Savage Tide #6 – The Lightless Depths
So, in case I hadn’t made my case clearly enough in my reviews of Carrion Hill and Wake of the Watcher, the Paizo staff loves them some Lovecraft. For my own part, I’ll assume that much of this stems from the predilections of Wes Schneider, but that’s mainly because he did the heavy lifting on what amounts to be my favorite module of the entire Adventure Path thus far.
In the aftermath of the attack on Farshore, the characters go over what intelligence they were able to gather from the log books and survivors of the fleet. One reference notes that the black pearls that are responsible for triggering the Savage Tides come from a shadowy group known as the Lords of Dread. (Anyone who’s been paying attention up to now can predict that this refers to the Kopru that live beneath the island.) The pirate fleet has been negotiating with an ancient and legendary Dragon Turtle that dwells on the northern edge of the island, and in return he allows them passage to the caverns and lava tubes that lead to the Lords of Dread. People are enslaved, brought to the Lords and in return, they’re given the vile black pearls.
From here, the characters are given a pretty straightforward directive from Lavinia. They’re to deal with the Dragon Turtle, either peaceably or otherwise, gain access to the passages below, and remove the influence of the Lords of Dread. She even fronts some of her parents’ accumulated wealth if the characters choose to bribe their way in.
It should go without saying that my players rolled their eyes at this.
The Dragon Turtle in question, Emraag the Glutton, is a creature of legend amongst the local Olman tribesmen, a dread aspect of myth and terror that none have ever faced and lived. His lair is littered with the wreckage of dozens of ships that dared enter his domain, and it is only in folly that the characters seek conflict with him. And it is largely assumed, from the text of the module, that players should have discretion in this affair, as Emraag’s treasure isn’t even detailed beyond suggested levels of wealth.
In a lot of ways, this reminded me of the set-piece encounter in Legacy of Fire, where the characters had the option of fighting a Dragon Turtle within the extraplanar realm of Kakishon. The set-up for that particular encounter had some problems, in that the text had never been edited to make sense in the scope of the module, but the actual fight and the lair beneath were pretty fun.
The encounter with Emraag was fairly quick and to the point, as the players had carefully prepared themselves with a stock of magic items (specifically, they returned to Sasserine via Teleport and outfitted everyone with Cloaks of the Manta Ray) and careful tactics. Emraag put up a reasonable fight, but a party of 11th characters tend to either win out within a matter of rounds against a single foe, or they’re dead pretty much instantly.
From there, it’s a long slog through the lava tubes to the ancient city now taken by the Kopru. There are certain sorts of parallels to the old AD&D D1-2 module, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, where the characters are kept to a linear track and run into keyed encounters as the go. Along the way, they encounter tribes of Troglodytes that have been corrupted to worship Demogorgon (a similar parallel to the corrupted worship of the Deep Ones in Wake of the Watcher, strangely), as well as a non-corrupted Trog Cleric who offers to help them along their way.
This was when I ended up shifting one of the encounters of the module to fit one of the characters. The Barbarian had been flailing about, trying to settle on a build that offered a little more flavor for the setting. Around this time in the module series, there’s an accompanying Dragon Magazine article that offers up a Prestige Class for a tattooed Totemic Demon Slayer. Since the player had recently finished playing Far Cry 3, the option of a Tatau-based warrior appealed directly to him. The thing is, the Prestige Class in question had a 10 level progression, which would have meant that he’d be just short of completing the progression when the module series ended, had I introduced the class when it was supposed to appear. So, instead of waiting until the beginning of the next module, I allowed the NPC in question (who is saved from being sacrificed in this module) to initiate the character immediately.
There are a scattering of encounters in the module that hearken back to the proper roots of the original ‘underdark’ flavor of Dungeons & Dragons (again, we could talk about Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, among others) with creatures like slimes and puddings and ropers. There was also a strange sort of Beholder subplot, where my players came to appreciate the dire reputation that these particular iconic creatures enjoy. Suffice to say, they found that they hated dealing with intelligent and powerful monsters that generate Anti-Magic Fields.
The module starts to pick up when they’re first introduced to the original inhabitants of the ancient city in the form of strangely petrified Aboleths. This works on a level of pacing, where they discover a single petrified specimen (in the setting lore, any Aboleth caught outside of water secretes a hard shell to keep them from dying; the problem is that they remain conscious and go mad over the centuries), followed by a couple more. When they finally encounter one that isn’t petrified or mad, it manages to secure their cooperation without them even realizing what’s going on. They agree to destroy the seals that isolate the ancient city – now revealed to be an Aboleth city that was ravaged by the magics of the Olman gods – which will destroy the hold the Kopru have over the island.
It’s not really a perfect solution, as it trades the predations of the Kopru for the cosmic madness of the Aboleth, but it’s a better solution than what’s going on now.
And finally, they reach the city.
For me, this was a direct reference to Lovecraft’s only long work, At the Mountains of Madness, even going so far as to include a vaguely public domain version of a Shoggoth. The city in question is Golismorga, a showcase of weird biotechnology – the buildings are described in the most awful manner possible, talking of randomly sprouting eyes and oozing, wound-like orifices – and general blasphemy. Much of the lore of the city derives from the 3.5 book, Lords of Madness, where the Aboleth gods and cosmic horrors are detailed a little more.
I loved it, going into greater and greater description of the writhing insanity that the city was built on. It didn’t help that they happened upon what amounted to being a tour guide in the form of Rakis-Ka, a peculiar form of wandering undead known as a Devourer. I played Rakis-Ka as a direct callback to the Cenobites of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, given the weird extraplanar origins of Devourers in general. They’re supposed to be wanderers on the cosmic verge that end up being driven mad and turned into undead by the strange dimensions they discover. Combined with the fact that Rakis-Ka specifically wanted to tear their souls apart only added to the characterization.
There’s a scenario maguffin in the form of the divine relic that wiped out the Aboleth which the characters have to destroy as part of the adventure. Generally, it’s just a static pile of Hit Points and Hardness, but it happens to be guarded by a Neh-Thalggu. These are fascinatingly wretched abominations that collect the brains of their victims and use them to power their abilities. The Neh-Thalggu in question believes that it can use the maguffin to escape back to its home plane, so it takes the interference of the PC’s as innately hostile to its goals.
On their own, the Neh-Thalggu and Rakis-Ka aren’t terrible threats to the overall ability of the characters, but in my case, the two monsters teamed up to beat the PC’s senseless. It was poor timing on the part of my players, but they managed to survive the encounter, more or less, destroying the maguffin and moving on to the final encounter.
The last fight takes place in what amounts to being the only dungeon in this module, a weird and fleshy pyramid that has been reconsecrated to Demogorgon. (Rakis-Ka was especially fond of this place, as it was something of ‘a heresy lain over top of an abomination’ or something similar.) The pyramid acts as the final step in the production of the black pearls, as they are strengthened in a substance called ‘the Black Bile of the World,’ a caustic and flammable sort of oil that my players immediately grew to loathe. In Golarion terms, it amounted to being the unholy blood of the god Rovagug, referenced here as Holashner. Within the pyramid was a leveled Kopru Cleric of Demogorgon and one final abomination, a tentacled creature that looked similar to a Carrion Crawler but was adapted to swimming in the Black Bile. Since it had unrestricted movement and vision, along with Fast Healing, in the Black Bile, it just swam around in it while taking pot shots at the group.
Between this creature and the Kopru Cleric, my players were nearly ready to give up on the module. I’d recently allowed them to advance their characters into Mythic Progression, as per the recently released hardcover from Paizo, but even so, they were stymied by the encounter. Much as I loved the setting, the combination of the two monsters ground the game down to the point that there was a collective vote for a hiatus.
We’ll see what happens when we pick the Adventure Path back up, but for the time being, thus ends my overview of Savage Tide. Further updates as situation warrants.