Thoughts on City in the Deep


Ruins of Azlant


The following spoils Book 4 pretty thoroughly.

Thoughts on Book 4, City in the Deep:
I found this chapter problematic.

My chief objection is that Naqualia, the BBEG of the chapter, has no obvious motive for doing the things that she does. The Adventure Background ends with the line "when the PCs arrive in Talasantri, Naqualia realizes her time [to seek out Vallik] may be running out."

Why?

The PCs are not looking for Vallik. They don't know Vallik exists. Similarly, they have no idea that Naqualia exists. The PCs are irrelevant to Naqualia's task unless they get in her way somehow. All she has to do is keep her head down, focus on her task, find Vallik, and be gone before anyone is the wiser.

Instead, she almost immediately begins harassing the PCs and attempting to sow widespread chaos and discord through the city.

Why?

Chaos and discord are not going to help her. In fact, it's likely to make her job harder! People become suspicious and less willing to talk when their lives are in uproar. That will make it more difficult to track down Vallik.

Further, harassing the PCs accomplishes nothing beyond alerting them that they have an enemy. It is literally the worst possible thing she could do.

So ... why does she do these things?

Is she dumb? No -- INT 14 is pretty bright.

Is she inept? No -- the book says "Naqualia operates from the shadows, leading her mercenary forces with her impressive social skills." (Except that she doesn't really use her social skills, and blows her cover pretty fast.)

Does she just want to see the city fall apart for kicks? No -- her alignment is True Neutral, and she "fears nothing more than failure," which argues that she's likely to be pretty task-oriented.

While reading this, it seriously felt to me as though most of Naqualia's actions were dictated by meta concerns. The plot demands that the PCs have opposition; therefore, Naqualia messes with the PCs even though doing so actively undermines her primary objective.

Part 4 suffered from a similar major problem, in that the entire setup on the island makes no sense. Rillkimatai says his predecessor flagged down a passing ship and paid them to construct a tomb on a nearby island. And they did. Whaaat?

This poses a number of problems:

1) Why was there a ship passing through here in the first place? There's no regular traffic between Arcadia and Avistan as far as I know. I mean, isn't the whole point of establishing a colony out here that there's nobody around? So where did this ship come from?

Of course, it might have been a pirate. They might have reason to be lurking about in the ruins of Azlant, seeking good hidden bases from which to launch raids back towards the more settled lands.

2) Aside from that, excavating and finishing a tomb of this size is a HUGE project. It would take several months, minimum. Possibly as much as a year, especially considering that random sailors are not known for the superlative mining and engineering skills. Would a random ship have enough supplies to even keep their people fed that long? Would they even have the tools needed to excavate a tomb like that? Progress is going to be slow if you've only got three shovels and one pick, no matter how many sailors you have on hand to use them.

3) Why would they actually follow through? A merchant captain would be incredibly reluctant to blow their schedule off for that long at the behest of some fish-man. He might take Wavewalker ashore, spend a day or two building a cairn of rocks on the beach, say a few words, and then hurry along his way.

And a pirate captain would probably be happy to take their money, then dump Wavewalker's corpse on the beach and sail off with the payment and the spear thinking "Sweet Besmara, those fish-men are chumps!"

In neither case does a tomb of that scale plausibly get built.

With all that said, I really liked Talasantri itself. The city is cool, and the Drecissa/Anemora Argnos/Koramallis byplay was interesting. I appreciate how the author bent over backwards to avoid assuming that the PCs will befriend a particular NPC. I do have to wonder how Drecissa managed to get six levels of druid, in a city, before she's even moved out of her mother's house -- but hey, maybe she just likes camping out on the sea floor a lot.

As I was reading I wished these subplots were slightly better integrated with the overarching plot of the book, but then at the end it became clear that they're mainly a setup for the major hook into the next book. So, fair enough.

If I ever end up running this AP, I'll probably keep roughly the same cast of characters for book 4, but I'll be doing some heavy rewriting of the primary plot points.


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I do like the basic story of the book and do agree with your points and need for some plot adjustments.

Naqualia:

I don't recall if it is written up this way, but Naqualia's motives can be emboldened if Ochymua is onto the PCs' arrival in Tallassantri and orders Naqualia to deal with them. Given that the PC's arrival in the city is kind of a big deal, given the amount of surfacers who come there, she then makes the decision that attacking them outright may expose her and she decides to try and subvert them instead. I think one of the note handouts mentioned her wanting to distract the guards so as to not draw attention to her search for Vallik as well.

I think creating more of a link between Jurix and Naqualia may help the storyline along as well. I wouldn't do a strong link, but something more like some information that Jurix can pass along if she is friendly enough (or the PCs pay enough) about the fact that Naqualia harassing the PCs and looking for some other agent in town. She is the main crime boss after all, she should know something is going on. I really don't understand the whole Jurix storyline much either and so this may help tie that up as well.

Tomb:

First, I agree that making a land tomb does not make sense for Wavewalker. I think the designers just wanted to provide some relief from being underwater and that's it.

Now for explaining it ...
A lot of extrapolating could be done here. First, gold and rare antiquities can go a long way for motivation. Especially any magical items that can protect the ship/crew on the seas, create wind or currents to help the ship when there is no breeze, and more things a ship's captain and crew would specifically be interested in.

Even just one high-ish level spellcaster could make itself able to leave the water and help with excavation (move earth, soften earth, stone shape, etc.), and it would make sense that as many grateful and able Tallassantri citizens would help.

As for motivation to complete it, the underwater foremen would easily not pay them until done, and there are tons of ways to check on their work. Also, getting on the bad side of an underwater city could be a very bad idea for a ship captain, especially one that regularly passed by this route.

We do know that ships pass do pass by the area because there are shipwreck survivors currently on the island.


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I feel bad for laying into this book without making any attempt to address the problems I see with it.

So here's how I would fix it.

Adding direct conflict:
The base problem with the plot structure of City in the Deep is that Naqualia and the PCs have no natural reason to be in conflict. They are on opposing sides of a larger conflict, sure, but their immediate goals are orthogonal. Naqualia has a vested interest in keeping herself hidden while she seeks Vallik, and can easily do so.

The solution, therefore, is that the PCs have to be pursuing Vallik also. If the PCs locate Vallik first, she loses. If she gets there first, they lose. As soon as she gets word that a bunch of land-walkers have shown up and started asking about Vallik, Naqualia has a reason to risk blowing her cover. She has to erase any tracks she may have been leaving hitherto, and she has to slow down the PCs.

The Tale of Vallik the Wavewalker (Long!):
10,000 years ago: Ancient Azlant was at the height of power and arrogance. Mezlans were created to serve its rulers: to protect them, to advance their interests, to assail their enemies. But Vallik never did so. Vallik is the last mezlan: when Earthfall came, he was being created in an ooze vat at the Temple of Amaznen on Zanas-Tahn (located in area C21). The final reagent needed to complete his transformation had been loaded into the apparatus that was creating him; and then the priests heard screaming from outside and went to investigate. They never came back.

The ooze vat containing the unconscious, incomplete Vallik survived the blast. It survived the temple's long submersion, buried in muck. For 9,625 years he percolated in his sealed, magically-reinforced vat. And then, finally, time and happenstance saved him: the final reagent was ever so slightly acidic, and it finally burned its way through the last seal separating it from him. The ancient liquid dribbled down into his formless mass.

And Vallik awoke to find his entire world gone. He had vague memories of his life in Azlant: shining buildings, great feats of magic, laughing people, a burning desire to serve, to protect them. But all he remembered was gone. He seeped out of the muck, formed a body, and walked wonderingly past the rusted hulk of an ancient crab-like machine. He saw the twisted, crushed remnants of the temple; and found his way out onto what should have been a mountainside, and was instead an island.

Vallik had volunteered to become a mezlan because he wanted to serve his people, to protect his land. He had no illusions that all of them were good or worthy, but he believed that on balance the empire did more good than harm. To see it crushed and rent into this decayed corpse of its former glory -- the shining buildings, crushed; the magic, faded beyond recall; the laughter, silent; the people, dead -- filled him with such rage as he had never dreamed he could feel.

For twenty five years, Vallik searched relentlessly for clues, evidence that might explain to him what had befallen his beloved homeland. And then, he came to the Alabaster Spire -- where Auberon dwelt. Recognizing the opportunity to gain a powerful servant, Auberon was more than happy to explain: Azlant's downfall had been caused by the elves and merfolk, working for their shadowy alghollthu masters. He told Vallik about his long crusade to punish them for their unforgiveable destruction of the shining land of Azlant, and asked Vallik to join him in this cause.

Thus, Vallik entered the service of the lich. Auberon equipped him with powerful, dark armor that rendered him a fearful sight on the battlefield, and with equally powerful weapons. For two hundred years, he was Auberon's most powerful and trusted lieutenant. At Auberon's behest, he fought long, bloody campaigns against the elves and merfolk. The elves and merfolk grew to fear him, and called him Blackhand, not knowing his real name. Twice in the early years he was killed, and reformed filled with fresh hatred of his people's enemy.

But as time wore on, slowly, the rage ebbed and Vallik began to have doubts. How could the elves and merfolk truly be responsible for the fall of Azlant, when they were by and large so powerless compared to himself and his undead master? How is it that he never found a hint of alghollthu influence in those he tortured? How?

One day, a merman was brought in as a prisoner. It was believed that he knew the location of a colony of merfolk, and so he was put to the torture. Vallik observed the procedure, doubts chasing themselves in circles through his head, as the torturer proceeded to extract the location of this new colony: a city called Talasantri. But what really struck him was the complete and utter sincerity in the merman's voice when he begged to know why -- why were they torturing him? What had he done? The man knew nothing of Azlant, nothing of the ancient betrayal. He was just a man trying to live his life. They had all just been trying to live their lives -- all the ones Vallik had killed. Even if their distant ancestors had some hand in Azlant's fall, what had that to do with this man? This singular man, begging for his wife and child to be spared?

Vallik entered the chamber. The torturer was utterly surprised when Vallik cut his throat. The merman, sadly, was beyond saving; and so Vallik apologized to him, and ended his pain. He took both their heads to prevent Auberon from speaking with their dead corpses. Using his unquestioned access as Auberon's top lieutenant, he collected three things: a book of ritual magic; one of the lich's prized possessions, a Headband of Sealed Thoughts; and his spear, Seaspike, that Auberon had made for him. The armor he left behind -- it was the face of the murderer Blackhand he had been for two hundred year. And then he donned the headband and fled the area.

Auberon was of course enraged at this betrayal; but the Headband of Sealed Thoughts prevented even his most powerful divination spells from locating Vallik, frustrating the lich to no end (just as it would frustrate Ochymua in his time). Auberon's attempts at tracking the renegade through mundane means proved ineffectual; it was too easy for Vallik to take a new form and evade any kind of mundane tracking or detection; and too difficult for Auberon's undead minions to infiltrate the settlements of the living.

Vallik had longed to protect his people; but they were gone, and instead he had become a murderer many thousand times over. Moved by a desire to atone for two centuries of bloodshed, he made his way to Talasantri. He arrived to find the city under assault by Ruinquake. Its basso profundo chittering tore at the fragile coral of the city, and the blood of the overwhelmed guards hung in swirling red clouds.

Seeing this, Vallik drew his spear, shouted a challenge, and charged towards it. Quite unconsciously, as he did so he slipped into the shape of a human man -- the form he had once worn when he walked the lands of ancient Azlant so many years before.

The fight was brutal, and Vallik could not kill the creature. But in the end, he successfully drove it away. The surviving guards cheered and rushed to thank him and tend his wounds; and when one of them asked his name, he had not had time to consider a new identity; and so he blurted out the truth. "I am Vallik," he told them. "Vallik the Wavewalker."

And so they cheered him, and he despaired, for he knew that once his name was spoken, tales would be told. Word would spread. And eventually his presence would become known to Auberon and bring his armies hence.

The people of Talasantri hailed Vallik the Wavewalker as a hero. But their leaders were worried. According to intelligence they had received, the plankta had not appeared spontaneously. It was sent at the behest of a cult of Dagon that had established itself on a nearby island. Their own best heros had fallen before Ruinquake's assault. Worse, their base was located on land, and thus very difficult for the merfolk to assault properly.

With nowhere else to turn, they begged Vallik to take the fight to the Dagonites, and end the threat to Talasantri. In this, Vallik saw his chance: he could both aid the people of Talasantri, and stage his own death to throw Auberon off the trail.

He requested a small contingent of aquatic elves for support. Together, they made their way to Blood Lily Cay. Together, they assaulted the Temple of Dagon. The leader of the cult was a powerful spellcaster -- no match of Vallik, to be sure, but he pulled his blows to draw the fight out. Finally, when the cult leader struck him with a powerful blow, he pretended to stagger back, and let bits of himself flow to the floor. Then he raised Seaspike, and charged towards the wounded caster. As he did so, he released a Fireball he had stored in his Spell Battery. The blast caused him no harm (SR), but the brief, bright flash was enough to conceal him as he let his form drop. When his aquatic elf allies cleared their vision, the last cultist lay dead, and Vallik the Wavewalker was nowhere to be seen. His spear lay on the ground; but as they watched, it sank (actually drawn down below Vallik's surface).

The mourning elves did their best to sanctify the shrine, and made their way home to Talasantri, where they reported that the city was saved, but that its defender Vallik had fallen in battle, apparently annihilated himself to save the city. A monument was duly erected, and Talasantri went back to more normal life.

Meanwhile, Vallik waited a few days and then made his way back to Talasantri in the unassuming form of a large fish (a grouper, perhaps). There, he was able without too much difficulty to learn his way around the city, and in time take a place in it. There he has lived ever since. He dares not reveal his true name, nor remove the Headband of Sealed Thoughts, for fear that Auberon might learn the location of Talasantri and send his undead horde to choke is streets with the blood of innocents.

He has sought to protetct Talasantri as best he can given those limitations. Several times he has found and assassinated agents of Auberon combing the area for signs of merfolk. He also took pains to identify the widow and child of that last merman, and has kept an eye on the family whose latest scion is [Drecissa/Argnos].

But mostly, he has simply lived as an ordinary member of Talasantri society, quietly laboring to wash clean the stains of a thousand deaths from his ancient soul.

Changes to other locations in light of the above:
Now, why would the PCs want to find Vallik? Because they know that Ochymua wants him.


  • Thanaldhu had instructions to send word if he learns anything about Vallik's whereabouts.
  • Helekhterie had scribbled notes recording her frustration at failing to locate Vallik for Ochymua. You could introduce Naqualia's name at this point with an incomplete letter from Helekhterie to Naqualia chiding her for chasing fairy tales instead of relying on prophecy as is right and proper.
  • Onthooth was also seeking him; most of the prisoners were interrogated to find out if they knew anything about where to find Vallik.
  • The story of Vallik the Wavewalker's valiant defense of Talasantri has spread far and wide in the past hundred years. Skolorah has heard it, and can regale the PCs with the tale as early as Book 2, finishing up with "And that's why Vallik is such a common name amongst the merfolk." (Of course, having lots of Valliks out there makes it a lot harder to locate the one they're after.)
  • The tomb on Blood Lily Cay does not exist; replace it with some natural caverns if you like.
  • I'd move the spirit naga fight to the Temple of Dagon; they took up residence. If you like, you can even retain the ghost fight, except that the ghost is now that of the former cult high priest.
  • Seaspike remains in Talasantri, in the possession of Vallik. He can give it to he PCs, or they can find it in his effects.

The biggest change is what to do about Vallik. When Naqualia finally gets to him, she is going to present herself as an enemy of Auberon -- believable enough, especially considering that Auberon's been slaughtering merfolk for millennia. She claims that she wants him to tell her how to get to Auberon's tower so that she can gather an army to assault the place. Then she poisons him against the PCs, and the combat can be run as written.

An unrelated aside:
Side note: it's a little unclear to me why Auberon is so hard to find. He's been sending out armies of undead to slaughter merfolk and elves for ten millennia, and his tower is not exactly hidden. Surely Ochymua should be able to figure out where the Alabaster Trident is by asking basically any moderately well-informed elf or merfolk? After ten thousand years, wouldn't they have loads of ancient stories along the lines of "Go not to the Alabaster Trident, my child, for verily, the mad mage Auberon slayeth any who approach! It's about a hundred leagues north north west, just past that rather nice kelp bed. Great big white thing. Can't miss it. But really, don't go, it's a bad idea, you'll regret it."

For that matter, I still don't really know why Ochymua wants to blow up the world. But I digress.

Whew. That took almost four hours to write. But I hope that it's more constructive than my initial note. It addresses most of the concerns I raised. Though I didn't figure out what to do with the crime boss.


Good stuff. You should write up a short entry and link it in the GM thread for the book, since that stays stickied and those threads seem to be more used.

In the end, PCs will go along with it as written anyway because it is how the events are unfolding to them, they don't usually get the behind the scenes stuff, and they don't know any better. :)

If this hurts your head, wait until the next book :)


Pathfinder Adventure Path Subscriber
Tinalles wrote:

I feel bad for laying into this book without making any attempt to address the problems I see with it.

So here's how I would fix it.

Great work, Tinalles.


Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Roleplaying Game Subscriber

This is indeed a problematic book. I hadn't thought much about unwrapping or re-working some of its more precarious issues. Good job Tinalles.


Pathfinder Maps, Pathfinder Accessories, Starfinder Society Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Thanks Tinalles for the awesome information. I'm looking ahead at this part of the story and foresee problems. Yours ideas are awesome and will help make this part of the story make more sense, in my mind.


Glad to be of service! ^_^


Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I just got done running this. I first wrote "I just got done writing this" and that's kind of how it felt....

I revised it so that Naqualia's main goal is to destabilize the city. I split the City Guard into three factions (streetside, dome/gate protection, external defense) and had an aboleth, apparently imprisoned by one faction, actually manipulating it. I had Rillkimatai drugged--passed off as illness and extreme old age--to keep him out of the way while the city descended into chaos, so that a "strong leader" under aboleth control could seize power. And I had Vallik as Myrrdin running a rival crime organization to Jurix's, as suggested above.

The PCs took the whole thing apart in 48 hours flat, but they were 48 interesting hours, anyway. Amusingly, no one ever found Vallik.

Some observations:

The author really knows how to build a vicious NPC. The deep merfolk are the strongest NPCs for their CR, by far, in the AP to date. The druid is particularly horrifying--eight really good attacks and a high AC, and lots of reach, and grab. The non-shapeshifted deep merfolk are immune to sneak attack and give everyone a 20% miss chance, which added up in the longer fights. The sahuagin are really good too, and the siyokoy/galvo encounter was scary. It's a very different standard from previous episodes, and the GM should be prepared for this.

Naqualia should use good cell discipline: multiple safe houses, and no one but her knows all the locations. Otherwise the first subordinate who gets captured will betray the whole plot. (It does not matter that they are fanatics; my PCs have detect thoughts and dominate person....) Also Naqualia supposedly has 40 deep merfolk but there is no room for them at the given safehouse and no sign they were ever there. I gave her three safehouses inside and one outside, which seemed more appropriate for 40 people. The PCs eventually busted all three of the inside ones, but did not bag Naqualia, who has had to leave town.

Be prepared for the "dead end" leads to be followed to the ends of the earth. PCs are like that.

A better way to frame the PCs is to use disguise self or hat of disguise to impersonate one of them while setting off the crimson current trap. Let yourself be seen, then dart off and turn into someone else. (My PCs stopped this in the nick of time, but they got somewhat lucky as well as good.)

Naqualia's minions could really use a bit more disguise magic, given that they are so ethnically unusual. But maybe the high stealth makes up--except for the doomsayers, who can hardly use stealth while doomsaying. Once the PCs let it be known that all these crimes were due to deep merfolk, things became tough for Naqualia's faction. (The city guard apparently has so many ninth level guards it can have multiple of them at every gate all the time, so they are a potentially serious threat to Naqualia's minions if allowed to gang up.)

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