Copper Dragon

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RPG Superstar 2011 Top 16. 1,097 posts. 4 reviews. No lists. No wishlists.

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a pedestrian adventure with poor maps


I was excited for this module, and perhaps I'm a bit harsh on it due to the let-down. This review contains spoilers.

The module is broken down into three sections: investigating the camp of Deepmar, exploring the island, and dungeon-crawling the Derro-caves.

The investigation piece takes place in the camp of Deepmar, where the locals have all been rounded up and carted off by the Derro, who were careful to put everything back in place and make it look like nothing happened. The camp is described in detail, with lots or readaloud text, etc, but fundamentally, there isn't much there in the seven pages of writeup. There isn't an investigation to do: nothing the PCs find at the camp ends up helping them later in the module, with the exception of a map that points them to the dungeon of part 3. (Unless you count looting the place to get some gear/potions.) There are no puzzles to solve, nor sleuthing to do; just find the map and go to where it says to go.
However, the abandoned town is also there to lend a feeling of horror, and it does that through a memory-addled NPC. This is a nice touch, and her ravings can set a nice tone. It also introduces a neat moral quandary: what to do with her?

The second part is the wilderness exploration. In the very back of the book, there is a 2-page writeup and map of the island, in standard gazetteer format. In the middle of the module, there is a 5-page writeup of what the characters will encounter on the island as they made their way from the camp to the dungeon, but they are written in a handwavy "put these whereever you want to" manner. This in-and-of-itself is not a bad thing (as I tend to move things around when I GM things), but the tone between the two sections comes across so differently, it feels like it was written by two different authors that didn't collaborate.
I felt that this wilderness part of the adventure should have been used to build tension and continue to foreshadow the "big reveal" that the Derro were behind all this. Instead, we get a real grab-bag of off-theme encounters, including a Forsaken Temple to a demon-god that acts as a teleport point in case the PCs wander out of bounds, and the trap that is the basis for the cover image, both of which leave you more with an "umm, okay" reaction rather than a sensation of increasing dread. There is an on-theme encounter where one character gets ambushed by Derro-scouts and is subjected to their poison (a poison that, BTW, is incredibly difficult for the average player to properly roleplay).

Finally, we get to the dungeon itself. It's hidden behind a DC 20 Perception check, but otherwise it's surprising that "getting in" is that simple, given the Derro predilection towards hiding their existence. (I expected a round a clue-gathering or somesuch.) Then you begin what is a pretty generic dungeon-crawl. However, it's a dungeon-crawl with a number of weird flaws:
- there are a great many tunnels that lead "elsewhere not covered in this adventure" (hence the "teleport back to cultist temple" trick mentioned above)
- the only geographically-interesting caverns (ie bridges&traps) lead toward these "tunnels to elsewhere", and I cannot understand why the author is essentially baiting characters to go "out of bounds"
- the number ordering of the rooms is extremely weird, and the flow the dungeon as a whole feels very stilted: it feels like the author wrote up a bunch of rooms, while at the same time a non-collaborating cartographer drew an underground map, and then afterward an editor tried to plop down room numbers onto it in whatever way he could make it fit
- each encounter with the Derro says that they "retreat and alert the others", but there is no guidance on what an "alerted" complex looks like (and many of the rooms' readaloud text clearly implies the Derro are going about their day blissfully unalerted)
- hostage information is missing: a couple of rooms will mention hostages in the readaloud text, but then the GM notes don't say how many there are, nor how difficult it would be to free them (which seems like a glaring oversight)
- there's nothing really that cool in the dungeon. We've got Derro, centipedes, Derro riding centipedes, some zombies, and a gug. With the exception of the mounted-combat, all of it is pretty standard meat-grinder faire, without anything really to jazz it up
- most disappointingly, it's not that horrific. There is a room with a flesh golem that's kinda neat, and zombies are always a bit scary. But there was a missed opportunity to include mutated hostages, hallucinogenic gases, and other really creepy things
However, the final combat is a thing of beauty. Clearly, all of the author's time and love went into this one encounter. We have the Derro leader, a severely mutated hostage, a mind-controlled goodguy, an animated torture device, all sorts of alchemical hazards, and a collection of evil tonics, all in one room. It looks like an amazing time.

In summary, I feel like the author read the Derro chapter in Classic Horrors Revisted, and just implemented it rote. There is no real spark here, and there's a few weird glitches along the way. If you're just looking for a classic "derro module", then this is for you. If you were hoping for something inspired, perhaps a twist on horror like we saw in Carrion Crown, then look elsewhere. I can't really recommend this module, even if it does have a cool final throw-down.

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elegant and thematic mystery module


I greatly enjoyed Sam Zeitlin's module, and I would recommend it to a majority of gaming groups. The storyline neatly pulls off a layered interaction model: the PCs will visit a location and NPCs, the learn more, then revisit them, etc, going a "layer deeper" each time, all without it looking rehashed or stale. It gives the players a chance to get to know the feel of the setting, which is great for immersion.

Also, unlike many Paizo modules, almost of the information in the module is learnable by the adventurers playing through the quest. This is exciting, as they peel back the layers of mystery and care more-and-more about what's going on. However, all of this is done very elegantly, so as not to feel overwrought, nor too complicated, nor risks the PCs getting stuck.

The module is a bit light on combat, which is how I prefer it, and is also how a mystery module should be. Even more impressive is how the pacing is managed: unlike most modules that have "interaction in the first half, slay-em-all in the second half" this module keeps the play types interwoven, and thus fresh.

I greatly enjoyed the thematics and the visuals. I want to keep this review spoiler-free, so I won't elaborate. I will only say this: few d20 modules capture the same mystique that World of Darkness modules manage to, but this is one of them. The weirdness hits all the right notes without being overdone, and leaves just enough of an unsettled feeling. Put another way: the story manages to be within the horror genre, but is almost G-rated (at least, the plot does; the setting is another story).

After all this lofty praise, why only 4 stars?

I hated the fact that it was set in Nidal. The town is located in the backwater of a country that worships the god of sadomasochistic torture. Various (otherwise sympathetic) NPCs have ritualistic scarring. The town cleric requires that he "extracts pain" from his congregants before he helps them (not to mention is pierced like a heavy metal star). The main NPCs keep an iron maiden in their basement as a worship device. The whole overt "our religion is evil" thing really detracts and distracts from the otherwise subtle and insidious plotline that is going on.
I know that the Nidal-aspect was something that was added on afterwards, and wasn't part of the original vision, and it shows: it doesn't feel well integrated with the whole. I would recommend GMs drop it, and transplant the city to somewhere more palatable. Otherwise, you run the risk of the PCs killing the town priest and not wanting to help out "those sickos."

On the whole, this a great module. I left it wanting more. The author alludes to some other plots in the book, and I want to know more about them, and follow up with them. While the story wraps itself up nicely, I still feel like I want a sequel. Basically, the meal was so delicious, I'd like a second course. Really, what better endorsement could you ask for?

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a solid GMing resource


I picked this book up recently, and I'm glad I did. You're probably buying it for the mini adventures, and this is where the format gets really interesting. They keep revisting certain locations, and these locations are described in an earlier chapter. They have a cast of recurring NPCs, and these NPCs are statted up in an earlier chapter. It's very page efficient, and gives a really nice sense of continuity and pervasiveness to the adventures. It just works.

The adventures themselves are pretty interesting ordeals and involve performing some fairly non-standard activities. I liked the freshness I found in them. The GM support is good too: lots of tables decribing information gained at various tiers of KnowLocal and Diplomacy, and even explicit responses to give if the PCs cast divination spells (a major plus as many of the adventures are mystery-based).

Be warned though: they are pretty much all for scoundrels or those that would associate with such ilk. The tagline "better leave the Paladin at home on this one" is highly appropriate. Seemingly over 80% of the quest-givers or otherwise "friendly" NPCs in the book are evil-aligned.

Also be warned that there's an element of steam-punk to these adventures. To be clear: this book isn't about steam-punk, it's about scoundrel-y things that you can do in a city that happens to also have steam-punk in it. Some adventures ignore that aspect entirely, most have it as a background element, and only one focuses in on it front and center.

I have two complaints:
- the level range is very cramped. The first module says it's for "1st level characters", but it is filled with notes on how to convert to APL3, and plays better that way anyway. And the two 5th level modules look very tough (I would want my players to be 6th or 7th level). That means except for the first adventure, all the content is in the 7th-11th range. If that's what you want though, I guess that's not a drawback.
- I didn't like the art style. I can tell the artist was very talented, but I feel he took the "grim and gritty" thing a little too far, and sometimes I have trouble telling what I'm looking at. It's very dark, cramped, and somewhat surreal, like in the old VtM books.

All-in-all, I would recommend this purchase. It's a solid GMing resource, either taken "whole hog" or carved-apart and mined for details. For me, it has accomplished it's goal: I'm now looking to find time in my the gaming calendar to run a scoundrels-game in a steam-punk city.

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bad enough to kill the AP


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.