Friday, December 30, 2016

Castles of the Inner Sea [RPG]

Castles of the Inner Sea is a 64-page entry in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line.  It provides an in-depth overview of six different castles in Golarion.  After a short introduction and terminology section, each ten-page section for each castle is divided into the following topics: History, Description (keyed to a full-page schematic of the castle's interior), Denizens, Threats (including a new description and stat-block for an NPC or monster), and then a fully-mapped and statted area of the castle suitable for adventuring.  Each section also includes helpful sidebar adventure hooks to get the PCs there and some example encounters they might find there or in the area.  Before getting to specifics, special mention should be made of the art and layout of the book: it's beautiful. The drawings of each castle from the outside perspective are gorgeous and evocative, while the interior maps are detailed and useful.  Scattered throughout the book are drawings of key NPCs.  The interior artists and cartographer  deserve praise for their work on this one.  Now, on to the castles represented:

1. Castle Everstand, a fortress on the border of Lastwall that helps to keep the orc hordes of Belkzen at bay.  This is a castle that would make an excellent "home base" for low-level PCs, as there's a small village just outside the city gates to serve their needs, but enough CR-appropriate threats nearby (recon missions in orc territory, for example) to keep adventurers busy.  I liked how, although this is a "good" castle, tension is developed by explaining how the leaders of Castle Everstand are barely resisting the temptation to change from a purely defensive mindset and instead launch some sort of crusade to take the fight to the orcs--there's some good storyline potential there.  Full stats are provided for a CR3 "Lastwall Border Scout" (perhaps someone who could escort the PCs on their first couple of missions).  The adventuring locale, suitable for four 1st-level PCs, is the Everstand Crypts, a long-abandoned, partially flooded level below the castle full of vermin and some undead.  Reading through the section on Castle Everstand gave me a "Keep on the Borderlands" vibe, and I think it would work well as a starting area for players brand new to RPGs or Pathfinder.

2. Castle Kronquist, a gothic citadel in Ustalav that is home to incredibly powerful threats of the undead and vampiric nature.  This location is about the exact opposite of Castle Everstand, and is designed for high-level (13th to 16th level) PCs.  The history of Castle Kronquist is really interesting and well-written: the fortress was placed under siege during the Shining Crusade as it was home to one of the Whispering Tyrant's most powerful generals, a vampire lord named Malyas.  But the siege of Castle Kronquist was lifted after nearly a year because the building would always reconstruct itself overnight!  The knights of the Shining Crusade kept close watch on the citadel for years before finally deciding that Malyas must have somehow escaped, and now the place is long-abandoned.  The PCs might come to Castle Kronquist to discover the truth of Lord Malyas's whereabouts, but before they do they're likely to encounter Cvotgar Haas, a former vampire hunter who has been turned!  Full stats of Haas are provided, along with details on the area of the castle where he resides (designed for 4 15th-level PCs).  This is clearly not the sort of place normal PCs want to make their home, but it could make the basis for a good story arc for high-level characters.

3.  Citadel Vraid, forbidding headquarters of a Hellknight division, the Order of the Nail.  Located in the Mindspin Mountains west of Korvosa, this castle is actually three fortifications connected to one another only by a very defensible bridge.  The Hellknights (Lawful Evil agents of a nation that has made pacts with demons) are a very popular part of Golarion; I've never had much to do with them, but I could see why Citadel Vraid would be an interesting location for PCs to visit.  Full stats are provided for a typical Signifier of the Nail (a Hellknight with sorceror levels) and for Mistress of Blades Maidrayne Vox, a centaur Hellknight general.  The adventuring locale provided is The Hellfast, a labyrinth under Citadel Vraid wherein the leaders of the Order of the Nail conduct their rituals of summoning and binding.  Come to think of it, this might be a good location for a storyline involving deception and infiltration, as the PCs could be tasked with retrieving/accomplishing something in the Hellfast without being discovered and bringing the whole castle down upon them!  I would note that, for a castle intended for high-level use, more magical defenses should probably be detailed to keep the usual PC tricks from being employed (teleporting, passwall, gaseous form, etc.).

4.  Highhelm, a dwarven metropolis high up in the Five Kings Mountains.  Highhelm is one of the legendary Sky Citadels, and is said to contain great secrets and treasures of the dwarven people.  From my reading, Highhelm really does seem more like a walled city than a "castle" per se, and although reasonably interesting, I'm not really sure it belongs in this book.  Unlike the other castles, the Threats section for Highhelm doesn't list NPC stat blocks but instead provides a couple of new items: a powder ball (an explosive device) and a Sky Mine (a hot-air balloon that explodes when hit with a flaming arrow).  The adventuring locale, suitable for four 4th-level PCs, is called Deepscar Keep, an abandoned fortification several hundred feet below Highhelm that has been reclaimed by some of the denizens of the Darklands.  Overall, this was the least interesting entry in the book for me; but, I suppose, if you have a particular interest in dwarves or need a PC base for major exploration of the Darklands, it could be useful.

5. Icerift Castle, a stronghold in the forbidden arctic wastes of the Crown of the World in northern Mendev.  Abandoned for a century, the backstory to this one is fascinating (if grisly), involving cannibalism and slaughter.  Now, the castle is inhabited by a vicious tribe of Wikkawaks, which are apparently white-furred bugbears that live in arctic climes.  The Wikkawaks are led by a CR 12 arctic druid named Ugmitok, and she receives full stats and a picture.  Ugmitok's clever trick is to summon a dreaded wendigo with a loud blast of a horn, and then flee with her fellows to a barred shelter so that the wendigo attacks everyone else while the Wikkawaks are safe!  Below the castle, the adventuring locale provided is The Ice Caves, a series of catacombs for four 10th-level PCs.  The Ice Caves are where the Wikkiwaks live, and their lair is guarded by a couple of fun traps.  I imagine it would take a really pressing adventure hook to get PCs to come to such a remote location, and I don't imagine them sticking around for long once they do (unless they like the cold and are fond of teleport spells).

6.  Skyborne Keep, a fortress of storm and cloud giants that flies through the skies to raid trade routes and settlements below!  I thought this was the most fun and original idea in the book, as it's easy to throw into almost any campaign (once the PCs are in the double-digits level-wise).  The premise is that a group of Pathfinders uncovered an ancient but surprisingly well-kept castle on a remote mountaintop.  The Pathfinders were discovered and attacked by a power-hungry storm giant named Lona Orames.  Only one Pathfinder survived (a half-elf named Bastian Saloni), and he did so by making a deal with Lona: he revealed the secrets of Skyborne Keep and would help her learn how to fly it!  Bastian now serves as Lona's trusted adviser, and uses his knowledge of precious magical treasures all over Golarion to help the residents of Skyborne Keep raid and pillage.  I like the emphasis in the description that the leaders of Skyborne Keep are smart and patient, and thus avoid becoming predictable and falling into ambushes.  A good part of the story involving Skyborne Keep could involve the PCs simply trying to figure out where it will strike next.  Lona Orames receives a full stat-block (and I'd guess you haven't seen many storm giant monks before!), while a (rather dangerous) adventuring locale is the lower levels of Skyborne Keep designed for four 17th-level PCs).  The only thing missing is any hint of who built the castle to begin with.

Castles of the Inner Sea is one of those books that may not be what buyers are expecting.  At least half of the book (Castle Kronquist, Icerift Castle, and Skyborne Keep) detail direct threats to PCs and are thus much more in the form of "dungeons" (broadly speaking) than they are castles that PCs could visit and make use of.  One of the locations (Highhelm) is really more of a walled city than a castle.  That being said, this is a really great book, and in some ways would be better value for its money than Dungeons of Golarion because it's more detailed, more practical to use in a campaign, and much more GM-friendly.  My advice would be to ignore the title, scan the summaries of the different locations discussed, and buy the book if you think one or more of them would be useful in your game.  As I said above, the artwork and maps are excellent, and they could also serve as the location for custom threats.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Buffy Comic Project: "Slayer, Interrupted Act 1"


Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 56

(Dark Horse, Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators: Scott Lobdell & Fabian Nicieza (story); Cliff Richards (pencils), Will Conrad (inks), Dave McCaig (colors), Clem Robins (letters)

Setting: Between Movie & Season 1

T.V./Movie Character Appearances:  Buffy, Dawn, Joyce, Hank Summers, Quentin Travers, Giles,

Major Original Characters: Doctor Stone (asylum physician)

Summary:  While Buffy is away with Pike in Las Vegas, Dawn sneaks into her room and finds her diary.  The diary is full of entries and drawings about slaying vampires, and Dawn takes it to her parents.  When Buffy arrives back home, saddened over Pike's departure, Joyce and Hank confront her about the diary.  Meanwhile, in Ireland, Quentin Travers takes Giles to a remote cliffside cave called the Blackshed.  Here, Giles is to spend a night by himself to undergo a rite of passage so the Watchers Council can decide if they can trust him.  Giles says the required mystical incantation, and then is struck over the head--by Ripper!  Later in Sunnydale, Buffy and Dawn go the mall.  Buffy is still angry at Dawn for reading her diary, and lashes out.  She decides to walk home and has to save a woman from a torque demon.  She arrives home hours late for dinner and covered in slime to find that her parents have called for psychiatric help.  A doctor named Stone takes Buffy to an asylum.

Review

A solid beginning to a storyline that is a perfect avenue for the comics: filling in the reference in the episode "Normal Again" to Buffy having spent several seeks in an asylum.  Buffy's depression over Pike's leaving, her parents' concern, Dawn's role in getting Buffy into trouble while caring about her, and more are all done well and in-character.  The fight scenes (against a vampire and a torque demon) are completely forgettable, and sometimes I think the comic (like the show) had a mandate to include action in every story even if it's not really necessary.  I'm eager to see where this goes, and find out more about Giles' experience in the Blackshed.

Notes

* Editor Scott Allie seems quite relieved to announce that the concluding issues of Fray have finally come in after a several-month gap!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mekanix (Marvel) (Ltd. 2002)

Mekanix was a six-issue limited series centered around long-time X-Men member Kitty Pryde (aka, Shadowcat) trying to start a new life for herself by going back to school at the University of Chicago.  One of the strengths of the series is that it does a solid job of giving Kitty an interesting setting and enough supporting characters to build a limited (or even an on-going) series on.  The comic is written by famed X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, so you can also trust that the dialogue and characterization are true to form.

But before going into more detail, the elephant in the room must be mocked: those covers are absolutely *terrible*!  If you didn't already know you were supposed to be looking at Kitty Pryde in each one, you'd think the comic was about an elf-like alien with a pointed chin, alien eyes, and a distorted, impossibly-thin, vaguely human torso.  Talk about how super hero comics give girls body image issues!  In the cover to # 4, Kitty's hair is somehow transparent, while the cover to # 5 has a completely gratuitous shower shot that doesn't even appear in the comic.  Fortunately, the interior artwork, while not great, is much, much better.

Issue # 1 gives us the premise: Kitty is a new student in the astrophysics department of the University of Chicago, where she assists in experiments using a new reactor.  Along with a part-time job as a bartender, Kitty is kept busy with University-mandated sessions with a therapist because she's on probation.  Kitty's old friend and X-Men teammate, Shan Coy Manh (Karma) attends the the same school.  But there's a growing problem: a student-led anti-mutant hate group named Purity has become active and has tried to name and shame Kitty on a website.  Worse, during an experiment with the reactor, Purity convinces one of its members to hack into the laboratory equipment and cause the reactor to start to meltdown!  There's a very brief shift to what will become the major menace of the series, as a strange ship approaches Lake Huron and destroys a Canadian coast guard ship sent to intercept it.  Overall, it's likable, interesting, and a good new direction for Kitty.

Issue # 2 picks up as the reactor continues to build closer and closer to an explosion.  Kitty goes intangible to shut down the overloading machines and succeeds, but is badly hurt.  She's helped by Shan, a paramedic named Tom Moore (who is secretly a reluctant member of Purity), and a refugee mutant (with telekinetic powers) from now-destroyed Genosha named Shola Inkosi.  The police interrogate Kitty after the barely-averted disaster, and cast suspicion on mutants.  In scenes depicting a therapy session, we get to learn more about Kitty's father issues.

In Issue # 3, an exhausted Kitty returns to her apartment to find the Feds executing a search warrant and going through all of her stuff.  Needless to say, she's not happy.  Shan and her siblings get evicted from their place, and move in with Kitty.  Kitty, Shan, Tom Moore, and Shola become friends by fighting off some Purity-inspired frat boys.  All the while, the mysterious ship gets closer and closer . . .  There's not a lot of action in this one, but the story and dialogue are good.  The threat of anti-mutant hysteria is a quite common one in X-Men related comics, but at least it's given a slightly new spin by being channeled through a student group.

There's a really good scene in Issue # 4 where a combative Kitty gets her therapist to open up about her life as a nurse in Vietnam but still refuses to talk about herself.  Later, when she's with Shan, a Sentinel scout-drone attacks.  The fight scene here is done well, and scary.  It turns out that the approaching boat is full of Sentinels!

I shudder to see the cover to Issue # 5 again. But anyway, the Sentinel scout keeps rebuilding itself and chases Kitty and Shan to a nearby rooftop where they have to make a desperate final stand.  They collapse an entire building on it, and it keeps coming!  Then Shola (and Tom) appears, and Shola uses his telekinetic powers to destroy it (mostly).  Later, there's a big meeting at the University student union to debate whether Purity should be banned as a hate group, and Kitty debates Purity's leader, Alice Tremayne.  But before anything is resolved, the rest of the Sentinels arrive!

Issue # 6 has the big conclusion, as the Sentinels responsible for the destruction of Genosha attack.  It's not really clear to me why they came all the way to the University of Chicago.  Anyway, there's a huge battle, but nothing we haven't seen many, many times before.  The heroes lure the Sentinels to a confined space and, working together, manage to help Shola crush them in a telekinetic sphere.  There's an ominous epilogue as Alice Tremayne finds a small piece of a destroyed Sentinel, still barely functioning, and promises to nurse it back to health . . .

As far as I can tell, Mekanix hasn't been collected in trade paperback form so you'd have to track down the individual issues.  If your gag reflex allow you to get pass the covers, and you're a fan of Kitty Pryde, I think they do a pretty good job showing her potential as a solo character.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Silent Tide [RPG]

NON-SPOILERS

A couple of nights ago, I had the chance to direct my first Pathfinder Society scenario.  I just picked the very first one listed for "Season 0", which was named Silent Tide, and ran it for Level 1 Iconics.  The adventure takes place in the island metropolis Absalom, and involves the PCs on an adventure to save the city from disaster.  It has some very creative set-piece encounters and a fairly interesting backstory, even if doesn't all hang together perfectly.  The story does ensure that a good pace is kept and the momentum will surely keep any players from getting bored.  As a GM, there were some confusing elements to prepare, but on the whole I was satisfied.

SPOILERS

Premise:  Eight-hundred years ago, a Taldoran invasion fleet lay anchored off the coast ready to invade Absalom in an operation code-named "Silent Tide."  The fleet was waiting for a group of infiltrators and saboteurs known as Black Echelon to weaken the city's defenses and then transmit a special code using coloured lanterns.  But the Black Echelon operatives were discovered, their plans foiled, and the invasion fleet taken by surprise and sunk.  What no one in Absalom knew at the time, however, is that everyone involved in the planned attack had sworn an oath lost to time: a Binding Word, that ensured that neither time nor death would keep them from carrying out their goal.  Now, a military historian named Yargos has uncovered an ancient codebook from the Silent Tide operation and, on a lark, sent off the signals to begin the operation.  This triggered Black Echelon to rise from the dead as skeletal abominations to begin to carry out their ancient plans.  Yargos realized his mistake, but before he could transmit the abort code to stop the plan, the codebook was stolen by a would-be crimelord named Nessian who plans to use it to blackmail the city's leaders.

Encounter # 1:  The PCs are sent by a Pathfinder Venture-Captain to get the codebook from Yargos so that the Society can add it to its historical archives.  There's a *long* text block to read to the players to begin the scenario, which is quite old-fashioned and could test the patience of some.  On the positive side, once the text block is done, the PCs are right at an encounter.  The PCs find out that Yargos and three of his friends (all shackled together) have been kidnapped by crimelord Nessian's henchmen (the War Hounders) AND are about to be pushed over the edge of a cliff to drown into the waters below!  This was a great encounter to start the scenario, as it adds an exciting element to an otherwise unremarkable battle against thugs: the PCs have to rescued the prisoners (dangling from the edge of the cliff) before they fall in and drown.  This requires some urgent action and may result in some major risk-taking (and the GM should prep the drowning/swimming rules).  Unlike all of the other encounters, there was no map for this encounter, but it was simple enough to improvise so I don't find fault with that.  A potential flaw in the encounter, which some people have noted in the forums, is that there is absolutely no contingency sidebar for the GM if Yargos actually dies.  This didn't happen when I ran it, and it's probably not really likely (it would take 20 rounds for Yargos to die after falling in the water), but if it does a GM would have to think quickly or the entire scenario would be derailed.  Perhaps a bigger issue is that Yargos, once rescued, is supposed to explain to the PCs everything in the backstory and then tell the PCs that to find Nessian they should visit an information broker named Grandmaster Torch.  But if the PCs capture and interrogate one of the War Hounders (using Intimidate, Charm Person, etc.), it would make sense for the prisoner to tell the PCs exactly where Nessian's base is, which would mean the PCs would skip the information broker encounter.  This happened in my game--it wasn't a huge issue, but should be noted.

Encounter # 2: On the way to Grandmaster Torch, the PCs notice signal lights flashing and Yargos realizes that's a code for Black Echelon to try to poison Absalom's granary.  This encounter sees the PCs fighting several Black Echelon operatives inside the granary, and there's a couple of good elements here.  First, the granary is given some interesting terrain features: grain is spilled in random spots which makes movement more difficult than just charging straight ahead, and there are hatches in the ceiling which can (if the right check is made) dump grain on a creature to cause damage and immobilize them.  Second, the Black Echelon operatives themselves are far more interesting and flavourful than simple skeletons: they have the ability to summon a fog-like cloud around them, and every square adjacent to one is affected by total silence.  These features made what would have been a bland encounter against undead into something that kept my experienced players off-balance and alert.  I also liked that one of the Faction missions was to recover a vial of the poison, which could create some good role-playing opportunities.

Encounter # 3:  The third encounter is the one where the PCs are to visit the information broker.  Grandmaster Torch is willing to divulge Nessian's whereabouts if the PCs can open three out of the five treasure chests he hasn't been able to crack.  Although the PCs in my session skipped this encounter, I really liked the idea of it as it gave the scenario the classic element of puzzles and riddles to engage the less-combat focussed players.  Requiring only 3 of the 5 to be solved meant that getting stuck on a single one wouldn't ruin everyone's fun.  Someone like Grandmaster Torch would also make a good recurring NPC for games set in Absalom.

Encounter # 4: On the way to Nessian's hideout, the PCs see, yet again, signal lights that are recognized by Yargos.  Yargos explains that these lights mean that Black Echelon is about to attack the Metro-Church (a long-standing cathedral of Abadar) and try to interrupt the morning Oathday song.  The sudden stoppage to the song, which has been played every Oathday morning for centuries, is the final signal for the invasion fleet to attack.  This is the most memorable encounter of the scenario, as inside the Metro-Church is a *massive* organ: each key is as big as a human being laying down, and the way that music is played is to jump from key to key.  The Black Echelon operatives have killed most of the dancing priest-musicians, and have used their Silence auras to keep any sound from emanating from the organ's pipes.  I will admit that the whole premise of the organ struck me as a bit silly, but it led to an encounter I can safely say your players haven't had before!  The encounter tests not just the PCs combat ability, but also their jumping and performance skills.  This encounter does take some extra prep by the GM and some extra explanation for the players on what's going on.

Encounter # 5: The finale for the scenario sees the PCs approaching Nessian's hideout, "The Pyramid of the Dog."  The concept of this structure is that three old siege towers have collapsed inwards to rest on a fourth, upright siege tower.  A map of the encounter is provided, but it still took me a while to try to figure out how it was supposed to translate into three-dimensional space when it comes to climbing, cover, etc.  An artist's rendering would have been extremely helpful here.  Anyway, apart from the odd structure, this is a fairly run-of-the-mill encounter against Nessian, some of his henchmen, and a very mean dog.  In his tower, the PCs find the codebook so that Yargos can send the abort code and stop Silent Tide.

So there are some problems with the scenario from a GM's perspective: it's a harder scenario to just plop down and run because some of the encounters are hard to conceptualize without a lot of planning.  In addition, there are places where the backstory doesn't really hold together well (discussed in the forums); however, the momentum of the scenario is such that I imagine very few players will notice and question any inconsistencies. GMs new to the Season Zero scenarios should note that these are written for D&D 3.5, which means some minor adjustments need to be made ahead of time for NPCs in terms of CMB, CMD, and some skill names.

Overall, however, there's an interesting-enough story, some quite memorable encounters and enemies, and a strong mix of combat, role-play and puzzle-solving to make this a good (even though not great) adventure.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mystery Monsters Revisited [RPG]

Mystery Monsters Revisited is an unusual entry in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line.  The goal of the book is to transform ten different monsters from real-world folklore and modern legend (so-called "cryptids") into creatures usable in Pathfinder and in the game's official setting, Golarion.  The book is a 64-page softcover with full colour interior art that is adequate but not Paizo's best (and I think the cover needed a better inker to add definition to what looks like a coloured pencil drawing).  Each of the ten monsters is covered in a six-page section that includes the following topics: Evidence (why the creature is thought to exist), Ecology, Habitat & Society, Campaign Role (how to use the creature in a game), Treasure, Golarion lore, and a full stat block and picture of a unique version of the creature.  Each section also includes a brief sidebar about the creature's real-world inspiration.  The ten monsters covered are:

* Bunyips (from Australian aboriginal lore), an aquatic mammal that combines features of a shark and a seal.  Two new feats just for bunyips are introduced, which is a bit strange.  The idea is a bit bland.

* Chupacabras (a modern Puerto Rican legend), bloodsucking creatures that walk on two legs and sneak around at night to feast on livestock and pets.  The stealthy nature of the creatures and the fact that they could easily be confused by PCs with vampires or other dangers would make them a good story element for a low-level campaign set in rural areas.  A magical weapon, the Chupar Pick, is introduced.

*  Death Worms (the Mongolian "Olgoi-Khorkhoi"), which, as the name implies, are gargantuan subterranean worms that live in desert areas and can spit acid and electricity.  Despite the added attack styles, Pathfinder has enough giant worms and I don't think much is added here.  This section includes a new magic item to see creatures moving underground, Vitreous Goggles.

* Mokele-Mbembe (a Congo legend), a massive saurian that is basically a swamp dinosaur with long spines down its back.  Again, a bit bland.  A new magic weapon, the Mokele-Mbembe Tail Whip, is introduced.

* Mothman (a West Virginia legend), a strange, unearthly winged humanoid that appears just before terrible disasters for an inexplicable reason.  This was the first entry in the book that really caught my eye as something that would be fascinating to add into a campaign.  The new magic item introduced here, a Mothman Memento, is also well done.

* Sandpoint Devil (based on the Jersey Devil), a winged-horse that stands on two legs and has demonic teeth and horns.  I'm running Rise of the Runelords right now which of course has Sandpoint as its setting, so I'm partial to this entry.

* Sasquatch (Bigfoot), a forest-dwelling apelike creature.  A cursed item called a Sasquatch Skull is introduced here.

* Sea Serpents (from many cultures), enormous snakes large enough to sink entire ships.  Could be interesting as a major storyline in an aquatic-themed campaign.  A new magic weapon, the Serpentseeker Bow, is introduced.

* Water Orms (the Loch Ness Monster), lake-dwelling saurials that are enormously reclusive.

* Yeti (the Abominable Snowman), alpine beasts with sharp claws and teeth.  I really liked the lore added by the book here, as they portray Yeti as the nobel guardians of portals to dangerous extra-dimensional lands like the Lovecraftian Leng.  A magic item called Leng Tea is introduced.

The book does a good job emphasizing that these legendary creatures really need to be built up over a period of time in a campaign.  If you just drop a random Sea Serpent attack in while the PCs are on a boat, then Sea Serpents are just another monster.  But if you depict sailors and dock-workers growing increasingly frightened over the course of several sessions by the legendary Ashen Worm, then it means something when/if a fight actually takes place.  In other words, these creatures aren't meant for random encounters but are instead best used as driving forces for story-lines that can include investigation, tracking, red herrings, scam artists, and more.  That being said, only a couple of the creatures listed in the book really struck me as elements I'd love to bring into a campaign.  Many left me feeling "meh."  So in sum, I'd say that Mystery Monsters Revisited isn't a *bad* book, but it shouldn't be a high-priority for readers.

Cheliax, Empire of Devils [RPG]

Cheliax, Empire of Devils is a solid entry in Paizo's line of Player's Companions for Pathfinder.  The nation of Cheliax provides a far different feel than that of most fantasy, as it's a land where the rulers have openly made pacts with the devils!  It's a dark and oppressive place to live, and one wrong word can bring the Inquisitors to one's door.  I've read about several different areas in Golarion, and Cheliax is one of the most interesting and original.  Cheliax, Empire of Devils contains the following:

* A map of the city of Westcrown on the inside front cover.  The map isn't particularly good or detailed, and one doesn't see any cartographic talent at work.

* A twelve-page overview of Cheliax.  This is one of those all-too rare occasions where the history of a fictional land is actually quite fascinating!  This section a lot of useful information on the culture of Cheliax, as well as its leadership, perception of neighboring countries, organizations (such as the famous Hellknights), and even a few paragraphs on the arts scene(!).  Some of this will naturally be more useful to GMs than players, but it was still done well.

*  A two-page description of Egorian, a major city in Cheliax.  There's a brief overview of the different districts of the town, but this was fairly bland.

* A two-page description of Westcrown, Cheliax's former capital before the pact with demons was made.  As with the discussion of Egorian, there's not a lot of detail here and the material is probably of more interest to GMs.

* A section titled "Social" that contains brief one- or two-line descriptions of how the different core classes are perceived in Cheliax and then several new traits.  This may be the most useful part of the book for PCs, and it's done well (if short).

* Four pages on "Magic & Spells", introducing several new magic items and spells.  Good flavour links them to Cheliax.

* Two pages on "Faith."  Purely descriptive, but good as far as it goes.

* "Combat", another two-page section.  This is chock-full of feats, but contains an interesting sidebar on battle slang and one new weapon.

* Four NPCs detailed (with descriptions, pictures, and full stat blocks) in a "Persona" section.  This would be really useful for a GM, but (apart from maybe integration into a backstory) of little value to players.

* The inside back cover has a map of Egorian.  It's better than the map of Westcrown, but still falls a bit flat.

A word about the art: oddly, the cover art is much worse than the interior art!  There's some absolutely gorgeous artwork inside (see pages 20 and 26 for examples).

Overall, this is another of Paizo's early entries in the Player's Companion line wherein they still hadn't found the right distinction between material for players and material for GMs.  That being said, it's a good book and I'd recommend it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Qadira, Gateway to the East [RPG]

Qadira, Gateway to the East is a 36-page source book about what could be called the "Arabian Nights" area of Golarion.  Retroactively listed as part of the Pathfinder "Player's Companion" line of books, this is probably as much or more for the GM rather than players.  It's an impressive and well-written overview of the land, and there's definitely a lot of bang for the buck here.  The book includes a full-color map of Qadira (sparsely annotated, to be fair) on the inside front-cover and is then separated into seven sections:

* A ten-page introduction to Qadira.  This section discusses the history of the area, its political situation in terms of leadership and relationship to nearby lands, what goods are traded, and how the people are divided into four groups: nobles, citizens, slaves, and foreigners.  It also includes descriptions of major cities and landmarks in Qadira.  A sidebar introduces one new feat, one new combat trait, and two new regional traits.

* A four-page section labelled "Society."  This is a quite useful overview of how the core races and classes are perceived in Qadira, and has a useful (if brief) discussion of cultural quirks.  This  section would be quite useful for players interested in creating a Qadiran PC.  A new social trait appears here.

* A four-page overview of Katheer, an important city in Qadira.  This section includes a half-page map, discussion of some major areas of the city, and four individual NPCs (description only, no stat blocks) that could come into contact with adventurers.  Two new regional traits and an item are introduced here.  This section is mostly for the GM.

* A two-page section titled "Combat" that consists solely of a prestige class called a Daivrat (a spellcaster who befriends genies).  I've never played or seen one of these in a session, but the mechanical abilities don't seem to really do enough to draw out the flavour of the concept.

* Two pages titled "Faith."  This section includes very brief discussions of the role of Irori, Sarenrae, Rovagug, Abadar, and Gorum in Qadira before introducing a pretty powerful new item ("War Kilt of Sarenrae") and a new feat ("Dervish Dance").

* "Magic," a short section that mentions some different traditions of magic in Qadira (like Veil Magic, Warding Magic, and Gen Magic) but unhelpfully doesn't cover in any detail whether these traditions have any real differences compared to the common schools of magic.  Five new regional traits and the alchemical substance silversheen are introduced here.

* A six-page bestiary with stat-blocks for the half-janni, suli, and zhyen.

As best I can tell, much of this book was written before Paizo had clearly differentiated between its Player's Companion line and its Campaign Setting line.  Qadira, Gateway to the East has much more in it of interest to GMs (a bestiary, an overview of a major city, etc.) than it does to players, while still introducing enough traits, feats, and even a prestige class to hold some value to players.  It's a bit of a confusing mix, but, as I mentioned, it's a well-written product overall.  More recent comers to Pathfinder might be warned that the artwork, although fine, is not up to the later Paizo standard.

As this review is being written, a new book about Qadira is on the horizon, titled (rather too similarly) "Qadira, Jewel of the East."

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition Player's Guide [RPG]

Paizo's adventure paths for the Pathfinder RPG are an excellent idea: a single long campaign, with six separate chapters, sufficient to take a party from Level 1 all the way up to the Level 15-18.  This past summer, I started directing my first adventure path, Rise of the Runelords, using the "Anniversary Edition" hardcover (which collects and updates the original adventure path featured in the monthly Pathfinder magazine).  I think the adventure path is fantastic so far and am having a blast, but I have to say the one part that lets the campaign down is the Player's Guide.

The Player's Guide, which is free to download from Paizo.com, is intended to introduce players to the adventure path by giving them some background on the setting of the adventure, the type of stories that will be told, and sufficient links to the first chapter so their PCs know where they are when the campaign begins.  The Anniversary Edition Player's Guide offers 1 page of helpful "Character Tips" (explaining that the adventure path involves ancient lost cultures, fighting giant monsters, and surface exploration) and then offers several excellent campaign traits (connections to the path's starting location, Sandpoint, along with a permanent mechanical advantage of some type).  There's then a color map of Sandpoint and a very small map of Varisia.  So far, so good.  But the entire remainder of the Player's Guide consists of *nine pages* of description of various landmarks in Varisia, the vast majority of which the PCs will never visit and which are of no particular interest to the players; frankly, it's rather boring.  The material is a copy of the material that appeared in the third volume of the adventure path, but should have been added, if anywhere, to the Anniversary Edition itself (though, with a separate sourcebook on Varisia available to GMs, it might not be necessary at all). Finally, there are two pages of ads for products that will only be of interest to the GM, not the players!

When the Anniversary Edition Player's Guide is compared to the original Player's Guide for the 3.5 edition of the adventure path, the faults of the new version become even more clear.  The old Player's Guide featured an introduction to the three human ethnicities that are the dominate players in Varisia (Shoanti, Varisians, and Chelaxians), an explanation of how all of the core races are like in Golarion and Varisia, an overview of how the different core classes are perceived in the setting, an overview of the deities of Golarion, some flavourful equipment particular to Varisia, and a two-page spread on Sandpoint that gives just enough of an introduction to the town without spoiling anything.  All of this information is especially useful to players who have never adventured in Golarion before.

If I had to do it all over again, I would give the players the old Player's Guide along with a link to the Archives of Nethys list of campaign traits for the Anniversary Edition.  I'm confident this way would be a more enjoyable and flavourful introduction to the campaign.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Inner Sea Monster Codex [PATHFINDER CAMPAIGN SETTING]

The Inner Sea Monster Codex is a 64-page entry discussing ten different monstrous races for the Pathfinder RPG.  The write-up for each monster includes background on the monster in the official campaign setting of Golarion, a summary of common encounters, and full stat blocks and pictures for various members of the race.  In addition, many of the races include new features like archetypes, traps, oracle curses, feats, magic items, spells, etc.  The monsters covered are:

* Centaurs.  Everyone knows what these are, and centaurs in Golarion follow the fantasy tradition of being stubborn and xenophobic.  This section includes a new archetype for centaur cavaliers called the Charger.

* Charau-Ka.  I had never heard of this type of monster before.  Charau-Ka are basically primitive ape-men, violent and brutal scavengers in Golarion's jungles.  This section includes several Charau-Ka traps, many of which are quite creative and would be fun to use in a game.

* Cyclops.  In Golarion, cyclops have a strong diviner/oracle flavour and are seen as quite rare.  New oracle curses and a Cyclopean oracle archetype, the Cyclopean Seer, is included here.

* Derros.  Everyone's favourite crazy evil gnomes.  I really like their portrayal here as hidden threats that lurk underneath urban areas and kidnap surface-dwellers for strange experiments before brainwashing them to forget the whole thing.  It would be quite easy to get PCs involved in investigating the mystery of missing persons.  Several new alchemist discoveries are added.

* Gillmen.  Merfolk that have a special role in Golarion lore as descendants of the ancient Azlanti people.  I assume Gillmen will get even more attention in the upcoming (at the time of this review) Ruins of Azlant adventure path.  I've never done much with aquatic races, but for those interested, several Gillman magic items are included here.

* Girtablilus.  Another new one for me: basically, giant scorpions with human upper bodies (think centaurs but swap giant scorpions for horses!).  In Golarion, they mainly appear in desert settings and as guardians of ancient ruins.  I wasn't particularly impressed, but your mileage may vary.  Two new druid domains (Ruins and Vermin) are introduced here, along with a new oracle curse (Site-bound) and a Girtablilu-specific feat.

* Minotaurs.  In Golarion, minotaurs are the product of the demon goddess Lamashtu, but full the stereotypical role of guarding ancient labyrinths.  There wasn't anything revelatory here for me.  Four new spells are introduced that all focus on creating illusions to confuse travelers.

* Ogrekin. Mutated, deformed, and disfigured freaks.  One gets a "The Hills Have Eyes" vibe.  I quite liked the two tables of Beneficial and Disadvantageous deformities for the ogrekin, and there's also a template for creating half-ogres.

* Strix.  Very cool looking winged humanoids who live on remote mountain perches.  I could definitely imagine doing something with them.  Six new feats for creatures with natural wings are included here.

* Urdefhan.  Creepy demon-worshipping monsters from another plane who live in the Darklands (Golarion's equivalent of the Underdark).  Nightmare-fuel that's perfect for adding some horror to a session.  Six new feats (Urdefhan-specific) are included.

The artwork is uniformly excellent--really, it's as good as it gets in fantasy RPGs.  Although not every monstrous race presented here was my cup of tea, there's enough creativity and mechanics crunch to make the book worth purchasing if any of the creatures presented here appeal to you as a GM.  Do note that this is primarily a GM's book; although some of the mechanics options (feats, spells, etc.) could be used by PCs, most have a prerequisite tied to being one of the monstrous races.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dungeons of Golarion [PATHFINDER CAMPAIGN SETTING]

This 64-page sourcebook is an introduction and overview of six different "mega-dungeons" in Golarion, the setting for the Pathfinder RPG.  For each megadungeon, a sideview schematic shows how the various levels are arranged and connected.  Next, each level (usually arranged from easiest to hardest) is given a one-paragraph description and ideas for the types of threats present there.  Each megadungeon also includes a write-up of a new monster, a trap, and a new magic item or spell found within.  A couple of adventure hooks to lure PCs to the megadungeon complete each section.

The six megadungeons covered are:

* Candlestone Caverns, a complex in rural Andoran occupied by various monstrous humanoids (especially kobolds) and linked to the Darklands.

* Gallowspire, the famous fortress in Ustalav that contains the power of the undead lich The Whispering Tyrant.  The backstory here is fascinating and the description is quite evocative for would-be undead slayers.

* Hollow Mountain, a peak on an island off the coast of Varisia that was the capital of the Thassilonian Runelord of Wrath's domain.  The book's great cover depicts one of her sinspawn.

* The Pyramid of Kamara, a foreboding pyramid in Osirion that is the tomb of a Rovagug-worshipping pharaoh.  I quite liked how the top level is occupied by con-artists who stage fake mummy attacks for the entertainment of tourists.

* The Red Redoubt of Karamoss, an ancient subterranean structure near Absalom that was the home of a wizard who built technological marvels based on research in Numeria.  Robots and techno devices galore still exist within.

* The Zolurket Mines, an ancient dwarven mine corrupted by a necromantic mineral that has turned the original miners into ghouls!

The important thing about this book is that, as cool as the outlines are, none of the megadungeons are anywhere near being playable without a tremendous amount of work by a GM in producing level maps, stocking those levels with monsters, and figuring out treasure.  Also this is another high-quality Paizo product, it's really only for those GMs who have a LOT of time on their hands but need inspiration.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Piers Anthony's Sos the Rope (Planet Stories # 25)

Rather ridiculous!  The premise here is that in a post-apocalyptic (nuclear blast) society, three groups of people exist: the "crazies" who live in settlements and distribute food, health care, and weapons; the hidden "Heliconians" who live in highly-advanced, secret refuges and produce everything that the crazies distribute; and the "nomads", wandering warriors who challenge each other to fights in a "battle circle" in order to win the right to have a particular name or status.  Sos, the main character, is a nomad with the intelligence of a crazy, and he gets involved in setting up another nomad, Sol, as the leader of a tribe of warriors that is growing so strong it threatens to upset the balance between the three groups of people.  So Sos is extorted by the Heliconians to depose Sol, and blah blah blah.  It feels a bit inane even to type it out.  The politics are unconvincing, the gender issues are highly problematic, and one comes away feeling like it's all just . . . dumb!  The action scenes are well-drawn, and to be fair the main character goes through several moral dilemmas about what to do; but his inner psychology is ultimately unconvincing.  Apparently, this was the first of a "Battle Circle" trilogy.  The introduction to the Planet Stories edition makes it sound like this was Shakespeare--trust me, it's not.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Prince [NORTON]

Everyone's heard of The Prince, and the adjective "Machiavellian" has become a regular part of the English language.  It was illuminating to re-read the text and the critical essays contained in the Norton Critical Edition.  The essays helped place the text  within the context of the discourse up to the time of Machiavelli's writing, in which long treatments of statesmanship were centred around abstract and unrealistic exhortations to virtue.  The reason The Prince became so (in)famous was because it broke with that tradition and explicitly set morality aside in order to act as a practical primer on how a ruler could stay in power given the ever-changing currents of war, diplomacy, and popular unrest around him or her.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned was that, despite the assistance he may have provided to would-be tyrants and dictators, Machiavelli lived in the republican city-state of Florence and was a strong believer in the benefits of the republican form of government over monarchies and other types of government that he had first-hand experience with as a professional diplomat.  On the other side, the great admiration that Machiavelli had for the diabolical Cesare Borgia is a testament that he really believed in what he wrote.  I wished the edition had a better essay summarizing Machiavelli's life and detailing what led to his torture and retirement from public life.

[Note that the second edition is pictured here, but I have the first edition]

Monday, December 5, 2016

Magnimar, City of Monuments [PATHFINDER CAMPAIGN SETTING]

Magnimar, City of Monuments is the first book I've picked up in Paizo's line of campaign setting books for the Pathfinder role-playing game (I'm running an adventure path in which the PCs are likely to visit).  The book is out of print now, so I secured my copy from a used-book seller (PDFs can be bought from paizo.com).  The first thing that stands out is the cover--fantastic!  One of my favorite pieces of art from the game, and something that would make a cool poster.  On the interior front cover is a map of the city, showing its division into nine different districts.  The book is then divided into three main parts.

The first main part consists of sections on each of the districts and has a smaller map of just that district (which is why the main map on the inside front cover is done at a very high level of abstraction).  The district sections include a separate stat block which is a nice touch and then includes capsule descriptions of a handful of prominent locations.  Occasional sidebars are throughout the book, such as "Nine Famous Magnimarians" or "Thieves and Thugs of Magnimar".  I frankly found the district sections a bit boring to read straight through, but I think as a reference and game preparation aid they would be quite useful.  Most importantly, they detail one of the things that sets Magnimar apart from other cities in Golarion: the presence of ancient monuments (dating to the time of Thassilon) which, if the correct rituals are performed by the PCs, give them temporary mechanical bonuses.  It's a great way to tie the city's history into something that your players will care about because the flavour is matched with bonus crunch.  Before I get to the last two parts of the book, I'll again praise the artwork: the interior pictures of NPCs and important buildings are gorgeous.  Just look at the Forever Man on p. 46 and try to suppress adventure ideas!

The second part is titled "Plots and Perils".  It includes brief overviews on the hinterlands around Magnimar, the city's sewers, a villainous organization called the Midnight Dawn, and, most importantly, the Irespan--the ancient, enormous bridge whose remnants conceal secrets from thousands of years ago.  For a campaign set in Magnimar, the Irespan would be a natural site of adventure and has enough to interest PCs for some time.

The third part, "Denizens", includes something I appreciate: random encounter tables, separated by day and night, for different parts of Magnimar.  I do wish there'd be a guide on how often one should roll on the tables, but I guess that's left to GM discretion.  Next, there are descriptions and stat blocks for monsters and NPC types: Angelic Guardians, Aspis Agents, City Guards and Captains, Mystery Cultists, Night Scale Assassins, Sczarni Thugs, Shifty Nobles, and Shoanti Gladiators, Shriezyx (the spider monsters featured on the cover), Swamp Barracudas (again, great artwork), the Vyrdrach (a gargantuan creature that can capsize large ships), and, last, a celestial called a Yamah.

Discussion by commenters on the Paizo site correctly notes that the table of contents for the book could be much improved (it only has three entries, one for each of the big parts of the book) and that the book is lacking an index.  These things can be an editorial chore when deadlines loom, but they make a big difference in how useful a product is in the middle of a gaming session--no one wants to sit and wait for the GM to flip through to find that one inn they wanted to describe for the PCs.

All in all though, I was quite happy with the book.  Magnimar seems like a fairly "safe" place for PCs to visit, but has enough adventure lurking right outside (or underneath, or overhead) that it could serve well as the centre of a campaign.  It'll certainly help me with the adventure path as well.  I'm looking forward to reading the other books detailing cities in Varisia.

Blood of the City [PATHFINDER TALES]

Blood of the City was the first Pathfinder novel I've read.  I picked it up because the setting of the story, the Varisian city of Magnimar, is relevant to the Rise of the Runelords adventure path I'm running.  The story follows the cool concept of an "urban druid" (though never called that by name) who is part of a family of semi-aristocratic trouble-shooters.  There's an amazing twist about a third of the way into the book that I couldn't believe at first.  Overall, the novel was fast-paced and interesting, with good character development.  It also served its purpose as a good introduction to Magnimar, including its Chellish inhabitants, how Shoanti are perceived, the role of the Mayor, etc..  I would definitely read more by the author.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Prince of Wolves [PATHFINDER TALES]

Prince of Wolves is the first in a line of novel-length fiction set in the world of Golarion, home of the Pathfinder role-playing game.  Written by Dave Gross, the book consists of alternating chapters told from two points of views: an aristocratic Pathfinder (professional explorer and knowledge-hunter) named Varian Jeggare and his bodyguard, a rough-and-tumble streetsmart Hell-touched bodyguard named Radovan.  The pair are on a mission in Ustalav (a land of mists, moors, and the undead reminiscent of Ravenloft) in order to find out the fate of another missing Pathfinder.  Both of the main characters are interesting, as neither fits squarely into an "adventuring class" and they have distinct but likable personalities.  The plotting seems a bit rough in spots, but was solid overall.  Gross wasn't shy about littering the book with references to Golarion, so fans of the campaign setting should be happy.  After reading the book, I learned there were some short stories published on the Paizo website that gave a great deal of backstory to the characters--I wish the novel would have mentioned them!