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An Excellent Concept that Never Comes TogetherKaushal Avan Spellfire —
I played the high tier of this scenario with a group of six players. My review is in the spoiler tag below.
When I first read the premise for Waking the Past, I was excited. The scenario promised something closer to a horror experience than in previous scenarios, and threatening the players with an ancient evil that might be better left forgotten. And the scenario certainly does deliver on that promise, trapping the players in an ancient ruin and tormenting them with an invincible and malevolent force and forcing them to scramble looking for a way out and never once letting them rest. At least, on paper.
The problem with Waking the Past is that the individual pieces, each exquisitely crafted by author Tom Phillips, never really fall into place to create the full experience. The monster, while threatening, is a bit too deadly, and almost guaranteed to kill one or two unlucky players during the course of the scenario. The rules that govern the scenario are long and verbose, and small details often get lost within walls of text. Tools left by the author, meant to assist the players in the struggle to survive, ultimately prove pointless, since the monster’s EAC is so high that the two things meant to really slow it down: the nanite projector and the zero rifle, never really do. Our group was fortunate enough to have a character with a white dragon gland, so we were able to slow the monster down long enough to get away.
Let’s focus on the monster for a bit. As a monster, it’s fantastic. It’s slow, big, and lethal, so it creates drama merely by standing on the other end of the room. The problem is that players don’t really know how bad it is until it’s killed one of them. And if it reaches the players, it probably will kill one of them, especially at low levels. If this is by design then, well, that’s bad writing. Usually, when something is a lethal threat to the protagonists, it will kill a side character or deuteragonist to prove just how dangerous it is. This is the point of the red-shirted security officers in Star Trek: They die to let you know the stakes. The monster, however, has nothing to “job” for it, or really any way to tell the players just what a monster it is.
Now, you could make the case for Gygaxian naturalism here. However, for that to work the entire campaign must train the players to recognize that they can’t, or shouldn’t, take on every threat they encounter, something at odds with the fundamental way the reward systems in Starfinder Society are structured. So the monster doesn’t really get a pass in that regard because the metanarrative structure doesn’t prepare the players for the possibility of encountering something they shouldn’t fight.
Returning to the scenario, I want to hold up the environment the players explore as particularly well-done. The map is well-populated with set dressing, and has enough open space to try and outmaneuver the monster. At no point during our exploration did I feel like a room was not worth checking, and the description of most chambers did nothing to subtract from the ambience. My one complaint is that the map’s linear design makes backtracking difficult, so players are encouraged to sprint toward the finish line rather than try to hide from the creature.
Ultimately, Waking the Past is a scenario that, much like its villain, needed a bit more time to pull itself together. The concept, while fantastic, doesn’t really fit together with the mechanics of the game, leaving the whole thing something of a jumbled mess. I hope to see more scenarios with similar concepts in the future, but perhaps with a bit more thought as to how to best communicate its themes and ideas within the rules of the game system.
Starfinder Society Scenario #1-38: The Many Minds of HistoriaPaizo Inc.
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A Fantastic Voyage from Start to FinishKaushal Avan Spellfire —
I ran the high tier of this scenario for a group of six players. My review is in the spoiler tag below.
The Many Minds of Historia is one of the best-envisioned and best executed scenarios yet, and may very well be the best scenario of Season 1. Serving as a conclusion to the season 1 character arcs of Zigvigix and Historia-7 (such as they are), the scenario delves into the history of the tight-lipped leader of the Dataphiles faction in a unique and interesting way, while also looping in Zigvigix’s participation in a meaningful way.
The second half of the scenario is, perhaps, my favorite, taking place in the surreal realm of the Mindscape. The heroes must traverse Historia’s fragmented minds to locate the sinister intelligence that threatens her. The rules of the Mindscape are lightweight enough as to not bog down the adventure with complexity, and interesting enough as to encourage players to use them. At the same time, the way the players traverse the memories is sufficiently surreal, with the heroes walking through standing doors into separate scenes.
My one complaint, perhaps, is that the scenario was not weird enough. The jungle map in the final scene was a little disappointing, since the flip mats usually don’t have much in the way of set dressings that players can use to their advantage. Likewise, the final boss was somewhat unimpressive. While I imagine he would be more of a threat if allowed to spawn functional minions, the group I ran it for easily dispatched the foe with minimal stress on Zigvigix’s psyche.
The real problem with the scenario is not the scenario itself. Rather, it is with the supporting story leading up to the scenario. Zigvigix and Historia-7’s relationship has developed across several missions, but the details of that relationship are frequently told to the players and not really shown. This scenario, with Zigvigix gaining mental “stress points” in response to disturbing revelations about Historia-7’s well being are a nice mechanical expression of the host shirren’s interest in the android. (Other things stress Ziggy out, obviously, but many of the shirren’s psychological pain points in this scenario are centered around Historia-7.) The scenario’s emotional payoff is therefore blunted by the fact that preceding scenarios (especially Return to Sender, which relegated the evolution of Zigvigix and Historia-7’s relationship to a throwaway line) did not adequately prepare the emotional stakes.
Furthermore, the problem with Historia-7, while dramatic, comes a bit out of left field. Again, this has nothing to do with the scenario itself, but rather the fact that Data Breach did not do a good job showing the players that something is wrong. Should I have the opportunity to run Data Breach again, I would like to use more of the details revealed in The Many Minds of Historia to better foreshadow the developments in this scenario.
Ultimately, these gripes do nothing to detract from the experience within The Many Minds of Historia. The scenario is well-paced and well-written, and a definite testament to Lyz Liddell’s character writing chops. Hopefully we can continue to see stories of this quality in Season 2.
Honorbound Emissaries: A Weak Opening but a Strong FinishKaushal Avan Spellfire —
Honorbound Emissaries is Starfinder Society's first foray into the 7-10 tier, and offers the veteran crew an opportunity to reunite with old friends as they pursue peaceful contact with a potential ally in the Vast, and battle against familiar foes with new tricks.
While the scenario is certainly entertaining, it possesses a number of flaws that prevent it from being a noteworthy first mission at tier 7-10, beyond simply being the first mission at tier 7-10.
The first of these flaws is its cast of NPCs. The mission reintroduces the players to an old friend and an old favorite, and the majority of my table became very excited when they heard the character's description. He exudes personality, but that personality is mostly constrained to someone yelling at you over the comms like the disembodied voice of some plot-exposition character in a video game. The starship crew the PCs befriend is equally colorful, although that color is constrained to a sentence or two personality and meaningful (or perhaps I should say "gainful") interactions are locked behind particularly narrow interpretations of how those personalities might manifest. There is too little room for the cast to fully express themselves to the PCs and become truly memorable, beyond the eccentric captain who is already known because of his prior escapades.
The next issue follows from the cast. When I said "gainful" interaction, I meant exactly that. The PCs must interact with these NPCs in order to gain story-specific, and rather arbitrary, rewards. Failure to interact with the crew within the narrow context set by the scenario means the PCs actually lose out on end-of-scenario rewards. This is not the only time the scenario encounters issues with its reward system, however. In another scene, the PCs are given the choice of retrieving an object or performing a more humanitarian task. If they choose to act in a humanistic manner, they actually lose a monetary reward, but gain nothing for it--no boons, no benefits when it comes to interacting with other NPCs--nothing. It seems strange to me to punish players for valuing lives over profit, but that is exactly what happens.
The final issue is with the narrative itself. The entire plot of the mission is kicked off by the discovery of alien art that prompts the Society to investigate further. However, the scenario has no information about the art or its significance to the alien culture that produced it, even in the event the PCs ask about it directly, as my table did. I found it frustrating, since it seemed like a thoughtful line of questioning that I couldn't reward appropriately.
This is not to say the scenario is entirely bad, however. Although I found part one to be rather tepid, part two picks up significantly, and culminates in a fantastic set-piece that is definitely the highlight of the adventure. If I have one thing to say, it is that, perhaps, it ended too early because the players were too good at being action heroes.
In summary: Honorbound Emissaries brings back a familiar and popular character, and attempts to generate an expanded cast of colorful characters with mixed effect. Its questionable reward scheme and constrained narrative make for a frustrating time, but one that is easily forgotten in the excitement of the final act. It is a passable first attempt at a tier 7-10 adventure, but I should like to see tighter, more thoughtful storytelling as the heroes advance toward unmasking the truth about the Scoured Stars and its inhabitants.
As a medical professional, I found the depiction of the "hospital" in this scenario particularly egregious. The building is, to start, too small to be a hospital. It is a clinic, at best, and one with a strange set-up that defies medical expertise. It has 22 beds but 5 toilets, and there are no toilets directly accessible from the ward. Furthermore, the ward can only be accessed through a greenhouse filled with psychic fungi that can cause dangerous delirium in the unprotected. To call this a serious workplace safety issue would be an understatement.
Starfinder Adventure Path #7: The Reach of Empire (Against the Aeon Throne 1 of 3)Paizo Inc.
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Showing Promise but Lacking SubstanceKaushal Avan Spellfire —
On the surface, the first installment of Against the Aeon Throne, "The Reach of Empire," hits a lot of notes that I look for as a GM. A routine mission with an established cast runs afoul of an unexpected development, and cad and crusader alike find themselves thrust into a battle against a ruthless and unknown foe. It is only after you look past the polished exterior to the AP's finer details that the flaws begin to become apparent.
The AP begins with a cast of level 1 characters who are all presumed to know and work with each other traveling to a colony in the Vast on a routine supply mission. Each PC has their own connection to the colony through a plot-critical character, as outlined by the PC's chosen theme. In a way, this serves to provide each character with a personal stake much in the same way Campaign Traits did for Pathfinder APs. Unfortunately, unless the GM shares the first few pages of the AP with the players, they have no way of knowing about this connection ahead of time when building characters, so it almost feels like the players are ambushed with a connection to the story they did not have a hand in crafting. In my experience, this means players will be less likely to act on that roleplaying hook, since it was not a decision they made and therefore they have little emotional investment in it. Nonetheless, the effort to ground the PCs within the story is appreciated, and I hope to see more elements like this in subsequent Starfinder APs (perhaps even AP-specific themes, or a Players' Guide that explains the significance of each theme and its connection to the story).
After the inciting action, an artfully-done encounter that plays up the threat of a mysterious foe, the PCs transition into the main action of the book, and into a sandbox-style adventure for them to investigate and explore. The AP does a good job taking into account the various actions the PCs might take, and also takes care to provide bits and clues about the PCs' enemies that builds a more complete picture over time. The sandbox section culminates in a daring raid on the enemy stronghold, which, while still somewhat a dungeon crawl (albeit a brief one), provides the PCs with various options on how to proceed through it.
The final part of the AP sits on somewhat shakier ground. A proper dungeon crawl this time (again, brief), the dramatic action culminates in an explosive finale that bookends the adventure rather well. Unfortunately, there are a few plot holes in this final part, and particularly astute players might raise questions about the strange decisions their foes make at this point in the story. Despite this however, the overall flow of the narrative is solid, and leaves the players (likely) satisfied and eager to continue on to part 2.
The AP offers no explanation as to why the enemy, when faced with dwindling forces and vastly outnumbered by rearmed and angry colonists, would continue to fight to the death. Indeed, there seems to be no consideration that the PCs might lead an army of one-hundred or so angry colonists to confront the final, token occupation force.
So, I have just spent most of my ink praising the AP for its content. Why then does my title allege differently? It all comes down to the details of the AP itself. "The Reach of Empire" does little in the way to introduce the principal villain or their motivations, raises questions about the villain's competency and plan, and only teases a plot-critical character without developing it further. In other words, very little of the actual plot gets developed in this book. The only thing that the players know by the end is something they learned relatively close to the beginning, with the addition of one or two facts that aren't really relevant because they already had a personal stake in the story anyway.
The adventure background tells us that the ultimate villain of the campaign is a minor Azlanti noble who overstepped his authority in pursuit of a secret project in order to improve his political standing within the Empire. While all of this is plausible and makes for really good television, the players have no notion of who is ultimately responsible for the invasion of the colony. There are ways that this can be handled, such as communications from the noble to his minions in the colony, or even just foreshadowing who the villain might be. For example, "Rise of the Runelords" introduced Karzoug in the first book, although the PCs would not learn who he was until at least the fourth book. Without this connection, "The Reach of Empire" feels somewhat isolated from the next two parts of the AP.
The villain's plan involves occupying a colony with effectively twenty-four high school students and two Aeon Guard soldiers. While it makes sense that the villain wants to keep the head count low in order to maximize secrecy, one can only imagine the political scandal a headline like "Local Lord Loses Entire Academy Class on School Field Trip" might cause--which is essentially what happens by the end of the first book.
Overall, "The Reach of Empire" is a good start and a good skeleton to work off of, but definitely requires the GM to write additional content to fully flesh it out. Vignettes exploring each PC's relationship with a plot-centric NPC, and asides or scenes that foreshadow the main villain, are both needed in order to really make the story substantial, and connect it to the AP's overarching plot. If this is not done, players are mostly left to assume the dramatic stakes of the story based on a few sentences at the front of the book telling them "you like this person and want to save them."
In the end, I would give "The Reach of Empire" 3.5 stars, but since fractions are impossible I'll round up to 4 because I like the ideas presented within, even if they needed a little more time to develop.
Return to the Drawing Board: Good Idea Poorly RealizedKaushal Avan Spellfire —
"Return to Sender" begins with a strong premise: Use a captured ship to sneak into enemy-occupied space, gather intel, and sabotage their war effort. Unfortunately, it's only down hill from there.
The opportunity to explore hostile alien territory is immediately hampered by a drab and ugly map. Bland rooms with little in the way of set-dressing predominate, lending little character to the mission site as a whole. Furthermore, the map doesn't really seem to play to the Jinsul's color scheme or purple and gray, and the palette that was chosen for the map is an eyesore.
Despite being a stealth mission, the scenario cannot be completed without several straightforward combats, and enemies have high enough hit points at this level that quick, quiet kills are out of the question. While this breaks emersion somewhat, it would not be so bad if the combats did not feel uninspired. Due to the bland presentation of the scenario map, encounters feel like little more than both parties forming firing lines and blasting each other until one is defeated. Even should players wish to deploy more advanced tactics, they will be frustrated by the lack of cover or other tactical advantages provided by the terrain. Indeed, the terrain seems to be exclusively set-up for the defenders' advantage (an expected development, but not necessarily one that lends itself to a wealth of decisionmaking beyond accepting that you have no counterplay options).
The enemies in the final encounter have a particularly frustrating ability that is strangely targeted against Operatives. While I am sympathetic to complaints of operative power-level, trick attack is not the reason why they are strong. Thus, giving enemies an ability that specifically negates trick attack almost feels more like the author has an axe to grind than something that creates an interesting situation or characterizes the enemy with mechanics.
The scenario's enjoyment is equally hampered by absolutely debilitating or deadly hazards that seem to reward luck more than good decision-making. Good decisions with bad checks led to rapidly-fatal consequences, which in my opinion is not good scenario design. Should the players suffer a monumental catastrophe, it should be an unmaking of their own doing rather than blind luck. Likewise, certain plot coupons have rather strange placements that raise more questions than answers.
The scenario is not without its bright spots, however. The characterization of the NPC allies is absolutely adorable, and goes a long way to engender the PCs to an otherwise aloof story character by revealing her softer side. Equally adorable is the mascot character that can be discovered during the infiltration. The environmental storytelling is likewise well-done. Room descriptions provide clues about the enemy plan, even without succeeding on skill checks. Further investigation paints a coherent picture and lends itself to excited speculation about where the next mission may lead.
Ultimately, however, these moments do not blunt the disappointing reality of the scenario's missed potential. The first post-special metaplot mission, meant to propel senior agents toward their inevitable confrontation with the enemy's mysterious leadership, falls flat in several areas due to boring, mandatory combats that conflict with the mission's theme, bad map design, and ultralethal hazards.
To summarize: "Return to Sender" is a mixed bag, with most of its good ideas marred by poor execution and clumsy design. It had the makings of greatness, but is need additional revisions to get there.
Fun and Hilarious, but Still ChallengingKaushal Avan Spellfire —
#1-14 Star Sugar Heartlove!!! is a wacky, fun scenario that is exactly what you'd expect given its title. Offering a balanced blend of roleplaying, combat, and skill challenges, SSH!!! has a little bit of something for everyone.
Set on a massive concert venue in the Diaspora with a unique enchantment surrounding it, the scenario boasts a colorful cast of characters that can help or hinder the PCs in their mission to uncover a dangerous conspiracy.
The plot is well-paced, and skill challenges and combats are not overly-burdened by additional rules that might cause them to drag. Furthermore, skill challenges do not lean too heavily on one skill, although certain skills do recur throughout multiple challenges (given the ubiquity of said skill, however, this really isn't a problem).
The scenario's final set-piece, an explosive battle with a unique enemy, is nothing less than awesome. It is, however, my singular concern with the scenario, especially at the tier 5-6 level, since the enemy seems very powerful, even with the situational buffs the PCs gain each round.
In conclusion, Star Sugar Heartlove!!! is exactly the scenario you've been waiting for since you first heard about Strawberry Machine Cake during #1-01 The Commencement, and then some. It's entertaining, challenging, and unique--a welcome installment in Starfinder organized play that will entertain groups for years to come.
The Street Finds Its Own Uses for Things, The Scenario Doesn'tKaushal Avan Spellfire —
Following on the tail of one of the more popular scenarios, "A Night in Nightarch" whisks Starfinders away from the bright lights of the Lorespire Complex to the dark and dystopian world of Apostae. Channeling the spirit of gritty Sci-Fi games like Cyberpunk and Shadowrun, the scenario presents the PCs with an interesting proposal: Given 24 hours of diplomatic immunity, track down a shipment of stolen weapons and return them to the Starfinder Society. It certainly sounds like the makings of a great noire thriller, and it is, until it slams into a wall.
Heist stories are always driven by two important elements: The characters and the score. In this heist, the score is rather droll, so the characters must pick up the slack. Sadly, the characters in this story are rather poor, and room where they could have been further fleshed-out are eaten-up by awkwardly-worded rules of social scenes and investigation scenes, and bizarre rules about how much time it takes to case a building or locate data pertinent to heist-planning.
Likewise, the infiltration itself is equally clumsy. You *CAN* try to sneak in and you *CAN* try to avoid the guards, but the problem is that with 4-7 characters only 2 of whom have ranks in Stealth, chances are that the drek is going to hit the fan rather fast. Which is fine, except that there is no sense of danger or urgency when you get caught. There is no punishment for taking the path of least resistance straight through the front door, guns blazing (I understand there is SOME drawback, but it's not very big all-things-considered).
Even the climactic firefight felt a bit...anticlimactic. Hardly more than a glorified escort mission, what was likely supposed to be a fast-paced run-and-gun section really just drags on as the heroes shoot their way through cannon fodder and slightly-better-armed cannon fodder. Even the villain felt rather lack-luster, showing up because...I guess the villain always shows up surrounded by their goons at this part of the movie. Which wouldn't be so bad if she had any substantial characterization up until this point.
Here's the thing: "A Night in Nightarch," much like any Organized Play scenario from Paizo, has really good ideas. The trouble comes in the execution. It simply lacks the polish and care that goes into some of Paizo's other products. I do not wish to speculate why this is, just to comment that it's hardly a novel trend with Starfinder Scenarios. Hopefully future scenarios will retain the same creativity seen in "Nightarch," but with a better idea of how to actualize that vision within the context of the game system.
TL;DR: "A Night in Nightarch" sets up an interesting scenario and story that is frustrated by clunky rules and weak action sequences.
A Strong Set-up, But a Weak Follow-throughKaushal Avan Spellfire —
I ran this scenario for SFS this evening and it was, overall, a fun experience. However, despite the scenario's strong opening scene and creative role-play opportunities, it falls flat in Acts II and III with awkward pacing, opaque motivations, and a confusing combat set-up.
Let me disclose, first of all, that I love party scenes. It lets me fill a room with interesting people and turn the PCs loose in a role-play interaction sandbox to learn all about the quirks and personalities of the guests. The gala scene in The First Mandate was no different, and the five NPCs the PCs had to influence were distinct and entertaining enough that each interaction felt memorable. The players certainly came up with unique ways to leverage their skills in conversations with the guests, from discussions of the ethical and geopolitical implications of First Contact events to pitching mining opportunities to an Aspis Consortium representative. Unfortunately, because we were playing with 3 players + 1 GMPC, the two sets of social rounds dragged out a little bit, but that may be more of a symptom of our table than the scenario.
After the PCs are called away from the gala is when the scenario's pacing seems to break down. First, asking the PCs to leave a party they have just finished winning friends at seems very strange. Their friends will wonder where they've gone, why they've gone, and what it is they could possibly be doing that's more important. Not only that, it seems a little strange to send the agents you're supposed to be showing-off to follow-up on a lead. You've got other agents who can handle that, these guys are assigned to the party.
Of course, the investigation scene is technically proficient and well-constructed. It is your typical obstacle-discovery set-up, with a great a-ha moment for the players who paid attention to the fluff text. I do wish one of the rewards weren't so hidden, and I worry other groups might miss the opportunity to collect it.
The weakest scene in the scenario is, sadly, the conclusion. While I did like that the NPCs mentioned in the first scene are made relevant again in the third scene (and can contribute meaningfully to its resolution), the entire organization and pacing of the whole event is, quite frankly, a mess. In fairness, most scenes involving a split party are, but that's no excuse. The scene should have decided whether it wanted to be a technical scene or a combat scene, but not both at the same time, especially with such a high CR enemy (I would've been in favor of combining the CRs of the enemy and the skill challenge if both are to play out at the same time).
Perhaps what frustrates me most about this scenario is that it goes about its script too closely. The plot unfolds not because of the actions of the PCs or their guests, but because it's what's supposed to happen next. Key characters say things because they need to same them, not because it necessarily makes sense. This makes the story feel forced, and threatens the sense of accomplishment the PCs are supposed to achieve from their successes.
The First Seeker's quote about "people trying to kill her" to the audience makes no sense if the third scene were not out in the open (since it's assumed the PCs were surreptitiously disarming the bombs and therefore most attendees weren't even aware there was a threat).
In conclusion, The First Mandate is a fun scenario with a strong opening that is hampered by a weak middle and end. The scenario should have tried harder to keep events closer together, in such a way that the important NPCs the PCs spent nearly an hour interacting with remained relevant throughout, instead of only Acts I and III. That said, this is another scenario really had good ideas, and with some additional polish and editing, could've been a slam-dunk way to kick off the next round of SFS missions.
As something of a post-script, I really did appreciate the way the scenario dropped hints about upcoming scenarios. It was a clever detail, and one that went a long way to making the story of Season 1 feel more coherent.
Strong Concept, Weak Execution.Kaushal Avan Spellfire —
This evening I had the opportunity to play Yesteryear's Truth for myself, and consider what others had said about it in previous reviews. The title of this review says it all: Yesteryear's Truth has good ideas held back by poor writing and execution and, probably, an under-prepared GM.
Yesteryear's Truth begins with a meeting with a forgettable Venture-Captain who provides pretty minimal information and pushes you on your way. Another VC stops you to give you a tech item which gets invalidated pretty quickly, and honestly seems to be more of a bane than a boon (which is disappointing for an asset).
The scenario has about three combats in it, all of which are flavorless and droll. The starship combat, which I've found to be more a tedious chore than a white-knuckled dogfight, was made interesting by the introduction of multiple enemies, but bad luck and an understaffed ship (we were running with a barely legal table) dragged it out into a tedious grind.
The second and third combats don't pick-up. Enemies have no character, and the second fight even has the gall to take place in a completely empty map. Given how critical cover and elevation is to not getting hit in this game, it seems like an oversight to throw the players into a 24-by-36 space with nothing else to work with.
The story is where this path gets most of its stars from, although even this seemed more interesting in theory. The author did a good job of making the new alien race that inhabited the planet seem, well, alien, complete with missing concepts like "curiosity" and "peace." This actually led to some great moments in conversation where we roleplayed our struggle to communicate our alien concepts to them.
However, as fun as this was, it was all a bit superficial. None of what we did counted for squat, and in the end we would up just walking straight into the one place we were told was taboo to go, with no resistance or threat of punishment.
In reviews I've read of various Starfinder scenarios, authors compare the themes in the scenario to popular TV shows. "Fugitive of the Red Planet" was compared to Firefly. This one was compared to "Star Trek." Heck, that conversation happened at our table, too.
The reason I bring this up is because it seems to me as if Starfinder Scenarios are too preoccupied with evoking the particular media that inspired them, and not demonstrating enough ownership over the in-game universe and it's lore. In some regards, I understand that. This is a very new product, and authors are still finding their voice within the setting without wanting to rock the boat too hard. But that trepidation is holding back what could be some great stories.
Hopefully moving forward, scenario authors can be more comfortable crafting stories with actual consequences. Stories that are more than toothless evocations of particular shows, and more narratives that present the questions and themes that have defined the Sci-Fi genre.
One last gripe about the scenario, since I must get it off my chest. The scenario is too reliant on its own unspoken internal logic when passing out rewards. We wound-up missing a reward, simply because the idea of doing what we needed to get it never occurred to us. Heck, there weren't even any context clues to tell us about the valuables.
Starfinder Society Scenario #1-02: Fugitive on the Red PlanetPaizo Inc.
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Fast and Fun, but a Bit BareKaushal Avan Spellfire —
I ran this scenario last night and, overall, I am liking the direction of the Starfinder Society scenario design. Unlike PFS scenarios, which really struggle to cram four or five combat encounters into a single session, SFS restricts itself to a more measured, reasonable pace. The end result are sessions that end at a reasonable hour, and with everyone in relatively good spirits and energy.
The scenario itself is a bit simple, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A thief embarrasses the Starfinder Society, and in order to maintain face the organization orders its agents to come down hard on the culprit. The agents track him down, and discover the situation is slightly more complex than they thought (but still not so complex as it presents a moral quandary).
There is a lot of room to role play in the first half of the scenario, especially in the second scene, where players can learn all the information they need without rolling a single d20. I like that, because I prefer it when players are actually able to express their characters beyond how they fight (an all-too-common pitfall of Pathfinder Society scenarios).
My biggest sticking points were the combat scenes. I'm not overly-wowed by combat in Starfinder, and while I liked where the fights were set, the enemies seemed a bit uninspired, especially the villain. Enemy tactics also cleave too closely to the bizarre Pathfinder setting logic, where everyone fights to the death for no other reason than those four words appear in their tactics line.
Overall, I think this is a solid scenario, but it could still use some work. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in future scenarios as Starfinder grows into its skin and begins to feel more comfortable with lore and its setting.
Strong Start, But Needs Some WorkKaushal Avan Spellfire —
Starfinder Society Scenario 1-01: The Commencement is a strong introduction to the Starfinder Universe, but needs work. Some gripes are with the writing and mechanics. Often times our actions felt rather lightweight, like they had no impact on the characters or the story. The junk race had some especially noticeable issues, with it's poorly-elaborated and mathy rules that confused players trying to participate. Furthermore, punishments for the pre-race scene for more unscrupulous characters failing their skill checks were too severe—getting locked out of the scene with little opportunity to recover. Realistic perhaps, but unfun for players who effectively can no longer participate in the scene because of bad luck.
Pathfinder Society Scenario #7–19: Labyrinth of Hungry Ghosts (PFRPG) PDFPaizo Inc.
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Good Ideas, Messy PresentationKaushal Avan Spellfire —
I ran this scenario recently for PFS and I must admit I was disappointed by the result. While the story, ideas, and enemies are all creative and interesting, the scenario is messy and sometimes unclear on how to handle certain situations. Information is poorly-organized, and excessive stat blocks for unique and variant enemies make some sections hard to read.
If you plan on running this scenario, I would recommend a hefty amount of preparation beforehand. Make sure you understand NPC interactions in each room, and read-up on all the effects and how they work ahead of time so you don't have to look it up later.
Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Mythic Realms (PFRPG)Paizo Inc.
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Almost, But Not Quite ThereKaushal Avan Spellfire —
Mythic Realms is the latest addition to the Pathfinder Campaign Setting, and promises some impressive ideas. Powerful figures from Golarion's lore, sites of incredible power, and even the legendary Starstone. But closer examination finds the book's contents lacking, its concepts deprived of the execution expected of a Paizo work.
Chapter I contains information on Founts of Mythic Power, like the Cenotaph, the Morudant Spire, and even the Starstone(!). Mythic Founts are sort of like "seeds" GMs can use to transform high-level groups from extraordinary to truly heroic. The idea is great--it provides GMs with high-level groups to continue the adventure even when all other challenges begin to feel trivial. Furthermore, there are unique mythic abilities tied to the mythic ascension that occurs at each location.
The problem here is that not all founts are created equal, and this is particularly true of the Starstone. First off, the mystique of the Starstone test is all but obliterated by the book's presentation, and second, the Starstone's role in the lore is inexplicably changed. Suddenly the Starstone is only a means of mythic ascension, not the engine of divine apotheosis we've been lead to believe. What's worse is that the mythic ascension triggered by the Starstone provides bonuses linked to pre-existing gods, and only the twenty greater powers of the Inner Sea (so no blessing of Apsu, Tiamat, Shizuru, Tsukiyo, &c).
Furthermore, Mythic Realms paints a very confusing picture of Golarion's history. Did the Aboleth fear Azlant, or did they grow bored with their human experiment? The historical accounts in the Morudant Spire seem to conflict with those in the Starstone, but this isn't the only contradiction. The history of the war between Azlanist and Karzoug grows more confusing. Who was winning? Who was planning to summon the Oliphaunt of Janderlay?
Chapter II is, in my opinion, the best part of this book. It contains Gazetteers on six locations for your mythic heroes to explore. Although, again, historical accounts sometimes contradict themselves (I now have two conflicting accounts of what happened to the city of Gormuz). Still, the imaginative settings give GMs a lot to work with when planning their own adventures, and one entry can provide dozens of potential ideas for any given mythic campaign.
If Chapter I is my least favorite and Chapter II my most, then Chapter III falls somewhere in the middle. Here we find a bestiary of several legendary figures throughout Golarion's lore, from the terrifying to the heroic. This is both a good and a bad thing, in my opinion, as it provides mythic groups with epic challenges, but at the same time somewhat demystifies these otherwise mythical characters.
There is an adage once uttered on "The Spoony Experiment," which goes "if you can stat it, they can kill it." Simply put, this suggests that if you give a creature concrete representation in the rules system, then it becomes subject to the whims of that system, including death. Now, there are always ways to get around this (AD&D Fiend Folio's Trillioch, anyone?) but caveats that prevent defeat kind of feel cheap when you have a fat block of numbers and words staring you in the face.
That said, the histories of each mythic character are fantastic, if not unfortunately brief in some places. They manage to retain the intangible nature of the myths and representations these characters enjoyed in previous source material, never willing to commit too much detail where detail isn't needed, which in my mind is only ever a good thing.
All-in-all, the book had some great ideas and inspires some great ideas. The problem comes with the mechanical execution of those ideas, and the inconsistencies generated by its new treatments of setting-specific features. It's a 2-out-of-5, worth having for the ideas, but not the rules.
A Mixed BagKaushal Avan Spellfire —
There's a lot to say about this book, some of it good, some of it bad. For the most part, I can say that it is a fun book with a lot of interesting archetypes and character ideas, along with a few good feats, cool spells, and thoughtful mechanics. Of course, the exact same points could be made against the book: useless archetypes, pointless feats, silly spells, and bad mechanics.
Ultimate Magic suffers the same problem a lot of supplemental material in 3.5 did, in which the book does not feel as tight design-wise as it otherwise could be, given the incredibly limited application of some of it's contents. Consider the Witch hex "child scent," for example: When are you ever going to need to sniff out children? This feels like a villain-only ability, and even then you could probably give your villain witch a more useful hex. The same goes for the construct modifications. They're neat, but they're not worth it to most spell casters, better used for a dramatic villain fight than an actual player. Or maybe "cartoony" would be a more appropriate description- there's something strikingly reminiscent of Power Rangers that involves the bad guy combining with his robot helper. Also: The geisha Bard archetype. What the heck, man. Tea ceremony, really? It's neat and flavorful, but it breaks flow and forces me as both a player and a GM into that uncanny valley of "yes, I suppose you guys do technically have 10 minutes outside the boss room." I mean, it's not like the dragon's going to eat the princess any time soon, or anything...
Of course, for all the bad ideas there are good ones too. The magus looks like a fun class, albeit he loses out on damage output against classes such as the barbarian or the rogue, but he makes up for it with the versatility of spellcasting (and I absolutely adore the staff magus archetype). I also really like the customization of the Qinggong monk, and think the alternative channeling powers are amazing. However, these traits alone to not make the book great, only good.
Also, this is a nit-pick, but Paizo didn't fix the typo in the vivisectionist archetype for the alchemist. This typo was pointed out when they previewed the archetype, the editors responded to the post, and the mistake still made it into the final printing. Vivisectionists can't benefit from plague bomb because they don't *get* bombs. You think that a company as good as Paizo wouldn't let a mistake like that slip past them after it was brought to their attention.
In conclusion, Ultimate Magic is one of those books which is handy to have around for the additional options, but is by no means a "must buy."