Sunday, April 1, 2018

Pathfinder Adventure Path # 3: "The Hook Mountain Massacre" (Rise of the Runelords Part 3 of 6)


The Hook Mountain Massacre is the third chapter in the Rise of the Runelords adventure path.  In this “No Spoilers” section of the review, I’ll give just a very general comment about the adventure itself and then talk about the articles, fiction, bestiary, etc., that form the back matter of the issue.  Below, in the “Spoilers” section, I’ll get into the nitty-gritty and explain how, at least for my group, there really *was* a massacre on Hook Mountain!

As a whole, I thought this chapter was solid, with some memorable set-piece encounters.  It definitely reminds the PCs that reading the Player’s Guide is a good idea because it warns them that surviving the wilderness and fighting giant-sized creatures are two things they better be prepared for!  There are, however, some crucial parts of the adventure that need more detail, and I also would have liked better integration of the meta-plot from the players’ perspective.

The back matter consists of four main articles:  a guide to operating castles, a gazetteer of Varisia, another part of the ongoing short story featuring Eando Kline, and a bestiary.  The section ends with Level 7 stats for four pregenerated Iconics (Kyra, Merisiel, Valeros, and Seoni).

The first article, “Keeping the Keep: Running a Fortress in Varisia and Beyond” is headed by really good artwork of a small keep built into a rock wall: it’s easy to dismiss this as just background art until closer inspection reveals it’s exactly a location featured in the main adventure and makes describing that location to the PCs *so* much easier.  The article starts with a brief overview of the history, architecture, and personnel of castles in the real world.  One could find this information easily online or in the library, but it is a nice, concise explanation of, for example, the difference between a Barbican and a Bastion.  The rest of the article is then a fun 1d20 table and corresponding description of “Weekly Fortress Events” such as “Collapsing Tower,” “Secret Chamber,” and “Snake Oil Salesman.”  It’s a really simple and practical way to liven things up if the PCs in any campaign take over an adventuring locale in the wilderness and make it their headquarters.  Even though some game mechanics are included, this is a more “rules-light” approach and it’s not a substitute for a full “kingdom-building” simulation like you might find in Ultimate Campaign or Kingmaker.   Still, I don’t think this part has ever been reprinted anywhere and it’s a nice option for GMs. 

The second article, “Varisia: Cradle of Legends” is a very matter-of-fact but quite thorough and useful overview of dozens of locations in the area.  In essence, each location gets a one-paragraph summary, and everything from geographical features like the Stony Mountains to towns like Roderic’s Cove to potential adventuring sites like The Sunken Queen are included.  A lot of this material was copy-and-pasted into the RotRL Anniversary Edition Player’s Guide, but it’s invaluable to GMs, especially since many of these places have never had their lore expanded on elsewhere and PCs have a habit of going “off-script” in APs.  The article includes good artwork of Riddleport and Viperwall, and a full detailed map of Varisia which I used extensively when the players in my game started travelling away from Sandpoint.  Finally, the section includes a wandering monster table broken up by different terrain types: it has the typical problem of allowing an encounter of CL1 and CL14 for the same band of adventurers, so I wouldn’t use it as written, but as a starting point for inspiration it would be fine.

The short fiction for this volume is “Hand of the Handless,” continuing Eando Kline’s quest for an ioun stone.  This chapter of his story takes him to Kaer Maga, my favourite city in all of Golarion after reading James Sutter’s City of Strangers.  Sidebars provide a brief overview of the city’s districts and factions.  I don’t want to spoil much about the story, so I’ll just say it involves nagas, bloatmages, and has an ending that really hits you in the gut.

The bestiary for this issue has six monsters.  Many of these, or variations of them, appear in the adventure itself, so it’s best for RotRL players to avoid reading the entries.  First up is a “Smoke Haunt,” which is basically a small undead that takes up residence in campfires to hypnotize and drain the life-force of those around it: a perfect foe to liven up another routine trip through the wilderness.  Next, “Totenmasks”, are a clever twist on the notion of undead monsters: they’re creepy as hell and illustrated fittingly.  “Skull Rippers” are constructs from ancient Thassilon that are scorpion-like guardians of tombs and ossuaries; they are nasty customers and there’s more background on them here than anywhere else.  “Argorths” are giant deadly worms—this was the only entry that fell flat for me, as it wasn’t particularly creative.  “Mother of Oblivion” is a gargantuan octopus-like aquatic monster with some great world-lore and the best ability ever: trans-dimensional tentacles!  Last up are “Ogrekin,” the degenerate, deformed, and grotesque offspring of an ogre and a smaller humanoid; they kidnap people for fates far worse than death.  Not all of these monsters made the RotRL Anniversary Edition, and the entries here provide additional lore and background that was often left out, so a current-day GM can still get value from this bestiary.

Now, on to the adventure!


One of the strengths of the RotRL AP is that it keeps things moving and covers all the bases of traditional adventuring.  Chapter I had the PCs as heroes defending a small town, Chapter II moved things to the complication of the big city, and now Chapter III forces them out into the rugged wilderness of Varisia where they don’t have civilization to fall back on.  After being sent to investigate a mysteriously-silent fort, the PCs then need to save a dam from collapsing before taking the battle to the home of the malefactors responsible: a clan of brutish ogres.  The entertaining preface by James Jacobs says that this chapter was inspired by movies like The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, and other horror stories of degenerate backwoods monsters.  Well, it delivers! 

Part One sees the PCs hired by the Lord-Mayor of Magnimar to journey to a remote outpost in central Varisia to find out why Fort Rannick, a keep manned by rangers defending the area, has gone silent.  It’s a very generic adventure hook that only coincidentally continues the PCs involvement in the overall story of the AP.  The weeks-long journey to the Hook Mountain region is left for the GM to detail, whether the traditional day-by-day and random encounter approach or the hand-waving “boom, you’re there” approach.  I like flexibility, but I would have appreciated some more content to support the first approach (even some minor RP encounters along the way would have been great).  The PCs are expected to stop at Turtleback Ferry, a small town near the silent keep, to gather some clues about what may have happened.  Turtleback Ferry is not described in nearly as much detail as Sandpoint, so again the GM is going to have to do some work if players are expecting fully-fleshed out settings.  Everything above is handled in three pages, so it’s sketchily drawn.

When they do set out for the fort, the PCs may swallow an adventure hook that lures them to a farmhouse full of ogre-kin named the Grauls.  These are basically mutated hillbillies, and this whole section of the adventure is hilariously, awesomely twisted in the vein of classic 70s horror movies.  If a “Skin Shucking Room” makes you smile rather than run away, this is the adventure for you!  Apparently this is as extreme as Paizo ever allowed its writers to get, so enjoy it while you can.  Anyway, the Graul farm encounter is important because the PCs are expected to rescue a trio of rangers from Fort Rannick and will thus gain both information on what happened and allies that can assist them in retaking it.  (there’s also a subplot with Shalelu tied to one of the rangers.)  The only problem when I ran it is that the adventure hook that leads the PCs to the Graul farm is one that can be easily ignored by a group who may just think it’s another random encounter on the road.  So my group bypassed this whole part of the adventure, did things the hard way, and made me scramble to get the next part prepped on time!

Part Two, “Retaking Rannick,” covers exactly that.  The PCs learn that Fort Rannick is now occupied by a couple of dozen of ogres and have to figure out how to oust them.  The premise is that a frontal attack is obviously suicidal, so this is meant to be a test of the players’ ability to be creative and strategize.  The writer of this chapter, Nick Logue, intentionally created several ways in which the PCs could infiltrate the fort, trick the ogres, etc.  It’s good scenario-design.  My group, of course, just marched right up to the front gates and attacked!  Somehow, in their shining moment of awesomeness, they won two pitched battles against the ogres and recaptured the fort that way.  But I digress.  PCs are given the option to make Fort Rannick their new headquarters in the region, which explains the article on running a keep in the back matter.

Part Three, “Down Comes the Rain,” starts with a surge of floodwaters sweeping through Turtleback Ferry.  It’s a bit contrived, but one way or another the PCs are supposed to be present when the flooding starts so they can help rescue the townspeople from not just the water but a truly massive (well out of their CR-range) monster called Black Magga that gets swept into the town along with the flood.  The PCs aren’t meant to defeat Black Magga, but just survive for a few rounds until she decides to leave.  Still, I’m not sure if it’s a fair encounter for the players, and my group saw two PCs die quite inauspiciously from it.  The sudden flooding is supposed to lead the PCs to realize that an ancient Thassilonian dam to the north, Skull’s Crossing, must be damaged and in need of repair.  The logical chain here frankly isn’t very good, as there’s little reason for PCs to think the dam is just damaged or that they, as adventurers rather than emergency structural engineers, could do anything to stop it from collapsing.

Anyway, assuming the PCs do somehow get to Skull’s Crossing, they’ll find a really cool site for a memorable cinematic battle: the slippery, narrow walkway on top of the dam with precipitous drops on either side.  Alas, the actual encounter on top of the dam with a few exhausted ogres is completely forgettable, and the real battles take place inside a more traditional dungeon-like complex.  The gist of the matter is that the dam is failing because a pair of trapped pit fiends whose magic has powered the dam’s floodgates for millennia are failing (one has already died, and the other is very weak).  The PCs are expected to negotiate with the pit fiend to help save the dam, which is an interesting challenge.  However, I found the mechanisms of how the dam operated quite unclear, and there’s not much provided on how PCs are supposed to figure out how the magic of the pit fiends/summoning circles relates to the dam.  In other words, crucial details are left out of a crucial scene.  And worse, although there’s a timeline given as to *when* the dam will collapse if not repaired, there’s no information provided on what exactly *happens* if it collapses (as in my game).  Presumably Turtleback Ferry is destroyed, but it’s unclear how far down the devastation goes or what the ramifications are for the larger story-arc with the big bad guys behind the scenes that I haven’t touched on yet.

Part Four, “The Haunted Heart,” struck me as a very weird section to include in the AP when I first read it, and I think I’m going to stick to that view now despite it having some interesting ideas.  In essence, at some point in their adventuring in the region, the PCs are led by a pixie (who was a joy to role-play, I’ll admit) into the mysterious, trackless swamps called the Shimmerglens.  There, the spirit of a murdered nymph named Myriana demands the PCs recover the bones of her lover, the commander of Fort Rannick.  There are a lot of evocative, haunting little encounters in the Shimmerglens that aren’t combat-oriented.  Still, the problem is that this element of the story is very poorly integrated into the plot and seems to come from almost out of nowhere when the PCs have a lot of other, more important things to do deal with.  Another issue is that the PCs have been dealing with the very visceral, gory horrors of ogres and ogrekin, and the sudden change in tack to the sombre, ghostly hauntings of the Shimmerglens is quite jarring.  I was able to incorporate this part and it was okay, but it’s certainly not necessary.

Part Five, “Harrowing the Hook,” concludes the chapter.  Either the residents of Turtleback Ferry or Myriana’s pixie tells the PCs that they need to oust the Kreeg ogres from their stronghold near the top of Hook Mountain if the region is ever going to be safe.  I think my PCs will best remember this section of the AP for the gruelling challenge they had with the environment rules (cold weather and altitude sickness) combined with the climbing rules.  They eventually made it up Hook Mountain, but then, exhausted and suffering from hypothermia, they (nearly) TPK’d at the entrance! It definitely demonstrated why having characters prepared for the rigours of a wilderness adventure (as detailed in the Player’s Guide) is worthwhile.

I thought the Kreeg Clanhold itself was fine but fairly average.  It’s filled with the requisite ogres along with some hags, a frost wight, and this chapter’s “big bad”, a stone giant named Barl Breakbones.  By this point, players should be pretty familiar with battling creatures larger and stronger than themselves, and should be prepared to take advantage of their weaknesses.  The chapter ends with the defeat of Breakbones and the discovery of a note indicating that stone giant armies are headed for Sandpoint!  Can’t argue with that as a cliffhanger.

I haven’t talked yet about how any of these relates to the larger story-arc of the AP as a whole.  In part this is to avoid spoiling any of my players reading this, but in part because the connection with much of what happens in this chapter is only indirectly related to the meta-plot.  The behind the scenes storyline is really complex, but it’s also very opaque to the players and could understandably leave them wondering whether there *is* any larger story that each chapter is building towards.  Indeed, if I had one criticism of the AP as a whole so far it’s that there’s not a gradually increasing involvement of the characters in the plot but instead (apart from a recurrence of Sihedron runes) a largely disjointed series of really cool but largely independent chapters.

That general note aside, I really enjoyed running The Hook Mountain Massacre.  It has some great encounter locations, challenges the PCs to be prepared and creative, and sets things up nicely for the next chapter.

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