Thursday, 21 June 2018

Giantslayer - Forge of the Giant God

I began reading Forge of the Giant God (the third part of the Giantslayer Adventure Path) by Tim Hitchcock about a year ago, and got through roughly half of it. I didn’t stop because I disliked it; it was just the state my life was in at the time (see this post for details). Over the next several months, I occasionally went back to it and got through a little bit more of it each time. I thought I eventually made it all the way through, though when I came back to it last week with the intention of reviewing it, I discovered a bookmark (one I thought I’d misplaced) about three quarters of the way through. Assuming I was wrong about finishing it, I picked up reading from that spot.

And was thoroughly confused.

Some things seemed familiar as though I’d read them before and others seemed completely new. More importantly though, I realised I really didn’t have a good enough recall of even the earlier parts of the adventure I knew for a fact I had previously read. This served as a pretty good example of why you should never spread out the reading of something like this over a year with months-long breaks. So I decided to do what I should have done as soon as I picked it up again last week, and that was to reread the entire thing beginning to end.

And I’m glad I did. I came away from it with a higher opinion of the adventure than I had before. I remember previously really liking the opening section of the adventure and disliking the rest. However, this time around, I liked it more. I do still think there are some issues, but they don’t bother me as much they did. The adventure is a little too similar to the previous adventure, The Hill Giant’s Pledge, in that both involve sneaking into a similar giant-controlled location (and The Hill Giant’s Pledge does it better). Following up one adventure with another that does virtually the same thing runs the risk of making things stale for the players. However, there are things to make this adventure more unique, and good GMs should be able to make it into a memorable experience.


At the end of The Hill Giant’s Pledge, the PCs learned that a giant known as the Storm Tyrant is gathering an army in a valley somewhere in the Mindspin Mountains. They should have also gained the second piece of a geode (they found the first in Battle of Bloodmarch Hill) containing a map showing the way to the tomb of Nargrym Steelhand, a famous dwarven giantslayer.

Like The Hill Giant’s Pledge, Forge of the Giant God requires the PCs to be somewhat self-motivated in deciding to do oppose the Storm Tyrant’s efforts. This is something I approve of, as by this point in an adventure path, I would hope that the PCs would actually want to do something without needing to be asked. However, GMs can use NPCs to give the PCs a little nudge if they don’t decide to take action on their own.

Since Nargrym Steelhand was known for possessing several magic items that aided him in his battles against giants, including one that let him wield giant-sized weapons, a stop at his tomb along the way is a logical first step for the PCs. The first part of the adventure deals with what they encounter at the tomb.

I really love this opening section of the adventure. It’s short, but full of flavour and interesting opponents for the PCs to face off against—because, naturally, the tomb is not uninhabited.

At the end of his life, Nargrym was betrayed by his squire and kinsman Lokmorr. As punishment for his actions, the dwarves of Janderhoff sentenced Lokmorr to be buried alive in the tomb with Nargrym. However, unknown to the dwarves, the god Torag himself also sentenced Lokmorr to unending life so that he would be trapped forever. Over the centuries, Lokmorr eventually escaped the cage he was placed in and has taken control of Steelhand’s treasures.

When Lokmorr was first punished, his mother, believing him to be innocent, tried to argue in his defence and she was exiled from Janderhoff for doing so. She set up a shrine to her son outside the tomb (not knowing he was still alive within). Over time, she came to the notice of Mazmezz, demon lord of vermin. Under his influence, she took up with a group of ettercaps whom she believed, in her madness, to be her children. Eventually, she had another child, a daughter who bore spider-like characteristics. That daughter eventually had a daughter who was even more spider-like. That daughter, Stilgrit, still resides at the shrine with her ettercap family, and they are the first encounters the PCs face travelling to Nargrym Steelhand’s tomb.

In addition to this creative backstory, this section works so well because the setting feels like more than just a dungeon with random monsters in it. It’s a dynamic setting. Lokmorr, in particular, moves about the tomb instead of just having a location where he’s encountered when the PCs get there. He uses his greater familiarity with the setting to his advantage. I also like that he uses the treasures of the tomb, particularly Nargrym’s steel hand, the magic item that gave Nargrym Steelhand his name, the one that let him wield giant weapons.

The hand itself is a wonderfully unique item that really stands out in a game saturated with magic. It is literally a hand made of steel and, in order to use it, a character must chop of their hand and wear the magic item over the stump. It’s a useful item for a PC to have (it has a couple other abilities in addition to allowing characters to use oversized weapons), but that PC has to make a tough choice. Attaching the hand is permanent (it can only be removed after the death of the wearer) and it compels its wearer to attack any giants in line of sight regardless of the wisdom of such an action (a Will save is required to resist).

There are a number of other very flavourful items in the tomb as well, including Heartspit, a magical spear that can skewer its opponents, and a suit of magical scale mail made from the fingernails of hill giants. Indeed, the Giantslayer Adventure Path has had quite a few unique and stand-out magic items and artefacts so far. I like seeing magic items with a lot of character and history, rather than just a succession of +1 swords and rings of protection.

Of course, it may seem a bit odd, even unacceptable, to some PCs to be looting the tomb of a great dwarven hero. However, there’s a good chance the PCs are accompanied by two descendants of Nargrym Steelhand whom they rescued in the previous adventure. These two give the PCs their blessing to use the items in the tomb against the Storm Tyrant’s gathering army. Even if they aren’t with the PCs, if they know the PCs have the geode showing the way to the tomb, they can still grant the PCs this permission. However, if the PCs never encountered them or they were killed in the previous adventure, this could prove a problem if the PCs have a moral objection to taking the items. It’s hard to say whether the PCs will be at a notable disadvantage later in the adventure path if they don’t take the items, so individual GMs may need to make their own judgement calls.

From the tomb, the PCs continue on towards the Mindspin Mountains. Along the way, they pass through Shinnerman’s Fortune, a prospecting town that has recently been raided by giants who took off with a number of the townsfolk. The PCs follow the giants’ trail into Minderhal’s Valley.

The remainder of the adventure is set in Minderhal’s Valley and the Cathedral of Minderhal, an ancient temple dedicated to the stone giant deity of law and creation. This portion of the adventure is fairly open-ended, and the PCs have a lot of choice in how they proceed. While their ultimate goals lie in the Cathedral, depending on their actions, they may need to explore more of the valley after reaching the Cathedral in order to acquire items they need.

Urathash, a stone giant inquisitor who is the main villain of the adventure, is using the Cathedral as his base of operations. The Storm Tyrant has put him in charge of recruiting for the army. Giants have been coming from all over to prove themselves and swear fealty to the Storm Tyrant. As such, there is a large encampment of giants of all different sorts outside the Cathedral.

The PCs must sneak past these giants to get into the Cathedral and to move about in it. In this way, the adventure becomes very similar to The Hill Giant’s Pledge, though the giants here feel much less fleshed out than the orc army in that adventure. There are also fewer opportunities for the PCs to gain allies or play different factions off each other.

A major weakness in this part of the adventure is that it doesn’t give GMs much guidance on how the giants and NPCs react to the PCs’ actions. Encounters are keyed to locations and generally happen the same way regardless of when the PCs get there or what they’ve done before. Of course, it’s not unusual for adventures to have something happening at an encounter location just as the PCs arrive, but it stands out more in this case because these events often tie in with the overall story.

An example is with the giants who raided Shinnerman’s Fortune and kidnapped several townspeople. The earliest encounters in Minderhal’s Valley involve the PCs finding evidence of the giants’ passing. Encountering these giants is keyed to a specific location and it assumes the PCs go directly there. This is not an unreasonable assumption as most parties will likely make all haste to track the giants down. However, there’s no indication given as to how fast the giants are moving or what state the townsfolk will be in if the PCs are slow in following for some reason. Regardless of the PCs’ speed, they end up rescuing most of the townsfolk in the same location. However, three of the townsfolk have been carried ahead to the Cathedral (by a red dragon the PCs will encounter at the Cathedral), and this is the case even if the PCs are exceptionally fast at tracking the giants down.

Similarly, when the PCs get the chance to rescue those last three at the Cathedral, they are described as suffering from starvation and have each taken 24 points of nonlethal damage. The amount of damage taken from starvation is variable, but it would take 7 days minimum for people to suffer 24 points of damage (3 days before they take any damage at all, then assuming a failed save each day after and a roll of 6 on 1d6 each time for the next 4 days), and it’s more likely to take longer. I suspect there was a desire here to minimise the work for the GM, but given there are rules for starvation in the game (pages 444-445 of the Core Rulebook), I’m not sure why the adventure doesn’t just refer GMs to these rules—especially since I can easily see many groups reaching these prisoners in fewer than 7 days.

Of course, GMs can—and should—modify things to fit the circumstances of their own games, and no adventure can account for every possibility, but this adventure doesn’t really even acknowledge the possibility things might happen differently than the expected outcome. Considering that the adventure makes a point early on of stating that PCs can approach things in any order they wish, it feels odd that so little attempt is made to consider other outcomes.

Also, despite that statement, the adventure then deliberately discourages GMs from letting PCs take any route they want. One of the early encounters in the valley is with a rift drake. At the end of this encounter, it states:
The purpose of this encounter is to discourage the PCs from flying around and heading straight for the Cathedral of Minderhal in Part 3. Feel free to incorporate more encounters with additional drakes or other flying creatures to keep the PCs on the ground as needed. (p 21)
There’s nothing wrong with having flying PCs encounter things in the air. It makes sense that there are flying creatures in the Mindspin Mountains. Just like on the ground, they should encounter challenges. However, to keep adding more and more until the PCs give up and decide to walk instead bugs me. GMs and adventure writers alike need to accept that PCs gain all kinds of new powers as they rise in level (at this point, they are expected to be 8th level). As such, adventures can’t continue to happen the same way they do at first level. The PCs deserve the opportunity to use their abilities. If the PCs want to fly, let them fly.

Another issue I have is that the PCs’ goals for this adventure are not particularly clear. The text considers the adventure complete when the PCs defeat and kill Urathash, but there’s still a large encampment of giants left outside the Cathedral and the PCs may not consider their job done yet, even though there are too many giants for them to face even at their current level.

But although defeating Urathash is the primary goal, much of the adventure is focused on an artefact called Minderhal’s Forge. After the PCs reach the Cathedral, they are contacted by an elderly slag giant named Etena, who is the Keeper of the Forge. The forge is currently inactive and has been for a long time. It needs several special ingredients to reactivate it, all of which can be found in various locations in Minderhal’s Valley. Etena believes the PCs are destined to relight the forge for her and she tries to convince them to do so.

However, there’s not a lot to actually motivate the PCs to relight the forge. Etena is not entirely sane and the adventure specifies that even her requests for what she wants them to do are not entirely clear, never mind why they should do it. And Etena’s motivations aren’t entirely pure. She intends to betray the PCs once they’ve done the task as she doesn’t believe non-giants are worthy of access to giant artefacts like Minderhal’s Forge. The possessor of Agrimmosh, the Hammer of Unmaking, an artefact the PCs acquired in Battle of Bloodmarch Hill, does feel a connection between the hammer and the forge and, if the hammer is brought into contact with the forge, learns that Agrmmosh’s dormant powers can be awakened by Minderhal’s Forge when it’s active, so this might well motivate the PCs. However, the forge cannot be moved from the Cathedral and there is still an army of giants that would love to gain control of it. Many groups may not see a benefit to lighting the forge.

The adventure does specify that relighting the forge is not a necessity for the adventure path, but large segments of this adventure become rather pointless if they don’t relight it. It also again leaves the adventure without a clear goal.

Despite these issues, though, I do think there’s a lot of good in the adventure, and a good GM could make it all work really well. There aren’t a large number of significant NPCs, but Etena makes for a very compelling character. I would have liked to see a bit more detail about her disciple Ferin, who comes across a little as just a replacement Etena in case Etena dies, but there are seeds GMs can use to develop her further and make her a distinct character.

Urathash is not the most interesting character ever, but he makes for a decent antagonist for the PCs. He’s also one of the few NPCs in the adventure who is given any kind of schedule that places him in different locations at different times, such as giving sermons by Minderhal’s Forge.

And although the adventure doesn’t account for a lot of alternatives, it is pretty open-ended. GMs will simply need to be ready to adapt the keyed encounters based on other things the PCs have done—something which needs to be done to some extent in any adventure anyway.

The support articles in this volume include a gazetteer of the Mindspin Mountains by Mark Moreland and a detailed look at Minderhal and his faith by Sean K Reynolds. I rather like that Minderhal’s portfolio includes justice, even though he’s an evil deity. Naturally, his view of justice is not what a good character’s view is likely to be, and that makes for a really interesting faith. It’s not a typical combination of traits and I like that.

This month’s Bestiary includes Minderhal’s herald, Great Elder Iuu, as well as mongrel giants (who have traits from more than one kind of giant), living cave paintings, and benaiohs, ooze-like colonies of worms that live inside clay vessels shaped like giants. Benaiohs are the only creatures I’m aware of that are both constructs and oozes (in game terms they are counted as two separate creatures—the clay vessel which is a construct and the worm colony which is an ooze)!

Despite its issues, I do like Forge of the Giant God. There are a lot of good concepts in it. GMs will just need to be a little more ready than usual to make tweaks as needed in order to provide the best experience for their players.