Finncon/Animecon 2008 Report

(Cross-posted with Der Übergeek. )

Last weekend, I had the pleasure to attend Finncon/Animecon 2008 in Tampere.

Finncon has long traditions as a science fiction convention, while Animecon is a later add-on to the event, probably because it’s too young to go off on its own. Finncon started in 1986 and Animecon kicked off in 1999.

Unless I am mistaken, it’s the biggest science fiction convention in the Nordic Countries, if not the whole of Europe. It’s also free.

Anyway, on Friday the 25th, early in the morning, I embarked upon my epic odyssey northward, to the fabled city of Tampere, where time has stood still since the fucking seventies and nobody told the city planners that cars have grown slightly in size since Ford’s Model T. Trying to maneouvre a Volvo V70 around town proved rather difficult. Fortunately, we could walk to the con site from where we were staying.

Then I spent the rest of the day cleaning my future apartment in there and buying critical appliances. Over the weekend we also had to figure out how to get the fridge to work, but it interests me even less than it interests you. In any case, during the con I slept on my own, cold floor in a sleeping bag, along with five other friends.

It’s not a proper con unless you wake up groggy and in a strange place.

On Friday, we also went to see The Dark Knight, which was all sorts of awesome, but that will be discussed elsewhere, once I have rewatched it to make sure I missed nothing.

Day One

The first day of the con dawned bright and sunny. After regaining feeling in all our limbs and scaring up some breakfast, we walked to the con site.

My companions soon deserted me, considering the Animecon programming or board games more interesting than the opening ceremony or the science fiction stuff that I was there for.

Fortunately, I easily located other friends from the Helsinki region sci-fi clubs, who had set up a table next to TARDIS. I hung out at the table on and off during the weekend, occasionally even taking my place on the other side to sell stuff. Me, I’m a member of the Espoo Science Fiction and Fantasy Club, or ESC, and the Helsinki Science Fiction Club, or HSFS. In Helsinki region there also exists the Helsinki University Science Fiction Club, or GooGooMuck. There also used to be Spock’s HUT, the sci-fi club of the Helsinki University of Technology (located in Espoo), but that one seems to be dead. The membership overlap is huge and in practice, it’s the same twenty or thirty people everywhere.

The con was held at the Tampere-talo, which is one of the largest conference centres in the Nordic Countries. We did not lack space. Even more importantly, there’s a park right next to it, offering the anime fans a place to swarm. Fortunately, the weather was lovely for the whole weekend. I dread to imagine if it had rained and forced them indoors.

After the opening ceremony I hit the award ceremonies for Atorox and Tähtifantasia (Star Fantasy). The former is an annual award for the best original Finnish speculative fiction short story of the year. It takes its name from Atorox, an android who starred in the science fiction stories of a writer called Outsider (aka Aarne Haapakoski), written in the late 1940’s. Atorox, among other things, fought Nazis on the Moon.

This year, the robot noggin went to Susi Vaasjoki, for her short story “Taruntekijä” (“Myth Maker”).

Then there was the Tähtifantasia award, given to the best speculative fiction translation released during the preceding year. It went to Variksen velho (Wizard of the Crow), by Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

After these, guest of honour Petri Hiltunen (a prolific Finnish comic book artist and director of small-budget feature films, upon whose works the Praedor roleplaying game is based) did a presentation on the weirdest and stupidest superheroes ever, concepts that weren’t meant as parodies but stuff that was really far out but someone had apparently considered good ideas. The pot smoke must’ve been thick in Marvel’s and DC’s offices back in the sixties and seventies – or what do you think of Satana, the daughter of Satan, who devours people’s souls that take the shape of butterflies?

Then there was a panel discussion whose name probably best translates as “Besserwissers”, in which four panelists talked at length about geek miscellania – the background of Klingon forehead ridges, Nazis on the Moon (a recurrent feature in Finnish science fiction), and most interestingly, a tidbit about Tolkien and English fantasy, related by the manga writer Johanna Koljonen.

In the University of Oxford, there is a Rhodes scholar named Maria Cecire, who is working on her dissertation where she explains how Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both professors at Oxford, pushed for changes in the curriculum so that Old English literature is studied for its literary content, not just the lingo. That’s stuff like Beowulf.

So, it continues, both Lewis and Tolkien were inspired by these sources, as were the bunch of fantasy authors who have since gone to Oxford and studied the exact same stuff. Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper are just a couple of examples.

In addition to this, there’s the milieu of Oxford, with its medieval architecture and strange, mystical, even magical rules of behaviour.

There’s also the observation that for the Oxfordian hero, a stout sword arm is not enough (as opposed to an Arthurian hero, which Tolkien didn’t much like). An Oxfordian hero will also be spending time in libraries, seeking forgotten knowledge and studying dead tongues.

Now, remember how Tolkien’s goal was to establish an English mythology for England to replace King Arthur, that French interloper? Well, he seems to have somewhat succeeded.

My explanation isn’t probably the best possible and may be inaccurate, but I can’t find anything in English to link to.

Saturday culminated in the evening party at the restaurant Telakka, complete with a masquerade and a competition for the best dress. Well, not exactly the best, as it turned out. The contest was judged by the guests of honour. We had a team of three, with a theme of characters from Petri Hiltunen’s comic books. I was dressed as MacDuff from MacBeth, Veikko was the Gentleman Avenger from a western comic of the same name and TC, who I play D&D with, was something really obscure from an old magazine that I no longer recall.

Did I mention Petri Hiltunen was a guest of honour? We won the award for Most Obvious Brownnosing. The physical award was a diploma with the autographs of all the guests of honour. I had mine framed. If nothing else, it’ll make a good conversation piece.

Also given out were awards for Most Unexpected (for a Spanish inquisitor), Most Bloodthirsty (Sweeney Todd), Most Inventive Use of a Toaster (Starbuck and Gaius Baltar), Tightest Outfit (Black Cat) and some others that now elude me.

The party was pretty good, too, but I had to leave early because we only had one key for the apartment and I had to give it to the others sleeping there that they might get in. I, in turn, had to get back before they went to sleep.

Though I missed most of the party, this did have the advantage of avoiding a hangover the next day. Also, I am told the place ran out of drinks. It happens when the scifi fans are in town.

Day Two

On Sunday, I started by checking out a panel about young adult fantasy. I don’t read a lot of it, these days, but it was the most interesting thing in the time slot and the panel chair threatened a ban from to those who did not attend. I’m fairly sure she was not serious, but if I get banned from a forum, I want it to be for something I did, not for something I didn’t do, dammit.

As a side note, the continued existence of my forum account bewilders me.

After that followed Petri Hiltunen’s guest of honour speech, which was both entertaining and edifying. Among other things, I learned that Mytek the Mighty was known as King Kong in Finland, and that Tex Willer was behind everything.

Following that was the single funniest program item of the con, the Fandom Trivia.

It was hosted by the critic Jukka Halme, and the contestants featured some of the usual suspects of the fandom, like the author Johanna Sinisalo and ESC’s giant ape mascot, who initially hid under the table. Also present was a 19-year-old anime fan, who scored a point for being born in the same year as one of the cons picked for questions was held and originally picked on the basis of knowing nothing about the topic.

The questions were impossibly hard, including minutia from con reports from the eighties that even the writer of the report could not remember, and the scoring was arbitrary, based more on what was funny than what was correct. Inside humour was rampant. I laughed so hard I wept, busted a rib and lost control of my bowels.

Among other things, we learned that Pizza Veintie contains vomit and that in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, the parasites that try to take over the world can’t conquer Finland, because Finns go to sauna and see each other naked, preventing the parasites from hiding under clothes.

Well, it was written in 1951, but still…

Additionally, continuous references were made to Finncon 2005 Lahti. To everyone in the know, this is obviously strange because a) there was no Finncon in 2005 and b) there sure as hell has never been a Finncon in Lahti. The joke is apparently based on a badge made and sold by ESC.

The fandom’s badge culture and its myriad obscure inside jokes (I still have no idea who or what this “Stendec” is) are probably worthy of an entire academic study.

After that I went to see the Definitive War Panel, where Petri Hiltunen, the author/roleplaying game designer/LARP writer/goth idol/actor/political activist/Chinese fortune cookie Mike Pohjola, Veikko the Gentleman Avenger and Kummari, who I also play D&D with, spoke about war, and whether it is genetically encoded in humanity, and why is it so cool. Interesting and amusing.

In the closing ceremonies, people and donors were thanked and prizes were given out, and the torch was passed on to the next connitee, the connitee for Finncon 2009, Helsinki. With the torch, there was a small robot dog that on closer examination proved to be Doctor Who’s K-9, a.k.a. David Cowie, the sainted cow given to the Tampere connitee at the end of Finncon 2007, a.k.a. the 40-pound block of concrete that resulted from Finncon 2006’s Destroy the Useless Crap auction. There’s useless crap, like an L. Ron Hubbard novel, embedded into it.

What goes around, comes around. We’re witnessing the birth of a tradition here. It’s beautiful. *Sniff*

Unless they dumped it into Lake Näsi on the way home, which is a distinct possibility, and in which case you consider the tradition aborted.

In Closing

It was not a good con. It was a positively awesome con. There was room to breathe even in the midst of all the pint-sized cosplayers, and there was good programming.

However, I feel, as many do, that the time has come for Finncon and Animecon to split up. Animecon has grown huge compared to the science fiction convention it is attached to. Most of Animecon’s attendees don’t give a squat about the science fiction side of the convention and the science fiction side is slowly getting suffocated in the press of scantily clad teenage girls. Not to mention slightly embarrassed and worried about possible criminal charges.

Though the cosplayers bring a great visual component to the convention and are mostly an agreeable lot, what we have here are two groups of people with nearly wholly divergent interests. There’s little to no synergy.

So, let Finncon 2010, be it in Jyväskylä or Yli-Ii, be just Finncon. Animecon is old enough to find its own place in the world.


Gleemax Put Out of its Misery

After months of poor functionality and lack of visitors, Wizards of the Coast admits what the rest of the internet has been aware of since the beginning: their social gamer networking site Gleemax, with its eye-melting, toxic green layout and slow servers, is a failure.

The brain in a jar will be taken behind the sauna in September.

I expect the DDI will follow around January.

For the next few weeks, expect very short updates here. I’m currently in the process of moving most of my worldly possessions some 170 kilometers northwards and nine floors up. The task often takes me out of reach of a functional and internet-capable computer and devours all of my free time that isn’t allocated to working on my Ropecon presentation.

ENnie Awards Voting Booth Is Open

I just arrived last night from Finncon, a science fiction and fantasy convention, held this year in Tampere, where I’ll be moving after Ropecon, to study English. My cell phone battery ran out halfway during the con and I’d neglected to pack the charger, and I didn’t have access to the internet over there, so I’ve been incommunicado for two days. Report will be forthcoming once I’ve pulled myself together.

However, that’s not what I’m posting about right now.

The public vote for ENnie winners has begun. I posted about this back when the nominees were made public.

They had some technical difficulties with the voting booth, but it’s up and running now, for the rest of the week.

Go vote!

RIP N. Robin Crossby

Yesterday, the game designer N. Robin Crossby passed away.

Crossby is remembered for creating Hârn, a fantasy setting second to none in its attention to realism, and for keeping the setting and the game going for 25 years. Hârn has also inspired a devoted, creative and amazingly productive fandom.

I must admit that I have only a passing familiarity with Crossby’s work, but what little I have read managed to be realistic while retaining a certain sense of wonder about it. It was good.

Rest in peace, Robin Crossby.

The year is getting grimmer by the month.

Board Games of Terror

I was supposed to advertise the beginning of the ENnies voting today, but looks like EN World is down (except for the chat room, #enworld on and the ENnies voting is postponed because of technical difficulties. Those seem to be in vogue, with the Gleemax also on the fritz., at least, works fine, if occasionally sluggish.

So, instead, I’ll talk about board games.

I had a board game night with some friends on Sunday. Well, board game day – we started at 13:00 and ended some ten hours later. We have these about one a month, when we gather at a friend’s place, everyone brings games and then we play. Ticket to Ride: Europe is a big favourite, as are the classics like The Settlers of Catan, Samurai, and Puerto Rico (Prime breeding ground for politically incorrect jokes. “Colonists”, indeed…). Then there are longer games that can take most of the day to finish, like Talisman, Arkham Horror, Robo Rally and a personal favourite, Junta, a game that encourages backstabbing, plotting and generally being a bastard. I wouldn’t say that I excel, but I do enjoy. SquareMans has an interesting post on Junta that I think outlines what makes it so awesome.

Then there’s Twilight Imperium, but we don’t play that on board game days. We play that in Twilight Imperium days, because it takes that long. An awesome game, though. My style is too timid to succeed with most races in TI3, but I still love it, because even when playing a losing game, I can still do something. It really takes concentrated effort to completely play someone out of it.

Yesterday, though, I only participated in two games. One of these was a game of Arkham Horror that lasted six hours and ended unresolved because everyone had work in the morning, mostly because we ended up with Hastur, the James May of the Great Old Ones, as our adversary. He’s not dangerous as such, but he immensely slows down the game with the requirement of eight Clue tokens to shut the gates. It didn’t help much that the game box was a brand new one and the cards weren’t shuffled properly.

The main event, however, was before that, in another brand new game box: Terror Bull Games’ War on Terror.

War on Terror is a political satire in the form of a strategy game, ribbing on Dubya’s ill-conceived oil grab and assault on civil liberties. Unlike many other satire and parody games (Star Wreck, Violence), however, War on Terror also works as a game. The mechanics are a pretty decent reflection of how things work (or don’t work) on a macro level. Every player starts as an Empire and the game begins with a big grab for strategic territory and oil.

Every territory on the world map laid out to a stereotypically American view of the world (while I do acknowledge that most Americans I know have a rather better picture of the globe, I in turn expect them to acknowledge that a not insignificant number of their countrymen does not) has an oil counter on it, and oil revenues are distributed according to a system lifted directly from The Settlers of Catan. This is the main way of acquiring money.

The thing about terrorists in the game is that they’re cheap as hell and more effective than real warfare. Pretty much the only way that an Empire player can win is if all the Empire players band together to eradicate terrorism and declare World Peace. If they can’t unite and there’s a terrorist player on board (which there inevitably is when one of the Empires loses all their land), the terrorist will win. (The way Empires win is by collecting “Liberation Points”, awarded for conquering a continent and building cities.)

We very nearly won by World Peace, with me eradicating the single terrorist player by a Terrorist Buyoff card financed with my huge Asian oil reserves. However, Henri, with his inimitable style and base instinct to sow chaos, refused World Peace, sowed the map with terrorist cells, invaded Saudi Arabia, and then turned Terrorist.

Then I nuked Brazil, and things went south from there. The game was finally ended unresolved. During it, we’d nuked China, Brazil, Iran, the US Midwest and Eastern Europe (twice). It’s an interesting thing about South America and Africa in the game – due to how the map is set up, it’s possible to destroy everything on the continent with a single Nuke card (Extreme Liberation!!!). Geographic inequality in action, baby.

Also, the game comes with an Evil Balaclava (a ski mask, not to be confused with baklava, which is a dessert). It’s supposed to be worn by the rogue nation player, determined occasionally by spinning the Axis of Evil wheel.

The gameplay is rather loose and could probably do with a bit of tightening up for it to be better as an actual game. However, the satirical elements and the degree to which the gameplay elements and rules support the flavour and tone of the game are superb.

An excellent game, if one has the sense of humour for it.

Living Forgotten Realms

It’s been a moment since the last update. There’s a variety of reasons, but the topmost is that first nothing happened and then I wasn’t at the computer long enough to formulate anything coherent. I’ve been gaming a lot, too, with a total of four sessions in the last week.

On Friday, RPGA posted up the first real set of campaign documentation for the Living Forgotten Realms campaign.

It is somewhat comforting to know that even in my refusal to play 4E, I’m not missing anything. That’s the beautiful thing about hating the game – everything related to it comes with its own reasons to be hated, and the 4E thing is just bonus. H1 Keep on the Shadowfell isn’t bad because it’s a 4E module, it’s bad because it’s piss-poor writing that makes Castle Caldwell look like a logical and cohesive whole.

Similarly, Living Forgotten Realms will not suck because it’s 4E, or even because it’s 4E Realms. It will suck because the campaign rules really go that extra mile to dilute any atmosphere the setting might have, drastically limit the style of adventures you can have, encourage illogical module writing and generally kill any interest except the morbid I might have had for the campaign.

Setting, Schmetting

So, how about warforged in the Forgotten Realms? Artificers? You’ve got ’em! See, the character creation rules state that all rules items except rituals and magic items published in the online Dragon are open access. The warforged was released last month, the artificer was out this month. Still don’t believe me? Chris Tulach, the campaign’s head honcho, confirms it.

This is stupid, because it takes one setting’s signature character race and class and transplants them in another. This dilutes the flavour of both Eberron and Forgotten Realms. It seems to be a continuing trend to reduce the setting to irrelevance.

They’re allowing drow, too, by the way. See here, how they managed to put off both people who hate Eberron and its “robot people” and people who hate drow because of the Drizzt fanboys.

Another thing that harms atmosphere is how they handled the regional system. While they have a similar system going like Living Greyhawk had, with real-world regions corresponding to certain areas in the game world, it’s a purely administrative thing. The Dalelands adminstrators must all be from Northern Europe and Russia, but the players in the region can play anything they want, with characters hailing from wherever. This, coupled with the lack of admin-created content and the release of only two books and a module for the setting, will ruin any chance of the strong atmosphere and flavour we had in Living Greyhawk forming.

Yeah, they will release more material for the setting in their online Dragon. However, while I’m not opposed to paying for pdfs, their asking price is exorbitant, their implementation user hostile and their quality dismal. The Backdrops article on Cormyr wasn’t bad, though.

Adventure in Failure

Then there are the module writing guidelines. I actually asked them to release these to the public a little over a week ago, and the reply I got from Shawn Merwin, one of the global admins, was “no”.

I don’t know why they changed their mind, but if I was them, I would’ve kept this baby hidden as well. Preferably locked in the attic.

Here’s an excerpt:

One RPGA adventure round is a 3.5 – 4 hour play experience. It takes approximately 45 minutes – 1 hour to DM one combat encounter, so you should try to keep combat encounters at about 3-4 per adventure round.

And another a few pages later:

Make sure you include at least 2 combat encounters in every adventure.

While I realise they think 4E does fighting particularly well, some of the finest adventure modules I’ve played in Living Greyhawk have included the option of avoiding combat altogether if you were smart. Well, it’s good bye to those now. To top it off, I heard a rumour in the EN World chat that “some Danish LFR admin called Sampo Harla” was responsible for this rule. Considering the Finnish LFR admin Sampo Haarlaa wrote some of those fine modules, I call bullshit. So does he, actually.

There’s also this gem:

Most treasure found is not being used by enemies; it’s hoarded by them or found incidentally as a result of exploring places unknown. Enemies should only rarely have a magic item on their person, and if it’s being used against the PCs, it should be figured into the EL of the adventure (using the rules on pages 174-175 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

“You have come for the blade of annihilation? Fools! First you must face me and my butter knife!”


But then we’ve got the jackpot, the Big Kahuna of stupid campaign rules.

You can play a module more than once. Moreover, you may play a module even after you’ve run it as a DM and learned all its secrets and surprises. Not only is the system open to seven sorts of abuse (A fact the campaign admins acknowledge but figure that it won’t happen. Naivety like that is kinda touching in this cynical age.), but it also discourages the authors from putting in interesting plot twists, riddles, puzzles and mysteries. Especially in online play, which the campaign encourages via the DDI, there’s going to be a fairly strong likelihood of a player sitting there on their own computer with the module open next to them.

Of course, the same risk also exists in LG, but from what I’ve seen, modules aren’t usually available via less official channels while still in play use and online play is less prevalent. Even in LG, though, the module reporting system doesn’t appear to have an alert in place if the same module is reported twice for a player or if someone is reported as a player for a module after running it.

The Little Things

LFR is going to have some sort of online character tracker, too. After the abject failures that were the previous three or four trackers, it is heartening they have not lost faith for this misbegotten abortion of an application and keep striving to make it popular despite its multiple shortcomings in both concept and implementation.

In addition to the online character tracker, they’ve provided us with printable adventure log and advancement tracker sheets. With gray gradient backgrounds in the text fields. It’s great how, while concentrating on the big, sweeping mistakes that affect the whole of the campaign they still haven’t neglected to include the little things to increase player frustration.

Finally, we come to the preview file for FR campaign rules, which includes the stats for drow and genasi characters and three levels of the spellsword class. I’m not going to go into the rules, because they’re boring, but I will note that instead of the traditional fire, water, air and earth genasi, we now have firesoul, windsoul, watersoul, stormsoul and earthsoul genasi. I used to name stuff like that when I was 14. Then I grew up and realised how stupid it looks.

I feel the whole of Living Forgotten Realms is crystallised in that one thought, and it is soon time to go and play better games, so I will end here.

ENnies and Diana Jones Award Nominations Announced

Yesterday, the nominees for my second-favourite of all game industry awards were announced. They’re the ENnies, an award originating from the EN World website. They were first given out in 2001, and have only grown bigger.

The ENnies system works so that first the EN World community picks a number of judges from the community – a bunch of folks announce their nominations and they’re voted upon by the community. They read through a mind-blowingly huge pile of products and pick the best for nominees in every cathegory. Then, the online community of roleplayers votes the winners, and the awards are given out in a ceremony in Gen Con Indy.

It’s a strong list of nominees this year. Paizo Publishing is up for a bunch of awards, many of which they richly deserve, The Pirate’s Guide to Freeport is up for four, there’s Witch Hunter and Trail of Cthulhu and The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, and even Star Wars Saga Edition, Og and Monte Cook’s World of Darkness.

I’ve got a lot of the nominated products, and looks like I’ll need to pick up a goodly amount more. Especially Trail of Cthulhu has been on my shopping list for some time now. The voting opens on July 21st, and I will have to make some hard choices.

On July 4th, the nominees for my very favourite of all game industry awards were announced. It’s the Diana Jones Award, so named because the physical prize is a perspex pyramid containing the burnt remnants of the last unsold Indiana Jones Adventure Game, with only a part of the logo still visible. According to the award commitee, a physical embodiment of the destruction of one of the industry’s least mourned products is a most fitting symbol for the goals of the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming.

There’s always a certain variety in the nominees for the Diana Jones. While most awards, like ENnies and Origins, focus on the products, the Diana Jones may go anywhere. This year, the nominees are a podcast, a charity, a game festival, a game publication method, a book of academic essays about gaming and only a single actual game. And even I have only ever actually heard of two of those.

It’s going to be interesting. It always is.

Big Business and Gaming

Olorin of Six-Die Samurai linked me an older blog post from SquareMans. It is mostly about Games Workshop, and very enlightening about their business practices and general style. It also illustrates very well why I don’t shop at GW stores.

Then again, since I pay for my hobbies with my own hard-earned cash, I couldn’t afford to shop there even if I wanted to.

I do have a use for Games Workshop stores, though – they’re excellent for asking directions to the real gaming stores in the area. Just pop in, ask innocently if they sell Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (which they don’t, likely because it’s a roleplaying game and anything and everything else they can use that shelf space on will sell better). Upon hearing the negative answer, ask where they could be found. A tourist map is helpful to have at ths point.

The only place I’ve tried that and it didn’t work was Berlin, but the only person on the premises who spoke English was aged roughly ten. Very good English, though.

In other news, David Kenzer of Kenzer & Co. has a pair of big brass ones (via RPG Pundit). In short, he’s releasing 4E products without the draconian Game System Licence, because he can. And so can anyone else, really, because you cannot copyright game mechanics. There’s also this lovely concept called “fair use” in there. Ah, check the link, I’m not a lawyer.

We’ll have to wait for WotC’s reaction on this, but since Mr. Kenzer is a copyrights lawyer, I assume he knows what he is doing, and it’s open season, and so much for the GSL.

It does set an interesting precedent, though, opening the possibility that someone else might do this with a different game system. I’d guess that GURPS and World of Darkness would be most susceptible to this, being the most popular systems after Dungeons & Dragons. There’s Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and Dark Heresy, too, but they’re more tied to setting, which you would get sued trying to use. Especially since they’re GW properties, and, well, I refer you to the link in the first paragraph of this post.

Review: Indulgences, Second Wave

Yesterday, I went over the first wave of Sinister Adventures‘ mini-pdfs, Indulgences. Something interesting I found out browsing their forums – if you’re logged in at the site, you can download a Razor Coast character sheet from the bottom of the Indulgence page. The download is not visible unless you’re registered and logged in. It’s a really nifty sheet, too, with a lovely pirate theme.

Here follow my opinions on the second wave of Indulgences. I am intentionally vague on the details of the adventures, to avoid spoilers. This is stuff that someone will want to run at some point. Like me.

Mysteries of the Razor Sea, by Nicolas Logue

Mysteries of the Razor Sea is a 14-page supplement of twelve small encounters and one short adventure for 1st-level characters, called “The Tale of the Seabear”.

The encounters are interesting and I could see myself dropping most of them into a campaign. There’s one with an albatross that’s especially cool.

“The Tale of the Seabear” is your average ghost ship module. It’s a strong piece of work, though I’d say it requires a bit of work to run properly. It’s got an interesting backstory, a working plot and strong atmosphere. It also has a nifty gimmick that really draws the player characters into the story. I could see myself kicking off a campaign with this adventure.

That said, there are a couple of niggling little things.

For one thing, the Seabear is described as a cog in the text, is illustrated as something with at least four masts, and has two masts in the battlemap. I’d fix this by calling it a brig, using the battlemap as it is, and not showing the illustration to anyone.

There’s another thing – the adventure begins with the PCs aboard a ship that then meets the ghost ship Seabear, and there’s a bit of a possessing spirit thing going on. However, the possible crew of the PCs’ ship is not mentioned anywhere. The module assumes four PCs (and indeed, would take a bit of work to play with more), which is not nearly enough to crew most vessels.

So, it’s a good adventure but it has a somewhat unfinished feel to it and would take some more work to run well. Still, for $2.50, you may find a better deal, but not very many of them.

Shrine of Frenzy, by Brendan Victorson and David Posener

Shrine of Frenzy is a 14-page adventure module for 7th-level characters. It’s a short but pretty good little side trek, with a nice illusion of choice and a balance between combat and social encounters. Also, a good chance for everyone to drown. This pirate stuff calls for Swim ranks. It’s refreshing.

In fact, I feel it has a very good example of what I call a “block test” encounter – an encounter that tests whether the party is smart enough not to try ramming the square block in the round hole, so to speak. I like a well crafted block test, because there’s a player type that I intensely dislike that always fails them.

There’s just one thing here that irks me to no end. The module features this spawn of Dajobas, a great big shark monster – called Iku-Tursas. Now, Iku-Tursas is a monster of Finnish mythology, a great sea monster that pesters Väinämöinen and the heroes of Kalevala when they are returning from the Northlands. “Tursas” is the Finnish word for octopus. There’s a certain dissonance when the name is applied to a shark. Iku-Turso has occasionally also been depicted as a sea giant of some sort (Kalevala of the Dogs by Mauri Kunnas; the Donald Duck comic Quest for Kalevala by Don Rosa), but not a shark.

If I use this, I’ll rename him Dakuwanga, after a shark god of Hawaiian mythology. Fits better with the style of the Tulita, too.

Still, it’s a pretty decent adventure.

Still Waters, by Richard Pett

The third adventure of the lot is Still Waters, a 16-page romp into a cursed swampland. It’s a very atmospheric piece and probably the best of this lot. There’s this colonial Louisiana feel, with plantations, slaves, and the huge where gators and strange creatures dwell. The author himself recommended on the Paizo forums that the theme for Southern Comfort be played during the adventure.

The start of the adventure lays out a flavourful setting with a couple of interesting NPCs, the investigation portion works well and has an appropriate amount of creepiness, and there are a couple of very cool combat encounters towards the end.

Were I to change anything in this, I’d probably lengthen the journey through the marshlands, making it a few days long, and make it a point to play it out both ways. There are a few resources I’d draw upon to do that, most notably the Living Greyhawk module COR7-19 Into the Mists, which really makes a trip through the marsh come alive.

The Warrior’s Way, by Nicolas Logue

The fourth Indulgence in the second wave is The Warrior’s Way, a seven-page pack of Tulita culture and associated crunchy bits.

The Tulita are Razor Coast’s resident native people reminiscent of Hawaiians, who are occasionally enslaved by plantation owners. They worship Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Wrack, and totem beasties like the Whale, the Dolphin and the Turtle. The backstory and cultural information on the Tulita is well written and intesting.

Then we come to the crunch. It starts with a pile of magic tattoos that you can apparently substitute for feats at levels six and nine. But… why weren’t they presented as feats, then? Strange twisting of the rules, this. I think I could substitute these for some of the tattoos available to the tattooed monk prestige class, though. Seems to fit very well with the Tulita themes. In Razor Coast, they’re the monks and martial artists.

Then there’s a number of new weapons. Unfortunately, none of them mention whether they’re simple, martial or exotic, which is kinda irritating. There’s also nonstandard rules language, and the pdf lacks the customary table for new weapons, all the attributes being expressed in rules text. They seem to be otherwise rather well balanced, though.

There’s also a new basic attack, throw, where, with a full-round action and a successful opposed grapple check, you may fling your enemy in any direction for a distance of five feet per point of Strength bonus you have. My feelings on this are mixed. On one hand, it’s an exceptionally cool combat manoeuvre, but I’m not sure how balanced it is. For now, though, I would include it in a game and see how it works.

Then there are twelve different feats, mostly monk type stuff with a bit of a fantastic bent. (Fortunately, despite being analogous to the Hawaiians, the Tulita do not employ the Kamehameha strike.)

Finally, there are a few variant monk class abilities for the Mai’kal, which is what Tulita monks are called. Neat stuff.

I think that overall, The Warrior’s Way does a very good job of recasting the D&D monk class in a pirate setting, making it fit in while remaining strange and foreign. Indeed, The Warrior’s Way does this in many ways better than core D&D. Good stuff.

Review: Indulgences, First Wave

A couple of months ago I noted the existence of Sinister Adventures, a small gaming company helmed by Nicolas Logue, also known for being the campaign manager of Pathfinder Society and the writer of great many excellent adventure modules, such as The Hook Mountain Massacre from Paizo Publishing.

While Sinister Adventures’ flagship product, the non-linear mega-adventure Razor Coast, failed to appear on time, they have released two sets of really cheap, small pdf downloads, called Indulgences. I picked up all eight last week for the total price of $18 for what amounts to 76 pages of material (and eight pages of Open Gaming Licences), and have been reading them over the weekend (well, the bits I didn’t spend drunk or hungover, at least).

The first two waves of Indulgences are designed to support Razor Coast, with side treks, individual encounters and nifty rules items. I expect they’ll do one more wave of Razor Coast stuff before going on to write material for The Ebon Shroud, a horror-themed megamodule slated to come out for Halloween, written by Logue and Richard Pett.

Razor Coast is a pirate-themed module. The Indulgences feature references to firearms and cannons, there’s an evil shark god and the Tulita, a tribe of native humans who worship Pele, the volcano goddess. Overall, it looks very spiffy. Here, then, my thoughts on the first four Indulgences.

The Indulgences use D20 System, and their prices are such that regardless of what I say about them, they’re all worth the price. Especially to us Europeans, with the dollar being what it is.

Dajobas, Devourer of Worlds, by Nicolas Logue

This one introduces us to Dajobas, the shark god, imprisoned deep beneath the sea and ever trying to escape his bonds, that he might eat the world. The Indulgence, clocking in at eight pages, has first the myths and legends and Tulita history associated with Dajobas, and then a pile of rules items for the shark god’s followers. Also, it opens up with a really nifty illustration of Dajobas, a colossal shark, eating an entire ship in the middle of a fierce storm.

Firstly, there’s a new domain, Hunger. Personally, I consider it better than the Hunger domain from Spell Compendium, which would’ve been more aptly called “Ghoul”. However, I think I’d substitute the Gluttony domain from the same book (not that the differences are great). The new Hunger domain is all PHB stuff – no new spells here.

Then there’s a divine servant of Dajobas, a monster called drolsharg. It’s a green giant with a lot of shark jaws, especially on its chest. If you’re having trouble visualising, we’re in the same boat. The art for the drolsharg is pretty bad and doesn’t really give an idea of what it looks like. The drolsharg has the ability to infect other creatures with lycanthropy, turning them into weresharks. Nifty.

Following the drolsharg, there are four feats for Dajobas’ followers, which I think are good in concept but don’t exactly shine in execution. There’s Blood Hunter, which allows the character to ignore all concealment if its target is bleeding, which is problematic because of the hit point mechanic’s level of abstraction and whether someone is bleeding or not is up to the DM – unless, of course, “bleeding” means “taking continual damage from some source”. Which it does not specify. Another feat makes you immune to Con damage and Con drain in certain circumstances, which is overly powerful for something that can be taken at first level. Both of these do require Chosen of the Shark God in prerequisite which places them pretty firmly in NPC land, though, but I prefer PCs and NPCs to operate under the same rules. The fourth feat, Reaver’s Frenzy, is okay.

Then there’s a pair of magic items, teeth of Dajobas and snapping jaw. They’re both under the heading of Magic Weapons, though the latter is a wondrous item (a magic alligator jaw that flies to the enemy and gnaws).

There’s a prestige class, too, called the dalang of Dajobas. It’s a five-level prestige class for divine servants of other deities who have been converted to the worship of the Shark God, who thus feeds on their worshiper base. The dalang of Dajobas is interesting, though the formatting drives me up the wall. It gets a type of rage, spellcasting, and various shark-related abilities. However, the abilities are listed in alphabetical order rather than the traditional progression by level, which is annoying. The prestige class is accompanied by a sample NPC, Varog Gorebeard.

Overall, I’d consider this one quite good, though the weakest Indulgence of the first wave. While the feats are a bit iffy, the PCs in no normal party would ever get their hands on them, and a Con damage immunity is a lot less powerful for an NPC than it is for a PC. I love the background on Dajobas, too.

Art of the Duel, by Craig Shackleton

Art of the Duel is a look into duelling and duellists, in six pages. It’s got a very good, atmospheric piece of opening fiction, and goes from there to a short history of the rapier and the duel.

Then it presents three variant rapiers and two variant daggers, which give small bonuses to certain combat manoeuvres, or a +1 AC when using Combat Expertise. There’s also a special combat manoeuvre, bind, which allows you to trap your opponent’s weapon with your own. This lets you then try to sunder or disarm without provoking an attack of opportunity, and with a bonus to the roll. I think this is pretty cool and flavourful, and its introduction to the game might lead to disarm being used by people other than spiked chain monsters, or sunder by anyone, at all, ever.

The main attraction here, though, are the feats, all 11 of them. While there’s one, Challenge to a Duel, that I don’t like (too reminiscent of an aggro management mechanic, reduces a point of roleplaying to a few die rolls), the rest are pretty good. Of note is the Responsive Duelist feat chain. Responsive Duelist allows you to make an attack of opportunity when an enemy attacks you, and its six follow-up feats build on that theme. Though I haven’t seen this in action, on paper it seems to very satisfyingly simulate a dialogue of blades.

Art of the Duel, in a word, rocks.

Death Beneath the Waves, by Wolfgang Baur

Death Beneath the Waves is a primer for underwater adventuring, in six pages. Mostly it consists of DM tricks and tips for getting the party into the drink, keeping them there and managing things like tactical combat in three dimensions.

There’s also a pair of spells for surviving the immediate dangers of underwater adventuring, like pressure, cold, and the lack of air. Good, helpful utility stuff.

Finally, the pdf gives the PCs something to kill while down there, an underwater dragon known as the benthic serpent, complete with an example serpent villain named Olaus the Grey, and a series of encounter ideas for him throughout the campaign.

Death Beneath the Waves has possibly the best advice I’ve seen on underwater adventuring in D&D, and I’ve seen a great deal. If you’re thinking of taking your campaign down into the depths, you could do a lot worse than pick up this little gem.

Blood Waters, by Greg A. Vaughan

Blood Waters is an adventure for 7th-level characters, in 13 pages. It takes the party underwater and gives you the excuse to use Death Beneath the Waves – and unfortunately, that’s about the length and breadth of its merits.

The condensed format of Blood Waters really doesn’t do it any favours. The plot revolves around saving a kingdom of locathah from an evil plot, and the brevity kinda hurts the inherent epicness involved in that. What should be a longer adventure is reduced to a couple of random encounters, a simple investigation and a short dungeon crawl. It’s not badly constructed as such, but there simply isn’t enough of material in this to make it compelling. It especially hurts the sense of wonder. The party is getting immersed in an entirely new and strange setting, but it really amounts to just another adventure with a couple of different combat rules.

I do understand the difficulty of involving land-based PCs in a longer adventure undersea, though – you have to provide them with some way to breathe, which can be difficult if you don’t just hand out rings of water breathing. Death Beneath the Waves had some suggestions on that, though.

There’s still a solid adventure somewhere in here, but it’s a lot of work to the end user.

There is a reason to blow the three bucks this will cost you, though. The pdf also includes a pair of druid spells to facilitate underwater adventuring, and the wave-cursed template, a cousin of the amphibious creature template from Stormwrack and its ilk.