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Minireview: Pathfinder #6, Spires of Xin-Shalast

Spires of Xin-Shalast, written by Greg A. Vaughan, is the conclusion to the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. It starts out very strong, with a great sequence involving dwarven ghosts and a Wendigo spirit. After that, the party is supposed to make their way to the ancient city of Xin-Shalast, and while it’s pretty good it has some problems. To be fair, though, most of those problems are due to the fact that it’s a huge place, and the page count limit here just doesn’t allow the writer to do it full justice. A GM running this would either have to keep the players on a very tight railroad or do quite a bit of prepwork. The final confrontation reads like it should be a titanic battle – which may or may not be your thing.

Overall, I’d give this whole adventure path something like a “four stars out of five” rating. The first half is excellent, with varied moods and encounters and fun subplots. The second half is still ok, but suffers a bit in my mind from being a combatfest most of the time. Maybe that’s the way D&D adventures tend to go as the level increases, but still…

Besides the high amount of combat, another problem crops up in that some of the plot connections between the parts of the “path”, and even within the parts themselves, are quite vague. The players are apparently expected to follow the plot with very meager leads at times, and I found myself wondering at times “why on earth would the players do what’s expected here?” With a good GM and some prepwork I’m sure that those problems would be minor (and ideally not even noticed by the players), but I think it’s fair to warn prospective GMs of this “adventure path” that it would be a good idea to read the whole thing, or at least some parts in advance, before starting a game. That way you can start dropping hints early, and provide lots of alternate plot hooks for players in case they miss the “default” ones. As they will, more often than not.

As far as main plot went: pretty standard “ancient bad guy is waking up and needs to be stopped” thing. I found the use of the seven deadly sins as a central power motif to be a bit hokey, but hey… this is D&D, hokey is part of the game. It worked well enough, though I’d love to see a main plot that wasn’t a variation of “ancient evil rises”. That’s… been done. A lot.

In case the above sounds too negative: I found this to be a high-quality set of linked adventures, with lots of really cool ideas and settings. Some GM tweaking will be needed, but that’s the case with pretty much anything.

I’m looking forward to the next adventure path, the city-based Curse of the Crimson Throne. It sounds interesting, and urban scenarios often offer lots of nice social interaction. The second half of Runelords took place mostly in the wilderness, which may also have been a factor in my feeling that it was combat-heavy.

On the other hand, the main plot of Crimson Throne seems to be… wait for it… “ancient evil rises again!”. The goggles! They do nothing!

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Minireview: Crown of the Kobold King (D1)

Crown of the Kobold King is the first “proper” module in Paizo’s “GameMastery” module line, with the very first one being an offering for “Free Rpg Day”, Hollow’s Last Hope (by the way, I’d love to get a print copy of that one, if anyone has pointers please let me know). This module is coded as “D1” (where Hollow was “D0”), with the “D” standing for “Dungeon”. So ok, we have a dungeon crawl on our hands.

Of course, since this is written by Nicolas Logue (an rpg author I’ve become to appreciate more and more), it’s anything but a boring, straightforward affair. The thing is set near Falcon’s Hollow, the setting of both D0 and the later scenario Carnival of Tears. It’s a lumber town with lots of built-in conflicts, darkness and social injustice (i.e. not quite your normal “we’re all happy farmers” D&D town) – and this time around a bunch of children have gone missing and it’s up to you, the players, to rescue them. Why? That’s largely left up to the GM, though hints on motivation and “how to get started” are given.

The adventure itself involves kobolds (surprise!), but they have been given quite decent motivation and some culture of their own, not just “we’re evil so we do evil stuff!”. There are even some quite distinct personalities among them, which is all too rare in this type of scenario. It reads like it should be a very fun affair to play or run, lots of room for total mayhem.

I’m reminded of the old TSD AD&D module N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God, which I still consider to be one of the best entry-level D&D scenarios. There, like here, we have a town with interesting social interaction material, and then a quest into a dungeon/lair to free up kidnapped people. I don’t know if this was intentionally written as some sort of “spiritual successor” to that module, but in any case: I liked this quite a bit, I think it should make for a very good beginning scenario for a D&D 3.5 game.

As an aside, I recently used the town of Falcon’s Hollow (to a very tiny extent) in my Exalted game, transformed into a snowed-in Linowan logging town near the Haltan border. The players didn’t stay other than to spend a night with the luxury of “sleepin indoors for a change”, but had they opted to do stuff I would have had some specs of the town itself to fall back on. Products like these don’t have to be limited to just the game system they’re written for, cooking up new stats and (sometimes) names for NPCs isn’t an impossible chore, given decent basic material to work with.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #5, Sins of the Saviors

Sins of the Saviors, by Stephen S. Greer, is the fifth and penultimate part of the “Rise of the Runelords” adventure path. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the last part in that it’s somewhat less straighforward. It’s also mostly “just” a dungeon crawl – granted that it’s a fairly interesting dungeon, but still… a bit too little social interaction there for my taste. Some parts are very cool, though; the beginning is nice, and the dungeon itself has some nifty parts and some internal politics which could be expanded in fun directions. I’m not completely sold on the “seven sins” motif that the adventure path uses a lot, but it’s used to fair effect here. Overall, quite solid.

Other than the adventure, the book contains some notes on “rune magic”, mostly 3.5DD crunch which doesn’t interest me. The (to me) more interesting part was the rest: a writeup on Lamashtu, a “Mother of Monsters” god (good stuff), some more Pathfinder travelogue (also fun), and some more strange creatures to pit the players against.

I’ll reserve comments on the whole of the adventure path until I read the last part, but so far it’s looking like a nice package with lots of varied stuff thrown into the mix. I remain sold on the overall quality of Paizo’s “Pathfinder” stuff, even though I still don’t play D&D.

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Minireview: Entombed with the Pharaohs (J1)

Entombed with the Pharaohs (written by Michael Kortes) is the first of the “J”-series modules (Journey?) from Paizo. Though the letter+number numbering scheme of these “GameMastery” modules is reminiscent of the classic TSR modules, unlike some other game lines like Goodman Games’ “Dungeon Crawl Classics” this series doesn’t much try to emulate the feel of the old stuff – these adventures are fairly modern in design.

I’ve read some others of the GameMastery line before, and overall the quality has been high. Some have been excellent (Hangman’s Noose) and some just ok (Guardians of Dragonfall), but on the whole this seems to be a very solid series of pregen adventures for D&D 3.5.

So, on to the module. It’s very consciously an Indiana Jones -styled pulpy “Tomb Raider” adventure that takes place in “Osirion”, a mythical Egypt clone with the serial numbers (very lightly) filed off. To be honest, it’s such a direct copy of mythical cliche Egypt that it bothered me a bit – but only a very small bit, since the old TSR “Desert of Desolation” modules also had a direct-from-Egypt copy thing going on and they rocked, and in any case cliche Egypt resounds pretty well with the whole “pulp adventure” feel. So I won’t complain too much on that score. It is a bit corny, though, with stuff like “The River Sphinx” etc.

The adventure itself is very good, and has a nice nontraditional element in that there’s another party of tomb raiders racing to plunder the same tomb as you are. So in addition to all the deathtraps (of course there are deathtraps, silly!), you’re dodging or fighting another “adventurer party”. Good stuff. The high lethality of the module makes me reluctant to recommend it as part of an ongoing campaign; I see many places here where a total party kill is easy to achieve. For a one-shot, this thing should work great, though it would probably take a few sessions to play through.

Overall, I liked it quite a bit. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a very nice take on the “pulp tomb raider” genre.

Entombed with the Pharaohs has been pretty popular with players, and it recently won a “what module do you want to see a continuation for?” poll on Paizo’s forums – so we’re getting J4: The Pact Stone Pyramid in November.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #4, Fortress of the Stone Giants

Fortress of the Stone Giants, written by Wolfgang Baur, is the fourth installment in Paizo’s “Rise of the Runelords” D&D adventure path. As a concept, an “adventure path” is a set of linked adventures which can either be played stand-alone, or linked together to form a longer campaign. Sort of like the old TSR “Against the Giants” modules, or the “Slavelords” ones, or many others. I like the concept myself, it provides quite a bit of versatility in how you use the things. Of course, since there is a long-term plot involved there is a fair bit of inevitable railroading, or at the very least some behind-the-scenes GM headscratching to the tune of “how on earth do I get the PCs to do this next?”. You can’t really avoid that, unless you create a totally “sandbox” adventure setting – which has problems of its own.

Anyway, this is part four of a six-part series. After the crazed macabre goblin mayhem of part one, the horror trappings of part two, and the inbred mutant hillbilly splatter-horror of part three, this one is much more straightforward and does what it says on the tin: an assult on a stone giant fortress. It’s intentionally written as a sort of “spiritual successor” to the old “Against the Giants” adventures. Maybe because of the straightforwardness I didn’t find it quite as good as the first three parts; it’s mostly a combatfest and doesn’t offer many clever twists unlike the previous parts. To its credit, most of it is quite logical (though some parts of it feel a small bit like a zoo dungeon and are a bit incoherent), and the main bad guy has a nice backstory (though it’s likely that the PCs will never uncover it).

Other than the adventure, the book contains essays on the stone giants and dragons of Golarion, one more Pathfinder travelogue piece, and a bestiary with some nice, otherplanar antagonists. The add-ons overshadow the adventure itself this time around; I especially liked the stone giant writeup, it made them quite interesting instead of just “big hostile piles of hit points”.

As an interesting aside, this book incorporates some beasts from Cthulhu into D&D; some of the Paizo guys have a love of CoC, and this isn’t the first time Lovecraft has made side treks into their D&D creations. While some purists may yell in horror, I find it rather cool – especially since they go to great lengths to credit CoC and Lovecraft, and to say how good a game CoC is.

As a whole, a solid if not exceptional addition to the “Runelords” series.

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John Wick on D&D

I have mixed feelings about the upcoming 4th edition of D&D. I used to play AD&D (1st ed) as the first rpg I ever tried. It was fun, despite the rules being an unholy mess and most of the adventures being pure dungeon stomps with no rhyme or reason. By the time 2nd ed rolled along, I had left D&D for other games (Rolemaster, at that time).By what I understand, TSR pushed up quantity and allowed quality to drop (both massively), ending up in bankruptcy and with Wizards of the Coast buying them out. WotC did a nice hat trick with 3rd edition, rewriting the whole thing with a “d20” ruleset and introducing the Open Gaming License so 3rd parties could use their ruleset to create add-on material. While I’ve never played 3rd ed and don’t intend to (as a ruleset it doesn’t exactly appeal to me), things apparently worked out for WotC and 3rd ed was a success.

…and now we have 4th ed, which is getting conflicted reviews based on what’s known. WotC is apparently chasing after the WoW gamer crowd; makes sense as such, since the rpg industry is miniscule while the MMORPG one is huge (for certain companies, at least). Thing is, I’m not sure they’re copying the right things from WoW. In addition, it’s still not clear if 4e will have a version of the OGL, which has already caused some big 3rd party content producers to jump ship and roll their own (Paizo recently said that they are not getting into 4e, and will instead develop an in-house variant of 3.5 for Pathfinder). Even more fragmentation into an already fragmented market it bad, though I totally understand and support what Paizo is doing – it only makes sense.

All of which leads to John Wick, whose upcoming game Houses of the Blooded looks rocking, to note on his blog:

“I console myself with the knowledge that the new D&D design team is finally giving up the ghost. D&D isn’t a roleplaying game; it’s a very sophisticated board game. This is a bit of a paradox because D&D is the first roleplaying game. Yet, it isn’t a roleplaying game. Like being your own grandfather, this takes some explaining.”

I’m not sure if I 100% agree with him, but he does make some very good observations.

I mean, D&D is now in its 4th incarnation, and it still apparently has no real rules for social conflict (other than some lame “Diplomacy” rolls or suchlike). Rules for hacking monsters? Sure, hundreds of pages of them, I’m sure. But for anything else? Nah, don’t need rules for that, that’s the “roleplaying” thing you can do if you insist on doing “suboptimal builds”. Gah.

Some things WoW should stay in WoW. And some things from the rest of the industry/hobby should finally get introduced to D&D. Will they? Like hell they will. See dragon, kill dragon, collect loot. Huzzah!

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Failed saving throw, but creation lives on

First off, as everyone probably has heard by now, Gary Gygax died on Tuesday. What can I say… he pretty much created the roleplaying hobby as we know it. My earliest roleplaying was with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, back in 1980 or so. At that time, personal computers (let alone computer games) were virtually unknown – to us here in Finland, at least – so there was not much to compete for that mental space. Hell, it was pretty hard to even get pen & paper rpgs, I usually had to resort to photocopying tattered books borrowed from other people. I still remember how cool the whole concept seemed. Sure, our early games were simplistic hack & slash by current standards and the ruleset was horrible… but so what? We had tons of fun. I still rememer some meatgrinder adventures like Tomb of Horrors fondly. A lot of nostalgia, there.

So… even though the sorts of rpgs I nowadays like tend to diverge in many ways from what Gary created, and even though I think it’s way past time to get rid of some of the worst artifacts of his game (kill “alignment” already, for fuck’s sake, and kick out “levels” and “hit points” while you’re at it)… I can’t ignore the fact that D&D is ultimately responsible for most facets of my gaming hobby. Thanks, Gary. You did good.

A guy called Jari was our first GM and introduced us to the hobby. He was a pretty decent GM (for the times, at least), and was especially good with Paranoia. I still start grinning when I remember stuff like Das Bot: Nearly a Dozen Meters Beneath the Sea and Me and My Shadow, Mark 4. At some point I became interested in GMing, and it’s been what I’ve been doing ever since; first with AD&D, then with Rolemaster. I was pretty crappy as a GM… I’ve gotten better (mostly), and the players usually seemed to have fun, but I wasn’t all that good in retrospect. I guess very few people are naturally good GMs, it’s a long learning experience.

When computer games entered the equation I mostly forgot about pen & paper rpgs for a long, long time. Sure, I still had my AD&D and RM books, but didn’t do anything with them. Sometime much later, the LARP craze started, and I spend a long while with that, helping run a 10-year Vampire chronicle and playing in tons of games. It was great, I still have a fondness for LARPs though it’s been a long time since I was in one. During that time I tried starting up tabletop rpgs again once or twice, but it went nowhere due to various factors. I guess it was only after the worst LARP phase ended that I got seriously interested in tabletop rpg again.

Nowadays I’m very much into it, once again. I read and post a lot on rpg.net – it’s by far my favorite online community at the moment, due to excellent moderation and lots of cool & interesting people. I buy a lot of rpgs, partly with a collector mentality, since I simply like to read the things, see what people are doing with new rules ideas and settings. I run an Exalted game which is going pretty well, and play in a few other games myself. Things go round in circles. Will I still be interested in rpgs 10 years from now? Who knows. Probably, though. In some form.

Some may be wondering what that “Pathfinder” picture is doing up there. It’s actually a segue to get from “the creator of D&D” to “the current state of the art” (yeah, I know D&D 4e is coming soon, let’s not nitpick here). Pathfinder is Paizo’s new… magazine/adventure module thingy, and it’s really, really good. They are publishing adventure campaigns in six installments (one per month), as a linked series of adventures. The first one (Rise of the Runelords) has just finished, and the new sequence (Curse of the Crimson Throne) will ship the first installment this month. The writing and plotting is very good (for D&D, at least), the production values are excellent, and most importantly: Paizo really gets it with this “Internet” thing. They offer subscriptions, where you are shipped the “magazine” each month and you also get a “free” PDF of the issue downloadable online the moment it ships. They have a ton of web support material, their web store works great, and in general they combine traditional print and new PDF+web technologies in a very competent way. Oh, and I probably need to mention the production values again, just for emphasis; the art rocks and the whole thing is just slick.

I was so impressed with Pathfinder that I subscribed to it, even though I don’t play D&D and don’t intend to. Why? Partly because I simply like reading the stuff, partly because I like to support companies that are doing “smart” things (in my opinion, at least), and partly because I can maybe use some of this stuff with some other (better!) ruleset – Burning Wheel, Reign, whatever.

So, though the basic game is still the same “kill monsters, get loot and exp” at the core, it has come a long way. The plots are a lot more complex, the societies depicted are at least vaguely realistic instead of the bad ol’ “30x30 room with 3 red dragons” crap. D&D has evolved, and is evolving; probably because the core players have gotten both older and more sophisticated.

The pen&paper rpg hobby is a tiny niche one. The model railroad hobby is huge by comparison, and it’s still a niche hobby. Also, the field is extremely fragmented, and blessed/cursed by tons of excellent games, all competing for a very limited amount of customer cash. From a customer viewpoint it’s great, of course, but for companies… not so much.

What are the implications of this? First, don’t get into this business and expect to make lots of money. Ain’t gonna happen. You can make a living and reasonable profit if you’re good, but it’s hard going and you’re going against some extremely talented people. Second, companies and gaming will have to evolve – the traditional book publishing model, with huge minimum print runs etc, is extremely problematic for a hobby like this. Better use of new technologies, more hybrid use of pen&paper + computers, more PDF and print-on-demand publishing… there are options, and the smart guys out there are exploring them. Unlike some doom-mongers, I don’t believe the hobby is dying – far from it. I do believe that it is slowly changing, though, and that this change is a good thing.

We’ve come a long way from A Keep on the Borderlands. And that’s a wonderful thing.

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