A Pathfinder Society Scenario designed for levels 5-9.
The great Linnorm King Sveinn Blood-Eagle prepares for his final voyage to legendary Vallenhall, but all is not right in his kingdom. As Sveinn's unworthy children battle over the soon-to-be-vacant throne, Kalsgard's gnomes find themselves beset by a rash of sudden deaths. While these deaths appear to be caused by the Bleaching, a dread affliction that saps the life and light from gnomes who succumb to ennui, a gnome Pathfinder and priestess of Nivi Rhombodazzle believes that something more is afoot. She’s recruited the PCs to uncover the affliction's origins in a city where mighty Ulfen warriors are on the verge of war.
I played Corpses in Kalsgard several months ago at low subtier with my psychic-monk, Arrius Vext. Before rereading it for the purposes of this review, I couldn't really remember what it was about--which I guess isn't a good sign. After going over it again, the scenario has some decent characters and makes good use of its setting. But there are some flaws as well, and nothing that elevates it beyond the ordinary. I guess "quintessentially average" is where I'd rank it.
Corpses in Kalsgard is in the Land of the Linnorm Kings (in the eponymous city Kalsgard). The Pathfinders have been summoned by one of my favourite venture-captains, Bjersig Torrsen (and his cute hound Mahki!). There have apparently been several mysterious deaths of gnomes in Kalsgard, with the victims looking pale as if they died from the Bleaching (the disease that affects gnomes who lead bland, joyless existences). However, the victims died suddenly and with fearful expressions, and the Bleaching takes far longer. The PCs are asked to investigate the deaths and find the culprit. The explanation of what any of this has to do with a group of explorer/scholars like the Pathfinder Society is pretty feeble, and this isn't the first time scenarios have cast the PCs as general, all-around world police problem solvers. There is an interesting backdrop to the events, however: Sveinn Blood-Eagle, the Linnorm King, has decided to step down from the throne, and his children are squabbling about who should replace him. (There's a minor encounter against some street thugs who mistakenly think the PCs are supporting one faction or another.) I assume this sets up an evolution in setting lore that will be reflected in PF2.
The Pathfinders' primary liaison with the local gnome community in Kalsgard is a fun and well-written cleric of Nivi Rhombodazzle named Quil Tabberdash. Quil operates The Hall of Seven Wagers, a combination church and gambling parlor. She explains that several gnomes have died over the past few months in a suspicious fashion, but only the four most recent crime scenes are available. The PCs can visit the crime scenes in any order. The way the investigation is handled mechanically isn't very good, in my opinion. Instead of the scenario describing the general scene and allowing the players to ask some intelligent questions (as well as search for clues), the entire process (even down to getting a general description of the room!) is handled only by Perception checks or Diplomacy (Gather Information) checks. It made the investigation very artificial, and was a bit infantilizing. One thing that the investigation reveals is that all four victims spent time in The Hall of Seven Wagers. My group spent a lot of time investigating the connection (and being suspicious of Quil), but that turned out to be either poor writing or an intentional red herring.
What the PCs are supposed to discover, instead, are cryptic, fading messages written in ectoplasm (!) that express regret for the murders and contain a street address. When they arrive, they find a small family of gnomes being held hostage, guarded by gnome wights! What the PCs will learn is the killings have been done, quite reluctantly, by the ghost of a gnome named Humush Mum. The rescued gnomes are Humush's family, kidnapped and held hostage by an evil gnome necromancer named Ellux Shost in order to force Humush to kill. Ellux, it turns out, wants to establish a gnome kingdom in the northern lands, and thinks an army of undead gnomes is a good way to accomplish this. Umm . . . hmm . . .
There's a lot to unpack here! The first thing that strikes me is that in Pathfinder, ghosts stick around because there is something very specific that they've left undone--they haven't been buried, they want revenge on their murderer, etc. Here, Humush Mum died in an ordinary accident and her ghost is apparently hanging around just because she was generally concerned over her family's well-being (this was before they were taken hostage). It's not really the sort of situation that one thinks of as giving rise to a ghost. Further, Humush Mum fits into that very problematic (in Golarion at least) category of non-evil undead. I have to give Ellux, the evil necromancer, credit for cleverly thinking that a ghost's corrupting touch would leave victims looking like they've suffered from the Bleaching, but I don't really see the connection between killing a bunch of gnomes and then raising them from the dead as a plausible way to establish a gnome kingdom. Like, is the local graveyard running out of bodies? That dude is bringing a lot of extra work on himself with these roundabout schemes. I know that a searching exploration of most fantasy plots break down as some point, but these were things that jumped out at me during the session, and I think they're a sign of a story that needed more work.
Anyway, the Pathfinders will find their way to Ellux's lair (in true PFS fashion, even if they don't discover any clues, they're almost literally led there by the nose). The lair is guarded by ghoul badgers (now that's an army!) and some skeletal champions. I like the artwork for Ellux. There is a nice little touch I thought was good--the faster that the PCs find Ellux's lair, the fewer buff spells the necromancer has time to put into place. After the battle, the epilogue is fine and the Chronicle boons are pretty interesting.
I've probably made Corpses in Kalsgard sound worse than it actually is. It plays fine, and although the plot needs work, there's nothing actively terrible about it. Indeed, the scenario does a good job portraying gnome culture in Kalsgard and provides a bit of insight into the evolving setting lore of the Land of Linnorm Kings. Overall final verdict: it's okay.
An intrigue adventure that forgot to bring the intrigue...and the adventure
The rare adventure I get to review from the playerside.
This was truly dull. The intrigue and mystery were thimble deep and not generally interesting in anyway, instead feeling distinctly like we were being led by the nose - which isn't too uncommon for these high level intrigue adventure, but what made this stand out is that nothing ever made up for it. It had real echoes of City of Strangers where the adventure is meant to be the PCs solving a mystery while the plot simply happens to us. But unlike City of Strangers, I walked away feeling no more informed about Kalsgard, and not feeling that I had met or encountered anything all that interesting.
There were no interesting locales, no memorable NPCs, no fun fights, and my rogue rolled a series of skills when prompted with varied levels of success. Just... 4 hours of polite play followed by some pizza.
I ran this for five PC's at low tier. An excellently written and formatted scenario with a lot of great gnome tie-ins. Only a few tiny issues kept this from being 5-stars, including weak enemies at the low tier and a few questionably written tactics. But I'll keep most of my review in spoilers to avoid anything slipping out.
I honestly really liked this scenario for flipping the usual script of pathfinder missions. Most of the time on an investigation you encounter the true villain right off the bat so the writer can do a 'gotcha' moment later on. It actually seemed a lot more like an episode of Criminal Minds, where the team has to track down a spree-killer before another person dies and they don't actually discover the psycho in the woods until the very last moment. While my players may have thought the necromancy stuff was cheesy, it did tie the serial killer stuff into the fantasy setting really well and explained all the enemies you faced. Said enemies certainly could have tactically been more of a threat though (and against a weaker or slower acting group, they might have been).
A main complaint was that the undead badgers at the end had no way of actually discovering the pathfinders easily when they started sneaking through the tunnels. Thus, they couldn't use their burrowing stuff to get the jump on them. The high tier digging enemies had tremorsense, which solves that problem. I also had a smaller issue with the restriction of the skeletons being unable to leave the bosses side. It would make a lot more sense for them to take advantage of their size in the tunnels instead of staying in the large room. Anyway, small complaints overall and I think most of that was solved at the high tier.
The only other issue was the whole background about the Linnorm King stuff. I'm guessing a lot of that is setup for a future scenario, but it really just felt forced into a really well crafted murder mystery scenario that had absolutely nothing to do with the stuff, other than as a foot note to explain why the authorities aren't looking into four bleaching deaths.
The DC's for the investigation skill checks also seemed really low, but I also had a few Perception & Diplomacy optimized players so maybe that was it more than anything else. I did like how the checks were formatted though.
Anyway, all in all I would strongly recommend this scenario.
Huh, I guess NPCs CAN die of old age by time of 2e
Given that Sveinn is human and was like 90 when he was first introduced a decade ago, it was pretty unlikely he was going to make it to PF2 as more than an historical reference. We figured we'd send him off on-screen and in style rather than it being an after-the-fact mention in a PF2 product.
Just wrote a thousand-word review, and the website ate it. Now I remember why I don't often write reviews. Will re-do it at some point, I suppose, but doing a placeholder now so Alex knows he has some positive feedback.
Comment page 14 D. Creatures . . . "although the state that they find them in depends on whether or not they successfully . .. in area C". Encounter C & D are mutually exclusive so I'm defaulting to the 'failed area C' conditions.
Question page 16 E.:
'If a PC succeeded at the Survival check above, the PC's arrive just after Ellus and he has not yet had a chance to deploy his undead minions.'
Is this talking about the badgers or the Skeletal Champions? The champions are already lined up in E2. Do we add the badgers to the lineup or deploy the champions in E1?
If the PCs succeed at rescuing the family, are the badgers deployed ready for the PC's?
Subtier 5-6 Undead Badgers Tactics: they "wait unil a PC comes within 10 feet, then use their burrow ability to crawl directly ... and attack". As the badger doesn't have tremorsense at this level, how are you handling it?
Thanks! Looking forward to running this at GenCon.
Another question. What is the DC for the BBEG to use perception to hear the fight in the tunnels? My idea (derived from the Perception skill) was to was to start at the cave entrance to the inner chamber with a -6 then add one to the DC for each five feet out into the caves. Doing that gives a DC of 6 at the small chamber SE of the cave/inter chamber junction.