The first movie in a trilogy has its work cut out for it. It has to lay the foundation for the next two installments without seeming incomplete and disjointed. The best science fiction and fantasy films manage to hedge the line between satisfying viewers and leaving them wanting more: A New Hope, The Hobbit, and Batman Begins.
Pathfinder Society scenarios have to follow the same rule. If players aren’t grabbed by the first scenario of a three-part series, they aren’t going to stick around at the table for parts two and three. Although not perfect by any means, Written in Blood engages players well and serves as an apt springboard for the remainder of the Shades of Ice trilogy.
Written in Blood starts innocuously, as many Pathfinder scenarios do. Venture Captain and notorious distributor of fools errands Drandle Dreng has a mission for the players. They are to deliver a footlocker of improbably important paperwork to a scholar named Skagni in Trollheim, a walled city nestled in the frigid Lands of the Linnorm Kings. Things, of course, turn sour. The players arrive to find that Skagni’s house has been burned to the ground by Hjort Fastaxe, a fire-headed viking with a chip on his shoulder larger than the horns on his head.
I admittedly have a soft spot for the northern reaches of Golarion. One could argue that Varisia and Tian Xia are more fleshed out corners of the campaign setting, but the wells of Norse and Russian mythology are so deep that you’d be hard-pressed to run out of adventure hooks in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings and Irrisen.
Paizo’s added a few nice touches to steep Trollheim in the viking motif. I like that the residents of Trollheim treat a player friendlier if they are of Ulfen heritage and worse if they hail from Irrisen. It cements the players as strangers in a faraway land and subtly establishes the regional divides present in the area. Having a bar full of Norsemen heckle the players for being puny and pale is telling as well – and also a great opportunity to cut loose as a game master.
The plot exploits the setting well. What at first seems a tired World of Warcraft-esque delivery quest quickly transforms into a whodunit. Players are thrown haphazardly into a foreign city and forced to use their wits (and their knowledge skills) to scour the city for Skagni’s assailant. The stock NPCs Paizo provides for this detective portion of the scenario are fun to roleplay and demonstrate well the stock of people who wind up in a remote city like Trollheim.
However, from a purely mechanical perspective, I find this detective work a tad tedious. The party essentially has to make five consecutive gather information or knowledge checks to determine Hjort’s whereabouts, each taking 1d6 hours. But there is no penalty for failing these checks or for taking days or weeks to gather information, so the die rolls ultimately feel pointless. Sure, it’s an opportunity to roleplay, and that’s always great, but why not add some incentive to roll well?
Although a single act is dominated by footwork and roleplaying, Written in Blood is moreso a combat-oriented scenario. There are four skirmishes total, and they are unfortunately of inconsistent quality.
An opening ambush with a cadre of hired rogues is surprising enough to keep the party on their toes, but once the flat-footed rounds end, it devolves more or less into a brawl. Speaking of which, the barroom brawl that immediately follows is inexcusably bland. The bare-knuckled brawlers barely register as a threat due their low weapon damage, but have enough hit points to make the battle stretch on for ages. I intentionally had one of them drop prone from “drunkenness” to speed things up.
The fighting gradually improves from this point on. The goblin encounter is easy but fun to roleplay – pretty much a guarantee when you give a goblin a reliable source of fire. More impressive is the capstone fight against Hjort and his cadre of ne’er-do-wells. It’s rare that a table actually gets to fight a well-balanced party of evil-aligned adventurers.
Hjort, despite his horrendous choice of weapons, is still a barbarian and poses a lethal threat until he is taken down. Runa will pester players remorselessly with her negative energy channelling and a handful of nasty crowd control spells, but is partially let down by her low touch AC. I’ll cut Paizo some slack here because this scenario hails from season two, long before gunslingers started rearing their ugly heads.
The wizard was a nice surprise, half for being a wizard instead of a ubiquitous Pathfinder sorcerer and half for boasting flaming sphere, scorching ray, and colour spray all in the same spellbook. I couldn’t help but chuckle behind my game master screen.
This confrontation with the vitriolic Hjort is a satisfying climax to the plot arc of Written in Blood, but two major narrative caveats stand out in my mind.
First, the footlocker full of documents, which is exalted as critically important to the mission at hand, falls completely to the wayside ten minutes in. My players decided to leave the container locked in their room at the inn, and I had difficulty divining any reason why they couldn’t. Hjort is after them, not some paperwork, and no one else in Trollheim seems aware of the Pathfinder Society, let alone antagonist towards them.
Second, I felt having Hjort’s look-alike spill the beans about the entire scheme was a bit abrupt. The scenario had done a good job up until that point gradually revealing details, but the impostor basically provided cliff notes. Why not divide these details between the impostor, the goblins, and Hjort himself to build stronger momentum towards the climax?
Still, Written in Blood stands out as an above-average scenario overall. Although it ends on a cliffhanger, the gradual build-up and inevitable defeat of Hjort grants it a degree of closure that all good first instalments of a trilogy have. The final fight is also among the most memorable and diverse encounters I’ve ever run. I look forward to running the second part, Exiles of Winter, next week.