Monday, January 16, 2017

The Core Concepts of Arcana High

For the past 2 to 2.5 years there's been a particular idea stirring in my head for a while. An idea which as of now has several hundred pages worth of notes and draft write-ups the result of 2 campaign's worth of design. One of the campaigns was uncompleted sadly, yet still brought about several months worth of play. I at first decided to write up an adventure path for Pathfinder for this work, as a four-part series. This took a lot more time than I thought, so I decided to work on various side projects all the while hoping to one day see my magnum opus on the shelves of online storefronts one day (most likely for Pathfinder and 5th Edition). But like Larius Firetongue's School of Sorcery, I figured that drumming up interest over time can be a great idea. As such, this blog post is the first in a series of revealing Arcana High.


Arcana High is a hybrid four-color fantasy and magic school campaign in the vein of Harry Potter meets Teen Titans in a D&D fantasy world. For those unfamiliar with my earlier posts on the subject, the general idea is that the PCs are adolescent mages who found some magical artifacts. With these powerful relics, they can transform into alternate identities to better fight the forces of evil. All the while they must juggle their public lives as students in a world-renowned magical academy along with keeping the good people of Brancean safe from their ever-growing rogue's gallery of villains.

It was a rather popular itch I've been wanting to scratch for a while, due to the rarity of such play elements in traditional fantasy games and retroclones. When you think about it, the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons can support a pseudo-superhero style of play quite well. You have titanic dragons ravaging cities, foul cults seeking to awaken sealed evils, mad archmages brewing up new and deadly horrors to inflict upon the world, and holy forces bestowing their powers upon worthy mortals. With the preponderance of city-based campaigns and sourcebooks, diversity of adversaries, and the ever-popular appeal towards saving the world, a superhero kind of game with masked vigilantes wielding supernatural powers not for gold but for justice is not only feasible, it can work very, very well!

Major Themes

Four-Color Fantasy: Masked knights, sorcerers, and druids battle a mad alchemist atop an undead leviathan creation wreaking havoc on a port city. Thieves' Guild goons shake down storefronts and make a quick getaway on charmed manticores. A golem built by the lord-governor to fight crime goes on a  rampage due to interpreting the law in an over-literal fashion. The city's gnomish-designed printing press publishes eye-catching headlines of the PCs' latest exploits and clashes with the aforementioned threats.

A Central City of Adventure: The city of Brancean is modeled off of the real-world city of Constantinople, the capital of the East Roman Empire and then the Ottomans. As such, it is the focus of most of the setting, akin to what Gotham is to Batman and Metropolis to Superman.  It is a city of history, formed around the foundations of Highstone Academy when Aleria was but a division of independent baronies and tribes. As a principle nexus of an intercontinental trade network, it sees folk from all corners of the world (and some say of the planes). It is home to many wonderful sights, from the Colosseum where one can watch and participate in chariot races and all manner of sports tournaments; a literal Undercity home to drow, dwarves, and other subterranean beings; a 200 foot tall statue of the Goddess of Law and Civilization; and the pre-eminent Highstone Academy, of course!

Mediterranean Style Setting: The region is known as the Bowl of Levios, dominated by a central sea also called the Sea of Levios. This body of water was home to a great sea serpent of its namesake who ruled the lands as a god-king in times long past. Although in the current era there is debate as to his divinity, there is no question that he left a great mark on the land, and many of the oldest realms are seaside and underwater cities. Here are but a few lands of the Bowl:
  • the Alerian Empire, home to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Brancean and the world's most famous magical academy. 
  • the Al-Bahri Sultanate, a southern kingdom home to the Ridhai, who sail the seas on the back of island-sized Zaratan turtles.
  • the city-state of Kremdora, which suffered a devastating cataclysm while fighting an ascendant mage-tyrant and whose domain is now located within a residual anti-magic field.
  • Bristor, a northwesterly realm of small, independent kingdoms and tribes, home to knights, druids, and berserkers.
  • Tabiach, a realm of merchant princes and feuding city-states.

Imagine a Venice with merfolk and aquatic elf residents.  Imagine open-air tavernas serving pita bread dips and shish kebab street food to apprentice mages on their way to school . Imagine masked vigilantes fighting a possessed toga-clad statue of a long-dead emperor. Imagine an adventuring company accepting submissions from not just honorable knights and iconic elven archers, but also fair-haired northern reavers and steppe-borne nomads with curved swords. This is the world of Arcana High.

Scaling Powers: One of the chief mechanical principles of the two Pathfinder campaigns I ran for Arcana High was the use of magical relics. Once belonging to heroes of the distant past, they could transform a wielder into a masked form which the original heroes wore themselves. Aside from the super-genius gadgeteer, most superheroes were not known for carrying around gabs of equipment to act as the primary extension of their abilities.

For that reason, instead of accumulating gold and magic items as a primary campaign concern, I more or less made the relics into scaling magic items for the "big six" bonuses (weapon, armor, shield, saving throws, deflection, and natural armor). I also let the PCs choose from a broad array of relic upgrades which could be gained once per level. They included things ranging from an elemental energy blast attack to a Green Lantern-style major creation spell-like ability of limited duration. Magic items were still a thing in the campaign, and the PCs did have access to a pseudo-Batcave where they could load up on common gear between missions, but with the versatility of relics reliance upon the "Magic Item Christmas Tree" effect was nowhere near as pronounced. Being an all-spellcaster party helped ease things as well, for they are the classes in base Pathfinder which can best replicate a superhero feel.


I have a lot more to say about this dream project of mine, but right now I wanted to focus on the major themes instead of losing my dear readers in layers of lore I already wrote up in various documents.

What aspect of Arcana High should I focus on next?  Talk a bit more about the magic school? Perhaps a few figures from the supervillain rogue's gallery? Sample relic powers and abilities?

Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: A Year in Review for RPGs

2016 has been an interesting year; it's also not been a great one for many reasons. All the same, it's been a bumpy and wild ride. But what of table-top games? What new and interesting innovations have we seen so far, if any?

Lord of the Rings got the 5th Edition Treatment: Although there's only a Player's Guide, Cubicle 7 combined too wildly popular franchises within geekdom, an effective official stamp on campaigns many gamers have entertained throughout the years as the twin progenitors of fantasy fiction and role-playing games.

Delta Green got an update: Published not by Chaosium, but by Arc Dream Publishing, this 90s style X-Files blend of Lovecraftian horror took an interesting spin on a well-worn genre.

Exalted 3rd Edition released: After a long and worrysome KickStarter, Exalted hit virtual and store shelves to varying levels of appreciation.

7th Sea 2nd Edition produced one of the most successful crowdfunded works: At $1.3 million dollars, this is amazing even by general KickStarter standards. Many fans answered John Wick's call to once again delve into a world of romantic swashbuckling action.

Advent of the Chronicles of Darkness: Although the "core book" update got released in December 2015, the 2nd Edition of White Wolf/Onyx Path's New World of Darkness kicked into overdrive. From upgrades such as Mage the Awakening to entirely new lines like Beast the Primordial.

Godbound brought us playable divinities for old-school D&D: Kevin Crawford built up a good reputation within the OSR community for years, but 2016 was his most ambitious project to date. With mechanics both familiar yet surprisingly rules-lite and balanced, a campaign where players are part of a traveling pseudo-pantheon of rising gods graced the tabletops of many gamers as well as releasing top-quality artwork into the public domain.

Apocalypse World: Quite a lot of revised games this year, huh? Another heavy-hitter which spawned its own fanbase and a vibrant third party community, Apocalypse World came out with a 2nd Edition.

For a more fantasy-based milieu, Fellowship (an apocalypse world-derived game) came out in spring to critical acclaim among the system's fanbase.

Eclipse Phase gets the FATE treatment: Much like Shadowrun, Eclipse Phase is much beloved for its unique and innovative setting, yet the rules scared off more than a few interested viewers. As part of a successful KickStarter, Transhumanity's Fate came out to add a more rules-lite touch.

Quite a lot of high-profile works got released around this time. Although these are the most noticeable and renown, some honorable mentions go to Frog God Games' Bard's Gate (a metropolis set in their Lost Lands world with some tabletop gamer celebrity cameos), Swords & Wizardry Light (a minimalist 4-page treatment of the aforementioned RPG with over a thousand free downloads), Dark Obelisk: Berrincorte (a crazy 1,000 page Pathfinder adventure meant to be the first of a four-part series), and Onyx Path reviving the Scarred Lands setting for Pathfinder and 5th Edition D&D.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas!

I was busy all day spending time with family, and had a very enjoyable holiday. May your hearts be filled with warmth and those you love kept close.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Are we seeing an increase in Nordic-themed RPGs?

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim received a Special Edition upgrade around late October this year. Funnily enough, the months leading up to that reignited my interest in the game but when the new version came out I did not touch it save for a few hours of experimenting. The truth of the matter was that not all of the old mods of the 2011 version were transferred or compatible, and the lack of Skyrim Script Extender or SkyUI support more or less killed any good reason to use the new version even though I got it for free.

About a month later, I saw a Pathfinder setting which combined two disparate elements of steampunk and Norse mythology into an interesting blend: Rhune, Dawn of Twilight. I'm still in the course of reading it, but it's quite a cool book. It has a strong sense of theme rather than trying for a "kitchen sink" approach, and core assumptions are built into the framework. For example, the Material Plane is not a globe, but rather the trunk of Yggdrasil the World Tree while the other planes of existence are its leaves, branches, roots, etc.

Then I was reminded of another book I got recently: the Northlands Saga by Frog God Games, which also released in its Complete version in early 2016. It was at this point I began noticing a pattern. After an illustrated book of the Poetic and Prose Eddas became a best silver seller on Drive-Thru RPG, this all but confirmed it.

Back in 2012, Cubicle 7 Entertainment released the stand-alone RPG Yggdrasil, a game set during a mythical Age of Vikings. Although Midgard by Kobold Press drew more upon Central and Eastern European themes, it did have its fair share of Nordic elements such as the world surrounded by a giant world-serpent eating its own tail.

Interest in Nordic themes is far from recent even in tabletop gaming. Going as far back as Deities & Demigods the Ă†sir–Vanir were described alongside the Greek and Egyptian pantheons, and quite a few campaign settings had their own pseudo-Scandinavian realms. But in regards to whole settings and sourcebooks there does seem to be a lot more Viking-related gaming material as of late. Part of me wonders how much this coincides with Skyrim's popularity (both the original 2011 and latest upgrade), and how much of it was just always there.

What are your thoughts? Feel free to let me know in the comments below!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sacrifices in Fantasy Games

For the past month and a half, I've been DMing a 5th Edition campaign set in Primeval Thule. One of the major differences from other settings out there is the emphasis on a pre-medieval, ancient feel in keeping with its pulp sword and sorcery inspirations. There were no churches, there were woodland groves and ziggurat temples. There were no plate-clad knights, instead there were barbarians and gladiators. Although there are still some standard fantasy trappings as part of the D&D ethos, Primeval Thule does a pretty good job of emulating a realm different than the Tolkienesque model.

We're at a point in the game where the PCs have enough loot and resources to begin establishing their own stronghold, complete with hired servants. I set about making a stronghold-building-in-progress set of house rules to provide some in-game boons for certain purchases. One of them was a sacrificial altar dedicated to the gods, upon which the PCs can give up some of their loot to be consumed in exchange for temporary benefits. The idea was a huge burning brazier whose fires could burn down even metal (because a Cleric Did It), but I left things to the imagination for when the players decided to obtain it.

Then I noticed something. A distinct lack of rules for sacrifices. Going even further, I could not find other examples in other Dungeons & Dragons books beyond a generic role-playing trope or the exclusive providence of evil deities.

A common cultural and religious practice in many real-world cultures is that of the sacrifice, or a material offering to the gods and spirits. Although the reasons and forms it took varied, the general intent was giving up a material possession in exchange for divine favor. While human sacrifice is generally the most iconic, animal sacrifice, the burning of a portion of harvest, and the casting of gold and jewelry into watery depths follow a similar intent of giving up something to entities beyond the mortal realm.

While it is reasonable that a devout PC can dedicate monster-slaying as honoring his god (a 'sacrifice' of a sort) or burn down a rival's house to placate vengeance spirits, the intent of these rules are sacrifice of a more formalized affair. Basically an elaborate ritual in a location, where a supplicant gives up something belonging to themselves in exchange for a boon.

5th Edition*

*I may type up rules for Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry/Basic D&D in due time and if there's enough interest in the subject matter.

Sacrifices are conducted at a shrine, a place meant to honor a god (or gods). The shrine can come in many shapes and forms, but must be worth at least 1,500 gold pieces and cannot be portable or mobile. The shrine must be regularly maintained by a person proficient in Intelligence (Religion) or belong to a magical class whose spells come from the patron deity in question. Different deities might have different boons, but here are a few of the more common ones:

Burden-Bearer: Transfer an equivalent number of hit points worth of damage from someone else to yourself, or a single poison or disease, for 50 gp. This can result in the death of the person taking on the maladies if the effects are too great to bear.

Fortune: Gain inspiration (advantage on a single d20 roll of your choice) for 50 gp. This cannot be gained if you already have inspiration.

Insight: Gain a vision of something relevant to your immediate objectives for 50 gp.

Sanctuary: One or more parties drain a collective total of 25 hit points worth of damage as a blood offering (can come from an animal, captive, etc) at the shrine. For the next 3 days and 3 nights all participants must make a Charisma saving throw whenever they attempt to take violent action against another. If they fail, they find themselves physically unable to go through with the action, frozen in place.

Vengeance: Speak the name of a hated foe (or group of people who are sworn enemies of the deity), and gain +1d6 on your next attack roll against them for 50 gp.

Humanoid and Animal Sacrifices: Generally speaking, animals are treated as treasure for the purposes of sacrifice, using the mounts and trade goods entries under Equipment as guidelines. A single sheep is worth 2 gold pieces, whereas a mastiff is 25 gold, a riding horse 75, a cow 10, and so on and so forth.

Generally speaking, this makes the above amounts are rather costly for the lay worshiper: sacrifices are generally communal affairs, of weeks or month's worth of saving up enough money and raising choice cattle for when villagers and townsfolk really need the direct intervention of the divine.

As for sacrifices of humanoids and sapient beings, in most campaigns this is generally the province of evil deities and/or ones dedicated to battle and conflict (in the latter case, such sacrifices are restricted to prisoners of war). But regardless, deities only grant boons when a worthy subject is sacrificed. To count as worthy, the subject must have an equal or greater Challenge Rating to the person who seeks to beseech the gods. A 12th-level warlord can dedicate hapless peasants to death, but such displays are a trifling matter of no great consequence; far better to show respect and glory by capturing and felling a mighty adversary.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wizard's Academy releases for the Pathfinder RPG

Available on Drive-Thru RPG, RPGNow, and Paizo.

Long-time followers of my blog know that I have a bit of a preference for schools of magic as a fantasy trope. Well yesterday I was delighted to discover a rather large Pathfinder sourcebook just got released. The fact it is written by the folks behind the much-beloved Spheres of Power sealed the deal for me.

I have not read the whole thing, but already it's hitting a lot of buttons. A central story revolving around investigating the headmaster's disappearance, a five-tier encounter framework using different sets of monsters in dungeon rooms depending on average party level, and expanded rules for school life which give consequences if the PCs sneak off too much at the expense of their studies (and vice versa if the mystery isn't solved in time).

Adding to this is the fact that the module is made with the Spheres in Power system in mind. It is a worthy alternative to the standard Vancian system of magic, where spellcasting is both more balanced and allows for a wide variety of character concepts. The contents are available as a free online wiki, and I've been running two campaigns with it. So far sphere-using PCs held up quite nicely in adventures. While this may be a turn-off to those who prefer standard Vancian magic, the self-contained nature of Wizard's Academy can make for a nice one-off to test out an unfamiliar system.

Overall, I like what I see so far, and this book has yet to disappoint me. I recommend checking it out if you're a fan of the magic school campaign style.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slice of Life Elements in RPGs

Cover of Golden Sky Stories

A lot of times, RPGs have a strong focus on exploration and combat. Relationships and conflict which develop out of these tend to be a secondary element derived from the events which occur naturally from player character choices. Golden Sky Stories is one such RPG predicated on this, and Beyond the Wall's character generation and Hearth Fantasy-focused structure lend itself better towards strong bonds and characters your players will care about than yet another strange place with monsters and loot.

As time went on, I found myself to be more of a thespian Game Master. I still love dungeon-crawling and action-adventure and prefer combat-free sessions to be rare at best, but I found that some of the best campaigns I ran and participated in were the ones which were character-centric. Where I played with the PCs' backstories and peppered in moments of drama between the action scenes; ones with a large cast of recurring characters the PCs could develop a rapport with and play off of; ones set in a centralized location such as a city where locations became familiar features to visit and thus more incentive to fight for the home they grew to know and love.

The City-based Campaign

The Settlement of Cauldron from the Shackled City Adventure Path

I talked about this a bit in my previous blog post, but in addition to being an iconic element, cities are happening places full of thousands of individual stories and the people who live them. Entire neighborhoods with their own feel allow for a diversity of adventures, from crime-ridden slums to crowded bazaars. Another major feature of cities is that in addition for a place where adventurers retire and sell their hard-won treasure, it can plausibly hold all manner of entertainment. And most importantly, it allows the PCs to better connect with a realm and its people; having a favorite tavern or wizard's academy as a regular feature that carries from session to session instills a sense of familiarity with players.

When a dragon or invading army attacks, they will not be fighting on the mountaintops of some distant peak they never knew about until recently in the adventure. Nor will they be fighting in a featureless stretch of woodland whose flora and fauna is like to many others. It will be at the common crossing to that magic item shop whose owner's name and face is well-worn into the gaming table's minds. It will be in the residential wards of Old Kervara, where that sweet old lady lives who once helped out the PCs during that haunted house quest several sessions ago.

Lessens to be Learned: What this adds to slice of life moments in gaming is immense: the players are much more likely to care about the place, for it is in many ways their homes even if their PCs originated from far-flung lands. Everything, from local festivals to recurring faces, will take on a more personal touch when the streets, the faces in the crowd, and the local shops are familiar things with strong mental images in the player's minds and not just yet another new foreign location.

Festivals and Games

Millennial Fair from Chrono Trigger

From holidays to arena tournaments, fun and games are culturally universal. They have an in-built competitive spirit with a goal contestants strive for, and the promise of prizes and recognition can be an attractive quality.

Many video game RPGs have mini-games as a fun aside for variety beyond dungeon-crawling and monster-slaying. Some of the most well-known ones are collectible card games, such as Final Fantasy 8's Triple Triad or Witcher 3's Gwent. The joy of winning and collecting rare and powerful cards provides a sense of progression and accomplishment, keeping the game fresh as you visit new areas with new players. The Millennial Fair at the beginning of Chrono Trigger let you collect Silver Points for every game you won, trading them in for useful items.

There are so many different kind of competitive games that translating their rules into D&D format would be a blog post all its own. But I can recommend a certain sourcebook invaluable for this. ENWorld's Book of Tournaments, Fairs, and Taverns is filled to the brim with rules for everything from martial arts and magical competitions to the classics such as races (the competitive kind), card, dice, and drinking games. All of which are Open Game Content, for any of you self-publishers out there!

Example: Final Fantasy IX

It's not a table-top RPG, but there's a certain video near and dear to my heart which really shown me the benefits of slice of life elements. Although not as popular as 7 and 10, the ninth installment in the series is known for having some of the best writing and character development. At the beginning of Disc 3, the party headed back to the kingdom of Alexandria after a major battle at the Iifa Tree. Princess Garnet, one of the party members, is now queen after the passing of her mother in the conflict, and the main character Zidane feels depressed as he worries that this marks the end of their time together since she'll be too busy attending to matters of state.

The game's perspective changes to Vivi, a child mage, on the streets of Alexandria. While controlling him you can restock on new equipment and meet up with old friends to find out what's been happening since your departure for the Iifa Tree. The small events and scenarios around Alexandria also play important roles by having new party members such as Eiko and Amarant meet the ones who were left behind, such as Steiner and Freya, before the next big adventure. Even so, it's not all just dialogue and exposition; there are sidequests and minigames for one to do, such as a major card tournament in Treno which Zidane wishes to visit.

After the climax of the last Disc, Final Fantasy takes time to build back up, and after the Treno card tournament things go right back into the action when the dragon Bahamut attacks Alexandria. It does not linger too long on the slice of life aspects, and there's still a sense of player participation than just watching the plot flow.

As you can see, it packaged the above elements quite nicely: visiting familiar city locations along with a host of diversions and competitive games and tying character development into things. And when it comes time to pick things up, the good old-fashioned "dragon attacking the city" instills a sense of immediate danger to get back to the heroic action.

In Conclusion

I hope this blog post served a useful purpose to you, dear reader. Whether they be recurring elements or a fun one-off element, I hope that I gave folks both the interest in trying out slice of life tropes, as well as a useful springboard to how to best accomplish this.