Paizo Announces Pathfinder Society Open Call

Yay!

Paizo Publishing just announced an open call of adventure writers for their organised play campaign Pathfinder Society.

For now, they’re asking for a 750-word scenario outline based on one of their two outlines. The deadline for these is Friday the 17th. And it’s an exam week, yikes!

Because with schoolwork, Roolipelaaja articles, NaNoWriMo and one possible book editing job breathing down on my neck in the next few months, what I really need is another writing assignment to occupy my time, so I will be submitting them something. The worst-case scenario is that I get to write some more and someone actually pays me money to do it, which is a rare enough occurrence.

For you readers, here’s yet another chance to get your name in print. Well, on a pdf.

Meanwhile, on the LFR side of things, Dalelands Point of Contact Sampo Haarlaa resigns. His position is, I believe, currently unfilled, so if you have a high tolerance for the stupid, you could take a look into it. I think the Southern Europe Writing Director and Event Coordinator posts are also vacant. Something to do with WotC alienating most of the RPGA actives in France, I think.

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Oops, They Did It Again

RPGA, the arm of Wizards of the Coast’s marketing department that handles their organized play campaigns like Living Forgotten Realms and Living Greyhawk, redid its members’ site a couple of days back.

The RPGA members’ site is the place where you log in to order RPGA events and then later report them. It’s also where you download the modules for your events.

Now, it’s been combined with the DCI members’ site. They’re the guys who run D&D Miniatures leagues and Magic: the Gathering leagues, and so forth.

And in the grand tradition of WotC’s online widgets, it doesn’t work. I went through a frustrating thirty minutes trying to delete some sessions that never ran and one I’d scheduled accidentally for the year 2022. Mind you, some of these sessions had already been reported and (I thought) removed ages ago. Also, here we have two threads on the LFR forum about problems reporting Living Forgotten Realms events.

Personally, I’m almost happy that Living Greyhawk is ending and I’m moving to Tampere, and I will no longer have reason to access it. I’m about this close to downloading everything that’s available and just removing it from my bookmarks for good.

Now… this weekend is the weekend of Gen Con Indy. When Living Forgotten Realms is officially kicking off.

I don’t know how many people they have with the responsibility of reporting every table, but I wouldn’t want to be them right now. Even though I do so enjoy screaming in righteous wrath.

Well done, WotC. Yet another successful launch.

This could’ve been averted, too. For one thing, whoever is responsible for the website should’ve been replaced long ago. There is not a single aspect of it that’s not an abomination, from the terrible front page with its occasionally functional Java and that horrible ad video with the crappy metal soundtrack to the forums, vacillating between unmoderated anarchy and a police-state of jackbooted power-trippers, with hours of downtime every day and the chat running on software that was old when the Red Box was young and a server that predates the invention of the dice pool.

Also, the LFR system requires the Game Master to report everything – not only the players’ RPGA numbers, but also treasure bundles, character information and story consequences. They’ve done this before, actually, on the Legacy of the Green Regent, Mark of Heroes and Xen’drik Expeditions campaigns. It sucked each and every time.

Living Greyhawk differs in this. We have an interesting an innovative way to track character advancement. We use this stuff called paper. You may have heard of it, though it’s a fairly new thing, only been around for about five thousand years.

There may be a reason it’s still in widespread use.

And if there are story consequences, we use e-mail. Online, we reported the players’ RPGA numbers and that’s it. Same web form for every module, nothing fancy, no glitches, so simple a moron could use it.

The system worked pretty well for eight years. Large-scale electronic tracking has been an abject failure for about four years, now. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of neophilia – let’s face it, new gadgets are fun – but the rest of us are getting a bit uncomfortable and weirded out by how they’re slobbering all over this one. It’s slowly moving into the realm of some sort of electronic pygmalionism.

Guys, it does not work! It never will work! It sucks!

Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Living Forgotten Realms

It’s been a moment since the last update. There’s a variety of reasons, but the topmost is that first nothing happened and then I wasn’t at the computer long enough to formulate anything coherent. I’ve been gaming a lot, too, with a total of four sessions in the last week.

On Friday, RPGA posted up the first real set of campaign documentation for the Living Forgotten Realms campaign.

It is somewhat comforting to know that even in my refusal to play 4E, I’m not missing anything. That’s the beautiful thing about hating the game – everything related to it comes with its own reasons to be hated, and the 4E thing is just bonus. H1 Keep on the Shadowfell isn’t bad because it’s a 4E module, it’s bad because it’s piss-poor writing that makes Castle Caldwell look like a logical and cohesive whole.

Similarly, Living Forgotten Realms will not suck because it’s 4E, or even because it’s 4E Realms. It will suck because the campaign rules really go that extra mile to dilute any atmosphere the setting might have, drastically limit the style of adventures you can have, encourage illogical module writing and generally kill any interest except the morbid I might have had for the campaign.

Setting, Schmetting

So, how about warforged in the Forgotten Realms? Artificers? You’ve got ’em! See, the character creation rules state that all rules items except rituals and magic items published in the online Dragon are open access. The warforged was released last month, the artificer was out this month. Still don’t believe me? Chris Tulach, the campaign’s head honcho, confirms it.

This is stupid, because it takes one setting’s signature character race and class and transplants them in another. This dilutes the flavour of both Eberron and Forgotten Realms. It seems to be a continuing trend to reduce the setting to irrelevance.

They’re allowing drow, too, by the way. See here, how they managed to put off both people who hate Eberron and its “robot people” and people who hate drow because of the Drizzt fanboys.

Another thing that harms atmosphere is how they handled the regional system. While they have a similar system going like Living Greyhawk had, with real-world regions corresponding to certain areas in the game world, it’s a purely administrative thing. The Dalelands adminstrators must all be from Northern Europe and Russia, but the players in the region can play anything they want, with characters hailing from wherever. This, coupled with the lack of admin-created content and the release of only two books and a module for the setting, will ruin any chance of the strong atmosphere and flavour we had in Living Greyhawk forming.

Yeah, they will release more material for the setting in their online Dragon. However, while I’m not opposed to paying for pdfs, their asking price is exorbitant, their implementation user hostile and their quality dismal. The Backdrops article on Cormyr wasn’t bad, though.

Adventure in Failure

Then there are the module writing guidelines. I actually asked them to release these to the public a little over a week ago, and the reply I got from Shawn Merwin, one of the global admins, was “no”.

I don’t know why they changed their mind, but if I was them, I would’ve kept this baby hidden as well. Preferably locked in the attic.

Here’s an excerpt:

One RPGA adventure round is a 3.5 – 4 hour play experience. It takes approximately 45 minutes – 1 hour to DM one combat encounter, so you should try to keep combat encounters at about 3-4 per adventure round.

And another a few pages later:

Make sure you include at least 2 combat encounters in every adventure.

While I realise they think 4E does fighting particularly well, some of the finest adventure modules I’ve played in Living Greyhawk have included the option of avoiding combat altogether if you were smart. Well, it’s good bye to those now. To top it off, I heard a rumour in the EN World chat that “some Danish LFR admin called Sampo Harla” was responsible for this rule. Considering the Finnish LFR admin Sampo Haarlaa wrote some of those fine modules, I call bullshit. So does he, actually.

There’s also this gem:

Most treasure found is not being used by enemies; it’s hoarded by them or found incidentally as a result of exploring places unknown. Enemies should only rarely have a magic item on their person, and if it’s being used against the PCs, it should be figured into the EL of the adventure (using the rules on pages 174-175 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide).

“You have come for the blade of annihilation? Fools! First you must face me and my butter knife!”

Yeah.

But then we’ve got the jackpot, the Big Kahuna of stupid campaign rules.

You can play a module more than once. Moreover, you may play a module even after you’ve run it as a DM and learned all its secrets and surprises. Not only is the system open to seven sorts of abuse (A fact the campaign admins acknowledge but figure that it won’t happen. Naivety like that is kinda touching in this cynical age.), but it also discourages the authors from putting in interesting plot twists, riddles, puzzles and mysteries. Especially in online play, which the campaign encourages via the DDI, there’s going to be a fairly strong likelihood of a player sitting there on their own computer with the module open next to them.

Of course, the same risk also exists in LG, but from what I’ve seen, modules aren’t usually available via less official channels while still in play use and online play is less prevalent. Even in LG, though, the module reporting system doesn’t appear to have an alert in place if the same module is reported twice for a player or if someone is reported as a player for a module after running it.

The Little Things

LFR is going to have some sort of online character tracker, too. After the abject failures that were the previous three or four trackers, it is heartening they have not lost faith for this misbegotten abortion of an application and keep striving to make it popular despite its multiple shortcomings in both concept and implementation.

In addition to the online character tracker, they’ve provided us with printable adventure log and advancement tracker sheets. With gray gradient backgrounds in the text fields. It’s great how, while concentrating on the big, sweeping mistakes that affect the whole of the campaign they still haven’t neglected to include the little things to increase player frustration.

Finally, we come to the preview file for FR campaign rules, which includes the stats for drow and genasi characters and three levels of the spellsword class. I’m not going to go into the rules, because they’re boring, but I will note that instead of the traditional fire, water, air and earth genasi, we now have firesoul, windsoul, watersoul, stormsoul and earthsoul genasi. I used to name stuff like that when I was 14. Then I grew up and realised how stupid it looks.

I feel the whole of Living Forgotten Realms is crystallised in that one thought, and it is soon time to go and play better games, so I will end here.

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?

The Fiend-Worshipping Cheliax: Pathfinder Society Preview

Paizo released the second preview for Pathfinder Society. It tells us about the second of the five factions, the Chelaxians, who are a bunch of decadent demonologists and tend to the Evil end of the alignment spectrum. The preview also confirms that I wasn’t entirely off my mark the other day, when I predicted how the missions and adventures were going to work.

Let’s see if I can guess the rest of the factions, too. I’m gonna say they’re Taldor (a fallen empire, resembles ancient Byzantium), Qadira (the westernmost province of a huge, Persian-style imperium), and possibly the city of Absalom itself. I found the Gazetteer’s map online so you can check out their locations.

I’ve signed up as a campaign volunteer.

Meanwhile, the Living Forgotten Realms guys have this and the list of admins as the full extent of information publicly available on the campaign. Beyond that, the official line is: “We cannot comment on that at this time.”

I know it’s not the campaign adminstration’s fault. They’ve got their gag orders from higher up. Still doesn’t make LFR look good, though. And at least, they could give us the names of module authors. While rummaging around on the message boards reveals that the first modules of every region were written by their Writing Directors, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that they’re not gonna be responsible for every module released. Thus, author names. Please.

If the author is good enough, such as Pierre van Rooden, I might even play a 4E module again. As long as there are no crippling module writing guidelines. Which we don’t know. Since they’re not public yet.

As for 4E… more on that in a bit.

News and Stuff

A lot hasn’t happened in the last week, but there’s been enough, I think, to warrant a post. Firstly, Wizards of the Coast released the names of the playtesters for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I’m in there, as Jukka Sarkijarvi, since their inferior American keyboards cannot handle the perfection of expression that is my name in its properly spelled form. The rest of my playtest group are there as well; Sampo Haarlaa, Hannu Haavisto, Mikko Laine, Marko Westerlund and Joonas Sahramaa. Thanks, guys. You made tolerable an experience that with a different group could very easily have been completely miserable.

Wizards of the Coast also released a preview of their first 4E module, Keep on the Shadowfell, that proves I was right all along when I called “points of light” a damn stupid setting concept. 977 inhabitants in a village with 17 buildings and about 1/4 square miles of farmland. I feel that to be indicative of the level of thought that went into everything in the new edition that wasn’t rules or marketing.

On a brighter and far more interesting note, Eero Tuovinen of Arkenstone Publishing says he’s releasing his zombie storytelling game Zombies! At the Door! in English for the first time at GenCon Indy. It’s an interesting game. Me and another gamer ran it at the fourth anniversary party of the Espoo Science Fiction and Fantasy Club a couple of weeks ago, with some success. It’s a simple game for beginners and will produce good roleplaying with no preparation whatsoever. I also have reports that indigenous tribes out in Eastern Helsinki that worship it as the image of a deity that will protect them once the zombie apocalypse comes.

I can recommend the game. In addition to being good, it has the novelty value of being packaged in a VCR tape box and including a bright pink d6. It might actually sell pretty well if the general Forgeness of the Forge booth will not scare people away.

Wizards of the Coast (funny how everything seems to come back to them) has yet to announce their participation in the convention, and the event registrations have ended. They’re doing a nice job of shooting themselves, Living Forgotten Realms and GenCon Ltd. in the foot. Either way, if WotC is out, other companies will have more visibility.

One of these other companies is Paizo Publishing. I have no real news about them, but they continue to be really cool, and Pathfinder RPG‘s Beta edition is being released there. Their organised play campaign Pathfinder Society is also kicking off at GenCon Indy.

It’s actually good that it won’t be available at Ropecon a week earlier, since that means we can focus our attention on Living Greyhawk and giving the campaign the send-off it deserves. We’re currently working on six modules for the Principality of Naerie, the last of the campaign. This would be a lot easier if the people who have to sanction the modules, approve the outlines and in some cases even write the damn things weren’t working on getting the Living Forgotten Realms campaign started at the same time.

I wonder if Chris Tulach ever thought that recruiting the Living Greyhawk campaign adminstration into LFR would cripple the last year of Living Greyhawk. The admins had minimal information, by the way, of what they were committing themselves to when they first sent in their applications. Had I known then what I know now – and I’m not even talking of stuff covered by the NDA – I wouldn’t have sent in my application, and I know a few others who feel the same. For the record, I applied for Writing Director of Northern Europe, a position that went to the eminently more qualified Pierre van Rooden.

That’s all for now, folks. I’m going back to watching The West Wing.

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 Pokémon, 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.