Thursday, 21 March 2013

Broken Chains


I’ve always liked Katapesh, a country and city in the Pathfinder campaign setting. The Legacy of Fire adventure path was set mostly there (apart from some plane-hopping), and that adventure path did a great job fleshing out the setting. But beyond Legacy of Fire and the campaign setting supplement, Dark Markets, A Guide to Katapesh, nothing has been done with the area since. As such, I was very pleased to learn that the module Broken Chains by Tim Hitchcock was to be set in the city of Katapesh. I ran a very successful Legacy of Fire campaign a few years ago and my current campaigns aren’t likely to return to Katapesh any time soon. Nonetheless I was excited to read a new product set there, if only to revisit the location in my head.

Unfortunately, Broken Chains just didn’t grab my attention very well. It has one or two things I like in it, but overall it’s a mediocre generic adventure that just doesn’t use its setting to any good effect. Indeed, it’s an adventure that could happen just about anywhere with virtually no changes. True, it’s very useful to have adventures that can be placed anywhere gamemasters need them to be, but in that case, why make the default setting a place as colourful and identifiable as Katapesh? A place like Katapesh needs an adventure that really makes use of its unique characteristics. On top of that, Broken Chains is really just a little dull.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure opens as so many adventures do. The PCs are hired by someone they probably don’t know (unless the GM does some long-term planning and includes the NPC earlier in the campaign) to find someone else they probably don’t know. It’s a tried-and-true method, but one I find myself more and more often groaning at the use of. It’s getting old (actually, it got old a long time ago), and I would like to see a little more variety.

Still, there is a nice twist built into this opening (although one the PCs won’t find out about until much later, if they discover it at all). Othine Dalanse, the woman the PCs are hired to find, turns out to be one of the bad guys—well, someone who has been brainwashed into being one of the bad guys, at any rate. Othine was an operative for the Twilight Talons working undercover to root out slave organizations and bring them down from within. Some time ago, she was discovered by the latest group she had infiltrated. This group, run by a cult of Lamashtans, proceeded to brainwash her through a combination of magic and torture, making her into a double-agent working for them. Now, she has engineered her own disappearance from the Twilight Talons so that she can focus solely on being a slaver. When the PCs do eventually catch up to her, she continues to pretend to be on their side, claiming she’s on a deep undercover mission, only to then betray the PCs at the best opportunity.

While I really like the possibilities that this twist introduces, I also feel the adventure doesn’t do enough with it. In fact, there’s very little opportunity for the PCs to actually learn that Othine has been brainwashed. I suspect most parties will actually end up killing her before learning what happened to her, and many parties won’t ever learn the truth at all. The reason for this comes from the fact that the adventure can be outlined pretty much as enter the dungeon and kill all the slavers. There’s very little opportunity to interact with NPCs as the adventure is designed mostly to be one combat after another. Without time to interact with the slavers, the PCs simply can’t gain the opportunity to learn of Othine’s brainwashing.

This same reason is also why the adventure just doesn’t use its setting to any good effect. Whispershade, the man who hires the PCs, reminds the PCs that slavery is legal in Katapesh, and they’ll need to take care when working against the slavers. This could have been an opportunity to delve into this aspect of Katapeshi society, with the PCs having to move about surreptitiously, avoiding local scrutiny whilst still having to deal with local characters and organizations. Alas, the whole investigation aspect of the adventure is presented as nothing more than an afterthought. Whispershade sends the PCs to the Garden of Chains, a location on the outskirts of the city that Othine made mention of in her final message to the Twilight Talons. At the Garden of Chains, the PCs learn that the slavers are using an old dried-out and abandoned qanat (basically an underground aqueduct system) to hide in. Yet information about the Garden of Chains and what the PCs do there only appears in an appendix. The main adventure simply says that the PCs “should eventually figure out the slaves are moved into the city through the passage beyond the old water trough.” It then moves straight on to the PCs entering the qanat, at which point the adventure becomes a dungeon crawl in which the PCs kill the slavers. This could easily happen with any group of slavers anywhere. Simply replace the qanat with an old sewer system (and since the qanat has the look and layout of a sewer—the adventure even suggests using the tiles from Pathfinder Map Pack: Sewers to represent the qanat—this essentially means changing nothing) and you’re good to go. From this point on, the adventure has no connection to Katapesh whatsoever, and the whole concept of the PCs performing the illegal actions against the legal slavers is thrown out the window. It is of no consequence.

The two-page appendix on the Garden of Chains is the closest the adventure comes to using its setting, and even there, the adventure treats it as its own separate setting, isolated from the rest of the city. The appendix details seven locations in the Garden and mentions two NPCs by name who could provide PCs with the information they need. These two NPCs are sketched out in only the barest of details and cave in to the PCs’ questions rather easily. Overall, the way the adventure presents the Garden of Chains (skimmed over in the main adventure and only lightly detailed in an appendix) gives the impression that the investigative part of the adventure isn’t important, something that needs to happen but should be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible so that the “reall” adventure can begin. Personally, I feel the Garden of Chains should have been the most important part of the adventure, where the PCs can actually work to find out what happened to Othine. Otherwise, why even include the location? Why not simply have Whispershade tell the PCs that Othine was last seen entering the old qanat and just send the PCs directly there?

Once in the qanat, the adventure becomes a pretty standard dungeon crawl. The PCs make their way through it, find the entrance to the slavers’ underground hideout, enter that, and kill the slavers. There is an attempt to add a bit of flavour by including pesh-addicted squatters in the qanat, who have entered through another route. Their presence does, however, lead to the question of why the slavers put up with them. The slavers have laid out traps throughout the qanat to stop intruders getting to them and to stop slaves from escaping. However, they chose their trap locations rather poorly. There is a very simple, direct, untrapped route from the squatters (and their entrance to the qanat) to the slavers’ hideout. Escaped slaves merely have to keep moving forward without turning at any intersections and they can get out of the qanat without encountering any traps. There is also a pair of otyughs in the qanat. Unless they somehow managed to use the screw pump mechanism in the entrance shaft (unlikely given an otyugh’s physiognomy), one has to wonder how they got to where they are without setting off any traps, as unlike squatters and escaping slaves, there isn’t a trapless route to their location.

I do like that the Lamashtans who run the slaving operation have their own secret agenda that even most of the slavers aren’t aware of. It adds a bit of mystery and makes the slavers more than just standard slavers. That said, it doesn’t really change the adventure much, as this really isn’t an adventure where there’s much interaction with the NPCs beyond killing them. Much like the PCs being the lawbreakers, it’s an interesting idea that doesn’t really get used and has little effect on the adventure.

An important trigger warning to anyone considering running this adventure: The Lamashtans are magically impregnating slaves (both women and men) with monstrous fetuses before selling the slaves on the slave market. Although there aren’t any actual scenes of it happening, this is still a violation of people's bodies, something some players may be sensitive to. Gamemasters should make sure their players are okay with this kind of subject matter before using it in their games.

Overall, Broken Chains is an adventure that could have been so much better, but ends up a rather dull retread of the same basic adventure that has been published again and again throughout the history of the game (PCs get hired to find someone or something, head into the dungeon, and kill lots of creatures until they achieve their goal). Its default setting has mounds of potential, but the adventure makes no use of that, ultimately becoming an adventure that could take place anywhere GMs want. While it could be worse, there are much better adventures out there, and I’d recommend giving this one a pass.

4 comments:

  1. "The PCs are hired by someone they probably don’t know to find someone else they probably don’t know. It’s a tried-and-true method, but one I find myself more and more often groaning at the use of. It’s getting old (actually, it got old a long time ago)."

    I thoroughly agree, and I find myself wondering...

    How much of these bland "you are hired to do a job" hooks come from the fact that virtually everything Paizo puts out nowadays is destined to be sanctioned for PFS play?

    Everyone being mercenaries with no goals or motivations other than their employing factions' is how they keep Organized Play running, but to the extent it bleeds into the assumptions for everything they publish, I think it's limiting the creativity of their hooks.

    Joana

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an interesting idea and something I hadn't thought of. You might be right.

      Delete
  2. That is absolutely the case. PFS sanctioned anything aims for the LCD. Which means kills things and take their stuff and level up. In fact, there really aren't hooks anymore are there? Remember the old Dungeon Magazines where you'd get a bunch of hooks? That's where the spice came in.
    The other aspect is with statblocks. Use bestiary stats and you have smaller blocks more adventure. This really limits populating a unique dungeon with "lets see what could live in a qanat tunnel that's about a CR 6."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice post! This is a very nice blog that I will definitively come back to more times this year! Thanks for informative post. Pinoy Tambayan

    ReplyDelete