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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Shifting Sands (Pathfinder "Mummy's Mask" 3/6)

Shifting Sands finally moves the “Mummy’s Mask” into its main plotline, a bit belatedly in my opinion. Here, the PCs search for an ancient vanished library in order to do some research about what they are up against. This is a refreshing change of pace from the normal “kill stuff and take loot” approach taken in D&D -style modules. In order to find the library, there is an initial “wilderness hex crawl” section which is potentially quite nice, though the GM would need to keep tight control on the game flow in order not to frustrate the players. One small problem is that the encounters here have little to no connection with the main plot, so they should be kept to a small number. Then, later, in the library, the module has a research minigame to reflect how well they do. And, of course, there’s combat.

It’s not bad at all, and as noted finally zeroes in on the “main plot”, which has been quite elusive and mostly invisible to the players up to now. There is a fun NPC here, but since it’s a single central figure, care should be taken not to make the NPC a source of frustration – the PCs will need to handle social interactions carefully, here. Of course, the fact that the module has social interaction and not just endless combat is a plus point.

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Minireview: Empty Graves (Pathfinder "Mummy's Mask" 2/6)

Empty Graves continues the “Mummy’s Mask” storyline, and after a lackluster first episode I have to say that this is more like it. It’s not problem-free, but at least it now starts the actual main plot (though that is still quite hidden to the players).

The events of the first episode triggered an attack on the city of Wati by and undead horde, and the PCs are expected to track down the source. On the plus side, this opens up Wati into a nice sandbox environment and expands on the (somewhat meager) location selection of the first adventure. There are neat little set pieces, and the fact that there are multiple plot lines running at the same time gives the GM some help for providing events for the PCs to tackle. On the minus side, I have a slight problem with PC motivation here; in the beginning, they are expected to be tomb raiders (of sorts), and now they are suddenly expected to save the city? Why don’t they just say “well, screw this!” and get the hell out of Dodge? Some GM intervention may be needed there. Also, I’m a bit worried that the main plot is too obscured here, and that the players will probably finish this with (still) no real idea of what is going on. This is not good for player buy-in. In any case, it’s a decent module and better than part one at least.

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Minireview: The Half-Dead City (Pathfinder "Mummy's Mask" 1/6)

Ok, start of a new adventure path from Paizo. This time it’s the Egyptian-themed (sorry, “Osirian-themed”) “Mummy’s Mask”, kicking off with The Half-Dead City. While there’s potential here, it ends up being a fairly “meh” affair, unfortunately.

The PCs play “tomb raiders” of a sort; the half-necropolis town of Wadi holds a lottery allowing explorers to venture out into the tomb complex (for reasons which didn’t really seem all that believable to me, but whatever). There are multiple parties on site, so the PCs have plenty of opportunities to interact with other raider/explorer groups. They get send to various tombs, and while the encounters there are ok, there’s little to really grab the attention. Also, I would have liked to see more general encounters and events in Wadi, not just a bunch of tombs and a “mission hub”.

The biggest problem is that this whole thing has almost nothing to do with the main plot. It’s not bad, and neither is it especially good, mostly it’s just irrelevant.

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Minireview: City of Locusts (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 6/6)

In City of Locusts, the “Wrath of the Righteous” storyline culminates in an assault on the demonic City of Locusts, the stronghold of demon lord Deskari. It’s decent, there are some interesting bits here, but at the same time it’s a bit of an anticlimax after all the “mythic” stuff the PCs have been doing leading up to this. The plot has the PCs concentrate on things they, frankly, should not have to deal with at this power level, and despite most of this adventure being a high-power combatfest, it’s still a bit lacking in the “grand finale” department. It’s not bad by any means, just not all that it could have been.

Still, this adventure path as a whole ended up being a lot better than I imagined it to be. That has less to do with the “mythic” power level angle than with the fact that it was, overall, very well written and had a lot of small details I liked. The “in medias res” start was great, and I also liked that there were several LGBT major NPCs in the mix, without much fuss being made about their sexual orientations. I also liked the fact that there was room for non-combat solutions for problems, here and there, even with demons.

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Minireview: Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 5/6)

Here, in Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path winds up for the finish, with a side quest – but a fairly cool one, in which a goddess asks the PCs for help in raiding a demon lord’s realm and rescuing (or destroying) a corrupt Herald of hers. It’s extremely high-power stuff, as befits the “mythic” theme of this adventure path.

While it’s more combat-heavy than I prefer (hey, it’s a raid on a demon lord), it’s still nicely freeform in places and the PCs get a lot of freedom in how they approach the problem; anything from direct attack to sneaky attack can work, but both need solid tactics. There’s also the option of gaining allies (of sorts) within the “prison” where the Herald is being kept, so it’s not necessarily all combat. The setting is nicely weird, and there are some unexpected bits here and there. While as a whole it’s a side quest from the main plot, it’s a nice warm-up for the upcoming finale.

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Minireview: The Midnight Isles (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 4/6)

The Midnight Isles continues the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, and does a fairly good job in keeping the story going. This time, the PCs are expected to raid a demonic subrealm to stop the new source of power used by the demons in their war of conquest. In a way, it’s a bit less “mythic” than the predecessors in this path, in that the PCs “just” go to sabotage a production facility, something that is somewhat on the sidelines of the main plot. On the other hand, it does take place in a sub-realm and features all sorts of mythic-level encounters, many of which need to be negotiated with (ideally, at least) instead of the normal brute force approach. This is good. The whole thing is fairly freeform; while it’s no sandbox it does leave the PCs quite a bit of leeway on how they want to approach things.

Nothing spectacular, but quite a solid showing here. This adventure path continues to be better than I expected.

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Minireview: Demon's Heresy (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 3/6)

Demon’s Heresy is the midpoint of the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, and it eases up the pace quite a bit. Where the first chapter had the PCs reacting as survivors and the second had them go on the offensive against the demon horde, this third part is more of a sandbox affair. They’ve secured their hold on the city of Drezen, and now need to venture out into the wilds of the Worldwound to seek out certain new McGuffins and seek new possible allies (and clues to how the demons might be stopped).

It’s pretty nice. The fact that it’s more a sandbox than a linear affair is good, since the previous events have been much more linear. The encounters are quite interesting generally, and the NPCs are nicely written and have varying motivations (sometimes very much against stereotype). Of course, the dangers of a sandbox exist here also; without good GM guidance this can devolve into a boring “wander around the wastelands aimlessly” affair. PC motivations and plot flow will probably need some GM tweaking here and there. In any case, the design here is quite solid, and while there is some “dungeon crawl” involved it’s not too bad.

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Minireview: The Worldwound Incursion (Pathfinder "Wrath of the Righteous" 1/6)

The Worldwound Incursion opens up the new “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, set near the demon-infested Worldwound. I was a bit sceptical of how interesting a “legendary heroes fight demons” adventure path would be, but at least this first installment is promising. The path ties in with Pathfinders “legendary characters” rules options, which give extra power to the PCs so that stories can reach “epic scope” without needed ridiculous levels of character experience.

The initial setup is great, and something a bit out of the norm. The crusader city of Kenabres is hit by a massive demonic assault, and the PCs happen to be the only survivors at ground zero. All this is kicked off “in medias res”, with actual play beginning with the survivors dusting themselves off at the bottom of a vast underground chasm and figuring out “well, what now?”. No “meet stranger at pub”, no “ally X asks for help”, just “shit happened, you are a bunch of random people in the middle of it, go”. As a bonus, a few NPC survivors, each with different agendas, are also included. How the PCs deal with them and whether or not the NPCs survive has repercussions later on. All in all, this is a great way to kick off a campaign, and makes it easy to figure out PC motivations for what comes later. The included NPCs were also quite interesting.

Strong start to a new tale.

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Minireview: Tears at Bitter Manor (Pathfinder)

The Pathfinder stand-alone module format has recently moved to a “fewer releases, bigger modules” format, and I for one think the change is a good one. Even though the “new style” module so far have been merely ok in quality, the format does make room for more involved plots. Here, in Tears at Bitter Manor, that extra space is used to introduce a plot more centered around investigation than combat – always welcome, in my book.

The plot involves an old band of retired adventurers who meet up with each other once a year. This year, one of them has failed to show up, and since this coincides with some other dark events in the region, the PCs are asked to look into the matter (various possible hooks are described in the module). Of course, all this would work best if the NPC band of retired adventurers had been introduced to the PC earlier, in other contexts, but that sort of thing isn’t always possible. In any case, it is assumed that the PCs take up the case, and of course there is a sinister plot behind it all. Isn’t there always.

This is a decent adventure, but it could be better. The main bad guy isn’t all that interesting, and the NPCs themselves could be a little less stereotypical and more interesting. They aren’t bad, it’s just that they are a bit bland. I did like the fact that not all of this is combat, though, so in the end it’s one more in the “decent but nothing fantastic” pile.

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Minireview: The Witch Queen's Revenge (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 6/6)

The Witch Queen’s Revenge brings the “Reign of Winter” adventure path to a close, and it’s not a bad ending to a (surprisingly!) good adventure path; while it doesn’t rise to the heights of the previous Rasputin-themed one, it’s still a solid ending. Having rescued Baba Yaga, the PCs still need to actually free her. This requires delving into the intricate pocket dimensions hidden inside the Tardis… err, hut, where Baba Yaga has hidden some failsafes to guard against worst cases like this.

On the downside, it’s very linear and much too much of a combat-fest to my liking. On the other hand, the pocket dimensions are interesting, and the inhabitants can (and probably should) be tweaked to be less auto-attacking monsters and more role-playing challenges. And, of course, there’s the end question: given that the PCs succeed in freeing Baba Yaga, what then? While it may (or may not) end the current crisis, she is still a vastly powerful and evil-tending being. The PCs will need to tread carefully here.

Overall, I enjoyed “Reign of Winter” a lot more than I thought I would. It’s by far the most “gonzo” adventure path Paizo has published so far, but it holds together quite nicely and the individual episodes are mostly very good – the usual D&D problem of “too much combat” does crop up, of course, but that’s game conventions for you. The “PCs visit Earth in historic times and fight Rasputin and Russian infantry” thing should have fallen flat on its face, given the somewhat crazy premise, but somehow it pulls things off in style. This is one of the better adventure paths Paizo has produced, so far.

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