Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth


Mazes are a staple of mythology and fantasy fiction, dating back at least to the story of the Minotaur. Yet mazes in roleplaying game adventures are often...well, to put it bluntly, boring. There’s only so long one can discuss turning left or right yet again at the latest intersection. On top of that, the use of miniatures (which is pretty much necessary in a Pathfinder game) makes it hard for a game master to make a maze challenging since the players have an overhead view that their characters don’t have. In the foreword to Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, James Jacobs talks about this very problem and the conundrum this creates with an adventure path that takes the PCs to the realm of Baphomet, demon lord of minotaurs. An entire plane that is one giant maze is a fascinating concept, but can it work as the setting for an adventure?

The answer is a resounding yes. It entails a different approach to mazes than what many roleplayers may be used to, but it’s one that manages to retain the awe and mystery of mazes without the tedium of describing every single turn. In doing so, Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, written by Wolfgang Baur, manages to be one of the most original and exciting outer plane adventures I’ve read in some time. While The Midnight Isles, its immediate predecessor in Wrath of the Righteous, is rather ordinary as far as planar adventures go, Herald brings back the mythic feel that was present in the earlier instalments of the adventure path. This is an adventure where the PCs face off against some of the deadliest foes in the multiverse, but also leaves ample room for investigating, roleplaying, and drama. And it brings with it some incredible rewards for the PCs—assuming they succeed, of course.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

It is a simple fact that PCs often do a lot of travelling during roleplaying campaigns. Even campaigns that stay localized to one specific area still involve some travelling around, such as from one section of a city to another. When travelling from one place to another, most groups don’t spend time describing every bend in the road, or every intersection of streets that the party crosses. Given this, Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth hits on the brilliant idea that you don’t need to describe every twist and turn of a maze—especially if it’s a plane-sized maze. Instead, the adventure uses a certain degree of randomness combined with Survival and Knowledge (planes) checks that get the characters from one general location to the next, much like Survival and Knowledge (geography) checks might be used for overland travel to get from one city to another on the Prime Plane. Of course, the PCs can also use magical means, such as teleport to move from one location to another—although there are some interesting effects if they use magical flight (see below).

It helps too that the Ivory Labyrinth (the name of Baphomet’s planar realm in the Abyss) is more than just a maze of corridors. Parts of it are corridors, but the plane contains a plethora of other terrains, including mountains, caverns, rivers, and even a city, all laid out in maze-like patterns. There are some standard corridors as well (in this case, generally corridors made out of bones). In fact, characters who try to fly over the “walls” (be they hedges, mountain passes, etc.) of the various regions find that the sky folds in on them and then shunts them into one of these bone-corridor areas of the maze. Magic will let you skip portions of the maze, but it won’t let you cheat. More than that, the maze isn’t always the same. Travelling a certain direction from one location might not always take you to the same place next time.

What makes this all work so well is that the maze becomes less something that needs to be solved and more a quirky element of the background. It adds flavour and life to the setting, and enhances, rather than detract from, the adventure itself. And the adventure itself is really rather spectacular.

At the conclusion to The Midnight Isles, in an unfortunately highly railroaded encounter, Baphoment himself arrived to take his revenge on the PCs and kill them. Before he could do so, however, the demon lord Nocticula arrived to save the PCs. She banished him from her realm and in doing so, killed him. Just before this, in a moment of posturing and speech-making, Baphomet told the PCs that, just as his daughter (Hepzamirah) had been taken from him, he had taken someone from the PCs’ patron, Iomedae. He was referring to Iomedae’s herald, the Hand of the Inheritor. After reforming on his own plane, Baphomet turned to torturing the herald and successfully corrupted him, turning him into the titular Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth.

This adventure opens with the PCs being summoned and given a task. But while this may seem a typical way to open an adventure, this summoning is rather different, for it is Iomedae herself who calls the PCs before her. This is the first time in an adventure path that the PCs have encountered an actual god and it holds the potential to be a truly memorable moment. Unfortunately, this is the one part of the adventure that I have significant criticisms of. The problem here is that it becomes just another case of the patron NPC having to inexplicably test the PCs before sending them out on their mission. The PCs must answer a series of questions. Iomedae punishes (quite harshly) any wrong answers with deafening sonic blasts (that cause significant and increasing damage) from an unseen heavenly choir. The PCs are allowed to make skill checks to help correctly answer the questions, yet this is only actually helpful for the first question, since the others are opinion questions.

I’ve never really understood the point of this patron-tests-heroes trope—especially when the patron has already decided the outcome anyway, which is the case here with Iomedae. Regardless of whether the PCs answer correctly, Iomedae still sends them off on the mission. She even heals them of all damage and resurrects any PCs killed by the heavenly choir blasts (yes, Iomedae, patron of justice and all that is good, has no qualms with killing PCs who don’t answer her questions the way she wants them to). The whole scene rings of unnecessary dramatics and can make Iomedae look a bit of a jerk. The fact that the PCs get to meet an actual god should be drama enough. She snatches the PCs up from wherever they happen to be and, afterwards, puts them back with no time having passed and nobody else noticing they were gone. That’s enough display of her powers. The rest really isn’t needed.

That aside, meeting a god is truly a momentous event and one the PCs aren’t likely to forget. From Iomedae, they learn (if they haven’t figured it out by their own means already) that it is her herald that Baphomet has taken. She tasks the PCs with travelling to Baphomet’s realm and rescuing the herald (since the laws of the gods forbid her own direct involvement). It is when the PCs arrive in the Ivory Labyrinth that this adventure truly begins.

The first thing the PCs have to do (along with figuring out how to navigate the labyrinth) is figure out where Baphomet is holding the herald. The Ivory Labyrinth is a plane and searching an entire plane is not a simple task. The great thing about this adventure is it provides a number of ways for the PCs to accomplish this (and continues to provide numerous options for tasks in later parts of the adventure). It doesn’t try to push them down one correct path. Instead, it provides a couple of optional encounters with NPCs that can provide them with information and set them on the right track. The PCs are likely to find their way to the city of Blackburgh where they might encounter a mythic vescavor swarm (vescavors are Abyssal creatures that are basically mouths with wings; swarms have a communal intelligence) or a nalfeshnee demon named Orengofta. Both of these can provide the PCs with useful information and make for interesting roleplaying encounters (and possibly combats too). Played well, the encounter with the vescavor swarm in particular, could be very creepy.

Eventually, the PCs will learn that the Herald is held in the Ineluctable Prison, a maze within the greater maze that is the Ivory Labyrinth. Once inside the Ineluctable Prison, the PCs must find the herald and either rescue or fight him. Once again, there are many different ways they might go about this, and as a result, the adventure can follow many different routes. Orengofta can arrange for the PCs to be taken inside as “prisoners”. Alternatively, they can seek and kill the Father of Worms, a mythic nightcrawler, whose blood can dissolve the Ineluctable Prison’s locks. Or they can just break in the old-fashioned way with Disable Device checks or smashing down the doors. (Teleport is actually not an option in this case as the Ineluctable Prison is technically a separate demi-plane within the Ivory Labyrinth; however, methods of planar travel could work.)

Inside the Ineluctable Prison, the adventure becomes a dungeon crawl of sorts, but an incredibly unique one. Navigating the maze of the prison is handled just like navigating the Ivory Labyrinth, with each location connecting to several other possible locations. A combination of randomness and skill checks allow the PCs to get from one place to another (or, once they’re familiar with a location, teleport spells and the like prove useful shortcuts). The prison also contains several interesting NPCs that the PCs can interact with in ways other than just fighting (although there are certainly many things to fight, too)—including one of the ancient Runelords of Thassilon. Runelord Alderpash was the first Runelord of Wrath and he has been imprisoned in the Ineluctable Prison for millennia (he is now a lich). He can end up either a useful ally or a deadly enemy—perhaps even both.

Even how the PCs deal with Iomedae’s herald—now Baphomet’s herald—can resolve in many different ways. As the herald has been corrupted, some PCs may simply choose to kill him. Others may seek ways to redeem him. Redemption is not easy (they must find and restore his heart in order to even attempt this), but certainly not beyond the abilities of a high-level party.

At the end of the adventure, the PCs are likely to have another encounter with Baphomet. He’s been hiding for most of the adventure since his death at the hands of Nocticula means that if he is killed again before the passing of another year, he will die permanently. However, once the PCs have dealt with the herald (through whatever means), he realizes he needs to act. As powerful as the PCs are now, a fight with Baphomet is one they still might lose and it might actually be in the PCs’ best interests to flee. While there are quite a few similarities between this ending and the ending of The Midnight Isles, this ending works far better as an epic and climactic finale. Where The Midnight Isles forces a scripted end upon the PCs, here the choice of how to proceed is left firmly in their hands. They can try to fight valiantly (possibly calling upon allies they’ve gained, like Runelord Alderpash), or they can flee knowing they’ve dealt a serious blow to Baphomet. Either way, the ending is dramatic and full of tension.

Indeed, the best thing about Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth is how much control over the adventure’s outcome is left in the PCs’ hands. As well as allowing for multiple options and outcomes, it doesn’t try to impose arbitrary limits on the abilities of high-level PCs. There are no limits on teleport spells, for example (beyond the limits already existing in the spell’s rules, such as not crossing planar boundaries). The few minor limits that exist simply add flavour and don’t really limit the PCs’ capabilities. The image of the sky folding in when characters try to use flight, for example, is hugely evocative and mood-setting. And flight is a relatively low-level ability, so this minor limitation won’t likely feel like a limit in the same way that limiting teleport or plane shift might, for instance.

At the very end of the adventure, the PCs have a chance of receiving a truly amazing gift. Even if the Hand of the Inheritor survives and is redeemed, he is ashamed by his actions and chooses to resign his position as Iomedae’s herald. With the position open, Iomedae offers it to one of the PCs. She allows the PCs the choice of which of them takes up the mantle, with the only restriction being that the character must be a devout worshipper of Iomedae. This person gains several new abilities. If none of the PCs are worshippers of Iomedae or none of them wish to take on this job, Iomedae instead awards the position of herald to Queen Galfrey.

Of course, one PC gaining new abilities as Iomedae’s herald might seem a little unfair to the characters who don’t become the herald. To balance this, Iomedae gives the other characters separate rewards, including the option for a future divine intervention or an immediate granted miracle spell. These rewards are also available if none of the PCs become the herald.

Inside the Ineluctable Prison, most of the guards are demodands instead of demons. As such, it’s helpful that one of the support articles in this Pathfinder Adventure Path volume is “Ecology of the Demodand” by Amanda Hamon. This article takes an in-depth look at these unusual Abyssal denizens. It looks at the three principal kinds of demodands (shaggy, slimy, and tarry), as well as one new kind that appears in this volume’s Bestiary: the stringy demodand.

The second article, by Sean K. Reynolds, looks at Baphomet himself and the people who worship him. The article is in the style of Reynolds’s articles on the gods of Golarion and is just as detailed, helping GMs add wonderful flavour to enemy cults of Baphomet. Baphomet’s stats can be found in the volume’s Bestiary. The Bestiary also contains the aforementioned demodand, a new kind of demon (the vilsteth), and labyrinth minotaurs.

Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth brings back the mythic feel to Wrath of the Righteous in a pretty major way, and it is the perfect example of how to do a high-level adventure right. If I have one further minor criticism of it, it’s that the focus of the adventure path has stayed away from the war in the Worldwound for a little too long, but nonetheless, this adventure has set up the PCs’ return to that war in the next and final instalment and has provided them with a major victory in it. They’ve defeated (even if they haven’t killed) one of the demon lords behind the Worldwound. Only Deskari now stands in their way—and he’s an even greater threat than Baphomet.

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