Monday, February 6, 2012

The Harrow Deck and my CotCT campaign

Last Saturday we finished the 8th session of our Pathfinder/Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign. The game has been a blast for me, especially considering that I met my players just a few months ago. I consider myself lucky to have a recent but so “easy-to-run” group, where the players show commitment without being canonical freaks or rules-lawyers. Quite the contrary: they really enjoy our sessions, even with the setbacks and eventual PC death.

I believe that our game is working basically because of mutual trust. If 18 years of gamemastering taught me something is that you only get good and funny games if the players trust you (and vice-versa). I still have friend Dungeon Masters that actively strive to find flaws in a player’s action in order to kill them; like it was some kind of competition – the players x the DM (and, most of time, each player against his fellow players too). It’s something so stupid that I sincerely can’t understand why someone would devote 4-8 weekly hours of this.

Before this become a small (and useless) rant, let me get back to Curse of the Crimson Throne.

While Rise of the Runelords holds a nostalgic value for me (it’s, after all, designed to hearken back to all those cool AD&D modules), CotCT is such a nice blend of fantasy and horror themes, urban and wilderness settings – all mixed with clever subplots and unusual quests, that it’ll always be my favorite Adventure Path (although I still haven’t read Kingmaker).

CotCT uses the Harrow Deck extensively (Golarion’s Tarot, employed by the Varisian human culture of the setting). The entire Adventure Path is initially centered on a Varisian fortune-teller NPC named Zellara. She’s a very clever device of the campaign’s authors – acting as “the face” of the Gamemaster during the campaign (and as perfect tool for guiding groups that lost track of their next step or goal).

Zellara (and the Gamemaster) act through readings of her Harrow Deck. The cool thing about this is that the Harrow Deck has actual rules for readings; rules that integrate Pathfinder’s Ability Scores and Alignments in the cards. In fact, during the Curse of the Crimson Throne, the authors actively encourage the Gamemaster to make “true” readings for the players before the start of each adventure. By “true” I mean playing the cards randomly and really trying to figure out elements of each adventure based on the fate “glimpsed” in the cards that come up

Last session gave us perhaps the strongest reading so far. The campaign has four players, one of them a human paladin of Iomedae. The game’s calendar is close now to that deity’s most important holyday. Well, my last reading gave two cards aligned to Iomedae’s paladin theme – The Trumpet and The Paladin. It also gave perfect Harrow cards for some of the main antagonists to be faced by the players in this part and the next – three cards fitted perfectly. Another card was an almost duplicate of one of the adventure’s final locations. In other words, it was a damn cool coincidence.

Actually, I was so excited about it that I attempted something a little different. I have a particular house rule with the Harrow Deck: I give each player one card at the beginning of each game session. The player can use that card’s Ability Score to reroll any check that uses the same Ability Score. This time I was more radical – a player could also use a Harrow card to suggest a small event or alteration to the scene, provided that if also fit the card’s theme. The card would work almost like a FATE's Aspects or like Pathfinder’s awesome Plot Twist Cards*.

The player’s reaction to this new rule was – for me – astonishing. They not only easily grasped how to fit thematically each card, but they use it to strength the game’s flavor. During a tough encounter with a wererat nest in the dark Vaults below Korvosa (the campaign’s city), the players – remembering that Iomedae’s holyday was short at hand – use their Harrow cards to make small divine interventions around the party’s paladin (like using The Paladin card to make the sword of the player’s paladin glow**). These uses allowed them to survive the lycanthropes, but it also lend drama and emotion to one of the character’s roles. It was a very rewarding experience and I’m anxious to see what they’ll do next.

*This deck let players introduces small (or big) changes to an adventure’s plot. It can be a small mechanical benefit or a complete edition of the plot. If you, as a Gamemaster, like to improvise or to share narrative control, you’ll love this deck. Recently Paizo released a second deck with a similar theme (LINK). It can be easily used with other d20 games and – with more work – other RPGs.

** A longsword is the symbol of Iomedae.