Hell’s Vengeance – An Autopsy of a Campaign

Been a while since I made one of these.

I ran Hell’s Vengeance. It’s Pathfinder’s villain adventure path, where the characters are terrible people doing terrible things on behalf of a terrible system. They murder a lot of paladins, among other things. In contrast to my previous adventure path campaign, Council of Thieves, which was a sixteen-session exercise in cutting off all the fat and slimming it down to just the necessary stuff, this was supposed to be a leisurely campaign where there would be no hurry to get to the finish line, I could expand on the material, put in stuff of my own and we’d be at it for some years.

Then COVID-19 happened, everything got cancelled and whenever we weren’t on lockdown there was nothing to do but game, and we crammed 41 sessions into 20 months and five days — contrast with Rise of the Runelord’s 29 sessions in 19 months 20; Serpent’s Skull’s 27 sessions in 22 months 26; or Council of Thieves’ 16 sessions in 16 months, five days. If we’d been less cautious — our group size was smaller than the recommended upper limit for personal gatherings even during lockdowns — we could probably have wrapped this in January and be five books into another one. While it did mean that a campaign that could’ve been three years was done in under two, it also sometimes meant there was not quite as much prep time between sessions as I could have used. Mind you, campaign prep was a really good way to take my mind off the pandemic situation.

The game was also covered by Moreenimedia, Tampere University’s journalism students’ webzine. Finnish only, obviously. I am very happy to have been a part of doing something that’s not the same “D&D is cool now” piece that we’ve seen in a gajillion permutations over the past couple of years.

Introduction

To cover the basics, Hell’s Vengeance is a six-book campaign for the first edition of Pathfinder RPG, one of Paizo Publishing’s adventure path line. It came out in 2016, numbers books 103-108 of the line, and is the 18th complete adventure path. Its conceptual twin was the previous AP, Hell’s Rebels, where the party are heroic resistance fighters liberating their province from the yoke of the infernal Chelaxian crown. Hell’s Vengeance, conversely, is about playing evil agents of the Chelaxian crown, crushing a popular uprising. They occur at the same time, but the action in the two campaigns does not overlap — indeed, one of the reasons the uprising in Hell’s Rebels is canonically successful is that Cheliax is preoccupied with the Glorious Revolution threatening its heartlands.

There was originally a plan for one of my players to run Hell’s Rebels at the same time and then we’d have a session at the end where the two campaigns’ characters would fight, but that did not happen. There was also a plan to have the same players’ characters from Council of Thieves — which takes place in the same city as the final book of Hell’s Vengeance — encounter their new PCs and fight, which also did not happen… but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Of course, this and the following blog posts about the campaign will have SPOILERS.

Since the protagonists were evil, their society was evil, and their bosses were evil, we had a few safety mechanics at play, most notably the lines and veils rule used in many games. Straight-up ruled out were explicitly mentally ill player characters and violence against children. It was also established that I as the GM wasn’t going to drop sexual violence upon any of the player characters, and while it was a thing that existed in the world, if it would occur during the campaign (which it did not), it would be faded to black, not played out. Likewise, there was a limit to how graphic we’d get with torture (which occurred a lot). Finally, it was agreed that there would be no player-versus-player fighting, with the understanding that the team would probably tear itself apart the moment they’d completed the campaign’s main mission.

The Agents

Usually I’ve written “The Heroes” there, but I felt today this would have been inappropriate. I actually grappled for a while with what to call the party in my session recaps before I settled on “the agents” (I felt “the party” felt clunky, especially in Finnish). Unusually, we had no deaths until fairly late in the campaign when such inconveniences were fairly easy to surmount, and there were only four players. So, here are our low-functioning psychopaths.

I gave the players very free rein with their character concepts, since the understanding was that this was the only opportunity they’d probably ever get to play with this material.

Gwalur of Shalatuwar / Aspexius of Longacre

The serial killer. That’s actually his class, via a vigilante archetype from Horror Adventures. Gwalur is a hobgoblin, and a veteran of the Goblinblood Wars. He was a mercenary, who then developed a whole second identity disguised as a human, who also killed oathbreakers, took off their hands, and froze their bodies with alchemy. His own hand started taking on a personality as well and towards the end became detachable and all that crap. This turned out to be a gift of Shax, the Demon Lord of Lies and Murder. Gwalur scared even me, the GM. He died fighting angels and paladins in the final session of the campaign. It is unclear if he was brought back to life.

Arabelle

The de facto leader of the group was Arabelle, a priest of Asmodeus. Priest, not a cleric — I allowed a third-party class that may or may not have been entirely balanced, and occasionally she’d just end encounters. She was Macchiavellian, narcissistic, and a low-functioning sociopath who’d lucked into being born in a society that rewarded and encouraged all of those traits. The player hit it out of the park. Every time I portrayed an NPC who was not her direct superior, I had the feeling I was being snubbed. She was killed by a trumpet archon in the final session, but was brought back to life. The player once mentioned that usually when he went home from the game, he felt bad.

Nemanja

The dhampir antipaladin of Asmodeus, a bloodsucking psychopath whom nobody could love and who was entirely okay with this fact. He was, surprisingly, not a Hellknight. Nemanja deferred to Arabelle in most things. He killed things very efficiently, and looking over my NPC list, it’s Nemanja who delivered the killing blows on most of them. The antipaladin was also very effective against paladins, since their fear aura cancels the paladin’s fear immunity. Against other evil creatures, though, he was, in the player’s words “a fighter with fewer feats”. Nevertheless, at the end of the final combat, he was the last man standing.

Vesper

Vesper was a gillman with the dress sense of a glam rocker, which was pretty much the only sense he had (though the party in general was a low-Int, high-Cha outfit, at least at the start). His class at the start was witch with the seducer archetype, and he was an omnisexual corrupting influence upon the world around him. Vesper was an oracle of lore, and rolled Knowledge checks with his Charisma bonus, also making him the ultimate mansplainer —  he knew jack shit but was always right. He later multiclassed into oracle and then into mystic theurge, and it was revealed that Vesper’s powers came from Socothbenoth, the Demon Lord of Perversion, the uncool brother of Nocticula the Succubus Queen and basically a fiendish Leisure Suit Larry. Vesper, at the end, was murdered by Nemanja, but later brought to life by his own henchman who’d absconded with his and Gwalur’s bodies in the chaotic aftermath.

Some Highlights

  • In the beginning, they were contracted to rough up the local tanner over some unpaid taxes. In the attack, a night soil collector was killed and his elderly wife knocked out. The agents were subsequently contracted to be the town’s new sheriffs, at which point they had the comatose woman, Pippa Umbre, transported to the town jail “for her own safety”. When she woke up, Gwalur lobotomized her. Because he just happened to have a masterwork lobotomy pick with him. Coincidentally. For the rest of the campaign, when they returned to Longacre, he would go to Pippa Umbre and unburden his heart about all the vile acts the party had committed, because she was the only one who would listen to her. After Gwalur’s mystic disappearance at the end of the campaign, his troupe of hobgoblin mercenaries “liberated” her from the Longacre hospice to keep her with them as a kind of a mascot and a spiritual conduit to the lord of murder that was Gwalur.
  • When, towards the end of the campaign, the agents were liberating the cathedral of Asmodeus in Westcrown from paladins, one of their adversaries who was basically a local superhero decided to flee, and capture Vesper’s henchman Avi with him. Upon realizing this, Arabelle cast a spell to kill Avi, not the near-invulnerable enemy. Of course, Avi survived and told his captors the party’s strengths and weaknesses. Lesson of the story: always treat the help well.
  • When the party was planning for a covert assault on a paladin-run prison camp, they decided it would be best done during a storm or other bad weather. I went “ok why not” and started rolling on the random weather chart, which I had never touched before. Of course, I hit the 1% chance of “windstorm, blizzard, hurricane, or tornado”, the town of Kantaria got snowed in, and they spent the rest of the adventure slogging through waist-deep snowdrifts, changing the nature of the scenario entirely.
  • In the final combat encounter of the campaign, at the very end, when the agents had slain the Lord Marshal Alexeara Cansellarion and her most powerful allies, there remained a single trumpet archon, who could finally use his paralyzing trumpet attack. Gwalur was already dead, a victim of slay living. The archon had been overlooked because trumpet archons, even advanced ones, at these levels were kinda speed bumps. Except when everyone rolls a one on their save. The archon proceeded to coup de grace Arabelle, twice, because she survived the first one, until Nemanja broke free and killed it. Nemanja then proceeded to coup de grace the paralyzed Vesper and hit the bricks with Arabelle’s body in a bag of holding.

Next time, I will be covering the first two books of the campaign and what we did with them. S’mores were involved.

1 thought on “Hell’s Vengeance – An Autopsy of a Campaign

  1. Your RotRL campaign retrospective was incredibly helpful to me when I started to play RotRL as a first-time GM (and tabletop player!). Now, many years later, we are nearing the end of Hell’s Vengeance and this pops up. I just want to say that coincidence and synchronizity tickles me very much, thanks for writing this and I am looking forward to the rest of the series!

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