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Minireview: Raiders of the Fever Sea (Pathfinder #56)

Raiders of the Fever Sea by Greg A. Vaughan continues the Skull & Shackles adventure path, and I’m happy to report that it follows the high quality of the first installment. Where the first part promised later free-form adventure for the PCs, this one delivers (though in somewhat restricted form, as written).

The last part left the PCs with their own ship, so the next question is, of course, “now what?”. Well, if the PCs were smart or lucky in the previous part, they befriended one of the important NPCs and can get useful hints from them. If not, well… that’s the price for ignoring social interaction opportunities. The adventure assumes that one of the first things the PCs will want to do is disguise their ship, so that their ex-captain doesn’t track them down. Of course, the PCs may do nothing of the sort.

This is of course the problem with sandboxes, at least one with a “main plot”: the PCs may do something totally weird. If they do, the GM has to just roll with it, and this module provides a lot of events and encounters to throw at the players, culminating with a “dungeon crawl” type assault on a hostile stronghold. Once again, the GM should provide means for the PCs to act and fight underwater, otherwise things won’t turn out all that well.

Overall, I found this to be a great continuation to the story, providing an event-based sandbox environment for the PCs to rampage in. The only criticism is that (due to page count reasons) many of the events and encounters only provide one way of dealing with them, which most likely will not be the way the PCs choose. Nothing that cannot be improvised around, but still it would have been nice to see some “what if?” type stuff taken into account. Also, it’s assumed that the PCs will “conquer” a certain island fortress; here, happily, multiple approaches to doing that are dealt with, including one that involves a marriage of convenience. Points for that. However, what if the PCs don’t feel like tackling the fortress at all, especially since they really have no driving need to do so, other than “it would make them more famous!”? Since much of the continuation plot depends on that fortress, that can be a real problem and force serious on-the-fly modifications from the GM. That said, stuff like this comes with the territory if you want to combine free-form sandboxes with a plot, which in general is a design I do like.

So far, this looks to be one of the better adventure paths to come out of Paizo’s design factory.

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Minireview: The Wormwood Mutiny (Pathfinder #55)

The Wormwood Mutiny begins the new “Skull & Shackles” adventure path for Pathfinder. Written by veteran Richard Pett, it’s a somewhat unusual start to an adventure path and one I really liked: instead of having the PCs start off as the usual “heroes in training”, here they are wannabe pirates or suchlike random losers, who get press ganged onto a pirate ship and forced to work as part of the crew (doing low-level work). No fancy equipment, and only one step up from slavery. Now, not all play groups will be fine with this by default, so this requires agreement and player buy-in at the start. Doubly so, since the whole adventure path has the PCs becoming pirates… in other words, doing the looting & pillaging thing, punctuated by random murder. In other words, the PCs will not become heroes in the traditional sense; they may become infamous pirate lords. That’s not to say that the PCs need to be strictly evil, but Paladins and such need not apply.

Assuming player buy-in to the general concept, this thing rocks. The first half has the PCs getting familiar with shipboard life, including intrigue (maybe trying to get some of their original stuff back), social maneuvering (deciding who to befriend) and general keeping a lookout for trouble (most of their crewmates are at best indifferent to them, with some being actively hostile). This first part is also unusual because it gives real benefit to PCs with suitable non-combat skills. The man antagonists here are the captain and his cronies, but the PCs are not expected to fight them (attempts at such will result in pain), they are expected to get a huge grudge which they might get to pay back later if they play their cards right.

After the “intro” half, the action picks up a bit: after being assigned to a recently-seized ship, the PCs are sent over to a “deserted” island to gather up some much-needed fresh water. Things are not quite that simple, of course, and at the end of the thing the PCs may find their general situation much changed (and improved).

The book also contains rules for tracking piratical “Infamy” and other meters which tell the story of their exploits and have direct mechanical effects in later parts. Also abstracted is loot, since it’s not useful to have the PCs do a coin-by-coin count of all plunder. They seem like nice mechanics, though some of the details are a bit weird – the PCs and their ship gain all sorts of mystical powers as their Infamy increases. One assumes that these are the results of “off-camera” gain of magical gear and such, but that is not explicitly stated in the book so the GM needs to improvise here and there.

The first half of the adventure has very little combat (a plus in my book), while the second half has more of the usual combat encounters. Many of these involve aquatic and/or underwater locations, so the GM would be advised to provide the PCs with various means to deal with that.

This is an extremely fun-sounding adventure path; it looks like the whole thing is aiming for a sandbox style with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” feel. This is not historical piracy, this is very much “pulp pirates” and high adventure. Since that’s what most players will most likely prefer, I think this path would be a blast to play through assuming the quality stays at this level. Sandboxes are cool, as long as they are populated with interesting stuff to do. This one seems to be.

You do need player buy-in for this… but honestly, how many players would not be in for some “D&D Pirates of the Caribbean” action, especially when they get to be infamous pirates and decide their own fate? For once, no need to play do-good heroes.


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Minireview: The Midnight Mirror (Pathfinder)

The Midnight Mirror is a standalone adventure module, written by newcomer Sam Zeitlin (winner of Paizo’s 2011 “RPG Superstar” contest). It’s mostly a quite interesting affair, with emphasis on investigation instead of endless combat encounters. The action is set in a remote county, where the dominant religion centers around pain (the priests have lots of piercings, for example), and while that’s a fun detail it doesn’t really have much relevance here except as a possible red herring. The local baron has been acting strangely for quite a while, and there is a new and virulent disease running amok. The PCs are sent over on request from the family of the Baron’s new(ish) wife. who worry about their daughter and her reports about the instability of the Baron.

On getting to the site, the PCs are presented with a variety of strangeness, and have free rein to investigate things. It’s a sandboxy affair, with certain plot layers being revealed only when (or if) the PCs uncover certain things. That’s nice design, but what’s less good is that as written, many of these clues require Knowledge checks… and no provision is given for the PCs failing at those. That’s bad, especially since some of the checks are quite challenging. I’d suggest the GM in most places just give the PCs their clues depending on what they do and who they talk to, and only use Knowledge checks for some specific extra detail. Otherwise, as written, things are in danger of grinding to a halt.

Another small weirdness is that a non-human race is used, but no stats or actual info on that race is given here. Apparently it’s from some outside source, but without access to that the GM has very little to go on. As such, the other race is used nicely to highlight racial tension and old prejudices, on of the many themes here.

There’s quite a bit going on here, especially taking the limited page count into account, so the GM is advised to read the whole thing a few times to make sure he/she knows what’s really going on. That said, other than the small niggles noted above, I found this to be a pretty nice investigation-heavy scenario.

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Minireview: The Empty Throne (Pathfinder #54)

The Empty Throne (written byNeil Spicer) concludes the “Jade Regent” adventure path, and unfortunately it’s a slight letdown to the previous buildup. To be fair, with this page count allowance it would have been difficult to do much else than the “battle the main bad guys in a huge and complicated end battle” to finish this story like off, but still… the whole story has been building towards getting your friend recognized as Empress, and it just concludes with “get the blessing of some ghost, and then kill the current regent and proclaim yourself Empress”. I guess I would have preferred that this “end game” portion be stretched out a little, maybe over two books, here it feels rushed.

I generally end up liking the beginnings of these adventure paths, and being a bit meh on the endings. Part of that is due to the end portions tending to be high-power combat-fests instead of anything really interesting, and that’s part of the problem here. That said, the previous segment (“Tide of Honor”), was quite interesting and had lots of social interactions, so it’s not a polarized thing between the first half and the second half.

As noted, the plot here is fairly simple. Anyone wanting to proclaim themselves Emperor/Empress will have to get the blessing of the spirits of the Imperial Shrine, so that’s where we are led to first. Some combat here, along with a bit of exposition about the missing bits of the back-story. After that, it’s off to the palace and fight the bad guys. As a positive point, the adventure does have a scoring system for the various things the PCs do here and have done previously, which affects the stability and ease of Ameiko’s rule once she does become Empress. If the PCs cut corners or failed to gather proper support from some critical factions, it could be a rough ride. Of course, all that matters to any serious degree only if the GM intends to continue the story, but I guess it also makes for a nice “afterword” to the adventure, letting the PCs hear about the longer-term consequences of their actions and decisions. So, points for that.

Overall, I liked the beginning of the adventure path, it was quite imaginative and a fun road trip. The Caravan mechanic was interesting, though I’m not sure how much (or if at all) it works in practice. I didn’t really like part 4 (“Forest of Spirits”), but the next part was in its turn much better. This ending is… ok, but fails to excite.

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Minireview: Tide of Honor (Pathfinder #53)

Ok, after the disappointing Forest of Spirits, Tide of Honor (written by Tito Leati) kicks it up a notch, and then some. Instead of an endless series of boring combat encounters, this module actually contains a huge variety of stuff, from social encounters to puzzle solving and (gasp) even an old-school maze. Sure, there’s also some combat of course, but here it’s not the main meal on the menu. Hooray for that. Many of the encounters and scenarios are also somewhat free-form in how the PCs might solve (or avoid) them.

The plot has the PCs, now in Minkai proper, realize that they need some serious backup if they intend to put their “own” girl on the throne. Enter a bunch of factions (some shady, some more legit) which might be willing to support a claim for the throne… assuming the PCs manage to gain their good graces. How to do that? Well, that varies a lot. In one case, it involves the assassination of a corrupt general. In another, the rescue of a geisha from an… ardent admirer. Or maybe they’ll need to get rid of some bandits, to get an important bunch of locals on their side.

Of course, all this takes some framing and a bit of delicate GM manipulation. Your typical D&D PC will probably just want to march to the capital city and claim the throne – it’s up to the GM to make very clear to the players that without local support, this is a monumentally stupid idea. Assuming that gets done, this module contains a lot of fun. In a way it’s somewhat old-school, in the sense that there are puzzles (and the aforementioned maze) here – but I for one like those, as long as they are well-executed.

Oh, and there are also ninjas here. There are always ninjas.

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Minireview: The Ruby Phoenix Tournament (Pathfinder)

The Ruby Phoenix Tournament is a bit of a weird bird. It’s a standalone Pathfinder adventure module, but it’s set in a very nonstandard location (Tian Xia, Pathfinder’s faux-China) and has the players as contestants in a martial arts tournament. One cannot help but get the idea that it’s partly a marketing tool for the new Ultimate Combat sourcebook, since that is referenced in multiple places – but to be fair, the module does not depend on that book, just uses it for extra flavor if desired.

Anyway, the main feature here is a once-every-10-years martial arts tournament, where anyone can compete for a chance at fame and glory (not to mention access to a legendary hoard of magical artifacts). To add to the mix, this time around some of the contestants have other goals in mind, and are out to play for keeps. Naturally enough, the PCs are assumed to intervene, ideally before the shit completely hits the fan.

It’s not bad at all. The martial arts fights/contests are varied, and the side plot of “what else is going on” adds spice to the mix. Sure, some of the “clues” are quite… unsubtle, but that can be excused due to page count issues and need to keep multiple plot threads running. The GM can obfuscate some of the stupidly obvious clues, if needed. Of course, due to the nature of the story here it’s mostly useful as a one-shot game, it’s not very likely that your campaign will feature characters who are in the right place at the right time, with enough martial arts ability and fame, to take part in this. On the other hand, it is D&D-style fantasy, so realism can take a hike.

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Minireview: Forest of Spirits (Pathfinder #52)

Forest of Spirits starts the second half of Jade Regent, and also switches gears a bit from the first half, with the PCs finally arriving in Minkai. There is initial potential here, but unfortunately I have to say that this module has problems and consists mostly of wasted potential.

The beginning isn’t that bad. The PCs arrive in a strange little autocratic kingdom, and quickly become guests of the ruler. There is room for social maneuvering here, but the the whole segment is a bit disjointed. The ruler is in many regards a monster, executing people just for fun and ruling by pure whimsy. However, the who segment is more concerned with making him a somewhat humorous figure, which is a total waste here. Little-to-no mention is made of any local resentment against the ruler, one assumes they are fine with him executing people left and right on a whim.

After that part, we get a (kitsune) escort, who takes the PCs to the mysterious titular “Forest of Spirits” – a forest haunted with ancient spirits, which try to take over travelers and cause various sorts of mischief. And sure, some light use of this is made in the module… until it’s quickly dumped for what is essentially a dungeon crawl. Two factions have been going at each other for 60 years (if I recall), and the PCs are thrust in the middle of the conflict. Two problems: one, who continues a stalemate battle for a specific site for 60 years? Even though some of the inhabitants are supernatural, that’s still a stupidly long time to be stuck in a stalemate. Second, and more important: why disregard the whole interesting “forest full of ancient spirits” concept, and fill most of the module with a combat fest dungeon crawl (“temple crawl” more exactly)? It’s boring, adds little to the story except some needless underlining of how “evil” the oni are (yes, yes, we get it already). There’s too much combat and too little anything else.

So… if you’re the type who plays D&D for the combat encounters – and to be fair, lots of people seem to be in that category – you’ll probably like this. I thought it was largely a waste of otherwise interesting scenery, and would have much preferred something which actually used the “forest of spirits” environment in some real fashion. Meh.

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Minireview: The Hungry Storm (Pathfinder #51)

The Hungry Storm (by Jason Nelson) brings us to the halfway point in the Jade Regent adventure path. We were promised a road trip of sorts in this adventure path, and this installment delivers on that.

The PCs travel across the “Crown of the World”, a mountainous arctic region separating major continents. The adventure assumes that the PCs keep their caravan along with them, and plays heavily on the “caravan rules” subsystem introduced in the earlier modules. Players who enjoy some amount of strategy and logistics will probably like this element a lot, players who want everything to be directly resolved via their characters’ superpowers without any metagame in between will probably hate it. Fortunately, the caravan stuff can be stripped out if the PCs have decided to go it on their own or if the players are likely to hate it – though in that case, the players will have to come up with some semi-believable arctic survival schemes for their characters. Since we’re talking about vast distances across arctic plains here, “we just walk and carry our stuff” may not be realistic. That said, D&D has never exactly relied on “realism” to begin with… and anyway, I’m not quite sure how a caravan (with wheeled wagons) would realistically fare on such wastes.

Plotwise it’s mostly good. There’s an initial encounter with an arctic tribe, with lots of opportunities for social roleplaying. Depending on how that bit goes, the PCs may get either some help or some major obstacles on their way. It’s assumed here that the PCs involve themselves with what’s going on in the village, if they don’t then the first portion of the adventure will be skipped – but that does give the GM ammo to make their trip very difficult later. Of course, forcing the PCs to do certain things, even if you do it in a roundabout way, may feel like railroading, so a light GM touch is needed here.

After the semi-freeform beginning, the PCs are strongly guided towards a mysterious tower, which is a bit disappointing: it’s essentially a dungeon crawl, with tons and tons of combat. To my taste, this is a bit boring compared to the much more interesting beginning setup for it. Oh well, combat can always be reduced or eliminated completely if needs be.

The end has them surviving the arduous trek across the wastes, with (likely) some unscheduled reroutes along the way. Overall, I mostly liked this adventure, it delivers on the “road trip” concept and I liked the logistical needs of the caravan subsystem (though I’m sure some others will strongly disagree). My only minus is the overly combat-oriented section in the middle, I would have preferred something more subtle and puzzle-oriented there.

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Minireview: Night of Frozen Shadows (Pathfinder #50)

Night of Frozen Shadows (part 2 of Jade Regent, written by Greg A. Vaughan) is one of those adventures that sound like they’ll either be awesome or tragically bad, based on main idea: this thing has vikings and ninjas. Ninjas and vikings! They go together like… well, they don’t. Not really. Except that here, they kindasorta do.

The plot has the PCs taking a caravan to travel up north, to the frozen Viking Ulfen lands, in search of a guide to take them over the mountains to lands unknown. The caravan, though skippable, is very nicely detailed – there are lots of NPCs and some minor intrigue. I can see a game session being spent just in the caravan stuff, for some groups. Of course, some PCs will skip that and go on their own, and for those this is arguably wasted word count. I liked it though, it continued the emphasis on NPC relations and social dynamics from part one.

Once they reach Kalsgard, the game changes. Here they need to find a suitable guide, and unfortunately those are rare. As in, none to be found. Except for that one guy, who has recently vanished… I’m sure you can already sense the PC plot hook. So the PCs are forced into so local intrigue, with an interesting twist: there is a subsystem (using “notoriety points”) which determines what moves the antagonists do. If the PCs keep quiet and do their investigations on the sly, they might not raise any alarms. If they are loud and violent (and PCs tend to be)… well, they’ll get ninjas. And other nasty stuff.

Despite the wtf-inducing “vikings and ninjas!” combo, the whole thing is actually very good. There’s a lot of emphasis on NPC relations, as noted, and the optional-event-based structure of events at Kalsgard makes the whole thing quite free-form. Of course, it’s assumed that they’ll hunt down one specific guide – if they insist that they can just go out on their own (or make do with some poor substitute), the GM should be free to show them what happens to random wanderers in the northern mountain wastes. On the other hand, if would probably be reasonable to let them proceed however they like; just be sure to make things significantly harder for them later on if they insist that a good guide is optional.

So far, Jade Regent looks like a very nice “road trip” adventure.

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Minireview: Feast of Ravenmoor (Pathfinder)

Feast of Ravenmoor is a nice little mystery adventure for Pathfinder. A tax collector has gone missing in a remote, rural village, and the PCs are sent to investigate. Needless to say, there is something nefarious going on. I liked the fact that there is a large investigative aspect to this module, and also lots of room for social maneuverings. For a “D&D” module, the combat is mostly in the background here – though there are of course combat encounters sprinkled here and there.

There is a scene right at the beginning which sets the tone. Without spoiling it, it’s a sort of set-up for the PCs: if they react as normal D&D PCs would, the results will be bad for them. It’s a nice scene, but does need some deft GM description, since the PCs do need clear clues that something is not quite normal here. While there are shades of “The Wicker Man” here and there, the plot isn’t a direct copy from anything.

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