Let’s Read Planescape: OP1 Tales of the Outer Planes

Back when I started this project, I said that Planescape Campaign Setting is the beginning. Only, that’s not really true, is it? Before there was Sigil and the Lady of Pain, before there were factions, there was Jeff Grubb and Manual of the Planes. In fact, even before that, there were things like Ed Greenwood’s articles on the Nine Hells in Dragon. The idea of going out to meet gods and kick the asses of demons on their home turf was hardly a new one with Planescape.

I’m not going to talk about Manual of the Planes. It was not included in the set of books I received and though I own a PDF copy, I think it’s rather dry. I may make a post comparing the AD&D 1E, 3E and 4E Manuals of the Planes at some point in the future, but not for a while. Today, I will talk about the module OP1 Tales of the Outer Planes. It’s a 96-page scenario anthology published in 1988. Its ruleset is still 1st Edition and it is apparently meant to give DMs something to do with their Manuals of the Planes. It is emphatically not Planescape, which was still years in the future. It does a number of things the Planescape box explicitly advises against. However, it also shows some of the ideas of Planescape put in practice before there ever was a Planescape, and this is how it becomes interesting.

Let’s take a look.

The book opens up with “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded”, a scenario for characters of levels 1-2. It starts in Arabel (Forgotten Realms), and the World Serpent Inn. In the beginning, they’re tricked by a jester into taking up an errand for their mistress. They need to get something for her, from someone who will give it to them gladly if they first get something for him from someone else who also needs a thing from someone else, and so on, until it becomes a full circle. The Unity of Rings, baby!

Not that anybody had thought up the Unity of Rings at this point in time. Also, the jester’s mistress is Hecate, and the other stops in the adventure are the Wild Hunt, the Raven, Enki, Tlazolteotl & Xochipilli, and finally Lliira. That’s four deities and one near-deific figure that the characters will meet (the Aztec deities are more in the background). At levels 1-2.

I would, at this point, turn to a piece of advice given in Planescape Campaign Setting – the deities should be mysterious, and not met by just anyone. They are powerful, for all intents and purposes omnipotent within their realms, and prefer to work through intermediaries, without necessarily even revealing their involvement.

“A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded” wouldn’t be a bad intro to the Outer Planes, structurally speaking, but its use of the powers reduces them to the mysterious stranger handing out quests at the tavern, except without the mystery. While I appreciate how the adventure brings together several different mythologies, showing how they’re all active within the same multiverse, it lacks finesse. However, there’s actually stuff for the PCs to do here. There’s another Planescape adventure in another book showcasing the Unity of Rings that essentially reduces the PCs to a spectating role. I’ll discuss that when I get to it.

The second adventure in the book is “Castle at the Edge of Time”, a 2nd-level adventure that is meant to follow from the last one. There is no plot connection as such, but the PCs are hired for their experience in planeswalking, and the module references a magical weapon they acquired in “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded”.

It’s a middling railroad disguised as an investigative module that doesn’t really have an ending. The PCs are hired to escort a negotiator from Arabel to the fortress of the Sapphire Mage, in the Ethereal Plane. The negotiations are about the purchase of Arabel. The Sapphire Mage wants to buy a city. However, the negotiator is on the Zhentarim payroll. Hijinks ensue, she attempts to sabotage the Mage’s summoning circle without any apparent motive. If the PCs do not figure out that she’s guilty earlier, the module ends with a deus ex machina. See, the villain must not succeed, even if the heroes are too stupid to catch her. There is also an interesting negotiation subsystem here, but nothing is really done with it.

We are also introduced to the Demiplanes of Electromagnetism and Time.

The third adventure in the anthology is “The Brewing Storm”. 3rd-4th levels, and the characters must rescue a jann amir from the grues before they eat him. No bullshit. In D&D, grues are evil minor elemental creatures.

There’s a nifty map of an area of the Elemental Plane of Air and the module itself isn’t bad. Nicely open.

“The Voyage of the Nereid” takes a group of 3rd to 4th-level PCs into the Elemental Plane of Water (making it the third adventure in a collection called Tales of the Outer Planes that doesn’t happen on the Outer Planes). The party must here rescue the crew of a submersible craft from a sea hag before they are handed over to Olhydra, the Princess of the Sea (the ruler of evil water elementals – every element has a good and evil ruler). It looks like a short and easy adventure, if a bit straightforward. I might actually see myself converting and running this one.

The next three adventures are called “Through the Fire”, “The Missing Kristal” and “Into the Astral”. Guess if any of them go to the Outer Planes, either.

“Through the Fire” is a smash & grab into the Elemental Plane of Fire. The PCs’ task is to fetch a statue made of fire from an efreeti’s treasure chamber. It’s a pretty straightforward gig, but also offers noncombat solutions to problems, which I appreciate. In fact, I think it is possible to complete the adventure without a single combat roll. Unfortunately, it lacks a map.

“The Missing Kristal” takes the party into the Elemental Plane of Earth. Simple rescue mission to rescue the daughter of a Prime duke from a dao, an earth genie. Again, no maps included, but the adventure seems to be a decent way to highlight and bring out the weirdness of the Elemental Plane of Earth.

“Into the Astral”, in turn, takes the PCs… guess where! In there, they storm a githyanki fortress to grab a magic item.

None of these three are particularly interesting on their own, but I think that if the DM plays up the setting, possibly with the aid of the relevant Planescape sourcebooks, they might be worthwhile to run.

Then, we come to “An Element of Chaos”, a scenario by John A. Nephew that takes place in a celestial citadel that has been corrupted by the presence of a slaad lord. This is a clever piece of work that foreshadows many of the themes later present in Planescape. There’s a mad agathion who wishes to arrange the furniture in a room to symbolize the ultimate ambiguity of existence, and the idea of changing the planes by belief is also touched upon. The insane inhabitants of the citadel are creatively mad in interesting and different ways. There are a few who are just axe crazy, but interaction is possible in a variety of ways, and the tone of the adventure is suitably chaotic, ranging from whimsical to sad to horrible as the PCs explore the citadel. Also, this one comes with a map.

Following that is “A Friendly Wager”. It’s another “meet the deities” adventure, but I think it’s rather more elegant than “A Simple Deed, Well Rewarded”. All the deities involved hail from the Greek pantheon, and what they’re up to is… pretty much in character for how they’re depicted in the myths, actually. They’re a petty and vindictive bunch of tossers, concerned with their own amusements and meddling with mortals. Indeed, the central plot thread of the adventure is Zeus lusting after a nymph princess, and the PCs are manipulated into involving themselves by Hermes. Because he was bored. The module emphasizes well the point that even though Olympus (or Arborea, as the later editions know it) is chaotic good, that doesn’t mean it’s in any way safe. It’s also amusing what a difference context can make – what in your ordinary D&D game would be an ornery NPC sending you on a number of quests to prove your worth is here transformed into an echo of Heracles’ deeds merely by dint of being set on Olympus.

Then there’s “The Sea of Screams”, a tour of the Abyss in search of the goddess Kali. I really didn’t like this one. The characters are sent to accompany a cleric who claims to have killed Kali, except he really hasn’t, he just thinks he has. No explanation is given of how he came to be under this misapprehension, except that Kali’s cultists have quieted down, which is actually the result of the goddess enacting a huge ritual that may or may not amplify her power. It goes on to explain that in truth, no mortal can even hope to hurt Kali and the cleric’s work against her cultists hasn’t even been noticed. However, the characters manage to disturb the ritual merely by going to the right layer of the Abyss and shouting out her name. Weak. Nevermind the fact that apparently the module starts somewhere in the Forgotten Realms, where Kali has no presence, and there’s no attempt to explain why an evidently western-themed fantasy setting has suddenly experienced a binge of Thuggee murders or an attempt to explain how the different cultural sphere affects the worship of Kali (which is actually an interesting question in a wider context, and something I must discuss later). Also, this ritual is just background crap that the PCs have no way of finding out, and in the end things return to status quo. It’s like a particularly bad episode of Star Trek.

Wrapping up the adventure portion of the book is “To Hell and Back”, which is just bad. Not only does it overuse deities, it even features Sekolah as what amounts to little more than a random encounter to be fought (and he really can be fought off). It features the archdevil Baalzebul openly commanding the PCs to undertake a mission for him, in the middle of the taproom of the goddamn World Serpent Inn. In the end, his plans aren’t even foiled by the PCs, but by a bunch of devas who also happen to be drinking at the same time and go off to warn their bosses – way to go, you genius plotter, you. In the climax, Tyr and Osiris show up with a divine host to kick ass. If the PCs have behaved like good-aligned and brave adventurers during the scenario, Tyr will buy them a round in the World Serpent Inn after the battle is done. So much for experiencing the numinous. I’m not sure I could write something this banal if I tried. Geh!

Finally, the book is wrapped up by a bunch of lair writeups. These are something that showed up in a bunch of late AD&D sourcebooks, most notably the Forgotten Realms accessories Book of Lairs and Lords of Darkness. It’s a one-page writeup of an encounter area and adventure seed for a certain monster. We get lairs for archons, babau, berbalang and basilisk, dao, efreet (using the Battlesystem rules), farastu demodand, githyanki, githzerai, grey slaad, ildriss, kuei, marid, modrons, planetar, p’oh. spined devil and ultrodaemon. Some of them can be utilized as parts of an adventure, others are just excuses to fight weird things. Overall, I am not unhappy that the lair writeups died out in short order.

Final Verdict

Tales of the Outer Planes isn’t much of a book. I’m not a fan of the short adventure format, and few of these really capture the wonder of being on another plane of existence. Others seem to actively fight against it and prefer to be as unmemorable as possible. It’s a far cry from Planescape. However, the book is unmistakably a forebear of the setting, even if it is visible in only a few of the adventures.

It lacks voice, though, both in the sense that it doesn’t yet have Planescape’s distinctive slang and in that there is no editorial voice. It’s debatable if the editor actually did anything beyond proofreading, actually. The adventures are not even presented in an uniform format, which feels rather sloppy. Overall, I felt the book was rather uninspired, which contributed to the fact it’s taken me this long to get this post written – I wrote half of this hot off the tail of having finished up Planescape Campaign Setting, and then I sort of stalled. Though it does have redeeming and redeemable features, Tales of the Outer Planes is more of a historical curiosity than anything you’d want to use at the game table.

Next up, as Eero Tuovinen wished, Tales from the Infinite Staircase.

Jade Regent and Rules for NPC Relationships

A couple of weeks back, Paizo kicked off their ninth Pathfinder adventure path, Jade Regent. I’m pretty excited about the campaign and I’m all set to run it after we’re done with the Serpent’s Skull (11th session done, just started the third book). It revisits the town of Sandpoint, where Rise of the Runelords kicked off all those years ago.

Along with the first installment of the adventure path, they released the Jade Regent Player’s Guide as a free download. It’s a cool thing they do with the APs – release a short document briefing the players about what sort of thing they may expect, how different races and classes may fit in the campaign’s beginning setup, what sort of skills or archetypes are recommended and so forth. There are also the campaign traits. These are small mechanical bonuses that are come with an explicit background element that ties the character into the campaign. For example, in Serpent’s Skull, these were all about how the character had come to be on the good ship Jenivere whose shipwreck kicks off the first adventure. In Legacy of Fire, they all gave motivations for the characters to join the Trade Princess Almah in her quest to reclaim Kelmarane. In Jade Regent, the traits all outline relationships the PCs have with the four key NPCs of the campaign.

Jade Regent is a campaign on the road. It’s about taking a caravan from Sandpoint, through the Land of the Linnorm Kings, over the Crown of the World, and into Tian Xia. Accompanying the PCs – or, really, it’s more a case of the PCs accompanying them – are the former adventurer Ameiko Kaijitsu, the caravan’s owner Sandru Vhiski, the elven ranger Shalelu Andosana and the Desnan priestess Koya Mvashti. At least one of the NPCs is absolutely crucial to the campaign’s plot, two of them are familiar from Rise of the Runelords. All four will be accompanying the party on the caravan.

The campaign seems to really emphasize interaction with these four NPCs, to the point where the Jade Regent Player’s Guide also includes a couple of pages of relationship rules for them. You know, like in Dragon Age: Origins (or a number of other, older computer games, but the system in DA:O seems to be very close to this one).

The rules outline the relationship score, the different relationship levels and ways the score can go up or down. The first module, The Brinewall Legacy, contains the GM’s half of the rules, with the specifics of each NPC – what are their turn-ons and turn-offs, what sort of mechanical boons they grant when you hit Relationship Score 31, and so forth. Each one also has the Romance Score, how big your character’s Relationship Score must be before they can try initiating a romance with the NPC. The boons differ depending on whether you count the NPC a friend or a rival.

I’m not really sure how I should feel about these rules. They take interaction with NPCs to a very mechanical level. You can optimize a character to have a better chance at getting it on with an NPC. You can even play an entire romance just as Charisma rolls and Diplomacy checks. Also, they’re pretty much the single most videogamey rules element I’ve ever seen in a D&D game, and that includes 4E. This is BioWare CRPG material, served straight up. I am deeply suspicious.

However, even playing the numbers is still playing it, and we don’t run combats by just rattling off numbers, either.

Well, except for that one time, but we suddenly got a non-gaming audience and the halfling was in a compromising position with the succubus (and it was exactly what it looked like) so I made the conscious decision to drop the flavour and play the numbers so we’d get the session done on schedule.

Anyway. NPC interaction and the roleplaying thereof is not a strong suit of mine. It’s something I need to work on, and this just might help me with that. Much like combat rules provide a framework for lively action scenes, such relationship rules can serve as the mechanical structure for interpersonal drama. The associated boons may motivate even the players who are there just for the numbers game to take the bait. Rules such as these may be an excellent motivating tool.

It’s still videogamey as all hell, though, which I’m not too happy about. But I will be giving the rules a whirl, once my Jade Regent campaign kicks off in the distant future. If they don’t work, we can always drop them. Same thing with the caravan rules in the same guide.

In general, I think this kind of thing is a strength of 3E and Pathfinder RPG. There’s a crapload of different rules subsystems in supplements and accessories that you can choose to use or ignore and there’s one for every situation (though I think this is the first one I’ve seen for this particular situation). Someone, I think it was Lizard, said it pretty well on RPG.net a while back – it’s easier to ignore a rule than make a new one up on the spot.

But Jade Regent is still months in the future. There are still four books left in Serpent’s Skull and hordes of serpentfolk and Satanic apes to kill.

Ropecon Reviews: Red Sands – Somalia in Roleplaying Games

…or Punaiset hiekatSomalia roolipeleissä, as the book is actually called. It’s a 54-page stapled booklet written, illustrated and self-published by Wille Ruotsalainen, previously known for his Kalevala sourcebook Roudan maa (“The Land of Frost”). Colour cover, black and white inside. Apparently, the book began life as an article for the Roolipelaaja magazine, but the rag folded before it could see print – so it was expanded into a sourcebook.

Of the eight or so Finnish games and game products released at Ropecon, this was the one I was most interested in (excluding, perhaps, Dream of the King in Yellow, but I’m biased there). Like Wille points out in the preface, we’ve got 10,000 people speaking Somali as their first language in this country, and about half of them are Finnish citizens. Despite this, nobody seems to know much about their culture, history, or traditions. It is an interesting topic.

The book also hastens to note that it is not an anthropological survey or a serious cultural study. It’s a resource for roleplaying games, and to be used as such. I am aware of one another RPG book about the country, Holistic Designs’ Somalia D20 from 2003. I am not personally familiar with it, but their earlier work Afghanistan D20 did not particularly impress me, though there was one sidebar about The Man Who Would Be King that I remember with warmth. But I digress.

Punaiset hiekat is just a sourcebook. It ties itself to no specific game or even genre. It gives an overview of the local culture and history in a rather general fashion, without dwelling on the details overmuch, and then tells how all this might be used in RPGs set in different settings or eras – the medieval era with the Adal Sultanate, the colonial age and its associated rebellions, the modern era or the near future (like cyberpunk, except everyone is too poor to buy cybernetics), or even a fantasy setting. For the latter, there’s a chapter on mythological beasties.

The book also includes a pair of adventures, “But Where Is the Warlord?” and “Mamnuuc Maktabad”. The first one is a modern or near-future scenario about a black ops hit on a local warlord, where the weight of the story is in the morality of imperialism. The second one is a more traditional adventure, where a British-Italian expedition, including the PCs, heads off to find a lost library in the Somali desert, sometime in the 1920s or 30s, the era of Indiana Jones. Hijinks ensue.

I could actually see myself running that one. Savage Worlds, perhaps.

So, is the book any good?

Yeah, I’d say so. Though I haven’t the expertise to evaluate whether Wille has actually done his research or just pulled stuff out of his hat, it has this sort of truthful ring to it. It feels a bit like it is mythologizing the people with its characterizations of the Somalis as passionate and warlike and warrior poets and so forth, but hey, like the book itself says, its a game aid, not serious scientific research. Also, it sounds suspiciously like how a people mythologizes themselves (cf. the Finnish national self-image of stubborn, unyielding endurance before adversity and all that crap). So, never mind the rumbling, that’s just Eddie Saïd rolling in his grave, nothing out of the ordinary. (For what it’s worth, I think someone quipped during Ropecon that the book is better-researched than its writer’s pro gradu thesis.)

The book reads well. Wille Ruotsalainen is a capable writer, and though I spotted a few typos, clumsy sentences and one minor layout gaffe, there’s nothing unforgivable on that front.

I’m not gonna comment on the art. If I were, it’d be a glib remark about burkhas, cheesecake and female oppression and so culturally insensitive it’s not even funny. So I’m just not gonna go there.

Anyway, it’s a good book. It inspires me. Especially the bits about 1920s and 30s. Ever since I saw the play Corto Maltese a few months back, I’ve had this idea for a game set in the interbellum period, somewhere in Turkey, the Middle East, or thereabouts. It’s a fascinating period, and the non-European milieus make it easy to play up the mysticism.

Only available in Finnish. For information on how to get your own (an advisable course of action indeed), check out this forum thread.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know both the author and the graphic designer, and they’re both swell people, but I paid full price for the book.

Review: Prince of Wolves

So, a bit over a year ago or thereabouts, Paizo Publishing kicked off their Pathfinder Tales novel line. I subscribed immediately and have been a subscribed for a year now. I think the fifth novel just came out.

I finally got around to reading one of them. I wasn’t originally intending to review it, but as it happened, I got an extra copy in my monthly adventure path shipment a couple of months back, so I figured this is the least I can do.

It’s the first of the series, Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross, and as far as light fantasy goes, it’s not a bad book.

Prince of Wolves is set in Ustalav, the place in Golarion that’s designed to accommodate all the Ravenloft stuff. It’s gothic and there are vampires and werewolves and superstitious villagers and all the tropes of Gothic literature.

The tropes go so far that I kept a mental checklist and ticked off stuff as it appeared. Not a whole lot of bases that the novel didn’t hit, which is both a good and a bad thing.

The main characters are Count Varian Jeggare, a half-elven Pathfinder Venture-Captain from Cheliax, and his bodyguard Radovan, a tiefling. The novel alternates with their points of view. Each character has a strong, identifiable voice, and they are easy to keep apart. The two head to Ustalav to find out what became of a Pathfinder agent that Varian had sent forth. While Varian Jeggare explores the strange manor of their host, Radovan gets involved with a clan of Sczarni, Varisian thieves. This goes on for about 350 pages and is good for about two hours of reading. The mystery in the novel is compelling and in the end, sufficiently clever.

Dave Gross is a competent writer. His prose isn’t especially artful, but it is lively enough. There was one annoying editing error I spotted, where the word “tenant” had been used in place of “tenet”.

The Gothic novel, then… Gross has apparently read his Walpole and Stoker and even LeFanu. I would also suggest there was a trace of Chambers to be found in Prince of Wolves. I had to suppress my inner literary critic in a few spots, especially when it came to the female characters and the Sczarni (gypsies, essentially). There are a few twists here, though.

From the gamer’s point of view, the novel ties in neatly with the Carrion Crown adventure path. It’s also set in Ustalav and has a similar tone, though I don’t think the two share any characters. A few of the minor characters in the novel do appear as major players in the Ustalav sourcebook Rule of Fear, though. Apparently, they also had a tie-in article for the novel in Kobold Quarterly #14, with some stats and spells and stuff. If I ever run Carrion Crown, I’ll be picking that one up.

In addition to presenting an interesting mystery – a far too rare a thing in fantasy literature, in my view – the novel does a good job of bringing Ustalav to life and depicting life in the Principality of Ustalav, both amongst the nobles and the peasantry, though more of the former.

In summary, taken for what it is, a short fantasy mystery and nothing else, Prince of Wolves is a good way to pass a couple of hours. I’d especially recommend it to Carrion Crown game masters. Look for anything deeper, and you will face disappointment.

 

Ropecon 2011: Sunday & Monday – How Grown Men Cried

Sunday was pretty busy for me. In quick succession, I had to administrate the Game Master loot session, moderate the panel on scenario writing, and then speed away to the closing ceremonies to hand over the prizes.

The GM loot I’ve explained in previous years, but basically, it’s a session on Sunday where all the  Game Masters  who returned their feedback forms get to come and pick gaming items out of a big pile we bought from a local game store, in an order decided by reading the entrails of a munchkin.

Then there was the scenario contest panel.

The Scenario Writing Contest

The scenario contest entered its third year with a format change. I figured that since we’ve got Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona showing up and locally, James Edward Raggi IV, we’ll probably never have as much oomph when it comes to writing modules in the same room at the same time.

So, I decreed that the modules be written in English, using a system under the OGL. I expected the participation to rise by a few modules, up to ten.

We got fifteen.

Also, we put them up for download immediately. That page is yet to be updated with the winners and the names of the anonymous writers, but I can tell that Sampo Haarlaa won first place with Hallowed Be Her Name, the second went to Niilo Paasivirta with Trouble at Troublewater, the third to Tuukka Tenhunen with City of Scorpions and the Player’s Choice Award was taken home by Satu Nikander’s Together We Shall Triumph.

The Player’s Choice thing is a change from past years, when the players decided all the winners. This year, the judges did that and the Player’s Choice was there to motivate people to run the modules. It did not entirely work and there were too few contest modules run for my tastes, but if the writers themselves can’t be arsed to run their own games, they mustn’t want to win all that much.

So, on Sunday I did a panel about module writing with the aforementioned judges. It went reasonably well, though I made the decision that the panel be more generally about scenario writing than about the specific scenarios. There were too many of them, I didn’t want to offend people whose modules weren’t quite as good as the others, and I didn’t really want to spoil the winners. I am not entirely sure if this was the right call, but we did get interesting conversation and comments out of it, so it could not have been entirely wrong, either. Specific criticism from the judges will be forwarded to the authors privately.

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From left to right, that’s  me, Erik Mona, James Edward Raggi IV and Frank Mentzer.

However, I won’t be doing this next year. While I do seek to continue in the position of the Master of Game Masters for one more year, I’ll be farming  the task of running the scenario competition to someone else, if for no other reason then because I know all the winners from this year personally, some of them I count good friends indeed, and I think there are about four people in the contest who I didn’t know at all previously. Even I can’t take myself as credible contest-runner at this point, even though I have the judges’ own lists to verify that indeed, I did not play favourites.

The Crowning Moment of Awesome

Then it was time to speed to the closing ceremony, where I gave out the scenario contest awards, other people gave other awards, and so on.

Then the Guests of Honour Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona took the stage, and gave their thanks.

Frank also gave us something else. He pulled out this folder he had, and produced a number of small, light brown booklets. Every gamer in the audience held their breath.

Then, Frank explained that he was giving them to Ropecon, since we did not, amazingly, have copies of our own.

The booklets were the Chainmail rulebook, the original D&D rules booklets, and Supplement I: Greyhawk, by the hand of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, from the mid-1970s. The applause was thunderous, and grown men wept, I included. I was rushed, on the spur of the moment, up to the stage to accept the relics. My knees were shaky, my mouth was dry and I think I was hyperventilating. When I got down, I had to hand the books over to the chief organizers and sit down, lest I fall.

People I had never met came to me afterwards to tell me how touched they’d been by Frank’s generosity.

There was something magical about that moment.

They’re not shrink-wrapped first printings and they’re far from mint condition, but they’re how all this began. Three little brownish booklets in a Lake Geneva basement over a decade before I was even born. Without them, there would be no Ropecon, no Worlds in a Handful of Dice, no RPG.net, no EN World, no Forge. This would be a poorer world.

We have a safe ready for the books, and a display cabinet for future conventions. They will be placed on display to remind everyone of how this started, of the origin point of this amazing variety and richness of different roleplaying games so different from one another that the term itself defies a single definition, and of Frank Mentzer’s generosity.

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Monday, and the Second Shock

On Monday, after the con, Frank ran interested organizers a game. It was genuine, 1974-style dungeon crawl, where we made it out of the town and into the first room of the dungeon before we managed to botch everything and rouse an ogre that ended up smashing our other fighting man’s face in.

That fighting man, our security chief’s character Dinker, was the last of Frank’s fatalities during the convention. I am told that his final tally ran up to well over 40 during the revolving-door dungeon crawl he ran on Saturday.

Then, after the game, once we’ve cleared the table, Frank bid me sit back down. Then he opened the copy of D&D Rules Cyclopedia that he’d had lying on the table, and asked what I want him to write in my book.

I am still a bit stunned.

In Summary

Personally, this has been the best Ropecon yet. While I will always strive for it, I’m not confident it can be topped. Things may be organized better, the Cone Hall is a noisy place to play and the database has its hiccups, but in the end, it’s the people that make the con. The players, the Game Masters, the organizers, the guests of honour, the attendees, everyone.

It’s hard returning to normal life after such an event. The atmosphere of a good convention is intoxicating. These are my people. “My tribe”, to use the words of Randy Waterhouse, brought together by a shared interest in games, stories, funny  dice and latex elf ears. At Ropecon, I can walk into the bar at any time and find a table of friends to sit down with and talk about games over a pint. This year, we had people from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Poland, New Zealand, Latvia, Netherlands and Spain just showing up on their own dime to run games, play games, and talk about games. Even though online, on forums or the blogosphere, we may have our differences and disagreements, at ground zero Ropecon, the sense of community is palpable.

And the guests! The gaming scene is blessed in that though its celebrities are often busy people, they are also accessible, approachable and friendly (as long as you don’t wax too poetic about your character), and gracious even when things do not go quite as planned. They speak the same language and don’t send weird rider documents. This is different from the guests of honour in many other conventions, and I don’t think we’ve acknowledged sufficiently how lucky we are in this. Though Frank Mentzer amazed and moved us like never before, I would extend my gratitude to all of our guests of honour, past and future, for their part in the awesomeness that is Ropecon.

Thank you, everyone. See you next year.

Ropecon 2011: Friday & Saturday – How I Got My Ass Kicked by a Sandwich

I think I have now recovered both physically and emotionally from Ropecon 2011 and can write about it.

The con was held this last weekend, and was the product of some nine months of work. It was all sorts of draining. As it happens, it also became the best convention ever, at least for me personally. There was a lot going on, so I will split this report into two parts.

I once again stepped into the boots of the Master of Game Masters, responsible for scheduling the tabletop offerings of the convention and assigning them tables. This year, 80 Game Masters from four different nations stepped up to offer some 165 sessions of roleplaying games in three different languages. That’s a good deal more than previous years. While there were the  usual cancellations and not every game found sufficient players, I think there were still over 150 sessions that went off. The number of GMs includes our esteemed guests of honour, Frank Mentzer and Erik Mona.

Among  the more curious sessions were the scenarios from the collection Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä (Dream of the King in Yellow and Other Danish Roleplaying Games). It’s a big, fat bastard of a book from the Society for Nordic Roleplaying. I participated in the making of the book as a translator for one of the introductory essays. As it says on the tin, it’s a compilation of 12 Danish RPGs meant to be played in a single evening – about two to six hours, depending on the scenario. I’ll be writing about it in more depth sometime in the distant future when I’ve read it and perhaps played a few of the scenarios.

The most interesting scenario by far in the book is “Slaaraphenland”, a fantasy scenario inspired by Warhammer Fantasy. It’s got a cake mechanic. Other than that, it’s freeform. There’s one cake for each player, sliced into six parts, and every time a character gives in to temptation, the player must eat a piece of cake. It was run three times during the convention, and each time to a full table.

I sorta hoped I’d have time to play it, but for naught. Though I had a solid complement of henchmen to work the desk in my absence, all the sessions were either at inconvenient times for me, or on Saturday.

Because on Saturday, I got my ass kicked by a sandwich.

The Galactus

There’s this Finnish indie RPG publisher and importer called Arkenstone. This year, they were selling sandwiches in the con area.

One of the sandwiches in their selection was the Galactus. You had to specifically ask for it, for it was not on the menu. It was said to include the kingdoms of plants, animals and minerals alike, and it was too large to fit on the plate. On Friday alone, it claimed four of the brave eaters who tested their mettle against it.

So, obviously, I had to try it for breakfast.

I was not intimidated by its admittedly impressive bulk that concealed within four different kinds of meat – including bacon. Courageously, I put the Conan soundtrack on from my cell phone and began devouring, washing it down with mead in the way of a proper Northman.

I managed two thirds of the monster before I concluded that if any more of it went down, it’d all come up. I performed a tactical retreat, packaged the remains away and rolled off.

Didn’t have to eat anything else all day. Couldn’t have eaten anything else all day. Finished it off in the evening, over 12 hours later. Tasty, but man.

Kings of Absalom

I played two con games, and the first one was on Saturday. It was a Pathfinder RPG session called Kings of Absalom, run by Erik Mona.

It was, I think, the best game I’ve ever been a spectator to. The group’s teamplay left a lot to be desired, and the gnome bard Izahh ran off to do her own thing while the rest of the party – the rangers Sam and Arendius (me), the alchemist Doctor Anthrax and the rogue Blackbird fought fell foes. Izahh’s antics also managed to raise the alarm and brought forth a bunch of hardy foes who managed to take us by surprise.

So, there I was, backing out of a room in a fighting retreat, and immediately get squashed by a guard I didn’t know was there. I later stabilize at -8, while the rest of the party engages in a running battle with a total of eight different enemies. One by one, they go down – first Doctor Anthrax, then Sam, then Blackbird. Sam dies, the others stabilize. Izahh is the only one left – and then, with luck, tactics and a loose grasp of the spell selection rules, manages to escape the foes and throw a bunch of compliant slaves at them while she tries to figure out this spell scroll she found. A scroll of lightning bolt, to be specific.

All through this, the initiative count goes “Blackbird does nothing, Arendius does nothing, Doctor Anthrax does nothing, Izahh!” We all chanted it in a chorus, as the tension ratcheted up and the slaves fell one by one to the guards and Izahh botched a Use Magic Device roll after another. Then, finally, a 16 – on the dot. The lightning bolt killed the last remaining slave and all but one of the enemies. The enemy, with three hit points left, charged the gnome. Izahh, at this point, had four hit points.

What ensued was the most pathetic duel in all history. They whiffed two thirds of the time, and Izahh chipped away her foe’s hit points ever so slowly, one at a time. Finally, at 0 hit points, it attacks one last time before keeling over dead. In accordance with all rules of art, it hits and deals four points of damage.

Izahh, staggered, managed to find a potion of cure light wounds (on my character, incidentally) and soon thereafter lifted all of us to our feet. And that’s when we ran out of time.

All in all, I spent about half the game out of the action, which I wasn’t entirely happy about, but it was a fun game, which is a testament to Erik’s ability as a game master. He managed to keep the game fun even for those of us who were out of the action for hours real time. Erik was also generally a great guy to be around, and I found myself agreeing with him in pretty much everything. We even share the same affinity for urban areas.

Also, I now have a signed Pathfinder Core Rulebook with the dedication “Arendius does nothing…”

Swag

They released a crapload of new Finnish games at the con. There’s the rules-light Pyöreän pöydän ritarit (Knights of the Round Table); the Somalia sourcebook Punaiset hiekat (Red Sands); Unelma Keltaisesta kuninkaasta ja muita tanskalaisia roolipelejä; the fantasy games Noitahovi (Witch Court), Generian legendat (The Legends of Generia) and Bliaron; the fly RPG Kärpänen (The Fly); and Yhteys (The Connection), a prelude to Vihan lapset (Children of Wrath), which is coming out later this year.

I bought all of these except Bliaron, and will be discussing them on the blog once I’ve read through them. Punaiset hiekat seems especially promising.

Unfortunately, the one thing that did not get released was Stalker RPG in English. Finishing it for printing  has taken longer than anticipated, but it will come out, eventually, and when it does, it will be good.

Also, I received, as a gift, Ravenloft 3E.

The entire Ravenloft 3E. All of it, as far as I can tell (with the exception of the core book and Masque of the Red Death, but I had those already). I may be reading and discussing them as well (If I ever get around to finishing that Planescape readthrough… I’ve got a post in the works, honest!). I have awesome friends. All in all, I carried about 25 different books away from the con.

There’s also one other thing I received, but that one I didn’t get until after the con, and will be discussed in tomorrow’s post, because it is that awesome.