Monday, April 23, 2018

Captain Atom (DC, 1987-1991) # 1-10 [COMICS]

Captain Atom is one of those interesting characters who has been around for decades, had multiple successful solo series, featured in some major teams, etc., but who has never joined the ranks of "A-list" super heroes or gotten any name recognition outside of comics fandom.  Originally a Charlton "action hero" in the 1960s, Captain Atom made his way over to the DC Universe in the mid-1980s when DC purchased the long-defunct Charlton crop of characters.  In a solo series that lasted from 1987 to 1991, Captain Atom occupied a really interesting corner of the DCU (along with titles like Checkmate and Suicide Squad) that involved military secrets and political intrigue alongside more traditional super hero action.  Writer Cary Bates' run on the series was (in my opinion) the best writing of his career, and it stands up today as something worth reading (or re-reading).  After Bates' departure, the comic sadly went downhill quickly.  But in this post, we'll talk about the first ten issues of the series, as Captain Atom is reintroduced to a whole new audience.

"After they below him to bits . . . the adventure begins!" proclaims the cover to Issue # 1, and you can't really argue with that as a way to get readers' attention.  Captain Atom's new DCU origin is recapped quickly.  Wrongfully convicted of treason, Air Force officer Nathaniel Adams is presented with only one way to avoid a long stint in a military prison: take part as the test subject in an experiment to determine the properties of strange metal recovered from a crashed U.F.O.  The experiment creates a huge explosion that somehow binds the metal to Adams' skin and gives him super powers (like flight and energy blasts), but, even more strangely, it catapults him eighteen years into the future!  A man out of time, Adams realizes that his wife is dead and his kids are being raised by the officer involved in his treason trial: Wade Eiling.  Adams is told that his conviction will be pardoned if he agrees to become a secret government operative with a "super hero" cover story.  It's a great, meaty first issue full of interesting characterization and potential.

Nathaniel Adams new, fake civilian identity as "Cameron Scott" gets tested in his first mission for the government: to infiltrate a clique of Quebecois separatists planning to blow up Canada's Parliament.  As Captain Atom, Adams stops the attempt and one of its ringleaders, a super-villain named Plastique.  You don't realize it here in Issue # 2, but Plastique will become a major part of Captain Atom's life later in the series.

After saving the Prime Minster of Canada (and the U.S. President) at the end of the last issue, in Issue # 3 Captain Atom goes on live television to tell his "origin"--a completely fake one that deceives the public into thinking he's been a secret super hero for years!  In a masterstroke of writing, Bates incorporates all of the 1960s Charlton issues as part of Captain Atom's fake history.  It's really clever and a nice homage to the past without binding the present to the silliness of some of those comics.  Later, as he's getting a briefing about a downed submarine leaking radiation, Adams is more concerned with trying to force Eiling to live up to his part of the deal to allow him to reunite with his kids.  But when Adams decides to surprise his daughter Peg at the airport, the now 23-year-old woman (who has thought her father dead for the past 18 years) assumes it's just a creepy pick-up line from a stranger.  Adams realizes she's more Eiling's daughter than she is his.  It's some great plotting that goes far beyond traditional super hero fisticuffs.

Issue # 4 starts up five days after Captain Atom disappeared suddenly while absorbing all of the radiation from the doomed submarine.  He suddenly reappears, having jumped (from his perspective) into the future again.  When Captain Atom learns that one of Eiling's employees charged with keeping surveillance on his kids has kidnapped Peg, Atom rescues her and reveals his true identity.

Our first "guest star" arrives in Issue # 5 in the form of Firestorm.  The story is set some weeks later, as Nathaniel, his old military buddy Jeff, and Peg go to an amusement park, where Peg finds it hilarious that her dad still sometimes treats her like she was 5.  Eiling finds out and intentionally interrupts their time together by sending Captain Atom out on a "mission" to attend the revealing of a new military plane.   The Firestorm guest appearance features him and Captain Atom fighting when they think the new aircraft has gone berserk, not realizing it's all a demonstration.  In a fun use of the Charlton "fake backstory", the media have been trying to verify the identity of a non-existent super-villain named "Dr. Spectro."  An old lab assistant of a "real" DC villain (the Rainbow Raider) decides to capitalize on the hunt by selling his "story" as Dr. Spectro.

"Dr. Spectro" makes his first public appearance in Issue # 6, terrifying people with illusory monsters.  Although it happens to support the cover story, Eiling is concerned because he has no idea who this guy is or what he really knows.  In a clever twist, the man behind the Dr. Spectro mask blackmails Eiling for cash and then retires.  He ends up getting arrested by Captain Atom anyway, but at least C.A. keeps the guy from getting murdered in prison as Eiling had arranged.  Again, the story isn't  about super hero vs. super villain action, it's about the drama and intrigue behind what the public thinks is happening.

That being said, Issue # 7 reverts to a more run-of-the-mill story with Adams sent to Cambodia (in his civilian identity as "Cameron Scott") to recover some new invention called the X-Ionizer.  Plastique, however, is after it too, as is a huge armored samurai-like Warlord whose blade is able to cut through Captain Atom's body!  The character motivations and back-story here were frankly confusing, and the issues ends with an explosion to be resolved in the next issue.

One of the more famous covers of the run can be found on Issue # 8.  In another demonstration of the series' ability to surprise, the entire issue is told from Plastique's point of view.  Realizing that Captain Atom is comatose, she nonetheless realizes that he's her best chance of somehow surviving the necessary trek through the Cambodian jungle.  She cauterizes his wounds and they work together through days of travel, and she even saves his life again when Warlord reappears.  They eventually reach safety, and Adams decides not to turn Plastique in.  It's a real turning point in the series.  In an important subplot, we learn that Adams' son (now a Air Force officer himself) completely buys into everything Eiling has been telling him for years about how his father is a traitor.

That subplot is the theme in Issue # 9, as Adams tries to gather proof that he was framed at his court martial--but the witnesses keep turning up dead thanks to a super-assassin (Bolt).  Atom stops Bolt and even saves Eiling (who was on the court-martial panel), but isn't able to gather proof of his innocence to show his kids.

And last (for this post), we have another interesting issue in Issue # 10: one in which Captain Atom doesn't appear in at all.  In the first real mention of his simultaneous role as a member of the Justice League International, Atom is apparently involved in some sort of quarantine storyline in that book.  I'll talk more about his role in the JLI in future posts.  This issue, however, features two characters that have been in the background of several past issues: a wheelchair-bound scientist named Dr. Megala and his bodyguard, Babylon.  Megala was heavily involved in designing the experiment that created Captain Atom, and at first seems like he may be a villain but then is given enough depth and compassion to potentially become something more.  And, intriguingly, we get the first hint of the "Major Force" project.

Given how many comics have been collected in trade paperback format over the decades, it's surprising that (as far as I can tell) not even a single issue of this series has been reprinted.  It's certainly worth tracking down.  Most to come in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 43 [RPG]

[13 Kuthona 4707]

Ilsurian, an independent city built on the side of a
hill overlooking Lake Syrantula.
The adventurers gather at Ilsurian’s Temple of Erastil early in the morning and watch as Sister Woodmere successfully recites a magical scroll to remove the debilitating effects of Artemis’ brush with the Dark Lady.  When Sister Woodmere mentions that she’s on her way to the Ashwood to collect firewood for some of the poorer families in town, the adventurers volunteer to help her out.  The morning passes uneventfully as the travellers try their hands at logging for the first time.  Goragar is bored by the lack of foes near Ilsurian to test his mettle against, but Sister Woodmere warns the group that the interior of the Ashwood is notoriously dangerous (especially at night time) as ghosts, werewolves, and mischievous fey have all been known to lurk within.  She suggests instead that Goragar visit the town’s arena, as all able-bodied adults are required to train with weapons once a week to ensure Ilsurian remains forever free and vigilant against invaders.

That afternoon, Goragar, Kang, and Briza walk to the arena and see several groups training under master instructors on archery, polearms, and swordplay.  Kang evaluates the combatants and picks out the one person he believes is the toughest combatant: a short, wiry man named Solohei who is instructing some of the townspeople in unarmed combat.  Kang tries to persuade Goragar to challenge the man to a duel, but the half-orc says it would be too easy.  Briza, however, is willing to try, and Solohei accepts the opportunity to demonstrate to his students how size and strength are not determinative of victory in battle.  In mere seconds, Briza finds herself on her back and barely able to move.  As the two shake hands after the bout, a trio of the halflings from Pinkeye’s Comeuppance can be seen running at full speed towards the docks.  When the adventurers catch up to them, they shout something about Captain Othlo promising five platinum apiece if they’re on the boat within an hour.  Unwilling to see their means of transport leave without them, the trio of adventurers decide to alert Artemis and Kozen, who have futilely spent the afternoon trying to sell some of the fish Briza caught the previous day at a local market.  With much frantic running and shouting, everyone makes it to the docks in time except Goragar, who decided to return to the stables of the Two Waters tavern to collect his mount and then got lost!

As the crew of Pinkeye’s Comeuppance untie the mooring lines, it becomes clear that it’s not continuing the journey toward Turtleback Ferry: for one thing, no cargo has been loaded, and for another, passengers like Shalelu and Tillia are missing.  Instead, reports of a giant sea creature smashing a boat in the middle of Lake Syrantula has triggered Captain Othlo’s obsession: hunting down the giant albino gar known as Pinkeye that destroyed his previous vessel!   The adventurers on board have a fast, furious debate about whether to accompany Othlo on his mad quest before concluding that if the boat gets destroyed because they didn’t help him, they’ll have to walk the rest of the way north.  Just as the ship shoves off, Goragar and his warhorse can be seen galloping along the pier.  Kang swallows a magical extract and flies over to try to lift the warrior into the air, but the warrior’s massive frame and heavy armor makes the task impossible!  However, Goragar murmurs a prayer to Gorum, and suddenly Kang is as strong as a bull and able to easily fly them both to the deck of the ship.

Hours pass as the boat is rowed towards the spot where the fishing vessel was reported to have been attacked, and then bits of debris and flotsam can be seen.  Othlo, gripping a specially-made adamantine harpoon, orders the rowers to stop their work and for everyone to remain still and keep their ears and eyes open.  When Goragar starts reciting verses from a holy book of war prayers, Othlo orders him to be quiet—but the half-orc persists until the single-minded halfling grabs the book and tosses it into the lake.  “On this ship, I’m your god!” Othlo shouts.  He turns away, only to find that Goragar has slashed him deeply in the back with this sword!  Othlo turns back and tells Goragar to stand down or he’ll plant his harpoon straight through the warrior’s heart.  The other adventurers are stunned by the sudden outbreak of violence and the tense stand-off.  Goragar says that any further insults to his god will be met with death, and Othlo replies that he doesn’t care a whit about the gods as long as he gets his hands on Pinkeye.  Further violence is averted.  Briza adroitly uses a net to fish Goragar’s book out of the water, and Kozen is able to use some minor cantrips to remove the water damage.

Few survive an encounter with one of Varisia's
notorious freshwater giant snapping turtles.
Evening turns into night, and there’s still no sign of a sea monster.  Kang tries to talk Othlo into returning to shore, but the ship’s captain refuses to even consider it.  The adventurers decide they had better get some rest and designate watches.  Barely an hour later, Artemis is on duty when he realizes the boat is shifting and rising higher; Kang’s preternatural senses alert him to the danger even while sound asleep, and he bolts upright to sound the alarm.  The terrifying truth suddenly becomes clear: Pinkeye’s Conundrum is resting precariously on the back of a giant snapping turtle the size of a house, and the ship is about to slide off!  The skilled combatants spring into action.  Kang drinks an extract and flies into the air, Kozen draws upon his connection to the shadow plane to entangle the creature in its own moonlit shadow, and Artemis leans over the ship’s railing and fires an arrow straight down into the shell.  Everything is upside down in an instant, however, as the boat slides and then flips over, capsizing!  Some of the crew and passengers manage to hang on and dangle from the deck in an air pocket, while others are thrown clear.  Briza and Goragar try to jump onto the turtle’s back, but only Briza makes it—the half-orc starts to sink below the waves as the angry creature catches one of the halflings in its jaws and snaps the poor sailor in two!

Kang hurls bombs with his trademark unerring accuracy and blasts off large chunks of the giant turtle’s carapace, while Briza stabs the creature with a hilt-down grip on her greatsword.  But the creature defends itself by catching her up in its jaws, crushing her abdomen as a prelude to starting to swallow her whole!  Artemis’ quick-thinking and amazing climbing ability saves her life, however, as he scrambles to the top of the overturned ship, plants his feet, and fires an arrow into the creature’s neck, killing it instantly!  Kang swoops down to help those still floundering in the water.  Two halflings perished in the attack, and despite everyone’s best efforts, attempts to salvage the boat or at least the turtle’s shell fail.  Clinging to bits of driftwood, everyone is forced to paddle their way back towards shore in the dark, freezing cold water.  Miserable hours later, as dawn streaks the sky, a shivering and bedraggled group pull themselves onto the beach and stumble back to Ilsurian, where they collapse at an inn.

[14 Kuthona 4707]

Sheriff Kyra Feldane tries to reduce
the tension between Ilsurians and the
nomadic Varisians.
The adventurers rest throughout most of the morning and into the afternoon.  Briza explains to Tillia what happened, and the schoolteacher is shocked (especially when Goragar adds in additional details that, although true, are rather gruesome).  Tillia immediately says she’ll arrange a memorial service for the slain halflings.  Artemis spends the day looking into other boats or caravans headed north, but finds that the cold weather and reports of danger have suppressed travel to Turtleback Ferry in recent weeks.  He purchases horses instead.  That evening, Ilsurian’s local sheriff, Kyra Feldane, comes to the inn and asks for statements from everyone about what happened.  Curiously, neither Captain Othlo nor the other surviving crewmembers are anywhere to be found.  The adventurers tell Feldane that the disaster was a clear case of reckless negligence on the part of Othlo, and they agree to come to the town hall in the morning to swear out affidavits against him.

[15 Kuthona 4707]

After everyone visits the town hall, Artemis composes a letter to his wife and arranges for it to be delivered by courier to Magnimar.  The watchman has arranged for the mounts to be ready for departure early in the day, but it takes Goragar and Briza several hours to track down Shalelu at her campsite outside of the town limits.  She reports seeing Othlo and two halflings riding small ponies along the road north, and, when told of what happened, says that she’s the best bounty hunter in Varisia if they need to be apprehended.  The midday sun is at its height as the adventurers, along with Tillia, get underway.  They make good time following the road north on the east bank of the Skull River, with the outer borders of the Ashwood visible to their right.  The day passes without further incident, and the group sets up camp.

Several days’ journey aboard Pinkeye’s Comeuppance has ended suddenly with the ship sinking, part of its crew dead, and Captain Othlo fleeing like a fugitive in the night.  Now, back on foot, the adventurers begin the last stretch of their voyage to Turtleback Ferry in order to determine just what happened to Fort Rannick . . .
Director's Commentary

The centrepiece of this session, of course, was the battle against the giant snapping turtle.  I just couldn't pass up the opportunity, and it was a great way to bring Othlo's secret motivation to the forefront.  The PCs did surprisingly well, as things could easily have gone very, very badly when faced with a creature that swallows enemies whole.  I wasn't actually expecting the "reckless negligence" tack the PCs took with Othlo, but they were quite irked about his actions!  It also made for an expected change in their mode of travel towards Turtleback Ferry.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Pathfinder Pawns: Monster Codex Box [RPG]

If you're not familiar with the concept, Paizo's line of pawns for Pathfinder are thick cardboard two-dimensional tokens, with full-colour artwork of a creature printed on both sides.  The pawns slot into a base that takes up the same amount of space on a 5' grid as the creature should, so a large-sized creature's token is larger and slots into a large-sized base.  The reason this line is so popular is that pawns are an affordable way to amass a practical but handsome-looking collection of monster and NPC tokens.  They're easy to use, easy to store, and won't cost the thousands of dollars it would take to amass an equivalent size collection of plastic or metal miniatures.

The Pathfinder Pawns: Monster Codex Box is based on the enormously popular hardcover Monster Codex.  In that book, twenty classic races from the Pathfinder RPG were fleshed out and stats were provided for a wide variety of examples of that race: the Core Bestiary has ogres, but the Monster Codex has Ogre Bosses, Ogre Priestesses, Ogre Kings, etc.  Accordingly, the pawn set for the book has at least one pawn for every one of those two hundred+ variations, along with multiple tokens for some of the more common ones.  To take just one example, the "Gnolls" category is represented by four regular gnoll tokens, three "gnoll bruisers", three hyenas, and then single tokens for 9 other types of gnolls.  Each pawn in the set is labelled and numbered for easy sorting, and the back of the box has an index to make things easier.  The box includes 20 medium bases and 5 large bases.

If nothing else, the collection is a nice supplement to the pawns presented in the Bestiary pawn collections--it's always helpful to have more tokens of common monsters for larger encounters.  But the real value of this particular pawn box is when a GM has a major story arc (or even campaign) that focuses on a particular race of monsters.  You don't need ten different variations of an orc if it's just a random wilderness encounter, but if you have PCs invading an orc stronghold, being able to differentiate between "common" orcs, "Orc Sergeants", "Orc Witch Doctors", and the "Orc Warlord" adds a lot to the battlemap.  I got this box because I'm running the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, and I've been able to make great use of the varieties of Ghouls, Goblins,  and Ogres included in the box.

My recommendation would be to scan the list of monster races covered by the Monster Codex, and if you think any of them will have a serious presence in your game, go ahead and pick up this box.  The artwork is gorgeous, the variety is excellent, and it's something you can use for any fantasy RPG even if you change games or editions.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Paizo GenCon 2012 Pin Set [RPG]

It's 2018 and I've never been to GenCon, but I ordered the Paizo GenCon 2012 Pin Set because . . . hm, I'm not really sure.  Probably because it was $ 3 and I have a collecting problem.  I don't even wear pins!

Anyway, these pins are the standard type and size, with a horizontal pin and clasp.  All of them have "Indy GenCon: The Best Four Days in Gaming 2012" printed at the top, and four of the five have "Pathfinder Roleplaying Game" printed at the bottom (the fifth one has "Pathfinder Society").  Moving left to right in the picture, we have 1) a classic Pathfinder goblin (a "first edition goblin," I should say, given recent news of the 2E playtest!) from the cover of the Bestiary; 2) Seoni, the Iconic Sorcerer, in an image I think taken from the first Pathfinder comic series; 3) the cover from the Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition (a book that launched in 2012); 4) Sheila Heidmarch, the Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain in Magnimar (and thus, a relevant image for a Pathfinder Society pin); 5) Karzoug, the same Runelord seen in Pin # 3.

All the art is recycled, and I imagine these were free giveaways in the GenCon 2012 swag bag.  I think they're kinda cool, but don't really have a lot more to say about them.  If you need Pathfinder pins . . . they are indeed Pathfinder pins.

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 42 [RPG]

[9 Kuthona 4707]

Pinkeye’s Comeuppance once again gets underway on a cold, clear morning.  While she fishes, Briza expresses her concern to the other adventurers about whether Bey will have been successful in getting Arnald raised from the dead in Sandpoint.  Artemis says he thinks it’s unlikely.  Conversation turns to Sandpoint in general, with Kozen stating that she was only there for about a week but liked how it was far safer than Magnimar, with Kang agreeing that the added peace and quiet (and fewer guards) made Sandpoint a more suitable place to conduct his research.  Goragar says he plans to return to Sandpoint once he’s investigated the rumours of giants gathering in central Varisia.  Briza seems intrigued by Goragar’s talk of Gorum, even to the point where she borrows a holy text to read in her spare moments.

[10 Kuthona 4707]

Over breakfast, Briza reminds everyone that it’s Winter Week, and says she plans to get everyone gifts.  The appearance of a Varisian wagon on the north bank some hours later seems fortuitous, as the nomadic folk are known for carrying trinkets to sell.  However, Captain Othlo refuses to stop and Briza is forced to shout for one of the wanderers to throw her a random trinket in exchange for a hurled gold piece as the keelboat passes by.  She ends up with a pretty scrimshaw dolphin, and is quite pleased with the result.

At dusk, as the ship nears Whistledown, the crew begin loudly grumbling about Othlo’s adamant refusal to stop despite the fact that it will mean tomorrow’s Ascendance Day will be spent without any opportunity to celebrate.  Things start to get heated until Artemis brokers peace by noting that the ship would normally tie up at the banks at sunset, just an hour’s journey beyond Whistledown (which would be time enough for the shipmates and passengers to enjoy in evening in the town and return by morning).  Othlo begrudgingly gives permission, but notes that the ship will be leaving at dawn whether everyone is aboard or not.

Simmy Dams isn't shy about drumming up business
for his criminal enterprises.
Seen at night, Whistledown is quite beautiful.  Coloured globes surround everburning torches to give the predominantly gnome town a festive air, the white-thatched cottages look cozy and well-maintained, and the unusual wind chimes hanging from many eaves produce ever-changing melodies.  The streets are busy as the adventurers approach, with many residents attending parties or doing last-minute shopping.  The halfling shipmates head for a tavern sized perfectly to their race, while the adventurers stand in the center of town and discuss what to do.  Before their discussions go far, the group is approached by a disreputable gnome who is dressed much less colourfully than his peers.  The gnome boldly introduces himself as Simmy Dams and says he’s a sort of “welcoming committee” for newcomers to Whistledown.  It doesn’t take him long at all to essentially offer to escort Goragar to some sort of underground fight ring and to offer Kozen and Briza illicit narcotics.  Kang confidently proclaims that whatever “product” the locals are cooking up in Whistledown is doubtlessly far inferior to what he himself could make.  Simmy instantly forgets any promises made to the others and instead invites Kang to try his hand at manufacturing.  Artemis, far outside of his jurisdiction, can only shake his head and roll his eyes in disgust.

The adventurers split up.  Goragar has a couple of drinks in the Azure Cup, one of the few human-sized establishments in Whistledown.  Artemis purchases thoughtful gifts for his companions, while Briza and Kozen pair up to do the same thing.  Kang is led to Simmy Dams’ pesh lab and is quite vocal about how crude it is.  The master alchemist spends a couple of hours whipping up a virtually pure batch that Simmy knows will be a market sensation.  Kang leaves the lab with a hefty purse of gold coins for his trouble, having resisted Simmy’s entreaties for him to stay in Whistledown to launch a joint enterprise.  Soon it’s time for everyone to head back to the boat, even if the halfling shipmates are miffed that their time in Whistledown was shorter than they would have liked.

Shambling mounds are aggressively
carnivorous plant monsters.
The moonlit walk along the banks of the Yondabakari is quite relaxing until Kang and Artemis hear unusual sloshing coming from the river.  Kang realizes something big is about to emerge and shouts a warning while Artemis draws his bow, instants before a muck-encrusted mass of tangled vines and dripping slime crawls onto the bank.  A wave of dense, rotting plant matter knocks one of the halflings to the ground before the adventurers spring into action.  “Shambling mound!”  Artemis’ arrow tears a part of the creature’s chest loose, while Kang’s hurled bomb sets the creature ablaze.  But the explosion accidentally singes Kozen’s dog and nearly kills the wounded halfling.  Briza’s greatsword finishes off the plant-monster, and Kozen manages to save the halfling’s life mere seconds before it would have slipped away forever.

The rest of the walk back to the boat is less idyllic, but uneventful.  Near morning, while on watch, Briza and Kang see floating lights, small rainbows, and trails of stairs suddenly appear just above a copse of trees in the distance.  They wake Artemis, but he realizes the conjured images are merely rituals common to worshippers of Desna, and that a traveller’s shrine is likely nearby.

[11 Kuthona 4707]

As the ship gets underway, the adventurers exchange gifts in honour of Ascendance Day, the highlights of which include Briza receiving two new sets of fishing tackle, Artemis receiving a voucher so he can send a messenger to his wife for free, and Goragar receiving a battle-stained war banner to Gorum that Artemis somehow managed to find in Whistledown.  Even Tillia and Shalelu receive gifts, and the crew and passengers are in good spirits as Pinkeye’s Comeuppance leaves the Yondabakari for the wide, open vista of Lake Syrantula.  The hundred-mile long lake is a major part of the trade route between Magnimar and Korvosa, and even in the winter, fleets of fishing boats can be seen plying their trade. 

 [12 Kuthona 4707]

Esrelda Woodmere spends as
much time out in the community
helping her fellow Ilsurians with
mundane tasks as she does in the
temple attending to their
spiritual needs.
The keelboat hugs the northern shore of Lake Syrantula until dusk, when a small city built into the side of a hill becomes visible:  Ilsurian, one of the few predominantly human settlements in Varisia that isn’t controlled by any of the major city-states in the region.  Ilsurians are known for their independence and vigilance in defence of their liberty, with a famous law stating that every adult must own a sword and be available in time of need.  The ship ties up at Braeton Docks, with Captain Othlo announcing that the crew and passengers should plan for departure on the 14th.  Artemis, still feeling the effects of his brush against death at the hands of the Dark Lady in Wartle, decides to travel directly to the local temple of Erastil.  He finds a lodge-like building covered in moss and decorated with wooden sculptures of various forest beasts; unfortunately, a note nailed to the door states that Sister Woodmere is out at the Felton farm.  His allies, conscious of the dangers that often befall adventurers, decide to accompany him, but they needn’t have worried: Sister Woodmere is there assisting with a difficult birth by one of the farm’s horses. 

When she’s finished, she welcomes the visitors to Ilsurian, and explains that they’ve come to a city with an excellent tavern, one of the best weaponsmiths in Varisia, and (for the past few days) host to an exciting carnival.  She says she’ll see what she can do to help Artemis with his problem, and invites everyone to stay at the Temple.  However, all but Artemis decide word of a tavern sounds more entertaining, and they set off through the darkened streets.  By the dim light cast by lamp poles, the friendly city of Ilsurian takes on a more ominous aspect, as several of the closed businesses spot “No Varisians!” signs.  Briza expresses dismay, but Kang and Goragar seem supportive of “decent” folk keeping distance between themselves and “thieves and conmen.” 

The Two Waters Tavern turns out to be a welcoming, jocular place, with several locals celebrating Winter Week.  The proprietor, a middle-aged woman named Noria Arephion, finds rooms for the travellers and tells them about the “Wheel of Freedom” upstairs.  In this makeshift shrine to Cayden Cailean, local fisherfolk have laid out a multi-colored ship’s wheel horizontally and pay homage to the God of Drink by spinning the wheel and imbibing beverages that match a particular colour.  Kozen notes that the trip downstairs to get a drink and back up to spin the wheel again (“paying Cayden his due”) seems dangerous for the drinkers, but Briza throws herself into the idea with full force, spinning the wheel long into the night until she eventually collapses, quite drunk, and is carried safely into her room.

[13 Kuthona 4707]

The adventurers wake in Ilsurian, with the prospect of a full day to explore the city before starting on the final push to their destination, Turtleback Ferry, the next morning.
Director's Commentary (8/04/2018)

The journey along the river towards Turtleback Ferry continues in a fun, light-hearted session.  There were times I was worried the surprisingly number of sessions spent chronicling the journey might be a problem (since it's all summed up in a few paragraphs in the AP), but I think everyone had fun with it.  Little things like the Winter Week holidays (keeping a calendar works wonders for making the setting feel like a real place), Kang's side-trek to show a drug-dealer how to really make product (in true Breaking Bad fashion), and Briza's turn at the "Wheel of Freedom" kept the session going. 

I didn't have a lot of material to work with for Whistledown--essentially, a paragraph's description in one of the gazetteers.  For Ilsurian, on the other hand, I had a map and nice overview in the Towns of the Inner Sea sourcebook.  I also had a module, Murder's Mark, that takes place there, and I was thinking about trying to fit it in but it was for Level 1 PCs and I thought it would take way too much work to try to adjust everything (plus, I didn't want to derail the story from the AP).

Next Recap

Friday, April 6, 2018

Varisia, Birthplace of Legend [RPG]

Varisia, the rugged wilderness that contains only a few scattered city-states and several small settlements, is home to five (soon to be six) adventure paths; so it’s only fitting that it receive a sourcebook.  Oddly, instead of appearing in the campaign setting line, Paizo decided to make Varisia, Birthplace of Legend a Player Companion book.  This means it’s shorter (32 pages) and more focused on options for PCs.  Still, it’s a great addition to the canon: full of gorgeous artwork with clear, accessible introductions to the peoples and places that make Varisia a great place to adventure.

The fantastic artwork starts with the cover, the best representation we’ve seen of the Sandpoint Devil to date.  The interior front cover is all about Shoanti tribal lands, explaining how the various nations (“quahs”) have different totems and traditions.  As it provides cleric domains and oracle mysteries for each quah, it’s quite useful for a player hoping to add some depth to their Shoanti PC.  The inside back cover features something about the other indigenous people of the area, the nomadic Varisians.  The focus here is on Varisian caravan routes, but the feature most useful to GMs is a grid showing how far (in miles and travel days) it takes to go between most of Varisia’s major settlements by land.  I often forget this is here, and I wish I wouldn’t.

The interior has a really fresh, bold art layout that sets this Player Companion apart from previous ones in the line.  After the usual table of contents, there’s an overview of which classes get special attention in the book and which options can be made use of by all PCs.  Then, after a rules index (perhaps oddly placed near the beginning instead of the end of the book), there’s a two-page overview of Varisia that includes a paragraph on each of the core races and (my favourite) a sidebar on “Five Things Everyone Knows About Varisia.”  This last bit is the sort of thing GMs can pass around to new players without overwhelming them with world-lore.

The next two pages focus on the Shoanti.  The Shoanti race traits are great, and the section on common Shoanti sayings are quite evocative.  My favourite part of the new Player Companion design was the introduction of the idea of “roles”.  Roles are essentially flavourful build-suggestions that help a player focus around a key concept—here, it’s “Shoanti Outrider” and “Shoanti Totem Shaman.”  The roles include suggested classes, class features, personality traits, and preferred equipment.  The nice thing about the roles is that they help players create well fleshed-out characters without simply adding more mechanical bloat.

The following two pages are on the Varisians, and follow a similar format.  I’d say the race traits aren’t as useful, but the roles are still interesting: “Varisian Bravo” and “Varisian Fortune-Teller.”
“Battle in Varisia” (two pages) introduces two new feats and two new archetypes.  One of the new feats, “Thunder and Fang,” is pretty cool—it allows a character to use an earthbreaker in one hand!  The archetypes are “Kapenia Dancer,” a flavourful magus archetype that only comes online at high levels, and “Thundercaller,” a more offense-oriented bard archetype.

“Magic & Faith in Varisia” (two pages) provides short, one-paragraph long overviews of the various arcane schools in the land.  I didn’t find this particularly useful, as the information provided is cursory and appears elsewhere.  There’s an overview of common faiths in Varisia that includes the mystery cults of Magnimar and the totemism of the Shoanti, but again it’s only the briefest of introductions.  A “What is Thassilon” paragraph is nice in answering the “what does my PC know about Thassilon?” question that can easily come up in some APs.

“Equipment in Varisia” (two pages) is a bit odd, as it provides descriptions and stats for weapons (like starknives, bladed scarves, and klars) that have already appeared in the Core Rulebook or Inner Sea World Guide.  I guess it’s worth emphasizing them as common Varisian weapons for players unfamiliar with those sources though.  Some minor alchemical and spellcrafting items are also introduced here, though they’re all pretty minor and niche in terms of usefulness.

Perhaps the best thing about Varisia, Birthplace of Legend is the pull-out map in the center.  The map, which is drawn as an “in-world” artefact, is a gorgeous representation of where major cities and geographical features lay.  In addition, it’s quite useful as it provides the distance in miles between each set of landmarks.  I’ve happily let my players use this, and I’ve used it myself as the GM when I didn’t have a more detailed “zoomed-in” map available.

Next up, each of the three major city-states in Varisia (Korvosa, Magnimar, and Riddleport) gets a two-page spread.  Each of the entries provides the full settlement stat block for the city, a page of general description, two roles for characters from that city, and a couple of new regional traits.  Understandably, these entries are just brief overviews, but they’re well-done and give the reader a good taste of how each of the three cities is very different than the other two.  Two of the smaller cities in Varisia (Janderhoff and Kaer Maga) receive a similar one-page treatment, with one role and one trait apiece.  Finally, Sandpoint and many of the smaller settlements in the area are covered in a single two-page spread; with so many communities to cover, each tends to get only a line or two of coverage.

The next two pages are especially relevant to anyone playing in the Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, Second Darkness, or Jade Regent Adventure Paths: new campaign traits!  It’s pretty cool to see older APs get support, and I wish this trend would have continued more.
Last up is a two-page player’s guide for the then-new Shattered Star AP.  It includes the usual (but important) tips on what sorts of characters are appropriate for the campaign, as well as several campaign traits.

All in all, this is a nice, clear, colourful overview of Varisia.  As far as I’m concerned, it should be distributed to everyone playing in a campaign set there.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 41 [RPG]

[6 Kuthona 4707 continued]

The Dark Lady of Wartle demands payment.
In a small dingy tavern in the riverside hamlet of Wartle, three members of the adventuring party that set out from Magnimar suddenly face a nightmare come true.  A spectral apparition in the form of a solemn woman wearing a water-drenched gown appears, and holds out her palm as if expecting payment.  Goragar and Kang realize that the “Dark Lady” is a bodiless incarnation of dark spiritual energy known as a spectre, the remnant of a murdered or evil creature bound to the material plane out of hatred of those that remain. Goragar enchants a coin with magical light and drops it on the ground so that, even with the lanterns snuffed, everyone can see the creature.  Kang puts a coin on the table and crouches down, but Artemis bolts out of the tavern and starts applying a rare alchemical blanch to his arrows.  The Dark Lady nods to everyone in the tavern who has paid her obeisance by leaving a coin, and then glides after Artemis.  He fires a modified arrow that tears away part of the Dark Lady’s spectral form, causing her to shriek in anguish.  Artemis runs to the far side of the tavern, but the spectre follows by passing straight through walls!  Her soul-draining touch ages the Magnimarian years in mere instants.

Goragar runs out after the two, draws his blade from an enchanted scabbard, and shouts for Artemis to bring it back in his direction.  Kang begins preparing a blanch similar to Artemis’ for his crossbow bolts and whispers to Goragar that perhaps they can talk to the Dark Lady and discover a way to cure her state of spiritual limbo.  “We’ll cure it by killing it!” growls the half-orc, ready for battle.  Meanwhile, at the water’s edge aboard the Pinkeye’s Comeuppance, Briza and Kozen hear the sounds of a disturbance coming from the center of Wartle.  They advance cautiously and see Artemis menaced by the ghostlike figure of the Dark Lady.  Briza runs to stand next to Goragar as Artemis leads it back in their direction.  The Dark Lady stops before Briza, holds out her hand, and moans the words “all must pay.”  Briza nervously takes out a coin and drops it through the spectre’s intangible hand, and it nods at her.  But Goragar has determined that the Dark Lady must be destroyed and he launches an attack on the creature, trusting that his greatsword can vanquish her.  Although he too is aged some years by the spectre’s touch, his magic-infused blade tears through the Dark Lady again and again until, with the coming of a strong wind, she vanishes with a long, low moan of agony.

Artemis has picked up enough knowledge of spell lore during his time on the streets of Magnimar to know that a powerful spell of restoration will be needed to heal him and Goragar of the effects of the spectre’s touch if the premature aging doesn’t wear off by itself.  He tells the others that the town of Ilsurian, further downriver, contains a priestess of Erastil who may be able to help.  The residents of Wartle slowly emerge from hiding and return to their previous activities, mostly pretending that nothing has happened.  When questioned, the bartender of the Lean-To grudgingly reveals that the Dark Lady was a beggar whom tavern patrons mocked with hurled copper coins.  Kang suspects there’s more to the story, but decides not to press the matter since the Dark Lady has been destroyed forever.  Later that night, back at the ship, Tillia is aghast at word of the spectre’s attack.  Captain Othlo passes word to Kang that his would-be assassin Skivolo has been told to leave his crew and never return.
Giant black widow spiders can deliver a powerful toxin through their fangs.

[7 Kuthona 4707]

Dawn arrives and preparations are made for departure.  Briza has excellent luck fishing, Goragar is the victim of a veritable snipe hunt when he asks a local if a magical scroll of restoration is available, and Kozen uses a handy transmutation spell to clean the rust off a back-up sword purchased by his friend Briza.  The sudden appearance of a black widow spider the size of a horse skittering out of the swamp startles the crew and passengers of the vessel, but Artemis sinks an arrow into it, Kozen magically manipulates the spider’s own shadow to fix it in place, and Kang’s hurled bomb reduces it to a smoking husk.  The ship soon leaves Wartle behind and the day’s journey upriver is unremarkable.

[8 Kuthona 4707]

The first day of Winter Week, a time for feasting and exchanging gifts with friends and families, is punctuated by the appearance of nearly a dozen stirges dive-bombing the boat.  One of the oxen, Tillia, Kozen, and her dog Taz are victims of the mosquito-like creatures’ blood-draining bites before the attackers are dispatched.  Fortunately, no one is seriously hurt.

[9 Kuthona 4707]

Another clear, cold morning greets the adventurers.
Director's Commentary

This will be a terrible Director's Commentary because I can't remember where the inspiration for the Dark Lady came from--I don't know if I adopted it from a Pathfinder product or just made it up.  I think the motivation behind it was to add a little something of substance to the night's stay in Wartle and something more deadly than the random encounters that the PCs had been tromping over.  Anyway, it was interesting to see their varied reactions to it and I thought the encounter was successfully creepy.

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