Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Worldwound Incursion review

I suppose that one of the few blessings about being down with the flu is realizing exactly how much you suddenly have to catch up on. On the private front, blogging usually comes to mind, and how much I’ve been neglecting the stuff I want to write about. One of the things in particular is the latest update regarding our recently launched Pathfinder campaign; “Wrath of the Righteous”.

Once again, I sadly don’t have enough time to provide you guys with a thorough review session by session, ala what we did in Carrion Crown. (How the hell did I even manage to find that much time back then?) We stick to our regular weekly sessions and usually complete a chapter once a month or so, so I’d rather concentrate on a thorough review one at the time.

This time around, unlike our pirate campaign “Skull and Shackles” I’ve tried to maintain a closer structure to the original campaign. There were a lot of free initiatives I took in S&S simply because I didn’t like how the respective chapter was written. The detriment to this was, of course, that the reviews weren’t all that faithful to begin with. Even though there certainly are some things in Wrath that I don’t care much for, I’ve done my best to stick with the written word.

The setup…
Wrath is the newest campaign from the RPG giant ‘Paizo’ - our current delivery boy of fun when the hardworking GM (as yours truly) is too busy making up his own surreal stories. Where we have now been monster hunters of Ustalav and pirates of the Shackles, this time around it’s holy war in a justified crusade against the desolate and blighted landscape known as The Worldwound.

The heroes take up arms as a, preferably, good-aligned party of crusaders ranging from all classes and quickly become involved with the crusade against the demons who have tormented  the nearby cities for decades. As usual, this is set in Golarion, but again we decided to keep it to the Realms and neatly put the Worldwound down not too far from Amn. It fit quite well with how our previous campaign ended, and it should have little consequence for these reviews at all.

In a nutshell, the heroes get to wage war against the demons and their leader Deskari; lord of the locusts host. Along with plenty of other opponents, such as cultists of the Baphomet church; the ivory labyrinth. In our case, we play with my usual five players who this time consist of a human monk, an aasimar barbarian, a human red dragon disciple, a human paladin and a human cleric (yes, my group’s mentality is that of the galactic Empire; no aliens allowed!) - Their journey will bring them to various parts of the Worldwound for different tasks against the forces of evil.

The heroes aren’t without means, however. This time around, the campaign plays heavily with Paizo’s new sourcebook of Mythic adventures. For the uninitiated, mythic can sort of be described as ‘Epic levels for everyone’ - Instead of the old recipe of people reaching level 20+ and then everything starts falling apart with Dragonball Z powers; this time around, you get to be really special from a much earlier stage. In the case of Wrath, level 6. 

As your mythic rank improves by doing good deeds, you gain significant special powers to help you in your quest. It’s sort of a sophisticated prestige class system, and without going into too much detail here, I’ll have to admit it works rather well. In the case of the GM, you also get your own special mythic monsters to play with. Ranging from “Elite versions” of existing mobs, to your very own chance to build your own monstrosities. It’s great fun for everyone and Wrath makes good use of it.

“The worldwound incursion” in a nutshell *SPOIIIILLLERRRSSSSSSSSS!!!!*
The heroes arrive at the templar city of Kenabres; a significant settlement on the border of the Worldwound. The city is mainly known for its housing of one of the significant templar artifacts; a wardstone, which contributes to keeping up a magical barrier that holds the demons at bay. The heroes haven’t been long in the city before everything goes to crazy; not long after the festivities of a holy day commence, a vicious Balor known as the thunder-king strikes with his army in an attempt to shatter Kenabres. In the process, they manage to slay the ruler of the city, along with his protégé; the good aligned silver dragon. The dragon, however, manages to perform one last duty, which is to save the heroes from their otherwise impending demise.

As they tumble into the depths beneath the city, they wake up later with an injured couple of NPC’s who react very differently to their presence. A rogue who is first and foremost looking for her lover; the half orc paladin Irabeth, a blind elven wizard who is in a search for lore, and a hot tempered merchant who honestly just wants to get the hell out of there. The heroes make their way through the underground and along the way battle the undead, vermin and meet up with a tribe of mongrelmen who points them towards ‘a bad place’. A bad place that turns out to be the base of operations for the Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth, and the heroes have to smash their way through in order to reach the surface again.

The city they arrive in lies in ruins and as they investigate they are besieged by various minor demons and encounters from civilians who need help. As they eventually search the homes of their followers, they track the survivors down in an old inn from which they plan their next move. Irabeth along with her superior direct the heroes to the old Grey Garrison, in which they will launch an attack and let the heroes attempt to reach the wardstone before it’s corrupted.

Of course the heroes make good timing and manage to kill the demonic lieutenant and destroy the wardstone, in the process becoming mythic heroes and ready for chapter 2.

“The worldwound incursion” in a good light
I have an inherent love for almost all first chapters of every campaign Paizo writes. Perhaps it’s because of the energy, the ambitions, the dreams and how everything can be made possible. Perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to maintain focus when you know the heroes are quite limited in their capabilities for solving puzzles. I don’t know. They just seem a hell of a lot more fun.

This one isn’t much different.

I had a great time preparing and running this chapter; it has very little requirement of preparation for you to make as a GM. Basically, you need to run your players through it, in order to get them to level 6. That’s right, they have to reach level 6 by the end of it. Luckily, the nice Paizo guys have once again provided you with a chart that will tell you whenever they’re supposed to ding.

In continuation of this, maybe it was me or maybe my players are simply that much more experienced; but the usual deal with the first chapter usually involving one or more really tough and nasty encounters seems to be strangely devoid from Worldwound Incursion. Of course there were some encounters that dragged out and took party resources, but they never really struggled in the same way they did against the animated weapon in Carrion Crown or the Grindylow Island in Skull and Shackles. And I think this is a good thing; they had fun with the battles and did feel powerful right off the bat. Also interesting to see the reactions of a level 1 party when the first encounter they see consists of a Balor battling a silver dragon.

Then there’s the NPC’s. To address the elephant in the corner first; there has been some debate regarding the rogue Anevia; the lover of Irabeth. Not just because she’s a homosexual, but because she has, according to her background, had a gender-change. Apparently this has been a huge issue for some. But it doesn’t really play any huge part in the story; that is to say, at all. Along with the two other NPC’s the heroes will spend time with, they make up for a wonderful trio. In my case, the players quickly took the blind elf to heart and grew a natural distaste for the whiny merchant.

I especially liked the stay with the Monglremen during the first part of the adventure. The atmosphere was good and there was a lot of opportunity for the RP-elements to be included. Also, the pacing never seemed that bad; the heroes were always aware where they were supposed to go next, while at the same time pretty much able to keep it to their own speed. Each of their three followers comes with his or her own side quest once they return to the surface, and while none of them are particularly long, they’re a nice addition and possibility for the players to get to know their cohorts better.

Again, you don’t have to prepare that much as a GM. The mythic part doesn’t begin until the second chapter, and since there are so many encounters, most of them are ready to be run by the book. I recommend simply reading up on the middle stages, such as the intro, the mongrelmen town and then the stage just before launching an assault on the grey garrison. They will pretty much give you what you need to know.

A nifty little thing is how the adventure comes with its own gallery of good NPCs in the front and evil ones in the back.  The artwork is, as usual, quite good and pleasing to the eye, involving new monsters and items in the appendix just as you know it.

“The Worldwound Incursion” in a bad light
Be that as it may, chapter one has a clear goal of bringing the heroes to level 6 and it sure has to happen through rule-legal means. As in, there are encounters enough for you to go around and pull them all the way up there. Rather than just letting them start at, say, level 4 with their mythic, or simply dinging them twice in the end, the adventure starts the meat grinder and pushes on. That means lots of battles. And lots of those senseless ones I tend to loathe. You know, even though the heroes are somehow supposed to win, these encounters don’t even make an effort to make it hard. They’re purely just there to take up time and barely resources. 

On top of that there are two and-a-half-dungeons so to say, with plenty of rooms and random encounters around the city, and very little encouragement or situations to role play much, besides from what you come up with. The adventure comes with some suggestions and typical reactions from the NPCs in question, but mostly its left up to you how to run it. If at all. I suppose that for the combat happy groups this is a blessing, but I kind of missed out on some more social encounters, a bit like Ravengro in Carrion Crown.
Alternatively, you can cut down on the encounters a bit. I know I did in the end, especially in the just mentioned rooms. This, of course, has the consequence that the heroes ding swiftly with small intervals and that the adventure seemed surprisingly short. I believe we completed it in just four sessions á 5 hours each, more or less.

The narrative at the back of the book is still there. I’m aware that this is a personal complaint from my side, but it still annoys me, when we could have had more elements to the adventure, or a couple of more monsters instead. On a more relevant aspect; maybe I’ve been unlucky this time around, but both this book as well as the second chapter seemed in really poor condition with several pages falling out. None of this was an issue in Skull and Shackles and only one time in Carrion Crown. Not sure whether this is just me, but it kind of left me a bit disappointed with an otherwise high standard of quality.

Is this campaign for me, as a GM? What should I know in advance?
The first chapter is pretty straight forward, as said. There is no really big surprises, and the best thing to do is to read up on the start, the mongrelmen part, the meeting in the crusader inn and the final confrontation because they are the strongest narrative elements. Depending on how much you want the three npcs to follow the party later on, it would be advisable to read up on their respective entries. You’ll likely see your party take heart to one of them, maybe two, and then expand on that, would be my advice.

Is this campaign for you?

Well, as for now, not all of it has been published according to my knowledge. With the first four chapters or so out, I’ll say there is plenty of opportunity for you here, especially if all you want to do is run a classical good aligned demon-kicking story. Be aware, however, that it does make heavy use of the Mythic book and the Ultimate Campaign rules, especially for how to run an army. I’ll return to this in my review of the second chapter, but you should at least be prepared for these elements.

If the mythic aspect is kind of big for you as a GM to comprehend or get familiar with, I strongly encourage you to simply delegate it out to your players and let them read up on it themselves. Instead, it would be beneficial to read the player guide or even the small book about the Worldwound. It isn’t mandatory for the campaign, but as you know; every little bit helps.

So I’ll leave you here and return later on with my thoughts on the second chapter.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Mansions of Madness - Intro

It’s no secret that I, along with a multitude of colleagues within our specialized nerd-field, take great joy in the writings of H.P.Lovecraft. I mean, say what you will about his tendencies as an author and the not-quite-so-subtle-elements of racism in his stories; but I respect an author that can instill me with such amounts of dread and fear in this modern day. Without really telling that much at all.

Tomes have been written about his legacy and the influence Lovecraft has had on so many games we know today, ranging from the obvious PnP game to the computer and the delightfully messed up ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent’ - Work along with the thought, and you’ll often find that several stories and narratives today can be traced back to his ideas; sort of like the people that insist on linking all fantasy elements back to Tolkien.
While I’m not going too deep into that debate, I’ll still admit that I’m highly addicted to these eldritch tales and still have his black book of stories lying around. Which is why I decided to, at long last, give in and purchase “Mansions of Madness” - the board game of horror and a gruesome amount of tiny bits and cardboard stuff.

I’ve been playing Arkham Horror for some time; not that I’m a pro in any way or I’d be able to sit down and relate to you the rules, but I remember it fondly and as a great experience. It was one of those games in which we were actually all working together towards completion, which is kind of rare in my rather competitive environment. I suppose it says a lot about my friends, somehow…

As of this date, we haven’t yet been playing any games. I’ve read the rules so far, and with my relatively little base for comparison, I kind of like a lot of them compared to other board games. They do indeed have their strange odds and ends, yet if you’ve ever played Descent, you’re kind of familiar with such elements as a Keeper (in this case, yours truly) versus four players (in this case, likely to be Roque, SilverglassVonDottie and Hawk).  In its basic setup, the games is about a group of Lovecraftian inspired investigators poking around some kind of old mansion, Scooby-Doo style, trying to figure out what the hell happened and how they can stop it. The keeper, on the other hand, has his goal cut out for him from the start, and wishes to hinder the investigators before they dig up too much about the grand plan. This can happen through various means, such as hurling monsters at them, inflicting them with physical and mental trauma or hope they will succumb to devious traps. Sounds kind of familiar to Descent, right? 
In addition, this is one of those games that will challenge your mental skill on a very real life basis. There are cardboard puzzles whenever a player wants to short circuit a relay or pick a lock, which all have to be flipped and turned till they finally make sense. The thing is, you’re only able to flip as many tiles per turn as your investigator’s intelligence makes up for, and meanwhile time is ticking. Or that monster is busy battering down the door to your room.
The interesting thing is how the players choose not only the scenario, but also how the Keeper gets to decide what is really going on here. Every game involves three options for what the hell is going on, often meaning different objectives and places to go on the board. With the heroes needing to figure these places out, there is undoubtedly a whole lot of fun and games to be had with plenty of replay. At least I’d imagine so.

We count on going crazy with this game in the upcoming weeks or something, and I’ll make sure to return with an update once we get there. Till then, I’ll be brushing off my Keeper robe, and hope you will enjoy some of the minis that me and VonDottie made.