Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Fortress of the Nail Review

Fortress of the Nail

I was initially supposed to run Fortress of the Nail at Gryphcon this year, but my table was dissolved due to a lack of players. I ended up playing Secret of Mana on my brother’s laptop for four hours instead, and the scenario was filed away in my big box of Pathfinder stuff and quickly forgotten about.

Earlier this month, I was waffling over what scenario I should run next at Dueling Grounds when I stumbled on my stapled-together artifact from Gryphcon. Lacking any better options, I decided to give the adventure another shot.

I’m glad I did.

Zarta Dralneen, sultry Chelaxian liaison to the Pathfinder Society, has gone missing. The circumstances of her disappearance were established in an earlier scenario in the season, but her location hasn’t been discerned until now. She is found awaiting execution for treason at a Hellknight citadel in Varisia, occupied by the law-bound Order of the Nail. It is up to the Pathfinders to bring proof of Zarta’s innocence to the citadel and escort her to safety.

Fortress of the Nail is weighted towards roleplaying. Combat doesn’t formally enter the adventure until about halfway through, and the presence of hundreds of Hellknights milling about the citadel deters the party from taking the scorched earth strategy towards diplomacy. Players are forced to rely on their wits and their charisma scores to get by.

The social angle works well because of the strength of the NPCs. Each of the major Hellknight officials the players are tasked with plying possess a colourful backstory and interesting personality. There’s the pencil pusher who enjoys having his ego stroked, the boisterous centaur warrior woman, and the humourless battled-scarred commander of the citadel. I specifically appreciate the way the scenario details how the different NPCs react in different ways to diplomacy, bluff, and intimidate checks – it adds a great deal of nuance to the dice-rolling.

My sole complaint is that the DC for all these die rolls are a bit low. A sorcerer or other charisma-based caster with a few points in diplomacy shouldn’t have any trouble passing these checks, and there’s always the option to take a ten to lock it down.


The combat encounters suffer from ill difficulty balance as well. The first encounter is too easy in both tiers. The rogue Hellknight, asides from having a couple nifty tricks from his prestige class, is more or less a melee mook. His planer companions are pretty sad as well, and I can’t imagine them causing much of a problem for even a moderately optimized party.

The second and final encounter is a coin flip. At the lower tier, the scenario offers a nessian warhound. Although it totes a fair number of hit points and spell resistance, the beast has wimpy damage output and is fairly easy to deal with.

At the higher tier, the scenario offers a far more intimidating edavagor. This two-headed hound is a complete monster. With an AC of 26, DR 10/good, fire immunity, SR 23, and the amorphous trait, it is more than capable of tanking whatever the players throw at it. It can then return the favour with it’s five iterative attacks and breath weapon – which it can breath out of both of its heads at the same time, by the way.

Needless to say, with a table of players skirting the two tiers, I would always be inclined to have them play down – unless you’re the malicious type of GM who likes seeing their table reduced to dog food.

The uneven elements of Fortress of the Nail are held together by the rich mythology of the Hellknights. The scenario offers numerous tidbits on Hellknight ranks and hierarchy, their complicated relationship with devils, and their history in the region of Varisia. Owing to the flagship Rise of the Runelords adventure path, Varisia has always been the richest vein of lore in the Pathfinder campaign setting, and Fortress of the Nail benefits greatly for mining it.

All in all, I really like Fortress of the Nail. The difficulty may be all over the place, but the roleplaying opportunities are abundant and steeped in great lore. Take your time with this one and enjoy rehearsing funny voices for each of the NPCs.

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By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer