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Monday, 23 June 2014

Mummy's Mask - Shifting Sands


So far, in the Mummy’s Mask Adventure Path, the PCs have explored ancient tombs and temples, and stopped an undead uprising in Wati. At the end of Empty Graves, the PCs came into possession of a mysterious and powerful magic item. Now, in Shifting Sands by Richard Pett, the PCs must uncover the history of this item and learn why certain other groups are desperate to get their hands on it. To do so, they must travel to the city of Tephu and sift through its expansive library while also successfully staying on the nobility’s good side.

There’s a lot to like in Shifting Sands, but I must admit, it’s left me with something of a mixed opinion. I absolutely love certain aspects—in particular, its ingenious new method for handling research, which makes the research far more interesting than just a few Knowledge checks. It also has some great opportunities for roleplay, as the PCs must secure for themselves permission to use the library in the first place. Unfortunately, much of that roleplay is with a rather one-dimensional NPC whose actions vary little regardless of what the PCs do. The concluding part of the adventure allows the PCs to do some exploration of the desert, and works pretty well, but does feel a touch tacked on.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure opens with the PCs’ arrival in Tephu. There is no information available in Wati about the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh or the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh who seek the Mask for themselves, so the PCs have to come to Tephu to use its Great Library, which they hope contains the secrets they need. However, in order to gain access to the Great Library, they must first acquire permission from the city’s haty-a, Deka An-Keret. Unfortunately, unknown to the PCs, Deka An-Keret is also a member of the Sacrosanct Order of the Blue Feather, a secret sect of the priesthood of Nethys. This is the order that hid away the information about Pharaoh Hakotep (the “Forgotten Pharaoh”) in the first place. As such, Deka An-Keret, if she knows what the PCs are looking for, has no interest in allowing them to uncover these secrets. If the PCs Bluff her into believing they’re looking for something else (and get past her zone of truth and discern lie spells), she still has little reason to let the PCs into the library. Unless the PCs use magical coercion, she refuses them entrance.

Rather conveniently, however, during their meeting with An-Keret, the haty-a is called away to a meeting with Her Excellency Muminofrah, a noble from Sothis who has arrived in the city. Muminofrah’s timely arrival makes her the only person in the city who could overrule An-Keret. The adventure continues under the assumption that the PCs seek out Muminofrah to get her permission to use the library. Although the adventure does provide provisions for parties who manage to coerce Deka An-Keret through magic or who simply choose to break into the library, parties who go either of these routes will miss out on several events in the adventure. This might make them a bit short on experience points, but overall, shouldn’t have too big an effect on the adventure path as a whole, as most of the events with Muminofrah are inconsequential in the long run.

Most parties, however, will likely end up seeking out Muminofrah. There are several scripted events with Muminofrah, most of which can allow for good roleplaying opportunities—particularly if GMs are willing to expand her into a more interesting character. I like that Muminofrah is both described in the text and actually illustrated as a woman with a non-standard fantasy body type (i.e. she’s not a supermodel). Alas, she’s presented as little more than a caricature—a spoiled noble with no real motivations other than for people to please her. She becomes immediately smitten with one of the PCs, and will grant the PCs favours (such as access to the library) if her chosen PC returns her affections (or at least bluffs her into believing those affections are returned). She will withdraw her favours if the chosen PC disappoints her (but is also willing to give that PCs numerous second chances to get back in her good graces). In order to ensure her favoured PC keeps coming back to her, Muminofrah only grants the PCs short periods of time in the library, so they must return to her to acquire additional permission to continue their research (as the secrets they are trying to uncover will take many days, possibly weeks, of study time). Despite the roleplaying opportunities during the various events with Muminofrah and the illusion of the PCs attempting to convince her, Muminofrah’s actions for the most part are completely pre-scripted (she organizes a chariot race on one occasion so that her paramour can amuse her and on another, she is simply bored and wants the PCs to entertain her). Things will turn out pretty much the same regardless of how the PCs proceed. On the whole, Muminofrah is played mostly for laughs, doing things simply because, on a meta-level, they provide obstacles for the PCs, and not because of any actual character motivation. The fact that she’s a more heavyset woman makes this even more unfortunate, as far too often in various media, such characters are relegated to comic relief and rarely get developed as full characters.

Of course, the spoiled noble is a pretty time-honoured trope in story-telling, but it would have been nice to see that trope turned on its heel a little. It wouldn’t be quite so bad if there were a larger cast of NPCs for the PCs to interact with. But Muminofrah and Deka An-Keret are the only two NPCs of any significance that the PCs get any substantial time with. Now, to be fair, Deka An-Keret is a far more interesting character. She has complex goals and motivations and a strong personality. Unfortunately, her political position and duties prevent her from taking much of an active hand in the adventure beyond being an initial obstacle for the PCs.

There are also some oddities in the way the adventure assumes the PCs will keep going back to Muminofrah for additional library time, even when they’ve accessed the deeper and more secret parts of the library. The Great Library in Tephu is divided up into several different sections, and each of those sections technically needs additional permissions to access. Some of those sections are even located in different parts of the city, and not with the main Library itself. Those sections are in secret locations—locations so secret that even the librarians themselves don’t know where they are. What doesn’t make sense is what motivation the PCs themselves have to go get permission for those secret parts of the library once they’ve found them. Getting permission to enter the Vault of Hidden Wisdom, for example, doesn’t give them any special benefit to bypass the trap at the entrance (they still must essentially break in, even with permission) or to command the clockwork servant they can find there (it will help them in their researches regardless of whether they have permission to be there). Likewise, there are no guards or staff to report the PCs should they enter without permission. Highly lawful characters may wish to gain permission anyway as it’s the “right” thing to do, but less-lawful characters have no reason to keep going back to Muminofrah by this point.

On the plus side, Shifting Sands introduces a system for handling research that is simply brilliant. It’s a system I thoroughly intend to make use of in other adventures as well. In short, each section of the library is given a Complexity rating (the DC for checks) along with a certain number of knowledge points (kp), which work very similarly to hit points. Successful Knowledge checks inflict “damage” to the library’s kp (based on character class, with bards doing the most “damage”). As each section of the library is reduced to set kp levels, the characters uncover specific information. In some cases, certain parts of the library cannot be reduced below specific kp values unless the PCs also have access to other parts of the library. What I like about this system is that it makes the whole process of researching much more dynamic. The players still make Knowledge checks, but there’s a greater sense of reward for lowering the kp to the specified levels than there is for just beating a DC with a single check. It simulates an ongoing and lengthy task without taking ridiculously long and becoming tedious or boring.

During the time that the PCs are either entertaining Muminofrah or researching in the Great Library, the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh is not inactive. They have sent agents to Tephu to recover the Mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh from the PCs. Although there are a couple of scripted events involving the cultists, most of their activities in Tephu are left to the GM to handle, allowing the GM to spring them on the PCs when it’s most convenient or dramatic for their individual campaign.

These cultists report back to another group of cultists in the area of the Osirion Desert just west of Tephu known as the Parched Dunes. It is into the Parched Dunes where the PCs will utlimately find themselves headed once they have finished their investigations at the Library, for they learn that the way to find the tomb of Hakotep is to first find the tomb of Chisisek, the architect who designed Hakotep’s tomb. This, they learn, lies somewhere in the Parched Dunes. Of course, the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh is in the Parched Dunes because they, too, are looking for Chisisek’s tomb—and they beat the PCs there.

The section of the adventure in the Parched Dunes uses the exploration rules first published in the Kingmaker Adventure Path, and subsequently in Ultimate Campaign. The PCs must explore hex by hex as they only know the general area of the tomb and not its precise location. They may come across several site-based encounters along the way. I’m a bit unsure of the overall the effectiveness of this part of the adventure. On the one hand, it makes a contrast to the city-bound opening. Also, some of the encounters (assuming the PCs come across them) give GMs the opportunity to foreshadow the PCs’ encounter with the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh at Chisisek’s tomb and Jamira, the lamia matriarch who leads them and the main villain of the adventure. On the other hand, I worry the exploration may start to feel tedious. It’s not a particularly large map to search, but unlucky PCs who start off going the wrong way may find their search taking a while. Also, most of the encounters are essentially “random”. While they’re keyed to location and not a random die roll, for the most part, they don’t really have anything to do with the adventure path as a whole. To a certain extent, one expects this during exploration. Random encounters are a long-standing part of Dungeons & Dragons-style games. However, exploration hasn’t been a theme in Mummy’s Mask so far (unlike, say, Kingmaker) and so it seems a bit out-of-place and tacked on. All that said, it’s hard to say how well this section works without running it, and perhaps my concerns are completely misplaced. And some groups will undoubtedly love the distraction from the main plot.

Given that the location of Chisisek’s tomb is in the top left corner of the GM’s map, it’s entirely possible some groups may go off the map before finding it. The area north of the tomb is detailed in the next adventure, Secrets of the Sphinx, so GMs may want to make certain they have that adventure before starting this one. Alternatively, they may have to improvise a bit if the PCs go off the map.

The final section of the adventure takes place at Chisisek’s tomb, where the PCs face off against Jamira and her cultists. It’s a small, well-designed dungeon crawl that makes an excellent end for this adventure. The cultists act in a believable manner and at no point does it feel like characters have just been sitting in one location forever, waiting for the PCs to come by. The cultists have been at work excavating the tomb and have already removed Chisisek’s body (setting things up for the next adventure). Because Jamirah has had contact with the cultists in Tephu, she knows the PCs are on their way (either because she was explicitly told or because she has lost contact with the Tephu cultists and assumes it’s because the PCs have killed them and are now on the way). As such, she has had time to plan accordingly for their arrival. The final showdown with Jamira will work best if the PCs have already heard a little about her (either from one or more of the desert encounters or from cultists in Tephu) as it will make the encounter more climactic. However, even if they haven’t heard anything of her, this final section should still be enjoyable.

Once the PCs have dealt with Jamirah and the cultists, they can search the tomb and find the one area Jamirah hadn’t yet found—Chisisek’s treasury, which contains all his accumulated knowledge. The PCs must do one last bit of research in this final “library” to learn the truth about Hakotep’s tomb—that it’s a flying pyramid utilizing ancient Shory technology.

Following the adventure is a detailed article describing the city of Tephu. One thing I like about this article is that, in addition to the usual brief history and gazetteer, it also gives information on the papyrus industry (Tephu’s main call to fame) and includes some new kinds of papyrus made there. It’s a little bit of lifestyle information that I often find lacking in these kinds of articles, so it’s refreshing to see it here.

Next up is an article on mummification. This looks at more than just Egyptian-style mummies, but at mummification procedures from around the Inner Sea (including natural mummification). The article also includes several variant mummy abilities and some new feats and spells so that GMs can create unique mummy adversaries.

While I do have a bit of a mixed opinion of Shifting Sands, overall I think it’s a pretty decent adventure. Its weakest aspect is Muminofrah, but good GMs can easily expand on her character, making her more three dimensional than the caricature she’s presented as. Doing so could make this adventure (along with its brilliant research rules) unique and very entertaining.

6 comments:

  1. So what do fighters and barbarians have to contribute to this new research system? Or do they just go watch TV in the other room while the research part of the adventure unfolds?

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    1. Fighters and barbarians get to research as well. They reduce a library's kp by 1d4 + Int modifier on successful checks (+1 additional point for every five points they beat the Complexity DC), so they're not left out. Natural 20's also work like a critical threat. If the second roll confirms, you do double "damage". The system does give bards a chance to shine (they do 1d12 + Int modifier), but it doesn't ignore everyone else. Research is also more of a group activity (for the players at the very least) and so everyone is involved and making rolls together, and depleting kp as a party rather than as individuals.

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    2. "They reduce a library's kp by 1d4 + Int modifier on successful checks"

      So they're every bit as useful as Douena in melee combat. Doesn't sound like much fun rolling untrained Knowledge checks to do 1d4-1 if you can even make the DC. :P

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    3. A fair point, but there's nothing stopping them aiding others, in which case all they have to do is beat DC 10. But as I said, the research is very much an opportunity for bards to shine.

      The fighters and barbarians get lots of other opportunities in the adventure. The research isn't done in one long uninterrupted spell. There are cultists to deal with and undead library guardians to kill. There are certainly weaknesses with this adventure, but providing things for everyone to do isn't one of them.

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  2. Muminofrah is a fat tub of lard that has let herself go. There's no 'healthy body type' going on here. She's fat because she's a glutton who gorges herself on fine food and wine. If the gender was male you'd not be complaining one bit about the depiction. She's basically hedonist bot from futurama.

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    1. Not that I disagree with you, but the poster didn't say Muminofrah was healthy. The poster said it was nice to see a female in fantasy fiction that wasn't a stick in an armored bikini. Male characters run the gamut of fat, skinny, old, young, muscular, frail, but female characters rarely deviate from being either 'thin, young, and scantily-clad' or 'thin, old, and haggard'. An overweight male is not out of the ordinary, but an overweight female is. Muminofrah being fat and opulent makes her stand out as something different, since few female characters are fat, and the adventure is all the better for it.

      Personally I didn't find Muminofrah to be a cliche, because you're right, she comes off exactly like hedonist bot - utterly spoiled, selfish, and decadent, and her weight just added to that.

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