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Friday, 14 December 2012

Shattered Star - Beyond the Doomsday Door


I’ve stated before that I can be rather critical of dungeon-based adventures. It can be very easy for such adventures to become sluggish, too drawn out, and ultimately just a succession of monster-killing that lacks dynamics or purpose. As such, I haven’t been overly praising of Shattered Star, which is an adventure path centred around dungeon crawling. Not only that, it’s one with only a fairly loose tie joining each adventure together, making it feel less like an adventure path than a succession of stand-alone adventures. The first adventure is competent, but uninspiring. Curse of the Lady’s Light (the second instalment) is an excellent adventure in its own right, but one that I think I’d rather just run by itself without the rather loose connections to the rest of the AP. And I found The Asylum Stone quite disappointing. Fortunately, the fourth instalment, Beyond the Doomsday Door by Tito Leati, delivers another excellent adventure. It’s not perfect—there are some confusing inconsistencies in its setting’s history, for example, and it does start to feel a little drawn out by the end—but it contains a fascinating, dynamic setting, and a truly unique villain. It’s a dungeon crawl where you might not want to kill everything you meet along the way, and that’s the kind of thing I love.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Another thing I’ve often commented on in my adventure reviews is the hook (or lack of one in some cases). The hooks in Shattered Star have been pretty lacklustre, amounting to little more than revealing the location of the next shard of the titular artefact. Even Curse of the Lady’s Light, which has a great story and objective beyond the search for the shard, doesn’t introduce that story to the players until after they’ve already arrived at their destination. This isn’t as big a concern in later adventures of a campaign since the PCs’ personal motivations can often help guide things, but a strong hook to an individual adventure is still a good bonus. Beyond the Doomsday Door changes the pattern of Shatterrd Star somewhat by providing a great hook. Upon discovering that the Shard of Envy is at Windsong Abbey, the PCs also learn that the abbey has been invaded. Before the PCs even start out towards their destination, they already have a strong motivation for going there other than just finding a bit of fancy treasure: liberating the abbey. Admittedly, non-good PCs might not find that much of a motivator; however, even then, there’s another one: stop someone else from getting the shard first (the PCs don’t know at this point whether the villain is after the shard, but the possibility should get greedy PCs’ attentions).

Upon arriving at Windsong Abbey, the PCs must find a way of defeating the invaders and rescuing any surviving priests or residents. And this is where the adventure becomes very different from a standard dungeon. In most dungeon adventures, the PCs enter a location (not always a literal dungeon) where the monsters and villains already live. In these cases, the PCs are the intruders, the invaders. In Beyond the Doomsday Door, the monsters are also intruders. They’ve had more time than the PCs to become familiar with the abbey, but they still don’t know it perfectly. They may have taken over the location, but they haven’t completely stabilized things yet. This allows for a very dynamic setting and an intense series of encounters for the PCs. While the text may list the monsters with certain locations, these locations aren’t “homes” or even necessarily favoured hangouts. As a result, the monsters in the abbey move about much more than in a typical dungeon. The PCs may find very little opportunity to rest as one monster after another comes at them, or may even find themselves overwhelmed as the entire surface forces of the villain, Ardathanatus, gang up against them. Of course, any good gamemaster will make even the most static of dungeons more dynamic based on the PCs’ actions, but the set-up of this adventure makes that much simpler and much more obvious.

Unfortunately, once the PCs pass the first doomsday lock and proceed into the lower dungeons, much of the dynamic quality of this adventure is lost, and it becomes more a standard dungeon, where they move from room to room and encounter monsters and occupants one after the other. Many of the encounters begin to feel repetitive (there are only so many times the PCs can fight the same kind of qlippoth before they start to think, “Really? Another one?”) and like they’re just there to fill up space because dungeons are supposed to have lots of rooms. Nonetheless, there are still many things in the lower levels to help keep people’s interest, and there is still opportunity for interaction with the denizens encountered. In particular, the PCs might find that it’s best not to kill every creature they meet (even some of the undead Grotetus cultists) as they might be able to gain some information from these creatures—information about the history of Windsong Abbey, of the temple of Groetus that the abbey was built over, and most importantly, of Ardathanatus himself. The final encounter should also help people forget any repetitiveness that came before, as the qlippoth lord, Yamasoth, manages to get just a few tentacles through into the Prime Plane for a couple of rounds, allowing for a little fear to pump into the hearts of even the relatively high-level PCs.

As villains go, Ardathanatus is likely to prove one of the most memorable from any adventure or campaign. He is a character who has motivations beyond just being evil, with a full and tragic backstory. Of course, lots of RPG villains are written with good motivations and compelling backstories; however, what makes Ardathanatus stand out is that the PCs have numerous opportunities to learn these things. Too often, a villain’s backstory ends up being something only the GM knows. The villain shows up for one encounter at the end and gets killed by the PCs. Here, the PCs might actually begin to sympathize with Ardathanatus and take pity on him. There’s even a possibility of redeeming him if the PCs play their cards right. If the PCs manage that, the players will likely talk about it for years to come. One reason Darth Vader is such a memorable villain is because he is redeemed at the end. While Ardathanatus won’t likely ever attain Darth Vader’s level of fame, he likely will be famous for individual groups.

There is one aspect of the adventure that I found quite confusing—distractingly so, as it kept me flipping back to re-read parts, wondering if I’d read them wrong the first time, only to discover something else that seemed to be a discrepancy. This concerns the history of Windsong Abbey and how much of the lower dungeons the priests actually inhabited and explored. Throughout the adventure, the text repeatedly states that the priests “wisely decided” not to open any of the doors with doomsday locks. At the beginning of Part Three on page 25, it says that “they wisely decided to leave the dungeon chambers of the temple alone.” However, it quickly becomes apparent that the abbey’s clergy used and inhabited the first two levels of the dungeon as far as the door to area C6. They even converted one chamber into a temple to Sarenrae and built a statue of her there. Earlier in the text, in the description of the doomsday lock at area A10 (on page 17), it states, “the priests and servants used trap doors elsewhere in the abbey for ingress and egress [to and from the dungeons]”. This would seem to clear up some of the discrepancy; however, the only other references I can find to these trap doors are in areas A6 and A16, where there a traps made out of the trap doors that once led to the basement (not specifically dungeon, but presumably meant to be the same thing). There is no mention in any of the dungeon chambers to any trap doors at all, even previously existing ones that have been covered up. It does make me wonder how the abbey inhabitants carted things in and out through a pair of trap doors no larger than 5 ft by 5 ft each, especially how they managed to get materials in and out for constructing the statues, benches, and stained-glass window in the temple of Sarenrae. However, the confusion doesn’t end there. Going back earlier in the text, in the Adventure Background on page 7, it states that the abbey was built over “a temple of Groetus whose deepest chambers contained mysterious sealed doors, including a particularly ominous one that the priest identified through study as one of the ‘Doomsday Doors’.” This would seem to indicate that the priests of the abbey did explore the dungeons (otherwise they wouldn’t have known the Doomsday Door was even there), even though the Doomsday Door is only reachable by going through some of those “mysterious sealed doors” that the same paragraph later tells us that they “wisely decided...should stay closed.” I suppose it’s possible the priests explored the dungeon using divination magic—although most spells for this either have a relatively short range (like clairvoyance) or have to focus on a specific creature (like scrying). Whatever the case, the text is very unclear about this.

Of course, these discrepancies won’t impact play of the adventure a great deal, although they do make the GM’s job a little more difficult when revealing the history of the abbey. I have to wonder whether, during the editing process, some details about the abbey got changed, but not all the text was modified sufficiently to cover up the change. Some clearer writing would have saved me a bit of a headache when reading the adventure; however, the adventure certainly isn’t spoiled by the inconsistencies.

Following the adventure are two wonderful support articles. The first, “Before Sin” by James Jacobs, delves into the secrets of the qlippoth. I have to be honest and say that I’ve never really seen much point to the qlippoth, the demons who came before demons so aren’t really demons but a kind of elder evil that is demon-like in many ways but... The game has a lot of variations of fiends (demons, devils, daemons, kytons, etc.) and qlippoth always seemed like just another ill-defined add-on. However, this article goes a long way towards changing that opinion. It gives the qlippoth a distinctiveness beyond just abyssal creatures that came before demons. It provides them with a proper niche within the structure and history of the Golarion multiverse. They really do become something other than demons with their own goals that don’t match the goals of the demons. Thanks to this article, qlippoth now have a separate personality that I can exploit, and my appreciation for them has started to grow a little (and I must say, one thing I have always liked about qlippoth is that they actually look demonic, moreso than most demons do).

The second article is the latest in Sean K. Reynods’s series looking in depth at the gods of Golarion. This is the first of these articles to move beyond the core twenty gods of the setting, this one looking at one of the less-well-known deities, Groetus. Admittedly, of the non-core deities, Groetus is probably the most well known. Insane prophets of Groetus pop up in Pathfinder adventures quite frequently, it seems. Nonetheless, it’s good to finally get an in-depth look at this god of the end times. What’s nice, too, is that, freed from having to get all twenty of the core deities done, the articles can now choose gods that tie into the volume’s adventure more closely. As Beyond the Doomsday Door is set in an old temple to Groetus, an article on Groetus makes perfect sense. While this article has the same basic layout as other articles in the series (containing sections on “A Priest’s Role”, “Aphorisms”, and so on), what makes Groetus stand out is that he doesn’t have an organized following like most other gods. As such, most priests tend to do their own thing, making for a very interesting read.

The Bestiary in this volume contains an assortment of new creatures, including a new qlippoth (that makes repeated appearances in the adventure), a new kyton, and the herald of Groetus, End’s Voice. It’s fitting that such an unusual god would have such a strange and bizarre herald.

Overall, Beyond the Doomsday Door is an excellent volume of the Pathfinder Adventure Path. While I’m still not enamoured with Shattered Star as a whole, this makes for a good individual adventure. Indeed, as Ardathanatus’s goals are not tied up with the Shard of Envy at all, it would be very easy to run this as a stand-alone adventure. It does get a bit repetitive towards the end, but a good GM should be able to overcome that without much difficulty, especially with the help of the excellent support articles. By the end, it will likely be a particularly memorable adventure for all those involved.

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