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The Haunting of Hinojai Review

The Haunting of Hinojai

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that The Haunting of Hinojai is a scenario full of haunts.

If the title weren’t a dead enough giveaway, the preamble delivered by Amara Li is pulled from the minutes of the Midnight Society. The venture captain requests that the players explore a purportedly haunted mansion in a far corner of her native Tien Xia. The house, known as Hinojai, was occupied by a beautiful noblewoman named Minasako until her disappearance over a century ago. Rumours of hauntings, shadowy figures, and disappearances have been rampant in the neighbouring town of Nagura since.

From a game master’s perspective, I enjoy the inclusion of haunts in The Haunting of Hinojai. Haunts can convey plot points in imaginative and often chilling ways – a welcome alternative to long-winded monologues.

Players are often of a differing opinion. Haunts are unwieldy to disarm and impossible to identify by spamming detect magic and perception checks. Even with a well-prepared cleric in the party, it can be difficult to circumvent a haunt without triggering its deadly effects.

This unavoidable danger is what lends haunts their narrative weight, but it also leads to rather unsporting strategies being improvised to deal with them. After being harassed by spectral images on the front steps of the manor, my table began sending expendable summoned creatures and animal companions ahead as minesweepers for the deadly poltergeists that lay in wait.

Out of all the haunts in The Haunting of Hinojai, there’s only one I would consider unfair enough to warrant such a macabre precaution. At the high tier, the tainted love haunt on the atrium balcony relentlessly unleashes a 90 damage finger of death spell when triggered. This is a save-or-die roll for all but the tankiest of characters.

The other haunts are far more balanced. The moon gate haunt, with its potential to exhaust an entire party, only succeeds in sending the Pathfinders back to the inn for a night of rest before trying again. The bathing room haunt can deal some respectable area-of-effect damage at both tiers, but I doubt any party is stupid enough to stick around in a room full of drowning ghosts for very long.

I can’t appraise the wine cask haunt because no one in my party could muster the courage to delve into the spooky basement of the haunted manor.

Skeletal Champion

In my opinion, the encounters in The Haunting of Hinojai pose a much larger threat then the restless spirits. Dagagal is a monster. Beginning the encounter with greater invisibility and fly active, the churlish wayang evoker can easily demolish a party with a well-rolled chain lightning spell. If no one at the table has a quick means to reveal and ground the wizard, this fight can end in a few rounds.

The skeletal champions pose an enormous threat as well, especially at the higher tier. They are critical hit machines with their iterative attacks and magical katanas. The pair of them easily dropped the fighter at my table – somewhat of an empty victory though, given it was a pregen.

Minasako herself, now transformed into an immortal penanggalan, is the capstone encounter. I actually consider her the easiest of the three main fights. The restricted geography of her bedroom clips her fantastic fly speed, and she relies entirely too much on save-or-die spells for her own good. Still, black tentacles and mass pain strike are nothing to scoff at.

Regardless of her prowess in a fight, Minasako makes a great villain. The players first hear the noble’s name in the superstitious folklore of Nagura’s peasants, but they soon learn to fear her spectral visage as the sign of a deadly haunt being triggered. Investigation of all the nooks and crannies of Hinojai reveal her maddening quest for immortality and her betrayal of the Way of the Kirin – an organization that Lantern Lodge players should (retroactively) be very interested in.

It’s rare that a villain receives such a satisfying backstory in a Pathfinder scenario, and even rarer that the writers at Paizo dive into such bleak narrative waters.

The Haunting of Hinojai is an unorthodox scenario to say the least. The abundance of haunts may frustrate some players and honestly does present some glaring mechanical and balance issues. But those willing to spend a night in a haunted house will be rewarded with numerous challenging encounters and some of the most compelling storytelling offered in a Pathfinder scenario.

Knights of Pen and Paper Review

Knights of Pen and Paper

Greed can ruin a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. Wizened adventurers of the pen-and-paper era all have stories to tell about how they lost a favourite character by delving too deep into a dungeon, springing a trapped treasure chest, or grabbing a golden idol on a conspicuous pedestal.

Greed can also ruin a video game. Knights of Pen and Paper is a title with a marvellous premise and great execution foiled by its obvious attempts to squeeze a few extra dollars out of its players.

Knights of Pen and Paper is a turn-based roleplaying game. The player assembles a party of heroes and sets forth on a grand adventure to quash evil in a land of swords and sorcery.

The gimmick of the game is that it is framed within a session of Dungeons and Dragons (or a non-copyright infringing equivalent, to be precise). The heroes in the player’s party are in fact friends, neighbours, and relatives, and their grand adventure is being narrated by an obese pony-tailed comic book nerd.

I am in love with the premise of Knights of Pen and Paper. You can owe it to my background as a pen-and-paper enthusiast, but with these types of games oozing their way into mainstream media thanks to shows like Community (and to a lesser extent, its inbred half-brother Big Bang Theory), the core concept is bemusing enough to appeal to a wide audience.

It’s impossible to play the game without smiling. The characters that populate your table are humourous archetypes, running the gambit from generic nerd, to Queen Street hipster, to dishevelled metal enthusiast, to hyperactive younger brother. Assigning them classes that compliment (or contradict) their core personalities is a fun exercise; my party’s front-line fighter was a grandmother with an explosive scorning voice.

Knights of Pen and Paper

The retro aesthetic only adds to the charm of the game. The artists at Paradox Interactive are savants with pixel art, succeeding in creating characters that are both easily identifiable and memorable. Visual flourishes, such as the cinematic transitions between locations and the dozens of pop cultural easter eggs hidden in each backdrop, demonstrate an attention to detail lacking in many other throwback titles.

It’s a shame that the excellent premise and graphics are squandered on lacklustre gameplay. Although the concept behind Knights of Pen and Paper is rooted in the mythology of classic pen-and-paper games, the mechanics are entangled within the impenetrable tradition of Japanese roleplaying games.

The game is a grind, plain and simple.

Each of the six classes only has four abilities to choose from, and the majority of these abilities merely inflict damage or heal it in very samey ways. Coupled with the colossal piles of hit points that monsters sit on, the turn-based battles tend to involve gratuitous amounts of button mashing.

Although it may arguably betray the old school simplicity the developers were aiming for, Knights of Pen and Paper would benefit from a subclass or perk system of advancement to keep the classes feeling fresh after prolonged play.

These spartan battle mechanics are exacerbated by the agonizingly slow accrual of wealth. Monsters drop an amount of gold entirely disproportionate to the price of simple curative items, character resurrection, and equipment upgrades.

The latter operates on a truly diabolical act of accounting. The blacksmith can upgrade your equipment for a steep fee, but his success rate is abysmally low. You have to supply him with grindstones in order to incrementally improve his success rate. Grindstones are, of course, bought from the store, costing you even more money. The craven nature of this mechanic completely perplexed me until I made a startling discovery.

There is an in-game store.

Knights of Pen and Paper

That’s right. In this simple throwback roleplaying game, there is an in-game store. At any time, you can click on the top-right corner of your screen to sacrifice real world money to the game developer gods for a pittance of in-game gold.

Regardless of my opinion about pay-to-win games, the blatant way that Paradox Interactive tethers the pacing of the game to this store is shameless.

Additional characters cost a hefty amount of gold and can only be added to your table once you’ve bought an expensive cosmetic item. Experience and power boosters are offered as an obvious panacea to the sluggish battle system. And good luck affording equipment upgrades at the blacksmith’s casino with the paltry change purses monsters mete out.

It’s an agonizing design decision: not simply because it’s corporate and cutthroat, but because it clips the wings of what could have been an amazing game. Knights of Pen and Paper has all the ingredients for success: an ingenious premise, charming graphics, and tried and tested mechanics. But the concessions made to monetize the title bleed all the fun out of it.

Even at the price tag of $9.99 on Steam, I can’t recommend picking up Knights of Pen and Paper. If you’re fishing for a retro roleplaying experience, you’re better off trying Cthulhu Saves the World or Penny Arcade‘s On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness sequels.

Storming the Diamond Gate Review

Storming the Diamond Gate

Storming the Diamond Gate has the reputation of being one of the deadliest Pathfinder scenarios ever published.

The adventure focuses on the Hao Jin tapestry, the museum demiplane that the Pathfinder Society is infatuated with throughout season three. After arduous months of detective work, the society has finally deduced how their chief rivals, the Aspis Consortium, have been entering the tapestry undetected. The hefty task of dismantling the Aspis Consortium foothold in the demiplane is assigned to the lone group of Pathfinders.

As if the mission wasn’t difficult enough, the Aspis Consortium stronghold is nestled cozily within a temple to Areshkagal, daughter of spooky monster deity Lamashtu.

From a purely structural standpoint, I prefer Storming the Diamond Gate over the other Hao Jin Tapestry scenarios. The reason for this is clarity. In the other scenarios, the facets and circumstances of the demiplane are poorly described to the party. Players, especially new ones, often waste a lot of time feeling things out, thinking they are entranced in an illusion or whisked off to a foreign corner of Golarion. The ambiguity of the missions in scenarios such as The Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment compounds this problem.

Not so for Storming the Diamond Gate. Owing to the bluntness of the quest giver Marcos Farabellus and the large amount of background information the game master is permitted to pour over the players, every intricacy of the Hao Jin Tapestry is revealed. The objective is also blissfully straightforward: crawl through a dungeon and kill any Aspis Consortium goons you encounter.

As a dungeon crawl, the scenario stands strongly – not entirely surprisingly, given that Areshkagal is the demon lord of greed, portal, and riddles. There are traps to be sprung, secret doors to be uncovered, and hefty punishments for those who prefer door-kicking over puzzle-solving.

One puzzle in particular – the blatantly Stargate-inspired one – tickles me just the right way. It’s difficult, but not so arcane as to be impossible, and there are real consequences for any player who tries to brute force a solution.

Some of the combat encounters are less fair. The graven guardians – although easily circumvented with the appropriate knowledge check – pose a serious threat if roused. Their damage resistance, fast healing, and tripping abilities make them extraordinarily difficult to destroy, and they can slap around even the tankiest of tanks with their hastened keen sickles.

Case in point: the first total-party-kill in Toronto was at the hands of these animated statues.

As a side note, this encounter raised major questions about how detect magic works. Paranoid after numerous ventures into the Blakros Museum, one of my player decided to scan the statue room with detect magic in hopes of revealing any hidden constructs. After having my explosive rune trap neutered due to compulsive use of the cantrip, I ruled that an inactive construct does not radiate magic.

To be honest though, I think the spell needs to be hit with the errata hammer to keep it from being used like the X-Ray Scope from Super Metroid.

Super Metroid X-Ray Scope

The final encounter is often hyped up as the real death stroke, but I consider it much more manageable by comparison. The players must fight through wave after wave of summoned monsters to defeat the Aspis Consortium conjurer in charge of the stronghold. The deep chasms and shaky rope bridges that snake around the terrain funnel the players into direct confrontation with the lemures and fiendish animals he summons.

Although devastating on paper, I actually find that the terrain works to the players’ advantage. Archers and gunslingers are a dime a dozen in organized play, and these builds relish the opportunity to peg off individual melee mooks as they laboriously trudge across the four sets of rope bridges.

The wizard is a bit of a one trick pony as well. Once his summoning spells are expended, he only has a few quasi-reliable evocation spells at his disposable. There’s also a good chance that there will be a summoner or sorcerer among the heroes that will be able to handily out-conjure the conjurer.

(Summoners are another aspect of the game I wouldn’t mind being hit with the errata hammer, by the way.)

Although season four has introduced its fair share of death marches, Storming the Diamond Gate is still one of the most difficult scenarios in organized play. However, the robust lore and perplexing puzzles prevent the difficulty from feeling gimmicky or forced. The penultimate foray into the Hao Jin tapestry is a great scenario to challenge your veterans with, but I’d encourage naive young Pathfinders to sit this one out.