Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Jade Regent - Forest of Spirits


The fourth volume of the Jade Regent Adventure Path, Forest of Spirits brings the player characters onto the continent of Tian Xia, and ever closer to their final destination of Minkai. But naturally, there are delays and obstructions that they must deal with along the way. Overall, Forest of Spirits looks to be a fun adventure, with moments of light-heartedness early on, followed by an opportunity for the PCs to make their first major strike against the central villains of the entire adventure path. Like the previous instalment, The Hungry Storm, it is very much a travel-from-point-A-to-point-B adventure, but unlike The Hungry Storm, it handles it in such a way as to give a greater sense of purpose to the PCs’ actions by tying it much more thematically to the land in which it’s set and by providing the PCs with a greater sense of accomplishment and resolution.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

As in The Hungry Storm, Forest of Spirits is divided into two notable segments. The first, the shorter of the two, deals with the PCs’ arrival in the city of Ordu-Aganhei in the country of Hongal after having made it across the Crown of the World. While there, Prince Batsaikhar invites them to be his guests. They must then learn to deal with the spoilt prince while maintaining local customs and not insulting anyone (especially the prince). This section has virtually no relevance to the overall plot of the adventure path, but that doesn’t really matter. Obviously designed for its comical potential, it provides a diversion after the combat-heaviness of the previous adventure, and allows for a lot of light-hearted roleplay. The PCs even get the opportunity to plan and arrange their own feast (in which they are meant to provide an Avistani-style feast without having access to many Avistani ingredients). As a nice change, the characters get to use and showcase their other skills, such as Profession and entertainment-oriented skills, rather than fighting ability. I greatly enjoyed reading this section and imagining the humorous possibilities for when my own group reaches this point (which, alas, could be a very long time as it’s a play-by-post group that is only just nearing the end of part one). Despite its lack of relevance to the plot, I suspect a lot of groups will get immense fun out of this section, and it may well end up being one of the highlights of the entire AP.

The second segment of the adventure takes the PCs closer to Minkai and into the titular Forest of Spirits, where they must aid the local kami against the oni of the Five Storms, the organization that has been dogging the PCs throughout the AP. In the House of Withered Blossoms, the PCs have a chance to learn the history of the Five Storms and to finally unearth the organization’s plans for Minkai. Once the party enters the House of Withered Blossoms, the adventure does turn back into something of a dungeon crawl and becomes very combat heavy again. This time, however, there is a greater sense of purpose to it, and there are actual characters within the dungeon that the PCs can interact with. In fact, with some clever roleplay (and use of skills such as Diplomacy), the PCs may even be able to find allies (albeit somewhat untrustworthy ones), such as by gaining the help of the aranea. All this allows for the dungeon to be more than just a repetition of combat after combat.

The adventure introduces a new kind of creature/encounter. Called spirits, these work similarly to haunts, but are not tied to a specific location. They cannot be fought in standard combat. Instead, they possess other beings, and characters must use more creative means of expelling them. Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes often contain new rules subsets. Sometimes these are successful and are added to the main rules (such as haunts, which first appeared way back in Pathfinder Adventure Path Volume 2 before being revised in the Gamemastery Guide). Other times they are less successful. The Jade Regent Player’s Guide, for example, introduced relationship mechanics. In my review of The Brinewall Legacy, I questioned how useful these rules would turn out, suggesting they might work for groups not used to roleplaying relationships, but could actually be limiting to groups that roleplay relationships as a matter of course. In my own play-by-post group, we started out using these rules, but quickly found them far too limiting on what we could do. We had only made it a short way through The Brinewall Legacy before deciding to drop the rules. It wasn’t long after that that we also stopped using the caravan rules. In the case of spirits, however, I think they’ve found a new subsystem that will catch on and be reusable. They help to enhance the roleplaying experience by providing new styles of encounters that PCs can react to, instead of limiting the kinds of actions that PCs can take. While they introduce a small number of new rules for how they work, they do not affect the options available to PCs and do not give the players any new things they need to keep track of, the way both the relationship and caravan rules do. In short, spirits make a great addition to the game.

If I had one criticism of the adventure, it would be that the major NPCs (Ameiko, Sandru, Koya, and Shalelu) are all but ignored. They’re rarely even mentioned in the adventure text. Admittedly, by this point in the adventure path, it’s difficult for the writers to predict what may have happened to these NPCs in anyone’s individual campaign. Some or all of them may even be dead. As such, it’s understandable that not a lot of attention is given to them. Alas, this causes some problems of its own. All the encounters in the House of Withered Blossoms are balanced for just the PCs, yet there’s really no reason Ameiko and Shalelu at the very least wouldn’t accompany them. I think this is problematic of the adventure path’s overall structure as a journey. In a campaign set in a more focused location, the NPCs have their own lives which can provide motivations for them to not be with the PCs all the time, but by including NPCs (particularly NPCs competent in combat) on a journey, motivations for them to be elsewhere no longer exist. As such, this is less a fault of Forest of Spirits than it is a fault of Jade Regent.

Forest of Spirits contains two support articles, one on kami and the other on ninja clans. “Ecology of the Kami” makes for a good companion to “Ecology of the Oni” in The Brinewall Legacy, rounding out these two opposed factions nicely. It provides a brief, but detailed look at Kami history, their effect on the world, and their opposition to the oni. It then looks briefly at the most common kinds of kami and the unique aspects of those kinds. “Way of the Ninja” provides a look at each of the ninja clans in Minkai, providing information about their origins, outlooks, members, and tactics. While not as relevant to this specific adventure as the kami article, the information is important to the adventure path as a whole. Both articles are also highly useful for any game set in Minkai and the surrounding regions. Finally, this volume’s Bestiary contains several new kinds of kami and one new oni (the ja noi, which is the type of the adventure’s primary villain).

Overall, Forest of Spirits looks to be a strong and entertaining adventure. It might not be the best of Jade Regent, but it should provide a memorable and fun experience for the players. The opening section, in particular, will likely be the topic of discussion for quite some time after.

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