Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Dragon's Demand


While dragons are a hallmark of fantasy gaming (they are even present in the name Dungeons & Dragons, from which the Pathfinder game derives), they have surprisingly not featured much in Pathfinder adventures—at least not as the central focus. They have appeared in numerous adventures, but usually only as encounters along the way, or servants of the main villain. Into the Nightmare Rift, the fifth part of Shattered Star, had a draconic villain, but that dragon was not the central villain of the entire adventure path. However, dragons couldn’t remain in the shadows forever and a couple of recent non-adventure products—Dragons Unleashed and the Dragonslayer’s Handbookhave focused on dragons, and in The Dragon’s Demand by Mike Shel, a dragon finally gets to be the central villain of an epic adventure.

The Dragon’s Demand is the latest in the Pathfinder Modules series, but it is also the first in a brand new format for the series. Previous adventures have been 32 pages in length, but this doubles the count to 64. From here on, Pathfinder Modules will be this longer length, but will be released at a reduced rate. And The Dragon’s Demand starts the new format off in style with an adventure designed to take characters from first level all the way to seventh! Yet the higher page count doesn’t just allow for a longer adventure; it also allows for greater detail and background. The Dragon’s Demand is practically a mini-campaign, complete with a fleshed-out town and numerous smaller quests that the PCs can complete along the way. The adventure will work great for players looking for a short campaign that will last more than just a couple sessions, but will not go on for years (like an adventure path potentially can), and it will also work great as the triumphant start to a longer campaign.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure opens quite spectacularly. The PCs have recently arrived in the town of Belhaim. Players can work out with their GM the specific reasons why their characters are there, although the adventure does work best if the characters are not from Belhaim. If the players do not have a specific reason for being there, the adventure does provide a default option. Regardless of why the PCs are in Belhaim, the adventure opens with the sudden collapse of a local landmark known as the Witch Tower. The corpses of kobolds are found in the wreckage of the tower and when the townsfolk try calling on their local wizard, Hunclay (whose manor is close to the tower), they find another dead kobold, this one horribly charred, at his front doorstep. And so the townsfolk turn to the PCs.

This is the kind of adventure opening that I really love. Too many other adventures would open with the local ruler (in this case the baroness, Lady Origena Devy) or some other NPC coming to the PCs, telling them that the collapse of the tower happened a few days ago or last week, and then hiring them to find out the cause. Instead, The Dragon’s Demand puts the PCs right there when the event occurs. It involves the PCs right from the start and provides additional incentives besides merely money for the PCs to take up the job. More than that though, it’s just a far more interesting opening than the standard opening where someone the PCs have never met before offers them money out of the blue to go do something.

The plot of the adventure is fairly linear. Each event leads more or less to the next one. Nevertheless, there is still quite a bit of leeway for how the PCs decide to proceed. For example, the first part of the adventure involves investigating the dungeon under the Witch Tower to determine what caused it to collapse and what the kobolds were doing there. Some PCs, however, may wish to figure out what happened to the wizard Hunclay first. The townsfolk urge against trying to enter the wizard’s manor as he is known to heavily trap his property (he is not particularly friendly to the other townspeople), but the PCs could try to enter the manor anyway. Of course, taking this route really could turn deadly for the PCs since the encounters in Hunclay’s manor have a somewhat higher CR than those under the Witch Tower. However, the option is there.

Under the Witch Tower, the PCs discover that the kobolds have tunnelled into the dungeon and are responsible for the tower’s collapse. They also find Hunclay’s body, crushed by the tower’s collapse. Although they don’t have proof of it at this stage, there is good reason to believe that Hunclay was in league with the kobolds, and this is something the baroness readily believes as well. She asks the PCs to find the kobolds’ lair and drive them out of the region. It is while dealing with the kobolds in their lair that the PCs might first hear the name Aeteperax, and learn that the kobolds serve—even worship—this being. With a bit of research (or Knowledge checks), the PCs can easily learn that Aeteperax was the name of a terrible black dragon who was slain by Tula Belhaim, the founder of Belhaim. The dragon’s bones still lie in the region northeast of the town.

After they have dealt with the kobolds, the baroness asks them to investigate Hunclay’s manor. The town has contacted his next-of-kin, and that person has asked that the town auction off his belongings and send her the proceeds. This makes for an interesting section of the adventure, where the PCs must not do something that is pretty standard for adventurers—looting. They must clear the manor of its traps and other-worldly denizens (Hunclay has many creatures summoned from other worlds trapped in his manor), but they have to leave the treasures undisturbed. The baroness does assure them, however, that they may bid for the items at the auction and that she will cover half the price for them.

In Hunclay’s manor, the PCs have the opportunity to learn what Hunclay was very interested in the Dominion of the Black, a far-off region of outer space which is home to bizarre lifeforms. He was interested in summoning and controlling such creatures, and learning their secrets. They can also learn (through interacting with one of his surviving servants or through his notes) that he stashed away some of his belongings in a cave outside of town. By travelling to the cave, they can retrieve these items. In particular, there is a valuable book about the Dominion of the Black—a book that the dragon of the adventure’s title is desperate to acquire.

After clearing the manor (and the cave, too, if they learn of it) and retrieving Hunclay’s belongings, the PCs actually get some downtime. There’s a full month before the auction during which time they can pursue other goals of their own. Eventually, the town holds the auction. When one of the dragon’s agents fails to successfully bid for Hunclay’s books, the dragon himself intervenes, by creating an illusion of an undead black dragon to make the townspeople believe he is the original Aeteperax. He demands that the town turn over Hunclay’s belongings along with a steep tribute. The amount is too steep for the town to pay, and so they turn to the PCs for help again, asking them to slay the dragon.

The final part of the adventure begins with the PCs heading first to the tomb of Tula Belhaim to acquire the weapons she used in her dragon-hunting career. From there, they head to an old monastery devoted to Irori where the dragon has asked the tribute to be taken (which is, not coincidentally, located very near his lair). Armed with their new weapons (and possibly allies they’ve acquired in other parts of the adventure), the PCs track down the green dragon calling himself Aeterperax and eventually confront him and—hopefully--defeat him.

Aeteperax is a young adult dragon, but even young dragons are powerful. At CR 11, he makes for an extremely challenging final foe—one that, in normal circumstances, the PCs would likely have no chance against. However, the adventure plans well for this and there are a number of ways the PCs can make the battle against Aeterperax go more smoothly. Aeteperax is also highly interested in the Dominion of the Black (and so were the monks of the Irori monastery before their investigations resulted in their deaths,) and has gained the use of an item in the monastery which lets him summon and control grioths (a new monster in the adventure that is native to the Dominion). If the PCs disable this device, Aeteperax loses control of his one-time servants. The PCs also have the opportunity to learn his real name, which he despises. Calling him by his true name can cause him to lose control of his reason for a short while, imparting penalties to his abilities. Also, the PCs can acquire a higher amount of gear in this adventure than is standard for their level. This might concern some GMs, but much of this gear may just be on loan, and once the PCs have gained levels from defeating Aeteperax, things should balance out again. Finally, there are multiple opportunities for the PCs to gain allies throughout the adventure, from a kobold ranger who does not approve of her tribe allying with the dragon, to a shae imprisoned in Hunclay’s manor, to the local druid. Having allies with them in the battle against Aeteperax will make it more feasible for them to survive.

My one main criticism of The Dragon’s Demand is that the NPCs are rather generic. Only one or two of them really stand out in any way. Lady Origena doesn’t have much of a personality beyond generic ruler, and the other prominent townsfolk are defined pretty much by one trait, such as Sheriff Benhovy who has an unexplained dislike of the followers of Shelyn in Belhaim but no further personality. Some of the characters are based on overused stereotypes and tropes, such as the druid Azmur Kell, who is working for Aeteperax because the dragon has kidnapped his pregnant wife and is holding her to ensure the druid’s cooperation. He will switch to the PCs’ side if they can assure him of his wife’s safety. Beyond this one motivating factor (one that happens over-frequently in media everywhere), there’s nothing really to his character. As for his wife, Rima, she gets a stat block, but absolutely no description at all. One of the dragon’s other assistants is an alchemist named Pentosh. She’s...well, she’s evil and there’s not much more to her. Of course, good GMs can always embellish these characters however they want (and indeed, it can be good to have a few NPCs who are more broadly drawn to allow GMs to do this), but it would have been nice to have had a few of them a little more developed and three-dimensional.

A couple of characters do stand out, however. In particular, there’s Thaena, a lunar naga who is allied with Aeteperax. She’s old and somewhat senile, and utterly infatuated with the dragon, but he’s lost all interest in her (he became involved with her years ago because of her knowledge of the Dominion of the Black, but his knowledge has since outstripped hers, so she’s of no further use to him). She makes for one of those entertaining villains that the PCs don’t necessarily have to kill. Indeed, they can learn a lot from her, including Aeterperax’s real name. Her history is more fleshed-out than other NPCs’ in the adventure (with Hunclay and Aeteperax himself being about the only exceptions), and this helps give a greater depth to her character.

Another interesting character is Kanjougas, who was the abbot of the Irori monastery before it fell to the Dominion of the Black. He was the last survivor, and in penance, he poisoned himself and became something exceedingly rare in Pathfinder—a non-evil undead mummy. Unfortunately, the PCs are never likely to learn that he’s not evil, and possibly not even the barest bits of his background. When they encounter him, if they happen to have a follower of Irori amongst their number, he says a couple of words about having waited a long time for them. Then he disintegrates. If they do not have an Irori follower with them, he says a couple words about needing to test them and then attacks them, fighting to the death—for only if they kill him can he trust that they are capable of defeating Aeteperax. Paizo has always been very reluctant to allow for non-evil undead, so it’s surprising that when it actually does happen, it would happen in such a pointless way. He never gets do anything non-evil, so why bother drawing attention to it in the text? Only the GM will ever know. Might as well just make him evil. If a follower of Irori is with the party, that person’s presence allows him to grasp redemption and he disintegrates as written. If not, he just attacks the party like any other mummy would do.

Intriguingly, Hunclay, a character who dies in the opening event of the adventure, is probably the best developed NPC in the adventure—but that’s a really good thing. Hunclay’s dealings with Aeterperax and the kobolds, and his delving into the secrets of the Dominion of the Black are the basis of the adventure. Uncovering Hunclay’s secret life and activities forms a major part of the adventure, and thus it makes sense that, even though he’s dead, he should still be a well-developed character.

There are two appendices to the adventure. The first details the town of Belhaim, and the second contains two new monsters (the aforementioned grioths, and another creature from the Dominion of the Black called the yangethe). The appendix on Belhaim gives a good overview of the town’s history and locations. And even though I may be a bit less impressed with some of the characters who live there, I do think the town is well-developed and makes an excellent backdrop for the adventure. The adventure also comes with a full-colour, fold-out map of Belhaim to add to the immersion. The reverse of the map contains a miniatures-scale map of the amphitheatre where the auction is held and where the dragon first makes his demand.

Overall, The Dragon’s Demand is a bold start to a new format for Pathfinder Modules. My criticisms of the NPCs aside, I do still think it is an excellent adventure. It has a great opening, a strong plot, and the dragon himself makes for an excellent and very challenging adversary. The adventure will provide many sessions of fun for a new party just starting out on the road to adventure.

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