Friday, 19 July 2013

Reign of Winter - Rasputin Must Die!

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. In fact, a few months back, I even wrote a post about how much I was looking forward to it. I said then that it had the potential to be either a complete disaster or the most amazing thing ever. After all, mixing Pathfinder-style fantasy with historical Earth is not an easy task. There are all kinds of difficulties that have to be considered, not the least of which is the fact that the very attempt is bound to turn some people off in the first place. Mixing genres is just not some people’s cup of tea. But even for those who enjoy mixing genres, there’s still a lot that could go wrong. Well, of the two possibilities I suggested, it turns out not to have been a complete disaster. Indeed, Rasputin Must Die! by Brandon Hodge may well be one of the most amazing things ever! It is without a doubt one of the best adventures I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, and I dare say it’s likely to be long remembered as an all-time classic.


At its core, Rasputin Must Die! is a fairly straight-forward adventure. It doesn’t have a complex plot, it takes place almost entirely within a relatively small location, and there are only a fairly small number of encounter areas. But small and straight-forward doesn’t mean bad. The adventure rises up to epic proportions as the PCs must get past mine fields, Russian soldiers with weapons far more advanced than anything the PCs have ever encountered, and even more bizarre things, including undead Cossack soldiers, strange fey, mystical combinations of science and magic based on Nikola Tesla’s writings and designs, and even an undead goat. All to get at Rasputin and rescue his mother, Baba Yaga.

The plot is as follows: Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut, carrying the PCs, arrives on Earth in Siberia in 1918. Rasputin has been keeping watch for such an occurrence, and while the PCs find their way out of the Hut’s new configuration, Rasputin’s soldiers mine the area around the Hut and prepare an ambush in the town the Hut has appeared near. Once the PCs have dealt with the ambush, they follow Rasputin’s trail to Akuvskaya Monastery, where Rasputin, with the help of a Russian scientist named Viktor Miloslav, has been attempting to call down Baba Yaga’s Thrice-Tenth Kingdom, a realm she rules over in the First World. Rasputin hopes to claim his mother’s power for his own. At the monastery, the PCs must overcome Rasputin’s defences and enter the First World version of the Akuvskaya Monastery to face Rasputin himself. Once he is defeated and his “World Engine” is shut down, the PCs can find the matryoshka doll that imprisons Baba Yaga.

People knowledgeable in Russian history may have noted that Rasputin was already dead in 1918. However, this isn’t an alternate-history Earth. In the foreword, Hodge states that he intended that this was our Earth and everything that happened “had to happen in the gaps of our real-world history, without contradiction or disruption of the status quo.” But also, the magic from our own myths and legend was real—or at least, used to be revealed. Magic has retreated from Earth, but magic is not dead. Hodge states that, while he briefly considered advocating for a magic-dead world, he realized that stripping away the PCs’ powers for an entire adventure would be a bad move—something I agree with entirely. Rasputin himself, is an 18th-level oracle in this adventure, capable of casting spells such as miracle, but he is also a man open to science and devices such as the World Engine.

So how does Rasputin being alive in 1918 fit into history “without contradiction or disruption of the status quo”? Well, I’m sure most people have heard the tales of how difficult Rasputin was to kill. This adventure takes things one step further. Rasputin came back to life yet again after his “last” death. The body that was cremated was actually a simulacrum. Rasputin himself went into hiding to work on his plot to trap his mother. Rasputin Must Die! reveals that Baba Yaga is actually native to Earth and after Rasputin’s birth, she left him back on Earth. Many years later, Elvanna contacted Rasputin, hoping to gain his help in a plan to trap their mother. He agreed, and many of his activities in life were all in aid of ultimately trapping Baba Yaga and stealing her powers for his own. Overall, Hodge has done a remarkable job integrating this adventure seamlessly into real-world history. It is believably our world, despite the magic and supernatural elements that abound. The monsters that the PCs encounter have been carefully chosen to reflect Russian folklore, and the Russian soldiers with their machine guns and grenades cement the adventure firmly into our world.

I absolutely love, too, just how strongly Rasputin’s presence is felt in this adventure. The PCs actually get to encounter him before their final climactic battle with him. In most adventures, the PCs don’t actually meet the main villain until the end, when they fight, and probably kill, that villain. This is done for good reason. If the PCs meet the villain earlier, they might just defeat the villain too soon and the adventure would be over, and so most adventures use other ways to make the villain’s presence felt—some more successfully than others. However, it makes a wonderful change of pace when the villain actually shows up at an earlier time, especially when the PCs get to interact with the villain at that time (as opposed to just noticing the villain in the distance). In Rasputin Must Die!, there are three keyed encounters with Rasputin before the final one, and GMs are free to slip in more if they desire. Of course, it is conceivably possible that the PCs might just kill Rasputin early because of this. Naturally, he takes precautions by appearing to them via project image spells. He is also incredibly difficult to kill permanently (he has a nasty habit of spontaneously resurrecting). The first encounter takes place in the village of Akuvskaya, the location the PCs first arrive in before heading to the monastery. Here, the real Rasputin is hiding in the forest just outside the village, and wily PCs might just manage to find and kill him before he can get away. In the later encounters, he is casting his project image through a scrying device in the First World monastery, meaning the PCs can’t get at him until they can get into the First World, at which point it’s just about time for the final encounter anyway. However, in that first encounter, the PCs could conceivably get lucky, but even if they do, this wouldn’t derail the adventure. They would still need to find their way to the monastery, call down the First World version to get in, and rescue Baba Yaga. And Rasputin’s forces would still stand in their way. Getting to meet Rasputin early on and listen to his taunts lets the PCs develop a true hatred of him. He becomes more than just the monster at the end of the adventure. He becomes somebody they have a personal vendetta against.

One of the difficulties this adventure needed to address was how to handle the PCs fighting against large numbers of soldiers. There’s the issue of how to handle weaponry that’s more advanced than even the “advanced firearms” included in Ultimate Combat. There’s also the question of just what level a typical Russian soldier ought to be. This is a high-level adventure (the PCs start at 13th level). Swarms of low-level soldiers would just become an exercise in tedium, while making them too high a level would mean that there couldn’t be enough of them to make a believable army. The adventure solves this problem beautifully with the addition of the “troop” subtype. Troops work similarly to swarms, in that you treat the entire troop as one thing, with a communal hit point total, group AC, etc. When the troop runs out of hit points, it is dispersed. By treating troops in this manner, it cuts down on endless die-rolling for large numbers of combatants whilst simultaneously giving the feel of being overwhelmed by large numbers of forces. In order to further maintain a sense of the chaos of modern warfare, the adventure also strongly suggests that GMs should roll separate initiatives for each troop (when there is more than one troop in a combat). This keeps the gunfire coming at all different times throughout the round rather than one predictable and repetitive burst per round. The troop subtype is one of the defining things that makes this adventure work so well. There are a lot of Russian troops, and the troop subtype allows them to be menacing to the PCs without being a headache to the GM and players.

In many ways, Rasputin Must Die! is like one protracted battle. The PCs get very little time to rest between encounters as one encounter bleeds into the next. But people also shouldn’t mistake it for one long hack’n’slash-fest. There are a lot of interesting characters in here to interact with and added challenges to overcome. In order to call down the First World monastery to the real world, the PCs must manage to operate the World Engine. One way to do this is to enlist the help of Viktor Miloslav. Unfortunately, Miloslav is dead. Rasputin killed him as soon as he was no longer useful and trapped his soul using a lantern goat—that undead goat I mentioned earlier. The PCs must first learn of Miloslav (from various other characters), then kill the goat to release his soul, and finally raise him from the dead (either through their own spells or through the help of a tombstone fairy who resides in the local monastery’s graveyard).

Another complication the PCs encounter is the presence of Anastasia and Alexei Romanov in the monastery grounds—the heirs to the Russian throne who are also supposed to be dead! Anastasia is currently suffering from amnesia, but the PCs can eventually learn (possibly from the ghost of her mother Tsarina Alexandra, who also resides at the monastery) that Rasputin resurrected her because she is actually his daughter from an affair he had with the Tsarina. More than that, this also makes Anastasia Baba Yaga’s granddaughter and a potential heir to the throne of Irrisen back on Golarion. Rasputin resurrected her precisely because of this as a possible back-up plan for gaining power. On the other hand, Alexei isn’t the real Alexei, but rather a gorynych (a kind of three-headed dragon) in disguise, tasked by Rasputin to guard Anastasia.

Other characters include the Brothers Three, a trio of nosferatu who keep the human troops dominated and unquestioning of the supernatural horrors around them. There’s Polkovnik Lavrenti, the commander of Rasputin’s forces, who is also an undead dullahan (headless horseman). Serafina is an erodaemon and Rasputin’s lover, who disguises herself as Baba Yaga in an attempt to fool the PCs. All the NPCs have strong personalities and motivations and make for a compelling cast of villains and potential allies.

Eventually, the PCs reach and fight Rasputin for the final time. In this final battle, he has extra powers (on top of his already formidable ones) from the World Engine, making for what should be an incredibly epic confrontation, especially if any of his other allies (like Serafina or the Brothers Three) are still alive to help him. Once he is defeated (and the PCs need to kill him at least three times to stop him spontaneously resurrecting again), the PCs can shut down the World Engine and find Baba Yaga. Unfortunately, at this stage, they have no idea how to open the matryoshka doll that is her prison. That is the subject of the next, and final instalment of Reign of Winter, The Witch Queen’s Revenge.

Following the main adventure, the article “Guns, Spirits, and Revolution” by Adam Daigle and Brandon Hodge contains stats for the firearms and explosives that appear during the adventure, along with basic rules for their use. These are all quite powerful weapons and won’t fit in a typical campaign, but Reign of Winter is hardly a typical campaign. The article also contains historical and social background information on Russia during the early 20th Century. Finally, there is a new oracle mystery: occult. This is the mystery that Rasputin uses. While the background articles in Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes often have uses beyond the adventure in that volume, this is an article that doesn’t (apart from the occult oracle mystery, which can easily be used in other adventures). However, it is invaluable for running Rasputin Must Die! and could come in useful for GMs that want to run additional adventures on early 20-Century Earth.

Following this is a write-up on Szuriel, the Horseman of War (one of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who rule the daemons of Abaddon), by Sean K. Reynolds. Done in the style of Reynolds’s series of articles on the gods of Golarion, this one provides information about worshipping the Horseman of War. While Szuriel or her worship are not a part of Rasputin Must Die!, her portfolio of deadly, never-ending war fits the theme of the adventure nicely. Like all of Reynolds’s god articles, this one gives a detailed and fascinating insight into a truly macabre and horrifying figure.

This month’s Bestiary contains stats for the animated tanks that appear in the adventure (yes, that’s right, magically animated tanks that can think for themselves!) as well as trench mist (also appearing in the adventure), which is essentially intelligent mustard gas. The other creatures are the genthodaemon and fext, an undead military leader.

All put together, these articles and the adventure itself make for one of the best Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes to date. I am really rather in awe of just how good Rasputin Must Die! is. Even though I predicted disaster or amazing triumph, I didn’t really expect triumph to this degree. I want to run this adventure NOW. Unfortunately, I can’t since I don’t want to run it without running the rest of Reign of Winter with it, which means starting with the other four (all good adventures, too, I might add). I’m also not in a position to start a new campaign right at the moment, but eventually... Eventually...

1 comment:

  1. For some reason I have not been feeling the love for this adventure path. There has been interesting bits in each part so far including this one, but overall I have no desire to either run nor play this path.
    I think part of my problem is that for a AP to be a good read I like each AP to have integrated parts and a decent plot. There really hasn't been much plot since Jade Regent and even that one was pretty flimsy.
    Kingmaker was a boring read but was a blast to play so I suspect the last few APs including this would would be a similar experience.