Second Darkness recap, part 1

My main home game for the six months was Toinen Pimeys, an epic Pathfinder RPG fantasy campaign based on Paizo’s Second Darkness Adventure Path, spanning 15 character levels and a total of 19 game sessions. We played the last session of the campaign last Monday. A brief recap follows.

Shadow in the Sky

The campaign started out in Riddleport in northern Varisia, in Pathfinder RPG’s default setting world Golarion. Riddleport is a lawless frontier city founded by thieves, scoundrels and pirates. The premise for player characters in the module is quite simple: Make a character who’d have a reason to travel to Riddleport. As such, the simplicity of the premise is quite typical of published modules, in that it is assumed that adventurers adventure because that’s what adventurers do. The module’s base assumption works well enough if the GM and the players have a social contract, which states that the characters will follow the plot, regardless of what or who the characters themselves are. For any other kind of gaming, the premise simply doesn’t work, as the campaign really doesn’t provide enough incentive for the characters to stay motivated and on track for the whole six book campaign arc. So, the first thing I did was change the basic premise to one which provides solid rationale for the player characters to stay on track to the bitter end. As the main enemy of the campaign are the drow, I decided that all the player characters would be members of a team of elves working for a secret organization within the elf nation, with the stated goal of protecting the elf nation from enemies within. As low level operatives, the characters didn’t yet know, that the true enemies are one of elvenkinds best kepts secrets, the corrupted, demon-worshiping dark elves. The identity of the true enemy was no secret to the players, however, as pictures of drow grace pretty much every cover in the series. The first mission would be infiltrating Riddleport, and investigating rumors of corrupt elves working with the criminal underworld.

The Player Characters dived in head first, and were soon embroiled in the machinations of Riddleport’s many Crime Bosses. Tracking funds and mysterious cargo manifests, they soon discovered which one of Crime Bosses was the one they were looking for. It didn’t take them long to discover the “power behind the throne”, a dark elf coordinating the underhanded dealings from a secret lair beneath the city. A first inkling of the drows’ fiendish master plan was uncovered as well: Apparently they were attempting to pull a meteorite down on the surface of the planet, using it as a weapon of mass destruction against their surface kin. The book ended with a shooting star hitting an island off the coast of Varisia, with the ensuing tidal wave throwing Riddleport into chaos.

With the first four game sessions set in Riddleport, the campaign was off to a good start. Riddleport is great as a setting, and the players really enjoyed playing the Crime Bosses against each other. Riddleport would serve quite well as a setting for a complete campaign, instead of just four games, and so it is a pity, that after these four sessions, the characters would never again adventure in Riddleport.

Children of the Void

The next book of the series started out with the characters heading to Devil’s Elbow, the island off the coast of Varisia, where the meteorite had struck down. There were several other expeditions heading the same way, as it was rumored that the meteorite was composed of rare and extremely valuable Starmetal. Turns out the meteorite had brought passengers with it, strange alien beasts with a parasitic life cycle involving re-animated human corpses. Arriving on the island, the characters had a few run-ins with these aliens, a strange breed of zombies, marooned pirate crews, the ghosts of previous occupants, and finally, the drow expedition responsible for the magical ritual which had pulled down the meteorite.

The module itself was an interesting mix of sci-fi and fantasy elements. The setting of Devil’s Island would have provided lots of material for exploration and running into weird stuff, but as the character troupe was quite focused on stopping the drow, they pretty much breezed through the key plot points of the book, managing to finish it in just two game sessions.

The Armageddon Echo

The third book of the series had the characters travel to the formerly abandoned elven city Celwynvian, now infested with drow invaders. The characters were part of a small army sent to reclaim the city from the dark elves. Serving as advance scouts, the characters’ infiltration skills soon proved invaluable in the sort of urban guerrilla warfare being conducted among the ruins of the once-great city.

The whole book was pretty much skirmish fighting from house to house, with little other plot or character content. The group of four players were reinforced by a new player, giving the formerly slightly stagnant player group dynamic a shot of fresh blood. The characters’ power curve was starting to reach the point where managing the ever increasing amount of different powers the characters had at their disposal was starting to take way too much time out of actual play. I’ve, however, blogged on this particular topic already, so I won’t go into it here.

I’ve now covered the first half of the campaign arc, and I that’s about all I have time and energy for right now. Next up, the latter part of the Adventure Path.

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Insect Shrine, session 5

We played our fifth, and possibly penultimate session of Jim Raggi’s Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill playtest last Wednesday. Its been great fun so far, and I, for one, am quite sold on both the quality of the module, and the concept of a rules-light popcorn-fantasy-dungeon crawling game, that the OD&D style of gaming amply provides. I’d compare it to a cheeseburger and coke, whereas games with more actual content (be it more story, more character immersion, more rules, or what have you) can be likened to a full-course meal. Both fill your stomach equally well, and even though you’d be better off eating heartily all the time, you’d still get a craving for burgers, or time constraints would make it impossible to manage anything else.

Food analogies aside and onto the actual contents of the game session.

Our craven group of grave-robbers and fortune hunters had so far managed to scout out the Goblin Caves, done a few short forays into them, managed to amass some meagre loot, killed around 20’ish goblins and wolves, a dozen or so giant ants, and killer wasps; had run ins with ghosts, oozes, cursed rings, feral beasts, annoying pixies, a hippogriff, masquerading bandits, and a ghoul. This session, however, we managed to get into the actual Insect Shrine, a subterranean dungeon complex obviously not built by goblin hands. Very nice atmosphere, a neat little puzzle (unsolved so far), long hallways, mysterious rooms, and in the middle of it all, a main hall dedicated to some unfathomable insect-like deity who’s worshipers were evidently long gone from this world. The insects, however, remained. Yet again we managed to survive by the skin of our teeth. My character almost got killed by a giant blood-sucking tick. (Also, the first time during the whole campaign my character was wounded. As another player remarked, I have binary hit points. At a total of four (a second level character), I’m either at full health or down and dying. There is no middle ground.) Thank the Gods for Jim’s house rule, which states that a character isn’t dead at zero hit points, merely unconscious. Death doesn’t come collecting until -3 hp.

This was probably my favorite game session so far. I don’t know why, I just love a good dungeon crawl, where you need to tread carefully, prod stuff with a ten foot pole, listen for any telltale noises lest you get jumped by some terrible beastie, and conserve your light source. The natives can see in the dark, you see. Well, most of them anyway. I also love mapping. Its something for me to do when I’m out of spells and hiding someplace or behind one of plate-mailed big dolts usually referred to as other player characters. Mapping also gives me a (perhaps false) sense of being in control of the situation. Take away my map, and I’m just the guy throwing witty banter in the face of violent, possibly lethal death.

We’ll possibly be able to wrap things up come next week’s game session, as there isn’t that much of the Goblin Shrine left to explore, and even the Goblin tribe has been considerably thinned by us Going Belkar on their asses. We’ll see what happens.

Insect Shrine, session 4

The game session started were we left off, outside the goblin caves. After a brief stint into the caves, we yet again returned to the inn to rest, replenish supplies, and refresh spells. While there we ran into another group of adventurers, who did their very best to pump us on information on worthwhile adventuring locations. We gave them the low-down on some of the places we’d already been to, but (for obvious reasons) we didn’t mention the goblin caves at all. I conned them into buying a cursed ring which had come into my possession during the wild man of the faerie wood -incident, which was great fun, earned me some extra xp (for the gp), and had some interesting repercussions later on, as it turned out the men weren’t just random encounter adventurers. I won’t go into details so I won’t spoil it for prospective players of the scenario. Suffice to say, the incident was a great reminder of the existence of a living game world, in which things happen whether or not the player characters interact with them.

After that, we headed back into the caves. The star-shaped cavern just beyond the entrance had multiple exits, which we started exploring counter-clockwise. After a few hours of gameplay, we got our first brush with the actual inhabitants of the cave system, the goblins. Short work was made of them. Still deeper in the caves, we came across some treasure, a bunch of dead adventurers, and an encounter which very nearly made corpses of us as well. Incorporeal creatures are a pain in the ass to deal with at this level. Drained, tired, and again out of spells, we retreated out of the caves, heavily burdened by our hard-fought loot.

Back to the inn, and again, back to the goblin caves. This time we ran into a goblin patrol outside the cave system. Sleep and Hold Person spells made short work of the whole lot of them. Around this time the characters started formulating plans on how to deal with the goblin menace obviously responsible for the troubles along the trade routes.

Or rather, I made a conscious decision to start building a proper narrative, instead of “Lets explore, kill some monsters and take their stuff.”, which had been our primary character agenda so far. Building a good story is, in my opinion, the main building block of any good roleplaying game, and as such it really should be a co-operative effort. I know the immersionists/simulationists and gamists out there cringe at this approach, as neither of these types of players make conscious choices (as players) to create stories. The former are concerned mainly with staying in character and experiencing the game world with their characters as mediums, and the latter are concentrating on defeating the challenges presented by the game master. I’m not saying the narrativist approach is the be all end all, as many other types of gaming styles also manage to create co-operative stories, although the gamist type of story is really only a by-product of things happening as a result of players beating a series of challenges.

Anyways, the exploration of the goblin caves, and our characters’ plans regarding said menace, was starting to come together quite nicely. Four sessions into the module, and we still hadn’t laid eyes on the actual Insect Shrine. It was getting rather late, so we decided to call it a day. Jim told us that it was possible we’d be able to finish the module in maybe one or two sessions more, so session five (which is today) might very well be the last one. Or the next to last. We’ll see.

Insect Shrine session 3 and Caldwell Castle

We played the third session of Jim Raggi’s Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill playtest last week. I also ran the title scenario of B9 Castle Caldwell and Beyond last Sunday. NiTessine already wrote a post on the latter, saving me the trouble of going into much detail, so I’ll just write some short observations on it.

The Insect Shrine sessions started right where we left off: The Halfling Burial Mound. We decided to head back to the inn to recuperate, after which we headed back to the mound, with freshly memorized Read Languages -spells for deciphering the plaques on the halfling statues. Exploration of the rest of the tomb commenced. There were a whole lot of buried halflings, all of them with gems embedded in their foreheads, and a scythe trap, which nearly took off the Fighter’s head. The gems seemed valuable, well worth the risk of the halfling skeletons running amok, so we proceeded to smash the skeletons to bits. Sure enough, them bones started doing their horrid dance, and fierce combat ensued. My character, the Magic-User, had no spells left for the day, so I voted for a retreat. My pleas fell on deaf ears as the two Clerics, the Halfling and the Fighter were overcome by  battle-lust, and proceeded to hack the skeletons apart, turn them with Cleric magic, and burn them with Molotov Cocktails. Guess these guys didn’t think 20+ halfling skeletons were scary enough. Oh, well.

The Halfling Mound having been dealt with, it was right back to the inn for a few more days of R&R, while the Fighter’s brand new plate-mail was being fitted. Next up, the goblin caves. It had taken us the better part of three game sessions to get to the actual meat of the module. Not a problem as such, although it was a bit contrary to expectations. Once there, we only had time to explore a few rooms, and burn a grey mold to death (oil, again), before calling it a day.

A system-related observation: According to the rules, throwing lit oil flasks at people is a perfectly viable tactic, and a very effective one at that. However, in my humble opinion, Molotov cocktails have no place in a Sword & Sorcery -type fantasy setting. Its just plain ridiculous, and I’d never allow it in any of my games. Now, if the contents of said improvised grenades were something that ignites more easily, burns faster and hotter, and clings to a target, like, say, petroleum and resins, AND the setting was something that regularly features explosions, and improvised incendentary devices being lobbed at hordes of advancing zombies or at Russian tanks, it would be a wholly different cup of tea.

On a tangent, my own exploration of OD&D had sparked an interest in running a few games of it myself. I decided I’d use the Labyrinth Lord rules set, and the Basic D&D modules as a framework for adventures, and build a fantasy world more to my liking around it. The building blocks were H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, the Sword & Planet genre, and Geoff McKinney’s Supplement V: Carcosa. The wiki-page of this project can be found here (unfortunately in Finnish). On a whim (had a lazy Sunday), I decided to get some people together for an afternoon of old-school dungeon exploration. I picked up my copy of Castle Caldwell and Beyond, read the seven or so pages of gaming material, trimmed off some of the fat (goodbye, giant shrew), worked in a back-story of Yog-Sothoth Cultists, and off we went. NiTessine’s blog-entry goes into much more detail on the topic, and since I don’t really have much to add to it, go read that one. The wiki sub-page of the game session can be found here (again, Finnish only). Suffice to say, I had fun, my players had fun, and the material (Mine, not the module’s. The module is still shite.) performed quite well, and was well received. I’m looking forward to experimenting some more with this type of gaming. We’ll see how it develops.

Tomorrow: more Insect Shrine.

Insect Shrine, session 2

We played the second session of Jim Raggi’s Insect Shrine of Goblin Hill a week ago. Session 3 is today, so for completeness’ sake I’ll post briefly on the second session.

The adventuring group had taken quite a pounding at the ruined tower, so we headed back to the inn to recruit new red-shirts… er… brave adventurers to join our quest for gold and xp. The new guys were Wydo the dashing Halfling archer and Peter the Pious, the monk-like Cleric (monk in the sense of sack-cloth robes and bad BO, not the wushu-style ass-kicker Character Class). Some getting to know the new guys, checking up familiar faces at the inn, and re-stocking of provisions followed, after which we headed to the abandoned, supposedly demon-haunted village.

As it turns out, what was found at the village wasn’t at all what we’d expected. Some exploration, a brief tussle with a pair of jokels, and a close call (three characters either down for the count or paralyzed) with a Ghoul followed. Found some scrolls, and got another bit of foreshadowing about the actual Insect Shrine.

The sandboxyness of the setting was still quite strong, although there is a underlying theme, which, like a slow current, seemed to have caught hold of us and was drawing us towards the Insect Shrine. I can see some of the underlying structure, and the elaborate groundwork, but the material still manages to appear open-ended. A healthy dose of illusionism never hurts, and this time it actually seemed to be working, even though there was one particular scene, which, in my opinion, felt a bit “glued-on”. In this scene a bunch of NPC’s had a conversation (that is, the referee is talking to himself), and the PC’s were just witnessing, the end result being an actual map to the Insect Shrine being presented to the PC’s.

The system itself was still working out OK, but I found myself missing some of the “fiddly bits” of more comprehensive rules systems, like, for instance, how does scribing scrolls work and what does it cost, and how do you find out stuff about magic items. The OD&D approach to things like this is pretty much “dunno, I guess the referee will make a ruling on this”.

The rest of the session was taken up by another side-trek, this one involving hellhounds and a halfling burial mound. I had to quit early, but I didn’t think the last of the three hellhounds would pose much of a problem to the four other characters. Anyway, I’d already done my bit by doing away with the other two hellhounds. I later heard the last doggy had managed to down one more character with its fiery breath, but had eventually succumbed to the onslaught, at which point the game had paused. We’d continue with the exploration of the burial mound next session.

All in all, a good and entertaining game session. I think the module is something I’d definitely run myself at some point, although I might put in even more creepy foreshadowing stuff about the horrors ahead, and try to emphasize the whole mystery aspect of it. Also, I’d remove all references to cute and fluffy faeries with short attention spans and squeeky voices. I’ve had quite enough of those for now. The faeries in my own games tend to be more of the “steal your babies, steal your soul” -type of unseelie weird-and-creepy.

EDIT: Had some time to kill, so I put up my character sheet here.