Improving Serpent’s Skull

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.

Sandbox-Railroad Whiplash

By which I mean the change of focus, since the odd modules (1, 3, 5) are open-environment sandboxes requiring player-directed movement, and the even modules (2, 4, 6) are tightly linear with little room to work around. When running the path, you will encounter this. I don’t like it for two reasons.

First, the alternating styles throws the players’ initiative for a loop—they have to go from self-directed to riding the adventure rails three times, and it’s hard to keep switching between the two. A passive party will require a lot of NPC pressure to go do things in the sandbox parts, while a proactive party has plenty of opportunities to get off-track in modules 2 and 4—and will feel pretty constrained by 6’s focused dungeon.

Second, it’s also harsh on the GM. The railroad segments are standard canned adventures, but the sandbox sections need a lot of work—fleshing them out, rolling random encounters, keeping track of dates and times and weather and faction relationships and number of discoveries made and etc. Striking the balance is a real chore, since it’s easy for half the game to feel too open and underdeveloped, or the other half too rigid and predetermined. I think Serpent’s Skull would have worked better if the designers had stuck to one style.

Making Yarzoth A Recurring Villain/Playing Up The Serpentfolk Role

The first “boss” you fight, at the end of module one, is a serpentfolk cleric named Yarzoth. After that, the serpentfolk play a relatively minor part (until modules 3-6); ironic, since the path is named after their dead god. I’d heartily recommend having Yarzoth escape—or be resurrected if she falls—and become a thorn in the side of the characters. Not only does it give a face to the PCs’ nemesis, but it opens up options for the GM to insert more encounters or set-pieces—serpentfolk ambushes and assassins, making the local lizardfolk their thralls, and otherwise giving the PCs a known presence to fight against.

It also makes things more of a race (as in, Racing to Ruin) when the PCs are on the clock, trying to stop Yarzoth from raising their dead god. Plus, it’s relatively easy for the game to go off the rails in the second book, and having serpentfolk hit squads show up would be a great way to keep the game on track.

If you plan to do a lot with serpentfolk, I recommend two books: Serpent Kingdoms for the 3.5 Forgotten Realms, and Ssethregore, for the 3.5 Arcanis world. They have a ton of awesome options, both in crunch and fluff, for developing your serpentfolk. I switched Ydersius back to Yig, because I waned to build off the established canon in the Mythos. From there, I took inspiration from the Serpent Men of Valusia from the Kull stories, of which there’s plenty of inspiration in the Pathfinder serpentfolk already.

I wanted to play up their weird science/magitech history, so I worked up a lot of necromantic alchemy and bio-tech stuff, influenced by the two books I mentioned: both deal with serpent races that grow, breed, and manipulate the genetics of different races (yuan-ti say what). Shifting their biological and alchemical weird sciences in a necromantic direction felt like a good fit. I liked the pulpy feel it gave, as well as the science-fantasy one—the dark sciences of a dead god, bringing dead creatures back as enthralled mounts and beasts of burden, breeding and manipulating lizardfolk and alligators to create servitor races with honed abilities.

Plan, Plan, Plan

As the GM, you need to come up with a ton of material. More than any other path. I ran Legacy of Fire, and aside from some conversions and tweaking to compete with party balance, it ran great out of the box. I’ve had friends play in Runelords and Crimson Throne, which went mostly okay without any heavy GM lifting. In fact, even Kingmaker was more reliant on player choices/direction and less on GM gruntwork. Serpent’s Skull? I’ve done less work for my own homebrew campaigns. It’s time-intensive; several parts I didn’t like and wanted to revise, while others are half completed and need work. Not the Path to pick if you’re running canned adventures because you don’t have time to plan a campaign.

Why? Unless your players seek out and create their own plots, goals, and agendas, half the modules will be incredibly fucking boring. The first one is a smaller Morrowind. Monster lairs, a few neat set-piece dungeons, but otherwise just a huge empty map, filled with whatever imaginary trees and traps and monsters you drop into it. If you don’t drop in those imaginary objects, it’ll be just a big empty void—blank space on a map. It needs filler.

Module three paints a godawful portrait of Saventh-Yhi; it breaks down into seven districts, each one with requirements to “conquer” it. They are, without any variance, as follows. Perform three of the following: kill boss A, kill boss B, kill boss C, kill ~172 of the native inhabitants (1-hit die bog standard humanoids). Aside from 1d6 set-piece locales per district, that’s all there is to this lost metropolis. It’s boring and empty. Chances for diplomacy or quests were lost, skipped, or brutalized. Unless your players like grinding through 769 bog standard vegepygmies or have a thing for boggard genocide, this city will look big and empty and dull.

Then take some time off and PLAN SOME MORE.

That said, if you have time, imagination, and opportunity, the sandbox areas are perfect breeding grounds for whatever ideas you cook up. Take Saventh-Yhi. Adding in diplomatic opportunities and side-quests from the various natives and exploration factions has a lot of potential. Give the districts and factions their own goals and agendas; have the PCs try to unify the districts not grind through the low-level mobs. Play them off each other; throw in native intrigues. Offer more faction missions: quests to find specific artifacts, conquer specific districts, create fortifications, pull allies in line. Drop in more dungeons and set-pieces to keep the tactical gamers interested.

Making the city bigger helps a lot, because then you can add in more monster lairs and mini-dungeons to your heart’s content—as written, Saventh-Yhi is around 3-5 city blocks in size, pretty small for the major lost metropolis it’s supposed to be. That owes more to its artificial construction for tabletop play—making it bigger means more ground to cover, more inhabitants, more monsters, so you’ll have to juggle the number of hazards/adversaries to stay within the XP/level framework of ~7-16 encounters per level (depending on XP track). Then again, with an open sandbox, you’re already on the job balancing party advancement.

A good start is to figure out the different factions’ goals. Which district would they want to conquer or ally with? Where would they want to go? After exploring a district, have them move around—the PCs see the campfires changing after a week, a subtle nod to say “you guys don’t have to just sit right here and explore District B when there are people ahead of you in District F.” Have the factions ally with each other, or go to war; have them ally with the natives, or kill their leaders and take command of their treasuries and armies. Interaction between the PCs, factions, and natives goes a long way to generating that content the modules are in such a need of. Make it the first thing on your list.

Make Saventh-Yhi the interesting, fascinating, decayed ruin it should be, instead of the empty, listless void it is. Add in magical treasure—not just +1 longswords, but stuff like art and relics (statues, urns, frescoes, whatever—the PCs need at least $10k just to finish the Pirates’ faction quest alone). Also, cool little baubles that don’t do anything, but show the faded glories of the Azlanti Empire. It was basically Rome, and the rest of the world is in the Dark Ages, go wild. If you’re not averse to magi-tech or high-magic stuff, through some of that in there. Clockwork police constructs that have patrolled their districts for eons without new orders; villas with permanent prestidigitation to keep themselves clean and repair damage; tranquil music played through permanent magic mouths in a now-overgrown water garden; street-signs which become flickering, fading streetlights at night, hovering over cobblestone avenues that are now eroded sinkholes.

And if you have the serpentfolk as recurring villains, there’s endless possibilities here. Creating unrest between the factions, instilling the boggards to revolt, assassinating a prominent ally/district leader in such a way that the PCs get the blame. Modules 3 and 5 are giant sandboxes; the downside is that they’re some of the most banal modules I’ve ever read, but like a true sandbox, they give you some great tools and boundaries, and the opportunity to craft whatever you want off of those.

Run Modules 3-4 Together. And Roll In Module 5

Read modules three and four together, and start coming up with ways to roll the dungeons into the game earlier. The PCs probably won’t stumble upon the vaults unless you have them find the first one. (If they’re with the pirates, or are in the Boggard area, having them look for the missing pirate and finding the vault in the sinkhole is a good start.) They’re a bit obtuse to find, and getting to them earlier makes them more of a sub-plot, and at a time when they’re still a bit challenging.

Don’t forget to mention the sinkholes, the collapsed buildings, the tunnels, and the caves. Place those everywhere. Not only does it foreshadow modules 5-6, but it gives you room to add little magical caches, monster lairs, micro-dungeons, and who knows what else. Saventh-Yhi is a ruin, and playing up the ruined part—the sinking, eroding, subterranean ruin part—is really helpful at moving players towards the Darklands elements.

My Serpent’s Skull Idea

Having skimmed all the modules again, if I was running this Path again, I’d make a number of changes. Module one, while great, is the start to a different campaign—I wouldn’t use it as part of Serpent’s Skull, it just doesn’t feel relevant. Module two is pretty pointless other than as a vehicle to get the PCs to module three; it’s bereft of plot or character elements, and running it I found it pretty boring and too linear.

Instead, I’d start the party with module three, where the campaign as-written really takes off—either have the PCs start at ~6th level, or start at 1st-3rd and add in low-level encounters to the module as written (though still leaving those high-level ones around, so that they have to be careful what they blunder into). From there, it’d follow the standard arc (modules 3-4-5-6) with some heavy tweaking. The adventure hook would be along the lines of “other factions have discovered Saventh-Yhi, and you’re either hired by one, or are freelance mercs going in for gold and glory.” I think it’d make modules 4 and 5 work a lot better, with Eando part of the Pathfinder expedition—his crew is going to find the city anyways, why not let the PCs bump into him and see his presence before the plot strikes? If the players are Pathfinders—and they probably will be, or want to be—it gives yet another hook to future plot points.

My modus operendi was to run Saventh-Yhi and Ilmurea in the style of Grand Theft Auto/Saint’s Row: different districts, different factions, all giving out missions and quests to align their goals. I think it’d be pretty fun. The players would be running the different faction missions and native quests, making and breaking alliances, getting strong allies and pulling districts (and explorer factions) to their side. If they played their cards right, their faction—or their adventuring party—could control the city. Maybe build fortifications for their faction as they expanded out, or set up repairs to get parts of the city working again. There’s still set-piece dungeons and lairs to explore, of course, and plenty of opposing faction members to beat, blackmail, or bribe into shape, so a wealth of options for the tactical gamer.

The serpentfolk would need more foreshadowing—perhaps run the trek through the jungle with a few lizardfolk/serpentfolk ambushes, a distinct feeling of recurring reptilian hate. Or just have them be something the city’s explorers stumble into after a while, digging too deeply and greedily in their search for Saventh-Yhi loot.

Several of the “continuing the campaign” options are stellar, and would work really well off of this—the serpentfolk armies march, for example; depending on how the PCs handled the city, it could unify in the face of revolt, going off the fortifications and rebuilding the PCs have done… or stomp over a ruined city racked from infighting and revolt.

It still wouldn’t be perfect. D&D is a heavily tactical game, and doesn’t lend itself to political/intrigue/statecraft all that well, if only because of its “something appears, let’s kill it” mentality. (Kingmaker is a great exception, and would be a big influence on my direction.) So I’m not sure I’d use the Pathfinder system to run it this way. It’d need a specific group of players who’re good at being proactive and self-directed, who didn’t mind either the many dungeons/encounters or the intrigue. Maybe I should just run Kingmaker and slake my city-building thirst, but given how the Serpent’s Skull plot pans out, I’d ditch the first two modules and stick to the last four even if I didn’t go with the city-building intrigue sandbox.

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