Sunday, 30 March 2014

Tears at Bitter Manor


Paizo’s RPG Superstar is a yearly competition open to anyone who wants to try their hand at roleplaying game design. It starts each year in December and runs through into the new year. The public gets to vote on the submissions for each round, whittling down the competition first to 32 competitors, then 16, then 8, then the final 4 (originally, the first round was decided upon entirely by Paizo’s in-house judges, but in recent years, the first round has been opened up to public voting as well). The first round requires entrants to design a new magic items, while in the last round, the finalists submit an adventure proposal. The rounds in between vary from year to year, but often include tasks like designing a new monster, an NPC, an encounter location, etc. The winner of RPG Superstar gets a commission for his or her adventure proposal, gets to write the full adventure and see it published. In recent years, the runners-up have also received commissions to write a Pathfinder Society scenario. Many past RPG Superstar winners and runners-up have gone on to become regular contributors to Pathfinder adventures and books. This year’s winner is Victoria Jaczko, but it will be a while before her adventure sees publication. However, last year’s winner was Steven Helt, and his adventure, Tears at Bitter Manor is the latest Pathfinder Module.

Tears at Bitter Manor is about a group of retired adventurers who reunite once each year to celebrate old times. However, this year, two of their members mysteriously fail to show up, and so they hire the PCs to investigate what has happened. Although there is a bit of a mystery, it is a fairly straight-forward adventure overall. It’s a functional adventure and will likely be fun and entertaining to play, but despite its rather original premise, there’s not a lot about it that really stands out from other adventures.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The Golden Watch is the name the retired adventurers had for their adventuring group. There used to be five members, but only two—the married couple Verus “Igneous” Crandel and Branda Tulles—show up to their annual meeting this year. One of the five recently died of old age, but Igneous and Branda are worried about the other two members. They know that one has suffered an injury and is in a care facility, but they don’t know what has happened to the other. They want the PCs to look in on both of them. The truth of the matter is that they have been betrayed by the missing member: the alchemist Taergan Flinn.

As a half-elf and the only non-human member of the Golden Watch, Flinn has not aged as quickly as the others, but even he is now starting to get on in years. He has become obsessed with finding a way to reverse his ageing and to acquire eternal youth. His experiments have been unsuccessful. However, his determination to succeed brought him into contact with an erodaemon named Anobaith. She has promised to give him the secret to eternal youth in return for his sacrificing his friends to her. He has already had Dern Fosimuth, the group’s cleric, committed to a sinister home for the elderly (that he has purchased) and has arranged to fake his own kidnapping so that Igneous and Branda will come after him—straight into the trap he has laid for them.

The adventure takes the PCs first to Flinn’s townhouse in Cassomir, where they discover that it has been broken into and find indications of a struggle and traces of Flinn’s blood (all staged by Flinn). From there, they travel to the nearby town of Hope’s Hollow in search of Dern Fosimuth, where they find him in a facility called Mother’s Care Home for Invalids. This place was once well-regarded for its quality of care, but ever since a new owner (who is none other than Taergan Flinn) took over, the staff has dwindled and become inattentive. Very few patients still remain there (most having been removed by their families in the last few months) and those that do are treated poorly and tortured.

Mother’s Care Home makes for a creepy setting for this portion of the adventure, although there are a number of aspects that don’t quite hold up on closer inspection. Three human nurses are said to remain at the facility (to keep up appearances) while the rest of the staff has been replaced by a pair of dark slayers posing as administrative staff. According to the text, the three nurses “passively work through their days and pay little attention to what’s happening around them. Beyond observing that the centre seems to have lowered its standards for care, they can tell the PCs little” (15). That these nurses pay little attention is quite the understatement. They fail to notice the abuse going on under their noses even though “few precautions are taken to disguise the severity of [Dern’s] abuse” (17). They also apparently don’t notice the pair of creepy young children (actually vulnudaemons) that go around terrorizing the patients. It’s easy to rectify this extreme level of inattention by stating that the human staff has been frightened into maintaining silence or perhaps by even having them be in on the whole thing. However, going simply by what’s stated in the text, they just haven’t noticed.

There’s also an odd statement in the text that “If one of the vulnudaemons or dark slayers attempts to murder a patient, that patient lets out a hoarse scream the PCs can hear” (17), yet there’s no indication under what circumstances the denizens of the hospital would actually attempt such a murder or why. If they’ve been murdering patients with any regularity, the inattention of the human nurses becomes even harder to believe.

Finally, there’s the matter of Dern Fosimuth’s injury. He apparently suffered a crippling injury (arranged by Flinn) that left him unable to walk. Yet there’s no mention of exactly what happened to him, or what Flinn did to cause the injury. This is likely to be one of the first questions the PCs ask Dern, so the GM is going to have to simply make something up. Not a difficult task, but it still seems a bizarre omission, since it’s from Dern that the PCs learn that Flinn has betrayed the rest of the Golden Watch.

After learning of Flinn’s betrayal, the PCs return to Cassomir only to find that, in their absence, Igneous and Branda received a ransom note for Flinn and have rushed off to the Verduran Forest to rescue him. The PCs must then head out themselves to rescue Igneous and Branda. The remainder of the adventure entails their journey through the forest to an old manor house called Tristeza House and their search through the manor itself. Tristeza House is the “Bitter Manor” of the title and the place where Igneous and Branda expect to rescue Flinn, but have themselves been caught instead.

Unfortunately, the journey through the forest is the least interesting part of the adventure. It basically entails a number of keyed encounters with creatures that are either residents of the forest or have been left there by Anobaith or Flinn to stop intruders. As many of the encounters are keyed to multiple locations, the PCs are likely to encounter most of them at least once regardless of the route the follow through the forest. Through these encounters (particularly from the calibans), the PCs can learn some things about Flinn or Anobaith, but overall the encounters don’t add a lot to the adventure except a few more things for the PCs to fight along the way—although a few of them do offer the opportunity for the PCs to complete some of the adventure’s side-quests (see below).

The conclusion of the adventure, within the Bitter Manor itself, is much more interesting than the forest journey. While it’s essentially a dungeon crawl, it holds together well with denizens that, for the most part, behave as if they are in a place that is occupied by other creatures and don’t just sit around waiting for the PCs to enter the room they’re in. Ironically, the purpose of many of these creatures (such as the heucuvas that patrol the grounds) really is to wait for people like the PCs to show up and then kill them. Nonetheless, the manor comes across as a fairly believable location. One encounter does seem out of place though, and that’s the encounter with the mothman, who gives the PCs a portentous vision of a future where Anobaith’s long-term plans have devastated Absalom (although the adventure takes place in the vicinity of Cassomir, Anobaith plans to move on to Absalom eventually). After showing the PCs the vision, the mothman leaves. The encounter exists solely to provide the PCs with a reason to make certain that they completely destroy Anobaith rather than just stop her current plans and let her escape. However, the encounter feels out of place and tacked on. It doesn’t really accomplish a whole lot.

Overall, while the ending works fairly well, the main thing that keeps the adventure from really standing out is that the characters are not all that compelling—particularly the members of the Golden Watch. Dern Fosimuth has little to no personality to speak of and the others—Igneous, Branda, and Flinn—all seem based on broad archetypes with little to make them stand out. But even if they were more developed as characters, the PCs still don’t get a lot of opportunity to interact with them. The PCs’ motivations to rush off and rescue Branda and Igneous pretty much boil down to saving the people who are paying them. There’s no opportunity for the PCs to get to know the two of them and actually want to save them (rather than save their income source). Flinn has a little more going for him than just a typical mad scientist, but still, there’s not a lot to him beyond his desire to be young again.

Anobaith is the most well-developed of the NPCs and that’s primarily because of her extensive plots. I will admit that I was initially turned off of her because I’m really tired of succubi, which are overused in Paizo’s adventures. Anobaith is not a succubus. She’s an erodaemon. But really, the erodaemon is just the daemonic equivalent of the demonic succubus. They have similar abilities and a similar purpose to their existence. Erodaemons do have a more monstrous appearance than succubi, but they still retain the “sexy female” look. That’s not to say there are no real differences—erodaemons are focused on the dissolution of love and bonds, for example, and feed off of heartbreak—but they overlap enough that at first glance, an erodaemon seems like just a stand-in for a succubus.

That said, I do like that Anobaith has extensive plans beyond just the members of the Golden Watch. As a villain, this makes her quite a bit more compelling than typical. Her actions have affected the entire town of Hope’s Hollow and many of the adventure’s side-quests bring the PCs face-to-face with the results of some of her other plots—all of which involve breaking down the bonds of love, friendship, and family. Indeed, Tears at Bitter Manor does an excellent job integrating the various side-quests into the larger framework of the adventure. Since Pathfinder Modules switched to their new format with The Dragon’s Demand, each adventure has included a number of side-quests to go along with the main adventure. These side-quests are summarized at the beginning of the module and the PCs can “gain” them as they go along. In previous adventures, the side-quests have often been little more than steps on the main adventure (this is particularly true in Wardens of the Reborn Forge) and not truly side-quests at all, but here they are related to the main adventure (in that Anobaith’s activities are generally the root cause) but still separate. Yet despite being separate, they don’t detract from the adventure. Instead, they help to make the setting a more vibrant and believable location. Hope’s Hollow is not a place that only exists in relation to the PCs and one adventure. Instead, it’s a living, breathing place that has a multitude of things going on in it.

The adventure also creates a great feeling of doom and desolation hanging over the town of Hope’s Hollow. From the hostility and distrust of the residents to the use of haunts (and sometimes other undead) as the remnants of the relationships Anobaith has destroyed, it creates an ominous backdrop for the adventure as a whole. The town’s NPCs (the still-living ones, at any rate) remain rather undefined, but otherwise, Hope’s Hollow makes for a good setting.

Tears at Bitter Manor has a surprisingly large number of typos and editing errors in it. Most of them are simple little things like referring to the stat block “below”, when in fact, the stat block is above, or missed words. However, the frequency of the errors starts to get very noticeable and distracting.

Overall, Tears at Bitter Manor is a decent adventure that has an interesting premise and some very good moments, but it doesn’t really stand out from the crowd of other decent adventures out there. Its main problem is the lack of development of the central NPCs it’s based around. In a stand-alone adventure that is meant to be inserted into another larger campaign, it can be hard to introduce NPC allies that the PCs will actually care about. Such relationships generally need time to develop. However, it can be done, and if the adventure is going to involve NPCs that the PCs should care about and want to help, it needs to be done. More vibrant NPCs would certainly help to raise Tears at Bitter Manor from a decent adventure to a really good adventure.

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