Category Archives: Adventure Paths
A couple of things before I launch into this review: First, the Nile Empire has always been one of my favorite Realms in Torg. I spent a lot of time there as a GM, and there was always a lot of great action to be had within its borders. Not only was I a huge fan of things like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocketeer, and The Phantom, the weird science and general tech level of the place amused me.
Second, this is one of the reviews I’ve been dreading most.
What sense does this make? Well, so far I’ve really been enjoying the darker tone and general nihilism of the new Torg Eternity version of the Possibility Wars. The original game, for better or worse, had a lot of goofy moments in it. Sure, there was a war going on, and odds were stacked against the characters… but it was also a game of high action and character stunts. And a lot of this came from being able to wing it with the high pulp sensibilities of the Nile Empire. Dramatic speeches, electro-guns, overwrought plots to steal shiny maguffins – if the characters needed a break from the dire events taking place in Orrorsh or Tharkold, they could take a bit of a break and try to untangle the plots of the insidious Wu Han. Comparatively, it seemed like a much less deadly place to run around in, and there were a lot more opportunities to be larger than life heroes.
Mounted against the backdrop of the other Realms, there are essentially two ways that Ulisses Spiel could bring forth the Nile Empire. Either they could preserve its inherent pulp heroics, which would set it even further apart from the hopelessness of the rest of the current Possibility Wars, or they could alter things so that even Pharaoh Mobius has great and murderous plans for the heroes.
From the look of things, the writers have tried to strike a balance between the two ends of this spectrum; while the adventure does offer some opportunity for daring exploits, it makes fairly clear that the heroes are facing overwhelming odds. The module offers a couple of fun directions that the characters can go in their rescues and escapes, without making any part of it seem too unbelievable.
Reading through things, I will say that they did some great things with this module, as would befit the pulp milieu that it’s built from. For one thing, this is the first Invasion I’ve read where the characters are at Ground Zero for the maelstrom bridge dropping. As in, about half a klick from where it actually touches down. From where they are standing, they see the troops and vehicles descend the bridge and start carrying out the business of the Invasion. In the module for Tharkold, everything happened roughly a day after the invasion. For Orrorsh and the Cyberpapacy, the Invasion took place the previous night, but no one is quite sure what’s going on. And of course, with the vaguely secret invasion of Pan-Pacifica, everyone’s more concerned with what’s going on in the rest of the world.
Naturally, the characters get a front row seat with the Nile Empire.
The first scene of the adventure deals with the maelstrom bridge falling. From there, the characters are dropped into a newly created ancient catacomb (go, weird World Laws!) for the second scene that they have to escape in the proper high action way.
This is the point where it seems like poor editing has thrown a monkey wrench into the text of the adventure. The characters have to make their way through a death trap maze under the pyramids, but if they fall victim to the death traps, they’re magically restored to life when it comes time to return to the surface. Earlier, there’s a Moment of Crisis opportunity that comes in, where it’s noted that, if the characters fail to save the NPC in question, she’ll simply return later. And it cites a World Law that doesn’t actually exist as a World Law – the Law of Inevitable Return. This seems to be the same effect that covers the dead characters surviving the catacombs.
Here’s the thing: Inevitable Return exists in the game, but it’s a Cosm Card that operates under the Law of Drama. I feel like this is an issue of having the module written before the text of the rules has been fully nailed down.* Being that this was sent out after the mainbooks were, it feels really odd that the module book wasn’t finalized after the rules were. Maybe that’s just me, though.
The final scene is a broadly sketched free-for-all against a variety of foes at one of the Invasion base camps. There is no defined assumption on how the characters should proceed in their escape, so it can range from a pure Stealth approach to a pitched battle against one of the pulp villains of the Nile Empire. There’s even the option of stealing a zeppelin and flying off into the night. (This would be my preference, if I’m being honest. It even comes with its own hull-mounted plane, the Nile Empire version of the Vought Corsair. Then all my Crimson Skies books would suddenly come into play.)
The pulp villains are just enough over-the-top to fit into the definition without being too outright goofy. The closest one to ridiculousness would be Lady Hourglass, who has a weird science monocle and acts like a stereotype of a femme fatale. She’s a bit out of place in the military camp – she’s really more of a subtle, social character who would be better suited to a nightclub setting – so I think I’ll save her for another scenario entirely. (Even in the text of the adventure, it notes that she sashays her way around the military camp at a slow roll, taking far longer to respond to anything than her compatriots.) In comparison, the Hooded Cobra and Brick-Knuckle Branko are solid villains without descending into nonsense.
I’m still not sure that the Nile Empire is going to be capable of inspiring the same sense of danger that the other Realms are doing (I mean, really… Pan-Pacifica is now running its own version of Biohazard on the populace), but I guess we shall see. There’s still the dire potential for mood whiplash when moving from Realm to Realm, but I’m hoping that the designers have plans for keeping this place threatening enough to keep up with the other Invaders. I guess we’ll see.
*For what it’s worth, I did submit this to the errata engine, so hopefully this will change by the time it goes to print. Yay, modern tech, for allowing on-the-fly proofing like this. Boo for relying on your customers for the proofreading.
Right or wrong, I’ve always felt like the Cyberpapacy was the weirdest Realm of the whole game. Take the fanaticism of the Spanish Inquisition and weld it onto the bleak nihilism of cyberpunk fiction. It certainly hasn’t been done in regular sci-fi to any great extent, so here we have West End Games inventing a new gestalt whole-cloth. Granted, I always had someone in my old games that wanted to play someone from Cyberfrance, but I assume that was more of an indicator of “High Tech = Better Guns” or some similar equation.* Combining amazing armor and physical enhancement with the ability to cast gnarly miracles certainly did not hurt things, either.
Scanning through the pre-gen characters, there are a startling number of people who end up converting to the Invading Reality. Pan-Pacifica had three characters convert, but all of them took on vague anime archetypes. (Well, except for the spooky psychic girl; she had been waiting her entire life for this Invasion.) The Tharkold adventure had one character go native, which turned him into a dermal plated Heavy. I can get behind this. Orrorsh similarly had one, who became the Slayer archetype. But I’m not really sure why we have four of the six characters converting this time.
Of the four, one becomes a functional Priest, replete with Faith and Miracles. Another is converted to a cyberwitch, albeit seemingly without the cyberware.** The other two of the converted characters are largely unremarkable, insofar as why they specifically can’t be Core Earth. We’ll have to see if there’s any reason given within the text of the module itself. I have my doubts.
All right, so … I’m working my way through the first page of the module text, and here’s what has stood out to me: First off, the crux of the adventure is searching for some of the townsfolk that have gone missing. This is pretty standard, but the module notes that the new Church Police are busily loading the “undesirables” onto trains. Well, that gives us a solid hook for at least part of the setting. (And really, if you can’t portray a Free French Resistance in the face of ruthless, authoritarian occupiers, you need to get caught up on your history.)
Then it talks about the blind, street corner prophets proselytizing about the end of the world that would come in the form of “Dragons, demons, and nightmares […]” Hells, that just sounds like people in the 80’s, when I would talk about my hobbies.
The actual course of the module is fairly simple. The characters investigate in the first scene, rescue one of the missing townsfolk in the second and steal a train in the third. None of it is especially complex or surprising. The fourth scene of the adventure is the boss fight (much like the way the Tharkold adventure was framed), and the epilogue has the characters recruited by Quinn Sebastian.
I realize that we’re going to get rules for the GodNet when we finally see the book for the Cyberpapacy drop, sometime in the next year, but it seems strange that there is nothing that really references it here. One of the main hooks for the setting, according to the mainbook, is finding hidden information within the realm of the GodNet to use in the greater Possibility Wars.*** (I’ll be honest. I was sort of hoping that the reason that so many characters had transformed was that one of the pre-gens would have a way to jack into the net and monkey about there. This was not to be, however.)
Now the question is, how did this module fare against the rest of the book?
The truth is, it seemed a little … dull. I can’t say that it was bad, but it felt like it was just sort of a by-the-numbers adventure. There were no real innate threats that had to be confronted (unlike the others I’ve gone through up to now, there were no zombies to be found), and the opportunities for selfless heroism (rescuing small children, defending the landmarks of Core Earth) were relatively minimal.
The way the adventure was structured, the hooks that set things in motion actually felt like the only reason the characters could be bothered to do anything. If they weren’t trying to save missing loved ones, would they have even gotten involved? It doesn’t feel like they would have. Does that mean that this is a larger problem in the face of the Cyberpapacy itself?
In the lead-up to the game, as well as the book itself, there have been notations that the machinations of Pharaoh Mobius have actually gained him supporters amongst the Core Earth residents of the Middle East. Similarly, Jean Malraux dropped his bridges after he had sent forward scouts to warn of the other Invasions. Does this mean that resistance to the Cyberfrance Invasion is actually fairly minimal? It’s an odd setting to deal with, if that’s actually the case.
There was one element that would only appeal to a hardcore English geek like myself, however, which redeemed part of the adventure for me. And to make any sense of this (it’s always good when I have to launch into a lengthy sort of preamble), I need to lay some groundwork.
The longest poem ever written in the English language is The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, ancestor of Lady Diana Spenser, the late and lamented Princess Di. Spenser was a contemporary of Sir Walter Raleigh, and the poem was considered, among other things, to be an allegory in praise of Queen Elizabeth.
An epic poem, The Faerie Queene was a lengthy examination of sin and virtue, with the loyal knights of the story embodying certain aspects of proper Christian morality. As such, they faced off against adversaries who were embodiments of sin and immorality. In the first book of the poem, the main hero is the Redcrosse Knight, who embodies the virtue of holiness. In his travels, he meets and challenges the Saracen knights; Sansfoy (the Faithless), Sanjoy (the Joyless) and Sansloy (the Lawless). Being Saracens (which normally referred to the Moorish Islamic Knights, but in this context mainly just meant non-Christian), they were represented the antithesis of Christian values, hence their names and outlooks.
In the module, the characters encounter the formerly blind prophet who had preached the end times before the Invasion, and he lends them assistance in the form of weapons and information. In the vein of The Faerie Queene, he is named Sansnom (the Nameless).
This is one of those points where overthinking and reading too much into the naming of an NPC is probably inadvisable. The broader mythology of Torg deals with two greater aspects of creation, Apeiros the Creator and The Nameless One. I feel safe in saying that this ragged priest is not representative of a primal force of destruction.
*Torg, I will maintain, is a game of bigger and bigger guns. Hence the relative distaste for the Living Land (“Our guns no longer work!”) and the gravitation towards the realms of the Cyberpapacy and Tharkold (“Better living through firepower!”). I’m not off to a great start in disproving that with my PMC crew.
**In the original game, sometimes merely converting to the reality of the Cyberpapacy was enough to install low-end cyberware. I haven’t seen evidence of that as yet, but it would make a certain sense. After all, official illustrations have full on Dragon Armor fading out of existence with disconnection. (Which, by the way, is technically against the rules; Dragon Armor is a Perk, and depriving a character of a purchased Perk during the course of the game is generally forbidden. As in, it has to be reinstated within a matter of scenes. Having it wholly vanish from reality seems pretty final to me.)
***As a sidenote, this is a fascinating carry-over from the original edition. Even then, it was noted that the GodNet was actually far larger and weirder than even Jean Malraux understood, and there were places hidden in the farther reaches of the matrix that might hold the key to winning the Possibility Wars. However, like so many other dangling plot threads from the original edition of Torg, this was one of those things that never got further illumination.
Throughout the history of Torg as a game, Orrorsh has always been a hard sell. It is the most dire and unfair of the Realms in the game, and there is nothing untoward about the defeat of a major villain requiring some great sacrifice. This place is roughly the reason that the Martyr Card exists in the first place. No one wants to go to a place where they’re just as likely to lose a beloved character as they are to actually succeed.
It didn’t help that the underlying nastiness of the realm was reinforced by somewhat heavy-handed historical commentary. Part of the success of the Invasion was due to the misguided interference of the Victorian Regiments that came down with the maelstrom bridge, intent on bringing their “civilization” to the savages. There was a whole “white man’s burden” subplot underlying the Gaunt Man’s Realm, and while it had an ironic literary aspect to it, it made things pretty frustrating. The Storm Knights were faced with having to deal with a faction of potential allies as being part of the larger problem, and the GM had to deal with trying to integrate Kipling into an adventure game.*
The original setting for Orrorsh was New Guinea and greater Malaysia, which was rather foreign to the average American GM. This has since been moved to the more logical and thematically correct Indian subcontinent, but that doesn’t make it much more accessible to the core audience. Outside of the Bollywood genre of films, there aren’t a lot of media properties that offer ingress to the setting.
Take, for example, the first notable location in the Day One adventure for Orrorsh. The text casually mentions that they’re starting out from Madurai, which happens to be a hardpoint for Core Earth. Okay, that’s interesting, but why? A quick Google search turns up the Meenakshi Temple, a massive and colorful Hindu temple that dominates the city’s skyline. Apparently, it has existed in some form for about 2,500 years, but its present form was only built about 500 years ago.**
As I noted with Tharkold, these adventures invite the GM to do a lot of research, just to bring some depth and texture to the world the characters find themselves in. While this is a fascinating aspect to the setting, I’m starting to wonder if it’s an overall strength or weakness for the game. Granted, we’re only working with a single mainbook and the first book of adventures (and PDF’s, at that), but I feel like we’re going to need some seriously in-depth setting books to make any of this work worth a damn.
And while we’re on the subject, this adventure drives home how much easier this would all be if I had my Delphi Council Cargo Box in hand. One of the first things that happens is the characters pass out of the sheltering effect of the Madurai hardpoint, and they’re immediately subjected to the axioms of Orrorsh. With the proper material in hand, this would take the form of setting the Axiom Table Tent in front of the players and handing out the relevant Cosm Cards. I’ve already started lamenting the lack of the Condition Tokens that I’ll be getting in October, and I’ve had to repurpose my Deadlands Poker Chips for Possibilities. This is what happens when you try playing without all of the necessary components in hand.
The characters for the scenario are pretty fun, really. They’re all members of a wedding group that’s traveling to the hometown of their friend / co-worker for the ceremony. We have the sister of the groom, her best friend, the priest (who also happens to be the best friend’s adoptive father, more or less), two of the groom’s closest work friends, and the poor bastard that’s driving them there. (One of fun aspects of the scenario is that the reason they’re not in the center of all the horror immediately is because the driver’s bus broke down and delayed them. And he’s really defensive about it.)
Being a horror scenario (as though would be any other kind in Orrorsh), the GM starts out by putting the game on a clock, counting down to the inevitable sunset. Because we all know things are going to go straight to hell once night falls. The goal of the first act is to make it to the village where the wedding is going to take place in time to investigate it before the main plot kicks in. Naturally, there are all the elements of creeping horror – mysteriously abandoned cars, inexplicable anachronisms, and a zombie attack.
Okay, maybe the last one is a bit more overt.
Between this adventure and the one from Tharkold, there’s an element of small children in danger. The Pan-Pacifica adventure avoids this by setting the events against nightlife in Harajuku, but both of the other ones have small children that need to be rescued from the events of the Invasion. It’s an easy Moment of Crisis, but I’m hoping that this isn’t going to be a crutch for the game designers to lean on.
In the context of the adventure, the characters have to rescue a young boy from a horde of Gospogs. Gospogs are an interesting aspect of the game, as they were one of the first creatures detailed in both the original game and the new edition. At their core, they’re little more than zombies that can get by the inherent contradiction of being zombies. They’re mainly featured in the Orrorsh module thus far, but the Tharkold adventure had the Thralls (think the Revenant from Doom, although mounted shoulder cannons are not required) and Pan-Pacifica had the Jiangshi, which we’ve been over.
I don’t think it needs to be said that Shane Hensley loves him some zombies. (Seriously, take a look at the introduction to his Unisystem take on Army of Darkness. He lays out his adoration for the genre pretty clearly.) I would be surprised if he hadn’t quietly nudged some of these adventures to include more Gospog or Gospog-variants.
Once the characters reach the village, they are treated to the “survive the night against the hordes of zombies” scenario, with a couple of fun added horrors thrown in. It’s not too bad of a set-up, but I will offer some incredulity as to the fact that the rural village (which serves as the destination and therefore the killing ground) is less than a dozen houses with a well. It makes sense in a Victorian setting (which is what Orrorsh is based around), but it seems odd, given modern times. The module hand-waves it by saying that some of the outbuildings have been overtaken by the jungle, but I think if I were to run this module, it would be tweaked to be slightly larger.
Oddly, the overall scenario feels like it would be more survivable than either of the other two that I’ve read through, despite being Orrorshan. Maybe I’m giving too much weight to the Realm, but it honestly seems like this is less apt to end in absolute, unavoidable slaughter. Which, given the way that the Gaunt Man has changed the War this time around, seems out of character.
Then again, who knows? Maybe this is to lull the players into a sense of complacency before bringing the hammer down.
*Not that Kipling is bad, by any stretch. But when you’re plumbing your college texts of English Lit for thematic elements, there’s a bit more whiplash when everything is pulled off track by (and suddenly, Ninjas!) the interference of a different Cosm. Torg works best when you have a blending of elements. And just like the old game, Orrorsh is the most isolated setting.
**I must say this: Being American, the idea of having a structure that’s five centuries old is hard to comprehend. Having a city that’s twenty-five centuries old is just unreal.
You might ask, “Is there any rhyme or reason to the order in which you’re reviewing the adventures in the new Day One Adventures book for Torg Eternity?” And the answer that I would offer is, “No, not really.”
I started with a discussion of the Pan-Pacifica module, which was a love letter to horror video games from Japan. Now, I’m moving on to the Tharkold adventure, which offers a chance to revisit my beloved S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. I’ve been avoiding both Living Land and Aysle, the two longer adventures (they’re three and two acts, respectively, where the rest are one act, one session forays), because they’re going to require closer attention and discussion. I’m also wondering how easy they will be to modify, which will necessarily require a bit more consideration.
There’s also a bit of personal bias. I’m much more of a horror GM than anything else, so I’d rather see what directions the game is going with those themes before I settle into the more normal adventures, such as they are.
In the original game, Tharkold was a nightmare realm, rivaling Orrorsh for the sheet meatgrinder aspects of the setting. With Orrorsh, everything was awful and impossible and frustrating because of the inability of the characters to make much headway against the main foes. You needed to research, connive, compromise your principles, and try to undertake arcane rituals from dusty books in order to properly combat evil, because if you skipped any of these steps, the murdering vampire that you spent six sessions trying to overcome would just return from the dead when you were busy elsewhere.
With Tharkold, all you had to deal with was insanely powerful demons with gnarly bits of evil cyberware that made them impossible to kill. Also, they had weapons that did their damage against your Spirit attribute, which meant that your combat-tuned PC with the best armor and weapons would be killed to death by a pain weapon. It was nasty, brutal and unfair, which made a certain sense as to why it showed up over a year after the game launched. Dealing with Tharkold in the opening days of the war was outright unfair for the player characters.
Naturally, Torg Eternity is keeping them around, just to make the lives of players that much more difficult.
The characters are quick, easy and obvious – the Commander, the Medic, the Heavy, the Scout, the Mechanic, and the Sniper. All of them are Russian military, and in the course of the adventure, the Heavy transforms to Tharkold and gains Dermal Plating. No real surprise there. There is a note that players can swap out the genders of these pre-gens as they see fit; they’re only given call-signs, so feel free.
The characters are the Russian equivalent of Delta Force, tasked with the extraction of a group of scientists in Moscow that are trapped there after the maelstrom bridge dropped on the city. Actually, they’re supposed to retrieve the data the scientists are working on, making the actual rescue a secondary objective. Priorities, people.
Because this is a military-centric mission, there’s a lot more in the way of tactical gear that the characters have access to, and the initial briefing is terse and direct. Where the Pan-Pacifica adventure structured itself along the lines of Asian horror, this is all done as a military operation, which reinforces the stark difference between Realms.
The adventure makes casual mention of Russian landmarks, with the historic Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius and the Worker and Kolkhoz Woman sculpture. I feel like these are sprinkled into the text of the adventure as anchors for those GM’s that are either familiar with the importance of these places or want to add a little verisimilitude to their games. (I mean, I know a fair amount about Russia and the Former Soviet Union, but I would need to do more research into the histories to adequately use them properly. At the bare minimum, I would have to offer play aids and images for the rest of the table.)
The first scene of the module has the characters advancing into Moscow to find the lost research lab. There are no real surprises to the structure of this part, but the adventure notes that, being soldiers already, the characters are going to have to do something a little more heroic to invoke their personal Moments of Crisis. (Some adventures simply require them to get into combat against the Invaders. That’s sort of a given with these characters, so they have to actually do something heroic.)
And where the Pan-Pacifica adventure draws its inspiration from games like the Resident Evil series, there are some pretty evident Doom references. What’s interesting is that the original Torg came out shortly before Doom was made, so the cyberdemons of Tharkold were original creations then. With this edition, they’ve been built to be a lot more like the ones in the computer game. The depiction of Kranod (page 63 of the Torg Eternity mainbook) owes more than a little to the menacing boss monster of the 1993 shooting game, even as he channels a little bit of classic Orcus.* And now, the Tharkoldu are no longer generally human-sized, as they once were. (As I recall; if they were actually as large as they are depicted now, it had never registered on me.) Instead, according to the mainbook, they now stand three (or more) meters tall.
If the illustrations in the Day One book is anything to go by, it’s at least four meters. Just like the one in Doom.
This is another one act adventure, much like the Pan-Pacifica one. The first scene of the adventure concerns the briefing and the trip into Moscow to the lab. The second scene covers the investigation of the lab, with the dire reveal of what is going on (and what the Russian government knew about the coming Invasion). There is a bit of a throwback to the first game, in that it pretty solidly references Hellraiser, which always seemed like one of the influences of the original Tharkold. And then the third scene has the player characters fleeing Moscow as the maelstrom bridge is nuked above them.
There’s a fourth scene, which simply involves fighting a pissed off technodemon, but it doesn’t offer much beyond the climactic battle.
What is fun is that, unlike the Pan-Pacifica adventure, this one has an epilogue where Quinn Sebastian himself shows up to recruit the characters for the Delphi Council. It serves as the hook to the semi-official campaign setting, where otherwise the characters are stuck in a weird fusion of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. AND Twilight 2000. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I have every intention of drawing from that well, when the time comes.
*I’m hoping this isn’t such an obscure reference that it requires much explanation, but my years of writing classes tells me not to make assumptions of my audience.
Orcus is the demon prince of the undead, dating back to the original white box edition of Dungeons & Dragons and appearing ever since. In Torg Eternity, he is referenced in the same depiction of Kranod I talked about before, by including a wand very similar to the one that Orcus wields and giving Kranod a similar winged and bloated form.
Let’s start off with a nit-pick and build this entry out from there.
As a Day One adventure, the scenario set in Pan-Pacifica* gives half a dozen available pre-generated characters to choose from, with the understanding that they’re likely to die. This scenario, in particular, operates on the idea that we’re here to establish some atmosphere and show what kind of story the new Torg Eternity is here to tell. And when we’re given a Biohazard / Resident Evil-derived adventure to go with, I’m immediately onboard with the potentials.
In the original edition, Nippon Tech was a weird, weird realm. I mean, sure… we had the ninjas and 80’s corporate Japan flavor, but if we’re being honest, there weren’t a lot of hooks to make it stand out. There was a bizarre corporate finance sub-system that would allow the GM to properly simulate the boardroom level activities that would fuel adventure series, which made sense to me at the time, but it was a tremendously odd aspect to build out.** Otherwise, there were no particular campaign ideas that stand out to me when looking back.
But before I follow too many tangents to their logical conclusion, what was the nitpick?
Well, among the available characters, there is a North Korean emigre who runs a stall in one of the markets near Harajuku. For some reason, however, he isn’t actually given a proper Korean name. Sun Hyong is almost a proper Korean name, but it’s really only two syllables, instead of the correct three. (And yes, Hyong is one syllable. Much like how Tokyo is two syllables, the same as Seoul. Whee…) Sun can function as a surname, but it isn’t one that shows up in the common surnames, so I’m left to assume that this character is simply lacking a family name. Sun Hyong is his given name, and he’s probably a Kim or Lee.
There’s a further twist in that most emigres from North Korea to Japan take Japanese names, for the sake of fitting in better. That’s a tweak that’s unlikely to matter to most players or GM’s, so I’m not going to press that point. And well, there’s also the matter that there are heavy North Korean connections to the Yakuza, which could offer some heavy plot implications.***
The pre-gens for the scenario are a proper mix of Japanese culture / anime tropes, which allows them to be dropped into the hands of American players with little problem. We have the aging Kung Fu student who’s just looking for a purpose and the thuggish street ganger who is about to re-evaluate his life; there’s the genki corporate receptionist who loves fashion and the disillusioned novelist who’s considering getting a safe corporate job. And of course, we have the moody psychic teenager.
Sadly, the way the story unfolds, it seems like the whole adventure is written for the sake of the spooky teen girl, since it hits so many anime story conventions that it could be an unaired OVA from around 1991. If she didn’t end up being the sole survivor that turned up later in most people’s campaigns, I would be shocked.
And while we’re on the subject, the background of the Pan-Pacifica invasion lifts so much from the Biohazard franchise (Resident Evil in the States) that I’m sort of wondering why Capcom isn’t getting froggy about it. The scenario is wrapped around the outbreak of a new and awful biological agent that kills its victims and subsequently reanimates them as zombies. Naturally, the zombies are less like George Romero or Sam Raimi and more in the style of the modern video games, where they can further mutate into biological horrors. (Seriously, though… pick a video game franchise that deals with zombies, and you can pull inspiration for your game from it.)
These zombies draw inspiration from the “hopping vampires” of Chinese folklore, where rigor mortis has stiffened their limbs and made their motions erratic. In Pan-Pacifica, the Jiangshi move the way they do because of how their muscles realign, but it’s the same idea. (Point of note: While Pan-Pacifica is heavily Japanese in its influence, the actual term, Jiangshi, is the Chinese term. Properly, they would be localized to Kyonshi, but that’s solely for the otaku purists.)
As far as the adventure is concerned, it unfolds in fairly predictable fashion. The first scene establishes the setting – elements of Japanese nightlife in the center of Tokyo, people milling about and shopping, then … zombies! From there, we have a tense scene focusing on trying to escape Harajuku, with a nice example of Dramatic Skill Resolution for the players to work through. Scene three is the standard calm-before-the-storm set piece at a historical shrine nearby, which culminates in a zombie siege, leading to the final scene – the revelation of what’s really going on. The characters find the hidden lab where all of the infection originated, fight their way through the building as they’re being pursued by the final boss monster.
And that’s where it ends, with the final cinematic and credits.
I’m not kidding when I say that this adventure plays out exactly like a chapter of the Resident Evil franchise. There are sinister corporate agendas, lurking enemies and jump scares, and a resolution that has the moody psychic girl carted off for study. (Here’s your sequel hook, everybody… play through the F.E.A.R. games and use the character of Ayaka Kuroda as the psychic in a coma.)
Thus far, this is the first scenario that I’ve read in depth, and if it seems like I’m trying to harangue the designers for borrowing too heavily from the obvious source material, that is rather far from the truth. This is a fantastic adventure, hitting all necessary beats to make it a proper homage to the original material. For my money, it does exactly what it was supposed to do, and the result is a phenomenal introduction to a now-deadly Realm.
We’ll see if the rest of the book holds up as well.
*I swear, it’s going to take long, long years before I adjust to the loss of Nippon Tech to this new title. All in all, it’s a much better, more evocative name; but really, I’ve already built all these neural connections to the old version.
**None of this makes any sense without having read the cyberpunk fiction of the time period. Between Gibson’s Neuromancer and Williams’ Hardwired, there was a thread of corporate espionage to a lot of the near-future books of the time. R. Tal’s Cyberpunk 2020 and FASA’s Shadowrun both borrowed heavily from these sources, but they never went to the trouble of building out the same sort of financial warfare system to allow actual battles to be fought at this level. Mostly, it was hand-waved that Arasaka was picking a fight with SovOil over something and it was up to the PC’s to steal some techy bit of story maguffin. For whatever reason, Torg decided that this was inadequate.
***Fun fact: While I was living in Japan, I had an adult English student that was likely part of the Yakuza. Nice lady, owned a chain of Pachinko parlors. She had wanted to improve her English because she spent so much time in the States, touring casinos in Las Vegas. The tip-off of her connections was that she complained that a lot of Japanese felt that she looked “too Korean,” a distinction that flew past me at the time.
There are points, only occasionally, where I think I should entertain a certain brevity with these responses, for the simple sake of snark and counter-intuitive obnoxiousness. Y’know, answer a topic like this with just a name and walk away, self-satisfied and abruptly missing the point.
This would be an deliberate case for comically avoiding the purpose of the exercise, even as it would briefly amuse me and allow me to go on with my life without having to space out a simple reply into a thousand word rumination about why certain writings have attracted me to a specific writer over the years. A better case might be to have to name my least favorite writer, whose games have offended me on some spiritual level with their terrible ideas and whose prose is execrable even by the standards of gaming fiction. I have several candidates that would serve well in this capacity, but it seems sort of unfair to make this topic into a hit piece.
But it might be fun.
Bitchy speculation aside, I do have a very specific favored RPG writer that I’ve been a careful fan of for a number of years now. I figure that the two of us would do well to share a beer and discuss gaming theory, even if I’ve never actually met the man as yet. There are specific writers and designers that I do know and have drank with at the different conventions, but it seems a little incestuous to name my friends as my favorites.
Favorite RPG Writer
All truth be told, there are two specific writers that would fit my criterion, which I will go into momentarily. For me, the favorite writer category requires that my patent adoration persist over the passage of years and products, to the point that nothing that the writer in question does falls outside of my interest. This ranges toward the unlikely and / or impossible, but let’s give it a shot anyway, ne?
Depending on the era, I would have immediately picked out Shane Hensley for this spot. Deadlands remains as one of my favorite games of all, suitable for pick-up games or long campaigns of dire accord. The fact that he set his course towards Savage Worlds is about the only thing that pings the top spot away from Shane, to be honest. There are some thing that just can’t be forgiven.
What’s interesting about Shane is that his pre-Pinnacle writing counts among some of my favorite gaming worlds. He wrote the Temple of Rek Stalek module for Torg, a properly brutal module that dealt with a cult of death worshiping lizard men in the hellish jungles of the Living Land. He was responsible for City by the Silt Sea, one of the rare boxed set adventures for Dark Sun which deals with an undead sorcerer-king turned dracolich. He put together The Nightmare Lands for Ravenloft, as well as the Red Tide module for the Masque of the Red Death boxed set. (Golly, a Victorian era horror module? From the guy that created Deadlands? Seems unlikely.)
I also read the weird little Bloodshadows novel that he did, Blood of Tarrian. I don’t remember it being terrible, but since I was in a spate of reading gaming fiction at the time, I’m not really thinking I was the best judge of literature right then and there. I do remember that the other books set in that world seemed better.
One of these days, I’m going to have to write something on the phenomena of gaming fiction. I’m not really sure why it continues to be cranked out, but some subset of fools is buying these things. (And don’t get me started on the wasted space in the Paizo Adventure Paths that is devoted to gamer fiction. Give me ten more pages of world or monsters or dungeon, you bastards.)
So, my actual favorite RPG writer would have to be Bruce Cordell.
The reasoning for this is somewhat odd, in that Cordell is literally the first RPG writer that I ever properly noticed in the course of gaming. I mean, sure… you find Gygax everywhere, and Frank Mentzer and Rob Kuntz show up on a regular basis in the early days of D&D, but they did such a wide and varied amount of writing for the hobby that they just ended up being part of the scenery. And Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were their own subset, crossing between gamer fiction and established world / module series. Since I only read the Dragonlance novels, without ever adventuring in Ansalon, I didn’t have the same connection. (And is this where I admit to having read the entirety of the Darksword, Rose of the Prophet and Death Gate novel series, despite my earlier bitching? There are times when I question my tastes. Or at least the tastes of my younger self.)
For whatever reason, there’s a difference with Cordell. There was a point when I was going through the Monstrous Arcana series, marveling at the ideas and debating whether I would ever be able to run these modules for whatever extant game was going on at the time, and I realized that the ones I liked the best were the ones Cordell had written. I mean, he made an epic campaign out of sahaugin, for gods’ sake.
When 3rd Edition came around, I started seeing his name on the Malhavoc psionic books, which eventually led to the Expanded Psionics Handbook, which still ranks as one of my favorite supplements for 3.5, for good or ill. There was the Diablo II sourcebook, which had the mother of all magic item tables (I can’t say for certain that he built that, since there was another edition of the Diablo stuff at that same time, and without them in front of me, I couldn’t say for certain whose work came first. But like many things, Cordell’s name was attached, which caught my attention.)
Lately, he’s been working up an entire game line with Monte Cook with The Strange. I have the main book and every intention of playing it at some point, but as yet, it’s not something that’s happened. I’ve heard it compared favorably to Torg, which happens to be enough of a selling point for me, so an epic campaign with this game is just something that will happen sooner or later.
But at the end of it all, the one reason that I would cleave to Bruce Cordell’s line is what he did with the greatest module ever written. The Sunless Citadel.
Sunless Citadel ranks right alongside The Haunting from Call of Cthulhu as the module that I have run the most times for the most groups. It’s a first level module written as part of what amounts to being the first real Adventure Path for 3rd Edition D&D. The characters happen upon an innocuous adventure hook of investigating a disappearance, and they happen into an ancient and forgotten cult of a dragon. There’s an evil druid, a tree of mysterious and legendary evil, and the (largely unseen) hooks for the larger campaign.
But none of this is what makes the module great. No, what sets this adventure apart is the sheer potential for brutal mischief on the part of the dungeon master. This is a low level game, where the characters are largely incompetent and their every equipment choice is vitally important. If the characters haven’t packed in enough rope, they’re going to be stranded at critical points. If they fail their saving throws, the abundant rats are going to inflict them with a raging case of filth fever, and there’s going to be close to a week of down time as they weather the sickness and try to recover. And there are environmental hazards that can wipe most of the party out if things go sideways.
The beauty of this module is that it’s one of the best introductions to 3rd Edition that exists. 3.0 and 3.5 are mostly remembered for their DungeonPunk motifs, where adventurers can become canny avatars of 21st century ideals, backed up with judicious magic use and applied tactics. (The John Tynes module, Three Days to Kill, sums this up perfectly, with a James Bond-esque espionage caper using D&D as the base, with magic items standing in for Q’s arsenal.) But with Sunless Citadel, the characters are brought back to their roots, forced to consider how best to use the available equipment or surroundings in order to succeed. It’s a 1st Edition module, using 3rd Edition rules, and the results are glorious.
The fact that this adventure is followed up with truly fascinating campaign arcs with the following adventures is merely icing, to be honest.
Well, if I had been slightly more ambitious, I might have gotten ahead of the curve on this thing by now. Alas, my weekends are just busy enough with accumulated nonsense that I haven’t managed to do a great deal of writing. And today doesn’t look to be any better on that count than the last couple of days.
Favorite Free Game
The original intention of this one doesn’t really flip my switches, if indeed we are talking about actual fully playable RPG’s that are completely free. I’m not sure what actually falls into this category, other than some of the weirder Open Game License products out there on the net, and my general disinterest for the ephemeral nature of some guy’s weird PDF’s is not enough to warrant a very wide selection.
That said, I do have a nomination for such a game, which I will cover at the end of this.
If I expand the definition out to include “Free RPG Products” of some sort or another, I can come up with a clear winner outright. This comes from the vaguely dubious “Free RPG Day” cohort of products. I’m not generally a fan of Free RPG Day, since I come from an area where there isn’t any real selection of gaming stores in the first place, and the ones that actually participate in Free RPG Day are a slim number at best. Where I used to live, the main store that stocked such was run by nattering dipshits who picked over the stock of good products before the public was given access, and they were about the only outlet in roughly a hundred miles in any direction.
While the idea is solid, the practical nature of the promotion leaves a lot to be desired, given the slow death of the local gaming store. In the mythical heyday of game shops scattered through a region, this would have been the way to garner interest and attract a wide audience. Instead, we have a mere handful of stores in a large metro area, and nothing in the sticks. And guess where I ended up landing?
All grousing aside, my broad-based pick for this category is the We Be Goblins series of modules from Paizo. These are their recent line of Free RPG Day wares, as of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, and they concern the exploits of a handful of Golarion Goblins and their struggles against … well, mostly their own bad tendencies.
Paizo had done previous Free RPG Day modules, most of which were unremarkable. I remember the Kobold King modules, vaguely, but I never had any opportunity or excuse to run them.
The Goblin series, on the other hand, came into play when I needed a quick series of one-off games for some guests one weekend. I’d picked up all three as they came out, skimmed the basics, and put them on the shelf. They’re very simple and straightforward, and the original served as a sort of sideways introduction to the Jade Regent path, as it details one of the important set pieces of the module from a different point of view.
In these modules, the players are given their choice of goblin characters from the Licktoad Tribe. (This is as awful and descriptive as you would expect.) The opening of the module has them competing for favor from the Goblin King (in a series of weirdly brutal games) before heading off to deal with a threat to the tribe. (Actually, they’re sent off to steal some fireworks, only to accidentally deal with a threat to the tribe. Such are goblin adventures.)
The four goblin PC’s are terrible creatures, in keeping with the longstanding portrayal of these creatures in the Pathfinder game. They’re to be played for brutal and comedic effect, which my players readily picked up. As the adventure unfolded, they pushed each other to more horrible feats of daring, just for the sake of “being as goblin as possible” in the game.
Each of the three modules build on the previous, even though they’re largely considered single session distractions. By the time the third one starts, the characters are heading their own tribe, with all that implies. Paizo even put out miniatures for the characters in one of their blind pack releases. This has the weird effect not only of making these figures more expensive than goblins would normally rate, but their pig animal companion rates the highest price around for a farm animal miniature.
In short, these modules are great, and it’s worth the time to seek them out.
Insofar as the actual free RPG product that I referenced above, this is a bit of a grey area that I’ve heard people bitch about a little while back.
The background on this is that a professional game designer got it in his mind to work up a fan project that he had been monkeying around with in his spare time. Being a known quantity in the industry, he laid out and built a solidly publishable product as a fan work and posted it on his website. Since he wasn’t charging for the game, he let it sit without seeking the rights and permissions.
The problem came in with the fact that he submitted it for consideration at the Ennie Awards. Since it wasn’t any sort of official game, unlicensed and outside of the interest of the trademark holders, the internet blew back on the writer because it was somehow a ripoff of intellectual property. In the ensuing firestorm, the creator had to delete it from his website and essentially go into hiding. It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up getting a lawsuit along the way.
Part of me can see the indignation, but the reaction was well into the shrill and nasty end of the spectrum for a piece of fan-created work. There was no profit, and had it not pissed off people voting on industry awards (the fan awards, if we want to be honest about things; none of this nonsense was due to the Origin Awards), it would still be up for general download and perusal.
The game I’m talking about is the Mass Effect Fate RPG, which was one of the best uses of the Fate OGL that I’ve seen. Given that the original CRPG game is a gestalt of a dozen recognizable science fiction properties (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Alien, to name a couple easy examples), screaming “ripoff” to the winds seems a tad ironic to my ears. I have my own copy of the free PDF, and when opportunity affords, I intend to sit down and make use of this particular free product, even in the face of collective indignation.
So much for October, I guess.
Suffice to say that the last month has been one of weird obligation and unforeseen activity. As I have hinted on a couple of prior occasions, I’m in the process of looking for a new place to live, and many of those birds came home to roost in the previous several weeks. Nothing is precisely set into stone at the moment, but it bears noting that I am in the midst of packing up my library against the eventuality of having to get it shipped.
As such, there wasn’t any available time to sit down and hammer out the requisite number of words to satisfy my own loose definitions of blogging. In some ways, I’m glad that I had already cut back from my daily schedule of updates, as that would have been a rather abrupt shift. That doesn’t mean that I’m not vaguely mortified by my lack of maintenance, but at least there’s less comparative damage. In the interim, I’m hoping to be able to offer slightly more timely updates, if only for my own standards.
Right now, there are only two games that are being run in my immediate circle, and as I have come to expect, I’m running both of them. The first is the ever-present and close to finishing Carrion Crown campaign, which has been ongoing for about three years at this point. I have to assume that I’m approaching some sort of record, at this point, given that the entire campaign is structured to be finished within a six month timeframe. Yay, me.
There’s an odd tendency that I’m noting within Pathfinder (as a result of where we’re at in Carrion Crown), which I will have to pay closer attention to. Having run about half of Savage Tide, as well as played to a similar point within Rise of the Runelords, I’ve started to suspect that there is a tipping point around 12th level when modules start to ramp up the presence of casters as the primary foes in adventures. With Savage Tide, it happened with the kopru Cleric in Golismorga, which immediately followed up with a sorcerer in the early part of the next module. In Carrion Crown, the Witches of Barstoi that show up in Ashes at Dawn offer a similar threat. And Runelords had Sins of the Saviors, which offered a whole variety of casters to bedevil the player characters at that point.
The reason that I bring this up is that it seems to offer a sharp uptick of difficulty in the module series, one that I hadn’t been particularly expecting. Most of the foes in the modules were able to be dealt with in a more or less martial way in the lead-up modules, so springing a heavily tweaked caster on the party seems like a bit of a shift. As a player, I know that I hadn’t been ready for the tactical spellcraft that had been assumed to be in place for the fifth module of Runelords, and it’s fairly evident that none of my players, in either Carrion Crown or Savage Tide were up for the task.
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I should feel about these narrative shifts. I mean, on one hand, it is logical that the foes should ramp up in difficulty as the modules progress, but by and large, it’s something of a sudden change. In the first ten levels, it doesn’t feel as though there is a great deal of caster presence. A case could be made that lower level casters aren’t nearly as much of a threat, given the limited scope of spells and the relative lack of hit points and saves. But the few exceptions that I can bring to mind show me that they can be used effectively (the first thing that occurs to me is the main villain of The Varnhold Vanishing in Kingmaker), but otherwise they seem to be either absent or largely ineffective.
Looking back over the early parts of Carrion Crown, I see that my perceptions were out of whack. All the way along, there has been a proper representation of spellcasters, in one form or another. In Haunting of Harrowstone, there were a couple of foes within the ranks of the ghosts, but the spells were more utilitarian or basic damage than anything else. In Trial of the Beast, the main sorcerous adversaries were Vorkstag and Grine, the masters of the chymic works, and again, most of their base repertoire was defensive in nature. In the first half of Broken Moon, the master of the lodge offered the only mystical interference, and with the exception of Black Tentacles and Stinking Cloud, none of it was terribly remarkable. In the second half, the climactic battle with the necromancer only offers a challenge if he’s been given a number of rounds to prepare. Otherwise, his spells in combat are meant to keep him away from combat.
Continuing on, we find ourselves in Wake of the Watcher, where there are a sizable number of clerics wandering around, but most of them are multi-classed, which limits their repertoire. The cultists in town can only cast 2nd level spells, which limits their utility, and even the head cleric who shows up slightly later only has a couple of truly inconvenient spells at his disposal. The fungal oracle and the deep one cleric that show up in the final section have a better range of ability, but only the fungus is able to do anything interesting.
All right, so there is a fair representation of spellcasters through the module series. Given this, I have to assume that there were a fair selection of them in Savage Tide and the others. So it isn’t a problem of absence. That drops it over onto being a problem of not being an overt threat. And as such, something changes over somewhere around 10th level, the point where 1st Edition D&D suggested that the adventurers retired.
Back when I was living overseas, one of the resident GM’s there had noted that he hated running a campaign much past 10th level. At the time, it had taken me aback, given my general outlook. I assumed that most campaigns died around that time (as was my experience) due to player apathy, time constraints or similar ideas. Whenever I had run a proper D&D game, it flamed out somewhere in the 10th~12th level range just as a matter of course. To have someone want to intentionally kill the game at that point fascinated me.
Without deeper study (it’s late, and I’m running a fairly notable headache; in the same breath, if I don’t finish this in some manner, it will languish alongside the half-dozen other entries that I’ve been working on), I have to think this is the point where the game itself kicks over into more nuanced play styles. Sure, I’ve played some form of D&D for about 75% of my actual life, but it’s a complex enough system that I haven’t tried to take it apart to study the raw numbers.
So, as it stands, there’s more to consider in this whole bit, insofar as spell utility is concerned and how much of a threat a spellcaster of a given level ends up being. Alas, it’s not a question I can immediately answer in a single entry.
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?
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.