Savage Tide #4 – Here There Be Monsters
So. Let’s brainstorm for just a moment, shall we? Let’s say that you want to showcase everything that makes your module tick in one single instant, catapulting the characters into the action that you want them to remember and be able to talk about for years to come. You want an iconic opening to the adventure that calls back to the dusty old glory days of early D&D, when your imagination threw you into the action just a little bit faster than you were really prepared for. You want something so simply awesome that your players realize why you’ve been wanting to run this particular module series all this time, and you’re able to hand them the payoff.
I’ll give you a second on that one. And keep in mind that this is coming in the aftermath of the harrowing wreck of the PC’s boat in a vicious tropical storm, so it has to be something truly special to compete with that. Also, this is the new version of an old classic, so it has to keep some parts of what made the original good.
“As you pick yourself out of the surf, wracked and aching from the swim to shore after the wreck of the Sea Wyvern, you pause to get your bearings. Out of the jungle a short distance away, there is a crashing sound and a truly massive Tyrannosaurus Rex bursts from the foliage, bellowing. It sights your characters and charges…”
If you came up with anything resembling the previous, you have my congratulations. But after all, this is the Isle of Dread. Both of the original modules and the cover of Dungeon #139 (the first module in the path) took special care to feature the iconic Tyrannosaur attack. This shouldn’t have stumped anyone that’s familiar with the originals.
The basic upshot of this module is that the characters are stranded in the middle of nowhere and have to find their way to the semi-civilized lands of the Isle of Dread. Separated from their patron, Lavinia, their ship was cast ashore on the north side of the island, while the rest of the expedition waits for them on the south side of the island, several hundred miles distant. The characters are saddled with a contentious lot of NPC’s that they have to shepherd with them, and a number of dangerous encounters lie between them and the colony of Farshore.
In a lot of ways, it’s sad that Paizo gave up the rights to republish these adventures with the rights to the magazines that they appeared in. I would have loved to have seen a comprehensive treatment of both this and Age of Worms, along the same lines as the Shackled City book.
Instead, they have had to go back over similar ground in their recent products, with the strikingly similar set-up that serves as the opening for the Serpent’s Skull Adventure Path. The characters are shipwrecked on an island some ways out of Eleder (the Golarion repaint of Sasserine), saddled with a contentious lot of NPC’s that they have to shepherd about the island, and they eventually make their way to a forgotten underground city. The difference is that there’s no lead-in to the shipwreck, per se, thereby cutting out the introductory modules that I felt improved Isle of Dread in this particular retelling.
We’ll get to the underground city in module #6, for what that’s worth.
From the beach to civilization is something like 120 miles, which the module notes will take something like 10 days to cover. Since the shoreline tends towards sheer cliffs through a lot of this, and there are water hazards aplenty, the only real way south is overland, through the jungle and mountains. Following up from the previous wilderness based module, Paizo plunges forward with another wilderness module. There are, naturally, two dungeons in the midst of all this exploration.
There’s another vague mechanic of ‘ration supplies for the long trip’, but if the party has a Cleric, a Druid or a Ranger, none of this is worth worrying over. It’s an interesting inclusion, I suppose to create tension and a sense of waning resources, but skill and magic remove most of the inherent risk in any of this. Not to mention the abundant Terror Birds in the first part.
This was an amusing part of the module for my players. The first leg of the journey took place in a section of jungle that Paizo saw fit to stock with an abundance of Terror Birds, to the point that they named the area for them. After the Monster Island sidetrip in the last module, where the Terror Birds were the least of the antagonists – which is saying something, given that they’re 10-foot tall predatory birds that hunt in packs – they treated the multiple random encounters as chances to refresh their food stocks.
The end of the jungle offers up the first dungeon, an old outpost that was abandoned when the main civilization of the island fell to ruin. As dungeons go, it didn’t offer a great deal of challenge, save for the point when one of the player characters contracted Mummy Rot.
So, here’s the thing. There is nothing that will change the tenor of a game quite like an incurable disease. The party specifically lacked a Cleric, having bridged the healing gap up to this point with a Druid and a number of curative wands. The Barbarian had taken a couple of levels of Oracle for the sake of Prestige Class, but it was nowhere near enough juice to overcome both the Cure Disease and Remove Curse aspect of things.
From this point forward the Gun Mage (a variant of Magus, based on the ideas in the old Iron Kingdoms book) limped along, suffering progressive Constitution and Charisma damage as the disease wound its course. The PC Druid and the NPC Druid/Expert threw their stock of Lesser Restorations at him on a daily basis, but the spell resistant nature of Mummy Rot – succeed in a DC 20 Caster Check to use Conjuration (Healing) spells against it – made it so only about half of these spells actually succeeded. And a daily -2d6 Ability Drain is difficult to balance against +1d4 Restoration.
In the end, the rest of the party had to pitch in with their spare Belts of Constitution and Headbands of Charisma to ensure that he didn’t die from the disease as they picked their way down the coast towards civilization. Without the benefit of these two items, he would have died in the process, so badly had he been afflicted.
The second half of the module deals with a strange and corrupt area in the interior of the island, where the pervasive effects of a temple to Demogorgon has slowly warped the landscape. Within the ruins of a forgotten village, the vague disquiet manifests in a fairly Lovecraftian fashion, as the plant and animal life twists and writhes with pale tumors and twitching deformations. There’s a specifically Colour Out of Space vibe to the area, along with a Ravenloft inspired mist that turns the characters around any time they seek to escape the area.
Up to this point, the master of the temple, a wandering Bar-Lgura has been screwing with the characters, casting its various illusions and mischief towards the party to unsettle them. It runs the gamut from Blair Witch styled stick and dead bird sculptures to using magical darkness to douse the light of their campfires. There’s a weird sort of subplot involved with the various occurrences, which the players are never going to suss out, so it comes down to having this creature just fuck with the party out of amusement. This is continued with a crucified Zombie that the demon leaves out to speak cryptically to the characters when they arrive in the area.
At one point, the Bar-Lgura and his mates kidnap the Gnomish Comic Relief to drag back to their temple, thereby ensuring that the characters deal with this nonsense. It seems sort of unnecessary, being that they need to find and lay low the temple simply to leave the area, but I suppose it speeds things along that way.
The Temple is actually a pretty decent dungeon, and I don’t say that lightly. It has a lot of interesting call-backs to the old-style dungeons of 1st Edition, with traps, puzzles, and weird monsters. The weirdest, in some ways, was the Mob-template horde of Fiendish Baboons. I’d never run into Mobs in any other format, so it took a little reading to make sense of. And I’ll bitch about Paizo’s weird Monkey Subplot tendencies later. At least it makes sense to include them in this adventure, given the nature of Demogorgon.
In the end, they have to deal with the Bar-Lgura in what amounts to being a cinematic showdown within the Inner Shrine to Demogorgon. Their Gnomish Comic Relief is being lowered, round by round, into a fire pit. The demon is busily bouncing around from foe to foe, and there’s a definite clock running out as the PC’s try to deal with a fairly canny and intelligent foe on his home turf. It’s a difficult battle, but not impossible, and in the end, he’s dealt with in a properly dramatic manner. At which point, the ancient cursed statue of Demogorgon animates and attacks, giving the player characters very little breathing room as it tries to finish what the Bar-Lgura started.
Once both the statue and the demon are dead, the characters find they can escape the occluding fog that has stranded them in the jungle. I had swapped out a minor magic item from the Temple’s coffers for a requisite Scroll with both Remove Curse and Remove Disease, allowing the Gun Mage to survive the trek across the island. The module ends with the destruction of the Temple, essentially narrating the characters’ eventual return to civilization.