Tampere Spring Seminar Call for Papers: Gamebooks

The call for papers for the Game Research Lab’s Spring Seminar is out, and the theme will be “Gamebooks”. This looks like tailor-made for a) role-playing game research and b) me. The seminar will be in Tampere on May 5th-6th, 2022, and the deadline for the abstracts is January 21st. Remote participation will be facilitated.

If someone’s been reading this blog for long enough, you may remember my posts about the magnificent Role-Playing in Games seminar back in 2012. It’s been a while, and though I’ve participated in a bunch of the seminars since then, there’s been little to post since I haven’t presented myself and they haven’t been as role-play-focused. This autumn, though, I made the lateral move from English philology to game studies, so it’s my field now. Also one of the header images on the seminar website was supplied by me, and originally taken for the purposes of this blog, but I could never figure out WordPress enough to do what I wanted with the headers.

What Do We Do When We Play Available!

Last year’s Solmukohta larp conference could only be held online, but we did produce a book for it. What Do We Do When We Play? is a very nifty hardcover with the stated intention of starting to conceptualize a theory of, well, what do we do when we play. Player skills. What does it mean to larp well, or badly for that matter? What are the skills of a good player, and how does one get better at them? The book is a collection of tools, tales, and essays, often in the original, Montaignean sense of an attempt to put thought into words. It’s throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. Some of the texts come with decades of authoritative experience behind them. Others are from a fresh perspective, unburdened by preconceptions. All of them are interesting.

Though pretty much all of the texts except for the anecdotes have been published on Nordiclarp.org over the past two years, we also have a few copies left for sale. The shipping is probably something hideous, but 28€ for a pretty hardcover is not a bad price. Get yours at Ropecon’s webstore.

Hell’s Vengeance Review, Part 3/3

And here we go, the last of the series, covering the campaign’s concluding volumes, Scourge of the Godclaw and Hell Comes to Westcrown, as well as a lot of other… stuff.

Here there be SPOILERS.

Scourge of the Godclaw

In Scourge of the Godclaw, the agents are dispatched to gather plot coupons to make a magical weapon of mass destruction. In the process, they will retake Citadel Dinyar from the Glorious Revolution, desecrate a sacred spring, kill a village’s worth of people, and burn a library.

I’m not a fan, but that’s because I have a dislike for blatant plot coupons. Like, in something like The Rod of Seven Parts or the Extinction Curse adventure path they work, because it’s baked into the structure of the campaign. That’s what you do, and they’re also the excuse to see new places, meet interesting people, and kill them. In Scourge of the Godclaw, the coupon hunt is dropped upon the agents mid-campaign and while it does take them across the width and breadth of Cheliax, there’s no consideration for travel and the presentation ends up being a series of disconnected encounters.

Anyway, before Her Infernal Majestrix had time to send the party off to storm the castle, they had some time for shopping. Of course, even a bustling metropolis like Egorian doesn’t have everything a well-to-do adventurer might need, and thus the agents, like in so many previous campaigns, turned their gaze to the planes.

As a Planescape fan, I have a personal dislike of players treating the planes like a shopping mall. I also just straight use Planescape instead of Pathfinder’s interpretation. And so, when they stumbled through a portal to Sig- uh, I mean, Axis, and headed off to buy new magical gear, I was ready, and the poor sods ended up accidentally stumbling through a portal into the events of The Deva Spark. The module, of course, is one where a deva relinquishes his angelic spark to go undercover in the Lower Planes, and the spark ends up in a bebilith demon, who then becomes very confused and has an identity crisis, and the party needs to herd it through one of the Upper Planes without getting it killed so the situation can be resolved. It’s a lovely adventure because it genuinely presents alternative solutions to the issue and does not (strongly) assume that the PCs side with the cosmic good. Which, of course, they didn’t.

The Citadel Dinyar sequence is the best part of Scourge of the Godclaw. It’s somewhat open-ended and rather organic in how the defenders react to the party’s assault or infiltration. There are ways to shortcut encounters, paladins to turn, prisoners to rescue and rearm, and officers to eliminate. And, of course, a golden dragon to slay.

In the middle of the module, I snuck in another adventure from Dungeon, the infamous “Porphyry House Horror”, a D&D 3.0 scenario written for use with the Book of Vile Darkness. To raise hype, it was printed with sealed pages that you had to cut open yourself. It was good for two sessions. In writing the conversion, I changed the proprietors of Porphyry House from yuan-ti – not a Pathfinder creature – into reptilians. For the orlath demon at the end, I used a conversion from The Creature Chronicle, which is an invaluable resource when utilizing stuff from older editions. The adventure is silly splatter comedy and juvenile sexuality all the way through, and we had great fun with it. It, also, kinda had the issue that that it assumed the party is a force for good, but I figured that what the hell, I’ll probably never run another Pathfinder campaign where those themes are appropriate.

After the party has concluded the last part of making their WMD, the focus of which is that golden dragon’s severed head, they will have to fight the dragon’s ghost. It’s a bit of a questionable encounter. First of all, there is no foreshadowing and it’s likely the party will do it immediately after clearing out a monastery full of Geryon’s monks and wiping out a minor Hellknight order, without resting in between. Second, the creature is not only tough but also potentially rule-breaking, depending on how one views the compatibility of Vital Strike with a ghost’s corrupting touch, for an impressive 34d6 points of damage. My party did rest, but then they chose to head off to Arabelle’s personal demiplane to actually perform the ritual, and the thing about really tiny demiplanes is that an enemy with enough reach can effectively threaten your whole world.

Hell Comes to Westcrown

In Hell Comes to Westcrown, the agents start off by blowing up an army of the Glorious Revolution with the tathlum, magical nuke that they just spent a book creating, and then infiltrate the paladin-occupied Westcrown, take out key targets, reclaim the Asmoedan cathedral, and finally fight Alexeara Cansellarion, the Big Good Boss of Hell’s Vengeance.

Our interpretation started off innocently enough, with the deployment of the WMD, which in my opinion is kind of a whiff after just spending an entire book on making the bloody thing. There’s not enough build-up for the army or its leadership to actually have any emotional stakes to it. But at least you can have a fight between nightwalkers and paladin troops.

Then they infiltrated Westcrown, and everything went off the rails. Partly this was planned, partly not. See, we’d played Council of Thieves mostly for the purpose of fleshing out Westcrown in preparation for this. There were former PCs and their henchmen waiting for them. The old Westcrown resistance had been levelled up and in some cases given really interesting classes, like the Talent from the grievously unbalanced d20 ruleset at the back of Godlike, or the classes from Book of Nine Swords, with a few slight tweaks to make them more Pathfinder-compatible. The party had a few clashes with them, took out a few, got Vesper’s henchman captured by basically Chelaxian Superman, and took the cathedral. Then, they decided to shortcut the scenario. While the plan presented in the book is one of peeling an onion, taking out the leaders of the rebellion one by one, these chuckleheads decided to head straight at Cansellarion, bypass most of her guardians by using adamantine weapons to enter through the roof, and then engage her in a session-long fight that saw a succession of really big hitters they had neglected to kill show up to kick ass. What happened then… well, I believe I covered that back in the first post of the series.

I honestly cannot form an objective opinion about Hell Comes to Westcrown. I can conclusively say that I think the first act, functioning as the actual climax of the previous book, is a let-down. However, the rest of the book we completely deformed with my strange Westcrown Avengers and their skipping of a good chunk of the adventure’s content. We had fun, but I cannot see a meaningful relationship between the text of the adventure and the events at the table.

And that’s a wrap for Hell’s Vengeance. Now, I am running The Enemy Within for Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play 4E and Extinction Curse for Pathfinder 2E. We will see which one finishes first and if I have anything to say about it then.

Hell’s Vengeance Review, Part 2/3

Continuing my reviews of the Hell’s Vengeance adventure path, we come to books three and four, The Inferno Gate and For Queen & Empire. Here, I really headed down the path to madness.

SPOILER warning is in effect.

The Inferno Gate

In The Inferno Gate, the party heads to paladin-occupied Senara and then into the dark Whisperwood to find the Inferno Gate, a stable conduit into the Nine Hells that can be used to summon an army of devils. Of course, their boss Archbaron Fex backstabs them, and is in fact the final enemy of the book.

The thing about The Inferno Gate is that one chapter of the book is a hexcrawl. The problem with that hexcrawl, however, is that it does not adhere to Pathfinder’s rules about hexcrawls. The hexes in The Inferno Gate are 25-mile hexes, while the game rules assume 12-mile hexes. 25-mile hexes, incidentally, are larger than the city of New York. So, I’d just bought Campaign Cartographer off HumbleBundle, and I figured I’d redraw the map in the right scale.

The more mathematically inclined among you will see where this is going.

From 43 hexes, I went to around 200 hexes. I had to go to a print shop to get the map printed in A3 size. Of course, when one has around 160 more hexes than one started with, one needs to populate them. First, I emptied the random encounter tables from the module into the hexes. This helped a bit. Then I placed a couple of known landmarks from Cheliax, the Infernal Empire, and their surroundings, like the Pillar of Palamia, and constructed loose encounters around them.

Then I started getting desperate. I placed a few side trek encounters from Wizards.com, where you can still access their old 3E pages if you know where to look. In a fit of madness, I grabbed the old Fighting Fantasy book The Forest of Doom, mapped it out, and placed the encounters and subplot from that into my hexmap. I stole a chunk of Reverse Dungeon. In the end, I never populated the entire map, but I did do most of it, and then moved stuff around as the party explored the forest.

It did make The Inferno Gate very different from what it was, since most of the play time was spent in the forest – I think we had four complete sessions of that. Here, I also chose to fix what I perceive as the biggest shortcoming of Hell’s Vengeance. It’s missing one obvious adventure concept, the reverse dungeon. In my opinion, there should’ve been at least a chapter in one of the volumes where the party needs to defend a dungeon against encroaching paladins or whatever. So I did it here. For the final session of The Inferno Gate, after they’d slain the perfidious Archbaron Fex and claimed the Inferno Gate for their own, I broke out my old Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures rules.

Obviously, we used the first-edition rules.

Back when D&D Miniatures was a thing, I was an avid and active player. It also marks one of the few instances of a skill-based game where I was actually good on a competitive level. I still have my collection, and all the stat cards, so we calculated the commander stats for each member of the party, I whipped them up warbands and four enemy warbands – one was led by the Savage Mistress of Beasts, another was Glorious Revolution paladins, one I think was dwarves from The Forest of Doom, and one was just a bunch of do-gooder adventurers. The DDM Guild, a fan group keeping the game alive, was an invaluable resource in building the warbands.

Then I quickly taught my players the rules and we all played a couple of one-on-one matches, as the agents of Thrune summoned fiends from the Inferno Gate and defended Fort Arego against encroaching foes. Fun was had.

Arguably what I ran was not really The Inferno Gate, though most of its material did still survive to see the table. The thieves’ guild of Senara even killed Cimri Staelish. She was buried in a shallow grave at the edge of town. She did not feature in the campaign after that, though it was accepted among the group that she rose as some kind of vengeful undead.

Still, it’s hard for me to actually evaluate the text since my experience with it is so different. One thing I did not particularly like was the structuring of the final chapter, where first the party has to fight its way through a besieging force so that they themselves can assault Fort Arego, which feels a bit confused. Still, fun was had.

Whisperwood, in all its glorious greenness.

For Queen & Empire

This ended up being the shortest adventure in practice, and though I modified a lot, I did not add much. I did fix a major inconsistency that I perceived, however. At the start of For Queen & Empire, the House of Thrune calls all of their agents to Egorian to find someone who can do a major job for the Queen, but none of these other agents are featured in the module. If the agents have to queue for hours, as they do, the city would have to be teeming with high-ranking agents of Thrune. So, I added them in. The party ended up in the same inn with all the rest of the pre-generated characters from the adventure path, and kept running into colourful characters who were ostensibly on the same side. I tried to present Emil Kovkorin & co. as fellow agents who were going through exactly the same kind of crap that the party was.

In For Queen & Empire, the agents must navigate the intrigues of Egorian and pick a side from between two nobles vying for the Queen’s favour. The other one they must take into a grove in Barrowood and sacrifice to the Nine Hells to renew House Thrune’s contract. The contestants here are a duke whose wealth is based on breeding fiendish pigs, to whom he also feeds his enemies, and a countess whose husbands keep dying mysteriously. Also at the sacrifice there’s an end fight against a turncoat cleric of Asmodeus with no foreshadowing, which is a total asspull. Fortunately, as I described in the last post, I’d set up Lazzero Dalvera as the party’s foil, and could utilise him as a replacement.

Another thing I did was keep track of the calendar throughout the campaign, which bore some fruit in For Queen & Empire, as they ended up arriving in Egorian just in time for the last big gladiator tournament of the year, Dies Irae. They could not fight, of course, but they were invited to the stands by their other noble contact.

I like the setup of the adventure. The two NPCs are very juicy and interesting to roleplay, and the module also features one of the obligatory story beats for a villain campaign in Cheliax, crushing a cell of the Bellflower Network, which is basically a halfling underground railroad. However, I feel the adventure doesn’t lean enough into the courtly intrigue theme that’s right there and everything ends up being a fight. Go to a ball? There’s a fight. Sabotage a pig farm? There’s a fight. Try to prove the countess’s boyfriend is cheating on her? Dude’s also a high-level monk so I hope you put on your fighting trousers this morning. If I had had more time, I probably would have removed half the combat and rewritten the book as a more social adventure, but we were playing weekly at the time, and there are only so many hours in a day. Obviously, your mileage may vary and not every party is suited for it, but in my party, the lowest Charisma was 14.

For Queen & Empire has a solid core, but it feels like it doesn’t dare to venture too far from the combat-centred gameplay assumption, even though the game explicitly has tools and subsystems to handle courtly intrigue.

Hell’s Vengeance Review, Part 1/3

This one has been a while in coming, but here we go. To recap, earlier this year I finished running the Hell’s Vengeance adventure path for Pathfinder RPG. Because reasons cleared everyone’s schedules and we got to play on a nearly weekly basis, what I’d intended to be maybe two, three years of leisurely play ended up as 41 sessions in 20 months and now I’m running The Enemy Within because I had to take a break from Pathfinder after that.

The first two books of Hell’s Vengeance, then, are The Hellfire Compact and Wrath of Thrune, and they thematically mirror each other so it makes sense to discuss them together. Also, this discussion will be rife with SPOILERS. I will also be making notes on what I changed or added, which in some cases was a lot. This was not necessarily because I found the scenarios somehow defective – though obviously nothing is perfect – but often just because I wanted to fiddle with the material myself.

Also of note is that though with past campaigns I’ve found the Paizo AP forums very helpful, in the case of Hell’s Vengeance they were rather on the quiet side. The villain campaign is not everybody’s or even most anybody’s cup of tea and seems to have been a fair bit less popular, so less help there.

The Hellfire Compact

The first book of the campaign introduces the town of Longacre, ruled by the aloof Archbaron Fex, who will early on have the party’s reprobates assigned as the sheriffs. There’s a rebellion in the nation, and Longacre is full of disgruntled war veterans. The big church in town is Iomedae, not Asmodeus, which is a problem when the rebellion is led by Iomedaean fanatics. And there are revolutionaries hiding in the Whisperwood, which is a terrible place.

I liked The Hellfire Compact very much. It presents a lovingly detailed town with lots of NPCs to keep track of, but with a bit of work and time it can come to life in the best tradition of Our Town or Emmerdale or whatever your cultural touchstone for that kind of small town life is. And then the jackbooted thugs that are the PCs will stomp all over it. I made a two-page printout with all the townsfolk’s faces and names on it and stuck it on the player-facing side of my GM screen so they could keep track of folk. Whenever someone died, their manner of demise would be written over the face. Out of the NPCs in the book, very few lived. The physician Gerya Rohalendi and the young girl Jemmy Kemmaino – whom one of the agents was actually paying to be his informant while she was also distributing revolutionary pamphlets – skipped town under the cover of night, the alchemist Elish Odmer was sentenced to community service to take care of the hospice after Rohalendi fled, and Ingoe Zoags the harbormaster stayed on their good side, but pretty much everyone else of note was executed, murdered, or slain in combat.

I wanted a slow burn for the start of the campaign, so I utilized all of the optional encounters presented in the book, to good effect. I also allowed the party to putter around town and explore to their heart’s content. The hobgoblin Zaggar from one of the minor events actually became a longtime NPC companion of the party. Zaggar and Cimri Staelish tagged along with them for a very long time. In the final battle they were also accompanied by Razelago’s krenshar Gaurig, but it was killed by the Angel Knight. These allies were very important in the final assault on the Court of Spears, because it is one of the most dangerous sequences of combat encounters in the whole adventure path.

Another thing I did was lift the pre-generated character, the cleric of Asmodeus Lazzero Dalvera, into NPC status as the direct superior of the party’s Asmodean priestess Arabelle and the antipaladin Nemanja. Dalvero and Arabelle had a strongly adversarial relationship and I spent time building him up as a potential enemy until finally replacing the final adversary in the fourth book with Lazzero Dalvera.

After the adventure proper, I ran two sessions of interludes. In the first, the agents asserted their control over the pacified Longacre and they were also sent a trio of Asmodean priests from the capital to take over and reconsecrate the cathedral of Iomedae. One was a lawful evil cleric, one was a neutral evil inquisitor and one was a lawful neutral warpriest, and they had to figure out who would be the best for the job. There was also a theatre troupe in town, the Royal Chelaxian Re-Enactment Society, telling only state-approved historical yarns. This was an old Living Greyhawk adventure that I’d wanted to run and then adapted for the campaign.

In a lot of cases, adapting adventures from outside the campaign was a lot more trouble than it would have been in pretty much any other case, since everything else is written with the assumption of heroic player characters. Of course, I did it more in this campaign than any other PF campaign I’ve run.

Overall, I enjoyed running The Hellfire Compact very much. It is a lovely sandbox.

Wrath of Thrune

And then there’s its thematic flipside. Where the first book has the agents play the authority in town and crush the resistance, in the second they are sent to infiltrate the rebel-occupied town of Kantaria. I spent an entire session on their travel to Kantaria, which is not actually anywhere near Longacre. There was no real adventure in the session, just puttering about the countryside, meeting interesting people, and visiting the town of Dekarium which I fleshed out a bit. I was also laying groundwork for a B plot about the Hellknight Order of the Vice and their ruined Citadel Darvhage, but that in the end went nowhere. I did get good use out of the material in Wayfinder #11, which is the fanzine’s Cheliax issue.

I approached Kantaria much the same way as I did Longacre. I took the time, kept track of all the NPCs, and used all the suggested material. Here, though, we had what we like to call emergent content. The agents decided that to do one nightly sabotage thing they’d planned they would wait for bad weather. Okay, I thought, let’s start rolling for weather. After two clear nights, the random weather table produced us… a blizzard. The town of Kantaria received all the snow of the winter several weeks ahead of schedule, and the rest of the adventure was spent snowed in, with low temperatures, very difficult terrain, and no tracking rolls needed, which changed the character of the infiltration mission crucially.

Also noted in the module is that Oppian Nevilindor, the cleric of Iomedae in charge of Kantaria, has a crush on Loredana Viorica, the innkeeper who’s also the agents’ contact in town. So in the morning after the blizzard, he rumbled through the snowdrifts to check up on her, bringing with him warm delicacies he had made that very morning.

I must admit that I still do not quite understand s’mores.

In Kantaria, the party also picked up another companion, the ukobach devil Brextur. He was mostly a liability rather than an asset, but along with Zaggar, one of the two NPC companions they had who lived through the campaign.

I also liked Wrath of Thrune very much, though it was perhaps a bit more constrained in its sandboxiness than The Hellfire Compact. One thing to keep an eye on is the combat encounters at Valor’s Fastness. The church grim in the courtyard can be extremely dangerous. Also, it is likely that the agents will not clear the entire complex in one go, and it pays to consider how the defenders react – can someone try to flee, is counterattacking an option, and how will they bolster their defences? In my game, the innkeeper Jana Holdus got out while the going was good.

Post-Wrath of Thrune, I ran an old Dungeon adventure named “Fiendish Footprints” by Tito Leati as they were returning to Longacre from Kantaria. The module’s hobgoblin villain ended up actually being Gwalur’s former boss and they hired the whole company after fighting a very dangerous combat with a bunch of elves. Again, the perils of converting stuff meant for heroes. Another thing was that an evil-aligned party doesn’t necessarily have the tools for dealing with supernatural evil adversaries that a good-aligned party would have. As the antipaladin’s player noted, “When you pit us against evil enemies, I’m a fighter with no feats”. The scenario’s macguffin ended up being connected to Socothbenoth, Vesper’s patron, though he didn’t know where his powers were coming from yet.

Next time, The Inferno Gate and For Queen & Empire.

Hell’s Vengeance – An Autopsy of a Campaign

Been a while since I made one of these.

I ran Hell’s Vengeance. It’s Pathfinder’s villain adventure path, where the characters are terrible people doing terrible things on behalf of a terrible system. They murder a lot of paladins, among other things. In contrast to my previous adventure path campaign, Council of Thieves, which was a sixteen-session exercise in cutting off all the fat and slimming it down to just the necessary stuff, this was supposed to be a leisurely campaign where there would be no hurry to get to the finish line, I could expand on the material, put in stuff of my own and we’d be at it for some years.

Then COVID-19 happened, everything got cancelled and whenever we weren’t on lockdown there was nothing to do but game, and we crammed 41 sessions into 20 months and five days — contrast with Rise of the Runelord’s 29 sessions in 19 months 20; Serpent’s Skull’s 27 sessions in 22 months 26; or Council of Thieves’ 16 sessions in 16 months, five days. If we’d been less cautious — our group size was smaller than the recommended upper limit for personal gatherings even during lockdowns — we could probably have wrapped this in January and be five books into another one. While it did mean that a campaign that could’ve been three years was done in under two, it also sometimes meant there was not quite as much prep time between sessions as I could have used. Mind you, campaign prep was a really good way to take my mind off the pandemic situation.

The game was also covered by Moreenimedia, Tampere University’s journalism students’ webzine. Finnish only, obviously. I am very happy to have been a part of doing something that’s not the same “D&D is cool now” piece that we’ve seen in a gajillion permutations over the past couple of years.

Introduction

To cover the basics, Hell’s Vengeance is a six-book campaign for the first edition of Pathfinder RPG, one of Paizo Publishing’s adventure path line. It came out in 2016, numbers books 103-108 of the line, and is the 18th complete adventure path. Its conceptual twin was the previous AP, Hell’s Rebels, where the party are heroic resistance fighters liberating their province from the yoke of the infernal Chelaxian crown. Hell’s Vengeance, conversely, is about playing evil agents of the Chelaxian crown, crushing a popular uprising. They occur at the same time, but the action in the two campaigns does not overlap — indeed, one of the reasons the uprising in Hell’s Rebels is canonically successful is that Cheliax is preoccupied with the Glorious Revolution threatening its heartlands.

There was originally a plan for one of my players to run Hell’s Rebels at the same time and then we’d have a session at the end where the two campaigns’ characters would fight, but that did not happen. There was also a plan to have the same players’ characters from Council of Thieves — which takes place in the same city as the final book of Hell’s Vengeance — encounter their new PCs and fight, which also did not happen… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Of course, this and the following blog posts about the campaign will have SPOILERS.

Since the protagonists were evil, their society was evil, and their bosses were evil, we had a few safety mechanics at play, most notably the lines and veils rule used in many games. Straight-up ruled out were explicitly mentally ill player characters and violence against children. It was also established that I as the GM wasn’t going to drop sexual violence upon any of the player characters, and while it was a thing that existed in the world, if it would occur during the campaign (which it did not), it would be faded to black, not played out. Likewise, there was a limit to how graphic we’d get with torture (which occurred a lot). Finally, it was agreed that there would be no player-versus-player fighting, with the understanding that the team would probably tear itself apart the moment they’d completed the campaign’s main mission.

The Agents

Usually I’ve written “The Heroes” there, but I felt today this would have been inappropriate. I actually grappled for a while with what to call the party in my session recaps before I settled on “the agents” (I felt “the party” felt clunky, especially in Finnish). Unusually, we had no deaths until fairly late in the campaign when such inconveniences were fairly easy to surmount, and there were only four players. So, here are our low-functioning psychopaths.

I gave the players very free rein with their character concepts, since the understanding was that this was the only opportunity they’d probably ever get to play with this material.

Gwalur of Shalatuwar / Aspexius of Longacre

The serial killer. That’s actually his class, via a vigilante archetype from Horror Adventures. Gwalur is a hobgoblin, and a veteran of the Goblinblood Wars. He was a mercenary, who then developed a whole second identity disguised as a human, who also killed oathbreakers, took off their hands, and froze their bodies with alchemy. His own hand started taking on a personality as well and towards the end became detachable and all that crap. This turned out to be a gift of Shax, the Demon Lord of Lies and Murder. Gwalur scared even me, the GM. He died fighting angels and paladins in the final session of the campaign. It is unclear if he was brought back to life.

Arabelle

The de facto leader of the group was Arabelle, a priest of Asmodeus. Priest, not a cleric — I allowed a third-party class that may or may not have been entirely balanced, and occasionally she’d just end encounters. She was Macchiavellian, narcissistic, and a low-functioning sociopath who’d lucked into being born in a society that rewarded and encouraged all of those traits. The player hit it out of the park. Every time I portrayed an NPC who was not her direct superior, I had the feeling I was being snubbed. She was killed by a trumpet archon in the final session, but was brought back to life. The player once mentioned that usually when he went home from the game, he felt bad.

Nemanja

The dhampir antipaladin of Asmodeus, a bloodsucking psychopath whom nobody could love and who was entirely okay with this fact. He was, surprisingly, not a Hellknight. Nemanja deferred to Arabelle in most things. He killed things very efficiently, and looking over my NPC list, it’s Nemanja who delivered the killing blows on most of them. The antipaladin was also very effective against paladins, since their fear aura cancels the paladin’s fear immunity. Against other evil creatures, though, he was, in the player’s words “a fighter with fewer feats”. Nevertheless, at the end of the final combat, he was the last man standing.

Vesper

Vesper was a gillman with the dress sense of a glam rocker, which was pretty much the only sense he had (though the party in general was a low-Int, high-Cha outfit, at least at the start). His class at the start was witch with the seducer archetype, and he was an omnisexual corrupting influence upon the world around him. Vesper was an oracle of lore, and rolled Knowledge checks with his Charisma bonus, also making him the ultimate mansplainer —  he knew jack shit but was always right. He later multiclassed into oracle and then into mystic theurge, and it was revealed that Vesper’s powers came from Socothbenoth, the Demon Lord of Perversion, the uncool brother of Nocticula the Succubus Queen and basically a fiendish Leisure Suit Larry. Vesper, at the end, was murdered by Nemanja, but later brought to life by his own henchman who’d absconded with his and Gwalur’s bodies in the chaotic aftermath.

Some Highlights

  • In the beginning, they were contracted to rough up the local tanner over some unpaid taxes. In the attack, a night soil collector was killed and his elderly wife knocked out. The agents were subsequently contracted to be the town’s new sheriffs, at which point they had the comatose woman, Pippa Umbre, transported to the town jail “for her own safety”. When she woke up, Gwalur lobotomized her. Because he just happened to have a masterwork lobotomy pick with him. Coincidentally. For the rest of the campaign, when they returned to Longacre, he would go to Pippa Umbre and unburden his heart about all the vile acts the party had committed, because she was the only one who would listen to her. After Gwalur’s mystic disappearance at the end of the campaign, his troupe of hobgoblin mercenaries “liberated” her from the Longacre hospice to keep her with them as a kind of a mascot and a spiritual conduit to the lord of murder that was Gwalur.
  • When, towards the end of the campaign, the agents were liberating the cathedral of Asmodeus in Westcrown from paladins, one of their adversaries who was basically a local superhero decided to flee, and capture Vesper’s henchman Avi with him. Upon realizing this, Arabelle cast a spell to kill Avi, not the near-invulnerable enemy. Of course, Avi survived and told his captors the party’s strengths and weaknesses. Lesson of the story: always treat the help well.
  • When the party was planning for a covert assault on a paladin-run prison camp, they decided it would be best done during a storm or other bad weather. I went “ok why not” and started rolling on the random weather chart, which I had never touched before. Of course, I hit the 1% chance of “windstorm, blizzard, hurricane, or tornado”, the town of Kantaria got snowed in, and they spent the rest of the adventure slogging through waist-deep snowdrifts, changing the nature of the scenario entirely.
  • In the final combat encounter of the campaign, at the very end, when the agents had slain the Lord Marshal Alexeara Cansellarion and her most powerful allies, there remained a single trumpet archon, who could finally use his paralyzing trumpet attack. Gwalur was already dead, a victim of slay living. The archon had been overlooked because trumpet archons, even advanced ones, at these levels were kinda speed bumps. Except when everyone rolls a one on their save. The archon proceeded to coup de grace Arabelle, twice, because she survived the first one, until Nemanja broke free and killed it. Nemanja then proceeded to coup de grace the paralyzed Vesper and hit the bricks with Arabelle’s body in a bag of holding.

Next time, I will be covering the first two books of the campaign and what we did with them. S’mores were involved.

RPG Research Rundown

This is the weekend of Ropecon 2021, virtual for the second year in a row. As there have been a lot of role-playing game studies books coming out in the past few years, we felt we needed an excuse to catch up, and thus was born the clunkily and slightly inaccurately named “Jukka Särkijärvi and Evan Torner Chat About Recent RPG Monographs” (there’s one book there that’s not a monograph).

I was also asked for a bibliography, so here’s the books we covered, the books we mentioned, and the books we obliquely hinted at in the program description by mystifying references like “Bowman (2010)”. You can find the International Journal of Role-Playing here, Analog Game Studies here, and as a bonus, the Japanese Journal of Analog Role-Playing Game Studies here.

Of course, accessibility is always an issue, especially when dealing with academic publishers who price their stuff for institutions, not private individuals. Some we bought, some we received straight from the authors, some we wrested from the jealous grasp of university libraries. DriveThruRPG carries a lot of the McFarland books, but not all of them. Some are entirely or partially free downloads, and I have linked to those. I can only wish the best of luck to those embarking on the same journey.

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2010. The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity. McFarland. Link.

Carbonell, Curtis D. 2019. Dread Trident: Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Modern Fantastic. Liverpool University Press. Link.

Deterding, Sebastian and José Zagal. 2019. Role-Playing Game Studies: A Transmedia Approach. Routledge. Link. Open access articles.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1983. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. University of Chicago Press. Link.

Grouling Cover, Jennifer. 2010. The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland. Link.

Hedge, Stephanie and Jennifer Grouling. 2021. Roleplaying Games in the Digital Age: Essays on Transmedia Storytelling, Tabletop RPGs and Fandom. McFarland. Link.

Henriksen, Thomas Duus, Christian Bierlich, Kasper Friis Hansen, and Valdemar Kølle (eds.). 2011. Think Larp. Rollespilsakademiet. Download.

Jones, Shelly (ed.). 2021. Watch Us Roll: Essays on Actual Play and Performance in Tabletop Role-Playing Games. McFarland. Link.

Kamm, Björn-Ole. 2020. Role-Playing Games of Japan: Transcultural Dynamics and Orderings. Palgrave Macmillan. Link.

Loponen, Mika. 2019. The Semiospheres of Prejudice in the Fantastic Arts: The Inherited Racism of Irrealia and Their Translation. PhD thesis, University of Helsinki. Download.

Mackay, Daniel. 2001. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art. McFarland. Link.

Mizer, Nicholas J. 2019. Tabletop Role-Playing Games and the Experience of Imagined Worlds. Palgrave Macmillan. Link.

Mochocki, Michał. 2021. Role-play as a Heritage Practice: Historical Larp, Tabletop RPG and Reenactment. Link.

Montola, Markus and Jaakko Stenros (eds.). 2008. Playground Worlds: Creating and Evaluating Experiences of Role-Playing Games. Ropecon ry. Download.

Montola, Markus and Jaakko Stenros (eds.). 2010. Nordic Larp. Fëa Livia. Download.

Peterson, Jon. 2020. The Elusive Shift. MIT University Press. Link.

Saitta, Eleanor, Johanna Koljonen and Jukka Särkijärvi (eds.). What Do We Do When We Play? Ropecon ry. Open access articles.

Schallegger, René Reinhold. 2019. The Postmodern Joy of Role-Playing Games: Agency, Ritual and Meaning in the Medium. McFarland. Link.

Seregina, Usva. 2016. Performing Fantasy and Reality. PhD thesis, Aalto University. Download.

Seregina, Usva. 2018. Performing Fantasy and Reality in Contemporary Culture. Routledge. Link.

White, William J. 2020. Tabletop RPG Design in Theory and Practice at the Forge, 2001–2012: Designs and Discussions. Palgrave Macmillan. Link.

Williams, J. Patrick, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. Keith Winkler (eds.). 2006. Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games. McFarland. Link.

Additionally, I have been working on a series of articles for the Loki role-playing webzine about many of these books. Only in Finnish, I’m afraid.

Tivoli on Crowdfunding!

The Finnish role-playing game Tivoli is up on the Mesenaatti crowdfunding platform. Written by Kristel Nyberg and illustrated by Ninni Aalto, it’s a Powered by the Apocalypse game set in a circus or a carnival, and looks good. I haven’t played it, but it does look very promising. There’s currently an actual play video on Twitch from last Sunday, run by the designer herself.

There’s still 12 days left on the clock, and the game has already funded, but there are two stretch goals of interest. At 5,000 euros, there will be a Swedish translation, and at 7,000€, an English translation.

The Magician! Art by Ninni Aalto

The setting in Tivoli is co-created by the players. The game provides a loose framework, but the details are up to you. The test games featured such intriguing settings as a small family circus in rural Finland in the 1980s and a space amusement park built in the cargo hold of an old space freighter visiting far-off colonies. One of the players takes on the role of a facilitator, directing the discussion on world building, asking questions and making suggestions. There are also suggestions for settings in the book if you want to start right away!

The game is also of personal interest to me because — besides both Ninni and Kristel being friends — I am also running a circus campaign, Pathfinder 2E’s Extinction Curse adventure path. The two games are very, very different, but their view of the circus seems to be fairly similar — at least based on what I’ve seen — a place of refuge, a found family, and the place where the magic happens. Now that I think of it, they’re basically the only role-playing game treatments of carnivals outside the genre of horror that I can think of (I mean, there must be others but I’m only drawing Ravenloft, World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu).

And now’s your chance to have your own copy! And if the translation doesn’t fund, at least you’ll have an interesting game in an exotic language and a warm fuzzy feeling for patronising the arts.

Interviewed on Legends & Lore!

Since Sampo Haarlaa and I cannot leave a campaign that ended thirteen years ago alone, we were interviewed yesterday on the Legends & Lore show on Twitch about Living Greyhawk and what we got up to in the Principality of Naerie. It was a part of their ongoing series of Living Greyhawk interviews with Circle and local Triad members. It is really important work, because for a campaign of such size — of tens of thousands of players and thousands of released modules — it vanished very swiftly. The scenarios cannot be distributed, the Yahoogroups are gone, the old RPGA forums are offline with only spotty Wayback Machine coverage, and the association itself was dissolved in 2014. Greyhawk Online is doing valuable work by archiving some of the old regional homepages.

It was a megalomaniacal project that rather got away from its creators. It was too big to be controlled and too lively to be contained, and the creative spirit in it was sometimes intoxicating. It was far from perfect, but it was unique, and it was ours. The world will not see its like again.

Anyway, here is the interview. I had great fun, apart from the real-world sports interruption at Sampo’s end towards the conclusion. For context, the Danish player Christopher Eriksen collapsed on the field in the Denmark — Finland game at the UEFA Euro 2020 (yes, 2020) tournament and had to be taken to the hospital. His condition is stable.

Playing ALIEN, or, How I TPK’d the Entire Party

The ALIEN Roleplaying Game came out in 2019 from Fria Ligan. It was a bit of a surprise – on one hand, it felt like a likely very expensive, major license, but on the other, there was also the feeling that the more recent, very unfortunate movies had kinda killed interest in it. Certainly, I felt like that Alien’s very specific mode of survival horror in space was perhaps too narrow a frame to support the classical approach of putting out a big rulebook, adventures, sourcebooks, and an introductory boxed set. That’s the stuff you want in a long campaign, but long campaigns imply characters stay alive. This is Alien. People don’t do that here.

However, Fria Ligan makes quality stuff, so when the opportunity came to play, I jumped on it. Also, it’s not as though there’s anything else to do these days than play roleplaying games online.

We played the Starter Set’s introductory adventure Chariot of the Gods. The venue was Foundry VTT, where you can buy modules with all the necessary stuff already set up. I find it helps getting used to a new system when the VTT does half the work for you and tells if your roll was a success or a failure. Voice and video we got through Discord. Playing virtually also had the crucial advantage that we could send secret messages to the Game Mother without the other players seeing us pass notes, which can be a very important part of ALIEN.

ALIEN uses Fria Ligan’s house ruleset, the Year Zero Engine, used in Mutant: Year Zero, Tales from the Loop, and the rest. Basically, you roll a pool of six-siders and sixes are successes. Failure is very common, which fits some games better than others. It fits ALIENs desperate survival horror very well.

The following, of course, will have SPOILERS for Chariot of the Gods. Proceed at your own risk.

ALIEN has two game modes, Cinematic and Campaign Play. Campaign Play is exactly what it sounds like, while the Cinematic mode has pre-written adventures with pregenerated characters, each with their own secret agendas. They’re long enough for a one-shot or a mini-campaign, and at least Chariot of the Gods lived admirably up to the “Cinematic”. The first session, our approach on a derelict ship in the dark between the stars, our exploration of its frozen corridors and disused laboratories, was straight out of the movies. Of course, this was also because that’s what we as players were there to do, so that’s how we played it. The characters were archetypical and easy to fall into – the crew of the Nostromo, basically.

We also observed a shift in style in the later sessions. After we had explored the ship, the fear of the unknown dissipated, and once we had fought some monsters and discovered them to be dangerous but killable, we went from playing Alien to playing Aliens, as it were.

The scenario also had an act structure, which governed the characters’ secret agendas that shifted as the situation escalated. Some of the goals were mutually exclusive and drove player-versus-player conflict. The corporate liaison, for instance, is pretty much Burke from Aliens. Oh, and one of the PCs is a secret android (because of course there is a secret android!) whose Act III agenda was to kill everyone who knows too much and stop any xenomorph crap from reaching Earth. Which I then proceeded to do. I think that was the first time I’ve effected a Total Party Kill from a player position. And it was total, since after shooting the corporate liaison and putting the other two crewmembers in cryostasis, I started the ship’s self-destruct sequence. No survivors, great game.

It was interesting to play a game that not only allowed lethal player-versus-player conflict, but was also designed to spark it. The Cinematic modules are such self-contained stories that they can allow for frequent PC death. There are also plenty of NPCs that can serve as replacement characters, and Story Points carry with the player and aren’t lost when your space trucker gets disembowelled by something that came out of the air duct.

One thing I am not entirely certain about was how the android worked in the narrative from the viewpoint of the other players, because our debrief was very brief indeed. From my point of view, it worked well, because I knew all along that my character was a synthetic, with double sets of agendas. For the other players, it just suddenly turned out in the third act that the roughneck Cham isn’t Cham at all but a synthetic, and then he shot Wilson and told his name was really Lucas, and then the story was suddenly over. I think there was little in the way of foreshadowing, apart from some players having realized that one of us must be a secret android because this is ALIEN and there’s always a secret android.

I think ALIEN also somehow redeems Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. I do not think they are good movies (to be frank, I think they should’ve quit after Aliens). However, Prometheus has a mythological gravity to its setting. While it doesn’t really work in the context of the previous films in the franchise and feels like Ridley Scott pulled it out of his hat, the ALIEN Roleplaying Game uses that mythological aspect to great effect and synthesizes it with the bug-hunting marines and space truckers of the original movies. Your crew may be just working joes hauling stuff from one colony to another for a paycheck, but they are doing it across the awful majesty of deep space. You might be a down-to-earth colonist on the final frontier, just wanting to make a living, but that earth is not yours. There are terrible secrets at the edges of the galaxy older than life on Earth, and they do not want to be discovered. Alien didn’t need to ask the question of why the xenomorphs exist, it just needed to have them there so hijinks could ensue. Prometheus… also really didn’t need to ask that question, but it did, and that’s why we have a setting to explore. I’m not sure we had that before Prometheus. Certainly the previous attempt at making an RPG of the franchise flopped hard. Then, the 1991 Aliens Adventure Game was also based on the ruleset of Phoenix Command, so it was never destined to widespread appeal.

I kinda want to run this myself, now. The idea of a longer campaign appeals to me less and I am already running three of those, but a series of adventures in the Cinematic mode, with conflicting character agendas, chaos, carnage, and few survivors, sounds just great.