Mad Scientist

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Starfinder Charter Superscriber. FullStarFullStar Pathfinder Society GM. Starfinder Society GM. 1,046 posts (1,362 including aliases). 272 reviews. No lists. No wishlists. 8 Organized Play characters. 4 aliases.



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Nice Supplements

****( )

These four mini-adventures were designed to introduce new players to the Pathfinder Beginner Box by providing short demos at conventions and gaming stores. I didn't encounter them in that context, but, like a lot of people, I've used them as supplements to a home Beginner Box game. New GMs need help, and old GMs get lazy, so extras like this are always appreciated.

"Relics" starts with the PCs meeting with a (to me at least) somewhat shady businessman named Eberius Tauranor. Tauranor hires the PCs to retrieve a valuable item from the mausoleum of an "ailing business contact" who has promised Tauranor any treasure there in exchange for a loan. The item in question is a ceremonial sceptre carried by ancient priests of Aroden! The briefing wasn't very well done, with a poor explanation of what's going on and no information if the PCs ask questions. It comes across very suspicious, and my son (who's 8) assumed Tauranor was a bad guy and thus refused the mission entirely! I think it would have been better to just have the PCs start at the mausoleum, with a handout letter explaining why they're there. Anyway, the mausoleum has an interesting puzzle-based pitfall trap (that might be a bit hard for the GM to keep track of and indicate to the players what is happening). In a nice touch, there are two scepters hidden in the mausoleum: a real one and a fake one, and PCs need to put some clues together to figure out which is which. They then get ambushed by a group of thugs (the Bloody Knuckles) who have (without little explanation) come looking for the sceptre. The PCs have the choice to fight or bluff them, and I like it when there are options in encounters like this. Overall, "Relics" is okay but not great.

"Ruins" has a much better briefing, as the PCs get to interact with and ask questions from Venture-Captain Sheila Heidmarch in the Rusty Dragon. She sends the PCs off to northern Varisia in search of an ancient Thassilonian ruin dedicated to the Runelord Xanderghul. There, the PCs have to persuade an illusory guardian to let them pass in order to retrieve a Sihedron medallion. It's a nice little foreshadowing for players if they eventually play Rise of the Runelords. As with "Relics", the PCs are ambushed after retrieving the treasure--this time, by a group of goblins. There is some backstory explanation for why the goblins are there, but the PCs will never be privy to it so I think the encounter probably comes across as somewhat random and possibly confusing.

"Terrors" has the PCs sent by Heidmarch from Sandpoint to Galduria to investigate strange rumors of lights and creatures seen near the town's graveyard. Unlike the other demos, this one has several avenues for role-playing and investigation, and does a really nice job (in a necessarily compact way) of describing Galduria. The backstory to what's happening is a bit involved, involving bandits, a waylaid witch, a stolen necromantic item, a foolish ritual, and the walking dead! I really liked the magical item, the candle of night, and how smart PCs could use it to make the only combat encounter much easier. I think this was the best adventure in the lot, as it shows that RPGs aren't just about dungeon crawls.

"Tomes" finishes the group, and I enjoyed its setting (Korvosa's Acadamae) since I had just run a module set there and had the appropriate map pack. The PCs are sent from Sandpoint to Korvosa to purchase a spellbook that one of the Acadamae's lecturers wants to sell. But when they get to the lecturer's office, they find the woman bloodied and unconscious. A rival lecturer has sent a well-disguised mimic to try to find the book, and it's hiding as a lectern! I ran this for my son (with some ally NPCs), and I can testify that mimics are pretty tough for Level 1 PCs! Overall, it was solid.

I'm not 100% sure why these demos were in such a hurry to get the PCs out of Sandpoint, as I think they could have instead built on the adventure possibilities there without handwaving hundreds of miles of travel. As short convention demos, it was probably fine, but as bonus stories for home games, I found them very hard to tie into the campaign. On the other hand, free is free and beggars can't be choosers--plus, with some changes in detail and setting, they're not too hard to adopt. I'm glad these were produced, and I wish similar ones were done for the Starfinder Beginner Box.


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A Fantastic Way to Start an Epic Adventure

*****

As my long-running Rise of the Runelords campaign has finally hit the last chapter, I realised that one of the things I've never reviewed is the original (3.5 edition) Rise of the Runelords Player's Guide. This 16 page book was sold with a cover price of $ 2, and (I think) usually came bundled in packs of five so everyone at the gaming table could have one. It's a high-quality product that comes on glossy paper and with colourful artwork and design. They're pretty hard to find nowadays, but I was lucky to spot one on eBay for a reasonable price. Anyway, with no further ado, let's get into it.

The cover is very cool, and, although players won't be quite aware of why yet, sets the tone for the campaign perfectly. The 7-pointed Sihedron star takes prominence, and the page borders are designed as if the reader is about to open an ancient, eldritch tome. The inside front-cover is a map of Sandpoint (the town that serves as the PCs' homebase), with detail sufficient to make out individual buildings, street names, and geographical features. It's exactly the map that players should have at the table to better envision where their characters are, and players could, as they explore, make their own key to go along with the map. The inside back-cover is similarly useful: an attractive map of Varisia that includes tons of marked locations and clear geographical features. The vast majority of these locations aren't visited during the campaign, so there's no spoilers here--and in addition, the GM can make good use of this map as well.

The first page, "Welcome to Varisia," emphasises the usefulness of having PCs designed specifically for the region and the campaign. Varisia is a frontier wilderness, and many of the challenges in the campaign involve surviving the land, not just monsters. PCs who think about feats like Endurance and skills like Climb will find themselves better placed than PCs who care only about combat. Players who ignore the Player's Guide very well may find themselves having a harder experience than they should in the campaign, but it's probably their own fault!

The next three pages, "Races of Varisia," discuss how the Core races fit into the region. This is especially important for players new to Golarion who have probably never heard of Shoanti, Chelaxians, and Varisians. Stories are best when they're grounded in interesting, believable settings, and this requires investment by the players in trying to make characters that reflect that setting.

Pages 6-9 are "Adventurers of Varisia." It contains a couple of paragraphs on how each of the Core classes fits into the region and to the campaign more generally. It's also chock-full of useful sidebars on things like native fauna, the deities of Golarion, and suggested familiars for sorcerers and wizards of different backgrounds. In short, there's a ton of flavour and little bits of detail that help to situate a PC in the setting.

The next two pages are "Equipment of Varisia", and it focusses on weapons and armor used by the native Varisian and Shoanti peoples. There are illustrations and statistics for things invented specifically for this setting, such as starknives, earthbreakers, bladed scarves, and more. Many of these pieces of equipment were later included in the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook and other sources, but often in a way that strips them of a lot of the flavour that is presented here.

The next three pages are titled simply "Varisia." The section contains a brief overview of the region and its history--a crucial theme of the Adventure Path. Several feats for PCs who hail from the region are included. Because this was designed for 3.5, I won't go into great detail on them, other than to say they're probably low-powered compared to modern Pathfinder feats. This book came out before Paizo had the concept of campaign traits, which is probably the only thing really lacking here. A sidebar describes the languages often spoken by inhabitants of Varisia.

Last up is a two-page description of Sandpoint. Sandpoint is extremely important for the campaign--if the PCs don't care about it, the campaign doesn't really work. So getting the players invested in the town early is one of the GM's biggest tasks. This book doesn't really emphasise the necessary connection as much as it should, however.

I love the idea of Players Guides, and they're one of the things that drew me to Paizo Adventure Paths to begin with. They're a great way to sell players (in a non-spoilery way) on a new campaign, and to give them a chance to customise characters for it. The original Rise of the Runelords Player's Guide was a concise but interesting and useful preview of the campaign, and surely contribute to the success of the Adventure Path as a whole. It's still worth using today and I think it's far superior to the (PDF only) Anniversary Edition Player's Guide (which I've reviewed elsewhere). I'd recommend making the substitution, just linking to the updated traits for the Pathfinder RPG.


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An Average PFS Shirt

***( )( )

The theme for Season Ten of Pathfinder Society is discovering more about the organisation's helmed leaders, the Decemvirate. The logo for the accompanying shirt is decent: a helm with a crack running down it. It's not as memorable as the logo for some previous seasons, but it's not bad. The shirt itself is 100% cotton, comes in any color you want (as long as it's black), and has held up well for the several months I've owned it. It's not the most exciting thing in the world, but I don't mind wearing it for the remainder of Season Ten.


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Great Design

*****

This cool shirt has the logo for Season 7 of Pathfinder Society: "The Year of the Serpent." This season's theme was the Aspis Consortium, a group of smugglers, thieves, and slavers who have often clashed with the Society in the past. The Aspis Consortium is often thought of as a tangle of snakes, so the logo depicting a snake with the PFS Glyph of the Open Road in its fanged mouth was inspired design. As for the shirt itself, it's the usual high-quality heavy cotton that still looks great after several washings. I do wish they made these shirts in a color other than black, but I guess that's neither here nor there. What you see is what you get, and this is one of the better PFS season designs to have on a shirt.


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Story Falls Flat

***( )( )

NO SPOILERS

The Beacon Code Dilemma is a replayable scenario. There are several tables of randomised features that the GM rolls on before beginning play, in order to change up some of the details of the story. There are some original elements here that I quite liked, but (perhaps because of its randomised nature) the overall story falls flat. I think the scenario was a good try, but there's a reason why MadLibs are not the basis good storytelling.

I played through this with my chronic self-medicating Solarion, and things did not go well--but that's not the scenario's fault.

SPOILERS!:

The Beacon Code Dilemma has an interesting backstory that makes excellent use of (and perhaps adds to) the lore around Triune and the concept of Drift beacons. The PCs receive a briefing from the usually-dour Venture-Captain Niaaj and a SRO priest of Triune named MP-8 (with a cool illustration). The gist of the matter is that, almost two centuries ago, a Starfinder Society ship named the Amber Reconnoiter went missing while in the Drift on a mission to study the Gap. But recently, MP-8 had a vision direct from Triune providing the location of the missing ship, an event that means it must be significant in some way to the Church or its mission. However, the ship's automated defences engaged when MP-8's salvage vessel approached, so the priests retreated and called in the Starfinder Society to investigate. The premise of investigating a suddenly-returned missing ship is classic Star Trek, but the added angle of the Triune connection nicely situates the plot in the campaign setting.

In a fun departure from the norm, the PCs' first task takes place within the Lorespire Complex itself. They must find information on the Amber Reconnoiter in the Society's archives, and (hopefully) see if a code can be transmitted to remotely shut down its defences. The replayable nature of the scenario starts here, as four leads are outlined, but only two (randomly-determined) ones are presented to the PCs. Each of these leads involves a little role-playing and problem-solving, and ends up with the PCs finding out some information about the missing ship's mission and crew (determined prior to the scenario from a random table) and part of the access code needed to shut down the ship's weaponry. I'll go over the four briefly:

1) "The Archives" sees the PCs sent down to the Society's pre-digital(!) archives, full of towering bookshelves. An NPC I really like, the librarian Royo, is present. PCs who have his High Society Influence boon slotted receive some extra help from him, but overall their task requires little more than a Perception check or two to find some information on the Amber Reconnoiter's mission and crew.

2) "Communion Vaults" has the PCs descend to where the Liavaran Dreamer named Whisperer of Solar Winds resides. The Dreamers are giant, jellyfish-like creatures with powerful telepathic and precognitive abilities. Their role in the Starfinder Society was first introduced in an earlier scenario that didn't handle them well. Here, it's much better. Assuming the PCs can activate a particular relic, they'll receive a transmitted vision of a mundane scene from a day in the life of the Amber Reconnoiter's crew. In order to be effective, the GM needs to have prepared this separately, or it's likely to fall flat, however.

3. "First Seeker Ilyastre Memorial Museum" has the PCs meet Chiskisk from Dead Suns! I really like little crossovers between SFS and the APs like this, and there's even a little bonus if a PC has a Chronicle sheet from AP # 1. With some skill at using museum database terminals, the PCs can find a holoprojector to get a visual on the missing ship and its crew (something that would have been much better if the scenario included images of either).

4. "Halls of Discovery" asks the PCs to recover some historical records from a very by-the-book robot who threatens to delay everything unless the PCs can figure out a way around its bureaucratic regulations. When my group played this scenario, the group split up and my PC and another handled this aspect of the investigation. We were really stymied for a long time as our PCs lacked the skills and personalities necessary to get past it (and violence almost erupted!). It was a fun if mildly-frustrating scene.

After the investigation, the PCs are off into the Drift. When they reach the coordinates that MP-8 gave them, there's a series of hazards derived from chaotic planar energies. PCs at every station on the ship have a role to play in trying to get the ship safely through the dangers, which could do damage directly to the hull (bypassing shields) and even to the crew! It really boils down to a skills challenge, but the number of successes have a meaningful impact on other elements of the scenario. I thought it was a fast, fun, and exciting way to have some of the thrill of starship combat without the turgid slog that actual ship vs. ship battles usually become. I'd like to see more of this sort of thing.

When the PCs' ship has gotten as close as it can through the planar debris field to the Amber Reconnoiter, a spacewalk is needed to traverse the remaining distance. This encounter takes place using the zero-G rules, as the PCs glide from debris to debris while fending off some interstellar monsters called "Drift Cuttles." Although the creatures have slightly different abilities based on random rolls, I don't think this encounter would be memorably different on repeat play. It's one of those encounters that I like the idea of, but the zero-G rules are (perhaps necessarily) too cumbersome to make it really enjoyable.

The final phase of the scenario takes place once the PCs board the Amber Reconnoiter (making excellent use of the Ghost Ship flip-mat). The missing ship has already been boarded by a crew of bad guys, who are randomly-determined to be pirates, cultists, gangsters, or mercenaries. As far as I can tell, the result makes little to no difference in what comes next. They do pose a major threat, however, with an Uplifted Bear Soldier verging on unfair (and the 4-player adjustments didn't sufficiently equalize things). Due to internal disfunction, my group failed in this part of the scenario and a couple of us died. Groups with better teamwork should have better luck, but still a real fight on their hands. As for the big mystery of what happened to the ship, I think the repeatable nature of the scenario really caused the story to fall flat. There are some little bits of the backstory to be found here and there in the form of crew logs, but unless a GM works really hard to play up the storytelling, it all comes across as very bland and forgettable. There's even some sort of relic that the crew recovered, but there's no real use or meaning attributable to it, and nor do we find out what significance the ship's discovery has for Triune.

To sum up, I guess I'd say The Beacon Code Dilemma is a real mixed bag. I liked the investigation phase, as it made good use of NPCs and has some good randomization. The starship hazards were fun. The combat encounters turned out to be long and perhaps a bit too hard (though, to be fair, many SFS scenarios have had way-too-easy combats). I would say the big letdown with the scenario is a failure to satisfactorily resolve the premise of the plot. A paint-by-numbers approach makes replayable scenarios more manageable logistically, but less interesting when it comes to story-telling.


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Surprisingly Good

*****

NO SPOILERS

I ran this at high-tier using the four-player adjustment. Although I would recommend people going through Part 1 (# 10-05) first, it's not really that big of a deal if they don't. Part 2 stands well on it's own, and is probably a better overall adventure. The scenario writer was thoughtful about how different groups might approach the challenges involved, and provided lots of sidebars to help GMs customise things. There's also a good mix of different types of encounters (both combat and non-combat), and a pretty cool set-piece finale. Overall, I appreciate Mysteries Under Moonlight, Part 2: The Howling Dance much more then I thought I would on an initial skim. It's a very professional, meaty, complete scenario.

SPOILERS!:

The scenario starts about a week after the events of Part 1, in which the Pathfinders successfully cleansed a malevolent taint infecting several of the monuments in Magnimar. But although the symptoms have been dealt with, the cause still remains: an evil fey lurking in the heart of the Mushfens (swamps) outside the city. Tulvhatha, a twisted will-o'-wisp, has taken control of the Glade of Silver Sparks (a sacred site dedicated to Ashava) and turned it into an unholy source of power. The opening briefing, by Sheila Heidmarch, charges the PCs with venturing into the Mushfens and wresting control of the Glade of Silver Sparks from Tulvhatha. Present during the briefing (but regrettably not illustrated) is an NPC from Part 1 named Luvyire. Luvyire offers Ashava's blessing to the PCs, which manifests on the night of the full moon as the ability to transform into a celestial werewolf! This ability stays with the PCs throughout the scenario, and in an un-jaded group could be seen as pretty awesome--both cinematically and for the mechanical benefits of DR, bonuses to natural armor, speed increases, etc.. The scenario's author anticipated that some PCs might not want even a temporary, beneficial "gift" of lycanthropy, and set out a nice sidebar for what happens if all the PCs refuse (with a mix of positive and negative benefits).

The first encounter starts once the PCs have entered the Mushfens and (presumably) transformed into wolf or hybrid form with the full moon. That jerk from Part 1, a "supernatural investigator" (Inquisitor of Abadar) named Theodorus catches the PCs shifting and attacks, thinking they're evil werewolves. My PC almost attacked Theodorus in Part 1, so I didn't feel too bad for the poor schmuck. His uppance came even if through an understandable mistake on his part. I'll note in passing here that the author did a nice job describing the "feel" of the Mushfens

Venturing further into the Mushfens, the PCs come across a kidnapping in progress! A swan maiden is being abducted by a pack of custom-made "Lurkers-in-Twilight" (Lurkers-in-Light corrupted by Tulvhatha's presence). This leads to a classic Chase, but lessons learned from previous appearances of Chases in scenarios are applied here. The Chase is fast-paced, well-described, has a reasonable number of choices, and has a good spread of consequences depending on the PCs' success. At high-tier, and with the bonuses from wolf form, it's probably a touch too-easy (only one PC needs to succeed on each obstacle, with the others' results serving as Aid Another), but I don't think anyone at the table minded too much.

When the PCs catch up to the Lurkers-in-Twilight, there's a battle to rescue the swan maiden (unless they were terrible at the Chase, in which case she's already dead!). They don't do much damage, but they can potentially blind PCs--and that could create major problems for a character for the rest of the scenario! PCs who accepted the blessing would still have Scent, however, which lessens the problem somewhat.

I really liked the next encounter, even if it's only tangentially relevant to the scenario's main plot. The path the PCs need to follow leads them into the territory of a pack of dire wolves; but the wolves' leader, Riverfang, has become twisted into an undead creature called a vukodlak. However, this doesn't have to be a combat encounter. The PCs can plausibly just sneak past, or, more likely, convince Riverfang to back down and leave the area by persuading the rest of the pack to turn against him. Encounters that offer genuine combat and non-combat options are always appreciated, and this is a good opportunity for role-playing in the middle of what's an otherwise action-heavy scenario.

The next bit was equally as good, though for a different reason. It's rare in Pathfinder Society for PCs to get a chance to share their backgrounds (and especially secrets) in an organic way. But this scenario instructs the GM to ask each player, before the game begins, to write down their character's greatest fear. By the time this encounter arises, most players will have forgotten doing it, which makes it very effective when a haunted mist brings visions of that fear to the character's mind! Mechanically this operates as a haunt; it's not likely to really hurt anyone (a PC gets two saves before there are any negative effects), but I like the concept.

The climactic battle against Tulvatha comes next. The setting is large and a pain-in-the-butt to draw, so GMs should try to do it beforehand. As a will-o'-wisp, Tulvhatha is naturally invisible and immune to most magic, and because she's close to the corrupted holy site, she gains fast healing. In effect, she doesn't do much offensively but can gradually wear PCs down while bobbing and weaving and healing up from the occasional strike that does land against her. I remember it was a long, challenging fight that (I think) resulted in the death of one PC before they finally managed to kill Tulvatha.

The conclusion is solid, and I appreciated that there was some role-playing and a description of subsequent events. The Werewolf's Resilience boon is pretty sweet, even if it's a one-time only thing.

Overall, I can't really think of anything bad to say about Mysteries Under Moonlight, Part 2: The Howling Dance, and I can think of plenty of good things. I'd definitely recommend it, even if the lead-in from Part 1 is a bit weak.


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In a way, it all starts here!

***( )( )

Is it sheer coincidence or proof of cosmic synchronicity that my personal rotation of reading has scheduled me to review Paizo's 2009 Free RPG Day offering on the same day as 2019's Free RPG Day? We'll let the metaphysicians chew that one over, but in the meantime, I'll discuss the Bonus Bestiary.

This sixteen-page, full-color, softcover product served as something of a preview of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, as it was released just several weeks before the Core Rulebook debuted. It introduces the overall look of monster stat blocks in the game and (I assume) gave players some monsters to work with prior to the release of the first Bestiary. The twelve monsters it includes weren't included in that book, so it had some value even past the first year of the game's existence (it looks like most of these were included in Bestiary 3 in 2011). You can judge the cool cover art yourself (I didn't realize water nagas were so scary!), but here's a description of the contents.

The inside front cover is a listing of the 300+ monsters that were to appear in the Bestiary so readers could get a sense of what to look forward to. The inside back cover is the classic: "3.5 Survives! 3.5 Thrives!" advertisement for PF1. I should really get a poster of that advertisement for display somewhere.

After a credits/table of contents page, the next two pages discuss a couple of rules developed uniquely for Pathfinder: the concepts of Combat Maneuver Bonus and Combat Maneuver Defense. These were elegant simplifications on how to resolve things like trips, disarms, grapples, etc., without having separate formulas for each type. There's also an explanation of how diseases and poisons are formatted. The rest of this introductory material explains Pathfinder's approach to Universal Monster Rules, and gives some samples. It all shows the designers spent a lot of time thinking about how to do monster stat blocks in an intelligent and user-friendly manner.

Now, on to the monsters. A high-DC Perception check will notice some very minor differences in how the stat blocks in the Bonus Bestiary are formatted compared to the actual Bestiary: the CR/XP entry is slightly different, and there's a fixed gold piece "treasure value" instead of a reference to treasure categories like "Standard", etc.. I might actually prefer the explicit gold piece value, approach, but that's neither here nor there now, not to mention a decade's time travel away. Each of the twelve monster entries is illustrated, though the artwork styles are a bit more inconsistent than later Paizo books.

1. Allip: Super creepy undead resulting from the death of the mad or suicidal. Their special abilities fit well.

2. Ant Lion, Giant: Never actually seen these in a game, but I like their little sand trap ability.

3. Ascomoid: Never heard of this--some kind of giant puffball fungus. Frankly pretty goofy, and really more a supernatural hazard than a monster.

4. Axe Beak: If you have bird phobia, watch out! Good to see training and animal companion rules--a reminder of another thing the Pathfinder team did well.

5. Caryatid Column: Essentially lesser stone golems, but their "shatter weapons" ability could be really nasty. If I were a mean GM, I'd toss these in any time a melee character got on my nerves.

6. Dragon, Faerie: These sorts of creatures aren't really my thing, as they verge more on the cartoonish. Still, I have to admit the artwork is really colourful and they might be fun to have as a familiar.

7. Dragonne: Kind of a bland lion/dragon mix. Rules for mounts (using Leadership) and animal companions.

8. Hag, Annis: The artwork here is great, capturing the size and hunch-backed nature perfectly (though perhaps making them look like undead).

9. Huecuva: Heretical undead clerics; an interesting concept but they need a power boost to really work well.

10. Lammasu: I guess this is a lion/eagle mix. I think maybe some of these entries were omitted from the first Bestiary for a reason.

11. Naga, Water: Cooler on the cover than here.

12. Nixie: Okay, I guess.

13. Shadow Mastiff: Cool artwork and "shadow blend" makes them fearsome foes for their CR.

Overall, there's a good mix in the book of different monster types: undead, constructs, magical beasts, regular animals, etc. I did notice there aren't any high-CR threats, with the CR 8 Lammasu as the highest.

Paizo took the same approach with its Free RPG Day 2017 product when getting ready to debut Starfinder. I'd actually rather have more of a grab-bag preview--maybe one class, a few skills, a few feats, and then a couple of monsters to get a feel for the game as a whole. Anyway, the Bonus Bestiary is still available for purchase as a print product from Paizo (for just $ 1!) or as a free PDF download. Today, the product is really nothing more than a curiosity, but it's a mildly interesting one nonetheless.


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Don't Get Cut!

****( )

Merisiel has eleven daggers (and a rapier) visible in her depiction on this shirt, so you better buy it or she’ll cut you! Though to be fair, apart from the bared blades, her pose and facial expression are more of a “waiting at a bus stop” sort of thing. Anyway, if you like Merisiel and Wayne Reynolds art, you’ll be satisfied with this simple black shirt depicting the Iconic Rogue and the Pathfinder logo. It’s on clearance, so why not snap one up?


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A Real Grab-Bag of Stuff

***( )( )

You don't have to guess what sort of stuff is in the Melee Tactics Toolbox. If you like mixing it up face-to-face, there's a reasonable chance the assortment of feats, equipment, spells, and more will have something that piques your interest. The book also contains some general tips on tactics, useful for newer players to the game. Like most books in the Pathfinder Player Companion line, this is a 32-page, full-colour offering, divided into two-page sections. The interior artwork is really impressive, and I have to particularly call out the great shot of the Iconic Brawler punching out a troll on page 3. You can judge the front cover art yourself. The inside front-cover has capsule descriptions of four fighting schools and war colleges in the Inner Sea region of Golarion: the Aldori Academy, the Crusader War College, the Grand Coliseum, and the Tempering Hall. I thought it was a useful shortcut for coming up with a background for a character. Maybe someday I'll do a "graduate students" campaign where every PC has to be a student at a fighting school, wizard's academy, or bardic college! The inside back cover is a "Combat Options Overview" that has a chart of what type of action various things (like combat maneuvers and combat feats) require, along with basic definitions. I really should print it out for new players. Anyway, now onto the content.

The first five pages are the table of contents, a "For Your Character" page that summarizes what sort of stuff you'll find in the book, a "Rules Index," and a two-page Introduction. I guess this would be useful if I were deciding whether or not to buy the book, but the book is short enough that I would rather have more content than multiple pages describing that content. The Introduction does contain some reasonably good advice for different types of melee encounters, and a useful sidebar that I haven't seen elsewhere summarising the *seventeen* different types of feats in Pathfinder! Okay, maybe those PF2 fans have a point about bloat . . .

"Up Close and Personal" contains some good advice on offensive melee tactics along with suggestions of which feats to take to support various builds. It introduces seven new feats for close-combat, some of which have become pretty common with certain builds, like Artful Dodge and Circling Mongoose. On the whole, the new feats look pretty well-written and fairly powerful.

"On the Defensive" is the flip-side: advice for protecting yourself in melee combat (such as the benefits of different types of armor, whether or not to use a shield, etc.). There are three new feats, with one ("Just out of Reach") something that would come in very useful in certain APs like Rise of the Runelords. There's also a new Cavalier archetype called the Castellan; there aren't a lot of Cavalier archetypes, but this one is really only useful in a very niche sort of campaign centered around fortifying and protecting a castle.

"Mass Melee" contains some advice (again, with specific suggestions for feats and class options) for when the battlefield is crawling with multiple combatants on each side. When I ran homebrew campaigns, I used to love tossing twenty or thirty low-CR mooks on the battlefield, but a few years of playing exclusively APs and PFS have gotten me used to the PCs outnumbering the enemies. This section contains five new feats; I used Harrying Partners (making Aid Another last for an entire round) to good effect for one PC, and I know Phalanx Formation (eliminating soft cover for reach weapons) is really useful for a lot of builds. There's a new bardic masterpiece ("Battle Song of the People's Revolt") that looks pretty great, and a bland Fighter archetype called the "Drill Sergeant" (basically, it gives them the Cavarlier's tactician class feature).

"Unarmed and Dangerous" is really designed for monks and brawlers. It contains six new Style feats (3 for "Cudgeler Style" and 3 for "Kraken Style") and a very brief Bloodrager archetype ("Bloody-Knuckled Rowdy"). I've never gotten into Style feats so I don't really have an opinion, and the Bloodrager archetype pays a heavy price (one fewer spell known per spell level) to get better at unarmed combat.

"Melee in a Pinch" was a clever idea: what to do when you weren't expecting a fight (or, at least, when a fight slides into a situation you're not ready for--like underwater, while grappled, etc.). I know I've taken the "Aquatic Combatant" feat (no penalties on melee attacks underwater, and your weapons do full damage), for example. There are eight more feats in this vein. There's also a "Makeshift Scrapper" archetype for Rogues that are about improvised weapons, and it looks okay but not amazing.

"Anatomy of Melee Weapons" is something very different: poor drawings of several different types of swords and very basic diagrams of the different parts of an axe, mace, and sword. For most of this stuff, Wikipedia and Google Image search would be better.

"Melee Weapons" introduces sixteen new weapons. At this stage in the development of Pathfinder, I'm not really sure they're necessary. The only new one here I've ever seen someone use was the Elven Branched Spear just because it was an elven weapon that had reach and a x3 Crit modifier.

"Tools and Equipment", on the other hand, contained loads of good stuff. An armor truss is almost a must-have for solo adventurers who want to wear heavy armor, while "exemplar weapon salve" allows you to turn that story-based background weapon into a masterwork weapon suitable for enchantment. I would like to scare a player so much that they start regularly using Sunderblock, but it hasn't happened yet.

"Magic Armor" contains a good assortment. Advocate's Armor is really clever (getting hit by a crit has a chance to put a lesser geas on the attacker), an Alchemist's Suit could be great fun (get hit by a crit and automatically apply the effects of one of eight vials stored within it), and my caveman shaman really needs to get the Mammoth Hide armor.

"Magic Weapons" didn't do as much for me. I liked the Diplomat's Traveling Stick and could imagine characters it would be perfect for. One of the weapons, the Pirate's Arm, is just bizarre.

"Armor and Weapon Special Abilities" presents some pretty niche material, but it's an interesting array.

"Wondrous Items" has a mostly unremarkable selection. I do really like the Anchoring Bracers, and would love to see the surprise on a gamer's face when they try to have their character teleport away from a tough battle.

"Melee Spells" finishes the book, containing ten new spells. Most spells are assigned to four or five different classes, but I'd guess magus and bloodrager would get the most out of the selection. Some of the spells are cast by swift actions, which is particularly useful.

Overall, Player Companions like the Melee Tactics Toolbox are just a big grab-bag of stuff. Some of it's great, some of it's dumb, and most is mediocre. Having this book is excellent for something like PFS, as sooner or later you'll almost surely want an option that appears somewhere within these pages. I also think the advice given on melee combat is reasonably useful, even if it's rather concise.


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Perfect for the little/new gamer in your life.

*****

I bought this for my kid who’s recently been having a blast with the Beginner Box, having invoked the PFS principle that wearing it means a free reroll. He’s completely bought into the idea, and looks like a classic grognard while playing! The shirt features the awesome artwork of Ezren and Merisiel squaring off against Black Fang from the cover of the Beginner Box. I especially like that it’s purple (maroon? I’m terrible with colours) instead of the omnipresent black of other Pathfinder shirts. It’s held up well to several washings. It’s an excellent buy for the little (or not so little) gamer in your life.


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Surprisingly Useful!

****( )

I'm well-known for my disdain of pets (familiars, animal companions, etc.) and monster summoning in RPGs (both as a GM and as a player), but I've gotten a surprising amount of value out of the Summon Monster Pawn Collection. The set contains an excellent array of the creatures that you suddenly realize you need a pawn for: animals, elementals, celestial and fiendish outsiders, and more are included. There are multiples of most of the small and medium creatures, but also a good array of large and huge creatures. Many of these pawns can be found scattered across other sets, but it's always useful to have additional ones. I wouldn't say this set is essential, but it's a good value and one you'll also probably use a lot--even if, like me, you hate pets and summoners.

If you're new to Pathfinder pawns, note that this set doesn't include the bases, and you'll need to purchase those separately.


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Plenty of Room for Characters & Useful Rules Summaries

****( )

The Starfinder Player Character Folio is just chock-full of detailed sheets to record all sorts of information about your character, interspersed with handy summaries of common rules and game mechanics. I used this for B'rrlb'lub, my late, lamented Dead Suns PC, and I found it a useful way to keep track of everything about him and the campaign. The folio consists of 16 pages bound by glossy, full-colour covers, with the front cover folding out to pack more information and the back cover containing a pocket to store handouts and so forth. The most accurate way to give a full account of what it includes is (I'm sorry to say) a page-by-page breakdown.

The inside flap of that cool cover features some more awesome artwork, a list of what type each action in combat is (i.e., a standard, a move, a swift, etc.), and the table that shows how many experience points it takes to level up and at what levels PCs get ability increases, feats, and theme bonuses. That flap then folds out for a two-page interior. The left side is the first part of the character sheet, with space for ability scores, armor class, saving throws, senses, speed, and initiative. There's a lot of space provided here, so things will be easy to read. The right side has a pocket for papers and a very useful summary of common combat actions and maneuvers, what different types of cover and concealment provide, and the effects of common conditions. The general idea is that people don't have to pause the game to flip through the Core Rulebook to find out the effects of being fatigued, for example.

Page 1 ("Skill Checks") lists the tables of skill DCs from that section of the Core Rulebook. There's not a description of the skills themselves, and usually the DCs would be something the GM would determine, so this may be of less usefulness to many players.

Page 2 ("Defense") contains a lot of space to record armor, defensive abilities, and any other pieces of equipment that contribute to armor class and saving throws.

Page 3 ("Offense") is basically the same thing in the other direction. There's space to record full details for six different types of attacks, so if you're packing the veritable golf-bag of weapons, you will be all set here.

Page 4 ("Skills") is where you record everything skill-related about your character, including conditional modifiers and special skill abilities. I appreciated having the extra space that traditional character sheets don't provide.

Page 5 ("Feats") has lines for *29* different feats, which tells me they maybe should have sectioned things off better--perhaps by leaving more room for descriptions of Racial Traits and Theme Benefits (also on this page).

Pages 6-7 (Equipment") has a really nice way to visually keep track of which augmentations are in what body parts, along with space to record weapons, armor, regular gear, money, and even "other valuables" and holdings". I would have preferred more lines for regular gear (I came close to filling that up around Level 6) and a better section on Carrying Capacity.

Pages 8 ("Spells") and 9 ("Drone") are ones that you may or may not have any use for, depending on what class you're playing. But if you are playing a Mystic, Technomancer, or Mechanic, you'll be glad they're there.

Pages 10-11 ("Background") are really important, and something that regular character sheets rarely have room for. There's extensive place to record descriptions, personality, history, family members, homes, affiliation, and more. Being asked to describe B'rrlb'lub's "Quirks", "Phobias," and "Catchphrases" really helped me flesh out the character before I even started playing him.

Pages 12-13 ("Adventure Log") contains a section to track the advancement of your PC as they level up, a section to list allies and foes ("What's that guy's name again?"), a full page to record brief notes about each session in the campaign, and (I guess just for fun) a section on "Achievements" where you can keep track of trivia like "Number of times hit by a crit", "Greatest number of foes in one fight", or "New Sentient Species Contacted".

Pages 14 ("Starship") and 15 ("Starship Combat") contain a starship character sheet and a summary of starship combat. The character sheet is the same one from the Core Rulebook, but it's useful to have it here. The summary of starship combat is more GM-oriented, and doesn't have what players would really need: summaries of common actions depending on crew role and their DCs.

Page 16 ("Notes") contains only a half-page space for miscellaneous notes, and I very quickly filled it up. The bottom half of the page is for Starfinder Society information, including which boons are being slotted.

The inside back cover is just credits and license information, but the pocket continues the summaries of common conditions.

I do have two criticisms of the folio. The first is there's no space specifically devoted to class features. With B'rrlb'lub, for example, I had to squeeze the list and description of his envoy improvisations into the "Other Valuables" section of the equipment page. Every class has their own special features that they'll have to find room to record. Second, the layout of the pages wasn't always intuitive, and I often found myself flipping back and forth trying to find where something was located.

Still, even with those complaints taken into account, I found this a worthwhile and useful way to record information about my character, and being able to keep little things like handouts and post-it notes in one place was an added bonus. When starting a new campaign, one could certainly do worse than forking over $ 10 to play in style.


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Versatile and Handsome

*****

Magic Academy is a map pack I really appreciate because it's far superior than anything I could draw myself (unlike, say, the simple ability to draw parallel lines needed to duplicate the Road or River map packs). The back panel shows six configurations of the tiles: a large lecture theatre, a spell-dueling hall, a laboratory, a dormitory, a classroom, and a headmaster's office. Although there are the requisite arcane symbols and summoning circles, this map pack is more versatile than you might think, as the offices and classrooms could easily stand in for an elite boarding school, a bardic college, the Sincomakti School of Sciences in Ustalav, or any other institution of learning and study. The detail is impressive, as it's easy to distinguish book shelves, torch sconces, and even individual scrolls and quills on the tables. Drawing classrooms and lecture halls is time-consuming, and this map pack makes it a snap and a worthwhile purchase. The only addition I had to make was drawing hallways leading to the classrooms, for example, in case an encounter spilled out (two tiles makes for an intimate combat scene!). I used Magic Academy for the module Academy of Secrets (which it was specifically designed for) as well a Beginner's Box mission for my kid. Each time, it worked quite well, and I certainly envision using it again.


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Great Hook and Setting

****( )

NO SPOILERS

Academy of Secrets is memorable to me as the first Pathfinder adventure I ever owned. I picked it up years before starting to regularly play Pathfinder, intending to use it as a side-quest during a long-running Forgotten Realms game. When the PCs got to the right level in that campaign, I dangled the adventure hook and . . . nothing! No bite. "It's obviously a trap!" they said, and went off to do other random things. Years later, I started running Rise of the Runelords (my first foray into the Golarion campaign setting) and when the PCs got up to the right level for Academy of Secrets, I dangled the hook. This time, I got a bite, and hurried to do all the necessary prep between sessions. But one of the PCs was unhappy with his spell selection after the first encounter, and, just a few pages into the module, they teleported away to do AP stuff. Vexed but undeterred, I scheduled Academy of Secrets as a Pathfinder Society special. I was going to run it, hell or high water! It turned out I couldn't actually use it for PFS (there's no "campaign mode" for it, and the players didn't have characters of high enough level.) But I convinced the players to play "just for fun" (such a weird notion!), and I finally got the module off the ground and justified the $ 13.95 Canadian dollars and cents I spent on it lo those many moons ago at The Hairy Tarantula.

Was it worth the wait? Well . . . maybe not exactly. It's not an earth-shattering story. But it is a fun module, easy to integrate into any campaign. PCs can teleport in after receiving the hook anywhere in Golarion, take part in the adventure, and then teleport back to get on with whatever else they have going on. Unlike many modules, it avoids the cliche of "stumble into a new village and help it solve its problems", and, unlike some modules, it won't take months to finish. You can run through Academy of Secrets in two or three four-hour sessions and not feel like you hurried past a ton of content. At 32 pages, it's just the right length for a satisfying side trek that won't derail an on-going campaign. And frankly, there aren't that many modules for PCs in the Level 12-14 range, so I'm grateful for what we have.

It's not a spoiler to say (given the blurb, module title, and initial adventure hook) that the module involves the Acadamae, Korvosa's elite magical university. Appendix 1 of the module is a three-page neutral presentation of the Acadamae suitable for use in any campaign. If, for example, you're running or playing through Curse of the Crimson Throne and want to flesh out a wizard PC's background or add some colour when they go to get an item identified, the description here would be quite useful. It contains a half-page map of the grounds of the Acadamae, description of the various buildings, and a list of notable personalities (the headmaster and deans of the various schools). Setting lore completists would still find it useful to integrate the material on the Acadamae from the Guide to Korvosa, as there are some nuggets of slightly different information. Appendix 2 introduces a new monster called a Garipan--a sort of outsider that often masquerades as a gargoyle. The artwork is cool, even if the concept isn't super exciting. The inside front- and back- cover show how tiles from the Magic Academy map pack can be arranged to form rooms used in the module. I thought this was a really clever idea, and I wish this concept (integrating adventures with map packs and flip-mats) had continued through future modules.

Anyway, that's enough background--on to the main event!

SPOILERS!:

Academy of Secrets is all about an annual event at the Acadamae called the Breaching Festival. The Breaching Festival is a carnival-like day in which students and adventurers from around Golarion participate in a contest to see if they can penetrate the university's Hall of Wards and emerge before any other contestant. From the Acadamae's point of view, it's a way to test the skill of its best abjurers, from the public's point of view it's an entertaining spectacle, and from the contestants' point of view, it's a way to win a prize of 153,000 gold pieces! But what no one except the Acadamae's Headmaster, Toff Ornelos knows, is that the Breaching Festival is really a century's old trap to feed mortal souls to an archduke of Hell. Those who enter the Hall of Wards aren't entering a building, they're entering a Hell-like demiplane facsimile of the building named Belzeragna! The first couple of pages of the module go through the background of how the Breaching Festival came to be, summarizes the adventure, and offers a handy sidebar for GMs who want to try to fit it in or around a Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign.

Part One ("An Unexpected Invitation") contains the adventure hook and preliminaries to the Breaching Festival. The hook is simple but effective: a courtier sent by Headmaster Toff Ornelos teleports to wherever the PCs are, hand-delivers the invitation, and stands ready to teleport back with the PCs. PCs of every level like gold, and 153,00 gp in cash is pretty sweet at any level. As I said above, it's nice that you don't have to manipulate the PCs into already being in Korvosa for the adventure to work. Assuming the PCs agree and teleport to the Acadamae, they'll be introduced to Toff Ornelos. The artwork he's given (on page 27) is pretty imposing, so I role-played him as an imperious jerk and I think it worked well. Ornelos explains the details of the Breaching Festival and isn't shy to say that it's been a century and a half since anyone won the prize--which is enough to raise the suspicions of necessarily-paranoid PCs. They'll definitely suspect something is up, but won't know quite what, and that amount of gold should be worth the risk.

After the meeting with the Headmaster, the PCs will be guided toward the dormitories. While passing by a classroom, they'll hear a disturbance and get their first encounter, as another contestant, hoping to get an edge, has summoned a demonic creature far beyond her prowess and paid for the mistake with (probably) her life. The demon, an Advanced Retriever, has some nasty eye ray abilities (like petrification!). It's an introductory taste to the desperation some contestants will get to, and can be used to set the tone for the Acadamae as a ruthless place. I mention this last bit since sometimes the Acadamae is presented as a cut-throat place of strivers and back-stabbers (such as the Pathfinder Tales story "The Illusionist" available here), whereas Academy of Secrets probably presents the Acadamae as a nicer place than that. I went with the former view, as it's a lot more interesting.

This part of the module concludes with the PCs having an opportunity to meet the rest of their competition. This is primarily a role-playing and story opportunity, as the fate of these competitors will be revealed later in the module.

Part Two ("The Breaching Festival") starts with Headmaster Ornelos giving a little speech on the morning of the festival before the assembled masses (including, perhaps Queen Ileosa!). Ornelos goes over the rules, explaining that, before any contestant can actually enter the Hall of Wards, they have to find a small magical "key-light" in one of the other buildings on campus. Once the competition starts, the NPC contestants scatter, and the PCs have seven different buildings (all representing different schools of magic) to choose from. Each building's key-light is guarded by a magical trap and/or monstrous guardians, and the PCs need one key-light for each member of the group. But although they'll need to enter multiple buildings, they don't need to enter every single one, and this part of the module plays pretty quickly because searching each building for the key-lilght is handled abstractly through a skill check. The obstacles to getting a key-light are suitably challenging given the level of the PCs (with magical traps like phantasmal killer, baleful polymorph, confusion, and a heightened horrid wilting), and, when I ran this, one of the four PCs was killed before even making it into the Hall of Wards! This is an opportunity for rogues with magical trap-finding abilities (or spellcasters with dispel magic at the ready) to really shine.

Part Three ("Belzeragna") starts once the PCs enter the Hall of Wards with the key-lights. Without realizing it, they've arrived in a demi-plane that is very difficult to escape. The mangled body of one of the NPC contestants is on the ground, reinforcing the tone that this competition is not for the faint of heart! Another room, a library, contains a strange sight: a crazed wizard rushing back and forth trying to grab one of dozens of books and scrolls that continually fly through the room and evade his grasp. The wizard, Terentius, is a former contestant from last year's Breaching Festival, but because time passes differently in the demi-plane, he's been trapped here for 25 years of local time! He's searching for his spellbook, but doesn't realize that invisible stalkers are tormenting him by moving books around willy-nilly. He's actually a potent threat if the PCs anger him, and thus it's best to get on Terentius' good side. The next room, a lecture hall, also contains an NPC competitor, but one from this Breaching Festival who made it into the Hall of Wards before the PCs. Illia Ean, a local member of the thieves' guild, has been tortured by a handmaiden devil. She begs to be set free, but is not trustworthy as she'll betray the group to mollify any devils they encounter. And devils are certainly going to be encountered: bone devils, handmaiden devils, barbed devils, and, in the final room of Belzeragna, a contract devil.

This last devil is a CR 15 threat named Chyvvom. By the time my PCs reached him, another member of the group had fallen in combat (caught between a barbed devil and a devourer), so it was a "then there were two" situation. I liked the encounter here because Chyvvom doesn't have to be fought. He's a very "reasonable" fellow, and PCs can make a deal for their escape that doesn't even require them to pledge their mortal souls. However, the module isn't clear on what terms Chyvvom will or will not agree to, as a sidebar on page 20 and the discussion on page 21 seem to disagree. If the terms are too exacting, then combat is inevitable and the whole situation becomes less interesting. I was also a bit fuzzy on how Chyvvom handled previous contestants, since there hasn't been a "winner" in a century and a half--does no one ever escape, or is there a contract term that they can't reveal what happened inside the Hall of Wards and arrive someplace else on Golarion? Anyway, although I did my best, the two PCs were unwilling to make a deal with the devil and decided to fight--and won! Contract devils, as I also learned in a recent PFS scenario, really aren't that tough when cornered in melee. Once Chyvvom is defeated (or a deal is in place), the PCs can escape Belzeragna.

Part Four ("Hells Breaching") felt tacked on, and, although I prepped it, I didn't run it. Essentially, by escaping Belzeragna, the PCs have stretched the demiplane to the breaking point and a horde of devils pour out into the grounds of the Acadamae. I didn't really understand the logic here, as Belzeragna isn't Hell itself (just a Hell-like demiplane). Anyway, this part plays out as a series of little encounters that can be run in any order as everything from warmonger devils to bone devils to ice devils to erinyes run rampant. Good-aligned PCs might stay to try and save the day, but I think many PCs (having narrowly survived Belzeragna after being screwed over by the Headmaster) won't have the appetite to intervene. It comes across as rather anti-climactic. After the encounters, the PCs have a choice to make in whether to implicate Headmaster Ornelos in what's been going on, and there's a good discussion of other fall-out from the adventure.

Academy of Secrets doesn't stick the landing, so I have to come down in the four out of five stars department. That aside, it features an original setting (and I could imagine further shenanigans at the Acadamae!), a robust hook, a classic adventure design, and balanced high-level play (which isn't always easy). It took a while, but I'm glad I finally got to run this module and I imagine I'll make use of elements of it again in the future.


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Great Atmosphere

****( )

NO SPOILERS

The good thing about Season 0 scenarios is that they tend to be short, straightforward, and easy to run with limited prep. So when the planned GM for a Season 10 scenario cancelled, I was able to step in and run Black Waters at relatively short notice (it helped that one of the players was late, giving me some extra last-minute prep time!). The main thing I've learned and tried to implement about these early scenarios is that, as written, they're really only the skeleton of an adventure and require the GM to flesh out the description and role-playing to make them come alive. Black Waters has a wonderful, dark atmosphere if done right, and I think that's the reason it's one of the more memorable Season Zero adventures and led to a sequel later on.

I ran this at low sub-tier.

SPOILERS!:
Famously eccentric Venture-Captain Drandle Drenge makes his first appearance ever in PFS to deliver the briefing. Ten years ago, an earthquake struck Absalom and sheered off much of a neighbourhood called Beldrin's Bluff, sending it plummeting into the sea. An elite private school in the area stayed on the mainland but fell into a sinkhole that quickly filled with water, drowning the students and staff inside. Since then, the Pathfinder Society's archaeologists have surmised that the school fell through an ancient necropolis. The entire site, now known as the Drownyard, has remained off-limits . . . until now! Drenge wants the PCs to delve into the necropolis and explore, paying particular attention to a ruby salamander ring said to be on one of the bodies interred there (the ring is apparently valuable as a divination focus to recover a fabled treasure horde elsewhere--I don't know if this plot thread was ever followed up on or not).

Act 1 starts with the PCs leaving the briefing and receiving an invitation to attend a formal dinner with a noblewoman named Lady Miranda Dacilane. As written, this provides a brief role-playing opportunity as the noblewoman explains that her daughter, Junia, was one of the students lost during the sinking of the school. She asks the group to inform her if they find her body, foreshadowing the climax of the scenario. As an aside, it's also an opportunity for members of the Cheliax faction to try to steal a broach from around the old lady's neck! I miss the faction missions--they really stir the pot. Anyway, knowing this scenario has a very short run time, I made a lot of this dinner and really pushed the role-playing (using some suggestions in the forums, including a menu for the stated ten-course meal). I think it worked out well.

Act 2 starts with the PCs arriving at the Drownyard. I think it's important to play up the atmosphere here: dark gray clouds, cold rain, gusting winds, and an almost silent landscape of dead trees and derelict buildings. (A little additional description of this area (along with a map) can be found in the module Hangman's Noose.) Here the group will encounter a man named Deris Marlinchen, a completely delusional man who thinks his daughter (who died in the sinkhole) will be walking out of the school any minute now. In the meantime, he tends to the grounds. If the PCs ask about the necropolis, Deris will lead them to a classroom where the spirits of dead students and their teacher continue re-enacting a lesson. Deris can be threatening if angered (he has stats as a sorcerer), but really this is more of a way to build on the dark, tragic tone of the scenario.

Act 3 covers entry into the necropolis. The directions to the necropolis are in journals locked in the desk in the Act 2 classroom, and I was a bit confused when running Black Waters about the geography of the Drownyard--it's clear that only part of the school fell into the sinkhole, but why do the PCs need to locate a particular entrance to the necropolis? Wouldn't there be a huge depression in the ground where the buildings on the surface crashed into the caverns below? In any event, the entrance is suitable creepy: a gently bubbling black pool has the shoulder of a severed arm jutting out of it, with the fist still gripping the handle of a heavy, iron plug. A giant water bug is concealed by the pool and attacks those who get to close, and there's a fun bit where pulling the plug drains the pool and risks pulling the PCs into the hole to tumble into the necropolis below. (it's one of those hazards that's perfectly logical, so especial fun to inflict on PCs!)

Act 4 begins with the PCs in the necropolis proper. It contains chilling bits of text like "On the floor of the east recess, the perfectly preserved body of a young boy lies in a puddle and stares silently upward." This is the body of a boy named Grishan Maldris, the younger brother of Colson Madris, the head of the Andoran PFS faction. At low tier this chamber is guarded by a bugbear zombie, which is out of place and doesn't make a lot of sense--why would bugbears be buried in this necropolis? At high tier, two allips are in the chamber, and they make much more sense and fit the tone thematically.

Act 5 features a vaulted chamber containing another ghostly reenactment--this one of schoolchildren huddled up hearing a story. Three ghouls gradually converge on this room, which is a very unfair challenge for low tier PCs--I was pleasantly surprised my group emerged without any deaths. (As an aside, these early Season Zero scenarios sure did like ghouls!) I should add that the groundskeeper, Marlinchen, has a whole little subplot if he accompanies the PCs into the necropolis and I appreciate the added detail (he got torn apart by the water bug when I ran it, so I didn't actually get to use it).

Act 6 has the big climax. It has a cool conceit, as the chamber is right at the edge of the cliff-face so that sea water surges in periodically, threatening to temporarily blind PCs with foamy spray. A ghast wearing rotting finery and a golden crown is here, and he makes for quite a battle after what the PCs have already been through. When I ran it, he defeated everyone but one PC (a Gunslinger), who ran for it, only to get cut off; the gunslinger had one shot (and one chance) to live: he rolled a critical hit, and it was one of those memorably awesome endings that can only take place in RPGs. Although my group missed it (those who survived being happy to escape with their lives), hidden in a sarcophagus here is Junia Dacilane, daughter of the noblewoman the PCs had dinner with earlier. Somehow, Junia is still alive--just comatose! It turns out the ruby salamander ring (which she found and put on) is a ring of sustenance!

The Conclusion allows the return of Junia to her mother, with suitable rewards and prestige for the PCs.

As a Season Zero scenario, there's some extra work to get Black Waters up and running today, like updating stat blocks from 3.5, adding CMB/CMD, looking up the new success conditions, etc. You can't expect much in terms of artwork, and the Chronicles tend to be pretty bland. There's no four-player adjustment, and the skill check DCs aren't usually changed depending on what sub-tier is used. It's runs heavy on the (sometimes unfair) combat and light on the role-playing. But all that being said, I really like the feel of this one, even if it doesn't quite live up to its potential. With a little work by the GM, it can be creepy and memorable as hell.


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Forbidden Knowledge is Power!

*****

I like the design of the PFS Dark Archive Faction Pin: the eldritch flame hovering above an open book tells you immediately that this is a faction devoted to magic and esoteric research. The pin is sturdy and comes with a butterfly clasp, so it won't fall off easily (though I keep mine in the baggy it comes in). Like all the faction pins, it arrives affixed to a little card, the back of which includes a brief description of the faction. Oddly, mine came affixed to the card for the wrong faction, which is a bit annoying, but forgivable (since I'm amazingly magnanimous and humble). I've got a couple of Dark Archive PCs running around, and sooner or later that extra 1d4 is going to come in handy . . .


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Strong Use of Classic Elements

****( )

NO SPOILERS

I ran this at low subt-ier using the four-player adjustment. Siege of Enlightenment isn't exactly ground-breaking, but it's a solid, enjoyable scenario that introduces some new lore elements into the Starfinder universe that could provide the seeds for further scenarios. The encounters are satisfyingly dangerous but not unfair. It's definitely one worth playing.

SPOILERS!:
Although the briefing in the Lorespire Complex with the ever-bland Venture-Captain Arvin is what you would expect, the mission premise is solid. Out in Near Space, beyond the jurisdiction of the Pact Worlds, two starfaring nations are at war: the Marixah Republic and the Gideron Authority. The Marixah Republic is trying to evacuate its population from a mining colony called Sansorgis that is likely to be invaded soon. The Starfinder Society has contracted with them to assist in the evacuation in exchange for free reign to explore sites of archaeological interest on the planet. V-C Arvin gives the PCs diplomatic credentials in case they encounter they encounter the Gideron Authority and are challenged.

You know that when the players have to pick a ship after the briefing, it means a starship combat is coming. On their way to Sansorgis, the PCs are intercepted by a ship called Susumu's Sword (cool artwork!), a Gideron Authority vessel that orders them to turn back. It ain't gonna happen, of course, so a space battle breaks out, with two little twists being that the Gideron ship has a ramming prow and that a proton storm makes some hexes dangerous to fly through. I'm on the record of not being a fan of how starship combat is handled in Starfinder, and this encounter did nothing to change my mind. The PCs won easily, simply avoiding the dangerous hexes and making sure they stayed out of ramming range of the enemy ship. If the PCs somehow lose, it's not a big deal: they lose 100 credits and one of those "you'll be told if this boon is important" boons that get invoked once in a blue moon.

When the PCs land on Sansorgis, they're greeted by the locals, led by a Corporal Kalyavata (again, nice artwork). The reason the colonists need help evacuating is that a series of strange computer and mechanical glitches have slowed the process down, and now one of their cargo freighters is stuck in its hangar because the hangar doors won't open. The PCs have to lend a hand or get some Infamy (fair enough). The Space Station flip-mat is used to represent the hangar, and it's kind of a goofy choice, as it's about the further thing from a hangar I can picture (you'd be lucky to cram a speeder bike in there, much less a cargo freighter!). Still, I thought the encounter here was well-conceived and fun. The reason for all the glitches is that a group of computer gremlins have infested the hangar. When the PCs start manipulating the equipment, they manifest to start wreaking havoc, and the scenario allows them to do fun stuff like overload nearby computer consoles to explode, force vents to emit thick smoke, have robot arms to grab the PCs, etc. PCs can use terminals to do this stuff as well, and the flip-mat is big enough and has a couple of hazards in it so that the (very weak) gremlins aren't just massacred in a single round. It's not an encounter that's going to seriously threaten PCs, but it's an enjoyable one.

Once the gremlins are defeated and the colonists are safely evacuated, the PCs can head to a nearby set of ruins. The scenario has a feature I really liked and hope to see more of: it tracks "Discovery Points" for exploration. Discovery Points are achieved for doing things "real" xeno-archaeologists might do, such as mapping the ruins, translating documents, successfully removing very fragile items, etc. In other words, it encourages more than just a "kill and loot" mentality. The ruins themselves turn out to be an old military installation of a pre-Drift hobgoblin empire that existed sometime during the Gap. The scenario does a good job laying out the clues here, and I'm intrigued by the back story and potential for further adventures building on the discoveries.

In a gameplay sense, the ruins probably come across to players as a dungeon crawl (the flip-mat is even Ancient Dungeon!). Threats include some cool "Terra-Cotta Spider" constructs with "taserweb grenades" guarding the entrance, some "Howling Devils" (with sonic screams) that proved more of a challenge for the PCs to kill than I expected (the creatures have several energy immunities and resistances), a gleefully evil "Body-Gripping Trap" that crushes PCs and can even deal the Wound critical hit effect for permanent disfiguration(!), and, for the big final battle (which actually may occur relatively early in the exploration depending on which directions the PCs take) an encounter against a Ja Noi Oni (a sort of samurai hobgoblin spirit who thinks the entire thing is a simulation) and his pet Tashtari ("laser wolf"). This last encounter is pretty tough, especially if the PCs have been weakened by encountering everything else in the complex. When I ran it (if I remember right), one of the PCs died before the others surrendered and were allowed to leave (thus missing out on some rewards). Anyway, as far as dungeon crawls go, it's a professionally written and entertaining one. There's a variety of challenges, the difficulty is reasonably high but fair, and there's plenty of little things in each room to discover to further expand the story.

Once the PCs have finished their explorations of the ruins, they can make it back to Absalom Station with no further problems.

If I had my druthers, I would have added more of a sense of urgency building on the natural implications of the premise: some sort of timeline before the Gideron Authority invasion fleet arrives, for example. I would happily say something like "Scanners show you have four minutes before the Gideron vessels land--I'm keeping track of rounds--go!" But maybe that's just me. All in all, I really liked Siege of Enlightenment despite the fact that its core game-play mechanic (investigating a series of rooms, each with their own danger) hasn't evolved since the 1970s. There's enough story around it that it works. The introduction of the Marixah Republic (a loose confederation of allied colonies) and the Gideron Authority (a militaristic empire dominated by hobgoblins) is done well, and the war between them could be the backdrop to several good stories. I definitely hope we see more of them and more related to the tantalizing hints of the lost empire that were found on Sansorgis.


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Bland and Forgettable

**( )( )( )

NO SPOILERS

I ran Treason’s Chains at low subtier using the four-player adjustment. It’s pretty forgettable, with a paint-by-numbers storyline and bland encounters. It does advance the PFS storyline in Katapesh, and I’d say that’s its only redeeming value.

SPOILERS!:

Treason’s Chains takes place in the metropolis of Katapesh, a major trading city where anything imaginable can be bought or sold. The scenario starts with a briefing by Venture-Captain Roderus at his headquarters, the Winding Road Inn. Alas, the briefing doesn’t tell the PCs that they’re in Katapesh, or that the city is very different than many others insofar as there are multiple Venture-Captains with responsibilities over different parts of it (a crucial aspect of the plot). What the PCs are told is that Roderus is having his retirement party in the evening and would like the PCs to (covertly) keep an eye on his two likely successors (Wulessa Yuul and Phlegos Dulm), as there are rumours that the rivalry between them has escalated to a dangerous level.

During the party, the PCs maintain their cover by helping out with a variety of tasks such as serving drinks, taking care of the guests’ mounts, delivering food, etc. There are skill checks for each of these tasks that tie into the PCs’ gold rewards at the end of the scenario, and some good suggestions are made as to how to integrate the skill checks naturally into the role-playing scene. I like little things like this, even if they require some quick improv on the GM’s part. While working, the PCs will also meet some of the inn’s other staff, the most important of whom is a goblin named Zig. Zig is a transparent attempt to introduce more likable goblins in anticipation of their becoming a core race in the game’s second edition. I’m not persuaded, but that’s neither here nor there, and we’ll see more of them later in the scenario.

Assuming the PCs manage to gather some information during the party, they’ll learn that VCs Wulessa Yuul and Phlegos Dulm are indeed major rivals, with Phlegos (a half-orc potion maker) allegedly involved in particularly shady activities to undermine his rival like paying street toughs to harass Wulessa’s contacts. The PCs are supposed to decide that, while Phlegos is tied up at the party, it’s the perfect opportunity to snoop around his headquarters (a potion shop and warehouse) for proof of his misdeeds. I thought this was a bit of a stretch based on what limited intel the PCs uncover during the party, but the plot requires what the plot requires, I guess.
At Phlegos’ HQ, the PCs will happen upon another friendly goblin (an accountant’s apprentice, no less--I guess books aren’t that scary after all!) who can easily be persuaded to turn over a ledger that will prove Phlegos’ lllicit dealings. An alternative way to get a separate set of ledgers is to venture into the warehouse, subdue a couple of generic street toughs, and yank the info right out of an office desk (or intimidate the accountant into fetching them). The desk is guarded by a particularly-feeble summon monster trap (one dretch for 5 rounds at low tier; I should mention the four-player adjustment doesn’t work). The whole scene is pretty straightforward, and the most fun I had was role-playing the “pompous, arrogant” accountant.

The PCs are then to head back to the party, where they learn that there’s been an attempted murder! A trio of bards performing at the party (singing songs about being freed slaves from Absalom hoping to liberate others) were poisoned but the assembled Pathfinders at the party reacted quickly enough to save their lives. The prime suspect . . . Zig, the lovable goblin! The PCs may suspect Zig is innocent (all goblins are Lawful Good now, after all) but there’s nothing they can do about it at the moment. Instead, they have to clean up after the party and go to bed.

Hitting the hay after a hard day’s breaking-and-entering and Venture-Captain-Phlegos-is-evil-proving may seem counter-intuitive, but by this point we just have to accept that this scenario is on rails and try to enjoy the ride. And it does allow for my favourite encounter in the scenario. The PCs are attacked by assassins in the middle of the night! Fortunately, more (friendly) goblins awaken the PCs prior to any classic coups de grace, but the PCs still have to do battle against assassins while wearing little to no armor, not having prepared new spells, and with whatever real or improvised weapons happen to be within arm’s reach. It’s pretty rare that encounters like this happen in PFS, and I really like ones that take PCs out of their comfort zones (and reward feats that are relatively rarely taken, like Endurance).

After turning the tables on the would-be assassins, the friendly goblins lead the PCs to their leader, Yigrig Moneymaker. Yigrig is a wealthy goblin who uses his money and connections to free goblin slaves and (cough, cough) “place members of his extended family in respected positions across the Inner Sea.” Yigrig is angry about Zig being framed for the attempted murder, and has done enough business with Phlegos in the past to know that the half-orc must be behind the stitch-up. Yigrig tells the PCs that Phlegos has been involved in importing slaves to Katapesh, and that his operation can be found at an old warehouse on the docks.

This leads to the final part of the scenario. There are a few encounters here against Phlegos’ hired toughs. The chosen flip-mat works really well, and I think the most original part of the scene is that the area is patrolled by a guard holding the leashes of some guard dogs—the rules for the direction of the wind for the purposes of their Scent ability actually comes into play! (I may be over-excited, but I’ve never seen that before, in or out of PFS.) Anyway, the PCs can go in Alkenstar guns-blazing or sneak in, and I do appreciate options. After the dust is settled, the PCs will be able to easily find the evidence they need to further incriminate Phelgos and acquit Zig. Anti-climactically, however, the half-orc is long gone, having fled the city. In the conclusion, we learn that Wulessa Yuul will be the new Venture-Captain for Katapesh.

I didn’t hate Treason’s Chains, but I didn’t particularly like it either. I appreciated the incorporation of the Pathfinders’ situation in Katapesh from Seeker of Secrets, and developing the plotline of the organisation’s leadership in the city makes sense. On the other hand, there wasn’t much description of the city and very little to distinguish it from any other generic urban area. The goblin subplot didn’t do much for me, and I don’t know why PFS scenarios were asked to bear the brunt of laying the groundwork for such a controversial change. The plot for the scenario was almost embarrassingly straightforward, with there being no question from the very beginning that Phlegos was the “bad” Venture-Captain and Wulessa the “good” one. While I don’t need each adventure to be like Murder on the Orient Express, some red herrings and more complex story-telling would have been appreciated. The encounters were also fairly bland, and if I had a ranger in PFS I wish I could take “Favored Enemy (Gang Tough).” The couple of nice bits (the bedtime raid, evading the guard dog patrol) aren’t enough to significantly elevate the scenario. I’d peg it as below average, perhaps suitable for new players who need to learn the game through a very straightforward story.


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Great Settings for a GM to Build a Campaign Around

****( )

Lost Cities of Golarion is a little bit like the brilliant combination of Cities of Golarion and Lost Kingdoms of Golarion, two other books in the Campaign Setting line. Whereas Cities of Golarion presented six (mostly) safe cities for PCs to use as their home base, and Lost Kingdoms of Golarion detailed the rise and fall of the civilisations that gave birth to the crumbling monuments that now dot the landscape, Lost Cities of Golarion offers six ruined cities full of danger and intrigue that incorporate detailed setting lore while providing an exciting campaign’s worth of plot for PCs in the “modern” era. That’s a really long-winded way of saying that each of the six cities detailed in this book are intended for exploration and adventure. As you’ll see below, some of these sites can serve as the basis for a full campaign, while others may be better suited to a shorter story-arc. Anyway, the takeaway from this review is that GMs will find a lot of great adventure ideas in this book, and it’s well-worth the purchase.

The six cities covered are Ilvarandin (a city in the Underdark), Kho (one of the ancient Shory flying cities, now crashed), Storasta (the last city to fall before the Worldwound), the Sun Temple Colony (an ancient Azlanti city across the ocean), Tumen (a city of ancient Osirion), and Xin-Shalast (golden capital of one part of ancient Thassilon). Each entry, which is about ten pages long, includes a full-page map, descriptions of various locations within the city, random encounter tables (thankfully broken up into low level, medium level, and high level, addressing one of the critiques I often make of tables like this), the full stat-block of a major new NPC or monster, and, perhaps most valuable, a section detailing adventure hooks and plot ideas for low, medium, and high-level campaigns in the city.

First up is Ilvarandin, a city deep in the Darklands (Golarion’s version of the Underdark). Ilvarandin is a vast city, hundreds of miles wide, but seemingly deserted. As one spends time exploring, however, small enclaves of inhabitants can be found—refugees from other parts of the Darklands, like mongrelfolk, exiled drow, morlocks, and more. But the secret of Ilvarandin is in its core: it’s a city of intellect devourers, terrible creatures capable of taking over the bodies and minds of others! The devourers have been in a centuries-long war with another Darklands race, the neothelids. Why would anyone come here? Because the intellect devourers have carefully used the bodies of explorers and others to seed legends that Ilvarandin is some kind of utopia, so that travellers from elsewhere in the Darklands (and even the surface) arrive, presenting fresh prey. The entry includes two useful maps (one of the various sections of the city, one of the city’s core), a stat block for one of the most powerful rulers of the city (a CR 15 Intelllect devourer sorcerer), and a detailed description of a new drug called Midnight Milk—which allows intellect devourers to exercise their body thief abilities on addicts even at tremendous distances. The hooks to an entire campaign involving Ilvarandin are natural and intriguing—the PCs can start on the surface investigating the devastating spread of this new drug in one city, eventually start to trace it back to the Darklands, and, at higher levels, visit Ilvarandin itself and get caught up in the politics and war of a strange, exotic place. It’s a cool, well-realised location with several good plot hooks.

Second, we have Kho. I was intrigued by Kho ever since I read about it in Pathfinder Tales novel City of Sky. Kho was one of the ancient flying cities of the Shory Empire that filled the sky several millennia in Golarion’s past. Whereas the fate of most are unknown, Kho fell from the sky and smashed into the ground in what is now the Barrier Wall mountains northeast of the Mwangi Expanse (or in southwest Osirion, depending on how you look at it). In campaign terms, Kho serves as much more a site for open-ended exploration than Ilvarandin does. There are some inhabitants for the PCs to engage (probably violently) with, including marids (genies from the plane of water), derhii (gorillas with wings!), and leukodemons (disease demons). Overall though, I found this entry (and Kho) much blander than I had hoped. There’s something called the Well of Axuma, a place of great magical power, but not much backstory is presented. The hooks to get PCs to Kho (like investigating a disease spread by the leukodemons) are a little bit akin to that of Ilvarandin, but aren’t integrated organically well-enough to service an entire campaign. And although the entry gives us stats for the derhii, they’re really the sort of creature that demands a picture.

Third in line is Storasta, the last city in ancient Sarkoris to fall to the demonic hordes that now occupy what’s called the Worldwound. Unlike the other “lost cities” in the book, Storasta isn’t that old in an historical sense—it fell less than a century ago. It has an interesting backstory and theme, as a place where the last surviving druids, shamans, and fey of Sarkoris assembled and unleashed their most primal magics to hold back the demon armies, thus creating a blighted, twisted place that no one, not even demons, find hospitable. Not much now lives in Storasta beyond dark fey, mad treants, and particularly persistent demons, all fighting against each other for control of what little remains of the city. Storasta is one of those places that’s suicidal for low-level PCs to enter, but good be a good adventure site for higher-level groups in a Worldwound-themed campaign. And if you need a big boss, the CR 20 stat block for Carrock (a fiendish treant druid) would make a suitable challenge. The best part about Storasta is it allows for some adventures in the Worldwound that aren’t solely focussed on fighting demons.

Fourth is the Sun Temple Colony, probably my favourite entry in the book. This island location, far across the Arcadian Ocean, was once an Azlanti city. Now its jungle surface is home to the crumbling ruins of that civilization, but looming above everything is the imposing Sun Temple, home to a mysterious device capable of harnessing the sun’s energies to wreak destruction. The entire place has a fantastic, mysterious feel, and the backstory is equally intriguing: a lost colony, a trapped godling, and more! You could certainly build a mid-length campaign around the PCs’ quest to reach the island, their interactions with the locals (figuring who among them can be trusted and who’s an evil cultist), and their penetration into the secrets of the Sun Temple. One of the things that appeals to me the most as a GM is that it takes the PCs (and players) outside of their comfort zones: there are no magic stores, tavern common rooms, 2 gp/night inns to rest in safely, or other tempting places to teleport to. It’d be a bit more like the t.v. show Lost, and I can see the appeal of that.

Fifth is Tumen, a monument showing the amazing hubris of the Four Pharaohs of Ascension in ancient Osirion. Tumen is really four interconnected cities built in the middle of a vast, trackless desert on the top of a vertical cliff. Apparently, a hundred thousand slaves died to construct it, and the Four Pharaohs didn’t care a whit! Each of the four cities (or districts of Tumen, depending on how you think of it) holds something interesting for explorers, but I found it hard to envision what this place was like in a conceptual sense. I think better artwork and description would have helped, as everything’s a bit opaque. Interestingly, there are links to the storyline of the countdown clocks and the Dark Tapestry that was finished off in the Doomsday Dawn Playtest adventure, though I’m not convinced the information here matches up with what’s there. Anyway, there’s plenty of ancient Osirion ruins and pyramids available in Pathfinder, and I don’t think Tumen is a necessary addition.

Sixth is Xin-Shalast, a city from ancient Thassilon that first appears in the Rise of the Runelords adventure path. The entry here is written on the assumption that the events in that AP have concluded, though I think there’s some bits and pieces that would be useful for GMs who plan to run it. The theme here is “classic gold rush”. Expeditions from Riddleport, Magnimar, and Janderhoff are present, as are some factions of the locals, and everyone is clashing and vying to take advantage of an opportunity for untold wealth in the gold-paved streets of the city. Environmental factors alone (like the cold and altitude) make this a lethal place for low-level PCs, but I guess it could be interesting at higher-levels to see what factions the PCs ally themselves with and what further dangers they encounter in and around Xin-Shalast (like a CR 19 Rune Giant!). Still, I think this entry’s main value would be for groups that finish Rise of the Runelords and either want to keep playing the same characters or role up new characters to see what happens in the aftermath.

All in all, Lost Cities of Golarion is an excellent buy for GMs who want detailed, flavourful, and world-lore consistent locations to centre a homebrew campaign around. It has the maps, random encounter tables, adventure hooks, and more that can serve as the skeleton for a campaign, while not being nearly as prescriptive as an AP in terms of plots and encounters. As I said in my review of Lost Kingdoms of Golarion, one of the surprising strengths of the setting is its deep integration of history, and this book further showcases that aspect. If you’re looking to build a campaign, I’d strongly suggest starting with one of the entries in this book.


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New Artwork, Same Interiors

****( )

I've already written an extensive review of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game GM Screen (reproduced below). Although that product comes with artwork of all the "Iconics" from the Core Rulebook, Paizo has also released two versions with alternate artwork on the outside (the interiors are exactly the same). "Alternate Cover 2" features the Iconics from the Advanced Class Guide. This was the book that introduced all of the "hybrid" classes, and you'll see from left to right the Iconic Hunter, Investigator, Brawler, Skald, Arcanist, Slayer, Shaman, Warpriest, Swashbuckler, and Bloodrager. Unlike the Core Rulebook Iconics, I still don't really know who many of the these characters are--you see them less often in PFS play and they're not in the comics or audio plays, etc. Still, the artwork is top-notch. Really, any version will do fine, so the choice between covers is purely aesthetic.

--------------------------------------------------
[original review]

I've had the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game GM Screen for years, long before I actually started playing Pathfinder regularly. The purpose of a screen, of course, is so the GM can hide their notes from pesky players, assemble miniatures of diabolical villains without being seen, roll dice ominously, and, most importantly, remind themselves of key rules so the game doesn't have to stop so everyone can flip open their 500+ page rulebooks. This four-panel screen is certainly a durable product, as it's survived (quite literally) more than a hundred sessions and still looks brand new. It's made of quite sturdy stuff, unlike many other screens I've seen, and won't easily tip over.

The exterior side facing the PCs is a line-up of the most iconic images of the Pathfinder Iconics: the embodiment of each character class. I once found the art style a bit over-the-top and cartoony, but I've really warmed to it now and quite like it. I can't say what it's like to stare at the characters for hours, but there's so many little details on each character that the eye shouldn't get bored quickly! I've found it quite handy to use paperclips to hold pics of NPCs the party is talking too, monsters they're fighting, etc.

The interior side facing the DM is, of course, what matters!
Two full panels are depicted to summaries of various skills: Acrobatics, Bluff, Climb, Diplomacy, Disable Device, Fly, Heal, Knowledge, Perception, Ride, Spellcraft, Survival, and Swim. Not every skill is represented, and one could argue that some of the missing skills (like Stealth, Intimidate, and Use Magic Device are used more often than some of the skills that are represented like Swim). Still, the skills that are included are broken down into very handy, easy-to-read lists of activities, modifiers, and DCs. It's a very attractive, smart presentation.

The third panel is devoted to combat, and the top half of the panel has five sections: Attack roll modifiers, armor class modifiers, combat maneuvers, two-weapon fighting penalties, and concentration checks. With the possible exception of two-weapon fighting penalties (which a player should have figured out well ahead of time), all of these things are extremely important things to have available for easy reference. The bottom half of the panel is a summary of the effects of common conditions, which is again quite handy--it's annoying to have to stop and look up what the effects of being stunned or nauseated are every time it happens.

The fourth panel is a bunch of miscellaneous stuff, and it's here that I think there was room for improvement. The left half of the panel is all devoted to listing the hardness and hit points of weapons, armor, common objects, and various materials. I don't mind this much, because even though this information is needed rarely, when it's needed it's usually important (like whether a sundered weapon is going to break). Still, I wouldn't have devoted so much space to it considering how much other stuff in the game is probably more important. The right half of the panel lists experience point awards by CR and treasure values per encounter. To my mind, this is the least essential information to be on the screen, as most groups handle this either between sessions or at least after a session, when an extra minute to flip open a book is no big deal. Because most monster entries already list XP and treasure, this is the only part of the screen that I never use.

So on the whole, that's 3 to 3 1/2 panels of a 4 panel GM screen that are extremely useful! My biggest problem is actually remembering what's on the screen, as often I look something up in a book only to realize later that it was on the screen the whole time. Anyway, while a screen like this is not strictly essential, it's about as close as it gets. A session will run faster and smoother if the GM has one of these, and it's worth the money.


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All Action, But Worth It!

****( )

NO SPOILERS

My disgruntled solarion ran through this, irking his colleagues throughout. We played at low-tier with the four-player adjustment. I had a good time while playing, and after reading the scenario afterwards, I can attest that it's solid and ties in well to the season's developing storylines. It's an action-heavy scenario and one especially well-suited to groups who like more shooting and little-to-no talking.

SPOILERS!:
Return to Sender is set a few months after the events of # 1-99 (The Scoured Stars Invasion). In that scenario, the Starfinder Society finally returned to the Scoured Stars system and evacuated hundreds of trapped agents. But the rescue mission was interrupted by the arrival of a fleet of aggressive, insect-like aliens called the jinsuls. The Starfinders had to make a fighting retreat. Now, however, it's time for payback!

I like how the scenario writers have started to be a little bit more creative with their briefings. Return to Sender starts with the PCs arriving at a secret, "off-the-books" site maintained by Radaszam's Obsidian Spiders mercenary organisation. Radaszam is accompanied by Historia-7 for the briefing, and they explain an audacious plan. During the retreat from the Scoured Stars system, Radaszam's ship was able to capture a small jinsul shuttle. Historia-7 was, after months of work, able to decipher the ship's programming and noted it was pre-progammed to return to a particular starbase in the system for repairs if damaged. The two faction leaders propose piling themselves and the PCs into the shuttle, piloting it into the jinsul starbase, disembarking, and then planting a massive bomb in the base's power reactor! The PCs serve as the shock force necessary to clear a path to the reactor for Radaszam and Historia-7 to bring up and set the explosive charges. Then, everyone's to run like hell before it goes bang!

It's an awesome premise, and an original one as far as SFS scenarios go. The goal, to strike back at the jinsuls and warn them not to mess with the Society, is an understandable one given the events of the first Special. It's also interesting from the perspective that this mission hasn't been sanctioned by the Starfinder Forum (and perhaps even Luwazi); the two faction missions are taking this on themselves, and it would be very interesting to see if there's any fall-out from their actions in future scenarios.

To be fair, despite the great set-up, the scenario itself basically boils down to a (very good) dungeon crawl. After an uneventful voyage to the jinsul base, the PCs advance, room by room, overpowering defenders and avoiding traps, until they get to a boss fight in the reactor. Then, they signal the two faction leaders to plant the bombs (which happens "off-camera") and the scenario ends with a brief conclusion. One little touch I liked on reading (and had no idea was happening while playing because my PC turned off his comms) was that the faction leaders keep an open channel with the PCs during the mission, and the PCs can overhear the two talking--Historia-7 is worried about the return of Historia-6 (who hasn't yet resumed control of the faction, but could) and says her dates with Zigvigix are going well.

Despite being a jinsul starbase, the encounters are fairly varied and interesting.

1) The loading dock places the PCs in a battle against a pair of jinsul torpedo technicians, and the PCs might discover that one of the torpedoes is outfitted with stealthy technology allowing it to turn invisible in flight! They may also discover that the jinsuls plan an attack in an uncharted system far out in the Vast. These discoveries tie into the mission's secondary success condition (obtaining intelligence), and add a little more depth to what would otherwise be combat-combat-combat.

2) A weapons storage room has a *very* nasty combination of an inhaled plague hazard and then a magical irradiation system with the deliciously cruel twist of a door that seals behind intruders and is very hard to open. I'm really glad my PC wasn't in that room (sometimes not being a team player has its advantages!), and it was a very narrow thing for two members of the group to make it out alive.

3) A navigation room is defended by a pair of security robots with the interesting ability to inject intruders with nanobots that then respond to spoken jinsul and can hamper the actions of the victim.

4) An animal experiment lab has a goofy little alien critter that could become a pet or a mascot. Not my jam, and I was *very* quick to cross that "boon" off my Chronicle.

5) A cleaning pit holds an ooze that gives off a gas that can debilitate PCs for the rest of the scenario.

6) The reactor chamber holds three jinsul guards and the base commander, a technomancer (the artwork of the commander is really cool--whoever did it deserves a raise!). The jinsul have an interesting ability, one I've never seen before, to counteract an operative's trick attack ability--a cool touch. Anyway, the battle here is appropriately hard given the nature of the mission, made worse by the fact that additional jinsul arrive every few rounds unless the PCs are able to seal access to the door with some Computers or Engineering checks. It's an exciting battle, and a very satisfying conclusion.

After the chamber is secured, the conclusion is pretty quick and straightforward.

One thing I would have liked to see, although I acknowledge it's very hard to do in scenario writing, is providing for other approaches--like groups who want to stealthily make their way to the chamber instead of fighting every fight. I also might have liked a more dynamic environment--everything pretty much stays in its room, there's no alarms, and there's no actual risk to lolly-gagging through the place apart from the final battle where reinforcements start to arrive in dribs and drabs. These complexities might have elevated the scenario from a very good dungeon crawl to something really special.

Overall, Return to Sender is a well-written, exciting scenario with a great premise. It helps to advance the storyline of Season 1, and now I can't wait to see how the jinsul respond. The scenario is heavily combat-focussed, so it's probably now best-suited to an RP-heavy crowd, but I'm happy with the variety of scenario types I've seen.


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Clever & Durable

****( )

This is a clever, durable little product that I now use every time I run Pathfinder Society games. The combat pad itself is a thick magnetic board with a column for Initiative on the far left side, “Action, Ready, Delay” columns next to that, and a column with Rounds (1-20) in the center. On the far left is a large blank area for notes. The set comes with a *lot* of blank magnets for writing the name of a character (with different coloured magnets for PCs, enemies, and NPCs), and then you just slot in the magnets in order on the left side of the pad to keep track of everyone’s Initiative order with the help of the little “Turn” arrow magnets—which I need to remember to use!. If the order changes or more characters join the fight (or drop out of the fight), it’s very easy to slide the magnets around to change the order. The package comes with two little “Round” magnets so you can keep track of what round it is, which is particularly useful for keeping track of limited-duration buffs, how long a poison lasts, etc. Last, it includes two “Next Round” magnets—I’m not really sure what the purpose of these are, since you know it’s the next round when everyone has gone.

The particular genius of the Pathfinder Combat Pad is that *everything* (pad and magnets) are coated for dry erase and wet erase markers. Adding or removing names to the character magnets is a snap, and the large “Notes” section is perfect for keeping track of all the little details a GM is supposed to remember (but often forgets) during an encounter.

My only criticism of the package is that both sides of the pad are exactly the same and there’s way more magnets than you could possibly need. If I had my druthers, the flip-side of the pad would be designed for something different (like how the Starfinder Combat Pad uses the flip-side for starship combat). I’m not sure what I would want on the flip-side, but almost anything would be better than the redundant design it currently has.

That point aside, this is a very useful product and one that will last a long time. I’ve used it in dozens and dozens of sessions, and it has held up well. For GMs who currently juggle a dozen pieces of scratch paper to keep track of things during encounters, I strongly recommend purchasing this product.


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Clever, Epic, and Exciting

*****

NO SPOILERS

The Scoured Stars Invasion is the first multi-table Starfinder Society special event scenario. With multi-table specials, several groups of players run through each part of the scenario simultaneously and, together, influence the overall result. This special is the finale to Part 1 of the Year of the Scoured Stars and the launching point of Part 2. I played the Iconic Raia in a mid-to-high tier (I don't remember exactly which) at PaizoCon Asia-Pacific in 2018. There's a lot to love about this special, and some awesome surprises. As with any special (or even regular scenario), the GM you get will have an enormous influence on the players' experience, but, as written, this one is top-notch.

SPOILERS!:

It's all led up to this! From its debut, the in-universe premise of Starfinder Society organized play was that the bulk of the organisation was lost on an expedition to a mysterious system called the Scoured Stars. Several Year 1 scenarios (including # 1-11, # 1-13, and # 1-17) tell how the remnants of the Society (and its new recruits--the PCs) have pieced together some of the history of the Scoured Stars system and obtained a way to lower the golden "Godshield" that now prevents access to it. The goal is to get in, recon the system, see if there are any survivors, and get out . . . fast! But there are a variety of mysterious threats within the system, and one of the eight civilisations that originally fled the Scoured Stars (the insect-like Jinsul) return just in time to wreak havoc for the Starfinder fleet.

The Scoured Stars Invasion starts with an exciting moment: the entire remaining Starfinder fleet exits the Drift and arrives outside the Godshield. Luwazi broadcasts a message asking everyone to make final preparations and double-check that all systems are on-line and ready. This is a clever way of giving those tables that have already mustered (gathered all their players and ready to go) something to do while waiting for the others. PCs can take on little tasks (like checking the engines, cleaning missile tubes, boosting crew morale, etc.) that involve a minute or two of role-playing and a couple of skill checks. There are some useful one-use boons for the table that can be obtained, but more importantly, it's a good way for players to get acquainted with one another and their characters. Very smart design. Once all the tables have mustered, Luwazi uses the tear-shaped obelisk (from the Izalguun) to lower the golden shield. This mission is a go!

Part 1 is titled "Reconnaisance." Essentially, each table gets to choose one of five missions to go on based on some capsule hints in a handout. When a table completes a mission, it counts as one success, and when 2/3 of the tables have reported success on a mission, no other tables can begin it. When a table completes one mission, it can move on to any of the others, in any order. It's a very flexible way that allows different groups to look at their strengths (and interests) and choose custom challenges. Before going on, I'll mention that page 9 of the scenario has an excellent map of the Scoured Stars system--a trinary system composed of the stars Agillae, Bastiar, and Callion. The available missions, with the location and individual giving the briefing, are as follows:

Recon # 1::) "Planet of the Dinosaurs" (Agillae-2) (Fitch): The fleet has received an emergency transmission coming from the wetlands on Agillae-2. After the PCs land and start traversing the wetlands towards the source of the signal, they have to overcome a variety of rough terrain and obstacles through skill checks. Having a good GM able to describe the challenges in an interesting and engaging way would be a real advantage here; ours just read out a bare description and asked for skill checks ("Flying creatures attack you. Roll Medicine or Survival") and it was pretty boring. After the skill checks, the PCs find the source of the signal: a Starfinder emergency beacon. Unfortunately, a pack of carnivorous dinosaurs have also made their nest near it! After dispatching the dinosaurs, the PCs will learn that the Starfinders who set up the beacon have unfortunately all perished, but there are clues to a larger group having established an outpost on another planet. A sad story when you think about it, but a good little mission with a mix of skills and combat.

Recon # 2::) "Starship Graveyard" (Agillae-5) (Historia-7): Scans of the system show that several Starfinder vessels crash-landed on the same spot on a planet, forming a veritable graveyard. The PCs are sent to investigate, but as they breach atmosphere, a computer virus somehow enters their ship's systems and makes everything go haywire. Crew members can use a variety of skills to try to repair and control various systems, but a crash is inevitable. It's a very exciting scene. There's a lot of text for the GM to interpret quickly here, and good preparation would be key. Once planet-side, the PCs enter a linked-conglomeration of ships and discover several Starfinders, only to discover they're mind-controlled by some sort nanite intelligence! I got myself an Infamy here for dispatching the Starfinders in a lethal fashion, which I thought was perfectly fair. The PCs also discover dozens of Starfinders held comatose in stasis chambers.

Recon # 3::) "Lifeless Spaces" (Bastiar-4) (Naiaj): Scans detect a fully operation Starfinder vessel, Aeon Horizon, but it doesn't respond to hails. The PCs board to find no crew members present. When they reach the bridge and start to download the ship's logs, a self-destruct sequence initiates, the airlock doors seal, and several "huskborn" monsters right out of Aliens attack. This one was on rails in a bad way, as the airlock doors coincidentally remain sealed until the huskborn are defeated, there's no clue why the self-destruct started, there's no way to stop it, and yet there isn't actually a timeline to escape or consequences for delay. I found such a heavy-handed and nonsensical approach frustrating when playing. Give me autonomy and consequences over rails and safety any day of the week.

Recon # 4::) "The Third Kind" (Bastiar-7) (Zigvigix): Scans detect several derelict ships drifting amid the ring system of a giant ice planet. When the PCs fly over to investigate, they get a message from a Starfinder vessel called the Empyrean Eye and its captain, a very suspicious woman named Katryn Mathius. Mathius attacks if the PCs don't answer her questions very carefully, but what she doesn't realize (though the PCs should figure out) is that she's dead and the Empyrean Eye is a ghost ship! My table didn't do this one, but I really like the concept. I feel bad for the GM though, as it looks really tricky to draw the necessary scene on the very dark starship hex grid.

Recon # 5::) "City of the Ancients" (Callion-2) (Radaszam): A technologically-advanced megacity is detected in the narrow habitable zone of a tidally-locked planet. When the PCs land to investigate, they can search five locations in any order: a factory, a library (containing historical records on the Izalguun!), a military base, a residential area (with no living inhabitants, just robots cleaning and repairing a city abandoned millenia ago), and a shopping mall. This one also has the possibility of the players avoiding combat through good role-playing, but it's not likely: there's a very touchy artificial intelligence who will probably send killer robots to off the PCs just like it did when the Starfinders visited the city a year ago. It's basic, but good.

Part 2 is "Evacuation." Once enough tables have completed recon missions, the overseer announces the next phase of the scenario. In this one, the fleet starts to evacuate the groups of Starfinders discovered in the previous set of missions. Again, there are five possible missions that each table can choose to play:

Evac # 1::) "The Last Outpost" (Agillae-1) (Fitch): The PCs land at the outpost they learned about from the matching recon mission, to find several groups of Starfinders alive but menaced by carnivorous plant creatures called bluethorns. In what's probably the coolest moment in the scenario, the previous First Seeker (Jadnura) arrives and blows away half of the monsters with one cinematic sweep! The PCs still have to escort the survivors as the remaining monsters continue their attacks. It looks pretty exciting, and I really wish my table had played this one: I didn't learn about the big revelation that Jadnura had been found until after the special was over. As an aside, there's a very cool picture of the character on page 24.

Evac # 2::) "Cracked Mirror" (Agillae-5) (Historia-7): This one has a solid premise. The PCs have to enter a virtual world to set free the minds of the Starfinders who are being held comatose in stasis tubes. The PCs can speak to three different groups of Starfinders and try to convince them that they're "living" in a mere simulation. How the necessary skill checks relate to persuasion is opaque and hard for a GM to convey naturally. Persuading the groups gives the PCs bonuses when they fight the strange keeper of the virtual world (a guy named Jodain), who has the ability to transform round-to-round into different types of monster (a cool idea, but there's no explanation of who the heck Jodain is or why he's trapped the Starfinders in his simulation). The reappearance of Jadnura was a big deal, but an only slightly-less-big-deal is that the PCs find Historia-6 on this mission! My table did play this mission and I have no recollection of Historia-6, which means that either I was very distracted or my GM sucked and didn't even bother to mention it (and there's a pic--somewhat disturbing admittedly--but GMs, show pictures of the NPCs to your players!)

Evac # 3::) "God's Home" (Bastiar-8) (Naiaj): The PCs are sent after a group of Starfinders presumably holed up in an air-filled cave on an icy moon. It turns out this "cave" is actually a Jinsul temple; maybe that's why they're mad at humanity? From the looks of things, the Jinsul worship a pretty evil deity who is fond of blood sacrifices, and this "Slumbering God" may have created the Godshield to begin with. Anyway, the PCs have to fight a host of summoned demons to rescue the Starfinders trapped within the temple. I notice that for some of these missions, the text makes reference to keyed rooms, but there are no corresponding labels on the maps--this must make things extra stressful for harried GMs.

Evac # 4::) "Lava River Rescue" (Bastiar-2) (Zigvigix): Ziggy is a delight. Just saying. Anyway, emergency signals are coming from Bastiar-2, a planet with major seismic and volcanic disturbances. It's a race against time for the PCs to rescue a small group of Starfinders from one threat while another tries to hinder them. It's a solid set-up.

Evac # 5::) "Sands of Oblivion" (Callion-1) (Radaszam): This mission to rescue Starfinders trapped on a desert planet is very different than the others: it uses the Chase mechanics, as PCs race in vehicles while a massive armored worm tries to eat them. It looks complicated (my group didn't do it), but a change of pace could be good.

Part 3 of the scenario is "Sudden Arrival." In a bout of curious timing, as the Starfinder fleet is evacuating those trapped in the Scoured Stars system, a massive battle-fleet of Jinsul ships arrives! Each table must choose to engage in starship combat with the Jinsuls to help defend the fleet, or continue with the evacuation missions from Part 2. The starship combat is pretty easy, but I like how Jinsul landing parties interrupt the evacuation missions and complicate things on the ground.

Part 4 of the scenario is "Escape from the Scoured Stars", and the name is apt. The Starfinder fleet is outnumbered and outgunned, so it has to make a fighting retreat out of the Scoured Stars. The PCs get a choice of two options. First, they can choose to repel Jinsul boarding parties. This is what my table did, and it was a solid capstone with waves of Jinsul attackers culminating in the appearance of a heavy-hitting commander. The alternative mission is more starship combat: protecting a transport until it can get to a capital ship and then a counter-attack mission to drive away a Jinsul capital ship. The concept sounds cool, but reading through it, the combat has a lot of board-game like elements that I think would slow things down too much.

The scenario concludes with a brief congratulatory message from Luwazi, but also a warning that the Jinsuls are sure to rear their ugly heads again soon. This is a scenario that has no failure state-- how often the tables do or do not succeed on missions doesn't affect the story in any way.

Now, on to some ancillary points. In terms of difficulty, I thought The Scoured Stars Invasion was on the low-end; I don't remember worrying that my pre-gen was going to die at any point. The scenario does a fantastic job making use of the NPCs (faction leaders and Venture-Captains) that have appeared in earlier scenarios. The special, like many other Paizo specials, has an "aid token" mechanism but the instructions on how to use it are overly complicated in the hustle and bustle of a special--I think it needs to be kept simpler even if the goal (one table directly helping another table) is a good one. GMs really need to prep for specials, more than anything else they run. I've now been to one special with a well-prepared GM (a deep knowledge of the scenario, along with minis, face cards, condition table-tents, etc.), and two with under-prepared GMs of the "I'll figure it out as we go" variety, and the difference in my enjoyment of the scenarios was dramatic. Specials are complicated and have so many little details that preparation is the key to success.

Credit has to be given to Mikko Kallio and the organised play development team for the massive undertaking a special like this must be. The scenario is 72 pages long(!), and the sheer number of stat blocks, sub-tier planning, linking parts, etc., is an impressive accomplishment. The story told in the special is suitably epic and important for the future of the Society, and sets a clear "before and after" for some of the stories that can be told. I have a criticism here and there, but overall this a fantastic scenario and one that shouldn't be missed.


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Crashed Starship

****( )

A more apt name for Tech Dungeon might have been "Crashed Starship." One side of the flip-mat shows the upper deck of flying saucer-like spaceship that has crashed into a forest. The detail here is fantastic, as you can see shattered bits of the hull strewn amongst the trees, various types of damage to the bridge, and even some animal skeletons near what looks like a radioactive power core. A central spiral staircase (admittedly a bit low-tech for a spaceship) leads onto the second side of the flip-mat. This is the lower deck that is buried underground. Apparently the water table is pretty close to the surface at the crash site, as there's a pool of water and several caverns visible. I like the little touches like the bent corridor walls, the glowing orb underneath where the bridge would be, and the multicolored fungal-growths in the caverns (obviously affected by the strange energies of the ship!). I would like to see more interesting stuff in the rooms and corridors, as only the bridge has any interesting technology--absent that, this could just be a circular fantasy dungeon. All in all though, it's a pretty cool flip-mat (though I imagine it'd be much more useful for Starfinder than for Pathfinder).


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Sloppy

**( )( )( )

NO SPOILERS

The Silverhex Chronicles is a series of six linked adventures designed to take about one hour each. Although they can formally be played in any order, I’d suggest doing them roughly in the order they appear (or, at least doing the last two sequentially at the end). As Quests go, this one comes pretty low in my estimation. There are a lot of plot holes, not many interesting NPCs, and the encounter difficulty is all over the map. I don’t think it’s a great representation of what Pathfinder has to offer, and I would choose others unless I’ve started to run out of material. I played through this over the course of two nights with the four-player adjustment in effect.

SPOILERS!:
The backstory to The Silverhex Chronicles doesn’t quite gel. There’s a half-orc explorer named Ulisha who operates out of the River Kingdoms. She’s discovered an ancient enchanted sickle and wants to sell it to the PCs so that she can “pay off a bounty” that has been placed on her head by noblemen she has angered. Ulisha has gone into hiding, but has left a series of letters for the PCs with leads to profitable opportunities in the River Kingdoms so that (I think) they can earn enough money to buy the sickle so that she can pay off the debt. It’s a very roundabout way of doing things, and I’m not convinced it makes sense. Natural questions are: why doesn’t she slip out of the River Kingdoms and sell the sickle herself and why do the PCs want the sickle so bad? (there’s no explanation of its historical value or, until the Chronicle, its magical abilities). In addition, we find out at the very end that her debt can be cleared for just 500 gp and that she’s going to charge the PCs over 6,000 gp for the sickle, which they wouldn’t be able to afford even if they succeeded on every quest! It all hangs together poorly and is too transparently an ill thought-out MacGuffin.

Anyway, each of the six Quests are preceded by a handout letter and together they take the PCs on a little tour of the River Kingdoms.

“Mausoleum” is the first Quest, and from a morality point of view, it’s a doozy. The PCs are asked to break into the mausoleum of a recently-deceased nobleman and steal whatever’s valuable inside. It’s not exactly a mission for lawful or good PCs, and can’t even be justified by the usual “Indiana Jones-style archaeology” rationale. The adventure takes place in Gralton, a town filled with exiles from the Red Revolution in Galt, and they’re some of the nobles that are after Ulisa. When the PCs arrive at the cemetery, they find the body of a young man draped over a post in front of the mausoleum they’re supposed to break into. The post holds a cryptic clue to getting the mausoleum’s door to open without setting off a trap, provided by a magic mouth: “When the last sun falls upon this spot, receive my thanks.” The idea here is that a member of a rival noble house thought the reference to “sun” was a reference to “son” and killed the interred noble’s son in a bid to gain access inside. (I actually came to the same conclusion, thinking I was being clever—apparently, murderers and I think alike!)

In fact, the puzzle’s solution is the obvious one: it’s when rays of the setting sun fall upon the post. The problem is that the scenario doesn’t make it clear to the PCs what time of day it is and that the sun’s rays can’t fall on the post because of the shadow cast by a spire on a different mausoleum (the Conclusion section mentions this to the GM, but many understandably won’t notice until it’s too late). What the PCs are supposed to do is cut down or break the spire (add vandalism to grave-robbing!) to gain access to the mausoleum. Inside is a valuable tapestry (worth enough to pay off Ulisa’s debt—done, everyone go home!). The complication in this Quest is that the murderer of the noble’s son is lurking about, and there’ll inevitably be a battle with her. She’s heavily outnumbered, however, and won’t pose any real threat.

This one wasn’t bad in concept, but care really needed to be given to the exposition of crucial information to the players in order for it to work properly.

“Mists” is the second quest and sees the PCs in the bordering country of Ustalav. Ulisa has told them she buried a magic lantern in a place called “Cannibal Grove”, and the PCs are expected to recover it. (the backstory, which the PCs won’t get, explains that she stole the lantern from a necromancer and hid it in a place full of evil energy so that he couldn’t find it easily) The adventure starts at an inn called the Restless Bear, and the writer does a good job giving it and its proprietor some flavour. Once the PCs head off into the wilderness, they’ll find that the lantern is in the middle of a haunt that has a pretty cool effect: as “Cannibal Grove” would indicate, it might force a PC to eat some of their own flesh! The added complication for this scenario takes the form of a super-tiny fey with 9 hp who wants the lantern, and she’s temporarily aided by an elk. The battle is almost laughably easy. Still, I didn’t mind this one as it had some good atmosphere.

“Colony” is the third quest, and has the PCs travel to Allenstead, a small village on the border with Razmiran. The hook is solid: Allenstead has always been staunchly resistant to the faith of “The Living God” Razmir, but suddenly, in the course of just weeks, the whole town has converted! The cause must be related to the recent arrival of a priest of Razmir and the strange sceptre he carries. Ulisa wants the PCs to get that sceptre by hook or by crook, on the assumption that it’s magical and therefore quite valuable. (she’s really able to keep up on current events despite hiding out in a cave in the wilderness!)

The PCs arrive in time to hear about a daily noontime sermon. My group spent some time formulating heist-like plans to try to swipe that sceptre, which would have been a lot of fun, but the scenario has other ideas. At the sermon, the priest goes to use his magic wand to hypnotize the crowd (as he’s done every day previously) only to find out it doesn’t work—he’s exhausted its charges! It’s a very, ahem, convenient coincidence as far as the PCs are concerned. The priest runs for it, the PCs give chase (with the aid of some skill checks to escape the crowd) and do battle. It was okay, but I liked the premise more than the execution.

“Crash”, the fourth quest, was a real wake-up call—or, some might say, a kick in the nethers! The hook is again solid: Ulisa has found clues pointing to the location of a potentially-unexplored crash site of debris from the “Rain of Stars” (when a fantastical vessel broke up over Numeria, raining down shattered bits of strange metals and wondrous devices). Following her directions, the PCs unearth a metallic pod with silver disks and a bracelet inside. Getting the stuff is easy, but getting out with it is the challenge. The PCs are waylaid by a group of kellids who demand the PCs turn over the loot along with all of their gold. There’s not really a diplomatic way out of this without failing the quest, and realistically the PCs are going to have to fight. But these kellids include two Level 1 barbarians who can use Power Attack with their greatswords to do 2d6+10 points of damage with a single hit! It’s brutal enough to kill a Level 1 PC outright (especially on a crit!) and that’s exactly what happened to one poor player’s PC before mine hastily surrendered. Low-level games always hold the risk of something going very wrong when crits are involved, but this encounter was drastically more dangerous than all the others in the series and wasn’t really fair. The lesson here is that scenario writers need to rely on formal CR less and common sense/judgement more: antagonists like raging barbarians and ghouls are far more lethal than their CRs might indicate.

“Webs” is the fifth quest, and it suffered from not clearly explaining to the PCs what they needed to do. The letter from Ulisa references a desire to obtain spider silk (from giant spider nests, naturally) and sell it in Daggermark so the Poisoner’s Guild can use it in their concoctions. That seems straightforward, and obtaining the spider silk is. But the letter makes a passing reference to a particular merchant as “not being as forthright in our latest dealings as I’d like, and perhaps it’s time I sold elsewhere.” The scenario expects the PCs to interpret that as the need to seek out multiple buyers and haggle in order to get the best possible deal for the spider silk. None of us at the table clued in, and we simply sold the spider silk for the 200 gp we were first offered and thus missed the entire back-half of the quest.. It’s rare in Pathfinder, but especially in Society play, that haggling is allowed, as traditionally scenarios give a fixed price and PCs take it or leave it. A better explanation of why the PCs needed to eke every single gold piece out of the sale would have made this quest much better—but even then, it’s still rather forgettable. The morality angle of PCs taking part in the poison trade is also never broached.

“Silverhex” is the final quest, as the PCs learn of Ulisa’s location (either by haggling really well in the previous quest or, very coincidentally(!), overhearing the man who hired the assassins remarking where she’s been hiding. The PCs may arrive at her cave hide-out in time to set an ambush for the assassins, or, if not, just as they attack Ulisa. Ulisa wields silverhex (the magic sickle) in battle and you would think, given all the fuss, it would be really cool and impressive, but it’s just a spell-storing sickle and her stat block doesn’t even indicate what spell it has stored! The assassins put up a fair fight, and I have no difficulty complaints with this one. After the battle, the PCs can then intervene with the noble who set the bounty on Ulisa and get it lifted for just 500 gp or a DC 25 Diplomacy check. There’s been a lot of drama over so little!

There’s a last bit of weirdness on the Chronicle sheet. One of the boons speaks about the PCs coming to the attention of the Pathfinder Society and being invited to join as a field agent. Nowhere else in The Silverhex Chronicles is there a reference to the PCs not yet being Pathfinders (the default assumption for PFS), so it was a bit jarring.

The label that comes to mind when I think of this Quest pack is: “sloppy.” There are a lot of little plot elements and details that just don’t make sense. The encounters are all over the place in terms of difficulty, with some quests featuring trivial battles and another verging on a TPK-generator. And although I like the idea of seeing more of the River Kingdoms, the bits of lore I saw didn’t always match closely with what I’ve seen referenced in campaign setting sourcebooks. This Quest pack is free, so one really shouldn’t complain overmuch, but this one definitely needed better editing and oversight to bring it all together.


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