Friday, November 17, 2017

Pathfinder Volume 5: Hollow Mountain


The Hollow Mountain hardcover collects the complete Pathfinder: Hollow Mountain (Issues # 1-6).  It's the fifth volume of Pathfinder comics and I'm happy to say it's the best one yet.  There's a real and noticeable improvement in the artwork from the first couple of volumes, and the story, although not sophisticated, is just a blast.  There's excitement, laugh-out-loud moments, twists, and the exploration of a fascinating location in the Golarion campaign setting.  The collection includes all of the regular and variant covers of the individual issues (a couple of which are particularly-inspired spoofs of classic superhero comic covers) along with several encounters set in the title location.  In addition, stats and backgrounds for some of the company's neutral and evil-aligned Iconic characters that appear in the book are included.  It's an excellent purchase, and I'm glad to see how far the Pathfinder comics have come since their beginning.


The entire series takes place in and around Hollow Mountain, a structure from ancient Thassilon that served as the headquarters of the Runelord of Wrath, Alaznist.  As well as containing the other end of the Irespan bridge that can also be seen in present-day Magnimar, Hollow Mountain served Alaznist as an armoury, training ground, and well-protected redoubt during the long war with Runelord Karzoug that finished only with the great destruction brought by Earthfall.  The "good" Iconics we've come to know and love from previous series (Valeros, Seoni, Ezren, Merisiel, and Kyra) have come to Hollow Mountain following the reports from a previous Pathfinder Society expedition that an entrance has been found leading to the potential of great treasure.

Issue # 1 begins by showing us something we've never seen before: the fall of Thassilon, firsthand!  For anyone interested in this ancient empire and the Runelords (I know I am), this is really exciting.  Alaznist, seeing the devastation that Earthfall is bringing, knows that she must enter her runewell to wait out the apocalypse, even if thousands of years must pass until she returns.  She entrusts Hollow Mountain to her demonic castellan, providing him with a magical key that can command all of the creatures that reside within it along with its portals, traps, and other safeguards.  The opening scene includes Xanderghul, Runelord of Pride, and fascinating details on the political situation of the time.  I would gladly read a novel set in this time period.  And all of that's just in the first few pages!  The rest of the issue features the Iconics exploring Hollow Mountain, with a clever montage sequence making it clear that their progress isn't unhindered.  The issue ends with a great cliffhanger: the appearance of the "bad" Iconics: Oloch the half-orc warpriest, Meligaster the halfling mesmerist, Damiel the elf alchemist, and Seltyiel, the half-elf magus.  It's a great start to the series.

Issue # 2 sees the two groups face-off through both verbal and violent means.  It's fun to see a portrayal of some of the less common classes, like the Mesmerist.  As with super hero comics, the requisite battle ends with a team-up, and the Iconics reach Hollow Mountain's throne room.  The castellan, a kalavarkus demon, attacks and it's clear the Iconics are no match for him (their weapons don't hurt him at all) as he appears to disintegrate four of them!

Issue # 3 reveals that the "disintegrated" Iconics have only been teleported to another part of the fortress.  The remaining Iconics fall into a deep pit, separating everyone into two groups of mixed "good" and "bad" Iconics.  It's a classic recipe for conflict-based storytelling and works well.  There's a lot of nice little moments that provide some insight into each character, and how having different alignments makes a difference in the actions each character takes.  The issue ends with one of the groups being confronted by a threat that has persisted since Thassilon: sinspawn!

Issue # 4 is titled "Never Split the Party", as one group confronts a horde of sinspawn and the other runs up against shriezyx (giant, intelligent spiders).  It turns, out, however, the shriezyx want the castellan destroyed as well (because he can control them using the key) and is willing to help the second group.  The first group negotiates with the sinspawn and seem on the verge of making a deal as well until Oloch cleaves their leader in twain!

Issue # 5 has Oloch becoming "King of the Sinspawn", and the two groups of Iconics travel separately with new-found allies through an area called the Gauntlet of Fury, full of hundreds of traps.  Oloch, of course, sends the sinspawn to absorb the brunt of the traps in a funny scene.  The separated groups of adventurers reunite at Champion's Crucible, a mystical pool that they can use to enchant their weapons in order to hurt the castellan.

Issue # 6 has the inevitable fight against the castellan.  Seeing Damiel drink his mutagen to transform into a bestial creature is great fun.  The castellan is overcome, but the story isn't over yet because: betrayal!  The "good" Iconics should have seen it coming, and are forced to watch while the "bad" Iconics (holding a hostage at knife point) make their way out of Hollow Mountain with all of the treasure.  There's a further little twist that shows the "good" Iconics are smarter than they might seem.  The issue, and the whole series, ends with the biggest twist of all: the apparent return of Runelord Alaznist!  I can't wait to see what happens next.

After the issues, the hardcover collects the various covers that accompanied the individual issues.  Two of them are just perfect: a spoof of Adventure Comics # 247 (the first appearance of the Legion of Super Heroes) and Iron Man # 128 (alcoholic Tony Stark looking in a mirror).  As a long-time comics fan, these brought me great joy.

There are several pieces of back-matter:

* A two-page overview of Hollow Mountain;

* "Hidden in Plain Sight" a CR 1-2 encounter against skulks and sinspawn for low-level PCs investigating the ruined city around Hollow Mountain;

* Backgrounds and Level 5 stats for Seltyiel, Oloch, Meligaster, and Damiel.  These are surprisingly gripping!

* "Office Assistance", a CR 7 encounter for Hollow Mountain explorers that takes place in the center's archives and holds the promise of discovering still-existent maps of the location (if they overcome a spectre!);

* "Lost and Found", a CR 4 encounter that involves a pack of Jinkins (gremlins) stealing and cursing the PCs' gear.  Some groups would bristle, but it sounds fun and different;

* "Breaking the Mold", a CR 5 encounter against strange plant creatures that holds special rewards for alchemists and herbalists;

* "Running Hot and Cold", a CR 5 encounter that forms part of the trap-filled Gauntlet of Fury.  This one contains a minor puzzle element;

* "The Last Runelords", paragraph-long descriptions of each of the Runelords.  This info has probably been available elsewhere, but it's nice to see it all in one place here.

* "In High Gear", a CR 16-17 encounter against some very nasty traps (such as empowered disintegrate!) and a clockwork dragon.

Last, there's a fold-out map of Hollow Mountain (the same as the one that appears in Dungeons of Golarion, but larger and easier to use).

There's a tremendous amount of detailed and accurate world-lore incorporated into Hollow Mountain, and I really appreciated it. The artwork is clean and clear (unlike the murky work in earlier issues) and the different Iconics have well-established personalities and dialogue that fits.  I'm a bit of a fan-boy of Thassilon since I'm running RotRL, but, along with all of the extras, this is a package sure to please.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Steeltown Rockers (Marvel) (Ltd. 1990)

Steeltown Rockers is one of those comics for which I appreciate the effort even though it never really gels.  A six-issue limited series released in 1990, the comic was definitely different than the mainstream Marvel title at the time: instead of featuring Spider-Man or the X-Men, it was a "realistic" story about a group of teenagers trying to start a rock and roll band.  The book was written by Elaine Lee with art by Steve Leialoha.

Issue # 1 was pretty good.  We meet Johnny, a kid in a rough family dynamic (dad has lost his job and can't pay the mortgage) who dreams of making it big in music and leaving a dying Steeltown for the bright lights of L.A.  But when Johnny, who can't even afford the lay-away payments on his guitar, meets a fellow musician named Mike, Mike's brother Eddie, and a sax player named Syd, the dream of starting a band becomes too much to resist.  Johnny cashes in his long-saved-for one-way ticket to L.A. to buy his guitar outright in the hopes of making his music dreams come true.  I really liked this first issue, and imagine it sold terribly.  At the time, Marvel just wasn't the place for stories about characters who don't run around in tights.

Rehearsals for the new band start in Issue # 2, and the teens have the usual problem of everyone not showing up.  They have to get rid of their drummer and set about finding a new one.  I was rather confused in spots about what was happening in the book, and found it a disappointing sequel.

The artwork is really rushed in Issue # 3, and I often feel mainstream comic companies would experiment with a new title and then not give them the support they need to survive.  Anyway, a couple of the band members get into a fight with a gang member, Johnny gets into a fight with his drunken dad, and there's multiple vignettes on what the kids are up to from midnight to dawn.  It's more of a "this is what their lives are like" issue rather than one that advances the plot, which I normally wouldn't mind.  I just don't think it was done especially well.

Issue # 4 has the band's first gig--at the bowling alley!  A new band member (a pretty girl named Adora) causes friction in the ranks (rather cliched, of course), but the first show goes great.  The problem I find with the book is I still don't know most of the characters very well.

Someone watched too many after school specials before creating Issue # 5.  The band's new drummer, Terry, snorts cocaine and then gets into an accident with an oncoming train!  It's like something written by a well-intentioned but out-of-touch adult.

Issue # 6 is kind of fun, as the band gets a gig at a local comic-con and is a big hit.  Once Terry recovers from his accident, he gets sent to a military academy, leaving the band without a drummer.  Fortunately, they find a new one just in time for their new regular gig at a venue called the "Dive Bar."  It's not L.A. and they're not rock stars, but they've made something of themselves.  I like the more realistic ending.

I definitely think there's a lot more to comics than just spandex, and I like the idea of exploring a wide range of stories.  Steeltown Rockers had an interesting premise, but the writing and artwork just aren't up to snuff to make it worth digging out of the long boxes.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Humans of Golarion [RPG]

Humans are the default race for many fantasy worlds, and the official Pathfinder campaign setting of Golarion is no exception.  Since all the other Core races had received Player Companions, it was only natural that humans would as well.  The challenge for a book like the 32-page Humans of Golarion is that we all know what humans are "like" since . . . we are humans!  Instead of being about humans as a species, this is a "race book" that's far more geographically oriented than the others.  Although humans are humans, their societies and cultures vary across Golarion, and that's what this book focuses on.

"Don't mess with frost giants" is the quite valid lesson to draw from the great cover, which is reprinted sans text as the inside back cover.  The inside front cover reprints the human racial traits from the Core Rulebook, but, more usefully, has a list of "Human Half-Breed" PC races like Aasimar, Gillmen, Tieflings, etc., and where their details can be found.

The first few pages of the book cover the things that are really interesting to learn about other races (like "Physical Features" and "Senses") but that are rather unnecessary to discuss when it comes to humans.  The book nicely draws the theme that humans, despite being physically weaker than many other races, are an extremely fecund, energetic, and adaptable race, and that that, more than anything else, is why they're so dominant in Golarion.  The next few pages are a quite in-depth history of human migration throughout Golarion, including a map that shows how the major human ethnic groups circulated throughout the Inner Sea.  It's heavy background and not exactly gripping, but I do appreciate the devotion to world building.  Of more interest (at least to me) was the page and a half overview of humanity's "lost kingdoms" like Azlant, Jistka, Thassilon, Shory, etc.  There's only a paragraph or so discussion of each, but it definitely leaves the reader intrigued and curious to learn more.

The next thirteen pages are dedicated, on a one page per entry basis, to covering the major human ethnic groups on Golarion.  Each entry has basic information like Languages, Favored Regions and Religions, Male and Female Names, and Appearance, along with several paragraphs on common behaviors and perceptions.  We learn that Chelaxians, for example, "believe in strength, honor, nobility, and success", while Garundians tend to "approach life with gusto, and worship with song and dance."  The following ethnicities are covered: Azlanti, Chelaxians, Garundi, Keleshites, Kellids, Mwangi, Shoanti, Taldans, Tian, Ulfen, Varisians, Vudrani, Half-elves, and Half-orcs.  I found the entries a bit bland, like reading from an encyclopedia, but they are a concise way to get a "sense" of a group.  From a meta perspective, the human ethnicities of Golarion are obviously inspired by real-world counterparts.  The Tian are Asian-inspired, the Vudrani are India-themed, etc.  However, Paizo is smart enough to avoid lazy or offensive stereotypes, and I think they've made a real effort to be inclusive of the world's diversity.  I found a few of the entries curious: the Azlanti, for example, aren't around anymore, so why devote a page to them?  And half-orcs and half-elves are at least partially covered in Orcs of Golarion and Elves of Golarion, respectively.  A few extra pages could have been used for something else.

A list of "Human Weapons" takes up the next two pages of the book.  The idea is to discuss which of the groups covered above are most closely associated with various weapons.  Blowguns, for example, are said to be often used by Shoanti and Mwangi, while temple swords are used mainly in Vudra.  I think a "Favored Weapons" line in the entries above would have covered the issue adequately without spending two pages on it.

The next curious decision is to spend two pages discussing Aroden, the dead god of humanity.  Aroden is probably the most important background figure in the world-lore of Golarion, but is of little importance for "present-day" humans in Golarion.  It's the sort of interesting information that would be great in a campaign setting book for a GM who wants to incorporate some history and depth into an adventure, but for a Player Companion it's just not really necessary.

"Human Racial Spells" are the next two pages.  Five new spells are introduced and linked (but not restricted to) particular human ethnic groups.  I thought these spells were good both flavour-wise and mechanically.  I particularly liked the Summon Totem Creature spell for Shoanti spellcasters as it ties in directly to their quah (clan).

Last up are a full two pages of race traits restricted to humans of the associated ethnicities.  There's a lot of them here (24!), but for the most part I found them minor, unnecessary, and forgettable. I did appreciate the little index of human-focussed traits introduced in previous Paizo products, though of course such an index quickly becomes outdated.

Overall, I think Humans of Golarion serves fine as a cheap and concise primer to give to players to answer the "so where's your human PC from?" question.  In other words, it's not ground-breaking but it is useful.  My biggest complaint is that too much space was spent on material of dubious value to players.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Buffy Comic Project: "A Stake to the Heart, Act 3" [BUFFY]

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 62
Dark Horse Comics (Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Fabian Nicieza (story), Cliff Richards (pencils), Brian Horton (paints), Will Conrad (inks)

Setting: Between Movie & Season 1

TV/Movie Character Appearances:  Buffy, Dawn, Angel, Whistler, Joyce, Giles,

Major Original Characters:  Nil

Summary:  Buffy tries to comfort Dawn about the Summers' family impending move, but the appearance of a Malignancy Demon ("Abandonment") appears.  Buffy confronts the demon in a dream-like setting, and her inner willpower triumphs.  Joyce comes home with the names of four destinations for her new gallery, and Buffy picks one out of a hat: Sunnydale.  Meanwhile, Angel succeeds in casting a spell to force the Malignancy Demons to leave Buffy alone, and the demons get drawn to the nearest "weirdness magnet": the Hellmouth!


The whole idea of the Malignancy Demons has been a great theme for the final arc of the series.  Abandonment, of course, is what this issue is all about, as Buffy deals with her parents splitting up and an imminent move away from her school, friends, and the only home she's ever really known.  It all sets up Season One quite cleverly, and I'm perfectly willing to accept it as "canon" in my head.  The artwork in this issue is gorgeous, with some fantastic visuals, such as Buffy being pulled into the belly of the demon.  In this penultimate issue of the series, it's good to know they're going out with a bang!


* Next issue: the final Malignancy Demon, "Trepidation"!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Pathfinder RPG Bestiary [RPG]

Bestiaries are Pathfinder's version of the D&D Monster Manuals: reference books containing descriptions and stat-blocks for hundreds of new creatures for PCs to battle, bother, or befriend.  They're not designed to be read cover to cover, but that's exactly what I did for this review.  The Bestiary weighs in at 327 pages and contains (according to the back-cover) over 350 different monsters arranged in alphabetical order.

The book starts with a two-page Introduction, and it's actually worth reading because it explains what the (28!) different categories of information in a creature's stat block mean.  It also introduces the the "Monster Icons" scheme, wherein each monster receives three different icons to visually denote its creature type, terrain, and climate.  I like the idea of the icons, but I find them too small and similar to be useful, and I'm not interested in flipping back to page 5 too figure out what they mean.  I'm happy just reading the corresponding entries in the stat block.

For monsters, we start with Aasimar on page 7 and run through until Zombie on page 289.  This is what the book is all about, but it's a challenging thing to review as my notes are full of bits of scattered remarks about dozens of different monsters.  As I can't figure out a coherent way to synthesize them, I'm going to take the unusual tack of just including them as a sort of impressionistic picture of what's in the book.  Skim to the bottom for more of the review.


--aboleths are a lot tougher than CR might indicate!

--Not officially Golarion, but flavour in entries generally compatible

--backdoor cosmology with angels stuff

--really good write-up of Solar Angels

--Army Ant Swarms are pretty nasty!

--like archons--I've never really seen them used outside of summoning, when no RP is involved

--azatas: CG celestials


--cool how barghests become greater!

--bebiliths: wow, awesome art for an awesome creature!

--bugbear artwork is weird, but fascinating bit on "The Nature of Goblinoid Evil"


--creepy Choker

--good mixture of animals and various types of monsters 

--a lot of classic ones, but some new ones (like chuul) as well

--like history of cyclops and flash of insight power


--dark folk and dark stalkers?!?!  humanoid subtype with language--never heard of them...

--demons!  Good, engaging, clear explanation 

--don't argue with a balor demon!

--great stories for demons--quasit familiars taking master's souls!

--devils!  emphasis on hierarchy 

--a good variety of tough foes, with lots of HP and resistances

--great writeup of lemure devils

--fantastic artwork all the way through!

--Devourers are pretty nasty for their CR!

--too many dinosaurs!

--dragons!  stat blocks are so long, there's very little description 

--driders and drow: underused




--familiar (no idea that was here!)



--gelatinous cubes are really dangerous!


--love Shaitan genie art

--ghosts: emphasis on story-based customization, 2 page spread


--fun gibbering mouthers artwork




--half- templates

--occasionally the titles aren't the most intuitive:  "Herd animal, bison" for example

--need full stats for combat-trained horses


--intellect devourer--WTF!


--kytons are cool/creepy


--lamia artwork is regrettable 

--lich: gotta have 'em!

--linnorms are nasty, especially curses and poison!

--lycanthrope template 


--medusas, minotaurs, mimics--all the classics!

--mummy rot sure is nasty!


-- nagas look dumb

--neothelids are intriguing!  need more

--nymphs have cool boons


--Oni need better explanation 


--good amount of player detail for pegasi


--rakhasa: a lot of potential in the right campaign 

--retrievers are scary

--rust monsters!


--sea hag artwork is great! (and evil eye comatose ability!)

--shadows can be quite more lethal than CR

--touch ACs are so low because of artificial natural armor bonuses, making Alchemists and Gunslingers especially powerful

--shoggoths arent very scary for CR19

--skum have surprisingly interesting write-up

--giant slugs too goofy


--tarrasque: bad pic, underwhelming 

--troglodyte pic is great!



--vampires: elaborate template 

--vargouille's kiss is nasty



--xills are awesome!


--zombie pic is hilarious 

Hm, that was embarrassing.  Sorry!  

After the monster entries are a series of appendices, and these definitely add value to the book.  

Appendix 1 is Monster Creation, and it offers a very thorough and clear guide to monster creation.  There are a *lot* of moving parts to creating balanced monsters in Pathfinder, so this will take some time until you get the hang of it.  Appendix 2 is Monster Advancement, and this is another important part of the book because it shows GMs how to adjust creatures in the book to make them more or less powerful by adding simple templates (like "Giant" or "Young") and by adding racial hit dice or class levels.  Appendix 3 is the section of the book I use more than any other, and it's indispensable: Universal Monster Rules.  In order to save space and avoid repetition in stat blocks, common monster abilities are fleshed out here: everything from Darkvision to Damage Reduction to Incorporeal and more.  Only very, very experienced GMs should try to run creatures just from the stat blocks without remembering to double-check what their monster abilities do, precisely, in the Universal Monster Rules.  The same appendix also contains creature Types and Subtypes, which are like packages of basic information that all creatures of a particular category, such as demons or animals, share.  Again, this is to save space in stat blocks.  Appendix 4 is very short, and provides some advice on Monsters as PCs.  I've never used it.  Appendix 5 is Monster Feats, though some PCs may actually legitimately use some of them like Craft Construct.  If you notice that a monster has a feat you can't find in the Core Rulebook, that's probably because it's listed here.  Appendices 6 and 7 list Monster Cohorts (for the Leadership feat) and Animal Companions (for druids and rangers), respectively.  Appendices 8-12 are indexes that help a GM who is looking for monsters of a particular type, CR, terrain, etc.  Really useful information that most people who just use online databases probably never realized was available.  Finally, Appendix 14 contains Encounter Tables broken up by terrain.  These include average CRs for an each table, but I still think it'd be foolish to actually roll on them: in a Hill/Mountain, region, for example, your PCs could run into CR 3 orcs or CR 12 fire giants.  A party that is challenged by the former would be curb-stomped by the latter.  Good random encounter table design needs to have a narrow range of CRs before they become feasible.

I'm not a huge monster guy like some people, but I definitely enjoyed reading the Bestiary and I learned a lot about the core monsters of the setting.  I know there are five later books that expand the selection far more, but much of what I see in APs and PFS still draws from this book.  Along with the Core Rulebook, it's safe to say that the Bestiary was one of the releases that helped to solidify Paizo's reputation as a company that publishes the highest calibre of RPG books in terms of writing quality, artwork, design, and layout.  It's not indispensable since there are multiple websites that present the same information, but for ease of use (and the joy of skimming), the Bestiary is one of those books that every GM should have.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Guns of Alkenstar [RPG]


Guns of Alkenstar (available here) is definitely a break from the norm of the Pathfinder Tales line of free web fiction.  First, it's one of the very few (if not only) pieces of fiction set in the nation of Alkenstar, where firearms reign supreme over magic and swords.  Second, it's a six-part tale instead of the usual four-parter.  And third, it's written by Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms!  The story concerns agents of the Alkenstar government involved in political intrigue and assassination plots.  It's full of action, though I found the individual parts rather repetitive.  Greenwood definitely makes use of, and adds, to the world lore of Alkenstar.  On the whole though, I found it rather flawed despite the interesting setting.  I think it could be fine for readers particularly interested in Alkenstar, but otherwise could be safely skipped.


Gelgur, a grizzled veteran of the Shieldmarshals (government agents), is coaxed out of retirement by a senior member named Kordroun to assist in finding out who's been smuggling guns to the nearby country of Geb.  Kordroun also enlists the help of a "gunhunter" named Ralice (I'm not 100% sure what a "gunhunter" is, but I particularly liked that she was given a more realistic body type than is often seen in fantasy fiction).  Assassination attempts abound, and it feels like almost every chapter ends on the same sort of cliffhanger.  Chase, assassination attempt, chase.  There's some high-level political machinations going on that the protagonists uncover, but I found the plot rather confusing: there's too many characters for a short story and I couldn't keep track of them all.  The use of doppelgangers felt rather cliched.  And finally, I found the ending rather abrupt and unsatisfactory.  I'll chalk this one up to a noble failure on Paizo's part.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 31 [RPG]

[9 Neth 4707 continued]

The race to cure Arnald Swiss of ghoul fever before it’s too late continues.  At the Sandpoint Garrison, Artemis asks local healer Hannah Valerin to wait until he can return with an armed escort before she tries to help the potentially dangerous disease victim.  Artemis then runs through the storm to the Rusty Dragon, where he finds Kang obnoxiously reading over Briza’s shoulder.  Artemis tells the two that they need to hurry to the Garrison, and they depart immediately.  Artemis then manages to pull Bey out of her mystery, only to learn that the prophetess is unable to magically cure diseases.  As Hannah Valerin earlier explained that the best she could do was temporarily delay the progression of the disease, Artemis runs across town to try one last hope:  The Feathered Serpent, Sandpoint’s boutique store for magical scrolls and other paraphernalia.  The shop is open, despite the storm, but proprietor Vorvashali Voon explains he’s long been sold out of the scroll that Artemis is asking for.  The enthusiastic storekeeper tries to sell Artemis various other magical devices, but Artemis knows he needs to hurry back to the Garrison.  Meanwhile, Bey takes her time walking over to the Garrison and is lightly wounded when a nearby tree explodes from a bolt of lightning. 

When all of the adventurers have assembled outside of the locked door to the morgue where Arnald is being detained, Briza volunteers to take the risk of escorting Hannah in.  When the door is unlocked, they can see Arnald looks terrible and is pacing frantically back and forth.  They distract him by throwing him rations, but although Hannah gets close enough to cast her spell, it has no effect.  She and Briza retreat and shut the door behind them.  Artemis talks to Sheriff Hemlock about the predicament, and is told that Arnald may have to be “put down” if he can’t be cured, as it’s too dangerous to wait for a full transformation into a ghoul.  Artemis learns, however, that a fast clipper ship is scheduled to leave Sandpoint in the morning for Magnimar, and the watchman decides it’s worth the risk of taking Arnald aboard in the hopes that he’ll fight off the disease long enough to be cured in the larger city.  While Artemis and Hemlock are speaking, Briza tries shouting through the heavy stone door and is rewarded with an answer—Arnald has retained enough sanity to realize he’s a threat to the others, and is willing to turn over the biggest danger he poses: his adamantine greataxe!  With Arnald safely confined, and being fed copious amounts of food from the Garrison’s stores, the adventurers take up vigil through the night.

[10 Neth 4707]

The thunderstorms of the previous night have given way to a beautiful late-Autumn day, but Arnald continues to get worse: “I don’t know how much longer I can hold this off for!” he shouts through the locked morgue door.  Fortunately, Kang has perfected a formula to stave off the worst physical effects of the disease, and they improve Arnald’s condition considerably.  Well enough, in fact, that he’s trusted to leave his makeshift detention and join the others as they journey to the Sandpoint Cathedral to speak with Father Zantus.  The kind priest regretfully explains that he’s unable to assist, having used the last of his resources to stem the tide of the disease that almost overwhelmed the farming community around the town.  After Bey continues talking about the apocalypse, Father Zantus warns her that such heresy will not be tolerated in a place of worship devoted to Desna.  The adventurers leave for the docks, hoping to book passage to Magnimar.  There, they soon learn that Sheriff Hemlock’s information was correct: a clipper named the Vexing Dodger has just arrived from Riddleport, and after unloading some cargo and taking on more, will set sail for Magnimar at midday.

The curious thing about the ship, however, is that it is crewed entirely by ratfolk!  The captain, who gives his name as Dodger (explaining that it’s easier than his real name for humans to pronounce), is happy to take on passengers.  Kang books a private cabin, while the others are relegated to steerage.  Bey is unable to negotiate a reduction in price, but she cleverly gets Dodger to agree that the latter half of “room and board”should be on an “all you can eat basis,” something that will surely benefit Arnald.  Dodger warns everyone, however, to stay away from the ship’s hold, as it could be dangerous.

Captain Dodger
The adventurers have a last few hours in Sandpoint before the Vexing Dodger is scheduled to depart, and they choose different ways to pass the time.  Briza goes fishing and has some good luck, while Kang brews some powerful antitoxins and sells them to Arnald.  Artemis tours the ship and is treated quite deferentially in his Magnimar City Guard tabard.  Bey makes a speech at the Farmer’s Market, instructing everyone to continue to prepare for the imminent apocalypse but offering hope that some of the residents of Sandpoint could survive.  Her words are met with fear in some quarters, and a belief that she’s insane in others.

At midday, the Vexing Dodger raises anchor and sets sail for Magnimar with all of the adventurers on board.  The ship’s captain begins to spin tales for the passengers as the vessel passes by Lost Coast landmarks.  He points out a high promontory called the Pyre and said it was used by Varisians in decades past for mysterious rituals.  A small island, dimly seen in the distance, is named as Grubber’s Hermitage and Dodger says that in recent months no one’s heard from the villagers who live there—he suspects ghosts or lepers!  Bey pays him to sail the ship a little closer, and, through a spyglass, Artemis sees large numbers of carrion birds circling around.  Next, Dodger points out the cliffs at Hag’s Plummet and relates an old yarn about a beautiful young Varisian woman who treated with a witch to gain eternal life, but only on the condition that she never fall in love; the tale ends, of course, with the woman falling in love, aging instantly, being spurned by her beau, and throwing herself off the cliff.  When Dodger starts to tell the adventurers about Foxglove Manor, however, they quickly and in unison tell him they’re not interested.

Despite the ship’s speed, Briza shows surprising proficiency with fishing and catches a small shark!  She lets Arnald eat most of it.  Apart from Kang secretly selling Dodger a couple of vials of drow poison for help in subduing what Dodger explains are beasts confined in the hold for the Serpent’s Run gladiatorial rings, the evening passes without incident.  The adventurers decide to sleep out on deck under the stars.

[11 Neth 4707]

Approaching Magnimar from the Gulf
Another beautiful day greets the adventurers as the last weeks of Autumn are warmer than in years past.  The adventurers wake aboard the Vexing Dodger to the captain’s words that they’ve made good speed and should reach Magnimar before lunchtime.  Bey, however, is disturbed by the fact that her usual dreams of disaster and apocalypse were instead replaced by dreams of peace  and optimism.

The adventurers’ first sight of Magnimar is the massive Irespan, an ancient bridge standing over 300 feet above sea level but mysteriously broken part of the way out to the Varisian Gulf.  The harbor is full of hundreds of ships, large and small, and the noise and bustle of a real city make a clear distinction between Magnimar and Sandpoint.  The travellers learn that the city is divided into three major sections: the Summit, a wealthy section of the city looming on a high cliff that cuts right through the city; the Shore, a more diverse section of the city abutting the Varisian Gulf and the Yondakabari River; and the Shadow, a regrettable slum existing, quite literally, under the enormous reach of the Irespan above.  In addition, they learn that residents of Magnimar further divide the city into nine different districts.  Bey explains to Briza that the Irespan is one of the most famous existing remnants of Thassilon, a mighty empire that existed thousands of years ago and that was ruled by seven mighty wizards who had somehow perverted magic to extend their might before a sudden cataclysm brought about their downfall.

Founder's Honor
The adventurers bid farewell to Captain Dodger and are led by Artemis into Dockway district, full of markets and warehouses and then into the heart of the city and Keystone district, a middle-class section of the city containing safe, clean, wide thoroughfares and impressive buildings.  Keystone is also the religious heart of Magnimar, and Artemis has no difficulty finding the Cynosure, the ring-shaped shrine dedicated to Desna.  Artemis leaves the adventurers in the good hands of a beautiful Varisian cleric named Bevaluu Zimantiu.  When Bey explains that they’ve come to have one of their number healed of ghoul fever, Bevaluu is happy to oblige and successfully invokes the Song of the Spheres to cure Arnald’s infliction.  She welcomes the adventurers to Magnimar and tells them that the city is called variously the City of Monuments and the City of Secrets, as great powers reside in the ancient structures that dot the city.  She tells them to visit a monument called Founder’s Honour along the eastern side of Keystone and leave a gift of flowers and fruit to experience the miracles of Magnimar firsthand.  When the adventurers do so, Bey and Arnald do feel a surprising degree of contentment.

The adventurers have followed a trail of clues from Foxglove Manor all the way to Magnimar.  After the small-town charms of Sandpoint, are they prepared for the dangers and opportunities presented by a bustling city?

Director's Commentary

With his access to lesser restoration, Kang effectively solved Arnald's ghoul fever problem (even the disease wouldn't be formally cured until the PCs reached Magnimar).  A bit anti-climactic from a story-telling perspective, but I can't begrudge the smart use of a resource to save a PC's life.

I came up with the Vexing Dodger, a ship crewed entirely by ratfolk, because I thought it might be fun for the PCs to encounter a non-Core rulebook race.  The bit with the monsters in the hold destined for Serpent's Run was my preparation in case I rolled for any random encounters on the voyage.  I even had a ship flip-mat.  Alas, the dice said no random encounters, so it was a peaceful journey.

I spent a lot of time preparing Magnimar: the AP has a small gazetteer, of course, but I made a lot of use of the campaign setting book and even tried to get some flavour from a novel set there.  I wanted the city to make a big impression on the PCs, but in the actual session I found it really hard to describe the "feel" of the city as they moved quickly from place to place.  As cool and impressive as the Thassilonian monuments would be in real life, they didn't get much a reaction from the jaded adventurers (or players).  It's hard for a GM to translate cool stuff from paper into the players' imagination sometimes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Princes of Darkness (Book of the Damned Vol. 1) [RPG]

In the cosmology of the official Pathfinder campaign setting of Golarion, the infernal planes are divided by alignment and the type of fiends that reside there: Hell (occupied by Lawful Evil devils); Abaddon (occupied by Neutral Evil daemons); and the Abyss (occupied by Chaotic evil demons).  The first entry in the three-volume "Book of the Damned" series, Princes of Darkness, is devoted to the devils of Hell.  Devils in Pathfinder value order, hierarchy, and gaining new mortal souls through trickery and temptation in the form of infernal contracts.  This 64-page book contains a wealth of information on Hell, including sections on each of its 9 layers, its capital, the various types of devils, and a new prestige class for devil-worshipping diabolists.  I've never dabbled much with this aspect of D&D-based RPGs, but I thought this book was really well done and definitely value for the money.  I suppose the weird thing with this review is that I'm writing it *after* the Book of the Damned hardcover has been released, and that book collects and updates the material in Princes of Darkness.  But I have this book and not that one, and I'm a completist.  So, here we go.

 In terms of artwork, you can judge the front cover for yourself--I think it's very cool and has the right feel.  The interior art is also great, with one or two exceptions.  Page layout and design is top-notch, with well-placed sidebars and little illustrations here and there that fit the theme.  Particularly well-done are the pages from the in-universe "Book of the Damned" (which I'll explained in a minute), as they're in script on a parchment-style background.  Very cool.

The interior front cover lists the symbols of the various archdevils of Hell, and I'm sorry to say they look a bit amateurish to me.  The interior back cover lists the things a devil-worshipping cleric would need to know, including the domains, areas of concern, and favored weapons of the various denizens of Hell.  It's quite detailed, with Asmodeus, the eight archdevils, the four "Whore Queens", twenty-eight "infernal dukes", and twelve "malbranche".  The book itself is divided into four main sections: Hell and the Archdevils (descriptions of the various layers and their lords), Devilkind (explaining the different types of devils), Diabolatry (devil worship), and Diablerie (a bestiary of new devils).

Between these sections are two-page long inserts presented as if they were real extracts from the in-universe Book of the Damned, a catalog of the infernal planes written by an angel named Tabris (who, himself, has a fantastic story developed in later books!).  Three of these extracts ("Before", "Order", and "Exodus") talk about the origins of Hell, a story which at first is too vague and a bit boring until you realize how directly the ruler of Hell (Asmodeus) is tied into the creation of the universe itself.  Other extracts briefly discuss Dis (the greatest of Hell's cities) and the internal organization of Hell (briefly describing the various lesser, but still important, players in Hell).

The first main section, "Hell and the Archdevils" (20 pages) takes up about a third of the book.  There's a very brief introduction that covers some of the features of Hell, like Hellfire, Hellmouths, and the River Styx.  Each of the nine layers of Hell is then covered, with one page devoted to the layer itself and one page devoted to its ruler.  I'm tempted to go layer-by-layer, but that would make for a very long review so I'll just mention a few things.  Each of the nine layers revolves around a different concept--for example, the third level (Mammon) is the treasure vaults of Hell and home to those mortal souls who were dominated by greed, while Stygia, the fifth level, is the source of blasphemy, heresy, and corrupted faiths.  There's definitely some echoes of Dante's Inferno here.  I especially like how the rulers of each layer are far more than just embodiments of particular sins--they have unique personalities and backstories.  The writing is top-notch and quite impressive for a sole-authored book.  I suppose that if I had to be picky, I would single out the artwork of Geryon (lord of Stygia) as being kinda silly and state that Nessus (the 9th layer of Hell) is kind of bland.  I might even note that Asmodeus' throne is, visually, much cooler than he is!  But really, this is the heart of the book and it's great.

"Devilkind", the second main section (8 pages) clearly explains how the various denizens of Hell are sorted by power level with themes of authority and submission respected throughout.  Advancement is possible, but sometimes only through self-administered torture!  The main creatures discussed are imps, barbazus, erinyes, osyluths, hamatulas, gelugons, cornugons, and pit fiends.  Most of these were new to me, and the book did a really good job explaining their various roles in Hell.  Devil-summoners will be pleased to note that there are suggestions on how to make fiends more amenable to negotiations (such as telling osyluths secret vices of mortal rulers to gain a +2 bonus on Charisma checks).  The "infernal nobility" of Hell receive a few paragraphs of description each: Infernal Dukes (who rule particular sections of each layer under the supervision of the archdevils), the Whore Queens (fallen angels who operate schemes throughout Hell), and the Malebranche (the generals of Hell's armies).

"Diabolatry" (14 pages) is the third section.  It has information on infernal contracts (in which a mortal agrees to trade their soul for a boon) and includes tips on how a GM should handle them in-game.  The little sample contract is a good template.  New magic items called "devil talismans" are introduced, and they're quite powerful, providing the ability to draw on the powers of devils bound within them.  Next, there's information on the importance of and how to discover the true names of devils.  Perhaps of most interest to players in this book is the Diabolist prestige class; it looks quite flavourful (gaining an imp companion and bonuses to negotiting with summoned devils), and I like the "Damned" class feature: when the diabolist is killed, her soul is instantly sent to Hell and raising that character from the dead requires a high caster level check.  Five new spells appear in this section as well, and they're really fun to read even though I've never seen any of them in a game.  Perhaps a curious omission is how little reference there is to Golarion and whether/where there are specific concentrations of devil-worshippers in particular areas.  I know about Cheliax, for example, but to a new reader this could appear as a setting-neutral book.

The final chapter is "Diablierie" (10 pages).  Four creatures get two-page spreads with stat blocks, descriptions, and artwork:  Apostate Devils (specialists in turning mortals away from their faiths), Heresy Devils (specialists in undermining established religions through corruption and heresy); Host Devils (hunters of souls that have evaded capture in Hell), and Warmonger Devils (construct-like war machines).  The artwork is especially good in this section and each of the new creatures is interesting and well-described.

There's a *lot* to like about Princes of Darkness, and I would definitely recommend it for anyone planning to introduce devils or Hell into their campaign.  It's very much a GM book, with only occasional bits of potential interest to players.  One disappointment I do have in the book is that it's still really hard for me to picture what adventures or even encounters in Hell would look like.  Something like a "Running Games in Hell" sidebar (with suggested Average Party Level for different types of stories) would be really useful in trying to conceptualize adventures there.  Overall though, this is a great book and well-worth a purchase whether in PDF from Paizo or in hard copy from a used book seller.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Pathfinder Dice Tray [RPG]

I picked this up because, despite twenty years' practice, I still frequently roll dice off the table.  I also lose dice underneath papers or amongst all the other clutter on the table.  The Pathfinder Dice Tray has proven an elegant solution, as it stores flat but snaps up in a few seconds to make a durable rectangular box.  It actually has saved me time during the session, as I'm less likely to have to search all over for my dice or chase them across the floor.  
My dice still sometimes tumble out, but I blame my low Dexterity score rather than the tray itself.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 30 [RPG]

[8 Neth 4707 continued]

In the caverns below Foxglove Manor, the adventurers who successfully vanquished The Skinsaw Man discuss the safest way to leave the house.  Artemis notes that there must be another way in and out since the front doors were locked yet goblin ghasts were found inside.  Kang says it is possible they swam in through a submerged passage from the large, deep pool nearby.  Briza is happy to continue exploring, but is also willing to leave.  With Arnald remaining terse and Bey swallowed up in her mystery after the rigors of confronting a killer with a twisted obsession, the others make the decision to risk the swarms of undead ravens outside.

The climb up the long spiral staircase to the basement is uneventful, as is the much shorter ascent to the main floor.  The horses, although hungry, are still in good shape.  Edging the curtains aside carefully, Artemis looks out several windows and sees no sign of the foul necrotic manifestations of undeath known as carrionstorms.  He carefully opens the front door and then everyone mounts up.  Briza goes out first into the chill wind and sees no sign of danger until she looks back at the house—and there, on the roof, are the carrionstorms!  Their cold, dead eyes swivel towards her in unison as they launch into soundless flight towards her.

The others rush out on their mounts at full speed.  Kang hurls a bomb over his head, and the resulting flames engulf hundreds of the swooping attackers!  Artemis spurs his steed to escape, but Briza finds herself unable to control her bucking horse and is swarmed.  Her armor mostly protects her from the hundreds of beaks trying to peck at her, but the sheer stench of rotting flesh nearly overcomes her.  Arnald bravely enters the fray and knocks several of the birds out of the air with his greataxe.  Seeing how well it worked, Briza does the same with her greatsword and soon the attackers are dispersed.  Although frightening, the fighting results in only minor wounds, though Briza’s horse is in great agony.

The adventurers journey east along the northern banks of the Foxglove River.  As they start to put some miles behind them and the accursed mansion, the wind dies down, the overgrown path starts to clear up, and a beautiful, crisp autumn day hangs before them.  Nothing troubles them as they skirt the southern edge of Bleaklow Moor and then reach the Lost Coast Road and turn north.  Traffic along the road makes it clear that its recent closure due to ghoul activity has been lifted.  Once the adventurers reach the long stretch of the road between the overgrown swampland of Brinestump Marsh to the west and the limestone escarpment of Ashen Rise to the east, horns can be heard in the distance.  Artemis identifies them as hunting horns of some kind and, seconds later, four large boars emerge from the underbrush, running frantically straight towards the adventurers!  Kang spurs his horse to run away, but Arnald and Briza dismount to fight.  The boars seem more interested in getting away from whatever is chasing them than fighting, but the adventurers have the bad luck of blocking the boars’ escape route.  Briza’s sword, Arnald’s axe, and Artemis’ arrows are enough to kill three of the four boars while the last one squeezes through a gap to run east.  The horns continue to sound closer and closer, and the adventurers are worried about what could be chasing the boars.  Briza’s horse, severely wounded during the attack, is partially healed by an extract force-fed it by Kang.  The adventurers make speed north leaving a trail of blood behind them as Artemis brings one of the dead boars with him.

Farmers, happy to be returning home after having fled to Sandpoint, wave at the adventurers as the group crosses Cougar Creek.  After a brief rest along its banks, a strange, floating orb of light appears, hovering several yards away.  Kang instantly identifies it as a Will o’ Wisp, and says they’re utterly alien, malevolent creatures known to lure travellers into traps.  He strongly urges the others to ignore it.  As they pass by, Briza notices a shovel stuck into the ground near where the Wisp is bobbing.  Artemis fires an arrow at the ground near the shovel and hears the clang of metal on metal.  The travellers hear a strange voice call out, “foolish, foolish, why do you leave?  Treasure!”  But Kang remains steadfast in his determination that no one approach and even Arnald, who would usually be lured by such an opportunity, remains silent with his eyes downcast.

Gorvi's a jerk.
The adventurers reach Sandpoint in the late afternoon.  Arnald takes Bey directly to the Rusty Dragon.  Artemis reports to Sheriff Hemlock at the Garrison that the source of the ghoul infestation has likely been found and dealt with, and that a ghast was behind the murders in town.  Artemis notes that clues were found indicating that the ghast may have been directed or controlled by a mysterious “Xanesha” in Magnimar.  Sheriff Hemlock authorizes Artemis to follow up, stating that he doesn’t want anyone responsible for what happened to Banny Harker and Katliss Vender, not to mention the many other recent murders, to go unpunished.  Meanwhile, Kang and his “assistant” Briza take the mounts in the direction of the Goblin Squash Stables.  Kang receives some strange looks on the way, but it’s actually Briza who is accosted.  Gorvi, the town’s half-orc dungsweeper and junk-hauler, is pitching shovelfuls of dung at passerby and laughing heartily.  Briza confronts him about it, and has to narrowly jump out of the way when a pile of dung is flung towards her.  She calls him a fat, out-of-shape slob, and when Gorvi angrily runs towards her, he halts after just a few steps, out-of-breath.  Briza and Kang laugh and continue on their way.  Daviren Hosk isn’t pleased at seeing Briza’s injured horse, but she pays for the damage and Daviren is satisfied.

That evening, at the Rusty Dragon, Artemis finds Briza and Kang and reports that he’s received permission to continue the investigation in Magnimar.  The watchman then returns to the Garrison for a night’s rest.  While Briza walks to the Sandpoint Mercantile League hoping to book passage on a charter for the next day (only to find it closed for the night), Kang is brought almost to tears by the stunning performance of a stranger playing the lute on the Rusty Dragon’s small stage.  By the time the bard’s performance is over, word of mouth has spread and the inn is packed.

[9 Neth 4707]

Nisk Tander doesn't like competition!
A new day dawns with the sun hidden behind dark storm clouds.  As cold rain pours from the sky and bolts of jagged lightning flash, the adventurers decide the group’s planned departure for Magnimar will have to be postponed for a day.  Instead, that morning, Artemis skins the boar he collected the previous day, while Kang enlists Briza’s help in preparing a pungent chemical concoction that she doesn’t realize is actually a formidable poison!  When she heads downstairs to collect some breakfast, she notices Arnald devouring an entire buffet table’s worth of food.  When Arnald moans that he’s still hungry, Briza suggests he head toward the Hagfish for some fresh seafood.  Meanwhile, in his chambers on the second floor, Kang receives a visit from a fellow alchemist: Nisk Tander, proprietor of Sandpoint’s local store, Bottled Solutions.  Tander is obviously angry at Kang’s presence in the town, and threatens to reveal to the authorities that the tiefling has “visited places that would bring the authorities down” upon him.  When Kang is not cowed, Tander notes that “alchemists are known for having accidents” and storms out.  Briza notices the angry figure stomping down the stairs, and asks Kang what happened—he explains that he’s just had a run-in with a sub-par, lonely chemist who is envious of Kang’s genius.
'Pillbug' Podiker might just be up no good!

That afternoon, Artemis risks venturing out into the storm to sell the boar’s hide to the local tannery, and the meat itself to the kitchens at the Rusty Dragon—making a tidy profit on both transactions. Kang goes to the Fatman’s Feedbag and gets a lead on where he might be able to sell his morning’s work.  Tucked between several old tenements across from the Town Hall, Kang finds a small building with a painting of a pillbug perched on a mushroom: “The Pillbug’s Pantry.”   Inside, a small rotund man named Aliver ‘Pillbug’ Podiker seems quite impressed at what Kang has concocted.  However, he carefully hints that he can’t do any business with a stranger like Kang unless Jubrayl Vhiski approves.  When Kang returns to the Rusty Dragon, soaked and disappointed, he talks with Briza in the common room before each start to smell smoke.  When they investigate, they realize that flames have engulfed Kang’s bed!  Worse, buckets of water don’t extinguish the flame, and Kang is forced to throw the burning bedclothes out the window.  When the inn’s staff arrive and see the alchemical implements scattered around the room, Ameiko kindly suggests that Kang might find better accommodation at the White Deer.  After they’re gone, Kang whispers to Briza that the fire was no accident: it was surely sabotage!

Hannah Velerin, Local Healer
Artemis has a very different, but no less eventful afternoon.  After planting seeds in the shape of an arrow as a prayer to Erastil to protect Sandpoint, Artemis notices a young, thin watchman determinedly trying to advance through the wind and rain towards the docks.  When Artemis asks the lad, Benmo, what he’s doing out in such foul weather, the nervous recruit explains that there’s word of a disturbance at the Hagfish.  Artemis takes the burden of investigating upon himself, and arrives to find that Arnald is there, grabbing food off of other people’s plates and greedily devouring it!  The patrons are reacting with a mixture of incredulity, hilarity, and hostility, and the establishment’s owner, Jargie Quinn, tells Artemis that he better get Arnald out of there before violence erupts over the axeman’s strange behaviour.  Artemis persuades Arnald that they’ll be plenty of food he can eat at the Garrison.  The watchman leads him to the Garrison’s basement and tries to lure him into a cell, but Arnald doesn’t fall for the trick and starts to grow angry.  Artemis does manage to lock him in the morgue, however, and then he runs to get help since Arnald is clearly not in his right mind.  With Father Zantus unavailable and Bey still lost in her mystery, Artemis is forced to run across town and ask for help from local healer Hannah Velerin.  She says the symptoms sound like ghoul fever, and need to be treated soon before the disease is irreversible!

Although the adventurers have defeated the source of the ghoul infestation, they have not escaped “The Misgivings” unscathed.  Will help arrive for Arnald in time?
Director's Commentary (October 23, 2017)

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, the carrionstorms were fantastic atmosphere and the PCs were terrified of them.  It was rather anticlimactic when they actually attacked, however, since they were so easily dispatched!  Still, the rush to escape the grounds made for a cinematic end to the Foxglove Manor section of the chapter.

There wasn't really anything awful chasing the boars--just hunters on horseback.  It's hard to think of good stuff for random encounters, but the element actually added more drama to the encounter than I expected.

A lot of great interaction with Sandpoint's local colour.  I was happy to get a chance to introduce some of the town's inhabitants that had thus far remained invisible, including Gorvi, Nisk Tander, Pillbug Podiker, and Hannah Velerin.

Arnald's ghoul fever was a fun subplot--I got the inspiration for his behavior from something in Classic Horrors Revisited.

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