Saturday, December 30, 2017

Combat Tier [RPG]

It's really hard to to do three-dimensional tactical combat with miniatures.  Battles that take place underwater, in outer space, or simply with some foes on the ground and others flying complicate measurements and angles.  Combat Tier isn't a panacea, but it at least helps to solve the problem of visualizing and remembering where everyone is.  The basic idea behind the product is one of those things that is really simple in theory but hard to do well in practice: creating elevated platforms for miniatures to stand on so that players can gauge "how high" (or "how deep") they are relative to "ground level."  The Combat Tier box contains six platforms (four 4x4s and two 5x5s), two four-cube high long extenders, and one two-cube high short extenders.  The platforms and extenders fit together so that miniatures can stand on them at various heights.  Because everything is transparent but contains quite-visible grid markings, it's very easy to see how far miniatures are from one another in a (for example) "one square over, three squares up" sense.  I've used the product in several encounters and found it works really well.  The platforms and extenders are stable and sturdy, and they fit together logically.  It can take a minute to figure out the right combination of pieces to assemble to get different heights, but it's worth it.  The only limitation I foresee is that if you had an entire party of adventurers, all flying at different heights, against a slew of enemies flying at different heights, more than one box would be necessary in order to represent where everyone is.  Still, this is a really cool product that helps to take some of the difficulty out of three-dimensional combat.  It's a solid buy for GMs, especially those running higher-level adventures.

Friday, December 29, 2017

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 67 [RPG]

[15 Flamerule 1372 continued]

After a night interrupted by both erinyes and ghasts, morning finally dawns for the quartet of adventurers headed for Nesme.  Fargrim gradually regains consciousness after his disabling affliction, but he remains sick and shivering from the ordeal.  As a drizzling rain pours down on the campsite, Ralkin explains how he came to be here.  Mellia asks Fargrim about the feverish nightmares he suffered, and the dwarf replies that he remembers seeing something about black towers but his memories are cloudy.  Mellia suggests the group continue onward.  She draws a sketch of the campsite, notable by the blackened crater from the lightning strike, and then prepares to teleport the group.  Before they leave, Ralkin mentions that tomorrow is “our” birthday; when asked by Mellia, he explains that he and his siblings hatched on the same day.

The adventurers arrive at their old campsite alongside the Rauvin and across the river from the village High Hold.  Now that they are safely outside of Silverymoon and the perceived danger of being overheard, the group starts to plan strategy.  Ralkin is disappointed that Mellia can’t recall what Nesme’s buildings are constructed out of, and he explains that the knowledge would be quite important in deciding the best way to burn the city to the ground.  Fargrim is tired and distracted and does not notice the statement, and Mellia quickly shushes the kenku.  She says that if she can get within a mile or so of Nesme, she can use divination spells to scout its defenses.  Fargrim eventually speaks up and says it would be wise to know the numbers of the defenders in the city, but remains confused about who they are fighting before Cain explains that an evil cult has taken over the city.

As Mellia needs more time to finish scribing a spell into her book, the adventurers plan to stay at the campsite for the day.  As late afternoon progresses, a barge is beached nearby.  The vessel’s master shouts at the group that they’re crazy to stay on this side of the river, and that it’s even crazier to do so after nightfall.  He explains that this part of the Evermoor is swarming with undead, and that the situation would be even worse if it weren’t for the heroes of Nesme who broke through a siege of the town and drove the creatures into retreat.  The bargeman offers to ferry the group across the river to High Hold, where they’ll be much safer.

The adventurers agree, and board the barge.  Ralkin realizes the bargemaster is eventually headed downstream to Nesme, and the opportunity to gain entrance is tempting, but Mellia decides against it.  During the short trip across the Rauvin, the bargemaster speaks in glowing terms about the priestesses of Auril and how they used an ancient relic of the faith to erect a dome of ice to help save the city when the undead launched their invasion.  He also claims they have brought order to Nesme and are helping it to rebuild and prosper.  Some dissidents, he acknowledges, have fled and are rumoured to have set up a “New Nesme” somewhere.  Cain bristles at the homage being paid to Aurilites, but he manages to keep his anger in check.  Mellia draws him aside and has a whispered conversation while Ralkin distracts Fargrim.  Mellia tells Cain that they’ll need to find the Aurilites’ relic and destroy it; Cain says that will be easy to do simply by finding the largest concentration of heretics.  The two talk about whether they should bring Fargrim into their confidence, and agree to approach him the next day. 

The adventurers soon find themselves on the edge of High Hold, a small village that serves as an important waystop for the river traffic between Silverymoon and points west.  The adventurers’ first stop is the Settler’s Inn, a two-story building that looks well-maintained.  Inside, Mellia negotiates with the portly innkeeper, a man named Barnabas.  He seems distracted and hasty to get a deal done regarding the price of the room while he pores over an accounts ledger.  The adventurers take two comfortable rooms, one for Cain and Mellia and one for Ralkin and Fargrim.  

Mellia hurries out into the village and manages to find a seamstress who can alter some clothing left behind by a previous client to Mellia’s tastes.  Cain spends the evening continuing his cosmetic work on his new armor, using his skill with armor-smithing to add realistic-looking flames.  Ralkin is quite successful in tracking down someone who knows something about Nesme: a former resident by the name of Borus.  Borus describes the priestesses of Auril as cruel and fickle, says they’ve forced those they’ve angered to stand in the street holding a block of ice as large as a brick until it’s melted completely, and that although the town was in poor shape in past years from repeated attacks by trolls and hill giants, the situation may be even worse now.  He does grudgingly give the Aurilites some credit for saving the city from the legions of undead that attacked, but says they should have turned control of the city back over to Tessarin and resign the controlling majority they were given on the town council.  Last, he advises Ralkin to watch out for “bears and wolves.”

That night, Fargrim shares with Mellia that he’s remembered more from the visions that tormented him recently.  He says he saw black towers made out of bone hidden all over Faerun, much like the one he and Cain encountered when they were shipwrecked together on a mysterious island.  He says that in the dreams, the towers were sending out roiling waves of red mist and that unliving monstrosities rose in its wake.  From each tower, a beam of sickly energy rose into the sky, combined with those from other towers and refocussed into a single beam.  Finally, he says he heard a voice in the blackness say something about the rituals being on schedule and that the behemoth will arise on High Harvestide.  Mellia is unconcerned about the visions and says they’ll have plenty of time before anything develops from them.  To lighten the mood, she asks the dwarf how his attempt to learn to read is going.  He says he’s been reading a book most of the day, and has now reached page three.

After a late dinner in the inn’s common room, Cain notices Barnabas slowly putting coins into a lockbox and sighing heavily.  Mellia asks the innkeeper how business is going, and receives both an offer to sell the establishment and a poor attempt to hide the fact that the inn no longer makes a profit.  Barnabas is clearly troubled and nervous, but won’t explain why.  Fargrim comes down to dinner wearing only a towel and receives many questioning glances.

That night, after the other adventurers have gone to bed, Mellia stays up and ponders the implications of communications she has been secretly having.

[16 Flamerule 1372]

Shortly after midnight, the adventurers are startled by the sounds of shouting from the street outside accompanied by loud banging on the inn’s front door.  “Open up, Barnbas, you’re late and we’re here to collect!” a voice calls out.  Cain leans out the window and shouts for the newcomers to shut up, but they tell him to mind his own business if he knows what’s good for him.  Hearing Barnabas wailing in fear down in the common room, Fargrim rushes down the stairs to see what’s going on.  Just as he reaches the innkeeper, the front door crashes in and four heavily-muscled toughs appear, armed with clubs and crossbows!  Barnabas cowers behind the bar and hugs Fargrim’s legs, begging him to help.  He says the thugs have come to collect protection money he owes the Syndicate, but that he doesn’t have enough and they’ll kill him for sure.

Fargrim growls that nothing makes him madder than bad men picking on the little guy, and hefts his greataxe.  Meanwhile, Mellia turns invisible upon hearing the disturbance and comes to the top of the stairs, along with Cain and Ralkin.  Just as Fargrim and the bruisers meet up in a furious melee in the middle of the common room, Mellia conjures writhing black tentacles to hold and slowly crush them all (including Fargrim!).  Ralkin takes potshots with his bone bow at the immobile thugs, while Cain deafens them with sonic blasts.  One of the four enforcers succumbs to darkness when his ribcage is crushed by a tentacle, spurring furious efforts by the other three to escape.  However, one is dropped in seconds by Nightflower’s Retribution, while the other is cleaved nearly in twain by Fargrim’s greataxe!  The last thug makes a run for it, and although injured by a trap conjured by Ralkin, he escapes into the night shouting about retribution from someone named “Tyrone.”  Ralkin mischievously shouts after him “Tell Tyrone that Dolcetto will come for him!”

In the aftermath of the battle, Fargrim collapses in exhaustion.  Ralkin strips the bodies and is surprised to see they’ve carrying thousands in gold—payment for their recent services.  Mellia becomes visible and tells Barnabas that he should simply leave High Hold, as there is nothing more for him here.  Cain returns to his room.  Minutes later, Barnabas’ brother, Joseph, arrives at the inn with two guardsmen.  The younger of the guardsmen, Pickles, tries to convince Ralkin and Fargrim that they’re desperately needed to stop the criminal organisation that has effectively supplanted law and order in the village: the Syndicate.  Pickles says no one else, even guardsmen like himself, have been able to stand up to the Syndicate and that their front is a moneylender’s store.  The two adventurers insist, however, that they can’t help and that if the town is so far in the grip of criminals, it would be best for ordinary townspeople to simply leave.  “Some places can’t be saved,” Fargrim says.  Pickles and Barnabas are unrelenting in their pleas for help, however, so Fargrim says he’ll mention it to Mellia and they can talk to her in the morning.

No further disturbances interrupt the adventurers rest in the night.  In the morning, Ralkin distributes gold to the others.  Fargrim tells Mellia about Pickles’ and Barnabas’ pleading, but Mellia says whatever is happening in High Hold cannot be as bad as what the residents of Nesme face.  The townspeople there are like those poor souls who cling to their houses despite rising floodwaters that threaten their lives, and need to be persuaded to leave.  Mellia finds Pickles and tells the young guard that her group is not interested, even for a reward.  She adds, however, that another group of adventurers may stop by named “Markus’ Marauders” and that they’ll surely help.

Just as Mellia and the others assemble in the common room to teleport away, the escaped thug from the night before and two other heavily-armed men enter the inn!

Next Recap

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Pathfinder Adventure Path "Burnt Offerings" T-Shirt [RPG]

Anyone who puts in the time can be a gaming nerd, but not everyone can dress like one!  I picked up the awkwardly titled Pathfinder Adventure Path "Burnt Offerings" T-Shirt for two reasons: first, it has the iconic scene of goblins attacking Sandpoint from the cover of the first chapter of the Rise of the Runelords AP that I'm currently running; and second, I can use it for a free re-roll during Pathfinder Society games (which I usually end up wasting on stupid stuff, but that's another story).  I'm not really sure how to review a t-shirt, other than to say that it looks like it does in the picture, it's held up well to several wearings and washings, and is your classic 100% cotton "Fruit of the Loom" shirt.  Buy it, and we can be twins!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nightglass [RPG]


Nightglass is a Pathfinder Tales novel that's very different than the norm.  It's not about adventurers on some sort of quest, but instead a book that traces, from childhood to adulthood, the life of a single individual.  The novel is set in the country of Nidal, a dark but fascinating place where the rulers (and, by necessity, most of the people) have dedicated themselves to a god of pain and shadows.  It's not easy to imagine what everyday life would be like in such a foreboding place, but author Liane Merciel does a fantastic job bringing Nidal to life.  The book's main character strikes me as a touch bland and (no insult intended!) a bit too much like Drizzt Do'Urden, but on the whole this is an excellent job that adds more depth and range to the official Pathfinder campaign setting of Golarion.  We need more clever and original books like this!


The book's main character, Isiem, is taken from his rural village as a child when he shows aptitude for the arcane art of shadowcalling: contacting and manipulating the evil and hungry forces of the shadow plane!  The novel follows Isiem's training at Dusk Hall in Nidal's capital city of Pangolais, and we see what a very evil Hogwarts would be like.  (There's something in there called Joyful Things--jeepers they're creepy!)  The students who survive and progress in their studies at Dusk Hall are eventually initiated into the faith of Zon-Kuthon in a ceremony (the Needled Choir) that is ghastly but a perfect encapsulation and explanation of the faith's tenets.  As often as role-playing scenarios are about heroes defeating evil cultists, it's really unusual to see the inner works of those evil faiths.

After being assigned to help (and spy) on a Chelaxian envoy, Isiem starts planning his escape from Nidal.  Isiem's character isn't easy to pin down.  He takes no joy in the evils deeds he's often asked to do as part of his studies and has no innate respect for the tenets of his faith and government.  Yet, although he sometimes tries to curb the worst of their excesses, he's definitely not a heroic type of character.  He's a survivor who wants, most of all, to be free--and that's why the comparison to Drizzt's escape from the Drow strikes me as an apt comparison.

The second half of the book shifts to a remote town in Cheliax called Crackspike where silver has recently been discovered.  Isiem is sent with a contingent of Hellknights (because Nidal cooperates with Cheliax by making its shadowcallers available to them) to pacify the birdlike strix that have been warring with the miners.  The novel shows great insight (and adds worldlore) for the strix, creatures I haven't encountered in much Pathfinder fiction.  After the strix overrun Crackspike, Isiem becomes their ally because he showed mercy to one of their warriors during the battle.  He helps the strix in a later battle against Chelaxian reinforcements, and helps to negotiate a peace treaty between the two forces.  It's an odd and unpredictable turn of events for the character, and although it ties into his freedom from Nidal, I'm sure if it fits the theme of the book as well.  Nidal is such an interesting place that I'd rather see more of it than follow the life of one of its escapees.

Despite the review ending on a bit of a down note, Nightglass is an excellent novel and definitely worth reading.  It has single-handedly turned a particular aspect of Golarion from an interesting idea to a fully fleshed-out and believable place, which is no small feat.

Monday, December 25, 2017

SFS # 1-03 "Yesteryear's Truth" [RPG]


If other scenarios have drawn inspiration from influential SF like Firefly and Aliens, Starfinder Society scenario # 1-03 "Yesteryear's Truth" might be best described as influenced by classic Star Trek.  This is the type of scenario I was hoping we'd get: one with big ideas, first contacts, and hard choices with no easy answer.  It's the best of the scenarios released so far, and was a treat to both read and to run.  I loved it, and only players who hate social encounters should skip it.


"Yesteryear's Truth" assigns the Starfinders to journey to a newly-discovered planet in the Vast called Elytrio.  A previous SFS expedition had tried to approach Elytrio but was driven away by an orbital defense platform (in a nice tie-in, that ship was the one the PCs are sent to recover in Into the Unknown--a fact I played up since my players had also played that one).  The mission briefing with Venture-Captain Arvin is a bit bland--I wish the writers had given him a personality with some "pop" to role-play.  (There's a nice little cameo from Fitch, the faction leader for the Wayfinders.)  The main choice the PCs need to make early on, and it's an important once for this scenario, is whether to take a lightly-armed but fast vessel or a slower but heavily-armed starship.

The reason the choice of starship matters is that, on approach to Elytrio, the PCs have to engage in starship combat with the orbital defense platform.  The trick with the platform is that it doesn't attack directly but instead releases, every round, an armed drone.  It comes loaded with twelve of the buggers! (though it'll only dispatch four onto the battlefield at any one time)  My players quickly figured out the right approach and focussed all of their missiles on the platform itself.  I have heard horror stories of other groups thinking they should focus on the drones or bringing the lightly-armed ship that doesn't have missiles, which has led to a *long* slog that lasts hours.  That certainly wasn't my experience, but I think there are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out with starship combat being too easy and/or too long.  Still, I thought the encounter was a solid and original one that forced the players to do some strategic thinking.

After defeating the platform, scans of Elytrio shows a large city protected by a force field in the midst of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  When the PCs land nearby and set off on foot for the city, they're attacked by a scaled, lion-sized lizard creature called a sand brute.  This is very much a "random encounter" type of combat, but it's the last taste of battle the players will get for a while in the scenario so I thought it was okay.  And, the battle against the sand brute is the premise for the PCs encountering a hunting party of the residents of Elytrio: sentient human-sized cockroach-like creatures called the Ghibrani!

This is the point where the scenario really starts to come into its own.  The PCs have their work cut out for them in making first contact, as they have to overcome barriers with language (some options are embedded into the scenario) and customs in order to make their peaceful intentions known.  If things with the hunting party go awry, there are instructions given to the GM on how to jump ahead.  But if things go well, the PCs will be invited back to a nearby series of cliffside caves where the ghibrani live.  In order to impress the tribe, the PCs need to take part in (and perform well in) a ritual dance--a fun but important scene, as failure means they've already lost out on the secondary success condition!  Conversation with the ghibrani will allow the PCs to start to piece together some of Elytrio's history.  The ghibranis they're talking too are called "husk" ghibranis and, generations ago, decided to live in the wastelands following the precepts of their god, Mother Touloo.

After the dance (or after a failed encounter with the hunting party), the PCs will meet a ghibrani named Klarima.  Klarima, however, is not a husk ghibrani but a member of one of the winged, city-dwelling ghibranis known as the "membranes."  Klarima, like most of the ghibranis, is happy to meet outsiders from another world and will offer to take the PCs back with her through the force field to the city where she lives, Arkeost.

Arkeost is described well as a city built for those who can fly where most of the mundane tasks are done by little robot drones.  However, as the PCs will soon witness firsthand, the drones frequently suffer from glitches and malfunctions, and the infrastructure of the city has been decaying for years.  Klarima takes the PCs to meet with the leaders of Arkeost, the Most Elevated.  This is another important and delicate social encounter, with the crux being the ability of the PCs to eat (or feign eating) some disgusting ghibrani food to avoid offending the Most Elevated!  As with the dance for the husk ghibranis, there are various options presented on how to accomplish the task, but failure means failing the secondary success condition.  These social encounters are done well, with lots of opportunity for conversation and role-playing, but also with real importance (and consequences) attached to them.

Conversation with the Most Elevated fills in more of the details about Elytrio.  Generations ago, there was a nuclear war between nation-states that devastated the planet.  Some of the ghibrani sought refuge in force-field protected cities like Arkeost, while others followed the revelations of Mother Touloo and endured the hardships and radiation of the wastelands (and thus, lost the use of their wings).  The membrane ghibranis of Arkeost do not understand the technology of their ancestors and have established a taboo keeping them from entering the mainframe building where the city's computer systems and thousands of drones are controlled.  But, they're happy for outsiders to investigate and see if they can figure out why the city's automated services are suffering so many problems of late.

The last section of the scenario has the PCs enter the mainframe area.  There's a couple of ancient security robots that have to be destroyed (hardly any challenge in the session I ran) before the malfunctioning computer can be found and repaired.  But the players will soon realize that that was the easy part.  The hard part isn't something that can be overcome with lasers or skill checks.  Records found in the mainframe reveal that ghibrani society is built on a pack of lies!  Generations ago, concerned that Arkeost could not support so many refugees, the city's leaders secretly concocted an elaborate fraud on its people by inventing "Mother Touloo" and her "revelation" that her followers should leave the city in order to find enlightenment in the wastelands.  Those who went became the husk ghibranis, while those who stayed became the membranes.  The PCs are then faced with the terrible choice of what to do with the information: keep it to themselves, tell only the membranes, tell only the husks, or tell both sides.  Their choice could lead to reunion or civil war, and the entire burden falls on them.  I thought it was a fantastic situation to put the PCs in, as it came about naturally through the story and wasn't a contrived last-minute add-on.  A good GM will give the players a full opportunity to debate what should be done, and their choice is one of the reporting conditions that could affect future scenarios involving Elytrio.  If I had a complaint about the scenario, it would be that the wrap-up (after their choice) is done in summary form and the PCs don't get to see the full result of their choice yet.  But it leaves a fascinating hook for a future scenario, one that I really hope writers follow up on in a future season.

As I said at the beginning, Yesteryear's Truth is a scenario with some big ideas behind it.  It's a substantive scenario and a memorable one.  Making first contact with an alien race and discovering the secrets of their civilization is classic Star Trek, and I'm really recognizing the range of stories that Starfinder can tell.  This is a more role-play heavy scenario than some previous ones, but I didn't mind it one bit.  Overall, I hope we see more scenarios like this one that have depth and intelligence behind them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Lady Sarabian of House Dae'Shar [RPG]

Lady Sarabian of House Dae'Shar is a character I played for a solid 18 months in a Pathfinder campaign, taking her from Level 1 all the way up to Level 13 before her death.  Having previously played a very fun but simple and straightforward character (Little Bigtoes), I thought I was ready for a really complex character I could sink my teeth into.  And Sarabian was certainly complex!  She was multiclassed with levels of Magus (itself basically a fighter/wizard hybrid), a Cavalier archetype called Inspired Commander, and (near the end) a prestige class called Student of War.  In addition, she was focussed around some of the more complex rules subsets in the game, including stronghold-management, mass combat, and feats like leadership.  I often had my hands full with Sarabian!

The character was conceived to help me answer a question about gaming that I've had for years: does having an (in-character) battle leader make a difference in encounters?  In every gaming group I've ever played in, every player just does their own thing and, apart from some obvious precepts (wizards stay near the back, rogues try to flank, etc.), there's absolutely no coordination between the characters.  So Sarabian was designed as a sort of battlefield commander to shout out instructions to her allies and (through the Inspiring Commander archetype) provide them with some really amazing bonuses from the Aid Another action.  The result of the experiment was that I found players loved the mechanical buffs she provided, but routinely ignored her advice (which usually ended up being pretty sound!).

I spent a lot of time on Sarabian's backstory, and it ended up being a major focus of the sandbox-style campaign.  The character had a tragic past and an unfortunately tragic time in the campaign, with a suitable tragic finale: forced to commit suicide to prevent an evil deity from taking over her body!  I was really sad to see Sarabian go, as I was caught up in her story and wanted her to find some glimpses of happiness instead of yet more death.  But in gaming, like life, sometimes fate just doesn't cooperate.
Lady Sarabian of House Dae'Shar
LN Female Elf Magus6/Cavalier (Inspired Commander)5/Student of War2
Str 12 (16), Dex 8, Con 14, Int 20 (24), Wis 9 (11), Cha 8
Hit Points: 133
AC: 29 (T19, FF22)     Fort +14, Ref +5, Will +9
Attack:  +3 keen small bardiche (w/2 pts. arcane pool):  +15/+10/+5, 17-20x2, d. 1d8+6
Skills:  Acrobatics +2, Appraise +7, Bluff -1, Climb +13, Diplomacy +8, Disable Device +12, Disguise -1, Escape Artist -1, Fly -1, Handle Animal +5, Heal +2, Intimidate +10, Knowledge arcana) +29, Knowledge (dungeoneering) +12, Knowledge (engineering) +14, Knowledge (geography) +13, Knowledge (history) +11, Knowledge (local) +13, Knowledge (nature) +12, Knowledge (nobility) +15, Knowledge (planes) +23, Knowledge (religion) +15, Linguistics +11, Perception +9, Perform (Oratory) +12, Profession (Soldier) +11, Profession (Siege Engineer) +8, Ride +11, Sense Motive +0, Spellcraft +20, Stealth +8, Survival +6, Swim +14, UMD +3
Languages: Elven, Common, Gnome, Goblin, Orc, Sylvan, Draconic, Undercommon
Feats: Combat Expertise, *Escape Route, Leadership, Second Chance, Harrying Partners, Skill Focus (Knowledge: Arcana), Armor Focus (Breastplate), Artful Dodge, Critical Focus, *Power Attack
Traits: Desperate Focus, Warrior of Old, Rich Parents, Family Ties
Class Abilities:  Arcane Pool, Spell Combat, Challenge (Order of the Dragon), Inspiring Commands, Rapid Tactician, Spellstrike, Spell Shield, Spell Recall, Put Your Heart Into It, Arcane Accuracy, Know Your Enemy, Mind Over Metal
Entry # 1: The War Begins
On this day, in these pages, I declare war.  War on liars, thieves and traitors.  War on the Slavers of Qeth.  War on the vile Drow.  And most of all, war on House Tirith Nor, perfidious swine of the Jade Sea Council.  Let the true tale of the fall of House Dae’Shar be told in these pages, lest it be lost with my death.  For I was there, and should every soul in Bretharis shout “liar”, I will not be swayed from what I know to be truth.
            ‘Twas the feast day of my youngest cousin’s hundredth year in this world.  All of House Dae’Shar had assembled on the grounds of the estate for the ritual of adulthood.  The night was crisp, the wine intoxicating, and the company resplendent.  Hours I must have danced, only to remember with scant hours before dawn of the crystal token I had commissioned as a gift.  I fairly leapt and twirled my way back to the manse, my gown of lavender and gossamer reflecting the moonlight.  I pounced from stair to stair towards my room, until suddenly an intuition of . . . stillness halted my steps.  Not the stillness of true night and an empty home, but of unnatural quiet.  Someone else was in the house—someone whose presence was being concealed by the acrid tang of magic!
            Curious, I tip-toed down the hall to my father’s study.  Therein, a sight never I thought to behold.  An ebon-skinned inhabitant of the netherworld, a fabled Drow!  And consorting with the foul misbegotten creature, none other than my father’s own brother—yea, my uncle Davram, Lord of House Tirith Nor.  They were secreting scrolls into a cunningly-hid niche on the mantle.  I started to speak, but before a single word fell from my mouth, the Drow sensed my presence and turned.  I gaped, and then, with a nod from my uncle, the Drow launched himself into the air and landed behind me.  I did not feel the poisoned blade graze my skin, but as I lurched towards the floor I saw a single drop of blood.  Confusion and fear was swallowed by darkness.
            I was awoken by the sound of heavy footsteps.  I found myself in my own bed, all trace of the night’s events vanished.  A strange dream, I ventured, until my door was burst open by the Council’s inquisitors.  Roughly they dragged me into the hallway, wherein I saw my kin, some still recovering from the night’s exuberances, in similar states of disturbance.  “What transpires?” I ventured, only to receive a boot in the ribs and an unforgettable answer.  “Your father is a traitor, and from the stricken tree falls only diseased fruit.”
            Three days and three nights followed in a blur.  I remember being interrogated by the inquisitors and repeating my story many times over, only to be met with scorn.  There was a proceeding of some sort.  Pei Lei and the Council were known for rendering swift judgment.  How many of them knew the case against my father was a tower of mistruth?  My mother’s wailing echoed in my ears, slowing my cognition of the sentence imposed.  House Dae’Shar had transgressed law and justice, we were told.  Such acts of sedition could not have been solely the work of its head.  The most severe condemnation must be made, and an example set, for all those who would divulge the Jade Sea’s defence secrets to the fell races of the underrealms.  And so:  the daughters of House Dae’Shar exiled, to return only upon pain of death; its sons to be delivered into the hands of the taskmasters of Qeth, with each lash stroke a reminder of the price of betrayal; my mother, the Countess Madame Laeandra Dae’Shar, to live as a kitchen servant passed between the noble houses of the Council; and my father, Lord Michandra Dae’Shar.  My father . . .  My father . . .
            My two sisters and I were taken in a horse-drawn cart to the frontier, our journey oft-remarked upon by a tirade of vile epithet and rotten detritus.  There, in an unremarkable landscape that must have been carefully noted on some map, we were abandoned and told never to return.  We had neither food nor money nor shelter.  But we did have one thing the inquisitors missed—a pendant given to me by my father on my own coming of age festival.  So we walked until our feet found a path, and the path led to a road, and the road led to a small village.  I sold the pendant, not without reluctance, and explained to my sisters what must eventuate.  They remarked upon the fearsome determination in my eyes, but agreed.  They have found positions of safety and gainful employment, to await my summons.
            And so I have outfitted myself for war.  Was I not my father’s daughter?  Did he not teach me the strategems of sword, siege, and evocation ignored by his sons?  My father . . .
            I know my uncle is a cunning man to have turned the nobles of the Jade Sea against my family.  What did he gain?  What is his relationship with the Drow?  His answers will come, in blood.  But although my vengeance is hot, my determination will not fall to the error of rashness.  I will raise riches as a sell-sword.  I will buy or steal my brothers from the hands of the Slavers of Qeth.  I will build an army.  I will find the cavern of the Drow and fall upon them with a fury so wrathful they never venture forth upon the surface again.  And then I will have a reckoning with Davram, destroying House Tirith Nor if I must.
            I will never forget.
            I will never make peace.
            I will never stop.

            Until he dies.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Into the Darklands [RPG]

In the official Pathfinder campaign setting of Golarion, the vast subterranean reaches of ancient empires and degenerate monsters is called the Darklands (i.e., the Underdark for those of you who played a lot of D&D).  Into the Darklands, published in 2008, was one of the early entries in Paizo's line of campaign setting books for Golarion--so early that it predates the actual Pathfinder RPG and instead references 3.5-specific rules elements (including psionics!).  It's a 64-page full-colour softcover book that is really well-written, flavourful, and useful for a GM planning to set any adventures in the area.

The artwork, frankly, is a mixed bag: there's a cartoonishly busty Drow on the otherwise-solid cover, and the interior art ranges from fantastic to mediocre.  The inside back-cover reproduces the cover art, while the inside front-cover is an extensive wandering monster table with columns for the three different "layers" of the Darklands (something I'll talk about in a moment).  As with too many wandering monster tables, I think I'd find it useless because it includes such a vast range of CRs on the same table--if your chance of running into a few fire beetles is the same as your chance of running into a purple worm, there's going to be a lot of short-lived adventuring parties!  On the other hand, I really liked the several maps that show how the surface world overlays various entrances and different areas of the Darklands.

The interior of the book is separated into five parts.

The first part, "Exploring the Darklands", takes up 16 pages and provides a good overview.  It explains that Golarion's Darklands are best thought of as having three "layers," with the shallowest layer (Nar-Voth) less dangerous than the middle layer (Sekamina) and the rarely-visited and mysterious deepest layer (Orv).  Connections between the layers are rare, and most surface-world expeditions to the Darklands go no further than Nar-Voth.  Still, the layers, in a "horizontal" sense, can be as large as continents, so there's plenty of exploration to be done!  After a brief list of common languages and terminology, the section spends several pages summarizing (with one-paragraph each) known points of entry to the Darklands.  This part will be quite important for GMs, and the amount of flavour provided even in the capsule descriptions makes just getting into the Darklands seem like an exciting adventure in itself.  I particularly liked the "Dread Dungeons" (a political prison in Galt that extends so far down that it reaches Nar-Voth), the Pit of Gormuz (an important site from a world-lore perspective as it ties in Rovagug, the Tarrasque, and more), and the Shadow Caverns (an important aspect of what's happening in Nidal).  Next up is a section on hazards, including mundane dangers like getting stuck or lost, as well as more exotic threats like toxic fungi and radiation.  This part is excellent, as it provides a wealth of detail to make travel in the Darklands really come alive--everything from travel time through different types of tunnels to dealing with bad air to navigating in total darkness (with a doubling of random encounter chances if the PCs use light sources!).  Players will quickly realize they have far more than just monsters to worry about in a Darklands-based adventure.

The second part of the book covers Nar-Voth (the upper layer) in about 12 pages.  There's an interesting, and coherent backstory to the Darklands that ties into other important aspects of Golarion history, including Earthfall, the Quest for the Sky, etc.  The most common denizens of Nar-Voth (Derro, Duergar, Troglodytes, and Vegepygmies) each receive several paragraphs of description.  Derro are still creepy as heck, but I was most surprised to read how something that seems really stupid like Vegepygmies can be given a surprisingly interesting backstory.  There's also a couple of paragraphs each on other denizens of the layer: Dark Folk, Grimlocks, Gremlins, and Mongrelmen.  The section concludes with several pages describing notable locations in Nar-Voth, and a useful map shows where these places are both from a Darklands perspective and from a surface perspective.  There's some creative writing here, with my favorite location being the Court of Ether (an inverted-pyramid hanging from the ceiling full of dark fey!).

The middle of the book fittingly details the middle layer of the Darklands, Sekamina (14 pages).  This can be summed up as the most "civilized" layer, as it's home to empires of Drow, surprisingly organized cities of ghouls, and more.  The Drow are described in ways very similar to how they are in the Forgotten Realms, and I think there are some links provided to the Second Darkness AP.  The stuff about ghouls was fascinating, and I could imagine some excellent adventures using their cities as a location.  Other important races to receive focussed-coverage are Skum and Svirfneblin, with about a paragraph each devoted to driders, gugs, morlocks, ropers, Serpentfolk, and Seugathi.  There's a really interesting mix of cultures and creatures in Sekamina, and lots of potential for a wide variety of stories taking advantage of the relationships and tensions between them.  As with the previous section, this one ends with several pages detailing particular locations on the layer.  Most are interesting, but I would have liked to see some adventure-hook ideas to help GMs provide reasons for PCs to visit them.

Orv, the lowest layer, is covered in ten pages.  I thought this was the most original and interesting take on the Darklands.  Orv is known, even to most inhabitants of Nar-Voth and Sekamina, only by legend.  It consists of a series of immense chambers, some as large as surface nations, called Vaults--and they're full of different environments that could never plausibly exist through mundane means.  Thus, they're thought to be almost terrariums of a sort, built by the mysterious and now-absent Vault Keepers.  The only widespread inhabitants of Orv today are a scary race called urdefhans (detailed further in the next part of the book), but particular Vaults are home to creatures like neothelids, intellect devourers, and aboleths.  There's even a "Lost World"-style Vault full of prehistoric creatures and dinosaurs.  Orv is a strange and dangerous place, and perhaps a good alternative to plane-hopping for high-level groups of PCs who outmatch most things on the surface world.

The last section of the book is a bestiary.  Five different creatures each receive a full two-page spread: Morlocks, Serpentfolk, Seugathi, Urdefhan, and Vemerak.  All of the entries are well-written and the creatures fill a useful role from a GM's perspective.  Because they each get a two-page spread, there's plenty of room to discuss the ecology of the creatures and detail a host of special abilities.

In sum, I would say the book is excellent and almost indispensable for adventures set in the Darklands.  It's also one of those RPG books that can be read just for pleasure even if there aren't any particular games on the horizon planned.

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"!

Next Issue

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.