Wednesday 29 January 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - The Midnight Isles

As Pathfinder (and D&D) games reach higher levels, it becomes quite common for PCs to take their adventures to other worlds and planes of existence. Planar travel has been a long-standing part of the game since its earliest days, with many adventures set in various locations across the multiverse (and even an entire campaign setting, Planescape, designed around planar travel). The Worldwound area of the Pathfinder Campaign Setting contains a direct portal to the abyss, through which demonic forces have been able to invade. With the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path set in and around the Worldwound and dealing with the crusades to end the demonic invasion, it was only inevitable that eventually the PCs would take the fight to the Abyss itself—which is precisely what happens in the fourth instalment, The Midnight Isles by James Jacobs and Greg A. Vaughan.

As the first adventure path to utilise the mythic rules, Wrath of the Righteous, thus far, has maintained a suitably mythic feel. Indeed, The Worldwound Incursion accomplished that without actually adding anything mythic until the very end. While all adventure paths are, in a sense, mythic in scope (by virtue of dealing with a storyline covering an entire campaign, one in which the PCs are likely to become well-known heroes), Wrath of the Righteous has managed to go one step further. It’s not just the presence of more powerful monsters (made necessary by the fact that mythic PCs are just a little bit more powerful than non-mythic PCs); it’s the intricate storyline where the consequences of failure are just a little greater, as well as the diverse cast of fully fleshed-out NPCs who create the opportunity for intricate relationships and roleplaying opportunities. The PCs go from barely surviving a demon attack on the city of Kenabres to being the saviours of that city to then liberating a city long in the thrall of the demons. They have found and rescued a redeemed succubus, and have uncovered the details of the demons’ terrible plans.

As such, it’s a little bit surprising that, as they now head off to the Abyss itself, The Midnight Isles is the first adventure in Wrath of the Righteous to lose that mythic quality and feel like just another adventure. It’s a decent adventure, sure, but it doesn’t stand out the way the other instalments in this adventure path have. In part, this is because planar adventures already have many of the qualities that make an adventure feel “mythic” and so, in order to make them stand out even more, they have to have something more than other planar adventures have—and I really don’t think this one does. In part, it’s also due to the fact that this adventure feels rather “done before”. It bears a lot of similarities to some earlier Paizo adventures, particularly parts of the Savage Tide adventure path. Of course, to a certain extent, all adventures reuse common patterns and tropes, but this one seems to do so to a greater extent. In his foreword, James Jacobs explains that the reason there are two authors on this adventure is because he and Greg A. Vaughan helped each other out due to both of them have very busy and tight schedules. It’s therefore not surprising, I suppose, that in order get it completed, they had to rely on reusing tried-and-true tropes. But alas, tried-and-true does not make for a mythic feel. The result is a planar adventure that seems rather ordinary when compared to the adventures that have led up to it.


The adventure opens with Queen Galfrey meeting with the PCs and informing them that the Lexicon of Paradox has been recovered. This is the book of rituals that originally opened the Worldwound a hundred years ago. While experts are studying it to figure out a way to use it to close the Worldwound again, Galfrey has brought with her a few pages that can be used to close smaller rifts. She wants the PCs to use the pages to shut down the rift that connects the Midnight Fane (where the demons are refining the Nahyndrian crystals, the gems that allow them to add mythic powers to their own ranks and to also destroy the wardstones protecting Mendev from the Worldwound) with the Abyss. She will accompany them to assist them since there must be people on both sides of the rift in order to shut it down. Galfrey wants the PCs to be on the Abyss side so that they can follow up this mission with tracking down and eliminating the source of the Nahyndrian crystals.

I often talk about adventure openings in my reviews and can sometimes be quite critical of the NPC-hires-PCs-for-a-task style of opening. I find this less of a problem in the middle of an adventure path and don’t really have a problem with that aspect of the opening here. The PCs already know Queen Galfrey and she knows them. Her coming to the PCs builds on an already established relationship and makes a lot of sense in the context. However, I do have an issue with this opening. It introduces, out of the blue, a previously unmentioned artefact that has miraculously been recovered, and the PCs have not been involved at all.

Now, it makes sense that things are going on in the world without the PCs involved. It’s all part of making a living, breathing, believable campaign. The other forces of good should be doing things. However, there’s a fine line to draw between this and taking focus away from the PCs’ actions, and I think this crosses that line. More than this, though, I’m concerned by the fact that the events of the recovery of the Lexicon of Paradox are told in the novel King of Chaos by Dave Gross. I really don’t like the idea of novels crossing over into adventure paths. It paves the way for fiction to control the game play—something that became a massive problem for the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, where the world’s evolving history was dictated by the novels and not the actions of individual campaigns. In this case, it’s not a major transgression; it only crosses that line a little, and the exploits of Varian Jegarre (a popular character in the Pathfinder Tales novels) don’t have a huge impact on the progress of Wrath of the Righteous. The PCs still get to be the ultimate heroes, and it’s certainly not necessary to have read the novel to play through this adventure. However, it’s a step in the wrong direction. I hope this is a one-time thing and won’t be repeated, but I worry that it will and that the next step will go farther. The novels should not be canon in the campaign setting.

At the Midnight Fane, the PCs finally get to confront Minagho, a lilitu demon who has been working behind the scenes throughout the entire adventure path. How much the PCs have learnt about her will, of course, depend on how the previous adventures have played out. They might be completely unaware of her, or they might know of the demon who disguises herself as members of the forces of good in order to lead them astray. However, even if the PCs know nothing of her, Minagho is a great example for how well the villainous NPCs have been handled in this adventure path. The presence of all the villains and their goals have been made clear to the GM right from the very beginning and the PCs have had numerous chances to learn about them along the way. So when the PCs finally encounter them, the villains are more than just other monsters along the way. They have a dramatic role to play in the adventure path, and their ultimate defeat is all the more dramatic and satisfying as a result. What’s particularly nice here with Minagho is that the encounter with her isn’t necessarily just a straight fight. She’s cunning, and uses that against the PCs. If she has the opportunity, she first appears before the PCs disguised as Yaniel, a famous but missing paladin of Iomedae. When combat does break out with her, she doesn’t just fight to the death either. She will withdraw and hound the PCs from the sidelines for as long as possible. So even if the PCs are completely unaware of her when they arrive at the Midnight Fane, they will certainly know who she is by the time they’re done.

Unfortunately, the allied NPCs that the PCs have spent the adventure path building relationships with have little to no role in this adventure. This is somewhat unavoidable. The PCs leave the Prime Plane in this adventure and it makes sense that the NPCs wouldn’t want to accompany them to the Abyss (and it would be rather irresponsible of the PCs to insist that they come along). So while it’s a shame that they don’t appear, I don’t criticise the adventure for this. That said, I am rather surprised that Arushalae, the redeemed succubus rescued in the last adventure, has little role in this adventure—especially considering her portrait is on the adventure’s cover, and Demon’s Heresy implied that her role in the forthcoming instalments would be very important. She has very good reasons for not going to the Abyss—she is, after all, trying to redeem herself and the Abyss would present too many temptations to draw her from the path—so I probably shouldn’t be surprised at her lack of involvement here. There is, however, an option for her to establish a telepathic contact with the PCs so she can advise them throughout the adventure, and this is a good way to continue to develop the PCs’ relationship with her. However, the adventure text itself does little to expand on this possible aspect of the adventure.

It is once the PCs have entered the Abyss (specifically the Midnight Isles, the domain of the demon lord Nocticula, demon lord of assassins, darkness, and lust, ruler of succubi) that the adventure starts to take on that “done before” feeling I mentioned earlier. As well as stop the supply of Nahyndrian crystals, the PCs must also prevent an alliance between the forces of the Worldwound and Nocticula. To do this, they must travel to Alushinyrra, the Porphyry City (Nocticula’s capital) and negotiate an alliance with Nocticula herself. As Wrath of the Righteous, so far, has been one of the most strongly “good versus evil” adventure paths, some parties (particularly if there are any paladins in them) may be taken a bit aback by having to ally with one evil in order to stop another. Of course, this really shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise to players familiar with Paizo adventures, as this is a common tactic in them. It’s doubly similar here in that this isn’t even the first adventure where the PCs have had to deal with the ruler of the succubi, either. The Savage Tide adventure path requires the PCs to deal with Malcanthet (from the Greyhawk campaign setting), and in a very similar way too. Indeed, having to deal with succubi seems particularly common (there’s already been a redeemed one in this adventure path) and I can’t help but wonder if that’s due to the “sex appeal”.

Presenting PCs with moral quandaries can be very fun and dramatic, even for paladins. Indeed, one could argue that there’s not much point to playing a character with such a strict moral code as a paladin if that code isn’t challenged once in a while. However, there can reach a point where it’s too much. There’s also rarely much of a viable option for PCs who decide they don’t want to deal with the lesser evil. Given the fact that this adventure’s ending (more on that in a bit) requires Nocticula to step in to save the PCs, this adventure pretty much won’t work at all if the PCs refuse to negotiate with her and instead choose to oppose her. Also, forcing mythic PCs to ally with a demon lord rather dilutes the mythic feel of the adventure path. These PCs aren’t quite so mighty anymore if they have to be saved by a demon lord.

A greater issue here is the precise definition of “lesser evil”. Honestly, it’s not very clear at all. The PCs have to deal with a lot of demons in this adventure and I do like that they often have to do so in ways other than fighting with them. They have to negotiate their way through the inhabitants of the Porphyry City just to get near to Nocticula. In order to make things easier on those unsure of how their alignments will be affected, all the PCs acquire talismans of true faith. These magic items warn them if they are about to do something that might go against their alignments. This way, they can know if dealing with a particular demon will damn their souls or be okay. Very convenient. And completely arbitrary. For example, the PCs might encounter Shamira, the governor of the Porphyry City and Nocticula’s second in command. If they do, she offers an alliance of her own, but the talismans will warn the PCs that this is a bad choice. Yet there’s no real indication why a deal with Shamira is so much worse an evil than Nocticula herself—whom, of course, the talismans do not warn against. Given the two demons’ individual motivations, Shamira is likely to betray the PCs sooner than Nocticula, but whether their allies will betray them really doesn’t have any effect on the PCs’ alignments. It’s the PCs’ own actions that count there. Indeed, the reason seems nothing more than the plot requires the PCs to deal with Nocticula but not Shamira. The talismans of true faith give the gamemaster a metagame way to push the PCs along the “correct” path.

All that said, I do like the opportunity for roleplay in the Porphyry City. As I alluded to above, it makes demons more than just random monsters to fight.

After making a deal with Nocticula, the PCs must travel to the Isle of Colyphyr where the Nahyndrian Mine is located (this journey can be facilitated by Nocticula or the PCs can find their own way there). Once at the mine, the adventure essentially becomes a dungeon crawl from here on. This is not a criticism. The Midnight Isles has a very good balance of travel, roleplay, and dungeon crawling. The only problem here is that aspect of nothing being really out of the ordinary, despite this being a mythic adventure on another plane—and that’s a bit of a disappointment.

In the mine, the PCs encounter Hepzamirah, Baphomet’s daughter and another major player in Wrath of the Righteous. Ultimately, the PCs (assuming they survive) will either kill her or force her to retreat. Either way, at this point, Baphomet himself intervenes by using Hepzamirah as a conduit into the plane. He literally bursts out of her body (which will kill her if she isn’t already dead) and prepares to attack the PCs. Of course, the PCs aren’t yet powerful enough to face Baphomet, and he will almost certainly kill them. While I like that a major villain actually decides to be proactive for a change (rather than waiting for the PCs to reach him), this ending is very problematic, as it necessitates Nocticula stepping in to save the PCs. Having powerful NPCs save the PCs generally doesn’t go over well with many players—especially as the resolution to an adventure (it can be made to work at the beginning of an adventure, such as the dragon Terendelev saving the PCs as her dying act in the opening of this very adventure path). There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the PCs losing battles once in a while. Having to flee can be dramatic and can make a later victory all the more satisfying. However, when PCs flee due to overwhelming odds, there is still at least the illusion of choice involved. The players can still feel as though their decisions guided the outcome to some extent (after all, they could have continued to fight and die). But when others save them from an impossible situation, there isn’t even an illusion of choice. All choice is ripped from the part of the players and put in the control of the gamemaster. It’s akin to the GM saying out of the blue, “Rocks fall from the sky and you die. Game over.” Sure, in this case, the PCs are saved from certain death, but not through any actions of their own. (I suppose it can be argued that their earlier actions making a deal with Nocticula count towards making this ending possible. However, since Nocticula has pretty much decided to deal with the PCs before they even encounter her and not because they convince her to, I don’t think this really counts.) It can erode the fun from play experience as the players can start to feel as though the GM might as well be playing alone.

I’d advise just leaving this ending out, except that, alas, it’s necessary to explain why Baphomet doesn’t just come straight after the PCs when they invade his plane in the next adventure. Nocticula actually kills Baphomet. Demon lords reform after being killed, but they are vulnerable after that. If they are killed again within a year of their death, they die permanently. Baphomet, therefore holes up in his lair, giving the PCs to the opportunity to build up their strength and face him themselves—but that’s the next adventure and I won’t go into detail on that here.

The first of the support articles in this volume is a “Gazetteer of the Abyss”, giving brief details on over 40 of the planar realms that make up the Abyss. This is followed by an article on the Porphyry City itself, which is of particular use in the adventure. It also contains the stats for Shamira, which probably won’t be needed in the adventure, but may be useful for future adventures or campaigns that bring the PCs to the city. I get the impression, however, that these two articles were originally intended to be in the opposite order. There are several incorrect page references to the Porphyry City article throughout the entire volume, even within the article itself (it cites the table listing all the Midnight Isles as being on page 66 instead of 72 where it actually is). The pages numbers referenced are consistent each time, so it leads me to think there was a last-minute reordering of the volume’s material and someone forgot to edit the references.

This volume’s Bestiary contains cambion demons and the stats for Nocticula (who is CR 30), along with a couple of other Abyssal denizens.

Overall, apart from the issues I’ve mentioned, I like The Midnight Isles. For the most part, it’s a good outer-planes adventure. However, it does rely on the reuse of some overused themes in Paizo’s adventures, and that makes it seem a little run-of-the-mill. This adventure path has otherwise been anything but run-of-the-mill and so its inclusion here makes The Midnight Isles the weakest instalment of Wrath of the Righteous so far.

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