revising the plot of modules 1-3

Ruins of Azlant

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

We're two sessions in to an attempt to run Ruins of Azlant as a kingdom-building game, though the kingdom is not yet started. I'm GMing, and rapidly coming to the conclusion that this is not going to work as written--even without the kingdom building.

There are three plotlines visible in modules 1-3. The A plot is that faceless stalkers ambushed the colony and handed over the colonists to an aboleth. The B plot is that there's a hag in the volcano. The C plot, which is slightly connected to A but not in any useful way initially, is that Ochymua is loose and looking for a doomsday device.

Plots A and C are introduced in module 1, but you can't really do anything about either of them.

Module 2 is supposed to be about plot B, but every time you turn around plot A is causing you trouble--you still can't do anything about it, but it won't leave you alone so you will likely feel you *should*. But all the material you'd need to handle a proactive anti-A plan from the PCs is missing, such as info on how the stalkers get here and how they could be stopped.

Finally in Module 3 there is a sudden demand that you resolve plot A, and finally you can. (Plot C? Never mind. Maybe you can get a scrap of info but there is nothing you can actually do.)

I can live with backgrounding C, but A and B are interacting destructively as far as I'm concerned. My player is not going to engage with B while A is actively attacking--or he might ask B to help him against A, which the module does not allow for. And the PCs are really incapable of doing anything about A for an annoyingly long time--two modules and six levels!--which is hard on everyone.

While all this is going on, there is also a logic question, namely whee the heck are the faceless stalkers coming from? They are working for C, except when they are working for A, but in either case, where do they live when they're not working, and how do they get here? They do not breathe water as far as I know, and they have no base on the island, and no boats; they leave no tracks, cannot be spotted coming in, and generally seem to be fictitious. Where were they between the fall of the first colony and their attack on the second? Why, for that matter, do they attack the second colony at all?

I propose that Module 1 should introduce an A plot which is "Faceless stalkers destroyed the colony" and module 2 should culminate in tracking down the Ancorato base of the faceless stalkers, wiping them out, and learning where they sent the colonists, thus setting up module 3. The hag in the volcano can wait, or the PCs can tangle with her as part of trying to get leads on the stalkers, but she should not be focal--it's just too distracting.

You might get some poignancy out of this, too, because I think before Ochymua came those stalkers must have been living on Ancorato, minding their own business, apparently as free beings. Now they're hopelessly enslaved, and that's kind of sad, and a foretaste of why Ochymua must be fought.

I don't want to put the stalkers at the Spindle base because they would long ago have opened the door. (I think I better add a recent landslide which has just exposed that door, too, because ten thousand years is a LONG TIME for no one to try it.) I guess I'll need another ruin. Does anyone have a random Azlanti ruin to recommend?

One problem I see with your changes is that they remove the pretty cool scenario of the players slowly realizing they are reliving the demise of the first colony when things start becoming odd. I'm hesitant to remove that bit, because deception is supposed to be a major theme of the AP. Our group just started, so I can't tell yet if the structure will cause problems. My plan is basically to throw enough quests and missions at them that they are too busy to look for the main plot.

Of course I'd be interested if there are any GMs willing to share how the early books worked for their group (either with changes or without).

As for the travel part, Id assume initially the big bad helped them to reach the island (easy enough as a high level spellcaster) and now they have the boat from the first wave of colonists. They'd be smart enough to travel the sea by night (using their darkvision) and land at some hidden spot, so it should be really hard to foil their attempts in advance.

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

The problem is, knowing my player, it is not going to be "slowly." At the first sign that they are reliving the demise of the first colony they will throw 110% effort into finding out why. The very gradual, deliberate infiltration of the colony is fun to read but it's not likely to happen that way in practice. Just to start with, faceless stalkers aren't immune to detect evil or detect thoughts. Certainly some of the colonists might be evil, but you can use detect evil to pick targets for detect thoughts and sort them out that way. My guess is, once the idea that something evil has infiltrated the colony enters the PCs' minds, it'll be at most 1-2 days before the stalkers are uncovered.

So while it's a cool idea, I am not invested in keeping it, because I don't think I can. Distracting the PCs so badly that they will be unable to deal with this threat seems difficult, and also likely to cause a lot of resentment if it succeeds.

You're right about the boat--I just re-read the start of 3. What I think would happen if I ran this straight, though, is a nasty jump from the start of 2 to the start of 3, which messes up both campaign pacing and levels.

If the Faceless Stalkers play their cards right it should be hard to notice them early. They would use the first replacements to get as much information about potential threats as possible, so they would likely know if one of the players was able to use Detect Evil and make sure to have countermeasures in place (like a potion of Misdirection when interaction with the PCs is neccessary and staying in the background elsewhile). Additionally they would mostly act while the PCs are away, so those don't have many opportunities to notice the changes. But most importantly by this point the PCs shouldn't really know what exactly happened to the first wave. Even with some foreshadowing the PCs should ideally be unable to figure the plot out before things are already set into motion because they act on incomplete information.

If the players reveal the Faceless Stalkers early regardless, their number would still be far lower than at the point they deliberately attack. Most likely they would just attempt to flee and come back for an attack later (triggering the actual encounters during book 3 as intended).

That is not saying the events can't be rewritten to potentially flow a bit better of course. I'm just offering suggestions how they might work well enough as written because I'm to lazy to change it. Or rather think the amount of work wouldn't be worth the payoff for me, which might be different for your group of course. My group missed enough hints that I think it is very unlikely that they really see things coming. On the other hand it might feel very rewarding if your players figured everything out and actually get to twart the Stalkers plans due to this.

I think that a good idea, perhaps even the intended way, is to play the B plot as a big red herring and get your players to actively try to solve it believing it to be plot A.
(while in the meantime allowing the real plot A to take place, ideally without the players noticing => plot twist and reveal and a lot of fire)

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

The PCs figured out the stalker invasion of the village three days into my meticulous 21-day timeline. (Knowing my player, I was not surprised by this.) However, they didn't get it all right, and the stalkers escaped. (I had them using tamed chupacabras to cover their blood-drinking, and the chupas got sacrificed for a much-needed distraction.)

Through a completely surprising series of events the PCs then made a connection with one of the stalkers, and learned that Thanaldhu was going to fall back and try to set "the Blood Witch" on them to soften them up. They got info from the locathah about the presence of a witch somewhere on the island, and decided they really needed to stop this threat before doing anything else (yay! that's the delay I was looking for!)

It took them THREE DAYS to find Helekhterie. All that island scouting, clue collection, and cultivation of NPC allies paid off in a big way. I was scared they couldn't handle her (all PCs 5th level) and it was a hard fight, but they won.

So much for plot B as red herring. (Helekterie's raid force is still out there and doesn't know she's dead, so there will be a raid, but after that plot B is done.) But they have some indications now that the stalkers will leave them alone unless and until Ochymua or Onthooth forces them to do otherwise. I think the next threat is in fact Onthooth getting tired of waiting and sending skum to kidnap someone for questioning, and it'll wait a month or two before deciding to do that. (In my continuity, Onthooth does not know where the stalker village is, though Ochymua, alas, does.)

Sooner or later the PCs will have trouble with the stalkers again, and they know it, but I seem to be getting the slowdown I need to make pacing and levels work. I did NOT want to run module 3 six days after the end of module 1, which was what looked to be happening for a while.

I hope they can be convinced to do Ankythyra and to build up their kingdom a while before looking for Onthooth. I better start mapping the module 3 island, though, because I doubt I have more than 2-3 months and that might be 1-2 sessions.

They *really* want the tech advance that will let them treat insane or mentally damaged people, because they are collecting them at a brisk rate (Eliza, Rayland, the cyclops, and poor Perril, who did not handle being kidnapped by stalkers well at all) and see many more in their future, such as if they rescue Onthooth's captives.

As an aside, it is an ugly fact that if Onthooth has had human captives for this long, probably all of the women are pregnant with baby skum. It will be interesting to see how the kingdom handles that.

Adventure Path Charter Subscriber; Pathfinder Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

By the way, here are some novel ways to find stalkers:

(1) If you have any spell with "person" in the name, it constitutes a test. You can ask humans to deliberately fail their saving throws, or just trust that real humans will tend to fail. Stalkers can't, as they are not humanoids. Reduce person, enlarge person, hold person, and charm person all work. My player used charm person, which sets a worrisome colony precedent that I will play up later, and a stalker might try pretending to be charmed. Reduce/enlarge are foolproof, though; you can't pretend that!

If you rule that the caster knows whether the spell found a legal target or not (we go back and forth on this), you don't even have to fuss about saves: just casting the spell settles the issue.

Of course there are a lot of colonists. My PCs used this approach to make sure the leadership wasn't suspect (and caught Thanaldhu/Carver). But you could do a few people every day, picked at whim.

(2) Stalkers don't eat solid food. Arrange for the colony to have all its meals communally and look for folks who don't eat much. We have a nice village green with long picnic tables and everyone eating elbow to elbow. It's awkward for stalkers. This method does get some false positives, but you can then test with methods 1 or 3.

(3) Give folks a solid thwack with a bludgeoning weapon, and cull out those who don't even bruise. Then use channeling to heal everyone. Unpleasant but effective, given an observer with good Heal skill. (We generally have a PC with Heal, not to do healing but to do forensics--it's our main forensics skill, which is a big deal in our games.)

Still sounds like some pretty meta-gamey ways to get to that outcome. I mean what was the initial tip-off that something was up?

My players are getting ready to take on Nal-Shakar, and I’ve been running it largely as-written, except some minor course corrections to get folks back on the rails when they do something the AP didn’t anticipate. They know SOMETHING big is up in the colony, but they don’t know what. They trust literally no one, they think Ramona is completely incompetent, they think Carver is shady. The only other person in the colony that they’ve been relying on is Medrinnah, who they hired to be their little Harriet the Spy whenever they inevitably have to leave the colony. Except, the colony is so jacked up that they don’t really WANT to leave to take on Nal-Shakar, even though they’ve bought the red herring, hook, line, and sinker. So they’re in a perfect state of conflict and paranoia that things are going to go pear shaped at home if they leave (it won’t, they’ve been through all the colony events, and the last part will wait until they get back), but they can’t find the missing colonists if they stay.

The impending sense of doom that they all have is perfect, and they are constantly on their toes, not knowing where the next threat is coming from.

Derrin Uptal wrote:
Still sounds like some pretty meta-gamey ways to get to that outcome. I mean what was the initial tip-off that something was up?

The disappearance of the initial colony was kind of a big hint....

They found someone's notes (forgive me, it's been a while) that suggested either mind control or shapeshifting. Then I ran one or two of the module's stalker encounters and wham, that was it. They were looking for evidence; the encounters provided it.

The PC party was a detective agency before things went wrong for them in Andoran and they "volunteered" to come to Ancorato. I am not at all surprised by the outcome: there were plenty of clues, and finding clues is what these guys *do*.

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