Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Fate of Falling Stars [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

In a remote corner of the deserts of Qadira, a halfling astrologer, a pacifist cleric of Sarenrae, and a band of mercenaries have reached a legendary tower said to be full of great secrets and wisdom.  It's a strong, classic set-up for a fantasy story, holding the promise of excitement, mystery, and danger.  I really liked The Fate of Falling Stars, a three-part series of Pathfinder web fiction (available here).  It's a bit hard to get into at first (I think the author was over-fond of his thesaurus), but the protagonists are really interesting and even in a short story like this they come across as well-rounded characters with depth.  Unlike most of these Pathfinder Tales short stories, The Fate of Falling Stars does more than simply draw upon existing world lore: it adds to it, and the reader gets invested about what's going to happen in this tower because it holds the possibility of being important for more than just the characters.  This story is a great entry into the series, as it's full of tension, exciting action scenes, and has a plot with a rich backstory.

SPOILERS

One of the things I really like about The Fate of Falling Stars is that the protagonists weren't really sent by the satrap to find the tower; he just wanted a convenient place with no witnesses for their execution.  The reason is that Haron esh Kazzar, palace astrologer, and Shaba Alemas, devotee of the Dawnflower, have publicly stated their intention to discover Azzah's Tower, a legendary site said to hold the last words of a founder of a sect of Sarenrae devoted to peace instead of the sword.  Because the sect has been criticizing Qadira's skirmishes with Taldor, the satrap wants Shaba out of the way but can't risk turning her into a martyr: so he's sent her and the halfling on a fool's errand along with a band of murderous mercenaries to make sure they never return.  The best part is that Haron and Shaba know this perfectly well, and perhaps the mercenary leader, a cut-throat named Najh knows that they know.  So the tension mounts as the reader expects betrayal at any time, and when it does happen, it leads to a memorable, exciting action scene.  In addition to the interesting discussion of this off-shoot sect of Sarenrae, there's additional world lore on The Pierced Rose, a semi-secret order of killers (of whom, Najh is a member, of course).  When the story's done, the reader walks away having read a great story and with some intriguing new information about the setting that could easily be integrated into a campaign.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 16 [RPG]


[7 Lamashan 4707]


As the first rays of another autumn morning begin filtering through the shutters into Arnald Swiss’s room at the Rusty Dragon, a sharp knocking can be heard at his door.  The cause of the noise proves to be Shalelu Andosana, fully outfitted for travel.  She brusquely tells Arnald that she didn’t sleep well and doesn’t want to wait for Sheriff Hemlock to turn his attention away from training the new recruits to finding experienced warriors to help continue the search for Nualia.  Instead, Shalelu explains, she plans to take a risky course of action in order to capture or kill the silver-haired worshipper of Lamashtu before the cultist can obtain reinforcements or find the mysterious weapon boasted about in Tsuto’s journal.  Shalelu says she’s long heard tale of a pair of dangerous outcasts living just a couple of miles south of Sandpoint.  According to local gossip, they’re dangerous and untrustworthy, but after the death of Felix and Nedrin, she’s decided that it may just be time to throw caution to the wind and fight fire with fire.  She gives Arnald time to get dressed before setting off at a quick pace.

She and Arnald pass sleepy guards as they leave Sandpoint via the southern bridge and walk briskly along the Lost Coast Road before reaching the area where a wide stream disappears into the rocky hills south of town.  There, at the abandoned Bradley farmstead, an old fisherman’s shack serves as the home of two of the area’s most disreputable occupants.  Shalelu nocks an arrow and motions for Arnald to ready himself for battle as the two approach the shack cautiously.  Inside, however, the visitors’ approach has not gone undetected.  “Not so fast, one more step and it’ll be your last!” a voice rings out.  Shalelu shouts back that she’s come on business, and succinctly summarizes the threat posed by Nualia and the events of the previous raids on Thistletop.  Tense negotiations lead Shalelu to grudgingly offer those inside the shack one of her personal magical items, an enchanted amulet, in order to purchase their loyalty for the mission to come.

Eugeni
The ill-fitting door to the shack creaks open, and a figure emerges: a powerful-looking half-orc, wearing a kilt and a long-sleeved tunic, with a long braid of hair.  Accompanied by a goat, the half-orc, whose name will eventually be known as Eugeni, approaches as, by arrangement, Arnald delivers the magical amulet.  With terms agreed upon and payment rendered, the door to the shack opens again and the remaining resident emerges: a member of the feathered, bird-like species commonly known as tengu.  The tengu, whose name is Ome, is accompanied by a startling sight: a massive giant wasp, the size of a full-grown cat!  The two pairs of adventurers watch each other tensely. 

Shalelu proposes that, before attempting their ultimate goal of dealing with Nualia, the four adventurers should learn to evaluate each other’s strengths and weaknesses by undertaking an easier task.  The four settle on attempting to collect the bounty offered by the Sandpoint Mercantile League for the capture or death of the notorious bandit Shank, known to have operated for years from the small forest that now bears his name.  For almost four years now, Shank has been plaguing the Lost Coast Road, holding up lone travellers and entire carriages, leaving his victims poorer but alive.  Yet in the past six months, the highwayman has turned to kidnapping—with no ransom demands having been made!

Ome
The newly-formed hunting band follow the Lost Coast Road back through Sandpoint and out the northern gate.  As the road continues east parallel to the coast, a brightly-coloured wagonful of the area’s indigenous Varisians wave and smile.  Later in the morning, the adventurers reach a patch of the road just south of Shank’s Wood where Shalelu says the highwayman was last known to have attacked.  Ome kneels down to look for signs, and although it’s been weeks since the attack, the tengu is confident she’s found tracks heading into the forest!  Shalelu is dubious of Ome’s findings, but reluctantly agrees to accompany them into the woods.  Ome reports that several sets of goblin prints criss-cross the area and make tracking difficult, but after about a mile she suddenly stands up and points.  A gurgling brook runs from east to west in front of them, spanned by a mossy fallen log.  On the far side of the water, an old trapper’s cabin made from scavenged timber and driftwood can be discerned through the treeline.

Arnald, as the most heavily armoured of the group, is chosen to take the lead in approaching the shack.  He calls out, and soon the poorly-hung front door opens.  An older man with unkempt grey hair peers out cautiously.  When asked about the bandit Shank, the man says he hasn’t had any run-ins with bandits but that there are several goblins about.  He says that he’s a trapper and fisherman, and invites Arnald in for a cup of tea. 

The interior of the cabin is dark and smoky for some reason.  Arnald loses sight of the man and the next thing he knows, a thick leathery arm is wrapping around his head!  Arnald calls out in distress as something sharp sinks into his neck and a sloppy sucking sound can be heard.  Shalelu rushes into the shack, but although she hears Arnald yelling she can’t tell exactly where he is because of the smoke.  She notices a small firepit on the ground and, thinking quickly, smothers it with a blanket.  Seconds later, Eugeni makes a dramatic entrance: having become magically twice as large, he smashes through the wall of the shack, sending shards of wood everywhere!  Ome follows through, bow at the ready.  The air begins to clear as the three adventurers see that Arnald is struggling futilely against his attackers grip.  And, for the first time, they realize his attacker is no elderly trapper: it’s a grotesque, faceless creature with leathery skin!

Faceless Stalker
The creature, which Eugeni identifies as an Ugothol (or “faceless stalker”) continues to squeeze and drain the life out of Arnald as the others attack it and inflict several deep wounds.  The aberration offers to let Arnald go if they’ll let it go, but they refuse; when bartering fails, the creature threatens a lifetime of stalking the adventurers, as they’ll never know when they’re safe.  But when the Ugothol pushes Arnald away and tries to flee, Eugeni knocks the creature to the ground and then Arnald finally gets vengeance and cuts the creature in twain with one might swing of his greataxe!  Eugeni and Ome quickly scour the interior of the shack and discover a small cache of money and magical items hidden underneath a filthy bed made of fur and branches.  The two adventurers use their bodies to shield their find from the others, and keep most of the treasure to themselves.  Outside, Shalelu finds a ten-foot deep pit containing mud, decomposing bodies (“Shank’s” victims), and a disgusting maggot-like grub the size of a small dog!  Arnald is very interested in searching the pit, but the others persuade him to leave it alone.

Shalelu announces herself more-or-less satisfied with the newcomers’ skill in battle.  Although it’s out of their way, the group must return to Sandpoint before tackling Thistletop because the elf’s bow splintered in the battle against the faceless stalker.  They reach the town again in the early afternoon and Shalelu leaves the other three to wait at the northern gate while she goes to buy a new bow.  While she’s gone, Ome asks Arnald for more information on what happened on his previous foray to Thistletop.  His answers are vague and full of jokes, much to the tengu’s annoyance.  Eugenie quietly tells his long-time friend that the human sellsword is clearly not the brains of the operation.  The three talk about passing the time gambling, but realize they don’t have dice or a deck of cards to play with.  Arnald heads into town and to the general store.  Seeing the “No Adventurers!” sign in the window, he tries to disguise himself by pulling up the hood on his winter cloak.  But Ven Vinder isn’t fooled, and when Arnald is slow in leaving, Ven swings his cudgel so hard it makes an audible “crack” when it connects with Arnald’s skull!  The mercenary gets the message and leaves before further violence erupts.

Once the four adventurers are back together, they head back east.  Shalelu is able to find a route through Nettlewood that avoids most of the dense forest’s obstacles and dangers.  Soon, in the later afternoon, they stand on the edge of the promontory, across from which is the isle fortress of Thistletop.  Shalelu, Arnald, and Ome are able to scramble down the 80’ cliff and into the water below with little difficulty, but Eugenie slips and tumbles awkwardly, hurting himself in the process.  Fortunately, the half-orc’s friend is able to draw up divine magic to heal him.  The group then swims across the narrow channel and are able to scale Thistletop using the rope to the former lair of the tentamort.  The adventurers make haste towards the research room containing a secret door to the stairs below.  Shalelu notices that many of the books and scrolls that had been there are now gone.

Once the adventurers are on the second subterranean level of the complex, Shalelu and Arnald point out to Ome and Eugenie the exact spot where the corridor ahead is trapped.  The four spend a long time discussing various ways to get past the trap until Shalelu, frustrated, backs up and leaps over the pressure plate on the floor!  The other three follow her lead without incident.  Surprisingly, however, Nualia is nowhere to be found.  A cursory look at the room she had been in before shows it to be a study of some sort, as it contains various small tables and chairs and is well-lit by enchanted blazing skulls.  Wide stone ledges of red marble line the curving walls of the room and contain strange scrimshaw artwork, taxidermied animals and limbs, and several spots where the dust has been recently disturbed as if things that were once there are now gone. 

The adventurers move on to another chamber across the corridor.  Here they find an “L” shaped hallway, the southern part of which ends at a pair of stone doors carved with the depictions of two skeletons reaching out to clutch a skull between them.  The walls of the eastern part of the chamber narrows down to frame a circular carving of what seems to be immense stacks of tens of thousands of gold coins rising from floor to ceiling.  Eugenie casts a minor divination spell to discern that the stacks carry with them the aura of illusion magic.

Shadows
Pressing on, the adventurers open the skull-marked stone doors.  Four pillars support the vaulted ceiling of the room beyond, while alcoves containing standing stone sarcophagi line the walls.  The centre of the room is dominated by the statue of a stern man wielding a glaive and holding a book.  The adventurers decide to split up and take their time looking for secret doors, but their search is interrupted as insubstantial, inky black, vaguely humanoid-shaped shadows emerge from three of the sarcophagi and fly towards the intruders!  Their touch is witheringly cold and drains the vitality of living creatures, a fact Shalelu discovers all too well before retreating out of the room.  In her haste, she fails to account for the trap the group bypassed earlier and suffers multiple cuts.

Ome, Eugeni, and Arnald fall back as well and soon realize the manifestations of spiritual energy are bound to the crypt and cannot leave.  Ome, having come prepared for many eventualities, coats the tip of several arrows with an alchemical compound that will allow the projectiles to harm the ghostly figures.  Eugeni manifests blast after blast of eldritch fire to burn the creatures, and the renewed battle goes well until Arnald strays too close to the entrance to the crypt and gets swarmed!  His body grows incredibly weak and he is barely able to fight off the siren song of death before Eugeni destroys the last of the undead lurkers.

A third and perhaps final raid on Thistletop has begun, yet Nualia is nowhere to be found.  Has she slipped through the adventurers’ grasp?

-------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (22/05/2017)

Eugeni and Ome were, of course, the new characters for, respectively, Nedrin's and Felix's players.  Eugeni was a half-orc wizard, while Ome was a tengu inquisitor of Calistria.  The two players worked together to create some shared background for their characters, which was a nice touch that made it much easier to integrate them into the campaign.  The PCs were around 5th level at this time but because of all the character deaths I wanted to have the first encounter for the session be something more manageable than they might find at Thistletop.  I used an encounter from the first hardcover volume of the Pathfinder comic involving a Faceless Stalker masquerading as a common highwayman.  I liked how the encounter turned out, because the dim lighting and smoke inside the shack made for a naturally more challenging (and exciting) battle than I expected.  

Speaking of Thistletop, I had to put some thought into deciding what Nualia would do.  The adventure path has instructions for what happens if she escapes, but she actually won the battle and it was the PCs who retreated.  But, she was also almost the only living creature alive in the fortress and I didn't want to have a video game style campaign where the boss just sits around waiting for the heroes to come back.  So the PCs lost out on a clear victory, some XP, some treasure, and a lot of information when she abandoned Thistletop.  She makes a return appearance in Chapter Two, however, and the PCs luck will prove much better.

GMs will note something major in Thistletop that the PCs missed, but that's okay.  Not every party has to have the same experiences, and it's good that the adventure path isn't on rails.

I was nervous about the fight against the shadows since they can easily overwhelm and kill PCs, so I was impressed with how well the group did against them.

Next Recap

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mynock Squadron: Epilogue [RPG]


Epilogue

After destroying the Nanocarriers, Beta Flight makes contact with Alpha and Gamma Flights, and learns of their success.  Following a period of lying low and healing, careful scouting missions turn up a surprising find: Grand Moff Kain and all of the Imperial forces on Planet 2505 are dead, faces contorted as in tremendous pain.  No sign of the mysterious hooded figure can be found, and the strange obelisks are as silent as a tomb.  The scattered Imperial forces elsewhere in the system are easily mopped up, and weeks later New Republic reinforcements arrive through Dorval's Wall.  The heroes of Beta Flight return to lives of adventure and duty, but danger and drama are not left behind . . .

Max Cindarion's story continued as rebellious as what had come before. Despite his current probation and being demoted to a glorified janitor, he still refused to obey command.  He was a man deeply devoted to his companions. Though Kero was the reason for his current position, the other members of Beta Flight each went out of their way to offer him support and even defended him publicly. Realising that command were about to abandon his friends, Max acted out against orders one final time. 

“To hell with it! If you're gonna break the rules, why not do it in style?” 

Before the capital vessel made its jump back through the wall, Max snuck aboard a lone A-Wing and raced to his companions’ aid. Accompanied by little knowledge, he had only Gamma Flight’s location to rely on. He arrived with little time to spare, solving a dispute that had happened between the Natives and Gamma Flights less than diplomatic pilots. His charm was invaluable in solidifying that alliance.

He went on to aid his fellow companions in the completion of their mission. Remnant forces unleashed a fierce counter attack upon Beta Flight’s position. Gamma Flight’s arrival at the Asteroid Field was a crucial element in Beta Flight’s survival against the oncoming offensive. They helped turn the tide of the fight, allowing Mynock Squadron to rally together deep behind enemy lines.

It offered Max a degree of redemption, regardless of the backlash. His problems were only just beginning. Following Mynock Squadron's monumental victory, Max was once again made to answer for his disobedience. It was determined that he endangered the mission and every pilot involved.

Whatever the ultimate decision was going to be, it was never made. That night Max disappeared from the brig. The remaining members of Beta Flight were tasked with finding and capturing their previous companion, now little more than an escaped convict. Further investigation made the group question the truth of these events. A deactivated droid in Max's old maintenance job offered insight. Within its databanks was a message informing the group that a Bounty Hunter had snuck on board to capture him. Blaster fire ended the transmission before he could state who. 

His life was now in their hands. Further pursuit inevitably lead to a Hutt known as Slazza. Through deceit and manipulation he had risen from exile and was now a feared Crime Lord. The one-eyed Hutt sought vengeance against Max and the location of an ancient jewel he had stolen long ago. Events had finally come full circle.

Cutting a long story short, it was up to Beta Flight to reach Max, who had been imprisoned on a barren planet, from which there was no escape. It was Slazza's personal game. A group of victims would be set loose on this planet, whereupon a variety of Slazza's personal hunters would track them. Those who get the most kills reaped the rewards. Could Beta Flight reach Max in time or was his fate already sealed?

Events spiralled, Max was saved, Slazza was imprisoned on his own planet with no escape and the ancient Jewel was returned to the Princess of Zahira. Her testimony in Max's favour secured his release though it was at the cost of his position in Mynock Squadron.

In the end Max was happy to leave. It had never been his intention to join the military or Mynock Squadron. Circumstance forced his hand. Yet his brief involvement with Mynock Squadron had changed him for the better, and the friends he made he would keep for as long as he could. Max went on to join an old friend on Naboo. He became a popular ace swoop racer on the hunt for the championship. With a love of speed and an insatiable taste for adventure, he was in his element. He toured from one planet to the other living fast and loving every second of it. The first class treatment and fan-girls was a plus too!

After returning to service, Warik faced a severe crisis: his other personae, that of the human-hating droid Null, became more aggressive in trying to assert control, especially once it saw another opportunity to use nanite technology.   The growing internal conflict led Warik to question why he left the Empire to begin with, and he began to feel guilty about betraying his former lover.  Soon after, a psychotic break occurred as Null tried to take over Warik’s body in order to use the Nanoshaped virus to destroy all “meatbags” in the Galaxy!  Tragically, but heroically, Warik managed to resist just long enough to take his own (and Null’s) life in order to save so many others.  The true depths of his sacrifice would never be known . . .

Keth’s fate remains a mystery . . .

After Mynock's triumph, Mikaela Sor earned her seat in Beta Flight. Her piloting skills were instrumental during the counter attack in the asteroid field. Not only did she flourish in the face of adversity, but she revealed her skills as a squadron leader.

Despite her past involvement with the Empire, leadership could no longer dispute her right to be a full member of Beta Flight. She went on to serve for several years more and her service record quickly became exemplary. She thrived in the air proving just what an ace she was.

Mikaela's time in Mynock Squadron was not easy. The missions were intense and the battles fierce, but time and time again she and her companions overcame the odds. Her greatest challenge came when her her loyalties were questioned. One year after Mynock's victory beyond the wall she finally found her father. He was the Grand Admiral for one of the Remnant’s most dangerous warlords. The warlord had solidified his position with a monstrous fleet of veteran Admirals. Beyond that, he had gained the backing of Dark Side acolytes, including that of a powerful seer. It later became known that the Warlord himself was a Dark Side Acolyte who had once been the Emperor's Voice. This made him a dangerous adversary for the now growing New Republic.

Mynock Squadron were deployed to contain this threat.

Mikaela's father sought to exploit his daughter's new position. He lured Beta Flight into a trap and captured her. He sought to twist her mind, indoctrinating her to the Imperial cause. She returned a traitor to Mynock Squadron, defeating Beta Flight during a crucial battle. Ultimately their lives were left in her hands. Mikaela made her choice, that choice was her family. Her father had never been that to her. She told him that her family was her companions.

She turned on him, delivering a crucial blow to the Star Destroyer. Beta Flight saw their opportunity and turned the tide of the battle. Mikaela's father was defeated, his fleet crippled and eventually so was the warlord. 

However before the end Mikaela saw a ghost. According to official records her brother had been killed long ago. She deeply cared for him, and his death made her desperate to make her father proud. He was alive, his death was merely a fabrication. The truth was, he was a Force Sensitive. Her brother's mind had been warped, his body turned into a weapon. He was an acolyte of the Dark Side, loyal to the Emperor and the Empire. Nevertheless their bond was something that could not be so easily wiped. Her brother freed himself of the shackles of the Dark Side long enough to help defeat the Warlord. He ultimately perished during the destruction of the fleet to save his sister. 

The sobering event meant the world to Mikaela who had missed her brother dearly. She often wondered if he was really dead. Now she finally had closure. The truth had set her free. Mikaela pursued her own path, forging her own legacy.

After an exemplary service in Mynock Squadron Mikaela eventually signed her resignation six years later. But that was far from the end of her story. As a child she had dreamed of sailing the stars in her own starship. She wanted to visit exotic planets, see wondrous worlds and strange new cultures. As the last surviving member of her prestigious family, she had the credits and now the opportunity, the freedom to explore her path.

Though her new pursuits where not militaristic, she was not done living a life of high adventure, nor serving the New Republic. In her travels she became a reliable privateer many New Republic senators and military personnel called on for aid. She earned this reputation through her continued good deeds. Mikaela broke the record for an old Smugglers Pass. She ran blockades to deliver relief to oppressed civilians. She rescued survivors on a hazardous planet and escorted young politicians from the dangerous Outer Rim to the Core Worlds. And all of this whilst she toured the many worlds, doing what she had always dreamed.

It was only natural that other explorers rallied around her. She founded her own Privateer Squadron, and contacted her old companions in Beta Flight to see if they would be interested. This squadron specialised in exploration, aid and even scavenging. Though Mikaela refused to partake in any military operation that involved the destruction of any target. She would defend, she would protect, and of course she would destroy aggressors. However she had spent years serving the Empire and later Mynock Squadron, killing, destroying and attacking. 

Mikaela vowed to use her ace skills to help people and that was exactly what she did.

Mikaela visited exotic worlds, she saw wondrous cultures, she encountered dangerous adversaries and ran supposed unbeatable blockades. She later met a Theelin dancer, a rare and almost extinct species. It turned out this Theelin woman was in fact an agent sent to kill Mikaela for her continued  'good deeds' in the Outer Rim. Despite this minor inconvenience and the fact that the two became rivals, Mikaela fell for the Theelin beauty. She began to long for the thrill of their back and forth. Eventually she won her over. The two became an item.

After Mynock Squadron returned to active duty, Kero ensured the brass knew about the excellent performance of her squad. She tried to see if Warik needed some kind of psychological help because she respected him so much, but he resisted her offer.  She also frequently spoke up for Max during his periodic bouts of trouble with authority, emphasizing that even if standard military service may not be a fit, he should be offered a role in intelligence where he could “go his own way” and still contribute to the New Republic.

Kero continued in her dream of becoming a decorated military officer, climbing the ranks and impressing her military family.  Over time, however, it became increasingly obvious that she was suffering from a serious psychiatric condition.  Alongside her “Kero” personality, another personality had long resided inside her body: that of “Wyn”, who had always tried to protect Kero while pushing for a career in medicine.  Soon, the “wrong” personality (the soldier Kero or the doctor Wyn) began to manifest at critical times.  Eventually, the “bleed” between the two started to drive her mad, as she found  herself in a constant state of flux between the two.

Yet her many friends and colleagues from years in the military did not stand by to watch her spiral out of control.  They intervened and force Kero/Wyn into treatment.  Investigation into Kero's family background revealed that her multiple personality disorder emerged after witnessing the murder of her elder brother (a medical student) when she was younger. Her family was well aware of her illness, but kept it from her - it was this reason and nothing to do with her gender that made them try to keep her from a career in the military.   

Fortunately, after nearly three years of clinical treatment, the psychic rupture was repaired.  Although only one personality survived, a full and satisfying life lay ahead.

The pilots of Mynock Squadron had earned the thanks of countless beings in the Galaxy.  By stopping Grand Moff Kain’s secret plan to crash massive ships full of Nanoshaped into key New Republic worlds, Mynock Squadron gave the fledging government a chance to flourish and repair the decades of evil and injustice wrought by the Empire.  Their lives of valor and sacrifice are not soon forgotten . . .

--------------------------------
Director's Commentary (19/5/2017)

It was disappointing to see the campaign come to a sudden, premature end, but one of the things I'm glad I did was to ask the players to write an epilogue for their characters.  The results are above, and are a fitting way to remember the PCs.

I've written before about how this campaign got the short end of the stick because I was simultaneously running another campaign that was extremely prep-intensive and time draining.  In many respects, however, this one was more fun.  It was rules-lighter, less angst-producing, and something different than I'd ever ran before.  It was a successful experiment in trying a military-themed campaign, and I'm glad I got a chance to use some of the optional rules sub-systems (like Rank, Requisitions, and Organizational Scores) to add a different twist to the more standard "adventurers in space" set-up.  I still have all of Saga Edition books, and someday I'll return to the Star Wars universe!

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game GM Screen [RPG]


I've had the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game GM Screen for years, long before I actually started playing Pathfinder regularly.  The purpose of a screen, of course, is so the GM can hide their notes from pesky players, assemble miniatures of diabolical villains without being seen, roll dice ominously, and, most importantly, remind themselves of key rules so the game doesn't have to stop so everyone can flip open their 500+ page rulebooks.   This four-panel screen is certainly a durable product, as it's survived (quite literally) more than a hundred sessions and still looks brand new.  It's made of quite sturdy stuff, unlike many other screens I've seen, and won't easily tip over.

The exterior side facing the PCs is a line-up of the most iconic images of the Pathfinder Iconics: the embodiment of each character class.  I once found the art style a bit over-the-top and cartoony, but I've really warmed to it now and quite like it.  I can't say what it's like to stare at the characters for hours, but there's so many little details on each character that the eye shouldn't get bored quickly!  (Note there are two alternate screens available with different characters, but I don't own either of those).  I've found it quite handy to use paperclips to hold pics of NPCs the party is talking too, monsters they're fighting, etc.

The interior side facing the DM is, of course, what matters!

Two full panels are depicted to summaries of various skills: Acrobatics, Bluff, Climb, Diplomacy, Disable Device, Fly, Heal, Knowledge, Perception, Ride, Spellcraft, Survival, and Swim.  Not every skill is represented, and one could argue that some of the missing skills (like Stealth, Intimidate, and Use Magic Device are used more often than some of the skills that are represented like Swim).  Still, the skills that are included are broken down into very handy, easy-to-read lists of activities, modifiers, and DCs.  It's a very attractive, smart presentation.

The third panel is devoted to combat, and the top half of the panel has five sections:  Attack roll modifiers, armor class modifiers, combat maneuvers, two-weapon fighting penalties, and concentration checks.  With the possible exception of two-weapon fighting penalties (which a player should have figured out well ahead of time), all of these things are extremely important things to have available for easy reference.  The bottom half of the panel is a summary of the effects of common conditions, which is again quite handy--it's annoying to have to stop and look up what the effects of being stunned or nauseated are every time it happens.

The fourth panel is a bunch of miscellaneous stuff, and it's here that I think there was room for improvement.  The left half of the panel is all devoted to listing the hardness and hit points of weapons, armor, common objects, and various materials.  I don't mind this much, because even though this information is needed rarely, when it's needed it's usually important (like whether a sundered weapon is going to break).  Still, I wouldn't have devoted so much space to it considering how much other stuff in the game is probably more important.  The right half of the panel lists experience point awards by CR and treasure values per encounter.  To my mind, this is the least essential information to be on the screen, as most groups handle this either between sessions or at least after a session, when an extra minute to flip open a book is no big deal.  Because most monster entries already list XP and treasure, this is the only part of the screen that I never use.

So on the whole, that's 3 to 3 1/2 panels of a 4 panel GM screen that are
extremely useful!  My biggest problem is actually remembering what's on the screen, as often I look something up in a book only to realize later that it was on the screen the whole time.  Anyway, while a screen like this is not strictly essential, it's about as close as it gets.  A session will run faster and smoother if the GM has one of these, and it's worth the money.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Silver Age Sentinels and "Emergency Response" [RPG]

Last year I started running occasional four-session long RPG adventures using different systems and genres each time; I had a lot of luck and really enjoyed a Western game with Go Fer' Yer Gun, a post-apocalyptic game with Gamma World, and a pulp jungle game with Savage Worlds.  Alas, not every swing can be a home run, and I'm sorry to say that my experience running a super hero game with Silver Age Sentinels was a strike out.  I have to give credit where it's due for the production quality and design of the core rulebook: it's a handsome, attractive book without a single typo (that I noticed) and a wealth of information about the setting and its heroes and villains.  The system itself though, at least the Tri-Stat version we used, just didn't seem balanced at all.  Even with a "standard" 150 point super hero build, a first-time player was able to make a hero that could drop any villain with a single attack, and the cost of powers were so cheap that it was easy to have big-deal super powers like super speed, regeneration, resurrection, and more on a single character.  The system was also rather clunky and rules-heavy, and didn't have the sort of special features to really make a session feel like a comic book.

Even worse, the published adventure I ran, Emergency Response, was frankly kind of bland and, for a reason I do not understand, gave the main villain a trivial number of "health points."  The group I ran the adventure for dropped him with two quick hits when they first encountered him in the third session, and I just couldn't figure out a plausible way to continue the adventure afterward (though, admittedly, I wasn't at my best that night and should have at least come up with an epilogue of some sort for the Reserve, consisting of Red Scorpion, Techno, Ms. Mystic, and Nitro).

I think maybe I could get something good going with Silver Age Sentinels if I created my own adventure, instituted a few house rules (such as Numenera's feature of offering the players XP to allow a forced plot development), and capped the number of points that could be spent on super powers.  But that'd be a lot of work, and with many other super hero games on the market I'd probably be more tempted to try another one than revisit this one.

But, ever onward.  Next stop: Victorian exploration of the solar system in Space 1889!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Faithful Servants [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

I'm a huge fan of James Sutter's work after reading the City of Strangers (Kaer Maga) sourcebook, so I was looking forward to reading Faithful Servants, his free four-part series of web fiction (available here).  I wasn't disappointed, as I was instantly thrust into a harder edged, darker part of the Pathfinder mythos than usual.  Faithful Servants starts with a scene set on another plane of existence (Axis), and it really seems like an alien place.  Not knowing a lot about the cosmology of the Golarion campaign setting, there were some elements I just didn't understand.  But, it's good to be challenged and I stuck with it and enjoyed the tale overall.  A major character from the story apparently appears in Sutter's novel, Death's Heretic, so this would be a good one to read before that.  I should also make mention of the artwork, which is a cut above what usually accompanies these stories.

SPOILERS

The main character in Faithful Servants is a worshipper of Pharasma named Salim.  In a bar on the lawful plane of Axis, Salim is approached with a curious request for aid: the eidolon of a powerful summoner on the mortal plane wants Salim to intervene because the summoner has unwittingly donned a cursed artifact and has turned towards evil necromancy!  This was the first time in Pathfinder fiction I've seen a depiction of the bond between an eidolon and a summoner, and I really appreciated the angle here that Sutter took (even if I'm still not a fan of the class).  There's some interesting stuff about Salim's relationship with Pharasma and her servants that I didn't completely get on a first read-through, so this is one I'll have to revisit just before reading Death's Heretic.  Anyway, if you like planes, curses, summoners, or necromancy, this might just be the story for you!

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 15 [RPG]


[6 Lamashan 4707 continued]

Having defeated two yeth hounds in a difficult battle, the party discuss their next course of action.  Nedrin suggests barricading a room and resting for the night, but Shalelu urges her allies to press on before Nualia, the mastermind behind the raid on Sandpoint, can escape.  Encouraged by Shalelu’s liberal use of a healing wand, the group agree.  They quickly search the chapel that had been guarded by the yeth hounds.  Felix spends several minutes yanking free the two glowing kukris held by the statue of the demon goddess Lamashtu.

The adventurers then head for the “secret” door they learned about by surprising Lyrie Akenja during her research.  Arnald takes the lead as the group head down a flight of stairs to emerge at a deeper subterranean area.  This level is canted, forcing the adventurers to walk at an upwards angle as they move east.  They pass through a large room containing several statues of a man in robes clutching a book and glaive, but it’s clear that whatever ancient upheaval tilted the floor also severely damaged the statues.  The eastern door is ajar, and when Arnold opens it, the end begins for two of the brave explorers.

Nualia and her Yeth Hounds
The doorway leads to a short, narrow hallway, with alcoves to the north and south containing statues of stern men wielding glaives.  At the end of the hallway are two sets of stone doors to the north and south, but standing at that point is the group’s quarry:  Nualia!  The beautiful silver-haired aasimar has madness in her violet eyes, her left hand has been transformed into a red talon, and she wears the distinctive scars on her stomach of one specially favoured by Lamashtu herself!  “The so-called Heroes of Sandpoint have ventured thus far,” she spits out arrogantly, “so come at me then, if you dare!”  Arnald takes the challenge and charges down the hallway, only to fall prey to a cunning trap!  A pair of metal portcullis slam down right in front and right behind him as he crosses the area right in front of the statutes, and then the glaives begin hacking downward.  Nualia laughs maniacally and enters the room to the north, but from the same doorway emerges one of the dreaded yeth hounds.

Felix comes to his trapped ally’s aid and helps Arnald lift up the portcullis that served to cut him off from the others, and the rescue came at a good time, as, seconds later, a pit opens on the very spot Arnald had been standing on!  When the trapdoor raises shut, the other portcullis also raises up and the statues stop their attack.  Shalelu, Nedrin, and Arnald decide to fight the yeth hound from a distance with archery, but the creature darts pass their barrage of arrows and flies over their heads, landing behind them to cut off their escape.  Then the creature unleashes its horrific howl which sends Shalelu, Felix, and Arnald fleeing in absolute terror to the east . . . right into the grinning visage of Nualia, who has returned fully prepared for battle!  Able only to cower in fear, Felix soon falls before the demon-worshipper’s bastard sword.  “Your blood is well-spilt,” she cackles, “and will only speed the cleansing of my revolting celestial taint!”

Nedrin is the only adventurer capable of fighting, and heroically duels the yeth hound one-on-one. The hobgoblin is sorely taxed but ultimately prevails and decapitates the creature!  Nualia shows admiration rather than anger, however, and starts channelling waves of pure demonic energy through the room, sapping the adventurers’ strength!  “You will make a fine sacrifice to the Demon Mother,” she promises Nedrin, as the hobgoblin finally falls.  Shalelu and Arnald, badly hurt but finally recovered from the supernaturally terrifying howl of the yeth hound, have no choice but to flee from the almost completely uninjured cleric of Lamashtu.  “The bones of my father were but the first to be burned on the Mother of Monster’s altar,” Nualia shouts as they flee, “and soon all of Sandpoint will be next!”

Shalelu and Arnald run up the stairs and over to the cave where the tentamort once looked out over the waves below.  They hurriedly climb down the rope and into the rowboat tethered at the bottom of the cliffside.  Their return voyage to Sandpoint is a solemn one of shocked silence.  When they arrive back at the community, the pair leave the boat at the docks and walk in silence to the Garrison.  There, they deliver the news of the group’s failure to Sheriff Hemlock.  Hemlock says it’s regrettable to hear about the deaths of Felix and Nedrin, but that another assault will have to be made on Thistletop to bring Nualia to justice before she can gather reinforcements and launch another attack on the town.  He promises to look into finding others who would be willing to take on such a dangerous mission.

Sister Celia
Once they reach the Rusty Dragon, Shalelu pushes through the lunchtime crowd and heads straight to her room.  Arnald quickly knocks back a tankard of ale and speaks to the tavern’s halfling barmaid, Bethana Corwin.  Arnald explains that he’s in Sandpoint to protect it and drive off the goblin threat, but that his cause has suffered a severe setback.  Bethana mentions that adventurers who tell an entertaining or moving story to their fellow patrons receive a room at half-price, but Arnald explains that he’s not in the mood.  He does find himself the object of attraction for a fellow newcomer to Sandpoint: a new acolyte at the Cathedral named Sister Celia, an attractive woman in her early 40s.  Sister Celia explains that she worships Shelyn, goddess of beauty, love, and dance.  She flirts with Arnald but he rebuffs her advances and leaves to resupply for another expedition.

Katrine Vinder
Visits to Savah’s Armory and Bottled Solutions are productive, but Arnald unwittingly walks into an argument when he visits the town’s general store.  The proprietor Ven Vinder is yelling at his daughter Katrine that he doesn’t want her “going around with that fellow from the mill anymore.”  Katrine shouts back that she loves “Banny.”  When Vin sees Arnald enter, the storekeeper shouts “no adventurers!” and threatens the sellsword with his cudgel while angrily denouncing Felix (whom he doesn't know is now deceased) for “violating my chaste princess” (referring to his other daughter, Shayliss).  Arnald wisely leaves before violence ensues.  Instead, he walks over to the Goblin Squash Stables and buys some barding for his horse.  Conversation turns to the local goblin tribes, and Daviren explains that in Mosswood, the tribe is broken into several warring families and that one of the families is deformed and rumoured to worship Lamashtu.  Arnald makes one final stop, this time visiting the cathedral where he meets the other new acolyte, a halfling priestess of Erastil named Sister Erica.  Arnald is disappointed when, instead of the powerful magic he seeks, Sister Erica offers him spiritual development by letting him help out in the garden behind the building.

Arnald returns to the Rusty Dragon as the sun sets.  He sees Sister Celia flirting with Vorvashali Voon and awkwardly intrudes, before heading up to his room for the night.

[7 Lamash 4707]

A new day dawns over Sandpoint.  But after the raids on Thistletop, is the town safer or in even more danger?

---------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (15/05/2017)

So here it was, the big boss fight to end Chapter 1 of Rise of the Runelords.  I'm sorry to say things just did not go in the PCs' favor.  One problem was that the earlier fight against the yeth hounds alerted everyone in the whole fortress that intruders were present, because their cries can be heard at least 300' away.  This alerted Nualia and allowed her to institute a cunning plan when the PCs appeared on her level--she lured Arnald into the trap, then retreated to her chamber to fully buff for a few rounds, then (and most wickedly) had a yeth hound bay *behind* the PCs so they would run *towards* her instead of away from her.  Some of these tactics were a bit more devious than those given in the book, but I also wanted to account for the advance warning she had.  

Felix just got worn down over several rounds and expired unceremoniously, while Nedrin put up a heroic fight in destroying the yeth hound before being repeatedly assailed by something he couldn't do anything about: Nualia's ability to channel negative energy.  It was sad to see both characters die, especially Felix since he was one of the starting characters for the game.

I really liked the idea of the canted level giving an advantage over combatants on higher ground, but despite making myself a reminder card I think I and the players consistently forgot to apply it.  Sometimes with so much going on, it's really hard to remember little bonuses!  I'm also not the best (though I try) at having NPCs talk, mock, and reveal some of their personality or backstories during battles, otherwise they're often complete enigmas.  I'm sure that during the battle, I didn't word Nualia's statements quite so articulately, but that's one of the advantages of a recap.

There's a very quick appearance by Katrine Vinder because I wanted to introduce her ahead of what I knew was going to happen in Chapter Two.  Alas, I don't think it helped in terms of narrative because Arnald's player didn't remember meeting her (and I can't really blame him).

Next Recap

Friday, May 12, 2017

Mynock Squadron Recap # 30 [RPG]

Session # 30 Recap

Having successfully destroyed the Nanocarrier and saved countless lives, the pilots of Mynock Squadron’s Beta Flight retreat to a safe distance away from Dorval’s Wall and take stock.  Warik’s vessel was heavily damaged in the fighting, and Keth suffers from minor radiation poisoning.  As Warik goes EVA to repair his Defender, the others intercept panicked Imperial chatter—Alpha and Gamma flights have launched their attacks on the remaining Nanocarriers!

The pilots of Beta Flight follow through on their pre-planned secondary mission of securing the Imperial mining base hidden in the depths of a dense asteroid belt.  Mikaela’s knack with sensors allows her to plot a safe course through the treacherous field.  As the pilots near the centre of the field, Keth and Kero use their ships’ sensors to find the hidden base and its defensive batteries of concussion missiles and blaster cannons. 

The group decides to try to bluff their way into the base to avoid having to run the gauntlet.  Warik comms the base, but the defenders are wary and insist on receiving code words that he can’t provide.  As the base’s concussion missile launchers swing towards the ships, the pilots react even faster.  Mikaela strafes and destroys one of the batteries, while Warik takes care of the others.  Kero and Keth have little difficulty leaving smoking craters in place of the base’s blaster cannon turrets.

Beta Flight lands and prepares to breach under fire using explosives.  They gain entry, but the lack of gravity makes ground combat disorienting.  Although the first group of Stormtrooper defenders are dealt with, Keth accidentally shoots Warik in the foot!  After the fighting, Keth hands Kero a medpac and asks her to treat him, but she looks confused by the idea and tells Keth that it was his mistake, so he should fix it.  Warik shouts at Kero that she’s a trained medic and shouldn’t act like she’s never bandaged a blaster wound before.  Each asks if the other is suffering from a concussion.  As they proceed down the corridor, Warik whispers to Keth that he’s going to request a psyche eval for Kero once they return to New Republic space.

The pilots fight their way to the mining base’s armoury and they take advantage of what’s available.  Just as someone reaches for a box of grenades, Keth shouts to stop!  The box is booby-trapped, and further movement would have set off every grenade it holds!  Warik manages to disarm the trap, and the soldiers continue on through the base. 

After one bend in the corridor, force field projectors begin to hum.  Warik jumps back in time, but Keth finds himself cut off from his companions just as an Imperial E-web crew comes into sight!  As Warik desperately tries to destroy the force field generators, Keth realizes he has no choice but to charge the E-web at full speed!  He’s wounded by several bolts but manages to close the distance and stay alive until his friends arrive and finish off the crew.  Warik contrives to have the E-web lifted onto an anti-grav stretcher.  Kero treats Keth’s wounds, mentioning that she may need to perform surgery on him when time allows.  Mikaela raises an eyebrow at the remark.

After blowing open a security door, the pilots reach the central command module of the base.  There, they find the base commander holding a pistol and trying to browbeat technicians into defending him!  Kero intimidates the technicians into surrendering, but the base commander fires anyway and hits Warik in the stomach!  Warik responds by opening up with the E-web, leaving only a smoking heap of burned flesh where the commander stood!

Having earlier shown themselves skilled in starfighter combat, the members of Beta Flight have proved their prowess in ground combat as well.  The mining base is now secure, providing a safe location for the New Republic forces trapped behind Dorval’s Wall to plan the next steps in their campaign to destroy the Pentastar Alignment once and for all.
----------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (12/05/2017)

Kero's dual personality problems continue to manifest, and become quite noticeable to the other PCs in this session.  Unfortunately, we never got to see how it would all play out.

I really like implementing stuff like Zero-G combat, knowing that most players will completely ignore preparing their characters for it, but any who do will receive a big advantage.  I think, however, I forgot about the zero-G stuff about halfway through the session!

This session had a lot of traps, and exciting, cinematic moments.  I have to give credit to the system, and it's really easy to design action scenes that are fun but (when it comes to PCs) relatively forgiving, with a large margin of error.  I was never in any doubt that the PCs would take the asteroid base, but it was a lot of fun seeing exactly *how* they did it.

This was the last session of the campaign.  There were some very painful real-life issues that brought it to a close earlier than planned.  I did manage to put together a nice epilogue, which I'll talk about next week.

Next Recap

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Pathfinder Volume 1: Dark Waters Rising [COMICS] [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Dark Waters Rising is the title for the compilation of the first six issues of the Pathfinder comic series.  The story is set in and around the small town of Sandpoint in the western Varisia region of the campaign setting of Golarion and features six of the game's "Iconics" adventuring together (with a cameo appearance by a seventh).  I'm a big comic book fan, and I would rate these issues as about average.  The dialogue is quite good and each of the Iconics is given a distinct personality, but the plotting is unremarkable and the artwork is (apart from some of the covers) uniformly ugly and dark.  I really appreciated the attention to detail and faithful continuity with the source material (in terms of geography, monster behavior, etc.).

The hardcover edition (I'm not sure about the softcover) does contain several extras which make a more attractive purchase.  First, there's an exclusive story, "The Last Mosswood Goblin" which is cute (though slight).  Second, over 30 variant covers are included in a gallery, and some of them are fantastic and clever.  Third, there's a removable poster-map of either Sandpoint or the hinterlands around it (I've already pulled it out, and can't remember which!).  Fourth, and best, there's over 40 pages of additional material in the form of encounters (complete with grid maps and stat blocks), an introductory gazetteer of Sandpoint, and more.  My conclusion is that, as a pure comic, Dark Waters Rising is okay--but all of the extras bring it up substantially if you're not just a reader but also a Pathfinder player or GM.

SPOILERS

The plot of Dark Waters Rising concern the adventurers stumbling on to a plot by a priestess of the demon-goddess Lamashtu drawing power from local goblin tribes by having them drink a magical potion.  The adventurers, in true RPG fashion, slay loads of goblins before narrowly escaping a trap set by the priestess and then fighting off the massive demon she's given birth to (yuck, but fun!).  In a bit more detail:

Issue 1: Valeros (the Iconic Fighter), Seoni (the Iconic Sorceress), Meriesiel (the Iconic Rogue), and Ezren (the Iconic Wizard) are an established adventuring party who are planning to merely pass through Sandpoint.  After encountering strange, deformed goblins, they realize something unusual is going on and find allies in the form of Harsk (the Iconic Ranger) and Kyra (the Iconic Cleric).

Issue 2: After a battle against goblin raiders, the adventurers are hired by Sandpoint's leaders to investigate.  With Harsk's help, they follow the goblins' trail back to Shank's Wood where they find a foul cult of Lamashtu working its evil on the local goblins and bugbears.  The adventurers attack and break up the cult.

Issue # 3: Harsk tracks the cultists through Paupers' Graves, a long-abandoned cemetery full of ghouls!  Although the artwork is uniformly ugly, ugly works well for monsters and I have to give it some credit here.  Harsk continues leading the adventurers on the cultists' trail, and they reach Mosswood only to find themselves surrounded by giant spiders.

Issue # 4: The adventurers are rescued by the intervention of Lini (the Iconic Druid).  When the adventurers reach the goblin/cultist main encampment, however, all of them except Merisiel are captured.

Issue # 5: The captured adventurers are forced to drink a foul potion that makes them relive some of the worst times of their lives; the flashback/dream scenes add some nice insight into each character and were well done.  The main villain is fully introduced: Mistress Etainia, a priestess of Lamashtu heavily pregnant with demonic spawn.  Although Merisiel sneaks into the camp and frees her companions, Mistress Etainia gives birth to an enormous, tentacled demon!

Issue # 6:  There's a huge battle, of course, and the good guys win.  They return to Sandpoint and celebrate.

"The Last Mosswood Goblin":  This story is from the perspective of a goblin who arrives just after the adventurers have slain the rest of his tribe; he stalks the group and launches his plan to kill them, but, as a goblin, his efforts end in certain disaster.  It's played for laughs.

Cover Gallery:  Many of these are clever "spoof" covers placing the Pathfinder Iconics in something like the Ghostbusters movie poster or a goblin as the shark in Jaws, but others are more serious and some are downright beautiful.

The Sandpoint Gazetteer is six pages long (including a full-page map of the town) that summarizes some of the major places and personalities that PCs are likely to encounter.  It provides stat blocks for Sheriff Hemlock and Father Zantus, both things I found quite useful as a GM running Rise of the Runelords.  There are also some adventure hooks that a GM could develop.

There are six(!) fully-developed encounters (presumably, one of these appeared in each of the original issues).  Each encounter has hooks, a mini-map, monster stat-blocks, etc.  My only fault with the maps is that they show where the monster tokens are, which means they can't be photocopied and enlarged to be used at the gaming table.  The encounters are:  1. Junk Beach (goblins scavenging for junk near Sandpoint); 2. Shank's Wood (a faceless stalker has been imitating a notorious highwayman); 3. Paupers' Graves (ghouls have infested a disused cemetery near Sandpoint); 4. The Spider Stones (an ancient shrine to Gozreh has been overrun by moss spiders and an ettercap); 5. The Bloodfang Goblins (a goblin tribe affiliated with the Cult of Lamashtu); and 6. Issandra's Shrine (a CR 14 devotee of Lamashtu has established a hidden shrine in the Sandpoint hinterlands).  What makes these encounters so good is that they draw upon existing elements of the setting and they each have really interesting, well-written backstories.  I've personally incorporated "Junk Beach", "Shank's Wood", and "The Bloodfang Goblins" into my Rise of the Runelords campaign with good success.  They're perfect when a GM needs a little something extra to flesh out a session or story arc.

Mixed into the encounter section are full-page stat blocks (at Level 1) and illustrations of the Iconics that appear in the comic.  It's true that these can also be found on-line, but they're quite attractively presented here so I didn't mind.

So all in all, what I said above holds: if you're strictly a comics fan, you can find better stories and artwork elsewhere; but if you're also a Pathfinder fan, Dark Water Rising is a solid purchase.