The Good The Bad and the Herald
Herald of the Ivory Labyrinth is the 5th adventure in the Wrath of the Righteous Adventure Path, and it offers some interesting changes of pace from the previous scenarios. Where adventure 4 was sometimes a bit unclear on the narrative details, adventure 5 presents the players with a far more explicit statement of their task.
In this adventure, players begin by seeking an audience with the Lady of Valour, an avatar of the goddess Iomedae herself – having convinced her of their worthiness, they must then venture into the Ivory Labyrinth, the fiendish maze which gives the adventures its name. Within the Labyrinth, the heroes must make their way through numerous confusing networks of locations and twisting passages, in order to rescue Imoedae’s former herald who has been imprisoned in the maze by Baphomet, and driven mad by the torture to which he has been subjected. From the outset then, it’s a clear mission, and one which most characters can get behind with few qualms.
The general level of shiny things for the players in this adventure is pretty good: There are some interesting new weapons, and some brilliant combat spells. Given that we still have several characters wandering around with only Divine + 2d4, the prospect of “1d6+1 for each of your mythic charges” is very exciting. There are also new armours with uses outside of damage reduction, and a few scattered items with good potential. The new blessings are a bit of a let-down: there are two, both corrupted, and the Blessing of Sifkesh in particular offers a very strong draw-back for a not-very-powerful-effect.
The allies in adventure 5 take things in an interesting new direction – lots of unique characters with a “none” in the check to acquire box. Typically, these require you to pay a high price, such as adding monsters to all locations, milling out the blessings deck, and fighting the oh-so-irritating Vescavor swarm, but in return, you can gain bonus Mythic charges, search a location for the villain, or permanently close a location without needing to empty it / find the henchman.
Theme – Worthiness
Obviously, the designers had this adventure wrapped up months before adventure 4 went on general release, so we can’t claim any responsibility for the change, but after a lot of thematic misses in adventure 4, it feels like they got this one spot-on. The first adventure is low on combat and banes, with the primary focus being on proving worthiness to Iomedae, first by passing her rites of heraldry, and then by confronting the lady herself. Touches like the requirement to have no corrupted cards in hand when confronting the henchmen fill this out nicely.
Getting Lost in the Sights
For the later scenarios, the sense of being lost in a labyrinth is also well-captured: Two locations regularly redirect you elsewhere, Blackburgh requires you to summon and build the maze, and various random movement effects give the lingering possibility that you could wind up in the Middle of Nowhere, a location with little purpose at all besides slowing you down, and representing the fact that you’ve got lost. The generic banes for this set also tie in to this theme – the Maze tapestry is an irksome barrier which sees you summon and build the location maze, whilst failure against the corruption demon will get you packed off to the Middle of Nowhere.
In a recent article from the designers on the Paizo blog, they talked about how they wanted characters to be able to feel a real sense of progression by the time they reach adventure 6, and that’s something I’ll think about in more detail when I get there.
Already, in adventure five though, there are elements of this creeping in, and I think that it’s best shown up in what happens at the end of the adventure, when the players have the option to fight an additional villain – Baphomet himself, no less! This can also be seen in rather less obvious touches, like some of the adventure 5 allies – one of whom is a Runelord! From end-of-AP-villain in the first Path, to coincidental ally in the third.
And the party’s reward for successfully completing the various tasks before them includes the option to take a new mythic path entirely, representing the favour of Iomedae, and allowing them to add their mythic charge bonus to 3 skills instead of 2 – an absolute (and literal) god-send for Seelah the Hierophant, who finally has mythic combat power.
Obviously, no game is perfect, and there are still issues with this adventure. One thing that stands out in the first scenario, to beat an old drum, is the question of scaling. I don’t want to spend too long on this, particularly as it will become a major theme again when I post the review for adventure 6, but I still think it’s worth considering one specific case in some detail.
In the first scenario, as described, the players must confront the Lady of Valour, and prove their worthiness: this comes in the form of a villain shuffled into the Blessings deck, and a random character having to encounter her. She is a check of 20, made on a choice of 4 skills, all of them secondary, and none of them combat (melee, divine, fortitude, diplomacy) – that’s perhaps a little on the low-side for adventure 5, but the random element, coupled with the chance that it will be a character who lacks the relevant skills and can only roll d4s go some way towards balancing it out.
All of which is fine, until you spot the extra line which notes that “the difficulty of the check is increased by ten times the number of characters” – so, just to spell that out, that means a check of 80 for our 6 party group. The fact that the villain is in the blessings deck, rather than a location deck, means that there is no way to wait things out and run-down the clock, so repeated failed checks could easily lead to a total party kill – d10 irreducible force damage to each character after a failed attempt is definitely not nice.
We eventually got lucky, with Balazar encountering her at a point when Kyra had 3 Blessings of Iomedae in hand, and he had taken a power feat to allow himself to use his strength (and therefore his pet chicken) for Fortitude checks, but if the shuffle hadn’t made our third encounter with the Lady the final turn of the game, it could have all ended very badly.
Whilst the cautious side of me doesn’t really like the “Villain in the Blessings deck” mechanic – it’s a little bit too do-or-die – I can appreciate what they’re trying to do: I just think that a higher base value for the check, with a smaller degree of scaling would be helpful (i.e. a check of 40 with the difficulty increased by 5x the number of characters).
The other major draw-back to this adventure, ironically, comes straight out of one of the strongest aspects. As I said above, this adventure does a really good job at capturing the sense of being stuck in a labyrinth. The trouble is, nobody likes being stuck in a labyrinth. Card effects which move you to random locations, scenario effects which move random locations to you, and summon-and-build effects which can move you upto ten locations in total all make for a long and tortuous process.
For me, the undoubted low-point of the adventure was scenario 3, which features all of these things. The biggest problem with this scenario, is the sheet amount of dumb luck involved: you can explore quickly, pass all your checks, and still run out of time due to (literally) going round and round in circles.
Despite this being a brilliant thematic scenario overall, there are one or two oddities which linger – most puzzling for me were the blessings of Baphomet, which can not only continue to be used after you have fought and killed Baphomet, but can actually be used against their bestower. Let me know if you can explain that one…
A thematic return-to-form, this adventure does a good job of continuing the mythic level of quests you send your characters on, and offers some fun toys to help you with it, whilst dialling back slightly on the crazy bane abilities from adventure four.
That said, this is an adventure through a Labyrinth, and you can expect to get lost. Probably more than once: to begin with, this might just feel fun and thematic, but don’t be surprised if it starts to get old pretty quickly.