College of Wizardry: The Challenge

Last month, a couple of weeks before embarking on my trip to play Cabaret, I was at a very different larp, in Poland. Some of you may remember my exploits at College of Wizardry 10 last year. This was more of the same, with a twist. Whereas most College of Wizardry games are about the beginning of the term at the magic college – or in some cases, the midterm exams – The Challenge lifted its concept from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Three colleges of wizardry had been invited to test their mettle against one another, to foster cross-cultural cooperation, and engage in hijinks, shenanigans, and skulduggery.

One of the photosets for The Challenge was released the evening before Cabaret. Talk about tonal whiplash.

The Red Trio, being totally serious. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

The three colleges were the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the setting of the main College of Wizardry games, Nibelungen Universität für Magische Bildung und Studien (or NIMBUS among friends), the school for the German-language spinoff, and New World Magischola, the North American college from the larp series of the same name. NIMBUS was the host school and the game was played at the Kliczków Castle in Poland. NIMBUS itself is located in an indeterminate place but probably somewhere in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The colleges all have five different Houses for students, but there is variation in the paths of the students and the subjects taught.

This was the first run of The Challenge. While my CoW experience was the tenth run of the series and there was a certain routine to the proceedings, this one hadn’t been tested out yet. I see myself as a fairly ideal player for a first run of something like this, because I will let a lot of stuff slide before allowing it to impact my game, and it takes a lot to stress me out. Not that a lot of the design issues were even visible to me until after the game. The Challenge was a good game and a great experience, but there’s work to be done yet.

Voodoo and Top Hats

This is where I talk about my character. I’m still not gonna buy you a drink.

My character this time around was Étienne Rabasse, a third-year artificier from Lakay Laveau, one of the houses of New World Magischola. I figured that this was pretty much my only chance for a very long time to get to play a NWM student, so I went for it.

Étienne Rabasse and distant cousin Dárjá Rosenrot, played by my mother. Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

I’d originally signed up for an organizer-written character, but especially the NWM writing team took their time, the majority of players had chosen to write their own characters, and the fairly recognizable popcultural touchstones of Lakay Laveau had started working in my mind, so I finally mailed the lead writer that I’d be creating my own character.

Lakay Laveau is named after its founder Marie Laveau, an actual historical person, who was known as the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. So I did some reading on New Orleans and the relevant history. Learning from my experience at CoW10, I went for something more outgoing, vocal, and outspoken than Charles Duke had been. I decided Étienne would be more or less a nice person and entirely unconcerned with anyone’s blood status, partly because I knew I’d get enough of that particular theme at Cabaret. He ended up rather what I imagine to be the archetypical Lakay Laveau.

Among my prep, I also put in a lot of hours working on an accent for Étienne, using YouTube videos. I have a knack for accents, but they’re hard. I usually affect a British Received Pronunciation, sometimes Standard American English. Étienne, though, was from the South, and not only the South, from New Orleans, which has a very specific local accent.

It’s also hideously difficult. I don’t know what the specific process for learning an accent is for actors, but at least they get to practice their lines beforehand. To pull off an accent at a larp, you need to be able to dress it on whatever topics emerge in conversation. Dialects are even harder, because you need to be able to use words outside your own active vocabulary spontaneously. Étienne, in the end, spoke with a generic Southern accent that I’m pretty sure hit most states south of the Mason-Dixon at one point or another. No “y’alls”, some French but less than I had planned.

Meet the Press

The regular College of Wizardry has its student clubs – the A.R.M., the W.A.N.D., the Basement Beer Brigade, the Dueling Club, and whatnot. The Challenge had just three: Marconi’s Mumbling Masters, the Devil’s Dealers, and the Snifflers. The first was the radio and the announcers, the second was the bookies and black marketers, and the last one was the staff of The Challenge Chronicle newspaper. Every student was sorted into one of these.

We originally agreed on an editorial triumvirate, with one editor from each school. Étienne was the NWM editor, and I ended up doing most of the work on the paper. If the concept was to produce a newspaper during the Challenge, well, isn’t that the same as a conzine? The execution was simple. I brought in my laptop that I’d prepared with a user account for the Snifflers that would keep anyone away from basically anything that wasn’t the Chronicle’s files. It was always on with the layout file for the next issue open, so anyone on staff – or hell, outside of it but that never happened – could wander in and type up a story at their leisure. At certain times I’d have the accumulated stuff printed out at the GM room – one page, sometimes two.

Spectating the duels. Photo by Ewan Munro.

I ended up doing most of the work. This is not an indictment of anyone else. It’s a big game, there’s lots of stuff going on, challenges and personal plotlines and everything, and it takes a certain mentality to go in the middle of the game to a quiet room and make up a column’s worth of stuff. Especially if English is not one’s first language. Me, I think this is fun, and it also served as character content when Étienne ceased to be a neutral and objective observer and took a political position after a public execution.

We did have a selection of filler material created before the game, but in the end none of it was used and everything that got printed was written during play. There was no shortage of interesting stuff to report on.

As a side note, the issue criticizing the execution was out within the hour. I’m a bit proud of that. Also, “I need to get the morning issue printed” was an excellent justification for getting a hall pass and wandering around after curfew. And if I mentioned in my CoW10 writeup that I wrote more stuff than during actual college courses, I’m pretty sure I outdid my output here.

The issues of The Challenge Chronicle, which are probably not interesting to anyone who wasn’t at the game, are available for download.

The Game Itself

I’m not going to go into a detailed account of everything. The game had something like 140 players, so there was a lot going on pretty much at all times. There were the obligatory rituals at night (we did one at the gazebo! it was awesome!), and werewolves, and vampires, and there was a lot of duelling, and drama, and the most mind-boggling wedding. One of my few regrets is that I didn’t have the time to cover it for The Challenge Chronicle.

And then there was the core of the thing, the actual challenges, the tasks we were given. The game of it. The winning.

In classic CoW, there is of course the House Cup and the race for House Points, but it’s not the main goal of the game, or at least doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly legitimate not to give a damn about points and do your thing, deductions be damned. You can play to lose. In The Challenge, there’s less alibi for that since the characters are there as the school team, the students picked for their skill, talent, motivation or mystical and hard-to-define protagonistiness to represent their alma mater. When you’re there for the tournament, it’s hard to not care about the tournament.

So, playing to lose gets harder to justify to the character, and to the game. You play to win. This is something I feel should be reflected in the design of the challenges.

For the record, I have no knowledge of how the challenges were designed. Some of them were created by the organizers and most by the staff players. Most of the challenges worked well for me and I had great fun.

The duellist Daniel Fabel. Étienne was a fan. Photo by Ewan Munro.

There were a couple of places, though, where I felt that the rule that the target or recipient of a spell gets to decide its effect intersected badly with the goal to win, and the situation looked like the player of an opposing school had the opportunity to screw you over for points. I am merely commenting on the optics of the situation, not that anyone would have consciously done so. It was especially troublesome when the spell isn’t simple, like an attack spell – reacting to breakaleggio in the appropriate manner is easy. The duelling challenge worked fine and was a great show besides. However, dropping into a complex emotional situation is really hard, and while I do have trust in the judge players, it was not obvious or transparent how the challenge was scored.

Mostly, though? Great fun. There were ball games, in and out of the swimming pool! There was a scavenger hunt! There were riddles (which I sucked at)! There were a number of ethical challenges, and one about wandmaking, and one about potion mixing.

Incidentally, the House Cup also made an appearance at The Challenge. Since there were a total of fifteen Houses present and giving each one a common room of their own would have been silly, they were lumped up into five Trios, with one House from each school, who then acted as one to score points in the Collaboration Cup.

Conclusions

Yeah, I had fun. Now at my second CoW, I had a far better idea of how to play to catch plotlines and get into cool things. Yeah, I would go again, especially since of all the castles Dziobak Larp Studios uses, this is by far the shortest trip for me. There were some design issues, but nothing game-ruining and nothing that wasn’t fixable. The food was good, from the point of view of someone with no dietary limitations. I would also like to see how The Challenge would work with the over 200 players it was designed for.

Doing the newspaper was interesting. It’s something I would be interested in revisiting in larp, either at a CoW game or somewhere else entirely. I may pitch an article on the topic for next year’s Knutebook.

Oh, and I also discovered how to get the photographer’s attention: wear a cool hat.

Photo by Iulian Dinu / Dziobak Larp Studios.

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Cabaret – The Musical Larp

This past Saturday, I took a leap out of my comfort zone and played at Cabaret. It was a musical larp, based on the musical of the same name. The setting was The Silhouette, the city was Berlin, and the year was 1933.

At this point it probably behooves me to mention that this post is going to deal with the same very heavy and unfortunately current themes as the original musical – the rise of the Nazis, and persecution of Jews, Roma, gender and sexual minorities, and the political Left. Just so you’re warned. Cabaret was not a happy larp. There were moments of comedy, sure, but at least my experience of it was a study of one of history’s greatest tragedies on the level of the individual.

I will also be using the word “diegetic” a lot. It’s a term yoinked by larp researchers from film and theatre studies and I am greatly amused I get to use it simultaneously in both contexts. Basically, it means that which is true in the world of the story. The classic example is background music. For example, in The Temple of Doom, Willie Scott’s opening act singing at the restaurant is diegetic. It’s her job and the other characters present enjoy the show. In contrast, when Indy and co. fly over the Himalayas, they’re not really doing so to the tune of the iconic John Williams theme, nor is there a bright red line being actually drawn across China. These are non-diegetic.

This is not a review, more like an analytical description and utterly biased observation of the larp as I experienced it. It’s also going to be really long since this is the only venue where I get to write as long as I want. Oh, and there’s gonna be spoilers. This may be relevant, since the game script is a thing you can ask for to produce yourself. This was not the first run of Cabaret, and I would not hope that it was the last. The below is solely a reflection of my own experience and my own game, and should not be taken as the view or experience of the designers or any other player, except for certain points made about the Nazis which I am given to understand were, indeed, intentional.

As a final warning, I’m gonna be talking about my character.

Though the larp was based on the musical, it was not slavish about it: the club was different, the date was two years later, and though certain characters had clear models in the source material, there were no familiar characters walking around.

The comments are moderated.

The Concept

The basic idea is simple: take a larp and mash in elements of the stage musical. It’s not the first time this has been done: Åbo by Night was a Vampire larp in a karaoke bar, the Russians have done stuff with songs as documented in States of Play, my very first larp experience included singing, the list goes on.

There were three different types of musical number: there were the meta-songs, which were non-diegetic musical numbers. The player would take the stage and belt out a song they’d practiced and prepared that would somehow express their character’s inner conflict. What our characters would witness would not be that character, who might be the 60-year-old landlady with no reason to be on stage, singing a song that likely would not even be composed for another 70 years, but an undefined musical act with the same emotional and thematic content. Basically, how most musicals operate. Everyone understands that in the story, Javert and Jean Valjean are not facing off in a song battle and that even if the Phantom did deliver his threats in verse, Monsieurs Firmin et André didn’t sing them out as they read them. It’s metaphor.

Then there were the stage shows, performed by a troupe of players who’d invested a lot of time and energy to practicing them. These were used to structure the larp and ground it in the source material. They were mostly drawn from Cabaret, except for one piece that had been adapted from Chicago. These existed as we saw them in the world of the game. The characters performing them were the singers and dancers of The Silhouette club, and it was their job to perform them.

Finally, there were the act-ending big pieces, which we all sang together. The first and the last were non-diegetic, while the second segued from a stage piece, was diegetic, and utterly chilling.

The performances were extensively workshopped on the game day. Indeed, there was a great deal of pre-game workshopping, around five hours of it, excluding breaks for food. This included figuring out the meta-numbers, getting to know the people in our social circles and practicing some safety techniques to escalate and de-escalate situations. Cabaret is the most extensively workshopped larp I have played, though I understand that four or five hours is not uncommon when it comes to the heavier and more complex Nordic games. To note: this was only my tenth larp.

The other part of the core concept is that it’s set in a drag club in Nazi Germany.

The Background

Cabaret the larp was adapted from Cabaret the musical, adapted from the play I Am a Camera, adapted from the novel Goodbye to Berlin. The novel was Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical account of his time in Berlin in the early 1930s, and was published in 1939. It’s somewhat distant from what eventually won an Oscar – for one thing, Isherwood’s self-insert character exists only as a passive observer in the book. “I am a camera”, he describes himself on the first page. In the stage musical, he’s Cliff Bradshaw, who has agency, who acts. Then, by that time Isherwood’s homosexuality was far less of a scandal.

Between the Imperial Germany of WW1 and the Third Reich, 1918-1933, Germany was the Weimar Republic. Weimar was a very liberal state with liberal policies. Berlin had a vibrant cultural scene and cabaret culture. Though (I think) homosexual acts were still criminal, the laws were largely not enforced. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sex Research pioneered sexological research and advocated for women’s emancipation, sex education, contraception, and social acceptance of homosexual and transgender people.

As the curtains go up for Cabaret, that’s just about over. The date is the 10th of May, 1933. In 1929, the Wall Street Crash hit Germany hard, creating mass unemployment, widespread dissatisfaction and political unrest, paving the way for a populist, nationalist movement. Adolf Hitler has taken office in January 1933. The Reichstag went up in flames on the 27th of February. There’s a crackdown on cultural venues, and most cabarets are closed. The first of the concentration camps was opened in Dachau on the 22nd of March and promptly filled with members of the banned Communist Party. Around the same time, the Enabling Act was passed, allowing Hitler and his cabinet to bypass the Reichstag and the President in passing even unconstitutional laws. On April 26th, Hermann Göring signed a paper creating the Gestapo. On May 6th, the German Student Union, by this point in time an organization nearly synonymous with the National Socialist German Students’ League, raided the Institute of Sex Research and carried away their library and archives.

On the 10th of May, that library, along with works by Jewish, pacifist, or otherwise “degenerate” or “anti-German” authors was burned in great bonfires on the streets. Smoke darkens the skies of Berlin as a crowd of cultural workers, prostitutes, criminals, Nazis, homosexuals, singers, dancers, businessmen and intelligentsia gather for one more night of entertainment at The Silhouette.

It was a moment of uncertainty. This was six years before war would break out and Hitler hadn’t been in power for six months. Communism was a more than just a bogeyman, the USSR was right there, and was rightly considered a thing to fear. The horrors of the Holocaust would have been unthinkable. Although people were already leaving the country in self-imposed exile, street violence was commonplace and minorities were openly persecuted, nobody knew how far it would go before the end. Things had been happening quickly and folk were still reeling.

My Role in All This

Marcel Scholz, owner of The Silhouette. Pre-game photo
© Joel Höglund.

The characters were two or three pages long, name, history, contacts, social groups. Some room for players to fill in gaps. They were and also remain public, so you can go check them out yourself.

My character (no I’m not buying you a drink) was Marcel Scholz, second son of a wealthy Berlin lawyer and a Frenchwoman. He was the prodigal son, spending a lot of time in the universities of France and England, studying art, history, literature, architecture, the classics, and also the wine houses, theatres, and pubs. He’d finally been called home and given a cabaret to run by his father who had acquired it after its former owners went bankrupt, and told to make himself useful. To everyone’s surprise, he did.

At 36 he was old enough to have been adult during the Great War, but was also privileged enough not to have seen action or heard a shot fired in anger. This also meant that his university years fell in the 1920s, the age of prosperity and ballyhoo, the era when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and all the rest were hanging out in Paris, while J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were both beginning their teaching careers at Oxford. I was amused to realize this and took it as an excuse to go through some period classics.

As the stage was set, The Silhouette was one of the last, if not the last cabaret open in Berlin, and that only because his patrons included some prominent Party officials and because he had removed some of the more outré acts, like the drag queen La Scala. Because of a last minute player drop-out from the performers, he had also recently pulled a Romani dancer from the stage under pressure from the Powers That Be.

The Silhouette was also financially in dire straits, and he was receiving pushback from the old patrons for his artistic compromises and pulling in the Nazi crowd. There was a possible investor showing up tonight, though, which was nice.

The Story

Nice, my ass.

This is the bit with the spoilers, by the way.

The first act was the soft start. We mingled in the cabaret, met our contacts, kindled the plotlines written in our characters. Marcel’s lover Anastasia introduced him to Mr Moneybags, Anthony Brown, who was looking for investment opportunities in Berlin. He also had to go an explain his decision to exclude Esmeralda from tonight’s act in the dressing rooms, which was immensely uncomfortable. And then there was my meta-song.

It bombed, horribly. It was the worst crash and burn I’ve had on stage since third grade. I was nervous, lost the plot of the song about halfway through, and fled backstage, shaking like a leaf. It was utterly mortifying. Fortunately, some other players reached out, brought me water and helped me bounce back. Additionally, it fit my character so well that a few players didn’t realize it wasn’t planned. Finally, it was pretty much the best spot in the larp for that to happen. There’d already been one song and I didn’t get to set the tone for the evening, and another player’s meta-song came right after me and the audience wasn’t given time to dwell on it. It was horrible at the time, but not the end of the world, and though it left me rattled, I think I managed to draw upon the emotion in my later game.

I’m still happy “Gonna Build a Mountain” isn’t the kind of song I’m likely to hear on the radio by accident. I ran into another player’s meta-song, “Hard Time”, at a shop the next day and was hit with all the feels.

It certainly did set the tone of the later game, when the Nazi footmen began to commit violent acts in the shadows during the second act, beating up Anastasia over something she had written. Anastasia’s father made the executive decision to leave with her daughter to London. Marcel was upbraided by Perle Sommer, an old customer, over his artistic compromises, and came to realize that while he had been rationalizing his actions as a way to ensure the continuity of the club and provide employment and a refuge for his friends and workers, he had in fact committed a graver crime than bad art and invited in the Nazis to prey on them. The second act had me in tears on multiple occasions.

And then there was the closing number of the second act.

What they’d done was take “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago and rewritten it so that instead of the murderers, it gave voice to the victims of the Nazis – a homosexual, a Jew. The Romani singer had been pulled from the act, her chair on the stage was pointedly in the front row, draped with a scarf, and her verse was not sung, the other singers just staring at the audience, accusing.

Then, it was interrupted by the Nazis, and “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. And Anastasia turned to Marcel, whispering “I’m Jewish.”

As the song went on, those loyal to the regime joined in first, and then one by one, everybody else, lest they be pegged as dissidents and subversives. Targets. It was an intense scene, and I cannot do it justice with my words. It was the same kind of demonstration of strength and demand for loyalty, demand to join in, as in the clip from the film, except not gentled by the subtlety of the camera. It was brutal, blunt, aggressive.

It also basically settled Marcel’s endgame. There was no way The Silhouette was going to stay open anyway, so in the third act he made his plans to head to London with Anastasia, who made the unorthodox move of proposing to him. He accepted. When, expectedly, people came to twist his arm and force him to sell his share in the club, he acquiesced, sad and angry but also aware he was letting go of a failing business and could rebuild elsewhere. He sold it off for less than the price of its glassware, said his thanks and farewells to the staff, and was at the door the moment the final song, “What I Did for Love”, started playing.

It was a very neat dramatic arc, which I think is my first in a larp. It was all also disgustingly convenient for Marcel, so in his epilogue he got killed during the London Blitz.

(As a side note, when I ran the numbers for the price he was paid, 200 Reichsmarks, I discovered it was actually the equivalent of a few thousand of today’s euros when adjusted for inflation and probably worth even more than that when adjusted for cost of living. But that’s ultimately irrelevant for the purposes of the scene as it played out.)

“Swastikas, everywhere!”

Not really. They were forbidden, and not just because there was a photographer present and there’s some pictures you don’t want floating around removed from context. The second reason was that the organizers attempted to recreate the atmosphere before anyone knew what the Nazis would be capable of, and thought that having overt Nazi symbolism would detract from that. Personally, I thought it worked. Also, not having the Nazi characters with visual tags on them meant that you couldn’t lump them together or mentally other them. You had to keep tabs on individuals – people, with names, histories, likes and dislikes. The point I am making here is not about humanizing the Nazis. Really. Fuck those guys. It’s more to note that they were not a faceless throng of stormtroopers who marched out fully-formed from a barracks. Actual people, brutalized by an ideology.

It was also a study in how dissension was silenced, and how much easier it is to hunker down, mind your own business, and attract no attention. After all, I was not a Communist, or a trade unionist, or Jew. How, when everyone around you repeats the same things as truth, it’s so easy to go “yeah, maybe it is like that and those folks are to blame”. Tribalism, the lies that our genetic heritage or cultural rituals make us somehow superior to those other people down south.

For Marcel, though, there wasn’t really much of a choice. The “Cell Block Tango” in the script meant that he’d decided to speak out, and since he was already an educated man of the world, it was not a hard decision to pull up stakes and skip town.

And it’s relevant, today. It’s frightfully topical. On the day we played the larp, a Finnish government party elected as their new chairman a person I have no qualms calling a fascist, who’s on record for racism, homophobia, and the kind of violent fantasizing that makes poorly-socialized 14-year-olds particularly unpleasant company. During the writing of this post over the past couple of days, we’ve seen some well-choreographed political theatre play him into leading a stump party in the opposition, but this was not an event that should ever have occurred.

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here, but over the past couple of years, the whole Nazi thing in entertainment media has grown stale to me. They’re enough on the news already, and not the kind you can get rid of by aligning the crosshairs and pressing Mouse Left. I rather hope things will never escalate to the point where that’s necessary. There’s also the issue of the present-day Nazi movements co-opting the imagery of even anti-Nazi material, such as American History X and… Cabaret. There is a very good video essay by Lindsay Ellis about this very topic which I recommend to everyone and not just because then I don’t have to repeat its content here.

Larp as a medium avoids the issues inherent in a blockbuster movie, though, since it is ephemeral and (usually) doesn’t leave you anything to replay to your friends, the audience is strongly self-selecting to begin with, and it does not support either mass consumption or passive consumption, certain Danish-Polish productions arguably notwithstanding. To get anything out of it, you must engage with the material on its own – and its designer’s – terms. There may not be such a thing as an anti-war film, but an anti-war larp is certainly a thing.

There is also the pitfall of trivializing the horror of what happened or the experiences of the victims of the Nazi regime. I realize that as a straight, white guy who wasn’t alive when it happened, who probably could’ve coped in the Third Reich just fine, since the kind of diagnosis I’ve got probably wasn’t in the books in the 30s and 40s, and whose country was kinda allied with Germany, I am the last person who gets to make this call, but I think Cabaret avoided that.

Conclusions

Do I feel like I have a greater understanding of history? Well… kinda? But that’s what you get when you do historical research for a larp or otherwise. I don’t feel like specifically the experience of being Marcel Scholz imparted me any greater understanding about life in 1933. Indeed, he was probably very 21st-century, even in the context of the liberal alibi provided by the Berlin cabaret. For one thing, I’m Finnish middle class. I don’t get antisemitism. I have no cultural touchstone, no context beyond history books for it. It would take a lot of reading to get into the headspace of someone in the 1930s who grew up in Central Europe at an era when blood libel was still a thing and the Nazis inundated the media with anti-Jewish propaganda. It’s also really not a headspace I feel a particular need to occupy and while there’s a time and a place for historical accuracy about the nuances of prejudice, I’m not sure it was this.

Cabaret was an harrowing, intense experience. I would not describe it as “fun”. Indeed, there were fewer comedic moments in my game than in the film. Rather than smiling, I spent more time in tears or on their verge. It was, however, a rewarding and satisfying experience, and far too topical in that way that makes certain uncomfortable pieces of art necessary.

College of Wizardry 10, or, “I want to go back”

Last Monday, I returned home from the larp College of Wizardry, tenth of its name. Physically, at least. Mentally, I haven’t yet, not really. Emotionally… time will tell.

If the concept is not familiar, CoW is a Harry Potter -inspired larp for 135 players, played at Czocha Castle in Poland and organized by the primarily Polish-Danish team Dziobak Larp Studios. Unlike the boarding school of Hogwarts, the Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry is a university-level institution, where the students are adults and have already graduated from one magic school. Not Hogwarts, though – the CoW larp series started out as a Harry Potter spinoff, but the serial numbers were filed off after the third game. The family resemblances remain, but it is its own thing.

First thing out of the way, when I say “Czocha Castle”, I really mean castle. It was built in the 14th century, is accessed by a bridge, and features both dungeons and secret passages. Like, actual secret passages. While at least one of them is dead obvious by the marks on the floor in front of the bookcase, I cannot get over how cool it is to move a bookshelf to reveal a stone staircase beyond.

The characters are both staff and students – Headmaster, professors, janitor, and juniors, sophomores and seniors. The students are sorted into five Houses. There’s the coldly intellectual and ruthlessly pragmatic Faust, the tight-knit and secretive Molin, the diplomatic and honourable Sendivogius, the artistic and bohemian Libussa1, and Durentius, whose motto is “valour and diligence” but who are really the party house.

The game is set at the beginning of term, starting with the students marching over the bridge into the castle on Thursday evening and ending with the Grand Opening Ball on Saturday night. In between, there’s two full schooldays, a few student parties, the Sorting Ceremony, and lots of drama, relationships, duels, and demon summoning. As students do.

Staff and Students, Living and Dead

The characters are handled differently from what I am used to in Finnish larps. We had the option of either writing up a character ourselves or taking a prewritten one. I opted for the latter because I was aware of constraints on my time, and because I wanted to see how they’re executed. The character was formed of a series of elements. There was their unique background and personality bit – in my character’s case, his mother was from an old and respected Hexblood family, but had married a Mundaneborn, which my character resented and had moved to his grandparents as soon as it was possible – and a number of boilerplate elements like House, what school he’d gone to before coming to Czocha, what was his year of studies, an extracurricular club, and his Path. The paths were Artificer, Healer, Guardian, Curse Breaker, Cryptozoologist. All of the material except House, year, and Path were just suggestions that you could edit, adapt, discard and change at will.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

Charles Duke. No smiling.

The characters were written to be gender-neutral, with a first name initial and a surname. It is thus that Charles Duke, Sophomore of House Faust, student of the Guardian Path, graduate of Stenøya Trolldom Akademiet, and member in good standing of the Alliance for Reclaiming Magic, was born.

Some readers may have twigged on to what was not included in the above – contacts. Those you had to figure out for yourself, and for the avid player, there was ample pre-game available online in the formation of relationships, friendships, acquisition of friends and enemies. People used Facebook, Google+ hangouts, Google Docs, and a special social networking site set up just for the larp, Czochabook.

Or then you could just skip that and show up at the larp. There were pre-game workshops for Path and House, where we figured out a bunch of contacts, how we think about one another, and generally who’s who and what’s what. This worked to a degree, though it’s still on the player to figure out what they want to do in the game and come up with plot. This is not a bug as such, just how the system works. It’s also entirely possible to go through the game just attending class and playing a student in as close to an everyday life it’s possible to have in a school for witchards. There’s also the race for the Czocha Cup and the acquisition of House Points, which offers additional structure and motivation to attend classes, answer the Professor’s questions, do homework and generally come up with stuff. It’s of course up to your character whether they care about all that. Mine was ambivalent; House Faust had won the past six House Cups, and Charles thought such a long streak would breed resentment in the other Houses and complacency in Faust, which would weaken them all as well as the whole of Czocha, where his deepest loyalty lay.

Learn from Your Elders and Learn from Your Peers

So, how’d it go for me? It was a learning experience. Point one: I should’ve engaged in the pre-game. I had a lot of real life going on and deadlines up the wazoo and back again, but I should’ve squeezed in something. The thing is, Charles was written as a kind of a dick. He was Hexist – that is, prejudiced against those with Mundane blood – hated werewolves, and was active in the A.R.M., which was the conservative political club. Additionally, he was House Faust, who have more than a little of the Slytherin in their DNA. Just showing up and playing a dick is problematic, because if everyone else’s character thinks your character is the online comment thread in the flesh, they have no motivation to drag you along into wacky student hijinks, and a lot of your game is going to be brooding in the corner. To my mind, it would’ve required preparing some contacts, both for like-minded characters and a few with a history of mutual antagonism just to keep things interesting. In the end, Charles was much less of a dick than I’d figured him; traditionalist, conservative, utterly humourless, polite and formal.

Another reason to do the pre-game would’ve been to get a better feel for who the character is before being thrown into his shoes and forced me to prepare with more depth. I could’ve figured out the elements which I needed to jettison earlier, and generally been farther along in the process of developing Charles into a person by the time I needed to embody him. Having a history tied to people at the school would have made me answer quite a few more “whys” of his past and personality than I did.

I did have one contact set up before the game; my mother played Assistant Professor Laura Ulfred, my character’s aunt, but we had very little contact during the game beyond her threatening to dock House Faust points if I did not ask my date for one more dance during the Grand Ball, fifteen minutes before the Book of Points was closed for the evening.

House Faust, incidentally, won the House Cup by one point, 536 points vs. Libussa’s 535. The victory was made of the Faust’s Fireball Dragons victory, so many extracurricular activities, homework essays, clever answers and questions in class, trespasses we got away with and such small moments. That one point made it special. Everything we did mattered.

One thing about having a game with so many players is the variety of experience. My genre was comic fantasy, to the point of being harassed with a cube-shaped rooster named Cockblock. I’m reasonably sure that was the experience most players had (comic fantasy, not Cockblock – though that bird got around). However, there were also dark, tragic, and even epic plotlines played out. Two characters died on Saturday night. I think there is room for it all as long as the plots are inclusive. The original source material gets both dark and epic at times, occasionally at the same time.

Magic Will Flow Through Your Hands and Your Heart

So, witchard school. Lots of magic thrown around. Magic in a larp is always slightly tricky since you can code a spaceship navigation system, you can simulate beating people up by beating people up, and you drugs can be so realistic people will wonder for years afterwards what they actually were, but magic doesn’t exist in the real world. Hence, the need for rules. In College of Wizardry, they were delightfully elegant: the target decides what the spell does. Most of the characters were still students and students’ spells didn’t always work as intended. It was always helpful to inform the recipient what you were trying to accomplish, like “Imma set your hair on fire, you werewolf-lover! FUEGO!” This rule was coupled with the aesthetic of “Play to Lose” – it’s more collaborative and usually gets you better story. Of course, this was more or less only relevant when dealing with attack spells, like in duel situations. My character wasn’t so much as threatened with violence, though did end up witnessing a very dramatic one between the gentlemen Rayford Elton and Raiden Grim.

Most of the spells cast were during class, mostly testing stuff on one another. This ranged from summoning the spirits of the dead inside one’s classmates to prank spells like “vox animalis”. There was also a chapter on common basic spells in the student handbook. The Czocha College of Witchcraft and Wizardry Student Handbook, incidentally, is a 559-page faux-leatherbound book that was included in the price of the ticket. It’s also available as a free PDF, as is the Von Schlichtwald Grand Bestiary. There’s also the out-of-character Book of College of Wizardry 4-6, which is a work of documentation. I know they are working on a series of other CoW books, both in- and out-of-character. For a bibliophile such as I, this is a very exciting game.

Reading them was by no means necessary to play, though it did deepen the experience. Still, out of the six teachers Charles had, two noted that the book was useless and one declared it should be burned. The fourth, Professor of Alchemy, on Friday mentioned he hadn’t actually read what the book said about alchemy. The following day, he had studied it and said it was actually quite good, but we should not feel bound by the printed word, so how about each of you pass this book around, tear out a page, and burn it on a candle.

The classes were a big part of the game. While you could skip them (and I did, once) without losing points, they were very entertaining. In Demonology, we summoned spirits of mischief and interrogated angels. In Necromancy, we summoned the spirits of the dead. In Mind Magic, we first simulated different fears and the second day, to offset the heaviness, Professor Nikandros had drinks and prank spells for everyone.

Oh, and in physical education we did knife blocking techniques. The second day, Professor Ikonomopoulos graded the bruises.

Two points for Faust.

Two points for Faust.

You know you’re in it when your sparring partner is the only guy in class who had separate gym clothes2.

Of course, there was also homework. I am fairly sure I have written less material for real-life college courses than I did during College of Wizardry. My favourite was an essay about consent and mind magic.

Listen to the Tide of the Centuries

We also summoned so many demons. There was an excellent NPC system in place. If you needed NPCs, like summoned demons, angels, visiting parents, investigating Guardians, drunk alumni, or harpies, you could go into the NPC room, explain what you needed, what kind of scene it was for, when, and where, and then you’d get the appropriate NPC in the appropriate time and place to do its NPC thing. The results were impressive. So. Many. Demons.

On the topic of drunk alumni, there was an interesting cultural difference to how alcohol is handled in Finnish larps, where in my experience it’s typically “not until the afterparty” or at least strongly limited. Here it was “bar’s open after the classes” and afterwards some of the teacher players remarked that this was the first time the teacher’s lounge wasn’t a drinking club. I didn’t see any disruption because of drunken players. We were all there to larp rather than get liquored up. Some did sleep a little late but that may also have been due to past-curfew rituals in the dungeon. Faustians, I would note, were generally early risers3.

In general, apart from some kitchen hiccups and a certain confusion about our bus from Tegel Airport, the game was extraordinarily well organized. Stuff that needed to happen happened. Information was delivered. When schedules shifted, as they sometimes did, new ones were distributed with such smoothness I barely registered anything had happened. Conveniently, in the setting, magic was not incompatible with technology and I could carry a mobile phone with me. A lot of stuff ran on schedule and knowing the time was important.

Raise Your Wand to What Lies Ahead

Three days is a long time to live in the skin of another person. You discover stuff about them. For instance, Charles was a much less terrible dancer than I am. The game also stuck around for a while, and the morning after I’d returned I first spoke to my girlfriend in English before realizing I’m not in the castle anymore. For a couple of days, I couldn’t really accomplish much beyond gluing myself to the Facebook groups and going “I want back” in Google+ Hangouts. Straight off the plane, it was hard to relate to non-players. This text is already my fourth longer piece about the game, and there’s a fifth one coming, maybe even a sixth.

There’s something magical about the whole experience. I wouldn’t necessarily call it bleed since my character had the emotional range of a dead cod, but afterwards I had all the feels. There’s a sense of community, a feeling of shared experience. Together, we created stories. We made friends. Hearing the Hymn of Czocha, sung both at the beginning and the very end of the game, makes me misty-eyed.

Whether Charles Duke will be returning to Czocha is still up in the air. I think there’s still a good story in him, and it is not dependent on really any other specific characters from CoW10 being present. I might go for a midterm game with him. For another term-starter, perhaps something else. We shall see.

I know that I am returning. The 11th and 12th games are sold out, but the rest of next year’s lineup will be released on December 16th. It may not be cheap, but I like eating noodles.

stuff


1 I only figured it out now. Libussa was founded by the mythical hero Libuše, who founded Prague. IN BOHEMIA.

2 As a point of order, we did a brief OOC negotiation on how hard we’re going to play this and concluded “let’s just do this”. The same repeated on Saturday with another player, on whom I had both reach and weight, but who happened to have self-defence training. I limped for half the larp.

3 Leading to the breakfast table exchange “Why are all the Faustians up so early?” “It’s the nightmares.” My best line in the game and I don’t think anybody even heard it with everybody else talking. Oh well.

Ropecon 2015: End of an Era

Last month, from 15th through 17th of May, was Ropecon 2015. This is not the usual time for Ropecon, but our venerable venue Dipoli went under renovations after the con. It will be turned from a conference centre into offices. Ropecon 2015 was the last convention ever held in what used to be the best conference centre in the Nordic countries.

It was our 18th time at Dipoli, and my 19th Ropecon. My schedule was light, since my main things were judging the scenario competition, which was done before the convention, and organizing Pathfinder Society, which was done way before the convention. I also had one scheduled game, but for some reason I’d put it in the Sunday morning death slot, when everybody wants to sleep late. This time even moreso, since the preceding evening was the Last Night in Dipoli. There were a lot of sunrise shots from the beach on my Facebook feed in the morning.

Me, I spent most of the convention catching up with friends, watching some panels, and on Sunday, taking a lot of photos on my mobile and putting them on Facebook, reminiscing about the good times and bad jokes we’ve had in that building. They say it was designed by the Great Cthulhu, and that there are no straight angles in the building (false, the upstairs rooms 21-26 are all rectangular). It’s an architectural masterwork by Reima & Raija Pietilä.

In eighteen years, Ropecon has had time to grow into the shape of the venue. Next year we’re at the Helsinki Fair Centre, same place we’re trying to get the Worldcon. We’ll see how that goes.

Here, then, some memories of Ropecon.

Room 25

Room 26

Here’s Room 26, one of the upstairs rooms, the second-largest of our program rooms. There are five of them, and numbers 25 and 26 are big enough to be used for lectures. The rest are gaming rooms. Room 25 was also where I first took the stage and talked into a microphone at Ropecon. That was back in 2007, when my first book Roolipelikirja was released. It was co-written with Kaj Sotala. Heidi Westerlund (Säynevirta, as of last month) interviewed, Jaakko Stenros (PhD, as of last month) tore us a new one in his review in Roolipelaaja. I would surmise people have come upon the scene in less controversial ways, but I persisted, started writing for Roolipelaaja myself, and today count all the people involved good friends.

Room 22

Room 22

There’s a weirdass loft in Room 22. I do not know what its original purpose was. The ceiling is too low for you to be able to comfortably stand up there, the stairs are very narrow, and it’s actually fairly small. One year, I think around 2010, some kids locked themselves inside to get drunk and scribble on the walls. We were not amused.

Room 22 was used for a variety of purposes. At one point, it was occupied by Arkenstone Publishing. Then it was used as the game demo area for playtesting and new releases. A year or two into my tenure as the Master of Game Masters, it was turned over to tabletop role-players, and stayed as a gaming room until the end.

James Edward Raggi IV, at Kaubamaja

James Edward Raggi IV, at Kaubamaja

Continuing down the 20’s corridor, you eventually come to Hall 4. Hall 4 has also had a variety of functions. Originally, when the con came to Dipoli, it housed Kaubamaja, or the Dealers Room as it would be known anywhere else (I can only assume the Estonian name for a shopping mall was used because of a mid-90s ad campaign for a Tallinn shopping centre that ran on Finnish TV, and then it stuck, like so many other in-jokes).

Here, we see Jim Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, proudly flying the banner of the OSR.

The chaos of Kaubamaja

The chaos of Kaubamaja

Kaubamaja, as you can see, has always been cramped. There’s small-press game designers, one or two larger game stores, some booksellers, and crafts people. Prominently visible here, at the back of the room, is the booth of the t-shirt vendor Genrewear, who’s also the traditional supplier of the convention’s t-shirts.

Hall 3

Hall 3

Here’s Hall 3, moving out of Kaubamaja and towards the stairs. Hall 3 used to host the card games before they moved outside Dipoli to the student restaurant Täffä a couple of years back.

Hall 2

Hall 2

Hall 2, home of the miniature games. They’re one of the few constants, and occupied this place the entire 18 years we were here. This is actually where I started. As a wee lad of 12, at my second Ropecon ever, I showed up with a backpack full of badly painted orcs and goblins to get my ass kicked at the Warhammer tournament. It was a ritual that was to be repeated a couple of times over the next few years, until I had to face the facts: I’m utter crap at Warhammer. At least my painting improved over time. Just this spring, I dusted off my army and took on a friend’s dwarves, resulting in a full rout of my army in about three rounds.

In 2004, I happened to wander into a Living Greyhawk game session run by this Sampo Haarlaa guy, and I am still on that path.

Con's vendor table.

Con’s vendor table.

This is the convention’s own vendor table, located in the great stairway from the Festival Lobby. This is where they sell the con’s t-shirts, pencils, embroidered patches, badges, dice… Back when I started in the concom, the RPG signup sheets were placed here, where they’d been since 2006 or thereabouts, moved there from beyond the info desk to make way for… this vendor table.

Yes, that is an Iron Throne made out of boffer swords. It was used for the Game of Thrones burlesque. No, I do not have photos of that.

Larp desk.

Larp desk.

Larp desk, just down a short flight of stairs from the vendor table. In my time, 2009-2012, the larp and RPG desks worked in unison here, but the first thing that my follower Patrik Renholm did was move both the RPG desk and the signup sheets into the Takka/Poli/Palaver corridor. The noble profile at the centre is Atte Iiskola, former LARP admin and one of the team that’s kept the desk running for far longer than I’ve been around.

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RPG desk

And here’s the RPG desk, my former bailiwick, in the Takka/Poli/Palaver corridor, so named after the three large gaming rooms it leads to. The desk is now run by Arttu Hanska, who took it up two years after me and is apparently continuing next year. He is not in the picture – the suspicious leers from behind the desk are those of his henchmen, tech students of distant lappeen Ranta.

The Takka/Poli/Palaver hallway

The Takka/Poli/Palaver hallway

The hallway itself. Stairs go up to Luolamies (Caveman. That’s the actual name of the room, not something we came up with.). Way at the back, you can see the door to Takka, which has been the domain of organized play campaigns since 2005. First there was Living Greyhawk, which was replaced by Pathfinder Society. The dude waving at the camera is Janne, one of our GMs.

Palaver

Palaver

Charlie Don’t Surf, played in Palaver. This is one amazing campaign. Eero Juhola has been running it at Ropecon for 20 years. It’s a tactical RPG about the Vietnam War. Amusingly, due to the earlier date of Ropecon this year, the campaign’s current duration is very close to that of the actual Vietnam War. The system they’re using is some kind of unholy mixture of Phoenix Command, Twilight: 2000 and loads of loads of homebrewed material. It’s very realistic and very lethal. I’ve never taken part. Should, one of these years. Originally, Charlie’s home in Dipoli was the Cone Room, off Cone Lobby, but it was driven from there to upstairs Room 23 by the first-aid centre. The first-aid centre was then moved to an office next to the Cantina door a couple of years back. I am not actually sure what the Cone Room has been used for these past few years. Children’s activities, possibly.

Takka

Takka

We come to my domain, Takka (fireplace room). Currently in progress is the seven-table convention special Legacy of the Stonelords for Pathfinder Society, watched over by Overseer GM Atte Kiljunen. The black-clad gentleman at the centre, facing to the right, is my colleague Aleksandrs Zdancuks, the Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain for Latvia. The GM at the table, with his back to us, is the Espoo Venture-Lieutenant Mikko Rekola. The green shirt on the left is the Oulu Venture-Lieutenant Markus Hyytinen.

Takka has been the home of organized play campaigns at Ropecon since 2005, when Sampo Haarlaa managed to gather together enough GMs for Living Greyhawk that it was easier for the Master of Game Masters at the time to just point us a pile of tables and tell us to schedule our stuff by ourselves. This year, Arttu Hanska stopped counting tables and just gave us the whole room.

Pathfinder Society memorial wall

Pathfinder Society memorial wall

The chronicle of the slain as it stood at the end of the con. For a convention that scheduled three sessions of the Bonekeep meat grinder scenarios and a multi-table special, pretty decent. Most were, of course, raised.

Luolamies

Luolamies

Leaving Takka and going up those stairs we saw earlier, we come to Luolamies. Back when we moved into Dipoli, Luolamies was unavailable to us. Then, for some reason or other, it was opened up one year and Kaubamaja promptly moved in. In 2013, the card and board games shuffled around a bit, relinquishing Hall 4 for Kaubamaja, and tabletop role-playing games got Luolamies as their big, open gaming area. Previously, this had been in the Cone Lobby, but those tables were now entirely occupied by the new Experience Point, an expansion of the demo room idea, that now runs the scenario contest, short introductory games of different types, and playtest stuff.

The name Luolamies, Caveman, comes from a secret student society (think Skull and Bones except less wanky) that apparently occupied the room for a time. Dipoli is in the campus of the Helsinki University of Technology (actually located in Espoo and nowadays part of the Aalto University of How Not to Reorganize Higher Education), and the tech students are very big on their own brand of student culture, which is steeped in tradition. Also, vodka.

The Info Desk

The Info Desk

The Info Desk, located in the Cone Lobby. This is the nerve centre of Ropecon, open around the clock, staffed mostly by experienced, senior conrunners. Visible behind the desk are, among others, former Ropecon chair Jouni Sirén and one of next year’s chairs, Tuukka Jakola. Behind the Info Desk is the actual Dipoli information office, whence conrunners may summon Dipoli’s employees to open doors they don’t have keys for and commit other deeds that as mere customers we’re not allowed to do.

The two gentlemen on the left behind the desk are wearing blue vests, marking them as Troubleshooters, or convention security. According to the law and the police department, we need to have a certain amount of licensed security people on staff. This requirement is wildly out of proportion for Ropecon, which averages about one security incident per year.

The Business Centre

The Business Centre

The Treasurer dwells in the Business Centre. It’s an office opposite the Info Desk. We’d been in Dipoli for 14 years by the time we found out about it, and it’s not visible on any public floorplans of the place. We’re pretty sure that the non-Euclidean geometry of the building gave spontaneous birth to the room.

The Cone Hall

The Cone Hall

The Cone Hall, now home to the Experience Point, before that for the longest time occupied by tabletop role-playing games. This is where I played my first convention game in 2004. It was the Living Greyhawk module NAE4-01 The Living and the Dead, by Juha-Pekka Saarinen. The GM was Sampo Haarlaa, later member of the Principality of Naerie Triad and eventually Point of Contact for the Dalelands Triad in the short-lived Living Forgotten Realms campaign.

The storeroom

The storeroom

The storeroom, where we put all the stuff we need during the convention so they’re out of the way and nobody will steal them. Also in the picture is Logistics admin Juha Sihvonen.

The backroom

The backroom

The backroom is a refuge for the convention’s staff. This is one of the two places where missing staff should be looked for. It is also a place of utterly terrible jokes and coffee. Also a good place to follow the Troubleshooter radio traffic during the graveyard shift, when everyone is tired, not much is happening, and they start making their own amusement. There used to be a count of how many times boobs are mentioned during the night, but the practice has since been discontinued, for obvious reasons.

Keltsu

Keltsu

The other place to go looking for missing staff, affectionately called Keltsu, after Kaljakellari (Beer Cellar), a name the restaurant has not had in the entire time we were at Dipoli. It’s been known as Cantina since at least the mid-90s. They serve beer that’s not exactly cheap, pizza slices that aren’t exactly good, and also actual food off an actual menu. Keltsu is where you go have deep conversations about the nature of role-playing games, catch up with friends, and relieve stress. Indeed, some veterans of Ropecon do not actually buy a ticket anymore, they just show up at the Keltsu terrace and hold court there for the whole con! Sadly, this practice will also have to be discontinued.

The Auditorium

The Auditorium

The Auditorium, here between program items. We like to clear out the room for a couple of minutes so the AC has time to work. That’s not so much an issue in May, but in our usual time slot at the height of summer, hot rooms full of people have led to people fainting. In 2011, I moderated an adventure-writing panel here with Frank Mentzer, Erik Mona and James Edward Raggi IV. The next year I returned with the Alternate History panel (video in Finnish). I moderated the panel, featuring Minna Heimola, Teemu Korpijärvi, Joonas Katko, Mikko Heimola, and Hannu Kauppila. The Auditorium is Dipoli’s biggest room for speech program, and it’s also where all of the guest of honour speeches are.

Klondyke

Klondyke

The Klondyke room, here featuring Sami Koponen talking about how the gaming scene needs YOU! Klondyke is the third-largest program room in Dipoli. Last year, I did the Guns, Germs, and Tea panel (video in Finnish) on the British Empire with Joonas Katko and Teemu Korpijärvi here.

Helsinki in 2017 bid table

Helsinki in 2017 bid table

The Helsinki in 2017 Worldcon bid was also represented at Ropecon. On the right, former Ropecon chair Mika Loponen.

The Cone Door

The Cone Door

You’ve probably been wondering about the Cone that keeps popping up in those location names. It’s this thing. If you push a button, it will open and close, and it’s lit up at night. The Cone Door is one of the three doors of Dipoli and the only one that isn’t open during the convention. It’s only used for logistics, since it’s the one closest to the storage room and it’s relatively easy to get a van there.

The closing ceremony

The closing ceremony

And here, an exceptionally poor shot of the closing ceremony, hosted by Ines Lukkanen and Aarne Saarinen. Those are space whales, up there. Space whales are cool.

So, there it is, my chronicle of Ropecon. It was a very relaxed convention this year, at least for me. I had the time I needed to catch up with friends and say properly goodbye to the place we’d called home for eighteen years. Next year will be very different. I am confident that it will still be a good convention, since at the heart of the convention are the people, not the venue, but things will change. The Fair Centre’s sensible architecture cannot hope to capture the wild and weird spirit of Dipoli.

Ropecon is the only place where I can wear a goblin.

Ropecon is the only place where I can wear a goblin.

It has been fun.

To end this overlong photoessay, here are the first things that the documentation team has managed to get edited and released from this year’s convention: the post-con interviews of our guests of honour Michelle Nephew & John Nephew and Jason Morningstar & Steven Segedy, as well as Jason Morningstar’s lecture on GMless design and play.

Ysaria III: A Tale of Pirate Dwarves, Black Wizardry and Hangover Cures

As I mentioned last year when I first larped, someone had floated the idea that in order to get me to try larping, they would draft Juhana Pettersson to kidnap me in a van and drive me to Ysaria III.

The thing about that is that it’s what we call a credible threat. This is the man who wrote an article titled “The Joy of Kidnapping” for State of Play. I have played with him, and he’s good at projecting an aura of quiet menace. Opposing the stick of Juhana, there was the carrot that all people named Jukka received a discount on the game fee.

Sensing that there was no way out of this, I resigned to my fate, received my character (a total of 18 pages of documentation), and found myself last Friday sitting in a completely different van with a rottweiler on my lap, headed to the west coast of Finland, in a state of mounting terror.

To get into the proper mood, I recommend that you play “Legenda taikamiekasta” by Heavy Metal Perse in the background while reading.

Those of you who cannot understand the Finnish lyrics will have to settle for Rhapsody’s “Emerald Sword”.

Setting the Stage

Ysaria (translates roughly as Ninetisia) was a parody game. Specifically, it was a parody of the clichés and themes of 90’s fantasy larps. Heavy Dragonlance influences, elves, dwarves, the whole Tolkien/D&D kit and kaboodle, high drama and always at least one player wearing sneakers. Obviously I never larped back then, but a lot of that stuff is universal. Of course, modern popular culture was also referenced. Indeed, one event I witnessed during the game was a duel challenge issued with the words: “My name is Caelthalas! You killed my father! Prepare to die!”

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Captain Brungrus the Bottomless. Photo © Antti Halonen.

Me, I played the pirate dwarf Captain Brungrus the Bottomless, formerly of the good ship Venture. I had close to two feet of beard crepe glued to my face and a remarkably large hat. Brungrus was a greedy drunkard even by the standards of pirate dwarves, a breed not known for either sobriety or charity. He was a bullshitter, a cheat and a liar, and a bluffer. Not much of a fighter, though we all enough carried axes, swords and pistols for a regiment. His ship had sunk under mysterious circumstances (he was blind drunk at the time and the only survivor), leading to him becoming stranded on a deserted island with a mermaid princess named Nerida. From there, they were rescued by fellow pirate dwarf Captain Dargon Blackbeard and his submersible Fireball IV.

The game was set during diplomatic negotiations in the tavern of the Drunken Dragon on the island of Jesaria between the free peoples of the world on how to deal with the impending apocalypse of the seas rising and drinking the lands of Ysaria, Generia and Ulinor. Global warming, you know. So there were people from the courts of those lands, the local druids and dryads (With whom we had some history, on account of Captain Dargor smoking in bed the last time we’d been at Jesaria and accidentally burning down the Forest of Whispers. The party line was of course that we didn’t do it and it was an accident anyway.), the goblins (who were actually really smart and philosophical and brewed a moonshine with roughly the same effects as LSD), a couple of adventuring parties, the Black Wizards, and two crews of elven pirates, whose princess was Dargon’s onetime lover. The rest of them turned out to be cultists, and not our kind of cultists either. (Some of Fireball’s crew had a theologically colourful history. In the words of Able Seaman Dammot Sea Serpent: “It was a really good sex cult!”) There was also some kind of good-aligned cult in there, I think, but I didn’t really catch what they were about. The pirates mostly there to carouse, engage in casual larceny, and find the hidden treasure of the Druid King. We did have a certain vested interest in stopping the seas from rising as well, since coastal cities and the resulting shipping industry have a certain relevance to the pirate way of life.

One member of our valiant crew was played by a Dane who spoke no Finnish, so I also got to fulfill a lifelong dream and play a dwarf with a fake Scottish accent.

The following is my subjective perception of what occurred and is coloured by misunderstanding, lack of all available facts, and my poor memory. The chronology of events likely doesn’t jive and material has been omitted in order to keep this at a manageable length. It should not be taken as ultimate truth.

Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum!

At the start of the game, we had just disembarked and concealed Fireball IV, and immediately came upon a dying mermaid on the shore. She spouted off a mystical prophecy that we committed to memory on the off chance that it might lead to money (prophet, profit, all the same) and promptly croaked. She had no treasure, but mermaid tears are apparently a potent hangover cure so we got at least that out of it.

We made our way to the tavern after that and made a lot of noise about booze. We did come prepared, though. I had two hipflasks myself, one under my hat and the other hanging around my neck. While the game itself was nonalcoholic, the characters included the crews of three pirate ships and a small tribe of goblins and were therefore functional alcoholics, so a variety of props were deployed. I used kvass, which was a stupid idea since the stuff is carbonated and carbonated drinks and hipflasks do not mix. Neither of them was destroyed, but I did have to force one of them back into shape.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

The Postal Gnome. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Once drinks were received, we got down to business. One of the big moments of the larp for me came early on when Captain Dargon and the pirate elf princess Adien’thalee fought a duel in the tavern’s common room. There was shouting, dramatics, wrestling, badass boasting, swordplay, guns, and tableware. (There were latex tankards that could be used for drinking or brawling!) It was the kind of show that doesn’t get put on without rehearsing the choreography, but damn it looked great. There was drama and tension, even though at the back of my mind there was the understanding that nobody is going to get killed forty-five minutes into an eight-hour larp.

The combat rules, incidentally, ran on a system of common sense, gentleman’s agreement and sportsmanship. You get hit, you react appropriately. The recipient of the hit decides how badly they are hurt. It was also generally agreed that being shot with a gun would first take out your hat. Combat was for creating problems, not solving them, more or less. I frequently had my weapons out, either to threaten or to defend, but never actually fought.

I received a plot coupon early on in the game. The Postal Gnome brought me a letter from the insurance company, saying that I must fill in their forms before they can consider paying my insurance for the good ship Venture. Obviously, the truth wouldn’t fly, so some creativity was needed. In addition, there was a clause for an extra 8% if I could prove I had a family to support. We quickly agreed with Princess Nerida that it was best if we married quickly. We didn’t have any priests around, but hey, a sea captain can perform a marriage ceremony, right?

All this took some time, though, since we also had a treasure to hunt. We ran from waypoint to another, faced down an undead mermaid, and later a horny goblin who had to be… satisfied.

Another rules aside: sex in the game was simulated by waggling your hands next to your head, not unlike in the choreography of Caramelldansen, and singing a song of your choosing. The song and its style would reflect the style of the act (rough, passionate, “I’m just doing my job”) and the singer’s skill would reflect if it was any good. Of all the sex mechanics I have seen in various role-playing games, both tabletop and live action, I must say that this is my favourite. I am also in favour of any games mechanic that makes the players sing.

Anyway, we finally discovered the location of the treasure, managed to breach the magical wards by some minor blood sacrifice, and laid our hands on a magical rock, some centaur blood, and a magical crown that allowed its wearer to control the waves. The usefulness in combating rising sea levels is obvious. Of course, Dargon wanted it, Princess Nerida wanted it, some evil pirate elf person wanted it, and Princess Adien’thalee wanted it. A Mexican standoff resulted, only broken once the druids and dryads showed up and we decided to retreat. It was apparently the grave of the Druid King that we just robbed.

Them druids… there was already bad blood between us and them, because of the Forest of Whispers thing and because the mast of one of the elven ships used to be a dryad. One of them, Aeron Oakenbough, was a warrior, and wielded the Sword of the Druid King, or something. “Legenda taikamiekasta” (“The Legend of the Magic Sword”) was basically his theme song. Apparently we’d burned down his dryad along with the forest, and he was kinda pissed. He had been forbidden from killing us (“Lad, if you want to threaten someone, don’t tell them you’re not allowed to do anything to them.”), but I think that got waived when we looted the tomb.

What followed was this sort of running argument/retreat between us and the druids and dryads with lots of threatening and arguing that was frankly getting bogged down. In a tabletop game, it would’ve been open combat in thirty seconds flat, here it was just a load of sabre-rattling. Nerida, me and some druidy type who wanted to see the ocean snuck off and left them to it. There was lunch.

Lunch was hard. I got interrupted three times while I was eating, twice by a demon and once finally when Aeron attacked Nerida outside the tavern and yoinked the crown. Later, we also had to give up the rock.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Aeron Oakenbough, our nemesis. Photo © Samuli Airaksinen.

Another stated goal we had was to nick a barrel of the famous mead of the Drunken Dragon. The druids were carrying around a barrel, so naturally we assumed that was it. So, as night was already falling and the game nearing its end, Nerida, me and First Mate Glint Goldfist snuck upon the two druids guarding it. Glint knocked them out cold (“KNOCK-OUT! KNOCK-OUT!”), and I grabbed the barrel and hoofed it to where we’d left the submarine. Some dryads had laid a curse on it to prevent it from leaving, but he Captain said he had a solution for that.

Then, five minutes later, some head druid person shows up and tells them it’s not booze, it’s his cursed wife, and he’d like it if we returned it.

So we did. There’s not much you can say to that. (Except “Is every godsdamned thing on this island cursed!? Cursed ships! Cursed weaponsmasters! Cursed rocks! Cursed booze! I hate this place!”)

Every damn thing we stole had to be returned. I’m pretty sure that the only crime our crew managed to successfully commit was Nerida’s and my insurance fraud, because despite the squiggles and winged unicorns the insurance company accepted the explanation, and we got not only the extra 8% but also a honeymoon trip to the city of Ironia.

In the end, negotiations had broken down and Captain made the call that we were leaving. At this point he was also accepting everyone else on board who could pay with something and felt like staying in Jesaria was a poor idea. I think we ended up with most of the state treasury of either Generia or Ysaria, at least one Black Wizard, possibly a kender, the goblin leader, and various other individuals of questionable reputation and a loose attitude about personal property. Captain Dargon unleashed a one-trick bottled genie to dispel the curse on Fireball IV, and off we went, firing our torpedoes at the damn island on our way out of sheer spite.

In real life, at this point we were standing in the woods on the beach, behind a shed, making submarine engine sounds. Ironically, there was a demon-summoning circle there that had been propped by the GMs, but the Black Wizards were using something they’d made themselves at a more central location. The Black Wizards using a demon-summoning circle was also on of the reasons why getting the hell out of Dodge was a Good Idea.

As it turned out, we made it just in time, because at this point hideous screaming started at the tavern, followed by equally hideous cackling laughter. Demons. Bad mojo.

Then the game ended.

What I Took Home from All This

Of course, getting off the island when the world was about to end was not too useful in the long run. Our final fate was never set in stone, but there were some remarks in the final debrief about the seas turning to fire once the Demon Prince showed up. Poor Captain Brungrus never made it to Ironia. I actually miss playing him, and a couple of days after the larp went through a similar process as after a convention. I am given to understand that this is called the Post-Larp Depression.

Since most of my gaming nowadays is Pathfinder Society, I found myself frequently falling into the goal-oriented D&D mindset, which was good for getting an extra 8% and the title of Prince-Captain, but less so for drama. The instruction at the beginning of the game was “play to lose”. Impulsive people making poor decisions make for better drama than rational professionals approaching problem-solving in a structured and logical fashion, and if you’re only playing the character for this one afternoon, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if he dies ignominiously in the third act. I was also running my mouth far less than I probably should have, Captain Brungrus being written as a loudmouth. That was not the hat of a quiet person, either. Something I need to work on. One of the reasons I play games other than Pathfinder is to get a different play experience and it’s no good if I bring the playstyle with me to other games. Well, you live and learn.

Also, it was far easier to play a drunken character last year when I was actually drunk. This time, I took notes from a Simon Pegg interview about filming The World’s End (appropriate!), but I’m not entirely sure how I carried it. Then, if professional actors think it’s hard…

Okay, it was still a very different playing experience. Like I said, I never engaged in combat. There was also the obvious lack of dice thing, and the rules operating on common sense and sportsmanship, and working. There’s no off-game. There’s also the aspect that time advances on a 1:1 pace with reality and there’s no cutting away into the next scene (some other larps use narrative meta-techniques for this). A lot of time was spent simply hanging out at the tavern, in-character, and especially in the running argument with the druids about the crown, some bogging down could be observed when nobody was willing to escalate things into open violence.

One thing I clearly did right was in stealing the barrel, because one of the kitchen crew mentioned to me after the game that he’d broken down laughing when he saw me sneaking off with it towards the beach, trying to look inconspicuous in a most conspicuous fashion. That hat was not designed for sneaky.

My only real regret is that we never had a proper tavern brawl with the elven pirates.

My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part II

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the main reason I went to LoneStarCon 3 in the first place was because of the Helsinki 2015 Worldcon bid.

On Bidding and Parties

Bidding for a Worldcon is what you’d call a nontrivial matter. Typically, a bid is announced at least two years in advance of the actual vote, or four years in advance of the convention’s proper date. The Helsinki bid was announced only a year in advance. The amount of time, energy and funding even just to take a shot at getting to host a Worldcon is staggering. I was far from the only person to hop over the big pond to help out at the convention (and I probably should reiterate here that I was not a member of the bid committee, just someone to help out with heavy lifting and light banter at LoneStarCon itself – the really hard parts were done by people like Eemeli Aro, Crystal Huff, Jukka Halme and Karoliina Leikomaa and the rest of the bid committee). We printed posters and t-shirts. A sponsorship deal was struck with Lignell & Piispanen, who supplied us with some of their excellent liquors and fortified wines for serving at the room parties.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Incidentally, our bartenders Kevin and Andy discussed our drink offerings (and our bid in general, and other Worldcon things) on the Nerdvana podcast. It’s all worth listening, but the part about American culture shock when encountering Finnish acquired tastes is around 1:11. The cognac & vodka blend they refer to is called the “noble spirit”, or jaloviina. It’s one-star because it comes in one and three star varieties, dependent on the amount of cognac in the mix, and three-star jaloviina is just bad cognac.

A key element of a successful Worldcon bid, it appears, is the hosting of successful room parties. These were a new thing to me. In Finland, with the exception of Finncon, conventions stay put and the conrunner pool is smaller, so there’s no real competition for the hosting rights and thus no need for lobbying parties. Also, it’s common for Finnish conventions such as Tracon and Ropecon to have programming run until midnight or even later, leaving no dedicated time slot for an abundance of room parties. I was somewhat surprised by this.

The thing about the room parties is that they all (or at least all the ones I visited) had an open bar and free alcohol, which, as luck would have it, is my favourite drink. There’s been a lot of commentary on the blogosphere about how the membership of Worldcon is getting on in years, but in my view, if you’re gonna have parties with free drink, it’s better if everyone has had some years to develop a mature attitude about alcohol.

I spent a good portion of our three party evenings checking people’s IDs and giving them their “this person can drink” bracelets. Local law, as it was explained to me, required that we card everyone we don’t personally know before we can serve them alcohol, so I ended up checking the IDs of several Finncon guests of honour, one Hugo winner and a number of people in the age bracket of my grandparents. I heard a rumour that our ID check was so strict that our bracelets – which had our advertising – were accepted as confirmed drinking age even at other parties. Hey, I get told that something is a legal requirement in a foreign country, I don’t start second-guessing. Every place in the world is funny about alcohol in its own way. This, I take it, was how Texas does it.

Our parties, incidentally, were pretty great. The first night we served ice cream and tar syrup, the second night we had gravlax, and the third night we had crackers with a variety of jams and preserves, like Santa Claus brand reindeer paté. I have no idea where that came from, but I can appreciate it.

We may have had slightly too much ice cream, and a lot of it was left over after the Thursday party. This formed a problem when one of our coolers had apparently malfunctioned during the light and allowed a lot of ice cream to thaw out. The guys solved the problem by dumping it into the bathtub in our party suite. Unfortunately, the plug was not pulled. The result was… well, see for yourselves.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents you can have in the bathroom.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents to have in the bathroom.

So yeah. Friday evening, we were entertaining our guests while in one of the bathrooms, behind the curtain, lurked several dozen gallons of ice cream. Vanilla, ’cause that’s how we are.

I am pretty sure that conrunning is the only hobby where you end up with problems like this. Being able to say “Yeah, we filled the bathtub of the Marriott Rivercenter VP suite with vanilla ice cream” and seeing people’s faces makes up for a lot of stress. Especially when they see the photo.

As for the bid itself, well, we lost. We did not, I hasten to add, fail. For the first two rounds of counting votes, we were in the lead. In the third, once Orlando dropped out with 307 votes, the secondary preferences of their votes took Spokane to the lead with 645 votes against our 610.

A defeat of 35 votes, with 1,348 ballots cast, still rankles a bit. But just a bit. After travelling halfway across the world, I just could not let that ruin the convention for me. I had a wonderful time, met wonderful new people and made new friends, ate portions of food that would have their own area codes in Finland, and had the globe become just a bit smaller for me.

Also, we won half the party prizes, for Best Food, Most Crowded and one we shared with Orlando, Best Excuse for Hosting a Room Party (losing a Worldcon bid). We got enough of these shotglasses that even a minor cog in the larger machinery of the bid like me got one.

VICTORY!

Tastes like napalm in the morning

Overall, my convention experience was a good one. Indeed, it was one of the most fun conventions I’ve ever been to. I can easily understand how some fans will travel to the other side of the globe if need be, just to make it to the Worldcon.

Fortunately, I do not have to. Next year, London!

There Goes the Virginity – My First Larp Experience

It had become a sort of a running joke in the local scene that I do not larp. Like all jokes do, it grew old.

Also, someone floated the idea that I’d be kidnapped and bodily transported to the next installment of the Ysaria larp saga. I decided that it was a prudent idea to pre-empt that plan and sign up for a larp on my own accord. Also, the bastards at Alter Ego set me up a trap. Back when they were planning the larp conference Solmukohta, someone else came up with the idea of a sitsit larp. As is well known, I have a hard time turning down a sitsit invitation, and I foolishly made the promise that if they do that, I shall willingly relinquish my larp virginity. Alcohol was involved.

Thus, last Friday, I played my first larp, the 300th Anniversary of the Pan-Ugric Nation. What follows is an exacting and explicit description of it all.

Key Concepts

Before I continue, I should probably explain some key concepts about the larp’s setting that are peculiar to the Finnish student tradition, such as sitsit and nations. To foreigners, the concepts will probably be… foreign, and to be honest, the layers of tradition, history and inside jokes are laid so thick that they’re generally impenetrable to anyone not immersed in the environment. Those readers familiar with the culture may feel free to skip down to the next header.

First of all, sitsit, or “sittning” as Wikipedia knows it, is an academic dinner party in the Finnish and Swedish tradition. A typical sitsit includes a three-course meal, a great deal of singing and often a lot of drinking. The level of formality varies, and the framework is very flexible and allows for a lot of interesting variation. The most formal ones tend to be the anniversary parties of university student unions and nations, which would typically have a white tie dress code, an invited guest speaker and very rigid take on rules. There are rules for everything, such as how to toast after a song, what songs you are allowed to sing at which parts of the proceedings, under what circumstances is it acceptable to leave the table and so forth. Those are pretty rare, though, and even I’ve never been to one. Most sitsit are rather less strict and I’ve never been invited anyplace with a dress code above formal. Usually, you can get by with a dark suit (or the female equivalent), or in the case of theme sitsit, whatever the theme requires.

Personally, I have an unhealthy affection for sitsit and by a quick count have 37 of them under my belt, two as a master of ceremonies and a few where I’ve given speeches. Last year, I edited a songbook. The biggest sitsit I’ve been to had 207 guests, including Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Finland, Matthew Lodge, and the smallest had just six people. I’ve been to sitsit wearing a suit, a tuxedo, a tailcoat, elf ears, a kilt, a monk’s robe, a Czechoslovakian PVC overcoat and an East German gas mask, and my red student overalls. One, a couple of years ago, was on a bus that went around Pirkanmaa (less fun than it sounds – the food was bad, a bus has no acoustics for this kind of thing and one of the MCs laboured under the mistaken impression that racism is funny), and another was on a boat. Thus, I can speak with some authority when I state that Alter Ego, the roleplaying club of Helsinki University, are among the masters of the craft. I could go on at length about the topic and differences in traditions, but this is not a blog about my drinking habits, and so I’ll just summarize: at sitsit, you sit at a table, usually in formalwear. There will be food, and people will sing a lot. During a song, you are not allowed to eat, and it is a generally held truth that if you get to eat your main course while it’s still warm, it’s a bad sitsit. After a song, you toast the people sitting adjacent to you. Unless you ordered the nonalcoholic option, you will usually be rather tipsy towards the end. The songs are generally easy drinking songs that sound decent even when sung by a bunch of people who aren’t too good at it and may also be pretty sloshed. A student, it is said, sings rather than well.

The other key concept is the nations. They are a type of student organization peculiar to Finland and Sweden, and the oldest students’ clubs in the country. The nations have a specific legal status outlined in the university law, and to my understanding, you can’t found a new nation. Of course, there would not be much point to doing so, since the nations are organized according to the old provinces of Finland. You have the Savonian Nation, the Tavast Nation, and so on. The idea was that a student would join the nation of his home region. The oldest of them track their history to the mid-17th century, and most of them have quite a bit of property.

Actually, if you count them as belonging to the student unions, the Helsinki University Student Union is one of the wealthiest in the world with assets measured in hundreds of millions of euros, because of a quirk of city planning. Way back when they were building Helsinki and had established the university there, the students were given some worthless land that was basically a marsh somewhere at the edge of town. Fast-forward a couple of centuries and the economic and social centre of the city tiptoed westward, resulting in the current situation where the central point of Helsinki is considered to be at the doorstep of the Old Student House and the students own something like half of central Helsinki. For instance, there’s a block next door to the Parliament that belongs to the Ostrobothnian Nation.

So, basically, the nations are something of a big deal. The Pan-Ugric Nation, upon which our tale focuses, is of course completely fictional. We now conclude our brief introduction to Finnish student tradition and get on with the game.

Occasionally, the tradition requires you to stand on your chair. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Occasionally, the tradition requires you to stand on your chair. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Who Am I?

My character, mailed to me the week before the game, was the first-year chemistry student Jaakko Nevalainen. He was a bit of a thief, which had resulted in some unfortunate tension at his apartment, where his roommate Sauli was angry because someone had nicked his milk from the fridge and some records. This tension motivated Jaakko to get a new apartment and see if perhaps the apartment liaison of the nation could do something for him. Another thing he had recently stolen was a folder containing details of some rather shady financial transactions between the nation’s curator Aleksi Stjernvall (chairman, basically) and Laura Välske, a representative in the student union’s general assembly. Other characters mostly viewed him as a promising new recruit for… various things. Also, he’d showed up at the party well ahead of time and noticed this weird bag in the foyer.  He’d checked it out and found some old bones. However, he heard voices approaching and chucked it into some random box he spotted so he could investigate things later, but when he returned, the box was gone.

Also present were his contacts: his roommates Daniel and Sauli, and a friend of his in the nation, the theology student Aapeli Ullakko. Due to late registration, absent was Joel, a drug-dealing musician who’d already graduated and was my character’s second cousin. I did not find this out until after the game and was rather perturbed by his insistence in offering me the nose candy in the gents’.

The first-year student attending his first big academic dinner party pretty much mirrored the game as my first larping experience. Another player described the character writing process as (freely translating) “piss-take writing”, where characters had an aspect or two caricaturing the players they were tailored for. In good humour, I might note. I had trouble keeping a straight face when I realized that a player active in the politics of the Left Alliance was playing a right-wing nationalist character. In the registration form, we also got to pick some preferences for what kind of plots we would prefer to have. I no longer recall accurately the sliding scales they had, but I think “intrigue” was one and “relationship drama” another. I also don’t rightly remember where I placed my sliders, but I think I opted for moderation. First larp and everything, didn’t want to jump in the deep end and find I can’t swim. After all is said and done, I’m not that good a roleplayer. I was nervous as all hell despite knowing nearly all of the other players and considering most of them good friends, but I figure a first-year student at his first big formal dinner would also be nervous. Especially when he found out who he’d be sitting with.

Seating order is another significant thing at sitsit, since they’re the people you’ll be spending the next four, five or even six hours with. Tradition states that one should be flanked and opposed at the table by people of the opposite sex, one of whom will be your avec (or designated avec if you didn’t bring your own). In practice, you almost never have an equal mix of sexes so you do the best you can. I had my roommate Daniel at my left. To my right, Professor of Mathematics, Ville Kovanen (oh dear), and opposite Kaarlo Susimetsä, the nation’s photographer, incidentally played by Tuomas Puikkonen, who graciously gave permission to use his work to show in addition to telling here. Also, made me look good in a tailcoat. There were also the aforementioned Laura Välske and the apartment liaison, Mirjami Kiuru, in close proximity. Plot-significant characters for me.

Jönssi's toast. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Jönssi’s toast. On the left, Jaakko Nevalainen and on the right, Daniel Haanperä. © Tuomas Puikkonen

What Happened?

The larp began with a short cocktail event before moving on to the dinner party part. This was good for socializing and mingling and meeting people, and included the welcoming toasts (It should be noted that in the interests of maintaining a proper 360° illusion, alcohol in the game was represented with alcohol. If the game sucked for you, you could always just get hammered.), as well as the unveiling of a new painting commissioned to honour this, the 300th anniversary of the Pan-Ugric Nation. It was very modern and might be described as a less than aesthetically pleasing experience, which was good for giving people something to talk about as they eased into character.

As a side note, the artist was named as Aldous Kohl, who was a vampire prince in another Alter Ego larp a couple of years ago.

Sauli was on my case from the beginning, suspecting me of nicking his records. I owned up to throwing away the milk, claiming it’d smelled funny and as a chemist, I’d know when organic matter has gone off. He went off to gather witnesses against me and apparently found some, but because of reasons I never found out more about them.

Another major plot point in the larp’s background was a legal row between the Pan-Ugric Nation and the Ural Nation, who’d together built a brand new building for the two of them that now lay unused because they could not agree on who had the rights to which parts of it. There were three representatives from the Ural Nation, including their curator, Henrik Mäyränen, at the party. They brought a gift. In a box. You can see where this is going. Our curator, of course, went to accept it, leading to pretty much the funniest moment in the game.

Curator Mäyränen first gave his speech about how this gorgeous vase would look quite magnificent in the lesser hall of mirrors at the new student house. Curator Stjernvall: “Oh, it’s fragile?”

How to make a lasting impression on your guests. Not to mention the floor. © Tuomas Puikkonen

How to make a lasting impression on your guests. Not to mention the floor. © Tuomas Puikkonen

The bones, incidentally, were quickly gathered up from the wreckage by Aapeli, at the command of Professor Kovanen. Interesting, that.

Soon after, Mr Susimetsä and Miss Välske recruited me to portray myself as an ardent fan of Curator Mäyränen and obtain his autograph on this blank piece of paper. Despite being transparent as all hell, it pretty much succeeded, except that the original paper got torn and stepped on and possibly eaten, and I had to settle for something scrawled on notebook paper, complete with a dedication “To Jaakko”. Not quite as useful for forging legal documents, but Susimetsä and Välske seemed happy enough with it.

Those bones, then, were the bones of Jönssi, the war hero dog mascot of the Pan-Ugric Nation, who held an important place in the Nation’s tradition. Toasts were drunk in his memory. Or her, as the hardline feminist culture admin of the Nation pointed out. The bones had also some mystic significance, as I found out after the main course, when Aapeli, Professor Kovanen, and the movie club’s chairman Vladimir Tikkanen requested that I join them in the smoking room. There, the Professor conducted some sort of mystic ritual and suddenly I realized I’d had the genre all wrong. I’d thought it was college comedy, while in fact we were operating in urban fantasy.

Soon after the ritual, a GM approached me and told me that from that point on, I was Ville Kovanen, Professor of Mathematics, and would be offended when people treated me as a first-year student. In a not completely unrelated bit of trivia, said GM’s own character in the game was also his Hunter: the Vigil character from a campaign set in the University of Helsinki, a connection I only made afterwards. Their quote page is hilarious.

Hijinks ensued and I caused great confusion with the other professors present. I think most believed I had partaken of the devil’s dandruff that my second cousin Joel was semi-secretly distributing in the men’s room. Professor Kovanen, the real McCoy, of course knew what had happened and ran some interference and damage control while I fought to keep a poker face of righteous indignation. For one thing, at this point Sauli came to confront me with his witnesses, unaware that Jaakko Nevalainen was no longer on the premises, and the Prof led him away and quietly paid him off. Aapeli, it later turned out, had also become a Kovanen clone, but in a more subtle fashion. Vladimir had been included in the ritual but had either made his save or he was a vampire and immune to such mortal magics. If there’s ever a sequel (which was discussed and not dismissed out of hand), there will probably be several Professors Kovanen among the characters.

Among the faux pas committed were taking the Professor’s seat and rising up to drink the toast of those who started their university career in 1986, as well as barging into a position unbecoming of my lowly station in the group shot at the end. The great thing about larping the sitsit was that you could break the etiquette and decorum in ways that would never fly at a normal sitsit.

There were, of course, also drinks thrown around, Curator Stjernvall receiving one from his fiancée. There were speeches, including one particularly impassioned and fiercely patriotic one extolling the virtues of Jönssi, by the Nation’s host, Teijo Tulervo, that caused in me a paralyzing uncertainty of whether I was supposed to take it seriously or laugh at its brilliant, full-throated absurdity. There were break-ups, and the knighting of the new Knights of the Karelian Pine.

Curator Stjernvall and another Kodak moment. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Curator Stjernvall and another Kodak moment. © Tuomas Puikkonen

At the end, there was a group photo and it was over.

What I Took Away From All This

No, not that way. My character was the kleptomaniac, not me. Was being the operative word, since I think he sorta died.

To answer the obvious questions: yeah, I had fun. Yeah, I’m willing to do this again.

What I could’ve done better: I should’ve pursued that shady dealings plotline more aggressively and right from the start. I figure it would’ve been pretty juicy if I’d managed to get it activated. I also should’ve realized I might need the folder and acquired a suitable prop for myself. Part of my timidity with it was inexperience, part an attempt to gather more info about the situation, and part my inability to figure out how I should really approach it. Then, poof, I was Professor Kovanen and that plotline was gone. The Professor transition sort of terminated all my plots that relied on me being proactive in advancing them. With the others, such as Sauli’s accusations, it intersected and went in weird directions, which at least created content.

Another thing I need to work on is my poker face. While the alcohol did have some effect, I probably grinned far too much, especially when I should have been offended and indignant. Deeply in character I was not.

What I think I did well: when I became Professor Kovanen, I went with it and damn the decorum. There’s no need to worry about consequences beyond the immediate when you’re playing a one-shot, which I find liberating. Also, a game of this type contrasts strongly with my usual fare of Pathfinder Society. There, you essentially play to win, while here we played to have fun, keeping in mind that even losing can have entertainment value. It’s the kind of game that I should play more often. There’s also the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of game mechanics to get in the way, which was refreshing.

It seems I’m a larper now, then. Huh.

On a more general level, I think that the university is an underutilized game setting. I know there’s Alma Mater, and GURPS: IOU and that one playset for Fiasco, but there could be more, and good luck trying to find that first one. In your average a bit older university, you have a load of really ancient tradition that most people no longer understand but is adhered to because of TRADITION, DAMMIT! This intersects with a student body of young, modern people who form their own cliques and social groupings and clubs with their own in-jokes and weirdo traditions. Half the faculty in any given university seems deranged and the other half is. There are real, honest-to-goodness secret societies. In German universities, they still practice the art of academic fencing, where the goal is to get spiffy scars. In Oxford and Cambridge, the traditions are so arcane and inscrutable that they could pass for magical rituals. The politics of both the faculty and the students council can be amazingly backstabby and, of course, they are good breeding ground for political radicalism (my university spent most of the 1960s and 70s being full of Communists). Especially in smaller cities, there’s tension between the university, populated mostly by young people from out of town, and the locals. In Tampere, there’s still a sizable population that thinks it’s still a factory town. It’s a grievously underutilized setting.

One big, happy family. Note the portraits of former curators in the background. © Tuomas Puikkonen

One big, happy family. Note the portraits of former curators in the background. © Tuomas Puikkonen

Oh dear. Now they’re trying to cajole me into some weird game in Latvia, of all places.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part III

We come to the final installment of my look into what the hell we were doing for the last 27 sessions.

The final two modules of the adventure path mostly take place in the subterranean city of Ilmurea, built by the serpentfolk millennia ago in the caverns of the Darklands. Saventh-Yhi was eventually built above Ilmurea, first as a staging point for an assault upon the serpentfolk and then as a monument to the heroine Saavith, who first defeated the serpent god Ydersius.

The Thousand Fangs Below

In the fifth part, the party has just reclaimed the crystals that allow them to activate the portal to enter Ilmurea in order to find and rescue the Pathfinder Eando Kline who can tell them about the serpentfolk’s plans to resurrect Ydersius. The city of Ilmurea is an interesting place. There are a number of power groups in there. The first the party will likely stumble upon are the morlocks, who are chaotic evil but revere Eando Kline as a god, because the Pathfinder Society doesn’t come equipped with the Prime Directive. With the help of Juliver or any Pathfinders of their own, the party can leverage this to get the little bastards on their side.

Then there are the urdefhan. They’re also evil, a species of Darklands-dwellers related to daemons. They also sort of occupy a similar niche as the githyanki do in brand-name D&D and wield very strange swords with two-pronged blades, like a humongous fork. They’re scheming bastards who want the party to take out a defector who’s lairing with the serpentfolk. This is a way to get them on your side.

There are also some drow hanging about and a neothelid that the party can run into if they’re too nosy. Mine was. Curiosity killed the half-elf oracle, who was replaced by an elf fighter disguised as a half-orc.

Finally, the main event of the adventure is a serpentfolk stronghold where Eando Kline is held captive. It is a good dungeon – presents a variety of foes while remaining logical, interacts with itself and reacts to the player characters if they figure out they’re under assault. Importantly, it’s also manageable in size and length. There are also a bunch of very challenging enemies whose tactics are effective, make sense, and take all sorts of contingencies into account. The BBEG of the adventure ended up being a torturer in the deep dungeons whom the party could not take out and opted instead to flee. First time for everything.

So yeah, I like The Thousand Fangs Below. It’s not perfect, since I think it’s sort of a middle part where the entire plot is about the party doing something in order to be able to do something else instead of doing it because it must be done. To put it in terms of philosophy, their primary goal has a primarily instrumental value instead of an intrinsic value, which I think is also one of the problems in Vaults of Madness. Same goes for Sins of the Saviours in Rise of the Runelords, really. While such an adventure can be fun, I’d prefer each part of an adventure path to be more meaningful than that.

Your mileage may vary, of course. If your players are familiar with the Eando Kline stories from the first three adventure paths, they may be keen indeed on rescuing him, but for my players (and me) he was just some guy out there. Personally, I remember having read them but cannot for the life of me remember what happened. At least he’s not as annoying as Drizzt was.

Sanctum of the Serpent God

It may actually be fruitful to think of The Thousand Fangs Below and Sanctum of the Serpent God as the two halves of the same adventure. They blend together pretty well, seeing as all the really interesting stuff you get to do in The Thousand Fangs Below actually has its payback in Sanctum of the Serpent God. Befriended the morlocks? Good, you now have underground infantry for your army. Get along well with the urdefhans? You’ll have their sword. It’s time to march against some serpentfolk.

In Sanctum of the Serpent God, the party finally has enough information to know what to do and the allies to make it happen. Out of the different factions and tribes still left in Saventh-Yhi and the different power groups that are not directly hostile to them down in Ilmurea, they shall build an army, and drop the spears of Saventh-Yhi through the very bedrock of Mwangi itself, deep into the Darklands, to penetrate Ilmurea’s ceiling and give their troops a way to invade en masse. While the army draws out most of the serpentfolk from their main fortress, the party does the commando thing, goes in through a side door and takes out the officer corps, the high priest, and the god.

Well, it’s not quite that straightforward. There’s first a dungeon crawl where they take out a bunch of urdefhans and daemons to rescue a cyclops general who has spent the last ten millennia in stasis, because he’s the only one who knows what the damn spears are for. There’s also a series of assassination attempts on the party that I ended up skipping since I was rather tired of it all at this point and with the stable of one-trick ponies I had, half to three quarters of the party would have died.

The final dungeon is not quite as nifty as in The Thousand Fangs Below, but the endboss, avatar of Ydersius himself, makes up for it. He’s a legitimately tough solo adversary. Usually, a single enemy in Pathfinder RPG gets screwed over by action economy. Four heroes against one enemy means four times more actions directed against the bad guy than the bad guy can wield against the heroes. Simple math. Karzoug the Claimer, back in the 3.5 version of Rise of the Runelords, was victim to this and went down quickly. However, Ydersius is tough. He can withstand a lot of punishment, is immune to a whole lot of interesting tricks and has ways of removing heroes from the field for a few rounds at a time. The final combat was challenging and tense. At the end, the heroes triumphed and cut off the serpent god’s head, but it was close.

In Conclusion

Would I recommend the Serpent’s Skull adventure path? No. Not as the whole it is now, and not as written. Adventures two through four have a number of issues and little to make up for their flaws, The Thousand Fangs Below is uninteresting plot-wise, and at the end the whole campaign just feels like it is overstaying its welcome. Much like some its adventures feel more like ways to pass the time until the PCs are high-enough level to take on the next big adversary, the whole campaign feels like it mainly exists to be a traditional campaign between the nation-building sandbox of Kingmaker and the horror extravaganza that is Carrion Crown.

It is not, I must hasten to add, a total loss. Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is one of the best published adventures I’ve ever seen. The campaign itself, with some heavy rewriting, can be made into a pretty great work. The potential is all there, it’s just the execution that’s wanting. Add a local Mwangi faction, perhaps as a replacement for the Free Captains (the devil are they doing inland, anyway?), squeeze The City of Seven Spears and Vaults of Madness together, add some heavier foreshadowing of Sanctum of the Serpent God into The Thousand Fangs Below to make it feel less like a keycard hunt, and you’re golden.

Of course, the amount of work involved in all that probably defeats the purpose of using a pre-written adventure path in the first place, but it is my hope that after reading this and the preceding installments, you should be equipped to decide on your own whether it’s worth it for you.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, here there be SPOILERS.

The City of Seven Spears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaults of Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing Saventh-Yhi

So, what could have been done differently?

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

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

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

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

Next time, the grand finale.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part I

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

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

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

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racing to Ruin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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