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Minireview: Ashes At Dawn (Pathfinder #47)

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.

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Minireview: Wake of the Watcher (Pathfinder #46)

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.

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Minireview: Broken Moon (Pathfinder #45)

The quite excellent Carrion Crown adventure path continues with Tim Hitchcock’s Broken Moon, which deals with werewolves (with generic “gothic” horror themes and “Frankenstein’s monster” having been previous themes here). It continues with the high quality, especially the beginning which is really good. It gets a bit more generic towards the end, but still the adventure earns high total marks.

The PCs are led into the depths of Shudderwood, on the trail of certain evil cultists. They end up in an hunting lodge meant for local aristocrats and high rollers, and may need some social maneuvering or such to gain entrance. Once there, they are dumped in the middle of a murder mystery. Yes, the whole story involves werewolves, but to the writer’s credit it’s far from a simple “ravaging monster on the loose” story – in fact much of that overlay is more of a red herring for the PCs. The full story is complex, with various NPC factions involved, and the PCs have lots of ways of dealing with the situation. It reads like it should be a blast to play. As noted, the second half is a bit more generic, and while not bad it lacks the inventive flair of the beginning.

“Carrion Crown” has been really good up to this point, assuming you’re ok with an intentional “Hammer Horror” B-movie feel here and there. We’ll see what the second half looks like, next up should be some Cthulhuoid action with definite “fish men!” overtones.

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Minireview: Trial of the Beast (Pathfinder #44)

After getting off to a great start with “The Haunting of Harrowstone”, the “Carrion Crown” adventure path advances to part two with Trial of the Beast – and it’s even better than the first installment. I’m really starting to like this adventure path. Written by Richard Pett, it’s actually a detective story (set in a D&D world, of course). The infamous “Beast of Lepidstadt” has finally been captured after numerous murders and atrocities, and is currently imprisoned in the town jail awaiting trial. Naturally enough, the townspeople are demanding to see blood and expect a quick “burn the thing!” verdict from the court. Enter the PCs.

Events in the first adventure lead the PCs to Lepidstadt, and put them in contact with one of the judges – who is not convinced that the Beast is actually guilty here. It’s assumed that the PCs will agree to help the judge out, if they don’t this becomes a fairly short affair. There is a tight timetable, and the PCs only have limited time to do investigation and gather clues which might sway the court; there is also mechanic for this so the GM has an easy means of figuring out how well the PCs are doing. The trial could go in either direction, with the endgame being somewhat the same regardless of what happens. The end is more of a combat affair, but that’s ok given the awesome investigative first part of the adventure (and the end part also contains a couple of very cool scenes).

This is an excellent module. The plot is clever (with nods to Mary Shelley) and the PCs have quite a lot of freedom to act while still being tied to external time limits… and of course, non-combat skills will shine here. It’s a bit of a stretch to have a “medieval” town give an obvious “monster” a full fair trial – but hey, it’s D&D, it’s not supposed to be realistic in any sense. Anyway, this adventure path is looking very good at this point, let’s hope that it holds up.

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Minireview: The Haunting of Harrowstone (Pathfinder #43)

The Haunting of Harrowstone (by Michael Kortes) begins a new adventure path for Paizo, titled “Carrion Crown”. This time around they are going for a “horror” theme – though of course this being a D&D variant that is more along the style of Ravenloft than Call of Cthulhu. Initially I was a bit concerned about the whole thing possibly being a bit too campy, but I’m happy to report that while it’s not hardcore horror and despite some slightly campy bits, as a whole it’s quite excellent. In fact, after a few somewhat lackluster adventure paths, this one starts out in fantastic fashion. A lot of that is due to the structure; instead of the all-too common series of combat events, this is a fairly freeform investigative piece, tinged with “Gothic horror” set pieces here and there. There is combat, of course, but the focus is on investigation, social encounters, and mood. I like this a lot.

The plot starts off with a Cthulhu trope: an old colleague of the PCs has died in an accident, and the PCs are invited to a remote village for the funeral (and reading of the will). There is a grieving daughter / damsel in distress involved (one who potentially evolves into somewhat more), and the PCs are assumed to start looking into some of the irregularities in the whole matter and to try and help out. The town is nicely genre-suitable: it’s all very East European -ish, with surly & hostile villagers, overcast skies, and gothic architecture. Oh, and an old abandoned prison next to the town, destroyed in a fire ages ago.

The town is nicely described, and there is also a simple mechanic in tracking if and how the PCs gain the trust of the villagers. If they do so many things become a lot easier – but of course it’s not that simple, and brute force can also work. “Haunts” are also used to good effect here, as replacements for plain combat encounters (which is a very good thing).

I was a lot more impressed with this than I expected to be, to be honest; I was expecting a campy Ravenloft clone and got something much more nuanced. Looking forward to the continuation of this one.

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Minireview: Sanctum of the Serpent God (Pathfinder #42)

Another Pathfinder adventure path closes with Sanctum of the Serpent God (by Neil Spicer). The Serpent’s Skull adventure path started from a shipwreck and became a jungle expedition in search of an ancient lost city. In this final installment, the PCs need to stop the ancient serpent people from reviving their god, which involves an assault on the main serpent people citadel underneath the city ruins (the the same undercity the PCs explored in the previous segment). While quite combat-filled, there are nice opportunities for diplomacy here, since large parts of the undercity are described as big sandboxes with various competing factions – gaining some of these as allies will probably help a lot in the final assault.

It’s a decent completion to the adventure path. While the “main adversary” (or even the existence of such) only became clear at the end of the adventure path, the assault on the serpent stronghold contains quite a few interesting locations and the end is suitably cinematic. There’s nothing all that original here plotwise, but it’s fairly well plotted and has some freeform factors.

What about the “Serpent’s Skull” adventure path as a whole, now that it’s complete? I have to say it’s not all that good as a whole. The beginning is very good and the end is quite decent, but it loses focus in the middle parts. In hindsight, the middle section (arrival at the ruined jungle city) is the low point – instead of an exciting, mysterious bunch of ruins with a lot of Indiana Jones action, we get something that is, frankly, boring. The is no excitement, little mystery, and ridiculous amounts of repetitive combat with no clear goal or motive for the PCs, other than “explore and maybe find some loot”. The actual “main plot” only shows up in the last few episodes, and even there it’s a bit hit and miss. I can easily see the players going “screw this, we’re going home” well before they encounter the end game, or the “main plot” in the first place. Another negative is the fact that even though this thing is set in the “Africa” of Golarion (Pathfinder’s game world), there is precious little local color. The PCs are mostly white, the NPCs the same, and there is precious little “Africa” here other than a few gorillas and other jungle creatures. A lot of missed opportunity here.

It’s a pity, since the start is so good… but the meandering continuation, mostly invisible background/main plot and downright poor middle part more or less ruins this one. There is good stuff here, but unless your players absolutely love endless combat encounters, heavy rewrite is needed to make this playable as a whole.

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Minireview: City of Seven Spears (Pathfinder #39)

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.

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Minireview: The Infernal Syndrome (Pathfinder #28)

With The Infernal Syndrome, Paizo’s Council of Thieves adventure path moves into its second half. Written by Clinton Boomer and James Jacobs, the basic idea here is pretty fun: an ancient mansion in the city has been powered by an imprisoned devil, and the mechanism in charge of that is slowly breaking down with bad consequences for the city around it. Unfortunately, like the previous installment in this adventure path, this too ends up being one big dungeon crawl. It’s not a bad one, but still… one of the major points of this adventure path was supposed to have been the city setting. Even though the first parts used that to good effect, these middle ones could pretty much have been set anywhere. The city is supposed to slowly be sinking into anarchy, but here that’s only on the “tell, don’t show” level. Sure, the GM can add stuff to make that point, but… Curse of the Crimson Throne did that sort of thing much better, there the city really did feel like it was at the verge of collapse.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t bad, and the city around the mansion(s) does figure into things; it’s just seriously underused as a setting element. There’s more combat here than I’d like, but that’s a standard complaint I have about almost all “D&D”-style pregen adventures. It’s natural, these games are mostly fantasy combat simulators… but still. It gets a bit old.

To the writers’ credit, many of the encounters here can be solved by other means (than combat, that is), and some of the encounters are quite interesting. It’s an ok adventure module, but fails to really be anything special.

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