By no means do I think that Richard Pett's "Forest of Spirits" is a great AP module. But for my DMing style, I always expect to revise sections of adventures and modules I don't write from scratch. It's like playing a cover song - you have to make it your own. "Forest of Spirits" simply required me to do more tweaking than usual. I won’t go over the same complaints as others, but will instead make my review a recommendation for other DMs to revise this module to improve it.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! DMs only, beyond this point!
First, let me say I agree with those who found Part 1: Ordu Aganhei really weak and underdeveloped. I also agree that the dungeon crawl in Part 3: House of Withered Blossoms is very old school, with the “ongoing war between the current inhabitants” straining the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Are we really to believe they haven’t killed each other off in 60 years? Sure, they upper levels are filled with the gaming equivalent of slacker pot-heads, but it still feels ridiculous. Further, what if PCs find a way into Munasukaru’s Penance without facing the upper levels of the House of Withered Blossoms? A savvy group could do it. Mine could. They’ve done it before, and then all that preparation I do goes out the window, or feels anticlimactic after the lower levels are finished.
So here are my recommended revisions.
1. Make Prince Batsaikhar a shape-shifted version of Akinosa. Move all the upper levels (everything but A1-A4) of The House of Withered Blossoms to the first part in Ordu-Aganhei. The module indicates that Prince Batsaikhar is a bit mad, as is Akinosa. It’s a matter of very little work to blend the two. Then, instead of simply having the Prince petulantly kick them out of Ordu-Aganhei, you can have him kidnap Ameiko, or all or some of the PCs and have them either awaken in the webs of “The Tower of the Spider” or have to storm that tower. The latter option is interesting, because the module states there’s a hole in the Golden roof of the Pagoda, something PCs could have noticed in their wanderings around the city. So they could enter through the roof, or from the ground. I recommend sticking your captives in A9a to ensure they have to endure some challenges before getting free or rescuing captive friends. As a side note, making Batsaikhar an Aranea sorcerer also explains why the feasts are filled with such messed-up food. While I love fantasy roleplaying, making Tian Xia a place where people eat food modeled after Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’s dinner scene is a moment of Orientalism, and unbecoming Paizo’s track record of great treatment of race and gender. Once the PCs are free of the tower, they can steal the horses with the fancy saddles that were supposed to be a gift.
2. Either move the ninja attack to the road to Minkai, or repeat it there, to force the PCs off the road and into the Forest of Spirits. Having Miyaro tell the group they need to go to the Forest because the Five Storms control much of Minkai is very different from SHOWING your group this is the case, both through Batsaikhar as likely open agent of the Five Storms (see 1.) and then reiterating this by showing them the roads are controlled. It’s a good rule for visual narrative, and gaming is effectively performance art, so SHOW your group, don’t tell them. An NPC should not be reduced to the carrier pigeon of exposition. Other than getting the group started into the forest, I like Part 2 just the way it is, save perhaps for the inclusion of the bonsai tree motivation for going into the House of the Withered Blossoms. More on that in the next point.
3. Pull a Mines of Moria motivation with the final part. The players cannot take the road, but the forest is proving as problematic. With the upper floors out of the way (save for A1-A4), the players can march into the House of Withered Blossoms with a clear sense of direction, but not necessarily purpose. Look at the map on page 18. Even after they’ve completed the dungeon crawl, they’ve got a long way to go to get to where the next part of the Jade Regent picks up, at the northern end of Minkai. What if the kimon, the portal at the end of the crawl, is still usable, but only to get the characters a short distance (yes, I know the module says only spirits travel this way, but it’s a fantasy game and you’re the DM, dangnabbit!)? Then the kami could use their suspicions about the Oni escaping as the proverbial carrot before the cart – “There may be a way to get to Minkai sooner in the depths of Munasukaru’s lair…” Make it a DC 30 Use Magic roll, or have the portal taint the PC who activates it in a way that will carry into the rest of your campaign, like Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke.
Also, I wouldn’t have Munasukaru unaware—make her a madwoman scorned, not just a madwoman. She’s been expecting Anamurumon to come back for her. Heck, a good diplomacy roll might result in her saying she’ll turn the portal on for the PCs, so long as they promise to kill Anamurumon.
I think these revisions demonstrate the breadth of the Five Storms’ influence in Tian Xia, making the module a crucial step in your PCs journey toward the conclusion of the Jade Regent!