Monday 29 February 2016

Iron Gods - The Divinity Drive

The final instalment of an adventure path brings with it high expectations. Not only does it need to present an enjoyable high-level adventure (something that can be difficult on its own), but it must also bring together all the threads of the previous five adventures to a satisfying conclusion, while accounting for the myriad different things different groups of player characters might have done along the way. All things considered, it's a rather monumental task, one that may not actually be possible to do perfectly. As such, it's perhaps not surprising that the final instalments of many adventure paths often don't seem quite as good as the instalments that came before them. They can never quite reach those lofty expectations.

The Divinity Drive by Crystal Frasier does a better job than many of reaching those unreachable goals. It's a good adventure in its own right and, as the finale of Iron Gods, it provides a suitably climactic resolution, as the player characters (hopefully) save the world from a unique and rather terrifying threat. That said, it is a surprisingly linear adventure compared to how open-ended most of Iron Gods has been (with The Choking Tower being an exception). It also comes across as something of a lengthy combat-fest, with only limited opportunity for diplomacy and roleplay. There are fewer shades of grey than in the other adventures; enemies are enemies and allies are...rare. Its more linear nature also means that it makes a number of assumptions about how the PCs have progressed through the previous adventures, and gives gamemasters little to no guidance on what to do if things have progressed differently. This is particularly unfortunate in such an open-ended adventure path.


In The Divinity Drive, the PCs proceed to Silver Mount and into the crashed starship Divinity, on their quest to find and destroy the iron god Unity. Not surprisingly, this adventure is a dungeon crawl through and through. The entirety of the adventure is spent exploring Divinity's many decks. But as dungeon crawls go, The Divinity Drive is one of the better ones, as the Divinity's various decks are presented more as settings than as collections of rooms with monsters (or, in this case, robots) to kill. For the final couple of decks leading to the confrontation with Unity, the adventure even drops the standard location-based layout of dungeon crawls (used in the rest of this adventure) and instead presents the decks as complete encounters. This makes it a lot easier for GMs to create a dynamic and epic climax to the adventure path that rises well beyond static room-by-room encounters.

Of course, Divinity is a huge ship—far too big for this adventure to detail all of it. As such, the adventure limits itself to only a relatively small portion of the total number of decks. The massive damage the ship took in the crash centuries ago has resulted in many of the transportation systems that once connected the various decks being broken an inoperable. The adventure also employs the trick of suppressing dimensional travel, meaning that the PCs can't just teleport straight to their final encounter with Unity or to any of the other inaccessible decks.

It is this limited access to other decks—caused by broken monorails, the dimensional lock effect, and so on—that creates the rather linear nature of the adventure. The PCs have little choice in which directions they can go to reach the final encounter. It's not entirely a straight line—the secondary engineering deck, for example, provides ways to proceed to both Habitat Pod 1 and the Security Sector—but for the most part, there will be little variance in the journeys different groups take through Divinity.

I do feel it's unfortunate that the adventure employs the dimensional lock trick to limit PC movement so extensively. Teleport can, admittedly, be a difficult thing to deal with in high-level play. While it makes sense that people in the world would come up with defences against them and using these defences in adventures provides challenges and obstacles for the PCs to overcome, the PCs have worked hard to get their abilities and they should have the opportunity to use them. The balance here can be hard to find (and can also be a matter of opinion). However, I would personally prefer that things like dimensional lock be used on a smaller scale, rather than affecting the entirety of this mega-dungeon. The in-game explanation is that it is a side effect of the titular Divinity Drive, the device that gave Divinity the ability to open wormholes to travel great distances through interstellar space and that's why it affects the entire ship, but really, this is a contrivance for the adventure. If the dimensional lock were limited to just the Computer Core (which is where the PCs have to reach in order to get to the Godmind, the digital world where they confront Unity), I think things could work much better. Yes, the PCs could teleport to just outside the Computer Core, but they would also not accomplish the various things they need to do to weaken Unity first. That really ought to be enough to get them to explore other areas of the ship.

Of course, GMs are free to detail additional levels themselves if they wish to allow their PCs access to them (or the PCs come up with clever ways of getting to them). The “Continuing the Campaign” article, which follows the main adventure, contains an overview of the entirety of Divinity (complete with a cross-section of the entire ship showing its many decks) that can help with this.

The adventure begins with the PCs entering Divinity at the Secondary Engineering Deck, which is located at the rear of the ship and is close to the surface. The entire ship is angled downwards into the ground, but its artificial gravity still works, so once inside, the PCs don't notice any angle to the floors. In the Secondary Engineering Deck, the PCs encounter the majority of the remaining Technic League forces in Divinity. After the events of Palace of Fallen Stars, Unity turned on the Technic League forces in rage and flooded much of the deck with radiation, although those areas have been closed off. The surviving Technic League forces have barricaded themselves into a small section of the deck while they try to find a means of escape.

There are a lot of things I really like about the set-up of this level. In particular, I like that within the radiation-flooded area resides the “Overlord Robot”. This robot contains a portion of Unity's mind and if it is not destroyed before confronting Unity, then Unity can flee into it upon its own destruction. In such a case, the PCs would end up having to effectively fight Unity twice. Getting to the Overlord Robot right away, however, will be quite difficult. If the PCs manage to rid the area of radiation, Unity will just reflood it. The PCs must travel deeper into Divinity in order to switch off Unity's ability to flood the region with radiation. Of course, crafty PCs might find ways to get at the Overlord Robot right from the start anyway, in which case they're in for a tough fight. I like the idea that the PCs might have to double-back during the adventure to take care of the Overlord Robot. It's one thing that helps the adventure avoid being too linear in nature.

Unfortunately, this deck also makes a large number of assumptions about the previous adventure—including that the PCs have been through that adventure. While it's likely that they have, it's also possible that they haven't. Indeed, the previous adventure even claims that The Divinity Drive “presents all of the information needed to run adventures in Silver Mount, including advice on how the PCs' efforts might meet more resistance if they leave enemies undefeated in Starfall” (Palace of Fallen Stars, p. 8). No such advice appears in The Divinity Drive, nor even the acknowledgement that things can happen differently in different campaigns. The assumption is entirely that the PCs have defeated the Technic League, and Ozmyn Zaidow (who was a puppet of Unity) has been killed or otherwise removed from power. If this hasn't happened, then presumably the situation on the Secondary Engineering Deck would be completely different, but the adventure provides no information on what the situation was like before Unity flooded half the deck with radiation.

In all likelihood, this information was cut from the adventure due to space reasons. This is unfortunate and it's also unfortunate that the text of Palace of Fallen Stars wasn't altered (or perhaps couldn't be because it was too late), since the text quoted above sets up certain expectations for GMs. In most adventure paths, this really wouldn't be that big a problem, but given how open-ended this adventure path has been, I really think something else should have been cut rather than assume previous adventures played out in a specific way.

After the Secondary Engineering Deck, the PCs move on deeper into Divinity to decks such as Habitat Pod 1, the Security Sector, the Recreation Deck, the Command Deck, and Astrogation. Each deck is its own little mini-setting, with robotic and even living inhabitants carrying out lives mostly separate from (and even sometimes unaware of) other decks. Habitat Pod 1 is inhabited by lashunta (whose ancestors were taken from Castrovel long ago) ruled over by a former Technic League Captain who has been hiding out here for many years and is now a puppet of Unity. The Recreation Deck is inhabited almost entirely by androids. Unity has been running a long experiment in building a religion with these people through an avatar called “Deacon Hope”.

As the PCs travel through Divinity and complete certain tasks, they acquire “victory points”. As they gain more victory points (as many as 15), they weaken Unity in various ways, such as weakening the avatar of Unity that they will eventually face in the Godmind or removing some of Unity's abilities to control the ship. The more victory points the PCs gain, the easier their final task will be.

Eventually, the PCs reach the Computer Core. From this deck, they can gain entry to the Godmind, a digital world created entirely from the thoughts of Unity. Within the Godmind, Unity appears as an angelic being (the exact kind depends on the PCs' victory points, with no victory points meaning an advanced solar) and has several digital outsider servants. If the Overlord Robot has been destroyed, then Unity can be completely destroyed by defeating its angelic avatar here. If the Overlord Robot has not been destroyed, then Unity can transfer its mind into the Overlord Robot after being defeated in the Godmind. The PCs will then have to destroy the Overlord Robot to finish off Unity completely.

Most of Iron Gods has required the PCs to be self-motivating and by the time they reach this final adventure, the PCs should have many reasons of their own for wanting to destroy Unity. But that doesn't mean that Unity doesn't have evil plans that need stopping and also add an extra motivation for the PCs to win. Unity has been experimenting for a long time with controlling the minds of others, but its success has been limited. However, it has now developed a form of contagious control that it plans to unleash upon the world. It is also intending to use one of Divinity's shuttles to launch itself and the Divinity Drive into orbit. From there, it can ascend to full godhood and finally be able to affect things beyond Silver Mount, thus achieving its desire to be worshipped by everyone (not understanding that the type of worship it will acquire is really just slavery). What I like about this plan is that it not only sets the stakes very high, but it's also rather original as evil plans go. Many evil tyrants want to rule the world, but few attempt to do so in quite this way. What makes it particularly terrifying is that, if Unity succeeds, everyone in the world will actually believe they are worshipping Unity by choice as they will have completely lost their free will. I personally can't think of very many worse fates.

As The Divinity Drive is the final adventure in the Iron Gods Adventure Path, the first support article in the volume is a “Continuing the Campaign” article, providing suggestions on what GMs and PCs can do to keep playing in a world where Unity has been defeated—or even one where Unity hasn't. The section on “What If the PCs Lose?” is brief, but it does provide an interesting idea for an adventure where the PCs must find a way into orbit to infiltrate Unity's shuttle. Most of the article, however, is devoted to three things: The first, “An Iron Goddess” discusses the possibility of Casandalee taking Unity's place and becoming a deity herself. It provides information on what the PCs can do to make sure she doesn't become corrupted into a form that mimics Unity. Through their actions, they can determine the kind of deity she becomes and what domains she provides her clerics. The second section is a gazetteer of Divinity with an overview of the various decks and a cross-section map of the entire ship. The final section provides information (including full game stats) on Alling Third, a cyborg-lich that could provide a suitable enemy for high-level PCs adventuring in Numeria. Additional information on Alling Third can also be found in Numeria, Land of Fallen Stars.

The next article, written by Greg A. Vaughan, is on “The Ecology of the Robot”. As well as looking at how robots are created and organized in the Golarion setting, it also provide an interesting way for GMs to alter any existing construct in the game into a robot simply by applying the robot subtype. This isn't a template, of course—just a subtype—so it doesn't really change the stats of the construct in any way. Instead, GMs can simply rework the fluff descriptions of the construct's abilities (such as changing spell-like abilities into various technological enhancements). It provides a great way for GMs to include lots of different kinds of robots without having to do a whole lot of work creating stats for them. The article also contains a Craft Robot feat and several new robot augmentations—special abilities that GMs can give robots, such as force fields and integrated weaponry.

This volume's Bestiary contains a couple of new robots as has been typical throughout Iron Gods, as well a new magical beast, a new animal, and a new kind of inevitable, the yarahkut. Yarahkuts are tasked with keeping magic and technology from falling into the wrong hands, a task, it occurs to me, they fail at quite a bit. After all, if they were successful at their jobs, there wouldn't be much need for adventurers on these various adventure paths.

And that brings to a close Iron Gods. Overall, I think it is a very successful adventure path, one that blends science and technology into a fantasy game quite elegantly. It has its weak moments and moments of filler (The Choking Tower is the weakest instalment), but I am very impressed by how open-ended the adventure path is as a whole. It tells a complete story while allowing the PCs a wide variety of options. Players will certainly feel as though their characters are creating this story just as much as, even more so than, the NPCs are.

The Divinity Drive makes a fitting end to the adventure path. High-level dungeon crawls are not easy to do, but this adventure pulls it off pretty well. There are some flaws that I've outlined above, but I do really like that there is an active ecosystem in this “dungeon”. It's more than just a succession of rooms with monsters or robots to fight. That said, there is a lot of combat in this adventure and I wish there were a bit more opportunity for non-combat interactions with the inhabitants of the ship. But a good GM can easily add that in. By the time the adventure (and the adventure path along with it) is complete, I think the players will have many great memories of a great campaign.

Whispers in the Wastelands”

In Mummy's Mask, the fiction in Pathfinder Adventure Path took a huge turn for the better. In my review of it, I declared “Shadow of the Sands” (review at the end of the linked post) by Amber E. Scott to be the best story (of those I've read) to appear in Adventure Path volumes so far. Well, Amber E. Scott is back with the fiction for Iron Gods, and while I would still consider “Shadow of the Sands” to be the better story, “Whispers in the Wastelands” is a close second. It shares many of the strengths of the previous story, particularly strong and subtle character development. By the end of the story, readers truly care about the fates of its principal characters, Sidek, Eirian, and Tryg.

Whispers in the Wastelands” did take me longer to get into than “Shadow of the Sands”, though, and it's because of this that I don't rate it quite as highly. The dialogue in the first part feels somewhat stilted—indeed, that's kind of true of the later parts too, although, by then, I had adjusted to it. I also didn't really start to get a feel for the story's narrator, Sidek, until the second part. In the first part, he feels a bit like a generic barbarian. It's not until the second part that the complexity of his character starts to become more apparent. By the end of the second part, the story had me hooked.

As with “Shadow of the Sands”, I like how Scott provides us with the narrator's background as it becomes appropriate rather than just a lump retelling of the character's history at the beginning of the story. My issues about the first part aside, we learn about Sidek through what he does rather than what he tells us. He goes from that generic barbarian in the first part to a fully realised, complex character with believable motivations and desires. This is a mark of a great story.

The other main characters come across similarly well. There's a touch of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation to the android Eirian, yet she is still her own unique person, and in many ways, she's much more relatable. By the end of the story her silences really do speak “more..than most people's words,” as Sidek puts it. The relationship between Sidek and Eirian also develops in a fully believable way, and once again, Scott does not shoehorn in a romance where one isn't needed.

Then there's Tryg. Perhaps it's just because we're socialised to fall in love with cute little animals, but regardless, Tryg is the stand-out character of the story. Of course, Tryg isn't a cute little animal, but a cute little robot, but the allusions to a dog (most notably Sidek naming him after his childhood dog) pretty much seal the deal. What's particularly impressive is how sympathetic a character Tryg becomes despite doing very little in the story as a whole. It's generally the little things, though (when done well), that make a great character—Tryg's unrelenting desire to complete his mission, his initial struggles against Sidek that are then replaced with simple acceptance and finally a perceptual longing for Sidek, and so on. Like Eirian, Tryg says more with silence (having no lines of dialogue at all in the story, presumably due to not being capable of speech) than most people do with words.

It really is the characters that make “Whispers in the Wastelands” work so well. When you actually care about the characters, you care about what happens to them, regardless of what is happening. I hope this trend towards better fiction in Pathfinder Adventure Path continues.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review. This AP is one we've come close to playing but hasn't made it to the top of the list yet.