Friday, February 27, 2015

13th Age Monthly

I focus a lot on Pathfinder products on this blog, so I decided I'd try and shake things up with looking at some material from another system: 13th Age.  13th Age is another d20 variant, but one that significantly simplifies the mechanics of the game.  In fact, it won the Silver Ennie for beset new ruleset last year.  Actually, I got turned on to 13th Age after finding Pathfinder.  I like how it emphasizes story over mechanics and I think I'd have just stuck with it as my base system had I known about it before I really bought into Pathfinder whole hog.

Right now, 13th Age has only 3(!) rulebooks.  Their core book and it's follow-on 13 True Ways both contain game mechanics and information about their pre-baked semi-fleshed out world.  There's also a Bestiary.  There's other stuff, both official and player-generated that's also available.

The pre-baked semi-fleshed out world is one of the game's strengths.  Because so much of the game centers around the skills and the conflicts with major forces in game as chosen by the players, the game world can only have so much detail.  Players choose their backgrounds and relationships to 13 different region-spanning forces (called Icons, after their leaders) before you can have a good idea of what themes your players are interested in.  That's a strength though.

Once you know what your players are interested in, you can easily customize the world to fit their interests.  If your players all choose positive relationships with the ancient gold dragon that fights demons, then you know that there's going to be some demon fighting in your campaign.  Similarly, if they are all opposed to the great druid, plan for some civilization v. the wilds conflict.

13th Age significantly cuts back on rules content, leaving much in the hands of the GM.  For gamers who are interested in emphasizing story over mechanics, that's a win.  For gamers that like a lot of rules/gamers that have less trust in their GM (are these categories one and the same?), that's a loss.  Since I like to emphasize story over mechanics, 13th Age seems like a great fit.  At another time, I'll write a post about some of its mechanics and how I feel that they help move the action along.  But, for today, I'd like to spend a little time talking about:

13th Age Monthly

The folks over at Pelgrane Press have decided to go with a monthly release of short PDFs dedicated to 13th Age.  According to Pelgrane's website, "these 4000+ word PDFs offer new rules systems, Bestiary-style monsters, player character options, and more."  The January issue focuses on dragon riding.  February's covers the frogfolk (a race we haven't heard about before) and their mysterious swamp templates.  Finally, March brings a collection of six new single-use magic items.  January's issue is only 8 pages long, but February's goes up to 10 pages, so it appears that the 4,000 word minimum isn't also a target word count.  I like more content for my money, so that's a pro for me!  Each individual copy can be purchased for $2.95 or you can pick up all 12 for $24.95.  Those signing on to the full release late also get full copies of the back issues.

Right now, only the January version has been released.  What's in it?  Well, it's an 8-page long PDF.  Page one/the cover is a full page title page, but featuring some great art of a warrior woman (a dark elf?) riding a dragon.  It's good art and no chainmail bikini.  Page 2 is credits.  That leaves us with 6 pages of content.  That's just under 50 cents a page for those purchasing the individual issue and just over 36 cents for those going in for all 12 issues.  What do we get?

Well, we get what we were promised: rules for riding dragons.  13th Age's setting features an empire founded by good dragons and human beings cooperating with each other and dragon riding knights are mentioned, so we knew this was coming eventually!  Per the PDF, "The goal of our dragon riding rules is to create a fun alternative experience that can fit into champion-tier and epic-tier 13th Age campaigns in which characters fly into battle on dragon back."

One of the most helpful parts of this release is that it considers two options.  In scenario one, the PCs regularly fly into battle on dragons and need to invest in feats to do so.  In scenario two, dragonriding into battle is a less common occurrence and the need to invest in feats is waived.  I like this admission.  If the players want to regularly fly dragons (or, as I like to think of it, force the GM to keep track of as many NPC dragon companions are there are party members), they need to invest in the talent.  If the players hop on dragons to take a critical city in a war or to defend the capital from assaulting forces in a last ditch attempt to stave off civilization's destruction, they shouldn't be penalized by having to use a feat to do so.  They also admit that these mechanics are going.  to.   slow.    the.     game.      down.

This is one area where the system is a little confusing for me.  On one hand, the charm of 13th Age is that it doesn't require the sub-sets upon sub-systems of rules used in a game like Pathfinder.  On the other hand, if you are flying around on dragons without any rules at all, you might as well be playing using Fate Core rules.

The developers then give us eight one-paragraph backstories that could explain why there's dragonriding going on in the campaign at all.  I like these.  Look, dragons are supposed to be (at least in 13th Age and most d20 systems) extremely old, extremely powerful, and extremely intelligent.  They need a very compelling reason to allow someone who is markedly less intelligent, markedly weaker and whose life passes by in the blink of an eye onto their backs.  So, the rationale for doing so is important.

Next come some assumptions that the authors have made.  These also include some tips for campaign management and how to use the rules.  For example, the rules are useful for big, outdoor battles.  They are going to require a significant rework if you want to have "underworld battles riding enslaved dragons."  They also provide the GM with some tricks here that can help mitigate when/if the PCs get a little too good at making use of their dragon mounts.

Here are the mechanics (remember, good readers?  Game mechanics are not subject to copyright!):
- Use the normal flight rules:
     - Exactly like other movement, but can fly over enemies not engaged with and take no opportunity attacks
     - You can be intercepted as you move, but only by other flying creatures
     - When a flyer makes a melee attack against a flying enemy, the flyer can pass on engaging the enemy by taking a -2 penalty to her attack.
     - If flying ends before you land, you are gonna take a lot of falling damage.
- Dragon riding rules (in general, buy the PDF if you want them in detail!):
     - Dragons have their regular stats
     - Average your initiative with your dragon mount and you use the same one
     - Dragon riders lose their move action
     - Dragons lose their quick actions
     - A "mastery" mechanic is added.  Performing certain actions requires players to use up their mastery.  Once used, players must succeed at a mastery check to perform other actions that require mastery.  The most important of these is actually making a mounted attack!  It's pretty easy to retain mastery...if PCs are willing to sacrifice their standard actions.  Not so much if they aren't.

As the PDF notes, these rules also work well for riding other creatures.  I think they'd be useful for smaller flying mounts, like griffins or hippogriffs.  They can also be ported to types of dragons not covered and they have some advice for how exactly that should get done.  Finally, we are treated to some very good advice on building battles.

Dragon Riding Feats
Champion Feat: You gain a +3 bonus to your dragon riding skill checks. In addition, when your dragon attacks and scores a critical hit, you keep mastery automatically.
Epic Feat: Movement and location-based effects that would ordinarily only affect you, like a teleport spell (or power) or the rogue’s shadow walk, may also be able to affect your dragon mount, depending on whether you and the GM can agree on the sanity of the effect. The effect counts as a free action use of mastery, so you’ll have to roll a skill check to maintain mastery after executing the stunt.

Now, I'm not normally a big fan of PCs riding dragons.  But, it might be fun to do from time to time.  Again, I'd like to highlight that the metaplot descriptions at the beginning of the document go a long way to creating some awesome scenarios.  No spoilers here, but the last one is just begging to be tried.  It presents some good "save the world" themes while requiring a level of moral compromise that could really challenge a group of PCs!  Finally, there is some cute art in the piece.  Some of it presents dragons as majestic while others present dragons sharing bonding moments with their riders.

Ultimately, I'm intrigued and ready for February's release.  For this first one, let's say 3.5 stars!

EDIT: February's release happened on February 25, but wasn't available online when I wrote this.

Invoking IP: Power Rangers Video Remake Takedown - Copyright's Violated?

Hopefully you got to see the amazing Power Rangers reboot video that went live this week.  I was not a big Power Ranger fan back in the day.  They were big during my, "I'm not a kid so I don't watch that stuff" phase.  Likely my loss. still has a still from the video on its website.

Because if you didn't already catch the video, you likely won't.  HuffPo reports that takedown notices from the owners of the Power Rangers IP, Saban Entertainment (no word on relation to the coach), sent take down notices to have the video removed from both Vimeo and Youtube.  DMCA is not my specialty, so I can't speak to the take down notice process and what, if anything, Adi Shankar can do to fight them.

But, I thought it would be fun to analyze the situation under fair use.  Fair use considers four factors to determine whether or not the use of copyrighted material is infringement or not.  None of the four factors is dispositive and each must be weighed wholistically.  (There is some research out there that says that the purpose and market effect factors are controlling in actuality if not in case law).

First, we need to consider what, if anything, might have been infringed.  Saban Entertainment (presumably) owns the copyrights attached to the Power Rangers.  What does that encompass?  It covers all of their names, the other proper fictional place names in their world, and the expression of the ideas underlying the Power Rangers.  The ideas underpinning the Power Rangers are free game to anyone.  Ideas can't be copyrighted.  So, costumes could be infringed, character names, musical scores, or other art (I don't think that there's any footage from the series in the video in question...but it's not like I can rewatch it to double check).  There's probably some use of copyrighted material here (if only names, etc.), but was it fair use?

Factor 1: Purpose of Use
   Purpose of use considers whether the use was for "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research." (17 U.S.C. § 107).  These uses are listed in the statute, but the list isn't exhaustive.  What are the purposes of use that weigh against finding fair use?  Commercial use or "decorative use."  According to HuffPo, Shankar shot the homage as "a fan video created with no intention to make any money."  That sounds a lot like a "decorative purpose" to me.

   Purpose also considers how transformative the use was.  In the case of creating a derivative work, like this one, there's a certain amount of underlying material that has to be used to conjure up the work being referenced.  The most famous case is likely one between a publishing house and the estate of Margaret Mitchell (of Gone with the Wind fame) about a book called The Wind Done Gone.  (Suntrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Co., 268 F. 3d 1257 (11th Circuit 2001)).  In The Wind Done Gone, Scarlett O'Hara's half-Black half-sister is the narrator of a scathing work primarily designed to highlight all of the terrible things about life in the antebellum South that Margaret Mitchell just glossed over.

   The court found The Wind Done Gone transformative because it was "more than an abstract, pure fictional work. It [was] principally and purposefully a critical statement that [sought] to rebut and destroy the perspective, judgments, and mythology of GWTW." (268 F.3d 1270)  And, in many ways, the Power Rangers video does the same thing.  Quoting the io9 story that introduced it, "We did not think the Power Rangers could be this dark. We were so wrong."

But, ultimately, though the story is a continuation, it's using the same characters.  The Wind Done Gone created new ones.  This prong points both ways, but ultimately it augurs against fair use.

Factor 2: Nature of Work Copied From
   Nature of the work is easy.  Works of fiction receive greater protection than nonfiction works.  The Power Rangers are fictional characters.  Therefore, they enjoy a greater standard of protection than enjoyed by a non-fiction work.  This factor also points to illegal infringement.

Factor 3: Amount Used
   Amount used goes to two factors.  The first is the actual amount used, though the courts are constantly reminding us that even one bit of plagiarism is infringing.  There are usually examinations of how much of the copied work is composed of material from the original and how much of the original has been moved into the copy.  But, infringers also cannot take 'the heart of the work.'  (Harper Collins)  I know how this works in written word--what's the 'heart' of the Power Rangers?  That would be so much easier to answer if it had been these guys.  I'm going to say that since the plot has been advanced, the amount used is minimal but it's there.  This factor is likely neutral.

Factor 4: Market Effect
   Finally market effect.  This factor asks how allowing the use of the infringing material will affect the market for the original.  Since the infringing material was non-commercial, there's likely no deleterious effect on sales of the original Power Rangers episodes.  In fact, it likely has a positive effect on sales of the original Power Rangers series.  Unfortunately, a quick check of Amazon's streaming service reveals that they don't give out data about sales ranks for streaming video.  But, I'll bet more than one person decided they wanted to rewatch an old episode after viewing James van der Beek in the short film reboot.

That's two factors in favor of infringement, one neutral, and one pointing against infringement if you're a crazy free marketeer like me.  Likely this is infringement.  But, this was likely excellent exposure for Saban Entertainment and for the Power Rangers.  As I noted in an earlier post about live broadcasts of games, even if it was infringement leaving it up is probably good business.  It interests your customer base and encourages your fans to further interact with your product.  Infringement or not, this was not the right choice.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons takes back the RPG Crown

ICv2 confirms what I guessed at last August: Dungeons & Dragons 5E was the best selling RPG last year.  As ENWorld notes, the real question will be whether or not they can keep up with Paizo's gruelling pace of releasing so many products a month.  

Also interesting is Numenera's meteoric rise.  The 9th World premiered in fall 2013 and it took the #4 position by Spring 2014.  It fell off for a couple of months, but it's back at number 4 now.  I've been a big Numenera fan ever since the Kickstarter, but I'm not sure that it provides the level of long-term playability that a game like D&D or Pathfinder does.  For me, at least, Numenera (or its younger Cypher System sibling, the Strange) is more of an occasional fix to find something a little bit different than a regular habit.

In other good news, ICv2 also reports that there have been six straight years of growth in hobby games, with "a revived RPG category" as one of the "leaders in the trend."  Gaming is not a marginal hobby, people!

Other good news from the article:
Retailers reported a broad-based influx of new customers, reflecting a growing awareness of the hobby.  The big holiday surge in particular types of games may reflect this trend; new customers were looking for board games they’ve heard of (like perennials Settler of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Pandemic) or easy-to-learn, simpler games like Love Letter and Cards Against Humanity.

EN World has a chart showing the historical rankings according to ICv2:

Fake it Till You Make It Diversity in RPGs

Improved Initiative has a great post up about how real attempts to roleplay a character that's not like you, the player, can have some amazing effects on you (the player's) ability to empathize with others.  What started as a straight white man playing a pretty stereotyped barbarian from an Africanesque background turned into a huge learning experience for the player.  Sounds like it didn't start that way, but by the end a fully fledged new personality was created.

As a gay gamer at the RPG table, I relish in being able to take on the role of straight males.  But, I must admit that I have a tendency to play up their sexuality as well.  This street works multiple ways.  My characters' sexuality should be an important part of their background, but it shouldn't be the end all, be all of who that character is.

When I next play my lothario bard Rhyss, I'm going to do some thinking about good ways to bring in other portions of his personality.  He's passionately dedicated to his music craft and to freeing his people from oppression.  He misses his sister terribly and he's mortified that asking his teacher the wrong question at the wrong time is what sent his teacher off a mental cliff into madness.  I think I need to spend some time thinking about how those aspects of Rhyss' life affected his personality.  He'll still be after all the ladies, of course, because that's a form of combating discrimination he faces as a midget.  But, he'll be doing it in a far more well-developed manner if I have anything to say about it.

EDIT: Aaaaand, there are some examples of people not doing that empathy particularly well. [h'/t Improved Initiative]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Extended Review Material: Undead Unleashed

So, after reviewing Undead Unleashed, I decided that it would be fun to add in a lot of the notes about adventure ideas that I’ve drawn from it.  I didn’t want to include these in the review itself, but I did think that some of them were pretty cool and wanted to include them in a separate post.  These notes aren’t as well-written up, so forgive me.  But, I made ten pages of hand-written notes.  I didn’t want to make everyone slog through ten pages worth of material, but I do want this stuff written down (and not in my bad handwriting!).

·      Like his backstory and how his spells have been redone as alchemist spells to avoid having to give him class levels.  I also like that despite the change, he still “casts” spontaneously.  This is an excellent example of the way that good design (which Paizo excels at) can really make the experience more immersive without sacrificing quality.  The players here will never know how much work happened, but they should certainly appreciate the results.
·      You could also use this guy as the basis of a campaign.  The entry presents a nice mid-level boss in the Water Lord that works for the ravener as well as the alchemist from a nearby city with whom the ravener is close.
·      The idea of a dragon seeking immortality is kind of awesome.  I mean, why?  Don’t dragons live forever anyway?  Also, what happens if a dragon takes a potion of eternal youth mechanically?  Do the dragon’s age functions actually slide back down?  There are cases for the argument both ways! 
·      There’s a nifty item in this entry, the cauldron of transmutation (p. 6) that turns any 2 potions into any potion that is the same level or lower as the weaker of the two original potions placed inside it.  This is just the sort of nifty thing a mad dragon alchemist should have in its lair and it would be fun to roleplay it with the party as they discover what it is and what it does.  It might make sense to try and make this stuck into the landscape though (perhaps that’s why the ravener’s lair is here?).
·      The haunt here makes you fall prostrate or feel like you are being hit with whips wielded by ghosts.  Making haunts feel real is hard work.  When I was first writing my notes on this review I was really excited that they’d thought to include a haunt in Undead Unleashed because it was thematically so important.  Imagine my surprise when every entry then had one!
·      I like this lair—it’s in line w/ the ravener’s personality and it has the stuff you’d want both mundane (supporting suspension of disbelief) and appropriate for the game.  In other words, you can rationalize an ancient undead dragon living here while enjoying looting its valuables.  I also like that not every room in a lair has to have an encounter—that may be a function of space, but it’s not a failure in the product design at all.

Arnlaugr the Fearless
·      Thematically undead as a cautionary tale are good—so long as you can work it into an ongoing story in an interesting way.  I felt like this entry managed to do so spectacularly.  Here was have an undead that’s normally created by accident that’s been basically made to order by a greater threat.  That’s interesting and makes me want to run this encounter.  This guy went hunting for pretty beyond his skill and now he’s paid the price.
·      A couple of things I’d like to have seen changed here: first, I don’t know why but I feel like cold water environments should always try and incorporate hot springs—it’s just a weird quirk of mine.  No deductions for failure to do so, just on the wish list/things I’d do when incorporating this.  I also wish that this guy did some patrolling work for his new master.
·      I also really like that this entry is about a henchman in an organization rather than the ultimate boss.  That can actually be a bonus for working this into a campaign because the design decisions about what the campaign’s major themes need to be aren’t made.  I do like that the entry gives an idea of what she is but with just a name and a one-line stat block, that can be changed easily.
·      Magic item: Rixbrand (+3 wounding dragon-bane greatsword) aka what every barbarian is lusting after.  I love that our villain here wanted to slay the dragon and failed.  I also love that the PCs might, after defeating him, be able to use his weapon to fulfill his original quest.  It would be a cool story development to have this guy return as a ghost after he’s slain as a draugr.  The ghost could then charge the PCs to slay the greater threat to set his spirit free.

·      As James Jacobs is always saying on his “Ask Me” thread, one of the most important rules of designing an intriguing campaign setting is to have every mystery answered create two new questions.  Now we know Erum-Hel’s history from the crusades and how he hunted down the lich queen’s bodyguards up until his little encounter with She Who Would Later Be Very Stern in an Adventure Path Adventure.  But, what is this guy’s origin?  Was he raised by the biggest, baddest necromancer of them all?  Was he created by a wizard in thrall of greed?  Has he been hanging out in that wizard’s former hideout/tomb?  Is he related to the urdefan and their genesis at the very bottom of the caves that exist underneath so much of the world?  We don’t know!!
·      We do know what he wants today and it’s a rematch with a goddess.  We know he’s studying how he can become a god himself.  Or maybe he’s risk averse and would be willing just to destroy her church?  That’s a good campaign villain.  Maybe he decides to go the cautious route—if the PCs foil that, he may get reckless and rush off down that risky path towards godhood.  Of course, now that needs to be stopped as well!
·      I’d want to use this guy in a campaign with neutral characters.  Over time they’d learn more and could help or hinder his goddess-hunting quest.  He’s CR 20+, so he makes a good end of the campaign bad guy (not to mention the amount of work necessary to reach his lair—though its location can certainly be moved). 
·      I like that he’s the super mohrg that creates other mohrgs rather than creating zombies.  These guys need a genesis and Erum-Hel provides that.  Why does he create mohrgs?  That’s part of the backstory.  And, for a super-duper bonus for the PCs, could killing him in some special way as a campaign goal mean the end of all the mohrgs in the world?  Wouldn’t that be fun (until the church of the goddess of undeath found out and went after you)?
·      Right now his lair is inside of a petrified dead thing in the bottom of the deepest pits beneath the world.  It’s insane even getting through his encounters—and getting there will be half the fun.  This will also be good for giving bad dreams to players that have issues with bodily fluids.
·      We also get two new diseases!  Blightburn, which uses radioactivity rules and Scarlet Leprosy, which is as unpleasant as it sounds.  Also, these are higher CR diseases.  They’ll be a nasty shock to unsuspecting PCs.

·      I didn’t give this one a very in depth note taking session.  But, I do like the idea of an undead party girl who wants you to play with her!
·      The haunt in this entry is awesome!

·      Tied into the biggest, baddest necromancer there ever has been.  Dude, he even outwitted a god to come back more powerful.  Jolanera and her designed lair also has lots of opportunities for intrigues in addition to straight up fighting.  We’ve already got a statted up flying undead dragon in this book, but Jolanera’s rival bears checking out.  She’s weaker in combat, but clearly smarter.
·      Fun magic item, the void funnel: Basically 1/day use of item to attune a 30’ radius area to positive energy, negative energy, or an alignment-based planar affinity.  Seems like a useful magic item for GMs (and it is totally one the way it’s used here), especially for GMs with players that will be travelling across the planes—this is a nice way to dip your toe into that space without up and leaving the planes.

Mirik the Drowned
·      First of all, yay that we actually see the largest city in the Inner Sea appearing in the Campaign Setting line.  It can’t always be the playground for Pathfinder Society.  Mirik’s story is evocative of themes of greed and gluttony and getting your just desserts.  He could be moved to AP #2 pretty easily as an encounter in the city there to start playing up the greed themes with ease.
·      Mirik’s lair is also well-integrated into the city.  I think I will actually like adopting this in use for a home campaign idea, so Mirik will be traveling to the River Kingdoms.

Mother Comfort & Poor Eledia
·      Person reason I’m a bit disappointed here—I heard a news story this spring about Nigerian children being kidnapped from orphanages and wrote an adventure related to a similar situation.  But, the entry is still well done.  This does a good job of calling up the “creepiness factor” that’s important when using undead.  The story behind this orphanage is believable (in a fantasy folk-tale way).  We have a lot of their backstory, but I’m wondering how the two undead interact with each other today in the orphanage. 
·      Magic item: Ghost Mirror: Awesome flavor and crunch.  Allows you to see all undead, but only in the mirror.  Because you’re so busy looking into the mirror, you take a 50% miss chance when using this while fighting.
·      I like this adventure in general.  It’s self-contained, but I like that the items found here will remind players of interesting encounters while still coming in useful in later encounters without the GM having to try and design encounters where they can come up.

Ordelia Whilwren
·      We’ve returned to the iconic large city in Paizo’s signature country.  One of the founders lives on in undeath as a ghost.  I’ve never really sat down and thought about putting together a mini-campaign in this particular city, but if I did I’d certainly want to bring in this character and the portion of the city named after her.
·      I like that we have a ghost here, and her backstory is cool.  Most importantly, though, I like that as a ghost she remains tortured.

Prince Kasiya
·      First of all, points for using a vampire in an ancient Egyptian setting instead of the traditional Gothic horror.  In this case it works well.  Kasiya could work very well as a big bad or significant troublemaker NPC in a campaign related to finding and destroying one of the artifacts described in the Slave Trenches of Hakotep.
·      Neither Egypt nor vampires are normally that interesting to me, so I’m pleased that Paizo was able to put together something that did draw my interest to two topics I’d normally give a minimal read to. 
·      The Prince’s dungeon is also meant to be (or at least able to be) expanded into lower levels for similarly corrupted souls that are now entombed for their misdeeds in life.  I like the idea of the prison tomb being multilayered.  The PCs would have to progress down a level at a time to find out what portions of the mystery they need to deal with next.  I’d want to put lots of creepy stuff on the walls that would include a lot of (possibly unnecessary) backstory, interesting clues, and red herrings to keep them on their toes.  As the PCs get lower and lower into the dungeon, they’d get closer and closer to learning the ultimate secret…a secret so sinister it might be able to shake the current powers off of their throne (thereby ratcheting up the danger they are facing).
·      This encounter’s layout is very similar to that used in Risen from the Sands.  Maybe that’s because both relied on information about ancient Egyptian tombs, but the encounters in here (though not the creature choices) feel done.  Or maybe that’s just fatigue from Mummy’s Mask.
·      There are a couple of magic items here, but none that really caught my interest.

·      One of my favorite NPCs from the entire sourcebook.  Razinia’s backstory means that she can function as both a nice roleplaying function and also as an enemy.  She’s great because she can be an enemy from the beginning of can be developed as one when necessary for the plot.  Also, this oasis’ layout begs for a big battle between the various characters laid out in the entry.
·      Razinia’s in Paizo’s Persian setting on the eastern side of the sea rather than the general Arabian setting, where I feel like she’d be a better choice and could easily be worked into the larger plot of something like Legacy of Fire.  As the PCs traveled between the coast and the inland areas where much of the action happens, they might have to stop off at Razinia’s oasis for supplies.  While there they’d catch rumors and could even find hooks for adventures for things that they might want to seek out.
·      As a villain in a low-level type campaign, the PCs could slowly learn a little about Razinia’s true nature each time they encounter her until the ultimate reveal causes them to have to make decisions about Razinia’s ultimate faith.
·      I haven’t looked up the details about whether or not a ghul can be redeemed, but depending on PCs interactions with her it would be amazing to see if they tried to bring her back into the light before releasing her to the death goddess’ embrace (at Razinia’s request, hopefully).
·      The assistant is a nice touch.  I like that not all of Razinia’s folks know what’s going on.  What’s the fun of a shadowy organization if every member of it already knows the big reveals.  As you get higher and higher up the chain, it’s fun that the NPCs the PCs are rubbing shoulders with know more and more about what’s going on (not unlike the real world, I guess).
·      If the PCs do fall for Razinia’s ultimate lure, I also like the idea of them being tracked across the desert by Razinia’s muscle as detailed in the encounter.  In a Legacy of Fire campaign, this could result in the PCs being accused of theft while back in their main stomping grounds with some interesting roleplaying options for character development.  Do the PCs submit to the law?  Do they believe that it will vindicate them?  My favorite roleplay encounters are those where morality is up for grabs and that happens with Razinia in spades.
·      The encounter site laid out can also make a great home base, especially since there are ready-made NPCs here that fulfill most of the functions that PCs need filled at early levels.  The map is also great—though it would require some pretty involved Photoshopping or drawing on your own to make it player ready—there’s way too much GM-only info listed on it.

·      I started off reading this entry thinking that I wouldn’t be that interested and got interested really fast.  We’re also located in a desert here (though this time we are outside of the usual Inner Sea location where most of Paizo’s material occurs).  Since I prefer their Arabian setting, I’d move him back to that particular desert land—what if he’d somehow degenerated a tribe of Pahmet dwarves into worshipping him.  I like the idea of some fiendish dwarves tending to their creepy master’s worldly needs while he continues meditating forever.  I like the Irorian-gone-made motif already and this would just move things a little further along on that spectrum.  Obviously, he’s not with his original monastery—he’s gone out and found new rubes acolytes.
·      Other things line up nicely for moving this to the Arabian setting.  Rudra’s worshipped by people afraid that he will wake up one of the children of the destruction god.  This would be an interesting encounter in the Legacy of Fire AP to stick in as a mini-adventure between books 5 and 6 (except for the haste between those books issue).  Perhaps the PCs can learn more about their final enemy and the monsters that slumber beneath the ground by engaging with this mysterious devourer.
·      I’m also a big fan of this setting because you could pull out some of the pre-done templates from the Monster Codex for gnolls!  Unlike Tom the Dragonborn, I love gnolls!  Good MC encounters include:
o   Night terrors (CR 10) but changed to worshippers of the destruction god or
o   The Warden & the Witch (CR 14)
·      This entry also relies pretty heavily on three NPCs from the NPC Codex.  Their backgrounds also make sense here:
o   The barbarian stalks the PCs because she’s trying to use the gate Rudra’s dealing with to bring her tribe back from the Shadow Plane.
o   The nature-focused one could interfere (or not) if the PCs respect the desert or attack them for defiling a holy place if they don’t.
o   The magic user believes she can ultimately control Rudra through her spells, but she’ll be wrong.  Imagine how poorly that will go for her…She wants to use him and the creatures on the other side of the gate to create an army of shadow undead led by him to attack the town that’s the PCs home base in Legacy of Fire because she perceives there being some slight given her by the NPCs the PCs have befriended and helped found the town with.

Seldeg Bhedlis
·      Not going to lie, when I read this guy’s name it sounds like something I’d come up with and be unhappy with as an inauthentic NPC name.  It’s going to have to be changed.
·      But, from a plot standpoint, this guy is the most obvious penultimate opponent in a campaign to collect the artifacts created when an angelic herald was corrupted into a lich queen.
o   Side note: You’d been considering this as a traditional quest to fix her, but what about an evil campaign where the PCs are looking for these items themselves!
·      This guy has spies everywhere—with the knights watching the sealed away necromancer lich’s tomb far to the north, in his master’s rival’s magical kingdom in the north, and in other plot-appropriate places.
·      He could be a fantastic recurring opponent (or opponent hiding in the shadows behind the story).  Maybe he gets to some of the minor artifacts before the PCs do or maybe (in the last case) just as they do.  PCs would start the campaign by coming across one of her former organs by accident or finding a clue to one of their locations.  News about something like that spreads fast though and the PCs will be targeted by all sorts of both good and evil organizations.
·      If find clues to one of minor artificact’s locations, it was placed there by a pair of a knight of the order for guarding away the evil necromancer/lich’s prison tomb up north and a wizard from the same order.  The wizard teleported to the minor artifact’s hiding spot, hid it, and then returned.  Then, per their agreement, the knight/paladin slays the wizard on consecrated ground without ever finding out where the artifact was hidden away.  Unfortunately, the paladin’s act did turn out to be evil (though effective)—he died far away from where he and the wizard sent the stone off, but he can direct the PCs to a location where they can learn the proper ritual to trace the wizard’s teleportation spell and then find the artifact.
·      I don’t really love the location in this entry.  It kind of makes sense, but also kind of doesn’t.  I think I’d prefer that the inn/spy house remain intact but with transport (tunnel or magical) to Bhedlis’ real headquarters.  An inn where a graveknight hangs out is pretty obviously more than just an inn.  Plus, someone of Bhedlis’ social stature in the undead-dominated kingdom should have some sort of estate.  It’s just as important that he maintain appearances as a secret spymaster as it is that his spies do so.

·      I’ve always thought that Walkena the child god mummy was a fascinating concept.  I love that his cathedral in his inland jungle town has been laid out.  Walkena would be a fantastic feature to add into any campaign exploring this area, especially a Serpent’s Skull campaign.
·      Feat: Mark of the Devoted: this is a neat concept, but somewhat overpowered and therefore best reserved for NPCs (why must they get the best toys?).  This could, however, be an interesting choice for a PC that had been part of Walkena’s organization and has since “seen the light.”
·      Between the entry here and the one in Heart of the Jungle for the child-mummy god’s city, there’s enough information to create a truly fascinating city.  It’s a shame that Pathfinder hasn’t been able to develop really functioning army rules (no knock to the ones developed in Rasputin Must Die or used in Ultimate Campaign, I just happen to agree with James Jacobs that anything ultimately adopted ought to be able to make the PCs more central to the action), because playing out the war between the child god’s forces rising from his city and going after the nearby city of the colonials would be epic!

Wight Mother of Isger
·      I love that this has a devil cleric that the PCs could actually be friends with and would set up the PCs to come here.  I don’t find the undead goddess or the country that they’ve used here particularly interesting (though I do think that the Daughter or Urgathoa is a fantastically cool monster that’s so obvious and fun to use in any campaign where there are lots of undead themes.  I’m also excited that the Daughter of Urgathoa is being included in the upcoming Dungeons Deep set).  The Wight Mother could be interesting in a political campaign, but there’s not a lot of politicking to be done in this part of Golarion.
·      The country here just isn’t that close to any of the important places, so who cares if the Wight Mother’s plans come to fruition?  You’d have to really get the PCs attached to this backwater to make them care about saving it.
·      New disease – Red drip: This one is fungal and finally is one with a decently high DC!

Meyi Pahano
·      I saved this one till last because Meyi has been interesting to me ever since we were first introduced to her interstellar undeath project back in Lost Kingdoms.  I like her as an NPC, but there’s some story work to be done her.  She’s described as having incredible persuasive powers, but somehow when it really mattered she wasn’t able to convince everyone that what she was pushing for was really important.
·      Major spoiler about the massive hurricane in the setting revealed in how she got her powers too.
·      This entry and the corresponding one in Lost Kingdoms inspired this entire return to the rainy country as expats campaign.  I pictured those who left this land as being like the Jews—with a highly developed sense of being a people set apart who would form diaspora enclaves in the cities to which they fled.  The PCs could end up being descendants of hers—how crazy when an aunt or uncle who returned to the rainy country writes back asking for some help from his or her adventurous younger family members in tracking down a still living family member who’s the last known surviving member of the prophetic brotherhood (Pharisee/Sadducee connection, much?) that used to run the country.  How horrifying when the PCs learn what their ancestor is up to!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Beautiful Ones - Fun campaign world idea, mirror of modern society, or both?

Turns out some freaky things happen when you build a mouse paradise experiment.  When I started reading it, it was inspiration for a campaign world.  By the end, it sounded a little more like our world.  Thoughts?

Pathfinder Campaign Setting Review: Undead Unleashed

Undead Unleashed is my first review of anything from Paizo's Campaign Setting line. This was the product line that really opened Golarion up to me conceptually. My first issue was Mythic Realms. Because the items in the Campaign Setting line straddle some of the thorniest issues in copyright law, I'm going to try and be clear about separating the specific names used and expressions of the ideas in the book (which Paizo owns) from the ideas themselves (which cannot be owned by anyone).

Undead Unleashed presents fifteen entries each detailing one or more unique undead in Golarion. The book begins with a two-page spread giving an overview of each entry.  The book has a good spread of challenges and different levels. The weakest is a CR 3 ghastly in an urban environment.  The second most challenging is a CR 22 banshee with class levels running a twisted reflection of her former pleasure barge that floats on a lake in the middle of a demon-overrun wasteland. Topping the list is the CR 23 Lord of Mohrgs.  At least one of these baddies also has some mythic tiers to really challenge the party.

Then come the fifteen four-page spreads for each entry. The first two pages of each entry are devoted to background and a stat block for each entry. The next two pages contain a small map and encounter entries for the specific undead creature's lair. Each of them also includes a haunt.  If you're a GM running adventures for PCs that don't necessarily love labyrinthine dungeons, the shorter entries will be perfect for you. The table of contents and the open game license round out the 64 pages. There's also a nice map of the Inner Sea region that shows where each of the baddies make their lair.

The entries, in order of CR, are:
·      Merik the Drowned, the ghast of a former serial killer hiding in the sewers beneath a large metropolis. (CR 3)
·      Mother Comfort, who ran an abusive orphanage in a war-torn land, and Poor Eledia, the attic whisperer whose initial death from neglect motivated the attic whisperer to torment Mother into the suicide that made her an allip. (CRs 3 and 4)
·      Razinia, a greedy jann whose final betrayal in life transformed her into an unholy reflection of her living self. Now she maintains a cover identity in the oasis in which she's cursed to remain for eternity. (CR 7)
·      Ordelia Whilwren, the ghost of one of the founders of a relatively young city in a half-tamed land filled with giant monuments from a long-vanished magical civilization (CR 10)
·      Prince Kasiya, a vampire plotting revenge on a long lived rival from his tomb in a pyramid-strewn desert kingdom. (CR 12)
·      Mehi Pahano, an accomplished diviner from a now flooded land who toils in unlife to bring about a magical connection between this world and an entire planet overrun with undead. (CR 13)
·      Arnlaugr, a drowned former hero from northern lands who now protects the very monster he'd set out to slay in life. (CR 14)
·      Rudrakavala, this devoured poses as the avatar of an apocalypse deity as he attempts to bring creatures from the borders of the Planes of Shadow and Negative Energy onto this world. (CR 15)
·      Walkena, the mummified avatar of a risen child god works to drive all foreigners first from his city and then from his homeland entirely. (CR 16)
·      Jolanera, a sinister nightwing who watches over the tomb of her former master, the Lich King, with plans to either ally with him or to overthrow him. (CR 17)
·      Seldig Bhedlis, a graveknight spymaster working a network to retrieve his mistress' internal organs from those who would return her to life and purity. (CR 18)
·      Wight Mother of Isger, a former priestess of the goddess of undeath whose life ended when she flung herself into a mob of ravaging undead. As a daughter of the goddess of undeath she's training her army of unliving minions to take over a portion of the country. (CR 19)
·      Arantaros, a blue dragon turned ravener performing twisted alchemy experiments to return itself to life and then eternal youth in a cave above the mountains of a desert land of city states. (CR 20)
·      Imaloka, who ran a pleasure barge in life that was cursed before a demon invasion of the land. (CR 22)
·      Erum-Hel, the lord of the Mohrgs, who plots revenge on a goddess of justice, purity, and valor. (CR 23)

In general I really like these entries. The ones at lower CRs make excellent big bads for early adventures. The higher CR monsters could also make excellent villains for the end of campaigns. Even better, some of the (Razinia especially) can be so much more than just a combat encounter. All of these entries have well-developed backstories, personalities, and motivations. They have been well-grounded into the lore of Paizo's world, Golarion, but could easily be adapted to a homebrew or another published setting with minimal work.

I give this 4.5 stars.

EDIT: I've added more in-depth notes about my thoughts and campaign/adventure ideas about how to use Undead Unleashed in a subsequent post.