Saturday, May 10, 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Sword of Valor review pt. 2

"Siegeing the initiative - When religious people just won't leave your doorstep."
Once the heroes reach the city of Drezen the rest of the adventure is somewhat linear in the classical 'things are pretty much going to happen the way we wrote it" - there is some illusion of a choice and that time is of the essence, seeing how the morality meter of the heroes' army is acting like the doomsday clock. The more they wait, the bad morale starts gnawing its ugly teeth; add on top of the further they progress towards storming the keep, the more dire the conflict becomes. I'll say, however, that the impending doom is a somewhat lukewarm one as by now the heroes should be more than powerful enough to deal with the situation and make short process with the invasion.

When they arrive there is a series of short encounters in their way, which vary from mass combat to solo encounters. None of them are particularly interesting nor original and honestly leaves a lot up to you as a GM. It's even possible for you to skip those you don't care much for. The one exception in my book, however, is the task of storming a bridge guarded by fierce beasts and a vile mage - the heroes need control of that bridge in order to advance with their troops, and they need to deal not only with the sorcerer, but also the beasts that will start tearing down the bridge as soon as struggle begins. Kind of brings your memory back to the old Icewind Dale 2 days.
The mass combats are just that; nothing surprising to see here and likely shouldn't challenge the heroes at all at this point in the adventure. They're a nice warm up for them, seeing how you're able to throw more at them in the third chapter.
(There's also some quite nifty opportunities for some battle speeches before storming the keep!)

Hitting the keep itself is interrupted as Staunton's mythic chimera swoops down from the sky to take the battle to the heroes. I'm not sure how this will impact in a general sense of group setup, but my players tore it a new one pretty quickly. The heroes are already quite capable of some impressive mythic feats by then, so you shouldn't go easy on them. Actually, if you sense they'll have too easy a time, it's definitely worth bolstering the monster, seeing as how it's supposed to be a grand fight and also it's a solo. Which usually translates into "Therefore I suck" in D&D terminology.

Upon reaching the keep there's the usual run of the mill dungeon storm with very few twists. There isn't really that much to prepare for you as a GM, except a few encounters that, by this time, are so ridiculously underpowered compared to the heroes that it risks getting extremely tedious quickly.  I suggest either cutting down on them or simply picking out a few of those you like. Encounters such as the succubi are somewhat interesting in that they offer some RP-alternatives, whereas the rest are bash and maim.

Staunton has a few lieutenants that will likely challenge the heroes, (again, if you feel they're up for it, let them encounter them all at once!) before they face down the Blackguard and his brother. Staunton can be quite a handful for some groups but he's certainly not impossible, especially not when the smite evil attacks start piling up - you'll notice he'll go down rather quickly. 

Now, you would think this would be the ideal climax to end off the adventure, seeing how much exposition Staunton actually has as a true bad ass. But no; this is one of those occasions where Paizo pulls the 'there's always a bigger fish' card just before the end (and yes, it still pisses me off royally).  In this case, we're dealing with a nasty shadow demon that frankly just reminds me of the talking pollution from Ferngully. I even strode to sound like Tim Curry when it taunted the heroes.
As written, the heroes will then find some new information about the current state of things in the worldwound and claim victory over Drezen. Staunton declared death, and may they all live ever on.

"Mercy for Staunton"
As written, there is not much hope for Staunton - he's an unredeemable character whose sole purpose is to suffer at the end of the righteous sword. I suppose one could spread it out and even make him a trial or something, maybe even burn him at the stake. However, to me it seemed truly counterintuitive that the bad guy who was, perhaps, in the most need of redemption was also the one who couldn't obtain it.

I've given a lot of thought as to how one could include Staunton Vhane as a redeemed character and believe it's possible though some story magic. While some of them are almost clich├ęs, I hardly find any flaw in that, seeing how the redemption of the black knight is a vital theme in so many heroic stories through the times.

The major obstacle I see with redeeming Staunton is exposition. He can pretty much give a lot of stuff away about the enemy; likely too much at this early stage in the campaign. Instead, utilize this as your way to convey whatever information you wish for your players to have. Maybe they've slept a bit at vital points in the adventure, of you want to foreshadow certain aspects of the upcoming chapters. Allow Staunton to be taken as a prisoner; maybe in the final blow of the battle and the fall of the evil influence in Drezen, part of his corruption abandons his heart as well as several of his memories.

Alternatively, he'll remain inherently evil and in the dungeons of Drezen, only to be deeply inspired and tormented by the later arrival of the succubus Arueshalae (in chapter three) - seeing as how such an otherwise vile creature can be graced by the light drives Staunton into deep conflict within; one which the heroes will likely have a chance to assist in, maybe even set a quest for the fallen hero to complete?

The possibilities are several, and Staunton is actually a very interesting character with plenty of potential for development. If you want to stretch it even further out, perhaps some of the heroes' companions once knew and had a good relationship with the dwarf, and would desperately want to see him redeemed (some could even have been romantically involved with him) - and others won't rest till he's hanging from the noose. 

In Conclusion:
One thing that I've liked a lot so far about this AP, is how well the chapters sort of tie in together. At this time of writing, we're well into the third chapter, and the natural continuance that sort of just evolves between the chapters is great. Compared to our two recent campaigns, Carrion Crown and Skull & Shackles, this has a much more coherent feel to it.

As for the adventure itself, I didn't find it to be as well written and interesting as the first chapter, but it certainly didn't stand out as bad. There are very few deviations and risks taken here, which will be loved by some people and not so much by others - if you're going to GM this, my best advice is to take it slow and run it by the book. You can try and force some branches into it, but it didn't really seem worth it when I tried.

That, and by gods read up on those mass combat rules. They aren't that hard to grasp but they do take up some time. I recommend running over them at least twice and then ask whoever in the group would be interested in running the armies - chances are good that at least one guy will be interested. Then send them home with the homework 'read up on mass combat' and you'll notice how well it turns out. While it certainly isn't Warhammer Fantasy, it's fluid and if you've tried out the fleet battles in Skull & Shackles, you'll likely be familiar with it.

My favorite part was beyond doubt the journey to Drezen and the various encounters along the way. It felt like a doomed expedition on its way deep into hell. The least favorite part was the three new NPC's (of which I used none, really) and the majority of the tasks in Drezen that frankly just felt like small obstacles.

I can't help but think how in the majority of adventures, there are some clever mechanics and interesting elements that kind of make them stand out, whereas the more the story progresses, the less interesting things become. Whereas elements such as the commendations (Achievements, really) added some interesting stuff, the most of chapter two is pretty much one long demonic brick road that has the potential to bore out a lot of people. 

So with that much said, the heroes have conquered the fallen city and are now ready to set out towards their next destination - The Worldwound.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Sword of Valor review pt. 1

Greetings, travelers from afar, and once again welcome to a telling of mythic deeds and heroic exploits in the hands of should-be-so-noble-players with hearts that are probably way more black than the cover of the adventure was lead to believe. At least my players' hearts are.

It's, in other words, time to return to the Wrath of the Righteous, namely the second installment named "The Sword of Valor" - When we left the bold heroes they had just become the center of attention, destroying the wardstone of Kenabres before the demonic incursion could corrupt it to their own advantage. Whereas this dealt a vicious blow to the crusaders, it was a necessary evil if the potent artifact was to remain outside the chaotic claws of corruption.

So, let's have a walk through chapter two of Paizo's new do-gooder campaign and have a look whether it lives up to the high expectations set where the first installment left off.

As the heroes have defeated the infernal forces in the first chapter, they are now the talk of the day in the crusader city of Kenabres. It doesn't take long for the higher-ups to take notice of their deeds, and soon after none other than the mighty Queen Galfrey of the crusade graces them with their presence. She announces the beginning of the fifth crusade, conceived by their valorous actions, and asks the heroes to lead an army north along the Worldwound, towards the fallen city of Drezen.

The heroes are tasked with reclaiming the city from a notorious blackguard named Staunton Vhane; a betrayer whose actions led to the fall of the city in the first place, as he stole its greatest defense against the teleporting demons - the Sword of Valor (which is, ironically, not a sword but a banner). Of course, Vhane is not going to make it easy for the heroes, and as they march north, they are besieged by opposing armies, desecrated temples and unholy swarms of vermin.

The adventure culminates in a satisfying climax, as the heroes undertake various missions and mass combats in and around Drezen, laying siege to the blackguard's keep. Finally, they get to storm the gates and take him down, along with his demonic master, and reclaim the banner for themselves.
Besides from the core rules and Mythic expansion, this chapter relies heavily on the Mass Combat-rules from Ultimate Campaign.
(This really stands as the primary advice I'll hand on to you, if you're going to run this adventure as a GM - Reading up on the mass combat rules is kind of necessary. While you can run it on your own and just it fold out with the heroes confronting the commander of the opposing army, it does take up so much of the adventure that I felt you would leave out too much by ignoring it. It's worth noticing that the army granted to the heroes by the queen is very strong and quite durable in terms of attrition, so the chances that they should lose it are very slim.)

"A royal audience - And instead of a Worldwound you shall have a queen!"
The first part of the adventure is mainly exposition about events to come. The heroes receive an audience with Queen Galfrey, who is a rather important character for the campaign, seeing as she leads the crusade, more or less. Her only purpose for this part is to send the heroes out the door towards the occupied city of Drezen (Although, I recommend you try and give her some personality and make it a memorable meeting. I compared her somewhat to Aribeth from Neverwinter Nights, trying to make her a stout, brave and bold character who stood up for herself and her ideals, while still very likeable - yes, this is apparently possible, 'Gamers 3' - which went quite well. One of the heroes even started hitting on her. Paizo provides you with a lot of rumors and details about her, which you should really use to create some tension about her character.)
Strong female protagonists - Doing it right and doing it very wrong

 Basically, the heroes are rewarded by getting kicked out the door with an army at their back and march north towards Drezen. Of course things won't get easy for them on the way, likely their opponent, Staunton Vhane the Blackguard, will be prepared for their coming. Yet, this is declared as the start of the fifth crusade which will hopefully be so much better than...well, the recent four, to say the truth. Pack you bags, brush your teeth, remember to use the toilet and off you march.

(There is a question about Staunton Vhane, who serves as the main antagonist of this chapter, and exactly how much exposition you want to reveal in advance. There is quite a lot of it, but if you just want to throw the basic stuff out, he was a renowned dwarven holy warrior from the crusade, whose actions deemed Drezen to fall. A lot of people have different stories about his exact role in this, but it is established that the holy relic that used to keep out the demonic influence, the Sword of Valor, was either corrupted or removed thanks to his actions. Some even say that the same sinister force who led Vhane into temptation also had the ulterior motive of annihilating the crusader city in one fell stroke.)

"We ride north!...with our new friends. On the other hand; fuck you!"
 The journey towards Drezen is the standard setup of encounters on a string, just as you've probably seen it several times before. Put shortly, they consist of a disastrous sight of a small town ravaged by the demons (and very little else to do; just foreshadowing, I suppose), an assault on two tiefling armies (in which the heroes get to play with the Mass Combat rules) and face off against an incubus commander.  There are no surprises here, really, it's pretty much run by the book. Though the adventure kind of tries to utilize travel-mechanics and passing time, it's of little to almost no importance at all. Don't feel obliged to keep a track of anything; you'll have plenty of opportunity for that in chapter three.

The heroes make some new friends along the way. Sosiel Vaenic  (whose picture sort of always made me call him 'the encouraging coach') and his lover, Aron Kir who happens to be an addict. Also, Nurah Dendiwar makes her entrance, all of them supposed to travel along with the heroes.
(Only, they didn't. Not in my campaign at least, because I had a couple of issues with them. First and foremost, none of them really add anything to the campaign that's REALLY important. Second, by this time, if you've played your cards right, your players might actually have grown fond of Irabeth, Anevia, Aravishnial and Horgus who are all interesting characters in their own right. Stuffing in three new names seemed like too much of a shoehorn, especially when they are so dull and anonymous. I suppose keeping them around as replacements and backups if things went wrong would be an idea, but really - if you don't like them, you can safely keep them out of the picture entirely.)

Things get interesting with the two encounters just before the heroes arrive in Drezen. The first being the purification of an old temple to one of the heroes' deity. They get to fight "Nulkineth" - a half-nabasu inquisitor, and his Nabasu which proves for a truly challenging encounter. Then, the heroes realize they can't progress past a nasty swarm of Vescavors until they've slain the queen in her warrens. Apparently, nuking it from orbit is not an option. What makes this battle kind of interesting is that it's a short dungeon crawl with a timer; the heroes need to defeat her before the swarm reacts and start coming out the wall to devour them.

OPTIONAL: "Fire or forget?  How to make Arles Jhestander interesting."
Despite my recent criticism of the three new introduced characters being bland, boring and surplus, I went for one interesting option I thought could make for great drama. One of the NPC's in this adventure is called Arles Jhestander and his main purpose is to spread some despair amidst the ranks because...well, he's a wuss, I assume. It's a tiny plot easily resolved, but looking at his picture really made me think; this is a man with a mission.
In my adventure, Arles was a former paladin serving under Staunton Vhane. When Drezen fell to corruption, Arles felt the fires of wrath burn in his heart as he was betrayed by his old mentor (I kind of compare him to Carth Onasi from Knights of the old Republic) and in blind rage and panic fought his way out of the city, not knowing whom to trust and consider an ally, in the process abandoning his own family and friends thus losing his sacred title. He lived on as a high ranked commander, yet fallen and condemned by his superiors, and he wishes nothing but the death of Staunton Vhane.

This makes for an opportunity for the heroes to redeem Arles, and take a stand on either retribution or mercy towards Staunton Vhane (see my paragraph on 'Mercy for Staunton?') - Arles could even turn out as a disciple of one of the heroes, perhaps even a mythic apprentice later on in the adventures.

(To be continued in chapter 2)