In Jade Regent, the PCs have set out from their home in Sandpoint, a small town in southern Varisia, trekked north with their caravan to Kalsgard in the Linnorm Kingdoms, then ventured across the frozen Crown of the World to the continent of Tian Xia, crossed through the Forest of Spirits, and arrived in Minkai, the homeland of Ameiko Kaijitsu’s family. Now, having gathered allies, they must set out for the capital city, Kasai, to overthrow the Jade Regent and place Ameiko, the rightful heir, on the throne, in The Empty Throne, the sixth and final instalment of the Jade Regent Adventure Path. Written by Neil Spicer, the adventure has the unenviable task of wrapping up an entire campaign with a suitably epic conclusion, whilst simultaneously allowing for the possibility of more should individual gaming groups wish to continue with their characters. Overall, it manages this pretty well, especially given the difficulties high-level adventures can present to designers. Gaming groups who have played through the entire adventure path will likely find this conclusion exciting, thrilling, and most importantly, satisfying. While the adventure isn’t perfect, few things are, and players aren’t likely to notice its imperfections, especially in the hands of a skilled GM.
When looking at high-level adventures, it’s always important to consider the difficulties involved. High-level player characters have a huge number of options at their disposal. They are capable of incredible feats of both skill and magic. Spells like teleport change the game in significant ways that have to be accounted for (and not just through the use of areas magically protected from teleport or similar ability-removing effects—PCs have done a lot to gain these abilities; they’ve earned the right to use them). Players can come up with all sorts of ingenious ways to overcome problems, ways that the GM (or adventure designer) may have never even considered when designing the adventure. As such, high-level play can be a little intimidating—intimidating enough that many people believe that the game doesn’t even work at high levels (a point I mostly disagree with, but such a discussion goes way beyond the scope of this review). As a result, high-level play is considerably less popular than low- to mid-level play. There are also considerably fewer high-level adventures published (not just from Paizo, but all the other third-party publishers out there as well). This is, in part, due to the fact that they’re less popular, and also due to the fact they’re harder to design, which in turn is due, in part, to that plethora of PC options that have to be considered, but also due to other things, such as stat blocks taking up more space, leaving less space to explain the rest of the adventure. Unfortunately, I think there may be a bit of a vicious circle in play: the lack of published high-level adventures means fewer people attempt high-level games, keeping the popularity low, and thus ensuring that companies publish very few high-level adventures. Luckily, every adventure path ends with a high-level adventure (although even they generally don’t go to the pinnacles of the game), keeping a steady supply of some high-level options out there.
The biggest problem that has to be dealt with in high-level adventures is that of space. Every volume of the Pathfinder Adventure Path is 96 pages, and some of those pages need to go to support articles, such as this volume’s article on Kasai or the Bestiary that appears in every volume. Limited space makes it more difficult to include every possibility. In The Empty Throne, it would be easy for me to criticize it for not including enough options for diplomacy, for the PCs to plan with their allies different ways to overthrow the Jade Regent, to court new alliances, and to even set their enemies against one another (there is a system for this last one, but I really would have loved to have seen more done with it rather than primarily leaving the enemies to one final encounter at the end). But with so many possibilities, it would take a book many times longer to detail them all, and so the adventure has to contend with fully detailing the most likely courses of action and leaving enough background for GMs to run with when their players go off in some other direction. The Empty Throne does a good job with this.
The adventure assumes that the PCs’ allies will move against the Jade Regent’s armies, while the PCs themselves first gain the blessings of the spirits of Minkai’s former rulers for Ameiko to ascend the throne, and then storm the castle itself to take on the Jade Regent and his allies. Throughout the adventure, there are opportunities for the PCs to earn “Rebellion Points”. The more points they earn, the better their allies fare. A low rebellion-point total could mean that, even if they defeat the Jade Regent, much of the country will not fully accept Ameiko as their ruler and a new oni will rise to take over the leadership of the Five Storms. A high total means that they gain the trust and love of the populace at large and the Five Storms are left in shambles. Some previous adventure paths, such as Legacy of Fire, have used similar systems, and such systems work quite well. They allow the PCs’ actions to have a discernible effect on things that they are not directly involved with. It would be very easy to just declare that the PCs’ allies accomplish a certain amount—no more, no less—but this takes away some enjoyment from the players. The rebellion point system allows players to feel like they are having a real effect on the outcome, even if that outcome ends up being a poor one.
The best part of the adventure is actually early on. The PCs must travel to the Imperial Shrine, an island off the coast of Kasai (and, unfortunately, is not actually on the map of Kasai—a bit of an embarrassing oversight, I think) where the previous emperors of Minkai are laid to rest. The island is “out of phase” with the world and so most people who go there just find an empty island. Only scions of one of the imperial families can reach the actual Imperial Shrine (and the PCs, quite conveniently, were anointed scions of the Amatatsu family way back in The Brinewall Legacy). At the Imperial Shrine, the PCs must gain the blessing of each of the imperial families. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, as the Shrine has become tainted with evil due to the Jade Regent’s murder of the previous emperor. Now, the spirits of Minkai’s evil emperors hold sway here. The PCs must either gain the blessings of these evil spirits (which could have terrible consequences) or first cleanse the shrine so that they can gain the blessings of the good spirits. There are a great deal of options here for both combat and diplomacy. Roleplaying opportunities abound and it’s in this section that the PCs can really set up their own fates, both through gaining rebellion points and through who they choose to negotiate with. There are reasons why PCs might choose to negotiate with one or two of the evil emperors (in order to gain assistance against the other emperors, for example), so PCs are presented with some tough choices. Unfortunately, the section doesn’t go into much detail about the long-term consequences of making deals with the fiendish emperors (likely due to space issues), but there is just enough information to provide GMs a starting point from which their imaginations can run wild. PCs might emerge victorious against the Jade Regent, but find that there’s now a direct portal to the Abyss just outside Kasai, through which demons can pour. I like when PC actions have consequences, and there are plenty of consequences here.
The adventure continues with the PCs next storming the palace. This section is, unfortunately, presented more in the style of a dungeon crawl, with a map of the palace and encounters laid out room by room until the final room where the PCs face the Jade Regent, his grandfather Anamurumon (the leader of the Five Storms and the real power behind the throne), and their allies. The final encounter does actually look to be quite climatic. Instead of a battle against just one powerful individual, it’s a battle against an entire opposed party, allowing for far more dynamics (although potentially difficult for a GM to run). Nonetheless, I do wish the adventure contained more options for infiltrating the palace, rather than just storming it. As I pointed out above, the adventure can’t possibly detail every option, and thus shouldn’t be held to account when it doesn’t; however, a little bit more about the general habits of the palace’s inhabitants (the rulers, the guards, and the servants) would have been nice.
The write-ups for each of the main NPC antagonists (the Jade Regent, Anamurumon, the Raven Prince, and Renshii Meida) contain a very interesting teamwork system, which helps to determine how well the NPCs work together. Each character has a teamwork score. As long as the score remains above zero, that character continues to work well with the others. If the score drops to zero or below, that character loses trust in his or her allies and no longer works to their best advantage. Various actions taken by the PCs (such as revealing to the Jade Regent the truth of his origins) can result in these scores being lowered. It makes for a very compelling system, allowing the GM to add huge depth to these characters. Unfortunately, the adventure presents very little opportunity for the PCs to alter these scores. As written, there are no actual encounters with any of these NPCs before the final battle (another reason why I really wish the adventure had provided more options for the PCs to infiltrate the palace), making it very difficult for them to interact with the NPCs in anything other than a combat situation. On top of that, if the PCs do manage to complete every option given in the “Sowing Discord” section for a particular NPC, the teamwork score will still be above zero. The values given for each option do not add up to the starting teamwork score. This is true for all the NPCs, and it means the GM has to either invent other ways to sow discord or increase the amount the teamwork score drops with each one. It seems fairly clear that this system is a victim of the space issue I’ve referred several times to. I do admire the attempt to include such a system. While it may not work perfectly, it does at least facilitate strong, nuanced characters, and provides a starting point for GMs to present some very compelling NPCs to their players. The details provided make the villains of the adventure path more than just generic monsters to be fought. They’re fully fleshed-out people and in some cases, are just a little tragic.
Following the adventure is a section on “Continuing the Campaign”. This brief article provides GMs with a number of seeds for how to continue on should they wish to do so, including the possibility of further threats from the oni, as well as discontent among some of Minkai’s denizens. Groups that have grown attached to their characters and don’t want to end the story will find this article useful for generating ideas to keep the story going as long as they want or to enjoy entirely new stories with the same characters.
The other support article in this volume is a gazetteer on Kasai. It provides a short, but comprehensive overview of city. My only complaint about the article is with the map on page 73. First off, it has no scale, making judging distances extremely difficult. As I mentioned above, it also doesn’t show the location of the Imperial Shrine. Finally, there is one labelled location that is not described in the text (while all the other labelled locations are): Inu Island. At first, I thought that this island might be the location of the Imperial Shrine, but the island as seen on the map of Kasai bears no resemblance to the map of the Shrine that appears in the adventure on page 15. The two islands have a different shape and different topographical features. Inu Island appears to have a few buildings on it, and I’m left curious as to what they are.
The Jade Regent Adventure Path has had its ups and downs. Although it had a fairly weak initial hook, it started out with an otherwise excellent first adventure. It followed this up with a very strong second instalment, but then kind of lost itself with its weak third instalment. The fourth part then began to build it up again. The biggest thing it had to work against was its journey format. As this was most prominent in the third part, it’s not surprising that part was the weakest. But once the journey was over in the fifth instalment, the adventure path really had an opportunity to shine. Tide of Honor is probably the best instalment of the adventure path, but nonetheless, The Empty Throne is a very good conclusion. I have no doubt that groups that have gone through the whole thing will find the final instalment a very worthy, exciting, and epic finale.
Every volume of the Pathfinder Adventure Path contains a “Pathfinder Journal”, a short story split into six parts and spread over the six volumes. The stories are generally only loosely connected to the adventure path itself (through being set in the same location, for example) or are sometimes not connected at all. As I said way back in my review of The Brinewall Legacy, rather than review every part separately, I would wait until the final Jade Regent volume to review the story appearing throughout it. And that time is now.
“Husks” is written by Dave Gross, who has also written several novels in the Pathfinder Tales line of books, including Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, and the forthcoming Queen of Thorns. I have not actually read any of these books. As I mentioned in my review of Winter Witch by Elaine Cunningham (and also partially Dave Gross), I tend to avoid most game-based fiction. Early experiences with some rather poor ones put me off them somewhat, and with limited time for reading, they don’t tend to top my list. I keep meaning to try a few others, as I know there are some good ones out there (I quite enjoyed Winter Witch), but I never quite get around to it. I will confess that I haven’t really been tempted to read Dave Gross’s Pathfinder Tales books, primarily because what I’ve read about them online has led me to believe I wouldn’t particularly like their principal characters. The books I listed above all star Count Varian Jeggare and his tiefling assistant, Radovan. This is entirely a personal taste issue and not a criticism in any way against Dave Gross. They just didn’t strike me as characters I would enjoy reading about.
So I was a little disappointed when I started reading “Husks” to discover that this story also stars the same two characters. And I must admit, my fears were somewhat borne out. I don’t really like the characters very much; however, I don’t dislike them as much as I expected to, and the story is otherwise quite good (apart from a niggle I have regarding the ending). There’s a definite Sherlock Holmes feel to the story, with Jeggare and Radovan thrust into the roles of Holmes and Watson respectively. Jeggare is the socially unaware, but otherwise brilliant investigator, and Radovan is the assistant who is competent at his own abilities but never quite matches the investigative skill of his friend. The story is even written in first person from the point of view of Radovan, much like the majority of Sherlock Holmes stories are written from Watson’s point of view. The comparison is not perfect (which is a good thing): whereas Holmes has a disdain for pretty much everyone regardless of class, Jeggare only has a bit of disdain for lower classes, and actually handles himself socially quite well with nobility, of which he is one. However, there is no denying the Sherlock Holmes influence in this story.
It’s interesting then that I should dislike Jeggare and Radovan as I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes (and as a complete aside, I must say that no one will ever surpass the late, great Jeremy Brett for filmed performances of Sherlock Holmes). The problem is definitely not in the writing. As I said before, it’s a personal taste issue, and as such, it becomes very hard to explain. I think it comes down to Radovan being a little too ordinary in his behaviour. Ignoring the fact that he’s a tiefling who can see in the dark, he’s really just a typical man, a bit of a womaniser, and just a little bit boring. And that boring quality carries over into how he sees others around him, such as Jeggare, making them a little less interesting than they might actually be. That said, I do like the supporting characters in the story, so that might not be the whole reason. Takeda, in particular, is a very compelling character, and I was actually far more interested in the mystery of his background and what had happened to his katana than I was in the main plot!
I guessed fairly early on that Kazuko was a villain, and this in some ways also made me think less of Radovan. Every time he smiled at her, I wanted to smack him across the head and tell him, “Wake up! She’s using you, you idiot!” Of course, in many ways, that’s actually a really good thing about the story. It means I was getting involved in it despite my dislike of its narrator.
Overall, I feel the story builds itself up well. The mystery and the revelations are handled in a way that keeps the reader interested in what will happen next. Even though I was fairly certain I’d figured some things out, I still wanted confirmation as to whether I was right. My only complaint comes at the very end. The final battle against the ninja organization, the Kappas, has a lot of posturing spread throughout, moments where you’re left wondering why someone doesn’t stick a sword through the person talking at the moment. Then there’s the moment when Kazuko tells everyone her plans. Instead of killing Jeggare and Radovan when she essentially has them at her mercy, she instead falls prey to that weird vanity that so many villains contract in these situations, and proceeds to answer all of Jeggare’s questions, giving him and his allies an opportunity to figure out how to defeat her. It was a moment that did rather spoil my enjoyment of the story, as Kazuko had behaved much more intelligently up until then.
Overall, I did enjoy the story, and while I’m not a big fan of Jeggare and Radovan, I am perhaps a little less reluctant to read other stories about them. The story ends with a lead-in to what I suspect is Master of Devils (as this story was published between the publication of Prince of Wolves and that book), and it has left me just a little intrigued. There’s still a large list of books I want to read first, but I might just pick up some of Dave Gross’s other books at some point down the line.
That was a clear and well-reasoned description of why you haven't been tempted to read my novels, and I appreciate it.ReplyDelete
Since you like the secondary characters, if you do try one of my books, I recommend the upcoming Queen of Thorns for its substantial secondary characters. There are lots of colorful supporting cast in the previous two novels, but in Queen each gets more "screen time."
Also, Radovan's and Varian's unusual qualities come out a lot more in the novels than in the short fiction. In particular, you might find Radovan more interesting in the books than in the stories.
Thanks for the thoughtful review.
Thanks for the response, Dave! It's exciting to know that an author I've reviewed is reading and appreciating my review. You've definitely intrigued me, and I think I will pick up Queen of Thorns when it's available and give it a read.Delete