Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Space 1889 and "A Voyage to Luna" [RPG]

As part of my continuing (though occasional) efforts to play some of the RPGs on my shelf that aren't Pathfinder, I recently ran a four-session adventure with Space 1889.  The concept behind Space 1889  is that humans in the Victorian era are able to travel to other nearby planets in the solar system using specially-designed sailing vessels (drawing upon the historical idea that "ether" separates the planets).  The planets are inhabited by different alien races (of the pulp fiction variety), and there's something of a space race going on by the major world powers to colonize and exploit the planets.  I ran the introductory adventure, "A Voyage to Luna" that came with the core rulebook first published in 1989.  The story sees the PCs accompany an "ether flyer" inventor on a perilous journey to Luna (the moon).  The ship crashes, of course, and to escape the PCs have to deal with giant ant-people, lunar caterpillars, and a crazy Russian mad scientist with a freezing ray gun!  The system is clearly dated and cumbersome, and the story wasn't the best, but I had a blast due to the great role-playing of the players.  There was George, a Canadian military officer capable of pummelling even the greatest threats with his fists, Cora, a British adventuress who bristled against the patriarchy of the time, and Fanny Smith, an American actress who just wanted to be taken care of.  These little experiments with odd games have proven to be a lot of fun, so I'll have to cook up something again next year.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 29 [RPG]

[8 Neth 4707 continued]

Goblin Ghasts
The exploration of the caverns under Foxglove Manor continues.  After navigating some twisting passageways, a choice of directions presents itself.  The adventurers proceed down one branch in single-file and emerge into a foul-smelling cavern heaped with bones.  But Arnald, in the rear of the marching order, doesn’t hear that the adventurers are being stalked.  From out of the darkness behind him, a ghoul-tainted goblin emerges and attacks!  The creature carries with it such an overpowering stench that both Arnald and Kang become physically ill, and the merest touch of the creature’s claw paralyzes Arnald!  Kang hurls a makeshift firebomb at the creature, but his throw goes awry and both he, Arnald, and the creature are burned by the resulting blast.  But the situation escalates from bad to worse when the adventurers realize that the creature, known to Kang as a goblin ghast, is not alone: three others emerge from the shadows with saliva dripping from their mouths.

Briza heroically runs to stand in front of the paralyzed Arnald and, although trying to trip the ghast, she ends up crushing its legs and destroying it.  Artemis lets loose with an arrow and destroys one of the ghasts attacking the front of their formation.  Briza, after dropping another one, charges back to the front to deal with the final ghast—but she ends up paralyzed and several yards away from her allies!  Kang shouts “death from above!” as he drinks from a vial and flies into the air to protect his “assistant” from having her throat ripped out.  Kang is clawed multiple times for his troubles, but he still has the strength to drop a bomb on the creature and destroy it.

The adventurers rest for several minutes before continuing their explorations.  They find their way to a massive chamber with a cathedral-like vaulted ceiling and a spiralling stone ledge that leads down into a surging pool of water below.  Discussion is had about investigating the pool, but Artemis is intent on picking the sophisticated lock barring passage through a stout stone door nearby.  When, after some minutes, he hears the tell-tale click of success, he summons his allies to take up formation and ready themselves for danger.  Arnald takes point this time, with Bey close behind him.  Arnald throws the door open and is treated to a sight he never would have imagined.

Inside a damp cave reeking with a horrific stench is a small oak table and a large leather chair stained by smears of rotten meat and blood; and sitting in the chair is Aldern Foxglove, his stylish and expensive clothes now torn and covered in the putrescence of death.  Aldern is busy clumsily using bits of blood and runny, rotten flesh to cover over a painting with a face that looks like a ghastly image of Bey!  Aldern expresses his delight in having visitors, and welcomes Arnald in for tea or punch. Bey utters an incantation to bless her friends and, upon hearing her voice, Aldern realizes the object of his twisted love is present.  He rushes over to Bey, drops to his knees and proclaims that from the moment she saved his life at the Swallowtail Festival he knew they were meant to be together, and that when their eyes met as he bandaged her wound at the boar hunt he knew she felt the same way.  He finishes his declaration of love by saying that once the others are dead, they can be together for eternity!

Bey, nonplussed, tells Aldern that she’s here to assist him in finding a true end to his life.  Artemis fires an arrow that grazes Aldern’s arm, and suddenly Aldern starts to sob.  “I’m sorry Bey, I tried to resist.  But I can’t keep him from coming.  He’s here . . . THE HURTER!”  Aldern suddenly jumps to his feet and draws a wicked-looking war razor from his belt.  Bey moves past him to make room for the others to enter the room and Aldern seems to be fighting with himself to resist slashing at her, with the result that he slashes himself instead.  Bey spirals into her apocalyptic mystery and suddenly bursts into flames.  As his flesh turns red and starts to crackle, Aldern drops to his knees again.  He begs for Bey to save him as he sobs.  “They made me do it!  The Brothers of the Seven! I had borrowed money to rebuild the manor.  And collecting the rats and the fungus.  I didn’t mean to kill Iesha—I saw her with that tradesman and just got so angry!  Please understand, our love is pure.  No . . . . no . . . . he’s coming!  Worse than the Hurter.  The Skinsaw Man!  Run!”

The Skinsaw Man
Aldern raises his arms over his head and pulls down a mask made from overlapping layers of human skin.  It transforms into a hideous visage of Bey as he bows and quiet calmly explains that he will murder Bey and all of her friends, one by one, but that he’ll take his time as they plead for an end to the pain.  The battle is well and truly-joined as the adventurers crowd into the room to surround Aldern.  The fighting is bloody and brutal but ends when Artemis shoots an arrow through the back of Aldern’s throat.  The burning, blood-soaked corpse falls forward onto Bey as a last whisper leaves its throat:  “All . . . For  . . . You.”

Briza rushes up next to Bey to offer her support, but she brushes up against something that, in the heat of battle, no one had time to observe: the western wall of the cave has been overtaken by a horrific growth of dark green mold and dripping fungi, and in the center a patch of black tumescent fungus grows in a shape that appears almost humanoid in outline.  On the floor near the patch are the broken pieces of some kind of puzzle box.  Briza is overcome by a feeling of vertigo as the others notice the pieces of the box start to rattle, and then she feels a powerful compulsion to turn towards the wall and begin devouring the fungus!  But somehow, her willpower is strong enough that she manages to resist the compulsion and she pulls herself away.

Kang moves up to examine the fungus and realizes that it’s extremely rare, extremely deadly, and only recently discovered.  It’s been given the name “Vorel’s Phage” and certain nefarious organizations have been known to covet it.  As the patch on the wall has been infused with necromantic energy, Kang speculates that it will grow back unless powerful divine magicks are used to cleanse it.  Artemis speculates that the strange shape is the outcome of Vorel Foxglove’s failed attempt to become a lich, and that his soul could still be trapped within the house.  He also surmises that Aldern’s reference to the Brothers of the Seven could refer to a “secret” society of foppish aristocrats in Magnimar.  A search of Aldern’s body leads to the discovery of several valuable magical items, such as an enchanted signet ring.  Meanwhile, a search of a nearby table reveals a disturbing collection of items related to Aldern’s obsession with Bey.  Mixed in with a stack of erotic drawings is a letter written in a graceful hand addressed to Aldern’s townhouse in the Grand Arch District in Magnimar.  The letter thanks Aldern for a mysterious delivery “harvested from the caverns” and says his debt to the Brothers is paid.  It continues on that, after Aldern’s “rebirth”, he should begin to carry out something called the “Sihedron ritual” on a particular list of victims so that “the greed in their souls will not go to waste.”  Finally, it notes that agents will be waiting at his townhouse to contact him should he need assistance.  The letter is signed “Xanesha, Mistress of the Seven.” 

The revelation that Aldern was operating on orders from someone else leads the adventurers to agree that a trip to Magnimar is in order.  Artemis notes he’ll need to get special permission from Sheriff Hemlock in order to leave his post.  Kang, operating on a hunch that something might be hidden within the humanoid-shaped fungus on the wall, clears the room and hurls a firebomb at it.  A mithral tube about a foot-long, covered in the fungus, falls to the ground.  Bey identifies it as a chime of opening, but, after much back and forth, it’s determined to be too dangerous to use given the toxicity of the fungus.  The adventurers make a cursory search of the pool in the adjoining room before deciding it’s time to leave the cavern, and Foxglove Manor, behind for good.
Letter from Xanesha to Aldern
-----------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary


 This session was all about the Skinsaw Man.  Since this was the big climax of of the murder "mystery" and the Foxglove Manor chapter, I really wanted it to be good.  Prepping it was a real challenge, because you have to to RP three different personalities (that trigger at specific times) and make sure each conveys the exposition necessary to make for a satisfying story, while keeping up the pace and horror of the moment.  I did some practice runs alone in my living room--I shudder to think what the neighbors thought!  Still, I was really happy with how it all came together.  He wasn't a huge threat in a combat-sense (which I could predict from the forums), but he at least lasted a few rounds.  All in all, a really good session that I was proud of running.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 28 [RPG]

[7 Neth 4707 continued]

In the aftermath of Briza’s attempted self-mutilation, the adventurers take stock of their dire situation.  Exhausted and hurt, they need rest but the prospect of spending the night within Foxglove Manor is far from appealing.  Yet, if they venture outside, they must face the menace of thousands of undead ravens.  After much back and forth, Bey convinces a reluctant Artemis that the group should hole up in a “safe” room and wait out the night.  The adventurers return to the first floor of the house, check on the horses, and then barricade themselves within the mold-covered drawing room.  The brave (or foolish) explorers alternate watches through the night, but when they can sleep, their rest is disturbed by terrifying dreams of being trapped within a crumbling house that gets smaller and smaller or of being stalked by a shapeless monster.  Still, despite the nightmares, their inner mental fortitude prevails and they wake in the morning better off for having rested.

[8 Neth 4707]

Artemis and Briza go to the front entrance hall to check on their horses.  Although their mounts are fine, Briza catches a whiff of burning hair.  Artemis suddenly cries out in agony.  In his mind, the stuffed manticore has once again burst into flame and lashed out at him with a fiery tail.  Briza sees red welts erupt on Artemis’ arms, and the two make a hasty withdrawal back to the drawing room where the others are finishing their preparations for another day in Foxglove Manor.  Hearing about what happened leads Bey to conclude that it would be extremely dangerous to revisit any of the areas where strange phenomena occurred the day before.  The adventurers settle on a new plan: to strike at what they hope is the heart of the evil that permeates The Misgivings by venturing into its depths. 

As the walls start to bleed and more sobbing can be heard from somewhere above, the adventurers hurry down the staircase to the basement kitchen.  They argue about where to go next, since several closed doors line the hallway.  They eventually decide to start with the two doors directly off of the kitchen: one leads to a pantry that reeks of rat droppings, while the other is a dusty, empty wine cellar.  Briza’s keen eyes notice a seam in the back wall, and she pushes on it to reveal a hidden alcove.  Inside are several valuable bottles of what Kang identifies as fine wine from the Vigardeis vineyard in distant Cheliax.  Having discovered little of monetary worth in Foxglove Manor up to this point, the adventurers carefully add the bottles to their packs.


A dilemma now faces the party: the only unopened door they know about in the basement lays in the observatory that they fled from the day previously when Briza was possessed and a veritable storm of animated carrion flew through a broken window.  Artemis persuades Arnald, who has remained almost completely quiet since entering the house, to use his adamantine axe to literally chop through a wall so that the adventurers can bypass the observatory.  The sellsword quietly complies, and within seconds access is gained to a narrow corridor.  Briza takes point and leads the group to a chamber whose floor has been broken apart to reveal an ancient set of stone stairs spiralling down into the darkness below.  A foul stink, like that of rotten meat, wafts up from the hole, the bottom of which is so far down it can’t be seen until Artemis lowers an everburning torch on a rope to reveal a natural cavern floor covered in mold.

Briza starts to descend carefully, but as soon as Bey sets foot on the steps, she begins shaking and thrashing as deep red claw and bite wounds appear on her flesh.  In her mind she watches as Aldern Foxglove, filthy and wild-eyed, digs away at the stone floor of the chamber with a pickaxe—and with each swing, he grunts “for you” while looking directly at her.  As the vision ends, Aldern breaks through the room beyond and a horde of shrieking ghouls pull him into the darkness—and then launch themselves at Bey!  The terrifying vision ends, but the physical wounds are very real and remain.

The stairs finally end in a limestone cavern, the walls of which drip with moisture and the floors of which are covered with rubble and broken bones.  Tunnels branch off to the west.  Although the spelunkers have masked themselves with Bey’s Hide from Undead abjuration, the light of their torches stands out like a beacon in the darkness around them.  In mere seconds, shuffling sounds can be heard approaching.  The adventurers take up defensive positions.

Two waves of ghouls rush out of the tunnels, but the defenders are ready for them: Kang hurls devastating alchemical bombs, Artemis fires pinpoint arrows, Bey slashes with her bardiche, and Arnald and Briza cut wide swathes through the attackers with their greataxe and greatsword respectively.  In a few furious seconds, several ghouls are destroyed in the fighting and none of the adventurers are seriously hurt.  A search of the corpses reveals that one of them has a partially smashed-in skull (made prior to the fight) from which a broken chunk of stone protrudes—and it matches the missing wing from the statuette found in the first floor’s library.

Having met with success so far, the adventurers decide to press their advantage.  They pick one of the western tunnels to explore and find a cavern covered in a particularly thick yellow mold.  Spores from the mold sicken Kang, but he’s able to quickly prepare a concoction to cure himself and decides to take a sample for future testing.  Bey discerns, through the use of her magicks, that a discarded mining pick is actually enchanted for strength, and Artemis promises he can put it to good use.

A different tunnel leads to a long cave that stinks of rotten meat; the source of the horrific smell is readily apparent as several half-eaten animal and humanoid carcasses are strewn about!  Eyes glowing with unearthly green energy suddenly swoop down from the darkness near the ceiling of the cavern as an ear-splitting screech fills the air.  Kang is disoriented by the sound but the others keep their wits about them as a monstrously-sized bat with decayed flesh attacks.  Arnald is paralyzed by its bite, but Artemis knocks it out of the air with two well-placed arrows and Kang blows it to pieces with another alchemical grenade.  A search of the carcasses reveals that one of them wears a black top hat which Bey identifies as a hat of disguise, while another wears a pearl ring and has an adamantine longsword: Kang takes possession of the latter two items.

The time for ghostly apparitions and nightmares has passed, as the adventurers find very real enemies to sink their steel into.  But by having descended so far below the surface of Foxglove Manor, have they gotten closer or further away from the answers they seek?
--------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (October 10, 2017)

Here we see the PCs, not for the first time, doing something that the AP considers "suicidal": spending the night in Foxglove Manor.  Yet, they all made their Will saves and got away with it!

There's a reference to Arnald being extremely quiet in the session.  Usually that's code for the player being away and the character lurking in the background, but this time the player was there and the character was just really, really quiet for a span of sessions.

I like the caverns underneath Foxglove Manor.  They're what one would expect in terms of creepiness, but sometimes the classics are just right.  The downside to the PCs going below first (and may have talked about this elsewhere) is that they'll end up completely missing everything upstairs, and especially what's in the attic.  Those of you familiar with the AP know that means a major plot element of this section and several haunts are missed.  But different groups are going to do things in different ways, so that's inevitable.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Starfinder Society Quest: "Into the Unknown" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Into the Unknown is the first "Quest" for Starfinder Society.  Quests are a little bit different than standard scenarios because they're a series of five 1-hour long encounters that can be played together to get a complete story or individually (even out of order) to get a taste of what the game is like.  If you sit down and play through it from beginning to end, you won't notice any difference between a Quest and and a standard scenario.  I ran this for three experienced players running their own characters.   It's not a challenging adventure, but it has a great starting hook and a good understanding of science fantasy story beats. I think Into the Unknown does a nice job introducing players to some of the core concepts of Starfinder, such as the Starfinder Society, Absalom Station, space combat, exploring alien planets, and so forth. I can't quite recommend this whole-heartedly because of how easy it is (especially the starship combat), but overall it's a solid introduction to the system and its setting.

SPOILERS

The hook is solid: months ago, a Starfinder Society ship named the Unbounded Wayfarer was on a long-range exploration mission in the Vast when it suddenly ceased contact.  Back on Absalom Station, the Society presumed the ship was lost forever until word arrived that someone was on the Station selling the crew's insignias at a local pawn shop!  Obviously, someone knows something about the missing ship.

In the first quest, "Station," the PCs are dispatched to the pawnbroker to persuade him to divulge information about the seller of the insignias.  The pawnbroker is given a classic "blustering tough-guy" personality, and this is a good role-playing scene for new players.  From one perspective it's a bit silly in that, whether the PCs make or fail their Diplomacy/Intimidate checks, they get the information they need to continue to the next scene, but drafting non-railroady adventures is difficult in this context.  The PCs then follow the information to an interesting setting that helps show why Absalom Station is unique: the "Vat Gardens", a place where impoverished locals are allowed to dump the bodies of their deceased loved ones for free (and, in return, the bodies serve as nutrients for the soil).  Here, a disguised ghoul named Exegara is collecting skulls, protected by some recently-hired mercenaries.  The PCs need to capture or destroy Exegara, because she's the one who sold the Starfinders' insignias.  I like the encounter, because it has some elements that complicate things: walkways around the vat, issues with concealment, etc.  When the PCs succeed, they discover that Exegara was part of the crew of a Corpse Fleet (undead separatists from the planet Eox) ship called the Endless Threnody that was damaged in a fight with space pirates and is floating in the Drift (Exegara was dispatched via shuttle to collect skulls to repair its necromantic generators).  The undead crew recovered the Starfinder insignias from a crash site on a distant planet, but the planet's coordinates are in the computer databanks on board the Endless Threnody.

The second quest, "Adrift", has the PCs set off to find the Endless Threnody aboard their own vessel, the Loreseeker.  A starship battle ensues immediately.  The Corpse Fleet vessel doesn't have operative shields and is relatively lightly armed, so it shouldn't be a challenge, especially if the PCs have a decent pilot and the basic strategic awareness to stay out of the Endless Threnody's forward arc, where its only decent gun is mounted.  The Quest writer, Ron Lundeen, kept this combat simple for brand-new players: there's only one enemy vessel and no obstacles or complications to the encounter. (GMs should note that the stats given for the Loreseeker in the PDF are incorrect, and that there's an important errata thread in the forums).

"Boarding" is the third quest, and it has some interesting elements.  As the PCs explore the Corpse Fleet vessel, they realize it's suffused with necromantic energy and that the longer they stay aboard the more their life will be sapped.  Anyone good with computers can mitigate or even completely shut down the effect, but I thought it was a clever hazard that fit the setting well.  (Many GMs have had difficulty figuring out where the listed necromantic generators are because the included map is vague; the forums are helpful in this regard.)  The combat encounter for this mission is against a crew of skeletons.  Pretty standard stuff, and I wish the included picture had been more space-themed rather than "sailing crew" themed.  After the battle, the PCs can try to access the coordinates of the planet where the missing Starfinder vessel crashed.  I quite like that there were consequences for failed Computer checks (waves of necromantic energy), as skill checks can be boring if they can be retried with no penalties.

"Salvage", the fourth quest, takes place on a desert planet called Ulmarid.  As the PCs walk to the crash site of the Unbounded Wayfarer, they suffer through a storm of poisonous crystals!  The concept is a bit weird, but I like environmental hazards and a reason for PCs to be good at Survival.  At the crash site, they're attacked by a scary, burrowing monster.  The creature is described well and is probably the most dangerous thing in the entire quest pack.  I only wish there was a picture, but perhaps imagination is better.  I particularly liked that the writer added a salvageable anti-personnel starship weapon that the PCs could use.  Encounters that have things the PCs can interact with are always fun and turn the mundane into the memorable.  The crew of the Unbounded Wayfarer, alas, are all long dead.  It's kind of a bummer that is realistic but could make some players think the adventure was pointless; perhaps a trail leading to a sole survivor holed up in a nearby cave would have been better, but I digress.

The last mission is "Lawblight", which is the name of the pirate vessel that the PCs have to fight once they leave Ulmarid.  There's a bit about an asteroid field the PCs have to navigate when they enter and leave the planet, but the consequences of failing a Pilot check are so minor as to be laughable.  As for the space battle itself, all I can speak to is my experience GMing it: the PC ship ran rings around the Lawblight and were barely scratched, but the encounter still took a long time to resolve.  Successfully completing earlier quests gives the party "clues" that provide mechanical advantages during the battle.  I think there are issues in Starfinder starship combat around the fact that critical hits don't do double damage, that critical hits aren't very meaningful or memorable (a "Glitched" system is minor and easily repaired), and that turret weapons reign supreme.  None of those issues are the scenario writer's fault and it's early days, but I do think Starfinder Society will have to work hard to make starship combat fun, fast-paced, and challenging (while putting in workable contingency plans if the PC ship loses).

Overall, I thought Into the Unknown had a solid premise and an interesting story.  Apart from the wrinkles with starship combat that need to be ironed out, I imagine new players will really enjoy playing it.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

City of the Fallen Sky [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

What a great book!  I've read several novels in the Pathfinder Tales line, and City of the Fallen Sky is the best of the lot so far.  I'm a big fan of Tim Pratt from his Marla Mason urban noir fantasy series, but I wasn't sure whether he would "get" Golarion and a more traditional fantasy setting.  He does, absolutely.  There's a real verve to Pratt's writing, an exciting energy that keeps the pages turning as the story builds.  His characters avoid being of the cliche "stock" type, there's plot twists when you least expect them, and a surprising (and appreciated) amount of world-lore that helps develop the setting further.

SPOILERS

The protagonist of City of the Fallen Sky is an alchemist named Alaeron.  Alaeron lives in Almas (in Andoran), having recently returned from a dangerous escapade in Numeria where he discovered several strange devices from the ancient crashed starship known as Silver Mount.  Alaeron is well-rounded, three-dimensional character: fascinated by mysteries and technology, but with just enough common sense to keep him ahead of the threats he has to face in order to delve deeper into the secrets he hopes to uncover.  In trying to help out a woman Jaya, Alaeron angers a local crimelord and both he and Jaya are sent under the watchful eye of a murderous street thug named Skiver to travel to the ruins of Kho (in western Osirion), an ancient crashed "sky city" from the legendary empire of Shory.

The adventure takes the three from Andoran to Absalom and from Absalom through various parts of Osirion.  There are also well-integrated flashbacks of Alaeron's time in Numeria.  The description of these places is fantastic, and I'll refer back to this book for an "eye-level" view the next time I run games that visit these locations.

The three main characters are all well-drawn, with Skiver being particularly memorable.  Yes, he's a murderer, but he has this strange, alluring charisma which makes it hard for the reader not to somehow cheer for him anyway.  And he's gay, and I always appreciate it when authors recognize that not everyone, even in a fantasy setting, is heterosexual.  The major villains of the piece are also really good, with a Numerian bounty hunter named Kormak reminding one of the Terminator in his utter determination (and indestructibility), while a crazed Shory noble is hilarious and creepy at the same time.  The book is very faithful to the game, so Alaeron (the alchemist) uses things like bombs, mutagens, and extracts just like a character from that class would in the RPG.

If the book drags for just a touch in the middle, it makes up for it with a fantastic final quarter.  The ending is cinematic and exciting, and would make the basis for a great movie.  Even the epilogue has a couple of nice twists, and sets things up for another book perfectly.  If you can only read one Pathfinder Tales book, I'd suggest picking this one.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Faiths of Purity [RPG]


Faiths of Purity is a well-conceived entry in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, with a stated premise to showcase the "good" gods to adventurers and laypeople of all stripes, not just clerics and paladins.  I really like the idea, as religion can and should be part of a campaign setting that affects far more than just a couple of PC classes.  Starting off with what you have to admit is a pretty awesome cover (repeated as the inside back cover), the inside front cover summarizes (including portfolios, alignment, domains, favored weapons, centers of worship, and nationality) the seven good-aligned "core" faiths in the Pathfinder setting:  Desna, Iomedae, Shelyn, Cayden Cailean, Erastil, Sarenrae, and Torag.

After a brief introduction that summarizes the theme well, the bulk of the bulk is devoted to two-page entries on each of these seven faiths.  Each entry is divided into a one-paragraph summary of the god and then one to two paragraph long sections titled "Adventurers" (what adventurers who worship the god tend to be like), "Classes" (how different classes do or do not tend to fit in with the faith), "Goals" (what a worshipper of the god wants), "Identifiers" (clothing, symbols, or other markers commonly associated with the faith), "Devotion" (how lay worshippers act and demonstrate their allegiance), "Other Faiths" (how worshippers see and are seen by those of other faiths), "Taboos" (what worshippers *won't* do); "Traits" (two different Religion traits, most of which are bland and unimpressive), and finally, "The Church" (the longest section, with an overview of holy sites, church rules, holy texts, symbols, etc.).

The important thing to remember about these entries is that they explain things from the view of what everyday worshippers (and most PCs) would know.  These entries are not "high-level" church theory or geopolitical roles, but are instead insights into how worshippers behave and see the world.  They're thus perfect for players wanting to run a worshipper of one of these gods, and far more useful than material in most other books or on a Wiki.  I'd strongly suggest passing this book around during character creation if someone is interested in the "good" gods of Golarion.  Before moving on, I should also call out the artwork, which is really good!

The next section of the book is "Minor Deities" (4 pages).  This is a bit of a hodgepodge section, with "lesser gods of goodness" like Apsu the Waybringer, Kurgess the Strong Man, and Milani the Everbloom receiving a few paragraphs of description and one trait each.  Next, there are a few paragraphs (and a trait) devoted to each of the racial pantheons: Dwarven, Elven, Gnome, and Halfling.  These sections were odd, in that it's not just the good deities from each of these pantheons that are covered (thus confusing the theme of the book), and there's far too little space to do each pantheon justice.  The traits for gnomes and halflings aren't bad though.  Last, there's just over a page on the Empyreal Lords (sort of demigods), with about a paragraph each on Andoletta, Ragathiel, Arshea, Korada, Valani, and Sinashakti.  There's a single "catch-all" trait for worshippers of any Empyreal Lord.  Again, there's just not enough room to make the coverage of these faiths satisfactory, and I wonder if it would have been better to save it for a separate book later on.

"Organizations" (2 pages) provides an introduction to organized groups that are outside of a faith's official clergy.  Coverage includes the Banner of the Stag (Erastil), Deepdelvers (Torag), Glory of the Risen Rose (Shelyn), The Halo of Blades (Sarenrae), Knights of Ozem (Iomedae), Starstone Brewers (Cayden Cailean), and The Whispered Song (Desna).  Two of the organizations really stuck out to me as fantastic.  First, the Glory of the Risen Rose is all about spreading beauty and artwork, and one can imagine so many original adventures that could stem from it.  Second, the Starstone Brewers are all about helping the orphans that are inevitably left near battlefields, the sites of natural disasters, etc.  Entire campaigns could be themed around either of these two organizations, and offer something very different to the norm.

"Combat: Righteous Warfare" (2 pages) introduces one or two new feats for each of the major faiths covered in the book.  I have to commend the writers for coming up with feats that are tied, flavour-wise to the corresponding faith.  Substance-wise, the feats are hit or miss, with some potentially really useful (Desna's Butterfly's Sting or Erastil's Bullseye Shot, for example) and others so underwhelming as to be forgettable (Torag's Stone Read and Undermining Exploit).  There is a drawing of a classic "bikini armor" woman on page 26 that is regrettable.

I really liked "Faith: Paladin Codes" (2 pages), which offers customized Paladin codes for several faiths that supplement what's in the Core Rulebook.  These new codes really help to distinguish Paladins from one another, and are well-tailored to emphasize the particular themes of different deities.  Erastil's code contains several elements relating to community and tradition, for example, while Shelyn's code incorporates concepts of beauty and love.

"Magic: Spells of the Faithful" (2 pages) introduces at least one new divine spell for worshippers of each of the major faiths in the book.  Overall, I found them flavourful but rather weak in a mechanical sense.  They're also all very low-level spells, an area in which clerics, paladins, and druids aren't exactly hurting for choices.

Finally, there's "Social: Religious Holidays" (2 pages).  This is the sort of thing that's really important for adding depth to a campaign setting, even if most players will overlook it (because the odds of a day "in game" falling on one of these holidays is slim).

Overall, this book is exactly what a Player Companion should be.  It provides a clear, readable, and interesting introduction to an important element of the campaign setting, it gives useful advice on how to portray and interact with that element, and it introduces some "crunch" options that aren't unbalancing.  Apart from the "too fast to be good" problem in relation to racial pantheons and Empyreal Lords, Faiths of Purity is a winner.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

SFS # 1-01 "The Commencement" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

The Commencement is the first "regular" scenario released for the launch of the Starfinder Society organized play program.  As a replayable "evergreen", it's designed to have some randomly-determined elements so each play-through is at least a little bit different.  Its premise is that the PCs are the first batch of trainees to graduate since the Scoured Stars incident left the Society in ruin.  As part of their commencement, new graduates are expected to meet with the heads of the various factions that make up the Society.  Thus, the theme of the scenario is factions, and players should leave the session with a better idea of what the different factions are all about.  Structurally, the scenario is made-up of our four missions that the PCs can tackle in any order.  Although starship combat is absent, there's otherwise a lot of variety in the tasks--with an emphasis on role-playing.  I ran this for five Level 1 PCs (3 Iconics and 2 originals).

  Overall, I'd have to rate the scenario as average.  It does serve to introduce players to the concept of the Starfinder Society, its factions, and its home (Absalom Station).  But although a couple of the missions have memorable aspects, it falls a little flat as a whole.  These Starfinder Society scenarios are the best way Paizo currently has to showcase the "feel" of the universe it's creating, and unfortunately that "feel" comes across as rather generic and (surprisingly) silly at times.  As family-friendly, relatively straightforward entertainment, The Commencement is fine; anyone looking for edgy, thought-provoking, or original adventure elements will probably be disappointed.

SPOILERS

The Commencement starts with the PCs being summoned to the office of Guidance, "the Starfinder Society's compiled intelligence of Starfinder personalities."  From the very get-go, we have a really cool concept--an artificial composite of Starfinders!--that is let down in the execution.  There's no details provided about Guidance, such as what it sounds like, how Starfinders are selected for inclusion (is it when they die, or can the living be included?), how it resolves arguments amongst its personalities, etc.  Because of the lack of detail, a great idea comes across rather flat.  Anyway, Guidance congratulates the PCs on graduating and tells them the next stage of their membership in the Society is to meet with the heads of the Society's four factions.  Each faction head will have a task for them to complete--in the past, this was mostly ceremonial, but given how short-handed the Society is, these tasks are now anything but.  When the PCs are done, they're to report back to Guidance.  I thought this was a solid explanation for why the PCs should meet the various faction heads, and a good way for them to learn more about them.  The one thing that struck me as curious is that only four factions are represented: the Acquisitives, the Exo-Guardians, the Dataphiles, and the Wayfinders.  This leaves the Second Seekers faction out, and Guidance makes no mention as to why.  Since this mission is intended to teach players about the factions for organized play, it's an odd omission.  Anyway, the PCs are told they can meet with the faction heads in any order.  This is fine from a replayability standpoint, but it does create some odd timeline discrepancies because some of the missions themselves are time-sensitive once started.  My players figured this out, and they had to suspend some disbelief because of it.

Mission # 1 is for the Acquisitives faction, and it's a Phantom Menace style pod race!  Technically it's called a "junk race", but the idea is exactly the same.  The premise is that a young Starfinder Society mechanic named Laboni bragged publicly that she could beat the reigning champion (a Ysoki named Ratrod), and Ratrod has told her to put up or shut up.  The challenge is all over the infosphere, and the Society will face major embarrassment if Laboni doesn't do well.  The problem is that Laboni is only an average mechanic and not skilled at all with racing, so the PCs are dispatched to help her out.  I really like the pre-race part of the mission, as the PCs are given several options around trying to improve Laboni's vehicle, finding out the strengths and weaknesses of the other racers, trying to make allies or psych them out through trash-talking, etc.  PCs with a wide variety of skill sets are useful, and the advantages are all cumulative (but quite important) for the race to come.  The competitors are all given distinct personalities and racing styles, which adds a lot to the fun.  For the race itself, one PC pilots Laboni's racer via remote control, while the others operate its guns (shooting at other vehicles is okay by the rules of the race).  The rules for the race were very well balanced and made for a tight, exciting finish (my PCs finished third).  It's not easy to create a quality rules sub-system, but the author of the scenario really hit it out of the park here and it's something I could see being reused in the future.  I only have two qualms.  First, the GM is rolling a *lot* of dice during the race (Pilot and Gunnery checks for each of the several NPC racers), while some of the players end up just watching because there's not enough for them to do with Laboni's vehicle.  Next time around, a mechanism that put each of the PCs in control of their own junk racer would go over better.  Second, the scenario doesn't make it clear enough to the players that the goal isn't just to beat Ratrod, but to win the entire race.  If they (understandably) focus on the former, they have a good chance of missing out on the latter and losing the mission through a mistaken impression of its victory conditions.

Mission # 2 is for the Dataphiles faction.  The faction's leader, an android named Historia-7, has discovered that a hacker has stolen (annoyingly unspecified) information from an (annoying unspecified) corporation, and that the PCs should find the hacker and bring them and the data in before the corporation gets there.  The mission's premise puts the PCs into shady territory immediately, and one of my players, running a Lawful Good character, understandably balked.  This is another part of the scenario where more explanation is needed about a) why that information is so important; b) why the Stewards can't be called in protect that person; c) why/whether/how corporations really have complete autonomy to carry out vigilante justice on Absalom Station, etc.  It all goes to how this new world "operates", and the scenario just hand waves it.  Anyway, the PCs discover that the hacker is actually an old woman with a degenerative brain condition which makes it so she doesn't even remember doing the hacking!  It's a reasonably clever twist.  The next part is a bit harder: the old lady insists on going on the run, and the PCs are supposed to come to the idea of faking her death and setting her up with a new identity.  The scenario then assumes they'll let the old lady go off on her own and meet the PCs later so they can arrive just in time to stop an ambush from corporate thugs.  For my players at least, that was definitely not their first inclination--they wanted to take the old woman directly back Historia-7, as instructed.  A good GM can bend things to make it (mostly) work, but it would have been better if this part of the scenario was play-tested more so there was a "What if the PCs . . ." sidebar.

Mission # 3 is for the Exo-Guardians, and their leader, a surprisingly perky Shirren named Zigvigix.  Zigvigix has two things he wants the PCs to do: 1) oust a dangerous alien predator from a warehouse that will be the new HQ of the faction; and 2) stand in line to buy a hard copy of a limited release musical album named "Star Sugar Heartlove!!" performed by a group called Strawberry Machine Cake (Zigvigix wants the album as a gift for Historia-7 to cheer her up).  The first task is classic adventurer stuff, and the predator is pretty cool (with randomized abilities).  I especially liked the map of the warehouse.  The second task is amazingly popular in the forums, though I thought it was all too silly.  I may be entering grumpy middle-age, but again, I like my fiction more Nine Inch Nails than Aqua.

The final mission is for the Wayfinders, and has the PCs investigating strange power outages aboard the faction's massive vessel, The Master of Stars.  There's a subplot involving a couple of kids who have sneaked away from their daycare, and their "pet", an alien who is unintentionally causing trouble by eating bits of the ship.  The PCs can capture the alien with a few successful skill rolls, and apparently they can keep trying without penalty so there's very little tension in the mission.  The only way they can fail is by killing it.  I like the moral of the mission (Wayfinders are all about finding strange, new life, after all), but again it was all a bit saccharine for my tastes.

As a replayable scenario, I think The Commencement is not in the league of The Confirmation.  Although the missions can be done in any order and there are a few minor spots where the GM can randomly determine things, there aren't entirely randomly-determined encounters or story beats.  As an introduction to the concept of factions, I think it's okay.  The goals of each faction are reflected well in the tasks that the PCs are asked to perform, and the faction heads are definitely unique--although in surprisingly upbeat moods given the whole "Scoured Stars" backdrop to the season.  All in all, I would say it's an okay, though certainly not spectacular, debut.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 27 [RPG]


[7 Neth 4707 continued]

Inside the ominous confines of Foxglove Manor, the adventurers pause to let a disturbing revelation sink in: with the sun setting and thousands of skeletal ravens outside, they may have to spend the night in the house!  Artemis is especially concerned and even raises the idea of mounting the horses and making a run for it.  Bey and Briza, however, are more inclined to risk staying.  The discussion continues for some time, but an even more pressing concern exists: what to do about Arnald, now securely bound, who remains convinced he is Kasandra Foxglove!  After raising and discarding various plans, the adventurers finally settle on trusting in a particular incantation revealed to Bey during her last mystery-trance: a spell to hide the group from undead.  The plan is for Bey to mystically shield the adventurers from the gaze of the undead ravens so that she and Arnald can step outside to see if fulfilling the object of “Kasandra’s” desire ends the spiritual possession.  The group decides, however, that the experiment shouldn’t be made at the front door but at the other entrance noticed on their approach to The Misgivings.

Briza shoulders open a door to a hallway and notices a pile of dead flies in a dusty corner.  As she watches, some of them twitch and then their wings start to move, and they lazily wind their way into the air!  The group is worried enough that Kang decides to deal with the problem in a startling way: he takes a small vial from his belt, shakes it, and hurls it into the hallway.  Suddenly a large blast of green flame shakes the house!  The flies are disintegrated, but the horses, still tethered nearby in the entrance hall, begin to buck and kick.  Fortunately, no one is hurt and the horses are eventually calmed down.

Creepy piano in The Misgivings
A door on the opposite side of the hallway leads to an oak-panelled chamber that, once upon a time, must have been a beautiful oak-panelled parlour for entertaining guests.  But the warped floorboards, mold-covered panelling, and long-dormant grand piano in the corner testify to how difficult it would be to restore Foxglove Manor to its former glories.  The explorers feel a brief, gut-wrenching sensation of impending apocalypse as Bey draws upon her mysterious powers to shield them from the animate dead, and they put their plan into motion.  It works perfectly: the creatures outside see the outer door being opened, but are unable to detect the presence of Arnald and Bey.  Arnald immediately comes to his senses, and, once back safely inside, is set free of his restraints.

With at least that problem solved, the adventurers hurry to continue their explorations before night truly falls.  They continue down the hallway and, behind Briza’s strong shoulder, burst into a simple washroom.  Strange, furtive scratching sounds can be heard coming from an ancient metal washtub in the room, but no one is anxious to see what’s causing it.  The adventurers shut the door and agree to head for the basement since “Kasandra”, while seemingly possessing Arnald, was worried about her husband Vorel’s activities there.  As they cross the entrance hall and check on the mounts, the subject of past encounters with horrific sights arises.  Without hesitation, Kang shares that he once turned someone inside out.  From the looks the others give him, they’re not sure whether or not he’s joking.  The fact that he continually refers to Briza as his “assistant” lends support to the notion that he’s certainly an unusual addition to the group.  For his part, Artemis talks about once seeing someone trapped in a burning building, and how the memory continues to haunt him to this day.

Rats!  Why'd it have to be rats?
The stairs to the basement lead to a large kitchen dominated by a massive oaken table, its surface covered with mold and rat droppings.  An oversized fireplace, cupboards, and shelves line the walls, but Briza notices wide cracks in one wall near the floor.  The adventurers discuss what could have caused the cracks and soon hear the swelling sound of squeaking getting louder and louder.  Suddenly, from out of the cracks, hundreds of oily, diseased looking rats pour out!  Kang reacts instantly, however, tossing another explosive vial that decimates most of the swarm!  Artemis cleans up the few survivors with his archery skills.  Although the air is pungent with the sickening smell of smouldering rat corpses, no one was hurt in the sudden eruption of violence.

The explorations continue.  A room adjacent to the kitchen turns out to be servants’ quarters, while another doorway leads to a long hallway that winds around to stop at a strong, locked iron door.  Artemis tries out a skeleton key he’d brought along for obstacles like this, and finds that it fits the lock perfectly!  The door had barred access to what, in the eyes of anyone with a smattering of training in the area, was obviously once the personal workshop of a devotee of arcane spellcraft.  A row of soggy books sits on one end of a long workbench, while, on the other end, are three iron birdcages each containing a dead, diseased-looking rat.  Two stained-glass windows on one curved wall testify that the house was cleverly built to take advantage of being built on the edge of a cliff.  One of the windows depicts a thin man with gaunt features drinking a foul-looking brew of green fluid, while the other shows the same man but in an advanced state of decay, as if dead for weeks, but also, somehow, simultaneously alive and exuberant in triumph.

Artemis examines the books and can tell they’re all on the forbidden art of necromancy.  Arnald enters and scoops up one of the birdcages.  Out of the corner of their eyes, Artemis and Briza notice that the figures in the glass seem to almost be moving and sneering at them.  Artemis fires an arrow, shattering one of the windows.  Briza runs for the hallway, but suddenly receives an overwhelming urge to examine the books on the workbench and rushes back into the room.  She then freezes in place as visions pour through her mind.  She experiences Vorel Foxglove’s quest to become immortal by existing beyond death in the blasphemous form of a lich.  She witnesses him researching for years before finding a way; hiding his own soul away in a seven-sided box; and finally consuming a final concoction before double over in agony as his body begins to rot away.  But then she experiences his burning rage that he’s been stopped before the ritual could be fully completed!  And then she’s no longer Vorel, but someone who thought she loved him, filled with shame that someone she’s committed herself to could do something so unthinkable to himself.  Briza starts to race out of the room, fully convinced she has to find her child and get out of the house before her husband can stop her!

The others rush out of the room and shut the door behind them, aware that the flapping of thousands of wings means the ghastly ravens have taken flight and are headed towards the broken window.  Kang steps in front of Briza on the staircase to the main floor, intending to try to calm her down, but she thinks he’s Vorel Foxglove and lashes out with her greatsword!  Kang staggers out of her way, bleeding.  Someone shouts to stop Briza before she can hurt herself, so Artemis tries to trip her but fails and narrowly avoids losing his head from the return strike.  Briza is by far the fastest member of the group, and she takes the stairs two at a time until she reaches the main floor, and then she races up to the second floor.  She rounds a corner and chops down the door to a mold-infested bedroom none of the adventurers have been in before. 

For a brief moment, Briza is herself again—she realizes there is no child here, and that she’s been under the effect of some kind of delusion.  But then she hears a child’s voice, quivering with fear, asking her “What’s on your face, mommy?”  Briza can feel her face erupt in a tangled mass of tumours and boils and can’t help but claw at herself.  When the others arrive, they see only the damage that Briza is doing by literally clawing the skin off her own face!  Kang instantly sets to work formulating an alchemical extract to partially repair the damage, while Arnald tries to pin Briza’s arms but is violently repulsed.  Bey and Artemis try to reason with her, and Artemis seems to be getting through, when another sudden fit of hysteria leads to Briza collapsing entirely.  Her face is in utter, disfiguring shambles and her hands are covered in her own blood and bits of flesh.  Kang pours his special concoction down Briza’s throat, and she stirs.  Between his and Bey’s spellcasting, much of the damage Briza has done to herself is repaired and she realizes just how strange she’d been acting.

Just a scant few hours within the walls of Foxglove Manor has brought terror and madness to the would-be saviours of Sandpoint.  Although yet another crisis is over, night has truly fallen.  Will the evils within The Misgivings become even stronger in the darkness?
-----------------------------------------------------------------

Another great session inside the very-haunted Foxglove Manor.  I think the bit with the clouds of dead flies reanimating was something I added just for background effect, but seeing them blown up with an alchemist's bomb was fun.  The use of hide from undead in order to get Arnald outside safely was quite clever, and worked perfectly.

The big sequence to end the session, with Briza getting possessed, racing (and fighting) past her allies to run upstairs, and then clawing her face off because it was "covered with mold" was fantastic.  I couldn't have scripted it better, and I think it added to the memorable ghastliness of Foxglove Manor.  Once again, the idea of "haunts" as a game concept were a great way to impart backstory without slowing the session to a crawl of exposition.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

XSE (Marvel) (Ltd. 1996) [COMICS]

Ah, the mid-1990s.  My high school years, when I stepped away from comics for a hiatus and didn't come back until college.  Think of how many convoluted story lines, ridiculously large guns, and skintight suits with pockets everywhere that I missed!  But although I wasn't present for that glorious era in comics, I can revisit it now to see what I missed.

XSE was a four-issue limited series written by John Ostrander that rode the long (and still enduring) popularity of all things X-Men related.  The initials stand for "Xavier's Security Enforcers", which is a group of mutants in a future timeline that help keep the peace in the post-Sentinel world where mutants and humans largely get along.  The series stars Bishop, a mutant capable of absorbing and unleashing energy, and his dead sister Shard who is now a hologram.  Hey, comics!

Issue # 1 starts things off immediately with an appropriately confusing sequence.  Bishop is in the "present-day" Danger Room showing holo-Shard holograms from the future of an evil mutant named Virago fighting XSE.  We then have a sequence of what are best described as "future flashbacks" that provide some backstory to Bishop's and Shard's lives in the future.  It's all a very disjointed and poorly plotted framing story that makes a lot more sense now than it did when I was reading it.  The artwork is classic 1990s terrible, with even the coloring inconsistent.  I really hope something like XSE wasn't someone's first exposure to comics, as that person would have no clue what these strangely distorted, vaguely human-like figures were talking about.

Issue # 2 starts with another "future flashback" to when young Bishop and Shard were cadets at the XSE and attacked by mutant vampires called Emplates.  Shard's mutant powers are triggered and Bishop rallies the other kids until help arrives.  The incident leads to Bishop becoming the youngest XSE officer in (future) history.  We then get a new scene: Bishop's first meeting with other XSE officers, Malcolm and Randall, whom he apparently led into battle where they died.  It's starting to make *slightly* more sense, but it's not more enjoyable.

In Issue # 3, present-day Bishop and holo-Shard watch a hologram of them capturing a dangerous mutant named Mountjoy, and how it led to Shard's promotion.  In the future timeline, she uses the opportunity to develop a hologram-based prototype field agent, but the technology fails and she and Bishop argue about it.  We then have another future flashback to Shard dating someone named Fitzroy.  Again, it's all very disjointed--maybe it's filling in continuity gaps that hardcore X-Men fans would appreciate?  You have to commit to the X-Men like a Talmudic scholar during the late 80s and 90s in order to figure out what's going on, so it's possible.  Anyway, the issue ends with the big explanation of how Shard dies: Fitzroy was evil and betrayed her to the vampiric Emplates.

In Issue # 4, future-flashback Bishop confronts his now dead and now evil sister who has been turned by the Emplates.  He's forced to destroy her, but rushes the body to the lab so he can use the hologram technology she created to replicate her.  The issue then rushes through a bunch of stuff I have no idea about (something about Gambit in the future being "The Witness", and someone called Shackle?).  The mini-series ends with Bishop deciding that Shard should stay with X-Factor instead of joining him on the X-Men.

Wasn't that enlightening for all concerned?

The Buffy Comic Project: "A Stake to the Heart, Act 2" [COMICS]


Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 61
(Dark Horse, Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Fabian Nicieza (story); Cliff Richards (pencils); Brian Horton (paints); Will Conrad (inks); Michelle Madsen (colors); Clem Robins (letters)

Setting:  Between Movie & Season 1

T.V./Movie Character Appearances:  Buffy, Angel, Whistler, Joyce, Dawn, Hank Summers, Lilah Morgan, Giles, Principal Flutie, Cordelia, Harmony, Jesse,

Major Original Characters:  Nil.

Summary:  In the aftermath of her parents' split, Dawn tries to cope with feeling that she's blame.  Angel tells Whistler they have to do something to contain the rest of the "malignancy demons", and Whistler says he'll figure something out: which turns out to be making a deal with Lilah Morgan from Wolfram & Hart!  Meanwhile, Giles pulls some strings to land the librarian position at Sunnydale High, Cordelia and Harmony make fun of Jesse for shoplifting (he can't afford a birthday present for his mother), and Buffy overcomes feelings of guilt for not being able to save everyone which leads to the malignancy demon of guilt dissolving into a pool of goo.

Review

The summary doesn't do this issue justice.  It packs a punch--to the gut.  Anyone who's been through a divorce will sympathise with the emotional turbulence in this issue.  I think this is one of the best of the series, and this story arc as a whole is a great way to end the run.  The issue is also chock full of small but effective moments with supporting characters.  It's really good stuff.

Notes

* There's a female vampire who uses Darla's shtick from the opening moments of the very first Buffy episode.  I'm tempted to think it is her, but it's just not clear.

*  I like the clever tie-in with Whistler being the one to set Wolfram & Hart on the path to noticing Angelus.

Vehicles (Pathfinder Map Pack) [RPG]


Vehicles is a very different map pack than the norm.  Instead of tiles that fit together to create a landscape suitable for an encounter, the 18 sheets in this pack are designed to be cut apart and placed on top of other flip-mats or map packs.  Everything from beasts of burden to boats to various carts are included.

Two of the sheets are full of mounts: common mounts like horses and ponies, quite unusual mounts like rhinos and giant geckos, and even a full pack of sled dogs.  Four full sheets are of different chariots, so I guess you'd be all set if you need a classic Ben Hur scene.  One sheet has a couple of sleds for the aforementioned sled dogs, another is a couple of hang gliders (!), and three are devoted to a top down view of what the back describes as a "steam giant" (a gearwork construct of some kind?--it's hard to tell with a top-down interior view).  Of
much more mundane origin (but surely more common use) are a rowboat and then two sheets that can be taped together to make a keelboat/river barge.  Last, and best, are three sheets each containing two different types of wagons, carts, and carriages.

It feels really weird cutting up a product like this, but the results look a lot nicer than I could draw or find on the Internet.  Importantly, they're sized appropriately for a 5" grid so character minis match up.  Things like the carts and mounts are perfect for PCs, but they also serve well as added background colour to urban or road encounters.  As a GM, I used the keelboat for several consecutive sessions when the PCs were making a long river voyage and it was great.

If I had complaints, it's that this was one of the map packs that was released before the line started appearing in boxed-form, so once the pieces are cut out, they're harder to store.  A second criticism is that too many sheets are devoted to weird or off-beat things like the "steam giant", hang gliders, etc.

On the whole though, I was surprised by how useful this product was--it's definitely something I've gotten a lot of use out of in the few months I've owned it, and it's made my encounters clearer and more "professional" looking.  I'd grab one before it goes out of print!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Ghosts of Broken Blades [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Credit has to be given to Monte Cook, writer of The Ghosts of Broken Blades (a four-part series of free web fiction available here), for coming up with an original concept for a protagonist: Roubris Chour wanders old battl
efields and talks to spirits (somehow) trapped in the weapons that have killed them, promising to set them free if they reward him with information about where gold or other valuables are hidden.  But although the main character has a really interesting schtick, the story as a whole is only average and a few elements don't seem to really fit Golarion.

SPOILERS

Roubris finds a surprisingly self-aware trapped spirit named Serth that promises him great wealth (hidden in an ancient temple near the Worldwound) if Roubris will set him free.  Although Roubris suspects a trap, the promise of riches is enough to convince him to check it out, and he travels there with his friend Karatha, a cleric of Iomedae.  The temple is devoted to the demon lord Deskari, and there's a weird bit where opening the door to its treasure room also opens a portal to the demonic plane where Serth's body resides--Roubris has to choose between the treasure and stopping Serth from regaining his previous power.  It's all a bit contrived and clunky, and didn't work for me.  I think a harder, darker ending would have fit the whole concept better.  Roubris could be an interesting character (a fundamentally greedy character who helps trapped spirits) but this story didn't make the most of the idea.

Pathfinder Society # 0-03: "Murder on the Silken Caravan" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Murder on the Silken Caravan was one of the very first batch of scenarios released for Pathfinder Society.  Although the title may evoke Agatha Christie's classic "Murder on the Orient Express", and there is a murder in this scenario, this is definitely not a "whodunnit" in the sense of expecting PCs to gather clues to figure out who the culprit is.  Instead, it's a very straightforward series of encounters in which the culprit reveals themself quite dramatically.  By their very nature, Pathfinder Society scenarios tend to be somewhat "railroady", but Murder on the Silken Caravan is worse than most.  Encounter design is solid (though one is more dangerous than probably justifiable), but I'd primarily recommend this for players/GMs with a real interest in Qadira and desert-themed adventuring.

SPOILERS

The basic idea of the scenario is that a famous Pathfinder Venture-Captain named Targos has died, and the PCs are asked to escort the body across Qadira from the caravan city of Lopul to the major city of Katheer.  Drama happens along the way of course, ranging from classic bandit attacks to diseased cultists to a (quite difficult!) battle against harpies at an ancient shrine.  One of the members of the caravan turns up with a dagger in his back after a sandstorm, but there's no way to interview suspects or canvass the area for clues: the murderer is simply revealed at the beginning of the last encounter.  If there had been a real mystery for the PCs to solve, this would be a much more interesting scenario.  In any event, the scenario is divided into five acts (four of them with combat encounters).

In Act One, the PCs arrive in the caravan city of Lopul to collect Targos' body.  They find a crowd of mourners around his home, and "local priests" ostensibly "preparing the body for transport."  In fact, they're disguised cultists of Lamashtu planning to seize the body and desecrate it!  The PCs should penetrate the ruse and engage in battle.  As an added twists, the cultists are suffering from leprosy!  This put some fear into some of my players, and I quite liked it.  The entire scenario depends on the PCs recovering Targos' body, so even if the PCs fail to penetrate the ruse (and mine almost didn't!), the scenario is very forgiving about allowing them another chance later.  One minor snag is that the players will understandably think this cult of Lamashtu is a major player in the scenario, and may try to interrogate prisoners.  Very little info is provided on exactly what the cult planned, where their base is, why they hate Targos, etc.  I had to do some fast-thinking when my players took this route.

In Act Two, the PCs meet the only caravan in the city that will be travelling the route they need to go.  The caravan mistress is a woman named Jamila, while other NPCs include an aged Taldan knight named Gaspar Du Mer, his Qadiran business partner Mahmoud, a water trader from Osirion named Hokama, and Hokama's slave boy, Atmar.  I'd strongly suggest that the GM find images roughly fitting the descriptions and taping the pictures to note cards with the NPCs' names--players will find such an aid extremely useful.  Anyway, the task facing the PCs in this Act is to persuade Jamila to allow them to come with her in the caravan.  The Diplomacy DCs to persuade Jamila are fairly high for low-level PCs, and there's a good chance they'll make the DCs even higher by failing a check by more than 5.  But the PCs *have* to join the caravan for the rest of the scenario to proceed as intended (there's very vague guidance on what to do if they fail, as my group did, so again I had to do some quick thinking).  The GM knows, although the PCs don't, that Jamila was secretly Targos' lover and that they arranged his death in order to lure out the parties responsible for raiding caravans along the Silken Way.  All of the suspects are part of this caravan, and Jamila expects Pathfinders to show up with Targos' body.

In Act Three, the PCs are with the caravan when a huge sandstorm separates them from most of the other travellers.  Goblin and hobgoblin bandits pounce.  The sheer number of enemies (13 in Tier 1-2) makes this a reasonably challenging encounter and definitely gives every PC something to do.  (GMs should note that although D&D 3.5 hobgoblins and Pathfinder RPG hobgoblins are same CR, the latter have a *lot* more hit points.)  There's nothing fancy with the encounter, but that's okay.  I do like how this Act and a couple of the later ones make some use of the environmental (heat) rules, since characters who take stuff like Endurance or put ranks in Survival will see a benefit.  As the PCs continue travelling, they come across a body (Mahmoud) in the sand, with a dagger stuck in his back!

I have mixed feelings about Act Four.  The premise is really cool: the PCs stumble upon an ancient shrine to Irori that takes the form of a huge figure carved into the side of a cliff, with its eyes serving as caves for a nest of harpies.  The harpies lure the PCs (and the couple of NPCs still with them) to start climbing the cliff, and then swoop down to carry off the NPCs.  The problem is that the DC to resist the song is quite high, and there's a fair chance that all or almost all of the PCs will fail and become entranced.  In my group, only one PC succeeded on the save.  The tactics of the harpies are a little bit confusing, but it's clear that they'll attack if (non-entranced) PCs start climbing the cliff toward their nest.  Low-level PCs fighting while climbing against creatures with Flyby Attack is another recipe for disaster.  One PC and the two NPCs were killed in the group I was running this for, and there are a lot of reports of TPKs in the forums.  Adventuring is supposed to be dangerous, but this encounter is probably unfair (at least at the lower tier).

Act Five has the PCs catching up to the rest of the caravan just as the criminal mastermind and murderer Gaspar Du Mer reveals himself.  Jamila, who is apparently a half-Janni(!), summons a genie to battle Gaspar's bandits, but the PCs have to take care of Gaspar and his bodyguards themselves.  Gaspar's a straightforward fighter and a challenge in head-to-head combat.  After he's defeated, Jamila explains what's been going on and the rest of the voyage to Katheer passes without incident.

There's a lot of little things to criticize about Murder on  the Silken Caravan, including: 1) The geography of the Silken Caravan doesn't fit with existing maps of Qadira; 2) the timeline is quite fuzzy, making it hard to decide how many days/nights should pass for different portions of the trip; 3) the Janni/Genie stuff comes from out of nowhere and doesn't add anything; 4) the Chronicle sheet for Tier 1-2 provides an almost laughably-specific special item (a map of the Zho Mountains that provides a minor bonus to Survival and Tracking checks when in that area) and nothing else besides credits.  More substantial issues include the aforementioned lack of contingency-planning (some "What if?" sidebars would have been fantastic) and the overall railroading in a scenario that, at first glance of the title, might have players thinking they've signed up for a mystery-themed adventure.

Overall, I'd suggest that this one should be pretty far down on the list of scenarios to run.  It's playable and has a couple of interesting elements, but it also contains numerous shortcomings.