Rise of the Runelords Review and Retrospective, Part I

So, like I mentioned in the last post, I ran the whole of Rise of the Runelords. That was the afterglow post, and now I’ll get down to the business of reviewing the modules and giving some notes of things I encountered or changed when I ran them. Since six modules is a lot of stuff, I’ll spread this out over a few posts. If you intend to play the adventure path at some point, you should probably be advised that this post contains SPOILERS.

We played the first session of the campaign in Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and after Pathfinder RPG came out between sessions, converted and played the rest of the campaign under that. The campaign was originally released using the 3.5 ruleset, but I did not find the conversion too difficult. I typed out or copied most of the statblocks from the modules and other sources into .doc files and printed them out, so I’d have references for all the adversaries right there in front of me behind the screen and would not have to start flipping books. With a very few exceptions, I converted everything from the ground up, and even for the exceptions I jotted down stuff like Combat Manoeuvre Bonus and Defence, plus a Perception score if I figured it might be needed. Those exceptions usually arose from a lack of time to convert some of the more complex creatures from the ground up (especially a couple of evil henchmen in the sixth module come to mind). If I anticipated the use of random encounter tables, I usually also compiled stats for those, which may veer into the obsessive compulsive territory, but at least now I have the stats in an easy-to-use format should I need them in the future.

In addition to the adventure modules themselves, I had a number of helpful sources for advice, handouts, errata and notes on how the modules play out. On the Mekanismi wiki, where I host my campaign’s home page, there were the RotRL campaigns of Blue_Hill (of Never Play Poker with the GM) and Navdi (of Blowing Smoke). These were handy to have and the discussion archives allowed me to learn from their experiences. Incidentally, the campaign website is really valuable tool for anyone running a longer campaign. During the campaign, we updated character sheets on the wiki, agreed on game times, and at least tried to do all that fiddly downtime number crunching there, like keeping track of gold, selling loot and some of the magic item creation. I also used it to deliver some of the larger infodumps on the plot and the world. I’ll next be running the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, and we’re using the wiki to discuss the party composition and bounce character concepts.

Additionally, for anyone running a Pathfinder adventure path, I cannot sufficiently recommend Paizo’s adventure path forums. Each path has its own forum and each module has a thread of its own for GM material, usually stickied on top of the page, and those are treasure troves of fan-created content – maps, handouts, PFRPG conversions of everything in the first four modules, fan errata.

Before I get down to the details of reviewing the individual modules, I feel I should say a word about the adventure format. The Pathfinder Adventure Path modules aren’t just canned scenarios. In addition to the adventure itself, running usually some 46 pages long, each module also contains a couple of articles on setting elements to supplement the module, a piece of short fiction, and a bestiary with a handful of new monsters. The bestiary has a long format for the monster entries, recalling the Monstrous Manuals of the 1990’s, with their lavishly detailed monster ecologies. The page counts add up to a total of 96 pages. The additional content is very useful and made it easier for me to add colour to the setting and try and bring the world around the player characters alive. Whenever the adventurers ventured off the beaten path, I could just check the local gazetteer from one of the modules and see what they run into.

In addition to the six modules, the adventure path also has a player’s guide, available as a free PDF, which advises the players about the campaign to come, what sort of characters work well, and some ideas on what kind of adventurers fit Varisia. There’s also a handful of feats for native Varisian characters. Starting with the next campaign, Curse of the Crimson Throne, Paizo started using campaign traits instead of feats, later forming with the advent of Second Darkness into the more formalized system of traits, first available as a PDF on the Paizo website and finally included in Advanced Player’s Guide, which finally presented a series of campaign traits for Rise of the Runelords. I feel the campaign traits are a handy way to tie the party members to the setting and especially the beginning of the campaign.

Burnt Offerings

Burn Offerings, by James Jacobs, opens up the adventure path, as well as the Pathfinder game line, with a bang. This is the module that started it all, and I have a hard time finding anything negative to say about it. The villains are memorable, the setting is rich, and at this early stage in the campaign, it seems like anything is possible, and the town of Sandpoint loves you, and the frontier is out there, waiting for you to conquer it.

Burnt Offerings begins with a consecration of the new cathedral in the town of Sandpoint, but the party is interrupted by a goblin attack. After defending the town from the goblins, the PCs are deputized while the sheriff goes to Magnimar, the local big city, to get reinforcements. The adventurers will run into a plot against the town, an evil cult, and ghosts of an evil empire that fell ten thousand years ago.

There’s a balance of dungeon crawling, city adventuring and some investigation, and the atmosphere injected into the module is awesome. The stars of the show, of course, are the goblins, who are a mix of Gremlins and Critters – small, sorta humorous, not very intelligent, but evil, cunning and just a bit insane. They’re a low-level adversary that’ll keep your players on their toes. James Jacobs has managed to reinvent the common D&D goblin, usually thought of as merely XP on two feet, and given it a memorable personality. This later became more or less one of Paizo’s trademarks, with the ogres of The Hook Mountain Massacre and eventually the entire Classic Monsters Revisited and the books that followed. You can tweak the goblins to your preference, either playing up the laughs, or making them really creepy. I preferred to strike a balance, mostly using them as a vehicle for jokes and gags, but I used the horror encounter from the module as it foreshadowed the eventual straight-up horror content of The Skinsaw Murders and The Hook Mountain Massacre.

Personally, I ran Burnt Offerings pretty much as written, by the book. I saw no reason to change anything except where the actions of the PCs went beyond the script and I had to improvise, such as when they retreated from the final dungeon after engaging the BBEG in combat but then fleeing from her. She was not a moron, so she took a hike while the heroes were licking their wounds, and the contents of Burnt Offerings and the second adventure, The Skinsaw Murders, gave me a solid framework of material upon which to build the next session where they chased her across the Sandpoint hinterlands.

The extra materials in Burnt Offerings are a gazetteer of the town of Sandpoint, where the adventure is mostly based, another article on the ancient empire of Thassilon that dominated the region some ten thousand years ago and whose ruins are still scattered around the landscape. Thassilon later becomes a major theme in the campaign, and in the end I just dumped the entire text of the article on my players once the characters found an old Thassilonian library. Thirdly, there’s an introduction to the Pathfinders, which sorta starts off the Pathfinder Journal fiction series.

Overall, I consider Burnt Offerings to be one of the finest beginning modules I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few really excellent ones. The module’s plot works, it’s not too railroady, and the town of Sandpoint is really well fleshed out. Along with the material in The Skinsaw Murders and The Hook Mountain Massacre, we’re provided with enough stuff to set ten campaigns of our own in the region.

The Skinsaw Murders

The second module of the series is a mix of slasher horror and haunted house, with a just plain horror in the BBEG fight when she takes the group apart. The action flows more or less seamlessly from Burnt Offerings, and can actually even be started before the first module is over, if you’re good at juggling two books and your players can show some initiative.

The Skinsaw Murders presents us with the haunts mechanic, which later found its way into the GameMastery Guide. I think it’s an interesting and functional way to make a haunting scary in a D&D-type game. If you just throw in a ghost, the players will know that it’ll have this, this and this ability, it’ll be vulnerable to this and this, and it’ll be resistant or immune to these things. Also, if it has hit points, you can kill it. The haunts have none of those. They’re creepy effects that will trigger when you come into the room or walk past the suit of armour or whatever, and then you roll a save or get toasted, or have an uncontrollable urge to jump out of the window, or the like. It worked marvellously at my table. Throughout the house you are also revealed glimpses of the house’s terrible history. The Misgivings chapter of The Skinsaw Murders is pure gold.

The events after that in Magnimar aren’t so hot, though, which has mostly to do with encounter difficulty. The major combat encounters once the party moves on from the haunted house include the cultist leader Justice Ironbriar, who’s a rogue working alone, which is always a pushover, and his henchmen, encountered on the lower floor, are six rogue 1/cleric 1’s, against a party who’ll be fifth or sixth level at this point. Once the party begins the assault on the Shadow Clock, the climb up the tower feels like properly challenging, with the Scarecrow golem and some mooks upstairs dropping a bell on the party, but then there’s Xanesha, the lamia matriarch and Big Bad of the adventure, and, well… while my party, when I ran it, did manage to kick her ass without losing any of their own, I’ve heard enough reports of her being terribly, terribly dangerous to give them credit. She’s quite capable of inflicting a TPK, and one suggestion I’ve heard repeated is replacing Xanesha with her sister Lucrecia from the next module and letting the party face the tougher Xanesha when they’re themselves a couple of levels higher.

In addition to the adventure itself, The Skinsaw Murders contains a gazetteer of the city of Magnimar, where much of the action takes place (and in this case the hometown of two party members) and an article on the goddess Desna, Golarion’s goddess of travellers, the stars and dreams. Finally, there’s the first instalment of the journal of Eando Kline, which ran until the end of the Second Darkness adventure path. Kline himself makes a personal appearance in a later adventure path as well.

In conclusion, even though the latter half of the adventure has some issues with encounter difficulty, the plot works and if the GM is up to it, the adventure can have a really creepy atmosphere. The issues, once noticed, can be easily fixed (now, if the party encounters Ironbriar with his henchmen in a place where manoeuvring is possible, he becomes a different beast entirely), and the haunted house sequence is up there with Music from a Darkened Room in the top list of haunted house modules.

The Hook Mountain Massacre

And we come to the third part of the Rise of the Runelords. The Hook Mountain Massacre occasionally goes over the top, but that’s mostly because RPGs have been family friendly for so long that the top isn’t very high in the first place. However, if your players would find the films Deliverance or Hills Have Eyes uncomfortable, they might not like this module.

Me, I was like a kid in a candy store.

In The Hook Mountain Massacre, the party follows the trail of clues from the previous module to the small village of Turtleback Ferry, where they will encounter the ogres of Golarion.

Golarion ogres, much like Golarion goblins from Burnt Offerings, are a reimagined version of the same old enemy. The stats are the same, but the fluff and the flavour have been rewritten (though I can’t for the life of me actually remember there being anything written about ogres in the first place). The rewriting paints them as complete and utter monsters with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, who raise rape and incest to a religious fetish, especially like the way elves scream and play games where they throw axes at each other and the first one to lose a finger loses. Nicolas Logue has managed to make the ogres utterly terrifying in just about every aspect. The crown jewel of the adventure is the homestead of the inbred Graul half-ogre family, which I feel dirty and bad for liking. After reading it, I spent a while wondering that if this was what they printed, what was so bad in the original that they had to censor it, like James Jacobs noted in the foreword. Well, it turns out, this was.

Though the retaking of Fort Rannick from an ogre tribe and the assault on Hook Mountain can easily slip into plain old hack & slash, and the sidetrek into the Shimmerglens to help a nymph queen feels a bit superfluous and far too brief (I think this is something that was cut down for length), it’s still an excellent, creepy and strongly atmospheric module.

Accompanying the adventure, there’s the article “Keeping the Keep”, for advice on running the fortress that the adventurers are given to run after reclaiming it from the Kreeg tribe. We got one session of play out of that article. Came as the first session after the summer break and allowed us to refresh our memories of what the hell we were doing in peace, get the bullshit out of the way and then begin the next adventure a week later. There’s also a gazetteer on Varisia, the region where Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne and part of Second Darkness take place. With the different gazetteers included with the adventure path volumes, you have a pretty decent campaign setting on the region for your own games.

Though The Hook Mountain Massacre seems to have been edited with a heavy hand to get it to fit the page count and between Fort Rannick and the final assault on Hook Mountain the ogre killing got a bit old, it’s still quite a worthwhile adventure. Hell, it’s worth it for the Graul farmstead alone. Might use a parental advisory sticker, though.

And thus concludes the first half of my Rise of the Runelords review.


2 thoughts on “Rise of the Runelords Review and Retrospective, Part I

  1. My other group finished AP last night so hopefully I can made myself to write about running this second time. I’m waiting for your second part of reviews.

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