Sunday, December 25, 2016

Silent Tide [RPG]


A couple of nights ago, I had the chance to direct my first Pathfinder Society scenario.  I just picked the very first one listed for "Season 0", which was named Silent Tide, and ran it for Level 1 Iconics.  The adventure takes place in the island metropolis Absalom, and involves the PCs on an adventure to save the city from disaster.  It has some very creative set-piece encounters and a fairly interesting backstory, even if doesn't all hang together perfectly.  The story does ensure that a good pace is kept and the momentum will surely keep any players from getting bored.  As a GM, there were some confusing elements to prepare, but on the whole I was satisfied.


Premise:  Eight-hundred years ago, a Taldoran invasion fleet lay anchored off the coast ready to invade Absalom in an operation code-named "Silent Tide."  The fleet was waiting for a group of infiltrators and saboteurs known as Black Echelon to weaken the city's defenses and then transmit a special code using coloured lanterns.  But the Black Echelon operatives were discovered, their plans foiled, and the invasion fleet taken by surprise and sunk.  What no one in Absalom knew at the time, however, is that everyone involved in the planned attack had sworn an oath lost to time: a Binding Word, that ensured that neither time nor death would keep them from carrying out their goal.  Now, a military historian named Yargos has uncovered an ancient codebook from the Silent Tide operation and, on a lark, sent off the signals to begin the operation.  This triggered Black Echelon to rise from the dead as skeletal abominations to begin to carry out their ancient plans.  Yargos realized his mistake, but before he could transmit the abort code to stop the plan, the codebook was stolen by a would-be crimelord named Nessian who plans to use it to blackmail the city's leaders.

Encounter # 1:  The PCs are sent by a Pathfinder Venture-Captain to get the codebook from Yargos so that the Society can add it to its historical archives.  There's a *long* text block to read to the players to begin the scenario, which is quite old-fashioned and could test the patience of some.  On the positive side, once the text block is done, the PCs are right at an encounter.  The PCs find out that Yargos and three of his friends (all shackled together) have been kidnapped by crimelord Nessian's henchmen (the War Hounders) AND are about to be pushed over the edge of a cliff to drown into the waters below!  This was a great encounter to start the scenario, as it adds an exciting element to an otherwise unremarkable battle against thugs: the PCs have to rescued the prisoners (dangling from the edge of the cliff) before they fall in and drown.  This requires some urgent action and may result in some major risk-taking (and the GM should prep the drowning/swimming rules).  Unlike all of the other encounters, there was no map for this encounter, but it was simple enough to improvise so I don't find fault with that.  A potential flaw in the encounter, which some people have noted in the forums, is that there is absolutely no contingency sidebar for the GM if Yargos actually dies.  This didn't happen when I ran it, and it's probably not really likely (it would take 20 rounds for Yargos to die after falling in the water), but if it does a GM would have to think quickly or the entire scenario would be derailed.  Perhaps a bigger issue is that Yargos, once rescued, is supposed to explain to the PCs everything in the backstory and then tell the PCs that to find Nessian they should visit an information broker named Grandmaster Torch.  But if the PCs capture and interrogate one of the War Hounders (using Intimidate, Charm Person, etc.), it would make sense for the prisoner to tell the PCs exactly where Nessian's base is, which would mean the PCs would skip the information broker encounter.  This happened in my game--it wasn't a huge issue, but should be noted.

Encounter # 2: On the way to Grandmaster Torch, the PCs notice signal lights flashing and Yargos realizes that's a code for Black Echelon to try to poison Absalom's granary.  This encounter sees the PCs fighting several Black Echelon operatives inside the granary, and there's a couple of good elements here.  First, the granary is given some interesting terrain features: grain is spilled in random spots which makes movement more difficult than just charging straight ahead, and there are hatches in the ceiling which can (if the right check is made) dump grain on a creature to cause damage and immobilize them.  Second, the Black Echelon operatives themselves are far more interesting and flavourful than simple skeletons: they have the ability to summon a fog-like cloud around them, and every square adjacent to one is affected by total silence.  These features made what would have been a bland encounter against undead into something that kept my experienced players off-balance and alert.  I also liked that one of the Faction missions was to recover a vial of the poison, which could create some good role-playing opportunities.

Encounter # 3:  The third encounter is the one where the PCs are to visit the information broker.  Grandmaster Torch is willing to divulge Nessian's whereabouts if the PCs can open three out of the five treasure chests he hasn't been able to crack.  Although the PCs in my session skipped this encounter, I really liked the idea of it as it gave the scenario the classic element of puzzles and riddles to engage the less-combat focussed players.  Requiring only 3 of the 5 to be solved meant that getting stuck on a single one wouldn't ruin everyone's fun.  Someone like Grandmaster Torch would also make a good recurring NPC for games set in Absalom.

Encounter # 4: On the way to Nessian's hideout, the PCs see, yet again, signal lights that are recognized by Yargos.  Yargos explains that these lights mean that Black Echelon is about to attack the Metro-Church (a long-standing cathedral of Abadar) and try to interrupt the morning Oathday song.  The sudden stoppage to the song, which has been played every Oathday morning for centuries, is the final signal for the invasion fleet to attack.  This is the most memorable encounter of the scenario, as inside the Metro-Church is a *massive* organ: each key is as big as a human being laying down, and the way that music is played is to jump from key to key.  The Black Echelon operatives have killed most of the dancing priest-musicians, and have used their Silence auras to keep any sound from emanating from the organ's pipes.  I will admit that the whole premise of the organ struck me as a bit silly, but it led to an encounter I can safely say your players haven't had before!  The encounter tests not just the PCs combat ability, but also their jumping and performance skills.  This encounter does take some extra prep by the GM and some extra explanation for the players on what's going on.

Encounter # 5: The finale for the scenario sees the PCs approaching Nessian's hideout, "The Pyramid of the Dog."  The concept of this structure is that three old siege towers have collapsed inwards to rest on a fourth, upright siege tower.  A map of the encounter is provided, but it still took me a while to try to figure out how it was supposed to translate into three-dimensional space when it comes to climbing, cover, etc.  An artist's rendering would have been extremely helpful here.  Anyway, apart from the odd structure, this is a fairly run-of-the-mill encounter against Nessian, some of his henchmen, and a very mean dog.  In his tower, the PCs find the codebook so that Yargos can send the abort code and stop Silent Tide.

So there are some problems with the scenario from a GM's perspective: it's a harder scenario to just plop down and run because some of the encounters are hard to conceptualize without a lot of planning.  In addition, there are places where the backstory doesn't really hold together well (discussed in the forums); however, the momentum of the scenario is such that I imagine very few players will notice and question any inconsistencies. GMs new to the Season Zero scenarios should note that these are written for D&D 3.5, which means some minor adjustments need to be made ahead of time for NPCs in terms of CMB, CMD, and some skill names.

Overall, however, there's an interesting-enough story, some quite memorable encounters and enemies, and a strong mix of combat, role-play and puzzle-solving to make this a good (even though not great) adventure.

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