Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Pathfinder Society Playtest Scenario # 1: "The Rose Street Revenge" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

In order to help play-test the second edition of Pathfinder, four Pathfinder Society scenarios have been released.  The first one, The Rose Street Revenge, is actually a collection of four Quests designed to each be played in an hour or less.  The first three Quests can be done in  any order, while the fourth Quest is designed to be finished last.  I played this at a con, running Valeros.  I thought the scenario did a nice job of maintaining the feel of a PFS scenario, while cleverly introducing the players (and GM) to the new rules-set.  The story is satisfying, and there's plenty of opportunity for role-playing.  In many ways, this is what I what thought the disappointing Doomsday Dawn was going to be like: playing regular adventures, just with different rules.

SPOILERS

The Rose Street Revenge picks up where a past PFS Special leaves off.  In the backstory, Absalom narrowly withstood an attack by an army of constructs and undead in what became known as the Fiendflesh Siege.  As part of the defense effort, the city's slaves were offered their freedom in exchange for helping to defend the city.  The gambit worked, obviously, since the City at the Center of the World is still around, but that doesn't mean there weren't any complications.  Although the freed slaves were ecstatic, their former owners lost a great deal of invested wealth--and some of them want revenge.  When a cleric of Milani named Wennel Ardonay helped one slave too many, a cabal of slave traders had him murdered.  And this is where the story begins, because Ardonay has returned as an undead seething with anger from his unjust death.  The problem is that he's targeting the only names still in his consciousness, a group of people who aren't the murderers but former slaves he helped!

The first Quest, "Snippets", has the PCs briefed by the ever-meticulous Ambrus Valsin.  Valsin explains that a series of disappearances have set the city on edge, and that one of the missing is a recent recruit of the Society.  Valsin suspects that the city's most prominent thieves' guild, the Bloody Barbers, may be involved.  He sends the PCs out to find a local meeting house of the Bloody Barbers to knock some heads together and find out the truth.  As their name implies, the Bloody Barbers really do work under the guise of a legitimate trade, and the PCs are given a variety of possible skill checks to use to try to find a lead.  They'll have little trouble finding a barbership called The Smiling Cut, but questioning the barber on duty goes nowhere (in a nice twist, she's  a jerk but not a member of the guild at all).  The young shop sweep, however, seems willing to help the PCs--only he's in it to make a name for himself in the guild by leading the adventurers into an alleyway ambush!  I liked that clever PCs can figure this out and launch a counter-ambush.  The Quest does a nice job introducing skills and basic combat.  Assuming the PCs are smart enough to keep one of the thieves alive (my group wasn't), they'll learn that the Bloody Barbers aren't responsible for the murders.

The second Quest, "Dragons", has the PCs venturing into the elaborate sewer network under Absalom.  Valsin has arranged for them to meet with the largest kobold tribe there, the Sewer Dragons, to see if they've come across any bodies dumped down from above.  The hook is kind of weak, but I'm willing to let it slide.  The Sewer Dragons expect a quid pro quo, which is help from the PCs in ambushing a rival kobold tribe, the Dragon Sharks.  A member of the Sewer Dragons leads the PCs through the sewers, narrating how they need to look out for various traps and hazards.  This is cleverly done with in-character dialogue to reinforce an out-of-character mini-tutorial about Exploration Mode.  It's a little like how video games often start with a guided tutorial to make sure players know what they're doing before sending them off into the world.  The combat itself is nothing memorable, but again, the purpose here is just to learn and test out the system.  One of the things the PCs will come across in the sewers is Wennel's journal, and from here they'll start to suspect what links the victims together.

The third Quest, "Puddles", does a really nice job with the atmosphere and setting.  It's a rain-soaked day in the long-flooded area of Absalom called Puddles when the PCs arrive to talk to the local guards about the disappearances.  There's a couple of good role-playing opportunities here.  As an aside, I loved that one of the guards is an ex-War Hounder (a local gang with magical tattoos that appeared in the very first PFS scenario, The Silent Tide)!  Anyway, clues lead the PCs to the crash pad of a freed slave in an abandoned house.  The place is well-described as falling to pieces, and there are encounters against bats and a nasty acidic ooze.  The body of the escaped slave can be found here, and several clues point to the work of an undead creature.

The last Quest, "Haven", has the PCs sent to investigate an abandoned tavern in an earthquake-ravaged part of the city.  The tavern, the Sanguine Thorn, was used as a safe house for all of the freed slaves that have gone missing.  In a clever setting for the big finish, the tavern has fallen into a muddy sinkhole.  The PCs will get some more experience with terrain and hazard rules as they descend into it, ready to encounter the skeletal champion that used to be Wennel.  Wennel has some weaknesses the PCs are supposed to be able to take advantage of as a result of completing the earlier Quests, but I didn't think these were organically integrated into the plot and felt rather forced.  Still, the climax is satisfying (as is the surprise recovery of the missing Pathfinder who was the reason for the Society's involvement to begin with!).

The artwork and production design is solid, despite this being a free product.  There's original artwork for the major NPCs and a handy full-colour map of Absalom with marked locations.

I really liked The Rose Street Revenge.  The mystery and investigation aspects were done well, the encounter settings were interesting, and there was a good mix of role-playing and combat.  Even if the play-test rules themselves were clunky at times, they didn't detract too much from what was otherwise an enjoyable scenario.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Pathfinder Tales: "In the Event of My Untimely Demise" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

In the Event of My Untimely Demise is a four-part series of free Pathfinder web fiction available here.  Set in Magnimar, it features an "urban druid" in Magnimar named Luma.  Part of a family that hires themselves out as trouble-shooters, Luma is a really interesting character.  Author Robin Laws shows a real knowledge of the city and Pathfinder lore.  The story serves as a prequel to the excellent novel Blood of the City, and it's worth reading on that basis alone.

SPOILERS

Seen as too gauche for a job guarding a noble's party, Luma instead undertakes a solo mission to investigate an explorer's death.  The deceased, an adventurer, was involved in a mission that led to the acquisition of a valuable treasure; but he didn't share it with his companions and now, upon his death, they all want it back!  There's a few different suspects, with my favourite character being a cleric of Hanspur named Rieslan the Drowner.

I got a bit fuzzy on the plot and the story itself isn't fantastic.  But Luma is a well-drawn protagonist, and the way Laws describes her idiosyncratic magic is very cool.  This is one to recommend for readers interested in Magnimar, how to play a druid in an urban setting, or Blood of the City.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 4-11: "Feast of Sigils" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

I played Feast of Sigils recently at a convention using the Iconic Gunslinger, Lirianne.  It was a very challenging scenario that nearly resulted in a TPK (and probably would have if the GM didn't pull a punch here and there, I think).  On the other hand, the reward on the Chronicle is *quite* nice.  The story is very well-written and suitably dark, but best run if you have a mature GM and group of players, as otherwise things could get into "dumb offensive jokes and behavior" territory quickly.  It strongly ties into the Season 4 meta-plot as well, and offers some interesting world lore even if much isn't made out of the setting.  Overall, it was an original, enjoyable adventure that I would like to run myself one of these days.

SPOILERS

Although the scenario starts in Magnimar with a briefing by Sheila Heidmarch, Feast of Sigils otherwise takes place entirely in the city of Kaer Maga.   I've already expressed my certainty that City of Strangers is the best Pathfinder book ever, so I was pretty stoked to finally play an adventure there.  Unfortunately, the scenario doesn't make much use out of the city, as the bulk of it takes place indoors and could be set in the rough-and-tumble area of pretty much any city.  The reason the PCs are sent to Kaer Maga is that the Pathfinder Society has gotten a lead that a group of cultists who worship Lassala (the ancient Thassilonian goddess of runes and sigils) are at work trying to wake Runelord Krune from his centuries of slumber.  The lead came from a sex worker in Kaer Maga, and the PCs are asked to make contact with her and then track down and destroy the cult.  The stakes are thus pretty high in this scenario (probably the highest I've seen outside of a special), as Golarion does *not* want a Runelord running around!

The journey from Magnimar to Kaer Maga is handwaved, and the PCs presumably start at a brothel called the Blushing Rose in order to meet their contact.  Miss Feathers is a transgender sex worker, and I'm impressed at how well the scenario handles both facets of her life.  Neither is treated with derision or condescension, and I think it's great to see some genuine diversity in RPGs.  Miss Feathers explains to the PCs that several fellow sex workers have gone missing after attending a notorious drug den in the city.  The drug of choice for the establishment is lethe, a powerful narcotic which allows people to temporarily forget painful memories.

Presumably, the PCs head to the lethe house.  The scenario has been pretty straightforward and railroady so far, but once in the lethe house, things get more complicated.  The PCs see about a dozen users circulating the lobby of the place, while a foul-smelling dwarf named Drollis waddles around giving away samples of lethe.  Of course, Drollis isn't doing this out of the kindness of his heart: he wants to lure lethe customers into taking part in a "wholly consensual" religious ceremony in the back room--a ceremony that just so happens to steal pieces of their souls!  The most interesting part of Feast of Sigils when I played it was, as a group, trying to figure out what to do once we got into the lobby of the lethe house.  It was clear something was up, but should we attack?  Should we try to sneak into the back room?  Should we wait around and volunteer for the ceremony?  There are a lot of ways to approach things without one obvious answer, which I always like in scenarios.

If the PCs do stick around to participate in the ceremony, or otherwise spy on it, they'll see that participants sit around a table marked with the infamous seven-pointed sihedron star.  A ritual knife is used to draw blood and coat a wafer, but the participants don't realize that they've just been magically drained of some of their life-force in an ancient ritual called the Feast of Sigils.  The cult of Lissala is collecting the "sigil wafers" in a bid to restore Runelord Krune once he awakens, because whoever eats a sigil wafer gains the drained life-force.  When I played the scenario, some of us did participate in the ritual and the GM did an impressive job describing it and making it suitably creepy.  It's a reminder to myself that adding detail and atmosphere to the literal writing of a scenario makes it that much better.

Anyway, one way or another, the PCs will realise that across a back alleyway from the lethe house is another building owned by the cult.  On the first floor are dozens of unconscious, drug-addled victims whose life-force is being regularly drained.  Here, the PCs can rescue the missing sex workers and many others.  The place is guarded, however, by some nasty flamestrike traps and lighting bolt shooting "war wisps," and my group was wrecked.  Tough fights for groups that aren't prepared and very, very cautious.

We penetrated into the basement below where the head priestess of the cult had her ritual altar.  The battle here was more traditional, but a forbiddance spell around the area was a cruel equalizer.  It was an exciting and memorable conclusion to the scenario, and I'm still not 100% sure how we all made it out of there alive.

The boon on the Chronicle is one of the very beast I've ever seen: it provides a +2 profane bonus to one ability score (player's choice) for one year of real time.  It does shift the PC's alignment one step toward evil unless an atonement is received (on the premise that the character is eating someone else's sigil wafer to gain their life-force), but that's still worth while!  Alas, I had credit assigned to my Paladin PC and there's no way he would eat the wafer.  I imagine this is one of those Season Four super-boons that I've heard used as an argument against unlimited replay.

All in all, I really liked Feast of Sigils.  It has high-level threats for high-level characters, a novel storyline, and some interesting decision-making for players.  I do wish it made more out of Kaer Maga and was perhaps a little longer in the "investigation" area (some groups could just plow straight through, combat-combat-combat and be done relatively quickly).

The moral of the story: stay away from drugs, kids.  They're a plot by evil cultists to steal your soul!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 0-19: "Skeleton Moon" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Although Skeleton Moon has been retired for years, I was lucky enough to have a chance to play it with a Paizo staff member GMing during the 2018 PaizoCon Asia-Pacific.  I read through the scenario afterwards, and my experience seems to have proceeded pretty faithfully to what's written except for some changes at the end.  Although I had a good time playing (using a Level 4 Valeros pre-gen), I can sort-of see why the scenario was retired: it has a couple of combats that are very unfair for the level of the PCs involved, the plot is weak, and there's very little opportunity for role-playing.  I'm glad I played it because chances like that don't come up every day, but, frankly, people aren't really missing much here.

SPOILERS

Skeleton Moon has a really long backstory involving an alchemist Pathfinder from Absalom suffering from a rare disease who undertakes an expedition to find a cure in a tomb in Osirion.  The Pathfinder, Andrax d'Aponte, penetrated the tomb of Razma the Sage (an ancient alchemist in his own right) with the help of Pathfinder Society resources and a trusted bodyguard named Sefu.  The quest was partially successful; although d'Aponte didn't discover a cure per se, he did discover a ritual that would allow him to make his spirit immortal.  Returning to one of the old siege towers that surround Absalom, d'Aponte began preparations to undertake the ritual.  What he doesn't know, however, is that Sefu has been bought out by the Aspis Consortium and is preparing to betray him at any moment!  It's an interesting backstory to read, but unfortunately very little of it is player-facing content.  In other words, most of it is wasted verbiage that appears on the page but probably won't make it into the session.

The scenario proper starts with a briefing from Venture-Captain Adril Hestram.  He explains that although the Society sponsored d'Aponte's expedition, the alchemist has refused to share his discoveries as promised and that messengers sent to inquire have disappeared.  Hestram reluctantly asks the PCs to get d'Aponte's journal by hook or by crook, warning them that they might be walking into a trap.

The bulk of the adventure takes place at the old siege tower, and an interesting map is provided..  As the PCs approach, they're mocked by Sefu (standing at the top of the tower) who then sics a flock of cockatrices on them!  The problems with this scenario start here, as (if you're not aware) the bite of a cockatrice in D&D 3.5 turns the victim to stone if they fail a saving throw.  Adding insult to injury, the normal cure (stone to flesh) is a sixth-level wizard spell that requires the target to succeed on a saving throw or die, and that's beyond the means of any PC in the appropriate tier to cast!  So, in the very first encounter, it's very possible that some PCs could be turned to stone with no real recourse.  That's hardcore gaming, and presumably not the sort of experience that Paizo wants PFS players to have (at least without warning).

Once inside the tower, the PCs may view what the scenario calls an "alchemical mystery play," which essentially consists of manikins symbolically depicting the ritual that d'Aponte plans to complete to gain immortality.  Both during the session and reading the scenario afterwards, the whole thing just doesn't make much sense to me.  What kind of alchemist sets up mystery plays?  I guess it's a way to try to reveal some of the adventure's backstory, but it's really just a cryptic, confusing irrelevancy that mostly just provide an excuse to have the manikins later come to "life" as animated objects to attack.

When the PCs find and confront d'Aponte, they have a very slim chance to get him to explain what's happening before he completes the ritual.  The ritual goes awry, of course, and instead of gaining immortality, d'Aponte finds his spirit inhabiting a nearby assassin vine which starts to attack everything in the laboratory.  At low tier the assassin vine only has 30 hit points, but at mid-tier and higher it has 114 hit points and is pretty nasty, as it's likely to grab and constrict someone to death before it gets destroyed.  I'm guessing this encounter was considered unfairly lethal as well.

Once the PCs finish their mission in the tower and are on the road back to the Grand Lodge, Sefu (the disloyal bodyguard) springs an ambush with the help of some Aspis thugs.  I think this is actually a good twist, as most players will think the scenario is basically over.  (I'm not really sure why Sefu waits so long to betray d'Aponte and try to get his journal, but I guess that's not really important)

And that's it.  It's a short scenario to play, and an even shorter one to read.  Most of the story that exists is locked into the background, and the PCs have little opportunity to influence the course of events.  They basically need to go to the tower, defeat the cockatrices, defeat the assassin vine, and survive the ambush on the way home.  If it wasn't so lethal, I might recommend it as a short, introductory adventure.  But as it is, I can see why it's been retired.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Pathfinder Society Quest: "Fane of Fangs" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Fane of Fangs is a bit of an odd-duck Pathfinder Society Quest (short adventures designed to be completed in one hour).  It was released several years ago to help sell people on the alternative classes in the Pathfinder Unchained book, so it requires players to run one of four different Level 5 pre-gens: the "Unchained" versions of the rogue, barbarian, summoner, and monk.  In terms of adventure-quality, I thought it was about average, with an original plot and a deeper backstory than one would expect from a Quest.  It's also on the longer side, and one hour might be too optimistic for completion.  The Chronicle sheet has some interesting boons, so Fane of Fangs wouldn't be a bad way to try something a little different.

SPOILERS

The adventure takes place in Nirmathas at a hidden temple to Erastil.  It starts in media res, with the PCs having recovered a sacred relic stolen from the temple and arriving to return it.  But the relic is no mere Macguffin; instead, it's integral to the story.  The spear of the hunt master (a giant arrow large enough to be carried in two hands) is a legendary artifact said to have been fired by Erastil himself to stop the daemonic harbinger Anogetz from wreaking havoc throughout the land.  Ever since, the spear has been a key part of an annual ritual in the temple to keep Anogetz from returning.  Unbeknownst to the PCs, however, the "priests of Erastil" they're about to give the spear too are actually shape-changing faceless stalkers devoted to Anogetz!

The first part of the Quest gives PCs an opportunity to notice several clues that something isn't quite right in the temple, and each clue noticed provides a bonus on their Perception checks to pierce the Disguise checks of the faceless stalkers.  I think the idea here was fine, but no advice is given on when or how often the Perception checks should be rolled, and too much rolling behind the screen is sure to alert players that something's afoot.  Moreso, when one of the "priests" touches the spear of the huntmaster it instantly burns him, forcing him to drop it and reveal his disguise.  In the game I ran, this happened very quickly because, naturally, the faceless stalker is going to ask for it and doesn't know what will happen.  This means there's really no opportunity for clues to mount, and whether they do or not, the result is the same: a battle against the two faceless stalkers in the courtyard of the temple.

Unlike most Quests, which are just one RP encounter and one combat, Fane of Fangs actually has a lot more.  Several rooms in the temple can be explored, the bodies of the real priests can be found, and a key to the cathedral where the ceremony is to be performed can be discovered.  The material here is good, but it will likely take more than just an hour.

When the PCs enter the cathedral to try to complete the ceremony, things have progressed far enough that Anogetz is able to slip a "Ceustodaemon" through the portal to try to stop them!  The thing is reasonably tough (with high DR and loads of immunities and resistances), and the battle was pretty exciting.  (There are ways written into the Quest for PCs to bypass the daemon's DR, and that made the combat more manageable but not too easy.)

After a brief narrative conclusion, that's the end of the scenario.  The PCs get to "keep" the spear through an opportunity to buy one of two special "legacy" weapons from the Pathfinder Unchained book (in essence, magical weapons that grow in power as the character does).

In many ways Fane of Fangs is just a curiosity, but it's reasonably well-written and has some good combats.  If you are a GM or player curious to see how the Unchained version of classes are different, it's a good opportunity to take them on a test drive.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: "GameMastery Guide" [RPG]



Published back in 2009, the GameMastery Guide was one of the early hardcover books released for Pathfinder.  I think it's an overlooked gem, as I crack it open before and during sessions as often as any book other than the Core Rulebook.  Weighing in at a hefty 320 pages, the GameMastery Guide has advice on the usual topics that new GMs need help with, but it also contains so much more, like little new rules subsystems, a gallery of pre-made NPCs, all sorts of random tables, tracking sheets, etc.  It's a very handy compilation of material specifically designed for Pathfinder, and I'd recommend it as an early purchase for any GM getting into the game.

We have to start with a shout-out to that awesome cover, featuring Runelord Karzoug seated on his throne.  I'm partial, since I'm running a certain AP at the moment, but artist Wayne Reynolds knocked it out of the park there.  There's no way the interior artwork could be as good, and it's true that many of the interstitial drawings are recycled from other products or are forgettable placeholders.  However, the artwork accompanying the NPC gallery is solid and fits the feel of Golarion.  If I were using letter ratings, the cover art would get an A+ and the interior art and layout would get a C+.

The book is divided into 9 chapters, with multiple appendices and indices.

Chapter 1, "Getting Started", is stuff that experienced GMs will have seen a thousand times before, but that new GMs will appreciate.  It covers stuff like a gaming glossary, how to deal with sensitive topics, how to find players and set aside a place to play, developing house rules, etc.  It's standard advice, and if I had to quibble with anything it's that the section is so focussed on catering to players' desires that it leaves out a crucial consideration: the GM needs to have fun too!  I did like the idea of creating a custom player's guide before each new campaign, and that's something I'll probably do in the future.

Chapter 2, "Running the Game", talks about preparation, presentation (music, handouts, lighting, etc.), building encounters and adventures, and how to handle in-game problems (PCs missing a clue, getting too much treasure, etc.).  Again, it's all solid advice (though I don't agree with customising encounters for PC abilities, as that holds the risk of undermining the very advantages they've worked to gain).  I think the best bit in the chapter is the "Game Changers" section, with talks about how to handle problems specific to Pathfinder: spells involving invisibility, teleportation, lie/evil detection, flying, auguries, and more.  These spells can dramatically change the game and wreck certain types of plots if a GM isn't careful.  The section ends with some good tables: fifty different adventure plots, twenty plot twists, and a bunch of macguffins.  Good material if you're creating your own adventures and get stuck in the brainstorming.

Chapter 3, "Player Characters," talks about handling metagaming, introducing new players into the game, handling treasure and character death, whether to allow evil PCs, and different types of common players like the "One-Trick Pony" and the "Rules Lawyer".  It's a good and useful discussion, as experienced GMs will encounter these various player types sooner or later and knowing what to look out for and handle them is important if groups are going to persist in the long-run.  I think what the chapter is missing is the frank advice that some players just aren't right for some groups, some groups are dysfunctional and need to disband, and that the GM (unfortunately) often has to make the hard calls.  It's a responsibility that goes beyond preparing and running adventures, since real people, real relationships, and real emotions can be involved.  I'd rank the chapter as average.

Chapter 4, "Nonplayer Characters," goes into the basics of giving NPCs personalities and roles in the game.  I especially liked the section on traps a GM needs to avoid when running NPCs (such as making them too intrusive, too decisive, too good at combat, etc.).  The section introduces a new concept of "NPC Boons," which are special little plot or mechanical advantages that NPCs of different types can give to PCs.  We'll see this concept more in the NPC Gallery at the end of the book, but the idea would be that, for example, befriending a local tracker would give the PCs a +2 on Survival checks in the area for one month, or that buying a drink for a down-on-his-luck nobleman could result in a primer on local politics and a +2 bonus on Knowledge (nobility) in the city.  Etc.  It's a nice way to quantify and reward PCs for good role-playing and encourage those players who are only in it for the bottom line to have more patience with what may at first seem like irrelevant asides.  After some fairly mundane advice on villains, the chapter concludes with a great collection of tables: NPC backgrounds, goals, physical characteristics, personality characteristics (some of these are hilarious and memorable, and I wish players were as creative!), occupations, secrets and rewards, and even the surely-delightful "Random Adventuring Party Name Generator".  If you want to be cool, join the "Reputable Pearly Kraken Monster-Slayers in the Shadow of Angels"!

Chapter 5, "Rewards," contains an insightful discussion of why rewards manner and the different ways they can be conceptualised and allocated.  It goes through the difference between steady small rewards versus occasional big ones, intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards, and how different players value different things (e.g., is it all about the gold, or is getting on a first-name basis with the barmaid better?).  It even gets into little details, such as exactly when XP can be awarded (I forget that some groups do it after every single encounter, while others only do it during true in-game downtime).  There's some good advice on how to handle spell research and magic item crafting that makes it clear the whole process needs to be treated more as an art than a mechanical formula.  This chapter has a *lot* of random item and random magic item tables, which is really useful when you need to see what a little shop in a small town happens to have in stock, or what that NPC wizard you weren't expecting the PCs to rob from has in his satchel.

Chapter 6, "Creating a World," is for GMs who do something I've never really done in Pathfinder (though I have in science fiction settings): create a brand new campaign setting.  It has a nice process of answering a set list of questions to gradually firm up the details of the new world and to simplify (to some degree) the difficulty of conceptualising everything all at once.  The geography advice is probably over-ambitious, but the concepts are explained really well.  The chapter goes through different types of societies and different technological levels.  It's not a chapter I'll use, but it's very good for homebrew GMs.

Chapter 7, "Adventures," has tips for running stories in different environments (dungeons, the wilderness, etc.).  It has particularly good advice on dungeons, with a useful key to map symbols that I should use more often.  Again, there's a ton of great tables to stimulate creativity, including random tables on where dungeons can be found, what type they are, what's in different rooms, and several random monster encounter tables (which I wouldn't actually roll on, as they have the common problem of spreading CRs from as low as 1 to as high as 13 in the same table!).  The chapter has a section on planes and planar traits, which is an important reference for later products that make specific use of the mechanics presented here.  Similarly, it has a section on stat blocks for settlements (used in most Pathfinder products) that is quite important in determining what's for sale in a community, the highest-level of spellcaster available, etc.  I use the settlement rules a lot, and although I think they're sometimes a bit cumbersome in play, they're important in making sure that a hamlet "acts" differently than a metropolis.  This chapter is packed with a lot of other material, including a two-page rules-set for ship combat (it seems worth trying), lots of random tables for ships and sailors, and, one of my favourite things, random tables for tavern names and unique traits.  There's a lot here that I'm going to photocopy and keep with my GM screen to help me quickly come up with more flavourful interludes when I'm running games.

Chapter 8, "Advanced Topics," introduces several new little rules sub-systems: chases (elegant, but not completely satisfying), natural disasters, drugs and addiction (happens too quickly and needs a slower progression of effects), fortune-telling (too general), gambling (done well), haunts (one of the best innovations of Pathfinder, great for story-telling), hazards (mostly supernatural ones, but very clever), and sanity/madness (too simplistic, but not bad for just 2 pages).  Some of these sub-systems, like chases and haunts, are seen in a lot of other Paizo products, so having the rules on how to run them is really useful.  Other topics touched on in this chapter have been developed in far more detail elsewhere, and may be of more limited usefulness.  Still, there's enough of enduring value to make the material here worth reading.

Chapter 9, "NPC Gallery", is one of those things every Pathfinder GM needs: full stats (and even pictures and descriptions) for NPCs encountered on short notice: bandits to spice up overland travel, city guards for when the "Chaotic Stupid" PC gets too obnoxious, the bard intended purely as tavern-dressing that the PCs are surprisingly interested in, the shopkeep they want to try to bluff for a discount, etc.  There are dozens and dozens of great NPCs here, both low-level "townsfolk" and high-level threats, and all are fully fleshed out with gear and boons (from Chapter 4).  In addition, there's really good advice on how to swap out a feat here or a weapon there to create different variations on the stock NPC.  I've used this chapter a lot (as have many PFS scenarios).  The later publication of the NPC Codex and Villains Codex makes this section slightly less crucial, but I still get a lot of use out of it.

Apart from indices and an appendix (on recommend reading and films), the book ends with a miscellany of tracking sheets--a Campaign Sheet, a Settlement Sheet (something I should actually use, now that I think of it), an NPC Sheet, and a Basic Rules Cheat Sheet (that I'm going to start handing out to new players to ease their transition into the game).

From the chapter summaries above, you can tell the book is just chock-full of useful advice and resources for running the game.  Although essential for new GMs, even experienced ones will still find a lot here to make the book worth buying and reading.

Pathfinder Playtest: "Doomsday Dawn" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Doomsday Dawn is a 96-page softcover book designed to play-test the rules for the upcoming second edition of Pathfinder.  The adventure is divided into seven chapters, each of which is designed to take a couple of sessions to get through.  Although the chapters link to tell one overall story, each jumps forward a couple of years in Golarion-time and many require the creation of new PCs.


I was very excited by the idea of Doomsday Dawn when it was first announced, as it promised to involve a cool (and long-dangling) plot thread that has been part of Golarion lore for several years.  I'm one of those people who are more into story than mechanics, and I couldn't wait to see what kind of awesome adventure Paizo had in store as it transitioned Pathfinder from its first to its second edition.

Unfortunately, I was very disappointed by the experience.  I played through the first four chapters before dropping out (along with the rest of the group).  Although the product itself is high-quality, with some great artwork and layout, the storytelling is poor and the encounters forgettable.  There are few NPCs to interact with, few opportunities for good role-playing, few interesting choices to make, and very little player-facing information on what the heck is going on (behind the scenes) until very late in the book.  I think I was expecting a package of well-written Pathfinder Society scenarios that tied together into one awesome story, and instead I got a collection of encounters, poorly tied-together, that I would rather have just played in isolation as exercises in tactical combat without the expectation of role-playing and plot development.  To be fair, a really good GM could probably smooth over some of the rough patches and add some extra material to tie things together better, but that's a lot to ask someone who is trying to figure out a whole new rules-set alongside the players.

Now that the playtest is over and a lot of people have grumbled about the experience, there's been a counter-argument in the forums that "playtesting is work, and isn't supposed to be fun."  I can accept that, but that's not the view that was circulated and led to such excitement among the community.  I think, unfortunately, my participation in the playtest has led me further away from embracing second edition than I would have been if I just went in with my eyes closed and hoped for the best.  As for Doomsday Dawn, my recommendation would be for hardcore Golarion-lore fans to download the free PDF (something we have to give Paizo credit for) to see how it resolves that big story-thread, but for other Pathfinder fans to leave it alone.

SPOILERS

I'll start with the book's strength: it's really pretty.  The cover artwork (featuring Harsk and Seoni assaulted by mummies) is beautiful, and most of the interior artwork is of similarly-excellent quality (look at the Hidimbi on page 57 or the Ashen Man on page 90).  The art that starts each chapter is weaker, but still, on the whole, Paizo has a great thing going with its selection of artists.  The book itself is laid out well, with a sidebar on each right-side page indicating which chapter is being looked at, notes from the designers interspersed throughout to help the GM know what the goals of each chapter are, well-designed maps (even those not part of the printed flip-mats are good), and more.  The inside front cover is a map of Golarion indicating where each chapter takes place, while the inside back cover is a hex map (suitable for photocopying if the encounter locations are removed) that ties into the fourth chapter.  All in all, it's a high-quality production, especially when you realise this is just a playtest document and will be obsolete in a few months--it's of better physical and artistic quality that most publishers' premiere output!

The adventure itself concerns a set of mysterious artifacts (recovered from ancient pyramids in Osirion) known as the "countdown clocks."  The countdown clocks herald some sort of world-wide cataclysm, and first appear in a module from 2008 (!) called The Pact Stone Pyramid.  Doomsday Dawn reveals that the countdown clocks are ticking down to when the planet Aucturn will be in the right celestial conjunction with Golarion to allow for an invasion by the Dominion of the Black and the release of a Great Old One that will destroy the entire planet!  Even adventure paths only deal with the fate of a city or a country, and this is the first Paizo story I know about where the entire planet is at stake--it's pretty exciting stuff.  The backstory, explained in a two-page section, is pretty complicated stuff, involving a "mind-quaked" priest named Ramlock, his development of the Last Theorem (and the missing White Axiom), portals to Aucturn, the Dominion of the Black, the pharaohs of the Pact Stone Pyramid, cultists called the Night Heralds, and more.  I was fairly lost reading through it for the purposes of this review, but had far less of an idea of what was going on as a player.  Anyway, I'll go through each of the seven chapters in a separate paragraph below.

Chapter 1, "The Lost Star", starts things off poorly.  It's set in Magnimar just before the events of Rise of the Runelords, but doesn't really have a link apart from the fact that the giver of the adventure hook, Keleri Deverin, is cousin to Sandpoint's mayor and plans to travel there for the Swallowtail Festival.  The chapter dumps the PCs into Keleri's house as friends/allies summoned to help retrieve a family heirloom stolen by a bunch of goblins from her basement vault.  The goblins belong to the Mudchewer tribe and can be tracked through the vault to a sewer complex called the Ashen Ossuary, where their "hobgoblin" leader, Drakus, is revealed as a faceless stalker.  It's essentially a very, very basic dungeon crawl, with goblins, skeletons, a giant caterpillar, and some traps.  Really, it's about as generic as a D&D-style adventure can get, at least until the very end where (potentially) Keleri reveals that she is a member of an organisation called the Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye which looks after mystical secrets and tries to stop dangerous cults like the Night Heralds from using them to cause harm.  There's some backstory here, but the PCs can't engage with it even if they find out about it.

Chapter 2, "In Pale Mountain's Shadow", has players create a new set of fourth level PCs for an adventure set in Katapesh.  There's a race between the Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye and the Night Heralds to penetrate the Tomb of Sular Seft and get a countdown clock so they know when the apocalypse is coming (as Buffy says, "If the apocalypse comes, beep me.").  One of the criticisms I have of the entire adventure is that there's very little background provided on the Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye, which results in the PCs being members of the group just because they're supposed to be.  Anyway, this chapter tests out the wilderness travel rules and some wilderness-themed hazards and monsters (such as a manticore and gnolls) before the PCs reach the tomb.  Inside, there are elementals, a poorly-described puzzle, and a dude who has been trapped for millennia named Mabar who is the key to the PCs getting any background information about what's been going on so far.  Reading the chapter after having played through it, I can recognise that there are some good story elements that just didn't come up during the actual session--I'm not sure if that was the GM's or the adventure's fault.

Chapter 3, "Affair at Sombrefell Hall," is set in Ustalav and has PCs creating a new set of 7th level characters.  One of the reasons I found the playtest such a chore was that it was a real pain to create or level up increasingly high-level characters in a new rules system while still sticking to the "one chapter every two weeks" schedule that was necessary in order to keep up with the surveys.  Some pre-gens for those of us with limited time would have made a big difference.  Anyway, the PCs are asked to travel to a manor on the shores of Lantern Lake to ask a scholar, Verid Oscilar, to return with them and share his knowledge about the Dominion of the Black.  (I really wish that the chapter had tied in Dr. Quolorum, a fellow academic at the Sincomakti School of Sciences from The Phantom Phenomena into this adventure, as his travels are centered in the same area!).  What actually happens is that the PCs arrive at the manor, Oscilar refuses to leave until he finishes a project, and the manor is assaulted by wave after wave of undead in a test to see how long the PCs can hold out.  The adventure has some flaws in it, particularly with failing to address what happens if the PCs try to intimidate or charm Oscilar into leaving right away (as my group did), expecting the PCs to spend a game-day or more poking around the manor before anything interesting happens (a lot of PCs aren't going to be the type to rummage around someone else's house), and having a location site that's pretty big and complicated to draw and not either using an existing flip-mat (Haunted House or Pathfinder Lodge, for example) or having it be one of the ones specifically released for the playtest.  All in all, there's a lot of combat in a very lethal adventure with very little story development from the players' perspective.

Chapter 4, "The Mirrored Moon," has the problem that, no matter what happens in previous chapters (whether the PCs succeeded or failed), events play out exactly the same.  The premise is that the Eye have learned about the Night Heralds' attempts to contact the slumbering wizard Ramlock, and that both the Eye and the Night Heralds are racing to find Ramlock's lost tower in the River Kingdoms.  This chapter uses a wilderness hex grid and tests overland movement and a "one encounter per day" paradigm (a.k.a., "hexploration").  Our GM gave us (presumably by mistake) a photocopy of the marked hex map in the back of the book, so we knew exactly where encounters would be, even if we didn't know what type they would be.  The premise of the adventure is very different than the others, as it uses "ally points," "treasure points," and "research points" to track how well the PCs are doing in gathering resources to help with what I guess is presumed to be a big battle with the Night Heralds at Ramlock's tower.  Most of this is explained pretty poorly, as abstract trackers and mechanics need to be carefully integrated into an adventure to seem justified to players.  What basically happens is the PCs wander around, meet creatures (a dragon, some cyclops, a lake monster, etc.), do some simple fetch/messenger quests to gain allies, and then have a big battle at the tower.  It all seemed very simplistic and cheesy when I played it (like a bad board game with a little role-playing tacked on and every single skill check DC seemingly pegged at the magical number of "26").  This is where I dropped out, so the rest of the review is based purely on reading the subsequent chapters.

Chapter 5, “The Heroes of Undarin,” is designed to result in a TPK, though the players won’t be told this!  The premise is that the PCs are grizzled crusaders from the Worldwound (new 12th level characters), and they’re tasked with escorting the (off-screen) PCs from the previous chapters as they undertake an important mission in the demon-haunted wastelands.  In order to decipher the true meaning of Ramlock’s text, The Last Theorem, the Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye needs to recover the fabled White Axiom—which exists scrawled on a cave underneath the ruins of the city of Undarin.  (I’m not exactly sure why the Eye needs this info, and suspect it might be better left there, but that’s neither here nor there.)  The plot stuff is only in the background, because how this chapter plays out from beginning to end is 100% pure combat: the PCs have to defend a ruined temple for as long as they can, against wave after wave after wave of demons and undead.  These are some amazing, earth-shaking battles, and the temple flip-mat is given some cool terrain and features to spice things up.  There’s no role-playing and little story, but I have to admit it sounds like a blast to play (as long as you weren’t expecting anything with more depth).

Chapter 6, “Red Flags”, looks to be the best adventure of the bunch.  The PCs are sent to infiltrate a gala in the Shackles at a mansion where the last known copy of The Last Theorem is kept securely in the vault.  The way the PCs proceed in the gala is handled in a free-form manner, with lots of opportunity for role-playing, information gathering, deception, stealth, and more.  There’s a really interesting story here, and the chapter reads like a good PFS scenario as the PCs realize they have to race to retrieve the book before a rival “party guest” from the Night Heralds gets into the vault first.  I think if an adventure like this had occurred earlier in the book, it would have left a better taste in my mouth about the whole playtest.

Chapter 7, “When the Stars Go Dark”, is a suitably epic climax to the storyline.  Using The Last Theorem and the White Axiom, the PCs can enter a demiplane called Ramlock’s Hollow and disrupt something that’s kind of like a giant countdown clock, the Veinstone Pyramid, to stop the conjunction of Golarion and Aucturn.  But of course, they have all manner of cosmic-level threats to overcome, including Ramlock himself who attacks during the lengthy ritual needed to disrupt the Veinstone Pyramid.  Earlier in the chapter, the PCs have the opportunity to undergo some visions to learn about the backstory to the entire adventure, but I think it’s probably too little, too late.  Anyway, the chapter would be a great opportunity to test out the playtest rules in some high-CR confrontations.


 I *almost* regret not sticking with the playtest longer in order to experience the last chapters of Doomsday Dawn, as they seem better written and more interesting than the earlier ones.  Further, I think if I had gone in with lower expectations and if there had been more time allotted in the schedule so that creating new PCs and finishing chapters didn’t have to be done in such a hectic manner, I would have enjoyed the whole thing more.  But all of that is in hindsight, and I suppose what matters now is the legacy of this book going forward now that the playtest is finished: it wraps up the “Aucturn Enigma” plot thread and offers some more insight (though not much) into the Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye, the Night Heralds, the Dominion of the Black, and more.  As I said in the introduction, however, there’s not enough of interest to make this anything more than a curiosity unless you really need to learn some additional lore on these topics.