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Saturday, 7 January 2017

Curse of the Crimson Throne


Over the years, Paizo has published a significant number of adventure paths. The current one, Strange Aeons, is in fact the nineteenth (not including the three published in Dungeon Magazine before Pathfinder Adventure Path was born), and there will likely be many more in the years to come. Yet one of the most memorable is also one of the earliest: Curse of the Crimson Throne. Originally published in Pathfinder Adventure Path Volumes 7 through 12 in 2008, it has gone on to gain a reputation as one of the best—and with good reason.

One of the things that always stood out for me with Crimson Throne was its fully realised setting and cast of vibrant NPCs who remained relevant throughout the entire adventure path. The detail simply made it come alive. Indeed, I have always considered it one of the more dramatic adventure paths. I could imagine cinematic scenes playing out in my head as I read it—not that such things never happened with other adventure paths, but somehow this was just a little more so with Crimson Throne. The adventure path did have its faults, but the whole certainly rose above them.

However, one thing that has made Curse of the Crimson Throne a little less accessible is that the game system it was written for has changed in the years since it was released. In fact, the system changed the very next year with the release of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, where Crimson Throne was written for the 3.5 Edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Conversions between the two systems are not particularly difficult, but they can take a bit of time, which can be a bit of a turn-off for someone without the necessary time and wanting an adventure they can use with minimal adjustment.

Three years ago, another of the very early and popular adventure paths, Rise of the Runelords was re-released in an updated hardcover compilation. This was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Paizo as a company and the fifth anniversary of the Pathfinder name. The anniversary edition of Runelords updated the adventure path to the Pathfinder rules and also took the opportunity to expand it slightly and work out kinks in the original product.

It was perhaps inevitable that Curse of the Crimson Throne would one day also receive a similar treatment. There’s no special anniversary to celebrate this year, but does there really need to be? Much like its Runelords predecessor, the new hardcover compilation of Crimson Throne updates the adventure path to Pathfinder rules and also expands on the story where beneficial and streamlines in other areas. It also takes advantage of the most recent rules supplements, making use of newer monsters, classes, and feats where appropriate.

At nearly 500 pages in length, it is actually a substantially larger tome than the hardcover Runelords (a good 50 pages or so longer), and its extra length is certainly put to good use. Indeed, it manages to make one of the best adventure paths even better.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Curse of the Crimson Throne is set mostly within the city of Korvosa and details the rise to power of Ileosa, the city’s newest queen (the adventure path actually begins just before the death of her husband, King Eodred). But Ileosa cares little for the well-being of her city. Instead, she plans to eventually sacrifice its citizens to gain herself immortality. Over the course of the adventure path, she engineers a plague and other means to allow her to establish martial law in the city.

One of the great things about Curse of the Crimson Throne is that the main villain’s presence is felt early on and continues to be felt throughout the adventure path. Although Ileosa isn’t necessarily immediately identifiable as the main villain, it becomes clear relatively quickly that she isn’t the most beneficent ruler, and it doesn’t take all that long before it becomes clear to the player characters that she is behind Korvosa’s woes—even though they might not have the evidence to prove it.

This isn’t easy to pull off in a campaign-length adventure path. Having the main villain show up early on can be difficult without engineering contrivances to ensure that the PCs don’t immediately attack the villain—an occurrence that would likely result in the PCs’ deaths, ending the campaign when it’s barely begun. In Crimson Throne, the PCs do meet Ileosa face to face early in the first chapter, “Edge of Anarchy”. At this time, they are unlikely to suspect the queen of anything and may even agree to work for her to help quell the riots that have spread through the city after the death of Eodred. Even if they do suspect her of something, she is in a castle filled with guards that ought to make even the most foolhardy PCs think twice about attacking her.

The PCs won’t come face to face with Ileosa again until the end, but nevertheless, her presence is tangible throughout the adventure path, either seen in public appearances from afar or just through the effects of her actions—for Ileosa is not a passive adversary. Too often in roleplaying adventures, it can seem as though the villains are just waiting around for the PCs to show up and thwart their plans, with those plans always being on the cusp of completion but somehow never quite reaching completion. Ileosa, on the other hand, is constantly doing things, and the effects of those things are felt by the people of Korvosa, including the PCs. She is not simply waiting to be defeated. She intends to win and once she knows the PCs are working against her, she works to have them discredited and killed.

One area in which Curse of the Crimson Throne is often criticised is its opening and how the PCs are brought into the tale, and to be fair, I think there’s validity to the criticisms. The adventure path requires that every PC take a campaign trait that links them to a minor crime lord in Korvosa named Gaedren Lamm. Lamm deals in drugs, theft, and murder, and makes use of child labour (a group of orphans called Lamm’s Lambs). The various traits establish each PC (or someone the PC knows or knew) as a victim of one of Lamm’s crimes. The authorities have their hands full with other problems and criminals considered worse than Lamm, so have not been able to do anything to bring him to justice. This provides a reason for the PCs to come together (when contacted by another of Lamm’s victims, Zellara Esmeranda) as a group to take down Lamm.

It’s a perfectly reasonable set-up, but can give players the false impression that Lamm is a more important player in the adventure path than he actually is. In truth, the PCs confront and likely defeat him very early in “Edge of Anarchy”. It’s their actions here that then lead to them meeting Ileosa and then being conscripted to help the Korvosan guard bring order back to the city—the events that then lead in to the adventure path proper. Some players may feel it a bit of a let-down that Lamm is defeated so soon. There is also not a lot of time for the PCs to bond with each other before defeating Lamm, providing less incentive for them to stick together after they’ve done so.

This new version of Crimson Throne hasn’t changed much about the opening, though it has added some opportunities for characters to gain bonus experience for completing tasks relevant to their individual campaign traits. There has also been a change to allow for Lamm’s presence to continue to be felt to a degree in the adventure path. Later in “Edge of Anarchy”, the PCs learn of a necromancer named Rolth, whom they eventually face in the second chapter, “Seven Days to the Grave”. In the original version of Crimson Throne, Rolth was just another character with no connection to Lamm. In this new version, he is Lamm’s son. However, it will be a while before the PCs learn this, and so it’s not likely to change reactions to Lamm’s quick defeat.

This is one area where I think that GMs simply need to inform their players from the outset that Lamm is merely a means to bring their characters together and that he doesn’t play a major role in the adventure path as a whole. This is a spoiler, yes, and some GMs may baulk at the idea of giving away plot points before the campaign starts. However, it’s a minor spoiler, and sometimes it’s better to let the players have a bit of meta-knowledge to improve the overall experience. It’s not that different to telling the player of a ranger that certain types of creatures will be more prominent in the campaign so that the player can choose favoured enemies that will keep her character relevant.

When the characters emerge from their encounter with Lamm, they learn that King Eodred has just died, and riots begin to break out across Korvosa. The remainder of this first chapter is mostly made up of set pieces where the PCs do various tasks to help bring order back to the city (possibly even doing these tasks in the name of Queen Ileosa). These set pieces may at first seem a bit disjointed, but they serve to familiarise the players with Korvosa and to introduce the characters to various NPCs who will appear throughout the adventure path. The PCs also need time to gain a bit of experience, too.

The NPCs they encounter include Cressida Kroft (head of the Korvosan Guard), Trinia Sabor (an artist whom Ileosa frames for the murder of King Eodred), Vencarlo Orisini (who is in truth the masked vigilante Blackjack, heroic protector of Korvosa), Sabina Merrin (Ileosa’s bodyguard and lover), and several others, including Queen Ileosa herself. As I mentioned above, Curse of the Crimson Throne has a wonderfully vibrant cast of NPCs. More than that, they remain relevant. Many adventure paths introduce interesting NPCs who only appear for a short time and then are rarely seen again, if ever. The NPCs here continue to play important roles throughout the entire adventure path, allowing the PCs lots of opportunity to develop strong relationships with them, and also allowing story arcs for the NPCs. For example, Sabina has a potential redemption arc. Depending on how things play out and how the PCs react, Sabina might eventually betray Ileosa and come over to the PCs’ side.

While the characters’ backstories and personalities remain unchanged in this new edition, they all, of course, have updated stats. In some cases, this even means changes to their classes and abilities. Most notably, Orisini/Blackjack is now a vigilante (a class introduced in Ultimate Intrigue) instead of a rogue/fighter/duellist. To be honest, I’m not fond of the vigilante class (mainly because I find it kind of pointless and unnecessary), but I understand why this change has been made. Blackjack is pretty much the poster child of the vigilante class.

In “Seven Days to the Grave”, Ileosa unleashes a plague on the city of Korvosa, and the PCs must work to find a cure, ultimately confronting a cult of Urgathoa working for the queen. If they haven’t started suspecting Ileosa of ill-doing at the beginning of this chapter, they will certainly know she’s their enemy by the end, particularly as she forms the Gray Maidens, an order of women warriors who play a large role in the remainder of the adventure path. Some people may wonder how a plague can spread in a world where remove disease spells exist (especially in 3.5 where remove disease was more universally successful than its Pathfinder version, which requires a caster level check to succeed). The adventure takes this into account and shows just how it is possible. There is, of course, only a limited number of remove disease spells available at any particular time, and the villains make certain to infect local clerics first to ensure that the disease spreads faster than the remaining healthy clerics can cure it.

In “Escape from Old Korvosa”, the third chapter, the PCs must sneak onto the island of Old Korvosa, which was quarantined during Chapter Two because of the plague (and remains quarantined now). There they rescue Vencarlo Orisini and Korvosa’s former seneschal, Neolandus Kalepopolis, who has been missing since Eodred died. Both he and Orisini have been kidnapped by one of Korvosa’s most powerful noble families, the Arkonas, who are actually rakshasas.

Chapter Four, “A History of Ashes”, begins another frequently criticised portion of the adventure path. For the first time, the PCs leave Korvosa to go in search of information from the Shoanti who once guarded over the region that has become Korvosa. The Shoanti people may possess important clues to Ileosa’s powers and how she can be defeated. In the original version of Crimson Throne, the entirety of this adventure and the next, “Skeletons of Scarwall”, take place outside of Korvosa.

Of course, there is nothing in the original stopping PCs from going back to Korvosa once in a while to restock provisions or check in on friends and allies. By this point, the PCs likely have access to spells like teleport, making such journeys easy and quick. However, there is also nothing of note going on in Korvosa either, which is kind of odd. It’s like the rest of the world simply goes on pause while it waits for the PCs to finish what they’re doing.

The new edition has taken steps to deal with that. There is an entire new section in “A History of Ashes”, which brings the PCs back to Korvosa to help the rebels make a strike against one of the main bases of the Grey Maidens and their Red Mantis allies. This section does a great job of keeping Korvosa relevant during a period of the adventure path when it may occasionally seem forgotten. Another thing I like about it is that it’s quite flexible about when it occurs, allowing gamemasters to slot it in at a point that works for their particular campaigns. It might happen partway through “A History of Ashes”. Perhaps, at a tense moment with the Shoanti, the PCs could receive a message requesting their return to Korvosa immediately. Other GMs might prefer to leave it until the end of “A History of Ashes” or at any other moment that seems appropriate. I suspect many people familiar with the original version will be very happy with this added section.

The text also contains numerous suggestions for events that happen in Korvosa while the PCs are away. There are even some suggestions for how some of the early events of Chapter 6 could occur during Chapter 5, requiring the PCs to go back and forth between locations. Again, this is very much at the GM’s discretion, depending on what works for a particular group.

Indeed, there has been a great deal of attention paid to keeping Korvosa and its citizens at the forefront throughout the entire adventure path. For example, each chapter, starting with the second, contains suggestions for what NPCs from earlier chapters who don’t have a specific role in the current chapter might be doing. Appendix 2 also contains a sidebar with some background events that go on in Korvosa throughout the adventure path. These are things the PCs probably won’t be directly involved with (such as Ileosa commissioning immense statues of herself), but they provide useful background colour. Of course, there’s nothing stopping the PCs interfering with these events if they choose to.

As well as being set outside Korvosa, “Skeletons of Scarwall” is a massive dungeon crawl, which makes for quite a change in style for the adventure path. Scarwall was the castle of an evil dragon warlord named Kazavon, who once conquered much of the surrounding areas. Kazavon was too powerful to be completely killed, however, and so remnants of his body were transported to different parts of the world to prevent them coming together and resurrecting him. His fangs ended up in Korvosa (the PCs learn of this in Chatper 4 from the Shoanti), where Ileosa has recovered them (Kazavon’s spirit has been manipulating her for a long time). To defeat Ileosa and Kazavon, the PCs must retrieve the sword that was originally used to bring down Kazavon: Serithtial. For this reason, they must enter Scarwall, which is now haunted by the spirits of those who once lived there and those the castle has trapped there since.

With its change in style, “Skeletons of Scarwall” is the weakest part of Curse of the Crimson Throne. There are other dungeons in the adventure path, but none anywhere near in size to Scarwall. It is a well-designed dungeon, for sure, but its size can make it feel out of place, and some groups may find the length of time they have to spend there takes away from the overall enjoyment they have of the adventure path. Groups that aren’t particularly into dungeon crawls may find it a bit of a slog.

Scarwall has not been significantly changed in the new edition. However, there are several things included to help address the fact that its length might not be to some groups’ tastes. There are, of course, the aforementioned suggestions for starting the early events of Chapter 6 during Chapter 5. This will keep the PCs moving back and forth between Scarwall and Korvosa, helping to split up the length of Scarwall into more manageable chunks. The conclusion of Chapter 5 also contains some suggestions for shortening Scarwall, including simplifying the means for destroying the spirit that that controls Scarwall and/or making Serithial easier to find. All of these methods do require bit of work from gamemasters to implement, which might not be ideal for those wanting something they can run right out of the book. However, at least the option is there.

Curse of the Crimson Throne comes to a climactic conclusion in the final chapter, “Crown of Fangs”. The time has come for the PCs to liberate Korvosa from the evil that has enslaved it. Unknown to the PCs, however, Ileosa has left Korvosa to enact her plan to sacrifice its citizens to gain immortality. She has left behind a simulacrum of herself to rule in her place. After some events to help rally the people to their side, the PCs attack Castle Corvosa itself, where they face Ileosa’s simulacrum, and track down the whereabouts of the real queen.

They then travel to the Sunken Queen, the place where, millennia ago, Runelord Sorshen enacted a ritual to give herself virtual immortality. It is here that Ileosa hopes to recreate the same ritual (and Kazavon secretly hopes to use to resurrect himself). Eventually, the PCs come face to face with Ileosa herself along with several more simulacra of her and a personification of the spirit of Kazavon in the form of a creature called a taniniver. The presence of the taniniver is a substantial change from the original (there, Ileosa simply had some dread wraiths to help her), and a very good change, in my opinion. It provides a more tangible presence to Kazavon without bringing him back at full power. This way gives the PCs the best of two worlds: they get to prevent his resurrection, but also fight him in a reduced form.

Of course, as with any adventure path, the conclusion of Chapter 6 includes a “What if Ileosa Wins?” section, just in case the unthinkable should happen. If things go particularly badly, it’s possible Kazavon could be resurrected fully. The PCs may not survive such an encounter.

As well as the six adventures that make up Curse of the Crimson Throne, the hardcover also contains several appendices with material to help GMs run the campaign. The first contains suggestions for continuing the campaign if players don’t want to stop playing their high-level characters after “Crown of Fangs”. These can include revenge plots from Ileosa’s followers or even a risen Ileosa herself, as well as a rise of Kazavon plot. This appendix is short (only two pages) and contains only basic ideas. GMs will need to flesh out the details themselves.

The second appendix provides details on the city of Korvosa itself and the surrounding regions. As well as descriptions of its locations and history, there are also five separate stat blocks for the city, detailing the city under the various conditions it will go through during the adventure path (such as “plagued” and “martial law”). There is also a substantial table of rumours that the PCs might hear throughout the adventure path. The end of the appendix contains information about the Korvosan Hinterlands, the Cinderlands, and other regions around Korvosa.

The information in the second appendix is quite substantial and detailed. Although it’s not as much as in a full book dedicated to the topic (such as Pathfinder Chronicles: Guide to Korvosa), it’s more than adequate for GMs to run the campaign.

Appendix 3 deals with the Harrow, which plays a substantial role in the adventure path. After the PCs defeat Gaedren Lamm early in “Edge of Anarchy”, they discover that Zellara, the woman who brought them all together, has actually been dead the entire time—a victim of Lamm—and it is, in fact, her ghost that brought them together. At this point, Zellara’s spirit merges with her harrow deck. Once per adventure (chapter), Zellara can perform a special harrowing that provides the PCs with “harrow points” that they can use during that adventure. These points work similarly to hero points, although they have very specific ways they can be used (these ways change in each adventure). For example, in “Edge of Anarchy”, PCs can use a harrow point to reroll of a Dexterity-based check, to gain a dodge bonus to AC, or to gain a burst of speed. Much like hero points, harrow points provide a way to give PCs a slight edge without significantly unbalancing things. They allow the players to feel like they have just a little bit more control over their characters’ fates.

For people who don’t have access to the general rules for harrow decks from other sources, Appendix 3 replicates them in full here, with full colour pictures of every card along with the card’s description. There are also rules for the harrow deck of many things (a variant of the deck of many things) that the PCs will have an opportunity to draw from in Chapter 6—if they dare (their harrow points can help affect this draw).

Appendix 4 provides details and game stats for blood veil (the disease that ravages Korvosa in Chapter 2) and introduces the kyton eidolon subtype for the unchained version of the summoner class (from Pathfinder Unchained). One of the major NPCs is a summoner whose eidolon is of this type, so GMs will need it for that. PC summoners might also have a kyton eidolon at the GM’s discretion.

Appendix 5 contains new equipment and magic items from the adventure path, while Appendix 6 contains the stats for the major NPCs. Even though the PCs will hopefully be able to prevent Kazavon’s resurrection, this appendix contains stats for the great wyrm dragon just in case the worst should happen. The seventh and final appendix contains the new monsters from the AP.

The physical book itself is really quite beautiful. In the six volumes of the original Curse of the Crimson Throne, the artwork was somewhat inconsistent. Pathfinder Adventure Path was still quite new at the time, and the series had not yet established a consistent style with its art. The new version uses some artwork from the original that matches the current Pathfinder style and adds lots of new art, giving the whole thing a consistent look and feel. Most of the major NPCs have brand new portraits, in some cases giving cartoonish-looking characters from the original (like Laori Vaus) much more believable appearances.

Paizo also published a Limited Edition version of the hardcover, with a faux leather cover. This is the version I purchased and it is a truly beautiful book to hold in your hands. Unfortunately, the Limited Edition sold out during pre-order and is no longer available. The interior, however, is identical to the standard edition, so you’re not losing out on any content with the standard edition.

There is no doubt that the new edition of Curse of the Crimson Throne accomplishes an astounding task. Not only does it update the adventure path to the current version of the game and compile it all in one location, it also takes the opportunity to fix some of the flaws in the original, and makes one of the best adventure paths even better. I look forward to running it in the not-too-distant future.

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