Rise of the Runelords Review and Retrospective, Part II

Here is the second part of my Rise of the Runelords review. A week ago, I went over the first three modules. Now, I discuss the last three. Again, if you have plans to participate in the Rise of the Runelords campaign as a player, you should not read any further – here there be SPOILERS.

I find that the campaign most naturally divides into these two halves, between the third and the fourth modules.

First of all, there is a decided shift in tone and style. The first three modules can all be pegged as having a horror theme – Gremlins -style comedy horror in Burnt Offerings, haunted house and slasher flick stuff in The Skinsaw Murders and hillbilly horror in the vein of Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes in The Hook Mountain Massacre. The fourth module, on the other hand, The Fortress of the Stone Giants is more of a traditional, even classical, dungeon crawl, and the fifth one can be seen as a more modern take on the same concept. The finale returns to the horror theme in its first third, but once you get to Xin-Shalast, it fades into the background.

This is not to say that they couldn’t be run as horror or that they’re comedic, but with the exception of the Vekkers’ Cabin sequence in The Spires of Xin-Shalast, the theme is not strongly present and a Game Master wishing for such must prepare and inject the horror himself.

Certainly, run in a certain way, any dungeon crawl can be horror – Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for instance, runs quite well with this assumption. However, D20 games tend to assume a rather high level of sheer combat ability from PCs, which means that the idea of combat, in and of itself, is not a source of fear, since there’s a reasonable expectation that you’re gonna come out on top. You have to throw in something extra.

The annoying thing here is that from the fourth module onward, the adventures also contain adversaries from the Cthulhu Mythos, like hounds of Tindalos and denizens of Leng, yet lack other trappings that would really make it horror. I am sad to say that it’s pretty much exactly what James Edward Raggi IV said on his blog a couple of days ago.

Secondly, there’s a natural break for the characters at this point in the campaign. Burnt Offerings starts from the Swallowtail Festival, celebrated on the first day of autumn, and if the GM keeps track off the passage of time, depending on how leisurely he has paced the game, winter should be fast approaching by the time that Barl Breakbones, the endboss of The Hook Mountain Massacre, falls. The flow of the campaign makes it natural at this point for the PCs to spend the winter in their brand new keep, Fort Rannick. Also, I think the assault of the stone giants that kicks off The Fortress of the Stone Giants takes place more naturally in the spring – giants or no, traversing the Storval Stair in the heart of winter is just suicidal.

The end of The Hook Mountain Massacre also fell very conveniently for our last game session in spring, before the the summer holidays forced us to take a break in the game, and the game resumed in the spring of the Varisia, early autumn of our world. The “Keeping the Keep” article from The Hook Mountain Massacre also offered us content for a leisurely recap session before we kicked off The Fortress of the Stone Giants.

Thirdly, I feel there is an unfortunate dip in quality between the third and fourth modules, and due to a variety of reasons I’m outlining below, the second half just does not shine as brightly as the first one.

The Finns in the audience may be interested in that Blue_Hill has wrapped up his own Rise of the Runelords campaign and tells about it in his blog.

Fortress of the Stone Giants

Let’s be frank – I think this is the weakest of the series. It is not, I should hasten to add, a bad module, but rather, it represents a type of module that I am not a fan of. The majority of the module is a long, hack & slashy dungeon crawl, and while there are some things to spice it up, I ended up removing quite a few fights from Jorgenfist.

The module begins with a stone giant raid on the town of Sandpoint. The giants are accompanied by the campaign’s first dragon, Longtooth. The raid was a hectic running battle on several fronts, and the leader of the stone giants, the ranger Teraktinus, was a worthy adversary (the dragon fled, and while they encountered it later, they didn’t get around to slaying it until the campaign’s epilogue). This is the strongest part of the module.

After that comes a hunt for the raid’s survivors and a fight with the rearguard, which we ended up skipping altogether because the party managed to extract the location of Jorgenfist from a captured enemy and took a different route to Jorgenfist.

The approach to Jorgenfist is well done. You have a fortress surrounded by camps of giants and ogres, hundreds of them, with several ways to get in. The module even provides numbers for the tribes, in case a party is mad enough to try taking one on or whittling down their numbers. Entering Jorgenfist, in the end, is far more interesting than most of the content within.

While there is the possibility of roleplaying your way through certain encounters in Jorgenfist and forging an alliance with a disgruntled stone giant leader, I still feel there is too much combat in here, and with the kobold barbarian and the redcaps it veers dangerously into Christmas calendar dungeon territory (“And behind door number three… 1d6 wolves!”). I’m not a fan. Someone else might be, but even with the variety, I feel there’s just too many combat encounters. I am also aware that when you’re presenting what amounts to a military base, you also kinda have to put in enough enemies to make it look populated – if killing everyone on the premises is easy, it’s not credible.

The final battle with Mokmurian, however, is well done and memorable. He’s a lone wizard, which usually is a recipe for a very short fight, but he’s also well designed, with a good spell selection and more or less foolproof alarm systems. Oh, and he’s a stone giant, with a stone giant’s Con modifier. He was the longest-lasting single adversary in the entire campaign, and challenged the party without overwhelming them. For this, I salute Wolfgang Baur.

As extras in Fortress of the Stone Giants, we get articles on the dragons and stone giants of Golarion.

Sins of the Saviors

The fifth module of the series is even more of a dungeon crawl than Fortress of the Stone Giants. It starts off with a small dungeon, featuring a pushover baddie, leads into a dragon fight and then into the Runeforge, which is a large and interesting dungeon complex themed around the seven deadly sins and the Thassilonian theory of magic.

There are seven different wings in the Runeforge, all of which have been led at one time by a specialist wizard of great power and a subordinate of one of the Runelords of ancient Thassilonia.

Each of the wings has a magical aura that is keyed to the sin and grants bonuses to characters if that is their “dominant” sin, and penalties if their dominant sin is opposed to the sin of the wing. The dominant sin of a character is determined by gut instinct, mostly. I kept a chart in the beginning of the campaign, but later concluded that the characters’ predilections are obvious enough. As I recall, we had two wraths, a pride, a greed and a sloth.

It was interesting on the idea level, but in the execution, I felt the this aspect of the theme could’ve been played up stronger.

As it is, though, the Runeforge is an interesting adventure location, with nifty NPCs, some of whom the party may be able to talk with before killing them (and probably should, because killing everyone, no questions asked, will leave them with the equivalent of a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle with two thirds of the picture taken up by a clear blue sky).

One cool thing I ran with was a trap at the entrance to the wing of greed. It’s a gas that first turns you into a goldfish and then teleports you into a pond. The party’s barbarian fell victim to it, and when the others started looking for him in the ponds (after getting the details of what the trap does from some water mephits lairing nearby), it turned out that Skrym wasn’t the only one goldfished. So, I rolled some dice and came up with some numbers of what kind of people they were rescuing when they took a couple of days to slap break enchantment spells on fish. Most of them were footsoldiers from the other wings, but there was a bunch of adventurers, whose stats I got by picking D20 books at random from the shelves behind me and rolling Will saves. If they had retained their intelligence during their stint as goldfish – centuries and millennia in most cases – they were insane, but if they hadn’t, they were merely disoriented and befuddled. The party built up a bit of a retinue there, who then ended up as a cadre of officers in Fort Rannick when the party returned from the Runeforge.

Sins of the Saviors has a bit of a side trek feel to it, but it’s a pretty good dungeon crawl in that it doesn’t overstay its welcome and for once, camping out for a week in the dungeon makes sense.

There are two additional articles in this adventure. The first is an article on the magic of Thassilon, which is a few spells and magic items for each of the sins, plus the runeforged weapon enhancement, which is the thing the party is after in the dungeon (they are bane weapons against specialist wizards and certain other things and resist the magics of that type – having a couple of dominant runeforged weapons made the party’s lives a lot easier in Spires of Xin-Shalast).

The second article is about Lamashtu, the demon goddess of monsters and abominations. Not bad.

Spires of Xin-Shalast

Finally, we come to the sixth module, the grand finale.

The module can be roughly divided into two halves – the search for the path to Xin-Shalast, and Xin-Shalast itself. The eponymous city is the capital of the former kingdom of Shalast, the Thassilonian kingdom of greed. It is a Xanadu-like place located high in the Kodar Mountains, nearly inaccessible and hidden these past ten thousand years, yet occupied by tribes of giants and lamia-kin, and some rather more horrible, unique adversaries – and, of course, Karzoug the Claimer, the Runelord of Greed and the Big Bad Evil Guy of the entire adventure path.

Spires of Xin-Shalast is as epic as they come. While it’s heavy on combat, there’s enough variety and atmosphere that it doesn’t become stale, and that variety is executed in a way that avoids the Christmas calendar syndrome, with the possible exception of this one critter with a statblock spread out over three pages that is described as an “advanced dread vampire decapus sorcerer 10”. I didn’t even try to convert that one.

The search for the path half mostly consists of the Vekker Cabin, a haunted miner’s cabin, inhabited only by the unquiet spirits of cannibalistic dwarves who fell victim to their own greed (and a wendigo who still dwells nearby). This was strongly atmospheric, and saw a return of the haunt mechanic from The Skinsaw Murders. Good stuff.

Then, eventually, the characters get to Xin-Shalast, there is lots of fighting and trying to survive in a city that partially occupies an elevation over a thousand feet higher than Mount Everest and has been built by and for giants, in a location where the wall between dimensions is thin and stuff leaks over from Leng. So, for an adventure location, you couldn’t ask for a better place.

There’s a nice variety enemies, the constant feeling of a hostile city, some really nice and memorable bad guy henchmen, and finally, Karzoug himself, still trapped beyond the mortal plane. I felt he was quite appropriately statted out. He’s tough, and dangerous, but unlikely to cause a total party kill on the surprise round. In fact, he only managed to kill the druid’s wolf in my game, falling after some five rounds of battle. It’s the tragedy of a single enemy – even with all the quickened spells, he still doesn’t have enough actions to fend off all the adversaries. Still, it didn’t feel too easy, but just right. A very suitable conclusion to the campaign.

The additional materials in Spires of Xin-Shalast are an article on Karzoug himself and his magic items and minor artifacts, and another on surviving the hazards atop the roof of the world. I especially like the concept of the “death zone“. A bit of quirky realism like that can go a long way.


And thus ends my report on the Rise of the Runelords. It was a fun campaign, and while it was not perfect, it was very, very good, and we had many memorable sessions with it. We’re now preparing for the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, with a party lineup that consists of a haunted Chelaxian colonial mistress in the best Victorian tradition, her flirty halfling sorcerer manservant with the blood of snakes in his veins, a half-orc barbarian from the jungles who worships the Ape Satan, a Varisian thief who died and was raised in Rise of the Runelords and may develop a multiple personality disorder when he starts dabbling in alchemy, and a half-elf who’s in love with his bow.

I expect Edward W. Saïd would have things to say about how that campaign is going to turn out.

But I digress. Rise of the Runelords is good stuff, but if I were to run it again (not happening in the foreseeable future), I’d pay more attention to the horror elements in the second half of the campaign and try to run the entire adventure path as straight-up horror.  The ingredients are all there, but only parts of the three first modules are really presented as such.

It’s the first of the adventure paths that I’ve finished, and I hope there will be many more to come. As a whole, though the quality fluctuates through the series, it still holds up as a splendidly crafted campaign, with a good story, a nifty villain, and some memorable locations and adventures. From best to worst (or, really, least good), I’d rank them in the following order: Burnt Offerings, The Skinsaw Murders, Hook Mountain Massacre, Spires of Xin-Shalast, Sins of the Saviors, and Fortress of the Stone Giants. All of them have stuff worth looting for your own games, though, and none of them are exactly bad.

It also helps that there is a vibrant fan community around the adventure paths, and extra material, Pathfinder RPG conversions, advice and ideas area easy to come by. The popularity and strong community also creates that sort of culture of shared experience that D&D used to have in the 80’s, when everybody played the same modules. Take any D&D player of a certain age, and they’re pretty much guaranteed to have played at least a part of the G series, or White Plume Mountain, or Tomb of Horrors, or the D series, or Ravenloft, or at least Keep on the Borderlands. I can’t really think up any module from the 90’s that would have a similar status, and nothing really comes up from the 3E era, either. Maybe The Sunless Citadel, since it was released so early. Maybe. I think Pathfinder RPG has something similar going on, thanks to the internet and the general high quality and visibility of the adventure paths.

Well, that’s all folks, for now. I’m off to write my RPG Superstar entry.

3 thoughts on “Rise of the Runelords Review and Retrospective, Part II

  1. Pingback: GM binder take 2 « Ketherian's Blog

  2. Well written, I am using this adventure path for my 4e campaign (modified of course) but after your review may just use the first three. Thanks heaps!

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