Monday, May 20, 2019

Harrowing Experiences Ahead!

In the Pathfinder RPG's default setting of Golarion, the Harrow deck is a divination tool that fills the same role as our world's Tarot deck. It consists of 54 cards, divided into six suits of nine cards each. Each suit corresponds to one of the game's six ability scores, and each card in a suit corresponds to one of the nine alignments. When you need to determine what card is drawn, you can either use a physical Harrow deck (sold by Paizo) or roll dice (d6 for ability score; d10 for alignment, rerolling 10's).

I was introduced to this bit of world lore when I started playing Pathfinder Society, and was told that there were many character options (a prestige class, archetypes, feats, and spells) that made use of the Harrow. However, in order to legally use those options in PFS, you need to own an actual Harrow deck, which can be difficult to find. (The Paizo site currently lists the Deluxe Harrow Deck as available, but I'm not sure I've ever seen one in a store.) Because of that, I never looked into those options--until very recently, when I found a reasonably priced copy on eBay (approximately MSRP, with free shipping).

Once I acquired my own deck, I started to look at the various Pathfinder titles that make use of it. The instruction book included with the Deluxe deck lists most of these, and I've also found a couple of Pathfinder Society scenarios that feature the deck.

Inner Sea World Guide: This sourcebook includes an equipment entry for the Harrow deck, a harrowing divination spell, and a Harrowed feat (which provides a random benefit once a day determined by a card draw). Harrowed characters can qualify for the Harrower prestige class: a fortune-teller who can tap into the mystic power of her deck to enhance her spellcasting, and to subtly twist fate to help herself and her allies.

Varisia: Birthplace of Legends: This book provides background on the Varisian culture that produced the Harrow deck as we know it. It includes a racial trait for Varisian humans that grants a free heirloom Harrow deck, which is pretty much the only affordable way to start with one at 1st level (a deck costs 100 gp).

The Harrow Handbook: This is the primary sourcebook for players who want to make the Harrow a defining feature of their character. Hallow-themed archetypes and class features are provided for several classes, as well as a variety of new feats tied to those elements, or to the deck itself. There is also a method for generating a character's background using card draws.

Curse of the Crimson Throne Adventure Path: This adventure path is set in Varisia, and includes special rules for influencing play using a Harrow deck. However, I lack the time in my busy gaming schedule to commit to playing an Adventure Path, so will not be investigating the Harrow elements of these adventures.

Pathfinder Quest: Phantom Phenomena: In one of this 1st-level adventure's quests, the heroes are sent to recover the Harrow deck of a famous fortune-teller.

Pathfinder Society Scenario #8-01: Portent's Peril: In this Tier 1-5 adventure, the PCs are called in to aid an ally of the Society who has just received a disturbing Harrowing that foretells great disasters.

The Harrowing: This adventure for 9th-level characters features a unique Harrow deck artifact, and a demiplane tied to it, in which its cards are brought to life.

This research has inspired me to create a new PFS character, a diviner who will be working toward the Harrower prestige class. I'll be running Phantom Phenomena and Portent's Peril next month to earn her first couple of XP as GM credit. I also plan to run The Harrowing at some point, but it's much higher level, so I'm not sure how soon that will be. I will almost certainly reserve that Chronicle sheet for when my diviner reaches that level.

Meanwhile, I have used my new Harrow deck for exactly one divination so far. I asked my daughter (who is also active in PFS) to be the guinea pig, and we determined that her question would be on behalf of her bones oracle. Skalren is a devout worshiper of Pharasma, despite using some revelations that most of his coreligionists would strenuously object to. He is, however, a staunch enemy of evil necromancers, with a particular hatred for Zyphus following a series of clashes with his cult. (How dare they try to steal power from his goddess?!) Skalren's question was asking whether Pharasma approved of him and his methods.

The first step of a traditional Harrowing is the Choosing, in which the person performing the reading decides which of the six suits best fits the question. I decided on Charisma, because that's the oracle's key ability, and the question involved an attitude towards the subject. The querent draws one card from that suit at random, which will signify them if it appears in the spread to follow. Skalren drew the Unicorn (CG).

Then comes the Harrowing proper. The entire deck is shuffled, and nine cards are laid out face-down in three rows of three. The resemblance to the alignment grid is intentional: cards that match their position exactly are the most significant, followed by matches to the exactly opposite alignment, and then partial matches (cards with only one alignment in common with their position). The left column is turned over first, and represents the past. Here we had a true or partial match (I forget which) with the Brass Dwarf, which suggests servitude and toil. The middle column represents the present, and here we had a partial match with the Trumpet, a card that indicates a crusade or similar cause. Taken together, I interpreted these two cards as Skalren's obsession with the undead, followed by his newfound outrage at the existence of Zyphus's cult giving him a higher purpose. The right-hand column is turned over last, and represents the future. Here, we had the Unicorn as a true match. With it also being the signifier card, the answer to Skalren's question was overwhelmingly positive! Keep doing what you're doing, you creepy, wonderful child.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Roleplaying games as sandwiches

While enjoying my latest meal delivered by my favorite bakery-and-sandwiches place, I was struck by the idea of comparing role-playing game systems to sandwiches. (Yes, I was very hungry!)

The bread is the game mechanics of the RPG; it's what holds the rest in place and lets you get a solid grip on the game in order to consume it. Sometimes it's bland and serviceable, while other times it provides a satisfying flavor or crunch all on its own. Some bread is good and solid, and holds the whole sandwich together neatly. But the more things you stuff into the sandwich, the greater the chance of it falling apart and making a mess before you can finish it. However, there are some sandwiches--and games--that taste so good that when they get messy, you just pick up the pieces and keep going because you don't want to miss any of the good stuff. (I'm tempted to say that a universal system is like a wrap, because it can hold whatever you want it to--within reason. And making your rules too dense and arcane to be comprehensible is like using bread that's too thick or hard to bite and chew.)

The protein is the core activity of the game; it's the part that defines the whole (e.g., a peanut butter sandwich, a hamburger; dungeon crawling, spycraft). Naturally, some games are meatier and more fulfilling than others, and some have more variety within their core activities.

All of the other ingredients are the elements that combine to give the game its unique flavor. Some are common to most games withinn a given genre or subgenre (such as the tropes that many fantasy RPGs inherited from D&D). You could think of these as the most popular condiments. Others are rarely seen outside of a handful of games. Maybe they only work well with a few other specific ingredients, maybe they require a bigger investment to acquire, prepare, and consume, or maybe they're very much an acquired taste. Some ingredients may be considered strictly optional, either by design or by common practice (hold the pickles; ignore the critical fumbles rules).

The overall size of the sandwich indicates how much effort it takes to prepare for and/or consume the game. A slim, simple game may be great when you don't have a lot of time to prep or play, or just want to savor one or two favorite ingredients by themselves. A larger, more complex game will have more parts, which will take more time to assemble, to discover how the various flavors interact, and to chew your way through the whole thing. (And if your game is the equivalent of a dagwood sandwich, you'd better have a LOT of time on your hands--not to mention a good memory and plenty of napkins!)

There are some sandwich aficionados who insist on a strict structure for how to assemble all the ingredients, and sneer at what they consider less perfect creations. Similarly, some gamers will loudly criticize a game for not meeting their own biased expectations. But just because you don't like how a sandwich is made, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's an awful sandwich, or that other people won't like it (or even love it). It's just not to your taste. If there is something you don't like about a sandwich, feel free to change it, or put together something entirely new. Some changes may be off-putting to others, which could make it harder to find people willing to sample your latest experiment--or you might get very lucky and hit upon the next hot trend.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #23: Death Comes to Dal-Raman

"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 5.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 2; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 5.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 5; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

Last time, our heroes solved the mysteries of the elemental shrines in the cyclops ruin, earning each of them a magical treasure. After completing their study of the site, the caravan continued onward, and was attacked by a pack of jackalweres. The adventurers defeated these monsters, but not before the kobolds they were escorting suffered their first casualty of this journey.

The heroes stopped one jackalwere from bleeding to death so that they could question him. They bound him and healed him just enough to become conscious again. Edel's attempts at diplomacy did not make it cooperative enough, so Jumari took over, and thoroughly intimidated the creature. She learned that the jackalweres had attacked in order to seize food (the people) and treasure (their stuff). The inquisitor and her companions had just wiped out his entire pack. Other packs roamed the desert, but he did not know where they were now. He also knew nothing about the death cult or its activities. When the jackalwere had no more to offer, he guessed that he wouldn't be allowed to live. In desperation, he shifted to jackal form to slip out of his bindings, but a blow from ZhaZha's pick stopped him from escaping. This time, they left the jackalwere to bleed out in the sand.

After two nights' travel, the caravan reached the small town of Dal-Raman, located at the edge of the sandy part of the Lokoran Desert. Permanent stone buildings clustered around an oasis, with the rest of the settlement consisting of simple brick buildings and tents. The party could also see some dry riverbeds that must carry water in the wet season. At the center of town was a marketplace busy with the start of the day's business. Fatou spotted a prominent sign depicting a centaur drinking from a large barrel. (She recognized the creature from her reading, but had never seen one.) When she pointed it out, her companions agreed to go visit the place--almost certainly a tavern of some kind--when their escort duties allowed.

The kobolds headed for a small caravanserai to one side of the market, near the water. Vartoranax was welcomed by the owner, a human named Akil Alim, who had hosted the merchant on previous journeys along this trade route. The kobolds needed little help with their handful of monitor lizard steeds, but Akil called over his servant Amad to see to the larger travelers' camels. This servant appeared to be a burly man at first, but when he came closer, looked more like an animated wooden statue. He and Akil bore identical glowing runes on their brows, which allowed Fatou to conclude that Akil was a summoner and Amad his eidolon. ZhaZha insisted on tending to her own camel--who did not suffer being handled by strangers--so Amad merely shrugged and tended to the other mount, Alexandra. He proved to be very effective in handling the normally-ornery beast. 

Jumari asked Tyrrentyg how long the caravan would remain here. The herald informed her that Vartoranax would spend a day here to meet with some local contacts, and that the larger folk were free to spend much of that time as they pleased. The heroes took advantage of this, selling the loot they had collected since Burburan, and using that money to acquire some new gear. Jumari found a spellcaster who could enchant her breastplate, so left her armor there for the day. (Fatou cast a mage armor spell to provide some protection as they moved on.) The inquisitor also purchased a cold iron spiked gauntlet and a silver spiked gauntlet, so that she would be prepared for creatures requiring those special materials to injure.

[Now that ZhaZha has the banner class feature, she needs to find, buy, or make her own personal banner. She lacks the necessary skills to make one herself, but the idea of buying a fancy one strikes her as a slight on her half-orc heritage. We will need to resolve this question later.]

Moving about the market, the PCs could see that the town's population was approximately half human, a quarter halfling, and the rest a mix of other races, mostly elves and half-elves. The vast majority of humans and part-humans, and all of the halflings, belonged to the darker-skinned types common throughout Asasor, while the elves seemed to all be pale-skinned high elves like Edel.

After taking care of some of their shopping, the heroes investigated the tavern. On closer view, they could read the establishment's name, "The Thirsty Centaur," which was written in both Common and Elven. Inside, the proprietress was a very attractive high elf woman, who greeted the newcomers in slightly-accented Common and introduced herself as Miriella. At Edel's query about drinks, she claimed she had a couple house brews that she was quite proud of, so the bard chose one of those. Miriella's garb was simple and utilitarian, as well as modest (baring only her face, her long red hair, and her lower arms), all quite appropriate to tending a bar. She wore one piece of jewelry, a silver pendant in the shape of cluster of leaves and seeds, which Edel recognized as a holy symbol of the Faerie Sovereigns (one of whom is his own patron deity). The bard tactfully inquired, in Elven, if Miriella would like to meet after work; she seemed amenable, favoring him with a positively blinding smile. 

Meanwhile, Jumari and ZhaZha had noticed that they were the only half-orcs in the place. Most of the patrons were humans, elves, or half-elves, with a sprinkling of halflings and gnomes. This made them both feel acutely out of place, and ZhaZha grumbled to herself as Edel continued to chat up the elven woman in their shared native language. (The cavalier finds it the height of rudeness when other  people choose to speak a language she doesn't understand instead of including her in the conversation.)

The companions eventually left the Thirsty Centaur in order to do more shopping. While they did so, a pair of liveried retainers cried out, "Make way for Elder Usama!" Behind them, an elderly human man in fine clothes and light armor rode upon a camel. ZhaZha needed only a glance to tell that the mount was of good, healthy stock. (She coveted the animal briefly, but it was male, which she felt would cause unwanted trouble with her party's two female camels.) Meanwhile, Edel and Fatou spotted a cloaked figure following the elder, trying very hard to not be noticed, and two half-orcs a short distance behind it. They alerted their friends, who briefly weighed the advantages of warning the man versus coming to his rescue. But then they saw two human men lurking under cover ahead of the tiny procession, and there was no need for debate.



ZhaZha drew her bow and shot at (and missed) one of the half-orc stalkers, while yelling, "You're giving us [half-orcs] a bad name!" Fatou cast protection from evil on the cavalier. Edel cast hideous laughter on the closer of the two human ambushers, causing the man to fall to the ground in plain sight. The other human stabbed one of Usama's retainers, and the man crumpled immediately. 

The cloaked figure revealed herself to be a half-orc woman when she clutched at something around her neck and cast hold person on the elder--who saved. Jumari cast expeditious retreat and dashed forward, yelling "Run!" at the old man. Usama spurred his camel forward, drawing a scimitar and slashing the man who had hurt his servant. He called to the other retainer to get the hurt man to safety. 

The crowd around the ambush site quickly fled the scene, making it easier for the heroes to reach the assassins. This allowed ZhaZha to charge and challenge the spellcaster, hitting with her pick. Fatou moved up to hit the caster and one of the other half-orcs with burning hands, and Edel hit the leader with an arrow. The half-orc cleric judged ZhaZha to be the biggest threat, so cast blindness at her. The cavalier resisted, and began savagely cursing her foe. Jumari moved into the thick of the melee, where cast blistering invective, burning all of her enemies. 


One of the attackers is incapacitated with hideous laughter (d6) while two are on fire from blistering invective (d4's).

One of the half-orcs moved to flank ZhaZha, and landed a sneak attack with his flail. The cavalier hit the other half-orc and started moving around him to reach the caster (who was putting out her burning clothes). By now, the heroes could see that all five attackers wore ebony disks around their necks--unholy symbols of the death cult's vile god, Asmolon. Their leader cast contagion and moved toward the elder again, but Jumari pursued and struck her down. 

The two male half-orcs flanked ZhaZha again; one hit her, but then collapsed. [He had used orc ferocity to attack that one last time.] ZhaZha hit the other one, and Fatou followed with a shocking grasp spell. The cultist spotted the cleric's holy symbol and insulted the moon goddess as he swung at her, but then keeled over himself. 

Meanwhile, Usama finally landed another blow on his opponent. Jumari moved around to flank that enemy, and the elder's camel bit the man hard enough to knock him out. "Good job, Ba'ir!" his rider cried. Jumari went to the injured retainer and stabilized him, and Usama dismounted creakily to follow her and check on his servants. Fatou helped heal the victim as well, while ZhaZha tied up the caster.

Edel took away the rapier of the man who was still laughing, and held it to his throat moments before the spell wore off. When it did, the cultist channeled negative energy, which did hardly any damage other than making the stabilized wounded start bleeding again. [Edel's readied attack proved even less effective--he rolled a natural 1 to hit the man he had at sword-point.] ZhaZha finished the cultist off with her pick. 

Jumari went to each of the cultists, and smashed their unholy symbols (which gave Fatou no opportunity to add to her collection of holy symbols--which might be just as well, given that the Lord of Endings is anathema among followers of the Javanian gods). ZhaZha went to the elder's camel and enthusiastically praised it.

The old man thanked the heroes for their timely intervention, and introduced himself as Usama, one of the elders who ruled Dal-Raman. Edel said he was welcome, then Jumari asked why the death cult wanted him dead. Usama could not answer that with any certainty, but as an elder, his death would cause chaos. The two half-orcs made sure that the attackers were all dead, except for their leader. Fatou asked the elder if there was a more private, shady place where they could question her. Usama gestured at a nearby house, obviously one of the finest in the town. "My home is right here." He showed them inside, then sent servants to help bring the bodies in off the street.

[We will conduct the interrogation, and possibly some further talk with Usama, over email.]

Elder Usama under attack (photo by Jeffrey Jones)

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Clockwork Realm Revisited

Roughly a year ago, I presented Visitors from the Clockwork Realm, a quick look at part of the cosmology of my "Time of the Tarrasque" campaign setting. Today I have another monster from that realm to share with you, but first I should describe this plane's place in my setting.

In my campaign, each of the planets is actually another plane, or at least the principal entrance to that plane. This means that outer space and Astral apace are essentially the same thing. Each world corresponds to one of the Inner or Outer Planes of the standard Pathfinder cosmology, but they are known by different names, and there is no contact between this multiverse and Golarion's multiverse.

The lawful neutral outer plane is Caelicus, a blue-white planet that is home to the Prothonian gods, the first pantheon worshiped by humans. The Clockwork Realm is an immense machine moon that circles Caelicus. This mechanical demiplane is invisible from the mortal world of Udara (the Material Plane), so knowledge of the Clockwork Realm has only recently begun to spread there. (See my previous column on the subject.)

The following creature is a native of the Clockwork Realm that rarely if ever leaves its home plane due to its eternal duties there. An overseer orb is likely to investigate any intrusion into its home plane, particularly if that invasion has been a violent, destructive one.

Sagathundus

This massive floating orb is composed of armor places and clockwork gears. A half dozen spindly mechanical arms end in immense tools or pincers. Dozens of fist-sized crystalline orbs are set into sockets on and between its armor plates.

SAGATHUNDUS (Overseer Orb) (CR 16)

XP 76,800
LN Gargantuan construct (extraplanar, lawful)
Init +0; Senses all-around vision, darkvision 60 ft., low-light vision, true seeing; Perception +32

Defense
AC 30, touch 6, flat-footed 30 (+24 natural, -4 size)
hp 170 (20d10+60); fast healing 5
Fort +6, Ref +6, Will +16
DR 15/adamantine; Immune construct traits; Resist acid 15, cold 15, fire 15; SR 25

Offense
Speed fly 50 ft. (perfect)
Melee 2 pincers +28 (2d8+12 plus grab), +1 flaming spear +27 (4d6+6/x3 plus 1d6 fire), +1 keen battleaxe +27 (4d6+6/19-20, x3), +1 shocking longsword +27 (4d6+6/19-20 plus 1d6 electricity), +1 thundering warhammer +27 (4d6+6/x3 [plus 1d6 sonic on crit])
Ranged 2 javelins +16 (3d6+12)
Space 20 ft.; Reach 15 ft.
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 20th, concentration +28, ranged touch +16)
Constant--true seeing
At will--detect chaos/evil/good/law, detect thoughts (DC 22), magic circle against chaos, empowered make whole
3/day--analyze dwoemer (DC 24), dispel magic, order's wrath (DC 22), disintegrate (DC 23)
1/day--dictum (DC 25), discern location (DC 26), shield of law (DC 26)

Statistics
Str 34, Dex 10, Con --, Int 30, Wis 26, Cha 26
Base Atk +20; CMB +36 (+40 grab); CMD 46 (cannot be tripped)
Feats Ability Focus (detect thoughts), Alertness, Craft Construct, Craft Magic Arms and Armor, Craft Wondrous Item, Empower Spell-like Ability (make whole), Flyby Attack, Improved Sunder, Multiattack, Power Attack
Skills Appraise +30, Craft (clockwork) +30, Craft (any two other) +30, Diplomacy +28, Fly +24, Knowledge (arcana) +30, Knowledge (engineering) +30, Knowledge (planes) +30, Perception +36, Sense Motive +32, Spellcraft +30; Racial Modifiers +4 Perception
Languages Abyssal, Aquan, Auran, Celestial, Draconic, Ignan, Infernal, Terran, 2 others
SQ alloyed strike, arcane engineer, fast crafter

Ecology
Environment Clockwork Realm
Organization solitary, pair, or work gang (3-4)
Treasure standard

Special Abilities
Alloyed Strike (Ex) The weapons of a sagathundus (including its javelins and attached magical weapons) are treated as adamantine, lawful, and magic for the purposes of overcoming damage reduction.
Arcane Engineer (Su) A sagathundus uses its spell-like abilities' caster level to qualify for any item creation feat it learns.
Fast Crafter (Ex) A sagathundus crafts items at a phenomenal speed, producing a full day's work in only one hour. When crafting magic items and constructs, it requires only one hour per 1,000 gp of the item's price. It may spend a maximum of 8 hours per day crafting magic items (for a maximum of 8,000 gp value per day's work).

The sagathundi, or overseer orbs, are a race of gigantic, hyper-intelligent constructs who are tasked with the maintenance of the Clockwork Realm and its native inhabitants. (Unlike most inhabitants of that realm, they are not clockworks themselves, despite their mechanical appearance.) These expert engineers are peaceful by nature, but can be dangerous and utterly ruthless in combat when they perceive danger to their charges. Each overseer orb has six limbs that can be extended or retracted from its body: two pincers to hold and manipulate objects; a welding tool (treat as a +1 flaming spear in combat); a circular saw (treat as a +1 keen battleaxe); an electrified cutting blade (+1 shocking longsword); and a massive hammer (+1 thundering warhammer). These weapons are intrinsic parts of the creature, and cease functioning immediately if removed from its body or if the orb is destroyed. If a limb is severed but the orb survives, it can use its make whole spell-like ability to reattach the limb; this requires one minute of uninterrupted work and at least one working pincer.

Prime Orb (+2 CR): The greatest sagathundi are Colossal in size. Apply the advanced and giant simple templates to create such a paragon.

My original LEGO model (from 2014)

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Introducing new spells

The question of how to introduce new spells into a game came up today in one of the online gaming forums I frequent. For example, when you introduce a cleric spell from a new sourcebook, or when a cleric PC researches a completely original spell, do ALL clerics suddenly gain access to it? I replied there, but decided to share (and expand on) my answer here.

I personally like the rules for "uncommon divine spells" that appeared in the introduction to Pathfinder Short Cuts #2: Inquisitor Spells of Freeport, by Owen K.C. Stephens (PDF available in the Green Ronin Online Store). While written for Pathfinder, this concept is easy to adapt to any d20 game where distinctions are made between casters who get full access to their class's spell list (such as most divine casters) vs. those with a limited number of spells known.

The general idea is that when introducing new sourcebooks into a campaign, it can be very unbalancing to allow divine spellcasters to immediately gain access to all new spells included in that content. In addition, the need to reference multiple books can bog down the process of daily spell selection. Instead, all spells outside the core rulebook are considered to be uncommon, and require the caster to find and study a description of the spell before they can learn it. This process is similar to how a wizard learns new spells, but is less involved (and less costly). Divine casters who already have a limited number of spells known (such as oracles and inquisitors in Pathfinder, or rangers in 5E) ignore this restriction.

[I use this rule in my "Time of the Tarrasque" Pathfinder campaign. Our only prepared caster PC is a cleric/wizard aiming for mystic theurge, so making the process of expanding her divine repertoire mirror that of her arcane class is perfectly on-theme.]

In contrast, the arcane classes must all specifically learn each new spell before they can cast it, and (in 5E) only the wizard can learn an unlimited number of new spells. Therefore, you don't really need any new rules to limit these classes' access to spells from new sources. However, the idea of core rulebook spells being common, and spells from all other sources being uncommon, is still handy for explaining why a new spell (for any class) isn't as widely known in the world, and why it might take more effort to track down the means to learn it.

Finally--and I hope obviously--any original spell created through the spell research rules is automatically an uncommon spell. At first, other casters will have to bargain with the inventor to study her original notes before they can learn to cast the spell. As more people learn it, finding a teacher becomes less of an obstacle. Of course, many spell inventors will jealously guard their secrets in order to reserve the advantage for themselves--and sometimes their allies.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #22: Ooh, Shiny!

"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 5.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 2; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 5.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 5; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

The elemental shrines
Last time, our heroes discovered and explored an ancient ruin that was built by (or for) cyclopes. After fighting a giant skeleton, a weird elemental creature that emerged from the walls, and a trio of mephits, they discovered that the lowest level was a set of shrines to the four elements. Each shrine contained an idol of that element's giantish god, a central stepped pedestal, and walls carved with writing in the languages of both cyclopes and that shrine's element. None of these languages was known to our heroes, but they were able to determine that at least some of the inscriptions referred to tests or trials that would earn the blessings of the gods. Jumari experimented by burning something in a large brazier in the fire shrine, which caused that room's Ignan inscription to glow faintly.

Rather then wait until Fatou could prepare comprehend languages the next day, the heroes decided to experiment. To start with, the inquisitor went to the water shrine and cast create water over the dry basin set in that room's pedestal. This did not fill very much of the large bowl, but the Aquan characters on the walls glowed faintly in response.

Jumari then tried to blow upon the empty pedestal in the air shrine. Nothing happened, so Fatou tried using some cantrips to clean away the dust and attempt to cause a slight breeze. Edel tried singing, and when that had no immediate effect, the others attempted to join in to aid him (with less than stellar results). Jumari tried casting expeditious retreat so that she could run really quickly in circles around the shrine, but that too failed to produce any results. Jumari started asking the other two spellcasters if they had any air-based magic--perhaps a minor summoning spell?--but wracking their brains only led to the conclusion that none of them were experienced enough to use such magic yet.

The group then searched the earth shrine for any secret compartments, loose stones, or other clues. The pedestal here bore a polished sandstone pillar about the height of a man. ZhaZha tried placing a metal weapon on top, then some of the sand left behind when the wall-guardian was slain. Those had no effect, so Jumari suggested that the two of them try to lift it. This took a few tries for ZhaZha to work out her grip and leverage, but then the two half-orcs lifted it off of the ground a few inches. Fatou spotted something in a depression below the pillar, and Edel quickly pulled it out before the pillar dropped. It was a finely made heavy pick, which Fatou declared was magical [a +1 weapon]. Edel pointedly asked ZhaZha, "Is this yours?" and suggested that she leave her old pick in its place. She was reluctant to leave behind her favorite weapon, which had served her well up to now, but agreed.

The group then tried again in the shrines. Edel cast solid note in the air shrine, which finally made the inscriptions glow faintly. They then decided to try to trigger all four shrines at once. They waited for ZhaZha to go first, because lifting the pillar on her own would take even longer to accomplish without Jumari's help, and she was still somewhat fatigued from the first time. When the others could hear her growls turn from frustration to victory, they quickly made their own attempts: Edel sang in the air shrine, Fatou set kindling alight with burning hands in the fire shrine, and Jumari cast more create water. All three were rewarded by their location's script lighting up, but only Jumari's continued to grow brighter, as she cast her orison over and over to fill the basin. When the water reached the top, she could see a chain shirt of some fine metal at the bottom of the pool, and pulled it out. She hollered for Edel to keep singing, and he started drawing on his bardic powers.

Fatou soon gave up on trying to burn things in the brazier--she just didn't have enough flammables to fill its huge bowl. She pulled out the campfire bead she carried and activated it inside the brazier. The burning logs filled the space quite nicely, and the Ignan writing around her blazed as well. She could see something in the brazier, beneath the burning logs, so wet her arm as well she could with her own create water orison, then reached in to pull the object out. She burned her hand badly, but managed to drop the item--a red-hot falchion, with a blade shaped like a jet of flame--before truly maiming herself. As she created more water to quench the sword, Jumari came to her and healed her injured hand. Fatou then identified the weapon as magic [another +1 weapon] but failed to determine what magic the chain shirt held. She gladly let Jumari claim the falchion.

Everyone then joined Edel to try to help him. Two of the other shrines had seemed to react with being filled with something, so they tried to fill this room with the loudest song they knew--an orcish drinking song from ZhaZha's village. The Auran inscriptions started glowing again, and Fatou and Edel noticed a very tiny glow from the apex of the ceiling (about 20 feet above). Detect magic registered a faint aura of abjuration, but whatever the thing was, it was too far embedded in the stone of the ceiling to read its aura properly. Edel used an enlarge person scroll (that Fatou had just scribed for him the previous day) to make his tallest companion, ZhaZha, large enough to reach the ceiling. She used her new, magical pick to carefully chip at the rock around the spot her friends pointed out. Her patience soon grew thing, so she knocked out a dinner plate sized chunk of the ceiling with a couple sharp whacks with her weapon. The glow from the walls abruptly ceased, which caused Jumari to say, "I'm glad we did this one last!" The cavalier chipped away at her shard until she finally freed a small metal ring from the stone. Edel's spellcraft told him this was a ring of protection +1, and that the chain shirt was +1 mithral. This prompted some discussion about who to award these last two items. Edel and Fatou finally agreed that Fatou would take the armor, because Edel already had Ragalash's magic darkwood suit, and he would take the ring.

Edel changed his mind about ZhaZha needing to leave her pick behind, so she went to reclaim it. The heroes collected their other loot, and their camels, and rode back to the kobolds, who had been waiting a short distance form the ziggurat for the past couple hours. ZhaZha told them about the creatures they fought, and judged the place safe to enter now that it was cleared out--but neither she nor her friends mentioned any of their new magical loot. Because it was now getting light, the caravan's leader, Vartoranax, decided to seek shelter inside, and the kobolds took over some of the large rooms on the middle level to make camp.

Vartoranax and Tyrrentyg were fascinated by the unusually good condition of the artwork and inscriptions throughout the structure. The herald cast comprehend languages, then she and her boss spent quite some time exploring and discussing the site before taking their rest with the others. Fatou expressed an interest in stopping here for a day, and the kobolds agreed--Tyrrentyg especially wanted to study the site in more detail. (The two half-orcs, whose curiosity was already amply satisfied, spent the day practicing tactics instead.)

After that day of study, the caravan headed north again. Their route stopped at a couple of oases, and the next few days were uneventful, until the travelers reached the last oasis before the town of Dal-Raman.

[At this point, the PCs were allowed to start using their newly-advanced, 5th-level stats. All continued in their previous classes, with Fatou becoming a 2nd-level cleric.]

During Jumari's watch, the kobold sentries spotted some jackals sneaking about, but one guard hurled a sling stone at one of the wild dogs and scared them off. However, later that night, during ZhaZha's watch, her camel was spooked by something. A jackal-headed humanoid appeared and tried to put her to sleep with its gaze, but she resisted. The two kobolds on duty with her were attached by two other jackal-things; one collapsed, asleep, but the other resisted. Each monster was accompanied by a couple of jackals.

The sounds of ZhaZha fighting just outside his tent woke Edel, and as soon as he looked out of the tent, he recognized the monsters as jackalweres. His shout of "Cold iron!", and the conscious kobold's terrified screaming as it was wounded, quickly roused the rest of the camp.


Jumari exited the tent and took up a central location in the center of camp so that she could hit all three jackalweres with blistering inventive [her new spell gained at this level]. She easily intimidated the monsters, and one of them caught on fire (though it soon extinguished itself). Because Jumari did not sleep in her breastplate, Fatou used her owl to cast mage armor on the riled inquisitor. However, one of the jackalweres put the half-orc to sleep with its gaze. Meanwhile, the third monster traded blows with ZhaZha, and came out much the worse for it.

As Edel began his bardic lecturing on jackalweres, some of the other kobolds finally emerged from their tents to join the fight--though not in time to save the wounded sentry, who was torn apart by (normal) jackals. Fatou dodged between jackals to deliver a burning hands that downed ZhaZha's jackalwere, so the cavalier charged another, killing it instantly with a critical hit from her pick. "This is a nice pick!" she exclaimed happily.

Edel woke Jumari, who recovered her falchion and endowed it with magical beast bane. However, Fatou took out the last jackalwere with a scorching ray, so the inquisitor led the clean-up fight with the jackals. Only one jackal escaped from the camp alive, and it tore off into the desert. Edel stabilized the only jackalwere who still lived, and they tied it up to question later.

Apart from the one dead sentry, who was wrapped up gently for now, the kobolds had only a handful of wounded. Fatou channeled energy to heal them and her friends. (She had suffered a few small bites herself.) Tyrrentyg recognized the jackalwere bodies for what they were, and reported what she knew of them to Vartoranax.

The rest of the day's watches passed uneventfully, but the heroes still have a severely wounded jackalwere on their hands...

-----

This campaign uses fast progression, and I'm still trying to get the hang of the greater monetary awards required to keep the PCs on track for their wealth by level (Core Rulebook 399). These trials in the elemental shrines were an attempt to start rectifying the fact that they're very poor for their level, which seems to be my players' biggest criticism of the game so far. Finding that balance still needs a lot more work, but it's a start, and they all seemed pleased with their new toys.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

TBT: Madness in Freeport

freeport1.jpg
Heroes of "The Ooth-Nargai Campaign" (Freeport Trilogy PCs):
(L-R): Amanashaya (cleric/wizard), Zafir (fighter), Thaddeus (rogue), Willow (gnome ranger), Ivellios (elf sorcerer)
I ran Green Ronin Publishing's original (D&D v.3.0) module Madness in Freeport in the winter and spring of 2002. By that time, I was an active member of the community on the Green Ronin Forums, and had started posting fan errata for the Freeport Trilogy. For Madness, I decided to post summaries of each session of my run, to share my own experiences with the module, including solutions to some of the weird problems that arose in play. (Most notably, two of the five PCs died halfway through the adventure, so I had to improvise heavily to keep the adventure moving forward.)

That reporting was followed by accounts of my later two Freeport campaigns, and ultimately led to my habit of posting session summaries for other, later campaigns (like "Time of the Tarrasque" and "Tales from the Yawning Portal") here at Studded Plate. In fact, being able to post those accounts was one of my chief motivations for starting this blog.

That first set of reports, for Madness, can still be found in the Green Ronin Forums Archive, at  Ronin Army (the current Green Ronin community website). I have copied those run notes to my errata site as Tim's Run Notes: Madness in Freeport. (See also my errata and notes for Madness in Freeport.)

Sadly, the complete account of my second campaign, "Secrets of Freeport" (v.3.5, 2004-2005), no longer exists online. I posted periodically in the Green Ronin Forums about the game, but the more detailed accounts only appeared on my GeoCities site. Those pages vanished when that host did, and the Wayback Machine does not appear to have captured copies.

For my third campaign, "Winds of Freeport" (v.3.5, 2011-2013; Pathfinder 2014-2016), I posted my session summaries to the Freeport forum at The Piazza. (I was more active there than at GR's forums at the time that I began them.) After the campaign's end, I archived that material at my wiki for the campaign. See the Winds of Freeport Session List for that material (as well as GM Notes for some adventures).

Finally, I hope you enjoy these very old, low-res photographs of a few of the models I built for that first Freeport campaign. My use of LEGO minifigures with RPGs predates Freeport (and D&D Third Edition) by at least a couple of years.

lighthouse1.jpg
The Lighthouse of Drac, AKA "Milton's Folly"
miltondrac2.jpg
Milton Drac (from the cover of Madness in Freeport)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Spring update

I'm not going to have time to write a regular game content post this week, due to a combination of factors:
  • This is a peak time for my day job in graduate admissions.
  • My wife and I are putting an addition on our house, which has made the rest of the first floor a disaster area until the new space is ready.
  • We're taking our kids are going to a gaming convention this weekend. My wife is GM-ing enough to earn a free badge, so I've been doing what I can to help her prep without getting spoiled for adventures I haven't played.
  • We're greedy fools who haven't cut back on our busy gaming schedules while all this is going on. 
So, instead, I thought I'd talk briefly about my plans for the blog over the next few months:

My "Time of the Tarrasque" session summaries will continue as the campaign progresses. We are currently playing every 2 or 3 weeks, so expect to see those roughly twice a month. I try to get those written up and posted fairly promptly because I, and some of my players, find them helpful reminders of what we did last time.

I plan to write a couple more installments of my "Building the Bestiary" series in the near future (magical beasts, and maybe monstrous humanoids), but those will have to wait until our house isn't a disaster area and I actually have enough clean space to build and photograph my brick critters again. (A few have already been built--including three sizes of owlbears!--because I needed them for recent Pathfinder Society scenarios.)

The LEGO Group is releasing Disney Minifigures Series 2 on May 1, so expect a review of those sometime next month. With Toys 'R' Us out of business, it's become more difficult to acquire the minifigures I want. (Oh, how I miss having a local LEGO Store!) However, my FLGS recently started stocking LEGO toys, just in time for me to collect The LEGO Movie Minifigures Series 2. I look forward to their help in acquiring this new series as well.

Of course, those topics won't fill up all the weekly slots, so I'll be on the lookout for other things to write about. If you have a question or subject that you'd like to see me tackle, please let me know in the comments!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #21: Really Big Words

"Time of the Tarrasque" is my current homebrew Pathfinder campaign. For an index of past session summaries, see The Story So Far.

Our heroes include:
  • Edel Naergon, high elf bard (archivist) 4.
  • Fatou Damiri, human wizard (evoker) 3/cleric of Yaziel 1; and Nochaesh, owl familiar.
  • Jumari Boneface, half-orc inquisitor of the Lost Egg 4.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 4; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

Last time, our heroes and the caravan traveled up The Stairs, to the top of the Shalash Escarpment. Along the way, they spotted a small dragon (of unknown species) stalking them, and met a small group of high elves going in the opposite direction. From the elves, they learned a bit more about the town of Galdar, where their own caravan is headed, as well as news about Dorthyra, home of the academy where Edel studied.

(Addenda to last session: Fatou asked the elf mage Bellesor to deliver a brief letter to her religious teacher, Jenana Nasrud, in Zahallan. Enclosed with it was a second letter for the mullah to send on to Fatou's old friend and mentor, the wizard and noble Buthayna Najmi, in Almazur.)

The caravans's first few night's travel north from The Stairs was uneventful. Near the end of the sixth night, however, they spotted a stone structure partly buried by sand. The heroes went to investigate as the kobolds rested nearby. The building was a sort of simple step pyramid consisting of a square structure on top of a larger one. Stairs led from the ground up to a entrance into the top level, but the steps were cut for creatures much taller than humans. A short distance from the bottom of the stairs, the explorers found a handful of footprints from a small, barefoot humanoid creature; these prints showed the feet to be spindly, with long toes. After some study, Jumari guessed that they were left by a flying creature, because they started and ended very suddenly, but were otherwise clear.

ZhaZha's camel was able to negotiate the stairs, albeit slowly, so she followed the others to the entrance. Inside was a small landing with stairs at each end, going down to a hallway that gave access to the lower level as well as another flight of stairs going down. The walls here were carved with images of daily life in a town or city--except that the subjects were one-eyed humanoids. The relative scale of plants and animals in some images made it clear these people were giants--cyclopes. Some images were accompanied by inscriptions in an unknown language that Fatou guessed was Cyclops; the script bore some resemblance to written Giant. She also concluded that the artwork must have been created very long ago, because as far as she knew, the cyclopes were little more than savages in the present day. However, the carvings were in exceptional condition for their apparent age, in stark contrast to this structure's sand-scoured exterior.

ZhaZha left Zafira here rather than take her down these steeper stairs. On the level below, they found a giant-sized kitchen, with two long-unused hearths. The room was empty except for a thin coating of dust--in which they found more of the small, strange footprints, and a few handprints from the same creature. One of the hearths had recent scorch marks, but the flues of both were clogged with sand.

The next room was a storeroom with built-in stone shelves, but it was bare. Beyond that was a workshop that still held some tools--some giant-sized, some closer to human scale. Fatou judged these old metal items to be too fragile for their original use, but they might have value as curios to other scholars, so the party packed them up to take with them. This room had more images carved into the walls, showing cyclopes teaching skills to a smaller race. This second group had short, squat builds and rocky skin, and lacked hair; Edel and Fatou identified them as oreads, a partly elemental race.

Continuing clockwise around the level, they next found a room that had niches carved for lamps or figurines (all long gone) and images of cyclopes worshipping and studying. No gods were depicted in these carvings, but some of the people wore or bore items suggesting the four elements. This room no longer contained any furniture, but there were depressions in the walls and floor that suggested it once had, and had been used as living quarters.

On the far wall was the first door they had found in this place: a huge stone rectangle firmly wedged shut. The two half-orcs had to make a couple of attempts before they forced it open. Inside was an octagonal room with a large dry basin set in the floor. The walls held large sheets of tarnished metal that had been obviously installed to serve as mirrors. Between these panels, the walls were carved with images of nude giants bathing and frolicking. Fatou wondered aloud how the cyclopes had heated water for their baths. Jumari and ZhaZha, who had spent their lives living in the desert, found this idea bizarre--why would anyone want to boil themselves?

There was a second door out of the bath room, but Jumari grew impatient and returned to the hallway that connected most of the rooms on this floor. She soon found herself at the entrance to a large room with a throne upon a dias--and the skeleton of a cyclops seated in this huge chair. Rather then enter by herself, she took a step back and examined the room from the hallway. The wall opposite the throne was covered with the largest, most elaborate, and best reserved relief she had seen in the structure so far: A cyclops king dominated the center of the image, and was surrounded by various followers offering gifts and praise.

As she was studying the room, ZhaZha and Fatou managed to pull open the door between the bath and the throne room. The three women cautiously entered the room and looked around, while Edel hung back inside the bath. When Jumari and ZhaZha approached the throne, nothing happened until they stepped onto the steps of the dais. At that moment, the skeleton's head swiveled to look at the inquisitor, and the dead giant began to rise. ZhaZha struck it with her pick as it did so, which drew its attention to her, and it struck back with a large bony hand. Jumari moved to flank it, but both her blade and Fatou's scorching ray missed their mark. Edel identified the creature as a mindless skeleton made from a cyclops, and began offering advice for how to fight it [using his archetype's naturalist ability]. ZhaZha and the skeleton traded more blows, but when Jumari's blunt morningstar proved more effective, the cavalier switched to shield bashes. After the bard and cleric healed their wounded friend, Fatou then began casting enlarge person, but ZhaZha finished off the undead before the spell was complete.


Jumari and Fatou spotted movement coming from the sculpted wall, but Fatou could not use detect magic due to holding the charge on her previous spell, so Edel tried it while Jumari used sift. Neither spell revealed anything immediately, so the inquisitor continued scanning the wall, and eventually tried climbing it so she could examine the higher parts better. Despite ample handholds, she had difficulty pulling herself up--and was interrupted by something emerging from the wall to attack her. It looked like part of the wall was extruding itself to form the top half of a stony humanoid figure. Fatou cast her held spell onto ZhaZha, who attacked the monster but missed. As Jumari and the creature traded blows, Edel tried calling out in Giant that there was no need to fight, but it ignored him. The cavalier challenged the monster, and the inquisitor intimidated it. It continued attacking Jumari, so ZhaZha repeated her demand for it to fight her, and finally struck it. Her pick bit deep into the wall behind it, and it collapsed into a pile of sand. As Fatou provided more healing, Jumari angrily poked at the wall in several more places, but nothing else emerged.

Another large stone door (which ZhaZha found easy to shift while enlarged) led to another chamber that held a hearth, a set of shelves, and a large stone platform obviously meant for use as a bed. The shelves held only piles of moldering dust, except for one scroll that detected as magical due to ancient abjurations used to preserve it. The rods around which the scroll was rolled were at least as long as the tall cavalier's normal arm length, so the heroes awkwardly moved it out into the throne room to unroll partway and examine. The script was large, obviously written by giant-sized hands, and appeared to all be in the same handwriting, though clearly recorded in sections over a long period of time. The text included few images, but a four-lobed symbol for the elements appeared a couple of times. They carefully rolled it back up so that they could continue exploring the site.

The last room on this level appeared to have been a barracks; the walls here bore images of warriors and athletes. They piled their loot--the scroll, the tools, and some jewelry the skeleton had worn--near the stairs to the exit before going down to the underground level.

Passages led in two directions to round rooms, each of which held a stepped pedestal before a large stone idol. The first statue they examined was a one-eyed monstrous bird, very similar to the idol they had seen beneath the sphinx where the caravan had camped below The Stairs: an image of Chazital, god of air. This room's platform was bare. The second room's platform held an empty depression. The idol was a multi-headed dragon with only one eye in each head. Fatou concluded that this must be a variation on Talusoka, goddess of water. The walls of both rooms bore inscriptions in Cyclops and some other unknown languages.

While examining these details, the party heard faint voices from the far side of the central stairs. They tried to sneak down the hallway, and found a third shrine, with a large, unlit brazier. However, before they could see more, a small, winged, imp-like creature flew around the corner and breathed a cone of dust at the heroes, sickening Edel. A moment later, two more joined it: one stony and one flaming. Fatou identified the three creatures as mephits: dust, earth, and fire.

The two new mephits breathed rocks and fire, respectively, while the dust mephit cast blur upon itself. The three outsiders then started clawing at the heroes, though the earth mephit enlarged itself first. The heroes struggled to overcome the creatures' damage resistance--Fatou and Edel couldn't hurt them at all with their ranged attacks. However, the mephits had trouble landing solid blows on the heroes, and even when they did, the wounds were merely minor scratches. But then Edel's hideous laughter spell neutralized the earth mephit. Jumari downed the dust mephit with a critical hit, then dismissed her savage maw spell to demoralize the conscious mephits. The inquisitor then started hacking at the earth mephit to take it out before Edel's spell wore off.

Meanwhile, ZhaZha faced off with the fire mephit, taking a second flame breath attack that Edel and Fatou helped to heal. The mephit soon concluded that the other half-orc posed a worse threat, and it cursed in frustration when Jumari resisted its heat metal attack. Fatou's force bolt finally downed it, and the half-orcs coup de graced the other two mephits, who were healing very slowly.

The room with the brazier held a statue of a cyclops women with flames for hair, which Fatou easily recognized as Lutoran, goddess of fire. A fourth and last shrine held a platform with a stone pillar, and a statue of a muscular cyclops with its large eye carved to look like a faceted gemstone. This was Genesib, god of earth. Fatou guessed that the statues would be worth a small fortune each, but weighed far too much to move without a large crew of skilled engineers.

The walls between the shrines also bore intricate carvings: thunderstorms between the water and air shrines, smoke between air and fire, volcanoes between fire and earth, and swamps between earth and water. This last one was unlike anything the desert-bred half-orcs had seen before; Fatou only recognized it from descriptions in books. Finally, there was a 5-foot-square stone set into the wall beneath the stairs, which bore an inscription in some non-giantish language. Fatou and Edel studied it and the writing in the shrines, and determined that the second language in each shrine was the matching elemental tongue; the large stone was also marked in Terran. They were unable to translate any of these inscriptions, except for working out that the words in the fire shrine referred to some kind of test or trial in order to get a blessing from the god.

Growing bored with waiting for more concrete details, Jumari decided to experiment, and set some old, bloodied bandages on fire in the metal brazier. They ignited easily, and burned quickly. As they did so, the Ignan portions of the room's inscriptions glowed faintly.

-----

Next time, our heroes will continue to try puzzling out as much as they can about the "tests" mentioned in the shrine's inscriptions, before they have to give up and wait for Fatou to prepare comprehend languages the next day.

The PCs have earned enough XP to reach 5th level, so I have asked the players to work out their advancements before our next session. They will get to use those improved statistics once they leave this dungeon behind.

For the cyclops skeleton, I wanted a sturdier and more compact
model than the ogre skeletons I built for The Forge of Fury

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 10

Welcome back to my ongoing series of capsule reviews of "Unearthed Arcana" with an eye for how to use them with the Freeport setting. This time, we'll take a look at articles released in December 2018 and February 2019.

For my past columns about using D&D Fifth Edition sourcebooks with Freeport: The City of Adventure, see the Freeport 5E Index.

Sidekicks (12/17/2018): This article provides rules for sidekicks--creatures befriended by a PC who accompany them on adventures--who improve by gaining levels alongside their PC friends. The sidekick must be CR 1 or less, but gains levels in one of three sidekick classes (warrior, expert, or spellcaster). Most of the class abilities are borrowed from PC classes, but are simplified. A few seem very powerful, and hard for even a PC to qualify for (such as the warrior's Improved Critical), but in general they seem to be in line with characters of their level. But note that even with this system, sidekicks only start gaining levels when they join their heroic friends on adventures, so will almost always be some number of levels behind the PCs; they will frequently need those strong class features just to survive.

I'm not certain how adding sidekicks will affect the PCs' own rate of advancement, as the sidekick rules don't explicitly address their effects on encounter Challenges and rewards. (Sidekicks simply gain a level whenever their friend does.) And the rules seem overly extensive for someone who is essentially a henchman or follower. But these rules could be very helpful in providing stats to a knight's retainers, or a more robust animal companion for a druid or ranger. (5E druids do not get companions unless you introduce the Circle of the Beast from DM's Guild, and many players find the Beastmaster ranger's companion to be underwhelming, especially in light of its poor action economy.)

The urban setting of Freeport: The City of Adventure makes acquiring townsfolk as sidekicks rather easy to justify. (In some cases, perhaps too much so, if a new friend embodies the label "follower" too literally!) These rules could also be useful at sea, to detail a friendly ship's captain who helps the heroes out from time to time, or important NPC officers if the PCs have their own ship.

(Nitpicky rules note, because I'm "the errata guy": Creatures of CR 1 or less already have a proficiency bonus of +2, so that bonus will not improve until they reach 5th level in their sidekick class. That should be stated more explicitly in the article.)

January 2019 had no "Unearthed Arcana" article, and February did not until its very last day. Wizards has announced a more "flexible" schedule for the column going forward, without a set date for each installment to be posted. 

On a related note, the Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour seems to have ended in December, or at least no new episodes have been posted on YouTube since then.

The Artificer Revisited (2/28/2019): This is the third iteration of the artificer in the pages of "Unearthed Arcana," following its appearance as a wizard subclass ("Eberron," 2/2/15) then as a base class ("Artificer," 1/9/17). This new version gives the class spellcasting from 1st level (rather than 3rd) and adds cantrips, but delays the specialization (subclass) to 3rd. The class's magical crafting abilities are recast to be rather more flexible, which fits its constantly-tinkering nature.

The two artificer specializations presented here are the Alchemist and Artillerist. Both grant additional spells known, and give the artificer a powerful magical assistant. The alchemist is fully revamped from the previous version, and now gives the character an alchemical homunculus servant. not all worlds with artificers have guns, so the previous version's Gunsmith has been replaced with the Artillerist, which is accompanied by a turret--a machine that provides both ranged attacks as well as some protection for those adjacent to it.

The article ends with a new spell, arcane weapon (which imbues a weapon with a small amount of energy damage) and information for using the optional multiclassing rules with the artificer.

As I said the last time this class appeared in UA, artificers work very well with Freeport's unusual mix of eldritch magic and experimental technology.