Monday 29 October 2012

Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition

This year is the tenth anniversary of Paizo Publishing and the fifth anniversary of the Pathfinder Adventure Path. A lot has happened in both those time periods. Paizo began by taking over the publishing of Dragon and Dungeon magazines, and at the time, many people mistakenly believed they were just another part of Wizards of the Coast (WotC). It was during their time publishing Dungeon that they began developing the concept of the “Adventure Path”, a series of linked adventures that spanned an entire campaign. Three full adventure paths were published in Dungeon before WotC decided not to renew Paizo’s license (later learned to be in preparation for the then forthcoming 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons): Shackled City, Age of Worms, and Savage Tide. The adventure paths were successful enough that, when it came time for Paizo to decide what it was going to do when it could no longer publish Dragon and Dungeon, they decided to take the adventure path concept and expand it into its own full publication. And thus the Pathfinder Adventure Path was born.

Although still a periodical, Paizo abandoned the magazine format and published the Pathfinder Adventure Path under the Open Gaming License (OGL) as a full book in its own right. Each instalment was bigger and more detailed than the individual instalments in the Dungeon adventure paths. However, instead of spreading out each adventure path over twelve instalments like in Dungeon, they decreased the count to six instalments, allowing them to publish two full adventure paths per year. The first of these was Rise of the Runelords, and its first instalment was Burnt Offerings.

It was an interesting time for people like me. I had been a long-time buyer of Dragon (since the late 80’s/early 90’s) and in the last couple of years (since Paizo had taken over) had started buying Dungeon as well. However, for most of those years, I had never actually subscribed. While I bought the majority of issues off the shelf, I had always wanted the option to skip an issue if it didn’t appeal to me (that and producing the funds, even with the subscription discount, for a full year or more of issues all at once was an intimidating task at the time). But when Dragon came under Paizo’s control, I started to notice that I was buying every issue, not just most issues, and I had even started buying Dungeon, which had never impressed me before then, but I now considered better than Dragon. So I finally decided to subscribe. Then, only a few months later, Paizo announced that their licence had not been renewed and that the magazines would be ending—well before my subscriptions ran out.

Paizo offered subscribers several options: a refund, store credit, or conversion of their subscriptions into volumes of the upcoming Pathfinder Adventure Path. I really didn’t have to think hard about what my choice would be. I was happy enough with what I had seen from Paizo previously that I was willing to trust that their new offering would be good. After all, I had been willing to commit to a bunch of magazines of adventures, so why not a book series of adventures? The worst that could happen was that I didn’t like them and cancelled after the last converted issue was sent. Even better, if I chose to continue after my subscriptions were used up, the new subscription method didn’t require any commitment to a specific number of volumes. I could cancel at any time and I even got a free pdf of each volume out of the deal. The choice was pretty easy.

And I wasn’t unhappy with what I saw. Indeed, I loved what I saw and I kept buying. Soon, Paizo was offering other options as they started developing their new campaign setting, and I started subscribing to those as well. For the first time in something like two decades, I actually switched the campaign setting I used for my home games (up till then, the Mystara setting) to this new Golarion setting. Suffice it to say, I was hooked. And that was due in large part to Rise of the Runelords.

Now, five years later, Rise of the Runelords is back in a new Anniversary Edition. As the first adventure path (not including the Dungeon ones) and consistently one of the most popular ones, it was the obvious choice for a re-release. However, as I said above, a lot has happened in those five years. With the advent of 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Paizo created the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, continuing to publish under the OGL. The Core Rulebook came out in August 2009, and since then, several other supplements expanding the game have come out as well. Although the game is designed to be backwards compatible with the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons (and indeed, many people have referred to it as edition 3.75), many things have changed. Rise of the Runelords was published for 3.5, so Paizo couldn’t simply just re-release it exactly as it was. So, as well as compiling all six parts into one hardcover book, James Jacobs has updated it to the Pathfinder rules. But more than this, he has also taken the opportunity to expand a little on the original adventures, fix problem areas that players have noticed, and generally give the adventure path a little more of a unified feel.

How successful has he been? Well, to start off with, I have to say that this is an absolutely gorgeous book. I mean that both in terms of its physical appearance and its contents. Every page is like a work of art, from the background colouring which gives it a parchment-like look to the sihedron star underlaid with each page number. The top right corner of every right-hand page contains a tab indicating which section of the book you’re in while the left margin of every left-hand page contains identifying artwork from the original cover of the particular instalment. If there’s any problem with the layout, it’s that it looks so good that it makes you want to flip through the book to just look at it and ignore the writing! Of particular note are the maps. While they’re mostly the same maps as before, they’ve been relabelled and are much clearer as a result. I particularly like that stairs now indicate which way is up and which is down. Most of the time, this is pretty obvious, but there have been times in the past when I’ve been unsure which way stairs are going in some Paizo maps. (I remember once looking over an adventure in Dungeon that I was considering running. The map had stairs all over the place, and it was virtually impossible to figure out whether many of them were going up or down. I ended up not using the adventure after all.) It’s good that it’s clear just in case of any doubt. Also, both full stat blocks and abbreviated stat blocks have a new way of showing XP, CR, and HP. It’s a small change, but it makes them stand out just a little more, thus making them just a little clearer. However, as I said, there’s more that’s beautiful about this book than just its layout. A lot of work clearly went into it and it shows.

I think one of the strengths of Rise of the Runelords that has made it consistently popular is its overall simplicity. When all is said and done, it’s a fairly straight-forward adventure in which the PCs come together to fight the bad guys. It doesn’t try to do anything experimental and isn’t all that innovative. There’s a little bit of mystery here and there (particularly in The Skinsaw Murders) and one or two false allies, but for the most part, it’s generally clear who the PCs’ enemies are. But the adventure path succeeds despite this, and indeed, because of this. After all, there’s a reason why gaming tropes become tropes in the first place: they work. Some more recent adventure paths have moved into the more innovative and experimental territory (some more successfully than others), which is a necessary thing to do in order to avoid things becoming stale, but it’s the tried and true that allow the innovative to occur in the first place.


Rise of the Runelords opens with Burnt Offerings, an adventure in which the PCs take on a tribe of goblins in order to protect their home town of Sandpoint. Apart from the conversions to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, very little has changed from the original version of Burnt Offerings. And that’s because very little really needed changing. The adventure opens with one of the best hooks of any adventure: goblins attack the town of Sandpoint. This puts the PCs into the thick of things right from the start, giving them a very personal stake in what is happening (namely saving their own lives). Most adventures open with the PCs learning about goblin or bandit attacks somewhere else. Often, they are hired by an NPC or organization to rid the land of the threat, but other than the lure of payment and excitement, there’s little personal at stake. It’s very easy for the PCs to say no and go do something else instead. In Burnt Offerings, instead of the PCs going to the goblins, the goblins come to the PCs, who don’t have any choice but to get involved in the battle. This then (hopefully) provides them with personal incentive to find out why the goblins attacked and what they were after. Yes, it’s a form of railroading, but then every adventure hook is. Whether it’s an NPC offering reward money or a cry for help from someone in distress, an adventure hook is essentially the gamemaster saying to the players, “I want you to do this.” Burnt Offerings at least makes that hook exciting. After all, one of the reasons people play the game is to be able to have their characters fight and kill monsters.

Another of Burnt Offerings’ strengths is its setting. Sandpoint may be a fairly small town, but it’s a vibrant one, full of well-realized, believable, and sympathetic NPCs (okay, not all of them are necessarily sympathetic). While many of the support articles from the original Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes didn’t make it into the Anniversary Edition, the background on Sandpoint did (in Appendix Two) because it’s absolutely necessary for the running of Burnt Offerings. Much of the adventure takes place entirely within Sandpoint. It’s a town that the PCs and, more importantly, the players will actually grow to care about. It’s important to also note that, when Burnt Offerings was originally published, Golarion was brand new. Sandpoint was the beginning of a whole new world. I’ve encountered few other settings that come across as so real while having no previous sources to build on.

If there were any problems with the original version of Burnt Offerings, it was that there wasn’t enough opportunity for the PCs to interact with, and get to know Ameiko, one of Sandpoint’s most prominent NPCs, before she gets kidnapped and the PCs have to go rescue her. Likewise, there’s little opportunity to learn about her family before most of them die. This is one of the few changes in the Anniversary Edition. Early on, there is an encounter with Ameiko’s father Lonjiku, allowing the PCs to understand his and Ameiko’s relationship. It’s just a small addition, but it makes a world of difference and allows the PCs to have just a little more empathy for Ameiko.

There are a couple of other small changes that caught my eye in Burnt Offerings. For example, Erylium, the quasit, is updated as a witch, rather than a thaumaturge (a class from Green Ronin’s Book of Fiends). It’s a minor change, but thematically appropriate.

While Rise of the Runelords is generally very highly regarded, perhaps the most criticized portion is the final encounter of the second instalment, The Skinsaw Murders. In the original verson, the villainous lamia matriarch, Xanesha, is extremely powerful, and many people have reported TPKs (total party kills) from that encounter. When I ran this part myself, the PCs in my group managed to survive, but I confess that I had Xanesha make less than optimal decisions during the battle, which helped give the PCs a little bit of an edge. They still barely made it through alive. Her Wisdom drain ability (which worked even through her mêlée weapon) combined with spells like haste and dimension door made her far too powerful for PCs of the expected level. Not surprisingly, she’s been toned down somewhat in the Anniversary Edition. She has one less class level, and she’s no longer a sorcerer, but a rogue, cutting down on her spellcasting ability. More importantly, her Wisdom drain ability has been reduced considerably. She’s still a tough opponent (as she should be), but the PCs should now have a fighting chance against her.

The remainder of The Skinsaw Murders remains pretty much as it was in the original. The only other significant change is to Habe’s Sanatorium, which has been expanded somewhat (and has a completely new map). The Skinsaw Murders is a strong adventure, which effectively mixes mystery and horror. This was the adventure that first introduced haunts into the game. The Pathfinder Adventure Path series has often introduced new concepts and rules subsystems into the game. Haunts (which are undead that behave more like traps than creatures) were the first, and by far, the most successful. They’ve since been reused in numerous other adventures and were updated to Pathfinder RPG rules in the GameMastery Guide.

The Hook Mountain Massacre, the third instalment of the adventure path, sends the PCs to investigate For Rannick, one of Magnimar’s most distant outposts that has mysteriously stopped sending in reports. The PCs discover that it has been invaded by ogres and must work to take it back. At the time of its original publication, it was criticized somewhat for its level of gore and violence, and for the mature themes it presented. References to ogrekin incest and cannibalism disturbed some people a little. Paizo has always pushed the boundaries of what is considered “PG” in their products, and this pushed those boundaries perhaps a little more than usual. Paizo stated at the time that this is the farthest they would ever go, and so far, they’ve stuck to that statement. It’s known, however, that there was a lot of material cut from Hook Mountain, and some people wondered if some of that might make it into the updated version. Others naturally wondered if the adventure might be toned down. I’m happy to say that neither is true. The segment with the ogrekin family, the Grauls (the portion of the adventure that contains the most obvious boundary-pushing) is pretty much exactly as it was in the original. It’s not expanded upon; nor is it cut back. It works well as-is. GMs who wish to tone it down for their groups can easily do so with virtually no effort.

The Hook Mountain Massacre also has one of the best PCs-lay-siege-to-a-fort/castle scenarios I’ve seen. This was one of my favourite parts of Runelords to run. Fort Rannick is not presented as just a dungeon crawl. Instead, it’s a living, breathing establishment where its inhabitants actually move around and do things. Of course, any well-run dungeon will do that, but the best-written ones don’t leave any doubt that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. One interesting change in this section is that the lamia matriarch, Lucrecia, who is Xanesha’s sister, is no longer a rogue, but a sorcerer with many of the spells that her sister used to have in the old version of The Skinsaw Murders. James Jacobs has essentially swapped the sisters’ stats around, and it makes perfect sense to do so. The PCs are higher level by this point and are now capable of taking on a creature of the power level that Xanesha used to be.

Fortress of the Stone Giants, the fourth instalment, opens with a stone giant attack on Sandpoint. The PCs then take the battle to the stone giants to learn why they attacked. After infiltrating the stone giant fortress, they find their way to an ancient Thassilonian library where they begin to learn who their real enemy is: Karzoug, the ancient Runelord of Greed. While the opening to this adventure is very strong (the attack on Sandpoint is like an expanded version of the goblin attack in Burnt Offerings, and is vibrant and exciting), it later turns into a bit of a slog. The latter portions of the adventure involve a lot of going from room to room, killing the room’s guardian and then moving to the next room and doing it all over again. I don’t find Jorgenfist and the library to be a particularly dynamic setting. There is an opportunity for the PCs to make an ally with Conna the Wise, but otherwise, everything here is pretty much there for PCs to kill. Unfortunately, nothing’s really changed in the new version, either. Of course, PCs itching to fight will certainly find lots to fight here, and there’s certainly a lot of tension created as there’s little opportunity for the PCs to rest, so it’s not all bad. I just found when playing through it that, by the end, it was starting to get just a little tedious.

That said, while Fortress of the Stone Giants was starting to get tedious by the end, Sins of the Saviors easily passed the point of tediousness. The fifth instalment is mostly set in Runeforge, a large, extradimensional dungeon. The PCs must go there to find the means of defeating Karzoug by creating runeforged weapons. I’m happy to say that this is the instalment that seems to have had the most changes in the update to the Anniversary Edition. One of the most tedious portions used to be the Ravenous Crypts of Gluttony, which contained a huge map full of mostly empty rooms and lots of secret doors. Empty room after empty room just created monotony. In the new version, the Ravenous Crypts are considerably reduced in size, bringing the occupied rooms closer together. Moreso, some of those occupied rooms are very different. The new version of the Infusion Chamber, for example, is far more interesting than the old.

The Festering Maze of Sloth is an entirely new section—well, not entirely. It’s mentioned in the original version as being a “labyrinth of disease-ridden garbage and filth. There is little to be found in these chambers apart from poison, corrosive fog, and low-CR and mindless creatures like oozes, slime, and vermin.” In other words, it’s a waste of time for the PCs to explore (the original version doesn’t even bother to provide a map). While there’s a certain realism to it (it makes sense that high-level characters ought to encounter non-challenges from time to time), it doesn’t make for the most fun playing experience. Instead, it can create boredom and discontent. While it’s easy for a GM to skim over by saying the PCs spend a day or two searching and finding nothing relevant, it’s far more interesting if there is actually something to be found. The new version actually provides a map and a fully fleshed out, challenging section. Indeed, this is now one of the most interesting sections, if a little gross with all the slime. My only complaint about the new version of the Festering Maze is that the map is a little confusing. The text refers to narrow, 2-foot-wide bridges, but the only things on the map that might be these bridges (coloured to look a bit like metal planks) are a full five feet wide.

Overall, Sins of the Saviors is easily my least-favourite instalment of Rise of the Runelords, but the Anniversary Edition has improved it considerably. I really wish I’d had this version when I ran it a few years ago.

In Spires of Xin-Shalast, the final instalment, the PCs have finally tracked down the location of Karzoug’s ancient capital city, Xin-Shalast, the place where he will soon awake from his long stasis. It is truly an epic finale, where the PCs must face rune giants, lamias, vampiric skulks, and more before finally taking on Karzoug himself. In the new version, very little has been changed during the approach to the city itself, but a number of new encounters have been added inside the city, such as the Leng spiders, creatures who are not exactly enemies of the PCs, but not exactly allies either. The most notable change, however, comes at the very end. Karzoug is not alone.

In the original version, the PCs faced Karzoug by himself, and while this is often the way fights with the principal villains of epic movies go, it doesn’t always work so well in D&D or Pathfinder. A couple lucky rolls from the PCs and a solo villain can be defeated very quickly, making for a bit of an anti-climactic fight. In the Anniversary Edition, Karzoug has allies with him when he faces the PCs (a dragon, a rune giant, and a couple of storm giants). While this is a harder battle for a GM to run (high-level combats mean keeping track of a lot of information and abilities), it makes for a much more dynamic battle, and a potentially far more epic one. Of course, the PCs might still get lucky and end it quickly, but it’s likely to prove more memorable even so.

Several appendices follow Spires of Xin-Shalast in the Anniversary Edition. The first is a “Continuing the Campaign” section. While brief (only two pages long), it does provide some interesting ideas for how to continue on if your players want more. I kind of wish this section was an extra page or two, but that would have meant cutting from somewhere else (and I can’t think what else to cut), so I accept it as is. After this come support articles on Sandpoint, Magnimar, Turtleback Ferry, and Xin-Shalast, the key locations of the adventure path. These articles are pretty much the same as the ones that appeared in the original versions of the adventures. I didn’t notice any major changes (apart from fixing the map of Magnimar, which had a number of errors in the original version). Finally, there is a short Bestiary, an appendix on new rules (covering sin and virtue points, Thassilonian magic from Inner Sea Magic, and some new spells) and an appendix detailing the unique magic items of the adventure path.

Overall, Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition is a phenomenal book. It manages to take a great adventure path and make it even better, which is no small task. If people who own the original editions are wondering whether it’s worth buying the adventure path again, I would say it’s definitely worth it. Not only are all the conversions between gaming systems done for you, but you’ll be getting a much more cohesive product. Alternatively, there is the Rise of the Runelords Deluxe Collector's Edition coming out in the next month. This product is the same as the Anniversary Edition, except in an even fancier layout. Alas, this is beyond my ability to afford at the moment, so you won’t be seeing a review of it here. However, if you have the money to spare, it would likely make a great thing to have on your bookshelf.


  1. Nice review!

    I was thinking (since I'm still a Mystara's DM), is this one easy to play in Mystara?

    1. Hooray, another Mystara fan! I used Mystara as my setting of choice for many years. Only switched to Golarion a few years ago.

      Converting Runelords to Mystara shouldn't be that difficult. You need an analogue for Thassilon and the Runelords. I would make Thassilon a pre-Blackmoor civilization. Thonia might be a good choice.

      As for where to set the adventures, anywhere that has a decent amount of wilderness without too many large cities, although there should be one large city to stand in for Magnimar. I would suggest Norwold. Either Alpha or Landfall could be Magnimar and then place the starting town of Sandpoint about a week's journey from that place. You can easily place the other adventure locations throughout Norwold.

      Alternatively, the Isle of Dawn or Skothar might make good locations for setting the adventures. There are lots of areas that would work, really. The only area I wouldn't suggest is right in the heart of the Known World, as the area is just too heavily populated.