Pathfinder Society Scenario #10-02: Bones of Biting Ants

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A Pathfinder Society Scenario designed for levels 3-7.

The sole survivor of an ill-fated Society expedition into the Mwangi expanse barely managed to return home years ago, bringing little to show but an unpleasant affliction and haunting memories, neither of which they could shake. While the agent had planned to retire from the Society for good, they now seek assistance in finding closure, seeking a cure, and recovering the relics the team had to abandon. What sounds at first like a simple recovery mission becomes far more complicated, for the same threats that spelled disaster for the first mission are as dangerous today.

Written by Sean McGowan.

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****( ) (based on 6 ratings)

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Interesting and Original

****( )

SPOILERS

I was a player in this at low tier, and afterwards read it for this review. Bones of Biting Ants has a lot that on the surface makes it seem like it'll be reminiscent of a Season 0 or 1 type of scenario, but it actually has a much deeper spine. It involves a player-facing sub-system that was a bit jarring at first but I can now see and appreciate (in retrospect) what it was trying to accomplish. It's not a perfect adventure, but there's enough interesting and original features in it to make it one worth seeking out.

NO SPOILERS

Bones of Biting Ants starts at the Pathfinder lodge in Eleder, a town in Sargava that borders the Mwangi Expanse. Venture-Captain Finze Bellaugh (who doesn't have much description or personality in the scenario) starts telling the PCs about a former field agent named Stuinvolk who had a disastrous journey into the Mwangi interior a decade previously. Stuinvolk's company recovered some ancient artifacts (pertaining to a sorcerer from millenia ago named the King of Biting Ants), but on their way back were ambushed by local tribespeople named the Mzali. The rest of Stuinvolk's party were slain one by one during a harrowing attempt to escape the savannah, until Stuinvolk himself was captured and staked out to die in a field of ants' nests. However, a strange type of gremlin called a nuno set Stuinvolk free after leaving him with a permanent disfiguring curse as a reminder never to trespass into the area again. In the decade since, Stuinvolk has been a shattered figure, suffering from nightmares and what today we would call PTSD. The Pathfinders are to escort Stuinvolk back into the Mwangi interior to retrace the steps of his escape. (based on the backstory, I wondered then and still if this scenario was a sequel to an earlier one?)

This scenario is one in which what the players take away as their goals from the initial mission briefing could be something different than what the author assumes, and that can lead to some major problems. The Venture-Captain's final words to the players are "Find the treasures, compel the nuno to lift the curse, but most of all, help Stuinvolk find peace." The mistake I made as a player was in thinking that the first two things (recover artifacts, lift curse) were the "real" goals of the mission, and the "help Stuinvolk find peace" bit would be accomplished through getting the curse lifted. However, it turns out that the opposite is true. The scenario assumes the PCs make multiple attempts each day of the expedition to gain insight into what Stuinvolk is going through and to try to connect with him on a deeper level. This is represented by a fairly elaborate mechanical sub-system drawing on the Influence rules from Ultimate Intrigue. The PCs need to accumulate "empathy points", and the number of successes they get determine Stuinvolk's mood, how easy or hard it is to influence him further, how much he helps the party (in quite specific ways) in later encounters, etc.

It's a situation that's original and compelling, and I can definitely see how it enables quality role-playing at the table. However, I think the concept came across as forced and intrusive to me for a few reasons. First, as I mentioned earlier, I originally took something very different away from the mission briefing. Second, Stuinvolk has been dealing with this for a decade and is stated to have had a counsellor during this time, so it felt a bit far-fetched and also presumptive to try to get him to have some sort of cathartic release with us strangers. Third, my PC just wasn't the type for deep soul-searching talks and so (on his behalf) I felt resentful of the mechanism. But I'm sure my experience won't be universal, so I'll chalk it up as a good idea that maybe isn't implemented quite as seamlessly as it could have been.

The first real encounter on the journey is portrayed well. The Pathfinders run into a Mzali patrol and either have to persuade the leader to give permission for a trespass into the tribe's territory, or fight their way past. A little detail I *really* liked is that the patrol leader seems to speak only Polyglot, but secretly understands Common (something she puts to advantage by hearing the PCs talk amongst themselves). I also like that the negotiations here don't boil down to a single Diplomacy check, but are a real series of offers and requests, with multiple checks and modifiers involved (so much so that careful prep on the part of the GM would be important).

During the journey, the Pathfinders often find themselves hearing strange howling at night and the sense of being stalked. Eventually, they're attacked twice by a supernatural manifestation of Stuinvolk's guilt in the form of a mngwa (a nightmarish jungle cat). The trick is that the mngwa can be defeated only if Stuinvolk delivers the "killing" blow, and he may or may not be in a condition to do this if the PCs have earned enough empathy points. It was an interesting and unusual situation to be in as a player (setting an NPC up for the kill), and I like encounters that deliver surprises.

As the PCs get closer into the hills where the nuno gremlin resides, there's a completely filler encounter against hyenas. The nuno, named Bujune, presents another solid and interesting choice for the PCs. He can be killed (which will lift the curse) or he can be negotiated with. If the latter option is chosen, he offers the PCs a deal: he'll lift the curse on Stuinvolk if the Pathfinders investigate what's going on inside some giant anthills nearby where the ants have become sickly and deranged.

The final portion of the scenario has the PCs navigating underground ant tunnels. A series of skill checks determine whether they find their way or get lost and face multiple encounters of giant undead ants. I think most groups will have the skills to avoid too many extra encounters, but if they have too much bad luck I imagine they could be worn down before the big finish: a battle against several more undead ants and their queen, "She Who Devours" (a deathweb). It turns out that the artifacts that Stuinvolk left behind had the effect of releasing necrotic energy which turned the normal inhabitants of the area into soulless abominations! It was a good, reasonably tough and satisfying climax.

Two miscellaneous points: 1) the scenario does a really good job incorporating rules and options from Occult Adventures for characters with psychic abilities, something I don't see very often; 2) the scenario didn't do much with the Mwangi environment--the heat dangers were nerfed substantially, and there weren't any other of the classic hazards presented (insects, disease, etc.).

Overall, although I had some qualms at the time, I can see that Bones of Biting Ants is a really good scenario. It has an interesting goal that asks the PCs to be more than just killing machines, and to actually help an individual on a personal, emotional level. I'm impressed by that, and I would like to continue to see more scenarios that stretch the boundaries of what PFS scenarios can involve.


This needed a content warning

****( )

Very nice but time consuming prep work on this one. What really got me, was: I have PTSD and Anxiety and role playing Stuinvolk followed the rabbit down the dark hole. Just reading it had me overly empathizing and shaking as I tried to consider how to bring this to my players. I chose to have a friend role play Stuinvolk, and truly bring the character to life, which helped the party feel like he wasn't just an annoying aspect of the GM, and helped them to empathize with him. It is worth playing, but please be aware that this can be an emotional roller coaster.


A scenario to feel Good about

*****

I wrote a giant review and the website ate it. Bottom line: the story is compelling, filled with the original goals of the Shadow Lodge and empathy, along with the understanding that not all wounds are physical. The mid-scenario encounter is just as deadly as everyone else says, as it's a unique critter (at least, in high subtier) that is effectively a Dire Tiger with upgrades, but no CR adjustment.

Good use of Occult mechanics, good RP opportunities interspersed, and, most importantly, a compelling objective for the Good-aligned PCs.


Wonderfull Story - Questionable Encounter Design

****( )

I mostly agree with the first two reviews, the story was really great and the influence mechanics were quite fun, but I did not quite like the Encounterdesign (for High-Tier) and here is why:

Encounter A3:
If combat should breat out and the PCs didnt advance, which is reasonable, the Warriors have a hard time dealing with Archers and Medium-/Long-Range Casters since they can't delay those PCs. Other than that, it's a fun encounter.

Encounter A5/A7:
A night Ambush with a +30 to stealth (+22 in A7) and a Pounce (yes it does work with a partial charge) dealing 2d8+4d6+45 Dmg targeted against an NPC (if not disguised) with 46 HP does not seem fair to me. Some Level 7 Characters do not have enough
HP to survive this damage either. In my opinion this encounter can end this scenario in one surprise-round (even if you rule out, that they can't be surprised it can easily win the Initiative and One-Shot most of the participating Characters...

Encounter B2:
Army Ant Swarms are one the tougher swarms to deal with, having two advanced AAS and a Caster, who can controll half of the party with a high DC controll Spell in Round 2 and possibly hiding underground with burrow-speed is too much risk for a TPK.
Our Blaster Sorcer (10d6+10 Fireball DC20) lost initiative against one of the swarms which resulted in a big chaos. The group survived this one with sheer luck.

Encounter C1/C2:
Those CR1 Monster are stronger than the base CR2 Creature and possibly as strong as CR3 creatures. This is why you have to be carefull with Templates, especially stacking multiple Templates...

I am sorry for my writing, my English is not the best.


A very american scenario

****( )

I played tis at Gencon and thoroughly enjoyed it. I would largely agree with the first review and would say that by the end I had grown so irritated by the primary NPC that I switched to appearing to give a damn rather than actually trying to help, despite it being at a significantly lower modifier to succeed.

Having prepped the scenario to run next week it reads as a very american piece of writing, with lots of discussion of therapy. I almost expected him to come with an emotional support animal. Run well I think this can be quite a powerful scenario, run poorly I can see it being quite insensitive for people who have gone through genuine traumas.

While I played it at a con I probably wouldn't recommend running it in a con slot.


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Is it just me or does this sound a lot like the backstory of

Spoiler:
Grandmaster Torch
?

Grand Lodge

Nah. It's gotta be...

Spoiler:
Nieford Sharrowsmith


ya

Shadow Lodge

Sounds a lot like Torch to me.

Dark Archive

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Roleplaying Game, Starfinder Society Roleplaying Guild Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

Poison or disease maybe?

Liberty's Edge

Speculation Answer:
Nieford Sharrowsmith is dead. His body is found in #6-16.

My VO and I speculate that this might have something to do with a completely different scenario.
Content Speculation:
#7-98: Serpents' Ire. There seems to be something in the title and location parallel to Rataji's story arc.

Any word on maps?

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Just learned I'll be running this at GenCon. Maps/Map Packs used?
Thanks.

Grand Lodge

Disciple of the Void wrote:

** spoiler omitted **

My VO and I speculate that this might have something to do with a completely different scenario.
** spoiler omitted **

Ah-ha! Very interesting. Anxious to play this one.

Paizo Employee Organized Play Lead Developer

We're finalizing some pieces in the development process today and early next week. We should have a map update soon.

Scarab Sages

Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I don't know about tie ins to other scenarios, but the name seems like a pretty direct tie in to The King of Biting Ants the mythic enemy of Old Man Jatembe. If so I have to play this with my Magaambyan Wizard.

Edit:

Serpents Ire:
Found what you were talking about in Rataji's vision. Totally all ties in with The King of Biting Ants. Now I'm even more excited to play this!

Grand Lodge

Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

Maps/Map Packs?
Thanks.

Paizo Employee Organized Play Lead Developer

Maps in Bones of Biting Ants:

  • Pathfinder Flip-Mat: Cavernous Lair
  • Pathfinder Flip-Mat: Hill Country
  • Pathfinder Map Pack: Campsites
  • Two different custom half-page maps
  • Grand Lodge

    Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber

    Thanks!

    Liberty's Edge

    Is "Campsites" from the Gamemastery Map Pack series?

    Just looking so I can order it properly for GenCon.

    Paizo Employee Organized Play Developer

    Disciple of the Void wrote:

    Is "Campsites" from the Gamemastery Map Pack series?

    Just looking so I can order it properly for GenCon.

    It should actually refer to Pathfinder Map-Pack: Camps and Shelters. Apologies for the confusion!

    Grand Lodge

    1 person marked this as a favorite.

    I was kind of sad to find out it wasn't Lugizar Trantos from Mists of Mwangi. That would've made so much sense!


    Typo in description: "Mwangi Expanse" not "Mwangi expanse".

    Contributor

    We ran into an issue with this scenario today.

    Spoiler:
    In Area C1, obstacle 3 uses two trained-only skills as its required skills. None of my PCs has Handle Aninal or Sleight of Hand, so I ruled that they couldn’t complete the obstacle and therefore hand to take the failure penalty of fighting two ants.

    Grand Lodge

    Pathfinder Battles Case Subscriber; Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber; Pathfinder Comics Subscriber

    Spoiler:
    Handle Animal can be used to influence creatures untrained, it's training creatures that cannot be done untrained.

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