Seeing Serpent’s Skull on sale for the Paizo 10th Anniversary Sale got me thinking about the campaign again, and gave me some incentive to finish this post.
Along with Second Darkness, Serpent’s Skull is probably the worst official Adventure Path written. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible or unplayable, but that it has more requirements and needs more tweaking to get a successful and fully enjoyable campaign out of it—in other words, as-written, it’s got problems. Major problems. As a GM who’s ran it, and ran/played other Adventure Paths, here are some of my thoughts on the subject. There’s a lot more helpful info on the Paizo forums, including many variants, charts, and GM aids from some awesome posters.
The meat of the Path is the last four modules—three and four connect to make one big environ (the lost city of Saventh-Yhi) with connected plot-points, while five and six connect to make another large environ (Ilmurea) with connected dungeon crawl. This leaves the first two modules as crude appendices tacked on: they exist as vehicles to get the players to the interesting part of the game (modules 3-6) and to get them leveled up enough for decent challenges. Looking back from modules 3-4, and looking ahead at 5-6, they are the links that don’t really connect.
Don’t get me wrong, both of them have merit, but their purpose in the overall campaign is marginal compared to the last four. Module one is a nice island to play sandbox in, but the only plot-related elements are in the last dungeon, consisting of one character and some notes leading to Saventh-Yhi. Module two is a lot of running around doing unrelated side-quests to get XP, then a lengthy linear trek through the jungle; again, the only elements related to the plot occur in the last dungeon. They also have some very awkward elements, and their issues can kill a campaign in its infancy. YMMV, but I find the last 2/3rds of the Path the most plot-centric, and the most interesting parts to plan for and run.
Besides that, there’s too sharp a divide between the Path—half of the modules need GM-generated content/proactive players to become interesting, while the other half are the usual “canned”/pre-packaged adventures you’re probably looking for when you buy an adventure module. If you’re the GM who doesn’t have ANY time to play, look into any another Adventure Path and leave this one behind. If you’re the kind of GM who loves tweaking things and running wild creating new content, or have players who love going after their own goals and going off on their own quests, you’ll find Serpent’s Skull the ideal goldmine.
Some more thoughts after the break.
One of my favorite new game mechanics was the idea of plot stress, introduced in Cubicle 7′s FATE products, Legends of Anglerre and Starblazer. In essence, it creates a structured framework for how a plot/event/campaign will play out—a reactive ticking bomb, in a way, that progresses towards your plot’s end-goal. It consists of “plot stress” (health) boxes, usually 2-3 boxes on each of four stress levels. These are are ticked away when things occur in the game to complicate or progress the expected situation—these will often come off a predetermined list you’ve cooked up, but can really be anything that impacts the plot. When each stress level is filled up, the campaign takes a “Consequence” and alters the situation by progressing down your pre-determined plot avenue.
Let’s have a concrete example that’s not so freaking abstract, and less complicated by FATE terminology.
My current ICONS game—villains forced to run black ops for the SHIELD knockoff, ala Suicide Squad—got a weird multidimensional theme because half the players were connected to the infernal realm for one reason or another. One was a demon sent to Earth Superman-style, raised ignorant of his heritage and prophesied Dark Scion destiny; one player was a wealthy Golden Age bank robber whose family cavorted with demon-binding to extend their lifespan, and another was playing his demon-power-infused manservant. My original inspiration was a little Savage Worlds setting called Necessary Evil, wherein the players are villains in a world under alien attack, forced to fight off the alien invasion because said aliens captured all the world’s superheroes right before the campaign starts.
I liked the idea of a demonic incursion better than a squid-headed purple alien attack, so I switched that; really, the invasion and playing villains are the only things I remember from Necessary Evil, so that’s all I stole from that. The demons are an extra-dimensional race with lots of political infighting (kind of like drow, now that I think about it), with one or two houses after the Dark Scion character to save him, while the rest want to kill him—sealing the fate of the world by denying the prophisized events to come about, which will eventually cause the end of the world. Since the other two were tied to a different demonic house, the politicking and complexity worked out nicely.
Plot Stress Consequence Description   Minor Various factions put hit squads near PC bases   Major Cosmic events distract superheroes    Severe Demonic rifts open; search for Dark Scion    Extreme Destruction of Earth looms overhead
Dealing “plot stress damage” is based on in-play events. Say, killing a group of demonic assassins might do +1 to it; traveling to another dimension or making themselves known might do +2; revealing critical information did +1 (and there was plenty of that, thanks to one player accidentally creating an observation imp and forgetting about it); tagging something related to demons or the infernal realm might do +2. As things turned out, I’m re-structuring the stress track since the demonic invasion was triggered way early by inter-party politics, paranoia, and the mentalist trying to mindjack the avatar of Chronos, Liege of Time and Master of Your Future, heading into the far past to capture the Dark Scion for himself. (Yes, the Greek titan, plus some Galactus, if Galactus was a 29th-Century being of pure force and limitless energy. Rolling a 15—a Massive Cosmic Success—followed by two 10s and an 8 meant that the player almost, but not quite, succeeded.)
Another example, from my increasingly modified Pathfinder Serpent’s Skull game. I’d re-skinned large chunks; the first module’s boss monster Yarzoth (cleric of an evil Kull-style serpentfolk race; I was playing up their alchemical and magi-tech abilities) escaped and became an ongoing threat, and the serpentfolk threat increased, as was my end-cap goal of level 20 for the campaign. The stress track kicks in when the players arrive at an ancient ruined city (think El Dorado done in full sandbox mode) in the third module, tied to the rise and fall of the serpentfolk’s dead god.
This kind of tracking method is incredibly helpful when you’re dealing with a sandbox scenario with tons of triggered and plot-related events, let me tell you.
Plot Stress Description   Players tracked, ambushed by serpentfolk   Assassination attempts on player allies    Serpentfolk unleash alchemical monsters    The Dead God Rises! Ritual begins
Plot stress was built more around the setting and plot than the previous example. Exploring the city district where the serpentfolk lived dealt +1, and cleansing it of serpentfolk life did +2. Finding an avenue into the subterranean realm dealt +1; the El Dorado city was the bulk of module three, and triggering the key events to the next two modules (linked to it in plot and theme) also dealt plot stress. There were also a few other things—and my plot stress track did away with consequences, and expanded thing out by a bit, since my plan had been to take the plot past what was written.
The idea of plot stress pretty abstract—it follows movie logic in that some things happen at just the right time because it’d complicate things or look cool, because of the Raymond Chandler rule (when things get boring, men with guns enter the room), or because plot-wise everything would have led up to it by then. It’s a metric for the GM to determine when the game moves forward and track large-scale plot occurrences; it takes the “eyballing-it” method I already do and gives it a nice framework to build around. Most of the plot stress triggers were built in advance, though they anything else that was relevant would add to it. (Finding a way to kill Yarzoth might have started the track with three boxes checked, for example, and making an alliance between any of the serpentfolks’ traditional rivals would add +1 to +3 depending on who was contacted.)
In general, I don’t plan my games out ahead of time like most normal people. Instead, I tend to come up with a more checkpoint-oriented design: here are a bunch of key plot events, situations, or cool shit I want to include that will lead to each other, and successively, to some sort of end goal. How or when they happen is more up to actual play and the events within the game than anything else. Hence my love of plot stress; it codifies my Handwavium method with something less hand-wavey and more frameworked, yet still vague and flexible.
Turns out this will be my last, or second to last, post about the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. The reason the last recap took… three months to type is because the game’s been slipping away for a while now.
Part of it is on the player end. We started with a large-ish group, six, went down to five after three sessions, back up to six for another three, down to five for three months, and ended up at four for the last half-dozen sessions. This would all be work or school related time conflicts, thanks to the power of scheduling. Four would have been doable, but there’s been a recent spate of no-games because half the group is missing, and in the next few months, we should have one player going on an extended vacation and two others busy at conventions.
But a large part of it is on my end. After soldiering on for two and a half months, I realized I just wasn’t giving the game the effort it needed, not keeping up the wiki, writing up props/handouts, or spending time planning. So after some thought, I decided to take the sickly thing out behind the shed and put it down. Something I should have done back in February, but since we had just reached the “good” part of the Path, I figured to keep pressing on and trying to find more players, maybe switching the game’s time slot.
Between all the constant changes, the group feeling that had been built on Smuggler’s Shiv started to shrivel up and die on the vine, and so we never had a great case of party cohesion or unity. This is the first game I set up with random strangers I met on Pen & Paper or Meetup.com, and in many ways it showed—in the lack of cohesion or tactics, which eroded into brief spates of inter-party conflicts, in and out of game. Not how D&D is supposed to operate, since it leads to TPKs; the D&D game is designed to work with each party member pulling their own weight and operating like an effective (killing) machine.
Instead, we had a division between the optimizers and the people who “just made characters” and called it good. Several of the players were critical of everything—someone roleplayed too much, someone roleplayed too little, someone was stat-crunching, etc. One guy ended up as little more than a chair-warmer, talking twice as much before the game started than he did during a given session. Working to entertain the party began feeling like work.
Meanwhile I grew critical of the players. Few players bit on the roleplay hooks, and I got bored with generic, repetitive combats existing in a void; not much happened outside encounters, and those didn’t have the same texture or tactical dynamism as in the earlier sessions. Things had been more interesting back on Smuggler’s Shiv, then fell into a rut during the next two modules that bored the hell out of me.
And by the time I found more eligible players, the game was all but dead. Not that I should have considered installing fresh blood into the toxic environment, but still.
So here we are, finally getting to the part of the Path I’ve done the most planning for, the parts where I figured to start divorcing it from the canned adventure and expand out a glorious excursion against the Serpentfolk empire taking the players to level 20 or higher… and it’s just not worth it. When I’m only running once a month, I stop caring, not doing the planning or prep I should have done, and that’s not something an invested GM does.
So a big disappointment that the game collapsed, considering my hopes for the entwined third act—modules three and four, plus change. I don’t take it personally, since game death happens often enough, and the ICONS game I’m running has been some of the most fun I’ve had behind the screen in years—and the players have given very supportive feedback. I still hope to use the Serpent’s Skull notes and plans I’d worked out, but at this point, I’m taking it as a learning experience and putting that far on the back-burner for a while.
The last act of module two turned out to be the shortest; surprisingly, the first part (in Eledar) was nearly as long as the race, which just seemed to buzz by in a couple of sessions.
Taizon was a letdown for the players. Part of the problem was that they confused it with Saventh Yhi, because they never read our damn wiki, so they wandered into an abandoned Azlanti outpost with four encounter areas. A bit underwhelming, but still, it ended up going over fairly well over two sessions. The players opted for a direct assault, scaling the walls and cleaning out the charau ka when they met them.
I made some changes to the end-battle locale, the ancient Azlanti temple within the ruins. As written, it’s interesting, but not Indiana Jones enough, so I borrowed a homebrew replacement posted on the Paizo forums. The puzzle it contained was interesting; the players managed to figure it out with only a little prodding, though they were fine with constant screw-ups and trial-and-error, so I’d make the fail results more extreme next time—if someone loses an arm, they’ll think about it for more than ten seconds, right?
Earlier in the module there were some harsh encounters. Several evil outsiders with high CRs (7 and up) were brutal enough to kill the eidolon and give the party something to think about. Plus the aforementioned ape-bears, which for CR 4s hit like a Mack truck; that was fun. After those high benchmarks, a host of CR 2/4 monkies is laughable. This is the biggest problem I have with Paizo writers: mooks are never a threat if your players are halfway decent with tactics and build.
So, I doubled the number of monkies, and they still weren’t that much of a threat. See, they’re all small. And though there were tons of them (I think eight for the final encounter, including the leveled boss), there was just enough to fit into an aqueous orb with room to spare. The ones that weren’t slain instantly or grappled by the eidolon. That’s about how it went for all of those stupid things, even after increasing their number by 35-50% and giving them max hit points… and the players were a level or so below where they should have been.
The Adventure Locales
The ruins have a couple of awesome locales; the main charau ka encounter is in a ruined temple falling into a tar pit, which makes for some interesting tactical choices. The end-target is a large
dungeon ruin, another temple thing, nicely laid out and with a lot of variety.
The only locale that didn’t do much was the tower, which lead down and not up, into a sewer system that didn’t work for my group. It’s there in case the party needs/wants a stealthy access route; in my case, it was more set dressing since it was found after all the monkies had been slaughtered. The players considered the tunnels pointless and moved on.
Nope, that’s pretty much all there is to Taizon. While interesting, I thought it was way too easy, even after I ad-hoc’d the difficulty up (yay GM fiat). My players getting confused over “Taizon as a waypoint” and “Taizon as Saventh Yhi, El Dorado of Golarion” didn’t help, since some of them had worked themselves up only to find… a large empty city.
I didn’t bother showing the map to them; I think that’s wasted opportunity. To be fair, there’s not much room left in the module—there was a lot to squeeze into this one, two bookend cities and a major freaking race. Taizon is left as this sprawling ruin area, something like 1800 ft. x 1400 ft., surrounded by a tall wall… and there’s two buildings, a pit, and a ruin with a tunnel in it. Huge overgrown walled area with nothing in it but easily slain monkies.
Also, as mentioned earlier… there’s no way the player characters won’t win the “race” without serious mistakes on the player side, and a lack of GM prodding to get them back on the rails. I get the need to make the PCs win—they are the heroes of this tale, after all, odds should be weighed in their favor—but there’s no sense of accomplishment since the faction calculations are only known to the GM. For all they knew, they were the last ones there, or another group was just over the hill. (They were something like nine days ahead of the next party slated to arrive.) Hence why I’d run a mini-Kingmaker hex crawler, tracking the various factions’ progress on a big ole map, if I ran it again.
Things I Would Do/Did Different
The challenge level here was subpar. Whatever else I said about the rest of the path, Smuggler’s Shiv through Seven Spears, I take it back; Taizon was a cakewalk in comparison. If I was running this again, I’d replace the charau ka with serpentfolk—there’s three of them, leveled, in the homebrew puzzle, and those were a decent challenge that could still be overcome without serious issues by the PCs. Unless the group was underpowered—pick two: four or less characters, none optimized, a level under the adventure guideline—I wouldn’t use the monkies. Leveling them up is too much trouble, doubling didn’t work, and serpentfolk are more evocative (and fit with my evil plans).
This is also a problem I tried to circumvent in City of Seven Spears—a mob of 7,249 vegepygmies may have a CR high enough to beat down a demon lord, but they can only kill a demon lord statistically, because they will be mown down like wheat .
Depending on how much incentive/time I had, I might also add more stuff in Taizon. Or make it smaller. The map is great, with this varied terrain, an overgrown ruin sinking into the tar pits. And while the locales it has are awesome, there’s a lot of dead space on the map. Just a personal thing.
I would re-use the puzzle, because it was kind of fun, and the players got somewhat engaged with it… even though they kind of shrugged and started mashing gems together immediately. It got good feedback, which was a plus.
Addenda: Other Things I Did Different
Since the players were a bit behind the curve, and as part of my expanding the serpent subplots (with Yarzoth as the BBEG), I threw in some additional combat with serpentfolk raiders and their Young Fiendish T-Rex mount, following a dream sequence vision. To note my group’s power level, the party (down to four around 6th level; fighter, wizard, druid, monk) took on something like a CR 10-11 encounter and beat the T-Rex into a coma. I gave them enough extra XP to bump them to 7th.
Granted, it nearly wiped them out—the druid had one of his many near-death experiences, something that happens more than you’d think to a huge mondo-statted bear. Things were going surprisingly well for them until there was a lucky (unlucky) crit on my part for the Rex; without a few lucky rolls and quick thinking on behalf of the druid, they all would have bought it. Of course, when half the party decided to run off and leave their huge bear druid to die, focusing on a single enemy already locked down via hideous laughter, the near-death part starts to make sense… sometimes it takes two for a TPK.
The Bottom Line
A bit of a letdown ending to an otherwise decent adventure module. Again, I don’t blame Tim Hitchcock; he had enough material for half a campaign and had to squeeze it into one book. The setting has a lot of promise, and for a group closer to the suggestions—four players, med track, not as optimized—it would have been fine. Between their confusion and letdown over Taizon’s emptiness, and my letdown over the lackluster obstacles, Taizon was rather forgettable.
Leaving Eleder begins the first major railroad section of the Path—choo! cho0! Racin’ the Rails! It’s a linear segment involving a number of set-piece encounters, and however many random encounters that you choose to insert. The goal: get to the ruin (har) of Taizon before everyone else. As written, that’s not as hard as it sounds.
While it didn’t look that bad at start, I forgot to consider that unless you’re up for rehashing various scenic descriptions and making a running travelogue, this kind of thing doesn’t convey either time or distance very well. It broke down into “Okay, so you travel for X days and then something happens” despite some attempts otherwise; from behind the screen it looked pretty tedious and dull, but apparently the players liked it.
The scripted encounters have a very nice blend of challenges, a few roleplay encounters, and some butting of heads with the rival factions. They’re also wide open to modification and customization, which I would highly recommend; merging set-pieces with random encounters, random encounters with random encounters, and adding more faction encounters—finding their old campsites, bumping into them, getting assaulted by rival faction hit squads—is a must.
Scripted encounters of note:
- The first is a mini-dungeon, a salt mine full of wights, that the PCs plowed through; I changed its Loc-Nar knockoff to channel negative energy every few rounds to make the end combat more challenging. (Even without a cleric, ghouls weren’t a problem at this level, even with some tweaking.)
- My players went hog-wild on one of the roleplaying encounters, a traveling cockfighting ring that’s weighted against the PCs. My group almost passed it on, but a few last-minute bets initiated by the new guy started a spree of competition; when nobody was looking, they buffed up the chickens, and had one of the most intense fights all campaign.
- There’s a nice opportunity for a hippo ambush sometime later; if you want to put the fear of god into your PCs, there’s ample chance for a bull hippo to swamp their raft. I tried to point out the lizardfolk involvement in the affair—foreshadowing, you see—but I think that was lost on them.
- At one point, they are attacked by a group of CR4 bear-apes, name of “Chemosit.” These hit like a friggin’ Mack truck, so pull punches (or only use one) if your PCs are in a small group or aren’t up to snuff. If they are: throw in a third. I did, everyone survived.
- My group decided that the shrunken monkey heads with near-auto dispel evil, which I was pushing on them at all turns, were worthless, so they sold the one they won. Which made the fight with the possessed demon TOUGH AS ALL HELL. It killed the eidolon, almost killed two of the party tanks too; between is incorporeal (50% miss chance) and DR, it’s more than a challenge for the PCs. (Granted, if they had used the monkey heads, it would have been over in three rounds: Round One, ape attack, Round Two, ape dead, Round Three, dispel demon.)
There’s also one scripted faction ambush, which came just a little too late to be effective—druid wildshapes, maul/maul/maul/crunch. I was throwing them in at a constant basis, or having other encounters involve the desiccated remains of an earlier expedition’s scouts. They learned soon enough not to trust traveling merchants who didn’t have more than fifty feet of hempen rope and no rape whistles.
Things are starting to heat up, partly because the slow track dragged the PCs down a level from where their power levels exponentially (Bear Shaman was okay at 5th, brutal at 6th; Monk of the Sacred Mountain was worthless at 4th, highest damage output of the party at 6th). Three Chemosits gave them a headache—the monk lost 75% of his HP in the first round—and the shadow demon was a long, drawn-out, and bloody fight, ending with the death of the eidolon. The faction rogues all have solid poison that can paralyze, leading to a few coup-de-grace attempts on the Monk; he was probably the only one who realized just how damn close to dying he’d been. Later on, there’s a nice roleplay/combat involving some sirens and another demon which was interesting, if only because a third the party ended up charmed or dominated; it wasn’t as close as the earlier two fights, though.
The Adventure Locales
There’s some cool ideas in here, but to be honest, they’re all “Well I could have thought of that”-level. Kinda vanilla. The salt mine was cool, as was having a lost Chelaxian treasure shipwreck; the rest are mostly deviations on “native village,” “jungle,” “a different part of the jungle,” “jungle river,” etc., but with some new or interesting monster to fight. Hence why I saw spruce it up; some unique encounter locales would have rocked: a trail running under a waterfall or a bridge running over a gorge; a lost ruin campsite of some kind, maybe a rubble tower or a small ziggurat, some way station between Taizon and Saventh-Yhi.
(Also, there’s a heavy emphasis on demons here—makes sense, all the demon-worshiping stuff in the Mwangi, but that doesn’t fit with the other modules’ more varied, less-”stereotypical D&D” monsters.)
Why Did I Say It’s Dull?
Because the title implies “Race,” and as written… there ain’t no freakin’ race, Charlie. At best, the party can cut two days off their travel time from encounters, or add one day from another. Without Nkechi, they add a week to their travel times… but what group’s going to pass on orders to get a guide, which is effectively “go get some guy and XP”? If they go pell-mell for Taizon, and you assume the standard travel times as written on the chart, they’d have to sit in Taizon for something like a week before the next faction’s scouts arrived. There’s no challenge to it, which makes having a druid, or someone with high Survival, or mounts, or whatever, no advantage whatsoever to getting to Taizon first.
There are many ways to spruce up this adventure, and I’d recommend doing all of them. Stop, think, plan, look at the Paizo forums, Google, whatever. The race needs flavor that the module just ain’t got. Those 3-5 sessions spent on the trail were the dullest “race” I’ve ever been a part of; part of the problem was our roleplaying contingent had dropped out, so we’re left with chair-warmers and some “hurry up to get to the combat” folks, which didn’t help. About the time they got to Kalabuto I realized it wasn’t working, and no matter what I did to spruce it up, it just didn’t feel right.
For the love of god, roll those ahead of time. Think of some that are entertaining, too, that combine well with the other encounters you rolled and/or the prefab ones in the module. I kept getting Rival Faction Team, so I’d combine them with things like “Natives” (killed some traveling merchants, tricked the PCs into moving as a group “for protection”). Or I rolled them into animal attacks. I also combined some of the set-pieces; namely, the murder-tree and the Geiers, along with some more (dead) faction members.
Also, have the faction teams show up every now and then, to try to make it feel more like a race. I think the Sargavan government was coming into Kalabuto as the PCs left, and the Pathfinders arrived at the sirens’ hut as the PCs were leaving in the morning.
My group went with the Pirates because they paid the most. The Red Mantis were the clear rival from very early on, though the Pathfinders haven’t seen eye to eye with them either; after knocking Gelik and the Pathfinder faction leader off their mounts, I have the feeling that bridge has been burned.
The Sargavans and Aspis Consortium have been out of the scene; I’ve figured they have more pressing goals, and are more interested in expanding their control/loot, respectively, to pay attention to the other factions’ infighting. Though I have the feeling the Sargavans might turn out to be racist pricks, given the natives’ feelings about “Chelaxian” rule.
(Sometimes I wonder about designers, given Sargava’s polemic bipolarity of “White Man’s Burden” colonials versus “Stab Whitey” natives.)
Things I Would Do Different
If I had to do it over again, I’d go all-out stupid with planning. I’d hash out a map of Sargava with a hex grid in Photoshop, then run a miniaturized variant of Kingmaker for the race: give the hexes terrain features which reduce/increase travel speed, divvy out the set pieces (and add some more!) between the areas, then have the party tell me where and how they’re blazing forth. I’d track the other factions’ progress to emphasize the race angle, maybe even open to the players. And have them take various routes; maybe the Pathfinders would pole up the river, while the Sargavan government would trek across the plains, and the Red Mantis would strike hard and fast through the Screaming Jungle.
I’d also have the major factions take routes with high overlap frequency over the players’ course, so that they’re stumbling into each others’ trails and abandoned campsites, seeing their campfires every few nights, maybe setting each others’ herd animals loose or scaring their native bearers away… all while the clock ticks down to discovering Taizon. It’d give an oppertunity for the other factions to get to Taizon. (Such as the serpentfolk, led by Yarzoth, who I took as the recurring villain.) Or at least have multiple factions make some progress, or make the PCs’ pull all-nighters through the jungle or something else disadvantageous to stay ahead. Granted, it should be weighted towards the PCs, but it shouldn’t be the cakewalk as written.
Kind of like those madcap race movies they had back in the ’60s mixed with… a real race, with everyone running neck-and-neck to Taizon. Yes, this is a helluva lot of work. And given how my current group’s going, it could be a lot of work for naught. But that’s what I’d do, dangnabbit; the module promises a race, and this is how I see a race being delivered. This module was just too railroad-y, too linear a race; I don’t mind the plot being a railroad, but I’m starting to see that “Sandbox-Railroad-Sandbox-Railroad” whiplash people talk about when Serpent’s Skull comes up.
The Bottom Line
All in all, this section has a lot of potential, but needs a lot of GM handwork to have that spark of awesome that other Path modules have. Work which I didn’t put into it, because I wasn’t expecting it (bad. move.) and because I’m sinking most of my time into City of Seven Spears. And Seven Spears demands that you do work GM magic and expand the module, running all over the place solidifying the existing Geo-political sphere, fleshing out encounter sites, beefing up monsters and hazards and diplomatic encounters. Otherwise, if you don’t, it’s the most fucking banal exercise in Vegepygmy genocide I’ve ever read.
I’m having a hard time keeping up with the blog posts I assigned myself; losing my computer for a month didn’t help, so now it’s finding the incentive and momentum to catch up on everything I should have posted. Such as my gaming liveblogs.
Welp, the first half of Racing to Ruin, the second module in the Serpent’s Skull adventure path. Since it’s the second module in the line, it’s main purpose is grinding the characters up to the effective levels of play (the 6-10 sweet spot), and building upon the adventure hook at the end of the first module. (It’s sad, but I’m starting to see Adventure Paths less as the awesome adventures as they appear on the surface, and more as their metagame flowchart cores, the semi-formula they tend to follow—I really need to play more than I run.)
Racing to Ruin starts the characters out in Eleder, after escaping the horrors of Smuggler’s Shiv. Besides giving the players a chance to do some much-needed shopping, it triggers the first major plotline of the Path: the factions seeking the lost city Saventh-Yhi, each of whom sends a representative (last module’s NPCs) to hire the players as trailblazers.
The PCs’ time on the Shiv kind of pigeonholed their NPCs. They didn’t want anything to do with the Pathfinders; I’d made Gelik kind of an odious little shit since he kept failing morale checks and nobody wanted to cheer him up (or talk to him), and besides, I get kind of tired of everyone making Pathfinders into absolute badasses, so I tend to screw with them, like the eccentric old guy in Legacy of Fire who ran an inn (Roderous?) outside Katapesh proper.
Eando Kline, for example, is a badass Pathfinder. Not everyone is Eando Kline. Case in point, the rogue Pathfinders in Entombed with the Pharaohs; yep, one of the groups’ first prime-time appearances, and it’s rotten members abusing the system. (A system which is kinda rife for abuse, too.)
Anyways. Ishirou and the Aspis Consortium didn’t interest them enough—”they’re evil! waugh!”—and as much as they liked Sasha, they didn’t like the Red Mantis. Besides, Sasha isn’t too keen on the Red Mantis, which they knew, and so I had her dragging her feet and only doing it because she had to. Between Jask, another favorite NPC, with the Sargavan Government, and Aerys with the Shackles Pirates, they went pirate because they paid better.
First, postcolonialism in action. Reinforcing the weird geo-politics of Sargava, we end up with a small rebellion of native terrorists. (Yeah, the way to avoid dated “white man’s burden”-style ethnocentric tropes is totally to deal with the issue by having natives who want to stab whitey.) These thugs were easy XP for the party; after fending off some arsonists, they freed a hostage down at the whaling company, where they ended up taking some heat.
Next, their duty was to find an eccentric cleric of Gozreh living as a hermit off on a cliff (Nkechi by name) for the expedition to use as a guide/healer, and perform some tasks for him. Party is leaning very good-ish, since they avoided killing a number of animals/natives that didn’t have to be killed. Of course, this came right after they were berated for killing a bunch of giant crabs.
Nkechi’s dream sequence was pretty hawt. I’d planned to have the PCs’ animal totem stats written up on flash cards, but never got around to it; even with twenty minutes of frantic scribbling and some ad-hoc as to a porcupine’s stats (stupid thing’s now in Bestiary 3) and it went pretty well. I managed to cue my description of the dream-fugue rise and fall of Saventh-Yhi to my background music, which astonished and enthused most of the players. (Ah, the student has become the master.)
From there, they set out on the trail, which I’ll cover next session.
Besides losing and gaining an oracle, who happened to be some of the more interesting PCs, things had already settled by now. I’m finding most of my players are more on the hack-n-slash than roleplay side, despite what I’d advertised/been told; no bonus roleplay XP awards here I guess.
The Slow Track
It’s actually going very, very nice; Smuggler’s Shiv was essentially an XP gold mine, with all its crabs and cave fishers and other vermin to exterminate, so they ended ahead of schedule there and stayed on track for the first section of Racing/Ruin. Not that they’d have had much problem regardless; CR 2′s are only threatening to 1st-level characters and bad builds.
Of course, this is also the low levels of the game; the fighter and druid with bear cub companion were the power characters here. (Druids, power class, ducking fuh.) The party monk was still having trouble hitting and dealing damage, and the summoner was banally weak, though his eidolon was on-par with the party tanks. The new oracle was a pure healbot, which made me feel a little sad inside—play a cleric, I say, so you can cast all sorts of awesome buffs!—though he saved multiple people from being brutally murdered, and thus his life’s mission was complete. The wizard was just starting to get into his own spell-wise.
Hypnotism is still an awful spells—particularly if you’re lazy in using it. Though in the next section, he took scorching ray, which gave the party some much needed artillery, and had been dropping enlarge person on the fighter.
The Adventure Locales
Even though they’re just screwing around in Eleder, I thought the locations were solid. The whaling company was particularly cool; it’s a nice seedy location, and some of its environment became challenges (the machine-trap, flaming blubber). Nkechi’s cliff and quest areas were basic, but made good use of the environment.
The first half is mixed: the whaling station was hardcore, but the rest of the module was standard fare and didn’t push any near-death experiences. The average mooks weren’t worth noting; the Nkechi-based challenges were either out-grappled or dealt with without resorting to bloodshed. (Save the aforementioned mook crabs.)
I thought the kelpie would thrash the druid, since he went in solo and it was several CRs above him. He summoned a squid, which resulted in the kelpie getting pinned as the eidolon swam in, and that was the end of that.
The whaling station, though… the
autobot druid transformed and rolled out as a raptor, heading for the hostage, who happened to be Sasha (punishment for talking the PCs’ out of siding with the Red Mantis). The rest of the party slogged their way through the mooks, while raptor druid took the leveled boss in the teeth. Quick work from the oracle saved his bacon. Meanwhile, the monk investigated the side buildings, looking for snipers he couldn’t find (who perpetually shot him in the ass). It was a lot tougher than the combats on the Shiv, and the druid almost bought it. (Well, save for his backup points and that scroll of raise dead the party’s probably forgotten about.)
I made the dream-serpent into a form of Yarzoth, who is becoming something of a recurring villain in this piece. I was hoping she’d pummel at least one PC back into the waking realm, them being just in animal form and all; while several PCs were cutting it close health-wise, she was soundly thrashed.
Things I Would Do/Did Different
To be honest? Not much. The first half of the module is smooth and simple, and fills its duty of setting the PCs on the trail towards Saventh-Yhi. And giving them a bunch of cake challenges on the way. I did add a few more encounters with the revolting natives, which was about it on that end.
The biggest problem I see here is trying to get the PCs to bite on the whole “expedition to Saventh-Yhi” thing, which may thwart other groups. (To be honest, I didn’t pick up the rest of the path until after my players had consigned themselves to a faction.) I had the NPCs’ pitch it as El Dorado with dollar-signs in their eyes; between that and a general malaise that they were hooked on the Canned Adventure Railroad, they decided to bite and soldier on. Though I’d rather it had been more of a natural “Well shit, let’s go do that” kind of thing.
Sadly, despite all my assurances and needling, not one of them took the plunge and bought a loot donkey for eight damn dollars. I’m going to need to look at their loot inventory and make sure their accumulated wealth/ill-gotten gains aren’t slowing them down.
I haven’t been keeping up as much as I’d like, because I started running the Serpent Skull adventure path last month, and haven’t even mentioned it yet. Theoretically I was thinking of liveblogging it (well, kind of) like what I started to do with my Starblazer game, but that went out the window with all the computer problems of late. So rather than catching up on part of the module, here’s the whole damn thing.
To be honest, Serpent’s Skull is about fourth in my list of want-to-run Adventure Paths, behind Kingmaker, Carrion Crown, and the upcoming Skull & Shackles. But there is a personal interest in the path: it’s almost exactly the same as a campaign a friend of mine has run (rather, tried to run) three or four times. Compare the basics: characters are shipwrecked on a jungle continent ruled by yuan-ti and populated by ancient ruins, namely of a fallen snake-god whose name starts with Y. There’s more than that, some being spoilers.
Granted, the details in Serpent Skull can be a lot different—the PCs are shipwrecked and lost from civilization for only the first module, for one—but the staggering similarity is almost paranoia-inducing. Having played in a campaign where the PCs have nothing, are plagued by diseases, and have to fend off evil reptilians, I felt the need to inflict this on others. Also, I’m taking the slow path, in order to add in more set-pieces and encounters and whatnot (and hopefully put off more of that high-level bloat).
Anyways, Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv. I love low-level D&D adventures, before things like caster supremacy and the Christmas-tree effect and other high-level issues show up and the game starts to break down into excesses of stat-crunching and numbers-balancing. (No, I’m not still jaded on tactical class/level RPGs, why do you ask.) There’s a real sense of player fragility, at least as a GM; one unlucky crit and somebody’s character is toast, with no way to bring them back. Normally that means pulling punches, and the basics—not being an adversarial dick GM for one. But here, the encounters seemed balanced nicely on the PCs’ side, without even factoring that I have a six-man destruction squad.
Which is, compared to my Legacy campaign, strangely caster-heavy and rogue-averse: in rough order, barbarian (going for oracle/rage prophet), druid (going for bear totem ass-beater) with bear-cub familiar, fighter (vanilla greataxe halforc), wizard (focus on mind-affecting, namely hypnotism), monk of the sacred mountain (built to stand in one square and punch things), and summoner with a serpentine eidolon.
I only knew one of my players going in, so the module was more everyone getting used to each other and all that; oddly, they ended up being the most tactical RPG group I’ve ever had, and also emphasized co-ordination and teamwork (aid another, buff spells, and flanking, for starters). For example, there were a couple of times where would have been a miss turned into a hit because somebody had cast guidance beforehand; those little +1/+2 support bonuses made a big difference on several make-or-break occasions.
The actual adventure is pure sandbox: explore an island, kill its hostile flora and fauna, find some hidden loot, delve a few dungeons. There’s a number of complications for the PCs to handle, which is what makes the adventure memorable: it’s a real slog, between caretaking NPCs, fending off disease, and building shelters. The adventure consists of a dozen or so set-pieces, along with fifteen shipwrecks and a bajillion “animal lairs” for the PCs to loot, along with a pair of hidden ruins for the obligatory dungeon crawl.
At first, the players just wanted to make for the lighthouse and get back to civilization, but midway through they heard about the Treasure Pit from one of the NPCs, and between that and the NPC shipwreck quests, ended up exploring a good chunk of the island. (They only missed 2-4 of the named and number locations, along with half the predator dens and a handful of shipwrecks.) The last pair of dungeon set-pieces went over well, though in hindsight I should have built the shipwrecks as mini-dungeons, ala the various dungeons in the Elder Scrolls games. The shipwrecks and lairs, as well as most of the island, is somewhat insubstantial, existing in a void.
It’s as close to Morrowind in d20-form as we’ll probably ever see. It’s a neat idea, but I think I like the hex-crawling of Kingmaker better. That had the gamey element of hex exploration as a method to gauge time and space; with Smuggler’s Shiv, it’s a number of set-pieces seperated by blank parts of the map (“jungle”) and random encounters: I had to work at trying to add a sense of depth and world. Unless you’re up for a lot of jungle description, or tons of random encounters, this kind of thing is better for video games. I still ended up liking it for the freeform nature, diversity of written quests, and ease of inserting new material.
The Non-Player Characters
As for the NPCs, a major factor of this module: the players took to ex-Sargavan Jask immediately, not just because he’s a cleric but because he rolled really well for skill checks the PCs failed, such as explaining what the hell Smuggler’s Shiv is. It took a while, but they realized the NPCs were a good source of intel and quests; they really, really hated Gelik Aberwhinge, and Sasha drove the barbarian up a wall. (Yeah, those were the NPCs I added the most character to; what of it?)
Disease, Shelter, and Food
Having a pair of characters with high Survival and aid another meant that building shelter and finding food was never a problem; a “bad” roll was still higher than the DC by about five. Disease, on the other hand, ravaged the NPCs and the monk, and eventually the barbarian got brainworms. Aside a few potions they found, the PCs ended up relying more on aid another and Heal to have the diseased make their saves. I also ended up being too nice with items, but rather than stacking them in a heap next to the PCs on the beach, I put all but one or two on the shipwreck (requiring a DC 20 Swim check, RAW). (Other bits—anything easily damaged by water, or heavy—mysteriously sank.) It got the PCs started on their investigation, working a lot better than just finding their crap next to them.
The Adventure Locales
There’s a good balance here; naturally, the players liked the treasure pit, and for some reason the crab-house of Pezock. I don’t think they fully understood all the implications of the story-hint-based locales, but that’s about it. Again, most of the shipwrecks and lairs existed purely in the void; I liked being able to draw up my own battle maps, but that’s about it.
At first level, a pair of spider swarms against a group of horribly unprepared adventurers are unfair. Other than that, nothing was too challenging; then again, I have six players. After exploring most of the island, having run into nothing more potent than those spiders, the group tackled one of the module’s end-boss; it had flying, but wasn’t, and was soundly thrashed, even after I’d pre-built it to have more hit points. Actually, there were a few tough battles: a random encounter on a shipwreck involving 2d8 grindylows and the monk failing a Perception check. Still, while the monk dropped, they slaughtered those things. Also, shocker lizards are brutal in pairs (they shocked at least two people down) but worthless on their own.
After that, they took on the entire cannibal village; it was a nice epic-yet-harrowing battle, with a few PCs dropping into the negatives, taking on twenty-odd cannibals, two named-and-numbered, and a couple of beasts (rock lobsters using giant crayfish stats) I’d thrown in. Nothing they couldn’t handle, as each player took an NPC as a bonus, so while things got rough at points the result was never in question: a dozen level 2-4 N/PCs against an army of minimal-level mooks with two leaders.
As for non-combat challenges, those would mostly be the other castaway NPCs, and Pezock, existing castaway NPC. When they realized these quests gave them some great bonuses, they started actively pursuing the shipwrecks and whatnot that each castaway needed to fill their quest.
Things I Would Do Different Next Time
- Add more depth to the bare-bones encounters, namely the shipwrecks and lairs. Not that I didn’t already, but after pillaging eleven wrecks, or fighting yet another giant crab, it began to get tedious. (I don’t get the same grist of world depth in this path as Legacy or Runelords, partly because there’s no set city to flesh out, and only a handful of NPCs.)
- Vary the encounters. Again, I did that, coming up with a different random chart for random encounters and shipwreck denizens. Still, once you’ve fought four giant crabs, you’ve fought them all. That said, the new monsters in the module were pretty slick, and I ended up using most of them; the sea scorpions were fun, but best was the large sea urchin that always made its Reflex saves (even with its -2 base save!). Oh, those hilarious urchins.
That’s about it; the module was very well constructed as-is, and its broad open nature allows the GM to drop in all sorts of new encounters and locales. Feedback was positive but lukewarm about the Shiv itself, which is to be expected—it’s intentionally miserable, with the rain, disease, cannibals, and NPC quests. What warmed people up was the adventure hooks near the end: clearing out the cannibal village, and finding an ancient ruin which spoke of Golarion’s El Dorado: Saventh-Yhi. Also, leaving the Shiv for Eledar helped.