Thursday, 26 November 2015

Iron Gods - The Choking Tower


There is a downside to every adventure path being the same length. While having six adventures per adventure path creates a consistency so that players and gamemasters know what to expect, it also forces every story into a predefined length whether the story really works at that length or not. This is certainly not an uncommon problem. Television programmes have to fit every episode to set number of minutes and seasons tend to run the same number of episodes. It's ultimately something of an unavoidable problem, but it can lead to individual instalments feeling rushed or like filler.

The Choking Tower by Ron Lundeen feels a lot like filler. Of course, as it's only the third part of Iron Gods and I haven't read the remaining three volumes, it's hard to judge the adventure path as a whole, but this adventure doesn't seem to add a lot to what we've had so far. While its overall goal is important to the rest of the adventure path, the events of the adventure itself are rather peripheral.

The Choking Tower is certainly not a bad adventure. It will likely provide hours of entertainment for any group. But there's also little about the adventure that really stands out. On the whole, it's run-of-the-mill, with a fairly linear plot and NPCs who are mostly forgettable (although the main villain is a notable exception). It also lacks the vibrant setting of its immediate predecessor, presenting instead a setting that is pretty standard despite its science fiction trappings.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The plot of The Choking Tower is straight-forward. The PCs set out to find the body of Casandalee, the android “sister” of Hellion, the artificial intelligence who was their main adversary in their last adventure. Information gained in Lords of Rust brings them to the town of Iadenveigh. The town, it turns out, was built (much like other places in Numeria) over top of the ruins of another fragment from the starship Divinity—a smaller ship called Aurora. It was in Aurora that Casandalee had her last stand against agents of Unity, the god-like AI that birthed both her and Hellion. She died in that battle and her body lay here for many centuries.

Unfortunately for the PCs, they have been beaten to the site by a wizard named Furkas Xoud, who transported Casandalee's body back to his research tower—the titular Choking Tower—with the intent of extracting all the knowledge from Casandalee's brain. However, Xoud fell victim to a trap Casandalee left in her head in the event someone tried to tap into her memories. Xoud died but has now become a ghost haunting his tower.

When the PCs arrive in Iadenveigh, they must first gain the trust of the insular locals in order to gain entry to the Aurora. From there, they learn the Xoud has taken Casandalee's body. They then travel to the Choking Tower, where they must deal with Xoud's ghost and his remaining robotic servants before finding Casandalee.

The main problem with The Choking Tower is its setting, and this is made (perhaps unfairly) all the more noticeable after the brilliantly utilised setting of Lords of Rust. Iadenveigh is, frankly, dull. This is likely somewhat intentional as it's meant to be a backwater that most people ignore, which is just how the locals like it. But even towns that are dull on the surface ought to have something more going on underneath (which, I suppose, this one literally does, given the Aurora underneath, but I'm being more metaphorical in this case). The Choking Tower itself is in the middle of a wilderness, completely disconnected from any sort of setting other than itself. There is a small portion of the adventure detailing the wilderness around the Choking Tower, but once the PCs enter the Choking Tower, that wilderness is pretty much forgotten about (even a minor plot thread providing more of a link between the tower and wilderness is never actually resolved in the text—more on that in a bit).

In my review of Lords of Rust, I raved about how well the adventure detailed and used its setting—all without relying on a support article later in the volume. The Choking Tower returns to the more typical style of providing a support article about its setting after the main adventure. Yet despite this, Iadenveigh never really comes alive (it also doesn't help that that article has a number of inconsistencies caused by editing errors—more on that later, as well). We are only introduced to a small number of NPCs, only two of which have any significant detail to them—and one of those isn't actually even from Iadenveigh. It also doesn't help that the PCs have a very easy time gaining the trust of the townsfolk and then once they enter the Aurora, the town is basically forgotten.

Upon arriving in Iadenveigh, the PCs need to gain the trust of the locals, who are insular and also despise technology. They destroy any technology they can get their hands on. The few who know that the town is built over a fairly major piece of technology keep it secret out of shame. The PCs initially meet with a local nicknamed Redfang (so called because streams in an area of Iadenveigh called Badwater have been tainted by the Aurora, causing mutations; when Redfang drank from them as a boy, his teeth turned bright red). Redfang provides them with two tasks they can fulfil to gain his and, subsequently, the rest of the town's support.

One of the tasks is simply dealing with a monster terrorizing a local farm. While this is a fairly easy task for the PCs, it's understandable why the townspeople might need help with it. For the second task, they learn that a message from a Technic League spy in Iadenveigh has been intercepted and they are asked to find who the spy is and provide proof. Tracking down the spy turns out to be surprisingly easy—so easy in fact, that one wonders why the PCs are even needed. A councilman gives the PCs a couple suggestions for starting their inquiries and at one of these, they are literally handed (by a young boy) the evidence they need to find the spy (who is hiding among a group of Varisians in town). They don't even need to talk to the boy or form any sort of relationship with him. He just hands them what they need while they talk to his grandmother.

There's nothing wrong with giving the PCs easy tasks once in a while. In fact, it can be a good thing. Players like to see their characters getting more powerful and occasional easy tasks help to demonstrate their characters' growing power. However, the easy tasks need to make sense in context. In this case, there's no reason for the townspeople to need the PCs help finding the spy.

Once the PCs have finished their tasks, the town council decides to trust them and gives them the information they need to get into the Aurora. On the whole, I wonder why it was necessary to make the townspeople so distrusting of strangers when the PCs need to do so little to gain their trust. Even the town's hatred of technology doesn't stand in the PCs' way. By this point in the adventure path, the PCs have likely acquired several technological items. If the PCs keep these items out of sight and don't use them in front of townspeople, then, not surprisingly, the town council is more willing to accept them. If they have not been so circumspect, the council is “merely grudgingly respectful” (p. 13) and gives the PCs everything they need anyway. It's like the author and/or developers of the adventure decided that there simply wasn't space (and to be fair, there probably isn't) to deal with any sort of conflict between the PCs and the people of Iadenveigh, and so just decided to sweep it under the rug. But in that case, why not just make the town accepting of outsiders from the start? Why include a hatred of technology if that hatred is not actually going to impede the PCs in any way? All in all, this opening section of the adventure is rather superfluous.

The bulk of the adventure, however, is spent inside the Aurora and then the Choking Tower. From here, it is basically a dungeon crawl with robots and androids. There is a nice attempt to make the Aurora more of a living location, rather than just a bunch of separate rooms where the monsters wait for the PCs to arrive. The Aurora contains machinery to construct androids and when Xoud came through, he repowered things up and that machinery began its old task. However, that machinery has degraded over time and the androids it produces are effectively mutants. These androids believe that the Aurora is still in flight and have only limited supplies of food. They are also involved in a conflict with the robot gearsmen who killed Casandalee centuries ago. The Aurora is too far from Unity for the AI to maintain contact with the gearsmen, so since completing their orders to kill Casandalee, they have remained here waiting for new orders that they can never receive. It's also possible the Technic League spy flees to the Aurora if she gets the chance. The text goes into detail about the changes in the Aurora locations if the spy is present. Altogether, the Aurora has a nice bit of setting colour that is, unfortunately, too brief, as the PCs arrive and probably kill most of their opponents without ever learning much of it.

In the Aurora, the PCs will, of course, discover that Casandalee's body is no longer here, so they also need to find out where it has gone and who took it. Luckily, this information comes to them in the form of an incredibly convenient recording and Xoud's invisible stalker servant who has been keeping watch over the location until Xoud returns (which will now never happen due to his death, which the invisible stalker is not aware of). In one of the early rooms, if the PCs touch the machinery, they immediately begin playback of a recording made when Xoud first arrived in the Aurora. Xoud apparently accidentally started the recording (given how easily the PCs accidentally start the playback—i.e. without having to do anything—it's not that surprising Xoud might accidentally make the recording in the first place, I suppose), which only recorded a few seconds, but they are important seconds, when Xoud just happened to say things that are very useful to the PCs. It's a ridiculously convenient—and frankly, rather clumsy—bit of exposition that only really serves to let the PCs be familiar with the invisible stalker's voice so they can recognize it later and thus have reason to talk to the stalker instead of killing it outright—as without the stalker's help, they'll never find out about who Xoud is and where he's taken Casandalee's body. Since the PCs' progress is so tied up in their talking to the stalker, the adventure really needs a better way to convince them to do so.

On their way to the Choking Tower, the PCs will likely encounter a group of hill giants who have stolen the wheel that opens the tower's front doors (the doors in the tower are operated mechanically by spinning a wheel instead of using a doorknob or handle). They might also encounter a star monarch named Longdreamer, who can give them a bit of information about the tower. She can tell them that there are living creatures in the tower, but the only one whose dreams she can detect has only violent dreams of ravenous, flesh-eating worms and hatred for Xoud. She is mystified by the fact that the other living creatures in the tower don't seem to dream, and she asks the PCs to find out more for her. Unfortunately, the adventure never follows up on this. The worm dreamer is presumably Nargin Haruvex, a worm that walks that Xoud imprisoned in the tower, although the text never explicitly confirms this. Most of the remaining creatures in the tower are robots or undead (most of Xoud's living servants have either fled or died), but there are a few azers and a belker. However, the text never answers the question of why they don't dream—in fact, it never even acknowledges that they don't dream as the topic is never mentioned anywhere outside the encounter with Longdreamer.

The Choking Tower itself makes for a relatively decent “dungeon” (and there is a literal dungeon underneath it). Perhaps the best thing about this part of the adventure is Xoud himself. As a ghost, he makes a far more dynamic villain than he likely would as a living antagonist. His incorporeal state allows for him to show up in various locations and use hit-and-run tactics against the PCs. The text contains several suggestions about where and how he appears to the PCs. GMs can easily embellish on what's given. This allows the PCs to encounter Xoud several times before their final encounter with him, making that final encounter all the more climactic. And because he's a ghost, he might just return again if the PCs don't figure out the conditions to put him to rest permanently. Xoud is also well-detailed with a personality that makes him more than just a stock evil wizard. GMs can take advantage of the multiple encounters to bring that personality across.

The adventure ends once the PCs have found Casandalee's body and discovered the information Xoud was able to extract before he died. This does not necessarily include putting Xoud to rest, although I suspect most groups will want to accomplish this as well.

There are several odd inconsistencies and editing errors throughout the adventure, in addition to the lack of follow-up on Longdreamer's request I mentioned above. In the background of the Aurora, it is stated that when Xoud arrived, he magically avoided the androids and gearsmen, yet the androids should not have even existed yet, as they were created after he temporarily repowered the ship. Of course, this won't have any actual effect on play and the GM can change things should it be needed. The lack of power in the ship also means doors are very difficult to open (requiring a DC 20 Strength check, DC 30 Disable Device check, or outright destroying the doors to open or close them). Yet despite the difficulty, if the Technic League spy is in the Aurora, she apparently has no difficulty getting past the doors and moving about unnoticed by the androids. Her 12 Strength and +12 Disable Device bonus ought to make opening doors extremely difficult for her. She could do it taking 20, but in that time, I'd expect some of the androids to notice her, especially after multiple doors. Her +11 Stealth versus their +8 Perception doesn't give her much of an advantage, and opening and closing the doors is likely to make noise. I get the impression that the difficulty of opening and closing doors was simply forgotten about when deciding her movements inside the Aurora.

In the Choking Tower, the descriptive text sometimes forgets that the doors are supposed to open by wheel and not handle. The description to room F23 makes draws attention to the one door that is actually an exception to this by saying, “no handle adorns the door to the northwest. Instead of a handle or knob, it bears a small plate of coppery metal” (p. 39). Since none of the doors in the tower so far have had a handle or knob, it's rather odd to describe this door in terms of it not having one either.

Although these inconsistencies are fairly minor, there are an unusually large number of them. As such, they end up more noticeable than the would be otherwise.

Following the main adventure is the support article on Iadenveigh that I briefly mentioned earlier. It provides a history of the town, as well as an overview of notable locations. Unfortunately, there are some glaring inconsistencies in the article. The map of Iadenveigh contains 16 keyed locations, with an inset sidebar providing the names of those locations. However, the text of the article has 19 locations, and the three extra aren't just tagged onto the end of the 16 on the map. The discrepancies start at location 2. Location 1 on the map and in the article text is the High Home. However, location 2 in the article is the vineyard, while on the map it's Old Skelton's Place—which is location 3 in the article. Later, the text adds another location not on the map, further skewing the numbers, and then yet another. It's hard to determine where these extra locations are meant to be.

The text also refers to several quarters in the town as well as a large rocky hill called the Brow and the region called Badwater, but the map does not clearly note where these places are. It's possible to figure these things out from their descriptions (the Brow and Badwater are relatively easy to locate), but it's an added annoyance.

The article also does little to really describe what it's like to live in Iadenveigh. A significant chunk of the town's history is spent on a tribe of Kellids who previously lived here before dying out, leaving the description of life in the town to being essentially the same things we already learned in the adventure: people are hardworking, pious, insular, and hate technology. There's very little to set Iadenveigh out from other places with insular townsfolk.

Following the article on Iadenveigh, there is a selection of “Missions in Numeria”. Written by Patrick Renie, this section contains three detailed encounters, along with several other adventure ideas, that GMs can inject into their Iron Gods campaigns or any other campaigns set in Numeria. Each mission is two pages long and contains a map, background, and encounter key. They range from CR 9 to CR 13 in difficulty. There's a good variety of adventure types here. The first involves investigating another of the buried bits of Divinity, while the second is about a group of demoniacs causing problems in a Numerian town. The third has the PCs investigating Sarkorian ruins. All three make good choices for GMs who need something short to fill a gap in their plans.

This volume's Bestiary contains a couple of new robots, including the thought harvester robot, one of which plays a key role in the adventure. There is also a new undead and a new ooze called a thorgothrel.

Overall, The Choking Tower is a decent adventure, but it feels a lot like filler. The only connection it has to the overall adventure path is Casandalee's body, and while her body is important to the adventure path, finding the body seems a lot like an extended side-quest. With its rather dull setting, there's not anything to make The Choking Tower stand out from other adventures. It may be fun to play, but it's not likely to be something the players or their characters refer back to as particularly memorable.

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