Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Reign of Winter - The Witch Queen's Revenge


It has all been in preparation for this. The player characters have travelled to exotic lands and distant worlds, all to find and free Baba Yaga and put an end to the eternal winter that threatens to engulf all of Golarion. They have finally found Baba Yaga, but in order to free her from her prison they must complete a series of trials and face her daughter, Queen Elvanna, who desires her mother’s power for herself.

The Witch Queen’s Revenge by Greg A. Vaughan brings to a close Reign of Winter, which has been a very ambitious adventure path. It has involved a few aspects that some people may not fully like mixed with their fantasy (a little bit of science fiction and some modern-ish technology), but it has done so in often brilliant ways. This final adventure has the unenviable task that all final adventure path volumes have: that of bringing all the loose ends together and tying them off in a satisfying manner, while simultaneously providing a fun and exciting adventure in its own right. For the most part, The Witch Queen’s Revenge manages this wonderfully. It’s an excellent adventure, albeit a touch railroaded, and its final resolution could potentially frustrate some players. There are a couple other issues as well, and as such, it’s not the best of the entire adventure path (that honour definitely goes to Rasputin Must Die!), but it’s far from a weak adventure and it finishes off what has been a truly excellent adventure path overall.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I don’t generally start an adventure review by jumping straight to the adventure’s end. However, I’m going to do that in this case, as it’s the aspect of the adventure that might be the most problematic, depending on the players in the campaign. Throughout Reign of Winter, the PCs have been attempting to find and free Baba Yaga, and naturally, they accomplish that here (assuming they survive to the end, that is). Yet hanging over the entire adventure path has been the fact that Baba Yaga is an evil being, and some groups may not like the idea of aiding evil, even if it is in order to defeat a greater evil (of course, there’ll be many groups who won’t have a problem at all and will be totally on board). The Snows of Summer (the first part of Reign of Winter) even included a special geas effect to help ensure the cooperation of the PCs, something I felt—and still feel—was a very problematic inclusion (see my linked review for details). Whatever their reasons for saving Baba Yaga, there will be many groups who hope to somehow both save the world and defeat—or even kill—Baba Yaga. Unfortunately, there really isn’t any way for them to do this.

Baba Yaga is powerful. Extremely powerful. This volume contains her complete game statistics, which need two full pages to write out. She is a 20th-level witch with 10 archmage mythic tiers (these stats provide a nice sneak peak at the rules from the new Mythic Adventures rulebook) and a bunch of unique powers as well. Altogether, she is a CR 30 adversary—way beyond the abilities of the PCs to overcome in this adventure. I’m not in any way saying she shouldn’t be powerful. Indeed, from everything we’ve ever known about her, this power level is completely appropriate. However, there will be players who will be frustrated by the fact that after the world is saved, Baba Yaga gets to head off and return to her regular life and there’s nothing the PCs can do to stop her.

To be fair, there are ways for the PCs to score a form of victory over Baba Yaga. As a reward for their services, Baba Yaga grants them a boon. They may ask of her any one thing that is within her power to grant—within reason. Baba Yaga is a fickle individual and there are things that are technically within her power but that she will refuse—generally things that will have some sort of negative impact on her. However, wily PCs can request that she never return to Golarion, and if they do that, she will grant the request and stay true to her word. This will mean massive changes in the power structure of Irrisen and is a way the PCs have of scoring a defeat of Baba Yaga herself.

There is also the other option of continuing the campaign beyond the end of this adventure. Like all final adventure path volumes, The Witch Queen’s Revenge includes an article on “Continuing the Campaign” (this one written by Adam Daigle and Rob McCreary). In other adventure paths, this section generally contains a number of suggested events that are essentially “sequels”, involving peripheral characters from the AP or new villains taking over from where the AP’s main villain left off. In this case, it’s much more like an actual continuation, as the PCs next turn their attentions towards Baba Yaga herself. They must gain mythic power and essentially embark on another adventure path’s worth of adventures in order to finally face and defeat the Queen of Witches.

In some ways, I really like this. It’s almost like Reign of Winter becomes a double-length adventure path with the PCs ultimately progressing towards the pinnacles of power in the game. But since The Witch Queen’s Revenge is the last published instalment and there won’t be any more adventures forthcoming from Paizo, it means gamemasters have to do all the work themselves for the second half of this extra-long adventure path. As such, Reign of Winter does end up feeling one of the least resolved of all the adventure paths. While Elvanna has been defeated, the PCs are still left with Baba Yaga’s existence hanging over them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the PCs have saved the world and established themselves as great heroes. There are always other evils still left in the world at the end of adventure paths; this time, it just happens to be an evil the PCs have been directly involved with. There are many groups that will be quite happy with this resolution. It’s just something gamemasters should keep in mind when running this adventure path. You need to make sure you know what your players expect out of it.

But to return to the beginning of this adventure...

The Witch Queen’s Revenge opens with the PCs returning to the Dancing Hut with the matryoshka doll that imprisons Baba Yaga. The entire adventure takes place inside the Hut, which technically never leaves Russia (unless the PCs specifically pilot it somewhere else). Although they cannot open the matroshka doll, the Hut does sense the presence of Baba Yaga and this allows the PCs access to areas of the Hut they couldn’t previously reach—entire demiplanes that exist inside the Hut regardless of its location (the Dancing Hut’s interior generally has a unique layout for every location).

Baba Yaga can manage some very limited empathic communication with the PCs and through this, she guides them to an area called Grandmother’s Cauldron. Here, the PCs meet Vigliv, a primordial norn who first taught Baba Yaga thousands of years ago in the lands that would one day become Russia. Vigliv informs them that, in order to open the matryoshka, they must collect the fundamental essences of Baba Yaga’s being, which have been hidden away in the Dancing Hut: her fate, power, death, life, and blood. Vigliv guides the PCs’ steps, informing them which essence they need to find next, but otherwise remains in her tree in Grandmother’s Cauldron for the entirety of the adventure.

The five essences have to be found in a specific order, which can lead to a bit of a railroad feeling to the adventure. The adventure text does offer gamemasters the option to allow PCs to recover the essences in any order, but warns that some of the more powerful encounters may need to be adjusted if the PCs go after them first. It also suggests that Baba Yaga’s blood needs to remain the final essence since that is when the PCs have their final showdown with Elvanna and it would be anticlimactic to have that battle before the end of the adventure. Of course, it would seem rather arbitrary for it to be possible to collect four of the essences in any order, but not the fifth. As such, it makes mixing the order up very difficult, and gamemasters will probably prefer to run the adventure in the stated order. I doubt the railroaded aspects of the adventure will cause much of a problem. Much of Reign of Winter is quite railroaded anyway, so it’s not really any different here.

The PCs can find the first essence, Baba Yaga’s fate, in Grandmother’s Cauldron, but must travel to other demiplanes within the Dancing Hut to find the other essences. Each time they retrieve an essence, they need to return to Grandmother’s Cauldron in order to perform a ritual that will allow them to open the next layer of the matryoshka doll. As each outer doll is opened and removed, Baba Yaga is able to communicate a little better with the PCs. Baba Yaga actually makes for a wonderful background character in the adventure. She is both an annoyance for the players and a necessity, so they can’t just leave her behind. She is incredibly difficult to please and finds fault with everything PCs do, no matter how well they do it. At first, the PCs are only aware of her displeasure through vague feelings, but as she starts to be able to communicate a little more, she turns to outright insults. Gamemasters should be careful not to make this too annoying, but otherwise, Baba Yaga can actually end up being a great comic relief character. At one point in her communication progression, she is only able to communicate like a small child! Add in her general petulance and it could make for great fun!

To find Baba Yaga’s power, the PCs must travel to a realm called Vashliq, which is ruled over by the undead remains of an ancient warrior queen that Baba Yaga once granted great boons to, but who then betrayed Baba Yaga and paid the ultimate price. They must also deal with a treacherous div (a being related to genies), supposedly one of Baba Yaga’s servants, but who has his own plans for betrayal.

After recovering Baba Yaga’s power, the PCs must retrieve her death by travelling to the island of Buyan. A civilization of maftets reside on Buyan, but they are under assault from a mysterious new enemy who turn out to be nuckelavees. (As a side note, The Witch Queen’s Revenge uses a lot of creatures from Bestiary 2 and especially Bestiary 3. These more obscure creatures add a feel of the exotic to the adventure and make the various demiplanes feel truly alien.) The PCs must help the maftets defeat the nuckelavees before they can acquire Baba Yaga’s death.

One aspect of this section of the adventure that bugs me a little is that we never learn why the nuckelavees are attacking the maftets. More than that, the nuckelavees don’t seem to behave much in the way they are described in the recent supplement, Fey Revisited. Admittedly, one of my problems with that book is that it uses the term “mysterious” a little too liberally and leaves many of the fey poorly defined as a result. However, that book does state that nuckelavees are solitary and rarely work together. They only do so to avenge some terrible crime committed against the sea (or other body of water), yet there’s no indication in this adventure of what the maftets might have done to enrage an entire army of nuckelavees (never mind just a few banding together). Given the proximity of the two books’ publications, it is probably because both Fey Revisited and The Witch Queen’s Revenge were being written at roughly the same time, meaning the author and developers of Witch Queen may not have been fully aware of how the nuckelavees were being described in Fey Revisited. Alas, this still makes for an inconsistency in how these fey are presented in the game world. Not only that, I feel it could have added a great new dimension to this portion of the adventure if it were revealed that the maftets had indeed done something terrible to the waters to enrage the nuckelavees. The PCs would still need to stop the nuckelavees, but in doing so, might be able to teach the maftets a lesson as well.

After finding Baba Yaga’s death, the PCs must obtain her life. It is in this part of the adventure that one of the biggest revelations in the entire adventure path occurs: the secret of Baba Yaga’s longevity and what happens to her daughters after they’ve ruled Irrisen for one hundred years. The PCs encounter the undead remains of all the previous queens of Irrisen (except Tashana, who initiated the previous witch war against her mother—she escaped this fate). Baba Yaga has achieved her long life by draining the life essence of her daughters. She allows each of them one hundred years of glory and then sticks them in a magical contraction that keeps her alive indefinitely.

Once the PCs have found Baba Yaga’s life, only one essence remains: her blood. They can find this in the Witch Queen’s inner sanctum—the kurgan, where a young girl named Yanca first encountered the norn Vigliv. Baba Yaga transported this location from Earth into its own demiplane within her Dancing Hut. Elvanna has already set herself up in this location with a special direct portal from here to Whitethrone back on Golarion, and in order to gain Baba Yaga’s blood, the PCs must fight and defeat the current queen of Irrisen. They can then finally free Baba Yaga from the matryoshka doll.

Once Baba Yaga is free, she reverses Elvanna’s attempts to spread Irrisen’s eternal winter to the rest of Golarion by closing all the portals Elvanna has opened. She then grants the PCs a boon (as I mentioned above), removes the geas effect on them, and goes on her way. She will also drop the PCs off on Golarion if they ask (and if they ask carefully, she won’t consider this their boon request). The PCs then return to Golarion as heroes.

The adventure provides quite a few options what the PCs might want to do after returning. There is the matter of Irrisen’s succession. If the PCs don’t get involved, Baba Yaga simply places another daughter on the throne. However, the PCs can affect the choice. For example, if they rescued Anastasia Romanova in Rasputin Must Die!, they can convince Baba Yaga to make her the new queen. They can even use their boon to request that one of the PCs be made the new queen! There are a lot of possibilities, and many of them make for a good set-up for continuing the campaign if GMs decide to do so. If GMs intend to continue, the adventure also suggests awarding the PCs their first mythic tier at the conclusion of this adventure.

The support articles in this volume are all tied very heavily to the adventure itself. There is the aforementioned “Continuing the Campaign”, as well as an article on Baba Yaga herself, describing her history and containing her full game stats. The volume’s Bestiary contains the stats for the “Crone Queens”, the undead remains of Irrisen’s former rulers.

Overall, The Witch Queen’s Revenge is a very good adventure. Its final resolution may not satisfy everyone—and indeed, some may not even consider it fully resolved—but it does accomplish what it set out to. The entire adventure path has attempted some things not normally associated with Pathfinder and other fantasy roleplaying games (particularly travelling to other planets instead of other planes, along with introducing more modern technology), and it has done so brilliantly. When I wrote my review of Maiden, Mother, Crone, I said that it was the weakest of the series thus far, but if it turned out to be the weakest overall (which it does), Reign of Winter would still turn out to be an excellent adventure path. I think I was right. Reign of Winter has been truly excellent.

The Bonedust Dolls”

Every instalment of the “Pathfinder Journal” in every volume of the Pathfinder Adventure Path is the same length—six pages. There is roughly the same amount of artwork for each one too. This means every story to appear in these pages must be of roughly the same word-count. It must take quite a bit of revision and editing to cut down or expand a story to this length. This unfortunately means that a lot of stories are going to end up lengths that really don’t suit them. “The Bonedust Dolls” by Kevin Andrew Murphy, which appears over the six volumes of Reign of Winter, is one of these, expanded out to a length much longer than it needed to be. It’s actually rather amazing how little happens in the story and how little effect its protagonist has on those things that do happen.

The entire first part is quite superfluous and is nothing more than a lot of rather dull exposition as the protagonist, Norret Gantier, talks to the wizard Dr. Orontius (who has virtually no other role in the remaining parts of the story), and his brother Orlin. This first part does do a pretty good job of establishing Norret’s character. Unfortunately, it establishes all his negative qualities first without the benefit of his better qualities to balance things out and make him likeable. All interesting characters should have flaws, so the fact that Norret can be a bit snobbish and pretentious isn’t, in itself, a problem. The problem is that we don’t see his better qualities in this part and are left with the impression he really doesn’t have any. He does become a little more likeable later on, but by then, he’s already been tainted by his initial introduction. First impressions really do count a great deal!

The story would work a lot better if it simply began with Norret and Orlin’s arrival in Whitethrone. That’s not to say that it couldn’t benefit from further trimming later on, but all the exposition covered in Part One could have be made quite clear as the story progresses instead of cramming it all into a rather boring conversation.

Things start to get a bit more interesting in Part Two, but it still takes a surprisingly long time for the story to become more than a string of lucky coincidences. Indeed, Norret never really does much to accomplish his mission. He never even uses his original plan and instead just kind of stumbles across success through dumb luck. Orlin happens to get threatened by an old crone and a group of young jadwiga just happen to be close by and intervene. They just happen to be impressed by Orwin’s witch-like abilities and some of them just happen to come from a family that has all the secrets to Irriseni porcelain that Norret is looking for. Because of their admiration for Orlin, they just happen to allow Norret to come with them, too. Over the entire story, Norret only uses his own abilities on a couple of occasions: once to help in the fight against the dream spiders and then at the end against the trolls and winter wolves. His rather smug confidence in himself and his abilities established in Part One is never really justified. The only way to truly explain why the Pathfinders hired him for this job in the first place is to assume that he has enjoyed this brilliant lucky streak his whole life and other people have mistaken his luck for actual skill.

Most of the other characters, particularly the young jadwiga, are rather incompetent too, but justifiably so in their cases. They’re not the protagonists, and Poskarl and Kyevgeny’s rather complicated scheme with the dream spiders provides the story’s main threat. I actually rather like the characters of Poskarl and, particularly, Kyevgeny. They’re not really villains, just misguided kids who fell in with the wrong crowds. Some of the other jadwiga, like Madenya, however, are not as well developed.

My favourite character is, without a doubt, Byanka. She’s the only really competent character in the story, and even though she has some questionable morals, she’s clearly not horribly evil like the other witches of Irrisen. I am actually rather annoyed that Norret betrays her at the end, especially since she isn’t trying to stop him from leaving anyway and has pretty much given him everything he wants (and all because she just happens to mistake him for someone else). It would be a much more satisfying ending if Orlin decided to stay in Irrisen and train with Byanka. Norret could initially intend to betray Byanka in order to get Orlin out, only to realize that Orlin doesn’t want to leave. That’s what I was expecting at any rate, and while it’s good to be surprised by the outcome, it’s not good to be angered by the outcome.

One thing “The Bonedust Dolls” does very well is show the society of Irrisen. The country’s unusual customs come across very well and readers are left with a great sense of what it’s like to really be there. I love the Merrymead cakes! Unfortunately, this good world-building doesn’t manage to make up for the unlikeable protagonist, a plot that is little more than a string of coincidences, and a whole lot of padding to stretch the story out to its required 36 pages. Overall, it’s a very weak story.

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