Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Reign of Winter - The Frozen Stars


As Reign of Winter has progressed, the PCs have moved farther and farther away from their homes as they follow the trail of Baba Yaga. They’ve gone to cold-swept Irrisen, then to wintry Iobaria. But while Iobaria is far away from their starting point, it’s still on Golarion. In The Frozen Stars, the fourth instalment of the adventure path, the PCs travel to Triaxus, one of the other planets in Golarion’s system, currently going through its very long winter. There they get involved in local politics and an ongoing war. Written by Matthew Goodall, it is an excellent adventure with excitement, interesting characters, and an exotic, alien location.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The Frozen Stars is a rare adventure in which, apart from possibly the PCs and any NPCs they might have brought with them from Golarion, there are no human NPCs at all. Instead, the majority of the NPCs are Triaxians or dragonkin, vaguely humanoid dragons native to Triaxus. This isn’t surprising given the adventure’s location, but along with its location, it’s one thing that makes this adventure stand out from others. There will be some people who will be turned off by this. Not everyone feels journeying to another planet fits in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game, and that’s a valid opinion to have. However, Reign of Winter probably isn’t the best choice in such a case, as alien worlds is part of its mandate.

Triaxus (along with the rest of the Golarion solar system) was first introduced in Pathfinder Adventure Path Volume 14: Children of the Void in one of the background articles of that volume. It later got an expanded treatment in Distant Worlds (a supplement that I haven’t written a review of at this time, but I will say is one of the best supplements in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line). Triaxus has a very elliptical and long orbit, making its summer and winter seasons last for generations and at the time of this adventure, it is (not surprisingly, given the adventure path’s theme) in the midst of its long winter. Naturally, the adventure focuses on one small area of Triaxus, as the entire planet is similar in size to Golarion and no one adventure could cover that much area..

The adventure opens similarly to the preceding adventure, Maiden, Mother, Crone, with the PCs having just arrived on Triaxus and having to first explore the new layout of Baba Yaga’s Dancing Hut. While searching for the Hut’s new exit, they also uncover clues about the next two keys they need to take the Hut to the next location on Baba Yaga’s trail, and where in their current location they might find these keys.

Once the PCs exit the Dancing Hut and find themselves on this strange, alien world, the adventure proper begins. So far, Reign of Winter has been a very linear adventure path, but The Frozen Stars is much more open-ended than the others, providing the PCs with quite a lot of choice regarding how they wish to proceed. The two keys they need to find (a two-headed eagle and a bearskin) are in two separate locations, and it is their choice which they go after first. The eagle is closest and on the way to the bearskin’s location, so groups are most likely to go after it first, but there’s nothing stopping them going for the bearskin first and collecting the eagle on the way back. Of course, the PCs know very little about where they are and must interact with the locals in order to figure out where to go.

The search for the two-headed eagle takes the PCs to Spurhorn, a fortress in the Parapet Mountains between the Drakelands (a region ruled over by dragons) and the Skyfire Mandate (an area run by an alliance of Triaxians, dragonkin, and a few good dragons). Spurhorn is currently under siege by an army from the Drakelands sent by a dragon warlord named Yrax, Lord of the Howling Storm. The two-headed eagle is held by Pharamol, the commander of the Dragon Legion (part of the Skyfire Mandate) stationed at Spurhorn. The PCs must now decide how to acquire the two-headed eagle while the siege is going on around them. They have several options open to them: They can assist the forces at Spurhorn and gain the eagle as a reward, they can join the Drakelands army and capture the eagle when they capture the fort, or they can join neither side and attempt to sneak in and steal the eagle.

One of the best things about The Frozen Stars is that the adventure makes no assumptions about how the PCs will choose to proceed. In all likelihood, most groups will choose to aid the defenders of Spurhorn, since they are essentially the good guys. However, not all groups will want to go this route, and the adventure allows for this. It even presents two versions of each scenario that occurs during the Drakelands army’s main attack, one version for PCs who are helping the Skyfire Mandate, and one for PCs helping the Drakelands army. PCs who choose to sneak in and back out again will have the hardest time (since they will have to accomplish their task without the help of any local allies); however, it is still more than possible to accomplish the task this way. Of course, there are all sorts of other options the PCs could try as well, such as pretending to help the Spurhorn defenders, only to grab the eagle and run, or something similar.

Whichever method the PCs choose to pursue, this section of the adventure promises to be thrilling to play out as the PCs must operate with a large-scale battle between armies going on around them. Although the fight between the armies is in the background, the PCs’ actions can affect the progression of the battle, allowing either side to emerge as the victor. The adventure makes no presumptions about the battle’s outcome or who wins. Numerous possibilities exist.

Another nice thing about this adventure is that, while the PCs are amongst either the Dragon Legion or the Drakelands army, there is a lot of opportunity for them to interact with the locals and learn about the land they are in. This was a problem I found with Maiden, Mother, Crone, which whisks the PCs off to exotic Iobaria, but then plunks them into a large dungeon without much opportunity to learn about the new land they are in. The Frozen Stars, however, provides ample opportunity for roleplay with the locals. Not all PCs will take advantage of these opportunities, but the important thing is that they are there.

Depending how they approach things, the PCs eventually acquire the two-headed eagle, either by receiving it as a reward from Commander Pharamol or by taking it for themselves. (If they assisted the Drakelands army, they should be prepared for a betrayal by General Malesinder, the silver dragonkin who commands the army.) Now that they have the eagle, they need to track down the bearskin (assuming they didn’t already do that first). The bearskin is held by Yrax at his fortress of Ivoryglass. To get there, they need to travel through the Drakelands and, naturally, deal with encounters along the way.

The section in Ivoryglass runs more like a standard dungeon crawl as the PCs must sneak into Ivoryglass and explore it room by room. However, Ivoryglass manages to be somewhat more dynamic than a lot of dungeons. One of my complaints about the dungeon in Maiden, Mother, Crone was that, despite a fascinating background, it feels very static, as if the inhabitants simply exist in suspended animation until the PCs reach them. Ivoryglass avoids this problem with a layout that is logical, and with locations that serve specific functions. Similarly, its inhabitants have specific jobs and reasons to be there. The inhabitants also move about depending on the time of day or if the PCs’ actions have influenced other events in the fortress. Although their game stats are given with specific rooms, any individual inhabitant (such as Cesseer, Yrax’s “consort”, or Iantor, Yrax’s son) is often mentioned in the descriptions of several rooms, since it’s entirely possible to meet them in various locations. In other words, Ivoryglass comes across as a location that is actually inhabited by living, breathing people with lives and goals of their own, separate from the PCs’.

The NPCs throughout the entire adventure (at both Spurhorn and Ivoryglass) are well-developed and often quite compelling. Interestingly, none of them actually have a good alignment. The members of the Dragon Legion, including Commander Pharamol, and Bescaylie and her bonded dragonkin partner Efrixes, are predominantly lawful neutral, for example. This makes the good guys and bad guys of the adventure a little less clear-cut. Yrax is undeniably evil as are most of the Drakelands army, but there are a few who are not, such as Cesseer or the nereid Viveka. The relationships between the NPCs are also well-fleshed-out, particularly the relationship between Yrax and Cesseer, his Triaxian consort who isn’t so much a consort as she is a trophy. She remains in Ivoryglass only due to her sense of honour and duty (she made an agreement she feels honourobund to keep). Yet despite that very strong sense of duty, she is on the verge of breaking her agreement and leaving, something the PCs can use to their advantage. Cesseer is certainly the most interesting of many interesting characters in The Frozen Stars.

Eventually, the PCs find and acquire the bearskin, either by killing Yrax (a powerful white dragon) or somehow stealing it from him without him noticing. Once they have both the bearskin and the two-headed eagle, they can return to the Dancing Hut and use them to travel to their next destination: Earth during World War I (in Rasputin Must Die!).

Following the adventure in this volume is a double-length article, “Planet of Dragons”, which gives details on the adventure’s setting. Although Triaxus has a four-page description in Distant Worlds, this twelve-page article zeroes in on the specific location of The Frozen Stars, the border between the Drakelands and the Skyfire Mandate, and gives specific information about the history of that area and the peoples who live there. There is also an extensive gazetteer of the sites in the area. The article is written by James L. Sutter, who also wrote Distant Worlds and the original article on Golarion’s solar system back in Pathfinder #14. The article beautifully expands on the information in Distant Worlds. There’s enough information here for more than just the adventure in this volume. With this article, GMs have the basis for an entire campaign set in this region.

Because of the extra length for “Planet of Dragons”, there isn’t a second support article in this volume, but honestly, “Planet of Dragons” is good enough that you don’t notice the lack of a second article. There is still the usual fiction instalment (which, as usual, I will review as a whole in my review of The Witch Queen’s Revenge, the final instalment of Reign of Winter) and Bestiary, which this month contains the first complete game stats for Triaxians, including all three versions: winterborn, summerborn, and transitional.

Overall, The Frozen Stars is an excellent product. As one of the middle adventures of the adventure path, it has the difficult task of keeping the overall story-building moving along without losing the PCs’ interest, a task it succeeds in with a compelling adventure in its own right. Indeed, with a bit of work, gamemasters could use this adventure as a stand-alone. All they need is a means to get the PCs to Triaxus and a reason for them to acquire a pair of objects (the two-headed eagle and bearskin, or whatever GMs decide to replace them with). While Reign of Winter as a whole took a small dip in Maiden, Mother, Crone, it has risen back up and I eagerly look forward to reading the next instalment.

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