I've waited more than a month after getting the PDF of Slumbering Tsar, the epic Greg Vaughan mega-campaign, to offer any kind of review.
I knew when it came that the adventure read well. There were tons of fun, twisty (and twisted) plot elements. Nice bit of foreshadowing.
And I had the sense that the sandbox elements -- which allow players to really broadly dictate the direction of play -- were solid.
But I wanted to see how it flowed at the table and how my players reacted to the story-line and the texture.
First, a few bits of background. In SS, the adventurers begin by arriving at a dreary Camp on the edge of a massive, war-scarred desolation. Over time, they explore, learn more about their horrible surroundings, and hopefully progress toward exploring a ruined, haunted city.
I should say that I love making slight mods to any adventure I buy and this campaign setting allows that to happen smoothly. You can run it entirely as-is, or you can slide in 10% of your own material and ad nuances of your own.
My group has spent four game-sessions in the campaign so far, two entirely in the camp and another two venturing out into the desolation proper. At our last session, I asked the group for a blunt, no holds barred review and it was the most positive response I've ever had to a campaign.
Basically, they loved that the desolation seems so bloody horrible and dangerous -- lots of battle. But they also loved the fact that there were bits of story and role-playing. Vaughan manages to create something like the feel of a 1st edition dungeon (or wasteland) crawl, but with constant nudges of actual narrative and motivation.
There are also just gobs of cool wow moments here. (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT) It's not just an undead: it's a hung man who haunts the camp at night. It's not just a tavern brawl: it's a conspiracy of homicidal little gnomes. Bottom line? Vaghan is a great writer, a great storyteller, and he knows that at the gaming table RPGs are about big cool moments. He delivers all those.
I do have one idea that I think GMs should consider before running this adventure. (And you should buy it and run it...) Here it is: SS offers a remarkable measuring stick for power creep in Pathfinder. An adventure that was ridiculously deadly when written is now only moderately dangerous - and sometimes encounters that would have been deadly fierce in August 2009 are fairly easy in September 2014.
I'd suggest looking closely at these encounters, especially ones that should be real tentpole moments and tests. If your party is going to sweep through them, consider adding a minion or two, or giving the NPC some kind of strategic advantage. This isn't always called for. Some moments in SS are supposed to be relatively easy -- a chance to sort of plow through the bad guys. But if you're not careful, a few of the BBEG's in this adventure will topple far too easily.
It's worth noting that some parts of SS are still extremely deadly as written. In four gaming sessions, we've had two PCs die, and two more brought to the absolute brink where one bad roll would have killed them. Granted I've done a bit of tweaking, but that's a much higher risk rate than any campaign I've ever run. And I should end by saying my players are loving it. I told them in advance to create back-up characters, so they knew going in that the tone would be bloody and high body count. So long as you get that kind of buy-in from your table, I think your group will love the Tsar.
So first, all the usual disclaimers. "Rise" is a classic.
It joins the pantheon of truly great adventures in the storied history of "D&D," ranking with Gygax's giant-drow saga.
It redefined the genre, for the better, and despite some brilliant Adventure Paths since, still contains some of the best writing and freshest ideas that Paizo's team has cooked up.
So why only three stars? Two words: Missed opportunity.
The knock on Runelords from the start -- a legitimate one, in my opinion -- is that there wasn't enough foreshadowing.
Nor was there enough opportunity to interact with the incredibly rich, complex NPCs created by Paizo's authors.
The DM knows from reading the printed backstory just how complex and interesting are figures like Nualia, Tsuto, Ironbriar, and the Scribble.
Yet the sad truth is that, as written, these NPCs appear on stage in the adventure only just in time to be killed -- dungeon crawl fodder dressed up in fancy verbiage.
There are exceptions of course. Aldern Foxglove enjoys his own mini-arc. Father Zanthus has a chance to grow in meaning.
But there's not enough of this.
And the issuance of the Anniversary Edition offered Paizo a chance to remedy the spotty flow of plot and character development.
This wouldn't be that difficult a retrofit.
Ironbriar could make a sinister cameo appearance in the early going. It could be made clear that Nualia should do her best to survive, to take a more prominent role in subsequent chapters.
Conna the Wise, given some kind of cameo or bit role earlier, would have much more resonance.
It would also have been relatively easy to thread together larger themes of the story.
Why not make the mysterious ranger Shalelu Andosana a member of the Black Arrows?
This would have given her a clear role later in the story and made the plight at Fort Rannick far more tension-filled.
There should also be some sort of foreshadowing -- through dreams? through the ravings of captured enemy NPCs? -- of arch-enemies that appear later in the story: the Scribbler, Karzoug, Xin-Shalast itself.
As written, the Adventure Path still acknowledges that there is "relatively little involving the metaplot" of ROTRL in the entire first chapter.
But this needn't have been so.
Why aren't the goblins marked or tattooed with Sihedron runes -- as victims are who visit the Paradise barge later in the story?
Why not lay in clues and hints from the very start, so that the seeds of dread are planted at once?
I know -- I know. All these things are DMable, fixable, improvable.
And the adventure works just fine (better than fine...) as written, as a series of cool, weird, deadly encounters that only slowly builds a sense of narrative momentum.
Some would argue that this is exactly the point, using Sandpoint as a kind of "sandbox" at first, and only later introducing the real seeds of an active "quest" or "campaign."
But in my view, iit would be that much better if there were really memorable arch-villains and bit characters that built relationships and rivalries with the PCs, helping grow excitement through the early sessions.
How about an encounter with one of the Graul clan in the slums of Magnimar?
Couldn't that awful flesh golem be an awakened, re-animated off-spring of Mammy?
Imagine that creature, in its dying breath, saying, "My kin don't forget. Mammy'll find you. Mammy'll git you!"
A solidly written monster bash becomes really creepy, really foreboding. And Mammy herself begins to loom early on the horizon.
Even if Paizo didn't want to rewrite all this, it would have made sense to include a "Behind the Curtain" section pointing out possible ways to enhance the story. Something like this:
"We wrote this episodically, and it wasn't possible to stitch it all together seamlessly. But now that we can look at it as a whole, here are some ideas for giving bigger flow and punch to the various elements, ways that might spark curiosity, fear and a sense that the PCs face clever, persistent adversaries..."
So enough. I'll end where I began.
I think it's fair and reasonable to hold Paizo's stuff to the highest narrative standards. Thus my stingy stars.
But this is great storytelling, as written. I've run most of the Adventure Path already once, and plan to run it again now. Once again, thanks to the folks at Paizo for all the fun