Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Song of the Serpent [RPG]


I've now read the first several books in the Pathfinder Tales line, and I'm sorry to say that Song of the Serpent is the worst of the lot.  The novel has a few interesting ideas, but it's the most "generic fantasy" book in the line, with many somewhat cheesy setting elements seemingly closer to the very high-magic Forgotten Realms than to Golarion.  The plotting is unsatisfactory, with vague mysteries standing in the place of cohesive story-telling.  For almost all of the book, the primary protagonist lacks agency, which makes him a hard character to cheer for. The overall tone is a bit off, with some surprisingly gory scenes mixed into an often lighthearted story, and bits of world lore that just strike the reader as wrong, such as half-orcs being depicted as "not uncommonly cannibals."  The conclusion is overlong and surprisingly boring for what should be a climactic, tension-filled moment.   I don't want to be too uncharitable, as there are some fun scenes here and there and the direction the book takes is definitely unpredictable, which is a plus.  The action scenes are fine, and the dialogue is passable.   Still, on the whole, only completists like me should pick up this one.


The book is set in Druma, land of the merchant lords known as Kalistocrats.  A thief named Krunzle the Quick is captured by a prominent Kalistocrat and forced to set off on a quest to recover the merchant's daughter, who absconded with a dashing but slimy knight.  In order to ensure Krunzle's loyalty, the Kalistocrat has his personal wizard place a magical torc in the shape of a snake around the thief's neck: the snakelike torc is semi-sentient and able to choke Krunzle into submission should he stray from the path.  This leads to the problem of Krunzle's lack of agency, as he spends almost the entire book as the puppet of this magical device which seems to come from out of nowhere (and is never satisfactorily explained in the novel).  Anyway, Krunzle makes some friends along the way, such as a former slave named Raimeau (who receives an oddly-placed and unnecessary flashback chapter), a troll named Skanderbrog, and a dwarf named Brond.  The "damsel in distress" (Gylanna) is portrayed well as a strong character who is very much her father's daughter.    As Gylanna is rescued midway through the book, the overall plot is actually to retrieve something that was taken along with Gylanna: a mysterious magical item.  The story really starts to break down here, as there's something about an incredibly ancient, incredibly powerful entity buried in a mountain that has led the heroes to this point to free it, etc.  But it's all very vague in the end, with a long, weird ritual that simply ends unsatisfactorily with far more questions than answers.  The book does integrate some Golarion world-lore (and is one of the few novels to this point to have an interest in dwarfs), but much of the book could take place in any generic fantasy land with little change.  Even the main villain, an evil wizard from Tian Xia, is about as cliche as it gets.  So as I said above, this is one to avoid.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 23 [RPG]

[5 Neth 4707 continued]

A vision of Foxglove Manor
The rainclouds over Sandpoint have not abated when Bey finally emerges from her mystery, finding herself in her room at the Rusty Dragon, Sandpoint’s most popular inn and tavern.  She remembers undergoing an intense apocalyptic vision of dozens, even hundreds of ghouls swarming over the town, all of them linked to, or even directed by, some malevolent intelligence housed in a decaying mansion of unspeakable evil somewhere high up on cliffs overlooking the ocean below.  Bey hurries to the common room of the inn to find her allies and share with them her vision.  The common room is packed with townsfolk bored by the inclement weather, and swelled beyond normal by dozens of farmers from the southern hinterlands who have fled to Sandpoint.  Bey sees Arnald there, eating lunch and massaging his joints and muscles which are still sore from the paralysis which has finally worn off.  The two don’t know where Ome and Artemis are, and Bey decides to trust in her patron deity Desna by embracing pure luck: she and Arnald start randomly knocking on doors all over Sandpoint!

Meanwhile, emerging from a far more disreputable tavern named the Fatman’s Feedbag, Ome talks to Artemis and summarizes his encounter with Jubrayl Vhiski.  The tengu says Jubrayl is almost certainly implicated in the arson somehow, but that she wasn’t able to glean any hard evidence.  The two decide to walk over to the Sandpoint Garrison, home of the Town Watch.  When they arrive, they see a distressing sight: the small force that Sheriff Hemlock sent to the southern farmlands to sweep up any ghoul stragglers after the adventurers cleared the Hambley farm has returned, and its members are in poor shape.  Many of the soldiers are wounded, and two are incapacitated, though alive.  Ome and Artemis ask the group’s leader, Jodar Provolost, what happened.  Jodar, who is far from his usual jolly self, explains that at first things went well: the expedition force found a ghoul here or there, often disguised as a scarecrow, and dealt with it, destroying a total of five.  The fact that Sheriff Hemlock persuaded experienced former adventurers like Ilsoari Gandethus and Deverin Hosk to accompany the group was a real asset, Jodar explains.  But then, he continues, the ghouls started appearing in bunches of twos and threes and the Sandpoint contingent risked being overwhelmed!  They managed to withdraw with no fatalities, Jodar concludes, but it was a near thing.  He says he plans to report to Sheriff Hemlock and suggest declaring that portion of the Lost Coast Road off-limit to travellers until the problem can be dealt with.

Artemis and Ome decide there’s one person who might just be able to help them understand why this ghoul infestation is growing:  Caizarlu Zerren, the necromancer they subdued at Habe’s Sanatorium!  The town jailer, a bald Shoanti named Vachedi, shrugs when the pair ask to interrogate his prisoner.  Caizarlu is hostile and uncooperative at first, until Artemis promises to slip the old wizard’s spell component pouch through the bars if he talks.  Caizarlu says he started noting the ghoul outbreaks in recent weeks and that he believes they originally started from a single location near the coast.  Caizarlu says he’s willing to tell more once Artemis fulfils his end of the bargain, but the guardsman on detachment from Magnimar has tricked him!  Artemis slips the *empty* spell component pouch through the bars, leading Caizarlu to fly into a rage.  Vachedi happily unlocks the cell and subdues the prisoner with his cudgel.

Over near the Rusty Dragon, Bey’s decision to knock on random doors bears fruit, but not in the way she expected.  She finds herself drenched from the rain and turned away from house after house, often with angry muttering, as she asks about her friends and shares the “news” about an impending apocalypse.  When she comes across a tall woman wearing a mithral breastplate, carrying a greatsword, and bearing the distinctive facial tattoos of a Shoanti, Bey gets a glimmer of inspiration.  She asks the stranger if she knows Ome and Artemis, and, indeed, the stranger does!  The stout warrior, whose name is Briza, has spent recent months working as a bouncer at the Pixie’s Kitten and made Ome’s acquaintance through the tengu’s frequent visits there to sing or speak to the brothel’s owner, Kaye Tesarani.  Briza admits she’s at her wit’s end as to what to do now, since the Pixie’s Kitten will be closed for a couple of weeks due to last night’s fire. When Bey invites her to come along to “stem the tide of apocalypse,” the Shoanti woman shrugs and agrees.  They meet up with Arnald and after some more time spent talking to townspeople, they finally hear word that Ome and Artemis were spotted near the Garrison.

The adventurers are reunited in the rain-swept courtyard of the Garrison and Bey introduces Briza to Artemis.  The sanguine seer shares with Ome and Artemis her vision of the foreboding mansion which she believes could be the source of the ghoul attacks, and the decision is made to see if anyone in Sandpoint recognizes the place from Bey’s description.  As Sheriff Hemlock is quite busy with planning how to contain the ghouls, which now threaten to spill over to the northern farmlands, the group turn to Bosk Hartigan, the oldest member of the Town Watch who has served since Sandpoint’s founding over forty years ago.  From Bey’s nightmarish account, Bosk says the place sounds a little like The Misgivings—the nickname given to the long-abandoned Foxglove Manor several miles southwest of Sandpoint.  Bosk just shakes his head when asked for more information, saying the place is well-known to be haunted, and that even vandals and squatters know enough to stay away.

Artemis, who did a lot of research on the area around Sandpoint prior to his secondment there, says he remembers a little about Foxglove Manor.  He says the building is over eighty years old, and confirms it certainly has a bad reputation: sightings of strange lights in the attic windows, muffled sounds of screaming from above and below, and even rumours of a huge, bat-winged devil living in the caves are just some of the stories passed around campfires by superstitious travellers who see “The Misgivings” from a distance.  Artemis says that the house has been lived in only sporadically by members of the Foxglove family, with the most recent time about two decades ago when Traver Foxglove, his wife Cyralie, and their children Aldern, Sendeli, and Zeeva moved in for a few years.  But after Cyralie was found dead, burnt and dashed on the rocks below the cliffs behind the house, Traver committed suicide and the children were sent away to be raised in Korvosa by distant relations.

Discussion turns to whether anyone else in Sandpoint might have more information, and the answer comes quickly:  Ilsoari Gandethus, local historian, former adventurer, and Headmaster of Turandarok Academy.  The group’s entry to this orphanage and school for local children is, at first, blocked by Head Mother Dorienne Vilch, a prim woman with grey hair wrapped into a tight bun.  However, Ome has a way with words and manages to persuade her of the importance of the group’s visit by mentioning ghouls.  Eventually, the group is led inside, past children playing, and into Ilsoari Gandethus’ study.  Ilsoari, a stern-looking man in his mid-60s, welcomes the group in but quickly loses interest when he learns they’re not here about his planned expedition to track down the Sandpoint Devil.  Still, he’s reluctantly persuaded to talk about The Misgivings and it turns out he knows an awful lot.  He confirms most of what Artemis said, but explains that Foxglove Manor was actually lived in much more recently: about a year ago, Aldern Foxglove, newly returned to the Lost Coast from his time abroad, set about refurbishing the manor.  Aldern had an extremely difficult time finding locals to work on the old building given its reputation.  As work was slow and intermittent, Aldern had the place looked after by Rogors Craesby, a retired innkeeper.  Once enough of the major rooms were inhabitable, Aldern moved in with his new Varisian bride.

Ilsoari Gandethus
Ilsoari shuffles through some old papers in a cabinet and says that Foxglove Manor was originally built in the year 4624 by Vorel Foxglove, a merchant prince from Magnimar.  Vorel and his family lived in the place for about twenty years until the entire family perished from disease.  The place was then deserted and shunned for almost forty years until Traver and Cyralie moved in.  Ilsoari concludes by saying he’s heard rumors the Foxgloves were associated with a “semi-secret” society (really a gentlemen’s club) in Magnimar called the Brothers of the Seven.  When asked about caverns under the manor, he says ancient Varisian legend (whose details are lost to history) say that the land may have been consecrated to a dark god or demon lord.  Having finished his task, Ilsoari is anxious to get back to his plans for the Sandpoint Devil.  He shares with Arnald his intention to set forth on an expedition to the Devil’s Platter and confirm the existence of the legendary creature once and for all.

The adventurers decide that the key to preventing Bey’s vision of ghouls overrunning Sandpoint is to set out towards Foxglove Manor that very night with plans to stop and rest at Habe’s Sanatorium.  They spend the afternoon buying supplies for the trip and selling items both magical and mundane acquired from earlier adventures.   The sun is starting to set behind grey rain clouds as the defenders of Sandpoint set out on foot south.  The first few miles of their journey along the Lost Coast Road is uneventful, though they notice several travellers racing to get within the safety of the town by nightfall, while local farmers have almost barricaded themselves in their homes.

 As the group leave the wide road and start to follow a narrow, winding trail between farms, over hills, and through patches of wild forest, they come to a place where a narrow stream is bridged by a wide log.  Just as they’re about to cross, their vigilance against attack fails: ghouls emerge from the cover of twilight all around them!  Caught flat-footed, the adventurers are sorely pressed by the first wave of attacks.  Artemis is paralyzed by sharp claws and starts getting dragged into nearby bushes!  Ome tries to fight back but is knocked unconscious in the fighting; fortunately, her giant wasp emerges from her backpack and hovers protectively over her.  Just as the battle seems like it might be lost, however, the tide suddenly turns!  Artemis receives the luckiest stroke of luck in his life, as a tentacled creature from the stream grabs the ghoul that was about to feast on him.  Bey calls upon her divine gifts and bursts into flame to burn the ghouls surrounding her, while Briza and Arnald set to work with their greatsword and greataxe, respectively.  Buoyed by the two professional warriors, the adventurers survive the harrowing encounter and the ghouls are destroyed.

Jodar Provolost’s report that there’s far more than occasional ghoul stragglers to deal with has been confirmed.  Will the adventurers be able to survive the journey to Foxglove Manor?  And if they do, what fresh horror will they find there?
Director's Commentary (August 6, 2017)

Bey, an oracle with the apocalypse mystery, had a trait that gave her a prophetic dream each night.  I went all out this session with a description of a foreboding mansion.  I intended my description to be quite figurative and more about setting up a mood of impending danger, but the PCs took the description quite literally and cleverly used it to figure out where to go next!

Speaking of apocalypse, I did increase the urgency of the PCs' mission by accelerating how quickly the ghouls spread through the farms.  The AP left a lot of it to GM discretion, so I chose what sounded like the most exciting way of portraying the story.

Briza!  The group expanded to five players this session, with the new PC taking the role of a Shoanti barbarian.  Briza was a really fun, good-natured character who, in many ways, was the compassionate heart of an otherwise cynical group.  She and Arnald made a great team as tough martial characters who could stand toe-to-toe with a lot of threats and buy time for their squishier allies in the back ranks to cast spells, etc.

Artemis came *very* close to meeting an untimely end in this session.  Fortunately, Bey's player used her once per chapter plot twist card, which was "Tentacles".  It was a fun and clever way to save a PC, and I don't begrudge it at all.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

First Contact (Starfinder) [RPG]

First Contact was Paizo's giveaway for "Free RPG Day" in June of 2017.  The book is a fifteen-page "bestiary" of sorts, with several new creatures a Starfinder GM can throw at players.  But players should be interested too, as the book contains four new playable races that expand the options given in the Core Rulebook.  The book is available for a free PDF download here, or a print copy can be purchased for just $ 5.  I wouldn't normally go through every entry in a rulebook, but since it's only fifteen pages, it shouldn't take long.

First, a fantastic cover by Caio Maciel Monteiro of Navasi (the Envoy Iconic) and Quig (the Mechanic Iconic) blasting away at some space goblins.  I especially like Quig's flamethrower.  The artwork is reproduced sans logo as the inside back-cover.  The inside front cover is a chart showing the planets in the solar system where Golarion used to exist, along with indications as to where the various creatures in the book hail from.  It's a nice shorthand representation.  Oddly, it's titled "Starfinder Monsters in Pathfinder" which I think would be confusing to many readers since Starfinder is a new game (even though some of it could be easily converted to Pathfinder).

The first page is a table of contents, indicating that the book will cover 11 new alien species.  There are new "Monster Reference Symbols", which are icons that are prominently featured in each monster entry, indicating whether it is a "Combatant" (strong physical fighter), "Expert" (skill-based creature), or "Spellcaster" (self-explanatory).  I like this system of symbols better than the more comprehensive but harder to decipher system used in the Pathfinder bestiaries.

The book starts with a three-page Introduction.  The first section is "What's Different", which briefly summarizes how Starfinder works differently than Pathfinder.  For monster creation, one of the big changes is that they're not built with the same rules that PCs are built like in Pathfinder: instead, there are separate, much faster monster creation rules similar to the optional system introduced in Pathfinder Unchained.  I have to withhold judgment on whether this is a good move or not, but I know there's a lot of controversy about it in the forums.  The section goes on to talk about how ability scores are no longer listed (just modifiers), there are two types of armor class (Energy Armor Class for energy attacks and Kinetic Armor Class for physical attacks), feats are listed only if they can be actively used instead of just providing static modifiers (a great idea), weapons and attacks are now listed with the type of damage they do and there are no confirmation rolls required for crits (which will make sessions faster-paced and potentially more lethal), various types of senses are streamlined, CMB and CMD is no longer a thing, and disease and radiation use the alternative rules introduced in Pathfinder Unchained.  You can see that the designers of Starfinder have worked hard to simplify, streamline, and modernize the rules.

Interestingly, the Introduction goes on to provide a preview of some class abilities from the Operative and Soldier classes: much of this information will become redundant (and could be tinkered with) once the Starfinder Core Rulebook is widely available, but for now it's a fun away to see what sort of style of abilities the classes have.  Operatives (at certain levels) can get a cool "Cloaking Field" ability that essentially allow them to hide in plain sight, a "Debilitating Trick" ability to make an opponent flat-footed or off-target, a "Trick Attack" ability to catch an opponent flat-footed and do extra damage, and an "Uncanny Mobility" ability to avoid attacks of opportunity from a particular enemy.  The Soldier can get a "Grenade Expert" ability to increase the range increment of grenades and manufacture them without paying for them.  On the whole, I really like what I see: they're new and different, but still clear and easy to follow for people familiar with how Pathfinder works.

Finally, the Introduction talks about two new Universal Monster Rules ("Limited Telepathy" and "Unliving") and three new weapon abilities.  This latter category will be great fun for players and GMs alike, as every weapon has a special ability that activates on a critical hit.  The ones discussed here are Arc (the energy blast hits a second enemy), Burn (the target is set on fire), and Explode (boom!).

Now, on to the new creatures.

1. Bloodbrother.  Look at the artwork closely and you see why this creature is so cool (and creepy).  Basically, it can grab people and place them within its ribcage to start draining their blood (Con damage).  It's a really cool concept, though there's not a lot of information about ways a character escapes once within the rib cage prison.

2. Contemplative.  First introduced in Distant Worlds, the Contemplatives of Ashok are essentially enormous telepathically/telekinetically empowered brains with vestigial bodies attached.  They're definitely very "alien," but the best part is that they're a playable PC race.  My only critique is that there's very little background on them (three short sentences).

3.  Ellicoth.  These are enormous (Gargantuan) creatures that live on the planet Eox and devour undead while giving off a radioactive aura.    They have a fun ecological niche.

4.  Space Goblins.  Perhaps my favourite entry in the book, as the artwork is just a perfect encapsulation of goblins (I especially like the band-aids holding together the cracked space helmet!).  I actually really like the special abilities space goblins receive, as their well-known fondness for scrounging, tinkering, and using homemade weapons comes to the forefront.

5.  Haan.  These are weird, giant bug creatures that fly by means of crafting personal balloons out of webbing and inflating them with jets of gas they can emit.  Hey, it's science-fantasy so you may as well think outside the box!.  They're also a playable race, and are large-size creatures which is definitely a shift from the Pathfinder norm.  They don't do a lot for me, and it's hard to picture what their culture and personalities would be like, but hopefully that'll be expanded on later.

6. Ksarik.  Mobile quadrupeds that are supposed to be plant monsters, but neither the artwork nor the write-up really makes the creature feel that way.  These are definitely "monsters for monsters-sake" creatures that PCs won't feel the need to try to negotiate with or befriend.  They have an interesting but somewhat complicated ability to adapt their bodies to that of creatures they're fighting--I'm not sure how this would play out in a game, but it definitely allows them to be unpredictable opponents.

7.  Necrovites.  "Space liches" comes to mind, as these residents of the undead planet Eox have mastered both magic and technology.  We see hints to a lot of cool tech (like an "Eoxian wrackstaff" and a "d-suit IV with gray force field") and a variety of special abilities, but there's only 26 words of background/description.

8. Orocoran.  An excellent write-up of a creepy aberration from Aucturn.  Orocorans can spew vomit that causes targets to hallucinate and then, while targets are disabled, the monster stabs them with a blood-sucking proboscis.

9.  Security robots.  Although security robots may not seem particular exciting, including them here was an excellent choice as I imagine they'll get a *lot* of use by GMs in a variety of adventure scenarios.  The write-up is quite detailed and provides some instant insight into Absalom Station, and even includes a little adventure hook at the end.  The shoulder-monster turret is a fun touch.

10. Sarcesian.  Last of the playable races, and another large-size creature.  Interesting to see how that shakes out in gameplay, as having 10' reach is a big advantage.  Sarcesians are spindly humanoids specially adapted to survive short periods in vacuum, and can even grow energy wings to move through space.  The idea is interesting, but it's hard to picture what they're like in terms of personality.  There's a notorious (and humorous) typo here, as the creature's rifle is listed as doing "1d810+5" points of damage!

11.  Space pirates.  Another smart addition, as space pirates are a natural anytime a random encounter to shake things up is needed.  The artwork is a bit bland here, but we are treated to two stat blocks (a CR 1 "Space Pirate Crew Member" and a CR 4 "Space Pirate Captain").

Overall, the artwork is quite strong and definitely up to what we expect from Paizo: in addition to the aforementioned cover, there's several other stand-out pieces. I know layout and space constraints make detailing new creatures quite challenging, but I'm not sure if the right balance was struck in some of the entries: a two-page spread would have been better for some of the creatures, even if it meant fewer overall.   As a "Free RPG Day" product I think Paizo could have made a better choice than a mini-bestiary, as there wasn't anything readers could do with the book other than wait several weeks for Starfinder to come out.  Still, once the Core Rulebook is out, this free little book will be almost essential in giving GMs some adversaries for the PCs.  And hey, it is a free download, so one can't really complain!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 22 [RPG]

[3 Neth 4707 continued]

Jodar Provolost turns even paler upon seeing Ome literally bite pieces out of the powerful ghast in the Hambley farmhouse in order to destroy it. He mutters something about how repulsive this whole matter is, and stumbles outside to see that that two of his fellow watchmen have died in the battle. Artemis secures the scene, as Bey has again lapsed into her mystery and Arnald has succumbed to a delayed onset of the ghoul’s paralytic touch.

Artemis joins Ome inside the farmhouse to examine the horrifically mutilated body of Crade Hambley. They confirm that the Sihedron star carved into his chest is orientated to place the rune of Greed at its highest point. The scrap of parchment pinned to the man’s tunic is examined; like the others, it is covered in blood and addressed to Bey: “Take the fever into you, my love—it shall be but the first of my gifts to you.” The two discuss the meaning of the note, with Ome suggesting that, by fever, the writer is referencing the supernatural disease “ghoul fever.” Artemis continues examining the corpse and finds a rusted iron key in one pocket.

The search of the farmhouse continues, as the tengu from Sandpoint and the watchman from Magnimar examine the body of the ghast that Ome defeated in single combat. The corpse is wearing dirty and torn servant’s livery and has an iron key on a chain around its neck; the key features a curious heraldic symbol of a flower surrounded by thorns, but neither Ome nor Artemis are able to attribute any meaning to it. A search of the master bedroom uncovers a loose floorboard with a small coffer hidden underneath. The key found in Crade Hambley’s pocket unlocks the coffer to reveal 34 pouches of exactly 100 silver pieces each. Artemis says that the money should be left where it is until the farmer’s next of kin can be notified.

The two conclude their investigation of the farmhouse and turn their attention to the barn. The macabre tangle of bones and partially eaten carcasses of livestock and humans testify it has obviously served as the ghouls’ lair for some days. Artemis sees the bones of children included in the pile, and suggests that the Hambley children have met the worst imaginable end. Apart from an ancient statue that the locals call “the Stone Warrior,” the barn contains nothing else notable.

Artemis and Ome, along with the two surviving members of the Watch escort, decide to return to Sandpoint with their incapacitated friends and the bodies of their two fallen allies. Sticking closely to the winding farm trails that led them here, the group make it back to the Lost Coast Road quickly and have an eventless journey back to Sandpoint. Bey and Arnald are seen safely to their rooms at the Rusty Dragon. Artemis and Ome notice several notes nailed to the inn’s Help Wanted board, including a request for escorts for a trip with Sister Guilia to Mosswood in return for which “spiritual compensation” will be offered, the offer of a reward to help wagonwright Bilivar Wheen recover some lost goods, and a request for escorts to Thistletop posted by Veznutt Parooh.

The functioning members of the team head to the garrison to make their report to Sheriff Hemlock. Hemlock is told that it’s possible the powerful undead in the Hambley farmhouse was the culprit behind the murders, but it’s by no means certain. Upon hearing that more ghouls could lurk in the fields and byways of the southern farms, Sheriff Hemlock says he’ll declare a state of emergency and send more men to sweep the area in the morning. After Artemis leaves, Ome stays for a private word with Sheriff Hemlock about the public meeting scheduled for the next night on whether brothels should be made illegal in Sandpoint. Sheriff Hemlock says he’s found no link between criminal activity and the Pixie’s Kitten and will state this at the meeting. Ome says that the instigator of this meeting, Titus Scarnetti, is the real problem. She delicately hints that if there were any skeletons in Scarnetti’s closet, it could be used to change his mind. Sheriff Hemlock shuts down the idea, but says that anything Ome can do lawfully to change public opinion at tomorrow’s meeting would be appreciated. Afterwards, Artemis tells Ome he’ll attend the meeting but that he’s not much for speech-making.

The two retire for the night, with the town watchman heading for his bunk in the garrison’s barracks and the tengu adventurer heading for the Pixie’s Kitten. Inside the latter, Ome sees that the brothel is busier than she’s ever seen it before, as many in Sandpoint anticipate it could be the final night of its existence. Ome finds Kaye in her private chamber, practicing a speech in front of a mirror. Ome uses her natural instincts for persuasion to help Kaye refine her words. Afterwards, the brothel owner explains why tomorrow’s meeting could go either way. The four representatives of the founding families each have a vote, with the mayor possessing the tie-breaker. Kaye says that, obviously, Titus Scarnetti will vote to close the brothel, but that she knows her friend Ameiko, who’s recently succeeded her slain father on the council, will vote to keep it open. Mayor Deverin has been supportive in the past, but could be swayed if public opinion leans strongly one way or the other. The wildcard is the vote from the Valdemar family. Ethram Valdemar is an old man who is quite sick, and misses as many meetings as he attends; if he doesn’t attend, his eldest son Belvan will take his place.
Kaye Tesarani

[4 Neth 4707]

In the morning, Ome finds Artemis and says that she’s determined to help her friends at the Pixie’s Kitten. The two decide that perhaps they could secure Mayor Deverin’s vote, so they head south towards Deverin Manor. As they cross the southern footbridge across the Turandarok, the two are stunned to see an enormous fish, over fifteen feet long, with bony scales and toothy jaws congregating in the river below! Fortunately, Ome and Artemis are both able to react quickly and run back several yards onto the northern shore before the fish, known as giant gars, are able to turn them into a one-bite snack. The two climb to the rooftops of nearby buildings and start firing arrows at the giant gars, but the angle and water makes their attacks largely ineffective. The drama of the situation escalates seconds later when a rider on horseback (town tanner Larz Rovanky) approaches the bridge from the south. Ome shouts and waves to get Larz’ attention, and succeeds in persuading the skeptical man that danger really does exist in the river. Larz turns back, and after some minutes the giant predator fish swim downstream in search of prey elsewhere.

Ome and Artemis continue their original plan and soon reach Deverin Manor. The butler is not predisposed toward admitting the tengu, but the presence of a uniformed member of the town watch is enough to gain them both entry. The two are led to a dining room where Kendra Deverin is having a late breakfast prior to her planned departure to her office at the town hall. She welcomes the two to sit down, stating that she doesn’t usually receive visitors on public business at her home, but that the combination of a tengu and a member of the Watch was too intriguing to turn down. Ome explains the purpose of their visit, and says that there’s no absolutely no evidence that the existence of a brothel in Sandpoint has any connection whatsoever to any of the terrible things that have befallen the town of late. Deverin agrees, but tells Ome that reason and logic are unlikely to persuade someone like Titus Scarnetti: questions of “sin” and “the punishment of the gods” are not capable of being proven or disproven through evidence. When asked which way she’ll vote at the meeting, Deverin says that it’s a matter of public record that she’s supported legalized prostitution in Sandpoint in the past. However, she says that it would be improper for her to announce which way she’ll be voting tonight until she’s had a chance to hear everyone out. She thanks the two for their interest in civic affairs and sincerely welcomes them to continue participating in Sandpoint public life.

After asking some questions around town to gauge public opinion, Artemis and Ome conclude that they need to find someone really popular to speak out on the Pixie’s Kitten’s behalf. They decide that Cyrdak Drokkus could be just the man, and walk to the Sandpoint Theatre. Inside, they see him frenetically directing rehearsals for a new production in which Sandpoint’s “Local Heroes” (actors in the roles of Bey Lin, Xeveg Kishalq, Oliver Turn, and Felix Bloodrider) battle a papier-mache Sandpoint Devil. The fact that three of the four real-life inspirations for the “Local Heroes” are now dead seems not to have deterred their characters’ popularity (or Cyrdak’s enthusiasm for a sure crowd-pleaser) in the slightest. Ome has difficulty getting Cyrdak’s attention until she jumps on stage and delivers a line of dialogue in a far better manner than the actor hired to play “Felix Bloodrider” did. Cyrdak immediately tells everyone to “take five” while he takes Ome backstage to try to convince her to join his production. She adroitly moves the topic of conversation to tonight’s public meeting, and asks Cyrdak if he plans to speak. The virtuoso performer says there’s no one in Sandpoint he hates more the moralistic Titus Scarnetti, but that he’s not sure if he might do more harm than good. Ome persuades Cyrdak that he could really make a difference for Sandpoint and get revenge on Scarnetti at the same time, and sweetens the deal by saying she’ll owe him a favour. Cyrdak is convinced, and announces that he’s going to bring his partner, Sir Jasper Korvaski, and anyone who doesn’t like it can be damned!

With the time left before the meeting waning, Artemis and Ome split up to make their final preparations. Artemis dresses in civilian clothing so it’s clear he’s attending the meeting in his personal capacity. He talks with Bosk Hartigan about the investigation into the murders at the mill and the old Bradley farm, and tells the man that the cases shouldn’t be considered closed until more decisive evidence is found. Ome goes to the Pixie’s Kitten. She sees that the brothel will be closed tonight so that the entire staff (barring one cleaner) can attend the public meeting en masse.

The town hall is packed! With the representatives of the four founding families sitting behind a semi-circular table at the rear of the hall and a podium in front for a speaker, Mayor Deverin begins the meeting and asks for comments from the public. Several people instantly raise their hand, and Mayor Deverin starts calling on them one by one.

Gorvi, the town’s half-orc rubbish collector, states in crude terms how much he likes visiting the Pixie’s Kitten. His words turn several people against the brothel, contrary to his intention.

Cyrdak gives an impassioned and effective speech about the need for individuality and self-expression, and how “moral know-it-alls” shouldn’t use their authority to suppress anything they don’t like. He ends his presentation by calling on his semi-secret partner, Sir Jasper Korvaski, to stand up so that their relationship can be publicly acknowledged. Cyrdak’s words are effective in swaying the crowd.

Jubrayl Vhiski, a lanky Varisian known to frequent the Fatman’s Feedbag, speaks up in opposition to the Pixie’s Kitten. Jubrayl says that everyone knows that brothels and crime go hand in hand, and that Sandpoint would be a safer place to live if it were closed down. Some heads in the crowd nod in agreement.

Sister Giulia gives a rambling, almost incoherent talk that leaves most listeners confused.

Hannah Velerin, the town healer, gives an effective, matter-of-fact statement that the management of the Pixie’s Kitten is responsible, and makes sure all of its men and women in the sex trade are healthy and treated respectfully by their clients. She says that brothels like the Pixie’s Kitten should be encouraged to exist rather than risk a much more dangerous black market sex trade flourishing in the shadows.

Sheriff Hemlock states that no link between the Pixie’s Kitten and any criminal activity has been found to exist, but his speech is undermined by the perfect timing of Jubrayl Vhiski’s mocking shout that he’s just saying that because he’s in love with Kaye Tesarani.

During a short break in the proceedings, Ome sidles up next to Jubrayl and tries to subtly intimidate him into keeping quiet. He just winks at her and slips away. Artemis uses the time to try to influence small groups of people, but as a perfect stranger to most of them, his efforts come to nought. When the meeting resumes, Ome stands up to talk. She says that she’s met men like Titus Scarnetti before, and that they live to dominate others. “It won’t stop with the Pixie’s Kitten,” Ome says. “Next will be the theatre, and the taverns, and it will go on and on until everything good in Sandpoint is banned.” Ome’s speech is extremely well-received and receives applause from large swathes of the audience.

But, following, directly on its heels, Titus Scarnetti takes the podium. Pounding his fist for emphasis and pointing his fingers at “the culprits”, he condemns the Pixie’s Kitten for allowing sin to enter and infect Sandpoint. Scarnetti links the opening of the brothel with the events of the Late Unpleasantness, and says that although the gods offered Sandpoint a brief reprieve to oust the malignancy within their midst, the townsfolk refused to do so and now the gods continue to punish their sin through goblin raids, murders, and other evils. The only way to set Sandpoint on the path of righteousness and recover the blessing of the gods, Scarnetti says, is to start by banning immoral activities like prostitution. Scarnetti’s speech is moderately effective, especially considering that Father Zantus isn’t in attendance to confirm or deny his points.
Titus Scarnetti

After Ameiko gives a brief talk about her personal friendship with Kaye Tesarani and her confidence that Sandpoint could have no kinder or more caring person in charge of the Pixie’s Kitten, Mayor Deverin says there’s time for only a few last comments. Ome manages to persuade a reluctant Artemis to come up to the podium with her. Ome continues the theme that Sheriff Hemlock was developing about how there is no proof of any link between the existence of a brothel in Sandpoint and any misfortunes that have been visited upon the town. She introduces Artemis, and the inexperienced public speaker gives an impressive showing! His arguments that, having lived in a large city like Magnimar, he knows that public, regulated brothels actually decrease crime and that many of the gods condone sex work is quite persuasive to those in attendance.

The members of the Town Council recess briefly, and then return. Mayor Deverin announces their decision: the brothel will be allowed to stay open. The staff of the Pixie’s Kitten are jubilant. Titus Scarnetti shoots looks of disgust at Artemis and Ome as the meeting is called to an end and people start to stand up and get ready to go home. Before they can, however, the doors of the meeting hall are thrown open by a sweat-soaked Bimmy Beems: “the town is like, on fire or something!”

Everyone rushes out of the town hall and towards the smoke and orange glow coming from the southeast. Soon the source of the flame becomes all too clear: the Pixie’s Kitten is burning! The townspeople start a bucket-line, and the fire hasn’t progressed too far; there still might be a chance to save the building! Ome starts conjuring water to help, but then she and Artemis hear a dreadful sound: screaming from inside the building. The two prove their heroism by dashing into the burning building as waves of heat and smoke-filled corridors dog them at every turn. Their excellent hearing helps them locate the source of the screaming, and when they get to a storage room on the second floor, they see the Pixie’s Kitten’s cleaner shouting for help. Ome picks the woman up, but as they turn back to go the way they’ve come, they realize the stairwell is in flames! Artemis opens a window so that Ome can jump out with the cleaner in her arms—and, thanks to a magical ring of feather falling, both touch down unharmed. Artemis ducks through the window and tries to climb down to the street, but slips and hits the ground hard. He lives, but will have serious bruises in the morning! Once the cleaner is safely out of harm’s way, the two heroes help the other residents of the town fight the fire and, fortunately, they’re able to get it under control. The Pixie’s Kitten won’t be habitable for a couple of weeks, but it’s not a total loss either.

Sheriff Hemlock tells Artemis that there’s no way the timing of the fire, when most of the town’s residents were in city hall, could have been an accident. He designates Artemis and Bosk Hartigan to find the arsonist. Meanwhile, Ome talks to the brothel’s staff—about twenty of them are now homeless. The tengu says she can house six of them at her shack south of town. With Artemis’ help, she finds temporary housing for the others at a combination of the cathedral, the theatre, and the Rusty Dragon.

It’s well past midnight as the exhausted heroes finally make it to their own beds.

[5 Neth 4707]

The autumn morning sees a constant drizzle descend over Sandpoint. Artemis and Ome decide to work together to figure out who was behind the attempt to burn down the Pixie’s Kitten. Their first visit is to the records room at town hall to see if attendance sheets were kept on when people arrived and left last night’s meeting; the line of inquiry fails, however, as a clerk says that people are allowed to come and go freely as long as they don’t create a distraction. A visit to the scene of the crime is far more rewarding: somehow, with a combination of incredible tengu eyesight and the investigative skills of a law enforcement professional, the two discern wet footprints made with lamp oil heading west. Despite the rain, Ome is able to follow them across the street to where they end at the backdoor of the Fatman’s Feedbag, Sandpoint’s most notorious tavern! Having prepared for his secondment to Sandpoint, Artemis knows that the Fatman’s Feedbag is a real dive and the site of several fistfights that have to be broken up by the town watch on a regular basis. Even worse, it’s reputed to be the informal meeting place of the town’s criminal element, including the loosely organized gang of Varisian highwaymen and thieves known as the Sczarni.

The tavern is closed in the morning, and, resisting Ome’s veiled suggestion of doing some breaking and entering, Artemis suggest they gather more clues and return when it’s open. Artemis examines the burn pattern at the Pixie’s Kitten and concludes that the job was done hastily and by an amateur: someone splashed a few flasks of lamp oil around the outer walls and lit them with a brand or torch. Had the job been done by a professional, the brothel would have been a lost cause before the volunteers could arrive to put out the blaze. The two investigators, one official and one unofficial, set out to discover if anyone purchased a large quantity of lamp oil recently. A visit to the Sandpoint Mercantile League shows major imports by the league itself, Deverin Manor, and the town’s general store. Following the lead, the two investigators walk to Ven Vinder’s establishment. Two signs are posted on the door: “No adventurers!” and “Closed tomorrow for funeral.” Ome wisely decides to wait outside while Artemis enters. Ven is obviously in a state of deep mourning and despair, but complies with the watchman’s request to learn who has been in to purchase lamp oil in recent days. The answer consists of only three individuals, and one of them is Gressel Tenniwar, owner of the Fatman's Feedbag!

At lunchtime, when the tavern is opened, Ome enters while Artemis waits outside, knowing his membership in the Town Watch would simply cause everyone inside to clam up. The Fatman’s Feedbag features sticky tables, sawdust-covered floors, and a bar gouged by years of knife- and broken bottle- fights. Gressel Tenniwar, an enormous man with muttonchops, stands behind the bar filling drinks. But Ome is savvy enough to know that the real power in the Feedbag is sitting at a table in the corner surrounded by his flunkies: Jubrayl Vhisky! Ome’s reputation as someone known to lurk occasionally in the seamier side of Sandpoint life is enough to gain her a private audience with the man. The two have a conversation filled with insinuation and innuendo, as Ome subtly hints that Jubrayl was involved in the recent arson. Jubrayl is too experienced to speak about such things with a virtual stranger, but he does make it clear that as the Pixie’s Kitten has an effectively monopoly on the sex trade in Sandpoint, “competition” could be “extremely lucrative” for a “businessman” like himself. He says that if Ome can persuade Kaye to take her operation elsewhere, he’d compensate the Tengu with a “finder’s fee.” Ome leaves, having learned much even if unable to prove any of it.
Jubrayl Vhiski

Titus Scarnetti’s efforts to impose his singular moralism on Sandpoint has been dealt a severe setback. Yet, the Pixie’s Kitten is closed. Who’s responsible for the arson? And has the true culprit behind the serial Sihedron-related murderers really been dealt with?

Director's Commentary (August 2, 2017)

This is probably the longest recap in the campaign, because there was a ton of role-playing and plot development and very little combat.  Two of the players (who ran Bey and Arnald) weren't available for the session, so I only had two players to work with--one forgets how much more quickly stories can advance when there are fewer people at the table!  Still, this session did get me thinking seriously about adding a fifth player so that a couple of people could be absent and wouldn't necessarily imperil the whole AP. 

The entire storyline with the Pixie's Kitten was something I made up myself, drawing upon Ome's relationship with Kaye Tessarani and the presence of a moralistic prat like Titus Scarnetti.  It was also a great way to incorporate Jubrayl Vhiski into the campaign.  The public hearing was run as a skills challenge, and I was really happy with how it turned out--the fact that most of the NPCs had already been established in the campaign meant that I had a good idea how to run them and give them different voices.  The players did fantastic RP, so a scene that could have fallen flat (a town meeting!) was actually pretty exciting.

The encounter with the giant gars was my use of plot twist card; everyone gets one card per chapter, including the GM!  In retrospect, that encounter was far too deadly for just two PCs, even if it was one the random encounters table for the AP.  I was lucky not to have some PC deaths on my hands.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Distant Worlds [RPG]

Distant Worlds is a 64-page softcover campaign setting book for Pathfinder that's like no other: instead of detailing a particular region of Golarion, this book takes you into space!  Well-known as one of the few campaign setting-line books to receive a second printing due to its popularity, the goal of Distant Worlds is to provide an introduction and overview to the planets that share a solar system with Golarion.   The Inner Sea is great and planar travel has its appeal, but sometimes a story needs to travel to whole new worlds and encounter strange, alien civilizations: if you're inclined in such a direction, this is the book for you.

The front cover is certainly cool and eye-catching, and evokes the "sword and planet" genre that inspires much of what's inside the book.  The artwork is reprinted as the inside back cover, while the inside front cover provides a map of the solar system, showing the order of planets from the sun.

The Introduction (two pages) makes clear that this isn't intended as a brand new campaign setting (much less a brand new game like Starfinder), but is instead a whole new set of locales that heroes from Golarion can travel to and adventure on.  Thus, the focus is on what outsiders to these planets will experience, and how they'll survive the journey to get there.  I especially like the couple of paragraphs on how the gods of Golarion aren't necessarily known deities on other planets, and that their portfolios may be encompassed by deities completely unheard of to the PCs.

The first and by far largest section (48 pages) of this book is a gazetteer of the bodies that make up Golarion's solar system.  Each of the planets receives four pages of coverage made up of statistics (diameter, mass, gravity, atmosphere, and orbit), a general description, a few paragraphs on what adventuring there would be like, a half-page chart of key locations on the planet, a couple of pages of written description of those locations, and then a few brief adventure hooks that GMs can use to draw PCs to that planet.  Given that entire worlds are being described in just four pages, readers need to have their expectations in the right place: this is an introduction, not an exhaustive treatment.  I found the interior artwork very hit or miss: many of the aliens are very cool and evocative, but some of the other drawings are rather mediocre.  Anyway, here's a quick run-down of what's covered:

* The Sun:  This is actually just a one-page summary, but it's actually kind of cool--I never thought about setting adventures on the sun!  In Pathfinder, there's actually stuff there, including magically-protected "bubble cities" that would make an awesome setting for an adventure.

* Aballon:  A rocky world that is the closet planet to the sun, occupied by a vast society of machine intelligences created by mysterious (and now departed) First Ones.  There's a really cool cultural divide among the intelligent machines between Those Who Wait (who believe that their creators will someday return and justify their existence) and Those Who Become (who believe that they should leave and seed another world, becoming First Ones themselves).  Another location that stands out is Horsethroat, a small settlement of about 50 people from Golarion (and other worlds) who have arrived, quite accidentally, through a portal from their homeworld and are now trapped on Aballon.  It's a natural starting point for PCs to begin their adventures amongst the stars (even if the "fall through a portal" adventure hook is overused in the book).

* Castrovel:  Home to both the elven nation of Sovyrian (with major story ties to the fate of elves on Golarion) and the lashunta, a humanoid race with major and fixed divisions between the societal roles of the sexes.  There's a plethora of awesome stuff on these four pages, including some fascinating hints about a mysterious portal network on the planet, some links of which have become dangerous.  The ties between Castrovel and Golarion are so strong, it would be fantastic to see an AP that crosses between the two planets.

*  Golarion's Moon:  This section is only two pages long, but there are some interesting story elements here, as the moon was once colonized by ancient Azlanti, and there's a demon-infested area called the Moonscar (the subject of a Pathfinder module).

* Akiton:  That massive four-armed creature on the book's cover is a Shobhad from the harsh, red desert planet of Akiton.  This is a classic "sword and planet" setting, but features two races that we'll be seeing a lot more of in Starfinder: the ysoki (ratfolk) and Contemplatives of Ashok (floating giant brains!).  I appreciate that the book's author, James Sutter, took care to insert details of continuity from previous Pathfinder sourcebooks, like noting that there's a strong link between the Contemplatives and an artifact found in the Mwangi Expanse on Golarion that was first detailed in Heart of the Jungle.

*  Vercies:  A tidal locked planet, with a Darkside and a Fullbright area sandwiching a narrow habitable zone along the equator.  There's a great picture on page 22 of one of the three castes of the planetwide Vercite species.  This is one of the more "high-tech" planets in the solar system and has a nice SF feel that sets it apart from Golarion's traditional fantasy setting.

* The Diaspora: Millions of asteroids, large and small, form the Diaspora.  The asteroid belt has a cool history perhaps linked to the Starstone, and is home to a race called the Sarcesians.  There's a ton of great adventure possibilities detailed in these four pages, with the Vacant Halls and the Wailing Stone serving as natural destinations for explorers.

* Eox: What if you built the Death Star on a planet, but the one time it was fired it caused untold destruction of your own world?  That's sort of the backstory to Eox, a planet where the survivors of a doomsday weapon have turned to necromancy and undeath in order to survive on a blasted world.  Eox is one of the most memorable parts of Distant Worlds, as the resident Bone Sages are cool and creepy at the same time.  There's a location on the planet called the Halls of the Living which is mad-genius Sutter at his best.

* Triaxus: Interesting concept of a planet with a long (317 years!) orbit, so generations are either "summer-born" or "winter-born."  There's a surprising amount of dragon stuff, which isn't really my cup of tea, but it's done well.

*  Liavara:  An enormous gas giant with several moons.  The moons provide lots of variety and adventure possibilities, and I can't argue with the fantastic depiction of a giant creepy bug called The Forever Queen on p. 39 (just pay attention to the little guy at the bottom left to understand the scale!).

* Bretheda: Purple gas giant with natives that are . . . difficult for outsiders to understand.  I found the planet's moons to be the most interesting, many of which are so intriguing I wish they would have had additional pages devoted to them.

* Apostae:  This is the classic "world-ship" SF trope, and I'm stoked to see it here.  My mind instantly jumped to an AP focussed on how to get to the mysterious "vault" at the center of the planet to understand the creators and purpose of Apostae.  Interestingly, each resident of Apostae is biologically significantly different to every other one, so the PCs will likely stand out simply due to their (probably) shared humanoid-bipedal features!

* Aucturn:  A cool, mysterious planet at the very edge of the solar system.  Unlike all of the others, there are no magical portals to Aucturn, meaning it's a hard place to get to!  The write-up shows some intriguing links to the Old Ones and the Dominion of the Black, but there's only two-pages of information on this one.

* Other Worlds:  The part ends with a two-page overview of some miscellaneous topics: constellations, Cynosure (Golarion's north star), the Dark Tapestry (the haunted void between the stars), and the Ice Belt.  I wasn't particularly impressed with the material here, and would rather have seen it used for something else.

Part Two, Stellar Adventures, is just four pages long but they're an extremely important four pages.  It's here we get some insight into ways for PCs to travel to other planets, including portals, spells, and vessels.  There are brief discussions on how to handle environmental problems (including vacuum, extremely high and low gravity and temperature, etc.).  Last, there are two new spells ("Planetary Adaptation" and "Mass Planetary Adaptation") and a new magical item ("Pressure Suit"), all of which are indispensable.  GMs planning a space-based campaign should note that this section sets some very broad rules, but leaves the vast majority of questions that are bound to come up to GM discretion.  Again, this is an introductory sketch to an interplanetary campaign, not a full rules system.

Part Three, Aliens, is eight pages long.  One of the best parts of this section is a list of the couple of dozen of established Pathfinder "monsters" that are explicitly extraterrestrial in origin or that could logically be found on particular other planets.  The list is drawn from Bestiary 1, 2, and 3, so there are probably more recent monsters from volumes 4, 5, and 6 that could be used as well.  Last, six new alien creatures are given stat blocks and descriptions: the insectile machine creatures called Aballonians, the dirigible-like Brethedans, the previously-mentioned giant brains called Contemplatives of Ashok, the Dragonkin of Triaxus, giant interplanetary "space whales" (capable of being used as transports) called Oma, and the four-armed giants from Akiton called Shobhad.  Interesting, creative ideas executed well.

Distant Worlds is a campaign setting book that will either sit on a shelf gathering dust (if you play purely pre-published materials like APs, PFS scenarios, and modules) or serve as *the* book for a homebrew campaign in which the PCs find themselves on alien worlds.  It's thus not a must have for most GMs, but if you have serious plans to integrate Golarion's solar system into your campaign, then it's indispensable.  There are a ton of great ideas in the book, and even if it's not quite as spectacular as some of the buzz indicates, it represents a worthy expansion of Pathfinder's core campaign setting.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Fingers of Death--No, Doom! [RPG]


Fingers of Death--No, Doom! is a four-part series of Pathfinder web fiction (available for free here) that is more light-hearted in tone than most other stories in the line.  Darvin, a human, and his adopted brother Fife, a halfling, dine out on made-up stories and make a living selling fake charms from their "adventures."  The two get more than they bargained for when they encounter a real monstrous threat.  The story, which takes place in Andoran, has a really engaging, classic hook and by the point I reached the funny (and exciting) cliffhanger that ends the first chapter I already wanted to spend more time with the characters.  The plot is rather slight even for just a short 4-part web fiction, but the premise is fun.  If you like something a bit more on the silly side when it comes to gaming fiction, this story could be the one for you.


The first paragraphs of Chapter 1 are over-the-top generic fantasy, and the reader has to push through a bit before realizing that, of course, it's a story being related by one of the characters in order to score free drinks.  Darvin and Fife end up finding themselves investigating a house once frequented by a necromancer, and facing the safeguards left behind: crawling hands!  There's a *lot* of sequences involving the crawling hands, probably more than necessary, but Chapter 3 is a lot of fun regardless.  I don't know if Darvin and Fife have enough depth to sustain a longer tale, but they're just right for something like a short story.

Friday, July 21, 2017

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 65 [RPG]

[11 Flamerule 1372 continued]

At Wayward House, Urist McBronzebottom draws the inebriated and weakened Markus up to their room.  Dolcetto receives a visit from Guard-Captain Brinn, who reports having searched the warehouse where the kenku attacked quite thoroughly and having found no traces of battle or the missing "Markus' Marauders."  Brinn implies that Dolcetto may have filed a false report just for fun, citing "feathered bird-men riding giant rats," and cautions her against trying again.  Next door, Mellia tells Cain that she thinks Ralkin will come along on their mission to Nesme but that they'll have to be very careful how they explain things to Fargrim.  She says they should focus on "liberating the city from an evil god."  Cain agrees and notes Mellia's skill with words.  After everyone has turned in for the night, Dolcetto sleeps for just a couple of hours and then identifies the longsword and chain shirt the party took from the dead half-orc Ikenvar long ago.

[12 Flamerule 1372]

A few hours after midnight, as the inhabitants of the beautiful city of Silverymoon slumber, a sharp rapping is made on the door to the chamber where Markus and McBronzebottom sleep.  A voice calls out claiming to be Slace, one of the  Marauders, with a message from the kenku.  When the bleary-eyed Markus opens the door, however, he realizes he's been tricked by the legendary kenku facility with ventriloquism!  Two assassins stand in the doorway and stab at the unprepared adventurer.  One of the strikes goes awry, but the second blade plunges deep into Markus side.  Instants later, bolts of pure energy fly forth from somewhere in the darkened corridor and smash into Markus' chest!

As Markus retreats back into the room, McBronzebottom leaps up quickly and skewers one of the assassins with a mighty thrust from a bastard sword!  Although the dwarf has blocked the doorway, Markus isn't safe yet.  Suddenly, the head of a massive rat smashes through the window and bites Markus in the shoulder!  The sounds of the battle rouse the other adventurers sleeping in nearby rooms.  Dolcetto turns herself invisible and then casts a spell on Fargrim allowing him to fly.  The surprised dwarf hurtles through the air and nearly decapitates an assassin who had retreated from McBronzebottom's fury.  It's clear that the attackers are focussing on Markus, and that some of them have spellcasting ability.  The swordsman is hard-pressed, but manages to defend himself with claws and bites.  Dolcetto follows Fargrim through the corridor and casts a nefarious illusion into an assassin's mind, making him see his worst fears and then suffer a fatal heart attack.  Meanwhile, Mellia and Ralkin enter the corridor and take stock.  Cain, for his part, decides to remain in his room.  After McBronzebottom knocks one of the attackers to the ground and then levies a mighty overhead slash, only one assassin remains visible.  The kenku tries to flee, but Fargrim cuts him off and then Markus unleashes a mighty roar; the kenku drops to the ground, terrified!

Fargrim hauls the kenku into the privies and douses his head until he confesses that he was hired by Villiam Teeal to kill Markus.  Teeal was enraged that Markus didn't aid him during the final battle at the Academy.  The captured kenku, who offers his name as Silverbeak, also claims that Markus' Marauders are being held in the basement of Teeal's house.  After a startled chamberlain is sent to fetch the guards, Dolcetto tells Silverbeak she'll let him live if he makes a full confession.  Silverbeak is happy to do so and is hauled away by a somewhat-apologetic Guard-Captain Brinn.  Markus follows the pair, as Brinn has offered the injured swordsman healing by the cleric on duty at the local watchhouse.  From the priest, Markus hears rumors of orcs gathering somewhere to the north and that the city of Nesme is said to have fallen under the sway of an evil cult after heroically fighting off a massive army of the undead.

Back at the inn, Dolcetto proceeds to start stripping the corpses of their weapons and equipment.  She soon realizes that one of the bodies has already been stripped, and confronts the likeliest suspect: Ralkin!  Ralkin, however, claims not to know where the stripped gear is.  The tiefling resorts to trying to cast an enchantment on him to get him to confess, but the powerful wards of Silverymoon block the spell from having effect.  Dolcetto leaves, after again asking about Myst's body and being told that the problem is being handled.

In the morning, the tired adventurers are relieved to see that Markus' Marauders have been freed.  Markus buys them breakfast and learns that Villiam fled his home after leaving a threatening note.  Partway through the meal, Markus is startled to see a figure he thought was dead: Myst!  Markus follows Myst outside, and the tiefling says he's returned to the land of the living for only one reason: to distribute some of his prized possessions to his friends.  He gives Markus a particular book for each of his adventuring companions, along with an explanation of why each was chosen.  A confused Markus returns to the common room, throws the books on a table, and tells his companions "one book each, pick one out."  

The adventurers proceed to spend the day on various errands.  Dolcetto has drawn up an adventuring charter that she hopes will receive the city's endorsement.  She journeys to the Star Court and hopes to have the charter entered into the Rolls, but is told by the clerk that, because the charter purports to be more than a simple contract between adventurers and actually binds Silverymoon itself as a party, it cannot receive mere routine assent.  Instead, Dolcetto will have to speak to Lord Calleus Jimayne, Master of the Rolls.  Dolcetto returns to the inn, hoping the promised invitation to speak to Lord Jimayne arrives before her planned departure.  Meanwhile, Fargrim decides to sell some of the weaponry taken from the dead kenku assassins and visits Mortimont's Fine Pastries, only to discover that Mortimont will soon be closing the shop.  Mortimont explains that he has "made a new connection with a special friend" and no longer has need of the store-front.  He promises Fargrim, however, that they'll meet again soon, "in this world or the next."  Elsewhere, Ralkin commissions the creation of a very special item.  Late that afternoon, Mellia finishes learning a spell to defend against elemental attacks, Cain picks up a new suit of full plate armor, and Fargrim receives visible proof from Ralkin that Myst is still dead.  The mystery of Myst's brief re-appearance to distribute the books puzzles the group, as the books are fairly ordinary tomes on particular topics like religion, nature, and so forth.  None are magickal, trapped or cursed.  Fargrim uses the gift of a book as an opportunity to try something he's never done before: learn how to read!  McBronzebottom is happy to help, and the two dwarves quickly become friendly.

In the evening, Mellia and Cain pull Fargrim aside for an important talk about Nesme.  Mellia begins by explaining that she and Cain plan to travel to Nesme to complete the task that Cain was given long ago and neglected for the sake of the party.  She says their mission is to free the city from an insidious cult, and allow the inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere, thus leaving the city's decrepit buildings and taint of evil and death behind.  "We must remove their reason to say," she says, "so they can move to some place safe."  Fargrim replies that he doesn't quite understand, but Mellia says everything will be explained fully once they're outside of Silverymoon and ready to teleport directly to Nesme.  Fargrim agrees, but notes that liberating an entire city sounds like a difficult task.  Moreso, he expresses concern over the terrible nightmares that are likely to return once he's left the sanctity of the city's wards.  Cain says the best way to remove this problem, which plagues them both, is to cut it off at the source.  As soon as Nesme is dealt with, the group can focus on uncovering the source of the nightmares below Startop Mountain.

After confirming Fargrim's participation in the mission to Nesme, Mellia speaks with Dolcetto.  Dolcetto states her firm intention to travel directly to Startop Mountain with whomever will accompany her.  She says that until the two groups are reunited, any treasure found by the faction in Startop will be split amongst the faction, including the Crown of Horns itself.  Mellia shows no concern over mundane treasure, but her eyes blaze at the mention of the Crown.  She says if the Crown is found, that will be a different matter entirely.  Dolcetto wishes Mellia the best of luck in the spirit of sportsmanship.  A rift has occurred, with Mellia leading one faction and Dolcetto the other.  Will they continue as rivals or reconcile?

The adventurers rest for the night, continuing to pay the high room fees at Wayward House.

[13 Flamerule 1372]

Stormclouds loom on the horizon as morning dawns.  In Silverwood, Syd finishes a druidic ritual to safeguard an important grove.  Back in the city, Dolcetto talks with Fargrim privately about whether the dwarf will join her in going to Startop Mountain.  Fargrim replies that the quest to liberate Nesme is an important one and that he'll be joining Mellia's group.  Dolcetto asks Fargrim to remember Mellia's overheard statement about "razing the city to the ground," but Fargrim says he'll keep a close eye and will not violate his honour.

Dolcetto proceeds to post advertisements for adventurers to join her in a quest to Startop, promising "glory and wealth beyond measure."  Markus notices Dolcetto distributing the handbills and expresses surprise that Mellia is going to Nesme.  Dolcetto confirms it, and suggests Cain has led Mellia down a dangerous path.  Markus says he'll go with Dolcetto, and bring McBronzebottom with him, as it's too dangerous to remain in the city with Villiam Teeal on the loose.

Mellia works to add another party member to her faction, telling Ralkin about an evil cult in Nesme and being quite honest about her intention to raze the city to the ground.  Ralkin seems quite happy to go, but says he needs to wait until late the following afternoon.  Mellia, worried that Dolcetto may cause her group trouble, tells Ralkin that he should meet her approximately three hours west of the city, on the road leading out of the Moorgate, because she and the others will plan to camp there overnight.  The kenku agrees.

Markus arrives as Mellia, Cain, and Fargrim pack their things and prepare to leave Silverymoon.  The swordsman gives Cain a book on history with passages about diplomacy heavily underlined.  Mellia tells Markus that she wishes him luck and safety, but he can't look her in the eye.  "Don't get killed," he says.  Fargrim hurries away for a hasty private word with Dolcetto, telling her that he'll return if Cain or Mellia plan "something extreme."  The two part as friends.  After a fond farewell to McBronzebottom, Fargrim rejoins Cain and Mellia.  The three leave Silverymoon, confirming that the once-unified adventuring company has now split in two.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Advanced Player's Guide [RPG]

If you own a Core Rulebook and a Bestiary, what Pathfinder book should you buy next?  A campaign setting book or an adventure module would be good answers, but if you're looking for more character options, the best answer would be the Advanced Player's Guide.  This was Paizo's first big player-oriented hardcover to be released after the Core Rulebook, and it's safe to say they knocked it out of the park.  This book has stood the test of time and still contains fantastic options for the game even though it was released several years ago.  If you're playing PFS on a budget, for example, and you have to be choosy with what books or PDFs you buy, start with the Advanced Player's Guide.  You'll find enough options in there to keep you busy for years. 

What follows is a chapter-by-chapter review.  Do keep in mind that this book pre-dates the publication of classes like the magus, vigilante, kineticist, etc., so you won't find options directly designed for them.  In addition, because it's part of the RPG line, it does not contain Golarion-specific flavour (though everything in here is compatible with the setting).  As a whole, I would classify the art as in the lower-middle spectrum of what Paizo can do, with a lot of reused mediocre stuff from earlier books.  The layout as a whole, however, is quite nice.

Chapter 1 (Races):  After an Introduction that's really just an expanded table of contents, Chapter 1 expands the options available for Core races (those found in the Core Rulebook).   For each race, a sentence or two describes how each of the Core classes and the so-called Base classes (those found later in this book) are represented within the culture.  I found this section was fairly generic and tried too hard to make it sound like each class was common in each race, so there wasn't anything that seemed special.  Next up are alternative racial traits for the Core races.  These are important in that they allow a player to swap out one of the special features of a race (like an elf's automatic familiarity with elven weapons, or a gnome's resistance to illusion) for a different special feature.  In other words, it's a good way to customize your PC just a little more and ensure that not all dwarfs are skilled at stonework, for example.  Last, this chapter presents new favoured class options for each of the Core races: instead of the normal rule that a new level in a favoured class provides 1 hit point or 1 skill point, these new options allow a particular race to get something different.  For example, a gnome with the favoured class of bard could get an extra round of bardic performance each day, or a half-orc with the favoured class of fighter could get an additional +2 to stabilization rolls when dying.  Note that each race only has new favoured class options for handful of classes (not all of them).  Unlike the alternate racial traits, I wasn't particularly impressed with the flavour or thought given to the new favoured class options: many of them didn't seem to have any particular tie to the race.  Half-orcs, for example, can increase their bomb damage if their favoured class is alchemist, while human paladins can start to get energy resistance--there's nothing in the write-up of these races that make these bonuses seem natural or logical.  From an optimization perspective, these new favoured class options are quite useful--I just wish they were better from a storytelling perspective.

Chapter 2 (Classes):  One of the most important things that the Advanced Player's Guide brings to Pathfinder is the introduction of six new "Base" classes:  the Alchemist, Cavalier, Inquisitor, Oracle, Summoner, and Witch.  I don't have a lot of space to review each one, so I'll try to be concise. 

The Alchemist fills a real niche in the game, is quite versatile, and would be really fun to play. They get special abilities to rapidly make alchemical items (of course), but also can manufacture bombs, cast magic spells (in the form of drinkable "elixirs"), and temporarily "hulk out" by drinking a "mutagen."  As a GM, my only concern is the fact that the bombs resolve against Touch AC, so in games I've run the alchemist PC hardly ever misses and does substantial amounts of damage as an area effect.  I also think that perhaps the mutagen feature should have been reserved for a specific "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" archetype, as I don't thik it fits well as part of the basic assumption of alchemists.

The Cavalier could probably have been better represented as a Fighter archetype.  Cavaliers are mounted knights who swear an oath to follow the precepts of a particular order.  Different orders provide different bonuses, Cavalier's mounts are hardier than normal, and the class provides PCs and their allies with some limited use of teamwork feats (discussed below).  As written, the class is fairly bland, and I don't think it fills a hole in what could be covered well by other classes.  You also see Cavaliers relatively rarely in gameplay because, frankly, they're just inferior to other builds (and I should know, because I've played one for a couple of years now!).

The Inquisitor is one of those classes I'm a bit torn about.  The idea is that they're specialists in rooting out corruption and heresy within their faith, which is thematically really cool: but I don't see how that fits naturally with the activities of the vast majority of adventuring parties in the game.  The class is conceptually unique and has a lot of cool and useful abilities, some of which seem to fit from a flavour perspective (like Bane) but others that just seem kind of random (like Monster Lore and Cunning Initiative).

The Oracle is another interesting class that I'm unsure about conceptually.  Mechanically, they're spontaneous divine spellcasters who don't worship deities per se but instead strive to unravel a particular "mystery."  As they advance in level, they get "revelations" which are special powers.  Some of the revelations are really cool, and the mysteries are very flavourful.  I like the class better after reading it carefully, though I'm still not sure about the name of the class (since divination isn't the focus) nor about the vague relationship they have to deities.  They are a divine spellcasting class that is much simpler to play than clerics (though less effective), and thus potentially a good choice for new players.

The Summoner as presented in this book is infamous as the most overpowered class in all of Pathfinder, to the point where most GMs and PFS disallow it.  "Unchained" Summoners (as they're usually called in contradistinction to a different type from another book) are, of course, really good at summoning lots of monsters, which is annoying for everyone at the table because it dramatically slows down gameplay.  But more problematically, each Summoner gets an "eidolon" which is a bit like a completely customizable and incredibly powerful monstrous animal companion.  If you have an Unchained Summoner, you may as well be playing a solo campaign because you probably don't need anyone else in the party to win most encounters.  I'm not sure how the Unchained Summoner ever made it through playtesting, but it stands as an example that even great companies like Paizo can make major mistakes.

The Witch is a full (up to 9th level spells) spellcasting class that receives special powers called hexes.  Some of the hexes are really flavourful and cool, and the concept of the class as a whole is one I really like.  There are two things about the class I'm not a fan of:  first, familiars are a major part of the class and as both a player and a GM I find familiars really annoying to deal with (because they rarely contribute positively to a play experience); second, each witch receives bonus spells depending on what "patron" they choose, but the patrons are just abstract concepts (like "Agility" or "Water") and have no substance or flavour to them, and no real potential for story development.  I think it was a bland and almost forgettable way of implementing a really cool idea (mysterious forces granting a character power in exchange for . . .?).  I should also note that one of the witch's hexes, Slumber, has proven overpowered and problematic at a lot of tables.

So as a whole, I think the Alchemist is a real success, while Witches, Oracles, and Inquisitors are solid additions to the game.  The Cavalier is mostly forgotten, while the Summoner is a good example of what not to do in terms of game design. 

The Classes chapter then continues by offering each of the Core classes something special, often in the form of "archetypes."  If you don't already know, archetypes are packages of abilities that swap out some of the features of a class in exchange for other features, and they've become an important part of most builds for experienced players.  Here's a summary of what each Core class gets.

1) Barbarians receive a lot of cool new options for rage powers (though, oddly, a lot of them relate to consuming alcohol) and several archetypes that don't change a lot of class features but that are quite good;

2)  Bards get some fantastic and (sometimes quite dramatic) archetypes, at least as written--but admittedly, I don't hear about them being played very often;

3) Clerics receive the introduction of "subdomains", which are, as the name indicates, "branch" domains.  A cleric with the Sun domain, for example, could now choose the replacement special power and domain spells of the Light subdomain.   It's a way to allow the further customization of clerics since they don't have a lot of class features to trade out for archetypes;

4)  Druids get archetypes that are all terrain-based and quite formulaic, along with a handful of "animal shaman" archetypes that have the same essential ability to gain an aspect of a particular animal's powers.

5) Fighters get a lot of archetypes, most of which are poor in terms of flavour ("Archer" or "Two-Handed Fighter") but some that are quite nutritious, as it were, to aiding particular combat styles;

6) Monks get a lot of archetypes, most of which are pretty bland but some, like the Zen Archer, the Monk of the Four Winds' Slow Time ability, and the Monk of the Healing Hand's capstone power are pretty cool;

7) Paladins get archetypes that are okay, but there's some clunky features for the Divine Defender and Sacred Servant.  There's also the introduction of the Antipaladin (formally an "Alternate" Class) which I know a lot of people demanded but I'm just not a fan of the concept because I think it devalues the essential goodness of the Paladin idea;

8) Rangers get new archetypes and some new combat styles.  I really like the Guide archetype, as the Terrain Bond feature seems much truer to the niche that rangers should fill as wilderness experts.  The Infiltrator and Skirmisher archetypes also get some cool stuff;

9)  Rogues receive 30 new rogue talents and 12 new advanced rogue talents to choose from, though most are of the "1/day, roll two d20s and take the better" on a specific skill check type.  I like the Fast Getaway talent (allowing a rogue to sneak attack and then withdraw), and imagine it would keep a lot of rogues alive.  The class also receives several archetypes, but most are pretty thin and forgettable (though the Cutpurse could be used to devastating effect depending on GM discretion);

10)  Sorcerers receive 10 new bloodlines, and although I'm not an expert on the class, they look useful and meaningful; 

11)  Wizards get new elemental schools to specialize in, and some of the special powers look like a lot of fun (like the Air school's Cyclone power or the Water school's Wave power).  There's also the introduction of "Focused Arcane Schools" which you can think of as "super specialization" in a particular aspect of a School in order to gain replacement powers.

Whew!  A lot of stuff in that chapter.  Moving on.

Chapter 3 (Feats) contains a *lot* of new feats.  The summary table which gives a one-line description of each one fills four pages.  Many of the new feats are standalone things, but others can be grouped by type: several give an additional use of class features ("Extra Rage Power", "Extra Rogue Talent", etc.), make it easier to use the new combat maneuvers introduced at the end of the book, create new metamagic options for spellcasting (with "Dazing Spell" responsible for a lot frustration to GMs), etc.  A new type of feat, Teamwork Feats, are introduced for the first time in this chapter.  The idea with Teamwork Feats is that if two PCs (or allied NPCs) have the same feat, they both get bonuses in particular situations: for example, if two PCs have the "Allied Spellcaster" teamwork feat, they each get a +2 bonus on caster level checks to overcome spell resistance.  I do like the concept, but the proven problem is that it's often hard to get other players at the table to have their PCs take the same one that you're taking, and the bonuses provided by the feats aren't so amazing that groups are inclined to carefully coordinate.

Chapter 4 (Equipment) contains about 25 new weapons (including some of those fun, weird polearms D&D veterans will recognize), a handful of new types of armor, a lot of new pieces of adventuring gear, and several new alchemical items.  There's not a lot here that's earth-shattering, though some items, such as Weapon Blanch, have become de rigeur for every smart adventurer.  It would have been nice if more of the equipment was illustrated, and that better choices were made on what was essential to illustrate: I know what an hourglass looks like, for example, and don't need a picture, but seeing what a "light detector" looks like would have been interesting.

Chapter 5 (Spells) has 57 pages of options for spellcasters of every stripe.  Reading through, I noticed a surprising number of cool Paladin spells, a lot of Bard "finale" spells (that are cast and instantly end bardic performance), and a lot of ninth level spells.  Some of the spells I really liked include Blaze of Glory, Fire Snake, and Hero's Defiance, and the picture of Cacophonous Call on p. 209 is hilarious.  Every spellcaster is bound to find something useful, but there are some problematic ones introduced in this chapter, like the Create Pit line, that GMs need to be aware of.

Chapter 6 (Prestige Classes) introduces eight new options that PCs could, but probably won't, strive for.  Pathfinder long had a reputation for not making much of the prestige class concept, and that's only recently begun to change.  Really fast verdicts:  1) Battle Herald: Love the concept, but everything is tied off an "Inspiring Command" bonus which just progresses too slowly, making the entire prestige class weak; 2) Holy Vindicator: no design room for the concept, and the abilities don't help; 3) Horizon Walker: the bonuses in some terrains are fantastic and in others completely "meh"; 4) Master Chymist: Classic Jekyll & Hyde alchemist; 5) Master Spy: I liked this more than I thought I would, and could see it used for a lot of NPCs or maybe a PC (in just the right campaign).  Gets clever and useful foils to most means of detection, but abilities come on line much later than they should for most adventures;  6)  Rage prophet: Not impressive.  7)  Stalwart Defender: Good, cool abilities that fit the theme, and a good capstone power.

Chapter 7 (Magic Items) has something of everything: magic weapons, armor, wondrous items, minor and major artifacts, etc.  The new metamagic rods are really powerful considering the price, the new staves are pretty boring, and there's a lot of stuff geared specifically for the new classes, which makes sense.  If you've dumped Strength and are relying on Muleback Cords, you've got this book to thank.  My only regret is that the chapter introduces so many fun cursed magic items, and I hardly ever get an opportunity to use any in a game.

Chapter 8 (New Rules) is an important chapter containing three new concepts:  additional combat maneuvers, hero points, and traits.  The additional combat maneuevers are Drag, Reposition, Steal, and Dirty Trick.  Your experience may differ, but in a few years of regular play I've honestly only ever seen the last type of maneuver used, and only in a single session.  The circumstances in which doing one of these maneuvers in place of a regular attack are just too rare, and using the maneuvers effectively requires an investment that's rarely worth it.  The second new concept are hero points, which some groups swear by.  They are basically an optional mechanic that give each player a limited pool of points to gain a big bonus on a roll, do something really cool, or save their character from certain death.  I imagine they do dramatically lower the lethality of the game, which some gamers would really appreciate.  Last is traits, which, although officially optional, have become a normal part of character creation for PFS and most home groups.  Traits are little bonuses a PC can get (each ostensibly half as powerful as a feat) that tie into and help form that character's backstory.  I really like the concept of traits; I just wish more players took the "backstory" part of the trait more seriously instead of just parsing lists for the most advantageous mechanical bonus.

The Advanced Player's Guide is a 335-page book, loaded with tons of options for PCs.  The crunch it provides is well-written and sound in terms of design, with a few exceptions pointed out above.  It has become an integral part of Pathfinder, and a book that's almost impossible to ignore.  Even though it was published seven years ago and thousands of pages of Pathfinder material has come out since, you really can't go wrong adding this book to your collection.