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Minireview: Pathfinder #7, Edge of Anarchy

…and so begins a new Paizo adventure path, The Curse of the Crimson Throne. Judging by beginnings, it looks to be at least as good as the previous one; Edge of Anarchy (by Nicolas Logue) sets up the action quite nicely. It’s also an urban adventure set, which is a nice change of pace and provides lots of varied encounter options.

Without giving away too many spoilers, the story is set in the city of Korvosa, where the failing health of the king is about to cause civil unrest and worse. The players are people who originally just set out to get revenge on a certain crime boss, but quickly get sucked into higher-level dealings.

It’s quite nice. On the plus side, it’s a set of loosely connected mini-adventures, which gives the thing quite a bit of flexibility. On the minus side, that same flexibility can be a problem; the players are expected to do some very specific things based on sometimes very flimsy clues and prompting. Also, the beginning link from the crimelord thing to bigger issues is extremely tenuous, I can easily see players either missing it entirely or deciding to ignore it. I’m pretty sure that this thing needs quite a bit of extra GM work to make it play naturally, because you have to have a “plan B” and “plan C” ready for every time the players do something other than what’s expected. Which will be “most of the time”, most likely. So, unless you want to blatantly railroad things, read this through at least twice and do some extra prep before running it.

Is it worth that? I’d say yes, easily. The main plot is quite interesting here, and the whole urban environment thing opens up tons of opportunities. In addition, the encounters themselves tend to be pleasantly varied (no, it’s not only combat all the time). In order for this to work the PCs also need to have approriate motivations, but to Paizo’s credit that’s discussed at some length in the Player Guide to this adventure path. It’s actually nice to see a D&D adventure that takes a stance on what types of motivations the players need in order for things to work, not just “generate some characters and declare them a ‘party’”.

Other than the adventure, the book(let) contains the usual assortment: an article (this time on the local gypsy variants), a fiction “Pathfinder journal” piece, and some new monsters. I’ve always liked the fiction bits in these, and this one was especially good. I’m a tiny bit annoyed at Paizo’s near-1:1 copying of some things – the Varisians are (fantasy) gypsies down to styles of dress, then we have a people who are pretty direct Native American copies, and then there’s the fantasy Egypt copy of “Osirion”, etc etc. It probably wouldn’t have killed them to throw a bit of extra originality into those. I like Exalted’s style of mixing things up a lot more – you might get a vaguely Babylonian culture that’s mixed together with African tribalism, or a people who combine bits of Viking culture with Native American stuff. It creates cultures that are a lot more interesting and have recognizable “handles” without being copies, whereas here they just seem like generic copies with little flavor of their own. It’s not a huge problem, just a small gripe I have.

Overall, a good start to a new city-based adventure path, we’ll see where it goes.

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Minireview: Gallery of Evil (U1)

The first of Paizo’s “urban” standalone adventures, Gallery of Evil by Stephen S. Greer is a fun little romp.

It’s set in a high-class district of Absalom, a city in the Pathfinder game world of Golarion, but it could be transplanted to pretty much any D&D city with minimal effort. The plot is nicely nonstandard and involves paintings with murderous intent (yes, really). The villain of the piece is not just another stereotype “evil guy”, there are actual motivations involved… nice, for a change; all too many D&D adventures have “bad guys” doing bad stuff “just because they are evil”. Also provided are some pages of detail on the part of the city the events take place in, with a list of important people and places with some plot hooks – very nice in case the players go into freeform mode, and also useful in case you want a pre-populated section of city for some other game.

It reads like it should provide a fun evening or two of play. It’s fairly straightforward, and as written the players are almost spoon-fed clues about what’s going on. Were I to run it I would probably tweak it to make it a bit less linear and to involve a bit more actual player investigation. Matter of taste, I guess.

In any case, this is yet another classy stand-alone module from Paizo. I can’t find anything much to complain about here; the straightforward nature of the scenario can’t really be called a “fault”, since it does make this runnable with minimal prepwork and it’s easy enough to provide more complications if needed.

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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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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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