Monday, February 12, 2018

Deconstructing the Serpent's Skull 6: Sanctum of the Serpent God, part I

It's been several weeks.  Let's get this project moving a little bit again.  Some elements of this adventure path I've quite liked (the overland journey and the exploration of the city were very nice) while the underground parts I mostly dreaded; only to find that so far it wasn't quite as bad as I feared.  Adventure #5 was a city exploration not unlike what we saw in earlier chapters, just... underground.

Number 6: Sanctum of the Serpent God is the end of the series.  Here's the official summary, as normal.
Having rescued Eando Kline from the serpentfolk prison in “The Thousand Fangs Below,” the PCs have the opportunity to converse at length with the Pathfinder and learn the full extent of the serpentfolk high priest Vyr-Azul’s plans to restore Ydersius—courtesy of the prolonged interrogation Eando suffered at the priest’s hands. Coupled with the PCs’ growing understanding of Saventh-Yhi’s history and the age-long battle between the Azlanti and the serpentfolk, this news proves dire indeed. For if Azlant at the pinnacle of its civilization struggled so mightily against the serpents, what chance
does humanity stand now if Ydersius returns?
Faced with this grim realization, Eando urges the PCs to form their own army from the tribes and factions occupying Saventh-Yhi and Ilmurea in the hope of duplicating Savith’s feat and ending the serpentfolk threat. By leading these troops against Ilmurea to draw out Vyr-Azul’s growing army, they can then sneak into the Sanctum of Ydersius and disrupt the snake-god’s restoration. Eando also tells the PCs of an ancient Azlanti weapon still in Ilmurea that they can recover to use against the serpentfolk. 
In search of this ancient weapon, the PC once more venture into Ilmurea, delving into an ancient serpentfolk structure called the Hunters’ Maze, now inhabited by urdefhans and their daemonic allies. There, the PCs discover that this “weapon” is in fact an ancient cyclops general from Savith’s time, preserved through the millennia in temporal stasis, who holds the knowledge of how to activate Saventh-Yhi’s seven spears as a weapon against Ilmurea. With this new ally, the PCs return to Saventh-Yhi to gather their army for the final assault on Ilmurea. 
During these preparations, a group of assassins—sleeper agents known as the Coils of Ydersius—try to kill the PCs and disrupt their plans. After surviving this latest threat, the PCs can f inally activate the seven spears, which burrow into the ground, making a path for their army to invade Ilmurea. 
As their army clashes with that of the serpentfolk, the PCs infiltrate the temple fortress known as the Sanctum of Ydersius. There, they must win their way past ancient traps and guardians until they finally meet Vyr-Azul in Ydersius’s inner sanctum before the Chasm of Retreat. Even as they battle the high priest, Vyr-Azul completes his ritual and calls Ydersius’s body, now reunited with his head, from the Darklands. But defeating Vyr-Azul is only a precursor to the arrival of the snake-god. This final confrontation pits the PCs against Ydersius himself as his avatar erupts from the chasm and onto the field of battle, with the fate of both the serpentfolk and humanity hanging in the balance.
You'll notice a few things, maybe.  First; this summary sounds an awful lot like the end-game for the Sertrous chapter in Elder Evils.  I can't help but wonder if it wasn't heavily influenced by it.  Although it's funny that the PCs don't know anything about it until this last adventure in the chapter.  Someone missed a serious opportunity for some foreshadowing.  If you're not even going to foreshadow, don't do BBEG save the world type adventures, in my opinion.  Tacking one on as the last chapter in an arc that was about other stuff earlier feels forced and weird.  Secondly, if there are sleeper agents; serpentfolk reincarnated into humanoid bodies—really, aren't we stepping on the concept of the yuan-ti a little too much here?  It's a problem I have with D&D in general; that it takes a good concept, and then makes half a dozen or more versions of the same concept, until you're wondering exactly why you have so many of them and how you're supposed to figure out how to do anything with more than one of them.

A monkey man recruit?
There might be a rationale for it that isn't insane, though—given that most versions of D&D (except OD&D and maybe some versions of BD&D) are fairly rules-heavy games, having different versions of the same concept gives you some rules variety which gives you options as a DM to "flavor" the encounters with certain mechanics elements that may be different from each other.

Given my own use of a rules-lite alt.D&D, I have much less need for this.  Initially I wasn't even going to have snakemen at all, and just use lizardmen stats to represent them, although I've since (admittedly somewhat reluctantly) added them in my little optional supplement post.  I've given them a totally different backstory though, as descendants of Medusa (and her own lesser descendants, the medusae) and with a slithery snake tail rather than legs.  I also don't know if I'd have humanoid snake-spies as this does, and certainly I won't have any that are based on the concept of the reincarnation spell and how it differs from any other raise dead spell—FANTASY HACK eschews the concept, for the most part, entirely.

Here's where Eando Kline spills the beans about the plot to resurrect the serpent-god Ydersius and conquer the surface people.  Why can't we just sneak in and kill Vyr-Azul? the PCs may ask.  Kline says, well, maybe you could have, but since you rescued me and I've been recovering from my captivity for several days, now you can't—no more surprise, plus they will have reinforced everything.  Thanks for giving us the heads-up while we were down there, Kline buddy.  You're a real hero.  In general, this is one railroad after another.  Granted; it's hard to write adventures that don't take on elements of railroads, but it's frustrating that Paizo doesn't really even try.  Sigh.

This is the search for the secret weapon, mentioned above.  It seems a little cheap to say that, oh, oops, the urdefahn from before were actually split in two, and there's a whole 'nother population of them in this section of the city that you didn't know anything about before, but that's how they do it.  These guys seem like they're more savage, as there's no expectation that you do anything other than "clear them out" and kill them, and their jackal-daemons and "proto-shoggoth" too.  There are stats in this section for the proto-shoggoth, lots of urdefahn soldiers, the jackal-daemons, mohrgs (undead urdefahn, in this case) and a few other daemon types—a lanky fish and tentacle daemon, and a spitting frog-daemons. and the urdefahn captain, or general, or whatever you want to call him.

There's a backstory as to how snakemen reincarnated as humans will start turning up, although I personally doubt that the backstory matters very much or that there's a naturalistic way to spill it to the players.  In any case, there are relatively high level assassins lurking among the NPCs, and four events are given that you are to work in as you see fit to have assassination attempts on the PCs, while they are alone.  These events are, in order:

  • SPARRING SESSION: Using mass suggestion, some of the NPC troops convince (supposedly) a martial character in the group to practice with them late at night, and they fight for nonlethal damage and the honor of fighting such a heroic figure.  Once the PC is worn out from this exercise, the assassin attacks.
  • CURIOSITY KILLING: a studious PC is lured into investigating a wall carving that is supposedly haunted but which has information that will be useful to their coming campaign, but which can only be accessed by one with Azlanti blood.  All of this is just illusions and telepathy, and the PC is ambushed while alone.
  • DRESSED TO KILL: Disguised as a native, this is a honey-trap for the most charismatic PC, and he'll be ambushed while "in the throes of passion."
  • WARTIME CONVERSION: A fake heathen native approaches a religious PC wanting to be told about his religion.  Again; opportunity for solo ambush.
The remainder of this section discusses getting the various explorers who still survive to join your army.  This is meant to be fairly generic, as obviously the writer doesn't know what your group did in the last two adventures with each of these factions.  You can also approach any of the native tribes.  Of these, the troglodytes and the vegepygmies are the hardest to recruit, but none of them are particularly keen on the idea of invading an underground snake-man city.  They may well have better luck with the natives of Ilmurea explored in the last module.  These armies will, by definition, be fairly ragtag; humans, trogs, monkey-people, frog-people, morlocks, urdefahn, etc.  I know that it's kind of a meme that the ragtag, motley Diversity Is Our Strength™ army is actually desirable, this of course, flies in the face of anyone who actually knows anything at all about military history.

The PCs can then activate the "spears" up above, and they drill down through the ground to Ilmurea, leaving spiraling ramps that reach the enemy forces.  It also shines a bright light on the city, and blocks the teleportation gates so the snakes can't escape.  If the PCs armies aren't ready to march immediately, this seems like a bad move, but y'know.  The writer is an RPG module writer, not a military tactician.

Part Four details the invasion of Ilmurea and the conclusion of the adventure, although of course, in typical D&D fashion, the army that you lead has to fend for itself while the PCs for a special strike force to go do D&Dish things.  Again, it's just assumed that you somehow will browbeat our PCs into accepting what they're "supposed" to do, although ther's not much advice on how this is to be done.  In any case, I'll detail part four in the next post, and then we'll finish our review of all the modules.  After that—figuring out what to do with all this stuff!

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