Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Nature of Plots and Obligation

In the midst of working on the Savage Tide reviews, I had built myself enough of a buffer that I could look at some of the broad arcs of my proposed Star Wars campaign and give careful consideration to that.  (That was the strange thing; in the process of working through the six reviews, I built up something of a buffer and could actually look at other project ideas with my free time.)

I touched on the concept of Obligation in my first post on Edge of the Empire, at least as far as it related to the initial skim of the rules.  In play, Obligation is a fluctuating value, depending on the particular needs of the characters and what sort of additional pressure they’re willing to take on.  If they need to accomplish something that seems unlikely to be accomplished any other way, they can bump up their personal Obligation to reflect this.  If they’ve made any sort of concerted effort to deal with the Obligation, they can potentially reduce it.  The rules flatly state that there is no mechanical way to remove Obligation completely.  It is a vital part of the rules, to the point that the system needs it in order to properly function and maintain flavor.

The way it works, overall, is that each character has a specific score for their Obligation, determined at character creation and modified in play.  Depending on the size of the group, this can rage from a minimum of 5 points all the way up to 20 points for a two-man crew.  At the start of each session, the GM rolls randomly on a chart that he has assembled to determine if any of the characters’ Obligations come into play.  If not, the game goes on as planned.  If so, then there’s a chance that something happens to reflect this.  (Or not.  There’s also the note that, if the GM is in the midst of a plot that can’t readily accommodate one of these character-driven subplots, it just manifests as a form of stress with a lowered Strain Threshold.)

All right, fair enough.  It’s going to take a little bit of practice to see how it plays out.

As I noted, I was working up a campaign for Edge of the Empire, basing the general idea on Firefly.  The characters are recent veterans from the losing side of the war, and they’re struggling to get by on the fringe worlds of the larger galaxy.  Fairly simple and straightforward, and I was further customizing it to drop into an Old Republic setting, more or less framed in the time period of the Knights of the Old Republic video games.  Each player has several characters for the sake of covering the roles on the ship, and the backgrounds are tied to the recent war.

The troupe style of gaming, with each player running a single character at a time from a choice of three, is unusual in some regards, but there’s nothing terribly new in it.  There are plenty of games that have experimented with it over the years, to varying degrees of success.  For the purposes of Edge of the Empire, it does make things a bit funky, as the characters are pretty much reduced to the minimum threshold of Obligation, just to keep from being wholly tied to the differing subplots.  As it is, the nine characters guarantee that this is something that’s going to come up about half of the time.  It’s recommended that the game start with somewhere between 40 and 50% Obligation, but for my group, this number is never going to reduce.  A subtle difference, but there it is.

This set me to thinking, as I started sketching out the Obligations Table from my side of the screen.  What if I were to treat this mechanic as the main plot generation device, overall?  Instead of viewing these rolls as having the potential to mung up my plans and throw my long term plots out the window, what would happen if I let them take over the direction of the plot when they came up, keeping the ‘main’ plot as something of a fallback plan?

Right now, there’s a fair amount of tension relating to the war that they’re still trying to cope with.  One of the soldier characters is taking orders from a splinter faction from the old command structure, a group of generals that are too invested in the war that they lost to ever admit defeat.  They’re running a sort of shadow war in the sector as a means to try to retake the lost territory for their own purposes.  Another one, an alien from a fairly isolationist culture, is trying to find answers for why her original unit was completely wiped out, effectively erasing her genetic line.  And the sniper is sought for having massacred a village of civilians that were sympathetic to the enemy some time after the cease fire was declared, making him a known war criminal.  There are nine characters at the present point, and each of them has a different Obligation to undertake, pulling the group in wildly different directions.

For the time being, I’ve taken to sketching out broad ideas for what each of the different concerns wants to have happen, as preparation for the first couple of sessions.  For the most part, I’ve attempted to make each of these plots large and dynamic enough to base several adventures on, but segmented enough that I don’t have to worry about what happens when a different character’s background forces them into play.  I’ve made a point to build out a broad idea for the campaign, on the idea that the character driven plots are only going to come into play about half of the time, but I have the feeling that the players will decide to pursue some of the hanging plot threads on their own, if they’re left to their own devices.

All of this hinges on having the players maintain their three character baselines.  I’m personally waiting to see if this is going to be too unwieldy or not, given the complexity of the game otherwise.  And to be blunt, it wouldn’t exactly cripple the game, were a couple of characters to end up being culled from the ranks.

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Savage Tide #6 – The Lightless Depths

So, in case I hadn’t made my case clearly enough in my reviews of Carrion Hill and Wake of the Watcher, the Paizo staff loves them some Lovecraft.  For my own part, I’ll assume that much of this stems from the predilections of Wes Schneider, but that’s mainly because he did the heavy lifting on what amounts to be my favorite module of the entire Adventure Path thus far.

In the aftermath of the attack on Farshore, the characters go over what intelligence they were able to gather from the log books and survivors of the fleet.  One reference notes that the black pearls that are responsible for triggering the Savage Tides come from a shadowy group known as the Lords of Dread.  (Anyone who’s been paying attention up to now can predict that this refers to the Kopru that live beneath the island.)  The pirate fleet has been negotiating with an ancient and legendary Dragon Turtle that dwells on the northern edge of the island, and in return he allows them passage to the caverns and lava tubes that lead to the Lords of Dread.  People are enslaved, brought to the Lords and in return, they’re given the vile black pearls.

From here, the characters are given a pretty straightforward directive from Lavinia.  They’re to deal with the Dragon Turtle, either peaceably or otherwise, gain access to the passages below, and remove the influence of the Lords of Dread.  She even fronts some of her parents’ accumulated wealth if the characters choose to bribe their way in.

It should go without saying that my players rolled their eyes at this.

The Dragon Turtle in question, Emraag the Glutton, is a creature of legend amongst the local Olman tribesmen, a dread aspect of myth and terror that none have ever faced and lived.  His lair is littered with the wreckage of dozens of ships that dared enter his domain, and it is only in folly that the characters seek conflict with him.  And it is largely assumed, from the text of the module, that players should have discretion in this affair, as Emraag’s treasure isn’t even detailed beyond suggested levels of wealth.

In a lot of ways, this reminded me of the set-piece encounter in Legacy of Fire, where the characters had the option of fighting a Dragon Turtle within the extraplanar realm of Kakishon.  The set-up for that particular encounter had some problems, in that the text had never been edited to make sense in the scope of the module, but the actual fight and the lair beneath were pretty fun.

The encounter with Emraag was fairly quick and to the point, as the players had carefully prepared themselves with a stock of magic items (specifically, they returned to Sasserine via Teleport and outfitted everyone with Cloaks of the Manta Ray) and careful tactics.  Emraag put up a reasonable fight, but a party of 11th characters tend to either win out within a matter of rounds against a single foe, or they’re dead pretty much instantly.

From there, it’s a long slog through the lava tubes to the ancient city now taken by the Kopru.  There are certain sorts of parallels to the old AD&D D1-2 module, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, where the characters are kept to a linear track and run into keyed encounters as the go.  Along the way, they encounter tribes of Troglodytes that have been corrupted to worship Demogorgon (a similar parallel to the corrupted worship of the Deep Ones in Wake of the Watcher, strangely), as well as a non-corrupted Trog Cleric who offers to help them along their way.

This was when I ended up shifting one of the encounters of the module to fit one of the characters.  The Barbarian had been flailing about, trying to settle on a build that offered a little more flavor for the setting.  Around this time in the module series, there’s an accompanying Dragon Magazine article that offers up a Prestige Class for a tattooed Totemic Demon Slayer.  Since the player had recently finished playing Far Cry 3, the option of a Tatau-based warrior appealed directly to him.  The thing is, the Prestige Class in question had a 10 level progression, which would have meant that he’d be just short of completing the progression when the module series ended, had I introduced the class when it was supposed to appear.  So, instead of waiting until the beginning of the next module, I allowed the NPC in question (who is saved from being sacrificed in this module) to initiate the character immediately.

There are a scattering of encounters in the module that hearken back to the proper roots of the original ‘underdark’ flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (again, we could talk about Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, among others) with creatures like slimes and puddings and ropers.  There was also a strange sort of Beholder subplot, where my players came to appreciate the dire reputation that these particular iconic creatures enjoy.  Suffice to say, they found that they hated dealing with intelligent and powerful monsters that generate Anti-Magic Fields.

The module starts to pick up when they’re first introduced to the original inhabitants of the ancient city in the form of strangely petrified Aboleths.  This works on a level of pacing, where they discover a single petrified specimen (in the setting lore, any Aboleth caught outside of water secretes a hard shell to keep them from dying; the problem is that they remain conscious and go mad over the centuries), followed by a couple more.  When they finally encounter one that isn’t petrified or mad, it manages to secure their cooperation without them even realizing what’s going on.  They agree to destroy the seals that isolate the ancient city – now revealed to be an Aboleth city that was ravaged by the magics of the Olman gods – which will destroy the hold the Kopru have over the island.

It’s not really a perfect solution, as it trades the predations of the Kopru for the cosmic madness of the Aboleth, but it’s a better solution than what’s going on now.

And finally, they reach the city.

For me, this was a direct reference to Lovecraft’s only long work, At the Mountains of Madness, even going so far as to include a vaguely public domain version of a Shoggoth.  The city in question is Golismorga, a showcase of weird biotechnology – the buildings are described in the most awful manner possible, talking of randomly sprouting eyes and oozing, wound-like orifices – and general blasphemy.  Much of the lore of the city derives from the 3.5 book, Lords of Madness, where the Aboleth gods and cosmic horrors are detailed a little more.

I loved it, going into greater and greater description of the writhing insanity that the city was built on.  It didn’t help that they happened upon what amounted to being a tour guide in the form of Rakis-Ka, a peculiar form of wandering undead known as a Devourer.  I played Rakis-Ka as a direct callback to the Cenobites of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, given the weird extraplanar origins of Devourers in general.  They’re supposed to be wanderers on the cosmic verge that end up being driven mad and turned into undead by the strange dimensions they discover.  Combined with the fact that Rakis-Ka specifically wanted to tear their souls apart only added to the characterization.

There’s a scenario maguffin in the form of the divine relic that wiped out the Aboleth which the characters have to destroy as part of the adventure.  Generally, it’s just a static pile of Hit Points and Hardness, but it happens to be guarded by a Neh-Thalggu.  These are fascinatingly wretched abominations that collect the brains of their victims and use them to power their abilities.  The Neh-Thalggu in question believes that it can use the maguffin to escape back to its home plane, so it takes the interference of the PC’s as innately hostile to its goals.

On their own, the Neh-Thalggu and Rakis-Ka aren’t terrible threats to the overall ability of the characters, but in my case, the two monsters teamed up to beat the PC’s senseless.  It was poor timing on the part of my players, but they managed to survive the encounter, more or less, destroying the maguffin and moving on to the final encounter.

The last fight takes place in what amounts to being the only dungeon in this module, a weird and fleshy pyramid that has been reconsecrated to Demogorgon.  (Rakis-Ka was especially fond of this place, as it was something of ‘a heresy lain over top of an abomination’ or something similar.)  The pyramid acts as the final step in the production of the black pearls, as they are strengthened in a substance called ‘the Black Bile of the World,’ a caustic and flammable sort of oil that my players immediately grew to loathe.  In Golarion terms, it amounted to being the unholy blood of the god Rovagug, referenced here as Holashner.  Within the pyramid was a leveled Kopru Cleric of Demogorgon and one final abomination, a tentacled creature that looked similar to a Carrion Crawler but was adapted to swimming in the Black Bile.  Since it had unrestricted movement and vision, along with Fast Healing, in the Black Bile, it just swam around in it while taking pot shots at the group.

Between this creature and the Kopru Cleric, my players were nearly ready to give up on the module.  I’d recently allowed them to advance their characters into Mythic Progression, as per the recently released hardcover from Paizo, but even so, they were stymied by the encounter.  Much as I loved the setting, the combination of the two monsters ground the game down to the point that there was a collective vote for a hiatus.

We’ll see what happens when we pick the Adventure Path back up, but for the time being, thus ends my overview of Savage Tide.  Further updates as situation warrants.

Savage Tide #5 – Tides of Dread

The end of the last module had the characters narrated through the remaining twenty odd miles worth of jungle to the gateway to the civilized lands at Tanaroa.  From there, they were conducted directly toward the colonial village of their patron at Farshore, their arrival coinciding directly with an attack by pirates.

Or at least, this is what will happen if you proceed directly from the end of the last module into Tides of Dread.  My group managed a sidetrip for the sake of both flavor and experience.

Back in Dungeon Magazine #114, Paizo had decided to set an adventure on the Isle of Dread, using the setting for a one-off adventure with heavy weather, benevolent zombie masters and the requisite dinosaur encounter.  Torrents of Dread had the crew of a expedition ship arrive outside the village of Mora where a sinister plot threatened to lay waste to the surrounding civilized villages.

What’s interesting about this module is that it was published almost exactly two years before Paizo started into the Savage Tide Adventure Path, and the accompanying article outlines most of the relevant plot of the path, as far as the events that take place on the Isle of Dread are concerned.  Most of the Demogorgon subplot is downplayed, other than the brief mention of the Demon Lord as the patron of the foul and degenerate Kopru.  Much like the original Expert Module that it was based from, the adventurers are largely assumed to have arrived on the island before the plot of the module starts.

The actual adventure for Torrents of Dread is centered on a dungeon crawl beneath the village of Mora, wherein the characters have their first encounter with the Kopru, the oddly non-Abomination creatures responsible for much of the strife surrounding the Isle of Dread.  In the context of this module, they’re something of an end boss, lying at the end of the dungeon complex as they attempt to summon what seems to be a manifestation of a Lovecraftian Elder God to destroy the island.  All in all, the adventure is a short one, but it’s pretty evocative, incorporating both the natives of the Isle and its dread masters.  Once this threat was eliminated, my player characters found their way to the colony of Farshore, where a pirate attack was already underway.

As module openers go, this was pretty good.  The pirates are rampaging through the village, and the characters are on a timetable, needing to put down the attack as quickly as they can before the place burns down around them.  As it happened, the group separated, with each character charging after a particular objective.  A couple of characters went to deal with rescuing villagers and dousing fires, while the more martial characters converged on the actual pirates, putting them down as quickly as possible to repel the attack.  In the end, the pirates limp away, and Lavinia emerges to welcome the characters to the long-sought colony that her parents had founded.

There’s a momentary subplot where the characters take to interrogating one of the only surviving pirates, with the option of turning him from the path of evil.  The upshot is that they learn of the longer term goals of the pirate fleet, who intends to return in two months to destroy the place.  And just like that, the clock is ticking again.

The meat of this particular adventure lies with the preparations for war that Farshore has to undertake before the fleet returns.  Much of this is dealt with inside the village, as they organize work crews and short expeditions to shore up the defenses, but there’s plenty to do on the main island itself.  These divide neatly into four separate plots that need to be taken care of over the span of the following eight weeks.

In no particular order, these plots involve the characters salvaging the Sea Wyvern, gaining access to the island’s tar pits, reclaiming the lost artifacts of a dead civilization, and appeasing an aspect of the local volcano god.

Salvaging the Sea Wyvern is a fairly straightforward venture, even though the wreck has been inhabited in the mean time by a Kopru Druid.  He puts up a token amount of resistance before the logistics of overhauling a wrecked ship and returning it to a seaworthy state have to be dealt with.

Gaining access to the island’s tar pits, in comparison, is a much gnarlier affair, as the characters have to deal with a named Tyrannosaur whose hide is scarred with decades of combat.  Temauhti-Tecuani, the dinosaur in question, is a CR 11 encounter whose templates bump it up into solid challenge.  When the characters are finished with this ancient and legendary foe, they’re welcomed by the local tribe of Phanatons, the small monkey-like sentient species that appeared in the first iteration of this adventure.  In gratitude for the characters’ assistance, the Phanaton shepherd them back to their village, holding a celebration in their honor.  And when the characters inquired about the lost civilization of the Rakasta, the Phanaton offer to guide the characters to the last temple.

In the scope of Savage Tide, the Rakasta have been eliminated by the Kopru over the centuries, leaving only their temple and its store of artifacts.  The temple is, naturally, a dungeon crawl.  In fact, it’s really the only one in this module, which is noteworthy in and of itself.  As dungeon crawls go, it’s pretty thin, consisting of about four rooms in all.  It makes up for it with an interesting NPC ally, in the form of a couatl guardian that essentially tests the motives of the characters before offering them his future assistance (components for a Planar Ally spell) and the stock of old weaponry left behind by the lost and lamented Rakasta.  This includes three fairly decent magic weapons, none of which were terribly remarkable.

Finally, the characters were tasked with appeasing a god.  Which, for what it was worth, was easier than it might appear on the surface.

In their travels to the civilized native villages on the island, they happened upon a ritual to Zotzilaha, the fire bat aspected god of the island’s volcanoes.  Once the ritual is completed, the aspect of Zozilaha appears and pronounces doom upon those assembled unless he is appeased for the wrong that has been done against him.  It seems that one of the idols of Zotzilaha has been stolen, and unless it is returned, there will be righteous anger.

This is one of those points where the puppet master behind some of the events of the module series shows up.  Back in module #3, the characters had ventured into the ruins of Tamoachan, exploring the ruins therein and finding what seemed to be an oddly out-of-place golden idol that had recently been placed there.  This was the machination of one of the unknown allies of the party, who had caused the idol to be stolen in the first place in order to direct where the characters ventured next.  Being player characters, it was assumed that they brought the statue with them, as it was specifically made of gold.  This is the wrong that was done against Zotzilaha, the golden idol stolen from his shrine.  And once the characters figure this out, they have to return it.

This offers another opportunity for the characters to gain a little experience and some magic items, as the aspect of the volcano god is pleased by their efforts and allows them to plunder his stockpile of sacrifices.  (And again, the hand of the hidden puppet master is revealed when an extra magic item shows up in the stockpile.  It’s sort of funny, in that the reaction of this fearsome god of fire and doom is that of confusion.  Since he has no idea why the item is with the other relics, he just gives it to the characters with a deific shrug.)

Once all of this has been dealt with, the characters return to Farshore to take on the pirate fleet.

I wish I could say that this was a tense and epic battle.  It really wasn’t, from where I was sitting.  Each of the various sub-adventures and colonial improvements to Farshore netted a certain amount of Victory Points, the tally of which would determine the basic outcome of the battle, as it happened around the characters.  If they sat on the beach and drank a succession of daiquiris for the intervening two months, the battle would generally wreck Farshore.  If they did as expected and busted their collective asses to accomplish as many things on the checklist as possible, they’d be able to save Farshore with fairly low casualties.

As it was, my players managed to hit most of the requisite things on the checklist, and when the pirate fleet showed up, they dropped the local equivalent of an artillery blast on the fleet as it sailed into sight.  (This was actually pretty noteworthy, in that they picked one ship in particular to lay waste to, and it happened to derail a significant amount of the plotted events for the invasion.  I shrugged and moved onto the next event.  It made things rather easy.)

The final battle ended up being a pitched combat on the deck of the flagship, where the characters once again came face to face with Vanthus Vanderboren, the villainous brother to their beloved patron, Lavinia.  Having warped his form to that of a half-fiend and trained up in the mean time, he’s a rather deadly encounter, offering the proper sort of villainy to challenge the plots of the player characters.  And should he think he’s about to lose, he attempts to trigger another Savage Tide, similar in scope to the one that pretty much destroyed Kraken Cove.

What was interesting about this battle was that the players had been itching for this fight since the early parts of the first module, when Vanthus trapped them beneath Parrot Island in Sasserine.  They’d found the remains of Penkus, the other man that had been trapped there by Vanthus and vowed to exact their revenge on this odious blackguard.  True to their nature, they brought Vanthus low and recited the relevant parts of Penkus’ vow.  They finally had the chance to destroy their most hated nemesis, and everything else was just icing for them.

Savage Tide #4 – Here There Be Monsters

So.  Let’s brainstorm for just a moment, shall we?  Let’s say that you want to showcase everything that makes your module tick in one single instant, catapulting the characters into the action that you want them to remember and be able to talk about for years to come.  You want an iconic opening to the adventure that calls back to the dusty old glory days of early D&D, when your imagination threw you into the action just a little bit faster than you were really prepared for.  You want something so simply awesome that your players realize why you’ve been wanting to run this particular module series all this time, and you’re able to hand them the payoff.

I’ll give you a second on that one.  And keep in mind that this is coming in the aftermath of the harrowing wreck of the PC’s boat in a vicious tropical storm, so it has to be something truly special to compete with that.  Also, this is the new version of an old classic, so it has to keep some parts of what made the original good.

“As you pick yourself out of the surf, wracked and aching from the swim to shore after the wreck of the Sea Wyvern, you pause to get your bearings.  Out of the jungle a short distance away, there is a crashing sound and a truly massive Tyrannosaurus Rex bursts from the foliage, bellowing.  It sights your characters and charges…”

If you came up with anything resembling the previous, you have my congratulations.  But after all, this is the Isle of Dread.  Both of the original modules and the cover of Dungeon #139 (the first module in the path) took special care to feature the iconic Tyrannosaur attack.  This shouldn’t have stumped anyone that’s familiar with the originals.

The basic upshot of this module is that the characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere and have to find their way to the semi-civilized lands of the Isle of Dread.  Separated from their patron, Lavinia, their ship was cast ashore on the north side of the island, while the rest of the expedition waits for them on the south side of the island, several hundred miles distant.  The characters are saddled with a contentious lot of NPC’s that they have to shepherd with them, and a number of dangerous encounters lie between them and the colony of Farshore.

In a lot of ways, it’s sad that Paizo gave up the rights to republish these adventures with the rights to the magazines that they appeared in.  I would have loved to have seen a comprehensive treatment of both this and Age of Worms, along the same lines as the Shackled City book.

Instead, they have had to go back over similar ground in their recent products, with the strikingly similar set-up that serves as the opening for the Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path.  The characters are shipwrecked on an island some ways out of Eleder (the Golarion repaint of Sasserine), saddled with a contentious lot of NPC’s that they have to shepherd about the island, and they eventually make their way to a forgotten underground city.  The difference is that there’s no lead-in to the shipwreck, per se, thereby cutting out the introductory modules that I felt improved Isle of Dread in this particular retelling.

We’ll get to the underground city in module #6, for what that’s worth.

From the beach to civilization is something like 120 miles, which the module notes will take something like 10 days to cover.  Since the shoreline tends towards sheer cliffs through a lot of this, and there are water hazards aplenty, the only real way south is overland, through the jungle and mountains.  Following up from the previous wilderness based module, Paizo plunges forward with another wilderness module.  There are, naturally, two dungeons in the midst of all this exploration.

There’s another vague mechanic of ‘ration supplies for the long trip’, but if the party has a Cleric, a Druid or a Ranger, none of this is worth worrying over.  It’s an interesting inclusion, I suppose to create tension and a sense of waning resources, but skill and magic remove most of the inherent risk in any of this.  Not to mention the abundant Terror Birds in the first part.

This was an amusing part of the module for my players.  The first leg of the journey took place in a section of jungle that Paizo saw fit to stock with an abundance of Terror Birds, to the point that they named the area for them.  After the Monster Island sidetrip in the last module, where the Terror Birds were the least of the antagonists – which is saying something, given that they’re 10-foot tall predatory birds that hunt in packs – they treated the multiple random encounters as chances to refresh their food stocks.

The end of the jungle offers up the first dungeon, an old outpost that was abandoned when the main civilization of the island fell to ruin.  As dungeons go, it didn’t offer a great deal of challenge, save for the point when one of the player characters contracted Mummy Rot.

So, here’s the thing.  There is nothing that will change the tenor of a game quite like an incurable disease.  The party specifically lacked a Cleric, having bridged the healing gap up to this point with a Druid and a number of curative wands.  The Barbarian had taken a couple of levels of Oracle for the sake of Prestige Class, but it was nowhere near enough juice to overcome both the Cure Disease and Remove Curse aspect of things.

From this point forward the Gun Mage (a variant of Magus, based on the ideas in the old Iron Kingdoms book) limped along, suffering progressive Constitution and Charisma damage as the disease wound its course.  The PC Druid and the NPC Druid/Expert threw their stock of Lesser Restorations at him on a daily basis, but the spell resistant nature of Mummy Rot – succeed in a DC 20 Caster Check to use Conjuration (Healing) spells against it – made it so only about half of these spells actually succeeded.  And a daily -2d6 Ability Drain is difficult to balance against +1d4 Restoration.

In the end, the rest of the party had to pitch in with their spare Belts of Constitution and Headbands of Charisma to ensure that he didn’t die from the disease as they picked their way down the coast towards civilization.  Without the benefit of these two items, he would have died in the process, so badly had he been afflicted.

The second half of the module deals with a strange and corrupt area in the interior of the island, where the pervasive effects of a temple to Demogorgon has slowly warped the landscape.  Within the ruins of a forgotten village, the vague disquiet manifests in a fairly Lovecraftian fashion, as the plant and animal life twists and writhes with pale tumors and twitching deformations.  There’s a specifically Colour Out of Space vibe to the area, along with a Ravenloft inspired mist that turns the characters around any time they seek to escape the area.

Up to this point, the master of the temple, a wandering Bar-Lgura has been screwing with the characters, casting its various illusions and mischief towards the party to unsettle them.  It runs the gamut from Blair Witch styled stick and dead bird sculptures to using magical darkness to douse the light of their campfires.  There’s a weird sort of subplot involved with the various occurrences, which the players are never going to suss out, so it comes down to having this creature just fuck with the party out of amusement.  This is continued with a crucified Zombie that the demon leaves out to speak cryptically to the characters when they arrive in the area.

At one point, the Bar-Lgura and his mates kidnap the Gnomish Comic Relief to drag back to their temple, thereby ensuring that the characters deal with this nonsense.  It seems sort of unnecessary, being that they need to find and lay low the temple simply to leave the area, but I suppose it speeds things along that way.

The Temple is actually a pretty decent dungeon, and I don’t say that lightly.  It has a lot of interesting call-backs to the old-style dungeons of 1st Edition, with traps, puzzles, and weird monsters.  The weirdest, in some ways, was the Mob-template horde of Fiendish Baboons.  I’d never run into Mobs in any other format, so it took a little reading to make sense of.  And I’ll bitch about Paizo’s weird Monkey Subplot tendencies later.  At least it makes sense to include them in this adventure, given the nature of Demogorgon.

In the end, they have to deal with the Bar-Lgura in what amounts to being a cinematic showdown within the Inner Shrine to Demogorgon.  Their Gnomish Comic Relief is being lowered, round by round, into a fire pit.  The demon is busily bouncing around from foe to foe, and there’s a definite clock running out as the PC’s try to deal with a fairly canny and intelligent foe on his home turf.  It’s a difficult battle, but not impossible, and in the end, he’s dealt with in a properly dramatic manner.  At which point, the ancient cursed statue of Demogorgon animates and attacks, giving the player characters very little breathing room as it tries to finish what the Bar-Lgura started.

Once both the statue and the demon are dead, the characters find they can escape the occluding fog that has stranded them in the jungle.  I had swapped out a minor magic item from the Temple’s coffers for a requisite Scroll with both Remove Curse and Remove Disease, allowing the Gun Mage to survive the trek across the island.  The module ends with the destruction of the Temple, essentially narrating the characters’ eventual return to civilization.

Savage Tide #3 – The Sea Wyvern’s Wake

Two notes of addendum to the previous entry:  The corresponding Dragon Magazine entry for the adventure path dealt with the surrounding area near Sasserine (some of which dealt with references to Shackled City, which was set in the area as well), but none of the interesting stuff is built out very much.  There’s the impression that a good portion of these adventure hooks were meant for flavor, as there’s a bit more of an imperative to follow the threads within the adventure path itself.  Were there a longer game set in Sasserine, these would be great to work with and follow up on for the sake of a campaign.  As it is, the characters are supposed to be gearing up and getting on a boat at the outset of this module.

And that’s the second addendum.  The characters found a boat in the last adventure.

The boat in question was one of the spare pirate ships that was salvageable from the flaming wreckage of Kraken Cove once the Savage Tide Pirates had been dealt with.  This was one of those strange points where I ‘suggested’ that one of the player characters invest in the relevant skills for sailing, as it would otherwise have been left behind when they had to flee back to Sasserine to save Lavinia.  So, at about third level, the player characters have their own boat, the Sea Wyvern.  Which brings us to the name of the module.

By and large, this is an exploration module, with what amounts to be only one dungeon in the midst of it all.  As it went, I really liked this as a change of pace, having dealt with fairly tedious dungeon crawls in each of the first two modules.  The characters are more or less stuck on board their ship, navigating about 3,000 miles over the course of nearly three months time and stopping occasionally for supplies and to investigate strange happenings.

The module comes with a stock of NPC’s whose purpose is mainly to inconvenience the characters with their wacky shenanigans, including the overprivileged noble who insists on bringing his horse, the optional NPC captain if none of the player characters can sail, the annoying Gnome archetype who serves as comic relief and so on.  There’s also a continuing subplot concerning the former leader of the thieves’ guild that the characters destroyed at the end of the first module.  She’s stowed away on the ship and starts vaguely sabotaging various things on the expedition.

This was a weird sort of thing, to be honest.  I’d thought about playing up this particular idea, but the more I tried to implement it in the scope of the adventure, the more pathetic it seemed.  The last time the characters had seen the NPC in question, she’d been canny and prepared, able to escape from what seemed like a dead end trap.  There had been a vague sort of reprisal in the second module, when assassins had been sent after the characters on their way to save Lavinia, but that ended up being more of a distraction than anything else.

So, to have the NPC master of the thieves’ guild show up, broken and ruined by the efforts of the player characters and seeking some petty sort of revenge…  it just seemed sad.  There’s also the implication that the characters can just toss her overboard once she’s discovered.  As far as recurring villains go, she honestly could have played a much more interesting role in the further adventures, but as she was presented here, I didn’t even bother.  I’d already been too disinterested to make the raid on the thieves’ guild much more than a by-the-numbers dungeon, and having this character return this way was a bit of a waste of time.

The various encounters along the voyage are pretty simple and straightforward, including a pirate attack, a single ruins exploration (a callback to the AD&D module, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan), and a couple of monster attacks.  The dungeon isn’t anything terribly complex, and along with adding flavor, it offers a bit of foreshadowing and some amount of puppet mastery on the part of as-yet hidden manipulators.

There were two encounters that stood out in the course of the adventure, one of which was intentional on the part of the module writer, and one that strangely appealed to my players.  The bigger one amounts to being the end set piece of the module, a sort of ghost story setting in a haunted sargasso where the players end up trapped with their ship for the foreseeable future.  The sargasso is the result of a massive intelligent plant that has drawn in ships over course of apparent decades.  The characters investigate the various wrecks, even as zombie-like plants animate and attack them, whispering over the green stillness in the dead of night.

So, yeah.  Horror sidequest.  I was a huge fan of it.

The other encounter was an island shortly before the Sea Wyvern is forcibly separated from Lavinia’s ship, the Blue Nixie, by a storm.  The two ships happen upon a sizable rock in the middle of the ocean, some 150 miles long and given to 1,000 foot cliffs.  The text of the module states that there’s very little of interest to be found on the island interior, but it’s home to Terror Birds, Rocs, and Monstrous Vermin.  For my own purposes, I framed it as a sort of Monster Island type Kaiju encounter.  From their ships, they saw what appeared to be normal sized birds circling the cliffs, along with normal seeming crabs, until such point as one of the scholars pointed out the massive height of the cliffs themselves.  They ended up scaling the cliffs, fighting a flock of Terror Birds and a giant crab roughly the size of a minivan, and returning with all manner of food.

Speaking of which…  there was a strange sort of mechanic that had been suggested for inclusion within the module, where the characters had to track their food supplies over the course of the voyage.  This would have added tension with the NPC that insisted on bringing along his horse, as well as any sort of delay for exploration, but for the most part, there are plenty of opportunities to replenish both food and water, so the whole thing seems like an exercise in pointless accounting.  And when the characters can bring down a herd of Terror Birds and a Giant Crab of legend and note, there’s not much incentive.

Once the characters are free of the weird horror of the sargasso and have reoriented themselves towards the distant horizon and the Isle of Dread, it’s pretty much straight narration from that point on.  They manage to run afoul of another massive tropical storm, having been separated from Lavinia’s ship with the first one, and finish the module shipwrecked off the shore of the Isle.  All in all, it’s a pretty dramatic end to their trip, and with the opening of the next module, they drag themselves ashore, untold miles from their destination.

Savage Tide #2 – The Bullywug Gambit

I’ll admit it.  I find dungeon crawls to be somewhat tedious.  I realize that it’s part and parcel of the D&D Experience, such as it is, but my tastes in more cinematic games have ruined me for the 5-foot square and dropping into tactical combat for the sake of filling the experience point bar.  There are a minimum of two serious dungeons in every single Paizo module, even when the rest of the adventure is based on some other general idea.  Even Kingmaker, with its wide open hex-based exploration included enough dungeon crawl action to keep the grognards from howling.

So, for better or worse, I’ve found myself abbreviating certain parts of my adventures when the action reduces itself to room by room explorations and tactical maps.  I’m not even remotely possessed of the OSR reclamation of rubbing every surface within a room to discover the hidden compartments, simply because I look around my own house and see how much time would be spent doing that here, only to find a collection of lint balls and the occasional lost dice that the cats had decided to bat under the couch.

In the first module, I accelerated the dungeon in the thieves’ guild.  For the purposes of this module, I sped up the action to retake Lavinia’s mansion.

This one was a little frustrating, for reasons other than the dungeon crawl aspect of it all.  I mean, I understand that the dictates of the module design require that extraneous space be cut whenever possible, and were it done any other way, the mansion would have ended up being printed twice in the course of two magazines.  I also understand that, if Paizo had been given the opportunity, they would have revised the flow of things in a collected version, allowing the map to show up in an appendix and referencing it as needed.  Be all of that as it may, it would have been nice to have the chance to wander around Lavinia’s mansion when it was first introduced in the beginning of the first module.  Instead, the first real experience of the place comes when it’s been repurposed as a dungeon for the characters to move through, room by room.

That aside, I think it was my perusal of this module that sold me on running the path in the first place.

The first half of the module concerns itself with following up on a lead on finding Vanthus, the estranged brother of the characters’ patron.  After failing to lay hands on him at the end of the first module, the characters have a tip that he’s left the city to a hidden pirate base some forty miles down the coast.  The characters either charter a boat or hire passage from a local fisherman, and some time later, they arrive ashore outside Kraken’s Cove.

Their first indication that things have gone off the rails comes in the form of vague foreshadowing – hundreds of dead and disfigured animals lie along the beach and the edge of the jungle, their forms twisted with unnatural growths and mutations.  In the distance, a plume of smoke rises from the hidden caves in Kraken’s Cove.  And as they venture closer, things only get worse.

Half of the pirate base is on fire, many of the personnel are dead from similar chaotic disfigurement, and those that are still alive are almost universally savage and deranged.  And the one sane person in the place only has the vaguest of ideas what has gone wrong.  It isn’t until the sixth module that any of the causes start to make sense to the player characters, which is the point that the apocalyptic scope of the underlying conspiracy starts to become clear.

The practical upshot is that Vanthus triggered a potent magic item that induced the wave of chaos (called a ‘Savage Tide’ as a name check), thereby cluing him into the larger events that he intends to be involved in.  He managed to ride out the wave of chaos and escape, leaving the characters to deal with the aftermath.  The pirate base is a fairly interesting dungeon scenario, but with a couple of tweaks, it could become more of a blockbuster action sequence, with toppling rope bridges, drifting pirate ships and daring swings across smoky expanses of water.  (Most of this is already present, but it’s sadly de-emphasized.)

The air of mystery and the wreckage of a catastrophic event were what sold me, and the potential for high action is a solid hook.  Sadly, like many Paizo adventures, there isn’t much art to portray the setting for players.  I would have liked a view of the cove, ships on fire and strange figures capering on the beach, to use as a visual aid before sending my player characters to their eventual doom.

Once inside, the characters find the one surviving pirate, who fills them in on what she knows.  In an odd twist to the normal adventure logic, she’s to become something of a persistent ally, but only after the characters deal with the large attack force she mistakenly sent as revenge.  She knew Vanthus by reputation, and assuming that he was still living in Sasserine, she sent a group to attack him there.  As a strange irony, they end up at Lavinia’s house, taking her hostage even though she’s similarly indisposed towards her brother.

There’s also a bit of a subplot dealing with another faction seeking revenge for the destruction of the thieves’ guild in the first module, but this is a momentary thing, alongside the festival held in the honor of the defeat of Kyuss.  (This is a callback to the previous adventure path, Age of Worms.)  The players struggle their way through the crowds for the festival, get to the mansion, and fight their way through a throng of bullywugs to their pirate ally’s first mate.

In the mean time, the bullywug tribe (which had been recruited by the first mate) exists mainly as experience fodder, as no one particularly cares if they’re killed off.  Even when the characters find the crewmen, they vaguely shrug when a bullywug priest decides to attack in the face of a peaceful resolution.

In the end, the characters clean up the mess made from killing a tribe of subhumans mistakenly sent by someone they’re likely to rely upon later.  And the largest dungeon of the module is their patron’s house, thereby losing the proper ability to loot the place.  It’s a strange end to the adventure, but there you go.

 

 

 

Savage Tide Review #1 – There Is No Honor

Back in the olden days of D&D 3.5, well before Wizards of the Coast forced them to build their own version of the rules to compete, Paizo was content to run the venerable Dungeon and Dragon Magazines.  They maintained them more or less as TSR always had, with the occasional sop to other gaming companies and their products, but focusing mainly on selling D&D books to people that already knew they wanted more.

It was within the pages of these magazines that Paizo patiently honed their craft, almost as though in preparation for the schism that would propel their company into the big time.  Starting with Shackled City, they built complex strings of adventures into full campaigns, taking adventurers from 1st level all the way into the epic range at 20th.  Before the license for the magazines reverted to Wizards of the Coast, they had managed three such early Adventure Paths, following Shackled City with Age of Worms and concluding the twin magazines’ run with Savage Tide.

Savage Tide fascinated me.  I remember paging through Module X1, The Isle of Dread, back in the day, fascinated by the ideas of it.  Included with the Expert Set D&D Rules (the Basic Set Rules covered levels 1~3, and came with a copy of The Keep on the Borderlands), it took the adventurers on a sea voyage that brought them to an unexplored island on the southern edge of exploration.  If memory serves, it had been set in Mystara, the default setting for all things involved with BECMI D&D.  Therein, the explorers dealt with dinosaurs and a scattering of weird, unplayable races of native creatures.  Generally, it was a showcase for hex-based wilderness adventuring, setting it apart from the more dungeon-based adventures of the Basic Set.

And Savage Tide was Paizo’s attempt to bring it all back home.  They’d moved it from Mystara to Greyhawk, built out the progression to offer a lead-in to the great southern expedition, and finished it out with a multi-planar climax to depose the arch-demon responsible for the underlying conspiracy.

Why did this interest me?  Well, I’ll be honest.  Every single module in the series had one element that I absolutely adored.  No matter how the rest of the path fell together, no matter what sort of dull as toast dungeon crawl was put in to fill space – there was always some element that I absolutely wanted to run, somewhere in the module.  This is not to say that the modules were bad, by any means, but there is a bit of a formula to many of them.

The first adventure in the series starts off simply enough:  The characters are tasked with resolving a minor dispute between a noblewoman and a corrupt harbormaster.  Naturally, this whole affair sets the stage for greater intrigues, as there are other factions and interests moving against the noblewoman, even as the characters get involved.

From there, the characters accompany their patron to retrieve the family fortunes from the city vaults (most of the reason she wanted to settle the dispute with the harbormaster was to retrieve her father’s signet from the ship held by the city), only to discover that someone had already looted her inheritance.  The game was afoot.

Together with that month’s Dragon Magazine, the players were given a pretty well detailed rundown of Sasserine, the southern city founded as an outpost for the more civilized lands to the north.  In the scope of Greyhawk, it was hell and gone from anything remotely cosmopolitan, sitting on the edge of the Amedio Jungle.  For my purposes, setting the game in Paizo’s Golarion, it ended up in Eleder, the southern port city on the edge of this world’s untamed jungle continent.  Any amount of reading showed the general lack of concern within the Paizo staff, as both cities shared very similar origins and traits.  Both were established as frontier settlements centuries before, largely abandoned by their colonial masters, and take their names from the women whose acts of bravery allowed the cities to be founded in the first place.  The only serious difference lies with the respective sizes of the cities themselves, as Sasserine is about twice the size of Eleder, a difference that I assume is due to its role in the Adventure Path as the home base for the player characters.

The only downside to any of this is that, by its very nature, the characters are only going to be able to spend a couple of levels wandering around Sasserine before they have to set sail for the unknown.  Sasserine is extremely detailed for the purposes of setting, and in proper Paizo fashion, filled with all manner of possible intrigues with all of the various factions that the players are allowed to join up with.  And being that half of the second module takes place outside of the city, the actual time spent in the city amounts to being a module and a half.  As of the third module, the ships have set sail for adventure and whatnot.

In the scope of There is No Honor, there are what amounts to be two dungeon crawls.  I found the second one, set in the underground warrens of a small thieves’ guild, to be somewhat tedious, as only a couple of the encounters served to actually advance the plot.  (This was where I dropped a couple of hints to my players, advising them to put out the money for a judiciously applied Wand of Sleep to speed the adventure on.)

In comparison, the first one is still muttered about in hushed tones and undisguised scowls.

Upon discovering that her fortunes have been plundered, the characters’ patron, Lavinia, sets them on the trail of her estranged brother, Vanthus.  As they’re to find out, Vanthus was specifically responsible for the ill fortunes that have befallen Lavinia in recent months, starting with murdering their parents and culminating in stealing everything that he could lay hands on.  Lavinia, for her part, wants to redeem her brother from whatever evil he’s doing, but this ends up being a short-lived goal.

Tracking down Vanthus, the characters are lured to an old smuggler’s den on one of the unclaimed islands in the city’s harbor.  Once there, they are trapped inside the network of tunnels by Vanthus, who kills the informant that led them there, tosses his body down the hole they’ve descended into, cuts the rope and rolls a boulder over the mouth of the hole itself.

It should go without saying that the players are bent on revenge from this point forward.

What follows is a harrowing exploration of undead ridden warrens, disastrous encounters with flesh-eating crabs, and a daring escape through a submerged sea tunnel into the bay.  Along the way, they find the corpse of a former ally of Vanthus, whose hand-written note swears revenge from beyond the grave.  If they could have managed it, my player characters would have made this guy their patron saint.

There was an interesting sort of unstated mechanic in the module, where it became a better option for the characters to rely on Armor spells rather than actually invest in physical armor.  Most of the adventure takes place around open water (not counting the escape through 70 foot of underwater tunnels), so a character in any sort of armor would be at a serious disadvantage.  The module provides a Wand of Armor early on, and it isn’t until some point in the fourth module that the characters started needing to actually invest in real protection.  Even then, they’d come to rely on Cloaks of the Manta Ray (one is found during the third module, thereby showcasing its utility), so as to minimize the danger of trying to swim in armor.

Reviving Ravenloft – A look at the Carrion Crown Adventure Path (Part Five)

My, how times have changed.

Way back in 1980, TSR published Deities & Demigods as a supplement to 1st Edition AD&D.  It was meant as a broad survey of various pantheons drawn from world mythology, but knowing their audience, they included mythology that was drawn from the source material that Dungeons & Dragons itself was based on – namely information culled from H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, Fritz Lieber’s Nehwon stories, Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga and the King Arthur legends.  None of this would have been a problem, had Cthulhu and Elric not already been licensed to be made into RPG’s by Chaosium.  TSR had wrangled out the permission to print them, so long as they included a credit in the text to Chaosium for allowing them to use the likenesses.  The second and subsequent printings of the book removed the two sections, shortening the book and making the original printing collectible.

With the passage of 30 years has loosened the copyrights on Cthulhu related material, to the point that Cthulhu now seems to appear everywhere as a sort of call sign to anyone interested in eldritch horror.  Steve Jackson has Cthulhu Dice and a variant of Munchkin, Fantasy Flight has the Arkham Horror boardgame, and Wildfire has CthulhuTech for the cyberpunk stylings, Cthonian Stars for a Traveller vibe, and The Void for a non-Traveller version.  These days, it’s sort of everywhere you look.

And with the Carrion Crown path, the Cthulhu Mythos makes its way to Golarion.

Strictest sense, Paizo had referenced it in Trial of the Beast, with the theft of the Seasage Effigy.  (I swear, the number of times I wanted to mispronounce it as the Sausage Effigy…)  Referenced in that module as a ‘grotesque statuette of murky green stone’, it was something of a unfulfilled maguffin, standing as the reason behind the apprehension of the Beast of Lepidstadt and not actually being seen again until the end of Wake of the Watcher.  There were references to the Plateau of Leng in both Rise of the Runelords and Legacy of Fire, and an ancient cult of Yog-Sothoth was noted in Kingmaker.  But in this path, they pulled out the stops.

Wake of the Watcher opens up with the advice of adapting the Carrion Hill (yet another Carrion-titled module; Wes Schneider notes that they need to find other words in one of the forewards) module to serve as a waypoint between the end of Broken Moon and the first act of this module.  Geographically and thematically, it makes a lot of sense to do so, but given the Cthulhu-based action of Carrion Hill, it ends up being a bit of a double whammy when it comes to overloading the Lovecraft adventures.

Carrion Hill is a solid enough module, about half the size of a normal Adventure Path installment, insofar as actual module text goes.  The characters arrive to find the aftermath of a smallish cult’s activities in summoning up that which they could not properly put down.  The characters are tasked by the mayor to investigate and clean up the mess, cycling through locations like an ancient shrine to darkness, an abandoned church and an asylum.  There are some wonderful visuals in the module, but it’s meant for a one or two night run, so it doesn’t delve into the madness as much as a longer module might.  There’s a final confrontation with a creature culled from Lovecraft’s archives, but most of the module is spent avoiding that particular fight.

From there, the characters move on to Illmarsh, the Golarion stand-in for Innsmouth, complete with their very own version of Devil’s Reef, here called the Tern Rocks.  The characters wander around the town, investigating vaguely on the auspices of the mayor, up to the point that he disappears and is never heard from again.

Illmarsh has some interesting set-pieces for the characters, but for some reason, it felt like there were a couple of missed opportunities in the adventure.  Lovecraft’s Innsmouth was a place of subtle dread, where the outsider was uniquely aware of his standing in the inbred and isolationist community.  Illmarsh was supposed to be something of an inversion of this idea, but there was never much that spoke of conspiracies or whispered warnings outside the windows.  There was a bit of a subplot of extra children being offered to mysterious ‘neighbors’, but there wasn’t any real build up to the fairly obvious reveal.

In comparison, there were quite a lot of strange and unsettling events that were to take place in Ravengro, the town in the shadow of a haunted prison where the path started.  There’s nothing of the sort to liven up Illmarsh for the time the characters spend there, even though Harrowstone Prison had once housed a famous serial killer from the very town.  If nothing else, I would have wanted to see some sort of closure about that in the text, just as a callback.

In the course of wandering around the town, the characters manage to topple the evil cult that has held sway over Illmarsh for some time and learn of the sinister principles that the town was originally founded on.  The ancient and decaying mansion on the edge of the swamps allows for a certain amount of flavor in the module, but it’s more of a historical waypoint than much of a diversion.

The final dungeon comes in the form of the caverns beneath the rocks, where the local version of Deep Ones hang out.  For whatever reason, Paizo chose to build out skum for this purpose, being that kuo-toa are considered brand identity of Dungeons & Dragons.  I would have assumed that sahuagin would have worked well enough, but this is the point where only grognards venture, so I’ll quietly back away.

There’s a strange subplot about the Mi-Go corrupting the rites and worship of the Dagonite skum, which could have been interesting in a longer scope, but here it has the unfortunate effect of derailing the adventure for the hardcore Cthulhu aficionados.  Not only does the module (especially in light of the inclusion of Carrion Hill) try to pack in way too much from the established Lovecraftian lore, but the idea that Deep Ones could be turned from the face of their gods pushes the narrative into unacceptable zones for some.  On a meta-narrative level, the Mi-Go are forced into the text of the adventure to allow the PC’s to catch up.  For that purpose, it makes sense.  Otherwise…  not so much.

There are a lot of aspects that I liked about both Carrion Hill and Wake of the Watcher, but in the end, it was trying to do far too much and failed to pull off the necessary parts.  Looking back at it now, I think I would simply change the motivations of the Deep Ones and have them betray the Dark Riders that had come to them for assistance.  It’s not as narratively dramatic as a Mi-Go incursion, but it ends up being much less intrusive.

As a note, this may be my final retrospective on the Carrion Crown Adventure Path for a little while.  Our weekly game has taken a hiatus from the module series, and further discussion of the path would be based on my reading of the text, rather than the experience of running it.

Painting realism on the unreal

A dear friend of mine, who also happens to be an award winning game designer, once talked about hosting a deep and professional discussion about game design with a ban on terms like ‘immersive’ and ‘realism’.  There’s an awful lot of time and ink spent on trying to capture certain genies in certain bottles, even though the standard buy-in for a game has a lot more to do with how much fun the particular system and setting are going to be to play in.  While there’s a certain logic to trying to emulate recognizable real world effects within the scope of an RPG, it falls flat in the face of cinematic action and physics breaking magic.

Even in more real world based games, such as White Wolf’s different Worlds of Darkness, there’s a tendency to want to fall back on what would happen in reality, even though there’s no logical precedent given the nature of that specific reality.  Yes, there are parallels, but at the end of the day, people in the World of Darkness are used to frequent and unsolvable disappearances, shorter lifespans, and a whole host of secrets that are statistically unavoidable.  While a cursory glance at the world seems to suggest that it’s only mildly different than Real Life, the massive amounts of basic setting bloat tells a much different story.

Consider:  In Vampire, there are 13 main Clans, most of which have representatives in every major city.  There are a similar amount of Werewolf Tribes and Mage Factions.  In addition, the Mages have their counterparts in the form of the Technocracy, which gravitates to places of high technology and business like cities.  And Werewolves have their counterparts in the different Changing Breeds (another 13 types, if you include everything that was made extinct as well) and the forces of the Wyrm, which were supposed to be completely pervasive.  As in, most corporations were in thrall to the Wyrm, from McDonald’s to Hasbro to Budweiser to Dow Chemicals to Pfizer, as rendered in White Wolf equivalents as subsidiaries to Pentex.  Running counter to all of this are the Hunters, who are either normal humans with a dangerous amount of information or supernatural characters with invested powers and mysterious patrons.  This is not to factor any amount of Psychics, Wraiths, Changelings, Demons or otherwise.

Working on any basis of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory, you’ve got sixty some separate power groups and a huge corporate interest that’s lurking literally everywhere (and anyone who works at McDonald’s is likely to run some level of Wyrm taint, so that net is cast pretty wide), meaning that everyone is aware of some aspect of the larger secret world regardless of what the texts want you to believe.

So, with that in mind, how do you inject reality in a world with such unreal potential?

There’s a statistical notation that a 911 Emergency Call takes an average of 58 minutes to respond to and the police force has a rate of 8.7% for their ability to solve cases.  For our world, this is a bleak sort of reality for a bankrupt city and an overworked police force, with a declining population and a ridiculous amount of urban blight.

I have to assume that this sort of statistical notation would be standard in a World of Darkness game, from the view point of the average citizen.  Most crimes would be unsolvable (how exactly do you write up a police report when a Werewolf in full Crinos has Raged his way through a trailer park?), the city government would be in thrall to the high end vampire councils that run the city from the shadows, and violent crimes would be an everyday occurrence from the influence of the Wyrm.

Outside of the cities, it becomes weirder, as the Werewolf and Changing Breed populations have tried to corner the market on anything that’s remotely wilderness for the sake of keeping their breeding populations stable.  Sure, there are less in the way of Vampires to muck about with the city council, but there’s a lot more potential to attract the more subtle influences.  In specific, the small towns in World of Darkness America are implied to be the resting place of the Urban Legends sort of darkness, things outside of the standard game lines.

At this point, it comes down to the purposes of the game itself.  A true and proper World of Darkness requires that it rains when the night is darkest, and there’s no one there to hear your screams when you need them.  It’s about the basic style of the world, where services like the utility companies only fail when it’s dramatic and the police are open to bribes if the player characters seem convincing enough.

This sort of mechanism pretty much necessitates that the player expectations are met, even though there’s nothing else to suggest that the world should work this way.  As a GM more accustomed to the older methods of doing things, this starts to stray into a territory where most of the narrative is at the mercy of your players.  But unless there’s a good reason for it to work another way, there’s simply no harm in letting this control slip.  Even in a game where there is no mechanism to allow the players to alter the nature of the world, it can be a lot easier on the GM to let the players make the suggestions that keep everything running on the same tracks as their perceptions.

For my purposes, this would come about organically, with the players offering suggestions on things as they moved through the baselines of the world.  It could be done in varying levels of subtlety, ranging from casual observations of their reactions to things (“This shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes for the police to arrive”) to outright inquiries of what the players figure should happen.

This has the added effect of allowing the GM to underscore the grim nature of the setting when these expectations are not met.  If you know what the players have come to expect from the different aspects of the game, it will create a subtle tension when something goes wrong.  And even minor things, like a delay in emergency responders or a busy signal with the cable company, can prey on the minds of the players and characters alike.

On finding the right game for the idea in mind

There was an idea that I had for a game some years back, set in a world of high adventure and super powers, that I never got around to actually implementing.  Part of the problem was that I couldn’t find a system that fit the ideas I was trying to get to paper at the time.  As I’ve noted, I played plenty of Marvel Super Heroes back in the day, and there were a number of problems with the way the system worked as a dramatic vehicle.

For the moment, let’s consider the baseline setting idea that I had in mind.

The characters were low level heroes in a weirdly bleak alternate history America.  Weather patterns had skewed pretty badly due to some environmental catastrophe, and some parts of the country were deluged with constant rain while others suffered dramatic heat.  Somewhere along the way, super powers had started to manifest, but they were fairly haphazard and unpredictable.  (In a lot of ways, very similar to many of the themes in early Marvel, where it was difficult to replicate any sort of power.)

Most of the game was set in a noir-based Iron Age game, with the characters as unappreciated vigilantes who had come to see their intervention as the only thing that was keeping the fractured society from falling apart completely.

As a quick aside, the term Iron Age refers to the way comics shifted into more bleak and existential themes around the 1990’s, with more flawed heroes that relied on armor and weaponry rather than inexplicable super powers and heroic virtues.  Much of the shift owed to comics like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns as the first wave of the movement, and a good portion of the Image titles of the time reinforced the basic sentiments.  Low-powered vigilantes carried guns, wrestled with the morality of their cause, and were prone to crossing into anti-hero territory.

This sort of set-up makes it very difficult to build a game around.  MSH was a great game, and it carried a solid system for the Karma of the heroes, who were questioning their cause, but the random character generation made it particularly unwieldy to build out to a power level.  This is not to mention that its four color origins suggested something a little less grim in tone.  This is much the same reason I didn’t bother to consider using Icons, either.

The old, original DC Heroes RPG by Mayfair (later rebuilt without copyrighted material as the Blood of Heroes game by Pulsar) was a potential candidate, given the slightly grittier rules, but inevitably the exponential scale of things limited a certain amount of variability in character creation.  It’s a great system for being able to model characters at the different end of the power scale, but in the game I was looking to run, most of the characters fell on the lower end of the scale.  This was the main problem with Torg as well, being that its mechanics based on a logarithmic scale, as the actual variance between characters was often rather minimal.  It didn’t help that I have spent very little time with DC Heroes as a system, which helped knock it out of the running.

So much for games built in the 1980’s and since out of print.

On the more modern scale (accepting that two of these games are out of print, and one of them is ticking up in price accordingly), there are a pretty good selection of potential games.  From Margaret Weis Productions, there are the Smallville and Marvel Heroic games, both of which use the Cortex Plus rules.  My lack of experience with the system aside, neither one precisely fit, as Smallville is billed as being a proper coming-of-age aspected game and MHR is built to adapt existing characters from the comics more than work on character creation.

Despite its cost, I managed to lay hands on a set of Hero System 6th, which offers a massive toolkit to work out from.  Hero has a specific advantage in having a lot of supplemental material to work from, and despite its origins from the original Champions, it’s a fairly world-agnostic set.  The drawbacks come with the rules complexity and the sheer weight of the books in question.  Without someone to teach the rules, it’s a serious commitment of time to wade through the several hundred pages of rules to get an idea of how to build what I want.  But it’s still a contender.

The other game is Green Ronin’s Mutants & Masterminds, which distinguishes itself on the basis of having both easier rules (I know D20 from my years with D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder) and the fact that it delves heavily into the genres of super hero roleplaying.  The power levels as depicted in the game would allow for the variance that I need, with enough differentiation within those scales.

The main tweak that I would foresee within the framework of the game would be to alter the way experience was used in order to uphold the narrative.  One of the main problems with most super hero game systems is they have to try to bridge the gap between comics and RPG’s, and as such, they end up having to compromise.  RPG’s require a reward system to mark advancement.  Heroes in comics almost never advance in any meaningful way.  Spiderman never really advances his life or his powers beyond basic increments.  Yeah, he graduated high school at one point and went to college, but if you were to document his every appearance in various titles, he’d be simply awash in unspent experience points.  In some ways, it’s a bit weird on both sides of the equation.

And this is much of the basis for the game I have in mind, with specific upgrades at specific times.

A bit more on the idea I’d been working on…  As I noted, it would be low power.  The characters would be built on the Mystery Men or Noir power scale, where each character would have one single ability or gadget that set them apart.  (I would reference the Archie Comics super heroes, like the Web, the Fly and the Jaguar, but this is so esoteric as to be silly.)  The opening adventures would have the characters caught up in street-level intrigues, leading to some sort of eventual conspiracy along the lines of the main plot of the Watchmen.

The conspiracy would involve super hero augmentation, which would allow the established characters to boost themselves in power in one singular instant.  And since there were villains behind the augmentation program in the first place, that would allow adversaries of similar level to deal with.  The game would continue in this vein for a while until another conspiracy opened up, where it was discovered that the powers that the different characters were using had extremely strange limitations to them.  Characters that relied on powered armor found that no one else was able to make use of it.  Other powered characters would realize that there were strange ‘dead zones’ where no one’s powers were able to function, and so on.  All of this would be revealed during some strange crisis that would again boost the power level of different heroes and villains.

The eventual final reveal would be that there was an outside force that was wholly responsible for the weather flux and the powers that drove the heroes, and it would be a final choice of whether to fight back against this manipulation or continue on as they had, possessed of super powers but acting as pawns.  It would go back to a common theme of exactly what the price of freedom was worth.

As a final aside, it’s interesting to note that each of the main comics companies have been the subject of several different iterations of licensing, moving between various companies and systems.

Marvel was originally developed by TSR with the MSH rules.  Later, during the final years of TSR as a company, it was moved to SAGA rules, which had originally been developed to revitalize the Dragonlance brand for the company.  Marvel Comics themselves attempted an in-house RPG that apparently sold very well, but since it didn’t compare to either actual comic sales or the figures for Dungeons & Dragons, it withered away fairly quickly.  After that, it was picked up by Margaret Weis Productions, who produced a couple of books before letting the license lapse in light of the Disney acquisition of the properties.

In the mean time, DC Comics started off with Mayfair Games (who has since moved primarily into boardgames, since there tends to be better money there) who built an impressive range of supplements and adventures.  At one point, it was picked up by the weird French iteration of West End Games, who re-jiggered D6 rules to a heroic ruleset.  The books were a mess in terms of layout, but the rules were solid enough to inspire Jerry Grayson’s Godsend Agenda, which further developed the Heroic D6 rules.  From there, the properties sort of split, with Margaret Weis developing the Smallville game based on the TV show, and Green Ronin adapting the Mutants & Masterminds rules into the current DC Adventures game.  (It’s interesting to note that, for a brief period, Margaret Weis Productions was publishing both major comic RPG’s under one roof.)