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Minireview: Pathfinder #21, The Jackal's Price

The Jackal’s Price (by Darrin Drader) forms the midpoint of the Legacy of Fire adventure path. Like the previous parts, it’s good and fairly lighthearted Arabian Nights -flavored fun. In this installment, the PCs have (presumably) retrieved something from the House of the Beast and need to figure out what it is. Unfortunately the closest option for that is the largish trade city of Katapesh, where free commerce is king (shades of Exalted’s “Nexus” here). So off the PCs go. The travel there isn’t totally trivial and provides some options for encounters…. it might be good if these were used to foreshadow some of the parties involved here, otherwise some of the antagonists and events might seem to come out of nowhere to the players.

Once in Katapesh, it’s presumed that they meet up with a specific scholar, and ideally become allies & house guests. Surprise surprise, many parties are interested in what the PCs have – but it’s assumed that the PCs are willing to sell it, for a high price (this seems like a reasonable guess, knowing most players). Various events happen which I don’t want to spoil here, and in the end the whole thing takes a quite unexpected turn (which leads directly to the next adventure in the series).

A nice, mostly city-based adventure, with lots of options for social scheming and intrigue. Some of the events need heavy foreshadowing by the GM, ideally from the very start of the adventure path, otherwise they’ll risk seeming quite arbitrary to the players. Also, the end is somewhat railroady; it’s assumed that a certain specific trigger event occurs. To the the module’s credit it does talk briefly about “plan B” scenarios if the PCs resolutely make that event impossible – mainly, that involves jumping directly to a later part of the adventure path, with some in-between adventures inserted. Doable but not ideal, since the thing that the trigger event leads up to is really quite cool, so both the GM and players probably want it to happen (the PCs, not that much).

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Minireview: Pathfinder #20, House of the Beast

…and so we have the new Legacy of Fire adventure path swinging into gear, with House of the Beast (by Tim Hitchcock) forming part two of six.

It’s a dungeon crawl… but it’s a fairly interesting one, partly because it’s not really a “dungeon” crawl, more of a “temple crawl”. Some thought has been put into making the temple at least somewhat realistic, so instead of random monsters forming encounter after another, you instead get a living society (which is not necessarily 100% hostile towards the PCs) with multiple factions. This, to my mind, adds considerably to the interest level. In a somewhat unusual move, a long period of downtime is specified to have happened before this installment. The idea is that the PCs have “liberated” a small town from the clutches of gnoll raiders, and now they have actually been given time to build on that – build reputations, perhaps help govern the place, make friends (or enemies). Another nice touch.

The story, this time, starts when a wandering priest enters town limits and warns of a new growing gnoll war horde gathering at a far-off temple, under the leadership of the self-styled Carrion King responsible for the earlier raids. The PCs could just wait for them to attack or they could take the fight to them. It’s assumed that PCs choose the latter option, which to be honest is quite likely; especially so since the priest has some additional information which makes attack a tempting option…

I mostly liked this. Even though it’s a “dungeon crawl” as noted, it’s a fairly interesting one and there are lots of opportunities to make the PCs’ overland voyage to the “House of the Beast” an interesting one. I actually have only one niggle here: the planned actual goal of the module (which isn’t what the PCs/players imagine it is). Without giving away spoilers: the plot assumes that the PCs find something at the temple, something that is of key importance to the rest of the adventure path. What if the PCs just do the usual “kill & loot” routing and don’t find/notice the critical thing? At that point, some creative GM juggling will be required. To its credit, the adventure does note that this is an issue, and that the GM needs to have some alternate plans ready.

So, with 2 installments accounted for, Legacy of Fire looks like a very fun “Arabian Nights” -style adventure so far.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #19, Howl of the Carrion King

Howl of the Carrion King opens up Paizo’s new adventure path, Legacy of Fire. The story this time around moves into “Arabian Nights” territory, which has potential to be interesting. Written by Erik Mona, it kicks off the story in a very satisfying fashion.

The story takes place in Katapesh, where a band of heroes (cue the PCs) has decided to take on the task of liberating a small town from the clutches of a bandit lord, “The Carrion King”. Ruling over hordes of savage gnoll tribes, the Carrion King is slowly carving a kingdom for himself and it’s up to some suitable cannonfodder (cue PCs, again) to put a stop to all that. It’s assumed that the players generate characters with suitable motivations with that starting scenario in mind – the Player’s Guide to the adventure path contains some helpful pointers. On the whole, it’s a pretty good low-level adventure – the encounters are quite varied and there are lots of options to solve things via negotiation instead of straight combat, always refereshing. There’s also some nice bits where sneaking around and suchlike investigation is probably the smartest move. This one should give everyone something to do, and it’s pretty freeform.

We’ll see where this adventure path goes later on, storywise, but the beginning holds promise. I wasn’t too thrilled with the last adventure path (Second Darkness), but based on plot synopsis this one sounds more to my liking. Bonus points for the “big bad” not trying to destroy the world or something cliched like that, the actual motivation is something quite amusing.

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Minireview: Blood of Dragonscar (E2) (Pathfinder)

Higher-level D&D adventures tend to be tricky to pull off. The stat blocks eat up your page count, and providing challenges to the PCs while taking into account all the weird powers they (now) have can be hard. In Blood of Dragonscar Keith Baker does a pretty good job at pulling everything off and providing a fun adventure. As depicted on the cover, there is a dragon involved – but the whole thing is a lot more complex than just a “kill the dragon” romp. There’s a town under martial law of a very disturbing kind, a potential friendly NPC maiden in distress, and other good stuff. I especially liked the possibilities the “town under siege” provides, assuming the PCs walk into the situation with no advance notice of what’s really going on. Could get interesting, fast.

Good, solid adventure this one. Don’t want to give too many further details so as not to spoil anything.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #18, Descent Into Darkness

Descent Into Darkness (by Brian Cortijo) concludes the Second Darkness adventure path. This time round, the PCs are assumed to have tracked the main bad guy to a vast underground region, “The Land of Black Blood”. Various glyphs are active there, and unless they are deactivated everything will end with a big bang topside.

It’s ok. While it does feel a bit like a computer rpg plot at times (multiple weird glyphs, all of which have different effects and must be deactivated in a different fashion), it can probably work pretty well in practice. The underground world is given some coverage in the scenario and also in a secondary support article, but if players do what they tend to do (i.e. wander off in a random direction), some extra work will be required to populate the place. I think this scenario has some promise if the GM manages to build a sufficiently creepy and threatening feel to everything. Not sure how easy that is, though, especially since this isn’t the first time the PCs are venturing into unknown underground depths.

As a whole, I have mixed feelings about this adventure path. I liked the “low-key scum” beginning, and the weird island hit my meteorite was pretty cool. But then it went into elfland, and underground, and somehow I didn’t like that part all that much. Sometimes for specific reasons (the second-to-last part was much, much too railroady in a bad way), sometimes just because it didn’t strike a chord with me, for whatever reason.

I think I have a fundamental problem with D&D adventure paths in general. I like the idea, but the “from zero to hero” level progression of D&D forces you to escalate things into superhero country pretty fast. I usually tend to find the beginning parts good, but the later episodes not so much… partly because at that point the power level has risen to silly levels, and the plots usually have you saving the whole world (yet again). In addition, D&D doesn’t have the concept of “high-level social combat” like Exalted does, so it’s more and more just about high-power physical combat – which can get old fast. I think that problem was magnified here; the beginning rocked, but the rest of the adventure went off in a totally different direction, and one that I didn’t find as interesting.

If you are fond of the drow and/or of D&D elves, you’ll probably find a lot here to love. If not… well, I think this is the weakest of the Paizo adventure paths I’ve read so far. It’s not bad by any means, just lacking a bit in comparison with the others.

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Exalted pays homage to...

John Chambers recently leaked the cover art for the upcoming Exalted book Scroll of Exalts.

While it’s a really cool cover by itself – and features an unlikely group of signature characters working together – it’s also a fun and very intentional homage to a certain “classic” rpg book from way back.

If you’re not getting the connection, try this link for a clue.

 

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Minireview: Clash of the Kingslayers (S1) (Pathfinder)

Clash of the Kingslayers is written by Christine Schneider, winner of Paizo’s “RPG Superstar” contest (intended to give amateur game designers a shot at fame). While not perfect, it’s not bad – I think it has some missed opportunities, but to be fair some of that is probably due to page count restrictions.

The plot has the PCs getting semi-accidentally involved with a internal strife in the dwarven stronghold of Glimmerhold. Hailed as valued guests (or even heroes) due to an initial event, they are soon given the chance to do some (more) heroics in order to save the city. It seems that some sort of ancient evil is threatening the place… or so it seems at first, anyway. Things trace back to events in the past that some parties would much rather remained hidden. There are some quite cinematic scenes in here, though some GM embellishment may be needed in places.

The “missed opportunities” I referred to have mostly to do with the “mobile dungeon” the module throws at the players. While nifty in itself, I think more could have been done with the thing, and more emphasis placed on how movement becomes difficult and confusing. Also, I think the stock plots dumps the PCs away from the thing way too soon – I’d personally leave that detail up to PC actions and not try to force the issue. Detail given on Glimmerhold is meager at best, we’re not even given a rough map (though Paizo does provide that as a download from the module web page). This lack of detail is, of course, due to page count restrictions, so I can’t really fault the module for that.

I’d rate this one in the “pretty good” category. Not a must-buy, but reads like a fun adventure.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #17, A Memory of Darkness

Ok, we’re nearing the end of the Second Darkness adventure path here. A Memory of Darkness (by J.D. Wiker) is the next-to-last episode… and unfortunately, it’s also easily the weakest so far.

Now, while I like the general idea of “adventure paths” (i.e. a set of linked adventures telling a bigger story), they have always had one big problem: they need to railroad quite a bit, due to the need of moving a plot along with a limited page count allocated for it. This is usually manageable, and can work fine with a good playgroup that understands that derailing the story “just because” isn’t cool. However, it remains a problem that the writers of these things often seem to assume the PCs will do some fairly unlikely and/or suicidal thing based on extremely flimsy clues. So… quite a bit of GM prepwork usually needed, to handle the “you want to do what?!?” scenarios.

Railroads can be fun, of course, if everyone is on the same map (so to speak). As the saying goes, “nobody minds a railroad as long as the scenery is interesting and the destination is Awesome City”.

Well, this thing is railroad-tastic, and not in any good way either. After having (somehow) survived their visit to Drow Town, the PCs find themselves disbelieved and sort-of betrayed by the guys who put them up to the whole thing: the damn pointy-eared elves. Now, at this point I can easily see the PCs doing a Cartman-style “screw you guys, we’re going home!”. They’ve just risked their lives to help the elven nation… and they get disdain and imprisonment as a reward? And it gets better… they get secretly manipulated by an uber-powerful NPC to “escape”, and to go on a senseless tour of Golarion (via elf gates) to look for some group of elven “bad guys”. Player choice in the matter? None, really, it’s just assumed they go for it, and assumed that they realize it’s all a clever double-think by aforesaid uber-NPC. The “elf gate” tour serves little purpose in the story. Then they meet the “bad guys”… who turn out to be pathetic losers. With one real “bad guy”, who is illustrated in such a cartoon “I’m evil!” fashion that he might as well wear a “League of Evil” t-shirt. This makes the illustrations of the Council members useless, since anyone seeing all the pictures will figure out who the bad guy is in under 3 seconds. Sigh.

It’s a mess. It’s one big railroad, with an untouchable uber-NPC running the train engine, waving happily. The scenery is mostly pointless, and the destination is not Awesome CIty. It’s not even the suburbs.

Oh, there are some cool bits here and there. The elven “prison” thingy is cool, and there are some fun encounters. But on the whole, this thing needs a lot of work in order to be usable. Or some extremely understanding players (bordering on the “saintly”).

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Minireview: The Pact Stone Pyramid (J4, Pathfinder)

The Pact Stone Pyramid, written by Michael Kortes, is written to be a potential sequel of sorts to the earlier Entombed with the Pharaohs (by the same author). While there are no direct connections, it’s another “go plunder a pyramid for riches” thing, set in the same area. Entombed was a great adventure so it was natural that it would get a continuation at some point. Initially I was a bit sceptical; this sounded just like a repeat. Again, there’s a mysterious hidden pyramid full of riches and (assumably) traps. Again, there are multiple parties heading towards it, so time is a factor.

I need not have worried. Pact Stone Pyramid is actually very different from the first module, despite some surface similarities. It’s also very, very good… better than the (already high-class) first one, and actually one of the best adventure modules I’ve read so far from Paizo. This thing rocks.

I don’t want to spoil the plot here, because there actually is one, and there are some surprises. On a general level, the PCs are tasked with finding and investigating a vanished pyramid, either in opposition with another party or as allies (of sorts). After they find the thing life gets even more interesting; while it’s expected that a pyramid has traps – and sure, there are traps to be found here – this is not strictly a “deathtrap dungeon” thing. It seems very open-ended, both in the initial setup and in how the PCs can “solve” the scenario (or at least escape with their lives). I really liked the variety here. There’s social encounters and intrigue, there’s some sneaking around, some combat, a pile of traps and puzzles, and lots of room for PC improvisation.

Good stuff. Recommended.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #16, Endless Night

With Endless Night, Paizo’s “Second Darkness” adventure path advances to its fourth installment. As the title implies, here the PCs are sent deep into the “night”… in other words, deep underground.

In an intentional nod to the classic old “Against the Giants/Drow” series of modules, the PCs are disguised as drow and sent to infiltrate an ancient drow city, deep under the earth. There’s a lot of room for social stuff (too bad D&D mechanics suck for that, but whatever), and also for various sorts of covert sneaking about. The locale is a huge city, but naturally only a small part of that is detailed – the main plot assumes that the PCs infiltrate a very specific drow royal house, as prodded by plot elements. If the PCs decide to do Something Completely Different (as they are prone to do), well, the GM needs to think fast and improvise. There are some details included here to help with that; the booklet also contains a separate article on the (huge) city, with general descriptions of various interesting locales.

This was a pretty good “episode”, methinks. Lots of room for social shenigans, the absolute need to keep up a cover, and a few fun surprise twists should make this pretty fun to run and play in. Might need some extra GM work, but that goes with the territory. As with many of the imho better D&D “modules”, this one is not just a bunch of combat scenarios strung together.

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