Bodyguards for PFS#8: Slave Pits of Absalom

Paizo recently published my first Pathfinder Society adventure (PFS#8: Slave Pits of Absalom), which is very exciting for me. Some discussions on the boards, however, revealed people also have a desire to play with the adventure outside Pathfinder Society organized play; for example, in a home campaign.

I decided to post some of those ideas and elements here (instead of at Paizo), in order to avoid confusing this material with anything official. So let me be clear: NOTHING IN WHAT FOLLOWS IS AUTHORIZED, ENDORSED, OR OTHERWISE SUPPORTED BY PAIZO. AND NONE OF THESE IDEAS OR MATERIALS ARE FOR USE IN PFS OR ORGANIZED PLAY. This has nothing to do with Paizo, because I’m just a freelancer. I’m not employed by Paizo. This is just me posting up some cool stuff for people to play around with at home. Also, this post will make little sense unless you already own PFS#8: Slave Pits of Absalom.


Ok, disclaimers aside, what came up on the Paizo message boards was that Montalve wondered why Pardu Pildapush didn't have any bodyguards.

Originally, there were bodyguards, but for a variety of reasons they were removed in editing. Here is an excerpt from the pre-development submission, which includes the bodyguards (context, behavior and stat blocks). Have fun!

Word document with non PFS encounter variant.


The Rudis Review: Shadows of Cthulhu

Book: Shadows of Cthulhu
Length/Type: 130 pgs., PDF
System: True 20
Author: Russ Brown
Publisher: Reality Deviant Press
Licensor/Endorser: Chaosium Inc., Werecabbages

(5 0f 5 rudii)

Something interesting about Call of Cthulhu always strikes me when I re-read, as I periodically do, Wizards of the Coast’s 1999 study (released 2/7/2000), “Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary.” Namely, 8% of all gamers play Call of Cthulhu. Think about it for a moment: according to some conservative estimates, at least something like 6 million people play RPGs each month, with Cthulhu players closing in on the 500,000 player per month mark1. Yet no company publishing Cthulhu products – including Chaosium -- has any RPG market share of which to speak. No company has turned Cthulhu into a product with traction.

In the world of PDF publishing, that may be changing.

‘Cause Russ Brown and RDP’s Chaosium endorsed, Shadows of Cthulhu is one helluva book, marrying the True20 system seamlessly – and I mean seamlessly – to CoC horror role-playing. I have to confess, I was skeptical. As a Werecabbage, I had an insider seat when the concept for the book first reared its head (much like Putin, only not in Alaska). I was even in on the initial design discussions, and, while graciously asked to participate, regretfully declined, as I was overbooked at the time.

Declining looks like a mistake, now. You see, my skepticism revolved around the fundamental challenge of taking a game like CoC – where characters are pretty much guaranteed to die or go insane in 10 sessions or so – and marrying it to a system built, at core, around a leveling-up mechanic. Russ tackled that problem two ways. He hit it head-on by discussing it openly and then succinctly advising narrators on style and approach. He also hit it mechanically three ways: (1) by adapting and adopting True20s Conviction point system; (2) introducing a new and similarly structured Mythos Awareness point system, and (3) eliminating CoC sanity points – without eliminating insanity. After all, what would Cthulhu be without insanity?

I particularly enjoyed Russ’ turning the question of sane/insane into a save versus a DC assigned to the mind-bending experience. Making the type of insanity suffered on a failed save into a property of the mythos creature encountered is sheer gaming goodness gravy. Yet for those who don’t care to give up their sanity points, Russ also includes an alternate sanity system, with a mental damage tracker, in the appendix.

This alternate sanity system stands as a hallmark of Brown’s approach to design. For nearly every mechanical innovation, he provides an alternate approach to help gamers retain the feel they may expect or prefer from their Cthulhu. At the very least, his clear cognizance of True20s intersection with traditional Cthulhu play style empowers gamers while harnessing True20’s unique attributes and power. For example, among the topics he addresses: how to incorporate True20’s core roles; how to integrate the True20 Companion’s previously published insanity rules; or what to do with the supernatural powers already extant in the True20 system.

However, the real power of Shadows lies in its thoroughness, its attention to detail, and the rich mythos tools it reverently places in the hands of players. Beside revisiting and tuning beloved classics from Cthulhu role-play, Russ gives us new roles, new mythos traits, new and modified skills, new and modified feats, new insanities (lovingly detailed), and new mythos powers. He and RDP deliver new and exciting ancient places, forbidden books, mythos artifacts, cults, adversaries, allies and more. He even delivers a classic mythos infested village, Dunwich – the ideal location to kick off your players’ descents into madness and horror. And he does a damn fine job of it. The topper? Every entry in the mythos bestiary comes with motivations (where the beasties are not mindless or utterly inscrutable) or an adventure hook. This book just bleeds adventure and story.

The goodness doesn’t stop there. Shadows is thoroughly researched. Impressively researched. Many of the ‘new’ mythos items and places are heavily grounded in the odd and mysterious artifacts of real world history. I was utterly gripped by Brown’s taught, streamlined 9 page summary of the 1920s: its daily life, its political and economic factions, and its technology. I’ve opined elsewhere that when a work requires good authors to summarize something that isn’t their primary topic (life in the 20s, for example) as a prerequisite for getting to their primary topic (destroying life in the 20s with ancient gods and brain-sucking tentacles, for example), the author frequently does a better job codifying than the experts (probably because experts have a tendency to step on their own dic..er…tails when expounding). Russ doesn’t disappoint, and he doesn’t slog into so much detail we drown. In all honestly, I’ll be using his clean, concise summary of the 1920s as authoritative research for a creative project on which I’m currently engaged. Thanks for saving me a ton of library time, Russ Brown!

But Brown doesn’t stop with historical research. He gives us authoritative mythos and Lovecraft research as well, delivered with veins of subtle humor and evident love for his subject. Here’s a short sample from "Chapter 3: Narrating Shadows of Cthulhu"

Horrifying Aliens
These are not the aliens of traditional science fiction. They don’t travel through space in sleek metal ships or demand to see our leaders. Many of them glide through interstellar space without ships, even crossing the folds of time and space to reach Earth. Many are already were, and were were long before the human race took its first bipedal steps and fashioned its first tools. Their alien motivations are incomprehensible. They may have outposts hidden in the hills where they mine the Earth’s rare metals. They may be the last remnants of a primordial civilization destroyed by even more terrible enemies or imprisoned by strange supernatural forces. They may be unimaginably powerful and godlike, floating mindlessly in the interstellar voids and imposing an order in the universe that appears insane to the limited human mind. Or they may just want to remove our brains.

Russ’s simple, condensed and considered breakdown of Lovecraft’s often chaotic, even inconsistent Cthulhu mythos in Chapter 3 is not to be missed.

So don’t miss it. RDPs PDF is clear and beautifully laid out. Given my druthers, I may have organized a few sub chapters differently, but production quality is very high. Like the book as a whole, Jason Walton’s illustrations are deceptively simple but marvelous. Gray scale, crisp, almost – but not quite – pure graphic novel; his choice to portray chthonic creatures of shadow and horror in clean, heavily inked lines really works. To my surprise, his design choices convey a surprising realism that somehow just perfectly captures the subtle wrongness of mind-bending, slobbering mythos creatures imposing on the real world. Simultaneously he captures the sense of adventure that thrills us at the prospect of engaging these horrors – or serving them.

Bravo, Russ. Well done, RDP.

Lovers of True20 meet Cthulhu. Lovers of Cthulhu…uhh…what are you doing with those tentacles!? Ahgh. Yugh. Aww damn – that’s just wrong.

Want to learn more about Shadows of Cthulhu? Read on...

1 http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/wotcdemo.html http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3655627.stm http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/whatis/demographics.html


Riffing to Paizo Publishing's PFS#8 – Slave Pits of Absalom

So, Paizo recently published my first Pathfinder Society adventure (PFS#8: Slave Pits of Absalom), which is very exciting for me. Some discussions on the boards, however, revealed people also have a desire to play with the adventure – or elements in the adventure – outside Pathfinder Society organized play.

As it so happens, there were ideas that came up in the course of writing and developing the piece that really weren’t appropriate for Pathfinder Society’s organized play, but might be fun to monkey with at home. In direct response to a customer request, I decided to post some of those ideas and elements here.


This has nothing to do with Paizo, because I’m just a freelancer. I’m not employed by Paizo. This is just me posting up some cool stuff for people to play around with at home, because I love to play around with cool stuff. It’s just like any other customer posting up some homebrew ideas related to a Paizo product. In fact, most of this will make absolutely no sense unless you already own PFS#8: Slave Pits of Absalom, which you can buy here.

Ok, disclaimers aside, what came up on the message boards was Chris Mortika noticing that people might want to sneak aboard the ship instead of fight their way aboard. Here are some suggestions I think support that kind of fun:

Sneaking Aboard Changes (Spoiler Alert!)
1. Have the Puddlejumpers ambush the party at a different location on the dock. That way…
2. The crew of the ship does not notice the fight. They are inebriated and sleep through any distant noise.
3. Let’s add torches on the ship, illuminating the dock poorly and…
4. Put some of the tie lines mooring the ship outside the illumination so they become a viable “sneak ramp” into the ship.
5. Let’s turn the ship into a more fantastical 3-decker contrivance, as that allows for portholes PCs can reach from the water.
6. And to support this way of access, let the read aloud text describe all sorts of little dinghy’s and rowboats also tied to the docks. The PCs might steal one and float it in the darkness around the other side of the ship.
7. Place the PCs rescue target in the bottom level.
8. Finally, turn the fighting tower on the top deck into the captain’s quarters and have the mate sleeping down below with the slaves he punishes. This allows us to transform the ship into a system of balanced tensions whereby the worse the PCs are at sneaking:
-- The sooner they are stopped from reaching their goal, the bottom hold, and
-- The more monsters they wind up fighting at once, and
-- The worse the circumstances under which they fight

So if the PCs are good at sneaking aboard, they are rewarded with an easy entrance. If they are bad at sneaking aboard, they get punished with more difficult tactical situations of their own contrivance.

So here’s how I would implement those changes to create a fun, ‘sneak – friendly’ way to access the ship in the final encounter. Remember, try this at home but not in PFS play, as I have no say in anything Pathfinder Society or, for that matter, in anything Paizo at all.

Hand drawn map variant.
Word document with non PFS encounter variant.


Lou's Noodle #2: Historical Analogues in RPG Design

So this is just a little noodle on historical analogues in RPG design. For anyone reading their first one, these noodles are just a little stream of consciousness musing on a topic. This time around its the way specific RPGs (and most other fiction) ground themselves in specific historical time periods or cleave to historical elements to achieve verisimilitude. My wonderings include things like how necessary is it? When to draw the line between historicity and fantasy?

Here's an example to illustrate what I'm writing about: I was once commissioned to write an adventure piece for a well-known publisher that included a ship (no, its not one of the pieces whose covers are cycling about to the left). Reasonably well versed in the history of military naval architecture, I started with an historical ship. Then I researched the evolution of ships of that type, and lastly, based on that evolution through the centuries I extrapolated an over the top, three decker, fantasy version of the vessel.

Did an over the top, dragon prowed, multi-masted, tricked out, fighting towered, three-decker ship of that sort ever exist? No. Would it have been sea-worthy if it had? Maybe. Some wacky things have been put on the water throughout history. The imperial Romans, for example, created barges large enough to sport gardens and entire temples -- not that such ever crossed the Mediterranean, let alone the Atlantic. This is part of my point, though; namely that historical analogues can be a trap for the unwary. Why do I care if a fantasy ship can cross the real Atlantic or not? What if I just need a coast hugger, and a fantasy coast at that? Is it a calm coast? Has anyone decided yet? If I'm the author of the coast, and my fantasy ship is fun enough or central enough to the play experience of gamers, then guess what? It's a calm coast.

The other part of my point is that the publisher hated what I had created. They even told me I should research some boats, that ships of this type were a certain way and not my way, and get back to them with something more realistic. Now that is a publisher's prerogative. In this case, particularly, I was a guest in their world. If my editor asks for something realistic, realistic they shall have. I'd prefer to know that before I write, to save time if for no other reason, but fair enough. Not my call. Historicity delivered.

But this is a game, so I have to ask myself: you may have more realism, but do you have more fun? History can be a trap that makes us lose sight of the fun as we try to be real. This is a game; so, anything that reduces the fun for the audience is a mistake.

There are, of course, other design considerations: length, audience demographics, aesthetic and content continuity with other pieces in the series, price of the final product, word count, space for maps, etc, but I can't find it in me to insist on historicity for its own sake. To be fair, I'm sure the publisher had aesthetic continuity issues that required the more historical ship, but as a general rule where to draw the line between fantasy and history?

I think the answer lies in verisimilitude and context. Straying too far from an historical base may result in the unbelievable. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but its an acquired taste; so if the audience is expecting a certain level of verisimilitude and our piece smashes that expectation? That could be useful for fun (and sales) or not depending on the context. By context I mean, what is the audience buying this game trying to accomplish? Are they buying because they expect to experience a certain kind of fun? Or are they buying because they're hoping to have their expectations trumped and to fly on the wings of the author's imagination, no matter to what fever-dreamy land this may lead?

So I conclude that the level of historicity needed in RPGs can't be generalized, but is always a function of the publisher's goals for a specific piece. Too little and the piece may approach an abstract level out of sync with the publisher's general work and their particular audience's desires. As authors we have to be careful not to place obstacles in the way of the audience's suspension of disblief.

On the other hand, too much historicity and you have an historical game/fiction, not a fantasy. Integrating and balancing these constraints against the creative impulse of the author -- the fantastical visions whirling through the brain and heart -- sits firmly in the realm of art. In our games, however, art must serve a higher mistress, a mistress more defined by the audience than by anything else. Art must serve fun.

Personally, I find over the top, dragon prowed, multi-masted, tricked out, fighting towered, three-decker ships that never existed (but could have) to be more fun. But that's just me.


Lots of exciting new stuff!

Hey all,

Lots of exciting new stuff going on these days. I've recovered from chicken pox (ohmigod that blew) and my wife has recovered from the chicken pox she caught just after I recovered (omhigod did that suck, too!). Only our daughter Kaylie failed to contract the illness. More likely she had it briefly and gave it to her parents.

But that's all personal relief and change. Here are the exciting RPG writing events:

1. PFS#8: Slave Pits of Absalom, my first piece for Paizo ever. The final product is nothing like I originally envisioned. The editorial process at Paizo is exacting! I think the end result, though, is a rocking good slugfest for the Pathfinder Society. And no undead, something PFS has been a tad top-heavy on lately. It's a dream-fulfilled to have my work under the Paizo imprint, and I would love to hear what y'all think!

2. The Road Revolution #1: The Skullcrackers by John Ling is out! First we did the Great City Campaign Setting based on 0onegames award winning map series. Now we're doing an adventure path, taking characters from 1st to 16th (or so) within the Great City. By the end of it, the fate of the entire city will lie in your player's hands.

So the #1 is out. Rone Barton (aka The Jade) and I just submitted our manuscript to the editor, Dave Hall. So #2 is on its way to the executive editor (Tim Hitchcock) and then the publisher. I think you're all going to love it. I just not allowed to say anything more about it. Gah!!!!

Don't miss out on Hitchcock's awesome Great City introductory adventure Pound of Flesh. This is Hitchcock (The Demon Within, Carnival of Tears) in all his whacked-out, sinister glory. To top it off, Mario over at 0onegames put out an entire Great City map folio, including 3/4 3D views and poster printing options. Check it!

3. Speaking of Sinister. Logue has finally relocated his butt over the pond. He's escaped the Pett assassins. He's also getting that whole "new career" thing under control. Yadda yadda - the important thing is we'll be seeing more RPG from his nefarious pen shortly. I saw some preview art for our first Dark Horizons scifi pieces recently and nearly creamed myself. Great stuff. Can...not...wait! to share with y'all.

Well that's all for now. Have a little noodle on the use of real-world analogues in RPG design sticking to the back of my skull cavity, so look for that bit of rumination soon.