Sunday, May 12, 2013

Skull and Shackles chapter 4: Island of Empty Eyes


Aarr’ me hearties and all that shit; welcome to another (and dare I add, ‘way overdue’) review in the brilliant adventure path that is known as Paizo’s “Skull and Shackles”

As some of the more loyal, and patient, readers know, our group has been making a good progress through the first three chapters of the campaign; namely “The Wormwood Mutiny”, “Raiders of the Fever Sea” and “Tempest Rising”. Now we can proudly add the fourth chapter, “Island of Empty Eyes” to the list.

I’m still sorry that I haven’t been able to write our weekly sessions in segments, like I used to do back in Carrion Crown. But the enthusiasm just hasn’t come around this time, which sadly means I can’t go that much into details about the various topics of the adventure. So just to bring you all up to speed, our group consists of Jamal, the halfling gunslinger; Sandra the half-orc ranger/barbarian (who used to be human, then a gnome and finally ended up green); Logan the human marshal and captain of the ship; Jack the Oracle of Besmara and finally Pig the dwarven alchemist/barbarian.

(GM comments are, as usual, in blue)

Setting sails for the Isle of Empty Eyes (loads of spoilers ahead, by the way…)
Chapter four kicks off pretty much when chapter three ended; the heroes have completed the regatta more or less successfully (mine had a close victory over their eternal nemesis, the zombie pirate Captain Harrigan) and have thus won a grand prize. Their very own island, bearing the ill name of “The Isle of Empty Eyes”. It didn’t take them much research to find out that this place had a long and sinister history involving colonists in bloody battles with cyclops.  (My players are paranoid like that; if there’s a library, it’s likely worth making those research rolls beforehand. It didn’t help that they had sent Rosie off with a ship; the one they mostly relied on for information about the Shackles).


The Master of the Gales told them they were off to ‘prepare’ their newly won prize. The isle was a wild and untamed place and there was little advice to offer in advance. All the heroes needed to know, was that in three months the pirate council would dispatch three emissaries for a thorough inspection, along with whoever the heroes fancied inviting for a party. And they’d better be on their best behavior and make a darn good impression, in case they wished to acquire seats in the council.

So the heroes set off, not really knowing what they were sailing into. Except, something to do with cyclops. Likely dinosaurs too.

Welcome to the island!
(IOEY is pretty much open for your players to take on the encounters in any way they so please. For this reason, it makes good sense to read up on most of them, especially the old cyclops settlement and the keep. Most of these sites are mere excuses for an encounter, though, as you probably have guessed, or serve some bigger purpose later on. There are some rather interesting, if not lethal, encounters on the isle, especially if your players act retarded. Once they get to the Ruins of Sumitha, bad moves can easily result in party annihilation, seeing how nasty cyclops can be.

Your players are on the clock here; they have three months to make this place representable for the pirate lords, who apparently have very high standards. Make sure to keep track of the time they spend sailing, exploring and/or side questing. That being said, three months is a significant amount of time, so most groups should manage with little problems.)


There were two ways the heroes could begin their assault on the island; the first was a bay to the south, from which they could easily gain access to the old, deserted keep. The alternative was to take the eastern shore and head through the old trails, towards the deeper jungle. They went for the first option (which I imagine most people will, really) and soon after their ship was assaulted by a giant octopus. Nothing fancy there, at this time it’s a mere annoyance to most groups.


They set the first foot upon their white, marvelous shores and rejoiced for a moment. It was indeed a tropical paradise, only waiting to be explored and tamed. Besides from the lush, green vegetation of the jungle, they saw an old cave further down the beach, and the impressive keep resting on top of the cliffs. It looked old and worn down by the passing of time; most of it brought to ruin. But their journey took them on a small detour around it, to expect it from the outside and secure the perimeter. They were surprised to notice that it was Chelish in design and apparently it had been under siege by some sinister force. That wasn’t the only sign of cyclop-involement, however; not far into the jungle adjacent to the ruins, they encountered a hideous tribe of cyclob-harpy bred freaks, eager to take out the newcomers.
(This encounter is not that special; the harpies have this thing going for them that they can smite good, but most of my heroes were evil, so very little threat there.)

Sadly, poor Sandra (the same player who played Galfur - the ever dying dwarf, during my Carrion Crown campaign) was entranced by the beautiful song of the harpies, which had her run through the entire flock to get to her beloved. Lots of attacks of opportunity meant the first heroic death on the island, and welcome to the jungle!

  
Keep on the haunted cliffs.
The heroes decided to investigate the keep, after Sandra returned from the dead. As said, it was in ill condition and most time was spent rummaging through the old buildings with very little gain. Along the way, they found strange beasts haunting them, however, including a vicious haunt of struggling, dying men that instilled them with terror. The living nightmares that suddenly appeared out of the walls were especially nasty, eventually confusing the entire group with the exception of ‘Pig’.

Sandra (with her two negative levels, after a lot of fighting already) faced the gunslinger, who rolled his confusion table and decided to attack nearest creature. He scored a critical hit and blew off Sandras’ head. Kill count: 2 for the ranger, and still going.


Eventually, they met a sad fate; the mad man Ederleigh Banes and his monkey. He spoke nonsense with the voice of a deranged, believing the heroes to be evil spirits come to claim him in his dreams. He rabbled on about a dreamstone, savage attacks and how it had all come to ruin. “Master,” he screamed, “where are you?”

They ended up charming him with a spell, and though he still spoke jibberish, he was at least a bit more accommodating. He spoke of this strange dreamstone and how his master had failed. That spirits, voices and conflict now rested on this place and that there would be no salvation. Eventually, they locked him up and decided to leave him to it. (This guy is pretty much your exposition-channel in the adventure; he can tell much about what’s going on, but if you don’t care or haven’t read much about it, he’s simply there to speak random stuff. I liked him, too bad my players didn’t give him anymore attention.)

As they made their way through the ruins and the main keep, they were ambushed by phase spiders. Nasty critters that gave them a run for their money, till they eventually reached the basement and killed off the last of the jaunting vermin. (GM tip: if you want to use these bastards in the true way of the ass-hole, here’s how it’s done. Have the spiders jump the heroes a couple of times, make some attacks or so, and then remain ethereal. Let the heroes go on with their business, and drop in a shitload of phase spiders whenever you feel they’re having too easy a time. During a hard encounter, for example. Keep this up as long as you want. Just know that they’re going to hate you for it.)

There wasn’t much to see in the basement, initially, but as the heroes went through the dark halls, they discussed what the hype could be about this ‘dreamstone’. Suddenly, a ghostly image manifested before them and bowed deep. In a hollow voice he presented himself as Bikendi, former mage of this island and resident of the keep. He had heard their words and told them how he had tried utilizing the dreamstone for his own purposes; that it could make him immortal in dreams, if only he’d had some more time perfecting the ritual. Alas, the savage cyclops interrupted him before it was done, and now he was stuck in this limbo. As the conversation went on, Bikendi realized the greed and malice within the people before him, and decided to strike a deal. Shed the blood of the measly cyclops in the Ruins of Sumitha, and he would reward them with treasure from his own collection and guide them towards a second one even bigger! The heroes didn’t think long before accepting. (I didn’t play this one entirely by the book, in which Bikendi is more subtle in his offer. Mostly because, my players are greedy assholes. I knew they would accept it up front.)

Ruins of Sumitha - Beam us up!
The heroes found something interesting in their basement; an old teleportation device out of order. They did some checking on it, and Jack realized he was actually able to fix it. My players being my players, they of course decided to leap through it and see where they ended up.

The good news was that they arrived in some very old ruins, in a room with two big statues and plenty of cyclop-illustrations, showing they were on the right track. The bad news was that the statues came alive and ambushed them. And those guys hit hard. (They really do hit hard; keen falchions are no joke!) In the first round, Sandra (with her four negative levels) placed herself ready to take up fight, and the statues scored a combined four critical hits on her, for just about a 100 damage.

So Sandra died for the third time that adventure.


They downed the statues and decided to go back and raise her, again. Then return to clear out the ruins before the cyclops realized what’d happened. So they set south towards the noise they heard, and guess what?

They went into a big room and pulled the “boss”; the big man of Sumitha - Istoreth the reigning chieftain.  A CR 12 great cyclops. And battle broke out, with a lot of noise and screaming, eventually attracting the six cyclops in the other room. What is important to notice here, is that Sandra, due to her several deaths, had placed herself far away from the boss.

Sadly, this was also next to the doors leading into the other room, and on their first turn, the newly arrived cyclops and their commander Shaija activated their Flash of Insight and killed Sandra.

For the fourth time that adventure.


It was a tight pinch, but the group eventually pulled through and managed to explore the rest of the ruins.  Eventually they found the Immortal Dreamstone guarded by some undead giants, and in an old fountain in the courtyard, they encountered a Marid named Vailea. She’d been captured there for ages and only hoped for someone to wish her free, and since it was the good part of the alignment-pool, Jack, who found her, that was exactly what happened. She swore them eternal gratitude and eventually they convinced her to appear at the party they would host later, to impress the pirate lords.

(There is a lot of encounters in these ruins, it would be a daunting task to go over them all here, so I am not going to. As mentioned, this is obviously the dungeon-part of the adventure, for those who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s easy to simply skip out on some of the fights if they aren’t up your alley, especially the ones that will easily be torn asunder by an experienced group of players. After all, they’re there for the immortal dreamstone, first and foremost.)

They returned with the teleporter and cashed in with Bikendi, allowing the ghost to possess Pig who then carried out the ritual. With second time being the charm, the ghost fulfilled his ambitions and became immortal in dreams, leaving them with instructions on how to sail west and find the long lost treasure.
With all that being said and done, the heroes still had to explore the island and make preparations for the upcoming party.

Exploring the jungle and making preparations.
(The adventure comes up with some good ideas, if your players aren’t the creative sorts or simply don’t want to make too huge of a fuss out of preparing a party. Some people love this a lot; my players fortunately did. I encourage you to give over some control to your players and hear what they had in mind for this party. 

After all, they’re about to make a good impression on three representatives of the council. In my case, they decided to let Valeia attend, along with some of the priestess of Sune as repayment of the favor they did them in chapter 3. Then they invited Tessa, Pierre and most of the council. They restored the keep, the harbor and even built a temple and a small casino, as well as making a gladiator arena. The table back in the book will describe what kind of points the players can accumulate in order to succeed and it seems a lot more forgiving than during the regatta. In fact, if the heroes build the keep and the harbor they gain one point per unit plunder spent, which easily sums up to 15 just to begin with. Then add in all the extra encounters, etc. and they’re way ahead from the start and need to seriously screw up.
As an alternative, the adventure offers some small quests and ideas; such as stealing some rum and waitresses being delivered straight to them. I only recommend this if your players aren’t taking an active part in these preparations.)


Searching the rest of the island resulted in some additional encounters. Some dinosaurs guarding an old silver mine (this is not part of the book, but I added an old silver mine that the players can permanently dispatch crew to work in, yielding one unit of plunder per session. It’s a nice little touch, I think.) some dinosaurs that fly (fuck me if I remember their name…) and an old cave at the beach, in which they met the Nereid, Sefina. She was bathing and greeted them as they arrived, polite and calm, and had no problems with her new guests on the island. She couldn’t tell them much they didn’t already know by now, so they decided to leave well alone and see to their preparations.

 They sailed to retrieve Bikendi’s lost treasure (which offers an otherwise interesting tiny dungeon with a very angry jellyfish) and then dumped all the money they could. They were especially proud that they could use their horn of Valhalla to make big, sweaty men fight in their newly created arena for show.

And thus the day arrived; the foot had been bought, the rum ordered, the crew secured in the rebuilt keep and the guests were on their way. What could possibly go wrong?

Keeping up appearances, even with faulty towers.
Half of the pirate council arrived in their ships (if your players, like mine, decide to invite the whole bunch, either play them very lightly or have just some of them turn up. It’s a lot of personalities to handle all at once, and the three inspectors are the most important!) and along with them Avimar Sorrinash, Lady Bloodmourn and Mase Darimar.

The heroes had arranged a welcoming reception down at the docks, with welcoming drinks and music, and did their best to bid them welcome. Avimar was in a grumpy mood and Lady Bloodmourn happily partook in the drinks. Mase, keeping mostly quiet, seemed fascinated by the lush green island before him. There was a lot of talk, with Captain Logan being the host of the party, trying to spread some good pirate wipes. It worked well, and soon they were off inspecting the keep.

Avimar wanted to know about the keep’s defenses, whether they would work when needed the most. Logan told him that yes, absolutely, and demonstrated the catapults by hitting a small rowboat far out in the ocean. An impressive shot, and he certainly gained some favor from the good inspector.
The tour then went to the arena, in which Pig was pitted against two berserkers conjured up by the Horn of Valhalla. Needless to say, he tore them apart in a short battle, that didn’t seem to impress the council that much though. It was, not surprisingly, a bit short with him being six levels above the puny vikings. So they decided to go back to the keep and crack open the hors d'oeuvres.

An evening of entertainment.
The guests settled in nicely, and Jamal fell into a good conversation with Mase who was eager to hear more about the island and the beasts on it. The halfling tried not to speak too much of how little of it was left by now, and instead explained about the Nereid and dinosaurs. This thrilled the elf and he appreciated the delicacy they’d approached this wildlife with.

Lady Bloodmourn wanted a more conventional night of fun and challenged a lot of members of the council to a drinking contest, including Sandra. Having died so many times, the half orc thought it couldn’t go all bad now, and soon guzzled down one strong mug of rum after another (using the simple Shackled City rules for drinking contests). It ended in a tie, in which both of them slowly collapsed from the table; much to the entertainment of everyone else. Avimar spent a lot of time listening to Captain Logan’s plans for the Shackles and this island, mostly for what military aspects he wanted to improve upon.

Then, as the rum ran wild, Pig noticed one of the servant girls gesture for him from the kitchen. She looked frightened.

RATS!
There was absolute panic in the kitchen. Suddenly, rats had emerged from the basement in huge swarms and now tried their best to make it through the kitchen and into the dining room! (And apparently, pirates have standards. They don’t like rats and award the establishments with a really poor score as a result!). So the heroes took up arms to prevent the vermin from trashing the party, only they had to remain subtle about it.

Make too much sound and the pirates would turn suspicious.

(I ran this encounter like a pseudo-tower defense. Put up just a tad bit more rats than the heroes can easily manage, and utilize the fact that they can’t just blast away without alerting the lords in the next room. It made for a really interesting encounter.)

Eventually, Avimar heard the ruckus and went into the kitchen, despite Captain Logan’s best attempts of keeping him at the table. The inspector was shocked and roared in dismay when he saw the situation and there was a lot of frowning by the other pirate lords. So the heroes thought “fuck it” and blasted the remaining rats, only to find out they had been led there by some odd kind of alchemical substance? Apparently, there was sabotage at work. Was everything truly safe?

Avimar gets what Avimar wants?...
They decided to save the party by have Valeia dancing and it became immensely popular along with many cups of rum. Actually, Avimar forgot all about rats and became enthralled with the young Marid. So much that his groping and obscene remarks scared her away in fear, and he demanded that his host provided him with that which he desired. Logan did some attempts at buying the young woman to do some favors, but she objected harshly. When Logan finally decided to put down the local law, Avimar enraged and turned into a werewolf, sending fear into all the guests, who dreaded what he might do.

 The heroes took up arms and quickly confronted him, downing him moments later and locked him up in a room. Believing he was better sleeping it all out, and the dinner was just about ready anyway.
(It’s not a hard fight; rather straight forward and the worst thing that can happen is that they actually kill him. This deducts a lot from their final score.)

Things get serious…
The food was served at the tables, and things seemed to be settling down once again. But again the heroes were asked to come to the kitchen; Croop had suddenly realized that some of the dead rats, who’d been eating from some of the food, had a strange color and foam around their mouths. The food, in other words, was poisoned!

So the heroes stormed back into the room and broke off the dinner before anyone had a chance to taste it. They came clean and informed them about the possible danger, and there was even more dissatisfaction from their guests, who decided to just sail out to their ships and bring some provisions ashore.
(This is a little bit different than in the adventure. As written, only paranoid and thorough player characters will grow suspicious of the poison, I believe. Otherwise it goes through and poisons a lot of guests, which really brings the final score falling more than anything else. The heroes can easily lose by this event alone, if they don’t act quickly or find a way to cleanse the stuff. So I decided to make it into an episode of Fawlty Towers instead. Not really as much comical relief as I’d hoped for, but interesting none the less. Besides, there was an even grander plan to be had by doing this!)

The heroes took some fresh air, admitting this party wasn’t turning out as expected. On their way out, they found a servant girl crying. She told them that a beautiful woman had walked by and ordered her to administer the poison into the food, and she felt compelled with little option to object. Just as the heroes were about to get furious about the possible treachery of the Nereid, Avimar’s flagship “The Bloodmoon” exploded, along with the crew that had gone aboard. Luckily, Avimar himself was locked up and sleeping it out inside the keep.

The heroes stormed down to the beach and invaded the caverns of Sefina. She jumped them, sneering, along with water elementals and took up fight, using her Drowning Kiss with great efficiency. Moving gracefully, healing and dodging, she kept the heroes occupied long enough to see another ship blow up. (Another GM-douche trick: Don’t let Sefina fight to win, but let her fight to stall. The longer the heroes spend wasting resources on her, the longer The Eel has to bomb. She can move, evade and heal herself with decent results, with her elementals taking up some beating.)

Finally she submitted, telling the heroes that ‘he had her shawl and that he had forced her to act!’. Not waiting to find out, the heroes flew out to the ships and detected a small shape navigating from one ship to the next. He sadly spotted them and got away, but for once they managed to utilize the otherwise rare form of logic possessed by players. He had gone to somewhere, where he’d have easy access to the keep, while remaining undetected. The basement with the teleporter.

Battle of the giants and small people
They cut him off in the basement; confronting the little guy known as The Eel. He sneered, as he was on his way out, and took up arms against them. He jumped from one wall to the next, hurling his bombs and had rigged the place with tripwires in advance (something I added in to make the fight a bit more fun). He didn’t waste much time gloating, only hissing that “Harrigan sends his regards!”.
(Like all other alchemists, The Eel is a nasty affair. Use him wisely, keep him on the move, and hurl those bombs away. He can pack a nasty punch in a favorable position.)

Eventually, he managed to collapse the room with his bombs and escaped through the teleporter, becoming a recurring villain for times to come. Knowing that it was over, the heroes walked back and tried salvaging what was left of the party.


The final verdict
Despite everything, the heroes ended up with an impressive score. Mostly because they’d dumped about 30.000 gold into the entire project, which really placed them high on the ladder. The pirate lords were furious to see their ships on the bottom of the ocean, but Mase was happy to take Sefina home with him, Avimar was compensated and Bloodmourne had to admit it had been some of an adventure here. So they sailed home and informed the heroes that they had indeed earned their own seat, each and everyone, on the pirate council and that they should attend in the upcoming gathering.

And so they sailed out into the horizon and the heroes collapsed on the beach, preparing themselves for chapter five.

GM tips:
This is an easily managed adventure, mostly due to its linearity. The heroes set off, they have a strict limit on how much time they can spend, and the goal is clear. The investigation of the island is somewhat sandbox, but in all honesty just a way to decide the order of their encounters. The Isle of Empty eyes is an okay place, but not especially memorable. As a GM, I’d just recommend reading up quickly on all the encounters and spin it. You should probably familiarize yourself with The Eel , as he’s an important battle by himself.

The first half of the adventure seemed like the most boring to me, for that reason. Lots of fighting and although there is a lot of background about the keep and Bikendi, it’s really up to you how much to include. If you just want him to be a ghost wanting a magic stone, go for it. You won’t get punished for not being a lore master.

The second half of this adventure really shines, though. You can make it as crazy and over the top as you wish, and creative gaming groups will welcome the opportunity to make an entire party of their own.  Even if your group isn’t of the creative sorts, just run the basic encounters in the book and you’ll do well. I recommend you read up on them all beforehand; they aren’t that long or complicated.

All in all this is a nice little adventure. It has some good challenges, some great opportunities for RP and retains that awesome pirate-d&d-feeling. More of this, Paizo!

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