Saturday, 25 August 2018

Giantslayer - Shadow of the Storm Tyrant


Throughout the Giantslayer Adventure Path, the player characters have taken on the servants of Volstus, the Storm Tyrant and the forces they’ve been building in the Storm Tyrant’s name. In Shadow of the Storm Tyrant by Tito Leati, the PCs finally make their way to the Storm Tyrant’s cloud castle and take the battle directly to him.

I’ve had mixed opinions of the instalments of Giantslayer so far—some have been good, others not so good—but Shadow of the Storm Tyrant works well as the culminating adventure. It’s primarily a dungeon crawl, but has a good sense of urgency and variety that its predecessor, Anvil of Fire, is missing. It also has some epic-feeling encounters and combats appropriate for a high-level party, and it makes good use of its setting, which helps to turn what could have been just a bog-standard dungeon crawl into something much more unique.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure picks up from the moment Anvil of Fire ends, with the PCs discovering the Storm Tyrant’s flying castle, Ironcloud Keep, in the caldera of Ashpeak (the volcano setting of Anvil of Fire). The castle has been moored here since Volstus first captured it, held in place by massive chains. Only two of those chains remain in place, as Volstus is trying to get away before the PCs can get inside the castle. His servants are in the process of cutting the chains to release the castle. The PCs must reach the castle before it can get away, but to do so, they must also contend with the Storm Tyrant’s extensive defences.

As the PCs try to reach the castle, they are assaulted by numerous groups of giants, many of whom possess long-range weapons like ballistae and thus can attack the PCs from far away. The PCs will likely have to take a detour or two to deal with these groups before they can reach the castle. However, if even one of the two remaining chains is broken, the castle can get away (although Volstus would prefer both be released, since pulling away with one still attached will damage the castle—but he will try with one if the PCs get too close), thus creating a wonderful sense of tension to the entire scene. The PCs don’t know how long it will take for the group of ash giants breaking the chains to get through the first of the two and then get to the last one, so they need to move quickly.

Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of opening that I would praise. It’s a big and exciting combat, much different and more varied from the usual style of combats the PCs are involved in. It is spread out over a vast area (the crater that makes up the caldera is very big and has multiple levels), so the PCs must keep moving, and may even end up ignoring some of the attacks coming at them (from a defence tower in the caldera and defenders in the castle itself, as well as defenders on the ground) just to cover more ground. It’s an epic and exiting opening for an adventure.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to ignore the context in which this opening occurs, following immediately from Anvil of Fire. That adventure is just endless combat after combat. While this opening combat is a far more interesting one than any of the combats in Anvil of Fire, it’s still yet another combat. At this point, the players are probably sick of nothing else happening, and even the different style of this combat may not be enough to break the feel of monotony.

I hate to criticise an adventure for the faults of another adventure, but the two are not independent of each other. They are meant to go together to make a unified whole, and in this case, that whole is very repetitive. Indeed, the rest of Shadow of the Storm Tyrant is mostly combat as the PCs move through the castle and confront the Storm Tyrant’s remaining allies. Both Anvil and Shadow are very similar structurally, even if Shadow does it better, and that repetitiveness can be a problem—something that has plagued much of Giantslayer.

That said, taken on its own merits, Shadow of the Storm Tyrant is a pretty good adventure. Once the PCs reach the castle, they must find a way in. The easiest way is to use entrances in the rocky base of the castle (the PCs might have found details about these entrances in the last adventure). These lead into the castle’s engine level. However, getting in this way is by no means mandatory. There are ways into the castle proper higher up. These ways are heavily protected, both by giants and magic (windows, for example, have magical stained glass that produces a prismatic wall effect), but crafty PCs can likely find ways to bypass these defences.

One thing I like about the adventure is that it allows PCs to make full use of their high-level abilities to access the castle and the areas within. Once they’re inside the castle, they have a lot of options regarding how to proceed and where to go as they search for the Storm Tyrant.

The castle itself makes for a relatively vibrant setting. Most of the encounters are location-based, but for the most part, the castle’s denizens have good reasons to be where they are, and the castle never comes across as a static, non-changing setting. This is partly because the castle is on high alert for the entire adventure. The castle and its inhabitants also have a strong backstory—one that actually has an effect on what is happening and has a role to play in the adventure, which makes a welcome contrast to the previous adventure where there is a lot of backstory that never plays a role in the adventure and the PCs never learn. In short, Ironcloud Keep was, until recently, called Zephyr Hall and belonged to a group of cloud giants. After the death of the cloud giants’ previous ruler, there was a schism in their numbers regarding who should be the new ruler. Volstus took advantage of this schism to join with one of the sides and conquered the castle. This is why it was anchored to the floor of the Ashpeak’s caldera. The chains were part of Volstus’s initial attack on the castle. In the time since taking over, he has been trying to learn how to control the castle. Even now, as he is desperately trying to salvage what is left of his plans, he can’t yet fully control the castle. This makes for a fun addition, as GMs can easily throw in some erratic movement as the castle flies unevenly under Volstus’s imperfect control.

Giantslayer is not an adventure path with a lot of NPC interaction, particularly the later adventures. Shadow of the Storm Tyrant isn’t really an exception in this regard, but it does have a few opportunities with some interesting NPCs. In particular, the PCs will likely encounter the ghost of the castle’s former engineer, Renfal. Renfal was captured and tortured into revealing the castle’s secrets to Volstus before being killed. He came back as a ghost to haunt Volstus, but Volstus killed him again—multiple times. As a ghost, he kept reforming, so Volstus eventually found the location where he was reforming and trapped him in there with walls of force. If the PCs free Renfal, they have a useful ally against the Storm Tyrant.

Volstus himself also makes for an interesting NPC. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much to make him really stand out other than he has an orb of red dragonkind. However, he is also something of a coward. He spends the opening of this adventure trying to get away from the PCs, and most of the rest of the adventure avoiding them and hoping that his allies get rid of the PCs for him. He won’t face them until he has no other choice. A lot of adventures inexplicably have the main villains wait around for the PCs, even though it would make far more sense (albeit be a deadly end for the PCs) if the villains just faced down the PCs with all their allies right from the start (Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh at the end of Mummy’s Mask is a particularly egregious example of this). It’s nice to see a villain have a real motivation for avoiding such an encounter. It’s also nice to see a villain who is actually afraid of the PCs—who has seen what they have done and has realised that he might not be able to defeat them, that he might not actually be all-powerful.

Volstus’s fears and paranoia also create an additional obstacle for the PCs. To ensure that nobody else can take the castle if he is defeated, he has placed a bomb in the propulsion ducts beneath the castle. The bomb is triggered to go off if he is killed. The PCs can find out about the bomb from Renfal, and they may find themselves searching through the propulsion ducts in search of the bomb while being pursued by phase spiders and a shadow giant inquisitor. Alternatively, if they don’t find and deactivate the bomb before killing Volstus, it explodes, leaving them in a critically damaged castle that is hurtling towards the ground, possibly over an inhabited area. Both of these options allow for some great game moments.

The final battle with Volstus is also suitably grand. Through his orb of red dragonkind, he has dominated an old red dragon that he flies on into battle. As such, Volstus makes certain to take the battle outside and avoids fighting indoors if he can. This can result in a battle the takes place all around the outside of the castle, with the PCs potentially either flying themselves or climbing along the castle’s walls and parapets.

One disappointing aspect of the adventure, however, is the way in which it handles the character, Naximarra, who was first introduced in Ice Tomb of the Giant Queen. Naximarra is a red dragon whom the PCs might have allied with. She has been trying to recover the orb of red dragonkind from Volstus, but has been unable to approach too closely or else she could be dominated as well. She is also a descendent of the original red dragon whose essence was trapped in the orb, and as such, her breath weapon can actually destroy it. One thing I liked about Naximarra in Ice Tomb is that she offered a rare opportunity in Giantslayer for an NPC who carried over between adventures, providing a bit more of a link between the adventures than the adventure path has tended to have. She was mostly a background character in Ice Tomb due to having to keep a low profile, but she was promised to have a larger role in the final adventure.

Unfortunately, she is mostly glossed over in Shadow of the Storm Tyrant. Her appearance is completely relegated to a sidebar, which mostly has her unwilling to do anything until after Volstus is already dead—in other words, she really doesn’t do anything at all. Of course, Shadow of the Storm Tyrant can’t assume that the PCs made an alliance with Naximarra; it’s just as possible that the PCs simply decided that working with an evil red dragon was too great a risk and just killed her, making her unavailable for this final adventure. However, I do think it could have made greater allowances for her appearance that would provide her with a bit more to do and make a bit more of a pay-off for PCs who decided to ally with her. As it is, her role in the adventure path ends up kind of pointless.

As this is the final adventure of Giantslayer, the main adventure is followed by a “Continuing the Campaign” article by Jim Groves for groups who wish to do more with their high-level characters. It gives several brief ideas and two more fleshed-out options. The first deals with what the PCs can do now that they have a flying castle under their control. The second deals with the orb of red dragonkind and does provide a role for Naximarra, although this doesn’t really make up for her not having a role in the adventure itself since not every group is going to continue the campaign in this way. For many groups, Shadow of the Storm Tyrant will be the end of the campaign.

The other support article in the volume is “Ecology of the Gigas” by Patrick Renie. I have often been confused by just what role in the multiverse gigas take. While they have been mentioned here and there, statistics for gigas have only appeared in two previous adventures (Hell gigas in The Thrice-Damned Prince and Abyss gigas in The Witchwar Legacy), with a third (the Abaddon gigas) in this volume’s Bestiary. This article nicely removes that confusion. It also provides brief descriptions of numerous types of gigas (since there is theoretically a type of gigas for every plane) as wells as a few specific gigas known to have interests in Golarion.

And that brings the Giantslayer Adventure Path to an end. It starts out very strongly with Battle of Bloodmarch Hill and continues strongly into The Hill Giant’s Pledge. However, after that it becomes rather repetitive with the next two adventures sharing the same basic structure as The Hill Giant’s Pledge. It then ends with two adventures that are very similar in structure, the first of which is so repetitive with itself that players are likely to get bored. It also has little connection between the individual adventures (particularly after the third adventure) beyond the theme of giants who want to join the Storm Tyrant’s army. The PCs start out as defenders of the town of Trunau, but Trunau is pretty much forgotten about after the second adventure. Shadow of the Storm Tyrant is a decent end to the adventure path, but unfortunately, it is a decent end to a path that has been of quite variable quality.

Tall Tales”

Typically, the Pathfinder’s Journal in each volume of Pathfinder Adventure Path has consisted of six-part stories broken up over the six volumes of each complete adventure path. The stories have themes relating to the theme of the adventure path they’re published alongside. Because of this, I’ve generally waited to read the fiction until after I’ve finished reading all six volumes of the adventure path so that I can review the stories as a whole at the end of my review of the adventure path’s final part.

As such, I was unprepared for the change in format for Giantslayer. Instead of one story by one author, broken up into six parts, Giantslayer’s Pathfinder’s Journal entries consist of six separate stories, each by a different author, although with a framing narrative linking them all together. Collectively titled “Tall Tales”, the framing story is about a group of six adventurers who, on the night before a big battle they expect to die in, each take turns telling a story about their encounters with giants.

If I’d realised this was the case, I probably would have added brief comments about each story with my reviews of each volume of Giantslayer instead of waiting until the end, since reviewing them as a whole doesn’t really work in this case. It’s too late to do that, so I have decided to just make brief comments about each here.

Close Relations” (from Pathfinder Adventure Path #91) by Richard Pett

Told by Silas Shortstone, the party’s gnome bard, this story tells of Silas’s capture by a family of ogres and how he outwits them to escape. It quickly becomes clear why the framing story is called “Tall Tales” as Silas is clearly only first level (he states that this was his first ever adventure and his description of his spellcasting abilities match that of a 1st-level Pathfinder bard), yet he defeats much higher-level opponents.

The story is reasonably fun, although it takes a little while to get going. The opening relies on a lot of telling (“One by one, they took us... They would leave one of us injured... At night they gave us no rest...” p 75), although to be fair, it does read very much like a person telling a story to his companions around a campfire, which is exactly what is happening. Once Silas is captured by the ogres, however, the story becomes much more interesting.

Going Dörak” (from Pathfinder Adventure Path #92) by Michael Kortes

The dwarf Angriss tells a story of how she and three of her clan fought an ettin shaman. The story is almost entirely just the one battle and it includes some very inventive tactics, including using a chain between strung between two moving sleds to knock the ettin off a cliff (far-fetched, but fits nicely with the “Tall Tales” frame). Angriss’s character comes across well, although she is a fairly stereotypical dwarf. The other characters don’t come across as well. I actually had a hard time remembering which of the other dwarves was which. However, the story is entertaining and the battle is quite vivid and full of tension.

The Travails of Kilig the Steersman” (from Pathfinder Adventure Path #93) by Greg A. Vaughan

Okay, I loved this one. It’s huge fun. In it, the title character, Kilig, tells of being caught by a marsh giant and then duping her into believing she has contracted a “stone curse” from him, and only by curing him can she cure herself. His tale is certainly a “tall” one, full of obvious falsehoods. Throughout the story, he calls his ship by two different names and claims to be a full-blooded Ulfen at one point and to have Sczarni blood at another. The characterisations in the story come across really well—there are only two characters, so that makes things easier.

The only thing I don’t care for in the story is Kilig’s disdain and abuse of his dog. Being a dog lover, I wasn’t amused by him kicking the dog to get him to wail as a way of spooking the giant, Mush-Lips. It really turns me off a character I otherwise like. That said, considering all signs point to Kilig making the story up as he goes along, it’s easy to think that he’s making that up too and wouldn’t really hit his dog like that. I do love that both the dog and Kilig’s greataxe are named Bran, the Giant Killer.

A Huge and Hulking Darkness” (from Pathfinder Adventure Path #94) by Clinton J. Boomer

I’m of a somewhat mixed opinion of this one. There are aspects I like, but overall, I don’t feel it works so well. The narrator, Ulionestria is an intriguing character with a lot of potential to be a good character. We get treated to a lot of backstory for her, but much of that backstory isn’t very relevant to the story. She doesn’t do a lot either—apart from cast a speak with dead spell—and is more of an observer in her story than an active participant, which makes her far less interesting to read about. It leads to an ending which is primarily just exposition as one character tells Ulionestria all the secrets she doesn’t find out for herself.

This story also has a very different style to the ones preceding it, with a much more serious air and little that could really be considered “tall”. While it makes sense that not every member of this adventuring party would exaggerate stories or outright make them up, but it does feel out of place and not fitting with the framing story’s title of “Tall Tales” (other than a brief appearance by a shadow giant—whose presence is never really explained—which ties in with the other meaning of tall, I suppose).

Overall, I feel this story would work much better if expanded into a longer one and separated from the group of tales it’s part of.

Clouded Judgement” (from Pathfinder Adventure Path #95) by Wendy N. Wagner

Frem, the halfling alchemist, tells this tale of his first adventure where he and two others are hired to track down a cloud giant who has been rampaging and killing local shepherds. It’s not as far-fetched as the earlier tales in this series, but it is reasonably enjoyable. There are a couple of places, though, where the scale seems off. In particular, during a fight with the cloud giant early in the story, a human character, Gorten strikes at the 18-foot-tall giant’s shoulder. He then goes on to slice “low” and leaves a gash in her leg. When she drops down to clutch at her leg, he snatches a locket from around her neck. She is crouching at this point, so I can see how he could reach it, but the locket doesn’t seem to be any bigger than a human-sized locket and he can carry it about without any problem. I’d expect a locket made for a cloud giant (and we do learn later that this isn’t a stolen human locket or anything like that) to be big enough that it would be awkward for a human to hold.

I can’t quite decide if this oddness of scale is deliberate—a hint that Frem is not a reliable narrator, which would fit in with the style of this series of tales. However, there’s nothing else in the story to indicate that Frem is an unreliable narrator, just a couple of oddities with scale. As such, I have to wonder if it’s really just an error on the author’s part. Frem is probably meant to be an unreliable narrator, but there really needs to be a little more to make this clear.

Fears in the Frozen Pines” (from Pathfinder Adventure Path #96) by Patrick Renie

This story starts out really well, presenting an interesting, fleshed-out character in the form of the narrator, Raus, an Ulfen ranger. I particularly like his reasons for not having an animal companion, which wonderfully (and sadly) allude to his having lost a close companion in the past. The story does start to drag a little, though, despite being only six pages in length. It can be difficult to find the right balance of description in action sequences (and admittedly, where that balance occurs is a matter of opinion), but for me, the story dwells a little too much on describing small details during sequences of Raus nearly drowning/freezing in ice-cold water and later, his fight with a troll that the tension in the scenes ends up diminished. I do like the ending though, which nicely lives up to the “Tall Tales” theme.

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