Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Harrowing

The Harrowing, by Crystal Frasier, is an adventure for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. In it, a group of ninth-level characters go in search of a missing scholar and find themselves transported to an entirely different world, one created by an ancient Varisian fortune-teller and populated by characters from the stories she told (many of those stories clearly inspired by real-world stories, most notably Alice in Wonderland). The adventure is light-hearted and contains a good mix of encounter styles. The setting is interesting and well-detailed and provides a great opportunity for players and Game Masters to get use out of the Harrow Deck published by Paizo (although owning a Harrow Deck is not required to run the adventure; a regular deck of cards can easily substitute for it). SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure has a wide variety of creatures and characters that the PCs encounter as they explore the Harrowed Realm, a world within a magical harrow deck called the Deck of Harrowed Tales. Many of them are unique fey creatures or variants of existing monsters from the Pathfinder RPG Bestiary. I particularly like that very few of the encounters assume combat as the default option when PCs deal with them. The PCs can generally make deals with most of the “Conspirators” (the most powerful beings of this world, who long ago conspired against the fortune-teller who created them), although many of these deals may require that the PCs agree to provide aid against, or outright challenge, other Conspirators. The adventure makes no assumptions as to whose side the PCs might join, thus allowing for all sorts of potential play experiences. Indeed, while there is a central storyline and plot to the adventure, it’s loose enough to allow events to unfold in virtually any order or manner (except the initial event that sends the PCs to this world). In this respect, it’s much more of a “sandbox” adventure. It sets the scene and environment, and then lets the PCs do what they will with it.

One unique aspect of this adventure is that the natives of this world, called “storykin”, have only a limited amount of free will (since they are only characters from stories). Many simply repeat the same actions over and over again, playing out their particular stories, only deviating from them in response to external actions (such as from the PCs) and quickly returning to those stories if left alone. The Conspirators have a greater level of free will, but even they stay confined within certain limits. Few storykin are actually capable of questioning or understanding their own motivations. Game Masters can play up this idea to make for some very interesting role-playing situations. A word of caution though: GMs shouldn’t take this too far, lest it become frustrating for the players. If the players begin to feel they can’t accomplish anything when dealing with the storykin, they may turn to doing nothing but killing them and effectively removing much of what makes this adventure so strong.

Harrow decks, a fortune-telling item favoured by the Varisian people of Golarion, have been part of the setting since very early on. However, only a very few adventures have focused on them. In this adventure, each card from the Deck of Harrowed Tales has a specific effect on one person, place, thing, or event in the adventure. These effects vary from bonuses to skill checks or attack rolls to providing minor spell effects or inflicting penalties on the PCs’ opponents. Each effect is thematically linked to the card and each card is thematically linked to the person, place, thing, or event it affects. I am actually very impressed that Crystal Frasier was able to link all 54 cards of the harrow deck in this manner, given that there is very limited space in a 32-page adventure. Of course, this means that some encounters have more than one card that can affect them. This is a good thing for the PCs since they do not know ahead of time which cards will work (they have to figure it out for themselves based on what fits thematically) and they can only use each card once. If they use a card that doesn’t fit with a given encounter, then they are out of luck with that card. They cannot used it again. Having multiple cards affect a given encounter allows for the PCs to make a mistake or two and still have a chance to gain a benefit.

There’s not much of an introduction to the adventure. It starts with the PCs already having tracked the missing scholar to his last-seen location and the very first thing that happens is the PCs being transported to the Harrowed Realm. This is good in that it allows the adventure text to concentrate on the meat of the adventure, which is what happens inside the Harrowed Realm, and not use up space on tracking the scholar down, which is ultimately irrelevant to the adventure. However, unless this is being used as a one-off adventure, this does mean that Game Masters need to do a bit of advanced planning to fit it into an ongoing campaign. They will need to detail the search for the missing scholar themselves. This need not be a difficult search luckily(indeed, the PCs can simply be told the last-known location right away if desired), and even Game Masters short on time shouldn’t have much difficulty fitting it into their games (after all, any published module needs some tailoring to a GM’s particular campaign). GMs willing to plan out well in advance have a great opportunity to include in-game mentions of the stories that take place in the Harrowed Realm long before the adventure starts, perhaps even back as far as when the PCs are first level. Not only does this add more colour to the world, it creates a very satisfying moment for the players when the stories they’ve been hearing for so long come alive!

It’s also very nice to see a dragon as the central villain of the adventure. The game seems to have very few dragons showing up these days, and when they do show up, they are often working as vassals of some greater villain, rather than being the masterminds themselves. True, Pathfinder isn’t technically Dungeons and Dragons anymore, but it is based on that game, and even 3rd Edition didn’t have many adventures with draconic villains. In some ways, that’s a good thing, as it makes it more special when they do show up.

Overall, The Harrowing is an excellent adventure, which will provide groups with many fun and light-hearted sessions. I look forward to running it with my own group when their characters are high enough level (and I fully intend to use my own idea above and introduce the stories long in advance!).

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