Serpent’s Skull: Racing to Ruin (3) The Terrors of Taizon

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?

Challenges!

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.

Anything Else?

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.


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