Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Hydra's Fang Incident [RPG]


NO SPOILERS

The Hydra's Fang Incident was the second of the very first batch of Pathfinder Society "Season 0" scenarios to debut at GenCon '08.  I was going to say that it hasn't aged well, but really the problems with the scenario aren't due to evolutions in Pathfinder or scenario-design generally: the flaws in it must have been as visible then as they are now.  First, the overall plot and backstory just aren't very creative or interesting.  Second, it's incredibly linear--every encounter has to be hit in order and there's no way to bypass any of them.  Third, the encounter design is pedestrian and (apart from the next point) forgettable.  Fourth, the encounters (at least in the low tier version) basically consist of two types: almost trivially easy ones and possible/probable (depending on the level/optimization of the PCs) TPK generators.  I don't want to make it sound like an absolute disaster--it is playable.  But given the (literally) hundreds of Pathfinder Society scenarios available, this one can be safely avoided unless, like me, you're trying to work through them in publication order.  My review is based on running the scenario this past weekend as a home game for four Level 1 Iconics (one of them optimized, the other three stock).

SPOILERS

The premise is a relatively straightforward one.  A young, spoiled Chelaxian noble named Darsielle Du Moire has turned from privateering to true piracy, rampaging up and down the Andoren coast burning ships and towns alike.  His reign of terror has nearly led Andoran and Cheliax to war, but the countries have negotiated a temporary truce on the condition that the latter solve the "Du Moire problem" quickly.  Du Moire's ship, The Hydra's Fang, has found refuge in one of the few ports open to it: the smuggler's city of Diobel on the Isle of Kortos.  The Pathfinder Society is interested in Du Moire not for reasons of justice or avoiding war, but because he's stolen (from a slain sage) a quartet of tablets dating to the days of Old Azlant.  The PCs are charged with recovering the tablets, though some of the Faction missions want Du Moire taken care of as well.

The PCs receive their missing briefing from Osprey in a ramshackle tavern on the docks of Diobel.  The scenario does a good job of describing the tavern and the longshoremen inside, and an enterprising GM should be able to get some good role-playing out of the PCs before Osprey reveals himself.  The scenario has sidebars on Diobel itself and the organization that runs it, the Kortos Consortium.  I'd suggest asking for relevant Knowledge checks in order to determine how much the PCs know about the city and the Consortium.  In order to achieve their goals, the PCs must overcome five encounters.

Encounter # 1:  The PCs are ambushed at the warehouse of a merchant that they think Du Moire might have been in contact with.  Two of Du Moire's thugs and a wizard in his employ are looting the place when the PCs arrive (as Du Moire has already killed the merchant and left).  When they hear noise, the wizard magically disguises herself as a teenage girl sobbing her over "father's" body while the two thugs conceal themselves in the shadows to get the drop on the PCs.  It's a reasonably clever idea, but the way the encounter is set up the ambush doesn't really accomplish much in game terms:  the thugs fire once the PCs move into the room and after that's done, any advantage from the disguised wizard is lost.  This encounter would have been better as an attempt by the disguised wizard to mislead the PCs (calling for role-playing and Sense Motive checks) while her thugs stayed hidden in the next room in case the deception failed.  As it was, the PCs in the group I ran it for made short work of the villains (though, to be fair, more damage was inflicted on them than I expected).  Now's a good time to remind GMs that the Season 0 scenarios are D&D 3.5, not Pathfinder, so updating is necessary in terms of things like CMB, CMD, and wizard class abilities (with the last one being particularly relevant).  An easy Perception check after the fight shows the PCs a trap door that Du Moire presumably fled through.

Encounter # 2:  Directly below the warehouse is a part of Diobel's Underdocks.  The idea of the Underdocks is that they're, quite literally, a set of docks underneath the city's main docks.  Clothed in shadows, they allow for smuggling in and out of the city.  As several reviewers have noted, it's hard to conceptually wrap one's head around the layout of Diobel--there's not just the Underdocks to imagine, but there's an "inner harbor maze", locks, and an outer harbor.  This is one of those times where an artist's rendering of what the city looks like, from 3/4 perspective, would do wonders for helping a GM.  Anyway, a trail of footprints in the muck lead the PCs to a pier where a couple of rowboats are tied up (though a third is obviously gone) and two Enforcers from the Kortos Consortium are on duty.  The Enforcers have strict orders not to let anyone through unless they have a "Harbormaster's Pass," which the PCs don't have. Apart from a sizable bribe (100 gp at the low tier), the only real way through this encounter is violence.  Depending on alignment and class, PCs could legitimately bristle at this, as the Enforcers are the lawful authority of Diobel's government, and their actions (stopping trespassers from stealing boats) is also lawful.  My PCs handled it adroitly at first (casting sleep) on the Enforcers, and then completely bungled the matter by murdering them!  Anyway, inside the Enforcers' bunker are the items the PCs need to unlock the rowboats and determine what mooring the Hydra's Fang is tied up at.

Encounter # 3:  There's a description of what the inner harbor maze is like, but (oddly) the PCs don't have to do anything to successfully navigate it before finding themselves in open water in the harbor.  Once they're several hundred yards into the harbor, an encounter starts that is the most controversial of the scenario.  Simply put, they're attacked from out of nowhere by two sahuagin (on a rather labored pretext) who try to flip the boat over with a simple DC 15 Strength check.  Two sahuagin against 4-6 PCs might not seem like that big of a deal, but if that boat flips, any Level 1 PC wearing armor probably has a negative Swim modifier and is in big trouble of sinking and drowning.  This encounter has caused TPKs for several groups.  The scenario's writer, Tim Hitchcock, has said conflicting things about how deep the water is supposed to be in the harbor but, suffice it to say, if it's deep enough for the drafts of large-masted ships, it's deep enough for PCs to drown in.  This didn't happen to be a problem when I ran it because the sahuagin failed their Strength checks and were promptly dispatched by the PCs.  As a general rule, I think it's great when scenarios make use of skills that are often neglected by PCs, like Swim, but this encounter is a particularly lethal way to do it!

Encounter # 4:  The PCs have to board The Hydra's Fang while under fire from two of Du Moire's men.  Du Moire himself is on board as well, though the scenario has him make a run for it if seriously hurt.  One of the hilarious things about this scenario is that Du Moire, "scourge of the Andoren and Chelaxian navies," has no particular feats, class abilities, or skills relevant to sailing or piracy, and, as far as we can tell, his "crew" consists of five people (the three from the first encounter and two more here) and a vessel that (apparently) has no weaponry.  Anyway, I like how the scenario explains the different ways (and Climb DCs) that the ship can be boarded, though it would be helpful to have a better understanding of how tall the sides of the ship are above the water line.  Perhaps the biggest problem with this encounter is that there's a tripwire trap running across the rear of the ship; a PC who sets it off is covered in chum and knocked into the water, wherein a shark or a sea cat arrives to attack in just 1d4 rounds.  This trap is consistent across tiers, meaning that an unlucky Level 1 PC who sets off this trap could be all alone in the water fighting a shark.  That's pretty close to certain death!  Obviously, more thought needed to be given to the trap.  In addition, Du Moire himself is simply not satisfying as the villain for the scenario--he'll be easily dispatched and has nothing memorable about him.  I gave him a bad Monty Python French accent because, hey, why not?  (oddly, he has an oil of invisibility in his equipment list but his tactics make no mention of it)  The layout given for the ship is also pretty bad (there's no placement of ladders/stairs, and something (a cabin?) completely blocks access to the bow of the main deck.  I was lucky enough to have the Ship flip-mat on hand, which helped immensely.

Encounter # 5:  The PCs probably assume the scenario is pretty much over as they search the hold of the ship for the tablets.  What they don't realize (because how could they?) is that they're in near-TPK territory again.  Three lacedons are waiting behind the door the PCs have to open in order to recover the tablets.  Lacedons (aquatic ghouls) are just like their land-bound cousins when it comes to "much higher than CR would indicate" lethality.  Each one gets three attacks a round, and any hit requires a saving throw to avoid paralysis.  Paralysis then results in a coup de grace unless a GM is being particularly merciful.  Ghouls can be real threats even to mid-level parties, but throwing three of them up against a Level 1 group is a recipe for disaster and frankly unfair.  When I ran it, three of the players essentially metagamed (as they failed their in-character Knowledge checks to know what the lacedons were) and retreated, while the fourth player (playing a tabletop RPG for the first time ever) was unceremoniously left behind and promptly murdered.  Even the three retreating PCs barely survived, as two of them were paralyzed and the third was lucky to kill the last lacedon before succumbing herself.  And to think the author originally wanted to include *four* lacedons in the encounter!  I wouldn't inflict this encounter on your players unless they really like you!

One thing I should note is that the Cheliax Faction mission requires Du Moire be killed and his body "disappeared."  This can create major role-playing and potential PvP issues, since the scenario tells GMs that Du Moire will be keen to surrender.  There was a major discussion of this problem in the forums, so just be aware.

In sum, this is a lethal, linear, RP-lite, forgettable scenario filled with minor errors and problems for GMs.  I'd suggest giving it a pass unless you have nothing else to run.

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