Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Heroes of the High Court [RPG]



I decided to pick up Heroes of the High Court because a PC I'd been running for a while is a noblewoman and I thought I might find some good material for her in a book designed for PCs involved with royalty and noble intrigue.  Alas, my character died this past weekend (aboleths!), but I'll still review this book anyway.  As with all entries in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, this is a 32-page full colour book.  The inside back cover is a reproduction of the cover, while the inside front cover is a depiction of six different signet rings and possible interpretations they could hold.  It's a weird feature, but not necessarily a bad one (at least for people, like me, with zero in the way of artistic ability).  The interior is literally divided into about fifteen different two-page long sections, which makes summary a bit of a chore.  But if you stick with me, I'll try to move fast.

1.  "Introduction/Rules Index":  There's a couple of exceedingly-obvious paragraphs of introduction, followed by very short (one paragraph each) descriptions of some of the more prominent noble courts in the official campaign setting of Golarion: the Black Dome (Sothis), Castle Overwatch (Lastwall), the Imperial Palace of Egorian (Cheliax), the Imperial Palace of Oppara (Taldor), the Palace of Fallen Stars (Numeria), Queen Edasseril's Court (Kyonin), and the Umbral Court (Nidal).  Each court receives a background trait; most are Social traits, but a couple are Magic or even Combat.  Most don't actually have much to do with nobility in particular, and relate more to the culture of the region than anything.

2.  "Playing a Noble":  This section introduces five new feats (three of which are Story Feats), each of which is themed around being a different type of noble: Aspiring Noble, Enlightened Noble, Noble Impostor, Noble Stipend, and Self-Exiled Noble.  Next, there's over a dozen new benefits that can be taken with the Noble Scion feat (from the Inner Sea World Guide book) relating to different regions of Golarion.  Most of the benefits are fairly minor.

3.  "Court Entertainers": Two new archetypes, one for Bards ("Court Fool") and one for Skalds ("Court Poet"), as well as three new Bardic masterpieces.  I really like the Court Fool archetype and it seems like a natural role for a Bard, but the Skald archetype is a bit strange as it involves improving allies' "aesthetic sensibilities" (non-physical attributes).

4.  "Royal Defenders": Three new archetypes, one for Fighters ("High Guardian"), one for Gunslingers of all things ("Thronewarden"), and one for Witches ("Witch-Watcher").  Witches also get two new hexes and a new patron choice, Protection.  The Gunslinger archetype seems okay to me, the Witch archetype really needs much more flavour (it's very bland conceptually), and the Fighter archetype seems like a really bad choice, as the character loses several bonus combat feats in exchange for getting very specific feats with restrictions on them.

5.  "Arcane Retainers": Four new spells, three new Alchemist discoveries, and a new Alchemist archetype ("Royal Alchemist").  The artwork accompanying this archetype is pretty cool, but the archetype itself seems like a very, very complicated way to essentially give allies some modest bonuses against disease and poison.  I've noticed a trend in Pathfinder game design of giving various class features "pools" of points that do various different things depending on the number of points spent, and I'm not sure if it's a good one for gameplay.

6.  "Orders of Chivalry":  One new archetype for Cavaliers ("Gallant"), one for Paladins ("Virtuous Bravo"), and the introduction of a new category of magic items called Favors.  The Gallant really doesn't do much, but the Virtuous Bravo basically adds Swashbuckler class abilities to a Paladin chassis and definitely provides a different feel for a character with them.  Favors are one-use only minor magic items given to a character as a reward or token of admiration for services rendered; I like the concept, though most are pretty expensive considering their minor mechanical effects.

7.  "Courtly Races":   All of the Core Rulebook races get short (two to three paragraph) entries on what their royal courts are like, along with an alternate racial trait.  My favourite of the bunch is "Conservative Diplomacy" for dwarves, which says that they treat any roll of 5 or less on a Diplomacy check as a 5, but any roll of 15 or better as a 15.  The mechanical effect ties in really well with the flavour explanation and it makes perfect sense.

8.  "Courts of the East":  This section contains description of noble life in Jalmeray and Katheer (two areas of the campaign setting that don't receive as much coverage as others), which is more useful than the fairly generic description in the previous section.  There's also two new feats, a new Oracle archetype ("Inerrant Voice"), and a new Psychic discipline ("Pageantry").  I have to confess to not knowing much about Psychics (apart from a terribly inept attempt to create one), but the Pageantry discipline looks pretty powerful; I will note, however, that the abilities it grants do not seem particularly well-tied to a "pageantry" theme.  Function should follow form here, and it doesn't.

9.  "Courts of the Dragon Empires":  Brief overviews of four Tian royal courts are provided: Minkai, Po Li, Tianjing, and Xa Hoi.  There's also four new feats and a new Occultist ritual.  Again, I appreciate seeing some options themed around areas of Golarion outside the Inner Sea, even if the options aren't always as well-tied to the flavour as they should be.

10.  "Ecclesiastical Courts": This section includes very brief (one paragraph each) introductions to the royal courts of Cheliax, Mendev, Druma, Razmiran, and Nidal, along with five new feats loosely themed to each.  I really like the feats in this section:  creative and useful.  Two new clerical subdomains are also added, "Chivalry" and "Sovereignty."

11.  "Invested with Divinity": This entire section is about a major new Monk archetype, the "Invested Regent."  Again, the archetype grants a pool of points which which the character can do special things (and this pool is separate than the Monk's Ki pool).  There's three new feats, each of which requires the archetype as a prerequisite.  The powers granted to a character with the archetype just don't seem to have much to do with the flavour of the concept, and appeared to be a bit randomly chosen to me.

12.  "Enemies of Rule":  An archetype each for the Slayer ("Butterfly Blade") and Vigilante ("Dragonscale Loyalist") and three new spells for infiltrating and detecting impostors.  The archetypes in this section were much better than in the previous section, and it's good to see Vigilantes getting some attention in a book that would seem to be a natural place for them to shine.

13. "Conduct and Decorum":  This section introduces some new ways to use existing skills, such as using a Knowledge (nobility) check instead of Sense Motive to determine if someone is feigning noble blood.  I like the concept overall, though some of the options seem more complicated than necessary in order to accomplish a relatively rare task.  The verbal duel rules from Ultimate Intrigue receive support with four new tactics; I'm a big believer that new rules sub-systems should be supported beyond the book they're introduced in, so I was happy to see this.

14.  "Courtly Regalia":  Seven new mundane and magical articles of clothing or accessories to make every noble look (and act) their best.  My favourite by far is "Phantom Entourage", which does exactly as the name implies--it creates illusory assorted sycophants and hangers-on to make it clear to everyone just how important the (actually unimportant) wearer is.  There's also a new Occultist archetype called the "Silksworn."  The concept has been quite popular in the Paizo forums, though again I'll cop to not knowing enough about the class to offer an opinion.

15.  "Implements of Rule": Several new magic items, including crowns and scepters, as well as a new type of magic items, thrones.  Thrones are interesting because they provide benefits to the monarch sitting on them as well as anyone who makes an obeisance (like kneeling or other gesture of allegiance) before it.  I could imagine thrones as an excellent way to add some interesting effects to "boss fights" without risking PCs getting their hands on something so powerful that it will upend campaign balance.

So you can see from the summary above that the book is chock-full of new options.  Contrary to what one might expect, there's no particular focus on the classes that seem more naturally aligned to courtly settings (like Bards, Paladins, Vigilantes in their social guises, etc.).  Instead, this book has a "satisfy everyone with something for everyone" approach.  My feelings after reading it are of mild disappointment.  There's no heart or style to the book; the writing in each section is functional but pedestrian, and it's never inspiring or passionate about a rarely-touched area of Pathfinder gameplay that deserves better.  I know most buyers of these books want as much "crunch" as can possibly be fitted between two covers, but the book suffers for it in terms of cohesiveness and enduring contribution to the game.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 9 [RPG]


[1 Lamashan 4707 continued]

In the aftermath of their victorious battle against Erylium in the hidden cathedral underneath Sandpoint, the heroes search the dead quasit and the room, finding little of interest.  Bey magically heals Nedrin’s wounds and, after some minutes, the hobgoblin stops trying to burst his bonds.  Judging that the effects of the magical orange liquid that enraged him have subsided, the other members of the group untie him.  Nedrin rails at Oliver for having attacked him, but Bey speaks up in the ranger’s defence.  For his part, Oliver merely sharpens his sword and fills a canteen with the glowing orange liquid.


After informing the sentries in the Glassworks’ basement that the demon quasit has been slain, the adventurers return and search the rest of the underground complex.  With bows and crossbows they destroy the zombies in the pits without putting themselves at risk.  Down a side tunnel, they find a spiral staircase descending down; alas, it is completely blocked with rubble.  Another room presents a strange sight: several objects floating gently in mid-air!  The walls of this spherical room are plated in sheets of strange red metal that ripple periodically with black electricity that occasionally coalesces into ancient Thassilonian runes of anger, wrath, and revenge.  After much discussion and cautious trial-and-error, the adventurers retrieve a bottle of wine (of recent vintage), an arcane scroll, an ancient, ragged book written in an unknown tongue (with illustrations depicting grisly and cruel rituals), and an iron wand that Bey identifies as a wand of cure light wounds.  Another previously-unexplored room holds a pool lined with skulls, and the last features a spiral staircase around a pillar leading into darkness above.  Exploration shows that passage upwards is blocked by tons of stone that has collapsed from above, but that small fissures allow air to flow to and from the surface.  After speculating about where this complex lies in relation to Sandpoint, the adventurers work together to confirm that the fissures place the staircase somewhere below an alleyway between Tower Street and Junker’s Way.

Prayer Book to Lamashtu
Having completed their exploration of the catacombs, the adventurers walk to the Sandpoint Cathedral.  They arrive in time to witness the end of a memorial service for the victims of the goblin raid on the Glassworks and for Xeveg, who heroically fell during the initial foray into the catacombs.  After the service is completed, Bey speaks with Mayor Deverin about the fissures from the surface to the catacombs.  Mayor Deverin promises to have the alleyway inspected and paved over with stone tiles.  Mayor Deverin reports Brodert Quink’s impatience to explore the catacombs, though Bey warns that the aged sage should not be allowed to enter without an escort.  Father Zantus approaches the group after he finishes consoling some of the families of the murdered Glassworks employees.  When asked, he assures Felix that the severe rash that broke out on the brawler’s skin from fighting the goblin dog should pass in a day or so.  Bey shows Father Zantus the book found within the strange spherical chamber; he identifies it as a prayer and ritual book to Lamashtu, and states that it must be burned immediately.  Bey is reticent to have it destroyed at first, but eventually agrees; due to suspicions raised by Oliver that Father Zantus may be misleading them, the entire group of adventurers go with the priest to his private study to witness the book being reduced completely to ashes in his fireplace.

Later, after Felix learns the hard way that what Bey identified as a wand of cure light wounds was actually a wand of shocking grasp, Nedrin is filled in about the adventurers’ activities in Sandpoint to date.  They provide him with Tsuto’s journal to read, discuss Nualia, and mention that they’ve also taken a commission to explore Chopper’s Isle.  Nedrin says that he’s been placed within the care of the group and that staying with them is the best alternative to being imprisoned or forcibly run out of town.

Sir Jasper Korvaski
The adventurers settle in for an evening in the common room of the White Deer.  Felix buys everyone a round and introduces Nedrin to Garridan.  Bey begins drinking quite heavily.  Cyrdak Drokkus, the local theatre director, comes in alongside a somewhat stiff middle-aged man.  Bey goes over, and the stranger is introduced to her as Sir Jasper Korvaski, day manager of the Sandpoint Mercantile League.  Bey, who is getting drunker by the minute, tells Cyrdak about the fight in the catacombs and he enthusiastically promises to use it as the basis of another theatrical production.  Bey also mentions her friend Bodowen, a well-known actor and singer in Magnimar, but Cyrdak scoffs at both Bedowen’s and Magnimar’s “unearned” reputations.  Over at the bar, Nedrin suddenly punches Felix in the mouth!  The two tussle until Felix lands a solid blow, dropping his new ally to the floor.  It turns out, however, that the fight was a friendly one to add a little excitement to the common room (though Garridan is not best pleased).  As the evening goes on, Oliver brings the suspect bottle of wine from the catacombs over to Cyrdak’s and Jasper’s table and watches them drink it with no ill effects.  He quickly discerns that the two are lovers, and hears how the Sandpoint Mercantile League can arrange journeys by boat or carriage all over Varisia, deliver messages to distant communities, handle land purchases and construction contracts, and arrange for the import or export of valuable trade goods.  Over a few hours’ time, Jasper begins to loosen up a bit and shows a dry sense of humor.  After a heavily-intoxicated Bey singes her hand in the fireplace trying to prove something, she’s put to bed.  Nedrin retires as well, while Felix and Oliver stay up late into the night gambling with Cyrdak and Jasper.

[2 Lamashan 4707]

Bosk Hartigan
In the morning, the adventurers head in the direction of Junker’s Edge to inspect the tides in preparation for an expedition to Chopper’s Isle.  On the way, they see Jodar Provolost and two new members of the Town Watch, youthful recruits from Magnimar named Jeyver and Bothon.  Jodar says that Sheriff Hemlock wasn’t happy with the condescension he received when asking for help in Magnimar, and that he was even more steamed to return to Sandpoint and find out that a “deputy” has been appointed without his being consulted.  After asking some questions about Chopper’s Isle, the adventurers decide they had better visit the Garrison to talk with Sheriff Hemlock.

At the Garrison, the adventurers see Sheriff Hemlock and grey-haired veteran Bosk Hartigan drilling the raw new recruits.  Noticing his new audience, Hemlock shouts an order for Oliver to follow him and stalks off towards his office.  Once there, he angrily demands Oliver’s immediate resignation.  The ranger refuses.  Hemlock asks how Oliver managed to get the position, and the latter shows the former the letter from Aldern Foxglove.  After reading it, Hemlock crumples it up and says that if Oliver won’t resign, things are going to have to be done the hard way.  He orders Oliver out of his office.  On the way back to the others, Oliver passes by Bosk Hartigan; the older guardsman makes it clear he’s not happy at being passed over for promotion after having been a founding member of the Town Watch more than 40 years ago.

Carved Trees on Chopper's Isle
The local heroes reach Junker’s Edge and climb down to the beach below without difficulty.  Having timed their expedition correctly, they wade over the slippery rocks between the beach and the base of Chopper’s Isle.  Once there, they spot an area in the rounded cliff face where stairs had once been affixed before being burned along with the house itself.  Felix adroitly climbs the face of the rock and lowers a knotted rope for the others.  Everyone assembles at the top to see a windswept area of about two square acres.  Heavy moss sags from the branches of old oak trees, nearly every branch of which has been carved in the shape of owls, hawks, eagles, and vultures.  In the distance, little can be seen beside the remnants of a small, burned down cottage overgrown with tangled weeds and vines.  Searching the clifftop, the adventures find tracks belonging to what Oliver says is a three-clawed large winged quadruped.  The tracks lead to a small cache of gnawed bones, both recent and years old.

Felix is the first to enter the burned-out cottage, and pays a price: rotted floorboards crack underneath his feet, sending him tumbling hard to a hidden basement!  Nedrin tries to climb down to lend a hand, but slips and falls as well.  Oliver and Bey secure a rope around the base of a nearby tree and manage to descend safely.  The basement has walls of packed earth and shaky wooden support beams, all carved with bird motifs.  Two narrow passageways lead off in opposite directions, while the center of the room is dominated by a man-shaped wooden statue with the legs and talons of a giant eagle, two sets of eagle wings, a snake in place of its genitals, and a gem-studded avian head.  The sound of whimpering and distress is heard by Nedrin and Bey, though Oliver and Felix hear nothing. 

Statue of Pazuzu
Nedrin angrily pushes over the statue and the group head down one of the side tunnels.  The hobgoblin takes the lead, using his excellent darkvision to good effect.  He turns a corner and sees a small chamber, the walls of which are covered in small alcoves.  In one corner of the room is a pedestal with a dusty tome.  Nedrin uses the blade of his longsword to flip open the cover of the book, and suddenly finds himself being attacked by the Chopper!  Nedrin tries to fight off the nightmarish attacker, but his longsword passes right through him!  Eerily, the others see no attacker; only that Nedrin is bleeding from several deep red wounds carved in his flesh in the shape of birds!  At the rear of the single file line, Oliver feels a gentle touch on the back of his neck, and loses the ability to speak! 

Facing an attacker he cannot harm, Nedrin runs for it.  Oliver looks terrified and gives mute gestures to indicate his inability to speak, leading everyone to decide to escape the basement while they still can.  A furious scramble up the wall keeps the adventurers alive, and they regroup to discuss what to do next.  Nedrin says the group should leave Chopper’s Isle and tell no one what happened below, but Bey insists that the group would get reputations as cowards and failures.  The consensus is that it’s too dangerous to return to the basement, at least for the moment, so the group scour the clifftop for any other clues and, finding none, wait for low tide before climbing safely down to the base of Chopper’s Isle.

The rumours that Chopper’s Isle is a forbidding, haunted place have been proven true.  What remains to be seen is if Sandpoint’s local heroes will find the courage to return . . .
-------------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (26/03/2017)

The group found some very interesting things in the Catacombs of Wrath.  The tricky part was that it took them almost 15 sessions to identify some of it!  I've taken to trying to give a sort of "keyword" adjective now whenever I hand out magical treasure to help me figure out what it is if it's being identified down the line.  So for example, every potion has a colour ("a magenta potion") and every wand has a description ("a forked iron wand") that should match what's in my notes.  Otherwise, if players just write down "potion" on their character sheet, I'll have no idea what it is later on.

Everyone was aghast that Oliver would intentionally test out what could be a poisoned bottle of wine from the Catacombs on two perfectly innocuous NPCs.   Fortunately, it really was just ordinary wine so he didn't have murder on his hands.  Speaking of Oliver, the stuff with him getting named Deputy worked out quite well and was probably the highlight for the character.  Later, when the player ran a different PC, the new one just never really gelled.

The group first got the adventure hook for Chopper's Isle back in Session # 4, and I was happy to see them follow through.  I had to do some quick Googling to figure out how tides work (i.e., the time between low tide and high tide), but I was happy without the characters' terror of the place.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Worldwound [RPG]


If you're a GM and hate your players, send their characters to The Worldwound!  Joking (mostly).  The Worldwound is a location in Pathfinder's campaign setting of Golarion, and this book is an excellent product.  The premise is that a century ago, a group of demon-worshipping cultists succeeded in the one thing that most adventures assume PCs will arrive to stop in time: they opened a permanent gate to the demon plane known as the Abyss!  Untold numbers of demons poured out and quickly overwhelmed the entire country of Sarkoris before a crusade of defenders assembled from all over the continent managed to partially contain the threat by erecting magical barriers around the doomed country.  The fighting continues to this day as the demons probe for weaknesses and the exhausted defenders dream of some way to banish the evil forever.  The former nation of Sarkoris is a blasted apocalypse overrun by demons.  It's the perfect setting for mid- and high- level adventuring groups looking for maximum danger and carnage.

The Worldwound book is a 64-page entry in the Campaign Setting line.  The inside front cover is an excellent map of the area: it's detailed, has a scale, and is generally cool looking (really, everything one needs in a map).  The inside back cover is a concise timeline of what led to the formation of the Worldwound, and the effects of the efforts to close or contain it since.  The inside is divided into three chapters: a gazetteer, adventuring dangers, and a bestiary.  As a minor note, I noticed and appreciated the detailed cross-referencing and incorporation of material from other Pathfinder books.

The gazetteer (25 pages) covers five different regions of the Worldwound and each of them receives four pages of coverage including a half-page map of a city or other notable location within that region (unlike the main map, these maps are sparsely annotated).  Unlike some campaign setting books, there are no NPC or monster stat blocks within the gazetteer. The first region to get coverage is Frostmire, one of the safest places to be in the Worldwound because there's literally almost nothing there besides ragged hills and stinking swamps: both the demons and the crusaders long ago lost interest in the place.  Next up is Riftshadow, a "ruin-choked waterway" notable in part for containing the home of Areelu Vorlesh, the demon-worshipping witch responsible for opening the rift to the Abyss in the first place!  The Sarkorian Steppe is the third region covered and it's notable for the raids frequently launched into the area by the barbarian tribes of the Mommoth Lords.  I really liked the description of an enduring rivalry between one barbarian leader, Khraigorr Half-Face and demon named Gashgelag. The fourth region covered, Stonewilds, has a fantastic backstory involving the last stand of a powerful circle of druids whose final action stymies the demon occupiers to this day.  The final region is The Wounded Lands, the actual site of the rift to the Abyss and the center of its demonic taint.  The description is quite effective at making it a terrifying place to visit!  Overall, the writing in this chapter is strong.  My main criticism, and it's not necessarily a damning one, is that I see incredibly little incentive for PCs to want to come here.  GMs will have their work cut out for themselves to persuade sensible groups that the risk is worth whatever reward is on offer.

"Adventures in the Worldwound" is the title of the second chapter (15 pages).  It starts with a great explanation of why travellers to the area will be lucky to survive the hazardous landscape before even thinking about the demonic armies waiting to pounce.  This is the first Campaign Setting book I've seen to make good use of Pathfinders rules for weather, and each region has descriptions of its normal weather and occasional Abyss-influenced dangerous weather.  In another nice touch, a detailed description is given to how Survival checks to obtain food and water are much harder in each of the different regions, and how they're likely to result in magically tainted finds that can have a variety of terrible effects.  In other words, adventurers better bring their own food (and a lot of it, if they plan to stay long) and sufficient spells to protect themselves against crazy-dangerous weather patterns.  Fantastically fun (and cruel) hazards like "Bowel Worms" and "Demonplague" are detailed here as well.  If you want to tell a "Man vs. Environment" story, just crossing the Worldwound is a feat in itself.  The remainder of the chapter gives overviews of ten different "adventure sites."  Each receives about a page of coverage; for example, there's an entire village of werewolves called Moonscream Glade, and a mysterious hovering structure called simply "Hanging Tower."  My favourite is Pulura's Fall, a temple to an empyreal lord that has managed to stave off the demonic forces that have besieged it for over a century.  It's an evocative and inspiring tale.  Do keep in mind that these entries are broad descriptions only, and a GM would have a lot of work to do (in terms of coming up with stat blocks and layouts) to actually use them in a game.  They're aids to creativity, but definitely not "pull-and-play" encounters.

The third and final chapter is perhaps the longest bestiary I've seen in a book in this line: 25 pages.  There are random encounter tables for each of the regions, and the lowest CR on any of them is 10!  A good sign, as the book explicitly says earlier, that PCs shouldn't be coming to the Worldwound until they have several levels under their belts.  As for the new monsters introduced (16 of them), simply put they're as good as it gets.  If you think you've seen it all, you're wrong!  There's some incredibly creativity (and horror) put on display in this chapter and I would cackle with glee (or sigh with pity) to put PCs up against them.  The artwork here is really strong--maybe not the absolute best Paizo has offered, but still quite effective at conveying how hideous these creatures are.  Whoever was responsible for this bestiary should pat themselves on the back and be given a raise.

I don't have any groups adventuring in the Worldwound at present, so I wasn't sure what to expect from reading this one.  I hope, as a PC, that I never have to go there!  But that's good.  A fictional world needs places that scares PCs (and the players running them), and not every area needs to be suitable for 1st level characters.  If your players have become jaded, the Worldwound will be an eye-opening experience.  They may never forgive you!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sargava, the Lost Colony [RPG]


Sargava, a former Chelish-built colony on the shores of the Mwangi Expanse, is an area of the fictional world of Golarion that, in lesser hands, could have gone horribly wrong.  The colonialism, racism, and exploitation of Africa, South America, India, and so many other places by imperial powers in the real world could have found strong echoes in a setting about a vast, unexplored jungle continent full of technologically-primitive dark-skinned tribespeople.  Fortunately, Paizo recognized the dangers of the "explore the dark continent" trope and was careful to ensure it would receive a far more intelligent expression in Pathfinder.  Although the themes of colonialism, invasion, and corporate exploitation remain, the PCs are definitely not expected to follow in the footsteps of real-world colonialists, nor are they necessarily expected to play outsiders at all: extensive information is given about the indigenous peoples of the Mwangi Expanse, so that alternative themes of resistance and cultural integrity can be experienced.  And lest this all seem to heavy, this is a Pathfinder game so groups who want to focus on being chased by huge dinosaurs and ancient demons can do that too!

Sargava, the Lost Colony is a 32-page book in the Player Companion line.  I think the front cover is great, showing one of those aforementioned dinosaurs chasing after the Iconic ranger, Harsk.  The inside back-cover reproduces the artwork sans logos, while the inside front-cover is a map of Sargava showing the perfect amount of detail for PCs to understand what's around them without giving away too much detail.  The interior is divided into eight sections.

The first section (11 pages) is an overview of Sargava.  It covers the interesting history of the area as a colony founded by the Chelish empire, the bloody battle for independence (aided by a problematic deal with a pirate fleet), and the situation today, wherein Sargava has to try to delicately navigate relations with the native inhabitants of the area and find allies overseas.  All in all, it's an interesting political situation with plenty of room for PCs to become involved in all sorts of intrigue and adventures that could influence the state of things.  A detailed timeline of Sargava is provided, which is probably more detail than is needed for a Player Companion.  As we'll see, this is one of the problem areas for the book: an inability to differentiate between player needs and GM needs.  The section provides an overview of the various Mwangi tribes that exist near Sargava, and I appreciate how it takes pains to establish that a) they're not all the same; b) they don't necessarily get along with each other; and c) there is a vast degree of complexity and sub-groups within each tribe.  This helps avoid the "all natives are the same" problem of historic colonial fiction. The section contains large sidebars on private organizations that have a major influence in Sargava, including corporate mining companies,  trade guilds, and the Pathfinder Society.  There's about a page on "Classes in Sargava", but each class (core-only) receives just a single sentence or two about their common role in the area.  As this would be one of the most important thing for players in a Sargava-focussed campaign, it would have been helpful to elaborate on this much further.

The second section (7 pages) provides more detail on particular settlements in Sargava.  First up is Eleder, the only city built by the original Chelish colonists.  The sense I get is that it's a lot like how the colonial British acted in India as seen in a novel like A Passage to India: deeply concerned with maintaining the social decorum and expectations of the "Old World."  Although the local Mwangi have roles within the city, it's also clear they face discrimination and subordination.  Apart from these issues, there wasn't a lot that stood out to me about Eleder--it seemed like a pretty average "D&D" city.  But perhaps that helps to emphasize the mysterious dangers that await outsiders if they venture too far into the jungle . . .  The second settlement discussed is Kalabuto, a city with a really interesting history (a bit too involved for me to cover here) that today consists of a partially-assimilated Mwangi tribe and some descendents of the colonists.  Because it is frequently attacked and often overrun by hostile Mwangi, Kalabuto is a much more dangerous (and exciting) place for PCs to visit.  Five other settlements, much smaller than Eleder and Kalbuto, receive about two paragraphs of description each: Crown's End, Fort Bandu, Freehold, Port Freedom, and Stark Point.  Overall, I would say the writing in this section is about average--not as original and exciting as some Pathfinder products I've read, but serviceable.

Section three is "Adventuring in Sargava" (six pages).  The first few pages talk about different locations in the area where adventurers are commonly hired, and what tasks they might be asked to perform.  It's not exactly "adventure hooks" in the conventional sense, but more like "reasons why a PC might be in a general location."  One of the topics on a subsequent page is interesting: buying nobility.  A chart lists the quite modest cost to buy 100 acres of land of various terrains from the colony's leader, and says that titles of nobility can be purchased as well (though no prices are given for the latter, which seems like an oversight).  The most important page for players is the collection of new traits.  There are four combat traits, each of which makes fighting in a particular terrain (hill, jungle, river, and savanna) a little bit easier.  There's one magic trait which is actually a pretty good one: the ability to take one zero-level spell from another class' spell list and add it to your own.  Next, there are eight race traits, but the "race" prerequisite doesn't refer to things like the "core rulebook races" but instead specific tribes in the Mwangi Expanse, being Mwangi in general, or being a colonist.  On the whole, I don't imagine they're taken very often: they are quite specific and most come with a drawback along with a benefit (like a bonus on Intimidate checks vs. Mwangi but an equal penalty on Diplomacy checks against them).  The three regional traits are pretty bland and narrow in scope.  Of the two religion traits, one is interesting from a flavour-perspective ("Faithful Arodenite"--a worshipper of the dead god Aroden), but both are lacking when it comes to game effect.  As a whole, I wasn't impressed with this section.  The first part is too vague and, for the most parts, the traits are forgettable.

Section four, "Sargavan Fighting Styles" (two pages), introduces several new combat feats, each with an animal theme, like "Monkey Lunge" (no AC penalty for using Lunge) and "Rhino Charge" (allowing a character to use the Ready action for a charge attack).  The feats are actually quite useful for certain melee builds.  There's also a new "Equipment Trick" (a concept first introduced in the Adventurer's Armory Player Companion).  This one focuses on Kava Musk, an adhesive chemical with a powerful odor.  It's a creative idea of something to base an Equipment Trick around.

The fifth section (two pages) is on religion in Sargava and talks generally about the Mwangi attitude toward religion, the efforts of some colonists to convert them to "mainstream" religion, and how some of the "Core 20" deities (like Shelyn, Abadar, and Iomedae) are viewed in the area.  This section is all "flavour" with no "crunch."

Magic is the topic for the sixth section (two pages), and it contains three new spells (all for druids, rangers, and/or wizard/sorcerers) and six new magic items.  All of the spells and items are jungle themed, and seem reasonably interesting and useful.

The last section (two pages) is "Local Hazards", and it contains descriptions of various jungle dangers (like heat, mosquitos, getting lost, wild animals etc.).  It's all pretty broad, and I would think such stuff would be more for a GM than a player.

Sargava, the Lost Colony is clearly from the period when Paizo was still figuring out what a Player Companion should be like.  Readers expecting it to be like a modern Companion that's chock full of dozens of feats, archetypes, spells, etc., will be disappointed by the relative sparsity of PC options.  The book serves as a solid introduction and overview to Sargava, and could be useful to both players and GMs who intend to use it for that purpose.  But although Sargava is potentially quite interesting, this book probably doesn't do the area justice.  I would recommend this one only for a campaign specifically set in the area, and even then, I wouldn't say it's a "must buy."

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mynock Squadron Recap # 25 [RPG]


The New Republic ship Gatecrasher has penetrated Dorval's Wall in search of the always-dangerous Grand Moff Kain and his fleet.  The Gatecrasher took heavy damage coming through the wall, and while repairs are underway its only hope of survival is to stay hidden at the edge of the planetary system.  But information is paramount, and the pilots of the new iteration of Mynock Squadron's Beta Flight have been sent to scout the area and, if an opportunity presents itself, to infiltrate Kain's "Pentastar Alignment."  With a new leader, a new member, and new ships, can they shoulder the burden?

The new members of Beta Flight work quickly to prepare for the dangerous mission ahead. The plan is for Warik and Mikaela to use their real identities and pose as former Imperials who found themselves in possession of the TIE-Defenders and now seek to rejoin the fold.  Kero and Keth will pose as smugglers, with Kero code-named "Princess" and Keth code-named "Squeek."  The team scuffs up their jumpsuits and Mikaela expertly adds some cosmetic wear and tear to the Defenders.  When the initial passive sensors report of the surrounding planetary system comes in, it becomes clear that the Gatecrasher entered at a fortuitous location, shielded from detection by a nearby planetoid on the very brink of Dorval's Wall.  Coreward, a binary star designated HR 8799 is orbited by three planets: one of them is habitable, one of them is a high-pressure environment, and the third is unknown.  In addition to the planets, the sensors reveal a metallic debris field and a large asteroid belt in the system.

Once the four pilots have launched and left the Gatecrasher behind (with strict orders not to take any actions to reveal its presence), Warik decides that the first step on the scouting mission is to swing by the asteroid belt.  Out of an abundance of caution, the active sensors on the TIE-Defenders remain turned off; a purely visual inspection reveals nothing more than a dense collection of rocks.  Mikaela adroitly weaves through an outer layer of the field, but turns back before she penetrates too deeply into the interior.  Warik gives the order to continue on to the large metallic debris field.  In the time it takes to get there, it becomes obvious that Kero's Defender is suffering from mechanical difficulties, as she's been radio-silent the whole time.  Still, she seems capable of trailing the others.  When the Defenders approach the debris field, it is clear a massive battle has taken place as there are dozens of hulks of large vessels and hundreds of smaller ones.  Some of the vessels are of Imperial design, but most are of unknown origin.  Warik gives the word to activate sensors, and Mikaela picks up a steady, strong concentration of power near the center of the field.  However, sensors also detect a vessel approaching the field from the far side--Warik's expertise in starship design tells him it's an MRX-84 Pacifier (an Imperial scout ship) that has been outfitted with special hardpoints to facilitate null-g deployment.  Warik immediately opens a com-signal to the vessel.  The startled commander of the scout ship says he wasn't expecting to find any other Imperial vessels in the area.  Warik proceeds to spin his tale of having been part of a group continuing the fight against the New Republic when their base ship crashed through Dorval's Wall and disintegrated.  After several minutes of radio silence while the scout ship communicates with parties unknown, the Defenders are ordered to form up, with weapons deactivated, in order to be escorted towards the planet nearest the system's sun.

When the Defenders approach the planet, they see no signs of the bulk of Grand Moff Kain's fleet--instead, a small collection of support ships and light cruisers are in orbit around the planet.  The undercover pilots are ordered to land in the hangar bay of the the Imperial frigate Thunderer, and when they do so they see an armed contingent of stormtroopers waiting for them.  Warik, Keth, and Mikaela exit their vessels just as the Thunderer's commander, a Captain Vidas, enters.  Warik repeats his story about how the group came into possession of the Defenders and through Dorval's Wall.  Noticing that no one has yet exited from the fourth Defender, Captain Vidas orders it breached and an Imperial team forcibly removes the canopy to reveal an unconscious Kero--clearly, another malfunction led to a perilous drop in oxygen.  While Kero is taken to the ship's med-bay under armed guard, Vidas tells the others that they'll be restricted to a single secure deck of the ship while their stories are checked.  Some hours later, an aide informs Warik and Mikaela that although the ship's computer databases suffered heavy damage during its passage through the Wall, sufficient personal history and biometric data could be found to validate their identity as having served as Imperial operatives at some point in recent history.  The two are given expanded access to the ship while waiting for personnel administrators to decide on an assignment within the fleet.  Keth, in the role of "Squeek," however, is treated as mercenary scum by an aide and told he has two options: volunteer for the Imperial Navy or be conscripted.  He chooses the former and is assigned to a janitorial detail pending further evaluation.  When Kero eventually awakens in the med-bay, she remembers to play her role as a mercenary but leverages her knowledge of battlefield medicine to get an assignment as a triage aide.

The next few days pass quickly as the undercover operatives use their new positions to try to gain intelligence on what the Pentastar Alignment is doing in the system.  Most of the other Imperials are rather close-lipped around the newcomers, who are still watched by ship security, but they are able to glean a few pieces of information.  Warik is able to delicately slice into some databases from the terminal in his quarters to discern that the ship is still undergoing repairs for recent battle damage and that large areas of the ship have been retrofitted as some sort of secure containment area for live cargo.  Kero cleverly examines medical library requests and purchase orders to discover that the ship has been involved with high-pressure beings in relation to the second planet orbiting the system's sun.  In addition, mass quantities of sedatives have been synthesized.  The pilots are able to share most of this information with each other through a "chance" meeting in the mess hall.

Later, the Thunderer makes the short in-system journey to the third planet around the sun.  Warik and Mikaela are given orders to fly escort for shuttles headed to the surface.  The small gathering of ships descend quickly into the atmosphere of a lush planet and head toward what can only be  the wreckage of several massive groundcrawlers.  The shuttles land and stormtroopers begin scouring the wreckage--they find several humans hiding and force them, at gunpoint, to board the shuttles.  When the stormtroopers signal that they've found everyone, the entire group of ships return to the Thunderer.  Keth arranges to be cleaning up a spill in the hangar bay where the shuttles land, and he sees humans in ragged clothing, with their hands bound, being led away by stormtroopers.  Keth asks one of the stormtroopers where they're headed, and is told "Deck 17--you know what that means."

When the Thunderer is back in geostationary orbit around the first planet around the system's sun, Mikaela and Warik are ordered to conduct some training flights to demonstrate the capabilities of the Defenders to Imperial pilots who are still mainly relying on early model TIE-Fighters and Bombers.  Warik is careful to give slightly inaccurate information during these training missions.  On one such jaunt, Mikaela and Warik take their trainees to the far side of the planet and witness a startling sight: three massive vessels, nearing the size of Star Destroyers but ziggurat-like in shape, are under construction and nearing completion.  But Mikaela discerns something strange: the vessels include only shields, hyperdrives, and the most rudimentary nav-controls--with no life-support, crew quarters, or weaponry!  Soon after she and Warik return, the two are summoned to a briefing room and find Kero there as well.  The ship's flight commander explains that the three pilots will be heading to the planet below, and starts to provide details.
------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (16/03/2017)


This session was a difficult one to prepare for, and I had to run much of it by the seat of my pants.  I had a map of the solar system ready, but only very rough ideas in my mind of what would be on each planet.  The challenge was that, unlike previous story arcs which were very clear "mission objective" based, the PCs were given a lot of latitude in this session and could have gone pretty much anywhere.  The preparation challenge was exacerbated by the fact that I was simultaneously running a very crunch-heavy D&D 3.5 campaign, so I had very little spare time to get details ready for this one. Although it all seems to hang together in the recap, I'm always very stressed when directing sessions I'm not prepped for, and I enjoy the experience a lot less.

The PCs did surprisingly well with their early Deception checks to pose as Imperials, so it turned out there wasn't any action this session.  They started to get the first hints of what the overall plot of this story arc would turn out to be.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Cloak of Belonging [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Magic items in Pathfinder games, as in its D&D 3.5 source, often become rather bland and forgettable:  another longsword +1 or ring of protection +1 doesn't inspire great excitement and memorable gameplay.  What I really enjoyed about The Cloak of Belonging, a four-part series of free web fiction (available here) is how it really puts the *magic* back in magical items.  In this story, a washed-up, down-on-his-luck itinerant musician stumbles upon a cloak that makes him seem to others far more impressive than he really is, and this sets him on a really fun adventure.  The writing, by author Chris Willrich, is subtle but stylish and engaging.  The story is set in Cassomir, and makes good use of the rivalries between Cheliax, Taldor, and Andoran.  Although never silly, it's a little bit lighter in tone than some of the extremely dark Pathfinder fiction, which is a nice change of pace.  I really enjoyed it, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from the author.

SPOILERS

The main character, Gideon Gull, finds a gaudy cloak (with a knife hole) on a dead body that has washed up on shore.  Once he puts it on, he finds that people start to treat him much better than his unkempt appearance, bad reputation, and general impecuniousness would indicate: they treat him like he belongs there; whether the "there" is a rough dockside tavern or an elegant nobleman's party (of course, not everyone is susceptible to the cloak's effect, like an old flame, Corvine Gale, pictured to the right).

When Gideon realizes that the body was that of an assassin who was possibly sent to murder a high-ranking Admiral, he gets swept up with a secret group loyal to Taldor to stop the plan.  I thought the ending was quite original, in that the the grand threat that motivated Cheliax to launch their evil scheme was something that seems as mundane as a printing press!  It's a clever twist to realize that the "assassin" is really more of a saboteur, and I like how Gideon Gull is realistically reluctant to get involved in such dangerous escapades.  The character appears again in a Pathfinder novel The Dagger of Trust, and I'll be glad to see him there again.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Plague of Shadows [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

I have to admit I wasn't particularly looking forward to Plague of Shadows, the third book in the Pathfinder Tales line of novels.  The blurb about adventurers banding together on a quest to retrieve a lost artifact sounded about as cliche "gamer fiction" as it gets.  However, I was very pleasantly surprised.  Yes, there are adventurers and there is a quest, but Howard Andrew Jones' writing is excellent and he manages to give each character enough spark so that they don't come off as cardboard-cut-out heroes.  I quite liked the use of flashbacks linking two different adventuring groups together despite the passage of time, and the portions of the story set in GaPlague of Shadows and would definitely read more Pathfinder novels from the author.
lt really made the country come alive (in a terrifying way).  There's a big twist about 5/6 of the way through that I'm not 100% sure is justified, and there's a limit to how much originality can be added on to the "fantasy adventuring group" chassis, but I honestly enjoyed

SPOILERS

I thought Jones did an excellent job portraying the elves of Kyonin and their condescending but charitable view towards the "Forlorn" (elves who grew up outside elven society).  I thought his portrayal of the Shadow Plane was a bit bland, especially considering the major villain is a specialist Shadow Wizard; I didn't feel like there was enough detail given to explain why Arcil, and the cabal of Shadow Wizards that Elyana's old adventuring group fought, were so fascinated with the place.  The story's biggest twist (SUPER SPOILER REMINDER) in having Vallyn be working with the Galtans to betray Elyana just wasn't set up well enough; a twist of that kind needs to have enough (cleverly hidden) basis before it appears so that the reader doesn't feel it just came out of nowhere.  Last, I thought the ending was superb, with Elyana leaving so that she doesn't have to watch her love grow old and die; and Drelm coming with her was inspired.