Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Product Review: Kobold Press' Demon Cults #1: The Emerald Order

Full disclosure: Even though I love it, I find the large Midgard Campaign Setting difficult to navigate.  I know the point of creating a large 3PP campaign setting is to have all the fun with all of your fun subsystems, but it can be a little difficult for me to keep track.  That said, it didn't stop me from contributing to the Southland's Kickstarter.

And that’s one of the reasons that I really like the way Kobold Press has developed Jeff Lee’s Demon Cults #1: The Emerald Order.  It’s got 14 pages (9.5 of actual content when you take out the front and back cover, TOC, a full-page art piece (good art though!), and ¾ page of OGL).  Of that 9.5 pages, .5 is dedicated to anchoring the Emerald Order in Midgard.  The other 9 pages are chock full of great ways to take this evil order and incorporate it into any campaign setting.

The Emerald Order begins with a three-page spread that covers the organization’s goals.  We know that they derive a lot of power from an Emerald Tablet and that they like to work behind the scenes.  Jeff Lee has done a good job of being vague enough to make the organization slottable into any campaign while providing concrete examples of how the Order works to achieve its goals.  We also get stats on the organization’s leader and a full-color, full-page piece of art illustrating him.  Finally, we learn how members of the organization interact with each other and with outsiders. 

I love the next two pages.  The kids at Kobold have created sections for APLs 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12 and provided us with three plot hooks for each category that show how an adventuring party might cross paths with the Emerald Order.  These reinforce that the Emerald Order is a secret society and some of them sent some shivers up my spine just reading them.

We’ve then got two pages describing the Disciple of the Emerald Esoterica prestige class.  It’s a bit overpowered compared to normal prestige classes, but I’m willing to ignore it for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it’s a 3PP prestige class, and I feel like they are normally stronger, more in line with 3.5 prestige classes rather than with Paizo-produced Pathfinder prestige classes.  Secondly, it’s highly unlikely a PC is ever going to use this prestige class—it’s really just for villains.  Next we have the Emerald Tablet itself, along with examples of what happens when people experiment with shards of it and the emerald deposit from whence it came.  These include new emerald shard ioun stones and smaragdine golem.

Overall, I really liked this product.  I especially liked the organization.  I have a pet peeve for organization.  It can be maddening to have a plot detail hidden away in a specialized monster’s bestiary entry, for instance.  The Emerald Order admirably avoids this.  Overall, I’m very pleased with this and look forward to the rest of the Kobold material in development to support their Southlands expansion.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kobold Press' Southlands Kickstarter

"If you're riding a camel, you are headed somewhere perilous.  And, you know, going somewhere perilous reminds me how I got into the business...Assassin Mountain, early days of the Arabian Nights..." - Wolfgang Baur

According to, "After a few years of working as a magazine editor for TSR, [Wolfgang] Baur was eager to write a standalone book for the company. He was eventually handed the job of creating "Assassin Mountain" for the Al-Qadim line. With just the title and topic, he was told to write a sourcebook and connected adventures.  Baur read up on assassins, including Rashid ad-Din Sinan, the Old Man of the Mountain, then gave it all a fantasy spin. When writing Assassin Mountain, Baur also did his best to put in "poetry and sentiment" — because the rich Arabian lore of Al-Qadim could be more magical and musical than the typical D&D setting...Baur has more than once said that Assassin Mountain is one of his favorite designs. However, he's also admitted that it has flaws (probably because it was his first major design)."  Baur also went on to pen another al-Qadim title, Secrets of the Lamp, focusing on the ecology of the elemental genies derived from traditional Arab and Persian folklore.

Flash forward 20 years.  Baur now runs one of the most successful third-party publishers in the fantasy RPG business: Kobold Press.  His Midgard Campaign setting was funded through a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign.  Kobold Press describes it as, "a dark world of deep magic, with seven regions flavored by the folklore of Central and Eastern Europe plus a heady dose of weird fantasy."  He's billing the scorching Southlands as the last mysterious place left in the Midgard setting.  Isn't this the perfect time to revisit his roots and to perfect the product that started everything for him?

I certainly hope so.

Why Deserts and Nomads and Genies?

I've had an obsession with Middle Eastern history since college.  After an into class that covered the region's history through 1500, I was hooked and took the class finishing its history to the present, a religion class on Islam, and two semesters of Arabic language.  I was all excited to go into Middle Eastern Studies, but then 9/11 happened and what seemed like a joyful scholarly inquiry got increasingly politicized...but I digress.  Middle Eastern history and folklore, both pre- and post-Islamic, brings so many fascinating tales to us.  There are treasures from the Abbasid caliphate like the 1,001 (or just 8) Arabian Nights with stories like Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and Sinbad's Seven Journeys.  Persian folklore gives us less well known stories through the Shahnameh epic poem.  

When playing fantasy RPGs, we all get boring of medieval fantasy pretty quickly.  Everyone has their favorite genre and mine is inspired by the Middle East.  After I first got turned on to Pathfinder, my first full adventure purchase was Legacy of Fire, where "the heroes stop a wish-maddened warlord from raising one of the infamous Spawn of Rovagug, a living holocaust cast down millennia before? In order to do so, they'll need to brave sand, flame, and the terrors of the Outer Planes—yet the forces at work against them are limited only by the reach of their imagination. And the enemy has had thousands of years to prepare..."  I don't care that it was written for 3.5 and that I'd have to convert everything to Pathfinder to play it today.  It's a beautiful adventure path if you love the Middle East like I do.

And Golarion's Katapesh is the same way.  Unlike Osirion, which is a little more pulp Egypt or Qadira, which always seems to be forgotten as the stub of their version of the Persian Empire, Katapesh is pure, mercantile, Silk Road ancient Arabia.  And it's awesome.  In fact, Dark Markets--A Guide to Katapesh is without a doubt my favorite campaign setting sourcebook to date.  So, the Southlands Kickstarter has a lot of competition to live up to already.

Midgard Campaign Setting: Southlands Kickstarter

Let's take a look at what the folks at Kobold Press are offering us with their Southlands Kickstarter.  It's running through October 18th.  Full disclosure: I'm already all in and getting copies of the core book, the adventures, and the bestiary (when it makes.  I know it will!).  Therefore, I have a very strong vested interest in you getting in on the action too!

Fortunately, even before you look at what's included in the Kickstarter, take a look at the vast amount of material that Kobold Press is leaking as teaser articles.  Most importantly, they've released a major preview document on  They also have a piece about the sentient jungle of Kush and the cities of the Southlands, They've also thrown up a few Southlands-focused of their collections of curiosities articles for things found at the oasis and things under a pile of bones.  Finally, they've given us some idea-piquing trinkets on a couple different pages.

The Loot

First, they are promising a full-color sourcebook that features both campaign setting gazetteer materials like information on the titan-ruled land of Omphaya and the sorceress who rules Ligna.  There are also player options like new classes & archetypes such as the blind archer, the lotus magician, and the weret hekau.  There's also info about deities/masks of deities.  There will also be traits related to various locations and various races native to the Southlands.  They aren't mentioned, but I'm sure the usual cadre of feats, spells, and magic items will appear as well.

The core book will also include a Bestiary, which will contain all the newest desert and Middle Eastern monsters to be had!  It will be made into a standalone book if they attract 600 or more backers.  (Bonus: They are at 568 at the time I'm writing this with 14 days to go, so I think it's a safe bet they'll make it).  They are also taking submissions from backers at a certain level (though paying to submit your design work for publication feels a little bit backwards).

They are also updating a collection of old adventures, Eight Arabian Nights.  They are also adding new adventure content as certain stretch goals, including an adventure by one of my favorite authors, Amber Scott as their next stretch goal  (Amber is one of my favorites first because I think her adventures read like her also fun to read fiction and also because she uses Excel tables when designing adventures to ensure that there is just the right amount of XP in her adventure to level up the party at proper points.  She talks about this in an episode of Know Direction).  

There will also be leatherbound editions of the books for those who are interested and they are going to strike some commemorative coins.  

More interesting (though prohibitively costly at $2,000) is Through the Red Portal, "a lorebook that addresses the history and lost magic of the first wizards and god-kings, describe some of their peculiar talents, and offers a glimpse behind the masks of the gods of Midgard. It makes great reading for anyone looking for an undead necromancer-king, a mummy struck by divine madness, or the curse of the eldest theurge."  Alas, they will not be making a PDF either.  GMs will have to dream up our own miraculous acts performed by the powerful first wizards and god-kings that ruled the Southlands millenia ago.

Strech Goals?  Boy do they have 'em!

The project funded at $16,000 within five hours or so.  So now it's on to extra content!  Not source material, but there are forums unlocked where fans will be able to comment on content as its being developed.  Right now they are only for high-level donors, but the more that sign on, the more widely the forums will be opened.  What else do we have so far?  

  • Campaign setting material
    • Bastet, the Goddess-Huntress and her cult
    • The Emerald Order, some apparently naughty people that have made off with some fantastically powerful emerald tablets
    • A Floating Village, delivered by Paizo's Adam Daigle
    • Full descriptions of gods and goddesses in the Southlands' pantheon
    • The Hand of Nakresh, dedicated to fulfilling the commands of "the simian god of wizards and thieves."
    • The Lost City of the Serpent Crown
    • Lotus Magic: A new magic system native to the Southlands
    • Mardas Vhula-Gai, a lost city infested with gnolls and goblins
    • Per-Bestet, the City of Cats
    • Ramag, a kingdom full of dangerous portals
  • Adventures
    • Tomb of the Elephant God, by Mike Shel, added to the Eight Arabian Nights
  • Setting-neutral material
    • Advanced Races: Aasimar
    • Advanced Races: Gnolls (we all knew this was coming eventually, Kickstarter or no, because they are, as Wolfgang says, "Badass.")
    • Advanced Races: Jinnborn (though it appears with much Midgard-specific info as well)
    • Hero Lab files (Yay!)
I'm sure there will be more added over the next two weeks and I'll try to update this page if work and law school demands make that possible.  But, either way, I'll be keeping track of the Southlands Kickstarter page and hoping to see it hit as many stretch goals as it can.

Did I miss any of the articles anywhere about the Kickstarter?  Have some been added since this post went up?  Did you like or hate this teaser?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Take a Survey, win a free GenCon Badge!

Not from me!  I can barely afford to go to Gen Con on my own, much less be offering other people badges.  But, the Gen Con organizers can and they are!  They are looking to get feedback on the 2014 show so that they can plan for an even better 2015 show.  The survey went live on September 30th and it's available for a limited (but, alas, undisclosed) time.  They've also promised at least one more survey by the end of 2014.  So, go tell them what you think!

While your at it, tell me what you think.  Leave a comment below!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

DC Gameday XV

If you're local to the metro DC area, I highly encourage you to check out DC Gameday XV.  DC Gameday happens twice a year in March and October and represents one of my favorite things to do in gaming: play random games that you can't really play without a huge gamer crew.  Oh sure, there will be Pathfinder and D&D games, but you can find one of those anywhere.  I want to use my Gameday to play random ass games.

Games are posted as GMs offer to run them and are listed on the site.  Best of all, because almost all of the games are obscure, GMs tend to offer them as 'come as you are without any system knowledge' games.  So, if you want to try something new, this is totally the place to do it!

It takes place over the weekend of October 25-26.  There are morning and afternoon gaming slots.  Each lasts for four hours.  They also have a big social event on Saturday evening, if you're not being consumed by law school shenanigans like I normally am.  Anyway, registration opens on Friday, October 10 at 8:00 p.m.  And do register at 8:00 p.m.--slots in good games fill up fast.  I was considering offering to GM a 13th Age game, but it looks like someone's already going to do that.  So, I can PLAY 13th Age!!

When I went last spring, I only got to go on Saturday, but got a chance to check out Monsterhearts for the first time and to play a Numenera game in the afternoon.  I'd never played Monsterhearts before--it has easy mechanics and can easily be exported to just about any system.  The system is based on Apocalypse World, but was designed to better explore issues related to sex and different sexuality.  In the classic Monsterhearts setting, you have a turn on mechanic that means that another character may be able to sexually excite your character--even if you don't want them to!  The game we played was loosely based upon the movie Casablanca.  I even got to play a fantastic piano player--who has supernatural powers derived from a deal he made with the devil.

Apocalypse World is a tremendously flexible system.  In fact, there's a Kickstarter closing TODAY called the Spirit of '77 that's also based on it.  What's the Spirit of '77 you ask?  "Spirit of 77 is a role-playing game based on 70’s pop culture – glam music, grindhouse action films, kung-fu, weird science and revved up race-cars on lone highways, outracing Smokey and the Man!"  So, basically it's awesome.  And, the website has a preview adventure posted: The Cruise Ship of the Damned.  They've also taken the time to create a soundtrack of rockin' 70s tunes on Spotify that are supposed to go well with the game.  Perhaps I will offer to GM that one!

500 Pageviews!

At only 6 weeks old, the blog's hit 500 page views!  Now, some of those are definitely me clicking through things (anti-cookie tools also stop Blogger from ignoring my page views), but I'm definitely nowhere near 500 of them!  And, I'm happy that my most popular post isn't just a review of someone else's product--it's my actual thoughts about armor (even if simplified).

Time to aim for 1,000 page views!  Oh, and my first comment would be nice! (hint, hint)  Tell me what you like so I can post about it!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Courts gettin' all up in your nerdery! (And a secret campaign setting)

Mark Strauss has a great article over at io9 about 10 geekly debates that had to be settled in federal court.  It also includes one of my favorite (if wrongly decided) RPG-related cases, Singer v. Raemisch, which establishes that prisoners lack First Amendment rights to play Dungeons & Dragons because D&D players represent a security risk.  You D&D players out there are apparently a security risk.  You see, "if left unchecked, D & D could lead to gang behavior among inmates and undermine prison security in the future." (593 F.3d 529 (7th 2010))

"[T]he prison officials provided the court with a plausible explanation for the D & D policy, that the game's structure (especially its control by the Dungeon Master) mimicked that of gangs,...a rigid hierarchical leadership structure." (Id. at 536-37)  This statement clearly demonstrates that the 7th Circuit fundamentally does not understand the dynamics between players and GMs.  Most players I know would be far more likely to join a gang directed against the GM than they would to join one against the prison as a whole.  Admittedly, I'm not on frequent speaking terms with a lot of federal prisoners though.

Perhaps the most important part of the case from my point of view occurs in the first paragraph of the Background section.  The court tells us, "His enthusiasm for D & D is such that he has handwritten a ninety-six page manuscript outlining the specific details of a "campaign setting" he developed for use in D & D gameplay."  (Id. at 532)  That's right.  There is a campaign setting out there designed by a federal prison inmate.

Best of all, that 96-page campaign setting was also entered into the docket for the District Court level trial that was being appealed to the 7th Circuit.  That case was Singer v. Frank, 2007 WL 2220209 (E.D. Wis. 2007).  So, not only was this setting created, but it's also in the docket for the case.  I haven't been able to pull the electronic filing yet, but you can bet I will!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Player’s Companion Review: Champions of Corruption

Paizo’s September 2014 Player’s Companion
 release is Champions of Corruption.  The final book in the Champions of series, this guide is focused on helping players develop evil characters and ground them in the evil organizations that plague the Inner Sea.  From the beginning, you can see that the designers took this task seriously.  On the front cover, Seltyiel is killing a unicorn.  I kind of like that the unicorn doesn’t look all that good though.  It would be a lot harder to see Seltyiel killing something that looks super sweet.  Rather, it’s milky white eyes make you think that perhaps the unicorn is the corrupt one and the iconic is trying to defend himself.  In fact, throughout the entirety of the book, the art makes it clear that these are not characters to trifle with.

Gods & (Summoned) Monsters
The guide’s inside covers feature familiar material to other readers of the Champions of series.  On the front inside cover we have a chart detailing the evil gods.  This could actually be really helpful during character creation.  I think I may pull out the ones from Champions of Righteousness & Champions of Balance next time the party has to make characters.  I’m hoping this will be helpful both for world immersion and for reminding them that it would not hurt to have an actual healer in the party.  Much like the previous two Champions of books, this one closes with a feat improving the character’s ability to summon evil monsters.  Like the other two, when a character with this feat summons a creature off the evil monster list, the summoning takes only a standard action.

Moral Uncertainty
Normally the “For Your Character” and “Rules Index” two pages seem like waste to me that could be much better filled with world-building or crunch product.  Here Paizo has introduced ideas that are interesting about how they frame evil—certainly ambiguous.  They’ve included a “Did You Know” box about Hermea and the inherent disagreements about how to characterize Mengkare’s alignment.  Newsflash: Paizo staff can’t even agree as to whether or not Mengkare’s experiment is interesting to him or actually among the most diabolical things happening in the Inner Sea region.  Adopting this viewpoint makes sure that any game taking place in Hermea is that much more interesting by giving us a rationale on how a character’s complex motives could make it evil or not in the eyes of some beholders.

Further Alignment Arguments – But Without the Flaming!
Next we are treated to some information about “Why Be Evil.”  This should be required reading with some actual interesting answers for any character that wants to play evil.  A lot of the tropes that are often picked up by chaotic neutral characters can be found here.  Motivations for evil characters should be well thought out.  I especially thought that terror made an interesting motivator.  The making evil fun call out box present some seriously important and well thought out things that any campaign including evil characters should consider.

Next Paizo takes us through philosophical underpinnings of the three illegal alignments. There are also call out boxes for each evil alignment (teamwork, alliances, and affinities for lawful, neutral, and chaotic evil, respectively) that discuss why an evil character might actually be interested in working with the party and putting up with group decision making as opposed to just killing everyone and taking the loot.  

Thoughts on alignment: MAD POINTS FOR RECOGNIZING THAT NEUTRAL EVIL IS ACTUALLY THE REALLY BAD ONE.  Chaotic evil always gets that wrap, and while it is evil, it’s chaotic nature also often makes it ineffective.  Good call on making the character philosophy for the psychopath neutral evil—it gives people an idea of just how horrible this alignment really is.  The horrifying mind magic trait complements this really well.

Noting that chaotic evil characters are probably the least likely to judge or even care about other characters’ alignments also makes them more compelling. I always have trouble really getting into the idea of a CE character or villain because I just see them as being irredeemably insane and therefore just dismiss them as options, but this has given me some things to think about.  A chaotic evil character with known poor impulse control would be really fun to try running.  Ideally, he’d have family or someone he’s obsessed with in the party.  He might go to any end to make sure that she gets the love and lovely treasure he believes she so richly deserves.

Evil in the Inner Sea
Next the guide contains an overview of how evil works as an organizational force in the Inner Sea.  I did not much care for the ‘Evil Planes’ call out box.  There are so many other options for ‘local’ places where evil is interesting and worth exploring that this is weak sauce.  Better to have given us something more in depth on something in the Inner Sea.  There are several options in the Other Dens of Evil section and I’d have liked to have seen one of them explored rather than just noting (somewhat repetitively) that there are riches to be gained on the evil planes. 

When we’re treated to an explanation of the evil organizations of the Inner Sea, it’s the same treatment.  Again there’s a call out box related to other organizations—would have been nicer to see something shorter here and more on one of the evil organizations that they covered.  Also, thanks for bringing back the Rushlight Society!  They add an interesting piece of spice to Magnimar and are easy to forget for some reason.[1]

Classes & Archetypes
                New Subdomains: Cannibalism, Corruption, and Greed have some neat abilities.  Greed’s ability allows the character to steal the effects of a spell being cast by another caster.  What it doesn’t do is allow you to know what that spell is.  It’s unclear whether or not you can use a spell craft check to learn what spell is being cast in conjunction with this ability.  I’d hope that’s the case, but it’s not totally clear.  Corruption’s ability to make people do evil acts or be sick is just downright devious!  I think in game that I’d want to flavor it as requiring the target of the spell to do something evil that’s in line with the deity granting the subdomain power’s portfolio.
                Dread Vanguard (Antipaladin): This generically evil anti-paladin trades his spell casting abilities for some pretty amazing evil area of effect considerations.  This anti-paladin also need not be beholden to a singular deity, but can be attached to a force—by taking his spells away and giving effects that are much more evil than they are of chaos, you actually have something slightly more akin to an eldritch knight.  But, the eldritch knight-lite hasn’t had to deal with the troubles of multiclassing.  Along with the vile leadership feat, this is another great option for creating a villain in a campaign.
                Alchemist Discoveries:
                         Pickled Quasit - The alchemist for the party I GM is currently working on reforming a goblin and Wart wreaks havoc all over the battlefield.  A quasit promises to be just as fun!
                         Plague Vector - Looks awesome, but also incredibly complicated.
                         Tainted infusion - Amazeballs.  This looks like too much fun.
                Raging Cannibal (Barbarian): Derives its power from violent cannibalism.  Highlight ability comes at 6th level when the barbarian gets a sort of modified power attack when using her bit.  She takes a -1 on her attack roll and adds 2 points of bleed damage.  Much like power attack, every 4 levels the attack penalty becomes one greater and the bleed damage goes up by 2 more.

                Damnation Feats: These are really cool!  First of all, I like how their bonuses and penalties both build off of each other.  I don’t love the magic feat, but the ones that create resistances and boost intimidate are nice.  Actually, the box text on page 25 expands the list of spells that should have the evil descriptor such that the maleficium feat looks a little more attractive. The one that masks alignment is a must for GMing for parties with paladins!  
                Betrayal Feats: These are the dark side of teamwork feats.  These feats let you do absolutely terrible things to your allies in an effort to get wildly awesome bonuses.  Archers can get rid of the penalty for shooting through an ally or into melee at the expense of possibly hitting their allies.  You can force people to switch places with you.  You can use your allies as shields to avoid damage.  You can even gain stupendously huge bonuses to your damage when flanking if you’re also willing to hit your flanking ally.  RAW, you and your ally must take this feat.  I get while that’s the case RAW, but I wouldn’t require it at home.[2]
                Non-magical item destruction feats: Page 23 treats us to a selection of four feats that all relate to breaking items and gaining effects (intimidation, area of effect shrapnel damage, improved improvised weapon).  These all seem like they’d be fun for a brawler or other martial class that has the ability to change out feats.  They also look fun for playing a barbarian or any martial character in a campaign where “real” weapons are hard to come by![3]

Traits & Drawbacks
                Foul brand (drawback) places an evil god’s holy symbol into your flesh.  It imposes penalties based on where on your body it’s located.  The trait won’t let the character use the brand as a holy symbol, which seems like a shame.  If you embrace your branded nature, might as well get something out of it.
                Punish insurrection (combat trait): Gives you +1 to attack and damage rolls against members of the same organization as you, so long as their standing in the organization is less than yours.  As a GM, I love this trait for a villain, especially if I have a PC that is a former member of an evil organization.  However, I think I’d also want to home break a response trait that would allow those who have left an organization and are now fighting against it to do the same thing.  That could be fun especially in a campaign that dealt with Hellknights or the Aspis Consortium.
                Umbral Unmasking (drawback) means you cast no shadow and it freaks people out.  Warded Against Nature (drawback) makes animals avoid you, which is another interesting effect.
     Wicked Leader (Social) trait: I’m going to use this book mostly for villains, so it won’t matter as much (because as the GM I can just let them have lackeys of any level I want).  If I had to play my villains as close to crunch though, this and Vile Leadership would be de rigeur.

                Shared Suffering: You take 1d6 / every odd caster level you possess (up to 5d6 at 9th level) by stabbing yourself with a knife cracking with necromantic energy.  You then target one creature within long range to take that damage plus your ability score bonus that attaches to your spell-casting class.  On balance I do not love this spell and at first I wondered where it would be useful at all.  The target does not get a saving throw (though spell resistance still applies).  So, I guess that it might be useful against an opponent with a high AC that the party’s having trouble finishing off.  That seems like something of an esoteric use, meaning that this is a far better choice for a spontaneous caster than it is for a prepared one.  Of course, being esoteric, would a sorcerer waste a spell slot on it?  Maybe it’s actually best for a hybrid class like the arcanist.
                Wracking Ray: If this hits, it’s going to cause some major problems for your target.  It does 1d4 Dexterity and Strength damage per 3 caster levels possessed (max 5d4).  But, it’s a 5th level spell, meaning that the minimum it’s ever going to do is 3d4 (7.5 average) damage to BOTH of an opponents scores—that’s going to seriously undermine an opponent’s attacks and dodging ability.  A Fortitude save halves (DC 18 minimum), but that can be tough for a monster with a weak fortitude save and you’re still going to get nice effects out of this even if the opponent does save.  This is worth adding to any spell list.

Magic Items
                Shadow Piercings: Neat Nidalese flavor and crunch.  The Guide gives instructions for creating new magic items that mix body piercings and shadow magic.  The piercings have to be placed in specific slots, but also allow another magic item in that slot to function as well.  Each shadow piercing has a minor, major, and greater form, which give increasingly better bonuses.  From a story perspective, I’m a little bummed that they don’t have any effects on characters for adding them (like cybernetics in the Technology Guide), but they might be less attractive for characters if they did.
                Amulet of Euphoric Healing: This thing is AWESOME!  The amulet’s user can imbue her healing spells with an addictive force.  Anyone healed by the user risks becoming addicted to the character’s healing magic and also takes a -2 penalty on Will saves against the caster.
                Collar of Unliving Servitude: A must for all necromancers.  The collar can be placed on an undead creature by a living creature, linking the one placing the collar and the undead creature.  From that point on, anytime the living creature takes negative energy damage, it’s transferred to the undead as healing.  The same is true for when the undead creature takes damage from positive energy.  Also, fun flavor—imagine these being involved in living-undead marriages in a place like Geb to really bring the two together!
                Ring of Plagues: Let’s just say that you do not want to be the person inflicting damage on the wearer of this ring.
                Sinner’s Wage: Amazing little tool for any enchanter.

                New rooms: Want a room filled with blood of virgins that can reverse the effects of aging?  Paizo has you covered.
                New poisons: Here we have poisons with some new and unexpected effects: slowing victims’ move speeds, impeding their concentration checks, and impeding their ability to sleep.  These are some effects that would drive PCs bonkers!

Wrap it up!
Champions of Corruption makes for a fantastic read.  The options presented here are incredibly powerful, some might even say too powerful.  Paizo’s staff has also done an excellent job incorporating the evil themes into Golarion.  This book is going to see a lot of use at my table.  But, it’s not going to see much use in the way of a Player’s Companion.  What I’d really like to see is more books like this in the Campaign Setting line.  This seems like a natural extension of Inner Sea Magic and Inner Sea Combat.  If this were in the Campaign Setting line, I’d give it four stars.  As a Player’s Guide, it still succeeds, but not quite as well as Champions of Purity or Champions of Balance.

3 stars.

[1] Maybe they are covered in greater depth in Shattered Star, which I haven’t read or played.
[2] These are the sorts of things that makes an evil character fun mechanically.  Yes, it will piss off your allies.  But, it’s totally within character.
[3] And those are real folks!  I’m a player in one right now!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Illusory IP & Conjuring Copyright: Live Performance RPGs?

My Favorite Podcasts: Drunks & Dragons

I want to post a shout out to the folks at Geekly, Inc.  Geekly grew out of a few podcasts performed by Michael DiMauro, Jennifer Cheek, Tim Lanning, and Mike Bachmann.  I highly encourage you to check out their flagship podcast Drunks & Dragons.  They play 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons and their sessions are anything but PG for an RPG.

Their Random Encounter podcast feed is also great if you are interested in learning a new game.  They have several friends that join them on these episodes, too!  They go through the rules, create characters, and play a short scenario.  Thus far they've covered Gamma World, Fiasco (twice and this one is better), Durance, Shadowrun, and used the Fate system to play a Firefly-based game.  The Firefly game was the last one that they'd promised as part of their Kickstarter to get better equipment for the main feed.  But I was thrilled to hear that they plan on continuing doing Random Encounters episodes as time goes by.

Dueling Banjos Copyrights

The Random Encounters feed had a problem with their Firefly game.  In their Kickstarter, they’d promised to stream recordings of them playing various games in exchange for hitting stretch goals.  But, before they got around to running their promised Firefly game, competing versions of Firefly RPGs landed in court over copyright and licensing claims.  So, without a commercially-available version, the Geekly crew had to adapt the Fate rules to play in the Firefly universe.

What’s a Performance?

The good folks at Geekly, Inc. use two main channels to get their content out.  First of all, they use a program called Twitch TV to record both the audio and their computer screenswhile they play the game.  They also distribute audio-only feeds as podcasts.  I am a big fan of these—I listen them when I’m coming home from school at night.

But let’s bring this back to copyright law.  The Copyright Act protects authors from having their theatrical productions broadcast without their permission.[1]  So, works of authorship have to have to be fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  In English, that means that the work needs to be written down or recorded somewhere.  The live performance of the fixed expression is a violation of the copyright (without permission).  That’s why companies like are in existence.  They promise the author a cut of the sales record the dramatic work, obtain the author’s permission, record the work, and sell, sell, sell!

The rulebooks underlying roleplaying games are copyrighted.[2]  So what happens when you perform a live production of something copyrighted or distribute a sound recording of a copyrighted work?  You get sued.  Then, you have to pay a lot of money[3], pay for the other side’s legal fees[4], and go to jail for up to ten years.[5]  Curious about seeing this in action?  Put on a public performance of Cats and buy a lot of advertising for it.

But, Twitch TV is a thing!  There are lots of live streams of RPG-playing happening on Twitch TV every minute of every day.  Why aren’t these people all being sued for copyright infringement?  The obvious—but not legal—answer is that even if they were infringing on the RPG-publisher’s copyright, it probably wouldn’t make good business sense to crack down on people that are promoting your product to the public.  Most of these “offenders” don’t have enough money to make pursuing these claims worth while either.

The legal answer is much easier: performances of games are not subject to copyright.[6]  That’s because performances of games are not, legally, performances.[7]  The Ninth Circuit ruled on this matter in Allen v. Academic Games League of America, Inc.[8] 

The Case At Hand

In Allen, two parties were fighting over live quiz games that high school students played as part ofacademic tournaments.  Allen was the creator of the games played and the founder of the original league for playing them.  The Academic Games League of America (AGLOA) was made up of people that used to work on the original league with Allen, but who he alienated.  So, they went out and formed a league of their own.[9]  Allen owned the copyrights to the printed game materials.  So, AGLOA just bought Allen’s printed games and used them in AGLOA tournaments.  AGLOA conveniently scheduled their tournaments for the same time as Allen’s and they stole the majority of the market from him.

So, Allen took AGLOA to court.  Copyright law gives the copyright holder the ability to control all public performances of owned “literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works.”[10]

The question was: Is playing a game in public a protected performance under the Copyright Act?

The court first fell back on one of the oldest statements in copyright law, “A copyright only protects a particular expression of an idea and not the idea itself.”[11]  So, “ideas contained in a copyrighted work may be freely used so long as the copyrighted expression [of the idea] is not wholly appropriated.”[12] 

The court noted that this whole appropriation requirement is even more important when there are only limited ways to convey the idea, such as in a rulebook.[13]  Rules lay out the method of playing a game.  Essentially, they are the game’s physics that describe what can happen and what responses happen to players’ actions.  Since games’ rules consist of “stock concepts” and “abstract rules and play ideas,” they—by definition—have limited methods by which they can be conveyed.[14]  For the lawyers in the room, the rules and their expression are too similar.  So, rules’ expression merges into the idea of the rules themselves and the expression’s copyright protection is lost.[15]

The court concludes that although a copyright holder “may be entitled to copyright protection for the physical form of his games, he is not afforded protection for the premises or ideas underlying those games.”[16]

Podcast On, My Friends.  Podcast On!

So, my friends over at Geekly, Inc. are making a live performance of a copyrighted work.  That’s normally not okay.  But, the copyrighted work that they are utilizing is the book explaining the mechanics of the game itself.  We’ll return later to the rulebook’s copyright status.[17]  For now, we’ll just pretend that it has a fully valid copyright.  But, my friends are adding to the game by playing it.  And, to quote the Allen opinion, “games are meant to be played.”[18]  A performance is when you speak, sing, or otherwise “auditoriate” the meaning on the page. 

The rules merely control how they game is played.  They aren’t the game itself.  That might seem like splitting hairs, but that’s how the legal game is played.  Folks at Geekly, Inc. and all the other RPG post casters and live streamers out there are good to go on making me laugh!

Some Parting Thoughts…

This does raise questions about whether or not someone could copyright a game show, like Wheel of Fortune.  On one hand, Wheel of Fortune is a game and therefore playing it isn’t an infringement on the show’s copyright.  On the other hand, live performances on television are pretty clearly protected under copyright law.  I’m not investigating this particular question, but you could always try making a game show called Icosagon of Riches that involved three people taking turns spinning a 20-sided wheel to determine opportunities to name letters that would then be revealed on a word puzzle.  I’m not saying that you could get away with it.  But I’m not saying that you couldn’t, either.

A game publisher doesn’t own the copyright to control performances of playing the game.  So, an RPG publisher likely doesn’t own the copyright to the performance of the RPG session.  But, it is a recording of a unique expression of something.  Are recordings of the RPG sessions in the public domain or have they become performances that are owned by their creators: the very people who were free-riding off of the RPG’s inability to exercise copyright over the live performance of the game?

Disclaimer: I am a law STUDENT.  I am not a LAWYER.  I am licensed to practice law in exactly zero states.  Therefore, I cannot offer anyone legal advice.  Repeat: these postings will NOT constitute LEGAL ADVICE.  While I certainly think that my insights into the law are valid, if you have an actual copyright law question, seek out a competent and barred attorney.  Feel free to show them these posts, but don't rely on this blog as a source of binding authority.  Every case is different and I'm not working on yours.  Partially that's because you aren't paying me to do so.  More importantly, it's because it would be a felony if I did take your money to do so without the supervision of a practicing attorney.  So, let's get this straight.  This is an explorational information source.  I am not your lawyer.  You might be a beautiful and unique snowflake.  But you are not my client.

[1] 17 U.S.C. § 102 (2012) (“(a) Copyright protection subsists…in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible mode of expression…from which they can be perceived…or otherwise communicated…Works of authorship include the following categories:
(1)    literary works;
(2)    musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3)    dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(7)   sound recordings”).
[2] We’ll explore this statement in greater depth later.  For now, let’s just say that the books at least have a copyright symbol on them that exists as a warning to those who’d like to use the work without permission.
[3] 17 U.S.C. § 504 (2012) (Providing that those bringing copyright claims can choose between recovering between $750 and $30,000 if they show infringement happened at all, up to $150,000 if they show the infringement was intentional, and even more if the person bringing the case can show that the damages were higher.)
[4] 17 U.S.C. § 505 (2012).
[5] 17 U.S.C. § 506 (2012); 18 U.S.C. § 2319 (2012).
[6] Allen v. Academic Games League of America, Inc., 89 F.3d 614, 616 (9th Cir. 1996).
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Sound familiar, Pathfinder players?
[10] 17 U.S.C. § 106(4) (2012).
[12] Id. (emphasis added).
[13] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 618 (emphasis added to indicate the tenuous nature of copyright in a rulebook).
[17] I know that’s what you are all waiting for.  I’m not blowing my load early on this one.
[18] 89 F.3d at 616 (quotations removed).