In many ways, I suspect the final adventure of an adventure path is the most difficult to write and develop. Not only does it have to be a high-level adventure (and those come with a whole bunch of their own inherent difficulties), but it also has to tie together all the loose ends remaining from the previous adventures and bring everything to a satisfying and epic conclusion. As the instalments of Shattered Star are much more loosely connected than most adventure path instalments, there are fewer loose ends to tie up. As such, it might seem that Shattered Star’s final adventure, The Dead Heart of Xin by Brandon Hodge, has it a bit easier. Nonetheless, it still has to provide a sense of closure to the AP’s disparate parts, and in that sense, it just might have it a little bit tougher.
In this respect, I must acknowledge that The Dead Heart of Xin does a very good job. It does provide closure and, on top of that, some truly epic moments. Very importantly, it makes the long quest to gather the separate pieces of the titular Shattered Star worth it, and actually provides the PCs with a chance to use the artifact they’ve worked so hard to acquire. I don’t think it’s a perfect adventure. I think the AP’s focus on dungeons holds this adventure back somewhat, significantly limiting the things that could have been done with it. But overall, The Dead Heart of Xin is a good high-level adventure. And, like the other adventures in Shattered Star, it will work quite well as a stand-alone as well.
The adventure opens with the PCs returning to Magnimar, having now acquired all seven pieces of the Shattered Star. With the help of Sheila Heidmarch and a number of other people she has brought in, it is now time to reassemble the shards into the Sihedron. In a grand ceremony on top of the Irespan in Magnimar, members of the Sihedron Council join the shards together. Unfortunately, this also activates ancient contingencies to awaken the Sihedron’s creator, Xin, the original ruler of Thassilon and raise his capital city back above the sea. The raising of the city causes its own initial problems in the form of an earthquake and tsunami. Then, of course, there’s Xin himself. Although he was originally a benevolent ruler, time has not been kind to his mind, and now, he is quite thoroughly insane.
The opening of the adventure is, without doubt, not only the best part of this adventure, but also the best part of the entire adventure path. The PCs have to rush about, protecting the people of Magnimar from the tsunami that threatens to ravage the city. This is a moment where high-level characters truly get to shine, where they get to use the powerful abilities they’ve worked hard to get—and the adventure very wisely doesn’t put any limits on what they can attempt. This is a moment when the PCs get to feel like mythic characters (and they don’t even need the forthcoming Mythic Adventures rules to do it). Some parties might manage to stop the tsunami entirely before it hits the city. Others might focus on simply making certain as many of the people of the city survive as possible. Some parties may even be less successful (or perhaps even apathetic towards the fate of the city), but this is a scenario that, once it starts, is totally in the PCs’ hands. Of course, there are a few monsters (disturbed by the earthquake) thrown into the mix to make the PCs’ task a little more difficult, but that’s only to be expected. There’s even an encounter with what is possibly the most bizarre creature ever included in the game: a scylla (yes, I know the scylla is based on a creature from Greek mythology, but that doesn’t change just how utterly bizarre it is). Another great aspect of this opening is that it allows the party some non-dungeon excitement. Even groups that are heavily into dungeon crawling will likely be glad of a brief change of pace after an adventure path that has been almost entirely dungeon crawling.
Of course, the opening isn’t entirely without its problems, but the problems lie primarily in the lead-up to the tsunami, not the tsunami itself. First off, as the adventure itself acknowledges (an entire section of the Foreword discusses it), there’s a possibility none of it happens at all. Players are very good at surprising their GMs and doing the unexpected. Some groups may decide not to reassemble the Sihedron at all, thus derailing the entire adventure. Luckily, the adventure foresees this problem and offers solutions for how to get around it. The second problem is that, during the reforging ceremony, the PCs don’t actually get to take part. Instead, Sheila Heidmarch assigns other members of the Sihedron Council to perform the actual reforging, while the PCs protect against anything that might go wrong, and the adventure assumes the PCs go along with this. While there is a good meta-reason for this (making certain the PCs aren’t deprived of all of their spells when disaster strikes), I can easily see a number of groups baulking at what is essentially “guard duty”. After working hard to recover the shards, many PCs may, understandably, want to be involved in the reforging. Of course, GMs can simply allow them to be part of the reforging, drain all their spells for the day, then unleash the disaster—but this is likely to come across as some sort of punishment for everything they’ve done. One possible solution is to simply rule that the reforging doesn’t drain all the spellcasters’ spells. This does have implications on the backstory to the Sihedron, but minor enough that they’re easily glossed over.
After the excitement of the tsunami, the PCs must head to the new island-city of Xin to confront Xin himself. This is where the adventure starts to suffer due to the constraints put on it by the dungeon focus of Shattered Star. Most of the city is left undescribed for GMs to fill in if they wish to. The rest of Dead Heart of Xin takes place entirely in this adventure’s dungeon: the Crystal Palace of Xin. The PCs must move room to room, defeating various monsters along the way, until they reach the final room where they confront the clockwork reliquary, the construct that holds the remains of Xin’s body, conveniently just as Xin’s spirit takes control of it. The adventure becomes very linear at the point the PCs enter the dungeon—which is something a high-level adventure really shouldn’t be. The PCs have huge powers at this point, powers that give them the ability to forge their own destinies, powers that they’ve just been able to put to awesome use against the tsunami, but powers that are now, more or less, denied them.
To ensure that the PCs don’t just jump straight to the final room, the adventure takes the unwise course of making teleportation and other dimensional travel not possible within the dungeon. I was rather surprised to see this happen, especially immediately after the last adventure, Into the Nightmare Rift, which did it too. However, Into the Nightmare Rift did this with full acknowledgement of the difficulties this kind of action can cause. It very wisely included a means for the PCs to overcome the limit and regain their travel abilities. Such an option is not present in Dead Heart of Xin (other than allowing passage through open doors and empty spaces, thus allowing PCs to teleport backwards, but not forwards), and even if one were, I would still consider it inappropriate to do this two adventures in a row. Don’t get me wrong. It makes in-game sense that the world would develop means of protecting against dimensional travel, and high-level characters (including NPCs) would likely make use of such means. However, GMs should use it sparingly, as PCs deserve the right to use their powerful abilities. There’s little point to having great powers if you never get to use them. Repeatedly being prevented from using abilities makes the game much less fun for the players.
There are aspects of this dungeon that I do like. Xin currently only exists as a disembodied spirit, but one that can “possess” constructs inside the Crystal Palace. This adds a nice twist to many battles throughout the palace, as Xin could take control of any of the numerous constructs throughout it, giving it new abilities. This is also a good way for the PCs to have some interaction with Xin before the final encounter. Indeed, the adventure does a very good job of developing its villain (it also includes occasional visions that reveal much of Xin’s history). This is particularly important in this adventure, as Shattered Star hasn’t really had an overarching villain for the adventure path, and thus no opportunity to build up to a thrilling final encounter with that villain. The Dead Heart of Xin does do a good job of building up Xin as more than just this adventure’s villain, but also the final obstacle of the entire campaign.
There is also the possibility of convincing Xin’s axiomite servants that his ghost has gone mad and that their loyalty to him is to his true self, not what he has become. This allows for the dungeon to be a little bit dynamic, even if it is mostly one fight after the next. Although the DCs to accomplish this are very high, at this level of play, one or two of the PCs are bound to be capable of it.
Nonetheless, despite these good aspects, I do feel that the dungeon ultimately makes this adventure less than what it could have been. Not that it’s terrible, but if the adventure path were not so focused on dungeons, this adventure could have made use of the city as a whole, introducing various factions that the PCs have to contend with as they race against time to prevent Xin from making his army ready to invade Varisia. Xin and/or the clockwork reliquary could take a much more active role, and the PCs could be at full liberty to use all their abilities how they see fit to best accomplish the task. But alas, that sort of thing is beyond the scope of this adventure path.
As this is the final instalment of the Shattered Star Adventure Path, following the adventure itself, there is an article on “Continuing the Campaign”. This article provides advice for groups that wish to continue with same characters. There are some suggestion for exploring the city of Xin, along with possible encounters. There is also an outline of a plot involving the rise of another runelord—Zutha, Lord of Gluttony. There’s even a section on what to do if the PCs lose. When it comes down to it, the suggestions here are not so much for continuing the campaign, but rather continuing this particular adventure into a new campaign. As the various instalments of Shattered Star have so little relation to each other, and none but this last one have much in the way of lasting consequences, it’s really only the events of this last adventure that can be expanded on and developed. In the case of “The Rise of Gluttony”, there isn’t even much connection to this last adventure, beyond the PCs getting to do more with the Sihedron. But I suppose that’s very much in the spirit of Shattered Star, and “The Rise of Gluttony” does look like it could be an excellent campaign idea for GMs willing to put in the work.
After this is an article detailing each of the Runelords of Thassilon. Each runelord gets a full page of detail covering history, legacies, and relics, as well as a portrait. I enjoyed this article a great deal. While some of the runelords have receive quite a bit of development previously, this article finally gives details on all of them, and it’s nice to learn about the less-mentioned ones. I should point out that these are the final runelords, the ones who were ruling when Earthfall struck, the ones who hid themselves away in suspended animation and have the potential to rise again.
Looking back over Shattered Star as a whole, I have to say that I think it’s one of the weakest adventure paths published so far. While several of its individual adventures have been quite good (particularly the excellent Curse of the Lady’s Light), its disjointed nature has really worked against it. The fact that each adventure has basically been a stand-alone (with the only linking factor being the quest to find each shard of the Shattered Star) makes it feel like it’s not really an adventure path at all. True, many people have run successful campaigns made up of completely unconnected adventures—I’ve done it myself—but when something is called an adventure path, I tend to expect more interconnection, and when that doesn’t occur, it’s a bit of a let down. The focus on dungeon crawling also works to the AP’s detriment. Now, I’ve never shied away from admitting that I’m not a fan of dungeon crawls to begin with (so there’s a bit of my own bias coming in here), but I still make use of dungeons in my game—just not all the time. All campaigns need variety, which Shattered Star provides little of.
Also, as an advertised sequel to the first three adventure paths (Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne, and Second Darkness), Shattered Star falls considerably flat. There is very little connecting it to these previous APs. The events of Rise of the Runelords only provide the impetus to collect the shards and have no other impact on any of the Shattered Star adventures. As best as I can find, there is absolutely no connection with Second Darkness other than a small group of drow turning up in one adventure. There is no reference to any of the events of Second Darkness, and Shattered Star doesn’t even visit any of the locations of that AP (such as Riddleport). Only Curse of the Crimson Throne has any real direct references to it. Curse of the Lady’s Light (deliberately named to evoke Crimson Throne) is very much dependent on the events of the earlier AP, and those events shape the adventure in a large way. The remainder of Shattered Star, however, has no connection to Curse of the Crimson Throne. I’m not really sure what the point was to make Shattered Star a “sequel” to these earlier APs if there’s little actual connection to them.
That aside, The Dead Heart of Xin does do a good job of wrapping up Shattered Star. It’s not the greatest adventure ever, but it does have a brilliant and epic opening. I feel the dungeon constrains what the adventure could have achieved, but when you accept that that’s the format of this adventure path, the dungeon is pretty decent. The limitations on dimensional travel are a poor decision, but otherwise the dungeon has quite a bit going for it. I do think that groups that have played through the entirety of Shattered Star will find this adventure a quite satisfactory conclusion.
“Light of a Distant Star”
The story appearing in the “Pathfinder’s Journal” portion of each volume of Shattered Star is “Light of a Distant Star” by Bill Ward. This tells the story of a Pathfinder in Riddleport, trying to determine whether a dwarf alchemist has the last journal of Jan Lortis, a famous Pathfinder. While there, she becomes distracted by the activities of some old acquaintances and uncovers a drug ring, all the while coming to terms with her own self-identity.
I have to admit that it took me quite a while to get into “Light of a Distant Star”. It wasn’t until about the fourth instalment that I started to feel any sort of attachment to what was happening. The story certainly starts very slowly. Very little actually happens in the first instalment. Most of it is the lead character Taldara following an old friend/acquaintance she recognized through the streets of Riddleport. The story initially concentrates a little too much on setting the scene by describing Riddleport and having Taldara reflect on various aspects on the city and how she got there in the first place. The problem is, throughout all this reflection, we don’t really get to know Taldara all that well, even though she’s the narrator. We learn that she’s fascinated by the Cyphergate, but otherwise we don’t really start to learn what she’s like as a person. And unfortunately, that’s a problem that remains throughout all parts of the story.
Taldara reflects a lot on her personal history, so we learn the things that she’s done, but oddly, it gives very little idea of who she is now. Part of the problem is she’s struggling with her identity, trying to apply labels to herself (Pathfinder? scholar? thief?), and while this can be a very compelling form of conflict, in this case, she doesn’t have a distinctive enough voice, even as an after-the-fact narrator, to distinguish her to the readers. Most everything she says or does feels scripted as something she needs to do rather than something Taldara would do. She even reflects on her life as a story and what the story needs her to do. Even at the end, when she’s coming to terms with herself and deciding to accept all the different parts of her life as making one whole person, I still didn’t feel that I knew this character. She remained a complete enigma to me.
This difficulty of understanding Taldara the character also plays into understanding Taldara’s relationships with the other characters. Admittedly, we come to understand those characters as individuals better than we do Taldara, even if they are only painted in broad strokes and have little depth to them. However, their relationship to Taldara is rather mystifying. Earlier, I referred to Shess (the character Taldara is following through the streets of Riddleport) as a “friend/acquaintance”. This is because I honestly don’t know what Taldara considers these people. She apparently adventured with them back in Magnimar (although how much is never made clear), but she demonstrates very little affection for any of them. Even her relationship with Kostin, whom it is made explicitly clear she had a previous sexual encounter with, is blurry and indistinct. It’s clear that she regrets that encounter, but does she regret it because she feels it was a bad choice, or because she is embarrassed or ashamed by her sexuality? She has no clear opinion on Kostin. This doesn’t mean that she should be stating unequivocally, “These people are my friends,” or “I’m in love with Kostin.” Indeed, that would be a very bad route to go. However, her actions and attitudes around these characters should make her opinions of them at least somewhat apparent. At the very end, she takes Kostin’s hand, but I honestly can’t say whether that is just friendly hand-holding or the beginning of a romance.
The villain, Gundsric, comes across much more successfully than any of the other characters in the story. His motivations are clearer than anybody else’s, he has a distinct voice, and he has a number of affectations, from his cough to his smell, that paint a vivid picture of him as an individual. And despite his horrendously evil plans, there is a touch of the sympathetic to him, which makes him work particularly well as a villain. Even though he deserves what happens to him, you do end up feeling just a touch of pity for him as well. Alas, this is undermined by the fact that the Taldara and her friends/acquaintances really aren’t sympathetic characters.
The wererats, the other villains in the story, are pretty much characterless, nothing more than stock bad guys to fight. Only the female wererat has any semblance of a personality, but even with her, it’s pretty one dimensional. And honestly, the fact that she is only ever referred to as “the female wererat” starts to grate after a while.
The plot itself does start to get interesting once it gets going after the first few instalments. The different strands of the story (Taldara’s employment to Gundsric, Kostin’s job to get the staff) begin to wind together fairly elegantly, and the final fate of Gundsric is handled very well. It is gruesome, true. But it is also both creative and, retroactively, completely obvious, which is exactly what it should be. There are a few loose ends that bother me a little. It’s a bit disappointing that we never find out whether Gundsric has the journal of Jan Lortis. I realize that it’s ultimately irrelevant whether he does or not because, in coming to terms with herself, Taldara decides it’s irrelevant to her. However, since it’s such a large focus earlier, it would be good to have some closure regarding it. I can’t help but feel the ending would work a lot better if Taldara actually sees the journal in the wreckage of Gundsric’s house, but deliberately decides to ignore it. It would go a long way to establishing the character she’s supposedly become, and a long way to helping readers understand her as a character. Then there’s the staff’s inexplicable disintegration. It seems to happen for no other reason than to stop the good guys winning too easily—but then why was such a powerful item in the story in the first place?
Overall, “Light of a Distant Star” is not a very good story. I’ve certainly read far worse in my time, but I’ve also read much, much better. It has an interesting plot, but it starts out slow and it has a lead character that you never really feel you know and who has indistinct, blurry relationships with her friends/acquaintances. I’d recommend skipping this one.