The Hollowheart Conquest


Round 5: Submit an adventure proposal

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16 , Star Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 8

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The Hollowheart Conquest

People throughout Avistan whisper tales of the duergar, the hateful dwarves who kidnap innocents and drag them into the Darklands to endure a lifetime of brutal toil. Political figureheads acknowledge the duergar threat and prepare their soldiers as best they can to repel slave raids, but once the gray dwarves disappear into the sunless realm of Nar-Voth with their victims, few dare to pursue them. When the duergar abduct the son of an esteemed military commander, however, the surface world finally strikes back, spearheading an offensive push into Nar-Voth to unseat its tyrannical overlords.

The Hollowheart Conquest is a sandbox-style Pathfinder adventure designed for 5th-level characters. PCs on the medium advancement track should reach 7th level by the adventure’s conclusion. In the adventure, the PCs must help a dwarven army lay the groundwork for an invasion of the duergar province of Hollowheart in Nar-Voth, first capturing a key stronghold, then reinforcing it to repel a vicious counter-siege. This module does not use mass combat rules, instead concentrating on the PCs’ actions as individuals, with the mass combat serving as a backdrop.

Adventure Background

Colonel Dirisna Deepdelve (LN female middle-aged dwarf fighter 8), an acclaimed war hero in Rolgrimmdur’s military, has commanded the Five Kings Mountains’ subterranean defensive perimeter for nearly a century. Dirisna always thought little of Nar-Voth, seeing it as nothing more than the black pit that spawned the monsters she had beaten back for decades, until the day her son vanished during a duergar slave raid. The outraged colonel decided then that a defensive policy was no longer acceptable: The time had come for the dwarves to reclaim Nar-Voth after generations of living on the surface, and bring the duergar’s tyranny to an end.

By the adventure’s start, Dirisna has rallied an army of dwarves and begun reconnaissance of the Nar-Voth regions bordering the Five Kings Mountains. The colonel has discovered that the duergar province of Hollowheart—a massive cavern spanning miles in the bowels of Mount Onik, uncharted by surface-dwellers—will soon experience a brief period of vulnerability while its governor, the dreaded warpriest Izokar (LE male duergar warpriest of Droskar 10), attends a military conference at Hagegraf, leaving his fortress-capital sparsely defended. Dirisna prepares to strike, but she knows her army will not withstand the duergar’s retribution without aid. Therefore, Dirisna recruits the PCs—whether through her allies in the Pathfinder Society, through personal connections if one or more PCs are childhood friends of her son, or simply based on word of the PCs’ heroics—to serve as both a special forces team and as diplomats to Hollowheart's other denizens. If Dirisna can conscript the Nar-Voth natives and bolster her assault with the PCs’ help, she might be able to establish a permanent foothold in the Darklands for her nation.

Victory Points: As the PCs complete missions, gather reinforcements, and bolster the dwarven army’s conquest of Hollowheart, they earn Victory Points. These Victory Points determine the dwarven army’s momentum, the strength and punctuality of Izokar’s counterattack, and the ultimate outcome of Dirisna’s campaign. The GM tracks these points in secret so the PCs never know how successful they are until the module’s conclusion.

Chapter I: Operation Landslide

Colonel Dirisna mobilizes her army toward Kleimholt—Izokar’s stronghold—knowing that the warpriest will be in Hagegraf with most of his manpower. Dirisna sends the PCs ahead of the main force to set the stage for the fortress’s swift capture. The dwarves cannot afford to waste time on a lengthy siege, given Izokar’s imminent return, so they must claim the fortress in no more than two days (leaving just enough time for the PCs to potentially accomplish all of the available side quests and capture the fortress if they do not take time to rest and recover between encounters). This timeframe will allow the dwarves to make any necessary repairs to the battlements to help hold Kleimholt against the inevitable counterattack.

How the PCs accomplish this goal is up to them. By exploring noteworthy Hollowheart locations around Kleimholt, the PCs can meet different Nar-Voth denizens and try to secure their assistance in the coming war through roleplaying and one-encounter side quests, earning Victory Points if they can do so successfully. Sample encounters include:

  • Resolving a bid for leadership between two rival dark stalkers in the same dark folk tribe. The dark stalkers know how to sneak past Kleimholt’s outer walls undetected.
  • Helping a derro hermit complete his life’s work to gain his mechanical expertise, useful for bypassing the fortress’s traps and opening its gates.
  • Freeing a team of mongrelmen slaves and convincing them to join Dirisna’s cause. The mongrelmen can provide a distraction for the duergar sentries, buying the PCs time to sneak into Kleimholt.
  • (Exploring a mine shaft haunted by one of Izokar’s former victims, whose spirit may be convinced to find rest by helping the PCs hamstring the warpriest’s regional influence. The ghost can help neutralize the guards inside Kleimholt while the PCs open the gates for Dirisna’s army.)
  • NOTE: Any sample encounters listed in (parentheses) may be cut to conserve space in the final published product, if necessary.

After two days, the PCs reunite with Dirisna and attack Kleimholt. Dirisna again sends the PCs ahead of the army proper, with the objective of infiltrating the fortress and establishing ways for the dwarves to take Kleimholt with minimal damage to its defenses (which they will need intact to withstand Izokar’s retaliation). With proper preparation and NPC support, the PCs can open Kleimholt’s gates for the army with only a single combat encounter.

New Location: Kleimholt:
A sizable duergar stronghold that capitalizes on Nar-Voth’s environment, including sentry towers carved into stalactites, trap-riddled ramparts, walls studded with blightburn crystals, and interior rooms devoted to underground labor and the worship of Droskar. This location serves as the adventure’s twofold centerpiece, first with the PCs as attackers, then as defenders. This provides two distinct opportunities for the PCs to interact with the stronghold’s notable locations, including the chance for them to add their own fortifications.

The PCs’ Victory Points accumulated before and during the attack dictate the assault’s degree of success, establishing the army’s position for Chapter III. Exploring the fortress also provides some unsettling clues about Izokar’s leadership, including duergar captives who yield no information from interrogations beyond repeatedly reciting Droskari prayers and beating their heads against walls in a panic, and psychologically disturbing sanctuaries of the Dark Smith in Izokar’s chapel and office.

Chapter II: Enemy of My Enemy

Having established a foothold in Hollowheart, Dirisna immediately begins preparing for Izokar’s return. Dirisna does not know when the duergar will arrive, nor with what kind of forces, so she sends the PCs into Hollowheart's inner reaches to find this information and continue rallying the Nar-Voth natives to her side. She also implores the PCs to use whatever skills or resources they have to brace Kleimholt for Izokar’s wrath, including building or repairing traps, constructing fortifications, and boosting the dwarves’ morale.

This chapter extends the sandbox component of the adventure, as the PCs explore more noteworthy locations throughout Hollowheart and interact with the region’s locals, trying to recruit allies or hinder the oncoming army however possible. Sample locations and encounters include:

  • Kalendi’s Spike, the stalagmite lair of a dimmix (see below) who might be convinced to serve as a spy.
  • Higharch Cavern, a crystalline cave in the ceiling that houses an agoraphobic crystal dragon traumatized by her clutch-sister being abducted and brainwashed into serving as Izokar’s steed.
  • Gloomjoy Grotto, an underground spring with healing properties infested by gloomwasps (Round 3). If properly harvested, these restorative waters might help the PCs endure a lengthy, exhausting siege.
  • (Spineridge Slope, a bottleneck point inhabited by troglodytes that can be recruited as mercenaries, whose guerrilla strikes slow Izokar’s advance and buy the PCs time.)
  • (The Sculptor’s Studio, a stony clearing where a gang of impressionable rock trolls zealously serve their artisanal medusa master. If their “goddess” is befriended or slain, the trolls could make for impressive reinforcements.)
  • Deepsky Roost, a chasm dotted with spire platforms inhabited by a wing of politically-minded gargoyles. The gargoyles can be convinced to serve as Dirisna’s air force (although they might betray the dwarves during the siege if the PCs’ Victory Points are too low when they recruit the treacherous creatures).

New Monster: Dimmix:
A subterranean fey that is naturally invisible to darkvision, resulting in a pathological craving for attention. Failing to adequately sate a dimmix’s insecurity provokes vindictive behavior from the crafty fey. Dimmixes use illusions and shadow magic to interact with other creatures, resorting to a whip-like strand of shadowstuff as a last resort when threatened.

Bonus Location: The Seed:
The core of the Hollowheart province is a colossal geode at the mountain’s center, which harbors strong connections to the Plane of Earth. The ceiling of the entire cavern (and, by extension, the mountain above) seems to bloom from this site, giving it the geode its name. Several of Hollowheart’s earthen denizens hail from the Seed, called to Nar-Voth by Dalfrensys, the athletics-loving shaitan who oversees the magical site. Dalfrensys proves reluctant to participate in Hollowheart turf wars, but successfully navigating her obstacle course through the Seed’s crystalline interior convinces her to bestow a useful magic item upon worthy PCs: a shaitan scepter (see below).

New Item: Shaitan Scepter:
A shaitan scepter functions as a quarterstaff that deals increased damage and improves combat maneuvers while its wielder stands on solid earth. The scepter also allows its wielder to conjure tower-shield sized walls of stone that can then be pushed at enemies as grounded ranged attacks.

Like in Chapter I, the PCs’ endeavors earn Victory Points as well as other tangible rewards, such as monstrous allies, delays in Izokar’s approach (meaning extra preparation time), and special resources. This process also uncovers more rumors and information about Izokar, whose sober devotion to Droskar and penchant for torturously brainwashing other creatures into serving his faith is infamous throughout all of Nar-Voth.

Over the course of their exploits, the PCs eventually discover that Izokar’s army is roughly a week’s march from Kleimholt, limiting how much they can accomplish before the warpriest’s return. Furthermore, word of Dirisna’s conquest had reached Hagegraf, and the other duergar leaders swelled Izokar’s returning army far beyond what the colonel was prepared to face. The PCs can use whatever time they have left to fortify their stronghold in preparation for Izokar’s arrival.

Chapter III: The Kleimholt Siege

Regardless of what the PCs accomplish in Chapter II, Izokar’s legion eventually reaches Kleimholt’s walls, and wastes no time isolating the stronghold from all supply lines and escape routes. The PCs and their commander must now size up their adversary and hold the Hollowheart capital in the name of the Five Kings Mountains.

First, the PCs and Dirisna have the opportunity to meet the enemy commander “under torchlight” (the Darklands equivalent of beneath a white flag) to discuss possible terms for truce. This roleplaying encounter puts the PCs face-to-face with their enigmatic foe: Izokar proves to be honorable, respectful, and genuinely devoted to the wellbeing of his people (whom he calls “dwarves” rather than “duergar”). That said, the clean-shaven war-marshall is also chillingly calculating in his diplomacy and unsettlingly devoted to the dogmas of Droskar, specifically those of attaining spiritual purity through utterly selfless labor. Aggressive PCs may try to end the battle before it begins by slaying the warpriest during this meeting, but Izokar anticipates an attempt on his life and has prepared several contingency plans should things go sour. The duergar army would also rally against the PCs’ “dishonorable conduct,” costing the PCs Victory Points, and even if the PCs do neutralize Izokar they would only clear the way for his second-in-command to take charge (see the final sample encounter, below).

As expected, reaching terms of mutually-agreeable resolution proves impossible, but socially-savvy PCs can glean some insights about Izokar’s army and how he plans to use it by reading Izokar’s expressions and language. They can also plant false information about their own forces in the duergar’s mind via convincing bluffs and boasts. Successfully navigating the encounter in these ways yields Victory Points.

After negotiations, the PCs attend a war council with Dirisna, her officers, and any NPCs they recruited in Chapters I and II. The PCs must navigate the individual motivations and personalities of the various NPCs, anticipate the likely locations of duergar attack, and consolidate their manpower and resources to prepare for the siege. Strategically sound placement of soldiers, traps, and monsters will earn the PCs Victory Points, as well as affect the kinds of allied creatures that help the PCs in battle at specific places in the stronghold.

Following the council, Izokar’s army attacks. The PCs must navigate the entire battleground and lend their assistance to the pivotal combat sites that need them most. Most siege encounters are overwhelmingly challenging on the surface; the difference between the PCs’ victory or defeat is the presence or absence of recruited allies, traps, and terrain that they can use to their advantage. Sample encounters include:

  • Holding a breach in the outer wall against a troop of duergar (using the troop subtype).
  • (Protecting Dirisna from a traitorous officer, who was enticed by Izokar’s negotiation offers and wants to prevent the dwarves’ massacre.)
  • Taking out enemy flying units and siege weapons from Kleimholt’s stalactite towers and ramparts.
  • (Leading a strike team against the enemy’s resources, killing their medics and burning their stores of siege weapon ammunition.)
  • Rallying a routed dwarven battalion.
  • (Foiling a sabotage effort by duergar sappers.)
  • Activating a large trap or hazard that can stymie the duergar onslaught.
  • Fending off Izokar’s vanguard, led by the warpriest’s second-in-command: Dirisna’s son, who now serves Izokar as a horrifying monster (see below).

New Monster Template: Illoyal:
When an evil creature so completely destroys a captive’s or servant’s sense of self that it can no longer comprehend its own existence beyond pleasing its tormentor, the victim may transform into an unliving slave called an illoyal. Part sentient zombie, part shield guardian, an illoyal relentlessly protects and serves its master with defensive abilities and improved combat maneuvers, even functioning as a receptacle for its master’s soul should its master die prematurely.

The final battle occurs when Izokar himself engages the PCs from the back of his brainwashed crystal dragon mount. The PCs will struggle to overcome this intimidating adversary even with indirect NPC support (only the PCs dare to challenge Izokar directly), but slaying the duergar commander here will devastate their enemy’s morale.

Aftermath

At the module’s conclusion, the GM tallies the PCs’ Victory Point total to determine the degree of their success or failure. Victorious PCs receive substantial monetary compensation for their services, as well as accolades and honors from the Five Kings Mountains royalty. Furthermore, at the GM’s discretion, Dirisna may offer to turn formal leadership of the claimed Hollowheart province over to the PCs, serving them as a military commander. This places the PCs in a position to use the kingdom-building rules presented in Ultimate Campaign for further adventuring, establishing Kleimholt as their capital and expanding their influence further into Nar-Voth and the rest of the Darklands.

Paizo Employee Creative Director

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First of all, congratulations on making it to the final round! That's an accomplishment in and of itself! My review of the proposal (as with the other three adventure reviews) focuses primarily upon how the adventure fits into the Inner Sea region, and how interesting the adventure sounds as a whole. I'm going to present feedback with very little sugar-coating as well, since I've always held that frank and honest feedback is more valuable.

Feedback for The Hollowheart Conquest

The Basics
Title: Great title! Easily my favorite of the four submissions.
Location: Five Kings Mountains; a good choice, particularly for a duergar-themed adventure. Also, well done at placing pretty much the entire adventure in the Darklands and not spending any time above ground!
Plot: Nice background, and the way you incorporated the PCs into a big military action without having to use the mass combat rules is very well done. The sandbox element is excellent as well; its really easy to get lured into linear stories in adventures set in caves, it seems. That said, the timer element almost… ALMOST… kills the proposal dead to me. See Development Challenge #2 below for more details.

The Good

Spoiler:

1) Full on duergar action. Well done; a classic Darklands race that we haven’t actually done a lot of in adventures before, unlike evil fey or derro or vegeypygmies. Excellent choice.

2) The proposal was the shortest of the four, but was very concise and didn’t get distracted with dialogue or secondary elements that just cluttered it up. The fact that you didn’t feel the need to fill up the entire word count helps to make me think you’ve got a firm grip on where you want to go with the adventure. It’s a subtle thing, but it speaks volumes.

3) The construction of the adventure is really compelling; having the PCs take a site and then help defend it opens up some fun options for game play… but see challenge #3 below.

4) Agoraphobic crystal dragon! Cool character, and I like tying her in with Izokar’s mount.

5) Dimmixes sound really unusual and interesting. Invisibility to darkvision isn’t a great defense against PCs, of course, but it opens up some compelling and neat story options for how they get used in adventures, particularly Darklands adventures.

6) The “under torchlight” encounter at the start of chapter III is cool; a great way to allow the PCs to meet the enemy and let them have some roleplay before the climactic battles.

7) The illoyal template is interesting; a combination undead and shield guardian could have some cool ramifications. Make sure it’s not just an undead broken soul or a shield guardian with undead flavor though…

Development Challenges

Spoiler:

1) Not a fan of using derro as allies. They’re stronger as bad guys, since they’re so spooky and creepy. I’d like to see the derro hermit replaced by something else. There’s plenty of choices in Nar Voth… and the fact that the character is a hermit means it doesn’t even have to be a native. Could be a human or dwarf or whatever who’s retreated down below!

2) Timers are tricky and usually bad. When something unexpected happens, like a PC getting a lot of ability damage from some bad saving throws against poison, or having resources depleted too quickly due to some unexpected bad rolls that required lots of extra healing… suddenly having the adventure fail just because you ran out of time is really frustrating. The higher level, the less this is an issue, and in fact, timers for REALLY high level adventures are a GREAT way to force the PCs to use all their resources. For lower level adventures, like this one, they’re generally a bad idea. Even if the party THINKS they’re on a timer when they’re really not, it’ll affect how they play and force them to overextend and expose them more to disaster. AKA: Timers, implied or real, turn adventures into death marches and TPK machines. If you absolutely MUST have a timer in this adventure, then make it a lot longer than 2 days. Weeks or even a month is best, frankly. A 2-day limit on a “rush the evil site before the leader returns” isn’t a good plot for a low level adventure at all, and this is the adventure’s single biggest flaw.

3) This might be tricky setting the adventure up so that it turns the PCs actions into the focus of play, since a story like this wants to focus more on the actual big battles. Reducing the taking of the fortress to the results of victory points and a glorified bit of read-aloud text runs the risk of being underwhelming, but shifting it the other way into a mass combat type thing is a bad idea too. This element of the adventure will likely be difficult to make work right, and that makes me a little nervous.

4) The seed feels like overkill. I liked things better when it was focusing on Darklands stuff like the duergar; involving links to the Plane of Earth takes it away from the Darkland themes that the adventure should be pursuing.

5) Watch out with the troop subtype. They’re pretty deadly, and against low level PCs can overwhelm quickly. The troop rules are really meant to give high-level PCs a challenge, in fact. It’s better to just have lower level PCs just fight individual groups of low level foes, since that’s exactly what those things are built to do. Troops in this adventure are overkill.

6) I do like the siege elements and encounters, but having worked on similar adventures before (such as “Sword of Valor”) I know that setting these things up and supporting them with all the necessary maps can be VERY tricky and difficult. You need several encounters, after all, but the fact that the maps tend to take up a lot of room quickly cuts into wordcount. Might not be as big a problem for a module, with its inside covers and poster helping to support the maps… but it’s still something to watch out for.

Final Thoughts
A pretty compelling and exciting plot… but the timer element combined with it being a sandbox is a combination that is REALLY difficult to pull off, particularly for a low-level adventure. Sandboxes benefit from being leisurely so that players can really explore, and timers force them to rush. Combining both would result in an adventure that’s more frustrating to play and run than anything else. Removing the timer (or at the very least relaxing it significantly) is a requirement for this adventure if it wins, at which point my interest in the adventure increases greatly.

I hesitantly recommend “The Hollowheart Conquest” for consideration as the winner of RPG Superstar 2015–but with the removal or significant relaxation of the timer element my interest in the adventure grows.

Scarab Sages Modules Overlord

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First, congratulations on making it to the final four! And, thanks. I know I put you through the wringer on a number of these challenges, and I appreciate the effort you've put into all these rounds. Without your hard work, there's no contest.

Also, don’t take any of the comments below to indicate I think this adventure pitch is bad. It's not. You've proven you deserve to be here, and I am going to respond with straight talk commentary and assume you can absorb that professionally, given how well you've done so far.

Now, on to judging!

Since James Jacobs is ably handling the Big Picture concerns, I can just judge based on how easy I think the adventure would be to develop, and my opinion of the concepts and presentation! I don’t want to ask voters to read too many long comments, so I'll keep my comments concise.

Title: The title is interesting, evocative, and not going to sound like five other fantasy-themed things the players may have already read/played/watched. I think it's the best title of the round.

Background: I like the idea of the background a lot – it's properly heroic and well-grounded in Nar-Voth themes. However, it also has some tricky elements that could take a LOT of development time. An adventure has to feel like the PCs are the focus of attention, even fi they aren’t the most important people in the kingdom. Victory Points and similar mechanics can make players feel divorced from the action, and may take a lot of tweaking to get right, which eats up time that might be needed for more mundane issues.

Chapter 1: Neat set-up, but all the development issues just multiplied. Done perfectly, this would be awesome. But we've all played games where you can see the IDEA behind an encounter, but the EXECUTION leaves something to be desired. There's nothing here that suggests how to make a sandbox-on-a-timer-with-bigger-forced-coming will work smoothly. Much like the mapping round, an adventure pitch can’t just through out pretty ideas and assume they'll work in the end somehow. You need a blueprint so voters know what they are voting for, and here they don't. Voters should take this kind of difficult element on faith.

Chapter II: The idea of a sandbox of preparation gabs me more than some of these individual elements. Still, unlike above, here you do provide a clear outline of how this section will work, and I think some people will really get into it.

Chapter III: I like everything about this – except the actual adventure design. "Under torch" is a neat idea, and enemies you can talk to and respect are often a lot of fun. But being under siege is very limiting, and can turn into a slog quickly.

This pitch is a mixed bag. There are a lot of great ideas, and a lot of problematic set-ups. I think this could be hammered out in outline, but if not it would be a huge problem in development. Even so, it's a strong Nar-Voth plot with cool hooks, and cool set-pieces.

I do recommend "The Hollowheart Conquest" for consideration as the winner of RPG Superstar 2015.


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I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the finalists. In my role at Green Ronin Publishing I have certainly seen my share of adventure proposals and can say that I think crafting adventures is one of the most difficult parts of designing in the roleplaying games arena. My comments are coming from the perspective of someone who routinely has to weigh in on balancing creative concerns with larger business strategy issues.

The title of Hollowheart Conquest grabbed my attention right away. The word conquest is bold and promises action in a very concise way. This kind of title is likely to stand out when a publisher is trying to pitch the product and makes both my creative side and my business side happy. The set-up that follows also worked for me, getting right to the point of getting the adventurers into the Darklands and providing various ways for the PCs to become involved and exert their influence. I very much like the structure of amassing Victory Points as the PCs work to gain allies and explore options. I favor this structure as a way of keeping players engaged in the face of unexpected decisions and it seems thoughtfully considered as part of the adventure structure here. My only concern is the timed element ("only two days!") might undermine the otherwise really good sandbox-style structure; I would want to relax that timed element or remove it completely if I moved this proposal ahead.

I also really liked the numerous locations touched on in the outline. Once again they struck me as well-considered, centering the focus on the Darklands as the real heart of the adventure setting and giving the PCs several different ways to interact with the setting. Likewise, elements like the Dimmix, the Shaitan Scepter, and the Illoyal were very evocative, not just new for the sake of being new. The confrontation with Izokar and his forces is inevitable but the encounters give the PCs several ways to make progress toward their goal and offer players plenty of opportunities to make choices along the way.

I would green light this proposal if it were submitted to me at my company and I give it my strong support for RPG Superstar 2015.

RPG Superstar Season 9 , Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

There's a lot to be proud of with this - way to go!

Congratulations and best of luck with the voters!

Per usual, I'll withhold any comments until after voting closes (hopefully for the last time as a RPGSS spectator).

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9 aka motteditor

I gave Chris some feedback on this one, so I'm not going to say too much here.

This one really spoke to me, reminding me a bit of my own module (though also very different). I love the idea of taking over the area and then having to defend it.

Also really liked the dragon NPC; I love dragons, especially as something more than just enemies to face in combat.

RPG Superstar 2011 Top 32 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

I really, really enjoyed this one. I'll be voting for it.


I thoroughly enjoy this adventure proposal. It gets my vote.

Good luck, Christopher!

Scarab Sages RPG Superstar 2013 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Steven T. Helt

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My vote will be for this or Monica's adventure. I think your pitch excited me the most..maybe my favorite archetype of adventure is when the Good Guys Have Had Enough of Your Crap and are busting a move. That just excites me and had this epic drama surrounding it.

The cinema of mass combat in the background while the PCs struggle for specific objectives is also very compelling.

The detractors are the poor planning in putting the PCs in a sandbox AND on a clock. That rush makes the adventure functionally linear. Linear isn't bad when everyone is on the same page and the encounters are exciting, but you're trying to do both. Kudos for the big swing, but you have to connect when you swing for the fences, or the errors glare.

I will say that giving the PCs more time alleviates a lot of that without having to redevelop. Maybe if you win you can give them some urgency by having two sandbox objectives being time sensitive (that is, if they don't come together near the same time, they don't work), and plenty of time for the others.

Really great work, Chris. Good luck in the voting.

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Congratulations on making the Top 4! Well done! I’m going to be very honest and straight up in my review here. Please understand when I seem harsh that this is designed to be constructive rather than to malign. I think all four finalists are excellent designers with many great ideas!

The title is quite good as it covers what occurs within the adventure. But it isn’t terrific. By including the name of a new location in Nar-Voth in the title it doesn’t resonate with people who know of Golarion and that is a big part of the prospective audience. Still, not a bad title at all. Easily the best of the four.

A military style adventure has a lot going for it, especially if the goals are set out clearly and are strategically sound. These sort of adventures are best when done in the style of The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone , or Where Eagles Dare. A group of heroes working together in hostile territory to help their armies win allow for great drama, suspense, and action. Sadly we rarely see such adventures in RPGs, probably because they are hard to pull off. This adventure seems well suited to that which is fantastic. One problem I see with this is that it works best with an all dwarf party. Non-dwarves can be involved, but the ties to this sort of adventure have be stronger than they are for most generic modules.

I’m not sure about the Victory Points system. While that fits with the “Men on a Mission” theme of this adventure, it ignores an opportunity to use the new mass combat rules that were brought in with Ultimate Campaign. Perhaps a better system would be to use the points as an alternative to mass combat in a final battle if someone doesn’t use the mass combat rules and have each accomplishment of the PCs strengthen or reduce the forces they bring to bear or face.

I like the idea of a wide open series of encounters built around recruiting allies. I think it was a mistake only having one encounter in parenthesis that “could be cut”. Changes are always made between initial pitch and final product, and the publisher—not the writer—decides what those are. That lost some words that could have been used elsewhere. Also the narrative line is somewhat cut by having the PCs return for new orders. It would be better to have them to already have their orders and have a means of relating their alliances with the main force without having to return until after the battle.

The next section is also good, allowing the players to come up with their own plans and having resources detailed that they can gather to build up the dwarven forces. I’m not a fan of the dimmix as the motivation is more gremlin-like than fey that can be negotiated with. The crystal dragon is a cool addition and a powerful equalizer. Recruiting gargoyles makes little sense as they are diametrically opposed to the dwarves in alignment. I think some better use of the traditional Nar-Voth races here could go a long way.

I like the bonus area as it has a strong tie to the main adventure while truly being optional. Cool use of a Shaitan and new magic item to add to the chances of success.

There doesn’t seem to be a special event or encounter to close off this part of the adventure before the arrival of Izokar’s legion. From a narrative stand point something, even a roleplaying encounter rather than combat, should be there to mark the end of one section and the beginning of another.

The opening encounter of part three is great from a narrative point of view and I like how it amounts to sizing one another up before combat begins. Giving means of accomplishing ends even without changing the results is good adventure design.

The final battle, sadly, is where this becomes weakest. Having the PCs basically run around the battlefield shoring up defences is not nearly as effective as fighting the battle itself. The heroes of a story are always where the principle action is, so having them move from spot to spot diminishes their importance from the appearance of the battle even if they are adding in “victory points”. This cries out for mass combat leading to a final confrontation between the PCs and Izokar.

I like the Illoyal as a concept though the name doesn’t grab me at all. I think the use of this creature would have a better emotional impact if the PCs were connected to Dirisna’s son rather than just people who work for his mother. Other than that it has the makings of a very hard and memorable climatic battle. The aftermath makes using Ultimate Campaign a possibility which just furthers the appropriateness of using mass combat. It seems a waste not to use them in an adventure designed around military action.

All in all I liked this adventure proposal a lot. Because this isn’t a very generic adventure and doesn’t feel like it captures the unique flavor of Nar-Voth as well as some of the others, I will not be voting for it. But I won’t mind at all if it wins.

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8 , Dedicated Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka Amanuensis

This is easily my favourite proposal.
I really like the sandbox structure of this adventure. The locations are original and fit the diversity of Nar-Voth really well. There are several sidequests that play to the strengths of diplomatic characters, as well as challenges for those who would rather solve problems with their fists, which tends to different styles of play. You also do a great job introducing the villain to the PCs, making Izokar an interesting and memorable opponent.
I would most certainly enjoy playing or running this adventure. Well done, Christopher, and good luck!

Star Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Great name, I came here first. Hollowheart is a descriptive and concrete image (even without knowing it is a giant geode) and conquest is very strong action word.

The story lives up to the name as well. I love sandbox adventures and this provides lots of possibilities for creative players to spread their wings. Defending a castle is great fun and my players will really like it. Finding ways into said castle first is also good fun. Like Jacob, I like that you worked a dragon in here without it being just an evil speedbump to XP. It adds character to the plot, as does the truce meeting (under torchlight is another great name).

I do feel the sandbox is a little too much though. I understand the victory points will develop the battle's outcome, but it feels almost like a token effort to keep the PCs involved in someone else's battle. The battle is being run by NPCs; the siege is being defended by NPCs. The outcome of the battle ultimately does not affect the PCs (beyond gold and accolades) and their efforts before the final battle don't seem relevant. Either they win enough points and the battle is won or they don't. The outcome is the same: the PCs take on the BBEG.

If they win against the BBEG, the attacking army is routed. If not... what happens? They should focus all their resources to go nova on the boss (or spend some resources to get the shaitan scepter and then go nova on the boss). They should do this BEFORE he even gets an army together. I get that the PCs need this climactic battle, but what stakes do the PCs have to get here? This is the danger in a sandbox adventure, it needs a strong tie to bring everything together and show that the PC's effort have an effect on the world (or at least this adventure).

This is not a big detractor from the proposal. I have faith the questions will be worked out before it publishes and that the rest of the pitch is strong enough to get it there.

Thanks Christopher, this will be fun. Good luck!

Sczarni RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32 , Champion Voter Season 6, Champion Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Champion Voter Season 9

1 person marked this as a favorite.

I enjoy the dimmix, fits in great for a Darklands adventure! I also really like sandbox style games when GMing as it feels like less of a railroad the PCs are tied to. But the timer kind of ruins the sandbox possibilities. My favorite of the submissions. Best of luck!

Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 8

I would really like to play this adventure.

Dark Archive

This is my favorite of the submissions! I like the setting of an epic underground assault and then a defensive action. I also actually kind of like the timer on it since it gives a sense of urgency that lends a bit of realism to the entire thing. The bad guys aren't going to lounge about and give you all the time in the world to secure your freshly stolen fortress. They are going to come in fast and hard as soon as they know what's going on. I like that you can increase your clock time by recruiting various factions to slow down the duergar army as well.
The NPC's are nice as well, especially the crystal dragon, you wouldn't think of a phobia ridden dragon as something that could exist since...well who wants to mess with a dragon? I like the Dimmix as well, it seems perfectly natural that something like that would evolve in the Darklands and while it may not pose a large threat to a party, I've been in several where everyone either had or could get darkvision and so traditional light sources weren't even carried. (and I imagine if you're doing something like this adventure proposes you'd invest in some darkvision potions/scrolls so you don't have to walk around lit up like a christmas tree for any hostile creatures to pounce upon.)
It's something I'd very much like to see the entire adventure since the outline doesn't really satisfy on how the encounters are set up. This gets my vote. I'd love to play it someday and (hopefully) get a subterranean fortress (batcave) to further pursue Darklands shenanigans!

Star Voter Season 8

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Rulebook Subscriber

I'm basically just an average GM, and I spend much more time reading adventures than actually playing them, so take my opinions with a grain of salt.

The setting (both the actual visuals and the setup of the plot) seems grand and majestic, but a bit too much for a party of this level. Putting the scenario on a timer just amplifies that for me - expecting a party of 5th level PCs to get through an adventure of this size without stopping to rest seems a bit much.

It also seems odd that there is such a large penalty for the PCs attacking Izokar when they meet "under torchlight". The meeting is a cool idea, and a good chance to insert a roleplaying encounter, but I would rather give a small reward for the PCs succeeding at defeating Izokar early (such as the duregar being more disorganized), at the cost of a much more difficult early battle than if the PCs wait until the main battle. As written, it seems to me too much like an attempt to beat down PCs who stray from the plot.

The example encounters in Part II really captured my imagination, but the examples in Part III could use some more fleshing out. For example, what kind of obstacle could the PCs activate? The Part III encounters were mostly expected actions, which makes sense, but some more details could make them come alive.

Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

The timer element isn't as strong in my mind as the judges all seem to act. Only Chapter 2 has the strict "2 days" element, where as the next Chapter specifically mentions "they don't know when" and suggests closer to a week+ before the real assault occurs.

I think, personally, I'd alter the design a little bit. The attack at the end of Chapter 1 on Kliemholt "must" succeed. What I would do is treat the various side quests of that section as "mitigators" of the attack. The surface dwarf army "must" win and take Kliemholt, the influence the PCs will have is how many surface dwarves die in the process. IF you're able to complete all the events in time, then you end up with the largest army still (and most Victory Points I guess). Certain quests may even be specifically necessary to "unlock" options for PC battles during that first "taking of Kliemholt" action.

Setting a strict "you have 48 hrs before the surface dwarf army arrives" is fine in this sense, as its more about "how many can you complete" than "you missed out on this" and solid parties that roleplay well, get lucky, and do all the steps right win the prize of getting Kliemholt easier (being able to disable defenses, unlock locked gates, and/or have alternate "secret" routes into Kliemholt could give a fun "thing for the PCs to do to influence the war").

Then I think any GM would be able to adjust the timeline of the duergar counter-attack on Kliemholt. I might even insert a few optional quests to delay them, like destroying a tunnel system that is the straightest route (and will make it so that Faction X wont side with you as they use it for trade, etc.).

The Chapter 2 quests then become mitigators in the form of "you must have X victory points to have a chance to defeat the army and defend Kliemholt." The PCs various choices with potential allies (and potential enemies) can give the surface dwarves a bonus or penalties when it comes to the fight, and the PCs may need to ensure a minimum to be able to "hold" Kliemholt.

This then would lead, as the designer points out, to an awesome starting point for kingdoms-building style campaign. Which is a bonus. Other PCs that aren't interested in that could just as easily walk away with treasure and fame.

Either way, seems solid enough to me of a design.

Also, I like the dimmix (not name though so much) as a solid design for an underdark fey... sound interesting and I'd like to see them developed more.

The Exchange

Great scope and innovation here. I like Monica's professional adventure but I would buy this every day.

Even if this isn't chosen, I hope you're given a chance to complete it.

Cheers

Star Voter Season 6, Dedicated Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

My favorite of the round! I don't have much to add here; just imagine an owlbear reading Gabriel's and Lucas's comments above.

My only wish is for a tighter story focus on the PCs. The epilogue offers the option to hand the fortress over to the players at the end, which is cool, but I think it's a stronger gesture if the PCs earn it by working their way up the ranks over the course of the module—something that would make more sense to implement in a more lenient timeline.

Sczarni RPG Superstar 2012 Top 32 , Champion Voter Season 6, Champion Voter Season 7, Champion Voter Season 8, Champion Voter Season 9

Lucus Palosaari wrote:
Also, I like the dimmix (not name though so much) as a solid design for an underdark fey... sound interesting and I'd like to see them developed more.

Agreed, hate the name and I want to see it get published. It's not really invisible in the conventional sense and sounds real fun if the party is adventuring in only darkvision, either though racial features and/or magic means.

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8

Between your submission and Monica's, I'm going to have a hard time casting a vote. I really liked this entry, from start to finish.

Personally, I wasn't bothered by the timer; I like sandboxy adventures a lot, but for me there biggest problem is they can easily let a party do an encounter a day, which means they can use up all of their daily resources all at once without having to worry about leaving something in the quiver for later. (I've had a lot of problems with this DM'ing Kingmaker.) Putting the party on a timer removes some of that problem. By maybe tweaking the amount of time a bit and choosing the sorts of threats they face judiciously (it isn't that hard to steer clear of monsters that do ability damage, for instance), it should be possible to make this work. Even if the party did face threats that could weaken them long-term, won't they have a well-equipped and supported army to return to? And won't that army have some healing available for them? I think it's totally doable.

I loved the dimmix and the dragon, btw. I seem to have a limitless appetite for dark fey, and the dimmix is a great concept. The phobic dragon reminded me of an old article from Dragon magazine about dragon madnesses that I always thought was cool.

You were one of my picks for the Final Four from early on, and you haven't disappointed at any stage. I think you've got great chops as a designer, and I hope to see lots of published work from you eventually, whether as Superstar or whatever!

Star Voter Season 6

Nice job! I like this adventure, and it would be fun to play. I'm already imagining how my character might engage/redeem the crystal dragon sisters, and I really like the idea of keeping Kleimholt as a base of operations.

That being said, I do think this adventure would be challenging to develop smoothly in a single module, and I'm afraid I want to play Down the Blighted Path even more than The Hollowhart Conquest.

However, this is exciting work, and if it wins, I'm sure I'll enjoy playing (or GMing) it!

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16 , Star Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 8

4 people marked this as a favorite.

My deepest, sincerest thanks to everyone who lent their support to “The Hollowheart Conquest,” including the three judges! It’s difficult to describe how uplifting and vindicating it feels to see such positive responses about my proposal from Pathfinder players and consumers, even those who decided not to vote for it.

I modeled this proposal after one of my all-time favorite printed modules: The Red Hand of Doom, an adventure published under the 3.5 ruleset (and co-authored by James Jacobs, I just discovered this past weekend!). I played that module in high school and it remains far and away my best gaming experience to this day. For a long time I’ve wanted to transcribe the essence of Red Hand into Pathfinder, and I saw this contest as the perfect vehicle for doing so. I borrowed many of the premises for “The Hollowheart Conquest” from that module, including the victory point mechanic, the focus on the PCs as an elite strike team with a mass combat backdrop, the limited amount of time to prepare defenses against an oncoming army (although the timeline could be extended by successfully completing missions that slowed the enemy down), the war council roleplaying encounter, and the isolated-skirmish format for the final siege. I’ll also add here that I love Garrett’s idea of having the PCs’ actions not only help dictate their army’s success in the conquest, but earn them elevated military rankings to highlight their efforts and set the stage for them receiving the kingdom in the end!

I’ve also written many homebrew adventures of different styles over the past few years, and I’ve come to realize through experience that I have a passion and an affinity for designing sandbox style games. Kingmaker is my favorite Paizo adventure path by a wide margin, and I love creating playgrounds of interesting encounters and interconnected storylines where players can be set loose to follow their interests. Because of this, I knew I wanted to integrate a sandbox element into “The Hollowheart Conquest,” so I made the preparatory stage for repelling the oncoming army more free-form than it was in Red Hand. A major shoutout to Lucus for identifying something that I failed to communicate effectively in my proposal: I intended for the opening task of capturing Kleimholt to be more a challenge of “how many side quests can you accomplish in this timeline,” rather than a “you have to check all these boxes or the entire adventure fails” setup (since Chapters II and III hinge upon the success of the battle in Chapter I). The more the PCs manage to accomplish successfully, the higher the degree of their success, setting a baseline for the army’s position in Chapter III. Anything the PCs don’t accomplish in Chapter I can still be completed in Chapter II, although doing so would use precious time, the dwarf army would still be weaker from needing to use more resources to take the fortress, and the defenses of the fortress itself would be compromised from the attack. I borrowed this setup from Skull & Shackles (another one of my favorite APs, particularly the oceanic sandbox in Raiders of the Fever Sea), where…

Spoiler:
...the PCs win the island in the Free Captain’s Regata no matter what the actual race result is.
I failed to directly address this in the proposal, however, which was an oversight on my part.

That said, I really enjoyed designing the various side quests and sub-stories that comprised the sandbox portion of the proposal: the potentially treacherous gargoyles; the agoraphobic dragon related to Izokar’s steed; the gloomwasp-infested healing spring (which was actually one of my prospective Round 4 encounter entries); the temperamental dimmix; the vengeful ghost; the machine-master (who I think now would work better as a kobold than a derro); the dark folk Hatfields and McCoys; the uber-creepy medusa “sculptor” and her rock troll minions (an idea I borrowed from one of my brother’s homebrew adventures); so on. I also liked the idea that most or all of these colorful characters could be recruited to fight alongside the PCs rather than just against them: I laughed when I thought of the iconic scene from Return of the King when the mountain trolls barge through the gates of Minas Tirith, but with the trolls actually fighting for the good guys! I also made it a point in this adventure to emphasize and pace the revelation of the primary villain; one of my few complaints with Red Hand is the total absence of the actual main antagonist save for one final battle. I wanted the PCs to know Izokar almost intimately by the time they faced him in combat, with hints and rumors of his curious evil permeating the entire region (especially their captured castle) to establish his reputation, and I designed the “under torchlight” encounter as a means of introducing him via roleplaying so the PCs could truly know their enemy once they crossed swords.

Upon reading the judges’ responses to the timer element, I completely understand their perspective (especially given the level of the module). I am not married to the timer (or any element of my designs, really), and would eagerly change it to make the product more successful should my proposal win. Perhaps the respective timelines can simply be extended? Perhaps the PCs could be the ones who instigate Izokar’s evacuation of Kleimholt via a forged summons to Hagegraf, allowing them to set the pace for when they capture Kleimholt and when Izokar returns? I have a couple ideas for how to pull it off while keeping the rest of the story intact. While this proposal did not showcase my receptiveness to feedback as acutely as Monica’s did, I will say that growth and self-improvement are among my highest priorities (part of the package from working in a public school), and I always do my very best to learn from mentors and teachers so that my work can shine as much as possible.

At this point, I will say that, regardless of this season’s outcome, I earnestly believe that I could not have asked for a better RPG Superstar experience. I am deeply honored to have been surrounded by such potent design talent throughout each round of this competition, and I am thrilled to have made it this far and run the final stretch against three other strong proposals (particularly Monica’s, which was an invigoratingly worthy adversary for this year’s title, written by an outstanding person with whom I’ve become good friends throughout this contest). Over the course of two consecutive runs in the competition, I feel like I have a lot to be proud of: I never once received universal “no’s” from all the round judges in either year, and this season I earned recommendations from every single judge in every single round, which I’m not sure has ever happened in the contest’s tenure to date. Most importantly, I got to end with a proposal that I really believed in, one that hopefully demonstrated that, win or lose, I have what it takes to be a successful author of Pathfinder adventures, which has been my passion for many years. I am confident that, one way or another, this contest will provide me the opportunity to jump-start a successful future in freelance adventure design, and I believe that I have the work ethic and cooperative capability to fulfill that opportunity.

So, once again, my sincerest thanks to every single person—from vocal judge to silent voter—who made this experience so significant and meaningful for me. It’s really been one heck of a ride. I look forward to continuing this tradition of uncovering new design talent by finally participating as a commenter and voter in future contests...unless, of course, my brother Nick cracks the top 32, and believe me I would NOT bet against him!

Shadow Lodge RPG Superstar 2015 Top 4 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka mamaursula

Chris, thank you for your incredibly kind words. I look forward to all of your future publications!


That was a really good proposal. You took a daring, complex concept and made it work. Your proposal had only one downfall: Monica.

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