Monday, 13 August 2018

Giantslayer - Anvil of Fire


Every adventure path has a low point. It’s pretty much unavoidable. There’s always going to be something that doesn’t work quite as well as everything. Of course, the hope is that any low points are still high—still good and fun, just not quite as high as the other points in the adventure path. If this situation is met, you have a winning adventure path. Unfortunately, Giantslayer isn’t an example of this. Even more unfortunately, its low point sinks especially low.

After Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen, I worried that the adventure path was becoming repetitive. Three instalments in a row all follow a very similar style where the PCs need to infiltrate much larger and potentially overpowering forces in order to achieve their goals. I worried that this repetition could start to bore the players. Anvil of Fire by Sean K Reynolds, the fifth part of the adventure path, is only superficially similar in this regard and mostly breaks from the pattern established in the last three parts. Unfortunately, it’s repetitive in an even worse way: with itself.

Anvil of Fire is one long dungeon crawl with battle after battle after battle—with almost every encounter being virtually identical to the one immediately before it. There is very little opportunity for pause (except if and when PCs decide to retreat from the dungeon to recover) and even less opportunity for interaction with NPCs in any way other than combat. There is so much of the same in this adventure, I can’t imagine any group of players not being completely bored by the end. Even the most avid “hack’n’slash” players will likely be dismayed at the lack of variety in the combats.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure is very straight-forward. At the end of Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen, the PCs learn that giants who complete their training at Skirgaard travel to Ashpeak, a dormant volcano, where fire giants run an élite training facility. The PCs must travel to Ashpeak and eliminate the giants there. Part 1 of the adventure is titled “Infiltrating Ashpeak” and I briefly thought my worries that the adventure would follow the same pattern as its three predecessors would turn out to be correct. However, in this case, “infiltrate” merely means “enter Ashpeak and kill everything in sight”.

And that’s how the adventure proceeds from there. The PCs move from room to room and have combat after combat. Almost every encounter is with giants, most of these being fire giants, though some of them are giants of other types. Sometimes the giants have hellhounds or other animals with them. There are occasional other types of creatures encountered, like otyughs or salamanders, but these encounters still don’t add much in the way of variety as the encounters still play out in pretty much the same way. Even a group of young red dragons led by a magma dragon still manages to feel like just another combat

It’s a shame because there are some interesting background details. There is a clear attempt to create an interesting, even compelling location for the adventure to take place in. The adventure provides details about the different fire giant clans that King Tytarian of Clan Brandrik has brought together to join with Volstus the Storm Tyrant. Several of the encounter areas also provide details on how the giants there came to Ashpeak. There are even details on how the giants keep fresh air circulating in the hot caverns of the volcano! However, none of these details have any effect on the adventure itself. The politics between the fire giant clans never plays any kind of role. The PCs never get the opportunity to learn which giant is part of which clan, if they even become aware there are different clans at all. And they certainly don’t get the opportunity to learn the backstories of most of the other giants they encounter, as almost every encounter leads immediately to combat.

There are only two notable opportunities for roleplaying in the adventure. Early on, the PCs encounter a doppelgänger that they can potentially ally with. Towards the end of the adventure, the fire giant queen is unwilling to fight to the death and will actually parley with the PCs if they come close to defeating her. However, the results of this parley are merely to arrange for the PCs to fight King Tytarian. This can allow the PCs to skip over a couple of encounters at the end, but since they’re almost done by the time they even encounter Queen Quivixia, it doesn’t make a large difference in how long it takes to get to the king.

The dungeon itself is very linear, without a lot of options for the PCs to go in different directions. For the most part, the encounters will likely all occur in an order very close to the order they appear in the book. There is more than one entrance into the mountain, but the adventure assumes the PCs initially use the main entrance into the lower level and only use the others as a means of exiting and possibly return after they “discover” them. Some of those other entrances are on ledges that the giants only use to graze their goats. The ledges are hidden and supposedly nearly impossible to notice from the ground (though no actual DC is given for PCs who might fly around the mountain to look). The other two are the much larger entrances the dragons use to come and go. No explanation is given for why the PCs might not notice these entrances right away, although there is a sidebar early in the book about flying around the mountain. Near the top of the mountain, the winds are very strong, making flight “difficult, if not impossible” (p. 8). It’s not clear just how high up the dragons’ entrances are, although if they are high enough to be amid those high winds, it would also follow that the dragons would have difficulty coming and going themselves, which seems odd. The winds are there to prevent PCs and others from flying into the volcano’s caldera (for reasons which I’ll get to later).

The dungeon is also very big, both in sheer size and in the number of encounter areas—with nearly every individual encounter area being of huge size on its own. Throughout Giantslayer, most of the maps have used a scale of 1 square representing 10 feet. Although this can be an awkward scale to transfer to a battlemat for gameplay, it’s somewhat understandable, since giants need big locations. Anvil of Fire also uses a scale of 1 square to 10 feet. However, the squares are much smaller than typical. Even with this reduced square size, the dungeon is too big to be mapped in its entirety, and so the adventure only provides detailed maps of the individual encounter areas, with smaller, less detailed insets giving an overview of where each encounter area is located. A significant number of these areas are too big to fit on most battlemats. That said, many of the encounter areas (particularly the early ones in the lower level) don’t have a lot in them, so GMs could get away with just using the entirety of a blank battlemat for these encounters.

A few of the encounter areas do offer variations in terrain or provide other kinds of obstacles along with their inhabitants that the PCs must fight. In the lower level, for example, a couple of the encounters take place in areas where the giants keep livestock like goats and pigs. Although these animals are not a threat to the PCs, they can get in the way while the PCs fight their giant keepers. In the higher levels where the giants do their training, the giants have set up mock villages and castles for them to practice attacking. These small variations offer a bit of relief from the monotony of the encounters (in fact, I love the image of PCs having to navigate around bleating goats to get at their enemies), but unfortunately, it’s not enough to mitigate the fact that this adventure is one long slog of combat.

There is one section of the dungeon that the PCs do not have to enter at all (as a result, no maps are provided of it). This is the area where the giant army is camped. Instead of entering it and fighting hundreds of giants all at once, the PCs can learn (from the doppelgänger) a means to collapse the tunnel leading to the area, trapping the giants within. This is another of the few parts of this adventure I like, as it makes a good distraction from the constant face-to-face fighting. However, once again, it is such a small part that it doesn’t make up for the monotony of the rest of the adventure.

Eventually, the PCs will fight King Tytarian and presumably defeat him. If Queen Quivixia is still alive, she agrees to withdraw all the fire giants from Ashpeak and shows the PCs a secret passage to the caldera. If she’s dead, the PCs can find this passage just through regular searching of the throne room. In the caldera, the PCs will discover the Storm Tyrant’s castle. The adventure ends at this point and leads directly into the next without a break. According to the “Concluding the Adventure” section, the next adventure opens with the castle’s defenders trying to repel the PCs—in other words, it opens with another combat.

I really don’t like this ending. While having one adventure lead directly into the next without break can work in many circumstances, after an adventure that is so combat-heavy, to provide the PCs with no break and start the next adventure with yet another combat is just overkill. More than that, though, it’s the fact that the PCs just kind of stumble on the castle that bothers me most. Tracking down the Storm Tyrant has been a major goal of Giantslayer, but in all the previous adventures, the PCs have been unable to gain any information about where he is. In this adventure, they still don’t get any information until they discover that he is essentially just upstairs. It’s very anti-climactic. But I suppose I’ll have to find out how things play out in the next adventure, Shadow of the Storm Tyrant.

The support articles help to redeem this volume a little. The first is an article by Sean K. Reynolds on Zursvaater, the god of the fire giants. Like most deity articles, it contains information on priests’ roles, temples, and religious holidays, as well as Zursvaater’s obediences (for the Deific Obedience feat from Inner Sea Gods). What I particularly like about this article, though, is that it also provides quite a bit information about fire giant society, since Zursvaater’s faith plays such a large role in that society. The article can be very useful for designing adventures involving fire giants.

The second article is on “Volcanoes of Golation” by Russ Taylor. It provides brief information on several prominent volcanoes across the campaign world. It also provides rules information for dealing with eruptions and volcanic activity in the game. It ends with a couple new archetypes and a volcano oracle mystery. Overall, the article is light on information. Of course, a short six-page article can’t hope to go into a lot of detail, though I feel it could have done without the archetypes and oracle mystery, which would have allowed two more pages for details about the various volcanoes, which only get a paragraph each. That said, the rules information on eruptions is very useful.

If I ever run Giantslayer, I will definitely want to make significant changes to this adventure. The simplest change would be to simply cut out half (or more) of the encounters. It wouldn’t make the adventure any more interesting (its plot would still be, “kill all the giants”), but it would make it less tedious. More substantive changes would require quite a bit more work, but I would probably want to throw in something dealing with the politics between the fire giant clans, as well as some of the other allies King Tytarion is trying to attract (like the salamanders). Unfortunately, the adventure as it stands is just far too monotonous. It has neither a compelling plot nor enough variety of encounters to keep a group interested all the way to the end of its immensely large dungeon.

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