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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Hungry Are the Dead (D4)

Selling real estate in Falcon’s Hollow must be harder than selling it in Baghdad.

Not that it was a nice town to begin with, ruled by lumber barrons and awash with criminals. But then came the plague (D0: Hollow’s Last Hope). Once that passed, the local children started vanishing (D1: Crown of the Kobold King). Then came the undead kobolds (D1.5: Revenge of the Kobold King). Oh, and at some point there was a homicidal circus in town, too (E1: Carnival of Tears). At this point, you’d imagine the only people left in the damn place would be the desperate and the stupid.

Well, the desperate and the stupid deserve what’s coming to them. And what is coming? Why, more zombies! All over the damn place. Who can save the day… oh, yeah, let’s ask those handy adventurers who saved us the last bazillion times! I’m sure they’ll be at the inn…

Hungry Are the Dead is a fun, loose sequel to Revenge of the Kobold King, forming a trilogy of sorts. There’s a zombie plague to track down and some dungeon delving to be done. The plot actually ties in to the earlier modules, but the problem is that that connection is, as written, unlikely to ever be figured out by the players. Some tweaking might be in order there. Other than that it seems fun enough. It gets a bit campy at times (a roomful of eyeballs? uhh… ok), but the whole “Kobold King” storyline has been pretty campy so it fits right in. I don’t mean to be negative here, it’s mostly the good kind of “camp”.

Not quite as good in my opinion as the earlier modules in the (loose) series, but not at all bad.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #15, The Armageddon Echo

The Armageddon Echo (by Jason Bulmahn) is the third part in the Second Darkness adventure path from Paizo. Before this, the PCs have encountered strange happenings in a small seaside town, and then followed up on a “gold rush” to a nearby island which is hit by a meteor. In this part, it’s expected that they follow clues that point them towards the elven city of Celwynvian and the possibility of Drow involvement. Assuming they do this, they will get recruited into a large-scale hidden war between the elves and the drow, and then sent off to a demiplane which repeats a certain historical calamity on a neverending cycle.

All fine and good, but… why should the PCs do any of this? I’ve always had a small problem with adventure paths which assume that PCs will follow very subtle leads and suddenly decide to go on cross-country expeditions (which is most of them), and here that problem is really thrown in your face. Assuming the PCs are not elves… why the hell should they care what happens in elven internal politics? Especially since the first installement sets them up with a casino/bar to run, with lots of underworlds contacts and other fun stuff. Now suddenly they are supposed to run off to save the elves (and others)? And it gets even better: if they do, they are (probably) hailed as heroes and sent on as a commando troop on an important forward sortie. Umm, what? A group of strangers shows up and helps a bit in your war, and suddenly they are trustworthy enough to put all your hopes on? Right. Sure, it’s a D&D cliché, but…

It works a bit better if you think of it as the elves using the characters as convenient cannon fodder… and it all actually starts to make some sense if all the PCs (or a significant majority) actually are elves. But nothing like this is really emphasised in the first installment of this path; there is some mention of elven connections, but it’s all very vague.

If we ignore the dubious plot logic, the adventure itself isn’t bad. The beginning war thing has a “point system” (used in other Paizo paths, too) which gives points for various things the PCs may do, and the total says what the final reaction will be. I like that mechanic, it’s gives palpable feedback to the PC actions – though you probably want to keep the point count, or even the fact that there is a point count, secret from the players. After the battle scenes the action moves to the “Armageddon Echo”, a very cool demiplane which endlessly repeats a critical historical scene. The PCs enter, and after that they are on a timer: do the job and get out, or become dust and ashes.

So… some dubious plotting balanced by some pretty cool scenes. If the GM or players can figure out suitable PC motivations for doing what they are supposed to, this should roll along fine. This whole thing probably works best if the PC group is mostly composed of expatriate elves. At least that’s how I’d run it.

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Minireview: Treasure of Chimera Cove (LB2)

Treasure of Chimera Cove continues (loosely) the story begun in Tower of the Last Baron. To be honest, the connection is very loose; this is a totally separate standalone adventure by a different author (Anson Caralya), with some plot hooks included to make connecting the two modules together easy(ish).

This was a slight disappointment after Tower, but perhaps that is because that module was just so good. This is more normal fare, in the form of maritime exploration and some dungeon crawl. Assuming the PCs are continuing from Tower, they will arrive at the tiny old pirate port of Chimera Cove trying to trace down a “weapon” that is supposed to be hidden there. What that weapon actually is proves to be a nice surprise, and there are some nice locations and scenes here.

While this does pale in comparison with the first part, it’s still a solid enough piraty adventure thing. If you want to put some “yarr!” into your game, you could do worse than this. As noted, the connections with the “first part” are so loose that running this standalone should be no problem – all you need is some motivation for the PCs to arrive at Chimera Cove, armed with some clues. Perhaps the ever-dependable mysterious stranger at the inn, if you’re feeling really old-school…

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Minireview: Pathfinder #14, Children of the Void

Children of the Void (written by Mike McArtor) is the second part of the “Second Darkness” adventure path. In it, the PCs are expected to launch an exploration expedition to the site of a recent meteor crash (an island some ways off), based on recent evens and some clues encountered in the first installment. This might take some railroading… but probably not. Convincing players to run after treasure is usually not all that hard.

Needless to say, there are complications. In addition to pirates (yarr!), the PCs will also encounter some alien creatures which may or may not be related to the meteor. There are people to save, some treasure to be found, and an island to explore… and of course, some clues that will point PCs toward the next adventure.

The book(let) also contains some info about the solar system Paizo’s game world of Golarion exists in. Interesting stuff, and a bit unusual for a D&D game.

I have mixed feeling on this adventure path, so far. The first part was pretty interesting, as is this one – but they feel very loosely connected. I have the feeling that the continuation story may have problems with players going “why should we do that?”. The players are expected to run off again after this, while they may well feel that they’d rather stay put and keep their collective noses out of other races’ businesses. So… some railroading may be needed. I guess that’s my problem with the “adventure path” concept in general: they tend to be very linear, with sometimes quite minimal support for players doing Something Totally Different.

While I did like this installment, it did contain one real “wtf?” moment: a spacefaring race (one that lives in vacuum, to boot) which communicates partly by smell. Anyone see problems with this? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

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Minireview: Pathfinder #13, Shadow in the Sky

Here we go again. Shadow in the Sky (written by Greg A. Vaughan) kicks off Paizo’s third adventure path, Second Darkness. As always, there’s an ancient evil awakening and the PCs are initially small fry who are (probably) expected to save things. Skipping that cliche, things do look quite interesting – there is a science fiction-ish twist and the promise of lots of drow as the bad guys. Not “misunderstood angsty dark-skinned folk”, but “evil, murderous bastards”. All this is tied to a big chunk of elven history and politics.

This first installment places the PCs in Riddleport, a Freeport-style wild and rowdy seaside town. After participating in a gambling tournament the players get the chance to get a slice of the business for themselves, with all sorts of potential problems. The big plot is mostly in the background, in the form of a weird phenomenon in the sky and some dark rumors. The action here revolves mostly around small-time crime and lots of shady dealings, which in fun in itself; it’s quite workable to have the PCs all be small-time crooks, for example.

Paizo has again tweaked the format a bit. The main adventure is a bit shorter, but that’s compensated by a bonus standalone adventure that can easily be plugged into the “main” adventure. The practical reason for this is resourcing: this format lets Paizo divide the adventure writing between more authors, and the small “standalone” adventure bit is a good place for new authors to try their legs (so to speak). I like it.

Hard to say much about the whole thing yet, but the setup seems pretty cool. Waiting with interest to see where this one goes.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #12, Crown of Fangs

Crown of Fangs (by Tito Leati) provides the conclusion for Paizo’s Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path. It’s pretty good, though not quite what I was expecting; I was ready for a grand assault on the castle and a climactic fight against the main villain. Well, we get that… but not quite in the format expected. I don’t want to spoil too much here, so won’t go into details on that.

The castle is (understandably) left halfway as a sketch, since it’s huge and there’s no way to map the whole place in detail. I liked what the author had done here, in that he’s provided detail on the most critical parts and given enough info on the rest for the GM to be able to make things up as the situation demands. There are also some fun hooks to alternate adventures that could be expanded on by the GM. The castle should provide the players of lots of castle storming fun, and a nice fight – but as noted, not everything is as it appears.

The continuation (second half of this installment) has the PCs set out for the wilderness again, and I can see it possibly providing some problems unless the players pick up some vital clues. I’m not sure I buy the logic of what the main villain is trying to do here, and why that specific place… but whatever. Assuming the players stay on rails, the whole things looks like a lot of fun, once again.

In retrospect, I think Curse of the Crimson Throne is a stronger campaign than Rise of the Runelords (which was by no means bad). I liked the fact that about half of the story happens within one city, there’s a lot that can be done in the context of “urban” adventures. The PCs can no longer throw fireballs around with total abandon, there’s always the risk of serious fire and the general problem of innocent bystanders. Of course, some players may not care about those things… in which case it’s the GM’s job to make sure the PCs start having approriate reputations.

On the minus side, this adventure path also suffers from a very linear storyline (I suppose that’s a hard thing to avoid). At times while reading this, I’ve honestly had to question why the players would ever do what the writers expect them to do. Of course, all that is fixable with proper foreshadowing and generous distribution of clues, it’s just something that you have to focus on right from the beginning.

Looking forward to the next adventure path, Second Darkness. It sounds interesting.

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Minireview: Tower of the Last Baron (LB1)

Now this is more like it. Not that Paizo’s “Pathfinder” adventure modules have been bad in any way up to now, quite the opposite in fact… but they have tended to be made in the D&D adventure format, with lots of combat being the core “content”. Paizo’s modules have tended to be a lot better than most others, in the sense that they have usually had stuff other than combat and the opponents have usually had motivations and such instead of just being walking clumps of exp… but still. At their core, many have boiled down to “go there, kill everything, gather the loot”, as that’s the game type D&D tends to promote.

Tower of the Last Baron (written by Stephen S. Greer) is something a bit different. Here the PCs are actually spies, attempting to infiltrate a potentially hostile town and assassinate the Baron running the town. Instead of “save the world from ancient evil”, here the motivations are a lot more realistic and down to earth – the Baron is apparently dealing with an enemy faction, and it is feared that he will help them initiate an invasion. In other words, the PCs’ “higher ups” want an inconvenient local ruler “taken care of”. That’s not something that you see in D&D every day.

In addition to the non-standard setup, the module also manages to be very well put together and interesting. There’s a big emphasis on social interaction within the town and on subterfuge; if the PCs wade in swinging their weaponry they’ll get their ass handed to them by the local militia (in all probability). Same if they carelessly blab about their mission to random strangers. The PCs have to figure out how to infiltrate the town castle, who to trust, and how to perform an assassination – if they want to follow their orders, that is. Interesting stuff.

This is probably my favorite from all the Paizo modules I’ve read so far, and that’s putting it against some tough competition. I’m actually thinking of trying out this thing with the Burning Wheel ruleset, to see how it would work.

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Minireview: Pathfinder #11, Skeletons of Scarwall

Skeletons of Scarwall (written by Greg A. Vaughan) is the next-to-last installment in Paizo’s “Curse of the Crimson Throne” adventure path. It’s a combatfest, but for once it looks to be a good combatfest. Set almost entirely in the brooding, ancient castle of Scarwall, there is a definite air of old Ravenloft here – boosted by the all-too numerous undead that inhabit and guard the place. There are lots of nifty ideas and encounters and the whole thing reads like good fun. Assuming you’re ok with lots of combat, of course, the idea here is that the PCs need to fetch the McGuffin… err, I mean the holy weapon “Serithtial” from the depths of the castle, since it looks like that weapon is key to defeating the queen. Ancient evil that requires an ancient artifact to defeat it… we’ve seen this one before. More than a few times. Still, ignoring the cliche setup the whole module seems very well put together, so I won’t complain too much. Besides, you can always get rid of the artifact and replace it with something else – maybe just key information. As long as the PCs need to fetch something from the castle, it really does not matter much what it is. Thus, McGuffin.

The book also contains a very nice article about the (nasty) god Zon-Kuthon and its almost-as-nasty followers, and the usual fun “pathfinder journal” entry plus some new monsters.

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Minireview: Flight of the Red Raven (W3)

Flight of the Red Raven is another strong adventure module from Paizo, this time set up in the snowy north… though the writer has said that it actually ended up being placed further south (in Golarion, Paizo’s game world) than he had intended. Due to that “up north” setting, the writer has decided to use Finnish and pseudo-Finnish names for town inhabitans and sites. While there is nothing wrong with this (Finnish is an obscure language that sounds quite alien enough for a fantasy game), it does cause some hilarity for Finns. A house called “sahtisauna” is quite ok, especially since it’s what it claims to be: “a combination of bathhouse and brewery” – but I have a hard time believing Finnish players will manage to keep a straight face when NPCs have names like “Antero Ikonen”… so some renaming may be in order, for Finns.

The adventure itself is good. There’s a mystical artifact that gets stolen and the PCs go after it. So far so good. The motivation of the thief is understandable and leads on to other complications, and the motivation for the PCs is also well-realized: the artifact was protecting the town from the ravages of winter, and now that it’s gone the town faces real danger from the elements. There is a nice bit of social scenery in the town to set things off, including a celebration with lots of opportunities for mayhem. After that, the action moves on into the wilderness (as befits the “W” designation) and ends up in a very interesting and challenging situation.

One of my favorites from among the newer Pathfinder modules.

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Minireview: Revenge of the Kobold King (D1.5)

Revenge of the Kobold King was Paizo’s offering for this year’s Free RPG Day. People lucky enough to have a participating shop nearby could pick up a copy for free, the rest could either download a (free) PDF version or buy a print copy for $5. I went for the “buy a copy” option, since that was the only way for me to get a print copy. Me likes print copies.

The module is a sequel to Nicholas Logue’s earlier popular scenario, Crown of the Kobold King, and it’s a lot of fun. In the first part, an up-and-coming Kobold warlord was laid low by a bunch of “pink-skinned sword-waving psychopaths” (from the Kobold point of view). Now, the humiliated (and dead) warlord is given a new lease on (un)life and a chance for revenge. It doesn’t even matter if your players played through the first part or not – one pink-skin looks pretty much like another to a pissed-off undead kobold, anyway.

The action starts off with an attack on some lumberjacks and escalates to the PCs once again assaulting the poor would-be ruler. There’s lots of dark humor involved and it seems like a great little romp, either by itself or as a continuation to the earlier scenario. Either way, good stuff. It’s a quite compact module, clocking in at only 16 pages, but I don’t see that as a bad thing.

Poor Falcon’s Hollow. That place has been subjected to more than a few menaces so far by Paizo’s modules, and it never was a very nice place to begin with – which has always been quite refreshing, for once we have a D&D “campaign base town” which isn’t an idyllic, boring collection of farmers and the required pub (in which to meet dark strangers and be offered quests). Falcon’s Hollow owes a lot more to Charles Dickens than it does to most D&D inspirations.

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