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Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Wrath of the Righteous - City of Locusts


The Wrath of the Righteous adventure path is the first of its kind. Not only is it the first Pathfinder Adventure Path to take characters all the way to twentieth level, it’s also the first to make use of the rules from Mythic Adventures, and thus the first to take characters to power levels even 20th-level characters cannot match. It also attempts to tell a tale of larger impact than most other adventure paths, one where the fate of the world is at stake and the PCs must confront the ultimate of evils. In this latter regard, it is mostly successful. The adventure path starts with a bang in The Worldwound Incursion, which is a truly phenomenal adventure. It keeps the stakes up throughout with only momentary falters. It manages to be mythic in more than just the sense that it uses mythic rules—it is mythic in scope and style. And it deserves a finale that is epic and climactic in scope.

Unfortunately, City of Locusts, the final instalment, by Richard Pett, falls short of this. In one regard, one shouldn’t judge it too harshly. It had an incredibly lofty to goal to accomplish, one that is extremely difficult to achieve, and it does come close. On the other hand, however, after the brilliance of the adventure path’s opening and its most recent instalment, Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth, City of Locusts ends up feeling like something of an anti-climax. Despite the massive amount of power at the PCs’ hands and the unbelievably powerful foes they must face, the adventure is lacking an important aspect, one that is ultimately a flaw of the entire adventure path (but hasn’t really been noticeable until now), and not just this adventure alone.

I should make it clear that I do think City of Locusts is a good adventure. It’s just not a good enough finale.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure actually starts out phenomenally with a truly epic opening event. The demons begin to press their final assault against the crusaders and their armies attack cities all across the border with Mendev. Naturally, Drezen, the town the PCs liberated back in Sword of Valor comes under attack as well and the PCs must lead their own armies in defence of the town. At the same time, they need to track down the marilith Aponavicius (one of the major enemies of the adventure path) and kill her in order to break the morale of the demon forces. This opening gives the PCs the ultimate chance to shine both on and off the battlefield. This is their opportunity to be heroic on an epic scale as they fight off some of the worst kinds of demons to defend their new home and the people under their protection. This opening has the potential to be tense and exciting, and one of the most climactic of the adventure path.

Unfortunately, it’s over fairly quickly. As soon as Aponavicius is dealt with, the demons’ morale falters and the day is won. This isn’t really a bad thing on its own. The opening should be relatively quick and victorious as it’s just the introduction of what is still to come. The problem, however, is that this opening sets the high point for the adventure—a point the rest of the adventure ought to rise above, but doesn’t.

From this point, the PCs learn that Areelus Vorlesh, the half-succubus who originally opened the Worldwound (and whose picture on the book’s cover is one of the most ridiculous cheesecake portraits in some time), is working to expand the Worldwound at the behest of Deskari, the demon lord she serves and the one who is the ultimate enemy of this adventure path. The PCs must then head off on another quest to gather specific items and accomplish specific tasks in order to not just stop the Worldwound from opening further, but also to close it completely. It sounds an epic task, yet what results is a succession of short dungeon crawls. These dungeon crawls are actually very well done, in interesting locations with a succession of interesting NPCs to interact with. However, this is exactly the kind of thing PCs in any adventure of any adventure path do. To end the adventure path on a truly epic scale, something different is needed than the PCs fighting a bunch of monsters completely out of sight of the rest of the world. The effects of their actions may save the world, but the events surrounding those actions really don’t have a worldwide feel to them, confined as they are to small, interior locations.

But even this could be made to work if it weren’t for a greater problem that stems, at least in part, from a fault with the rest of the adventure path. The PCs' task is completely laid out before them and they never get the satisfaction of figuring it out for themselves.

After the PCs defeat Aponavicius and stop the demon armies, Queen Galfrey arrives to inform them that her people have used the Lexicon of Paradox to determine how to close the Worldwound. She then tells them what they need to do and sends them on their way.

The Lexicon of Paradox first appeared in The Midnight Isles, and I was quite critical of it at the time too. It’s a magical book that the PCs never recover for themselves; instead it’s recovery is handled by NPCs and detailed in a novel. I felt (and still feel) this set a very bad precedent. The Lexicon of Paradox continues to be a problem here. Once again, it’s trotted out as a source of exposition without the PCs ever getting to do anything. Throughout the adventure path, the book has been kept in the hands of people serving Queen Galfrey—people who not only never show up in the adventure path, they don’t even merit names. These unnamed NPCs have been studying the book to divine its secrets. The PCs never really get to look at it themselves. It would be one thing if the PCs turned to NPCs for assistance, but to have everything regarding the book happen off-screen without the PCs’ involvement creates major problems.

There is more to the satisfaction of completing a task than just the act of completing it. Figuring out how to complete it brings with it a sense of reward as big as, possibly bigger than, the completion itself. But the PCs are robbed of that here. In essence, the PCs get to be the brawn to the nameless NPCs’ brains. But that just doesn’t make for a “mythic” scenario. The PCs should be both the brains and the brawn. Anything else will come out seriously lacking—and that’s what happens here. While the PCs may be the recipients of praise and glory from the people around them, they lose out on the personal glory of doing something for themselves—or at the very least, making decisions that lead to it (in the case of PCs who seek out NPC assistance). No matter how grand the resolution is, it can never be more than an anti-climax as a result.

To be fair, as I said earlier, this is at least partially a fault of the rest of the adventure path. At least one of the previous instalments should have had the PCs attempting to uncover the information they need in this instalment.

That said, if you ignore that the adventure doesn’t reach the heights it should, the remainder of the adventure is actually pretty good. Although there are several dungeons, they are well-designed ones with inhabitants who behave in believable ways and don’t just sit around waiting for the PCs to reach the room they are in. They take an active role in the defence of each setting.

I was actually somewhat impressed by the Yearning House, a brothel run by mythic succubi. The PCs must acquire the Nahyndrian chisel, one of the items they need to help them close the Worldwound. Now, I have to say, I am getting very bored of succubi. They’re everywhere, it seems. In an adventure path about demons, it makes sense that some succubi will show up, but succubi show up all over the place in Paizo adventures, even the ones that have nothing to do with demons. The preponderance of succubi is starting to feel like an adolescent boy’s fantasy. And there have already been numerous succubi in this adventure path, from the redeemed succubus Arushalae to Nocticula, the queen of the succubi herself (not to mention Areelu Vorlesh and several others as well). Here, we get six mythic succubi, no less.

That said, I’m impressed by the diverse personalities amongst these six. From Ammon, who identifies as male and prefers a male body, to arrogant Eudora and deeply religious Ismarelda, to soft-spoken Mahulda and Preshea, expert at administering drugs and creating exotic food, to androgynous Micajah, who has no interest in sex and prefers to seduce with matters of the mind, these succubi (collectively known as “the Pleasers”) seem like true individuals. Their distinct personalities help to relieve the monotony of “yet more succubi”. It’s a bit of a shame this section of the adventure is quite short and the PCs have little time to actually interact with these characters.

It’s also a very interesting twist that one of the items the PCs must recover, “the Suture”, turns out not to be an item at all, but rather a demon: an immortal mythic dretch. Dretches are usually the least of demonkind, but this one was present at the original opening of the Worldwound and has become linked with it. The Suture cannot die as long as the Worldwound remains open, but is also the key to closing the Worldwound. For this reason, the demons have kept the Suture under lock and key ever since the Worldwound first opened.

The PCs also get the opportunity to have final showdowns with the major enemies of the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path. In addition to Aponavicius, they also must contend with Khorramzadeh, the Storm King, who first appeared in the opening moments of The Worldwound Incrusion, when he killed the dragon Terendelev, one-time defender of the city of Kenabres. The PCs must also contend with Terendelev’s undead remains, which were re-animated by the Storm King. Then, of course, there’s Areelu Vorlesh herself, and after her comes Deskari, their greatest threat.

The final battle with Deskari will not be an easy one. Not only is he an immensely powerful threat, he does not come alone. He attacks with demon servants at his side, as well as any surviving villainous NPCs that the PCs haven’t managed to deal with yet (these could be any from the adventure path). Khorramzadeh appears in this final battle again as well. Even if the PCs kill him earlier in the adventure, he appears here having been turned into an undead nightwalker.

It’s entirely possible for the PCs to successfully close the Worldwound and yet not survive the final encounter. Such an event could make for quite the heroic sacrifice. It’s unfortunate that the battle occurs in such an isolated location that no one will actually see the PCs' sacrifice in this situation. The rest of the world will only know that the Worldwound closed, but never know for sure what happened to the PCs. Of course, if the PCs survive, they can return to adulation and praise from the people of Golarion. It would be big if not for what I have already outlined above.

One other area where City of Locusts is somewhat disappointing is the lack of resolution for the various NPCs the PCs have befriended and allied with over the course of the campaign. One of my favourite things about Wrath of the Righteous early on was how well the campaign integrated a varied cast of interesting and well-developed NPCs. However, the more recent instalments have not done much with those characters, sometimes to the point of outright ignoring them. To be fair (as I’ve said in previous reviews), the later into the adventure path each instalment gets, the harder it is to do something with these NPCs since it’s impossible to predict what has happened with them in individual campaigns. However, a few suggestions of ways to integrate the NPCs into the adventure would be helpful to GMs. In particular, suggestions of how to integrate the NPCs into the final few encounters would go a long way to making the ending a little more satisfying and a little less anti-climactic.

The final instalment of every adventure path is always followed by an article on continuing the campaign, containing suggestions on what the PCs might do next if the players don’t want to give up their characters yet. Considering Wrath of the Righteous ends with the PCs at the absolute pinnacle of mortal power, one might wonder just what they could possibly do next. This volume’s “Beyond the Campaign” by Adam Daigle makes a valiant effort to provide options for more stuff to do. However, what is perhaps the most interesting part of this article is its suggestions for what happens next if the PCs fail. It outlines how the Worldwound expands and how the rest of the world reacts to it. Indeed, the suggestions here could make for an exciting mythic campaign all their own. I could even see playing a campaign based on these suggestions without playing Wrath of the Righteous first. Simply start the campaign with the expansion of the Worldwound and take it from there. My only criticism of this article is that the events are present geographically in alphabetical order. As such, you often learn about some events before the events that happen before them. It makes following the complete timeline a little confusing. I would have much preferred it if the events had been in chronological order. This article is followed by an article on Deskari, written by Sean K. Reynolds. It provides a detailed look at the demon lord and his cult.

Overall, Wrath of the Righteous has been a remarkable experiment for Paizo. Although there have been a few missteps, it does succeed in what it sets out to do, which is to tell a tale of truly mythic proportions while showcasing the mythic rules. But while it showcases these rules, it also simultaneously proves (although I’m fairly certain this isn’t the intention) what I’ve said about mythic rules since the release of Mythic Adventures: The presence of mythic rules doesn’t make a game “mythic”; “mythic” is entirely dependent on the style of the story. The Worldwound Incursion is one of the most mythic adventures ever, yet doesn’t use the mythic rules until the final closing moments. The Midnight Isles uses mythic rules throughout, yet still feels like an ordinary non-mythic adventure. The mythic rules are great for adding new abilities to the game and for expanding the power of characters beyond 20th level, but that’s all they do. It’s the presentation that matters, and most of Wrath of the Righteous gets that right.

Sweet Ichor”

What can I say about “Sweet Ichor”, the “Pathfinder’s Journal” story by Robin D. Laws that runs throughout the six parts of Wrath of the Righteous? As I was reading it, I made little mental notes of things I might say when I reviewed it—things I liked, things I thought could be better. Truth be told, by the end of the fifth part, I was really enjoying it and was expecting to write a mostly positive review. I was going to make a couple of comments about stilted dialogue, but otherwise was very impressed with what I’d read.

Then I read the sixth part.

Now, I really can’t be bothered with most of what I had intended to say. The final part turned my opinion around that much. I’m not talking about the revelation on the final page. I’m talking about what comes before that. It should go without saying that the spoiler warning from earlier is still very much in effect.

There really seems to be a dearth of heroes in fantasy fiction these days. Stories are always about anti-heroes—except they’re often not even that. Anti-heroes are people who, while not being totally virtuous, are still basically good and do the right thing in the end. And there’s nothing wrong with anti-heroes. There’s nothing wrong with characters who have flaws, either. In fact, characters, even heroic ones, should have flaws. It’s what makes them human. A character without flaws is boring, but a character without any redeeming qualities to go with the flaws is just despicable.

I had actually grown to like the main characters, particularly Gad. Throughout the story, he seems like a thief with his heart in the right place. He cares about his comrades, Vitta and Calliard, and even seems to care about the person he’s supposed to betray—enough so that the reader expects him not to betray her in the end. The narrator Ba-El Racid seems a bit pompous at first in his attempts to write in an elevated script and appear more than just a warrior, but he gradually starts to become somewhat admirable. Even though he, too, has a mission that will require him to betray others in the end, one hopes that he will find another way before that happens.

But then Gad, Vitta, and Calliard enact the plan they’ve been secretly brewing the whole time—the plan that allows them to steal the Bile of Abraxus from Ylyda Svyn and results in the death of a whole lot of innocent people. A plan that results in just Svyn’s death would be tragic, but understandable. I have to say, she is a wonderfully painted character, one who whole-heartedly believes she is doing good, but is so blinded by her madness that she can’t see the harm she’s doing to those who follow her. One can fully understand why Byre and the other crusaders are willing to follow her, even though they are aware she’s unhinged. Her death seems inevitable throughout—a sad, but logical result of her madness. An ending with her death would not bother me (other than feeling sad about it). However, the revelation that Gad and company have concocted a plan that results in not just her death, but the death of everyone at Fort Clearwater leaves a foul taste in my mouth. Their deaths are not the result of misfortune or things going wrong. Gad and company deliberately disable the fort’s defences so that the crusaders will be too occupied being slaughtered by rampaging demons to be able to pursue them after they’ve stolen the Bile of Abraxus. Gad, Vitta, and Calliard are not anti-heroes. They are villains, plain and simple. It does say something for the quality of the writing that I care enough about the people they so callously leave to die, but that is far from enough to remove the feeling of disgust that I’m left with after reading this story.

The only thing that kept me reading to the very end after this result was the vain hope that Racid would fulfil his mission, betray Gad and company, and bring them to some sort of justice. But even as he describes killing all three, it is already very apparent that his words cannot be trusted. The final revelation that Racid has been dead the entire time—that he died back in the first part of the story—and that Gad has been impersonating his words is salt in the wound and not entirely unexpected.

In the second part of the story, there is a sidebar inviting readers to follow the further exploits of Gad, Vitta, and Calliard in the novel The Worldwound Gambit, also written by Robin D. Laws. No. Just no. I have no interest whatsoever in reading anything further about these despicable people—not unless they’re the villains and are brought to justice in the end, something I highly doubt is the plot of that novel.

I’m tired of stories about villains. Let’s have some stories about heroes again.

6 comments:

  1. I just this week severed my last tie with Golarion with the cancellation of my AP subscription, after dropping subscriptions to the other lines last fall, and my main reason for doing so is outlined in this review. It seems like the NPCs have become more central to the plot of many of their latest releases than the player characters.

    More and more, it feels like playing a Paizo AP is serving as minions and redshirts to Golarion bigwigs, whether that's Ameiko in Jade Regent, Sheila Heidmarch and the Pathfinder Society in Shattered Star, Baba Yaga in Reign of Winter, or the Mendev Crusade in Wrath of the Righteous. Paizo seem to be terrified of allowing the PCs to come up with their own solutions to a problem, instead relegating them to following orders at every turn. It's just not fun to play anymore.

    Joana

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    1. Yeah, I get where you're coming from. There is a lot of hand-holding going on. Baba Yaga in Reign of Winter doesn't bother me as she's helpless for the entire AP and it's known from the outset that the adventure path is about rescuing her. However, most AP's do have these patron NPCs to guide the PCs along, and it's getting old.

      What surprises me most with Wrath of the Righteous is that the problem is not there at all in the early instalments. It really is about the PCs figuring a way out of the mess. The Worldwound Incursion is a brilliant adventure! The hand-holding starts later in the AP, right around The Midnight Isles when the Lexicon of Paradox is introduced. By this point in the AP, the PCs ought to be more independent, not less. It is somewhat disappointing.

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  2. Thanks for pointing out a central flaw of the arc in this AP (which I, by the way, am running and really enjoying). When I was reading through this volume, I kept thinking it would be cool to foreshadow the Suture earlier, and the steps to close the Worldwound -- to create a puzzle that the PCs would have to figure out on their own.

    It can be done, but one shouldn't have to rewrite the AP to do that. Paizo shouldn't assume that PCs want NPCs to tell them what to do.

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    1. Totally agree. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. Great review! Having read your reviews for WotR but only flipped through the AP volumes and not read them in detail, an idea occurred to me: If a GM were to rule that the Pathfinder novels are not canon, could the Lexicon of Paradox be found on Xanthir Vang or in some other part of the Demon's Heresy adventure?

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    1. I don't see why not. That sounds to me like the best way to allow the PCs to discover the book without having to make large changes to adventure path. They could then be the ones to study it and determine the things they need to do in both The Midnight Isles and City of Locusts. GMs who want to go a little bit further and make the book seem like more than just a lucky, random find could plant hints of the book's existence earlier in the adventure path. This way, the PCs would actually have the goal of recovering the book as another reason to go up against Xanthir Vang.

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