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.

Serpent’s Skull – An Autopsy of a Campaign

Almost exactly two years after I did it the first time, I pulled it off again. I finished a Paizo adventure path.

This time, it was the postcolonially suspicious Serpent’s Skull, six chapters of lost cities, ape kings, deserted islands, pirates and serpentfolk. From January 16th, 2011, to November 11th, 2012, it took us 27 sessions to get from the intro of Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv to the conclusion of The Sanctum of the Serpent God. Along the way, some characters died and others left the team to be replaced by others. It was a fun ride. Along the way, there were sonnets written and hearts consumed. This post, by the way, shall contain SPOILERS by the bushel.

A mere 27 sessions over nearly two years of play may not sound like a lot, but we’re students and not all of us live permanently in Tampere when school’s out, so we basically have no games between May and August. When you have a break that long, incidentally, a proper campaign website like we had really shows its worth.

Compared with the Rise of the Runelords, Serpent’s Skull was rather uneven in quality, and especially in the middle parts we hit something of a lull. The extended sandboxy-dungeoncrawly nature of the third and fourth parts robbed the campaign of a lot of its momentum and we ended up dawdling a total of ten sessions in those two. More on that in the later posts, however. When Serpent’s Skull was good, though, it was really good. I name Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv among my personal adventure module top ten, and believe me, I know adventure modules. Also, I felt the final fight, the epic end battle against the serpent god Ydersius, was better than its counterpart in The Spires of Xin-Shalast.

It was fun, but I am feeling a bit of fatigue with Pathfinder RPG. Much like in its predecessor, high-level play gets mathematically intensive and rather tedious. For my next long campaign, I will switch rulesets. I am a Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain, so I’ll continue to get my regular PF fix, but for now, I need a change of pace.

Before I kick the next campaign into high gear, however, this one deserves a proper send-off. Let’s meet the team.

The Heroes

Niero Brandt

Some of you may remember Niero from the Rise of the Runelords recap, two years back. He originally saw light as a PC in that campaign, until dying at the end of the first adventure. Fast-forward over a year of game time, and the follow-up character, Michiell “Dawn” Grellson, dug him up, raised him from the dead, and sent him off to Sargava on the Jenivere, whose wreck started off Serpent’s Skull. Along the way, he switched careers from locksmithing and archaeology to alchemy. He was cynical, complained a lot and there are suspicions he was not entirely sane. He very nearly developed a split personality disorder, spent a goodly while paranoid of the rest of the group, and after somewhat stabilizing, grew a tumor familiar. Despite not being good-aligned, strangely enough he was the closest the party had to a moral compass, being motivated by an interest in ancient history and arcane lore rather than mere filthy lucre. He was also the chronicler of the group and most of the session recaps were written from his point of view.

Kailn

Kailn was the obligatory sex bomb of the group. The former halfling manservant and slave of another group member (the oracle Malje, who got killed by a neothelid in the ruins of Ilmurea), Kailn was also a sorcerer with suspicious ancestry and a serpentine bloodline. He was also responsible for an epidemic of the Taldan disease aboard the Jenivere. The half-pint Lothario found himself in great trouble as the adventures took the party into the lost city of Saventh-Yhi and onwards into Ilmurea, as increasing numbers of adversaries were utterly immune to his charms. This forced to rethink his approach to problem-solving, which led to a far more diverse spell selection. After the defeat of Ydersius, Kailn stole off in the night with the god’s skull in one hand and the high priest’s staff in another, apparently to found a cell of resistance fighters somewhere in Cheliax to wage the war for abolition.

Tiikki

Tiikki was a late addition to the group, after the Chelaxian noblewoman Malje bit the dust, though even more they were a replacement for the archer Sujiu. Tiikki was also an archer, and a member of the Pathfinder Society who had come to check up on the expedition in Saventh-Yhi and seeing if they could find an artifact or two on the trip. Tiikki was also angling for a seat on the Decemvirate. Additionally, they ended up replacing Niero as the party chronicler after the alchemist got too unstable to continue.

Kuros Ackler

The party’s pacifist cleric of Milani, who replaced Sujiu after he was torn apart by an angry chemosit. During his stay in the group, he never raised a hand against an enemy, focusing instead on keeping the party patched up. This led to a great deal of delay actions and had interesting implications for action economy.

Mogashi

The big brute was not there to fight Ydersius, as his player moved away and could not continue in the campaign, but I would be remiss if I ignored one of the great characters of the team. Mogashi was the native guide, whose father was unknown but were speculated at different times to have been an ape, a bear, an ape bear, a bar-lgura daemon, Angazhan himself, or perhaps Ruthazek the Gorilla King. Yes, Mogashi was a tiefling. His knowledge of the bush and the local customs kept the team alive when the going was difficult, especially during their stay on Smuggler’s Shiv. Later on, his inhuman capacity to take and dish out truly staggering amounts of punishment saved the party’s bacon more than once. He was the big bruiser, the anti-hero and in it mostly for the gold. His relationship with the Gorilla King is still unclear, and the King himself kept addressing Mogashi as “son”… Either way, the tiefling’s travels with the group came to an end when he left Saventh-Yhi to follow the Gorilla King – whether to join him or slay him, we do not yet know.

Ropecon 2012, Saturday and Sunday—36-Man Game Sessions and Heavy Metal Musicals

As stated, Ropecon Saturday was a far better day than Friday. Most of my critical duties had been discharged, so I could kick back a bit and actually enjoy the convention.

The biggest thing for me on Saturday was probably Blood Under Absalom, the 30-player Pathfinder Society event. It’s a feature peculiar to organized play campaigns, these big convention events with many tables running a single game session simultaneously. We had five table GMs and the overseer GM, Stefan, and the tables were packed. I think we could’ve accommodated one more table GM, at least. Something to consider for next year. Unfortunately, I had other duties and could not participate, but I popped in now and then to see what was up. Only three character deaths in the entire session, for some reason. They, at least, were some of the high-level Tampere characters who occasionally need to be reminded of their mortality. They all got raised, of course.

My view on PC death in organized play campaigns is that 1st-level characters are cheap and especially the iconic pregenerated characters, Valeros, Merisiel, Kyra and Ezren, are utterly expendable and even the softest GM has no need to play nice with them. First-time players are an exception and especially inexperienced ones probably shouldn’t be slaughtered in the first encounter, but nobody should be immune.

Personally, I netted 15 permanent PC kills in my first month as Venture-Captain, all levels 1-3, including two TPKs. I swear I did not do it on purpose.

In the evening, I moderated a panel on alternate histories. I am still not sure if it was good or not, but I hope people were entertained. I only knew two of the five panelists personally, and it turned out rather more academic than I anticipated. I know it was recorded and it will make an appearance on YouTube at some point in the indeterminate future, so we can see if it’s actually coherent.

After the panel, the auditorium was taken over by 1827 – The Infernal Musical. It was a heavy metal musical that ran in a theatre in Turku last year to packed audiences, and we were treated to a DVD recording on a big screen, telling the tale of the Great Fire of  Turku. The musical uses classic metal and hard rock songs instead of original compositions (well, there are two of those, one by Mr Lordi), so there was no fear of the soundtrack being ass. Personally, I’m a great fan of metal and a sucker for musicals, so I was an easy audience.

Remarkably, 1827 also has a good book, the most underrated part of a musical. I saw Rock of Ages last night, actually, which provides a perfect point of comparison, being another musical that uses classics instead of an original soundtrack. Indeed, the two even utilize some of the same bands. The film worked well as long as it didn’t try to have a story, because it was inane even by the standards of a genre where the plot is generally regarded as an afterthought and an excuse to belt out a couple of power ballads. 1827, by comparison, was, you know, actually written, instead of just sort of invoked from some sort of morass of the generic. Okay, I guessed the ending twist well in advance, clued in by the fact that it was a Mike Pohjola work (the reason we got the screening in the first place), but I had great fun on the way there, even when there was no Iron Maiden playing.

There were nods towards Finnish history, including the obligatory send-ups of famous Finns of the time (such as Archbishop Tengström of Turku, who turned out to be one of the villains of the piece and a Satan-worshipper, who at the end of the first act sacrifices the Russian Commandant Sinebrychoff to his Dark Lord; and the evangelist preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen, played as a Yoda-like figure). There were roleplaying game references (one of the heroes of the piece is basically a D&D barbarian). There were puns (including the obligatory joke about the fact that the fire started at the Hellman house).

Unfortunately, that probably was the last time the entire musical will be seen anywhere in public. A novel is in the works, but it just won’t be the same.

After the musical, I went to play my only gaming session of the convention. At this point, it was around 1 a.m., and I kept falling asleep during We Be Goblins!, as one by one our hapless goblins died. Full TPK, but I am told it is not unusual in that module. The bits I remember were fun.

Sunday, then, was mostly just wrapping up the convention. I didn’t really have anything to do besides handling the Game Master loot event and wander about for something to do. This was unusual, since traditionally my Ropecon Sundays have been hectic and panicky because of the scenario writing contest and determining and announcing the winners. This year there was no contest, so no panic. I could relax and sort of not completely stress out. It was refreshing.

After that, it was just the Guest of Honour dinner, the Monday afterparty and the con was a wrap.

We’ll see about next year, but I’m probably handing over the GM desk to a follower and moving on to other challenges in con organization. What they will be remains to be seen. It’ll be the 20th Ropecon. Big deal, that.

More Crowdfunding Goodness – LotFP, Lovecraft, Goblins

So, the next Lamentations of the Flame Princess crowdfunding campaign has been announced. The Grand Adventure Campaigns are eighteen in number, each featuring a different writer and artist (except for Jason Rainville, who’s illustrating two). Among them are Monte Cook, the author of the 3E Dungeon Master’s Guide; Vincent Baker, the designer of games like Poison’d, Dogs in the Vineyard and In a Wicked Age; James Malizsewski of Grognardia; Mike Pohjola, a larpwright, author and game designer who wrote Tähti, a game about teenage mutant Maoist girl bands where the rules are based on interpreting fortune cookies; Juhani Seppälä of Blowing Smoke; the strange and frightening adventure writer Richard Pett, who may or may not brutally murder and eat all the dignitaries at PaizoCon UK every year but who certainly did write The Skinsaw Murders and The Sixfold Trial, some of the finest adventures I’ve had the pleasure to read; and me. I’m not quite as intimidated by the lineup I find myself in as I was last time. Also, this time there’s also a chance that my work will get funded. I have something very cool in the works, you’ll see.

So, that’s starting next month, and it will be all sorts of awesome. More on that later.

Also, it looks like Paizo’s Pathfinder Online Kickstarter is completely out of control. Regardless of whether you actually care about the game, the stretch goals are quite worth the investment. The hardcopy Thornkeep book, which you get at the $50 reward level, has bloated from its original 64 pages to include additional dungeon levels by Jason Bulmahn, Erik Mona, James Jacobs and Ed Greenwood. Someone mentioned it’s over 100 pages, now, so that’s some bang for your buck.

Lastly, there’s The Shadow out of Providence: A Lovecraftical Metatext. It is a metafictional work about Lovecraft as a cultural phenomenon, which looks tremendously interesting. It’s two short stories and a play, and seems to avoid tangling in the Cthulhu Mythos, focusing on other aspects of Lovecraft’s work. The play is framed as the work of Lovecraft’s half-brother, the Harlem Renaissance writer Albert Jermyn and one of the stories is illustrated by Erol Otus, which sold me on the project. The Shadow out of Providence approaches Lovecraft from an angle that may not be exactly original (he’s been approached from pretty much every angle imaginable at this point, plus a few that cannot be imagined), but it is somewhat fresher than most of the stuff I’ve seen. Presented for your consideration.

Adventures in Forum Gaming

I wrapped up my first play-by-post Pathfinder RPG scenario last week. I ran it on our Finnish Pathfinder Society forum, as a sort of an experiment on whether it can be done and to figure out how it works. The module I used was The Frostfur Captives, by Jim Groves. It’s a pretty good module, but that’s not the main point of this text. You may consider it a companion piece to this post from 2008.

First things first: yes, we finished it. Forum games are fragile things and die easily. They don’t require a great deal of time or commitment as such, but they make their demands on a daily basis. The Frostfur Captives took us 93 days, with six players and a GM. There were some quieter spells at some points, especially when I lost steam in mid-March, and during my trip to Berlin in April. No players dropped out, though. Overall, I deem the experiment a success.

Of course, the play-by-post format imposes certain limitations on the practical side of the game. All rolls were handled by me. Some I rolled by hand, some on a dicebot on our IRC channel, depending on where I was at the time of posting and whether the roll was such that the players could know about it—e.g. Perception rolls to detect an ambush would be rolled in secret while the initiative rolls when the ambush gets sprung are public.

Similarly, not all information was public for all players. We utilized the private messaging system of the forum extensively, especially when characters executed their secret faction missions. After complaints by one player, the decision was also made to shift information on the health of a fallen player character to private messages. They were also used to communicate ahead of time what the characters would do on their combat turns.

Another important thing is that there’s no battlemap. While there are various ways I could execute it, they’re all rather work-intensive and anyway, as one of my players pointed out, the lack of a battlemap reduces gamist thinking. I give descriptions of the environment and list distances and directions. It is up to the players to interpret them accurately. Of course, I have a notepad with an accurate battlemap that I use to keep track of where everybody is.

We host character sheets on the Mekanismi wiki, with the rest of our local Pathfinder Society stuff. Usually the character sheets are public. One of the players likes to have his sheet behind a password, but I had access to that one as well. It’s pretty much mandatory to have the sheets somewhere online for a game like this, so I can update the game on my mobile phone from a café, if need be.

We had two separate forum threads for the game. Primarily, there was the in-character thread where the gaming action occurred, and secondarily the out-of-character thread, where people asked questions, commented, had arguments about differing playstyles, and complained about the leisurely pace.

PFS scenarios are organized into several acts and the action usually flows logically from one act to another. In some of the more sandboxy scenarios, the middle acts can sometimes overlap or be played in a different order from the one presented, but The Frostfur Captives is about taking a bunch of goblin prisoners from Point A to Point B, through intermediate points, wherein lay encounters and challenges. I opened each act with a longer, very descriptive post, sometimes utilizing art and always including a YouTube link to an appropriate piece of music. For this scenario, I drew from the soundtracks of the games Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II, since they do an excellent job of evoking the kind of cold, wild desolation that I envision Irrisen to be.

I think the act structure and the fact that there’s a clear endpoint to the game in sight is a contributing factor to the game’s success. Everyone is working towards a goal and, for the most part, will have an idea of what they should accomplish next. The action keeps going and it’s pretty much never dependent on a single player to make a move. If someone falls silent when their character is called upon to act, I can allow them a day or two to react and then just coldly skip them. This has been an issue with many forum games that I’ve seen. To my shame and regret, I’ve pretty much killed one last year by falling silent, and I was a mere player.

The scenario chronicle sheets were printed out, filled by me, and then scanned and mailed to the players as .jpg files after the game.

The forum game differed from tabletop sessions by its tone. The written medium forces people to consider how they express themselves more carefully than they would in a face-to-face situation. OOC banter is also entirely absent. The result is that the game moves closer to an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Of course, each participant has their own idea of what the style of the game is and the characters can be a very strange bunch. For instance, the party in my game included two sorcerers. One of them was Black Annis, a very dark sorcerer character from the far north, whose player was essentially running her as a Vampire: The Masquerade character, and the other was Gnublebum Rikikii, a whimsical gnome with an affinity for goblins. It’s a challenge for the participants to reconcile such disparate characters and the story of the adventure itself into a cohesive whole. Unlike a regular tabletop gaming session, a forum game is not ephemeral but is preserved for posterity, even if some of the events that transpired are visible only to me and the player in question, in our forum mailboxes.

I’ve now seen how a journey module works online, and I think it worked pretty well. My next project is Mists of Mwangi, which is closer to a traditional dungeon crawl. I am interested in seeing how it works on a forum.

Incidentally, the game is now accepting players. It will be played in Finnish, I estimate the timeframe to be around three months, and will be played at Tier 1-2. The signup thread is here.

Giant, Advanced, and Advanced Giant Giant Hamsters

Yes. This is what I do with my life. I stat up giant hamsters in Pathfinder RPG with simple templates.

Giant Giant Hamster                                  CR 4
XP 1,200
N Huge animal
Init +0; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 16, touch 8, flat-footed 17 (+8 natural, -2 size)
hp 38 (4d8+20)
Fort +9, Ref +4, Will +2
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +7 (1d10+9 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch
–———–
Str 23, Dex 11, Con 20, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +3; CMB +11 (+15 grapple); CMD 21 (25 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +11, 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 24 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 14 points of damage to the cheek (AC 12). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Huge hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Medium, 2 Small, 4 Tiny, or 16 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

Advanced Giant Hamster                           CR 4
XP 1,200
N Large animal
Init +3; Senses low-light vision; Perception +11
–———–
AC 19, touch 13, flat-footed 16 (+3 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 38 (4d8+30)
Fort +9, Ref +7, Will +4
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +8 (1d8+9 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch
–———–
Str 23, Dex 17, Con 20, Int 5, Wis 16, Cha 10
Base Atk +3; CMB +10 (+14 grapple); CMD 23 (27 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +11, Perception +11
–———–
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 18 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.

Advanced Giant Giant Hamster                 CR 5
XP 1,600
N Huge animal
Init +1; Senses low-light vision; Perception +11
–———–
AC 19, touch 10, flat-footed 18 (+2 Dex, +10 natural, -2 size)
hp 46 (4d8+28)
Fort +11, Ref +6, Will +4
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +9 (1d10+12 plus grab)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch
–———–
Str 27, Dex 15, Con 24, Int 5, Wis 16, Cha 10
Base Atk +3; CMB +13 (+17 grapple); CMD 25 (29 vs. trip)
Feats Endurance, Skill Focus (Perception)
Skills Climb +13, Perception +11
–———–
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 26 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 18 points of damage to the cheek (AC 12). Once the creature exits, muscular action closes the hole; another trapped opponent must cut its own way out.
A Huge hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Medium, 2 Small, 4 Tiny, or 16 Diminutive or smaller opponents. The check DC is Strength-based.

Undead Hamsters!

I couldn’t get sleep, alright? The giant hamster is from Tome of Horrors Complete. The skeleton and zombie templates come from Pathfinder RPG Bestiary.

Giant Hamster Skeleton                            CR 2
XP 600
NE Large undead
Init +6; Senses low-light vision; Perception +5
–———–
AC 17, touch 12, flat-footed 15 (+2 Dex, +7 natural, -1 size)
hp 18 (4d8)
Fort +2, Ref +4, Will +2
DR 5/bludgeoning; Immune cold, undead immunities
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +6 (1d8+6)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
–———–
Str 19, Dex 15, Con —, Int —, Wis 10, Cha 10
Base Atk +3; CMB +8; CMD 19 (23 vs. trip)
Feats Improved InitiativeB

Giant Hamster Zombie                              CR 1
XP 400
NE Large undead
Init +1; Senses low-light vision; Perception +9
–———–
AC 18, touch 10, flat-footed 17 (+1 Dex, +8 natural, -1 size)
hp 33 (6d8+6)
Fort +2, Ref +2, Will +2
DR 5/slashing; Immune undead traits
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +7 (1d8+5) or slam +7 (1d8+5)
Space 10 ft.; Reach 5 ft.
–———–
Str 21, Dex 11, Con —, Int —, Wis 10, Cha 10
Base Atk +3; CMB +9; CMD 19 (23 vs. trip)
Feats ToughnessB
SQ staggered

Some Paizo Fanboyism

I’ll do all the Paizo fanboy stuff in a single post.

First of all, the Pathinder Online project is moving forward. They put up a Kickstarter to raise funds for a tech demo, which would allow them to raise the kind of funds that are difficult to get by crowdsourcing and are needed when developing a MMO. They got the $50,000 they were after in about 24 hours. They’re now looking to just up the number of pledges – money is no longer the main thing, but the number of fans. This is to show investors that there’s a solid playerbase for this kind of thing.

Personally, I’m cautiously interested, but I have enough things vying for my attention that I can survive without another MMO. I still threw in $50 for the Thornkeep book. (Incidentally, the LotFP IndieGoGo project got the main goal fulfilled and is now heading for the Ken Hite module.)

Also, Paizo just supplied one more thing to vie for that attention. As of two days ago, I am the Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain for Finland, which is a really long way of saying that I’m the regional campaign coordinator, which in turn means that I’ll be doing much the same as I have until now, except LOUDER!

Additionally, this means increased support for Pathfinder Society at conventions. This means I can offer all kinds of help to game day organizers. I’m still figuring out all the stuff that’s in my power to do, specifically, but getting free module PDFs for GMs at public game days and conventions is on the menu.

I’ve already appointed Jussi Leinonen as the Venture-Lieutenant for the Helsinki region, which is also pretty much making official what the man’s doing already.

I’m now looking for Game Masters in the more distant cities of Finland, like Jyväskylä, Oulu or Turku. My “work” address for this stuff is PFSFinland@gmail.com.

Also, I probably should clarify that this does not make me an employee of Paizo. I get some swag and they taught me the secret VC handshake, but I’m still just a campaign volunteer. Also, PFS is not getting preferential treatment because of this at Ropecon. The PFS Game Masters get treated just as well as any other Game Master, and if there are special circumstances, it’s because it either makes things easier for me as the Master of Game Masters or because their games require special circumstances (such as if we end up running Blood Under Absalom, which may end up taking the whole room for itself).

Hearts in Azlant

For quite a while now, I’ve felt like my Serpent’s Skull campaign is in danger of stalling. For ten sessions, the campaign explored the same damned ruins, which didn’t provide a sense of accomplishing anything, and I struggled with keeping things rolling. In general, the third and fourth books of the campaign, The City of Seven Spears and Vaults of Madness leave a lot to be desired. However, at the end of – by the way, here there be SPOILERSVaults of Madness, there is something remarkable, which I felt was worth salvaging and if properly executed, could renew flagging interest in the campaign.

The module culminates in the arrival of Ruthazek, the Silverback King of Usaro and Chosen Son of Angazhan in the ruined city of Saventh-Yhi, with his court of all kinds of ape monsters. He wishes to test the PCs and invites them to dine with him. The menu is written by someone who obviously appreciates Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

This is actually a repeated phenomenon in Pathfinder modules. At least Feast of Ravenmoor and Forest of Spirits feature similar scenes. While I would describe them as “postcolonially suspicious” (except for Feast of Ravenmoor, where they’re just hicks), I’ve managed to silence my inner critic because they make for awesome gaming.

Anyway, I felt this was the perfect opportunity to do something that will make the players sit up and pay attention. I decided to cook. Here’s the menu as it is described in the module:

The feast begins with fresh monkey brains and a bloody soup of eyeballs and wild onions. This is followed by raw hippo slab steaks with blood sweat sauce, along with a side of pan-seared botfly larvae glazed in honey. The final course is a rare treat of ice-chilled vegepygmy pulp seasoned with cinnamon and roasted coffee beans. Prodigious amounts of sour plantain wine are served throughout the feast.

Since vegepygmies are out of season and I think there might be some legal issues with the hippo slab steaks, I decided to chuck the menu. Instead, I went with something affordable, legal, and most importantly, unusual and weird.

Pig hearts.

For the actual content of the session, the module detailed a storytelling contest. I took this idea, and at a friend’s suggestion, applied Laura Bohannan’s “Shakespeare in the Bush” (read it, it’s a classic). The story told by Ruthazek the Gorilla King was a mangled version of Macbeth. I didn’t have as much time to prepare for this as I needed (most of my Saturday, for instance, was spent proofreading State of Play, an upcoming collection of larp articles), and the end result was a bit sloppy. I think I still managed to convey the Gorilla King’s worldview through it, though. Overall, the session was pretty much the heaviest in in-character discussion and roleplaying that I’ve ever had with the group. I deem my experiment a success.

Also, their faces when I brought the bowl to the table and pulled back the tin foil, while saying “I wish you heartily welcome to my table” as the Gorilla King. I played the character as one part Brian Blessed, one part Thulsa Doom and one part Hannibal Lecter. In addition to heart, I chewed quite a bit of scenery. Great session. I ended it with the Gorilla King handing the party the final macguffin (skipping the last dungeon crawl of the module).

Due to popular demand, I will now tell my secret recipe for cooking hearts.

Actually, there’s no secret and it’s pretty damn easy. I’m not what you’d call a remarkable cook. However, I googled “stuffed heart recipe”, found a bunch, read them, and then used them and the contents of my larder as a starting point for my recipe. The cooking times were the big one I wondered about. The heart is the densest muscle in the body and you need to take your time with it. I’d previously used heart in haggis, but never cooked a whole one.

Hearts in Azlant

3 pig hearts
2 onions
1 l beef stock (Or something like that. I just went with bouillon cubes.)
200 g of bacon
half a garlic bulb
handful of jalapeno
2 tbsp sun-dried tomato in garlic oil (Just something I happened to have lying around and decided to throw in on a lark.)
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp basil
1 tsp chili powder
½ tsp nutmeg
needle and thread

Wash the hearts thoroughly in cold water, taking care to remove any blood clots. Also, if they’re whole, cut them open. You may also wish to trim away the major blood vessels from within the heart, but leave the tubes up top untouched. They’re pretty much inedible, but they make the hearts look like, well, hearts instead of just any old piece of flesh. You might wish to warm up the oven now. I went with 175°C.

Chop up the onions, bacon and jalapeno. Crush the garlic. Lightly fry it all in a pan. Add the spices, set aside to cool. This is a good moment to boil up the bouillon cubes or warm the beef stock or whatever.

Once the bacon-onion-whatever is cool enough to handle, stuff the hearts with it. I found it easiest to first stuff any snug chambers that were still more or less whole, then sew up the heart halfway through and stuff the “main” chamber. Then, sew the rest of it up. Put them in a bowl, pour in the broth. You can pretty well drown the hearts in it. The cooking time has to be fairly long because of their density, and they dry up easily. It’s a good idea to check on them every hour or so and see that they’re not mummifying. Anyway, slam them in the oven and go do something constructive for about three hours. After the time has elapsed, they should be cooked through and through to a succulent consistency. Remove hearts from the oven, put them on a plate, pour on the red wine sauce. Have a camera ready to capture the shocked expressions of your players. Unfortunately, I did not, but I shall cherish the memory of their faces for a long time.

It was delicious. I also contemplated putting a tin of button mushrooms in the stuffing, but then forgot about it. If I ever make this stuff again, I’ll try that.

Pretty Ordinary Red Wine Sauce

3 dl beef stock (Or something like that. I just went with a bouillon cube.)
1 dl red wine (I used Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon, which is affordable, Chilean, and worked marvellously.)
half an onion (Or one small one, which is what I did. Don’t need the other half lounging about in my fridge.)
2 tbsp sugar
a pinch of rosemary or thyme
if needed, 1.5 tbsp cornflour to use as a thickening agent (I needed it.)
1 tbsp soy sauce

Make the broth. Add the wine, the chopped onion and the rosemary (or thyme – I went with rosemary). Let simmer for about 20 minutes. Sieve away the onion pieces and other crap. Also clean them from the pot before pouring the sauce back in it. If it’s not thick enough, use the cornflour. (Which must first be dissolved in cold water – pouring it in the hot sauce will only get you a lot of white chunks. This has been empirically tested because I couldn’t be arsed to read what it says on the package.) Add the soy.

Pour over hearts.

Also, red wine stains on character sheets just mean you’re playing a better class of game.

More Hamsters

Because, well, why not?

Here are the base Diminutive hamster stats and the awakened version of the same that I used as a base for Boo, two weeks back. I also cleaned up the writing on the cheek pouch ability to better fit a creature of such size.

If anyone does anything with them, let me know. They’re based on the giant hamster from Tome of Horrors Complete, slightly adapted.

No, I have no idea why I do this stuff.

Hamster, Miniature Giant                          CR 1/3
N Diminutive animal
Init +5; Senses low-light vision; Perception +4
–———–
AC 19, touch 19, flat-footed 14 (+5 Dex, +4 size)
hp 4 (1d8)
Fort +2, Ref +7, Will +1
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +9 (1d2-5 plus grab)
Space 1 ft.; Reach 0 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch
–———–
Str 1, Dex 21, Con 10, Int 1, Wis 12, Cha 6
Base Atk +0; CMB -2 (+3 grapple); CMD 8 (12 vs. trip)
Feats Weapon Finesse
Skills Climb +8, Perception +4, Stealth +18
–———–
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a Fine-sized grabbed opponent 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 5 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 1 point 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 Diminutive hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Fine opponent. The check DC is Strength-based.

Hamster, Miniature Giant, Awakened        CR 1/3
N Diminutive magical beast (augmented animal)
Init +5; Senses low-light vision; Perception +6
–———–
AC 19, touch 19, flat-footed 14 (+5 Dex, +4 size)
hp 4 (1d8)
Fort +2, Ref +7, Will +1
Immune disease
–———–
Speed 20 ft., burrow 10 ft.
Melee bite +9 (1d2-5 plus grab)
Space 1 ft.; Reach 0 ft.
Special Attacks cheek pouch
–———–
Str 1, Dex 21, Con 10, Int 11, Wis 12, Cha 7
Base Atk +0; CMB -2 (+3 grapple); CMD 8 (12 vs. trip)
Feats Weapon Finesse
Skills Climb +10, Perception +6, Stealth +18
Languages Common
–———–
Cheek Pouch (Ex) A giant hamster can try to stuff a Fine-sized grabbed opponent 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 5 Strength check or can cut its way out by using a light slashing or piercing weapon to deal 1 point 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 Diminutive hamster’s cheek can hold 1 Fine opponent. The check DC is Strength-based.