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All Hallow’s Eve, and all that entails…

It’s a rainy, dismal night outside my window, and the best I can say about it is that it encompasses everything I remember about Halloween from my childhood.  It’s cold, it’s wet, and the only real reason to be outside at the moment is to scrounge for candy on the backstreets.  Since I’m not eight years old, however, I’m not particularly interested in venturing outside.  The idea of costuming would be interesting, if I had enough other people around to encourage me, but without a dedicated group of people to dress up with, it seems like a lot of unnecessary work.  And if I wanted any amount of candy, I’d just go off and buy myself a bag.

These days, it would hearken to a proper horror game night, were there anyone within reach.  I could see pulling out Touch of Evil or Last Night on Earth, but the best I could do right now is gather perhaps one other person.  And that doesn’t really justify the trouble.

My usual fallback would be to run a Cthulhu adventure.

I’d mentioned back in August that I had cultivated a habit of running one adventure on a repeated basis.  This adventure would be “The Haunting,” a little haunted house scenario that tends to be included in the Call of Cthulhu mainbooks and has become something of a favorite over the years.  It’s a relatively simple little module, dealing with the characters being asked to investigate the strange happenings at a little house in the Boston suburbs.  Most of the action is divided between researching the history of the place and actually looking around the  house itself.  It was put together to serve as an introduction to the game, and it is singularly effective on that basis.

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time on this module.  I’ve played in it, I’ve run it directly from the book, and I’ve adapted it into other systems for the sake of the players I had sitting at my table.  I’ve even toured a local house that now serves as my inspiration for Walter Corbitt’s house.  (In all seriousness, it had an identical floor plan, even down to the basement that seemed to only go under half of the house.  It was a little unsettling.)  I’ve grown to love it, and whenever I find myself settling into a new gaming group, this is one of the first that I bust out.

The simplicity of the adventure (the house itself has three bedrooms upstairs, a modest living room-dining room-kitchen layout on the main floor, and a rather small basement) allows any amount of modification, depending on how the GM wants to portray things.  I’ve seen it set in rural locales, on the outskirts of a Jazz Age negro resort town, and brought up to the modern day.  Characters have gone in as guileless dilettantes, hardened mercenaries and paranoid conspiracy theorists, based on how the players want to approach it.

And none of it matters.

Part of the appeal of the adventure to a GM is that it is unapologetically deadly.  I’ve never misled players on this point.  If they are sitting down for a Cthulhu game in general, it is generally understood that their survivability hinges directly on their choices, and the game itself is an unforgiving system.  I’ve never run this game as anything other than a one-shot, and for what it may be worth, I’ve never figured out how a character could reliably survive.  I’m sure that there are ways to survive, but it hasn’t happened in any of the sessions I’ve run.  That said, I’ve seen GM’s who try to help their player characters live through the scenario.  For my money, they’re merely running the module wrong, which robs their players of the full experience.

The adventure starts with the characters being hired by a mutual acquaintance, whose rental property is gaining something of a reputation.  The most recent residents have met with a series of dire misfortunes, and if this isn’t cleared up, he may not be able to rent the house again.  The characters are given a vague sketch of some of the problems, a key to open the front door, and a promise of a modest reward for dealing with the situation.  From there, they are free to start investigating.

This is where the adventure really shines, encapsulating the particular nuances that Call of Cthulhu brings to the hobby.  Investigation is largely unknown in most RPG’s, which prefer a more visceral approach to problem solving.  Lovecraft’s writings tend to be more cerebral, and the structure of the game rewards players who try to emulate this.  In the module, there are some nine listed locations, only one of which is the house itself.  Of these, six are locations for research purposes, ranging from the local library to the Boston Globe newspaper archives.  (Of the remaining two, one is the generic “house where the investigators meet,” and the other is something of a red herring.)  It is expected that the characters would do their homework, figure out some aspects of the mystery that they are confronted with and prepare themselves accordingly.  In some Cthulhu adventures, this tends to be the phase of the adventure where the characters come across some sort of weakness that they can exploit or an insight into the kind of foe that they are facing.  In this case, however, the best that the characters come away with is a gnawing sense of dread.  There are no particular weak points that they can use against Walter, and all the research tends to do is highlight the fact that their foes is possibly immortal.

Once they’ve done their due diligence in regards to the events leading up to the recent unpleasantness, the only remaining course of action is to physically enter the house itself.  And as I have said, the layout of the place is extremely simple.  There isn’t actually much to the adventure, in terms of the house itself, with most of the rooms serving as foreshadowing to the actual points of conflict.  The main level of the house has nothing particularly interesting to be found, other than the remnants of the former residents’ daily lives.  There is a weird notation of a sealed cabinet where the lost Diaries of Walter Corbitt have apparently been sealed up for over fifty years, but this has no particular bearing on the adventure.

Upstairs, however, things start to get weird.

Two of the three bedrooms were lived in by the former residents and have little of pressing interest.  The third bedroom, however, originally served as Walter’s room, and it manifests certain weird effects as a result.  For my money, this was where the adventure truly started.  Up to this point, the characters have been doing the scut work of the session, looking through archives and trying to piece together the information into a working theory of what’s been going on.  Only now, when they enter the sealed up second floor bedroom, do things actually start to hint at how bad things are going to get.

The room is treated as sort of poltergeist encounter, with furniture being thrown about and blood seeping from the walls.  Compared to the relative normalcy of the rest of the house, this tends to catch the players completely off-guard, setting the tone for the final act of the adventure.  (For my own purposes, I tend to expand the area of Walter’s influence to the upstairs bathroom, which is one room away.  This takes the form of filling the bathtub with blood and having Walter appear in the medicine cabinet mirror, seemingly over a character’s shoulder.  These are harmless little tricks, comparatively, but they have the effect of throwing things off well enough.  In one session, this even led to a character shooting a fellow party member in reaction.)  In the bedroom, Walter attempts to lure a character close enough to the window to batter them through the glass with the bedframe, a heavy wooden thing propelled by telekinetic force.  Depending on how the dice fall, this has the immediate potential to take at least one character out of the adventure on the spot.

From there, the only remaining part of the house is the basement, found by a door leading off the kitchen.  Hilariously, the dire encounter that awaits is foreshadowed by the plethora of locks on this door, clearly intended to keep something from coming up into the rest of the house.  It’s an understated element that isn’t pointed out to the GM of the scenario, but I’ve found that it tends to be wholly obvious to the players.

The basement is largely unremarkable to a casual observer.  The stairs are rickety, the light bulb doesn’t apparently work, and there’s a scattering of miscellaneous junk on the floor.  (The reality is that the light bulb is just fine, but Walter has telekinetically pulled the fuse.  If the player characters are resourceful enough, they can restore light to the basement with a quick trip to the fuse box; only to have Walter pull the fuse on them later when it suits him.  This is one of those elements that underscores just how bad it’s going to get.)  Getting into the basement itself can prove vaguely harrowing, depending, but it’s only when they’re assembled in the small underground room that things go completely off the rails.

There’s an interesting note that just occurred to me in the current re-reading of the text.  If the GM wanted to utterly put the screws to the players, it wouldn’t be out of character to have Walter lock them into the basement with him.  He has the power, and with the note about the fuse box, there’s really nothing stopping him.  The text of the adventure limits his power to the basement and the upstairs bedroom, but having the ability to mess with the fuse box allows him a couple other interesting tricks as well.

Once the characters have made it to the basement, they have a little time to sniff around before Walter decides to fuck with them further.  Initially, this takes the form of his ritual knife, a blood encrusted relic that is simply lying on the floor in the various debris.  Using telekinesis, he levitates the knife and has it stab whomever is readily available.  The characters invariably panic and try to deal with the knife, but by the time they have it under some sort of control, it’s usually done some serious damage to at least one of the characters.  And to this point, there’s been no indication of what the hell is going on.  Savvy characters who have done their research know that Walter was a particularly creepy figure in life and is buried somewhere under the house, but the reality is that there’s no obvious bit that reveals him as being a powerful undead sorcerer.  (Most players will outright assume it at this point, though.)

Finally, there’s the possession thing.

Up until now, Walter’s been using telekinesis of one sort or another.  (Well, and the whole “bleeding walls” thing.  I added in the ability to appear in the mirror as a sop to the accounts of the former residents.  It isn’t in his listed abilities, but it did add a nice flavor to things.)  In his write-up, he has a form of Dominate that allows him to make telepathic commands to a victim.  This is an opposed roll against a player character, but Walter is well and powerful enough to manage it.  For my purposes, this allows him to direct one of the player characters to open fire on another, which is usually enough to spell the end of the scenario.  Once a character has been attacked by another, things rapidly go downhill.  Even if they fail, the other characters are just paranoid enough to start killing each other, and any survivor can usually be dealt with using the ritual knife or the rat swarm that lurks in the walls.

Very rarely does Walter himself have to appear.  There are stats for him, and he has the ability to rise from his grave, his skin hardened against most forms of attack.  Even if any of the characters are able to survive the perils up to this point, Walter is well and capable of dealing with whomever is left to oppose him.

All in all, it’s a nifty little adventure, with enough lead-up to make the final act properly dreadful.  I’ve run it time and again, invariably ending with a total party kill, as I feel Cthulhu adventures should conclude.  There is a slim possibility of survival, but it hinges directly on trying to run Walter out of Magic Points before he can eliminate everyone in the party.  Even so, I doubt that this would be possible without at least a half-dozen characters in tow.  This is literally the only way that I can actually envision anyone coming out of the adventure intact.  (And even then, they would have a fair amount of damage to their Sanity.)

This is one of the few Halloweens that I haven’t managed to run this scenario, but all that really means is that I’ll be that much more prepared for the next time.

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

My, how times have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Rule of Five – Setting in the Exalted RPG

A little over a week ago, I looked at Exalted in broad terms, defining what made it different from the more standard fantasy games and giving a bit of an overview of some of the mechanics.  While I touched on some of the intricacies of characters, I tried to stay away from talking too much about the setting.  At the end of the day, I want to keep these entries somewhere below 2,000 words, if I can help it.

As I mentioned, there are five basic types of Exalts in the setting.  In order of general power, these are the Solars, the Abyssals, the Lunars, the Sidereals and the Dragonbloods.  This is not to say that this is all that’s playable within the setting, but it covers the bases.  The setting also allows for Fair Folk – based largely on some of the works of Neil Gaiman, fused with an Eastern sensibility – and Alchemical Exalts, whose existence is kept outside of the bounds of reality until Things Go Very Wrong.  The Fair Folk are strange, almost meta-narrative creations whose very existence is something of a sentient tale.  (They’re a little weird, and I haven’t heard of many people trying to actually play them as written.)  Alchemicals, in the mean time, are akin to robot versions of the main Exalts.  According to the setting, they were removed from reality when their Creator escaped a possible purge, and they only come back to the shores of Creation when the Creator in question is dying.

Second Edition also built books for the Jadeborn and the Dragon Kings, which served roughly as templates for life and Exaltation in the early days.  Those that survive in the modern days are weird relics of the past rather than fully playable character types, but a skilled GM could make a go of it.  It’s also possible to play stock mortal characters, but they tend to be very fragile in a game of Epic Heroes and Legendary Deeds.  For my part, I’ve run a couple of Mortal Games, but they’re essentially the story of greater heroes before they Exalted.  And finally, there are also the Infernal Exalts, but my particular distaste for them necessitates that I reserve later space to talk about that whole mess.

As such, the base character types reflect the Rule of Five.  Each of these character types have five sub-types (with the previously noted Lunar exceptions), which then divide the skills into groups of five.  It’s a very elegant system, and it adds greatly to the flavor of the setting.  It was telling when a friend of mine spent a semester in a Muslim nation and was fascinated by the way the calls to prayer echoed the Solar Castes.  (And subsequently, the Five Pillars of Islam further reinforced this perception.)

It should come as no surprise that the setting also divides itself neatly into five corners.  (In fact, the books published for the Second Edition rules tended to follow a rule of five in their foci.  There were five books that detailed the five Celestial locations, five for the Terrestrial locations, five books of magic, five books of esoterica, and five character books worth bothering with.)

The five corners of Creation roughly divide themselves according to the five Terrestrial elements, as defined by the Exalted universe – Earth, Air, Water, Fire and Wood.  This got altered slightly in publication, as the Pole of Earth overlapped with the Blessed Isle, the central setting for the Dragonbloods and the Dynasty, so the line developers substituted in the Scavenger Lands, the implied default setting for the game.  The Blessed Isle showed up in the Celestial Locations series instead.  Otherwise, each of the cardinal directions took on one of the elements.

The North was the Pole of Air, dealing with the frozen wastelands and strange abandoned gods that ruled therein.  The West was the Pole of Water, a series of scattered archipelagos with agendas far from the sight of the Dynasty.  The East took on the Pole of Wood, with the dense jungles and lost civilizations of the past ages.  And the South detailed the vast and trackless wastes of sand that stretched towards the hellish Pole of Fire.  In the mean time, the Scavenger Lands dealt with the riverlands of the near East, where the main antagonists of the Dynasty built towards war.  Given that the default assumption of the game was that most players would be running Solars, it offered a proper setting for the new heroes of the age to hide from their pursuers and build towards legend.

As far as the Celestial settings went, the books vaguely corresponded with the Exalt types that based themselves there.  The Blessed Isle, which was also home to the Pole of Earth, had been taken over by the Dragonblooded Exalts around the time they overthrew the great Solar Empire.  The Wyld is a place of ever-changing chaos that forms the borders that surround the vastness that is Creation, and it is established as where the Lunar Exalts hide in exile.  The Fair Folk also live there, being creatures of primal chaos, but there’s something of an established peace.  Yu Shan serves as the heavenly realms, playing host to the various gods of Creation as well as the Sidereal Exalts, who oversee the Loom of Fate itself.  The Underworld hosts the dead, the Deathlords that serve as the main long-term antagonists (being that they are the embittered ghosts of the Solars of the first age), and the Abyssal Exalts who exist as the mirror opposites of the Solars themselves, controlled by the dead Primordials known as the Neverborn.  The final book of the original five Celestial Directions deals with Malfeas (pulled directly from the Werewolf books in the original World of Darkness), which serves as Hell.  When the Infernal Exalted book was published, this housed those characters, along with the Yozi (pulled from Kindred of the East) that sought to bring the end times to Exalted.  Once the line was pretty well dead, a sixth book was released to deal with Autocthon, the home of the Alchemical Exalts.

The history for Exalted serves to tie all of this together, as it details the High First Age, where the Solar Exalted ruled Creation from on high with their Lunar mates.  Given heroic flaws by casting down the Primordials (the Titans of the setting, who would go on to become the Yozi (if they survived) or the Neverborn otherwise), the Solars saw their great empire decline into decadence and madness.  A prophecy pulled from the Loom of Fate showed the Sidereals that Creation was approaching a tipping point, and if nothing was done, a World of Darkness would follow the fall of the Solar Empire and Creation itself.  (Oddly, it is implied that the Exalted setting exists because White Wolf’s long running World of Darkness setting was prevented.)

In order to prolong the existence of Creation, the Sidereals worked through Fate to assist the Dragonbloods in their overthrow of the Solar Empire.  As Terrestrial Exalted, the Dragonbloods were vast in number, serving as the foot soldiers in the Solar Legions.  Striking on the local equivalent of a combined New Years/Halloween, the Solars were murdered, their Lunar mates fled, and the Sidereals enacted a complex plan to keep the circle of reincarnation from allowing the Solars to return.  (Have I mentioned that there’s specific Eastern influences on the mythology?)

The great capital city is left in smoking ruins, the Dragonbloods take the Blessed Isle as their own, and the Sidereal Exalts fade back into the shadows to manipulate events from there.  The Lunars, unable to stop the massacre of their mates, flee to the borderlands to avoid the Dragonblooded hunting teams.  Some centuries go by, and the Terrestrial Shogunate gives way to a powerful dynasty ruled by a single Empress, the only one in their ranks who was able to activate First Age weaponry to drive back a Fair Folk invasion, and the veneer of stability begins to crack, ever so slightly.

By dealing with the Yozi in order to lay claim to the First Age weaponry, the Empress allowed the slow ascendancy of the Yozi themselves, who sought to escape their hellish prison.  Working with their Neverborn brethren, the Yozi hatched a plan to break the prison that held the upper souls of the Solars and take them for themselves.  Instead, only half of the Solar essences were claimed, leaving the other half to escape back to the circle of reincarnation.

This is the point when most Exalted games are set, at the dawn of the Age of Sorrows, when the Solar Exalts return to Creation, the corrupted essences that were captured are used to craft the Abyssal Exalts, and the Dragonblooded Dynasty is on the threshold of falling to civil war now that the Empress is revealed to have vanished.

There are very few published adventures for Exalted, most of which were done during the First Edition.  Only the final end-of-the-world book offers much in that way, and there isn’t much love thrown around for that book, given the various assumptions that it requires.  (Personally, I’ve run the basics from the book and its supplemental module from Free RPG Day, and the module text was frankly unable to deal with their power level.  It sort of assumed that the characters were little more than starting builds, which is weird in an epically scaled game.)

Speaking as a veteran GM with plenty of years under my belt, the setting for Exalted is a good place to start.  The main problem that I found with it is that at no point does much of it make sense.  Over the course of approximately 200 sessions devoted to the game, we managed to house-rule in a number of crucial changes, but in the end, we had to simply shrug at some of the contradictory parts that were taken for granted and move on.

The Shadows of Esteren – General Overview

The fourth Shadows of Esteren Kickstarter finished a week ago.  Between that and Onyx Path’s 20th Anniversary Mage, which funded a couple of days earlier, it was a bit of a pricey month for me.  Had I the money, I would also have put in for the second Dwarven Forge Kickstarter.  Sadly, it ended up being less of an outrageous deal than the first one had been, so I don’t feel as badly about it.  The reality is that I’ll likely buy the requisite sets from their eventual storefront offering of the Caverns, and I’ll be out a little bit more money than I would have been.

I got into Shadows of Esteren relatively late, in terms of their growing success.  They’d already managed to pull off two successful Kickstarter campaigns by the time they were brought to my attention, covering the Prologue and Universe books.  The Travels Kickstarter was the third campaign they put together, and their tag line was enough to sell me on the spot – ‘A medieval roleplaying game somewhere between Ravenloft, Game of Thrones and Call of Cthulhu.’

There are few things that encapsulate my interests better than that.  A general consensus was that, if I missed out on this game, I’d be missing out on the one thing in life that was tailor-made for my predilections.  Naturally, I pledged a lot of money for this, ending up with the limited editions of every available book, as well as all of the nifty add-ons that came with the well exceeded stretch goals.  And there were a lot.

Looking over the contents of the Osta-Baille Collector set that I ended up with, there are some eleven bundles that are still in shrink wrap (artwork, pre-generated characters, a GM screen, map tiles, game aids, etc.) along with the three books and the box to put most of it in.  In addition, there’s another box and scattering of game stuff that will show up this coming GenCon, due to the logistics of printing all the stretch goals and fulfilling the added material.

Because they’d already funded two Kickstarters by the time I got into the middle of it all, they’d put together the budget to get stuff printed and ready for distribution, so immediately after the Kickstarter finished, they offered everything that was already printed for pick up at GenCon.

I’ll be honest.  This went a long way to impress me.  My very first Kickstarter RPG pledge was for a game that has yet to see the light of day (and many of the people funding it are threatening legal action), and many of my subsequent pledges went into products that took about a year to fulfill.  Otherwise, the absolute shortest turnaround was the previous Dwarven Forge campaign, which had product to me in about six months.  (Hence why I regret not giving those guys more of my money.  They’re pretty awesome.)

It also helped that the writers of the game were absolutely wonderful to talk to.  The main designer (as I understood it) talked about how much he loved Ravenloft, to the point that he learned English simply so he could read the various supplements that had never been translated into French.  Oh, and did I mention that this was a French game that ended up being translated into English?  Probably an important point to keep in mind as I move forward.

That’s one of the first things you realize about the game when you start looking through it.  This is not an American game, by any stretch of the imagination.

The first clues lie with the artwork.  The covers of my limited edition rulebooks hearken back to the ‘Green Man’ legendry and motifs from Europe, with three variant foliate masks as decoration.  The interior art gives us an old world sensibility, ancient lands overgrown and lost from an earlier age, with rough peasants as our avatars in this strange and pastoral setting.  High, desolate mountains and moss encrusted cenotaphs portray wild places that man has no real business in approaching.

The game text goes on to talk about the present realities of war and fear and starvation, things that modern American games don’t see fit to bother with.  In this game, the horrors that lurk in the shadowy, mistbourne woods are less of an issue than making sure that the crops don’t fail and the people of the village and make it through the long winter.  This is the lowest of low fantasy.

I will be completely honest.  I’m not entirely sure that I know how to run this game.  The setting is incredibly dense, to the point that the world has yet to be fully described.  Within the course of the first three books for the game (Prologue, Universe and Travels), the focus has remained on the peninsula of Tri-Kazel, with a lot of time spent on the small villages high in the mountains of Taol-Kaer.  There are details of the world beyond Tri-Kazel, which hint of more civilized lands that dabble in the local version of Magitek, but the best that a character will likely find of that are the broken and abandoned factories left to rust in the high mountain valleys.

By stating that this game is almost beyond my skill level is not a critique of the writing or the ideas behind the game.  If anything, I’m unwilling to run this game until I know I can do it justice.  If I were to try to introduce Shadows of Esteren to a new group, I would want to infuse it with the same richness of detail that the books themselves offer.  To do anything less would almost be insulting.

The thing is, I don’t believe I’m alone in my mystification of the setting.  The very first book produced for the game is the Prologue book, labeled Book 0.  This is a set of adventures which are recommended to be run as a linked trilogy.  In essence, the game designers understood that there was no easy way to hit the ground running, insofar as the broad portrayal of the setting and its inherent spookiness.  So logically, they offered up a set of canned adventures that both teach the players the system and the GM how to properly bring the world to life.  There are also suggestions as to which order these adventures should be run in, as the overall psychological effect on the players would be markedly different.

And yeah.  Psychology is a heavy element for this game.  One of the most impressive things, for my part, is that each of the different scenes in the scenarios have a suggested soundtrack.  Braveheart, Silent Hill and Full Metal Jacket are all on the playlist of recommended music, as well as tracks from the symphonic concerts that were written especially for the game.  (It says something that the most recent Kickstarter offered concert DVD’s for stretch goals.  These guys take their atmospheric resonance pretty seriously.)

All in all, Shadows of Esteren is one of those games that I’ll work toward running in the eventual future, when I have both the proper table of gamers and the time to do the product justice.  I have no regrets in my purchase of these books, but for the time being, they’re going to have to wait on my shelf for a while.

Four thousand pages of source material

Game of Thrones started up on Sunday, bringing back the most pirated show on television.  I’ve been looking forward to this season, if only because it has the Red Viper, the medieval fantasy version of Boba Fett.  He’s awesome, flashy, and dies just about as soon as the audience gets enthused about him.  And more than likely, there’s a substantial amount of fan fiction about him somewhere.  I’ve specifically avoided looking.

I’m an old fan of the novels, having read all of them multiple times and encouraged all of my friends (and my mother) to read them, if only so we could talk about them.  I’d debated picking up the Guardians of Order tome back in the day, only to hold off because I didn’t figure that a D20 rules set would do it any justice.  At this point, the only reason I could see owning that edition would be for the sake of its collectibility.

In 2009, Green Ronin put out their version of the game, A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, with Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford on the cover.  It wasn’t the same image that I was using as computer wallpaper at the time, but it was close enough.  I perused the rules when I first had the chance, and it was a pretty easy sell.  I picked the game up when I found it at the right price.

On the surface, the game system isn’t radically different than early D6, with elements of Roll and Keep.  The attributes range from one to six (actually up to eight, but that’s the unlikely end of things), which give a dice pool for actions, and any skills underneath these attributes end up working like bonus dice.  Everything is based on d6 rolls, with negative dice for the various penalties.  Unlike many systems, these negative dice merely bump the number of kept dice down, rather than reducing the number of rolled dice.

Character creation is based generally on the age of the character.  Younger characters have less in the way of initial starting experience, but they’re given more Destiny Points to work with.  Where experience is used to buy up skills and attributes, Destiny is used for special abilities and boosting rolls.  It’s assumed that a party of characters in the setting will include a wide variety of characters, so the age factor is considered fairly crucial.  The archetypes for the pre-generated characters includes an array of young and old, from the Young Adult Heir and Noble builds to the Middle Aged Scout and Hedge Knight ones.

It’s an interesting nuance that is brought forth in the context of the game.  Games like Dungeons & Dragons and the like make an assumption that starting characters are relatively young, given that they haven’t advanced very far in their careers.  Since starting experience is tied to age, this game allows you to build an aged maester that can work alongside the fifteen year old noble.  It doesn’t really address how these characters are supposed to adventure together, necessarily, but it’s a start towards building some diversity in the group.

One of the elements that really sets the game apart from others of its type is the section on creating your own noble house for the campaign.  Handled through a series of d6 rolls, the rules allow your group to work through the long history of their house’s founding and setbacks through the many ages.  Each region (the North, the Reach, Dorne, etc.) offers different bonuses and penalties, and with a long enough history, the houses can rise and fall through the ages.  It gives the game a fantastic flavor, overall, and it’s pretty fun to work through the fortunes of a couple of houses (a powerful enough house needs to have banner houses rolled up as well) to get a feel for it.  Depending on the rolls, this system can determine how much influence one’s house has, how great the castle is, and the type of armies it can raise as needed.

This section is ridiculously in-depth, as far as the details for customizing your characters’ house go.  It even contains a proper Heraldry section, so the most minute details of the coat of arms can be designed.  This actually turns into a very strange downside, however, and one that I cannot, in good conscience, blame Green Ronin for.  With all of the work they put into heraldic design for the game, there’s no very good way for this to be utilized without having an artist in your gaming group.  When I got all fired up about the coat of arms for the different houses in my games, I went online to mock up a few of them.  And apparently, there aren’t any DIY heraldry designers that are nearly as well done as the system in the book.  At least none that carry the same level of detail.  So while I may have wanted to make up pictorial representations of the different allied and rival houses for my game, there wasn’t much I could do.

The next section after the House Creation rules is the Intrigue section, which outlines what amounts to being the Social Combat system for the game.  This sets a lot of tone, right out of the gate for this game.  Proceeding from the Introduction and Primer on Westeros towards the back of the book, we’ve dealt with basic game rules, a couple of sections on character creation, house creation, and now social combat.  Actual combat isn’t covered until the next chapter, and it’s immediately followed with the section on full-scale warfare.  It’s a lot more important for the scope of the game to be able to deal with the plots and intrigues that surround the character than it is to deal with actual physical combat.  And given the source material, this is how it should be.

It’s also telling that, even though I’ve run a number of sessions, I don’t honestly recall the intricacies of social combat from a quick skim.  Given a closer read of things, I’d be back on top of it, but Green Ronin made sure to keep the rules complex enough to offer a wide variety of options for the players.  (I’ve never seen rules complexity as being a downfall of a game, per se, but it is a bad thing when the GM can’t make sense of things.)  It also has one of the best defenses for a character losing in Social Combat – if all else fails, you can avoid being influenced simply by stabbing your opponent.  The game does note that you’ll suffer all manner of negative consequences, but it’s still an option.

The GM section finishes out the book, noting that while the default assumption for the game is that it’s going to be run around the same time as the books or TV series, there are a number of interesting alternatives for the ambitious GM.  My favorites are the ‘Game of Thrones’ and the ‘Historical’ variants.  In the first, the players make their own houses for the game, and set into motion the requisite plots and intrigues, likely during the timeframe of the novels.  Each player is responsible for a multitude of different characters, based on the influence of the House itself, most of which are important people within the house.  The second one, the ‘Historical’ variant, places the game somewhere in the history of Westeros, so that they’re not stepping on the plots of the novels.  Both of these styles of play allow the players to make characters whose destinies will have the same sort of weight as the characters in the books, which is something that I would personally want in any game I played.

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

When I left off a week ago, I was finishing up the details of Broken Moon, the third module in the Carrion Crown series.  The characters work through the mini-dungeon of the Stairs of the Moon, either negotiate with the various factions of werewolves that use the ancient temple of Desna as a moot, and head off for the final confrontation.  The main villain of the Shudderwood part of the adventure has been dealt with, and the full agenda of the cult becomes the next item to deal with.  As the characters learn, a necromancer has set up shop in an infamous battlefield, raising the dead to build an army for the cult.

There’s a bit of a strange subplot that runs through Broken Moon, in the form of one of the guests of Ascanor Lodge.  Where the lodgemaster is the primary adversary, there’s a vaguely clownish NPC that the characters have to deal with, an aristocrat that’s obsessed with hunting werewolves.  For the most part, he’s there for flavor, but he can help the characters with introducing them to the other guests.  And being an aristocrat, he’s mostly incompetent when it comes to actually hunting werewolves.

When the confrontation at the Stairs of the Moon takes place, he’s summarily pushed to the background while the PC’s take care of the main plot.  Off screen, he ends up getting infected with lycanthropy and promptly abducted by some of the ‘evil’ werewolves.  When he next shows up, he’s a full werewolf, chaotic evil, and willing to take the characters apart for the sake of his new werewolf brethren.

Being Paizo, there are notes on how to resolve the encounter without killing the aristocrat, curing his lycanthropy, casting atonement, and letting the guy go on his way peaceably.  Which would be all fine and good, were it actually possible to cure the lycanthropy.  The module makes a special point that there will be a four day lag between the point that this NPC contracts lycanthropy and the characters will next encounter him, which makes the actual cure that much more problematic.  Since the most opportune window of treatment has passed, the simpler cures like wolfsbane are assumed to be no longer effective.

As a side note, I’ve been going back over the details of curing lycanthropy, and it seems like the methods are weird holdovers from earlier editions.  If the afflicted character is treated within a few days of being infected, they can be cured by using a 3rd level spell, cast by a 12th level cleric.  If not, they need to be cured by using … a 3rd level spell, cast by a 12th level cleric.

Maybe I’m missing something, but there’s seemingly no penalty to waiting on a cure.  Or more to the point, there’s no real incentive in trying to get a character cured within the first few days of infection, other than the story-based bit of not having the character rampage and savagely kill innocents.  Yeah, that’s bad, but this is D&D we’re talking about.

For my part, I loosened up the rules a tich, offering the players the ability to work some Diplomacy checks while talking their friend down from his rampage.  They managed to distract and subdue him long enough for the Cleric to work her magic and run him through a Remove Disease and a longer ritual to Pharasma for an Atonement.  Being that the characters were a mere 9th level, there was no way that they could swing the high level Cleric stuff without a long and protracted journey into town.  They were already on a timetable, and it seemed unnecessary to saddle them with a weird moral choice they didn’t have the time or resources to monkey with.

Again, this goes back to my contention that the characters in the scenario need to make a conscious choice to be good.  If their options were to kill their friend or agonize over the decision to kill their friend, I wasn’t going to put them through that particular Hobson’s Choice.  They should have the ability to be heroes, even when the adventure isn’t written to let them.  Besides which, his role as an ally of the characters seemed a lot more interesting than having him brought back into the plot as yet another werewolf to kill off.

The village of Feldgrau has some interesting plot elements built into it, many of which remain unseen by the player characters themselves.  This is a peculiar habit of Paizo writers, to the point that I’m left to assume the editors insist upon such elements.  In Kingmaker, for example, there’s a bandit leader that shows up in the very first encounter that’s likely to be killed off when the PC’s set up an ambush.  In the text of the module, he’s given a paragraph of deep and intricate backstory, revealing his life of petty crime while serving as a city guardsman, the wife and children that he abandoned when he fled the city one step in front of the local constabulary and the broad motivations that he’s currently working towards as a minor bandit leader.  It’s pretty interesting stuff, to be honest, but there’s no real good reason for this much detail on a guy that, in all truth, is probably going to be killed off before he has a chance to say anything to the player characters.

There’s a similar case in play with the final necromancer villain in Feldgrau.  The module details how the character has been broken by circumstance, recruited into the ranks of the cult that’s behind all of the main motivations in the Adventure Path, and how he’s finally come home to enact a strange sort of ironic vengeance.  And there’s almost no way for the heroes to learn anything of this.  Our group has jokingly decided that the Pathfinder exclusive spell, Blood Biography, exists to detail out all of the hidden module text, just so it isn’t wasted space.

For the purposes of the module, I made a point to use bits of biographical details as the shuddering aftereffects of the audience with Desna, an encounter that offered a bit of prophecy to foreshadow the the events of the second half of the Adventure Path.  With the weird arcane magic that had come to infuse the environs of Feldgrau combined with the residual divine aura of Desna, I revealed the tragic backstory of the necromancer in abrupt cut scenes.  It was a bit strange, but it held up as a cinematic technique.  And if nothing else, I was able to make use of some of the extra text within the module.

The module ends with another series of disjointed scenes, a scattering of images pulled from the memories of the now dead necromancer.  For the first time in the module series, the characters have a sense of the larger plot that’s taking place, with something of a final goal to look towards.  Admittedly, they’re still fruitlessly chasing the Dark Riders that have been a couple of steps ahead of them thus far, but it’s something, at least.

Revisiting the Edge, with some notes on going forward

In one of my early posts a few weeks back, I delved into Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars game, Edge of the Empire.  That was an early skim of the rules, with only a casual eye to the rules and mechanics.  Since then, I’ve read more closely, run a bit of a demo session, and started my players through character creation.  And none of the lustre has faded from my early enthusiasm.  If anything, I’m finding myself excited about revisiting the familiar territory of Star Wars, even though I’ve had to move on from my beloved WEG D6.

One of the advantages about going back to Star Wars is that my own personal knowledge of the setting borders on the inane, so there’s little about it that isn’t immediately familiar to me.  This is a double edged sword, as I can get caught off-guard by players asking routine questions that I take for granted (“What’s a Trandoshan?  Well, that’s the race that the bounty hunter Bossk was.  What do you mean you don’t know who Bossk was?”), but it also means that I can go into depth on setting minutiae if needed.  There isn’t a whole lot of paging through reference manuals to get myself up to speed on the differences between YT-1300 and YT-2400 freighters, as they’re pretty much ingrained.

Honestly, it’s a bit embarrassing to have been this obsessive about a setting like this.  But at least if I’m running a game, it’s an asset, rather than a source of social isolation.  That’s what I tell myself, at least.

Last week, I ran something of a demo game of Edge of the Empire, using a borrowed copy of the Beginner’s Box Set.  I’m glad I didn’t pick up the box, given my level of experience, but it’s a solid product for new players and people that aren’t old hands at the hobby.  (This is much the same way I view products like Paizo’s Gamemastery Guide.  It’s a great book for most people, but it’s also a product that I will never need.)  The canned adventure is set up to slowly integrate the rules, and it includes a set of dice for the purpose of running the game.  All in all, it gets the players and the GM up and running with a series of quick scenes, and for my group’s purposes, it worked very well.

Almost too well, honestly.  I’d wanted to run it as a one-off sort of thing, a palate cleanser for the long-running game we’d been in the middle of (one of the early Paizo Adventure Paths).  As it turned out, my players were so enthused about the game that they decided on the spot that they wanted to keep running the same pre-generated characters from the box set, rather than make up new.  It actually took a little bit of work to get them to build characters that were more appropriate to the setting I had in mind.

As far as the dice went, they will be part of the learning curve.  As it stands right now, it’s going to take a couple of sessions to reorient their thinking towards using these new mechanics, but I’m confident that once they get the hang of how the symbols can be manipulated, they’re going to love it.

My own impressions are still divided, since it looks to me like each player is going to have to have access to about $30 worth of dice.  (Two sets, $15 per set, per player.)  I went ahead and bought four sets of dice for my own use, assuming that I’d need a set as a GM and one for my players.  Granted, I got them through a sale, but it was still a chunk of change for new dice.  (These are the reasons I’ve been resisting FF’s new version of Warhammer Fantasy.  Not only is it prohibitively expensive, but it requires a new set of funny dice for that system as well.)

As a game, Edge of the Empire has some interesting assumptions built into it.  This is not a comprehensive Star Wars game that covers every aspect of the Galaxy.  It is specifically geared towards Fringer games, offering a scattering of careers that are applicable to the seedy underworlds of the Outer Rim territories.  If you’re looking to play a character that moves through the higher echelons of Core World diplomacy, you’re out of luck.  Similarly, if you want to play a hotshot Rebel X-Wing pilot, there are no rules to allow you to create such a character in-setting.  (Of course, that’s what the next game, Age of Rebellion, is being designed to cover.)

There are some questions as to whether the scope of the games that are in the proposed line up will be able to cover all of the potential campaigns that can be set in Star Wars, but it’s way too early to field that sort of complaint.  Last Unicorn was the last game company to work in that direction, with their various Star Trek games built around Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Original Series.  (They did an admirable job covering the different shows as different games.  The fact that they were bought out by Wizards of the Coast and had their entire product line cancelled before they could reach their full potential is another matter.)  For right now, the ability to play a Jedi-centric campaign will have to wait until the third game in the line, Force & Destiny, is published in 2015 or thereabouts.  Whether or not it will ever be possible to play an Imperial centric game is still up in the air, as are the prospects for Expanded Universe games like Knights of the Old Republic or Legacy.

Being a game of scum and villainy, more or less, Edge of the Empire requires that the characters have fallen on hard times in one form or another, which forms much of the basis of the Obligation trait.  If the characters weren’t heavily beholden to some larger motivation, there would be that much less in the way of adventure hooks to move them forward in the game.  For my part, the setting suggests something more along the line of the setting of Firefly, where the characters are a rag-tag band of heroes on the losing side of history.  (It doesn’t help that I’ve always thought of Firefly as ‘The Adventures of Young Han Solo,’ only done by someone more competent than George Lucas.)

With this in mind, my players set about creating their characters.  I’ve chosen to set the game in the Old Republic Era, somewhere around the time of the Bioware Knights of the Old Republic video games.  This allows the backdrop of the Mandalorian Wars and the Jedi Civil War, where entire planets lay in ruin and there’s a momentary peace for the crew to make their way through.  In keeping with the Firefly theme, the characters are going to have been on the wrong side of the war when everything came crashing to a halt.  The easy way would be to have them enlisted as members of Darth Malak’s forces during the Jedi Civil War (with the possible larger backstory of being part of Revan and Malak’s forces during the Mandalorian Wars), only to be abandoned and lost on the frontlines when the war came to an abrupt end.

The characters in Edge of the Empire are pretty specialized.  We started out with two fairly basic characters, a twi’lek scoundrel and a medical droid.  The scoundrel could shoot pretty well and talk her way out of most situations, where the medical droid was … well, a medical droid.  When the players got done with basic character generation, they started looking over the skills and came to the conclusion that they were going to be thrown in a meat grinder if it ever came down to a real combat situation.

That’s when this game started to get interesting.

You see, my gaming group at the moment is somewhat limited.  I’m in the process of gearing up to move, as are both of my regular players.  We’ve got another player that’s around, but even then, he’s not as committed to things and can be a bit unreliable.  That means that, for this particular group, we tend to factor on two player games.  Depending on the game, we can either roll up extra characters, as happened with the Savage Tide game, or we can build out the characters to compensate for the general weakness that we see in the game, as happened back in the Legacy of Fire days.  These players love Savage Tide, but understandably, they feel the extra characters aren’t getting the same sort of attention they’d get if they were the only characters.

So we decided to play this one Troupe Style.

If this is an unfamiliar term to you, don’t feel bad.  It doesn’t show up very often in role-playing games, but it does exist enough to be considered part of the larger pantheon of gaming techniques.  Essentially, it means that the game has the players build multiple characters, of which only one will be on-screen at a given time.  The other characters are wandering around in the background, only showing up and taking the spotlight when they have something to add to the scenario.

Troupe Style gaming started with Ars Magica, where the players built a cabal of mages in medieval Europe.  Since the mages were usually in the middle of some research or another, they didn’t end up going on individual quests with each other, and in-game, they were implied to be sort of weak on some fronts.  To make up for this, they were always accompanied by a retinue of servants and men-at-arms.  This meant that one player would take their mage on some adventure, and the other players played their entourage.  When they returned and it was time for another mage to wander off to seek ancient ruins, another player would dust off their main character, and the rest of the group would bring out that mage’s retinue.  It made sense, allowed each of the larger characters a chance in the spotlight, and changed up the way the game was played.

WEG’s D6 Star Wars did this with the Darkstryder boxed set, where each of the players got a character in the ship’s command crew, a character that was a division chief, and a character that was just a regular guy along for the adventure.  Dark Sun also did something along this line, but most of that was due to the perception that the setting would simply murder or incapacitate the main character, and it would take too long to get another character up to speed to join the group.

What it means for this game is that the players are going to spec out six separate characters, the members of a small freighter’s crew that had fought as a unit in a recent war.  They were largely hung out to dry at the end, forgotten in the closing days of the war and regarded as war criminals by a certain segment of the populace.  In addition to using Firefly as an inspiration, there are elements of A-Team, Twilight 2000, and Armor Hunter Mellowlink.  And because it’s going to be set during the Old Republic Era, I’ve got a much larger canvas to work with, in terms of setting and adventure ideas.  I’m already in the process of filling a notebook with ideas.

Exalted, in extremely general terms

As an exercise, I started listing out all of the different directions I could go when talking about Exalted.  I sketched out the things that I loved about the game, of which there were many.  I discussed the things that I hated about the creative directions that it appeared to be going in as a result of the oft-rumoured and wholly funded Kickstarter project, a product that I would not assume will actually make the light of day.  I put thought into all of the references that I recognized within its dense and heavily sourced world set, and how these mythological bases tended to get ignored by the broad communities of Exalted players that I encounter on the internet and in real life.  And I looked at how the rules worked and how they fell apart, depending on what was being done.

And at the end of about 1,000 words, I realized that I had managed to list all the things that I wanted to discuss while having not been able to actually say anything concrete.  It was a little like reading a laundry list of topics and never actually getting to a point.

I’ll go ahead and spare you that experience.

At its heart, Exalted is a game of high action and mythic adventure.  Its art style evokes Japanese Anime, but the actual text of the world draws its references from sources like Journey to the West and the Bhagavad Gita.  Player characters are designed to be the epic heroes like Hercules or Gilgamesh or Sun Wukong, all of whom have the power to shake the very pillars of Heaven even as they work to overcome tragic flaws.  And while the core rulebook for the setting offers the option to play the newly reborn Solar heroes, the different sourcebooks allow the option of being able to play wholly different powered character types, all of whom exist in different sections of the setting with wildly different motivations and play styles.

The world itself is vast, divided into regions of extremely varied environments and ecosystems, with a range of political divisions that reinforce the vastness of the setting.  Each area has different concerns and characters could easily settle into far reaching plots that never escape a given compass direction.  From there, regions outside of the broadly drawn Creation are available for the characters to explore, reaching to the lofty heights of the Gates of Heaven itself all the way to the abyss within the Underworld.

As far as rules go, the systems are derived from the recognizable Storyteller System that White Wolf used for most of its game lines, modified slightly to reflect the high power levels that the Exalted characters were capable of working at.  Most notably, Exalted codified a system of narrating a character’s actions to better fit the action oriented vibe that the world required.

There’s an old axiom that compares Dungeons & Dragons to Exalted.  Consider the following scene:

The hero crouches on the top of a speeding carriage, the driver having bailed out and the horses running free in panic.  Behind him, the local militia is in hot pursuit, firing their bows at him.  Ahead lies the bridge that our hero destroyed in his earlier conflicts with the militia, its broken span no longer offering passage to the other side.  His only chance to escape and survive is to leap and grab an overhanging vine, swinging to safety over the chasm.

Cinematic, yeah?  But how well does it translate into the different systems?

So in 3.5 D&D, the GM would start assigning modifiers.  The carriage that the character is on is an unstable surface.  That’s going to count as a -2 modifier.  If he chooses to fire back, that’s going to give him another -2 modifier.  And he’s going to have to leap from the carriage without a sufficient running start, which is going to … well, you get the idea where this is going.

In Exalted, the player describes how his character is going to fire a couple of warning shots at the pursuing guards, mainly to warn them off, as he has no desire to kill fine men that are only doing their jobs.  And with a rakish tip of his hat, he leaps from the carriage at the last moment, grabbing a vine and diving into the void as he offers a final taunt to his nemesis, the captain of the guard.  And since the GM rules that it sounded properly cinematic, the player is given a number of extra dice to roll for keeping in the spirit of the game.

Exalted stakes itself closer to the end of the spectrum where the player and the GM work to negotiate a story between themselves.  While it isn’t wholly in the realm of story games, it does offer a certain amount of narrative flexibility to the players when they use the scene to their best advantage.

The long out of print AEG game, 7th Sea, was one of the first to cede this control, allowing players to come up with broad stunts so long as they didn’t contradict the GM’s description and were properly action driven.  Exalted took this idea and encouraged players to run with it, rating their efforts with rewards of up to three bonus dice for their actions.  In addition, characters were able to recharge the energy or willpower that fed their inherent abilities, which encouraged further use of this ability.

One thing that offered a brilliant symmetry to Exalted was its inherent symbology.  While the Solar heroes were the default characters for the world, there were several other playable options.  The Lunars existed as the echo of the modern day Werewolves and changing breeds, the Sidereal Exalted represented the Mages, and the Abyssals were tied to the Vampires.  In addition, there were the Dragonbloods, originally established in the setting as the armies of elemental soldiers, whose modern day World of Darkness equivalent lay in the Kindred of the East.

Broadly, this allowed for five different types of Exalt.  Within each type, there were five discrete castes.  (Except for the Lunars, whose caste system had been broken in backstory to only have three.  This was a mechanical decision, as Lunars worked differently.)  In Solars, there were the Dawn, Zenith, Twilight, Night, and Eclipse.  For Dragonbloods, it divided between the Asian-influenced elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Wood.  The Sidereals divided their castes based on the five planet incarnae, and the Abyssals were dark reflections of the Solar castes.

Because of these caste divisions within the different Exalt types, each caste had different associated skills.  The skill list for Exalted was limited to 25 skills (which was a nice change from the inevitable skill bloat of the various World of Darkness games), which allowed each Exalt type to divide the skills differently between the different castes.  Where a Sidereal Exalt would find the Archery skill within the purview of the Maiden of Battles, a Dragonblood would know that it was associated with the element of Wood.  And a Solar Exalt would know that it belonged with the skills of the Dawn Caste, the great generals of Creation.  The different types of Exalt offered different flavor and play styles, starting with the foundations of the character sheets themselves.

Within the context of the setting, the different Exalt types also offer wildly different models of play.  As established in the backstory, the Solar Exalts were cast down at the end of the first age, and only now at the dawn of this new age, some 1,500 years after the ruin of their glorious empire are they starting to be reborn in mortal form.  They feel the pull of greater destiny, but they are held by the sins of their past selves and the great curse lain upon them by the setting’s version of Titans.  They start from nothing, but time and heroism may allow them to write their names across the heavens as their sagas are sung for ages.

In comparison, the Dragonbloods are lower powered, with a decidedly more martial bent.  They are born into the great houses of a decaying dynasty, elemental warriors whose ambitions are caught up in political maneuvering in a society carved from their own lineage.  Their stories reflect the samurai epics of duty and ambition, as balanced by their own too-human passions.  And even though they are the scions of royalty, they are crowded by some several thousand cousins, all of whom vie for scraps of power against them.

From there, you have the Sidereals, the chosen of the five maidens (the incarnations of the five planets, as they exist in the setting), who play a game of whispers and secrets, plots and intrigues, all of which derive from half-understood prophecy and centuries old paranoia.  The Lunars, for their part, dwell on the very edges of creation, stewards of strange social experiments and wanderers on the outskirts of Creation itself.  And Abyssals exist as the broken and damned versions of the Solar heroes, bound in service to the bitter wraiths who well remember the betrayals of the first age and wish to bring all of Creation to ruin.

And none of this is to mention the farther edges of what is possible within the setting or characters.

Broadly, Exalted is a fairly immense toolbox to work from.  There are countless options available, beyond what I’ve glanced over here, and the rules have a complexity and denseness that can open up a wide vista of play styles and narrative direction.  The Second Edition rules alone cover around thirty books, most of which build up and expand the possibilities that are available to the GM.  The problem is, depending on the skill of the GM and the dedication of the playing group, there is something of a steep learning curve.  For my own experience, it took a couple of years to fully integrate all of the rules into my games, and there are still systems I have not managed to use.

And now that I have an overview in place, I can start looking more closely at the specifics.  But not tonight.

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

This is actually turning out to be a longer review than I had anticipated.  If only I were paid by the word.  Or paid at all, really.  Such is the way of things.

Broken Moon is a pretty good module, overall, but it feels a bit like it’s two adventures packed into one volume.  Most of the adventure deals with the exploration of the Shudderwood, Ustalav’s great dark forest of doom, with a segment at the end that deals with recent history of Ustalav in the form of an extended zombie encounter.  In the main part, the characters are reluctant guests at Ascanor Lodge, from whence they start doing their research and trying to pick up the trail of the recently departed cultists.  Outside the walls of the lodge, werewolves prowl the night, unsettled by the events of the previous week.  One of their leaders has been slain, and it has thrown the delicate balance of the tribes into turmoil.

Were I to run this module series again (entirely possible, given), I would probably stall the action at Ascanor Lodge for a while, building it into a deeper sort of plotline.  There’s a lot of fascinating potential in being within the grasp of the scenario’s villain, even while he tries to manipulate the characters to do his dirty work and get them killed off in the process. There’s plenty of interaction within the frame of the module for dealing with the various NPC’s that dwell at the lodge, but these characters could have deeper motivations and red herring subplots to expand their role in the larger adventure.

There’s also a lot of stuff that could be done with a closer exploration of the Shudderwood itself.  In context of the module, there’s essentially a couple of encounters on the way to the lodge, an encounter based on one of the main NPC’s of the lodge itself, and then a rush towards the confrontation at the abandoned temple in the woods.  Having run Kingmaker, I could easily see adapting the hex-by-hex wilderness campaign to the Shudderwood.  The opening encounters of the region hammer in the understanding that this place is dangerous, and a couple more mysterious ruins on the way to the temple would nicely underscore that.

The big set-piece dungeon of the module is the abandoned temple to Desna that now serves as the central meeting place for the werewolves.  It’s an interesting commentary, as Desna’s the goddess of the moon and stars to begin with, and some of the werewolves are Varisian (the pseudo-Gypsies of the setting who generally worship Desna), but there isn’t a lot that’s done with it otherwise.

It does raise a strange complaint that I have about the module series as a whole, however.

Each of Paizo’s Adventure Paths dedicate themselves (in the extra, non-module material) to illuminating specific regions, monsters and gods of Golarion.  In the absence of a sister magazine – as they’d had with Dungeon and Dragon – they have to use the available space to build their setting.  It had been a very helpful feature in Dragon, and it’s a great way to give the players and GM a little more material to work from, rather than waiting for the next hardcover world guide or having to reference a number of various softsplats (like the particular nation guide, deity guide, etc.) for flavor.

For Carrion Crown, the deity guide focuses on Pharasma.  In the setting, Pharasma is the goddess of morticians and midwives, death and rebirth, fate and prophecy.  Given the amount of undead in the setting, a god that abhors the undead is a logical choice.  When I was running the campaign, naturally, one player was playing a Varisian cleric of Pharasma to keep in setting.

The problem was, until the end of Wake of the Watcher (the fourth module), it wouldn’t have mattered.  And as I was to find out, it would have made more sense for that character to have played a follower of Desna.  Admittedly, the larger part of this came from a confluence of events that took place uniquely for my particular playing group, but enough was set in motion by what happened in Broken Moon that it started seeming weird.

First off, one of the random encounters on the way into Shudderwood involved caravan of Varisian travelers (your basic in-setting Gypsies) who ended up robbing the party for some scattered valuables (including the cleric’s silver holy symbol).  At the time, it hadn’t meant anything, but I poked at the cleric about how she’d forsaken the Varisian faith.  Then there’ s a fortune telling that takes place at Ascanor Lodge, where the Varisian Madame (as in, brothel) is on hand to offer a Harrow Reading.  All right.  Nothing big there.  Just serves to reinforce the mood.

The big event took place at the Stairs of the Moon, the abandoned temple that has been claimed by the werewolves of Shudderwood.  If the characters manage to find the ritual and reconsecrate the temple to Desna, they’re granted an audience with Desna herself.  This takes the form of a prophecy of coming events (what to look forward to with the next three modules), a permanent stat boost, and having their eyes turn silver due to being in the presence of a goddess.  Even without the previous events, this sort of shook my cleric’s faith in Pharasma.  It didn’t help that the former midwife – not a lot of call for that while foiling the plans of an insidious cult – had spent weeks on the road, traveling from place to place.  (For those unfamiliar with the setting, this is the hallmark of a proper cleric of Desna.  A life on the open road with little more than the stars to guide her by.)

Finally in Illmarsh – near the beginning of the fourth module – another fairly unlikely happenstance cemented the Desna connection.  The cleric managed a critical hit on a fairly powerful monster, and since I was using the officially licensed Pathfinder Critical Hit Deck (mainly used for situations like this), it pulled the effect of shunting the monster and whatever it was holding into another dimension.  Unfortunately, it was holding the cleric at the time.  The cleric offered a joking suggestion about where she was likely to end up.  I shrugged and narrated the cleric’s arrival in the realm of Desna herself, whose servants handily dispatched the adversary in question and sat down to have a heart to heart with this rather confused cleric of Pharasma.

Knowing the need for a cleric of Pharasma to wield the minor artifact found in Wake of the Watcher, I allowed the cleric to be converted over to a new worship, while still holding many of the precepts that had carried her this far.  (In short, I allowed the player to model this through a sort of Pluralist Feat, where the cleric retained some vague connection to Pharasma while taking on the trappings of a follower of Desna.)  When I’d played in a Legacy of Fire game, the paladin had taken a 3.5 Prestige Class that essentially required this sort of set-up, blending Sarenrae and Iomedae in-setting to be able to satisfy the requirements.

In the long run, it made for a really interesting character, as the cleric wrestled with her faith and tried to make sense of the higher destinies in place.  It’s just frustrating when there’s really good flavor for one goddess, only to have another one show up in the same series.  The same thing happened in Legacy of Fire with a fantastic opening at a monastery to Sarenrae, with a set-piece in the same module that details a shrine to Nethys.  It seems to be a conscious choice on their part, but it is a bit weird.

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

The first entry in my review of Paizo’s Ravenloft-inspired Adventure Path, Carrion Crown, dealt mainly with the first two modules of the series, The Haunting of Harrowstone and The Trial of the Beast.  In the interest of space, I cut the first review at that point, not wanting to spill into the 4~5,000 words range.  I probably could have dealt with all six modules in the adventure path, but there are some outlying issues that I wanted to touch on as I went along.

In the first entry, I touched briefly on the metaplot of the Adventure Path.  Being the larger, overarching plot of the module series, the metaplot is pretty important in the long run.  It gives the characters a reason to follow through on their investigations, and it does what it can to string the different events into a coherent whole.  Since each of the six individual modules are written by different authors (something that remains in force for all of Paizo’s AP offerings, extending back into the days of Dungeon Magazine), the metaplot is often the only way that any of the scattered narratives can be brought together.  It can’t be an easy thing.

The reason I say this is because there are some notable rough patches in some of the Adventure Path plots.  There are points in some of them where narratives are sort of tacked on, and other points where abrupt shifts in tone seem to take over.  I’m not laying blame on anyone with these, as it’s what is going to happen with this many thousand words and the strict deadlines that Paizo is working with.

To its credit, Carrion Crown avoids a lot of specific missteps in the way it comes together.  The worst sin that can be lain at its feet is the exuberance in which the path switches between monster genres.  And for the sake of covering the necessary ground, that can probably be forgiven.

The way that the modules follow the metaplot, in the mean time, can be called into question.  Starting early in the second module, the characters are presented with a strange, unsolvable mystery.  When the Beast of Lepidstadt is apprehended, it had aided in the theft of a mysterious statue.  From there, the modules progress forward, never giving any hint to the players about why this particular maguffin is important, until a footnote at the very end of the fourth module brings the statue back into the hands of the characters.

In the mean time, the characters are supposedly hot on the trail of a pair of ‘dark riders’ (sadly, not Ringwraiths) who always manage to be one step ahead of anything the characters do.  About the third time it happens, it starts to seem comical.  They get to the forest?  Just missed them.  They find the ancient shrine to Desna?  Oh, sorry.  They end up at the war torn dead fields of Feldgrau?  Whoops, you should have been here about 20 minutes ago.  And so on.  As with the statue stolen from Lepidstadt, there isn’t any closure brought to this until the end of module four.

There’s an interesting note in the final module of the series, where the editor, Wes, talks about integrating the main villain into the larger plot of the series.  His suggestion (based as it is in classic horror movie stylings) has Adivion Adrissant take an active role in taunting the player characters all along, leaving notes and clues for them with the various cultists that he knows they’re going to kill.  He laments that he hadn’t managed to include this at the outset of the path but suggests that it might be a good exercise for the GM who has time for a little prep and the entire modules series in front of him at the time.

And really, it’s a great idea.  Personally, I would go a step further and have the character of Adrissant show up here and there in disguise, making conversation with the characters at the bar or in passing on the street, but that’s just my own personal take on things.  It would go a long way to smoothing off the rough edges of having the cultists able to elude the characters for three full modules.  (Four, if you bring in the standalone Carrion Hill module between Broken Moon and Wake of the Watcher.)  It also gives the GM a better interplay than the taunting missives that Adrissant leaves for the heroes.

So, at the end of the second module, the characters are given a bit more information about where to go next and sent forward to stop the larger plots in play.  Where the first module only hinted at the conspiracy, the second module confirms it and makes it clear that the player characters are about the only people available to investigate.

The third module has them head into the wild, bucolic woods in search of cultists.  The main area is the hunting lodge for rich idiots, with various incursions into werewolf politics as the driving force of the first half of the module.  The characters have to deal with the plots of the human villain, as he covers up his involvement with the cult that serves as the AP’s primary villain and the characters have to defuse a strange tangle of werewolf politics.

This is another thing that seems weird about the Adventure Path, as a whole.  There are some specific points in the series where the heroes are expected to help the monsters, rather than hunt them down.  This becomes particularly evident in module five, where most of the interplay in the module takes place with vampires.  Given that a vampire hunter character archetype is pretty likely in the scope of the module series, this is probably going to end up being frustrating.  To their credit, the module takes this into consideration, with ways to complete the plot once all of the damned vampires have been staked, but really…  it diminishes the module and the way that it’s meant to be played.

Similarly, module two has the characters run ragged to keep Frankenstein’s Monster from being executed.  Weirdly, there’s quite a bit of sleep deprivation involved in that module, given that the characters have to ride out into the wilderness to investigate and then return to give their testimony the next morning.  This sequence is where the Lesser Restoration spell hilariously becomes the Pathfinder equivalent to Red Bull.

The final verdict, for whatever reason, is that the monsters are less monstrous and evil than the humans that walk amongst them.  Even the war torn fields of the dead in Feldgrau are largely the fault of the people in the setting.  Maybe this is why so many horror movie creatures feel like settling in Ustalav.  They’re not the ones to be feared in this dark and horrible land.

Oddly though, this concept does not touch the player characters themselves.

You see, in Ravenloft, much of the flavor of the setting was the constant temptation towards evil.  And if a character took any steps towards actually fulfilling the evil thoughts that swirled around them, they would be rewarded by the dark powers that governed Ravenloft.  At first, it would a be a minor thing, offset by a minor drawback, but the nature of the rewards would become progressively more powerful.  And the drawbacks would slowly become debilitating curses, an outward sign of the corruption that gnawed at the heart of the hero so tempted.

While I was running Carrion Crown, I felt that the characters had to make a conscious choice to fight back against the evil that surrounded them.  The problem with this was that there wasn’t any mechanical reason for the players to hold to this.  Granted, this was a single Adventure Path with very little spare room left over, but the Ustalav setting book could have dealt with it, as could have some other source.  I always felt the temptation of the dark powers was a necessary part of Ravenloft’s feel, so having it missing from the latter day homage felt weird.  Then again, my Star Wars games always had a heavy Dark Side presence, so it may just be me.