Wednesday, August 31, 2011

More swashbuckling! (2 Archetypes)

I started this month with a new Archetype and a new Class, both based on the famous Swashbuckler concept. I thought about be ending the month then with more light-armored warriors for Pathfinder. This time, I sought a more traditional approach – 2 new Archetypes that rely on agility instead of armor; one for the Fighter, the other for the Rogue (I know that there’s already a Swashbuckler archetype for him, but I find it terrible).

Swashbuckler (Fighter Archetype)

New Skills: Acrobatics, Appraise, Bluff, Diplomacy, Knowledge (Local). Lose Knowledge (Engineering).
Skill Points per Level: 4 + Int.

Good Fortitude and Reflex saves. Lose Armor Training 3 and Armor Mastery.

Weapon and Armor Proficiency: Light Armors, Light Shields and Buckler. Simple Weapons, Light and One-Handed Martial Weapons, Whips and Shortbows.

Finesse Style (Ex): At 1st level, a Swashbuckler gains the benefits of the Weapon Finesse feat when attacking with a light blade weapon or a whip. If fighting defensively with these weapons he only suffers a –2 penalty. This ability replaces the Fighter’s 1st bonus feat.

Nimble (Ex): At 2nd level, a Swashbuckler gains a +1 dodge bonus to AC while wearing light or no armor. Anything that causes the Swashbuckler to lose her Dexterity bonus to AC also causes him to lose this dodge bonus. This bonus increases by +1 for every four levels beyond 2nd level.
This ability replaces Bravery.

Parry (Ex): At 3rd level, when a Swashbuckler makes a full attack with a light blade weapon or whip, he gains a +1 bonus to AC against melee attacks until the beginning of his next turn. This bonus increases by +1 every four levels after 3rd.
This ability replaces Armor Training 1 and 4.

Fencing (Ex): At 4th level, when a Swashbuckler makes a full attack with a light blade weapon or whip, he can add his Dexterity bonus to his damage rolls.
This ability replaces Weapon Training 1 and 4.

Light Armor Mastery (Ex): At 7th level a Swashbuckler learns to be more maneuverable while wearing light armor. Whenever he is wearing armor, he reduces the armor check penalty by 2 (to a minimum of 0) and increases the maximum Dexterity bonus allowed by his armor by 2. At 11th level, these bonuses increase –4 reduction of the armor check penalty and a +4 increase of the maximum Dexterity bonus allowed.
This ability replaces Armor Training 2.

Uncanny Dodge (Ex): At 6th level a Swashbuckler gains Uncanny Dodge. This replaces the 6th level’s Bonus Feat. At 9th level a Swashbuckler gains Improved Uncanny Dodge. This replaces Weapon Training 2.

Repartee (Ex): At 13th level a Swashbuckler using a light blade weapon or whip can make an attack of opportunity as an immediate action against an opponent whiting reach who failed to hit him.
This ability replaces Weapon Training 3.

Weapon Stride (Ex): At 20th level, a Swashbuckler can make a full attack as a standard action while wearing light or no armor.
This ability replaces Weapon Mastery.

Fencer (Rogue Archetype)

Skill Points per Level: 6 + Int.

Armor and Weapon Proficiency: Add Whips, Light Shields and Bucklers.

Fencing Style (Ex): At 1st level, a Fencer gains Weapon Finesse and Defensive Combat Training. These feats only work if the Fencer is wearing light armor or no armor.
This ability replaces Trapfinding.

Nimble (Ex): At 3rd level, a Fencer gains a +1 dodge bonus to AC while wearing light or no armor. Anything that causes the Fencer to lose her Dexterity bonus to AC also causes him to lose this dodge bonus. This bonus increases by +1 for every four levels beyond 2nd level (to a maximum of +5 at 20th level).
This ability replaces Trap Sense.

Flashing Blade (Ex): When a Fencer makes a full attack with a weapon eligible for the Weapon Finesse feat he gains a +1 bonus to all his attack rolls. This bonus increases by +2 at 5th level, +3 at 9th, +4 at 13th and +5 at 17th.
This ability replaces the rogue talents of the 6th, 12th and 20th level.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The HC SVNT DRACONES Rule and the Iridian Fold’s Mystery

(That's "Hic sunt dracones") 

I’m crazy about imaginary worlds. The idea of weird vistas, impossible realms, forgotten kingdoms and mythic vastness… all of those things have an amazing pull with me. I can’t fathom the reason. Maybe Jung was right, or Campbell. Maybe it’s just the idea that there are always new fantastic places to explore and discover. Most important, that these things aren’t set in stone (or reality). That’s why I love fantasy/science fiction, and that’s why I’m a total sucker for new campaign settings and novels. I still can remember the first time I opened a Forgotten Realms’ book, or the Planescape or Birthright box. It’s hard to express this, so allow me to quote from a master:

"The nostalgia of things unknown, of lands forgotten or unfound, is upon me at times. Often I long for the gleam of yellow suns upon terraces of translucent azure marble, mocking the windless waters of lakes unfathomably calm; for lost, legendary palaces of serpentine, silver and ebony, whose columns are green stalactites; for the pillars of fallen temples, standing in the vast purpureal sunset of a land of lost and marvellous romance. I sigh for the dark-green depths of cedar forests, through whose fantastically woven boughs, one sees at intervals an unknown tropic ocean, like gleams of blue diamond; for isles of palm and coral, that fret an amber morning, somewhere beyond Cathay or Taprobane; for the strange and hidden cities of the desert, with burning brazen domes and slender pinnacles of gold and copper, that pierce a heaven of heated lazuli.
 -- CAS, Nostalgia of the Unknown

THAT’s what I’m talking about.

Well, the funny thing is that, although I really do love imaginary worlds, I never created one for my games. Oh, I tried, once or twice (which Gamemaster hasn’t?). However, I always stopped in the middle of the process, looking to my notes and thinking: Why am I doing this? Setting X or Y already does that a lot better. In the end, it was always easier for me take a literary/cinematographic/RPG setting and adapt it to my needs.

As a young Gamemaster I always made a point of diligently memorizing all the important and relevant aspect of any setting I used in games. I was proud of it. Damnit, I can still remember the entire geography and political disposition of the Sword Coast’s nations (…now, ask me if I can remember what I studied last week?). I also loudly proclaimed to my players at the time that everything which we’re playing was 100% official with the material within the books. It was my “seal of approval”, as if by following the canon I instantly made my games better.

I don’t know if it is because I got older, but my GM approach changed a lot… on some aspects at least. (I initially blamed it on “getting older and stuff”, but then I noted that my players and local fellow gamers didn’t change much on this regard. They are still obsessed with canon and have a hard time ignoring it.)

Today, I couldn’t care less about cannon material. In fact, I’m very loose with it and one of the things I enjoy the most these days is taking the cannon and changing it to see what happes. For example: the Star Wars Universe; I totally ignore the prequels. I take what I like from those movies (and assorted EU material) and put together what I feel is my childhood’s Star Wars. When I’m running a Star Wars game that’s the first thing that I warn to my players: Forget the cannon!

I started doing this with my Legend of the Five Rings games, some 6-7 years ago and never stopped. After one or two shocks from my players, they began trusting me and, later, became thrilled with the idea their actions were – I’m mean, they really were! – taking Rokugan into totally new directions (including killing one famous NPC or two).

The curious bit is that getting older didn’t motivate me to finally create a "house setting" for my games. Quite contrary, I never enjoyed more using official material. I feel that now I’m more aware about why each world was built or written in a particular way; that I have a better idea about what to do with them. So, in the end, getting older greatly increased my desire in changing/blending/toying with imaginary worlds.  And I guess I finally figured out why! It’s all about that old medieval expression, found on maps:

Hic Sunt Dracones

Here be dragons. That’s why I still like to buy and read new campaign settings. I like to see what there is at the map’s borders; beyond the next forest, mountain range or exotic nation. This notion that “there’s more out there” is irresistible for me.

However, when I’m running games, I like to approach and maintain this feeling in a different way. I hate settings whose maps’ doesn’t have “dragons”. I get bored with closed worlds, with things that are inflexiblely detailed, unchangeable, without mysteries to uncover and misty frontiers do explore (literally and figuratively).

So, when I’m GMing, I use a special House Rule (actually, I was already using it for quite some time, I’m just now consolidating it): The Hic Sunt Dracones Rule. I always change something on every setting, every time I run a game on it. Don’t trust your book or the f***ing cannon. And I usually won’t say what I changed. (However, I’m also fair with my players, if I altered some vital or common aspect of the world, I’ll always inform them and ask what they feel about it.)

Ok, all this rambling is just to quote the dolorous obvious: all GMs change their campaign settings to suit it to their tastes. In this regard, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t something obvious to me. Anyway, I enjoy seeing the tension and curiosity in my game group when I mention this rule. In a way, it reminds me of my first time as a Gamemaster, when my players didn’t knew every monster in the rulebook nor land in a campaign setting.

And what is the Iridian Fold?

The Iridian Fold is your classical far exotic/weird land, with odd customs. Its part of the Golarion campaign setting and it has – so far – been mentioned in the excellent fiction of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path and the City of Strangers sourcebook. In both sources, they never were fully explain where/what is the Iridian Fold. Always, the authors only mention the strange natives of the far legendary realm – which are awesome by the way.

In other words: the Iridian Fold is in my mind Golarion’s way of saying - Hic Sunt Dracones.

Golarion is still a very young campaign setting. I remember reading Burnt Offerings and the Rise of the Runelords Player’s Guide for the first time and preparing myself for yet another entire new fantasy world. As much as I want to see every corner of Golarion detailed, I also want that the authors manage (somehow) to keep its mysterious/fantastic feel.

I know. It’s a complete paradox. What can I say? I like both interesting details and “open-endness".

At least, speaking strictly of Golarion, I have a precise mark to watch – the Iridian Fold. The day they decide to detail it will probably be the day I’m gonna start disregarding Golarion’s borders in my games.

P.S.: This subject here doesn’t have any relation with the post above, but I must mention that I was impressed by the number of hits on my last Little Encounter entry – the Undying Terror. I'm also completely at loss about why does it made such big success! What could it be…

All hail the Demonic Arm!
(ok, technically the picture above is a hand, but you got the idea)

I’ll probably just give up at understanding this and call it the “Army of Darkness Effect”. Anyway, if you had any suggestions and ideas for future Little Encounters, please let me know. Given that I always considered the athach a ridiculous monster, I decided to pick another ridiculous monster for my next entry. Just wait a little.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sword & Sorcery Golarion - "Reskinning" Core Races (Part I)

"Reskinning" monsters is definitely fun, so I’m gonna try to do the same thing with the Pathfinder Core Races. There’s also a second reason: I just can’t forget the mention of Golarion’s Sword & Sorcery ancestry as a human setting. In this alternate version all character races for Golarion would be limited to different human cultures (Varisians, Ulfens, Chelaxians, Taldorans, Kelishites etc). It’s very faithful to the pulp roots of the genre and, while it may sound too radical to your traditional D&D, it presents an interesting “What If?” (or just a good alternate Material Plane to visit – for Gamemasters that use a more loose cosmology).

The idea then is to take each Core Race and remake it either as a human culture or a pulp half-human (or elder human) race. I’ll seek to keep mechanic traits intact (eventual alterations will be noted). In fact, most of the time my “reskinning” will be motivated by the race’s mechanical aspects. Please, note that the ideas below are my take on Sword & Sorcery – the genre is vast and it’s only natural that each Gamemaster has his own ideas about it (that’s part of the fun, after all).

These half-humans or subhuman cultures should be incredibly rare in most Sword & Sorcery Golarion campaigns.

Let’s do it:

(reskinned Elves)

These tall, gaunt and pale subhumans have bone-white hair and violet eyes. Long-lived, cold and erudite, Vrilians are great arcane masters, responsible for creating the tradition of the magus.

They’re an artificial race, created by the arcanists-kings of Sunken Azlantto act as servants (a fact that still enrages the proud Vrilians). With the destruction of their masters, a few Vrilians escaped to Avistan, founding a cruel and decadent kingdom at the northeast by subjugating the local Kellid barbarians of Sarkoris.

The Vrilians were renowned for binding and using demons as shock troops. Having fled from Azlant with the orbs of dragonkind, the Vrilian Lords used dragons as mounts. In the end such practices spelled their doom when the Worldwound was created.

Today, Vrilians are true exiles, a legacy from a former age, dying slowly and embittered. A few of the Eldritch Folk (as they’re also called) took residence within the old nations of the south, like Cheliax, Taldor or even distant Qadira.

Vrilians are arrogant, distant and melancholic, possessing a strange and dark humor. Their long lives make it hard for them to truly sympathize with other “lesser races” (their way of seeing most humans). Wandering Vrilians are usually adventurers and are known for their carefree and even reckless ways.

Vrilians elders guard a deep secret (and another reason for being hated). They know that some Vrilians escaped to the Darklands during Azlant’s Fall. Most degenerated and became Dark Folk (the same way that some humans became Morlocks). However, among the refuges was a yet rarer (and higher) servant caste of winged Vrilians – used as intellectual courtesans by the Azlants. Most winged Vrilians were killed by their own earthbound brothers during the Fall. The survivors that fled to the Darklands managed to prosper (some whisper that only thanks to demonic influence or even a pact with Rovagug), creating a cruel and beautiful empire, a dark shade of Fallen Azlant. Calling themselves Urvrils or “True Vrilians”, these winged bone-white demons are now returning to the surface to slave mankind and kill the remaining Vrilians.

Commentaries: Imagine if a Melnibonean and a Valyrian had a very nasty baby. That’s a Vrilian. Mechanically speaking, use the Elven racial traits (except the Elf subtype). The Urvrils are the new “drow”, and their mechanics are left to the Gamemaster (you can simply use the drow mechanics and add wings).
Elves now are just another denizen from the mysterious and insane First World. These Fey Lords are probably one of the most dangerous and heartless creatures from that realm that, for reasons unknown, come back to Golarion following strange time cycles – their ghost forest cities suddenly coming back to life with unearthly music and deadly vices. In game terms you could use Agathions and Azatas as a base creature, but removing any good spells and abilities, and giving them powers associated with illusion, chaos, madness and savage animals. Elves would be Chaotic Neutral feys in Sword & Sorcery Golarion and I suggest using them like the Fair Folk from Exalted or the Gentry from Changeling the Lost – alien beings with strange hungers and vices, guided by insane and unfathomable agendas.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Worldbuilding - Getting Lost with Magic

Ok, this is a bit crazy but the results may prove interesting. I thought it just this afternoon.

Many people claim that Pathfinder’s magic system is the antithesis of the arcane and the occult. They also argue that it isn’t suited to scenarios laden with intrigue and mystery. Today I don’t believe that that is necessarily true. What it’s true I guess is that Pathfinder (and D&D) magic system is its own beast, with its idiosyncrasies and peculiar traits. It does not attempt to emulate any genre, but it’s a genre of fantasy itself. Using Pathfinder to run a traditional novel/myth without paying attention to some of its most basic or iconic spells and powers will inevitable result in an anti-climax.

So, in the end, this just another article about how to make magic a little bit more “magical” or unfathomable. More mysterious or even “mythic” if you prefer. In other words, this is about removing the “mechanical/objective” approach to the supernatural.

How to do it?

Well, remove Divination.

Yeah, just that.

Ok, let me elaborate more: remove all spells, powers, spell-like abilities and supernatural powers from player characters from the Divination magic school. In fact, remove any ability that allows a player character to automatically discover if a target is magical, evil, good, elf, orc, vegetarian, Republican etc.

If a character has a power that deals with Divination, like the (in)famous paladin’s detect evil, give him a bonus feat instead.

Oh, and by “remove all Divinations”, I also mean detect magic and similar abilities.

Do your players want to know if a particular item is magical? Try Knowledge (Arcana) or a Sage. Want to know if the king’s bailiff is evil? That’s Sense Motive, Knowledge (Local), Diplomacy (for a gather information check) or talk with a lot of NPCs. Finally, but most important: want to divine if a particular course of action or event? Find a damn diviner NPC!
I believe that the secondary options quoted above are very interesting in terms of adventure hooks and roleplaying opportunities – besides mood and atmosphere. Maybe you can keep magic items like crystal orbs, but make them rare and give them strange proprieties. Another idea is that things like detect evil or detect magic may belong to artifact-level or deity-level powers.

One curious aspect of this approach is that it lets you keep alignments and effects based on it.

It’s obvious that some situations will require Gamemaster’s ad hoc adjustments. This approach also requires more work on the part of the Gamemaster I also don’t recommend using this with a dungeon-crawl/wilderness exploration/Adventure Path game. However, if you want a game where magic is an indefinable measure (like a traditional Sword & Sorcery, Dark Fantasy, Low Magic or even a pseudo-historical adventure), try this approach and see the results. I’ll surely try it as soon as I find some time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Augury - Ultimate Combat (Pathfinder)

Let’s start with the new base classes. The Gunslinger is already my favorite new toy – a cool class, with a nice pool points mechanic (Deeds), full BAB, AC bonus for light or no armor… and firearms. I’m nuts for firearms in D&D since forever (no, I don’t know the reason, especially given that in real life I’m scared of guns). The Ninja is nothing new (especially if you knew the Complete Adventurer’s version) – it gets all you expect from the classic concept. In terms of rules, the class is a rogue that uses a slightly altered ki pool mechanic from the monk. The last class is the Samurai, a remake of the cavalier with a great thematic ability called Resolve – which allows the character to ignore a range of conditions, varying by level.

Next we have new stuff for classes… tons and tons of it, so I’m gonna quote only a few. The beastmorph is an alchemist archetype where mutagen gives you bestial shapes. The armored hulk and the titan mauler are both very fun archetypes for the barbarian. For the bard, there’s the “Indiana Jones archetype” (the archaeologist) and the dervish dancer (a martial-version of the class). The cavalier finally has an exotic mount option (beast rider) and even an odd musketeer archetype (shouldn’t the gunslinger get this?). The cleric gains a bunch of traditional archetypes (crusader, evangelist etc), while the druid gets new animal shaman archetypes. For the fighter we have classic themes, but with unusual mechanics (the brawler and the unarmed fighter seem strange at a first, but after I built a character with them I was impressed). Other good archetypes are the tactician and the unbreakable. For the inquisitor, there’s a witch hunter archetype. The anti-paladin gets a death knight-variant (the knight of the sepulcher). The ranger gets a cool underground archetype. Rogues get knife master, pirate and other classic themes.

Together with firearms, Oriental themes are a common presence in Ultimate Combat. We have the aforementioned musketeer (cavalier), holy gun (paladin), sensei (monk), kensai (magus), sohei (monk) and spellslinger (wizard) – just to quote some.

Unlike the APG, Ultimate Combat has archetypes for the new classes (ex: the kensai for the magus). It also has new discoveries, rage powers, cavalier orders, inquisitions, arcanas, rogue talents etc. There’s literally a lot to digest here.

The next part is feats, including Grit feats (for the gunslinger’s Deeds), Performance feats (for theatric combats in arenas), Style feats (more about these later). By now, Pathfinder has already covered a lot of common ground, so we begin to get odd, specific or just unexpected feats.

Assassins will be happy with Adder Strike and Betrayer. Druids will love Planar Wild Shape. Some feats introduce new resource mechanics, like BolsteredResilience (double your DR at the cost of becoming fatigued) or Fortified Armor Training (which seems like a variant of the Shields Shall Be Splintered! rule). Finally, we have the comeback of an old favorite of mine – Cleaving Finish! (another one would be Close-Quarter Thrower).

Now – Style feats. These are Pathfinder’s official answer to martial arts styles and I’m relieved by the fact that they doesn’t follow the horrible system from the 3rd Edition Oriental Adventures.

Each martial art is a chain of feats, beginning with a Style feat. To activate a Style feat you must spend a swift action. Only after that you can use the feats of a particular style. Simple and yet tactically interesting. For example, Crane Style let you fight defensively with just a –2 penalty, while Boar Style let you change the type of your unarmed damage, besides granting a bleeding attack (once per round) if you hit a foe twice.

Again, there’s a lot to see here. In general, they’re all great stuff. A minor nitpick of my is just the nomenclature… some are awful (Haunted Gnome Assault?) and draw closer to the terrible names commonly employed in D&D 4th Edition’s powers and monsters.

Next topic is equipment, including rules for weapons of different materials and times. Ultimate Combat covers a lot of ground here, with eastern, gladiatorial and primitive weapon and armor lists (and firearms; unfortunately, no radium pistols or high-tech stuff). The rules are simple, followed by nice suggestions (like using iron against fey in a Bronze Age setting).

We also have new subsystems. The first is Duel, a great set of rules that (finally!) manages to include counterspell, dodge and parry options that make sense. Excellent for dramatic final battles. Next is Performance Combat – basically a lot of rules to influence the crowd in an arena. While the system is solid, I found that, in the end, it’s too much detail for small benefits (maybe more victory points options would fix it).

Ultimate Combat covers siege engine and structural damage (how I missed those), and devotes an entire chapter to vehicles. Nothing really new here but the updated rules and stats are definitely useful.

Now to the fiddly bits: Variant Rules. The first is a classic: Armor as Damage Reduction. And – again – we get a bad system, where the DR granted does not compensate for the reduced AC (at least the folks at Paizo give DR proportioned to a character level). I still believe that rules like these should be followed by parry/dodge/defense options (like Conan d20). Maybe something can be extrapolated from the Duel subsystem. Next variant is Called Shots. There is lot of new effects (for each body part) and the rules seem good, presenting a plethora of tactical options. Piecemeal armor is for Military History (and GURPS) fans – I admit that it didn’t have the patience to read it. The variant rule is your classical Wound/Vigor system – I actually quite a bit of these rules. They aren’t new, but present a clear and more logical system for abstract Hit Point and true injuries. I’m greatly tempted to use this system in my next Pathfinder game.

Ultimate Combat has also a chapter devoted to spells, so I’ll resort again to my friend (and player) Leoz, for a sample selection of interesting dweomers: Ablative Barrier is a good defense option; Abundant Ammunition is cool but a potential source of abuse; Arcane Cannon is awesome (it reminds of a Torment spell), so is Deadly Juggernaut and Siege of Trees; Healing Thief is the type of asshole spell that every player wants; Mirror Strike has a short weird description. Communal and Litany spells are all awesome (and very powerful).

Ultimate Combat has Paizo’s by now widely know standards in regard to layout and art quality. It’s a beautiful and sturdy hardcover with 253 pages. While I thought that I already had enough of rules for my Pathfinder, the sheer volume of useful stuff cramped inside this book made me reconsider. I totally recommended it! I also find Ultimate Combat obligatory if you’re planning on running Dragon Empires products.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Little Encounters - The Undying Terror (Athach)

Ok, I’m skipping the alphabetical order of the Pathfinder Bestiary 2 for this encounter (but just a little…. hey, I’m still on “A”). This entry is also more a mini-adventure than a short encounter (sorry), but I hope you like the idea. It originated from me using a goofy monster and playing with Pathfinder templates. Actually, I must do a little research to discover where in the Abyss did this critter came… the original Fiend Folio? It definitely fits it.

Before continuing I just would like again to thanks those responsible for keeping the Pathfinder SRD - you guys rocks!

The Undying Terror (CR 6-13)

The hook: The towns and villages located in a otherwise placid region of hills and greenish meadows are suffering at the hands of a giant monster – apparently some kind of deformed ogre or hill giant – whose depredations recently included throwing living cattle over the local temple (during a ceremony with half of the villagers inside of it). The incident resulted in panic and in the death of the most powerful cleric of the region – crushed by a cow.

A famous monster-slayer had been hired and even returned from the wilderness with an ogre head, claiming to have killed the beast. He collected the reward before the assaults started. The high priest responsible for hiring the ranger cursed him “for his deceit”. The exact nature of the curse is unknown, especially now that the high priest responsible for it is dead (he was the one hit by the flying bovine).

The villagers and herders call the monster the Undying Terror, claiming to be the ghost of an ancient hill giant, killed by the first explorers of the region – some forgotten king.

What’s happening: Actually the monster is an athach, but with a catch: its third arm is covered in red scales and appears to be of demonic origin – it’s in fact the arm of a Balor vanquished long ago in an underground ruins below the region.

In ages past this area could have been the center of a demonic cult, the site of a massive battle or any other event the Gamemaster wants. This particular Balor was defeated but not totally destroyed – somehow its Arm survived (perhaps due to the chaotic nature of the creature). Recently a clan of hill giants uncovered one of the ruin’s entrances and found the living Arm crawling around. The thing literally attached itself to one of the poor giants and instantly dominated it, transforming it in an athach.

If killed by the heroes, sometime later the Arm crawls away from the corpse and finds a new victim within 2d10+1 days. To simulate the fact that the Arm is usually attached to an ogre or hill giant, add the Young Creature template to the normal athach stats.

After “coming back from the dead”, the new athach starts immediately to stalk its slayers. Once it finds the player characters, it first attempts to provoke and annoy them – by throwing dung and carcasses at the heroes while they sleep at night (possible disturbing spellcasters and spoiling food).

The athach always takes advantage of the local terrain, hiding behind hills and groves (to accomplish this remove the Vital Strike feat and give it Skill Focus with Stealth, also change skill points to increase its Stealth bonus).

If persecuted the athach uses it’s higher speed to escape and quickly climb local cliffs to hide in caves – it knows very well the region.

Later, the “pranks” start getting really sinister in context. One day, it can reveal itself over a cliff and start throwing rocks at the party – with living humans (or other allied race) tied to it. It can try, one night, to run over the camp and grab a member of the group (using its Swift Claw ability). It keeps running while removing the clothes of the trapped victim. If not rescued, the kidnapped character will probably be tied to a rock the next day. The monster isn’t intelligent, but it’s definitely cunning.

Remember that every time the athach “returns from the dead” it comes back a little differently.  At first, change little details, like hair and eye color. Later, maybe, the demonic Arm attaches itself to a medium humanoid – the victim can be a curious player characters (to simulate this apply the Young Creature template twice***).

The Arm could also claim an ogre shaman, a creature able to channel the balor’s abyssal powers (add the Fiendish or Half-Fiend template).

You can customize this yet further: what happens if the Arm “captures” a troll? I would give to the normal troll a new natural attack with the Arm and the athach’s Swift Claw ability (or if you’re feeling particularly evil, just the give the athach Regeneration 3 and green skin and let the players wondering).

You can keep this game for as long as you want. If the players finally note that the problem is the Arm itself I suggest establishing that it can’t be destroyed without the help of an epic magic item (it was, after all, the arm of a unique Balor!). Let you group think how can they dispose of the blasted demonic Arm (and I recommend that the Arm try to possess one of the party’s warriors). To remove the Arm without killing the host is left for the Gamemaster’s sadistic tastes: maybe remove curse and a special dismissal (with proper research about the Balor) can help. Another option (for the merciful referee) is that the dead high priest’s ghost can assist the party. Finally, remember that there’s a cursed ranger wandering out there that may be of help (if the group manages to remove his curse first).

***Yeah, this isn’t a normal use for a template but it appears to work here… so what?

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Chronicles of the Seventh Moon, Session 6

Day 1, Solar Month, 757 years since the Fall of the Gods, beginning of summer

Baer’s Tower army was surrounded by a Goblinoid Horde at least five times bigger. Arrows started to rain, while a hidden beast threw boulders over the troops, which were quickly divided in three defensive clusters. Each boulder launched was marked by the falling of red lightning.

The Road Marshal’s men and the Ashkatani amazons were separated from Baer’s Sentinels by one of the boulders. At the rear, another boulder blocked the path of the dwarven mercs from the Erased Rune.

Between both those groups, together with the Sentinels, were the Circle of El’dar and the Hammers of the Dawn. Hilguen, Drícia, Nogard and Garet quickly rallied the leaderless Sentinels. The gnome bard Ruudninb, the Rotund (from the Circle of El’dar), climbed a wagon and summoned the remaining soldiers around him. Heian was close to him. Finally, the thriller-seekers Knights of the Mug went to the front.

Weave after weaves of goblins and bugbears attacked, and then ogres begin to appear – one of the brutes carried a goblin warlock in an iron cage strapped to its back. The warlock seemed to be the leader and was aiming the ogre’s wrath against the Heian. The elf wizard took crowshape to escape, but the warlock went after him by shapechanging into a bat swarm. While the arcanists “bravely” flew in circles over the battlefield, the remaining Hammers and the Knights of the Mug pushed the horde back with technomagic bombs.

During these skirmishes, Garet fell unconscious to bugbear blades while trying to save a female halfling name Corbie. Heian managed to flee from the bat swarm by reaching the Eye of the West. Calling for help, he witnessed the lighthouse’s gates opening – only a lonely female warrior came out. Clad in golden full plate she charged alone the horde. Heian noted that there was something different about this warrior, but couldn’t figure out what.

The goblin warlock, having missed the fey, concentrated its assaults over the Hammers. Drícia tried to keep him way with her holy armor’s solar powers, but without success. At this moment a huge explosion shook the battlefield, and the party saw – with relief – the Erased Rune blowing the boulder that blocked their path. But the victory was short-lived, for the goblinoids abandoned all regard for sanity or order – the entire horde went berserk. While many goblins at the front died in these suicidal attacks, there were always more behind. During the chaos Corbie managed to save a comatose Garet. Many duels between champions of both armies were fought, resulting in casualties like the young half-elf warrior Jargas, leader of the Circle of El’dar. He was killed by an enormous ogre, who was later defeated by a reawakened Garet and his riding-dog Higgi.

The last boulder – separating the heroes from the army’s vanguard – was finally sundered by the mysterious golden warrior. Regrouped, the troops started their retreat to the Eye’s gates.

Heian and the goblin warlock met a second time over the sundered boulder. The wizard couldn’t damage the tattooed goblin, but succeed in blinding him inside a globe of darkness, giving Drícia enough time to summon one of Mitra’el’s firebirds. Severely wounded, the warlock took swarmshape and fled.

At the same moment, Hilguen and Nogard met with the golden warrior and were healed by her. Her name was Raniasha Midriara and she was a drakzya paladin from the far eastern nation of Khazantar. The drakzyna (plural for drakzya) were descendents of half-dragons from the golden moon of Samerash, famous for the value and honor. Seeing that many Erased Runes and Sentinels were still far behind, Hilguen summoned his Divine Spark to lift and throw one half of the shattered boulder, opening a path for his allies’ retreat.

Red lighting again shook the road and the heroes saw its source: a giant ogre with spiked armor and red skin called Gór. Hilguen sensed in him the Divine Spark – a fellow Luminar and a dangerous adversary.  Raniasha, the Hammers of the Dawn, the Red Wolves and the Avengers of the Gôteintor joined forces against the half-god ogre and his retinue.

Strange and unnatural green clouds began to gather over the battlefield – acid rain summoned by the unseen master of the Horde. The army’s wizards (including Heian) started a joined counterspell and managed to dispel the ritual before it fell over the troops.

Gór was severely wounded and forced to flee his Divine Spark. The half-giant disappeared amid red lighting, but not before killing the Red Wolves’ leader – Lysurg Chief-Father. Although both Hilguen and Nogard reached the dying barbarian, in his last breaths he asked for his daughter, Beltia Greylady. Kneeling close to her father, she started a strange vanyr ritual that culminated in Lysurg’s body being consumed by flames.

The death of Gór and the acid rain’s dispelling shattered the Horde’s will, enabling the army to reach the Eye of the West. There was only the odd fact that the goblinoids still outnumbered the humans and their allies by 5 to 1. Why the retreat?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Curse of the Crimson Throne kick ass!

Last Monday I run our 4th Pathfinder session of Curse of the Crimson Throne. This is my first time running an Adventure Path and I choose CotCT because of its nice mix of urban and horror themes, together with distinctive mechanics (the Harrow Deck and the introduction of Character Traits) and an original history. While I have criticized Character Traits in the past, I’m actually a great fan of this rule when used for its original purpose: link new characters to the campaign’s local scenario or NPCs. And CotCT does this magnanimously.

For those that don’t known it…


….the adventure takes place in the city of Korvosa, the former colony and now pretentious capital of the frontier region of Varisia, ancient seat of the fallen Thassilonian Empire – and evil magocracy based on sin magic, whose disturbing and cyclopean monuments haunt the region (and we’re talking of really BIG ruins for the thassilonians enslaved giants).

Varisia has a superb Sword & Sorcery vibe. Korvosa itself is built over Shoanti sacred ground – the Shoanti are the local human barbarians, a nice blend of Native American and African cultures who live in a yet nicer place called the Cinderlands. The dark and gothic Castle Korvosa, seat of the local monarchy, rests atop the Great Mastaba – a giant Aztec-like pyramid or ziggurat. Cool, huh?

The city is a pit of corruption, with a territorialist  Thieves Guild (that extorts the citizens in open daylight), competitive gang bosses, competitive guards (the poor Korvosan Guard, the Sable Company hippogriff riders and the Hellknights), scheming noble houses, byzantine laws, pseudragon and imp aerial fights, otyughs, giant underground Vaults and rakshasas!… did I mention rakshasas? In a nutshell: perfect.

Adding to the mix there’s the Curse of the Crimson Throne itself. It’s whispered that Korvosa’s throne carries a curse, for no monarch to ever sit on it dies of natural causes. A good part of the Adventure Path deals with the Curse.

The whole mess starts when the king is found dead, apparently from a wasting disease. However, rumors about poison and regicide start to show up in no time. The young, beautiful and frivolous Queen Ileosa isn’t stupid and quickly produces a scapegoat – a (also young and beautiful) artist named Trinia Sabor*. The party (working for the Korvosan Guard) is summoned to retrieve Trinia before either the Queen’s men or your typical lynching mob get to her first.

My players not only managed to reach Trinia first, but when pursued by a Sable Company hippogriff rider the one playing with a female half-elf rogue exchanged places with the girl to save her. It was something totally unexpected, but awesome for all of us. Unfortunately the rogue was caught later and brought before the Queen. She already knew the player characters from a previous meeting but didn’t thought twice before ordering the rogue to be feebleminded. Next session is “Trinia’s” execution and my players are already itching for it. Together with Pathfinder Chase rules (used by us for the first time in scene where they pursued the true Trinia over Korvosa rooftops), this was probably my best game sessions this year for me.


Before ending this short post, I must recommend this excellent blend of weird monstersand strange ideas by Zak S at Playing D&D With Porn Stars. Zak’s take on D&D, mixing surreal/weird fantasy and horror is great and his Vornheim book is already famous among Old School blogs – it was nominated to the ENnies! (Speaking frankly, even if you play only Pathfinder or D&D 4th do yourself a favor and pick this little book, you’ll be surprised).

*I don’t know if the Nicolas Logue did this on purpose but many of first CotCT book’s NPCs have Portuguese surnames (or even names), which definitely sounds odd to my players. Trinia Sabor, for example, is “Trinia Taste” and Grau Soldado (a local NPC guard) is the worst case: “Rank Soldier”.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Augury - Inner Sea Magic (Pathfinder)

Inner Sea Magic is a “Pathfinder Campaign Setting Supplement” detailing the magic traditions of Golarion. This augury is based on its PDF version. Inner Sea Magic is a 68-pages product, full color and bookmarked, with Paizo’s topnotch layout and graphics.

Right at the beginning we get a short but flavorful description of famous magic traditions at places like the Mana Wastes, Jalmeray and Irrisen. There’s also a nice list of famous or legendary spellcasters – each NPC is identified with a small illustration (a nice touch!), alignment, race, class, level and a short reference. For example: Aroden, LN god of humanity; deceased; “Once the god of humanity, died at the onset of the Age of Lost Omens”.

I sincerely like this approach because, while many of those NPCs are already known from adventure paths and modules, the way they’re listed motivates Gamemaster to suit these characters to their home campaigns instead of following lots of setting background. It helps against what I like to call “canon-bubble burst” – the quick, aggressive and seemly unstoppable development of history, NCPS and setting trivia, leaving no room for a Gamemaster’s imagination or customization needs (usually examples of settings that suffer from this are Forgotten Realms, Warhammer 40K or Exalted).

Inner Sea Magic’s next topic is also my favorite one: variant magic. False Divine Magic and Primal  Magic (your old wild magic) are definitely fun – and the new Spellscar Mystery for oracles is awesome! Thassilonian magic is cool and already nostalgic for me (Gods!… Rise of the Runelords seems so old; and yup, it still has a special place in my dark decadent heart). Shadowcasting reminds me of the old rules (pre-3rd Edition) for Illusion magic – it looks like a simple and “safer” way of making illusions deal damage (yeah, I’m being ironical with the “safer” part).

The next chapter is about magic schools. Its uses a system similar to the one presented in the Pathfinder Chronicles: Faction Guide. Basically, you get into an organization to gain certain small bonus and extra benefits. I can understand the idea behind magic schools (more customization) but – like character traits – it seems much bookkeeping for too little gain.

Inner Sea Magic gives a nice resume detailing how each archetype from the Advanced Player Guide and Ultimate Magic fits in the Inner Sea region. It’s short, but then again, very flavorful and useful. After it we reach the juicy bits – new mechanical options for spellcasting classes (like new mysteries and archetypes). Among these, Black Blood Oracle (from Second Darkness) is very cool – albeit I find their spray ability a little weak; and the Cheliax Diva seems a lot of fun to play (in a gonzo way).

I like to evaluate new options from books like Inner Sea Magic by looking for original mechanics that clearly denote a setting’s hallmarks without complicating the game at the table. In this aspect, First Worlder (for Summoners) and Nirmathi Irregulars (for Rangers) are great new options – interesting archetypes that managed to capture Golarion’s unique traits. I couldn’t fail to mention the amazing Shadowcaster (its ability to store spells in his shadows is made of pure awesomeness). The Cyphermage prestige class is also another good choice – simple and directly linked to a good setting element. In my mind all prestige classes should be like this.

Inner Sea Magic also has new spells. I have little patience these days for reading spell chapters, but I friend of mine was only too kind to select a sample of unusual or useful dweomers for me (thanks Leoz!): Blast Barrier (very interesting for its tactical aspect), Fleshcurdle, Geb’s Hammer, Geniekind (great!), Khain’s Army, Music of the Spheres, Siphon Magic, Song of Kyonin, Spell Absorption and Weaponwand (this one is a fine example of “adventurer magic”). To this list I add Martyr's Bargain (obviously a paladin spell).

Inner Sea Magic is a good supplement ("average" may be a better word). It isn’t ground-breaking and (to me at least) it is unnecessary, unless you’re a Pathfinder collector or a total maniac for spellcasters options (with the APG and Ultimate Magic I hove more than enough). Pathfinder’s rate of growth is starting to show in books like this – there are a good number of references to the APG, Ultimate Magic, Inner Sea Guide, Bestiary 2, among others. Let’s just hope that Paizo can keep its focus with a higher number of books coming out.