Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 14 May 2010

From One Path To Many

I miss having a gaming magazine that I can buy off the shelf at my local newsagents. I miss being able to buy Dragon and Dungeon magazines and being able to read them on the bus, in bed, or wherever. Now in Kobold Quarterly – of which I recently reviewed #13 – we do have a replacement for Dragon, but what we do not have a replacement for is Dungeon, a magazine that provided a steady diet of adventures and dungeons for Dungeons & Dragons and other games. Since the demise of Dungeon and Dragon magazines, Paizo Publishing has picked up the Dungeon baton, publishing in its place the Pathfinder Adventure Path, a monthly publication dedicated not scenario anthologies, but to complete mini campaigns contained in six month arcs with each arc being one “Adventure Path.” There is a sense of continuity between the two magazines, as James Jacob, the last Editor in Chief for Dungeon magazine holds the same position for Pathfinder Adventure Path. To date, there have been five “Adventure Paths,” published in thirty issues. All five have been solid, if straightforward adventures, but that changes with Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land.

Whilst the Kingmaker Adventure Path happens to be the first Adventure Path written expressly for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – a fantasy RPG that can be best described as a development of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, which this Adventure Path also works with too – it so happens that it is also the first arc to deviate from the straightforward campaign. Where each Adventure Path has explored parts of Paizo Publishing’s house setting of Golarion, with Kingmaker: Stolen Land it lets the player characters do the exploring. It introduces not just a wilderness campaign for the setting, but a “sandbox campaign.” For those of you not in the know, the “sandbox campaign” is one in which the players are free to roam a setting, exploring where and when at their whim in a non-linear fashion. It is a term that has been imported from the video games industry where it is best exemplified by games such as 1984’s Elite and more recently, Grand Theft Auto IV. In terms of our hobby, the “sandbox campaign” is a relatively rare creature, with perhaps the merchant trader style of play across subsectors in the Science Fiction RPG Traveller probably being the purest form.

As with other Pathfinder Adventure Arcs, Kingmaker: Stolen Land is set on the world of Golarion, but more specifically in a tract of lawless, untamed wilderness lying between the Kingdom of Brevoy and the River Kingdoms. Both nations claim the region as their own, but it is the Kingdom of Brevoy that sends emissaries into an area of the Stolen Lands known as the Greenbelt answering a plea for aid in dealing with an outbreak of banditry. This comes from Oleg’s Trading Post, the last point of civilisation on the edge of the Greenbelt. The emissaries, who are of course the player characters, have a charter not only to investigate and put an end to the banditry, but also to explore the region immediately to the south of the trading post.

Designed for a party of at least four first level characters, though I would suggest that it would play easier with more – the initial focus in Kingmaker: Stolen Land is and will continue right until the very end of the adventure, to be upon dealing with the bandits that have been plaguing the area. Unfortunately, the adventurers have no idea where the bandits’ headquarters is to be found, so finding it requires no little exploration, which fortunately, also happens to lie within the remit of their charters. Exploring the Greenbelt throws up all sorts of encounters, from mischievous fey and forgotten shrines to restless dead and fractious Kobolds, but discovering these takes multiple trips out into the wilderness, the party returning to Oleg’s at the end of each foray.  Sometimes when they do return, the adventurers find that things have changed back at the trading post, perhaps as a result of their action, other times not. Individual adventures and rewards will come as a result of encounters out in the wilderness and as a result of mini missions and mini quests that can be found at Oleg’s over the course of the adventure. Eventually though, the adventurers locate the bandits’ base and will be ready to face them...

Although Kingmaker: Stolen Land claims to be a free roaming sandbox campaign and to some extent it certainly is, these quests and missions actually provide a sense of structure to the beginning of the campaign, pushing and pulling the adventurers hither and thither. In this, the quests together emulate a sandbox campaign style computer game, in particular, the MMORPG, World of Warcraft. Of course, in an actual RPG campaign like Kingmaker: Stolen Land there is room and time to develop a story and have the players form a sense of attachment to the Oleg, his wife, and the Greenbelt. Indeed, whilst there are plenty of combat encounters to be found in the campaign, there are also many encounters that will best resolved via other means...

The start of the campaign is nicely supported with detailed locations and NPCs, rumours particular to the Greenbelt, a guide to the geography of the Stolen Lands, and a guide to Brevoy. The latter can be used to provide the background for any player characters, although it has not been put to that use with the four pre-generated adventurers given in the book. Whilst there are some rules for handling exploration, there are no guidelines for running this style of games, which would no doubt have been useful given the differences between this style of game and more straightforward adventures. The bestiary describes five monsters, of which too few appear in this actual adventure. Whilst some of them, like the Tatzlwyrm, a sort of proto-dragon, are interesting, the inclusion of all five seems more like space filling. As does the inclusion of the short story, “Death at the Swaddled Otter,” which whilst readable, has no bearing upon the adventure.

Such issues are minor, but that does not mean that Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land is without more major problems. The first of these is that from the maps, it is difficult to relate the Greenbelt and the Stolen Lands together, and then to relate the Stolen Lands and the Kingdom of Brevoy together. Given that this is meant to be an exploration campaign and thus have a strong cartographical bent, I would have expected this aspect to have been better handled. On a more minor note, it is irksome to have the main reference map for the DM in the middle of the book rather than inside the front or back covers, which are instead given over to highlighting the scenario’s various quests. The main reference map really needs to have been better placed for ease of use.

The other problem is the lack of advice for the DM on running a sandbox campaign and the lack of advice on running an exploration focused game. It obviously different to running a city or dungeon-based adventure and there is certainly room enough in Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land to include such advice if extraneous content such as the extra monsters and the short were to be excluded. If not the advice then, it would have been nice to have been given pointers to such advice, but like the advice itself, such pointers are absent.

Physically though, Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land is up to the publisher’s usual standards. It feels more like a mini-supplement than a magazine, having been done on glossy paper in full colour, including the artwork and the maps, both of which are excellent. The writing is also good, making Kingmaker: Stolen Land very readable.

In presenting a sandbox campaign, Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land provides an opportunity for the players and their characters to bring a lawless region to heel and in doing so, stamp their presence on the region. It lays the ground work for the next five parts which will hopefully see the adventurers establish their own community and eventually, their own kingdoms – hence the arc’s title. There is enough here for a gaming group to be kept playing for several sessions, though the good news is that the second part, Pathfinder Adventure Path #32 Kingmaker: Rivers Run Red, is already available. If you have not been tempted by the Pathfinder Adventure Path series, then Pathfinder Adventure Path #31 Kingmaker: Stolen Land is an excellent jumping on point, with a well presented, nicely written, starter scenario.