Serpent’s Skull: Racing to Ruin (1) Eleder

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.

Class Effectiveness

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 Challenges

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.

4 thoughts on “Serpent’s Skull: Racing to Ruin (1) Eleder

  1. I’m running this part of the AP now, too. I just ran Nkechi’s part in the adventure last week. I, too, loved the whaling company. Had fun watching the ranger spend 20 minutes trying to climb the wall while everyone else ran in the front door. The traps and flaming blubber made for a very dynamic combat. Nkechi’s part, though, didn’t agree with my party. The kelpie charmed the ranger and it doesn’t look, from the spell description, that her charm gives a new save even if the charmed takes damage from her. Then, the wind challenge, with its DC 20 climb check and 500 ft cliff scared off the party. If I hadn’t really wanted them to get to the dream sequence, they would have bailed on Nkechi.

    1. My group had a lot of trouble with Climb checks in the first adventure, and after two or three bad falls on Smuggler’s Shiv, they started taking 10/taking 20 just so they wouldn’t die. (They also had a rope of climbing from the Shiv, but it was way too short to be of any use during the wind challenge.)

      That kelpie fight, though, is rough. I was expecting a player death since only one person took ranks in Swim, but it ended up not challenging anything. The druid’s summoned squid—or maybe he Wildshaped, I forgot—managed to grapple and pin, then the Eidolon swam down and ate it.

      If you haven’t made any modifications, though, consider changing up how the “race” segment (part two) is structured. I ran it mostly as-written, and about halfway through I realized it was dull as dry toast and needed sprucing up. It’s not much of a race, just some set-pieces and rolling random encounters. It doesn’t convey either time or distance very well.

      1. Yeah, I am thinking of having lots of random encounters to give the sense of dangerous territory and mix in the opposing factions into those encounters (a rampaging elephant sent into the camp by faction agents who might fire arrows into the mix and who they can chase after the encounter’s over, for example).

        But, yeah, there’s a lot of room for expanding the race and tying in the factions.

  2. That’s the kind of thing I ended up doing; faction ambushes, other factions “catching up,” finding the ruined remains of another faction’s scouts rolled into random encounters/set pieces. There’s a lot to play around with, and some great ideas can be found on the Paizo boards. I still wish I’d done more, though. Even rolling the random encounters ahead of time, adding more set encounters and roleplay elements, it broke down into “okay, you travel for x days and then this happens” by the time they got to Kalabuto. Which was pretty dull IMO, but several players liked Racing to Ruin more than Smuggler’s Shiv. (Also, unless they stop for some reason, there’s no way they’d get to Taizon second, which kinda negated the “race” thing for me.)

    If I had to do it over again, I’d go all-out and try a miniaturized variant of Kingmaker for the race: hash out a map of Sargava with a grid overlay in Photoshop, give the hexes terrain features (reducing/increasing travel speed) and divvy out the set pieces, then have the party blaze forth across them. I’d be tracking the other factions’ progress on another map, emphasize the race angle, and have some of the factions (particularly the PCs’ rival) take routes overlapping the players’ course, so that they’re stumbling into each others’ trails and abandoned campsites, running neck-and-neck to Taizon.

    Of course, that requires a boatload of time and effort, probably more than is deserved, definitely more than I had.

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