Wednesday, August 29, 2018
Phantom Phenomena is a series of six one-hour Pathfinder Society Quests. If you're not familiar with the "Quests" concept in this context, essentially each Quest contains one role-playing encounter and one combat encounter. The six are linked together by a shared story-arc, but (except for the last one) can be played in any order and for credit individually. The Quests in Phantom Phenomena are themed around investigation of psychic and occult phenomena, and thus are perfect for players interested in the Occult Adventures classes like the Spiritualist, Medium, Psychic, etc. I ran this for a group of experienced Pathfinder players using pre-gens, and we found it *very* easy in terms of combat encounters. Still, it has some really nice flavour that sets it apart from standard sword-and-sorcery adventures, and I'd recommend it for players and GMs looking for someone a little more original and off-beat.
The premise of Phantom Phenomena is that a university professor in Ustalav named Dr. Quolorum is investigating a series of strange (one might say "phantom") phenomena centred around the village of Dunhob and the estate of a missing (and presumed deceaded) noblewoman who had an interest in the occult named Lady Illirigarde. Instead of being members of the Pathfinder Society like normal, the PCs are actually paranormal investigators/graduate students of Dr. Quolorum. Via a series of letters, Dr. Quolorum sends the PCs off to investigate the causes of the strange apparitions and, perhaps, lay them to rest.
Quest # 1, "Harrow", sends the PCs to Dunhob to investigate a supposedly-haunted tavern. At the beginning, in a fun scene, the PCs are pelted by horseshoes by angry villagers who think they bring with them evil spirits! It's a good way to show the "rustic superstitious villagers" element of Ustalav, and reveals whether the PCs can be trusted to role-play or are going to try to murder everything in sight. Once they make it inside the tavern, the PCs encounter a mysterious robed figure who offers them a harrow reading. Harrow cards are Golarion's equivalent of tarot cards, and if you manage to snag a deck to use during the game, your players will be impressed. After the reading, the PCs are attacked by several floating skulls called "Beheaded" and "Flaming Beheaded." Afterwards, the PCs can recover the harrow deck which is still infused with psychic power (it belonged to Lady Illirigarde, and was left behind when she had to flee a reading in the tavern that went wrong). I think one of the challenges of this Quest series is that it's hard for the PCs to learn the backstory behind each one if they don't have one of the classes with particular abilities to interact with spirits or spiritual auras.
Quest # 2, "Lightning," starts with the PCs meeting Dr. Quolorum in person atop a remote hilltop in the Hungry Mountains. He's assembled the group to help him investigate strange red lightning strikes that are linked to paranormal phenomena. Once the lightning strikes, the PCs rush to the site of the crater only to restrained by a "Writhing Branches" haunt that was surprisingly effective against the group (they didn't have much in the way of positive energy or fire attacks, the only things that could harm the group). Around the crater itself, a pool of ectoplasm takes the shape of humanoid creatures and attacks; their touch has the ability to convey brief flashes of what's actually behind all of the phenomena: a pulsing fungal creature brooding somewhere in a dark mountain cave. After the ectoplasmic creatures are dispatched, Dr. Quolorum is able to obtain a sample of the ectoplasm.
Quest # 3, "Manor", has the PCs investigate Illirigarde Manor in search of psychically-sensitive "etheric compasses" that Lady Illirigarde was said to be developing before her mysterious disappearance. I should note that the flip-mat for this one, Pathfinder Lodge, is out-of-print but worth purchasing on the secondary market because it would be quite time consuming to draw out (even though only a few rooms are actually used). In investigating the manor, the PCs encounter a couple of haunts that convey what happened long ago: Lady Illirigarde was successful in developing the etheric compasses, only to be murdered by a homunculus she had created for the experiments. PCs have to destroy the homunculus (nice drawing!) and a few mites in order to clear the house of its evil. In doing so, they'll have a chance to communicate with the spirit of Lady Illirigarde before it departs, and she asks them to track down the true cause of the phenomena that has plagued the region.
Quest # 4, "Monolith", involves the PCs exploring an ancient Kellid monolith and the tunnels underneath. They discover that the tunnels lead to a well that was once covered by a heavy iron lid that has been recently pushed aside. At the bottom of the well are dozens of sleeping morlocks! I liked this encounter, as morlocks will periodically emerge from the well until the PCs manage to replace the lid and seal it with a protective ward (which involves some ability/skill challenges as well as player ingenuity). Encounters that mix combat with other urgent things the PCs have to accomplish at the same time create a good sense of drama and make otherwise forgettable battles into something more memorable.
Quest # 5, "University", has the PCs sent to fetch an experimental herbicide from Dr. Quolorum's office at the Sincomakti School of Sciences. As an academic, I'm a sucker for stories involving universities. Inside Quolorum's office, the PCs have to deal with a reverse gravity trap only to discover that the herbicide is missing. A magical book imprinted with the psychic essences of three past occult researchers can reveal what happened (someone entered the office, took the herbicide, and triggered the trap before escaping)--this bit can be a little silly if not handled carefully by the GM because there are multiple personalities imprinted in the book that try to talk over one another. Afterwards, the PCs can track the thief to the university's gardens, where they learn that the groundskeeper (and his assistant) have fallen under the sway of something called Mindslaver Mold! This was another solid encounter, as the PCs have to figure out how to defeat the mold without killing the innocent person it's taken possession of.
Quest # 6, "Epicenter", starts with the PCs escorting Dr. Quolorum up a dangerous mountain trail in the hopes of finally discovering the cause of the phenomena that has plagued the Hungry Mountains region. Hallucinations (at GM discretion) provide an opportunity to make the PCs a bit paranoid, and there's a good challenge involving the need to cross a chasm while an illusory effect plays havoc with the PCs' senses. Inside a cave, the PCs discover the source of the manifestations: a "cerebric fungus", an alien entity capable of broadcasting its nonsensical thoughts. The terrain makes good use of the fungus' ability to use its tentacles to move people around, as it might drop them off a ledge. Once the cerebric fungus is destroyed, the psychic episodes cease and life returns to normal--except for the PCs, who are offered membership in the Pathfinder Society!
Phantom Phenomena is definitely one of those scenarios that rewards GMs who are able to set a certain tone (in this case, spooky mystery). The more atmospheric the surroundings, the better the investigation and encounters will come off. I also wouldn't recommend running all six Quests in a single session, but breaking them up over a couple of sessions if possible to avoid player-fatigue (if you have the luxury.) The combat encounters are pretty easy, and are better suited to new players who pick less melee-oriented classes (one of my players ran the Iconic Bloodrager and decimated everything with ease). The major NPC in the series, Dr. Quolorum, was a fun character that I wish would reappear again--though oddly, we don't get a picture of him which is unusual given his importance in the adventure. Anyway, all in all, I really enjoyed running Phantom Phenomena and the different vibe it lent to Pathfinder.