A town called “Illmarsh”, with strange, sullen villagers with strangely fish-like features? Rumors of forbidden cults? Miles and miles of rocky, forbidding shoreline? Yes, it’s “Paizo does Lovecraft” time again, with Greg A. Vaughan’s Wake of the Watcher (part 4 of 6 in the Carrion Crown adventure path). Not that Paizo is a stranger to Cthulhu, numerous old modules have had direct Cthulhu references, but this is perhaps the most direct Cthulhu scenario to come from them to date. On the other hand, it is Pathfinder and the end result is less the nameless dread Lovecraft was going for and more “Strange, squamous shadows advancing towards us? I fireball them!”.
The plot has the PCs chase the evil cultists to the aforementioned town of Illmarsh, where the tracks grow cold (and damp). The villagers are… strange, and getting clues may require the PCs to venture into places the townspeople would rather they not venture in. There are a few nice red herrings here to throw seasoned Cthulhu players a tiny bit off track, but generally players familiar with their Lovecraft will pretty much get what they expect. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; as noted, the combo of D&D and Lovecraft does bring a distinctly different tone to the proceedings, and not everyone is all that familiar with Lovecraft in the first place.
It’s a fairly nice continuation of the Carrion Crown storyline, though I have more and more trouble figuring out just why the PCs would track the cultists in this case. Why not just go home and find something easier and more productive to do? I suspect many GMs will need to add some carrots (or sticks) of their own here, to bring some urgency and sense of motivation to the proceedings. The story here is quite removed from the earlier plot, and this installment could easily be run as a standalone adventure without much extra work. For a GM looking for a slightly unusual tone for a D&D adventure, this might well fit the bill.
Academy of Secrets is a stand-alone module for Pathfinder, which also has a slight link-in with the old Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path. It features an annual deadly “Breaching Festival”, where a Korvosan magic academy opens its doors… well, in a way. It’s a competition, where the academy mages build up all sorts of nasty magic traps and countermeasures, and volunteer contestants try to gain entry without getting fried to a crisp or just vanishing forever. A winner would get a huge jackpot, since the prize goes up every year and it’s been 150 years or so since someone last gained entry and lived. Enter the PCs…
Oh, and to make things more interesting, the contest isn’t quite what it seems, and manages to be even more deadly than you’d expect. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say anything more on that subject here.
It reads like quite a bit of fun, though it does railroad some small bits and may need some GM sleight of hand to handle overly clever or curious players. It also has the generic fantasy rpg fault of over-inflated time spans. I mean really, 150 years? That’s like a modern annual competition with huge prizes to have last had a successful winner in the year 1861. Why not just have it be, say 30 years or such? That’s still a long time, without diverging into the ridiculous. Oh well, it’s not like this module is a specific problem case in a genre which typically has empires which last thousands of years, and suchlike.
Other than those small nitpicks, it’s a fun self-contained module, with lots of opportunities for both clever problem-solving and combat.
The quite excellent Carrion Crown adventure path continues with Tim Hitchcock’s Broken Moon, which deals with werewolves (with generic “gothic” horror themes and “Frankenstein’s monster” having been previous themes here). It continues with the high quality, especially the beginning which is really good. It gets a bit more generic towards the end, but still the adventure earns high total marks.
The PCs are led into the depths of Shudderwood, on the trail of certain evil cultists. They end up in an hunting lodge meant for local aristocrats and high rollers, and may need some social maneuvering or such to gain entrance. Once there, they are dumped in the middle of a murder mystery. Yes, the whole story involves werewolves, but to the writer’s credit it’s far from a simple “ravaging monster on the loose” story – in fact much of that overlay is more of a red herring for the PCs. The full story is complex, with various NPC factions involved, and the PCs have lots of ways of dealing with the situation. It reads like it should be a blast to play. As noted, the second half is a bit more generic, and while not bad it lacks the inventive flair of the beginning.
“Carrion Crown” has been really good up to this point, assuming you’re ok with an intentional “Hammer Horror” B-movie feel here and there. We’ll see what the second half looks like, next up should be some Cthulhuoid action with definite “fish men!” overtones.
After getting off to a great start with “The Haunting of Harrowstone”, the “Carrion Crown” adventure path advances to part two with Trial of the Beast – and it’s even better than the first installment. I’m really starting to like this adventure path. Written by Richard Pett, it’s actually a detective story (set in a D&D world, of course). The infamous “Beast of Lepidstadt” has finally been captured after numerous murders and atrocities, and is currently imprisoned in the town jail awaiting trial. Naturally enough, the townspeople are demanding to see blood and expect a quick “burn the thing!” verdict from the court. Enter the PCs.
Events in the first adventure lead the PCs to Lepidstadt, and put them in contact with one of the judges – who is not convinced that the Beast is actually guilty here. It’s assumed that the PCs will agree to help the judge out, if they don’t this becomes a fairly short affair. There is a tight timetable, and the PCs only have limited time to do investigation and gather clues which might sway the court; there is also mechanic for this so the GM has an easy means of figuring out how well the PCs are doing. The trial could go in either direction, with the endgame being somewhat the same regardless of what happens. The end is more of a combat affair, but that’s ok given the awesome investigative first part of the adventure (and the end part also contains a couple of very cool scenes).
This is an excellent module. The plot is clever (with nods to Mary Shelley) and the PCs have quite a lot of freedom to act while still being tied to external time limits… and of course, non-combat skills will shine here. It’s a bit of a stretch to have a “medieval” town give an obvious “monster” a full fair trial – but hey, it’s D&D, it’s not supposed to be realistic in any sense. Anyway, this adventure path is looking very good at this point, let’s hope that it holds up.
Tomb of the Iron Medusa (by Mike Shel) is a standalone Pathfinder adventure with a slightly “Gothic” feel – the plot has to do with an old, doomed noble family and suchlike. It’s standalone because most of the action takes place in a family necropolis which can be located pretty much anywhere the GM wants (though there is a default location given). The PCs are hired to retrieve some information which might clear the family name of a contact; of course, that contact could even be one of the PCs, given some prepwork during character generation. Anyway, the PCs get tasked with entering the family crypt and retrieving some information. Simple, right?
Of course not. It’s not a deathtrap dungeon in the classical sense, but there are tons of puzzles and traps to be found. Most are quite clever, and the background plot contains some fun elements which can complicate the issue. The encounters here are quite varied, and thankfully some of them can be resolved without combat. Overall, it’s a fun little romp and fits in quite well with the ongoing “Carrion Crown” adventure path; this could be incorporated as part of that path without too much effort.
The Haunting of Harrowstone (by Michael Kortes) begins a new adventure path for Paizo, titled “Carrion Crown”. This time around they are going for a “horror” theme – though of course this being a D&D variant that is more along the style of Ravenloft than Call of Cthulhu. Initially I was a bit concerned about the whole thing possibly being a bit too campy, but I’m happy to report that while it’s not hardcore horror and despite some slightly campy bits, as a whole it’s quite excellent. In fact, after a few somewhat lackluster adventure paths, this one starts out in fantastic fashion. A lot of that is due to the structure; instead of the all-too common series of combat events, this is a fairly freeform investigative piece, tinged with “Gothic horror” set pieces here and there. There is combat, of course, but the focus is on investigation, social encounters, and mood. I like this a lot.
The plot starts off with a Cthulhu trope: an old colleague of the PCs has died in an accident, and the PCs are invited to a remote village for the funeral (and reading of the will). There is a grieving daughter / damsel in distress involved (one who potentially evolves into somewhat more), and the PCs are assumed to start looking into some of the irregularities in the whole matter and to try and help out. The town is nicely genre-suitable: it’s all very East European -ish, with surly & hostile villagers, overcast skies, and gothic architecture. Oh, and an old abandoned prison next to the town, destroyed in a fire ages ago.
The town is nicely described, and there is also a simple mechanic in tracking if and how the PCs gain the trust of the villagers. If they do so many things become a lot easier – but of course it’s not that simple, and brute force can also work. “Haunts” are also used to good effect here, as replacements for plain combat encounters (which is a very good thing).
I was a lot more impressed with this than I expected to be, to be honest; I was expecting a campy Ravenloft clone and got something much more nuanced. Looking forward to the continuation of this one.
Another Pathfinder adventure path closes with Sanctum of the Serpent God (by Neil Spicer). The Serpent’s Skull adventure path started from a shipwreck and became a jungle expedition in search of an ancient lost city. In this final installment, the PCs need to stop the ancient serpent people from reviving their god, which involves an assault on the main serpent people citadel underneath the city ruins (the the same undercity the PCs explored in the previous segment). While quite combat-filled, there are nice opportunities for diplomacy here, since large parts of the undercity are described as big sandboxes with various competing factions – gaining some of these as allies will probably help a lot in the final assault.
It’s a decent completion to the adventure path. While the “main adversary” (or even the existence of such) only became clear at the end of the adventure path, the assault on the serpent stronghold contains quite a few interesting locations and the end is suitably cinematic. There’s nothing all that original here plotwise, but it’s fairly well plotted and has some freeform factors.
What about the “Serpent’s Skull” adventure path as a whole, now that it’s complete? I have to say it’s not all that good as a whole. The beginning is very good and the end is quite decent, but it loses focus in the middle parts. In hindsight, the middle section (arrival at the ruined jungle city) is the low point – instead of an exciting, mysterious bunch of ruins with a lot of Indiana Jones action, we get something that is, frankly, boring. The is no excitement, little mystery, and ridiculous amounts of repetitive combat with no clear goal or motive for the PCs, other than “explore and maybe find some loot”. The actual “main plot” only shows up in the last few episodes, and even there it’s a bit hit and miss. I can easily see the players going “screw this, we’re going home” well before they encounter the end game, or the “main plot” in the first place. Another negative is the fact that even though this thing is set in the “Africa” of Golarion (Pathfinder’s game world), there is precious little local color. The PCs are mostly white, the NPCs the same, and there is precious little “Africa” here other than a few gorillas and other jungle creatures. A lot of missed opportunity here.
It’s a pity, since the start is so good… but the meandering continuation, mostly invisible background/main plot and downright poor middle part more or less ruins this one. There is good stuff here, but unless your players absolutely love endless combat encounters, heavy rewrite is needed to make this playable as a whole.
Cult of the Ebon Destroyers is a standalone Pathfinder adventure module, set in Jalmeray (connected with the faux-Indian nation of Vudra). It’s written by newcomer Matthew Goodall, winner of the latest “RPG Superstar” contest at Paizo, and is quite decent without really breaking new ground. A mysterious death cult (maybe modeled a small bit after the historical Thuggees) is sowing discord in the area and apparently setting their sights on assassinating the local ruler. Since that ruler is quite a popular figure, a way must be found to stop the cult assassins and ideally destroy the whole cult. Enter the PCs!
It’s a competent adventure. There are some clues to be followed, which will (ideally) point toward the cult headquarters and a final battle with the cult leader. Nothing bad in that as such, but it feels a bit, well, “been there done that”. There wasn’t really anything here to excite me; the Indian-flavored locale brings some color into the thing, but otherwise it’s quite a straightforward affair. I would have liked to see more intrigue in something like this, instead of the more direct combat fest we get here.
The Thousand Fangs Below is the penultimate episode in the “Serpent’s Skull” adventure path, which has seem the PCs trudge off into the jungle in search of treasure, after a shipwreck on a tropical island. By this time they’ve gotten hints of a larger danger lurking (possibly asleep, possibly awakening) under the ruined jungle city of Saventh-Yhi, and also suspect that a Pathfinder is in trouble somewhere in the caverns under the city. The assumption is that the PCs will mobilize a rescue and/or looting mission. Seems reasonable, though which is the driving factor depends on the PCs of course.
This scenario is mostly underground action, but it’s not quite a dungeon crawl; the under-city is more of a large sandbox with multiple factions in conflict (much like the city aboveground), and the PCs are given a lot of plot freedom in how to proceed. Of course, since this is D&D, there’s a ton of combat involved, but the lack of traditional railroaded “dungeon crawl” is nice here. Also, many of the encounters can also be solved with diplomacy or cleverness instead of just hack & slash, so extra points for that.
Even though there’s nothing here that really made me go “wow, cool”, the design is solid and (as noted) quite freeform. It’s a logical continuation of the earlier parts, and has similarities with what the PCs have faced before. That may be a slight weakness, though, as the GM needs to be careful with PCs motivations here, otherwise they might just decide to pack up and go back home, tired of fighting endless hordes of monsters in the middle of the jungle.
The Godsmouth Heresy is a first-level “starter” adventure for Pathfinder, written by Rob McCreary and set in the city of Kaer Maga. It’s mostly a dungeon crawl, though it does have a non-dungeon starter bit and the adventure also has lots of tie-ins to the ”City of Strangers” book detailing the city, including some continuation ideas. That a nice detail, and in general the module is pretty nice as far as dungeon crawls go: the PCs have a clear reason to go “dungeon crawling”, and the bad guys has a semi-understandable motivation too. The are quite a lot of combat encounters here, but I guess that’s par for the course for a module like this. As a starter adventure it’s pretty good; not my favorite Pathfinder one by any means, but not the worst either.
The first reason that I’m not ranking this too high is simply the fact that it is, in the end, just a dungeon crawl. Those are a bit tired, in general. Of course, that’s a very subjective thing and it’s probably not fair to nag at a module that sets up to be a dungeon crawl for being exactly that. My other more serious problem with this is one of believability. We’re told that the place where the PCs are venturing is a tightly controlled crypt, used by a certain religious order for high-value burials. Fine. So why is the damn place so full of monsters that you can’t turn a corner without tripping over one? Do the priests normally do burial ceremonies of high-ranking, wealthy citizens under heavily armed escort? And why are the priests wondering about the disappearance of a few bodies anyway, seeing at the place is veritably a Grand Central Station as far as evil nasties are concerned? It doesn’t really ring true, all in all. Sure, it’s D&D so we’re supposed to forget anything even vaguely reminiscent of realism… but come on guys. There are limits to suspension of disbelief.