Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on Pathfinder's Rise of the Runelords - Part 1

    Well, it took 14 sessions and around 50 hours of play-time, but the three of us (we have a small group) finally finished the Rise of the Runelords campaign for Pathfinder a while ago.  We played it by the book, from levels 1 to 18.  We did do something unusual though in that we all played psionic classes from the Ultimate Psionics book.  I thought I'd share my impressions, both about the campaign and the Ultimate Psionics rules.  First, about the campaign in general.
    I was an Aegis/Soulknife/Metaforge - which if you have not read Ultimate Psionics means that I created my own magic armor and weapon (a big hammer) from my mind.  I was the tank.  Sara played a Wilder, she could cast "spells" basically like a mage but she could also use a "wild surge" to increase her caster level above her class level; she was mostly a Sorcerer in Core Rulebook terms.  Aaron was both the GM and played a Cryptic, who was at first glance a "magic"-using Rogue, but who turned out to be the highest damage-dealer, party-buffer and trap/secret-finder.  The game was meant for 4 players, but the three of us had no problems at all.

    Oh yeah, since I am going to be talking about my experiences with the campaign, spoilers (duh) - though I will try not to reveal anything too important. (and, honestly, I doubt it matters)

    There are 6 major parts to the campaign.
    Part 1, Burnt Offerings, starts with goblins attacking the city of Sandpoint.  Even though I wasn't the GM (well, except for one section), I talked with Aaron about his take on running the campaign and I read over the book after we finished - which leads me to my first comment.  While there is a lot of background information for the GM, it's not very clear on how much the players will discover, and what of that background is really useful.  Before the first page for the players there is a full page about Nualia, the main boss for the first section, and while her backstory is cool-ish, little of it will actually be revealed to the players.  This is a running issue for the whole game, in my opinion.  Having a cool backstory is nice, but if the GM is the only one to hear it, it is pretty much wasted.  Also, if it is not directly relevant to the progress of the story, it is also immaterial.  If investigating this background stuff gave some sort of benefit to fighting a villain (perhaps by revealing a hidden weakness) or allowed the party to anticipate future events, then it would be helpful - but since the players don't even get any real clues of where to investigate there is not much to build on.  I wish there had been a block for each villain with its motivation, goals and means to achieve them, and hooks/key things the players may be able to investigate or ways to explore the villain's background and how that may be useful.  A clear bullet-point list instead of a page of rambling prose.
    Also, thank god every NPC writes everything down and sends letters to each other.  Just about every section ends with finding a letter or journal on the main bad guy that spells out where to go next and points towards the next villain.  This is quite ham-handed, and one of the things I did not like in general about the campaign, and also Pathfinder as a game.  Having to take people alive to interrogate them is a nice tactical and strategic challenge (-4 to hit if trying to go non-lethal, and grappling is hard if you are not a fighter class, or trying to grapple someone who is), and using divination magic to speak with a dead spirit or read the "aura" of an object or place gives the magic-users something to do besides toss fireballs.  While these things exist in the game, they are sub-par choices; being good at grappling means taking at least 2 feats and a fighter class, which is a noticeable investment, while the -4 to hit really sucks at lower levels and divination spells are scarce for investigating.  And for this investment you have to remember, the PCs are likely to be killing more people/monsters then they take alive, so strategically speaking building your character this way will possibly hurt more than help (depending on your campaign style of course).  The game kind of relies on this ham-fisted approach because there are so few mechanical options for doing anything else - and you have to pre-plan and build your character to be good at non-lethal combat.  It makes me like the Brawler class from the Advanced Class Guide (may talk about that book somewhere down the road), the Brawler has an ability where they can temporarily gain a combat feat, so something like Improved Grappling, but only 1/day (up to like 3-5/day max).  This at least gives them some of that tactical flexibility to use when needed instead of having to pre-plan everything.  Would be nice if spellcasters had a similar way to dynamically generate a needed effect, like a speak with dead, instead of having to wake up in the morning and think "hey, I might need to talk to the bad guy we accidentally kill later today, better memorize that speak with dead spell." (and, of course, be a 5th level cleric - the only ones with that spell, guess no wizards ever tried to talk to the Great Majority)  This is a general complaint about the rigidity of character creation, but even more rules lite systems like OD&D have the problem of how to adjudicate taking someone alive (not sure when the grappling rules were added, think it was in 2nd Ed, and if I remember right it was a horrible kludge) or what to do if you accidentally jogged someone's memory too hard.

    Anyways, back to the campaign.  The goblins are a sort of comedy relief with fangs, and their attack is kind of entertaining while also being fairly dangerous for 1st level characters.  There are some random encounters after that, then the next big encounter with the assault on the glassworks.  The final boss there, a monk 2/rogue 2, is a pretty good fight.  The last two locations are the Catacombs of Wrath (which kind of bug me, the main villain at the end is Karzoug, who is a master of Greed - but throughout the game we only see Wrath, with Greed near the end, wish they would have focused on just Greed or more evenly included all the sins) and the goblin fortress of Thistletop.  None of these locations are very memorable, or very difficult, and there is almost no loot until the final enemies at Thistletop, so when you hit level 2 you are likely to be under the "recommended adventurer wealth" until you finish the goblins and hit level 3 - after second chapter, there is plenty of money, our 3 person party ended with level 20 total wealth at level 18.
    One thing we did was ignore XP and just level up when the campaign said the PCs should be whatever level.  This worked out just fine, really I think more and more that counting XP is an exercise in tedium and the party should just level up whenever they feel like it and the GM is ready to up the monsters/challenges.
    Another side note is about accessories.  You really need to have Monster Manuals 1 and 2 (I think there might have been a few from 3, not sure) since not all the monsters are described in the book.  Also, we got the hard-back book with the complete campaign, not sure what differences there are from the six soft-back books originally published.  And if you got the "pawns" collection of cardboard figures for the campaign, also get the pawns for Monster Manuals 1 and 2 as not all monsters are in the campaign collection (or, like we did, just make a cloud giant substitute for anything).
    At the end of Chapter 1 the book says:

Relatively little involving the metaplot of Rise of the Runelords occurs during the course of "Burnt Offerings."  Although the chapter's events are closely tied to Karzug's awakening, and certain characters in the adventure have ties to characters whom the PCs are destined to meet later in the campaign, the adventure's primary purpose is to introduce them to their new home of Sandpoint and to instill in them a desire to protect it and its citizens.

    I have several problems with this goal.  First, my character had no connection to Sandpoint and did not give one good damn about it.  Playing the adventure did not instill any desire in me to protect the town or call it home.  I saved Sandpoint because it gave me XP, and it was scheduled in the campaign.  I think it is generally a bad idea to try to make your characters care about anything.  Unless you know your players very well, you don't know what they will actually bond with.  And, why should they like the town?  What is there about it that is so much more likable than any other town?  Throughout the campaign the players are going to go to several towns, and even long-lost cities, so why care about this one little hamlet?  Mechanically, whether a player likes the town or not has no effect on their abilities or options.
    Second, if you have a metaplot, for God's sake kick it off early and refer to it often - otherwise, as with this campaign, by the time you actually get to the meat of the metaplot your players may feel like they have been wasting time chasing down random side quests.  In media res, "in the middle of action," is the old writing advise- if you have a slow start you make it that much harder for your players to emotionally invest in the crux of the story - worse, you might mislead them into thinking they are playing a different type of game and have them miss options and plot points they should be working on.  Knowing the metaplot means you know why you are doing each individual step, how this current boss is going to get you to the final boss, and thus you feel like you are accomplishing something with each step.  RoR did not do a good job of creating that feeling.  We played the whole first chapter in 2 quick settings, and honestly we could have just started the second chapter at level 3 and not missed anything important (or still better, skipped to the 3rd chapter).

    Having saved Sandpoint from goblins, we kick off Chapter 2, The Skinsaw Murders.
    This was my least favorite chapter, and Aaron the GM disliked one part of it so much that I had to step in and GM a section for him.  It begins with a serial killer known as the Skinsaw Man taking an interest in one of the PCs, in this case our only female player, Sara.  This, I guess, is supposed to be a cool departure from the typical "kill the monsters and take their treasure" paradigm that the rest of the campaign will follow.  Instead the players get to investigate a murder mystery.  Again though, Pathfinder itself has no real structure or rules for investigating a murder, so we get another series of ham-fisted clues and rambling role-playing sessions that just feel slow.  Also, again there is no clear link to the metaplot, so all this feels like a pointless side quest (which kind of fixes itself at the end with the obligatory letter to the next villain).
    I will say though, this section had an amusing accident.  My character was a tank, and a backup thief (he was designed for a different campaign where we didn't have a thief, so Aaron's Cryptic ended up taking over the thief duties and negated some of my character's concept, which was no big deal).  My race was the Forgeborn from Ultimate Psionics, and there was a mention of how the race tended to be interested in history.  Now, as a fighter-type I got pretty good skill points, 4 each level, and my Int was a 14 for 2 more points each level.  So I made Disable Device, Perception, Stealth and Survival key skills that I always leveld up.  I also put a random point into a few skills here and there, and somehow I ended up making Knowledge: History one of the skills I always leveled up.  As the tank that seemed a bit of an odd skill, but I thought it added some interesting flavor to my character.  Well, darn if it didn't turn out to be useful after all in investigating some of the historical bits throughout the campaign.  I actually made the DC 25 check to identify the Sihedron Rune at level 3! (not much I know, but you take what success you can get)
    In our "mystery" you wander around and investigate in the town and the neighboring farms.  One thing happened here that I can kind of clearly remember, but not exactly place.  Since this was a mystery we were looking around at everything, so I was asking Aaron about the description of, I think it was, an insane asylum.  He read me the incredibly long block of flowery-prose and totally non-helpful description.  I got a little miffed since I was just looking for some practical details about the place, not some Steinbeck turtle-crossing-the-road detail on non-important things, to which Aaron replied, "I didn't write this shit."  It was something that we would hear time and time again.  Reading a lot of the descriptions in the book is quite tedious, they put way more detail into it than we needed - we were not looking for a novel, we wanted an adventure.  More nouns (things we could interact with) and less adjectives (since for the most part we didn't care about what things were like, just what they were).  Also there were some times, and its been long enough I can't remember any specifics, when an NPC would do something stupid, or we would comment on the convenience of finding yet another letter to another bad guy in a faraway place, that would elicit once again the refrain of, "I didn't write this shit."  Which was totally true, Aaron is normally very good about describing what's important and keeping the action going logically - he was deliberately trying to run this one straight out of the book, and he works regular overtime so he didn't have the luxury of reading it all and then re-writing it to his tastes.  But it was funny to hear each time he said it.
    So after wading through a mountain of random details and events you finally put together that the evil Skinsaw Man is actually Aldern Foxglove, an NPC you met and saved in Chapter 1, oh noes!!!!  Actually, whatever, it really doesn't mean anything at all - the meeting with Foxglove was to go boar hunting after the goblin attack.  The book says that Foxglove is a "charming character" and can be used to "establish details about the characters" like where they grew up and totally random crap like that.  It does not mention that he is going to become a major enemy and so you should prepare the ground ahead of time.  Also the PCs never see him again.  There's a really bad lack foreshadowing for the GM in the book to make him be an effective villain.  But at least now knowing who you're hunting means traveling to the haunted Foxglove Manor.  Dum dum dum (that's supposed to be dramatic music).

    This is the section that Aaron didn't want to GM.  I don't blame him, since I did.  It is, in a word, stupid.  The Foxglove family and the haunted manor have an incredibly long and detailed backstory going back about 90 years and 3 generations.  You do manage to learn all this backstory by exploring the manor and dealing with the haunts.  Haunts were introduced in the GameMastery Guide, and they are basically traps.  But they can't be disabled like regular traps, instead you have to make one or more saving throws to resist their effects.  Now here's a problem, a saving throw is a passive effect.  You cannot really "role-play" your saving throws or strategically build your character to be good at them (there are a few feats and traits, but a miniscule number compared to the non-saving throw feats/abilities).  So making a saving throw does not feel like you did something clever, it feels like you got lucky.  Making 30 saving throws (one for each room) feels like a chore.  The only good thing about the haunts is that they pull you back in time into the shoes of a previous inhabitant of the house, and show you ghostly images of what has happened in the past, revealing the tragic story of the Foxglove family (well, they did the way I played them, the GameMastery Guide is kind of vague on that and so is the RoR campaign book - it's a possible interpretation that if you succeed on the save you don't see anything, it doesn't effect you at all; since that would rob what little we had to learn, I described the haunt and said the save just meant it didn't get under your skin/force you to act strangely).  Which, again, doesn't mean one damn thing.  This family's story is not connected to the metaplot, so nothing you learn does you any good whatsoever.  It is a long, rambling exposition dump for a different movie than the one you are watching.
    During all this haunting we were also rolling pretty good and only had one failure.  Aaron's character blew a save and contracted the evil "Vorel's Phage," a disease that did Cha damage and if it killed him would turn him into an undead horror.  Except it has an onset time of 1 day and saves of 1/day, so it was very easy after we got done to bop over to a cleric and get a Remove Disease for him.
    Our stay in the manor also ended very badly.  Well, it was kind of funny, we did chuckle, but it was not much of a boss fight.  See, in explorer fashion we went from the ground level to the top of the manor and then down.  But at the top level we found the murdered wife of the boss monster.  She has been turned into a Revenant.  She is stuck staring at her reflection in a mirror, but if you cover the mirror she then wakes up and immediately seeks out her killer (we made the knowledge check for this one).  So she ran down to the basement and the tunnels underneath and into the room where our killer was.  They looked at each other, talked for a sec, and then she attacked.  We decided to actually play this out.  Sara took on the revenant, Iesha Foxglove, and I played her husband who murdered her, Aldern Foxglove.  She butchered me in three rounds, revenants get a lot of hit and damage bonuses against the one who killed them.  Then she died too.  And it was over.  Now, we played this out but remember, our characters did nothing at all to defeat the final boss, and did nothing except roll saves against the haunts of the manor, and really it felt like two hours of nothing.  Some backstory, sure, which was moderately interesting, but not like we actually accomplished anything by our own will or determination or cleverness.  We were observers, not players.  I honestly wish we had skipped the whole chapter.
    But it wasn't over yet.  We watched Foxglove be defeated by his wife, and then found a letter he received from the next bad guy in the neighboring city.  Turns out he was working with another group of bad guys, oh noes!!!!  So we go to the next city, and we have the stupidest ambush ever.  And I do mean stupidest ever, in the history of all adventures of all time, stupidest.  See, Foxglove has a townhouse in the next city, Magnimar.  A logical place to go visit and look for more clues.  But in this city there is the bad guy Foxglove was working with, and he knows that some pesky adventurers might come looking around, so he has set an ambush.  He has dispatched two "faceless stalkers" who can shapeshift, and they are currently mimicking Aldern and Iesha Foxglove.  That's right, the two people we just watched fight and kill each other.  So, the second we see the faceless stalkers we know that they are bad guys of some kind.  I cannot grasp why on earth the adventure would have the bad guy make a shapeshifter look like the other bad guy that he is afraid the PCs will defeat.  That is beyond stupid.  Why not make them look like Long-Lost Aunt and Uncle Foxglove (or even just servants, or the missing sister and her husband?) and invite us in for poisoned tea?  So, needless to say, they did not get the drop on us and we killed them quickly and easily.
    From the townhouse we go to the sawmill and fight the stupid bad guy who left the stupid "ambush" and his minions (of course, thanks to a note in the townhouse).  Kill all them and another journal points to the abandoned clock tower, there to kill the final boss and end the chapter.  This was the first section where one of us was seriously hurt, me.  After a trap in the clock tower (a falling bell) I was left with just 1 HP.  However, the only reason I got so low on HP was because I did not stop once in the chapter to heal myself.  I had been taking so little damage overall that I got cocky and didn't heal myself between fights like I should have.  Still, I drank a few potions and made it out of the chapter alive.
    I know that I'm picking on the campaign overall, but what someone does wrong is easier to see than what goes right (and, honestly, more informative on average) - however, in a campaign that overall was okay, this chapter was downright bad.  Long and boring and stupid and just plain bad.

    So we move on to Chapter 3, The Hook Mountain Massacre.
    Oddly, we don't find a note to move on this time - instead one of the NPCs from the last chapter tells us to go check out the village of Turtleback Ferry, which has lost contact with the nearby Fort Rannick (which was actually a nice change).  On our way to the fort we run into a lost animal companion and then a farmhouse of ogres who have captured the last of the "Black Arrows" Rangers who were manning the fort.  Easy enough to kill and rescue.  Now we get 3 companions, along with another one we met in a previous chapter, to help us retake the fort.  Honestly, we didn't need them.
    Retaking the fort is supposed to be a big tactical problem, how do you few adventurers take on the many more powerful and scary ogres?  In actuality it was a cakewalk.  It got off to a crazy start when our new ranger friends suggested we drive some Shocker Lizards out of a cave and into the fort.  Those damn lizards, as CR 2 creatures, wiped out a half-dozen CR 8 Ogers in a single fight.  But even without reptilian help, two-to-one odds of ogers were a breeze.  We killed them easily and in droves.
    Next we ended up going back to the city in time for a huge flood to awaken a sea monster.  The sea monster is a CR 15 challenge, and we at this time are level 9.  It is only supposed to attack for a few rounds and then swim away, but a lucky critical from me and another lucky critical from Aaron end up killing it.  Then we go to the broken dam in a fairly pointless side quest.  Apparently the dam is controlled by demons, something no one noticed or cared about.  But one of the two demons powering the ancient device is dead and the other near death, thus causing the flood of the town.  This is a whole page for something really stupid.  The magic of the dam, created by evil sorcerers long ago, needs to inflict 1 negative level on some hapless creature in order to control the floodgates.  But it is only 1 level, and on any creature, so you can simply cast a 1st level Summon Monster and feed it to the device.  That's not exactly a big problem.  Station a 1st level Wizard or Druid up here, or heck, for like 500 GP you can make an item that will summon a 1st level monster 1/day and keep a steady supply.  The book sort of seems to make this a big deal but it really isn't, and how the hell has the town survived all this time with no clue that its fate was controlled by a demon-powered device?
    A few more side quests in the forest and we end up in the cave of some giants, whom we kill with little trouble.  Honestly, most of the fights in the campaign ended up being relatively easy, despite there being three of us instead of four.  After taking out the boss a convenient letter warns us that Sandpoint may be in danger (again).  Apparently Sandpoint in Rise of the Runelords is like Tristram in Diablo - that annoying city that is always being attacked.

    This finishes the first half of the campaign.
    Up to this point we were meeting pretty infrequently, maybe just once a month or so.  So this first half took a long time to finish.  Given that we're trying to stop the rise of the runelords, there have so far just been some dribs and drabs of hints as to who exactly the runelords are and how exactly they are rising (also, it will turn out to be only a single runelord rising, not plural).  Most of the fights have been pretty easy, and only my own stupidity at not drinking some of the half-dozen healing potions I always carried brought me to a critically low level (throughout the campaign I rarely got below half)(no, wait, there was the lucky critical by the x4 scythe that did a good number on my health in the bell tower).  Really, while the total experience had not been that bad, there had not been anything more exciting or engaging than the ad hoc adventures we have come up with on our own (in fact, during our own adventures we've tried to push things and make up our own non-combat mechanics to broaden our storylines).  The attempt at some "non-combat role-playing" with the murder mystery and haunted house really fell flat.  They were not very engaging.  And the slow drag of metaplot has made it unclear on who exactly the bad guy is and how we're supposed to stop him/it/them - or, honestly, give a damn whether they rise or continue sleeping/napping/clipping their toenails/whatever they are doing.

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