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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Mummy's Mask - Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh


Every adventure path has a theme linking its individual parts. This theme helps set the feel for the adventure path, influences its overall goal, and plays a role in the kinds of encounters the player characters have along the way. In Wrath of the Righteous, the theme is fighting demons and closing the Worldwound. Shattered Star's theme involves dungeon crawling in order to find the pieces of an important artifact, and Jade Regent's involves travelling across the world. Mummy's Mask's theme is that of Ancient Egypt (Osirian), tombs, and undead. Yet despite the common theme linking an adventure path, there is always a certain amount of variety. The adventures of Mummy's Mask have involved exploring ancient tombs and buildings, protecting a city from an undead incursion, researching in ancient libraries, and mingling with nobility. While an adventure path's theme provides unity, the variety of adventures keeps things fresh and avoids player boredom from doing the same thing over and over again. It is for this reason that I'm rather surprised to see two such similar adventures show up back-to-back as the final two instalments of Mummy's Mask.

In many ways, Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh by Mike Shel feels like the same adventure as The Slave Trenches of Hakotep. Sure, the location is changed and the specific monsters and villains to fight are different, but the overall approaches to both adventures are identical. Both involve dungeon crawls with PCs overcoming difficult traps and dangerous monsters in order to solve a specific puzzle and reach their goal. To make matters worse, Pyramid doesn't really handle itself any better than Slave Trenches, and anyone who has read my review of that adventure (linked above) knows that I was not very impressed by it. This makes the two concluding adventures of the adventure path into one extended slog through encounter after encounter with monsters and villains that serve no other purpose than to sit in one spot until the PCs arrive to kill them—adventures in which the villains take no active roles at all other than to wait for their demise. On the plus side, I absolutely love one of the support articles, and the fiction that has been running through the entire adventure path (reviewed at the end of this review) is the best I've read in Pathfinder Adventure Path so far.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

At the end of The Slave Trenches of Hakotep, the PCs successfully called down Hakotep's flying pyramid to the ground so that they could finally face Hakotep himself. This adventure picks up from that point. The PCs must now enter Hakotep's pyramid and find their way to the Sky Pharaoh himself. This is a pretty easy adventure to summarize as there's very little more to it than that. The pyramid has five distinct sections: one for each of the four elements and a fifth section which is Hakotep's innner sanctum. The PCs must search the four elemental sections first in order to unlock the entrance to the fifth. They can take the four elemental sections in any order, but must complete all four in order to gain entrance to their final destination.

Given that this is a high-level adventure, it therefore needs to take precautions to ensure that the PCs don't just use teleport or similar spells to jump right to the end. As such, the tomb has magical protections that limit dimensional travel. Spells like teleport and dimension door only work inside the pyramid if there is an unobstructed route between the two locations. If there is anything blocking the way (such as a wall), the spells cannot penetrate. I've always been highly critical of adventures that utilize these kinds of limitations. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that, in a world where teleportation is possible, people would develop ways to defend themselves against it. But on the other hand, to pull this trick out too often just denies players the fun of using abilities they've worked hard to gain for their characters. A certain amount of compromise between these two things is necessary. This adventure tries to compromise with allowing dimensional travel along unobstructed lines, but as this limitation hangs over the entire adventure, it really isn't enough. If the limit existed only on Hakotep's inner sanctum and not on the elemental regions, it would be much easier to accept.

By hanging this limitation over the entire adventure, it forces this one into the same mould as the first Mummy's Mask adventure, The Half-Dead City (except this one doesn't have the same originality of locations as that earlier adventure). Yet this is an adventure for 15th-level characters, not 1st. It should be doing very different things, not striving to do the same thing over again.

A bigger problem with this adventure, however, is just how static it is. I have the same problem with The Slave Trenches of Hakotep and, in my review of that adventure, I commented on how one of the NPCs is explicitly stated as waiting around for the PCs to arrive. It probably goes without saying that I'm unimpressed to see it happen again in this adventure: “Now that the PCs have used Hakotep's own anti-Shory weapon...to call the Sky Pharaoh's pyramid back to earth, the undead pharaoh waits for them to make the next move” (7). After making a brief proactive move at the beginning of the last adventure (sending another flying pyramid after the PCs), Hakotep slinks back into the shadows and becomes a non-entity until the PCs reach him. The fact of the matter is, if he and his various servants that the PCs encounter one by one throughout the adventure just all exited the pyramid together when it lands in front of them at the beginning, they would very likely destroy the PCs altogether. Admittedly, Hakotep's Intelligence score is only 12 (lower than most final villains), but that's still meant to be above average. Of course, destroying the PCs in the opening encounter would make for a pretty unfun adventure for the players. What's needed here is a complete redesign of the adventure so that the villains can take realistic actions without totally wiping out the PCs.

One of the redeeming factors of The Slave Trenches of Hakotep is the presence of a particularly well-executed NPC, allowing for some good roleplaying opportunities and a bit of a break from the static nature of the adventure. Pyramid of the Sky Pharaoh, on the other hand, has virtually no roleplaying opportunities at all. At the beginning, Hakotep sends one of his servants out to speak with the PCs (and basically taunt them), but beyond that, the entire adventure just involves trap after trap and fight after fight. Admittedly, there are some clever and dangerous traps in the pyramid, but the last adventure was full of clever traps too, and by this point, it's all getting quite stale. The NPCs who are encountered have little in the way of personality (not that there's much opportunity for them to show a personality anyway) and Hakotep himself, after an entire adventure path building up to him, turns out to be a rather dull and uninteresting final villain. When the PC finally reach him, he gives them a speech about how foolish they are to oppose him and how they should be honoured to be allowed to come so close to him. Despite the fact that the PCs have just defeated all his most powerful servants, he continues to behave as if they are far beneath him. I suppose it's possible he really does have such over-the-top confidence in himself, but it makes for a very unoriginal and uncompelling villain. He pretty much engages in all the worst tropes of supposedly intelligent villains acting unintelligently.

The biggest disappointment in this adventure, however, is again similar to a problem I have with the previous adventure. This adventure does not in any way deal with the effects on the rest of the world. In Slave Trenches, a flying pyramid attacks the city of Wati, yet there is no examination of how that affects the city. Here, there are numerous flying pyramids heading towards various cities across Osirian (all of which never quite reach their destination before the PCs destroy the control devices in Hakotep's pyramid that causes them to crash), but there's no opportunity to see the effect on the country. At 15th level and above, the PCs' actions should be noticeable to the land around them, yet this adventure takes place in a completely isolated location where no one else will ever see what the PCs have done. What an amazing adventure it could have been if the PCs had to move from city to city (possibly via those teleport spells the adventure denies them) to fight against flying pyramids—not journey through the pyramids, but actually fight against them! That would make this adventure very similar to what I wished Slave Trenches was like, but if just one of them were like that, it would break up the monotony.

In the final volume of an adventure path, one of the support articles is always a “Continuing the Campaign” article, and this volume is no different. There are some interesting ideas here, one of which involves Ulunat (one of the spawn of Rovagug, whose shell forms the centrepiece of the city of Sothis) awakening and going on a rampage. While I kind of wish something like this had happened in the adventure path itself (not necessarily with Ulunat, but rather the flying pyramids as I just mentioned), it's good to see the option offered here.

After this comes “The River of Souls” by F. Wesley Schneider. This article takes a look at what happens to characters after they die in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting. While much of this information has been known vaguely, this article puts it all into context and gives a much clearer picture than what we've had previously. And it's a truly wonderful article, which sheds light on an important part of the setting. Death (and what happens after) guides things like spirituality and, while PCs may never learn the full details of the cycle of souls given here, this information helps GMs present a detailed and complex setting.

This month's Bestiary takes a brief look at the other flying pyramids that are glossed over in the main adventure, providing GMs with a bit of information in case the PCs decide to go do a bit of mopping up after the adventure path is over. Of course, it also has the usual collection of new monsters, including the mummy lord template, which is used to define Hakotep's abilities.

Mummy's Mask started out very promising. It was a calmer, less world-shattering adventure path than Wrath of the Righteous before it, but full of opportunity for rich history and story-telling. It reached its peak in Secrets of the Sphinx, and then just kind of fell off the edge. The early adventures took place in a living, breathing world. The last two, while involving pyramids and mummies, are completely cut off from the world developed in those early adventures, and consequently lack the grounding that setting provides the story. That, unfortunately, makes for an unsatisfying and anti-climactic conclusion.

Shadow of the Sands”

The “Pathfinder's Journal” has been a part of the Pathfinder Adventure Path since volume 1. It has run fiction since volume 2, making fiction a long-standing part of the monthly publication. However, the fiction has also been something of a contentious part of the Pathfinder Adventure Path. Many people have voiced opinions on Paizo's messageboards that they don't think that fiction should be part of a gaming resource, that fiction should be published separately. Others feel that much of the fiction has been too tangentially related, if related at all, to the adventure path it's published with—and to be fair, it's true that the fiction has sometimes had very little in common with the adventure path. Personally, I like that the fiction is there. It somehow feels right to me—which is a bit odd, I suppose, given that I generally haven't found it to be very good. Some stories have been better than others, but few have been truly enjoyable. However, “Shadow of the Sands” by Amber E. Scott, which runs through the six volumes of Mummy's Mask, proves my faith in having fiction in each volume. It is by far the best story I have read in Pathfinder Adventure Path so far (although I will confess that I haven't read every story). I absolutely enjoyed every moment of it.

The story hooked me from the very start (as an aside, I'm very grateful that I always wait until all six parts of a story are published before reading; that way, I didn't need to go through the agony of waiting for each new instalment). The characterization is very strong and this is immediately apparent. I really like that this story doesn't feel the need to start by telling us all about the narrator's past deeds. The narrators in “Pathfinder's Journal” stories often come across as immensely self-centred because they spend a lot of time (generally in the first instalment) telling you how great they are. In “Shadow of the Sands”, the narrator's history is brought up as it becomes relevant. The narrator doesn't feel the need to dwell on her abilities and previous deeds. She has a task and she sets to that task.

But not dwelling on the past doesn't mean the past hasn't shaped this character. It becomes quite clear as the story progresses that Nenet is very much shaped by her past, but the story allows us to learn about her by experiencing her in action. It shows us who she is rather than tells, and it accomplishes this wonderfully. Nenet is probably the most well-realized character in a “Pathfinder's Journal” story I've read. From the very first sentence, we get a feel for who she is when she tells us that “the grass is as sere as grandfather's glares.” She doesn't dwell on her relationship with her grandfather—indeed, she doesn't mention him again for quite some time—yet we can tell right off the bat that he's an important person in her life, someone who lingers in her thoughts.

The other characters come off well too. Developing non-point-of-view characters in a first-person narrative can be difficult as we only ever see them from the narrator's point of view. Nonetheless, Farhaan quickly becomes a character you feel you know well. The villain Kema has a smaller role, but remains a relatable character. It probably helps that the story has a small cast of characters, allowing each one to be developed more fully.

Nenet and Farhaan's relationship works particularly well. From their first meeting to Nenet's later rescuing Farhaan, their burgeoning friendship progresses in a fully believable way. Too often, for the sake of expedited drama, relationships between characters develop into friendship and especially love at ridiculous rates. It's nice to see people behaving a little more realistically here. It's also really nice that their relationship does not become a romance. Too often, romances in fiction happen simply because of a belief that there needs to be a romance (particularly when the protagonist is female) and not because the characters make a believable couple.

Another thing I like about “Shadow of the Sands” is how well the individual instalments work on their own. While they work together to tell an overall story, each developing on the last and leading into the next, they also each have a definite beginning, middle, and end. The full story doesn't read like it was simply chopped up into six pieces, but rather like it is composed of six distinct and complete episodes. Most “Pathfinder's Journal” stories actually do this pretty well, but “Shadows of the Sand” does it particularly well.

If I have one criticism of the story, it's that the ending is a little abrupt. The solution and negotiation with Kema is very quick and then the story is over. I would have liked a bit more development here and a bit more of a denouement, but this is a minor point. I do like that the ending doesn't involve a battle with Kema, or having to kill her. She is a villain through circumstance and fervour of belief, not through being evil, and this makes for a great change from the typical villain. It's possible to reason with her—which is exactly what happens to resolve the story.

To answer the complaints about the “Pathfinder's Journal” that I opened this review with—that the stories don't relate enough to the adventure path—this story is the first to follow a slightly modified format. Each instalment contains things that can be directly applied to campaigns—from maps of locations to diagrams of creatures to brief character sketches (both in words and as illustrations). All these things are done in the form of entries in Nenet's journal. The first instalment, for example, contains a map of the Tooth and Hookah, a tavern that features in both the story and The Half-Dead City. It's a good way of adding gaming use to the stories without interfering with the stories themselves. Indeed, the little journal entries help to enhance the story.

I really hope to see more fiction of the calibre of “Shadow of the Sands” in future instalments of the “Pathfinder's Journal”. If the authors and editors need a bar to aim for, this story is certainly it.

1 comment:

  1. Just got Fires of Creation in the mail today. So far I'm liking it better than Mummy's Mask. Pathfinder just does not do pulpy exploration/investigation well.

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