Monday, December 2, 2013

Skull and Shackles - Final Review

So, as those of you who’ve been following me on Twitter have undoubtedly noticed, we completed “Skull and Shackles” last week. And just as the dust settled, I realized how terrible I’ve been at updating the adventuring-log for this one. Compared to Carrion Crown, it’s almost pathetic and quite incoherent, seeing as how I’ve tried for both video- and written reviews. I really wish I’d settled for just writing the journals, but then again; time hasn’t been on the bright side, and priorities perhaps even lower.

The ironic thing is how it hasn’t really changed, but I really want to sit down and share my thoughts about this campaign in general, and some very brief reviews on Chapter 5 and 6. You can probably catch much more thorough reviews of the particulars on youtube anyway.

So, let’s go through the notions real quick:

In Chapter 5 - The Price of Infamy, the heroes are mostly following up on the two major plots - that of the infiltration of the Shackles and the assassination of their sworn blood enemy, Cpt. Harrigan. Along the way they’re setting off to investigate the black tower and recover a magic sword, and rescue some crew members that have crossed Harrigan the wrong way. As the fourth chapter of the adventure stopped, the heroes were full-fledged pirates of the council, meaning the primary mechanic of notice is the Fleet Battle-system.

Overall in structure there is little to say about chapter five. I’m not sure why it’s like Carrion Crown all over, in which Chpt. 5 was just the anonymous part which everyone forgot about. Among the so-and-so encounters are the expedition to the black tower and rescuing the crew members. These are pretty basic missions with a few funny elements, but I couldn’t help but feel the tower felt slightly out of place in a pirate campaign. It seemed way more like a sidequest at this point, and the fabled sword and the people involved with it don’t really seem that important.

There’s a brilliant setup early in the story, in which the heroes are asked to infiltrate and take down a group of propaganda Cheliax-actors, operating in Hell Harbor. My players had a lot of fun smuggling themselves into the place and tearing it apart from the inside, and the personalities of the actors are quite fun. Also, the chance for the heroes to join in on council-votes is great and can have some consequences for how the campaign turns out later. I like this mechanic and hope to see it more in later campaigns. For example, one player liked the idea that there should be more statues of the Hurricane King all over the Shackles, voting the notion through, meaning everything went ~20% more expensive for the rest of the campaign. Stuff like that is great, because it’s influence beyond just making attack rolls.

The fleet-battle system offers something for everyone and I enjoyed it. As written, there aren’t that many chances to try it out, and it depends heavily on how well your group of players have managed in getting allies. It can be pathetically easy and abuseable, or merciless to the brink of impossible if they brought too few ships. So I recommend you find out how much you want it to take place in your campaign.  The system is rather simple in itself, especially if you’ve played Wargames before. Things like wounds and morale checks are all common things, and if you just love oiling it up, there are several options for boons and traits granted by various player characters. Seeing as how my group is mostly one of roleplayers before rules, we went with the simplified version and left out a lot of that stuff for narrative elements. But there is indeed something for everyone.

Finally there is the grand battle against Harrigan, and what a delight to see. Storming his hold, working through his guards and confronting the mean fucker was one of the heights of the adventure. He’s definitely no pushover either.

In Chapter 6 - “From Hell’s Heart” it all comes together. Harrigan has fallen, the Hurricane King turns his back on the heroes and even though they have solid proof that the Cheliax fleet is on its way, they’re met with ignorance and cynicism. It’s time to take matters into their own hands, gather up allies and sail out and meet the foe head-on. Structure-wise there’s not that much going on here - the adventure is mainly split into two. First, the heroes encounter the Cheliax-fleet in a climactic battle. Then they return home and take the fight to the Hurricane King himself.

And again, the similarities to Carrion Crown were kind of impressive. This felt like the overall shortest chapter of them all, consisting mostly of encounters besides from whatever we forced into it. That’s fine, it IS cleanup time after all. While the heroes may want to do some piracy around here, it’s approaching the stage in which D&D isn’t really that fit for keeping that theme on the higher levels. It becomes progressively harder to provide them with challenges on the daily run, meaning they’d often just “go plunder some ships” and we’d skip directly to the aftermath. Seeing as how surprisingly few travelers have the means to deal with an average ECL 14 party. If we didn’t play with the Legendary Treasures-option, in which I had the chance to design some very challenging encounters for them, I imagine a lot of the sandbox feeling would be lost.

Perhaps it was just me, but while Admiral Thrune is indeed a hot thing in her own rights, she doesn’t break the generic villain-theme that also burdened Adivion in Carrion Crown. She kind of just appears in the middle of things to die, whereas Harrigan stood up to the task much better. I never got that much of an impression from the fight, since my players pretty much tore her apart, but the later battle against the Hurricane King was memorable and if you tweak him a bit, he can likely be one of the most dangerous folks they’ll encounter. Just be prepared, fellow-GM, that your players may in fact end up doing this adventure on reverse. Meaning they’ll assault Bonefist before going after the fleet.

So my general impressions about Skull and Shackles?

This has definitely been one of the best campaigns I’ve ever played. It allows for so much fun and theme-play, and pirates always equal good times. On the plus side, I’ll break it down like this;

The feeling of one huge geographical area; the Shackles is a damn fine place with plenty of things to see. 

Especially if you read up on the Guide to the Shackles-book. If you’re a very dedicated GM there is so much room for making every harbor and island unique and memorable. I’m kind of sad I skipped out on this, seeing as how it probably became a little bit too generic and classical-fantasy like at times, but hey…

This results in an enormous feeling of sandbox and freedom, which is honestly what pirate-life is all about. If you actually make some (or all) of those legendary treasures in the back of each book real, I guarantee you your players will have something to go for, in a very long time. I made all of them collectable, with a small sidequest to each of them. It’s  your chance to provide the campaign with your own ideas.

The amount of room and expansions you can throw at this campaign is nearly unlimited. It’s actually more of a framework with a mainstory, which you can expand upon, than a downright campaign in the same sense as, say, Carrion Crown. Your players can just follow the main-plot, but I’ll argue that’s missing out on a lot of stuff.

I also love how Paizo dared taking some chances with this one, adding in some new and kind of exciting elements and challenges. I especially liked the fourth chapter, in which the heroes had to upgrade the Isle of Empty Eyes and it was amazing how much fun they had arranging a feast for the pirate lords.  Things such as this, and the investigation at the lodge in Carrion Crown are why I love Paizo’s creativity and I hope they’ll keep it up.

For once, I was also a fan of the custom rules along the way and the ideas seemed mostly coherent. Even though we, around the end, stopped registering the Infamy track, the flaw is more on us. It’s a really great idea, add on top the way loot is handled and sold and how the focus escalates from deck-combat to ship-to-ship combat and finally huge fleets. I’ll have to say good job, and the rules were designed well enough so all of my players picked up the nuts and bolts rather quickly.

On the downside, I could have done with more conventional pirate-things like treasure hunting as part of the main plot. It’s subjective preference, I know, but compared to the unraveling of the spy-network it seemed more relevant to a pirate campaign. Also, you may run into issues with fully fleshing out all the NPC’s and important characters along the way, especially if your players are like mine and insist on getting to know every member of the pirate council in person. I recommend having some of them gone away or simply not that interested in talking. 

The dungeons went from interesting to rather boring, which I suppose is just what we should expect at this point. Make no mistake, the dark tower was actually fun it its own rights and the isle of empty eyes a blast. And then, at other times, such as the dungeon on Bonewracker Isle, it was more something that had to be done. As one of my players exclaimed “Ah, the mandatory dungeon, of course”. 

I still realize, however, that all of these complaints are so minor and subjective that they aren’t really that harsh. Which I suppose is really a huge kudos to this campaign. All of them are issues that you can easily solve on your own, and likely some I’d change if I ever did the campaign again. 

Things I wish I’d done different (aka Advise for other GM’s about to run Skull and Shackles)

There is one thing I’ve said before but bears repeating: NO. FUCKING.GUNS.!

I’ll repeat it just one more time. Don’t do guns!

Unless you’re prepared to take the precautions. I know what you’re screaming; A pirate campaign without guns is kind of like Tim Burton movie without Johnny Depp. The thing is, however, that as Paizo also states - guns seriously disrupt the world order. While you could argue that this isn’t that much different from the casters, there were simply too many encounters that suffered from the gunslinger and gun-focused marshal. 

The thing is that you CAN just give guns to the enemies too, but since these things are so damn valuable, you’ll need to reevaluate the income-balance. Or just make all enemies carry worthless guns.
I get the feeling that this campaign wasn’t written for people with guns. There are very, very few enemies with access to them and only one (as far as I remember) actually builds around it, who is the end boss.
In that line of thought, if balance is your thing, keeping it to “core only” is of course always a way to go, even though I felt this campaign in general suffered a bit from “the heroes are very powerful” and only some monsters in each chapter truly challenging them. In this regard, Carrion Crown seemed more unforgiving, seeing how they were only allowed the core builds. It’s up to you, really. I just wish I’d gone with pure core in this regard, even though we’re of course dealing with a system here that’s unredeemable on that front.

I also wish I’d read up more on the Cheliax. In the beginning, I just placed the Shackles down south in the uncharted areas of Forgotten Realms. I know, the lore freaks will have my head for this, but suck it. I treated Cheliax as the English Navy with a diabolical twist, which worked fine. But then again, I wonder why I didn’t just make them “Thay”. If you’re in my position, I strongly urge you to do so. Even though the diehard fans will scream at me for saying so, the difference between the two nations in negligible for the average player.
Chapter six felt too short, like in Carrion Crown. I’m not so sure how I would have expanded it, but perhaps letting in some more RP-opportunities or another angle rather than just storming the fort and have it over with would be nice. Perhaps a council meeting unofficially around Bonefist, or having the heroes chase him as he runs off for a grand scene on the Eye - something like that. I suppose it’s generally hinted at, but again, endings is a tough thing to manage.

A minor thing also: The rules for the fleet battles are good, but we mainly used tokens and dice to illustrate what was going on and such. It became a bit pathetic in the end, and I recommend doing something great for it. Maybe just draw it up on the grid, but perhaps you know someone who owns a copy of "Dreadfleet" (perhaps someone who has even painted it!) - Including just the blue map and the ship minis, I believe, can make a huuuge difference.

Compared to previous campaigns, I was ill equipped on the musical front for this one. Most of my music came from either Sid Meyer’s Pirates, Monkey Island or consisted of atmospheric sounds such as waves and ships. While “Nox Arcana - The High Seas” does have some really nice tracks, they all felt quite timed and specific for me, rather than just background sound. One option I haven’t looked into yet, would be the soundtrack to the new “Assassin’s Creed” ‘Black Flag’. Who knows?

All in all, I can absolutely recommend “Skull and Shackles”. It’s some campaign, of course, by a long shot not completed in just one week. But put in the time and energy and you have one of the most potential campaigns you have ever put your hands on.

Now let’s move on with some Wrath of the Righteous.

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