Greyhawk Modules – Mr. Haarlaa Has His Say

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

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

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

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

ESA6-05 A Point of View, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ESA8-02 Old Debts, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

NAE4-03 Apprentice, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

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

NAE5-01 When Nightingales Sing…, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

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

NAE5-02 Return to Gefjon, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

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

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

NAE6-03 Legacy of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

NAE6-05 Sharafon, by David Howard & Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

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

NAE7-05 Trail of the Serpent, by Sampo Haarlaa

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

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

Review: Indulgences, Second Wave

Yesterday, I went over the first wave of Sinister Adventures‘ mini-pdfs, Indulgences. Something interesting I found out browsing their forums – if you’re logged in at the site, you can download a Razor Coast character sheet from the bottom of the Indulgence page. The download is not visible unless you’re registered and logged in. It’s a really nifty sheet, too, with a lovely pirate theme.

Here follow my opinions on the second wave of Indulgences. I am intentionally vague on the details of the adventures, to avoid spoilers. This is stuff that someone will want to run at some point. Like me.

Mysteries of the Razor Sea, by Nicolas Logue

Mysteries of the Razor Sea is a 14-page supplement of twelve small encounters and one short adventure for 1st-level characters, called “The Tale of the Seabear”.

The encounters are interesting and I could see myself dropping most of them into a campaign. There’s one with an albatross that’s especially cool.

“The Tale of the Seabear” is your average ghost ship module. It’s a strong piece of work, though I’d say it requires a bit of work to run properly. It’s got an interesting backstory, a working plot and strong atmosphere. It also has a nifty gimmick that really draws the player characters into the story. I could see myself kicking off a campaign with this adventure.

That said, there are a couple of niggling little things.

For one thing, the Seabear is described as a cog in the text, is illustrated as something with at least four masts, and has two masts in the battlemap. I’d fix this by calling it a brig, using the battlemap as it is, and not showing the illustration to anyone.

There’s another thing – the adventure begins with the PCs aboard a ship that then meets the ghost ship Seabear, and there’s a bit of a possessing spirit thing going on. However, the possible crew of the PCs’ ship is not mentioned anywhere. The module assumes four PCs (and indeed, would take a bit of work to play with more), which is not nearly enough to crew most vessels.

So, it’s a good adventure but it has a somewhat unfinished feel to it and would take some more work to run well. Still, for $2.50, you may find a better deal, but not very many of them.

Shrine of Frenzy, by Brendan Victorson and David Posener

Shrine of Frenzy is a 14-page adventure module for 7th-level characters. It’s a short but pretty good little side trek, with a nice illusion of choice and a balance between combat and social encounters. Also, a good chance for everyone to drown. This pirate stuff calls for Swim ranks. It’s refreshing.

In fact, I feel it has a very good example of what I call a “block test” encounter – an encounter that tests whether the party is smart enough not to try ramming the square block in the round hole, so to speak. I like a well crafted block test, because there’s a player type that I intensely dislike that always fails them.

There’s just one thing here that irks me to no end. The module features this spawn of Dajobas, a great big shark monster – called Iku-Tursas. Now, Iku-Tursas is a monster of Finnish mythology, a great sea monster that pesters Väinämöinen and the heroes of Kalevala when they are returning from the Northlands. “Tursas” is the Finnish word for octopus. There’s a certain dissonance when the name is applied to a shark. Iku-Turso has occasionally also been depicted as a sea giant of some sort (Kalevala of the Dogs by Mauri Kunnas; the Donald Duck comic Quest for Kalevala by Don Rosa), but not a shark.

If I use this, I’ll rename him Dakuwanga, after a shark god of Hawaiian mythology. Fits better with the style of the Tulita, too.

Still, it’s a pretty decent adventure.

Still Waters, by Richard Pett

The third adventure of the lot is Still Waters, a 16-page romp into a cursed swampland. It’s a very atmospheric piece and probably the best of this lot. There’s this colonial Louisiana feel, with plantations, slaves, and the huge where gators and strange creatures dwell. The author himself recommended on the Paizo forums that the theme for Southern Comfort be played during the adventure.

The start of the adventure lays out a flavourful setting with a couple of interesting NPCs, the investigation portion works well and has an appropriate amount of creepiness, and there are a couple of very cool combat encounters towards the end.

Were I to change anything in this, I’d probably lengthen the journey through the marshlands, making it a few days long, and make it a point to play it out both ways. There are a few resources I’d draw upon to do that, most notably the Living Greyhawk module COR7-19 Into the Mists, which really makes a trip through the marsh come alive.

The Warrior’s Way, by Nicolas Logue

The fourth Indulgence in the second wave is The Warrior’s Way, a seven-page pack of Tulita culture and associated crunchy bits.

The Tulita are Razor Coast’s resident native people reminiscent of Hawaiians, who are occasionally enslaved by plantation owners. They worship Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Wrack, and totem beasties like the Whale, the Dolphin and the Turtle. The backstory and cultural information on the Tulita is well written and intesting.

Then we come to the crunch. It starts with a pile of magic tattoos that you can apparently substitute for feats at levels six and nine. But… why weren’t they presented as feats, then? Strange twisting of the rules, this. I think I could substitute these for some of the tattoos available to the tattooed monk prestige class, though. Seems to fit very well with the Tulita themes. In Razor Coast, they’re the monks and martial artists.

Then there’s a number of new weapons. Unfortunately, none of them mention whether they’re simple, martial or exotic, which is kinda irritating. There’s also nonstandard rules language, and the pdf lacks the customary table for new weapons, all the attributes being expressed in rules text. They seem to be otherwise rather well balanced, though.

There’s also a new basic attack, throw, where, with a full-round action and a successful opposed grapple check, you may fling your enemy in any direction for a distance of five feet per point of Strength bonus you have. My feelings on this are mixed. On one hand, it’s an exceptionally cool combat manoeuvre, but I’m not sure how balanced it is. For now, though, I would include it in a game and see how it works.

Then there are twelve different feats, mostly monk type stuff with a bit of a fantastic bent. (Fortunately, despite being analogous to the Hawaiians, the Tulita do not employ the Kamehameha strike.)

Finally, there are a few variant monk class abilities for the Mai’kal, which is what Tulita monks are called. Neat stuff.

I think that overall, The Warrior’s Way does a very good job of recasting the D&D monk class in a pirate setting, making it fit in while remaining strange and foreign. Indeed, The Warrior’s Way does this in many ways better than core D&D. Good stuff.

Review: Indulgences, First Wave

A couple of months ago I noted the existence of Sinister Adventures, a small gaming company helmed by Nicolas Logue, also known for being the campaign manager of Pathfinder Society and the writer of great many excellent adventure modules, such as The Hook Mountain Massacre from Paizo Publishing.

While Sinister Adventures’ flagship product, the non-linear mega-adventure Razor Coast, failed to appear on time, they have released two sets of really cheap, small pdf downloads, called Indulgences. I picked up all eight last week for the total price of $18 for what amounts to 76 pages of material (and eight pages of Open Gaming Licences), and have been reading them over the weekend (well, the bits I didn’t spend drunk or hungover, at least).

The first two waves of Indulgences are designed to support Razor Coast, with side treks, individual encounters and nifty rules items. I expect they’ll do one more wave of Razor Coast stuff before going on to write material for The Ebon Shroud, a horror-themed megamodule slated to come out for Halloween, written by Logue and Richard Pett.

Razor Coast is a pirate-themed module. The Indulgences feature references to firearms and cannons, there’s an evil shark god and the Tulita, a tribe of native humans who worship Pele, the volcano goddess. Overall, it looks very spiffy. Here, then, my thoughts on the first four Indulgences.

The Indulgences use D20 System, and their prices are such that regardless of what I say about them, they’re all worth the price. Especially to us Europeans, with the dollar being what it is.

Dajobas, Devourer of Worlds, by Nicolas Logue

This one introduces us to Dajobas, the shark god, imprisoned deep beneath the sea and ever trying to escape his bonds, that he might eat the world. The Indulgence, clocking in at eight pages, has first the myths and legends and Tulita history associated with Dajobas, and then a pile of rules items for the shark god’s followers. Also, it opens up with a really nifty illustration of Dajobas, a colossal shark, eating an entire ship in the middle of a fierce storm.

Firstly, there’s a new domain, Hunger. Personally, I consider it better than the Hunger domain from Spell Compendium, which would’ve been more aptly called “Ghoul”. However, I think I’d substitute the Gluttony domain from the same book (not that the differences are great). The new Hunger domain is all PHB stuff – no new spells here.

Then there’s a divine servant of Dajobas, a monster called drolsharg. It’s a green giant with a lot of shark jaws, especially on its chest. If you’re having trouble visualising, we’re in the same boat. The art for the drolsharg is pretty bad and doesn’t really give an idea of what it looks like. The drolsharg has the ability to infect other creatures with lycanthropy, turning them into weresharks. Nifty.

Following the drolsharg, there are four feats for Dajobas’ followers, which I think are good in concept but don’t exactly shine in execution. There’s Blood Hunter, which allows the character to ignore all concealment if its target is bleeding, which is problematic because of the hit point mechanic’s level of abstraction and whether someone is bleeding or not is up to the DM – unless, of course, “bleeding” means “taking continual damage from some source”. Which it does not specify. Another feat makes you immune to Con damage and Con drain in certain circumstances, which is overly powerful for something that can be taken at first level. Both of these do require Chosen of the Shark God in prerequisite which places them pretty firmly in NPC land, though, but I prefer PCs and NPCs to operate under the same rules. The fourth feat, Reaver’s Frenzy, is okay.

Then there’s a pair of magic items, teeth of Dajobas and snapping jaw. They’re both under the heading of Magic Weapons, though the latter is a wondrous item (a magic alligator jaw that flies to the enemy and gnaws).

There’s a prestige class, too, called the dalang of Dajobas. It’s a five-level prestige class for divine servants of other deities who have been converted to the worship of the Shark God, who thus feeds on their worshiper base. The dalang of Dajobas is interesting, though the formatting drives me up the wall. It gets a type of rage, spellcasting, and various shark-related abilities. However, the abilities are listed in alphabetical order rather than the traditional progression by level, which is annoying. The prestige class is accompanied by a sample NPC, Varog Gorebeard.

Overall, I’d consider this one quite good, though the weakest Indulgence of the first wave. While the feats are a bit iffy, the PCs in no normal party would ever get their hands on them, and a Con damage immunity is a lot less powerful for an NPC than it is for a PC. I love the background on Dajobas, too.

Art of the Duel, by Craig Shackleton

Art of the Duel is a look into duelling and duellists, in six pages. It’s got a very good, atmospheric piece of opening fiction, and goes from there to a short history of the rapier and the duel.

Then it presents three variant rapiers and two variant daggers, which give small bonuses to certain combat manoeuvres, or a +1 AC when using Combat Expertise. There’s also a special combat manoeuvre, bind, which allows you to trap your opponent’s weapon with your own. This lets you then try to sunder or disarm without provoking an attack of opportunity, and with a bonus to the roll. I think this is pretty cool and flavourful, and its introduction to the game might lead to disarm being used by people other than spiked chain monsters, or sunder by anyone, at all, ever.

The main attraction here, though, are the feats, all 11 of them. While there’s one, Challenge to a Duel, that I don’t like (too reminiscent of an aggro management mechanic, reduces a point of roleplaying to a few die rolls), the rest are pretty good. Of note is the Responsive Duelist feat chain. Responsive Duelist allows you to make an attack of opportunity when an enemy attacks you, and its six follow-up feats build on that theme. Though I haven’t seen this in action, on paper it seems to very satisfyingly simulate a dialogue of blades.

Art of the Duel, in a word, rocks.

Death Beneath the Waves, by Wolfgang Baur

Death Beneath the Waves is a primer for underwater adventuring, in six pages. Mostly it consists of DM tricks and tips for getting the party into the drink, keeping them there and managing things like tactical combat in three dimensions.

There’s also a pair of spells for surviving the immediate dangers of underwater adventuring, like pressure, cold, and the lack of air. Good, helpful utility stuff.

Finally, the pdf gives the PCs something to kill while down there, an underwater dragon known as the benthic serpent, complete with an example serpent villain named Olaus the Grey, and a series of encounter ideas for him throughout the campaign.

Death Beneath the Waves has possibly the best advice I’ve seen on underwater adventuring in D&D, and I’ve seen a great deal. If you’re thinking of taking your campaign down into the depths, you could do a lot worse than pick up this little gem.

Blood Waters, by Greg A. Vaughan

Blood Waters is an adventure for 7th-level characters, in 13 pages. It takes the party underwater and gives you the excuse to use Death Beneath the Waves – and unfortunately, that’s about the length and breadth of its merits.

The condensed format of Blood Waters really doesn’t do it any favours. The plot revolves around saving a kingdom of locathah from an evil plot, and the brevity kinda hurts the inherent epicness involved in that. What should be a longer adventure is reduced to a couple of random encounters, a simple investigation and a short dungeon crawl. It’s not badly constructed as such, but there simply isn’t enough of material in this to make it compelling. It especially hurts the sense of wonder. The party is getting immersed in an entirely new and strange setting, but it really amounts to just another adventure with a couple of different combat rules.

I do understand the difficulty of involving land-based PCs in a longer adventure undersea, though – you have to provide them with some way to breathe, which can be difficult if you don’t just hand out rings of water breathing. Death Beneath the Waves had some suggestions on that, though.

There’s still a solid adventure somewhere in here, but it’s a lot of work to the end user.

There is a reason to blow the three bucks this will cost you, though. The pdf also includes a pair of druid spells to facilitate underwater adventuring, and the wave-cursed template, a cousin of the amphibious creature template from Stormwrack and its ilk.

A Time to Relax

It feels good to get a workload off one’s shoulders. NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, the final Naerie regional for Living Greyhawk was just playtested and should be sent off for sanctioning tomorrow – with abundant six days left on the deadline, too. Got a little something back from my proofreaders and sent off to Roolipelaaja, too.

I’m not the only one who’s been busy with stuff, though. On Monday, Paizo Publishing put up their offering from Free RPG Day (an event that places in the world that were not Finland celebrated on Saturday – we had Midsummer, when the game store was closed and the vodka bottle open) as a free download – D1.5 Revenge of the Kobold King, by Nicolas Logue.

Very cunning, Paizo, to make it a sequel to D1 Crown of the Kobold King. Now I’ll have to get that one, too.

RPGA, meanwhile, has put up the “final AR” for Living Greyhawk. It is a questionably edited document that lays out your character’s retirement in a few words depending on what favours he has acquired. While I’ve got a good bit of those unplayed, it looks like Achmed ibn Fahdlan ibn Raschid ibn al-Hazred, my asherati bard/swashbuckler, will be joining Rary’s court. Possibly as the ambassador to Tenh. Apart from that, not much for my characters. A bit meh, that. We do have something similar in the Adventure Record for NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion, though.

They also put up the third issue of Greyhawk Grumbler, an in-character broadsheet from the City of Greyhawk, where some quick quill lambasts the powers that be. It’s written by Eric Menge, and actually good. Looks like old man Nerof Gasgal finally bought it.

Goodman Games, a third-party D20 publisher best remembered for their Dungeon Crawl Classics series, is the first company to announce GSL products – to be released at GenCon, before the October 1st date that the Game System Licence enforces. I’m unclear on what’s behind this, but apparently they have cut some sort of special deal with Wizards of the Coast – or they’re just trying their luck. I hope it works out for them.

ICv2 releases some comparative sales figures from the areas of roleplaying games, miniature games, card games and board games. It’s an interesting read, and confirms what I’ve long suspected – Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures has been outselling the main game. This goes some way in explaining why 4E is so heavily reliant on them – it’s not just the game, it’s WotC’s profit margins.

It’s the tragedy of D&D – to always be outsold by one’s own spinoff products.

And speaking of tragedies of D&D, WotC has finally got some of its act together and released the first part of Dungeons & Dragons Insider – The D&D Compendium. I am not impressed, and have yet to see anything on their site worth paying $1 a month for, let alone the $15 they’ll be asking if they ever get everything online.

Ropecon 2008 Opens Its Website. Also, Other Stuff

It’s been a busy couple of days. I have been crunching numbers like mad for the last of our Living Greyhawk modules, NAE8-04 Bright Sun, Black Lion. Now, only the treasure calculations remain to be done before the rotter can be playtested and shipped off to the Circle for sanctioning.

Calculating treasure, incidentally, is the most annoying part of making a Living Greyhawk module. Calculating Encounter Levels is another, because there’s a cap on how many Encounter Levels you can stuff into a module and the way the cap scales up with Average Party Levels (a module generally is written for three to six level tiers) means that it’s effectively going to be three moderately challenging combat encounters in every module. This gets predictable after a while.

But then, this is the last one. After this, no more.

Paizo has released their fourth Pathfinder Society preview. Qadira, as I predicted. Nick Logue confirms in a thread on the Paizo forums that members of different factions can adventure together. The final faction will be unveiled on Thursday. I’m guessing it to be Taldor.

Finally, Ropecon has opened its website for 2008.

That URL nearly gave me a heart attack. It reads “messukeskus.ropecon.fi”. Messukeskus, the Helsinki Fair Centre, was the location of Ropecon 1995, which is generally regarded as the worst Ropecon of all time.

Fortunately the con is still held at Dipoli, our beloved non-Euclidean labyrinth in the middle of the darkest Otaniemi, where the shadows lie.

This year, the guests of honour are Chris Pramas of Green Ronin Publishing, the freelance game designer Greg Stolze, and what I presume must be the LARP guest, Peter Andreasen of Denmark. Sorry, no link for the last one, since I can’t seem to be able to find his homepage, or anything that’s not in Danish.

A very good lineup, I think. Greg Stolze is a maker of many awesome things, such as a lot of Unknown Armies, a lot for Feng Shui, and my favourite superhero roleplaying game Godlike and my favourite WW2 roleplaying game Godlike. He’s also done a deal of work on the new World of Darkness, which I consider less awesome, but still a lot more awesome than the old one. His newest work is Reign, a fantasy roleplaying game. I’ve yet to get around to reading the damn book, but I’ve been assured that it’s also awesome. The reason I haven’t yet got around to reading the damn book is the City of Lies box for Legend of the Five Rings, also by Greg Stolze. Which is awesome.

Chris Pramas, on the other hand, has done some excellent work on the second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play, as well as on Mutants & Masterminds and on a whole load of D20 material, such as The Freeport Trilogy, a series of pirate-themed adventures released in the early D20 boom and recently rereleased as a fifth anniversary edition. You gotta love a module that starts with a Flogging Molly quotation.

You can tell I am excited.

Then, it is Ropecon. I am always excited about Ropecon. Best gaming convention I’ve ever been to. I think it’ll be my twelfth Ropecon, this year.

And really, how can you not love the convention that inspired this comic strip?

Pathfinder Chronicles: Gazetteer and a Bit on the Society

I picked up Pathfinder Chronicles: Gazetteer yesterday at the game store. Usually, new releases can languish for months on my shelves, but I read this one cover to cover immediately. A few reasons for this – first, I’ve been known to get very excited about Pathfinder stuff in general and this was no exception. Also, there’s the D&D 4E Player’s Handbook fast approaching, and between that and the Keep on the Shadowfell review, I’d prefer to have something positive breaking up the monotony of invective.

Before I tackle the review, though, I will note that the first preview of Paizo’s organised play campaign Pathfinder Society is out. It presents the first of the five factions of the campaign, Andoren. The preview doesn’t really give us much in the way of detail about how the campaign is going to work, but we can speculate. For one thing, the phrasing “Missions assigned to Andoran faction members tend toward helping dissident groups within the other factions […]” seems to suggest that adventures may have conditional side missions for faction members. It’s also possible that adventures themselves are faction-specific, like in RPGA’s Xen’drik Expeditions, though I favour the other interpretation. It would make for better gaming, too, as long as the faction objectives aren’t always mutually exclusive – that would make it predictable and boring. Personally, though, I enjoy cloak and dagger games with a bit of intra-party intrigue.

But now, to the main event.

What’s This Gazetteer, Then?

Pathfinder Chronicles: Gazetteer is a softcover book with 64 glossy pages, describing Golarion, the setting of the Pathfinder RPG, from Paizo Publishing. It’s written by Erik Mona and Jason Bulmahn and includes a poster map.

It’s actually an instalment of the monthly series that Paizo is doing, the Pathfinder Chronicles. They even have a subscription scheme (several, in fact) on their website for this. You can order the entire product line delivered to you mailbox as it is released, in pdf or hardcopy. Last month’s product, by the way, was Classic Monsters Revisited, which I never got around to reviewing here, but which is made of awesome.

Anyway, the Gazetteer does what gazetteers do. It gives an overview – I wouldn’t use the word ‘details’ – the continents of Avistan and Garund in Golarion. It is in these places that the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and the GameMastery modules take place. There’s a bigger world out there, vaguely pointed at in the descriptions of the various frontier regions and peoples.

It’s a typically pseudo-European campaign setting. There’s the Land of the Linnorm Kings in the far north, where the Ulfen Vikings live, and there are the Varisian gypsies and the Byzantine Empire in decline that is Taldor. The Inner Sea stands in for the Mediterranean, complete with the Arch of Aroden for the Straits of Gibraltar. On the Inner Sea’s southern coast lie the deserts and jungles of Garund, with the pyramids of Osirion, the rainforests of the Mwangi Expanse, and the Chelaxian colony of Sargava.

One is provoked to ask the question: do we really need another sorta-Europe for playing D&D in? Aren’t Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk and the rest enough?

To which I can only reply – ignoring for the moment that basic D&D does set certain demands on a campaign setting and the other settings are owned by other companies – sure we do, why not? I’ll take ten, if they’re all this cool.

Even though the real-world parallels in Golarion are obvious, there are also elements of the fantastic, some cool stuff, and an endless variety of milieus to base different adventures in. There’s the Viking Land of the Linnorm Kings, and to the east, the eternal winter of Irrisen ruled by Baba Yaga’s progeny, and continuing on, the Realm of the Mammoth Lords, where the Kellid barbarians ride mammoths and hunt dinosaurs. To the south, there’s the Hold of Belkzen, an anarchic land of orcs, and to the east of there, through the gothic horrors of Ustalav, the realm of Numeria, where a silver mountain fell from the sky, and the locals sell off the salvages starmetals, guarded by the metal men rescued from the wreck. Here, I think, is where Expedition to the Barrier Peaks would be set. Continuing in that vein, the slavers of Okeno have yellow sails, echoing the A series.

Golarion knows its roots. The old classics are easily set in various places around Avistan and Garund, and the yellow sails of the Okeno ships show this to be by design.

It’s kind of like the lovechild of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, really, without the decades of baggage and high-level NPCs that some people seem to find so inimical to their enjoyment of the game. Some people may not like it, but then, you can’t please everyone and this is essentially the kind of setting that D&D implies. Yeah, even 4E, even though it really tries to pretend that it doesn’t.

The booklet opens with descriptions of the normal D&D character races and how they fit in the world, followed by the same for the base classes, and finally a word on the languages of the setting. Throughout this chapter, sidebars tell us of the human subraces, which I find to be something of a Greyhawkism. Then follows history and a timeline of a couple of millennia, with the death of the god Aroden a hundred years ago and the tumult that ensued. There’s a lot of little stuff here that I expect underlies the backgrounds of many GameMastery modules I’m not familiar with.

Then there’s the main part of the book, the Gazetteer of Nations, which clocks in at 35 pages, and finally a few pages on the major deities of Golarion.

There’s a cool thing about the deities. In the city of Absalom, the Lankhmar-equivalent of the setting, there lies the Cathedral of the Starstone, where the Starstone is kept. The Starstone is the rock that hit Golarion many millennia ago, creating the Inner Sea with its impact, destroying the ancient empires of Azlant and Thassilon and bringing about the Age of Darkness, when sun’s light could not penetrate the veil of dust over the world.

Then the god Aroden, then still a mortal, fished it out of the ocean and placed it in Absalom, becoming a god along the way, the first mortal who ascended by the Test of the Starstone. Since then, three other mortals have succeeded in the test – the death god Norgorber, the paladin type Iomedae, and my favourite of all, Cayden Cailean, the god of freedom, ale, wine, and bravery, who ascended accidentally, while drunk out of his skull. As a result of a dare. He is also, therefore, the god of being awesome, and deep-fried Mars bars.

So, I like it. Some others may not, but that’s their problem. I think the Gazetteer works as a good basic sourcebook on Golarion for players. Most of the information I expect will be reprinted in the larger Pathfinder Chronicles: Campaign Setting coming out in a couple of months, though, so unless one is a completionist or looking for a definitive source on Golarion, it they might want to hold off until August. On the other hand, the Gazetteer is fairly inexpensive. Especially as a pdf.

I can recommend it.

Roundup of News

Just a short update, rounding up some news of interest…

Yesterday, Paizo Publishing released v.2.0 of their Pathfinder RPG‘s Alpha playtest version. Get it here. It is good. I talked about the Pathfinder RPG back when the first Alpha came out, and it still looks very promising. It’ll also presumably be the most playtested roleplaying game around when it’s released in 2009.

Meanwhile, Wizards of the Coast has announced that they’re still considering whether to take part in GenCon Indy, while the event registration is already open. The following is copied off the front page of EN World. Since I can’t link directly to the news item, I will reproduce it here.

Here is a brief FAQ concerning your questions:

Q: Why are there no D&D or Wizards events on the schedule posted for Gen Con at http://www.gencon.com?

A: Wizards had not submitted a schedule of events by the Gen Con deadline. Since we hadn’t submitted our own schedule, none of our events are in the official Gen Con schedule at this time.

Q: Will Wizards attend Gen Con in 2008?

A: As you may be aware, Gen Con is currently in chapter 11 bankruptcy. Wizards’ plans relative to Gen Con are dependent on the course of proceedings in US bankruptcy court. While we hope to participate in Gen Con, we must await further proceedings in the bankruptcy matter before we are able to confirm our plans.

Meanwhile, they’re also messing about with the Game System Licence, which may or may not be available at some point in the undetermined future. The current deadline they’ve set themselves is June 6th, the same time the 4th Edition rules are supposed to come out. There’s also been some confusion about the contents of said licence, which may or may not include a clause that prevents a company using the GSL from releasing anything under the Open Gaming Licence. There should be a clarification on this one by the end of the week.

Yesterday saw in fact two interesting game releases. The other one was the second printing of Stalker, Burger Games’ roleplaying project that suffered more delays and unforeseen setbacks than Bridge Over Svartjet. It’s based on the science fiction novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky and Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie based on the novel. I’ve got my copy, and it looks good. I may be reviewing it here in the coming week, depending on how time allows.

The shop I bought my copy from is the new Puolenkuun pelit in Tapiola, Espoo, incidentally. They stock RPGs. Not much, but some. Also, miniatures. And board games. And it’s right along my commute. They opened up on Saturday. I also picked up a copy of Arkham Horror and Games Workshop’s new 25th Anniversary miniature, Harry the Hammer.

Shit Saturday

In Living campaigns, there exists an interesting and a bit strange phenomenon.

Living campaigns are based on pre-made adventure modules distributed by a central authority, in Living Greyhawk’s case the RPGA. This means there are a limited number of adventures available at any given time.

In Living Greyhawk, character advancement is tracked by a special form, the Adventure Record, that is unique to each adventure. They track the acquisition and expenditure of experience points and gold, as well as any permanent curses, favours and conditions that may apply to a later module. ARs are a decent way to accomplish this; the Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns that RPGA also runs work on an online character tracker system, which, like pretty much every other online application or computer program that Wizards of the Coast is somehow responsible for, sucks ass.

ARs also have the coat of arms of the locale they take place in. These are cool.

This gives rise to a certain spirit of completionism, where some players feel driven to play every module available. Characters need to get to certain levels to play certain modules, module series must be played to their conclusions, and so on. It’s a lot like PokĂ©mon, really, except the monsters are less cute.

Occasionally, though, you run into a module that is exceptionally bad. Or even several modules.

How to Cope with the Suck

There are ways to deal with bad modules. One way is to unsuspectingly play one and only during the game realise that the writer must have been high or drunk or stupid. This is not recommended, and to this day I hold a grudge against Maya Deva Kniese and her module TSS5-02 Seeds, for costing us a good player. In its megalomaniacal length of over a hundred pages, complete lack of encounter maps and concepts like the text “Immortal” on the chest of an earth elemental, an amorphous creature, to signify it must be beaten unconscious because you can’t kill it, this is the worst adventure module I have ever read, for any game system or campaign.

Another way is to just run them as fast as possible, generally together with a module that’s actually worth anything. This works, but tends to feel unsatisfying.

And then, yesterday, there was Shit Saturday.

It was an event that originated from an ill-considered promise to run the module COR6-17 Something of Value, by Sam Weiss and Rick Miller. It’s probably the second-worst module I’ve seen in Living Greyhawk. It’s incomplete as written, mischaracterises a number of canon NPCs, represents all authority figures as Keystone Kops contrary to their earlier portrayals (and to the guidelines of good writing in general), is one big railroad without any reasonable explanation and worst of all, is written in an adversarial fashion, for a game of DM (or in this case, module writer) versus players. This never results in good gaming. However, the encounter design didn’t actually take into account the capabilities of player characters at the module’s levels. The big bad is a glass cannon who gets his surprise round and then dies miserably.

In a refreshing change of pace, though, I couldn’t spot any glaring stat block errors. There’s something to be said for using stock Monster Manual content. Additionally, it seems that several NPCs in the module are caricatures of prominent users at Canonfire, a Greyhawk fan site that both I and the writers are members of. They’re not entirely flattering.

Anyway, I promised to run it after having erroneously ordered it from the scenario database some time previous (I confused it with COR6-20 Shades of Grey, a very good module). Upon reading it, I concluded it’s crap, I didn’t want to run it and that the group would not want to play it. Except they insisted.

The idea of Shit Saturday was then formed, and the suggestion was made that a selection of known bad modules would be offered on a Saturday, along with cheap beer.

The solution worked admirably, and much fun was had, despite the modules.

The other modules we ran were both work of one Tim Sech. They were COR6-12 Calm Before the Storm and INT7-04 Ritual of the Damned, a pair of modules that, like the rest of his work that I’ve seen, are playable but not enjoyable and do not quite follow the rules of either English grammar, basic logic or Dungeons & Dragons.

The good thing here is that neither of them has a plot as such, and therefore I can’t spoil it. There are just railroad tracks that lead to weird places in defiance of common sense and geography – among others, a scene where the party first walks some 70 miles to a river. At the river, they meet a sea captain and his large sailing ship. Yeah, no idea why or how they’re there. The party is expected to return with the ship, because it’s “more comfortable and safer”. However, by ship, the journey would be nearly 2000 miles, some half of that through enemy-controlled territory. The encounter stats are also wonky, and barely a sentence of module text goes by without a typo, a grammatical error or a stylistic mistake.

INT7-04 Ritual of the Damned is significant in other ways as well. It, along with its equally execrable predecessors, INT7-01 Ambition’s Folly, INT7-02 Trial by Fire and INT7-03 A Dead Man’s Job, is part of the introductory series distributed to retailers with the WotC retailer’s kit. These are the first Living Greyhawk products to see print in many years, and they’re crap.

I could write a better adventure in a day, and, indeed, have (and no, I don’t deem it good enough to be distributed in public). They’re illogical, badly structured, again grievously misrepresent canon NPCs, and the writing is barely intelligible. It occurs to me now that none of the four credit an editor or playtesters. It can be an honest mistake, or they really weren’t edited or playtested. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if the first drafts were the final ones.

Here’s a selection of the immortal prose of Tim Sech, completely unedited by me (or anyone else, for that matter):

“A letter, with big bold inscription states ‘Open Immediately’ on it, has been sent to you each of you with the seal of Aramis on it.” – The first boxed text of one of the modules. It certainly sets the scene for the rest of the adventure.

“By the looks of it he appears to be built like an ox […]” – The Head of the Department of Redundancy Department.

“If the [enemies] are captured they refuse to speak and if coerced only speak lovingly but very vaguely about their master. They do not know who he is, but it is clear of his hold over them.” – Considering even the DM isn’t told, I don’t think it’s clear at all.

“Hello there! Humanchi says his hello as well. He wanted us to get a ‘feel’ on your thoughts about a few things but we would rather just beat you to a pulp first.” – You have bad honour against me. Now you will must die.

There are others. Ritual of the Damned, especially, reads like the Eye of Argon. For some reason, the modules also fluctuate between referring to gold crowns and golden orbs as the currency of Greyhawk, but that’s a minor detail. (The latter would be correct, however.)

As stated, though, these all became quite agreeable in the proper state of inebriation.

The Root of the Problem and its Solution

I feel the quality of RPGA has been steadily declining over the past couple of years. The good adventures, when we get them, are still awesome, but there are less of them. The bad ones are getting worse, and they’re getting more frequent.

Part of this is likely because quality takes time. You need to concentrate and think about what you’re doing when crafting a complex intrigue in the vein of Chris Chesher’s and Greg Marks’ Rallying Point for the Bright Sands or an open sandbox like Jason Bulmahn’s Key to the Grave, or a great epic such as Pieter Sleijpen’s Broken Chains series or Pierre van Rooden’s Trust or Treason series. Stuff like Sech’s Core Introductory modules can be farted out in a matter of hours.

Also, I think there’s been a failure in quality control. I don’t know exactly whose job it is to make sure that Core modules aren’t complete drek. Judging by the results of their work, I’m not sure they know either. At that level, people get paid for their writing. RPGA should have an expectation of quality, but it evidently does not.

Public reviews of modules are not available due to the fear of spoilers and there is no centralised website to host them all. Nyrond.org is the best we’ve got, and it’s not much. Without actual, verbal criticism, the stars have no context. Module writers get no direct feedback and there’s very little public discussion of adventure releases except when they’re either something truly hideous or utterly magnificent and worthy of an ENnie. The system lacks transparency, which allows low-quality material to get through again and again.

RPGA now has a chance to change that, with the advent of the Living Forgotten Realms campaign. The system can be retooled from the ground up. Demands of quality must be stricter. At the very basic level, plots should make sense, the rules items should follow the rules and the module text be written by someone literate.

In LFR, one would also hope that the writers retain creative freedom. While I am sure that with the brand recognition comes a pressure from the above to cater to the largest audience, one should never write for the lowest common denominator. A campaign of cookie-cutter dungeon crawls would drive away those players who like their stuff with a bit of depth and would get boring for the rest sooner or later. With the 4th Edition Forgotten Realms being what it is, care should be taken to keep what few players there will be left. Especially the ones who also write modules, unless they’re planning to start paying professional rates. The North Europe Point of Contact has already stated he is disinclined to write adventures, and there appears to be some confusion with our Event Coordinator as well.

It does not bode well. Unless RPGA pulls its head out of its ass and quick, I see little hope for its future.

It’s a pity. It used to be fun.

Dragons of Spring Cleaning

Figures. I get a new blog up and immediately my home internet connection dies on me. It’s in times like these that USB memory sticks and workplace computers show their true worth.

The other day, before my AD&D 1st Edition game, I swung by the game store and picked up a few items. One of them was Dragons of Spring. It’s the third and final adventure module of the classic Dragonlance trilogy, updated from the original 1E AD&D ruleset into the shiny, new 3.5. Well, sorta new – between the release of Dragons of Autumn and Dragons of Winter, the first and second episodes, 4th Edition was announced and Margaret Weis Productions’ licence to publish this stuff was supposed to expire at the end of last year. Apparently, this one was the last of the series they managed to squeeze out before they lost the licence.

The concept of making light of the classic 1E adventures does have some precedence. Around the turn of the millennium, Wizards of the Coast released a series of Greyhawk novels, including three by Paul Kidd, White Plume Mountain, Descent into the Depths of the Earth and Queen of the Demonweb Pits. They’re so hilarious (intentionally, in a good way!) my stomach cramped when I read them a few years back, and I can only heartily recommend them. There are also Aaron Williams’ Nodwick comics in some issues of Dragon, where the party visits old adventure modules. They’re funny, but unfortunately many of the jokes hinge on knowledge of the modules.

The History

For those of you not yet in on the joke, the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, the one with Caramon and Raistlin and Sturm and all your other favourite fantasy clichĂ©s, is based on these. Well, the first one is, at least. I think the novel release schedule caught up with the module series – originally numbering twelve – around Dragons of Winter Night, and the final novel came out before its corresponding four modules. I’d still imagine the plot outlines of the novels are based on those of the modules, though. I’ve always thought it tremendously amusing. They’re pretty much the most popular of all the D&D novels, coming maybe second to the Drizzt novels, and they go and spoil the plot of the modules from the start to the finish.

Now, I understand Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have been going back and doing a new series, also based on these adventures, where they go over the bits that the original series missed. Lost Tales, I think they’re called. Dragons of the Dwarven Depths, as far as I can tell, is based on Dragons of Hope and Dragons of Desolation, for example, which were skipped over in the original trilogy. I think most of Dragons of Ice was handled as a poem in the beginning of Dragons of Winter Night.

I mean, pretty much every player of the game has read these when he was a kid. What DM would even consider running the adventures when he knows that his group has every big reveal and twist memorised by heart? Everybody knows Eben Shatterstone will turn traitor at a predetermined spot. Also, everyone wants to play Raistlin. Wolverine’s claws optional.

Well, I would.

The Campaign Classics

Ever since I picked up Dragons of Autumn, I’ve been considering running them as a campaign, complete with the pre-made player characters.

Those characters are an interesting set, by the way. You’ve got the original Innfellows, the nine nincompoops who everyone knows and loves, but also the cleric Elistan, the gnome Theodenes, the elven princess Alhana, and some others like the fighter Vanderjack who never got to even make a cameo in the novels.

Anyway, I think they’d make the perfect D&D comedy campaign, just served straight-up to the players. It’s impossible for anyone who’s read the novels at age twelve to take it seriously at age twenty-two, so humour springs naturally without any extra work. (Actually, in my experience, that’s the only way it’ll ever spring in a game – if you actively try to make a funny game, it tends to fall flat.) Also, there’s the therapeutic value of seeing Tanis Half-Elven bite the dust fifteen minutes into the first session at the hands of Fewmaster Toede.

There’s also some genuine gaming history and nostalgia going on there. They’re classics. You can question the quality of the story, the depth of the characters and the general naivety of it all, but the fact remains that everybody knows who’s Raistlin and what’s funny about his eyes.

I’ve been poring over the classics a lot lately. If my deductions are correct, our DM in the 1st-Edition game is running us through the GDQ, and there’s something else that I’m working on that’s involved reading choice parts of the S series. The classic adventures – Dragonlance, the GDQ series, Tomb of Horrors, I6 Ravenloft and so forth – form a type of shared experience for gamers who were active in the eighties. It was before the product explosion of the nineties when TSR could release up to sixty game books a year. Both the RPG hobby and AD&D were different then, and those adventures were what you had. I surmise there was some word-of-mouth thing going on, but everyone ended up playing at least some of them at some point. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and perhaps worth exploring later in more depth.

Returning to the inherent hilarity in offing a procession of Heroes of the Lance in ignominious ways, I was also considering showing the players the cartoon adaptation of Dragons of Autumn Twilight after the group had wrapped up Dragons of Autumn. Roolipelaaja gave it half a star, and my DVD is already on pre-order. Should be perfect. I hope we’ll get the other two as well, though I kinda doubt it.

The Palette

Of course, I still should go over the desired tone of the game with the players first. Something I’ve noticed is that it really pays to make sure everybody is on the same page about what sort of game you’re going for.

Last year, I started in a game run by a friend of mine called Stefan. I came to the game after nearly two years when almost all my gaming on the illustrated side of the DM screen had been Living Greyhawk, where the tone (at least in Naerie under Sampo Haarlaa’s iron fist) is one of grim realism with a rainbow of grey shades. There are also many plot elements that foment intra-party conflict. I sorta went in without thinking about it all that much, assuming Stefan’s game would be more or less the same. He’s a veteran of Living Greyhawk, as was one of the other players, and all of them had been seen at an LG table at some point.

Now, when you go in with an expectation for serious intrigue and intra-party conflict, it’s better to make sure that everyone else expects the same. If not, you’ll have an unsatisfying experience at best, player conflict at worst. It makes everyone uncomfortable and does not make for good gaming.

Crushing Tasslehoff with a grand piano, though… that does.

Pathfinder

Right, on to business.

A couple of days ago, Paizo gave everyone a fright by replacing their front page with an image of goblins burning the town and an announcement that goblins had taken over the offices and were forcing a decision.

Fortunately, it was not a declaration of bankrupcy, or a decision to get out of the business, or even discontinue a game line.

Indeed, it was pretty much the ballsiest move I’ve seen a gaming company make since Wizards of the Coast came out with the d20 System Licence seven years ago.

What Came Before

For a bit of background, Wizards of the Coast is coming out with the fourth edition of Dungeons & Dragons next summer. It’s actually closer to the ninth or eighth edition, but nobody cares. Now, the current, or third, edition, was released with the d20 System Licence. This means, basically, that any game publisher can make D&D-compatible games, accessories and sourcebooks and sell them, without paying Wizards of the Coast a dime. It makes sense to do so, too, because D&D is the market leader by a margin so huge that it isn’t even funny.

Now, the next edition of D&D is not going to be compatible with the d20 rules. Also, while it will have its own licence, it will be a lot more constraining. Also, any company who wants to get stuff done before the licence becomes public in… 2009, I think, has to pay WotC $5,000 to get the rules in advance. WotC, however, has been tardy in making this actually available. Additionally, by the designers’ own admission, the rules of the new game will be so different from the current edition that conversion will not be recommended, and unlike with the second edition-third edition shift, no conversion guide will be forthcoming, which in turn will mean that the loads of sourcebooks released for D&D and under the d20 Licence will be essentially useless to a 4th edition game. But I digress.

What Paizo has been doing until now is release a quality series of adventures under the d20 licence, called Pathfinder. They’re pretty, have high production values, and at the first one, Burnt Offerings, is one of the finest first-level D&D adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read. Paizo started the series after they lost the licence to produce the Dungeon and Dragon magazines for WotC – a task they also performed admirably. The discontinuation of the magazine was a black mark on WotC, especially since their online replacement for Dragon is nearly void of useful content. WotC has made a great many unpopular decisions with 4E, and they’re bleeding fanbase.

The Pathfinder adventures have apparently been selling well – to the degree that it’s a pain in the ass to try and snatch a copy of a new one over here before they’re sold out. The first Pathfinder story arc, Rise of the Runelords, has just come to a close, and the next one is kicking off. Paizo has scene cred and goodwill up the wazoo.

The Meat of the Matter

Now, Paizo is cashing in on the popularity of their game line, and pretty much establishing themselves as the new top dog of the d20 System industry, and ensuring that the game will keep going even after the third edition rulebooks by WotC have gone out of print and been dumped by retailers. They announced Pathfinder RPG, a roleplaying game that promises to fix the many, small, niggling issues with the current edition of D&D while retaining backwards compatibility.

And to top it off, they’re doing an open playtest. Alpha testing is already underway, and the first alpha release is available for download. A classy move, that.

The major selling points here, for the record, are the backwards compatibility and keeping the rules on store shelves after WotC abandons the game. They’re marketing to an extant player base, the people who are heavily invested in the current edition, and/or don’t like the look of the new one. Meanwhile, keeping the rulebooks on sale means the game system is alive and supported, which makes it possible for new people to pick it up, and perhaps just as importantly, sends the message that the game is still alive, still being supported. Continued support for a game is very important to certain players. It’s mostly just psychological, but getting errata is always nice. It’s even nicer when you don’t need it, though.

The beta test release will hit next August, and will be both a free pdf and a dead tree edition at a game store near you. The final game will be hitting the shelves in August 2009. They’re also starting an organised play campaign, Pathfinder Society, which, as an RPGA veteran, I find most interesting. Of course, they’ve got Erik Mona on board, who was there kicking off that whole Living Greyhawk thing that I’ve been playing for the last four years.

Me, I will be running playtests once I can find the time. Our resident number crunchers and rules lawyer already combed over the first alpha and identified possible sticking points, which we can then test, document and post to Paizo. Also, I’ve been dying to run Burnt Offerings.