Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: The Frozen Stars (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 4/6)

I wasn’t really expecting The Frozen Stars to be all that good. The previous installment of this adventure path was ok but nothing special, and here we were supposed to move to an alien planet with snow-elves (kinda) who ride dragons. I expected that the designers were biting off more than they could chew, and would just spew out another generic dungeon crawl. I’m happy to report that wasn’t what I got, and that this adventure is pretty damn good.

As noted, the PCs land on an alien planet, after a short dungeon-crawly bit within the TARDIS… err, I mean Baba Yaga’s hut. They are met by aforesaid “space-elves”, and what happens in this encounter can determine a lot. In a fairly unusual twist, this adventure allows the PCs to ally with either the “good” side or the “evil” side, with encounters and a storyline for both. The “good” side is a bit more fleshed out and will probably be the usual choice, but it’s nice to see a design that gives the PCs a lot more latitude than is usual. Their mission, such as it is, is to fetch a McGuffin from a fortress, but how they go about it can vary quite a bit, here. In addition, the PCs get to take part in a mass battle, in another nice piece of design; they have the option of intruding in some critical spots, which will affect the course of the battle. Of course, they also have the option of doing nothing, in which case default events happen – usually, these are not good for the PCs. The whole thing wraps up with a travel segment and a short dungeon-crawly bit.

Very solid design, with lots of different things for the PCs to do. This adventure path is shaping up to be much better than I thought it would be, given the somewhat gonzo premise and all the dimension-hopping involved. Nice work, guys!

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Minireview: Maiden, Mother, Crone (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 3/6)

With Maiden, Mother, Crone, the “Reign of Winter” adventure path hits its midpoint. The adventure is a mix of good and… well, missed opportunities. The plot has the PCs arrive in farr-away Iobaria via the Tardis-like Dancing Hut (a very cool element), and on arrival they are surrounded by a threat they have no hope of vanquishing. It’s here that the PCs get a taste of the Hut’s extra capabilities, in the offensive department. That dealt with, the PCs meet up with a tribe of centaurs, which is assumed to be a somewhat friendly encounter but could fo course go horribly awry. From there, their quest to find a critically important “key” for the Hut leads them to a trio of vast statues carved into the mountainside, depicting the classic “maiden, mother and crone” trio of “Fates”. Lo and behold, these statues turn out to contain cavern networks, making the end portion of this outing into a dungeon crawl.

The first half is quite interesting, and provides multiple sorts of encounters for the PCs. The second half is a bit less so, even though for a dungeon crawl it’s a pretty good one – the “dungeon” consists of three interconnected parts, via teleports, and has the potential for totally confusing any explorers. The inhabitants are also quite interesting, with a detailed backstory. One the minus side, it’s not all that likely that the PCs will ever discover that backstory or the details of the somewhat intricate internal politics of the statue internal environments. That’s a pity, because here it’s quite well designed. Of course, the fact that over half of the adventure consists of this dungeon crawl takes away a bit from the initial “exploring alien location” vibe, since these caverns could basically be located anywhere.

Overall, pretty good.

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Minireview: The Shackled Hut (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 2/6)

The new “Reign of Winter” adventure path hits its stride with The Shackled Hut, the second installment. Here, the PCs have been transported to a far-off land via a magic portal, and their only hope of returning home is linked to solving the current threat of a perma-winter which is somehow linked to the Witch-Queen Baba Yaga. Stuff to do, people to kill, situation normal.

It’s a fairly strong adventure, with only the end portion being a bit muddled and railroady. Things start off with a wilderness section, where the PCs meet up with some potentially friendly NPCs. Assuming they make friends and don’t automatically attack everything that moves, they should be able to gain helpful information for the later stages, and maybe get some other help too. The problem being that Baba Yaga’s hut (yes, that famous one) is chained up in Whitethrone, the totalitarian-style capital of Irrisen, with Baba Yaga herself nowhere to be seen. So the PCs need to make their way to the hut and figure out how it works, despite heavy guard and being strangers in a strange land (which is under martial law, to boot).

The best part here is the hut itself. While it’s outwardly like the standard mythical thing (chicken legs, all that), inside it’s… very different. Think TARDIS, not “Russian peasant hut” (though it’s a bit of both). It will form the base for of the rest of the adventure path, and the PCs will get very used to it… to the extent that it’s possible to get used to it, due to its fluid nature. Fun stuff.

The worst part is the ending, which has a “boss fight” which seems a bit forced, along with railroady elements designed solely to stop alternate solutions by the PCs and to force said fight. It’s a bit stupid, but it’s easy enough to change, and the rest of the module makes up for the somewhat uneven ending.

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Minireview: The Snows of Summer (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 1/6)

The Snows of Summer starts off the new winter-themed “Reign of Winter” adventure path. It promises to be an interesting romp, with Russian mythology mixed in with Tardis-like hops around the multiverse, featuring Baba Yaga (yes, that Baba Yaga). With those ingredients, it could also be a horrible mess.

Based on this first part, I’m optimistic. While it’s very linear and the initial hook is a bit weak, it’s otherwise a fine adventure and set in a type of locale not used all that often in these things. The tale has the Witch Queen Baba Yaga returning to the nation of Irrisen evert 100 years to place a (new) daughter of hers on the throne, and this time something has gone wrong; the old witch has not returned and an unnatural winter threatens to swallow neighboring nations, and perhaps the whole world. Enter the PCs, who discover a magic portal near a remote village, and get dumped in the middle of the action. There are some interesting NPCs, and more than a few dark secrets.

One of which is the truth behind what Baba Yaga has been up to, though the PCs are unlikely to get all the information on that, yet. The fact that one of the main drives of this adventure path is to go rescue a Bad Guy is… different. Not necessarily bad.

I liked the Russian folklore feel of much of this, and there’s potential here – though the adventure path’s intention to actually visit (our) Earth at a later point sounds like something that could be anything from “cool” to “ugh”. The thing to tweak here is the lack of real PC choices, they are just shoved through an extremely linear storyline with little say in the matter (or, more properly, no GM support for PCs refusing to follow the train tracks).

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Minireview: Into the Nightmare Rift (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 5/6)

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.

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Minireview: Beyond the Doomsday Door (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 4/6)

Beyond the Doomsday Door continues the dungeon crawl-tastic Shattered Star adventure path with… a dungeon crawl! To its credit, it’s not a bad dungeon crawl and the backstory is quite good, including some of the key NPCs. There are weird, hostile monsters by the dozen, and various places where the GM can expand the thing if required.

This time around, the McGuffin of the week is located at the multifaith monastery Windsong Abbey, on the Varisian coast. The monastery itself is a nice idea, an inclusive multifaith retreat where are religions are welcome. Of course, since it’s the destination of a bunch of PCs, it’s doomed – in this case, pre-doomed, since by the time the PCs get there the place is a ruin occupied by hostile forces. In order to get their grubby hands on the artifact, the PCs need to (ta dah!) fight through multiple levels of monastery now filled with bad guys. There are also “doomsday doors” involved, strange ancient artifacts which reputedly guard… something.

It’s an ok jaunt. The monastery itself is quite fun, and some of the NPCs can even provide non-combat encounters (gasp). Most of the content is combat, though, and not too horribly interesting in itself.

This adventure path is looking more and more like a “meh” affair as far as I’m concerned. There are nice scenes here and there, but the endless dungeon crawly combat is boring (to me, at least). There is no larger plot worth noting, the “collect N artifacts” thing is so tired that it doesn’t really deserve the name “main plot”. All of this is still better than the “Second Darkness” and “Serpent’s Skull” paths, but that’s not saying much.

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Minireview: Curse of the Lady's Light (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 2/6)

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.

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Minireview: Shards of Sin (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 1/6)

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.

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Minireview: From Hell's Heart (Pathfinder #60)

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.

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Minireview: The Price of Infamy (Pathfinder #59)

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.

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