Archive for June, 2011

The Usual Suspects

Posted: 30 June 2011 in Reviews

I’ve been playing with GameTable and TokenTool recently, and one thing I’m doing is to create pogs based on photographs of my players. It’s immediately clear who they are, for one thing; and for another, they are transferrable between campaigns.

Here’s one of me as an example. I’ve used square tokens rather than round, since I plan to print them on giant sticky labels, stick the labels to foamcore boards, and trim them to shape – that’s a lot faster with square tokens than round ones.



Review of Ptolus

Posted: 29 June 2011 in Reviews

This is Monte Cook’s City by the Spire for D&D 3rd edition, all 800 pages of it. I daresay it would run as well under Pathfinder. Mr Cook ran this setting under 2nd edition D&D for a time, then evolved it in parallel with working on the 3rd edition, so the two developed in parallel.

Add in the adventures and other stuff that you get with it, and the whole package is literally the size of Tolstoy’s War And Peace.

I’ve had my eye on Ptolus for some time, and a sale by Malhavoc Press dropped the price point for the PDF to the level where I didn’t feel too guilty about buying it, even though it’s unlikely I’ll run it. This is why I’m so far behind the curve; Ptolus is from 2006 or so.

What we have here is a setting aimed at both urban and dungeon adventures. It’s written like a guidebook, with broad sweeps of information at a high level, drilling down into detail for things that the players are likely to be interested in.

Ptolus has been described as "D&D with the volume turned up to 11". The conceits of the game are the conceits of the setting; for example, adults believe in monsters and magic because they see both on a daily basis. The dungeon, a series of labyrinths below the city, draws adventurers like the goldfields of 19th century California; and the citizens of Ptolus are used to that.

Ptolus has the look and feel of a late-Mediaeval German city. I blame Warhammer, although I have no evidence that Mr Cook plays it, because since the emergence of WHFB fantasy settings have moved gradually away from pulp fantasy and high fantasy towards clockpunk. But I digress.


Wherein Monte Cook explains how and why Ptolus came to be, its symbiotic relationship with D&D 3rd edition, and how to use the book.


The next 22 pages are the player briefing; the remaining 750+ pages are GM-only territory. The player briefing is available as a separate file so you can distribute it to the group.


  • The world of Praemal itself only gets 8 pages – the setting is the city, not the world around it. There is a brief gazetteer at the nation-state level, and descriptions of some materials unique to the setting.
  • PC and NPC races get 11 pages. The standard ones, a few less common races, and a chart showing who likes, dislikes and tolerates whom.
  • Cosmology and religions: 16 pages. The most innovative view here is of the Galchutt, and why they are on Praemal. The assorted chaos cults are also worth reading.
  • History: 14 pages. Eleven millenia of the history of Praemal, as it relates to Ptolus.
  • Organisations: 54 pages. This is where I started to perk up and take interest. Ptolus is defined more by the groups which inhabit it than the maps (pretty though they are); there are dozens of them, with goals, motivations, statblocks for NPCs, and interactions with other groups, summarised on a colour-coded chart.


12 chapters, 203 pages. The first of these chapters covers the city in general (flavour, government, economy, layout, climate, inhabitants, etc); after that, each district has its own chapter (flavour, how to run it, people, rumours, locations in varying levels of detail, specific NPCs, adventure seeds). These are interspersed with sidebar snippets about tavern etiquette, gambling and so on. Each district chapter also has floorplans of key locations and a few minor dungeons.


Likewise, there is a chapter on the dungeon below the city in general, followed by another for each major area of the dungeon. 5 chapters, 69 pages. The dungeon – actually a collection of caverns, complexes and underground cities, connected in various ways – isn’t fully mapped in detail; there are a variety of modules that the DM can use for adventures, but there is also a lot of empty space to fill in. Whether that’s good or bad is your call.


This describes the two major locations in the Spire itself, which tower over the city throughout the campaign. Two chapters, 51 pages. These chapters contain location keys and descriptions for the two redoubts, which are best tackled by high-level, well-prepared adventurers; they refer to a poster map, which it took me a while to realise is actually in the download, about page 680 or so.


Five chapters, 31 pages. What it’s like to live in Ptolus; daily life, crime and the law, technology (more Warhammer-style dwarven clockpunk), being an adventurer, and chaositech. This last is the evil twin of dwarven or Imperial technology, and again calls Warhammer to my mind, as well as the organic technology from Dark Conspiracy.

This part is often written in the second person – "You know the laws of the city and avoid breaking them, at least obviously so, as often as you can." for example. I could see the chapter on life as a delver being a player handout. The chapter on crime, law and punishment is useful, in particular because it details what illegal activities adventurers can and cannot get away with, and why.


This section has 78 pages of campaign advice in 6 chapters, covering general advice, urban campaigns, adventures, monsters, magic, and prestige classes.

This begins by considering the types of campaign a DM might run in Ptolus (and given the size and cost, you’ll probably run more than one if you take to the place at all). Story arc vs episodic; dungeon crawling vs criminal syndicate adventures a la Grand Theft Auto vs wars vs intrigue; campaigns focussed on a specific feature of the city; prophecies and their fulfilment; character goals and their interaction with any of the above; recurring villains.

It then moves into scenario creation and balance with the thoroughness I have come to expect by this point.

Next, we have a chapter of episodic adventures which should take the characters up to about 4th level, and a suggested outline weaving together the various adventures from the book into a path taking the PCs from level 1 to level 20.

Then, there are the obligatory chapters of setting-specific monsters, spells and prestige classes. I tend to glaze over at these, because it’s my habit to stick to the core rules for such matters.


This review is already pretty long, so I have skipped over the glossaries, the two adventure packs (Night of Dissolution and The Banewarrens), the maps and keys at the end of the book, the handouts (calendars, broadsheets, tavern menu, random encounter matrices, city-at-a-glance, where to go to buy stuff, proclamations, wanted posters, character sheets, Imperial Citizenship Papers, want ads and so on. Suffice to say they are many and entertaining.

Things I like:

  • Above all, the concepts. Evil as a physical and infectious substance, and the implications of that idea. The spire and the reason for its existence. The conceits of the game being the conceits of the setting.
  • The level of detail. If this takes your fancy, you could run your players around Ptolus for a decade without needing anything other than this and the core rulebooks.
  • The cross-referencing. When a location or NPC from another chapter is mentioned, there is a page reference so you can flip directly to the detail.
  • The chart of relationships between groups, and the groups themselves. I particularly like the Sisters of Silence – female vigilante monks patrolling the streets.
  • There are all manner of invisible or extraplanar places to find and explore, if you can. In Ptolus, there is always another layer beneath or behind what the players think they have found.

Things I don’t like:

  • There’s more Renaissance and clockpunk technology than I prefer in a fantasy setting; firearms, ID papers, broadsheets, steam-powered airships.
  • The setting has its own calendar. I know it adds to the flavour, but it also adds to the difficulty of playing in and running the setting.
  • A 22-page player handout. You should be able to put the key facts of the setting on one page. Most of my players won’t read even that much.
  • There’s a lot of material to familiarise myself with, as the DM, before I could start running it.


This is the go-to setting for the total immersion D&D 3E crowd; it’s better at retaining the feel of D&D than its stablemate Eberron, and I can see that you could easily run several entire campaigns here without ever touching the world outside the city walls.

Or, you can ignore most of the city, and focus in on Delvers’ Square, which is constructed to have everything a dungeon-crawling party needs. I think that would be the answer to my concern about how much study I’d have to do before running Ptolus; start with the Square, and work out gradually.

I’m unlikely to run the city in its current form, but it’s a fine example of how to create a city, and there are a wide range of ideas, characters, maps and situations I can repurpose. Plus, I enjoyed reading it in its own right.

It’s impressive.

I’m impressed.

I have lots of ideas for factions, and also a view to using them in other games; but I’ll start small, to make sure I understand things. The Antares Sector will start with three factions; the Celestial Empire, which is a stock Regional Hegemon; the Halfway Combine, a stock Mercantile Combine; and the Corinthian Scout Service, which I shall now create. All of them start with 0 experience points.

Every faction has a homeworld, six statistics, one or more tags, and a goal. The homeworld is easy; that’s Corinth. Likewise the faction objectives, those have been developed in play so far.

I see the CSS as a minor faction with aspirations of growth; the advice on p. 126 of Stars Without Number tells me that the faction should have 4 in its primary attribute (probably Cunning – it’s a survey and espionage outfit), 3 in its secondary (Wealth, because it can afford to hand out constructive possession of scoutships) and 1 in its tertiary (only Force is left), which gives it 15 hit points. The CSS also has one asset in its primary attribute, and another in some other attribute; browsing through the lists on pp. 118-123, I select Covert Shipping/Cunning 3 (which includes Arion and the Dolphin), and Surveyors/Wealth 2 (which seems to reflect their official purpose as a Traveller-style scout service).

Browsing through the tags section, I see a few that look appropriate, and although most factions should have only one tag, I note that especially versatile organisations can have two. Scouts are nothing if not versatile, so I pick Secretive and Technical Expertise as the best fit to my intentions for the faction.

That whole process took about 15 minutes, and gives me a faction looking like this:


Officially an organ of the Corinthian government dedicated to interstellar exploration and communications, forming a “cultural bridge” between the worlds of the Attica Cluster, the CSS also operates various intelligence assets. These are normally small groups of deniable operators based on a CSS scoutship; in order to make it harder for opponents to work out what it is actually doing, in a kind of interstellar “shell game”, the CSS offers exemplary former members constructive possession of a scoutship, to do with as they wish so long as they keep it in good order and periodically report their findings. Yes, some former CSS crews are spies; but which ones? Usually, not even they know for certain.

Attributes: Force 1, Cunning 4, Wealth 3.

Hit Points: 15.

Assets: Covert Shipping/Cunning 3, Surveyors/Wealth 2.

Tags: Secretive, Technical Expertise.

Goals: Long-term – preserve the safety and independence of the Attica Cluster in general, and Corinth in particular (Peaceable Kingdom). Short-term – establish a Base of Operations on Halfway Station (Expand Influence).

Friendly Know-It-All

Posted: 27 June 2011 in Reflections

Last Saturday my post referenced Richard Bartle’s player archetypes. I’ve since found a test to determine one’s orientation on a Kingdom of Loathing fansite. So naturally, I took it.

I came out with a high score in spades (Explorer) and almost as high in hearts (Socialiser), which according to the site makes me a “Friendly Know-it-All”.

That actually fits quite well. I’m more interested in understanding the game, and relaxing with friends, than I am in winning. Perhaps this explains my focus on the minutiae of the rules, and thus the didactic posts on this blog.


Gods of Irongrave

Posted: 25 June 2011 in Settings
Tags: ,

"As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods; they kill us for their sport." – Shakespeare, King Lear.

A few Savage Saturdays ago, I talked about the Chosen. Now I turn my attention to those who choose them; the players and the GM, as perceived by characters in the game.

Characters in the game are controlled by the players, the GM, dice and a deck of cards. I’ll refer to the GM as the Adversary, the dice and cards as the Fates, and the players as mixtures of Richard Bartle’s player archetypes: The Achiever, the Explorer, the Socialiser and the Killer.

SW is designed so that the players control some of the Extras even if their PCs do not control those NPCs. However, the dice and cards can throw any plan into disarray.


  • There are beings outside normal experience, who select the Chosen as their avatars. They have many names, but each is a complex mixture of several primeval forces, one of which is generally dominant at any given time.
  • These beings manipulate people and events to make the lives of the Chosen more meaningful and memorable, although what that actually means depends on which force is dominant in the being.
  • The Fates are also involved, and support or hinder these manipulations at random; nothing is preordained, nothing is certain.
  • If you are Chosen, you are an avatar of one or more of these beings. If you are not Chosen, you may still be under their control from time to time; this is especially true if you are in the retinue of a Chosen.
  • One of these beings – the Adversary – is more powerful than the others. He generally opposes the other beings. Heroes are made by surmounting obstacles, and it is the Adversary’s role to place these obstacles in the hero’s way.
  • Anyone, however ordinary, can overcome the Chosen if the Fates are on their side. Alas, the Fates are fickle and immune to influence.


  • None of the higher powers are entirely good or wholly evil, but they all strive either to create obstacles for the Chosen, or to overcome them by acting through one of the Chosen; except for the Fates, who are simply not interested in what happens in the mundane world.
  • The Chosen are lightning rods. If (as an ordinary person) you crave power, wealth or abnormally high prowess in any field, you ally yourself to one of the Chosen. If all you want is a quiet, comfortable life, you avoid the Chosen like the plague.

Pathfinding in Anger

Posted: 24 June 2011 in Tryouts

My son caught me reading the Pathfinder rulebook the other day, and we got to talking about it.

Nick’s first exposure to D&D was 3rd Edition, and he loves the mechanical complexity of 3rd Edition combat, as well as the visual key that for his characters, each die type has a defined purpose (d20 for rolls to hit, d12 for damage, or whatever). He has never really been happy with 4th Edition or Savage Worlds.

The idea that Pathfinder is a modified version of 3rd Edition really attracted him. As ever, I have my favourites, but I’m more concerned about who I play with than what we play; so expect some Pathfinder posts shortly.

Review of Pathfinder RPG

Posted: 22 June 2011 in Reviews

So, I cracked and bought Pathfinder from Paizo. $20 got me a 578 page core rulebook, and a 330-page bestiary, both as PDF downloads – the hardback dead tree versions are roughly five times that price, so maybe later.

A detailed review of a 900 page game in the space of one blog post isn’t viable, so here are the headlines…


  • The core rulebook equates to the D&D player’s handbook and dungeon master’s guide combined, and the bestiary equates to the monster manual. I think it would be viable to run an urban/intrigue style campaign without the bestiary, using the races and classes in the core book only.
  • The rules engine is essentially D&D version 3.5, but the character classes have been buffed to bring their capabilities in line with basic 3.5 plus splatbooks.


  • I can buy all of the components as PDF downloads. This is essential for me these days.
  • The downloads arrive with one version in a single file, and another version where each chapter is a separate file. Nice touch.
  • Pathfinder preserves my investment in D&D 3.5, rather than making it obsolete. Statblocks are pretty much identical, and there is a free 3.5 to Pathfinder conversion guide on the Paizo website.
  • The classes encourage players to stay within a single class. (Rant) Most game systems spend a lot of effort limiting which characters can do what, and then even more effort on adding ways to get around those limitations, which makes character design an exercise in splatbook mastery. Either have character classes and stick with them, or don’t have ’em at all. (End rant. I feel better now.)


I expect my dislikes are irrelevant to the Pathfinder target audience, which is 3.5 players who don’t want to migrate to 4E.

  • No pregenerated characters, setting information, or sample adventure. I’d like half a dozen pre-built PCs so my players and I can just dive in and get on with it. I can live without the setting and adventure stuff, but this suggests to me Pathfinder isn’t aimed at drawing in new players. However, there is a beginners’ boxed set out later this year (2011) which might address that point.
  • No free quickstart edition of the rules. Even WotC eventually realised this is a must.
  • No printer-friendly version of the PDFs. This is a minor niggle as realistically I’m not going to print out 900 pages of rules and lug them around with me anyway. (I would do that for the quickstart version if it existed.)
  • None of the iconic D&D monsters – beholder, mind flayer, carrion crawler etc. This is for copyright reasons, the OGL doesn’t allow their use and Pathfinder depends on the d20 OGL.


$20 well spent, even if I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with it yet; Ptolus or Dungeon Bash, maybe. I’ll probably get one or more of the setting books as well.

WotC, this is how you should have done 4E. ‘Nuff said.