Thursday, 17 April 2014

Mummy's Mask - The Half-Dead City


After the potentially world-shattering Wrath of the Righteous, the new adventure path has moved to something somewhat calmer and less immediately devastating. Indeed, the first instalment of Mummy’s Mask, The Half-Dead City by Jim Groves, has one of the calmest openings for any adventure path. This isn’t a bad thing. It provides a contrast with other adventure paths and sets the tone for this one. While big things may well happen down the line, this adventure path is taking the time to set the scene and build things up before letting all hell break loose.

The Half-Dead City is very much a dungeon crawl, and while I’m not the biggest fan of pure dungeon crawls, this is a well-made one and one I can imagine myself running at some point. As a consequence of delving into tombs, there’s not a lot of opportunity for interaction with NPCs, but nonetheless, it does manage to have several extremely well-developed and interesting NPCs. The PCs may not get a lot of time with these characters, but that time will almost certainly be memorable (assuming the GM plays them well).

SPOILERS FOLLOW

I’ve often commented that I love when adventures open with a big event that draws the PCs immediately into the action. This is not one of those adventures. However, to be fair, if every adventure opened that way, that style of opening would eventually get just as stale and boring as the typical opening where an NPC hires the PCs to accomplish some task or another. What’s great about The Half-Dead City’s opening, however, is that it’s not one of those typical openings either. In an adventure where the principal (and pretty much only) motivation for the PCs is explicitly the gathering of wealth and treasure, it makes a wonderful twist that it doesn’t open with someone offering the PCs money to perform an otherwise altruistic task.

No one offers to pay the PCs anything in The Half-Dead City. Instead, the premise (and one in which players will need to design their characters around) is that the party has come to the Osirion city of Wati (the Half-Dead City of the title) to explore the Necropolis. Millennia ago, Wati was struck by the Plague of Madness and over half the population died. It took centuries for the city to recover, but even once it did, the Church of Pharasma sealed off an entire section (which became known as the Necropolis) of the city to serve as a tomb for all the people who lost their lives there. A few years ago, Pharaoh Khemet III formally opened the tombs of Osirion to foreign explorers in order to stimulate his country’s economy. Only Wati’s Necropolis remained closed. But now, it too is being opened and adventurers from all over the world have come to explore it. The PCs’ party is amongst them

Although the church of Pharasma is not too happy about opening up the Necropolis, it is cooperating in order to have some control over it. To avoid various parties squabbling over who gets to explore which parts of the Necropolis, the Pharasmins have created a lottery to determine randomly who goes where. The adventure opens with the PCs and all the other adventurers from around the world gathered by the Grand Mausoleum of Pharasma awaiting the results of the lottery. It’s an unusual opening, for sure, but one that creates a very intriguing mental image. The idea that the PCs are not unique and that there are other adventurers in the world is not a new one. However, having a scene in which the PCs are explicitly just a small fraction of a crowd of adventurers is certainly a new approach to the idea.

Of course, at a meta-level, the lottery that determines the location the PCs get to go to first is not really random. The adventure has already decided that location, so GMs don’t need to worry about making a bunch of rolls to determine where everyone goes. All that really matters is the assumption that, in-game, the process is random and the first location chosen for the PCs just happens to be the Tomb of Akhentepi. The fact that this first of three dungeons (as well as the second) the PCs will explore in this adventure has absolutely nothing to do with the overall adventure path helps to maintain this illusion of randomness. That said, some players may wind up disappointed that two thirds of this adventure are ultimately rather pointless. Conversely, however, other players may like the sense of realism this adds. It really comes down to a matter of personal taste.

The three dungeons in this adventure are quite well-designed. First off, none of them suffer from the problem that they seem to have no purpose beyond being a place for the PCs to explore and fight things in. The traps and inhabitants are placed in a way that makes sense as something that might actually exist in a real world. Perhaps most importantly, each of the three dungeons is sufficiently different from the others, ensuring that the adventure doesn’t become stale from the PCs having to do the same thing over and over again.

The Tomb of Akhentepi is the kind of dungeon players are most likely expecting from Mummy’s Mask—namely, a tomb full of devious traps and either undead or constructs to fight (in this case, it’s constructs). Exploring ancient tombs is often the first thing people think of when they think of adventures in Ancient Egypt (which is what Osirion is based upon). As such, I’m glad that The Half-Dead City presents this stereotype and gets it out of the way first, fulfilling the expectation and moving on to more interesting things. That’s not to say that the Tomb of Akhentepi has nothing interesting about it, just that it’s less interesting than what is to come.

After finishing in the tomb, the PCs get an opportunity to rest up before learning their next location from the Pharasmins. During this time, they get their first real opportunity to interact with the other adventurers exploring the Necropolis. They are invited to a gathering at the Tooth & Hookah, an inn in Wati (and the inn that the PCs are probably staying at). At the gathering, they get to meet several other adventuring groups, including the group that will play a significant role later in the adventure, the Scorched Hand. Not only does this section provide a good roleplaying contrast to the dungeon crawling of the rest of the adventure, it also includes a large and varied selection of interesting NPCs. Of course, space is at a premium, and each of these groups (except the Scorched Hand) only gets a paragraph or two of description. Nevertheless, each group manages to be distinct and compelling. It’s a shame most of these characters appear only in this scene and nowhere else in the adventure (and probably not in the adventures to come, I suspect).

At this gathering, the PCs first hear mention of something called the Erudite Eye when Velriana, the leader of the Scorched Hand begins asking all the other groups whether they’ve heard of it or of anyone being assigned to explore an ancient temple or shrine. This is the first hint of the greater plot of the adventure path, but one that is not followed up on immediately.

The second location the PCs get to explore is the House of Pentheru. And it is literally a house, a place that a family used to live in until the Plague of Madness killed them all. This “dungeon” is definitely my favourite of the three, partly because it’s not really a dungeon/tomb (it just happened to be in the portion of the city that would later be sealed off as the Necropolis), but also because of the wonderful way the adventure allows the PCs to uncover the history and fate of the family that lived here. Through the use of haunts and other undead, the PCs gradually learn the tragedy that afflicted this all-too-normal family. Even though there’s no real opportunity for role-played interaction here (haunts are not things that are really interacted with; they just play themselves out in repetition), the location presents some very vivid characters in the form of this long-dead family.

The final dungeon is the Sanctum of the Erudite Eye, an ancient temple dedicated to Nethys. Unknown to the PCs, the Scorched Hand has gone to the temple ahead of them. They came to Wati specifically to find this temple. When the church of Pharasma refused to authorize them to explore it (as the process must be random), they decided to go ahead and explore it anyway, ahead of whatever group gets assigned it. They don’t know specifically that the PCs have been assigned the Sanctum. However, they have hired a group of thugs to ambush anyone trying to approach the temple while they are in it. The PCs must first deal with these thugs and might possibly be able to learn of the Scorched Hand’s involvement this way.

Unknown to both the PCs and the Scorched Hand is that there is a third party involved. A necromancer named Nebta-Khufre has learnt that the Sanctum is the hiding place for a long-forgotten, but powerful magic item called the mask of the Forgotten Pharaoh. He has entered the Sanctum ahead of both groups. He is still there when the Scorched Hand arrives, at which point he has already recovered the mask. He sneaks out without them discovering him (and resetting some of the traps they’ve already bypassed) before the PCs arrive. The PCs discover evidence of his being there while they explore the Sanctum, but they do not actually encounter Nebta-Khufre in this adventure.

Paizo’s earlier adventure, Entombed with the Pharaohs used the idea of a rival adventuring party competing in the same dungeon as the PCs and that idea is reused here as a deliberate homage to that Osirion-based adventure. I really like the concept, but it does require that GMs fudge the timing a bit in order to ensure that the PCs arrive while the Scorched Hand is still there and that they encounter each other before the rival group has a chance to get away. It’s an easy enough job to do; however, it can potentially stretch belief a bit if the PCs take a long time to search the temple. Groups that suffer heavy injuries, for example, might decide to withdraw from the temple to heal and the GM must now have a way to explain the Scorched Hand still being there when the PCs return. The adventure does acknowledge these potential problems and offers a few suggestions to help deal with them. In the end, though, this is the kind of behind-the-scenes manipulation that GMs have to do all the time, and is not really a problem here. It just has a slight potential to be more noticeable.

Timing problems aside, there’s no doubt that the presence of the Scorched Hand helps make the Sanctum of the Erudite Eye more than just a run-of-the-mill dungeon crawl. It adds a different kind of conflict, especially since the Scorched Hand aren’t necessarily villains. Rather, they’re religious fanatics, some of whom may even be convinced to work with the PCs. The resolution between the Scorched Hand and the PCs doesn’t necessarily have to come down to combat (although Velriana is not easily dissuaded from her quest). Alas, if there’s one flaw to the adventure, it’s that the PCs have very little opportunity to interact with the Scorched Hand’s members, either as a group or individually. Each member gets a wonderfully detailed two-page write-up at the end of the adventure (and all four are compelling characters), complete with information on how the PCs might reason with each one, yet the adventure itself provides very little opportunity for the PCs to actually get to know them and attempt that reasoning. Still, as long as the PCs don’t attack the moment they discover the Scorched Hand’s presence in the Sanctum of the Erudite Eye, they might get the opportunity to learn a little about why the religious group is there. Also, some GMs might want to expand on the segment at the Tooth & Hookah, as well as the other moments of downtime between dungeons, and this could provide further opportunity to interact with the Scorched Hand.

The adventure ends when the PCs have concluded their exploration of the Sanctum and have dealt with the Scorched Hand. At this point, they have only encountered the barest of hints of something larger going on (mainly the presence of an unknown third party in the Sanctum). Indeed, even though the players probably know they’re playing an adventure path, the characters themselves will likely have no idea that they have become involved in a bigger story. Mummy’s Mask is not the first adventure path to leave the overall story still unapparent at the end of the first adventure; however, it is perhaps a little more pronounced here. Whether this is a good or bad thing really remains to be seen (and likely just comes down to personal taste).

The main support article in this volume is “Wati, the Half-City” by Crystal Frasier. It provides a comprehensive look at the city the adventure is set in and makes a great resource for GMs to use to expand on the downtime segments of the adventure. The article is split into three sections. The first covers the city’s history, while the remaining two are gazetteers, one covering the “City of the Living” (the inhabited portion of the city) and the other the “City of the Dead” (the Necropolis).

As The Half-Dead City is the first part of a new adventure path, the volume also contains an overview of all six instalments so that GMs can know what to expect. This month’s Bestiary contains a number of interesting new monsters, several of which are put to good use in the adventure itself. They include guardian scrolls (essentially animated construct scrolls) and ahkhats (elemental beings that dwell within the actual structure of a building, making that building’s walls and floors a part of the creature itself).

There is also the first part of a new Pathfinder’s Journal, “Shadow of the Sands” by Amber E. Scott. This volume sees a slight change in format to the Pathfinder’s Journal. In order to make it more relevant to the adventure path and more usable to GMs, the Journal now contains game-related information to go along with the story. This instalment contains a map and description of the Tooth & Hookah. However, since it is still primarily a work of fiction broken up into parts spread out over the six volumes of the adventure path, I’m going to continue to wait until the final instalment before reviewing the story. It is simply much easier to review these stories as a whole than each individual part.

Overall, I rather like The Half-Dead City. It’s a straight-forward adventure, and relatively calm compared to many adventure path volumes. While it’s primarily a dungeon crawl, it breaks it up into three separate dungeons, each with enough distinction to keep players’ interest. It also manages to include a selection of interesting NPCs for the PCs to interact with. What it does best though, when combined with “Wati, the Half-City”, is provide a compelling environment for the PCs to adventure in.

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