We finished - comments and opinion on the campaign [spoilers]

Return of the Runelords

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Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path Subscriber

After 16 months in real life, 35 sessions, and ~180h of game time, we concluded our Return of the Runelords campaign. This is the sixth AP I finish, mainly with the same group of players, and it's always both a relief and a sense of pride and accomplishment to conclude one of those, especially when it's been as interesting a story as in Return of the Runelord.

Our group started with 5 PCs before a player had to pull out a third of the way through and we played through most of the campaign with 4 PCs (15-point buy, very experienced players, and fairly optimized characters). There were a few PC deaths along the way, but nothing permanent. I actually found the whole campaign very well balanced: it was appropriately tensed for the concluding chapter of the Runelords trilogy and the world-shattering events happening in Return of the Runelords certainly deserved to be more than speed bumps for the players!

The details of the campaign can be found in this journal.

So a massive thank you to James Jacobs for developing this AP, seeding some hints to it throughout the last 10(!?!) years of Pathfinder APs. Our group played most of Rise of the Runelord and all of the excellent Shattered Star before playing this one and it sure was a boon. There were quite a few throwbacks to the old days that brought back very fun memories!

A big thank you also to the six authors — Adam Daigle, Mike Shel, Richard Pett, Jason Keeley, Amanda Hamon Kunz, and Greg Vaughn — for the adventures themselves. They were quite varied and not repetitive one bit, even over 35 sessions of gameplay. It's no surprise with this mix of "old-timers" and new(er) blood from Paizo employees whose talent pushed them very quickly to the forefront of the Pathfinder AP-writing team. I can't wait to see more AP chapters from these six!

It's hard to think of many things that didn't work out in this campaign that I played mainly as written. With APs, I usually end up changing half a chapter to a chapter because I don't find it suits my/our needs but that wasn't the case here, which is quite rare. I tweaked a few things, of course, but that was mainly for the campaign to resonate better with the PCs' background and with past events from the APs we played before in Varisia.

So what did I particularly like or found suboptimal?

- The best parts of the AP were hands down the continuation from the past Varisia APs and the whole time travel and tempering arc. It felt epic, with a definite feel of finality in the air over the last couple of books at least.
- The last book was truly bloody epic! All those temporal events! The final battle against Alaznist! That one lasted 9 rounds and Alaznist expanded more than 30 spells.
- The throwback to the old days: Xanesha, Magnimar, Sheila Heidmarch!, the Sihedron heroes, the time wound that involves Xin. Of course, that only works if you've played the other APs in the trilogy before, but it certainly works very well if you did.
- It was a nice change to reach level 20. Pathfinder rules are as always quite cumbersome at that stage but, every once in a while, it's fun to use capstone abilities and hurl level 20 mythic wizards and their mythic meteor swarms at the PCs without killing them outright!
- A suite of very well crafted NPCs throughout the various chapters. It started with Audrahni at the very beginning but interesting NPCs kept appearing (Lullaby Vancaskerkin, Viralane, Sursha Antefalle, Sorshen!, the Steward of Stethelos, Ninuron, Belimarius,…).

- As usual with APs, the higher level books contain quite a bit of padding in dungeons, especially since encounters can take so long to resolved. But that's easily dealt with.
- Not much else, really.

So a truly excellent AP that I would rank up there with the best ones (Kingmaker and Shattered Star for those I've GM'd). Maybe a close second after Kingmaker, but for entirely different reasons?

As for specific details on the six chapter…

Secret's of Roderic's Cove (4.5/5.0) A very well crafted first chapter that hurls the PCs into a story they can't even fathom at this stage and with events already in motion. It's a very sandboxy first chapter and the author and developer were clearly trying to avoid the railroading from session 1 of chapter 1. If I had a criticism, it's that it sometimes feel a little too loose and sandboxy for the start. I imagine that may cause trouble for some groups that want a bit more guidance. But all the individual pieces of the chapter are very well crafted and the ghost of Roderic can serve as a "mission giver" if the PCs and players are a little lost about what to do next.

I particularly liked that the adversary NPCs tend to be in shades of grey rather than the common binary good/bad NPCs. Most of the NPCs can be interacted with and it's never entirely obvious whether the adversaries aren't just people in the wrong place at the wrong time who have to deal with a crappy situation. Even the goblins.

It Came From Hollow Mountain (5.0/5.0) Wow was this one tons of fun. The Hollow Mountain part of this AP is well crafted and enjoyable but it's the traveling part between Roderic's Cove, Magnimar, and Hollow Mountain that really made this one shine for me. So many opportunities to develop the interactions between PCs and NPCs! So many opportunities to show why some of the NPCs ended up being adversaries to the PCs! Varilane, Audrahni, Sursha… Stealing Baraket, the assassination attempt (and success!)in Magnimar… Damn, that was good!

The dungeon part may be a tad too long but it has numerous entrances and my group bypassed a quarter of it so it was about the right length and didn't last overly long.

Runeplague (4.0/5.0) I had my doubts about this chapter before playing it (too scattered over Varisia, with set pieces that feel too disconnected) but it turned out quite okay. I still find it would have been better if it had been more focused instead of trying to visit the four major cities of Varisia but the parts in Korvosa (Sorshen!!) and in Riddelport were particularly enjoyable. The part in Korvosa because it wasn't a dungeon (I also changed the festival rules and made it far less gamey and much more role-play-y) and it was a great opportunity to meet with a changed Sorshen… that the PCs had a really hard time figuring out and making a decision as to whether to trust her or not. The part in Riddleport with the base defense scenario was amazing. The PCs had time to prepare, and they did so well, but they still almost lost because of the repeated assaults on Zincher's Tenement.

It's also the first chapter the PCs get to clean out the (current) Runelords. Krune didn't stand a chance in from of a thoroughly prepared group but that's perfectly fine as it was a nice reward for the group and it made it obvious they were achieving something.

Temple of the Peacock Spirit (4.0/5.0) Still very good but maybe the weakest chapter of this AP, basically because it's primarily a long big dungeon? Still, it's varied enough that it's not too boring and there are some very good parts interspersed throughout: the peacock shrines that add an interesting twist, the fact that the cultists are not homicidal killers (contrary to some PCs, which led to particularly enjoyable philosophic discussions), Xanderghul's behavior and the multiple encounters with him. I also particularly liked the first part of this chapter in the time-locked Therassic Library. Ninuron is an interesting character too!

I did make one major change and got Xanderghul to reincarnate as the Peacock Spirit (more or less the mythic phoenix of Mythic Adventures) after he died. That was quite needed to make the final encounter truly epic.

The City Outside of Time (4.0/5.0) This chapter both suffers and benefits from high level play. The padding I mentioned earlier is quite apparent in the Realm of Frozen Tears but, at the same time, it's becoming quite epic with some traveling through the plane of shadows, visiting and helping a city locked in time that is being eaten by time and reality, the interaction with Runelord (Runelady, really) Belimarius, and the final encounter in her runewell. I particularly appreciated the nuanced stance with Belimarius: she's clearly a horrible person but she wishes to save the city as much as the PCs. So much so that, in chapter 6 Xin-Edasseril became the only safe place they could think of to regroup as Varisia was being destroyed.

Rise of New Thassilon (5.0/5.0) One of the best AP chapters I have ever played, if not the best one. I took what was written and ramped it all the way up to 11. Varisia was being destroyed with little to do against it, everything the PCs knew was falling apart and only they could save the timeline by repairing Alaznist's damage. It doesn't get more epic than this! At the same time, we played a session with the Sihedron heroes going on a suicide mission to prevent Yamasoth from entering Golarion (and that indirectly helped the PCs by lowering Alaznist's paradox points). It was so much fun to get to play with those characters again, 4-5 years later!!

Freeing Karzoug's soul in the Boneyard was certainly something. The final encounter, with Alaznist and her minions, is suitably epic (it was certainly touch and go for quite a moment!) But I think that it's the weirdness of the visit to Stethelos, the interaction with Tawil At'Umr, and the healing of the temporal wounds that I particularly enjoying. These are all short but incredibly well crafted encounters that give so much of the history of Thassilon to the characters and players. And to get to revisit these key moments in time and interact with them… Wow!

I was a player in Olwen's game. It was, overall, a great AP!

I have some more detailed thoughts about what I considered highlights (and a couple of things I didn't like as much), but I have to run off right now for a while, so I'll post those in a bit.

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From my perspective --


Playing a character from first to twentieth level. I haven't done that in a looong time. Fifteen years? I even got to use the capstone ability for my class!

Getting a chance to revisit and play the previous, much-loved character that I ran through Shattered Star for a while (a GM change to the AP, I think.)

The NPCs -- particularly Audrahni, Sorshen, Lullaby Vancaskerkin, Viralane, and the nameless librarian in the Peacock Temple. Also fun were Sheila Heidmarch (nice to see her again!), the Peacock Cultists in the temple, and Ninuron. And I'm always happy to see Shalelu (who may have been a GM addition.)

Time travel! And all the associated weirdness.

Fighting multiple Runelords.

Secrets of Roderick's Cove was pretty fun all around, in part because of how bumbling, incompetent, and clueless we were at low levels. We had no idea what was going on!

Xanesha. Seeing her again brought back delightfully traumatic memories of battling the unrevised, original version of her (twice!) many years ago in Rise of the Runelords.

The "tour of Varisia" in Runeplague. Also the defense of Zincher's home.

Our running battles against Xanderghul in The Temple of the Peacock Spirit, and the deific Final Form (apparently a GM innovation).

*Not* fighting Belimarius.

Fixing the damage to time.


Thybidos disintegrating after his apology made that whole sequence seem a little pointless.

Unlike the Magnimar, Riddleport, and Korvosa sequences, the Kaer Maga sequence in Runeplague didn't give any flavor of the town.

The Plane of Shadow sequence in The City Outside Time seemed a bit unnecessary. I'd have rather gotten to the City more quickly and had more adventures there.

The whole Storval Deep / Court of Judgement sequence in Rise of New Thassilon seemed a bit unnecessary. Although I had one of my most exciting encounters in that sequence, it all seemed a bit beside the point, plotwise.

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As another player in that game, I agree with almost all these points. I'm just going to add my own take on a few things.

It was one of the best, possibly the best, campaigns we ever played. Kind of ironic, given that we originally were trying to decide among several other APs and only settled on Return of the Runelords because it was compatible with our disparate array of character concepts.

Things I liked:
— OMG, the stakes. Many campaigns threaten to end the World As We Know It, but this one DOES IT before your eyes, and then has you race desperately to undo it before it's too late.
— Grandiose set pieces. I, for one, really enjoyed the little stint into the underworld with the scary judge. I wished there had been a way to bargain for K's soul rather than just having to slug it out with a roomful of bad guys, but the scenery was fantastic. I also liked activating the cyphergate, Stethelos, etc.
— Since I'm not fond of the degeneracy of high-level play, I welcomed the places where different mechanics than just fighting it out were used to generate tense action scenes. Healing the temporal wounds comes to mind in particular.
— Seeing so many familiar faces was a big selling point, and being able to play my previously favorite character (Dr. Laslo Budynek, scholar of anatomy) again was fantastic. I didn't expect hearing of my Rise of the Runelords character again, even if it was just about how they died covering Ameiko's retreat... it just added to the personal stakes for resetting the timeline.
— The powerful one-shot boons that were handed out after key achievements in the campaign. Really makes you feel that you've accomplished something in the greater scheme of things, and comes in handy with all the super-deadly threats we kept facing.
— I agree that not having to fight Belimarius was a brilliant choice in the AP. They're supposedly incredibly intelligent; it makes sense at least one of them would prioritize protecting their own interest over picking unnecessary fights with powerful third parties (who have demonstrated being able to kill a runelord). It prevented the runelords from just being a to-do list to work off.
— Playing an Unchained Monk. This is not campaign-specific, but I had a total blast with her. She might be my new favorite character now. The Unchained Monk might be a tad overpowered offensively, to be honest (although that might have been due to my taking an Occultist level and Snake Style, rather than the basic chassis), but it does have a rather strong weakness in its inherently low AC. I had lots of magic to help me keep it high, but we did get dispelled or couldn't buff in a few occasions (including the final fight!), and it left me very vulnerable. I don't like replaying character concepts (I have a long list of unplayed ones that I'd like to try), but I'll still be tempted to revisit the Monk in a later life.

Mixed feelings:
— I found the early parts of the campaign inordinately deadly. I'm not sure whether it was bad luck or bad tactics on our part, or whether the game was designed that way, but we routinely brought a full house of bad guys down on us all at once. Having one of us assassinated in their sleep at a supposedly safe house also didn't help.
— Xanesha was overpowered again (this time by cheating — you can't use Vital Strike with a (Su) attack). I guess it's in character for her, and some people might see that as a positive aspect... I just don't like my characters dying for bad reasons.
— Marooning the heroes in the distant past. Call me old-fashioned, but I like giving them the retirement they deserve after saving the world... But I suppose it's a valid dramatic choice. The stakes were high enough that paying a personal price is acceptable.

That is great feedback! Glad to hear from both the GM and players on their thoughts of the game. My group is still playing through it but hoping to have as much fun as you did.

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

This all sounds fantastic and makes me look forward so much more to GM'ing this AP. I might have to call on Olwen for some stat blocks. You can believe that I perked up when I read the word "Ameiko" (although I got my own high-level stat block for her from GM'ing Jade Regent). :p Running a suicide mission for the Sihedron Heroes sounds like a lot of fun, and, well, we all probably know which soundtrack is the appropiate one for that occasion. ^^

I'm also very much looking forward to reading the campaign journal. Again, if I like some of the changes from there, I might have to bother Olwen for some of the mechanics s/he used in the campaign.

Thank you all for your write-ups, those are very helpful to GM's who plan to run those APs!

Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path Subscriber

Don't hesitate to ping me, magnusk! :)

I didn't change very much, however. The main changes that come to mind were the Peacock Spirit (using the mythic phoenix), and the extra bit under Windsong Abbey with the Shattered Star PCs. That was basically a fight against Yamasoth (or trying to survive him, actually) while destroying some "furniture".

Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

I'll take you up on that offer in a few years, Olwen. ;)

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Akkumsah wrote:
— Marooning the heroes in the distant past. Call me old-fashioned, but I like giving them the retirement they deserve after saving the world... But I suppose it's a valid dramatic choice. The stakes were high enough that paying a personal price is acceptable.

On second thought, that worked out fine for my Monk after all. In her backstory, she had trained at the reclaimed ruin of a Thassilonian monastery, and had experienced visions from the original inhabitants in the Thassilonian age that allowed her to reconstruct a millennia-old Thassilonian martial arts style (she's Time-Lost). Now it turned out she had, in fact, founded that monastery in the past, and the visions she had received were «memories» of herself teaching her students. :)

Sure, it worked out fine for you. My star-crossed love for Audrahni is now even star-crossedder!

Ice Cracking In The Sunlight wrote:
Sure, it worked out fine for you. My star-crossed love for Audrahni is now even star-crossedder!

I wouldn’t put it past her to seek out Sorshen, convince her that you will have saved her ass from Alaznist in the future, and perform a few services for her in exchange for a few millennia of temporal stasis. I figure a 20-level Bard would still be a rare commodity even at the heyday of Thassilon.

(Although she might just start on that path, meet someone special who takes her mind off Audrahni, and then diverge into the Mad Queen scenario...)

Akkumsah wrote:
I wouldn’t put it past her to seek out Sorshen, convince her that you will have saved her ass from Alaznist in the future, and perform a few services for her in exchange for a few millennia of temporal stasis.

That ... doesn't sound like a safe thing to attempt with a younger, unrepentantly horrific Sorshen.

Pathfinder Adventure, Adventure Path Subscriber

Our next campaign, Strange Aeons, starts here! It's promising to be fun!!

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