Greyhawk Lives! River to a Sea of Choices

A couple of days ago, I was contacted by the Living Greyhawk module author Grant Featherstone. He had stumbled upon the collection of Living Greyhawk modules by Sampo Haarlaa and myself from a couple of years back, and wished to contribute his own module to the collection, the Splintered Suns metaregional ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices.

I remember playing the module. It is a fairly straightforward piece of work, but it showcases what was from my point of view one of the central tensions in the Splintered Suns plotline, the conflict between the United Kingdom of Ahlissa, which represented a strong military and rule of law, and the Iron League, who had weaker militaries but more individual freedoms. Law vs. chaos, basically. The military strength was relevant because the Scarlet Brotherhood posed a threat to everybody in the region and the kingdom of Onnwal only was liberated from Brotherhood occupation during the campaign.

ESA6-03 – River to the Sea of Choices, by Grant Featherstone

The revenue brought in by gemstones panned from the River Thelly is vital in the maintenance of the war-damaged city walls and defences of Nulbish. The Royal Guild of Merchants need guards to protect a barge full of grain and gemstones destined to be sold at Kalstrand for the Windmarch fair. The Ahlissan army after all routed many bands of outlaws and humanoid tribes during the recent campaign around Wyverntor, and these are desperate for coin and food. An adventure for APLs 2-8.

And here is Mr. Featherstone’s commentary:

This is the first and only adventure I wrote for the RPGA. It took a little over a year from the first contact I made with the local Triad when I whimsically offered to write a module to finally getting it polished enough for release. I did have an idea for a follow-up adventure but I do not think the Triad wanted to wait another year for it.

The title came about as a bit of a poke at the railroaded adventures most of the other RPGA modules were. However, once you take on the knowledge that someone else has to run it and with a group of any PC type you can think of, it actually becomes very challenging not to railroad the adventure and ironically the choices generally came down to help the Good guys or the Lawful guys. Or the other choice being to pay 25 gp to get off the boat! Apparently from the feedback I got most PC’s are tight with their gold and refused to pay for an additional roleplaying scene. The other feedback I got ranged from the encounters were easy “we backstabbed the cleric game over” to it is so dangerous its broken.  Ideally its APL 4-6 being a bit too deadly at APL 2, and too easy with the high level magic available at APL 8.

Apparently, he also received only one report where the party sided with the cleric of Hextor against the Nemoudian Hounds.

I’m pretty sure that was my table. I’m so proud.

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Rise of the Runelords Review and Retrospective, Part II

Here is the second part of my Rise of the Runelords review. A week ago, I went over the first three modules. Now, I discuss the last three. Again, if you have plans to participate in the Rise of the Runelords campaign as a player, you should not read any further – here there be SPOILERS.

I find that the campaign most naturally divides into these two halves, between the third and the fourth modules.

First of all, there is a decided shift in tone and style. The first three modules can all be pegged as having a horror theme – Gremlins -style comedy horror in Burnt Offerings, haunted house and slasher flick stuff in The Skinsaw Murders and hillbilly horror in the vein of Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes in The Hook Mountain Massacre. The fourth module, on the other hand, The Fortress of the Stone Giants is more of a traditional, even classical, dungeon crawl, and the fifth one can be seen as a more modern take on the same concept. The finale returns to the horror theme in its first third, but once you get to Xin-Shalast, it fades into the background.

This is not to say that they couldn’t be run as horror or that they’re comedic, but with the exception of the Vekkers’ Cabin sequence in The Spires of Xin-Shalast, the theme is not strongly present and a Game Master wishing for such must prepare and inject the horror himself.

Certainly, run in a certain way, any dungeon crawl can be horror – Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for instance, runs quite well with this assumption. However, D20 games tend to assume a rather high level of sheer combat ability from PCs, which means that the idea of combat, in and of itself, is not a source of fear, since there’s a reasonable expectation that you’re gonna come out on top. You have to throw in something extra.

The annoying thing here is that from the fourth module onward, the adventures also contain adversaries from the Cthulhu Mythos, like hounds of Tindalos and denizens of Leng, yet lack other trappings that would really make it horror. I am sad to say that it’s pretty much exactly what James Edward Raggi IV said on his blog a couple of days ago.

Secondly, there’s a natural break for the characters at this point in the campaign. Burnt Offerings starts from the Swallowtail Festival, celebrated on the first day of autumn, and if the GM keeps track off the passage of time, depending on how leisurely he has paced the game, winter should be fast approaching by the time that Barl Breakbones, the endboss of The Hook Mountain Massacre, falls. The flow of the campaign makes it natural at this point for the PCs to spend the winter in their brand new keep, Fort Rannick. Also, I think the assault of the stone giants that kicks off The Fortress of the Stone Giants takes place more naturally in the spring – giants or no, traversing the Storval Stair in the heart of winter is just suicidal.

The end of The Hook Mountain Massacre also fell very conveniently for our last game session in spring, before the the summer holidays forced us to take a break in the game, and the game resumed in the spring of the Varisia, early autumn of our world. The “Keeping the Keep” article from The Hook Mountain Massacre also offered us content for a leisurely recap session before we kicked off The Fortress of the Stone Giants.

Thirdly, I feel there is an unfortunate dip in quality between the third and fourth modules, and due to a variety of reasons I’m outlining below, the second half just does not shine as brightly as the first one.

The Finns in the audience may be interested in that Blue_Hill has wrapped up his own Rise of the Runelords campaign and tells about it in his blog.

Fortress of the Stone Giants

Let’s be frank – I think this is the weakest of the series. It is not, I should hasten to add, a bad module, but rather, it represents a type of module that I am not a fan of. The majority of the module is a long, hack & slashy dungeon crawl, and while there are some things to spice it up, I ended up removing quite a few fights from Jorgenfist.

The module begins with a stone giant raid on the town of Sandpoint. The giants are accompanied by the campaign’s first dragon, Longtooth. The raid was a hectic running battle on several fronts, and the leader of the stone giants, the ranger Teraktinus, was a worthy adversary (the dragon fled, and while they encountered it later, they didn’t get around to slaying it until the campaign’s epilogue). This is the strongest part of the module.

After that comes a hunt for the raid’s survivors and a fight with the rearguard, which we ended up skipping altogether because the party managed to extract the location of Jorgenfist from a captured enemy and took a different route to Jorgenfist.

The approach to Jorgenfist is well done. You have a fortress surrounded by camps of giants and ogres, hundreds of them, with several ways to get in. The module even provides numbers for the tribes, in case a party is mad enough to try taking one on or whittling down their numbers. Entering Jorgenfist, in the end, is far more interesting than most of the content within.

While there is the possibility of roleplaying your way through certain encounters in Jorgenfist and forging an alliance with a disgruntled stone giant leader, I still feel there is too much combat in here, and with the kobold barbarian and the redcaps it veers dangerously into Christmas calendar dungeon territory (“And behind door number three… 1d6 wolves!”). I’m not a fan. Someone else might be, but even with the variety, I feel there’s just too many combat encounters. I am also aware that when you’re presenting what amounts to a military base, you also kinda have to put in enough enemies to make it look populated – if killing everyone on the premises is easy, it’s not credible.

The final battle with Mokmurian, however, is well done and memorable. He’s a lone wizard, which usually is a recipe for a very short fight, but he’s also well designed, with a good spell selection and more or less foolproof alarm systems. Oh, and he’s a stone giant, with a stone giant’s Con modifier. He was the longest-lasting single adversary in the entire campaign, and challenged the party without overwhelming them. For this, I salute Wolfgang Baur.

As extras in Fortress of the Stone Giants, we get articles on the dragons and stone giants of Golarion.

Sins of the Saviors

The fifth module of the series is even more of a dungeon crawl than Fortress of the Stone Giants. It starts off with a small dungeon, featuring a pushover baddie, leads into a dragon fight and then into the Runeforge, which is a large and interesting dungeon complex themed around the seven deadly sins and the Thassilonian theory of magic.

There are seven different wings in the Runeforge, all of which have been led at one time by a specialist wizard of great power and a subordinate of one of the Runelords of ancient Thassilonia.

Each of the wings has a magical aura that is keyed to the sin and grants bonuses to characters if that is their “dominant” sin, and penalties if their dominant sin is opposed to the sin of the wing. The dominant sin of a character is determined by gut instinct, mostly. I kept a chart in the beginning of the campaign, but later concluded that the characters’ predilections are obvious enough. As I recall, we had two wraths, a pride, a greed and a sloth.

It was interesting on the idea level, but in the execution, I felt the this aspect of the theme could’ve been played up stronger.

As it is, though, the Runeforge is an interesting adventure location, with nifty NPCs, some of whom the party may be able to talk with before killing them (and probably should, because killing everyone, no questions asked, will leave them with the equivalent of a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with two thirds of the picture taken up by a clear blue sky).

One cool thing I ran with was a trap at the entrance to the wing of greed. It’s a gas that first turns you into a goldfish and then teleports you into a pond. The party’s barbarian fell victim to it, and when the others started looking for him in the ponds (after getting the details of what the trap does from some water mephits lairing nearby), it turned out that Skrym wasn’t the only one goldfished. So, I rolled some dice and came up with some numbers of what kind of people they were rescuing when they took a couple of days to slap break enchantment spells on fish. Most of them were footsoldiers from the other wings, but there was a bunch of adventurers, whose stats I got by picking D20 books at random from the shelves behind me and rolling Will saves. If they had retained their intelligence during their stint as goldfish – centuries and millennia in most cases – they were insane, but if they hadn’t, they were merely disoriented and befuddled. The party built up a bit of a retinue there, who then ended up as a cadre of officers in Fort Rannick when the party returned from the Runeforge.

Sins of the Saviors has a bit of a side trek feel to it, but it’s a pretty good dungeon crawl in that it doesn’t overstay its welcome and for once, camping out for a week in the dungeon makes sense.

There are two additional articles in this adventure. The first is an article on the magic of Thassilon, which is a few spells and magic items for each of the sins, plus the runeforged weapon enhancement, which is the thing the party is after in the dungeon (they are bane weapons against specialist wizards and certain other things and resist the magics of that type – having a couple of dominant runeforged weapons made the party’s lives a lot easier in Spires of Xin-Shalast).

The second article is about Lamashtu, the demon goddess of monsters and abominations. Not bad.

Spires of Xin-Shalast

Finally, we come to the sixth module, the grand finale.

The module can be roughly divided into two halves – the search for the path to Xin-Shalast, and Xin-Shalast itself. The eponymous city is the capital of the former kingdom of Shalast, the Thassilonian kingdom of greed. It is a Xanadu-like place located high in the Kodar Mountains, nearly inaccessible and hidden these past ten thousand years, yet occupied by tribes of giants and lamia-kin, and some rather more horrible, unique adversaries – and, of course, Karzoug the Claimer, the Runelord of Greed and the Big Bad Evil Guy of the entire adventure path.

Spires of Xin-Shalast is as epic as they come. While it’s heavy on combat, there’s enough variety and atmosphere that it doesn’t become stale, and that variety is executed in a way that avoids the Christmas calendar syndrome, with the possible exception of this one critter with a statblock spread out over three pages that is described as an “advanced dread vampire decapus sorcerer 10”. I didn’t even try to convert that one.

The search for the path half mostly consists of the Vekker Cabin, a haunted miner’s cabin, inhabited only by the unquiet spirits of cannibalistic dwarves who fell victim to their own greed (and a wendigo who still dwells nearby). This was strongly atmospheric, and saw a return of the haunt mechanic from The Skinsaw Murders. Good stuff.

Then, eventually, the characters get to Xin-Shalast, there is lots of fighting and trying to survive in a city that partially occupies an elevation over a thousand feet higher than Mount Everest and has been built by and for giants, in a location where the wall between dimensions is thin and stuff leaks over from Leng. So, for an adventure location, you couldn’t ask for a better place.

There’s a nice variety enemies, the constant feeling of a hostile city, some really nice and memorable bad guy henchmen, and finally, Karzoug himself, still trapped beyond the mortal plane. I felt he was quite appropriately statted out. He’s tough, and dangerous, but unlikely to cause a total party kill on the surprise round. In fact, he only managed to kill the druid’s wolf in my game, falling after some five rounds of battle. It’s the tragedy of a single enemy – even with all the quickened spells, he still doesn’t have enough actions to fend off all the adversaries. Still, it didn’t feel too easy, but just right. A very suitable conclusion to the campaign.

The additional materials in Spires of Xin-Shalast are an article on Karzoug himself and his magic items and minor artifacts, and another on surviving the hazards atop the roof of the world. I especially like the concept of the “death zone“. A bit of quirky realism like that can go a long way.

Conclusion

And thus ends my report on the Rise of the Runelords. It was a fun campaign, and while it was not perfect, it was very, very good, and we had many memorable sessions with it. We’re now preparing for the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, with a party lineup that consists of a haunted Chelaxian colonial mistress in the best Victorian tradition, her flirty halfling sorcerer manservant with the blood of snakes in his veins, a half-orc barbarian from the jungles who worships the Ape Satan, a Varisian thief who died and was raised in Rise of the Runelords and may develop a multiple personality disorder when he starts dabbling in alchemy, and a half-elf who’s in love with his bow.

I expect Edward W. Saïd would have things to say about how that campaign is going to turn out.

But I digress. Rise of the Runelords is good stuff, but if I were to run it again (not happening in the foreseeable future), I’d pay more attention to the horror elements in the second half of the campaign and try to run the entire adventure path as straight-up horror.  The ingredients are all there, but only parts of the three first modules are really presented as such.

It’s the first of the adventure paths that I’ve finished, and I hope there will be many more to come. As a whole, though the quality fluctuates through the series, it still holds up as a splendidly crafted campaign, with a good story, a nifty villain, and some memorable locations and adventures. From best to worst (or, really, least good), I’d rank them in the following order: Burnt Offerings, The Skinsaw Murders, Hook Mountain Massacre, Spires of Xin-Shalast, Sins of the Saviors, and Fortress of the Stone Giants. All of them have stuff worth looting for your own games, though, and none of them are exactly bad.

It also helps that there is a vibrant fan community around the adventure paths, and extra material, Pathfinder RPG conversions, advice and ideas area easy to come by. The popularity and strong community also creates that sort of culture of shared experience that D&D used to have in the 80’s, when everybody played the same modules. Take any D&D player of a certain age, and they’re pretty much guaranteed to have played at least a part of the G series, or White Plume Mountain, or Tomb of Horrors, or the D series, or Ravenloft, or at least Keep on the Borderlands. I can’t really think up any module from the 90’s that would have a similar status, and nothing really comes up from the 3E era, either. Maybe The Sunless Citadel, since it was released so early. Maybe. I think Pathfinder RPG has something similar going on, thanks to the internet and the general high quality and visibility of the adventure paths.

Well, that’s all folks, for now. I’m off to write my RPG Superstar entry.

Rise of the Runelords Review and Retrospective, Part I

So, like I mentioned in the last post, I ran the whole of Rise of the Runelords. That was the afterglow post, and now I’ll get down to the business of reviewing the modules and giving some notes of things I encountered or changed when I ran them. Since six modules is a lot of stuff, I’ll spread this out over a few posts. If you intend to play the adventure path at some point, you should probably be advised that this post contains SPOILERS.

We played the first session of the campaign in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and after Pathfinder RPG came out between sessions, converted and played the rest of the campaign under that. The campaign was originally released using the 3.5 ruleset, but I did not find the conversion too difficult. I typed out or copied most of the statblocks from the modules and other sources into .doc files and printed them out, so I’d have references for all the adversaries right there in front of me behind the screen and would not have to start flipping books. With a very few exceptions, I converted everything from the ground up, and even for the exceptions I jotted down stuff like Combat Manoeuvre Bonus and Defence, plus a Perception score if I figured it might be needed. Those exceptions usually arose from a lack of time to convert some of the more complex creatures from the ground up (especially a couple of evil henchmen in the sixth module come to mind). If I anticipated the use of random encounter tables, I usually also compiled stats for those, which may veer into the obsessive compulsive territory, but at least now I have the stats in an easy-to-use format should I need them in the future.

In addition to the adventure modules themselves, I had a number of helpful sources for advice, handouts, errata and notes on how the modules play out. On the Mekanismi wiki, where I host my campaign’s home page, there were the RotRL campaigns of Blue_Hill (of Never Play Poker with the GM) and Navdi (of Blowing Smoke). These were handy to have and the discussion archives allowed me to learn from their experiences. Incidentally, the campaign website is really valuable tool for anyone running a longer campaign. During the campaign, we updated character sheets on the wiki, agreed on game times, and at least tried to do all that fiddly downtime number crunching there, like keeping track of gold, selling loot and some of the magic item creation. I also used it to deliver some of the larger infodumps on the plot and the world. I’ll next be running the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, and we’re using the wiki to discuss the party composition and bounce character concepts.

Additionally, for anyone running a Pathfinder adventure path, I cannot sufficiently recommend Paizo’s adventure path forums. Each path has its own forum and each module has a thread of its own for GM material, usually stickied on top of the page, and those are treasure troves of fan-created content – maps, handouts, PFRPG conversions of everything in the first four modules, fan errata.

Before I get down to the details of reviewing the individual modules, I feel I should say a word about the adventure format. The Pathfinder Adventure Path modules aren’t just canned scenarios. In addition to the adventure itself, running usually some 46 pages long, each module also contains a couple of articles on setting elements to supplement the module, a piece of short fiction, and a bestiary with a handful of new monsters. The bestiary has a long format for the monster entries, recalling the Monstrous Manuals of the 1990’s, with their lavishly detailed monster ecologies. The page counts add up to a total of 96 pages. The additional content is very useful and made it easier for me to add colour to the setting and try and bring the world around the player characters alive. Whenever the adventurers ventured off the beaten path, I could just check the local gazetteer from one of the modules and see what they run into.

In addition to the six modules, the adventure path also has a player’s guide, available as a free PDF, which advises the players about the campaign to come, what sort of characters work well, and some ideas on what kind of adventurers fit Varisia. There’s also a handful of feats for native Varisian characters. Starting with the next campaign, Curse of the Crimson Throne, Paizo started using campaign traits instead of feats, later forming with the advent of Second Darkness into the more formalized system of traits, first available as a PDF on the Paizo website and finally included in Advanced Player’s Guide, which finally presented a series of campaign traits for Rise of the Runelords. I feel the campaign traits are a handy way to tie the party members to the setting and especially the beginning of the campaign.

Burnt Offerings

Burn Offerings, by James Jacobs, opens up the adventure path, as well as the Pathfinder game line, with a bang. This is the module that started it all, and I have a hard time finding anything negative to say about it. The villains are memorable, the setting is rich, and at this early stage in the campaign, it seems like anything is possible, and the town of Sandpoint loves you, and the frontier is out there, waiting for you to conquer it.

Burnt Offerings begins with a consecration of the new cathedral in the town of Sandpoint, but the party is interrupted by a goblin attack. After defending the town from the goblins, the PCs are deputized while the sheriff goes to Magnimar, the local big city, to get reinforcements. The adventurers will run into a plot against the town, an evil cult, and ghosts of an evil empire that fell ten thousand years ago.

There’s a balance of dungeon crawling, city adventuring and some investigation, and the atmosphere injected into the module is awesome. The stars of the show, of course, are the goblins, who are a mix of Gremlins and Critters – small, sorta humorous, not very intelligent, but evil, cunning and just a bit insane. They’re a low-level adversary that’ll keep your players on their toes. James Jacobs has managed to reinvent the common D&D goblin, usually thought of as merely XP on two feet, and given it a memorable personality. This later became more or less one of Paizo’s trademarks, with the ogres of The Hook Mountain Massacre and eventually the entire Classic Monsters Revisited and the books that followed. You can tweak the goblins to your preference, either playing up the laughs, or making them really creepy. I preferred to strike a balance, mostly using them as a vehicle for jokes and gags, but I used the horror encounter from the module as it foreshadowed the eventual straight-up horror content of The Skinsaw Murders and The Hook Mountain Massacre.

Personally, I ran Burnt Offerings pretty much as written, by the book. I saw no reason to change anything except where the actions of the PCs went beyond the script and I had to improvise, such as when they retreated from the final dungeon after engaging the BBEG in combat but then fleeing from her. She was not a moron, so she took a hike while the heroes were licking their wounds, and the contents of Burnt Offerings and the second adventure, The Skinsaw Murders, gave me a solid framework of material upon which to build the next session where they chased her across the Sandpoint hinterlands.

The extra materials in Burnt Offerings are a gazetteer of the town of Sandpoint, where the adventure is mostly based, another article on the ancient empire of Thassilon that dominated the region some ten thousand years ago and whose ruins are still scattered around the landscape. Thassilon later becomes a major theme in the campaign, and in the end I just dumped the entire text of the article on my players once the characters found an old Thassilonian library. Thirdly, there’s an introduction to the Pathfinders, which sorta starts off the Pathfinder Journal fiction series.

Overall, I consider Burnt Offerings to be one of the finest beginning modules I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few really excellent ones. The module’s plot works, it’s not too railroady, and the town of Sandpoint is really well fleshed out. Along with the material in The Skinsaw Murders and The Hook Mountain Massacre, we’re provided with enough stuff to set ten campaigns of our own in the region.

The Skinsaw Murders

The second module of the series is a mix of slasher horror and haunted house, with a just plain horror in the BBEG fight when she takes the group apart. The action flows more or less seamlessly from Burnt Offerings, and can actually even be started before the first module is over, if you’re good at juggling two books and your players can show some initiative.

The Skinsaw Murders presents us with the haunts mechanic, which later found its way into the GameMastery Guide. I think it’s an interesting and functional way to make a haunting scary in a D&D-type game. If you just throw in a ghost, the players will know that it’ll have this, this and this ability, it’ll be vulnerable to this and this, and it’ll be resistant or immune to these things. Also, if it has hit points, you can kill it. The haunts have none of those. They’re creepy effects that will trigger when you come into the room or walk past the suit of armour or whatever, and then you roll a save or get toasted, or have an uncontrollable urge to jump out of the window, or the like. It worked marvellously at my table. Throughout the house you are also revealed glimpses of the house’s terrible history. The Misgivings chapter of The Skinsaw Murders is pure gold.

The events after that in Magnimar aren’t so hot, though, which has mostly to do with encounter difficulty. The major combat encounters once the party moves on from the haunted house include the cultist leader Justice Ironbriar, who’s a rogue working alone, which is always a pushover, and his henchmen, encountered on the lower floor, are six rogue 1/cleric 1’s, against a party who’ll be fifth or sixth level at this point. Once the party begins the assault on the Shadow Clock, the climb up the tower feels like properly challenging, with the Scarecrow golem and some mooks upstairs dropping a bell on the party, but then there’s Xanesha, the lamia matriarch and Big Bad of the adventure, and, well… while my party, when I ran it, did manage to kick her ass without losing any of their own, I’ve heard enough reports of her being terribly, terribly dangerous to give them credit. She’s quite capable of inflicting a TPK, and one suggestion I’ve heard repeated is replacing Xanesha with her sister Lucrecia from the next module and letting the party face the tougher Xanesha when they’re themselves a couple of levels higher.

In addition to the adventure itself, The Skinsaw Murders contains a gazetteer of the city of Magnimar, where much of the action takes place (and in this case the hometown of two party members) and an article on the goddess Desna, Golarion’s goddess of travellers, the stars and dreams. Finally, there’s the first instalment of the journal of Eando Kline, which ran until the end of the Second Darkness adventure path. Kline himself makes a personal appearance in a later adventure path as well.

In conclusion, even though the latter half of the adventure has some issues with encounter difficulty, the plot works and if the GM is up to it, the adventure can have a really creepy atmosphere. The issues, once noticed, can be easily fixed (now, if the party encounters Ironbriar with his henchmen in a place where manoeuvring is possible, he becomes a different beast entirely), and the haunted house sequence is up there with Music from a Darkened Room in the top list of haunted house modules.

The Hook Mountain Massacre

And we come to the third part of the Rise of the Runelords. The Hook Mountain Massacre occasionally goes over the top, but that’s mostly because RPGs have been family friendly for so long that the top isn’t very high in the first place. However, if your players would find the films Deliverance or Hills Have Eyes uncomfortable, they might not like this module.

Me, I was like a kid in a candy store.

In The Hook Mountain Massacre, the party follows the trail of clues from the previous module to the small village of Turtleback Ferry, where they will encounter the ogres of Golarion.

Golarion ogres, much like Golarion goblins from Burnt Offerings, are a reimagined version of the same old enemy. The stats are the same, but the fluff and the flavour have been rewritten (though I can’t for the life of me actually remember there being anything written about ogres in the first place). The rewriting paints them as complete and utter monsters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, who raise rape and incest to a religious fetish, especially like the way elves scream and play games where they throw axes at each other and the first one to lose a finger loses. Nicolas Logue has managed to make the ogres utterly terrifying in just about every aspect. The crown jewel of the adventure is the homestead of the inbred Graul half-ogre family, which I feel dirty and bad for liking. After reading it, I spent a while wondering that if this was what they printed, what was so bad in the original that they had to censor it, like James Jacobs noted in the foreword. Well, it turns out, this was.

Though the retaking of Fort Rannick from an ogre tribe and the assault on Hook Mountain can easily slip into plain old hack & slash, and the sidetrek into the Shimmerglens to help a nymph queen feels a bit superfluous and far too brief (I think this is something that was cut down for length), it’s still an excellent, creepy and strongly atmospheric module.

Accompanying the adventure, there’s the article “Keeping the Keep”, for advice on running the fortress that the adventurers are given to run after reclaiming it from the Kreeg tribe. We got one session of play out of that article. Came as the first session after the summer break and allowed us to refresh our memories of what the hell we were doing in peace, get the bullshit out of the way and then begin the next adventure a week later. There’s also a gazetteer on Varisia, the region where Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne and part of Second Darkness take place. With the different gazetteers included with the adventure path volumes, you have a pretty decent campaign setting on the region for your own games.

Though The Hook Mountain Massacre seems to have been edited with a heavy hand to get it to fit the page count and between Fort Rannick and the final assault on Hook Mountain the ogre killing got a bit old, it’s still quite a worthwhile adventure. Hell, it’s worth it for the Graul farmstead alone. Might use a parental advisory sticker, though.

And thus concludes the first half of my Rise of the Runelords review.

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.

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.

Greyhawk Modules – Mr. Haarlaa Has His Say

Sampo Haarlaa, fellow Living Greyhawk module writer and a former Triad-member of the Principality of Naerie, mailed me some commentary of his own on the modules I put up last week. Since he asked me to post it here and I’m all for other people writing me content, here it is.

TSS5-04 The Sun and the Nightingale, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

This was mainly Nick’s baby. He had an idea for an investigative module but we could not really place it in Naerie and the town of Poelitz for few reasons. Trennenport was chosen because it had been detailed previously by Creighton Broadhurst and offered us a good locale. The movie Third Man served as a bit of an inspiration.

Anyway… this became quite a magnum opus, mainly with statblocks and details of locations. It also requires quite a lot from both DM and players. It could perhaps do with some cutting down and tightening up but as locale presentation, it works pretty well in my opinion and many people definitely liked it.

ESA6-05 A Point of View, by Sampo Haarlaa

A Point of View was first the proper “Naerie metaregional” in the sense that it used local NPCs and so forth (there had been few earlier ones but Naerie had been mostly glossed over in details). It was also born out of an argument on forums with certain people over D&D being all about alignments and how there can be no middle ground, “evil” in alignment means you are always wrong, etc.

Basically, I wanted to make an adventure to take the piss out of such people. For this the whole borderland fortification with slave/prison labor, Hextorites and other such things offered a good setting. The original plan was to make both sides of the story totally despicable but in the end Ahlissan side comes out looking more clean here (writing constraits were also the limit, would have essentially required 10 more pages for other plotline). The villain also has a bit of a tragic side to his character, having gone mad in the Calling Mines (PCs who played ESA3-08 Prisoners of the Calling Mines can relate [a module known for starting the characters without equipment and having an allip as the final boss. – Editor]) and which also foreshadowed later adventures occurring there.

I was quite satisfied with the end result and ties very much with NAE6-05 Sharafon as my pick for “best adventure”. Also, a song by Apulanta, “Pahempi toistaan” (Eng: Each One Worse Than the Other) served as an inspiration when writing this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=754e3-5OZn8

ESA7-05 And All the Prince’s Men, by Sampo Haarlaa

I still don’t know why this was turned into metaregional module as it really offers nothing for surrounding regions. Nonetheless, Pieter Sleijpen, our Circle rep, kindly asked if it could be one and I said “Okay, but it really is a regional module”.

Anyway, it was supposed to be foreshadowing for the reversal of the Flight of Fiends, which was to occur at the end of the campaign, and also shake the command structure in Naerie City a bit. I had some trouble starting the adventure but Sir Ridley Scott came to rescue as I watched the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven for the umpteenth time. In other words, a good public hanging is where it is. The Nasranite Watch introduction has even been copied from same scene where Tiberias (Jeremy Irons) and Raynald of Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) argue over the men about to be hanged. Here it is, of course, the long-suffering Sertern Embric* (our local Michael Garibaldi/Zack Allan) having words with Commander Wanworth.

Originally, I was not supposed to even write this adventure, having written the barebones structure for another author. However, it soon came clear that the author was frankly clueless, refused to take into account previous adventures or set facts (for example, in that version Nasranite Watch wore leather armor and carried spears like some ancient tribesmen). After NAE4-03 The Apprentice, the policy was to keep it simple and use vanilla Monster Manual stuff if it could suffice. Not here, as much of the original author’s plot relied on a near epic-level druid to pull it off and had stuff like, I kid you not, an advanced legendary dire snake of legend with a page and a half of statblock. So in the end I informed the author that “Sorry, but since you cannot make the changes required, I will write this myself”.

I still retain the original version as example “how not to write an adventure”.

* Who turned into an often seen recurring NPC despite his somewhat humble beginnings in the intro module NAE5-I01 In the Docks, where his main task was to stop the PCs from derailing the plot completely.

ESA8-02 Old Debts, by Sampo Haarlaa

This is not one my favourites. Originally there was supposed to be an epic three-part series for finale of the metaregion, ending eventually in Irongate. Alas, timetables, authors withdrawing and other factors prevented the two others seeing the light of day, so only the first part made it in.

As this became clear, my enthusiams to write also waned quite a bit. Nonetheless, eventually I managed to turn in a completed module. Originally, it was supposed to be very straightforward adventure but I could not resist adding the prison escape sequence to it. In the end, I think it worked well enough as adventure and the prison thing gave PC’s something else to do than just teleport out of the town when shit hits the fan.

NAE4-03 Apprentice, by Sampo Haarlaa

Urgh… what can I say here other than apologise..?

It was my first regional effort, I had more enthusiasm than skill and considered the editing process to be something that happened to other people. Also, I had fallen in love with templates and insisted on using them (you cannot imagine how many times I cocked up those stat blocks).

Anyway, I got the basic plot premise from then Triad, proceeded to write and it sort of became unnecessarily bloated and epic in its scale in regards to adventure and so on. Well, at least a few useful NPCs and locales were created so not a total loss. [indeed, I believe this is the first appearance of Damar Rocharion, who is awesome – Editor]

NAE5-01 When Nightingales Sing…, by Sampo Haarlaa

After NAE4-03 The Apprentice, I wanted to do something simpler, having been humbled by the experience. The result was NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, but due to various happenings (people stepping down, editors/sanctioners going on holidays) and such, NAE5-01 was published first.

I sort of wanted to look for a non-standard mystery/investigation with some odd angles, having been inspired by a story in old Finnish roleplaying magazine. In fact, much of the plot has been copied there but who cares. In the end it seemed to work out, as I playtested it and then playtested some more to avoid the catastrophe that was NAE4-03 The Apprentice. Hence, the credits section is pretty substantial.

I always liked Ekehold as place and it’s a pity that this is the only adventure where it really features.

NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, by Sampo Haarlaa

I always liked the premise of NAE3-I01 The Stone Strider but the actual module left me with a vague feeling of “meh”. Why bother with this great setting if the only things you face are some giant rats? So, I decided to write the adventure as I envisioned it, taking into account the earlier adventure’s results.

I liked the end product, was certainly tightly written without any padding. It’s simple, it works, it’s good. At least in my opinion. Also, the statue in AR was a special bonus. 🙂

NAE5-03 Heart of the Wood, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

This adventure is purely written by Nick. He used to have a small company that published D20 adventures under the OGL. He had abandoned the adventure and offered it to be used as Naerie regional. So the job was promptly done, some local colour added and we had new adventure. My job was to just add the local colour and do the bookkeeping required for an LG adventure.

NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

The Serpent Guard plotline was supposed to be secondary plotline for Naerie and eventually culminate in a two-parter in the town of Gornor’s Cove, which ultimately never happened as the campaign ended. I wrote this to foreshadow possible future events but in most terms it’s a stand-alone adventure, which much inspiration being taken from a certain Bandit Kingdoms regional.

On hindsight, the plotline was largely unthinked and we could have done without it if we had other options, but since the first part got written, there was not much else to do than bite the bullet and go for it.

NAE6-05 Sharafon, by David Howard & Sampo Haarlaa

I don’t remember whose idea it was to feature the prison camp as an adventure location, whether it was me or David Howard. Jukka’s comments are sufficient as far as introductions go so perhaps I shall reveal some history behind this adventure. It was extremely hard to get it out in its current format. For starters, as the adventure progressed, there were certain creative difficulties between me and David, which resulted in me writing the bulk of the adventure as the original was nearly as “grey” as it turned out. However, in the end we sorted out our differences and David liked the adventure too (he was supposed to write another module but that never happened).

Then came the sanctioning process where I was repeatedly told that the ending could not happen, no way it would never be released, and so on. However, in the end the text went through like it was written, with AR entries giving both sides some goodies even if they lost.

Fine module, was worth the struggle to get it out. This was also run in GenCon UK Open Fiesta and got pretty high-praise from people if I remember correctly.

NAE7-05 Trail of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

It’s a mess, really. I felt need to visit Radoc at some point so as local description it works, but at this stage I was running out of ideas for investigative modules and in the end the module is largely a result of whoring from several different sources. At some point it also came clear that the Serpent Guard plotline would probably never be ended but nevertheless, the adventure was written. Like it’s predecessor, I think it’s okay but does not bring much to the table except the local colour, which itself is pretty good.

Radoc would definetely work as place for mini-campaign. Feel free to give it a shot.

Greyhawk Modules Online – Naerie Endures

Well, some of you may remember my involvement with the Living Greyhawk campaign of yore. I was active in our local region, the Principality of Naerie. Small stuff – wrote a module, collaborated with Sampo Haarlaa on another, worked on the final Gazetteer, which incidentally is available from the download link on the blog sidebar, there. Well, that campaign is over, but the modules remain, all two thousand of them.

From the Principality of Naerie side, we’ve now decided that the modules aren’t doing anyone any good if they’re gathering pixelated dust in the dark, dank recesses of someone’s hard drive. So, I present to you the fourteen adventure modules by me or Sampo Haarlaa, plus collaborations. These were originally posted to the Naerie Yahoogroup back in April, but for ease of access, I’m now presenting these here.

The collection is not complete – one notable thing that’s missing is COR7-18 Into the Mist, Sampo’s Core module. The collection also lacks a handful of introductory modules he wrote for Onnwal and the Bone March around 2002-2003, though he assures me that these are not a great loss. Apparently he has lost the original texts, and even I have not been able to scare them up from the depths of the web. We do have a special bonus module, though, the unreleased Lordship of the Isles module The Luminous Cloud that the Spanish Triad was supposed to translate and release over there as a regional. There’s also Bordermarch, which debuted at Ropecon last year, well after the campaign was over.

Generally, Living Greyhawk modules were password-protected. These are not. If you also want the Adventure Record files, e-mail me and I’ll zip them up for you. The Luminous Cloud and Bordermarch don’t have ARs. Also, a word on the module codes… For instance, ISL6-01 The Luminous Cloud. ISL is the three-letter region code. In this case, it’s Lordship of the Isles, which was Spain’s region. The number after that is the number of the year. Year Six was 2006, which would’ve made the module available for play until the end of 2007. The final number is its release number. Every region could release eight regional modules annually, plus four introductory modules and any amount of mini-missions and convention interactives. These limits were in place mostly for balance reasons, I understand. The APL thing stands for Average Party Level – modules were written so they worked on many levels of play.

I would’ve liked to do this with a single zip file, but WordPress doesn’t allow me to upload one, so we’ll have to do this the hard way, with separate download links. Many of these modules get rather involved with the lore of the setting, and it may not be a bad idea to download the aforementioned gazetteer for a reader’s companion. But, without further ado… fourteen great modules that kept us entertained and coming back for more for four years.

Splintered Suns and Scarlet Signs – Metaregional Modules

These metaregional modules were playable all over Europe, during the campaign. The module code fluctuated from ESA to TSS and back again, dependent on the phase of the moon on the first Tuesday of the month, or something. I never understood the logic there, but it sure fucked up all alphabetisation schemes.

The Splintered Suns metaregion was comprised of the Principalities of Adri and Naerie, the Free Kingdom of Sunndi, Onnwal, Bone March, the Lordship of the Isles, the Sea Barons and Dullstrand, and some lands between. Especially southern Ahlissa saw action in the metaregionals, as did the Solnor Compact and Medegia.

TSS5-04 The Sun and the Nightingale, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

The strength of Ahlissa rests in the hands of the Great Guildmaster and his formidable merchant vessels. Sometimes these ships have more than bounty of Ahlissa in them and trouble ensues. Now a merchant is dead, his secrets with him but some loose ends remain… A one-round investigative scenario for APL 4-10.

This is one of the finest investigative adventures I’ve seen for D&D. The usual pitfall of investigatives in D&D is that they try to take a normal investigative module formula and just hammer it into D&D. Unless it’s a really low-level module, this usually fails. The game comes with such a wide variety of divination spells for finding hidden items and people and having chats with murder victims that the whole Agatha Christie repertoire is just shot. Every good module must take into account the abilities of the PCs at the level of the module, and with investigative scenarios this is especially true. TSS5-04 pulls it off perfectly.

ESA6-05 A Point of View, by Sampo Haarlaa

Since 590 CY, the Ahlissans have worked to build a fortification to guard the Adder’s Pass that separates Principality of Naerie from the Kingdom of Sunndi. The work is nearing completion but acts of sabotage have hindered the progress. Perhaps you can discover what is really going on? A one round meta-regional set in Principality of Naerie for character levels 1-11 (APL 2-8). Recommended for groups of adventurers who do not have conflicting loyalties.

A Point of View takes the same tack as The Sun and the Nightingale – take a story element that the D&D ruleset tends to break too easily and develop ways to counter the unconventional tactics of PCs. In this case, the element is a small border fortress. There’s also a pretty nifty story, cameos by NPCs we learned to respect and in some cases fear (I was ready to piss my pants when the White Lady rode in, and Damar Rocharion and Walennor didn’t exactly make it better). Both The Sun and the Nightingale and A Point of View are also very intelligent modules, and will mercilessly punish players who make certain stupid assumptions. The one in TSS5-04 hopefully doesn’t apply outside the campaign, though, since it breaks an adventure formula that you don’t get outside the strict scenario writing parameters. Incidentally, the playtest draft included brothel price charts. They were cut from the final.

ESA7-05 And All the Prince’s Men…, by Sampo Haarlaa

Patriotic Knights, a group of Oeridian supremacist and rabble-rousers, and their allies have suffered blows in the past but are hardly a spent force. Now, yet more fuel is thrown into the flames that threaten to tear Naerie City apart. Riots, robbery and revelations, all within one hectic day in the city. Recommended for well-balanced parties who have had past dealings and no enmities with the Nasranite Watch. Closely connected to ESA6-05 A Point of View, NAE6-05 Sharafon and NAE7-03 Incognito and introduction to the year 8 meta-regional trilogy Trouble Within. A one-round Splintered Suns metaregional set in Principality of Naerie for Character levels 2-13 (APL 4 to 10).

This one was originally supposed to be a regional module, but was co-opted by the metaregional coordinators for a metaregional to fill a gap in the schedule. I’m not entirely sure how it worked out, since the central NPC is a signature Naerie character and the plotlines it deals with mostly originated in regional modules. Still, a good module, and I especially like the end fight at the lowest APL. This one apparently offended the playtester group, because it portrayed the commoners as bloodthirsty rabble who thought that public executions are good entertainment for the whole family. Out of all the things in Simpi’s modules you could be offended about (there’s a [deserved] personal dig at another module writer in A Point of View, and Into the Mists contained a gay couple in direct response to a certain fan’s homophobic tirade), this one was pretty unexpected. The scene was inspired by Kingdom of Heaven, incidentally.

ESA8-02 Old Debts, by Sampo Haarlaa

14 years ago the armies of Ivid destroyed most of Pontylver in an orgy of violence. Now its harbor has finally been fully restored, and its docks have produced the first ships to rebuild the Ahlissan fleet. This is cause for a celebration and all are invited. This close to the cursed grounds of mainland Pontylver a few wonder if it is a good idea, wondering whether violence will strike. A one-round metaregional with an optional encounter set in Pontylver in Ahlissa for character levels 2-15 (APL 4 to 12).

This was our metaregional finale, pretty much. It’s epic, big in scale and magnificent, and has an ending so nifty it deserves to be made into a movie. Old Debts tied into the larger plotlines at the end of the campaign, such as the reversal of the Flight of Fiends. It also ties in with some of the themes explored in And All the Prince’s Men… and some of our regionals, and, of course, the canon of the region’s history. I think this is one of Simpi’s more challenging modules, from a sheer combat point of view. Old Debts also contains a Darwinistic dumbass test that will get overconfident PCs killed or at least seriously hurt. You can probably tell by now that Naerie modules did not suffer fools lightly.

The Lordship of the Isles – Regional Modules

The Lordship of the Isles was a region given to Spain, where the Triad promptly sat on it and did nothing. Simpi even wrote up this entire module for them, had it playtested and sanctioned and sent it to them for translation and release. They did nothing. This is a great pity, since their region was one of the most interesting in the setting. It had been taken over by the Scarlet Brotherhood (think Shaolin Nazi Communists, and you’re not too far), and was still during the campaign an occupied territory. The role of the freedom fighter fell naturally to the player characters and there was great potential for all sorts of Secret Army shenanigans, sabotage missions and the promise of eventual liberation by Ahlissans or Sunndi forces. Alas, it was not to be, and the only thing we have is this.

ISL6-01 The Luminous Cloud, by Sampo Haarlaa

A ship beaches near Sulward and a local pickpocket brings the news into town. Several groups want to investigate it but who will get there first? One-round regional module for APL2-6.

Not a spectacularly awesome module, which is why it was never rewritten for Naerie or even offered up as a metaregional module after it became clear that Spain was a dead zone. Still, it’s a solid piece of work, and probably fits most campaigns with more ease than the rest of these. In the playtest copy, several NPCs were still named after players in our local circle. I like the opening scene, set in a tavern inside the hollow shell of a dragon turtle. It sets a nifty ambiance, tells that we ain’t in Kansas anymore. An important thing about the regional system was having an individual feeling and tone for every region, and this one starts by setting itself apart from Naerie, or the City of Greyhawk, or Onnwal, or Sunndi.

The Principality of Naerie – Regional Modules

Now we come to the real meat. This isn’t everything we released – fortunately, we had many excellent authors – but it’s everything that Simpi or I had a hand in. During its five years of adventures, Naerie saw political turmoil, a couple of assassinations, Living Greyhawk’s only Circle-sanctioned orgy (not included here), and every shade of grey. Simpi, who practically ran the show in the triad, didn’t really go for the good vs. evil thematic present elsewhere, and instead built political themes with no easy answers. The central conflict was between the United Kingdom of Ahlissa, which was the lawful neutral iron fist in a velvet glove that drove out the Scarlet Brotherhood and annexed the formerly-independent region, and the Idee Volunteers, who were this ragtag bunch of freedom fighters who wanted to kick out the Ahlissans and form a free Idee. It made for interesting dynamics between player characters and really fun scenarios. Another theme explored in one of our series was the Victor Hugo-esque mercy vs. vengeance theme going on with the prison camps full of Scarlet Brotherhood slave soldiers.

We occasionally got told that we’re playing wrong, that D&D isn’t meant for these kinds of things, which was always really funny.

NAE4-03 The Apprentice, by Anders Lindborg & Sampo Haarlaa

You have come to Naerie City in time for Richfest. Weather is pleasant, people are polite and there is always something new around every corner. Unfortunately, someone sent some uninvited guests and it will be up to you and the Nasranite Watch to clear up the situation. A one-round regional adventure for APLs 2-10.

Sampo Haarlaa’s first Naerie regional. He doesn’t think much of it these days and personally, I agree that it’s not that great, though it’s not really bad, either. It just… is. It does introduce Damar Rocharion, the Vic Mackey of Naerie City Watch, though, and I like the carnival competitions in the beginning. One thing that’s not in the text that I always did when running this was that if the PCs manage to kill the wizard’s familiar at the end before entering the mansion, the XP hit is enough to take him down a level, depriving him of some spells.

NAE5-01 When Nightingales Sing, by Sampo Haarlaa

Baron Berik Oedil is re-marrying and the Barony of Ingmalt is preparing for the festivities. However, it seems someone does not like the idea and suddenly you find yourself drawn into a web of intrigue. A one-round adventure for an APL 2-8 party who are skilled in both diplomacy and swordsmanship.

The first and best of the three Year Five modules that Sampo wrote for Naerie. When Nightingales Sing is the beginning of a couple of plot threads that snuck around in the background before resurfacing for resolution towards the end of the campaign, and introduced a couple of really cool NPCs, such as the old Baron Berik Oedil, who in a movie would be played by Clint Eastwood, and Traneth Etali, Knight of the Chase, who’d be played by Clint Eastwood c. 1965. As a module, it has a certain investigative element, and the opportunity to be a total dick for some extra bonuses. An excellent module.

NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, by Sampo Haarlaa

Breddol the Sage once again needs someone to visit the caverns of Gefjon Isle and the sleepy village of Bandhar. It’s been two years since the last trip, but surely things haven’t changed that much? Or maybe they have… Either way, it’s time to board a ship and return to Gefjon. A one round scenario for APLs 2-8.

This one is actually a sequel to a Year Three introductory module called The Stone Strider. I think it’s technically the first Naerie module released, but we’d all like to forget it and prefer to think that NAE3-01 Daughter of Idee, by Steven Zwanger, was the first. Aaaanyway… Return to Gefjon is a bit of a sandbox, and there are several directions the PCs can go and many solutions to the problems – some of them quite unexpected. I’ve never actually run Return to Gefjon, but were I to do so, I’d probably play up the isolation of Bandhar and present them as a bunch of rural hicks with a hint of Lovecraft – especially since both sahuagin and kuo-toa swim these troubled waters…

NAE5-03 Heart of the Wood, by Nick Silverstone & Sampo Haarlaa

Sapling Wood is haunted by a curse that terrifies the folk of Falenthorpe. All attempts to lift the curse have failed and people are being taken by the spirits in the wood. Can the heroes find the woods’ secret or will they perish like so many others before them? A one round scenario for APLs 2-8.

The third of the Year Five Naerie regionals. Heart of the Wood holds a special place in my heart because it introduces the village of Falenthorpe, which later lent its name to the Naerie message boards. This was because it’s possible in the adventure to gain the ownership of a house in Falenthorpe. As more and more PCs played the module and acquired the house – which was not difficult – it became an in-joke that Falenthorpe was the tax paradise where rich adventurers build their houses. In the grocery store, an egg would cost ten gold and the storekeeper would be the only original inhabitant left (the tavern owner would, of course, be a retired adventurer). In the evenings, Ahlissan loyalists and Idee sympathisers would lob trash over each other’s garden fences. There was even a whole introductory module we thought up about this setup, but never wrote. Anyway, this is a pretty nifty module, where the forest environment comes through nicely and really matters. I also like the end fight.

NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

A trip to Gornor’s Cove lets you see some old and new acquaintances. But is there something darker going on in the town than everyone knows? A one-round Principality of Naerie scenario for characters of level 1-11 (APL 2-8). This module is a follow-up to NAE6-02 First Bite and it is recommended that you have played that module first.

I’ve always visualised this module as the Naerie plotlines standing still for a moment for a breather, to take stock of the situation. In the bigger picture, it ties together some plotlines and sets the stage for some others, but there is no big plot payoff. However, it works as a module and has no obvious flaws. There was some potential for an interesting recurring villain, but the campaign consequences swung so that she got killed. Well, not a great loss, we have enough bad guys to last years. Not a bad module.

NAE6-05 Sharafon, by David Howard & Sampo Haarlaa

You rarely notice them. Sometimes you see them in the streets or on the docks. Many remain in labor camp servitude. Others have made the Menowood their new home. Hepmonaland warriors rampaged through Naerie in the service of the Scarlet Brotherhood, but now they are slowly becoming part of the population. Will they always remain on the fringes of society? You will help decide. A Naerie regional adventure for character levels 1-11 (APL 2-8). This module will have important effects on future plotlines. Parties that share an ideological point of view are recommended for this module.

This is one of Naerie’s absolute best modules and sets the stage for the prison camp plotline, with its subtle political commentary, realpolitik and moral greyness. As an interesting point of note, in every table I’ve seen play Sharafon except for one, the final battle had the party split along ideological lines and beat each other black and blue. I played this series with a character who himself once fought for the Scarlet Brotherhood, which brought interesting depth to the proceedings. We also meet Traneth Etali again, in a most unexpected place – especially since most of us had thought he’d died.

NAE7-04 Unyielding, by Jukka Särkijärvi

In the days of yore, the keeps of the Eddri Line defended the County of Idee from the forces of the Great Kingdom. In their duty they were unsuccessful, for the attack came from a different quarter, yet some never admitted defeat. Now the forts lie empty and forlorn in the hills – right up until some stalwart fools with a deathwish come traipsing through their halls. A one-round regional adventure set in the Principality of Naerie for character levels 1-12 (APL 2-10).

My first Naerie module and the only one I wrote alone. (If you want to get techical, there actually is a Sunndi mini-mission that I adapted for Naerie, but I don’t count that.) I’m pretty happy with Unyielding, all things considered. It’s not as good as the rest of the Naerie regionals, but the players have been happy, and I think it can hold its own. If there’s something I’m unhappy with, it’s that the damn thing ended up too short. I’ve never seen it run the full four hours a LG module technically should. The basic concept of the module is that of a dungeon crawl that you can complete without a single fight and that actually rewards noncombat solutions. I haven’t seen anyone accomplish it, but it is theoretically possible.

NAE7-05 Trail of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

While the Serpent Guard has been destroyed, authorities in Felten & Gornor’s Cove still require assistance in discovering their past. The trail of the serpent began in village of Radoc, on the outskirts of Hollow Highland and it is here where the secrets will be revealed. A sequel to NAE6-01 First Bite and NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent. A one-round regional set in Principality of Naerie for Character levels 1-13 (APL 2 to 10).

The sequel to Legacy of the Serpent works a lot better. It’s a difficult module and especially the end fight is a tactical challenge. If I recall correctly, we never bagged the villain, either. What I really love about this one is the Deadwood-esque milieu of Radoc. It’s a crapsack town, ruled by an incompetent lackwit and policed by the Keystone Kops. However, there’s a promise of a turn for the better, if things aren’t totally screwed up during this module. Amusingly, the Radoc in the final gazetteer houses at least three high-level former player characters. One of them, Eremis the High Priest of Kelanen, ended the campaign with two different powerful evil outsiders having dibs on his soul. We had plans for an adventure where Eremis would die of the myriad curses he managed to accumulate during his career, and the PCs would be left cleaning up the mess when a balor and a pit fiend would start duking it out in the middle of Radoc.

NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, by Sampo Haarlaa & Jukka Särkijärvi

It is a festive time in Naerie City, as Keoland and Ahlissa prepare to sign the historic Azure Sea Treaty for mutual cooperation against the Scarlet Brotherhood and the great cathedral of Wee Jas is reconsecrated after a decade of disuse. However, nothing ever goes smoothly in Naerie and even less so when the members of the Scarlet Sign are concerned. Can the heroes of the Principality present a unified front against their age-old enemy, or will all come to ruin? A one-round regional set in Principality of Naerie for Character levels 4-14 (APL 6 to 12) and the final adventure for Principality of Naerie. Warning: This adventure features untiered encounters.

And here we have the Naerie finale, the big bang that ended the plotlines of the Principality of Naerie. We wrote in references to every previous Naerie module, and get loads of returning NPCs, including every assassin that ever got away in a Naerie module. The adventure was partly inspired by the movie Smokin’ Aces. It’s got challenge, it’s got scale, it’s got ways for stupid players to get themselves killed, it’s got former player characters, it’s got something for everyone. I love it to bits. That “untiered encounters” thing, incidentally, means that there are encounters that are the same for all APLs, which should be a warning for the players that there are some things you should not even try to fight.

NAE9-01 Bordermarch, by Sampo Haarlaa

With the outbreak of hostilies in northern Ahlissa, Prince Barzhaan is keen to secure the borders of Naerie and the best opportunity comes after negotiations with the Kingdom of the Iron Hills. Now someone just has to go out mark where the border goes… A one-round outdoor adventure set in Principality of Naerie for character levels 1-4 (APL2).

And here’s the new beginning, a new Naerie for new characters. Elements of Bordermarch are inspired by the movies Raja 1918 and Sauna. I haven’t seen it in action myself, but I think it looks like it works, and player reports have been mostly positive. There’s something wonky with the PDF and the DOC file I converted it from, and I can’t find a way to remove the yellow highlighting. It annoys the hell out of me and if someone can tell me how to remove it, I’d be much obliged.

The Principality of Naerie – Introductory Adventures

One more module. The introductory modules were modules designed only for first-level characters. Stuff that was easy for the beginners, without difficult fights relying on equipment that a starting character would not have, and so forth. Because of the way experience points gains worked out, you could only play three intro modules with a single character before he hit second level, which sometimes resulted in more active players having several second-level characters with three intro modules each. Intro modules were not retired like normal modules were, but a region could only have four of them active at a time.

One of the more outrageous ideas we had for an intro module would’be been a scenario that was actually set during the days of the Scarlet Brotherhood occupation, and which would’ve featured a bunch of events that were later referred to in other modules, like the Burning of Poelitz. After that, the characters would’ve tacked on 14 years to their age and gone on to adventure in the present-day Naerie. It would have been awesome. Instead of that, I have to give you this. A bit disappointing.

NAEI6-01 The Temple Below, by Sampo Haarlaa

An easy job takes you to Eragern where an old grizzled soldier tells you about things he saw in the war. Will you follow the way he points you? An introductory adventure for 1st-level characters only.

It’s a dungeon crawl. You go to a dungeon and crawl a bit. As far as I can tell, The Temple Below was written in an afternoon so we’d have a fifth introductory scenario and The Stone Strider could be retired. It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not exactly good, either. Lacks ambition.

Disclaimer

The above modules are the property of their respective authors, except for the World of Greyhawk elements that are the property of Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 and 3.5 rulesets and their accessories. No challenge to these copyrights is intended.

Greyhawk Still Alive: The Principality of Naerie Gazetteer 599 CY

When Living Greyhawk ended, we always had the plan to make one final Gazetteer for our region, the Principality of Naerie. We wanted to update our setting to the post-LG era, to show how plot arcs ended and new ones began, and where our beloved characters retired after the last Adventure Record was signed.

Not all characters survived the campaign, and not all of those who survived retired. Not all of those who retired were significant enough to warrant inclusion. However, there’s maybe ten former PCs in there.

This was actually finished months ago, but due to problems with the hosting of the old Naerie website, we couldn’t get it up anywhere. I feel a bit stupid, actually, since I didn’t understand until now that I can upload it on my WordPress account and have it downloadable here.

So, I give to you… The Principality of Naerie Gazetteer of Common Year 599!

It’s still not what I’d call a finished work. Sampo Haarlaa wrote expanded city gazetteers for the provincial capitals and Radoc, which could be updated and added to the Gazetteer. It could also do with some reorganising and an Organisations chapter, which could include such things as the Order of the Blue and Gold, who were our little-used Jack Bauer-esque paladins, and the Midnight Darkness, the Patriotic Knights and a few others. The religion chapter seems to lack an entry for Pelor, whose church in Naerie was established at the end of the campaign. If we had an official update on the end of the Bright Sands plot arc, we could also decide on the fate of the Bright Lands embassy in Naerie City and the two PCs who’d be associated with it.

That is all for the future, however. I may get around to doing some of those things later on, especially if we can get final, official campaign consequences for the 598 Core plot arcs. For now, we have a gazetteer. It’s not perfect and it’s not complete, but it is done – and really, if it were perfect and complete, there wouldn’t be anything left for the adventurers to do, now would there?

To go along with the Gazetteer, grab yourself Anna Bernemalm’s map of the Principality from her Maps of the Flanaess site. It is an absolutely beautiful piece of work, and includes a great deal of material from our Gazetteer.

Weighty Matters

Today, I had a good pick of topics I could have blogged. I could have blogged about the newest Pathfinder RPG vs. Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition flamewar that’s currently making the rounds. However, I concluded that I have better uses with my time than trying to inject reason into that toxic soup of ad hominem and tin foil hats. Besides, Mxyzplk is already on it.

I could have blogged about Green Ronin’s upcoming licence RPG Dragon Age, based on BioWare’s CRPG of the same name. However, while I have faith in GR’s ability to design a good game, it’s far too early to say anything substantive about it, which, again, hasn’t stopped the forum hordes. One ugly trailer, though.

But then, on our gaming group’s IRC channel, the discussion turned to such things as encumbrance and the retrieval of equipment from one’s backpack during combat.

Yeah, I know.

Really, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

We quickly came to a number of conclusions:

  1. Nobody was really sure what the official rules on getting stuff out are.
  2. Nobody actually used the rules as written in this case.
  3. The weights given for equipment in the PHB are better thought of as “encumbrance units” instead of actual pounds, because otherwise we have some very heavy gear indeed.
  4. Encumbrance rules tend to be ignored.

These aren’t really problems unless one makes them into problems. Calculating encumbrance and cross-referencing tables to get your weight limits and encumbrance penalties is fairly tedious stuff. However, the rules are still there and it’s better to see if they can be made to work instead of just abandoning them. It’s a verisimilitude thing (note that I am carefully avoiding the word “realism”, here).

Well, turns out number one was easy. They’re in the Actions in Combat table, PHB page 141 or PFRPGβ page 135. Retrieving a stored item is a move action that provokes an attack of opportunity.

However, if it’s that simple, I one must ask, what’s the point of the bandoleers in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting. They’re items that allow a number of small items like potions or daggers be stored on a belt across the chest. Since they’re categorised as special items, they must have a rules function that is not clearly apparent in the text – so, what’s the difference between a bandoleer and a backpack when retrieving items in combat? The consensus that we reached is that getting the backpack off your back so you can get your stuff also counts as retrieving an item, another move action. Therefore, getting an item out of your backpack counts as a full-round action (plus another move action the next round if you want to put the backpack on again instead of just dropping it [a free action]).

Then there’s the issue of pockets and storing stuff on your belt. This, as far as I can tell, is not handled anywhere. Personally, I’d say that you can have up to six potion-size objects (scrolls, acid vials, alchemist’s fire, wands) on your person without investing in a bandoleer or a potion belt. A bandoleer allows eight, a masterwork bandoleer twelve. A potion belt allows you to retrieve a single potion as a free action, once per round.

This, in turn, kinda forces you to track where your gear actually is, but I think it’s worth it.

Then there’s the issue of the backpack.

For the past five years, I’ve played with the implicit house rule that everyone drops their backpacks as a free action the  moment initiative is rolled and sheds the accompanying encumbrance penalties. This is a relic of Sampo Haarlaa’s Living Greyhawk games. However, according to the D&D 3.5 Game Rules FAQ, it’s a move action to drop a backpack.

So, to summarise what we came up with, browsing FAQs and rulebooks, and houseruling the gaps:

  • Retrieving a stored item is a move action that provokes an attack of opportunity.
  • A backpack on your back counts as a stored item itself, and therefore retrieving an item from your backpack is a full-round action.
  • You can normally store up to six potion-sized items in addition to your weapons on your person, to be retrieved with a move action. Wearing a bandoleer or a potion belt can raise this limit.
  • Dropping your backpack to shed yourself of its encumbrance is a move action (as is picking it up when you’re fleeing in terror).

This is all a part of an attempt to make encumbrance a meaningful part of the rules instead of something that everybody ignores.

Incidentally, we also paid attention to the weights and volumes of potions, which nobody seems to ever do. Turns out a single potion is one fluid ounce in volume, or about 29ml, which amounts to approximately a shotglass. This has been something of a journey of discovery. Or at least a double move.

The Runelords RIIIISE!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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