We Be Goblins! (by Richard Pett) is Paizo’s 2011 “Free RPG Day” module (available free for PDF download), and it’s quite hilarious. In a “now for something completely different” twist, it has the players play as goblins – crazy, evil, homicidal goblins – given a task by their clan chief to retrieve a huge stash of fireworks from a wreck in a swamp (or die trying). So off they go, on a (not very epic) quest to gain some (not very awesome) firepower, and to cause general mayhem. It’s a short module, as all the Free RPG Day ones are, but still contains a lot of content and should be more than enough to fill a long play session.
As an extra bonus, it also links in with the latest adventure path, “Jade Regent”. The same group of shipwrecks which serve as targets here are also at the root of the main plot in that adventure path, and a creative GM could even have the (non-goblin) PCs there encounter the goblin PCs presented here.
The module has four ready-to-play goblin characters, and since it’s available as a free download, all you really need to run this is a copy of the main Pathfinder core book.
Cherryh’s “Cyteen”, written in 1989, is among her best work – a huge, intricate examination of a future society which has taken a radical path somewhat along the lines of “Brave New World” (but arguably not quite a dystopia). A whole subclass of people, “azis”, are fast-grown via technology and indoctrinated into a specific role. They are slaves, in a way, but totally willing slaves and accepting of their station in life. Partly responsible for all this is Ariane Emory, a driven and amoral genius, who runs the vast Reseune Labs on the planet Cyteen. In “Cyteen”, Arianne is murdered (or possibly commits intricate suicide), but she has insured her legacy: she has a “copy” of herself grown, with near-identical generic markup and near-identical childhood experiences. Of course, near-identical is not identical, and the theme of “nature vs nurture” is one of the main ones in the book. Young “Ari Two” needs to grow up fast, and a powerful computer subsystem left to her by her “mother” helps her do that, while dodging deadly office politics and assassination attempts. All this is set against the backdrop of the recently-ended Alliance-Union war, and the high military tension levels which were partly responsible for Cyteen in the first place. Who killed Ariane? It doesn’t really matter all that much, and “Cyteen” never answers that question. There are reasons why it might even have been a suicide.
Regenesis, written 20 years after the original, is a direct sequel. Ariane is approaching (legal) adulthood, and prepares to gain full control of Reseune. This, naturally enough, has various parties concerned, and various factions scramble to hide all sort of “black projects” and also to gain favor with the up-and-coming administration. Jordan has become a sullen, angry drunk, blaming Ari for much of everything (as proxy for all the nasty things that Ari One did), Justin (Jordan’s son) works directly for Ari now, causing no little amount of tension. And in the background, murders are starting up again, and someone has a serious agenda that is heating up fast.
There is no way that this sequel could have been the equal of Cyteen, and it isn’t. It feels very much like an interim book. It’s very slow, even for Cherryh; during the first half of the (thick) book, very little happens at all and much of the page count is dedicated to rehashing what happened in Cyteen. Honestly, a lot of this could have been handled as a “Happened So Far” preface instead of this meandering which doesn’t really do any character development (or introduce new characters). The second half is much better, when things start to move and tension racks up. Ari needs to balance paranoia (and her “mother“‘s old way of doing things) with her own emotional needs and her decision to not be like the first Ari. With even trusted associates doing shady things behind her back, trust is hard. We do, finally, learn who murdered the first Ari… but as before, it doesn’t really matter that much. The fact that she’s dead is the important bit, the “whodunnit” is more of historical interest.
It’s by no means a bad book; if you read and liked Cyteen it’s well worth reading and paves the way for another book in this continuity. However, it’s far from Cherryh’s best work and is slower than it needs to be. Do not read this if you haven’t read Cyteen – it’s a dense sequel to a very dense book, set in a very unique far-future culture.
Horror on the Orient Express is a huge Cthulhu campaign, and also a very famous one – more because it’s damn near impossible to find without paying tons of money for it, somewhat less because of the actual contents. Of course, it is a very nice package, being a box set with lots of player handouts. The actual campaign is described in several staple-bound books, in addition to which the box contains a period advertisement poster for the Orient Express, passports, tickets, a cutout of the central “McGuffin” in the scenario, a booklet of maps of the train, a booklet of “extra” NPCs, etc. It’s a lavish production.
It took me years to get my hands on a copy of this, finally getting lucky on eBay and getting one for under $100. After reading the thing, I’m still happy that I got it, though the contents are an at times frustrating mix of the fantastic and the problematic. As a story, it’s a great and atmospheric read. As a roleplaying campaign… well, it needs some work.
It begins with an old friend of the PCs being victim of a near-fatal attack, and enlisting them on a quest across Europe to find pieces of a mysterious artifact, the “Sedefkar Simulacrum”. It’s assumed the PCs say “yes”, of course. They are provided with tickets to the famed Orient Express, departing from France. As a prelude, the book gives us a short mostly unrelated scenario (“Doom Train”), which is actually pretty good and can act as a red herring in some ways. It’s not really relevant to the plot, though, and can be left out.
The main action starts in France, and wends its way across Europe. It’s assumed that the PCs will stop in certain places and investigate, and then hop back on the train to continue. The whole campaign is a travelogue, with the train voyage linking together the different set pieces… and oh boy, what set pieces. This is where the campaign shines, most of the specific adventures at various locales are fantastic; written with style and providing you with tons of creepy and atmospheric moments. Not all of them shine, of course, and some are downright mediocre, but the good ones are very good. The Jigsaw Prince episode is awesome, as is the somewhat related “City of Bells and Towers”. There are encounters with politics (the fascist Brownshirts are in full swing in Italy), encounters with mythological figures (Baba Yaga and her chickens, much creepier than it sounds), and encounters with various nasty cults and creatures. The mood shifts from quiet investigation to full-on action horror, with quiet social interludes in between. The Orient Express itself provides a sort of home base, an island of civilization (though it also becomes a scene of extreme violence at a few points).
So, the set pieces are excellent (well, many of them are anyway). What’s the problem?
There are several. First off, as the old joke says, this campaign is very “railroaded”. It’s expected that the PCs behave in certain ways and take the train from one location to the other, stopping in certain places – but honestly, in many places it makes no real sense for them to do so. There is no real support for PCs who go “fuck this, we’ll just take a car/plane instead”. Also, the backstory here is ridiculously complicated. There are three different major “bad guys” at work here, with at times conflicting motives… and worst of all, much of this is opaque to the players, with many characters only making their play towards the end of the campaign. In addition, some of the motivations presented here don’t really make much sense, it would be much smarter for some of the antagonists to do something much less complex (instead of trying to manipulate the PCs). All this makes for a confusing game for the GM to run, and a potentially frustrating one for the players who rarely see rhyme or reason to what is happening in the background.
There were a lot of writers involved with this one, and it shows. While many of the set pieces are really good, there are some poor ones in the mix. There, the PCs are just led by the nose through events, with little chance to change the outcome. Classical railroading, in other words, and something that easily results in player frustration. There are a few bad cases of this in the middle of the journey, and the entire (penultimate) end game in Constantinople has a lot of this fault, with the PCs ending up foiled, defeated, outsmarted and kidnapped no matter what they do. The Constantinople portion does contain some very cool bits in addition, though, so it’s not a total loss. The very end of the campaign, in London, assuming the PCs survive the harrowing (and very cool) return journey, contains a twist that’s maybe a bit too nasty. Or not, depends on the play group.
In the end, it’s a complicated and baroque campaign which combines fantastic and weird set pieces with an overly-railroaded and overcomplex main plot. In addition, it’s extremely lethal, so the GM needs to plan for easy replacement PCs along the journey (the set contains some help in that regard, with nicely detailed “extra” NPCs which can be turned into PCs quite easily). I’d rate this as a very challenging campaign to run, the GM needs to do lots of improvisation and on-the-fly modification in order to keep the plot flowing without too much (visible) railroading. Add to the mix the need to run a horde of NPCs, and you get something which will require lots of prepwork to pull off. Given that prepwork though, there is potential for a great adventure here.
A seriously flawed masterpiece, this one. Very much worth reading, the writing is generally good and very poetic, given to evoking moods of vague dread and strangeness. As a game, it needs work.
Gatecrashing is the second major supplement for Eclipse Phase, and like the previous one (Sunward) it’s a fantastic product. The name refers to Gatecrashers, people (and sort-of-people) in the setting who make a living by “crashing” (i.e. exploring) the mysterious Pandora Gate network found as artifacts in a few locations in the solar system, leading… anywhere. Very much shades of Fred Pohl’s “Gateway” here, especially since Gatecrashing is singularly dangerous. The other end of the game might open up on a relatively friendly location, in very rare cases even somewhere which is near human-habitable… but more often than not, it opens up in hard vacuum, in a toxic atmosphere, or near some ridiculously lethal alien ruins. Ideal fodder for an rpg campaign, in other words.
As an aside, “Gatecrashers” would have been a somewhat more obvious name for this book, but I think there was some previous game (or book?) with that name so the Eclipse Phase guys settled on “Gatecrashing”. Fair enough.
The book starts off by describing the basic situation with the Pandora Gates; who “owns” them currently, what their access policies are, what it costs to mount a Gate expedition, the tools of the trade, all the nitty gritty details. After that we get the meat of the book, a huge list of locations potentially accessible via the Gates. This is by no means an exhaustive list, since the network is vast, it’s more meant as a showcase of the sorts of places that might be encountered – and it’s great stuff. Almost all of the places are very imaginative, and most are very weird to boot. You get a Dyson Sphere… but one where the outside surface is the habitable portion. You get an intergalactic version of Chat Roulette (not kidding here). You get disturbing leftover TITAN experiments and some “mad scientists set loose” scenarios. The writing is good and it’s a great read in general, especially so since the location writeups are all done in the same “random 3rd person” style as the previous Eclipse Phase material. It’s not totally objective information, which makes it very readable without sacrificing game reference use much at all.
While the book is geared towards the Eclipse Phase game background setup, must of this could be used in pretty much any large-scale scifi game. All you need is a network of semi-randomly working intergalactic transport portals and you’re set. The basic setup is also familiar from the TV show Stargate, though here the end locations tend to not feature Canadian woods quite so often, and are often both more lethal and more insidiously dangerous.
The Eclipse Phase gameline has yet to disappoint.
Ashes At Dawn (by Neil Spicer) forms the penultimate chapter in the Carrion Crown storyline. It involves vampires, and does something moderately interesting for “D&D”-style games: it has the PCs ally (temporarity) with a group of strictly evil creatures, vampires in this case. The module does have sidebars on “what if the PCs refuse?”, but most of the action revolves around the assumption that they’ll choose the lesser of two evils: alliance with vampires in order to chase down an even more evil group. This is all fine and good, but I guess I’m a bit spoiled by White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade and other such games… the vampires here are simplistic creatures, and their “politics” are laughable compared to most World of Darkness vampires. Still, the whole setup is somewhat refreshing here, and lends a small bit of “shades of grey” into the whole thing.
Most of the action takes place in the city of Caliphas, where an unknown killer is apparently stalking the local vampire population. While this would normally be something to cheer about, here the local vampires are in possession of some critical information. So it becomes a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll stab yours”… or something in that vein. While most of the storyline is fairly coherent and interesting, there is one major “huh?” factor here: once the PCs realize they may need to ally with the vampires, they are given ways to arrange a meeting. After having arranged that, they get pointed towards a certain location for the meeting… which is a monster/guardian -infested place the PCs must fight through in order to meet the vampires. This makes zero sense; if the vampires really want to meet, they should just arrange a meeting somewhere neutral(ish). If not, why point the PCs towards their own lair instead of some other random deathtrap? It comes off as the classic D&D syndrome of having to have combat in every encounter, I’m not sure if the writers can even imagine a meeting scene without some amount of forced “combat encounters” along the way. It’s stupid and tired, but hey, that’s D&D for you (and yes, Pathfinder is D&D).
That niggle aside, it’s a decent enough adventure.
In Changes, the twelveth book in the Dresden Files series, the series… took a turn in a different direction. The Red Court is gone, but so are all too many of Harry’s friends, with him partly responsible on many cases. The book ends in a cliffhanger twist which could go to all sorts of places. So, as a breather while waiting for the next novel, we get Side Jobs, the first collection of Dresden Files short stories. While it’s no real substitute for the next novel, it’s pretty damn good. The stories are from all over the place in the Dresden timeline. Some are from the early days, while some are much newer. One, in particular, happens after the end of Changes and places Murphy in the protagonist role. Another one does something similar with Thomas, in a story where he needs to do some world-saving which involves Harry, all the while keeping Harry happily ignorant.
If you liked the Dresden Files novels, you’re pretty much guaranteed to like these stories. It’s more of the same, only in shorter form. While some stories work better than others, there are no real clunkers here; all are at the very least entertaining. The Murphy story doesn’t shed much more light into the “what happened at the end of Changes?” question, but it’s a decent enough romp with some new bad guys.
Deep intellectual stuff it isn’t, but hey, the same goes for the same series. It’s great entertainment, first and foremost, and the writing is very competent.
Oh, and a pet peeve: while I love the new Orbit editions of these books, why oh why do they depict Harry with a western-style hat? It’s stated time and again in the books that he doesn’t wear a hat. Does some editor think that Harry needs a hat in the artwork in order to look credible? Is it the great international hat conspiracy at work? It’s not that the cover art is bad – far from it, these editions have fantastic cover art. But… hat? Why?
The Harrowing is a standalone Pathfinder module with a very “Alice in Wonderland” feel and theme. In a good way. Written by Crystal Frasier, it focuses on the “Harrow deck”, a cultural staple on Golarion (and also available from Paizo as a real deck of cards). A form of tarot, it’s mostly used to tell fortunes (using real mystical powers or the powers of fakery, as needs be). Here, artifact Harrow deck, created by a legendary Varisian fortune-teller, is the catalyst for the story: the PCs end up dumped on a mystical demi-plane related to this deck, having to battle weird creatures and needing to figure out how to get home. So yes, a variant of Alice, without Alice herself or rabbits with watches.
It’s a fun humorous romp. Unlike the old “Dungeonland” module from TSR, this is not a total joke adventure; while some creatures in the demi-plane are decidedly strange and act in weird ways, they are not there as jokes. There is a somewhat grim backstory to it all, and a lot of puzzle-solving to do. GMs can also use a “real” Harrow deck as a game artifact, since the module provides handy hooks for that all over the place. All in all, a very nice stand-alone module in the “now for something a bit different” vein. This probably slots best into some of the adventure paths which also use a Harrow deck, to provide thematic continuity.
The “Victorian Age Vampire” trilogy consists of three books: A Morbid Initiation, The Madness of Priests and The Wounded King. It’s a bit unusual for a World of Darkness / Vampire series of books. First off, as the metatitle says, it’s set in Victorian times (in England), mirroring the “Victorian Age Vampire” roleplaying core book from White Wolf. Secondly… it’s actually pretty good. Easily among the best World of Darkness fiction I’ve read, perhaps the best. Now, I know that’s damning with faint praise, but there it is anyway: this series manages to be a World of Darkness work of fiction which does not suck.
It’s the “coming of age” story (in a dark way) of one Regina Blake, young daughter of the Viscount Lord James Blake. Returned back to England from Egypt, the family has been beset by tragedy in the form of the death of Regina’s mother (Lady Emma Blake) in mysterious circumstances. Lord Blake tries to cover everything up, but Regina manages to see some things which leave her doubting her father’s story about events. In the wake of the death, Emma’s strange foreign relatives make their appearance, insisting that the funeral be done in a very specific and unusual fashion. Then there is the matter of Victoria Ash, a beautiful friend of Emma’s (who nobody has apparently seen before), showing up for the funeral and turning heads. Regina recruits her fiance and his army friends to help dig into matters, and things quickly take a dark turn. After this the story twists and turns, and eventually visits Paris, Vienna and other far-off places. Some WoD signature characters make their appearance here; apart from Victoria Ash who holds a spotlight role, Beckett, Anatole and Hesha all have side roles. To the story’s credit, these characters are kept firmly in side roles and the spotlight is on young Regina and her eventual mentor, Victoria.
There’s a lot to like here. The story uses Gothic story elements well, increasing mood without wandering into mindless cliché territory. We get the lonely mansion on the English moors, the strange and sinister foreign relatives, masonic secret societies, and such. As the protagonist, Regina is perhaps a bit anachronistically proactive – but then again, Mina in the original Dracula is no wilting wallflower either, so I don’t see any harm in her being very assertive and independent. It would be a boring story if she wasn’t.
What I liked best here is how the author keeps the various vampiric antagonists mysterious and scary. In many books, ghouls are treated as low-power cannon fodder, while here they are frightening unnatural engines of destruction – and their masters are almost unstoppable. Vampiric mind control is effective and scary, and in general mortals are shown to have little chance when faced with the supernatural. This is what the game posits, of course, but in too much of the literature the supernatural has been turned into something quite banal. Not so here. There are lots of cool and disturbing scenes here; I especially liked the interlude spent with Anatole in a Paris prison, his madness is shown in quite an unusual and very scary light. In general, the author does an excellent job in keeping the supernatural scary – you can figure out what game effects are going on in the background it you focus (and are familiar with the game), but only in a few rare instances does it scream “power X is being used by a game character here” (which is maybe the most common sin of roleplaying game fiction). The Tremere are nasty in this book.
In the end, it’s a very competent and entertaining Victorian vampire story, with a fairly classic feel. It is quite violent at times, and also features plenty of sex (vampiric and other), so it’s not for the overly prudish. I was very pleasantly surprised by these books. I expected to find barely-readable dreck, instead I got a good “classic” vampire tale, and one that requires absolutely no knowledge of the World of Darkness game world to enjoy. In fact, it might be even better with zero knowledge.