Pathfinder Module: Academy of Secrets (PFRPG)

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Pathfinder Module: Academy of Secrets (PFRPG)
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A dungeon adventure for 13th-level characters

Every year the Acadamae—Korvosa’s prestigious school of the arcane arts—opens its gates to the city to host the Breaching Festival, where the most skilled infiltrators are invited to enter the magically guarded Hall of Wards or die trying. Testing their luck against the university’s strongest defenses, the competitors pull out all the stops as they vie for a chance at a fortune in gold and magical treasure. This year, the school’s headmaster has invited the heroes to participate, against the contest’s longstanding traditions. While the Breaching Festival has not seen a champion in over a century and a half, this year’s festival promises to be the deadliest trial the school has ever known. Should the heroes reign victorious, the secrets they may uncover promise more than gold and glory—they may rock the very foundation of the Acadamae, and even the entire city!

Academy of Secrets is an adventure for 13th-level characters, written for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and compatible with the 3.5 edition of the world’s oldest RPG. It features a massive magical university, compatible with GameMastery Map Pack: Magic Academy and teeming with sorcerous traps, weird puzzles, diabolical monsters, and countless students and professors trapped in a web of arcane deceit. Also within, you’ll find a brand-new monster and details on one of Golarion’s most famous schools of magic, as mentioned in Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Guide to Korvosa and the Curse of the Crimson Throne Adventure Path. While Academy of Secrets takes place in the metropolitan city of Korvosa, the magic academy within is suitable for use in any fantasy campaign setting.

Written by Brian Cortijo

Pathfinder Modules are 32-page, high-quality, full-color, adventures using the Open Game License to work with both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and the standard 3.5 fantasy RPG rules set. This Pathfinder Module includes new monsters, treasure, and a fully detailed bonus location that can be used as part of the adventure or in any other game!

ISBN-13: 978-1-60125-343-9

Academy of Secrets is sanctioned for use in Pathfinder Society Organized Play. Its Chronicle Sheet and additional rules for running this module are a free download (232 KB zip/PDF).

Note: This product is part of the Pathfinder Adventure Subscription.

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Great Hook and Setting

4/5

NO SPOILERS

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS!:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


very fun module!

4/5

I recently ran this for a table of 12th- and 13th-level PFS characters. We had a blast! Lots of good flavor and a few good challenges. Also, I quite like the art in this one.

I do have some small complaints, but I should note that most of these can't really "count against" the module, as they arise from running a module not written for PFS under organized play rules, and not being able to make adjustments to the adventure as written. For a home game, many of these complaints would not apply.

That being the case, I've enclosed the list in a spoiler tag. The list shouldn't distract from the overall assessment—that this was a very enjoyable module to run and to play!

I've also added a spoiler for my favorite "cruel GM tactics" for the boss fight. :-)

A Few Small Complaints:
A Few Small Complaints wrote:

* Table size! Running a module written for 4 characters for 6 PFS characters is just asking for a cakewalk. In the future, I think I may have to limit seats at modules I'm running to 5 players. Which is a shame!

* The skill and save DCs just seemed too low for characters of this level. Especially the numbers to spot and disable the very flavorful traps.

* Encounter size. Several encounters suffered from enemy numbers problems. Either by relying on a group of monsters with CRs at APL-5 or -6, for no challenge, or by relying on a single big monster with no way to keep up with the PCs' action economy advantage.

* The map of the main dungeon just seemed too straightforward. Long hallway with doors off of it? Boring! More twists and turns for more of a claustrophobic dungeon feel may have worked better.

* The final set of encounters didn't work too well in a PFS setting. In a home game it would work great, as the GM could throw whatever she felt like at her party. The module even says, "hey adjust these as needed!" But in PFS play, it just felt a bit rote. Oh look, another low-CR devil to smash...

Cruel GM Tactics:
Cruel GM Tactics wrote:

* Chyvvom had plenty of warning the party was on its way, so he scribed a symbol of pain in the summoning circle and covered it with a major image of the floor. The party opens the door and the devil is maintaining concentration on the major image while negotiating with the PCs telepathically. When combat commences, he stops concentrating and the 3-round countdown begins. So in the middle of combat, bam!, the illusion expires and the party is slammed with the symbol. It went perfectly. Bwahahaha!

* IMPORTANT! Make sure you have the boss use his summon ability *before* the party gets in the room. As a full-round action that can be interrupted by damage, there's no way he can get it off as his first round of actual combat. And without bodyguards the encounter is probably trivial. If you forget this, have him dimension door to a random other room, summon, cast silence on himself, and greater teleport himself and his bodyguards back into the middle of combat.


Twisted Harry Porter

4/5

It was very unique scenario for me.
NPCs seem to like as Harry Porter's those, but twisted with varisian styles.
The *true* mastermind, can foreshadow for continuing adventure.
(actually, PCs can't even reach to him in this module)

But otherwise as mentioned above, it was rather too literal.
There were no truly twinkle.
That makes me to rated 4 stars, not 5.


Welcome to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry

4/5

This is definitely an adventure for all Harry Potter fans. I know that Paizo probably wants their product to be seen on its own merit but I couldn’t help convert the Breaching Festival into the Triwizard Tournament. I encourage GMs out there to go ahead and take creative license with this module.

When I read this module, it was divided clearly into 3 acts. The author seems to me to have written the middle act first – and then discovered that it was such an incredible piece of work that he split it into two. As such the first and middle acts were creative and diabolically fun. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that he was probably then told that he needed more material – after all, modules are supposed to represent 12 hours of play. So rather than cutting back on the word count and losing the content in the first two acts, he threw together the results from a random encounter roll-off. As such, the third act was a waste of time – fortunately, it only encompasses about 2 pages of the final product and can easily be ignored.

Below – if you’re interested in my cast of characters for converting this module into Hogwarts:

Spoiler:

Cast of characters

Faculty at Hogwarts
Headmaster Toff Arnelos = Headmaster Albus Dumbledore
Dean of Abjuration Julaei Cangi = Professor McGonagall
Dean of Conjuration Messida Vost = Professor Umbridge
Dean of Divination Norva Allesain = Professor Trelawney
Dean of Enchantment Heresta Tarlan = Rita Skeeter
Dean of Evocation Salgar Irevotnin = Professor Snape
Dean of Illusion Rombastle Falgeringer = Professor Flitwick
Dean of Necromancy Orianna Delmore = Bellatrix Lestrange
Dean of Transmutation Elgin Remorri = Argus Filch

Other characters
Jandar Lilswin = Percy Weasley
Seska Imintar = Ginny Weasley
Fatmire = Wormtail aka Peter Pettigrew
Illia Ean = couldn’t figure out a good match for her
Knur = Hagrid
Maganrad = Cedric Diggory
Terentius = Roldophus Lestrange

Below – my thoughts regarding running the module:

Spoiler:

Act 1 – Hogwarts
For the most part this portion of the adventure is setting up the module and I allowed my players to explore the campus and meet the faculty. Also, if they don’t chose to explore the campus on their own, they will be given an opportunity during the first round of the Triwizard Tournament since they each need to get a Golden Snitch (aka keylights). I gave them an opportunity to learn about the “student life” at Hogwarts through talking with Percy and Ginny Weasley. Also, they get to meet the other “contestants” – and I had fun playing Wormtail, Hagrid and Cedric (dead) Diggory.

Act 2 – Deal with the Devil
I know Paizo’s been criticized for over-using demi-planes. However, I felt as though Belzeragna was well-planned and structured. This is probably the “tightest” of all three acts since it demonstrates the author’s mastery of developing a structured dungeon crawl. I especially liked Nagxiv and Valshune’s little debate along with Marijkal’s relationship with Chyvvomn. These little touches help create a cohesive story. However, I think the mobs were a little underpowered for dealing with modern Pathfinder players.

Act 3 – Random Devil Encounters and wrapup
Not much to know – if your players are into Hackfest 2000 then this is a great way to allow them to do battle with various denizens. There is a potential the players will choose to confront Dumbledore – however, I think it would be highly unlikely that his entire faculty and student body would simply stand-by and allow them to do so. As such, I simply used this time to wrap up the adventure.


Great Concept

3/5

I found the adventure both imaginative and consistent within its theme. There are surprises for the players, there is a touch of the comedic at certain points, and the flow of the adventure is paced well. There are some memorable NPCs in here.

On a less positive note, I ran this for (6) 13th level characters, all experienced players, and this was nowhere near the challenge that the author intended. The consensus of the group, as we rehashed the course of the module, was that this was appropriately challenging for these characters when they were all 9th level. I would advise any judge who knows the players who are going to be at the table well enough to consider carefully if the encounters are challenging enough for those players, and act accordingly.

We played this for PFS credit - if you are considering running this as part of a home campaign or as part of an adventure path, I recommend bringing this out before your players reach 11th level.


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