Pathfinder Society in Finland Post Up at Paizo.com

Just making a quick note here that a blog post written by Venture-Lieutenant Jussi Leinonen and I has gone up at Paizo’s blog, as part of the series where the Venture-Officers of different areas tell about how they’re doing and what’s it like running Pathfinder Society in their area.

It’s probably already the most widely-read blog post I’ve ever written. So it goes.

Mind you, it’s also the best-illustrated, with Daren Bader’s awesome cover for Irrisen – Land of Eternal Winter.

Yeah, Finland at winter. Captures it perfectly.

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Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part II

Last weekend, I discussed the first two parts of the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. In those, the party finds some clues on a deserted island and follows them into the deep jungles of the Mwangi Expanse, in search of the lost city of Saventh-Yhi, preserved and hidden by Azlanti magic for these past ten thousand years.

The next two scenarios of the adventure path take place in Saventh-Yhi, as the party first explores and tames the city in The City of the Seven Spears and then roots out its secrets with a purpose in Vaults of Madness.

Before I delve into the details of these works, I should note a few things that I neglected to mention in the previous post. As with other adventure paths, there is a wealth of third-party and fan-created content created to support the campaign. One that I made much use of was the line of paper miniatures. I love the work done on the Serpent’s Skull line, which includes a miniature set for each of the adventure modules and one more for the compiled bestiaries of the series. The art has character, and I especially like the vivid use of colour. Excellent work, there.

Another thing I’d like to point out is Wayfinder #4, a compilation of fan-created game articles and fiction. The fourth issue’s theme was the Mwangi, making it useful for GMs running Serpent’s Skull or Skull & Shackles. I must confess that I did not actually utilize any of the material in it, but there’s a lot of it and someone else might find stuff more to their liking.

There are also a couple of Paizo-produced things appropriate for use with the adventure path. The most obvious ones are the sourcebook on the Mwangi Expanse, Heart of the Jungle, and the player-oriented sourcebook on the colony of Sargava, named Sargava, the Lost Colony. There’s also one thing I used in Vaults of Madness from the Rival Guide, a Mwangi-based party of evil adventurers (complete with an awakened dire ape antipaladin!) that was good for one challenging and interesting combat encounter.

Finally, here there be SPOILERS.

The City of Seven Spears

The City of Seven Spears has an interesting story. No, not in the module – it’s a practically plotless sandbox. The story is about how the module came to look like it does.

Unfortunately, I don’t know all the particulars, but as far as I can tell, someone didn’t quite deliver and some other people were called in for rescue and that’s why there are three names on the cover and not much interesting between them. The problem with Saventh-Yhi is that it’s a huge city with seven distinct, discrete districts that have all their own hotspots and plot points, and all this has been crammed into about 50 pages. The party is not given a lot of guidance on what they should do besides “explore”. There are some tools for managing conflict between the different expeditions (because regardless of whom the PCs picked as their backer, the other four will also show up eventually), but not much. The emphasis is on the city and its encounters – and boy are there a lot of those, for a city supposedly lost for ten thousand years.

Saventh-Yhi is an old Azlanti city, so the underlying concept of magic operates on a system similar to the sin magic of ancient Thassilon (which was a corruption of the Azlanti system). This may seem familiar to those who have played Rise of the Runelords or Shattered Star. Each of the seven districts is dedicated to one of the Azlanti virtues of rule (which in Thassilon were corrupted into the sins), and has a purpose in accordance with that virtue. The military district is dedicated to righteous anger, the government district is dedicated to honest pride, and so forth. This is all relevant, because each of the districts also has a Spear, a tall obelisk atop a ziggurat, which has a magical aura that it spreads over its district. With a specific ritual, the spears can also be activated to grant an empowered aura.

To get to do any of these rituals, the party should also do something about the tribe occupying the district. Six of the seven are occupied by tribes. Charau-ka in the military district, degenerate serpentfolk ruled over by a rakshasa in the government district, and so on. Most of them are hostile from the beginning and from the kind of monstrous races that the PCs will probably set about exterminating from the start, but there’s a tribe of Garundi humans who may be negotiated with. Actually, one of the possible conditions for “conquering” a district is killing a crapload of the local mooks. Who, I ask of you, has the time or the inclination to run combats against 100 mook vegepygmies who are not quite mooky enough that you can just handwave their deaths? It really gets my goat that there are a lot of combat encounters in here, such as practically all of the patrol encounters, which present no threat or challenge whatsoever to the party, yet are still there to take up space with their stats.

The adventure picks up with plot again once the PCs hit level 10. In our game, this took seven sessions and frankly, we were starting to get bored. Also, the level limit on the final event of the book highlights what the exploration of Saventh-Yhi essentially is – grinding for XP. It could have been made interesting, but I think it would have taken a smaller city so there’d have been more material to make it interesting and to run the archaeology and exploration stuff.

Anyway, at the end there’s a feebleminded Pathfinder who shows up through a portal, with an undead serpentfolk necromancer and his cronies in pursuit. There is a fight and once she’s cured of her affliction, she will a tale unfold that will harrow up thy very soul – the next adventure is also about exploring Saventh-Yhi.

Vaults of Madness

Yeah, you heard that right. The Pathfinder, Juliver, came to Saventh-Yhi through a portal from the serpentfolk city of Ilmurea, which has been slumbering for as long as Saventh-Yhi, except now it’s stirring in its sleep. She was part of an expedition led by the disgraced Pathfinder Eando Kline (hero of the short fiction pieces in the first three adventure paths). The rest of the party were captured by serpentfolk and only Juliver managed to get away. The portal required these crystals to activate, and she broke the crystals on the portal she came through in order to deter pursuit.

So now it falls to the party to scour the city for more crystals so they can activate the portal and head into Ilmurea to rescue Eando Kline.

They need six crystals, of course, so counting the vault with the portal in it, that makes for seven vaults. There’s once in each district, naturally. For some reason, they are not mentioned in The City of Seven Spears, so the party will likely not be aware of their existence regardless of how careful about mapping they have been.

And why are they called the vaults of madness? They’re all infected with a madness-inducing fungal spore, which was good for some role-playing. Of course, once the party figures out what’s up, they take the appropriate precautions and the affliction can be safely forgotten. The vaults are a series of seven mini-dungeons. One of them is flooded, one of them is the battleground between two tribes of evil humanoids, and so on. They’re not, honestly, the interesting thing in this adventure. The interesting thing is that there’s actual plot! There are events! There’s stuff to do besides go down a hole in the ground and kick someone’s undead ass!

One of these is a battle against the Aspis Consortium, whose boss gets taken over by an intellect devourer. The intellect devourers, incidentally, occupy much the same niche in Pathfinder RPG as the WotC-product-identity mind flayers do in brand-name D&D. Then there’s the centrepiece of the adventure, the visit from Ruthazek, the Gorilla King of Usaro. He is one of the more interesting NPCs around, and he’s there with his retinue to find out about the city and the heroes and to test them. There’s a feast, which I’ve written more extensively about before, and if done well, the encounter can be one of the most memorable in the campaign. He’s also evil and powerful enough to stand a chance of taking out the entire party all by himself.

By this time, I was so thoroughly fed up with the vaults and the endless grind that I also had Ruthazek award the party the last crystal they needed, having dug it up himself from the vault.

Fixing Saventh-Yhi

So, what could have been done differently?

I think the entire premise of having two scenarios, meant to be played back-to-back, in the same area and relying largely on exploration and sandbox-play, is faulty. You’re going over the same ground twice, which is not interesting and the verisimilitude suffers when suddenly there are these vaults that are honestly not hidden well enough that they wouldn’t have stumbled upon one before the plot dictated that they could.

There’s also the issue that The City of Seven Spears has no proper motivation for the party beyond the acquisition of treasure, which is in conflict with the serpentfolk plotline introduced in the previous parts and pretty weak on its own. There are elements of plot present in these two books and Vaults of Madness is quite good about it, but the third module of the campaign is nearly void of it. The campaign is in danger of stalling, here.

So, what I suggest as the solution is to combine the two adventures into one. This would require some significant rewriting of stuff for the appropriate levels, but moving the introduction of Juliver forward and dropping the vaults in where the PCs may stumble upon them from day one would do a lot to make the adventures more interesting. Another aspect that could do with more writing are the factions themselves and the faction conflict. I’m afraid there’s not a terrible lot of material on that beyond what’s suggested on the forums, but highlighting that the PCs are not alone in their exploration and giving the other expeditions a more active part in the adventures as rivals, not necessarily enemies, would make for more interesting gaming. The adventure would also benefit from a system to determine what the other expeditions are up to and how their explorations and conquests are going.

Yeah, it’d be a crapload of work. I am not convinced it’s less work than writing something from scratch, but there is cool stuff in here, and it’s no use throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so my first instinct would be to fix what is broken instead of scrap whole modules.

Next time, the grand finale.

In Memoriam: Boris Strugatsky

Boris Strugatsky, since 1991 the surviving Strugatsky brother, has passed away at the age 0f 79.

The Strugatsky Brothers were the brightest stars of Soviet science fiction. They wrote dozens of novels, most of which I have unfortunately not read, but there is one that shines above all others. In 1972, they wrote Пикник на обочине, released five years later in English as Roadside Picnic, but probably best known as Stalker. If you have not read it, do so. Its influence on modern science fiction is difficult to overstate. Just the works directly based on it include a film that is a masterpiece on its own right (as well as another that’s highly entertaining), a trilogy of popular computer games, and of course the tabletop RPG that I am honoured to have translated to English. Nearly four decades after the book’s release, it is one of the most significant works of 20th-century science fiction, while remaining supremely accessible, interesting and entertaining in its own right.

The genre has lost one of its greats. It is a sad day.

I’ve found no mention of a cause of death, but he had been ill for some time and had problems with both his heart and kidneys.

Via SF Signal.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part I

We’ve now wrapped up the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, so it is time to look back and review what we’ve learned, make some notes and give a few hints. Since the path is six modules long and they’re not short modules, I’ll be breaking this up into three posts. The path divides up like that very naturally.

I will start off by noting, as with every time I discuss the running of adventure paths, that Paizo’s own adventure path forums are probably the best single resource for any given path. They’re active, there are loads of other GMs over there wrestling with the same problems you are, and the amount of fan-created game aids, hand-outs and other stuff is stunning. Unlike for Rise of the Runelords, I didn’t have a bunch of other local campaigns to draw upon for inspiration and advice. Serpent’s Skull, to my eye, does not seem to have achieved the popularity of, say, Rise of the Runelords or Kingmaker. This is just as well, because it has some considerable flaws that become evident as one progresses through the campaign.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – the following contains SPOILERS, and if you intend to play the campaign, this isn’t for you. Go read the Player’s Guide or something instead.

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv

Those flaws I mentioned? None of them are here. Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is, like I’ve stated before, one of the best modules I’ve run. The first installments of all the adventure paths are very strong pieces of work, but I feel that James Jacobs has produced something that stands tall even among that crowd.

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is one of those modules that takes an archetypal story frame and presents it in a way that makes it work in the context of what I like to think of as “the subgenre of D&D fantasy”. The ruleset’s implied and underlying assumptions especially about the availability and utility of magic tend to break certain types of plotlines after the characters are of a certain level. Divination spells and murder mysteries, magical healing and pestilence… the list goes on. Here we have the shipwreck and survival on a deserted island. Once the party level is sufficient for the cleric to cast create food and water and remove disease, survival on a tropical island becomes trivial. That happens at fifth level.

Before that, though, there’s so much fun to be had.

The adventure starts with the party waking up washed on the shore of Smuggler’s Shiv, an island reputed to be cursed (true) and inhabited by cannibals (ditto), which makes rescue unlikely. There are five other castaways with the party, and a number of mysteries, such as the question of what the hell happened to land them in such a spot. Beyond the mystery and its answers, though, the adventure is more or less a plotless sandbox, designed to let the party pursue its own interests on an island that will try to kill them in a variety of fascinating ways. Food is an issue. Giant crabs are an issue. The inbred cannibal tribe is an issue. The giant chupacabra living on the mountain is an issue. The greatest issue of all, though, are the tropical diseases. There’s a sourcebook called Heart of the Jungle that ties in with the adventure path, and includes two pages of tropical diseases. I most heartily recommend it as an accessory to anyone running Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv. You should be careful not to overdo it, but if you’re careful, you can beat them to an inch of their lives with all the classics of dying unpleasantly in a foreign land, such as the sleeping sickness, dysentery, malaria, and my favourite, dengue fever.

The book, incidentally, also contains stats for hippopotami and botflies, both giant and swarming.

When not laid out with a life-threatening illness at the camp, the party can explore the island. There’s a lot to explore. One part of it has been taken over by vegepygmies, the coastline is dotted with shipwrecks, there are all sort of apex predators making their lairs in there, one buried pirate’s treasure, and those cannibals. Once the party picks up on the mystery and starts tracking down the bastard who murdered the first mate and drove the party’s boat on the rocks, there’s also a demonic temple to explore.

Not everything on the island is hostile. There are a few locals that the PCs can befriend, including an addled kenku castaway, and of course the other NPC survivors of the shipwreck, who each come with their own mysteries and subplots the party can pick up on if they so desire and can win over the NPC. All five, being adventurers themselves, are dysfunctional people with some serious issues. (It’s something I’ve been saying for years – crawling into a hole in the ground to kill orcs and take their stuff is not the career choice of a well-adjusted person.)

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is a five-star adventure. The atmosphere of the island is tangible and at these low levels, the threats of starvation and disease are very real. There are also no shops on the island, so damaged and lost equipment cannot be repaired or replaced. Towards the end of the module, the group’s archer was running out of arrows. On the level of the campaign arc, it only suggests that something bigger might be afoot regarding the serpentfolk. This is a good thing, because it works very well as a standalone and is easy to use on its own.

Racing to Ruin

After the party has been rescued from the Smuggler’s Shiv, having probably spent some months there, they find themselves in Eleder, the capital city of the former Chelaxian colony of Sargava. With them, they will most likely have clues they discovered at the end of the last adventure. Our group spent a session doing… well, this. Thanks to the other castaways being a bunch of blabbermouths, the power groups they are involved with will also solicit the party for aid and employment in the endeavour of finding the lost city of Saventh-Yhi, whose location the notes should help reveal. These groups are the Red Mantis (assassin cult), the Aspis Consortium (evil merchant guild), the Sargavan government (the colonial bureaucrats in their pith helmets), the Pathfinder Society (the Indiana Jones guild), and the Free Captains (Arrrr!).

The module expects the PCs to take one of the groups up on their offer (ours went with the Red Mantis, mostly I think because Niero the alchemist had the hots for their castaway, Sasha) and to start blazing a trail ahead of the main expedition. The bulk of the adventure, then, is about travelling from Eleder to Tazion, an ancient fortress where the information on Saventh-Yhi’s actual location should be found. Along the way, they encounter hippos, crocodiles, assassins from competing groups, and a pair of chemosits, ape-bears that are ridiculously under-CR’d and ended up killing Sujiu, the party’s archer and living proof that if you really want to break the Pathfinder fighter, bow’s the way to go. Clustered Shots, incidentally, is banned from my campaigns from here on out.

Tazion, of course, is occupied. The occupants are a tribe of charau-ka, small ape people who usually worship Angazhan, the demon lord of apes, but in this case are apostates and follow Ydersius, the headless snake god of the serpentfolk. They find the path to Saventh-Yhi, hidden ten thousand years before in the deep jungle by the Azlanti.

Racing to Ruin is not a bad adventure, but I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly good adventure, either. It’s just sort of there. The thing about making a journey adventure is that you need to make the journey at least as interesting, if not moreso, than the destination, and this one doesn’t do that. The trip from Eleder to Tazion is more or less a series of random encounters. Some of them are reasonably interesting, such as the one where a succubusis magically controlling three local priestesses and the party needed to take them out without killing them in the ensuing fight.

(Incidentally, that fight got a bit awkward. I had a slightly packed schedule for that day, and directly after the game, I was hosting a movie night for the sci-fi course I was taking at the university. We’d decided my apartment was a more comfy environment for the watching of Metropolis. Well, this last fight of the session featured a succubus, who managed to charm Kailn, the group’s pint-sized Lothario. She didn’t have time to start level-draining, being preoccupied with the rest of  the group kicking her followers’ asses, so Kailn was sort of left alone next to a lust demon that had just mind-controlled him – so he began to hump her leg. As one does. After a round of this, the other students of the sci-fi course started arriving. It was amazing how the entire battle devolved into a quietly awkward numbers game. “Niero.” “23.” “That’s a hit.” “15 damage.” “Okay, Kailn. Kailn does what Kailn does. Mogashi.”)

Once the party reaches Tazion, things get more interesting, when they have to figure out how to take out a fortress of angry ape people. There are interesting tactical challenges, and if you want, you can even bring in larger strategic issues. The area is dotted with tar pits and some wild monsters, which a creative group can use to their advantage in taking out an entire tribe of charau-ka.

Racing to Ruin is also the part where the campaign gets what I would describe as “postcolonially suspicious”. I’m not actually bothered by all the apefolk in here, since Heart of the Jungle actually describes several different Mwangi ethnicities and they’re not being used as the obvious stand-in (And let’s face it, if you want an evil adversary on whom you can project man’s innate savagery and primitive, murderous urges, it’s a damn sight better to use a gorilla than Djimon Hounsou. Just sayin’.). They’re there. It’s just that they’re not here. All five of the power groups the party gets to work with are outsiders or colonial masters. The only Mwangi person the group has properly peaceful contact with is a hermit cleric of Gozreh, Nkechi, who they contract as their native guide and who takes them on a dream quest and teaches them about their spirit animals (an otherwise interesting part of the adventure). One of the villain groups in the scenario is a brotherhood of former slaves. I think introducing the Freemen’s Brotherhood as one of the power groups the PCs can work with would have been a more interesting solution, perhaps as a replacement to the Aspis Consortium, who have been the villains pretty much everywhere else and really work far better in that role than as the party’s patrons. It would also have introduced the problem of slavery as a theme in the adventure, where it is more or less glossed over. It’s all rather problematic, and I think it would also make for a more interesting story if the campaign and especially this adventure involved more interaction with the local culture.

Next time, the party reaches Saventh-Yhi, and I will discuss the The City of Seven Spears, The Vaults of Madness, and be very understanding about why things ended up so unfortunately.

Serpent’s Skull – An Autopsy of a Campaign

Almost exactly two years after I did it the first time, I pulled it off again. I finished a Paizo adventure path.

This time, it was the postcolonially suspicious Serpent’s Skull, six chapters of lost cities, ape kings, deserted islands, pirates and serpentfolk. From January 16th, 2011, to November 11th, 2012, it took us 27 sessions to get from the intro of Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv to the conclusion of The Sanctum of the Serpent God. Along the way, some characters died and others left the team to be replaced by others. It was a fun ride. Along the way, there were sonnets written and hearts consumed. This post, by the way, shall contain SPOILERS by the bushel.

A mere 27 sessions over nearly two years of play may not sound like a lot, but we’re students and not all of us live permanently in Tampere when school’s out, so we basically have no games between May and August. When you have a break that long, incidentally, a proper campaign website like we had really shows its worth.

Compared with the Rise of the Runelords, Serpent’s Skull was rather uneven in quality, and especially in the middle parts we hit something of a lull. The extended sandboxy-dungeoncrawly nature of the third and fourth parts robbed the campaign of a lot of its momentum and we ended up dawdling a total of ten sessions in those two. More on that in the later posts, however. When Serpent’s Skull was good, though, it was really good. I name Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv among my personal adventure module top ten, and believe me, I know adventure modules. Also, I felt the final fight, the epic end battle against the serpent god Ydersius, was better than its counterpart in The Spires of Xin-Shalast.

It was fun, but I am feeling a bit of fatigue with Pathfinder RPG. Much like in its predecessor, high-level play gets mathematically intensive and rather tedious. For my next long campaign, I will switch rulesets. I am a Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain, so I’ll continue to get my regular PF fix, but for now, I need a change of pace.

Before I kick the next campaign into high gear, however, this one deserves a proper send-off. Let’s meet the team.

The Heroes

Niero Brandt

Some of you may remember Niero from the Rise of the Runelords recap, two years back. He originally saw light as a PC in that campaign, until dying at the end of the first adventure. Fast-forward over a year of game time, and the follow-up character, Michiell “Dawn” Grellson, dug him up, raised him from the dead, and sent him off to Sargava on the Jenivere, whose wreck started off Serpent’s Skull. Along the way, he switched careers from locksmithing and archaeology to alchemy. He was cynical, complained a lot and there are suspicions he was not entirely sane. He very nearly developed a split personality disorder, spent a goodly while paranoid of the rest of the group, and after somewhat stabilizing, grew a tumor familiar. Despite not being good-aligned, strangely enough he was the closest the party had to a moral compass, being motivated by an interest in ancient history and arcane lore rather than mere filthy lucre. He was also the chronicler of the group and most of the session recaps were written from his point of view.

Kailn

Kailn was the obligatory sex bomb of the group. The former halfling manservant and slave of another group member (the oracle Malje, who got killed by a neothelid in the ruins of Ilmurea), Kailn was also a sorcerer with suspicious ancestry and a serpentine bloodline. He was also responsible for an epidemic of the Taldan disease aboard the Jenivere. The half-pint Lothario found himself in great trouble as the adventures took the party into the lost city of Saventh-Yhi and onwards into Ilmurea, as increasing numbers of adversaries were utterly immune to his charms. This forced to rethink his approach to problem-solving, which led to a far more diverse spell selection. After the defeat of Ydersius, Kailn stole off in the night with the god’s skull in one hand and the high priest’s staff in another, apparently to found a cell of resistance fighters somewhere in Cheliax to wage the war for abolition.

Tiikki

Tiikki was a late addition to the group, after the Chelaxian noblewoman Malje bit the dust, though even more they were a replacement for the archer Sujiu. Tiikki was also an archer, and a member of the Pathfinder Society who had come to check up on the expedition in Saventh-Yhi and seeing if they could find an artifact or two on the trip. Tiikki was also angling for a seat on the Decemvirate. Additionally, they ended up replacing Niero as the party chronicler after the alchemist got too unstable to continue.

Kuros Ackler

The party’s pacifist cleric of Milani, who replaced Sujiu after he was torn apart by an angry chemosit. During his stay in the group, he never raised a hand against an enemy, focusing instead on keeping the party patched up. This led to a great deal of delay actions and had interesting implications for action economy.

Mogashi

The big brute was not there to fight Ydersius, as his player moved away and could not continue in the campaign, but I would be remiss if I ignored one of the great characters of the team. Mogashi was the native guide, whose father was unknown but were speculated at different times to have been an ape, a bear, an ape bear, a bar-lgura daemon, Angazhan himself, or perhaps Ruthazek the Gorilla King. Yes, Mogashi was a tiefling. His knowledge of the bush and the local customs kept the team alive when the going was difficult, especially during their stay on Smuggler’s Shiv. Later on, his inhuman capacity to take and dish out truly staggering amounts of punishment saved the party’s bacon more than once. He was the big bruiser, the anti-hero and in it mostly for the gold. His relationship with the Gorilla King is still unclear, and the King himself kept addressing Mogashi as “son”… Either way, the tiefling’s travels with the group came to an end when he left Saventh-Yhi to follow the Gorilla King – whether to join him or slay him, we do not yet know.