Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Giantslayer - Battle of Bloodmarch Hill


Giants are amongst the most iconic fantasy monsters. Indeed, one of the most famous Dungeons & Dragons adventures of all time is Against the Giants, published in 1981. It is a compilation of three shorter adventures originally published in 1978. All three were amongst the first adventures ever published for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Since then, giants have gone on to feature as antagonists in many fantasy roleplaying adventures.

Pathfinder has been no exception in this regard. Giants feature as significant antagonists in several parts of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path, for example. And it’s probably no surprise that giants feature in the Giantslayer Adventure Path as well, which begins with Battle of Bloodmarch Hill by Patrick Renie. This opening adventure offers an engaging mystery for the player characters to solve, and is a strong beginning to the adventure path as a whole.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Of course, giants tend to be powerful creatures, and adventure paths always start at first level. Even the weaker giants, such as ogres, are more than a match for first-level PCs, and an encounter with even one at this point could result in a TPK (total party kill). As such, it is necessary for Battle of Bloodmarch Hill to not have much in the way of giants in it. There is one, however—a CR 6 cave giant encountered at a point in the adventure when the PCs should have reached 3rd level. Depending on their previous actions, the overall challenge rating of this encounter can end up anywhere from CR 7 to CR 4, making it a winnable encounter for the PCs, though potentially a very difficult one.

Yet a lack of giant presence in the adventure does not mean a lack of giant influence, something that will become clearer as the adventure reaches its conclusion. The adventure opens at a hopeknife cermeony in Trunau—a human town inside the orc-populated land of Belkzen (Trunau is detailed in Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Towns of the Inner Sea). The hopeknife, a Trunauan tradition, is a small sheathed dagger usually worn on a chain around the neck. All residents of Trunau gain one on their twelfth birthday as a sign that they have come of age and are ready to help defend the town against orc invasions. On this occasion, the ceremony is for the daughter of the town’s leader, Halgra of the Blackened Blades.

After the ceremony, the PCs have time to visit and take part in the local festivities, including a tug-of-war. This provides an opportunity for them to meet and interact with the locals, in particular Kurst and Rodrik Grath, twin brothers who are prominent members of the local militia. After a night of festive fun, the PCs awake in the morning to learn that Rodrik has been found dead, apparently by suicide with his own hopeknife. His brother Kurst is not convinced it was a suicide, however, but due to his own grief and family duties, he doesn’t feel that he should be the one to investigate the death. And so he asks the PCs to step in.

I’ve commented in reviews of other adventures how much I prefer it when the PCs are present for the hook that starts off the adventure, and this adventure is a perfect example of how to do that. So many adventures have the hook occur before the adventure starts, and then some NPC (whom the PCs often don’t even know) hires the PCs as a way to involve them. When the PCs are already present, they have much more motivation to take part, particularly motivation that goes beyond just monetary reward.

There’s not much action in the opening of Battle of Bloodmarch Hill, but while it starts off very calmly with light-hearted roleplaying banter, this helps to cement the PCs in the setting and gives them an opportunity to interact with Rodrik and get to know and like him, and thus gives them more reason to investigate his death. This is especially important if the PCs are not native to Trunau as it also gives Kurst a reason to ask them to investigate his brother’s death. It makes the whole situation much more personal.

Naturally, as the PCs investigations will determine, Rodrik did not die by suicide and the hopeknife that killed him was not even his own. In truth, the killer is a half-orc alchemist named Skreed Gorewillow, who has been hired by Grenseldek, chieftain of the Heart Eater hill giant clan to find the tomb of a hill giant hero chieftain named Uskroth. The tomb is believed to be somewhere under Trunau. Rodrik stumbled on a portion of these goings-on and, even though he had not worked out exactly what was happening, Skreed panicked and decided to kill him.

The mystery in the adventure is well-constructed, and the PCs are presented with numerous clues and options on how to proceed, including some red herrings. There’s also a wonderfully vibrant cast of characters for them to interact with, and the adventure nicely avoids of NPCs seeming one-dimensional. All of the characters have motivations, likes, and dislikes beyond just what the plot needs them to have. Rodrik himself, for example, is more than just a militiaman; he’s also a writer and the adventure text even includes a sidebar with details of some of his most well-known works!

It’s also good that, while Skreed and his colleagues are half-orcs, the adventure also includes several good half-orcs. There’s Brinya Kelver, the woman Rodrik was involved with, as well as Sara Morninghawk, the local blacksmith. There’s also Katrezra, an elderly half-orc with whom Rodrik entrusted his journal in case something happened to him.

One thing I find particularly remarkable about Battle of Bloodmarch Hill is that there is almost no combat in the first segment of the adventure. Yet despite this, there’s more than enough going on to keep even the most battle-hungry players engaged. Of course, as the adventure title indicates, battle does eventually come.

Grenseldek has become impatient with how long Skreed is taking. Her hill giant tribe has allied with the Twisted Nail orc tribe, and she instructs the Twisted Nail orcs to attack Trunau. As the PCs come close to solving the mystery of Rodrik’s death, the orcs attack, and the adventure makes an abrupt change from murder mystery to frantic fight to save the town.

During the attack, the PCs are tasked with lighting Trunau’s beacon fires. To do this, they must make their way through various combat zones in order to reach each of the beacons. Along the way, they’ll need to help out in some other ways as well. Throughout this segment of the adventure, the PCs have the opportunity to earn “Resolve Points” by performing heroic deeds or carrying out important tasks. The number of Resolve Points they earn determines the difficulty of their encounter with the cave giant.

Although the change in style of this adventure partway through is quite drastic, it works really well, and it all ties together nicely. Throughout the first part of the adventure, the PCs have had the opportunity to interact with many people in Trunau, and this gives them an even greater motivation to help save them.

The battle is sufficiently chaotic with a lot going on. The PCs are not the only ones involved in combat here, as the battle stretches across the entire town. This kind of scenario can be confusing and difficult to run, but the adventure text lays it all out in a relatively easy-to-follow manner, making it easy for GMs to present, even if the PCs seek out the beacons in a different order from the recommended one.

At the climax of the attack, the PCs take on the cave giant and its orc handlers at the base of the titular Bloodmarch Hill. But this is not the end of the adventure. Before the PCs get there, Skreed uses the giant to smash a hole in the side of the hill where he has determined Uskroth’s tomb to be located. Once the PCs defeat the cave giant, they need to follow Skreed into the tomb.

At this point, the adventure becomes a short dungeon crawl. Inside the tomb, they encounter some spiders, undead rats, and even a hill giant skeleton. There are also a pair of gryphs (six-legged stork-like creatures), whose presence seems quite odd. Gryphs are creatures that dwell in subterranean locations, but given that the tomb has been completely sealed off for centuries, it’s very unclear how they’ve survived in here considering there’s no way in or out for them to find food or reproduce. How did they get here in the first place? The gryphs are the only things in this entire adventure that just seem out of place. It’s as though they are just filler monsters, put there to provide the PCs with a bit more XP and little thought put into why they’re there.

Eventually, the PCs face Skreed himself along with his dire wolf pets. Assuming they defeat him, they get to claim the tomb’s treasures for their own. They also find a letter on Skreed from Grenseldek (likely the first time they learn of her) instructing him to retrieve the “hammer and the rock” from the tomb. The “hammer” refers to a magical hammer clutched in the hands of Uskroth’s body, and the “rock” to a rock lodged in his eye socket. The rock is actually a geode that contains part of a map (the other part is in another geode currently in Grenseldek’s possession). This is the lead-in to the next adventure.

Following the main adventure is a short “Giant Primer” by David Schwartz, containing an overview of various different kinds of giants. Each of the eight most common giants gets half a page of detail on society, habitat, and so on. Several other kinds of giants receive a paragraph of information. It’s not a particularly detailed article, but it does provide a decent, basic understanding of the eight giant types, enough to provide GMs with a starting point.

Next is “Giant’s Toolbox” by Stephen Radney-MacFarland. This is a selection of feats, spells, and magic items specifically for giants. Since the vast majority of these kinds of things in other sources are designed with PCs in mind, the options here provide a useful way to make giant-sized creatures stand out. Feats like Awesome Throw and Giant’s Wallop take advantage of the greater size of these creatures.

This month’s Bestiary contains statistics for animals that can be found in Belkzen, including some new megafauna. There is also the exoskeleton (undead vermin) and the flood troll, a low-CR troll, which provides a creature of the giant type that low-level parties can encounter. A couple of flood trolls appear in the adventure.

Once the battle begins in Battle of Bloodmarch Hill, the adventure takes on a rather epic quality, which makes it quite an exciting introduction to an adventure path. But even before that, the murder mystery provides a great draw into the world in which Giantslayer takes place. I will admit that, based on just brief descriptions, Giantslayer doesn’t seem the most engaging of adventure paths. However, this first adventure definitely shows how wrong that is. I am looking forward to reading the remaining instalments.

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