Thursday, February 21, 2013

Skull and Shackles chapter 3: Tempest Rising



Ahoy, friends and welcome to another round of reviews; this time concerning one of Paizo’s newest ventures (dare I say ’flagship’? Ha-ha?). It’s time for Skull and Shackles - Tempest Rising.
Our group completed this installment yesterday with yours truly as the designated GM, so I thought it proper to sit in lieu with all other chapters and present with some of my general impressions of it.


Last time on PIRATES!:
So far the heroes had commandeered their own ship and blew up Captain Harrigan’s ship “The Wormwood”. In the process they also blew up the fiend of a man, who later returned as a zombie pirate, thanks to the ludicrous amount of voodoo in his cargo. Meanwhile, Mr. Plugg and Master Scourge both suffered a nasty death at sea, before the heroes went inland to rescue Sandara and Mr. Shortstone from their grim fate at the Grindylows on Motagu Isle.

Returning victorious and ravaged by bites from ghouls and botflies, they hoisted their sails for the small cove of Rickety Squibs. Here the old sea dog would redecorate their entire vessel and provide them with a new identity.  Making some new acquaintances, getting robbed by harlots and eventually shooting off some guy’s kneecaps for a snarky remark about getting robbed by harlots, the heroes set sails into the horizon.
They sailed the Shackles, robbing and pillaging to their hearts’ darkest desires and even managed to acquire some of the legendary treasures and broke into the old prison of Port Peril to acquire a map of even more legendary plunder. Then, finally, they decided to keep up with the main plot and headed for Tidewater Rock, in which they had their captain married to the beautiful widow and thus established a new stronghold. The finally, tracking their way to the final dungeon they struck the mother lode and sailed back to Port Peril to present themselves in proper style to the hurricane king; Bonefist.


The Decanter of Endless Rum (Not part of the Paizo-plot, but maybe something to inspire you):
Before heading off to Bonefist, the heroes decided to bring along a mighty gift. Rumor had it, that Bonefist himself had a love for the majestic rum produced by the Sparklebrew Brewery, neatly placed south in Port Peril. Mr. Sparklebrew was a wealthy business man living with his wife, daughter and three dogs and was said to house the secret recipe to the hurricane king’s favorite brand. So the heroes thought it logical to go up there and steal it.

They waited till Mr. Sparklebrew threw in one of his famous Mardi Gras parties (which happened often) and dressed up, forged their own invitations and attended on the small island on which his mansion was located. As they mingled with the high society they scoured around, eventually realizing guards upstairs in front of the private quarters of the house. What was more interesting was the three dogs running around, each with a hidden key in its collar, so the heroes put two and two together and launched a cunning plan.
Captain Logan drugged the dogs with Drow Poison and fetched the keys, meanwhile Sandra got intimate with one of Mr. Sparklebrew’s closest friend; Dr. Drench who has a highly regarded gentlemen not able to withstand the oncoming of two so enormous…eyes. Being a friend of the family, he dragged her past the guards, ensuring them they were only off to have some ‘fun, be back in a minute!’. As they entered the bedroom, Sandra strangled the old man between her boobs (no, I’m not making this up; it’s seriously what she did…) and let in the remaining group through the window.

Some trapfinding later, they finally unveiled the majestic Decanter of Endless Rum and fled the party. Bonefist was severely impressed when presented with it.

Attending the court!
The first part of the adventure is all about the heroes presenting themselves to Bonefist in order to acquire their letter of Marque. It’s also pretty much a big setup for events to come and a presentation to Port Peril if they haven’t been there already. Of course, seeing as chapter 2 has such free borders, chances are the heroes have already been here at least once, somewhat defeating the purpose.
The heroes arrive and have a chance to scour around a bit, making ideal opportunities for some side questing if you wish. Otherwise they get the chance to catch up with an old enemy from Harrigan’s ship and hear about the new, exciting event; the pirate’s regatta. A nautical race, in which the winner will be handsomely rewarded. Needless to say, the heroes are going to compete in this, whether they wish to follow the plot or not!

Besides from a short tavern brawl, this part of the adventure is rather slow and doesn’t offer much in terms of action. The heroes eventually go to the Hurricane King in the middle of his feast and has to make an impression on him and his ‘court’; here they are taunted by Harrigan’s agents trying to make them look bad, and it’s a brilliant opportunity for some good roleplay. Eventually they get their letter of marquee whether they want it or not, and thus kicks in the real meat of the adventure.



SPIES! THIEVES! ASSASSINS?
Not long after their leap upwards in social pirate hierarchy, the heroes are approached by the gorgeous Tessa Fairwind, a strong voice in the pirate council, who offers them a job. Tessa is worried and has suspicions about a network of spies operating in the Shackles, possibly identifying an upcoming threat from the Cheliax. She wishes the heroes to investigate two leads, a temple of Sune (we play in Forgotten Realms) in Quent and a Temple of Hidden Names on Bag Island. Let’s call them A and B.

This part of the adventure seemed strange to me, at first, because the heroes will go to A, and A will ask them to perform a favor first, which can only be done if they get the help from B. Going to B, B asks them for a favor too, which can only be solved by getting help from A. Of course the gimmick is to have the players do both tasks and then decide which of their leads to set out on. I don’t really get why this structure was necessary, instead of simply having them both send them out on a quest, but seriously, logic doesn’t always have a place in Pathfinder.


Both tasks require the heroes to undertake a dangerous task; in my case they acquired a lost reliquary for the temple of Sune. This presents an interesting fight with some wreckers and their vile pirate, Vakarla, in which you finally have the chance to cast that Wall of Force in front of their ship and see them grieve. On the other end, the heroes are sent to the bottom of the ocean to investigate a sunken ship, meaning it’s time for aquatic druids and Aboleth-action.

Both of these sequences are really interesting and bring some challenging battles. But the structure in which they have to ping-pong between them annoys me, so eventually I let the temple of Sune send them directly to the wreckers, and the House of Names send them directly to the sunken Brine Banshee. Simple as that.

The spy who stabbed me.
The heroes can follow two possible leads from there, but they ultimately lead to the same result. Kind of a drag. The one starting at the temple of Sune definitely seems more interesting as a whole, and as the heroes are unlikely to go for the second one once they’ve completed the first, you might as well get the good stuff.
In Drenchport the heroes meet up with a half-elf scrimshander Jeymys Keft. He tells them that he’s had his suspicion on the local Haddon Pike for some time and directs them to his house. When they arrive they realize they are too late, as Pike has been shot through the window and landed in his aquarium in which his face has been eaten by a piranha. There they find a clue to another location with another person, namely Roweena Kellet in Hell Harbor, and some notion about a tengu smuggler named Corvan.

As you might’ve guessed this is a very short trail-game, in which they keep finding bodies and more clues that a network of spies is indeed going on, till they finally track down the final guy alive. Only to see him shot before their eyes by the very assassin hired to dispose of the remaining evidence. 

This is an okay passage, but nowhere as fun investigating as in, say ‘Trial of the Beast’ in Carrion Crown. While there are some clues to be found and fun deduction to be made while standing around on the murder site with rain pouring down, it doesn’t really add up to much. It doesn’t change anything or have any impact as it did in Trial. I hope it has later on, perhaps, in the upcoming chapters.


Either way, the heroes fight the assassin (who can make it hurt a lot, if you’re a human, since he hates humans) and either interrogate him or finds another trail; the olde apothecary in Port Peril, in which he is to report to ‘Z’. (Why is it always something like X, Z or Q? Why not something really underrepresented like, “R”?)

Your words are poison!
Here enters the classical dungeon crawl of anything published by Paizo in order to please those who find that insanely funny. But fret not; this is actually a really great dungeon because it never seems to outstay its welcome. I’ve often been criticized for bashing at long dungeons since the very system is about dungeons and dragons. Yet, there is such a thing as too long and too many dungeons *COUGH*.
Gaining access to the old apothecary can be simple and there are ways for the heroes to find the password to let them enter. In my case they were let in because they claimed to be filthy rich, but slapped down all the papers they had found in front of the boss of the house. You know, with that attitude of “What do you have to say about THIS! HUH???”
She managed to escape upstairs and let her guards smack them around for a while and then took up the confrontation.


Zarskia Galembar, as she’s named, is likely one of the toughest encounters of yet, for any group not prepared for her. Besides her greater invisibility, flying and stoneskin, her bomber’s eye and 14 bombs she can rip many groups a new one. They  key, of course, is fire resistance against those nasty 6D6+3 attacks and something to purge her defenses. But before getting there, she’ll easily take out a weaker party member.
The heroes eventually triumphed after two very-near-deaths of their partymembers. Looting the joint they found proof of a detailed network of spies in the shackles, along with orders to assassinate the recent victims and get the hell out of there. The instructions said silence was now key and that she should go to Nisroch.

But what the hell do we care, we’re going sailing!

At this part the adventure sort of makes a Shackled City and says, “Aaaand cut!”. Forget about it from there. The heroes hand in the plans to Tessa, she went to bed with the captain, paid them their plunder and said she would look into it. But for now, they should be more concerned about the epic regatta coming up!
It seems odd, still, to just leave things hanging like that. I get it that they can’t just set after every single spy in the Shackles from there, but effectively it comes to a pause. As some might now, it doesn’t stop, by no means, but for now the heroes are supposed to forget about it and focus on the race instead.
It doesn’t really matter much though, because the following, and final, part of the adventure is a blast to play!

Now this is pod-racing!
The regatta pits the heroes against some of the fiercest pirates of the shackles as they embark on a race fraught with peril and death. It pits you, as a GM, to make a tough decision on how many rules you want to enforce, because there sure are a lot of them. I know what some of you out there are saying; you noob, learn those rules and play with them!

But I also know what some of you might be thinking; ‘I just want to have a really narrative and exciting scene? I don’t give a fuck about average ship speed, modifiers and spending minutes calculating every skill challenge - I just want things to flow!”



There is room for both.
The regatta is fluff-wise an entrance into the fourth chapter, seeing as the heroes can win their own island and a seat in the pirate council. And as we all know, they can’t really lose. But DON’T TELL THEM! They are, of course, competing for loot and XP.

The regatta is not a time for personal vendetta as the judge and former winner, Master of the Gales, reminds them. The heroes and 15 other ships, including that of Captain Le Harrigan, make their way past reefs, sandbanks and into the gargantuan maelstrom. They compete against nasty weather, foul beasts and sabotage, all the time taking measures of whether to gamble their position away or take it slow and risk falling behind. After all, a sinking ship is a lost ship.

As said, you can run this hardcore mechanic-wise. There are a lot of rules to follow and I DO suppose that’s how it’s intended. I know. But if you are in a pinch or need it smooth, there are some checks presented in every challenge that you can follow. Some of these are even rather high and hard for a non-optimized Profession(Sailor) character. The penalty for failure is ship damage and the random element of the wild weather is always present the closer they get to the maelstrom. At first there are simple skill challenges, but dragon turtles and lightning elementals are all out to make life bitter for the heroes. Harrigan himself even has a few surprises in store.


All the time they are assigned a score in the race. Making good rolls and defeating obstacles improves this score, and depending on their grade, the heroes stand victorious with more or less glory. In the top of the scales they fly across all opponents while in the lowest they only win because another ship can prove that the original winner cheated.


One way or the other, the adventure concludes as they stand triumphant and now own their very own island. Of course, owning it is one thing. Taming it is something else entirely.

Did we like this chapter?
I’ll have to say this is definitely one of the best chapters in the Skull and Shackle path. Perhaps the best, come to think of it. While the investigation is a bit lackluster and comes to a sudden end there are so many great things to do. The roleplaying at Bonefist’s court, once the spy-hunt goes on it’s actually exciting to have the players guess and take precautions to be discrete in their endeavor and the final dungeon is of just the proper size with a mean challenge in the end. While I ran a much more simplified version of the regatta, we had loads of fun doing it and even completed it in two hours of game time. It’s excitement and something else than what we’ve been used to so far, so all in all I recommend this chapter.

As a GM the reading up is easy and you should likely just focus on getting acquainted with the regatta in the end, since it pretty much is supposed to be fast and thrilling. The rest more or less explains itself.

It does make me wonder whether we will see history repeat itself, like we did in Carrion Crown. The third chapter was obvious the pinnacle of the adventurepath (for me at least) and from there on everything began crumbling, with a ‘so and so interesting’ fourth chapter, a fifth one that could have done with more investigation and a sixth one that was a grind fest. 
´
I suppose we can only hope and eagerly set sails for the “Isle of Empty Eyes!”

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