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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: The Asylum Stone (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 3/6)

The Asylum Stone brings the dungeon-crawly “Shattered Star” adventure path to the halfway point, and also to the city of Kaer Maga. It’s a fairly interesting but quite complex city, and this adventure maybe tries to do a bit too much with it, being separated into multiple stand-alone set pieces with only loose links in between. There are also some questionable assumptions made about that the PCs will do – this whole thing feels like something that the GM will need to flesh out quite a bit to make it run organically.

All that said, the set pieces are pretty cool. There’s an assault on a mage’s cliffside mansion, which as a setting opens up a lot of fun options (both for combat and for infiltration in general). Then there’s the end portion, which happens in a strange sub-realm with powerful guardians; it’s quite atmospheric and would probably be good fun. The bits in between though, the “glue” as it were, is a bit more shaky and is unlikely to unwind the way the writer envisions. Part of this is due to page count, of course, there’s no way to fully detail all the PC options, even the likely ones, in a big sandbox area like Kaer Maga.

So, with the caveat that quite a bit of GM extra work will probably be required here, this is a decent adventure module with a few quite interesting set pieces. I’m still not sold on this adventure path as a whole, there’s too much unimaginative dungeon crawl involved., but bits and pieces of this are quite nice.

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Minireview: Fangwood Keep (Pathfinder)

Fangwood Keep is a standalone Pathfinder module, featuring stealth and infiltration in addition to combat. In that sense, it has some similarity to the earlier Tower of the Last Baron. This one is much more stealth-based, though, and has less social interaction.

The main plot centers on an old military tower, set in the middle of a warzone between two hostile nations. A renegade lieutenant has seized control of the tower, and the PCs are recruited to scout out the situation and correct it, if possible. This works best if the PCs are actually employed by one of the nations in question, but standard “here’s a big reward” adventurer lures should also work. Of course, the real situation is a bit more complex than expected, and the PCs can easily end up in over their heads unless they are careful.

It’s a nice module, in that it really lets careful tactics and sneakiness pay off. There’s also an old-school vibe here, in the “old tower occupied by hostile forces” sense, quite a few old D&D modules had something like that. Nothing spectacular, but a good solid module that caters to various play styles.

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Minireview: Curse of the Lady's Light (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 2/6)

While I found the first part of the “Shattered Star” adventure path to be too much of a dungeon crawl for my taste, Curse of the Lady’s Light is much more to my taste. Sure, it’s still a dungeon crawl (I’m given to understand that’s the theme of this adventure path), this is a damn good dungeon crawl. The thing that makes it rock is a bunch of good NPCs, with relevant non-combat interaction – even one of the main “bad guys” is actually someone you could reason with, and maybe arrive at a deal. The beginning has two different tribes of swamp creatures, and the PCs have the option of dealing with one, both, or neither of them. After that, they have to deal with the now-exiled Gray Maidens (see the old “Curse of the Crimson Throne” adventure for details on them), which is both interesting gameplay-wise and interesting from a campaign history viewpoint: this adventure path is intended to be a continuation of sorts to both “Rise of the Runelords” and “Curse of the Crimson Throne”, and links like the Gray Maidens go a long way towards realizing that continuation.

The name of the adventure comes from “The Lady’s Light”, a Statue of Liberty -style ancient statue which, of course, holds all sorts of stuff inside (the aforementioned “dungeon crawl”, to begin with). It’s at least an interesting place to put a “dungeon”, I’ll give them that.

While I’m not wild about the “fetch six McGuffins” main plot, and about dungeon crawls in general, I have to give credit where credit is due: this episode is quality stuff. Hack & slash PC groups can keep on hacking and slashing, while more subtle parties are given lots of additional options.

Extra points for a very nice trap, which may have (fun) repercussions for the whole rest of the adventure path.

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Minireview: Shards of Sin (Pathfinder "Shattered Star" 1/6)

Shards of Sin kicks off the “Shattered Star” adventure path, which is supposed to feature a hunt for six pieces of an ancient artifact. As such, that sounds more than a bit clichéd, “find the pieces of ancient artifact McGuffin” has been a staple plot of rpgs (and some bad fantasy books) for ages. Ok, so the main “big plot” promises to be a bit… worn, no worries…. this first installment is supposed to be a city-based adventure based in Magnimar. Sounds decent.

Unfortunately, we don’t get a city-based adventure. We get some initial setup scenes in the city, but the bulk of the adventure is one huge dungeon crawl. Sigh. While I’m sure there are lots of people who love their dungeon crawls, it’s not like there’s a shortage of them in Paizo adventures. It’s lazy writing; it’s easier to just plop down a “dungeon” with lots of combat encounters than it is to design a more fluid plot and setting.

It’s not all bad. In fact, I wouldn’t call this adventure “bad” at all, just… mediocre and missing a lot of potential. As noted, the main “big plot” is somewhat tired, and relies on PC greed/curiosity as main plot drivers. Ok, to be fair, there is a strong Pathfinder Society connection, so “quest for personal fame” is a good motivator too. The initial part of the module is also the best part; it features the criminal underground of Magnimar and has some (small) opportunities for non-combat encounters. After that, though, we get the huge dungeon crawl thingy… which isn’t bad either, for a dungeon crawl, and is more logical than many (the backstory is somewhat interesting there).

In the end, this is a ho-hum start to an adventure path with a ho-hum main plot. Not an auspicious beginning, especially since usually the beginning tends to be the best part in these things. We’ll see. Maybe this adventure path will break the usual pattern, and get better as it goes along.

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Minireview: From Hell's Heart (Pathfinder #60)

From Hell’s Heart concludes the “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and does it with a style consistent with the earlier installations. In other words, it’s pretty good, and forms a satisfying conclusion to the story – though one with lots of continuation possibilities if needs be.

With their previous nemesis dead or at least beaten, the PCs should now be poised to step into a leadership role in the Shackles. About time, too, since there is now a huge fleet sailing in their direction, with the intent of getting rid of the “pirate menace” once and for good. If things go the way they are most likely to go, the adventure path will culminate with an epic-scale naval battle which will decide the fate of the region (and the PCs) once and for all. While it’s expected that the PCs (and their allies) win the day, it’s always possible that it’s not their day. In this case, the PCs may have to fleet the Shackles, maybe for good.

While there isn’t anything overly clever here, it does form a fitting culmination of the story. Overall, I’ve liked “Skull & Shackles” quite a bit, it seems like a nice balance of sandboxy piracy and loosely connected plots and set pieces. This based on reading, of course, these things may work very differently in actual play.

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Minireview: The Price of Infamy (Pathfinder #59)

The Price of Infamy is the next-to-last portion of the piratical Skull & Shackles adventure path. It follows the high quality of the previous episodes, making this a fantastic adventure path (at least so far).

Events up to now have left the PCs with their own (fortified) island, and a powerful enemy with a grudge. Combine these two, and you get an invasion fleet header for the PC’s home base. Cue desperate scrambling in order to gather up enough of a defensive force to win the naval battle. Lots of diplomacy and use of past contacts is needed here, unless the PCs have somehow managed to gather a sizable fleet for themselves before this. The naval battle itself is handled by an abstract rule set, no idea how well it works in practice but the idea itself is good: resolve the “large scale “action with mass (naval) combat rules, and then put the spotlight on the PCs and their melee with the enemy fleet leaders. It sounds like fun, in any case.

After this is dealt with, the second half of the module deals with the PCs’ reprisal attack on the enemy’s home base. This is a more traditional affair, made a bit more interesting with the introduction of certain traitorous parties and and the fact that the way the PCs approach the raid will have a huge effect. The default assumption is that the PCs will try for a commando-style raid, but they are of course free to go for an overt mass assault instead (which is likely to be an uphill slog for them).

It’s a fun-sounding episode to a very entertaining story. As before, there are assumptions about what the PCs will do, but the GM is given some tools to handle them doing something totally different. For example, while it’s a given that an attacking fleet is coming for them, how they prepare is up to the PCs. It’s assumed that they will want to deal with their old enemy once and for all after this, but if they elect to do something else the GM can just save the second half for later (or not run it at all, in some cases). It’s more constrained in some ways than the earlier portions of the story, but it’s not a railroad either.

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Minireview: Murder's Mark (Pathfinder)

Murder’s Mark is a standalone Pathfinder module featuring ethnic tensions and a murder mystery set (mostly) in a traveling circus. Not quite your standard D&D fare, in other words. Written by Jim Groves, it features a lot of investigation and social encounters (as opposed to endless combat encounters versus monsters of the week). In my view, this is a very good thing.

The story is set at the Umbra Carnival, a traveling circus largely populated by Golarion’s gypsy drop-ins, the Varisians. The circus rolls into a small fishing village, sets itself up, and and runs up against the usual prejudices against “those thieving and shifty Varisians”. This time, however, there is a more serious element: someone is murdering visitors at the Carnival, and the “gypsies” are naturally enough the first to get the blame. The local law-person wants the case solved as fast as possible, so enter the PCs in the role of investigators (their own motivations for getting involved are left open here, which makes sense). Naturally enough events escalate, and the PCs quickly have their hands full with trying to figure out the real culprit before the mob chooses and punishes a suitable “perpetrator” for them.

It’s a nice little set piece, and easy enough to drop in the middle of an existing campaign. It’s also refreshingly free of dungeon crawling, which is a nice change. Of course, since it has a plot and is, essentially, a murder mystery, I’m sure there are multiple ways the PCs might short-circuit everything with suitable magic – though the fact that this is meant for low-level characters reduces that danger a bit.

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Minireview: Island of Empty Eyes (Pathfinder #58)

Island of Empty Eyes begins the second half of the (so far quite excellent) “Skull & Shackles” adventure path, and also explains why the PCs were so railroaded into winning that sailing race in the previous episode: the island that they win as reward features centrally here. They get ownership of the island, but of course the current owners are not told of that; the whole thing is one more test, a “carve out your own kingdom” thing. As such, it works out quite well.

The first half involves exploring the island, “taming” (i.e. slaughtering) the natives, and figuring out the logistics of building an island base. That last bit will need the PCs to hire workforce and do lots of non-traditional stuff as far as “stock adventures” are concerned, so points for that. Most of the busywork here is handled by die rolls, but there is no reason the GM couldn’t expand some of the hiring / negotiation segments if there is story there and the players are interested.

After the PCs get their “island fort” set up, at least to some degree, the second half commences: the pirate council comes over for a “friendly social visit”, in other words evaluation of how the PC have performed and if they have what it takes to join in the ranks of pirate lords, where apparently the ability to conquer and set up your own domain needs to be on your piratical CV. As can be expected, there’s a twist here: an old enemy has arranged for a saboteur to join the party, with the intent of wrecking the event (and therefore the PCs’ chances of joining the inner circle). This section reads like a lot of fun; the PCs need to scramble in order to entertain a bunch of rough & tumble guests, while dealing with (and ideally hiding) various bits of sabotage and trying to pinpoint the actual saboteur. Some combat involved, but mostly it’s investigation, social shenanigans and general action.

“Skull & Shackles” continues to be a great adventure path. Lots of different types of action, a structure that looks quite free-form but is actually somewhat event-based “under the hood”, and a plot that lets the PCs be scoundrels and greedy bastards if they want to be. One of my favorite Paizo adventure paths, at least so far.

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Minireview: The Moonscar (Pathfinder)

If I had to write a capsule summary of The Moonscar, a new Pathfinder module by Richard Pett, it would be “missed opportunity”. Pett has written good modules before, but this is just lazy design.

So what’s the problem? Well, the thing is set (mostly) on Golarion’s moon. Some party is kidnapping people, and the trail leads… into space!. To the moon! One would think this to be the ultimate ticket to write something really creative, different and weird, using the low gravity, vacuum and other stuff to full extent. What do we get instead? The bad guys turn out to be demons, and the whole thing is set inside an underground complex. In other words, it’s one huge dungeon crawl, versus demons. This could just as well have been set on some random demonic plane, with close to zero modification. It’s boring, and it’s uninspired design.

Is it a good dungeon? No idea, really, I’ve never actually played or run Pathfinder so I cannot comment much on the combat sections – and most of this is combat encounters. It may well be tactically interesting, but it still rates a solid “meh” on the general adventure design scale.

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Minireview: Tempest Rising (Pathfinder #57)

Tempest Rising (by Matthew Goodall) represents the midpoint of the piracy-themed Skull & Shackles adventure path. While it has some issues with an overly railroaded end section, otherwise the module continues the largely-sandboxy format of the two previous modules. Which is a good thing.

As in the previous adventure, this one also has some key segments which trigger when (or if) the PCs decide to do a certain thing. It’s assumed that the PCs will at some point want to do these things, but of course if they don’t most of these adventures will end up not being used. That’s an unavoidable part of presenting a sandbox to the players, of course; you cannot guarantee what they will decide to do. The good news here is that the triggers are quite believable things for the PCs to attempt.

The first one involves the PCs wanting to get official recognition in pirate circles, which involves getting official recognition from the self-styled “Hurricane King”. This is a nicely convoluted affair, which cannot (easily) be solved by brute force – lots of places for more socially-oriented (or sneaky and/or dishonest) PCs to shine. Also tied into this section is another optional plot line, which ties into the big background plot (mostly invisible to the PCs up to now) of spies within the pirate community. Assuming the PCs decide to follow leads given to them, they get a nice long investigation-heavy jaunt, with lots of dead bodies showing up all over the place. I really liked this bit, it’s a nice balance of investigation, social-fu and combat.

The end result of the “get official recognition” part is somewhat railroaded; it’s very hard for the PCs to actually fail at this. However, there are lots of ways they can succeed, with some of them getting them a not-too-flattering reputation in the local piracy social media thing… so there is an incentive to try to ace this section. Besides, some of the challenges are quite amusing.

Last off we have the PCs getting invited to join the “Free Captains’ Regatta”, which is somewhat like what the name implies: an actual sailing race. Having some PCs with actual mariner skills will help a lot here, a combat-munchkin group will have a hard time. There is some “external” help which they can get (some in the form of magic items), but in the end pure combat skill will not solve this one. My (minor) complaint concerns the result of the race: as written, the PCs win it pretty much no matter what they do, with no provisions given to them actually losing. I wasn’t too wild about this design choice, even though them winning the race is apparently a key factor in the next installment. I would have liked to see a “plan B” option for that. Also, what if the PCs just aren’t interested in the race, and want to do some more plunder? GM headaches, that’s what. That said, it’s a minor issue, since most players will be more than happy to join in on a race, and will be willing to overlook some behind-the-scenes fudging which lets them win. Depends on play group, of course.

Overall, a very solid continuation to the adventure path, which in my mind quite successfully merges sandbox and event-based styles. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is shaping up to be one of Paizo’s better adventure paths.

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