Saturday, 30 April 2011

inns & taverns: kunikubwa's belly

The great baobab Kunikubwa stands alone in the savannah.  Giraffe cannot reach her lowest branches, the trunk is wider than even the greatest dire elephant.  Shamans sing her children walked west to plant forests.  Local shamans honour her and tribes walk for days to anoint chieftains under her boughs.  There is a hollow in her trunk large enough to hold two dozen people in relative comfort.  This is Kunikubwa's Belly where travellers drink knowledge and shamans are reborn to serve the spirits. 

Outside the Belly is a worn groove in the trunk where footprints have walked.   The bark shows some signs of stripping but without harm to the tree.   Three small firepits smoulder some distance from the groove. These are tended by tribesmen preparing bananas for brewing.  Within is a dry, shadowed chamber lit by bison skulls lit with greenish foxfire.  There are no chairs or tables, only rush mats.  The lack of facilities is met with indifference and a warning to avoid the firepits when feeding Kunikubwa.  Though animals visit Kunikubwa, many do so peacefully.

Drinks are served in wooden bowls or half-gourds.  The usual is banana beer, wheat-leavened, dark with sediment and drunk to the bittersweet dregs.  At midsummer, Kunikubwa blooms at night with luminous white flowers disturbed by moths, bees and hunting bats.  These flowers are harvested with bone blades and wooden bowls to make an exquisite white beer.  Bees and bats whirl among the pollen-thick flowers.  To pluck a flower is tabu, those doing so are attacked by lions.  The fruit of Kunikubwa are blessed to the tribes.  From them a creamy beer is made as well as sweet paste nutritious enough to be a hearty meal.

The Old Man and Old Woman tend Kunikubwa's Belly.  Typically a pair of shamans of indeterminate age due to their fearsome masks, paint and robust health.  Their word is law in the Belly.  Rarely seen in the day, firepits are tended by would-be shamans and acolytes.  Sometimes the gods don those same masks.  Whether for amusement or for serious matters, this means the masks carry authority beyond their aspect. Behaviour in the Belly is conducted with utmost respect.  To the tribes, this is a holy place.  Even witches who hate the gods respect Kunikubwa's Belly.

Accommodation is determined by whim of the current Old Man and Old Woman.  Usually the price is a story or song.  The hollow sleeps sixteen in comfort plus the Old Man and Old Woman with their two favoured acolytes.   If the guest is disrespectful the price is higher.  One warrior lost their best spear - later he picked a blossom and died under a lion.  Otherwise, shelter can be found under the boughs of Kunikubwa especially near the fire pits.

Shamans are initiated during the equinox and the solstices.  When the Old Man or Old Woman initiates someone, nobody except other shamans are allowed to stay in the Belly.  Ominous drumming, chanting and occasional screams can be heard from within.  The only other time guests are turned away from the Belly is the anointing of a chieftain.  Then the only ones welcomed are the chieftain's closest kin and champion (if one is chosen).  The emergence of either chieftain or shaman is marked with celebration and dancing.

Friday, 29 April 2011

our weapons - review: advanced feats - the inquisitor's edge

Metric: Red hats.  Preferably wide-brimmed.  Sanbenitos came a close second but that would be an ecumenical matter.   
DISCLAIMER: Based on a true confess review copy provided by Open Design.
Overall: 4 red hats (effective no-nonsense stuff with hurried execution)
The Inquisitor's Edge showcases the strengths of a versatile class. The 30 feats in this book have utility outside of the class and emphasise the inquisitor's unspoken strength as a team player.  The builds display how good and evil characters alike can shine. The layout is overall good with a couple of minor slips. For the price, this is excellent value and recommended if you own the Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide.

Content: 4 red hats (strong feats, interesting builds).
The introduction plays up the mystique of the class.  The inquisitor is accessible, with elements of ranger, bard and cleric to it and strong offensive virtues. Describing the spell list as a utility belt infers plenty. The inquisitor is set up as a lone wolf. Paradoxically, the rest of the book showcases the strengths of the inquisitor as a team player. The concept of inquisitor as force multiplier with trickery gives the class a lot more substance beyond it's limited purview of 'find the evil, smite the evil'. A little more of this would have made the introduction sing.

The feats cleave neatly along individual effectiveness/party teamwork lines. Here there are swashbuckler and manga elements. An excellent selection of feats and not just for inquisitors.  Although some GMs may balk at feats like shared magic (perfect for mystic theurge types), others like defensive insight, ducking shot and fearsome will quickly be adopted.  Particular gems include friend and foe (play 'good cop, bad cop'), fencing stance (concise yet effective) and fast track (vital for those urban chase sequences).

The builds showcase the strengths of the inquisitor. The bloodhound is a strength-based half-orc tracker that focuses on the bring 'em back alive ethos. The wolf in sheep's clothing is a ranged half-elf intriguer who uses enchantment to ensnare people to darker deeds. The detective takes a couple of levels of monk before adding a liberal dash of Sherlock Holmes.  What's missing though is the monster hunter, surprising given the inquisitor's roots in characters like Van Helsing or Parl Dro.

Artwork & Layout: 4 red hats (nice layout, unexpected minor typography slips).
Christophe Swal shows the inquisitor flanked by two praying acolytes.  This reinforces the motif of power through co-operation even though the inquisitor is a strong lone wolf figure.  Interior artwork is simple, ornate stained glass decorations help set mood.  Some spelling and typeface slippage were surprising throwbacks to earlier releases.  I'll bet that unforgiving release schedules are the culprit here.

My only closing question is "Hey, Wolfgang, when's the compilation coming out?" The Advanced Feats series helped unpack the new classes in the Advanced Player's Guide, provided a load of new feats that expands options and a number of suggested builds for players to consider when creating their own.  This is a prime example of a series that compliments the rule set and shows the virtues of open game licenses.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

underneath the arches

Arches are an under-used feature in dungeons given their history.  To rectify this shocking state of affairs, here's a table of them since the d12 needs more tables devoted to it's use.

Table 1: A Dozen Arches.
  1. Bald arch – Stones show signs of decay.  1 in 6 chance stone falls out for 1d6 damage and 10% chance the arch then collapses, blocking access until the rubble is cleared.
  2. Blind arch - Sealed to stop passage between areas or for decoration.
  3. Carved arch with dozens of faces. Each face has sunken pits for eyes.  10% chance per dungeon level an obscuring mist reducing visibility to 3' surrounds the arch.
  4. Conspiring arch is magically linked to another arch so words spoken at one are heard at the other.
  5. Decorated with skulls cemented into the arch.  10% per dungeon level chance d6+4 skulls speak to whoever passes through.
  6. Gilded arch with 10% per dungeon level chance of d6x10gp of gold leaf that can be removed (if not it's gold paint or iron pyrite).
  7. Memorial arch contains the tomb of a fallen dignitary.  10% chance per dungeon level the tomb still has it's original occupant and grave goods.
  8. Natural arch made of a single piece of weathered rock.  10% chance per dungeon level of swirling mists in the arch that act as a crystal ball.
  9. Raised portcullis has 1 in 6 chance of falling on unwary.  Winch to raise bars on other side with 50% chance use will draw monstrous attention.
  10. Teleportal arch that instantly and safely teleports those passing through  to an identical linked arch elsewhere in the dungeon.
  11. Triumphal arch with carvings and commemorative inscription to mark historic event (GM's choice). 
  12. Vault – An arched ceiling runs the length of the room.  Drow optional.

Monday, 25 April 2011


No. Enc.: 1 (1d2)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 6
Hit Dice: 4d8
Attacks: 1d4 (bites)
Damage: 1d6
Save: T4
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: IV

The slithermaw is a boneless mass of chomping fanged mouths with forked tongues amid rubbery pallid flesh covered with fine whiskers.  It crawls patiently toward it's prey, using some of it's mouths for traction.  This ungainly flowing movement makes the incautious mock it. Yet it's patience combined with keen senses (able to see invisible within 20' of it) makes it a deadly predator.  Though it's bulk limits the number of mouths it can bring to bear, it is stealthy.  Treat a slithermaw as having move silently skill of 50% and hide in shadows of 45%.  The slithermaw's innards sometimes contain indigestible gold pieces and the truly desperate can usually find pocket change though this process is vile enough to require a saving throw vs poison or feel nauseated (-2 to hit, half movement) for the next turn.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

immigrant song - review: northlands by open design

Metric: Runestones.  So many potential metrics to choose from but this one fits best.  Incidentally, you can pronounce þ as 'th', it's close enough for government work and around the gaming table.
DISCLAIMER: Based on a PDF review copy provided by Open Design.
Overall: 5 runestones (a cunningly wrought dragon-hoard of Northern delight) An innovative treatment of the Northlands for Midgard inspired by Norse and Viking myth flavoured with steppe Russian, Finnish and Inuit culture.  Being a bit of a Norse snob, this was a joy to read and as usual if you can't use it all, then you can certainly plunder the choice bits of this hoard.  An abundance of material in here means there's plenty to go round.

Content:  5 runestones (it just doesn't stop). 
Riddles of Steel: Roleplaying In The North is an overview of the hard land and it's hard people.  A glossary of the language, and definitions of concepts like drengskapa (integrity) and niþ (dishonour) leads into a well-written overview of Northland culture, games (yes, that includes drinking), the gods and their favours as well as reasons to interact with Zobeck and other parts of Midgard.

Thule: The Last Continent is a treatment of the Northlands, including the troubled relationship between dwarves, giants and humans as well as the awakened bears and wolves who reign over their own kingdoms.  From Trollheim to the magical realms of Jotunheim to the strange lands of Hyperborea and the World's End, myriad adventure hooks waiting to snare characters. 

Heroes of the North creates characters for Northlands games.  Human sub-races range from Kazzakh riders, to Donneren barbarians to Skraeling hunters and Trylleri woodfolk.  Additional races include reaver dwarf (hard-hearted raiders), troll-kin (those with fey or giant parents) and Hyperboreans (a dualist magical race changed by the Northern lights).  Classes have nice twists - bards become skalds, barbarians shapeshifters, wild riders or hoary berserks, monk glima wrestlers, sorcerous bloodlines (Hyperborean and giant) and the oracle and witch from Advanced Player's Guide reskin as völva and seiðr-users.  Achievement feats where heroes earn favour and do great deeds for them are a great idea.  Rune feats and invocations also feature. Equipment and materials round off a crunchy chapter including double mail, scramasax, howling standards and prismatic iron.

Magic of The North introduces the concept of grudge magic, adds the power of runes, then includes spells ranging from fire under the tongue to create tupilak to triumph of ice, then adds magical items ranging in strength from runic talismans to apples of youth.  There is a versatility of magic here which if added to the usual range of spells and powers may make surprising combinations yet numbers are consistent with equivalent bonuses and if you're playing the epic setting of Hyperborea would certainly be in keeping.  Tellingly there's a number of evil or cursed items which are still nice to have.  This maps nicely to the double-edged benefits of magic found in the cultures inspiring the book.

The Frozen Land presents GM-friendly setting information ranging from dog-sled chases to environmental threats and Fate Afflictions (the ironic yet sinister turns of fate that lurk in Norse stories) which provide some temporary boon in return for portentious stuff later.  Environmental hazards ranging from ghost of a broken blade to vaettir's wrath make for dangerous encounters.  This is an unforgiving land and GMs are reminded of this by the atmospheric and deadly nature of the challenges.

Bestiary has some real prizes for the GM needing monsters.  From the thursir giant to krake spawn to the tupilak golem to the valkyrie, there are wonderful encounters in the making.  The vaettir will guarantee undead are respected again by your party.  My personal favourite is the nightgarm, just for the sheer horror they will bring to the party.  A lot of traditional Norse monsters are already in the core rules so if this feels a little light there's plenty of other things to add in courtesy of the Pathfinder Bestiary (and volume 2).  Plus the Kobold Quarterly site will not let the opportunity slide.

Layout: 4 runestones (beautiful cover, clean layout).
The cover is magnificent work by Aaron Miller and captures the chill nature of the Northlands; inside there is the appearance of Arthur Rackham (of all people) and darker, more traditional fantasy Viking-style artwork from Rick Hershey.  Tables and other accoutrements are well-formatted and cartography once-again excels.

In closing, the quality of this book is remarkable by the fact Dan Voyce is relatively new to this (could've fooled me).  There is enough content that the Heroes of the North and Magic of The North chapters would be a sourcebook if this were published by other companies.  Of course, you get more still.  While using Norse phrases (e.g. dróttkvæts) may not suit everyone, there is enough awesome in this book to forgive that.  Also, to paraphrase Stan Lee, if they're diving for a dictionary every once in a while, that isn't always a bad thing.  It's nice to see a sourcebook that encourages a little effort to immerse the reader in the culture inspiring it.

Monday, 18 April 2011


No. Enc.: 1d6 (1d8)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 90' (30')
Armor Class: 4
Hit Dice: 3
Attacks: 3 (2 chains, 1 bite)
Damage: 1d6/1d6/1d4
Save: F3
Morale: 11
Hoard Class: XXI

These undead creatures were humans or demihumans who died of starvation in chains and raised by evil magic. They appear as chained corpses with fang-filled mouths. Four chains move like a puppet's strings held up by invisible hands.  Their teeth chatter from their terrible hunger.  With the clanking of chains this prevents hungerbound from surprising anyone but the deaf and may draw wandering monsters at the whim of the Labyrinth Lord.  Hungerbound attack by lashing a victim with two of it's chains and biting it.  Those struck by a hungerbound must save vs. spells or suffer hunger pangs that cause a -2 to attack rolls and a -2 penalty to DEX.  These last until a remove curse spell is cast or until the victim next eats. Hungerbound can be turned by clerics as 3HD undead.  Like all undead they are immune to sleep and charm spells.

Friday, 15 April 2011

inns & taverns: danker's bones

An isolated tavern on a riverside trail.  Danker's Bones (or The Bones) has unusual architecture. Built over a titan's bones it's construction started as a joke. From a distance it seems the skeleton sleeps, the inn and stable resemble a blanket. The Bones hustles despite occasional gnoll attacks. Locals claim the gnolls want the bones for a meal, unaware the titan died in gnollish legend. A regular haunt of prospectors and adventurers, The Bones offers simple comforts.

The unusual appearance of Danker's Bones hides a simple construction. A two-storey long hall raised along the ribcage and pelvis with a steepled roof makes the bulk of the inn. The stable is formed from the leg bones of the titan supported and roofed by great timbers. Though simple, the Bones has a sense of solidity and permanence. Nearby border lords covet The Bones as a potential garrison or manor but keep distant. Taking it would tip an uneasy peace into war. For now the lords wait.

A pine ale of surprising strength (Titan's Gold) is brewed on site. A gentle-flavoured russet ale (Fawn Ale) is suitable for finer palates. A heady maywine is brewed and served at spring's end. As winter draws in, a dark, almost-wine strong porter is served sparingly. At other times of year, sweet wines are brought to The Bones upriver by traders. The food is simple fare, jugged rabbit, malted loaf, saltfish and when the hunt permits it, wild boar. Parsnips, apples and herb salads support this diet with all-spice for the wealthy client or noble.

The landlord, Malkas Dankersson has a lot to live up to. His grandfather built The Bones and his father made it successful. A talented brewer, his problem is keeping staff. His long-suffering wife and cook Almena wistfully longs for town goodwifery as her youth fades. The Bones is large and many deaths mean paying good coin to keep even mediocre people. Bar staff face many, varied distractions. Persuasive prospectors, imperious captains seeking recruits, reckless adventurers and bloodthirsty gnolls all take their toll.

A ground-floor common room can hold twenty people in comfort and is protected by the titan's pelvis hidden by caulked beams. Two stairwells lead up to eight simple rooms. The usual practice of expense for privacy applies. Each has a straw cot, chair, basin and chamberpot. The doors do not lock and guests sleep uneasily for it. The prospect of snickering gnolls and unlocked doors sees few people taking them up. Dankersson is pondering other uses for these rooms including storage.

The Bones has weathered numerous gnoll attacks. Though the border lords wait, talk of gnoll raids along the river are increasing among river traders. Fears of a gnoll horde bring adventurers seeking coin. While Malkas hopes to keep his staff, those rumours may persuade him to sell. If they prove true, who takes up The Bones may find the first week an interesting one.

Monday, 11 April 2011

cyclopean imp

No. Enc.: 1 (1d4)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 30' (10')
      Fly 120' (40')
Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 2d8
Attacks: 1 (sting)
Damage: 1d4, evil eye
Save: M2
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: None (VIII)

This 2' tall fiend is a bat-winged humanoid with mottled, leathery hide and barbed tail. It is usually summoned as a guardian of ancient lore.  It's bulbous head with tiny horns and mouth is dominated by a huge, lead-coloured eye.  While a cyclopean imp attacks by stinging with it's barbed tail, it's evil eye is feared.  Each round, the imp can forfeit all attacks and causing it's eye to glow with a hellish radiance.  This performs one of the following effects:

  • Blindness (save vs. spells or be blinded until dispel magic is cast)
  • Doom (as reverse bless spell, -1 to AC, hit and damage in 20' square)
  • Hold person (one person only; save vs. spells at -2, hold lasts for 4 rounds).
Cyclopean imps enjoy tormenting those affected by their evil eye, singling out blinded foes for attacks, holding held victims hostage.  They have a twisted intellect that works with others but will betray them if there is an apparent advantage in doing so.  This treacherous tendency is known to certain elves and magic-users who use it to trick cyclopean imps into abandoning the object they are guarding.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

the noble experiment

Adamant announced the end of their $1.99 (was $1) PDF publishing experiment on Monday.  Gareth offers some analysis to explain the decision.  Ultimately the experiment became unsustainable.  The experiment evolved over three months with the following factors playing a part:
  • An initial shift in pricing from $1 to $1.99 after the first day.
  • The March GM Day sale where Adamant dropped prices by 25% further for the duration of the sale.
  • An increased release schedule meant more things to buy which drove up sales and outlay.
Responses from interested bystanders range from condolences through rants at customers.  With prices at $2 or less each, it's hardly credible to cite stinginess.  Adamant has over 200 items in stock at DriveThruRPG so it's hardly lack of choice.  So what gives?  Having previously mentioned certain events, let's look a little closer.

First impressions count, the jump in price after day one was an inauspicious start.  While it's evident the initial pricing hiccup was due to a miscalculation on small purchase handling, some suspected a gimmick or publicity stunt.  While motives vary, Gareth's opinions and those of his alter-ego GMS have antagonised RPG fans before and it's certainly possible those making such remarks were unfriendly competition.

It's notable Gareth and Adamant has a history of largesse when it comes to sales, launching a $1 sale in December 2010 and contributing to many charity bundles.  The March GM Day sale price drop gave those who missed the December sale a second bite.  Fred Hicks posted a note from DriveThruRPG on January 6th at his Tumblr and it contains a possible explanation for what happened here.
If all publishers trended prices down to $1 for an RPG, then customers will re-anchor their price expectations at that level and $1 RPGs would no longer ignite large sales volumes for any single publisher. Instead $15 RPGs will seem expensive, much like any app over $1.99 is “expensive”.
By normalising prices so that the discount wasn't as large as usual, customers saw it as less of a bargain which may explain why takeup wasn't as dramatic as in previous years.  Adamant now faces a period of readjustment, fortunately given the strength of products like ICONS it may be able to weather the consequences of this.

The increased release schedule was the killer.  Given the work needed to put out any publication it is not surprising that increasing your release schedule means increasing outlay.  During March 2011 but after the GM Day sale three titles were released with only a 35% increase in income compared to the previous year.  That's effectively one per week!  Before the sale, there was greater correlation between increased releases and profit.  After, it suggests that a plateau had been reached.

What interests me (and others) is how this compares with epublishing (arguably niche, maybe less so than RPGs).  There are success stories like J.A. KonrathTobias Bucknell has a year of ebook data with variable pricing and argues for diversification.  Looking further outwards at apps themselves, it's suggested individual users tend to purchase 10 - 12 per month.  That's a lot and given the depth of some RPGs needs a significant learning curve.  Matching that level of takeup is ambitious and saturation appears to be a risk. Perhaps the solution is to produce add-ons to a core product?

I admire Gareth for his vision and having the chutzpah to do this.  Failing to applaud pioneers means nobody visits terra incognita.  I can recommend ICONS as a cracking rules-lite superhero game with plenty of support - if you haven't bought it yet, please do so.  There are other publishers who are following the app pricing experiment including Nevermet Press who priced their PDFs at $2.99.  It appears that the noble experiment continues...

Monday, 4 April 2011

zombie, hiveheart

No. Enc.: 1d6+1 (2d8)
Alignment: Chaotic
Movement: 60' (20')
Armor Class: 7
Hit Dice: 3d8
Attacks: 1 (by weapon)
Damage: 1d8 or weapon
Save: F1
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: None

Hiveheart zombies are created by chaotic magic-users and clerics using a human corpse, a black gem, a wasp nest and sinister magic.  These zombies are riddled with wasps that form a hostile cloud around the zombie up to 10' radius.  Those living creatures stood within the radius take 1 point of damage per round (doubled if the victim is wearing no armour) and will do so until they leave the radius for three rounds as the wasps cling to them, stinging. This is reduced to one round if a character submerges themselves in water.  Fire, cold or smoke will drive off the wasps but waving a weapon around or using a sleep spell is ineffective.  Hiveheart zombies attack last in the round due to their rotting flesh and are susceptible to normal weapons, like other undead sleep or charm spells are ineffective.  Unlike normal zombies, hiveheart zombies are able to understand complicated instructions, it is believed the hive at their heart gives them some degree of intelligence above that of normal zombies.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

inns & taverns: zora's cove

A pirate queen's former hideaway over an inland bay.  Zora's Cove serves a syndicate of spice plantations with their chartered trader and native allies.  Those visiting Zora's Cove seek fortune or wish to spend one earned from sale of spice.  Zora The Raven is believed dead.  Her crew rot in gibbets, jails or cheap taverns.  The Cove lost it's pirate trappings yet fortunes still change hands and blood clouds night seas.  Even without  pirates, the Cove can still be deadly.  

A row of thatched parasols hide the exterior.  These shelter the path and entrance from strong sea winds and noon sun.  Long shadows paint blue-stained shutters black.  Clusters of natives and minor agents linger, awaiting opportunity.  Inside the cave, tables hug the corners and edges.  The air is thick with tallow smoke and spices.  About half the tables are occupied.  A circular bar in the centre of the cave dominates the room.  A pulley and chain hangs over the bar providing a dumb waiter from the cavern below where food is prepared and drinks are stored.

The usual drink is a cup of dark rum though a spiced rum infused with nutmeg is also popular.  Cold nights see a buttered rum with cinnamon and nutmeg served to wealthy agents.  A fortified root beer finds favour with new visitors and the stubborn who must drink from tankards.  A spice tea is offered for delicate palates or those wishing to stay sober. Food ranges from salt fish broth and sourdough bread through roasted chicken to ogre crab claw - a crab claw as long as a shortsword.  The last is a delicacy, ogre crabs are territorial and aggressive, especially under a full moon.  Prices are double that on the mainland.

The landlord Gewhayn, is an affable psychopath.  An ex-pirate and slaver, the syndicate and traders pay him handsomely to maintain the status quo.  His eleven daughters tend bar, exotic beauties skilled in deception, reading people like books and occasional assassination.  Gewhayn keeps slaves in the caverns beneath Zora's Cove.  Though immoral, there is no denying his wealth or apparent influence. Gewhayn has stated "The only people who kill in here are family."  Most patrons know the odds favour the house.

Accommodation is available with well-appointed rooms carved from the rock.  Guests risk enslavement if they don't work for the syndicate or traders. Gewhayn and his daughters almost always know who is and who isn't.  Baths, massage and valet services are available for additional coin.  These services are provided by slaves supervised by a single daughter.  Misunderstandings are settled by coin or swift dumping of a weighted canvas overboard.  There are few permanent guests though every solstice, agents of the syndicate stay here with preferential treatment.
Adventure is a canoe-ride from Zora's Cove with ogre crab hunts, tracking escaped slaves or following maps to pirate treasure.  Getting involved with the spice or slave trade is more dangerous.  The trading houses have exploitable rivalries.  These are used by the syndicate and Gewhayn's family to their advantage.  The return of pirates to the Cove would cause chaos and if the rumours of Zora's death are just rumours, the market and the Cove not survive that.
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