One of my all-time favourite parts of Golarion is the city of Kaer Maga, also known as the City of Strangers. It’s a wonderful mix of some of the most bizarre and creative ideas I’ve ever seen in a fantasy setting. I’ve seen some people liken it to Mos Eisley from Star Wars due to the sheer mix of creatures that reside there. Naturally, this sort of place isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I adore it. I have devoured the contents of the book, City of Strangers, multiple times and I always find something new and interesting to spark the imagination. A couple of published adventures have been set there (including the excellent Godsmouth Heresy), and one of my most fondly remembered campaigns was set there too (alas, it ended all too soon with a tpk). So I was naturally looking forward to The Asylum Stone, the third part of Shattered Star. Not only was it set in Kaer Maga, but it was written by James L. Sutter, the creator of Kaer Maga and author of City of Strangers (as well as the author of the absolutely brilliant Distant Worlds). What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a bit, it seems. Unfortunately, The Asylum Stone just doesn’t live up to the possibilities, primarily because it tries to present too many possibilities all in one go. Just as Kaer Maga itself is a hodgepodge of numerous races and organizations, the adventure is like a hodgepodge of disconnected set-pieces with only the thinnest thread linking them together. But while the city of Kaer Maga brilliantly ties all its disparate parts together into one working whole, The Asylum Stone unfortunately doesn’t. There’s simply too much in Kaer Maga to include in one adventure, especially one where the PCs are just passing through. What would work much better is to focus on one aspect of Kaer Maga (much like The Godsmouth Heresy does) with only hints of the rest. What we get instead is an adventure which takes the PCs from one Kaer Magan “gang” to the next with little to no opportunity to interact with each one, only to throw the PCs up against one of the setting’s major villains at the end without ever developing the threat of that villain or its impact on the setting. The adventure ends up feeling like a succession of random encounters and completely loses the magic of Kaer Maga.
To be fair, The Asylum Stone is saddled with a problem of the AP as whole: that of getting the PCs to its location as Shattered Star involves them going to a new place every adventure to find the latest piece of the titular artifact. As such, the opening of The Asylum Stone involves getting to Kaer Maga and travelling up the Halflight Path, the stairway that leads up the cliff-side to the city itself. Naturally, there are encounters along the way that the PCs have to take part in. This is pretty much expected. Journeys have always been a major component of fantasy roleplaying, and The Asylum Stone handles this in pretty much the best way it can. It leaves most of the journey in the hands of the GM, providing only a couple of scripted encounters, one on the river journey and one in the Halflight Path itself. The journey takes up only a few pages, allowing most of the adventure text to focus on the adventure in Kaer Maga.
Unfortunately, it’s with the rest of the adventure that the problems begin. The PCs acquire a guide who directs them to either the Augurs or the Therassic Spire. However, recent events have seen the closure of the Therassic Spire, conveniently nudging the PCs to the Augers. Not surprisingly, the Augers have problems that need solving and the PCs are the perfect people to solve them. They send the PCs to Bis (one of the regions within Kaer Maga) to rescue Augustille, one of their members who has been kidnapped Berkanin Ardoc, one of the powerful Ardoc family. Once the PCs have rescued Agustille, he has a convenient vision (which doesn’t even require him to use the usual Auger method of reading his own entrails—he just has a spontaneous seizure) that provides the PCs with a clue about where to go next. That place just happens to be the Therassic Spire, which they could have just gone to right from the start. Once at the Therassic Spire, the PCs learn of yet another thing they have to help out in, yet this help will end up taking them directly to the Shard of Gluttony.
The problem isn’t really with any one of these specific scenarios; it’s that the adventure tries to cram them all in together. The Ardoc family, for example, is a major part of Kaer Maga, holding complete control of Bis and a large influence elsewhere. But the adventure doesn’t allow the PCs to really experience this. They simply get sent to a specific Ardoc’s home where they go in and kill him. Since Berkanin is a rogue within the family, the PCs don’t even have to worry overmuch about repercussions from the rest of the family. In essence, Berkanin isn’t really an Ardoc. He’s just an evil wizard for the PCs to fight—and thus, some of the essence of Kaer Maga is lost. While the PCs do have more opportunity to interact with the Augers (although not much more), this primarily results in Vargun revealing the secrets of the Augers right off that bat (she really admits that not all the Augers can actually foretell the future?). The Augers go from being mysterious and exotic to just another group of people for the PCs to help out. And I use the word people here quite purposely. One of the most compelling things about the Augers is that they are civilized trolls. Yet in this adventure, you could easily swap them out with just about any other group in the city (or any other city for that matter). They don’t do anything at all Auger-ish.
My biggest problem with the adventure, however, comes once the PCs have reached the Therassic Spire and learn of the caulborn. The caulborn are a compelling alien race that lives deep below Kaer Maga. Their ultimate goals are strange and mysterious. An adventure centring on a caulborn plot is a great idea and one I would love to see. However, The Ayslum Stone doesn’t centre on them; it only involves them in a very peripheral way. This, too, could be a great idea if it was setting something up for later on. But it isn’t. The PCs just happen to arrive at exactly the same time the caulborn have decided they need someone to remove the Shard of Gluttony from the Dark Forest. They provide a convenient, non-standard method for the PCs to enter the Dark Forest, fight and kill the Dark Rider, take the shard and leave again, all without ever stepping more than a few feet outside the Black Keep. The PCs never even have to look at the rest of the Dark Forest. They never need to learn of the creatures who live there or feel the threat of the Dark Rider on the land. And then, of course, the caulborn betray the PCs at the end and try to take the shard, so the PCs get to fight and kill them too (and thus, never really learn anything about them either).
As the major villain of the adventure, the Dark Rider feels anything but. He just happens to be the last thing the PCs fight before claiming the shard, but in every other way, he’s just another monster—and that’s really not the way it should be, as far as I’m concerned. The Dark Rider should feel like a force to be reckoned with. Defeating him should be a major goal in itself, one where, even if they didn’t get the shard afterwards, the PCs would still feel like they had done something momentous. But as with everything else in this adventure, not enough time is spent on development. The Dark Forest doesn’t feel like a strange, alien world and ecosystem; instead, it feels like just one more room in the big megadungeon.
One thing that I think really shows just how little opportunity there is to interact with the setting can be seen in the “major” NPCs. Every Pathfinder Adventure Path volume since Jade Regent has included two-page write-ups of the major NPCs at the end of each adventure. This one contains write-ups of Abra Lopati, Augustille, and the Dark Rider. Blink, and you might not even know who the first one is. While it’s not unusual for the major villain to only have one actual appearance in an adventure, the NPC allies generally have a little more to do than Abra Lopati. Abra is the Dusk Warden who guides the PCs (and a couple of merchants) up the Halflight Path at the beginning of the adventure. He’s around for one encounter, advises the PCs to find a guide, and then never appears again. Of course, GMs can always bring him back if they wish, but the fact the adventure gives him so little to do makes one wonder why he’s worthy of the two-page write-up at the end. But then again, there really isn’t anyone else in the adventure to take his place. People (and locations) are there and then gone. Even Augustille, while he is the focus of the PCs’ rescue mission, doesn’t have much other role in the adventure (other than his completely un-Auger-like prophecy).
As I said early on, what’s really needed (and this adventure lacks) is a focus, and I think this could have been attained with a better handling of the Shard of Lust, the shard found in the previous adventure, Curse of the Lady’s Light (see my review of that excellent adventure here). There is an odd inconsistency with its use when compared with the other shards. The adventure makes a point of saying that the vision of Kaer Maga granted by the Shard of Lust is just as imprecise as the visions granted by the previous shards, but this isn’t actually true. It’s far more imprecise. The Shard of Pride provides a pretty accurate vision of the Crow, one of the pilings of the Irespan within Magnimar. Sure, it doesn’t show exactly where in the Crow the shard is, but it does lead the PCs to the right place within the city. The Shard of Greed then gives a fairly clear picture of the Lady’s Light—again, not the exact location in the dungeon under the Lady’s Light, but clear enough to lead the PCs right to its door. The Shard of Lust, however, just shows the PCs Kaer Maga, a much larger area than the other two stones show. Once they are in Kaer Maga, it gives nothing more than a vague feeling of down, far more imprecise than the previous two stones. This seems to be for no other reason than to require the PCs to investigate all around Kaer Maga in order to find the shard—except the PCs don’t actually do much in the way of investigating. Instead, a succession of convenient coincidences just leads them directly to it. I can’t help but wonder why the Shard of Gluttony couldn’t just provide them with a vision of the Black Keep right from the start. The PCs could then find their way to the Therassic Spire to research this strange location that is supposedly somewhere in Kaer Maga. From there, they could learn of the Dark Forest and how to reach it. This would allow the adventure to focus itself better. It could develop the Dark Forest and the Dark Rider more, allowing the PCs to actually feel the threat of the Dark Rider before they take him on and kill him. It would make the Dark Rider more than just a monster they meet along the way. There would be no need for the Ardoc family or the Augers, except as background elements that could help point the PCs towards the Therassic Spire. There would also be no need for the caulborn. The PCs could use the standard menhirs for reaching the Dark Forest, and the adventure could actually be about defeating the Dark Rider.
One thing I do like in this adventure is the inclusion of the other adventuring party that the Therassic Spire sent first. This failed group allows the PCs a glimpse of other aspects of Kaer Maga—a glimpse of the bloat mages, the Brothers of the Seal, and the Sweettalkers. These small glimpses do a much better job at tantalizing the PCs about the city and tempting them to stay. Indeed, this is one reason why the depiction of Kaer Maga in Seven Swords of Sin (the adventure that originally introduced the city) works so well. While the dungeon in that adventure is something of a hodgepodge as well (for very different reasons), the city is seen only in tantalizing glimpses, making people want to see more. Exploring the whole city in detail is best left to an entire campaign where its secrets show themselves slowly, not one adventure.
While I am disappointed in the adventure, the support articles in The Asylum Stone are of very good worth. The first, “Gangs of Kaer Maga”, also by James L. Sutter, looks at three of the principal factions in the city: the Ardocs, the Augers, and the Duskwardens. It is able to go into more detail on each than space allowed in City of Strangers, so is useful for any adventure or campaign set in Kaer Maga, not just The Asylum Stone. Of course, it can also be used to expand the Asylum Stone somewhat, helping to relieve some of the adventure’s problems.
The second is “Missions in Magnimar” by Jim Groves, and this is easily my favourite part of this Adventure Path volume. Shattered Star involves the PCs doing a lot of travelling away from Magnimar and then back to Magnimar with each shard they find. Out of necessity, the time spent in Magnimar has to be glossed over in the individual adventure instalments. To help alleviate that, this article provides some brief ideas for events that can happen while the PCs are there. It also includes three slightly more fleshed-out scenarios (each a page and a half long with a half-page map), each at a different CR, so that the GM can make the PCs’ return trips to Magnimar a little more interesting. All the ideas in the article are really quite creative and they help to add a little more roleplaying to this dungeon-based adventure path. “The Scarlet Fog” is my personal favourite of the three scenarios. It has just a slight hint of Silence of the Lambs to it as the PCs must consult a notorious serial killer to help them track down a copycat.
Following these two articles is the latest part of the Pathfinder Journal and this volume’s Bestiary, which includes, among other things, a new kind of caulborn and clockwork familiars.
Overall, The Asylum Stone is not a good adventure, and I think this is exacerbated a little by the fact that it comes in the middle of what is, so far, a rather lacklustre adventure path (as good as I feel Curse of the Lady’s Light is, I think it would work better as a stand-alone than as an instalment in an adventure path). The Asylum Stone lacks a focus, just like Shattered Star lacks a focus. It’s central villain is undefined, just as the central villain of the AP is undefined (the AP doesn’t really have one, in fact). While the support articles are good, they’re not really long enough to make the whole volume worthwhile. It’s a shame as I was really looking forward to this one. However, not everything can be perfect or a success, even from the same author, and this one poor adventure won’t turn me away from future products that come from James L. Sutter’s pen or future Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes.