Serpent’s Skull Review and Retrospective, Part I

We’ve now wrapped up the Serpent’s Skull adventure path, so it is time to look back and review what we’ve learned, make some notes and give a few hints. Since the path is six modules long and they’re not short modules, I’ll be breaking this up into three posts. The path divides up like that very naturally.

I will start off by noting, as with every time I discuss the running of adventure paths, that Paizo’s own adventure path forums are probably the best single resource for any given path. They’re active, there are loads of other GMs over there wrestling with the same problems you are, and the amount of fan-created game aids, hand-outs and other stuff is stunning. Unlike for Rise of the Runelords, I didn’t have a bunch of other local campaigns to draw upon for inspiration and advice. Serpent’s Skull, to my eye, does not seem to have achieved the popularity of, say, Rise of the Runelords or Kingmaker. This is just as well, because it has some considerable flaws that become evident as one progresses through the campaign.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – the following contains SPOILERS, and if you intend to play the campaign, this isn’t for you. Go read the Player’s Guide or something instead.

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv

Those flaws I mentioned? None of them are here. Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is, like I’ve stated before, one of the best modules I’ve run. The first installments of all the adventure paths are very strong pieces of work, but I feel that James Jacobs has produced something that stands tall even among that crowd.

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is one of those modules that takes an archetypal story frame and presents it in a way that makes it work in the context of what I like to think of as “the subgenre of D&D fantasy”. The ruleset’s implied and underlying assumptions especially about the availability and utility of magic tend to break certain types of plotlines after the characters are of a certain level. Divination spells and murder mysteries, magical healing and pestilence… the list goes on. Here we have the shipwreck and survival on a deserted island. Once the party level is sufficient for the cleric to cast create food and water and remove disease, survival on a tropical island becomes trivial. That happens at fifth level.

Before that, though, there’s so much fun to be had.

The adventure starts with the party waking up washed on the shore of Smuggler’s Shiv, an island reputed to be cursed (true) and inhabited by cannibals (ditto), which makes rescue unlikely. There are five other castaways with the party, and a number of mysteries, such as the question of what the hell happened to land them in such a spot. Beyond the mystery and its answers, though, the adventure is more or less a plotless sandbox, designed to let the party pursue its own interests on an island that will try to kill them in a variety of fascinating ways. Food is an issue. Giant crabs are an issue. The inbred cannibal tribe is an issue. The giant chupacabra living on the mountain is an issue. The greatest issue of all, though, are the tropical diseases. There’s a sourcebook called Heart of the Jungle that ties in with the adventure path, and includes two pages of tropical diseases. I most heartily recommend it as an accessory to anyone running Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv. You should be careful not to overdo it, but if you’re careful, you can beat them to an inch of their lives with all the classics of dying unpleasantly in a foreign land, such as the sleeping sickness, dysentery, malaria, and my favourite, dengue fever.

The book, incidentally, also contains stats for hippopotami and botflies, both giant and swarming.

When not laid out with a life-threatening illness at the camp, the party can explore the island. There’s a lot to explore. One part of it has been taken over by vegepygmies, the coastline is dotted with shipwrecks, there are all sort of apex predators making their lairs in there, one buried pirate’s treasure, and those cannibals. Once the party picks up on the mystery and starts tracking down the bastard who murdered the first mate and drove the party’s boat on the rocks, there’s also a demonic temple to explore.

Not everything on the island is hostile. There are a few locals that the PCs can befriend, including an addled kenku castaway, and of course the other NPC survivors of the shipwreck, who each come with their own mysteries and subplots the party can pick up on if they so desire and can win over the NPC. All five, being adventurers themselves, are dysfunctional people with some serious issues. (It’s something I’ve been saying for years – crawling into a hole in the ground to kill orcs and take their stuff is not the career choice of a well-adjusted person.)

Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv is a five-star adventure. The atmosphere of the island is tangible and at these low levels, the threats of starvation and disease are very real. There are also no shops on the island, so damaged and lost equipment cannot be repaired or replaced. Towards the end of the module, the group’s archer was running out of arrows. On the level of the campaign arc, it only suggests that something bigger might be afoot regarding the serpentfolk. This is a good thing, because it works very well as a standalone and is easy to use on its own.

Racing to Ruin

After the party has been rescued from the Smuggler’s Shiv, having probably spent some months there, they find themselves in Eleder, the capital city of the former Chelaxian colony of Sargava. With them, they will most likely have clues they discovered at the end of the last adventure. Our group spent a session doing… well, this. Thanks to the other castaways being a bunch of blabbermouths, the power groups they are involved with will also solicit the party for aid and employment in the endeavour of finding the lost city of Saventh-Yhi, whose location the notes should help reveal. These groups are the Red Mantis (assassin cult), the Aspis Consortium (evil merchant guild), the Sargavan government (the colonial bureaucrats in their pith helmets), the Pathfinder Society (the Indiana Jones guild), and the Free Captains (Arrrr!).

The module expects the PCs to take one of the groups up on their offer (ours went with the Red Mantis, mostly I think because Niero the alchemist had the hots for their castaway, Sasha) and to start blazing a trail ahead of the main expedition. The bulk of the adventure, then, is about travelling from Eleder to Tazion, an ancient fortress where the information on Saventh-Yhi’s actual location should be found. Along the way, they encounter hippos, crocodiles, assassins from competing groups, and a pair of chemosits, ape-bears that are ridiculously under-CR’d and ended up killing Sujiu, the party’s archer and living proof that if you really want to break the Pathfinder fighter, bow’s the way to go. Clustered Shots, incidentally, is banned from my campaigns from here on out.

Tazion, of course, is occupied. The occupants are a tribe of charau-ka, small ape people who usually worship Angazhan, the demon lord of apes, but in this case are apostates and follow Ydersius, the headless snake god of the serpentfolk. They find the path to Saventh-Yhi, hidden ten thousand years before in the deep jungle by the Azlanti.

Racing to Ruin is not a bad adventure, but I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly good adventure, either. It’s just sort of there. The thing about making a journey adventure is that you need to make the journey at least as interesting, if not moreso, than the destination, and this one doesn’t do that. The trip from Eleder to Tazion is more or less a series of random encounters. Some of them are reasonably interesting, such as the one where a succubusis magically controlling three local priestesses and the party needed to take them out without killing them in the ensuing fight.

(Incidentally, that fight got a bit awkward. I had a slightly packed schedule for that day, and directly after the game, I was hosting a movie night for the sci-fi course I was taking at the university. We’d decided my apartment was a more comfy environment for the watching of Metropolis. Well, this last fight of the session featured a succubus, who managed to charm Kailn, the group’s pint-sized Lothario. She didn’t have time to start level-draining, being preoccupied with the rest of  the group kicking her followers’ asses, so Kailn was sort of left alone next to a lust demon that had just mind-controlled him – so he began to hump her leg. As one does. After a round of this, the other students of the sci-fi course started arriving. It was amazing how the entire battle devolved into a quietly awkward numbers game. “Niero.” “23.” “That’s a hit.” “15 damage.” “Okay, Kailn. Kailn does what Kailn does. Mogashi.”)

Once the party reaches Tazion, things get more interesting, when they have to figure out how to take out a fortress of angry ape people. There are interesting tactical challenges, and if you want, you can even bring in larger strategic issues. The area is dotted with tar pits and some wild monsters, which a creative group can use to their advantage in taking out an entire tribe of charau-ka.

Racing to Ruin is also the part where the campaign gets what I would describe as “postcolonially suspicious”. I’m not actually bothered by all the apefolk in here, since Heart of the Jungle actually describes several different Mwangi ethnicities and they’re not being used as the obvious stand-in (And let’s face it, if you want an evil adversary on whom you can project man’s innate savagery and primitive, murderous urges, it’s a damn sight better to use a gorilla than Djimon Hounsou. Just sayin’.). They’re there. It’s just that they’re not here. All five of the power groups the party gets to work with are outsiders or colonial masters. The only Mwangi person the group has properly peaceful contact with is a hermit cleric of Gozreh, Nkechi, who they contract as their native guide and who takes them on a dream quest and teaches them about their spirit animals (an otherwise interesting part of the adventure). One of the villain groups in the scenario is a brotherhood of former slaves. I think introducing the Freemen’s Brotherhood as one of the power groups the PCs can work with would have been a more interesting solution, perhaps as a replacement to the Aspis Consortium, who have been the villains pretty much everywhere else and really work far better in that role than as the party’s patrons. It would also have introduced the problem of slavery as a theme in the adventure, where it is more or less glossed over. It’s all rather problematic, and I think it would also make for a more interesting story if the campaign and especially this adventure involved more interaction with the local culture.

Next time, the party reaches Saventh-Yhi, and I will discuss the The City of Seven Spears, The Vaults of Madness, and be very understanding about why things ended up so unfortunately.


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