New Classics: The Bonegarden

The Bonegarden CoverNecromancer games hit the ground running back in the early days of third edition D&D.  Not many companies had a clear direction with their products.  Very simply they had the slogan “Third Edition Rules, First Edition Feel” and they lived up to that.  Their adventures were usually longer and more in-depth than others being produced at the time.  Their adventures also were a bit more out there and had  unusual and creative backdrops.  For my fifth New Classic line of blog posts I look at the Bonegarden, a sandbox style module written for third edition D&D but easily converted into other systems.

The great thing about Bonegarden is the multiple ways it can be used.  There is not a plot or assumed path for the module.  There is no one hook that bring the PCs into the place.  The module is designed for characters of about twelfth to fourteenth level, but with different encounter areas it could be used as a difficult place for lower level characters that just need to get in and out with no need for dealing with the whole place.  The Bonegarden is a very large cemetery.  It is surrounded by a magical field that keeps the undead contained but also makes it difficult for characters to get out.  Undead in the Bonegarden are more powerful than those elsewhere and the module covers the reasons for this.  The part that makes the Bonegarden especially deadly is that every night all the undead that were destroyed in the previous twenty four hours come back to unlife, so to speak.

The one hundred and twenty eight page module is filled with undead.  There is a wide variety of them here including many new ones that were in the Tome of Horrors.  There are fifteen new creatures and templates in the book. My favorite is the undead mimic.  Mimics are always fun and having an undead version is clever, as when players are thinking undead they usually are not thinking about mimics.  There are some new feat options and spells in here, but the new magical items are more interesting.  The Pieces of Her Heart is a sad artifact with a unique history and it offers interesting abilities as one collects the different pieces of this broken heart.

Inside the Bonegarden there are many different encounter areas.  The module has wandering monster tables and is one of the few modules that I think makes really good use of them.  There are all types of generic undead one can encounter in here and the undead always come back.  Many of the different encounter areas have their own hooks.  This can make them easy to use sections without the need to use the whole module.  There are also plenty of empty areas a DM can insert in their own encounters and buildings with their own undead creations.

Not everything in the Bonegarden is dead though.  There is a group of survivors that use one of the buildings as a place of protection.  They are dying off slowly but the group is using smart tactics to stay alive.  They are not the oddest thing in there either.  There is a large spaceship of fantastic design that has crashed there.  One could easily make it an ancient spelljammer or something more like the tech of Numeria from the Pathfinder setting.

Like most of the books I look at, this one never seemed to get its due when published.  Now one can easily find a copy for less than ten dollars.  It was a fun module when I ran it for my group many years ago.  There is a lot of things going on but nothing so complex or so huge that is overshadows everything else.  It is a great undead sandbox adventure.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

En Route Encounters

En Route IIt has been a while since I ran a good sandbox fantasy campaign.  I like the adventure paths and enjoy going through them, but they are linear and it can be tough to really have the feeling of go anywhere and try to do anything.  Even though I haven’t run that kind of campaign lately I still hold on to and seek out books that aid in that kind of campaign.  There are not a lot out there that are easily adaptable and portable into different fantasy games and worlds.  This week I am going to look at three books of the En Route series by Atlas Games for their Penumbra line.  These books offer a variety of different encounters that can easily be dropped into almost any fantasy campaign.

The En Route series of books boasts some impressive writers.  We have author credits by Keith Baker, Brannon Hollingsworth, Chris Aylott, Spike Jones, Justin Achilli, and many other familiar names.  The first two are written for 3e and the third is written for 3.5 ed D&D using the OGL, but these are very mechanics light products making them very easy to port into any other fantasy game.  Since the books are older it should be easy to find them relatively cheap.  A quick look on shows they can be purchased for around $5 a piece.

En Route IIThe En Route series are books featuring simple encounters designed to be used when the PCs are traveling from one place to another.  Some are for on the road, in a city, a tavern, in a forest, on the sea, and other places.  There is a variety of different locations with some unusual ones like in a goblin encampment or whenever the party teleports.  Each encounter is a bit more in depth with great plot ideas that a DM can carry forward.  This is one of the great things I like about the books, the encounters can be throw away encounters the PCs run into and then can forget about.  But I like encounters that might originally feel like that but a DM can cleverly use something established there and showcase it later in the campaign.  I think it helps tie different adventures together and helps the players remember what is happening in the campaign because they know something that is happening now can come back and help or hinder them in the future.

Between the three books there are approximately 50 different encounters.  Each covers about four to eight pages.  There are simple ones like the Door.  It is designed for second level characters and while wandering a road they encounter signs that say something like “Are you Worthy?” and “Do you think you have what it takes?”.  Ahead off to the side of the road is a small trail that leads to a door in the side of a rock facing covered in mystical runes and animal carvings.  The door is locked and trapped.  What lies behind the door will be remembered by the party.

En Route IIIThere is the Haunting Place, which says it is for level 10 but I would reduce it to lower level.  The magic of a level 10 party could easily make this encounter too easy or they could kill the creature they are trying to help.  It is built on the idea of a summoned monster trying to get home but there is a communication problem between it and anyone it tries to get to help it.  It can really set the scene for a spooky encounter as the players are trying to figure out exactly what is going on.

Many of the encounters are not combat encounters.  Some use illusions or tricks to set up situations that are not quite apparent to the players at first. One of my favorites is the Glass House by Keith Baker.  It is a simple situation in which a magical experiment inside in Inn turns the place and everyone inside invisible.  The PCs are assumed to be outside and witness the Inn and everyone vanish.  There is a mystery of what happened and how to undo it all but it sets up for some fun and different kind of encounter.

The En Route series is perfect for DMs looking for something a little extra to help out a gaming session or serve as a small distraction.  None of them will take a full session or even a half of session but all of them could if the DM wants to put in a little work to add additional levels of complexity.  I like these for a sandbox campaign as it would be easy to just have the books handy and grab them when needed.  There are a few that could be used in Adventure Paths to just put in something different and not directly connected to the AP.  Most of them are for lower level groups and any of these that say they are for higher ones like level 10 and up I would pay close attention to, as most of them I feel would work better for lower level characters.  There is a lot of creativity and cleverness in these books coming from authors who were not as well-known as they are today.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Gen Con – A Reflection

GenCon LogoGen Con is a gaming convention held yearly in Indianapolis.  It features role playing games, board games, card games, and LARPs.  If there is only one gaming convention people go to a year it is usually this one.  This is the first year that it has been held in Indianapolis that I have not gone.  I’m just a few hours away by car and I have plenty of friends to share a room with.  But it just was not in the cards this year.  It saddens me as there are a lot of friends that I only see there.  Gen Con for me is not about gaming it is about the friends I have gained through gaming.  For the socially awkward introverts like myself that is something to really cherish.

Gen Con is huge.   It is really hard to imagine how big it is even if you are there.  There are sections of the convention that people are not aware of because they focus on events some people are not interested in. I make an effort to walk around to all the places in the convention hall and all the rooms in the many different hotels that they use just so I can get a better appreciation of it all. There are all kinds of board and RPGs being run at all hours.  They have GMs sign up to run games and then people buy tickets for these events.  It is one of the main attractions at the conventions.  People can sign up for games they know and love or try out ones that they have not been able to play before.  It is a great way to get an idea of what else is out there in the industry.  It is a part of Gen Con I avoid.  I don’t like their system to sign up for events and I have better luck with games at smaller conventions.  In all my time at Gen Con I have only played in one event and that was True Dungeon which I really disliked.  I have run three games there and those were done as a favor for a friend who asked me to help him run some events.  I play and run games with my large group of friends off book.  We have our own GMs and a huge player pool.  We do RPGs and board games and some card games and even miniatures.

I don’t think Gen Con likes that we do this.  One year we had games organized on Google Calendar and Gen Con asked us to take it down.  We used to use the open gaming space in the Hyatt and Gen Con people would harass us and then that spaced vanished.  Now Open Gaming is in the convention center in smaller space that is never open.  We would use table in the Embassy Suites but last year they were even cracking down on those and limiting when they could be used.  I’m sure they are cracking down on all kinds of events that don’t bring the convention money.   It doesn’t make me want to sign up for their events. It makes me want to game elsewhere.

My Gen Con experiences are about the people.  I know gamers that fill their convention with events but that is too much pressure.  I take a more laid back approach.  I’ll schedule a game or two each day leaving plenty of time for just meeting and talking to people.  I would spend time walking around and just see who I might run into and if they have a free hour to hang out with them.  I’m a morning person so I would always be up early and I knew which of my other friends would be up and we would get a nice breakfast somewhere.  It is a great way to start off the day with breakfast and good gaming conversations with good friends before the masses wake up.

Nights are filled with parties.  I will attend more parties at Gen Con than I will the rest of the year.  I do not drink alcohol, so that activity at the parties is lost on me.  But after a few hour of conversation there is usually some people just wanting to play something so we will throw together a board game or some kind of gaming event.  Even if we don’t there are few things better then talking and not drinking with friends.

The dealer hall is a big focus of the convention for many gamers.  It is the place that the vendors are and it has reduced hours.  There is always some hot new item that hundreds of people want and that causes the ‘Running of the Fatbeards’.  It is not complimentary term.  The doors will open and hundreds of people will run in trying to buy what they want.  I’ve seen it and it looks dangerous.  I’m really surprised no one has been trampled yet. It is only luck no one gets injured.  Convention Staff just stand back and try not to get hurt themselves.   I used to spend a lot of money in the dealer hall.  As the years have gone by though the old out of print books I want, I mostly have.  There are fewer and fewer items being made that interest me.  It is the great irony of a gamer.  When you are young you have all kinds of time to play games but no money to do so.  When you get older you have the money but no longer the time.

One hassle in Indy is that Gen Con doesn’t seem to get the city to itself.  There are usually other events going on that clash with Gen Con.  Sometimes it is other conventions, or a preseason football game, or some kind of motorcycle rally.  This can make it difficult to get a hotel or parking.  Parking is expensive, at least compared to the large cities near me.  It is about three times more expensive there.  Hotels are also not cheap, especially if one likes to do like I do and arrive Tuesday and leave on Monday.  It is more expensive but worth it.  I’ve stayed in seven different hotels there and a condo.  None of them have been bad.

Gen Con is a great experience and something I look forward to every year.  I am sad I am not there now and not going to enjoy the great experiences.  It is not a perfect convention by any means and I know the way I experience it is going to be very different from how other people do.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Review: Denizens of Avadnu

Denizens of Avadnu coverPotential is a powerful word.  It is used all the time and seen in the people around us.  We get a hint at what might be and we hope to see the potential realized.  Many times it isn’t and we are left wondering “what if?”  I can’t imagine what it must be like for companies that impress with their first gaming product but are never able to live up to the potential the gamers see who get their first book.  This week I’m looking at one of the best and most creative monster books for D&D/ Pathfinder I have seen.  I like it better than Privateer Press’ Monsternomicon, Necromancer Game’s Tome of Horrors, and Green Ronin’s Advanced Bestiary.  All three of those books are well worth owning and writing about. I am going with a lesser known book by a company that doesn’t seem to exist anymore and needs to be seen by more gamers instead of the more popular selections.

Denizens of Avadnu is a monster book written for 3.5 D&D.  It is the first product Inner Circle produced for their Violet Dawn setting.  While a great book I think it was a mistake to make the monster book first and not the setting first.  There was a PDF release of epic level monsters and I think some information on unique races to the world but I don’t recall they ever published the full setting.  The book was also a bit expensive I felt at the time.  It was priced at $40 for a 225 page full color hardcover book.  On their gaming site you can order the book for just $10.  You might be able to find it cheaper than that, but I do like giving money to the publishers especially small press ones like them.

Flipping through the book I am still amazed at the full color art and the overall look in this book.  It is beautifully done and still one of the best looking monster books.  That is just the beginning as the creativity is off the charts.  The monsters are all original and feel very different.  There is nothing in here that seems like a goblin or orc with a few changes.  There are no new devils or demons or other monsters like those that just build off of other creatures.  Each creature is given its own page.  This allows for a lot of good information and that is needed with these creatures.  The normal description and combat entries are there, but there is also information for adventure ideas using the creatures and specific information of the creature in their setting of Avandu.  Going through and just reading the Avandu sections really makes me want to see a full setting that brings together all of the  great little details offered in this book.

One of my favorite creatures in here is called the Dread Spire.  It is an aquatic creature rarely seen in places not thousands of feet below the surface of the oceans.  It resembles a huge tower with tentacles coming out from it and it is different and weird.  The book also has animals and vermin, though each is also given a unique twist.  I like that it introduces creatures that are non-Earth native but treats them like normal animals.

Denizens of Avandu is one of those books that even after almost ten years I find myself keeping my copy though multiple book purges and finding ways to use it.  It is great for those D&D players that think they have seen everything.  There are some really odd and cool creatures in here and being able to show the players amazing art of the creatures makes them that much better.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Review: War Against the Chtorr

Cover War Against ChtorrThis review covers the GURPS book War Against the Chtorr based on the series by David Gerrold. If you enjoy a different kind of Alien Invasion series then I suggest trying them out.  The series starts with A Matter for Men that was published in 1983 and since it is 30 years old can be found cheap in many used books stores and to borrow in local libraries.  This review will contain some spoilers.

Alien invasions are a common theme in much science fiction.  Usually ships come from outer space and Earth is at war.  Rarely is there a different kind of invasion but that is what one gets in the War Against the Chtorr series by David Gerrold.  Gerrold is not a household name among science fiction writers but many more people are familiar with his work then they realize.  His most famous piece of work I would think is the episode Trouble with Tribbles for Star Trek the Original series.  In 1983 he wrote A Matter for Men the first book in the series.  There are now four books in this uncompleted series but they still make for some very good reads.

The blog post though is not a review of an incomplete series.  It is about gaming and thankfully GURPs put out a book called War Against the Chtorr allowing gamers to experience this alien invasion.  Like many GURPS books it is filled with useful information and not bogged down too much by rules.  I am not a fan of the GURPS system but I still own fifty or so of their sourcebooks because they are so easy to use in other systems and many times are more informative then other gaming books on the same topic.

The Alien Invasion is subtle.  They did not arrive with ships or by dropping asteroids on the planet or even by transporting huge monsters to us through an undersea rift.  The characters in the books believe that is started with billions of microscopic particles that came from deep space and arrive on Earth.  There it slowly reproduced and started to create small pockets of an alien ecology.  The first evidence was massively deadly pandemics.  They hit one after another after another and by the time some scientist were figuring things out the population and infrastructure was in serious jeopardy.  That’s when in remote areas of the world people started to notice alien creatures and plants.  The creatures there evolved and changed and produced more different kinds of aliens.  They are not a united front and they do prey on each other.  But they also are devastating to the Earth’s ecology and they are winning.

War Against the Chtorr is one of the easier licensed projects to have a campaign in that mimics the books it is based on.  It would work best if the players are not familiar with the books.  I imagine that won’t be too hard to do.  Then you just have the PCs make discoveries and learn more and more about what is going on just like in the books.  The aliens are really alien and different than what we usually see in science fiction.  It is more than just killing them but trying to understand what is going on and how it all works.  The GURPS book has twenty pages on how to do a campaign with great ideas and ways to make it all work.  Many times license projects just give ways to make characters and some setting information but leave the question of “What do the PCS do?” unanswered.  The book has forty alien plants and animals for the PCs to discover.  Even by the forth book of the series the characters are discovering new types of aliens and understanding older aliens they thought they had figured out.  Pacing of information might be one of the more challenging aspects of this campaign.

Technology in the books is advanced in some ways and others not.  I think one can still keep the feel of the books tech but adapt and incorporate some of today’s high technology that surpasses what we see in the book.  Near future science fiction has always had these types of problems.  The GURPs book does a good job of mapping out the technology from the series.  Some of it like the giant Zeppelins from the fourth book I’d probably change but they did serve a unique purpose for attempting to communicate with some of the hives.

One aspect that makes it much different from other alien invasion stories is the lack of a command structure for the invaders.  They have shown in the books creatures of different intelligence but if there is a true unifying intelligence behind everything we haven’t seen it.  That can happen with uncompleted works so it doesn’t always give the PCs great direction knowing there is one being or something specific to strike against.

For fans of the series the GURPs book is important because it builds off of Gerrold’s notes and includes nuggets of information that have not been published in the series yet.  In 2005 the names of the three final books were announced and I had hoped that we would have a new book released by now but since it has been almost 20 years since the release of book four, A Season for Slaughter, I fear we will never get a completed series.  I’m okay with that as I’m not sure we could get a happy ending that did not feel forced.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

ENnies Exposé

ENnies LogoThe ENnies are an RPG awards that have become the Official Gen Con Awards.  It started out as something small on EN World message boards.  It has grown tremendously and become in my opinion the most important RPG awards there are.  I do admit to being biased as I was a Judge for the ENnies for six years.  What follows are some stories and gossip on what has happened with the ENnies behind the scenes.  Some of it is good and some of it is bad.  No names are going to be mentioned because while I am writing this to inform people it is not my intention to embarrass or call out any persons.  All opinions right and wrong are mine and mine alone.

I’m really not sure why I ran for ENnies judge.   The first year I did it I did not get voted in, but I did the second year I tried.  I had no idea what kind of hell I was getting myself into.  It was fun and I’m very happy I did, but that first year was difficult because of the circumstances.  The other judges that year were great.  It was a collection of some very intelligent and experienced gamers.  We had some great conversations about what should and should not get nominated.  The purpose of the judges is to read all the books that publishers submit and come to a consensus list of five books for each of the categories.  Once the judges pick the nominations it is put up to a fan vote.  In those days it was also the Judges responsibility to create categories that fit the products submitted.  For instance we had the best Monster Supplement that year because we saw many monster books submitted.  The reason it was hell was almost everything came at the last minute.  The last week of May and all of June I had about one hundred and fifty RPGs to read and it is a lot more work than it sounds.

Everything that was submitted was read cover to cover at least once.  I had a notebook I would take notes in about each book.  It wasn’t just the content we were judging but the production values, interior art, cover art, rules, cartography, and everything about a book.  I learned a lot about layout that year.  The concept of excessive white space for instance was not something I ever noticed before.  I was paying attention to fonts, font size, how pictures were used to help the text flow, or in the case of bad lay out, just interrupted the text.  After reading through everything I had a pile of books that I felt were not good enough for any category so I put those to the side.  All the others got read for a second and sometimes third time as I reduced my lists of what was best.  During this time the judges are communicating online with what they liked and did not like.  There were more than a few times that I had to go get a book out of my “no like” pile and reread it because another judge or two sang its praises.  Doing this was in addition to everything else one normal does, like go to work.  I had a weekly game and I usually was social with friends during the week.  To get it all read and to do my job properly I canceled gaming for June.  I didn’t see anyone socially and even took vacation time to get everything finished that I had to finish.  My girlfriend at the time broke up with me as for that month reading gaming books became her adversary.

GenCon LogoLater years became better as companies would not all wait to the last minute to submit books to us.  We still felt that too many of them did but that was really to their disadvantage.  The books we got after Gen Con and early in the year we had months of discussion on them and more time to read and reread.  Books that came in at the very end of the submission period could not get that kind of scrutiny because of the time crunch.

I bring up all the time devoted to reading because we were occasionally accused of not reading everything. One year we were even called out by at the time possibly the biggest name in gaming.  Those years I really feel we did read it all.  I wasn’t the only one that took vacation time and missed social and family events to get the job done.  After we put in all that hard work and had people claim otherwise, that upset us.  Some of us blew our tops and angrily replied.  I had friends that asked me in private if I really did read everything or if I faked it.  I would tell them the truth that I read everything and was insulted that they would imply otherwise.  When I signed up to be judge it was a commitment and a responsibility that I had to follow through to the best of my ability.   I took it very seriously even though awards are not always that well respected by the fans and by publishers.

In later years when I was and was not a judge I got the feeling that some judges were not reading everything.  I’d talk about specific books with them and they were not able to have a discussion about it.  Some of the most difficult books to judge are supplements submitted to games the judges don’t own and don’t play.  I talked to judges that would read the supplement but not the game it was based on.  It’s impossible to judge a supplement if you don’t know the rules and what the supplement is building off of.  There is no oversight for the judges.  Each judge does their reading in their own place in different part of the US and even the world.  They really need to require more transparency for the judges.  They should be required to go to Gen Con.  At the very least the people running the ENnies should meet with the Judges.  Otherwise it is too easy to lie and cheat one’s way into being a judge.

As RPGs grew on the net, other sites devoted to gaming emerged.  People had blogs and then podcasts about gaming.  I don’t know whose ideas it was to include them in the ENnies as categories but I thought it was a mistake then and still do.  As judges we were told we had control of the categories but when some of us talked about not including Best Blog and Best Podcast the Powers that Be told us that was not a possibility.  We had freedom when I was first a judge and it worked.  When I stopped being a judge much of that freedom had been taken away.  My guess it was done so to appease people who disliked the ENnies.  We had some publishers that would never enter and then there were game sites that would just talk bad about the ENnies because it is the internet and that’s what people do on the internet.

Podcasts were the worst.  It was amateur radio about gaming done in a way that made me want to quit gaming.  We had some that were in excess of three hours.  People were coughing into microphones.  There was dead air.  None of the ones I listened to sounded like they were edited or that there was much of a plan going into them.  Some were of people actually playing the games.  They gave no lead in like what had happened before, what the plot was, and in many cases what the game was.  It would literally be thirty minutes before I could figure out what they were playing.  I nominated many podcasts based on length of episodes, the shorter the better.  Some podcasts tried to be news shows.  I would be listening to a podcast in May that were recorded and aired in November.  The breaking news was mostly unimportant by then and the guesswork they did on what companies would be doing would be proved wrong.  Having to include and listen to podcasts was one of the main reasons I stopped running for ENnies Judge.

Some publishers would enter others would not.  Steve Jackson Games I think entered once or twice by accident.  At one time I had a contact within the company who I talked with about the awards.  He loved the idea and he was ready to submit stuff.  Then one day I just stopped hearing from him.  When I finally did hear back it was short message that basically said someone higher in the company had told him SJGs would never submit anything to the ENnies and he was told to cease all communication with me.  Goodman Games is another odd one.  They used to submit modules and some sourcebooks and we would nominate them because they were good books.  I heard Goodman Games stopped submitting product because they would rarely win the awards.  It’s a fan vote so we have no control over that and we know it is hard to win going up against companies like Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, White Wolf, Green Ronin, and other companies that were just hugely popular.  Upsets did happen from time to time.  The way the awards are structured being nominated is an award in itself.  That is being picked by the experts, the judges that have read everything.  If we see seventy adventures in a year and pick one of yours to be top five that’s pretty impressive.  Some companies just did not believe it or did not want to see it.  Others usually small companies would thank us profusely.  They would see a sales bump the week after we made our nominations.

Shackled City CoverIn 2006 we were blindsided by a controversy I was not expecting.  I’m still not sure if it was a legitimate complaint or just people airing sour grapes because they lost.  Shackled City hardcover was entered by Paizo Publishing.  It is a great product that reprints the adventures of the Shackled City AP that appeared in Dungeon Magazine.  They expanded on those adventures to include more information especially about the city of Cauldron the setting for most of the Adventure Path.  We, the judges, nominated for Best Adventure and for Best Campaign Setting/ Setting Supplement.  It won gold for both categories and then some people complained that the book cannot be both an adventure and a setting book.  I disagree as there have been books that are both setting and adventures.  RPG books can’t always be so easily classified as just one thing.

This past year has also not been without possible problems.  When the judges wanted to discuss what should be nominated they wanted to use Skype.  It would have been a great way to communicate and I wish we had that ability when I was a judge.  But one of the judges refused, and for some reason, instead of majority rules, which is the way it is set up, Skype was not used. Instead the judges had to have the discussions in a less efficient and much slower method of e-mail.  That’s a situation that management should be watching over and step in.

Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginnger BoxAnother more alarming example from this year is the exclusion of Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Box.  It was submitted but left off all the nominations.  It was not left off because most of the judges don’t like Star Wars or felt that other products were just better.  It was left off because one judge didn’t like the special dice the game uses and refused to let it get nominated for anything.  It is fine that a judge didn’t like the product but no one judge should be able to influence the nominations and have their opinion override the others.

Being a judge for the ENnies was great.  I came across a lot of products that I never would have otherwise.  I loved that I was there to help open up the awards from just d20 to all RPGs.  I think the awards have lost focus on that as we see more items that are not RPGs in them.  Voting for the awards is taking place now and is going to be open till July 31st.  I encourage all gamers to go and vote.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve only read or played a few of the items on there.  The more votes that the awards get and the more feedback they get from fans can only improve the awards.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Council of Thieves Campaign

~ This post contains spoilers for the Council of Thieves Adventure Path. Do not read if you do not wish to be spoiled. ~

After we finished Kingmaker the DM and blog owner Jeff wanted a break. I stepped in and we talked about what Adventure Path to try next and we decided on Council of Thieves. It was my number one pick as I really enjoy city based campaigns. I did not do a lot of research on it to know what was going to be in store for us. I thought it looked fun and interesting and knew I could really make it shine. There will be spoilers so readers are warned. I’m not going to talk about everything in each book but I will discuss some things good and bad about the AP and some of the changes that I did.

To start with I encouraged my players to make skill based characters, as skills were going to be a bigger focus in the campaign. They chose an Inquisitor, Rogue, Urban Ranger, and a Bard. I wanted to limit spellcasting and that really did it. Also, the campaign is designed to go to 13th level, but I only advanced them to 10th level for the end. Magic was not a powerful factor for the players and it helped the game tremendously. The AP is the first written for Pathfinder and it shows. The stat blocks for the enemies were not well done. This how an adventure that went to 13th level could be completed by a group of weaker classes levels behind where they should have been. Also, the content in the books was lacking. We made it through most of them in two sessions verses the five to six sessions a Kingmaker book took us.

The main thing I did was help my players come up with good backgrounds for the setting and flesh out some NPCs they knew that I could use. I like to flesh out the setting and add in side plots for the PCs that don’t revolve around the main campaign plot but can cause complications and offer allies. I know many gamers don’t make backgrounds as the GMs never use them and they never serve a purpose. I always use them and if a player doesn’t supply the information I will supply it for them with their approval.

The Bastards of ErebusThe first book is the Bastards of Erebus. It defines some of the city. Westcrown used to be the capital city until the civil war and the Devil Worshipers took over. Sadly, the repression and evil government is not shown much and if I were to do it again I would do a better job of establishing that. Part of the city has been abandoned and that is where gangs like the Bastards have set up. I did move the events of the book as it starts with the group meeting a second society and then during that meeting bad guys come in and break it up. I don’t think PCs would go back to that group after the first time they almost get killed and don’t have any real ties to them. So, I set up some small adventures using some options the book provides to do afterwards and had them happen first. This established a greater connection between the PCs and the group so when the leader of the group needs rescued the PCs would do that.

One major change I did was giving the group a powerful item in their first adventure, a Helm of Brilliance. The city has a curfew because shadow beasts rule the night. People who venture out after dark have a habit of never being seen again. The problem has existed for over 30 years. I included more history of failed attempts to fix the problem then the books do because by the books the people of the city just accepted it. The Helm gives power versus the undead and some spell ability that can really damage and kill the things. But the Helm is a charged item so the group was conservative and made it last much longer than I expected.

The Sixfold Trial is book two and might have one of the most famous scenes from all the Adventure Paths in it: the Play. The characters are hired to put on a dangerous play in which the characters of the play are tortured through trials. The trials though are real so the PCs have to live through these potentially very dangerous trials. I thought it was fun. It introduced some great NPCs and allowed the players to do some things they don’t usually do in our games. I had each PC audition and have the director yell at them and it was fun. When we got to the play I was shocked that my group wanted to read through all their lines. I was really expecting some of them to refuse.  No one is going to win a Tony Award for our performance but I enjoyed it. Afterwards they are invited to the evil Mayor’s estate to steal stuff and sadly this wasn’t as good. I was shocked the PCs didn’t try to rob the house blind. Also the dinner party had other NPCs and my players at the time just didn’t engage them. It wasn’t an issue with the adventure or anything it was just an opportunity missed.

I really like that the dungeon crawls in here and short and there are not many of them. It is also a reason why the AP went as quickly as there is not a lot of filler that consume time. I inserted material from the setting books about the city and different NPCs from different sourcebooks that were part of the city. I even included a dragon that seems to be ignored now in the setting. Strangely, the PCs never realized it was a dragon. I kept track of different books I used for this AP and I think I hit over 60 Pathfinder and non-Pathfinder books that were referenced by me to enhance the campaign. It is the most work I’ve put into a campaign for using mostly printed adventures from start to finish.

What Lies In DustWhat Lies in Dust is the third book. The first half consists of gathering information and some oddly pointless fights leads way to one of the cooler places to adventure and that is an abandoned Pathfinder Lodge. It also featured our first really difficulty combat and one of the reasons the Helm of Brilliance was handed out so early in the campaign. The Lodge features some very cool and creative rooms the Pathfinder had. Much of it is creepy and magical and I would really like to see more places like this. The difficult combat was some Vampires that I did not foreshadow to keep them as a complete surprise. The NPC Paladin that was journeying with them was killed in one round by the vampires as by this time the group is only supposed to be sixth level (they were fifth) and the vampires have a great ambush place and class levels. Most of the NPCs are not well built, but these guys were especially for a group that did not have a Cleric. It turned into a great battle and was challenging and fun.

In the Infernal Syndrome, the fourth book, the Mayor’s house blows up. It was a fun scene of the PCs running through the city to get to the disaster and then trying to help. Our rogue had her favorite combat as there was a devil on a rooftop shooting arrows. She quickly climbed up attacked and then retreated. She knew she could not face the creature in hand to hand so used great hit and run tactics and made great use of her characters abilities. Then the group sees thieves going into the basement and that leads to what is probably the largest dungeon crawl in the Adventure Path. It is a large magical engine with a Pit Fiend as its battery. It is a neat idea and there are some interesting encounters and fun NPCs, but the last dozen or so rooms really dragged on making it tiresome by the time the group gets to the Pit Fiend.

My favorite encounter in here was a Lich (weak Lich, like the weak Pit Fiend) who used to be a former mayor of the city. He was of course Evil. He talked to the group and they talked back. He had good reasons for becoming a Lich. It wasn’t because he was evil but he knew that the only way he could live long enough to come back and rescue Westcrown from itself was to become a Lich. Every question the party asked him he came up with good and reasonable answers. They almost let him live which would have been just awesome and interesting. But one of my players realized what was going on and just attacked. It was pretty awesome and fun.

Mother of Flies is the fifth book. It has the only section that really takes the party out of the city. It’s probably less than a mile outside the city. A potential ally who happens to be an evil Hag is being attacked because she knows a secret. The group had fun planning out a counter attack and really getting in some larger scale tactics. The battle does not have to go that way but I have a player that enjoys that so we let him come up some plans and they executed them well. After that it is attacking a thieves’ guild headquarters. It went fast because I did not make the group do a room to room search because most of the rooms are empty. Also, most the opponents as written are painfully too weak. According to the AP the character should be level 10 and many of the normal thieves here had a measly +3 to attack. So, even with flanking they had a 10% to hit our Bard who had the worst AC in the group. There are some named NPCs here that can offer some trouble but mostly it was an easy book to complete.

The Twice-Damned PrinceThe series ends with the Twice Damned Prince. Up to this point the group was not sure who the mastermind was as I was purposefully making it so it could be one of two NPCs. This book instead of a set path, has a lot of small encounters that deal with some of the NPCs and events around the city. It is an interesting way to finish the campaign. The part I hated was by doing this the group collects points and then depending on the amount of points determines how the populace reacts to them. There just is not enough points to be gained to get what most groups would see as a happy ending. I knew I was tossing out that system but told the PCs about it and let them see what would happen if we used it and they got a Martial Law result. We went with a happier ending.

Over all the AP was a lot of fun and a lot of work. I know it is not seen to be as good as Kingmaker but I’d rank it near there, though it is very different.  In the campaign there is an artifact the PCs acquire and they still have it at the end. One of the reasons I just leveled the group to 10th level and had them play skill based characters was the idea they would go off into the world and find out how to destroy the artifact. With the artifacts history I did not change much to lead into the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. The Serpent Skull AP though just didn’t work out well for us.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Kickstarters and Playtests

Kickstarter BadgeIt is not ground breaking to say that Kickstarters and Open Playtests are changing the RPG Industry.  They have been going on for years and have helped get books published that might not have otherwise.  It is interesting to see the discussions on these topics though.  I have backed only a handful of Kickstarters but I know people that have backed hundreds.  I do tend to back at larger amounts though, so when I see something to invest in I go in with gusto.  But they have also allowed more transparency into what goes on in RPG publishing and I am not sure the companies are better for it.

The biggest thing with Kickstarter is the misperception people and companies have for it.  I know many people look at it like a preorder system but it is an investment.  It is clever that companies are instead offering product instead of a gain on the capital investment.  It amazes me how popular these things are because it seems that helping a Kickstarter get funded doesn’t really save much money for the investor.  It would cost about the same to get the book once it comes out or even save quite a bit of money by getting it through Amazon.  I know not everything on Kickstarter will end up on Amazon but it at least a company can save the investor some money by making it a better deal than buying it through a store.

The most frustrating thing with Kickstarters though is how late these companies are in getting out what was promised to their investors.  I’ve not participated in many but only one has had the product shipped on time.  I’m waiting on two, To Slay a Dragon and the 20th Anniversary of Werewolf.  Both of those are over six months late and are ready to be printed or something like that but we are in limbo.  I don’t work in publishing but I do know if any of my projects ran this late I’d be fired unless I had a fantastic reason.  The companies though are not held accountable.  The fans will keep buying the books and allow them to be disorganized and late with no consequence.  Both of the companies even started new Kickstarters before the other is compete which I won’t back.  The Werewolf people at least mentioned it in one of their updates and I give them credit for that.  In the end when seeing the money I spent and the time between a stated return and the actual return has made these bad investments.  I might not lose my shirt in the end as I do believe the books will eventually be printed and delivered.  But anyone that knows investing knows that there are many ways to lose besides losing everything.

D&D NextOpen Playtests are also something new to the industry.  Some smaller companies have done them from time to time but I think when Paizo and now Wizards of the Coast doing one it really shows how beneficial they can be.  I hate them.  I have no interest in playing an incomplete game.  It’s hard enough to get people together for once a week gaming and I’d hate to waste that on a system that’s every changing.  I don’t feel the feedback really does much good.  There is just too much of it and there will be feedback that contradicts other feedback.  The designers are going to do what they have planned.  It just seems like the Open Playtest is a marketing ploy to keep people aware of the new game that is coming out.

When the game comes out I’ll try it but until then I’ll devote my time to finished games.  Even worse is the preview copies of games that get sold by the companies.  Paizo did it with Pathfinder, though at least they had a PDF copy for free.  Last year at Gen Con there was the new Star Wars game and this year I think the same is going to be done for Firefly.  These are all games I am interested in and will probably buy.  But I think it is a rip off to sell an incomplete preview version to fans.  The preview version will be worthless and obsolete once the game comes out.  It is just taking advantage of a company’s fans to get more money out of them.

In the end though the fans will come with money and not care about how the company treats them.  Many fans are probably unaware on how bad companies treat them.  This is not a problem unique to gaming by any means.  But it would be nice to see companies treat their fans a little better at times.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.

Review: Masks

MasksOne of the things I have a lot of in my RPG book collection is generic books that help with setting.  I like books on NPCs, businesses, countries, cities, or just odd encounters I can borrow and use.  A good friend of mine who was one of the ENnie Judges in 2012 bought this for me for Christmas.  It was in his opinion one of the best and most useful RPG books he saw that year and as an ENnie Judge he saw a lot.  It also won the Gold medal for Best Aid and Accessory so a few other people agreed with his judgment.  It is not an adventure but it is one of the more useful books I’ve found.  The book is called Masks by Engine Publishing and written by the guys at Gnome Stew.  It is a collection of one thousand NPCs and has been used each session of my current campaign.

Masks is an over three hundred page book of a thousand NPCs.  The NPCs are written up without stats or attempts at stats.  Sometimes a system less book tries to give combat ratings or make up their own stats that don’t correlate to any game.  They don’t do that here and that makes me happy.  The book is simply divided into modern, fantasy, and science fiction sections.  Each of those sections is then divided into villains, neutrals, and allies.  I have found though that I can search for a useful NPC outside of the genre I’m playing.  The current campaign is a modern game but I’ve found NPCs in this book from the Fantasy and science fictions sections that work and work well.

The most useful aspect of the book are the indexes.  They make it easy to keep track of the NPCs one uses.  Each NPC is numbered one to one thousand.  They each have a list of traits on them and in one of the indexes all the traits are listed with page number of an NPC that has that trait.  So, if you need a mysterious NPC it is easy to find them.   There is also an index of all the NPCs in alphabetic order.  The index I found most useful though is one that collects NPCs into different groups.  If one needs a crime lord and his minions they list the NPCs that would work for that.  I would have liked if they would have done more of that.

With a thousand NPCs they are not all winners but there are plenty there to be easily used.  This is the only book I have used for each game session and taken with me to each session.  The main rule book we use doesn’t even get used as much as this book.  One of the biggest uses for me is just names.  I used to use a book called Everyone Everywhere that was a great name generator.  Now we have the internet and names can be found much easier.  Many times just the smallest spark is all that is needed to really get an NPC moving and this book defiantly provides that.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.


zombieWorld War Z opened this weekend, the Walking Dead series seems to still be going strong, and more and more zombie related fiction seems to be coming out in increasing numbers. I thought Zombies might have reached saturation with the less than stellar Marvel Zombie series but the craze seemed to survive that. I admit I enjoy the Zombie craze. I even watch those bad SyFy movies about zombies along with reading many different Zombie novels (almost 90 at this point). Most of them are not worth talking about but even in the bad ones comes the occasionally cool or clever idea. I doubt I’ll ever get to run a Zombie Apocalypse game but as most gamers know the next best thing to running on is planning one.

A number of questions need addressed in planning a zombie apocalypse game. In many of the RPGs that follow this theme they answer them for the reader but don’t really address the questions well. All Flesh Must Be Eaten is the one RPG I recommend for this as it is more of a toolbox then a firm setting like the others I’ve seen.

I think the first thing needing done is defining the setting. The assumption is usually modern day but I’ve read some cool settings that deal with near future a few decades or a century after the Zombies first appear. There have been some cool super heroes zombie settings but I’d advise staying away from Rotten Capes RPG. Even setting it back ten or twenty years can severely impact the game as communication has really become a lot easier in that time.

While in many cases the cause is not revealed I believe a GM needs to have an idea for it to help the game. It is very possible that the PCs will eventually take the game from just survival to something more and discovering the cause is a likely mystery to attempt to deal with. Now that doesn’t mean it has to be possible for the PCs to ever learn the cause. And as a GM I would include call kinds of rumors from alien spores to natural pandemic and everything in between. Knowing the cause can help define how it is transferred, if there is a cure, and other likely characteristics of whatever is causing the Zombie Plague.

The big question though is fast or slow zombies. On the big screen the zombies have become faster and faster because it looks better on the big screen that way. It is more difficult to make people feel threatened all the time by slow zombies, but they should be no less scary. I think World War Z the book did a great job of showing how they can be frightening. I like a good mix though. In one series I read slow zombies were actually herded by the faster zombies who used them as distractions. It was cool to see pack tactics being used by zombies.  I also like the settings showing reasons for the different kinds. Fast zombies might be charged by radiation from nuclear bombs that failed to kill them. Or they just might be bodies that are less decayed or damaged.

GMs can spring the apocalypse on the PCs or give them time to prepare. Some good novels have shown that the outbreak starts on one nearby city and gives the characters a day or so along with everyone else to prepare or panic. Also, a GM can take the PCs through the start of the chaos or just spring them in the middle like Walking Dead does. I almost feel it would be a good bait and switch scenario allowing the players to think it is one type of campaign and then surprise them with the walking dead showing up. That can help so all the PCs are not ex-military survivalist. Showcasing more normal characters and how they deal with the onslaught is one of better aspects of the games then just making it well armed militia men ready for the end.

One of the bigger complaints I see is that in the books and movies there has to be tension between characters. Some of these actually seem more like soap operas with zombies and I think it comes from writers not fully embracing the conflicts that can happen. There doesn’t need to be infighting to create drama. It can be challenging enough just trying to find food and shelter and stay safe. Sure it is good to have rival gangs of people or even other groups that are not evil but don’t agree with the PCs. But too often it seems aside from the main characters most of the humans they run into are worse than the Zombies. It just happens way too often that it becomes boring and predictable.

The most important aspect that I think many of the novels and movies lack but I feel is more important for an RPG is hope. If the game seems hopeless and there is no chance for improvement I think players get bored and frustrated. It’s not fun anymore even if it might be completely realistic. I would allow the PCs to build a community or gather in a caravan. That is why I would give hints of a cause and a possible cure. It allows the PCs to work towards something.

Chris Gath.  I’ve been gaming since 1980 playing all kinds of games since then.  In the past year I’ve run Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classic, Paranoia, and Mini d6.  My current campaign is mini d6 and we are using that for a modern supernatural conspiracy investigative game.  On some forums I’m known as Crothian and I’ve written a few hundred reviews though I took a sabbatical from reviewing for a few years as it burnt me out.  I was also an judge for the Gen Con awards (ENnies) six times.  Jeff, the owner of this blog, is one of my players and a good friend.