Serpent’s Skull: Racing to Ruin (2) The Race

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.

Challenges!

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.

V.P. Corbella's art is pretty hawt.

Random Encounters!

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.

Faction Roll-Call

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.


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