Thursday, November 29, 2018

Pathfinder Module: "We Be Goblins!" [RPG]


We Be Goblins! was Paizo's Free RPG Day offering in 2011, and it has solidified as one of the most beloved Pathfinder adventures ever (the PDF is available for a free download here).  The premise is all in the title: the PCs are goblins, and in Pathfinder, goblins are fire-loving, dog-hating, baby-eating little psychopaths of illiteracy and idiocy.  In short, they're a blast to play once in a while to let off a little steam and just go crazy with the role-playing.  This adventure, which can be finished in one session, is a perfect introduction to the goblins of Golarion and is a blast to play.  The last section proved surprisingly hard when I played it, and my group TPK'd--but that's okay, as we had a lot of fun in the process.  The module comes with four pre-generated goblin characters, each of whom is described well with little quirks and traits.  If you're looking for something different, or maybe want to show skeptical non-gamers just how much fun RPGs can be, We Be Goblins! is a great choice.


We Be Goblins! casts the PCs as members of the Licktoad tribe in Brinestump Marsh (near Sandpoint, the starting point for multiple adventure paths).  After a member of the tribe is kicked out for the horrible crime of reading (books steal your soul!), a treasure map is found among the possessions left behind.  In the hopes that the map will lead to more of the strange fireworks that the outcast goblin also left behind, the chief of the Licktoad designates four champions to see if "X" really does mark the spot.  But giant spiders, evil dogs and horses, and a cannibal witch stand in the way; and even before they leave on the adventure, the PCs need to prove their mettle through a variety of tribal contests!  I'll quickly go through the various elements in turn.

Chief Gutwad, a goblin so obese he needs help getting in and out of his chair, starts the scenario by summoning the PCs and telling them about the map and their mission.  The way Gutwad and his instructions are portrayed is hilarious, and should instantly put the players in the right frame of mind for what follows.  And what follows is a series of dares (little mini-games) that PCs can volunteer to take part in, like "Eat a Bag of Bull Slugs Real Quick" and "Hide or Get Clubbed."  The mechanics for playing the game are fast and fun, with losing sometimes carrying real consequences (like a loss of hit points or the sickened condition) and winning earning real rewards (minor magic items that could come in very handy on the quest that follows).  It's a silly, fun way to see how goblin tribes pass the time, and if the players and GM get into the spirit of the adventure, it's a memorable time.

The next day, while travelling through the swamp and following the map, the PCs drift into the den of the hilariously-named "Lotslegs Eat Goblin Babies Many", a giant spider.  Four goblins up against a giant spider is a fair fight, and my only regret is that my group didn't think about searching the spider's den for treasure, as there's enough there that may have turned the tide in our favour at the end.  The rest of the journey to the "X" on the map is uneventful, apart from whatever hijinks your PCs get up to amongst themselves (PvP is a definite possibility here!).

The "X" turns out to be an old shipwreck.  The module was designed as a sort-of prequel to the Jade Regent adventure path, which was released the same month, so there's a plot connection between it and some of the treasure that can be found within.  Anyway, the shipwreck is the home of Vorka, the infamous cannibal-witch, who is a goblin so evil and depraved that she keeps dogs and horses!  I found the layout of the ship confusing as a player because it's difficult to represent multiple vertical decks on a flat mat; apart from that problem, it's a solid site for combat.  The problem my group ran into, and the reason we TPK'd, is that there are (depending on how you count) four to five encounters packed into the shipwreck location, but most of them are mobile threats and the battle can quickly flow into PCs facing multiple combats at the same time.  Since the PCs are playing goblins (not exactly the most tactically-savvy of creatures), they're likely to get in way over their heads.  And although I had a lot of fun with the module, I do think the threats it presents aren't really fair: a mean dog named Cuddles, for example, has 17 hit points, but the PCs' damage output with their dogslicers range from 1d4-1 to 1d4+1.  If Cuddles were a boss battle, that would work well, but the PCs still have a horse, two other dogs, a trap, Vorka herself (a level 3 druid), and Vorka's giant frog animal companion to deal with.  That's a lot for four Level 1 goblins!

Still, I had fun and I can see why the module was such a hit and led to four (!) sequels.  I wouldn't want to play goblin adventurers all the time, but as a refreshing chance it worked well, and I'd definitely be up for the next one in the series.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Pathfinder Module: "Carrion Hill" [RPG]


I ran this for a group of PFS players running Level 4 pregens, and things . . . didn't go well.  They TPK'd in the first encounter, which I think can be partially blamed on bad luck, partially on bad tactics, and partially on having PCs just a tad under the APL that the module expects.  This review is based on running the module up to that point and on having read and prepared the rest of it.  Despite how things went for my particular group, I genuinely like Carrion Hill.  It's a very atmospheric module, the setting is interesting, and the antagonists are memorable.  It's a fairly straightforward adventure to run, and won't overly tax GMs--but it's also not a simple dungeon crawl either.  As for its Lovecraftian-inspiration, I would say: don't expect an RP- and investigation-heavy game like a true Call of Cthulhu RPG scenario.  This is still Pathfinder, and while there is clear inspiration from the Cthulhu Mythos, the combat in this one comes fast and furious.


Carrion Hill is set in the eponymous town, a location rich with history in the gothic nation of Ustalav.  The plot is sparked by your classic "cultists summoning an eldritch horror from beyond", and, as these things are wont to happen, the horror breaks free and starts terrorising the town.  In order to have any realistic chance of defeating the creature (a "Spawn of Yog-Sothoth"), the PCs must first weaken it by tracking down and killing the three surviving cultists who summoned it in the first place.  In terms of structure, the scenario can be divided into six parts: the hook, the investigation, the three cultist hideouts (which can be done in any order), and the big battle at the end against the Spawn.  There are a lot of references and inspiration drawn from the Cthulhu Mythos throughout the entire module, but I hope people who play this don't think true Call of Cthulhu RPG games are anything like it!

There's very little lead-up to the adventure hook; as written, the PCs are walking through the streets of Carrion Hill (for a reason determined by the GM; I liked the suggested one of seeing if Carrion Hill would be a good site for a Pathfinder Lodge) when they hear a town crier saying that the mayor needs heroes and is offering a reward.  Once they arrive at the mayor's mansion, they're escorted in for some boxed text explaining that a series of attacks have occurred over the past few hours in Carrion Hill, all coming from below and destroying small buildings in the process.  With his guards trying to contain the growing panic in the streets, the mayor offers financial incentive for the PCs to figure out what's going on and prevent further attacks.  It's a pretty standard briefing, but it gets the job done and gets the PCs into the action quickly.

Investigating the mystery starts with the PCs being escorted to the site of the first attack, a shattered home covered in a strange black sludge and featuring signs of an enormous creature bursting its way free.  The devastation and clues are described well (as is the omnipresent, gloomy rain), and the PCs will have no difficulty realizing that the creature emerged from a not-so-secret door leading into ancient crypts under the city.  Following the stairs down, they'll soon reach the so-called Sunless Grove, an immense cavern of suitably Lovecraftian description, which is where the cultists originally summoned the Spawn.  Right now, however, a ghoul is feasting on the corpses of a couple of cultists (who didn't survive the Spawn's appearance) while simultaneously reading a book (the famous Pnakotic Manuscripts) used in the ritual.  The ghoul doesn't attack right away, and with a very high Diplomacy check and some bribery, the PCs can get the book without a fight.  Combat is likely, however, and this was the encounter that unfortunately ended my run-through of Carrion Hill after just a couple of hours.  Ghouls are always nastier than their CR would indicate because their ability to paralyze foes with any of their three attacks (on a full attack) means that one bad save can take a PC out of the fight.  The ghoul here also has six levels in Rogue, so even if a GM doesn't go coup de grace crazy, sneak attack damage on paralyzed foes can add up quickly.  I don't think it's an unfair fight for four PCs of levels 4-6 (especially because the players have time to prepare and talk over tactics and positioning), but it is certainly a challenging one for parties with low Fort saves or lacking elves.  Anyway, assuming the PCs survive the encounter, they'll learn from the clues in the Sunless Grove that three cultists fled the scene of the summoning, and that the beast will be weakened if they're slain.

One of the cultists the PCs can track down is a necromancer named Rupman Myre, who runs a brick-making factory using zombie slave labor!  The encounter takes place above and around vats of molten chemicals and contains a lot of different options for movement.  At just four rooms, this is the shortest of the three "kill the cultists" section of the module.  I like the little touches, such as how panicked Myre is about the Spawn as demonstrated by his actions and the dialogue he shouts.

A second cultist, Arlend Hyve, is a historian and alchemist (with seven levels of Rogue) who operates out of an abandoned temple to Aroden.  Hyve keeps violet fungi in order to make poison, but I don't imagine he'd be too hard to beat.  The violet fungi, on the other hand, could prove a surprise to over-confident PCs.  Again, the setting descriptions here are really done well.  This section is also fairly short.

By far the longest section about tracking down cultists is the one with Waldur Crove.  Crove runs an asylum which is extensively detailed in the module: two floors and 39 labelled rooms!  Even drawing it on flip-mats would be time-consuming.  There's a lot for PCs to wade through in the asylum: dangerous lunatics, even more dangerous orderlies, morlocks, a pit with a monster that was original to this module (the Chaos Beast), and then the final battle against Crove (who has levels in Cleric and Wizard, with a focus on conjuring).

The Spawn of Yog-Sothoth attacks the PCs wherever they are when the third cultist is killed, meaning that the final encounter location could be in one of three places.  This is certainly exciting and cinematic, and doubtless the players will be surprised and unprepared.  The Spawn is a CR 10 creature and would run roughshod over most groups, but, if they've killed the cultists, it can have up to six negative levels and should be far more manageable.  The module does a good job addressing various permutations of what the PCs could do during the adventure, and giving the GM advice accordingly.

I should mention that the artwork throughout this module is really good.  The picture of the ghoul in the Sunless Grove (on p. 9) is perfect, and the various cultists and monsters have an appropriately creepy feel.  The inside front- and back-covers are filled with maps, and they're clear and functional.  The module comes with a two-page appendix describing Carrion Hill, and I was happy that there was enough to keep it from being a generic backdrop.  The town has an extensive history, and I would like to see it used again for further adventures.

Despite my group's premature demise, I'd encourage you to give Carrion Hill a chance.  It's a strong, self-contained, atmospheric scenario that has excellent descriptive writing and solid encounters.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 10-03: "Death on the Ice" [RPG]


Death on the Ice is a great scenario set in the frozen north of Golarion.  It features excellent writing, a meaty story, and a great climactic encounter.  It tests the PCs in all the right ways, and introduces them to some of the lore of the setting that they've probably never been exposed to before.  I ran it at low tier using the four-player adjustment and had a really good experience.


The scenario starts at the Pathfinder Society lodge in the Land of the Linnorm Kings, with half-orc Venture-Captain Bjersig Torrsen delivering the briefing.  Torrsen (accompanied by his adorable dog Mahki) explains that a PFS field agent named Svala Ice-rider has encountered difficulties while doing historical excavation work of ruins found further north in the Crown of the World.  The ruins are believed to be a settlement of the Erutaki (one of the indigenous peoples of the north) that was abandoned mysteriously and that is referenced cryptically as a ominous location in their oral folklore.  Communicating through her snow owl, Svala has reported that the site is contaminated with blackfrost (a toxic and corrosive substance that blows from the north pole) and contains a surprisingly large number of undead creatures buried in the ice. Concerned that she might be in over her head and acting on information that has been poorly translated from indigenous languages, Svala has asked for help verifying the translation of the oral histories of the Erutaki and for reinforcements to finish the work before the spring thaw comes and makes travel across the ice pack far more difficult.  The PCs are thus charged with travelling via longship to the fishing village of Aaminiut, conferring with the elders there, and then arranging land transportation to the dig site.  It's a journey that will take several weeks altogether, which gives a good sense of the vast distances through unforgiving landscapes that one envisions in the Crown of the World.  There's a lot to take in with the briefing, much of which will be new to the PCs (and most GMs).

I'll just flag as a note here that there's more information on the area in the Jade Regent adventure path, and that I used the map folio to that AP to good effect, as one of the maps covers the area where the scenario takes place.  Later in the scenario, the PCs travel by dogsled, and I found the dogsled tokens in the Vehicles map pack worked really well.

The sea journey to Aaminiut is largely uneventful (with a couple of brief landmarks provided for flavour), with the first encounter starting once the longship reaches sight of the fishing village.  Due to large drifting icebergs in the harbor, the longship can't approach the docks directly; instead, villagers come to meet it in canoes to ferry the PCs over.  This is when "playful" orcas appear, threatening to capsize the canoes and dump everyone into the freezing cold waters!  PCs who can't swim or with poor protection against the cold could be in trouble here, and when I ran the encounter it worked out to be pretty exciting.  There's no map provided for the encounter, and I may have made it too easy by allowing the PCs to swim and climb easily onto nearby icebergs to await rescue.  The point of the encounter isn't really to drown the PCs (which is hard to do in Pathfinder) but to see if they react violently against the orcas--which are the totem animals for the Erutaki clans of Aaminiuit.  If the PCs act aggressively, they'll find the elders in the village far less amenable to conversation and aid.

Once ashore, the PCs can arrange a meeting with the elders of the village, where they'll hear a well-described story (told through both dance and song) of how the village that Svala Ice-rider is excavating once belonged to an evil, cannibalistic tribe infected by malevolent spirits called the Pilungak ("flesh eaters") and was sealed away by the Winter's Favored (spirits of the north) to stop its corruption.  The Winter's Favored buried the village under the ice and placed a magical seal over it--but if that seal has been disturbed by Svala's digging, the Pilungak could be released!  The elders give the PCs a custom wand of ice shaping to help them repair the seal.  I liked this scene, and I appreciated the attention paid to non-Western conceptions of storytelling and symbolism.

After this, the PCs essentially have two options: they can head directly to the dig site, or they can take a detour of a couple of days to seek out a shrine where the Winter's Favored are propitiated in the hopes of making contact and finding out more information about the seal and the evil spirits trapped underneath.  If the PCs do reasonably well in impressing the elders, they'll be provided with a local guide, dogsleds, and supplies for either journey.  Either journey requires checks to avoid getting lost, with could start to deplete supplies (food and firewood) and make the return journey to Aaminiuit far more dangerous (it's a few weeks to get there and a few weeks to get back).  In addition, the PCs have to take the cold into account, and the scenario strikes a reasonable compromise here by asking for Fortitude saves only just prior to each encounter (but making the consequences more severe than normal).  My group did a good job with each of these challenges, but they know I'm a stickler for travel hazards so they didn't take the matter lightly.  I do wish endure elements didn't trivialize the challenges of travelling in the cold to such an extreme degree, but that's a complaint about the system, not the scenario.

If the PCs head directly for the dig site, they'll have a couple of days' journey before encountering an ambush set by a sort of winter hag called a Qallupilluk (and, at high tier, some aquatic ogres).  The encounter takes place on a frozen pond with thin ice that could easily crack and pull in dogsleds, making the encounter far more dangerous.  My PCs chose the other option, but this one looked like the most fun to run.

If the PCs head for the shrine, they'll reach it without incident.  A giant polar bear is sniffing around and will attack, but I don't think it'll be much of a challenge to most groups.  One of the Winter's Favored appears to watch the battle, and here the PCs may get the first glimpse as to what they are: a sort of tribal arctic giant.  Interestingly, the Winter's Favored only spoke Giant (not Common), and my PCs failed the checks to use pantomime to explain why they had come and what they had wanted, so they got no assistance from it.  If they had, the Winter's Favored accompanies them to the dig site and makes the encounter there far, far easier (because he can fix the seal quite quickly and is effectively immune to the undead's cold-based attacks).

The big climax to the scenario occurs when the PCs reach the dig site.  It's very cinematic and exciting, as Svala and her assistances are under assault by several "blackfrost mummies" and their barricades are failing.  (depending on how long it took the PCs to arrive, the archaeologists will be more severely hurt or even dead)  The PCs can see where the seal has been damaged, but they know the archaeologists will be overrun in just moments, leading to some exciting decision-making and crazy dogsled driving.  The way that repairing the seal works is interesting, as using the wand effectively to repair one of the five damaged sections requires a Dexterity or a Craft (Sculpture) check, and the wand has limited charges.  Plus, every few rounds, another blackfrost mummy emerges from the ice and attacks anyone trying to repair the seal.  PCs with bad luck using the wand can prolong the encounter, and the mummies carry a Constitution-damaging poison effect that can get pretty nasty if the exposure/duration rules for poisons are followed literally (there's some conversation in the forums about this).  I thought it was a well-conceived and memorable ending to the scenario, as I like situations where there's a race against time, escalating hazards to deal with, more than just one enemy to handle, and encounters where the PCs are torn between multiple goals.

There's a *lot* to like about Death on the Ice.  The writer handled (the fictional) Indigenous cultures and worldviews well, the journeys through the arctic landscapes were reasonably challenging, and the encounters were solid.  The ending was fantastic.  I've never run or played anything set in this area of Golarion before, but it's definitely something I'll look forward to doing now.

RealmsToowoomba Recap # 74 [RPG]

[23 Flamerule 1372 continued]

When the trio of adventurers teleport back from their scouting mission to Nesme, Mellia warns that the bonfire the others have built could draw attention and suggests that Cain order the mephit to stop adding to it.  As Markus & Urist huddle together to keep warm during the constant downpour, Mellia sketches a rough map of Nesme on the muddy ground using a stick.  She says she is confident she can teleport everyone directly to the Aurilite temple.  The adventurers discuss what defensive spells should be used prior to the battle, and what everyone's role should be once the battle begins.  In regards to Markus' mention of the need for an exit strategy, Mellia says she can teleport almost everyone out if they stay close to her during the battle.  However, she won't be able to take the mephit or Wrex, and tells the latter he'll have to lay low if things go bad and then rendezvous with her the next morning for transport out.  Wrex expresses concern at the idea, stating that the city was locked down tight and will be crawling with patrols after an attack.

In the middle of the conversation, the adventurers see a figure moving towards them from the far side of the bonfire.  Before they can react, the figure, who upon closer inspection is a young man covered in pock-marks and scabs, stumbles towards Cain and collapses in his arms, coughing.  Urist, always on guard for danger, sprints into action and knocks the man to the ground.  Mellia, who was waiting for Cain and the newcomer to be separated, conjures a mystical wall of flame between them.  Although her lover is singed by the sheer fury of the flaming wall, the newcomer is incinerated!  Cain's mephit drags the smoking corpse and hurls it into the bonfire.  The adventurers decide to keep the bonfire going, even with the risk of drawing attention, but to double-watches.  Further, they decide to launch their attack on Nesme the following afternoon to give Mellia time to prepare a scroll.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, Rufus Greenleaf has penetrated the High Forest accompanied by his riding dog, Sheila.  He's awakened at his campsite in the middle of the night by familiar faces: Teuveamanthaar and Reitheillaethor, High Forest elves who have had several dealings with Rufus in recent months.  They say that word has spread of Rufus' disgrace in the eyes of Silvanus, but that they care little.  Instead, they ask if he's brought payment for the land they've allowed him to occupy near Unicorn Run.  Rufus replies that he didn't get any gold on his brief foray outside the forest, and that he's on his way now to talk to his mentor about why Silvanus has withdrawn his gifts.  The two elves bring out a flask of honey mead and share a sympathetic drink with the halfling.

[24 Flamerule 1372]

The constant rain refuses to let up, leaving the adventurers to make their preparations for the day in wet and soggy conditions.  Ralkin shows the others that his beak has been lightly charred, and says that Cain needs to get his mephit under control--the mephit, however, denies responsibility when questioned by the cleric.  As the others go about their routine, Wrex is the only one to express concern over what happened the night before.  Ralkin and Urist shrug, and say that this close to the Evermoors, the fellow who startled them seemed like undead.

The adventurers spend the morning and early part of the afternoon in various activities.  Mellia works hard on writing a scroll underneath a rain-drenched tarp.  Markus, Ralkin, Wrex, and Urist have an impromptu marksmanship competition before all but Ralkin decide to go for a walk to see what's around the campsite.  They find only unremarkable wilderness during their perambulation, and begin discussing what life was like in their home cities.  Urist says her father ran a forge, while her mother was a guard captain in a city far underground.  However, Urist says, she herself had no desire for a life swinging a pickaxe unlike her 18 other siblings, and sought a life on the surface.  Encountering Markus' "glory" in the Silverymoon blademastery academy seems to have been one of the highlights of her life so far.  Markus, for his part, discusses not where he grew up, but his brief sojourn in Luskan, a city he describes as horrible.  Wrex says he hails from a city far underground Luskan and that he hated life there, because as a poor child, he was destined to spend a childhood picking mushrooms.  Talk turns to the use of mushrooms and other ingredients in ale, and soon the adventurers find themselves hear the Long Road.  They see a large amount of traffic heading north.  Wrex flags down a caravan guard and hears that tensions continue to run high between Luskan and Mirabar, and both cities are preparing for open war.  Further, a mysterious plague has broken out in Mirabar, which some think is an attack by the Arcane Brotherhood and others assign to a failure to propitiate clerics of Talona.  When the adventurers return to the campsite, Wrex shares the information he's obtained and speculates that the man Mellia slew may have been someone who fled the plague in Mirabar not realising he was already infected.

In the late afternoon, the adventurers are ready to put into motion a plan that Mellia and Cain have been developing since they returned from Thay fifteen days prior.  After casting several defensive spells, Mellia teleports herself, Markus, Wrex, and Urist as the first wave in the assault on Nesme.  The foursome appear about thirty feet west of the Aurilite temple in Nesme, near a small house reduced to rubble by Rufus' tornado attack from a few days earlier.  A guard on the western entrance to the temple is shocked by the attackers' sudden appearance, and gives a shout for help that none of his fellows at other sentry positions hear!  He moves forward nonetheless.  The battle starts out well for the adventurers: Markus slashes the guard's swordbelt in half, dropping his sword-scabbard to the ground.  Wrex darts in with his katana for a quick strike before withdrawing, and then Urist charges in and sweeps the guard's legs out from under him!  Urist and Markus quickly put the overmatched guard out of his misery.  Mellia teleports back to the campsite, disappearing just as the temple's other defenders, hearing the sounds of battle nearby, engage the adventurers.  The precautions the adventurers have taken prove wise, as the freezing breath of a pair of winter wolves has no effect on them!

Mellia returns instants later with the second wave of the assault force: Cain, his mephit, and Ralkin.  The battle is soon in full swing, as the temple's dedicated force of soldiers moves to engage the invaders alongside ice mephits, armored bears, and the Frostmaiden's battle-clergy.  A well-placed fireball by Mellia incinerates a junior priestess, and one of the winter wolves falls to various injuries.  However, the battle suddenly takes a disastrous turn for the adventurers.  In a well-coordinated maneuver, the western door to the temple is opened, the temple's high priestess utters a blasphemous magickal curse on minions of the Flamelord, and then the door is slammed shut.  The shock of the curse knocks Cain to the ground, weak and paralyzed by the verbal defilement of everything he holds dear.  Then, three priestesses of Auril come around the temple's southwest corner and conjure a synchronized wave of blistering hail storms on the adventurers.  Although the adventurers easily resist the freezing cold that accompanies the storm, the pounding force of the hailstones is enough to knock Ralkin to the ground, kill his familiar, and hurt the others.  Seeing that the battle has turned against them, Mellia shouts for everyone to retreat to her position or they'll be left behind.  Markus buys her time to cast the spell by startling the Aurilites with a magnificent display: he rears back and breathes fire, like a dragon!  By the time the flame has died down, Mellia, Cain, Markus, Urist, and Ralkin are gone.

Wrex, who had been cautious during the battle by channeling his inner ki force to remain hidden in rubble and strike only when advantageous, manages to escape the battle unseen thanks to all of the defenders concentrating on the only visible target remaining: Cain's mephit.  The mephit fights bravely before being magickally forced to flee by a frustrated cleric.

Days of preparation for the attack have resulted in the adventurers retreating.  True, they all escaped alive and some casualties were inflicted on the Aurilites.  Clearly, however, the battle-hardened forces of Nesme will be a tougher nut to crack then they initially assumed.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Pathfinder Tales: Liar's Blade


I'm a huge fan of Tim Pratt's other work (like the Marla Mason urban fantasy series), so I had high expectations going into Liar's Blade--and they weren't disappointed in the least.  Liar's Blade is one of those books that could be really bad in lesser hands, as the main characters are a conman and his intelligent, talking sword, and the plot involves a long quest through several countries. But instead of coming across as a series of random encounters with an absurd sword providing commentary, the novel is wickedly clever, the supporting cast are intriguing, the plot is steeped in Golarion lore, and the dialogue is crisp and laugh-out-loud funny.  Liar's Blade isn't the typical piece of fantasy RPG tie-in fiction, but in this case that's a good thing.  More in the genre should have the wit that Pratt provides here.  I'd strongly recommend this one.

* A free short story that explains how the main characters met each other is available here: Paizo Web Fiction.


The novel starts with Rodrick, a rakish conman, and his intelligent sword, Hyrm, in the nation of Tymon in the River Kingdoms.  After narrowly escaping some trouble from a professional gladiator, Rodrick and Hyrm take a job escorting a pilgrim (Obed) and his associate (Zaqen) to retrieve a religious relic in Brevoy.  The journey takes the group through several of the River Kingdoms, providing some great "on the ground" views of what they're like that corresponds with (but is much more interesting than) the gazetteer-approach of campaign setting books.  Along the way, the mystery of Obed and Zaqen deepen, and Rodrick (and the reader) start to suspect that this job is more than it first appears.  Eventually, Obed is revealed to be a Gillman worshipper of Gozreh, while Zaqen is a sorcerer with what, in game terms, would be the aberrant bloodline and a sort of tumor-familiar.  There are some great encounters along the way and the great banter between Rodrock and Hyrm keep the pages turning while the overall story becomes more and more compelling.  Are Obed and Zaqen trying to resurrect Aroden?  Or is this just another lie?  What do the origins of the Worldwound have to do with this?  Even in this spoiler-heavy section of the review, I'd rather leave things vague and encourage you to read this one fresh.  It's definitely worth the wait.

In sum, I'm happy to label Liar's Blade as one of the best Pathfinder Tales novels I've read so far.  It's engaging, smart, and memorable.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Pathfinder Flip-Mat Classics: "Woodlands" [RPG]

I've mentioned in other reviews how many flip-mats Paizo makes that feature forest scenes, and Woodlands is another one in the batch.  One side, the most useful one in my opinion, is very basic: a wide path going through the forest, with trees on either side and some small clearings further in.  This is the quintessential map for a forest random encounter, and the little clearings would be the perfect place for an adventuring party to choose as a campsite.  It's not fancy, but very useful.  The other side has multiple distinctive features: a small stream, the trunk of a huge tree, a cave, and a stone altar that the packaging calls an ancient druid shrine.  The features aren't matched precisely with the forest/path backdrop, and instead stand out a bit like a poor cut-and-paste.  As I've often commented in flip-mat reviews, distinctive features like these are actually a downside when it comes to maps that are supposed to be "generic" backdrops because they draw attention to themselves and limit reuse. A further drawback is that this flip-mat doesn't connect, as far as I can tell, to any other Paizo forest flip-mats.  

My verdict: one strong side and one weak side, for an ultimate mark of average.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Pathfinder Flip-Mat Classics: "Forest" [RPG]

Paizo makes a lot of flip-mats for wilderness encounters: there's Bigger Forest, Winter Forest, Woodlands, a Forest Multi-Pack, and probably more.  The one I'm reviewing here is simply Forest, and there's not a lot to say about it.  One side presents a crossroads, with paths heading north, south, east, and west, with trees in the four corners ("a woodland environment perfect for a scenic ambush").  It could work if the PCs are on a well-travelled path through a dense forest.  The other side features a more complex arrangement of paths, with little features such as signposts, a campfire, and (most notably) a large rift in the ground.   I prefer less distinctive features for generic maps so that they're more reusable ("oh, there's that rift again!").  The packaging says this is a "stream winding through woods near a druidic circle", but they obviously got this map confused with another one.  In any event, it's a reasonably well-done flip-mat--nothing exciting or special, but it'll get the job done when you need a grid for a quick forest encounter.

As with all Paizo flip-mats, it takes dry erase, wet erase, and even permanent markers, and cleans up nicely afterwards.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Pathfinder Playtest Character Folio [RPG]

I normally use a product for a while before reviewing it, but I'm making an exception with the Pathfinder Playtest Character Folio for two reasons: 1) the playtest is nearly over, and I'm not going to get a chance to actually use this as intended; and 2) there's not really anything to test out here.  The key thing to remember about this product is that it is *not* an extensive character sheet like the regular Pathfinder Player Character Folio (or the similar Starfinder product).  Instead, although it's the same price, this product is just a little plastic folder with twelve transparent plastic sleeves to hold whatever papers you put in them.  Apart from the cover (which has the artwork from Doomsday Dawn), there's really no "value-added" element to this product (picking up a binder and set of sheet protectors from the grocery store would serve the exact same purpose).  Given its limited usefulness and the limited time-frame in which it could be used, I don't really see the point of this product.  Spend your money elsewhere.

The Edge of Darkness [Cthulhu]

I got my first chance to play Call of Cthulhu in several(!) years last month, as I ran a trio of of players new to the game through the core rulebook's adventure "The Edge of Darkness."  I bribed (literally) the players to stay in character the whole time, set up the atmosphere reasonably well by playing via candlelight in intimate surroundings, and did my best to recall the very different set of GM skills that a game like Cthulhu calls for compared to Pathfinder (where most of my RPG focus has been for the last few years).  I had a blast running the session.  The scenario is a fairly straightforward, as the PCs are friends or relatives of a dying man who leaves them the deed to an abandoned farmhouse and cryptic instructions to put right a great evil that was accidentally summoned there.  In essence, the PCs have to complete a ritual while a terrifying monster tries its best to trick or force them to stop, but there's enough detail and little touches that it all comes together well.  The players did a great job too. It was a very satisfying one-shot session, and I still hope that someday, with the stars are right, I might be able to get a campaign together again.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Pathfinder Player Companion: "Haunted Heroes Handbook" [RPG]

I'm probably not the natural audience for the Haunted Heroes Handbook, as I've never delved deeply into any of the classes or rules from the Occult Adventures book.  Indeed, I bought this book because it has a trait that's perfect for my PFS caveman shaman.  But having read this Player Companion cover-to-cover, I'm really impressed with it.  It has some great artwork and evocative writing, and a lot of material for the "regular" classes.  If I were to play something like a spiritualist or occultist, or to run a more paranormal or horror-themed game, this would be a book I would turn to.

We start off with that great cover, showing the Iconic Spiritualist Estra and her companion Honaire facing off a creepy wave of tortured souls.  It sets the mood perfectly.  The scene is reproduced as the inside back-cover, while the inside front-cover summarises the "six most common sources of hauntings."  In essence, there's a paragraph each on how hauntings could be caused by aberrations, oni, spellcasters, fiends, haunts, and undead.  It's necessarily very general.

The core of the 36-page book is separated into separate sections, most two pages long but with a couple of sections that are four pages long.

The first two pages of the book combine a brief introduction, a "Primer on Possession", and an index of rules features in the book.  The material on possession is very detailed from a mechanics point of view, explaining how different spells and effects work, how they show up on divinations, what happens if multiple possession attempts are made, etc.  It's incredibly useful in a sort "Possession FAQ" sense, offering advanced rules for something that has been in the game for a long time.  I'll definitely refer back to it if questions arise in the course of normal gameplay with spells like magic jar, dominate person, etc.

The next section, "Haunted Places" (two pages) includes a brief two-paragraph description and one associated feat with locations on Golarion that have special connections to the spirit world:  the Forest of Spirits (in Tian Xia), Galt (home of the bloody Red Revolution), Geb (a nation of undead), Shenmen (a gloomy place overrun by spirits and monsters), and Ustalav (the gothic horror nation).  The feat linked to Geb, called "Soulblade", seems particularly useful--it allows the owner to have a fair chance to detect haunts before they manifest, and to attack them with weapons if they do.  Overall, I liked the section and thought the material in it was interesting and balanced.

"Breaching the Veil" (two pages) is an unnecessarily opaque title for a section on organisations on Golarion devoted to studying, suppressing, or using the spirit world.  There's a paragraph or two and an associated feat for the following groups:  Conference Z (an off-shoot of the Aspis Consortium I've never heard of), the Esoteric Order of the Palantine Eye (the stars of the Doomsday Dawn Playtest adventure), the Order of the Pyre (Hellknights!), the Pure Legion (the enforcers of Rahadoum's atheism--I have plans for a PC here), the Rivethun Followers (Dwarven spiritualists), and the Whispering Way (adherents of the lich, Tar-Baphon).  I think what I would like added to capsule descriptions of organisations like this is a quick cross-reference or footnote to where more information on them can be found--a paragraph doesn't really do them justice.

"Gods and Spirits" (two pages) gives brief notes on six faiths with particular links to the spiritual and paranormal, along with a variant domain power for each: Asmodeus, Cayden Cailean (a surprising addition, but the explanation given makes a certain kind of sense), Irori (again, not a deity one would think about first in this context), Naderi (the only non-Core deity in the list, but as the goddess of drowning, suicide, and tragedy, her inclusion makes sense), Pharasma, and Urgathoa.  As for those variant domain powers, my sense from reading them is that they're fine, but pretty samey.

"Fraudulent Hauntings" (two pages) is an interesting idea for a section, but I'm just not sure it fits into a game like Pathfinder when there's so much more to worry about than a con artist, and skeptics would seem like the crazy ones.  The section gives a brief overview of how and why hoaxes might occur, and then goes on to introduce three new hoaxing tools (like "false ectoplasm") and a new archetype for the Investigator class called the Skeptic.  The archetype seems conceptually confused, as part of its abilities are around debunking the paranormal and part of it is around dealing with real hauntings and possessions (like smiting haunts and exorcising spiritual possession).

"Secular Exorcism" (two pages) talks about non-magical ways to deal with spirit possession--things like restraints, talking with spirits, how to drive them out with holy water and intimidation, etc.  Again, in a movie like The Exorcist something like this would be useful, but Pathfinder is so chock-full of magic that I just don't see the necessity.  There's some non-magical equipment in this section to better spot haunts, but I don't really imagine they'd get much use.

"Ghost-Hunter Archetypes" (two pages) contains the Ectoplasm Master (for Alchemists), the Expulsionist (for Inquisitors), and the Spiritslayer (for Slayers).  The one for the Alchemist looks pretty good and fits nicely, while the other two are very niche only.  The section lists seven on-theme archetypes from other books, and I appreciate the references.

"Exorcism Rituals" (two pages) introduces four new occult rituals (per the Occult Adventures rules).  I've never used rituals in a game, but the ones presented here are really interesting and flavourful (with big penalties for failure!).  This is an area of the game I could definitely imagine exploring some day in the right storyline.

"Haunted Backgrounds" (two pages) is a bit of a grab-bag: three new traits, a new Psychic Discipline ("Haunted"), and a new Sorcerer Bloodline ("Possessed").  Everything seems pretty solid and reasonably balanced from my initial read-through.

"Allying with Spirits" (four pages) introduces six more archetypes: the Invoker (for Witches), the Pact Wizard (for Wizards), the Rivethun Spirit Channeler and the Uda Wendo (for Mediums), the Scourge (for Spiritualists), and the Steelbound Fighter (for Fighters).  This last one is the one that stuck out to be the most: it allows the character to gain an intelligent weapon which has some really interesting storyline possibilities--the downside is the archetype doesn't really come online until Level 5.  As an aside, I'll mention that the artwork on page 21 (reproduced on the back cover) is simply fantastic.

"Haunted Feats" (two pages) introduces nine new feats.  Five of the feats have to do with getting a possessed hand that can do various magical things.  It's a flavourful concept if you wanted to build a character around it and invest feats accordingly.

"Haunted Spells" (four pages) has nine new spells that are of a whole new type: they create temporary haunts in an area.  My favourite is Besmara's grasping depths which is cast in an area of deep water and starts pulling creatures down, down, down until they drown!  A lot of the ones here are similarly flavourful.  I don't know how often PCs would use these, but I could definitely see them forming the basis for some great scenarios with NPC spellcasters.

"Spirit Tools" (two pages) concludes the book by introducing one new feat and four new magic items.  The new feat, "Haunt Scavenger", allows a player to gather the ectoplasmic remnants of dispatched haunts and incorporeal undead and use them as the raw materials in crafting magic items.  It's a cool idea, but I haven't looked into the magic creation rules to see if it has any realistic viability.  The magic items seem cool at first, but they're pretty expensive for what they do.

Overall, I'd rank the Haunted Heroes Handbook as a success.  It has some flaws, but most of the material is well-written and fun to imagine becoming part of a game.  I wouldn't call it essential, but I'd certainly say it's useful.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Pathfinder Map Pack: "Swallowed Whole" [RPG]

If Swallowed Whole hadn't come out relatively early in the product line's life cycle, I'd accuse Paizo of scraping the bottom of the barrel.  Although the idea of having a map pack devoted to what happens when a PC gets swallowed by a monstrous behemoth sounds fun, the product just isn't useful in practice.

First, there really aren't that many creatures in Pathfinder with the Swallow Whole special ability.  Second, many of the creatures that do aren't represented in the pack.  Third, and the biggest obstacle on the couple of occasions I have had recourse to this pack, is that nothing in the Swallowed Whole special ability makes any reference to or depends on *where* the PC is within a creature's body.  In other words, they're either going to hack their way out, get digested, or get rescued--there's no need to keep track of what square they're in.  Last, there's no fixed relationship between the size of the creature and the number of squares that appear within its silhouette on the map pack.

Really, the core problem is that groups who prefer abstract "theatre of the mind" combat would have no recourse to a product like this in the first place (it's more fun to just imagine what's happening in the monster's gullet), while groups devoted to precise tactical combat positioning probably aren't going to be able to match the creature's size on the table with the number of squares within the map pack.  The bottom line is that it's a product without a purpose, and probably the least essential map pack I've seen.

GameMastery Torch Bearer Pack [RPG]

This was an interesting little idea that Paizo had several years ago.  The GameMastery Torch Bearer Pack is essentially a little baggy containing (in multiples of three) a crescent-shaped plastic base, a vertical plastic shaft that slots into the crescent, a brown piece of plastic that looks like the wooden handle of a torch, and then a red piece of plastic in the shape of a flame.  With some superglue, the pieces can be assembled to create a plastic torch that hugs a round miniature's base, so that it's always clear which PC has a torch or light spell active.  It's a clever concept, and I've used the torches in several sessions now.  They're basically just a nice little visual reminder that helps the players and GMs avoid having to keep mental track of one more thing.  I don't really resent the $ 4.99 for a few laser-cut pieces of plastic that I had to assemble myself, but I wouldn't mind if there were four or five in the bag--many encounters may require more than just three.  I'd also caution that they'd be easy to break if a book or something else fell on them, so some care is needed.  Overall though, I'm happy with them.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Starfinder Can Koozie [RPG]

I'm mildly embarrassed to have bought the Starfinder Can Koozie, but as I always say, if you don't buy everything, it's a selection not a collection!  I'm not a fan of the "koozie" concept in general (I like to feel a cold drink against my skin, and if it's getting warm, I know I need to drink faster), but, having tested the product out on a couple of separate occasions, I can testify it does what it's supposed to do.  I will note that, coming from an amateur's perspective, the koozie looks to be of very flimsy material and construction, and I wouldn't be surprised if it it showed wear-and-tear or fell apart
quickly.  Apart from that, you get what you pay for: a black can sleeve with the Starfinder logo in blue on two sides.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 2-11: "The Penumbral Accords" [RPG]


I played through this as high sub-tier and then read the scenario for the purposes of this review.  Like many early PFS scenarios, The Penumbral Accords is high on combat and low on role-playing.  It has a very simple structure and runs on the short side in terms of duration.  Despite a cool backstory premise, it doesn't end up being much more than a group of separate combat encounters.  It's not one I'd go out of my way to play, but I guess it's fine for what it is.


The inimitable Drandle Dreng calls the PCs in for an emergency midnight briefing to start the session.  The Penumbral Accords is one of those PFS scenarios that take place almost entirely in the famous Blakros Museum, but the background here is really interesting.  It turns out that, centuries ago, the Blakros family rose to a position of wealth and power through a nefarious bargain they struck with a cabal called the Onyx Alliance in the Shadow Plane!  The Onyx Alliance allowed the Blakros family to use the Shadow Plane as a tariff- and pirate-free highway for trade, while in exchange they asked for a steady supply of slaves and (once a generation) the family's eldest daughter!  The Blakros family has finally decided that the cost is too high, and wants out of the deal: and that's where the Pathfinder Society comes in.  In order to gain continued access to the relics inside the museum, the Society has agreed to send agents to stop the Onyx Alliance.

The twist is that, on the night of each new moon, the Onyx Alliance uses a device called the Wightir Conjunction to overlay the Shadow Plane's version of the Blakros Museum (a laboratory for degenerate experimentation) over the real one on the Material Plane.  At dawn, everyone inside the museum who has been marked with an arcane sigil is transported to the Shadow Plane.  Since there are already slaves and Blakros women (twins) in the Museum, the Pathfinders have to hurry!  (at least in theory; in reality the PCs will have plenty of time)

Once inside the museum, the PCs see the strange effects of the overlay--a single room may have two signs indicating what's within, one that's "real" and one that represents the same room in the Shadow Plane.  Several creatures and effects from the Shadow Plane can be interacted with, and I think a really good GM could make this into a suitably creepy site for an adventure.  Atmospherics aside, however, one of the weaknesses of this scenario is that it is a very by-the-book "each room has an independent encounter and one room has the boss" type of adventure.  There's very little opportunity for role-playing or need for non-combat abilities, which was often a feature of these early PFS scenarios.  The PCs will be like a fantasy SWAT team doing room-by-room sweeps.

There are seven numbered rooms in the museum, and six of them contain encounters.  There are some interesting creatures to face, such as a skeletal dragon, a shadow hound, an ice golem (depending on subtier), and some fletchling guards.  My favourite of the encounters (against an alchemist) takes place in a room that (on the Shadow Plane) is a vivisection lab, complete with partially vivisected (but still alive) subject!  The "boss" battle is against a fetchling monk.  The setting for the battle is pretty cool in terms of description (a chamber with an ebony pyramid while the ritual is underway), but most groups won't have trouble defeating a single enemy that's near their CR.  Just like with a previous scenario ("Mists of the Mwangi"), there's nothing that routes PCs through particular rooms, which means a party could easily stumble into the end encounter very early in the scenario and finish it quite quickly.

All in all, the scenario has a cool backstory and a lot of fun little references to lore and setting, but at its core it's a very basic dungeon crawl (just in a museum instead of underground).  I can imagine things that could have been done to make it better, like a hard time limit the PCs would have to brush up against before the ritual was concluded, or some sort of PC involvement to reverse the ritual, or even some sort of role-playing negotiation with members of the Onyx Alliance, etc.  As written though, there's not much here unless players are *really* interested in the Shadow Plane or the GM is looking for a quick, simply scenario to run.

Starfinder Society Scenario # 1-19: "To Conquer the Dragon" [RPG]


There's a lot to like about To Conquer the Dragon.  It has one of the most cinematic set-piece encounters published in the series so far, some interesting NPCs, and some links to scenarios past (and presumably) future.  PCs with a wide-range of skills will be able to contribute in various ways.  Overall, it's a solid package with my only real criticism being that it should be more challenging given the tier it's designed for.


Naiaj, the bleachling gnome Venture-Captain, starts this scenario by briefing the PCs on their mission: they're to attend a gala marking the opening of a new Starfinder Society lodge in Cumo, a trade port on Triaxus.  The bad luck that Starfinders traditionally have at galas (see "The First Mandate" and "Save the Renkrodas") is referenced by Naiaj, which is something I appreciate--it's good for writers to be self-aware of the tropes they use!  I also like the little ways that Naiaj has been given a memorable personality (she's very matter-of-fact and always busy with her datapad, but also secretly arranges extra resources for the group out of her own funds).  This is the first Starfinder Society scenario to take place on Triaxus, one of the major Pact Worlds, and it'll be a good opportunity to show off some of what makes that world unique (e.g., its population of dragons!).

The journey to Triaxus is uneventful except for a quick and curious encounter with an Idaran ship called the Void Scholar that's investigating some sort of cosmic anomaly.  There's nothing further to be done here, so I have to assume it's a seed for a future scenario.  Intriguing! (though sometimes these seeds are so small, it's hard to remember them by the time they sprout)

When the PCs reach Triaxus and the new lodge, they're greeted by a bronze dragon named Zafeldrin who is the lodge's new Venture-Captain.  Preparations for the gala are underway, and, after introductions, Zalfeldrin subtly tests the PCs through some riddles and problem-solving tasks.  It turns out that Naiaj and Zalfeldrin often test each other's agents in this way, and it's a fun opportunity for a little role-playing and some skill checks.  The new lodge is well-described, and I like how the flip-mat was used to provide visual cues even though it's not actually necessary for an encounter.

For the gala itself, the PCs are asked to both provide security and impress several local dignitaries who will be attending.  In mechanical terms, this proceeds in a fixed number of rounds; each player is asked each round to declare who they want to talk to (if impressing guests) or how they want to perform security (such as patrolling the grounds, monitoring buildings, etc.).  The guests to be influenced are only given capsule descriptions and not much in the way of personality cues, so this part of the scenario is going to succeed or fail based on how good the GM is at role-playing improv.  I did really like the array of skills that can be used to influence different guests, and that the DCs are lower for the Profession skills (since a PC is less likely to have the particular one necessary than a generic skill like Diplomacy).  I found it harder to integrate the security actions (and associated skill checks) in a seamless way, even though I understand that we don't want Perception to be the uber skill.

Assuming the PCs do a reasonable job with security, they'll find that some navigation beacons have been smuggled in and planted around the new lodge.  The beacons are transmitting precise coordinates so that a starship can launch an orbital bombardment!  In mechanical terms, the PCs suffer more damage from the bombardment for each beacon they've failed to find.  It's a cool idea (the first time I've seen the like in a Starfinder scenario), though I wish it were fleshed out a little more since it's such a cinematic event.

Zafeldrin asks the PCs to take their vessel and confront the attacking starship, which has not only attacked but also hacked into the lodge's computers and downloaded information on secret operations and agents.  This leads to the requisite starship combat.  The gimmick for this one is that several civilian freighters have been commandeered by the enemy vessel through remote control (?) and some have been armed with missile launchers.  So during the battle, the PCs may suffer surprise attacks unless they figure out which of the freighters are armed.  It's actually pretty easy to make this discovery, however, and there doesn't seem to be any Infamy or other consequences for the PCs to attack one of the freighters, so I have to chalk this up as an interesting idea that's poorly executed.  In the scenario I ran, the four-player adjustment meant that only one of the eight freighters was armed, so it didn't make that much of a difference in the space combat.  The PCs won pretty handily, and my general trend of complaints about space combat continues: it's rarely dramatic or exciting.  And in this one, if the PCs somehow do lose the space combat, there's a deus ex machina (Triaxus ex machina?) as good-aligned Triaxian starships intervene to save the day.  All the PCs lose if they lose this battle is a point of Reputation.  I think at this level, it's okay to have real consequences!  Let the PCs die if their ship is destroyed, or at least say they have to use escape pods to survive but that the scenario is over and they lose.  High-level players shouldn't expect coddling.

So one way or another, the enemy ship will be forced to crash in the snowy Parapet Mountains near Cumo.  The PCs will, by this point, have learned that their antagonist is an old white dragon named Norys who wants vengeance on the Starfinder Society for their role in disrupting the Frozen Trove corporation's activities on the planet of the Izalguun (# 1-13: "On the Trail of History").  When the PCs land near the crash site in order to recover the stolen data, there's a harsh snowstorm in the area (though most of the encounters take place inside, so it doesn't matter too much).  The enemy ship has broken into a couple of pieces.  Inside the largest piece, the PCs have to deal with a couple of hazards and put down some mercenaries.

The cumulative effect is to soften them up a bit before the big final battle of the scenario: a very cool encounter against the white dragon in the bridge of the starship, which is literally dangling over the side of the mountain (held precariously in place by twisted girders and cables).  Norys has superior mobility here and can hide well (thanks to some tech and levels in Operative), so the PCs are likely at a disadvantage.  Some people in the forums have complained that this is a TPK encounter, but I don't really see it.  The dragon's breath weapon doesn't really do that much damage at this level compared to what the PCs can pump out if they simply ready actions to attack when Norys appears.  When I ran the encounter, three of the four PCs were Iconics; and although it was a reasonably long and exciting encounter, I didn't really get close to killing anyone (especially since Starfinder characters are super hardy with all the Resolve Points they get).  As one can expect, once Norys is defeated, the PCs can recover the stolen data and accomplish their primary success condition.

I've made a lot of criticisms here and there, but overall To Conquer the Dragon is a solid, fun scenario.  It offers a good mix of role-playing and combat, has some memorable combat encounters, and contributes to the growing world-lore (with the new lodge established in Cumo).  I'd certainly like to see Zafeldrin again, and discover if Frozen Trove's grudge against the Society will continue or has died with Norys.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Captain Atom (DC, 1987-1991) # 21-30 & Annual # 2 [COMICS]

Continuing my run through Captain Atom (previous posts here and here) with a look at Issues # 21-30 and Annual # 2.  The third year of the series is something of a mixed bag, with a through-line of the military/political drama but more of an emphasis on super hero adventure and connections to the rest of the DC Universe.

Issue # 21 starts like generic filler, as Adam takes a week-long gig as a soldier-for-hire to help someone find their son injured on a foreign battlefield.  The first part of the issue is a very generic "freedom-fighters vs. commies in the jungle" story, but then things start to get good when it turns out that Plastique is fighting on the other side!  Adam has to turn into Captain Atom to fight her, and this causes an international incident that brings in one of the 80s' best characters, Amanda Waller.  The story continues into the next issue.

In Issue # 22, The Wall sends Nightshade to corral Captain Atom, who has taken it upon himself to destroy both sides weapons (on the theory that forced disarmament will bring peace).  It resolves with the cynical "guns don't kill people, people kill people" ending, but there's a good battle in the meantime between Atom, Plastique, and Nightshade.  Plastique escapes, but Atom and Nightshade fly home together and I get the sense she lurves him.

Although the Faceless One is dead, his minions aren't, and in Issue # 23 they succeed in assassinating business owner Martin Lockleed.  Lockleed's son, Homer, inherits the company, but since he's in a mental institution Megala gets control of it.  I don't really know where this is headed, but I know Homer reappears as some point.  More interestingly, Peg (Adam's daughter) tells him that she and his old friend Goz are engaged.  But Peg is white and Goz is black, and for the first time, Adam and Eiling are agreed on something: the marriage can't go forward!  It's a good storyline.

Crossover time starts in Issue # 24, as Captain Atom reaches the big-time: he's Commander-in-Chief of all superheroes on Earth as they fight off the aliens in Invasion!  Atom authorises a mission to try to turn an old satellite from Apokolips that's in orbit around Earth (from a previous JLI issue) against the invaders' fleet, but those sneaky shape-changing Durlans sabotage the plan!  It's a fun, clear story and great to see Cap get his due as the military general he's clearly suited for.

The aftermath of Invasion! is seen in Issue # 25.  Following the successful defense of Earth, Captain Atom gets one-on-one time with ol' Ronnie Raygun himself--the President!  The Prez reinstates Atom to the military and even gives him a promotion to boot: he's now a major!  However, another major (Major Force) isn't happy about this and goes on a rampage and Atom has to rein him in.  It's a solid, enjoyable issue.

One of the most important storylines in the series' run starts in Issue # 26.  It's a three-part storyline that ties into a lot of previous continuity (and his origin), and it starts here with Atom's JLI colleagues confronting him over their suspicions that he's been lying to them.  I'm a huge fan of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and Mister Miracle, so it's always a joy to see them even if they're not as witty as over in the JLI.  Anyway, there's a storyline here of Atom's new assignment as a major to investigate a murder--which has links to his original trial for treason 20 years before!  It turns out that the murderer is the Warlord from Cambodia (issues # 6-7).  I'm doing a terrible job explaining it, but it's a good story nonetheless.

In Issue # 27, Cap comes clean with the JLI about everything--his fake "origin," how he was convicted of treason (after being framed for the murder of a superior officer), how he's been turning in reports on them to the government, etc.  He makes a sincere apology for all of the lies, and it's a nice resolution to a long-running story arc.  (a conspicuous ad for Justice League Europe, which Cap will lead, is surely just a coincidence . . .)  The trio of Justice Leaguers agree to help Cap investigate the murder and conspiracy around it (which now includes several suspects).  A lot's happening, but it's solid comic book story-telling.

As an aside, it's odd to say that one of my favourite things about these issues is the monthly column by editor Denny O'Neil.  A dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, the columns are a fascinating snapshot into life in the 80s, and are always well-written and thought-provoking.

Issue # 28 is the culmination of storylines reaching as far as back as Issue # 1.  It turns out that the Cambodian committed the original murder that Adam was framed for so long ago, but he did so under the orders of the Ghost (Alex Rois) who, one should add, has been sheltering another member of the conspiracy: Yarrow, who served as Adam's defense attorney!   Atom confronts the Ghost and seems to be losing, only to be rescued by Eiling!  But what Cap doesn't know is that . . . Eiling was apparently the mastermind of the whole thing!  It's a big twist and a great resolution to the first two years of the comic.

Annual # 2 focuses on the fictional nation of Bialya, and its glamorous (but treacherous!) ruler, Queen Bee.  Bialya is the place for some important JLI storylines in the time period, but suffice it to say that after a long period as a rogue state, it's not been opened for business as a tourist destination.  Captain Atom is sent undercover to see what's going on (along with Sarge Steel, Rocket Red, and Major Force--pretty much the worst espionage team ever!).  There's a terrorist attack on the palace that the heroes stop, but it's really all a ruse to expose the fact that Western nations have sent super heroes into Bialya.  There's also a storyline about chemical additives in the food that allow Queen Bee to control people, but Captain Atom snaps out of it and escapes.  It's a bit of an uneven issue, with an interesting idea that's let down in the second half.  There's also a couple of short back-up features, but they're inconsequential.

Adam is at Smitty's bar (from the Christmas issue) in Issue # 29 when he sees a patron, Chester King, getting mugged.  After helping him out, King confesses that he was part of a developer's plan to commit arson and is feeling tremendously guilty about it.  Adam helps put together a sting to get the developer arrested, and King will reappear in some future issues.  Meanwhile, Eiling arranges for a leak to the press showing that Captain Atom and Nathaniel Adam are one and the same--what is he up to?

There's a pretty cool cover to Issue # 30, with Captain Atom fighting an unlikely foe--Black Manta!    The issue is Part 11(!) of a (otherwise excellent Suicide Squad/Checkmate) crossover called the Janus Directive, and I thought it was weird that previous issues made no mention of what was coming.  Anyway, the issue starts with a sort of joint break-up between Atom and Nightshade; it's a well-written scene.  Adam's daughter Peggy reads the newspaper report from the previous issue and decides that she'll never be able to trust her father again.  Peggy, her brother Randall, her fiancee Goz, and her step-father Eiling go off on an ocean cruise.  But Captain Atom, monitoring things at the Justice League Europe's headquarters (in the first official mention in his own series that he's head of a super hero team!) learns that Black Manta is in the area where the cruise ship is headed!  And then in the sort of development that can only happen in comics, Adam and Randy get captured by Black Manta and forced into an underwater gladiatorial ring.  Comics!

Overall, with a couple of exceptions, this was a solid run in the series.  There's plenty of action, but the series avoids the "every issue is a super-villain slugfest" problem.  Instead, it continues delving deeper into Atom's backstory while making good use of the series' excellent supporting characters.