Murder’s Mark is a standalone Pathfinder module featuring ethnic tensions and a murder mystery set (mostly) in a traveling circus. Not quite your standard D&D fare, in other words. Written by Jim Groves, it features a lot of investigation and social encounters (as opposed to endless combat encounters versus monsters of the week). In my view, this is a very good thing.
The story is set at the Umbra Carnival, a traveling circus largely populated by Golarion’s gypsy drop-ins, the Varisians. The circus rolls into a small fishing village, sets itself up, and and runs up against the usual prejudices against “those thieving and shifty Varisians”. This time, however, there is a more serious element: someone is murdering visitors at the Carnival, and the “gypsies” are naturally enough the first to get the blame. The local law-person wants the case solved as fast as possible, so enter the PCs in the role of investigators (their own motivations for getting involved are left open here, which makes sense). Naturally enough events escalate, and the PCs quickly have their hands full with trying to figure out the real culprit before the mob chooses and punishes a suitable “perpetrator” for them.
It’s a nice little set piece, and easy enough to drop in the middle of an existing campaign. It’s also refreshingly free of dungeon crawling, which is a nice change. Of course, since it has a plot and is, essentially, a murder mystery, I’m sure there are multiple ways the PCs might short-circuit everything with suitable magic – though the fact that this is meant for low-level characters reduces that danger a bit.
Island of Empty Eyes begins the second half of the (so far quite excellent) “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and also explains why the PCs were so railroaded into winning that sailing race in the previous episode: the island that they win as reward features centrally here. They get ownership of the island, but of course the current owners are not told of that; the whole thing is one more test, a “carve out your own kingdom” thing. As such, it works out quite well.
The first half involves exploring the island, “taming” (i.e. slaughtering) the natives, and figuring out the logistics of building an island base. That last bit will need the PCs to hire workforce and do lots of non-traditional stuff as far as “stock adventures” are concerned, so points for that. Most of the busywork here is handled by die rolls, but there is no reason the GM couldn’t expand some of the hiring / negotiation segments if there is story there and the players are interested.
After the PCs get their “island fort” set up, at least to some degree, the second half commences: the pirate council comes over for a “friendly social visit”, in other words evaluation of how the PC have performed and if they have what it takes to join in the ranks of pirate lords, where apparently the ability to conquer and set up your own domain needs to be on your piratical CV. As can be expected, there’s a twist here: an old enemy has arranged for a saboteur to join the party, with the intent of wrecking the event (and therefore the PCs’ chances of joining the inner circle). This section reads like a lot of fun; the PCs need to scramble in order to entertain a bunch of rough & tumble guests, while dealing with (and ideally hiding) various bits of sabotage and trying to pinpoint the actual saboteur. Some combat involved, but mostly it’s investigation, social shenanigans and general action.
“Skull & Shackles” continues to be a great adventure path. Lots of different types of action, a structure that looks quite free-form but is actually somewhat event-based “under the hood”, and a plot that lets the PCs be scoundrels and greedy bastards if they want to be. One of my favorite Paizo adventure paths, at least so far.
If I had to write a capsule summary of The Moonscar, a new Pathfinder module by Richard Pett, it would be “missed opportunity”. Pett has written good modules before, but this is just lazy design.
So what’s the problem? Well, the thing is set (mostly) on Golarion’s moon. Some party is kidnapping people, and the trail leads… into space!. To the moon! One would think this to be the ultimate ticket to write something really creative, different and weird, using the low gravity, vacuum and other stuff to full extent. What do we get instead? The bad guys turn out to be demons, and the whole thing is set inside an underground complex. In other words, it’s one huge dungeon crawl, versus demons. This could just as well have been set on some random demonic plane, with close to zero modification. It’s boring, and it’s uninspired design.
Is it a good dungeon? No idea, really, I’ve never actually played or run Pathfinder so I cannot comment much on the combat sections – and most of this is combat encounters. It may well be tactically interesting, but it still rates a solid “meh” on the general adventure design scale.
Tempest Rising (by Matthew Goodall) represents the midpoint of the piracy-themed Skull & Shackles adventure path. While it has some issues with an overly railroaded end section, otherwise the module continues the largely-sandboxy format of the two previous modules. Which is a good thing.
As in the previous adventure, this one also has some key segments which trigger when (or if) the PCs decide to do a certain thing. It’s assumed that the PCs will at some point want to do these things, but of course if they don’t most of these adventures will end up not being used. That’s an unavoidable part of presenting a sandbox to the players, of course; you cannot guarantee what they will decide to do. The good news here is that the triggers are quite believable things for the PCs to attempt.
The first one involves the PCs wanting to get official recognition in pirate circles, which involves getting official recognition from the self-styled “Hurricane King”. This is a nicely convoluted affair, which cannot (easily) be solved by brute force – lots of places for more socially-oriented (or sneaky and/or dishonest) PCs to shine. Also tied into this section is another optional plot line, which ties into the big background plot (mostly invisible to the PCs up to now) of spies within the pirate community. Assuming the PCs decide to follow leads given to them, they get a nice long investigation-heavy jaunt, with lots of dead bodies showing up all over the place. I really liked this bit, it’s a nice balance of investigation, social-fu and combat.
The end result of the “get official recognition” part is somewhat railroaded; it’s very hard for the PCs to actually fail at this. However, there are lots of ways they can succeed, with some of them getting them a not-too-flattering reputation in the local piracy social media thing… so there is an incentive to try to ace this section. Besides, some of the challenges are quite amusing.
Last off we have the PCs getting invited to join the “Free Captains’ Regatta”, which is somewhat like what the name implies: an actual sailing race. Having some PCs with actual mariner skills will help a lot here, a combat-munchkin group will have a hard time. There is some “external” help which they can get (some in the form of magic items), but in the end pure combat skill will not solve this one. My (minor) complaint concerns the result of the race: as written, the PCs win it pretty much no matter what they do, with no provisions given to them actually losing. I wasn’t too wild about this design choice, even though them winning the race is apparently a key factor in the next installment. I would have liked to see a “plan B” option for that. Also, what if the PCs just aren’t interested in the race, and want to do some more plunder? GM headaches, that’s what. That said, it’s a minor issue, since most players will be more than happy to join in on a race, and will be willing to overlook some behind-the-scenes fudging which lets them win. Depends on play group, of course.
Overall, a very solid continuation to the adventure path, which in my mind quite successfully merges sandbox and event-based styles. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is shaping up to be one of Paizo’s better adventure paths.
No Response From Deepmar is a standalone Pathfinder adventure module written by Stephen S. Greer. The premise and initial setup is promising, but unfortunately the execution falls somewhat short.
The setup has the PCs being tasked to investigate the sudden silence from an island-based penal colony (with various options to the “why get involved?” question). When they get there, they find the colony abandoned with no trace of anything wrong (shades of Roanoke here). Investigation and exploration follows.
….well, at least should follow. Unfortunately, this is where the module starts to stumble a bit. Due to the backstory of what’s actually going on, there is precious little for the PCs to investigate. There is one (and only one) vague clue available, and it doesn’t involve much investigation to find. As to the exploration… well, while we’re given a general map of the island and descriptions of locations there, it all seems a bit too random. Many of the possible encounters don’t make much sense, and the locations seem designed just to herd the PCs toward the one place on the map which actually is detailed.
When the PCs finally get to that location, they get a mediocre dungeon crawl, with lots and lots of “this area is not detailed here and can be expanded by the GM” notes. The end battle sound like a lot of fun, but otherwise it’s a bit meh. I got the impression that the main problem here was related to page count: this thing would have needed more bulk in order to really be a solid adventure location. The basic idea of a mysteriously abandoned island colony works fine, but the requirement of fitting this in the Paizo module page count has stripped away too much potential content which this thing really would have needed.
I hesitate to call this a bad module, it’s just that the GM would need to do quite a bit of extra work in order to fill this in and have it feel less like a railroad and more like the free-form investigation and exploration adventure it probably wants to be.
Raiders of the Fever Sea by Greg A. Vaughan continues the Skull & Shackles adventure path, and I’m happy to report that it follows the high quality of the first installment. Where the first part promised later free-form adventure for the PCs, this one delivers (though in somewhat restricted form, as written).
The last part left the PCs with their own ship, so the next question is, of course, “now what?”. Well, if the PCs were smart or lucky in the previous part, they befriended one of the important NPCs and can get useful hints from them. If not, well… that’s the price for ignoring social interaction opportunities. The adventure assumes that one of the first things the PCs will want to do is disguise their ship, so that their ex-captain doesn’t track them down. Of course, the PCs may do nothing of the sort.
This is of course the problem with sandboxes, at least one with a “main plot”: the PCs may do something totally weird. If they do, the GM has to just roll with it, and this module provides a lot of events and encounters to throw at the players, culminating with a “dungeon crawl” type assault on a hostile stronghold. Once again, the GM should provide means for the PCs to act and fight underwater, otherwise things won’t turn out all that well.
Overall, I found this to be a great continuation to the story, providing an event-based sandbox environment for the PCs to rampage in. The only criticism is that (due to page count reasons) many of the events and encounters only provide one way of dealing with them, which most likely will not be the way the PCs choose. Nothing that cannot be improvised around, but still it would have been nice to see some “what if?” type stuff taken into account. Also, it’s assumed that the PCs will “conquer” a certain island fortress; here, happily, multiple approaches to doing that are dealt with, including one that involves a marriage of convenience. Points for that. However, what if the PCs don’t feel like tackling the fortress at all, especially since they really have no driving need to do so, other than “it would make them more famous!”? Since much of the continuation plot depends on that fortress, that can be a real problem and force serious on-the-fly modifications from the GM. That said, stuff like this comes with the territory if you want to combine free-form sandboxes with a plot, which in general is a design I do like.
So far, this looks to be one of the better adventure paths to come out of Paizo’s design factory.
The Wormwood Mutiny begins the new “Skull & Shackles” adventure path for Pathfinder. Written by veteran Richard Pett, it’s a somewhat unusual start to an adventure path and one I really liked: instead of having the PCs start off as the usual “heroes in training”, here they are wannabe pirates or suchlike random losers, who get press ganged onto a pirate ship and forced to work as part of the crew (doing low-level work). No fancy equipment, and only one step up from slavery. Now, not all play groups will be fine with this by default, so this requires agreement and player buy-in at the start. Doubly so, since the whole adventure path has the PCs becoming pirates… in other words, doing the looting & pillaging thing, punctuated by random murder. In other words, the PCs will not become heroes in the traditional sense; they may become infamous pirate lords. That’s not to say that the PCs need to be strictly evil, but Paladins and such need not apply.
Assuming player buy-in to the general concept, this thing rocks. The first half has the PCs getting familiar with shipboard life, including intrigue (maybe trying to get some of their original stuff back), social maneuvering (deciding who to befriend) and general keeping a lookout for trouble (most of their crewmates are at best indifferent to them, with some being actively hostile). This first part is also unusual because it gives real benefit to PCs with suitable non-combat skills. The man antagonists here are the captain and his cronies, but the PCs are not expected to fight them (attempts at such will result in pain), they are expected to get a huge grudge which they might get to pay back later if they play their cards right.
After the “intro” half, the action picks up a bit: after being assigned to a recently-seized ship, the PCs are sent over to a “deserted” island to gather up some much-needed fresh water. Things are not quite that simple, of course, and at the end of the thing the PCs may find their general situation much changed (and improved).
The book also contains rules for tracking piratical “Infamy” and other meters which tell the story of their exploits and have direct mechanical effects in later parts. Also abstracted is loot, since it’s not useful to have the PCs do a coin-by-coin count of all plunder. They seem like nice mechanics, though some of the details are a bit weird – the PCs and their ship gain all sorts of mystical powers as their Infamy increases. One assumes that these are the results of “off-camera” gain of magical gear and such, but that is not explicitly stated in the book so the GM needs to improvise here and there.
The first half of the adventure has very little combat (a plus in my book), while the second half has more of the usual combat encounters. Many of these involve aquatic and/or underwater locations, so the GM would be advised to provide the PCs with various means to deal with that.
This is an extremely fun-sounding adventure path; it looks like the whole thing is aiming for a sandbox style with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. This is not historical piracy, this is very much “pulp pirates” and high adventure. Since that’s what most players will most likely prefer, I think this path would be a blast to play through assuming the quality stays at this level. Sandboxes are cool, as long as they are populated with interesting stuff to do. This one seems to be.
You do need player buy-in for this… but honestly, how many players would not be in for some “D&D Pirates of the Caribbean” action, especially when they get to be infamous pirates and decide their own fate? For once, no need to play do-good heroes.
The Midnight Mirror is a standalone adventure module, written by newcomer Sam Zeitlin (winner of Paizo’s 2011 “RPG Superstar” contest). It’s mostly a quite interesting affair, with emphasis on investigation instead of endless combat encounters. The action is set in a remote county, where the dominant religion centers around pain (the priests have lots of piercings, for example), and while that’s a fun detail it doesn’t really have much relevance here except as a possible red herring. The local baron has been acting strangely for quite a while, and there is a new and virulent disease running amok. The PCs are sent over on request from the family of the Baron’s new(ish) wife. who worry about their daughter and her reports about the instability of the Baron.
On getting to the site, the PCs are presented with a variety of strangeness, and have free rein to investigate things. It’s a sandboxy affair, with certain plot layers being revealed only when (or if) the PCs uncover certain things. That’s nice design, but what’s less good is that as written, many of these clues require Knowledge checks… and no provision is given for the PCs failing at those. That’s bad, especially since some of the checks are quite challenging. I’d suggest the GM in most places just give the PCs their clues depending on what they do and who they talk to, and only use Knowledge checks for some specific extra detail. Otherwise, as written, things are in danger of grinding to a halt.
Another small weirdness is that a non-human race is used, but no stats or actual info on that race is given here. Apparently it’s from some outside source, but without access to that the GM has very little to go on. As such, the other race is used nicely to highlight racial tension and old prejudices, on of the many themes here.
There’s quite a bit going on here, especially taking the limited page count into account, so the GM is advised to read the whole thing a few times to make sure he/she knows what’s really going on. That said, other than the small niggles noted above, I found this to be a pretty nice investigation-heavy scenario.
The Empty Throne (written byNeil Spicer) concludes the “Jade Regent” adventure path, and unfortunately it’s a slight letdown to the previous buildup. To be fair, with this page count allowance it would have been difficult to do much else than the “battle the main bad guys in a huge and complicated end battle” to finish this story like off, but still… the whole story has been building towards getting your friend recognized as Empress, and it just concludes with “get the blessing of some ghost, and then kill the current regent and proclaim yourself Empress”. I guess I would have preferred that this “end game” portion be stretched out a little, maybe over two books, here it feels rushed.
I generally end up liking the beginnings of these adventure paths, and being a bit meh on the endings. Part of that is due to the end portions tending to be high-power combat-fests instead of anything really interesting, and that’s part of the problem here. That said, the previous segment (“Tide of Honor”), was quite interesting and had lots of social interactions, so it’s not a polarized thing between the first half and the second half.
As noted, the plot here is fairly simple. Anyone wanting to proclaim themselves Emperor/Empress will have to get the blessing of the spirits of the Imperial Shrine, so that’s where we are led to first. Some combat here, along with a bit of exposition about the missing bits of the back-story. After that, it’s off to the palace and fight the bad guys. As a positive point, the adventure does have a scoring system for the various things the PCs do here and have done previously, which affects the stability and ease of Ameiko’s rule once she does become Empress. If the PCs cut corners or failed to gather proper support from some critical factions, it could be a rough ride. Of course, all that matters to any serious degree only if the GM intends to continue the story, but I guess it also makes for a nice “afterword” to the adventure, letting the PCs hear about the longer-term consequences of their actions and decisions. So, points for that.
Overall, I liked the beginning of the adventure path, it was quite imaginative and a fun road trip. The Caravan mechanic was interesting, though I’m not sure how much (or if at all) it works in practice. I didn’t really like part 4 (“Forest of Spirits”), but the next part was in its turn much better. This ending is… ok, but fails to excite.
Ok, after the disappointing Forest of Spirits, Tide of Honor (written by Tito Leati) kicks it up a notch, and then some. Instead of an endless series of boring combat encounters, this module actually contains a huge variety of stuff, from social encounters to puzzle solving and (gasp) even an old-school maze. Sure, there’s also some combat of course, but here it’s not the main meal on the menu. Hooray for that. Many of the encounters and scenarios are also somewhat free-form in how the PCs might solve (or avoid) them.
The plot has the PCs, now in Minkai proper, realize that they need some serious backup if they intend to put their “own” girl on the throne. Enter a bunch of factions (some shady, some more legit) which might be willing to support a claim for the throne… assuming the PCs manage to gain their good graces. How to do that? Well, that varies a lot. In one case, it involves the assassination of a corrupt general. In another, the rescue of a geisha from an… ardent admirer. Or maybe they’ll need to get rid of some bandits, to get an important bunch of locals on their side.
Of course, all this takes some framing and a bit of delicate GM manipulation. Your typical D&D PC will probably just want to march to the capital city and claim the throne – it’s up to the GM to make very clear to the players that without local support, this is a monumentally stupid idea. Assuming that gets done, this module contains a lot of fun. In a way it’s somewhat old-school, in the sense that there are puzzles (and the aforementioned maze) here – but I for one like those, as long as they are well-executed.
Oh, and there are also ninjas here. There are always ninjas.