Thursday, January 16, 2020

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 6-10: "The Wounded Wisp" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

The Wounded Wisp is one of the most played PFS scenarios, and it's easy to see why: it's fantastic!  Perfect for newcomers to PFS but fun for veterans, the scenario is designed for low-level PCs who may be on their first or second adventure.  It reveals some intriguing history of the Society, has great NPCs to bounce role-playing off of, and has a strong story.  As a repeatable, it also has several randomised elements.  I played this a long-time ago via PbP, and had an enjoyable experience.  This is one to put high on the "to-play" or "to-run" list.

SPOILERS

The introduction is fun.  The PCs are directed to a particular street corner to receive an urgent mission briefing.  In the middle of pouring rain, a beggar approaches--but it's Dreadle Dreng in disguise!  Apparently, all he wants the PCs to do are walk to a nearby tavern, the Wounded Wisp, and get  a particular vintage of wine for him from the cellar.  Dreng is a notorious eccentric (and one of my favorite V-Cs), so although it's an odd request, it's not unprecedented.

Inside the Wounded Wisp, the PCs are told by the owner that she can lead them into the cellar once things quiet down, but for now they should have a drink and relax.  This is an opportunity for the PCs to do some role-playing with any of a quartet of well-described NPCs--a couple of whom (Janira Gravix and Yargos Gill) appear in previous scenarios.  The Wounded Wisp is the place where the Pathfinder Society was founded four centuries previously, and it has remained a favorite watering hole for members of the group.  The NPCs all have some useful skills that the PCs could drawn on later in the adventure if they need help, but for the most part this is role-playing just for the sake of role-playing--and that's a good thing!  I think, too often, recent scenarios "gamify" every role-playing encounter by making it a skills challenge.  These conversations with NPC Pathfinders really help portray the PCs as part of a long tradition and a warm fellowship of (mostly) like-minded seekers.

When they walk down to the cellar to obtain Dreng's bottle of wine, it turns out that the exact bottle he wants is actually a lever that opens a secret door!  The secret door leads to the private sanctuary of famed Pathfinder Selmius Foster and his assistant, Adolphus, members of the Society who were part of the founding generation.  However, the sanctuary was compromised in an earthquake a decade ago, allowing some of Absalom's subterranean monsters to enter.  The exact nature of the threat is one of the randomised elements of the scenario.  After the battle, the group can look around the sanctuary.  The big find is that Foster and Adolphius left various notes indicating their belief that another of their contemporaries, Eylysia, was hiding some of her discoveries.  Adolphus compiled various clues he found as to where Eylysia might have hidden this cache (all of this is conveyed via handouts), and it looks like the PCs have a mystery to solve!

One of the leads left by Adolphus directs the PCs to the Wall of Names, a curving wall of black glass where fallen Pathfinders have their name, date of death, and greatest accomplishment (or how they died) recorded.  Eylysia recorded some false names on the wall (a pretty crappy thing to do!), but the false names contain vital leads to help the PCs get on the track of her secret vault.

One of the clues leads the PCs to a mausoleum where the bones of Arkath, a stonemason who had worked closely with Eylysia, are stored.  In a really well-done randomised element, the necropolis is patrolled by a cleric of one of four different faiths.  Each cleric is given a distinct personality, motivation, and reaction to the PCs.  Combat is possible but not inevitable, which is a good way to allow different groups to achieve their goals in different ways.  Once the PCs access the right vault and find Arkath's bones, they'll uncover a hidden Pathfinder's Coin that contains a secret message.

Another clue leads to the house of a gnome illusionist named Fimbrik, a long-standing member of the Arcanamirium and friend of Eylysia.  There's a bit of fun to be had with programmed illusions and a summoning circle before the PCs find some more clues towards discovering the location of Elyysia's secret vault of records.  I find it a bit far-fetched that Fimbrik has had the same house for nigh-on 400 years, but I guess that's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

In the final sequence, the PCs travel to the Starstone Cathedral and visit the Shrine of the Failed, where those who took the Test of the Starstone (to attain divinity) and biffed it are memorialized.  As the last clues are deciphered, somewhere nearby, a Mendevian crusader named Sir Reinhart is charging his steed toward the great chasm only to fall to his doom!  It's a lovely touch.  Anyway, the clues are enough for the PCs to find a secret door that leads to Eylysia's hidden vault of discoveries she didn't think the world was ready to know.  But it turns out that the Pathfinders aren't the only group after these secrets--in another randomised element, another group (either Aspis, Devil's Claw mercs, Harbingers, or Norgorberite cultists) has followed the PCs and launches an ambush.  It's a fun and original setting for the big ending.

After surviving the ambush, the PCs can return the files they've discovered to Dreng.  And unlike some scenarios, the group get to find out details of what they've worked so hard to find!  In a clever touch, they letter receive a letter (in handout form) from Ambrus Valsin explaining one of Eylysia's big secrets, and alternate letters were made for Season 6, Season 7, and Season 8 because each leads into a season-specific story arc.  It's rare to see conscious attention to updating scenarios for later seasons.

There's a lot to love about The Wounded Wisp: it has several excellent opportunities for role-playing with well-developed NPCs, it reveals intriguing details about the history of the Pathfinder Society, it involves interesting settings like the Wall of Names and the Shrine of the Failed, and the combats provide a nice break from the mystery/puzzle solving.  It's a model for how to do a repeatable scenario with randomised elements.  This scenario was an instant classic, and it's easy to see why.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 10-11: "The Hao Jin Hierophant" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

I played The Hao Jin Hierophant a few months back and, unusually for me, I can barely remember doing so.  This points to either a) I was drinking too much rum during the session or b) the scenario is pretty boring.  Even reading it for the purposes of this review, I still only get the vaguest recollection of what happened during the session.  There are some worthwhile and admirable themes in the story, but unfortunately they just didn't come together in a way that made for interesting or memorable gameplay.

SPOILERS

The Hao Jin Hierophant is a scenario that tells one of the unintended side effects of the epic conclusion of # 10-00, The Hao Jin Cataclysm (Aram Zey's merging with the Phoenix Spirit to become the new guardian of the tapestry demiplane).  It seems that at least one community within the tapestry, a village named Onhae (originally taken from Tian Xia centuries ago) has discarded its traditional religion and come to worship Aram Zey as a god!  It's an interesting and plausible twist that the PCs won't know about when they're sent into the tapestry by Zey's successor as Master of Spells, Sorrina Westyr.   The tapestry is still (more slowly) unravelling, and several teams are being inserted to find and preserve as much of the contents within as possible.  The PCs' particular mission is twofold: 1) visit Onhae and gather as much information as possible about its local culture; and 2) retrieve a sample of a rare purple flower said to bloom only once every 144 years.  The briefing is actually pretty exciting (it starts with an appearance by members of the Decemvirate!) and has the feel of the entire Society working together to accomplish an urgent task that usually only comes during the yearly Specials.

The villagers of Onhae are the descendants of people taken from the Sunsu Godae ethnic group in Tian Xia, and they're extremely distrustful of outsiders.  Once the PCs enter the tapestry and approach the village, they have a limited amount of time to snoop around and ask questions before the villagers get annoyed with them and kick them out.  Mechanically, this exercise in amateur ethnography is handle by giving the PCs three "phases", each lasting about 20 minutes of in-game time, to either visit specific places in the village, gather general rumors, or look around for more subtle clues about what the village is like and what's going on there.  Each choice essentially involves a particular skill check that, if successful, gains the table a "culture point"--and the more culture points the group gets, the better they've done in learning about Onhae and its peoples (and the more rewards they'll get at the end of the session.

This exploration of Onhae is a major part of the session.  On the one hand, I appreciate the attention that went into the writing here (there's some detailed incorporation of setting lore from Tian Xia) and the overall theme (that the Pathfinder Society can help preserve cultures--or at least information about those cultures--rather than just being Indiana Jones' style tomb-robbers).  I think it takes a really good GM to make this part of the session come alive, however.  When I played it, and reading through it I can see why, it was a lot more in the vein of "visit a kitchen this phase; roll a skill check related to cooking; you learn unspecific information about Onhae cooking practices; you've earned 1 culture point".  I do understand how hard it must be to try to "gamify" something like anthropology, but I just don't think it's handled successfully in The Hao Jin Hierophant as the entire process comes across as bland and somewhat tedious.  As an aside, I'm also not convinced that "you've visited a village for an hour and have now understood and recorded its culture!" is how anthropology really works.  A storyline involving the PCs needing to perhaps extract a member of the Pathfinder Society who has been embedded in the village for some years to learn about the residents of Onhae and their customs might have worked better.

During the exploration of Onhae, several villagers will point to the need to speak with Lin Fen Hai, the village's leader.  However, she's not in the village as she's off praying at holy spot.  When the PCs go to find her, a battle ensues because she's being psychically manipulated by an evil plant creature called an etheroot into believing the PCs are evil spirits.  There's more backstory to the situation than that, but the first combat of the session is along a jungle path against Fen and two of her followers.

Either by following Fen's backtrail, or by seeking out the rare purple flower, the PCs will stumble directly into the clearing where the etheroot lives.  There's another battle here, but it must be forgettable as I have only the foggiest recollection of it!

The last encounter of the scenario is frankly bizarre: a "silver squall" appears, described as "a planar tide of aggressive, competing ideas."  This violent psychic storm somehow . . . argues . . . about the village relying on shame, pride, fear, and faith, and the PCs are supposed to defeat it by presenting . . . counter-arguments?  Even having read the scenario, I'm very fuzzy about the whole thing, and I think perhaps the writer was trying too hard to get the players to really pay attention and use the information they learned during the investigation part of the scenario.  But in practice it just turned out to be a weird, abstract, semi-metaphysical event that (thankfully) was over quickly.

Having learned about the village's culture and obtaining a sample of the purple flower, the PCs can exit the tapestry.  There's a solid conclusion and plenty of information about different ways the village may move forward depending on the PCs' actions.

Overall, I almost feel bad that I don't like The Hao Jin Hierophant more.  It's well-intentioned, allows for open-ended gameplay, and makes room for an academic approach that I normally love.  Somehow though, it just falls flat to me.  Onhae never really "clicked", mind-controlling plant monsters aren't really that interesting, and some of the content was just too vague and abstract to really get a handle on.  I don't think it's a bad scenario, just a somewhat boring one.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 0-9: "Eye of the Crocodile King" [RPG]

NO SPOILERS

Although Eye of the Crocodile King was officially retired from PFS play years ago, I recently ran it at Subtier 1-2 in my homebrew "Roots of Golarion" campaign that integrates Paizo's pre-Pathfinder modules, retired PFS scenarios, and other odds and ends.  The scenario has an interesting (if not exactly original) backstory, but (like most Season 0 scenarios) a plot structure that is very much in the "follow A to B and then B to C" vein.  Simply put, at its core, it's a very straightforward dungeon (sewer) crawl.  But, that being said, it has some good flavour and characters, and there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

SPOILERS

The backstory to Eye of the Crocodile King involves a journeyman academic named Maren Fuln who works at the Arcanamirium (a prestigious school of magic) in Absalom.  A week before the game starts, Fuln found an old amulet in storage and put it on, not knowing that it contained the soul of Lord Corgan--a docent of the school fifty years ago who was executed (with his soul to be forever trapped in the amulet) for involvement in foul necromancy!  The soul of Lord Corgan started influencing Fuln and led him to step up experiments on some sort of man-crocodile aberration.  After a lab explosion, Fuln was knocked unconscious, his experiment escaped, and the amulet was found by a dim-witted animal handler named Lemedor.  Lord Corgan's soul exercised control over Lemedor and drove him deep into the sewers underneath the city.  There, Lord Corgan has taken over the experiment and taken physical form as a sort of vicious reptile-man (think Killer Croc or perhaps the Lizard) and is planning to organise an army of troglodytes to wreak havoc on the Arcanamirum.  For his part, Fuln realises he needs help and calls an old friend, Venture-Captain Adril Hestram.

This is where the PCs come in.  In a surprisingly curt "briefing", Hestram quickly summarises the gist of this background and sends the Pathfinders to the Arcanamirium to meet with Fuln.  Fuln is in a big hurry to get the amulet back, but also terrified of the sewers--there's no way he'll go himself.  The scenario has a good list of Q&As that might arise when the PCs interact with him, and I like how he's written (and it's cool to see he appears in a couple of subsequent PFS scenarios in later seasons).  

The rest of the scenario takes place in the sewers, a favourite setting for writers in Season Zero.  It's essentially combat-combat-combat from this point on, though there is a chance for a little role-playing.  Depending on the group, this could be a very fast scenario to run through.

The first encounter takes place when a troglodyte in Lord Corgan's employ activates a simple but effective trap: knocking over a big box of rats!  Rat swarms can be dangerous for unprepared low-level PCs, but the scenario does provide the GM with an out here as Fuln might just poke his head into the grate and use his wand of burning hands.  Still, it could be a bracing start!

The second encounter involves a wounded otyugh sitting atop a pile of trash.  Some of the faction missions require PCs to trawl through the trash after the battle, which is exceedingly unpleasant to imagine.

Next up is an ambush by a couple of troglodytes and Lemedor (the mind-controlled dim-witted animal handler from the surface).  It's a decent challenge for an average group.  The good news is that Lemedor, once he shakes off Lord Corgan's mental domination, is happy to talk and can fill the PCs in on the villain's plans.  The bad news is that Lemedor only shakes it off if he's "staggered", which means getting him to exactly zero hit points (or knocking him out and healing him back to consciousness, I guess).  When I ran this, he got knocked down and stayed down.

The penultimate encounter is versus (at low-tier, at least) a crocodile and three more troglodytes.  Crocs can be fairly deadly, and I think most groups are going to be fairly worn down and low on resources at this point.

Now we get to "Lord Corgan the Crocodile King"!  I think the concept is fun.  Assuming the PCs can defeat him in his lair, they can  . . . extract (yuck) the amulet that is inside him.

A brief conclusion has an ecstatic Maren Fuln offer to always be available if the Pathfinder Society needs his aid (represented by a boon on the Chronicle sheet).

I don't read other reviews before writing mine, so I'm not 100% sure why this scenario was retired.  There's no objectionable content or plot discrepancies, and I don't think any single encounter is crazy-hard.  My best guess is that the cumulative effect of the encounters may have led to a lot of TPKs.  There were no casualties when I ran the game, though it got very close in that last battle.  In my mind, Eye of the Crocodile King is perfectly playable with just a nip and tuck of (for example) a troglodyte here and there.  It's not a great or memorable scenario (and the idea of someone accidentally freeing the trapped soul of an ancient threat is pretty cliched in fiction), but it's an average representation of what Season 0 has to offer.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Starfinder Module: "Skitter Crash" [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

Skitter Crash was Paizo's Free RPG Day offering for 2019.  It's a sequel to the 2018 offering (Skitter Shot) and follows the same group of salvage-crew skittermanders on a new adventure.  Four fun and well fleshed-out pre-gens are included, but I got to play my own skittermander, Steward Officer Swizzers.  I really enjoyed the adventure, and its impressive how much is cleverly included in a relatively short product.  There's a lot here to like, and I'm geared up to see what happens next in 2020!


SPOILERS

Skitter Crash starts off with a bang (almost literally).  The skittermander crew of the Helping Hand are returning from a salvage job when they're confronted by a pirate starship crewed by Captain Anga Silazi--the sister of the pirate captain they confronted in the previous year's Free RPG Day module!  Silazi is out for revenge, of course, but before she can open fire, both vessels are caught up in a vortex of planar energy called a "Drift cyclone."  Instead of starship combat, the skittermanders realize they're no longer in the Drift, that their ship is about to crash into an unknown planet, and that somehow their vessel has been  somehow magically fused together with the pirate ship!

The skittermanders have to rush into the cargo bay to reach a small lifeboat, but some of the pirate crew are already there and a firefight is inevitable.  Assuming the PCs win and jump in the lifeboat, they have a hard and chaotic descent through the atmosphere and a crash landing in an unknown swamp.  It's a fast and exciting beginning, and a classic set up for an SF adventure: marooned!

After salvaging some supplies from the wreckage of the escape vehicle, the skittermanders will get a couple of leads on what to do next (if they can make an Engineering or a Mysticism check, respectively).  The module intends that PCs will follow one of these two leads and then has an event happen to progress the adventure, but if folks are having fun and time isn't a problem, the GM can delay the event until after both leads are investigated.  Groups could also split up to investigate both leads simultaneously--the realistically logical thing to do--and thus follow my dictum: always split the party!

One lead is the discovery that some strange interference emitted nearby is disrupting local communication signals.  If the PCs investigate, they find a semi-hidden automated monitoring station being assaulted by a trio of small earth elementals.  If the skittermanders drive off the elementals and repair the station, they'll learn that it's broadcasting information to a point within 10 miles--confirmation that this planet is inhabited!  When I played this module, this is the lead my group followed.  I thought it was okay, but a bit awkward for a team that's all about "helping" to figure out how to approach the issue with the earth elementals.  In addition, from an encounter-design perspective, there's not really anything riding on whether the PCs do or do not repair the monitoring station--everything will play out the same.

The other lead is that mystically-inclined PCs might sense a "disturbance of planar energy" about a mile away.  Investigation reveals it to be a dangerous side effect of the Drift cyclone: a small tear to Hell has been ripped opened, and bolts of hellfire are shooting out!  Apparently, the PCs are supposed to realise this could set fire to the swamp and try to close the tear (by very abstract uses of the Mysticism skill) despite the likelihood they will suffer severe burns.  I don't think there's a lot of motivation for PCs to get involved with this encounter.

After investigating the leads, the PCs will hear panicked shouts for help followed by the roar of a wild animal.  Rushing to help, the group will see a member of the intelligent sluglike osharu species being attacked by a large predatory swamp animal called a nilothera.  This encounter was fun and exciting, as there are clear stakes (rescue the osharu before the nilothera kills him), a tough foe (maybe a bit too tough!), and an interesting setting (a broken bridge over a deep bog).  Assuming the PCs survive and succeed, the osharu introduces himself as Ponatia and explains that he's part of a scientific research base called the Helix Lyceum and that the skittermanders have crash landed on the planet Varkulon 4.  Ponatia and his fellow scientists set up the research base here to study the periodic Drift storms that ravage the planet.  He's happy to take the group back with him to the Helix Lyceum in gratitude for the timely rescue.

It turns out that communications off-planet are jammed by the Drift cyclone, but the scientists did pick up the signal of a starship landing a few miles away; a strange starship that seemed to be fused together!  (apparently, the skittermanders could have stayed on board!).  What comes next is a skills challenge of the type familiar to players of PFS and SFS.  There are five osharu "Headteachers", and the PCs need to interact with and persuade (through skill checks) a majority of them to get them to help.  I like the description and feel of the Helix Lyceum and its scientists, but I always find these encounters a bit clunky in practice as the mechanics often impede organic role-playing.  In addition, the osharus aren't being asked for much (helping refugees from starship disaster).   In another thing that annoys me, it doesn't really matter from a plot-perspective whether the PCs do or do not manage to persuade a majority of the headteachers: either way, they'll be lent a land-cruiser to take to the starship.  (success does result in some gifts, but that's more of an awkward loot dump than anything).

When the PCs arrive at the starship, they see that the pirate Captain Silazi is hard at work trying to get it repaired and ready for lift-off.  She has no interest in talking however, and attacks immediately with the help of a couple of security robots.  Silazi is a solarion, which isn't a type of foe PCs get to fight often.  When Silazi is defeated, the PCs can board the strange fused vessel and try to repair it enough for lift-off.  The next sequence is interesting and original: Silazi's mob of space pirates returns to the scene (apparently they were out scouting the swamp or something).  The skittermanders have to either talk them down, hastily repair the ship while it's under fire, or blast them with starship weapons!  The pirates are represented abstractly--this isn't a true tactical combat encounter--but it was a clever way to present an exciting climax.

The module provides a short but satisfying epilogue, and I like the idea of the skittermanders continuing to pilot a crazy vessel inexplicably fused together from two others.  After the adventure, each of the skittermander pre-gens gets a full page with background, stat block, and full-colour artwork.  They're really fun and fresh characters, and kudos to the writer for making them all fit the skittermander theme while still being very different in tastes and personality.  Speaking of artwork, it's really good throughout, though I might say the space pirates and Captain Silazi look a bit too clean-cut to be scum of the earth.  But that's a minor critique, and the cover is very cool.

I think I've included more nitpicks above than I expected or that the module really deserves.  I had a great time playing Skitter Crash, and most of its flaws are apparent only upon reading the module afterward.  It's really impressive how much adventure and different types of encounters the author was able to pack into ten pages.  Overall, it's a fun and memorable module and definitely one worth playing.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Pathfinder Campaign Setting: "Undead Unleashed" [RPG]


Undead Unleashed is a pretty straightforward book.  Essentially, it's a collection of fifteen four-page entries on (mostly) high-CR named undead NPCs.  Half of each entry is made up of a picture, full background, and stat block for the NPC.  The other half of each entry is a map and room-by-room layout of the undead's lair.  The creatures and lairs are situated in the Inner Sea, but most could be easily adapted to other settings.  I wish they would have included an adventure hook section.  Given how powerful these undead are, I assume most would be used as campaign "bosses".  Some of the entries also include a new magic item, disease, or some other crunch.  Six different writers are credited on the book so there are definitely some differences in approach.  Here's a brief rundown on the creatures included:

* Arantaros (CR 20 ravener): A dragon alchemist who failed in an attempt to replicate the Sun Orchid elixir for immortality, and thus decided to bargain with a demon lord to achieve eternal "life" another way.  It's an intriguing backstory.  Arantaros' lair is high-level indeed, though they ran out of room to describe the treasure in Arantaros' horde.

* Arnlaugr the Fearless (CR14 draugr): A famed Ulfen adventurer who got in over his head and now serves in death as the guardian of a powerful witch.  The lair is pretty mundane, apart from being mostly underwater.

* Erum-Hel (CR23 mohrg):  You know Erum-Hel is tough, as he makes use of Mythic rules!  This guy could easily be the big-bad for an epic campaign or a new antagonist after PCs finish an AP by roughing up some CR 20 wimp.  His backstory is tied intimately into Iomedae and Tar-Baphon, and his lair is very cool and memorable.  One of my favourite entries.

* Imaloka Ghalmont-Neverhome (CR22 banshee): There's a fantastic backstory for this banshee, though it would be hard to bring out most of the flavour into an adventure involving her.  As a resident of Sarkoris/The Worldwound, she would make a surprise non-demon foe for adventurers to face in that area.

* Jolanera (CR17 nightwing): Another backstory tied strongly into Tar-Baphon.  Unfortunately, this nightwing doesn't have much of a personality.  Its lair has some interesting foes though.

* Meyi Pahano (CR13 lich):  This lich has a cool backstory tied into both Lirgen (the drowned lands beneath the Eye) and Eox (the planet of undead).  She's a diviner wizard, and thus a different type of combat threat than many others in the book.  Her lair is sound.

* Mirik the Drowned (CR3 ghast): One of the very few low-level threats.  Mirik is nicely integrated into Absalom's Siphons district and could be the base of a good little story arc.  I like the sewer gator zombie!

* Mother Comfort and Poor Eledia (CR3 allip and CR 4 attic whisperer):  A classic haunted house location with a really said origin story.  A new magic item introduced here, the ghost mirror, looks really good.

* Ordellia Whilwren (CR10 ghost): A good-aligned undead!  This violates one of the "rules" of Golarion.  Nonetheless, I like the character's integration into the history of Magnimar and the really interesting story seed of what it would take to set her spirit free (getting a Varisian elected leader of the city).  There's even a Season 10 PFS scenario that uses her lair from this book.

* Prince Kasiya (CR12 vampire): I wish I had read this entry before reading the Pathfinder Tales novel King of Chaos--it explains so much!  This vampire sorcerer has a fun backstory as an (evil) former member of the Pathfinder Society.  Stats are included for his flying chariot.

* Razinia (CR7 ghul): I could see a good story arc set up around Razinia and her domination of an important oasis (and caravan stopover) in Qadira.

* Rudrakavala (CR15 devourer): Great, creepy artwork for this guy along with a cool premise for his existence that creatures a natural adventure hook.  His lair is nestled into an extremely difficult environment to traverse, so adventuring parties that focus too much on combat proficiency may die before they even get to him.

* Seldeg Bhedlis (CR17 graveknight): One of the six Knights of Ozem twisted by Geb and sent to steal Arazni's body!  Now serves as a general and spymaster.  The lair is pretty bland, unfortunately.

* Walkena (CR16 mummy): Divine undead child-god and ruler of Mzali in the Mwangi Expanse.  Walkena kills all foreigners and tolerates no dissidents, and I like the idea of the PCs having an entire city as their enemies.  This entry has the only new feat in the book, but it's really just for NPCs.

* Wight Mother of Isger (CR19 daughter of Urgathoa): This big-bad murdered the entire town of Finder's Gulch in Isger and now uses it as her headquarters.  As a growing threat in the region, she could make a good campaign villain.

Some general thoughts:  1) The cover art is really cool, as Kyra tries to fend off a lich and its minions--I hope Sarenrae comes through!  2) The interior artwork of each villain is very good--maybe not Paizo's best, but definitely strong; 3) The cartography on the maps is mostly pretty bland.  Overall, this book definitely adds to setting lore.  However, I think it would probably really only be useful to homebrew GMs who need inspiration for a high-level undead antagonist.  Even those GMs wouldn't make use of the vast majority of the content in the book, so I wouldn't consider it an important purchase.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Pathfinder Module: "Feast of Ravenmoor" [RPG]




NO SPOILERS

Feast of Ravenmoor is a 32-page, full-colour (with excellent artwork) module for third-level characters.  The adventure involves some classic horror tropes, but in a way that makes for a nice Pathfinder homage rather than clichéd storytelling.  I played through this with my multi-classed psychic/monk and had a blast.  It’s a module that doesn’t require ultra-optimized PCs, and it has a great mix of role-playing, mystery solving, and exciting set-piece action scenes.  Having read through it for the purposes of this review, I’m also impressed by how non-railroady it is.  Players have a lot of freedom to decide how to progress, and the GM is given good guidance on how to respond to different courses they may take.  This isn’t a super-long or dense module—I’ve played some individual PFS scenarios that were far more complex.  But Feast of Ravenmoor is an all-around excellent adventure and a good showcase for newer players on the fun that Pathfinder can offer.

SPOILERS

Feast of Ravenmoor is very much a classic horror story transplanted into a fantasy setting.  There’s an isolated, backwards town of eccentric locals.  There’s a secret cult that abducts outsiders and sacrifices them.  There’s even a corn maze and a dark ritual for a final showdown!  But although the plot isn’t exactly original, all the individual elements come together nicely for a really enjoyable adventure.

The adventure hook involves the PCs being hired by a government bookkeeper in Magnimar to investigate the recent disappearance of a tax collector sent to the remote village of Ravenmoor.  The hook is simple and direct, and the module hand-waves the journey to Ravenmoor (instructing GMs they can place some mild wilderness encounters along the way if they want to). 

The adventure really starts when the PCs get to Ravenmoor and start looking and asking around.  Ravenmoor is a pretty strange village, with unusual local customs that are sure to get the adventurers’ attention.  The first encounter sets the tone, as the PCs are accosted by an errant stirge that turns out to be a kid’s beloved pet!  How the PCs deal with the stirge (my group killed it) affects the initial attitudes of several villagers.  The first third of the module is pretty open-ended as the PCs investigate and gather clues.  Eventually they’ll meet the town’s mayor, who invites the group to attend the “Founders’ Festival” later in the day (and to stay the night at his mansion since there’s no inn in town).  The mayor, however, is the leader of an evil cult!

In a well-developed backstory that’s integral to the plot, Ravenmoor was infiltrated by a pair of faceless stalkers (shapechanging, blood-sucking aberrations) several decades ago.  The faceless stalkers gradually turned some of the townspeople away from worshipping Desna to worshipping Ghlaunder, the evil god of disease and deception.  Through monthly sacrifices, worship of Ghlaunder has brought prosperity and abundance to the village.  But only about a quarter of the villagers are part of the cult, and most people in the village are perfectly nice and completely unaware of what’s going on.  To help fully flesh out Ravenmoor, the inside front-cover of the module contains a map of the town, there’s a little gazetteer near the beginning, and a two-page appendix gives an overview at the end of the module.  There’s a lot for the GM to work with in making Ravenmoor more than just a forgettable backdrop to an adventure.

The middle part of the adventure is also open-ended.  The festival is well-developed, with descriptions of some (really gross) local foods and games that the PCs can participate in.  (I might have to swipe some of the mechanics of the games for other adventures down the line).  However, the PCs don’t have to attend the festival—my group didn’t because we were too busy skulking around the mayor’s house!  There are clues there that point to what really happened to the tax collector.  Despite several claims that he absconded with the tax money for Riddleport, he was last month’s human sacrifice!  I enjoyed the investigation parts of the adventure, though admittedly my PC was perfectly suited for it what with his ability to occasionally read minds.

If the PCs don’t figure things out early and decide to stay the night (either in the mayor’s house or camping near the village), there’s an attempt by the cult to abduct a PC.  The module admits the abduction is not likely to be successful, but guidance is given for what to do if it is.  I really like how this scene is written as well.  It’s a local family attempting the abduction because they don’t want their own daughter to be next, and if any member of the abduction team is hurt, the others rush to their aid.

Either through investigation or chasing after fleeing cultists, the PCs will find their way to a seemingly-abandoned farmhouse at the edge of the village.  There’s some more classic horror elements here (a collapsing floor, a demonic scarecrow, misbegotten degenerates kept in the barn, etc.) before the big showdown in the corn maze.  Here, the PCs have to navigate through the dark labyrinth while surviving hit-and-run attacks before reaching the center where the ritualistic human sacrifice is about to take place.  The mayor and several cultists are here in full regalia, and, the best part, is that when the mayor is killed, a massive demonic insect-thing bursts out of his chest!  It’s a very exciting and effective piece of body-horror and a good twist for players who think they’ve just won.

The module takes the time to offer some useful advice on what happens to Ravenmoor after the cult is revealed and defeated, which is very useful for GMs who still want to make use of the setting after running the adventure.

As I said, it’s not the most original set-up for an adventure, and some wiseacres may almost immediately guess the gist of what’s happening in the town.  Despite that, all of the elements are put together so well that it’ll still be an enjoyable experience to see how it all plays out.  I’d strongly recommend Feast of Ravenmoor for anyone who can enjoy a classic horror homage in a Pathfinder context.

Pathfinder Society Scenario # 10-10: "The Shattered Shield" [RPG]



NO SPOILERS

I ran this at Subtier 1-2.  The scenario features some great flavour in terms of setting and characters.  A couple of the encounters are really memorable.  However, the major middle sequence just . . . doesn’t make sense.  It’s a hard scenario, but playable, if you can check your logic at the door.

SPOILERS

The backstory to The Shattered Shield ties in quite heavily to the Tyrant’s Grasp adventure path.  Although I don’t know much about the latter, I know the general concept is about legendary lich The Whispering Tyrant’s attempt to escape from his imprisonment in Gallowspire.  Accomplishing this requires reassembling the pieces of the Shattered Shield of Arnisant, an artefact-level magical shield wielded by the crusading general who helped defeat the Whispering Tyrant centuries ago.  Apparently, agents of an evil organisation called the Whispering Way have been secretly stealing these shards and leaving fakes in their place.  In this scenario, we learn that the Whispering Way was double-crossed by one of its own members who wants to put up a real stolen shard at auction in the city of Azir, capital of Rahadoum.  The overall goal for the Pathfinders is to get this shard back.

The scenario starts in Manaket, another city in Rahadoum, at a PFS lodge named Swordmeet.  There, while studying moves on a chess-like board game, Venture-Captain Obo explains the importance of the shard.  He tells the PCs that it’ll be placed up for auction at the Sacred Cobra auction house, a secret (and illegal) roaming auction of divine artifacts.  Obo says that finding the secret site of the auction in Azir will be difficult, and that entry is allowed only if the bidders bear a special banner.  The Pathfinders are told to find an artifacts dealer named Torvad in Azir in order to get his help in getting into the auction.  The group is also given ten thousand gold pieces (!) in bank notes to fund the purchase, but asked to also do their best to obtain any other magical artifacts sold at the auction.  The briefing is pretty straightforward, with a very minor twist in that a successful Intelligence check allows a PC to help Obo with his board game; this gives the party some extra gold at the end of the scenario.  Some people in the forums were annoyed by this, but the amount is so small (25 gp at Subtier 1-2) that I really can’t see what the big deal is.

One of the fun twists in this scenario is that Rahadoum is a country where public worship of the gods is illegal, and any proselytization (or divine spellcasting) is punished severely!  Mechanically, getting caught with divine objects or publicly casting divine spells accumulates a PC a certain number of points, and the points can result in penalties to skill checks or even banishment from Rahadoum (and the rest of the scenario) unless bought off with Prestige points.  Although some players will groan and moan about their builds being “nerfed”, I really like story-logical constraints that force PCs to get out of their comfort zones to see just how resilient they are when things don’t go as planned.  And as most of the encounters take place out of public view, even cleric or paladin PCs don’t actually have that much to worry about.

Manaket, where the lodge is, and Azir, where the auction will be held, are about six days’ journey overland away from each other.  The PCs are instructed to join a caravan.  As is wont to happen during these sorts of things, a violent electrical dust storm catches the caravan while it’s still a couple of days’ out from Azir.  During the storm, the PCs hear the sound of someone choking in the distance.  Through a mild skills challenge, they’ll find and rescue this individual: Kazima, a member of Azir’s Pure Legion regiment, a military unit charged with enforcing the country’s laws (including the laws against divine worship).  The plotting is a bit awkward here, but Kazima explains that she’s been investigating strange deaths that involve people dying and turning gold-colored after touching particular objects.  She’s retrieved one of these objects from an investigation site.  In game terms, the object carries a pretty nasty supernatural disease/curse called aurum death that causes those who die from it to come back as gold-clad ghouls or ghasts!

When the PCs reach the gates of Azir, they see there’s a long line to get in, as everyone who passes through the gates is searched for hidden objects of worship.  (Finally, a good use for that Sleight of Hand skill that’s been sitting on your character sheet for months without being looked at!)  There are some other skill checks useful for getting into through the line faster (leaving more time for investigation before the auction begins), but the major excitement comes from a member of the Whispering Way (sent to watch for Pathfinders) trying to slip a holy symbol into a PC’s pocket so they get caught with it.  In addition, the object is tainted with aurum death.  It’s a pretty effective scene even if it’s unlikely the thief will succeed (each PC gets a Perception check to notice, and that’s a lot of rolls).

Once inside Azir, the group can do some Diplomacy (Gather Information) or Knowledge (Local) checks to figure out where Torvad is staying and get some more background on the Sacred Cobra auction house and these dangerous little gold statues that keep popping up.  As an aside, I don’t like how these two skills are often treated interchangeably in PFS scenarios—the former should be for finding out things your PC doesn’t know, while the latter is a representation of something your PC already knows.  There’s also a lot of little traits, feats, and class features that PCs may have to help out with gathering information (such as speeding up the length it takes), and those special abilities become meaningless if a Knowledge (Local) check instantly does the same thing.  Anyway!

The PCs learn that Torvad is staying a patron’s mansion.  When they arrive, however, the building is on fire!  The fire gradually spreads as the PCs conduct a room-by-room search, (hopefully) rescuing a young girl along the way and fighting off a pair of undead creatures in the mansion’s living room.  If the PCs are speedy enough, they’ll find Torvad in a back room, handcuffed to his patron and stabbed in the stomach in a cruel act of torture by the malefactors responsible.  I thought this scenario played out really well, as the fire occupies more and more squares each round while the PCs are fighting the undead.  Although the PCs can put out some of the fires, they need to act quickly to get to Torvad before he’s incinerated.  It was pretty exciting when I ran out, and a good thing the group included a hydrokineticist!

If the PCs rescue Torvad (and keep him alive), he tells the group where the auction is being held (the city’s Museum of Philosophy, Logic, and Natural History) and gives them his bidder’s banner.  At this point, the PCs know that there’s a lot of weird stuff going on (the attempt to frame them for a crime at the gates, the fire at the mansion, the undead in the living room, etc.), but can’t really put any of the pieces together.  In addition, they have the added complication of either avoiding or cooperating with the Pure Legion because Kazima (rescued from the dust storm) is also on the case.

The auction itself is really clumsily handled.  While rescuing Torvad from the burning mansion, the PCs were apparently intended to have taken the time to salvage and examine random pieces of décor.  In a crazy coincidence, these pieces of décor all belong to or contain information about other bidders who would be at the auction.  The PCs are then supposed to use this information to help sway things their way before the auction starts.  Once the auction starts, there are eight items up for sale before the shard of the Shattered Shield of Arnisant in Round # 9.  But just as the bidding begins on the shard, the auctioneer is revealed to be an undead witch named Zaashakar (a member of the Whispering Way) and her minion (a flying “necrocraft”) crashes in through a skylight to attack.  There are so many things wrong with this whole sequence that I’ll have to use a numbered list to keep track:

1)      When the PCs are rushing through a burning building to rescue the one man who can tell them where the auction is, why would they stop to examine burning pieces of junk?

2)      Why would those burning pieces of junk just so conveniently have information on the other bidders?

3)      How much will the bidders bid on objects?  We’re told what they want the most (and that they’ll use all of their “remaining” gold on bidding), but we don’t know how much they’ll keep in reserve until that comes around.

4)      Why would the PCs risk bidding on earlier items when, as far as they know, the one thing they can’t risk getting outbid on is the shard which will go up last in the auction?

5)      Why go through all of this rigmarole when the auction doesn’t actually matter because a fight will break out before the shard is bid on?

6)      Why go through all of this rigmarole when, it turns out, the real piece of the shard isn’t even at the auction site because Zaashakar has already stolen it and sent it ahead to her hideout, replacing the real thing with another fake?
7)   Why is Zaashakar intentionally antagonising the Pathfinder Society and risking the biggest score of her career when she could have got away completely scot-free?

8)      What if the PCs get the “shard” at the auction but don’t realise it’s a fake?  There are no checks listed for authenticating it, and, according to the backstory, these are amazing fakes capable of fooling even experts in the trade.

It’s a really poor piece of plotting all around.

When I ran the scenario, we had to stop after the auction battle because half the group had to leave due to time constraints and the other half of the group was too beat up to risk continuing on their own.  Oddly, they didn’t miss out on much—just 1 PP and some of the gold.

The final sequence of the scenario has the PCs finding Zaashakar’s headquarters, a secret subterranean gambling den called The Grave Wager.  I really like Zaashakar’s backstory and the idea of a place for the most desperate people to gamble for a big turnaround (at the risk of their life).  There are some more traps and minor minions to battle before the big confrontation with Zaashakar and her poppet familiar (or, if Zaashakar is destroyed at the auction house, the poppet and a replacement bad guy; I think it’s annoying that the scenario doesn’t make things easier if the PCs are on the ball and get the big bad early).  If they win the battle, the PCs can find the real shard and make their way back to Manaket off-screen.

Overall, The Shattered Shield is a mixed bag.  The setting is great, and the NPCs and locations are given great backstories and flavour.  The link to the Tyrant’s Grasp AP is interesting and intriguing, even if the players won’t really find out about it.  The big encounter in the burning building is very cinematic.  On the other hand, as I’ve belaboured, the whole auction business just doesn’t work at all, and since it’s the centrepiece of the scenario, the entire thing suffers.  Still, if you can overlook the plot holes, it’s not bad.