After my enthusiasm for the previous two installments of the Shades of Ice trilogy, I had high hopes for the thrilling conclusion. Set in the rugged wilderness of the north, it seemed an apt repose from the confined urban environments of Written in Blood and Exiles of Winter. Also, there was a strong potential for wooly mammoths – always a bonus!
Unfortunately Keep of the Huscarl King wound up being a massive disappointment. I was bored, my players were bored, and I think the universe even became a little bored for having to accommodate this slog.
The trajectory of Keep of the Huscarl King is more straightforward than the prior two scenarios in the trilogy. The scholar Skagni has revealed to you the location of a weapon of ancient power in the Realm of the Mammoth Lords. It resides in the ruined fortress of a legendary Ulfen warrior once known as the Huscarl King. The Shadow Lodge intends to claim this weapon for their own purposes, using it’s power to garner an advantage against the Pathfinder Society. The players must race on foot to the ruined keep, contending with Shadow Lodge agents, territorial native Kellids, and tundra beasts along the way.
I have to say, I don’t find the Realm of the Mammoth Lords nearly as interesting as the Lands of the Linnorm Kings or Irrisen. While the Ulfen are kept interesting by their boisterous over-the-top personalities and the residents of Irrisen by their lawful evil inclinations, the native Kellids are a pretty plain Jane pastiche of Native Americans. They smear their faces with warpaint, are married to their legends and stories, and hunt herd animals with spears.
If you’ve seen any Hollywood blockbuster depicting Native Americans, you know how a Kellid acts.
That being said, there’s some fun to be had dealing with the language barrier. The Kellids only speak Hallit, a language too obscure for any player character to consider learning. The low-level tier more or less rules out truespeech being available, so your party has to get by with pantomime and drawings if they wish to diplomatize with the locals. Expect a lot of flailing hand movements and exasperated gasps from all ends of the table.
If only the encounters in Keep of the Huscarl King were as fun as these roleplaying bits. The scenario has a bit of a bad reputation for being a cakewalk – a shame, considering the high risk encounters present in part two. I blame the low level of difficulty on two problems.
One, an infestation of mooks. The Snowmask warriors that stalk the players throughout the adventure are wimps. They can’t dish out or take a hit and they have no decent feats or magic items to work with. Even the barbarian in the first encounter suffers from an embarrassing armour class and CMD. The shadow lodge agents that show up later on fare little better.
Two, full-attacking beasts just aren’t that scary. With trip, reach weapon, gunslinging, archery, and crowd control builds being as fashionable as they are, there’s really no reason a monster like a Dire Wolverine or a Deinonychus (really?) should ever get an full-attack off. Most of my big scary monsters spent the entire combat on their backs.
The final encounter in particular is a bit of a joke. The incredibly deadly weapon that could sway the balance of power in the Shadow Lodge’s favour is neutered in the hands of a mid-level cleric. Asides from the agonizing -4 attack penalty she suffers from for not being proficient with the weapon, the cleric has a dozen better things she could be doing.
Hold Person? Channel negative energy? Command? Nope, she’s going to wade into melee and get her ass flanked.
However, the anticlimactic final battle only wins the silver medal for most ill-conceived encounter of the scenario; the gold goes to the stampede.
About halfway in, the players arrive at the opening to a narrow canyon. If they should enter the canyon, the Snowmask warriors hiding above trigger a stampede of aurochs that requires a series of difficult reflex saves and skill checks to avoid. If the players fail their rolls, they are pummeled with a hefty amount of trampling damage.
The thing is, there is no reason to pass through the canyon at all.
The scenario states that, if the players should choose, they can circle around the canyon and continue along unimpeded. There is no penalty for doing so. None. It doesn’t even add time to the party’s journey. Even if the players botch their perception rolls to notice something is amiss, it takes a massive lapse of common sense to fall for the trap.
Anyone who has seen The Lion King knows exactly how things are going to go down.
That’s the modus operandi of this scenario: sweeping set pieces with no pay-off. The noble and savage Kellid warriors are wimps; the ferocious beasts that dwell in the inhospitable tundra are easily declawed; the Shadow Lodge agent wielding the legendary weapon can’t even hit with it; and the inescapable death trap is comically easy to escape. Throw in a few irritating constitution and fortitude saves for non-lethal damage, and you wind up with a lacklustre and often monotonous scenario.
My party ended up whipping through Keep of the Huscarl King in three hours due to the lack of challenge. I wouldn’t be surprised if they forgot about the adventure after the same amount of time. Despite a few decent roleplaying bits, The Keep of the Huscarl King falters as both a standalone experience and as a capstone to an otherwise compelling trilogy. I can’t recommend it.