Brain collectors have always been an iconic Dungeons & Dragons monster to me, although they're probably not amongst the first few monsters that spring to most people's minds when they think of the game. Nevertheless, they have been around a long time, first appearing way back in X2: Castle Amber, one of my favourite adventures from my childhood. I must have run that adventure fifty times back in the day. If I recall correctly, there is only one brain collector in Castle Amber and, like most monsters in that adventure, its appearance is rather random. Nevertheless, it made an impression on my young mind—an impression that has stayed with me ever since.
Castle Amber was an adventure for the Expert Rules set of the “Basic” Dungeons & Dragons game, back in the day when there were two separate games: Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (“Basic” is a misnomer as it only technically refers to the first of what would eventually become five sets of rules, yet many people persisted in calling the entire game “Basic D&D”). It wasn't until the Mystara Monstrous Compendium was published that brain collectors first appeared in AD&D (when the Mystara setting was updated from a D&D setting to an AD&D setting). After that, brain collectors eventually showed up in the more generic Monster Manuals for 3rd Edition, even appearing as an epic version in the Epic Levels Handbook. Brain collectors first showed up in Pathfinder in Bestiary 2, under their actual race name which has tagged along with them since Castle Amber: neh-thalggus.
My fascination with brain collectors is such that any adventure with them in the title is likely to grab my attention. Thus, ever since Valley of the Brain Collectors was announced, I've been eager to reach and read this instalment of the Iron Gods Adventure Path. Yet obviously, it takes more than an appearance of a neh-thalggu or two to make an adventure good and fun. Indeed, brain collectors never seem to be used well or serve much purpose in adventures I've seen them in. The fact is, while I do consider Castle Amber to be a good adventure, it's not its random selection of monsters, including the brain collector, that make it so.
In my last couple of reviews for Iron Gods, I've commented on the important role setting plays in any adventure. With its science fiction trappings, Iron Gods relies a great deal on setting to impart its flavour. Lords of Rust uses its setting to particularly great effect, while The Choking Tower does not do as good a job. Valley of the Brain Collectors has the most contained setting of all the adventures in Iron Gods so far, and that works to this particular adventure's benefit. It is also the most alien of the locations the PCs have visited so far, but it comes alive almost as well as Lords of Rust's setting does, with well-developed characters who have well-developed, if alien, motivations. And while it is an adventure that relies almost entirely on site-based encounters, the denizens encountered never come across as if they have just been sitting in one spot waiting for the player characters to arrive to fight them—a problem that many site-based and dungeon crawl adventures don't succeed in overcoming. Instead, the denizens of this valley have relationships—both allied and antagonistic—and adjust to the events around them. In short, the setting of Valley of the Brain Collectors feels actually lived in, making Valley a very good adventure indeed.
Valley of the Brain Collectors has the PCs set out in search of Casandalee, a former android servant of Unity, the A.I. with divine-like powers that is the central villain of the adventure path. Some people might be wondering, wasn't that the goal of the last adventure, The Choking Tower? The answer to that is, yes, it was. At the end of The Choking Tower, the PCs recover the body of Casandalee along with a recording of the small amount of information Furkas Xoud was able to recover from her brain before springing the trap she'd left (see my review of that adventure for more details). That information reveals that Casandalee downloaded a copy of her mind into a neurocam and from that into a compact A.I. Core that she hid in a valley called the Scar of the Spider. Since it is now impossible to recover any further information from Casandalee's body, the PCs must instead track down the neurocam.
I commented in my review of The Choking Tower that the adventure feels a bit like filler. Sending the PCs off on a second search for Casandalee, unfortunately only magnifies that feeling. This is less a fault of Valley of the Brain Collectors than it is of the overall adventure path design, however, and it doesn't change the fact that much of The Choking Tower only has the barest connection to the overall plot of Iron Gods, which is the main reason it feels like filler. A second search for Casandalee could also have the side-effect of making Valley of the Brain Collectors seem like filler. However, Valley avoids this with a more dynamic setting that is much more linked to the adventure path.
Valley of the Brain Collectors is very much a sandbox adventure. The adventure begins with the PCs' arrival at the Scar of the Spider, and how they proceed from there is very much up to them. As in Lords of Rust, there are no scheduled events that occur, and the PCs can take on the various challenges in whatever order they please. Of course, some challenges are greater than others and PCs may find that they need to leave those ones till later. And just like Lords of Rust, what makes this whole set-up work is the cast of characters the PCs will meet along the way. While they will meet some very bizarre and alien creatures, these aren't just random monsters waiting around to be killed. They have motivations and alliances of their own, and the PCs will likely want to find some allies to help them in their cause.
There are a couple of factions in the Scar of the Spider. The principal one is the Dominion of the Black. It was a confrontation with this sinister interstellar organisation thousands of years ago that caused the starship Divinity to crash into Numeria. The Dominion hive in this adventure arrived in the Scar of the Spider just a few years ago, having been sent several thousand years ago to chase down the Divinity. The brain collectors of the adventure's title are amongst the Dominion faction along with several intellect devourers, a kyton, and a few other bizarre, alien creatures. The Dominion has been using its position here to study the land, learn about the natives, and of course, steal lots of brains (because that's what brain collectors do).
The presence of the Dominion hive in the Scar of the Spider has more recently attracted a group of mi-go, who are enemies of the Dominion. However, the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” does not apply here. The mi-go are very much villains as well, and their alien mindsets will make it nearly impossible for PCs to ally with them.
Also present in the Scar of the Spider are a number of other small groups and individuals, such as Isuma, the last survivor of a group of kasatha who were on board Divinity when it encountered the Dominion. They were recently discovered and brought out of stasis by the Dominion, who immediately began experimenting upon them. Isuma escaped, but the bodies of the others are now being used by the intellect devourers. Isuma is carefully plotting her revenge and can make a valuable ally for the PCs.
There is also a malfunctioning reclamation robot named Binox that was originally sent to track down Casandalee centuries ago. It has now come to consider itself practically a good, but if the PCs can deal with its ego, they might gain its help in constructing items for them. The PCs will likely also encounter an agent for the Technic League, a group of androids who believe all technology is evil and must be destroyed (since they, themselves, are the products of technology, they consider their very existence an affront to nature), a human druid driven mad by the atrocities he's witnessed in the valley, and a colour out of space.
The compact A.I. core that contains Casandalee's mind is currently in the possession of a yah-thelgaad (an advanced form of neh-thalggu) named Dweller-in-Dark-Places, although it was originally found by Maukui, one of the intellect devourers. Maukui, currently possessing the body of a void dragon, is a potential ally of sorts for the PCs, as he wants the A.I. core back. Of course, since the PCs also want the A.I. core, they will eventually be at odds with him.
All these beings and characters have well-developed backstories and motivations, but another thing that really makes the location stand out is the sheer alienness of it. The PCs encounter very few things native to Golarion in this adventure. Golarion is a world that already has a large amount of weird and varied creatures living on it (it's the nature of a game with so many monsters), so it can be difficult to make creatures seem truly alien. Even unusual monsters can end up seeming ordinary to players who have been playing fantasy roleplaying games for many years. Iron Gods looks to science fiction for further inspiration, but even there, the aliens tend to be very human-like, both in appearance and behaviour—not really all that strange. But the creatures in Valley of the Brain Collectors are the bizarrest of the bizarre. These are not the human-like aliens of Star Trek, but rather dark abominations that don't look remotely human and use strange technologies that don't really seem to fit standard science fiction or fantasy.
The Dominion uses organic technology, for example. Their spaceships are alive and—as further example of the Dominion's alien mindset—are discarded upon arrival at their destination and left to rot. The occupants of Dominion ships don't ever expect to return home (wherever home might be); their missions are for life. The PCs in this adventure have the opportunity to explore the remains of the Dominion ship that brought this particular hive to Golarion and can interact with its dying mind.
The H. P. Lovecraft influences in this adventure are very clear. Not only are mi-go and the colour out of space lifted directly from Lovecraft stories, but the brain collectors, intellect devourers, and other creatures of the Dominion are also clearly influenced by Lovecraft-style monstrosities. Their motivations and desires don't work the way the motivations of humanoids and other Golarion natives do. It makes them harder to understand, harder to predict, and quite a bit more frightening. Note that the Dominion creatures in this adventure think nothing of taking thousands of years to follow one ship and then never going back.
A major theme of Iron Gods has been the PCs encountering unusual things. Previously, it's been technology—which, on a world of magic, becomes like that world's version of magic. But after three adventures, robots and laser guns don't seem quite as magical and bizarre any more. So Valley does the right thing by presenting the PCs with something completely different. There are actually very few robots and guns in this adventure.
The adventure ends when the PCs recover the A.I. core with Casandalee's mind intact within it. Of course, if they should fail in this or if the A.I. core is destroyed, it could cause major complications for the rest of the adventure path. The adventure does leave unresolved the location of the neurocam that Casandalee originally downloaded her mind into for just this eventuality. GMs can place that in if needed.
The first support article in this volume is on the Dominion of the Black itself. Written by Mike Shel (who also wrote the adventure), the article takes a closer look into the mindset of this galaxy spanning organisation. The article makes a fascinating read and helps GMs portray creatures with motivations and beliefs completely outside normal human experience. I particularly like the religious treatise, Nullity, which is made up of only 13 words in mixed-up order. It is said that if anyone deciphers the correct order, they will understand the true nature of divinity.
The second support article, by David Schwartz, is on alien technology. The Technology Guide introduces a huge array of technological items to add into Pathfinder games, and is a very valuable resource for people running Iron Gods. However, the technology in that book is very much in the style of typical future human technology from series like Star Trek or Star Wars. Valley of the Brain Collectors needs something different, and this article provides a look at some very different types of technology. The article provides an overview of the style of technology employed by each of four alien races along with a sample item for each race. Two of these technologies (mi-go and neh-thalggu) are particularly relevant to the main adventure. GMs can easily use the background in this article to create further items for each of these races, and perhaps even for other races as well.
This volume's bestiary contains one new robot and three alien creatures, including the yah-thelgaad and shipmind (the brain that controls a Dominion organic ship). What is particularly interesting about this bestiary is that all the creatures in it appear at some point in the adventure. This is rather unusual for Pathfinder Adventure Path volumes. While a couple of monsters from each volume's bestiary are always in the adventure, there are also usually a couple that don't appear, but rather just fit the theme or style of the volume. I like that this month's monsters all see use.
Overall, Valley of the Brain Collectors is a very good adventure and it' would be great for PCs (or players) who think they've seen it all. It does a particularly good job of making its aliens truly alien, while still providing them with personalities and motivations. At its barest, this is an adventure where the PCs explore an area of wilderness and fight monsters there, something done many times before in countless other adventures. But nevertheless, this adventure is unlike any other adventure out there. As much as I've always loved brain collectors, I haven't seen an adventure before that effectively uses them. This adventure rectifies that.