of blood, and dead ogres torn limb from limb.  Thick sheets of ropy fungus grow along the walls, but Kang’s eye for detail allows him to realize that large creatures are hiding behind the fungus: trolls!  The master alchemist hurls a bomb into the room as the green-skinned, bestial creatures charge forth with claws extended.  Goragar, who stands in front of Kang, receives the brunt of their attacks but his stout armor and magically-enhanced defences turn aside every single blow!  The battle spills over into the spillway, but the experienced adventurers work well together and suffer nary a scratch before emerging victorious.

Wet Papa Grazuul is Chief of the Skulltakers for a reason!
Artemis concludes that the trolls must have been fighting the ogres, and that the two forces weakened each other.  A thorough search of the superstructure reveals little of interest apart from a hidden cache of valuables and a set of massive stone doors that have a message on them written in dried blood in the language of giants:  “BELOW DWELLS WET PAPA GRAZUUL!  ALL HAIL WET PAPA GRAZUUL!”  The hinges on the doors are old and gritty, but with great effort the adventurers push them open to reveal a flight of stone steps leading down into darkness.  The trio descend to a large, damp chamber dominated by a rectangular pool of water set into the floor.  Goragar starts to head to one of the sets of doors on the western side of the room when a massive shape rockets out of the pool and stabs him in the face with a strange-looking trident!  The adventurers have stumbled unwittingly into the lair of the chief of the Skulltakers, Wet Papa Grazuul!  Having expended most of his defensive magicks in the battles above, Goragar is sorely pressed by the sudden frenzy of attacks, and in instants only the legacy of the Orc blood that runs in his veins allows him to stay standing.  The war priest of Gorum tries to withdraw, but with one final thrust of the trident, Grazuul stabs him in the chest and pulls out the half-orc’s still beating heart!  Artemis is the next target of the troll lord’s ire, and the master archer finds his rib-cage almost pulled apart from Grazuul’s rending claws.  Artemis collapses in a pool of blood, barely alive.  Kang stands alone, but his steady and consistent flow of bombs have weakened Grazuul considerably, and one last explosive blows the villain apart!  Kang rushes to Artemis and force-feeds him a magical elixir to stabilize him.  Unfortunately, it’s too late to do anything for Goragar.

Myriana's spirit cannot rest until
she is reunited with Lamatar.
Back in the Shimmerglens, two grieving travellers push on into the area known as Whitewillow.  A cold, dark mist looms within the canopy of bone-bare branches on twisted black trees.  Strange murmurs can be heard on an unnatural wind while dying birds twitching in the shallows and slithering things with too many eyes seem to lurk out of the corners of their eyes.  Yap whispers that Whitewillow wasn’t always like this—that the area is reflecting Myriana’s (his mistress) anger and heartache.  The journey into the heart of Whitewillow is a foreboding one of bleeding trees, ghostly parades, and even a mysterious derelict ship from which a beautiful, haunting melody can be heard.  Eventually, the pair reach a clearing ringed by decayed willow trees.  In the center of the clearing is a calm pool of unnaturally still water.  Yap whispers that his mistress is just ahead, but he’s too scared to approach further.  Reluctantly, Katzumi walks towards the pool and is startled as a ghostly nymph, almost blinding in her hate-filled beauty, rises with a howl from the waters.  “You have failed me!” Myriana shrieks.  “They took him to their mountain lair, despoiled him, and now his soul will not return to this plane!”  Katzumi doesn’t comprehend at first, but manages to placate the raging nymph long enough to understand that she and her lover, Lamatar Bayden (commander of Fort Rannick), were ambushed by the ogres and murdered.  Myriana demands that Katzumi find Lamatar’s remains—even if only a single finger or lock of hair—and return them to Whitewillow so that the lovers can be reunited in death forever.  Katzumi promises her help, and, as they leave the clearing, Yap says he knows where the Kreeg clanhold is and can lead her there.  And, if they’re successful, he says maybe his mistress will bring Innes back to life!  He shares some of his enchanted pixie dust with Katzumi, saying the voyage to the Kreeg clanhold will be a dangerous one for just the two of them to make.

Skull Rippers are fearsome foes, but they
follow their master's instructions to the letter.
At Skull’s Crossing, Kang and a magically-healed Artemis discuss what to do with Goragar’s body.  They decide that burial at sea is a fitting end for a warrior who died in battle, but the two argue over what to do with Goragar’s possessions.  Artemis prevails, and the body is stripped before being floated into the Storval Deep.  Kang says a nice eulogy, while Artemis reads an entry from Goragar’s book of Gorumite war prayers.  After the solemn ceremony, Artemis suggests resting but Kang urges further scouting, and this time the latter prevails.  Using alchemical means to turn them each invisible, they return to the scene of Goragar’s death.  Doors to the west lead to an unremarkable chamber, but the doors to the east give way to a strange sight.  In an alcove against the wall sits a fantastically detailed scale model of Skull’s Crossing guarded by a lumbering, scorpionlike construct composed of skulls!  Kang remembers reading about so-called Skull Rippers, guardians of tombs and other important places in ancient Thassilon.  This construct must have stood on guard for several thousand years!  The two adventurers, still invisible, retreat stealthily and breathe a sigh of relief.  

Kang and Artemis had better hope that Avaxial never
gets out...
Only one path lays before them: to the south, an impressive mound of skulls lies heaped against the wall, partially blocking a large stone door.  Kang clears the skulls while Artemis watches to ensure the Skull Ripper doesn’t emerge from its chamber.  Once Kang finishes, the two push open the door to see a narrow chamber that ends at two curved alcoves to the east and west.  Each alcove is blocked by a dull iron portcullis, and beyond each portcullis a circle of runes glow with a faint orange light on the floor.  Although one circle holds only a pile of crimson ash, the other holds a winged creature that looks weak and dying, but that in its prime would have been something to behold: a massive denizen of Hell itself!  The creature rouses and feebly reaches for one of them, whispering “freedom.”  Standing a safe distance away from the portcullis and the magical circle that binds the fiend, Kang and Artemis are told that the floodgates of Skull’s Crossing require life energy to operate, and that over several millennia the denizen of the other chamber perished.  Because the fiend, who says his name is Avaxial, is so weak, he’s no use to the dam’s mystical generators either.  He begs Kang and Artemis to set him free, promising them great riches if they do so.  When they balk, he adds that unless other living creatures take his place, the floodgates will never open and the entire dam will burst!  When asked how he got to be in this position, Avaxial says he remembers only a name: Karzoug.  Artemis and Kang confer, and decide that Avaxial is probably trying to trick them.  When they tell the fiend that they’re leaving, Avaxial rages and says that if they don’t set him free, the circle that binds him will break when the dam collapses, and then he’ll make it his immortal mission to hunt them down and take them back to Hell to be his eternal playthings!  Despite the threat, Kang and Artemis leave and make plans to load up the horses with as much treasure as they can and return to Turtleback Ferry.
Director's Commentary (August 6, 2018)

Innes drowning in ordinary quicksand was not something I anticipated.  I've never actually seen a character die from the drowning rules, because PCs can hold their breath for so long (twice Constitution) and inevitably they get pulled out or rescued somehow as the rounds go on.  But Innes couldn't make a Swim check to (literally) save his life, as that armor had a huge penalty.  The player was really upset, and it was a bummer at the table.  On the other hand, I thought it was a good lesson to everyone that, especially at the level the characters were, they have to be prepared for common dangers (like water).

Goragar's death was a shock, because he and the others had been curb-stomping everything they came across.  It was a lesson to all of us how much weaker a Warpriest is when they get caught by surprise and don't get a chance to buff themselves.  Artemis was nearly another victim as well.

The negotiation with the demon was extremely important.  I think the exact mechanisms of how the dam's floodgates could be closed wasn't apparent (in part because neither of the two PCs had the requisite Knowledge skills), but their decision to just walk away will of course have major implications later in the campaign.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 2-21: "The Dalsine Affair" [RPG]


I played The Dalsine Affair at Subtier 4-5 and then read the scenario a couple of times for the purpose of this review.  I think it's a good example of how much variation there can be between what's seen at the table and what's in the scenario.  While playing it, I thought it was an average, somewhat forgettable adventure.  But reading through it, I see excellent world lore, plot development, and interesting combat/non-combat encounters that offer multiple ways to resolve problems.  It's a scenario, however, in which a good GM with an attention to detail is necessary in order to really make it pop.


The written scenario starts with a *really* long (but really good) backstory.  It involves a Taldan noble named Chalfon Dalsine who, like many of his social class with lots of money and no responsibility, fell into carousing, gambling, and near ruin from debt.  But then Chalfon joined the Pathfinder Society and things . . . didn't change!  He got kicked out of the Society for various misdeeds, and has harbored a grudge ever since.  After learning the art of the magus from a reclusive hermit, Chalfon has returned to Oppara, ingratiated himself with his family, and set forth a (fairly complicated) scheme to destroy the Pathfinder Society in Taldor by setting its Taldan and Qadiran factions against each other with the help of the Shadow Lodge.  We've often seen adventures with fantastic backstories that are never glimpsed by players, but this scenario actually offers a couple of opportunities for different NPCs to deliver parts of it to the PCs.  It's definitely worthwhile for GMs to do so, as it helps explain what the heck is going on in sections of the scenario.

The scenario starts with a briefing provided by Venture-Captain Muesello in Oppara.  Muesello has gotten himself into a jam: hoping to save the Society some money by evading export taxes, he's been trafficking treasures and artifacts out of Taldor by using an underground cult of Sarenrae called the Dawnflower Blossoms.  (the worship of Sarenrae is forbidden in Taldor because of its links to Qadira, and the two nation-states are major rivals)  But a sudden raid led by a Taldan noble (Chalfon Dalsine!) left many of the Dawnflower Blossoms murdered, with the rest seeking refuge in Muesello's hideout.

Before he can continue the briefing, there's a sudden knock at the door--the authorities have arrived!  This starts a sort of time-based challenge to get the ten cultists out of the hideout (through a trapdoor in the basement into ancient catacombs) before the authorities can bust in the front door.  There are a variety of non-combat actions PCs can take to speed things up, but fighting is, ultimately, an option even though it's not what Muesello wants.  I think the encounter is a great way to spice up the standard mission briefing opening for PFS scenarios, and I liked how it got everyone into the action early.  As a player, it was a bit confusing as to what options were available to help the refugees get out faster, and perhaps some subtle hints from the GMs in this direction would be advisable.

Act 2 starts with the PCs escorting the cultists through the catacombs towards their place of refuge, an ancient underground cathedral.  This is mostly an opportunity for the PCs to ask questions and get some exposition (as well as do some faction-specific missions), though it has the requisite little battle against a giant spider.  A bit more creativity would have been nice there.

Once at the hidden temple, the PCs meet the cult's leader who, oddly enough, keeps trying to convince the PCs to stay in the temple and not investigate why Dalsine has been leading murderous raids on the cult.  It turns out the cult's leader has been replaced, weeks earlier, with a faceless stalker loyal to Dalsine!  I like how the lead-up to this encounter was structured, because it put the PCs in the weird situation of not being sure why they were being stalled, and whether initiating violence would lead to the death of an overly-cautious good man or uncover something more nefarious.  The only thing I would have liked to see when reading the scenario is some sort of consequence for the faceless stalker being successful and delaying the PCs for a significant length of time.

Act 3 takes place at Dalsine's manor.  Two of the Society's faction leaders have arrived, coincidentally, at the same time to confront Dalsine.  The leader of the Taldan faction, Baron Jacquo Dalsine (Chalfon's cousin) has been let inside, but Pasha Muhlia Al-Jakri, the Qadiran faction leader, has had her entourage stopped at the gate.  That hasn't stopped her, however, as she's a professional assassin and has secretly snuck in anyway!  From the PCs' perspective, they need to figure out a way into the manor, and they have a few different options, such as using multiple successful Diplomacy rolls on the guards, bribing the guards, or sneaking over the walls.  When I went through this session as a player, I didn't have any of the backstory on what was going on with the factions, etc., so the whole thing was kind of confusing and we just snuck in.

Once inside the mansion, the PCs witness a duel between the faction leaders (because blood is thicker than water, Jacquo has defended Chalfon) in which Jacquo dies and Al-Jakri teleports away.  Chalfon uses illusion magic to hide his presence before attacking the PCs.  When this scenario came out, it was right around the time of Ultimate Magic, so a lot of GMs didn't understand how the magus class operated and you can see a lot of concerns over TPKs in the forums.  When my group went up against Chalfon, it wasn't a particularly hard fight--he's still one guy against 4-6 PCs, so the action economy is definitely against him.  The part of this event that I still don't get, even after reading the scenario, is why Chalfon attacks the PCs and fights to the death--he's already achieved his goals of turning Pathfinder against Pathfinder, and his capture or death simply reveals his role in the manipulation and undermines everything.  His motivations as a villain just don't really fit.

But while there are some flaws in the scenario, I think there's a lot to like about it as well.  There are several encounters that can be approached in different ways, there's a real story behind the events, and (for players experience the scenarios in order) it contributes well to the overall story of Season Two.  Overall, it's a better scenario than I thought it was at first glance.

Starfinder Core Rulebook [RPG]

It’s been exactly one year since the Starfinder Core Rulebook was released. After playing the game steadily since then, the timing seems auspicious to do a full review.  Having read it cover to cover, I’ll be doing my usual chapter-by-chapter breakdown, but since this is a big book (13 chapters and 524 pages) I can’t be quite as prolix as usual. 

Before getting into the content, I have to draw attention to the art and design of the book—it’s simply gorgeous.  Paizo is the best in the business when it comes to integrating cool, “on-theme” artwork into their books, and the design of the book is clever and user-friendly, with a running border on the “right-hand” side so you instantly know what chapter you’re in, highlighted tabs at the bottom to tell you what you what section of that chapter you’re in, colourful sidebars and symbols to replace walls of text, and more.  I don’t what the art and layout budget for it was, but it must have taken the best work of some very talented people to achieve such results.

Chapter 1 (Overview) is the shortest chapter, and it gives you the sort of thing most gaming books do: an explanation of what a role-playing game is, a quick glossary, an example of play, etc.  When you’ve read a couple of these introductions to RPGs, you’ve read them all, but for people who have never gamed before, I imagine they’re pretty important.  The example of play was pretty entertaining, and I found myself disappointed when it was over—odd!

Chapter 2 (Character Creation) walks you step-by-step through the process of creating a player character.  It’s written in a very clear, straightforward way, and I know the developers spent a lot of time testing the chapter out on people unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs.  This chapter is crucial, as it details important game concepts like Stamina and Hit Points (two different “pools” representing health; I don’t really think the distinction is worthwhile), Resolve Points (a pool of points allowing you to activate special abilities or stabilize if you run out of health), and Themes, which are sort of like background character concepts (“Bounty Hunter” and “Icon” are examples); they provide some minor mechanical bonuses, but frankly they’re not really going to change what a character can do and are more for flavour.  Alignment is also covered in this chapter, but Starfinder is so wishy-washy on it, and it’s implemented in so few parts of the game, that it could be safely jettisoned entirely.

Chapter 3 (Races) introduces the seven core races of the game:  Androids, Humans, Kasathas (four-armed traditionalists), Lashuntas (natural psychics), Shirrens (humanoid bug-like creatures), Vesk (Klingons in disguise), and Ysoki (ratfolk).  I really like how attractively the two-page spread for each race is laid out, with male and female examples, highlighted special features, and other useful sections like homeworlds, role-playing tips, and how other races might view your own.  None strike me as amazingly original, but they’re all solid and well-integrated with the setting lore of the game.

Chapter 4 (Classes) sets out the seven core classes: Envoys (diplomats and leaders), Mechanics (techies), Mystics (clerics), Operatives (spies and rogues), Solarians (a sort of Jedi), Soldiers (beatsticks), and Technomancers (magic/tech crossover specialists).  A nice thing is that for each class, four build examples are given to help new players figure out what direction they want to take the character—so for Envoy, for example, builds are included for an Ambassador, a Military Officer, a Negotiator, and a Scoundrel.  I only have space for a quick line about my impression of each class:  1) Envoys are great characters when it comes to teamwork, but it’s weird that their list of special ability (“Improvisations”) stops at level six; 2) Mechanics are loaded with several cool features, and are a fairly complex class to play with two main options (an integrated AI or a drone companion); 3) Mystic is a good, broad interpretation of a cleric from Pathfinder, but much easier to play (the Healer Connection might be too good compared to alternatives); 4) Operatives are the best at anything if they want to be, second-best in the group if they don’t even try—in other words, overpowered with too many skill ranks and bonuses, plus a special ability (trick attack) that has them rolling to resolve something before every single time they attack—it’s annoying in play; 5) Solarian is the most original class, with some really interesting lore involving connections to super novae and black holes that are well-integrated into their gameplay mechanics; 6) Soldiers are mostly what one would expect, with “Fighting Styles” the main distinguishing feature; 7) Technomancer is a cool concept, a class with spells plus “Magic Hacks” that do interesting things to technology.  There are a lot of options within each class, they’re flavourful, and (with the exception of the Operative) they seem reasonably balanced with each other.  I almost forgot about Archetypes—that’s because they’re completely forgettable (the book comes with two, a Phrenic Adept and a Starfinder Forerunner, but both require a PC to give up so many of their core class features that they’re unlikely to be worth it).

Chapter 5 (Skills) has the same basic system for skills as Pathfinder, but with far fewer to choose from: only twenty.  But with every class getting at least 4+Int in skill points, it’s pretty easy to stay maxed out on the most important ones in the game.  Indeed, some classes (looking at you, Operatives) get so many skill points that they can be good at almost everything.  Designing skill lists must be a tough task in RPGs, as there are inevitably some that are going to come up nearly every session (like Computers) and some only rarely (like Swim).  Some skills are too broad (like Culture, which apparently allows one to be an expert on every planet in the universe) and others are too narrow (like Disguise, which won’t let you disguise yourself as a specific person).  There’s also still a lot of number-crunching involved in selecting the appropriate DC within each skill, so this is not a fast “rules-light” system.  All in all, I would say it’s okay, but not a great leap forward from D&D 3.0 or Pathfinder.

Chapter 6 (Feats) has a lot of good, original ideas, some of which take real advantage of the setting like Amplified Glitch.  There’s just over 100 feats in total, which seems like a lot, but many are, of course, really only useful for certain classes or builds, so I don’t think choice paralysis is going to be a problem yet.  The interior artwork continues to be excellent in this chapter.

Chapter 7 (Equipment) clearly had a lot of design work put into it, as it’s far more integral to the game than mundane equipment was in Pathfinder.  Every piece of equipment has a level attached to it, representing how easy or hard it is for a character to get a hold of it (with higher level pieces of equipment being better, of course).  It’s more reminiscent of a video game, but I think it works in context as an abstraction of things like licensing and black market connections, etc.  I really like some of the special properties and critical hit effects that weapons have, though I wish the tables would have been divided by level instead of weapon type.  There’s some problems I could go into here (such as how annoying batteries are, or how fusions and fusion seals are each good ideas standing alone, but having both doesn’t make sense), but I’ll generally just say that encumbrance has been simplified (for better or ill), there’s a lot of design space for future books, and the problem of every character having a billion magic items has been solved in a way that (to me) is satisfactory.  The way equipment is purchased, upgraded, and sold has had a surprisingly large impact on Starfinder gameplay, so this chapter shouldn’t be skipped over when thinking about the game.

Chapter 8 (Tactical Rules) is probably the most important chapter of the book, as it covers combat.  The Pathfinder chassis is used here, with some minor differences such as only two types of armor class (EAC and KAC) and thankfully simplified combat maneuvers.  Oddly, the dying and death rules are much *more* complicated, and I wish they had stuck with the intuitive negative hp concept (it’s pretty hard to die in Starfinder!).  For the most part though, things are laid out clearly and carefully; it’s obvious the writers have learned a lot from their experience with ten years of Pathfinder.  There’s also a section on vehicles, a part of the book that I must confess I’ve never used in actual play.  It looks okay at first glance, though the speed of vehicles means they will be very hard to integrate with “on-foot” combat.  The vehicle chase rules sound interesting, but it’s a whole new subsystem to learn and that’s a lot to ask for something that probably won’t come up too often.

Chapter 9 (Starships) goes through the very cool origin of the Drift (a hyperspace-like realm allowing faster than light travel), discusses how starships are built and modified from a gameplay perspective, and then introduces the important topic of starship combat.  I really *want* to like starship combat in Starfinder (I loved it in the Star Wars RPGs, for example), but after some trials I’ve just found it too slow-paced and unsatisfying.  It’s really almost a separate little board game in which the PCs aboard the ship don’t have much to do besides roll one d20 each round, and if the gunner(s) miss, the rest of the round doesn’t matter.  Ships have too many hit points, weapons do too little damage, and shields are too easy to restore, which means that battles are often a “plink-plink” slog.  Further, there’s no way to have cool things happen like starfighters strafing ground targets or being driven off by anti-aircraft, fire, etc.  Starship combat and ground combat must never mix in Starfinder, and the missed opportunity is a shame.

Chapter 10 (Magic and Spells) has a lot to like.  All spellcasting is spontaneous, there’s no material components, spellcasters only have access to spells of levels 1-6, and the different types of magic (arcane, divine, psychic, etc.) have all been reduced to simply “magic.”  Although I haven’t played at very high levels yet, I’m fairly certain we’ll see a lot less of the caster-martial disparity that plagued Pathfinder.  In terms of the actual spells, I would say that perhaps three-quarters are familiar from Pathfinder, which is a bit too high a proportion.  Some of the new ones are really fun, like “Battle Junkbot,”, “Crush Skull,” “Gravitational Singularity” (make a black hole!), and “Supercharge Weapon.”

Chapter 11 (Game Mastering) contains the standard rules and advice from Pathfinder on topics like experience points, wealth by level, challenge ratings, designing encounters, etc.  The system hasn’t really changed much.  The chapter contains some other sections as well, such as traps (which tend to be pretty nasty in Starfinder), environmental hazards (which, in a game with so much potential for dangerous environments, are negated 99% of the time by the environmental seals that come with *every* suit of armor), afflictions like diseases and poisons (which follow a very different set of rules and are quite deadly), and more.  It’s probably worth mentioning that there aren’t stat blocks for monsters or enemies in this book, and GMs will need to pick up the Alien Archive for that purpose.

Chapter 12 (Setting) is another crucial chapter.  I think it has a really solid backstory and set-up, introducing key concepts like the Gap (a period of time in which all records have been erased and memories lost), Lost Golarion (an entire planet missing!), the the Pact Worlds (the solar system of allied planets that is the “home” of the PCs), and more.  The chapter presents two pages on each of the planets of the Pact Worlds, including some beautiful, evocative artwork.  The planets offer worlds (pun!) of adventure, with everything from a planet ruled by the undead, a creepy Cthulesque planet, a John Carter of Mars-type planet, etc.  GMs will have a lot to work with here.  There’s also a section called “Beyond the Pact Worlds” that’s one of my favourite sections of the book, presenting so many awesome adventure hooks and campaign premises that I’d love to have time to use.  Several pages are devoted to various factions, organisations, and faiths, and again this is very well-done.  I know it’s controversial in some quarters, but I think integrating mechanics with a setting is a good choice.

Chapter 13 (Pathfinder Legacy) is surprisingly detailed.  I remember when Starfinder was announced how much attention Paizo gave to making sure it was backwards-compatible with Pathfinder, which is somewhat odd since they (secretly) had Pathfinder Second Edition in the works and it has nothing particular compatible with the first edition except the world lore.  Anyway, this section has the rules for “legacy races” (elves, halflings, etc.,) as well as some rough conversion guides for bringing Pathfinder classes into the future.

Last up, unlike some gaming companies, Paizo does not skimp on things like glossaries and indices.  The back matter is very professionally done.

The Starfinder Core Rulebook is an impressive accomplishment.  It deserves the attention and rewards that it has achieved.  There are still some clunky mechanics here and there as a legacy of Pathfinder, but there’s plenty of streamlining as well, and lots to love.  The kitchen-sink science fantasy setting provides something for everyone, even if it doesn’t have a mind-blowing singular vision.  Overall, I’d say if you want a space-themed RPG with enough depth and crunch to support years of gameplay, the Starfinder Core Rulebook is an excellent choice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Starfinder Space Goblin Blood Orange IPA T-Shirt [RPG]

Everyone assumed that space goblins would be to Starfinder what goblins are to Pathfinder, because no one anticipated the popularity of skittermanders.  But that’s okay—I like my (deep breath): Starfinder Space Goblin Blood Orange IPA T-Shirt anyway.  The space goblin on the cover definitely pops, looking more creepy than cutesy with crazy red eyes.  I don’t *really* get the “Blood Orange IPA” apart from a reference to violence and beer, so I wonder if there was a meme or joke I missed somewhere along the lines.  Anyway, it’s a very cool design that surely elevates me to supreme nerd amongst all the other nerds at the gaming table.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Starfinder Society Year of Scoured Stars T-Shirt [RPG]

The first season of Starfinder Society is the Year of Scoured Stars.  The corresponding t-shirt is really cool, with the colorful SFS logo, futuristic Wayfinder symbol, and and season name in a genre appropriate font.  This is probably my favourite gaming shirt--I've worn it while GMing almost all of Season One.  And with the recent announcement that the "Year of Scoured Stars" is actually going to last *two* years in the real world, I'll get plenty of chances to wear it again.  Good thing it's held up well!