Saturday, June 14, 2014

ArcheAge impressions – Part one

It's a curious thing...
I can't honestly say what pulled my attention towards Archeage above the rest. It's a game that has, to my knowledge, been out for some time and yet it's one of those very few people in my social circle had even heard about. Somehow I can't blame them; it was one of those that suddenly just popped up and you either went with it or you forgot about it. A few people were streaming it, even fewer really talked about it and the general impression of it was that it was “different” from the rest in some way. At least the general talk made huge claims for it to be so.

Personally, I think what really had me going was the way that it didn't focus on being yet another clone of WoW; at least not in the initial sense. There seemed to be a big emphasis on crafting and social interaction with several elements of the game being player driven. Also, naval combat, trade organizations and an open world PvP that could work? The fact that a guild would be more than just a green chat-channel with everyone sharing one huge bag for loot appealed to me, greatly; yes – I am one of those old people who believe that people were generally nicer towards each other in the old MMO days, and the more mainstream you go, the bigger dickheads you start socializing with. So is Archeage any different?

We've got to have...money.
Archeage is currentlyin alpha, with no indications but rumors for when it will hit closed beta. That means you need to dish out the savings if you want access to the playground. And hold your horses, because it's one expensive ride – around 150$ for an alpha access, along with some additional rewards once launch hits (more credits, a 4 day head start which I believe will be extremely valuable and some additional equipment). Alternatively, you can book for your beta ticket for a lesser price, but it's still steep for a game you don't know whether you'll like. I hope to bring you some more information in this essay about it.

For me, it took several days of consideration before I cashed out in the webshop. There were some minor problems at first accepting my payment method, but from thereon you'll download the Runic client and the game pretty much works as you know it from, say, the Battle.net application.

As of now, you don't really get that many advantages for your amount of money, except for the entry. I perfectly understand how some people will back off by this amount of money, but in my view, it's still less than what some of my friends will pay this summer in order to go to concerts or trips. So har-har.

 Culture Shock
I read some guy at Reddit who said that if EVE-online was the Olympic swimming disciplines, Archeage is the kitty-pool right next to it, which I believe is about as spot on as it gets, in a non-patronizing way.
At its core, Archeage doesn't deviate too far from the basic MMO-formula – You create your character, you bash monsters by clicking your abilities as they go off cool down and harvest XP and items so you can bash bigger monsters. The world itself is somewhat generic fantasy with an obvious touch of Korean/Eastern mentality – something I haven't really been that into in other MMO's such as Aion. Mostly because the manga-final fantasy-themes just never...appealed to me and seemed so strangely out of place; yet it feels controlled in Archeage to the degree that at some times I kind of forgot about it entirely. Of course, you will see strange blue impish creatures, Furry-races (ugh...) and just about all the male characters look like something out of a cosmetic commercial – but put that aside and we're about to hit interesting land.

The world of Archeage is split into three factions, which has an extensive impact on the game. The westerners (who're basically elves and your typically plain human race) and the easterners (a strange race of furry-people and what reminds me of feudal Japanese) – And then, to the north, you have the outcasts, the pirates. And yes, you can become a pirate too!

As you progress into Archeage, you will learn that the meat of the game is how these factions strive for control and dominance of the world. Initially, you will settle down in your familiar homeland and start crafting and establishing your foothold, perhaps with a guild, but eventually you will need to do trade-runs if you want your hands on some of the good stuff the game has to offer. And this often means crossing vast distances into enemy territory where world PvP quickly becomes an issue. Add on top of that, that your own faction can turn traitorous against you and player-pirates stalk the oceans and lands in search of your hard earned goods – you will learn the value of having friends. And ships of war, merchant ships, transport vehicles, submarines, gliders and much more if you need to make a stand.

Archeage is much about crafting. In fact, it has 21 professions that you can all master and yes, they will take a lot of time and dedication to master. In addition, you're limited to a certain pools of Labor-points – crafting mana, if you will, that dictates how many projects you can undertake at a given time. Since gathering materials also counts towards this, you kind of have to agree with yourself on a set goal.
And make no mistake, while the prospect of having your own ship, your own house and even become a part of a navy is grand and appealing you'll have to cover a lot of groundwork by yourself, especially if you're not with a guild.
To try and describe the depth of the Archeage crafting in just a few lines would be a gross simplification. Suffice to say, you will likely need plenty of components from the various professions if you wish to progress far. Of course, some of these can't be crafted but must be cultivated, which is why the game handles you your own mini-farm early on. From here you can grow various crops, trees and livestock that are all utilized by the 21 professions. Of course you can also feel free to plant outside your chosen land, but that is to be done with care, since it becomes free game for anyone to steal. You'll quickly realize that a small farm isn't much at all, and in the current state of alpha, even finding a spot for it may prove challenging. Farms, houses and guild castles are non-instanced and already now, cartels have risen that occupy big plots of land and sell it onwards for good sums of money.
Goods are mostly handled in the classic take-one-space-of-inventory-way that you may know from WoW and other games. Yet, once you start building ships and structures, or wish to trade goods with foreign traders for valuable currency, you need to turn them all into a trade-package. This is a huge pack your character can carry around that will severely impede your movement speed, unless you have means of transportation, such as a carriage, a ship or even a humble mule. Often you will need to transport the pack from the crafting bench all the way to the construction site or trader, and all during that time you're a high-valued sitting duck. Pirates and the opposite faction (hell, even your own faction at times) will want to jump you, kill you and steal your packs. Packs that are often the result of long real life hours of dedicated work, all gone within seconds.

Once you get it going and construct your first ship, the game is a bit more forgiving that its bloodthirsty brother EVE – As some may know, if your ship gets blasted into bits in EVE, it's pretty much gone from there. While ships and be damaged and even stolen in Archeage, you'll always have them back and can repair them up in 10 minutes or so. Your house and farms can't, to my knowledge, be destroyed either, unless you neglect to pay the weekly taxation.

A pirate's life for me
I have little to no experience about becoming a pirate, but from what I've seen it's kind of interesting too. In general, you earn infamy for doing mean things. Stealing from farms, killing your own faction and waylay traders. As you reach a certain threshold, you will be voted outlaw and other players who have earned the right to be bounty hunters can take you down and bring you to justice. This results in a global trial channel, in which people can sign up for jury duty and pass sentence to these people. If found guilty, they'll be going to prison where they will serve their time or perhaps even escape. Sounds interesting, right? It is, except for the issue that the highest sentence I've seen passed is around 80 minutes. Often it's around 10-12 minutes where people just can't leave their cell and it kind of deflates the whole point.

It all takes class...
So far I'm level 25 only, so please take these general impressions for what they are. The class system in Archeage is a bit different, in that it contains a small handful of specializations, such as a Battlerager (warrior) or Sorcery (...well, yeah) and as you hit level 5 and 10 you chose two additional classes to the one you started out with. As you level up you also gain XP in the various classes you have chosen and spend skill points sort of like you do in talent trees. A lot of these are, not surprisingly, PvP oriented and already there is a solid handful of “Top 10 builds” with the usual emerging “Must include” abilities favored by almost all players. That is likely to be expected at this early stage in the game.

Going on a quest!
There are a few things you'll need to know about the current state of questing in Archeage. First and foremost, while all the menus have been translated into English as well as the quest text, the spoken language in the game and the cut-scenes have not. That means; unless you're fluent in Korean you likely will get very little out of the progressing story for your character. I did my best, initially, to try and make a narrative with what I had, but it didn't take long before I threw the towel. Especially because most of the quests are dull, uninspiring and very unimaginative. Don't expect the reinvention of the genre in this regard. You're provided with kill-quests, fetching, gathering and the entirety of the usual song and dance you've come to know in the MMO's. I never had the sense of any bigger story unroll and blindly accepted everything Manga-land asked of me, but to be honest I had the same feeling when I quested in Mists of Pandaria. I have a hard time giving a damn about that stuff.

Room for enthusiasm...and concern
I've had a brilliant time so far in Archeage, let me make that clear. Is it worth the 150$? A cautious yes, but I believe you have to be hooked on the concept. You need to love the grind, the long walk, the defiance and challenges that will inevitably strike you. Naval battles on the high seas, dueling with pirates and massive trade caravans are all part of the end result; the huge impact of the comet. But remember that comet has spent a very long time getting there in the first place. So if you aren't up for the challenge and burn out easily on such tasks, Archeage is definitely not for you. Even I have my doubt whether I'll manage to keep up with the game, once I see my packs of lumber and stone disappear with some snotty, little fat kid who's had a bad day at school. And on the other hand, that also serves at the appeal. The feeling of anarchy and dominance, that for once there isn't a caring, loving system holding its hand under you in case you fall – if you want something you take it and live with the consequences.

It is my impression that there is a lot of potential in Archeage, but just as it relies on the investment of the average player, it also sets itself up for gruesome failure that only time will show. As of now, the player base is very limited due to the outrageous price for entry. And even now we see a severe lack of space for farms and houses – something that people believe will be easier once there is more than one server. But then, on the other hand, the game will also go public at that time, and I'm kind of cautious about the results.

It's also another study in the field “What looks good on paper meets the internet”. For example, the developers have clearly tried to bring variety to what you can plant and care for at your farm. Different trees, seeds and animals ranging from geese to cows to turkeys. Only thing is that people quickly optimize the best results, meaning you can suddenly see long streaks of farms that have nothing more than white aspen trees and endless sights of goats because they're currently the bast farming method. Another example involves the bounty system, where someone will go criminal, let his friends kill him and share the bounty afterward.

While initially not a problem, I can wonder about the future economy of the game in the sense that structures and ships aren't permanently destroyed, like in EVE. Instead, you can bring them back for a reasonable sum and MUCH quicker than buying a new one. I can't help but speculate whether this is a good idea in the long run, and whether we'll see a ruined economy after the game has been out for some time?

I'll definitely keep on with Archeage, not only because I've thrown in that much money. I genuinely believe it to be a very potential game with a lot of room for further improvement. As of now, we're only seeing the alpha and some quite important things have changed already since I began. Again, only time will tell whether these changes will work out for the better once the game hits Beta and all characters wiped. Things such as forcing us to run trademissions on the enemy continent is a great idea, but the notion of daily quests is something I could really, really do without. Likely because I've grown so tired of pandas with blue exclamation marks above their heads...

I wouldn't say you should storm out and hurl 150 bucks after this game, but if you're like me and been sitting on the fence for so long, I hope I have inspired you to at least give it a decent thought and try. I'll say this game, if tweaked a bit more than it already is, and the right player base, could become a really big thing and a contender in a niche that has pretty much been dominated by EVE for several years.

I'll be back with further thoughts as I hit level 50!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Sword of Valor review pt. 2

"Siegeing the initiative - When religious people just won't leave your doorstep."
Once the heroes reach the city of Drezen the rest of the adventure is somewhat linear in the classical 'things are pretty much going to happen the way we wrote it" - there is some illusion of a choice and that time is of the essence, seeing how the morality meter of the heroes' army is acting like the doomsday clock. The more they wait, the bad morale starts gnawing its ugly teeth; add on top of the further they progress towards storming the keep, the more dire the conflict becomes. I'll say, however, that the impending doom is a somewhat lukewarm one as by now the heroes should be more than powerful enough to deal with the situation and make short process with the invasion.

When they arrive there is a series of short encounters in their way, which vary from mass combat to solo encounters. None of them are particularly interesting nor original and honestly leaves a lot up to you as a GM. It's even possible for you to skip those you don't care much for. The one exception in my book, however, is the task of storming a bridge guarded by fierce beasts and a vile mage - the heroes need control of that bridge in order to advance with their troops, and they need to deal not only with the sorcerer, but also the beasts that will start tearing down the bridge as soon as struggle begins. Kind of brings your memory back to the old Icewind Dale 2 days.
The mass combats are just that; nothing surprising to see here and likely shouldn't challenge the heroes at all at this point in the adventure. They're a nice warm up for them, seeing how you're able to throw more at them in the third chapter.
(There's also some quite nifty opportunities for some battle speeches before storming the keep!)

Hitting the keep itself is interrupted as Staunton's mythic chimera swoops down from the sky to take the battle to the heroes. I'm not sure how this will impact in a general sense of group setup, but my players tore it a new one pretty quickly. The heroes are already quite capable of some impressive mythic feats by then, so you shouldn't go easy on them. Actually, if you sense they'll have too easy a time, it's definitely worth bolstering the monster, seeing as how it's supposed to be a grand fight and also it's a solo. Which usually translates into "Therefore I suck" in D&D terminology.

Upon reaching the keep there's the usual run of the mill dungeon storm with very few twists. There isn't really that much to prepare for you as a GM, except a few encounters that, by this time, are so ridiculously underpowered compared to the heroes that it risks getting extremely tedious quickly.  I suggest either cutting down on them or simply picking out a few of those you like. Encounters such as the succubi are somewhat interesting in that they offer some RP-alternatives, whereas the rest are bash and maim.

Staunton has a few lieutenants that will likely challenge the heroes, (again, if you feel they're up for it, let them encounter them all at once!) before they face down the Blackguard and his brother. Staunton can be quite a handful for some groups but he's certainly not impossible, especially not when the smite evil attacks start piling up - you'll notice he'll go down rather quickly. 

Now, you would think this would be the ideal climax to end off the adventure, seeing how much exposition Staunton actually has as a true bad ass. But no; this is one of those occasions where Paizo pulls the 'there's always a bigger fish' card just before the end (and yes, it still pisses me off royally).  In this case, we're dealing with a nasty shadow demon that frankly just reminds me of the talking pollution from Ferngully. I even strode to sound like Tim Curry when it taunted the heroes.
As written, the heroes will then find some new information about the current state of things in the worldwound and claim victory over Drezen. Staunton declared death, and may they all live ever on.

"Mercy for Staunton"
As written, there is not much hope for Staunton - he's an unredeemable character whose sole purpose is to suffer at the end of the righteous sword. I suppose one could spread it out and even make him a trial or something, maybe even burn him at the stake. However, to me it seemed truly counterintuitive that the bad guy who was, perhaps, in the most need of redemption was also the one who couldn't obtain it.

I've given a lot of thought as to how one could include Staunton Vhane as a redeemed character and believe it's possible though some story magic. While some of them are almost clichés, I hardly find any flaw in that, seeing how the redemption of the black knight is a vital theme in so many heroic stories through the times.

The major obstacle I see with redeeming Staunton is exposition. He can pretty much give a lot of stuff away about the enemy; likely too much at this early stage in the campaign. Instead, utilize this as your way to convey whatever information you wish for your players to have. Maybe they've slept a bit at vital points in the adventure, of you want to foreshadow certain aspects of the upcoming chapters. Allow Staunton to be taken as a prisoner; maybe in the final blow of the battle and the fall of the evil influence in Drezen, part of his corruption abandons his heart as well as several of his memories.

Alternatively, he'll remain inherently evil and in the dungeons of Drezen, only to be deeply inspired and tormented by the later arrival of the succubus Arueshalae (in chapter three) - seeing as how such an otherwise vile creature can be graced by the light drives Staunton into deep conflict within; one which the heroes will likely have a chance to assist in, maybe even set a quest for the fallen hero to complete?

The possibilities are several, and Staunton is actually a very interesting character with plenty of potential for development. If you want to stretch it even further out, perhaps some of the heroes' companions once knew and had a good relationship with the dwarf, and would desperately want to see him redeemed (some could even have been romantically involved with him) - and others won't rest till he's hanging from the noose. 

In Conclusion:
One thing that I've liked a lot so far about this AP, is how well the chapters sort of tie in together. At this time of writing, we're well into the third chapter, and the natural continuance that sort of just evolves between the chapters is great. Compared to our two recent campaigns, Carrion Crown and Skull & Shackles, this has a much more coherent feel to it.

As for the adventure itself, I didn't find it to be as well written and interesting as the first chapter, but it certainly didn't stand out as bad. There are very few deviations and risks taken here, which will be loved by some people and not so much by others - if you're going to GM this, my best advice is to take it slow and run it by the book. You can try and force some branches into it, but it didn't really seem worth it when I tried.

That, and by gods read up on those mass combat rules. They aren't that hard to grasp but they do take up some time. I recommend running over them at least twice and then ask whoever in the group would be interested in running the armies - chances are good that at least one guy will be interested. Then send them home with the homework 'read up on mass combat' and you'll notice how well it turns out. While it certainly isn't Warhammer Fantasy, it's fluid and if you've tried out the fleet battles in Skull & Shackles, you'll likely be familiar with it.

My favorite part was beyond doubt the journey to Drezen and the various encounters along the way. It felt like a doomed expedition on its way deep into hell. The least favorite part was the three new NPC's (of which I used none, really) and the majority of the tasks in Drezen that frankly just felt like small obstacles.

I can't help but think how in the majority of adventures, there are some clever mechanics and interesting elements that kind of make them stand out, whereas the more the story progresses, the less interesting things become. Whereas elements such as the commendations (Achievements, really) added some interesting stuff, the most of chapter two is pretty much one long demonic brick road that has the potential to bore out a lot of people. 

So with that much said, the heroes have conquered the fallen city and are now ready to set out towards their next destination - The Worldwound.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Sword of Valor review pt. 1

Greetings, travelers from afar, and once again welcome to a telling of mythic deeds and heroic exploits in the hands of should-be-so-noble-players with hearts that are probably way more black than the cover of the adventure was lead to believe. At least my players' hearts are.

It's, in other words, time to return to the Wrath of the Righteous, namely the second installment named "The Sword of Valor" - When we left the bold heroes they had just become the center of attention, destroying the wardstone of Kenabres before the demonic incursion could corrupt it to their own advantage. Whereas this dealt a vicious blow to the crusaders, it was a necessary evil if the potent artifact was to remain outside the chaotic claws of corruption.

So, let's have a walk through chapter two of Paizo's new do-gooder campaign and have a look whether it lives up to the high expectations set where the first installment left off.

As the heroes have defeated the infernal forces in the first chapter, they are now the talk of the day in the crusader city of Kenabres. It doesn't take long for the higher-ups to take notice of their deeds, and soon after none other than the mighty Queen Galfrey of the crusade graces them with their presence. She announces the beginning of the fifth crusade, conceived by their valorous actions, and asks the heroes to lead an army north along the Worldwound, towards the fallen city of Drezen.

The heroes are tasked with reclaiming the city from a notorious blackguard named Staunton Vhane; a betrayer whose actions led to the fall of the city in the first place, as he stole its greatest defense against the teleporting demons - the Sword of Valor (which is, ironically, not a sword but a banner). Of course, Vhane is not going to make it easy for the heroes, and as they march north, they are besieged by opposing armies, desecrated temples and unholy swarms of vermin.

The adventure culminates in a satisfying climax, as the heroes undertake various missions and mass combats in and around Drezen, laying siege to the blackguard's keep. Finally, they get to storm the gates and take him down, along with his demonic master, and reclaim the banner for themselves.
Besides from the core rules and Mythic expansion, this chapter relies heavily on the Mass Combat-rules from Ultimate Campaign.
(This really stands as the primary advice I'll hand on to you, if you're going to run this adventure as a GM - Reading up on the mass combat rules is kind of necessary. While you can run it on your own and just it fold out with the heroes confronting the commander of the opposing army, it does take up so much of the adventure that I felt you would leave out too much by ignoring it. It's worth noticing that the army granted to the heroes by the queen is very strong and quite durable in terms of attrition, so the chances that they should lose it are very slim.)

"A royal audience - And instead of a Worldwound you shall have a queen!"
The first part of the adventure is mainly exposition about events to come. The heroes receive an audience with Queen Galfrey, who is a rather important character for the campaign, seeing as she leads the crusade, more or less. Her only purpose for this part is to send the heroes out the door towards the occupied city of Drezen (Although, I recommend you try and give her some personality and make it a memorable meeting. I compared her somewhat to Aribeth from Neverwinter Nights, trying to make her a stout, brave and bold character who stood up for herself and her ideals, while still very likeable - yes, this is apparently possible, 'Gamers 3' - which went quite well. One of the heroes even started hitting on her. Paizo provides you with a lot of rumors and details about her, which you should really use to create some tension about her character.)
Strong female protagonists - Doing it right and doing it very wrong

 Basically, the heroes are rewarded by getting kicked out the door with an army at their back and march north towards Drezen. Of course things won't get easy for them on the way, likely their opponent, Staunton Vhane the Blackguard, will be prepared for their coming. Yet, this is declared as the start of the fifth crusade which will hopefully be so much better than...well, the recent four, to say the truth. Pack you bags, brush your teeth, remember to use the toilet and off you march.

(There is a question about Staunton Vhane, who serves as the main antagonist of this chapter, and exactly how much exposition you want to reveal in advance. There is quite a lot of it, but if you just want to throw the basic stuff out, he was a renowned dwarven holy warrior from the crusade, whose actions deemed Drezen to fall. A lot of people have different stories about his exact role in this, but it is established that the holy relic that used to keep out the demonic influence, the Sword of Valor, was either corrupted or removed thanks to his actions. Some even say that the same sinister force who led Vhane into temptation also had the ulterior motive of annihilating the crusader city in one fell stroke.)

"We ride north!...with our new friends. On the other hand; fuck you!"
 The journey towards Drezen is the standard setup of encounters on a string, just as you've probably seen it several times before. Put shortly, they consist of a disastrous sight of a small town ravaged by the demons (and very little else to do; just foreshadowing, I suppose), an assault on two tiefling armies (in which the heroes get to play with the Mass Combat rules) and face off against an incubus commander.  There are no surprises here, really, it's pretty much run by the book. Though the adventure kind of tries to utilize travel-mechanics and passing time, it's of little to almost no importance at all. Don't feel obliged to keep a track of anything; you'll have plenty of opportunity for that in chapter three.

The heroes make some new friends along the way. Sosiel Vaenic  (whose picture sort of always made me call him 'the encouraging coach') and his lover, Aron Kir who happens to be an addict. Also, Nurah Dendiwar makes her entrance, all of them supposed to travel along with the heroes.
(Only, they didn't. Not in my campaign at least, because I had a couple of issues with them. First and foremost, none of them really add anything to the campaign that's REALLY important. Second, by this time, if you've played your cards right, your players might actually have grown fond of Irabeth, Anevia, Aravishnial and Horgus who are all interesting characters in their own right. Stuffing in three new names seemed like too much of a shoehorn, especially when they are so dull and anonymous. I suppose keeping them around as replacements and backups if things went wrong would be an idea, but really - if you don't like them, you can safely keep them out of the picture entirely.)

Things get interesting with the two encounters just before the heroes arrive in Drezen. The first being the purification of an old temple to one of the heroes' deity. They get to fight "Nulkineth" - a half-nabasu inquisitor, and his Nabasu which proves for a truly challenging encounter. Then, the heroes realize they can't progress past a nasty swarm of Vescavors until they've slain the queen in her warrens. Apparently, nuking it from orbit is not an option. What makes this battle kind of interesting is that it's a short dungeon crawl with a timer; the heroes need to defeat her before the swarm reacts and start coming out the wall to devour them.

OPTIONAL: "Fire or forget?  How to make Arles Jhestander interesting."
Despite my recent criticism of the three new introduced characters being bland, boring and surplus, I went for one interesting option I thought could make for great drama. One of the NPC's in this adventure is called Arles Jhestander and his main purpose is to spread some despair amidst the ranks because...well, he's a wuss, I assume. It's a tiny plot easily resolved, but looking at his picture really made me think; this is a man with a mission.
In my adventure, Arles was a former paladin serving under Staunton Vhane. When Drezen fell to corruption, Arles felt the fires of wrath burn in his heart as he was betrayed by his old mentor (I kind of compare him to Carth Onasi from Knights of the old Republic) and in blind rage and panic fought his way out of the city, not knowing whom to trust and consider an ally, in the process abandoning his own family and friends thus losing his sacred title. He lived on as a high ranked commander, yet fallen and condemned by his superiors, and he wishes nothing but the death of Staunton Vhane.

This makes for an opportunity for the heroes to redeem Arles, and take a stand on either retribution or mercy towards Staunton Vhane (see my paragraph on 'Mercy for Staunton?') - Arles could even turn out as a disciple of one of the heroes, perhaps even a mythic apprentice later on in the adventures.

(To be continued in chapter 2)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

In memoriam - Mr. Tanglefoot

Those who know me well are aware that one of my cardinal traits is my cute little pygmy hedgehog, Mr. Tanglefoot (or Tangle, among friends)

He died last Thursday. And in the time that passed, I have realized I need to put a few words on this, for anyone who'll be willing to listen. Pet-owners who've been through the sad process of loss will likely identify, but even if you don't, that's entirely okay. I need to vent some words.

I bought Tangle from a breeder back in late October, 2011, and brought him home through almost four hours of driving. He was nothing but a strange little creature with spikes at the time; one that I was honestly kindof disappointed with, seeing how hard it was for him to accept me. After all, an animal that rolls up in pointy bits by the mere sight of you is not entirely flattering.

 I had the idea for a hedgehog in a friend's 4th edition D&D Campaign, in which my ranger chose him as an animal companion. I even made up the name by then, and quickly realized how much appeal such a creature had. I'll honestly say; finding a proper breeder in Denmark wasn't easy, but I'm glad my persistance brought me that far, to the night when I got home and unboxed him for the first time.

Hedgehogs are strange little creatures. They've always reminded me so much about...myself. Nocturnal to the core; more cute than pretty, solitary with no direct need for company and quite bright and loyal. They bite you when they love you, they shit way more than the laws of physics would lead you to believe, and their best form of entertainment is sticking their head into an old toiletpaper roll and go crazy for hours. Maybe it was this appeal that made me so insistant to bond with Tangle in the first place; spending hours sitting with him at night, gaming with the little curled up ball on my knee, watching movies (we watched a lot of star wars together) and just about everything I could think of. Suffice to say, Tangle was my pet right from the very start. With the exception of my closest family, not a whole lot of people saw the appeal in him; which I can't honestly blame them for. He was pointy and never really wanted that petting thing; so why bother?

But hedgies are fiercely loyal creatures once they bond with you. Tangle would spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to get out of his cage whenever I got home, just because he wanted to get out and play in my lap. The small black beaty eyes would almost beg to be let out, even when I was tired and could barely manage to lift him out.

It's important to know that Tangle arrived at a time in my life when I needed him the most. It's no mere joke that people have called him my familiar (and in D&D, hedgie-familiars give +2 will saves, kind of true, I suppose). It was  time when I felt alone, was going through a challenging relationship, with some very demanding surroundings and all too little understanding about a lot of things. You don't need to have been a pet owner for long to know how valuable an animal's love is in this situation.

I could go on and on about how many cuddly situations I've had with my hedgie; but I'll say he was my best friend; more than I ever knew, for a long periode of my life. I was impressed at how sturdy he was and how he always seemed to toughen through various falls and situations that left me shocked that he was injured. He lived through a devastating walk in a box in a snowstorm and all the times he knocked over his bowl of water, resulting dry times when I was gone for two days. So perhaps I made the folly of overestimating him.

Either way, two weeks ago, I noticed he was kind of lazy with his eyes slightly closed. Thinking he could be groggy, I didn't make a huge fuss of it and left him to sleep. When it got worse over the weekend I thought of eye infection or mites, and immediately set out to treat both. I've dealt with them before, so I thought this should be no different; but when nothing helped and I went to the vet the following day, it was evident that he suffered from a bacterial infection. And it was serious.
Tangle spent four days in the hospital with professional help, before they decided to go for euthanasia. He was suffering and could only drink and sleep; medicine wasn't helping. There was nothing more for them to do.

I'll honestly say I was shocked at how this crushed me. How I went home from work to my girlfriend (who was luckily around at the time) and cried like I haven't cried in years. There were feelings in me I thought would never surface; only to realize that I've never been this attached to a pet before. I was devastated, and yet surprised; because - aren't such feelings reserved only for the loss of a human being?

The thing is, the heart doesn't qualify love according to species. And I've never been good at dealing with death, even though it has taken up quite a significant amount of my life, and still does every day. Working with survivors with PTSD is a life with stories of death and misery on a daily basis; one I've been able to shut down and live through with my head up. But when death comes close, I shatter on the inside. Not because I know someone I love is gone, but because I know they are never coming back. There is a subtle, yet imperative, difference.

 I want to write this in memory of the best pet I've ever had. The little guy I learned to love and hate the nights when he kept me up with his playing around. The noises I'd wish so much to be annoyed by, in this moment of writing. How everything is silent in the apartment now and I still haven't brought myself to throw out his old cage. How conflicted I am that part of me grieves and yet another part of me wants, some day, to take another little hedgie home and provide him with a good home.
I know he'll never be Tangle, but hopefully he can be another very great friend.

So, rest in peace, little buddy. I love you. I'm so sorry I couldn't do more for you, but thank you for everything you gave me. I hope you'll wait for me on the other side, and I'll promise to bring all the meal worms you could possibly wish for.

Hug your pet today. And remember: better go that one day too early than too late to the vet. It could make all the difference in the world.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Worldwound Incursion review

I suppose that one of the few blessings about being down with the flu is realizing exactly how much you suddenly have to catch up on. On the private front, blogging usually comes to mind, and how much I’ve been neglecting the stuff I want to write about. One of the things in particular is the latest update regarding our recently launched Pathfinder campaign; “Wrath of the Righteous”.

Once again, I sadly don’t have enough time to provide you guys with a thorough review session by session, ala what we did in Carrion Crown. (How the hell did I even manage to find that much time back then?) We stick to our regular weekly sessions and usually complete a chapter once a month or so, so I’d rather concentrate on a thorough review one at the time.

This time around, unlike our pirate campaign “Skull and Shackles” I’ve tried to maintain a closer structure to the original campaign. There were a lot of free initiatives I took in S&S simply because I didn’t like how the respective chapter was written. The detriment to this was, of course, that the reviews weren’t all that faithful to begin with. Even though there certainly are some things in Wrath that I don’t care much for, I’ve done my best to stick with the written word.

The setup…
Wrath is the newest campaign from the RPG giant ‘Paizo’ - our current delivery boy of fun when the hardworking GM (as yours truly) is too busy making up his own surreal stories. Where we have now been monster hunters of Ustalav and pirates of the Shackles, this time around it’s holy war in a justified crusade against the desolate and blighted landscape known as The Worldwound.

The heroes take up arms as a, preferably, good-aligned party of crusaders ranging from all classes and quickly become involved with the crusade against the demons who have tormented  the nearby cities for decades. As usual, this is set in Golarion, but again we decided to keep it to the Realms and neatly put the Worldwound down not too far from Amn. It fit quite well with how our previous campaign ended, and it should have little consequence for these reviews at all.

In a nutshell, the heroes get to wage war against the demons and their leader Deskari; lord of the locusts host. Along with plenty of other opponents, such as cultists of the Baphomet church; the ivory labyrinth. In our case, we play with my usual five players who this time consist of a human monk, an aasimar barbarian, a human red dragon disciple, a human paladin and a human cleric (yes, my group’s mentality is that of the galactic Empire; no aliens allowed!) - Their journey will bring them to various parts of the Worldwound for different tasks against the forces of evil.

The heroes aren’t without means, however. This time around, the campaign plays heavily with Paizo’s new sourcebook of Mythic adventures. For the uninitiated, mythic can sort of be described as ‘Epic levels for everyone’ - Instead of the old recipe of people reaching level 20+ and then everything starts falling apart with Dragonball Z powers; this time around, you get to be really special from a much earlier stage. In the case of Wrath, level 6. 

As your mythic rank improves by doing good deeds, you gain significant special powers to help you in your quest. It’s sort of a sophisticated prestige class system, and without going into too much detail here, I’ll have to admit it works rather well. In the case of the GM, you also get your own special mythic monsters to play with. Ranging from “Elite versions” of existing mobs, to your very own chance to build your own monstrosities. It’s great fun for everyone and Wrath makes good use of it.

“The worldwound incursion” in a nutshell *SPOIIIILLLERRRSSSSSSSSS!!!!*
The heroes arrive at the templar city of Kenabres; a significant settlement on the border of the Worldwound. The city is mainly known for its housing of one of the significant templar artifacts; a wardstone, which contributes to keeping up a magical barrier that holds the demons at bay. The heroes haven’t been long in the city before everything goes to crazy; not long after the festivities of a holy day commence, a vicious Balor known as the thunder-king strikes with his army in an attempt to shatter Kenabres. In the process, they manage to slay the ruler of the city, along with his protégé; the good aligned silver dragon. The dragon, however, manages to perform one last duty, which is to save the heroes from their otherwise impending demise.

As they tumble into the depths beneath the city, they wake up later with an injured couple of NPC’s who react very differently to their presence. A rogue who is first and foremost looking for her lover; the half orc paladin Irabeth, a blind elven wizard who is in a search for lore, and a hot tempered merchant who honestly just wants to get the hell out of there. The heroes make their way through the underground and along the way battle the undead, vermin and meet up with a tribe of mongrelmen who points them towards ‘a bad place’. A bad place that turns out to be the base of operations for the Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth, and the heroes have to smash their way through in order to reach the surface again.

The city they arrive in lies in ruins and as they investigate they are besieged by various minor demons and encounters from civilians who need help. As they eventually search the homes of their followers, they track the survivors down in an old inn from which they plan their next move. Irabeth along with her superior direct the heroes to the old Grey Garrison, in which they will launch an attack and let the heroes attempt to reach the wardstone before it’s corrupted.

Of course the heroes make good timing and manage to kill the demonic lieutenant and destroy the wardstone, in the process becoming mythic heroes and ready for chapter 2.

“The worldwound incursion” in a good light
I have an inherent love for almost all first chapters of every campaign Paizo writes. Perhaps it’s because of the energy, the ambitions, the dreams and how everything can be made possible. Perhaps it’s because it’s much easier to maintain focus when you know the heroes are quite limited in their capabilities for solving puzzles. I don’t know. They just seem a hell of a lot more fun.

This one isn’t much different.

I had a great time preparing and running this chapter; it has very little requirement of preparation for you to make as a GM. Basically, you need to run your players through it, in order to get them to level 6. That’s right, they have to reach level 6 by the end of it. Luckily, the nice Paizo guys have once again provided you with a chart that will tell you whenever they’re supposed to ding.

In continuation of this, maybe it was me or maybe my players are simply that much more experienced; but the usual deal with the first chapter usually involving one or more really tough and nasty encounters seems to be strangely devoid from Worldwound Incursion. Of course there were some encounters that dragged out and took party resources, but they never really struggled in the same way they did against the animated weapon in Carrion Crown or the Grindylow Island in Skull and Shackles. And I think this is a good thing; they had fun with the battles and did feel powerful right off the bat. Also interesting to see the reactions of a level 1 party when the first encounter they see consists of a Balor battling a silver dragon.

Then there’s the NPC’s. To address the elephant in the corner first; there has been some debate regarding the rogue Anevia; the lover of Irabeth. Not just because she’s a homosexual, but because she has, according to her background, had a gender-change. Apparently this has been a huge issue for some. But it doesn’t really play any huge part in the story; that is to say, at all. Along with the two other NPC’s the heroes will spend time with, they make up for a wonderful trio. In my case, the players quickly took the blind elf to heart and grew a natural distaste for the whiny merchant.

I especially liked the stay with the Monglremen during the first part of the adventure. The atmosphere was good and there was a lot of opportunity for the RP-elements to be included. Also, the pacing never seemed that bad; the heroes were always aware where they were supposed to go next, while at the same time pretty much able to keep it to their own speed. Each of their three followers comes with his or her own side quest once they return to the surface, and while none of them are particularly long, they’re a nice addition and possibility for the players to get to know their cohorts better.

Again, you don’t have to prepare that much as a GM. The mythic part doesn’t begin until the second chapter, and since there are so many encounters, most of them are ready to be run by the book. I recommend simply reading up on the middle stages, such as the intro, the mongrelmen town and then the stage just before launching an assault on the grey garrison. They will pretty much give you what you need to know.

A nifty little thing is how the adventure comes with its own gallery of good NPCs in the front and evil ones in the back.  The artwork is, as usual, quite good and pleasing to the eye, involving new monsters and items in the appendix just as you know it.

“The Worldwound Incursion” in a bad light
Be that as it may, chapter one has a clear goal of bringing the heroes to level 6 and it sure has to happen through rule-legal means. As in, there are encounters enough for you to go around and pull them all the way up there. Rather than just letting them start at, say, level 4 with their mythic, or simply dinging them twice in the end, the adventure starts the meat grinder and pushes on. That means lots of battles. And lots of those senseless ones I tend to loathe. You know, even though the heroes are somehow supposed to win, these encounters don’t even make an effort to make it hard. They’re purely just there to take up time and barely resources. 

On top of that there are two and-a-half-dungeons so to say, with plenty of rooms and random encounters around the city, and very little encouragement or situations to role play much, besides from what you come up with. The adventure comes with some suggestions and typical reactions from the NPCs in question, but mostly its left up to you how to run it. If at all. I suppose that for the combat happy groups this is a blessing, but I kind of missed out on some more social encounters, a bit like Ravengro in Carrion Crown.
Alternatively, you can cut down on the encounters a bit. I know I did in the end, especially in the just mentioned rooms. This, of course, has the consequence that the heroes ding swiftly with small intervals and that the adventure seemed surprisingly short. I believe we completed it in just four sessions á 5 hours each, more or less.

The narrative at the back of the book is still there. I’m aware that this is a personal complaint from my side, but it still annoys me, when we could have had more elements to the adventure, or a couple of more monsters instead. On a more relevant aspect; maybe I’ve been unlucky this time around, but both this book as well as the second chapter seemed in really poor condition with several pages falling out. None of this was an issue in Skull and Shackles and only one time in Carrion Crown. Not sure whether this is just me, but it kind of left me a bit disappointed with an otherwise high standard of quality.

Is this campaign for me, as a GM? What should I know in advance?
The first chapter is pretty straight forward, as said. There is no really big surprises, and the best thing to do is to read up on the start, the mongrelmen part, the meeting in the crusader inn and the final confrontation because they are the strongest narrative elements. Depending on how much you want the three npcs to follow the party later on, it would be advisable to read up on their respective entries. You’ll likely see your party take heart to one of them, maybe two, and then expand on that, would be my advice.

Is this campaign for you?

Well, as for now, not all of it has been published according to my knowledge. With the first four chapters or so out, I’ll say there is plenty of opportunity for you here, especially if all you want to do is run a classical good aligned demon-kicking story. Be aware, however, that it does make heavy use of the Mythic book and the Ultimate Campaign rules, especially for how to run an army. I’ll return to this in my review of the second chapter, but you should at least be prepared for these elements.

If the mythic aspect is kind of big for you as a GM to comprehend or get familiar with, I strongly encourage you to simply delegate it out to your players and let them read up on it themselves. Instead, it would be beneficial to read the player guide or even the small book about the Worldwound. It isn’t mandatory for the campaign, but as you know; every little bit helps.

So I’ll leave you here and return later on with my thoughts on the second chapter.