Monthly Archives: June 2014

An Update Post on the Subject of Hiatus

In the past, I’ve tried to maintain a blog.  It hasn’t gone well.  I’ve had people from all quarters encourage me, but it never really took.  Then for whatever reason, the planets aligned, and this blog finally took flight.  I set very specific goals, put a lot of thought and pre-planning into the idea, and hardened myself to carve out enough time each day to actually write.

And it’s gone well, more or less.

I managed to keep up a solid goal of daily posting (with one momentary lapse which I later corrected), and I’ve kept to my personal goal of a word count.  I haven’t done much to promote the blog, but that’s keeping with my own personal outlook on things, rather than anything else.  I’ve largely kept this blog anonymous, simply because it would be problematic if I were connected with some of the commentary I have made.  While I think games like Savage Worlds are an egregious waste of ink and a step backward in gaming evolution, I like hanging out and talking to people like Shane Hensley at conventions.  It’s easier if I am not bound by having to watch what I say, even if I rarely go off about bad decisions in game design.  (Onyx Path, notwithstanding.)

I’ve come to realize some things about this blog in the process of writing it.  For one thing, a daily blog is only really applicable when there are multiple authors and it’s part of a larger news organization.  As a one man show, it’s a little clunky and can lead to some serious dry spells.  I can point to the entries where I’d run out of inspiration and had to fall back on my own skill at writing, rather than the rush of words from a wellspring if ideas.  (Hint:  When I start into reviews of modules, that usually means that I ran out of gaming philosophy to discuss.  It’s the sad truth.)

Also, the goal of 1,000 words that I set for myself is a nice round number, but the end result is a little weird.  I went back and tallied up the word count of my blog entries, not including the titles.  Over the course of 94 entries, I’ve manage to rack up a weirdly high amount of text.  Translated into novel pages, this would be over 300 pages of solid text.  Read aloud, it would take nearly 16 hours to wade through everything I’ve written thus far.

Impressive, no?

Well, so long as you don’t want to grind your way through the archives.  When it’s gone to that point, there’s virtually no chance that a person will delve into the attic to find a gem.  There’s simply too much to deal with.  I mean, I like reading more than the next guy, but I’m not entirely certain that I would want to wade through that much text when I’ve got other things to do with my day.  And I have the feeling that this has managed to discourage some members of my small audience, if they weren’t already casually familiar with the blog.  It’s one thing to read this stuff on a daily basis, but if you were tasked with catching up on material that you’d missed, it might not be worth the time and trouble to do so.

The other thing to keep in mind is how generally taxing it is to keep up on, in terms of both time and general creative impetus.  When I was making a point of keeping up on a daily posting, there wasn’t a lot of other writing that was being done in my life, which was an interesting note to make.  I have a lot of other writing projects that I’m involved in, but many of them fell to the side when I was meticulously updating on a daily basis.  Putting the blog on hiatus has had the effect of allowing those projects to come back to the fore.  While there hasn’t been a lot of daily forward progress on such things, there’s been more than there would have been.

So, what is the Librarian going to be doing, now that his blog posts are no longer going to be a daily occurrence?  Quite a lot, actually, which is why I made the decision to go on hiatus when I did.  I didn’t want the quality to suffer any more than it already had started to.  (Warped and incoherent as they might be, these are the standards I try to hold myself to.)

First off, I’m looking at packing up and moving.  I’ve been in the same place for over eight years, and it’s simply time to move onward.  An opportunity has opened up, with others that may follow, and I’m bound elsewhere.  As such, I need a fair amount of time to pack, given that my library is merely one section of things.

Secondly, I need to refinish the house that I’m moving to.  Part of the aforementioned opportunity has to do with being able to find a properly sized house in my particular price range, with the understanding that I have to do a fair amount of work simply to make it habitable.  This will include everything from hanging drywall all the way through the finish carpentry and plumbing, so I know there’s a lot of work ahead of me.  I’ll have help, but there’s still a month or so that I need to devote solely to swinging a hammer and wielding a paintbrush.

While doing the physical labor, I’m looking at spending a lot of time working through the systems and intricacies of the game that I’ve been trying to finish.  Big surprise there, I guess, that someone with as much to say about the back catalogue and history of gaming would want to make his own impression upon the industry.  Most of the system is in place and I’ve run some playtests, but there’s still a lot that needs to be built out in terms of the worldset and certain picky elements of the dice.  There’s another gaming project that’s unrelated to this that I have been devoting time to, but at present, that particular idea is in another writer’s hands.  When it’s done, I’ll be looking to publish that as well.

Here’s to hoping, at least.

Finally, there’s the novel I’ve been writing.  If there’s any time left over, after packing and hauling are out of the way and the house is being made vaguely habitable, I’ll be putting time into finishing the book.  It’s about halfway done, hitting about 50K words, and the hope is to have that further on by the time summer is done with.  Most of the rest of the plot is planned out, so it’s mostly a matter of putting the time into it.  Sadly, that time recently has been going to the blog, so it just amounts to figuring which creative outlet is being robbed for which purpose.

That’s what I want to do for my summer vacation.  We’ll see where it ends up.  And if I get any decent inspiration along the way, as it pertains to the subject of gaming in general, I’ll post something up.  With luck, I’ll be able to keep to a single post a week, but I’m not promising anything.  Hells, we nearly hit the end of this week without anything, so there’s no real way to tell.

Wherein I Turn a Comment Thread into a Post on Things

Y’know, I try.  I really do.  When I sit down to comment on something, I figure that I’ll be able to throw some words down, offer a succinct reply to something that has been asked and go on with my day.  Then I look blearily up, see that I’ve already gotten into the 500-word range of things, and I have to bury my head in my hands.

Honestly, I blame all those years of writing papers.  And unpublished novels, probably.

Anyway.  My man, Gregory, wanted to talk about where White Wolf had gone wrong.  I”d recently talked about the new version of Exalted and how it was going to go in some particularly awful directions.  It’s no secret that I’m pretty well disgusted with the way that the new company, Onyx Path, has handled the new game, and this was where I sat down and actually tangled with some of the things I felt they were doing wrong.

It got a little lengthy.  And then it spilled over into a second post.  And I could have gone into more detail about even more issues that I had with the design team.  But for the sake of readability, I cut it short and went about my day.

In the mean time, Gregory offered the following:

I must ask, “At what point does the attempt at horror break down into just sickness?” I wonder if White Wolf made an error in creating the World of Darkness. The angst and despair that was new and innovative in role playing with Vampire: The Masquerade seems to have led the folks at White Wolf in deeper and ever increasing darkness in all of their products. They seem to be seeking ever larger level of shock value and are ever desensitizing themselves to the horror and degradation they are promoting in their own works.

World of Darkness is an interesting study in how games divert from their original purposes.  Vampire was based heavily on Anne Rice’s novels, with the original themes trying to capture the essence of what it was to be an impassioned creature trying desperately to hold onto a fading humanity.  The modern metagame has little to do with this, choosing instead to focus on the political machinations of running a city.  It’s way more of a Mafia simulator than a method of exploring what it means to be human in light of the horrible things you have to do to survive.  (In its way, I guess it would be like falling down an infinite hole.  Sure, it’s scary at first, but sooner or later it’s going to become a boring sort of experience that you have to look for ways to liven up.)

The same thing applies to all of their game lines.  Werewolf has similar themes of trying to balance humanity and ferocity as a means of trying to save your broken world.  Players tend to focus on the super powers you’re given, rather than the unfortunate aspects of being a wild animal that takes the form of a man.  And so on.

From where I’m standing (and as a means of getting around to your first question), the weird descent into depravity comes as an attempt to shock the audience into seeing these games for what they are, namely RPG’s where you’re playing the monster.  If players are complacent with the fact that they’re playing blood-drinking serial killers, then we have to make them … worse.  And if the players are comfortable with playing horrible sociopaths, we also have to make the enemies … worse.

And then for some reason, they also delve into weird bondage stuff.  Seriously.  It’s all over the place.

I’m not really sure how all the rape stuff happened.  There’s a fair amount of implication in the Vampire stuff, with the Disciplines like Dominate, but it pretty much sticks to the implications, rather than spelling out the awful aspects of the power.  All of this makes sense within the tableau of vampire literature, where the undead are portrayed as being seductive and irresistible, and it’s left up to the player and the GM to define what is an appropriate use of the power at the gaming table.  And that’s where it distills down to what everyone is comfortable with allowing to happen in play.  If everyone in the group is okay with that sort of behavior, so be it.  It’s their game, and it’s up to them to play it the way that they want to.  Not my thing, and to be honest, I have no interest in hearing about it.

But the final books of 2nd Edition Exalted decided to dive straight into the weird shit.  There’s an argument for the portrayal of the Infernal Exalts in this way as a means of firmly placing them in a spectrum of evilness and depravity, but this contention only holds water so long as they’re not playable characters.  Which they very specifically are, and this makes them one of the most popular books amongst certain parts of the Exalted audience.  Once they cross into the zone of actual playability, they lose the status of ‘antagonists that must be brought down at all costs’ and become something else entirely.

It’s showing my age, but I remember when the anti-D&D hysteria was at its peak.  I remember reading articles about the woman that created BADD (Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons), Patricia Pulling, was hosting lectures at one of the local police departments and talking about how role-playing games were gateways to worse elements and modes of behavior.  They tried to make the tenuous link that the demonic portrayals in D&D were a means of enacting weird Satanic rituals and swearing service to dark powers.  Nevermind that it pretty clearly spelled out that such monsters were meant to be foes for the noble and forthright Clerics and Paladins that actually were playable.  She argued that because such creatures are portrayed in the books, even as dire antagonists, this means that the books are trying to glorify them in some way or another.

In its own fascinating way, it actually got me branded as a Satanist in the small town where I grew up.  I spent the entirety of my high school life as something of an outsider because I played a silly little game about wizards and knights and rogues.  It got to the point that the high school counselor assumed I would be dead well before I was able to graduate, likely from suicide.  (This was well before the events at Columbine, so at least they didn’t assume that I was going to shoot up the place.)

What’s weird is that White Wolf has made it a point to try to fulfill these expectations.  In their own way, they’ve tried at points to become the game that BADD was trying to warn parents about, back in the day.  It might be a thumbing of the nose at the general powerlessness of this movement to suppress the hobby, but it comes across as being less of a work of social commentary than an outlet for actual sociopathy.  And where Vampire offers the tools for the players to make murderers and rapists and sich, Exalted took it one step further and encouraged the players to make even worse characters.  Dominate suggests coercion and implies the possibility, where the Abyssals preview simply spells it all out, leaving little doubt as to what was intended with these powers.  Indeed, there’s not much else that any of these could be used for.

So, where does it cross over from being horror into just being sick?  I guess the answer would be ‘when they have to spell it out for the players’.  It’s when they actively go out of their way to make sure that everyone’s forced to play the same awful game about date rape and snuff films.  It’s when the toolbox comes with its own sidebar of suggestions of how to best go about using the tools to degrade another character and make them a puppet of your will in graphic detail.

Or y’know, when they include the powers that let you gain a benefit from raping someone to death, turn them into a rape ghost and send them out to rape in your name.  That might be where it crosses the line.  That might be the point where it finally goes just a little too far into the weird shit.

Or worse, it might just be the point where the people responsible for writing this come out with a defense of this sort of product, telling people to get a grip and deal with it.  Because hey, if you don’t like games with that much rape in them, then it’s your problem for not understanding what a ‘mature’ game is all about.  It’s not about the raw moral implications of your actions and their consequences or the price that must be paid for power.  It’s about how many different ways you can rape someone.

In the mean time, they’re still smugly telling me about how much better a game this version is, about how much they have playtested it, and how the old edition is awful.  None of which is actually true, but it’s their story, not mine.

The Continuance of Exalted Complaints

So, let me see…  I was working on a broad analysis of how Exalted took a serious turn for the worse, which led to the awful design decisions that led to the 3rd Edition philosophy.  Where did I leave off last time … ?

Oh, yeah.  Rape.

You know, I get it.  White Wolf is edgy.  They’ve spent a lot of time working on Mature Audience books.  Hells, they have an entire separate imprint just to deal with things that they think should be left out of their core products.  And they spent the better part of twenty years with vampires, werewolves and ghosts, the rough core of any horror based product line.  Hells, they managed to base a sourcebook for Wraith around the Holocaust.  Logically, they have a solid rhetorical base to work from when it comes to presenting adult oriented themes to a mature audience.

The problem is that I’m not really sure that White Wolf and I are working with the same definitions of ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ for these purposes.  I define these terms along the lines of ‘having to do with serious and often horrific ideas that are inappropriate for minor’ or similar.  Child abuse, prison conditions, human trafficking, and so on; these are the kinds of things that I would expect in an adult product.  The Liberian Civil War?  That’s an adult theme.  Same with the Rwanda Genocide, the Rape of Nanking and the moral consequences of killing an innocent while a character is trying to defeat a powerful enemy.  They’re mature subjects to be dealt with in an appropriate setting, and none of it really fits for a younger audience.

For White Wolf, it’s a lot of rape.  And weird sex jokes.  (For an older example, google:  ‘tzimisce cover’.  This was the kind of shit that they used to pull back in the day.)

So, I already went off on the rape bit for Infernals.  The most depressing thing about this is that it made one of the more tragic aspects of the entire canon into a grotesquerie.  There’s a complicated story that had been built up about the little girl, Lillun, who had been manipulated into entering the secret area that the Scarlet Empress held sway over.  She vanished and was never seen again, with the central idea being that the Scarlet Empress was willing even to let her youngest daughter be sacrificed to keep her secrets.

Then they come along with this.  Lillun is revealed as being the living storehouse for corrupted divine energy, and the means by which to reward the corrupted servants with this energy is through a lot of rape.  So, rather than keep it as a grim parable or mystery, the books go into more detail about this aspect of the game.  And I have no idea why.  It literally serves no purpose whatsoever, other than to make obvious something that was already hinted at.  Detailing her torture in text is gratuitous, and making a comic in the front of the book is wholly unnecessary.

Even if you were to make the argument that this is to drive home the vile and inhuman nature of the Infernals, that’s going to fall flat as soon as you note that this is one of the most popular books in the line, and the diehard fans will take great pains to defend it.  Most of this has to do with the fact that Infernal Exalts are ridiculously powerful, and the audience apparently takes great joy in playing evil characters.  I suspect that it all goes back to the adoration of Vampire characters from World of Darkness.  My experience has shown me enough of the edgy fanboys that want to talk about the power and violence of their characters.  I wouldn’t say that too many of them had ever advanced much beyond a middle school mindset of such things either, but this is only my experience of such gamers.

So naturally, this is the sort of idea that gets carried over into the 3rd Edition design.  Many of the same people that are working on this edition are the same ones that were involved in the crappy final projects of 2nd Edition.  One of the first things that showed up in relation to 3rd Edition was a design doc that went into the new powers of Abyssal Exalts, who bear the corrupted essence of a Solar Exalt in service of the lords of the underworld.  In the Exalted world, they’re the fantasy versions of Vampires, and their popularity reflects this.  In 1st and 2nd Edition, they were subject to the dark versions of many of the Solar powers.

For 3rd Edition, they’re all about rape.

There was a preview PDF that was released early on in the Kickstarter as an example of where they were planning on going with the later books.  For the Abyssal Exalts, there was an entire page devoted to the charms that they could access which allowed them to rape weaker characters, turn them into slaves, rape them to death and use the power they had derived from the rape to fuel their own further schemes.

Needless to say, this PDF got pulled pretty quickly and is now ridiculously hard to find on the internet.

There was a lot of blowback from this.  The article on Something Awful (which I linked to last time) went over the high points of the preview, but there was even more in the way of objectionable content that was left out.  The writers had offered basic (and poorly conceived) apologies about the tone of the writing, but in the end, they largely shrugged and went back to doing what they were already planning on doing.  The diehard fans felt that apologies weren’t really needed, and the casual fans that thought it was actually pretty horrible mainly forgot about it or were shouted down on the forums.

And here’s the thing:  For the most part, I didn’t care a lot either way about this new rape aspect of the game.  There were already some questionable bits to Exalted that I thought were in poor taste.  Having fairly explicitly detailed new powers that served little purpose other than rape?  Yeah, that’s weird and juvenile, but it’s not like I thought the Infernals sourcebook wasn’t equally bad.

What killed it for me was the general arrogance that surrounded the project.  The rapey bits were stupid, but I have already left a lot of things like that out of my games.  It’s the smug outlook that the new writers persisted with that all but killed my support for the product.  The gist was that they were making a new product to fix all of the bad ideas that 2nd Edition had.

Okay, I’m listening.  I know that there are a lot of bad and unplayable parts of Exalted.  Take, for example, the whole powerset of the Sidereals.  Sure, they’re fine for NPC’s that don’t need to survive outside of the GM’s spiral bound notebook, but they’re not terribly interesting and playable.  And seriously, Social Combat needs an overhaul.  So do the rules for Mass Combat.  We tried them, and they were neither fun nor easy to use.  There’s also the rules for the political machinations between regions and nations; those could use some work, since it was a neat idea that never really managed to pull off.  Some of the different charms need balancing, martial arts needs a couple of revisions, and let’s trim back the bullshit like Infernals and the sixth Alchemical type.  None of these things make sense.

Nope.  First off, they’re taking apart combat, which was one of the high points of the edition.  Combat in Exalted 2nd was one of the slickest systems I’ve ever seen, as it worked on a timed initiative.  Different actions took more or less time than others, so the actual speed of using a given weapon type actually mattered.  From what I have been very sternly lectured about, this was too complicated and boring.  (From what I’ve been able to tell, the boring parts come from the seriously twinked out munchkin builds battling each other.  All the years I’ve been running Exalted, there’s never been an issue, but other people play seriously different games.)

And from every indication, none of the other issues that I ran into in any of my games are being touched.  Instead, they seem to be focusing on inserting their own weird ideas into the setting, none of which have any bearing.  One of the theories involves all sorts of new Exalt types, including a variant based on the NWoD game, Promethean.  This new Exalt is your basic Frankenstein’s Monster, for some damned reason, and there’s plans to toss in as many more as they can come up with.  To borrow and paraphrase from The Incredibles, once everyone’s Exalted, that means no one is Exalted.

All of this is to fix a product that they have repeatedly claimed is bad, broken and unplayable.  The general mindset is that 2nd Edition Exalted, the one game line that actually outsold their World of Darkness and Aeon/Trinity lines, is just an awful game and there’s no way they could revise out all the things wrong with it.  It’s better to burn it down, salt the earth and build anew.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have a hard time being all that enthused about being told that something that I love is objectively bad and implying that I’m an idiot for liking it in the first place.  Especially when it comes from a guy that doesn’t really understand design philosophy and is a little too interested in raping children.  And writing all new systems that allow for more rape.

Where I Finally Get Around to Bitching About Exalted 3rd

Blogs are sort of weird.

For the past three months, I’ve been throwing 1,000 words at a given subject every single night; rain or shine, broad inspiration or not.  Sometimes these entries shined, and sometimes they just managed to fill the space.  Either way, I post something, some of my friends read them, and I go on with things.  Every now and again, I get a comment from one of my regulars, but I have the feeling that my rate of word production has left some people in the dust.  I have no one to blame save myself, since I came to realize just how unlikely it is that someone would actually be able to go back through the archives if they hadn’t been keeping up in the first place.  But I’ll get into that in a couple of days.  There’s honestly too much for a casual reader to get into.

And then, every now and again, someone will stumble onto something I’ve posted up and read through it, looking for the subject tag for the thing that interests them.  I know this because I get new likes on fairly old entries, which I find both endearing and weird.  In my own mind, there’s a perception that, once an entry has faded into the archives, it’s dead and gone, never to be seen again or commented upon.

A little over a week ago, my new friend Eric started browsing through the Exalted entries.  I’d always intended to go back and throw a couple thousand more words at the subject, but it never quite happened.  But since I’m planning on putting the blog on hiatus for a little while, I might as well get around to this promise, even if it has been one that I’ve largely made to myself.

I’ve already discussed the baseline setting of Exalted and the kinds of characters that can be made to adventure within the bounds of this world.  I’ve also touched on some of the historical and real world elements that went into the complex mythological foundations that build the world.

What I haven’t dealt with is the point in 2nd Edition Exalted when the designers finally jumped the rails and started doing really stupid and offensive things.  Nor have I gone into how this abandonment of solid design philosophy is what forms the questionable basis of the 3rd Edition rules.

First, a little bit of history:  One of the very first supplements for 1st Edition Exalted was the rather weird attempt at an adventure module, in the form of Time of Tumult.  Ostensibly, this was the design team’s way of introducing the White Wolf fans to a whole new concept of fantasy RPG, namely the ‘epic’ style.  And by ‘epic’, I’m using the classical sense of the term, where it refers to the deeds of legendary heroes.  Exalted dealt with the nascent god-kings of an ancient era, determined to reclaim their fallen empires.  This was a good deal different from anything that White Wolf had done before, and it was a fair departure from games like Warhammer Fantasy and Dungeons & Dragons, which were the go-to games for normal fantasy.

Sadly, Time of Tumult didn’t really manage to pull it off.  It had some interesting ideas, but the main adventure was a strange cross between ‘haunted mansion’ and dungeon crawl, managing neither with any grace.  But one of the short adventures that was included with the book dealt with the broad sketches of an alien force from outside of Creation that threatened to take over the world.  In Crusaders of the Machine God, the epic fantasy world of Exalted is being overtaken by what amounts to being cybernetic and robotic invaders.

The idea was that all of humanity was based on the designs of one of the Primordials (think Titans from Greek myth) who had prototyped the first men for the other Primordials to build from.  When it became evident that these new creations (in the  form of Exalts) were going to cast down their Primordial creators, the one responsible for the prototypes in the first place fled creation to avoid being defeated himself.  After millennia wandering the void beyond Creation, he’s been forced to return.  As the titular Machine God, his children are the robots and cyborgs that have come back to do his will.

All right, so this is how it makes sense in the scope of Exalted.  These particular versions of the established Exalts are weird and machine-based, but that’s because they’re based on the original prototypes.  Like their master, they exist outside of Creation itself, and accordingly they are the exception to the pre-established Rule of Five that forms the basic framework of the game.  The different castes of the Alchemical Exalts fall in line with the five types of Celestial and Terrestrial Exalts, formed as they are from the Five Magical Materials, but they represent a strange sort of sixth type of Exalt in their way.  Even so, they are specifically built on the archetypes of the normal Exalt they correspond with.  Orichalcum Caste fulfill a similar role to Solars, Moonsilver have a similar function to Lunars, and so on.  It all made sense and fit within the established hierarchy.

Until the tail end of 2nd Edition Exalted, that is.

I have no proof of this, but I think 2nd Edition started going off the rails when the lead designer, John Chambers, left the company for greener pastures.  Up to a certain point, the design philosophy adhered to fairly strict guidelines and managed to streamline much of the rough material from 1st Edition.  It had a different, more cosmopolitan feel than the earlier edition, which had touches of pulp fantasy and eldritch horror around the edges, but it didn’t try to contradict any of the established lore.

Then came the Alchemical book for 2nd Edition.  And things started getting weird.

Represented were the same five castes of Alchemical Exalt that appeared in the original publication, with the strange addition of a sixth caste formed of a non-magical material that only really showed up in Time of Tumult.  But not in the module that introduced the concept of Alchemicals.  The material, an extremely brittle and lethal form of glass known as Adamant, was one of the few materials available that would inflict Aggravated Damage on its own.  (For those unfamiliar with White Wolf, there were three basic damage types:  Non-lethal, lethal, and aggravated.  These differed mainly in how long it took to heal them.)  It was a weird addition to the module, and it really never showed up anywhere else.  Nevermind the fact that Adamant implies unbreakability, and the glass was almost impossible to use because it would constantly break.

This new caste combines all manner of nonsensical aspects, to the point that it comes across seeming like a power gamer’s wet dream.  (This perception is not helped by the fact that the iconic Adamant character is a female that is incapable of wearing pants.  The only piece of clothing she actually wears in a sort of shawl-like covering that only barely covers part of her breasts.  Wet dream, indeed.)  Adamant caste have the innate ability to avoid having any observer remember them, along the lines of the Sidereal abilities, but unlike the Arcane Fate of the Chosen, trying to resist this power of the Adamant Caste requires an inane amount of Willpower to be spent.  And compared to the battle-oriented powers of the rest of the Alchemicals, this is particularly weird.  In addition, they’re the angst-ridden loners who know more about the inner workings of their machine society, seeing fit to judge even the other Exalts for their actions.  They are the ‘mysterious strangers’ and the ‘tactical lynchpins’ prone to ‘flamboyant displays of strength’ in their role as the ultra secret agents of … somebody.  They wait in the shadows to ‘strike a blow that will break their own hearts’.

In short, they’re better than everything else.  And filled with angst.

This was followed up shortly thereafter by the sourcebook for the Infernal Exalts, which were equally overwrought and unnecessary.  They were so edgy and extreme that they might as well have been a Mountain Dew flavored bag of Jacked Doritos.  And where the Adamant Alchemical was pure fanservice on its own, the iconic characters for the Infernals were particularly egregious.  In no specific order, they were a pirate, a ninja, a Scotsman, a sexy nun and a mummy with an oversized eldritch claw grafted on his right shoulder.  They were one step away from appearing on a middle school boy’s homeroom notebook.

And when you actually try to delve into the lore of these Exalts it gets even squirrelier.  All right, so we have the appearance of the Adamant Alchemicals, with their non-Magical Material basis.  All of the other Alchemical Castes correspond directly with the Exalts that are roaming around Creation.  Does this mean that the material that’s associated with the previously unknown Infernal Exalts is Adamant?

No.  That would almost make sense.

Instead, they have access to a weird substance called Vitriol, which forms the basis of Infernal item crafting.  It’s said to be a demonic acid of sorts, but it ends up just being Evil Lacquer that you soak all of your gear in.  There’s all sorts of gnarly, wicked prose to explain the demonic and awful processes that it’s supposed to represent, but the simple truth of the matter is that it’s just Evil Lacquer.  No more, no less.

There’s a relatively solid reason for the existence of Infernal Exalts, tracing back to the various plots that set the whole Age of Sorrows setting in motion.  It’s not a bad idea, overall, but the implementation of it gets stupid pretty quickly.  They have clear antecedents in the Abyssal Exalts, but where the Abyssals have to atone through self mutilation or the sacrifice of something they love, Infernals have to undertake acts of mustache-twirling evil, the kind of which echoes Dr. Evil from Austin Powers.

And that isn’t even to talk about the systematic rape of a young girl as the basis of the characters’ power.

I think I can safely finish the rest of my complaints out in the next post.  Those images should be enough to get most of my current points across.

When Posts Bounce Back Upon Themselves

So sometime back, my friend the Admiral talked about buy-ins and railroads.  I pulled an entry out of my response on this.  Then in reply, my friend the Engineer talked about what we talked about with his own entry about the same sort of ideas.

For his part, Gregory talked about how his experience with modules tended to run directly into the tender mercies of his players, who seem determined to avoid plot hooks whenever possible.  This put him in the situation of needing to either modify the adventure on the fly or attempt to direct the characters back into the main plot, in whatever way he found available.  He goes on to cite how some published adventures even suggest doing this, wherein a scripted event would take place no matter which choice was made.

Kill the Dragon?  The Giants attack.  Spare the Dragon?  The Giants attack.

It seems a little stupid, but a lot of it owes to the fact that the module writer wanted to have a certain encounter take place within the module’s flow, no matter what happened.  I’ve seen it in play both ways, where something just has to happen for the sake of the plot; or where the adventure is so strictly defined that the players have to specifically state their intention to do something, else the detail is completely missed.  (The example that comes to mind is when the characters in one game I played in discovered two identical cars belonging to recently defeated foes.  We searched one, to no avail, and went on with our day.  It turned out later that we had missed an interesting plot hook by not assuming that we’d check both cars in a similar manner.  The left one held the clue, where the right one did not.)

Neither of these extremes are particularly great modes to aspire to.

For myself, I’m a lot more concerned with presenting the best adventure I can, no matter what my players manage to think of.  If they miss an interesting bit of scenery, I make a point of highlighting it for them.  If they’d breeze past a particular clue, I’ll allow a roll to see if it’s noticed.  (This is a sort of inversion to my own bad tendencies.  I’ve got the habit of relying on Perception checks to fill out my worlds and get an idea of whether the characters themselves are paying attention to things.  In those cases where the players fail to pick up a clue, I’ll call for a Perception check just to give them the detail they overlooked.)  I don’t like the idea of playing through an adventure and missing out on all of the neat things that can take place.

Largely, this only applies to pre-written adventure modules.

For my own homebrew campaigns, I employ a similar style of gamemastering, but it takes the form of trying my best to over-describe a setting.  Given my heavy literature and writing background, I can spend quite a long time spinning out the details of a place.  Usually, I throw down some essential pieces of the setting and let the players loose to see what they find interesting about it.  If they’re in a marketplace, I’ll offer up some standard merchants for them, with the odd item here and there that might pique some interest.  If that doesn’t hook someone, I’ll spend some time on the architecture of the place, the various passerby, and whatever other points of note that might grab someone’s eye to pull them toward some interaction.

Basically, it boils down to just exactly how bored I am with waiting for a player to do something.  I’ve been known to go into great depth on the setting, just to pass the time while the players confer about one thing or another.  Players that know my GM’ing style are well trained to recognize this as my own entertainment, and either they’ll decide on a course of action or wait to see what comes next.  It keeps me focused on the situation by holding my interest, and it allows a greater scope of action if the players are having trouble figuring out what next to do.

It also addresses the sort of player that Gregory talks about, where they’re likely to wander off the reservation and look for something outside of the expected path of the adventure.  Like him, I keep my homebrew games fairly loose and adaptable, and many of my adventures rely on the players finding their own way.  This is why I will keep going with setting description until something catches a player’s interest; if I know how to appeal to their characters, it’s a lot better for my purposes than forcing them down a prescribed path.  I’ve heard some well known game designers talk about how they rely on their background with improv theater to be able to branch out as they need to.  I don’t have a lot of theater experience, but I do know improv well enough to hold my own.

At the same time, my playing group appreciates the concept of an Adventure Path for what it is, rather than what they want it to be.  If I pick up an Adventure Path to run, they know that the basal expectations are in line with trying to follow the outlined plot.  Yeah, they can deviate from it at points, and I’ll do my best to keep them within sight of the overall plot.  But they know that they’ve bought in for the path itself, and that’s going to require some sacrifices along the way.

Occasionally, I’ve run into the obstructionist player that refuses to allow himself to be hooked into the plot, despite his willingness to sit down at the table in the first place.  I can offer any sort of rationale that would suit their own ego and character background, but in the end (for whatever reason), they’re not interested in trying to make the needed accommodations to fit into the plot.  To me, this is much the same mindset of refusing to follow the general plot of a long term adventure plot.  And I find it a bit strange.

A Scattering of Things, Most of Which are Unrelated

The final episode of Game of Thrones, Season 4 aired last night.  Apparently, it’s longer than usual, weighing in at some 66 minutes.  That adds some ten odd minutes to the show, apparently because they couldn’t edit the episode down any closer without sacrificing needed scenes or details.  The showrunners, Benioff & Weiss have claimed that this will be one of the finest episodes of the show, ever.  It’s an interesting claim, and I’m specifically avoiding the internet until such point as I can watch it for myself to judge.

Mind you, I’ve read the original books repeatedly, years before the show came to air, so there won’t be too many surprises.  I know roughly what ground they will have to cover (and to be honest, I’d assumed that a couple of these would have been covered in Episode 9, which has been the traditional place for the massive plot reveals), so it will be interesting to see how it’s dealt with.  And given the way this season has unfolded, I’m wondering if there will be any new details or events that weren’t covered in the books.  I mean, we already got info on the Night’s King, so maybe there will be something of similar import.

Included with relevant Game of Thrones news is the recent release of yet another Gardner Dozois anthology, which has become the standard platform for Martin to release new Westerosi fiction.  The first two ‘Dunk & Egg’ novellas were released in other anthologies, but The Mystery Knight, The Princess and the Queen, and The Rogue Prince have been in the three cross-genre anthologies.  While the ‘Dunk & Egg’ series deals with the adventures of Aegon the Unlikely as a squire, the newest two novellas (Princess and Queen, Rogue Prince) deal with the earlier period of history when a civil war broke out within the Tagaryen dynasty, a time referred to as ‘The Dance of Dragons’ (and not to be confused with the most recent ASoIaF novel).

How does this tie back to RPG’s?  Well, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and re-reading Martin’s books and short fiction as a means to try to make sense of his world and the way the characters and ruling houses fit together.  The books that most people know deal with a weird period of Westeros history, in that there isn’t a Targaryen king on the Iron Throne, and the atmosphere in the Seven Kingdoms has settled into an uneasy acceptance of another king’s rule.  (Of course, anyone familiar with the deeper lore of the series and House Baratheon in particular will note that they do have a Targaryen lineage, as Robert’s grandmother was the daughter of Aegon the Unlikely.  But I digress.)  All of the previous stories deal with periods where the Targaryen kings are unchallenged and rule, for the most part, wisely.

It’s been my firm conviction that Westeros is George Martin’s personal campaign world, as the backdrop that he uses in the novels is incredibly detailed on extremely unimportant minutiae, the kind of which would organically grow out of a long-running campaign.  As such, when I sit down to build a campaign set in that world, I want to be as aware of those sorts of minor aspects as I can, same as I would study the different parts of Sandpoint and Magnimar in a game set in Varisia or the city layout of Chiba, Japan, were I to run a game based on Neuromancer.

And well, I’m almost as much of a fanboy for A Song of Ice and Fire as I used to be for Star Wars.  It’s just how I’m wired, I guess.

In other news, the Kickstarter for the updated Book of the Wyrm for Werewolf 20 has gone live.  Naturally, it’s met its funding already, so we’re down to figuring out which stretch goals are going to be promised, listening to the various shills for cheap POD’s and t-shirts, and wondering how much they’ll miss the shipping date by.  They’ve taken to just promising a one year turnaround, instead of offering even more unreasonable lies to comfort their backers with.

Of the outstanding and undelivered product, we’re about a month away from the one year anniversary of Changing Breeds for W20, and I’m doubting that it’s going to show up before August.  We just hit the one year mark for Exalted 3rd Edition, and our most recent updates still talk about sections being written and playtested.  Current estimates put it as being ready to print sometime around October, at best guess.  Given the way that Onyx Path has mangled their shipping in the past (there’s a fascinating update on the W20 page about how the guy that was supposed to handle getting the books sent out to the European backers managed to lose them when he moved into a new house), there’s every chance that we’ll hit a two year delivery on this damned thing.

So, generally what this means is that W20 only showed up some time in January of 2014, after having been funded in November of 2012.  Between funding and delivery, they managed to kick another project, Changing Breeds, as of July of last year.  That still hasn’t shown up, and now we’re looking at the plea for Book of the Wyrm, which we can be fairly certain will not show up by July of 2015.

And hilariously enough, there are plenty of White Wolf apologists that are shouting down the critics on the backer threads, as they desperately want to play the white knight for a company that repeatedly tries to soak them for more money without actually producing anything on a timely basis.  Even as the company includes such stretch goals as ‘give these guys a vacation’ and ‘give these guys more money’, neither of which are apparently against Kickstarter terms of service.

I would say that I wonder about these people and the weirdly idealized world they claim to live in, but I’m not really blameless in any of this myself.  I mean, most of the reason that I know as much as I do about the Exalted boondoggle is that I personally funded it.

Granted, I loathe myself for giving them money, as I’m pretty sure that the design direction that they’re intending to go in with the product is asinine and horrible.  But at the same time, I’m willing to see if they can pull off any of the ideas that they sold as being this endeavor.  At the end of it all, I’ll end up with a fiercely collectable book that I can later sell off without regret.

Rebuilding the Skinsaw Murders, Part 2

Now that we know what went wrong with the plotline of Skinsaw, we can start trying to fix it.

One of the first parts that needs to be addressed is Aldern Foxglove himself, as this is something that needs to be built into the plot of the previous module.  The cowardly and worthless parts of his character should pretty much be excised, as they don’t do any real justice to the plot and serve to weaken a lot of the ideas behind the module.

The characters meet him at the very beginning of Burnt Offerings, when they have to rescue him from a rampaging goblin that has started slicing up his hunting dog.  I’d keep a lot of this encounter intact, but I’d make sure that there were some troubling details included in the scene, to hint at the murderous aspects of the man they’d come to identify as a serial killer a couple of levels later.  Have the characters hear the yelping of his dog as it’s being killed off, and when the characters come running, they have to fend off the goblin champion as it charges the grieving Foxglove who’s preoccupied with his dead pet.  When rescued, he effusively thanks the characters for their assistance and promises to make it up to them later.  They assume that the blood spattered on his clothes is from standing near when his dog was sliced up, but later they find the corpses of several goblins that someone savagely killed with what appears to be a war razor…  And during the boar hunt, he works on one of the characters with his obsessive angles, but they also notice that he’s a bit too interested in the gorier parts of the kill.

Most of the idea here is to keep the character interaction intact, while playing up the disturbing aspects of a serial killer’s personality.  This needs to serve as foreshadowing for the character, so that when it’s revealed that he’s the one behind all the murders, it all makes sense.

The next most important NPC for the module is Sheriff Hemlock.  His willingness to believe the characters flies in the face of any serious logic, but he needs to remain a solid ally of the characters nonetheless, as they will have to depend on him throughout the module.  It’s not hard to find similar characters in TV and literature, but the Sheriff has to be upfront with the characters that they’re prime suspects in this entire matter.  He’s not willing to accuse them outright, but he needs to keep them around while he investigates the murders that have started.  Once he’s cleared them from being directly connected, then he will have to rely on them to help him.

This is where the plot of the module has to start being moved around.  None of the specific encounter CR’s matter in this, since there will be a variance of difficulty anyway.  When you consider the death trap that was the original end of the module, it’s easy to simply shrug and re-order everything.

The first consideration in this sequence is the idea of putting the haunted house scenario last.  It’s the most powerful and interesting part of the module as a whole, and this is what the adventure needs to have as an ending.  The module has to end as the house crumbles into the sea, and with it the secrets of a tormented family.  Next, there’s the weirdly untouched connections between the sawmills and the scarecrows.  These can naturally lead from one to another, as long as there’s some logic to thread them together.  All that’s left figuring out what to do with the sanitarium.

All right.  So the Sheriff has to remain an ally, but the characters need to be isolated from what’s going on so as to better clear their names from being connected with the murders.  The easy way to do this is to borrow from a minor plot element from Ghostbusters II.  When the plot has been unraveled in that movie, the main characters show up at the Mayor’s mansion, forecasting dire warnings of what’s about to happen.  The Mayor doesn’t want to listen, so his assistant takes it upon himself to lock the Ghostbusters up in an asylum to keep them from going to the press.  This is as elegant a solution as anything.

If one of the Sheriff’s chief deputies takes it upon himself to ‘move the prisoners’ to the sanitarium outside of town, the dire plots of that place can unfold around the characters.  All it takes is a competent Rogue to slip out of the confines of a locked ward, and the characters can wander around as they see fit, running encounters with the ‘necromancer in the basement’, the tiefling orderlies, and the strange babbling fellow that is locked in the isolated ward.  Naturally, he won’t reveal anything about Foxglove Manor (as this would shortcut the entire adventure), but he can lay enough clues about the Skinsaw Man and the Brotherhood of Seven that will become relevant later.

Once the Sheriff arrives to set them free, they will have been cleared of the murders that took place out at the barn outside of town, and they weren’t connected with the ones that took place the previous night at the sawmill, since they were safely locked up at the sanitarium.  The Sheriff wants to keep a couple of deputies with the characters for a while anyway, but this is as much for their own safety as to watch them.  The Sheriff is already overwhelmed by the current events, dropping a number of red herrings (new fears about goblins, strange lights offshore, an old drunk that is sleeping off a rant about ‘walking scarecrows’, etc.) along with the one interesting detail.

Investigating the sawmill will yield the same litany of clues as it originally did, but there will be a notation in the ledgers about trade with the sawmill in Magnimar.  This will lead the characters to the Brotherhood of Seven (or the Skinsaw Cult, as you see fit to call them), with the connected trade and mysterious dealings.  Since they would have heard about them from the sanitarium adventure, it’s a direct link.  There can also be a bit of expanded lore with the cult itself, noting that devotees of the Skinsaw Cult are drawn to sawmills or something similar.

The revelations at the sawmill in Magnimar will lead them straight to Xanesha’s lair, where they will confront the weird flesh golem scarecrow.  This will connect with the farmer’s tales, which is more or less just foreshadowing, as the characters passed through those farmlands on their way to Magnimar in the first place.  The fight in the belltower will take place against the first version of Xanesha (simply because it’s that much more of an accomplishment), but they will have been warned by either Ironbriar (the corrupt justice) or someone less connected with the Skinsaw Men about how to deal with her.  The effective way will be to lure her into the interior and drop a bell on her.  (For my own purposes, I’d completely nix the Faceless Stalkers, as they generally add nothing to the adventure and make this whole sequence that much more difficult.)

Between what they learn at the sawmill and salvage from the wreckage of Xanesha’s lair, they’re led back to Foxglove Manor, as it’s directly connected to both.  On the way back, they happen into the fields of horror with the scarecrow murders, resolving that as a sort of waypoint scenario.  (There’s also the possibility of returning to Sandpoint first, at which point the risen victims will shamble forth as ghouls for another mini-scenario.  This is a suggestion that gets floated in the Anniversary Edition, and it’s too good to not use in some way.)

Then finally, it’s on to Foxglove Manor and all the horrors therein.

The townhouse in Magnimar doesn’t add much in this rebuild, so I’m not sure if I would include it or modify it to make more sense in the next module.  There’s a single encounter with Faceless Stalkers and a hidden stash of treasure, but neither of these does much to move the plot along in the re-ordering.  The ledger that draws the group to the sawmill is no longer necessary, which makes this entire locale somewhat obsolete.

I think that covers the bases adequately enough, removing some of the weird aspects of the module flow.  If nothing else, it fixes the issues that I had with the direction of the plot, and hopefully, it draws things together in a more or less organic fashion.  I guess I’ll see what the next module offers, to see if there are additional elements that need to be illuminated.  I don’t recall it having the same weird problems, but we’ll find out, eh?

Rebuilding the Skinsaw Murders

As I’ve said, I really like a lot of things about The Rise of the Runelords.  I like the way the path starts, with small town people that have to come to grips with a larger outside world.  In particular, this works on number of levels, introducing the world to the players even as it’s being revealed to the characters.  I like the sort of ‘everyday horror’ that comes into the path as the plots are slowly brought to light.  Few groups give that much consideration to goblins, as they’d worn down over the years to be little more than bundles of minor experience that were necessary for the slow and careful climb out of 1st level.  And I absolutely love the serial killer / haunted house / cult of murder plots woven through The Skinsaw Murders.

They just don’t make a lot of sense, really.  Especially not in the order that they’re presented in.

Looking it all over, I’m not really sure where the blame for this lies.  I have the feeling that Richard Pett’s decision to break the module’s plot up into separate and discrete segments didn’t help, but I think the blame lies slightly closer to home with the vague indifference that most GM’s tend to put on actual plot development.

And I’ll be the first to say that I’ve done this.  And gods know, the GM that ran Runelords for us certainly did.  To say that he put in a half-assed effort on a number of aspects of the series would be to put it mildly.  Some times, he didn’t do much more than simply skim the relevant parts of the module in order to throw dice.  It’s what happens.  None of this excuses the fact that there needs to be some serious work done on the module to make it good.  And it honestly surprises me that no one at Paizo thought to re-order or revise the module when it came up to be printed for the 5th Anniversary hardcover.  I’m guessing that there wasn’t enough truly critical feedback that addressed this, else they might have thought to do so.

That’s the thing, though.  Most GM’s are content to simply point the characters at the next obstacle, no matter how poorly thought out the plot that led there happens to be.  If nothing else, there’s the assumption that the module writer has done most of the heavy lifting for them already, so they can simply read the boxed text and toss dice.  And that seriously starts to fall apart with some of the problems that are inherent in Skinsaw.

So let’s take a look at the problems we’ve already looked at for this module.

First, there’s a problematic character shift with the Skinsaw Man himself, Aldern Foxglove.  The backstory has him murdering his wife through the driving forces of Lust, Envy and Wrath, all of which are fed by the corrupting influence of the ancestral manor that he’s been trying to restore.  And yet, when he shows up in Sandpoint, it’s because he’s a raving coward that can’t bear to go back to his haunted house.  The intro text talks about his streak of violence, but he shrinks away from a rampaging goblin and watches it kill his hunting dog.

Next, we have the Sheriff, who is either wildly corrupt or ravingly incompetent, depending on which way you want to look at it.  I know that his actions are predicated on the idea that the player characters are the heroes of the module and above reproach in all things, but it makes less than no sense.  And it doesn’t help that he failed to get anything useful out of one of the suspects and has to rely on the characters to do his work for him.  The PC’s are literally the ‘meddling kids’ in this equation, and everyone’s okay with it.  When the Skinsaw Man leaves notes to the effect that he’s only following the orders of one of the characters, that should be enough to raise a couple of red flags on the spot.  But it doesn’t.

Next, we have the interesting possibilities with the sanitarium, most of which arises from the inclusion of extra material brought into the Anniversary Edition.  As written, the module would unfold much the same way that it did in the original publication, and there’s an entire ‘necromancer in the basement’ subplot that virtually demands further examination.  And something needs to be done with the ordering of this part anyway, given that the logical outcome of the visit to the sanitarium has the characters ready to set out for the haunted house immediately.  The module wants to send them out into the scarecrow fields before they’re allowed to look into actually dealing with the serial killer.

The plot then sets the characters at the haunted house itself.  This isn’t a problem, but my feeling is that the creepy decaying manor should be the final act of the module, rather than the middle.  It’s a vast, sprawling dungeon complex with mystery and haunts and a legacy of evil that covers multiple generation.  What follows it are essentially three rather basic encounter areas with much less interesting developments.  Yeah, Xanesha (in original form) will slay the adventuring group outright, but she’s not half so plot crucial or interesting as the serial killer himself.

From there, the characters end up in another sawmill, but honestly, it has nothing to do with the sawmill that they started the plot in, so it could have just as easily been a warehouse or similar.  It doesn’t make any relevant sense to have a parallel like this without any actual payoff.  The two sawmills aren’t rivals in any way, no gruesome murders on the premises are able to connect them, and they aren’t even implied to do any business with each other.  The module doesn’t even try to tie the sawmill together the whole ‘saw’ bit with the Skinsaw Man and Cult and Murders.

Similarly, there’s a scarecrow in the lamia’s tower that has literally nothing to do with the scarecrows that form one of the better and more evocative encounters of the middle of the module.  Here’s another chance for something interesting to happen with the thematic content, and it ends up just being a fight on the way to the final battle.

And finally, there’s the final battle.  It’s pointed out that Xanesha’s tower is on the verge of crumbling at any second.  There are bar bets to be won on this basis.  When we played through this final battle, we tried to exploit this idea to bring the tower down on her as a means of defeating the otherwise impossible encounter.  It was only through extensive badgering of the GM that we managed to do anything of the like, and even that was trying to appeal to his experience with Exalted, rather than anything that was built into the text of the adventure.

So where do we go from here?  Excellent question.  Now that I’ve identified the problems, we can start moving parts of the plot around to build something a lot better.

The Final, Fatal Battle of the Skinsaw Murders

For a lot of groups, The Skinsaw Murders ended up being the last module in the series, as the final encounter was enough to destroy most challengers.  The internet, particularly the Paizo forums, are awash with stories of how the Lamia Matriarch was enough to annihilate their PC’s, often without suffering serious damage at their hands.  There were support groups to talk about the kill counts of Xanesha, the Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms.

Yeah…  I should just stop right there.  This was another of the writer’s attempts to puff up the name of something beyond what it could reasonably bear.  Much like ‘The Misgivings’, it’s one of those nonsensical bits that never quite worked.  There’s no flow to the nickname, and even if it did roll off the tongue, it doesn’t fit with anything about the character.  Sure, Xanesha does flit around the Magnimar underground to casually sleep with guys in her human form, but that only covers the ‘Wanton’ bit.  She’s not particularly pagan, largely unnatural, and she has exactly two forms that she can shift between.  Whee.

I feel like Peter Serafinowicz’ character from ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy.’  “This is Xanesha.  She’s also known as ‘The Wanton of Nature’s Pagan Forms’.”  “Who calls her that?”  “Herself, mostly.”

Anyway, where was I?

Xanesha holds an interesting place in Pathfinder lore, in that she’s an almost certain kill in her original form in the second module.  It’s so bad that most people consider it a better idea to substitute her sister, the Lamia Matriarch from halfway through the next module, instead, as that would be a marginally more fair fight.  And as it happens, Lucrecia doesn’t have a dopey title that she insists on calling herself.

As originally written, Xanesha is disastrously powerful, well-prepared and has complete tactical superiority.  She’s got a solid repertoire of spells available, high mobility and can answer any threat that comes after her.  All in all, it takes an overprepared part of characters and a bit of GM grace to take her down in her original form, especially when you consider that the party has already faced two fairly difficult combats on the way up the tower.  They revised her down to a much more manageable level with the Anniversary Edition, which is likely the result of player feedback and careful consideration on the part of the Paizo editors.

The original scenario has the characters find enough clues to lead them to an abandoned clock tower beneath an ancient Thassilonian bridge.  The backstory for her character has her sent by Karzoug (the Runelord that the module series generally refers to) personally, with other sisters sent across the breadth of Varisia to continue his bidding.  Her job is to harvest sacrifices for his power, which is generally meaningless at this point in the Adventure Path’s progress.  Her sister shows up in the next module, although her role in Karzoug’s return is just as murky.  (For most intents, the broad scope of the plot doesn’t start to make sense until about Module #4 or thereabouts.)

Once at the clocktower, the characters face off against a powerful flesh golem in the guise of a scarecrow, have a cinematic climb up the winding stair of the crumbling edifice and come face to face with the creature that’s been manipulating a cult of murderous thugs for her own ends.  And in the original version of the adventure, this is where they meet their untimely end.

All Paizo spellcasters have a tactical outlay of spells, with an order for them to be cast.  During the characters’ ascent of the tower, her minions made certain that she was aware of the approaching threat by dropping a massive bronze bell on them, with the hopes of either killing them or driving them away.  When Xanesha hears this, she casts the following spells on herself:  Fly, Mage Armor, Shield, Mirror Image, Haste, and Invisibility.  She’s starting out with a solid 26 AC, and this spell kit bumps that up to 35 AC.  She also drops Silence on a spare piece of wood within her rooftop lair, thereby shutting down any spell support that the party manages to bring with them.  She also activates False Life and casts Divine Favor, which enhances her hilariously powerful spear.  (Because of her weapon focus with the spear, it has a x3 Crit modifier, with a threat range of 19.  If it gave her Reach, it would be all over for anyone who happened by.)  She also has Spell Resistance and a stack of spell-like abilities with DC 20 saves.

Suffice to say, there’s a reason that most parties died to her deadly caress.  She’s a CR 10 creature that is facing 7th level characters.  Her ability to Fly gives her an immediate advantage, the Silence pretty well covers the entire area of the battle and she even goes to the point of casting a Major Image to keep the party off-balance.

The revised version of Xanesha removes almost all of the advantage that she had in the original version, lowering her hit points and armor class as well as taking away all of her spell kit except Invisibility.  She’s still a CR 9 encounter, after the two CR 7 encounters that had to be dealt with on the way up the tower, but in comparison, this is almost a cakewalk.  Also, given the slight power creep in converting characters from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder, I’d have to think that she’s a challenge, but not an unreasonable one.  The original version was just so much death.

I figure I’ll wrap up the rest of The Skinsaw Murders with one more post, but I’m already looking at taking a break from blogging for a little while after next week.  I’m not sure how much of a hiatus I’ll be working with, but next Thursday marks my third full month with this blog, which makes for a clear point to put things on hold.  I’ve been managing to update daily since the middle of March, and by the time next week rolls around, I’ll be able to figure out how much verbiage I’ve put into these updates.  I aim for 1,000 words per post, with unfailing daily updates, so that should put me somewhere above 100,000 words overall.  Not a bad mark to have managed.

In the mean time, I figure I’ll be able to update as I can, but it won’t be a daily thing.  There are too many other things that need my attention at the moment, so this is the gig that has to go to the back burner.  Hopefully, once the real life aspects iron themselves out, I can go back to regular updates.

But that’s not until next week.

Entering the Third Act of the Skinsaw Murders

So, when we last saw our intrepid heroes, they had escaped the ruin of Foxglove Manor (improbably known as ‘The Misgivings by the locals) as it fell in upon itself, breaking into pieces as it fell from the cliff it had so precariously been perched upon, its foul influences now cleansed from the Varisian Coast.

Or at least, that’s how we ended it.

I’ve been wracking my brain in the last day or so, trying to figure out why the writer chose to leave the house more or less intact when the characters finished with the haunting and the ghastly serial killer who had been so fatally warped by its unwholesome influences.  All right, so you have an old manor house filled with a myriad of decay and ruin, that no one in the surrounding area wants anything to do with.  As the characters were to figure out in the process of their adventures in the house (as in, they have to find this out to pick up the next thread of the plot), the last contractors were a cult of murderers that worshiped the god of murder and secrets.

To borrow from Kevin Smith, are these really the guys you want to have plumbing a toilet in your house?

If the house doesn’t crumble into the sea, the characters are sort of stuck with it.  I can’t imagine too many characters that would voluntarily move into a house with such history, unless they’re the kind that is jake with serial killers, the occasional murderous cultist, and a legacy of pain and terror that has been fused into the walls since the death of the original family by misadventure.  Most Good-aligned groups would want to burn the place down, just to be done with the damned thing.  At that point, it’s a better idea to just have the action sequence of fleeing the house as it falls to pieces around the characters, escaping as it finally destroys itself.  At least then, it’s dramatic.

And for me, this is where the adventure should have ended.  I keep going back to this idea, where the confrontation with Aldern Foxglove, the friend and ally established in the first module, is revealed to be the dreaded Skinsaw Man that has been murdering people around Sandpoint.  But it isn’t, and I find that weirdly unsatisfying.

Instead, the characters are drawn to Magnimar, the teeming metropolis to the south, built on the ruins of an ancient Thassilonian city from thousands of years before.  They’ve discovered notes on the Skinsaw Cult that has been the source of Foxglove’s specific murders (he’s been directed to kill particularly Greedy individuals, which feeds the main purposes of the end villain of the Adventure Path), and they’ve got the key to Foxglove’s townhouse in Magnimar, where they can search for more clues on the larger conspiracy.

Following the trail to Magnimar, the characters quickly discover specific notes that will lead them to another sawmill in the area, where payments from Foxglove are apparently dropped off periodically.  (What’s interesting about this part is that there is a single encounter and a single puzzle, but the module sees fit to include a rather detailed map for the GM to use.  I realize that this is for the sake of combat, but even so, this seems fairly extraneous.)  From there, they find themselves at the home of the Brothers of the Seven, also known as the Skinsaw Men.

The cult’s headquarters is a pretty straightforward series of encounters.  It’s a working sawmill, which adds some detail to the events, but it comes down to a room by room dispatching of low-level cultists as the characters look for the man in charge.  Somewhat unusually, the head of the Cult isn’t actually behind the series of murders, as he’s been played as a cat’s paw by another manipulator.  This has the effect of allowing the PC’s to negotiate with the head of a cult of murderous thieves, once they manage to dispel the Charm Person he’s been laboring under.

It’s an interesting idea, but at the end of the day, he’s still a cultist of the god of murder and a corrupted city justice as well.  I’m not really sure why the players are given the option of sparing him.

In some ways, I would love to play the module with wholly Evil characters calling the shots.  There were options for this all through the early parts of Savage Tide, and it seems like the focus of the game would be wildly different with this series, even though it would seem to take a fair amount of jiggering to get the outcomes to make any sense.  With the now-empty manor house and a cult of murderous thugs on your side, the characters would be quickly rising up in the world, I would guess.  It just makes you question why they’re killing off the established villains in the first place.  Is it a case of professional rivalry or something?  Was the Skinsaw Cult encroaching on the home turf of the player characters?

Good ends up being the default setting in these modules, but there are strange edges where it seems like the writers were willing to throw a bone at the occasional Evil character that wandered through.

As it shook out for our group, we actually had two Evil characters as part of the adventuring group by the time they reached the sawmill.  One was the Pride and Lust aspected Sorcerer who’d been driven mad by the revelations of the house and its various haunts.  At this point, I had taken over the character for my own use, not wanting to lose the main operant spellcaster from our regular group.  Another player had built a rogue, who was immediately lost to suicide in the manor, who was then replaced by a wizard.  That player hadn’t made it that week, so the character was more or less being played by another person, who’d decided to play the Evil version.  (When the Wizard’s actual player was in attendance, he ended up playing the Wizard as Evil, so it didn’t really matter.)  And the Ranger was going closer and closer to Evil, simply because he was becoming more intent on his anger issues while he was losing his sense of remorse for the accidental murders he’d committed earlier.

The effect this had was that the various horrific loot that the characters were amassing as a result of fighting a cult of murder wasn’t being thrown away or sold to shopkeepers.  This meant that the various razor-aspected weapons were being used regularly, as were the enchanted masks that highlighted the flow of blood in a living creature.

So, yeah.  There’s a lot of neat toys to be had in this module, but most of it only has utility to the most depraved and antisocial members of a given group.  Good times.