5 Great Tabletop Adventures

As I was writing my last blog post about RPG books I love I found that I wanted to add a number of adventures to the list but then the list would quickly either become overrun by adventures or just too generally bloated because I wouldn’t be able to keep the list as short as I originally wanted. So after I finished that post I decided to write a follow-up featuring great adventures. Now there are an enormous number of truly fantastic adventures written for fantasy and Sci-Fi RPGs and I would have no hope of getting all the ones I love all in one blog post. So I’ve limited myself to just five. Maybe not the best five ever written, but five stand out adventures I love and why.

You may notice that despite being a game designer who pretty much specializes in Pathfinder there are no Pathfinder adventures on this list. The reason for that is two-fold. One, there are many Pathfinder adventures, and two; I wanted to focus on some that I have run multiple times but might be less well known.


Shackled City Adventure Path (D&D, Paizo)
Okay Shackled City is probably the best-known adventure on this list and I’ve only run the whole thing once but it is a great adventure product. Shackled City hooked me from my first glimpse of Cauldron in Dungeon Magazine. It brought me back to Greyhawk, a campaign setting I never expected to be drawn back to. As the forerunner to the current Pathfinder APs it’s impossible to not at least mention this fantastic adventure path. Set in Cauldron, a city brazenly built in the caldera of a dormant volcano Shackled City is a complete campaign arc, following the heroes from their earliest adventures through the campaign’s ultimate challenges. It makes the PCs care about their hometown and the people in it, even their rivals. It also has one of the best villain introductions I have seen in an adventure product. The look on my player’s faces when they realized their first level PCs might be on the wrong end of a fight with a beholder was kinda awesome.

Cabin Fever (Cyberpunk 2020, Atlas Games)
It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the cyberpunk genre but there are some tropes that show up (maybe a little too) frequently. Occasionally it is nice to see those tropes subverted that’s where Cabin Fever steps in. Cabin Fever begins with a shady fixer hiring the PCs for an under the table for a heist on a mega-corporation. The target is on a ship due to arrive in the Night City Harbor. The PCs have some time to prep and plan but just as the PCs are about to begin their op everything goes sideways much earlier than normal. Before they have even had a chance to make a run at the ship, it explodes spewing acidic gas. Worse, the PC’s boat is damaged and they are forced to take shelter or die from gas exposure. At this point, the adventure gets a bit railroad-y because the plot assumes the PCs shelter in a specific bar. A GM can mitigate some of this by making the bar the only logical choice and leave it up to the PCs to “choose” their hole up point. So, what started as a standard cyberpunk story has just been turned into a locked room scenario. Here the adventure shines. The bar has an adequately detailed (albeit dull map) but in this close space, we have ample opportunities for roleplaying. The adventure details a number of NPCs each with their own personalities and motives. Typically, this adventure can be run in a single session and I’ve run it a few times. Once, I even tweaked it for use in a Werewolf game.

Hour of the Knife (AD&D Ravenloft, Wizards of the Coast) — Okay I warned you spoilers abound down here. I’m warning you again SPOILERS. This is an old 2nd ed AD&D adventure but I know more than a few GMs tap these older modules for modern use. Like with Cabin Fever the adventure does get a little railroad-y but largely it is a non-linear investigative adventure. What made this adventure so memorable for me was the twist: Doppelgangers. Not just using them as standard villains but player controlled doppelgangers that looked just like the PCs. I have run and recycled plot elements from this adventure a number of times with different groups. Hour of the Knife is a fun adventure that parallels tropes rarely seen at the table but common to TV and film.

Tatooine Manhunt (d6 Star Wars, West End Games)Tatooine Manhunt is quite possibly my most frequently rerun adventure on this list. I admit to being duped by the original cover art. I really wanted a module that featured the bounty hunters of The Empire Strikes Back but I was only momentarily disappointed. This action packed adventure had all the beats you want from a Star Wars story. The basic plot revolved around the disappearance and presumed death of an Old Republic hero who turns out to be alive and well on (of all places) Tatooine. The mission to bring Adar Talon to join the Rebellion has been the foundational adventure for most of my Star Wars campaigns regardless of edition.

Skein of the Blackbone Bride (Numenera, Monte Cook Games) — I’m going to be as spoiler free as possible for this adventure because it is by far the most recent one on the list. Now Numenera has a lot in common with D&D but is a lot less combat focused. Instead, it focusses on discovery and exploration. Skein of the Blackbone Bride earns its place on this list for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that crux of the adventure will likely lead to more self-discovery for the player characters than almost any other adventure I’ve read or run. Simply by asking players to make a choice on how they’re going to proceed after the adventure is over. I don’t want to give anything away so until you play it or read it you may just have to trust me.

I’m also placing this adventure on the list because of how it starts. Originally designed to be a convention event, it sets all the player character’s up as members of a group called the Slying Seskiis. All have worked together for some time and each has a nickname. All that is, except one, a new recruit trying to earn his or her name. The relationships assumed and reinforced in the first few “getting to know your tablemates” minutes of the game quickly established this as one of the best roleplaying adventures I’ve run. The intro was so solid that I made this one of the earliest adventures in my home Numenera campaign even going so far as to keep the PCs as members of the Seskiis through several different adventures.

Looking back on this list I may be revisiting some of these adventures again. Pillaging pieces and modifying them heavily for whatever campaign I’m running I happen to drag them out for.


Top 10 Gaming Books

This came up on Facebook and since I haven’t been blogging here on instead spending all of my blog writing time on Burst of Insight I thought I’d do this here. Plus, I can throw in some cover art. So here we go, my top 10 gaming books…or a fairly close approximation I may have forgotten something somewhere.

Planescape (1994): Okay berk, I loved TSR’s wacky and weird planar campaign. Planscape brought our group back to AD&D after a hiatus and a friend of mine ran the most amazing campaign in and around Sigil. Planescape may be my favorite D&D setting ever, the evocative art of Tony DiTerlizzi, Robh Ruppel, and Dana Knutson, the robust slang, and abnormal geography. All the of the little alien details sparks the imagination like no other D&D setting before or since, although Eberron came close.

Cyberpunk (1988): The first edition came at a time in my youth when the rebellious punk aesthetic appealed to me. The early edition featured simple black and white art even on the covers of the books in the box set but in my imagination, Night City was awash in neon and bright colors. When the second edition rolled out two years later I jumped at the update. While we were deep in our Cyberpunk phase we also played a lot of Shadowrun but the very first game to offer a chance to play in a world similar to Bladerunner was Cyberpunk between that and the fact that it’s one of the few hard sci-fi games to hold our group’s attention I had to include it on this list.

Gamma World (1985): This was the edition of the game that hooked me. I was lost pretty much the moment I laid eyes on the box set’s cover art. Despite some problems with the rules, the post-apocalyptic Gamma World became my group’s go-to game for a couple of years. When the d20 hardcover editions were released in 2003 I picked them up despite not having a group interested in playing.

Star Wars (1987): Another fairly early acquisition. How could fourteen-year-old me ever resist the lure of Star Wars? The system was very different from most of the games we played but it was a fast favorite. Possibly because it had x-wings and lightsabers. West End Games’ d6 system may not be the best version of Star Wars (I may have to award that to the new Fantasy Flight games) but it certainly deserves a spot on this list, if only for how it influenced my earliest games by introducing me to cinematic storytelling. From time to time, I also still toy with the idea of utilizing adventure scripts again.

Ultra Modern Firearms: I never played Millennium’s End but I did buy their Ultra Modern Firearms book on the advice of a friend. Charles Ryan packed his book of firearms with more important information than I would have expected. For years particularly while playing OWoD games this Millennium’s End sourcebook was a frequent companion. When Green Ronin released a d20 version I bought it right away and finally retired my original book. For the first time, I was able to use 100 percent of the book.

FATE Accelerated: I think I like the streamlined version of FATE more than the full version and at only $5.00 it was hard to pass up. The system is fast and flexible and a fun narrative game. We’ve used it to play familiar settings like Star Wars, Amateur Benders (like those found on The Legend of Korra), and a brief attempt a FATE Eberron campaign. FAE handled every setting very well and is an excellent example of great narrative rules.

The Advanced Bestiary: Green Ronin’s sourcebook for the Pathfinder Roleplaying game contains over 100 monstrous templates and sample monsters built with each of those templates. I’m frequently in need of a new monster for my games and the Advanced Bestiary delivers new versions of old favorites. This may be one of my most frequently referenced Pathfinder books aside from the Feat Reference Document or the Core Rulebook.

GURPS Timeline: One of my favorite gaming resources is the non-gaming Timetables of History, but my GURPS Timeline gets just as much use or more. This GURPS sourcebook is slimmer than Timetables and easier to reference. Plus like many GURPS books, it has a number of useful sidebars and suggestions for how to use certain events in time travel RPGs.

Pathfinder Core Rulebook: Okay, of course, this game is high on my list. Pathfinder is the RPG I play most and the one I freelance for almost exclusively. Pathfinder isn’t a perfect game but it is a solid and flexible chassis. Monica and I have four copies of the rules 1 first printing hardcover two of the newest printings also in hardcover and one of the new pocket editions. Of those, the PE may be my favorite version of the rules. Smaller and lighter but still durable the PE is a great value and more convenient to carry to game on those nights when we’re not playing in the house.

For a long time, it looked like Pathfinder would be the definitive heir to Dungeons and Dragons’ legacy. Pathfinder offers a good balance between complexity and simplicity of play. Players have a dizzying number of choices but once characters are made, play is fairly simple using a unified 20 mechanic for most actions.

Numenera: So how did this game displace Pathfinder for number one? It’s a combination of mechanics and setting. The level of weird and “magic” feels like a callback to favorite settings like Planescape and Eberron while still being entirely new and exciting. A billion years in our future the Ninth world is built on the backs of eight great prior civilizations. The wonders those civilizations left behind are often as incomprehensible to residents of the world as magic. And for all the detail to this world, Monte Cook has left huge portions of it open for GMs to define.

What really cements this game’s place on the list though are the rules. Without a doubt, this is my favorite game to run. The rules really get out of the GM’s way while offering the players a wealth of options and a good deal of agency.

So that’s my Top 10 RPG books and a little about why they’re on my list but before I go I’d like to do an honorable mention because if I do this list in a couple of months there’s a good chance this Pathfinder resource will probably make the cut.

This afternoon I received my hardcover copy of the Talented Bestiary, from Rogue Genius Games. First skim through and I’m tremendously thrilled by this book. I doubt it will replace the Advanced Bestiary as most referenced monster book but I won’t say it won’t either. At first glance, it’s that good.



First Know Direction Blog Post

So the news has been out for a little while now: I’ll be blogging every two weeks for Know Direction.

This doesn’t mean I’ll be killing this blog…I’m already hit and miss posting over here so this won’t be a reason to dump this blog. I’ll keep intermittently posting here and begin making regular posts there.

In the meantime here’s the link to my first post on the Know Direction Network: http://knowdirectionpodcast.com/2016/05/an-introduction/

Watch for me on http://knowdirectionpodcast.com/ every other Tuesday.


House Rule: Revised Searching

So spoiler alert, there are a lot of traps and secret doors in the Emerald Spire. Normally I don’t like spoiling adventures like this but it’s a dungeon crawl…saying there are traps and secret doors inside is like saying there are monsters inside. So it’s not really a spoiler I guess. Anyway, both of these elements are well represented inside the spire and my PCs are being careful when they can. The problem is the system of rolling for search we’ve been using is putting a whole lot of extra dice rolls on the table.

And play is slowing down.

So, I’m going to experiment with some variant search rules somewhat inspired by other player’s descriptions of 5e’s passive perception and the current Armor Class rules. Note this augments the current Perception skill it isn’t intended to replace it. If a PC wishes to examine a particular dungeon feature or item they’ll roll perception normally this rule is more for moving through a dungeon with the sort of care that will (hopefully) help them find things in a more generalized area.

So starting tonight my PCs will have a Search Rating: Basically just Perception + 10. Whenever they encounter a trap, secret door, sneaking villain or whatever I’ll roll Stealth for adversary against this DC. Since traps and secret doors don’t have the Stealth skill so I’ll need to get them an equivalent number. To do this I’ll simply take the Perception DC and subtract 10.

Now sure, I could roll for the players in secret but I’ve never been a fan of that. I may be weird but I don’t like rolling for the players. Against them sure but rolling for them feel like I’m taking away some of their agency.

Now while we’re talking player agency let’s talk about Searching carefully. The above rules work fine for normal passive perception but let’s talk about giving the players some options. If a player wants to search carefully she gains a +4 to her Search score but may only move at half-speed.

I think this will speed things up and allow me to give my players some choices even if I’m the one rolling the dice.

House Rule: Revised Initiative

I recently posted about variant XP and Hero Point rules I wanted to use in my Emerald Spire campaign. Today I’d like to share a simple house rule I’m using to speed up combat in that same campaign because sometimes it’s the little things you do behind the screen that make the game run smoother.

First of all, I like to have combat sheets for every encounter. I keep full statblocks for every NPC and monster my PCs will encounter. Sometimes I’ll include rules and spell descriptions. This does take considerable time to put together but I have all the rules references I’ll need right at my fingertips.

Lately, instead of having the NPCs roll for initiative I’ve assigned each NPC an Initiative Score and placed that on the statblock instead of the normal modifier.

The Initiative Score is typically equal to 10 (or 11 in the case of named NPCs) + the character’s initiative modifier. Situational modifiers might adjust the current score up or down. In this system, PCs roll initiative normally and the NPC acts on the same count as his or her initiative score. It’s that simple.

What this does for me is by removing this single die roll I can focus quickly on getting all the PC’s initiatives logged and then dive right into combat. This is even better when there are multiple NPCs.

Using this house rule isn’t a big change but so far it has really helped me keep combat scenes moving along quickly.


Heroic Experiences

Variant Experience and Hero Point Rules for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game

My group and I have been playing with hero points, action points or some similar house ruled variation since Second Edition. As I begin to plan my next campaign (The Emerald Spire Superdungeon), I’m looking at what house rules and optional rules I’ll employ. Hero points and experience points are the first two systems I’m going to address for this campaign.

So, why tinker with these two systems? Because I want to change what the game rewards a little. I’m looking to reward exploration, heroism, and story development rather than just the kill it and take all the stuff that Pathfinder normally focusses on. Not that isn’t fun, the format of a superdungeon already rewards much of that style of play by design. This is an experiment to see what happens when we vary the player’s rewards.

Variant Experience Points

For a while now especially when running adventure paths, I’ve been hand waving advancement based largely on how far through a given book we’ve come. But for The Emerald Spire, I want to actually offer XP that rewards the behavior I want the character’s to pursue. So while progress through the book and the dungeon are important it isn’t the only thing I want to reward.

Borrowing from Pathfinder Society advancement I’ve chosen to work from a simple framework of 1 or 2 XP earned each session for things such as:

  • Major discoveries, such as gaining access to deeper levels of the dungeon.
  • Completing any of the quests detailed in the adventure.
  • Completing character milestones or similar story objectives.
  • Overcoming specific challenges.

Unlike society play, however, players will require 5 XP to advance from one level to the next. The wider margin allows me to pace awards to prevent players from exceeding the normal APL for each level of the dungeon.

Additionally, players may spend an experience point to regain a spent hero point (see below).

Players may also spend 1 XP to add a Pathfinder Society boon from an adventure or dungeon level to their character sheet. During play this boon may be activated by spending a hero point.

Variant Hero Points

The rules governing hero points are largely unchanged from those that appear in the Advanced Player’s Guide except in some of the specifics of how you can earn and spend them.

Starting and Maximum Hero Points

As with the original rules, players begin play with only 1 hero point and have a maximum of 3 hero points. Players will be allowed to select any of the hero point feats including Heroes Fortune which increases a character’s maximum number of hero points. Players cannot opt to make their characters’ Antiheroes.

Earning Additional Hero Points

As stated above, a player may spend an XP to gain a hero point but heroes are truly defined by their deeds. As such, once per session a character may attempt to earn an additional Hero Point by performing a selfless act of heroism or a cinematic stunt. The player describes the action and the GM decides on the type of check required and its DC. If the character succeeds she also regains a Hero Point. If the task would normally be impossible without the expenditure of a Hero Point, in addition to the point earned the point risked to initiate the action is not lost.

Example: The GM just rolled lightning bolt damage for Monica’s already injured PC, Maeve. The resulting damage will kill her PC. Scott asks the DM if he can spend his last hero point to cross the room and knock Maeve out of the path of the lightning bolt and take the blast in her place. Since this is his last Hero point he also asks if he can attempt to regain a Hero Point with this action and the GM agrees. The DM decides he may attempt an Acrobatics check with the same DC as the lightning bolt to charge the distance and absorb the blast. If he’s successful he’ll take full damage but Maeve will be safe and he’ll have 2 Hero Points.

Spending Hero Points

Most of the ways you can spend hero points are unchanged from the ones that appear in the Advanced Player’s Guide what follows are the new and modified options.

Activate Boon: You may spend a hero point to gain a use of a boon you previously purchased.

Bonus: You may spend a hero point to gain a +1d8 luck bonus to a d20 roll. Alternately, you may spend 2 hero points to gain a +2d6 luck bonus. You can spend hero points in this manner to grant this bonus to another character, as long as you are in the same location and your character can reasonably affect the outcome of the roll (such as distracting a monster, shouting words of encouragement, or otherwise aiding another with the check).

Reroll: You may spend a hero point to allow any player to reroll any one d20 roll just made. They must take the results of the second roll, even if it is worse. You may use your hero points in this manner even if your character is not in the immediate vicinity. If you spend a hero point in this manner for another player it doesn’t count against the maximum you can spend in a turn.

Teamwork: At the beginning of your turn, you may spend a hero point as a free action to gain the benefit of a teamwork feat an ally has but you don’t. You must meet the prerequisites of the feat. You gain the benefit of this feat until the beginning of your next turn.

#Pathfinder #RPGs #Gaming #rules #EmeraldSpire #MarloweHouse

Gaming with the Kids: Let Me Tell You About My Character

Next week my oldest friend (who is also named Andrew),  Monica, and I will sit down with our kids and play Pathfinder. Now Monica and I have played with the kids a number of times but we haven’t really played Pathfinder so this will  be a little new for our kids. Andrew’s kids have played a little Pathfinder so they’ll have a better handle on the rules as we start but they’ve never played with more than one adult (who was the GM). So while this won’t be an entirely new experience for any of us it will be interesting and hopefully a lot of fun.

Having played with my children on a number of occasions I know it can be hard for them to feel like they have the authority to make decisions.  In the past we’ve handled this a number of ways this time I decided I wanted to try something different. In the past we’ve played games where no one really talked about their PCs age and everyone was just treated as if they were generally equal on other occasions the PC’s including my wife’s were all children. Now Andrew had suggested maybe I should play something unusual such as a faerie dragon. He also offered to let me play a little higher level if need be. I took his advice but a little more mundanely.

I’ll be playing an awakened cat (slayer), who thinks of himself as some sort of knight…

I call him Ser Fidelius Felix, aka Shadow. Shadow is the name on his collar but he knows his name is Fidelius and is almost as certain he is a knight.  Not a human sort of knight he is first and foremost a cat just a supernatural one. Now from a story perspective I like Fidelius because, he can offer advice but he has no thumbs and largely won’t be taken very seriously by any NPCs we should meet which means the other character’s will have to take up some of the cat’s slack.

While I’m sure we’ll still have to coach the kids a little I’m hoping this approach encourages them to take center stage  and lead us into (and out of) whatever trouble Andrew has in store for us.

  • The party right now:
  • Human Sorcerer (Katie)
  • ??? Sorcerer (Andrew’s eldest)
  • ??? Fighter (Andrew’s second child)
  • Human Monk with a little Captain America flair (Thomas)
  • a Cat Slayer (me).
  • And a total unknown probably some sort of cleric. (Monica)

If you’re interested in the build I used to make my awakened cat PC here he is:

Ser Fidelias (aka Shadow)

Male cat slayer 2 (Pathfinder RPG Advanced Class Guide 53, Pathfinder RPG Bestiary 131)

N Tiny magical beast

Init +5; Senses low-light vision, scent; Perception +8


AC 18, touch 18, flat-footed 12 (+5 Dex, +1 dodge, +2 size)

hp 17 (3 HD; 1d8+2d10+3)

Fort +6, Ref +10, Will +2


Speed 30 ft.

Melee bite +9 (1d3–2), 2 claws +9 (1d2–2)

Space 2 ft.; Reach 0 ft.

Special Attacks studied target +1 (1st, move action)


Str 7, Dex 20, Con 12, Int 14, Wis 15, Cha 8

Base Atk +2; CMB +5; CMD 14 (18 vs. trip)

Feats Dodge, Weapon Finesse[B]

Traits dirty fighter, self-taught scholar, student of philosophy

Skills Acrobatics +11, Appraise +4, Bluff +3, Climb +15, Diplomacy –1 (–6 to improve other creatures’ attitudes towards you), Disable Device +10, Escape Artist +7, Intimidate –1 (–6 to improve other creatures’ attitudes towards you), Linguistics +6 (+7 to decipher unfamiliar language), Perception +8 (+9 to locate traps), Stealth +22, Survival +7 (+8 to track); Racial Modifiers +4 Climb, +4 Stealth

Languages Catfolk, Common, Skald

SQ condescending, slayer talent (trapfinding[ACG]), track +1, trapfinding +1

Other Gear collar with name tag marked “Shadow”

Special Abilities

Condescending  You take a –5 penalty on Diplomacy and Intimidate checks to improve other creatures’ attitudes toward you.

Dirty Fighter When you hit a foe you are flanking, you deal an additional 1 point of damage (this damage is added to your base damage, and is multiplied on a critical hit). This additional damage is a trait bonus.

Low-Light Vision See twice as far as a human in low light, distinguishing color and detail.

Scent (Ex) This special quality allows a creature to detect approaching enemies, sniff out hidden foes, and track by sense of smell. Creatures with the scent ability can identify familiar odors just as humans do familiar sights.

The creature can detect opponents within 30 feet by sense of smell. If the opponent is upwind, the range increases to 60 feet; if downwind, it drops to 15 feet. Strong scents, such as smoke or rotting garbage, can be detected at twice the ranges noted above. Overpowering scents, such as skunk musk or troglodyte stench, can be detected at triple normal range.

When a creature detects a scent, the exact location of the source is not revealed – only its presence somewhere within range. The creature can take a move action to note the direction of the scent. When the creature is within 5 feet of the source, it pinpoints the source’s location.

A creature with the scent ability can follow tracks by smell, making a Wisdom (or Survival) check to find or follow a track. The typical DC for a fresh trail is 10 (no matter what kind of surface holds the scent). This DC increases or decreases depending on how strong the quarry’s odor is, the number of creatures, and the age of the trail. For each hour that the trail is cold, the DC increases by 2. The ability otherwise follows the rules for the Survival skill. Creatures tracking by scent ignore the effects of surface conditions and poor visibility.

Student of Philosophy You can use your Intelligence modifier in place of your Charisma modifier on Diplomacy checks to persuade others and on Bluff checks to convince others that a lie is true. (This trait does not affect Diplomacy checks to gather information or Bluff checks to feint in combat.)

Studied Target +1 (move action, 1 at a time) (Ex) A slayer can study an opponent he can see as a move action. The slayer then gains a +1 bonus on Bluff, Knowledge, Perception, Sense Motive, and Survival checks attempted against that opponent, and a +1 bonus on weapon attack and damage rolls against it. The DCs of slayer class abilities against that opponent increase by 1. A slayer can only maintain these bonuses against one opponent at a time; these bonuses remain in effect until either the opponent is dead or the slayer studies a new target.

If a slayer deals sneak attack damage to a target, he can study that target as an immediate action, allowing him to apply his studied target bonuses against that target (including to the normal weapon damage roll).

At 5th, 10th, 15th, and 20th levels, the bonuses on weapon attack and damage rolls, as well as the bonus to slayer ability DCs against a studied target increase by 1. In addition, at each such interval, the slayer is able to maintain these bonuses against an additional studied target at the same time. The slayer may discard this connection to a studied target as a free action, allowing him to study another target in its place.

At 7th level, a slayer can study an opponent as a move or swift action.

Track +1 A ranger or slayer adds 1/2 his level (minimum 1) to Survival skill checks made to follow tracks.

Trapfinding +1 A rogue adds 1/2 her level on Perception checks to locate traps and on Disable Device checks (minimum +1). A rogue can use Disable Device to disarm magic traps.