The Good, The Bad, and the Island
A Fistful of Meeples Review of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Wrath of the Righteous Adventure 4 – The Midnight Isles
Adventure 4, The Midnight Isles sees players past the half-way point in Wrath of the Righteous, and getting to use their role-card powers for the first time. Having wandered around the Worldwound in the early adventures, things are now firmly situated in the Abyss, with a mechanic which gives every single location in scenarios 2-5 the Abyssal trait.
Once again, there are new boons and banes, and a few unusual mechanics – although compared with the previous 2 adventures, a lot of the structuring is actually quite conventional.
In terms of the boons, there are some good, solid cards here – the Demonbane Light Crossbow +1, itself essentially an update of the Deathbane from Rise of the Runelords, finally gets a strength-based equivalent. The supply of upgraded attack-spells also continues steadily, with cards like Divine blaze, first seen in last year’s initial wave of class decks, finally appear in a mainstream AP.
Along with the fun toys for the players, there are also some nasty things to run into – leaving aside henchmen and villains for a moment, just among the ranks of the ordinary monsters, there are pre-encounter checks that can cause you to bury your role-card, or shuffle a random card from your hand into your location deck.
With discussions raging heatedly on the forum about the difficulty of Wrath, (I’m going to deal with difficulty in a separate article, shortly) it’s good to note that there are some henchmen and villains in this set which stray from the standard patterns – there’s at least one villain who is a barrier, and the check to defeat is Charisma / Diplomacy, as well as several unique henchmen who add an extra cost to attempting to close a location after defeating them – if defeated, you may expend a mythic charge to attempt to close the location, if defeated, you may shuffle this card into a random location to attempt to close this location. Obviously, this isn’t something you want to encounter as a player, but it’s good use of the design space, keeping things varied.
On the subject of when the designers do things that are bad for the players, but good for the game, I wanted to take a bit of a look at this adventure’s servitor demon. In many respects, the Vulture Demon is unremarkable – the standard immunities, a combat check of 19, and some electricity damage if you fail to defeat him. However, in one crucial respect he is absolutely brutal – namely the stipulation that, before you act, you need to pass a constitution or fortitude check of 9, or else you can play weapons or boons with the attack trait.
This. Is. Hideous. Between our party of 6, and our party of 4, we had sunk a grand total of zero skill feats into constitution (it was the one skill we never checked off on Knights of Kenabres), and only one character – Crowe – can boost his constitution via his mythic path.
The fact that the prohibition is again all boons with the attack trait prevents players from falling back on items or armours, or anything else which might be used for a combat check in a pinch – it’s also nasty as the pure casters like Enora are both the least likely to pass the constitution check, and the ones least likely to be able to just punch the monster in the face.
The difficulty of this monster in brought into very sharp relief in the first scenario of the adventure, where the villain forces you to summon a Vulture Demon apiece, and gives you the choice of either defeating all the demons (if you can) then banishing a non-basic divine card to defeat the villain, or of taking him on directly with an Arcane or Divine check of 20 (“combat” is not an option) – challenging enough for characters with that as their primary skill, and downright impossible for those without.
I like the fact that the designers have mixed things up here: we spent 3 adventures thinking we didn’t need constitution, then suddenly it becomes indispensable: interestingly, this does raise questions about the replayability of the AP as a whole – next time round, we might find our decisions rather different.
Narrative has never been the strongest element of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. An Adventure path initially published in 6 books is condensed down, so that each scenario can be described on the back of a playing card, fighting for space with an image and a list of locations. Additionally, the villains – notionally the centrepiece of the scenario will sometimes only be encountered on the last turn of the game, with typically little more than a “before you act” and a check to define them.
That said, I’ve rarely found the thematic element of this game problematic. The community-produced resources for the previous 2 APs were nice additions, but they never felt essential.
This time round though, I was never really sure I knew what was going on: obviously, we had the standard objective “fight bad things, pick up good things, corner and defeat the villain,” but there was precious little clue as to exactly who the nasties were, or – perhaps more to the point, who the cohorts aiding and abetting us were.
It is possible, having played the adventure through twice, gone back and read the flavour text on the new locations (this is something I always do at the start of the AP, then forget once I get to a hideous scenario that requires half-a-dozen replays), read the blog article about this box, and done a bit of trawling of Wikipedia, to piece together the broad outline of what’s going on – to attempt to diagnose why exactly the players are venturing into the Abyss, what the significance of Nocticula might be, or even, the relevance of these Nahyndrian crystals, but out-of-the-box, this information is opaque at best.
There is also an element of strangeness around the ordinary, orange-templated monsters. As mentioned above, there are some brutal effects designed to strip cards from your hand, remove your role-card, or banish the weapon from your discard pile with the highest adventure-deck number, all of which have potential to seriously hurt you. By contrast, a lot of the elite monsters are by now falling some way behind the players’ power-curve, and there are a few baffling examples of things like the Worm Demon or the Ghoul which are neither basic, nor elite, who are often an auto-defeat for a weapons user (not to mention being a real pain for a D4-strength pure caster, who still needs to use up one of their spells to see them off).
Things like making all locations after scenario 1 “Abyssal” felt a bit underwhelming – as far as I can tell, the only real impact of this would be to make some monsters lose the “Outsider” trait – but I can only think of a single card which interacted meaningfully with this trait – Dismissal – and we had long-since abandoned this one as being far too situational to be useful. There is also a slight degree to which Balazar suffers from reduced trait synergy when banishing monsters from his hand to add to strength-based combat checks, but it’s very marginal.
I commented above on how much I liked the creativity and the design work which had brought about some of the mechanics on Monsters we faced in this set. Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum, we had a repeat occurrence of what I find to be one of the most irritating mechanics of this game, the undefeatable villain.
In scenario 3-3: Nocticula’s Attention, when you encounter the villain (otherwise a rather intriguingly designed card) if there are any locations open, she is automatically undefeated. This is a mechanic we’ve seen in the past, in previous adventure paths, and it always get right on my nerves: It essentially throws a large element of blind chance into the game, particularly if you’re playing with a large enough party that you can only scout selectively (Adowyn is the only character in our party of six with any meaningful scouting capabilities, and there are some locations where it just doesn’t make sense for her to be).
Obviously, you can see from a narrative standpoint why the designers might well want to ensure that you fulfil a subsidiary requirement before you can win the scenario (here it’s close the location, in Skull & Shackles it was defeating a pair of named henchmen) but making the villain undefeated rather than evaded mills out the blessing deck, making an already tight timescale even tighter. With large parties, this can mean that the scenario becomes virtually unwinnable very early on, leaving you with the unsatisfying choice of playing through the turns for no good reason, or stopping and starting again. (Technically, I’m not aware of a mechanic that allows you to give up and start again, but provided there’s a standard blessings deck timer, without start-of-turn direct damage effects, we just all agree to skip exploration until the end of the game, which causes a time-out). To an extent, I’m sure that there are times when the designers just want to make life difficult, and there may even be occasions where this approach is more thematically fitting. Most of the time though, even knowing how much dedication and hard work the people behind this game put into it, the end result just feels like lazy design.
Overall, playing this Adventure wasn’t unenjoyable – it’s always fun to get to use some of the character powers which come with the role-card, and some of them allow you to do a lot of nicely synergistic actions. Likewise, the challenge posed by the game is still at a sensible level: it’s definitely a lot easier than adventure 2, relative to where our characters were, but it still feels refreshing rather than dull.
Overall, aside from a few things that mis-fired mechanically (like the universally “Abyssal” nature of locations), the biggest failing of this adventure, for me, was in terms of the story. More than any other point in the game, it really felt like I had to work to figure out what I was doing.