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Saturday, 26 October 2013

Wrath of the Righteous - Sword of Valor


As I mentioned in my review of The Worldwound Incursion, when Wrath of the Righteous was first announced, I wasn’t all that interested in it. I didn’t expect it to be bad; I just didn’t expect it to be all that remarkable either. However, The Worldwound Incursion blew me away. That volume, combined with the excellent The Worldwound sourcebook, opened my eyes to an area of Golarion I had paid little attention to. Of course, a great opening instalment to an adventure path doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great adventure path overall. There have been adventure paths with excellent first volumes that have been followed up with mediocre to poor second and third volumes (Serpent’s Skull comes to mind). Luckily, the second volume of Wrath of the Righteous, Sword of Valor by Neil Spicer is not one of those sub-par follow-ups. Instead, it may just be setting up Wrath of the Righteous as one of the best adventure paths to date. It manages to wrap overland travel, mass combat, dungeon crawling, and extensive roleplaying options up into one really quite brilliant adventure.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Sword of Valor is broken up into three distinct parts, each somewhat different in style. It opens with Queen Galfrey arriving in Kenabres and sending the PCs to Drezen, a city that was once a crusader city but has been under demon control for decades now. She instructs the PCs to retake Drezen and recover the Sword of Valor (which, despite its name, is actually a banner, not a sword), an artefact that once protected Drezen. Its recovery would be a great morale boost for the crusaders. To aid them in their task, Galfrey assigns them an army of paladins to command as well as several specialized NPCs to work with them. The first part of the adventure involves the journey from Kenabres to Drezen.

Overland journey adventures can be difficult to do well. They run the risk of seeming like an extended succession of random encounters, since the various encounters often have little to do with one another. If they go on too long, they can start to become dull and monotonous. Sometimes, the best way to handle a long journey is with a couple short, token encounters along the way and skimming over the rest of the journey. However, since getting to Drezen requires entering the Worldwound, it wouldn’t make sense for the PCs to encounter little to no resistance on their journey. Indeed, the adventure already pulls some punches by having the more powerful demons the PCs might otherwise encounter away fighting the war along the southern border, leaving only their subordinates behind (the PCs, even with a mythic tier now, are just not powerful enough yet to face the full horrors of the Worldwound). As such, Sword of Valor needs to spend more than just token time on the journey. While the journey itself is probably the least interesting part of the adventure, this section nonetheless pulls it off quite well by keeping the PCs’ opponents in contact with one another (taking advantage of demons’ abilities to teleport and communicate telepathically), and by providing a rich cast of characters for the PCs to interact with amongst their own people. There is also good variety in the types of encounters, allowing the PCs to get used to commanding an army (and for the players to get used to the mass combat rules from Ultimate Campaign), but also to have some opportunity to act on their own and use their new mythic abilities.

The NPCs are really what makes Sword of Valor work as well as it does, and much like in The Worldwound Incursion, this opening section’s main purpose is not really the journey. It is for the PCs to get to know the people they’re travelling with. One of the nicest things about Sword of Valor is that it doesn’t make assumptions about how the PCs have interacted, or will interact, with the NPCs, both the new ones in this adventure and the recurring ones from the previous adventure. But it also doesn’t ignore the NPCs. Wrath of the Righteous is not the first adventure path to have a cast of significant NPCs who travel with the PCs. Both Serpent’s Skull and Jade Regent have done this before. However, even though it is only in its second instalment, Wrath of the Righteous has already done it better than either of its predecessors. To be fair, it’s not easy dealing with recurring NPCs in an adventure path. There’s no way to predict how a particular volume may turn out in actual play. Some or even all of the NPCs may die. The PCs may just not get along with them and send them all packing. One group of PCs might treat the NPCs one way, while another group treats them an entirely different way. The kinds of relationships (from enemies to acquaintances to friends to lovers) that can result are numerous. Accounting for everything within the text of an adventure (with a limited page count) is a daunting task.

Serpent’s Skull tackled the problem by sending the NPCs from the first adventure (Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv) off to join rival factions without any accounting for the relationships that might have developed between them and the PCs—a shame since one of the main goals of Smuggler’s Shiv was to make those NPCs into allies, even friends. The adventure path then pretty much ignores those NPCs, rarely even mentioning them. Jade Regent handled the situation marginally better by not completely ignoring the NPCs, but by contriving reasons for them to stay behind in the caravan and do nothing while the PCs did all the work. Of course, the PCs are supposed to be the heroes, so there needs to be a reason for them to do most of the work, but when the NPCs start out more capable than the PCs, it’s hard to provide a convincing reason for why they’re not doing anything.

Sword of Valor neither ignores the NPCs nor makes assumptions about their relationships with the PCs. It addresses the major characters from The Worldwound Incursion (Irabeth, Anevia, Aravashnial, and Horgus), and provides ongoing suggestions for how they might react and what they might do if they’re still with the PCs. While having them along can provide the PCs with actual mechanical benefits, the adventure doesn’t require them to be there. Nor does it require that the NPCs take any specific actions. As an example, later in the adventure, when the PCs enter Citadel Drezen, they can choose to take any or all of the NPCs with them. Taking NPCs along obviously provides the benefit of their aid in combats, but each NPC can also provide specific other benefits if left outside with the army. Whatever choices the PCs make can have real effects on the progress of the adventure, but no specific choice is required in order for the PCs to successfully complete the adventure, and no specific choice is assumed as the default.

The adventure also introduces three new significant NPCs, and these three are handled in much the same way as the recurring NPCs—although being new, they obviously get a bit more focus. Like the recurring NPCs, these three are well-developed characters, each with their own abilities and quirks. There’s Aron, who is secretly suffering from an addiction to the drug shadowblood. Sosiel is a priest of Shelyn and also Aron’s lover. He has been trying to help Aron through his addiction, but also keeping it a secret. Finally, there’s Nurah, who is actually a spy working for the enemy. Obviously, the PCs need to uncover the secrets that the NPCs are hiding (without initially knowing that there even are any secrets to uncover), and the overland journey is the best time to do that. But again, the adventure doesn’t make any assumptions about how well the PCs do or how quick they are. It provides guidelines for Nurah’s attempts at sabotage, for example, but doesn’t assume that her treachery is discovered during any specific attempt. In fact, it allows for the possibility that she goes undiscovered until the very end of the adventure, when she joins one of the main villains in the party’s final battle against him. Naturally, failing to discover Nurah’s duplicity until the end can have severe repercussions for the PCs (her acts of sabotage cause penalties to the PCs’ army’s capabilities).

Once the PCs reach Drezen, they must lay siege to the city and the citadel in order to claim it back. This section of the adventure is relatively brief (in page count), but is a wonderful application of the mass combat rules along with an additional “siege points” mechanic that modifies the the PCs’ army’s stats. By accomplishing certain missions in the city (before attacking the citadel itself) and weakening the city’s defences, the PCs can gain siege points that help them in the attack against Citadel Drezen. However, they also start losing siege points if they take too long, and Nurah’s acts of sabotage (if she hasn’t been caught) can also reduce the PCs’ siege point total. Overall, this section provides the PCs with a lot of options about how to take the city and citadel, and allows for a variety of outcomes. It also creates for some suitably epic moments as the PCs lead their forces to crush the demonic defenders.

In the final section of the adventure, the PCs must enter Citadel Drezen on their own (or with some selected NPCs) to take out the last of the defenders (including the dwarf anti-paladin Staunton Vhane) and find the Sword of Valor. This is a fairly standard dungeon crawl with a bit of a twist: the enemies within are all essentially in retreat. They know that they’ve lost the battle for the citadel, and their reactions to the PCs are based on that. In most cases, such as with Staunton Vhane, they wish to kill the PCs as a sort of consolation prize, but some have other ideas. Chorussina, the citadel’s seneschal, along with a few surviving cultists of Deskari, has started a ritual to destroy the entire citadel on the grounds that, if the demons can’t have it, no one can. The PCs searching the citadel as a sort of victory clean-up makes for a great twist to the typical dungeon crawl.

Of course, eventually, the PCs do find the Sword of Valor in the dungeon beneath the citadel. Gaining and using it can provide them with a lot of assistance against their final foe, the mythic shadow demon, Eustoyriax. In the dungeon, they also find the corruption forge, a device the demons have been using to turn good-aligned items and weapons to evil. In the next adventure, they will be able to reverse the effects of the corruption forge and use it to turn evil items to good.

Backing up the adventure in this volume of the Pathfinder Adventure Path are two articles. The first, “Lost Relics of the Crusades” by Ron Lundeen, describes five unique magic items (three of which are artefacts) that can help crusaders in their fights against demons. What’s great about this article is that it does more than just give the items’ stats; it also provides the complete story behind each item, describing how it was created and how it’s been used in the past, who used it, etc. Each item gets a full page devoted to it, and a significant amount of that page is the item’s history.

The second article, “Wages of Sin” by Jason Nelson, looks at the other side of the equation—the things the demons use to aid their efforts. There are several new demonic drugs here (although the description of shadowblood, the drug Aron is addicted to, is in the Treasures section of the adventure), as well as demonic implants and several new spells. This article doesn’t have the rich histories that “Lost Relics” has, but it does provide some nice new ways for GMs to confound their PCs.

Amongst the creatures in this volume’s Bestiary is the demon lord Shax, patron of envy, lies, and murder. As a CR 28 foe, he is suitably frightening.

Overall, Sword of Valor is really quite excellent. It didn’t wow me quite as much as The Worldwound Incursion, but nevertheless it has all the ingredients for a great adventure. It has a strong plot, but still a large variety of options, ensuring that the PCs don’t feel railroaded, and it has a great, detailed cast of NPCs, both allies and villains. One of the most impressive things about the adventure is that it manages to make an adventure about endless war and killing into an adventure about people, one containing great roleplaying opportunities. Wrath of the Righteous is well on the way to being a superb adventure path.

5 comments:

  1. Michael, I just found your post and agree with much of what you have written. This adventure path does a great job of getting you involved with the NPCs if done properly.

    I have a couple of questions. My PCs are just now closing on the Citadel and will be starting the battle for it next campaign.

    I am finding the mass combat rules, and the strength of the PC army the "knights of Kenabres" so simplified to be almost trivial. Having brought some of the NPCs with them; Aravashniel (lore and wisdome), Anevia (for scouting), Irabeth (to command the army) their army is crushing enemy armies with a single die roll.

    Their attack values are so high it makes the initial battles anticlimactic. Did you experience this? Do the later battles give them any sense of challenge?

    It just seems with an entire army being able to get routed off a single die role (HP reduced to zero) there is more luck than skill involved and the PCs could lose their entire army just due so a 15 or higher role to a high OV enemy.

    Did you witness anything similar? Any recommendations based upon your play?

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    1. First off, I should clarify that I haven't played through this adventure. My review is based entirely on reading the adventure, but I'm always interested to hear from people who have actually played out the adventure as that kind of information can be far more valuable. They can certainly help you to notice situations like this!

      I confess that I didn't heavily compare that stats of the PCs' army to the stats of the enemies' armies. I was more interested in the narrative effect. However, looking back at them now, I can see what you're referring to. The mass combat rules from Ultimate Campaign certainly are very basic (deliberately so, I think), but it looks to me like the problem here comes more from the poor stats of the enemy armies. Most of them have quite low DV scores and the PCs have a base OM (before any circumstantial modifiers) of +8. They're going to be inflicting damage almost every phase and you're absolutely right that there's a good chance they'll crush their enemies with a single die roll--which isn't very dramatic.

      I'd put it down to a lack of experience even the writers have with the mass combat rules. I'd suggest giving the enemy armies more tactics options. Most of them are capable of knowing more tactics than they are actually given. The schir army, for example, has ACR 4 and could know two tactics, but it only has standard and withdraw (both of which are free tactics and don't count against number known). Defensive tactics would probably be of best use as they'll help the armies survive a little longer against the PCs without causing the armies to just crush the PCs in return.

      Alternatively, you could increase the ACRs a little (by increasing the size of the armies). Be careful not to raise the OM values too much, but some extra hit points and DV wouldn't hurt.

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    2. Honestly, the Adventure As Written, can go either way based on the tactics of the armies. If your players fight conservatively they have just as much chance to not hit the enemy as the enemy does of smashing them with a decent roll and Reckless tactics.

      Also you have to remember they are not fighting Demonic hordes, they are fighting a bunch of ragtag cultists without decent commanders. Chaotic, slipshod groups, with poorly maintained weapons possibly vs a regimented and trained paladin unit are going to get smashed.

      Now I agree with beefing up the encounters but maybe just include more armies and not necessarily increasing the strength of what you are making their army face or they will be slogging it out for far longer than intended. IMO.

      We got into a fight where the simple Dirty Tactics cut the paladin army HP in half because they rolled a 20. This fight was in Southbank and included a second army which arrived that round and peppered us with arrows while the cultists fought us. Had we not found the healing potions/used lay on hands the paladin army would have been completely smashed despite having those of so great DV/OM. Sometimes its a matter of good dice rolls vs bad ones.

      Now to each there own but I don't think the primary focus was supposed to be the army battles and I honestly was happy to smash through those and get into the main fight where my characters actions actually mattered. The NPC's aid was a great inclusion in all this because without Anevia your army would be DV 18 and OM 8 Instead of 20/10 all of their help made it so you had an easier time in succeeding instead of struggling and actually built up the fact that it wasn't just the party of epic mythic heroes smashing their way into the worldwound but an army of people dedicated to the success of the 5th crusade. For without teamwork Deskari and Baphomet could not be thrown down.

      To each their own and if it improves their game then that is all well and good, the above is just my opinion from what I have experianced thus far. :D

      Awesome review and so far it is very spot on, I don't mind spoilers as I play without metagaming. My character has detailed notes on what he doesn't know vs what I know so I never cross that line.

      Thanks to your review I am going to make my own blog on this website because this was an awesome experience!

      Thank you very much!

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    3. Glad to know I've inspired more people to put their thoughts into words! Best of luck on your own blog, and be sure to post a link once you've got it going!

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  2. This is a really good adventure, but a lot of things really bugged me and I had to mod /home rule a lot of material to get things on a more equil playing area. I also made the sword of valour a +4 long sword of sharpness and the bannor its combo kit.
    I beefed up and expended a lot of sights and sand boxed the actual entire thing. Worked much better.

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