Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: Rasputin Must Die! (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 5/6)

I have to admit, I’ve found the “Reign of Winter” adventure path to be much better than I’ve expected. It’s dimension-hopping fun, and while it gets more than a bit gonzo at times, the action varies quite a bit and there are lots of options to choose how to approach problems. As for that gonzo portion: in this installment Rasputin Must Die!: the PCs need to face against the mad monk Rasputin, on our Earth in the year 1918. Of course, since this is a fantasy campaign, here Rasputin has real magic powers and is holding the fabled Baba Yaga prisoner. Also, since it is our Earth, this gives the GM and the players a chance to pit fireballs against Russian tanks and machine guns. It sounds like it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does: it’s well-written, the action flows smoothly, and it takes the unusual setting assumptions here and runs with it. Quite impressive, really.

I’m sure some people will hate this adventure for mixing bits of real history with D&D, but I really like the result here, especially since I was expecting this to fail.

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Minireview: Wardens of the Reborn Forge (Pathfinder)

Wardens of the Reborn Forge has a promising initial premise, featuring a steampunk(ish) environment and a plot which has mechanical constructs going off their programming (and some handy PCs to fix things, of course). Unfortunately, the execution falls far from the potential, the resulting adventure is surprisingly generic and mostly only has the steampunk elements as window-dressing. The main bulk of the module is one big dungeon crawl, filled with combat but very little else. Very limited social interactions, and even the introduction of firearms in a fantasy setting doesn’t do much here.

Sure, the environment itself is quite interesting, and some of the creatures are unique to this module. A player group who really loves combat will probably like this. Others may want to avoid; while this isn’t actively bad, it is very generic.

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Minireview: The Frozen Stars (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 4/6)

I wasn’t really expecting The Frozen Stars to be all that good. The previous installment of this adventure path was ok but nothing special, and here we were supposed to move to an alien planet with snow-elves (kinda) who ride dragons. I expected that the designers were biting off more than they could chew, and would just spew out another generic dungeon crawl. I’m happy to report that wasn’t what I got, and that this adventure is pretty damn good.

As noted, the PCs land on an alien planet, after a short dungeon-crawly bit within the TARDIS… err, I mean Baba Yaga’s hut. They are met by aforesaid “space-elves”, and what happens in this encounter can determine a lot. In a fairly unusual twist, this adventure allows the PCs to ally with either the “good” side or the “evil” side, with encounters and a storyline for both. The “good” side is a bit more fleshed out and will probably be the usual choice, but it’s nice to see a design that gives the PCs a lot more latitude than is usual. Their mission, such as it is, is to fetch a McGuffin from a fortress, but how they go about it can vary quite a bit, here. In addition, the PCs get to take part in a mass battle, in another nice piece of design; they have the option of intruding in some critical spots, which will affect the course of the battle. Of course, they also have the option of doing nothing, in which case default events happen – usually, these are not good for the PCs. The whole thing wraps up with a travel segment and a short dungeon-crawly bit.

Very solid design, with lots of different things for the PCs to do. This adventure path is shaping up to be much better than I thought it would be, given the somewhat gonzo premise and all the dimension-hopping involved. Nice work, guys!

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Minireview: Maiden, Mother, Crone (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 3/6)

With Maiden, Mother, Crone, the “Reign of Winter” adventure path hits its midpoint. The adventure is a mix of good and… well, missed opportunities. The plot has the PCs arrive in farr-away Iobaria via the Tardis-like Dancing Hut (a very cool element), and on arrival they are surrounded by a threat they have no hope of vanquishing. It’s here that the PCs get a taste of the Hut’s extra capabilities, in the offensive department. That dealt with, the PCs meet up with a tribe of centaurs, which is assumed to be a somewhat friendly encounter but could fo course go horribly awry. From there, their quest to find a critically important “key” for the Hut leads them to a trio of vast statues carved into the mountainside, depicting the classic “maiden, mother and crone” trio of “Fates”. Lo and behold, these statues turn out to contain cavern networks, making the end portion of this outing into a dungeon crawl.

The first half is quite interesting, and provides multiple sorts of encounters for the PCs. The second half is a bit less so, even though for a dungeon crawl it’s a pretty good one – the “dungeon” consists of three interconnected parts, via teleports, and has the potential for totally confusing any explorers. The inhabitants are also quite interesting, with a detailed backstory. One the minus side, it’s not all that likely that the PCs will ever discover that backstory or the details of the somewhat intricate internal politics of the statue internal environments. That’s a pity, because here it’s quite well designed. Of course, the fact that over half of the adventure consists of this dungeon crawl takes away a bit from the initial “exploring alien location” vibe, since these caverns could basically be located anywhere.

Overall, pretty good.

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Minireview: The Shackled Hut (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 2/6)

The new “Reign of Winter” adventure path hits its stride with The Shackled Hut, the second installment. Here, the PCs have been transported to a far-off land via a magic portal, and their only hope of returning home is linked to solving the current threat of a perma-winter which is somehow linked to the Witch-Queen Baba Yaga. Stuff to do, people to kill, situation normal.

It’s a fairly strong adventure, with only the end portion being a bit muddled and railroady. Things start off with a wilderness section, where the PCs meet up with some potentially friendly NPCs. Assuming they make friends and don’t automatically attack everything that moves, they should be able to gain helpful information for the later stages, and maybe get some other help too. The problem being that Baba Yaga’s hut (yes, that famous one) is chained up in Whitethrone, the totalitarian-style capital of Irrisen, with Baba Yaga herself nowhere to be seen. So the PCs need to make their way to the hut and figure out how it works, despite heavy guard and being strangers in a strange land (which is under martial law, to boot).

The best part here is the hut itself. While it’s outwardly like the standard mythical thing (chicken legs, all that), inside it’s… very different. Think TARDIS, not “Russian peasant hut” (though it’s a bit of both). It will form the base for of the rest of the adventure path, and the PCs will get very used to it… to the extent that it’s possible to get used to it, due to its fluid nature. Fun stuff.

The worst part is the ending, which has a “boss fight” which seems a bit forced, along with railroady elements designed solely to stop alternate solutions by the PCs and to force said fight. It’s a bit stupid, but it’s easy enough to change, and the rest of the module makes up for the somewhat uneven ending.

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Minireview: The Snows of Summer (Pathfinder "Reign of Winter" 1/6)

The Snows of Summer starts off the new winter-themed “Reign of Winter” adventure path. It promises to be an interesting romp, with Russian mythology mixed in with Tardis-like hops around the multiverse, featuring Baba Yaga (yes, that Baba Yaga). With those ingredients, it could also be a horrible mess.

Based on this first part, I’m optimistic. While it’s very linear and the initial hook is a bit weak, it’s otherwise a fine adventure and set in a type of locale not used all that often in these things. The tale has the Witch Queen Baba Yaga returning to the nation of Irrisen evert 100 years to place a (new) daughter of hers on the throne, and this time something has gone wrong; the old witch has not returned and an unnatural winter threatens to swallow neighboring nations, and perhaps the whole world. Enter the PCs, who discover a magic portal near a remote village, and get dumped in the middle of the action. There are some interesting NPCs, and more than a few dark secrets.

One of which is the truth behind what Baba Yaga has been up to, though the PCs are unlikely to get all the information on that, yet. The fact that one of the main drives of this adventure path is to go rescue a Bad Guy is… different. Not necessarily bad.

I liked the Russian folklore feel of much of this, and there’s potential here – though the adventure path’s intention to actually visit (our) Earth at a later point sounds like something that could be anything from “cool” to “ugh”. The thing to tweak here is the lack of real PC choices, they are just shoved through an extremely linear storyline with little say in the matter (or, more properly, no GM support for PCs refusing to follow the train tracks).

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Minireview: Into the Nightmare Rift (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 5/6)

Well, I must admit Into the Nightmare Rift was a disappointment. It’s not the first time Paizo has done Cthulhu mythos (literally), many of the writers there are fans of Lovecraft (and Call of Cthulhu) and are quite open about it. Paizo includes side notes about where the material is coming from, and recommends trying out CoC… so no complaints there, that’s the correct way to do things. My complaints this time are with how the material is used.

This segment of the Shattered Star adventure path sends to PCs to Leng (of said Lovecraft fame). Now, this “evil un-Earthly plateau” has featured in many stories and games, so I was interested in seeing what Paizo does with it. Well, guess what they did with it here? Right, a dungeon crawl. Sure, it’s set on Leng, but the only way that actually manifests is the inclusion of a few Mythos creatures, otherwise is’t yet another indoor combat-fest. Talk about misuse of Lovecraft’s setting. There’s so much they could have done here, and maybe as part of another adventure path they might have. But here, in Paizo’s dungeon-crawl -themed path? Total waste.

It’s not all bad, of course. The beginning has a few fun bits featuring some fire giants and an old buried ruin (which is actually an old research station), and I guess as a dungeon crawl the Leng bit isn’t that bad either. Still a waste.

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Minireview: The Dragon's Demand (Pathfinder)

While Paizo’s standalone Pathfinder adventure modules have generally been fun, they’ve always been hampered by their very limited page count. All too often, there just wasn’t any way to add needed detail into the meager 32 pages provided, leading to lots of good design ideas with problematic execution. Paizo has apparently realized that this is a problem, and changed the whole line to a reduced schedule but doubled page count. Now, with 64 pages, these things can contain at least as much material as an adventure path episode, which should be good.

The first of these bigger adventures is The Dragon’s Demand, a (mostly) town-based adventure for 1st level characters (which should take them to level 7 or thereabouts). It’s a decent offering, but unfortunately isn’t anything all that special. The main plot has an old ramshackle tower at the outskirts of town suddenly collapse, with strange non-human bodies found in the rubble. Also, the local wizard (who has always complained about said tower blocking his view) has gone missing. Oh, and there are rumors of an old draconic menace makings its return. There are fun plot elements here, but unfortunately the execution doesn’t quite follow through.

First off, the town is presented with excellent detail – as far as the buildings and their contents go. However, for some bizarre reason, only a few major NPC are named and details, leaving the GM with the work of providing names and backgrounds for everyone else. This can be an annoying chore. Then there is the matter of over-abundant combat encounters, something that plagues all too many Pathfinder modules (and, to be fair, most D&D modules in general). Maybe it was from a need to give enough exp to push the PCs to the design-mandated level 7 neat the end, but it any case it’s a bit overboard. Finally, even though the main bad guy has a good back story, it’s unlikely that the PCs will get to discover that, let alone interact with the bad guy before the final big battle. This could have been done better.

It’s not bad. But neither is it anything really good, with anything to raise it above mediocrity.

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Minireview: Beyond the Doomsday Door (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 4/6)

Beyond the Doomsday Door continues the dungeon crawl-tastic Shattered Star adventure path with… a dungeon crawl! To its credit, it’s not a bad dungeon crawl and the backstory is quite good, including some of the key NPCs. There are weird, hostile monsters by the dozen, and various places where the GM can expand the thing if required.

This time around, the McGuffin of the week is located at the multifaith monastery Windsong Abbey, on the Varisian coast. The monastery itself is a nice idea, an inclusive multifaith retreat where are religions are welcome. Of course, since it’s the destination of a bunch of PCs, it’s doomed – in this case, pre-doomed, since by the time the PCs get there the place is a ruin occupied by hostile forces. In order to get their grubby hands on the artifact, the PCs need to (ta dah!) fight through multiple levels of monastery now filled with bad guys. There are also “doomsday doors” involved, strange ancient artifacts which reputedly guard… something.

It’s an ok jaunt. The monastery itself is quite fun, and some of the NPCs can even provide non-combat encounters (gasp). Most of the content is combat, though, and not too horribly interesting in itself.

This adventure path is looking more and more like a “meh” affair as far as I’m concerned. There are nice scenes here and there, but the endless dungeon crawly combat is boring (to me, at least). There is no larger plot worth noting, the “collect N artifacts” thing is so tired that it doesn’t really deserve the name “main plot”. All of this is still better than the “Second Darkness” and “Serpent’s Skull” paths, but that’s not saying much.

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Minireview: Doom Comes To Dustpawn (Pathfinder)

Doom Comes To Dustpawn is a compact Pathfinder module which mixes in pulp science fiction, of all things. A strange “meteor” has crashed near a small town, and the locals are reporting strange effects. Groups heading off to check the thing out do not return, and something seems to be approaching the town. Something not friendly.

In other words, is a classic B-movie “alien invasion” scenario, set in D&D environs. There’s a back story which explains things and sets them in a suitable context for Golarion, though how much the PCs will ever find out about the real back story is a bit of an issue. Not that it matters all that much. Part of the adventure is site-based, but there’s also an event-based structure in place since the PCs will be on a (loose) timetable here before all hell breaks loose. There’s a lot to like here; the structure is fairly loose and lets the PCs proceed in a variety of ways, and the plot throws some surprise curves at them – this isn’t quite the standard “aliens invade” scenario. The only weakness, really, is the opening hook. It’s a bog-standard and boring “stranger X hires you to investigate Y” thing. The module might work better if the PCs were to be involved with events right from the start, though that may require some tweaks to the structure.

Overall, a strong entry from Mike Welham, the winner of the 2012 “RPG Superstar” contest (run by Paizo to hook in new talent). For such a compact adventure, it’s refreshingly free-form in structure.

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