Some Observations on the Pathfinder Playtest

Now that I’ve had a chance to engage with the playtest materials for Pathfinder 2E, I have some vague and preliminary thoughts.

First of all, this is what a playtest looks like. We’re not just given playtest rules to flail around with aimlessly like we were back for the first edition. There’s a set of playtest adventures, both for Pathfinder Society and in the campaign Doomsday Dawn, that have been written with specific playtest goals in mind. For each adventure, there’s a questionnaire to fill out. It’s all tickboxes and sliders, which means the threshold for filling it out is low, and the output is going to be raw numbers data for some statistics-minded person to sift through. Very useful, when there’s enough of it.

I’ve participated in quite a few playtests over the years and this is I think the first open playtest that didn’t feel like I was primarily participating in a marketing stunt. Also, the feedback is being listened to and the rules document is a work in progress. We’re already up to version 1.2.

There’s also a playtest forum for expressing views that are more nuanced than “on the scale of 1-5, how challenging was this combat encounter”. It is fortunately moderated quite aggressively but I think it could use a bit more of an iron fist.

My personal play experience with the playtest thus far consists of playing The Rose Street Revenge, and running Raiders of the Shrieking Peak twice and “The Lost Star”, first part of Doomsday Dawn, once.

That first one got played on livestream at Tracon. Finnish only, but here it is, if you want to see people muddle through an unfamiliar rules system for seven hours.

I think that the current version of the game rules runs more or less smoothly, but there are a couple of sticking points, both apparently because they’re fixing known issues in first edition but they’re not quite there yet. The first of these is the rule for dying, which is complicated and not very intuitive even after they rewrote it in the newest update. It removes negative hit points and makes dying an process of incremental Fortitude saves. This is most likely in order to do away with the nonsensical situation where it’s sometimes preferable for your character to go down into low negative hit points than stay standing with a couple of hp left after an enemy attack, because then the character remains an active combatant, will be attacked again, and is much more likely to die from that attack.

The other one is resonance, a resource that’s governing the use of magic items, evidently to avoid the trope of the christmas tree character, as well as beating everyone to full hp with a wand of cure light wounds after every fight. Making healing rarer but giving characters more hit points might be a good direction to go, but resonance as it currently exists isn’t working. Then, we’re going to see a reworked version sooner rather than later.

As for the adventures themselves, both Raiders of the Shrieking Peak and “The Lost Star” were really short. Raiders ran for three hours the first time and two hours the second, and “The Lost Star” we got through in around two and a half. Neither is particularly impressive as an example of the craft, but that’s not what they’re trying to be. They’re good for a fun game, and Raiders of the Shrieking Peak is excellent for trotting out every cow-related pun you can come up with.

In Doomsday Dawn, I’m especially a fan of how each part ties in with a Pathfinder adventure path. I’ve run a few of them and hope to bring in a few old players for the relevant parts.

As for the other big changes… I’m ambivalent on the inclusion of the goblin ancestry, I think switching from “race” to “ancestry” is a good idea both because it easier facilitates the separation of cultural aspects of the rules package from the physical features, and because “race” has some unfortunate connotations, not to mention translating really poorly. In Finnish, the word is “rotu”, and if you use that outside of a fantasy role-playing context and aren’t referring to a breed of domestic animal, you will sound like a 1930s eugenicist who will now proceed to take measurements of the listener’s skull. That’s not a good look.

Another interesting thing I haven’t yet had the opportunity to explore in depth is the collapsing of multiclasses and prestige classes into the archetype system. I vastly prefer the archetype system over prestige classes and am wholeheartedly in favour of this change, as long as retraining rules are also included in the core (which they are). Multiclassing I am not so sure of, and I’ll want to give it a whirl before passing judgment.

Further thoughts as they develop.

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Pathfinder 2E Announced

It’s the moment many dreaded, few lied to themselves would never come, and I guessed was soon to come when Starfinder came out. Paizo Publishing announced the second edition of Pathfinder. It’s to come out at Gen Con next year, preceded by a public playtest period.

For historical reasons, Pathfinder fans have a complicated relationship with new editions. The entire game exists primarily because Wizards of the Coast screwed up with the release of D&D 4E – and regardless of what you think of the game itself, how it was rolled out was a farce. There’s also the unfortunate tendency of online gamer communities reacting to the announcement of a new edition like a small tribe of invincible Gauls, convinced that the sky is falling and reacting by punching everything.

I’m not saying I haven’t been guilty of that, but it’s been ten years since I fought in the D&D 4E flamewars. I’m too old for that shit. I’d rather get worked up about a real problem.

Also, the game’s been around for ten years. Few role-playing games go as long without a new edition. Though Pathfinder fixed a lot of the issues of D&D 3E, it was still weighed down by the need to be backwards-compatible. As early as 2011, Erik Mona mentioned at Ropecon how he’d have liked to go further with the changes.

I’m also rather optimistic that Paizo remembers why Pathfinder exists and will maybe not screw this up. I’m optimistic that what they’ll deliver is going to be a better game that runs smoother whose math still holds up at higher levels.

It’s also nice that they’re dropping the word “race” and going with “ancestry”. I’ve been wondering when a major RPG would do that.

They’re doing the same thing they did with the original Pathfinder, and releasing the playtest rulesets as print books as well as free PDFs. The deluxe collector’s edition playtest rulebook may be overdoing it a bit but hey, nobody’s forcing you to buy it.

We don’t yet know a whole lot about what the game will eventually be like, but here’s Paizo’s FAQ on the topic and a Glass Cannon podcast where Jason Bulmahn runs Crypt of the Everflame that he’s converting to 2E on the fly.

Meanwhile, EN World is once again shouldering its age-old mission of informing the masses, and has opened an info wiki compiling and sourcing what is definitely known. In the months to come, this and Paizo’s blogs will be my go-to source for data. What some dude howls on Twitter or asserts on Facebook may be anything between actual fact and deliberate misinformation, and we’ve seen how anger and confusion rise out of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Stay informed.

Passing the Torch in Pathfinder Society

Yesterday, I sent the following e-mail to Mike Brock, the head of Pathfinder Society.

After thinking long and hard, I have decided to step aside from the position of Venture-Captain of Finland and name my successors.

It has been a fun couple of years, but I have held it as a guideline in my volunteer work to never overstay a position. There comes a time when the challenge is gone, the work becomes routine, and a sense of complacency sets in. This leads to sloppiness and poor performance.

This is coupled with some changes in my life situation, leaving me with less time to dedicate to fostering the Pathfinder Society community than it deserves.
Rather than stick around and enjoy the perks and privileges, I feel the responsible thing to do is give the position over to someone who can tackle things with a greater motivation and a fresh set of eyes on how to do things.

To this end, I would promote the Helsinki Venture-Lieutenant Mikko Rekola to the position of Venture-Captain, and name the longtime Tampere game master Atte Kiljunen as the Tampere Venture-Lieutenant. They’re capable and active, fair-minded with a sense of responsibility, and get along with people probably rather better than I do.

I’m not going anywhere, and I will still be around as a game master, font of wisdom, player and organizer of my home convention.

It has been fun. Thank you for making it so.
So, no longer my bailiwick, and I won’t be seen wearing those bright red polo shirts at conventions anymore.
But yeah, it was fun. One just needs to know when to move on. I need to graduate some day, and I have actually paying (such as these things go) game design and translation work to attend to.
Next week, Archipelacon!

Ropecon 2014 – The Same Old Song and Dance

Last weekend’s convention, with a fortnight of breathing space (yeah right) after Finncon, was Ropecon, 21st of its name.

This year, I’d taken on a lighter slate of duties, refusing a con committee position in favour of focusing on Pathfinder Society. In practice, this resulted in organizing and supervising a 34-table slate of Pathfinder Society games, including overseeing an eight-table Siege of the Diamond City special, and participating in two different presentations. I was still less busy than during my con com years, though.

The kill list of the weekend's Pathfinder Society games. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

The kill list of the weekend’s Pathfinder Society games. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Friday was the busiest part of the con for me. I had to get the Pathfinder Society games going with seven GMs starting in the beginning slot, do both my presentations and in general get attuned to the convention.

The first part of that was the easiest, really. The GM desk, under the leadership of Arttu Hanska, was helpful and energetic in a way that I can only hope it was under my management, and made its new placement in the Takka-Poli-Palaver corridor work. Had to do some wrangling and one game started late, but all the first-slot games eventually went off, all the GMs got their paperwork in order and I could head off to do some final planning for my first presentation.

Well, I say my, but in reality, there were three of us. Along with Teemu Korpijärvi and Joonas Katko, we had a 105-minute talk about the British Empire, its reasons and history, and how those elements might be adapted for use in roleplaying games, titled “Guns, Germs and Tea”. Teemu talked about exploration and seafaring, Joonas talked about warfare and famous battles, while I discussed colonialism on the ground and how “the evil empire” is really a tautological phrase. It apparently went rather well, we got a lot of positive feedback, and it should be up on YouTube at some point for you to enjoy and me to curse every pause and “um” that I mumbled into the mike. Here’s a link to our slides. They’re in Finnish, but the bibliographies at the end should be useful for everyone.

Following on the heels of the British Empire, there was our presentation about the next really evil empire poised to dominate land and sea, Myrrys.

Myrrys

So, last year I started working with the small Finnish game publisher Myrrysmiehet. Myrrysmiehet is the outfit behind such games as the pirate-themed storygame Hounds of the Sea, the concept games LGDS and Swords of Freedom, last year’s Lands of the West (Lännen maat, written by Risto Hieta) about the Egyptian afterlife, and the most recent and ambitious project, Children of Wrath (Vihan lapset), a bleak, dystopian science fiction RPG about a world taken over by totalitarian aliens, who keep the population illiterate and easily controlled. It runs on the Flow system used by Stalker. This year we also released another one of Risto Hieta’s games, The Agents of Mars (Marsin agentit). In addition to myself, the Myrrysmiehet were Ville Takanen and Jukka Sorsa.

Then there was this another Finnish small game publisher, Ironspine, comprising the gentlemen Miska Fredman and Samuli Ahokas. They are responsible for making such games as the space opera Heimot, the occult action game ENOC – Operation Eisenberg, and the fantasy parody Legends of Generia. Most recently, they produced the frankly gorgeous family RPG Astraterra that got everything it asked for and more in its recent IndieGoGo and is, in my view, the prettiest role-playing game product to have been released in Finland.

There’s also this third outfit called Ironswine, guilty of The Fly (Kärpänen) and most recently the most awesome RPG in the history of awesome RPGs, Strike Force Viper. It’s a postapocalyptic action RPG set fifteen years in the future, after the Fourth World War, in 1999. The relationship between Myrrys and Ironswine is hard to define and slightly embarrassing for all concerned, so I’m not going into that right now.

Anyway, it so happened that the gentlemen of Myrrysmiehet and Ironspine alike took a weekend retreat to brainstorm games and playtest new material last winter, and the idea was floated that we should merge.

No, not like that, you perverts.

The idea was deemed to have merit, and looked good even once we’d sobered up. Our philosophies in game design are similar, there was a history of cooperation, and surely five guys can get more done than two or three. We then spent a while drafting plans and talking a lot, and made the final announcement at Ropecon.

Purveyors of fine role-playing games and terrible humour.

We also discussed our upcoming products. We have plans to release everything in both English and Finnish, starting with the Astraterra English translation which I’m raring to get my hands on and should be out in time for December. Also upcoming is Robin Hood, another family RPG, which is another short-term goal. There’s also a bunch of long-term projects whose priorities are subject to change as whim and mood takes us, but among those are Ville’s deckdrafting card game The War which is beautiful and atmospheric and has solid mechanics and just needs a crapload of playtesting so that the damn Conclave stops winning all the damn time, the second edition of ENOC which Jukka Sorsa and I are provisionally focusing on once Robin Hood is done.

There’s also those Ironswine dudes who are kinda suspicious and I really don’t trust, but they’ve got a game called Sotakarjut that I’m really, really tempted to translate as War Pigs, and Strike Force Viper, which has been pegged for further development.

More information forthcoming as stuff gets done. Once we have something to sell in English, we’ll be opening a DriveThruRPG storefront.

The Rest of the Convention

The last of my real duties at the convention was overseeing the Siege of the Diamond City Pathfinder Society special scenario, which we ran for eight tables. The job of the overseer GM in a special is easier than it sounds – it is just about keeping track of time, calling act breaks as they occur, and tallying results as they come in. It did require me to stay in the game room for the whole of the third act, though, which was slightly inconvenient and I must remember to draft myself an assistant GM for next time. The sweltering heat, associated requisite fluid intake and the resulting bathroom logistics were a thing. Fortunately, at least I had the foresight to request a microphone. Last year’s module had me shouting myself hoarse.

Siege of the Diamond City in full swing. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

Siege of the Diamond City in full swing. Photo by Jukka Särkijärvi.

I must say, I thought the scenario went quite well. In my view, it is thus far the best of the multi-table specials released for the campaign, featuring interactivity between tables and level ranges, a suitably epic plot, and a chance for every table to affect the outcome. As it stood, the valiant and resolute Pathfinders emerged overwhelmingly victorious against the demonic horde.

Well, I thought that was the last of my duties. Remember that Finncon report from two weeks ago? The one with the dancing? Well, the editor of Conteksti, the Ropecon conzine, was in the audience, and decided to do a comic strip. The strip, for those of you unable to read the lines of anyone except Jim Raggi, features a bunch of Finnish game designers and publishers discussing the state of the horse, interrupted by the appearance of an Astraterra crowdfunding backer benefit of a flying galleon and my song and dance show.

Note: This is not an actual Astraterra backer benefit, nor will it be.

After it was printed, there was only one way things could end. I expect the video of the closing ceremony will be out around a year from now. That is the length of my reprieve.

All in all, I deem it a very successful Ropecon (as does the treasurer – at 3,933 visitors, we fell 13 short of breaking the record). I had fun. I met all the old friends I never see anywhere else. I got some books. I even had time to play games. I got my ass kicked in a sumo suit.

Me in a sumo suit, during a rare upright moment. Photo by Peksu Järvinen.

Me in a sumo suit, during a rare upright moment. Photo by Peksu Järvinen.

However, as all good things, it had to come to an end, and as ended Ropecon 2014, so ended the convention’s time at Dipoli. Probably. The Dipoli conference centre, famously described by guest of honour Jonathan Tweet as a building designed by Cthulhu, has been the home of Ropecon for over fifteen years. The convention has taken on the shape of its venue, and the surrounding businesses have adjusted themselves to accommodate us and profit from our presence. Seriously, the grocery store next to Dipoli has a clause about working nights solely because during Ropecon, they’re open around the clock.

And now, they’re renovating it. The renovations will begin sometime next year and will likely take it off our hands for the next two years. After that, we are not sure if the venue is still suitable for our needs or if changes will be wrought. It is time to look for a new home. We do not yet know where it will be, but we do know that it will be somewhere. Ropecon will happen in 2015, and 2016, and all the years to come.

And now for a smattering of links.

What I did not have time to do was talk a lot with the guests of honour, Privateer Press’s Jason Soles and Luke Crane, he of Burning Wheel and other roleplaying games. Fortunately, for that purpose we had interviewers and intrepid cameramen. The GoH interviews were the very first things from this year’s convention to be edited and uploaded to our YouTube channel. The noise in the background is the convention’s afterparty.

 

Return of the Mythic Giant Space Hamster

Now that Mythic Adventures is out, I thought I’d revisit this wee fella I wrote up in April, based on the playtest document, and retool him to correspond to the final ruleset.

First, here’s your ordinary giant hamster with the savage simple template, like my original creation. The simple template doesn’t grant the mythic subtype, as you can see, and is not very exciting.

Savage Giant Hamster                               CR 4/MR 1
XP 1,200
N Large animal
Init +1; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 17, touch 10, flat-footed 16 (+1 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 38 (4d8+20)
Fort +7, Ref +5, Will +2
Resist acid 5, cold 5, electricity 5, fire 5; Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +6 (1d8+6 plus grab plus bleed 1)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch, feral savagery (full attack)
–———–
Str 19, Dex 13, Con 16, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +3; CMB +8 (+12 grapple); CMD 19 (23 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +9, Perception +9
–———–
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 16 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

Now, if we delve deeply into the mythic monster rules, we can really make this a beast of legend.

Giant Hamster of Legend                               CR 5
XP 1,600
N Large outsider (fire)
Init +8; Senses low-light vision; Perception +10
–———–
AC 23, touch 13, flat-footed 19 (+4 Dex, +10 natural, -1 size)
hp 50 (4d8+32)
Fort +12, Ref +8, Will +3
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +11 (2d6+13 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks breath weapon (15-ft. cone, DC 20, 3d6 fire), cheek pouch
–———–
Str 29, Dex 19, Con 26, Int 3, Wis 15, Cha 10
Base Atk +3; CMB +13 (+17 grapple); CMD 27 (31 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Improved InitiativeB, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +14, Perception +10
–———–
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 21 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

No, wait, what? Erm, sorry. That’s… something completely different. Now, here is the proper mythic giant hamster!

Mythic Giant Hamster                              CR 4/MR 2
XP 1,200
N Large animal (mythic)
Init +2; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 18, touch 11, flat-footed 16 (+2 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 46 (4d8+28)
Fort +7, Ref +6, Will +2
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.; sand glide
Melee bite +6 (1d8+6 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks always a chance, cheek pouch, feral savagery (full attack), mythic power (2/day, surge +1d6)
–———–
Str 19, Dex 15, Con 16, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +3; CMB +8 (+12 grapple); CMD 20 (24 vs. trip)
Feats EnduranceM, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +9, Perception +9
–———–
Always a Chance (Ex) A giant hamster does not automatically miss when it rolls a 1 on an attack roll.
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 16 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

Here you go, a fully mythified giant space hamster!

Mythic Giant Hamster

I dabbled around with the mythic rules playtest document for Pathfinder RPG, and the imp of the perverse took hold of me. So now, at four in the morning, I give you…

Hamster, Savage Giant                               CR 5/MR 2
XP 800
N Large animal (mythic)
Init +1; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 17, touch 10, flat-footed 16 (+1 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 46 (4d8+28)
Fort +7, Ref +5, Will +2
Resist acid 5, cold 5, electricity 5, fire 5; Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +7 (1d8+7 plus bleed 1 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch
–———–
Str 21, Dex 13, Con 16, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +3; CMB +8 (+12 grapple); CMD 19 (23 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Mythic ParagonM, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +10, Perception +9
SQ always a chance, to the death
–———–
Always a Chance (Ex) Whenever the savage giant hamster makes an attack roll that results in a natural 1 on the die, the attack is not automatically a miss.
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a grabbed opponent of two sizes smaller than itself into its cheek pouch by making a successful grapple check. A creature stuffed into the giant hamster’s cheek pouch takes no damage, and can escape by making a successful DC 16 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 10 points of damage to the cheek (AC 11). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Large hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Small, 2 Tiny, or 8 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.
To the Death (Ex) When below 0 hit points, the savage giant hamster does not fall unconscious or take damage from acting normally. It does not die until its negative hit points are equal to or greater than three times its Constitution score.

I took some liberties tinkering with the rules. For instance, the savage template would give our adorable little ball of epic violence the vicious assault special attack, which it would not actually benefit from. I substituted the to the death special quality instead. Also, the Mythic Paragon feat doesn’t benefit it in any way either, but it’s the only mythic feat the damn thing meets the prerequisites for. Oh well.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part III

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

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

The Thousand Fangs Below

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctum of the Serpent God

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

Pathfinder Society in Finland Post Up at Paizo.com

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

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

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

Yeah, Finland at winter. Captures it perfectly.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, here there be SPOILERS.

The City of Seven Spears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaults of Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing Saventh-Yhi

So, what could have been done differently?

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

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

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

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

Next time, the grand finale.

Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part I

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

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

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

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racing to Ruin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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