Saturday, February 18, 2017

Pathfinder Adventure Path # 1: Burnt Offerings (Rise of the Runelords # 1 of 6) [RPG]


"Burnt Offerings" was the first issue in Paizo's Pathfinder Adventure Path monthly series and the first part of the oft-praised and (deservedly so) Rise of the Runelords campaign.  Each issue of the series is 96 full-colour pages and comes with 1 part of a 6-part adventure and several useful pieces of supplemental material.  The back-matter fleshes out locations, monsters, NPCs, prestige classes, historical events, magic items, or almost anything else that could be in some way relevant to either the present adventure path or other adventures in the campaign world of Golarion.  Some of the supplementary articles are perfectly suitable for players to read, but others may contain spoilers of varying degrees, and thus players should always consult the GM before reading any of the issue.

Before trying to track down each of the individual issues of the adventure path, which can be difficult to do since some issues are out of print apart from PDFs, keep in mind that the entire thing has been collected and updated in the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path hardcover.  These early adventure paths were published before Paizo had actually released the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and thus they're based on D&D 3.5 rules--which are very similar, but different in a few spots.  Realistically, you only need to buy the individual issues if you're a true completist or can't afford the hardcover; even most of the back-matter has been reprinted somewhere or another.

I'm going to start this review, counter-intuitively, by starting with the back-matter first.  The method to my madness is that the first 2/3 of the book are the adventure, and that needs to be put underneath a spoiler warning.  Before going into great detail, a word for readers who are in a hurry: the quality of the writing in this book (both the adventure and the supplementary material) is simply fantastic, and I can't imagine anyone regretting taking the time to read it or use it in their games.

The first part of the back-matter is a thirteen page gazetteer of the town of Sandpoint, the small town on the southwest coast of Varisia where the adventure path begins.  Sandpoint is inspired by author James Jacobs' hometown, and the loving and detailed attention it receives makes it a great place for the PCs to spend their time.  Sandpoint isn't a crazy, exotic starting location; in many ways, it resembles a traditional fantasy small town.  The NPCs and locations within it, however, are fleshed-out so well that players will quickly start to care about what happens to it, and that's why it works.  There's enough history and secrets to Sandpoint that, even apart from the adventure path, it could serve as the perfect homebase for PCs undertaking a wide variety of campaigns.  This section contains a nice map of the town with all major locations noted.  There are cartoony pictures of some NPCs, and frankly they're not very good; that art style has long since been abandoned by Paizo in favour of a more "realistic" style.

The second part of the back-matter is an eight-page history of the ancient, fallen empire of Thassilon.  Due to the title of the adventure path and references in the Rise of the Runelords Players Guide, it's no secret that the campaign relates, in some way, shape, or form, to the legacy of Thassilon.  This section talks about the domains and rulers of Thassilon, their strange relationship with magic, the gods they worshipped (some still recognized, others lost to time), and, finally, speculation on what caused the fall of the empire.  Much of the information here is not directly relevant to the adventure path, but it's extremely well-written and could serve as the seed for many campaigns in the future; as indeed it has, given my understanding of later adventure paths.  This section contains sidebar summaries of what happens in later chapters of the adventure path, so it shouldn't be read by players.

Next, there's a six-page section "Opening Moves" that is an overview of the Pathfinder Society, an in-universe organization of lore-seekers and treasure-hunters.  In later issues, this will be replaced by fiction, but I found it helpful to see some background on what the Society's leadership, lodges, and chronicles are like.

The last major section is a ten-page bestiary, introducing five new potential threats:  the Sandpoint Devil, the Goblin Snake, the Sinspawn, the Attic Whisperer, and the Goblin Dog.  Only two of the five appear in the adventure path (and only one in a significant way).  Of the five, I think the most interesting and original are the Sandpoint Devil (a one-of-a-kind "cryptid" inspired by the Jersey Devil), the Attic Whisperer (a really creepy idea of an undead that forms around orphanages and schools), and the Sinspawn (aberrations from ancient Thassilon).  These entries are all written in to 3.5 specification (as discussed above) and have been updated elsewhere to their "Pathfinder Roleplaying Game" format, but I still enjoyed seeing them here because I think, oddly enough, they're often given more description than they receive in more constricted format of a bestiary.

The back-matter concludes with a page of four pre-gens for players who just can't wait to have fun, and then a couple of pages of ads for the next issue.

I don't know about you, but I enjoy the back-matter so much I regret that I'm avoiding spoilers on other adventure paths, because otherwise I'd consume all of it!


I finished running players through Burnt Offerings several weeks ago, so my review is premised on that.  I should note that I used the Anniversary Edition, but my understanding, based on the Paizo forums, is that this part is not significantly changed from the original except for the addition of one (admittedly quite useful) non-combat encounter.  My plan for reviewing adventures like this is to cover them just as the book does, by dividing them into separate parts.

Burnt Offerings starts with about 2 1/2 pages of background to both the adventure path as a whole and to this particular chapter.  At first blush, the meta-plot might not sound all that original:  an ancient, incredibly powerful wizard, is planning his return and will dominate the land until heroes rise up to stop him.  What sets this story apart, however, is the incredibly rich detail given this wizard (a Runelord of ancient Thassilon named Karzoug), his minions, and his plans.  There's a lot to be written about Karzoug, but I'm going to wait until reviews of later chapters of the adventure path because he's not directly relevant to this chapter.  Indeed, the events of this chapter are almost accidentally caused by his awakening.  Instead, the primary villain for this chapter is an aasimar (a celestial/angel-like race) woman named Nualia, who grew up in Sandpoint but now seeks vengeance upon it for wrongs she perceives have been done to her.  To this end, Nualia has started assembling an army of goblins to wreak havoc on the city, and this is the ultimate threat the PCs must stop in Burnt Offerings.  This section offers background on Nualia and her evolution from the beautiful child of the town priest into a demon-worshipping evil cleric with a monster claw for a hand!

Before going further, a brief word on the artwork.  It's a mixed bag.  Some of it is quite well-done and of the type you would still see Paizo publishing today; other bits of it are quite ugly, and has been replaced in the Anniversary Edition collection.

Part One, "Festival and Fire", sees the PCs assembled (for their own individual reasons) at Sandpoint's Swallowtail Festival where the dedication of a new cathedral is about to take place.  The event is marred by a surprise attack from goblins coming from multiple points in the town and, of course, the PCs have to help repel the attack.  The one thing you and your players will take away from this chapter (if not the adventure path as a whole!) is that Pathfinder goblins are not generic "D&D" goblins.  Instead, Pathfinder goblins are crazy, ridiculous, vicious, murderous sociopaths!  Hilarious oafs one second and gruesome spree-killers the next, the way author James Jacobs has reoriented goblins really makes this chapter "pop."  This first part of the chapter definitely gets the PCs into the stream of things quickly and forges that "bond of battle" that is important to keep groups going forward.  GMs should pay careful attention that an NPC who is (presumably) saved from a goblin attack is extremely important in Chapter 2, and some advance thought should be given into how to role-play him.  My only critique is that I wish the Swallowtail Festival had been fleshed out better (before the attack) to give some better role-playing opportunities; there are some extremely useful fan-made ideas on the forums that do this, which I really liked: content to the speeches given, rules for the festival games that are played, etc.  This part is playable in a single evening and gets the adventure path off to a good start.

Part Two, "Local Heroes", sees the PCs lauded in Sandpoint for their role in foiling the goblin attack.  This is actually my favourite part of the first chapter of the adventure path because it includes several standalone encounters in Sandpoint (combat and non-combat) that can be run organically, and for the most part in different orders, so that the GM can drop them into the campaign as necessary while still allowing plenty of time for the PCs to get to know and love their new hometown.   The mix of encounters is strong: a boar hunt (that may or may not involve combat but builds crucial narrative later), dealing with a goblin commando trapped behind "enemy" lines (quite gruesome, and just to my taste!),  hearing about rising danger from the goblin tribes around Sandpoint (a bit of an "infodump", but done well and featuring the introduction of an important NPC ally), and, perhaps the most fondly remembered early encounter for most groups: "The Shopkeep's Daughter", wherein a male PC might find himself in deep trouble for "seducing" the lascivious daughter of a grim shopkeeper.  It's laugh-out loud hilarious in concept and meaningful in execution: my group hasn't been able to shop at the Sandpoint General Store for something like twenty sessions running now!  The session ends with the kidnapping of another well-realized NPC, Ameiko Kaijitsu (owner of The Rusty Dragon, a tavern many PCs will end up staying at during their time in Sandpoint).  This event sets up the next part.

Part Three, "Glass and Wrath", sees the PCs on what's really their first organized mission as a team: rescuing Ameiko from goblins (led by her brother!) who have taken over the town's glassworks and slaughtered its employees.  There's a lot more detail given to the Glassworks than is probably necessary since this was a cakewalk for my players and (from what I understand on the forums) most groups.  However, a trail leads the PCs to catacombs far under Sandpoint dating to ancient Thassilon, and there they get a first hint that the dangers they face aren't just goblins.  The Catacombs of Wrath are a good "mini-dungeon" to give the PCs a taste of dungeon-delving and a good chance for them to start to develop some of the tactics they'll need to survive later parts of the adventure path.  I have to note that the "boss" of the Catacombs of Wrath, a quasit (tiny winged demon) named Erylium, is a really unusual monster:  she's very tough to kill (high DR, invisibility at will, flying) but also does hardly any damage.  The unusual combination means that fighting her can last a *long* time; my group had to give it three tries, each lasting the better part of a session, to finally kill her!  Of course, your mileage may vary.  

Part Four, "Thistletop", sees the PCs venture out of Sandpoint and to an island-based goblin fortress.  Their goal is to hunt down Nualia and put a stop to her wicked ways before she can launch a mass invasion of Sandpoint and/or free a mysterious, incredibly powerful ally from the catacombs beneath the fortress.  Taking on Thistletop will probably require some good forethought by the PCs or multiple "brute force" expeditions.  There's a lot to deal with: a well-guarded approach on the mainland, a trapped bridge (that killed one of the PCs in my game) to the island, a main level infested by goblins, and two subterranean levels filled with other threats, including Nualia.  Perhaps the coolest thing about Thistletop, which most players probably don't realize, is that the whole island is actually the head of an enormous statute from ancient Thassilon sitting on its side!  Anyway, there's a good mix of encounters here, with the goblins fairly easy to mop up but some of the other NPCs much tougher.  Assuming the PCs do capture or kill Nualia (mine didn't; she escaped after managing to kill half the party), the players will finish Burnt Offerings with a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and be well-primed to start the next chapter of the adventure path.

When I think of Rise of the Runelords, what sticks out to me the most is how pitch-perfect it is in tone.  It is intelligent, edgy, clever, and dark, all while still allowing plenty of room for the PCs to make their mark on the world.  I know I've had a blast running Burnt Offerings, and I'm confident you will too.

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