The Runelords RIIIISE!

I was browsing some threads on a forum the other day, and I stumbled upon an old post of mine about Burnt Offerings, the first adventure of the Rise of the Runelords adventure path from Paizo.

In the post I said, freely translating: “Wow, this is an awesome module. I’ll be talking about maybe running this for years to come.” This is an unfortunately honest statement about how good I am at starting campaigns. The post was dated November, 2007.

Well, I’m done talking. I’ve got the players, and if all goes according to plan, the first session will be on April 4th.

I’m running the game on a modified D&D3.5 ruleset, with some influence from Pathfinder RPG. I guess you could call it 3.6. Here are the character generation rules I mailed my players:

  • Ability scores generated by a 28-point buy, as per the Dungeon Master Guide.
  • Hit dice for character classes according to Pathfinder RPG Beta. Therefore, full-BAB classes have d10, middle-BAB classes have d8 and low-BAB classes have d6. Barbarians are the exception and retain their d12. There are enough dead 1st-level wizards in the graveyards already.
  • Additional material from rules supplements to be approved on a case-by-case basis. I’d prefer not to include psionics in this campaign, and dislike most variant character races. Thus far, I’ve said no to whisper gnomes and shadar-kai, and yes to grey elves and the scout class. I am a fan of the multiclass feats from Complete Scoundrel and other books of the series and am willing to write up new ones to cover gaps. I actually recommend taking a look at the regional feats in Pathfinder Campaign Setting, especially for Varisian and Shoanti characters.
  • It pays to read through Rise of the Runelords Player’s Guide, for character ideas and knowledge of the setting. Every character gets to pick a free feat from the guide.
  • Additionally, all characters receive one trait from the Pathfinder RPG traits. Elves may also pick elven traits from Elves of Golarion. The traits file can be found by registering on the Paizo website and checking My Downloads. You may also have to download the Pathfinder RPG Beta for the Traits download to appear. This is mildly annoying.
  • Characters should have some background and a reason to be in Sandpoint at the Swallowtail Festival. I am in favour of creating common backgrounds and relationships between the PCs and giving them some context within the setting.

It’s been close to a year since I’ve run anything other than Living Greyhawk or Pathfinder Society. Back then, it was Dark Heresy. I relish the chance to really run a game instead of just talking about them. PFS and LG were good, but like I’ve said before, they’re like chocolate chip cookies – tasty and mildly addictive, but not good to base your entire diet on. (Incidentally, I just tallied all my Living Greyhawk modules. 2 211 modules in total.)

Rise of the Runelords is good stuff. It makes the creative juices flow, and several of its adventures number among the finest I have read. Let’s hope I can do them justice in bringing them to life.

I will try and post updates on the campaign once it gets going.

Review: Mutant Chronicles

I recently came to possess a DVD of the new sci-fi movie Mutant Chronicles. The details of the acquisition are irrelevant, though suffice it to say that alcohol was involved. That’s my excuse for paying money for this thing.

Now, I have watched this film, and have come here to warn the rest of you. Do not attempt to view Mutant Chronicles. It will hurt you, especially if you have any affection for the original property.

Indeed, the original property is most nifty. The reason, see, that I am reviewing this on my gaming blog is that Mutant Chronicles is originally a Swedish roleplaying game, from Target Games. It spawned a miniatures strategy game, WarZone, and a collectible card game, Doomtrooper. The latter was one of the first CCGs to be translated into Finnish, and at the tender age of ten, I spent most of my meagre allowance on booster packs. I still have a crapload of Doomtrooper cards in a box, somewhere.

So, I have fond memories of Mutant Chronicles. Also, it’s inspired by Warhammer 40,000, which I absolutely adore. The main difference is that Mutant Chronicles is more humanocentric. There are no space elves or orcs. The central conflict is between five human corporations, the religious Brotherhood, and the Dark Legion, which is a stand-in for Chaos. The corporations are the American Capitol, the British Imperial, the Japanese Mishima, the Franco-Germanic Bauhaus and the sci-fi Cybertronic.

The Review Itself

Incidentally, from this point on, there are SPOILERS. While you actually do not want to see this movie unless you have masochistic tendencies or a crush on Ron Perlman, and can likely puzzle out the entire plot fifteen minutes into the film, I thought it’d be polite to warn you.

The movie retains some of that. However, while the corporations have already left Earth and are busy fighting over the solar system, they’re still fighting over Earth in the film and are only evacuating to Mars when a battle between Capitol and Bauhaus forces awakens a mutant-making Machine deep beneath the earth and all of the land is consumed by mutant zombies in the space of about three weeks. The rest of the movie, then, is about a team of hand-picked badasses going down into the ground to shut the Machine down with an ancient bomb they may or may not know how to use. The badasses include Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman, who, along with an underutilised John Malkovich, are the only people in the production who can act worth a damn. We’ve also got the token black, Asian and Latino characters.

Nobody has any real personality and the characters die off one by one, as the mission progresses. The script is painfully predictable, even when it goes off the rails and stops even pretending to make sense at about the  halfway point. See, at the beginning, in the trenches, there’s Sgt. Mitch Hunter (Thomas Jane) and Captain Nate Rooker (Sean Pertwee). They fight the Bauhaus and then they fight the zombies. Rooker, at one point, asks Hunter to “take care of the girls” if he doesn’t make it back. At this point, we know he won’t make it back.

And then, when he stays at a heavy machine gun to fight a completely superfluous rearguard action so that Hunter and the last redshirt of the platoon can get away, nobody is surprised. He is then last seen being dragged away by a mutant zombie on a meat hook, still alive. We see that he’s still alive, and we know he’ll be coming back, most likely as a mutant zombie.

But no! As the crack team of cardboard cutouts descends into the bowels of the earth, weeks later, they find some mutie zombie still dragging the still-alive Rooker towards the Machine to be transformed into a mutant zombie. Hunter first rescues and then euthanizes him. Come on, now. The man’s survived being dragged on a meat hook through his chest for three fucking weeks, he can still keep going.

The fact Rooker doesn’t come back as a zombie but as a live person is the only thing in the film that can be said to be surprising. Every other twist can be seen coming a mile away.

Until the mission gets underway about a third into the mercifully-short film, very little actually happens. Hunter mopes around, we are introduced to a bunch of characters we can’t care about, John Malkovich has the lamest last words ever, Ron Perlman gnaws upon the tasty scenery, and we are told that the mutants are nearly impervious to bullets and the best way to kill them is by inflicting massive tissue damage, or with swords. Then, things start to happen, and I longed for the boring bits where nothing happened, because they were invariably superior. The director (also named Hunter, ironically – the character of Mitch Hunter is from the game so we know it’s not a self-insertion, mercifully) can’t direct action scenes worth shit. The choreography is poor and it shows, even with the shaky camera.

Actually, the crowning moment of the film comes soon after they’ve entered the necropolis where the Machine is supposed to be. They start rappelling down an elevator shaft to get into the depths and leave the token Asian, Juba, to guard the rear, hiding in the elevator cabin. The guys get down and are attacked by zombies, and so is Juba. He fights a losing battle, and finally ends up duelling a mutant zombie in the free-falling elevator. During the fight, he cuts off the mutant’s own meat hook hand and then stabs it through the face with it, nailing it into the wall. Then the elevator hits the ground and explodes, killing all the other mutants the rest of the team were fighting. The camera is shaky and the direction is poor, but the idea is good, the concept is cool, and they almost manage to pull it off.

Strangely enough, all of the ethnic token characters explode upon death.

Also, the CGI is atrociously bad. The film’s opening scene shows a yellow sun with clouds passing over it that reminded me of the CGI in Babylon 5, which first aired fifteen years ago. Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning had better CGI, and that was made by a guy in his mom’s kitchen.

In the end, it’s still better than Uwe Boll. It’s better than Dungeons & Dragons. It has a few one-liners that actually work (“I’m not paid to believe. I’m paid to fuck shit up.” or, when the monk, Brother Samuel (Perlman) reads an ancient inscription on a wall in the catacombs: “Abandon ye all hope who enter here… motherfuckers.”), and some good concepts that could theoretically have been made to work. For the most part, it is not actively bad. However, it has no soul and no atmosphere, and thus Dungeons & Dragons 2 is still better, even though the acting in that one was uniformly dire.


Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

I was actually planning to start a feature on this blog, called “The Silver DM Screen”, about movies I watch and how aspects of them could be made to work in RPGs. It was my intention to see if this, a movie based on an RPG, could offer something.

It really couldn’t.

My advice: get Mutant Chronicles and play that. If you can’t find it, get Dark Heresy, it’s almost the same. Actually, skip Mutant Chronicles, it’s practically impossible to find nowadays anyway, and just get Dark Heresy. Dark Heresy rocks.

Also, if you do find yourself watching this movie and cannot escape or commit suicide or something, make note of where and how the plot really fails to work. Predictable clichés fail in RPGs in exactly the same places, and they’re often more fragile because a game moves slower and the players have more time to think about it. I could tell stories of entire plots being pieced out by genre-savvy players.

Never, by the way, steal a whole plot, especially if parts of it can be bypassed, such as in most investigation adventures. Sampo, our former Living Greyhawk triad man, told me of a module that he’d played at a convention somewhere in Europe. It was a murder mystery of some sort, and the group was stuck, until he realised that the plot was identical with the Babylon 5 episode “Passing through Gethsemane”, which in turn meant that the murderer is this guy… and lo and behold, it was.

Yeah. Let’s see if I can find something better to watch for next time.

Pathfinder Society – A Long, Hard Look

We’re now 14 modules into Paizo’s organised play campaign, Pathfinder Society. I think this is as good a moment as any to take a long, hard look at where the campaign is now, where we’re coming from, where we’re headed, and what must be done so we get there instead of, say, Turku, Albuquerque, or the fourth circle of Hell.

There will be a lot of comparison with Living Greyhawk, since that’s what I’m familiar with and that’s where it was done best.

The Modules

At the heart of an organised play campaign are the modules. While  the campaign rules offer the framework that  holds up the campaign, the adventures are the reason it all exists in the first place. I shall address these first.

Of the 14 modules that have come out thus far, I’ve read and either played or run 13 (with the exception of #14 The Many Fortunes of Grandmaster Torch). The quality has been all over the board. Some, like #4 Frozen Fingers of Midnight, #5 Mists of Mwangi and #8 Slave Pits of Absalom are very good indeed, but then there are modules like #12 Stay of Execution, which was two hours too short, and #10 Blood at Dralkard Manor, which apparently suffered in editing and turned into a bit of a party killer.

None of the modules are at the level of Living Greyhawk’s best.

The problems with the modules come in many shapes. Stay of Execution is too short. Blood at Dralkard Manor is too lethal and has rewards that do not actually appear on the scenario chronicle. Eye of the Crocodile King has a map that makes no sense for what it’s trying to depict. There are also persistent faulty stat blocks. The usual stuff – miscalculated hit points are the most common, I think.

I think the root of the problem here is the word count limit. All of the above modules have great potential that could be realised if it only had been possible to flesh them out more. In short, they are too short. Stats take up a lot of space, especially considering you may need to stat up the same characters for several level tiers.  Also, most of the modules we’ve played were over far quicker than the four hours they should fit into. Three hours is the norm, with Stay of Execution clocking in at two hours. We tend to play full tables of six people, and we are fond of our off-topic. Really, the modules could do with an additional encounter or two.

I would also note that there’s been a certain lack of continuity, but that, we are told, will change.

A point of note in comparison to Living Greyhawk: LG was much more free in handing out favours and other interesting entries in their adventure records. I think they are much more interesting than +2 longswords, and would like to see more such things in Pathfinder Society. I feel they bring depth to the setting and the adventures (as long as we’re also given later opportunities to actually use those entries), which makes it easier to really make an investment in the campaign.

It’d also be nice if there were actual rewards for completing the adventure objectives themselves. As it stands, the characters get rewards for accomplishing faction missions, but doing what they were sent there for is not profitable. Since the Society doesn’t pay its members, this would be a good place to put favours and such.

And please, give us wands of cure light wounds! We’re getting murdered in here!

The Campaign Rules

Changing the rules of the core game in some ways is a necessity of  the format. There are some things that simply do not work or are too much work to make function properly in a centrally-administered global campaign. The rules document, I feel, should also function as an introduction to the campaign without needing to purchase the setting book. The PFS campaign guide still reads a bit like a raw draft. It’s missing several things I consider rather important.

I am ambivalent about the levelling speed of the campaign. For those who do not know, the campaign scraps the normal XP system (and as a result, all Item Creation feats). Instead, in every module you play and survive, you gain 1XP. You level every three XP.  This makes for very fast advancement. The level cap, I think, is at level 12. However, this isn’t spelled out anywhere in the campaign guide, which it really should.

Other changes and additions I think the campaign needs:

The subskills of Knowledge (local) need to be listed. I prefer the Living Greyhawk system, where different regions were lumped together into only six different subskills of Knowledge (local). There was a point to taking the skill.

Clear, concise rules concerning animal companions, familiars and purchased animals in the campaign. To my understanding, these will be in the next revision.

One would also hope that the exception of guns from the list of allowed Pathfinder Campaign Setting gear be added. It’s another thing that a ruling has been given on in the forums.

Finally, I wish they’d make a definitive ruling on what to do when a module and an official sourcebook have contradictory information, such as in the case of #2 The Hydra’s Fang Incident and Guide to Absalom. It’s not usually a big deal, but it is possible a situation will arise in the future when it matters.

I think that in general terms, it’s a good idea to take a look at how Living Greyhawk did things in the last few years. They had seven rules revisions, and each one was mostly an improvement. (The campaign cards were unnecessary doping, though, and the inclusion of kobolds was a short-sighted and ill-advised move.)

The People

This is the one area where PFS is doing far better than Living Greyhawk. The campaign staff and writers hang out on the forums, are active in conversations, and are nice people. Also, the Paizo forums’ discussion culture is healthier than on the WotC community, that D&D-playing lovechild of SomethingAwful and the RNC.

Paizo’s guys also react to complaints and have issued updated modules very swiftly. With the RPGA, I don’t recall seeing any module receive errata or be updated after release, despite being, for example, completely unintelligible.

I have no real complaints  here.

In Conclusion

It’s a promising campaign, but not quite there yet. There’s steady improvement, and I have trust in the writers. They are open to feedback, which is important.

The major issue, with me, is the module length. They start and then they’re over. They need more flesh to their bones. I don’t think there’s much cause to be so wary of the four-hour time limit. A better option would be to write a longer adventure and include advice about where it can be safely shortened if it seems to run long.

I will revisit the topic next summer, when the rules change rolls around and the campaign goes Pathfinder, and see where we’ve come.

Updates on Ropecon and Other Things

While the blogosphere is abuzz with the news of WotC’s new GSL (which has hauled itself up from the depths of villainous infamy into mere mediocrity – more on Geek Related), something far more relevant to actual roleplaying games rears its head in Finland.

The Ropecon blog has gone live!

Of course, it’s in Finnish, but even if you don’t understand the language, you can go and admire the layout, or something. Or my ugly mug, a couple of posts down the page. You will also want to come to Ropecon, in Finland, on July 31st to August 2nd.

Also, the con’s theme of myths and secrets is no longer a secret (and you don’t even want to know how many bad jokes have  been cracked about that), and we’re now looking for some programming. No call for GMs yet, but plans are being made and that, too, will go up in due time.

Another news item of interest is from a bit over a week ago: the public playtest of Pathfinder RPG has come to a close, as reported by Jason Bulmahn himself. Now, for us, there is only the long wait until Gen Con Indy and the release date.

Thirdly, I’ve got tickets to Watchmen on the opening night! Weeeeeeeeeeeeee!