Monday, 1 April 2013

Reign of Winter - The Shackled Hut


In The Shackled Hut by Jim Groves, the second part of the Reign of Winter adventure path, the PCs set out to find Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut as the next step in their quest to rescue Baba Yaga herself. Much like The Snows of Summer, the first part of the AP, The Shackled Hut is a very linear adventure, but one that nonetheless feels natural in its progression and thus PCs won’t likely feel overly railroaded by it. The adventure contains a wonderful mix of dark fairytale elements and interesting characters. Although many of those characters are there and gone in only a short amount of time, they all have fully detailed backgrounds and motivations, making them feel a part of a living and exciting world. This is not a perfect adventure (indeed, I have a few issues with its resolution in particular), but it is still a very good adventure and a great continuation of the adventure path.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure opens with the PCs setting out from the town of Waldsby en route to Whitethrone, the capital of Irrisen. At the end of The Snows of Summer, they successfully closed the winter portal to Taldor, but in doing so have trapped themselves in Irrisen. In order to shut down all the remaining portals to other areas of Golarion, they need to recover Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut and liberate Baba Yaga. This is not an adventure that would be easy to use as a stand-alone. Its set-up is very dependent on the adventure that came before it, and its conclusion sets up the beginning of the next adventure. This is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. It makes the adventure path feel like one epic quest, but anyone who wants to just pick and choose parts of the adventure path to run will need to make some significant changes in order to make this adventure work on its own.

The first part of the adventure covers the journey to Whitethrone and comprises a mixture of encounters, some based on location and some based on the passage of time. Nadya Petska, whom the PCs met in the last adventure, acts as their guide on this journey. I didn’t say much about Nadya in my review of The Snows of Summer and I really should have. Nadya is a very well-defined and believable character who makes a refreshing change from the usual female patrons to appear in many of Paizo’s adventure paths. After eleven Pathfinder Adventure Paths (Reign of Winter is the twelfth) and, prior to that, three Dungeon adventure paths, a repetitive trend has developed. In a significant number of the adventure paths, the PCs gain an influential patron very early on (usually at the very beginning of the AP). From Lavinia Vanderboren in Savage Tide to Almah Roveshki in Legacy of Fire, to Janiven in Council of Thieves, Ameiko Kaijitsu in Jade Regent, and others, these patrons are always women, usually in their early twenties (Sheila Heidmarch in Shattered Star is a bit of an exception, being a slightly older woman), and described as being good-looking with few flaws and few motivations beyond the respective adventure path’s goals. They are generally narrative orphans (meaning that while they might have friends and family, those friends and family are barely mentioned, if at all) and sometimes (such as with Lavinia and Ameiko) literal orphans. Considering this trend, someone taking a casual look at the first two adventures in Reign of Winter might jump to the conclusion that Nadya Petska fills the patron role for this AP. This is not actually the case. Nadya is a character met along the way, a character who has a life and goals of her own, including a family that she has to support. She is not a patron for the PCs, but rather an ally, one who might stick around with the PCs if they invite her to (and they treat her well), much like the NPC castaways in Souls for Smuggler’s Shiv, the first adventure of the Serpent’s Skull adventure path and an adventure that contains probably the best PC-NPC interactions of any adventure Paizo has published.

And Nadya is but one of many NPCs met along the way in this adventure, all of whom have well-developed backgrounds and motivations. Ringeirr Malenkov is another such ally for the PCs. I’m surprised he doesn’t get a two-page write-up at the end of the adventure as he has a considerably larger role to play than does Solveig Ayrdahl or Zorka, who do get write-ups while playing considerably smaller roles in the adventure (they are still very well-realised characters though and admittedly, in the case of Zorka, she will likely play a larger role later in the AP). Yet despite not having that write-up, Ringeirr’s personality and motivations come across strongly. After reading the adventure, I felt I knew him just as well as Nadya or Solveig or any of the others who have gotten two-page write-ups in the first two adventures.

Ringeirr is Nadya’s uncle and the person the PCs go to upon reaching Whitethrone to help them get into the city itself. He guides them through the area known as the Howlings, populated primarily by winter wolves (who are able to take human form in Whitethrone and the Howlings due to an ancient pact with Baba Yaga), and takes them to a man who can provide them with fake identification papers. Once in Whitethrone, the PCs make contact with a cell of the Heralds of Summer’s Return, a resistance group that fights against the witches of Irrisen. There they meet Solveig Ayrdahl, a cleric of Milani. She fills them in on the situation in Whitethrone and the current whereabouts of the Dancing Hut. The Heralds have made contact with the remnants of the Iron Guard (disbanded by Elvanna because they are loyal to Baba Yaga) and hope to make a combined strike against the newly formed Winter Guard (loyal to Elvanna). First, however, the PCs must make a strike against one of the Winter Guard’s principal commanders, a white dragon name Logrivich (and also rescue Solveig’s lover, Bella Belvorica, a Chelish opera singer who is being held captive by the dragon because he likes listening to her sing).

Once the dragon is out of the way, the uprising begins. In the chaos, the PCs are able to go after the Dancing Hut, which is chained in the Market Square. However, a portal to the First World has opened up and the entire Market Square is now enveloped in a supernatural forest that the PCs must first get through in order to reach the Dancing Hut, where they finally face off against Nazhena Vasilliovna. Unfortunately, this final part of the adventure is the weakest part of it. Part of the problem comes from the fact that this enchanted forest once again puts artificial limits on the PCs’ abilities in order to force them along certain paths. In essence, it turns an outdoor location into an indoor one by making literal walls of trees that are impassable even with abilities like a druid’s woodland stride. The canopies of the trees even stretch out to form a roof (and in some clearings such as the one where the Dancing Hut sits, this means stretching across a hundred feet of space) in order to block flight.

This has become an annoying trend recently. Three of the last four volumes of the Pathfinder Adventure Path have employed this technique. To be fair, this is the first time in Reign of Winter and the author of this adventure did not likely know what was being developed for the final two parts of Shattered Star. However, the developers overseeing the whole line should be more aware of the repetition. That said, there really seems to be little need for these restrictions in this adventure. PCs with abilities like woodland stride or flight should still be able to use them. Sure, they could go through the “forest dungeon” in whatever order they please, but they would still need to destroy the elemental fonts which power the reality siphon (a powerful magical field created by the fey of the First World who are using it to slowly draw this portion of the Material Plane, along with the Dancing Hut, into the First World). Yes, the PCs could then bypass the reality siphon entirely and get straight to the Dancing Hut, but there are ways to easily avoid this without robbing the PCs of their characters’ abilities. The reality siphon could easily surround the Dancing Hut completely, thus making just a small area inaccessible. While this still blocks the PCs’ abilities, it does so in a way that’s unobtrusive and virtually unnoticeable. It becomes a major obstacle to overcome rather than a device to force them to follow a specific path.

Removing the travel limitations on this enchanted forest would also make for a much more dynamic ending. As it is, it is essentially a dungeon crawl (and a far more restrictive one than the one they just went through against the dragon), with the PCs meeting a random assortment of monsters (various fey creatures in this case) to kill along the way before finally meeting the end boss (Nazhena Vasilliovna) who is conveniently waiting for them in the final “room”. Without the restrictions, there is the opportunity for more complex interactions with the NPCs, something the remainder of the adventure has been very good about allowing. There are essentially three sides at work here: the PCs, the fey, and Nazhena Vasilliovna. This creates all sorts of possibilities as the various sides attempt to form alliances and outwit the other two sides. Perhaps the PCs temporarily form an alliance with Nazhena Vasilliovna to defeat the fey, or perhaps the fey and Nazhena join together to stop the PCs. It would also allow for a much more satisfying final confrontation with Nazhena. Anticipation of this confrontation has built up over two adventures now, yet as written, the PCs finallly encounter her trapped in the forest but still protecting the Dancing Hut. Although she is still technically just as powerful, much of her symbolic power is stripped away (and not because of any actions of the PCs) and she ends up seeming quite an anti-climax after all the build-up.

However, the ending aside, The Shackled Hut really is an excellent adventure. I particularly like the fairy-tale theme running throughout it. This is present in more ways than just having fey in the adventure. There’s Sylgja, a huldra married to a human man who has been infected by mindslaver mold, but she believes the creature he has become is a moss troll who has either killed or kidnapped him. There are the shapeshifting winter wolves, and even an old witch named Granny Nan, who captures young children and cooks them. All these are concepts common in fairy tales and create an atmosphere that makes the players feel like their characters are actually adventuring in fairy tale world. While there were elements of this in The Snows of Summer, it’s much more apparent here and its used to very good effect. Perhaps the most obvious fairy tale element is Baba Yaga’s TARDIS—I mean Dancing Hut—itself. (Seriously, the parallels are pretty obvious. The Dancing Hut is bigger on the inside, it can go anywhere in the multiverse, and its interior can change its appearance, while the exterior is stuck in one shape. It’s a TARDIS in everything but name. And yes, I’m well aware of the real-world stories of Baba Yaga and that the parallels are not intentional, but it’s fun to think of them anyway. And let’s not forget that Doctor Who is heavily influenced by fairy tales. But I digress...)

This volume’s support articles are also particularly strong. First up is the latest in Sean K. Reynolds’s articles on the gods of Golarion, this one focusing on Milani, goddess of hope, devotion, and uprisings. Milani is one of the less known Golarion deities, and this article provides much-needed in-depth information about her. Following the Milani article is “Ecology of the Winter Wolf” by Russ Taylor, which provides details on the history and society of these intelligent wolves. I like that the article manages to present a creature that, while as intelligent as a human, is still very wolf-like in its behaviour. The winter wolves’ fascination with the humanoid form and their acknowledgement of that form’s advantages (thus their willingness to make a pact with Baba Yaga to be able to assume human form) is particularly compelling. This month’s Bestiary contains Milani’s herald, a couple of new fey, and mirror men, haunting constructs that are very effectively used in the adventure.

Overall, The Shackled Hut is an excellent continuation of the Reign of Winter adventure path. It’s a very linear adventure, which might not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s been the style of the adventure path so far, and it’s linearity is natural enough that most players are not likely to feel railroaded. It makes a slight misstep with its resolution, resulting in a final encounter that may seem a little anti-climactic, but with a little work, I feel most gamemasters will be able to overcome this minor shortcoming. When the PCs step into and explore Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut in the brief coda to the adventure, they literally enter a new world, one that opens up huge possibilities and sets the scene for what is still to come in the remaining adventures. I look forward to them.

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