Module Retrospective: Red Hand of Doom

I recently chatted with someone about Red Hand of Doom. I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, where it was, or even what language it was in. However, the conversation gave me a push to reread the module, which in turn inspired me to write this post.

Red Hand of Doom really isn’t that old a module, having come out in 2006. It was one of Wizards of the Coast’s better adventure modules, released in the final years of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and written by Rich Baker and James “Mr ENnie for Best Adventure” Jacobs. According to the cover, it’s for characters of levels 6-12. In practice, as I recall, it took the party from around level 5 to level 11.

The module clocks in at 128 pages, and I think it takes the cake for being the longest single adventure module I’ve run from start to finish. I ran it under the Living Greyhawk campaign from December 2006 to April 2007. The RPGA, around 2006, started to adapt published WotC adventures for use with Living Greyhawk. Unlike your normal LG modules, these wouldn’t have caps on gold or experience points, but would just take up an amount of Time Units comparable to that much XP’s worth of Living Greyhawk modules. Your normal Living Greyhawk module took one TU, and the adapted modules could take anything from five to twelve, easily. Your character had 52 Time Units per year, and after you’d used them up, you couldn’t play that character again until next year. This wasn’t usually much of a limitation, and even though we played like crazy, I never hit zero Time Units with a single character. However, some other players did, and it was because of the adapted modules. The three big ones were Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, at 22 Time Units; Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, at an impressive 32 TU; and the biggest one of them all, Red Hand of Doom, which ate up 51 of your precious Time Units, a whole year’s play time. That was partly why we hurried to get it started in 2006, to spread the cost over two years.

The big modules were also split up into multiple parts along the chapter breakup of the adventure book. In Living Greyhawk, you received an Adventure Record after each module, which kept track of your gold and experience points and their expenditure. Ideally, with a Living Greyhawk character of any level, you could pick up their stack of Adventure Records, flip through it, and see how they’ve earned and spent gold starting from their leftover starting cash and accurate to the last gold piece. Also, your average LG module was written for a four-hour convention slot and lasted a single session from beginning to end. After playing dozens, maybe hundreds of these in the Living Greyhawk environment, you got into the mentality that the session weren’t over until you had a brand new Adventure Record, signed by the judge.

With that background, you may understand the thought process that led to us playing the entire module in five sessions, taking from eight to twelve hours each.

Incidentally, there will be SPOILERS in this post.

The Plot

The adventure, perhaps even “mini-campaign”, is set in Elsir Vale, a generic D&D anyplace, though with a geography modelled after a location in southern Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms. Living Greyhawk dropped it into western Sterich. An army of hobgoblins and dragons under the banner of Tiamat are threatening the population of the vale, and it’s up to the PCs to beat back the bad guys. (Yeah, it’s the same valley as in the Scales of War adventure path. I’m gonna be diplomatic and just ignore that it ever existed.)

The module is broken up into five chapters, each handling one stage of the invasion and the PCs’ actions against it. In the first one, “The Witchwood”, the PCs are ambushed right at the beginning by a big force of hobgoblins , supplemented by hell hounds, as they are on their way to Drellin’s Ferry. When they reach the town, they’re contracted by Norro Wiston, the town speaker who looks a lot like Sean Connery, into investigating the Witchwood and driving off the hobgoblin bandits they figure have set up shop somewhere in the forest.

In the forest, there’s a variety of encounters, from meeting the reclusive woodsman Jorr, to fighting a hydra and negotiating with a wood giant elder. The centrepieces of the first part, however, are taking out Vraath Keep and the sabotage of the Skull Gorge Bridge. Vraath Keep is a small ruin where the hobgoblins have established an outpost, watched over by Wyrmlord Koth, a bugbear sorcerer. Once the PCs have taken out the hobgoblins, and their allied goblins and manticore, they’ll find a map with an invasion plan in Koth’s quarters. The invasion force plans to cross the Skull Gorge Bridge nearby, but has not yet done so, and can be delayed significantly if the bridge is destroyed.

Of course, they already occupy the bridge, leading to a set-piece battle when the PCs try to drop the bridge into the gorge before being overwhelmed. Here, we also meet the first dragon of the adventure, the green Ozyrrandion.

At the end of “The Witchwood”, the PCs must convince the population of Drellin’s Ferry to evacuate. Staying in the town to defend it is lunacy, but the module does include information on what the PCs will encounter and the tactics of the horde if they want to make a stand, along with several chances to let them flee. They’ll be fighting an army, and they can’t win, but they’re free to try.

The second part, then is “The Ruins of Rhest”. The centrepiece of the chapter is the assault on, well, the drowned ruins of Rhest, where the army of the Red Hand is breeding spawn of Tiamat. The ruins are guarded by greenspawn razorfiends, hobgoblins, some ogres, some more hobgoblins, and a total of 66 lizardfolk tribesmen. And an ettin. They’re led by the goblin Wyrmlord Saarvith, who rides a black dragon.

In addition to the assault on Rhest, spread around it are interactions with the local tribe of wild elves in an attempt to secure their help against the encroaching Red Hand (snow elves in the LG conversion) and a number of encounters to be played out in the countryside of Elsir Vale during the evacuation – looters, hobgoblin road blockades, a spy, the PCs’ first encounter with a spawn of Tiamat, and, once they’ve really managed to annoy the warleader Wyrmlord Kharn, a hit squad. These encounters really build up the atmosphere of a country under the threat of war. Refugees, evacuation, martial law, burning villages in the distance. Desperation, fear, and grief. There are also details and instructions for how to proceed in case a PC gets captured by the hobgoblins – where he’ll be taken and on what timetable, and what sort of guardians there will be. I appreciate this attention to detail.

From Rhest, the characters find a phylactery of a druid lich (!) called the Ghostlord, who dwells in a dungeon to the south. The army of the Red Hand has been holding it hostage to secure the Ghostlord’s cooperation, and the PCs get to go down and return it to him, in exchange for the lich retiring from the field of battle. They can also attack the lich, and it’s even possible to win, but it’s not an easy fight by any means. Either way, they’ll have to clear out the Red Hand leadership occupying the dungeon – a bard Wyrmlord, Ulwai Stormcaller, and Varanthian, a fiendish behir. When I ran it, Varanthian swallowed Waldemar the dwarf fighter whole and they only got him out with four hit points remaining. “The Ghostlord’s Lair” is a short dungeon crawl, and the shortest of the five parts. Sort of a breather, really, between the slaughter of hundreds that was “The Ruins of Rhest”, and the night of blood and fire that is “Enemy at the Gates”, part four.

In “Enemy at the Gates”, the army of the Red Hand has arrived at Brindol, the regional capital. This one is handled in the style of Heroes of Battle, with the PCs taking the tactical role of a commando squad – a small, independently operating group that strikes hard and fast at very specific tactical objectives, be they hill giants bombarding the city or a red dragon strafing the defenders. If they managed to ally with the wild elves of Tiri Kitor, they have a few helping hands here. Before getting their hands dirty, though, there’s a tactical palaver with the leaders of the city, where PCs may try to affect their tactical decisions about the deployment of clerics and so forth.

“Enemy at the Gates” is epic. After the party has fought several encounters’ worth of delaying actions on barricades and dropped the red dragon Abithriax, there’s a final showdown in the cathedral of Pelor at the centre of the city, between the PCs and Wyrmlord Hravek Kharn and his bodyguards, as well as whatever other Wyrmlords got away in the previous parts, and the Ghostlord, if he’s still allied with the Red Hand.

After the battle, it’s time to tally the wins and losses. There are a number of things the PCs can accomplish in the first four parts of the module, which grant them victory points – defeat enemy commanders, secure allies, destroy the bridge over Skull Gorge, convince the Ghostlord to stay away, destroy greenspawn eggs in Rhest, and so forth. Here, it’s all tallied up. If they’ve done well, the enemy force is broken, and flees back to the mountains, pursued by the PCs and the Lions of Brindol. If not, the next guy down the line assumes command, calls in reinforcements, and assaults again. Here, the PCs have one more chance to kill any named commanders left, but if they fail, it’s a defeat, Brindol is overrun, and the horde wins this round.

Either way, if it just didn’t end in a TPK, there’s still the last part to go, “The Fane of Tiamat”, where the party heads up into the mountains whence the horde poured forth to take out High Wyrmlord Azarr Kul himself, the brains behind the operation and the overlord of the whole horde.

The Fane of Tiamat is a 17-room dungeon with some very dangerous encounters, including the last one with Azarr Kul and his abishai bodyguard. He’s not the last fight, though – when Azarr Kul falls in his sanctum sanctorum, he calls out to his boss. Who then shows up, in the flesh. The actual final battle is against an aspect of Tiamat herself, the goddess of evil dragons.

The Battle of Rhest

The Battle of Rhest is not the largest fight I’ve ever seen in a roleplaying game. That one would have been a battle between a merfolk tribe and an invading force of sahuagin in COR6-13 Tears for Bright Sands, which involved a total of 137 NPC combatants, plus six PCs, with the NPCs using a total of seventeen different stat blocks, and that was played out under the D&D Miniatures rules.

However, the Battle of Rhest was still pretty big, and managed to take longer due to the tactical intricacies of the battlefield. There were a total of 27 different enemy combatants with ten different stat blocks that originally were spread out over several encounters but ended up being alerted when the PCs showed up and then it sorta degenerated into complete chaos that took three hours to play through, with the entire session taking twelve. It was the most physically draining RPG session I’ve ever run, but it was also fun and rewarding – so much so that I came back to run Part II again when another Living Greyhawk group was playing the module.

Somehow, the party prevailed though they were about 7th level and the odds arrayed against them added up to Encounter Level 14. They killed the Wyrmlord, they killed his guards, his soldiers, his animal companion, his dragon, and even his advisor. They killed and then they killed some more. All told, “The Ruins of Rhest” was the bloodiest of the five parts of the module, with a complete total of 110 NPCs slain at the hands of the PCs. The module, with its war theme, is incredibly violent. By the end of the third part, there was a trail of 220 bodies behind the party. The final tally of the entire Red Hand of Doom was around 340-350 dead enemies and NPCs. I remember dimly asking the players: “So, you’ve just killed a hundred living, feeling, intelligent beings. How do you feel?” (Part II included the lizardfolk genocide, when the party wanted to take out all the lizardfolk guard huts, which made tactical sense at the time but was not a real challenge, so we just fast forwarded it, rolled them some damage and declared 54 lizardfolk dead.)

The party composition made it all the grislier. They had only a single primary caster, a cleric, whose spells invariably went to healing the other guys. There was Sir Tharik Hume, a fighter/paladin of Heironeous; Tular, a monk/fighter; Girger Gorluk, a half-orc barbarian/bard; Raziel Whitewind, a half-orc cleric of Pelor; Ardil Alaestrin, a wood elf barbarian/ranger/cleric of Rillifane Rallathil; and Waldemar, a dwarf fighter/dwarven defender. They had no offensive capabilities beyond the reach of their swords, and every kill was made in ugly, brutal melee combat, close enough to smell the enemy and see the light go out in his eyes as you gut him. They were magnificent, as they strode through the bloody battlefield of Elsir Vale and made red ruin of their foes. Somehow, the entire module passed without a single PC death, though a few times it was a close call.

Most awesome of the lot was Tular, who regularly grappled with ogres and won. During the Battle of Rhest, he was bullrushed into the lake by an ogre, and dragged the brute down with him. Underwater, over several rounds, he choked it to death before swimming to the surface. Raziel was another great character, who originally started his career as a human cleric, but managed to get killed in the dungeons below Icespire in COR4-16 The Frozen Spire and was reincarnated into the body of a half-orc. He was also one of the characters who made it into the final Naerie Gazetteer, as the leader of the church of Pelor in Naerie. I’m currently actually working on a module where Raziel appears as an NPC.

(As a side note, Raziel’s death occurred because of a hilarious player error – he’d just been laid off, and came to the game rather tipsy. This led to choosing an inadvisable course of action, namely jumping on his tower shield and tobogganing down an ice slope into a dark, cold, cursed dungeon, far ahead of the rest of the party. Down in the dungeon he met a skeletal dragon. Fortunately, the rest of the party was able to defeat the dragon and recover his body.)

The Spawn of Tiamat

The spawn of Tiamat are a new type of monster that was introduced in a number of sources around the same time: Red Hand of Doom, Fantastic Locations: Frostfell Rift, and Monster Manual IV, which had a whopping 66 pages of them, for a total of 14 monsters. Other new spawn were here and there in different supplements. The spawn encompassed a variety of different kinds of creatures, all keying off the five classic evil dragon colours. There was the blackspawn raider, the bluespawn godslayer, the redspawn arcaniss, and so forth, each with their own schtick. They’re hit and miss, with more misses than hits. I think the whitespawn hordelings are fun, being small bastards that will just swarm over you. The rhino-like bluespawn stormlizard is also pretty nifty, and I’m fond of blackspawn raiders, which form death squads and attack from ambush. However, then there’s stuff like the bluespawn godslayer, which looks like a huge reptilian hunchback of Notre Dame with mumps, and whose attack tactics in a group are to use Awesome Blow to fling smaller enemies into the threatened area of other godslayers, who will then use their attacks of opportunity to beat them some more. There’s the whitespawn iceskidder, which has skates for feet, and the blackspawn exterminator, which is a blackspawn raider with class levels. Six of them, to be exact. The class is ninja.

The spawn of Tiamat had a potential to be a cool addition to the game, but in practice, they were mostly boring or stupid. Fortunately, Baker and Jacobs had some taste when using them in Red Hand of Doom, and we were saved from the more insipid creations, with the possible exception of the greenspawn razorfiend, whose sole reason for existing is to deliver ridiculous critical hits.

Why the Red Hand of Doom Rocks

The module, despite being broken up into parts, and being very long, works as a single, cohesive whole. Especially parts one, two and four have great atmosphere, with a sense of urgency informing the PCs actions when they race to evacuate the town, or cut off the invading force, or break down a roadblock. The situation lives, and it’s not in their control, which makes things tense. There’s also the sense that the lives of hundreds or even thousands depend on their success.

Also present is the option of failure. Often, failure automatically means that the party has died, roll up new characters. In Red Hand of Doom, however, it’s fully possible for the party to royally screw up and see the Red Hand horde win the Battle of Brindol, and live with the shame. This is something I’d like to see more often. There are also options for lesser failures, such as deciding to stand and fight an army at Drellin’s Ferry, or getting captured. There are many options open for the PCs and the writers have accounted for all the likely scenarios.

The actions of the PCs are meaningful throughout the module. The things they do or leave undone or fail at accomplishing are tallied up as victory or alliance points in secret, and in the end determine whether they’ve managed to really break the horde of the Red Hand or if the hobgoblins will strike back. Foes who got away will come back to fight them again in later parts.

I am not really a fan of the fifth part, though. Its length feels redundant after the epic climax of “Enemy at the Gates”. Were I to run it again, I’d probably strip away a full half of the encounters. Still, the fight with the High Wyrmlord and the aspect of Tiamat is awesome, and because of them, I would not drop the entire fifth chapter. The length of it is just too much, and even though the previous four parts have kept the insane amounts of violence in the module varied and interesting enough to keep from becoming boring, this one gets repetitive.

Actually, I must repeat that – the first four parts of Red Hand of Doom are probably the combat-heaviest D&D material I’ve played through, and they never once got boring. I think this is because each combat had a clear reason for being there, interesting enemies and usually also some tactical depth. In “Fane of Tiamat”, it’s just clearing out dungeon rooms.

Finally, it has these little grey text boxes here and there, with the designers’ notes on why this or that element of the adventure is so and so, and sometimes ideas on how to change it if there’s a need. Glimpses behind the curtain like this are valuable for the GM when adapting the adventure for their own needs, and I’d wish more modules had such commentary in them. They also communicate to the DM that there really was a living human being with a brain making conscious decisions about the module and not just dropping random stat blocks one after another.

Overall, it is a fine piece of work that deserves more recognition and fame than I feel it ever received. It was great fun at the table, even in the twelve-hour killer sessions, and there was not a whiff of boredom until the very last part, where it is quite fixable. I recommend that if you see this in a discount bin somewhere or find it on eBay, you pick it up. It’s well worth it.

Advertisements

One Module, Every Game: The Dresden Files RPG

With the coming of autumn, the weather has grown colder, I’ve been swamped with clueless first-year students, and the game nights of TYR, and by extension the One Module, Every Game project, has returned from its summer break. Also, my Rise of the Runelords campaign, which had two sessions back to back last weekend and another one tomor- well, it’s today now. The pace has been rather gruelling, and I’m afraid this is reflected in the quality, though I’ve strangely not had any complaints yet.

The game we tested out this time was The Dresden Files RPG, a magnificent piece of work from Evil Hat, based on the equally awesome series of novels from Jim Butcher. The novel series is now up to its twelfth instalment. For the record, the second book of the game, Our World, spoils up to the end of the tenth book, Small Favor.

What’s In the Game

The game, and currently the entirety of the game line, is comprised of two books, the main rulebook Your Story, and the world book Our World. The first one is the only one you’ll actually need, containing within its 416 pages all the rules of the game, from character generation to spellcasting, with an example setting of Baltimore thrown in the back of the book. Our World, then, is more of a reference guide to who, what and where in the books, an NPC guide and a monster manual all rolled into one, with a chapter on occult Chicago at the end, described by Billy, one of the in-character commenters of the book, as “this crazy love letter to Weird Chicago.”

That the entire game line consists of just two books, with nothing else announced, doesn’t actually bother me, because after reading these two books, I can’t really think of anything that’s actually missing. It’s a complete package that provides you with enough material to run a hundred games and the tools to come up with more. The only product I can think of adding anything to this is perhaps a GM screen, maybe packaged with an adventure module – and even those are a bit questionable since the game is written to be rather open about secrets and the basic campaign format does not lend itself well to the production of premade adventures. There probably is a format for scenarios that could work with Dresden Files, but it’s not the traditional one.

The reason I don’t think the traditional format for an adventure module is not a good fit for Dresden Files is that the game places a great emphasis on making your own city setting. It’s a game of urban fantasy, with an emphasis on “urban”, and the second chapter – indeed, before the actual character generation rules – is about city creation. It presents guidelines, rules and instructions to create a city and its NPCs, locations and aspects as a collaboration between all members of the gaming group, so that each player may influence the end result and bring in the kind of stuff he’s interested in playing.

This, incidentally, makes the game far from ideal for a one-shot like the one I ran. Ideally, the group should have a separate character creation session, where they generate their characters and the city the game will take place in. (Rogue Trader, I feel, is similar in this, which is why I’ll be running a mini-campaign of three to five sessions plus the character creation session at some point in the near future, instead of a one-shot.)

The ruleset chugging under the bonnet is FATE, adapted from the old Fudge system. It’s one of RPG.net’s darlings, and used by such games as Diaspora, Starblazer Adventures and Spirit of the Century. The ruleset has been licenced under the Open Gaming Licence, and Spirit of the Century has a free online system reference document.

FATE is an odd bird. It’s not quite like any other game system I’m familiar with. For one thing, it uses even funkier dice than roleplaying games usually do. The Fudge dice are six-siders with two blanks, two pluses and two minuses. They’re also very difficult to get. Nobody in Finland sells them and my regular RPG webstore at Paizo is all out. Fortunately, you can use regular six-siders, which most gamers probably have in ample supply, and those of us with a long history of Games Workshop hobbies have even more. (Though the GW dice are cheap little shits that someone recently proved are biased to roll ones well over the 16,6% of the time that they should. Sorry, can’t seem to find the article. If someone can dig it up for me, I’d be much obliged.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like Gamescience manufactures Fudge dice, either.

Every player needs a set of four dice. This means I’d need 22 more Fudge dice for a proper set, for one GM and four players. Though I’m usually willing to play with up to six, there’s a certain… aspect of the FATE system that makes me want to cap the group at four players. That aspect is the aspect rules.

Aspects are one of the core rules concepts of the game. The core rules concept, you could say. They’re descriptive elements that all characters, cities, scenes and environments have, in varying quantities. A player character will have seven of them. While skills define what a character can do, these define who the character is. Every PC has a high concept aspect that sums up the character in a single phrase. For example, Indiana Jones’ high concept might be Two-Fisted Archaeologist. In addition, he’d probably have aspects like “Nazis. I hate these guys” and “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

The aspects enter play in that they can be invoked or compelled in situations where they are relevant. For instance, in a fist fight with a burly Nazi (probably portrayed by Pat Roach), Indy could invoke his Two-Fisted Archaeologist aspect, burning a fate point and gaining a +2 bonus on his roll to kick the guy’s ass, or reroll all the dice if they came up crap. If that was insufficient, he could then burn another fate point and invoke “Nazis. I hate these guys” and get another +2. A compel, then, is a negative consequence of the aspect – while infiltrating the Nuremberg Rally, the GM could compel Indy’s “Nazis. I hate these guys” to bring a complication in the scene, in that Indy just can’t bring himself to buddy up with some Obersturmbannführer to get the information he needs. Indy can then burn a fate point to buy off the complication, or accept the complication and earn a fate point. This is the primary mechanic for getting new fate points. You can also invoke aspects other than your own – for instance, when he inevitably gets found out, Indy must flee his pursuers in a stolen uniform, and can invoke the Crowded aspect of the Nuremburg Rally to lose them. That uniform, by the way, was nicked off a captain with the Drunk temporary aspect, which Indy invoked to get the drop on him.

The conflict and damage system also uses aspects. When an attack succeeds, it inflicts stress on the character, on either the Physical, Mental or Social track, depending on the type of conflict. If the result dictates that the character would be taken out, he can buy off stress by taking a consequence aspect. These come in three flavours: mild, moderate and severe. A mild consequence can be Bruised, a moderate one could be a Bad First Degree Burn, while a severe consequence could be a Sucking Chest Wound. While the character retains these aspects – and the worse they are, the longer they stick with you – they can be invoked and compelled like any other aspect. And characters usually don’t have very long stress tracks. There’s also a fourth, special kind of consequence, the extreme consequence, which buys off eight stress, but will also replace one of your other aspects. Permanently.

If, on the other hand, you don’t want a consequence and decide to be taken out, the adversary decides what happens to you, within the realm of reason. However, you still get to describe how this happens. Even if the opponent, after stabbing you, decides that you die, you still get to speak your last words, dying curse or whatever.

The Game in Action

Mostly because I could, I set the adventure in Tampere. Because I had to do game prep in a real hurry, I only had an outline of the adventure’s plotline, which I kept filling in as we went along. I managed to do this without any logical inconsistencies or gaping plot holes.

Frozen Fingers of Midnight, adapted to Dresden Files, was about Helge, the last survivor of the shipwreck of SS Kuru, a steamboat that went down in a storm on Näsijärvi back in 1929. A cabal of evil sorcerers had cast a curse on him that was going to slowly kill him and channel his soul as a sacrifice to the undead spirit of Kuru’s captain. In exchange, the captain would deliver to them the skull of Hugo Salmela, a commander of the Red forces in Tampere during the Finnish Civil War, who is still said to haunt the building where he died in Pyynikki.

Hugo Salmela and the shipwreck of SS Kuru are real. The rest isn’t. Salmela died during the battle of Tampere when some drunkard chucked a primed hand grenade into a grenade crate and took out pretty much the entire Red high command. The ghost of Salmela really is said to haunt the place, which in the 1970’s became the first home of the language department of the Tampere University, and is something of a mascot for the language students’ club. The department moved to the new campus closer to the city centre around 2002, but they took the mascot with them. Personally, I think there’s something in vaguely poor taste about all this, but I’m the one who keeps dropping Nazis everywhere, so I’d probably just keep quiet (fat chance).

I created four half-finished characters for the game. There was Rami Karpainen, a bear lycanthrope with a thing for burning churches and senseless violence; Armo Pohjavirta, an ex-university professor and mathematomancer, actually based on a real math professor from the university, whose lectures were so legendary that people took notes of his quips and posted long quotations on the internet (here and here). They’re in Finnish and mostly untranslateable, but here are a few that I could work with:

“The Lebesgue integral is kind of like those Brezhnev speeches about the friendship of nations; really important and often spoken of, but never actually seen anywhere.”

“This Euler formula is handy to have in your pocket, you see. A gentleman does not sweat these things.”

“There’s nothing so wonderful about these vector value functions that you should think they glow in the dark or something.”

“If you think about that Banach-Tarski paradox, where you partition a sphere into subsets and when you reassemble the pieces it you can come up with any kind of object,  well of course those subsets can’t be like some Sunday school group, they’ve got to be bloody pathologically defined.”

“You should think about this for a while, it’s pretty difficult. I’ve sometimes asked about it in an exam, but then I’ve always had to hit the bottle with a gigantic melancholy.”

He loses a lot in translation. Naturally, the character ended up with the quietest player.

Also, there was a changeling whose human parents were Finnish-Swedish nobility from Kauniainen, and finally That Cop Who Gets All Stuck with Those Cases.

Like I said, I’d only finished the characters halfway. I’d left the last three phase aspects unfilled and let the group work those out among themselves. The way those last three aspects are determined in character creation is that the first of them is your character’s first adventure, a story he starred in. The players each write a sentence or two from that story’s beginning on a piece of paper and assign themselves an aspect from it. Then the papers are then passed around, and the next player is the guest star in that story and writes in the middle part. Then, a third player gets to come in and wrap it up. That way, each PC has participated in three different adventures and has three new aspects.

What we ended up in this case was four “adventures” where the characters mostly ran around each other without anybody accomplishing anything or there even being anything to accomplish. I didn’t contest it at the time since this was a one-shot, but I think that if I saw something that parochial in a campaign, I’d exercise the GM’s prerogative and veto them all. I probably still should’ve done it, since they kinda set the tone for the game, which wasn’t really adventurous.

Since we started late and the character generation took an unexpected amount of time, we didn’t actually get all that much gaming done and the characters ended up barrelling down the main plotline of the adventure and ignoring some clues of other things to be done. They went to find this Helge guy, got into his apartment, found him ill in his bed, got clues about a bunch of Lapp sorcerers, and tracked them down to a boathouse somewhere in the woods of Teisko. Minor violence and a lot of intimidation followed, and the bad guys agreed to break the enchantment if they’d just be let go and the bear guy didn’t kill them. This was done, and their headless bodies were found a few municipalities northwards a couple of days later, after the Wardens got to them. The PCs never went out to encounter this evil undead captain on the lake, or the ghost of Hugo Salmela in Pyynikki.

Now What

Well, when I’m next running the game, I’ll prepare a solid primer of information on the tone, style and rules of the game for the players. None of us really internalized the aspects as a part of the game and invoking and compelling them was rather lazy, possibly because the characters were low-level to begin with and had few fate points.

Yeah, that is a when. The game is awesome, and it inspires me. There will be future games, many of them. In fact, there will be a campaign!

It’s probably the most megalomaniacal campaign concept I’ve come up with, and the wheels are already in motion to make it happen. Now, the game is very city-focused, and it recommends that you base the created city on your own town, or a city you’re at least familiar with, because the familiarity creates more resonance in thep layers for the supernatural elements. Me, I travel a lot between Helsinki and Tampere, and am active in RPG clubs in both cities. In addition, there are fans of the books and the game in Alter Ego, over in Helsinki.

So, the campaign will be named “Helsinki-Tampere All Night Long”, and will have two groups, one in Helsinki and one in Tampere, playing their own games set in their own cities, but unravelling the same plotline from different ends, and affecting one another’s games. There can even be guest stars, and the Game Masters can have PCs of their own.

It’s still in the planning stages, but should kick off sometime next month with character creation sessions in both cities. It will either crash and burn spectacularly, or it will be the awesomest thing ever.

Review: Pathfinder RPG Advanced Player’s Guide

It’s now been a couple of weeks or so since the Advanced Player’s Guide came out, and I’ve been browsing it, reading stuff, and converting some old NPCs from 3.0 and 3.5 eras I had hanging around on my hard drive. I’ve yet to see any of the material in action with the exception of the alchemist and the summoner in our Lhazaar campaign and the cavalier in my Rise of the Runelords campaign, but overall, it looks a lot like Paizo did it again. This book is 320 pages of awesome.

Let me start from the beginning. The Advanced Player’s Guide is the big hardcover companion to the GameMastery Guide, and the rough equivalent of the Complete series for 3.5 – you know, Complete Warrior, Complete Arcane, Complete Divine, Complete Adventurer, Complete Champion, Complete Psionic, Complete Scoundrel and Complete Mage. This book can be seen as a replacement for pretty much all of them, except Complete Psionic. While Paizo hasn’t stuffed the PFRPG equivalents of quite every option into this book, they’ve managed to squeeze in most of them, and done so with an exemplary economy of space and elegance of design.

New Classes!

What the book has been hyped about is, of course, the new classes, of which there are six. The alchemist is a mix of Paracelsus, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Bomberman – in addition to being pretty good at making potions, the alchemist can produce bombs, extracts that are basically potions only he can use, and mutagens, which buff his physical ability scores while penalizing the mental ones. The Jekyll and Hyde thing is taken to its extreme by the Master Chymist prestige class. Every other level, the alchemist makes a discovery, which are a lot like rogue talents, and mostly do stuff like modify or buff his extracts, mutagents and bombs. At 20th level, the alchemist makes a grand discovery, which are things like eternal youth or the philosopher’s stone. The list of grand discoveries is short, and unfortunately not all of them are as flavourful as those two. For instance, the alchemist can also gain a +2 Int boost, which is just bland.

Then there’s the cavalier, who’s your basic knight character. He does mounted combat, has some social skills, and a knightly challenge mechanic that for once does not look like it was copied off a MMO tank class. In addition, all cavaliers belong to an order, of which there are six (at the moment – this is a highly customizable feature and I expect we’ll be seeing new orders in the future), and which act as package deals of abilities that the cavalier gains as he advances in levels, much like a sorcerer’s bloodlines or a wizard’s school. The cavalier also gains teamwork feats as bonus feats. While it quite adroitly sidesteps the MMO challenge problem, the class does have – to my mind, at least – a slight problem in that it is married to its horse. The core book did good in giving all the pet classes an alternative class ability they could take instead of an animal. However, it’s not as nearly as bad as it could be, and the cavalier isn’t going to be dead weight in a dungeon where his horse won’t fit. Still, an alternative would’ve been cool.

The third new class is the inquisitor. A bit of Tomas de Torquemada, a dash of Solomon Kane, a pinch of Abraham van Helsing… or a mix of cleric and ranger, if you will. The inquisitor has limited spellcasting capability and abilities for rooting out the enemies of the church and then wreaking righteous vengeance on their asses. The core schtick of the class is the judgment ability, which is a set bonus the inquisitor can call on himself when fighting foes he has pronounced his judgment upon. Later, he gains the ability to imbue his weapon with a bane enchantment for rounds equal to level every day. I think the whole class is conceptually a bit weak, to be honest, but the mechanical execution seems solid. I’d need to see it in action, though.

The oracle, then, is the favoured soul of Pathfinder RPG, a spontaneous divine spellcaster. Instead of wings and a weapon proficiency, though, the oracle gains a curse and a mystery. The curse is something that’s both a boon and a hindrance, like the clouded vision, which limits the oracle’s sight to ten feet, but gives darkvision and at later levels, blindsense and blindsight.  The mystery, then, is much like a sorcerer’s bloodline or the cavalier’s order, except that it gives the class a much stronger definition. The mysteries are thematic packages of abilities the oracle gets to pick from as they advance in levels. Overall, I like the oracle a lot. It’s an interesting class, thematically strong and infinitely customizable.

The summoner is the one I have personal experience playing. It’s the ultimate pet class, where the eidolon is as much a PC as the summoner himself. The eidolon, or the summoner’s pet, is a monster you build yourself with the rules provided, picking and mixing abilities to produce whateve horrible creature you want. I love it! My own summoner character, Arimo d’Kundarak, had a humanoid eidolon that looked roughly like a dwarf. With the addition of a hat of disguise and some judicious skill point allocation and the skilled evolution, Grimmsson reached Disguise bonus +23 and could quite easily pass as Arimo’s bodyguard. The versatility of the class is just awesome. Also, because the eidolon is the whole reason for the class, I don’t mind the summoner being married to their pet.

Finally, we have the witch, the third pet class of the book. Again, I kinda wished this could’ve been executed with an alternate class ability, but then, the class is presented in such a flavorful and interesting manner that I don’t really mind. The witch’s familiar is a living spellbook, and the witch prepares her spells by communing with the familiar. In lieu of a sorcerer’s bloodline or a wizard’s school, the witch also has a mysterious patron, who may or may not be Nyarlathotep, who grants certain bonus spells in addition to the stuff on the witch’s regular list. The witch also gains hexes every couple of levels, supernatural abilities in the style of Circe, Madam Mim, Morgause and the Wicked Witch. Why, yes, the witch does get a cauldron.

Overall, my favourite classes of this bunch are the witch and the summoner. Paizo has done a good job with them, and its seems they’ll keep doing it, since recent other Pathfinder releases have also included mention of these classes and even NPCs using them. Continued support of this kind is good, and keeps the classes relevant.

However, despite all the hype, the really great thing about this book aren’t the new classes, but the old classes.

Old Classes!

The area where the book really shines is the core classes portion of the Classes chapter, some seventy pages of new material for the old classes, and what I was talking about when I earlier said that this book replaces the Complete series. Every class gets a bunch of alternate class abilities, bags of them, in packages called archetypes. When creating a character, you choose whether to use the standard version in the Pathfinder RPG book, or one of the archetypes, which then replaces certain features of the base class. This is kinda reminiscent of the kits in AD&D 2E, and is a compact way to replace several prestige classes that readily spring to mind from the 3E era. It’s also compact, and the lack of prerequisites for the stuff means you need less planning for level advancement.

Every class gets a crapload of new stuff, so I’m just going to go over my favourites here.

The Barbarian: The brutal pugilist archetype, a barehanded grappler and pit fighter who gets bonuses for combat manoeuvres in lieu of uncanny dodge and trap sense.

The Bard: While I also like the detective, I’d have to say my favourite here is the savage skald, a barbarian bard archetype. Instead of certain types of bardic performances, he gets to incite rage, among other things.

The Cleric: Subdomains, which are modifications on existing domains and replace some of their abilities. I feel it’s a nifty way to tack on new domains without every time needing to specify which deity grants which new domains… or it would be, if they still didn’t need to specify it. There’s pages upon pages of them, too.

The Druid: While the blight druid is also nifty, I must give my vote here to the animal shamans, druids who pick a totem animal and gain certain powers associated with it, such as taking on aspects of the beast or getting more flexible and quicker summonings. By my calculations, at 15th level, a bear shaman druid can not only summon a dire bear as a standard action, but get it with both the giant and advanced templates. Eat your heart out, Akakabuto. While at those levels it’s a glass cannon, you still don’t want to be on the receiving end of its attacks, and the standard action casting time makes it possible for the druid to bring in a whole army of drop bears very quickly. Throw in Augment Summoning and some other summon boosters, and we’re looking at something truly horrendous here.

The Fighter: The fighter’s archetype packages are all centered on a fighting style or specific weapon – the archer, the crossbowman, the phalanx fighter, and so on. They also all replace the armor and weapon training and bravery class features. As my favourite, I’d have to pick the free hand fighter, who wields a one-handed weapon with no shield and gets dodge bonuses and uses his free hand for combat manoeuvres as move and later even immediate actions.

The Monk: Drunken master! The original prestige class always struck me as a bit off, flavour-wise, since the monk default was an ascetic and disciplined warrior, who’d then at 6th level step into this prestige class and become a dangerous alcoholic. Now, the cognitive dissonance is gone, because you get to abuse alcohol from level one!

The Paladin: The paladin gets a couple of archetype packages, and one entire alternate class, a legend of past editions, the antipaladin. He’s literally that, an evil mirror of the paladin class. Instead of mercies, he gets cruelties. Instead of the divine bond, he gets the fiendish boon, which grants him a fiendish servant instead of the pokéhorse. Excellent.

The Ranger: There’s a bunch of archetype packages that emphasize certain elements of the class, like the beastmaster, the guide and the infiltrator, but my favourite thing here would have to still be the selection of alternate combat styles. No longer are rangers limited to bow and arrow or dual wielding, but can also pick from crossbow, sword and board, two-handed weapon (Magic is impressive, but now, Minsc leads! Swords for everyone!), mounted combat, and even natural weapon (Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!).

The Rogue: Here, we have oodles of new rogue tricks and a big pile of archetypes. The swashbuckler would have to be my favourite here. I’m generally a fan of swashbucklers and wittily stabbing people with rapiers, but was terribly disappointed by the Complete Warrior base class, which was good for precisely nothing until Complete Scoundrel came out and provided a multiclass feat that made it a viable choice multiclassing with the rogue. The archetype here is just two abilities, but it also includes recommendations for rogue tricks that fit the archetype, which, as I mentioned, we get by the bushel.

The Sorcerer: A lot of Lovecraft here, in the new bloodlines. Among them, the aquatic, suggested to maybe originate with creeping icthyic infiltrators of remote seaside villages; the dreamspun, who has touched the farthest reaches of the dream world and can shape the dreamscapes of others; and the starsoul, whose soul yearns to span the black and cold gulfs between the stars.

The Wizard: Elementalists! Finally! For some reason, while the elementalist is a very strong spellcaster archetype in fantasy, for some reason we never really got a proper elementalist wizard in the old 3E. There were several prestige classes and the shugenja class from Oriental Adventures, but that’s it, not a true arcane elementalist, at least from WotC. Now, there is one, and I am happy.

The Rest of the Book

In addition to the alternate class abilities, there’s also alternative racial abilities and each race gets alternate favoured class bonuses for certain classes. This is nifty. I envision certain settlements and cultures of different races having certain alternate racial abilities fitting in their style. I think this is greatly preferable to having thirty-seven different elven subraces.

The rest of the book is mostly standard fare for a new player source book. We get piles of feats, many of them specific to certain classes or races and especially stuff for the new base classes. We get piles of new spells. We get piles of new magic items. I’ve thus far only glanced through these sections, and I’ve never been too good at reading a lot of small rule items like feats and spells, and I currently only own the PDF, which I’m also not very good at reading. We also get some new normal weapons and equipment. I gleefully noticed that among the new weapons are a number of old favourite polearms, like the bec de corbin and the glaive-guisarme. Unfortunately, most of these lack illustrations.

Finally, there are some new rules at the back of the book. A couple of new combat manoeuvres, dirty trick, drag, reposition and steal; an action point mechanic, called “hero points”; and finally, the rules for traits and the list of basic traits, which until now have only existed in a PDF on the Paizo website.

Overall, though I’m not intimately familiar with every little thing in the book quite yet – and I doubt I will be for quite some time – it is an excellent, inspiring book and one of the finest player sourcebooks I own. It’s crunch from cover to cover, though, so unlike the GameMastery Guide, you’re not gonna do much with it unless you play Pathfinder RPG. However, if you do, you really don’t have any reason not to at least buy the $10 PDF version.

Me, I’ll be picking up the hardcover next month.

Gen Con Awards Roundup

Turns out there was some brouhaha over in the States over the weekend. The blogosphere has already gone over the awards news and especially the ENnie winners have been thoroughly picked over, but many seem to forget that the ENnies weren’t the only awards presented at the convention.

The Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming

First of all, there was the Diana Jones Award, still my favourite of all gaming scene awards, mostly for reasons of its origin story. The nominees this year were a couple of indie RPGs I’d never heard of, Kagematsu and Montsegur 1244, Fantasy Flight Games’ most excellent board game Chaos in the Old World and the website BoardGameGeek. Pretty much the only thing I don’t like about the award is their slowness in updating the website after the winner has been revealed. Instead, we must go over to the LiveJournal of Robin D. Laws for our award news – and the winner is BoardGameGeek!

I can’t comment on the RPGs, since I’ve never read them and probably couldn’t comment even if I had, but BoardGameGeek is certainly a worthy recipient of the perspex pyramid. When I every now and then go through my brief stints of board game geekery, they’re an invaluable resource for all sorts of nifty things.

The Indie RPG Awards

Then there’s the award for, well, indie games. The definition of “indie” is a big vague, but I figure it’s a bit like pornography – I know it when I see it. The Game of the Year isKagematsu, also a nominee for the Diana Jones Award. Well, I guess it has to be good, now. Kenneth Hite’s Day After Ragnarok for Savage Worlds got Supplement of the Year. I haven’t really kept an eye on the indie RPG scene, mostly relying on RPG.net to attract my attention when something comes out that I might find interesting. Usually, this translates as “what caused the biggest flamewars this year”, but there is the occasional game that strikes me as actually being interesting to play. This year’s winner of Best Support, Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco, is one. It’s a game about planned crimes that go disastrously wrong, in the spirit of films like Fargo and The Way of the Gun. Advertising a game as recreating Coen Brothers movies is actually a pretty good way to get my attention, and having it win awards is a good way to get me to buy it.

The ENnie Awards

And then there’s the big one, and it’s much like Joseph Browning commented last year – getting nominated is the victory. The winners can be pretty reliably determined, it seems, by asking two questions: Does WotC have a major presence among the nominees? If the answer is “yes”, they win. If the answer is “no”, Paizo Publishing wins. This does not apply to the Best Adventure category, which Paizo wins anyway. The nominees are picked (mostly) for quality, while the winners are determined by publisher loyalty. Paizo is especially skilled at this, while WotC is just big enough that they don’t need to be. It’s the problem with an award like this. It’s pretty much impossible for the voters to be familiar with all the nominees, so they pick the stuff they’re familiar with.

I mean, I like Paizo and all, but this is getting ever so slightly ridiculous. Let’s compare with my nominations post from last month. Annoyingly, the ENnies haven’t yet got their website updated, either, but there is no shortage of lists of winners, thanks to the intrepid bloggers present at Gen Con.

For the art awards, my picks for best cover art were reversed, in that Eclipse Phase got silver and Pathfinder Bestiary got an unsurprising gold. I voted Rogue Trader for silver in interior art, but it went to Shadowrun 20th Anniversary Edition. In cartography, Pathfinder City Map Folio won and Aces & Eights: Judas Crossing came second. Interestingly, WotC’s Revenge of the Giants didn’t even place. I think there needs to be a critical mass of nominated products before the publisher loyalty thing starts to really affect the final standings.

No great surprises anywhere, though I’m slightly disappointed that Rogue Trader didn’t win Best Production Values, since the book is clearly put together better than Pathfinder RPG. Not that PFRPG is in any way shabby work, but FFG just dominates in that area. Would’ve been nifty to see The Grinding Gear win something for Best Adventure, but Raggi just doesn’t have enough name recognition yet.

Interestingly, Jeramy Ware’s Judge’s Pick Award went to Fiasco, and Day After Ragnarok won gold for Best Setting.

Five Days in Milan

Looking at the RPG Bloggers feed, it seems like pretty much everybody spent last weekend in Indianapolis. I wish I could’ve gone, too. Instead, I had to spend five days carrying my mother’s bags in Milan, Italy.

Milan in August is a horrible holiday destination. It turns out that the Italians have a habit of taking some vacation time themselves around this time of the year, which resulted in half the city being closed for the summer. However, this is a game blog and I will take the full rant elsewhere. Instead, I will focus on the gaming stuff.

The Friendly Local Game Store

Tracking down the local game store was a bit of an ordeal. The first address I managed to find, for a store called Avalon, was from 2008 and the shop had since closed down. Another, Fantamagus, was closed for the summer, and a third address led to an apartment block. Finally, I found one called Joker, on Via della palla, which was not only open but staffed by a friendly guy who spoke pretty good English. Unfortunately, the store only sold Italian translations of American  roleplaying games, most of which were D&D 4E and had no Italian originals at all. So, no additions to my collection this time. However, they had three crates of miscellaneous stuff on 50% discount, which contained some nifty finds. I picked up Hunter Book: Wayward for the old Hunter: The Reckoning and a Scarred Lands module, The Serpent Citadel. I have no idea if it’s any good, but I’m a bit of a fan of the setting and have been picking up the books when I’ve found them for cheap. I also purchased twelve blister packs of Black Scorpion Miniatures’ pirate miniatures, which are beautiful, beautiful pieces of work, and I felt like I was ripping off the store for taking them home for so cheap.

It is mildly bothersome to me that I could not find an Italian original roleplaying game in the most populous and richest city in the country, with something like twelve different universities. I have no idea what the gaming scene is like in Italy, but from my admittedly narrow point of view it looked like it’s localizations of American stuff all the way. I also don’t actually know of any Italian RPGs. I can name original roleplaying games from Poland (Wiedźmin), Spain (Aguelarre, Capitán Alatriste) and France (Cadwallon), but none from Italy. I hope I’m just wrong with this, though. John H. Kim’s listing of Italian games seems to be sorta up to date up to 2008, the newest game is a translation of an English-language game and going by that, it looks like the scene has mostly lain fallow for the last ten years or so. The Italian RPG section of Stratelibri.it isn’t encouraging, either. I can’t seem to find anything that isn’t a comic book or a translation, and they have a couple of hundred titles. I don’t actually understand Italian, though, so again, I might be wrong.

Anybody have more solid knowledge on this?

Sharp Metal Implements, Big Churches

Until Sunday, I was prepared to write a long post about St. Ambrose’s Pusterla Museum, which is a museum of medieval weaponry and criminology in Milan. However, when we got to the door, a bit before noon, it was locked. This was over an hour before the siesta was to begin and according to the website, it should’ve been open. So, I can’t tell you what it was like. However, it has come to my attention recently that many of the horrible torture devices used in the Middle Ages by the Spanish Inquisition and other law enforcement agencies are actually hoaxes, such as the iron maiden or, presumably, the choke pear. The breaking wheel is real, though. While this stuff does have a place in fantasy roleplaying games and the Hellknights of Chelaxia can have all the iron maidens they want, it’s interesting (and somewhat comforting) to know that this stuff wasn’t actually regularly used on heretics at any point in history. Real torture implements, if nothing else, are a lot less creative.

Next to St. Ambrose’s Pusterla Museum is the Basilica of St. Ambrose. This is notable mostly for containing the remains of Ambrose himself, on display (and being a bigass and really old church, but it’s kinda overshadowed by the Duomo, which is the third-biggest cathedral in the world, a couple of miles away).

Personally, I think putting corpses up for display as an act of reverence is mildly disturbing and more than a bit macabre. Therefore, it is excellent fodder for roleplaying games. I don’t really have the time to dig up interesting sources for this thing the Catholic Church has about saints, but there’s a lot of food for thought there. Another thing about saints that I actually knew but couldn’t help but notice when we were going through the art galleries was that each saint tends to be depicted in a certain way, and only in that way, to the degree that after a while, I could walk to the door of a room, glance about, and go “That’s Saint Sebastian, that’s Jerome, that’s Peter, that head on a plate is Saint John the Baptist and the bloke in armour is Saint George“.

The concept of saints in general has been usually overlooked in fantasy roleplaying games, which I think is a pity, because I think applying the concept to a fantasy world would be interesting. What constitutes a miracle when it’s a default assumption that priests wield powers beyond mortal ken? What sort of saints would different deities have? The god of war? The god of love? The god of death?

In general, I think religion in roleplaying games is too often handwaved as lists of spells and powers that priests get, and in some unfortunate cases, the combat stats of the gods themselves. I’ve written about this before, actually. I know that the topic of saints has also been addressed before, but the very fact that I can’t remember any examples off the top of my head tells me that it hasn’t been covered nearly enough.

And that’s all for Milan.