Normally playing tabletop RPGs for me is just about having a good time and isn’t about escapism, but it was nice on Saturday November 10 to be able to get into playing two different characters and not have to think too much about real life while at Vegas Game Day.
Hellas: The Keeper of Souls
As far as I know, I have only played one other RPG with its creator GMing (Tunnels and Trolls with Ken St. Andre), so getting to play the Greek space odyssey Hellas with creator Jerry Grayson in charge promised to be good. Since interviewing Jerry back in May, Hellas successfully underwent a Kickstarter campaign to bring out the second edition of its rules. Joining me at the table was Jerry’s wife, Renee, and first time roleplayer Jack Weill. Jack took Iolaus, the re-occuring protagonist within the Hellas rulebook’s fictional stories. With Renee playing the Amazoran Niobe quickshooter, I took the warriorly dispenser of justice, Leander the Bold.
Leander is also a Myrmidon, a literal ant warrior made up of a teeming colony of ants. I put my Myrmidon abilities to use as the three of us were hosted by a rich merchant at a symposium, by splitting part of my body off to eavesdrop on our dying host and his Nymphas major domo, trying to gain further details on our adventure. Basically the old man’s son had fallen head over heels in love with a criminal woman and had even been spent to Hellas’ version of Alcatraz with her. Our mission was to rescue him from this prison world of Olinos, this Keeper of Souls. I agreed, but having looked over my sheet, pointed out that I had sent many of the criminals to die on Olinos myself and that surely I would be recognized.
The details of how we would get away from the inescapable prison planet were always pretty hazy to me, even as our supply ship dropped down and we abandoned all of our weapons and equipment to better blend in with the world’s prisoner inhabitants. We traded some fish sticks and fish shakes for information, learning that King Forbus was nearing apotheosis and would soon be leading his followers in their escape from this world and it seemed like the merchant’s son would be with him, so we headed into the main city to where some sort of contest was about to begin in an amphitheater.
Moving into the crowded prison city’s amphitheater, I decided to invoke one of Leander’s Disadvantages. I knew I might blow the mission or be killed, but it seemed worth the risk (and in my opinion it’s better to invoke a Disadvantage before the GM can do it to you). Leander was indeed recognized by one of the criminals he put away and we began to fight over his dagger using my skill at Greek wrestling or pankreation as it is known in Hellas. Meanwhile my comrades located our quarry as well as his malicious lover. I took some damage as I continue to choke out the criminal and there was a warning shot from a laser pistol as I was now beginning to interfere with the ceremonies, but I didn’t stop, until I was pulled away from him, my new dagger in hand.
Ligers, Oh My!
While Iolaus heroically offered himself as a substitute for the merchant’s son, I competed with the claim that I wanted a spot on the leaving spacecraft. Meanwhile our Amazoran approached the son on the sidelines, trying an entirely different tact of wooing him over to her. I tried to surreptitiously slip Iolaus my newly-acquired dagger because I looked his sheet over and saw that he was good at Melee, meanwhile I was very good at Pankreation. Even as the criminal kingpin was announcing what we would face I received a glorious visit from the god Apollon himself! Jerry Grayson really knows how to stroke an ego! Apollon praised me (quite deservedly I might add) and promised me glory on the battlefield. We were herded into the amphitheater and then the beasts were unleashed: two enormous ligers!
I had a hard time subduing my Napoleon Dynamite impulses at this point, but Iolaus knew what to do, ripping one open from gullet to gut with one heroic sweep of the dagger I had loaned him. Iolaus is bad ass. I struggled with my own liger, but the next turn using a Teamwork card played by Iolaus, we made short work of the other as well, earning us a place in the Big Boss’s pleasure suite. I felt like Boba Fett in Jabba’s Palace as toothless prison hags flocked to us. Iolaus pressed Forbus for a spear and the boss took one from his henchman, Bolgo, who began grumbling. From the comfort of the skybox we watched as the killing of the mimes and clowns began. We also learned more of the villains’ plans, but then I set out to get myself a new spear in the company of Bolgo.
We invaded a potter’s crappy hovel and Bolgo started threatening the poor wretch. Something gave way in my crunchy insect heart and I retorted to Bolgo, “Here’s your spear!” and really gave it to him hard, possibly spending some Hero Points to try to finish him off, but not quite killing him. I fended off his return blows and then finished him, swearing the potter to secrecy and rejoining the others in the pleasure suite where we conferred, after I’d explained away the missing Bolgo.
While I normally wouldn’t make such a choice due to fears of splitting the party or because I actually want my character to live, Leander turned to his companions and made it clear that there was no way he was going to allow the criminals to escape their just sentences, even if that was not part of the mission. I would remain behind if need be. Fortunately we all agreed and Forbus took the decision out of our hands of when to ambush him when Jerry played a card himself. Jerry took his inspiration for the Hellas cards from the TORG RPG’s destiny altering cards and played one which brought Bolgo back to life. He wasn’t dead after all.
There was a heroic melee and firefight that saw Forbus beheaded and Bolgo using a Hero Point to run away vowing to return in the future as an NPC as Jerry decided that he liked Bolgo. Iolaus, Leander, and Niobe acquitted themselves well as heroes and the criminals were left safely on Olinos to eat fish sticks, while we got to reunite the father and son. For Jack Weill, our first time role-player, it was “fun”. He normally plays strategy board games like Risk and Axis & Allies, but seemed to have an easy time understanding what was expected of him and said that he would do it again. I would too. As much as I enjoy the two Hellas one shot adventures I’ve been on, I would love to play in a Hellas campaign and accumulate glory and fame myself and work towards apotheosis.
Pathfinder Society: The Brutal Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment
We had a full table for Pathfinder Society as we sought to explore the Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment, devoted to the god Korada. One of the catches is that the temple is inside a tapestry, so the Society would be transporting us there on a mission of peaceful exploration with four parts to it. As we explored the serene temple, attuning our chakras, humming mantras, and playing with our glass balls, something seemed slightly amiss. We were exposed to a special ritual testing the purity of one’s soul, the Kiss of Korada. The turtle statue could either bestow enlightenment or sever a finger for those with impure souls. I nearly clubbed our party’s paladin when he leapt in line in front of me for the test, but he received no effect (a foreshadowing of his soul’s weakness, as it became clear later). From my previous encounter with Apollon in Hellas earlier, was it really too much to think I would get a vision from Korada too? I was disappointed when I only felt pain, though I did begin to see swirls of lights and feel tingling. My party members seemed non-plussed by both my bravery and my Kiss of Korada.
Maybe I hadn’t fully succeeded because of the negative energy I had brought with me from the Prime Material Plane as I became increasingly rude with some of the temple’s priests, questioning whether they knew that they existed within a tapestry or not. What I’m sure of is that 90 minutes into the adventure I was suddenly failing a Will save and stabbing myself with a pointy piece of wood for 13 damage. So much for exploration! Life wasn’t worth living any more and I was determined to end it, but fortunately I was Level 2 and not dying from my initial impalement. There was a “Wait a minute,” from our GM, and then some close party members were given the chance to try to interrupt my suicide attempt, but I had a hard time not chuckling as another and possibly a second also became despondent. Someone hit me with Sleep or Chromatic Spray though so I was out of it and didn’t have to worry about how the party eventually overcame this sudden pit of despair.
As I recovered, the culmination of the adventure began as some of the other PCs came up with a plan to sneak into the high priest’s chambers. There was some Invisibility involved as well, but things went from bad to worse pretty quickly as our stealthy invisible ranger discovered that he was quite visible to Korada’s Chosen, who began shouting at the hapless ranger and the rest of the party, ordering our expulsion from the temple, as our party threw it into chaos. Having prevented the desecration of Abadar’s temple in Abasolm, I wasn’t about to desecrate the Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment and headed to the library to check on a possible source of the poison that we had all been exposed to for the last several days in the tapestry.
Essentially what happened next is that one slightly manageable encounter rolled over into a separate encounter, creating a near TPK. The Level 1 Ranger was the first to go, getting knocked out an hour and a half before we finished and remaining that way. While one party member distracted most of the NPCs, others went to finish the last of our quests at the temple. I would not break and enter and stayed in a hallway to help hinder the temple guards. Then there was the paladin who tried to teleport away. When the chips were down, our paladin fled. There was quite a commotion then as some of us tried to wrap our minds around the full health paladin fleeing. Maybe there was a little swearing directed at the sneaky paladin. Half of our healing was quitting the fight when we knew we already had at least one PC down! I don’t know how it got fixed, but we managed to tether Captain America to his post, but I am still shaking my head about it.
Is it any wonder he failed Korada’s Kiss? Even with the paladin’s help and healing, for several rounds we were down to 2 injured PCs on the board with the rest of us unconscious. I was gone for the second longest as the temple’s aasimar guards didn’t care to argue the finer points of Korada’s enlightenment with me. They started attacking me and then I was Cleaving into two of them, downing one of them and severely injuring the other. “Tend to your comrade, I will not strike. I give you my word of honor,” I offered to them, but they knocked the crap out of me instead. So much for peace-loving.
I will say that the game was so close that every bad roll on the villains’ part resulted in a sigh of relief. Once our faithful cleric started rolling 5s and 6s on his healing channeling rolls we were cheering and hollering. Finally I could get up again and finally our odd Strength rogue with the polearm could get up as well. Time became the critical factor as we were rushing against the real world midnight closing of the Emergency Arts Building, which hosts Vegas Game Day. Finally we managed to overcome the evil and hurriedly packed up to leave. Phew.
The Published Adventure vs. Our Experience
After reflecting on our party’s near death experience on the drive home and trying to unwind from the tense adventure, I was dying to know some of the temple’s secrets that had eluded us despite successfully completing the adventure. Like all of the Pathfinder Society adventures, PSS 03-21 The Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment, is available for purchase and download as a PDF straight from Paizo, so I ponied up the $3.99 to see what we had missed. Had GM Chris Clay screwed us over? Were my suspicions about the nature of the poison correct? Had I really failed Korada’s Kiss or could I have ever succeeded?
The answers, it turns out, are like peeking behind the curtain at the real Wizard of Oz. Whatever I had imagined was grander and more exciting. As usual, our GM had presented exactly what was there, which was fairly humbug and humdrum. More than anything else, what this Pathfinder Society module highlighted was how important the mixture of Skills and Factions are to an adventure. Our 6 PCs represented only 3 Factions between us and none of our Faction-specific missions helped in exploring and uncovering the mystery at work in the temple. Likewise, the adventure makes repeated use of certain skills, skills which we mostly lacked to begin with or did poorly on when checking them. Consequently we were in the dark about most of the facts of the adventure until it was over.
I actually take some comfort in the fact that Pathfinder Society adventures are so rigid that it is possible to miss many important details in them. It means that every choice of a Feat is an important one that could potentially be rewarding. It also emphasizes the need for smart tactical decisions and thorough role play, while reassuring me that nobody is being singled out by the rules to be penalized for not playing how the GM thinks we should be playing. Though in the case of cowardly paladins, I might welcome some GM intervention.