Saturday, December 29, 2012

Skull and Shackles chapter 2: Raiders of the Fever Sea



It's been a long time since we heard any updates from the brave pirates of the Shackles and their perilous journey into the pirate-infested waters in the ever optimistic hunt for fame and fortune. We're here to remedy this fact, today, in which we take a deep delve into the grand tale that is chapter 2 of the skull and shackles adventure-path; Raiders of the Fever Sea.


Whereas Chapter one of Paizo's beloved adventure path was split into a couple of separate reviews, this time around I've been so pressed for time that I couldn't attend to it on a weekly basis, as I did with, say Carrion Crown


So strap in people, for a combined review and journal for the second installment, in which the players, now having broken their shackles, set off into the horizon with their newly gained ship, and set sail for a hopefully grand journey of plunder and captured maidens.

As an additional bonus, the final appendix will explain how I've handled some of the legendary treasures of Skull and Shackles in my campaign (you know; the ones found in the back of every adventure path). Using them is entirely optional, of course, and I hope they can at least inspire some of you to make use of them, as they're a really nice and original touch to the campaign; something the players should likely be interested in hunting down.

Last time on PIRATES:
As read in the previous blogs, the players had a blast through chapter one and committed mutiny against Mr. Plugg and Master Scourge, slaying them both in the process and sailed off with Sandara, Kroop, Rosie, Owlbear, Crimson and Mr. Shortstone (the latter having developed some romance with the party's ranger). As their newly and unofficially dubbed ship "The Last Chance" took off, they were caught in a storm and jumped by Grindylows who kidnapped Sandara and Mr. Shortstone off to a nearby island. In a tropical adventure, the heroes assaulted the island and fought their way through ghouls and flooded tunnels, finally saving their crewmembers and in the process found the fabled treasure, "The Lost Messenger". They named it "Molly".


At the start of this campaign they held an officer's meeting in which Kroop attended. Though the heroes had seized victory over Harrigan in a diabolical voodoo explosion (see last blog entry) it was well-known that Harrigan housed supporters all over the Shackles. They would be folly not to take precautions and redecorate their newly captured vessel; so with their current position in mind, it would seem prudent to set sail towards the nearby dry docks Rickety's Squibs and start covering their tracks.

This campaign involves Jamal the halfling gunslinger, Jack the human oracle of Besmara, Captain Logan Darkwater the human rogue, Pig the dwarven alchemist/barbarian, and Sandra the human ranger. They began the campaign at 4th level and finished it at 7th level.
As always, my GM-comments and observations are in blue.

PART ONE: Hiding the Evidence
(If you're going to GM this chapter, allow me to empathize one thing that can't be recommended enough: Before going through with this, you'd do well and read the Isles of the Shackles installment from Paizo. It's a rather short read, really, that will run you through every major island in the Shackles, presenting their cardinal traits and ports. I didn't bother with it, and quickly realized what a detriment it became and how many mistakes I made. While the book isn't strictly necessary for the first chapter, too much information goes on across the region later on to make this book obsolete. Trust me on this.)

Heeding the advice of Kroop the Cook, who held much respect aboard "The Last Chance" the players decided to set out towards the dry dock "Rickety's Squibs". Despite the massive craving for some real piracy they stuck to the secure routes along the coast, avoiding contact. They were told that the old Rickety Hake would likely welcome them, provided they were on their best behavior and had coins to show. Luckily, this proved to be the case as they arrived and were greeted by an old timer and his followers; turning out to be the ruling organ of the dock. Rickety did a short inspection of the ship and was impressed to hear Logan's tale of how they defeated Harrigan. He arranged for them a deal, redesigning the exterior and name of the ship for a mere 2000 gold. Provided they had six days to spare, in which they were welcome to stick around the docks.

"The squibs" weren't crawling with opportunity and entertainment, but it mustered enough to keep their attention. There were beds, a bar and merchants were ready to take their il-gotten gains off their hands. The heroes spent some time spreading the word of the mighty captain Logan and how they got their hands on The Lost Messenger (who seemed agitated in its cage, till they fed it some gold pieces). They also recruited a couple of more members for their crew over a friendly game of cards at the riverside, which was sadly interrupted when a naga jumped them. It wasn't a terribly tricky fight, and in general the heroes had a harder time, when they at one night got hammered and robbed by harlots.

On the final day, the squibs had an important visit, as Captain Pegsworthy arrived and took particular notice of the heroes. They greeted him in a friendly fashion and the venerable captain shared his advice. He recommended they began making a name for themselves by simply sailing the Shackles and plunder to their hearts' darkest desire. When they told him about Harrigan's demise he was particularly baffled and yet had some hesitation about trusting them. Still, he recommended they set out immediately, because by now they would undeniably have created some very powerful enemies. Pegsworthy recommended they, whenever they felt ready, took their chance against the old fortress at Tidewater Rock; said to bring good fortunes to those who knew how to crack it. There was great potential for a pirate stronghold there, for those able to "tame the widow".

(This part of the adventure is pretty straight forward; it's mostly a chance for the heroes to recruit additional members for their voyage or gain infamy-points. It can be really good to build some atmosphere from a GM-point-of-view, or you could have it over with quickly, depending on the rush of your players. At this point my group was getting very eager to go out pirating and I therefore didn't bother with three minor encounters originally described in the adventure.)

PART TWO: Piracy on the Fever Sea
The second part of the adventure is pretty much one huge sandbox that can either constitute and independent part in itself, worth the entire focus of the heroes, of an overshadowing cascade of events that will haunt the heroes as they sail through the Shackles. In other words, it can be a royal headache for you as a GM or a blessing to throw at them, depending on various factors. Such as how much you've read up on the adventure and setting beforehand. If you're like me and read up on the chapters one at the time, and don't know much about the Shackles in general, this can easily be rather confusing.

In my case, the players decided to thrive on the sandbox element, which is indeed very well designed, and pretty much set out. I worked out a house rule in this regard, that they could go looking for prey and define how big a treat they wished to pursue. In minor regards, they would encounter a CR (Average party level -2) and CR (Average party level) for a standard fight. If they went for a big haul, I would design an encounter around CR (Average party level + at least 2, likely more). There are some statistics for the various ship-sizes the heroes can encounter on page 16 in the adventure, alternatively I just made up the individual fights on deck up as I went along.

I believe it can pay off for you, if you add some exotic flavor to some of the ships, in an attempt to limit the effect of "Ho-hum, another ship". Here I have added the themes and various ships the heroes encountered in my campaign so far:
- A primitive tribal ship of barbarians
- A strange rural-looking ship full of animals, sailed by druids
- An arcane ship sailed by wizards (of Thay, if in Forgotten Realms, like me). Great danger with great rewards.
- A missionary ship of Lathander (likely bringing medicine or fugitive children to somewhere) forcing the heroes to make a moral decision.
- A plague-ship
- A strangely abandoned ship with something making strange noises in the cargo hold.
- A haunted ship (the haunts of small ships in a bottle from the third chapter of the adventure path are particularly good at this).
- A strangely half-submerged iron-clad vessel (used with one of the legendary treasures)
- A mad wizard's ship, mostly sailed by golems.
- A disgusting ogre-ship full of food and ogre-pirates.
- A band of halfling pirates simply out to investigate the world
- A ship sailed by someone the heroes remember from a previous campaign (in my case, this could be either Kendra from Carrion Crown or Lavinia Vanderboren from Savage Tide, depending on the time-scale between your campaigns).
- A dwarf and his father out fishing for precious fish.

(This may sound basic; but don't forget to award the heroes with infamy points for completing these deeds. For a long time, I skipped it)


Then there were all the described events in the adventure, that can pretty much take place anywhere and whenever. Ranging from Event 6 to 14 there certainly seems to be plenty for your players to do, and I believe we spent around three sessions just on these, of which "Event 14: For whom the bell tolls" was my definite favorite. As the old Captain Whalebone sets his unearthly ghost ship after the heroes they're frankly spooked about what to do about it, finally clashing in an epic nightly battle, in which they race to destroy the bell that will undo the sinister captain. They also get to fight other pirates and fall into an ambush planned by a band of Sahuagins. Depending on how big a part you want the Chelish nation to take in your current campaign, it is also possible to expose them in a couple of encounters, and finally the heroes initiated a raid towards one of the small tribal settlements along the coast. The adventure provides you with plenty of information in this regard, although I found the challenge to be rather weak, especially when seen in the light of the nasty fight against Whalebone. If you're the kind of GM I am, the raid against the coastal village brings in an interesting moral discussion, if you think your players can handle it; after all, raiding the city is one thing. Deciding whether to take the women, children and elderly as slaves (easily worth an additional unit of plunder) is something else entirely.


The primary goal for this part of the adventure seems to be about raising the players' Infamy score; around 10 is ideal in case they wish for a non-violent solution at Tidewater Rock. When it gets really problematic, is if they, like mine, decide to go hunting for the legendary treasures instead; meaning they spent three or four sessions on this alone. This means they went hunting as described in the appendix and after that finally decided to head out to Tidewater Rock.



PART THREE: The Lady of the Rock
Lady Smythee is also known as "The Lady of the Rock", indicating her now sole rule over the small tower-like fortress stationed there. It's a solid bastion that has stood its time watching well over the surrounding waters and the heroes knew there was potential here, provided they figured out how to crack it. Now in possession of a small handful of the legendary treasures in the Shackles, their reputation was growing rapidly. With an Infamy score of 19 by the time they arrived, they hoped this would serve them well.
Logan wanted to avoid a military confrontation with the fort and sailed in with his officers to parlay. They were greeted relatively coldly by the sergeant-at-arms, Royster McCleagh, who'd heard of Captain Darkwater's exploits well enough. He wasn't about to be impressed, though, and insisted to hear the reason for their arrival. Logan told him he brought a proposal for her ladyship if she would hear him out, and Royster wasn't bold enough not to discuss such matters with her first.

Instructing them to wait, he returned later, explaining she would see them, provided they left behind a hostage in his custody. Should they try anything funny, this person would be executed at the smallest indication of trouble. They agreed to this and left Sandra tied and defenseless in the storage room, while attending dinner.
Lady Smythee was on her best behavior, and yet stern and professional in her dealings, as she bid them enter and dine with her. Years of solitude here had taught her to count on herself only, and the threatening looks from Royster told them that the sergeant would like it to remain that way. Still, Logan presented his proposal shortly; he needed a base of operations in order to gain recognition in the Shackles; in trade the lady would reap the benefits of his protection and the service of his fleet and crew. Also, it would beyond doubt help the place prosper. To this, Lady Smythee suggested marriage under Shackle-laws; an arranged marriage of convenience that could be beneficial for both parts, as it had worked through traditions so far. With a professional demeanor both Logan and her signed an agreement, pushing their Infamy score to the final 20. Not long after, both Kroop and Lady Smythee encouraged the heroes to set sails towards Port Peril, in which the Hurricane King would hopefully accept their application for a letter of marque. Thus they would be recognized as a fully included member.

As the Sahaugin-dungeon had already been cleared by this time, the heroes proceeded unobstructed and set sail towards Port Peril, hoping to plunder some ships along the way, from which they could pay proper tribute.
  
GENERAL REVIEW: 
It's rather hard for me to provide you with an entiribly accurate opinion about the structure of this chapter, as we didn't really play it in the intended order. Content-wise, however, this is undoubtedly one of the best chapters in an adventure path I've seen. While the first part at Rickety's Squibs felt somewhat boring and only there for atmosphere and some encounters, it all got up to speed once the players sat sails for the high seas. In this sense I say 'somewhat boring' in the sense that the encounters at Rickety don't really add that much to the campaign, with the exception of Captain Pegsworthy who can be an interesting addition to the campaign.
As some of you know, I'm a huge fan of sandbox-models; giving players choice and freedom to expand upon the adventure and decide what they want to do is not only a great way for them to define their style. It's also pure fun. As you can see there are so many events you can throw at them in the adventure alone and even just pick out the ones you like the most in case your players just want to get on with it. And if you dare to design your own flavor for the various ships they encounter along the way, you have the chance to design some truly memorable fights.
It comes to a somewhat lacking grind around the end, which is however something I've learned to accept in most of these adventures; likely because there needs to be something for everyone in there. Including the notorious dungeon-crawlers. The sahaugin-tunnels felt quite long, to be honest, although they were never terrible and weren't particularly challenging. I didn't get to use Iseballa much as a plot-element (is it me, or does she seem to have a strange similarity to the character by the same name, in Dragon Age 2?) but I'm sure she could work out well.
It's worth communicating with your players about their intentions in this one, as this is likely one of the peaks of freedom they will have in this adventure-path. There doesn't seem to be any formal limit on how much time they can spend and they're basically free to go everywhere they want in the Shackles. As mentioned earlier; reading through "The Isles of the Shackles" will be a massively good tour guide.

This adventure is a definite 8/10.


LEGENDARY TREASURES IN THE SHACKLES:
One of the huge perks of this adventure path is the portrayal of four special treasures in the back of each adventure, in total making up 24 unique pieces of loot scattered all throughout the pirate-infested waters. Most of these are rather exotic and seem to be pretty much one of a kind, which earned them the label "Legendary Treasures" in my campaign.

While these are entirely optional and can easily be left out in your game, I believe they bring an interesting aspect to the table in terms of motivating the heroes to go hunting. Of course, 24 is a lot in this regard, meaning you'd likely have to expand massively upon the campaign, make some of them pure rumors or simply make some more accessible than others. We have decided to make a small adventure for each of them, and I'd like to provide you with a general overview of how we handled each of them in our campaign, and where you could possibly place them. Remember, their descriptions are pure rumors and you should therefore feel no obligation to remain particularly true to them.


HOW TO HANDLE LEGENDARY TREASURE IN YOUR GAME:
Legendaries can be nothing more than additional units of plunder or collectibles nobody would care/dare buying. Some of them might even provide the heroes with special powers, sort of like very minor artifacts. It's entirely up to you. I've aimed to keep a healthy mix, and have the feeling that my players are treating them like collectables (gotta catch them all) first and foremost.
They can also be a valuable way for them to gather in additional Infamy if they're low.

LEGENDARIES GATHERED SO FAR:

The Lost Messenger
This little birdie was the first legendary the party found, in the back of the Grindylow-cavern in Chapter 1. There it had been captured by the greedy creatures and held in a cage. It's an intelligent "bird" that will likely bond with whatever party member spends the most time with it or feeds it a lot. It's worth noticing that the bird only eats metal and prefers gold-pieces instead of crackers. Nobody really knows what happens to the gold, as it seems to disappear down its maw for good.

Suggested powers: The messenger bestows certain familiar-powers to whoever it bonds with. These have to be unlocked by feeding it enough gold, set by your preferences. It can also be a great scout or life-saver, though it's not exactly discrete.

The Buzzard's Bounty
Having heard of the rumors about giant pearls in Tempest Cay, the heroes sailed out, hoping to find fortune. They were warned, however, by other sailors who told them it was suicide; plenty of ships had gone after the same and never came back. They would do well to leave this area alone.
The players ignored this, however, and sent people scouring. They realized that there were no pearls to be found on the ocean floor, however, and that they had all been abducted by an insane gnome calling himself "Talos". He sailed beneath the waters in his submerged vessel "Talos' Harlot" and soon set upon the pirates in a daring ship battle, making good use of his constructs in the process. The heroes defeated him in a fierce battle, and captured an enormous blue pearl.

Suggested powers: Amidst the pearls is a strange stone pulled up from the depths of the ocean. It looks old and of unknown origin. When worn for 24 hours a blessing of the depths is betowed upon the wearer, providing him with 50 additional hit points. At the same time, it bestows a -6 penalty to all saving throws. This lasts for as long the stone is carried and 24 hours after it's dropped.

Ol' Captain Mutiny
This figurehead has a dark and sinister past indeed, and should stir the curiosity of most adventurers. Though rumors tell of its sinking near Slipcove, this unholy construct was actually found by some of the native tribes deeper within the nearby island and brought to the chief. Problem is that it's now heavily guarded and hidden away, although rumor has it that whoever manages to propose to the chieftain's daughter and pass the trials has his free pick from the tribal treasury.

In this regard, the trial for my players was to enter the Sahaugin tunnels from Chapter 2, seeing as they strayed too far from the plot. The excuse for doing so, rather than going treasure hunting from the map on Iseballa's body seemed just as fine, and the result was the same anyway. It wasn't like the players needed anymore treasure hunts, with 24 items to search for during the campaign.
So Sandra finally married the chieftain's daughter and got her hands on the figurehead. It now rests on their ship, while they're considering what to do with it.

Suggested powers: It is said that the figurehead is fond of sacrifices to feed its dark energies. Perhaps by sacrificing different people or races in specific combinations will have a rather interesting effect on the ship and its passengers...

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