Monday, April 29, 2024

Carry On Carrying On

A very long time ago I played through the CARRION CROWN campaign for Pathfinder, and good fun it was too.

Also a long time ago but not quite as long ago a time as when I played Carrion Crown, I pondered rewriting the campaign. I never did get around to that rewrite, but when clearing up some old blog posts last week I uncovered my preliminary notes for what I was planning. I don't know if I'll go any further with it -- time has moved on, I have moved on -- but in the hope that it may be useful or at least interesting, here it is.

(Please bear in mind this is all based on decade-old memories and also that I was a player, so I didn't get to read the adventures. I also won't be going into rewrites of the individual adventures here, although most of them were fine. It's the campaign as a whole that needs work.)

Carrion Crown has a great central concept: each of the adventures is based on a classic horror monster, so there's a werewolf adventure, a Frankenstein adventure, a ghost adventure, and so on. It's a bit artificial but otherwise a very strong hook for the campaign, so we're absolutely keeping that.

The general plot is functional: a conspiracy of cultists wants to resurrect an ancient lich king, they need a bunch of items to do so; get the quest tokens before they do! A multi-part fetch quest isn't the most innovative setup but it is tried and tested, and anyway it's the classic monsters concept that's the selling point.


art by Kurt Jakobi
None of it matters. The cultists do the ritual anyway, whether the players have seized the "essential" items or not. They don't summon the big world-ending lich king, but they do summon a big end-of-campaign lich boss, and there's very little practical difference.

(I don't know if, as written, there's any possibility for the original ritual to succeed, but I'm fairly confident in guessing that there is not.)

Carrion Crown gives the impression of flexibility and an open quest, but it's an illusion. At the beginning of the campaign, the players are given clues about the ritual and the items needed, but it's only possible to make sense of the clues -- and go to find the next piece -- when the campaign says so. The cultists are always already there waiting, so the race against time is just as illusory.

In short, despite appearances, there's no meaningful choice and no real control over the outcome. And that's terrible.

So, how would I fix Carrion Crown?

Well, as mentioned above I'd keep the classic monster theme, and the lich resurrection quest is acceptable and easy to comprehend. I would invert the ritual; rather than needing the items to complete the resurrection, I would say rather that the items can be used to weaken the lich if he does return. In fact, they were used to defeat him last time, which is why there is a legend/prophecy written about them. This may require some rejigging of the items; again it's been a long time since I played and I don't remember what all the quest tokens were.

I would give the players the full set of clues right at the beginning, and let them decide where to start. The clues can be partial and require visiting a person or location to fully understand, but in general the players will have all the information they need to find the items.

(I would also chuck some alternative "solutions" in there. One thing Eternal Lies did well was provide different options for resolving the campaign. From Eternal Lies I'd pinch the possibility of recruiting a Lesser of Two Evils type entity to deal with or distract the lich king. Enlisting allies to help out is another "item" the players could find.)

Right away, the players are faced with a choice: they can go straight to the ritual site right now to stop the cultists, or they can try to find some or all of the items to make it easier. It should be difficult for a bunch of level one characters to stop the ritual, but it also should be possible in theory. Think of Frodo and Sam in Mordor; it's a different sort of campaign, but the, er, path is there if the players want to, um, find it.

In my version of the campaign the cultists would not be everywhere, mere minutes from claiming the plot tokens just as the players arrive, because that's rank nonsense. Instead, the main bulk of the cultists will be where they should be, preparing the ritual, with a couple of "strike teams" out and about, searching for the prophesied items. I would probably also randomise their destinations, at least at the beginning, so maybe the cultists are where the player-characters are, or maybe they meet on the road as they head to different locations.

There's potential here for the players to lose quest items as the cultists get there first, but this is good and interesting as it creates tension, and as the items have gone from essential to useful, it doesn't tank the campaign. It also encourages recurring baddies, if the same cultists keep turning up.

art by Dave Rapoza
In terms of levels and balancing, I think there are probably two main approaches. One is OSR-ey, setting up the Frankenstein adventure -- for example -- to be suitable for -- for example -- level four characters, letting players go in over-or-underpowered, and seeing what happens. I favour this approach, although it wouldn't work well for Pathfinder and some players may find it frustraing. The other option is more Quantum Ogreish, scaling the individual adventures to be an appropriate challenge -- eight Frankensteins instead of one, or whatever -- for the player-characters. I like this less and it would probably be more work for the GM.

One last, but important, thought. It's vital for me that the campaign feels like it is -- ironically -- alive. The cultist strike teams should be moving around, causing trouble. The ritual should be in progress from session one, and should complete at a certain time. The players should feel like they are not only racing against time, but literally racing against the cultists. If the players miss the ritual, the lich king returns and starts stomping about, and the players will have to decide what to do. One final big battle against the lich king and his followers, with whatever allies and items the players have managed to gather? Or do we finish and consider it a loss, because a bad ending is still an ending?

Of course if you're playing in a more old school style, or with an ongoing campaign, then a resurrected lich king is just a new element for your campaign setting. Enjoy!

That's about it for what I found in my ancient notes. Specifics are beyond me at this point, and I feel a bit of a fraud because it seems like anyone could have come up with these vague suggestions -- except for Paizo's editors, obviously, ha ha -- but I hope there's something useful in there.

Maybe I will find time to delve deeper and do a full rewrite at some point -- the vampire adventure is a complete mess -- but for now there is much to do.

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Friday, April 19, 2024

Kangaroo Pills

RUINATION PILGRIMAGE is Donn Stroud's new role-playing game of wandering troubleshooters/troublemakers in a mediaeval setting a couple of steps sideways from ours, where angels and demons and saints are real and mostly deadly. It's a little bit like Pendragon and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had an unholy baby; regular readers -- or people that can click on links -- will know that I like both of those games, and I like this one too!

Before we get to the good bits let's look at some wonky bits, of which there aren't many. I'm reviewing a Kickstarter pdf, so some of these may be ironed out in the print release.

  • Ruination Pilgrimage uses a d5 now and then. That's just a d10 halved and is easy enough to work out, but I've never liked it. For no valid mechanical reason, I'm just not fond of halved die rolls in general, and there's no compelling reason for it here as far as I can see; the overall system is d10/d100 based, but it also uses d20s, so I don't think it's out of a desire to use only one die type. I would have just used d6s there.
  • The organisation is a bit off. For example, combat ranges are not in the combat section, but next to the wilderness travel and survival section. Natural healing is explained in the chapter on downtime activities, which makes sense, but isn't mentioned at all in the part about healing, which makes less sense. It's not a massive problem; all the information is there, it's just sometimes in odd places.
  • The rules on conditions and survival are rather more detailed and complicated than I would have expected. We're not talking Fantasy Games Unlimited levels of crunch here, but given that the rest of the game is simple and robust, the detail in this part seems excessive and in places redundant. It almost feels like it's from a different game.
On the other hand, there is quite a lot to like! Exclamation point!

  • As mentioned above, the main mechanics are robust and simple -- which I like -- and are based on d100 -- which I also like -- so that's all good. RP is apparently based on the Mothership rpg, but I've not played that. If it's close to this I'd probably like it.
  • The mechanics are explained well and while some rules may be unnecessarily complicated or in odd places, there's never any confusion about how they work.
  • There are some great, evocative tables used for critical hits, diseases, and character backgrounds and histories. Randomness is used well, and the tables are full of flavour. Usually flavour that's inimical to the player-characters, but good flavour nonetheless.
  • The despair and sorrow system adds a "lovely" doom-laden feel to the game, making every action risky. Not all the despair results are negative, which is a nice touch. Having played rpgs with despair systems before I am a tiny bit wary of how this will work in actual play -- as they can sometimes lead to un-fun doom spirals -- but I'll wait and see.
  • There's a table of replacement body parts! Some have built-in weapons! Excellent!
  • RP ties character progression to a formal downtime system, and offers a variety of activities to improve and restore characters. I'm quite fond of the Making Friends one, which is a warm bit of simple wholeseomness among all the gore and mud.
  • The supernatural side of the game looks like it's got lots of toys with which to play. There are some fun-looking exorcism mechanics, and prayers and saint blessings also look like they will be interesting in play.
  • Angels are all wings and eyes, and not only have specific abilities and roles -- they aren't just generic combat summons -- but also cause distress and terror when they appear. It's a bit Call of Cthulhu, another of my favourites. Demons are less interesting, but the angels more than make up for it.
  • Adam B Forman's art is bold and evocative, and captures the mediaeval feel well. I would have liked more of it but what's there is excellent, and there are plenty of text sidebars to convey the mood of the setting.
The big question is: would I play Ruination Pilgrimage? The answer is a big mud-spattered, many-eyed, limb-lopping "yes!" If you like WFRP but prefer an "earlier" setting, or you like Pendragon but want more blood and mud, or you like Vampire: The Dark Ages but think vampires are dumb, then this may be right up your mediaeval twitten.

Arbitrary numeric score: 3d10+10

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

More Deadly Than the Male

Oh dear, I see the man-babies are apoplectic with rage about female characters in Warhammer 40,000 again. This time it's because it's been revealed that the Adeptus Custodes -- basically even more Space Mariney Space Marines -- include women in their ranks.

Gnash! Wail! Gasp! Etc!

This is sort of a retcon. I say "sort of", because I don't think it's ever been stated that the faction is all-male, it's just that no one's mentioned female members before.

Obviously the thing that's annoying these very mature and sensible people is the change to "established" canon and NOTHING ELSE, so I imagine that they are also furious about:
All changed or removed from canon, so all similarly rage-inducing, I'm sure, because it's about the sanctity of canon. Nothing else. Nope.

I don't always agree with Games Workshop's decisions -- release your old books as print-on-demand, you cowards! -- but this is glorious. Well done, GW.

Friday, April 05, 2024


I've been following The DOOMED since it was Grimlite and have been keen to get it to the table from the moment the final version was released by Osprey. Schedules -- and painted miniatures -- lined up at last and Stuart and I met up for an introductory conflict-slash-monster-hunt this week.

I put together a -- very expensive! -- Eldar band, mainly because they are the only consistent set of sci-fi miniatures I have painted, although Fateweaver Duu'ey stepped aside and let Ree'Parch lead the Exile Band into the DOOMED sectors.

(Which has nothing to do with me realising at the eleventh hour that my leader had a shooting re-roll but was armed with a sword. Nope!)

Stuart brought a much larger group of space killers, and we discovered that Reborn Covens look a lot like Genestealer Cults.

Here are the things I liked about The DOOMED before I played it:

  • The "use any miniatures you've got" philosophy, which has become trendy enough to be somewhat common in indie wargames, but I still like it a lot.
  • The semi-cooperative monster hunting aspect, which was added fairly late in Grimlite's development, but quickly became the main selling point for me.
  • The simple rules -- no measurement! Only one statistic! -- that promised a quick and easy game.
  • The rich campaign mechanics, offering lots of options and random events.
I am pleased to report that most of those things proved to be good and true in play too. It took us about three hours to play the suggested starting monster/scenario combo, but we were getting some mechanics around damage and monster actions wrong that were making the game longer. We were also a bit concerned beforehand that the simple rules would feel basic and flat in play, but they worked well and never felt simplistic. We quite enjoyed the damage table, which is just half a page but adds a lot of unexpected variety to combat. When you understand it. Which we did. Eventually.

My warband engaged with the monster early on and downed it, but it was the Coven that destroyed the beast, scoring one of the two victory conditions. Ree'Parch had been taken out by that point so the rest of the space elves legged it off the board, fulfilling the second condition. Well, Fl'Peebrd flew off the board, but same thing.

Technically a draw then, although The DOOMED is more about fighting against the game -- in a good way! -- than each other.

I hope we'll play again soon. We have generated the next monster and scenario from the impressive d66 tables in the book, plus some random events to make things even more DOOMy for our brave but DOOMED warbands. I'm going to have a look at Ree'Parch's band of exiles and perhaps bring some different, cheaper, soldiers next time.