Jalizar on Acid

Let’s take a look at Jalizar as an option for a high fantasy campaign, which is where I was headed before 13th Age caught my eye; it’s still something I’d like to do eventually.
 
We’re aiming for “The Lord of the Rings on acid”, rather than “the Savage Sword of Conan”, which will mean a certain amount of surgery; but as long as we limit the campaign to the city and its environs, only a few players will notice, and frankly most of those won’t care. Purists should look away now, though. Jalizar is nearly five years old, so I will allow myself some spoilers as well.
 
Let’s begin with the demihuman races. There is something that looks like a forest south of Jalizar, which could house elves; Ironguard Pass, to the south-west, sounds like it ought to have dwarves in it; we can swap the Valk for orcs easily enough, since Tolkien largely patterned them on huns and mongols, which is what the Valk are based on; and halflings are traditionally found around humans. Drow are very close to Tricarnians in spirit, so we can have them as well if we like.
 
To minimise the risk of confusion among inexperienced players, we’ll limit ourselves to the core SW rulebook, which means none of the edges or arcane backgrounds in B&B for PCs; I know that works because it’s how I run Shadows of Keron, although it’s a pity.
 
High fantasy implies an adventure path or plot point campaign of some sort, which we can build on a combination of two of Jalizar’s suggested campaign themes; The Rise to Power and Lone Warriors Against Evil, with the latter dominant. That keeps the action focussed in the city, which will help avoid awkward questions about demihumans. A good skeleton for the plot point campaign is given by the GM Tips sidebar on p. 123, Degrees of Knowledge About the Jamhans – these guys are THE big secret of Jalizar. This approach also means there is a dungeon to explore, in the form of the Sewers.
 
The players are likely to create a group of murderhobos, so where better to put them than in and around the Thieves’ Guild? Thieves, corrupt Copper Helms, sorcerors who need hard-to-come-by ingredients or provide magical support on guild missions, undercover Iron Priests, smugglers. To borrow from Greywulf, this is Grand Theft Donkey: Jalizar.
 
That in turn tells us which organisations will be involved: The Thieves’ Guild and the Jan Tong will be the primary factions, with the Merchant Houses essentially existing as targets for the Guild and the Copper Helms being a sort of terrain hazard.
 
There are a number of existing adventures I can weave into the campaign: The Weeping Mother; Grains of Death; from Places of the Dominions, The Caravan of Two Lanterns and The Windowless Tower; and with a little thought, The Cliff Queen’s Court. There are also intriguing little hints about potential scenarios scattered through the book – for example, how and why did that nobleman die so horribly in the privy? So long as I make sure each story has some information, NPC or creature connected to the main plotline, all will be well.
 
The theme is clear; as the SW Bedlam setting puts it, the game is about bad people doing good things for questionable reasons.

Hearts of Stone Episode 18: Jailbreak

Team Robot: Boris, Silmaria, Ssh’ta, The Fox, X7-09. Guest Star: Valore. Apologies: Ssh’ta.

Glitterhaegen, 26 May 216.

Team Robot, minus Ssh’ta and plus Valore, awakens to find itself naked in filthy dungeon cells in an unknown location. There is one other prisoner: Yalanchi, who looks as if he was not in good shape to begin with, and then someone beat him within an inch of his life. He informs them that he is a member of the League of Nine, one of the two great criminal gangs of Glitterhaegen, and that he believes they are the captives of the other one, known as the Shadowmen, which is rumoured to work with the Prince of Shadows; however, the people beating him have been more interested in asking questions than answering them.

Escaping the cells is clearly the first priority. Valore’s wing bash, Zadok’s heat bolt, and Vor’s ill-equipped attempt at lockpicking fail, and the Fox’s wild charge straight into the iron bars of the cell door gains him nothing but bruises; but Boris assumes the form of a mouse and strolls out into the corridor between the cells. At length, a massive half-orc enters the corridor and stops before Silmaria’s cell, appraising her. (Team Robot will never learn that his name is Zorba.)

“Yes,” he opines, “You are as lovely as they said. I can see why Himself wants you back.”

“No!” cries Silmaria, instinctively. Thinking more clearly, she goes on: “It’s so very dark in this cell, I’m scared. Will you… Will you hold my hand?” Silmaria is as good-looking as it is possible to be, and Zorba (who bears her no particular ill will) grumpily acquiesces.

“What about me?” calls Valore, who is in all honesty not as good-looking but still better than average. “I’m in here with two naked men, can you move me to another cell?” For whatever reason, Zorba agrees, but first summons another three equally large and muscular guards in case of tricks. Boris, meanwhile, has scampered across to X7-09’s cell, finding that worthy dormant and powered down. Hearing the guards return, he runs back into his cell – in plain sight of the guards, but a mouse in a dungeon cell block is nothing out of the ordinary, and they ignore him.

The guards form up around Valore’s cell in case of trouble, and order Zadok and Vor to the back of the cell before opening it so that Valore can emerge. However, her first action on doing so is to buffet Zorba in the face with one of her wings (which following something weird happening under Dwardel earlier are now made of steel). Boris supports her attack by casting Confusion, whereupon a horde of chittering, fluffy, long-clawed mice fall on the guards, shaking two of them. Zadok fires another heat Bolt at Zorba, to no effect.

Boris runs back to X7-09’s cell and picks the lock with long, mousey claws. One of the shaken guards wanders into range of the Fox, who stealthily relieves him of his keys. Boris moves on to Yalanchi’s cell, but breaks a fingernail and collapses, howling in anguish.

The guards mob Valore, whose fighting skill is (or shortly will be) legendary, and they can’t land a blow on her. Villen, the Fox’s squire, opens the door of their cell, and the two make a break for it, running for the exit through the scene of chaos – Silmaria is taunting Zorba, Boris is trying to pick locks, and Valore is punching Zorba repeatedly, making him flash like a torch every time she hits him.

Villen thinks better of abandoning his friends for a complete stranger (remember, everyone forgets the Fox at midnight) and runs back, unlocking Silmaria’s cell door and Yalanchi’s; but while he is freeing Yalanchi, Zorba stabs him from behind, killing him outright. Boris calls on the Lich King to raise his friend, and the Lich King does so to an extent, raising him as a zombie.

“Braaaiiins,” says Villen by way of thanks. Zorba yells at his men to cut the fugitives off at the exit (and also the knees, if possible), and runs Zadok through on the basis that he’s having no luck getting past Valore’s wing parries, and Zadok is after all a spellcaster. Villen considers attacking someone, but there are these lovely fresh brains leaking onto the floor right next to him, so he digs in.

The jailers form up at the top of the stairs leading out of the cell block, and the Fox runs at them, calling on the Archmage for assistance and invoking his own memory-erasing powers. The jailers promptly forget who they are and what they are doing, allowing the party to herd their unresisting former captors into a cell and lock them up.

They emerge into a well-lit corridor, with sunlight streaming in from the north end. Silmaria and Boris run to the daylight, and bask in it while waiting for the others. Valore and the Fox find a door leading off the corridor into another small complex; they manage to kill a couple more guards before those worthies can react, and arm themselves with longswords whose owners have no further use for them. Vor joins them, and they stealthily move deeper into the group of rooms, finding their own gear piled up on one room and the last remaining group of jailers, who have alas been alerted by the commotion outside and are ready for them, not that it helps; all but one are cut down within seconds, and the survivor mortally wounds Vor as he hacks his way free and makes a run for the exit. However, Boris has been using Healing powers to regrow his broken nail and expand his body hair to cover his nakedness, and now casts Entangle to wrap the fleeing foe in bonds formed by luxurious armpit hair. This slows him enough for Valore to catch him and stab him to death, before moving back into the cell block and butchering the surviving, if now mentally deficient, opponents – as well as the zombie formerly known as Villen.

Rummaging through their lair, Valore discovers trinkets and coin to the value of 80 silver. Yalanchi thanks them for releasing him and melts into the crowd; Team Robot gears up and moves out, the Fox vowing to track down Yalanchi, who he wanted to question further.

Some hours later, X7-09 reboots and finds himself alone in an abandoned set of dungeon cells, surrounded by the corpses of former travelling companions and presumed members of the Shadowmen. Phlegmatic as ever, he picks up Pascal the chamaeleon and lumbers out into Glitterhaegen.

GM NOTES

This session was the first official one after the group split in two, and it worked much better with five players than ten. So that is a success. Thomas Zunder’s approach of treating Icon relationships as skills also works much better than just using the straight 13th Age rules, and the players now use them pretty much the way I think is intended.

This was intended to be a session interacting with NPCs, during which the players could learn useful information and become embroiled in intrigure, and I thought that taking all their toys away and locking them up in cells might slow them down enough to do that; but I had forgotten Boris has Shapeshift and can turn himself into a mouse, and after that it turned into the usual bloodbath, with the party expressing a total lack of interest in why they had been captured or by whom. Like I always say though, if everyone’s enjoying the game you’re doing it right, and I have their measure now; what they want is a a fight and some shiny loot, and that makes session planning very simple. (By the way, I am using the SW Fantasy Companion loot generator here; I had concerns that D&D-style levels of magic items would break the game, but it doesn’t.)

While plain vanilla NPCs are pretty much incapable of threatening the PCs – the tanks have Parry and Toughness well over 10 by now – the party’s allies are squishy once their armoured shells are removed, and went down like ninepins. Did we see any remorse or attempts to resurrect them? No. What I got were comments to the effect that they had been wanting to recruit more useful henchmen anyway, and could we use the down time before the next session to design them?

X7-09’s player couldn’t make the session after all, so I decided to complicate the scenario by having him powered down in a corner – the players must not only escape, they must also take with them an unconscious forgeborn! Of course, what they actually did was walk off and leave him there…

Hearts of Stone: Deities

Gods are not that important in the world of the 13th Age, but players do occasionally ask what the gods of the setting are.

Rather than invent new pantheons of gods, each race worships one or more historic pantheons. There is some overlap between pantheons as each mythology contains its own versions of Jung’s archetypes – for example the Ruler might manifest himself as Jupiter, Odin, or Amun-Ra.

Humans, Halflings: Egyptian, then Greek, and currently Roman. This indicates the evolution of their religion over time and allows ruins from earlier Ages to have different symbology, layouts and so on.

Dragonborn, Orcs: Slavic. This has a suitably wide range of deities of death, destruction and evil.

Dwarves, Forgeborn: Norse. Obviously.

Elves: Celtic. High elves prefer the Gaulish version of the pantheon, wood elves the Welsh, and the dark elves have become completely fixated on Arianrhod in her aspect of the Spider, weaver of fate, whom they refer to as Lolth.

Aasimar, Tieflings and other races will be added if and as necessary. Gnomes were wiped out by plague at the end of the 12th Age, and good riddance.

Pytus is roughly equivalent to Pythian Apollo. Archetypes, you see, they’re everywhere…

Hearts of Stone Episode 17: Arachnophobia

Under Dwardel, 25 May 216

Previously, on Hearts of Stone…

Half the party descended into the “Archmage’s secret facility” under Dwardel town hall via a one-way teleporter, and found a small dungeon complex carved into a stalactite sticking down into an apparently bottomless chasm. Venturing outside it into a cavern, they found intelligent arachnids (who want to capture X7-09 and abduct him for unspeakable experiments) negotiating with drow (who want to kill Boris). Boris has broken the handle on one of the drawbridges, leaving the way open for intruders to enter. Valore is about to be overrun by invisible arachnids. X7-09 has caused the chasm to begin flooding with molten lava. Now, the rest of the party arrives to help. What could possibly go wrong?

sgate_sm

The scene of the battle: Stalactite Gate, from Deep Vistas.

Hayes, Kowalski and Ssh’ta brave the one-way teleporter and arrive to help just as the massed bands of drow, giant spiders, and invisible sentient giant spiders charge the party’s redoubt. The party forms a defensive line at one end of the closest drawbridge as invisible spiders move across it at speed, barging past Balthazar Rook who manages somehow not to get knocked off. Another invisible spider knocks Valore into the chasm, but as she can fly, this is merely a temporary setback.

Boris runs to the fray, and bumps into what appears to be an invisible giant spider in plate mail. Unwilling to engage in melee, he casts Pummel and a blast of strange-smelling gas emerges from him at speed (the less said about that, the better) and rattles those on the bridge. Meanwhile there is an exchange going on between X7-09 and the sentient spiders in Spidertalk. Ssh’ta emerges from a side door onto a turret with a commanding view of the battlefield, stations Caliban to protect him from spider assault, and begins methodically cutting down drow and spiders with arrows – this occupies him for the rest of the fight. Valore emerges from the chasm and starts rolling up the drow flank – she is one of the party’s three combat monsters, the others being Soreth and X7-09.

A spider barges past Balthazar again, and he kills it with his rapier. Feeling outnumbered, he drops his buckler and draws a second blade – the buckler falls into the rising lava. Caliban growls intimidatingly at the spiders, who ignore him. Silmaria sings a love song in Spidertalk, which she thinks should get the spiders frisky, but as the sentient ones are invisible she can’t tell if it worked.

The invisible plate-armoured sentient giant spider (trust me, it’s even worse than they know) casts Fear, and NPCs scatter in all directions while Balthazar is Shaken, and permanently marked by his terror; his hair turns white. At this point he reveals that he has a teleport amulet on loan from the Archmage, and his plan is to throw it at the boss spider so that she is teleported away. The rest of the party point out forcefully that this leaves them stranded underground with no way back out, and suggest an alternative plan of using the amulet to escape their predicament.

X7-09 pushes his two cultist allies into the lava as sacrifices as they advance around the outside of the stalactite, and calls on the Diabolist for aid, specifically the ability to breathe poisonous fumes on the approaching spiders (and Balthazar too, incidentally). However, either he is distracted by the subject of his phobia coming to drag him off to a life of pain and suffering, or the Diabolist thinks it’s funnier to leave him to it, and no help is forthcoming.

Hayes lofts a turnip at the drow patrol leader, who the party recognise as their earlier opponent, but misses. Balthazar invokes the aid of the Archmage to erase the spider leader’s memory, causing some sort of protective amulet on its thorax to shatter but having no other effect. Kowalski backs away from the spiders at the door and casts Deflect, Boris casts Fear (illusory ghost zombie snakes), X7-09 shouts that he will never be taken alive and Valore negotiates swiftly with the drow – they attacked, she retaliated, how about they call it even?

X7-09 ducks back around the corner of the stalactite and runs back inside, pursued by spiders, and slams the door behind him. The drow leader yells at her surviving troops to meet up at the rally point, and teleports out as they run for their riding spiders. The sentient spiders start banging on the doors. The party regroup around Balthazar, who sucessfully calls on the Archmage for more help – and all are teleported away.

But there is a catch. Something goes wrong with the evocation; the spiders, who are in the area of effect, are nowhere to be seen. Kowalski, Ssh’ta, Caliban and Hayes shimmer into existence in the basement of Dwardel town hall. The others are… somewhere else…

GM NOTES

This session was successful despite the large number of players. We have agreed to try splitting the party into two smaller groups, tentatively named Team Dragon and Team Robot, and run them for a while separately on alternate weekends. I think that will work a lot better; there are GMs who can run huge numbers of players – I’ve seen Eric Wujcik run over 20 at a time at a convention – but I’m not one of them, and I run better sessions when there are no more than 4-6 players. There are some set pieces planned for which I need all the players, though.

This and the previous session were run on one of the Deep Vistas maps, specifically Stalactite Gate, and you’ll see a small image of that above. These were on Kickstarter a while back, half a dozen large, beautiful, drow-themed battlemats.

Sadly, the approaching session end and steadily rising tide of lava prevented the party from exploring the former dwarf trading post a few hundred yards away, repurposed as a drow war cemetery at the end of the 12th Age. That was also a Deep Vistas map, Silent Garden. Oh well, maybe another time.

Review: Eyes of the Stone Thief

“That was nuts!” – Dag, Angry Beavers

As you may have guessed by now, this is the backbone of the Hearts of Stone campaign, whose session writeups you see on Wednesdays. It’s an everyday story of a sentient mobile megadungeon, the titular Stone Thief, and those who hunt it.

In a Nutshell: 13th Age campaign for character levels 4-8. 346 page PDF, written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, published by Pelgrane Press.

CONTENTS

This monster is too big for my normal review format, so let’s hit the highlights.

First comes a group of four chapters explaining what the campaign is about, how to use it, and the key factions in play within the megadungeon, which are presented in the same manner as the icons in the 13th Age core rules. This book is not so much a scripted campaign as it is a selection of adventures which the GM can stitch together in a number of ways. I doubt whether any two groups would follow the same path through it.

Next is a group of thirteen chapters, each focussed on one level of the megadungeon. In each case there’s an isometric map, details on encounter areas, traps, monsters, links to factions and so forth. Not much on treasure, because this adventure is more about revenge; the GM is essentially left to hand out whatever treasure he or she feels appropriate. There are a few plot items which come in handy later in the story. The dungeon can rearrange the layout of its levels, and the book offers several possibilities for that.

Then there are ten chapters covering the opposition, the dungeon’s prey, and surface quests. The intent of the book is that the GM switches between dungeon crawls, quests for information, help and artefacts on the surface, and homebrew scenarios focused on the character’s One Unique Things and icon relationships. Four groups of opponents are provided, of which my favourite is the Vengeful Company – a rival group of adventurers who hog all the limelight whatever the PCs manage to achieve.

These are followed by a chapter of enemy reactions to the player’s activities, and two chapters on finding and killing the living dungeon.

We close with an index.

FORMAT

Two-column black on colour text. Illos every few pages ranging from less than a quarter page to a whole page in size. Full colour everywhere.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

There’s a short section in my copy which is in black on white with no colour at all. Not sure what happened there but pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to do that.

After the first couple of read-throughs I would have asked for more help navigating the campaign, but there is no real substitute for re-reading in detail several times and taking copious notes. I found creating a timeline for the campaign very helpful, but what is in that depends on which path through the adventure your PCs take, and I expect it to change repeatedly as we go.

CONCLUSIONS

13th Age is already D&D with the volume turned up to eleven, and I can picture Ryder-Hanrahan grinning maniacally as he twists the dial even further clockwise. Eyes of the Stone Thief is completely mad, and my main concern from running the game is how I am going to herd the players back into a gritty, low-magic game afterwards.

It is truly a great campaign, and is now the standard against which I measure megadungeons; but the GM needs to put a lot of work in, both before it begins and during play. I don’t think I will do it justice the first time through; maybe if I ran it again later for another group, they would get more out of it.

Overall rating: 4 out of 5. I am running this, true, but as you’ve seen I didn’t drop everything else to do so, and it needs more preparation than I would like.

Hearts of Stone Episode 16: Under Dwardel

Dwardel, 25 May 216

The party makes its way back to Dwardel, and Boris, Silmaria, “Balthazar Rook”, Valore and X7-09 stay in town to deal with some unfinished business (namely, the Archmage’s alleged secret facility below the town hall) while the others hurry on to Marblehall to brief Countess Casila on the suspected orcish invasion.

Finding Amberlith’s pub abuzz with some sort of feast, our heroes enquire what they might have missed, and learn the following:

  • A few days ago there was a minor earthquake near Marblehall. No-one was hurt, and property damage was limited to a few broken plates.
  • The Archmage’s weather control station near Concord, known as Boltstrike Pillar due to the frequent lightning strikes it attracted, has vanished, leaving behind a large crater and no clues to what happened. Nearby areas of the Midland Sea are noticeably rougher than before.
  • Lucius, Dwardel’s alchemist, has been unmasked as a werewolf by legendary adventurers the Vengeful Company; he was responsible for numerous disappearances and dismemberments around the town, and has been hanged. His last words were: “And I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it wasn’t for you meddling adventurers!” The Vengeful Company is now being celebrated with a week-long party.

Attempting to ingratiate themselves, our heroes are patronised by the Vengeful Company, whose attitude is that they are adorable but they should leave adventuring to the professionals. Boris, unable to enter because of his suddenly-acquired aversion to alcohol, stands outside scratching at the windows like a dog locked out of the house. X7-09 takes this opportunity to sneak up behind him with a rope, intending to forcibly wash and manicure him, but is frightened off by a hideous apparition, of which Boris will later claim ignorance.

Declining to venture into the dungeon at night, the group waits until dawn, when they are met at the town hall by X7-09’s cultist friends (who were at the party last night incognito, and arranged this rendezvous there). Showing the mayor their badges to establish that they work for Casila, they gain entrance to the town hall, its basement, and finally to a locked room at one end of the basement which contains a one-way teleporter (helpfully marked as such). Everyone except Balthazar and his squire Villain descend more or less straightaway, and the other two catch up after a few moments, by which time the main body has explored a small complex and started a fight with a couple of drow. Boris by this stage has transformed into an unusually furry mouse and attempts to entangle a drow with his exceedingly long and fluffy fur. One drow is quickly despatched, but the other breaks free of the fur, dodges past her assailants, boots open a door, and flees across a drawbridge into a large underground cavern populated with mushrooms, drow, giant spider mounts, and – some other arachnids.

Valore flies out, grabs the fleeing drow, and dives into a chasm surrounding the initial complex (she will emerge shortly, alone, with wings now made of metal, and make a superhero landing on the other side of the chasm). X7-09 is terrified as he realises that the “some other arachnids” are of special interest; he explains that their leader is none other than the spider mage who created him, and experimented on him, causing him great pain. He appears shaken by her appearance. Balthazar cuts off their dead foe’s head and marches onto the drawbridge, declaiming “For my master, the Archmage!” as he casts it into the chasm. He recognises the leader of the drow as the same one who tried to kidnap Casila a couple of months ago. Boris advances and casts fear on the arachnids, causing three of them to flee. As he has assumed elven form again, he is spotted by the drow leader, who calls out in Undercommon: “It’s Boris! Kill him!”

Meanwhile Silmaria and X7-09’s cultist friends are exploring the other exits from the complex, finding a rubble-filled stairway where some previous visitor brought the roof down, and two other drawbridges (one of which will become inoperable after Boris tries using the controls to operate it and they come off in his hand).

X7-09 climbs a ladder onto one of the complex’s turrets and casts a quick eye over the cavern terrain, seeing that the complex is carved into a giant stalactite which descends into a pit, and that stairways round the outside will give drow and spiders access now that one of the drawbridges is jammed in the “down” position. Concerned that the arachnids can now enter the complex, X7-09 calls on the Diabolist for help, and molten lava begins to fill the chasm surrounding the stalactite complex at an alarming rate, forming a sort of moat. Valore is perturbed when X7-09’s creator turns invisible, and even more perturbed when disturbances in the dust and debris covering the cavern floor suggest that a group of four invisible giant spiders are charging her. More drow pop up from behind assorted mushrooms and open fire with bows, to no immediate effect.

And people say there’s nothing to do in Dwardel.

GM Notes

I’ve started sharing news with the players to establish two closely-related things; first, that the world moves on even when they’re not looking at it, and second, that quests eventually expire if ignored. The disappearances at Dwardel were left alone for long enough that they became a good reason to introduce the Vengeful Company, who I expect to become long-term rivals, not least because their leader Borys Firesword is using the same name as one of the party and the same trademark weapon as another.

There was some creative use of icon dice rolls, and I was able to bring two characters’ backstories into play, which is always gratifying.

This session moved much more quickly than usual, because half the players were out celebrating a birthday and so we had a group of 5 players rather than the usual 9-10. I must consider splitting the group and running the two halves on alternate weeks, as this is more effective than tuning the rules for speed.

Review: 50 Fathoms

In a Nutshell: 210-page plot point campaign for Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment, roughly $10 at time of writing. This is the Explorer’s Edition, which is updated for Savage Worlds Deluxe and includes content from the 50 Fathoms Companion. Think Waterworld meets Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

What’s a Plot Point Campaign? It’s the Savage Worlds version of an adventure path, with a number of adventures which together form a story arc, and a large number of side quests. 50 Fathoms is often said to be the best one, so let’s take a look inside…

CONTENTS

I should start by saying SW plot point books take the view that you want adventures to run, and any setting information beyond what you need to do that is a distraction – stuff you wade through searching for nuggets of information, but probably won’t use. The campaign is divided into three main types of session; the adventures on the story arc, which move the plot along; the side quests, which allow the PCs to gather the resources and information they need to take the next step along the main arc; and random adventures, which are a fallback in case they go completely off-piste. The first two types are in the Savage Tales section, the last is under Adventures.

The premise is that a piratical fantasy world is slowly drowning, and Earthly pirates are drawn through a dimensional portal to help save it. The story arc revolves around them figuring out what the threat really is and stopping it, thus saving their new home. Of course, as pirates, they might decide to slope off in search of booty, but as long as everyone is having fun, what does that matter?

50 Fathoms (32 pages): A brief introduction to the setting, including what the characters initially think is going on as opposed to what’s really happening; a map of the Thousand Isles; character creation, which is standard except for a few new nautical edges and hindrances; new races; gear, including all manner of pirate goodies and ships. Races include Earth humans, local humans, the winged atani, doreen (dolphin-men), grael (walrus-men), kehana (fish-men), kraken (squidheads), red men (dumb barbarians), and scurillians (crab-men).

Setting Rules (10 pages): These are mostly focused on ships; navigation, repair and upkeep, ship combat, the fatigue that builds up in the crew on a long voyage and the carousing that can resolve it, trade, whaling and finally a section on “pirate lingo”.

Caribdus Gazetteer (4 pages): This is “what everyone knows” – a short paragraph on notable places and persons on the world of Caribdus, the general knowledge that any PC would know after kicking around the Thousand Isles for a few months.

Magic (3 pages): The only Arcane Background in this setting is Magic, and the mage must specify which element (air, earth, fire or water) he has specialised in; you can learn others later. There are eight new spells, a discussion of appropriate trappings, and a table showing which spells are available to which elemental specialisation – if it isn’t on the table, it doesn’t exist in this setting. To summarise, the earth mage fixes things, the fire mage destroys them, the water mage heals you and the air mage fills your sails with the right breeze.

The Thousand Isles (42 pages): From this point on, we are in GM-only territory. We begin by learning the true backstory for the campaign. Then there are 17 areas of Caribdus, mostly islands or groups of islands. Each is expanded for the GM with a little more background information, encounter tables, and (crucially) pointers to which Savage Tales the PCs might be drawn into in that locale. So in a typical session the players will say where they are going next, the GM will tell them what they meet on the way, describe what the place is like when they arrive, perhaps including places and people of note, and then embroil them in one of the Tales – or perhaps a randomly-generated adventure if they have exhausted all the ones listed for that area.

Adventures (10 pages): This contains the random adventure generator, as well as rules for salvage, trade, natural hazards, subplots you might encounter within the main adventure of the session, and random treasure tables for both mundane and magical loot – +2 blunderbuss, anyone?

Savage Tales (74 pages): This is what the book is really about. Almost 90 different scenarios and adventure seeds, ranging in size from a quarter of a page to several pages. There are two series of plot points, each 9 adventures long; you can play one and save the world, play the other and find a great treasure, or play both and do both.

Encounters (22 pages): About 70 NPCs and monsters, each with notes and a statblock. Those which only appear in one Savage Tale are listed with that tale, so there are quite a few more buried in the previous chapter.

…and we close with an index, character and ship sheets, and an advertisement for short fiction set on Caribdus.

FORMAT

6.5″ x 9″, full colour everywhere but with help from the option to suppress page background your printer might survive the PDF. Colour illustrations every few pages. Two-column black text on whitish background with colour trim. Personally I find it a lot easier to read with the background turned off, but most of you probably have better eyesight than I have.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Some ship deck plans would be nice, but those are available for free from Pinnacle’s website, so I’ll let them off.

There is already a players’ guide, roughly half the price and contains only things it is safe for players to know.

CONCLUSIONS

As best I can tell without running it, this does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a ready-to-use story arc in a sandbox without requiring a lot of prep time, which is a really cool idea. It gets a lot of very positive commentary in reviews and the SW forum, and is reportedly held up to SW licensees as how to do a plot point campaign. Some GMs have reskinned it as a space opera setting, and I think that would work well, too.

However, I’m left with an overall feeling of “Yeah, I can probably make this work,” rather than “Jeez, I have got to run this RIGHT NOW!” For me personally, the gold standard in SW settings remains Beasts & Barbarians.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.