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Minireview: The Twice-Damned Prince (Pathfinder #30)

The Twice-Damned Prince, written by Brian Cortijo and James Jacobs, forms the finale of the Council of Thieves adventure path. The plans of the Bad Guys are fully set in motion (though in much-reduced form, thanks to probable PC interference), and the city of Westcrown is thrown into total chaos. If the PCs act smartly they may be able to turn the situation around, otherwise the Council of Thieves is the likely new ruling faction in the city.

Like the previous installment, this one also uses the city environment to good effect. The action is separated into various locales, and the whole thing is an event-based sandbox where the PCs can fairly freely decide what to do. Though there is a default sequence of events and most likely end scenario, the whole thing is quite flexible and the end result could be anything. As before, PC motivation depends strongly on their having close ties to the city, this is not an adventure path suitable for the usual “wandering hero” type (those would have left town long ago).

I like the fact that here, even if the PCs fail, the end result is just “a bunch of nasty guys take charge of a city”, instead of the all-too-often-seen “the world is doomed!” or “Evil Ancient Overlord enslaves everyone”. Those “save the world” things get old, after a while.

On the whole, the Council of Thieves did not quite live up to my expectations, but it still is a very good adventure path, easily among the better ones Paizo has done. It has some brilliant bits (the opera section is especially cool), but those are marred by lots of intervening mundane sections. Of course, everything depends on the GM and the group. Also, I’ve only read these things, not played them, so the actual in-play reality may be quite different to my impressions.

My favorite Paizo adventure path remains “Curse of the Crimson Throne”. We’ll see how the next one (Kingmaker) pans out; it looks promising based on what we know of it so far.

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Minireview: Mother of Flies (Pathfinder #29)

While starting out strong, the Council of Thieves adventure path became a bit overly conventional during the middle portions and (in my opinion) did not really make use of the city environment. This fifth part of the tale, Mother of Flies (written by Greg A. Vaughan), fixes that problem to some degree.

It’s slightly ironic that this adventure makes use of the city setting… by leaving the city altogether for small while. The initial portions here assume the PCs want to recruit the support of a presumably-crazy and possibly-evil witch (the titular Mother of Flies) who lives in a nearby wood, so in order to do that the PCs need to go on a short wilderness spree. This might result in hilarity if the PCs are totally city-bred and not too comfortable with the great outdoors. It turns out that the PCs aren’t the only ones interested in the witch, and a large battle is likely unless the players figure out something really sneaky.

In any case, the action soon returns to Westcrown, and the setup becomes more like what I had hoped from this series in general: a semi-freeform set of events and locations which the PCs can experience and/or visit, while trying to drum up support for their cause or to foil the plans of the Bad Guys. There are vampires on the loose, and the old problem of mysterious “shadow beasts” stalking the city night may finally get a solution (depending on the PC actions, naturally). All along this series the PCs have been getting “fame points” if they succeed in doing various things, presumably these will be important in the next & final part of this thing.

While not being anything spectacular, this installment is a nice toolkit for advancing the plot along, and is a quite welcome change of pace after the confined and dungeon-crawly mid portions. Running this adventure path will require PCs who really care about the city, otherwise I can easily see them packing up their toys and moving somewhere else. To Paizo’s credit, this was discussed at length in the initial setup of the series. GMs who ignored that advice will have to figure out their own sticks and carrots to keep the PCs interesting in saving the city.

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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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Minireview: What Lies in Dust (Pathfinder #27)

What Lies in Dust (by Michael Kortes) forms the midpoint of the Council of Thieves adventure path. After the quite fantastic previous installment this is more pedestrian fare; not bad by any means, but much more standard.

Here the PCs are expected to follow clues from the previous part and do a raid on a long-abandoned Pathfinder stronghold in the city. Reputedly full of traps and cordoned off by the authorities, the PCs have to both make their entrance without raising much commotion and then survive what’s inside. To add to the mix, there are some other groups on the move, with plans that involve violence to the PCs.

As usual for these adventure path things, the PCs are expected to do some very specific things, following at times quite slender clues. If the PCs don’t do the expected thing, the GM needs to juggle things quite a bit. Here I got the impression that this “encounter” could happen at various points in the plot, which reduced GM headaches quite a bit. No idea how much the later parts depend on stuff here, of course.

This adventure is essentially one big “dungeon crawl” set inside a large mansion. As such it’s quite nice; the writing is crisp and lots of the ideas contained here are interesting – it’s not just a random selection of traps. Without spoiling things, some of the inhabitants of the mansion are.. unusual. In a good way. It’s a decent adventure, though it lacks anything to make it really stand out. As always, it might play a lot better (or worse) than it reads.

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Minireview: The Sixfold Trial (Pathfinder #26)

The Sixfold Trial (by Richard Pett) is the second part of the Council of Thieves adventure path, and is also perhaps the most un-D&D -like adventure I’ve yet seen from Paizo. I mean this in a very good sense. Looks like the first part, which promised more social interaction instead of endless combats, wasn’t just a fluke.

What makes this adventure unusual is that the PCs are expected to become actors and perform a play to a select audience of nobles. The reason has to do with infiltration into a noble household, but the play is the main event here. Since this is Cheliax and the court of a decadent noble, the play is far from safe… in any fashion. There is an actual expected death toll, and the PCs will need to scramble if they don’t want to become “acceptable casualties” in the process. Sure, the PCs might also decide to do the more conventional thing and do a ninja sneak foray into the household (more like “fortress”) in question, but that could become very tricky very fast. Being invited guests makes many things so much easier. To the author’s credit, the possibility of the PCs deciding to skip the theater part is mentioned… but of course, if mostly boils down to “well, in that case you won’t be able to use half of this stuff”.

As an additional fun point, the actual script of the (short) play is provided, so the GM/players could actually go through the thing line-by-line if they feel like it. Not sure how many will do that, but in any case including the play itself gets points from me.

It’s not all theater and woe, of course. The second half of the adventure is more conventional “sneak around and dodge traps and monsters” stuff – but even that is quite interesting, since the locale is… a bit unconventional. Don’t want to give up too many spoilers here.

This is a very strong scenario, at least it reads that way. If Council of Thieves keeps this up, it may just be the best adventure path so far. Or, of course, if might tank suddenly. For some reason, the lower-level stuff almost always manages to be more interesting, later on it usually devolves into a boring high-level combatfest. Most D&D writers (and to be fair, most D&D players) don’t really grasp the idea that you don’t have to challenge PCs just via combat – in fact, if the PCs are very good at combat you need to give them anything but combat if you want to keep things interesting. Exalted teaches you this, because challenging Exalted PCs with just combat becomes pointless fast. Other types of challenges, especially moral dilemmas, tend to work much better. I’m not saying “don’t do combat”; it’s fun now and then and of course it’s (still) the core gameplay of D&D (and yes, Pathfinder is D&D). I’m saying “don’t do just combat”… and that seems to be the direction Paizo is taking this one. Me likes.

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Minireview: The Bastards of Erebus (Pathfinder #25)

The Bastards of Erebus (by Sean Reynolds) kicks off the latest Pathfinder adventure path, “Council of Thieves”. It’s supposed to be a more-or-less city-based path, so I’m looking forward with interest to see how this one develops; city-based adventures are much rarer in D&D -type games than wilderness stuff or the ever-present dungeon crawls.

The beginning is very promising, at least. The thing is set in the city of Westcrown, the slowly decaying ex-capital of the Cheliax empire (which has now turned to demon worship). The players are expected to be “concerned citizens”, ones with deep ties to the city and reasons to care about it – otherwise, the moment things get rocky the PCs might just decide to head off somewhere else. Which might make sense for the PCs, but would sort of kill this adventure path dead. It probably works best if the PCs aren’t too wealthy and don’t have connections outside the city. In other words, don’t have easy ways to flee or secure their own safety.

This adventure entangles the PCs in a resistance movement of sorts, one which wants to do something about the corrupt nobility which is letting the city slowly slide towards ruin. An initial incident forces the PCs to flee into hiding, after which it is assumed they start to form “ze resistance!”. So yes, like in all pre-plotted longer plots, some railroading is needed… but here, I think the smartest thing would be just to talk with the players beforehand and establish what you’re going for.

The adventure is pretty good, and is noteworthy for including a lot of NPC details. Not stats, but important things like personality etc, for people who normally are “nameless lvl1 cannonfodder” in D&D games. Paizo is clearly trying to push the normal D&D envelope a bit here, since this one is very far from the usual combat fest. Oh, there is combat,. but even that is of the interesting sort: the PCs are expected to stage an ambush, and are given pretty free rein with that and multiple (good) options. Nice, that.

This looks like a very cool adventure path, assuming the style stays somewhat like this first installment, with more focus on non-combat skills and social stuff. Also, the whole city of Westcrown is pretty nice as a locale… a city in a state where the state religion is demon worship, but which is still a perfectly functional environment for the inhabitants. Something like that could easily go in a stupid cliched “we’re evil, waaagh!” direction, but thankfully none of that is present here. It’s just a city, with a somewhat unusual structure for religion and law.

So… off to a good start.

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