Friday, September 20, 2019

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 10-00: "The Hao Jin Cataclysm" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

The Hao Jin Cataclysm is the big kick-off to the tenth and final season of PF1 organised play.  I played through it with my mid-level half-orc paladin at PaizoCon AP in 2018, and then later purchased the scenario for this review.  As a multi-table special, it's fair to expect some big plot developments and lots of fireworks.  I think for the most part The Hao Jin Cataclysm delivers.  It does a great job incorporating elements from older PFS scenarios (as far back as Season Three) and continues the epic tale of the Hao Jin tapestry.  The weaknesses it has are weaknesses common to specials: a frantic pace, an emphasis on combat and skill checks over role-playing, and the likelihood that only some of the overall story will get filtered down to each table and player.  I've only played a few multi-table specials, and I thought this one was about average.

SPOILERS

The Hao Jin Cataclysm is an imposing package to read through, weighing in at a whopping 88 pages!  But actually, only 37 pages of that is the adventure, and then there's 40 pages of bestiary followed by a dozen or so pages of handouts and checklists.  The adventure is divided into three parts, with Part One consisting of the mustering and briefing, Part Two consisting of a series of short vignettes and encounters, and Part Three as the big finale.  The elements that players will probably have encountered in other multi-table specials, such as an intermission, boons for a certain number of successes, and the aid token mechanism (something I've always found too complicated to really work well) are all here as well.

Part One (15 minutes) starts with mustering and a sort of pre-briefing by Master of Spells Sorrina Westyr.  She gives the PCs (who have assembled in the Grand Lodge) a brief history of the Hao Jin Tapestry and an explanation of the problem: it's coming apart at the seams!  While waiting for other players to get seated at the table, there's a nice array of things that PCs who are ready can do, such as assessing the damage to the tapestry, checking supplies, interrogating members of the Aspis Consortium, and more.  Each of these actions is intended to take just a couple of minutes of role-playing and a skill check, but the results can provide some pretty useful boons for either the PC or the whole table.  It's a good way for tables that fire early to have some fun before the main event, even though, in my experience, it's hard to incorporate the skill checks organically and rare for the players to remember the special bonuses they've earned.

The main briefing is delivered by Aram Zey.  Zey says the entire tapestry demiplane will collapse in just two days.  Tears in the tapestry seem to be centered around six sites of past Pathfinder Society activities, and there are incursions from the astral plane and spontaneously spawning undead wreaking further havoc.  Thus, the Pathfinders' first task is to secure and stabilize these six sites so that special (off-screen) groups can repair the damage.

Part Two (140 minutes) is where the PCs complete as many of these six missions as they can in the time they have available.  Players are given a handout with a brief summary of each mission, and the tables can choose which ones to tackle in which order.  If the PCs restore order at a location, a success is reported to the Overseer, and after a certain number of successes, that mission is closed to other tables (and everyone earns a boon).  Once they've entered the tapestry, the PCs can't return to Absalom without sitting out the rest of Part Two.  However, I don't think the encounters are so difficult that the pace is really worrisome for most groups (and there's built-in healing and, later, resurrection in the scenario).

In Mission # 1, the PCs need to help the Muckmouth lizardfolk tribe.  The Muckmouths are facing a dried-up water supply and constant attacks from undead, so the PCs need to explore an ancient Serpentfolk ruin to set things right.  This requires dispatching a mixed group of undead (with the precise composition depending on sub-tier) and then by-passing three magical wards using skill checks.  The Muckmouths were the subject of a Season 3 scenario, and there's a really nice reward here for PCs who took part in that adventure.

In Mission # 2, the PCs visit Round Mountain.  The location isn't described very well in the scenario, but apparently it's a wobbly or constantly-spinning sort of artificial mountain that contains a tribe of ratfolk (also from scenarios in Season 3).  During an encounter with various creatures from the Darklands (like darkmantles or ropers), there's a risk of falling prone due to the spinning--though there are also a host of skill checks to stop the spinning.  I thought it was all rather vaguely described.

In Mission # 3, the PCs visit the location from yet another Season 3 scenario: the Temple of Empyreal Enlightenment.  The leader of the temple has had his mind invaded by evil spirits caused by the tapestry's unravelling.  The PCs can enter the leader's mind through a ritual and set things right by overcoming (through skill checks) six different nightmarish obstacles.  This mission looks pretty easy, but is there is a chance that, if the PCs fail to overcome the obstacles, the evil spirits manifest as actual demons.

In Mission # 4, the PCs return to Slave Mountain (from a Season 6 scenario) and fight duergar who are sending the souls of sacrifices to the evil night hag Aslynn.  Unlike the other missions, a fun twist here is that PCs who played through the previous scenario don't get a special advantage; instead, they're remembered by the duergar and become special targets!

In Mission # 5, the PCs interact with three groups encountered in a Season 6 scenario that featured the Aspis Consortium invading the tapestry.  The three groups--warriors of Lung Wa, owl-headed syrinxes from Arcadia, and wyvarans--are all sceptical of the PCs.  At least two of the three groups have to be won over to the Pathfinder side.  A wide variety of skill checks can be used, but many seem especially forced (something only really good GMs can fix).  There's also a seemingly random battle against some bugbears.

In Mission # 6, the PCs need to help some kappas (turtle-backed humanoids) who have been deprived of water through the unintentional actions of a sovereign dragon.  The PCs can negotiate with the dragon or fight it, and I appreciate the reminder in the text to encourage the players to role-play rather than just rolling dice for Diplomacy.

I can only speak to my own experience, but I only vaguely remember these encounters.  There's a ton happening in a relatively short period of time, and tables of strangers are understandably focussed on quickly figuring out the problem and (usually) killing it.  I wish there was a way to get better role-playing and character interaction in the multi-table specials, but I'm not sure if there is.  Anyway, for  groups who complete the missions quickly or just want to spend some extra time at a location, there are additional encounters provided against ghouls, boggards, and magical beasts.  These are essentially random encounters, but winning one does count as a success.

Part Three (100-120 minutes) starts with all of the Pathfinders back in the Grand Lodge, thinking they've been successful in stabilizing the Hao Jin Tapestry.  Alas, just as Aram Zey is thanking everyone for their efforts, a massive tear appears in the tapestry (partially the doing of the night hag Alynn)!  Undead and invaders from the astral plane invade the demiplane, so the PCs must once more sally forth unto the breach!  Tables can choose weather to focus on undead or the "astral invaders" (a weird way to describe what are groups of either giants, pirates, or drow).  Each encounter that's won is a success reported to the overseer, and once enough successes are reached, the big finale starts.  I'm a bit fuzzy on exactly what's happening here (despite having played through it and read it), but apparently residual magic from the tapestry in its death throes conjures huge phoenixes.  The PCs need to destroy these phoenixes, with each success resulting in a phoenix feather.  The feathers can be used to either resurrect any party members who have died or to repair one rent in the tapestry.  Once enough of the tapestry has been fixed, the tapestry is (semi?) permanently repaired.  The conclusion has Aram Zey merging with the tapestry as a sort of special guardian, and I think that's a plot point that plays out throughout the rest of Season Ten.

I imagine The Hao Jin Cataclysm would be a very rewarding scenario for players who started PFS several years ago and remember the multiple scenarios it has callbacks to.  Similarly, the plotline of the tapestry has been going on for several years now.  As a relatively recent newcomer to PFS, neither meant a lot to me personally, but I still recognise the value in storytelling progression and continuity.  As for the encounters, I found them pretty run-of-the-mill and uninspired; but that's doubtless the side-effect of having to prepare something for several different sub-tiers.  Overall, I feel that this multi-table special was fine, even if it wasn't particularly  . . . special.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Pathfinder Adventure Path # 5: "Sins of the Saviors" (Rise of the Runelords) [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Sins of the Saviors is Chapter 5 of Rise of the Runelords.  From the forums, it's probably the least-liked chapter in the adventure path because there's a lot of dungeon-crawling and not that many opportunities for role-playing.  In addition, some GMs and players perceive that they've gone through a lot of effort for relatively little gain.  The good news is that the chapter can easily be shortened or swapped out for something else (as long as the party's experience points and wealth doesn't suffer too much).  I've been GMing the Anniversary Edition with my players, and didn't find the chapter the repetitive slog that others had.  But, I can see where the complaints are coming from.

I'll start with the non-spoilery back matter first.

"Magic of Thassilon: Lost Arcana of the Runelords" is an eight-page overview of the schools of Thassilonian sin magic.  Each entry contains a brief description (full of important setting lore) on the relevant Runelord, and then introduces a new custom spell and a magic rune (capable of being tattooed on people with an included feat).  The new spells and runes are pretty good for the most part, though one (blood money) has proven extremely problematic over the past decade.  As a spell learned as a special reward through the defeat of a Runelord, it might be okay--but included in online databases as just another option for players in any campaign to pick, it leads to some major unbalanced gameplay.  As an aside, there's a great drawing of Runelord Alaznist on page 59.  The section also contains an entry on a certain type of weapon, but that heads into adventure spoiler territory so I won't comment further.

"Lamashtu, The Mother of Monsters" receives a ten-page entry.  The entry is very detailed and very interesting, going through the evil goddess's backstory, church, temples, clergy (including some great NPCs), relationships with other religions, two new clerical spells, a new druid variant class (a 3.5 concept similar to an archetype), and more.  Lamashtu is a really *dark* deity when you think about it, and this entry was early in the days of Paizo before they became more PG-13 in orientation.  The excellent artwork continues in this entry.  It probably would have been good to have the entry appear earlier in the adventure path when encounters with Lamashtans were a major theme of Chapter 1, for example, but it's still really good and should be read today for anyone interested in Lamashtu (despite some of it being incorporated in later books).

"Belly of the Beast" is the next instalment in the story of intrepid Pathfinder Eando Kline.  It's a fantastic entry, as Eando tracks down an old adventuring companion to help break into the headquarters of the Red Mantis assassins guild in Korvosa!  There's great flavour on the city (I need to re-read it before running Curse of the Crimson Throne someday) and it's a very exciting tale.

Last up is the bestiary, which contains six new monsters.  Ercinees are basically giant magical birds--they're a bit like rocs or thunderbirds, and I don't see a lot of use for them.  Marsh giants don't have impressive stats, but the description of their religion is really interesting (and I'll always remember one cutting down poor Briza!).  Witchfires are a sort of flaming, incorporeal undead.  The sidebar on "The First Witchfire" is a nice little tale.  Shemhazian demons are pretty much the archetypal demon, but, at CR 14, they pack a punch.  The Night Monarch is the herald of Desna, and it would be a nice treat to use in a campaign featuring a high level cleric of the deity.  Yethazmari, on the other hand, is the herald of Lamashtu and the sire of yeth hounds!  There's a little sidebar on how to treat heralds in general.  Apart from Ercinees and maybe Shemhazian demons, the bestiary has some worthwhile content.

Overall, it's a great issue for back matter.  There's real quality and depth in the entries.

Now, on to the adventure!

SPOILERS

The foreword by Wes Schneider says that the concept with Sins of the Saviors was a dungeon themed around the seven sins of Thassilon.  Schneider reports being impressed by adventure author Steve Greer's incorporation of dynamic politics within the dungeon.

The dungeon that forms the core of Chapter Five is called Runeforge, and a background section explains how it was formed in a timeless demiplane during the age of Thassilon to serve as a shared, neutral laboratory for the Runelords.  Each wing of Runeforge was devoted to one of the sin magics.  Over the subsequent ten millenia, the denizens of each wing had to figure out how to move forward with no word from their respective masters, and many succumbed to war between the factions or madness.  As we'll see, the core of the adventure in this chapter is the PCs discovering the location of Runeforge, figuring out how to get inside, and surviving long enough to have special runeforged weapons constructed in order to eventually do battle against Karzoug.

Part One assumes the PCs are back in Sandpoint (or are summoned there through magical communication) when a sinkhole suddenly forms in the middle of town.  After strange sounds are heard within and town guards exploring the hole never return, the PCs are asked to investigate.  The sinkhole was actually caused by the surge of magical power released when Mokmurian was destroyed (at the end of Chapter Four), because the catacombs under Sandpoint contain one of the magical devices through which Karzoug is collecting power from those marked with his sign.  But what Karzoug doesn't know is that Lamashtu has seen the timing auspicious to resurrect one of her most loyal agents from ancient Thassilon: a man named Xaliasa, who served as a sort of triple agent (ostensibly loyal to Alaznist, secretly reporting to Karzoug, but even more secretly serving Lamashtu!).  Xaliasa was obsessed with finding a way to escape the Runelords should his deception ever be discovered, so he figured out the location of Runeforge and planned to bolt there as a safehouse if needed--only, he died in the same cataclysm that destroyed the rest of Thassilon.  Now, however, resurrected and fairly insane, Xaliasa (soon to be known as the Scribbler) has begun scribbling mad rhymes and cryptic messages all over the walls of the underground shrine to Lamashtu in which he died.  There's a lot of backstory there, much of it convoluted, and the PCs probably won't figure most of it out.

What they will need to do is enter the ancient shrine, survive various traps and denizens, corner the Scribbler, and decrypt the hidden messages on the walls to figure out the location of Runeforge (and the reason they'll want to go there--to create weapons capable of defeating Karzoug).  The shrine encounters are fairly complex for the GM to run, as there's various traps and alarms and the Scribbler is a hit-and-run adversary who hounds the PCs throughout.  He's actually not very tough if the PCs can keep him from escaping, but he can be a fun character to role-play (the voice actor in the audio version did a great job, and might serve as inspiration).  The most memorable aspect of the shrine for my group was a trap carrying a magical suggestion that made PCs paranoid of each other.  PCs always pack so much firepower that they're each other's most dangerous enemies!  As for the hidden rhymes on the walls, it's kind of nice to see an adventure making the most out of Linguistics and even Perform (Poetry).

Part Two is about the PCs figuring out how to get into Runeforge.  They'll know (hopefully) from Part One that the entrance is located far, far to the north.  The adventure leaves it up to the GM to deal with anything during the journey there (my group just teleported).  The scene on the cover of the issue depicts what (probably) happens next: the PCs find a group of seven stone heads in a circle, and as they're fussing with each one to get a key, a white dragon named Arkrhyst silently glides in and attacks!  (I like in the cover artwork how Merisiel seems to be slinking away with a "I think I left the oven on").  For complicated reasons, my group ended up vanquishing Arkrhyst in his lair, which made the encounter much more manageable.

Part Three details the central hub of Runeforge (off of which all of the other wings branch).  There are two key bits here.  First, the central runeforge pool is used to create the special weapons once the group has obtained the necessary ingredients from some of the other wings.  Second, being in Runeforge amplifies the PCs' innate tendencies towards particular types of sin.  GMs are supposed to be tracking this since Chapter 1, and PCs who are aligned to particular types of sin receive mechanical bonuses and penalties depending on what wing they're in.  I *really* like the concept of personalizing consequences for PCs depending on their past actions, but I don't think it really came off successfully in play--the bonuses and penalties were just too subtle.  I tried a variant approach (combining the mechanical with changes in personality) and that worked a little better.

Anyway, essentially the rest of the chapter takes place in Runeforge.  The PCs can enter each wing in any order, and don't have to go into each and every one.  Indeed, once they figure out the ingredients they need to make a weapon against Karzoug, there's only a few necessary wings.  In retrospect, I wish I would have made more of the rivalries between different factions in the different wings and tried to draw the PCs more into the complicated political and adversarial relationships.  Some hints in the adventure on how to do this would have been appreciated.  One interesting difference between the original version of this chapter and how it appears in the Anniversary Edition is that, in the former, each PC has to make a saving throw in order to traverse a hallway to reach another wing--which means, in practice, groups are likely to get split up and face the first encounter in each wing without being at full strength!

Parts Four through Ten detail each of the wings of Runeforge.  I won't spend a lot of time summarizing them here, and will instead just note a few particular things.  First, there's a nasty magical disjunction trap in the Abjurant Halls that will require a lot of preparation by the GM (since PCs carry around so much magical gear, and each item receives an individual saving throw, it could take ages to calculate the bonus for each and go through it all at the table).  The percentage chance of each particular item being permanently destroyed is small, but chances are at least some stuff will be gone.  I know some players hate this, but I always figure one of the challenges of the game is dealing with the theft/sundering/disjunction of precious items.  Second, the story of Vraxeris in the Shimmering Veils of Pride is fantastic.  High-quality writing like this is what sets Paizo APs apart from the adventures of most other companies.  This area also has mirrors of opposition which can force a PC to fight themselves--talk about rocket tag!  Third, the Festering Maze of Sloth is expanded substantially in the Anniversary Edition.  Fourth, the Iron Cages of Lust is one of those things that requires a GM to really know their players or do some "content warning" in advance.  I thought it was really good, but it could easily have gotten to an uncomfortable level at the table.  There's a ton of backstory on Thassilon and the Runelords written into these sections of the adventure so they make interesting reading even if the GM decides to use a substitute adventure.

Part Eleven is where the PCs assemble in the central hub and make their runeforged weapons.  In a great surprise, Karzoug knows what is happening and animates a massive statute of himself to intervene!  It was a really exciting encounter, and the only thing that topped it in the chapter was the PCs' desperate bid to escape Runeforge (which required them to dash through the Halls of Wrath chased by some terribly dangerous foes).  The chapter concludes with presumed escape from Runeforge, setting up the final journey next chapter.

As I said at the beginning, Chapter Five has a lot of dungeon-hacking and few opportunities (especially after the beginning) for role-playing.  This will suit some groups well and annoy others, so the GM should free to alter things.  In one respect, coming to Runeforge is a *lot* of work just to get some special magic weapons that (although certainly useful) are not strictly necessary for success in Chapter Six.  One might consider Chapter Five filler in order to get PCs the experience points and miscellaneous treasure they need to get ready for Chapter Six.  But if it is filler, it's well-written filler!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Pathfinder Tales: "The Irregulars" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

The Irregulars is a free, four-part series of Pathfinder web fiction available here.  The story's about a group of Andoren slave-liberators undertaking a mission in nearby Molthune.  Unfortunately, there wasn't much about the story that really caught me--it was very by-the-book, with forgettable characters and plot.  One can't complain about free, but I'd put this one pretty low on the reading list.

SPOILERS

The story starts with the heroes ambushing a slave caravan headed toward a camp in Molthune.  After getting some of the camp's defenders to sortie out looking for them, the Andorens then launch their plan to sneak in and set the slaves free.  There are a lot of new characters to take in during Part 1.  The action scenes are fine, but a bit confusing in places.  Probably the story's biggest fault is that there just isn't much tension--things largely go as planned, and that doesn't make for a nail-biting read.  There's nothing particularly wrong with The Irregulars--it's just that with so much other Pathfinder material to read, there's no point in making this a priority.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Rise of the Runelords Recap # 71 [RPG]


[4 Calistril 4708 continued]



Nerissa's mysterious past shall remain forever obscured.
After Kang finishes his experiment, he joins the others for a discussion of who is to blame for Nerissa’s death.  There’s no consensus.  Salma says she’s thought carefully about what she said earlier, and would in fact like to be raised from the dead should she perish in battle.  Ava is overjoyed about the turn of events, and says that if she herself ever dies, she hopes the others will carry on their mission to stop Mokmurian.  Kang adds that he’s written a will which he carries on his person at all times.  With Jinkatsyu in agreement, the group resolve that they can’t let the tragedy of Nerissa’s death dissuade them from taking the battle to the stone giant leader.


The group move back through the mazelike tunnels, having encountered no danger at all there since the original attack by redcaps.  Due to Jinkatsyu’s inability to see in the dark, the group is forced to travel with a source of light.  A stone giant sentry posted in the chamber previously occupied by the kobold Enga Keckvia has no difficulty seeing the group’s approach, and stands at the ready, slapping his greatclub in his palm.  Jinkatsyu gives a battlecry and charges forward!  Despite being knocked off-stride by the club connecting with his hip, he closes within rapier reach and lets loose a flurry of strikes.  Combined with Kang’s explosives, the giant is no match for the adventurers and soon falls.

Galenmir was a skilled 
military strategist.
The adventurers see tunnels leading out of the chamber to the north and to the east, and decide to head north.  They pass by what is obviously the “inside” of a secret door, and when they push through, they find themselves in the personal quarters of the giants’ second-in-command: the famous general Galenmir!  Galenmir and Jinkatsyu exchange blows as the stone giant bellows for his “Pit Guardians.”  Jinkatsyu jumps off a piece of furniture to stab the giant in the eye, but the half-blinded warrior retains the wherewithal to slam the kitsune to the ground!  Ava is grazed by Galenmir’s fist as she darts in, but she succeeds in magically teleporting herself and the unconscious Jinkatsyu out of the chamber just as Kang realizes three more stone giants are coming from the north.  The alchemist hurls an explosive at the giant general and then calls for a retreat.  The adventurers see Galenmir drink a potion before his body becomes almost cloudlike.  Salma evokes another fiery blast before everyone retreats to the entrance to the small tunnels.


Ava calls upon his most powerful magicks to rapidly heal Jinkatsyu, and then the adventurers decide to make a stand against the onrushing giants.  As the “Pit Guardians” start to succumb, the adventurers decide to counter-attack and Jinkatsyu rushes forward.  Just as the battle in front of them is won, however, more giants and and a handful of ogres join in the fray from the rear!  The battle becomes a true free-for-all, but the very size of Jorgenfist’s defenders means they get in each other’s way squeeze together in a manner that makes them easy pickings for Salma and Kang’s explosive attacks.  The adventurers fight their way back to the small tunnels and temporarily block it with melded stone before attacking again, with Salma’s cascade of magical fire jumping from enemy to enemy decimating the defenders.  In the end, only single ogre lives long enough to flee the scene.



Somehow, after all the furious fighting and ebb and flow of the battlefield, the invaders have triumphed over almost a dozen foes!  Only the most fickle of fates could bring tragedy from a single kobold and glorious victory from a horde of giants.  As the smoke clears from explosion after explosion, the adventurers have truly cleared a path into the heart of Jorgenfist.  Will they be able to take advantage of their victory, or can the defenders yet rally?
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (9 September 2019)

This was pretty much an all-combat session.  The PCs chose their trademark strategy when assaulting fixed fortifications: start a loud fight, battle wave after wave of defenders, partially kind of but not really retreat, and end up triumphing.  Some would call it crazy and suicidal, but somehow it works for them!

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Pathfinder Society Introductory Scenario: "First Steps, Part II: To Delve the Dungeon Deep" [RPG]



NO SPOILERS



The title’s a mouthful, but First Steps, Part II: To Delve the Dungeon Deep delivers a solid Pathfinder Society adventure.  As with Part I, the goal here is to introduce gamers to Pathfinder and to the Pathfinder Society’s faction leaders in particular.  The scenario’s opening sequence is much better than the generic briefing we often get, and the bulk of the gameplay has a few creative twists on classic gameplay.  It’s not a mind-blowing scenario, but it is a solid experience and worth playing to continue the theme started in Part I (though, please note, Part II has been officially retired).



SPOILERS



First Steps, Part II starts off in an interesting way, with the PCs receiving an invitation to attend a holiday festival in Absalom.  The invitation, sent by Venture-Captain Amara Li (of the then-existing Lantern Lodge), is for the Snapdragon Festival, a traditional Gokan holiday featuring fireworks, plum wire, and elaborate dress.  Goka is part of Golarion’s little-used Asian/eastern setting, and the Lantern Lodge was themed around the so-called Dragon Empires.  The PCs thus have a chance to put on their finest, mingle with some guests (the GM should do a bit of improvisation here), and learn a bit about another culture before they’re discreetly invited aside for a private meeting with Amara Li.  She explains that one of her ancestors gave the gift of a ceremonial jade katana to a warlord that had laid siege to Absalom centuries ago; like all invaders before and after him, this warlord failed.  Amara Li suspects the jade katana still lies somewhere within the rubble of the warlord’s siege castle outside the city, and asks the PCs to retrieve it for her.  She also makes it clear, however, that this is a personal favour to her and not an official mission for the Pathfinder Society.  What she doesn’t explain to the PCs is that this ceremonial katana hides important trade agreements between her family and Qadira noble houses, and she desperately needs money to cover the enormous cost of establishing the Lantern Lodge in Absalom!



Later during the party, the PCs are pulled aside by (separately) two other representatives of PFS factions.  The bombastic Colson Madris (of the Andoren/Liberty’s Edge) faction says he’s heard the PCs are venturing into the Cairnlands (the area around Absalom where dozens of ancient siege castles still exist, crumbling into ruin).  Madris warns the group about undead, and I guess serves as a bit of introduction to Andoran and the Eagle Knights, but he comes across as a prat and I think does a disservice to the faction.  Soon after that encounter, the PCs are pulled aside by Trade Prince Aaqir al’Hakam, representing the Society’s Qadira faction (he later is a founding member of the Exchange faction).  al’Hakam also suspects ancient trade agreements can be found within the warlord’s ruined siege tower, and wants the PCs to bring it to him (instead of Amara Li).  I like seeing the PCs get involved in intra-faction intrigue early on in their careers, and I wish more scenarios would make good use of the story possibilities presented by the faction concept.  The festival was a great way to start the scenario, though it could perhaps have been fleshed out a bit more to help the GM with some flavour and role-playing.



The PCs have no difficulty travelling to the crumbling siege tower.  Just outside the entrance, they’re accosted by a ghoul who still retains some memories of her former life—she was once a Pathfinder!  The incident is set up so the PCs can handle this encounter diplomatically or through combat, and I thought it was presented well.  The interior of the keep is essentially a dungeon crawl, which I might complain about but these First Steps scenarios are designed to introduce players to the game and there’s no arguing that room-by-room exploration of dungeons isn't a core part of many adventures.  In addition, the writer did a good job of making the siege tower more than just a random collection of unconnected encounters.  There’s a lot of details connecting the rooms and dangers within to the adventure’s backstory, and some creative touches like giving the PCs a chance to control a (small) earth elemental.  A potentially devastating encounter is versus one or more blindheims, creatures that have a gaze attack that blind a PC for an hour on a failed save; with a little bad luck here, the entire party could be effectively crippled for a while.



The “boss” encounter in the dungeon involves a kobold tribe that has been tricked by a skulk (humanoids creatures skilled in deception and disguise) into thinking that a fire-breathing statue is giving them instructions.  The scenario does a good job of setting up multiple ways this situation can be addressed, so it doesn’t have to be a pure hack n’ slash situation.  I did find the in-text instructions for the GM on how to run the skulk clashed some with some of the given During Combat and Morale conditions given in the stat block, and it would be very possible for the skulk to escape the dungeon entirely (taking the jade katana with him!).  Assuming the PCs recover the katana, they may or may not discover the trade agreements within.  If they do, they’ll have a choice on who to present them to when they return to Absalom, thus gaining more favour with the Lantern Lodge or the Qadira faction.  There are no long-term implications of this decision (and the scenario is retired anyway), but it’s a good role-playing choice nonetheless.



Overall, I appreciate First Steps, Part 2 more now than I did on a first quick read-through.  It does what an introductory scenario needs to do, and even though I wish there was a bit more flavour here and there (and more time interacting with the faction leaders), there’s a good mix of combat, role-playing, and setting lore.  It’s a satisfying way to spend a few hours.

Starfinder Society Scenario # 1-28: "It Rests Beneath" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS



It Rests Beneath uses a classic science-fiction trope to good effect.  It’s a scenario that focuses on the exploration side of the Starfinder Society and requires some interesting group decisions.  It’s not an action-heavy scenario, nor one that’s hard or difficult for the PCs.  Although some of the encounters are a bit bland, on the whole it was fun.  I played through it with my (now BANNED!) homage to Stephen Hawking, Professor Reivax Kipe.



SPOILERS



The briefing takes place on the Master of Stars, and it looks like the SFS flagship is getting close to being ready for business!  Fitch, leader of the Wayfinders faction (and busy grandma) delivers the mission succinctly.  The PCs need to travel to a planet in Near Space called Vabaimus and deliver geological survey equipment and scouting vehicles for a research station that has discovered a strange landmass: a plateau hundreds of miles across covered in a slick, gray shell.  Vabaimus doesn’t have any intelligent life, though it does have some sloth-like native fauna that someday may develop sentience.  It’s a pretty straightforward briefing, and there’s not much for the PCs to do but hop in a spaceship and blast off.  One very cool thing is that the PCs can bring their own vehicles with them!



The journey to Vabaimus is uneventful (i.e., there’s no starship combat in this scenario).  Upon landing, the PCs meet their main contact at the research station in the form of a scientist named Dr. Mora Montressi (depicted with cuddly xeno-sloth!).  Montressi explains that they’ve named the strange, gray calcium-like plateau “Big Mina” and want to use the newly-arrived equipment to do a full interior scan.  To accomplish this, three sensor towers have to be set up around the perimeter of the landmass.  Because scientists are lazy, the PCs who just travelled 3d6 days in space have to haul the equipment around and set up the towers.  Before sending the PCs off, Montressi notes one interesting recent find: an abandoned kasathan starship, obviously centuries old.  The PCs are free to investigate it if they wish.



The middle part of the adventure has the PCs travelling to each of the three necessary sites (in any order) to set up the signalling equipment.  Montressi says there’s no hurry, but in fact one aspect of the secondary success condition is how quickly the towers get set up (which requires a bunch of largely meaningless piloting and navigation skill checks).  Anyway! 



One of the sites, Forsaken Canyon, is (as the name would suggest) a very treacherous rocky area.  As the PCs try to set up the tower (which requires someone with decent Computers or Engineering), a small flock of native creatures called stonegulls swoop in.  The stonegulls aren’t really much of a combat danger, but I like how the scenario explicitly provides a stealth-based option to avoid them.



Another site, The Windy Cliffs (such clever names these scientists gave the planet’s landmarks!), requires some physical skill checks to brace the tower as it’s being assembled.  The danger here are some natural phenomena (tying into the big reveal at the end of the scenario) that are stylized as traps.  All the traps do is immobilize a PC, so they’re really not dangerous at all since there’s no other combats in this scene.  I guess maybe they’re a clue as to what the landmass will turn out to be.



A final site, an unnamed dry riverbed, has a kasathan crest-eater (or two, depending on subtier) for the PCs to defeat before they can assemble the tower.  Clever PCs might make a connection between a kasathan predator and a crashed kasathan ship.  The fun part of this encounter is that the PCs can ram their vehicles into the crest-eaters (something Professor Kipe embraced wholeheartedly—he’s a maniac behind the wheel!).



Once the three towers are assembled, Dr. Montressi can get a full 3-D scan of the interior of the strange landmass, and she makes a startling discoverly: it’s a living creature!  Big Mina is actually a creature from another world who arrived on Vabaimus as a fist-sized organism, slowly expanding over the millennia into its present size.  Doc Montressi would like the PCs to investigate Big Mina by venturing into it through wide tunnels that all converge on a central chamber with a crystal giving off tremendous amounts of energy—probably its brain!



As the PCs enter the tunnels, the GM can choose one of two encounters to give them: a weird hazard involving gluey goo nozzles or a battle against “cavern cleaners” (vermin who have a symbiotic relationship with Big Mina).  I played through the hazard encounter and didn’t think it worked very well.  The cavern cleaners would be more fun, as their special ability is to yank a PC right out of their armor!  However, the hazard encounter is the one that leads to the abandoned kasathan ship, which turns out to be the vessel of an explorer from the Idari  who met her end on the planet.  The writing here is pretty good, and makes effective use of setting lore about kasathas.



Once the PCs reach Big Mina’s brain, a scan reveals that Big Mina will continue to slowly expand until, someday, it covers the entire planet.  This will displace all native flora and fauna (including the sloths).  However, Big Mina isn’t a malevolent creature—it’s not even sentient.  Dr. Montressi asks the PCs for their advice on what should be done, and it's a great moral question for the group to debate.  Should they kill Big Mina to save the planet’s native life?  Should they let nature take its course, and leave it alone?  Or should they take the (very risky) action of trying to "lobotomize" the crystalline brain so that Big Mina stays alive but doesn’t grow any further?  Although the idea of a living creature as big as a mountain isn’t an original one in science-fiction, the scenario does a great job of getting the PCs involved in an interesting decision that (hopefully) brings out some good role-playing.  I liked it.



Overall, I guess I have to slot It Rests Beneath in the “average” category.  The encounters are fairly pedestrian, but the conclusion is really interesting.  It’s not a complicated adventure to run or play, and might be a good choice to introduce newcomers to the game and give them a feel that Starfinder Society is more than just tactical combat.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Pathfinder Tales: "The Ironroot Deception" [RPG]



NO SPOILERS

The Ironroot Deception, a four-part series of free Pathfinder web fiction available on the Paizo website here, is a real cyber-page turner!  The story involves characters like Gad and Vitta who also appear in the excellent Pathfinder Tales novel The Worldwound Gambit.  Twists abound, and the reader will quickly realize that all is not what it seems.  An adventure story is only as good as its villains, and this one has some deliciously evil ones (in a pull-no-punches Game of Thrones style).  The story also has an original plot, which is hard to come across in the fantasy genre.  It’s definitely one worth checking out, at a price that can’t be beat.

SPOILERS

Gad and his gang are up to another heist, this time in the Shudderwood, a demon-infested forest in the Worldwound.  Getting the goods is going to hurt, however, as they have to get themselves captured and forced into slavery as mining laborers by a group of xenophobic, aristocratic, and quite merciless elves called the Reclaimers.  An elf named Dualal, the leader of the Reclaimers, thinks she’s been prophesied to rule the entire region once she finds a gem called the Opal of Command which will allow her to control an immensely powerful creature called the Thornbeast.  Much of the fun in the story comes from the narrative not leading the reader know what the protagonists know, and being surprised by twists and turns throughout.  It’s really clever writing, and a great companion piece to the characters’ appearance in the novels.