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Minireview: The Brinewall Legacy (Pathfinder #49)

The Brinewall Legacy (written by James Jacobs) starts off the latest Pathfinder adventure path: “Jade Regent”. In the long run it heads off towards the “Orient” of Golarion, but it starts off in Sandpoint – the same seaside town that featured in the first independently published Pathfinder adventure, “Rise of the Runelords”. Having a copy of that handly will help a bit here, since though the module contains some basic description of Sandpoint, the older module has a lot more detail which can be used to enhance things.

Things start off with a goblin hunt in a nearby swamp. Not the most illustrious of beginnings, but it escalates from there. Turns out a friend of the PCs has a mysterious family past which comes back to haunt her (and other people around her), and she badly needs friends to sort things out. Enter the PCs! This module ties in with the new “We Be Goblins!” Free RPG Day module in which the players play as goblins (providing some out-of-game background for some events here). Events lead the PCs to an old destroyed settlement, and the hidden history of how and why that settlement met its doom.

It’s a nice start, and the main plotline shows promise. The “hook” in the beginning is maybe a bit weak (what if the PCs aren’t interested in goblin hunting?), but that can be maneuvered around in multiple ways. The interesting thing here is the cast of NPCs – they are all given extensive writeups, and there is a “trust” mechanic for tracking how each NPC feels about each specific PC… and this can have direct mechanical consequences later on. It’s also assumed that the PCs go off “adventuring” together with many of these NPCs, which adds a new dimension to things. None of then are high-level, so it avoids the trap of “uber GM characters”. Neither are they pushovers, and they all have some agendas of their own. I liked this a lot.

It seems like this adventure path will feature a lot of wilderness travel. Here’s hoping it pulls it off better than “Serpent’s Skull”, which (I felt) severely underused the possibilities of its “exploring unknown jungle” premise.

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Minireview: Shadows of Gallowspire (Pathfinder #48)

Shadows of Gallowspire (by Brandon Hodge) concludes the “Carrion Crown” adventure path. It’s… ok, I guess. Way too much combat for my taste, but that’s a common complaint I have with Pathfinder stuff, especially the ends of adventure paths where smart plots are often somewhat pushed aside by “lvl N” combat encounters. That’s not to say that there is no plot here, it’s just that when reveled, the whole plot of the adventure path is somewhat… lacking. The main villain is introduced way too late in the show (the writers realized this in hindsight, and provide hints on how to foreshadow things), and in the end the plot comes down to “prevent yet another liche from getting created”. While that’s a fine goal, it’s a bit of a letdown compared to the buildup – especially since the bad guy has been mostly invisible to the PCs up to now.

Those quibbles aside, it’s a competent end game to the series. The PCs pursue the leadership of the Whispering Way to a cursed cathedral sanctuary, and force the hand of the main bad guy – who makes a desperate bit, with somewhat unintended consequences. Lots of combat ensues. While the end wraps things up to a large degree, there are plenty of open questions available if the GM wants to continue the campaign after this (and the book also provides a bunch of continuation ideas).

As a whole, the “Carrion Crown” path ended up being somewhat uneven. The first half was quite excellent Gothic-flavored fun, somewhat in the manner of old Ravenloft with some smarter plotting added to the mix. The second half, though, was significantly weaker. Not bad by any means, but a bit lacking when compared to the great beginning. Still, I guess I can recommend this adventure path, even as a whole. GMs thinking of running this as advised to read the whole thing first, so they can insert some much-needed foreshadowing into the earlier chapters – otherwise the PCs may end up quite confused about what’s going on and ill-motivated to continue.

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Minireview: We Be Goblins! (Pathfinder)

We Be Goblins! (by Richard Pett) is Paizo’s 2011 “Free RPG Day” module (available free for PDF download), and it’s quite hilarious. In a “now for something completely different” twist, it has the players play as goblins – crazy, evil, homicidal goblins – given a task by their clan chief to retrieve a huge stash of fireworks from a wreck in a swamp (or die trying). So off they go, on a (not very epic) quest to gain some (not very awesome) firepower, and to cause general mayhem. It’s a short module, as all the Free RPG Day ones are, but still contains a lot of content and should be more than enough to fill a long play session.

As an extra bonus, it also links in with the latest adventure path, “Jade Regent”. The same group of shipwrecks which serve as targets here are also at the root of the main plot in that adventure path, and a creative GM could even have the (non-goblin) PCs there encounter the goblin PCs presented here.

The module has four ready-to-play goblin characters, and since it’s available as a free download, all you really need to run this is a copy of the main Pathfinder core book.

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Minireview: Ashes At Dawn (Pathfinder #47)

Ashes At Dawn (by Neil Spicer) forms the penultimate chapter in the Carrion Crown storyline. It involves vampires, and does something moderately interesting for “D&D”-style games: it has the PCs ally (temporarity) with a group of strictly evil creatures, vampires in this case. The module does have sidebars on “what if the PCs refuse?”, but most of the action revolves around the assumption that they’ll choose the lesser of two evils: alliance with vampires in order to chase down an even more evil group. This is all fine and good, but I guess I’m a bit spoiled by White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade and other such games… the vampires here are simplistic creatures, and their “politics” are laughable compared to most World of Darkness vampires. Still, the whole setup is somewhat refreshing here, and lends a small bit of “shades of grey” into the whole thing.

Most of the action takes place in the city of Caliphas, where an unknown killer is apparently stalking the local vampire population. While this would normally be something to cheer about, here the local vampires are in possession of some critical information. So it becomes a case of “you scratch my back, I’ll stab yours”… or something in that vein. While most of the storyline is fairly coherent and interesting, there is one major “huh?” factor here: once the PCs realize they may need to ally with the vampires, they are given ways to arrange a meeting. After having arranged that, they get pointed towards a certain location for the meeting… which is a monster/guardian -infested place the PCs must fight through in order to meet the vampires. This makes zero sense; if the vampires really want to meet, they should just arrange a meeting somewhere neutral(ish). If not, why point the PCs towards their own lair instead of some other random deathtrap? It comes off as the classic D&D syndrome of having to have combat in every encounter, I’m not sure if the writers can even imagine a meeting scene without some amount of forced “combat encounters” along the way. It’s stupid and tired, but hey, that’s D&D for you (and yes, Pathfinder is D&D).

That niggle aside, it’s a decent enough adventure.

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Minireview: The Harrowing (Pathfinder)

The Harrowing is a standalone Pathfinder module with a very “Alice in Wonderland” feel and theme. In a good way. Written by Crystal Frasier, it focuses on the “Harrow deck”, a cultural staple on Golarion (and also available from Paizo as a real deck of cards). A form of tarot, it’s mostly used to tell fortunes (using real mystical powers or the powers of fakery, as needs be). Here, artifact Harrow deck, created by a legendary Varisian fortune-teller, is the catalyst for the story: the PCs end up dumped on a mystical demi-plane related to this deck, having to battle weird creatures and needing to figure out how to get home. So yes, a variant of Alice, without Alice herself or rabbits with watches.

It’s a fun humorous romp. Unlike the old “Dungeonland” module from TSR, this is not a total joke adventure; while some creatures in the demi-plane are decidedly strange and act in weird ways, they are not there as jokes. There is a somewhat grim backstory to it all, and a lot of puzzle-solving to do. GMs can also use a “real” Harrow deck as a game artifact, since the module provides handy hooks for that all over the place. All in all, a very nice stand-alone module in the “now for something a bit different” vein. This probably slots best into some of the adventure paths which also use a Harrow deck, to provide thematic continuity.

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Minireview: Wake of the Watcher (Pathfinder #46)

A town called “Illmarsh”, with strange, sullen villagers with strangely fish-like features? Rumors of forbidden cults? Miles and miles of rocky, forbidding shoreline? Yes, it’s “Paizo does Lovecraft” time again, with Greg A. Vaughan’s Wake of the Watcher (part 4 of 6 in the Carrion Crown adventure path). Not that Paizo is a stranger to Cthulhu, numerous old modules have had direct Cthulhu references, but this is perhaps the most direct Cthulhu scenario to come from them to date. On the other hand, it is Pathfinder and the end result is less the nameless dread Lovecraft was going for and more “Strange, squamous shadows advancing towards us? I fireball them!”.

The plot has the PCs chase the evil cultists to the aforementioned town of Illmarsh, where the tracks grow cold (and damp). The villagers are… strange, and getting clues may require the PCs to venture into places the townspeople would rather they not venture in. There are a few nice red herrings here to throw seasoned Cthulhu players a tiny bit off track, but generally players familiar with their Lovecraft will pretty much get what they expect. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; as noted, the combo of D&D and Lovecraft does bring a distinctly different tone to the proceedings, and not everyone is all that familiar with Lovecraft in the first place.

It’s a fairly nice continuation of the Carrion Crown storyline, though I have more and more trouble figuring out just why the PCs would track the cultists in this case. Why not just go home and find something easier and more productive to do? I suspect many GMs will need to add some carrots (or sticks) of their own here, to bring some urgency and sense of motivation to the proceedings. The story here is quite removed from the earlier plot, and this installment could easily be run as a standalone adventure without much extra work. For a GM looking for a slightly unusual tone for a D&D adventure, this might well fit the bill.

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Minireview: Academy of Secrets (Pathfinder)

Academy of Secrets is a stand-alone module for Pathfinder, which also has a slight link-in with the old Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path. It features an annual deadly “Breaching Festival”, where a Korvosan magic academy opens its doors… well, in a way. It’s a competition, where the academy mages build up all sorts of nasty magic traps and countermeasures, and volunteer contestants try to gain entry without getting fried to a crisp or just vanishing forever. A winner would get a huge jackpot, since the prize goes up every year and it’s been 150 years or so since someone last gained entry and lived. Enter the PCs…

Oh, and to make things more interesting, the contest isn’t quite what it seems, and manages to be even more deadly than you’d expect. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say anything more on that subject here.

It reads like quite a bit of fun, though it does railroad some small bits and may need some GM sleight of hand to handle overly clever or curious players. It also has the generic fantasy rpg fault of over-inflated time spans. I mean really, 150 years? That’s like a modern annual competition with huge prizes to have last had a successful winner in the year 1861. Why not just have it be, say 30 years or such? That’s still a long time, without diverging into the ridiculous. Oh well, it’s not like this module is a specific problem case in a genre which typically has empires which last thousands of years, and suchlike.

Other than those small nitpicks, it’s a fun self-contained module, with lots of opportunities for both clever problem-solving and combat.

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Minireview: Broken Moon (Pathfinder #45)

The quite excellent Carrion Crown adventure path continues with Tim Hitchcock’s Broken Moon, which deals with werewolves (with generic “gothic” horror themes and “Frankenstein’s monster” having been previous themes here). It continues with the high quality, especially the beginning which is really good. It gets a bit more generic towards the end, but still the adventure earns high total marks.

The PCs are led into the depths of Shudderwood, on the trail of certain evil cultists. They end up in an hunting lodge meant for local aristocrats and high rollers, and may need some social maneuvering or such to gain entrance. Once there, they are dumped in the middle of a murder mystery. Yes, the whole story involves werewolves, but to the writer’s credit it’s far from a simple “ravaging monster on the loose” story – in fact much of that overlay is more of a red herring for the PCs. The full story is complex, with various NPC factions involved, and the PCs have lots of ways of dealing with the situation. It reads like it should be a blast to play. As noted, the second half is a bit more generic, and while not bad it lacks the inventive flair of the beginning.

“Carrion Crown” has been really good up to this point, assuming you’re ok with an intentional “Hammer Horror” B-movie feel here and there. We’ll see what the second half looks like, next up should be some Cthulhuoid action with definite “fish men!” overtones.

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Minireview: Trial of the Beast (Pathfinder #44)

After getting off to a great start with “The Haunting of Harrowstone”, the “Carrion Crown” adventure path advances to part two with Trial of the Beast – and it’s even better than the first installment. I’m really starting to like this adventure path. Written by Richard Pett, it’s actually a detective story (set in a D&D world, of course). The infamous “Beast of Lepidstadt” has finally been captured after numerous murders and atrocities, and is currently imprisoned in the town jail awaiting trial. Naturally enough, the townspeople are demanding to see blood and expect a quick “burn the thing!” verdict from the court. Enter the PCs.

Events in the first adventure lead the PCs to Lepidstadt, and put them in contact with one of the judges – who is not convinced that the Beast is actually guilty here. It’s assumed that the PCs will agree to help the judge out, if they don’t this becomes a fairly short affair. There is a tight timetable, and the PCs only have limited time to do investigation and gather clues which might sway the court; there is also mechanic for this so the GM has an easy means of figuring out how well the PCs are doing. The trial could go in either direction, with the endgame being somewhat the same regardless of what happens. The end is more of a combat affair, but that’s ok given the awesome investigative first part of the adventure (and the end part also contains a couple of very cool scenes).

This is an excellent module. The plot is clever (with nods to Mary Shelley) and the PCs have quite a lot of freedom to act while still being tied to external time limits… and of course, non-combat skills will shine here. It’s a bit of a stretch to have a “medieval” town give an obvious “monster” a full fair trial – but hey, it’s D&D, it’s not supposed to be realistic in any sense. Anyway, this adventure path is looking very good at this point, let’s hope that it holds up.

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Minireview: Tomb of the Iron Medusa (Pathfinder)

Tomb of the Iron Medusa (by Mike Shel) is a standalone Pathfinder adventure with a slightly “Gothic” feel – the plot has to do with an old, doomed noble family and suchlike. It’s standalone because most of the action takes place in a family necropolis which can be located pretty much anywhere the GM wants (though there is a default location given). The PCs are hired to retrieve some information which might clear the family name of a contact; of course, that contact could even be one of the PCs, given some prepwork during character generation. Anyway, the PCs get tasked with entering the family crypt and retrieving some information. Simple, right?

Of course not. It’s not a deathtrap dungeon in the classical sense, but there are tons of puzzles and traps to be found. Most are quite clever, and the background plot contains some fun elements which can complicate the issue. The encounters here are quite varied, and thankfully some of them can be resolved without combat. Overall, it’s a fun little romp and fits in quite well with the ongoing “Carrion Crown” adventure path; this could be incorporated as part of that path without too much effort.

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