Sunday, March 16, 2014

GADCon After-Action Report: In Which I Find Some Paths And Very Nearly Die Quite A Bit

I spent most of my weekend a mile from my apartment playing Pathfinder at a local con, GADCon (GAD = 'Games And Dice').  Here's the after-action report.

Bottom Line: I had quite a bit of fun at this Pathfinder-heavy weekend and look forward to returning next year; I enjoyed my four sessions of Pathfinder Society despite the many differences with the sort of thing with which I'm accustomed.

Prologue:  Not much Pathfinder under my belt previous to this weekend, and really not that much more 3.5 during that period.  I knew GADCon was Pathfinder-heavy; specifically, Pathfinder Society (PFS), which is Paizo's organized play (OP) program.  I had poked around learning about PFS and how it works back in the fall when some pals were opening up a gaming store and I was doing some event research/organizing for them, so I had a good general idea of how the OP worked, but no firsthand experience.  Further terminology for the uninitiated: in the Pathfinder rpg setting, there is a Pathfinder Society organization, which trains and sponsors Pathfinders who explore and solve problems and crap.  Professional adventurers with membership in a global adventuring guild, essentially.

Headed over to the hotel, got registered, and helped Travis carry in box after box of stuff for CardBoard Gaming's table in the vendor room.  I don't know how he crammed so much stuff into that Honda Civic.  We both wrapped it up in time to get our seats at two separate tables of a "PFS for Beginners" session, which involved character creation and running a scenario called The Confirmation - basically meant to be a graduation mission for baby Pathfinders.  As a fun bonus, we new folks were given snazzy character folios (these are a player reference thing with pockets, a dry-erase charsheet, etc).  The scenario that followed was pretty straightforward - the standard beginning exposition, some wilderness travel, and then poking around in some caverns.  Altogether a decent beginner scenario (although I think the swarms were a little much for new players with level 1 PCs).  So far, so good.  Had a great time joking around and playing my new PFS PC, Noorzad the Incredibly Handsome, the Flower of Katapesh.  He's a vain daredevil of a bard, as you might imagine.  Over the course of his three sessions, he went into negative hit points nine times.  Nine times.  I swear I wasn't doing anything particularly stupid and was not getting more combatty than a bard should reasonably be expected to be.  Nine times.  This is less of an issue than you might think, in the long run, because everyone in the Society carries a wand of cure light wounds.  Not everyone can use one, mind you, but it's considered polite to buy your own so you're not draining the cleric's resources.  Will I ever wrap my head around the "treat magic wands like cheap magic potions" concept?

Recognizing that I am no longer 25, I didn't sign up for an 8am session on Saturday.  Instead, I focused on final prep for my 2pm Labyrinth Lord game.  Now this is a bit of a saga.  I had only one player prereg for my game; I also knew that Van (who plays the fish-man Rashidan Lochbottom in the Wampus Country campaign) was driving up to play, and Saturday morning one of the con organizers said he had someone coming in who would probably want to play something old school.  Well, none of that materialized in time.  Van and his friend were running an hour-plus late thanks to interstate traffic, the pre-regged player didn't show, and the rumored third person didn't show either.  I stood in the hall and tried to recruit people, but there really weren't any "idle" folks - at a small, focused con, this didn't surprise me; everyone seemed to be already committed to either a PF game (well duh) or involved in a Netrunner tournament going on in the second room.  So we're at "mildly disappointed but not actually surprised", which is kind of a weird place to be, I guess.

I grabbed the con organizer, related the tale of woe, and asked him at what time I should call the slot; not because there was competition for the table and chairs, but because, come on, I signed up to run a game, not sit somewhere for five hours and wait to run a game, right?  He said we'd waited long enough to call it, and besides, they needed a cleric over at his table.  (The classic jokes are classic because they're true.)

Next thing I know I'm sitting down to play in a game run by the local Venture Lieutenant (PFS regional organizer), a scenario called Ruins of Bonekeep (Level One).  This is a PFS 'special scenario' that actually comes with a "YOU COULD SERIOUSLY TOTALLY DIE IN THIS SCENARIO GUYS I AM NOT FREAKING KIDDING" warning on it, which is, I gather, kind of a huge deal from a PFS point of view.  I wasn't super worried, though, as I wasn't playing my shiny new bard - Bonekeep was meant for seventh-level characters.  So I was handed a standard-issue pregen (PFS has these), the cleric.  What this means in Society terms is that when one of my actual PCs hits 7th level, he can then claim whatever benefits ("boons" etc) I earned as this pregen.

Here's my review of Ruins of Bonekeep: this is the most fuck-you of all the fuck-you dungeons I've ever been in.  Some of you will find that exciting, others repulsive.  If Society people (in or out of character) don't make jokes about "Boned-keep, amirite?", they're asleep on the job.  Bonekeep has a lot of "yeah, nothing works against this thing" and some "failed save?  run away for ten minutes" and a good bit of "take damage anyway, yes all of you".  And despite an ostensible necromancer theme, it's a funhouse, no doubt.  A lethal funhouse.  We survived (I'll go ahead and say "barely"), we even looted some decent stuff, but man.  Not in a hurry to run back there.  One of the PCs was a ninja, and he looked like a serious badass.  You ever play in a game where there's a class you know nothing about, but just watching the dude play is like a long commercial for how much fun that class probably can be?  Yeah, it was like that.
Picture taken immediately after my cleric was mind-hosed to flee from the [redacted] in the next room over, ran through the door and was immediately surrounded by four large elementals (one of each type), who proceeded to shout at her in elemental languages and then murder her face.  She went negative, but did not actually die due to a combination of the following words: tengu, wizard, invisibility, dimension door.  Seventh-level characters are no joke, people.

After the lubeless joy of Ruins of Bonekeep, I ran across the street for pizza with Van and Tyler, then it was a hurry-hurry back to the hotel for --

So PFS has these scenarios called "specials" that they only run at cons, and they tend to be multi-table affairs where the actions of each group matter to some larger goal, perhaps in differing ways depending on the level spread ("tier" in PFS parlance) of the table.  Saturday night's scenario was one of these, Siege of the Diamond City, and it was pretty interesting.  Not in the setup - "city is besieged by demons" - but in the execution.  As a group of level one and two PCs, we were not expected to contribute by killing a metric ton of invading demons (thank goodness), but we did have a series of (nonliteral) firefighting duties throughout the night.  Some fights with looters and mercenaries, some convincing of guards, this that and the other.  Our actions contributed to the color condition of whatever quarter of the city we were in (green/yellow/orange/red etc), and having someone at the center of the room call out as the conditions changed was pretty exciting (although, wow, the dude could've been way louder; do they not teach how to project to a room in school anymore?)  The whole bit culminated in a good-guy counterattack during which the high-level tables took the fight to the demonic generals, the mid-tier folks were stuck in against the ranks of lesser demonoids, and we low-level schmucks fired siege weaponry from the ramparts in an attempt to take out the enemy siege towers.  All this - I presume - interacted in some measurable way, such as our ballista shots preventing the demon-towers from spawning more horned beasties, etc.  Pretty neat; I'd like to read the internals on one of these.  We had an overwhelming victory at the end, but according to the chronicle sheet we were handed there were four or five possible outcomes depending on the group's total efforts.

Exhausted, I rolled in for one last session at 8am (not sure I would do this again; originally I was in an afternoon slot for Sunday, but then Cub Scout stuff got moved because of snow... anyway, I was in a morning game and needed to bolt immediately after).    This morning's scenario was The Ciphermage Dilemma, and long story short, I hate pirates as adversaries, but I hate paladins who prevent their party members from doing anything resembling threatening or bluffing or psy-ops or intel-gathering way more.  I will admit that when I grabbed the pirate's corpse and made it puppet-talk to his buddy ("Gee I wish I had told these guys what they wanted to know, then I might still be alive and able to see my kids again") as part of an Intimidate roll might have been over the top.  But seriously, the guy was killed in combat when he and his pirate pals were trying to murder us in the face.  Good does not mean stupid and there were no "authorities" in that crapsack pirate armpit of a city.  We stab pirates.  Stab them.  Anyway, it was an okay scenario, nicely run; I think I was probably too tired to fully appreciate some of its nuances, but them's the breaks.

That's the initial info-dump...  I'll probably have more "thoughts" about Pathfinder Society in the weeks to come.  Fun was had, would do again.  I'm exhausted and cannot think deep thoughts at the moment.

This large slice of pizza, from a joint named Slice, is called a "Baltimore Belly Burster".  It has bbq sauce on it, and is topped with Old Bay roasted chicken, Natty Boh bratwurst, and bbq pulled pork.  It. Was. Fucking. Amazing. You. Guys.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Down Below Kwaskatoon

A background post for some upcoming low-level Wampus Country sessions aimed at lower-level PCs, newbie players, and leaning on some of the B-series of classic modules here and there.

Just north of the growing town of Thistlemarch lies the run-down keep formerly occupied by the Mad Margrave - that eccentric nobleman who sadly took his own life last year.  Parts of the keep are occasionally used by the townspeople, but the majority of the area is now overrun by a clan of poggles, tiny dog-men not known for their cleanliness or intelligence.  The poggles have been behaving themselves and trading with the hardworking folk of Thistlemarch, although they do not often come into town proper.  One day a week, a corner of the keep's courtyard becomes the "Flea Market" where men and dogs exchange goods.

This poggle-tribe is ruled by a particularly clever poggle called Red Blanket, who holds court over the Flea Market.  Although the poggles have a great deal of energy and capacity for out-of-the-box thinking, they are not skilled at matters martial, or any task which requires strong organizational skills or sound judgment.  Thus has Red Blanket, in his wisdom, attempted to recruit some 'tall folk' to undertake a few tasks for the benefit of the great poggle nation...

Greetings, mercenaries, adventurers, and seekers of the unknown - thank you for coming before me today and expressing your interest and willingness to serve the righteous poggle cause.  I have sniffed your backsides, and consider each of you trustworthy.  Listen closely to my words, and attend my needs, and you shall be rewarded.

Some distance from here lies an old burial mound of the Black Eagle tribesmen, and beneath it, caverns which they say are haunted.  The place is called Kwaskatoon in their old cant - it means the bleeding-place.  Black Eagle braves sometimes traverse these caverns to test themselves against the dangerous creatures which dwell within.  And dangerous they are!  Poisonous centipedes of tremendous size, slack-jawed lizard-men...and, at one time, my own clan of poggles, who dwelt in the upper levels.

Some years ago my little tribe split from the main group of poggle-kind, who had begun to hear the voices of dark powers whispering in the shadows.  A brief poggle civil war led to our flight, but we have no desire, really, to return there.  However, the secrets of Kwaskatoon need to be understood.  When I, Red Blanket, prince of my kind, lived in the halls beneath the mound, I spent many an hour eating the strange mushrooms there and attempting to translate the ancient mystical writings on some of the walls.  I had a makeshift notebook in which I kept what I had learned...if that notebook still exists, somewhere in the caverns of Kwaskatoon, I want it returned.  If it cannot be found, then I will need transcriptions of whatever writing is found on the walls.  Whatever else you find in the place is yours - we poggles have no need of it, whatever it might be.

Although I should someday like to see my enthralled countrymen liberated, and the halls of Kwaskatoon cleaned out, that is not my primary goal at this time.  Be cautious, sneak in, and fetch my notebook, or make rubbings of the inscriptions.  If you return with these things, you will be paid, and have earned the love of this poggle princeling.

Red Blanket will gladly send an escort of poggles to guide adventurers to Kwaskatoon, but these tiny warriors consider the caverns themselves taboo since the advent of the whispers-in-darkness, and will not enter with you.


1.  The Black Eagles say the caverns are haunted by accursed ancestors, and inhabited by cannibal snake-men.  Poggle-tales confirm there are reptilian humanoids in the deeps who will gladly swallow a wayward poggle-pup whole.

2.  After Grandpa's War, some sixty years ago, an adventuring wizard attempted to convert part of the caverns into a living-space.  Later, the Black Eagles discovered he was using their cemetery as a bachelor pad and pretty much murdered the bejeezus out of him.

3.  Three years ago, Red Blanket allied himself and his poggles with a group of gold-seeking adventurers under Kwaskatoon...none of them have been seen since.

4.  The poggles around Thistlemarch are deathly afraid of the "creeping darkness" which they say has taken hold of the minds of their kinsmen beneath Kwaskatoon; they speak of it as though it is neither man nor beast, but some sort of demonic presence.

5.  One of the poggles at the Flea Market remembers that there was a room full of strange waters which they were forbidden to drink by their elder-dogs.

6.  Although the upper levels have been worked by human hands, deeper down Kwaskatoon is all wet natural caves.  Who knows how far down it truly goes?

7.  The well-known cave entrance is the best way to get into Kwaskatoon, but it may not be the only way to exit the deadly complex.

"Poggles, being the wildest of dog-folk, careen dangerously between 'obsessively friendly' and 'wantonly destructive'.  Trusting poggles is ill-advised, if one expects to remain a gentleman."

Kwaskatoon, get it?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Whither Wampus?

Warning: no game-able content, only rambling about campaigning.

The online Wampus Country campaign took a hiatus, there were winter holidays, and a month where my primary mental focus was quitting smoking (successfully so far).  In revving back up to "something resembling full speed", I find myself thinking about what's working and what isn't from a campaigning point of view.  I don't mean house rules, or the underlying system, or anything like that - I mean the campaign itself.

The online campaign has always been several things:

1) An Open Table.  Although I require folks to sign up for each session, it's otherwise open.  There's a good bit of drop-in drop-out depending on who's available on a given Friday night, although some PCs show up more often than others, or for several sessions in a row, so there's a semblance of continuity on occasion.

2) FLAILSNAILS-friendly.  Most of my regulars or semi-regulars have native Wampus characters, but there are always non-natives floating in and out of the game.  They don't usually turn up with weird stuff that "breaks" the game, but I do regret seeing a PC once at 3rd level and then again at 7th level sometimes.

3) Primarily GM-driven, because of the above.  What I mean by this is that for the most part, a given session is not "PCs have decided they want to go do this", it tends to be "GM puts out this theme or plot hook for the night".  I would love to see PCs self-organize and say "hey, we'd like to go do X pretty soon, please prep that area", but it doesn't happen much - probably in part because most players aren't sure if they're going to be available when that session finally happens (see #1).

4) Chiefly 'home-based' in the town of Thistlemarch, with short excursions up to ten hexes out or so.  This isn't a mandatory thing, it just kind of worked out that way, due to #1, #3, and some PCs homesteading in the area.

Another thing I've noticed is a reticence to return to certain areas, despite them being potentially lucrative for PCs.  Nobody's gone back to the expansive ruined city of Crumbledown to explore it.  Nobody's taken on the task of finishing the clearing of the Charnel Caves.  I'm not complaining about this one, I just think it's interesting.

I wouldn't say I'm unsatisfied with the campaign thus-far or as-run, but I am cognizant of some of the thing which we give up or preclude because of the above assumptions.  No steady group, so there's a loss there.  But if we transitioned to a steady group, we'd lose the open table - it's a trade-off, and one that several other "previously FLAILSNAILS" campaigns have done.  I've avoided it for precisely that reason - we've been running Wampus Country as fully-FS-friendly open table for over two years now.  Not many campaigns can say that, and I'm loathe to abandon that achievement without significant gains in trade.

The "best of both worlds" would likely be if I ran twice as much (or half as much, depending on how you look at it, and scheduling), leaving one slot for GM-directed pickup play for FLAILSNAILS open-tablers, and one slot for a regular (or semi-regular) group of native PCs who can have the time and space to pursue their own goals.  As you might imagine, this kind of scheduling isn't the easiest thing in the world, but I'd be open to pursuing it if I thought there were enough steady regulars to make it work (and frankly I'm not sure that's the case).  I would really like the opportunity to somehow alternate between lower-level and mid-level PCs without it being all artificial, as well.

Anyway, thinking aloud.

The chief innovations of the Burbank expedition were twofold: first, the use of bicycles to speed across the salt flats of Massacre Mesa; and secondly, bringing with them several dozen babies for use in the distraction of slavering beasts, giant predatory birds, and painted savages.  Given Eustace Burbank's successful collegiate career as a shotputter, one imagines the tactic was easily deployed at a significant range.