Review: Dave Gross, Lord of Runes (Pathfinder Tales)

Lord of Runes is without question the best piece of tie-in fiction I’ve read. It’s an excellent fantasy novel in its own right.

Before I further explore why I think this, let me first address this: if I consider it so good why four stars, not five? Largely because I’m stingy with stars. With only five stars to choose from, that last star gets awarded only rarely. Four stars puts Lord of Runes, by my reckoning, alongside works such as Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Saga, Ray Feist’s Riftwar trilogy, Lieber’s first 6 Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser collections and the works of David Gemmell – novels I have read passionately, series I have followed, for many years. (What gets five stars? Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Lieber’s novella Stardock.)

Dave Gross’s Pathfinder novels have consistently been good reads, among the best tie-ins I’ve read. Lord of Runes is better.

Gross has always had a deft touch with narrative and dialogue, but here it sparkles. Within the first two chapters, the city of Korvosa was alive in my mind. Descriptions are vivid, dialogue natural.

The plot, perhaps a little simpler than his earlier Pathfinder Tales novels, is yet more epic.

But what really lifts the book is the emotional content. Gross’s Pathfinder novels are buddy stories, and in this we get to see just how deep the bonds between protagonists Radovan and Count Varian Jeggare go – and how far they can be stretched.

The emotional undertones of the novel go beyond the protagonists, though. The supporting cast carry issues of their own – at one revelation, I found myself having to put the book down for a moment while I worked the lump from my throat and blinked a tear from my eye.

This is potent stuff.

It’s hard to give details of character development without revealing spoilers, but few of the main characters end this novel with the attitudes or beliefs with which they started it. Count Varian’s slow deterioration is particularly well handled, both in his first-person chapters and when we get to see him from Radovan’s point of view (it is a technique of Gross’s that in these books the first-person point of view is swapped between the protagonists).

There are treats in store for Pathfinder fans – the return of Pathfinder Eando Kline and (given the title it’s no real spoiler to say it) the rise of a Runelord. But I don’t think it necessary to know the game or its setting to appreciate the quality of writing and storytelling Gross achieves.

Tie-in fiction has a bad rep because there’s a lot of poorly written dross churned out, but there are a few gems out there. Lord of Runes is a diamond.

This review is based on the Kindle edition of Lord of Runes. I will be looking for a paper copy as well (perhaps two), because this is a book I intend to lend to friends – both to players in my Pathfinder games and to fans of fantasy fiction.

View on Goodreads

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E-Z Dungeon: construction review

I’ve been papercrafting for a week or two
And I’ve spent all me money on craft knives and glue…

A simple dungeon layout

A simple dungeon layout

I’ve become increasingly involved with miniature-based roleplaying games, largely down to the amount of time I’ve been spending playing Pathfinder. It seems to be an ever-increasing obsession: from Pathfinder Pawns and hand-drawn maps, to flip-maps, to hand-painted minis…

A friend brought a rather impressive card-built village to the Gulf Roleplaying Community’s stand at the Middle East Film & Comic Con in April. Googling it later, I discovered Fat Dragon Games’ line of 3D, cardstock buildings, interiors and dungeons. I’ve had the idea of building a 3D dungeon in the back of my mind for a while.

Try telling non-gaming friends you’re planning to build a dungeon at home – the reactions range from puzzlement to horror to a sudden creepy interest.

The idea behind these is that you buy a PDF and print at home. The PDF’s are pretty cheap (the core dungeon set, E-Z Dungeons Deluxe, is $12). Of course, you also bear the cost of cardstock and ink (and glue, craft knives and, most significantly, time to build).

The advantage is that you can print as many of an individual item as you need.

A nice touch is that each PDF is layered. You can choose to add water stains, cobwebs and blood spatters to the dungeon walls. The ones I’ve printed have the water stains layer activated.

Printouts are clearly marked with score lines and cut lines. There are even guides for automatic cutters, if you have one of those (I don’t).

There’s a pretty good set of instructions included, with advice on optimal printing, preparing the items to cutting (scoring the card before bending is important), and the right types of glues to use (paper glue with the lowest moisture content you can find – UHU is great) and how to assemble the items. Members of Fat Dragon’s forums will also provide helpful advice on request – the papercrafting community seems small but very friendly.

As with any craft there’s something of a learning curve. Some items, such as walls, are fairly simple to build – they’re basically just boxes. Pillars aren’t hard to build, but involve some fairly complex cutting. Archways are a little more complex, and there are some items (such as the dungeon idol), that I’d rather not tackle until my skills improve – partly because I don’t need them right away.

Not that the skills needed are especially complex. You quickly learn which cuts and scores are important, how much glue to use and so on. Complex items come with their own instructions. The main thing that increasing experience builds is speed.

A six-inch wall in various stages of construction - printout, cut and scored, test folded and finished.

A six-inch wall in various stages of construction – printout, cut and scored, test folded and finished.

There is some necessary equipment before you start building. A good craft knife, steel straight edge and glue are essential. A cutting board and a pair or sharp scissors are also extremely useful.

Cardstock is, of course, necessary, and foamcore is useful for making sturdy bases.

There are a couple of ways to approach construction. The default approach is to permanently build key elements of a dungeon (corridors, corners, rooms, etc), then fasten the foamcore bases together with cocktail sticks (aka toothpicks). Free floating elements such as walls that tie the permanent structures together are fastened with hair grips (aka bobby pins).

I elected to go for the second approach: build a foamcore base with holes cut in for over-length ‘E-Z lock’ columns to plug into. These provide an anchor to which you can attach walls and other items as needed, and unused holes are hidden by card ‘caps’. It seemed more versatile and easier to store the individual elements. I planned to build the dungeon a few rooms at a time, rebuilding it when the PCs moved to a new area.

The E-Z Dungeon packed away for storage or transport

The E-Z Dungeon packed away for storage or transport

However, though storage is indeed easy, it takes far longer than I expected to build the dungeon; when I’ve used it it’s been for big set-piece encounters, as my original plan of building and rebuilding would hold the game up too long. I wonder if the original method is not the best after all.

Making the foamcore base proved something of a chore. One of the Fat Dragon forum members recommended printing the floor tiles on full-page labels (such as shipping labels), and sticking those on the foamcore base. This worked like a charm, and avoided me having to mess around with spray adhesive. However, cutting 60 one-inch square holes in the base was a chore, even with a heavy duty X-ACTO knife.

(Although I’ve used the square floor tiles for my dungeon, a hex tile is provided – but the method I’m using here is really designed for the square tiles; with hexes you need to build the elements and glue them in permanently in place.)

The next issue was simply making enough walls and other elements. The first time I tried to assemble a few rooms I realised I was way short on walls – and with the game the following day, I spent all night making more.

These issues, however, are mine. I’m extremely impressed with the PDF set. It’s clear a lot of time and effort has gone into designing them, and the results are extremely attractive – and for a very affordable price.

Building a papercraft dungeon certainly isn’t for everyone. In the two weeks it took moe to make mine, I’ve gone though frustration and pleasure, but for me it’s been worth it.

And it isn’t over – I want another base board and a lot more elements (the PDFs include everything from ‘construction’ elements such as archways and stairs, to barrels, crates, tables, traps and treasure chests. Expansions include sarcophagi, various traps, a torture chamber (with paper guillotine, rack and iron maiden among other devices), sewers and more.

It’s going to be a long time before I consider this project finished. But, hey, I can just print out what I want to work on at any given time and I’m away.

Unexpected reinforcements arrive as the PCs battle cultists. Can you spot the card caps covering the unused holes? Seoni the Sorcerer (bottom, centre) is standing on one.

Unexpected reinforcements arrive as the PCs battle cultists.

After that, of course, there’s a village, the castle, the caves, the forest campsite, the science-fiction base, the modern city street… Fat Dragon have built up quite a catalogue. And I backed their wilderness terrain on Kickstarter.


Five stars out of five. An excellent product offering a great deal for a very low cost. Highly recommended if you’re looking for a low-cost alternative to commercially manufactured 3D terrain and you’re prepared to put the time in.

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Review: Realm Works and Hero Lab

After a year of running Pathfinder Society games almost exclusively, I needed to scratch the itch for a longer campaign with a regular group.

With several regular PFS players feeling the same, I offered to run the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. Demand for the game was satisfying, but nine players is a lot for Pathfinder, which can get very fiddly in its tactical details. It’s an awful lot for Rise of the Runelords, which is designed for 4 PCs. Scheduling issues brought the final number down to 7 players, which is still a lot and requires me to find ways to beef up each combat encounter.

But I was reluctant to turn away gamers who have become friends. A long-term campaign is a bonding experience.

I started looking at computerised assistance. Since I already had Hero Lab (which I’ve used primarily as a character generator) and Realm Works, I decided to put them into action. It’s the first time I’ve used Hero Lab as more than a character generator, and the first time I’ve used Realm Works in a live gaming environment.

Both programs are by Lone Wolf Development. Realm Works is designed so that it can call up Hero Lab when needed (though you don’t need Hero Lab to use it).

I don’t think I’ve had a game go as smoothly for a long, long time. Furthermore, I ended both sessions feeling fresh; usually, running off paper notes, I often feel exhausted by the end of a session.

Realm Works

Realm Works is a cloud-based campaign manager. It differs from a campaign blog, even a dedicated one such as Obsidian Portal, by being able to track a lot of information in a variety of ways, supported by automatic hyperlinking (a great time saver).

The realms list shows what realms I've been working on or playing in. Crowns indicate I'm the GM for that realm.

The realms list shows what realms I’ve been working on or playing in. Crowns indicate I’m the GM for that realm.

The experience was extraordinary. I ran the sessions entirely on my laptop, with a set of dice beside it for rolling as needed. Even though I had a stack of rulebooks (and the adventure path) within arms reach, I hardly needed any of them. In the first session, I touched a rulebook once, to check the procedure on a combat manoeuvre. In the second session, I didn’t touch one at all.

Nor did I have to spend time flipping through my own notes – they were all in Realm Works. The software automatically hyperlinks the names of any topics or articles I’ve put into it. That means if I mention, for instance, that a particular NPC is present I can quickly open up the article on that NPC in a separate tab, where I have a picture I can show to players, notes on their personality and background, and any roleplaying/acting notes I’ve made.


The GM's view of Realm Works. Paragraphs highlighted in green have been released to the players. The notes in pale yellow are GM notes which players won't see at all.

The GM’s view of Realm Works. Paragraphs highlighted in green have been released to the players.

Realm Works has a couple of options for keeping track of NPC stat blocks. First, you can link directly to a Hero Lab portfolio. Second, you can import a text file containing the stat block.

The advantage of a Hero Lab portfolio is that with the click of a button, you can import NPC stat blocks into a portfolio already open in Hero Lab. I can keep a portfolio containing PC stats open, and import enemies from Realm Works as needed.

All of this takes preparation time, of course. I’m usually a seat-of-the-pants GM, so that’s necessitated a change in style for me. I spent three weeks getting Sandpoint background and the Swallowtail scenes into Realm Works, using a mix of story and world topics, storyboard and mechanics. The cloud allowed me to input data on my desktop and run from the laptop, without faffing around creating Dropbox folders for my notes.

As an added bonus, inputting all the information about Sandpoint NPCs really made me think about how to put their stories on the table.

Realm Works has the facility to release information to players on a paragraph by paragraph basis. This requires players to have their own version of Realm Works, which will set them back up to $10. That’s the price of a couple of large coffees at the coffee shop where we usually play Pathfinder Society – not too onerous. We agreed before starting the campaign that players would invest in their own copy of the software, so several clubbed together to get a pack of licences, which brings the price down to as little as $6 each.

What having the player edition means is that when I release paragraphs of information, players can read it at home. I wrote some speeches for the opening of the Swallowtail Festival that contain a fair bit of background information on Sandpoint. Players didn’t need to worry about writing them down or trying to remember details from week to week – I click a button, and they have access to it.


What the players see: these are the locations in Sandpoint they’ve visited or heard about. Clicking a pin will take them to whatever information they’ve found out about the location.

The GM's view has considerably more information. Green dots in the pins show locations the players can see.

The GM’s view has considerably more information. Green dots in the pins show locations the players can see.

It also helps me write a synopsis of each session since the software records the time I release each paragraph. The synopsis is the minimum information I think the players need to remember between sessions – with the automated hyperlinking, anything I write leads them to more information if they want it.

For the GM, Realm Works is a little pricier – $50 for the software and 6 months of cloud storage, with a recurring fee for continued cloud storage ($40 a year).

Hero Lab

Hero Lab is a character manager, with a tactical console that allows you to run combats. I thought at first I would use it merely to roll initiatives (even with my magnetic combat pad, rolling and organising initiative order for up to 20 combatants would be tough). I ended up using it to run combats entirely.

Not all my players have Hero Lab, but several do. Those with it emailed me their character portfolios. Those without emailed me their character sheet, allowing me to input their character in Hero Lab.

I’ve used Hero Lab for more than a year as nothing but a character creator. I wasn’t familiar with the capabilities of its tactical console, but I have been amazed at how effectively it works.

Rolling initiative for all combatants and organising them in initiative order with one click is a major time saver with a large combat. I can also input damage taken (or healed), and select a number of conditions (mounted, prone, blinded – the full gamut of Pathfinder conditions). The console automatically adjusts stats to account for conditions. This doesn’t always substitute for knowing the rules. For example, a prone character will have their AC reduced by 4, which is fine for melee combat, but it takes the GM to know that Prone condition actually increases AC by 4 against ranged attacks. This information is contained in Hero Lab’s description of the Prone status but isn’t automatically applied in the software.

A number of conditions are applied automatically – before a character has moved in combat, they will automatically have the Flat-footed condition. A character reduced to 0 HP or lower will automatically gain the Dead/Dying condition. Their turn will still come up in combat, which reminds me to make stabilization rolls for downed enemies (and, yes, once a character is stable, Hero Lab records that condition as well).

The tactical console in combat, with damage and conditions applied.

The tactical console in combat, with damage and conditions applied.

The software even keeps track of spell use and consumables. If someone’s loosed one of their 20 arrows, I knock one off and they now only have 19 available. If someone casts a spell, I mark it used.

There’s even a ‘night’s rest’ button which resets all daily abilities back to full. This has to be clicked for each character individually.

Batch damage, healing or conditions from an area effect isn’t handled at all. It must be applied to each combatant individually. It would be nice to have a ‘multiple select’ button which allows the GM to put conditions or damage (or a night’s rest) on several characters at the same time.

Outside combat, the tactical console gives a brief summary of characters’ important stats – their Perception score, Sense Motive and other skills I may need to know without asking players. I can click a character to bring up its full portfolio, which gives me the full rules on their spells, for instance. No more hunting up the details of a spell or condition in the rulebook.

The tactical console's non-combat view lists useful skills and abilities.

The tactical console’s non-combat view lists useful skills and abilities.

Hero Lab can be an expensive proposition if you want to go beyond the core rules. The main software (with the core rulebook data) costs $30. Each supplement must be bought separately at prices ranging from $10 for one of the Ultimate books or a bestiary, to $5 for several of the Player Companion or Campaign Setting volumes. It’s unlikely you’ll want to buy everything at once, and spread out over a number of months the cost it isn’t so bad.

Integration with the tabletop

The Pathfinder player table

The Pathfinder player table

We still use battle maps and markers (miniatures, pawns, paper minis, etc.) for combat. My biggest issue with this is not a failure of the software: it’s remembering which mini is Goblin #7. That would be an issue whether using software or dead trees to run the game. I need to get some little stickers to number the minis or pawns.

Players bring their printed (or electronic) character sheets with them for reference in the game, but we agreed the copy in my portfolio is the ‘master copy’.

Even with the electronic aids, we’ve agreed on a number of steps to help us cope with the large number of players. First is that I don’t award XP. Characters will level up when the story demands. That cuts down the record keeping.

We’ve agreed to keep the number of PC pets down to a minimum. Familiars are allowed, but generally used for their non-combat benefits. When it’s a key class feature (such as the druid’s animal companion), it will be allowed in combat. At the moment, mounts are used as transport, not in combat.

I use real physical dice, rather than Hero Lab’s built in dice roller. It isn’t just personal preference; it’s quicker to grab a d20 and roll it than to use the built-in dice roller.

I don’t feel secure enough with the software to run without my printed rules and adventure path to hand. I haven’t used them, really, but they’re a backup in case the tech fails us.

Although we’re using Realm Works as a between-game reference for players, it does have the ability to display items in-game as well. Players are already offering to loan me portable projectors to use this functionality; I want to get a little more familiar with the software before I take this step.


Letting the software carry the burden of reference and tracking allows me to concentrate on presentation and interaction with the players. Even if I need to figure out how to do something technical with the software, there’s a net gain in interaction time because I’m not hunting for notes.

The amount of advance prep leaves me much more familiar with the material.

The cloud allows me to prep whenever I have a network connection. Realm Works won’t run on my smartphone, but I keep the rulebooks and adventure path PDFs on my phone so I can read them when out and about. If necessary I can make notes and memos on Evernote, which syncs to my desktop and laptop.


We’re reliant on all the technical aspects working smoothly. Before our second session, a mandatory Realm Works update took time to download and install; there was a Hero Lab update at the same time. Those, combined with a bandwidth issue (either on my wireless network, my ISP or on Lone Wolf’s servers), delayed the start of our game by 90 minutes. Since we’re all friends, we got our socialising done, but it was a longer delay than I wanted.

Sessions last longer than my laptop battery, which means I need to be close to a power outlet.

There is a short learning curve with both Realm Works and Hero Lab. It’s not major, but it’s there. As I become more familiar with them, I expect things to go more smoothly.


I’m impressed with the set-up. Extremely impressed. It’s had a significant and very positive impact on my game. It’s an extra cash investment, of course, but it’s not ridiculous unless you’re on a tight budget.

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RIP, Dave Trampier

I learnt through Facebook that former TSR artist Dave “Tramp” Trampier died earlier this week. There’s a very brief obituary here.

Tramp’s art was a major part of my AD&D experience. Not only did he have the cover of the Player’s Handbook – always the first rulebook you buy – he supplued several full page drawings in the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. To this day, all my fantasy campaigns feature an inn or tavern called the Green Griffon, after a Tramp ink drawing in the DMG.

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FASA Star Trek: to boldly go

West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored, and the young star-captains glow

James Elroy Flecker

I’m not so much a games collector as a games hoarder. The covers of my ancient rulebooks are tattered, pages have notes in the margins. Boxes of games that might be valuable in mint condition are held together with Sellotape. My games are meant to be played, and they’ve been lugged around with me from house to house, and shipped in a Chinese freighter from one continent to another.

But a hoarder I am. I rarely let a game go once it enters my clutches. I can name the ones I’ve lost over the years – the original Warhammer box set, my 1977 classic Traveller box (replaced with the 1981 version), Wilf Backhaus’s Mage and Warrior, Advanced Melee and Wizard.

The only game I can remember actually selling was FASA’s Star Trek. I loved that game, and wanted to play it so badly, but no one I knew at the time wanted to. I created characters alone in the evening. I designed starships with the Starship Construction Manual and sent them into battle with each other in the Star Trek III Combat Simulator. I designed traders a little more ethical than Harry Mudd and sent them on to earn their living in the Triangle. But it’s a lonely experience, pretending to be a bridge crew, and their enemy. Space is cold. Eventually I got rid of it.

I’ve regretted that decision for years, and finally I’ve rectified it, with a copy of the deluxe edition rules from Wayne’s Books, and some of the supplements I once owned from Wayne, Noble Knight and the Dragon’s Trove.

FASA Star Trek Deluxe second edition box art

FASA Star Trek Deluxe second edition box art

And I’m loving it. The deluxe box cover art is rather more dull than the basic set I had so long ago, but once again, after more than 25 years, I’m creating characters alone in the evening.

My lonely character creation this time is not born of wishful ennui, but part of my efforts to re-familiarise myself with rules I haven’t seen since I was a teenager.

The system is rather quirky. Character generation is a somewhat complex affair, with characters earning skill points in various professional or hobby skills at various points in their training and career. Skills are percentage based and, unlike in Traveller, in which you discover where you career takes you, you first decide what position you’ll hold on board the ship, and learn what happens to you character between joining Star Fleet and beginning the game.

The game rules emphasise tactical combat rather heavily, with a particular focus on character movement. Combat resolution is extremely simple.

Some searching around second-hand game sites backed up the deluxe rule set with some of the classic supplements I used to own: The Triangle campaign setting, Merchant Princes, the Starship Construction Manual, and The Romulans sourcebook.

I aldo managed to find the Enterprise and the Klingon D-7 15mm floorplans.

All in all, it’s a hefty haul of nostalgic game material. But I think the time-consuming, complex character generation may mean I prepare pregens or templates for players to customise rather than run the full character development.

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Medieval charters from Salford Hundred

Stuart Mendelsohn runs a superb blog examining the medieval documents of Salford Hundred in Lancashire – an area he rightly points out is among the least explored in England, at least as far as medieval history is concerned.

He’s just uploaded some magnificent high-resolution scans of some of the charters relating to Spotland, near Rochdale, which he found in Chetham’s Library, Manchester. I am going to have to have a stab at translating some of these – but the first difficulty will be transcribing them. Medieval handwriting is not the easiest thing to decipher when you’re not an expert in it.

Here’s Stuart’s post with the charter images.

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My Pathfinder set-up

I’m a rather old-school gamer, more used to descriptive combat, judgement calls and hand-wavery than a strict adherence to the rules. Even when I ran the tactically intense D&D3.5 I kicked it into submission with my gaming style.

With Pathfinder, I’m modifying my style somewhat. I’m doing my best to stick to the rules. No, I’m not tracking low-value spell components, and yes, PC/NPC social interaction still requires a fair bit of handwaving. But I’m using minis – Pathfinder Pawns, actually – battlemaps, combat trackers, and there’s no friendly fudging to save PCs’ necks.

Many of the reasons for old-school handwavery and friendly fudging simply don’t exist with Pathfinder (or, to be fair, with D&D3.5). Combat is more of a tactical skirmish game if you have minis/counters. Rules are clear and more comprehensive than older systems – there’s less need for a judgement call. And, particularly with Pathfinder, rules are there online for players to read and become familiar with.

I’m not stopping my old style – there’s plenty of scope for it with other games – but I find the experience of GMing Pathfinder a rather liberating one. I’ve also become something of a Pathfinder fanboy – as well as rules and setting books, I’ve picked up a couple of the adventure paths, and some tabletop accessories of use in many different games. I’ve also bought the comics and some of the novels in digital form (and though I generally loathe game fiction, Dave Gross’s novels I rather like).

Last week, several players were off watching the Hobbit before the game, so after setting up the lounge for play, I had enough spare time to photograph it (yeah, OK, I was bored).

I don’t suppose it’s radically different to most other people’s, but here’s what my current set-up looks like:

1) For players

The Pathfinder player table

The Pathfinder player table

The player set-up is reatively simple. I’ve several sets of Pathfinder pawns (very high quality cardboard minis, which I highly recommend as a much cheaper and still attractive alternative to metal or plastic minis), a handful of Pathfinder flip-mats and map packs, with a Chessex megamat for drawing battlemaps on the fly.

I am running this as a tactical game, so the battlemaps and counters are crucial. The table will also see maps of Golarion (the Pathfinder world) and its towns, villages and the like laid out as well.

The Pathfinder pawns, by the way, I happily use for any fantasy game, backed up by things like Steve Jackson Games’ Cardboard Heroes and Arion Games’ and Okumarts paper minis when necessary, or when I’m playing genres other than fantasy. I let players pick appropriate pawns for their characters from the NPC Codex box. Besides that, they’ll have their character sheets and dice (because dice are in fairly short supply in the Middle East, I keep plenty of spares).

I encourage players to bring spare Pathfinder Core rulebooks – either physically or digitally. If I forget a rule, they can pick me up on it. This is not rules lawyering – I have some great players – but a valuable aid to me as I try to follow rules more closely than I have over the past 30 years. The only thing I don’t like is players checking the bestiaries to find opponents’ stats and weaknesses.

2) The GM set-up

Pathfinder GM set-upI don’t usually use a laptop for anything more than playing mood music when I GM. It’s different for Pathfinder. The PDFs are so well designed that they’re excellent to use in play – not only are they well bookmarked, but they are hyperlinked within the text, so you can click on a creature’s special abilities and be taken to the rules definition, or follow up combat results to check the effects of a condition imposed on PCs or opponents. Other game companies take note: this is what you should be doing when you make PDFs for sale.

With using a laptop comes the second monitor to display maps, handouts and NPC portraits. I didn’t plan for this; I ran out of printer ink just before the first session, so rigged up an old monitor as a stand-in. It worked well, so I added it to the regular set-up. I’ve currently got a Pathfinder wallpaper set up, but that can easily change for other games. I could also use it for inspirational illustrations, but there are relatively few available for sale in a suitable digital format.

I also run Hero Lab on the laptop, and keep the master copies of the PCs stats there. Players can have printouts, but my electronic copy is the master when in doubt. I don’t use Hero Lab’s combat panel in play – I haven’t quite succumbed to that yet.

The Pathfinder GM screen is mostly just to shield my notes. It does have reference tables and whatnot, but my eyesight is now bad enough that I have to switch between reading glasses and distance glasses – and even then, the print is small enough and on a greyish background, that I find it hard to read – and the PDFs do a good enough job of getting me to a relevant rule in a hurry.

In addition I have the magnetic combat pad (on the left). This is one of the best game accessories I’ve ever bought, and I highly recommend it to anyone running any game with complex initiative orders. It helps me track PC/opponent turn sequence, the number of rounds, when spell duration expires and the like. Brilliant – a major, major aid to keeping things as close to the rules as possible. I put it on a mini-easel so everyone can see it, everyone knows when their turn is coming up, and can remind me if I’ve skipped someone (and they do, even if I skip an opponents’ turn – I have good players). It doesn’t always stop dispute, but it does keep it to a minimum.

Speakers are there for mood music. I use a lot of film or game soundtracks, but I’ve also used things like the fan-generated Pathfinder Goblin Song, which annoys my players intensely when ever they fight goblins – at least it speeds up combat.

I also keep a good stack of printed rules behind the screen – rulebooks, any adventure path I happen to be running (Rise of the Runelords at the moment), and printouts of stat blocks for easy reference. And a space for rolling my dice – I have experimented with rolling openly, but I found myself running backwards and forwards from player table to GM table too much.

It’s all ready to add players.


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Star Trek TOS characters for Hero System

I’ve just updated my Hero System page with the Enterprise bridge crew statted out for Hero System 6th Edition.

You can find them here.

They’re intended for a minicon where I’m running Trek Hero tomorrow.

I’ll also be running the Battlestar Galactica RPG, and the old Victory Games James Bond RPG, updated with modern cars and weapons, set sometime after Skyfall.

But I haven’t prepped BSG and Bond yet. Don’t panic, Captain Mainwaring, sir!


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Hârn: Back in the saddle

It’s been a long time since I ran a Hârn game, but at last the drought is ended.

Hârn is a setting I adore. I named this website after it (which may not be apparent to those who just read the blog – the main site is the Penultimate HarnPage). I’m pretty keen on the HârnMaster rules system as well – I’ve played most incarnations of it since 1987, but have played the HârnMaster Gold edition from Kelestia Productions since it came out.

It isn’t that I haven’t wanted to play in the setting for the last few years, but moving to a new country can crimp your gaming style. It took a while to find other gamers, and I couldn’t convince them to try Hârn, so we played Hero System or variations of 3.5 – both also systems I enjoy – as one-offs or short campaigns.

But following the first Middle East Comic Con last year, the Gulf gaming scene has really taken off. Thanks to the efforts of a few bold gamers who set up some gaming tables, our little gaming group discovered we weren’t the only ones. The Gulf Roleplaying Community is behind a tabletop renaissance in the Arabian Gulf.

And now, at last, I have players who want to play in Hârn. A couple of nights ago we created characters for a campaign I’ve designed to fit the transient nature of Middle Eastern life, and the hectic (and often incompatible) nature of working shifts.

Rather than the open-ended style of campaign I’ve run before, Agents of the Crown is designed to run around a series of short missions. I’m back in my old stomping ground of Káldôr, and the players will be royal agents, troubleshooters working on behalf of the king’s private secretary. In theory, this will allow for players to play a session or two, and drop out and rejoin as their schedule allows. It’s also likely to mean that I use HârnMaster’s rules for character development during down time for the first time.

Gaming in the Middle East also means I’m making small changes to my Hârn. We’re a multicultural set of people, and I’m activiely looking for ways to make Hârn – in some ways a traditional fantasy medieval England analogue – more multicultural too. I don’t think it’s enough simply to allow players to play characters from other parts of the world. My Hârn has to become more multicultural too.

I’ve always had a black character in my version of Hârn, Sergeant Mbunte of the Army of the Oselmarch, a mercenary who decided to settle in Káldôr after falling in love with a local woman. But now I’m playing with ideas to add more. It’s easy enough for the port towns and transient populations – merchants and their factors can come from almost anywhere – so I’m simply having more settle for longer.

I’m looking forward to this game.

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Dangerous Journeys: Mythus

Note: Since writing this piece I’ve had the opportunity of playing in a Mythus campaign. You can read about those experiences here.

Back in 1992 I was on the lookout for a new set of game rules. I’d spent my time at university playing MERP and HârnMaster, with the occasional foray into Megatraveller, Fantasy Hero and RuneQuest III. I fancied a change.

Two things drew me to Dangerous Journeys – or, properly speaking, to Mythus, the only part of the Dangerous Journeys system that was ever published. The first was the wonderful artwork by Janet Aulisio on the Mythus Gamesmaster Screen, a beautiful triptych watercolour of a Middle Eastern dock scene that promised something radically different from stereotypical European fantasy.

Janet Aulisio's awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn't want to meet these people during their adventures?

Janet Aulisio’s awesome three-panel painting for the Mythus GM Screen. Who wouldn’t want to meet these people during their adventures?

The second was the name of the designer – Gary Gygax, co-written with Dave Newton – and the promise of the blurb on the back of the Mythus rulebook, which seemed to address every issue that led me to abandon AD&D: it had a percentile-based skill system, logical advancement, social classes, plenty of background detail. A flick through the book confirmed that armour absorbed damage. Gygax, the grand old man of roleplaying, had designed a system that seemed to tick every box I had at that time.

The main rulebook, magic supplement and screen were more than I really wanted to spend. I put them back on the shelf and continued browsing while I had one of those in-shop debates with myself. We all know how those end. I walked out of the shop with a lighter wallet and a new rules system. I even picked up the first couple of copies of Journeys magazine, intended to support the system.

And thus began the longest love-hate relationship I’ve ever had with a game system. Mythus has intrigued me and frustrated me in equal measure, but I’ve never been able to put it entirely out of my mind. As one person put it, when I mentioned the system on an old school discussion group, “I tried to like it… still trying.”

My main frustration with the system is Gygax’s writing style. Long-winded, precise to the point of prissiness, self-referential and full of exclamation marks! There are endless acronyms, most of them pointless bacronyms. Money, for example, is the Base Unit of Currency, or BUC, unless you want to call it the Quantifying Unit Indicating Denomination, or QUID. Grrrr…

Some people like Gary’s style; I don’t. That’s not criticism of Gygax the man, or of Gygax the designer, just of his writing style in games (oddly, his style in his novels is much better). In Mythus, Gary’s game style is pretty much unadulterated – it isn’t so much that it needed a decent editor as that it needed a complete re-write before ever being sent to an editor. Still, my reaction to it isn’t quite as bad as the chap who made a drinking game out of reading Mythus.

And yet I’ve always sensed a pretty solid system lurking somewhere behind the modifiers, sub-clauses, digressions, pomposity and axe-grinding. And every time I go to look for it, I get caught up in the frustrations again.

My fascination was further compounded with the number of people praising Mythus’ setting book, the Epic of Aerth, even as they condemned the rulebooks. I didn’t have that. So last year, I splashed out on a second-hand copy. And, I thought, while I was at it I may as well get the rest. I’m now the proud owner of almost everything ever put out for Dangerous Journeys. I’m missing the third novel and the last two copies of Journeys.

And it still frustrates me. Tempts me. Taunts me.

My Dangerous Journeys collection.

My Dangerous Journeys collection.

Last night, I sat down determined to finish a character. Yeah, I know: 20 years and I’d never made it through character generation once. I chose the simpler option of a non-heka user (Mythus uses Egyptian terminology for magic).

I wish I had done so earlier. Things are falling into place. My frustrations have become less to do with the language and writing style, and more with the need to flip through rulebooks hunting for elusive tables – the booklet of tables in the GM screen helps, but doesn’t entirely eliminate the problem. But I am convinced this is playable. The question is whether it offers anything more than systems I’m using now. It is, after all, an early 90s rule system.

Mythus has a fairly complex random character generation system, but nowhere near as complex as Rolemaster Standard, for example. I’d put it on a par with games like Chivalry & Sorcery 2nd edition (or Rebirth), or creating a mid-level Pathfinder/3.5 character. I’m OK with that; I don’t mind complex character generation if it helps enhance play and roleplay.

Character generation

In Mythus, generating a PC (the game calls them HPs, Heroic Personas) is a six-step process. I’m going to go into a fair bit of detail.

1) Determine socio-economic class (SEC)

SEC runs from level 1-9, representing lower, middle and upper class, each further subdivided into lower, middle and upper. Level is determined by a simple percentile roll. There’s a  table. I roll 13, and discover my character is SEC 3, upper lower class – a skilled bluecollar worker, in US terms. My SEC will limit the vocations I can choose.

2) Determine characteristics

Mythus has three traits – Mental, Physical and Spiritual – each subdivided into two categories. Mental is divided into Mnemonic and Reasoning, Physical into Muscular and Neural, and Spiritual into Metaphysical and Psychic. Each category is subdivided into three characteristics – Capacity, Power and Speed. Power and Speed cannot exceed Capacity for any given category. Characteristics are listed in the form SMCap (Spiritual Metaphysical Capacity), PNPow (Physical Neural Power) and so on. Each category is the sum of its characteristics; each trait is the sum of its categories.

To determine characteristics, you roll 2d6+8 18 times. Yes, 18. Once you’ve done this, you assign each roll to a characteristic. Cap must be the highest in any given category, and the game advises assigning your six highest rolls to the six category scores. Since I want to make a non-heka user, I’m going to put my highest scores into the Physical categories. Once you’ve assigned all the rolls, you can add up to three points to characteristics – no more than one to each, and Cap must remain highest.

My rolls are: 13, 13, 15, 11, 20, 17, 13, 18, 14, 17, 18, 13, 14, 13, 15, 12, 14, 14.

Including the three bonus points, I assign my characteristics so:

MMCap    17    PMCap    20    SMCap    18
MMPow    13    PMPow    16    SMPow    14
MMSpd    13    PMSPd    16    SMSpd    15
MRCap    15    PNCap    18    SPCap    17
MRPow    12    PNPow    14    SPPow    13
MRSpd    11    PNSpd    14    SPSpd    13

This gives the following Traits and Categories: Mental 80 (Mnemonic 43, Reasoning 37); Physical 98 (Muscular 52, Neural 46); Spiritual 88 (Metaphysical 45, Psychic 43)

Physical is the total damage I can take before dying. My Wound Level is 75% of that, 74 – that’s what I can take before becoming dazed. My Recovery Level is 10% of it, or 10, as is my combat speed – 10 paces.

Mental and Spiritual have effect levels of 80% of the total; these act as my wound levels in mental and spiritual combat.

3) Choose Vocation and Skills

Since this PC (or HP, since this is Mythus) has SEC  3 (social class, remember) and I want him to follow one of the Physical vocations, my choice is limited. All in all, Mythus has a good selection of vocations, broken down into 10 areas: Alchemy, Arms, Dweomercraeft, Mysticism, Outlawry, Priestcraeft, Primitive, Scholar and Voyager. The 10th area is for non-humans, and includes Alfar (northern Elves), Alfen (halflings), Dwarves, Elves and Gnomes.

I decide I want a fighter. There are three Arms vocations, Cavalier (Knight), Engineer and Soldier/Mercenary. With a SEC of 3, I can only pick Soldier/Mercenary. This gives me a decent selection of combat and physical skills, each calculated as a base (ranging from 8 to 20) plus one of my characteristics. What other systems call Skill Level or Rating, Mythus calls STEEP (Study, Training, Education, Experience and Practice). Sigh.

In addition, I get a number of additional skills (did I forget to mention Mythus calls these Knowledge/Skill Areas, or K/S for short?) based on my TRAIT scores. I get 2 extra Mental skills, and 3 in each of Physical and Spiritual. Each of the bonus skills will start at 2d10 + governing characteristic. I have the option to forego one of these skills and use its points to boost skills I already have, which I choose to exercise in Physical skills to boost my combat ability.

I decide this character’s a mercenary. I think of him as a sergeant, maybe – hardcore professional soldier. I won’t go into the picks I made here – the skills are listed on the character summary below – except to note that I decided not to pick Weapons, Special Skills, which would allow me things like called shots and two-weapon fighting, because I don’t see that fitting with a common soldier: solid weapon skills, yes, flashy tricks, no.

What I will note is that a number of skills have sub-areas. How many of these you can pick depends on your STEEP for the skill – between 1 and 4 of them, unless your STEEP is 51+, in whcih case you know all sub-areas. You can use any sub-areas you know at full STEEP, and others at half STEEP.

4) Additional Details

This is where a few game details and the character fluff is added – and quite a lot of fluff it is.

First, Attractiveness. It’s another 2d6+8 roll, and I get 15 – Attractive.

Then starting Joss Factor – Joss is Mythus’ hero points system; spending points can allow re-rolls, change success levels or buy plot twists like an escape from captivity. I roll 73 on percentile dice, and start with 11 Joss; that’s pretty good, as the table allows from 2 to 14.

Next up is birth rank, another percentile table, cross-referenced to social class. I roll low – 03 – and I’m the first child of the family. There are subtables should you be the seventh child, which carry bonuses including extra Joss, characteristic bonuses and extra heka skills, maxing out if you’re the 7th child of parents who were each also 7th children.

Age, oddly because it has a game effect, you choose rather than roll for. I’ll stick with the default starting age of 25-35, which adds 1 to PMCap (taking mine to 21). If you’re younger than this, you lose STEEP points but gain small bonuses to physical characteristics and attractiveness; of you’re older to lose attractiveness points and (if very old) other characteristics, but gain STEEP points.

You’re encouraged to choose personal details like height, weight (it’s odd that this isn’t rolled for, as weight has a game effect on wrestling), general description, usual dress, brief background and a typical quote.

Quirks – minor bonuses – are assigned by the GM, who can roll randomly, pick from a list or make them up. Each quirk generates a counter-quirk, again determined by the GM. I roll for one of each, and find that my character is toxin resistance (poisons are at 80% effectiveness against him) and a poor sense of humour.

The remaining details are optional – tables are provided for people who want their inspiration prompted or challenged.

Handedness is rolled for – ambidexterity allows you to fight with two weapons even without the skill. It’s another percentage roll, and I discover I’m right handed.

There’s a table for the briefest and brief backgrounds, cross-referenced for social class, and I discover I was an apprentice craftsman before becoming a soldier.

Then it’s time to determine race (as in, the type of human; we didn’t pick a non-human vocation). Now, you can pick this, but there’s a table provided, and random is fun, right? First, you roll to determine colour: Black, Brown, Red, White or Yellow. Each has a sub-table to determine actual race. Now, that kind of terminology was pretty dated even by the early ’90s, and it’s positively cringe-worthy now. But terminology aside, kudos to Mythus for not assuming everyone is a white European. Random rolls determine first that I’m brown, and then that I’m Hindic.

There are a set of tables for political and religious beliefs, general personality, interests and conformity. I discover I’m apolitical; follow nature deities; am a conformist (though might be trendy or a fashion chaser); am a sober person, if not downright introverted or stubborn; and that my interests are politics, status and power. Apolitical, but interested in politics and power? Interesting – that would seem to suggest a desire for political power but no firm principles. He chooses expediency.

5) Determine resources and connections; buy equipment

Starting money is determined by SEC rating. I’m not going to have much. Mythus divides wealth into several areas – Net Worth (which determines home, equipment and other possessions), Cash on Hand (which isn’t counted against net worth), Bank Accounts (which is) and Disposable Monthly Income. Age also plays a factor – the younger you are, the less money you have.

Wealth is measured in BUCs, though Epic of Aerth details coinage of its various nations.

My character’s at the default age, so no adjustment, but he’s still pretty poor – Net Worth of (3d3+5)*10 = 100 BUCs, and 5d3*50 = 500 BUCs cash on hand. I have no bank accounts or monthly income. 50 BUCs net worth isn’t even going to get me a decent set of clothes, so I’ll be spending some of that cash on hand straight away.

You get one special connection for each TRAIT over 90, rolled on a table cross-referenced against social class. Exactly who your connections are is determined the first time you call on them for help in play, at which point you note down their identity. In my case, I have only one TRAIT over 90. I roll a d20 and discover my special connection is a juggler.

For equipment, my 100 BUCs will buy me a kilt (25 BUCs) and a pair of shoes (50 BUCs). I’ve got 25 BUCs of my net worth left, which won’t buy much. I’ll dip into my chash on hand to get a longsword and a cheap (half-price) small roundshield, which won’t protect me as well as a full-price one, but it’s the best I can do. All but 50 BUCs of my cash is gone; I can’t afford armour.

Looks like I’d best be off adventuring – I’m going to need the loot.

All I need to do now is name this chap and decide where in the Hindic lands he’s from.Logging on to, I decide his name is Chandrakant Tamboli, and he comes from the Deccan Highlands near Hyderabad. I also have to pick a couple of foreign languages, but I’ll do that once I know where the campaign will be set.

Chandrakant Tamboli

Vocation: Mercenary     SEC: 3 (upper lower class)   Current Joss: 11

30-year-old Hindic male from Deccan Highlands. First child. Former apprentice craftsman. Attractiveness 15 (attractive). Right-handed. Height 5ft 11ins. Weight 190lb. Stocky. Black hair. Brown eyes. Usual dress: Kilt and shoes.

Personality: Apolitical, but seeks power and status. Conformist. Worships nature deities. Sober & introverted. Tendency to be stubborn.

Special connection: A juggler.

Wealth: None

Equipment: Kilt, shoes, longsword, cheap small roundshield.


Mental: 80 – Mnemonic 43 (MMCap 17, MMPow 13, MMSpd 13); Reasoning 37 (MRCap 15, MRPow 12, MRSpd 11). Mental Effect Level: 64

Physical: 98 – Muscular 53 (PMCap 21, PMPow 16, PM Spd 16); Neural 46 (PNCap 18, PNPow 14, PNSpd 14). Wound Level 75, Critical Level 89, Recovery Level 10

Spiritual: 88 – Metaphysical 45 (SMCap 18, SMPow 14, SMSpd 13); Psychic 43 (SPCap 17, SPPow 13, SPSpd 13). Spiritual Effect Level: 70

K/S Areas (sub-Areas in brackets)

Mental: Etiquette/Social Graces 15, Native Tongue (Hindi) 32, Language (Trade Pheonician) 26, Gambling (Dice, Dog & Horse Racing, Sporting Events) 32, Criminal Activities – Mental (Extortion, Gambling Operations) 27, Military Science 28, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Foreign Language (choose) 25, Fortification & Siegecraft 26, Weapons – Military Other 27.

Physical: Perception – Physical (Noticing, Hearing) 25, Riding (Horse, Camel, Teamstering) 36, Combat – Hand Weapons (1H Swords, Spears, Daggers & Knives, Shields) 46, Criminal Activities – Physical (Sneaking, Hiding, Ambushing) 36, Escape 36, Handicrafts 35, Survival 42, Combat – HTH Lethal (Hands, Feet, Sais) 32, Combat – HTH Non-lethal 32, Combat – Hand Missile (Bows, Knives, Crossbows) 38, First Aid 31, Jack of all Trades (Carpentry, Masonry, Construction) 32, Travel 28, Arms & Armour (Swordmaking, Bowyery & Fletching, Making Light Armour) 42, Endurance 32.

Spiritual: Streetwise (Rural Poor, Mercenaries, Urban Poor) 33, Jury-Rigging 27, Animal Handling 28, Leadership 23.


Overall, Mythus character generation isn’t too bad – if you can get past rolling 2d6+8 18 times and you have the booklet of tables from the GM Screen to hand. Without the booklet, you’ll be flipping from page to page, moving between the table itself and the note on another page, buried between layers of unnecessary verbiage, which describes how to use it. Mythus may be a usable system, but it’s not user-friendly.

It does, at least, produce an interesting character. I’d like to play this guy. However, this is a deliberately simple character with no heka abilities. Making a magic user or priest adds another layer of complexity. And that’s what I’ll be trying next… Cover me. I’m going in.

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