7.24.2014

EZG reviews Parsantium: City at the Crossroads

Parsantium: City by the Crossroads


This massive city sourcebook clocks in at a brutal 178 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page blank inside the front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC,1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a whopping 172 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?

Author Richard Green kicks off the book by telling of its genesis - the city's inspiration would essentially be a Byzantium-inspired metropolis, closer to far-east influences than our real world equivalent was - and of course, as one glimpse at the superb 2-page map by Jonathan Roberts (Yes, THE Jonathan Roberts - you know the Fantastic Maps/Song of Fire and Ice-cartographer!) tells us, the city is vast and detailed. Nestled around a massive river delta flowing into the ocean, the city covers the north and south banks with its sprawling streets, while the merchant quarter, situated on the central island, the walls, the extents of the harbor and docks just feel right- all of these, at a glance, convey the believable illusion of a city that actually could have existed and developed. It may be a small thing, but people tend to note when settlements feel inorganic, constructed. This one feels RIGHT, including wards extending beyond the confines of the city walls, which also separate the respective wards. Even the array of streets, the bridges - all of these feel like they belong and this is seriously not an easy task to achieve, especially for a city of this size.

Now, as befitting of a city f this size, we kick off with an overview from the ruler, the so-called Basileus Conrandias XVIII and his less than popular consort (nicknamed Mendatrix - two brownie-points if you can guess the meaning, though the pdf explains for the less-linguistically-inclined among us) to the city's history and quarters and development. With a good overview out of the way, you'll be happy to note that the city gets a full-blown PFRPG-city statblock complete with demographics etc..

Now if you've been to Athens, Rome or Venice (or less famous: Rothenburg, Dresden...), you'll notice something peculiar about these cities - they have a kind of living, breathing flair, their very own mythologies steeped in stone and ready to be discovered at your leisure, if only your eyes are open and your mind (and literature/language-skills) sharp. Much of this has developed slowly over the ages, with the very rocks of the pavement, the ancient monuments speaking a language for those inclined and willing to hear. Ah, how glorious must that be in a world, where fantastical elements actually exist? Well, here's the crux - Parsantium's massive history, including a timeline stretching almost 2000 years, actually manages to lay the foundation for just such an endeavor - the basic mythologies of the place are in place.

Now a city sans people is just a ruin waiting to happen and the roles of the races, including dragonkin and gnolls as well as the default-races and their respective roles within the context of Parsantium are provided - but how are your player characters going to fit in? Well, know my ranting about boring character traits? Well, herein are traits (called character backgrounds) that allow you to customize your character within the confines of Parsantium.. Now in contrast to most traits, these actually come with extensive fluff-text detailing the precise implications and possibilities growing from these, making them so much more compelling. On a nit-picky side - why not call them properly "traits"? Why are the bonuses of the backgrounds untyped and not trait-bonuses? Nothing to break the content here, but good indicators that the focus on the narrative potential here is warranted.

Now beyond people, of course, government (with classic style b/w-artworks for the rulers), law and structure in general shape a city's life and experiences - and from bureaucracy, the Strategos, tribunes to praetor and council and yes, even FINES for crime and the respective punishments are included here. Don't believe these influence and mirror a society/are important? I'd suggest Michel Foucault's "Discipline & Punishment" - and the punishments detailed here actually conform much to the proper etiquette of punishment and the city's culture technology-level work well with these in context. Then again, you might not care at all, but the culture science-teacher in me rejoices when I see things make sense.

Speaking of making sense - from city watch to possible sources of entertainment like chariot races, local festivals, bathhouses, brothels and drugs to proper greeting and social customs and even superstitions, trade-routes and currencies, this chapter misses NOTHING of the constituting elements that make a city and its culture come alive. Commodities, healing and the trade of magical items also is covered in their own respective entries and, taking a cue from Raging Swan Press' superb offerings, a random table of different events happening in the city help further make the place feel organic. This also constitutes one gripe I have with the city - one of the reasons Raging Swan Press' villages and cities feel so organic would be the short entries of whispers and rumors and events available in tables for the DM to randomly roll - having one of these for the respective quarters would have made the city feel even more alive.

"I don't care about your academic squeeing, Endzeitgeist, tell me about what this does for me as a DM!" All right, what about a selection of campaign themes ranging from street gangs (perhaps with a Streets of Zobeck gone Byzantium tie-in?) to politics and intrigue or the return of a legendary rakshasa - Parsantium supports just about all play-styles you can conceive and the pdf offers some interesting guidance and inspiration for the DM in that regard.

Speaking of helping the DM - the districts are detailed in an exceedingly detailed manner that would blow the format of my reviews out of all proportions, so let's just say that the respective areas of the city are exceedingly detailed and also come with their own symbols, iconography and landmarks the local populace might use to tell you where to find certain areas.

Caravan-centric wards, forums, hippodrome, clubs for gentlemen arcanists (the Fireball Club - nice nod to the Hellfire Club...) - the wards come with first impressions, sample passer-by characters (fluff only) and places of interest. And yes, a 200+ feet colossal bronze statue is in here as well as just about all variations of sample businesses relevant for adventuring - taverns (also those frequented by the wizards of the esoteric order of the blue lotus +2 browniepoints if you get that allusion), shops, scribes, theatres, a garden mausoleum, mosques, a secret temple of Kali, a chinatown-like sub-ward , gambling halls on galleys and even a tasteful (and non-explicitly depicted!) BDSM-brothel and yes, even a flotsam town within the city - the mind boggles at the amount of surprisingly concisely fitted elements that constitute the sprawling metropolis and the adventure hook potential just about each of these has. Even before the tunnels that constitute the hidden quarter (including random encounter chart, btw...) and e.g. a mapped hideout for your convenience. From halfling camps outside the city to forests, the area around the city is also glanced at, just should you feel this wilderness itch.

If you require more motivation or some sample pro-/antagonists, you'll be happy to hear that no less than 16 organizations, from aforementioned mage-order to the friendly half-orc society and even more guilds provide for ample social networks for PCs to work and DM to use to tailor proper adventure potential....even before the obligatory noble houses and rakshasas influencing the city's fortunes. It should be noted, though, that none of the organizations provides distinct prestige-mechanics-related benefits - as fluff-only, they work, though.

Finally, religion of course shapes a city's life and feeling and Parsantium is no different - well, actually it is. At least for ole' Europeans like yours truly who isn't that used to religious multiculturalism from everyday life as some of you fellow American city dwellers might be - The eclectic mix of Byzantium-inspired gods and those drawn from the Indian and Chinese folklore makes for a broad selection that supports well the multicultural nature of Parsantium. It should be noted, though, that this supplement was released prior to "Gods of the Inner Seas" - thus, we get no explicit notes on obeisance, but also no inquisitions or sub-domains, restricting the gods to being rather rudimentary and, compared to the rest of the source-book, disappointing.

The pdf concludes with a massive index.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn't notice any particularly grievous issues - in fact, for a book of this size, the editing is very, very tight, so kudos! Layout adheres to a printer-friendly 2-column b/w-standard with scarce (but as far as I could tell) original and fitting b/w-artworks. The embroidered line of glyphs on the top of the page is nice to look at, but had a curious effect on me - during the course of this review, I skipped a lot of pages back and forth and the odd and even pages have a slightly different set, which means that staring at the screen while skipping pages might be slightly disorienting. Note that as an utmost nitpick, though. The pdf comes with EXTENSIVE nested bookmarks for your convenience, making reading Parsantium easy on the DM.

Superbly ambitious for a first product, I did not expect much from Richard Green's metropolis - and I'm seldom so glad to be proven wrong. Parsantium BREATHES authenticity and love - New York City meets Byzantium, modern metropolis meets swords & sorcery - this book actually manages to portray a believable, interesting, unique city that oozes the spirit of Al Qadim, early weird fiction and recent phenomena like the god of war-series, all while staying believable. Down to earth grit, high fantasy epics - this place supports everything and is better off for it -and manages to walk the tightrope and NOT become generic. Think Kaer Maga if a book of this size had been devoted to the city - only larger. The drop-dead-gorgeous map by Jonathan Roberts (which btw. also comes as high-res jpeg for your perusal) is just the icing on the cake here. Not since books like 3.0's Hollowfaust or since the Great City by 0onegames have I read a city and actually wanted to visit it. This is on par with how iconic Zobeck by now is - and feels thoroughly, wholly RIGHT. Concise. Well-conceived. A stunning achievement indeed! Now I wouldn't be me if I had no complaints now, right? So yeah, what hurts the city is its obvious intention to be multi-format. Don't get me wrong - I don't object to fluff-centric books and honestly, by now I'd rather have good fluff than the oomphteenth bad archetype, feat etc. But e.g. the Esoteric Order of the Blue Lotus screams at least PrC to me. The organizations practically demand prestige benefits. Concise addiction-rules for the drugs and beverages would have been so cool...what about vehicular combat rules expanded from UC for e.g. the chariot-races? Yes, I know - not the intention.


But these things, at least to me, are the only things missing from this glorious city. Now don't get me wrong - look at the price-point - exceedingly low. Note that this has been made sans kickstarter. Add the SUPERB writing and good production values and we still get a city that should find a home in Qadira, in Al-Qadim, in Conan- and similarly Sword & Sorcery-themed campaigns. We still get a superb milestone of a book, one of the best settlements available out there right now. There's a reason I evoked some of my all-time favorites in the above text - you simply won't find any comparable resource out there. This city is unique and daringly so, bravely carving its own niche and making for one of the most furious freshman offerings I've seen in quite a while. Light on the crunch-side yes, but any writing that manages to draw me in to the extent I want to walk a city's streets does it right in my book. Parsantium establishes one superb framework, one I hope will get ample crunchy books and especially, adventures to support it. If the muses and fates be just, this will be remembered just as fondly as e.g. Freeport in the years to come. Yes, the absence of whispers, rumors and events and lack of statblocks are minor downsides, but not enough to drag this down. The place deserves a chance - give Parsantium a visit! Final verdict? 5 stars + seal of approval. And yes, the relative absence of crunch and somewhat disappointing entry on the gods are the only minor nitpicks I could muster. For the exceedingly low price, this is a true steal!

You can get it here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out-

4.28.2014

EZG reviews Heart of the Razor

Heart of the Razor




This expansion anthology of 4 adventures to enhance Razor Coast clocks in at 162 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page ToC, 2 pages char-sheet, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 152 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?

This being a review of an adventure-anthology, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

All right, still here?

First of the adventures would be Richard Pett's "Angry Waters" for 10th level characters - which could be summed up in the words "Quest for Eldorado," at least on a superficial level. The PCs are recruited by one dazzling lady-captain, captain Mercy and her crew - they require the PC's assistance, since they've found the legendary veiled isle - unfortunately, it's within the territory of Armada. What's Armada, you ask? Well, if you've read China Miéville's "The Scar", you'll have an idea - Uriah Tame, the vile lord of the place, lords over a lawless city made of vessels tethered together. Unfortunately, Tame and Mercy aren't exactly on speaking terms. Thus, accompanying the crew on their voyage, the PCs are off to said place. Here, a rather cool mechanic takes root -the PC's actions accrue Victory Points, which serves as a means for the DM to determine the loyalty of Mercy and her crew towards the PCs...and whether they'll be betrayed. Neat! It should also be noted that the module offers quite an array of troubleshooting advice, should the PCs betray Mercy at given stages in the module, making it rather easy to run. But back to Armada - in order to secure passage, the PCs will have to brave the decadent, chaotic revels on Armada in a cool mini-game of skill and, potentially, combat.

Securing passage, the PCs then finally reach the isle in question...which first brings me to an issue. Armada...ought to be more detailed, Seriously, I love the concept (air elementals as spies, btw.!) and its presence in the module, but at the same time, I feel that Armada would change the power dynamics in Razor Coast as a setting, whereas it here is mostly an afterthought to the plot of this one module. So DMs using this in razor Coast probably ought to give some thought to the change of dynamics Armada's existence poses to the power dynamics of the coast. That complaint out of the way, the island is interesting - displayed as a mini-hex-crawl (YEAH!), not only has another crew of pirates been stranded there (and make neat adversaries/allies, depending on your PC's actions!), the island is also home to degenerate orcs sired by the local girallon populace, which makes for formidable guerilla foes.  Worse, said intelligent primates are led by a deadly girallon vampire, offering the true Pett-horror in terrible traps and truly spooky environments. What about e.g. a corpse of a fallen pirate, stuck on a tree and stuffed with rotten fruit, thus attracting swarms of hornets? Yeah, shudder-worthy...in a good way.

Sooner or later, the PCs will finally reach the city of gold - beyond the gold, deadly guardians remain, as do sadistic traps (which I will not spoil) as well as some old-schoolish puzzle-like hazards. Exploration of the city will sooner or later put the PCs in a position, where they may wake an ancient evil and defeat it...also dooming the island, which proceeds to sink, while all hell breaks loose. As they are trying to escape with as much gold as possible, the PCs will reap what they have sown throughout the module and potentially have final chances to out-gambit their opposition. A rather uncommon module that shows well that Richard Pett's talent is not limited to dark adventures - he can obviously craft old-school explorations just as well!

The second module, would be Gary McBride's "Black Spot" - in which the PCs are once again hired for a mission, this time by one captain Riggs, who wants them to help him salvage the grounded wreck of the Flying Fortune, which is stranded on a tooth-like mountain in the middle of the sea. Once again, the journey provides ample opportunities for bonding with the crew. As soon as the PCs reach the iconic locale, though, a completely different tone begins - exploring the Flying Fortune proves to be one of the finest examples of mood-setting I've seen in any mystery/horror module - the slowly creeping suspicions rising, inquisitive PCs may soon deduce that something's not right with captain Riggs. Indeed, he was the captain of the Flying Fortune and as clues accumulate, the PCs may actually find out that he's possessed by a weird, parasitic black leech. Taking the captain prisoner, killing or saving him or falling prey to his wiles, the PCs find themselves in a nightmare most uncommon: Riggs ran afoul of the wiles of the Engineer - the vanguard of a planned neh-thalggu invasion, whose ship is hidden in the depths, just missing a few brains to launch true otherworldly death on the Razor Coast. In order to stop the aberration's plan, the PCs will have to brave the vastly iconic and superb ship and its dread inhabitants:

From strange undead-like creatures to jade butterflies used for scrying (which are also rather deadly!) up to a heart-pounding race to escape the self-destruct of the ship upon the defeat of the dread engineer, this mystery/horror-module makes for a superb offering - even in Gary McBride's great oeuvre, this one stands out as one superb example of adventure-crafting, including the extensive notes on possible aftermaths. Glorious indeed and both as stand-alone and as part of Razor Coast, a great module!

The third module, intended for 11th-12th level, would be Owen K.C. Stephens' "Jungle Fever" - yes, grandmaster crunch actually took up the pen for an adventure - but how does it fare and what's it about? It starts with a simple, yet uncommon hook - the PCs are hired by the mistress of a brothel, which has suffered from a curse/returning disease that is, of course, bad for business. But, and that is no hyperbole - your players won't see where this module is going with that angle. Soooo...players, seriously, skip ahead... All right. What happens if isolated Tulita become desperate? They, in this case, turned to a dragon turtle as a false deity, cannibalism and worse....and no one would care. Problem is, their island harbors a special plant which amplifies the power of the dragonsmoke-drug. A Tulita survivor seeking help stumbled across a truly vile captain with this drug and she promptly set out to erect her own, no less vile and despicable colonial nightmare on the island, enslaving everyone, poisoning the dragon turtle and killing the spiritual leader of the tribe in a most gruesome manner. Now her super-drug didn't catch universally due to limited supplies and the wanton cruelty of her men - and now, only one of her former crew remains, for the wench has reaped what she's sown - the dread cannibalistic shaman turned the tables upon his vanquishers upon returning from the dead, making terrible disease-creature-incubators of the living and turning the island into full-blown nightmare territory.  In order to stop the disease and its undead carriers, the PCs have to find the island, navigate its treacherous reefs and end the various despicable existences on the island as well as the false turtle-totem and its degenerate offspring  -preferably including all the dread dragonsmoke enhancing flowers and before Pele smashes the island for the atrocities there. Seriously...wow. If I hadn't known better, I would have assumed one of the masters of dark horror here - Owen K.C. Stephens delivers in spades here, with a module that encapsulates all the terrors of colonialism without falling into the "tulita are good"-glorification some parts of Razor Coast fall prey to. This module is dark, iconic, action-packed and full of great, unique creatures. If you've asked yourself why Paizo got Owen for their module-series - here's a superb reason. I've always said that I'd enjoy it if Owen wrote more fluff - this one is an excellent example for that stance. Impressive indeed!

The final module, by Tom Knauss, would then be "Sinful Whisper" for 5th level characters - but can it stand up to its predecessors? The PCs are hired for a task they're bound to hate rather soonish - escort a noble scion, a pampered (but capable!), arrogant elven woman to a taboo island where her former vessel was attacked, her fellow noble scions taken by bestial men. The thing is - the island isn't taboo for nothing - chocked in hallucination-inducing, paranoia-enhancing spores, populated by degenerate subhuman creatures, the trip to the island not only will lead them all into dire danger, but also on a journey into the heart of the surprisingly dynamic elven maid - who may be turned towards good or evil, all by the PC's actions - if they manage to survive the truly dastardly creatures and not lose their sanity to the plants of the place, the vile practices there or the ancient evil slumbering beneath the island's soil, waiting patiently for its time to return to truly vile glory... This module is psychological horror paired with some truly disturbing imagery and on par with the best and most disturbing ones I've read for PFRPG - a good indicator that Tom Knauss should try his hand at these types of modules more often!

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn't notice an undue amount of glitches. Layout adheres to Razor Coast's two-column full color standard and the pdf comes with quite a few iconic, awesome original pieces of full-color artwork. The pdf comes with one bookmark per adventure, which makes navigating rather hard and in the pdf, at least the cover is a bit blurry - something absent from my hardcover copy. The maps in full color are great, though I wished they had player-friendly versions included in the map folio.

4 modules by masters of their craft - and I don't use that lightly - and all 4 are killer. Seriously, all 4 of the modules in this book greatly enhance not only a Razor Coast campaign, but can easily stand alone. In fact, at least "Angry Waters" probably works slightly better as a stand-alone, with Armada otherwise changing the political landscape of the coast a bit too much for my tastes. The other 3 are plug-and play in the truest form, with the last one offering actually a way into Port Shaw's elite sans rubbing shoulders with the despicable masters of the place and thus making for an all but required addition for particularly virtuous groups. Now let me say this again, loud and clear - each module herein is killer. Each one, 5 star + seal of approval material. However, the scarce bookmarks and lack of player-friendly maps make for somewhat significant detriments. Usually, I'd rate this down a whole star for these issues...but the modules don't deserve that. They're too good, even providing, in multiple instances, vistas that help make the Tulita less annoying one-dimensional good guys. As such, I think they should be considered required for Razor Coast. If I may offer a piece of advice for DMs: Don't fall back quite as often on the "island-sinks"-gimmick as implied here; a given campaign should probably one employ this plot-device once and I'd suggest "Angry Waters" as the best candidate. Owen K.C. Stephens' module doesn't require the sinking and actually poses an interesting conundrum if the island remains...
But I'm rambling. Long story short - too good to be rated down, in spite of some comfort-detriments - 5 stars + seal of approval.

You can /And should) get these awesome modules here on OBS or here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

If you rather roll old-school, here the link for the S&W-version here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
 
Endzeitgeist out.

4.22.2014

EZG reviews Razor Coast

Razor Coast


 

546 pages, 1 page front cover (by Wayne Reynolds), 1 page editorial, 3 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page dedication, 5 pages of advertisement, 1 page back cover. 

That leaves 534 pages.

534. Pages. 

It's been a long time since Razor Coast has been released and there's a reason my review took this long. First of all, let me preface this with a disclaimer: I can't, by any means, be truly neutral regarding Razor Coast. I just can't. you see, there would be no Endzeitgeist without this book. It was Razor Coast that made me excited enough about a book to actually end my online abstinence and register at Sinister Adventures back in the day. I didn't even have a Paizo account. I had no idea Rite Publishing or Open Design even existed. Without this book, NONE of my reviews would have ever been written. Without it, none of the friendships, none of the kind people would have ever entered my life. I was stunned by the kindness of Nick and Lou and then...Sinister Adventures went down. My heart bled, I raged, I reasoned...all the steps of grief, as pathetic as that may sound. I never ordered a refund. I waited. When Frog God Games took Razor Coast and uploaded the KS, I thought "NO WAY" - why? Because the funding goal seemed insane. The requirement to commit 30-buck preorders from back in the day, get new artwork etc. blew up the goal and you can't begin to understand the amount of exhilaration I felt when it funded...with flying colors, reaching all those stretch-goals. I couldn't believe it. At this point, not only had Razor Coast's prior vapor ware status been the grain of sand that was in the center of my decision to go reviewer, it had amassed such a n epic level of expectations, I started dreading the arrival of the massive tome (#213, btw.!) and all the bonus books I went for via the KS.

Then, I started reading it. And from a reviewer's perspective, I was looking at a problem of no small proportions - Razor Coast seems to defy proper reviewing. Usually, when I take a look at a module, I take a look at the plot, hooks etc. and then give you a synopsis of what to expect, try to analyze issues with the plot etc. Alternatively, a sandbox gets a similar treatment, but more free-form. Well, Razor Coast refuses to fit in either mold. So what is this monster's structure?  We have inciting incidents, that kick off a given arc - two massive major plot-arcs suffuse this tome. These are supplemented with vignettes, set-pieces and stand-alone encounters as well as relationship subplots. These are here, and in the end, it's up to DM and players to decide in- and outgame which/what to pursue. Essentially, Razor Coast tries to combine the free-form modularity of a true sandbox campaign with the plot-driven structure of an AP.

Now, usually, I'd just give you a run-down of the general plot-structure - that doesn't work here. If I were to list everything herein, this review would probably be as long as all my Slumbering Tsar-reviews combined. So instead, I'll tell you about what can be found herein: First of all, there would be indulgences, i.e. Sinister Adventures' small pdfs, converted to the PFRPG-ruleset. This means that Craig Shackleton's dueling rules, including the bind combat maneuver, have been updated. These are intended to essentially make the swashbuckler a more valid option char-build wise and if used as intended for low-armor, dex-based fighter, makes sense. The thing is, the feats aren't particularly weak and while not per se broken,  e.g. treating a one-handed piercing weapon as a reach weapon can be broken badly - enlarge character, magus levels etc. At prereq BAB +1, too easy to abuse, also thanks to the feat not requiring an explicit action, thus making it possible to combine this with other feats. Then again, the parrying rules per se are solid and have seen some use in my game. The Tulita-ethnography comes  the throw maneuver (which feels unnecessary) and also some feats, one of which isn't as broken as it was in 3.X, but fixing unarmed threat range at 18 sans following usual rules of threat range enhancements would be bound to lead to confusion. The Mai'kal archetype gets a somewhat broken ability at 15th level, allowing them to, as an immediate action, reverse an attack on the adversary 1/round as an immediate action for 1 ki point.  The essay on underwater adventuring contained here is also nice, though after the release of both Sunken Empires and Alluria Publishing's glorious Cerulean Seas, there are better options. But you don't want me to pick this one apart crunch-wise, do you? The adventure is what counts, so what can I say about it before I go into spoilers?

Let's give you an overview - the Razor Coast is a tropical paradise, though not one sans its dark past. The native population, the Tulita, lived in relative peace until colonialization began and the white/yellow/black/whatever men came and defeated them handsomely. Now, the once sacred whales are hunted, the eggs of the venerable turtle smashed and colonial ignorance has erected Port Shaw, a thriving port on sacred ground. Dark days have found the paradise in peril, as racial tensions rise and evil conspires above and beneath the waves. Here, one thing should be noted - the writing is superb. In a genre, where Freeport and Sasserine constitute two very iconic settlements with their own flavor, making a given age of sail-style settlement stand out is quite a feat and neither settlement would be confused with Port Shaw (though they probably could replace it with some work)  -the writing makes the settlement, the whole coast really, come to life from the pages. immersion is also increased via the entries on e.g. deities in the appendix. Oh, have I mentioned that5 thanks to a collaborative effort with Green Ronin, the book actually offers information on how to handle both Freeport and Port Shaw in the same setting and how they geographically relate? Yes. Awesome.

Now beyond the leitmotif of colonialism and the resulting racial tensions and cultural warfare, we have a leitmotif of progress vs. nature in the guise of colonial powers destreyinbg natural resources and killing essentially the sacred animal guides of the Tulita. This topic per se is rather subdued, though its presence can be felt in one of the main plots, but more on that later. Now I've mentioned relationship subplots - and these deserve the moniker. Essentially, Razor Coast is as character-driven and NPC-rich as you want and a former band of heroes, down on their luck and destined for an inglorious downfall, is provided in excruciating detail - these beings are characters in the truest sense of the word and while they all have been broken, the PCs have a chance to mend them. The same btw. holds true for the legendary widow of Captain Razor and even some antagonists - overall, indifference will lead to depressing ends indeed, while invested PCs can truly make a difference and save those souls from the abyss into which they gaze. If you're like me and read these, you'll probably recognize yourself or some of your friends n their darkest hours in these NPCs - yes, they're that detailed. So if your PCs are big on the ROLE of roleplaying, Razor Coast provides ample potential.

A DM also gets special tools - essentially, a level-by-level breakdown of potential plotlines/encounters to run as well as check-list-sheets for the respective levels/phases of the plot as well as an NPC-relationship tracker help further in making sense of the tremendously complex, vast array of potential plots one can craft from Razor Coast. Which is rather interesting, for the plot per se is as strong as you'd expect from a linear AP:

SPOILERS

Essentially, colonialism and the killing of animals has helped dread shark-god Dajobas and his chosen to return to shore. Dread were-sharks have infiltrated Port Shaw and expect to hold a massive feast of carnage and death in its streets. Furthermore, the legendary kraken-fiend has all but taken control of Port Shaw via a secret society and plans to soon reap the city. Then former plot is conspiracy 1, the second one no.2 and both make for linear, rather epic (apocalyptic, even!) scenes - within the modularity of the vast tome, these stories are what drives the meta-plot. And yes, they're infinitely more complex, tied to x characters, strange islands, sunken treasures, betrayals long past etc. And yes, in order to not bloat this review beyond 20 pages, that's all you'll be hearing from me regarding the plot(s).

/SPOILERS

Soooo...those plots and all the encounters, flavor etc. need to be organized. The tools are there. Before we go into that, another caveat, though - look at the end of the book. Among the indulgences, several mini-modules await and the book also features essentially what can be considered an additional Voodoo-themed adventure that is completely optional. These are NOT part of the main-book's outline, nor are the modules from the expansion "Heart of the Razor", though the latter help with levels in which the main material is a bit less versatile than one would expect.  It should also be noted that the appendix features new creatures galore, including, yes, undead cannibal pygmies (and their unliving totems!), a race of degenerate Cyclopes, drugs, items both mundane and magical and much, much more.  Have I mentioned the hand-out driven puzzle/treasure map, options for underwater adventuring etc.?

Since its formal approach to adventure-craft is so different, the grand question would be how to rate this... which brings me, perhaps to a surprisingly early

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are surprisingly good for a book of this length - while there are glitches in here, they are relatively few and far in-between. Layout adheres to a parched-map-style full-color 2-column standard that is easy to read. The respective full color artworks are universally drop-dead-gorgeous and the maps are as well. While some maps have the scaling-numbers slightly pixelated, the maps themselves are plenty and beautiful. Furthermore, the map folio offers player-handout-style maps of the respective areas herein, adding for me tremendously to their use. The massive tome comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The pdf's artworks sometimes feel a bit less high-res than those present in the hardcover - if you can, I'd definitely suggest going for the full-color dead tree tome. Printing this would probably cost more in ink/toner than just getting the book anyways.

There's another reason for this - you'll need post-its. Seriously. A metric ton of post-its. I have a very good memory, but still - running this behemoth will require you to have a lot of things at your fingertips, even with all the help the book tries to give you. 

 Which also brings me to the reason why this took forever - first of all: Novice-DMs need not apply. Sorry. Even for me, who considers running modules of ZEITGEIST-complexity easy, with years of sandboxing campaign information, this is a rather complex endeavor. The best advice I can give is to read the whole book. At least twice. Which won't be an issue, since the respective areas are full of iconic encounters, compelling characters and superbly dark, gritty, nail-biting climaxes. The writing is superb and just glorious. It should also be noted that the shades-of-grey themes actually are there - while the Tulita generally are pictured as the good guys, there are ample exceptions and only scarcely does the book stoop to painting a clear b/w-contrast. When it does, though, it MAY be slightly jarring - the whole book essentially portrays the process of colonialization in all its violence and despicable facets. Indigenous population under control via drugs? Yes. Cultures destroyed? Yes. Slavery? Yes.

There are not much saving graces for the powers that be here and thematically, that is the only narrative weak spot in an otherwise surprisingly versatile plot. While the book actually manages for the most part to maintain complex moralities and shades of grey in all protagonists and even in some of the more despicable antagonists, when it comes to the Tulita, it sometimes reverts to simple b/w: Portraying them in a very much romanticized noble savage-way. I'm been discriminated against and personally, it's probably this experience that makes me consider this to be, in its way, just as problematic as a demonization of a given people. In any other setting/module, I wouldn't have complained here, but in the gritty, surprisingly deep Razor Coast, this feels a bit off at times, especially due to generally, the depiction maintains an enlightened, non-glorifying stance. But then again, perhaps that's just the cultural studies mayor talking. To let me make this abundantly clear - this is NO white guilt-trip, theme-wise, but it also falls, by a margin, short of what it could have been in that regard.

It took me some time to analyze what made this, at least in my perception, harder to run than e.g. Slumbering Tsar and similar massive campaigns. The reasons are twofold: For one, the massive tome shoots itself somewhat in the proverbial foot by noting several sample motivations à la "Champion of the Tulita", "Allied with the Powers that be" etc. IGNORE THESE PREMISES. While one could craft a Razor Coast-campaign with these themes, the overall narrative is imho neutered by trying to shoehorn it into one of these adventure-path-like premises. Essentially, the whole of the book does not particularly support these themes. Yes, they're there, but looking for them and trying to jam the sandbox into that frame tremendously hurts the experience and limits players/could lead to a less versatile experience for them. The support for these pseudo-AP-motivations is just not pronounced enough and I'm of the conviction these hurt the book more than anything else. So, again: Ignore those.

Secondly, the organization of the massive material is more confusing than it ought to be - the "build-your-own-AP"-section with all its checklists and help doesn't help that much - or at least, it didn't help me. Why? Because it lacks the supplemental material, even from the same book. Tying indulgences and "bonus-storyline" (and Heart of the Razor) into the whole would have made this section much more useful. Another issue would be that you first get Port Shaw, then the Key-NPCs, then the planner and then the encounters/meat of the book. Essentially, the planner is talking about things, which, if you read this in a linear way, you haven't read and have no clue about. So if you start reading, skip this section and return after reading. While this isn't bad, it also makes preparing this behemoth more challenging, at least at first sight, than it ought to be. Much of the problems simply dissipate if you just read the meat of the adventure, the setting-information etc. and start planning for yourself.

One of the reasons some people experienced a slight backlash here, can be explained via the tremendous expectations associated with this tome, while others lie primarily at the problematic organization. This book would have imho fared better by sticking to a sandbox-presentation and then just add a generic time-line and insert encounters into that. Just my 2 cents, of course. Endeavoring to make this both an AP and a sandbox ends up unnecessarily complicating this.

Now all of this sounds awfully negative - and it shouldn't, let me make abundantly clear that this is a rite-of-passage-style monster-tome to separate the men from the boys, DM-wise. It's challenging (Though not Frog God Games-hard.) and ultimately a great module that takes cultural cues otherwise scarcely, if at all, explored and provides a rich, fun, dark and at times downright evil setting that oozes unique style and flair, provides superb writing, ideas galore and more potential for fun than MANY collective modules/APs of similar length. 

Is it for novice-DMs? Hell no. Is it polarizing? Yes. Is the crunch universally awesome? Nope. But does this belong into every PFRPG-DM's library? In my opinion, yes. 

Razor Coast is a gloriously wicked tome, superbly written and while it is not perfect, I don't regret a single cent I've spent on it. (And yes, I went all-out on the KS.) Is it the perfect tome of superlatives that years and years of expectations painted it in, in many a mind around the globe? No, but it honestly couldn't have been. What it is, is a great mega-adventure in a unique setting, full of unique, interesting characters and a living piece of PFRPG-history, a mega-adventure your players WILL keep talking about for years to come. And while it didn't make my Top Ten-list of 2013, it came damn close, by virtue of its originality, scope and ambition, by its narrative clout and the hard work of Nicolas Logue, Lou Agresta, Tim Hitchcock, John Ling, Ton Knauss, Frank Mentzer, Richard Pett, Craig Shackleton, David Posener, Greg A. Vaughan, Adam Daigle, Wolfgang Baur and Brendan Victorson.

To me, this tome is still 5 stars + seal of approval must-have material. It may not be perfect, but it is different, ambitious and downright evocative. And we need more books of that caliber, that take chances with something different, both in form and ambition. Oh, and if you're an experienced DM, you'll be hard-pressed to find a given module to better show off your skills - in the hands of one, this vision will come alive in all its blood-drenched, tropical glory.
You can get this monster for PFRPG here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop. 

If you'd rather go old-school, there also is a Sword & Wizardry-version here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop.


Endzeitgeist out.

2.12.2014

EZG reviews Razor Coast: Fire As She Bears

Razor Coast: Fire As She Bears





This system for naval combat is 98 pages long, 1 page front cover, 4 pages of advertisement, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page ToC and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 88 pages of content.

So here we are - by now the third naval combat system for Pathfinder - after Paizo's system fell flat of my expectations and after EN Publishing's book thoroughly disappointed me, let's see whether this supplement can do the trick!

We kick off this sourcebook, as is only prudent, with an explanation of the terminology used as well as a handy diagram that explains how a ship is positioned in relation to the wind. In order to have a ship, one requires ship construction-rules - these are very concisely-presented here: Essentially, each vessel has locations, which could be thought of as  20-foot cubes that can be individually targeted by hostiles. How you place your locations is mostly up to you, though you have to adhere to certain conventions regarding length and breadth and height, allowing you to also add additional decks by stacking multiple locations atop one another. It should be noted, that one hull location could contain one or several decks, though! Each location-cube belongs to one of two classes - hull or rigging. Both types have different stats, costs etc. and their relationship has crucial consequences regarding the ship's attributes.

Attributes? Yes, ships have a str-score of 30+no. of hull locations + build modifiers and they also have a dexterity of 10+rigging locations-hull locations + build modifiers. (The latter, in case you're wondering, offer the choice between sleek and broad hulls. Ship armor-class is calculated just like with a regular character, though rigging is slightly harder to hit. It should also be noted that the rules depict not only touch AC (should you ever require it), but also the susceptibility of a ship from below the waves in a rather interesting manner and that they aren't silent on this matter either regarding AC. Carrying capacity, hit points - all of that is very intuitive and makes creating ships and grasping the system exceedingly easy.

Now where things get slightly more complex would be with movement - your ship has 3 movement rates, or speed values. Each point of speed roughly corresponds to 20 feet of movement - but why not simply go with the movement? The answer's simple, really - you actually could do that. But speed is also a resource AS WELL AS a restriction. Ships have no brakes in the traditional sense and thus you *HAVE* to move the value of your speed rating each round - furthermore, naval maneuvers like turns etc. have an associated speed cost. You thus have to actually plan movement rather carefully, adding a VERY cool tactical dimension to the combats that is easy to learn while offering opportunities aplenty for strategies and finesse - after all, sailing against and with the wind modifies your available speed. Putting essentially resource and restriction into one value is, in my humble opinion, a stroke of genius. Of course, ships also have a maneuverability and your ship's load influence how agile your vessel turns out to be - again, the rules here are very much n line with how characters work.

Now if you're like me, then you tend towards a relative preference toward simulationalist approaches - I tend to have my PCs track rations etc. For people who prefer this additional spike of realism we get advanced rules herein - the first of which would be the impact of wind speed on a vessel's speed rating. More complex, yes, but rather easy to grasp. And if you don't think that can be utilized for maximum awesomeness, I once ran an adventure based on the absence of wind - essentially stranding the players on the equivalent of the Méduse's grisly tale - no combats, just slow psychological descent into madness as the veneer of civilization started to crumble. Glorious. Of course, the more obvious use would be to handle ships sailing before a storm, as the sidebar "Riders on the Storm" suggests. Now beyond sails, engines (both steam-powered and alchemical, in varying efficiency-classes) and oars are also handled, and once again parallel to characters, ships get their own CMBs and CMDs and saves.

Saves? Yep. Though as objects, ships are immune to will-saves, ref and fort-saves, while hard to do, can be rationalized - which the pdf btw. also guides a DM through, explaining how to narrate a successful save. As you could glean from me spilling the beans about alternate means of propulsion, there are a lot of customization options here - 8 sizes of cannons, rams, crow's nests - it's easy and essentially just like equipping your character - locations having a certain amount of space, i.e. slots. There you go - elegant and intuitive. Where there are cannons, there better be grape shots, chain shots and the like and yes, for everyone who despises gunpowder in their games, reskinning is always an option here. Speaking of options - while cannonballs of a uniform size are the default simplification for fun's sake, there are rules to explain how to handle different cannonball-sizes, if you want that level of realism. the same holds btw. true if you'd prefer realistic load times - these have been, due to the presence of magic and to keep cannons cool, significantly shortened to between 1 and 3 full-round actions. For once, that's a simplification I will keep in my game.

Now I've mentioned grape shots. I shuddered upon reading this, for while the mechanics of the grape shot are solid, they don't take individual ACs into account. Well...UNLESS you take a look at yet another alternate rule that lets you take these into the equation as well! Even before ship armor, miscellaneous equipment like fire pumps, specific locations and the like come into the equation, we a thoroughly customizable base system of rules that is concisely presented and easy to learn, while providing just the level of realism you choose for your group.

Specific locations? Yeah, from smuggling compartments to brigs, captain's quarters etc., we have quite a few customization options here.

But a ship is only an object - we also need a crew. Recruiting a crew is done via relatively simple rules...but what about morale? We are introduced to a new loyalty-score, which is modified by the captain's level, his/her cha-mod and the mods of navigators, chaplains etc. - oh, and lost battles, pay, time at sea, charms and dominates - all of these are taken in. Additionally, charismatic captains may actually inspire their crews! Now we all have seen this: A basic issue in most naval combat systems would be that they degenerate into a one-on-one between DM and the captain's player.6 officer roles, all with benefits and vacancy penalties and special actions in combat does an excellent job in engaging the WHOLE PARTY, even beyond the capabilities of the respective classes that fill the roles. Now how does that work? Essentially, your players roll initiative twice - once for the level of their characters and a second, naval initiative wherein they may make the respective naval actions, ensuring that they don't have to spend actions to encourage the crew when they'd rather be flinging fireballs or swashbuckle through the riggings. It seems counterintuitive at first, but in play it works wonders - also due to each role using certain attribute-modifiers for their respective naval initiative. Food, crew placement, crew advancement, officer and enlisted roles - there isa neat level of detail going on here.

Now how does naval combat work? First, the most upwind ship may claim the weather gauge, which nets some bonuses (tough e.g. the +2 speed bonus may not fit in all strategies...once again, careful deliberation...) - but only until another ship manages to steal the weather gauge via skill or luck: Again, we have a neat dynamic herein that expands the tactical possibilities of naval combat. After that, the combat (with the exception of naval initiative) works much like a regular combat - but there also are 13 special naval actions introduced alongside 5 special attacks (including crossing the boards). We also get a handy table for spotting ships, some new skill uses (Can you disguise a ship? Yes, you can!) and an abstract, but relatively elegant way to determine losses among the crew (and prevent them, if you're a ship's surgeon. Of course, there is also the final resort of self-destructing engines, if available - and yes, the consequences are dire and the situation narrative gold.

Of course, as you're probably noted by now, specialists could have a field day here and yes, if you're so inclined, then a  total of 9 feats allows you to improve your capabilities in that specific field - which is awesome, for while the system does not require such an investment, it rewards those that do. Now magic and naval combat is where a certain other naval supplement came totally apart - so how does FaSB deal with it? In one word: Perfectly. Instead of spamming us with useless over-specialized variants of spells, we get new uses for spells: Chill/Heat Metal+ cannon = useless cannon for duration of the spell. Zombie-crew? Possible. Control Winds vs. Control Weather? Covered. Fabricate? Repairs ship-location. Prestidigitation can btw. be uses to flavor gruel if food is scarce, thus offsetting the loyalty-penalty for eating gruel all day. We also get 9 spells, one of which temporarily transforms a part of the sea into GLASS., potentially trapping ships... Oh, and yes, there also is a ghostly crew for the wholesome necromancer captains among us.

Not content with all of that? Why not build levitating ships? Ships made from bone, coral or locations perpetually engulfed in flames? Masts that prevent casualties by means of feather fall? Enchanted bowsprits? Sails that steal souls? On the character level, what about enchanted rum? Magical hammocks? Tiny mechanical monkey with an extradimensional holding space? Harnesses that conjure forth ghostly whales to draw the ship? Yes. All here.

Now so far, we've limited ourselves to combat, ship-building and crew - but what about pursuits? Fully covered. Terrain obstacles for naval pursuits? Easy creation guidelines, various samples provided.

Don't want to stat a lot of crew? We get quite a bunch of sample statblocks (though it should be noted that they use Razor Coast's simplified gunpowder-rules), but thus no gunslingers. The book mentions "Brace of Pistols" as a great supplement and I concur, though I consider the absence of gunslingers still a huge pity. Now while there are a lot f relatively generic statblocks, the occasional weird one is in here to spice all up and sample characters galore accompany this chapter.

Beyond a pirate's song to sing and animated cannons, we also get full-color ship record sheets, 5 sample ships and finally, a 1-page appendix of sample ship names.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting is still very good, though a couple of minor typo-level glitches could be found herein. Layout adheres to a drop-dead gorgeous two-column full-color standard. Artwork is mostly thematically fitting stock art and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The hardcover of the book has solid production-values, though the paper feels slightly thinner than in other FGG-releases. The cover-illustration is a bit blurry in both the pdf and hardcover and was probably not intended as such.

*Ähem* In case you haven't noticed...look what's absent from this review: Yes. Serious complaints. This system is hilariously easy to grasp, working with established design-tenets and expanding them in a smart way that borders on being brilliant. Neither in 3.X, nor PFRPG have I ever seen such a concise, well-presented naval combat supplement - creating ships is exceedingly easy and fast, naval combat proved to be engaging for the whole group instead of for just one player and this supplement, unlike some books I've recently reviewed, does a splendid job at NOT creating logic bugs in-game. At working with the system and producing something that transcends and mops the floor with each and every naval combat system I've seen so far, offering a surprising amount of easy customization options and actually rewarding tactical combat decisions. Strategy, fun, easily implemented and presented in a truly concise manner, Lou Agresta & John Ling's "Fire as She Bears" is THE system for naval combat: Whether it's "Skull & Shackles", "Razor Coast" or something completely different - this supplement is a, let me emphasize that, MUST HAVE.

Seriously. Naval combat has never worked so smoothly, so seamlessly, so elegant. Heck, if I ever run En Publishing's Zeitgeist-AP, I'll ignore "Admiral o' the High Seas" and stat the ships with this. In spite of the work, the result will make it worthwhile. This is the perfect blend of options, solid rules, toolkit and makes for an extremely tight supplement, one I can't praise enough. I wouldn't be Endzeitgeist if I had no complaints, though - the lack of sample gunslinger-characters is a very minor detriment and honestly - I wished this had been a massive 200+page book with even more options, items, naval actions, magic items and sample ships.

...Yeah. That's about all the negativity I can muster against this superb book. This is non-optional. I want sequels...plural. Enchanted viking-ships, perhaps? After all, the Northlands Saga is impending...

This belongs into the library of each and every DM who only contemplates running naval adventures, a superb offering if there ever was one and the system that banished Mongoose's 3.0 "Seas of Blood" and Paizo's own system into oblivion. It's that good. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars +seal of approval, in spite of minor flaws here and there as well as  this being a candidate for my Top Ten of 2013. From here on out, this will be the only naval system that sees any use at my table. Congratulations to the authors for a superb job!


You can get this awesome naval combat supplement here on OBS and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!

Endzeitgeist out.