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.

Advertisements

Review: The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2

So. There’s a novella called The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2, written by Carlton Mellick III and published by Eraserhead Press. I borrowed it from James Raggi. This is important to note. I did not pay money for this. This was not, you understand, due to any kind of misapprehension that it might be actually good, but because of my curiosity about a gaming novel that’s not a campaign setting tie-in and I thought it might be funny. I suppose I should have a disclaimer here about how the following post may offend some people, but if you didn’t get that from the title already, I’m not sure I can help you.

I am told that the novel’s genre is called “bizarro fiction”, which, as far as I can tell, is a Robert Rankin-esque ploy to get a section of the bookstore all to themselves. Since a reviewer should be aware of the cultural context of a work, I looked it up on Wikipedia. The article reads like an ad for Eraserhead Press, but the relevant bit is that bizarro fiction “strives not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.”

Well.

The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2 is the story of a pair of hapless adventurers, the halfling fighter Polo and the elf cleric/fighter/ranger/wizard Delvok, who come to realize they are player characters in a roleplaying game. Moreover, their players are morons and their DM acts out his juvenile sexual fantasies (mostly having to do with large-breasted nymphomaniac elves) in the game. The way they come to realize this is by being raped with the eponymous dildo.

For what it’s worth, the author basically apologizes for the stupidity of the book in the preface. The book is wholly aware of how stupid it is.

Now, stupid and immature don’t automatically mean bad, right? South Park is funny. Oglaf is hilarious. A capable writer can work wonders with material like this, and the idea of PCs gaining awareness of living in a game is interesting.

Carlton Mellick III, I’m afraid, is not that writer. It’s not funny. It’s just dicks and tits and rape over and over again, badly-written porn interspersed with badly-drawn porn. The result neither titillates nor amuses.

The main problem is the artlessness of the prose. Combat scenes read like a dishwasher manual. A comic writer’s toolbox contains things like similes, euphemisms, zeugmas and hyperbole. Mellick’s can be barely said to contain vocabulary, let alone a punchline. There is no wit. Here’s an excerpt to illustrate, when they cast detect invisibility:

She reads the incantation on the scroll and the spell goes into effect. Slowly, seven figures come into view as their invisibility becomes detected. We point our weapons at them, prepared for battle.

When the figures become clear, we fall back. The figures are seven elderly men. All of them are masturbating furiously, staring at Loxi’s nude breasts.

“What the fuck?” Loxi says.

The men don’t realize we can see them. They just continue masturbating and licking their lips.

“Have these guys been following us around this whole time?” Juzii asks. “Watching us while invisible?”

“They saw when we had sex?” I ask, meaning when I had sex with Loxi and Juzii, not with Itaa.

That is how the entire book is written. There’s an idea of a joke that is then presented in this matter-of-fact, simple style that evokes a 12-year-old’s school essay for third-year English as a Second Language. It could be done on purpose, of course, to reflect that Polo isn’t very clever and neither are the gamers governing his world, but then, what’s the point? What would be the purpose of writing a pastiche of a bad D&D fanfic? The nostalgia explanation does not fly since even the players do not seem to be having much fun. (And for what it’s worth, I find the depiction of D&D at the age of 14 quite foreign, apart from this one girl whose characters were a succession of Sharessan clerics.) You could go all Brecht and claim deliberate Verfremdungseffekt, except that while the I was very effectively distanced from the work, it serves no purpose. There’s nothing there.

The game being played is a pathetic and distasteful affair, but its depiction, in serving no purpose other than to depict it, fails to distance itself and becomes an equally pathetic and distasteful affair. It is a work of banal drivel that seems to think sex and rape and bodily functions are a functional substitute for humour and does not even get inventive in its perversion. Seriously, with over three decades of D&D at his disposal, some of it rather suspect to begin with, the most creative the author gets is a crossdressing gnoll. Had John Wilmot and Marquis de Sade lived to read The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2, they would have died of embarrassment. Having unimaginative and mediocre narrators is no excuse for having an unimaginative and mediocre narrative.

In summary, The Kobold Wizard’s Dildo of Enlightenment +2 wastes its own potential. The jokes fall flat, the prose is dead, and the most bizarre thing about the work is its lack of imagination. Its few good ideas are suffocated by the inanity of the whole. The writing of this review has entertained me far more than reading the book itself, which is a mistake I recommend nobody else repeat.

Review: Game of the Year

I’ve discussed the topic of roleplaying games and films on this blog before. Traditionally, marrying the two has produced impressively hideous fantasy films, such as Dungeons & Dragons and The Mutant Chronicles. Though I try to keep an open mind, whenever I hear of a new film project that’s based on a roleplaying game property, I start calculating if my liver can take the strain. The trailer for the third D&D film just hit the web this morning, so I’ll be heading out to the training camp with a case of beer for the weekend.

Recently, though, we’ve had an influx of roleplaying films not about roleplaying games, but about the gamers themselves. Films like Astrópia, Knights of Badassdom and the topic of today’s post, Game of the Year. (Or This is Spinal Tap D20, as it might also not inaccurately be described. The film owes a huge debt to it, but hey, if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best.)

Game of the Year is a gaming mockumentary directed by Chris Grega. It tells the story of a gaming group preparing for Game Con, where they will join the qualifiers for the Game of the Year, a reality TV series where the winning team will get to run a gaming company for one year.

Primarily, that is an excuse used to point a camera at a group of gamers and watch how the act of observation changes the observed.

The group is a collection of basic gamer archetypes. There’s Richard, the DM, who runs D&D 3.0 (judging by the PHBs his players have) but uses an AD&D 1E DM screen. The core of the group is the DM, Richard, who’s dedicated to the game and wants to get in Game of the Year. Then there’s Shawn, the group’s “leader” and sort of a normal person. The rest of the group is John, whose basement they play in and who fights with his wife over the time spent gaming; Mark, who’s “cool” and doesn’t want his girlfriend to find out he’s a gamer; Mark, who can quote the rulebooks chapter and verse; and Billy, John’s cousin, who has the attention span of a caffeinated kitten. Rounding out the cast of characters are Jennifer, the document’s sound girl, and Gary Elmore (heh heh), a shadowy figure from the past that nobody games with, for good reason.

The characters in the film are rich and interesting, and their interaction rings true. Many of them remind me of people and situations I’ve seen in the hobby, even guys I’ve played with for many years. (I even know a guy that Gary could’ve been based on.) Yeah, we gamers can be a weird and funny bunch.

Of course, the characters wouldn’t mean jack if the actors weren’t up to scratch, and I am happy to report that they perform admirably. Acting tends to be one of the things where indie films often fall flat for some reason, but Game of the Year has a capable cast. (Of course—and this is terribly mean of me—it’s possible that they’ve channelled their nervousness of being in front of the camera to their characters’ nervousness of being in front of a camera.) The performances feel very realistic. There is one instance of hilarious overacting, but it is, shall we say, diegetic.

The arc of the story is predictable. They game, there’s drama, the group breaks up, they conclude playing with other people sucks (my favourite is the group Billy and John end up during this time, where they have developed an entire dwarven language and mock the newbies in it), they come back together. I’m not giving away what happens then. Anyway, the plot is not the movie’s point, the plot is an excuse. The point is the characters. The characters deliver, and therefore the film is good.

In the beginning the film occasionally slips into cringe comedy, which is definitely not my cup of tea, but once the characters are all introduced and the action gets rolling, the film manages to be interesting and funny. It’s not high art, and it’s not that funny, but it is good enough. At its most profound, Game of the Year captures pitch-perfectly that same feeling of sympathetic embarrassment you feel when one of your fellow gamers makes an ass of himself and lacks the social awareness to realize it and the nagging suspicion that at one point or another, it has been you.

I can recommend the film. Being indie, its availability is suboptimal, but Amazon.com carries it. Note that the Amazon website claims it’s R1, which is bollocks. The DVD version is region-free (since it actually costs quite a bit of money to add in that particular piece of user-hostility), although us Europeans will still have to contend with the fact that it’s NTSC, not PAL. Then, computers don’t care.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the production company.

Review: Stalker

Well, I didn’t quite break my own deadline with this. I finished reading Stalker, all 242 black-and-white pages of it. No, it’s not a game about spying and harassing young girls.

To repeat what I’ve mentioned here at least a couple of times in the past, it’s a science fiction roleplaying game from Burger Games, and it’s based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker has also been a significant inspiration. I have neither read the book nor seen the film, though the novel is about five books deep in my to-read pile and the DVD is in the mail.

The RPG is only available in Finnish. I considered also doing the review in Finnish, but I figured a bilingual blog would be just annoying and confusing to my other reader, who doesn’t understand Finnish.

The Story

For those of you who need brushing up on your Soviet sci-fi, the core of the story is that thirteen years ago, six places in the world were hit by an unexplained phenomenon (often theorised to be a visit by extraterrestrial lifeforms) that twisted the laws of nature and rendered them uninhabitable and very dangerous. In the Zone one might run into, for example, an area where gravity is increased thousandfold, or a region of vacuum with no discernible physical barriers to keep it that way.

However, there are also artifacts, items not of this world that also defy the laws of nature. Some of them are nearly useless toys, such as a needle that creates light patterns in the air, but others have terrible powers, like a lamp that kills anything its green light touches. There’s also an item that’s weightless when touched by a living creature, but weighs many tons when it’s not.

The Institute is an organisation nominally under the UN that controls the six Zones and access to them. It is corrupt, authoritarian, and has guards that shoot first and ask questions later. However, the Zones are large, the budget is limited and there are areas where a group of determined and stealthy people can get through the net of guard towers and patrol routes.

Some of those people are stalkers – criminals who enter the Zone and brave its perils to bring back artifacts for their customers, who themselves are sometimes scientists working for the Institute.

That’s the PCs.

The game’s tone is grim and realistic. It doesn’t happen in a far-off future, it happens in the now. Violence is ugly and painful, poverty is rampant, prejudices and misery are commonplace. Authorities are corrupt. Most people are too preoccupied with survival to worry about morals. Death is inevitable and ever-present.

Of course, the game is mostly set around the Zone, where the proximity of the dangerous region has prompted most people to move away, and where only mutants, refugees, stalkers and other criminals dwell. And the Institute, of course.

The RPG’s default setting is around the French Zone, in Toulouse, but it gives short overviews of the five others – Klamath Falls, USA; Marmont, Canada (the setting of the novel); Derbent, Russia (homage to the movie Stalker); Saysu, China; and Sapporo, Japan.

The Game

One of the things that people have been making noise about in Stalker is the Flow system. It’s a diceless system with a resolution mechanic that relies on the GM grading the player’s roleplaying and his idea, adding possible skill bonuses and then multiplying and comparing to the target number. It’s an interesting system, since it’s diceless while still retaining some crunchiness. It also actively supports roleplaying and gives the player more power to affect the outcome.

Character creation is mechanically simple. You pick ten very broad skills, come up with explanations for how the character has them and then give each of them an associated negative side, something bad from the character’s history. A former policeman may have been fired for taking bribes, or a doctor killed his patient. Something like that. It’s a nifty way to bring depth to the character.

The Book

It’s ironic that the book starts by saying it’s probably not a good first roleplaying game for a newbie, and then in the GM section goes on to give some of the most comprehensive and best all-purpose GM advice I’ve seen in a game book, including some very basic things. The seeming contradiction may be a vestige of the extraordinarily long time the game has been in the works, but I don’t really mind. It’s good advice.

In general, the book is packed tightly with setting, adventure hooks and advice. It’s an advantage of having a light ruleset – more space for the meat of the game. This is the good stuff.

The font used throughout the book is Comic Sans. It’s clean and readable. I showed it to some graphic designers who nearly had an apoplexy. I do not know why, but it may be useful knowledge when dealing with graphic designers.

There’s the occasional typo and grammatical error, but nothing major. The art is black and white, and very dark.

Overall

It’s a good game. Very nifty, with a good, evocative setting and an interesting rules system.

Personally, though, I don’t see myself running this game. Playing, yes, but not running. It’s partly a deep-seated psychological need to have my dice bag with me, and partly because the setting just doesn’t do it for me, that way. It’s interesting to read about and well written, but I don’t get that “wow, I gotta run this right now” feeling I get off games like Godlike and Delta Green (which do set a very high bar, admittedly).

Also, Stalker doesn’t feel like a game you play many campaigns with. You’ve got the Zone and the artifacts and the Institute and the mutants, but you’ll end up retreading the same ground a lot, which demands a great deal from the GM in terms of creativity and work. Especially trips to the Zone could get hard to keep fresh for very long.

It’s a good game, though. I recommend it. Thumbs up.