Upgraded to latest version of Typo (still haven’t gotten around to writing my own blog engine). Old theme doesn’t work, but that’s no biggie since it wasn’t that hot anyway. More aggravating are the small new bugs here and there, trying to trace them down and get things to work again.
Note to self: get started on writing that blogger app…
Noticed that commenting has apparently been broken on this site for quite a while now. No wonder it’s been so quiet :D.
Murder’s Mark is a standalone Pathfinder module featuring ethnic tensions and a murder mystery set (mostly) in a traveling circus. Not quite your standard D&D fare, in other words. Written by Jim Groves, it features a lot of investigation and social encounters (as opposed to endless combat encounters versus monsters of the week). In my view, this is a very good thing.
The story is set at the Umbra Carnival, a traveling circus largely populated by Golarion’s gypsy drop-ins, the Varisians. The circus rolls into a small fishing village, sets itself up, and and runs up against the usual prejudices against “those thieving and shifty Varisians”. This time, however, there is a more serious element: someone is murdering visitors at the Carnival, and the “gypsies” are naturally enough the first to get the blame. The local law-person wants the case solved as fast as possible, so enter the PCs in the role of investigators (their own motivations for getting involved are left open here, which makes sense). Naturally enough events escalate, and the PCs quickly have their hands full with trying to figure out the real culprit before the mob chooses and punishes a suitable “perpetrator” for them.
It’s a nice little set piece, and easy enough to drop in the middle of an existing campaign. It’s also refreshingly free of dungeon crawling, which is a nice change. Of course, since it has a plot and is, essentially, a murder mystery, I’m sure there are multiple ways the PCs might short-circuit everything with suitable magic – though the fact that this is meant for low-level characters reduces that danger a bit.
The Apocalypse Codex is the latest book in the “Laundry Files” series of books, which originally introduced us to Bob Howard (not his real name): a geeky employee of the ultra-secret British organization dubbed “The Laundry”, tasked with preventing global occult doomsday scenarios while keeping expenses within budget and signing off (in triplicate) on all actionable items. The previous book in the series, “The Fuller Memorandum”, dealt with the past history of Bob’s creepy boss, Angleton. This book, in its turn, partly deals with the Laundry itself. Bob is shocked to find out that (despite the total denial of such), the Laundry seems to employ “external assets” at times. Even more worryingly, the Laundry itself seems to be just a part of something larger and more complicated. How does Bob find this out? By being considered for promotion, of course.
The actual main plot concerns an investigation into the actions of a new U.S. televangelist superstar, who seems to be (among other things) worryingly close to the current British Powers That Be. Can’t have that. Cue action for Bob, with the adrenaline junkie “Persephone Hazard” (also certainly not a real name) and her commando sidekick Johnny MacTavish along for the ride. Or maybe it’s the other way around. This ends up involving a trip to the States, and some careful coordination with the Laundry’s U.S. counterpart, the “Black Chamber”. It also ends up involving occult weirdness, gunfire, and all sorts of demonic forces… but hey, it’s a Laundry novel, that’s par for the course. The main villain has understandable motives and is suitably villainous at the same time (in addition to being the leader of an evangelical superchurch and therefore moral pond scum, he’s also consorting with Things Best Not Consorted With). The action flows quite nicely, though it jumps between several viewpoints now and then. We get a first real glimpse of the Black Chamber, which turn out to be a lot creepier than previously suspected… and there’s also the new revelations about the very nature of the Laundry itself to contend with.
It’s a fun read and a good addition to a so-far quite excellent (if lightweight) series of books. Can’t really find much to fault here, as long as you consider this good light entertainment and not deep literature. If you’re seriously religious you’ll probably find a lot of depictions of evangelicals here to be a bit insulting… but let’s face it, if you’re deeply religious it’s unlikely that you’ll touch books like this with a long stick, to begin with. Me, I’m fine with people making fun of evangelical “send us more money!” superchurches. They deserve it. And then some.
When the new World of Darkness core book came out years ago, one of the small bits that caught people’s fancy was the initial fiction bit, detailing a weird past history with clockwork angels and a “God-Machine”. Originally it was just intended as a throwaway “weird bit” to highlight the by-design unpredictability of the new WoD, but ever since White Wolf has been getting queries about expanding that bit of fiction. Well, now they have, and they are also working on building a new game campaign based around the “God-Machine” mythos. In addition, there are rumors that the upcoming new Demon game will somehow be connected, but that’s a big unknown. Of course, when I say “White Wolf” here I actually mean “Onyx Path”, which is the new home of the old White Wolf roleplaying stuff.
Anyway, the God-Machine Chronicle fiction anthology is the first step. It collects a bunch of new WoD fiction from the various game books (including the original story), and adds a big pile of brand-new fiction. The stories are all quite short, but mostly that works in their favor. Horror tales often are more effective the more compact they are, and these certainly are compact… and most work quite well, with the best tales being very imaginative and creepy. I found it to be an excellent read, and a nice collection of “weird horror” tales. There’s little to no specific “World of Darkness” bits here, no old tropes you can easily latch onto.
So… do we finally get some information about the God-Machine? No, we don’t. Not really. We get bits and pieces, many of them contradictory. It might not even exist, and if it does it might not have any interest in humanity. I like that just fine, too much specificity can be a death toll for the horror and vague sense of dread many of these tales project.
If you’ve tended to hate the fiction embedded in the (new) World of Darkness game books, this anthology is not for you (note that in my opinion the new WoD has much better embedded fiction than the old books did). For everyone else, this book is worth a read. The tales are quick reads, and there are a few nice gems in here.
One might be tempted to call Intruders: Encounters With the Abyss a “monster manual” for the new Mage game… but that would be doing it a severe injustice. This is no list of creatures, along with stat block, to throw at the PCs as “combat encounters”. Instead, we get a collection of… well, “intrusions” on our reality. Mostly hostile ones, but sometimes that is only due to their being very alien. Sometimes, on the other hand, they really do hate humanity.
Each of the entities described here can act as the basis of many game sessions, some could work as the main antagonists in a small campaign. They are very different from each other, and, by and large, very very strange. Which is as it should be, and this book does a wonderful job in illustrating how utterly alien some of the antagonists in this game can (or at least should) be. In addition to the basic descriptions, each entry also contains a number of story seeds based around the entity along with random GM tips and ideas. It’s a very interesting catalog to read through.
Some of the “creatures” here can be banished in fairly straightforward ways, while some others will require major effort and may be beyond the capabilities of your average PC groups – these types act more as hostile forces of nature (while being quite alien to our “nature” in the first place) and are there for plot purposes. The nice thing here is that few few of these entities can be banished just by violence; the classic D&D tactic of “hit it until it’s dead” will fail miserably. Another high note is the sheer weirdness of many of these entries. We get abyssal spiders that lodge in the brains of people who get exposed to the supernatural – and the spiders are contagious. We get an abyssal entity which manifests as a malevolent building (a twist on the old “haunted house” trope). We get intelligent hostile memes. We get… 24 well-rounded entities in total.
Now, not all of these will be to everyone’s taste, and some of these are more interesting than others (though that evaluation is probably quite subjective). Still, I would be very surprised if a Mage GM didn’t at least find a few entries here which captured his/her imagination and could be used to spice up their game.
In addition to the specific entities themselves, the book also contains some discussion about the Abyss itself, including a very nice section on the nature of evil and how Abyssal entities aren’t really “evil” as such even though their actions tend to manifest in that direction.
Overall, this is a great resource, both because it contains a ton of very weird and good ideas for Mage antagonists, and because it injects some much-needed alien horror into the game.
Bumps in the Night is a collection of non-Cthulhu Cthulhu scenarios by the esteemed John H. Crowe III, published by the equally esteemed Pagan Publishing. It’s been a long time coming, and finally saw the light of day in print form via a Kickstarter. The label “non-Cthulhu Cthulhu” may need some explaining: the scenarios here use the CoC rule set and are thematically “Cthulhu scenarios” – but they don’t feature any “stock” Cthulhu creatures. No ghouls, Dark Young, Mi-Go, shoggoths, or what have you. Just weird shit that tries to kill you or drive you insane. In this sense, it’s similar to his earlier “Coming Full Circle” campaign, which had the same setup. The advantages are obvious: players familiar with (and perhaps a bit jaded to) the stock dangers are in for a rude surprise. Especially if they make false assumptions based on out-of-game info.
Overall, this is an excellent collection. While the five scenarios are all very different, they are all of high quality and have numerous interesting twists. Some are straightforward, some not, and one even has some (somewhat hidden) humor.
“The Westerfield Incident” starts things off. A fairly straightforward affair, it has the PCs investigating a series of grisly murders in and near a small town in Adirondack Mountains. Set in 1915, the remote location and lack of technology somewhat isolate the PCs, while their main information source is local rumors… and we all know how objective and factual those tend to be.
Next up is “The Vengeful Dead”, where the players are guests at a remove lodge, enjoying their vacation (or whatnot) in fancy, quiet surroundings. All of which is due for a sudden and violent change. Now, the scenario title may give you ideas, but going off on assumptions is a very dangerous idea here. I really liked the “twist” used here (which also provides some hidden humor, at least for the GM). This is a very open-ended scenario, where PC reactions to what happens will totally decide the direction the game goes in.
Next is “The Bitter Venom of the Gods”, which is maybe the finest offering of this bunch. It’s also nasty, evil and probably a bitch to run; lots of entwined motivations and subplots, and a large cast of important NPCs. A female acquaintance of the PCs (perhaps from the previous scenario, which can be linked to this) has considered marrying someone, and even moved in with him for a limited time (highly scandalous behavior for 1922!)… and then suddenly reconsidered and broke things off. She wants some backup while she goes back to the ex-suitor’s mansion to fetch her things. This scenario requires PCs who are interested in the well-being of the girl in question, so some previous setup may be required.
The next scenario, “Curse of the Screaming Skull”, is a complete change of pace. It has the PCs investigate some weird events at a remote lodge. The catch? They cannot do any damage to the house and the contents, due to large financial motivators tied to a recent will. This leaves the PCs to deal with a “haunted house” -type scenario, without the obvious solutions of “well, we just burn the thing down”. A subtle and low-key affair, it’s also probably quite difficult to actually solve.
Lastly, we get “An Unsettled Mind”, which is set in Baltimore in 1924. A series of violent accidents have the local police baffled, and the PCs (who may be part of the police force, here) are sent in to investigate. The whole thing sets the PCs up for a whopper of a moral dilemma; there is no easy or clean solution to this scenario.
This collection is very much recommended. The scenarios are interesting and quite varied from each other, and the lack of “normal” Cthulhu critters lets the GM set up tons of fun red herrings for the players. Some of the scenarios here are complex, and it’s not a given that the PCs will be able to solve them at all – sometimes escaping with your sanity intact is all you can do.
Island of Empty Eyes begins the second half of the (so far quite excellent) “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and also explains why the PCs were so railroaded into winning that sailing race in the previous episode: the island that they win as reward features centrally here. They get ownership of the island, but of course the current owners are not told of that; the whole thing is one more test, a “carve out your own kingdom” thing. As such, it works out quite well.
The first half involves exploring the island, “taming” (i.e. slaughtering) the natives, and figuring out the logistics of building an island base. That last bit will need the PCs to hire workforce and do lots of non-traditional stuff as far as “stock adventures” are concerned, so points for that. Most of the busywork here is handled by die rolls, but there is no reason the GM couldn’t expand some of the hiring / negotiation segments if there is story there and the players are interested.
After the PCs get their “island fort” set up, at least to some degree, the second half commences: the pirate council comes over for a “friendly social visit”, in other words evaluation of how the PC have performed and if they have what it takes to join in the ranks of pirate lords, where apparently the ability to conquer and set up your own domain needs to be on your piratical CV. As can be expected, there’s a twist here: an old enemy has arranged for a saboteur to join the party, with the intent of wrecking the event (and therefore the PCs’ chances of joining the inner circle). This section reads like a lot of fun; the PCs need to scramble in order to entertain a bunch of rough & tumble guests, while dealing with (and ideally hiding) various bits of sabotage and trying to pinpoint the actual saboteur. Some combat involved, but mostly it’s investigation, social shenanigans and general action.
“Skull & Shackles” continues to be a great adventure path. Lots of different types of action, a structure that looks quite free-form but is actually somewhat event-based “under the hood”, and a plot that lets the PCs be scoundrels and greedy bastards if they want to be. One of my favorite Paizo adventure paths, at least so far.
If I had to write a capsule summary of The Moonscar, a new Pathfinder module by Richard Pett, it would be “missed opportunity”. Pett has written good modules before, but this is just lazy design.
So what’s the problem? Well, the thing is set (mostly) on Golarion’s moon. Some party is kidnapping people, and the trail leads… into space!. To the moon! One would think this to be the ultimate ticket to write something really creative, different and weird, using the low gravity, vacuum and other stuff to full extent. What do we get instead? The bad guys turn out to be demons, and the whole thing is set inside an underground complex. In other words, it’s one huge dungeon crawl, versus demons. This could just as well have been set on some random demonic plane, with close to zero modification. It’s boring, and it’s uninspired design.
Is it a good dungeon? No idea, really, I’ve never actually played or run Pathfinder so I cannot comment much on the combat sections – and most of this is combat encounters. It may well be tactically interesting, but it still rates a solid “meh” on the general adventure design scale.