Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part III

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

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

The Thousand Fangs Below

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sanctum of the Serpent God

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, here there be SPOILERS.

The City of Seven Spears

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vaults of Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing Saventh-Yhi

So, what could have been done differently?

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

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

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

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

Next time, the grand finale.

Serpent’s Skull – 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.

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.

Pathfinder

Right, on to business.

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

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

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

What Came Before

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

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

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

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

The Meat of the Matter

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

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

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

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

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