One thing I really like is when adventures provide dynamic locations—places that aren’t always exactly the same no matter when the PCs arrive. The monsters and NPCs move around and interact with themselves, and not just with the PCs. They are places that make the PCs feel like part of a living world, even if that world is full of enemies that the PCs must fight.
Of course, good gamemasters can make any adventure site be this way, but some adventures are better than others at assisting GMs in this regard. Just from reading the text, the locations come alive, full of characters with motivations causing things to happen. The second part of the Giantslayer Adventure Path, The Hill Giant’s Pledge by Larry Wilhelm is such an adventure. It contains a wide assortment of interesting NPCs (both villains and allies), each with fairly detailed back-stories and motivations. It makes for a wonderfully dynamic adventure that can play out in a multitude of different ways depending on what the PCs do. There are a couple of inconsistencies here and there that don’t work quite so well, but on the whole, it’s a very good continuation of the adventure path.
The Hill Giant’s Pledge picks up from where Battle of Bloodmarch Hill finished. Having defeated Skreed Gorewillow, the PCs have recovered information linking him to the hill giant chieftain, Grenseldek. Halgra of the Blackened Blades, Trunau’s Chief Defender, asks the PCs to follow up on this and go after Grenseldek to ensure that there are no further attacks on the town. The PCs either know already (through their own Knowledge checks) or can learn from others in Trunau that Grenseldek’s combined tribe (the Twisted Hearts) of hill giants, ogres, and orcs resides in an abandoned outpost named Redlake Fort.
A local druid also informs the PCs of a demiplane called the Vault of Thorns that can be reached in the nearby Ghostlight Marsh. Within the Vault, they can find a cache of items that may aid them against giants. Halgra arranges for river passage for them and the PCs must set out along the Kestrel River and then the River Esk to Ghostlight Marsh and the Vault of Thorns, and then to Redlake Fort to face Grenseldek. It’s a fairly straight-forward layout for the adventure, but often straight-forward layouts allow for the most variability in outcomes.
One issue that comes up in any adventure that requires the PCs to travel to another location through dangerous lands is how to deal with the travel time itself. On the one hand, in a place like Belkzen (this adventure’s setting), it’s realistic that the PCs would have encounters along the way. On the other hand, some groups may find playing out numerous encounters that have little to do with the overall adventure to be tedious and even dull. Some adventures deal with this issue by skimming over the travel time in the text, allowing GMs to handle it whichever way they choose. This allows groups to skip over the travel if they want, just deciding that nothing of note happens and moving the time forward appropriately. The downside here can be that this creates more work for GMs of groups that want to play out the journey.
The Hill Giant’s Pledge takes the route of covering the travel time, but includes events and encounters along the way that have relevance to the overall adventure. The PCs journey on a keelboat run by Raag Bloodtusk, a half-orc trader who has negotiated passage with the local orc tribes, allowing the PCs to avoid a lot of tedious random orc encounters. However, the journey is not without its perils. Skreed Gorewillow’s lover, a human woman from Freedom Town named Melira, has stowed away on the boat and hidden in the pump room. She has also charmed one of the crewmembers. Over the course of the journey, she and her charmed crewmember attempt to sabotage the trip, poison the PCs, and otherwise kill them. She has also arranged for an attack by a group of orcs along the River Esk if the PCs are able to survive her other attempts at their lives.
What I like about this first section of the adventure (and it remains true for the remaining sections too) is that it discusses the many ways this can play out depending on whether the PCs discover Melira early (by thoroughly searching every part of the boat, for example) or later. There is a “default” order of sorts to the events, since the book has to describe them in some order or another, but this is by no means set in stone. Indeed, the default order (where Melira remains undiscovered until the orc attack when she joins in with it) is probably the last likely outcome to occur. The adventure allows this section to play out organically without forcing it into an order of Event 1, then Event 2, and so on.
Bloodtusk and his crewmembers are well-fleshed out as well, allowing GMs to easily portray them and giving the PCs the opportunity to get to know the crew and possibly even notice that one of them (Gashnakh, whom Melira has charmed) is behaving a little oddly. It provides one (but not the only) method through which Melira’s presence may be discovered.
Unfortunately, there is one major aspect of this opening section that doesn’t quite hold together. How exactly did Melira get there and find out what is happening so quickly? PCs (and their players) are going to want explanations, and this explanation is strangely lacking. Melira and Skreed each possess a matching pair of true love lockets. These magic items each inform their wearer of the other wearer’s condition (the PCs likely recovered Skreed’s at the end of the last adventure and may well have considered the possibility of his unknown lover seeking revenge). Through her true love locket, it’s clear how she becomes aware of Skreed’s death or capture.
The problem is how quickly everything else happens. Freedom Town and Trunau are around 200 miles apart, meaning the trip from one to the other would take Melira quite a few days at least. Yet the implication in the adventure is that the PCs set out fairly promptly after the end of Battle of Bloodmarch Hill. It is likely they might want to take a couple days to heal up and restock supplies, but most groups I’ve played with would not want to dally for too long. There is certainly reason for Trunau residents to want this issue dealt with quickly in case Grenseldek decides to attack Trunau again.
Yet Melira not only makes the trip to Trunau fast enough, she also somehow has enough time to learn the PCs’ plans (without being discovered), hide herself on Bloodtusk’s boat, and send a letter to Tark Singeskin, leader of a small band of orcs, to arrange an ambush along the River Esk. GMs could decide that Melira purchases a casting of teleport (though that is actually beyond the spellcasting limits for Freedom Town as laid out in Belkzen, Hold of the Orc Hordes) to remove the travel time, but even so, a lot of groups simply aren’t going to buy it since she accomplishes so much else as well.
GMs might also try to delay the PCs departure for awhile by stating that it takes Halgra time to arrange river travel for them—due to having to wait for Raag Bloodtusk’s boat to be in the area, for example—but in such circumstances, many groups may just decide to set out on their own rather than wait.
This is an unfortunate problem in what is otherwise a very good opening for the adventure. GMs will need to spend a bit of time before running it deciding how to make this work. The best change will likely be along the lines of making it so that Melira is already in Trunau (with enough advance planning, she could even be inserted into a scene or two in Battle of Bloodmarch Hill) and giving her some expendable magic items to allow her quicker communication with the orc leader Tark Singeskin, rather than sending letters. Of course, some groups may not care about explanations for how Melira gets there, but for those that do, GMs should be prepared.
Once the PCs reach the marsh, they must seek out the entrance to the Vault of Thorns. Once they’ve found the entrance, in order to get inside, they need to use a magical lantern (which also requires the body of a will-o’-wisp to operate) provided earlier by the druid who told them of the Vault of Thorns. Along the way, they may encounter a dwarf named Ingrahild Nargrymkin. She and her brother were cursed by a coven of hags. They managed to kill two of the hags but lost track of each other (her brother was later captured by Orcs and taken to Redlake Fort). If the PCs can remove her curse, she can become a useful ally. Ewigga, the surviving hag of the coven, made her way into the Vault of Thorns, where she plots her revenge against the dwarf siblings.
The interior of the Vault of Thorns is a short dungeon crawl where the PCs will encounter a number of fey creatures that have broken into the demiplane. However, it’s the presence of Ewigga that makes the Vault more interesting than just moving from room to room. The hag disguises herself as a human and attempts to infiltrate the PCs’ group with plans to kill them once they’ve removed the fey. If Ingrahild is with the PCs, the hag will also want to be doubly certain to kill her.
After the PCs have collected the cache of items from the Vault of Thorns (and dealt with Ewigga), they continue on Bloodtusk’s boat to Redlake Fort. The remainder of the journey has no significant encounters along it unless the GM decides to add some.
Once the PCs reach Redlake Fort, the adventure can take a number of different directions depending on how the PCs choose to proceed. Redlake Fort is not a dungeon that the PCs can simply enter and move from room to room, killing or otherwise defeating the denizens along the way. Such an approach would almost certainly get the PCs killed, as the fort is well defended. Instead, PCs will likely want to surveil the fort and sneak in.
The PCs can also learn about, and take advantage of, the fact that Grenseldek’s Twisted Hearts tribe is really an amalgamation of three tribes: a hill giant tribe, an ogre tribe, and an orc tribe. The three tribes don’t actually like one another very much and Grenseldek is starting to lost control of them, as she’s wallowing away in despair (see below). Crafty PCs may be able to set the different groups against one another.
It’s also possible for the PCs to find allies in the fort. The ghost of one of the former Lastwall occupants haunts the chapel and is willing to help the PCs (in return for helping put him to rest). They can also find and free Ingrahild’s brother Umlo. In addition, it’s even possible for them to form an alliance with the orcs in the fort. Doing so will remove a lot of the opposition they would otherwise face and make the remaining opposition easier to defeat.
Regardless of how the PCs choose to proceed, the adventure makes it easy for GMs make the appropriate adjustments. The various NPCs are sufficiently detailed with personalities and motivations, along with how they move about the fort. The orcs, for example all attend a bear-baiting every evening, when they set their pet bears against the dwarf Umlo (or any other prisoners they have acquired).
Eventually, the PCs will face Grenseldek herself. She has mostly sequestered herself away in her room in despair—partially at the defeat of her orcs in Battle of Bloodmarch Hill, and partly due to her rejection by someone known as the Storm Tyrant. The PCs will learn (if they haven’t already begun to piece together some clues) that Grenseldek’s activities have been motivated by her desire to collect a dowry as part of a proposed marriage to the Storm Tyrant, who is bringing together giant clans under his rule. Grenseldek did not wish to serve, but rather to rule at the Storm Tyrant’s side. Unfortunately, he turned her down and now she has fallen into a depression, all but neglecting her Twisted Hearts tribe.
Her despair is not entirely natural, however. She is under the effects of a curse that has exacerbated it, a curse brought on by the spirit of the former castellan of the fort—a man who tricked his troops into cannibalism in order to try to hold out against attacking orcs (the ghost of the priest in the chapel was one of the first victims of the castellan). In order to remove the curse (and put the priest’s ghost to rest), the PCs must find the castellan’s remains (his skull is in Grenseldek’s room) and destroy them.
Once the PCs have defeated Grenseldek, the threat to Trunau is finally over. Any remaining members of her tribe will gradually disperse. From Grenseldek, they’ll be able to acquire the other half of the map they found at the end of the last adventure. The map leads to the tomb of Nargrym Steelhand, a giantslayer of renown and ancestor of Ingrahild and Umlo. This, of course, sets up the next adventure.
The first of the support articles in this volume is “Missions in the Mindspins” by David Schwartz. It provides three short encounter locations along with several hooks for other encounters. Each of the three sites gets two pages of details, including a map. GMs can use these encounters to spice up journeys through the Mindspin Mountains in Belkzen. Their difficulties range from CR 7 to CR 13, so could well be inserted into later parts of the Giantslayer Adventure Path or used in GMs’ other campaigns.
There’s a good variety to the encounter types. An ettin has taken over an abandoned orc war machine in “Boneyard of Broken Weapons”. In “Throne of the Sky-Father”, the PCs encounter a paranoid druid who has become custodian of a shrine to Gozreh at the entrance to a passage through the mountains, and in “The Dragon of Angel Peak”, the PCs must, not surprisingly, track down a dragon. The encounters use a variety of different types of terrain (a battlefield, mountain pass, and mountain peak) and are not necessarily all combat encounters. In “Throne of the Sky Father”, for example, PCs need to gain the druid’s trust, but don’t necessarily need to fight her.
The second article is “Ecology of the Drake” by Russ Taylor. I enjoyed reading this article a great deal. It goes into detail about the lives of these dragon-like creatures and makes them into distinct creatures that are more than just less-powerful dragons. Previously, I’ve always found drakes a little boring, but I look forward to running some now with the details from this article in mind. I particularly like that a group of drakes is called a “rampage”.
This volume’s Bestiary contains a new plant creature, the brambleblight. There’s also a new protean, a new kind of fey, and a magical beast called a skeltercat.
Overall, I like The Hill Giant’s Pledge a great deal. It’s an exciting, dynamic adventure that provides the PCs with a lot of options while also moving the adventure path forward.