A tournament-style adventure for 11th-level characters
Once every 10 years, the cosmopolitan city of Goka on the western coastline of Tian Xia hosts the Ruby Phoenix Tournament on an island off the coast. Infamous for its strange spectacles and exciting mix of fighting styles, the contest draws combatants and spectators from all over the world. The tournament’s winner gets his choice of a single item from the legendary treasury of an ancient spellcaster and earns a reputation beyond imagining. But this year, not all who have come to compete do so out of respect for the traditions of battle or even out of greed for the reward. They seek instead nothing so much as red revenge and political domination!
Can the PCs’ team of contestants survive six bouts in the Grand Pavilion arena against the mightiest combatants and cleverest battle mages on Golarion? Can they prove their mettle in tests of mind and body? Can they foil the plans of an evil organization and its powerful allies who hope to destroy the Ruby Phoenix Tournament and see its champions dead? Step into the arena to find out!
The Ruby Phoenix Tournament is an event-based adventure for 11th-level characters, written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and compatible with the 3.5 edition of the world’s oldest RPG. Set in the Dragon Empires of the Pathfinder campaign setting, the adventure serves as an ideal introduction to the folk and fighting styles of the lands encompassing the Eastern-inspired continent of Tian Xia, and contains a fully detailed island location and a brand-new monster sure to challenge players in any campaign setting.
Written by Tim Hitchcock
Pathfinder Modules are 32-page, high-quality, full-color, adventures using the Open Game License to work with both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the standard 3.5 fantasy RPG rules set.
This module was the cause of my hiatus from review-writing. As all modules, it was a very involved experience for me to prepare this module. I spent probably at least 20 hours over two-three weeks to prepare this. As such, I feel justified for any opinions I have to share here. I thought this module was absolutely lame when I read and prepared it. In my mind, it was just fight after fight after fight. However, when I ran it, I was very pleasantly surprised how well-paced it was and how each "Day" of the Ruby Phoenix Tournament was very complete and satisfying. My players also managed to stay very engaged throughout the entire 12+ hour long escapade. When I prepared this module, I felt as though each fight would be near identical but when it actually played out, I think all my players got a chance to "shine" as each fight was sufficiently different to allow different abilities and skills to be advantageous.
The Ruby Phoenix Tournament is basically the Golarion Olympics. It consists of 5 grueling days of fight, exhibitions and challenges followed by a night of revelry. Each day consisted of roughly one tough fight, one easy fight, one skill challenge and then a role-playing encounter. It integrated some fun elements from different movies and tv-series to weave an asian themed ku-fu championship. In addition, there was an underlying plot of corruption which added a deeper layer of intrigue and revenge.
DM complexity - high
This module utilized almost every single character class all the PFS rulebooks. I consider myself an experienced DM in 3.0, 3.5 and PFS and still had to spend a significant amount of time preparing and re-reading everything from spells, abilities to combat maneuvers. However, I also found it very fulfilling to have achieved this because running a high level complex module - imo demonstrates a level of proficiency and mastery over the PFS system.
Player complexity - high
This is an 11th level module so needless to say, it's expected that the players be experienced and know their own strengths and weaknesses so as to prepare accordingly for a 5-day tournament. I warned my players in advance to ensure that they equipped themselves appropriately. There were also opportunities for each class to draw into different abilities so that no fight is quite the same as the last one - and no opportunity for the same trick to work twice.
Spoilers follow. This review is from the viewpoint of a player, not a GM.
I'll get the good parts out of the way. The battles are varied with a some interesting environments and situations to fight in. I don't recall any fight that felt repetitive or similar to any other from the adventure. I commend the variety of opponents pitted against us.
The problems I encountered as a player came from a number of areas:
- We played this module under the older PFS rules, where you could create an 11th level PC to play with. The PCs we played were heavily built on damage dealing, so many fights, even the supposedly more dangerous ones, were over quickly (within 2 or 3 rounds).
- The performance combat rules, despite adding the interesting combat bonuses (or penalties, depending on your rolls), introduced a nice dynamic, but unfortunately our party mostly plowed through the encounters where the rules could have been appreciated more by allowing the encounters to last longer. Even when I was prepared to take full advantage of the performance combat rules, the rest of the party had different ideas and the fight was over before I could build up a relationship with the crowd. I don't fault the module for this - performance combat could probably stand to receive some more fleshing out with more incentive to use them.
- Many significant boss type encounters only had a single opponent, so there was little to force us to decide how to best use our action economy. This made many of those fights too easy.
Overall, I enjoyed my time playing the module. However, my one-time experience of playing it with an 11th level party lacked the nail biting elements that come from high level play. Balancing a module and enemy builds against a typical 11th level party can be a difficult thing, since the game at that level can many times be much less than typical. In my case, it was a series of enjoyable combats, but the lack of regular difficulty was disappointing.
NOTE: This review is intended for GMs. Spoilers galore.
Probably the most difficult challenge for module author is how to pack content into just over twenty pages. Tim Hitchcock proves again that he can excel under severe constraints.
Note to my esteemed colleagues who posted astonishingly short reviews: Use of Ultimate Combat content is optional. While I agree that UC gladiatorial rules rate very low for introducing yet another standalone and incompatible subsystem (just like the firearms cost or firearms point blank shooting or Jade Regent caravan fiascos), they can be safely ignored.
You're also free not to use weapons, spells or classes... or just read online version of UC.
Finally, all oriental elements are easy to replace with standard fantasy stuff.
SPOILERS BELOW. You were warned!
So what your players can hope to experience by participating in the tournament? Well, there is the standard plot of "win several fights and get fabulous items". In between fights, the PCs are sent forth to overcome complex challenges devised by tournament supervisors. Meanwhile, in shadows, a sinister plot is slowly building momentum toward the blazing secondary finale.
The great move on author's part is to make PCs' decisions or accomplishments matter. For example:
- facing a dragon at earlier stage allows to avoid potential TPK during intense showdown,
- rescuing a hostage means that severely hurt PCs gain powerful ally in the finale.
THE BAD & THE UGLY
The module is highly compressed. That means that you, as a GM, are expected to think for your NPCs, come up with tactics and research statblocks. Additionally, some story parts are handed down using rather crude methods (a body of kidnapper with a note pointing toward secret meeting point... seriously), however, since Tim had to work in clues for PCs and fit it into really tight space, this is both acceptable and easily amenable.
You are also required to make several leaps of faith and creativity (one would expect other contestants to be able intervene when all hell breaks loose, the fight against dragon - the one where the PCs get to attack - is not set properly... that is to say, it is not included in module text at all).
Probably the most irritating part for me would be juggling statblock of all extras - all these "use default statblock for X, just change it here and there" get tiresome after a while. I do not mind missing encounter descriptions though - I like to add my own content.
This module occurs largely in open spaces. The action moments occur frequently, easily exceeding standard default CR and encounter ratios. At the same time, risk of dying is limited through several safety nets, like paladin patron, presence of clerics (played down, but still there) or by the fact, that the PCs may try to make a few friends to get them to help later (saving bacon of other contestants may, and should, in my opinion, result in NPC boons or returned favors).
Of course, the blazing finale is no-holds-barred fight, but again, falling while doing a huge favor for a dominant church may yield a free resurrection or two.
Most of the challenges, especially the side shows, add lots of fun. The fight on cliff walls is going to be interesting, but the fight in the port, with dragon picking strays from above and opponents jumping from one boat to another is going to take the spotlight, probably even overshadowing the final finale.
Verdict: 5/5, Heartily recommended, Requires GM's work.
GMs should monitor developments in order to avoid TPK.