Rise of the Runelords – An Autopsy of a Campaign

It took us 29 sessions and a ruleset change over the period of 19 months and 20 days. It cost the characters 13 months and six days and two party members, but finally, last night, we played the final session of our Rise of the Runelords campaign. Karzoug the Claimer, the Runelord of Greed, was defeated, and despite things looking grim, the only casualty on the heroes’ side was the druid’s wolf animal companion.

It was quite a ride, and we had great fun. Of course, some sessions – and some of the adventures – were better than others. Still, no session truly sucked and some of them were the best sessions I’ve run. I’ll be reviewing the modules themselves in a few later posts, but now, I will just bask in the afterglow. It is not often that I get to actually finish a campaign – most of them just sort of taper off after a while and get forgotten. Actually, I can think of only a handful of campaigns I’ve been in that had a proper ending. I think the adventure path format is great for this – you have a beginning and an ending, which provides a framework for the campaign and a definite goal and endpoint to strive for. It’s somehow very motivating.

Incidentally, this post will contain craploads of SPOILERS for the campaign. If you are playing or intend to play it, find something better to read – and heck, you may not even get all that much out of it unless you’re at least passingly familiar with the campaign already. There are links to my archives and other interesting blogs on the right, for instance – such as Blue_Hill’s Never Play Poker with the GM. I feel I must thank Blue_Hill here, because he created Pathfinder conversions for the major NPCs in Sins of the Saviors, which were a great boon to me. So, thank you. Here’s my Karzoug conversion (complete with comments to track the math).

I posted here about starting the campaign back in late March 2009 and it kicked off back in April of 2009. Then I sorta forgot about it, and the next session wasn’t played until the next September. From then on, though, the campaign rumbled on steadily, with one to five games per month, except in December and during the summer months when we spread out from Tampere to our hometowns. I kept a campaign website (mostly in Finnish) at the Mekanismi wiki, where it will now be archived. It’s currently not entirely finished and I still haven’t written all the session reports (some of which veer into the territory of bad Salvatore pastiche), but in the end, I hope to see all the character pages updated to reflect the PCs at the end of the campaign, with details their exploits after the end of the campaign and a general aftermath of the campaign, and the events in Varisia after the fall of Karzoug, the deaths of so many powerful individuals and the emergence of Fort Rannick as a strong and aggressive frontier stronghold. I’m sorta conceiving all my Pathfinder campaigns as occurring in the same timeline, though for the most part, they’ve occurred far enough from one another that it’s barely relevant.

The Heroes

Our group was five strong, with one player only joining in at the start of the third session.

Michiell “Dawn” Grellson

The group’s sarcastic priest of Sarenrae, and by far the wisest of the lot. The de facto leader of the group, who most often took the initiative to steer the party in the right direction. Wielded the bastard sword Madrigal, taken from the slain villain Nualia at the end of the first module and since then modified, re-enchanted, renamed and improved, but still tremendously nasty-looking. Dawn is big on turning the weapons of evil against itself, but the most effective weapon he really wielded was the party of four other heroes whom he kept pointed at the right direction and patched up. Dawn was actually a late addition to the group, brought by Sheriff Belor Hemlock from Magnimar as part of the town guard reinforcements, but joined the party to hunt down Nualia after she killed Niero Brandt, the party’s rogue, an old friend of Dawn’s, and the player’s previous character. He used to have a bushy beard, but shaved it after it grew back patchy, when the pick of the stone giant Teraktinus tore open his face.

Sir Gelrick of Magnimar

That’s actually Baron Gelrick of Rannick, at the end. Sir Gelrick, a paladin of Abadar, was another late addition to the group, sent by his church to track down and arrest the criminal Rufus, whom he’d hunted up and down the coast from Riddleport to Magnimar. As the only noble born member of the group, he was elevated by Lord Mayor Haldmeer Grobaras to the rank of baron after the heroes cleared out Fort Rannick of the ogres who had taken control. Gelrick in battle is a fearsome thing to behold, especially in the later stages of the campaign, when he wielded a flame tongue blade enchanted in the waters of the Runeforge. The first party member to gain the title of Dragonslayer, with the killing of the great white Arkrhyst on the shore of Lake Stormunder.

Skrym

The other major warrior of the group, a Shoanti barbarian of the Axe Clan, torn between his home in Sandpoint and his allegiance to the clan in the Calphiak Mountains. Skrym is not the sharpest of swords, but he wisely understood this himself and usually kept his mouth shut to avoid making bad situations worse. When things eventually got bad, though, Skrym could be relied on to kill things messily and quickly. He was also the only member of the party to be brought back from death’s door to continue the fight, after one of the Graul ogrekin slammed an ogre hook through his head. The second Dragonslayer of the group, who took the head of the blue dragon Ghlorofaex in Xin-Shalast.

Jearis Tarlangaval

An elven rogue from the Mordant Spire, whose dominating personality trait is greed. When Dairhe argued that the party should return to slay the dragon Longtooth because it was an inherently evil creature and a bane of elves, Jearis supported him not because of any goodness but because the dragon would have a hoard. Jearis also kept meticulous track of every last copper piece earned during the party’s adventures and invested in several bags of holding to carry it all, and was also responsible for appraising it, selling it and then dividing up the loot. Coupled with the elf’s transmutation specialization and desire to become the new ruler of Xin-Shalast, one wonders if the goal was to become the Runelord in the Runelord’s place…

Dairhe Faulilj

An elven druid, wanderer and occasional Pathfinder. Dairhe has a wolf. The wolf bites things, though after surviving ogres, giants, dragons, devils, ghouls, murder cults, an advanced elite dread vampire decapus sorcerer and all sorts of other nasty things, it was finally killed by Karzoug’s magic in the Eye of Avarice. Dairhe himself provided healing for the wolf and fire from the sky. The elf was otherwise mostly remarkable for being ridiculously capable in the wilderness, to the point that he probably could have tracked a flying creature and found food and water for an army in a desert. Vaguely amusingly or annoyingly, Dairhe was played by Gastogh of The Small Dragon’s Den, whose last blog update says “My gaming will now go on another indefinite hiatus”, in a post dated in August 2009, when he’d just played a session of the campaign twelve days earlier and was due to play another in three days.

Some Highlights

The campaign had some awesome moments. Here are some worthy of mention that aren’t in the adventure books themselves.

  • When the party was still trying to find its bearings and learn to work as a team, or act decisively, they were searching the villain Tsuto Kaijitsu in the tunnels under the Sandpoint Glassworks. Dairhe opens a door and finds Tsuto there, reeking of booze and asleep. However, he opens his eyes and goes “What in the hells..?” – so Dairhe closes the door on him, and the party has a quick palaver on what to do in the corridor. Then they shout calls for Tsuto to surrender through the door. This goes on for some minutes, with no answer. Finally, Dairhe opens the door again to peek inside… and is rewarded with an arrow in the face from the villain who’d had time to prepare and get ready. The druid went down, and Skrym tried to capture Tsuto. Dairhe’s wolf, however, had different thoughts and they could not restrain the animal before it tore out Tsuto’s throat.
  • In another example of the party’s early indecisiveness, they made several trips to the Thistletop dungeons, wearing down the defenders a bit at a time but also allowing them to rest, recuperate and prepare for the inevitable counterattack. This, in the end, led to the death of Niero Brandt, and finally the party discovering that Nualia had fled with the last yeth hound. This led to a merry chase and tracking her all over the Sandpoint hinterlands as the day grew longer, meeting with several goblin tribes and culminating in an exploration of the Brinestump Marsh, where they ran into and killed the cannibal goblin Vorka before finally encountering Nualia as the rainy evening turned into night and slaying their first major villain. Her sword ended up in the hands of Dawn, Niero’s replacement.
  • The following session was also mostly improvised from the material in the adventures. The player of Rufus, a violent and foul-mouthed dwarf, wanted to play a different character, so we introduced Sir Gelrick, a paladin who was trying to find Rufus and arrived in Sandpoint the morning after the party had celebrated (loudly and boisterously) the defeat of Nualia and the goblins. Rufus was not to be found, and the party together followed a trail of clues that involved a fight with some Scarnetti scions and finally ended on the Chopper’s Isle, where they found his ritually murdered and gruesomely mutilated body, with a trail of footprints leading into the surf. Rufus’s murderer turned out to be the serial killer Skinsaw Man, who would murder again and again before the party caught him.
  • After the heroes had returned from the Runeforge, before they embarked on the journey to the distant Xin-Shalast, they spent some time getting their affairs in order. Dawn, during this downtime, went to the private cemetery of Niero Brandt’s family one night, with a shovel. Then he dug up Niero’s body, at this point eleven months dead, and cast raise dead. After that, he dragged Niero, his erstwhile adventuring companion, to the worst watering hole in all of Magnimar, where the two got drunk and talked crap at each other until the wee hours. As they were the same player’s characters, this in practice meant him dissing himself, Gollum-style. Then, Dawn dragged Niero to a waiting ship in the harbour and threw him on board, to get him far away from his enemies in town. The ship? The Jenevieve. Its destination? Sargava. Niero Brandt will be returning in January, in the Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path. To me, this was one of the crowning moments of the campaign, since it came totally out of the blue, entirely on the player’s own initiative.

Over the next week, I hope to jot down some notes about each of the adventure modules and make observations about running them.

Review: GameMastery Guide

The GameMastery Guide is a rulebook for Pathfinder RPG, from Paizo Publishing. It actually came out in the spring, but I haven’t gotten around to really reading it from cover to cover until now. Picking up the hardcopy on a whim last weekend contributes to this.

The book is a guide and a toolkit for the GM, weighs in at 320 pages, and, along with its spiritual predecessor, the 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide II, is now one of my favourite GM guides.

Though the book is a D&D book, and does contain the assumption you’re running Pathfinder RPG, I think much of the content is just as useful to GMs running other games, especially fantasy, and the price of $10 for the PDF isn’t going to destroy anyone’s bank account. The rules-specific stuff is mostly in the Advanced Topics chapter towards the end of the book.

Of course, one good book of GM advice does not differ all that much from another good book of GM advice, and a lot of the content in the GameMastery Guide isn’t exactly new to me. However, to a new Game Master, the advice can be invaluable, and even those of us who have spent ten years or more behind the screen can find useful things in these. I think the GameMastery Guide is a bit heavy in information that I’d consider self-obvious, but I’ve learned that there are always those for whom it is not.

The book explains things from a very basic level, answering questions like “what is a GM?”, goes on to running a game and starting a campaign, taking back mistakes, handling PC death and TPK, narrative techniques, acting, using accessories and aids, building encounters, and so forth. I would’ve liked a bit more on PC death, personally. There’s a player taxonomy, there’s advice on using NPCs and handling PCs, there’s world creation stuff, and it’s all pretty good.

A few things I found were of interest were two pages on creating a campaign guide, a document for the players that tells them what the campaign will be like and what sort of things should be considered when creating a character. I’ve been using these for a while, now. Obviously, Paizo’s adventure paths come with their own, which are also exceedingly handy. Another one I liked was the 2,5 pages on game changers, abilities and spells that the PCs will gain that can change the nature of problem solving and tactics – flight, divination spells, teleportation, and the like. These are very important considerations when preparing certain types of adventure, since it’ll be a short game indeed if the party can just use the Gordian knot approach and solve the entire plot at the beginning with a single spell. There’s advice on fortune telling, gambling, puzzles and riddles, running mysteries and investigations, and all that sort of thing.

In addition to advice, of course, there are tools. There are random plot tables, random macguffin tables, a page with different cultural titles in 20 different languages (and they got the ä’s right in the Finnish ones!), random magic item tables, tables to furnish and populate your dungeons, encounter tables, and the single most awesome page I have seen in a roleplaying game product, page 55, Words Every Game Master Should Know. It’s a big wall of text composed of weird and wonderful words, like abscess, bashi-bazouk, gallowglass, necrophagous, pustule, thane, and so forth. I spent a lovely afternoon looking up in the dictionary the ones I didn’t know. There’s a glaring omission, though, in that the list lacks “gazebo“, though that might be more properly filed under words every player should know…

There’s also a convenient little ruleset for settlements that I’ve already used in our Eberron game to flesh out the village of Eagle’s Ravine. Other similar little rulesets are the fast play ship combat rules, chase rules, the haunt rules familiar to players of Rise of the Runelords, and even a two-page set of madness rules. Then there are new hazards, drug and addiction rules, and finally rules for drunkenness (A character can consume a number of alcoholic beverages equal to 1 plus double his Con modifier before being sickened for 1 hour equal to the number of drinks above this maximum. Turns out my Con modifier is higher than I previously thought.).

At the end of the book there are some 50 pages of pregenerated NPC statistics for mundane situations, from torturers to noblemen to the village idiot, with a few lines of notes on adaptation and usage. These are very useful material for when you need quick stats for the town guard or someone decides to pick a fight with Bob the NPC.

Finally, there’s an expansion on the Pathfinder RPG Appendix N, in the form of a two-page Appendix listing recommended literature, reference works, music and films. From the ones that I do recognize, it’s a lovely collection of titles. For those of you with Spotify, here’s a playlist I knocked up based on the recommended music.

Overall, I think the book provides a very broad but rather shallow exploration of Game Mastering, and some topics, like the madness rules, left me yearning for a more in-depth study (though having a madness mechanic that you can just drop in the campaign without, say, a separate SAN score for the characters, is handy). Nevertheless, it is a good book, and though I think it’d be most useful for new Game Masters, there’s always something new and interesting for every GM in a well-written guide, and I doubt this will prove an exception. And really, those NPC stats alone made it worth the purchase for me.