The main premise is “Hey, Virtual Tabletops have sure come a long way, haven’t they?”
I wanted to incorporate a virtual tabletop at the actual tabletop. My friend’s game room has a nice big table with a 80″ HDTV that fits perfect at one end. So a couple months before my turn came up to GM in our group, I fired up Roll20, the group picked a Pathfinder Adventure Path, and I set to work importing the maps, monster tokens, and art from the Skull and Shackles Adventure Path PDFs into Roll20. I wanted the visual aspect of the RPG to actually be pretty, and the battle map itself to help play: easy to measure distances, easy to move tokens around, automatically calculating lighting and fog-of-war, stuff like that. Computer-aided RPG.
So, this is my first campaign I’ve GM’d with a strong visual component. I also wanted to highlight the nitty-gritty tactics of Pathfinder, as I’m a firm believer of System Matters, and the Pathfinder system does tactics very well, go big or go home. I wanted the other players to be challenged, and to feel clever for overcoming those challenges. So far, so good!
Also, pirates. YAR! It’s been fun learning more about historical pirates, and thinking about how a high magic setting like Golarion would affect piracy. It doesn’t hurt that there are so many gorgeous works of art around the Age of Sail. So I’m really glad we decided to go with Skull and Shackles.
Skull and Shackles! Nice.
Tell me more about piracy in Golarion, please. What makes them different from Earth pirates?
Sails are much more vulnerable in Golarion. Sure on Earth we had chain shot and a good hit to the mast can really ruin the mobility of a ship, but a single fireball will evaporate the mainsail and all the rigging. A flying wizard can hit all three masts from 600 feet away, well out of the range of any cannon or ballistae, and now that ship is a sitting duck. Another big factor is attacks can come from many more directions. Mostly on Earth you just have to watch for sails on the horizon. On Golarion, there are many intelligent creatures that can swim faster than most ships, likewise flying creatures can increase the scouting range of a pirate crew by many miles. It becomes much more about not being seen at all than it is about losing any possible pursuer. It actually feels a lot closer to modern naval combat in that regard.
What is the coolest (or what are some cool) nitty-gritty tactics moments?
I’ll give two, one GM side and one Player Side.
As the GM, I had a LOT of fun when a player introduced a Aboleth in the backstory for his Hunter. GM: “A hunter, eh? What do you hunt?” Player: “I HUNT THE WHITE ABOLETH.”
This was super fun for two reasons: 1) I got to unleash a wicked pun when I changed it from White Aboleth to Wight Aboleth, oh man the look on that player’s face when he realized why that tentacle slap gave him negative levels… Priceless.
2) Aboleths try to raise slave armies through mental domination, so I got to thoroughly muck with the pre-written adventure by introducing a monster that’s running around dominating all these important NPC’s. There are limits, though. The domination lasts 16 days and works from unlimited range, but has to be renewed in person. So, how big of a network can one undead Aboleth create? Well, since they don’t tire and can swim all day and all night, the answer is “pretty big.” Watching the players discover, then dismantle this network of thralls was very rewarding. Working out the logistics of all this made my brainmeats happy.
From the Player side, a little while ago they rolled up on a fortress of Cyclopes. The Adventure Path suggests compartmentalizing the encounters, but I didn’t like that idea. If the alarm is raised, why wouldn’t everybody come? So what was supposed to be 4 or 5 encounters with Cyclopes was in fact one encounter with 16 Cyclopes, a Big Boss Cyclpse, and his 2nd in command. If the PC’s had played it straight, they would have been paste. But they were super smart about it. A combination of area denial, crowd control, and blocking line of sight with spells forced the Cyclopes into a kill zone. I did my best to play them smart, but there just wasn’t much they could do about it. It was amazing to watch the players organically develop a strategy that was absolutely devastating. System mastery at its finest!
Sweet. It was the Moby Dick of Aboleths. Love it.
I ran the Kingmaker Adventure Path a few years ago using BW and really liked it. How are you liking Skull and Shackles?
What is the AP providing?
I like Skull and Shackles quite a bit. The rags-to-riches revenge story of a group that started their pirate career drugged and press ganged then gradually rise in power and reputation to the most fearsome pirates in the sea!
A couple things I like in particular: I really enjoy how much of the adventure path is about reputation, infamy, and the political realities of piracy. Like the fact that in the beginning, other pirates are just as much of a threat as the occasional Pirate Hunter sent down from Chelliax. That is, until the PC’s have made a name for themselves. I also enjoy the political intrigue of the pirate council, and the major plot thread that involves sniffing out a traitor, with the looming threat of a massive invasion.
Another thing I’ve been enjoying is the lack of large dungeons, but instead there are many small dungeons, some just 2 or 3 rooms. They’re quick but very flavorful: a sunken temple here, a mysterious Black Tower there, and the obligatory series of clues written in poem form on a treasure map. These smaller locations are much more believable than a multi-trip large dungeon, and they cram in only the best stuff, very few filler rooms.
Also, this AP lets aquatic themed character builds really shine, and that’s rare.
I really enjoyed the finale to the first module: Riptide Cove, a sea cave lair of Grindylows on Bonewrack Isle, where the PC’s have been shipwrecked. It’s a dungeon that varies widely depending on what time of day it is: during high tide it’s almost entirely underwater, but low tide most of the time it’s only ankle deep. There’s also a nice mix of encounters in there, Grindylows, a Devil Fish, and some Lacedons.
I also really enjoyed the Sahuagin Tunnels in Mancatcher Cove, completely dark and underwater, the PC’s had to play it smart to get in and out alive. That’s also where the final showdown with the Wight Aboleth was, as he’d dominated the Sahuagin and was using them to grow his nascent undersea empire.
I’m fascinated by Chelliax. They worship a devil, right?
Yes! Chelliax’s ruling family signed a multi-generational deal with the Archdevil Asmodeus, which has been re-negotiated twice since then, and so the throne now has the most metal name ever: The Thrice-Damned Throne. The overarching geopolitical situation in Skull and Shackles is that Chelliax used to have a colony down in the south called Sargava (analagus to Rio De Janeiro) which fought for and claimed independence a little while ago. The only reason Chelliax hasn’t reclaimed their colony is because those pesky Shackles Pirates cut a deal with Sargava, and pick apart any Armada that comes through. Chelliax is fed up with that, and plans to send an invasion fleet to deal with the pirates once and for all (in about 4 months game time in my campaign, we’re close enough to the end that I’ve actually set a hard date.)
Creating a good build is a big part of Pathfinder. What are your thoughts on grabbing an optimal build?
I do think optimal builds are important in Pathfinder. System mastery is one of the primary reasons to play a game of this complexity. While I definitely am not a fan of the idea of the antagonistic GM, I do feel that one of the most important aspects of Pathfinder and games like it is the feeling of being challenged and overcoming that challenge. The stakes need to be high, and the players need to be able to say “Man, we would have been so screwed if we didn’t have X” where X is a class ability or spell that the player took, or the exact right magic item they sought out and acquired.
Which is not to say sub-optimal builds don’t have a place. I just think it’s better suited for very experienced players who are deliberately handicapping themselves. “You say Bards suck? Let me see what I can do with one.” That kind of thing.
What does an aquatic character build look like?
One of the cool features of Pathfinder is over the years each class has accumulated dozens of variants called archetypes. Each one swaps out a base class ability for something else along a theme. Every class has a “aquatic” variant or two, plus spellcasters can often take specializations or patron deities that are sea-related and those convey special abilities too. So far we’ve had a Pirate Rogue, an Aquatic Druid, a Mer-folk Monk, all of which would be a poor choice almost anywhere else in Golarion, but they all got to shine here.
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed adding my own details and spin on Golarion. How are you feeling about making Golarion your own?
Oh man I love it. The wiki(s) has just the right amount of information on a region or faction to get you started but it’s all there for the taking. It took me a long time tog et over my fear of established settings and pre-written modules. But now I’m finally comfortable with the idea that these things are tools in my toolkit, not sacred texts to be followed.
In general, I the credit for overcoming that fear to discovering indie games. In fact, a lot of how much I can enjoy Pathfinder now comes from what I learned from indie games. And part of that comes from finding the Sons of Kryos all those years ago. So, thanks for that. 🙂
What advice would you give a GM trying to find their own angle/toehold on this huge world with so much published material?
For the love of God, don’t try to remember all of it or even READ all of it. Fall into wiki-holes related to whatever’s relevant for your campaign, and just dig around. Don’t be afraid to hand over lore-dumps to a player at the table who might know more than you. We’ve got a guy at my table that LOVES the Golarion Lore. He knows it way better than I do. I let him narrate when our party Bard inevitably gets an insane Knowledge (whatever) check.
Don’t forget that Pathfinder is a long-form game. There’s very little you actually need to know from session to session. Plenty of time to research related stuff as you go along.
That might be a great place to end it.
Anything else you wanted to talk about?
Just a thank you for asking me to do this, it was a lot of fun!