Pathfinder Adventure Path #39: The City of Seven Spears (Serpent's Skull 3 of 6) (PFRPG) (based on
Paizo Publishing, LLC
Chapter 3: "The City of Seven Spears"
by James Jacobs, Kevin Kulp, and Rob McCreary
The legendary lost city of Saventh-Yhi, known to some as the City of Seven Spears, has finally been found! Yet while the ancient city's mysteries have long remained hidden, all manner of man-eating beasts and plants still dwell within the vine-choked ruins. Can the PCs be the first among five competing factions to claim the rights of discovery? Or will they become but the latest of Saventh-Yhi's victims?
This volume of Pathfinder Adventure Path includes:
"City of Seven Spears," a Pathfinder RPG adventure for 7th-level characters, by James Jacobs, Kevin Kulp, and Rob McCreary, including an extensive appendix of magic items designed by Owen K.C. Stephens.
A detailed look at the members of the five factions exploring the city, by James Jacobs and Rob McCreary.
New powers and magic items from the sinister mystical tradition of juju, by Mike Shel.
Deadly lion riders in the Pathfinder's Journal, by Robin D. Laws.
Nine new monsters, by Jesse Benner, Patrick Renie, and Neil Spicer.
Pathfinder Adventure Path is Paizo Publishing's monthly 96-page, perfect-bound, full-color softcover book printed on high-quality paper. It contains an in-depth Adventure Path scenario, stats for about a half-dozen new monsters, and several support articles meant to give Game Masters additional material to expand their campaign. Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes use the Open Game License and work with both the Pathfinder RPG and the standard 3.5 fantasy RPG rules set.
As a player I do like a sandbox adventure, and this was a nice big sandbox for me to play in, but sadly much of the adventure was monster killing rather then exploring or discovering.
So let me start with the complaints (many of which have already been expressed by other reviewers):
1) the players were not the first group to discover the City of Seven Spears. What?! Turns out there's a ghost of a pathfinder that was part of a group that discovered it from over land, and we run into another pathfinder that was part of a group that discovered it though the darklands. Way to take away the heroic accomplishments of PCs completely.
2) The Spires don't seem to serve any point whatsoever. This adventure starts with the PCs hacking through the brush to discover the amazing sight of Saventh-Yhi. Seeing those spires made our PCs imidately want to explore them. Sadly, apart from some basic bonuses, the spires really didn't do much of anything. My character has slowly been piecing together the underlying plot of the campaign, she even reasoned that the city was there to guard against something, and she had a hypothesis that the spires must be activated all at once or in a set order to open up some secret ancient gate that leads to . . . nope, turns out there's a hole in the ground where some feebleminded elf escaped from that leads to the next chapter in the story.
3) Diplomacy = role for initiative. Our group was really never going to talk our way though this adventure, we really don't have face, but it seems like everyone and everything in this adventure was out to kill us from the start. Only the humans seemed willing to parlay and even they seemed ready to attack us at points. It would have been a nice mix to have more then one area in the city were we weren't automatically attacked the moment we were spotted.
4) Mystery/action/adventure = role for initiative. As others have pointed out there weren't any traps or abandoned temples or anything else that you might associate with discovering an ancient hidden city. If you were expecting Indiana Jones you'd be very much disappointed, this is more Duke Nukem, and while I appreciate there are time and word constraints you could have at least thrown us a bone here. I've been waiting for Indiana Jones style action adventure for sometime now but if that's coming in this adventure path we haven't seen it yet.
There are however some good points, and although I'm not so sure how well they translate from the adventure as written, I am giving this review three stars because of them.
1) Interesting characters and NPCs like them or hate them there are a lot of fun personalities in Saventh-Yhi. Not only do we have all our old friends from the Shiv, but we get to meet faction leaders, and the interesting denizens of city itself. Granted many of these folks are trying to kill us but there were lots of interesting interactions before the inevitable combat.
2) Good boss fights I'm not a huge fan of combat, to me it's usually something that we need to suffer though to advance the plot, but there were some tough fights in this adventure. Often encounters are written with creatures with abilities that counter the abilities of the players, as my character is a witch I notice many monsters that have immunities to mind affecting, but I don't remember too much of that happening here. There were big bad monsters for sure, some with various types of DR, but there weren't too many that seemed to exist solely to dick around the PCs. It's fun sometimes to fight a monster who's biggest defense is a vast amount of HP.
3) There was a promise of mystery and discovery Now granted much of this proved to be a disappointment, but just thinking that we were going to stumble across something vast and wondrous did keep me going. I wish the adventure had delivered but seeing that vast map and listening to the descriptions kept me exploring and anticipating.
4) There is lots of room to expand The adventure as written doesn't seem that impressive but my GM took the time to add some of his own content and these small changes made the adventure the second most memorable in the path thus far. The great thing about a sand box is that it gives you lots of room to expand, if you're a GM that likes building then this adventure has lots of space to build, however if you're the type of GM that prefers the work done for them and tends to run everything as written then this adventure might seem a bit dry.
Overall I think this adventure is probably middle of the road for me. It had great potential but I feel it squandered much of that, and while what we're left with isn't bad, what was missed makes this adventure feel like a bit of a disappointment. We raced through a jungle for this? I can only speak as a player however, I thought our GM did an excellent job, but many of the disappointments were from what he kept from the adventure and the real fun I had was from what he'd added. I'd give the adventure 2.5 stars if I could, I don't feel uncomfortable bumping that up to a generous 3, but I do agree with the overall disappointment of my fellow reviewers. Perhaps one star is a little harsh, I think there's enough good stuff here to warrant at least a two, but I can't disagree with their well argued complaints.
If you are able and willing to spend 15 or 20 hours preparing for each gaming session you run, this may be the module for you.
Because its a sandbox adventure, you need good reference access to lots of information. But the module is so poorly organized, you are going to be flipping back and forth trying to find stuff so often that your players are going wonder if you've prepared at all. For example: the spears. I can't count how much time I wasted searching back and forth between the descriptions and the powers, which are each separate. There are at least 15 different locations in the module for information about the spears. A summary table would have been nice. Also, there is a table of "Historical Discoveries" that you can roll on - but all the information you need for the roll results is scattered across various sections and even other modules. There are so many poorly organized facets to this module that I wanted to scream. The result is a huge amount of preparation and play overhead.
Content-wise, there *is* some good stuff here. I especially liked the Tribe of the Sacred Serpent, the Green God, and the Military District. Make sure you study Olujimi closely. His at-will abilities are key to making him a really excellent and challenging encounter - or series of encounters. I also liked Akarundo. Egzimora is right, he is a "filthy deviant". His abilities, location and perversions combine well if you want to harass your players with something very creative.
Other stuff was weak. I hate encounters or story lines that contain long-winded justifications and backgrounds which the PCs have little or no hope of ever understanding. And there is plenty of this. It's even worse if the players spend a lot of time investigating - because of all the clues - and then it turns out to be completely orthogonal to the main story. I'm thinking of you, Aboleth. This is a complicated theme which your players have little hope of ever unraveling, and which you have little hope of keeping track of in a timely manner since the clues and explanations are scattered all over the module. Yet if you and your players, in a great show of teamwork, somehow manage to get to the bottom of it, you'll find that it was just a lame side story, and that you wasted hours of your lives on it.
Lastly, the maps. There is exactly one encounter map for one unimportant encounter. That's it. Paizo, you should have held off publishing this until you had some maps. I don't think you've fulfilled your side of the bargain when you sell us such a complicated module with no maps.
Overall, this module could have been good with a lot more organizing, a bit of cutting, and a good dose of cartography. But as is, it's a rough draft with a lot of TBDs printed on shiny paper. As the linchpin module of the adventure path, it is an epic failure. It should be framed and hung on the wall at Paizo as a reminder of what not to do.
If you are thinking of running this adventure path be aware that this module is the centerpiece. You'll have plenty to do reworking, organizing, mapping and finishing it yourself. I strongly recommend visiting the forums where the community have posted a lot of helpful information and game aids.
I tend only to write bad reviews because I cannot spare the time to write some for all the decent books I read from Paizo. Therefore, as a “Pathfinder Charter Superscriber”, it pains me to say that like the two previous reviewers, I have found this adventure underwhelming at best.
The very first complaint is: "Where are the maps"?
While I do not mind some free in-house advertising by referring to the optional use of Map Packs and Flip Mats in my Pathfinder copies; I resent the lack of maps, and worse I resent being told to use generic maps for all sorts of encounters. Do I have to design and draw my own maps? I thought this was a ready-made adventure; this is what I paid for at least... Hello...?!?
That problem put aside, why oh why redo Runeforge (RotRLs, Sins of the Saviours) as a city? Runeforge was great, seven mini-dungeons with a theme, but one can only be original once. “City of Seven Spears” just does not work and for the reasons already exposed by Erik Freund’s review. The, I must say “lazy”, repetitive design carries on with “Vaults of Madness” as we get another seven mini-dungeons. The following instalment of the “Serpent’s Skull” AP has a bit more taste though with indeed more defined theme per cave... and it has maps, yeah!
I agree that one cannot always win and that people at Paizo can have a miss or two. I am a bit behind my AP reading and I dearly hope that the last two adventures rekindle “Serpent’s Skull” because the first two adventures were pure gold. “Legacy of Fire” had its continuity issues, but Paizo had the excuse of developing the Pathfinder RPG at the time. What is the excuse for those two unimaginative duds in a row (“City of Seven Spears” and “Vaults of Madness”)?
Note that for me “Rise of the Runelords” is still the ultimate AP, things were new and original back then and looking back makes parts 3 and 4 of “Serpent’s Skull” look pretty tired design-wise indeed.
That being said the non-adventure contents of “City of Seven Spears” are very good and it is a shame that the Juju magic article will not come to mind when mentioning the title of this book because of the poor quality of the adventure itself.
Well, as mentioned earlier, I am not going to burn all my Pathfinder books because of that, but I had to react to it nonetheless.
After much prodding from the sub-forum, I'm posting my review in the product section.
Here it is: the mid-campaign climax. In many ways, the entire Serpent's Skull campaign is about Saventh-Yhi, and this book needed to be great. I'm holding it to a higher standard because of its unique place in the series. Let me breifly touch upon why this needed to be a standout and amazing module:
- the climax of book 1 and the entirety of book 2 was building up to this moment; there's a big need for the hype to pay off
- all of book 4 and some of book 6 will use this book as background and setting; the party had better find it an interesting place to reside
- by virtue of being the 3rd book in the series, it is in the "sweet spot" level range that many parties prefer to play in
- one of the principle themes/inspirations for this series is "Indiana Jones" and other pulp sources; the genre demands that "finding a long-lost city" be an exciting time
These are reasons for my inflammatory title: "bad enough to kill the AP" - this module really needed to be great, and it wasn't. To the point where I would recommend against the entire Serpent's Skull AP because of it. (Which is a shame, because some of the other books in the series were quite good.)
Now on to actually reviewing this book:
The module starts off with an encounter against the ghost of an explorer who claims he discovered the city first. Wow. Really? I thought the PCs were supposed to be the stars of the show, and only able to find the city because of the special maps they picked up in books 1 and 2. And this dead guy found it before them, without any magic maps? This is a poor way to introduce the city, in my opinion.
Then we get to the meat of the matter: there are seven districts, and the module introduces a special kind of statblock to represent them. Each has a leader, rules for winning him over with diplomacy, a variety of objectives to complete in order to gain control of the district, the ritual needed to unlock its magic, then a passive bonus for taking it over. This sounds cool, and the idea got me very excited.
Until I actually started looking at how these district-statblocks were filled out:
For all but one of the districts, the section on diplomacy just read "the leader hates outsiders and would never cooperate, you'll have to kill him or dominate him."
Then I look at the objectives. I was hoping for lots of variety, maybe some social quests, some fetch quests, some skill challenges, etc. No. They're all combat. It's all "kill creature at location X", and over half the time, the creature isn't even an intelligent or politically powerful entity, it's just a big animal. Why killing this big animal gives me political control of this district is beyond me. Also, one thing I find absolutely mind-boggling is that for every district, one of the objectives is "kill 60~120 of the local creatures." Who thought that would be a fun quest??
The whole city is basically a large monster-mash. The encounters are mostly “you show up in this area, see some monsters, and kill them.” As I alluded to before, there is one exception: one of the districts is filled with a tribe of plagued humans, and that makes for a little change of pace. But the other six are mind-numbing in their repetitiveness. This is exacerbated by the fact that (outside of the intro encounter), there are no maps for the city. There’s the one large map, yes, and there’s letters & numbers sprinkled on it, but there’s never any “zoomed in” map, and the read-aloud text descriptions aren’t entirely helpful for figuring out what’s going on. You often have to squint at the full-city map and make some guesses as to what the environment that the party is fighting in might look like.
Coming back to the theme idea: there’s nothing “Indiana Jones” going on here. There are no rolling boulders (or traps at all), there are no puzzles to solve, or mysteries to unearth. No supernatural floating idols or haunted artifacts. Just a lot of killing monsters. Rogues or Bard PCs that were hoping to use their scholarly wit on the ancient ruins will be sorely disappointed. The entirety of “learning the history of the city” is dealt with in one disappointing sidebar.
The city just isn't interesting. A lost city demands interesting architecture, forgotten technology/magic, mysterious locations that make the party wonder what they were used for, etc. Paizo has done some excellent lost city adventures before. I would recommend both Crucible of Chaos as well as From Shore to Sea as great excamples of how to do an interesting and exciting lost city that your PCs will be anxious to explore and be fascinated with all of the wonders therein. Why they dropped the ball on this one, I'm not sure.
Finally, we get to the climax. At some point (the module says “once the party hits level 9”), a feebleminded elf escapes into the city, chased by undead serpentfolk. From a gameplay point of view, this is a desperately needed change of pace, but from a story point of view, this couldn’t be more horrible. She is from a party of adventurers that had found this city first, and were taken captive. Her story is the linchpin that drives the next 2 books forward. Why couldn’t the PCs have been the one to find the city? Most module-authors know enough not to have their NPCs kill the end boss and save the world: so why did NPCs get to do this campaign’s equivalent event?
And just to add a touch of insult near the end: I found the art to be pretty bad. The cover art notwithstanding (that’s amazing) the interior art featured very simple, cartoony characters drawn with thick lines and solid colors.
In conclusion: I have to give this the lowest rating possible. There is little story, and what story there is would have been better if it wasn’t there at all. The gameplay is monotonous. And I could have written this module myself if I just sat down with a wandering monsters generator and rolled it all out. It really kills the entire campaign. And again, that’s sad, because some of the other books in the series were really quite good.
OK, having read the module back and forth all I can say is that I'm disappointed.
The fact that the number of authors grew over time (first Kevin, then Kevin and James, and finally Rob too) was an indication that something isn't exactly on the ball here, and my fears were right.
This adventure is ... well, it isn't as messy as Memory of Darkness, but it's a wasted potential. A discovery of ancient city in the jungle sounds like a cool idea. Hell, this was done before, both by Greg Vaughan with Xin-Shalast and Wolfgang Baur with Crucible of Chaos.
Something went wrong with this module. Instead of awesome exploration and wondrous sights, we get a hackfest. Each district of the city is just about wading across a sea of blood and guts. Honestly, this feels more like a WotC 4e adventure than a Paizo module.
There are a few interesting bits here and there, but they don't liven up the adventure enough. To add insult to injury, while we do get a big nice map of Sanveth-Yi, there are no location maps to speak of. This is horrible for me, because it means that I have to take my time off and do them myself. I buy Paizo APs to save time, and so far I was served a wonderful plate of cool maps that cut my DM work considerably. Not here.
The support articles are of the usual excellent quality, and a few cool opponents/ideas in the module rescue it from being a total letdown, but still - not a fan.