Well, I must admit Into the Nightmare Rift was a disappointment. It’s not the first time Paizo has done Cthulhu mythos (literally), many of the writers there are fans of Lovecraft (and Call of Cthulhu) and are quite open about it. Paizo includes side notes about where the material is coming from, and recommends trying out CoC… so no complaints there, that’s the correct way to do things. My complaints this time are with how the material is used.
This segment of the Shattered Star adventure path sends to PCs to Leng (of said Lovecraft fame). Now, this “evil un-Earthly plateau” has featured in many stories and games, so I was interested in seeing what Paizo does with it. Well, guess what they did with it here? Right, a dungeon crawl. Sure, it’s set on Leng, but the only way that actually manifests is the inclusion of a few Mythos creatures, otherwise is’t yet another indoor combat-fest. Talk about misuse of Lovecraft’s setting. There’s so much they could have done here, and maybe as part of another adventure path they might have. But here, in Paizo’s dungeon-crawl -themed path? Total waste.
It’s not all bad, of course. The beginning has a few fun bits featuring some fire giants and an old buried ruin (which is actually an old research station), and I guess as a dungeon crawl the Leng bit isn’t that bad either. Still a waste.
While Paizo’s standalone Pathfinder adventure modules have generally been fun, they’ve always been hampered by their very limited page count. All too often, there just wasn’t any way to add needed detail into the meager 32 pages provided, leading to lots of good design ideas with problematic execution. Paizo has apparently realized that this is a problem, and changed the whole line to a reduced schedule but doubled page count. Now, with 64 pages, these things can contain at least as much material as an adventure path episode, which should be good.
The first of these bigger adventures is The Dragon’s Demand, a (mostly) town-based adventure for 1st level characters (which should take them to level 7 or thereabouts). It’s a decent offering, but unfortunately isn’t anything all that special. The main plot has an old ramshackle tower at the outskirts of town suddenly collapse, with strange non-human bodies found in the rubble. Also, the local wizard (who has always complained about said tower blocking his view) has gone missing. Oh, and there are rumors of an old draconic menace makings its return. There are fun plot elements here, but unfortunately the execution doesn’t quite follow through.
First off, the town is presented with excellent detail – as far as the buildings and their contents go. However, for some bizarre reason, only a few major NPC are named and details, leaving the GM with the work of providing names and backgrounds for everyone else. This can be an annoying chore. Then there is the matter of over-abundant combat encounters, something that plagues all too many Pathfinder modules (and, to be fair, most D&D modules in general). Maybe it was from a need to give enough exp to push the PCs to the design-mandated level 7 neat the end, but it any case it’s a bit overboard. Finally, even though the main bad guy has a good back story, it’s unlikely that the PCs will get to discover that, let alone interact with the bad guy before the final big battle. This could have been done better.
It’s not bad. But neither is it anything really good, with anything to raise it above mediocrity.
Doom Comes To Dustpawn is a compact Pathfinder module which mixes in pulp science fiction, of all things. A strange “meteor” has crashed near a small town, and the locals are reporting strange effects. Groups heading off to check the thing out do not return, and something seems to be approaching the town. Something not friendly.
In other words, is a classic B-movie “alien invasion” scenario, set in D&D environs. There’s a back story which explains things and sets them in a suitable context for Golarion, though how much the PCs will ever find out about the real back story is a bit of an issue. Not that it matters all that much. Part of the adventure is site-based, but there’s also an event-based structure in place since the PCs will be on a (loose) timetable here before all hell breaks loose. There’s a lot to like here; the structure is fairly loose and lets the PCs proceed in a variety of ways, and the plot throws some surprise curves at them – this isn’t quite the standard “aliens invade” scenario. The only weakness, really, is the opening hook. It’s a bog-standard and boring “stranger X hires you to investigate Y” thing. The module might work better if the PCs were to be involved with events right from the start, though that may require some tweaks to the structure.
Overall, a strong entry from Mike Welham, the winner of the 2012 “RPG Superstar” contest (run by Paizo to hook in new talent). For such a compact adventure, it’s refreshingly free-form in structure.
The Asylum Stone brings the dungeon-crawly “Shattered Star” adventure path to the halfway point, and also to the city of Kaer Maga. It’s a fairly interesting but quite complex city, and this adventure maybe tries to do a bit too much with it, being separated into multiple stand-alone set pieces with only loose links in between. There are also some questionable assumptions made about that the PCs will do – this whole thing feels like something that the GM will need to flesh out quite a bit to make it run organically.
All that said, the set pieces are pretty cool. There’s an assault on a mage’s cliffside mansion, which as a setting opens up a lot of fun options (both for combat and for infiltration in general). Then there’s the end portion, which happens in a strange sub-realm with powerful guardians; it’s quite atmospheric and would probably be good fun. The bits in between though, the “glue” as it were, is a bit more shaky and is unlikely to unwind the way the writer envisions. Part of this is due to page count, of course, there’s no way to fully detail all the PC options, even the likely ones, in a big sandbox area like Kaer Maga.
So, with the caveat that quite a bit of GM extra work will probably be required here, this is a decent adventure module with a few quite interesting set pieces. I’m still not sold on this adventure path as a whole, there’s too much unimaginative dungeon crawl involved., but bits and pieces of this are quite nice.
Fangwood Keep is a standalone Pathfinder module, featuring stealth and infiltration in addition to combat. In that sense, it has some similarity to the earlier Tower of the Last Baron. This one is much more stealth-based, though, and has less social interaction.
The main plot centers on an old military tower, set in the middle of a warzone between two hostile nations. A renegade lieutenant has seized control of the tower, and the PCs are recruited to scout out the situation and correct it, if possible. This works best if the PCs are actually employed by one of the nations in question, but standard “here’s a big reward” adventurer lures should also work. Of course, the real situation is a bit more complex than expected, and the PCs can easily end up in over their heads unless they are careful.
It’s a nice module, in that it really lets careful tactics and sneakiness pay off. There’s also an old-school vibe here, in the “old tower occupied by hostile forces” sense, quite a few old D&D modules had something like that. Nothing spectacular, but a good solid module that caters to various play styles.
While I found the first part of the “Shattered Star” adventure path to be too much of a dungeon crawl for my taste, Curse of the Lady’s Light is much more to my taste. Sure, it’s still a dungeon crawl (I’m given to understand that’s the theme of this adventure path), this is a damn good dungeon crawl. The thing that makes it rock is a bunch of good NPCs, with relevant non-combat interaction – even one of the main “bad guys” is actually someone you could reason with, and maybe arrive at a deal. The beginning has two different tribes of swamp creatures, and the PCs have the option of dealing with one, both, or neither of them. After that, they have to deal with the now-exiled Gray Maidens (see the old “Curse of the Crimson Throne” adventure for details on them), which is both interesting gameplay-wise and interesting from a campaign history viewpoint: this adventure path is intended to be a continuation of sorts to both “Rise of the Runelords” and “Curse of the Crimson Throne”, and links like the Gray Maidens go a long way towards realizing that continuation.
The name of the adventure comes from “The Lady’s Light”, a Statue of Liberty -style ancient statue which, of course, holds all sorts of stuff inside (the aforementioned “dungeon crawl”, to begin with). It’s at least an interesting place to put a “dungeon”, I’ll give them that.
While I’m not wild about the “fetch six McGuffins” main plot, and about dungeon crawls in general, I have to give credit where credit is due: this episode is quality stuff. Hack & slash PC groups can keep on hacking and slashing, while more subtle parties are given lots of additional options.
Extra points for a very nice trap, which may have (fun) repercussions for the whole rest of the adventure path.
Shards of Sin kicks off the “Shattered Star” adventure path, which is supposed to feature a hunt for six pieces of an ancient artifact. As such, that sounds more than a bit clichéd, “find the pieces of ancient artifact McGuffin” has been a staple plot of rpgs (and some bad fantasy books) for ages. Ok, so the main “big plot” promises to be a bit… worn, no worries…. this first installment is supposed to be a city-based adventure based in Magnimar. Sounds decent.
Unfortunately, we don’t get a city-based adventure. We get some initial setup scenes in the city, but the bulk of the adventure is one huge dungeon crawl. Sigh. While I’m sure there are lots of people who love their dungeon crawls, it’s not like there’s a shortage of them in Paizo adventures. It’s lazy writing; it’s easier to just plop down a “dungeon” with lots of combat encounters than it is to design a more fluid plot and setting.
It’s not all bad. In fact, I wouldn’t call this adventure “bad” at all, just… mediocre and missing a lot of potential. As noted, the main “big plot” is somewhat tired, and relies on PC greed/curiosity as main plot drivers. Ok, to be fair, there is a strong Pathfinder Society connection, so “quest for personal fame” is a good motivator too. The initial part of the module is also the best part; it features the criminal underground of Magnimar and has some (small) opportunities for non-combat encounters. After that, though, we get the huge dungeon crawl thingy… which isn’t bad either, for a dungeon crawl, and is more logical than many (the backstory is somewhat interesting there).
In the end, this is a ho-hum start to an adventure path with a ho-hum main plot. Not an auspicious beginning, especially since usually the beginning tends to be the best part in these things. We’ll see. Maybe this adventure path will break the usual pattern, and get better as it goes along.
From Hell’s Heart concludes the “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and does it with a style consistent with the earlier installations. In other words, it’s pretty good, and forms a satisfying conclusion to the story – though one with lots of continuation possibilities if needs be.
With their previous nemesis dead or at least beaten, the PCs should now be poised to step into a leadership role in the Shackles. About time, too, since there is now a huge fleet sailing in their direction, with the intent of getting rid of the “pirate menace” once and for good. If things go the way they are most likely to go, the adventure path will culminate with an epic-scale naval battle which will decide the fate of the region (and the PCs) once and for all. While it’s expected that the PCs (and their allies) win the day, it’s always possible that it’s not their day. In this case, the PCs may have to fleet the Shackles, maybe for good.
While there isn’t anything overly clever here, it does form a fitting culmination of the story. Overall, I’ve liked “Skull & Shackles” quite a bit, it seems like a nice balance of sandboxy piracy and loosely connected plots and set pieces. This based on reading, of course, these things may work very differently in actual play.
The Price of Infamy is the next-to-last portion of the piratical Skull & Shackles adventure path. It follows the high quality of the previous episodes, making this a fantastic adventure path (at least so far).
Events up to now have left the PCs with their own (fortified) island, and a powerful enemy with a grudge. Combine these two, and you get an invasion fleet header for the PC’s home base. Cue desperate scrambling in order to gather up enough of a defensive force to win the naval battle. Lots of diplomacy and use of past contacts is needed here, unless the PCs have somehow managed to gather a sizable fleet for themselves before this. The naval battle itself is handled by an abstract rule set, no idea how well it works in practice but the idea itself is good: resolve the “large scale “action with mass (naval) combat rules, and then put the spotlight on the PCs and their melee with the enemy fleet leaders. It sounds like fun, in any case.
After this is dealt with, the second half of the module deals with the PCs’ reprisal attack on the enemy’s home base. This is a more traditional affair, made a bit more interesting with the introduction of certain traitorous parties and and the fact that the way the PCs approach the raid will have a huge effect. The default assumption is that the PCs will try for a commando-style raid, but they are of course free to go for an overt mass assault instead (which is likely to be an uphill slog for them).
It’s a fun-sounding episode to a very entertaining story. As before, there are assumptions about what the PCs will do, but the GM is given some tools to handle them doing something totally different. For example, while it’s a given that an attacking fleet is coming for them, how they prepare is up to the PCs. It’s assumed that they will want to deal with their old enemy once and for all after this, but if they elect to do something else the GM can just save the second half for later (or not run it at all, in some cases). It’s more constrained in some ways than the earlier portions of the story, but it’s not a railroad either.
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.