Sunday 21 February 2016

Iron Gods - Palace of Fallen Stars

One of the things that has really struck me about the Iron Gods Adventure Path is how PC-driven it is. A lot of adventures and adventure paths follow the model where an NPC or group of NPCs hires the PCs or otherwise sets them on their path. In an adventure path, these NPCs often continue to reappear from one instalment to the next, helping to guide the PCs to their next destination. Of course, this isn't universally true and the degree to which it occurs varies from one adventure or AP to another. However, it tends to be true to some extent. Alternatively, various events will occur that push or direct PCs along a certain course of action.

With Iron Gods, however, the PCs have had to be mostly self-motivating. They still encounter NPC allies, of course, but these allies don't really direct the PCs in any way. Fires of Creation has an initial set-up to draw the PCs in, but after that, they're pretty much on their own. Each instalment relies on the PCs deciding on their own to head into the next. This is particularly true of Lords of Rust and Valley of the Brain Collectors, but even The Choking Tower, the least sandboxy of this AP so far, still relies on the PCs' self-motivation to get started. The fifth instalment, Palace of Fallen Stars by Tim Hitchcock is also no exception. Of course, by this point, the PCs are probably quite invested in seeing things through to the very end. Motivating themselves shouldn't be that difficult.

Like Lords of Rust and Valley of the Brain Collectors before it, Palace of Fallen Stars is very much a sandbox adventure. How things play out is almost entirely dependent on the actions of the PCs, from the order of events, to their results, to which NPCs live and which die. It's even technically possible to bypass this adventure and jump to the sixth one before coming back and completing this one (albeit, that way would likely be considerably deadlier). The text does a good job of accounting for the many different possibilities and for how NPCs might react, while never forcing any particular path. All in all, it makes for a very good adventure, one that's going to be very different for every group that plays it.


The premise of Palace of Fallen Stars is fairly straight-forward. The PCs need to deal with the threat of the Technic League by either gaining their cooperation or weakening them enough that they no longer pose any threat. How they go about this is pretty much up to them, although there are certain things that will help them along the way. One way to achieve this is to get the people of Starfall to rise up against the Technic League. There are, similarly, a number of ways they can do this. They can free Kevoth-Kul, the Black Sovereign from his addictions (the Technic League has been keeping the ruler of Numeria drugged to control him), which will cause him to lead his people against the Technic League. They can face the Black Sovereign in combat and kill him, leaving Starfall in a state of anarchy (which the Technic League will have to expend resources to deal with). They can arrange for his consort to wrest control from him and become the new Black Sovereign. Or anything else they manage to come up with. They might also simply decide to storm the Technic League headquarters right from the start. It'll be tougher for them as the Technic League will have more people and resources to throw at the PCs, but it can be done.

Along the way, the PCs can make various allies, such as Kul-Inkit, the Black Sovereign's aforementioned consort. They might ally with Zernebeth, a Technic League captain who was once the leader of the organization and is plotting to regain control from the current leader, Ozmyn Zaidow. There are various other factions detailed as well that the PCs might try to gain the aid of. Alternatively, they might make enemies of any or all of these people. They also might call on the aid of allies from previous adventures.

There are a few scripted events that occur based on the PCs' notoriety. As the PCs do various things in Starfall (such as openly carrying technological items or getting into public combat), they gain or lose Notoriety points. When they reach certain amounts of Notoriety, they trigger these events (specific actions can also trigger certain events regardless of Notoriety). For the most part, however, these events merely provide the PCs with an opportunity to meet influential NPCs (such as Zernebeth). Successfully completing the adventure is in no way contingent upon any of these events occurring. That said, what exactly constitutes “completing the adventure” is as open-ended as the rest of the adventure. It is essentially whenever the PCs decide to move on to Silver Mount. This is probably after they have dealt with the Technic League, but the exact timing is really up to them.

In my previous reviews for this adventure path, I've commented on the importance setting plays in an adventure. The setting, after all, is what helps to bring the game alive in the minds of the players. Palace of Fallen Stars takes the PCs to Starfall, the capital of Numeria and the Technic League's seat of power. In particular, it brings them to the titular Palace of Fallen Stars (the Black Sovereign's palace) and the Technic League headquarters. Like Lords of Rust and Valley of the Brain Collectors, this adventure does a very good job of bringing its setting alive and making it an intrinsic part of the adventure. The palace, for example, is not just a collection of rooms for the PCs to explore. It is a lived-in location with NPCs that go about daily lives, have their own plots, and group into their own factions.

If there's one downside to Palace of Fallen Stars, however, it's that its setting is much larger than that of any of the previous instalments of Iron Gods, and that makes it a lot harder to detail everything in the limited space available. For example, it does a good job of presenting some of the key movers in the Technic League, such as Zernebeth and Ozmyn Zaidow, but can only skim over the details of the numerous other captains that reside there, providing only names and a sentence or two of details, along with a generic “Technic League Captain” stat block—even though these really ought to be unique individuals with their own unique stats. If the PCs decide to interact with these other captains, GMs will need to fill in a lot of the blanks on their own. This is not something to hold against the adventure as it is essentially unavoidable, but it is something GMs may want to think a bit about before beginning the adventure.

The first of the support articles in the volume covers Starfall, so this helps to fill in missing details. Starfall, however, is a big city, so the six pages here can only do so much. What I like about this article, though, is that it is not as focused on being a list of locations like most other articles of this type. It does contain an overview of the city's districts, but it also manages to fit in a sizeable section on city life—something so frequently glossed over in Pathfinder products. I hope this is indicative of a change in the style of presentation of these articles and not just a one-off thing. The article also details the history of Starfall and has a brief section on the city's guards, including a stat block for gearsman battleguard robots.

The second support article, written by Sean K Reynolds, details Zyphus, god of accidental death. Like other articles in this series, it gives an overview of the god's following, including priests' roles, holidays, and relations with other religions. It also contains obediences for the Deific Obedience feat introduced in Inner Sea Gods.

The Bestiary for this volume contains the gammenore (a crab-like magical beast), the gravedragger (a skeletal outsider that may look undead, but isn't actually undead), and a couple of new robots.

Overall, Palace of Fallen Stars is another strong entry in what is proving to be a strong adventure path. I particularly like how open-ended it is. It plays to one of the greatest aspects of roleplaying games: collaborative storytelling. In a lot of adventures out there, the players can end up feeling a lot like observers following along a predetermined path. Sure, their PCs get to do things along the way—maybe even save the world—but their actions can feel scripted to various degrees. In Palace of Fallen Stars, the players can actually feel like they have a hand in writing the story itself. That can be a great feeling.

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