A Pathfinder Society Scenario designed for levels 1–5.
A powerful ally of the Pathfinder Society has disappeared, and no one but the Pathfinders even remembers that she ever existed. Can the PCs discover the fate of their missing associate, or will all memory of her be erased completely from history?
Written by Jonathan H. Keith.
This scenario is designed for play in Pathfinder Society Organized Play, but can easily be adapted for use with any world. This scenario is compliant with the Open Game License (OGL) and is suitable for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
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I played through The Disappeared via play-by-post with my go-to Iconic, Quinn the Investigator. Season Four PFS scenarios have a (well-deserved) reputation for really ramping up the combat difficulty, but I didn’t find that an issue at all in this one. It’s fair to say that combat itself takes a back seat in The Disappeared, and instead characters who specialise in deception, stealth, and smooth talking get their time in the spotlight. The plot’s interesting and original, and the gameplay experience is very different than the norm. I really enjoyed it, and I strongly recommend it.
Zarta Dralneen, the very . . . memorable . . . Chelish liaison to the Pathfinder Society has disappeared! Or, perhaps more accurately, she has been disappeared. Worried about the fate of the secrets she has about the Society, Venture-Captain Ambrus Valsin calls on the PCs to discover what happened to her, where she is, or if she’s even still alive. It’s clear the government of Cheliax knows something, as they’ve taken to denying she ever existed in the first place! So Valsin tasks the PCs with infiltrating the Chelish Embassy in Absalom during an evening gala to search for clues. Their cover will be as “Pathfinders with information about Sargava to sell to the ambassador,” and that should get them as far as the waiting room. Valsin explains that he’s been able to get Amara Li an invitation to the gala, and she’ll be able to keep the ambassador busy for an hour, and that’s all the time the Pathfinders will have to slip out of the waiting room, search for clues to Zarta’s fate, and return to the waiting room before the ambassador turns up and starts getting suspicious.
How this works mechanically is that the PCs are, quite literally, on the clock. They have sixty minutes in-game for their search, and various actions take different specified amounts of time, with the GM given discretion to account for PC actions that haven’t been accounted for. Drawing the attention of embassy staff by being clumsy with stealth or disguises results in one “strike” each time it happens, and the group only gets a certain number of strikes before the gig is up and they’ve been discovered. The GM is encouraged to be transparent with the PCs about how much time they have left and how many strikes they’ve accumulated, as this encourages some great risk vs reward role-playing about how to proceed because there’s often a cautious but slower option compared to a faster but more noticeable option on how to proceed.
This may all sound a bit abstract, but it all works well in practice. For example, after they’ve slipped out of the waiting room, the PCs need to traverse a long hallway bustling with servants without being noticed. They can take their time and wait for a pause in activity (a Perception check, with each attempt taking 2 minutes) or just stride down like they belong there (a Bluff check that only takes 1 minute). Failing either check lands the group a strike. Not every option is as binary as that, and there’s lot of fun to be had with the various ideas PCs might come up with to get where they want to go—Zarta’s personal quarters.
The description of Zarta’s quarters is perfectly lascivious, fitting the character to a T. One of the only two mandatory combats in the session takes place here, as the rooms are guarded by summoned devils. Zarta had some brief notice that she was about to be taken into custody by Chelish internal security, so she arranged for some clues to be left for anyone coming to help her later. The clues take the form of some messages encoded in a basic substitution cipher, and I like the added touch that if players attempt to decode it, every minute they take in real time is deducted from the sixty minute total they have in game!
The clues should lead the PCs into embassy’s ventilation system which, as we all know from myriad spy movies, are the perfect way to travel. The vents then exit into the embassy’s records room which is full of filing cabinets arranged by subject matter. Various skill checks are used here to pinpoint what happened to Zarta, with each attempt taking a certain amount of time. By putting together various pieces of evidence, the PCs can conclude that Zarta was framed for espionage by a Chelish rival named Tancred Desimire, arrested, and imprisoned at the Hellknight fortress of Citadel Vraid outside of Korvosa! (there’s a sort of silly fight against animated chairs in the records room, which I think was inserted just to satisfy some notion of a minimum number of combats per scenario).
Armed with the information, the PCs then need to reverse course and see if they can make it back to the waiting room in time. If they fail, or if they accumulate too many strikes, they then have to battle successively difficult waves of Chelish security forces until they either get captured, surrender, or make a dramatic escape by something like crashing out a window!
As I said, the plot of The Disappeared is certainly an original one. I like that some rarely-used skills (like Disguise) really get a chance to shine, and the ticking-clock mechanism keeps things exciting. I really enjoyed the scenario, and I imagine there’s a follow-up where the PCs have to try to rescue Zarta from Citadel Vraid. This is definitely one worth playing, especially for PCs who are more than just hack n’ slashers.
This is a very good introduction adventure for both players and GMs. Creativity on both sides is encouraged as the PCs have multiple ways of getting through party in the embassy, and are likely to improvise an oddball plan of their own. The scenario gives a good variety of responses and DCs for possible actions. In this, it makes the point that PFS is not the society of murderhobos - and in addition, it provides a nice introduction a couple of famous NPCs, notably Zarta, making it a good springboard for future scenarios.
Finally, the combats are also interesting, and show the PCs that simply charging forward with your standard weapon (or spell) isn't always the best strategy. Overall it makes for an original package that is well worth playing.
I played this together with Magabeus, and we did have a rather easy time with this. I dunno about it being "too perfect"; the whole point of my Investigator is that he's easily able to slip into social gatherings, appear harmless, and then do what needs to be done (including wholesale slaughter of demon infiltrators). Then again, I played The Immortal Conundrum (dinner party) with my Wernher von Braun style alchemist, and that was a lot of fun too..
As a player, this was fun. When I GMed it, I was really pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing. All the info is there; for every room, suggestions on obvious ways of handling it, complete with DCs. All the information is in the scenario, in the place where you'd expect it to be. In my experience with relatively "interesting" scenarios like this, that's unusual for PFS editing.
You need a couple of statblocks from a bestiary, but you don't have to modify them. The puzzle is nontrivial but not impossible, and for once there are no actual errors in it. I do have some comments for the GM, which I'll put in the GM thread.
The combats aren't the strongest part of the scenario, although they're likely to be somewhat challenging, and perhaps a welcome change for players with unsubtle PCs.
A side effect of scenarios focused on time pressure is that it can also speed up the OOC gameplay. We finished this earlier than we usually do. I have some more comments on the time pressure element in the GM thread.
All in all I think this is a very well-crafted scenario. It challenges PCs on non-combat things, but does so in a very fair way. Even PCs who are mostly built for combat can get through this scenario, although you'll have to be much more creative than if you're a master of stealth and disguise. (Duh.) What really helps is that the scenario gives good guidance to the GM on how to adjudicate "other solutions" that players come up with; even if the players do everything different from what the scenario presumes, the GM should still have enough handholds to run that in a fair way.
I played this yesterday in a party of 3 + pregen in high tier. We had an investigator, channeling cleric and a bard and were helped by Jirelle. So there was an abundance of social skills in the party.
Thinking back I think we were just a bit too good for this scenario, everything was rather smooth and therefore it felt a bit bland and not challenging. Was that a fault of the scenario or the GM? Not at all!
The scenario is almost only role-play and allows for a lot of player interaction. However it lacked some tension, a feeling that we could have failed. Maybe the Venture Captain just picked the exact right team for the situation and there was no chance to fail, but for us it wasn't a scenario where you manage to succeed against the odds. The odds were stacked in our favor from the start.
So what do I take away from this scenario: that it is probably a lot more fun with a party that is less fit for the challenge as you are then really forced to think out of the box and get into weird situations. We did our job expertly and smiled, but besides the smirking and joking over certain items and paintings in a bedroom there was little laughter to be had.
Verdict: a strong 4 stars: I love scenario's that have lot of role-playing opportunity.
Main take-away: sometimes it is more fun to play a scenario with a character that is not the best suited for it. Remember that when thinking at the table about that other PC that would have aced the scenario.
The first time I heard of this scenario, I was told that this was for 95% a roleplay scenario. Turns out, this was no exaggeration. The amount of roleplay for this scenario is far more than I've seen in every other scenario I've played thus far. This itself makes it a challenging scenario, but at the same time the options and opportunities to get the job done are endless. No playthrough will be identical, even though certain events will always happen. As a player this means you can be more creative than ever, while at the same time making it challenging and fun for the GM as well. If you're just in it to smash and kill things, you'll likely not enjoy this scenario.
Does this mean combats are boring? No, it doesn't. In fact, certain one-trick-ponies will feel useless in one encounter, whereas the second encounter is flatout brutal and can even be a TPK. It's pretty lethal, unexpected and honestly quite original in my opinion. I have not played the 'optional' fight, but based on what I've seen and heard, it's not a walkover either. In short: the few fights you might find yourself in are rather challenging.
That said, this was one of the most enjoyable scenarios I've played and I highly recommend it to others.
Thanks for moving up the release date. It gave me another option for my game tonight and looks intriguing. I hope the group opts for playing this tonight. If not, I have it available for my next session.
I feel pretty strongly that this adventure goes right along with the meta of "Season Four - What A Doozy!" I ran this for an underpowered table of 5, and they held their own, had a blast, and still managed to keep things interesting. Definitely writing a review.
When I conducted the mission briefing for this adventure, I got everyone into the mood by pulling up the theme music from "Mission: Impossible". Venture-Captain Valsin concluded his briefing by advising the characters that "As always, if any of your operatives are captured or killed, the Society will disavow any knowledge of this mission."
To address the "missing" Chelaxian handout, I told the Chelaxian players that when they had picked up their copy of Bondage Fetishist Quarterly from their faction contact, the Paracountess' usual coded message was missing.
This is a "Caper" scenario: Before running it, watch some episodes of Mission: Impossible or films that feature similar shenanigans. When things start to go wrong, remember that the Chelaxians are a very socially-stratified culture, bound by bureaucratic procedure. They won't respond efficiently to a confusing situation. ("You want us to interrupt the Ambassador because you THINK some uninvited guests have crashed the party? OF COURSE some have! This is the Grand Gala of the season!" "But, but, but..." "Come back when you are sure!")
When I ran it, some of the disguised PCs found themselves repeatedly lectured by a senior servant ("I see that you're new here, but any idiot knows not to serve sherry with the vegetable canapes!"), others feigned that they were drunken party guests ("Of course I have a claim receipt for my cloak! My idiot manservant was carrying it!"), and one attempted to sneak an eidolon through the party in a large sack (It's a surprise for later, sir!"). As the minutes ticked away, the party eventually found themselves huddling on top of cabinets in the archive, desperately trying to fend off the chamber's guardian (which found the cabinets difficult to climb...).
When running this mission, keep emphasizing the passing time ("That took three minutes. Tick-tock!") so the players know to hurry. Be open to attempts to "jump the rails": Almost any party will try a few stunts that nobody sane would have considered.
Also, err on the side of generosity if the party mix is just completely unsuitable for the the scenario. If your group utterly lacks the ability to be stealthy or to bluff through a dangerous situation, play the scene for laughs. Situations that are TOO ridiculous might not even count as strikes against the party, as the Chelaxian security forces may think they're being subjected to some sort of a practical joke ("A barbarian is attacking the topiary? Go back and check again: This sounds like another jape from those idiots in the kitchen! You remember the time they claimed that a drifting mist was turning people into monkeys!")
I was looking forward to experiencing this scenario when I first heard the bullet-points of it, but now that I have read the scenario over, and am scheduled to run it at a convention in less than a month, I will tweak this heavily.
Just reading the flow of the scenario, I can see there being significant sequence and focus problems with the GM having to stop and parse through the text for specific skill checks and DCs for that specific section of corridor.
And the time-keeping mechanic seems very complicated, yet subjective at the same time.
The average GM is going to have a tough time weighing what can and cannot happen in the scenario. It seems unfair to make them stay canon in this scenario, when there are just too many details to keep track of. The victim here is going to be the player.
Oh, and the scenario uses a single map that is large and detailed, but it is a custom one - not available via a mat or map? Sheesh.
What I'm going to do instead is tell the players that they have three hours to complete the mission (which leaves a half hour on either side for set-up and wrap-up). When they enter the waiting room, I'm going to start a count-down timer at the table.
The map I'm going to cobble together with map packs and make it as accurate as possible to the map in the scenario. I'll only reveal each piece of corridor as they encounter it. And I'll have a pre-made mental list of random encounters, pulled directly from the scenario, in the hallways - waiters, dignitaries, drunk guests, etc.
I'm volunteering to run it this way for a willing group of volunteers before the convention to see how this works instead.
Before anyone criticizes me for not running this scenario to the letter of the text, I would have to say that when I GM, my ONLY concern is player enjoyment, and this scenario - as written - does not pass my GM-spidey-sense muster.
To be completely honest, I think about half of us completely misunderstood the point of the scenario mission as well. Somewhere along the way "infiltrate Cheliax and pretend to talk to the ambassador, whle there find cues about what is really going on" turned to "attend to party as a front to meet the new ambassador, and find out as much as you can about them/shake their hand for taking out Zarta finally and asure him/her that the PFS is interested in being allies".
I'm not sure playing down would really have helped that much. It's one of the ones I think that DM's and Players walk away with a very different experience. :)
When I first played this, my group had a little bit of trouble because we were fuzzy on exactly what our goals were. We succeeded, but until the scenario was over and the GM told us we succeeded we weren't sure.
When I GMed this scenario, I had the VC really drill the PC's goals into them:
1) Go to the embassy with a message for the ambassador.
2) Amara Li will keep him busy for an hour, and while they're waiting they should take the chance to sneak into the embassy.
3) After they're in, they need to find three things:
- Where Zarta was taken
- Why she was taken there
- Who was responsible for it
Before the scenario, my wife drew out the map on graph paper for me (we were helping each other prepare for a con), then I cut out each room so that I could lay them down one at a time as they explored the building. My favorite bit of prep, though, was:
I put together an actual framed portrait of Ambrus Valsin with lipstick marks on it, then hid the player handout in the back of the frame with just the edge of it sticking out.
The players really got a kick out of that.
The group just barely made it, but they were all clear on what they had to do and I think they had a lot of fun doing it. This has been one of my favorite scenarios to run; I'm planning to run it again at GenCon.
Mainly due to the fact that the party played 4-5 Tier with a bunch of 3rd level characters. They managed the infiltration fine, but the first combat encounter destroyed them.
I'm pretty sure that's the intent for Season 4 scenarios. If your party falls in the middle, playing up should be a scary prospect; they should not go into it with the assumption that they'll make it through just fine.
I ran it last night, and actually my fears were unfounded, because...
The time mechanic that I was dreading wasn't an issue at all - barely even acknowledged. Once I laid out the scene (BTW, I had the two maps in the scenario professionally printed full-size at Staple for only $ 3.50 each - yay!) the players looked at the setup and quickly figured out how they were going to navigate their way through the embassy.
The rules are pretty lenient and subjective on how the characters can do this, and the players came up with some creative solutions that weren't described in the scenario, so I just let them go with it.
I tried to keep track of the amount of time it took them to get to Zarta's chambers - and then back out afterwards - but really, it was only a handful of skill checks each way, and really creative role-playing that got them through. I rewarded them for the creative role-playing by allowing different types of skill checks, and lower DCs when I was impressed with their problem-solving.
Any other GMs that run this scenario, I would suggest being more descriptive than usual of the characters' surroundings and the goings-on, and maybe give hints, and allow a lot of perception and sense motive checks to deduce maybe the best course of action and movement. But, overall, be lenient and let the players be creative.
The total navigation time in real-time was maybe a half hour of game time. They spent most of their time and energy on the combats, the deciphering of the code, and searching the vault.