Forest of Spirits starts the second half of Jade Regent, and also switches gears a bit from the first half, with the PCs finally arriving in Minkai. There is initial potential here, but unfortunately I have to say that this module has problems and consists mostly of wasted potential.
The beginning isn’t that bad. The PCs arrive in a strange little autocratic kingdom, and quickly become guests of the ruler. There is room for social maneuvering here, but the the whole segment is a bit disjointed. The ruler is in many regards a monster, executing people just for fun and ruling by pure whimsy. However, the who segment is more concerned with making him a somewhat humorous figure, which is a total waste here. Little-to-no mention is made of any local resentment against the ruler, one assumes they are fine with him executing people left and right on a whim.
After that part, we get a (kitsune) escort, who takes the PCs to the mysterious titular “Forest of Spirits” – a forest haunted with ancient spirits, which try to take over travelers and cause various sorts of mischief. And sure, some light use of this is made in the module… until it’s quickly dumped for what is essentially a dungeon crawl. Two factions have been going at each other for 60 years (if I recall), and the PCs are thrust in the middle of the conflict. Two problems: one, who continues a stalemate battle for a specific site for 60 years? Even though some of the inhabitants are supernatural, that’s still a stupidly long time to be stuck in a stalemate. Second, and more important: why disregard the whole interesting “forest full of ancient spirits” concept, and fill most of the module with a combat fest dungeon crawl (“temple crawl” more exactly)? It’s boring, adds little to the story except some needless underlining of how “evil” the oni are (yes, yes, we get it already). There’s too much combat and too little anything else.
So… if you’re the type who plays D&D for the combat encounters – and to be fair, lots of people seem to be in that category – you’ll probably like this. I thought it was largely a waste of otherwise interesting scenery, and would have much preferred something which actually used the “forest of spirits” environment in some real fashion. Meh.
The Hungry Storm (by Jason Nelson) brings us to the halfway point in the Jade Regent adventure path. We were promised a road trip of sorts in this adventure path, and this installment delivers on that.
The PCs travel across the “Crown of the World”, a mountainous arctic region separating major continents. The adventure assumes that the PCs keep their caravan along with them, and plays heavily on the “caravan rules” subsystem introduced in the earlier modules. Players who enjoy some amount of strategy and logistics will probably like this element a lot, players who want everything to be directly resolved via their characters’ superpowers without any metagame in between will probably hate it. Fortunately, the caravan stuff can be stripped out if the PCs have decided to go it on their own or if the players are likely to hate it – though in that case, the players will have to come up with some semi-believable arctic survival schemes for their characters. Since we’re talking about vast distances across arctic plains here, “we just walk and carry our stuff” may not be realistic. That said, D&D has never exactly relied on “realism” to begin with… and anyway, I’m not quite sure how a caravan (with wheeled wagons) would realistically fare on such wastes.
Plotwise it’s mostly good. There’s an initial encounter with an arctic tribe, with lots of opportunities for social roleplaying. Depending on how that bit goes, the PCs may get either some help or some major obstacles on their way. It’s assumed here that the PCs involve themselves with what’s going on in the village, if they don’t then the first portion of the adventure will be skipped – but that does give the GM ammo to make their trip very difficult later. Of course, forcing the PCs to do certain things, even if you do it in a roundabout way, may feel like railroading, so a light GM touch is needed here.
After the semi-freeform beginning, the PCs are strongly guided towards a mysterious tower, which is a bit disappointing: it’s essentially a dungeon crawl, with tons and tons of combat. To my taste, this is a bit boring compared to the much more interesting beginning setup for it. Oh well, combat can always be reduced or eliminated completely if needs be.
The end has them surviving the arduous trek across the wastes, with (likely) some unscheduled reroutes along the way. Overall, I mostly liked this adventure, it delivers on the “road trip” concept and I liked the logistical needs of the caravan subsystem (though I’m sure some others will strongly disagree). My only minus is the overly combat-oriented section in the middle, I would have preferred something more subtle and puzzle-oriented there.
Night of Frozen Shadows (part 2 of Jade Regent, written by Greg A. Vaughan) is one of those adventures that sound like they’ll either be awesome or tragically bad, based on main idea: this thing has vikings and ninjas. Ninjas and vikings! They go together like… well, they don’t. Not really. Except that here, they kindasorta do.
The plot has the PCs taking a caravan to travel up north, to the frozen
Viking Ulfen lands, in search of a guide to take them over the mountains to lands unknown. The caravan, though skippable, is very nicely detailed – there are lots of NPCs and some minor intrigue. I can see a game session being spent just in the caravan stuff, for some groups. Of course, some PCs will skip that and go on their own, and for those this is arguably wasted word count. I liked it though, it continued the emphasis on NPC relations and social dynamics from part one.
Once they reach Kalsgard, the game changes. Here they need to find a suitable guide, and unfortunately those are rare. As in, none to be found. Except for that one guy, who has recently vanished… I’m sure you can already sense the PC plot hook. So the PCs are forced into so local intrigue, with an interesting twist: there is a subsystem (using “notoriety points”) which determines what moves the antagonists do. If the PCs keep quiet and do their investigations on the sly, they might not raise any alarms. If they are loud and violent (and PCs tend to be)… well, they’ll get ninjas. And other nasty stuff.
Despite the wtf-inducing “vikings and ninjas!” combo, the whole thing is actually very good. There’s a lot of emphasis on NPC relations, as noted, and the optional-event-based structure of events at Kalsgard makes the whole thing quite free-form. Of course, it’s assumed that they’ll hunt down one specific guide – if they insist that they can just go out on their own (or make do with some poor substitute), the GM should be free to show them what happens to random wanderers in the northern mountain wastes. On the other hand, if would probably be reasonable to let them proceed however they like; just be sure to make things significantly harder for them later on if they insist that a good guide is optional.
So far, Jade Regent looks like a very nice “road trip” adventure.
Feast of Ravenmoor is a nice little mystery adventure for Pathfinder. A tax collector has gone missing in a remote, rural village, and the PCs are sent to investigate. Needless to say, there is something nefarious going on. I liked the fact that there is a large investigative aspect to this module, and also lots of room for social maneuverings. For a “D&D” module, the combat is mostly in the background here – though there are of course combat encounters sprinkled here and there.
There is a scene right at the beginning which sets the tone. Without spoiling it, it’s a sort of set-up for the PCs: if they react as normal D&D PCs would, the results will be bad for them. It’s a nice scene, but does need some deft GM description, since the PCs do need clear clues that something is not quite normal here. While there are shades of “The Wicker Man” here and there, the plot isn’t a direct copy from anything.
The Brinewall Legacy (written by James Jacobs) starts off the latest Pathfinder adventure path: “Jade Regent”. In the long run it heads off towards the “Orient” of Golarion, but it starts off in Sandpoint – the same seaside town that featured in the first independently published Pathfinder adventure, “Rise of the Runelords”. Having a copy of that handly will help a bit here, since though the module contains some basic description of Sandpoint, the older module has a lot more detail which can be used to enhance things.
Things start off with a goblin hunt in a nearby swamp. Not the most illustrious of beginnings, but it escalates from there. Turns out a friend of the PCs has a mysterious family past which comes back to haunt her (and other people around her), and she badly needs friends to sort things out. Enter the PCs! This module ties in with the new “We Be Goblins!” Free RPG Day module in which the players play as goblins (providing some out-of-game background for some events here). Events lead the PCs to an old destroyed settlement, and the hidden history of how and why that settlement met its doom.
It’s a nice start, and the main plotline shows promise. The “hook” in the beginning is maybe a bit weak (what if the PCs aren’t interested in goblin hunting?), but that can be maneuvered around in multiple ways. The interesting thing here is the cast of NPCs – they are all given extensive writeups, and there is a “trust” mechanic for tracking how each NPC feels about each specific PC… and this can have direct mechanical consequences later on. It’s also assumed that the PCs go off “adventuring” together with many of these NPCs, which adds a new dimension to things. None of then are high-level, so it avoids the trap of “uber GM characters”. Neither are they pushovers, and they all have some agendas of their own. I liked this a lot.
It seems like this adventure path will feature a lot of wilderness travel. Here’s hoping it pulls it off better than “Serpent’s Skull”, which (I felt) severely underused the possibilities of its “exploring unknown jungle” premise.
Shadows of Gallowspire (by Brandon Hodge) concludes the “Carrion Crown” adventure path. It’s… ok, I guess. Way too much combat for my taste, but that’s a common complaint I have with Pathfinder stuff, especially the ends of adventure paths where smart plots are often somewhat pushed aside by “lvl N” combat encounters. That’s not to say that there is no plot here, it’s just that when reveled, the whole plot of the adventure path is somewhat… lacking. The main villain is introduced way too late in the show (the writers realized this in hindsight, and provide hints on how to foreshadow things), and in the end the plot comes down to “prevent yet another liche from getting created”. While that’s a fine goal, it’s a bit of a letdown compared to the buildup – especially since the bad guy has been mostly invisible to the PCs up to now.
Those quibbles aside, it’s a competent end game to the series. The PCs pursue the leadership of the Whispering Way to a cursed cathedral sanctuary, and force the hand of the main bad guy – who makes a desperate bit, with somewhat unintended consequences. Lots of combat ensues. While the end wraps things up to a large degree, there are plenty of open questions available if the GM wants to continue the campaign after this (and the book also provides a bunch of continuation ideas).
As a whole, the “Carrion Crown” path ended up being somewhat uneven. The first half was quite excellent Gothic-flavored fun, somewhat in the manner of old Ravenloft with some smarter plotting added to the mix. The second half, though, was significantly weaker. Not bad by any means, but a bit lacking when compared to the great beginning. Still, I guess I can recommend this adventure path, even as a whole. GMs thinking of running this as advised to read the whole thing first, so they can insert some much-needed foreshadowing into the earlier chapters – otherwise the PCs may end up quite confused about what’s going on and ill-motivated to continue.
We Be Goblins! (by Richard Pett) is Paizo’s 2011 “Free RPG Day” module (available free for PDF download), and it’s quite hilarious. In a “now for something completely different” twist, it has the players play as goblins – crazy, evil, homicidal goblins – given a task by their clan chief to retrieve a huge stash of fireworks from a wreck in a swamp (or die trying). So off they go, on a (not very epic) quest to gain some (not very awesome) firepower, and to cause general mayhem. It’s a short module, as all the Free RPG Day ones are, but still contains a lot of content and should be more than enough to fill a long play session.
As an extra bonus, it also links in with the latest adventure path, “Jade Regent”. The same group of shipwrecks which serve as targets here are also at the root of the main plot in that adventure path, and a creative GM could even have the (non-goblin) PCs there encounter the goblin PCs presented here.
The module has four ready-to-play goblin characters, and since it’s available as a free download, all you really need to run this is a copy of the main Pathfinder core book.
Ashes At Dawn (by Neil Spicer) forms the penultimate chapter in the Carrion Crown storyline. It involves vampires, and does something moderately interesting for “D&D”-style games: it has the PCs ally (temporarity) with a group of strictly evil creatures, vampires in this case. The module does have sidebars on “what if the PCs refuse?”, but most of the action revolves around the assumption that they’ll choose the lesser of two evils: alliance with vampires in order to chase down an even more evil group. This is all fine and good, but I guess I’m a bit spoiled by White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade and other such games… the vampires here are simplistic creatures, and their “politics” are laughable compared to most World of Darkness vampires. Still, the whole setup is somewhat refreshing here, and lends a small bit of “shades of grey” into the whole thing.
Most of the action takes place in the city of Caliphas, where an unknown killer is apparently stalking the local vampire population. While this would normally be something to cheer about, here the local vampires are in possession of some critical information. So it becomes a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll stab yours”… or something in that vein. While most of the storyline is fairly coherent and interesting, there is one major “huh?” factor here: once the PCs realize they may need to ally with the vampires, they are given ways to arrange a meeting. After having arranged that, they get pointed towards a certain location for the meeting… which is a monster/guardian -infested place the PCs must fight through in order to meet the vampires. This makes zero sense; if the vampires really want to meet, they should just arrange a meeting somewhere neutral(ish). If not, why point the PCs towards their own lair instead of some other random deathtrap? It comes off as the classic D&D syndrome of having to have combat in every encounter, I’m not sure if the writers can even imagine a meeting scene without some amount of forced “combat encounters” along the way. It’s stupid and tired, but hey, that’s D&D for you (and yes, Pathfinder is D&D).
That niggle aside, it’s a decent enough adventure.
The Harrowing is a standalone Pathfinder module with a very “Alice in Wonderland” feel and theme. In a good way. Written by Crystal Frasier, it focuses on the “Harrow deck”, a cultural staple on Golarion (and also available from Paizo as a real deck of cards). A form of tarot, it’s mostly used to tell fortunes (using real mystical powers or the powers of fakery, as needs be). Here, artifact Harrow deck, created by a legendary Varisian fortune-teller, is the catalyst for the story: the PCs end up dumped on a mystical demi-plane related to this deck, having to battle weird creatures and needing to figure out how to get home. So yes, a variant of Alice, without Alice herself or rabbits with watches.
It’s a fun humorous romp. Unlike the old “Dungeonland” module from TSR, this is not a total joke adventure; while some creatures in the demi-plane are decidedly strange and act in weird ways, they are not there as jokes. There is a somewhat grim backstory to it all, and a lot of puzzle-solving to do. GMs can also use a “real” Harrow deck as a game artifact, since the module provides handy hooks for that all over the place. All in all, a very nice stand-alone module in the “now for something a bit different” vein. This probably slots best into some of the adventure paths which also use a Harrow deck, to provide thematic continuity.
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.