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.
Onwards to part four of the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. Vaults of Madness (written by Greg A. Vaughan) has the PCs located in the (previously) lost city of Saventh-Yhi, having (potentially) set up camp there and defeated the most obvious dangers. The past part ended with a seriously ill person wandering into their camp, here the PCs will likely figure out that the aforesaid person is a member of a bigger group, trapped somewhere under the city (along with vast treasures). Whether it’s for motivations of greed or altruism, it’s assumed that the PCs will attempt a rescue.
Of course, things aren’t quite so simple. The path to the lost party is less than clear (for various reasons). It seems probable that one of the “vaults” hidden under the city is involved, but which one? Naturally enough most of them are inhabited and guarded, so the PCs will either need to fight a lot of new foes or practice a lot of fast talk. Or both.
It’s an ok installment. It doesn’t really do anything new, just advances the main plot and expands the lost city in several ways. I liked some of the encounters that had a social element to them (the Gorilla King is especially fun), but many of them were more straightforward combat affairs. The action is mostly freeform here, with the PCs needing to explore in whatever fashion suits them to find what they are looking for, but there is also some railroading involved: whatever they do, the GM is instructed to have some certain events happen last. It’s an ok mechanic as long as it is kept hidden from the players, but it’s also possible to manipulate the sequence of events in other ways. On the other hand, there is no need for the PCs to go through all the encounters here. Personally, I’d just let them find stuff in whatever order they happen to find them, and if that results in them skipping (non-critical) stuff, then so be it.
While quite competent, this does feel like an “inbetween piece” in the story. I’m hoping things get more interesting in the last two parts.
City of Seven Spears (by James Jacobs, Kevin Kulp, and Rob McCreary) is the midpoint of the “Serpent’s Skull” adventure path, and also marks the point where the PCs reach their actual destination: the lost jungle city of Saventh-Yhi. Unsurprisingly, the city is not empty and the incoming PCs (along with other expeditions) have to deal both with each other and the older inhabitants of the city.
The main part of the adventure is a freeform “sandbox”. Each section of the city is described along with the inhabitants, and the PCs can explore as they will. While all too many encounters are boring old combat thingies, there is some opportunity for other interaction here too; assuming the PCs aren’t totally trigger-happy they might gain some (temporary or not) allies here and there. The city is divided into sections as part of the original design plan, with each section dedicated to a separate “ideal”, and the namesake “seven spears” refer to the seven towers which rise from the jungle, one per section. The towers have multiple functions, only some of which the PCs can expect to figure out at this time.
Towards the end the plot takes over from the sandbox a bit: there is a set event which triggers entry to the next part of the adventure, though the actual results aren’t set in stone. All in all, it’s a pretty free-form module, and while that also makes is a bit directionless it’s still a nice change from the linear tone there things so often take. This doesn’t save it, though: too many encounters are combat ones, and boring ones at that – pretty much all of the city section control triggers are “kill main boss X, who will not negotiate”, so the PC choices are reduced to “kill, or use mind-control magic”: Ho hum.
Exploration of an ancient, ruined jungle city should not be boring and mind-numbing. This, unfortunately, is just that in too many places. A sandbox can be good, but it has to be filled with interesting stuff and the PCs need clear motivations. Both are missing here.
The Witchwar Legacy is a standalone Pathfinder scenario, written by Greg A. Vaughan. It’s a “high-level” one, which unfortunately usually just means “half the module consists of multi-page stat blocks for ridiculously powerful creatures”. Thankfully, not so here.
The plot concerns the remnants of a long-ago war between powerful sorcerers (well, “witches”), where a witch daughter tried to rebel against her near-immortal mother, only to see her rebellion brutally squashed in a very “make an example of them” manner, and herself imprisoned or killed (history is not sure). All fine and good, but why does the mother have to be named Baba Yaga? What’s with Paizo using real-world mythology 1:1 in their game world (yes, the witch in question is from the frozen North, has a house that walks on chicken legs, yadda yadda). Some more originality, please! This is almost as bad as the Osirion “Egypt with the name tags only lightly sanded over” crap.
Oh well, ignoring that annoyance it seems like a nice module. There is some combat but fortunately that’s not all the content, much of the action also involves exploration of the permanently frozen waterfall/tomb left as memoir (and reminder) of the rebellion, housing the corpses of the rebel army and their families, along with several magically bound guardians. There are also some fun traps, and (of course) yet another powerful lost artifact.
A nice touch is having two separate parties aiming to loot the tomb/necropolis, and the PCs can join either one – this is much like the setup in the 2nd part of the “Serpent’s Skull” adventure path. Having the PCs go looting in the service of a powerful demon lord would be a nice, unusual touch.
Racing To Ruin (by Tim Hitchcock) is the second part of the “Serpent’s Skull” adventure path, and after the “marooned on a jungle island” start it fires off what seems to be the main theme of this adventure path: jungle exploration. Having gotten to “civilization” (of sorts), the PCs now have clues about the possible location of a lost city of the serpent people, presumably filled with riches. Tally ho!
While this is a fairly conventional scenario in many respects, it does have a nice sub-mechanic: there are multiple groups gunning for the same goal, and the PCs can choose to ally with any of them. The groups range from an “official” government expedition to groups of pirates and assassins, so what alliance the PCs choose can have impact on lots of things later on (and also in the short term). This alliance isn’t forced, the PCs are free to go at in on their own, they just won’t get any extra support if they decide to stay freelance – on the other hands, they won’t gain extra enemies, either.
The action mostly involves a long overland expedition, naturally with lots of natural and not-so-natural dangers along the way. Time matters here, since many other expeditions are also on the way, and the endgame depends a lot of who gets to the site first. The module gives very nice guidance on what the goals and specialties of each group are, so the GM doesn’t need to do too much hand-waving. While nothing awesome, this is a nice and well-designed continuation of the story.
Another month, another new Paizo adventure path. This new one is called “Serpent’s Skull”, and kicks off with the floridly-named Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv (written by James Jacobs). I had gotten an earlier impression of this adventure path being somewhat pirate-themed, but it’s actually more in the direction of jungle exploration and suchlike. It does begin with a nautical section, but that’s mostly prelude to the actual thing.
This is more a traditional design than the previous sandbox-style “Kingmaker”, but it does try to be some sort of a mix between the “sandbox” and “scripted” styles. There is a strong main plot, but a lot of the actual content is structured as events, many of them optional, with lots of PC choice. It’s a nice model, since it tries to grab the best points from both game styles… of course, how it works out in practice depends a lot on the GM and the players.
Anyway, the title refers to the remote isle of “Smuggler’s Shiv”, a (reputedly) uninhabited piece of land next to vast tracts of jungle, with a decidedly grim reputation. The seas nearby are extremely tricky to navigate and the area is full of shipwrecks – most sane mariners avoid the region; it’s dangerous and there is little reason to go there. Of course, the ship the PCs are on does go there (for reasons I will not spoil here), and things go wrong. Surprise, surprise. The actual game starts with the PCs stranded on a jungle island, needing to both take care of immediate survival and to figure out a way to get back to civilization. Of course, it isn’t that simple…
Based on this first segment, this looks to be another strong adventure path from Paizo. I’d venture a guess that later segments will feature a lot of old ruins, lost civilizations, deathtraps, and hostile jungle native. In other words, good pulp-flavored fun. I liked the structure here quite a bit: the events leading up to the starting situation can either be described or played through as a prelude, and a few other shipwrecked NPCs (with their own agendas) are provided. The island is fully mapped out and some specific more complex locations get their own writeups, but generally the PCs are free to work things out in whichever fashion seems smartest. The book even provides a mini-ruleset for camp building, so the PCs get mechanical benefits it they go about this “survival” business properly.
Expect to hear more than a few Lost jokes from your players on this one. Evil GMs may even include a polar bear.
Sound of a Thousand Screams forms the finale of the Kingmaker adventure path, and ends it in a quite satisfying fashion. By now, the PCs are expected to have formed their own fledgling kingdom, helped it grow, protected it from various threats, and even invaded some surrounding areas. In this final installment, the “bad guy” behind many past events steps into the spotlight, and the PCs need to venture into a different realm of reality in order to put an end to things.
The actual backstory deals with a First World fae, who lost her capacity for empathy (and other strong positive emotions) a long time ago, due to otherworldly power plays. She has been trying to “break through” in the “normal” world for ages now, and when this story begins has started to do so in earnest (since her earlier more subtle destabilizing attempts have presumably mostly failed). The adventure describes a sequence of strange otherworldly incursions, mostly hostile and all more than a bit weird, which can be located in whatever spots the GM feels appropriate (hints are given. though). It’s still a “sandbox” design, in this sense. In the end, the PCs will need to step over into a First World subrealm and combat its ruler, on her own ground. Easier said than done.
The descriptions of the First World subrealm (also continued in a separate article) are nice and imaginative, though I would have left out some of the out-of-other-books names like the Jabberwock. The whole thing has some small things in common with Exalted’s “Wyld”, though it differs in many fundamental ways. You could use some of the events and encounters here in an Exalted Wyld-based game, with some amount of conversion. In any case, it’s an opportunity to throw some very strange things at the PCs. The final encounter location seems quite tricky; the hoops the players have to jump through in order to get there in the first place, and then actually find the main boss, seem a bit extreme. On the other hand, the PCs are expected to be quite high-level at this point and to have a big bad of tricks available to them.
It’s a strong finish to a strong adventure path. My only real complaint here is that the main “big bad” of this series is virtually unknown to the PCs until the finale; even though some small hints to things can be found here and there, it’s still mostly things that only the GM will know, and it might leave the whole story arc feeling a bit disjointed. That’s the thing with sandboxes, though, you really can’t have a strong “main plot” with them, since that requires some bit of railroading. I think Paizo did a pretty awesome job here in writing a very flexible and big freeform campaign, while still keeping some sort of main backstory going.
The next adventure path is “Serpent’s Skull”, a (presumedly) more traditional pirate-themed 6-parter. Yarrr!
War of the River Kings (by Jason Nelson) forms the penultimate part of the sandboxy “Kingmaker” adventure path. It’s yet anoher strong segment, in fact I think it’s one of the best parts so far. As the name implies, war comes rolling in and the PCs (as assumed rulers of a small kingdom) need to do something about it. This book presents a ruleset for running mass combat in Pathfinder; I don’t play Pathfinder myself so I have no idea how workable it is, but it does look straightforward enough. Using that ruleset, you can actually run a small-scale war, with meaningful PC input, and have rules to resolve the battles. That’s very cool.
It’s not all warfare here; in fact, things start quite peacefully. The PCs are invited to an annual tournament organized by a nearby small kingdom, and are assumed to accept (though the module does discuss what happens if they refuse, also). Various things escalate, and pretty soon the PCs will (probably) have a war in their hands. They might be able to avert it, but it’s frankly unlikely and requires them to have set up quite a formidable intelligence network… not an impossible thing, of course.
The clues found here are mostly lead-ons to the last installment, in which the major Bad Guy (assumedly) takes center stage. Since that party have been operating “from the shadows” up to this point, it’s quite suitable to leave the resolution of that to the last segment. Of course, the GM has had lots of previous opportunities to sprinkle tiny clues here and there, which would give some foreshadowing.
I wasn’t quite sure how a “sandbox adventure path” would work as a concept, initially, but I’d say that Paizo has nailed it here. There are plot hooks galore and a ton of minor and major crisis events, but the PCs are still free to explore and do things at their own pace. I also like the fact that long periods of “downtime” are assumed (multiple years, at times). This makes the formation of a new kingdom into what previously was only forest much more believable, and it also gives the players a nice sense of accomplishment; a tiny trading post they established might blossom into a successful trading hub, for example. I also like the use of NPC lower-level leaders, and the importance of appointing them wisely.
There were some expectations set up for Curse of the Riven Sky, since it’s written by well-known rpg writer and designer Monte Cook. Unfortunately, it’s simply not very good, even ignoring who the writer is. Taking that into account… it’s quite a letdown, to be honest.
The plot feels like the author just threw together some “cool” ideas, without much rhyme of reason. There are spectral entities “from beyond”, rain that transforms into gelatinous cubes, flying castles (and air barges), angry giants… any of those might be fine by itself, but here it just feels like a collection of stuff that doesn’t fit together very well and is also an ill fit for Golarion (Pathfinder’s game world). It feels very much like an old AD&D module, and not in a good way. The main backstory driver is a horde of extradimensional cats, for fuck’s sake, and it doesn’t get very much better from there. It’s also extremely linear.
It’s not all bad, of course. The beginning hook is nicely open and designed to be integrated smoothly into an ongoing campaign, and many of the minor events are ok as such. It’s just that the whole here is much less than the sum of its parts.