We finished Rise of the Runelords! Here are my thoughts as the GM

Rise of the Runelords

Before reading, a little disclaimer: English is not my first language, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes and bad spelling you can encounter in this long thread.

Rise of the Runelords and Pathfinder RPG have been an important part of my life since I started GMing this adventure path. Eight years ago. Yes. It took our group eight years to complete it. It was a very long, difficult, some times tedious, sometimes epic, and sometimes incredibly fun experience, so I wanted to write my thoughts about running it, its design, and Pathfinder RPG in general.

I hope my experience is useful to other people, being them GMs looking to run this AP or designers looking to write more adventures like it.

Before explaining myself in detail -this is going to be a long thread- here is a quick review for those barbarians who doesn't want to read a lot:

Overall, I think Rise of the Runelords was not good. Nor was it bad. It was excellent at first, but quickly became a much worse game experience. It has a lot of great stuff but is riddled with design and story problems that made my life as a game master a nightmare, and almost completely drained my players's willingness to keep playing.

I want to highlight that the worse aspects of Rise of the Runelords have more to do with Pathfinder RPG's system than any other component of its design. So I believe that using another game system could make this campaign much better.

If you are looking for a mega campaign to invest some years of play in it, I really recommend you to look somewhere else unless you are willing to convert everything to another game system. In which case, Rise of the Runelords could be a good and fun experience.

Overall Rate: 4 out of 10 using Pathfinder RPG. Maybe a 7 out of 10 using a better system.

I'm sorry for being so harsh. There's a lot of good things to say about Rise of the Runelords. But for every good thing, there are a lot of bad experiences hidden in this AP. I respect Paizo’s writers and game designers, so having started this thread with some cold and harsh statements, I'll now jump to the nice stuff.

Oh! Before that, here’s some context: my playgroup and I are from Buenos Aires, Argentina. We played a lot of D&D 3.X before this adventure path. We played lots of RPGA and Dungeon Magazine modules and a lot of other games. But we never finished a long campaign. So, eight years ago, I decided to change that.

Our group had played and enjoyed the first modules of Age of Worms, but we couldn’t keep playing it and eventually we abandoned it. But the Adventure Paths seemed great so I chose the most recommended one: Rise of the Runelords. I adapted it to the Forgotten Realms and started the longest campaign we ever played with my group.

You should also know that I am a fair GM and try to run every game by the book. I don’t fudge dice rolls, I take my time to properly apply the rules and interactions. I surely made mistakes, but what I’m trying to say is that I made every possible effort to run Rise of the Runelords the way it was written and supposed to work. Spoiler: I eventually had to make some adjustments to the game because PFRPG was breaking, but I never changed my GM philosophy.

Also, keep in mind that we started playing with 3.5 rules and changed to Pathfinder RPG around the 3rd module.

So, now that you know my mindset and my group experience, here are the reasons my group and I loved Rise of the Runelords and Pathfinder RPG.

Rise of the Runelords: the Good Stuff

Rise of the Runelords is a mega campaign that will take your players from 1st to 18th level. Its super long and complete. If you want to commit to a long game, Rise of the Runelords may be for you. Kudos to Paizo: this was your first campaign for Golarion and it has everything a D&D game should have. I can only imagine how much of a titanic work it was to write and design it. Respect!

Rise of the Runelords is generic fantasy in the best possible way. You can drop this campaign in almost any setting. I used the Unapproachable East from the Forgotten Realms CS 3rd Edition and had no problems running it. If your setting of choice has an ancient evil empire, giants, ogres, cultists and goblins, you can surely run RotRL in it with little effort.

Excellent cities. Sandpoint -the starting town-, the Hinterlands, Magnimar and Turtleback Ferry are perfectly described and made this AP super rich. My players were always talking about this locations and the people they met there and some of our most memorable moments happened in those places.

Great adventure sites. Thistletop and Fort Rannik were some of the best dungeons and adventure locations of the campaign. They were evocative, fun and a LOT happened there. I'll probably add both locations to future campaigns.

Nualia, Tsuto Kaijitsu, Brutasmus, Alden Foxglove and Xanesha were great villains. Each had a different interesting thing going on, and my players were always talking about them with a combination of awe and hate.

The horror subtheme of the campaign was perfect. It was not fully a horror campaign, but everything was tainted by really messed up stuff. My players had amazing reactions to Foxglove Manor, the Skinsaw Cult, the Hook Mountain ogres and half-ogres and the Catacombs of Wrath. Some areas of Runeforge were also nice and the Wendigo siege was an incredible and evocative piece of terror.

Goblins. They are fun.

There is a lot of interesting reading for the GM. Even if it was not useful nor impactful, I loved some NPC's backstories and some location details. Reading this AP was a fun experience. And having read A LOT of bad and mediocre AD&D, 3E and 4E modules, I can say that Paizo's writers are on a completely different level. Sometimes you made me laugh, sometimes you gave me the chills and sometimes you just made me say: “Wow! That’s awesme!” I have some issues with style and design, but overall, the reason a love Paizo is for your writing skills. And they really show in Rise of the Runelords.

Pathfinder RPG: The Good Stuff

This game was a good 3.5 successor in the times me and my playgroup were tired of that system. Pathfinder RPG introduced a lot of changes that made sense to us and, as a result, we chose it over 4E D&D.

Also, Wayne Reynolds is my favourite fantasy artist. So he was a big part on my decision to buy this books.

I’m sorry I don’t have many good things to say about this game. Almost everything I like about PFRPG is rooted on D&D 3.X so I don’t think talking about the good aspects of the d20 System has anything to add to my review.

Rise of the Runelords: the Bad Stuff

Having talked about the good aspects of Rise of the Runelords and Pathfinder RPG, it is time for me to talk about the bad stuff. And boy, I have a lot to say about that. But please, don't take it as an insult: the fact that I dedicated 8 years of my life to this Adventure Path and game should speak greatly about how much I enjoyed it. Sadly, I feel that you could improve a lot in order to write more amazing APs and better games.

So. I think Rise of the Runelords was not very good overall. What happened?

The second part of the campaign happened.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, Sins of the Saviors and The Spires of Xin Shalast are bad adventures. They suck. Each has its own reasons to be bad, but they all have some elements in common:

They are high level. I’ll talk about that and why it is bad later, when I write about Pathfinder RPG. Suffice to say that high level play is boring because of the game system.

They are -for the most part- just big dungeons in remote locations. This adventures happen in far away lands, detached from the towns and NPCs that made this Adventure Path so engaging. By default, you have no Ameiko Kaijitsu to talk to here. No Rusty Dragon to rest in. No Black Arrows to help. No mundane problems nor familiar faces. The first three modules are a mix of wilderness and city encounters. You can talk to a lot of people, learn a lot of things about culture and politics and have a lot of opportunities to roleplay your character. But in the big weird dungeons of the second half of the campaign, all that is lost. The AP becomes a more focused hack and slash adventure and it is worse for it.

The mystery behind the Sihedron Rune has no good payoff. A lot of what drives the first modules is the Sihedron Rune and the mystery that surrounds it. Is it all connected? Why? How? Who's behind Nualia, the Skinsaw Man and the ogres?

Underlying all that mystery was a series of convoluted contrivances that were too weird to understand. My players had a difficult time piecing it all together and by the end they just shrugged and just killed every villain they encountered. I think they thought the Sihedron Rune and everything seemed disconnected at first and expected it to make a lot of sense at the end. They wanted a final revelation that explained why this six modules where The Rise of the Runelords and how each piece fell into an amazing big picture. They didn’t want an adventure that goes like "An aasimar wants to burn Sandpoint and has a weird medallion, a group of murderers work for a serpent lady, some ogres attack the Black Arrows, then there are giants, and a sin dungeon and then you go to a wizard's city and that was all connected because... someone awakened the Runelord and he needed sacrifices and stuff."

The villains are bad characters. Mokmurian is just there to die at the end of his dungeon. Each sin dungeon at Runeforge has a boss who's just there to die. Karzoug is just there to die. They all have no personality, no interesting goal, no chance to negotiate and no real link to the players. The same is true for some of the first villains... except that Nualia has allies with personalities and has strong ties to the starting town. She doesn't want to conquer the world, she wants to burn that horrible town because Sandpoint's inhabitants made her life terrible and a demon messed her up. The Skinsaw Man has a mad crush on the players and had a tragic backstory. The Skinsaw Cult operates in the player's territory and messes directly with them. Also, they are connected to Nualia's weird medallion and at that point in the adventure, players are super invested in the Sihedron mystery. The Hook Mountain ogres want to conquer a specific place full of people the players can empathize with. Even if they are just ogres sieging a fortress, they have a concrete goal that the players can understand and antagonize

Jorgenfist has almost no people to empathize with. Mokmurian has no ties to the human world and, at this point of the adventure, the Sihedron mystery is quickly losing its appeal. The adventure hook is weak: giants attack the player's turf because... reasons. This adventure could have worked if Mokmurian was present at the first attack and directly interacted with the players, maybe killing some important NPCs like Ameiko or Shallelu. Then, the adventure should have been about other locations besides Jorgenfist were the players could learn about or keep interacting with Mokmurian. Also, Mokmurian should have real hate for humans in his backstory.

Runeforge is kinda lame. No villain give the players time to learn about them. No villain knows about the players, so they are just there waiting to be murdered because they are evil. By default, they react to the players sudden appearance in their demiplane secret dungeon in the worst possible way: attacking without questioning. They are all mad, but have interesting motivations, relationships and backstories... that doesn't matter because they just want to kill the PCs. This dungeon could be better if players could start each encounter in a friendly way with the bosses. For example, when I was tired of running this dungeon, I did just that. When my players met Jordimandus (or whatever was Sloth mage's name) I just roleplayed him as a tired and lazy guy who wanted to end the PCs threat to Runeforge by just giving them whatever they wanted and be done with it. I regret not doing exactly the same with each wizard to encourage the players to make alliances and immerse themselves in the politics of mad sin wizards and demons. But, that was my work, not the original adventure as was written.

Lastly, Karzoug is the worst. He was not interesting. Just an evil wizard with god complex. Nothing in his backstory is interesting. He’s only defining trait is that he was powerful. And the Runelord of Greed. But his actions are not defined by greed. He wants to rule the world. Like every other powerful mage ever. Rule the world is the motivation for greedy characters, wrathful characters, prideful characters… even lazy Runelords wanted to rule the world. So he is nothing special. Also, he is not particularly cunning, nor vicius, nor tragic, nor empathic. He is just evil. An evil wizard and that's it. He was like, a slave or something. But that didn’t define his character nor his motivation. At least Mokmurian had some kind of motivation based on his backstory: he was hated by his people and wanted revenge. Players could actually see that he was different because of his short size and necromantic magic. Karzoug is just evil.

But that's not the only problem with Karzoug. I can accept an evil wizard as a main villain if during the course of the campaign he is shown to be as powerful as the adventure suggests he is. Karzoug appears as the ultimate evil in the third half of this long campaign as a puppet master behind the other puppet masters behind the mysterious Sihedron rune. And he doesn’t do anything. The world doesn’t change because of this fact. He just waits to be killed in the Eye of Avarice, fully knowing that a group of adventurers are going after his head and, so far, succeeded thwarting each of his plans.

Also, nobody besides the PCs and some intimate NPCs know about him. So the world around the players doesn’t care about Karzoug, and his impending return is not threatening nor spectacular at all.

I made a lot of effort to correct this problem. I shouldn't had to do it, but I needed my players to keep invested in the campaign after 6 years of play. So I worked on it.

Here’s what I did

(Skip this if you are not interested in Rise of the Runelords fan fiction)

When the PCs returned from Runeforge, they discovered that time worked differently in that demiplane. So, to their surprise, 7 years passed since they left the material plane. When they arrived back to Thoril, they discovered that the world was dominated by Karzoug’s minions: giant nations of fire, ice and stone giants had emerged in the wild, the Red Wizards of Thay pledged allegiance to him and betrayed every other nation, creating a magical evil empire. Lots of heroes died fighting Karzoug’s forces -heroes like the Simbul, the Iron Lord of Rashemen, and even the lich Szass Tam -in my campaign I made those “epic” NPCs lvl 15-18 instead of 30 and plus-. Everything good was lost. Only the Lost Coast and Magnimar (Telflam in my campaign setting) were still standing, and a rebel group lead by Ameiko and inspired by the PCs actions was fighting against the Runelord. Also, their secret base of operations was in Thistletop -How cool was that?-.

The players learned a lot about Karzoug during this stage of the campaign and a lot of what he was going to bring to the world as a ruler. So, the premise of The Spires of Xin Shalast was this: “Karzoug is about to fully return. Kill him quickly, so we have at least a chance to defeat his armies.”

I don’t claim that my approach was better. I understand that an AP like this should be more generic and you have a limited amount of space to write each module. But I think some effort dedicated to make Karzoug a real threat to the world and to see what kind of person was he could have worked better for the campaign. And even when I made a lot of effort to show him as an unstoppable threat to the world, my players thought Karzoug was lame and underdeveloped. So I think he should have been introduced earlier in the AP with a more interesting personality.

Aside from those three last modules, I think other stuff also made my GMing experience a frustrating nightmare:

The encounters are generally badly designed. I’ll not talk about the system, but about the ideas and execution behind a lot of encounters. Also, this is not true for the first half of the AP.
A lot of important encounters have creatures too big to freely move in the map. There were too many -Too many!- encounters were the PCs succeeded because the enemies just couldn’t properly fight. And the weird thing was that the enemies lived in those tight spaces! The pace of combat was really harmed by this fact, as I was always spending too much time trying to figure out a way for the giants to move without provoking a ton of attacks of opportunity and die.

A lot of the important NPC spell casters had bad tactics. Like spending the first round of combat to buff themselves -and immediately dying before the following round- or casting area spells in maps that were not really suited for those. Or spent their actions doing something not impactful at all.

I felt like the writers just wrote the description of each area, selected monsters and spells and didn’t playtested how that could work out. 80% of the time it worked as the enemies downfall. They were not defeated by my players tactics, but by themselves!
Also, I would have liked a quick enemy stat block that showed me their primary attack using feats and abilities like Power Attack, so I didn’t have to make notes and math each time a giant monster appeared. Also, some notes about how some spells worked or affected the enemy or the map could have been useful. And some tips like “don’t forget this or that ability!” -specially for core monsters that were not included in the book- would have been nice. I’m sure that I spent more time searching rules and spells and making math for feats than each other GM task combined.

Don’t get me wrong. The ideas behind all encounters were usually amazing. Sadly, the execution was not.

The Eye of Avarice and the Pinnacle of Avarice were the worst offenders. The Pinnacle’s map was impossibly big, impossible to draw in a battle map because everything was BIG AND ROUND, and not really suited for rune giants. I had to print all the dungeon maps in 30+ pages just to speed up the exploration and combats in this area. The Eye of Avarice at least was small and squared, but had too many features that made impossible for the dragon to move and for Karzoug to cast area spells. Karzoug was supposed to cast some wall spells to defend himself but when I tried to draw the walls… there was no room for them because there were no large areas -everything was a 10’ platform or stair- and a rune giant was occupying almost all the free space. Also, he was supposed to cast some offensive area spells… but walls and spells don’t mix well… so I had to improvise A LOT with a 20th level wizard just to make him a threat. I had to spend probably two hours of gameplay just searching for rules of spells I didn’t expected to use when I first read this encounter. And yes… he was easily defeated without doing almost anything and I think a lot of that has to do with his tactics.

Maybe it was my fault that so many enemies died before doing anything relevant and I should have adjusted the tactics to my players. And a lot of times I did. Knowing how almost every enemy was defeated before his or her second turn, I started ignoring suboptimal actions. And that made me spend a lot of playtime looking for ways to make an enemy do something useful instead of casting a spell and dying.

Also, as I said early in this thread, I had to make adjustments because the game was breaking and I wanted the enemies alive for more than one round. I never cheated dice rolls, but I almost always had to add from 50 to 200 hp to enemies before any combat hoping they will last more than a two rounds. This, in addition to more “minions” to balance a 5 player party. And I think this is not an adventure design error, but a system one. But I bring this up just to explain how badly designed were almost all high level encounters. I can’t believe players having problems with the high level adventures, as my players are not powergamers nor good min maxers.

And, as you can imagine, low level encounters were so much better because there were less spellcasters taking poorly thought actions, less bookkeeping, and less giant creatures cramped in relatively small spaces. And Pathfinder -and other 3.x systems- just works better at low levels.

Lastly, regarding adventure design, I hated how a lot of interesting reading and characters were not important because all what I just wrote above. Amazing characters just exploded into blood and bones the first round of combat if they lost the initiative, complex backstories just didn’t mattered because combat was tedious and by the time each encounter ended, my players were tired and frustrated with everything related to the game and wanted to move on. And, as I said… a lot of enemies were complex but instead of showing how interesting they were, their default tactic was to attack and fight to their deaths.

Some examples of this were the kobold barbarian in Jorgenfist that I thought was super interesting and never got to do anything cool; Ceoptra and Kalib, who tried to do cool things and lasted only two rounds each; and Karzoug, who casted two quickened time stops gaining 5 free rounds for each (PURE LUCK, I SWEAR!!!)... and couldn’t do anything interesting with that because wall spells and bad map design.

Rise of the Runelords is excellent during the first three modules. And you can run them as stand alone adventures and are excellent. But as the power level scalates, the adventures become just dungeons and all the mystery is lost, you start to lose interest in the campaign and end up frustrated with how much time you are losing each sesion trying to play this AP.

And that has to be, as I said earlier, because the mayor problem of Rise of the Runelords is Pathfinder RPG.

So, here is my rant about Pathfinder.

Pathfinder RPG: the Bad Stuff

I think PFRPG was a good idea in theory but in reality just made my life as a GM and player worse. More options seemed good and fun, but in reality my playgroup spent a lot more time trying to decide their actions or trying to resolve some rules affected by a giant combo of feats, abilities and spells.

When I was tired of 3.5 I thought that I wanted a cleaner system. And Pathfinder gave me that without going the 4E rute of prioritizing the mechanics over the roleplaying aspect. Less skills, a maneuver system, etc. That sounded nice! And then I realized that in some places the game was cleaner and in other places -much more important places- it had become even more complex and slow.

More feats for monsters made them more difficult to use. More little specific bonuses for my players made us usually go back in time to apply some obscure bonus or penalty we forgot in order to be fair with them. Better combat classes made them more fun, but also super deadly and difficult to challenge with monsters as written. Some parts of the magic system were better, but it was still the same bad 3rd edition system full of complex interactions that make high level play boring and slow, and made every interesting challenge -like climbing the tallest mountain in the world- kinda worthless. 3.X games have just too much information to possibly run them and play them as written and the magic system breaks almost all adventures.

Also, the game seams to break around 8th level.

For me, it is no coincidence that Rise of the Runelords starts being amazing the first three modules and sucks from the 4th to the end. At that point PC’s power starts to deviate from the monster’s power, creating a bigger gap between them each level.

I made a lot of adjustments to my player’s characters equipment just to maintain a lesser power gap, but it was impossible. They obliterated almost all enemies in one or two rounds. As I said, I added big chunks of hp to almost every enemy, hoping they will live enough to present a good fight. That never worked. Pathfinder PCs are overpowered and there’s nothing you can do about it that doesn’t involve directly searching for weak spots to kill them. And the problem with that strategy is that it requires a lot of preparation work from your part as a GM, you can’t do it a lot because it becomes obvious and boring, and the funny thing about weak spots in 3.X games is that they tend to be deadly.

As a GM I want to challenge my players, but PFRPG high level plays in a way that is super easy unless I spend a lot of time creating ways of really kill their characters. Like there’s no inbetween.
I don’t want to go rule by rule explaining what worked for me and what not. This thread is already too long and, as a new edition of PFRPG is being developed, I think all this stuff should be already popular knowledge.

The Modules, One by One

Lastly, here’s a quick review of every module.

Burnt Offerings: Excellent! 9/10. You can run it as a stand alone adventure and link Nualia and the Sihedron rune to whatever you want -Its really not very important in the overall story and you can probably came up with a better plot-. The Catacombs of Wrath and Thistletop are excellent dungeons and Sandpoint is a perfect starting town for adventures.

The best part in our campaign: when the party was captured by Nualia and Brutasmus tortured them. They eventually escaped and took sweet revenge on the bugbear. The worst part: when they tried three times to fight Erylium without cold iron weapons. We played this in the 3.5 module version. I think the Anniversary Edition fixed this issue. The interesting thing about Erilyum was that because of their quest to create cold iron weapons, the party was dubbed The Cold Iron Company and the name stuck for the rest of the campaign. Also good: the goblins!

The Skinsaw Murders: Pretty Good! 8/10. You can also run this as a stand alone module for the same reasons I said before. This is a fun investigation adventure with the sweet horror elements that Paizo is known for. A lot of amazing encounters and locations.

The best part: When our barbarian player was so scared and paranoid that he threw a mirror from the balcony of Foxglove Manor, believing it was cursed -it was not-. Another one was when our fighter player pushed the angel statue on top of the Clock Tower, making it all collapse in an attempt to defeat Xanesha. It didn’t kill Xanesha but saved the day. Epic demolition! Also: Alden Foxglove. The worst: There’s nothing particularly bad in this adventure. I think it lacked more encounters in Magnimar, some red hearings and a little more mystery. Having more roleplaying opportunities with Judge Ironbriar would also make it better.

The Hook Mountain Massacre: Pretty Good! 7/10. Another perfect stand alone adventure. Now, the players explore the wilderness and a fort in the middle of nowhere. The half ogres are the most horrible things I read about, and the heart of the adventure -reclaiming the Fort- was incredibly fun.

The best part: When the ogres returned with a big force, commanded by Lucrecia and Xanesha, to retake the Fort from the players. Epic battle! Revenge on the lamias! The worst: the other parts of the adventure feel disconnected and Barl is a boring villain that starts the trend of puppeteers behind puppeteers. Also, I would liked it better if it was still near Sandpoint.

Fortress of the Stone Giants: Mediocre. 4/10. This is just a dungeon with giants. Not much to do here besides fighting. My players found it boring to play. I found it boring to read. Mokmurian sucks.

The best: the starting giant invasion on Sandpoint was interesting! The worst: my players couldn’t remember anything about this module, so I think the worst thing is that it was not even remembered as bad.

Sins of the Saviors: Bad. 2/10. This is a dungeon related to the seven deadly sins. Mechanically speaking, I think it delivers a playable dungeon. But it does not play the “sin theme” very well mechanically. There are a lot of villains that do nothing interesting. They are just crazy and evil. There are a lot of factions but there is no story.

The best: a little bit of roleplay with the guy saved from the succubus. Also, the players defeat a white dragon! The worst: I don’t like the idea of the Runeforged weapons. Or, best said, I don’t like the “negate 3 transmutation spells” power. I remembered the real worst: here is when the players discover that every enemy they defeated helped Karzoug! So… it was supposed to be like a plot twist, but it wasn’t. It’s not like they had the choice not to kill some of them and it really doesn’t matter. The adventure pregresses exactly the same regardless of how many Sihedron people the players kill. So, for this to make sense, there should be some kind of greed counter and the last adventure should change based on that counter. Maybe a “clock” in a Tassilion ruin like Thistletop?

The Spires of Xin Shalast: Kinda Bad and Disappointing. 3/10. This is the culmination of a long campaign. And it ends in a lost city of gold! That is an amazing premise! Sadly, the length of the adventure is too small for the scope and complexity of this module. The trip to Xin Shalast and some random encounters could have been shorter and more pages could have been used to make the city a better adventure location. The encounters are easy unless you try to fight your way to Karzoug through all the giants in the same room.

The Best: the Wendigo Siege was amazing and is probably one of the best encounters in the whole campaign. Also, that time when my players killed Karzoug as he was crying in frustration and anger. That was satisfying for everyone. Also, the campaign epilogue that has nothing to do with what was written in the AP but has our heroes departing to the outer planes in search of more adventures. The Worst: the biggest and roundest dungeon ever created. Specially designed to test my patience. Also: Leng was another element introduced at the last possible time to make the plot even less understandable.

Last Thoughts

I don’t believe every game group encounters this problems. I also don’t think a lot of people play this long. This is what happened to my players and I playing Rise of the Runelords with Pathfinder RPG from low level to 18th level, using only the Core Rulebook and the Advanced Player’s Guide.

Rise of the Runelords took us 8 years, not because of the length of the AP but because of life reasons. We had jobs, relationships, other hobbies, etc. But I must say that as the AP progressed, my players and I were becoming more and more frustrated with its story and the game’s mechanics. So we experienced long hiatuses. We went from weekly long sessions, to monthly short sessions, to “please, just come so we can finish this” sessions. Life always gets in the way of gaming, but I know we could have finished this AP in like 3 years if the quality was as good as it started.

As I said at some point before: this game -imperfect as it is- gave me and my friends years worth of adventures and fun. I enjoyed reading and running parts of it and we collected a giant -no pun intended- amount of anecdotes and fun that will stay with us forever. As one of the players said when we finally finished the campaign: “there are not many things you do for as long as 8 years”. And he is right. It was a good ride. My rant is just accumulated frustration that I hope can help someone figure out how to best enjoy roleplaying games, how to design for people like me, and what was the experience of a game group that played for so much time the most famous adventure path Paizo ever wrote.

And, if any Paizo designer is reading this: sorry for the critique. I hope it was not too harsh and that you can salvage something useful among all of what I said. Also, thank you for my last eight years of gaming.

Starfinder Charter Superscriber

Thanks for the excellent, thoughtful review. I've just started Chapter 5 with my group, and have noted some of the issues you're experiencing with consistent 1 round combats, few NPCs to RP with, etc. But I'm determined to finish, and I'm trying to keep the momentum going.

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First off, thank you for providing your opinion/review. Earnestly provided feedback even if negative should be welcomed. I think you make a lot of valid points (background: I recently finished GMing RotRL as well - we only took 4 years:) And I think any GM who intends to run RotRL should read your review and think about what you have to say.

However... there a a couple points of context I think should be provided. Not as argument but perhaps as explanation.

Most important: Paizo is a business. They publish AP's to sell them. They need the AP's to appeal to the broadest range of customers as possible. Ergo, NPC's/Monsters in ALL published adventures have mediocre tactics. Tactics that are not completely foolish but also no tactics that make best or even good use of abilities. Why? Because the challenging tactics for one combination of player system mastery/pc builds would be a brutal TPK for other groups of player system mastery/pc builds. And brutal TPK's are bad for business.

The passage of time for players and progression of pc abilities exaggerate this problem. The complexity of the rules forces players to acquire at least some system mastery as their characters advance and as they play together they learn ways to synergize their abilities across the pc group to be more effective. If the group of pc's/players stays the same across the entire AP, they are much more deadly than just their level jump would explain by the end. You are correct: Karzoug's tactics as written are suicidal. I'd be stunned to find a group of players/pc's who played together across much/all of the AP who would find his tactics even a minor annoyance. (Game rule babble: he still has targeted Transmutation spells memorized for crying out loud and the pc's probably have Runeforged weapons - complete waste of his slots to saying nothing of an action. Of which he has a decided shortage of supply, even with timestop.)

Which leads to the next critical point: the only one who can solve this problem is the GM. He/she has to tailor and update encounters to the specific pc's in the group. And as you rightly observe, the most common method GM's try is to throw advanced templates or more hp at the NPC's. And just as commonly, it fails. There's no solution but hard work of changing tactics and spell selections and feat selections, etc. It has been a truism about every edition of the game: high level adventures are hard/challenging/frustrating/boring and the problem 9 times out of 10? The GM. They are very hard to do and frankly most GM's struggle (myself included.)

I agree that Sins of the Saviors might be greatly enhanced by offering role-playing options for solving the pc challenges. But the business side kicks in again: how many groups would be interested in that vs how much of the page count is taken up to make it happen? I would also observe that RotRL is one of the first AP's Paizo did and was deliberately an echo/homage to the classic D&D adventures of the past where using diplomacy to solve a problem was not "a thing." Lastly, in game observation: the occupants of Runeforge are utterly reprehensible. Literally no one from Varisia regardless of alignment or religion has any interest in any of them returning to Golarion to release yet more Runelords. Scorched earth is the best solution.

I also agree that Xin Shalast is underserved by the AP but again, page count vs value shows up. The parts are there to tell more of a story (hint: develop the Spared more) but see also: More Work for the GM. Oh and I agree the Leng elements were not foreshadowed in any meaningful way in the first 5 books.

I agree though not so strongly as on other elements on the nature and role of the Sihedron, etc. Yes, it is true the AP does not go out of its way to grab the GM by the throat and say "Make sure your players KNOW THIS" Also true, the AP provides all kinds of background to the NPC's without providing the slightest hint for how the pc's might ever learn it. But...


The narrative thread is there. Karzoug is literally the cause of all evil in the AP. The pc's have literally been fighting him the entire campaign (and even before.) When Mokmurian breaks in to the Pinnacle and activates the Runewell of Greed, that triggers the Late Unpleasantness in Sandpoint including messing up Nualia, triggering Kaijitsu family dysfunction, unleashing a serial killer on the town and the temple getting burned to the ground. Karzoug sends Xanesha, Lucretia and Mokmurian out to sacrifice living creatures by the dozens/hundreds so he can harvest their greed for his resurrection machine. You want more engagement with Karzoug - well in one way or another the pc's have been fighting Karzoug since they were first level.)

I'm halfway through Runeforge now and I couldn't agree with your assessment (all of it) more.
The further we get into this AP, the more rewriting I have to do.

Good assessment. My players loved the Therrasic Library, and researched the heck out of Karzoug and Xin-Shalast. By the time we got to book six, though, they had forgotten why they were doing any of this. No real idea why they went into Runeforge, and no idea where to go next. Much legwork was put into steering them in the right direction, and luckily one of my players' backstory provided the hook via a vague, invented-by-me, connection with the Vekker brothers to get them going again. Once in Xin-Shalast, they wandered around aimlessly, drawn towards the Heptaric Locus simply because they saw light there. When the Saved contacted them, they gleefully followed them, despite every single party member being convinced the Saved were leading them into a trap. They thought it was a bad direction to go, "but hey, it least it's a direction!"... and I had even heavily foreshadowed the Saved when the party encountered Svevenka.

Also worth noting- their motivation for searching for Xin-Shalast morphed from "Karzoug!" to hauling the gold the Vekkers found there back to cvilization, because the through-line of the plot dropped so completely during Runeforge. I want to take the blame for that, but Runeforge had gone through 10,000 years of evolution completely separate from reality, basically, so who would have kept the fires burning, so to speak? My players found Runeforge to be a place of self-reflection, what with being hindered or helped by their sins and all (and figuring out that sins were the reason for such effects).

I'm starting to notice some of these negatives too. Power curve is crazy (pc barbarian getting like +19 to some rolls while raging at lvl 8) and the fact that giants and ogres are being cramped in such small combat spaces, especially casters (I'm looking at you Mammy and Dorella) makes the fights almost moot. I even put Dorella, Hookmaw and Jargraath in the same area and the fight was over relatively quick.

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Well written but my group and I found the AP overall very good and not a grind, as it seems it was for your group. We recently finished it, over 5 years. And are even playing on with the PCs to level 20.

I agree that the last 3 books are less playable without significant customisation than the first 3. However personally I'd expect this, and expect it with any AP. By 1/2 way through any particular group of PCs would have done so much that the knock-on effects of their actions will inevitably require many adjustments. I also had each of my PCs have a complex backstory that I converted into what i called their 'epic quests'. Each of these was played out via new content and adjustments to existing content. For example, one of my PCs had a longstanding feud with Mokmurian established in her backstory, another had a missing father that I ended up placing as a member of the Vekkers expedition. A third was a Shoanti looking for an ancient weapon that would help him unite the tribes (a Runeforged weapon, as he later discovered). Another had a complex backstory involving Magnimar politics that ended up playing out as a secondary theme that ran the duration of the campaign, and is still running with him at level 19.

The intention, which succeeded in general, was to foreshadow numerous NPCs and events in books 4-6 via their epic quests and character backgrounds. It ended up adding a lot of extra motivation to the 2nd half of the AP.

Also what was helpful was reading the whole thing several times at the start and making sure in general that the foreshadowing around Karzoug and the Sihedron was ever present but not overly obvious. The book suggests doing so, but doesn't go into specifics. So again the work is for the GM to do.

Book 5 was the weakest imho: having PCs stuck in a dungeon for an entire book is a bit much for many. So I redesigned it so that 6 separate entrances were used, with some 'outside of runeforge' action between each. I used that mechanic to establish more of the geography of Thassilon in relation to present-day Varisia, and have my players experience a few more exotic locations.

I found the encounters in book 6 great - they're complex and require adjustment to your party, as any high level Pathfinder encounter does. And given the crunch of PF1 that's A LOT of prep work. But Greg Vaughan has become my favourite encounter designer, and Spires of Xin-Shalast was part of the reason.

Perhaps it depends on the GM style. Mine is to take an AP and break the whole thing up into pieces, and then be fluid about how these get re-assembled and adjusted relative to how my PCs are progressing and the decisions they are making. It's very effort intensive but rewarding I've found. For that style of GM I found RotRL had all the ingredients necessary to make a highly enjoyable campaign.

I have yet to meet an AP that didn't require significant GM work around the second half of the game--possibly excluding Curse of the Crimson Throne, but I've only been on the player end of that one. I take it as par for the course--high level play varies drastically from party to party even after magic items help close some of the ability gaps.

I'm most concerned about book 4. For books 5 & 6, I already have a number of half-formed ideas for making them interesting and averting the "kill Evil Wizard #47" cycle. Book 4 just seems a bit . . . blergh. Fortunately, one of the PCs has a particular hate for giants--I think I can work with that and possibly even add some situations that give the player the chance to develop their character in the manner they see fit. But I'd like to add more breadcrumbs leading to Special K--or even hinting at the apocalypse that could occur if K's, er, "private contractors" aren't dealt with.

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blahpers wrote:
Fortunately, one of the PCs has a particular hate for giants--I think I can work with that and possibly even add some situations that give the player the chance to develop their character in the manner they see fit. ].

I used the moral dilemma presented in book 4 as the basis for my PCs connection to the story. Specifically: that stone giants are really just neutral and in RotRL they've been manipulated into a war they shouldn't be prosecuting.

The hook I used was the party cleric: who followed Milani. Given Milani is anti-subjugation in all its forms, it became an ecumenical affair: the cleric of Milani came to the (guided) conclusion that the stone giants had to be freed from K's (Mok's) dominance.

The giants, with Conna as their leader, became allies of my PCs and helped them out significantly later in the AP as a result.

Yossarian wrote:
Also what was helpful was reading the whole thing several times at the start and making sure in general that the foreshadowing around Karzoug and the Sihedron was ever present but not overly obvious. The book suggests doing so, but doesn't go into specific. So again the work is for the GM to do.

This is an excellent point. Reading the AP as one continuous story can help reveal where the connection points may be weak or need emphasis for a particular GM's group. Each book in an AP is written by a different author - Paizo does its best to stitch them together into a coherent whole, but sometimes the seams show. GM's job to smooth those items over. (Not really pertinent to the OP who's already finished but perhaps helpful to another GM considering RotRL or another AP.)

Shadow Lodge

Wow, it's still admirable that everyone stuck with it over the course of 8 years, and happy that everyone had fun with it, despite all the slowdown.

As for your points, yep, high-level stuff does slow down what with all the stuff to do. Yep, it's a carry-over from 3.X, and the reason why Paizo tends to avoid APs going all the way to 20 (save for one, with a second on the way). It's also why they're reworking the power curve and action economy for Pathfinder 2. I get the reasoning behind their decisions.

Yep, many villains have stupid tactics and positioning, but the great thing about that is the PCs don't have access to that information. For some of the arcane spellcasting foes who fight you in an enclosed space with only one entrance (Specifically, Mammy), I played it up as a mix of overconfidence and unawareness, and expected her to be a cathartic pushover (which she actually wasn't, surprisingly). For others, especially Barl & Mok, I reworked their stats a bit to make them more distinct, and so one doesn't, for example, waste an entire round Enlarging himself when he should've done it as soon as an alarm was tripped.

Yep, Special K's box text is kind of uninspired, so I gave him my own: he isn't going to conquer Varisia like some oafish warlord, he's going to gentrify it, and if you can't see the value he will bring to the world, well, then that just goes to show how worthless you are. I'll actually put the whole "You Are Worms/Fools/Heroes" rants in the mouth of Khalib.

Also, yep, as others have said, any published AP as written will not be as good as the one you get when you tinker with it to suit your players and yourself. Part of it involved getting the PCs to jointly make an adventure journal, so they wouldn't have to ask me why there's here every week, which helped. I also made sure to foreshadow some of the later stuff, like their trek to Jorgenfist taking them through Ravenmoor, where they met a flumph who kept telling the residents to stop trying to worship it, or Mhar, for that matter. I'm also going to tinker with Runeforge and their reasons for getting there; add a third lamia matriarch who's going to try to lure an entire community of kobolds to Xin-Shalast; and even change the whole rationale for the Therassic Library (It's now the Therassic Archives, where Special K sent scholars to be aescetic as punishment, and to help indoctrinate the giants. Why would the Runelord of Greed ever have a library when he could just hoard all the knowledge to himself?)

Sorry for my own rambling on. In summary: Paizo does great world-building and setting-related stuff. If the tactics, dialogue, motivations, or styles of dress don't make sense *coughLyriecough*, you can make it your own! Make it better! If a PC calls you out on it, they aren't the GM here, and they aren't supposed to peek at the book anyway.

Add me to the "every Paizo AP needs customization" camp. Some more than others.

From my read through, I love Runelords. Chapter 5 needs major work if I ever run it, it's very uninspired after Arkrhyst (I replaced the mini-dungeons with Guiltspur from "Into the Nightmare Rift" from Shattered Star).
Chapter 6 just needs more fleshing out. Xin-Shalast reminds me of Erelhei-Cinlu from the old classic D3 Vault of the Drow AD&D module. It's a skeletal framework with most of the fleshing out left to the individual DM/GM.

I was originally going to run Runelords myself for a group of returning to tabletop players (and one totally new player) due to the classic/traditional feeling of the AP. I didn't want to run a campaign with any specific flavor and/or heavier roleplaying. Most of the guys haven't played in a decade or two.
After a VERY successful Crypt of the Everflame prelude to gauge their likes, and some discussion afterwards, they loved PF and wanted to do something heavier. We are headed to Ustalav instead of Varisia. ;)

Sunderstone wrote:
I was originally going to run Runelords myself for a group of returning to tabletop players (and one totally new player) due to the classic/traditional feeling of the AP. I didn't want to run a campaign with any specific flavor and/or heavier roleplaying.

I think this was a great point that led to my selection of the AP. All of my players were new, not just to PF but to roleplaying as a whole, and they have absolutely loved RotRL as an entry point. I think it has a lot to do with your points - it resonates with a classic feel of RPG video games that they know as well as letting them occasionally be lighter on the roleplaying as they get more comfortable.

Yossarion wrote:
Also what was helpful was reading the whole thing several times at the start and making sure in general that the foreshadowing around Karzoug and the Sihedron was ever present but not overly obvious. The book suggests doing so, but doesn't go into specifics. So again the work is for the GM to do.

I could not agree with this more. It has not only allowed me to drop hints earlier on in the AP at times of my choosing, I can be more dynamic in leading the PCs because I know what is important for them to focus on in perspective of the overall story.

Matias Torino wrote:
I hope my experience is useful to other people, being them GMs looking to run this AP or designers looking to write more adventures like it.

Thank you Matias for your thoughts! I love the detail on both good and bad, it gives me even more ideas on what to change in the last two books.

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I 100% respect the OP, if you finished the AP, as a badge of commitment you well deserve the right to your opinion. But I disagree with a lot of your review. As I absolutely loved running the AE version of Runelords! Coming from old school modules to this was a total cake walk, DM prep wise! This forum alone was a DM's Mithral mine of information, as it was like Google Maps/Waze for my groups course through the AP. It was like having years and years of play testing at my fingers. Something I never dreamed of having in all my years of TTRPG's. I loved being able to have so much amazing feedback from others, that offered me total confidence to put my personal spin on a truly epic adventure. With the heavy lifting of the frame work of the adventure built, my job was to decorate and make the NPCS come to life so that my Characters could shine. I think having some of the things left semi incomplete is so important to allow a personal stamp in certain parts of the story. I further feel it is unfair to expect a high level adventure to do everything for you CR wise, tactics wise or even plot hole wise. I felt the rails on this adventure in specific were amazingly easy to keep on the tracks... while not making it so obvious that I was covering them up. Pre-written is not a excuse for DM's to regurgitate the story. I spent at-least 2 hours out of game prepping for each one hour in game, and I mostly ran the adventure as written!

I agree with many, on Chapter 5. As I found I did most of my hardest, (yet most rewarding) work in this area. But,it is the chapter all of my players look back on and rave about, so I will call that success! My Arkrhyst was flat out brutal, and still lives to this day. Stories of his terror continue in all my adventures...a memory of the failure to kill him. But as I said, I had to work hard to bring it to life. Simple things like custom soundscapes for each section of the forge, and Maptool's for easy exploration on all sections. I loved pushing the different politics between the sections, with it, they talked there way out of 3 sections. Plenty of amazing Role-play to be had in each Dungeon. I further loved challenging the group via the tactics and theme of each section of the Runeforge.

After running 4 AP's, I agree with many here. My biggest advise on any pre-written adventure is to flesh out the NPC's and Villains in your mind. If you cant envision them as written, then change them and the combat tactics. I treat them as My PC's. With that, I imagine how they fit into the story and foreshadow them, perhaps even in a characters background, dreams, flashbacks, create props, and rumors. Make them come to life! The amount of content that would take from the writers to write monologues, and to fit them into your players narratives is well beyond the scope of any Pre-Written Adventure. An AP is a multi year commitment from my players, this effort is well worth the reward.

I agree with several of the OP's points and am pretty much of one mind on the marks out of 10 for the individual books. Book 5 is just so bad,it's like someone phoned it in as a bad 1st edition AD&D module and as I played 1st edition for many years when it was the only edition I have some experience in that area.
Not only is book 5 such a huge disappointment book 6 is not better enough to make sitting through book 5 a decent payoff. I tend to find all AP's have at least one book weaker than the rest of the AP but book 5 of Runelords is one of the weakest of the lot.

Still thanks to the OP for posting his thoughts I found it an interesting read even though I've already done the AP myself and it's interesting to read what issues others have had. Most of all though congrats on sticking through 8 years that's a dedication few people would put into running one adventure Path.

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