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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Modules, Roleplaying Game Subscriber. 1,031 posts. 13 reviews. 1 list. No wishlists.



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Up From Darkness

*****

Friendly warning: this is an adventure which relies on surprising a player. If you intend to play, ask your GM to read it. If you are wondering if you should play it, the short answer is affirmative. For details, keep reading...
Disclaimer: I'm a supporter of Kaidan Kickstarter.

THE NUMBERS AND THE PREMISE

This is 35 page adventure for four 7th level characters, with 13-pages-long adventure, 14 pages of GM stuff like monster blocks, player handouts, pregenerated characters, single-page license and intro thingies like cover, table of contents, adventure background and synopsis. There is enough material to enjoy a long session, there is also a lot of interesting tasty bits to borrow and steal for your own campaigns.

The characters are going to play their part in a horror adventure set in Kaidan, a quasi-oriental ghosts-and-samurai setting by Rite Publishing crew, Michael Tumey, Jonathan McAnulty, Will McCardell, T. H. Gulliver and one Steve Russell. Of these five, Jonathan penned the adventure, Mark Hyzer did the illustrations (including cover), Michael lent his cartography and layouting skills and Steven has published it.
While more on the setting to be found on their Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/937759598/kaidan-campaign-setting-pfrpg ) - and you're strongly recommended to expand your horizons there before running this scenario - there are several key points I would like to mention.

First of all, this a ghost story setting. The players find themselves burdened by heavy chains almost inescapable and tragic destiny. In the course of their adventures, they are to become witness to casual graphic violence, disturbing depravity and unforgiven unredeemed innocent souls who succumb to evil to escape agony. The horror and bleakness are not meant to assault PCs constantly though - they are the vehicles and endings for stories, while the PCs are intended to be bastions of heroism (note: this is my interpretation, not necessarily the view of the authors).

Secondly, this is neither Ravenloft nor Kara-Tur. The characters are given free will and they are not necessarily fighting Chinese dragons, Shaolin Monks and Samurai at the same time. While ultimately their fate is sealed, and there is not much to improve the hopeless state of the world, the players are encouraged to struggle, to defend their honor and quite possibly to achieve something positive on a limited scale.

Thirdly, the heavens are closed. The upper aristrocrats are dead and holding the reins. The sheer lack of perspectives slowly drives everyone insane and even the best guys are Othellos ready to unleash terminal violence at slight provocation.

Welcome to Kaidan, the world without hope and where neither sins nor good deeds are going to change the fate of your soul.

THE LOOKS

Very nicely laid out booklet with bookmarks (props for very clean design). Stellar organization of content. Somewhat boring fonts (Georgia and Times New Roman). Rather bleak unappealing colors. All of these form a somewhat unappealing, yet exquisitely formed whole. The vivid red with black and greys is very atmospheric, but the overall impression is that of sadness and melancholy - there should be brighter more eye-catching colors inside, to draw the readers in.
When compared to Pathways, a periodical also published by Rite Publishing, with their very evocative covers, it is my strong opinion that book would really benefit from looking more alive.

THE ADVENTURE

In the interest of keeping the book content a secret, please allow me to elaborate on the nature of the scenario in a roundabout way.

The horror experience here is derived of the following elements: sensory deprivation, lack of starting information, loss of D20 adventuring staple - equipment and finally harsh challenges and multiple deaths. The players are intended to be exploring their surroundings, then they are meant to be hurt and make progress fighting. The reward for overcoming obstacles are memories - confusing initially, illuminating eventually. Discovering the whole truth is the final reward, setting straight the story and possibly opening avenue to further campaign.
Also, the scenario makes heavy use of symbolism and very unique monsters and haunts. Your players are in for a lot of surprises.

Though I haven't playtested or ran it yet, my opinion would be that the non-spontaneous casters are likely to be penalized due to severe resource constraints. Self-sufficient well rounded builds capable of not relying on weapons and armors are quite possibly best suited to complete the adventure. The pregenerated characters reinforce this impression - a samurai, a rogue (scout archetype), a necrotic warrior (bone) - whatever this is, it feels like a Wolverine in Monk's clothing, and a sorcerer/fighter. The characters can be further customized by application of ability cards (I did mention multiple deaths, didn't I?).

Will the players like playing this? Quite likely so, as long as the GM resolves two potential threats. In some cases the players may split. If so, unless they are quickly brought together, a GM would be advised to call upon another GM or, alternatively, devise means for quicker re-assembly of characters. The other issue may take place in groups which enjoy puzzles and social interactions - there may be not enough of these to provide sufficient entertainment - if you GM for such a group, you want to add a little content.

TIPS FOR RUNNING THE STORY

Based on my reading of the book, here are a few tips for those running the adventure:
- do not overplay the darkness element. And keep Perception rolls to minimum. Let the players describe their actions and reward them with success for detailed and ingenious descriptions of their actions.
- heed GM advice in red-framed boxes. It's simply golden.
- stress the role of calligraphic symbols. Do some research and add a few letter based puzzles.
- at least one of the enemies can be converted into an NPC. Do so.
- the memories are rewards. Hand them to those who deserve it.
- if you feel like there were too many saves or haunts, remove them.

If I were to run Up from Darkness, I would do so in the course of a single night, Halloween or New Year's, with the following special rules in play:
- all monsters inflict special bleed and disease damage - everyone taking damage in combat takes one point of bleed every hour unless resting for 8 hours or more. Everyone taking damage in combat has a chance of running high fever after 24 hours. Healing of any kind prevents and removes these effects as long as you have clean bandages, make a high DC roll or use a healing spell and succeed at high DC caster level check.
- all players have d4+1 Hero points - you may spent a point before a difficult roll to succeed by a skin of your teeth, or you may spent a point to escape death or great wounds at some personal cost (instead of life, you lose or damage something else).
- those who die, instead of returning as PCs, would be allowed to play monsters during encounters.

THE VERDICT

This horror dungeon crawl with lots of symbolism is worth 5 out of 5 points as long as you are willing to do some work to add a little more fun for your players. Otherwise it's a solid 4.5.


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The Godfather, the Rite way.

*****

(cue the music theme)

* warning: spoilers follow *

THE ADVICE

Upon introducing this book's content to your players, you are recommended to do just this - discreetly allow the track to play in the background. Award bonus points to players who take the hint and start treading carefully. For those who don't, if you feel like you need to offer a stronger hint, consider using this fashionable sea shanty.

THE STUFF

"101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban" takes on a relatively new concept of layered encounters and develops it a bit further. In case you don't know, a layered encounter table looks like a standard random encounter table, however the creatures listed on the table belong to the same faction (or share a trait which allows them to work together). An example of such listing would look like this: minions (grunts), minions (elite), minions (lieutenants), the boss. Initially, the party would be more likely to encounter lower echelons, with subsequent encounter bringing more to the table (either in terms of higher CR creatures or by providing groups with different skills).
Obviously, the key principle here is to make a list of potential encounters and come up with a suitably important relationship among NPCs for belonging to a given encounter cast.

Note: A little more on the layered encounters concept is to be found within the thread by Pax Veritas.

Following this premise, "101 Not So Random Encounters: Urban" presents an organized crime "family" of the most terrifying sort - a band of monsters with a sense of community, sprinkled with class levels and with resources assembled over the course of four hundred years of existence.

The encounter write-ups are simple - you have 101 personages with Challenge Rating values provided. Each encounter comes with creature (referred to by its name), creature background, suggestions on how to scale the encounter, and sometimes a stablock.

For example, Nightblood, the very last item on the list, is a stirge (CR 1/2), who sometimes hunts with a friend (CR 2), but on worse days it is not much of a menace (CR 1/8). Meanwhile Chatelaine Laboni, number 39th, boasts a title of elder sister and is quite renowned for her administrative skills. She's also (quoting) believes deeply in the rituals of host and guest; as such, if the PCs are guests in property owned by The Pride, she will not allow any harm to come to them.
Ruleswise, she's a Chaotic Evil Pit Hag, with encounter CR ranging from 11 (after a bad scuffle with competitors), through 13 (default) to 15 (with body guards). Her entry ends with a statblock.

Note: the book strives to provide everything you need to run each encounter - by statblock where possible or by a reference to a freely available resource.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY

The book is an instant classic. You've been handed a bunch (101!) of colorful NPCs with means to drop them into any urban campaign. The CR spread covers spectrum from 1/8 to 23, so all parties should be eligible for a generous helping of nastiness.
As the creatures form a crime family... the players are much more likely to interact with them first. Maybe even the PCs can do business instead of violence.

The PDF comes with bookmarks (one per each 10 encounters), encounter tables (five tables for five character level ranges), with a potential CR difference between the party and the opposition reaching 7 (with the PCs finding themselves in a role of bug meeting the sole of a big boot). Fortunately for the players, most presented monsters want to do business, and so are unlikely to just kill the characters... admittedly, the alignments of the featured creatures are making charity fund questing unlikely, so the PCs may feel somewhat trampled over.

There are minor editing issues - for example, page 47, "charst" - which are not really noticeable.

The illustrations are very varied, both in theme and in presentation. I feel that it may have been a good idea to skip a few to make the book more of a whole (compare pages 31 and 35 - the first comes with a portrait of a seedy individual, a blac and white sketch, the second shows an attack dog in color).

The statblocks are nice and legible, though section headers (Offense and Defense) take a little too much space. I would also consider changing default font for the publication, as I am a little tired of this Times New Roman-lookalike. I would propose having a look at Best Practices of Combining Typefaces by Douglas Bonneville for starters.

THE VERDICT

5/5
This resource is good enough to build a whole campaign around it.

Regards,
Ruemere


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Surprisingly Complex, Highly Compressed

*****

NOTE: This review is intended for GMs. Spoilers galore.

Probably the most difficult challenge for module author is how to pack content into just over twenty pages. Tim Hitchcock proves again that he can excel under severe constraints.

Note to my esteemed colleagues who posted astonishingly short reviews: Use of Ultimate Combat content is optional. While I agree that UC gladiatorial rules rate very low for introducing yet another standalone and incompatible subsystem (just like the firearms cost or firearms point blank shooting or Jade Regent caravan fiascos), they can be safely ignored.
You're also free not to use weapons, spells or classes... or just read online version of UC.
Finally, all oriental elements are easy to replace with standard fantasy stuff.

SPOILERS BELOW. You were warned!

MODULE BREAKDOWN

So what your players can hope to experience by participating in the tournament? Well, there is the standard plot of "win several fights and get fabulous items". In between fights, the PCs are sent forth to overcome complex challenges devised by tournament supervisors. Meanwhile, in shadows, a sinister plot is slowly building momentum toward the blazing secondary finale.

The great move on author's part is to make PCs' decisions or accomplishments matter. For example:
- facing a dragon at earlier stage allows to avoid potential TPK during intense showdown,
- rescuing a hostage means that severely hurt PCs gain powerful ally in the finale.

THE BAD & THE UGLY

The module is highly compressed. That means that you, as a GM, are expected to think for your NPCs, come up with tactics and research statblocks. Additionally, some story parts are handed down using rather crude methods (a body of kidnapper with a note pointing toward secret meeting point... seriously), however, since Tim had to work in clues for PCs and fit it into really tight space, this is both acceptable and easily amenable.

You are also required to make several leaps of faith and creativity (one would expect other contestants to be able intervene when all hell breaks loose, the fight against dragon - the one where the PCs get to attack - is not set properly... that is to say, it is not included in module text at all).

Probably the most irritating part for me would be juggling statblock of all extras - all these "use default statblock for X, just change it here and there" get tiresome after a while. I do not mind missing encounter descriptions though - I like to add my own content.

THE GOOD

This module occurs largely in open spaces. The action moments occur frequently, easily exceeding standard default CR and encounter ratios. At the same time, risk of dying is limited through several safety nets, like paladin patron, presence of clerics (played down, but still there) or by the fact, that the PCs may try to make a few friends to get them to help later (saving bacon of other contestants may, and should, in my opinion, result in NPC boons or returned favors).
Of course, the blazing finale is no-holds-barred fight, but again, falling while doing a huge favor for a dominant church may yield a free resurrection or two.

Most of the challenges, especially the side shows, add lots of fun. The fight on cliff walls is going to be interesting, but the fight in the port, with dragon picking strays from above and opponents jumping from one boat to another is going to take the spotlight, probably even overshadowing the final finale.

Verdict: 5/5, Heartily recommended, Requires GM's work.
GMs should monitor developments in order to avoid TPK.

Regards,
Ruemere


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Highlights to EZG's Review

****( )

The following is a short list of highlights I would like to add to EndZeitGeist's review below. Please consider reading his review first.

  • This is a version 2.0 of the original products. Changes include, but are not limited to: layout issues, typos, a new section was added (Concluding the Adventure). Generally, the product looks much better and contains quite a few improvements. Therefore, if for some reason you were hesitant to give it a try, I would say this is something you really want to give a shot.

  • This is not an adventure, at least not in a conventional sense. The product is a list of five very challenging encounters, which require very creative thinking to get through them. By themselves, Challenge Ratings are beyond capability of your recommended party. However under Coliseum Morpheuon setting rules, everyone, including lowly fighters, can use powerful creation magic - all you need to do is to gamble with character's aspirations, dreams and hopes. The rules for Dream Burning are not included however (not in full, but sufficiently complete to extrapolate), so GMs are strongly recommended to either adapt the adventure a bit or brief the players (and train them in the use of) on how to escape seemingly impossible odds.

  • Statblocks are very elaborate, easily on the par with Faces... series. The product is heartily recommended to anyone who needs 18+ CRs in their game. That said, one really needs to read thoroughly to grasp creature's strong sides.

  • The adventure, thanks to encounters being separate, can be dissasembled and plugged into larger framework. It works best with Planescape, Coliseum Morpheuon or any Dream plane related setting. Personally, I would say that these encounters should be used as end-story devices. They are pretty hermetic, and most of them are going to cost lives.

  • My verdict: Initially I went with 2.5 stars for version 1.0.
    Version 2.0 easily nets 4 stars. The fifth star should be awarded only if the tea-party sits well with you in otherwise conventional if twisted fantasy genre.
    So, 4 stars (from me), 5 if you don't mind Mad Hatter paying a visit to your party.

    (I have all but respect for Lewis Carrol and Jabberwocks, I do feel that lifting stuff from his books, especially the encounters, is a tad overused)

    Regards,
    Ruemere


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    10 Facts about Tome of Horrors, Complete, and Frog God Games

    *****

    #10 This is CR 20 book. It's a small Chaotic Evil construct with ability to bring forth horrors from its pages. It can also swallow human-sized readers. See page 9 for more details.

    #9 The lowest CR creature is a bookworm at 1/8, while the highest, at CR 39, is Lucifer. Oh, and in between you have 749 other creatures.

    #8 The creatures, and their art, were drawn from Tomes of Horrors published over the years by Necromancer Games. That means that creature art was reused and some creatures do not follow Pathfinder guidelines as to their CR or abilities ("some" as in "found only two wonky specimens"). The former is a non-issue for me (I do not own previous editions), the latter is rare to the point of non-existent, and, as a GM, I tend to read statblocks so I can deal with any potential issues on the fly.

    As an anecdote - what was the second monster book of d20, the third edition of our favorite game? According to Amazon, Monster Manual was released on 1st of October, 2000, and Creature Collection came out on the Oct 3rd, 2000.
    The authors of CC: Clark Peterson and Bill Webb. Sounds familiar? Yep, founders of Necromancer Games and producers of Tome of Horror series.
    For more on their current endeavors: Frog God Games (Bill Webb), Legendary Games (Clark Peterson).

    Digression: Bill, and Clark, if I ever meet you in person, I'll make you sign this Creature Collection of mine. Or at least strongly entreat you to do so.

    #7 The book has been built to last. Cover and binding appear to be extremely durable. The pages themselves are delicate.

    #6 The majority of creatures presented are horrors. That is, they are quite impossible to reason with. Unfortunately, for the players, those capable of business interactions, are most likely to be demons, devils or fey. Exceptions are rare.

    #5 The PDF you get along with the book allows for very user friendly experience. The bookmarks are organized as follows:
    - Cover
    - Credits
    - Table of Contents
    - Introduction by Greg A. Vaughan
    - Forward by James Jacobs
    - The Tome of Horrors Complete
    - - (alphabetical listing of, well, letters)
    - - - (noun, adjective noun)
    - Appendix A: Animals
    - Appendix B: Templates
    - Appendix C: Hazards
    - Appendix D: Variant Snake Venoms
    - Appendix E: N'gathau
    - Appendix F: Planes of Existence
    - Appendix G: New Feats and Subtypes
    - Appendix H: Monster by Type and CR
    - Legal Appendix
    - Back Cover

    #4 N'gathau? Have you heard about Hellraiser? And since we're talking about movie inspirations - watch Ravenous, by Antonia Bird. The template is to be found in Appendix B, page 732.

    #3 Free stuff to complement the book:
    - Lairs: PDF, 127 pages of sample lairs and encounters. System independent.
    - Monsters by terrain: PDF, pretty self-explanatory and very useful.

    #2 Think that the Tome of Horrors is going to be the biggest book of the d20 market? Slumbering Tsar hardcover is likely to be even bigger. Also by Frog God Games:
    - The Slumbering Tsar Saga, a sandbox adventure set in killing fields.

    Since we're talking about Frog God Games essentials, you may want to preorder
    - TOAD, The Tome of Adventure Design (PDF available now, the book later) - 308 pages of tables for random stuff, like these: Ship Reputations (d100), Ship Cargo (d100) and Unusual Pirates (d100). The selling point? My players hit 14th level. They like to travel a lot... this book is going to be my adventure-in-a-bottle answer to their Wind-Walk escapades.

    #1 The limited version book came with an autograph of Bill Webb. Thank you for such a personal touch. For more personal touches:
    - Tsathogga, The Frog God, CR 30, page 190
    - Gargax the Mighty, Master of the Dungeon Dragons, Great Wyrm Dungeon Dragon (Draco Carcer Dominus), CR 17, page 228

    From Gargax entry:
    "Watching adventurers explore its catacomb is the only real treasure a dungeon dragon desires."

    Verdict: It's over nine thousaaaaand... ahem, 5 stars.

    Regards,
    Ruemere

    Edit note: cleaned review a bit.


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