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Friday, 16 May 2014

Mummy's Mask - Empty Graves


In my review of The Half-Dead City, I referred to it as a “calm” adventure. It is a well-made dungeon crawl with a gradual build-up to the adventure path’s main plot—a plot the PCs are barely aware of by the end. In the second part of Mummy’s Mask, Empty Graves by Crystal Frasier, the PCs get their first real taste of the overall plot as things start to heat up considerably when the dead of Wati suddenly animate as undead. It is a very open-ended adventure, allowing the PCs the opportunity to make names for themselves as heroes, to build up alliances and relationships with key people in the city, and to eventually track down the source of this strange undead uprising and put an end to it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Much like The Half-Dead City, Empty Graves opens quite calmly, but things don’t remain that way for very long. A Pharasmin priest named Ptemenib invites the party to an auction where they can sell the items they found in the last adventure and buy other exotic items. The auction goes quite smoothly (although Ptemenib leaves early on), but towards the end, the auction house is suddenly attacked by a horde of zombies. The PCs must stop the zombies while also protecting the various people at the auction. After defeating the zombies, the PCs learn that other similar attacks are occurring all across the city. The dead in Wati are suddenly rising from their graves and attacking the living—and given that a huge portion of the city is a giant necropolis filled with dead bodies, there are a lot of undead about.

From this point, the adventure becomes very open-ended. There are a few keyed events that will happen along the way, but for the most part, the PCs can approach the adventure in whatever manner and order they choose. Indeed, the adventure is extremely well-structured to allow for the PCs to have as much control as they do while still developing towards a climax and a conclusion where the PCs finally track down Nebta-Khufre, the villain who has caused the whole situation.

After the attack on the auction, the PCs can move about the city assisting wherever help is needed. They might stop looters or give aid to the beleaguered defenders at the gates of the necropolis. They might also confront a pair of esobok psychopomps that have been summoned to fight the undead, but are causing just as much damage of their own in the process. There are a significant number of options (along with random encounters) to keep the PCs occupied. This also provides a great opportunity for GMs to make use of the information and locations in the background article, “Wati, The Half-City” from The Half-Dead City.

In order to keep track of the overall state of the city, the adventure includes a “Panic Level” mechanic. Paizo adventure paths have often included mechanics to track wide-ranging effects and this one works quite similarly. The city starts with a panic level of 20, and the actions of the PCs can cause that value to go down or even up. A chart contains the details of what the different values mean to the city as a whole. For example, the starting panic level makes the city a ghost town where the streets are virtually abandoned and almost all shops are closed. If the PCs can find someone to sell them items in this environment, they are looking at a 200% mark-up in prices. If the panic level ever raises to 25 or more, people start fleeing the city, so the PCs will need to work hard to keep it from reaching that (as the panic level automatically goes up by at least 1 for every day that passes). If the PCs manage to get the panic level down to 1, the city is almost back to normal. However, the level cannot be reduced all the way to 0 until the PCs defeat Nebta-Khufre and put an end to the undead attacks entirely. I’ve always liked these kinds of mechanics as they give a clear way for GMs to track the larger picture while giving the PCs significant input into what that larger picture is.

Another thing I really like about this adventure (and, indeed, the adventure path so far) is how much it allows the PCs to be self-motivating. The Half-Dead City involves the PCs exploring tombs simply because they’ve decided to get together and do that. In Empty Graves, Wati is attacked and it is assumed the PCs will want to help defend the city. No one comes along to hire them and tell them what to do. There’s nothing wrong with an adventure in which an NPC hires the PCs to perform a specific task, but it tends to be the default. Indeed, a significant portion of Pathfinder adventure paths hook the PCs up with an NPC mentor fairly early on, and that mentor sticks around through the rest of the instalments guiding the PCs’ actions. As such, it’s nice to see something different.

That’s not to say the PCs don’t encounter any NPC allies in this adventure or that those NPCs won’t ever make any requests of the PCs. However, if and when they do, it develops naturally as a result of the PCs actions. For example, the PCs are likely to find a staunch ally in Ptemenib and possibly High Priestess Sebti as well. There’s quite a bit of opportunity for roleplay in this adventure and the PCs may even find themselves involved in some Pharasmin politics. There is a rift between the Grand Mausoleum led by High Priestess Sebti and the Voices of the Spire, the militant wing of Pharasma’s faith, led by Nakht Shepses (they have very different ideas on how to deal with the crisis). The PCs could support either side or negotiate a settlement between them.

The adventure also contains options for GMs if the PCs are not very motivated or are simply stuck for ideas of what to do next. For example, the PCs learn early on that Ptemenib has disappeared following the auction (he was abducted by a criminal organization called the Silver Chain, which he has been investigating for some time). If they don’t decide to look for him themselves (finding and rescuing him secures them an influential ally), a nosoi psychopomp associate of his comes to request their aid. Similarly, the PCs will eventually need to enter the necropolis (which has been closed off to try to stem the undead advance) to track down the source of the undead invasion. If they don’t realize and suggest this to the Grand Mausoleum on their own, Ptemenib (assuming they’ve rescued him by then) will suggest it instead. However, these situations are not the default assumptions of the adventure. They merely provide options that GMs can fall back on if the PCs are stuck for ideas. On the whole, the PCs get to set the direction of the adventure.

Once the PCs enter the necropolis, the adventure continues to be very open-ended. They still have quite a bit of investigating to do, and there are several different ways they might track down Nebta-Khufre (for that matter, there are also several different ways they might get into the necropolis in the first place). Throughout this, they might encounter various different groups, such as a group of lamias that inhabit the Cenotaph of the Cynic or the Xotl clan of dark folk led by their matriarch Unwrapped Harmony. How they deal with these various groups affects how the adventure progresses from there. They might make enemies or allies, kill or negotiate. Each of these groups have information that could prove useful to the PCs, but some of the information they might find along the way turns out to just be red herrings, keeping the adventure interesting and multi-faceted, yet still with a focused goal.

Eventually, the PCs will find their way to the Sepulcher of the Servant, a hidden holy site to Pharasma that Nebta-Khufre has taken over and turned into his lair. Making their way through the Sepulcher, they will eventually confront Nebta-Khufre who has used the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh, which he stole in the last adventure. (At the time, the PCs only discovered that someone had been in the Sanctum of the Erudite Eye ahead of them. They did not know who was there or what had been taken.) He has used the Mask (which has partially possessed him with the ka of the ancient pharaoh Hakotep) to animate the dead of Wati. The PCs must defeat Nebta-Khufre to gain possession of the Mask and put an end to the undead invasion.

Throughout the adventure, the PCs may have learnt of masked individuals roaming the necropolis. These people are cultists of the Forgotten Pharoah and have come to Wati to find the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh (Nebta-Khufre got to it ahead of them; he is not one of their members). Some of these cultists have infiltrated the Silver Chain and thus the PCs will interact with those ones when they rescue Ptemenib. However, they don’t encounter Meret-Hetef, their senior member in Wati and the other principal villain of the adventure, until they reach the Sepulcher of the Servant, and this is my only real criticism of the adventure. While the PCs will often hear about these masked people, there’s no real opportunity for them to track the cultists down. Instead the cultists find the PCs in one of the few scripted events of the adventure. As the PCs enter the Sepulcher, Meret-Hetef and her cultists attack, having apparently followed the PCs there. It’s done for dramatic effect, but it is a little unfair that the PCs aren’t given any opportunity to notice that they’re being followed. Of course, the GM can (and probably should) make the appropriate Stealth and Perception checks leading up to this, but as written, the cultists arrive as the PCs are dealing with some zombies in one of the early chambers of the Sepulcher.

There is also an oddity in the background of the Sepulcher. The place was built by Nefru Shepses (one of the historical heroes of Wati) as a secret tomb for his family. It is an ancient complex and, to all appearances, long out of use, yet oddly, it contains catalogues of all the births and deaths in Wati up to the present day. Who’s been keeping those catalogues updated? It’s a very minor point that won’t harm the adventure (GMs can easily change that little detail), but it’s something that stuck out to me and caused me to reread several sections to try to make sense of it (which I never quite managed).

Following the adventure, this volume contains only a single, extra-long background article on the “Gods of Ancient Osirion”. This provides write-ups on the twenty most significant gods of Ancient Osirion, each receiving half a page in the style of the write-ups in the Inner Sea World Guide. All the gods are taken directly out of Egyptian mythology (creating another link between Golarion and Earth, which we know exists in the Pathfinder Campaign universe from Rasputin Must Die!). They include Anubis, Horus, Isis, Osiris, and more. As I mentioned in my review of Osirion, Legacy of Pharaohs, it’s a bit odd that some of this information was not included in that book. Information on these gods can be useful to GMs running adventures set in ancient tombs and pyramids. What makes things a little odder is that this article reveals that these gods do still have small followings active in Osirion. They may not be large followings, but their presence does give options for both NPCs and PCs too (for example, a PC cleric of Wadjet, who is one of the more highly followed of the ancient gods). This is a very informative and useful article, but I can’t help feel that at least a little of this information (if only just names, alignment, symbol, domains, and favoured weapon) should have been included in Osirion, Legacy of Pharaohs.

The Bestiary in this volume contains a new kind of psychopomp (the esobok), a dog-like creature called a sha, and a couple new kinds of undead: the sunbaked zombie and the tekenu, which is made up of animated organs.

Overall, Empty Graves is an excellent adventure. It combines an interesting premise and mystery with a very open-ended structure, giving the PCs a great deal of control over what they do, and how and when they do it. Groups will likely find it a lot of fun to play through.

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