So, in my last post I described my experiences with the Rise of the Runelords campaign for Pathfinder. Seeings how it is 6 chapters long, I made it through the first 3 before my post seemed to be getting a little long as well. So here is my breakdown of the final half of the campaign.
I will try not to reveal anything too important (let me rephrase that, the meta-story really is not very important and the encounters are not that difficult), but spoilers ahead.
Chapter 4, Fortress of the Stone Giants.
After hearing that the town of Sandpoint, our sort of base of operations, is in danger of giant attack we rush back there. At this point we are around 10th or 11th level, I don't remember exactly which. The giant attack on Sandpoint is a very long choreographed affair. There is a list in the book of who does what on what rounds of combat, including an appearance by a young red dragon. Now, one spot of trouble here is scale. There is a map of Sanpoint in the book and it has boxes for where giants/the dragon attack on what turns. It does not have a grid. There is a scale, 1 inch is something like 50-100' but that is a little hard to measure on the twisty city streets unless you want to take a piece of string and more time then we cared to devote. So Aaron as GM had to make a lot of judgment calls on how long it took for us to get from one encounter to the next. In-between the giants the dragon is supposed to attack. He did, twice, then Sara and her Astral Construct (or summoned creature) "Mr. Punchy" killed it. Me and Aaron killed the giants with little trouble. In all, it was pretty easy.
So, the book says you can capture a giant alive and has a whole page on all this stuff one of them could tell you. We, being us, left a pile of giant corpses in our wake. There is no convenient book pointing to the next boss, but the giant warband's footprints were easy enough for me to backtrack. We skipped the random encounters along the way, at this point we all knew that an encounter of 6 CR 7 Hill Giants were no match at all for us 3 level 11 characters (plus Sara's summoned Mr. Punchy if needed, who was a brute). In the interest of keeping things short we just said we killed them all and got to where we needed.
Our destination is Jorgenfist Fortress. Now, this was meant to be a very impressive scene. A giant tower surrounded by giant walls and thousands of giant clans itching for a fight camped around it. How could we possibly take on that many giants, or even sneak pass them, oh noes!!! Except, this is one of those points where you need to calibrate your expectations for D&D (as The Alexandrian had a great post about). Now at 11/12th Level we had a lot of power at our disposal. I could alter my Astral Suit to give myself Climb, Flight or Burrow, and I didn't need to breathe. Sara's Mr. Punchy could also be summoned with Flight. Me and Aaron both had really good stealth skills, with bonuses in the 20s to 30s. Heck, if we could bottle-neck the giants into attacking only about 6 at a time we likely could have killed all however-many-thousands of them in an incredibly long melee (300-style, <grin>). I seriously considered trying to find a place we could fight them at and just start killing for the fun of it, to see if we could, but there is no detailed map so Aaron would have had to make a lot of judgment calls about just how many giants we'd need to fight at a time (and that would take many thousands of rolls to resolve). In the end we just decided to fly around the area and scout, and discovered some convenient caves. We found the dragon's old lair and plundered it (we had like 3 bags of holding and 3 handy haversacks between us at this point, so we could carry a lot of loot), there were 3 CR 7 wyverns (yawn), and another cave with 3 CR 6 Deathweb spiders (double yawn). I can't remember if we found the door to the tunnels from the spider cave to the fortress (after all, every fortress has a secret tunnel into it) or we might have just flown over the wall and started killing our way into the tower, it's been a while now.
Either way, once inside (there was no possible way we weren't getting inside) we start fighting our way through the tower. The thing is though, the tower is a red herring. While there is a fairly tough Mummy, who has some super-powerful scrolls for loot, there isn't anything important in the tower. The action is actually in the hole next to the tower.
So into the hole in the ground. We go down and find a friendly giant and her ghostly husband. She asks us to try not to kill any Stone Giants (all other types are fair game) since they have been under the influence of the evil boss. Okay, at this point I had put merciful on my soulblade so I could do non-lethal damage if needed (as well as ghost touch, pesky incorporeal things). There's not a whole lot of Stone Giants in the caves though; Hill Giant, Troll, Lamia, Oger Zombie, yes, Stone Giants not so much. Would have been a good design decision to put a few Stone Giants in key locations that the PCs have to get through but instead it was something that we mostly didn't have to worry about (we might have rescued a giant or two, that's it).
Finally we fight down another level into the ancient library that the boss has taken over. Some more random encounters that aren't too hard and finally we fight the boss. And, well, we kill the boss, duh. We find a convenient map pointing us to the next chapter and now we have a whole library of stuff to learn and even a cool clockwork librarian to help us research. So finally, for the first time and after half the campaign is over, we really start getting some good background information on what the hell is going on with the story.
After the boss' defeat, the evil super-boss Karzug mentioned that all of his servents were marked with a rune so that when they died he gained power to go free, and that was also mentioned in the last town as well. By this point we have killed a lot of Karzug's minions, but there is nothing anywhere about that actually meaning anything at all. While the threat sounds nice, there is no mechanical effect, no change in any of the encounters, no matter how many things you slaughter your way through. A very cool potential twist that was wasted. I honestly forgot about the marking thing until I read it in the book while refreshing my memory to write this post.
Chapter 5, Sins of the Saviors.
Only 2 more chapters to go. We've hit level 13, and are all feeling pretty good. We've got tons and tons of loot and plenty of powers. We're ready to take on the big bad super-boss and turn him into red paste. But first, back to Sandpoint. Apparently a sinkhole has taken out part of the town, and as its only capable defenders we get called in to check it out. Detour!
The sinkhole leads into the Catacombs of Wrath which we had cleared in the first chapter, but now new sections have opened up. Our boss here is The Scribbler, a resurrected priest who relies on mobility and stealth. He's got Dimension Door and Invisibility, Nondetection and Obscuring Mist. He also has a few CR 6 puppies. But again, we're level 13 now. Aaron has True Seeing (well, the psychic equivalent, Pierce The Veils) which sees through all that stuff, and I have Blindsight to 30', so I can pinpoint anything corporeal within that range (we've played Pathfinder before and lots of previous mages have cast illusions). It is mildly annoying but we kill him. Then we read his crazy scribblings and find out about The Runeforge, our next destination.
We head out to find the Runeforge, first we have to bypass 7 statues that hold the keys we need to enter. It is a DC 40 Disable Device to unlock the statue, which Aaron can do in his sleep at this point. We wake up a White Dragon, who actually does some damage to Sara - she didn't have any cold resistance (Aaron dodged it and I had resist 30 to any element, which I set to cold). Still, it is not too bad and we take the dragon out. Then we loot his treasure, 'cause dragons have great treasure.
Now into the Runeforge we go, in its own little pocket dimension. First, a few notes about the upcoming section:
The campaign has this alternate rule about "sin points" that the GM is supposed to give out based on each player's behavior. What sin each player is prone to is supposed to have some few not terribly important effects here in the Runeforge (like a +/- 2, woot) We ignored it. For one simple and good reson, it is stupid and useless. How and what sins a player is supposed to get is this vague, "do what you think feels right" thing that is useless for a reliable and intelligent measure of a character's nature. The book says:
You should give marks ["sin points" -me] for significant events in your game - don't bother marking minor events. If a PC loots a dead goblin, she shouldn't gain a point of Greed - such spoils of war are considered a normal part of the game. If, on the other hand, she gleefully steals the life savings of an NPC and spends all the money on herself, that should certainly earn her a point of Greed.
Wow, talk about stupid. Let me tackle the idiocy of that paragraph in a few bullet points:
⦁ If some activities are considered "accepted" then what are they? List them. The "looting a dead Goblin" is acceptable Greed, so what is acceptable Wrath or Lust or Glutany? Also, please include more than one, one is not much to go off of (takes 2 points to make a line).
⦁ There is an important and overlooked part in that example, "gleefully." Why someone does something, whether willingly or because they feel they have too, could be argued as a mitigating factor in whether or not to award sin points. That is not discussed anywhere in this section.
⦁ When the hell, exactly, built into the campaign, is a player supposed to be able to find an NPC, to rob and gleefully sell said NPCs life savings? If you are going to tie this into the behavior of the characters during the adventure then why didn't each major encounter/side quest have notes about how the players might gain sin points during that encounter?
⦁ Even better yet, why the hell, if this is supposed to be an important part of the game, didn't you write in some moral choices and spots to tempt players with? Why is this a tacked-on afterthought and not built into and throughout the campaign? Why does it now matter during the second-to-last chapter of the whole campaign? Little late now guys.
The book does helpfully list some sample sins, a whole 1 for each sin:
ENVY: Complaining loudly or frequently about another party member's good fortune, skill, or luck
GLUTTONY: Getting drunk multiple times during the game session
GREED: Robbing another PC or hiding a signficant amount of treasure for yourself
LUST: Eagerly acepting Shayless' solicitations under the pretense of hunting rats in her father's shop basement [the only damn event that is actually a part of the campaign, why aren't there more like this? -me]
PRIDE: Bragging about how nothing in the Foxglove Manor was scary [okay, well, if you made your saves then nothing in the Foxglove Manor was scary, it didn't effect you -me]
SLOTH: Encouraging the party to stop and rest for a day after only having one or two signficant encounters in that day [hell, that isn't sloth, that's being a Wizard -me]
WRATH: Eagerly torturing a prisoner [when would you have to do this, they all wrote everything down -me]
There's also a list of Virtues that can balance your Sins, which I will ignore since it is just as stupid to track this in the other direction.
The biggest problem with this is how subjective it is. My character killed a lot of monsters, not because I was Wrathful - I was a soldier, it was my job to keep my party alive. If a monster didn't attack me, I didn't attack it. If anybody had surrendered, I would have let them (but the book had most of them surrender with only a few HP left, and we tended to do more damage than that and kill them outright). I used non-lethal damage if someone told me to, otherwise I killed everything because they were monsters - not misguded civilized folk. You can't assign sin to a character without understanding how the player created that character and the circmstances of each encounter.
Second problem is one of scale. If "minor" sins are okay and "major" sins are bad then you really need a good dividing line between the two. Most of the examples given above are so over-the-top they sound like a Jim Carry routine. Maybe I've just been lucky since I play with characters like I associate with people in real life - stay away from the bad ones.
Third problem is how divorced from the campaign this is. If you want this to be important to the game, you need to build it into the encounters. Have a treasure that a player can get without the others knowing, force a choice between who to save and who to sacrifice, something, anything, that actually creates moments to bring this into the forefront. The way the section is written it sounds like the GM should quietly be racking up a tally of everything a player does wrong to punish them - and I don't want to play with an asshat GM like that. At least make it open, explain it is a part of the game and go over with each player what sins their character might be susceptable to, point out during an encounter if sin or virtue is involved, tell a player when they earn either kind of points.
Oh yeah, having a character creation system that actually said something about a character's psychological makeup might help too.
Anyways, we totally skipped this crap and didn't lose anything for it.
Another point is about loot, specifically spellbooks. There are a lot of Wizards and Sorcerers to loot in the Runeforge. They have spellbooks. The campaign book does not give any GP value for those books, and it says to assume that each Wiz/Sorc has the spells known and whatever number of other spells you want them to have. Only a few characters have actual concrete guidelines for what spells are in their books, and they tend to be "all spells of levels x to y in the Core Rulebook except for opposition schools." That's a lot of spells, hundreds, literally. At the end of this chapter I actually sat down and took the table of how much a spell cost to write into a spellbook for each level and used that to calculate the worth of each spellbook (I could have made a case for adding the cost to cast the spell in the first place, plus the cost to write it, but we made a ton of money as it was). Now, this may be nit-picking, but we didn't have a Wizard or Sorcerer in our group. We were all Psionic characters - so these spellbooks had no use to us except to sell them. Since the campaign book didn't give any idea for how much they were worth, I had to do it myself or have the GM handwave some value. Really annoying. Couldn't anyone at Paizo have sat down with the books like I did and come up with some general values/ value ranges for all those damn books? Really guys?
One last comment and I'll get back to the adventure. Again, we fought a lot of spallcasters in this section. We have also fought a fair number leading up to this, but this felt like the right place to comment on something. Spellcasters in Pathfinder are very, very strange. A high-level caster can wield godlike destructive powers, as long as they don't require a save DC. Most of the spell saves were pathetic, we would on average need a 6-10 or higher on the d20 to resist whatever someone cast at us. Now, again, we've all played Pathfinder and D&D for a while, so we know that getting our saves up was a priority, the moreso the higher level we got. But casters have very, pathetically few, ways to increase their DCs to compansate - so it is actually pretty easy for the defender to resist than it is for the caster to make it harder. It takes two prescious, expensive feats to get a +2 to your DCs for 1 school out of 8 in magic. It takes 4,000 GP for a cloak of resistance +2 that boosts every save at the same time. It's hard to be a magic-user.
Secondly, magic-users are actually not very threatening. Most mages have okay Initiative, but my character took the Improved Initiative feat and got a few more points from somewhere. So on average I managed to go first, and if not me then there was Aaron and Sara, who both had ranged at-will attacks. So it was not hard to hit a spellcaster on the first turn for some damage before they started casting. Once hit, it is a concentration check to cast a spell when injured: DC is 10 + spell level + damage dealt. Okay, so a concentration check is a d20 + caster level + main stat bonus (and maybe a few points from a feat or ability). That doesn't sound bad, until we start getting to the higher levels. When Aaron can hit a caster for 9d6 + 18 damage, that makes casting a level 0 spell impossible (we called him Gazer Beam, loved The Incredibles). Most casters buffed themselves, per their stat block, and maybe got off a spell that was resisted for half or ignored or worked around, and then we beat them to death. They actually tended to be the easiest to defeat, and showed how strangely balanced magic is in Pathfinder in general.
Alright, so enough side comments - back to the story (I'm sure you've been breathlessly waiting ;)
The Runeforge is broken into 7 parts, one for each sin. We have been using a very simple method for exploring everything so far - we go left. We keep going left until we can't, then we go back to the last right, and rinse-wash-repeat until we've explored everything on that level - then we go up, do it again to the top, then we go down to the bottom the same way.
First up was the section for Pride. This got kind of hard for a minute. In the entryway is a mirror of opposition, it makes an evil double of whoever looks at it, and since I was in the front (as the tank), it made a double of me. I'm kind of tough, as the tank, so this was a fairly good fight (but while I can soak up damage, it was Aaron and Sara who could dish out large servings of it). It was a cake-walk after that.
Second was the section of Wrath. It had an Iron Golem archer who was actually quite mean. The rest wasn't too bad though.
Third was Gluttony. More dead bad guys.
Fourth was Greed. The walls were covered in gems and gold, which we debated trying to pry off a few meters of - hey, magic items don't buy themselves - but we just killed monsters. There was a cool pool that recharged magic items, we charged up all the wands we had been carrying around and never used (okay, I think Sara banged me on the head with a healing wand a few times).
Fifth was Sloth, which apparently means dirty and icky. We turned loose the 'evil' water elemental to clean the place. The bad guy was off the ground in a throne supported by immovable rods - me and Mr. Punchy flew up to him while Aaron and Sara hit him with death-rays.
Sixth was Envy, most of which had been prevously destroyed.
Last, thank god, was Lust. Lots of saves against Charm, a poor guy who had been the succubi's plaything, and more dead monsters in our wake.
Finally, each sin area has had components for making a Runeforged Weapon. After defeating the animated statue we all took an item for a dip in the pool. This caused a moment's confusion. Our ultimate enemy is Karzug, and we "saw" him when he took over the corpse of the stone giant who had rallied all the giants to attack Sandpoint and stuff. We've also seen agents of Greed and Wrath previously. We actually got confused for a moment over which of the two he was. His actions seem more wrathful, but in fact he's greed. In part the confusion came from us playing spread out over months, in part it was a telling mark of how badly the campaign had mentioned its main villain throughout (well, and what a weaksauce villain he is too).
Chapter 6, Spires of Xin-Shalast.
This is it, the final chapter, the last conflict - 'once more into the breech' and all that. Thank god. The campaign was starting to feel long at this point.
Off to the partially-time/space-warped ancient city of evil in the mountains. But one does not simply walk to Xin-Shalast, there are the obligatory random encounters first (and here i don't use random in the sense of rolling them, but rather that they do not really mean anything to the meta-story). We found an old building that some dwarves went crazy cannibal in, fought a wendigo, and a tree. It was high in the mountains and very cold - I was glad to have always-on cold resist and not need to breath. Aaron and Sara both had items or abilities that let them adapt to any climate/environment - like I've said, we've played this game before. There are just some things that are essential for a high-level character, and we were level 15 at this point.
Xin-Shalast itself is a strange place. There are a few scripted encounters, and there are huge sections that the campaign book literally says to 'make up yourself' for some extra adventuring either before or after fighting Karzug. We really didn't want to wait, and didn't feel a burning desire to continue, so we skipped those parts. One encounter included some Leng Spiders. They did not immenietly attack, so Sara our grifter/talker rolls a natural 20 on her Diplomacy and the spiders seem quite friendly. Then she rolls about as good on a Sense Motive and relaized that they are lying and will never keep their word and intend to attack us later. So we killed them. So nice of the book to put in the only not immedietly dangerous group of monsters that are really just a fight after all. Like we hadn't wasted enough time.
Finally we entered the dreaded Pinnacle of Avarice, dum dum dum, and had to fight through the mini-bosses to Karzug. Said mini-bosses were pretty easy for the most part, like the majority of the campaign we never got below half health more than a handful of times. Which led us to the final battle, the culmination of about 40-50 hours of playing, the near-max level 18 players against the evil master of Greed, Karzug.
"We" killed him in 6 rounds.
It's kind of a funny story actually.
So the final room has Karzug, a CR 21 super-boss, and a CR 13 adult Blue Dragon, and a CR 17 Rune Giant, and two CR 14 Advanced Storm Giants. Lava flows around the room, making it a long run or flying to get to melee range - or even close range, it's a good-sized room. The range gives Karzug a chance to cast some spells.
It also gives Aaron a chance to manifest some psionic abilities.
Aaron has been a very strange character. Since he has been player and GM he's been in a hard place. He didn't want to have to put a lot of thought into his character, he's got his hands full running the monsters. He likes playing thieves, he's a sneaky-bastard like that. Since we were making an all-psionics group, he took the psionic rogue, the Cryptic. In a strange twist though, the crypic has the most damaging at-will ranged touch attack of any character I've ever seen in Pathfinder. From the beginning he played more like a mage, throwing the high damage around and having to stay at a distance since he was kind of squishy. Cryptics also learn a few psionic abilities. Most of those he took to buff the party or use in emergencies. He had a hard time finding abilities he liked though, so by the end he started getting a fairly diverse group of powers.
So combat begins. I'm thinking about how I'm going to fly over to the bad guy, Sara's warming up another Mr. Punchy. Karzug acts. He attacks us with a Meteor Swarm, not for that much damage. He stops time and buffs himself.
Then Aaron stops time. He teleports over to Karzug and thinks to himself, I've got this ability that controls people's minds. If I cast it at maximum power it can effect people and monsters, and hit all of the bad guy's minions. I'm sure they'll make their saves, save DCs are pretty easy, but if it takes out even just one or two guys that will make the fight easier - and make less for me to juggle. Why not try it? Since he's playing, he has us roll the saves for everybody.
I roll a 4. I show him the die, I'm so stunned by it. Sara rolls a 1. And I roll another 4. Sara rolls a 3.
All of the minions fail their saves.
Aaron tells them, "Sit! Stay!"
Now it's just Karzug and us.
There is a script for what Karzug and his allies are supposed to do. It has now been thrown out the window since he no longer has the support of his minions. Aaron is in about melee range and the three of us are coming. Aaron-the-GM decides Karzug will try to slow us down. He stopsw time (the last that he can) and casts a Wall Of Force and a Prismatic Wall to block me and Sara and Mr. Punchy (big room, needs 2 walls to block his side off). A logical move (we made his Meteor's 30-ish save DCs easily, anything else offensive we probably would have laughed at, I think my lowest save at that point was a 26). I'm getting ready to fly and carry Sara. Aaron fires off his Gazer Beam and hits Karzug for something like 11d6 + 38 damage - he's not casting any spells next round. We get to the wall, Karzug attacks Aaron in melee and does some pretty good damage. Aaron Gazer Beams him for, like, 10 times more damage - still no spells for mister greedy-pants. Then Aaron figures he can use a move action to command his mind-controlled dragon to just pick us up and fly us over the wall of force. More melee (poor Aaron is getting pretty beat up), another gazer beam. I manage to hit Karzug once (I think, I'm not sure if I did manage to hit him at all - Sara didn't) and Aaron finishes him off with a final blast of ridiculous damage.
Super-boss wizard dead, he cast like 4 spells.
Minions never attacked.
Me and Sara and Mr. Punchy pretty much could have eaten popcorn the whole time.
And the thief took him out.
After getting over the shock of it, we laughed our asses off.
Again, while the book had some ideas for follow-up adventures, we were all tired of Pathfinder by that point. It was time to stop and try a new system, which led to our current 13th Age campaign. Pathfinder in general has just been getting so big, so full of tracking GP and XP and stacking magic item bonuses that it's really become a headache. As Aaron once said, as we were shooting the breeze a while ago, "it's more fun to make characters than to play them." Which is too true. So much of building a character needs to be planned out, feat chains of prequisites and trying to synergize different bonuses into a cool gimmick - you pre-plan so much of your character that it takes away from actually playing it. I'm not saying that Pathfinder is a bad game by any means, but it does get a little tiring to work so hard at juggling numbers and progression when you're trying to fit it into having a life and doing other stuff. Again, not that planning any campaing is easy.
As for Rise of the Runelords, I would say that overall it was an "okay" campaign, in our experience. It takes way to long to get up to speed, and the over-arching meta-story gets lost in the weeds a lot, but it is not bad. Again, if you have plenty of time to tweak sections to your own player's tastes and needs, it would be a lot better then running it straight out of the book like we did - it's pretty basic. Likewise, role-playing relationships with people in Sandpoint, some stirring descriptions of the other cities and backstory would help; we didn't have a lot of time or desire to explore the cities or do a lot of the stuff that didn't directly move the adventure along. That is a part of why I rate the experience as just "okay," we could have been a little more involved ourselves. But also, if there were some side quests or NPC interactions that gave bonuses from learning the backstory or to accumulate sin/virtue points, it would have provided some more incentive to care. The murder-mystery was passable, but the haunts sucked big time; the haunt system in general is just worthless. If you have some skilled players who can optimize their characters, add a monster or two to every encounter.
Overall, I like making adventures - as much as a pain as it can be. We had a campaign going with rotating GMs and each new GM built on what the last did in a really fun, organic fashion. And we weren't afraid to play with the rules. We did a split adventure with our fighting characters in a gladiator ring and our talking characters in the stands (we all have several characters). We used the Ultimate Combat system for performance combat and said that each point we earned on the field distracted the people we were talking to in the stands, giving the talking characters bonuses on their social checks to gather information and influence the NPCs. It's one of my favorite adventures. We've also created plot twists based on things that have happened in each game. The original adventure featured a city that Aaron didn't like - so he destroyed it in the next adventure. I filled it with a Drow army. When our friend Matt mis-read a spell description (don't just read the blurb, always read the whole description) and drank some demon's blood I ended up giving him an evil twin recurring villain/comic relief. While that campaign took a lot of work to prep and run, it gave us a lot more fun since it grew with us. That's something that is hard if not impossible to replicate in a canned/pre-written campaign. In fact, that's why I generally don't run modules or pre-packaged campaigns. I like it when my players give me their character ideas and I can build a world and story around them. So that also factors into my less than enthusiastic reaction, my normal way of playing is much more engaged (with, of course, some exceptions - we've had plenty of quick and dirty adventures that were not high art).
Still, I don't regret the time we spent. It was fun to play with my friends. We did it, and just finishing it has its own satisfaction. If you've got 50 or so hours to kill and some good friends, you should try it too.