Saturday, March 26, 2011

PC: Dragon Age 2 review

(For a more positive review see 10 Things I liked about Dragon Age 2)

I understand there is a certain kind of people who take great pleasure reading ”The Lord of the Rings” on an annual basis. And enjoy it every time.

My initial reaction to these people was one of shocked horror. I love LotR, don’t get me wrong, but I managed to get through the first book before wondering why I wasn’t just watching the movies again. However, I forged a strange, but understandable, link with these people and their overwhelming joy of being fully immersed in a fantastic universe on a yearly basis.
My fascination was digital and called Dragon Age: Origins. And from the first time I put my hands on it, I’ve been having a go at it every year. Some times taking two completions in a row.

Dragon Age Origins. Love it. Now.
This statement should give you some kind of idea about my expectations, once I heard about Dragon Age 2 being released, several months ago.  And frankly, why shouldn’t I be excited? Why should anyone who enjoyed the first game not be excited about an epic continuation of such a classical and yet brilliantly told fantasy story, which was an obvious catering to the old-school RPG-puritans?
I could fill out an entire blog with reasons why I adore Origins. True, it never really lived up to its claims about being dark and sinister but at least it made an attempt. Ironically, one might say, what ended up working so well for the game was its connections to some of the old RPG-virtues, while at the same time implementing some interesting twists. This is not a task easily done. I’ve seen my share of RPG-settings. I was in way back from Eye of the Beholder and walked through deserts of Shapeir, The Land of the Green Isles, the realm of Middle Earth, The prime material plane of Toril, The chaotic city of Sigil, the sad town Tristram… Azeroth, Hyboria, A galaxy far, far away with knights of the old republic. We’d be here all night.
The point being: There are certain rules. You don't break or stray from them lightly.

Dragon Age Origins didn’t break these rules per se but it damn well managed to twist them a bit. Elves were still pointy-eared hippies but now lived under a state resembling apartheid. Mages were still powerful, capable of great deeds, but not your average Elminster out for a stroll. Instead they were tightly locked away by a zealous religious order. Under the Grey Wardens you learned that only YOU could save the world. But later you realized that this role really sucked. A lot.
Of course you’d still find ale-drinking dwarves out for fighting and the clichés about betrayal, love and redemption were still going strong. However, often you were put in tough moral dilemmas with no apparent good or evil choice. Your decisions had a great impact later on and sometimes you'd make a decision and regret it mere seconds later. Combine this with an array of really interesting party members, great voiceover and a thorough classic fantasy-story and you’ll see why Origins became one of my favorite RPG’s.
Fear leads to anger…
If you’ve been following the reviews or played Dragon Age 2 yourself you might be aware that the game has been received with…mixed feelings. Having just completed the last chapter of the game I can certainly say I understand why.
My initial reaction to this game was fear. Making sequels to great concepts is never something that should be done lightly. Due to its relatively quick release after the first game I was a bit worried about the amount of thought put into it.
It also mattered to me that every single DLC (maybe with the exception of Leliana’s Song) absolutely sucked. I seriously won’t ever trust in the sanity of anyone claiming they actually enjoyed Witch Hunt. Or didn't feel like they should've gotten just a little more for their money.

As mentioned Origins was, first and foremost, a gift to the RP’ers. And we loved it due to its awesome focus on dialogue, choice and character development. You could spend a great amount of time just strolling around camp, listening to what your companions had to tell.
I know a lot of people who weren’t keen on Origins for the same reasons. Too much involvement required, too much reading, too much story. In the end we’re all entitled to our preferences.

Now that we move on to DA2 we might ask - is this still the case? In LotR-language; would we remain at the first movie, rich in atmosphere and feeling (but sadly no match for a shit-faced Russell Crowe at the Oscars) or move on to the fast paced action-oriented style of The Two Towers?

I decided, despite of my fears, to preorder it. It didn’t seem like such a big deal and besides I was quite sure I wouldn’t get THAT disappointed. After all it seemed almost foolproof.
EA had their little thing going, choosing to release the game at various dates across the world. Why, I have no idea. But it seemed kind of ridiculous to me. Especially when you’re patiently watching the clock, waiting to be let into fun-land, while all kinds of posts pop up around you from people playing it through piracy.
It doesn’t really seem…fair.

Of course you gain some bonuses for preordering so I assumed they would more than make up for it.

Anger leads to hate…
Despite my initial frustration about release I was more than happy when Steam finally decided to show a little “Play” button. Logging in was fast as was adding my “special bonus” on my Bioware-profile. This consisted of two weapons, a shield, a dog and a black market in Kirkwall.

It’s hard to find a place to start this, so I assume I will begin with the obvious question.

Is it as good as Origins?

The short answer to this is no.
Keeping my just presented fondness of Origins in mind I imagine one could only see this coming about a mile away. After all, nostalgia is a cruel mistress.

Lady Not-Appearing-in-This-Game

I’ve heard mentioning that the meta-score of the official reviews circles around the 8/10 whereas the fans provide it with a meager 3,7. Somehow indicating I wasn’t the only one out there feeling that my old favorite bed-time-story had been publically abused.
I imagine a lot of this disappointment also stems from high expectations established by the demo which was (frankly) mostly about showing off a brand, new combat system. An awesome combat system, no arguing. To me, this was a signal that I should expect the same amount of epic storytelling with smooth combat in between. Again, you might accuse me for being unreasonable comparing it to Origins.

You know, like comparing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull with Raiders of the Lost Ark.

There is a lot of familiarity but also alienation to be found in DA2. You’re once again presented with the basic choice of Warrior, Mage or Rogue, each of them offering their respective paths of specialization. Some of them are certainly more interesting (and powerful) than others. You will notice that you aren’t allowed to pick either a race or a background but only your gender. Thereby, much of the background-stories from Origins are lost.
I personally went for a male warrior wielding a sword the size of an NBA-player.

Get a (social) life!
There has been a lot of discussion regarding (Lady) Hawke and whether this ‘Mass Effectzation’ was indeed a wise direction to take. I never really liked ME that much, partly due to the fact that I was following a protagonist more than playing my own character. This is, of course, a psychological preference as to whether you prefer deep immersion and various forms of imaging (in Origins I always had a pretty good idea of my character’s voice) compared to watching a story being told.
The advantage is that all your dialogue is spoken out loud although the game and I tend to disagree about the interpretation of cues (one time I chose a reply that, to me, seemed morally encouraging but Hawke meant it was time for severe scolding of my companion).
Luckily, the game has decided to cater to the emotionally challenged by introducing minor symbols representing certain styles of response. The top group is blue or green and indicates “Good” or “Hippie”. The middle purple group represents “Off topic” by jokes and/or cynicism and bottom red is “Shut up, and move on!”
I usually name it “Sparta!”
My warrior used it a lot.
I am not surprised that many RP-puritans (myself included) found this to be some of a setback, and would rather have had a more varied form of interaction. I frankly got used to it but you can’t help feeling this might be a little too much. Romances, an old favorite convention in several Bioware-games, are clearly indicated by a red heart next to the relevant dialogue-option. This removes a significant amount of mysticism that certainly enshrouded the majority of the Origins-romances. On the upside, all of your companions in DA2 have turned bisexual. So there really is something for everyone.
While present, romances in DA2 are limited.

Please don’t make me wear this!
Customization is at a low-point in DA2. You have full control over Hawke but for the rest of your party you’re limited to rings, necklaces and weapons. Eventually you might find minor upgrades to their armor so you can add runes. I imagine this is something that could eventually be fixed by a fan-made mod.
Some people loathe inventory management and I am truly agreeing that I didn’t care all that much either in Origins. But on the other hand, I am not sure it was that much of a problem. Hell, I didn’t even mind the inventory-system in Mass Effect 1. I have no idea why people bitch so much about it. In DA2, however, it bordered reductionism.
Your party of teenagers who'll never let you tell them what to wear. Ever.
Letting your companions keep their original look with very minor changes is a great idea. Psychologically it’s also a visually awesome way to identify and remember them, be it a named crossbow, white emo-hair or a lovely pair of…eyes. It shouldn’t be impossible, however, to integrate more control regarding their armor-choices and instead provide visible, but still subtle, signs of improvement.
I stopped caring half-way through the game, only spending time to look over my companions’ weapons when I found something that seemed clearly like an upgrade. The game even rates your gear with stars so that you no longer have to think for yourself about what's great and what's not. 
I am aware that on nightmare (I mostly played on hard) doing this is much more important.

I might mention that I will never call DA2 an easy game unless you insist on rushing through it on easy or normal. There are challenges.

I believe adventure is THAT waaayyy?....
After you’ve come to terms with your limited party-management and interaction you might just wonder what this whole game is all about? If you’ve played the demo and seen the trailer you can’t help getting the feeling that Hawke has become important, one way or the other, and now it’s up to you to go find out how.

To be honest the initial part of the game isn’t exactly bad and manages to cater a bit to the Origins-culture. You escape Lothering. The town in which you made a stop in the previous game (and in my case pestered children, chantry-speakers and merchants). With your family you decide to make your way to the far-away-city of Kirkwall, which is only made possible by the divine intervention of Flemeth. The iconic witch you might’ve slain in Origins, who’s now back, alive and apparently had a boob-job.
As a return for the favor, Flemeth tells you to deliver an old amulet to a Dalish-Keeper once you manage to get into the city. You, of course, assume that this would be your main-quest and that this amulet must be very special.

Frankly, it isn't...

After you reach Kirkwall you’re spending some time with red tape, trying to get into the city. You’re told it’s crowded with refugees from Ferelden who are now seeking shelter from the blight and that your journey has been in vain. Of course, with a quick twist of fate, a series of events make sure you’re allowed to enter and stay with your douche-cheapskate of an uncle, forcing you to begin your epic quest from the lowest socioeconomic layers Kirkwall has to offer.
You manage to hand in the amulet, Flemeth returns and implies that she’s been expecting her doom. This was her get-out-of-jail-card. From what I could tell this was all we ever see of her in the game and you’re left standing behind, wondering what happened to the main-plot.

To break the gruesome truth, DA2 doesn’t have a main-plot. There is no blight, no imminent threat to the world and neither any looming antagonists. Your warden did the dirty job in Origins and now you’re out to make a name and a fortune for yourself among the fine citizens of Kirkwall. Meaning that the game takes place over 10 years from when you arrive. This overall macro-structure is beckoning but more or less wears down into a series of fade-to-black-sequences that could as well represent a week or a month. I assume that “Join Hawke on his mighty adventure up the social ladder, fulfilling the destiny of economical heritage on a journey stretching itself over one full month!” doesn’t sound as awesome.
Still, you can’t help feeling a bit disappointed.

So, what’s the micro-structure, you might ask?

Lots and lots of them.
I can’t think of any game that I have ever played featuring so many side quests as DA2.  And I even love side quests!
As long as they tend to appear alongside a coherent plot, which is where DA2 drops the ball.

In your log you’ll see your quests separated into "Main" and "Side" which roughly translates into “Quests that will move the story onwards” and “Quests you can only do in this chapter and therefore want to do first!”. I have no qualms with this. I prefer to solve as many of them as possible. And when you think you’ve depleted the pool more tend to drop in through your mailbox (literally).
The quality of these quests vary a lot, though.

Some of them are brilliant and include the old “fuck you, game!” hard decisions between bad or…bad. In rare occasions you might even encounter old friends from Origins (I had Alistair, and if you’re romancing Isebella and let Zevran live you can actually have a threesome later).
To a less satisfying degree, you will be forced to make minor choices as to whether you should let  bad guys (often possessed by demons) live and atone for their sins or take on the role of Judge Dredd. While satisfying the first couple of times, Kirkwall does indeed seem to house a significant percentage of blood mages amidst its population.
In the bottom you find “Mr. Hawke, please go to a mine and slay all the spiders?” along with the fetch quests. Fetch quests pop when you pick up an old ring in a dungeon and must return it to whoever talented Level 0-NPC in town who explicitly states that he must have lost it…deep in the dungeon. You never get any dialogue, cinematic or anything. You click the person, receive 50 silver, and off you go.
Calling this a quest is taking the piss on people. Instead, just let the boss drop 50 more silver and spare us the feeling that you’re taking us for idiots.
A few quests are downright unforgettable, though. A particular enjoyable quest involves one of your companions who decides to storm a mansion by his own and slaughters legions of guards (Arnie-style). At the end it is revealed that this was, sadly, all talk from his part and you then get to play the mission again, as it really happened. This is a really nice touch.
The main-story (if you could call it that) consists of a series of chapters. Initially you’re looking out for your (poor) self as you try to scrape 50 gold together, so you can join a dwarven ass-hole and his expedition to the deep roads. So you can become even richer.  Later (YEARS LATER!) racial conflict stirs among the citizens and the foreign Qunari.  Once dealt with, you’re back to the old Origins-question as to whether the Templars or the Circle of the Magi are to be trusted.

You’ve been waylaid by enemies and must defend yourself!
There isn’t much to say about combat in DA2 except that it’s awesome. I loved the tactical element of Origins but even in the final battle I found myself tempted to merely pass it on easy. I wanted the story to progress and not spend 10 minutes making tactical decisions. Especially when I was tired or just needed to relax. DA2 solves this by a fluent and smooth system that can easily be set to whatever level you might so desire. I am aware of the issue with friendly fire being only available at Nightmare-mode but then again, AOE-spells aren’t the bread and butter for mages as they used to be in Origins. They still pack a punch but there are several other, and equally important, options to consider.
In a graphical sense there is a lot of eye-candy as well. And I must admit, even in the last battles I (mentally) yelled “FUCK YEAAAAAAAAH!” whenever I charged into a group of templars and saw them splatter in a whirlwind. It’s just what this game does to you.

DA2 still features plenty of gore.

Dungeons are mostly boring and predictable. DA2 is a huge proponent of recycling, for which you must respect it. It goes to such great lengths as to reuse its dungeons and mansions! Initially this won’t be a bugger but once you see the same warehouse-model appear for the fifth time the taste of rushed game inevitably spreads in your mouth.
I’m not sure exactly how to describe that taste. I imagine it involves asparagus.

Most of them are also very linear with locked doors and corridors strongly hinting where you’re supposed
to go. Annoying as it is, this points out the thin line between too much and too little dungeon. Compared to, say, The Fade-mission in Origins, which has always been my absolute hate “dungeon” due to its length. It’s a nice reprieve to see short and efficient dungeons. Hopefully, future dungeon designers will take lessons from this and form a synthesis empathizing logical flow with several opportunities for side questing.

Combat in DA2 is quick and enjoyable, and definately a force of the game.
You might recognize several aspects from Origins, regarding dungeons. Both the Fade and the Deep Roads are back, albeit only for a very limited time. Again, this seems extremely rushed and only included in order to capitalize further on the brand. The same counts more or less for the option to include your former save game from Origins. I had some references to the werewolves I released, a bit of talking of the holy urn and King Alistair appearing, mentioning that ‘people should call my old character by his name instead of the hero of Ferelden’. While I certainly may have missed something,  I had hoped for more description about the impact of my choices back then. I.e. what long-term effect did the urn have? Was it really a great idea to let Alistair marry the queen? Did I live happily with my Leliana?

Hate leads to suffering (massive spoilers ahead)
Up till the final chapter, I somehow liked DA2 for what it is. Even compared to Origins, I was more or less ready to provide it a 7, maybe even 8 if the ending was awesome.

However, there has in history been no bigger letdown than the half-assed ending presented in this game. Without going into too much detail tensions arose to massive heights between the mages and the templars. The mages wanted to be free from the oppressing grasp of the knights. The knights wanted to retain strict control with the use of magic, lobotomizing anyone suspected of being a practitioner of the dark arts.  And truly, some of the mages really did seem to revel in evil and even turned Hawke’s mother into a zombie. In that way, it was douches versus douches.

In my case, Anders took the decision for me and blew up the grand cleric, meaning I chose to stand by the mages and my companion, being the good leader I am. This culminates in an epic battle in which the Archmage himself turns to blood-magic and you surprisingly have to take his abomination down. As you rush out to meet the templars you’re beset by evil mages all over town, trying to fry your ass. Does this even make sense? Why would they, as I am clearly on their side?

In the end you make it to the cathedral in which the knight commander confronts you. She’s one of those types, you know. The bitchy woman who takes pleasure when she, overbearingly, tells you that you’ve fucked up, and should never do so again.
Luckily, you get to smash her around. She is killed and the screen fades to black.

You’re told tha the mages burn the city and that chaos rises (so yes, they really were asses, all of them). Hawke and friends escape and the interrogator who’s been listening to the entire story sets out to find him. On her way she meets Leliana (with no mentioning of her relation to my Warden-character. It seems like this only happens if you pay for DLC) and….

That’s it.

Nothing more. At the height and culmination of your decision, when you escape and everything is set in motion, Bioware decides to place what could as well have been a fat, hairy ass on your monitor, spewing out narrative shit as if there was no tomorrow.
You are left hanging with a plot that spontaneously comes to a halt when it should keep up the pace. This is basic stuff when it comes to story-analysis. Chaos is resolved by order, which is only done by the protagonist. You simply don’t end a story like that. It doesn't even qualify as a cliffhanger.

There is a very fine line between a cliffhanger, and stepping on the narrative brake too early. In the case of DA2 I am sure Bioware intended to make a cliffhanger saying “What happened to Hawke? Find out by buying our later DLC/DA3!”
Instead you end up with no clue and not the slightest sense of accomplishment. It doesn't feel like you've completed a story being told. Which, in itself, is hard enough due to the fragmented structure that DA2 is using for its 'plot'.
You’re given so very little hinting as to what happens, where your companions go, what happened with you and your romance exactly, what about your remaining family (in case there is any), what about the city, what about everything? I am aware that this could be set for future expansions but even when I ignore that fact that 90% of all Origin DLC was horrible you're left with nothing to go on. Let's stay with the LotR-theme. At the end of every book/movie you're pretty sure the story goes on. We get closer to the final confrontation. But we also get a conclusion of the book in question. Frodo survived the first part of his journey. There was victory at Helm's Deep. This was concluded.
This feeling is nowhere near present in DA2.
This was the point that really broke everything about DA2 for me. I didn’t expect such a lousy finale with so little feeling of conclusion. Even the final battle reeked of…blandness. I didn’t even notice that “this was it!” before afterwards.

I am not joining the choir of fans, flaming the game for being sucky and lame. DA2 is a good game in its own rights and I’m much more inclined to hate it for what it failed to become as to what it is. Everything was rushed, a lot of things were fixed that didn’t really need fixing and with only one more year of development I am certain you could have topped Origins. A game with a coherent, epic story, optional side quests and significantly more NPC-interaction. All combined with the new combat-system. This game would've been a killer.

I imagine we can only hope so for DA3 but in the end, games like Origins pop up once every 10 years or so. In the end, this is what makes them special. But that is no excuse to tell us that “we shouldn’t compare it to what was better!”.  You always will, if you loved what came before it.

I have no doubt that DA2 managed to cater to a population which lacked the interest and time to fully appreciate Origins. It kicked out the rest who now look at a slightly entertaining, but diminished, shadow of former glory.

Swooping is bad, Bioware. So are rushed games.


Monday, March 7, 2011

D&D - Savage Tide: Chapter 1 There is no honor

Hello again.

In the last Savage Tide-blog I talked about my initial impressions of the adventure path, its setting and various facets. I also pointed out some points which I really think deserve commendations, such as better class-integration

This article is for the first chapter of Savage Tide: There is no Honor. (TINH)
It also occurred to me that I might just go ahead, being the gentleman that I am, and warn you that spoilers are abroad. It should go without mentioning, really.
GM-comments are mentioned in blue

There is no honor…only death.
The basic premise of TINH is pretty much what you would  expect from the initial adventure. The story is very basic, barely any of the overall plot is revealed and it’s (not unlike Shackled City and Age of Worms) packed with particular challenging encounters for players of the lower levels.
The heroes are initially summoned by the lowly noble Lavinia Vanderboren.

In my campaign the players (a Warblade noble, a Thayan Battle-Sorceror, a travelling Cleric, and a singing Bard) attended the joyful wedding between the Ambersmeads and Fortesques. Shortly after they received a message from Lavinia’s faithful servant, Kora Whitlegrasp (originally she was a Halfling, but female dwarves are just better). It read:

From rumors and local knowledge the players knew only scarce details of the young Lavinia. Apparently she and her younger brother Vanthus were the only surviving Vanderborens left in the city after the lives of Verik and Larissa Vanderboren were claimed in a tragic fire. This happened only a month ago. While the Vandeboren name might not hold as much prestige as it ought to, it was still a patron of note and the players decided to attend.

The players journeyed to the Vanderboren Manor placed in the eastern Merchant District. It was a three-story house with leering gargoyles and capering nymphs on the roof. Within the outer wall, several trees gave the place a nice atmosphere.
The players were greeted by Kora and asked to wait in the atrium. Not long after, another party left the house, consisting of a jaunty male half-elf dressed in leather armor, carrying dozens of daggers.  A dark-skinned dwarf in green robes, accompanied by a beautiful woman in purple robes and finally a tall, handsome man carrying a greatsword.
Local knowledge revealed these people to be the Jade Ravens, a local mercenary company of some reknown. Their leader, Tolin Kientai, stopped for a moment to inspect the players.
“Ah. You must be the new group Lavinia brought in to take out the trash… Yeah, I suppose you will have to do…” (In the original adventure these words are not as harsh, but I decided to play more on the animosity between the two groups of adventurers). The players chose to play it diplomatically and respond that they were more than certain of their ability to carry out more than trash. This made Tolin laugh and walk away facepalming. If he only knew the Black Tentacles that’d grapple him, seven levels later…

The players were shown into a grand dining hall with a cozy fireplace and a thick red carpet. As they were taking in the scenery they noticed a large portrait portraying a handsome young man.
They were introduced to the young Lavinia Vanderboren. shortly after. “With long dark hair, sea-tanned skin, large blue eyes and an ample bosom, Lavinia Vanderboren would already be quite a catch as a wife even without the fortune she was rumored to have inherited from her late adventurer parents.”

A great deal of attention had been given to presentation of the dinner, though the quality of the food failed to reach the same level of quality. No doubt had their hostess done the best she could with the tools she had to work with.
Lavinia told them that she, first and foremost, was glad they could make it. She is a personal friend of the Fortesques and heard of the players’ role in the recent events, which led her to contact them regarding a little problem of her own.
Lavinia recently inherited her parents’ estate which also included a large amount of debt. Luckily, they also left her with a large amount of money, the only problem being that the gold was sealed off. The vault only opened to those carrying special signet-rings. Whereas her mother’s ring was lost, her father always kept his hidden away on his ship ‘The Blue Nixie’.
Lavinia explained that the nixie had sadly been seized by the harbormaster only to be released after her debt was paid. Problem was; she did make her payment to a man named Soller, who works for the harbormaster. However, when she returned she was denied access to her own ship and Soller denied having received any payment. All complaints had fallen on deaf ears. Enter: The players.
Having been promised 200g the players happily accepted the task and ventured to the harbor, only to realize that the nixie had been moored about 100 feet off the pier’s end. After thorough inspection, they estimated around seven guards and one big brute that seemed to run most of the show. They therefore decided to approach the task with diplomacy.

(Soller Vark I decided to run pretty much like Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. The average drunken type who sits in the back of the bus, severely intoxicated, making sure to yell and/or grab something at everyone who passes by. And yes, he did get to say “HELLO? HELLOO? ANYBODY HOME?”)

This made it all so much more fun, as the players decided to forge an official letter, making them representatives from the Dawn Council (the ruling organ of Sasserin) on a surprise inspection. Due to an inferior intellectual capacity and a nice bluff-roll, Soller decided not do push his luck. After all, the players even brought expensive clothing.

Soller decided to send off two men to verify this leaving only him and five guards. While he is cautious he is by no means gullible. The heroes insisted on starting their inspection but when he told them to ‘piss off’ they made the first strike.

This is the first official fight in ST and I considered myself lucky that my group consisted of seasoned players who very well knew what they were doing. In its initial form your group is up against seven CR ½ and one CR 2 pirate. The seven minions run away as soon as they take any damage (I suggest, as a GM, make sure to inform your players that the pirates are very cautious, almost nervous, about even making an attack. Otherwise your players won’t have a chance of knowing this fact, and might foolishly choose to focus fire on Soller). Soller hits with a mighty +5, and his 18-20 crit-chance can potentially hurt very much.
As far as I remember this battle was handled quite easily, though. About three pirates jumped ship in the first round, and Soller just got to sneer and yell “Burn them! BURN THEM ALL!” before the final blow was struck and he fell to the deck.

The players have some room to recuperate here but soon after they realized that the pirates had been stashing various exotic animals into the cargo. And it's time to burn the evidence. This was bad news for 20 expensive toucans and even worse when the heroes heard a roar, followed by a scream of terror and then silence.

The next second a rhagodessa bursts through the door up to the deck. Best described as a tarantula the size of a pony, this vermin managed to inflict some serious damage on the poor Warblade, before going down. Luckily, the fire never advanced enough to consume the ship and soon everything was under control. The heroes searched the ship and found a ring with a note. The ring matched Lavinia’s description but the note cryptically read;

Vaults &… Vobras?...

Needless to say, Lavinia was thrilled with joy once the players returned with the ring. She decided to set off at once, implying she might have more work for them in the future should they so desire. They accompanied her to the Vanderboren Vault below Castle Tereknian. As they were on the ferry to the small island of Tereknian the heroes enjoyed a scenic moment of Sasserine’s harbor. Their patron told them that the vault would perhaps have some kind of guardian but likely nothing they couldn’t handle.

The clerk of the castle led them down into the vaults. The Vanderboren section was decorated with a big eight-pointed golden star which local knowledge identified as the symbol of The Seekers. (One of the factions which the players can ally with. Basically the seekers tend to show up in many of my campaigns, and more or less represent a vast organization of treasure hunters. I tend to use them mostly as the “It belongs in a museum!”-card.) It seemed as if mom and dad had in fact been members of this organization.
Using the ring to open said door, the party ended up in a small room mostly consisting of alcoves and green marble. A few pillars resembling coiling snakes rose from the floor. It wasn’t long till the players managed to find the secret button to open the next door. It was then the guardian of the vault decided to strike; an iron-cobra. (Compared to the other fights this one is fairly straight-forward. The cobra enjoys some damage reduction which might prolong the fight for a bit, but it’s nothing the players shouldn’t be able to handle.)

After its defeat they ventured further into the vault in which a spectacular sight greeted them. An octagonal room supported by a single pillar with dozens of deep grooves along its sides. The room’s seven walls each showed a detailed bas-relief carving of exotic monsters. Starting at the wall immediately west of the entrance,  they clockwise identified a roper, a dragon, an aboleth, an ettin, a beholder , a grey render an a monstrous spider. In the ceiling the formerly mentioned star was shown but this time one of its arms was red and pointing south.
(In my experience these kinds of situations are usually make or break for the coming hour of real time. Some players will instantly exclaim “That’s easy!” and burn right through it. Others will be stuck for an hour, maybe more. And I literally mean an hour, since that happened with another group playing this.)

The former was luckily the case, as Devon the Sorceror quickly pointed out “There is a pattern here. Look; it seems like we can turn the pillar in the center of the room, likely rotating the red arm towards the monsters!”. Leopold the Bard was quick to add “And I notice that the eyes of the monsters seem to be highlighted with these red gemstones… hardly worth anything, though, but it likely has a connection to the letter we found”.
(Obviously this is the case. The room is one big safe, and the numbers represented by the eyes of the monsters, and the directions by the letter. After a few minutes the heroes solved the puzzle and heard a deep rumbling, as the five alcoves turned and revealed several chests.)
Sadly, someone had beaten them to it.
The vault was mostly empty with but a few scattered coins here and there.  Lavinia, clearly distraught, uttered “What is this mockery?...” under her breath, only lightening up when the last alcove revealed several untouched chests. In them they found 2000g, some ledgers and a lot of cryptic documents. Bridget the cleric managed to catch a glimpse of a scroll containing a detailed picture of an island. She only managed to make out the word “Dread” before Lavinia hastily tucked them away in her backpack.
With mixed feelings she went to the clerk and demanded to know whether anyone but her had been into the vault? The clerk’s answer threw a glooming shadow over her face.
“Why of course, m’lady? Your brother was here only a few days ago?”.
One big happy family reunion
The following evening the heroes joined Lavinia for tea. The young noble was burdened with worry, that much was clear, and she decided to provide them with a bit of background. As the late evening sun shone through the window and reflected off her dark hair, Lavinia’s face was one of sadness. She cleared her throat and slowly turned her teaspoon.

“I have a dark past with my brother,” she said “some might even venture to say ‘hostile’. But it’s hard to explain. You might have noticed that my fondness of him hasn’t changed much (she points to the big portrait over the fireplace) and no matter what happened he is extremely dear to me. Vanthus and I have been very close all of our lives, always running off on adventures as children, being up to mischief.” She smiled to herself. “But one summer things got out of hands. I won’t really go into details but let’s just say it involved a water tower and several elixirs of love. Though fun while it lasted there was an outrage and we were separated. I was sent to the Thelanar Academy for young girls and Vanthus was sentenced to work on a plantation.
When we were reunited after many years, I was certain I had benefitted from my time at the academy. Vanthus, however, had spent the years nurturing his hatred and bitterness and was nowhere near the cheerful young brother I once had. He started associating with people of ill repute, slept most of his day away and hardly spoke to me anymore. I often considered confronting him but the time never seemed right. And one day it was too late. Vanthus moved out of the house without a word. I later heard that he had moved in with a lover, but really…at that time I did not care much for the details”.
Silence settled over the room for a while. It was as if Lavinia constructed her next sentences very carefully.
“Did you ever see him again?” Marcus asked “From what we saw in the vault it doesn’t seem as if you two ever had a happy reunion”.
“No” Lavinia said, now with a sudden touch of bitterness. “We did not. Hope emerged once, paradoxically shortly after our parents succumbed in an accident. Vanthus returned to live with me for a week in the manor and I…assumed the tragedy would bring us closer. But instead our irritation of each other grew and we turned to blame. One night, during a particular intense argument, my brother struck me in anger. For a second, I saw the shocked realization dawn upon his face. It was just a second, but felt like an eternity to me. It was as if… almost as if I for a moment saw his old self again. But he violently resumed his bitterness with a sneer as he gathered his belongings and left. Since that night I haven’t seen him and done nothing to seek him out…until now.”

Lavinia and the heroes had a long talk about their next course of action. Evidently ,Vanthus had gotten hold of the second family ring. He had to be found.  The young Miss Vanderboren still believed that there was hope for her brother if she could only get the chance to talk some sense into him.
The same night the players decided to search Azure District for any clues about Vanthus’ lover, which was pretty much their only lead. After a thorough gathering of information it seemed that Vanthus had indeed been associating with a pickpocket named “Brissa” but as to where the turtledoves could possibly have gone off to, nobody knew.
Finding a pickpocket in Sasserine isn't hard. Especially not in Azure District which is basically your average pre-harbor-quarter. Housing all the nasty stuff from the docks without the glamour of the ships, Azure got plenty of stench, tar, rotten fish and illegal smuggling of exotic animals. It’s the place to be if your dirty operations are not ambitious enough for the political plane of the merchant district, but still too classy for the slummy Shadowshore. However, finding and catching a specific pickpocket was much harder.

(In the end the players decided to execute what might’ve been one of the most weird plans I have seen in my entire career as a GM. Considering this is stretching over almost 17 years… that is saying a lot.) Dressing up as blatantly rich people, filling a purse to the brim with copper-coins, two of them marched as pimps through the streets. Meanwhile the remaining two members of the party were observing closely from a safe distance, ready to intervene.
Making sure to buy everything any street-peddler offered while loudly saying “I’ve got sooo much money, IT’S ALMOST EMBARASSING!!!” the heroes soon noticed a street-urchin having a go at them. He was violently grappled in diplomatic fashion and brought into a nearby alley. He was questioned about Brissa. Sure, he’d heard about her but wasn’t about to give in to a lowly bunch of Level 2 losers. After the urchin demanded gold for any information the players decided to rough him up a bit. The boy started screaming, people arrived on the scene and the great heroes decided to get out of there.
On their way out they were stopped by a nervous young half-elf who in a jittery way introduced himself as Shefton. “You made quite a ruffling in there, friends…” he said “I couldn’t help noticing you were seeking out young Brissa, hm? Might I inquire whether you’re in fact seeking the young Master Vanderboren? If so, I might be able to help you with that. For a price!”

Shefton led them through the city, explaining that he’d seen Vanthus and a dwarf named Penkus set out in a boat some time ago. He knew that they’d established a hidden base beneath the sands of Parrot Island, located in one of the bigger canals of the city. The players decided to set off immediately.

Parrot Island is a tropical haven placed far out in the canal. It's full of colorful birds and houses a cozy warm atmosphere. The players landed on the shore that evening and Shefton led them to a trapdoor buried beneath the sand, telling them this led to Vanthus’ lair. Selflessly he volunteered to go in first but my players were suspicious enough to tell him to stay put while they investigated. There was a considerable drop to the floor below so they decided to drop a torch and lower a rope.
However, as the last person had started his descent, a surprised scream was heard from the unfortunate half-elf and soon after Vanthus Vanderboren showed his face from the edge. He laughed while cutting the rope. “You should stay clear of my sister, fools. Only serves you right to end your days down there. And say hi to Penkus’ ghost from me”. I would’ve ended this with the conventional laughter of a maniac but someone decided to fire a projectile which ended up a few inches off Vanthus’ face. With a shocked expression he slammed the trapdoor shut and not long after they heard the dragging sound as sand drowned out the remaining rays of sunlight. The heroes were now faced with a long walk through the unknown darkness.

(I’ve given this passage a lot of thought. It’s obvious the adventure intends for Vanthus to seem like a primary antagonist for quite some time, which would work out fine if the players would actually get to associate or just see him live a bit more often. Sadly this is the one and only time they get to meet him in person before chapter 5, which frankly seems silly. I am aware that they get plenty of opportunities to hear about his nefarious deeds and feel like walking in his footsteps. This approach worked with, say Sephiroth in FF7, but for some reason it never really scored with either me or my players, who often commented on the anticlimax that you see so very little of the apparent main villain. My advice to GM’s running this campaign is maybe to think up some opportunities in between to have the players nearly confront, but never truly stand face to face with Vanthus.)
Journeys in the Dark
The tunnels under Parrot Islands are dangerous and full of terror. As the heroes start exploring them they soon realize that the living dead walk the halls. They also encounter some very deadly crabs that can indeed make life very miserable if you’re a level 2 sorceror.
(You’re fed a little dance and a little song, but really this is nothing more than a dungeon-crawl of the kind I tend to loathe. It seems tedious and nothing but a filler in which the players are given the next lead. There are some rooms that don't serve much purpose except housing monsters so I decided to make it pretty quick. Besides the nasty crabs the heroes encounter a huecuva. The spiritual leader of the zombies. This can be a potentially nasty fight, especially if your players don’t manage to get the silver-dagger to overcome its high damage reduction.)
After a long battle the heroes were soaked in goo and crab. They discovered a decayed dwarven corpse and quickly assumed this was the remains of Penkus. On the bloated body they found his dying words. In writing, nonetheless. It read:

The players managed to salvage some lost treasure as well. Among it was an elixir of swimming that allowed one of them to swim out through a flooded cavern and release the rest from the caves. From here on the next target seemed obvious: The Lotus Guildhall, well hidden beneath the taxidermist guildhall.
But first they decided they had earned a night’s rest.
Of Lotuses and Dragons
Early the next morning the heroes set out to the taxidermist guildhall. The main compound was blocked off by a tiny souvenir-shop erected for the sole purpose of making money from travelling tourist. The kind of people that want some kind of memory from the trip without spending too much money. As the heroes entered they were greeted by a polite and charming man presenting himself as Nemien Roblach, proprietor of the store. They were presented to a wide array of impressive looking stuffed animals with great tales of their origin. “Take this paradise-bird; it comes in any color you’d like!” he gladly said, handing it suggestively to Bridget (This was a pun on Magic the Gathering, but sometimes one can feel so old in young company). “I am not really here to buy stuffed birds” she politely said “and…is that a chicken up there at the counter?”
“It sure is. Here we take pride in providing whatever animal you may need. We even have a black wyrmling!”
Nemien was a great talker, but only on the right subjects. The heroes tried to turn the conversation in a certain direction but as subtlety was sacrificed for the benefit of accusation. Nemien equipped his strongest expression of surprise and said “My LORDS! I am shocked you would come in here and make such suggestions? Certainly I would never know of anyone of such low moral as those who speak about. I must ask you to leave my establishment immediately!”
“What’s behind that door?”
“I said NOW!”

Late that night the heroes silently slipped into his store and entered the backrooms. By this time he was fast asleep, clutching a stuffed alligator in his hands.
Much of the building seemed ordinary but soon a secret passage with a set of stairs down revealed itself at the end of a corridor. It seemed like they were finally getting somewhere.

I frankly can’t remember much about my players’ approach from here as this was more than a year ago. So I will provide you with an overview of the situation.

(Needless to say, the last part of the chapter takes place in the Lotus Dragon-guildhall. I suppose guild-hallS is a better term, as this pretty much is yet another dungeon for your players to crawl trough. However, compared to Smugglers’ Tunnels this one has some brilliant opportunities for interesting situations and happenings.  There are several approaches to the situation, some more daunting than others, but they more or less end in the same goal.
The Lotus has grand plans for Sasserine and hopes to remain hidden. At the moment 20 rogues are skulking around and whether they are on alert or minding their own business once the players arrivedepends on how they approach the situation. Some of the rooms are downright nasty if the rogues have time to set up in advance, such as a training hall in which several ‘dummies’ are actually concealed, bloodthirsty murderers. The non-vigilant party is in for a deadly surprise should the rogues manage to land a barrage of sneak attacks on them. A nice touch is the fact that the ending of the chapter may turn out differently compared to how many rogues the players manage to neutralize. Of course the primary goal is to locate the whereabouts of Vanthus, but putting a stop to this notorious organizations is a great victory for the peace in Sasserine.)

The heroes managed to slip into the compound without any notice. This helped them greatly in several confrontations. Whereas some rogues were out in town many others were having a casual night. Some were in their bunks or playing cards, giving the players lots of opportunities to snoop around. The few kills that occurred were all silent and swift.

The heroes tried to stick to the more important looking areas of the guild and snug through a darkened training room with some empty minor offices. (I liked this part a lot. I aimed for an atmosphere taken from the Thief computer game series. It’s so seldom a whole group gets to have stealth-fun at the same time. Which, I assume, has something to do with the fact that the most heavy armor at this point was leather.They overheard a couple of guards in the next room talk to themselves about how 'The Lady was in a foul mood this night… one should suspect something was bothering her?’
‘It’s the troubles lately, I’ll tell you. Heard Derreck talk about some new guys in town. Nobody to the trifled with. Brought down a whole ship of pirates they did…Heard she put that Vanthus-guy on the job. Glad I’m not in their shoes these days. That guy gives me the creeps.’ (Yes, Vanthus is very evil).

Of special notice was the war room in which a huge map of Sasserine bearing dozens of tiny flags was placed. The obvious blackboard was placed on the other wall. It contained various chalk-scribbling. The players were surprised to see the message “Marcus. Devon. Bridget. Leopold. <- VANTHUS, FIX THIS NOW!”.

It wasn’t long till the heroes reached what could have been the highpoint of comfort in this place. A small chamber with soft lights and violet walls housed several shelves with various art-objects. A huge map of Sasserine decorated another wall but as they soon spotted all ships were carrying flags of a serpentine dragon coiled around a lotus-flower. As they stepped into the room they noticed the faint growling coming from one of two chairs at the opposite end of the room. Their backs were turned.

 “Easy, Gut Tugger” a soft womanly voice said “It would be rude not to give our guests a proper welcome”. One chair turned (I am such a sucker for that cliché, sorry) and revealed a beautiful human woman with long, red hair and emerald-green eyes. As she got up, her hand gently caressing the hilt of her sword, she smiled slyly and moved with slow, graceful steps. Behind her appeared a bright-eyed dinosaur-like dragon with green scales and a yellow crest on its head. It gazed at the heroes suspiciously.
“You will have to excuse Gut Tugger” she continued “He is so easily startled by strong…” her eyes ran down Marcus with obvious tension “…resourceful men. I am Rowyn. Mistress of this guild. Or should I say 'was'? How much did you leave in your wake?”
The heroes immediately began their ultimatum. Rowyn was to surrender but first and foremost tell where Vanthus could be found.
“Vanthus?” she laughed “Oh he isn’t here anymore. What would you want with him anyway? Listen; you all seem like headstrong souls. The kind of persons I need for this little operation. Don’t mind about the killing and damage, that can be replaced. But people of your kind are invaluable. Let me ask you; how much does little Miss Vandeboren pay you for this, hm? Tell me and I will double it. Swear allegiance to me. Join the Lotus and help me get a strong hold of this hole. With your abilities and our operations, I am sure we could go very far. And…I am sure you would find benefits that you’d like, along the way”.

(I was really looking forward to this part, which is all credit to the campaign design. Whether the players chose to ally with Rowyn or Lavinia has certain impacts on the story for quite some chapters. If the players remain true to the light side and refuse the offer the story progresses as written. Should they chose to join with the Lotus Dragon the guild gains an iron grip over the harbor and Lavinia’s mansion and good family name is eventually all but destroyed. The impetus for further adventures is mostly related to pure greed and expansion of power. In other words; there are clearly options for both ends of the alignment continuum.
My players, of course, took the good route and gave Rowyn one last chance to cooperate. She returned the favor with a charge.)

This fight can be deadly. Like pretty much everything else in this chapter. Gut Tugger had some really bad dice-luck which frankly didn’t matter as the whole party decided to focus fire on him instead of Rowyn. This gave her plenty of opportunity to rain down blows on her opponents from flanking-positions. With poison-coated blades (DC 11 or nauseated) Marcus was soon feeling very bad. Not long after, though, he wasn’t feeling very much as Rowyn slid his throat with a sadistic glee. The remaining heroes managed to knock her to the ground and make her yield.
“Vanthus!” Bridget sneered “Where is he?”
“Find him yourself, if he is really all that matters to you!” Rowyn spat, and slipped a small vial from her chest. Leopold lunged forward with a strike but alas missed her in the final moment before she drank the content and her body slipped out of existence.
Some attempts were made to block off and conceal the place, but in the end the heroes had to admit that Rowyn had escaped. This time. Surely, she was not a type to easily forgive.
Instead Leopold, Bridget and Devron searched the compound. The few remaining rogues had fled, and the guild treasury contained enough money to ensure a just reward even after poor Marcus had been brought back to life.
Sadly, there was no sign of Vanthus. The few rogues that were captured admitted seeing “a short man with pointy beard and angry expression” but nobody knew of his whereabouts. Only after a thorough search of Rowyn’s room did they find a sealed case of steamy letters from Vanthus. Three of them especially interesting:

As their eyes ran over the final line silence fell on the room for a while. The heroes, still carrying the blood of their enemies, were all staring at the yellow pages.
“Kraken’s Cove…” Leopold said. “I hope it’s a lovely place, ‘cause it seems like we’re going there…”

And then the screen turned to credits. To be continued in the next chapter; “The Bullywug Gambit”.
That can be found here:

I like TINH. There are very few bad things to say about it and we managed to skip over most of the minor obstacles. It serves as a decent introduction to the city and if you wish to create additional side quests there are excellent opportunities as the party goes searching for Vanthus.

- The players have plenty of opportunity to go around Sasserine and explore.
- Lavinia is, to date, still one of my favorite NPC’s.
- Many obstacles have several ways of solution. I.e. Soller and The Lotus Guild to name a few, leaving room for both muscle and brain.
- A general great variation between encounters. There are social interactions, puzzles, pure combat and very light investigation. Something for everyone.
- Awesome choice at the end of the chapter.

- The smugglers’ cave seem really boring and pointless
- As in both Shackled City and Age of Worms there are some really mean encounters for a low level party that might not be optimized or consist of seasoned players. Either be prepared as a GM, or warn your players that they will likely have severe beatings.
- Vanthus has great potential to be a villain but it’s never really utilized that much. More appearances or merely initiatives to annoy the PC’s would likely help.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Warhammer: Skaven Painting pt. 1

I've recently been keeping myself busy with various projects, some of them involving my Skaven-army. Suffice to say; 2500 points don't paint themselves all in one day. In a sense, progress is such a terrible thing. Especially once your skills really start to improve and you reach that certain stage in which you start looking back at your older models thinking; “This just won’t do. Not compared to my current standard!”

Somehow I wish I were more into Warriors of Chaos or High Elves. But when you work from a budget consisting of 4 points/model, you can’t help but feeling like a masochist bitch, truth to be told.
I know I did, when I decided to re-whitecoat 100 clanrats, only to start all over. Mind you, I am in no way having the shadow of regret since the new theme is working wonders.

Observant readers will notice that I have chosen a safe combination of colors from the ‘official GW-palette’ (read: what is used in the official Isle of Blood painting guide). I’ve always been secretly in love with the huge Skaven photos on the back of White Dwarf magazine. Combining red-green-black and brown seemed like the best approach. I am very eager to see the result on a grand scale! As for now, the first 50 clannies with their Chief are done and ready for the frontline-slaughter. Just don’t tell them.

Deathmaster Snikch, another personal favorite of mine, also got his part of the spotlight this month.

In related news; I’ve started on the rat ogres. Despite everyone pointing out their suckalities, I've always wanted to try these guys out in an army.

Finally there is the matter of war machines. The new catapult is pretty much made of awesome. Not that its design is especially innovative. It’s a catapult. But if you handled the bell and doomwheel you should be more than at home with this one. It does include a limited range of customization. Paint-wise there’s not much to say. If you’ve painted the bell, you’ve pretty much tried it all before.

The next project, I imagine, is to finish up the rat ogres and get started on the new weapon teams. I’d like to say that I would gladly take on the next 50 clan-rats. But then again I’d also gladly assume Claire Danes would make me breakfast on bed tomorrow.

Some times all you can do is hope.
But with my dice-luck she would likely misfire and blow up my kitchen.

D&D: Savage Tide Review - Prelude and initial impressions

I’ve never tried the ”Campaign Journal”-thing, mostly due to the fact that I tend to either forget or skip out on it eventually. And because I more or less would be confined into writing this whole damn thing in English once I consider how many people would actually give a crap should it ever be written in my natural tongue. In this case; Danish.

That being said, I’ve been giving the idea a considerable amount of thought as I walked home from session the past two weeks and finally decided to give it a go. My English is not superb in any way, neither are my journal-skills, so I’ll have to ask you just to take it in as you go. I am sure progress is will occur along the way. There will be errors. I don’t have the time to both write and read this thoroughly. If that bothers you I suggest you don’t read it. : )
So what is the purpose of this blog?
The subject for this journal would be the more or less known campaign-setting “Savage Tide”, originally published as an installment in former “Dungeon Magazine” (Paizo Publishing). The more enthusiastic individuals out there will likely be aware that this places the campaign alongside other great installments such as “Age of Worms” and the much appreciated “Shackled City”.

I’m not really going into details about getting my group together. M
y three-year-old homebrewed campaign came to an end as too many players lost interest in D&D. I therefore made a social experiment and gathered four people who didn’t know each other.

The system was D&D 3.5. The original party (which hasn’t changed at this time of writing) consisted of a War-Blade (‘Book of Nine Sword’), a Battle-Sorceror, A cleric (later to be Mystic Theurge) and a Bard (Seeker of the Song).

Savage Tide, the setting
In its original form, ST takes place in Greyhawk, but can easily be adapted to the setting of your choice. It really depends on how anal you want to be about it. Our group simply decided it to play out in the Shining South by simply adding the original city to the world-map. Official guidelines exist from Paizo on how to address this issue in full.

The first part takes place within the coastal, exotic city of Sasserine. A city best described as the fantasy version of Venice to which a tropic touch has been added. The campaign comes with a nice, short and manageable player’s guide (so there’s even something for that guy who hates reading too much) describing its lush trade and several noble families. Sticking to conventions much of the city has been aptly split up into small quarters. 
It’s a tempting assumption, judging from the guide, that the players are going to spend a great deal of time in Sasserine. You will find plenty of opportunities for side-quests, and given the big (and beautiful) map of the city it’s hard not to get just a little inspired.
If you're all about the main plot you might be in for a severe disappointment though, as the campaign keeps you in the city for the first chapter, throws you out of it in the second, and asks you to leave it for good in the third. In that case it might seem like a bad idea to grow too attached to it.

On the other hand, if you’re a GM who shares my approach you will find plenty of opportunities to create side-quests like you were paid for it. Apart from the families the guide offers a range of factions which the players have the opportunity to join. Though these are optional there seems to be something for every taste, ranging all the way from the inquisitive Church of the Whirling Fury for your average demon-basher, to the arcane Witchwardens. The basic idea is, of course, to implement some sort of reputation-system which the players can later use to reap benefits. This can work out very well for your campaign as the players have plenty of opportunities during the 12 installments (ranging all to level 20 by the end) to gain prestige with their chosen faction. Otherwise it might seem kind of trivial and for an extended amount of time your players won’t even be able to reach their factions. This is a sad drawback as the huge gap between chapter two and the Teleport-spell really manages to obsolete this feature.

This being said, Sasserine can easily serve as a great base for your players once they start getting stronger means of travel. So there is really no reason not to read up on it and its history. I’ve seen many people complain about ST taking place in a jungle-milieu which can be hard to include in a campaign setting. But frankly it’s not defining for the plot. You can basically put it in any city with a harbor and still retain the main-story.
Sasserine totals a population of 15,650 the majority being human (as dictated by fantasy-tradition) and mainly houses the religions Wee Jas (Kelemvor in my campaign), St Cuthbert (Helm) Kord (Tempus) and Fharlanghan (Shaundakul).  Lots of various races and professions visit the city sooner or later so it’s not hard to fit most combinations into the setting. Not compared to i.e. Shackled City, in which rangers and druids always felt a little bit out of place to me.

Prelude: A little Get-Together
I have this plot, call it a side-quest, which a fellow-GM of mine originally introduced me to. I liked it a lot. It seemed both intuitive and interesting while placing a good amount of choice in the hands of the players. Much of it takes place in various places of the city, acting as a lesser tour-guide. I'm not really sure whether he borrowed something (and in that case; how much) from other adventures, so if you recognise something that might be why.

The only character originally from the city was the War-Blade, who had his origins in the low-noble family of The Rødmols. His mother dead, the young man Marcus was now living with his relatively rich father, practicing martial arts. Much to his old man’s dismay, who’d rather see him married to a fine woman than to a fine blade. Marcus, however, always knew he was destined for something greater, once chance came.
(Adding to that, I’ve always preferred my players to be foreigners to the stage of the campaign. Mostly because I like them to be more or less on the same level of knowledge as myself and facts aren’t as established.)

On their way was a travelling troupe. Consisting of the sorceror Devon, who’d recently escaped Thay, Bridget - the Cleric of Shaundakul, and Leopold the Minstrel. 

Whereas Bridget and Devron both had kind of classical background stories (“We’ve found the road to adventure!”) the bard suffered from a disaster when his former wife was effectively evaporated by a powerful Djinn. The result of a messed up wish from his side and now he searches the world in order to bring her back. With a heart made of gold and a past made of emo, this was you average Sir. Save-the-day.

The intro quest starts as the players save the merchant Aubridge from an ambush on the way to Sasserine. As he thanks them wholeheartedly,  they notice how he clutches a chest in his hands. Aubridge asks them to accompany him to Sasserine. He tells them that he is making a delivery to a wedding that is about to take place in a week, namely between the two families Ambersmead and Fortescue. He tells them that he is to deliver the wedding dress, and it's timely arrival is crucial.
The young Marcus is a personal friend of the Ambersmeads, the family of the bride, who are now eagerly awaiting their recently bought possession. It was no surprise that he was invited to their home shortly before Aubridge arrived with his new bodyguards.
The Ambersmeads is a wealthy family but not high on social prestige. Whereas the Fortescues have it the other way around making the marriage between their children a smart match.

It wasn’t long though till the power of plot caught up with them. During the afternoon tea at the Ambersmeads, an angry Beatrix Fortescue marches in with her son Gerard. Gerard has dire accusations as he claims to have seen the young bride to be; Rosalina Ambersmead, on her way to the “Busty Mermaid” on the previous night. A place of ill reputation. Rosalina herself denies everything.

Claim versus claim results in the players being hired by Aubridge to see if they can somehow resolve this conflict.
It really did seem as if Rosalinda left her room the day before and was spotted on the Busty Mermaid. At this point the players decided to follow her footsteps the former night. Asking around at the Mermaid they learned that she left early to watch the late night theater in the opera-house of Sasserine. However, having interviewed the staff at the theater, it seemed as if she had gone backstage with a troupe of players not to be seen again. Tracking her trail, the players realized that the struggling girl had been dragged from behind the stage through a secret door and out into the streets. Luckily, on their way they found a spool of thread from a certain tailor in the city (it’s old-fashioned, but hey).
This led to a nightly assault on the store. It was soon after revealed that the travelling troupe of actors were in secret a minor criminal gang who wished to replace the original Rosalina with a doppelganger. Had they succeeded there was much financial gain to be had. The players rescued the real Rosalina after a savage battle in the basement of the shop, and brought her with them for a final confrontation. During this they also learned that the troupe of criminals seemed to be separatist from an organization known as The Lotus Dragons.

The PC’s had so much sense of drama that they chose to wake up the entire family with an “a-HA!” once they brought in the real bride-to-be. This, needless to say, caused to doppelganger to make a run for it and once it failed that it tore apart the butler of the house (they never really liked him anyway). A couple of crits and magic missiles later, peace settled over the house.

The players decided to side with Rosalina, who had indeed left the house to have some fun.  To her horror, she realized that gang were likely aided by her friend Aria (who had now fled the city). The players decided to keep her secret safe and spread the lie that Rosalina was kidnapped from her room that night. This managed to spread enough doubt among both families that they decided to go through with the wedding and only a few days later everything was joy and happiness once more. The players were told that both Rosalina and her husband were set to live a long and caring life for years to come, though her husband never seemed to notice the nights she in secret snug out the window…
The players were glad, though. After all; no wedding, no pay.

It was only a day after the wedding that they were contacted by a female halfling presenting herself as the representative of Miss Lavinia Vanderboren. She said that her Lady had an interesting job opportunity for heroes such as them.

To be continued in “Chapter 1 – There is No Honor”