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Minireview: Island of Empty Eyes (Pathfinder #58)

Island of Empty Eyes begins the second half of the (so far quite excellent) “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and also explains why the PCs were so railroaded into winning that sailing race in the previous episode: the island that they win as reward features centrally here. They get ownership of the island, but of course the current owners are not told of that; the whole thing is one more test, a “carve out your own kingdom” thing. As such, it works out quite well.

The first half involves exploring the island, “taming” (i.e. slaughtering) the natives, and figuring out the logistics of building an island base. That last bit will need the PCs to hire workforce and do lots of non-traditional stuff as far as “stock adventures” are concerned, so points for that. Most of the busywork here is handled by die rolls, but there is no reason the GM couldn’t expand some of the hiring / negotiation segments if there is story there and the players are interested.

After the PCs get their “island fort” set up, at least to some degree, the second half commences: the pirate council comes over for a “friendly social visit”, in other words evaluation of how the PC have performed and if they have what it takes to join in the ranks of pirate lords, where apparently the ability to conquer and set up your own domain needs to be on your piratical CV. As can be expected, there’s a twist here: an old enemy has arranged for a saboteur to join the party, with the intent of wrecking the event (and therefore the PCs’ chances of joining the inner circle). This section reads like a lot of fun; the PCs need to scramble in order to entertain a bunch of rough & tumble guests, while dealing with (and ideally hiding) various bits of sabotage and trying to pinpoint the actual saboteur. Some combat involved, but mostly it’s investigation, social shenanigans and general action.

“Skull & Shackles” continues to be a great adventure path. Lots of different types of action, a structure that looks quite free-form but is actually somewhat event-based “under the hood”, and a plot that lets the PCs be scoundrels and greedy bastards if they want to be. One of my favorite Paizo adventure paths, at least so far.

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Minireview: Tempest Rising (Pathfinder #57)

Tempest Rising (by Matthew Goodall) represents the midpoint of the piracy-themed Skull & Shackles adventure path. While it has some issues with an overly railroaded end section, otherwise the module continues the largely-sandboxy format of the two previous modules. Which is a good thing.

As in the previous adventure, this one also has some key segments which trigger when (or if) the PCs decide to do a certain thing. It’s assumed that the PCs will at some point want to do these things, but of course if they don’t most of these adventures will end up not being used. That’s an unavoidable part of presenting a sandbox to the players, of course; you cannot guarantee what they will decide to do. The good news here is that the triggers are quite believable things for the PCs to attempt.

The first one involves the PCs wanting to get official recognition in pirate circles, which involves getting official recognition from the self-styled “Hurricane King”. This is a nicely convoluted affair, which cannot (easily) be solved by brute force – lots of places for more socially-oriented (or sneaky and/or dishonest) PCs to shine. Also tied into this section is another optional plot line, which ties into the big background plot (mostly invisible to the PCs up to now) of spies within the pirate community. Assuming the PCs decide to follow leads given to them, they get a nice long investigation-heavy jaunt, with lots of dead bodies showing up all over the place. I really liked this bit, it’s a nice balance of investigation, social-fu and combat.

The end result of the “get official recognition” part is somewhat railroaded; it’s very hard for the PCs to actually fail at this. However, there are lots of ways they can succeed, with some of them getting them a not-too-flattering reputation in the local piracy social media thing… so there is an incentive to try to ace this section. Besides, some of the challenges are quite amusing.

Last off we have the PCs getting invited to join the “Free Captains’ Regatta”, which is somewhat like what the name implies: an actual sailing race. Having some PCs with actual mariner skills will help a lot here, a combat-munchkin group will have a hard time. There is some “external” help which they can get (some in the form of magic items), but in the end pure combat skill will not solve this one. My (minor) complaint concerns the result of the race: as written, the PCs win it pretty much no matter what they do, with no provisions given to them actually losing. I wasn’t too wild about this design choice, even though them winning the race is apparently a key factor in the next installment. I would have liked to see a “plan B” option for that. Also, what if the PCs just aren’t interested in the race, and want to do some more plunder? GM headaches, that’s what. That said, it’s a minor issue, since most players will be more than happy to join in on a race, and will be willing to overlook some behind-the-scenes fudging which lets them win. Depends on play group, of course.

Overall, a very solid continuation to the adventure path, which in my mind quite successfully merges sandbox and event-based styles. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is shaping up to be one of Paizo’s better adventure paths.

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Minireview: Raiders of the Fever Sea (Pathfinder #56)

Raiders of the Fever Sea by Greg A. Vaughan continues the Skull & Shackles adventure path, and I’m happy to report that it follows the high quality of the first installment. Where the first part promised later free-form adventure for the PCs, this one delivers (though in somewhat restricted form, as written).

The last part left the PCs with their own ship, so the next question is, of course, “now what?”. Well, if the PCs were smart or lucky in the previous part, they befriended one of the important NPCs and can get useful hints from them. If not, well… that’s the price for ignoring social interaction opportunities. The adventure assumes that one of the first things the PCs will want to do is disguise their ship, so that their ex-captain doesn’t track them down. Of course, the PCs may do nothing of the sort.

This is of course the problem with sandboxes, at least one with a “main plot”: the PCs may do something totally weird. If they do, the GM has to just roll with it, and this module provides a lot of events and encounters to throw at the players, culminating with a “dungeon crawl” type assault on a hostile stronghold. Once again, the GM should provide means for the PCs to act and fight underwater, otherwise things won’t turn out all that well.

Overall, I found this to be a great continuation to the story, providing an event-based sandbox environment for the PCs to rampage in. The only criticism is that (due to page count reasons) many of the events and encounters only provide one way of dealing with them, which most likely will not be the way the PCs choose. Nothing that cannot be improvised around, but still it would have been nice to see some “what if?” type stuff taken into account. Also, it’s assumed that the PCs will “conquer” a certain island fortress; here, happily, multiple approaches to doing that are dealt with, including one that involves a marriage of convenience. Points for that. However, what if the PCs don’t feel like tackling the fortress at all, especially since they really have no driving need to do so, other than “it would make them more famous!”? Since much of the continuation plot depends on that fortress, that can be a real problem and force serious on-the-fly modifications from the GM. That said, stuff like this comes with the territory if you want to combine free-form sandboxes with a plot, which in general is a design I do like.

So far, this looks to be one of the better adventure paths to come out of Paizo’s design factory.

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Minireview: The Wormwood Mutiny (Pathfinder #55)

The Wormwood Mutiny begins the new “Skull & Shackles” adventure path for Pathfinder. Written by veteran Richard Pett, it’s a somewhat unusual start to an adventure path and one I really liked: instead of having the PCs start off as the usual “heroes in training”, here they are wannabe pirates or suchlike random losers, who get press ganged onto a pirate ship and forced to work as part of the crew (doing low-level work). No fancy equipment, and only one step up from slavery. Now, not all play groups will be fine with this by default, so this requires agreement and player buy-in at the start. Doubly so, since the whole adventure path has the PCs becoming pirates… in other words, doing the looting & pillaging thing, punctuated by random murder. In other words, the PCs will not become heroes in the traditional sense; they may become infamous pirate lords. That’s not to say that the PCs need to be strictly evil, but Paladins and such need not apply.

Assuming player buy-in to the general concept, this thing rocks. The first half has the PCs getting familiar with shipboard life, including intrigue (maybe trying to get some of their original stuff back), social maneuvering (deciding who to befriend) and general keeping a lookout for trouble (most of their crewmates are at best indifferent to them, with some being actively hostile). This first part is also unusual because it gives real benefit to PCs with suitable non-combat skills. The man antagonists here are the captain and his cronies, but the PCs are not expected to fight them (attempts at such will result in pain), they are expected to get a huge grudge which they might get to pay back later if they play their cards right.

After the “intro” half, the action picks up a bit: after being assigned to a recently-seized ship, the PCs are sent over to a “deserted” island to gather up some much-needed fresh water. Things are not quite that simple, of course, and at the end of the thing the PCs may find their general situation much changed (and improved).

The book also contains rules for tracking piratical “Infamy” and other meters which tell the story of their exploits and have direct mechanical effects in later parts. Also abstracted is loot, since it’s not useful to have the PCs do a coin-by-coin count of all plunder. They seem like nice mechanics, though some of the details are a bit weird – the PCs and their ship gain all sorts of mystical powers as their Infamy increases. One assumes that these are the results of “off-camera” gain of magical gear and such, but that is not explicitly stated in the book so the GM needs to improvise here and there.

The first half of the adventure has very little combat (a plus in my book), while the second half has more of the usual combat encounters. Many of these involve aquatic and/or underwater locations, so the GM would be advised to provide the PCs with various means to deal with that.

This is an extremely fun-sounding adventure path; it looks like the whole thing is aiming for a sandbox style with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. This is not historical piracy, this is very much “pulp pirates” and high adventure. Since that’s what most players will most likely prefer, I think this path would be a blast to play through assuming the quality stays at this level. Sandboxes are cool, as long as they are populated with interesting stuff to do. This one seems to be.

You do need player buy-in for this… but honestly, how many players would not be in for some “D&D Pirates of the Caribbean” action, especially when they get to be infamous pirates and decide their own fate? For once, no need to play do-good heroes.

Yarrr!

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Minireview: The Empty Throne (Pathfinder #54)

The Empty Throne (written byNeil Spicer) concludes the “Jade Regent” adventure path, and unfortunately it’s a slight letdown to the previous buildup. To be fair, with this page count allowance it would have been difficult to do much else than the “battle the main bad guys in a huge and complicated end battle” to finish this story like off, but still… the whole story has been building towards getting your friend recognized as Empress, and it just concludes with “get the blessing of some ghost, and then kill the current regent and proclaim yourself Empress”. I guess I would have preferred that this “end game” portion be stretched out a little, maybe over two books, here it feels rushed.

I generally end up liking the beginnings of these adventure paths, and being a bit meh on the endings. Part of that is due to the end portions tending to be high-power combat-fests instead of anything really interesting, and that’s part of the problem here. That said, the previous segment (“Tide of Honor”), was quite interesting and had lots of social interactions, so it’s not a polarized thing between the first half and the second half.

As noted, the plot here is fairly simple. Anyone wanting to proclaim themselves Emperor/Empress will have to get the blessing of the spirits of the Imperial Shrine, so that’s where we are led to first. Some combat here, along with a bit of exposition about the missing bits of the back-story. After that, it’s off to the palace and fight the bad guys. As a positive point, the adventure does have a scoring system for the various things the PCs do here and have done previously, which affects the stability and ease of Ameiko’s rule once she does become Empress. If the PCs cut corners or failed to gather proper support from some critical factions, it could be a rough ride. Of course, all that matters to any serious degree only if the GM intends to continue the story, but I guess it also makes for a nice “afterword” to the adventure, letting the PCs hear about the longer-term consequences of their actions and decisions. So, points for that.

Overall, I liked the beginning of the adventure path, it was quite imaginative and a fun road trip. The Caravan mechanic was interesting, though I’m not sure how much (or if at all) it works in practice. I didn’t really like part 4 (“Forest of Spirits”), but the next part was in its turn much better. This ending is… ok, but fails to excite.

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Minireview: Tide of Honor (Pathfinder #53)

Ok, after the disappointing Forest of Spirits, Tide of Honor (written by Tito Leati) kicks it up a notch, and then some. Instead of an endless series of boring combat encounters, this module actually contains a huge variety of stuff, from social encounters to puzzle solving and (gasp) even an old-school maze. Sure, there’s also some combat of course, but here it’s not the main meal on the menu. Hooray for that. Many of the encounters and scenarios are also somewhat free-form in how the PCs might solve (or avoid) them.

The plot has the PCs, now in Minkai proper, realize that they need some serious backup if they intend to put their “own” girl on the throne. Enter a bunch of factions (some shady, some more legit) which might be willing to support a claim for the throne… assuming the PCs manage to gain their good graces. How to do that? Well, that varies a lot. In one case, it involves the assassination of a corrupt general. In another, the rescue of a geisha from an… ardent admirer. Or maybe they’ll need to get rid of some bandits, to get an important bunch of locals on their side.

Of course, all this takes some framing and a bit of delicate GM manipulation. Your typical D&D PC will probably just want to march to the capital city and claim the throne – it’s up to the GM to make very clear to the players that without local support, this is a monumentally stupid idea. Assuming that gets done, this module contains a lot of fun. In a way it’s somewhat old-school, in the sense that there are puzzles (and the aforementioned maze) here – but I for one like those, as long as they are well-executed.

Oh, and there are also ninjas here. There are always ninjas.

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Minireview: Forest of Spirits (Pathfinder #52)

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.

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Minireview: The Hungry Storm (Pathfinder #51)

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.

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Minireview: The Brinewall Legacy (Pathfinder #49)

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.

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Minireview: Shadows of Gallowspire (Pathfinder #48)

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.

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