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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Mummy's Mask - Secrets of the Sphinx


I've never made any secret of not being a big fan of dungeon crawls. They tend to limit the amount of roleplaying that is possible and often end up being repetitive as the PCs move from room to room, killing one monster after another before finally reaching the end. However, that doesn't mean that dungeon crawls can't be good adventures or that I never use them in my own games. I actually end up using quite a few, as dungeon crawls are signature parts of fantasy roleplaying, and done well, with a good game master, they can be a lot of fun. Secrets of the Sphinx by Amber E. Scott is an example of a dungeon crawl done well. It wraps together an interesting storyline with a compelling cast of characters (and lots of opportunity for roleplay with those characters), and places it all down in a setting that is more than just a static collection of locations and rooms.

The adventure also advances the plot of the Mummy's Mask Adventure Path in one of the most significant ways so far, leading at last to a confrontation between the PCs and one of the key antagonists. It's the first adventure where the PCs will feel that they've achieved a major accomplishment at the end of it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure opens where the previous adventure, Shifting Sands, leaves off—with the PCs in the area of the Osirion Desert known as the Parched Dunes. They have just finished exploring the tomb of Chisisek, the architect who designed the tomb of Pharaoh Hakotep, and have learnt that Hakotep's tomb was a flying pyramid. However, Chisisek's body has been stolen and sent to another location called the Sightless Sphinx. This is where the PCs now need to head in order to recover the body.

This opening part of the adventure involves exploring more of the Parched Dunes. The PCs only know that the Sightless Sphinx is somewhere to the north. Using the exploration rules from Ultimate Campaign, the PCs must search the Parched Dunes until they find their destination. Luckily, there are many other things they can find and encounter along the way that will make their search easier. Indeed, not finding some of these other (easier-to-find) things will likely make their final task a great deal harder.

The exploration of the Parched Dunes works a lot better in this adventure than it does in Shifting Sands, and it's for one fairly simple reason: The exploration and the encounters along the way tie into the overall adventure much better than those in the previous adventure. In Shifting Sands, the journey through the Parched Dunes is almost entirely disconnected from the earlier part of the adventure in Tephu, and are similarly disconnected from the ending part at Chisisek's Tomb. The encounters along the way feel more like random encounters. In Secrets of the Sphinx, on the other hand, all the encounters add to the overall adventure, even though different groups might experience them in different orders and might not encounter each and every one.

Over the course of their time in the Parched Dunes, the PCs have the opportunity to learn about their destination—not just its location, but its history, and its present situation. They have the opportunity to make allies or acquire items that will help them make allies at the Sightless Sphinx itself. Along the way, the PCs will likely encounter a group of displaced maftets (winged humanoids from Bestiary 3) and have the opportunity to help them and earn their trust. Until recently, the maftets used to live “in the shadow of the Sightless Sphinx”. This may seem like a flowery, poetic description at first, but the PCs will eventually learn that it's quite literal. The strange magics on the Sightless Sphinx result in it always casting a shadow in the same place, regardless of the position of the sun. This is where the maftets lived. In their society, it is important that they watch over ancient monuments. However, they never entered the Sphinx because of the evil within. The Sightless Sphinx is a monument dedicated to Areshkagal, the demon lord of greed, portals, and riddles. Recently, one of their younger members, Userib, who desired power over the tribe, led a group into the Sphinx despite the protestations of the others. They were corrupted by Areshkagal and emerged to attack and drive off the other maftets. Since then, the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh has also arrived at the Sightless Sphinx and is now fighting the maftets under Areshkagal's control. Once the PCs reach the Sphinx, they will have to navigate both antagonistic groups in order to accomplish their goals.

The PCs can learn the location of the Sphinx from the displaced maftets, along with some of that recent history. Other encounters in the Parched Dunes also provide them with information or items along the way. The discovery of a dead girtablilu (the scorpion equivalent of a centaur—what earlier editions of the game called manscorpions) can provide the PCs with an amulet that (while not magical or particularly valuable) can provide them with the means to convince the girtablilu mercenaries working for the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh at the Sightless Sphinx to let the PCs pass (as the amulet is a family heirloom). Other encounters provide the PCs with a device called a bronze sentinel and the means to control it. The bronze sentinel works like an apparatus of the crab, but looks like a large bronze statue. The PCs can literally ride inside it. Having the bronze sentinel will make getting through certain areas of the Sightless Sphinx easier.

The major thrust of the adventure is, of course, at the Sightless Sphinx itself. However, the dungeon avoids the trap of being ridiculously large, and thus avoids the interminable feeling of going room-to-room without seeming to get anywhere. But even more important than that, the Sightless Sphinx is not a static location. Too often in dungeon crawls, it can feel like the dungeon's denizens live out their entire lives in their assigned rooms, doing nothing until the PCs show up to kill them. When the PCs arrive at the Sightless Sphinx, they arrive in the middle of a miniature war. There are things actually happening here, and the denizens have lives that go beyond just the PCs' interests. Naturally, the PCs get embroiled in it all, but that is where the fun begins.

On top of that, another thing that makes the dungeon work so well is the opportunities for roleplay within it. Sure, PCs could just march in and start killing everything in sight, and I have no doubt that's what some groups will do. But that's not the only option. There are opportunities for negotiation and acquiring allies, from the aforementioned girtablilus to the ghost of a paladin of Sarenrae who, in the distant past, was part of an attack on a cult of Areshkagal that then inhabited the Sightless Sphinx. Being able to interact with the inhabitants of the Sphinx in ways other than just fighting them makes the whole location seem more alive. In this particular case, through encounters such as with the ghost paladin, it also drives home the history of the location. The Sightless Sphinx has stood for centuries, and once the PCs have spent some time within it, they will start to appreciate its great age.

Eventually, the PCs will encounter Userib and the Forgotten Pharaoh, but not necessarily in that order. This is another thing I like about the adventure. It's quite open-ended as to when the PCs will encounter the main antagonists. The dungeon isn't designed in such a way as to force the PCs to encounter things in a specific order. It's entirely possible, for example, that the PCs could encounter the Forgotten Pharaoh relatively quickly after entering the Sphinx, and then have to deal with the cultists of Areshkagal. Conversely, they could end up dealing with Userib first and then the Cult of the Forgotten Pharaoh.

I should point out that the Forgotten Pharaoh isn't literally Hakotep. However, Hakotep does control her—or rather, his ib, the embodiment of his emotions and intents. The Forgotten Pharaoh in this adventure was originally a cleric of Nethys named Serethet. On an archaeological dig, she discovered the heart of Hakotep, a relic that contained the Forgotten Pharaoh's ib. Under the control of Hakotep, she has since then sought the other two portions of Hakotep's soul—one of which is contained in the mask of the Forgotten Pharoah, currently in the possession of the PCs—in order to resurrect Hakotep himself. There's quite a tragic backstory to the Forgotten Pharaoh/Serethet, and it adds an extra layer of pathos to the adventure. Many groups may well just march in and slay her, and never learn her backstory, but for those who take the time to learn about their enemy, there is the opportunity to save her. They'll still have to kill her to free her from Hakotep's control, but there is then the possibility of restoring her own shattered soul and bringing her back to life.

On the other hand, Userib is an out-and-out villain. He is a willing servant of Areshkagal and pretty much beyond redemption. Once the PCs have dealt with both groups inhabiting the Sightless Sphinx, they can recover Chisisek's body and then commune with his spirit in order to learn how to find Hakotep's flying pyramid.

The first of the support articles in this volume of the Pathfinder Adventure Path, “The Perilous Wastes” by Greg A. Vaughan, provides a selection of plot hooks and two short encounters that GMs can use to spice up any campaign in the desert. Each encounter contains a description, background information, and a map. They're only two pages long each, but nonetheless provide an impressive amount of detail and should easily take up a few hours of gameplay each. They're a great option for when GMs want to give their parties a little extra experience before they taken on whatever the GMs have planned next. They also work as side-treks or as just a way to have a brief break from other plots. Both have a lot of roleplaying potential as well, particularly the second, “The Threshing Floor of Tahket-Ibey”.

The second article, “Curse of the Ancients” looks at the use of curses in Pathfinder games. While this is thematically appropriate to Mummy's Mask, the article will prove useful for numerous campaigns in which curses play a role, whether small or large. There are a number of new sample curses in the article, along with new cursed magic items and spells for bestowing or dealing with curses.

This month's Bestiary contains a couple of monsters that seem a bit out-of-place for a desert-themed volume. The estuarine worm and the stranglereed are both aquatic creatures and it's not readily apparent why they're in this volume. The Bestiaries in Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes usually contain a few monsters that don't actually appear in the adventure itself (sometimes, none of them appear), but they do usually fit the theme of the Adventure Path at the very least. They are both creatures from Osirion, though, so I suppose they fit in that regard. The Bestiary also contains the cynosphinx (a jackal-headed sphinx) and the panthereon golem, which seem much more appropriate.

Now four volumes in, Mummy's Mask has remained a somewhat calmer, simpler adventure path than the last couple. It's much more isolated with no world-threatening menaces yet, although things are starting to build up. Secrets of the Sphinx is definitely one of the best parts of the adventure path so far. As well as providing a major accomplishment for the PCs, it combines desert exploration with a tense dungeon crawl while also leaving room for story and roleplaying. I hope the remaining two parts can remain just as good.

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