I am GM'ing Iron Gods with just two players and I decided to have them be 2 levels above the AP expectations and play the AP as written. So starting at level 3 and leveling up at the expected points of the AP. According to the CR system, it should be equivalent, power-wise, and it does work remarkably well. So that's what I would recommend doing instead of rewriting the whole AP. GM'ing already represents a lot of work when playing the AP more or less as written.
That said, Iron Gods has the benefit of technology to replace magic, which mitigates the limitations of not having casters in the group (the 2 players decided to play a gunslinger and a barbarian/rogue). Strange Aeons may prove a little bit more tricky but a liberal use of summoning spells (if mainly caster characters) and/or UMD (if mainly front-one characters) should help mitigate a lot of the problems. The one difficulty I can see is the rituals (to access the Dreamlands, Carcosa, etc.) that are much easier with casters-related skills and get easier with more secondary caster. But it would be easy to lower the DCs, assume the research/books in the PCs hands allow them to do the rituals without rolling, and/or ensure a cast of lower level supporting characters can help/support them when it's not too dangerous.
Also, if you decide to go for a 2-PC group, be very careful with the confusion and fear effects in Strange Aeons. They are quite common and very deadly for a small group. Make sure to remove them or at least significantly lower their occurrences! For instance, make it so they impart penalties instead of removing player control.
We finished our Strange Aeons campaign after about 35 sessions spread over 8 months and probably over ~160h of gameplay. This is the eighth AP that I more or less finish (after half of Rise of the Runelord, Legacy of Fire, Kingmaker, Shattered Star, 2 thirds of Mummy’s Mask, Hell’s Rebels, Return of the Runelords), mainly with the same group of players and all using Pathfinder 1st edition rules. It’s always a pleasure to reflect back on the path traveled, what worked and what didn’t. It’s a little different this time around because it took about half the time it usually takes us to go through an AP (thanks pandemic…) and everything is still quite fresh in our minds. Even though the AP didn’t last as long as usual in real life, it’s still quite a commitment to run an AP all the way through and it’s always a joy to wrap one up!
I GM’d a group of 4 players through the AP. It’s really enjoyable to have such a nice group of gamers and we’re able to have a lot of fun through these stories despite our sometimes different playstyles. The 4 characters went from from level 1 up to level 16 for the final session, with a group consisting of an android teleportation conjurator, a halfling shadow sorcerer, a human cleric of Horus within an animal companion, and a human grappling fighter. The characters were created with a 15-point buy, the players are very experienced, and the characters were quite optimized. The campaign was fairly tensed at times (as I like it to be) with a few deaths but nothing permanent (as I like it to be). And also with quite a bit of insanity as you would expect for the "lovecraftian AP."
So a huge thank you to Adam Daigle for developing this AP, and to the authors Wes Schneider, Tito Leati, Ron Lundeen, Richard Pett, John Compton, and Jim Groves for writing those adventures! There were some very high notes and some more frustrating times but, overall, this is an AP that is worthy of being played, especially because it’s quite different from most other APs because of its cosmic horror theme. It’s not my favorite AP of those I GM’d (that would probably be Kingmaker and Return of the Runelords) but it’s still an excellent AP and of the very high Paizo standard.
So let’s go straight to what frustrated me: since I know and love Call of Cthulhu as well as what is now commonly called Lovecraftian horror, I came into this AP with expectations (fighting unbeatable odds, cosmic, incomprehensible horror, etc) that don’t always play well with the Pathfinder rules in which character become super-heroes very quickly and in which dungeons sometimes overstay their welcome. While the Chulhu set up worked really well in the first chapter, and towards the end in the spooky lost city of Nerazuvin or in Carcosa, I felt very frustrated in the dungeons of The Whipser Out of Time. The sudden power change inherent to the Pathfinder rules also create some particularly jarring discontinuities in the flow of the story. The most egregious one is that, after spending all of chapter 3 journeying on the Sellen over 6 sessions and 1-2 months of game time, then the PCs reach level 9, have access to teleport, and the AP drops any focus on traveling, assuming the PCs just teleport to the next step. It’s so frustrating, especially since traveling and what happens during the travel times is an intrinsic part of the most famous Call of Cthulhu campaigns that Strange Aeons at times tries to emulate.
Among the changes I made to the AP, I was very happy with myself in the way I used a (less codified) version of the corruption rules instead of the insanity rules that quickly seemed too mechanical to me. When PCs were failing at their "SAN" checks in front of incomprehensible horror, I would give them some corruption effect, based on the one corruption theme each character had. I kept the rules fuzzy and it worked really well to represent the PC’s minds unravelling as they were in fugue state. That also gave them a very strong incentive to figure out what had happened to them. And it created some really good role-play opportunities that, I thought, were way more fun than just slapping crippling phobias on the PCs.
Towards the end, in the last two chapters, I also removed a lot of what I consider padding ("random-ish" encounters in Nerazuvin or in Carcosa) to focus more on the role-play of the alienness of these places and the impression to be in front of unfathomable beings/places/events. I find myself doing this more and more often at high level and it worked very, very well here because it avoids the issue of trying to scare the players but being undermined by a bunch of supposedly scary encounters that the characters beat in 2-3 rounds. Cosmic horror is best left to the thriving imagination of every player rather that put in stats to be fought!
Overall, here’s what I really enjoyed in the AP:
And what I enjoyed less:
Of course, it’s always the GM’s job to tailor any AP to their needs and those of their groups. It’s just like it felt that there were more of those frustrations than in other APs. But it’s a high quality campaign nevertheless: epic, alien, full of emotional moments, weirdness, and heroic moments!
As for specific details on the six chapter…
In Search of Sanity (4.5/5.0) That beginning in media res is very, very, very good. And the PCs having no memories of the last few years, with no idea of where they are, with monstrosities all around, bleeding doors, rats in the walls, a society of asylum patients, etc. That was a huge amount of fun to play through. It may be a little long and unnecessarily deadly once the PCs make it to the ghoul section of the asylum but that’s a minor complaint. The Tatterman that first appears in the PCs dreams at the very start before being the final encounter was a cool arc. And this sickly yellow fog, seeping everywhere, preventing any exit… That chapter was hugely exciting to play through.
It Came From Hollow Mountain (4.5/5.0) This one worked surprisingly well. I was originally skeptical when I read it but the many smalls encounters in Trushmoor with the locals who dislike the PCs while these don’t know why was very fun to play through and make the PCs discovery the horrible people they were before. The dungeon-y parts of the AP, with the fort and the manor are quite optional and the group only quickly explored Lowl’s manor, which was a bit of a relief to not bog the story down. It also gave me the opportunity to stage a takeover of Thrushmoor by the skums and the zombies who didn’t stay idly put in the fort. That was quite a classic Call of Cthuthlu move, with the skums taking the inhabitants prisoner to lead them into the lake while the zombies attacks the temple where the refugees from the asylum had settled it. It was much more dynamic than a simple dungeon exploration and a much better fit to the story.
Dreams of the Yellow King (4.5/5.0) One of these memorable modules because of both the well-crafted journey along the Sellen and the forays into the Dreamlands. Journeys are an integral part of the mythic Call of Cthulhu campaigns (the Masks of Nyarlathotep, Beyond the Mountain of Madness, Horror on the Orient Express, etc) and this volume was a nice tip of the hat in this direction. The Dreamlands adventures were also very enjoyable because of their quirkiness, because they threw the PCs of balance and allowed for very inappropriate encounters without consequences that were too severe (the shopkeeper, Bokrug). Searching for 7 gifts was a little too much, though, especially since I dislike this structure for modules (go fetch many things to advance the plots, sigh). The trip to the moon to rescue the Yellow King was quite something, though. And this final encounter, with the PCs fighting themselves! What a mess of an encounter for the GM, but that was a very fun mess!
The Whisper Out of Time (2.0/5.0) That was a real letdown for me because of the reasons I developed above (jarring change in the rhythm of the story with 3 disjoined locations separated by 100s of kilometers after a whole chapter spent traveling over the Sellen; basically 3 dungeons with things to bash to advance the story). I think this part of the story should have focused on a reckless chase after Lowls that would end in Nerazuvin rather than having these three set pieces. The set pieces aren’t bad but I felt I needed to edit them heavily to make them more interesting: in the Old Infirmary, I dropped everything related to the derros, which transformed the place into a spooky abandoned local with drying skins, stitched up monstrosities, etc. I removed a few encounters in the Nethys Library to go more quickly through it (and, really, Proto-Shoggoths shouldn’t be filler encounters…). I removed the small investigation in Katapesh that I felt had little purpose and, luckily, the PCs assaulted the Blossoming Thorn from the top, which allowed us to run it into a single protracted encounter. I was particularly disappointed by this chapter because I usually adore Richard Pett’s chapters and he seemed a very good fit for a Cthulhu campaign. A missed opportunity; it happens!
What Grows Within (4.0/5.0) The journey to Nerazuvin and the few encounters until the group reaches the city are weird enough that it helps setting up a strange atmosphere that blooms nicely with the exploration of the alien city itself. The literal alien Kaklatath helps to set up the mood. I felt the exploration of the city itself required quite a bit of work to remove the unnecessary bits ("random" encounters, the 8-room, dungeon-style exploration of the undercity that is supposed to be huge but empty) and make the rest creepy (no fighting encounter in the Snarl but entities that have been here for aeons). I think the work payed off, though, and there were some memorably moments: Upianshe, the battle with Kaklatath against the waking Polyps and the promised army of millions if the PCs failed, the Husk of Xhamen-Dor attacking the PCs as they are conducting the final ritual, etc.
Black Stars Beckon (5.0/5.0) I amped up the alienness of Carcosa throughout this book and it really worked. It was spooky, dangerous (a house full of vampires, slithering shoggoths in the dead city of the Elder Things, crazed humans in Paris, etc.), and this chapter provides a glimpse of Lovecraft’s, Chambers’, or Bierce’s writings. There’s ample opportunities to go meta and present scenes, encounters that resonate with the players who know that universe while their PCs don’t. It’s pretty damn cool! I thought Paris could have been more developed.
Thinking about the details of what I liked and disliked, it’s very clear that it was globally a great story, despite the sometimes discordant expectations between the Pathfinder and lovecraftian setups. I’m really glad we played this one and I’ll fondly remember many cool moments of this AP! The fact that it ended with one of the character betraying the others and fleeing with the Necronomicon is an added bonus!
The next stop should be Kenabres and the Worldwound for Wrath of the Righteous!
Players can read the spoiler; it's long past, now.
These encounters are quite common and I almost systematically create a way out with good roleplay. Here, it certainly wasn't an easy way out, but the roleplay was good and that made the Diplomacy check DC reachable (35-40, if I remember well?). But it's not a given: a similar situation happened with the moon nagas the next session and, there, the characters weren't able to sway them with words.
It's always tricky to find the right balance between what can be a cool scripted event and letting the players have an impact on what happens. But, in general, APs have too many "X fight to the death" encounters. And if it's not that, it's "Y allies with the PCs to recover the item and, then, they betray them." It's fine every so often, but it happens so many times in APs that I don't understand why any player would have their character ally with anyone if you play the APs as written…
Ah, well, that's what the GM is for!
I tailored them to the PCs. It created some really fun roleplay opportunities but certainly requires a mature gaming group to avoid getting out of hand (at least with the way we played it). If you're interested in knowing more about how it went, here's our campaign journal.
A place, a time, Carcosa
Fatigue, exhaustion, despair. They barricade themselves in a side room. Nightmares, yellow mist, screams. The Tatterman, stroking Mrriaál's face. Shudders. Barely any rest.
The final room in this wing of the Asylum. A laundry room. A torture room. Cadavers. A living cadaver, hungry; mangled legs, immobilized in a washing bassin. A surviving doctor, still alive. Tortured. Or was she. They almost save her, back to the barricade. Still, suspicion. Paranoia. She held the key to the manacles to the crazed man, the body, and the ghoul attached to the wall. Paranoia. Mrriaál slits her throat before Tam can stop her. Horrified companions. The cacophony of Bit's pet talking bird. Already, the body of the woman changed to that of a dead shapeshifter. Survival. Paranoia. Paranoia has its virtue. But leaves you all alone.
At the barricade, they let them through. Without their weapons. A large group of survivors. Patients. Doctors. Visitors. Kids. Winter Klazcka is doing her best to keep them alive. And sane. She prays to the Lady of Graves, the Mother of Souls. The chapel is safe. The Great Dreamer protects their sleep.
It started with riots. Prisoner Zandalus, crazed, leading hordes of former patients. Transformed residents, violent. A plague of shapeshifters born of the residents. It all started that way. But the chapel is a harbor. Only Lorena, furious, attempts to destroy the statue of Desna. Confusion. Hesitation. What is happening to her? What is she becoming? What is she already?
An eye eating a wall. The only way to the rest of the Asylum. No way out. The eye fights back. Eventually destroyed by healing magic. The way through is open!
But outside, the yellow fog. Tendrils of mist curling. Shapes in the haze. Rain. A warm rain. An oily rain. A warm oily rain the color of blood. No way but further in. Searching for answers to questions. Searching for questions to answers. Searching for a way out. Searching for a way in.
The library; scattering rat-people. More rats and even more rats. Skittering, scrambling, climbing. On the books, on the shelves, on them. Biting, gnawing, scratching. Rats all over. Rats in the books. Rats in the walls. Forced to retreat to the chapel.
They rest, worn out. Bit connects what she sees. Tam's holy symbol. N… She knows, recoils, stays away from the scribe, no closer, sense of danger. Yet his magic is helpful, heals. How is it possible. The Black Pharaoh. How?
The library again. Fire, weapons arcing under the lantern light. Books flying and rats skewered. And rat-people. But more still ahead. They know. Lorena went and saw, unseen.
Still forward, halls and hallways, corridors. A path of mucus between doors…
The sixth expedition:
Starting at level 3 to compensate for the drop of 2 players. We also agreed that none of the tech-related feats and abilities (Technologist, knowing Androffan) would be available at the very start but that they will quickly kick in to open up all the archetypes' abilities while keeping the tech discovery aspect of the start of the AP.
After our Return of the Runelords campaign, we started Strange Aeons… But we had a free slot with a smaller part of the group, so we started Iron Gods too! This one with two players. I very much hope I'll be able to keep two journals running (with the players if they want too).
Standby mode… buffering… Standby mode… buffering…
> The large beacon of light emerging from Torch has been silence for 8 days. Multiple expeditions have explored the newly found caves under Black Hill. The one of Khonnir Bain came back, bringing with it the remnants of a drone, stories of a wondrous place of metal. His second expedition never came back.
> The sixth expedition is a small one. A human highlander, expert in primitive firearms. They call him Angus. A sister android prone to violence from overloaded circuitry. They call her Basic.
> They reach the submerged entrance of caves under the Weeping Pond, as locals call a lake suffused with chemical seeping from broken machinery. Evidence of destroyed vermin, a strange toad-like creature. A couple of dead bodies from the previous expeditions. They stumble on heat-absorbing mold.
> A group of chameleon humanoids live in the caves. They are to guard the caves but the previous expeditions took their toll. They agree to let the sixth expedition pass in exchange for dealing with a group of gremlins. Agreement is reached. The sixth expedition explores the gremlins' warren. The gremlins are small, sneaky, nasty, like ghosts in the machine, bugs. Basic loads combat protocoles and deals with the gremlins. Angus produces more noise than damage with his primitive pistol.
> Back with the chameleon humanoids. They offer gifts as thanks. Brown access cards. Worn-out, useless batteries.
> Investigating the dead bodies found in the caves, the sixth expedition analyzes they are from Torch inhabitants. Probably part of the previous expeditions. The human is known and engaged in a social bond with another inhabitant. It is also infected by spores and mold that will grow and spurt plant specimens. The sixth expedition stores it away in the cold mold for conservation.
> They continue through a glaucite door, into a world they don't know.
Explanding scanning protocoles
> A succession of corridors and hallways, broken, collapsed. The sixth expedition does not have the knowledge of most of what they see. In the broken equipment, they find a set of grippers, a black e-pick, two full batteries. I am curious: they appear to know what these are and how to use them. Swiping access cards to open doors. Maybe there is hope.
> The final metal door leads to the desert of the habitat dome, expansive. But not cold. Broken machinery. How did we survive? How did we survive? How did we survive? How did we survive? How did we survive?
> How did we…
Overwhelmed sensors… Power spike reaching dangerous levels… Warning-warning-warning Emergency Shutting Down…
After our Return of the Runelords campaign, we started Strange Aeons… I'll try to keep a journal from… a nameless someone's perspective (it will eventually become obvious) and stick to it, like I did for our Shattered Star campaign.
A time, a place, Carcosa
It hit them like a wave, like a dream, like a nightmare. The yellow fog engulfing the world, the screaming wind, the shapes in the mist, the wet street, the leprous walls of crumbling buildings. And the Tatterman, pounding closer and closer from the fog, assailing their sanity, slashing them to ribbons. The blood-covered cobbled street…
They woke up, or at least they thought they did, to the sound of the tortured man calling for help. Chaos followed. A scrambling of the shapeshifter with Mrriaál grappling her, Lorena making the scalpel the shapeshifter held fall to the ground. Claw, grappling, globs of acid being hurled. Chaos. And finally a dead, horrific, shapeshifter reverting to its natural asexual self. The tortured man was now dead. They were hurt. Badly. Tam's magic healed them. Little did they know. It would become obvious soon enough.
Bit had already started to change, it was eating her already. The others didn't know. They would.
No way out from this subterranean series of cells but a vent through a cold furnace and a chute over a mount of dead bodies, ripened beyond their time. They chose the vents leading to a boiler room, where they infringed on the territory of a zoog and its rat companions. Rats in the walls… Mrriaál and the zoog eventually talked and they agreed to leave the creature's territory.
In the hallway beyond, a barricade, warning crossbow shots. Humans at last! But why were they shooting? The humans would not let them through, crossbows ready. Too many shapeshifter. On the barricade, they didn't trust them and forced them away. Words did not help. On the barricade, they were too scared, they had been through too much to take any risk.
Down the dark hallway, rooms buried under rubble, the half collapsed walls of the Briarstone Asylum. Yes, that's where they were now, the Briarstone Asylum, Ustalav, Golarion, another place. Their place for then.
Corpses in the rubble. Asylum patients, doctors, visitors. And shapeshifters. All dead but one that almost fooled them, pretending to be a wounded old nurse. But it didn't. Paranoia has its virtue. But leaves you all alone.
A dead body that animated. Remnant necromantic magic. Haunts. Echo of events to come.
An old laundry room, an undead creature, attached to a wall, eating a corpse that was the only barrier preventing it from eating a crazed asylum patient. "Zandalus sees," he screamed. "Praise!" The undead creature gone, they took no risk. Subdued the crazed man. And moved to the only other door out of the laundry.
Sanity point losses:
Don't hesitate to ping me, magnusk! :)
I didn't change very much, however. The main changes that come to mind were the Peacock Spirit (using the mythic phoenix), and the extra bit under Windsong Abbey with the Shattered Star PCs. That was basically a fight against Yamasoth (or trying to survive him, actually) while destroying some "furniture".
With that in mind, I had vowed to myself to do my part to safeguard this knowledge — after all, even if we did prevail against Alaznist, Sorshen and Belimarius would remain alive and powerful, and others might attempt to take up the mantle of the fallen Runelords. I resolved to found my own monastery and teach a new generation of Monks in this sacred art, for as long as a Runelord lives, so should the knowledge on how to slay them.
So how likely do you think it is that Akkumsah's training lessons originated from Akkumsah herself, passed along through Master Ko and many generations of Masters in the last 10,000 years?…
I just GM'd that encounter yesterday for Ice's group and it was spot on. Tensed but not overly swingy, difficult but not impossible.
The encounter looks hard on paper but it's easy to forget that the PCs are level 20 by then. They likely have numerous ways to increase their rolls and enable rerolls, which is particularly useful for saves. In fact, it's hard to land many effects, even with DC 30-32. If the PCs come in without some form of energy resistance and/or protection, they really haven't been following much of the AP. And the module is structured such that they can come in buffed to the gills. So much so that I decided that their passage through the anima focus would mean a dispel magic (CL 21st) on any one of the spell effects on them, otherwise the encounter would likely be over in 2 rounds. I'm glad I did so, otherwise it would have been way too easy.
As for the specific NPCs and why they are not pushovers but aren't overpowered either:
- The rune giants: they can put quite a hurt in combat because of their mobility (and if the PCs aren't buffed to the stratosphere) but spark shower isn't particularly damaging since it's a fire/electricity damage dealer and the PCs are likely protected against one if not both of those. It's also only a 30-ft cone in a very big cavern.
- The clockwork goliath is very nasty in melee, especially with this reach, but it's also limited in its movement since it doesn't fly and, as pointed out, it drops reasonably quickly. The cannon indeed doesn't have iterative and has a low to hit bonus, which very much limits its usefulness.
- The sinspawn slayers are nasty if they can coordinate and flank a PC. They also have tons of hit points, which certainly helps. But they are also lacking mobility (they don't fly and will try to stay on the platform), which can make it very difficult for them to do very much once the PCs fly around and/or the number of NPCs to flank with drops quickly.
- The iavathos is nasty, but the horrific appearance of qlippoths is a standard action (Su ability), not an auto-hit every round, it's only a 30-ft range effect whilst the room is quite big, and it's a mind-affecting effect so the PCs likely have numerous bonuses to their saves because of it. It's disintegrate effect is nasty but, again, it has a DC 32 save on top of a ray attack, so it's very much not trivial to land. It would be very nasty if it could grab someone, but that's notoriously difficult at level 20 with the numerous freedom of movement effects floating around.
- Alaznist is very powerful but she is also an easy wizard to counter because she's an evoker and the PCs have hopefully prepared resit and protection from energy. So she doesn't do as much damage as you might think. Also, if one of the PCs decides to focus on counterspelling her, she very quickly runs out of viable options…
So I'm not saying it was a trivial fight, but it wasn't an "oh my god, we're all dead three times over" moment either. In fact, I was surprised by how balanced the full encounter ended up being. It was a satisfying end to the campaign without haven't to pull any punches.
After 16 months in real life, 35 sessions, and ~180h of game time, we concluded our Return of the Runelords campaign. This is the sixth AP I finish, mainly with the same group of players, and it's always both a relief and a sense of pride and accomplishment to conclude one of those, especially when it's been as interesting a story as in Return of the Runelord.
Our group started with 5 PCs before a player had to pull out a third of the way through and we played through most of the campaign with 4 PCs (15-point buy, very experienced players, and fairly optimized characters). There were a few PC deaths along the way, but nothing permanent. I actually found the whole campaign very well balanced: it was appropriately tensed for the concluding chapter of the Runelords trilogy and the world-shattering events happening in Return of the Runelords certainly deserved to be more than speed bumps for the players!
The details of the campaign can be found in this journal.
So a massive thank you to James Jacobs for developing this AP, seeding some hints to it throughout the last 10(!?!) years of Pathfinder APs. Our group played most of Rise of the Runelord and all of the excellent Shattered Star before playing this one and it sure was a boon. There were quite a few throwbacks to the old days that brought back very fun memories!
A big thank you also to the six authors — Adam Daigle, Mike Shel, Richard Pett, Jason Keeley, Amanda Hamon Kunz, and Greg Vaughn — for the adventures themselves. They were quite varied and not repetitive one bit, even over 35 sessions of gameplay. It's no surprise with this mix of "old-timers" and new(er) blood from Paizo employees whose talent pushed them very quickly to the forefront of the Pathfinder AP-writing team. I can't wait to see more AP chapters from these six!
It's hard to think of many things that didn't work out in this campaign that I played mainly as written. With APs, I usually end up changing half a chapter to a chapter because I don't find it suits my/our needs but that wasn't the case here, which is quite rare. I tweaked a few things, of course, but that was mainly for the campaign to resonate better with the PCs' background and with past events from the APs we played before in Varisia.
So what did I particularly like or found suboptimal?
So a truly excellent AP that I would rank up there with the best ones (Kingmaker and Shattered Star for those I've GM'd). Maybe a close second after Kingmaker, but for entirely different reasons?
As for specific details on the six chapter…
Secret's of Roderic's Cove (4.5/5.0) A very well crafted first chapter that hurls the PCs into a story they can't even fathom at this stage and with events already in motion. It's a very sandboxy first chapter and the author and developer were clearly trying to avoid the railroading from session 1 of chapter 1. If I had a criticism, it's that it sometimes feel a little too loose and sandboxy for the start. I imagine that may cause trouble for some groups that want a bit more guidance. But all the individual pieces of the chapter are very well crafted and the ghost of Roderic can serve as a "mission giver" if the PCs and players are a little lost about what to do next.
I particularly liked that the adversary NPCs tend to be in shades of grey rather than the common binary good/bad NPCs. Most of the NPCs can be interacted with and it's never entirely obvious whether the adversaries aren't just people in the wrong place at the wrong time who have to deal with a crappy situation. Even the goblins.
It Came From Hollow Mountain (5.0/5.0) Wow was this one tons of fun. The Hollow Mountain part of this AP is well crafted and enjoyable but it's the traveling part between Roderic's Cove, Magnimar, and Hollow Mountain that really made this one shine for me. So many opportunities to develop the interactions between PCs and NPCs! So many opportunities to show why some of the NPCs ended up being adversaries to the PCs! Varilane, Audrahni, Sursha… Stealing Baraket, the assassination attempt (and success!)in Magnimar… Damn, that was good!
The dungeon part may be a tad too long but it has numerous entrances and my group bypassed a quarter of it so it was about the right length and didn't last overly long.
Runeplague (4.0/5.0) I had my doubts about this chapter before playing it (too scattered over Varisia, with set pieces that feel too disconnected) but it turned out quite okay. I still find it would have been better if it had been more focused instead of trying to visit the four major cities of Varisia but the parts in Korvosa (Sorshen!!) and in Riddelport were particularly enjoyable. The part in Korvosa because it wasn't a dungeon (I also changed the festival rules and made it far less gamey and much more role-play-y) and it was a great opportunity to meet with a changed Sorshen… that the PCs had a really hard time figuring out and making a decision as to whether to trust her or not. The part in Riddleport with the base defense scenario was amazing. The PCs had time to prepare, and they did so well, but they still almost lost because of the repeated assaults on Zincher's Tenement.
It's also the first chapter the PCs get to clean out the (current) Runelords. Krune didn't stand a chance in from of a thoroughly prepared group but that's perfectly fine as it was a nice reward for the group and it made it obvious they were achieving something.
Temple of the Peacock Spirit (4.0/5.0) Still very good but maybe the weakest chapter of this AP, basically because it's primarily a long big dungeon? Still, it's varied enough that it's not too boring and there are some very good parts interspersed throughout: the peacock shrines that add an interesting twist, the fact that the cultists are not homicidal killers (contrary to some PCs, which led to particularly enjoyable philosophic discussions), Xanderghul's behavior and the multiple encounters with him. I also particularly liked the first part of this chapter in the time-locked Therassic Library. Ninuron is an interesting character too!
I did make one major change and got Xanderghul to reincarnate as the Peacock Spirit (more or less the mythic phoenix of Mythic Adventures) after he died. That was quite needed to make the final encounter truly epic.
The City Outside of Time (4.0/5.0) This chapter both suffers and benefits from high level play. The padding I mentioned earlier is quite apparent in the Realm of Frozen Tears but, at the same time, it's becoming quite epic with some traveling through the plane of shadows, visiting and helping a city locked in time that is being eaten by time and reality, the interaction with Runelord (Runelady, really) Belimarius, and the final encounter in her runewell. I particularly appreciated the nuanced stance with Belimarius: she's clearly a horrible person but she wishes to save the city as much as the PCs. So much so that, in chapter 6 Xin-Edasseril became the only safe place they could think of to regroup as Varisia was being destroyed.
Rise of New Thassilon (5.0/5.0) One of the best AP chapters I have ever played, if not the best one. I took what was written and ramped it all the way up to 11. Varisia was being destroyed with little to do against it, everything the PCs knew was falling apart and only they could save the timeline by repairing Alaznist's damage. It doesn't get more epic than this! At the same time, we played a session with the Sihedron heroes going on a suicide mission to prevent Yamasoth from entering Golarion (and that indirectly helped the PCs by lowering Alaznist's paradox points). It was so much fun to get to play with those characters again, 4-5 years later!!
Freeing Karzoug's soul in the Boneyard was certainly something. The final encounter, with Alaznist and her minions, is suitably epic (it was certainly touch and go for quite a moment!) But I think that it's the weirdness of the visit to Stethelos, the interaction with Tawil At'Umr, and the healing of the temporal wounds that I particularly enjoying. These are all short but incredibly well crafted encounters that give so much of the history of Thassilon to the characters and players. And to get to revisit these key moments in time and interact with them… Wow!
One that both Kyrademon/Ice and I forgot a little while back
As a GM who is close to wrapping up Return of the Runelords, I can confirm it's a very good AP, especially if the group has played through all or parts of Rise of the Runelord and Shattered Star. There's been sub-optimal and above-par APs throughout the whole AP run and the current state doesn't look better or worse than usual. A lot of it is also a matter of taste. Remember the massive arguments around the time of Iron Gods, which I would consider as one of the very good APs?
Ice Cracking In The Sunlight wrote:
The GM has now given us a difficult choice; we can either primarily keep playing as our current characters, or switch to our character from Shattered Star, which all of us played in back in 2012-2013. That's tough for me, since I really like this character, but also really liked Viv, my fireball-happy Aasimar cleric of Asmodeus who ended up with the body of Sorshen -- I'd love to take her up to 20th level, too!
Not to worry, everyone will get to play both their PCs. ;)
He was promptly brought back to life by the cleric with a timely breath of life.
(And that's not counting the death that was prevented by the steward of Stethelos a minute later.)
(She benefited from Pharasma's divine favor cast upon the group after they took care of the Pharasmins remains one level above.)
Not that I feel the need to defend myself (although I guess I do), but I never said it was Xanesha's stat block that was. The tactic is listed in the tactics of a Hell's Vengeance NPC.
Return of the runelords:
Maybe it's not legit but, honestly? It's a very nice way to have an effective and memorable NPC. Xanesha being ineffective isn't fun, it's anticlimactic, and it's boring. If you bring back the memorable NPC from that campaign from 10-years ago, you don't want them to be toothless. Given that the point of memorable NPCs is to have over-the-top abilities that aren't part of the normal rules, why not? Have of a ghost's abilities are made up anyway, and that could always be a special corrupting touch just for her that does double damage. Especially when the character are over optimized.
It only cost the group a scroll of breath of life and it sure was a nice entrance into the module. And, anyway, cool/fun/tensed always trumps rules.
I'm kind of surprised you managed to survive even two books with merfolk ._. I mean, thats long time on land on aquatic race
Oh the merfold is doing perfectly fine. Fins to feet sorts it out without most of the time.
My group is heading to the Gecko next session. I have no idea how they are going to survive, even kited out with ghost touch weapons. I think their best best is the party necromancer and command undead.
My group dealt with Xanesha thanks to the dirge bard merfolk who is able to use mind-affecting spells on undead. It took her something like 5 or 6 attempts but she eventually landed a terrible remorse that allowed everyone to pile up on poor Xanesha.
Hopefully, your PCs think about fleeing if it becomes too much for them. Their obvious benefit is that they all know Xanesha is around and is a ghost, so they can come buffed to the gills.
Xanesha is as deadly as she ever was, use with caution!
Name: Ice Cracking in the Sunlight
Before the end of the night, Ice was raise from the dead at the Temple of Abadar, with costs entirely covered by the Sihedron Council as an apology for having booked them in the Gryphine in the first place.
It's time for volume 3 of the Runelords' trilogy! Six years after starting Shattered Star, Varisia is at the forefront again.
The marks the 7th AP I've GM'd with more or less the same group (Rise of the Runelord, until the end of "The Hook Mountain Massacre"; Legacy of Fire, Kingmaker, Shattered Star, Mummy's Mask, until the end of "Secrets of the Sphinx"; Hell's Rebels).
The group of players is the same as for Shattered Star, with one addition. We have all played at least half of Rise of the Runelord (most of the players with me) and we obviously finished Shattered Star. The Sihedron Heroes will build heavily on the group that finished Shattered Star.
The heroes of Roderic's Cove are:
The characters' point of view on the events of the campaign are over here. What follows are Audrahni's notes as things stir in Roderic's Cove…
My DM already has the first module’s PDF, yet still no Player’s Guide. The lack of Player’s Guide is literally blocking us from playing the game now. :(
As your DM, you know that's literally not true, right. Just be patient, it'll come when it comes. Website being down and all. And if it's not this week, it'll be the next one! :)
Yes, the rebellion rules are simpler than the kingdom rules but I find they suffer from the same problem. Namely that you'd want to use them in-game so you can more easily mesh them with roleplaying, playing through the random events, but, at the same time, they correspond to so many "boring" rolls, they are so abstract, that they don't bring much to the table and you're much better off doing them offline between session. I still haven't found a way to reconcile these two facts.
Warped Savant wrote:
I'm happy to say that I think I'm avoiding your cons. I decided to not use the rebellion rules (but kind of have them running in the background), and I plan on having the effects of the Soul Anchor be more obvious, which I'll be using Mangvhune for. (I've already hinted that something's up by using Blosodriette at she kind of remembers her life and I've made it so that she, herself, isn't evil even though she has the evil sub-type.)
That may just work! I must admit that there is so much going on in this AP, sometimes, that I didn't pay much attention to the Soul Anchor until the final book.
Mangvhune though in the end of book 5 was one of the better sessions. After book four it started feeling like a slump and the interest was going down the drain. He kinda revived the campaign, hes irrelevant but at least he fires things up. Your players didnt care? Or you found him irrelevant?
I found him irrelevant. I don't think the players grasped all the background about Mangvhune but they seemed happy to follow the bread crumbs and eventually fight him (he escaped in the end).
During the Ruby Massacre, at the end of book 3, a disguised bone devil pretends to be Barzillai. So it's not really him, but the PCs can think it is until it's revealed it's a mere devil. That scene also nicely segues into the final liberation of Kintargo.
As for the rebellion rules, yes, you can easily do without them. I still assumed the PCs mounted a rebellion but just didn't use the mechanics after a while. There's only a couple of places with requires rebellion checks in game and they are easily replaced by PC skills (Diplomacy to gather information, Stealth, etc).
Regarding your choice, I'd recommend Hell's Rebels over the two others. :)
To me, Rise of the Runelords is nice but too dungeon focused and somewhat disconnected between modules (it's the first AP after all, despite the revision). That's why we stopped after book 3 all those years ago. And Carrion Crown, which I haven't GM's or played, feels way too episodic and gimmicky with its "one horror trope per book" premise. On the other hand, Hell's Rebels is crafted as one single story and campaign, which I feel isn't the case with the other two you mention.
After almost 2 years in real life, we finished our Hell's Rebels campaign yesterday. It probably took us about 200-250 hours over ~50 sessions. That's the sixth AP we finish, at least partially (after half of Rise of the Runelords, Legacy of Fire, Kingmaker, Shattered Star, the first four books of Mummy's Mask), and it's always the same long-term commitment and the same enjoyment to build a long story together with a group of friends!
As usual, it was a lot of fun and both the GM (me) and the players had a lot of fun dealing with Barzillai Thrune. Thank you Crystal Frasier, Mike Shel, Richard Pett, James Jacobs, Jim Groves, and Amber Scott for writing these 6 parts to the AP, and most certainly to James Jacobs for designing and developing the whole AP! It's interesting that Paizo can still be more and more daring in their APs. This one was particularly well crafted, with the different parts echoing each other. It's really obvious here that the campaign was developed as a whole and that it's larger than the sum of its parts.
We particularly appreciated the (mainly) single location, Kintargo, and it makes it so much easier to care about the story and freeing the city from the madman Barzillai. It also means that the AP has a very prominent cast of non-player characters who stay around and provide a solid background for the life in the city (Laria, Rexus, Lictor Octavio, Jilia Bainilius, Shensen, Captain Sargeta, Molly Mayapple, etc). The Lucky Bones are also pretty neat and help the PCs feel home… never mind the fact that it's one of those "secret" hideout everyone seems to know about!
Barzillai Thrune is a very adequate Evil Bad Guy™️ and the fact that he's present from day one of session one is quite a change from the usual AP. What I found surprising is the ability of the campaign to not make him feel stale after being the BBEG for the whole campaign. It certainly helps that he's dealt with at the end of book 3 (at least it looks that way at first), 4, and 6. It's as if he'll never keel over! The rhythm of these encounters with Barzillai is really balanced and works well with the overall flow.
Overall, the campaign was really nice and among the best I've GM'd for Pathfinder. There were quite a few tensed and difficult moments, but not quite insurmountable for our group of 3 very experienced players. In the end, we ended up with 4-5 deaths, but at levels for which it's more a hassle than game breaking. The group (cleric of Milani, swashbuckler, and unchained summoner) was quite powerful and ended the AP at level 16 and 1 mythic tier. Unfortunately, the final Barzillai went down in 6 seconds with a whimper. That would have been frustrating for another campaign, but since it was the third time they were encountering him or someone pretending to be him, it wasn't as problematic as it could been. I very much feel this AP is more about the journey than the destination. It's funny but I never felt that GM'ing any other Paizo campaign that all tend to build towards a final, epic clash, and I'm not quite sure where it comes from. Maybe from staying in Kintargo for so long that it kind of feels home, maybe because Barzillai has been around since the beginning and changed about as much as the PCs during the period of the AP.
There's a few things I would do differently if I were to play it again (not many) but there were mainly a lot of enjoyable parts to this AP. So here goes for the pros and cons list…
As for the specific volumes, here's what I thought as the GM:
So that's for the last two years of GMing. Soon we'll likely relocate to Nirmathas and my players will face the advance of the Ironfang Invasion. That should remind us of our past Kingmaker campaign!
That's exactly what my PCs did, which unexpectedly ended the campaign. But I liked it since it was a beautiful way to show that the story changes from the PCs' actions. That makes them feel important. Overriding their actions to get book 5 to trigger irrespectively would have felt like a cheat to me.
Books 3 and 4 are turning out quite deadly for our group. The obituaries so far, half-way through Secrets of the Sphinx…
Name: Nekepti Balāt Aššarratum
The group was not particularly secretive about their search through the city's libraries so the Sacrosanct Order of the Blue Feather made their move and sent assassins after them. They struck in one of Tephu's busy markets as the heroes of Wati were stocking up on well-needed ressources. Before anyone could react, the frail Nekepti was brought down by the numerous stabbings of two assassins. As she lay down on the floor, bleeding to death, one of the assassins sliced her throat before attempting to flee. The vengeance of the group was terrible and not one of the paid killers survived.
Nekepti was later raised from the dead that same day at the temple of Nethys. The assassins only succeeded at stalling them for a day.
(The assassins failed their death attacks, thanks to the PCs high saves and action points, but acting first on the first round meant their sneak attacks were highly efficient.)
Name: Uššannar Haptessu
The group had dealt with the bodaks with great tactics, triggering them one by one and destroying them swiftly. They were getting ready to cautiously proceed further into the Sightless Sphinx, where they had heard some incanting seconds ago. The invisible cultists of Areshkagal attacked before they could get further, though. Swift as the wind, they cut down Uššannar before anyone could react.
Before Uššannar's soul could depart for Pharasma's realm, the group's Oracle, Sharifa bint Hasina Fal'as ad-Dīn, breathed life back into him.
(Surprise round and highest initiative with 5 sneak attacks on a full attack for two rogue cultists is very difficult to survive if you don't have uncanny dodge… Killing PCs with rogues taking the group by surprise is turning into a theme too.)
Name: Nekepti Balāt Aššarratum
Empowered by the destruction of her bodaks, the undead priest of Areshkagal burst out of her tomb to meet with the heroes of Wati buffed to the gills. Her first move was to cast destruction on the bard, Nekepti, who proceeded to fail her save. Unholy fire consumed her completely and all that remained of her was a small pile of ashes.
Her bodyguard, Uššannar, carefully scooped up what was left of her and the group, beaten down, retreated back to Wati to get her true resurrected.
(What can I say? destruction… The last two were during the same deadly session.)
Sara Marie wrote:
Thanks Sara, and sorry about that, I did find it in my spam folder. First time it happens, which is why I didn't look there in the first place. :)