Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Reign of Winter - Maiden, Mother, Crone


In every adventure path, there’s always at least one major dungeon. Even in much more story-based adventure paths, there’s a volume that is primarily a dungeon crawl. In Reign of Winter, that volume would be the third, Maiden, Mother, Crone by Tim Hitchcock. In the adventure, the PCs take their first trip in Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut and find themselves in Iobaria, where they must locate the next set of clues that will ultimately lead them to the imprisoned Baba Yaga.

Of the three volumes of Reign of Winter so far, this one is unfortunately the weakest. That’s not to say it’s bad—I actually rather like it—but it’s not as good as the first two. Its major weakness is that it suffers from the static randomness that so many dungeon crawls suffer from. Despite a great backstory, its dungeon (or rather, dungeons) still feels like a place where the denizens just sort of sit there waiting for the PCs to arrive and kill them, and that spoils what is overall a great framework for an adventure.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Maiden, Mother, Crone opens quite strongly. After using the Dancing Hut for the first time, the PCs learn about the shifting nature of its interior and must now find a way out of the Hut. In doing so, they meet some of the Hut’s denizens and acquire clues about their current location and how they can find the next pair of keys the Hut needs to take them to their next destination. This opening section is short, but fun and helps give the PCs a feel for the strange contraption they’ll be using throughout the remainder of the adventure path.

The adventure proper, however, gets under way when the PCs exit the Dancing Hut and find themselves in the cold-swept land of Iobaria on the continent of Casmaron. Iobaria is just east of the nation of Brevoy in the northeast corner of “The Inner Sea Region” map in the Inner Sea World Guide, the area of the world that is the core of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting. Throughout Reign of Winter, each time the PCs travel in Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut, their destination will be to somewhere farther away and more exotic. On this first trip, they travel just off the edge of the main map. Next time, they will travel to Triaxus, one of the other planets in Golarion’s solar system. Then, they will head to Earth (yes, Earth!). But for now, they start in a place that is far away on a scale they’re probably used to, but still relatively close, a place they might have heard of, but likely know little about.

Almost immediately upon exiting the Hut, the PCs are attacked by a band of eight frost giants who are fanatic followers of the demon lord, Kostchtchie, a sworn enemy of Baba Yaga. This would normally be a battle well beyond the capabilities of a seventh-level party (the level at which the PCs should be at the beginning of the adventure); however, the PCs receive unexpected aid in the form of the Dancing Hut itself, which joins the battle. With the Hut’s help, this becomes a fairly easy battle, but it’s likely to be a very memorable one. The players even get to control the Hut’s actions (the text suggests having the players take turns), so they can still feel as if they’ve accomplished something and haven’t just been forced into a situation where an NPC saves them.

Upon defeating the giants, the PCs then get to explore and learn a little about the land they’ve arrived in. This area is populated primarily by giants and centaur tribes. The PCs have an opportunity to meet and interact with the Rashalka tribe, possibly gaining allies and information. I do wish this section were a little longer, giving the PCs more chance to experience the society here rather than rushing off to the dungeon. Still, it’s a good opportunity for some roleplay, and of course, GMs can always expand on this section as they see fit.

By this time, the PCs should have learned that their destination is Artrosa, three giant sculptures carved into the cliff faces of a crevasse. Each of the three sculptures depicts a woman at a different stage of life: a young maiden, a pregnant matron, and an elderly crone. There are separate, but linked, dungeons carved into the rock behind the sculptures’ heads (built originally by Baba Yaga), and it is in these dungeons that the PCs will find the keys that will allow the Dancing Hut to take them to their next destination.

It’s at this point that the adventure becomes a fairly standard dungeon crawl and remains so until the end. The dungeons form the bulk of the adventure. However, there are a lot of clever aspects to the dungeons. In particular, the three dungeons are linked by teleportation effects that aren’t immediately obvious. Thus, the PCs can pass from one dungeon into another (and possibly back again) without realizing it. The corridors of each dungeon, however, have their own individual style of décor, which can help PCs track where they are. Similarly, while each dungeon has its own entrance behind the head of the sculpture it extends from, only one of those three entrances exists at any given time, depending on the phase of the moon. It’s not absolutely necessary for GMs to track the phases of the moon (there are default assumptions in place for those who don’t and PCs aren’t likely to remain long enough for the phase to change), but it’s an interesting twist for those who do, affecting where the PCs can enter depending on when they arrive.

The dungeons also have their own politics going on within them to help add a bit of life to them. The current warden appointed by Baba Yaga is Jadrenka, a changeling whose hag mother Caigreal expected the warden position for herself. Caigreal’s jealousy of her daughter has led her and her coven to attempt to make Jadrenka break her vows. Jadrenka has successfully broken up the coven of hags, but the situation in Artrosa is still tenuous when the PCs arrive. On top of that, a centaur priest of Kostchtchie named Vsevolod has broken into the dungeons along with his frost giant servants. They are there to steal Baba Yaga’s secrets.

Alas, despite the political situation in the dungeons, Artosa does have a static feel to it. Part of the problem comes just from the nature of dungeons and the way that encounters with denizens are keyed to locations, and this is something that is difficult for any dungeon to overcome. However, one is left wondering why, when so much has happened just before the PCs get there, so little happens while the PCs are there. Jadrenka is keyed to appear to the PCs in several different locations and GMs can choose to have her appear at other times, too (and in a fun and clever twist, she appears in a different form depending on which dungeon she is in at the time—a maiden, a mother, or a crone—and the PCs will likely not realize initially that they are meeting the same person). How the PCs interact with her affects how she views and treats them, and determines whether she gives them various randomly determined keys to the dungeons. Jadrenka is aware of Vsevolod’s intrusion, yet during this time takes no action against him, other than try to find out if the PCs are working with him. Similarly, Vsevolod has reached a certain point in the dungeons, and that point doesn’t change regardless of the PCs’ actions or how long it takes them to get to him. Essentially, it’s as if Artrosa, after having a number of interesting things happen, has frozen in time just as the PCs enter it, with its occupants only unfreezing as the PCs interact with them. Of course, good GMs can work around this and make the dungeon feel more vibrant (and the adventure certainly provides sufficient background for this), but taken as is, it’s not a very dynamic setting.

On top of that, there’s also a very random feel to the three dungeons, particularly in their layouts, and I can’t help wonder just what Baba Yaga was thinking when she designed them. Despite the hallway décor and a single room in each dungeon with a ring of stones dedicated to that dungeon’s theme, there’s very little else that fits the theme of each particular dungeon. The rooms and denizens of the Maiden have little to do with maidenhood. Likewise, the rooms and denizens of the Mother and the Crone have little to do their respective themes. For example, the crypt for the former wardens of Artrosa is in the Mother, not the Crone (being the final stage of life) which would seem to make more sense. Of course, the denizens can move around, but I would have thought at least the rooms would have some sort of linking theme to them.

Artrosa’s occupants are not quite so random, mainly due their detailed histories connecting them to Baba Yaga, but at a glance, their widely varying races can give the illusion of randomness—especially to parties that kill first and ask questions later. Still, there are quite a few very interesting personalities here, and the relationships between them are quite vibrant. There’s Marislova, Jadrenka’s jilted lover, and Kyrisjana the debased nymph. Kyrisjana tried to seduce Marislova and failed, but gave Marislova a lock of her hair. When Jadrenka found the lock of hair, she assumed that the two had had an affair (helped by the nymph also spreading rumours of the affair), causing a fight between her and Marislova. There’s also the half-fiend satyr Poryphanes and a trio of forlarren alchemists, all children of Poryphanes and Kyrisjana. The intricate histories and relationships of all these characters do allow GMs to make the dungeons feel more dynamic even though the text presents them in a very static way.

Alas, the least interesting character in the dungeons (and indeed, the entire adventure) is Vsevolod, the adventure’s primary villain (although Caigreal is a villain in her own right, too, and a much more interesting one at that). As he has no actual relationship to any of Artrosa’s inhabitants (none of whom know anything about him), the detailed history of him in his write-up is something the PCs will likely never learn, and the GM really can’t do much with it either as his only appearance is when the PCs find the room he’s in and kill him. This event might not even mark the end of the adventure, depending on how much of the rest of Artrosa the PCs have travelled through (and whether they’ve gained Jadrenka’s key to the Dancing Hut). Although there’s a good chance the PCs will hear of his invasion before getting to him, he does end up seeming like just another monster who happens to be in the room with one of the keys for the Hut.

Following the main adventure in Mother, Maiden, Crone is the latest in Sean K. Reynolds’s articles on the gods of Golarion, this one focusing on Kostchtchie. Technically, Kostchtchie isn’t a god; he’s a demon lord. However, since he has worshippers and can grant spells, he fulfils the role of a god, and this article offers a great insight into his history, beliefs, and following. We learn the story behind his hatred of Baba Yaga, and indeed, his hatred of all women (Kostchtchie is quite the misogynist). I ran a campaign not too long ago that had a lot of followers of Kostchtchie in it, and I wish I had had this article then to flesh the worship out more with.

Following this is a gazetteer on the Dvezda Marches, the area of Iobaria that Mother, Maiden, Crone is set in. This article gives a useful overview of the region’s history and climate, along with brief descriptions of the major sites of interest. My only disappointment with this article is that it has very little detail on the centaurs and other groups that live in the region. It mentions the locations of some of the tribes, but gives no information on their society or beliefs. Way back in Pathfinder Adventure Path Volume 33: The Varnhold Vanishing (part of the Kingmaker adventure path), there was a gazetteer on Iobaria, but that too gave very little social information. As such, we’re left with a list of lots of interesting locations, but little to no idea what it’s like to live there. This does tend to be a bit of a pattern with gazetteers in various Adventure Path volumes.

This month’s bestiary has quite a few very interesting monsters, including the svathurim, which is essentially an eight-legged frost giant centaur. One of these is encountered in the adventure working with Vsevolod. There are also andrazku demons (also called misogyny demons), the kokogiak (a ten-legged polar bear from Inuit myth), and sangois (a new kind of fey).

Overall, Mother, Maiden, Crone is not a bad adventure. Indeed, as dungeon crawls go, it’s pretty good. It’s set in a fascinating location filled with some very compelling personalities. It’s main problem is that it presents those personalities in a rather inert manner. Despite their intricate histories and relationships, they don’t really do anything once the PCs arrive other than wait around to interact with the PCs. Otherwise, there’s a lot that’s very good in this adventure. I do think it’s the weakest adventure of Reign of Winter so far, but if it ends up being the weakest overall, then Reign of Winter will still be an excellent adventure path.

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