Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book Review: Shadowtide

ShadowtideJoseph D. Carriker. Jr.'s second novel, is set in Green Ronin's Blue Rose RPG setting. It tells the story of three members of the Sovereign's Finest who team up to discover what happened to two colleagues who disappeared in the Shadow-tainted Veran Marsh.

The Blue Rose setting debuted in 2005 using the True20 System (a d20 System derivative originally crafted for this setting), and was relaunched in 2017 using the Adventure Game Engine (AGE) rules set. Both versions belong solidly to the romantic fantasy genre, inspired by the character-driven fiction of Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, Tamora Pierce, and others. Blue Rose caused quite a stir upon its initial release due to its deliberate inclusion of gay, bisexual, transgender, and asexual characters, as well as its normalization of polyamorous and polygamous relationships. The new edition of the game goes even further to be welcoming and all-inclusive, with intelligent, sensitive discussion of characters with disabilities being one new addition to the spectrum of possibilities.

Much as he did in his first novel, Sacred Band (which I reviewed here recently), Carriker puts a great deal of thought into his characters and how they fit into the setting. His trio of protagonists are very representative of the kinds of heroes found in this setting, while being very distinctly their own unique selves. All three belong to the Sovereign's Finest, an organization of diverse special agents serving the enlightened nation of Aldis--the symbol of which, the Blue Rose, gives the setting its name. (In most Blue Rose campaigns, the PCs will belong to the Finest, or aspire to join them.)

  • Master Soot is a rhy-crow, one of the many varieties of rhydan, animals who have manifested sentience and psychic powers. All can use mindspeech (telepathy with other intelligent creatures), but Soot has also mastered healing magic and communication with normal animals. He recently returned to field work after some years in semi-retirement training other adepts.
  • Ydah is one of the night folk, a race originally created as servants to powerful sorcerer kings in ages past, but since freed to find their own place in the world. Ydah is a tough-as-nails warrior and a skilled ranger, but at the time of the novel's beginning, she is still grieving the loss of her bond-mate, a rhy-wolf who died protecting her.
  • Morjin Brightstar is the one human on the team. He is a Roamer (similar to our world's Romani) exiled from his family's caravan, who can tap into seer-like abilities when consulting the Royal Road (this setting's name for the Tarot deck). Most of the time, however, he relies on his good looks and quick wits to gather intelligence as a spy for the Crown--and when those fail, his skill with knives helps him to survive another day. 
Soot uses his contacts in the Finest to recruit Ydah and Morjin, who are already in the Veran Marsh and have some familiarity with the region, to help him trace their missing colleagues. Their investigation takes them to Serpent's Haven, a gang-ruled refuge for people who wish to avoid the rule of both Aldis and Jarzon (who border opposites sides of the marsh). Like many newly-formed adventuring parties, these three face some struggles in working together smoothly, but soon prove to be a very effective team. (And, quite naturally for both the genre and the RPG, that team is iconically composed of one adept, one warrior, and one expert--as well as one human, one near-human, and one rhydan.) 

The Veran Marsh was created by devastating Shadow magic ages ago, and is still something of a magnet for corruption. From the start, Soot suspects a Shadow cult to be responsible for whatever happened to his protege, but none of our heroes is truly prepared for just how dangerous and insidious the enemy proves to be...

Shadowtide is a very satisfying introduction to the world of Blue Rose, as well as a being a rousing adventure tale in its own right. I anticipate that it will leave many readers eager to try out the game for themselves--as well as hungry for more of Joe's excellent fiction. A sequel, the novella Pit of Vipers, was recently released in e-book format by Nisaba Press. There are also two free PDF tie-ins available:
  • A Guide to Shadowtide, in which Carriker provides more background information on Serpent's Haven for Blue Rose games, as well as stat blocks and histories for the novel's three heroes. 
  • Shadowtide: Recipes from Aldea, by Jess Hartley, which presents recipes for some of the novel's cuisine.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

TBT: Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa

A couple of decades ago, a friend of mine created a book review site, "Raven's Reviews," to which I contributed a number of pages. The format was a couple short paragraphs about the author, followed by a paragraph or two for each book that was reviewed. Avoiding spoilers was an important part of the site's philosophy, so only the first few chapters of any individual work would be described in any detail. Similarly, a series review would focus on the first book, and do little more than name the titles of later books in the series.

Last month I finished reading one of the books I reviewed for Raven's site. Sadly, her site was retired several years ago, but I still have copies of the text of my reviews, so here is my page for Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa.

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Eiji Yoshikawa


Eiji Yoshikawa (1892-1962) was one of Japan’s most prolific and popular writers. His long novel Musashi was first published in serial form in the newspaper Asahi Shimbun (1935-1939). This work has become an important part of Japanese culture; it has been reprinted numerous times, adapted for stage, television and cinema, and translated into several other languages. It has been published in the US in a huge single-volume hardcover (Musashi: An Epic of the Samurai Era) and as a five-volume paperback series. I can’t vouch for the quality of Charles S. Terry’s translation, though I can tell that it is not an exact literal translation.

Yoshikawa’s novel is a work of fiction, but attempts to accurately depict important historical figures of the time, including the title character. Fans of both martial arts stories and Asian historical pieces should enjoy this work. Yoshikawa provides well-developed characters with the context needed for a modern reader. And for you anime-fiends who crave an element of frustrated romance in your samurai stories, there’s some of that, too (though you’ll probably be disappointed at the scarcity of strong female characters).


Musashi

Musashi is set in the early 17th century, just after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan, ending generations of constant warfare. With the land at peace (however uneasy at times), the samurai were forced to adapt to a new age which needed something more than mere warriors. Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645) was a product of this time, a man of samurai descent who strove to perfect his swordsmanship as a path to achieving his full human potential. He spent most of his life as a wanderer, perfecting the Art of the Sword by studying works on strategy, by challenging other swordsmen, and by more esoteric forms of enlightenment.

The Way of the Samurai (Book I of the Pocket Books paperback version) begins with the aftermath of the Battle of Sekigahara. Two youths from Miyamoto, Shimmen Takezo and Matahachi Hon’iden, had joined the army to earn names for themselves. However, they were nearly killed when their side lost, and are forced to go into hiding from Tokugawa’s soldiers. Matahachi falls afoul of a seductress and fails to return to his family--and to his fiancee, Otsu. Takezo tries to return to Miyamoto to let the Hon’idens know that Matahachi is still alive, but he gets blamed for his friend’s disappearance. His punishments at the hands of a Zen monk, Takuan Soho, begin his enlightenment, and kindle his desire to live and become a real human being, rather than dying as a brutal, ignorant beast. Reborn, he changes his name to Miyamoto Musashi, and sets out on his life-quest of becoming a master swordsman.

The paperback edition continues with The Art of War, The Way of the Sword, The Bushido Code, and The Way of Life and Death. These later sections continue Musashi’s early career, including his long feud with the Yoshioka School and his growing rivalry with another swordsman, Sasaki Kojiro. The fates of Matahachi and Otsu also play important parts in the novel. The story should be read in order from the beginning; the paperbacks provide short summaries of previous volumes, but the volume breaks are rather arbitrary and a reader will need the context of the previous sections to avoid being confused. Musashi has the episodic format typical of much Japanese storytelling, but it was written to be a single, long novel, not a series of stand-alone stories.

The novel ends while Musashi is still relatively young (28 or 29), but even by that age, he had earned a enduring place in Japanese legend. This swordsman continued to perfect his art, and near the end of his life, he composed The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on strategy. This work, which remains popular today with Japanese and gaijin alike, has a style and purpose similar to that of Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, one of the works that Musashi revered.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Tim's LEGO Reviews

I posted my twelfth LEGO Minifigures review today, so I decided it was time to give that series its own index page. Future reviews will just link here for access to past installments.

I have also listed the handful of reviews I've posted on other LEGO sets or themes, starting with the original "Studded Plate" columns that predated this blog, plus my one review of an off-brand product.

Tim's LEGO Reviews (this page)

Collectible Minifigures Reviews 

LEGO Minifigures Series 14: Monsters!
Series 15 Minifigures
Disney Minifigures
LEGO Minifigures Series 16
The LEGO Batman Movie Minifigures
The LEGO Ninjago Movie Minifigures
The LEGO Batman Movie Series 2
LEGO Minifigures Series 18: Party
LEGO Minifigures: Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts
The LEGO Movie 2 Minifigures
Disney Series 2 Minifigures
LEGO Minifigures Series 19

My Other LEGO Reviews

Studded Plate #1: LEGO Minifigures as RPG Miniatures (Lord of the Rings)
Studded Plate #2: Return of the Ring (The Hobbit and more Lord of the Rings)
Studded Plate #3: It's an Even Smaller World; Microfigures (LEGO Games: Heroica)
Thoughts about LEGO Friends (general assessment of the theme, not individual sets)

Non-LEGO Construction Toy Reviews

Action Figure Therapy's Godzilla Clones

LEGO Minifigures Series 19


Series 19 of the Minifigures theme was released September 1. This past weekend, I had a family trip that took us to a city with a LEGO Store, so we made time to stop there so that I could acquire as many of these figures as I wanted. This time around, I bought 12 out of 16 characters, with multiples of a few of them. The four I did not buy (and thus will not review here) are the Fire Fighter, Mountain Biker, Pizza Costume Guy, and Rugby Player. (I have limited use for sports minifigures, and the pizza costume reuses the large wedge piece from the watermelon costume in The LEGO Movie 2 Minifigures series.)

Bear Costume Guy: This figure's costume is a mix of white, turquoise, marigold, and coral pink, with a rainbow on its chest in the same colors. (Once again, my photo does not properly convey the intensity of the pink.) The accessories consist of a coral pink heart tile (most packs include an extra) and a rainbow tile with a couple more stripes than one on the body. Under the bear mask, the character's head is two-sided, with two rather adorable, cutesy expressions. The garish, patchwork palette will severely limit this figure's use as an RPG mini, but I foresee this character being popular among the LBGT+ community for its hearts and rainbows, as well as among teddy bear collectors of all kinds.

Dog Sitter: This woman wears overall shorts molded in two colors for the legs (as are the short sleeves on the arms), with printing on the front and sides of the legs and front and back of the torso. Her ball cap and ponytail are another two-color molded piece. She comes with two dogs, a dachshund (a new piece, with a stud on its back) and a French bulldog, and a shovel for scooping poop (also included).

Fox Costume Girl: This costume consists of an orange body with black feet (another two-color mold) and hands. The figure has white printing on the chest, tip of the tail, and neck part of the mask, and black-printed ears. The woman's head is two-sided, with a crooked smile on one side, and licking her lips on the other. She comes with a chicken and a sack. This figure would make a lovely kitsune or werefox, especially if the head is replaced by a blank white one to just leave the fox face. (I bought multiples for exactly this reason; everyone in my family has a kitsune character in their Pathfinder Society stable.)

Fright Knight: This knight has a typical breastplate and grille-fronted helm, but the legs and breastplate are printed with spiky, fluted flourishes with bits of rust around the edges. The torso is printed front and back with a very nice chain shirt, though this is completely covered when the breastplate is worn. The knight's shield is slightly longer than a classic shield, and bears the Fright Knights' bat emblem, with rusty patches around the edges. The head is a light seaform color, with large eyes and a fanged grin. (The face appears to have eyelashes at first glance, which usually means a female character, but they could also be seen as demonic eyebrows. I find this gender ambiguity, especially with the helmet on, to be a nice touch.) Finally, the knight has two transparent blue accessories, a helmet plume and a longsword; mine came with an extra of each. The sword makes an excellent ghost touch blade or other magic weapon.

Galactic Bounty Hunter: This character wears a black armored spacesuit, with shoulder plates and a helmet, with silver printing on the body and helmet. His chest armor bears the triple yellow triangle logo of Blacktron, one of the first enemy factions introduced in early Space sets. He wields a standard two-barreled pistol, and carries a red transparent datapad with a "wanted" poster. Under the helmet, his face is a weird pale blue, but it's unclear whether he is supposed to be an alien or have some kind of inner face shield. This mini won't be very useful in most fantasy games, but is perfect for a space opera game like Star Wars or Starfinder. (My daughter craved the armor for her Starfinder Society soldier.)

Gardener: This woman wears a purple floral print blouse (with two-color molded arms) that clashes loudly with her blue leopard-print pants. She also has lime-green hands (gloves), a lavender beehive hairdo, and shiny eye and lip makeup. She comes with a plant (a green stem with leaves) and a pink flamingo lawn ornament. The latter is a single piece, with a plastic leg pole and a hard rubber body. It would make a great accessory for the Disney Minifigures Alice to hold while playing croquet.

Jungle Explorer: This minifigure is based on the Johnny Thunder character from the old Adventurers theme, but with more intricate printing, a more recent style of wide-brimmed hat, and a fancier backpack molded in two colors. He holds a magnifying glass, through which he is studying a chameleon. This lizard is a new model, distinct from the chameleons from the Elves theme and Disney's Tangled sets, and somewhat more realistic-looking than either of those. It's a perfect mini for a lizard familiar.

Monkey King: The Monkey King is easily the most spectacular character in this series--as befits a supremely vain trickster spirit. His torso is printed with an elaborate red and gold jacket, and the arms are two-color molded to give him red sleeves with gold cuffs. He also wears wide red shoulder pads over a red cloth cape that forms two long, narrow tails. He has a monkey's tail and a headpiece that emphasizes his large ears and monkey-face hairline; a red plume fits into a hole in the wig. His head is two-sided, with one face sporting a toothy grin and the other looking more serious or determined. His weapon is a long, gold-capped staff. (My pack included an extra pole and lightsaber hilt, allowing for an even longer pole to be built.) This minifigure will be invaluable to anyone running an Asian-based fantasy campaign, as well as for anyone wishing to play a flamboyant vanara rogue, fighter, or monk. (I haven't bought multiples of the Monkey King--yet. He seems more fun as a single unique character rather than as a whole team of troublemakers. And if he needs minions, I already own a few Chima Gorilla Tribe minifigures.)

Mummy Queen: This mummy is wrapped in bandages, with a kilt, pectoral, and armbands. She wears a turquoise blue headdress with a printed jeweled band. Her head is two-sided: one side is a serene gold mask, the other an angry undead face. She comes with a standard scorpion in pearl-gold. This is quite a nice figure, with very detailed and extensive printing (including the arms and sides of the legs). Her torso is printed with the slight inward curves common to female minifigures' waists, and the gold mask has eyelashes and thin colored lips, but overall her gendering is more subtle than I would have expected from her title (and a far cry from the "girly pink" Lady Robot from Series 11!).

Programmer: This woman wears a black shirt covered with 1's and 0's ("LEGO" rendered in binary), gray pants, and a red flannel tied around her waist. The legs are molded in two colors, with printing that gives the illusion of the join being on a slant rather than a right angle; her short sleeves are also a two-color mold job. The programmer's head is double-sided, with one face smiling slightly and the other grinning openly; both wear large round glasses. Her hair is an interesting new piece, with many small braids tied up into a large, knobbly bun. (This hair would make a lovely, out-of-the-face style for a practical-minded adventurer.) She has two accessories: a laptop (now in white) and a small brick-built robot pet. The robot is built around an upside-down pistol-grip gun or tool, which promises to be a very versatile prop for SF games.

Shower Guy: This minifigure wears nothing but a shower cap and a cloth towel around his waist. Beneath the towel, the front of his hips and legs are printed with strategically placed bubbles--and the towel actually overlaps about 1 mm, avoiding the immodest gap that many past skirts and kilts suffered. The head is two-sided, with an huge grin on one side and a blushing, embarrassed face on the other. His accessories are a bath brush and a green rubber ducky. The duck is perfect for representing a tiny bird, and the man's bare chest will be useful for other characters found on the beach, in the tropics, or other comfortably warm places. If reversed to hide the duck print, the towel makes an excellent plain kilt or skirt.

Video Game Champ: This minifigure is a trove of callbacks to earlier LEGO themes and models. His jacket is covered in logos for LEGO Space, M-Tron, and Blacktron. (Perhaps the Galactic Bounty Hunter above is his in-game avatar?) His "Space Game" box depicts the Cyborg from Series 16, and the 1x1 "P|B" brick logo in the top corner reminds me of the LEGO Ideas Doctor Who logo. The gamer's green hair with black headset will be useful in SF games, while his double-sided head (with its tiny chin-beard and happy/annoyed faces) should be useful for characters in many genres.

Past Collectible Minifigures Reviews 

LEGO Minifigures Series 14: Monsters!
Series 15 Minifigures
Disney Minifigures
LEGO Minifigures Series 16
The LEGO Batman Movie Minifigures
The LEGO Ninjago Movie Minifigures
The LEGO Batman Movie Series 2
LEGO Minifigures Series 18: Party
LEGO Minifigures: Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts
The LEGO Movie 2 Minifigures
Disney Series 2 Minifigures

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Unearthed Arcana and Freeport, Part 11: Artificer 4.0 plus Even More Subclasses

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 May through September 2019.

Note that the publishing schedule for UA is far more irregular these days, with only one new article in 2019 before those below. That means that, going forward, these reviews will be fewer and far between, even if I only cover a couple at a time, as I did in Part 10. (The very recent introduction of some new subclasses only a month apart looks promising for a brief uptick in releases, however.)

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

Artificer [The Artificer Returns] (5/14/2019): This article is an expanded version of the new iteration of the class released in February, making it the fourth version of the class to appear in UA. Two new subclasses and a handful of new infusions have been added, and the spell list now includes spells from Xanathar's Guide to Everything. The two new subclasses are the Archivist, who specializes in spells involving thought and knowledge and creates an artificial intelligence as a helper, and the Battle Smith, who focuses on protective enchantments and crafts a defensive construct companion.

Barbarian and Monk (8/15/2019): This installment provides two new archetypes, for two very different classes: the barbarian and the monk. The Wild Soul is a barbarian who is saturated with powerful magic, over which they have little control until later levels. It's very much a martial sibling to the Wild Soul Sorcerer. (I'm not sure whether multiclassing between the two would be awesome or obnoxious--or both.)

The Way of the Astral Self provides a way for a monk to manifest their true form using their ki. This astral form is mastered a piece at a time, starting with arms that deal radiant or necrotic damage, then later a mask (visage) that enhances their senses. Later levels enhance both the astral self's offensive and defensive benefits. This subclass seems best suited for an exotic, possibly psionic-flavored, monastic order, perhaps one started by a planar-traveling race such as the githyanki or githzerai.

Sorcerer and Warlock (9/5/2019): This month's article introduces the Aberrant Mind origin for sorcerers, and The Lurker in the Deep, a new patron for warlocks. The Aberrant Mind sorcerer has had an alien experience that warped their mind and body. This subclass gives them limited telepathy, psionic-flavored additional spells known, and (at higher levels) resistance to psychic damage. The physical changes provide some armor at early levels, and the ability to gain new movement modes or senses later on by expending sorcery points.

The Lurker in the Deep is an evolution of the kraken patron warlock that was designed during the debut episode of The Mike Mearls Happy Fun Hour many moons ago. The concept has been expanded to apply to other powerful ocean or elemental entities. In addition to an expanding spell list with water and weather-themed spells, this patron grants the ability to create spectral tentacles to attack your enemies. At higher levels, these appendages can help defend the warlock, and she can conjure more deadly manifestations of her patron's power. The warlock eventually gains some class features that make it easier to move through and survive in her master's watery domain.

Finally, this installment offers a new offensive cantrip, mind sliver, for psionic-themed sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards. Unsurprisingly, the entire article begs to be used in a Freeport campaign, where encounters with weird alien powers are distressingly common. The Lurker in the Deep is perfectly suited to Yarash and Dagon's cults, while an Aberrant Mind might have acquired her powers through an encounter with the Brotherhood of the Yellow Sign or other eldritch horrors.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

My GM Pet Peeves, and How to Not be THAT Player

Earlier this week, the inestimable Owen K.C Stephens asked his Facebook followers, "What is ONE thing someone else in a game group you play with regularly, be they a GM or player, does that makes things less fun for you, but that for some reason you can't or won't mention to them?"

I immediately thought of several things that bother me during play, both as a player and a GM, but I tend to avoid confronting the other player about them. Doing so can potentially lead to a bigger disruption of the game than the bad behavior. However, not doing anything to curb those annoying habits might mean that your (and the other players') dissatisfaction and resentment continues to fester unchecked, which isn't healthy, either.

I've decided to present a handful of my personal pet peeves here, and--more importantly--try to give some advice for how to avoid being guilty of them yourself. I encounter these issues far more often in organized play than in home games. The latter gives more control over who you play with, so it's usually easier to avoid the players who set you off. But even in a group you've been with for some time, and are very comfortable with, you'll want to stay alert for these behaviors. 

The player who doesn't know what their character's go-to attack and skill modifiers are, or where to find them on the character sheet, even after playing the character for quite some time.


Your GM has many characters to keep track of, while you just have the one (and maybe a companion). Therefore, you, not your GM, should be responsible for being the expert on what your PC can do. At the very least, you need to know what your modifiers are for the activities your character will engage in most often--whether that's your signature attack, your best noncombat skill, or just what your Perception and Initiative modifiers are. 

Naturally, players who are new to the system, or to RPGs in general, should be cut some slack here. But once you've played a character for a while, you should be ready and able to answer the GM's most common questions about their stats. And yes, those numbers will constantly change as you advance in level and acquire better gear, but you still need to be able to find them quickly on your character sheet in order to keep the game moving along at a reasonable pace.


The player who has to be reminded of a basic rule that directly impacts their character's options, every single fight, week after week.


This peeve is very closely related to the last one, but involves more general knowledge and mastery of the rules. If your GM has to keep reminding you week after week that you can only attack once after moving more than 5 ft., or that you can't combine a standard action (like Vital Strike) with a charge, or that trying to shoot someone adjacent to you provokes attacks of opportunity, it will get old fast. Invest just a little more time in learning the rules, and everyone at the table will have more fun.

Ideally, everyone should possess their own copy of the rulebook and have a working knowledge of how to find a rule they need, even if they haven't read the entire text. (I don't hold other people to my own practice of reading RPG rulebooks from cover to cover...as much as I might sometimes wish they would.) Review the rules that affect your character most often until you start to internalize them. For example, Pathfinder's action economy of standard, move, swift, immediate, and full-round actions can be one of the more confusing parts of the game, but it's also one of the basic rules elements that everyone needs to learn in order to attain any degree of mastery of that system. 

The player who built their character around a single killer combo, but then can't explain clearly how it works, or how they calculated the bonuses they're claiming. 


It comes with the territory of a crunchy system like Pathfinder that part of the appeal is optimizing a character to do one or two things really, really well. Exploiting the rules to the fullest requires a broad knowledge of all the resources available for the game, which requires a significant investment of time and money to acquire those books, to study them, and to experiment with new combinations. Your awesome new build may be perfectly legal, by both the letter and the spirit of the rules, but if you can't clearly explain it works--or how in the heck you got such a surprisingly large attack or damage bonus--then the GM and other players will quickly lose patience with your shenanigans. 

I've found this to be a chronic problem in organized play, especially among players who rely too heavily on a program like Hero Lab to build their characters. Hero Lab is a wonderful tool--I use it all the time myself--but it's far too tempting to use it as a crutch for actually reading the rules. It doesn't contain the full text of every rule it employs, it doesn't always tell you where all the numbers come from, and it is far from error-free. Organized play campaigns usually have strict rules about owning a sourcebook in order to use its content, and a Hero Lab data package does not count  for that. In addition, not all players have the time, funds, or inclination to acquire a library as large as yours might be, so you will occasionally get a GM who has never read the book(s) your character relies on for their core concept. If you can't adequately and efficiently explain that unfamiliar content to them--or can't account for each part of that surprisingly large bonus you just claimed--your GM will get frustrated with your poor grasp of the rules. They may even suspect you of cheating. Pathfinder Society has an audit process that GMs can invoke if they suspect cheating, but they don't do this lightly because it wastes valuable play time, and ruins the fun for everyone at the table. But if one player is stopping play frequently to fumble over explaining how their bizarro character is supposed to work, that still wastes the other players' time, and their goodwill. 

The best way to avoid annoying GMs in this way is to carefully review the rules for your character until you can quickly and concisely explain how their abilities work. Be prepared to show the GM the original rules text if they request it, and to account for all your math in calculating your bonuses. If your character will be consistently creating effects that help allies or hinder enemies, be able to recite those effects quickly and clearly. Better yet, copy the pertinent details onto index cards that you and the other players can use for easy reference at the table. If you make a good-faith effort to keep your PC's unusual game mechanics from becoming a burden on the GM, they will be much happier about having you at the table! (Or, if those rules are overly burdensome on you, then you may wish to rethink whether you can actually play that character effectively.)

The player who doesn't pay attention to the game except when it's their turn, so the rest of us have to waste a lot of time telling them what's happened since their last turn. 


Almost nothing irritates a GM more than being ignored, yet players constantly engage in pointless table chatter, playing games or surfing social media on their phones, and many other distractions. The worst offenders have to be yanked back to attention when it's their turn, then have the entire past round since their last turn explained to them, and immediately lose interest again as soon as their turn is over. They also never look at the [bleep]ing map to see where their character is in relation to their allies or enemies, which means they waste even more time deciding what to do on their turn.

(I should pause here to confess that I'm as guilty of off-topic chatter as any of my players, but that's a very minor offense compared to the sheer stubborn obliviousness of some people I've played with.)

I've considered banning phone use entirely at my table, but I'm afraid that would ultimately hurt the game more than help. The internet is often the easiest and fastest way to look up a rule, and some players keep all their character sheets and rulebooks on their phones. I also like to take pictures of cool maps and miniatures during games that I play or run, and I appreciate others wanting to do the same. But lingering on social media for longer than it takes to post those game photos, or playing games completely unrelated to the one we've all gathered for, tends to erode my patience very quickly--especially if the player is distracting others with their antics.

I understand that some players focus better if they have something to do with their hands when they're not taking notes or rolling dice. I have many friends who cross-stitch, or knit, or draw during game. I don't have a problem with that, as long as they are paying enough attention to know when they need to pause their project to take their turn, or roll a save, or otherwise react to what's going on in game. But if your crafty thing is too noisy or takes up too much table space, or if it takes effort to get your attention when I need it, then we have a problem.

Ultimately, I see this as an issue of mutual respect and common courtesy. If spending time with these people and playing this game is important to you, then show that through your actions. Pay attention, and practice active listening. Use the other players' turns to think about your next turn, so that you'll need less time to deliberate over your actions then. If the group wanders off topic, help the GM nudge them back on target, rather than providing yet another tangent. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque: Another Hiatus (and the State of the Blog)

I've decided that I need to take a break from running my "Time of the Tarrasque" campaign. One of my players recently started a new job that makes him unavailable at our traditional gaming time, and finding an alternate time that is good for everyone is proving elusive. I've also been feeling some GM burnout lately (this game takes a lot more effort to prep than, say, running an occasional Pathfinder Society scenario), and the last couple sessions have suffered for it. We hope to resume the game at some future date, but I can't say how long that will be at this time.

I've also decided to cut back on how often I post to this blog. I managed to keep up a rate of one post every week for over 4 years, but I missed a week or two this summer due to a shortage of free time. And with Tarrasque on hiatus, I won't have those session summaries to post for the duration (though I may occasionally report on other games that my group uses that time for). Instead, I'll be aiming for 1 or 2 posts per month, on whatever topics inspire me enough to write about them.

Needless to say, I won't be doing #RPGaDay this year. I only just now recalled that it happens every August, so I've already missed the first week. I did take a quick look at this year's list, but the format has changed from discreet questions to mere one-word prompts, which I find less inspiring than past years.

One project that I do plan to tackle here soon is a new "Building the Bestiary" installment (or two). (We [mostly] have our house back in order following the construction we did this spring, so we have some of our clean, flat work surfaces back again!) By design, that series sticks pretty close to the D&D Monster Manual and first Pathfinder Bestiary, but Tarrasque and PFS have also kept me busy building monsters from later sourcebooks. So I may need to start a sort of companion series showcasing the more interesting models that fall outside "Building the Bestiary's" current mandate.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #27: A New Year Dawns

"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.
  • Skarlo Rockhopper, gnome summoner 5; and Skuttledust, scorpion-like eidolon
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 5; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

Last time, our heroes experienced some frustration when trying to find out more about the resistance, who did not trust the newcomers yet. They did, however, learn a bit more about the upcoming winter solstice festival.

During the week before the solstice, ZhaZha found employment as a guard at a gnomish shop, where her size and watchfulness did much to discourage troublemakers. In her free time, she worked on making her banner. [This led to the conversation between her and Jumari appended to last session's summary. They have yet to share any of that discussion with their companions.] Jumari also found some work as hired muscle, but was not trained to be a soldier, so earned less. Edel's performances during this time were enjoyable enough, but garnered him a disappointing amount of coin.

With Skarlo's help, Fatou located a gnome illusionist willing to allow her to copy some spells from his spellbook (for the usual fee). The young wizard also shopped for arcane supplies, and scribed a handful of new spell scrolls (including enlarge person for Skarlo, as thanks).

Fatou also wished to meet the priests who would be leading the solstice rituals. Yaziel's cleric made a good first impression on the four leaders, who eagerly explained some of the basics of their faith. In return, they listened attentively to Fatou's talk about her own, as about the gods of the giants. Of the local priests, only Banwyn was familiar with the Javanian faith, but all knew something about the elementals gods--especially the earth god Genesib, who is popular among gnomes. Edel joined her for this meeting, and made an even stronger impression on them. Skarlo tagged along, too, because he was related to the two gnome leaders.

On the eve of the Winter Solstice--the last night of the year in most calendars--Jumari went into the forest around Galdar to find a secluded clearing with a view of the night sky. Her devotions at each new moon involve stripping nude to pray under an open sky, so she needed solitude. (ZhaZha offered to watch her back, but the inquisitor declined. She was still close enough to Galdar to be seen by a few nocturnal travelers, who all gave the scary skyclad albino half-orc in a trance a wide berth.)

Jumari rejoined her companions well before dawn, when the pageant was due to begin. They made their way to the marketplace, where a wooden platform had been erected, with four simple thrones in two tiers. The religious procession began at the river at the break of dawn. The four leaders marched with an honor guard from the banks into the center of town to the raised thrones.

The first pair represented the Faerie Sovereigns of Autumn and Winter, who ruled supreme during the season that was ending. The elf druid Daenestra wore hides and antlers to show her devotion to the Autumn prince, Basaran, lord of animals and the harvest. The gnome Felvar, repesenting the sinister Winter Queen, Maridor, wore a long gown of black leaves, and had turned his skin and hair snow white with either makeup or magic. (As explained last time, a layperson always represents the goddess of cold and death; Maridor is an essential part of the annual cycle, but those who favor her above the other three Sovereigns are not welcome in civilized lands.)

The second pair represented Spring and Summer, whose power was secondary during the autumn. Skarlo's cousin Banwyn, a gnome cleric of the Spring Princess, Nalanimil, was dressed as the fertility goddess in vines and scarves and not much else. This revealing costume showed off the small but obvious bulge of her pregnancy. Beside her was Ornthalas, a high elf priest of Vanatar, the Summer King and lord of light, who was dressed in a shiny breastplate, a mirror-like shield, and a helm with a metallic unicorn horn and mane. Although both Daenestra and Banywyn carried quivers and slung bows, Ornthalas was the most conspicuously armed member of the group, with his spear trailing a banner of woven flowers.

When the four actors reached the platform, they performed a bit of sacred mummery, speaking ritual words as they exchanged partners. Winter remained ascendant on Her holiest of days, but took Spring as Her new consort. Autumn joined Summer in decline. With Banwyn and Fulvar being a married couple, the new ruling pair's ritual kiss lasted longer than strictly necessary--to some knowing cheers. The Sovereigns then assumed Their seats on the four thrones, with the two gnomes taking the more exalted seats.

Representatives of the town's most prominent businesses and families took turns offering gifts to the Sovereigns. This took quite some time, as the "gods" gave their thanks for each gift. This part of the ceremony allowed the party to take better note of the crowd. They spotted a number of kobolds watching the proceedings from the edge of the crowd. Most of these were gathered on the side of the market closest to their garrison (a cluster of elven stone buildings surrounded by a kobold-built palisade). Jumari and Fatou could tell that the kobolds were on edge throughout the ceremony, and spotted some who openly sneered at the gift-giving.

While that was still going on, Fatou and ZhaZha noticed a disturbance as a new group approached from another direction. This proved to be two satyrs, one of which started playing his pipes and dancing as the pair approached the stage. The other carried a  fancy hunting horn, held aloft to let the crowd get a fine look while he pranced up to the stage. He bowed and, speaking in Common, presented the horn as "a gift from the satyrs of the forest to the true gods of the land." Some of the kobolds understood his words, and clearly took offense. Those reptiles translated into Draconic for their fellows, and a handful of kobolds rushed off in the direction of the garrison.

The satyr remained kneeling, and exchanged greetings with the actors. Autumn presented a wineskin to the satyrs in thanks. They sampled it, and praised Daenestra's work. A bad of musicians near the stage was given an unseen cue, and started to play. The two satyrs joined in with their pipes, and led the dancing that followed. With the solemn part of the festival concluded, the rest of the day was for celebrating the return of the sun. Stalls around the edges of the market square provided ample food and drink of many kinds.

The four actors remained on the platform for a while longer. Skarlo went to his cousin and, somewhat awkwardly, congratulated her on her pregnancy. The gesture pleased her and her husband, so he asked when the baby would be born. Banwyn expected their child to arrive in late spring, which she felt would honor her patron goddess.

Fatou offered to buy drinks for all her friends. The two half-orcs, however, declined, resolving to stay sober in case of any trouble. (Jumari also wanted to keep her face veiled.) Instead, they wandered around together, feeling lost among the followers of this strange religion. ZhaZha made sure to inform Edel that the kobolds were antsy, but the elf was determined to join in the carousing. He even asked to take Skarlo for a spin, and the gnome agreed--though he left Scuttledust with Fatou, for her protection.

The wizard tried to keep an eye out for the return of the kobolds who had gone to the garrison, but got too caught up in the festivities. After some time, the party heard a commotion nearby: one of the two satyrs was arguing with a kobold wearing rich, fancy robes and bearing a dragon-headed staff.  Going closer, they could hear that the satyr was insisting that the kobold join the party. The kobold and his two guards all wore insignia of garrison officers. The small reptilian was angry, insisting that the fey mind its own business and behave itself. Just as the party arrived, the argument turned into an exchange of insults in multiple languages.

Edel attempted to intercede and make peace: this was a festive occasion, which everyone should celebrate in their own way, and there was no need for such hostility. He succeeded, and the other two backed down. (Edel and his companions were somewhat disappoionted that they didn't get to join in a fight after all.) The satyr feigned boredom, and asked Fatou to drink with him instead. She agreed, and was led off to the nearest drink stall. Skarlo followed to keep an eye on her.

Jumari then addressed the kobold: "Don't you have somewhere else to be?" The kobold scoffed, and stated that wherever it chose to go in this town, it would. It soon decided that the half-orc and her friends were not worth its time to talk to, and walked off to where some kobolds were erecting a sunshade for it to sit under.

The two half-orcs decided to "wander" in front of the kobold to "accidentally" block its view of the continuing festivities. This gave Jumari time to determine the kobold's alignment (faint evil). It wasn't long before they were accosted by one of the junior officers, who barked at them to move along because they were blocking the view. When Jumari stubbornly replied in only Orc, the officer signaled the handful of soldiers beside the spellcaster, and they all leveled their crossbows at the half-orcs. At that, ZhaZha feigned difficulty getting her camel to move out of the way, but she and Jumari withdrew. The kobolds just glared at them and cursed them in Draconic.

Meanwhile, Fatou was in some trouble. The satyr had offered her a drink, and her lack of tolerance to alcohol left her too drunk to notice him getting handy, or to understand her owl familiar's warnings. Fortunately, her friends tracked her down her before the satyr got any other ideas, and extracted her from the fey's clutches. Fatou fuzzily thanked her friends, who took her back to the inn to sleep it off. Skarlo pointed them towards a shop where they acquired some alchemist's kindness for her. With Fatou safe again, Edel returned to the party as quickly as he could.

(ZhaZha has attached her new banner to her lance, and is working on a way to attach it to her armor so that she can display it with her hands free. During the day of the festival, the rest of the party noticed it, but only Fatou immediately picked up on the resemblance to the Tarrasque symbols in her home village.)

-----

One of our players has started a new job that, unfortunately, makes scheduling this game more difficult. It may take us a couple months to find an alternative time slot that works. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #26: Hurry Up and Wait

"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.
  • Skarlo Rockhopper, gnome summoner 5; and Skuttledust, scorpion-like eidolon
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 5; and Zafira, camel mount.
-----

Last time, our heroes fought a pair of primitive dragons and recovered one of their eggs. They then finally reached their destination, the elven forest of Fendorlis, and the kobold-occupied border town of Galdar. They gladly parted ways with the kobold caravan, and met a young gnome named Skarlo Rockhopper who is interested in seeing the desert. Skarlo confirmed the existence of a local resistance effort, so the party promised to take him with them if he could put them in touch with the rebels.

Skarlo went to talk with his contacts, Pyntle, a female gnome who worked as a street entertainer, and Theren, a male elf who was a warrior of some kind. He told them about the newcomers he'd met, who were interested in the resistance. Teren and Pyntle were surprised that Skarlo would suggest that half-orcs join them, but the summoner explained that they had worked for the kobold caravan, but didn't like them much. The two rebels decided to watch the group, and asked Skarlo to find out more about their capabilities. 

Meanwhile, the others discussed Jumari's paranoia. She explained that her parents tried to kill her as an infant, and she expects other people to try to, too. (ZhaZha opined that everyone is trying to kill everyone else in her home village, but that's just training.) The conversation then changed to the dragon egg. ZhaZha offered to train it for Jumari if she hatches it. Fatou suggested the cavalier might be able to train it as a mount. 

Skarlo returned to the inn later in the day, to report what his contacts had told him. Jumari replied that she didn't plan to stick around just to be watched. ZhaZha wondered aloud if the rebels expected their party to fight someone to impress them, and said, "I don't want to kill things just for the sake of killing things...I don't believe I just said that." (Edel and Fatou were also shocked by this statement.) Jumari insisted that if Skarlo's friends wanted them to do something, they needed to let them know what. She suggested that they could give more information on the caravan they arrived here with, and Edel suggested they might be able to sabotage those kobolds. In the end, they sent Skarlo back to request more enlightenment about what the resistance expects.

While the party waited to hear back about that, ZhaZha suggested that they look for signs of the death cult here in Galdar. The other agreed, and also tried to learn more about the local resistance, and whether there were any problems that outsiders could solve. They found no trace of the death cult. (Most of the people they asked assumed they meant the Winter Queen--the faerie goddess of death and darkness--and knew nothing of Asmolon.)

The townsfolk were very close-mouthed about the resistance. Jumari and Fatou sensed that some of them knew more than they were willing to say, but were afraid to talk to outsiders--especially a group that included half-orcs. Fatou offered her two friends some coin to go have a nice meal while she and Edel talked to more people; the cavalier and inquisitor readily agreed. By this time, the party had also noticed of elves following them, so splitting the group would also test their tail. 

As Fatou and Edel continued asking questions about town, they did not gain many answers to their questions. However, they did hear that the locals planned to hold their usual Winter Solstice celebrations in a week, but were worried about the kobolds interfering. Since the occupation of Galdar, the kobolds had mostly let business continue as usual, but they gathered taxes on all trade that passed through the town, and forbid some things like other races gathering in armed bands. (Fatou believed that one of the elves continued to follow her and Edel, but the bard saw no sign of this.)

Jumari and Fatou went to get food, and easily spotted the elf following them. They continued to be nosy, mostly just for the sake of hearing what others said about them. They attracted a good deal of attention, but could not understand most of the bystanders' comments (which were in their native Elven, Gnome, or Draconic). Fatou had been generous with her coin, so they sampled food from many shops (favoring those with "barbeque" or other roasted meat), and brought quite a few leftovers back to share with their friends. 

Skarlo was unable to locate Teren (who was probably busy watching the newcomers), but did find Pyntle. The summoner told her more about the group--two could fight, one wore a holy symbol, one told stories--and Pyntle relented enough to tell Skarlo that the resistance may have work for them by the solstice. 

After the gnome reported this to the party, Jumari opined that she might need to leave town, to avoid causing trouble. However, and ZhaZha wanted to find work to earn some money if they found nothing better to do during that week. Edel could easily make some coin performing. Fatou planned to replenish her supply of wizardly materials and scribe some more scrolls. 

-----

[We stopped there because I found myself underprepared for a full session, and some of us were more tired from the week than usual. In order to have a more productive session next time, we continued the conversation via email. What follows summarizes that discussion and exposition.]

The Winter Solstice celebrations in Galdar normally begins with some sacred pageantry, led by local religious leaders and their assistants, to mark the changing of the seasons. This is followed by a great deal of raucous partying. 

Skarlo learned from his contacts that the resistance was concerned that the kobolds might interfere in these celebrations--especially if any of the local fey showed up, which they have in the past. Fey are wild and unpredictable, so tend to make the kobolds twitchy. The rebels wanted the PCs to stay near the religious leaders and protect them if there is any trouble. 

As natives of Fendorlis, Edel and Skarlo know that the solstices and equinoxes are the principal holy days of both the Faerie Sovereigns and the druids. The principal actors in Galdar's religious drama will represent the four Faerie Sovereigns as those deities change partners with the progression of the seasons. The Winter Queen and Summer King exchange consorts (Spring and Autumn) at each solstice and equinox; one of those two monarchs, along with their current consort, are ascendant during each season. Winter and Autumn are the current ruling pair, but at the solstice, Autumn will decline and Spring will ascend. (At the vernal equinox, Summer and Spring will become the ascendant pair, and so on.) 

Skarlo is related to two of the actors: his cousin Banwyn is a priestess of the Spring Princess, Nalanimil, and her husband Felvar will play the role of the Winter Queen, Maridor. (Maridor is a sinister goddess, feared rather than worshiped by honest folk, but she remains an integral part of the yearly cycle. She has no priests of her own among good-aligned elves, gnomes, and fey, but clerics of the pantheon honor her as part of the whole of nature. Here in Galdar, a layperson always plays her role.) The summoner knows that the other two leaders are both high elves: Daenestra, a female druid who will represent the Autumn Prince, Basaran, and Ornthalas, a male priest of the Summer King, Vanatar. 

-----

"...a fat camel with big jaws."
[And finally, we had a brief session with just Jumari and ZhaZha's players, in order to address the potential conflict between them once the inquisitor finally learns the cavalier's religion. ZhaZha acquiring the banner class feature at this level provided the perfect opportunity to explore that.]

Jumari found ZhaZha sketching images in the dirt, and asked what she was doing. The cavalier explained that she was designing a banner, which would help their party remember that they had help at hand. She belonged to the Order of the Dragon, but was having difficulty drawing one, because she had never seen a true dragon. (Despite Fatou identifying the two amphipteres they had fought as dragons, they didn't fit her mental image of one.) The thing that the people of her village drew has powerful limbs and a lot of teeth. But given her limited knowledge with strong beasts, she was afraid that her drawing looked too much like a fat camel with big jaws.

A dragon--this specific dragon--is the most powerful thing that ZhaZha could think of. It had been ages and ages since any of her people had seen one, so they only had crude drawings. Jumari asked if she follows or worships it. ZhaZha revealed her incredulity at Jumari not having figured it out when they were in Gorza's Well. She hesitated to name it because, based on Jumari's reactions in the past, she was afraid the inquisitor would want to kill her. Jumari was still confused, so ZhaZha had to explain bluntly that she and her family worshiped the Tarrasque*. The leaders of her tribe all wore its symbols. Jumari was surprised-she had never seen its symbols before to recognize them. She reassured ZhaZha that she wasn't going to kill her--she liked her, and would miss their friendship. (Also, it was far more fun to tease Edel together.)

ZhaZha guessed that Fatou might have a better idea what it looked like, due to her extensive book-learning. Jumari reminded her that Edel had spoken of it, too. (ZhaZha confessed that history mostly went over her head--she'd rather be pointed at things to fight now.)

Jumari wanted to kill the Tarrasque, because it ate her god. Edel wanted to kill it because it ate his king. ZhaZha wanted to be the best rider ever, and the hardest thing to ride must be the Tarrasque. If she could ride it before they kill it, she'd be content. Jumari believed Edel would agree to that. But ZhaZha worried that another one might not appear within her lifetime--which, as a half-orc and a warrior, was bound to be short.

ZhaZha explained that the Tarrasque's cult was not a death cult (which she knew Jumari was violently opposed to); instead, her people revered it for its strength. Granted, her religious views might not exactly match her family's, but she wasn't with them now.

She asked Jumari what she thought of being "the white orc" now. Jumari claimed that as she long as she gets to destroy Ras Raduz, she didn't care about what happened to herself. She just didn't want to die for some stupid reason first.

ZhaZha showed Jumari her drawing, asking her if seeing it on a banner would inspire her to fight. The inquisitor wasn't comfortable with the idea of gaining support from a Tarrasque banner, so asked if she could add an egg to it. She explained that the birthmark on her face was in the shape of a broken egg, her god's symbol. (She repeated the story of the Tarrasque and Lost Egg's origins that she had told her companions before.)

ZhaZha's new banner design. (Drawings
used with her player's permission.)
As they talked, ZhaZha modified her drawing, and decided it would be much easier to depict just the dragon's head rather than the whole body. She had saved a few scraps of yellow-brown amphiptere hide from what they sold to the kobolds, and planned to cut the dragon head device out of that and mount it upon a red canvas background; she would also add a cream-colored broken eggshell to the design. Jumari recalled that their new gnome acquaintance, Skarlo, was a leatherworker, so suggested that he might be able to assist with the work, or at least with finding the right tools and supplies.

The two friends struck a deal: ZhaZha would ride the Tarrasque, then the others would kill it. They might never get that chance, but at least there would be plenty of death cultists to kill together along the way. (ZhaZha stated that if she died before then, she did not want to be reincarnated as a gnome. Being that small would make it even harder to achieve her dream.)

With the difficult part of the conversation past, their talk turned to lighter subjects--such as ZhaZha thanking Jumari for setting her up with Morag. 

* The Tarrasque is not a dragon, but in my setting's cosmology, it is the cursed spawn of the dragon gods, so its worshipers usually consider it to be one.



Sunday, July 14, 2019

Strongholds & Followers

Strongholds & Followers is the primary physical reward from the wildly successful Strongholds & Streaming Kickstarter by MCDM Productions. This book for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition presents Matt Colville's rules for mid- to high-level heroes building strongholds, recruiting followers, and using those resources to wage war, indulge in intrigue, and improve their heroes' personal abilities.

Previous editions of D&D assumed that most of the wealth that adventurers collect will be spent on magic items to boost their own power. However, such items are much rarer in 5E, and the default assumption is that characters cannot simply buy, sell, or craft magic items at will. Colville's solution is to give characters the option of using that money to build a stronghold, which allows them to attract followers and gain other tangible benefits. It also gives them more motivation to get involved in the politics and intrigue of the region around their new base, which can lead to new kinds of adventures.

The book is divided into six parts (three main chapters, plus substantial appendices which make up 40% of the book):
  • Strongholds: Rules for building a stronghold, and the benefits characters gain from that investment.
  • Followers: Details on the army units, retainers, and other followers a character can attract to their service, as well as special allies who help out from time to time.
  • The Siege of Castle Rend: An adventure designed to introduce players to many of the new rules in this book.
  • New Monsters: A bestiary of new extraplanar and draconic servitors that can be summoned by characters with a temple stronghold, and a few other methods. 
  • Warfare: Rules for mass combat, using army units gained as followers and/or hired with gold.
  • New Items: New magic items referenced elsewhere in the book, or that use the new rules presented here (such as battle magic or new monsters).

Strongholds

A stronghold is a structure that provides a base of operations, a home for followers and allies, and enhanced personal abilities to its master. There are four basic types: a keep allows you to raise an army and defend the local populace; a tower helps with spell research and learning battle magic; a temple allows the summoning of divine servitors and learning battle magic; and an establishment allows you to perform espionage and generate income. A castle combines more than one type of stronghold, allowing a larger complex to be built and run by multiple characters. A stronghold's size (1-5 levels) is a measure of both its cost to build and the benefits received.

In addition, the leader's class determines a number of the stronghold's features. Each class's entry lists a few possible demesne effects (ways in which the leader's power manifests in the local area) and stronghold actions (special abilities that the leader can use in combat). The leader also gets an improved class feature, which they can use a number of times equal to their stronghold's level before needing to take an extended rest (a week spent at the stronghold, re-attuning oneself to the site and recharging one's influence).

These abilities are typically very powerful, in order to make building a stronghold more attractive to players. They are not designed to be "balanced" (an overrated idea, in Colville's philosophy), but to give a cool reward to players who invest time and effort in this part of the game. In effect, the land responds to the leader's influence by granting them these special abilities, but they require the leader to periodically return to renew that bond.

Colville never says this explicitly, but the demesne effects and stronghold actions are an obvious parallel to the regional effects and lair actions associated with a powerful monster's lair. Once a player character has the resources to build and maintain a stronghold (at least 5th-7th level), they have arguably become powerful enough to manifest similar effects in their own "lair." Because the game is focused on the PCs, these stronghold actions and related effects will likely see more use than any NPC monster's lair would, so DMs will want to think about whether to use them and how often. The improved class features, on the other hand, have a built-in limit, and seem much more reasonable in their scope when you consider what a character could accomplish in a campaign that allowed them to invest the same amount of gold in portable magic items.

Followers

The leader's class determines what table to roll on for followers, which fall into five categories:
  • Units are military forces that can be used to defend the stronghold or wage war against enemies. They have special stat blocks used in the warfare rules.
  • Retainers are lower-level adventurers who help the leader in their adventures, and can serve as lieutenants in the leader's absence. They use simplified stat blocks that give them a few cool powers but make them easy to run in combat.
  • Artisans attach a shop to the stronghold, and can provide benefits such as reduced construction costs (carpenter, mason), magic item production (alchemist, scribe), training of troops (captain), or specialized knowledge (sage, spy). 
  • Ambassadors are members of local nonhuman tribes who act as liaisons between their people and the stronghold's leader. They allow the recruitment of army units from their ancestry. 
  • Allies are powerful local monsters who are impressed by the leader. They do not take orders, but can provide special help from time to time. 

The Siege of Castle Rend

This 5th-level adventure is designed to introduce players to many of the new rules in this book: seizing and restoring a stronghold, attracting followers to serve there, and a mass combat battle to defend it. The adventure has several tough encounters, but there are also opportunities to resolve a couple of them through clever play rather than violence.


New Monsters

The new rules for temples involve tracking concordance, a measure of how pleased the character's god is with them. A god's favorites can call upon divine aid, which can take the form of an extraplanar servitor arriving to aid the petitioner. The Monster Manual provides numerous examples of fiends that can fit this role, but far fewer celestials and elementals, and not many extraplanar creatures of other origins. Therefore, as a stretch goal, Colville created over 30 new monsters, grouped into several planar factions in the unique cosmology he has created for his own campaigns. Each faction contains creatures of Challenge ratings 5-10, providing a good spread of foes and allies over several levels' worth of play (much as the MM's demons and devils do).

While all of Stronghold & Followers is lavishly filled with gorgeous artwork, this chapter shines brightest of all. Almost every new monster gets it own illustration, many of them full-paged pieces.

The largest section of this appendix is devoted to a new category of dragons, the gemstone dragons. Unlike metallic or chromatic dragons, these creatures are at least partially neutral in alignment, and wield psionic rather than magical powers. Of the handful of short fiction pieces in this book, the gemstone dragons get the two longest, to help convey the author's intent for how to use them in game.

Warfare

Colville's rules for large battles are a highly abstracted system, with stats based on ancestry, experience, equipment, and type of unit. It isn't a wargame, but a simplified system to run in parallel with the heroes fighting enemy leaders while their armies clash around them. And for DMs who want resolve battles even faster, there is an even simpler option presented at the end of the chapter.

MCDM's next book will be Kingdoms & Warfare, which will expand on the mass combat rules presented here. Colville makes a number of references to that book throughout Followers & Strongholds--to battle magic, provinces, etc.--but because he doesn't want to overwhelm the reader with two books' worth of new rules at once, he keeps them to a minimum. For example, there is very little battle magic available in this first book, with most of it being provided by codices.

New Items

This chapter presents several new magic items, including objects that can be installed in a stronghold to gain various benefits; artifact-level, reality-bending books of battle magic known as codices; and powerful weapons capable of summoning many of the new servitors introduced in this book.

My Conclusions

I have a few quibbles with Colville's writing style, which tends towards an overly conversational tone for a gaming rules supplement, with far too many "Gee, ain't this cool?" asides for my taste. (And smiley-face emoticons in a professional book, Matt? Really?!) But that's my personal opinion, and I have to admit that, like it or not, that choice does set his brand apart from other RPG books.

That said, Strongholds & Followers is a very useful book for 5E DMs who want to include some of the fun of earlier editions' "name levels," when PCs were assumed to have acquired enough wealth and renown to build strongholds and attract followers. Colville presents a fairly cohesive system for players to invest in such projects and reap in-game rewards for their efforts. The time that he and his team put into play-testing those rules shows--they cover a great deal of material and options in an easy to understand way, and there is ample advice for tweaking things to suit your own game.

This system isn't for every campaign--it requires a game where characters will be regularly returning to a home base, and a GM and players who want to explore political and military challenges. But there is material here that will be useful even if you don't use the strongholds and warfare rules on a regular basis. The appendix of new monsters is a lovely addition to any 5E library by itself, and will help immensely in fleshing out a campaign's cosmology outside of the lower outer planes.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Holiday Week/Weekend

Work and family matters kept me too busy to write and post a new blog this past week, despite (and in large part due to) the long holiday weekend.

Over the next few weeks, expect to see posts here about:
  • The next installment of my "Time of the Tarrasque" campaign. (We had a short session recently, but we need to do some follow-up over email before I can post the summary.)
  • A review of Matt Colville's Strongholds & Followers (which arrived late last month, and I'm currently reading). I will most likely present that column as part of my "Freeport 5E" series. 

Friday, June 28, 2019

Time of the Tarrasque #25: Why Are Those Clouds Green?


"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.
This is the session that we planned to introduce our newest PC, played by my daughter, so I knew that the bulk of the session would be role-playing that. However, my players prefer to have at least one fight each session to help blow off steam at the end of the week. Therefore, before we started, I asked if they would rather have a fight before that meeting, because I couldn't guarantee having one afterward. They pretty much unanimously agreed that they wanted a fight first.

-----

Last time, our heroes interrogated the surviving assassin who attacked Elder Usama, and learned that she feared Jumari, an albino half-orc, because a "white orc" was destined to slay her master. The inquisitor and her friends then assisted with the criminal's execution by Peacekeeper Morag. Afterwards, ZhaZha's friends encouraged Morag's interest in the cavalier, while Edel spent a night getting better acquainted with the tavern-owner Miriella.

The caravan left Dal-Raman the next day, leaving the sandy part of the desert behind. North of the town, the terrain consisted mostly of arid hills, with some grass and shrubs.

On their third night out from Dal-Raman, as the caravan approached a gap between two hills, they could see a large creature trying (and failing) to hide behind one of those hills. ZhaZha and Fatou could also see a second creature lurking behind the other hill. Nylrynn, the kobolds' guide, turned and started back towards the caravan, but was rushed by one of the creatures. It was an amphiptere, a large serpent-like dragon with spindly wings that it used to glide just a few feet above the ground.

As Fatou cast bless and Jumari cast expeditious retreat, ZhaZha charged the amphiptere and skewered it with her lance. It retaliated with a claw and a tail strike against the cavalier. The other dragon attempted to sneak closer and failed, alerting the rest of the group to its presence. Jumari moved to the midpoint between both dragons, suffering a blow from the nearer dragon's long tail, then cast blistering invective; the wounded dragon caught fire. ZhaZha's camel bit the burning camel, knocking it unconscious.

The cavalier then rode closer to the other amphiptere, and struck it with her lance (though not with a charge). Edel and Nylrynn both shot it. Jumari took another opportunity attack as she moved to flank the dragon, and narrowly avoided a crit (due to having her judgment applied to defense). Zafira the camel finished off this one as well.

ZhaZha and Jumari skinned the unburnt dragon's hide, thinking it would fetch some decent coin. The party as a whole searched the area for loot (none) and tracks (yes). They found tracks that led (after a long walk) to a hollow in the side of a hill. Jumari found a large, leathery egg inside. Edel was certain I was an amphiptere egg, so she fashioned a sling to help her carry it until she decided what to do with it. The group's best guess is that it wouldn't hatch for a couple more months.

The heroes returned to the caravan, and Vartoranax and Tyrrentyg asked to examine the egg. Jumari allowed them, with her supervision. Neither kobold had seen this kind of egg before. The merchant offered to buy it from her, but Jumari decided she did not want to sell it. (It might be valuable, and eggs are a symbol of her faith.)

After the next night's travel, dawn revealed a line of green along the horizon to the north. "Why are those clouds green?" asked Fatou. Edel tried to explain what a forest was to his desert-born friends. The grass here was more lush and green as well; Zafira ate it eagerly, so ZhaZha decided to trust the new greenery. Jumari, on the other hand, was unsettled by the vegetation, and the growing noise of insects, birds, and small mammals Meanwhile, Edel was ecstatic at the sight of green everywhere!

Shortly before the next dawn, the caravan reached a river that flowed into the forest, and followed it a short way to Galdar. They could not see the town until they were almost within it, because the forest trees obscured it. More trees were scattered throughout the town, and most of its buildings seemed to be made of wood. Fully two-thirds of the inhabitants were high elves, with most of the rest being half-elves and gnomes. They did, however, see a scattering of kobolds acting as guards outside certain buildings. These kobolds wore uniforms with an unfamiliar device (a black scale with the letter "O" in Draconic); ZhaZha concluded that they all belonged to the local garrison.

Most of the party noticed that the non-reptile races avoided the kobolds, and gave the caravan a wide berth--and many dirty looks--as it passed through town. They saw only a single half-orc along the way--and he seemed to be avoiding all the other races as much as possible.

The center of town held the largest open space in Galdar: a marketplace where the road ended at docks along the river; barges ferried goods and people across the water here. The kobolds headed for a caravanserai near this crossroads, which marked the end of the journey for which the party was hired. All four of them wanted to get paid and depart as quickly as possible, and finally be quit of the kobolds. Vartoranax paid them the agree-upon wage for the trip, plus a fair price for the dragon hide [approximately the cost of materials to craft the dragonhide armor and shield that could be made from it]. Fatou made a point of saying farewell to Nylrynn, the guide who they had fought beside a number of times. But apart from this, our heroes were in a hurry to find a place to sleep where kobolds didn't.

Shortly after they left the caravanserai, Fatou noticed a gnome following them, riding a human-sized scorpion. The scorpion seemed to be made of crystal, had only four legs, and bore a glowing rune that matched one on the rider's brow. She concluded that this was a summoner and his eidolon. Once the cleric alerted the others, they stopped to find out what the gnome was up to.

He introduced himself as Skarlo Rockhopper, and asked if they were from the desert. (Their camels made this pretty obvious.) The gnome wanted to go with them to see the desert. He didn't like it here, where there were kobolds. ZhaZha asked what he thought of death cults; he declared them "not good."

"You're awfully trusting. That makes me worry," ZhaZha remarked. "What were you before?" Skarlo didn't blink at the question, but simply said that he didn't know. Sensing her friends' confusion, Jumari explained the theory that she and ZhaZha had evolved: Not everyone who is reincarnated becomes a gnome, but all gnomes have been reincarnated as such. (The only two gnomes that the half-orcs have known well up to this point--Jubair and Morganox--were both reincarnated into gnomes. Skarlo's claim to have been reincarnated just reinforces that theory, and the gnome did not try to contradict them.)

Fatou then asked about the eidolon. Skarlo explained that he summoned her with arcane magic. "She hurts things, and carries my stuff."

Edel asked where to find a good inn. Skarlo offered to take them to the one where some of his family worked. The inn proved to be full of elves and gnomes, and had been built to accommodate the two races' very different sizes. Once side had a higher floor, so that gnomes could sit level with the larger races. A number of tables spanned the drop-off, to accommodate mixed groups. Skarlo was obviously well-known here. Most of the patrons took his big scorpion in stride, and even greeted her by name--Scuttledust--and she greeted them in return in the same languages. Skarlo arranged for a private room where they could eat and talk.

Once they were sequestered, ZhaZha asked what Skarlo had done to piss off the kobolds. He replied that he stole some material components from a spellcaster. This was near The Eye; the kobolds took over his family's home there not long after the Tarrasque's last appearance. Skarlo pulled out a map to point out places he mentioned. (The northeastern end of the continent is known as the Dragon's Head and the Neck, for its shape. The Eye is a lake near the center of the Head.) Skarlo's family had traveled south, away from the invaders, but now the kobolds are here, too.

Edel said he was from Dorthyra, and pointed to a part of the map in the southern reaches of Fendorlis. Kobolds overran his home as well. He briefly described his travels since then: through one desert, through The Shield and over the Dragonspine Mountains, and across another desert to get here. He had heard from other elves closer to The Stairs that there was a resistance cell in this city. When Skarlo confirmed this, Edel expressed his belief they could be of assistance to each other.

Skarlo explained that he did small jobs for the resistance, and they are starting to trust him. One such task is informing them of people passing through town. That's what drew his attention to their caravan when it arrived. Edel opined that, now that their contract with the kobolds has ended, he wouldn't mind if some misfortune befell them. Skarlo offered to inform his resistance contacts that he had found some people who wanted to help.

Edel proposed that if Skarlo could introduce them to the resistance, and if he would be willing to help them with some unfinished business back in the desert (destroying a death cult), then they would gladly take him there on their return.

Fatou noticed that Skarlo wore two wooden holy symbols, one of Vanatar, the unicorn King of Summer, and the other of Genesib, the god of earth. She expressed her curiosity about them, and showed the gnome the giantish symbol of the four Medan gods that she had acquired. Skarlo had not seen such a symbol of all four elemental gods as a group before. (On the other hand, Skarlo had recognized the symbols of Nalanimil, goddess of spring, on Edel's bow, and Fatou's symbol of the moon goddess Yaziel.)

Jumari expressed a wish to be out of the forest by the new year (in about a week), or at least outside it for that night. (She craved open sky for her devotions then.) 

Skarlo asked about the bundle the inquisitor carried. She showed him the dragon egg and explained what it was and how they had acquired it. She is still unsure what she'll do with it, but for now will try to keep it safe and warm.

-----

Next time, the conversation with Skarlo will continue, and our heroes will try to gain new allies.

Going forward, our party will consist of:
  • 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.
  • Skarlo Rockhopper, gnome summoner 5; and Skuttledust, scorpion-like eidolon.
  • ZhaZha, half-orc cavalier (order of the dragon) 5; and Zafira, camel mount.
Skarlo Rockhopper: (L) on foot; (R): mounted on his eidolon Scuttledust.