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.

Games Every Game Designer Should Play

Inspired by Antti Lax’s post at LOKI (which in turn was inspired by Ryan Macklin’s post at his own blog), Sami Koponen from Efemeros challenged the rest of the Finnish gaming blogosphere to list the three games that we think every role-playing game designer should be familiar with.

Of course, in any such listing, the real challenge is condensation. I mean, I can easily rattle off a dozen games that are or were, in their own ways, innovative. There are innovations in rules, setting, even presentation, that are worthy of emulation and imitation and challenge traditional notions of how roleplaying games should be done. Note that I am not claiming that these are the only true way to do these things, or even necessarily the best ways. They are, however, pretty good ways of doing it, and should provoke thought, perhaps even inspiration. Being well-read is also valuable so you do not end up reinventing the wheel by accident. Most of the time, when someone is touting their new RPG with words like “revolutionary” or “unbeforeseen”, in practice they end up producing something straight out of 1988…

Note that I am leaving D&D off the list, firstly because it’s obvious and secondly, when you run into a role-playing game whose designer clearly was not too well-read, it’s generally pretty obvious that the gap in their education was not D&D. (If, on the other hand, you see yourself as a game designer and are not familiar with D&D, I recommend familiarizing yourself with at least the Mentzer red box Dungeons & Dragons [1983], Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 [2003] or Pathfinder RPG [2009] and Dungeons & Dragons 4E [2008] to familiarize yourself with the three major strains.)

The list will also reflect my own background. I’m from the traditionalist school of big, heavy rulebooks, GM authority and lots of dice. Though I am acquainted, and have occasionally even worked on or played things like Forge-style indie games or the school of Nordic roleplaying that sometimes eradicates the line between larp and tabletop games, I started with Middle-Earth Role-Play, continued with Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play and my present go-to game is Pathfinder RPG, after playing its two direct forebears for the previous decade. That’s my background, deep in the dungeon.

So, in no particular order…

Pendragon

Any edition, pretty much. The thing that makes Pendragon special is how its ruleset and specifically the Traits and Passions can efficiently and non-intrusively direct the game to genre emulation. The knights of Le Morte d’Arthur frequently acted obviously against their own interest because of a rigid honour code that is alien to modern thought. Not only is their behaviour rather unlike the heroics of your average D&D campaign or modern fantasy film, it is also sufficiently removed from our way of thinking that its role-playing doesn’t come naturally unless you are very familiar with the source material. Pendragon, then, has Traits that operate on a sliding scale between two extremes, such as Chaste/Lustful or Pious/Worldly. The characters have a number value in each Trait, and the total of every Trait’s two extremes must equal 20. Whenever a situation arises where one of these Traits would come into play (in a dramatically appropriate fashion, of course), you roll against the Trait and successes or failures can limit your actions in the situation. In action, it leads to the player characters falling passionately in love with the damsel they’ve rescued, finding the inner reserves of strength to vanquish the dragon, and killing their fellow knights because of honour. A system like this could be adapted, I think, to any game where the player characters are expected to act according to a rigid code, cultural values or morality that goes against their self-interest. The obvious example is a samurai game.

The second thing that Pendragon does well is the generation game. The game is designed explicitly for a campaign encompassing the entire rise and fall of the Round Table. The Great Pendragon campaign takes 81 years from start to finish. That means you need more than one player character, and more often than not, it’s your player character’s job to make more wee potential PCs. Your character, like in most RPGs, will steadily get better as they adventure. Then, inevitably, they will die. Hopefully, they will do this in a heroic and/or tragic fashion that minstrels will sing of for ages to come and you get to bore your friends with over a pint. Their offspring, then, will not be quite as good as daddy was in his best days, but they will get an inheritance of Glory, titles, land, and generally better gear than papa had (weapons tech develops at a pretty respectable clip during the Enchantment of Britain). The foundation for this is laid out in character creation (at least in the 5th edition), where you start by rolling up the lifepaths of your first knight’s father and grandfather (both inevitably dead).

All in all, I think Pendragon is an excellent example of how to model a very specific genre in a traditional tabletop role-playing game.

Stalker

As the translator, I am probably biased, but then, this entire post is about my opinion on something, so hear me out. Stalker does a clever thing (actually, it does quite a few clever things) in how it handles combat. There is no separate combat mechanic or subsystem. Kicking someone’s, or even several someones’, ass is the same mechanical process as is used to see if the characters manage to fix a car engine or browbeat their dealer into giving them a better price. If you have more than one adversary, the extras are defeated in the margins of success. If any are still left after the first bout is resolved, then you look at how the scene has changed and see how the numbers stack this time around. Stalker is not interested in the process of combat, the blow-by-blow take that many (I’m tempted to say “most”) RPGs go for. Stalker is interested in the end result. How, precisely, that is reached is the players’ and the GM’s job to figure out. The rules are just there to help. The system encourages – nay, enforces – roleplaying and tactics beyond “I shoot him with my gun”, and rewards both. It is also impossible to break, save by bribing the GM. (Just so you know, I’m partial to Johnnie Walker Black.) This is relevant because, well, for one thing, it shows you that even a traditional game (and despite being diceless, I think Stalker is pretty traditional, with its long equipment lists, full-page character sheet and whatnot) can be designed without separate combat rules.

There’s a load of other things that make it worthwhile to have a look at Stalker. Player characters have no Intelligence attribute; the character’s wits are those of the player’s. This removes the issue of a player squirming because he figured out the puzzle immediately but his character, IQ turnip, never could. The Flow system is diceless, yet doesn’t include the usual pack of narrative rules elements like shared narration or negotiating outcomes. It is elegant yet robust, which is pretty much everything I can ask for in a roleplaying game system. It is also sufficiently lightweight that if one so wishes, they can easily adapt it to run whatever game or genre they want by merely rewriting one or two skill lists. Indeed, if our hypothetical designer padawan is more interested in writing the setting and the meat of the game (much like I) instead of designing a ruleset, Flow can be licenced under terms that are not only generous but also rather entertaining.

Finally, the rulebook also contains some damn fine GM advice, but that should not be limited to the perusal of putative designers.

Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play

The first two editions, at least. I am not familiar with the third edition and do not know if it retains the features I speak of. In any case, Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play strikes an elegant balance between the classless and the class-based with its career system. Characters can start off as rat catchers and camp followers and over time, having fulfilled the requirements of their career, move on to other careers, accumulating experience and skills (possibly also gear, though that tends to be transitory) along the way, from rat catcher to cat burglar to vagabond to thief to rogue to demagogue to politician to crime lord to outlaw chief, or perhaps along some entirely different path. This allows the character a natural, organic development while retaining game effectiveness (both breaking the game and creating a completely useless character are rather tricky, especially in the second edition where they fixed the Naked Dwarf loophole). The characters are not nailed down to specific advancement paths, even if their starting careers were randomly determined.

The careers also tell you something important about the characters and the world; this is low fantasy, and the characters are not great heroes from the get-go. They’re not just rootless adventurers who roam the land performing feats of derring-do. They’re just people, who need to work to put food on the table, except half of them are too poor to own a table. It roots them into the setting. Switching careers is also a strong narrative element, such as when the peasant decides he has had enough of toil and sweat under a weary life and becomes an outlaw, or the outlaw figures that the injustices that led him to a life of crime are because of inequality in the deep structures of the society and becomes a demagogue to speak against those who misuse power. The career mechanic is flavourful enough to act as story seeds in and of themselves, but sufficiently flexible to serve the needs of the campaign.

Additionally, WFRP is not afraid to rain shit upon the characters. It’s not overly lethal, and player characters stand a good chance of seeing ripe old age, but getting there will hurt. There’s madness. There’s mutation. Using magic causes both. Critical hits can and will cause limb loss. The PC is not sacrosanct and both violence and meddling with things man was not meant to know will have consequences. The webzine Critical Miss did a series of three articles on the theme and style, a long time ago. They are here: How James Wallis Ruined My Character’s Life, Yes I Sank Your Barge, and Wolfgang’s Guide to Screwing Your Fellow Players. Read them in order.

Red in Beak and Claw at the LotFP Grand Adventure Campaign!

It has begun! Possibly the craziest thing I’ve seen James do yet (and I’ve known him for some years), the July Grand Adventure Campaign gathers together 19 adventure writers from diverse backgrounds to write modules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. I am one of them, and if the $6,000 funding goal is met, my adventure Red in Beak and Claw shall be unleashed upon the world, and with art by Jason Rainville!

Red in Beak and Claw, as you can probably figure out from the blurb, is informed by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. I, for one, have never seen an adventure module inspired by the film, but in case someone’s already done it, I’ll have to do it better. There may also be some Children of the Corn in there somewhere.

The campaign itself is megalomaniacal in its scale. There is a terrible beauty to the sheer size and variety of its contributors. There are indie game designers, a Nordic larpwright, a rock star, bloggers, OSR writers, veterans of D&Ds classic and modern alike. It is a testament to the lightness and flexibility of oldDungeons & Dragons that game designers from such diverse backgrounds can pick up the ruleset with little prior experience and feel comfortable working with it.

Apart from me, there are three other Finns in the lineup: first of all, there’s Ville Vuorela of Burger Games, for whom I translated Stalker. The art for The Dreaming Plague will incidentally be done by Juha Makkonen, I who I worked with on Roolipelikirja. Then there’s Mike Pohjola, Emmy Award -winning author, larpwright, game designer and I can’t even remember what else, with his adventure I Hate Myself for What I Must Do. This is also the man who wrote a roleplaying game using fortune cookies instead of dice, and I advise you to expect the unexpected. Last but not least, there’s Juhani Seppälä, of the blog Blowing Smoke, with his module Normal for Norfolk, that started out as a campaign he ran for James that James has been pestering him to write up ever since.

This is also my chance to get that Richard Pett adventure I was so cruelly denied last time around. Get to it, people. Just… fund me first, okay? At the moment, to my great perturbation, I seem to be in the lead, too…

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: The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary

I recently got my hands on a most curious book. The Unofficial Living Greyhawk Bandit Kingdoms Summary is perhaps a unique work in that it discusses the World of Greyhawk, an intellectual property owned by Wizards of the Coast, yet it is self-published by Casey Brown (and available print-on-demand and for Kindle from Createspace and Amazon).

Brown himself has described the book as more of an academic work discussing the campaign rather than something copyright-infringing. Indeed, a certain remarkably disagreeable member of the Greyhawk fan community mailed about the book to WotC’s legal department, who issued a DMCA notice and got the book removed from Createspace. It looked for a moment that my copy, then winding its way over the Atlantic to me, might become a rare collectible indeed. It was not to be, however, and Mr. Brown was vindicated, the notice withdrawn, and the book returned to Createspace.

The book itself, then. It is 81 pages in length, with a cover illustration from a 14th-century illuminated manuscript that I’m afraid is rather pixellated. The contents are what it says on the tin, an overview of the approximately 150 rounds of adventures that the Bandit Kingdoms region produced in the eight years of Living Greyhawk.

It begins with a discussion on the tone of the region, titled “I had to save the bad guys from the other PCs,” quoting a paladin player from another region upon his first foray into the Bandit Kingdoms. The BK is rather like our own Principality of Naerie was, in their lack of clear-cut heroes and focus on moral grey areas. While Iuz was always the bad guy, the PCs might find themselves in the employ of, say, the church of Nerull, the death god. The BK player characters don’t seem to differ a lot from Naerie PCs, except that ours dressed better.

This is followed by a critical analysis of the Average Party Level system, experience and Encounter Levels in Living Greyhawk and their problems.

The majority of the book, however, 52 pages, is taken up by a variety of summaries for the adventures produced by the Bandit Kingdoms. The book is not comprehensive in this—it includes only those scenarios that somehow affected the Bandit Kingdoms plot arcs. This mainly excludes special missions, only one of which is discussed in the book, and mini-missions. There’s a general listing of modules; longer summaries of each with their level ranges, adventure series, blurbs and Casey Brown’s comments; and listings of the modules according to location and adventure series. The book is rounded out by a timeline of Bandit Kingdoms events, a reproduction of an in-character letter sent by a player character to a major villain, a selection of quotations from Bandit Kingdoms (my favourite is “This would get your PC pulled in most regions.”), and a listing of Bandit Kingdoms Triad members.

The book is tagged “BDKR1” and promises to be the first of a trilogy, followed by BDKR2: Rogues’ Gallery of the Bandit Kingdoms and BDKR3: A Mercenary’s Guide to the Bandit Kingdoms.

So, it’s a book full of information on a campaign that ended four years ago, whose scenarios are no longer easily available and which includes no rules items whatsoever. Is it of any use?

Well, the timeline will be handy for DMs wishing to run a game in the Bandit Kingdoms. However, what the book is about is documentation. It details and discusses a slice of the largest roleplaying game campaign that ever was and sets the information in print before it is lost. It is about the history of our hobby (and more than a little about nostalgia), and it is well made. The production values may not be all that, but the writing is good and the book has been edited with an admirable attention to detail, with a hundred footnotes. Some of them are impressively long. The only things I feel are missing are a complete scenario listing, including those mini-missions and special missions that did not warrant longer summaries (turns out even my collection has one, a Year Four mini-mission titled Two Gentlemen of Veluna), and perhaps an entry in the longer summaries for the original designation of the module in question. For the purposes of clarity, the author has dropped the original, often discrepant, module codes for intro, special, interactive and mini modules and introduced his own.

It’s good stuff. I would never try to do this for the Principality of Naerie, but it does give me some ideas for the next revision of the Principality of Naerie Gazetteer that I’m still occasionally working on. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the trilogy.

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.

Last Hours at Hand for LotFP IndieGoGo

As I write this, there are less than 20 hours to go until the end of the LotFP IndieGoGo campaign. The amount raised is now nearly $14,000, and Jim has declared the Kenneth Hite adventure funded! Now is your opportunity to pledge! Perhaps you’ll be lucky and a last-minute rush will get us over the Mentzer line as well…

I’m mildly disappointed that my adventure didn’t get funded and even more disappointed that Richard Pett’s didn’t, but so it goes.

Jim has also announced another series of campaigns in July for even more adventures by a different set of writers, some of them very interesting.