Friday, July 7, 2017

Pathfinder Adventure Path # 2: The Skinsaw Murders (Rise of the Runelords Part 2 of 6) [RPG]


I gave a full explanation of Pathfinder adventure paths in my review of the first chapter, so now we can just jump right into Chapter Two, The Skinsaw Murders.  Like before, I'll start with the back matter first so I can discuss the adventure later below a spoiler warning.  For those looking for a one-sentence review, I'll simply say: another great installment of the adventure (with a great shift in tone) and some quality material in the back matter.

The back matter begins on page 56 with a gazetteer of Magnimar, an important city in southwest Varisia.  Magnimar's claim to fame is that it's built around (and literally under) the reaches of a humongous bridge, the Irespan, that dates to the time of ancient Thassilon.  The gazetteer, which is ten pages long, covers the topics you would expect: the government of the city, its crime and law enforcement, the different parts of the city, etc.  Two maps are provided: a full-page map of the city (identifying its various districts) and a quarter page map of the Shadow (the area of the city directly under the Irespan).  There's a gorgeous drawing on page 65 that captures the geography of the city perfectly, definitely a case of a picture being worth a thousand words.  The information provided is adequate for running a brief adventure in the city, but Paizo later published a full 64-page sourcebook on it ("City of Monuments") and an eight-panel map (in the "Shattered Star Map Folio").  The gazetteer is solid, but for the most part, there's not a lot that sets Magnimar apart from a traditional fantasy city.  The upside is that you don't have to worry about the setting overshadowing the story you want to tell.  It would have been nice to see some sample encounters to show off some of the city's more distinguishing features (such as the presence of various monuments and the widespread worship of semi-divine figures called empyreal lords).

Next up is a ten-page treatment on Desna, Goddess of Travel, Dreams, Luck, and the Stars.  There's information on the faith's priests, shrines, custom spells, holy texts, myths, allies, and more.  A new prestige class is introduced, the Spherewalker.  This section is written quite skilfully to tie some otherwise disparate themes together and includes a really interesting discussion of her rather unstructured faith.  It's very easy for the reader to imagine how to actually play or portray an adventuring cleric of Desna in a game, something that's not always easy to do when reading about other gods.  (The section contains a little sidebar on Ghlaunder, a demigod of parasites and infection; I'm not really sure why.)  I can't move on without mentioning the artwork, which is again top notch.

Five pages are then devoted to an installment of the Pathfinder's Journal.  Unlike last issue, which presented a prose description of the Pathfinder Society, this time around the section is written as a first person account from a Pathfinder named Eando Kline.  While in Magnimar, Kline hears that an ioun stone for his wayfinder may be in the city of Kaer Maga, so he decides to set sail east aboard a riverboat.  There's some nice description of areas of southern Varisia that are otherwise rarely mentioned (such as the hamlet of Wartle), and a fairly exciting twist in the story.

This issue's bestiary contains six different creatures: Carrionstorms, Boggards, Lyrakiens, Faceless Stalkers, Revenants, and Lamia Matriarchs.  The bestiary is more important this time around than in last issue, because some (I won't say which for fear of spoilers) of these appear in the main adventure.  The writing style and artwork complement each other well in this section, and I think all are solid additions to the game.  I particularly like Carrionstorms (hordes of undead birds; those of you with bird phobias won't be happy!) and Faceless Stalkers (it's handy to have a monster that can look like anyone, and the background they've been given is really cool even if isn't likely to arise in gameplay).  The monsters are written with 3.5 stats, but updates to Pathfinder are available on the PRD.

Last up is a single page of the four Iconics with stat blocks bumped up to Level 4.


That cover is exciting and evocative.  I love it.  But, it's also pretty spoilery because it reveals the type of creature responsible for a murder mystery at the beginning of the adventure and a hidden  entrance/exit to an important haunted house later in the adventure.  Hopefully, the players don't look too closely.

James Jacobs' foreword notes how this installment shifts gears and moves the AP into a horror theme.  He makes an excellent point that GMs need to ensure there are some breaks and downtime, as constant grinding horror can wear on players and will become less effective over time.  I tried to take the advice to heart when I ran this section of the AP a few months ago (I actually used the Anniversary Edition, but I'll note below where there are significant changes).  As a whole, the adventure here in Issue # 2 is excellent, and spans a lot of genres:  murder mysteries, classic horror, big city adventure, and more.

The adventure, written by Richard Pett, starts out with three pages of background, and it's honestly a lot to digest.  The bulk of it is about the history of the Foxglove family, the scion of which is Aldern Foxglove, the "foppish noble" the PCs rescued at the beginning of the previous chapter.  A century prior, Aldern's ancestor Vorel Foxglove built a mansion on a remote promontory south of Sandpoint and installed a secret laboratory to further his research into lichdom!  Things went horribly wrong, and the house has been haunted for generations since.  Aldern, in seeking funds to rebuild the mansion, fell into the wrong crowd (if you can excuse the massive understatement): the Skinsaw Cult, a group of serial killers operating out of Magnimar.  After being turned into a ghoul, Aldern begins ritualistically terrorizing Sandpoint on behalf of the cult and its leader, a lamia matriarch named Xanesha (who, in turn, is acting on behalf of the big bad of the entire AP).  There's a lot of information and a detailed chronology for Foxglove Manor, and I had to go over things several times to really get the sequence of events straight in my mind.  In retrospect, I think the history might be *too* detailed--perfect for something like Call of Cthulhu where you expect the PCs to do a lot of historical investigation, but probably unnecessary for traditional D&D-style game play.  But I digress.

Part One is titled "Murder Most Foul", and it sees the PCs immediately drawn into solving a pair of murders at the Sandpoint Lumber Mill.  A young couple have been killed in an incredibly gruesome way (seriously, think about "trigger warnings" if you have sensitive souls at the table) and Sheriff Hemlock enlists the PCs for help.  There's a *lot* of clues available for PCs to find--probably too many, as it's not particularly difficult to come to a conclusion about what type of creature was the murderer (a ghoul).  Still, designing mysteries is hard, as too few (or missed) clues can derail an adventure.  I really liked this section as it's good to get the players doing something different than pure combat and having to stretch (even if only slightly) their brains.  I particularly like how the killer (Aldern) has become obsessed with one of the PCs, and that the GM is presented with some different options on the nature of the obsession depending on the makeup of the party.  This sort of personal, direct tie keeps "canned" adventures from feeling like they're one-size-fits-all, and the personal theme continues into the next part of the chapter as well.  One thing that I think would have been better is if the victims of the mill murders were NPCs that the PCs knew or cared about, even if only a little.  Having them (likely) be total strangers lessened the role-playing possibilities.

The PCs are given a few different leads from the lumber mill, and one of them leads to the sole surviving witness of another set of murders obviously done by the same killer.  This witness is largely insane and (probably unbeknownst to the PCs) infected with ghoul fever.  The PCs can find him at an isolated asylum some miles from town.  There's a scripted encounter where the insane witness breaks free of a straitjacket and attacks, providing some additional clues along the way.  The Anniversary Edition expanded on this segment considerably by adding a quid-pro-quo alliance between the asylum's operator and a necromancer working out of the basement.  The encounters (both old and new) weren't at all hard for my group, but I was happy with how the plot played out.

On their way back from the asylum (or near Sandpoint if that lead wasn't followed), the PCs are accosted by a drunk, distraught farmer raving about walking scarecrows killing people out at the southern farms.  The "walking scarecrows" are ghouls created by Aldern and their hunger ramps up the stakes and the urgency.  An encounter against a pack of ghouls (set at one of the farms) is really dangerous and has probably the highest potential of anything in the adventure to lead to a TPK: ghouls and their paralytic touches are far more deadly than their low CR would indicate!  I was relieved to only have one PC death while running this section.  An evil but extremely clever move by the writer could also lead to the PCs accidentally killing innocent people if they're not extremely careful, and I imagine some good role-playing could come from it.

From the farmhouse encounter and assorted other clues, the PCs should have enough to figure out that the source of the ghoul threat is Foxglove Manor, the "haunted house" I mentioned above.

Part Two, "Misgivings", requires the PCs to venture into Foxglove Manor.  This house has a couple of floors, plus an attic, a basement, and caverns underneath.  The main innovation here is the frequent use of "haunts."  Haunts are often described as "spectral traps", in that they are location based, trigger when someone comes close or does something in particular, and then has a mechanical effect.  The difference is that haunts are fantastic story-telling devices, because when they're triggered the character who suffers from one has visions of some traumatic experience in the past of the mansion.  There are different themes of haunts tied to different characters (depending on their personalities), and it all ties together really cleverly. There's actually very few traditional encounters in the house, with the bulk of them taking place in the caverns where Aldern has made his lair.  I think this area of the adventure was a very effective Pathfinder version of a haunted house story.  The major drawback I found as a GM is that much of the story (and many of the haunts) could be bypassed by the simple (even accidental) choice of the PCs to explore below before exploring upstairs.  For example, there's a whole storyline involving a revenant in the attic (Aldern's murdered wife) that never came into play in my game, as well as a whole host of haunts that told some cool backstory (and were worth a lot of XP) that my players never encountered.  On the other hand, I understand Pett's inclination not to completely railroad players by making sure they come across every encounter, and there are surely some groups bound and determined to explore every nook and cranny of the house regardless of the risks.

Part Three, "Welcome to Magnimar," sees the PCs following clues found in Aldern's lair that reveal he's just one member of a larger cult based in Magnimar.  This is the first time the PCs leave the Sandpoint region, and it comes at a good point in the campaign because they might be a bit tired of seeing only one small town.  Although the issue comes with a really good map of the Sandpoint hinterlands, it doesn't provided much detail of what's on the path from Sandpoint to Magnimar (a two day journey on the road).  The PCs' first investigative stop in Magnimar will likely be Aldern's townhouse, where two Faceless Stalkers disguised as Aldern and his wife are there to greet them warmly before ambushing them.  The little touch of the disguises were great, as my players were very much in a "what the heck is happening?" state.  I do wish there was more of interest to find in the house, as there's a quite detailed map and several labelled rooms, but all are essentially empty except for a well-hidden cache of documents and valuables behind a fireplace.

Part Four,  "The Seven's Sawmill," has the PCs follow the clues found in Aldern's townhouse to the cult's headquarters, a sawmill.  The cult is large (13 members, plus its ostensible leader, a member of Magnimar's Justice Council named Ironbriar), and the sawmill has several levels plus some fun machinery for the PCs to get trapped in.  This is a scenario that could play out *very* differently depending on whether the PCs visit at night (when only 3 cultists are present), during the day (when all of the cultists are present but scattered on different levels), or during the one night a week when they have a special ceremony (when everyone is all on the same level).  My players essentially chose the latter option and had one huge battle, but as a GM I had to put the time in to be prepared for every eventuality (including the Perception DCs on different levels, how long it would take reinforcements to arrive from one level to another, etc.).  It's not the most original encounter, but it was solid.

The chapter concludes with Part Five, "Shadows of Time."  A few different clues will lead the PCs to the lair of the cult's real leader, a lamia matriarch (a kind of snake-bodied sorcerer) named Xanesha.  Xanesha makes her home atop an old, abandoned, and quite rickety clock tower in Magnimar's poorest and most dangerous district, and she's protected by a trio of Faceless Stalkers (who will drop a huge bell on PCs) and a terrifying flesh golem with a massive scythe that will kill most PCs on a crit.  The clock tower is a fantastic, evocative location for a big showdown, and one I think your players will remember for a long, long time.  It's been one of the real highlights of the AP through the first two chapters I've run.  (GMs sticking closely to the original write-up of Xanesha in this issue should note that she caused a lot of TPKs for groups, so her stats were changed quite significantly in the RotRL Anniversary Edition.)  Assuming the PCs are successful, the chapter ends with an invite to a party at the Lord-Mayor's residence and a sizable cash reward.

All in all, I think this chapter once again knocks it out of the park.  Starting with investigating a grisly murder scene, and then on to a creepy asylum, and then through a full-fledged haunted house, before ending up an iconic fight against a big bad on the top of a collapsing clock tower, the story and settings are simply fantastic.  If I had to levy any criticisms, it's twofold: 1) the plot is fairly railroady, in that a clue (usually a document) found at the end of one part inevitably leads to the next part) and 2)  that the meta-plot of the AP as a whole is still barely in motion, at least insofar as the players will be able to tell.  Apart from perhaps noticing the Sihedron medallion on both Nualia and Xanesha, the players have no real reason to conclude that there's any link between chapters of the AP.  Those issues aside, I have no qualms about heartily recommending The Skinsaw Murders.

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