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Starfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Scenario #1-20: Duskmire Accord 9Paizo Inc.
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A Diplomancer's DreamJhaeman —
Duskmire Accord 9 is one of those scenarios that have a great premise but just don't quite come together because of some flaws in execution. I played through it at Subtier 1-2 with my "Stephen Hawking" PC and finding it rather boring. It's a very low (possibly no) combat scenario, so if you're looking for something RP-heavy, this could be a reasonable choice. It does advance the Salvation's End storyline and has some value from that perspective.
Duskmire Accord 9 takes up the ball from Live Exploration Extreme!! and runs with it. In that scenario, Starfinders discovered that several vaults in the artificial moon of Salvation's End were self-contained experiments run by an unknown intelligence. In this scenario, the Society has established a new lodge on the moon run by a drow Venture-Captain named Kunoris Vex. I like how Vex's personality is established immediately (though it would have been even cooler if he had been foreshadowed in earlier scenarios). Vex's briefing explains that one of the vaults, labelled only "Duskmire Accord", is the source of strange energy readings and that neither technological nor magical means have allowed outside surveillance. Thus, a team has to be sent in, and that's of course where the PCs get to step up and shine.
Once they get inside, the PCs realize that this particular vault replicates a natural setting with a river, a waterfall, and swampland. A holographic projection immediately appears and tells the PCs that their goal is to "achieve dominance" over the other "resident powers" within the area and then "enter the temple and be released."
While exploring, the PCs will discover that the three "resident powers" are made up of gnolls, yetis, and (perhaps the most odd) a unicorn. But expectations of these races' behavior are dashed, because the gnolls are peaceful farmers, the yetis are lazy and intoxicated, and the unicorn is a vicious murderer of anything that trespasses into its swamp. The heart of this scenario is the PCs making contact with each of these races and either entering peaceful negotiations with them or combat. When I played through the scenario, we had a "Diplomancer" in the group with a Diplomacy score high enough that he couldn't realistically fail any of the DCs. This meant that we essentially watched as he worked out a treaty between the three groups, which was a fairly boring experience. The problem is that the DCs were too low, the consequences of failure (and subsequent retries) were either not severe or not spelled out, and there wasn't a lot that others could do besides Aid Another. The unicorn was the hardest to win over in a peaceful fashion, but even then I never felt any real risk or danger. (I will confess that a unicorn with a grenade launcher is an awesome idea!)
Other groups, of course, may have very different attitudes and start combat with some or all of the groups, which would lead to a very different experience. But for the session I was in, there was no combat at all except a quick one-round (optional) capture of a drone.
While the PCs are traipsing back and forth across the vault to make contact with the residents, they'll realize that a forcefield has sprung up across the entrance to the vault. This force field has the "power of plot", so the PCs aren't getting out until they succeed on the mission. In addition, the PCs will sooner or later find a large temple in the center of the vault. However, it's completely sealed from top to bottom, and there's no way in until the mysterious intelligence determines that "dominance" has occurred.
What's really going on here is an experiment to see which of the three different alien races brought into the vault (with no real memories of their prior lives) will kill or enslave the other two. Once that's done, the vault "resets"--and it's currently on the ninth iteration! I like high concept, classic science-fiction storylines like this one (it reminds me of a Star Trek episode). I just wish the PCs' role in the story had been more fun.
Anyway, when the PCs subdue or make peace between the groups, they gain admittance to the temple. There's a weird bit at the end where the temple exits seal and a countdown to "Duskmire sterilization protocols" starts. This is a final experiment that I guess is to see what the PCs will do if they think everyone they've just met is about to be murdered, but it falls flat because there's nothing for them *to* do. Unless they are *very* bad at skills, they'll realize it's a hoax and that everything will be fine. And from a metagame perspective, there are no consequences for anything the PCs say or do while in the temple. Again, an interesting idea (placing the PCs in some sort of dilemma to see what they'll do) that fails in execution.
I've been a bit harsh in this review, but that's only because I can see the potential just underneath the surface. Add in a couple of combat encounters to spice things up, require more PCs to participate in the negotiations in order for them to be successful, have something riding on what the PCs do at the end in the temple, and then there's an exciting, interesting scenario. But as it currently stands, Duskmire Accord 9 just doesn't get there. I am still looking forward, however, to seeing what's next in the Salvation's End storyline.
Starfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Scenario #1-18: The Blackmoon SurveyPaizo Inc.
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Fantastic Use of the Setting and LoreJhaeman —
I played through The Blackmoon Survey with my infamous self-medicating Solarian, and I didn't have high expectations going in. I'm not sure exactly why, but the description of the scenario made it sound kind of bland and generic. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and really had a blast. There's a solid mystery (complete with red herrings), a very original encounter, and fantastic integration of world lore. With its excellent mix of combat, investigation, and role-playing (plus a good setting), this one has it all.
The scenario begins with the usual mission briefing from Venture-Captain Arvin. He explains that the Starfinder Society has begun an excavation on a geological anomaly on the planet Eox (a planet of undead!). The anomaly is called Blackmoon, and it is the surprisingly-intact portion of a moon that crashed into Eox when its ruling bone sages inadvertently triggered an ancient doomsday weapon left in orbit by a race of creatures called sarcesians that live in a nearby asteroid field called the Diaspora. The problem is that several members of the excavation team have gone missing, so the PCs are dispatched to investigate and put things right. It's a classic set-up, but the setting makes it work: this is the first SFS scenario to take place on Eox, one of the most memorable planets in the Pact Worlds, and the use of Blackmoon is a great location drawn from the recent hardcover book that talks about the planets in the system.
When the PCs arrive on Eox, they're ferried from the spaceport to the dig site by an imposing Vesk named Berchta Deepdelver. Waiting for them at the dig site is the excavation's overseeer, a kasatha named Taylehm. Taylehm is a boroi (a sort of partially-undead living creature that still has its soul), and she gives the PCs more information about what's been going on: the disappearances started at a particular dig site removed from the main excavation, some bodies have turned up, and several pieces of excavation equipment have been wrecked. At this point, the PCs have several options for investigation, such as examining the bodies, questioning the archaeologists, looking at the site where the disappearances occurred, etc. Some clues point to perhaps feral undead being involved, while others hint that the whole thing may be an inside job. I won't go into detail on the clues, but on the whole I was satisfied with their variety and ultimate consistency.
Apart from a hazard called a Glass Cyclone, the first dangerous encounter the PCs will stumble into is when they try to find a security force that Taylehm dispatched earlier. The encounter is a controversial one in the forums, but I love it. The set-up is that the PCs enter one end of a narrow canyon and, on a rise at the other end of the canyon, nearly a *1,000* feet away, a team of snipers open fire on the PCs! The map has a scale of thirty feet per square, and the encounter is designed to give sniper weapons a chance to shine (something long requested) and make range increments meaningful. I thought it was a great change of pace from the standard encounter where everyone starts within charge range of one another, and even though my melee-only PC got blasted several times, I had a lot of fun with it. Running the encounter required a little abstraction by our GM (30' squares don't always play nicely when someone moves 20', for example), but on the whole I think it was worthwhile and I'd like to see more encounters that put Starfinder's emphasis on ranged combat to good effect.
The snipers turn out to be sarcesians (the cover is an unfortunate spoiler), and a datapad allows them to be traced back to a hidden, abandoned outpost of a group called the Wings of Damiar. The Wings of Damiar are a sect of sarcesians who have been monitoring the bone sages of Eox for signs of treachery against the Pact Worlds, but recently there was a schism and an off-shoot of the group decided to take a more violent approach. It's this off-shoot that was responsible for the disappearances and sabotage of the SFS excavation team, as they were seen as willing accomplices to the bone sages' attempts to uncover the secrets of Blackmoon. The PCs will be able to track the dangerous sarcesians down and confront them. The battle isn't particularly memorable, but it's solid.
However, the scenario doesn't end there, as the PCs have to make an interesting moral decision: should they reveal to the Eoxians that the sarcesians have been watching them (and thus gain favour with the dominant species on the planet), or should they keep the existence of the sarcesians secret (and risk damage to the Society's reputation if the bone sages discover them later)? The choice isn't an easy or obvious one, and it's quite significant for the boon the players earn: either the right to play a sarcesian in the future or, if their PC ever dies, to have them come back as a boroi! Very cool.
I really enjoyed the writing on The Blackmoon Survey, and I feel like I understand the dicey relationship between the sarcesians and bone sages much better. One of the best things about SFS scenarios is how they allow a player to experience so many different places in the campaign setting, and this is exemplified here. The investigation aspect was solid, and the long-range encounter was refreshing. All in all, I'd play this one again--if I could!
Solid, Useful Flip-MatJhaeman —
There aren't a lot of options available for winter scenes, so I've used the Winter Forest flip-mat several times in both campaign and PFS/SFS play. One side features a frozen river and lake, complete with a small island in the middle. The other side features the snow-covered cliffs of a boulder-strewn hillside and a couple of paths winding their way through the trees. There are some little touches, like fallen logs, but overall the designer has avoided making the scene too busy (a plus in my book). My tip for GMs would be to plan ahead of time how the trees affect movement and cover, to think about whether special rules will be used to represent movement through the snow and ice, and finally to think about how tall and difficult to climb the boulders will be. There's not really much else to say about this one--it's a good, attractive flip-mat that does its job well and that I expect to use frequently in the future.
Interesting and OriginalJhaeman —
I was a player in this at low tier, and afterwards read it for this review. Bones of Biting Ants has a lot that on the surface makes it seem like it'll be reminiscent of a Season 0 or 1 type of scenario, but it actually has a much deeper spine. It involves a player-facing sub-system that was a bit jarring at first but I can now see and appreciate (in retrospect) what it was trying to accomplish. It's not a perfect adventure, but there's enough interesting and original features in it to make it one worth seeking out.
Bones of Biting Ants starts at the Pathfinder lodge in Eleder, a town in Sargava that borders the Mwangi Expanse. Venture-Captain Finze Bellaugh (who doesn't have much description or personality in the scenario) starts telling the PCs about a former field agent named Stuinvolk who had a disastrous journey into the Mwangi interior a decade previously. Stuinvolk's company recovered some ancient artifacts (pertaining to a sorcerer from millenia ago named the King of Biting Ants), but on their way back were ambushed by local tribespeople named the Mzali. The rest of Stuinvolk's party were slain one by one during a harrowing attempt to escape the savannah, until Stuinvolk himself was captured and staked out to die in a field of ants' nests. However, a strange type of gremlin called a nuno set Stuinvolk free after leaving him with a permanent disfiguring curse as a reminder never to trespass into the area again. In the decade since, Stuinvolk has been a shattered figure, suffering from nightmares and what today we would call PTSD. The Pathfinders are to escort Stuinvolk back into the Mwangi interior to retrace the steps of his escape. (based on the backstory, I wondered then and still if this scenario was a sequel to an earlier one?)
This scenario is one in which what the players take away as their goals from the initial mission briefing could be something different than what the author assumes, and that can lead to some major problems. The Venture-Captain's final words to the players are "Find the treasures, compel the nuno to lift the curse, but most of all, help Stuinvolk find peace." The mistake I made as a player was in thinking that the first two things (recover artifacts, lift curse) were the "real" goals of the mission, and the "help Stuinvolk find peace" bit would be accomplished through getting the curse lifted. However, it turns out that the opposite is true. The scenario assumes the PCs make multiple attempts each day of the expedition to gain insight into what Stuinvolk is going through and to try to connect with him on a deeper level. This is represented by a fairly elaborate mechanical sub-system drawing on the Influence rules from Ultimate Intrigue. The PCs need to accumulate "empathy points", and the number of successes they get determine Stuinvolk's mood, how easy or hard it is to influence him further, how much he helps the party (in quite specific ways) in later encounters, etc.
It's a situation that's original and compelling, and I can definitely see how it enables quality role-playing at the table. However, I think the concept came across as forced and intrusive to me for a few reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, I originally took something very different away from the mission briefing. Second, Stuinvolk has been dealing with this for a decade and is stated to have had a counsellor during this time, so it felt a bit far-fetched and also presumptive to try to get him to have some sort of cathartic release with us strangers. Third, my PC just wasn't the type for deep soul-searching talks and so (on his behalf) I felt resentful of the mechanism. But I'm sure my experience won't be universal, so I'll chalk it up as a good idea that maybe isn't implemented quite as seamlessly as it could have been.
The first real encounter on the journey is portrayed well. The Pathfinders run into a Mzali patrol and either have to persuade the leader to give permission for a trespass into the tribe's territory, or fight their way past. A little detail I *really* liked is that the patrol leader seems to speak only Polyglot, but secretly understands Common (something she puts to advantage by hearing the PCs talk amongst themselves). I also like that the negotiations here don't boil down to a single Diplomacy check, but are a real series of offers and requests, with multiple checks and modifiers involved (so much so that careful prep on the part of the GM would be important).
During the journey, the Pathfinders often find themselves hearing strange howling at night and the sense of being stalked. Eventually, they're attacked twice by a supernatural manifestation of Stuinvolk's guilt in the form of a mngwa (a nightmarish jungle cat). The trick is that the mngwa can be defeated only if Stuinvolk delivers the "killing" blow, and he may or may not be in a condition to do this if the PCs have earned enough empathy points. It was an interesting and unusual situation to be in as a player (setting an NPC up for the kill), and I like encounters that deliver surprises.
As the PCs get closer into the hills where the nuno gremlin resides, there's a completely filler encounter against hyenas. The nuno, named Bujune, presents another solid and interesting choice for the PCs. He can be killed (which will lift the curse) or he can be negotiated with. If the latter option is chosen, he offers the PCs a deal: he'll lift the curse on Stuinvolk if the Pathfinders investigate what's going on inside some giant anthills nearby where the ants have become sickly and deranged.
The final portion of the scenario has the PCs navigating underground ant tunnels. A series of skill checks determine whether they find their way or get lost and face multiple encounters of giant undead ants. I think most groups will have the skills to avoid too many extra encounters, but if they have too much bad luck I imagine they could be worn down before the big finish: a battle against several more undead ants and their queen, "She Who Devours" (a deathweb). It turns out that the artifacts that Stuinvolk left behind had the effect of releasing necrotic energy which turned the normal inhabitants of the area into soulless abominations! It was a good, reasonably tough and satisfying climax.
Two miscellaneous points: 1) the scenario does a really good job incorporating rules and options from Occult Adventures for characters with psychic abilities, something I don't see very often; 2) the scenario didn't do much with the Mwangi environment--the heat dangers were nerfed substantially, and there weren't any other of the classic hazards presented (insects, disease, etc.).
Overall, although I had some qualms at the time, I can see that Bones of Biting Ants is a really good scenario. It has an interesting goal that asks the PCs to be more than just killing machines, and to actually help an individual on a personal, emotional level. I'm impressed by that, and I would like to continue to see more scenarios that stretch the boundaries of what PFS scenarios can involve.
Pathfinder Adventure Path #4: Fortress of the Stone Giants (Rise of the Runelords 4 of 6) (OGL)Paizo Inc.
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Solid but UnremarkableJhaeman —
In my traditional backwards fashion for these reviews, I'll cover the back-matter of the AP volume first because it won't spoil the adventure. AP # 4 includes four major sections after the adventure portion concludes: an article on stone giants, an article on dragons, a piece of fiction featuring Eando Kline, and a bestiary.
"Born of Stone: A Pathfinder's Guide to Stone Giants" (6 pages) provides a very detailed ecology of the race. Stone giants in Golarion live simple lives and are in tune with nature, but they're not "savage" or "uncivilized." They have an intriguing history dating to ancient Thassilon, and this article goes into additional cultural matters such as their daily life, how they view death, their treatment of magic, and their religion. The section introduces a couple of new pieces of equipment ("shatter boulder" and "mammoth lance") as well as a few adventure hooks for incorporating stone giants into adventures outside the scope of the AP. It's readily apparent just from this how much quality writing and artwork goes into each issue.
"Dragons of Golarion: The Myth and the Flame" (12 pages) details the legendary origins of dragons and it's . . . frankly a bit cheesy. The section goes on to discuss each of the colours of dragons, ascribing them astrology-like personality traits. Most of this section isn't Golarion-specific, and the only bits that I found original were their genealogical obelisks and their obsession with numerology. Overall, the section didn't incline me to want to use dragons in Pathfinder, or persuade me that Golarion had better lore on the topic than many other campaign settings.
Things pick up with "Fool's Gold" (6 pages), the continuation of Pathfinder Eando Kline's tale. It's good, exciting storytelling (with just the edge I love) that involves theft, a cool fight in the sewers of Korvosa, and an awesome escape from a thieves' guild. In some ways it's a bit of a gazetteer for Korvosa, and would serve nicely as an introduction to the city for Curse of the Crimson Throne players and GMs. Eando Kline is exactly what a Pathfinder should be, and I'm looking forward to sitting down and reading these stories all at once at a future date.
The bestiary introduces six new monsters. Deathwebs (gargantuan undead spiders) and runeslaves (a template for giants that gives them short bursts of speed at the cost of their lifespan) are reasonably interesting. Redcaps (malevolent fey) are great--memorable and creepy. Lovecraft fans will appreciate the hounds of tindalos (extraplanar menaces), and I like the inclusion of some example victims that could be incorporated into a game. I still don't really "get" taiga giants (nomadic ancestor-worshipping giants) or what they bring to the table that other giants don't. Forgefiends I appreciate just for the possibility of destroying some PC gear. Shining children are creepy cool, and their "theories of origin" section is fantastic. The artwork here ranges from awesome (the deathweb, the redcap, the hound of tindalos, the shining child) to the okay (the runeslave) to embarrassing (the taiga giant and forgefiend). As always, I find the bestiary sections in these early APs retain value even after the creatures appear in a future Pathfinder Bestiary volume, because the entries here go into a lot more detail on their background and place in Golarion.
Now onto the adventure.
The usual caveat: I GM'd this using the Anniversary Edition, though I didn't notice any major differences between the original and the hardcover. The title of the volume, "Fortress of the Stone Giants," gives you a pretty big clue about what this section of the AP is going to be about. A two-page preface by James Jacobs explains that the adventure (written by Wolfgang Baur) was inspired by the classic D&D "Against the Giants" modules. I never played those and had no particular feelings about stone giants one way or the other coming into Chapter Five, so we'll see how well Paizo did on selling the idea that a volume of RotRL should be centered on the race.
The backstory to the adventure is an interesting one. It tells how the runt of a stone giant tribe named Mokmurian was expelled when his wizardly leanings became known. Mokmurian wandered Varisia for many years before eventually entering the Black Tower, a monument long taboo to the stone giant tribes. Deep below the tower, Mokmurian found an ancient library full of the knowledge of Thassilon. It provided him with enough clues to seek out Xin-Shalast and make a pilgrimage there to dedicate himself to the rebirth of Karzoug. Now, in the present, Mokmurian has returned to the Black Tower as a mighty wizard and persuaded several outcast stone giant tribes to rally around his banner for a planned war of conquest! But whether the giants succeed or fail, the fact that thy're marked with the Sihedron rune means that Karzoug will gain power either way!
Part One ("Stones Over Sandpoint") is probably my favourite part of the adventure. The PCs come back to Sandpoint (either on their own accord or via request) and are present when a large stone giant raiding party attacks the town from different directions. The mechanics of the assault are designed well, with a round-by-round chart of which parts of the town are invaded and by whom. The idea is that the PCs will have to be mobile, make quick decisions, and maybe even split up in a bid to be "everywhere at once." The attackers include several stone giants, their dire bear companions, and (most dramatic of all) a red dragon! It serves as a great way to get the PCs to feel their connection to Sandpoint and its NPCs (some of whom may be killed or kidnapped), especially since all of Chapter Three took place away from the town. After the raid, the PCs are assumed to interrogate a prisoner to learn that the raid was launched from Jorgenfist--a fortress that Mokmurian has had constructed around the Black Tower. It's a thrilling start to the chapter.
Part Two ("Journey to Jorgenfist") assumes the PCs will set out for Jorgenfist, either to rescue some kidnapped town folk or to stop Mokmurian before he can launch a true invasion of Varisia. This is a short section, as the PCs could take various routes, but includes a few encounters to help flavour the journey. I like how it was done, as it incorporates necessary flexibility for PC autonomy while not putting *all* the burden on the GM's shoulders to spice things up (like the journey to Hook Mountain at the start of Chapter 3 did). Speaking of Hook Mountain, my PCs decided on the unusual strategy of teleporting there and trying to cross the mountain ranges on foot to reach Jorgenfist. They were turned back by terrible weather and arduous climbing conditions (not to mention stone giant patrols) in a scene reminiscent of Fellowship of the Ring when Gandalf realizes there's no choice but to go through the Mines of Moria. Good stuff.
Part Three ("Into the Valley of the Black Tower") provides a full write-up of the fortress around Jorgenfist. There are, quite literally, dozens and dozens of stone giants and their allies camped around the massive fortress, so a frontal assault is pretty much out of the question. It's an excellent opportunity for players to strategise how they're going to gain entry, with possibilities including setting the tribes into conflict with each other, trying to sneak over the fortress walls, etc. The GM is provided with a lot of detail on what happens if there's an alarm, what patrols are like, etc., to help deal with different possibilities. The interior of the fortress and the Black Tower itself has some cool encounters with things like harpies, an ancient Thassilonian mummy monk, and more. Suspiciously lucky PCs like mine may come across a secret tunnel in the back of a cliffside cave that allows them to bypass the surface entirely and reach the subterranean level. The artwork in this section (of the fortress, of some wyverns, etc.,) is very good.
Part Four ("Under Jorgenfist") contains artwork of more mixed quality, with a depiction of lamias on page 39 particularly amateurish. This section details the first subterranean level of the fortress, home to barracks, a kitchen, a shrine to Lamashtu, etc. One of the major strengths of Paizo APs is that their depiction of dungeons is reasonably realistic: monsters aren't just standing around to be murdered. They're in different places at different times of the day, they have backstories and relationships and conflicts with their own allies, etc. Much of this detail isn't seen by the PCs, but it does offer a lot of depth when the surface is scratched. Although the vast majority of this chapter is combat-focussed, there is one important role-playing element here in the form of a renegade stone giant named Conna who is willing to help the PCs depose of Mokmurian. On a side note, I particularly liked the little kobold (Enga Keckvia) wearing the necklace of fireballs; its presence is a reminder that little things can pack a big punch! Last, I'll mention that a seemingly minor encounter here (two lamia clerics) posed the biggest problem of the chapter for my PCs, as it took them three tries to overcome with multiple deaths along the way. Sometimes simple defensive spells (like mirror image) and simple offensive spells (like hold person) can prove a deadly combination!
Part Five ("The Ancient Library") is the conclusion of the adventure. Deep below the fortress, a complex dating to ancient Thassilon holds the library that Mokmurian discovered. The encounters leading up to the big battle against Mokmurian are a bit rote (of the "enter room, fight" variety), but the creatures involved are interesting. As for the showdown, I have to report it was a complete bust. Apart from the usual action economy problem of one boss against four to five PCs, the obvious flaw in Mokmurian is vulnerability to a spell like feeblemind. Checking the forums, I'm not the first GM to run into that specific problem, and perhaps word of the exploit is spreading. After building up the event so much, it was a splash of cold water and reminded me to expect less of these chapter-ending climaxes. The one redeeming feature is the awesome moment where Karzoug possesses his defeated minion's body and speaks to the PCs directly for the first time in a great little speech.
An appendix goes through what the PCs can learn about Karzoug and Xin-Shalast from research in the ancient library. It's presented here as a set of Knowledge (history) DCs, but I used the optional research rules from Ultimate Intrigue and they worked quite well.
Overall, the best part of this adventure is the beginning, and then it starts to slope slowly downward from there. It's never bad, but much of it is frankly average. It does lend some flavour to stone giants in Golarion, but I think that's a small amount of value for an adventure that is otherwise unremarkable.