With The Varnhold Vanishing, the “Kingmaker” adventure path reaches its midpoint. Even though this adventure path is by design a non-linear sandbox, by this time it’s assumed that the PCs have carved out a fledgling kingdom for themselves (with some rules crunch help via a nifty “kingdom builder” minigame/ruleset). Things have been peaceful for a while, with “downtime” perhaps even lasting a year or so after the last major events (up to the GM). Of course, peaceful times never last in these things…
The next major crisis comes in the form of an event which hits the PCs’ eastern neighbor, Varnhold. Rumor has it that the colony has just… vanished. The buildings are still there, but no sign of the inhabitants. Yes, there are deliberate shades of the old Roanoke colony mystery here, as noted in the foreword, though I’m quite confident that the cause of that old event was very different than what’s given here. Anyway, it’s assumed the PCs will want to investigate, since anything that can wipe out a nearby colony will probably me a danger to them, too. If they don’t jump to the bait, you can always have one of their remote towns meet the same fate. ..
The backstory here is a bit weird (not giving any spoilers here), but it’s workable and does give the Paizo guys an excuse to set a very iconic Big Bad versus the PCs at a level when that sort of thing would normally totally crush them. With proper prep, this adventure has possibilities for some creepy investigative stuff, before the action kicks in. Not bad at all.
Since this is part of a sandbox toolkit, the GM is of course free to use this bit at whatever point (s)he wants; some adjustment of adversary strengths may of course be needed in that case.
City of Golden Death (written by Joshua J. Frost) is the finale of the three-part mini-campaign begun with Crypt of the Everflame and Masks of the Living God. I really liked those two, and this one does not disappoint either – all three are very different from each other in plot and tone, but still have links to each other and are designed to be run in sequence. It’s sort of like some the 1st edition AD&D series of modules, where the adventures were standalone but also a part of a series. In a way, this is something between a solo module and a larger “adventure path” series.
Of course, none of that matters is the adventures themselves are no good, or contain extremely weak links. No such problem here, City of Golden Death is a very nice finale to the series. Again, it’s quite different in tone to the previous two; here we have the PCs venturing into dangerous ancient ruins, trying to stop the plans of the main Bad Guy before it’s too late. It’s quite cinematic and “pulpy” in places, but in a good way. After the sneaky previous episode, the more straightforward plot here is probably a welcome change of pace. It’s assumed that the PCs will want to do their bit just because they are heroic, so the GM might need to dangle some additional carrots (or a big stick) to starts things off here. On the other hand, the previous adventure already assumed that the PCs had reason to act against the Cult of Razmir, so that motivation will probably just carry over to this one.
As for the “pulpy” bit… well, here the main locale is a place called (I kid you not) “Isle of Terror”. Subtle it’s not, and it’s also a bit cheesy… but hey, old D&D had the “Isle of Doom” (later also used in the Savage Tide adventure path), so it’s in good company.
If you’re looking for a nice mini-campaign for Pathfinder (or other D&D variant), you might want to check out this series of three adventures.
Rivers Run Red is part two of the Kingmaker adventure path, the first Paizo adventure path where they try for a more “sandbox” play style instead of the more linear traditional model. So far, so good; this part adds more pieces to the toolkit. Where part one saw the PCs enter the Stolen Lands with writs authorizing them to “tame the land”, and saw them pitted against local bandits and other small-scale dangers, here they are faced with the beginnings of a kingdom – and need to make lots of decisions concerning that. So that things aren’t too easy, some of the more heavyweight monster tribes in the region are getting set up to raise some trouble.
In addition to the adventure itself, the book also contains rules for kingdom building; it’s a sort of simplified medieval Sim City ruleset, where the players decide who gets put in charge of what (choosing which NPCs to give power to is very important) and what gets built where. The intention here is that there is lots of downtime between events in this adventure path. Months, maybe even years. This means that the PCs get to start building their kingdom and they also get to see the results.
While most of the stuff here (the kingdom rules, the event-based adventure main plot itself, etc) would need actual play to see how it works in practice, at least on paper it looks good. Paizo is going for something a bit different here, and some of the mechanics here have an almost “indie” feel. Oh, it’s still D&D, but it’s a bit of an unusual variant – usually the PCs don’t actually become rulers, and if they do, they don’t need to make actual long-term decisions.
Stolen Land is the first part of a new Pathfinder adventure path, “Kingmaker”. This is an interesting one, since to date the adventure paths have been extremely linear (something I’ve harped against at times, too). Sure, it’s understandable that if you want to have a huge overreaching plot and want to cover a lot of ground in a limited number of pages, you need to railroad to some extent and need to just assume the players do certain things. The problem, of course, is that players are notorious for doing everything but the thing the adventure and/or the GM has assumed. There is no real solution to this, as such; if you want a strict plot, you need to assume limited player choice (and lots of GM “push the PCs back on track” action). That can be quite ok, as long as everyone is one the same page and the players cooperate somewhat.
Of course, the “railroad” criticism is one that Paizo has heard, too, and this adventure path seems to be an experiment of sorts in building a “sandbox” adventure path. Instead of a strict linear plot, you have a series of encounters and events, all set in one large “sandbox” world area. In theory, it sounds very cool. Also, judging by this first installment, it may also turn out to be great in practice.
This start off with the PCs all being emissaries from Brevoy, sent into the lawless and ungoverned “Stolen Lands” with writs to explore and tame them (ideally helping Brevoy expand in that direction). This is a nice setup, as it solves the “why are the PCs together” and “what is the PC motivation” things in one go. If they do good here, they may end us as rulers of a new province. Of course, they are not the only such group; four other groups have been sent to other areas. This will probably lead to plot complications in later episodes.
As noted, it’s a sandbox adventure. The PCs are expected to base at a certain wilderness tavern/inn, since it’s pretty much the last bastion of civilization in the area – but nothing forces that. The inn does serve as launching point for some follow-up events, but if the PCs insist on camping in the woods for some reason there are multiple easy ways to involve them in things.
The area given to the PCs to explore and “tame” contains a large number of encounters and events. Some are minor, some more challenging, and some are interconnected to stuff I suspect will turn up again later. The main antagonists are a gang of brigands, led my a mysterious “Stag Lord”. It’s an interesting group of NPCs, and the leader is quite unusual – not quite your normal “big bad”.
An excellent fairly freeform low-level starter adventure, with five more installments to come (which hopefully keep up the good work).
Hollow’s Last Hope (written by Jason Bulmahn and F. Wesley Schneider & graced with the code “D0”) is the first published Pathfinder adventure – or more exactly is the first adventure in the line that later became “Pathfinder”, at this point it was just a line of adventures for D&D3.5 under Paizo’s “GameMastery” label.
This module was originally given out for free as part of “Free RGP Day” in 2007, and thus distributed in print form to some participating rpg stores. It was also available (and still is) as a free PDF download, so getting hold of it is easy… but getting hold of the print version is anything but. It took me almost 2 years of on-and-off eBay hunting to track down my print version.
It’s an intro adventure for 1st level (D&D) characters, and is quite decent at that. The town of Falcon’s Hollow (the target of multiple calamities in later Paizo modules) is suffering from a plague, and (surprise!) it’s up to a group of intrepid young adventurers to venture into the wilds in search of components for a cure. There are some ok wilderness encounters, and then a showdown at an old temple. What makes this adventure nice is that it ties in directly with Crown of the Kobold King (D1), which in turn can be followed up with both Revenge of the Kobold King (D1.5) (also a free download) and Hungry are the Dead (D4). So this can easily kick off a mini-campaign, with a unified plot and locale. Quite nice.
As a standalone, the adventure is ok but nothing really all that spectacular; it’s a straightforward “find some medicine ingredients and save the town” thingy.
Realm of the Fellnight Queen (written by Neil Spicer) is a mid-level standalone Pathfinder adventure – and a pretty good one, to boot.
The setup isn’t the most original of things: the PCs arrive in a small town for a wedding, and (surprise surprise) the town promptly comes under attack. To be fair, the module does suggest giving at least one of the PCs a tie to the town and a real reason to be there for the wedding, so it’s not as cliched as it could be. Anyway, naturally enough it’s up to the brave adventurers to save the day (isn’t it always), and off they go to figure out the strange mist that now surrounds the town.
The actual “meat” of the adventure is quite good stuff. There is a lot of forest to explore, and as a bonus not all of the encounters are combat ones. If the PCs play their cards right they’ll get information on who the actual Bad Guy here is, and how to get to her… which results in a raid to another dimension.
The author manages to pack quite a lot of stuff into a small page count, and I liked the varied nature of this adventure. There’s relaxed social stuff, some combat, some negotiation, and some exploration – something for all. I would have preferred for the Bag Guy to be a somewhat less “evil” character, some possible compromise in that direction would have made this even better… but of course, the GM can add that if needed. It’s also a page count issue, I guess, there’s a limit to how much you can cram into a 32-page module.
Not bad at all.
The Twice-Damned Prince, written by Brian Cortijo and James Jacobs, forms the finale of the Council of Thieves adventure path. The plans of the Bad Guys are fully set in motion (though in much-reduced form, thanks to probable PC interference), and the city of Westcrown is thrown into total chaos. If the PCs act smartly they may be able to turn the situation around, otherwise the Council of Thieves is the likely new ruling faction in the city.
Like the previous installment, this one also uses the city environment to good effect. The action is separated into various locales, and the whole thing is an event-based sandbox where the PCs can fairly freely decide what to do. Though there is a default sequence of events and most likely end scenario, the whole thing is quite flexible and the end result could be anything. As before, PC motivation depends strongly on their having close ties to the city, this is not an adventure path suitable for the usual “wandering hero” type (those would have left town long ago).
I like the fact that here, even if the PCs fail, the end result is just “a bunch of nasty guys take charge of a city”, instead of the all-too-often-seen “the world is doomed!” or “Evil Ancient Overlord enslaves everyone”. Those “save the world” things get old, after a while.
On the whole, the Council of Thieves did not quite live up to my expectations, but it still is a very good adventure path, easily among the better ones Paizo has done. It has some brilliant bits (the opera section is especially cool), but those are marred by lots of intervening mundane sections. Of course, everything depends on the GM and the group. Also, I’ve only read these things, not played them, so the actual in-play reality may be quite different to my impressions.
My favorite Paizo adventure path remains “Curse of the Crimson Throne”. We’ll see how the next one (Kingmaker) pans out; it looks promising based on what we know of it so far.
While starting out strong, the Council of Thieves adventure path became a bit overly conventional during the middle portions and (in my opinion) did not really make use of the city environment. This fifth part of the tale, Mother of Flies (written by Greg A. Vaughan), fixes that problem to some degree.
It’s slightly ironic that this adventure makes use of the city setting… by leaving the city altogether for small while. The initial portions here assume the PCs want to recruit the support of a presumably-crazy and possibly-evil witch (the titular Mother of Flies) who lives in a nearby wood, so in order to do that the PCs need to go on a short wilderness spree. This might result in hilarity if the PCs are totally city-bred and not too comfortable with the great outdoors. It turns out that the PCs aren’t the only ones interested in the witch, and a large battle is likely unless the players figure out something really sneaky.
In any case, the action soon returns to Westcrown, and the setup becomes more like what I had hoped from this series in general: a semi-freeform set of events and locations which the PCs can experience and/or visit, while trying to drum up support for their cause or to foil the plans of the Bad Guys. There are vampires on the loose, and the old problem of mysterious “shadow beasts” stalking the city night may finally get a solution (depending on the PC actions, naturally). All along this series the PCs have been getting “fame points” if they succeed in doing various things, presumably these will be important in the next & final part of this thing.
While not being anything spectacular, this installment is a nice toolkit for advancing the plot along, and is a quite welcome change of pace after the confined and dungeon-crawly mid portions. Running this adventure path will require PCs who really care about the city, otherwise I can easily see them packing up their toys and moving somewhere else. To Paizo’s credit, this was discussed at length in the initial setup of the series. GMs who ignored that advice will have to figure out their own sticks and carrots to keep the PCs interesting in saving the city.
Masks of the Living God (by Jason Bulmahn) is the second part of a new Pathfinder adventure trilogy which began with Crypt of the Everflame. I really liked that module and thought that it was an excellent 1st level starter adventure… and I’m happy to report that this “part two” keeps up the good work.
Here the PCs follow the clues about a new somewhat menacing religion centered around a “Living God” (clues found in the previous adventure), and find that the nearby city of Tamran houses a chapter of that cult. Here it’s assumed that the PCs will try to infiltrate the cult, posing as new recruits – but enough info is given here to fuel a more straightforward assault too (or a sneaky thief-style approach). Since the default is infiltration, a lot of good info is given here about NPCs and the normal operating procedures of the cult.
I always appreciate adventures which are something other than just “see-monster-kill-monster”, so this one gets high marks from me. The straightforward violence option would probably result in a total party kill anyway; both because they’d be fighting a full cult, and because the authorities (such as they are) would probably look very dimly on an armed assault on a (supposedly peaceful) religious cult in the middle of town. While infiltration is probably the most fun option, I can see a sneaky spy approach working pretty well too. The cult headquarters is well mapped out, and the key NPC personalities should help in fleshing out the place.
The adventure provides clues which lead on to the next and last part, the upcoming City of Golden Death. Based on the high quality of these two first installments, I have high hopes for that one. Regardless of that, these two should provide a very nice kickoff to a Pathfinder campaign, should you need that.
With The Infernal Syndrome, Paizo’s Council of Thieves adventure path moves into its second half. Written by Clinton Boomer and James Jacobs, the basic idea here is pretty fun: an ancient mansion in the city has been powered by an imprisoned devil, and the mechanism in charge of that is slowly breaking down with bad consequences for the city around it. Unfortunately, like the previous installment in this adventure path, this too ends up being one big dungeon crawl. It’s not a bad one, but still… one of the major points of this adventure path was supposed to have been the city setting. Even though the first parts used that to good effect, these middle ones could pretty much have been set anywhere. The city is supposed to slowly be sinking into anarchy, but here that’s only on the “tell, don’t show” level. Sure, the GM can add stuff to make that point, but… Curse of the Crimson Throne did that sort of thing much better, there the city really did feel like it was at the verge of collapse.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t bad, and the city around the mansion(s) does figure into things; it’s just seriously underused as a setting element. There’s more combat here than I’d like, but that’s a standard complaint I have about almost all “D&D”-style pregen adventures. It’s natural, these games are mostly fantasy combat simulators… but still. It gets a bit old.
To the writers’ credit, many of the encounters here can be solved by other means (than combat, that is), and some of the encounters are quite interesting. It’s an ok adventure module, but fails to really be anything special.