Serpent Skull: Thoughts on Smuggler’s Shiv

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.

The Challenges

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

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

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