Auspicious Beginnings – Looking Back at Rise of the Runelords
Ah, ambitions. I’d had all manner of grand ideas for this blog, in terms of subject matter and direction, when I started out a little over two months back. Then came the computer crash and various day to day setbacks that have left me scrambling to keep up with my own self-appointed goals. Thus far, I’ve managed to keep the updates for this on track, more or less, but none of it has been nearly as easy as it may have otherwise been.
Here’s hoping for better luck in the next month or so.
In the mean time, I’ve been ruminating on the idea of the different Adventure Paths I’ve played and run over the years. One of my players has offered to run a couple of the more recent ones that he’s picked up, but there’s still the dangling bits of the original unfinished series, Rise of the Runelords, that we’d like to put paid to. Combined with a general burnout on Pathfinder recently, it’s been hard to get motivation to get back into the swing of things, as it were. The game has been our general fallback for about three years, so it’s not surprising that we’ve gotten a bit burned out on it of late.
The Runelords game originally started a couple of years ago, with a much heavier playing group. We had something like eight solid players at the time, most of whom have dwindled away or fallen out of touch until we ended up with just two men left standing at the end of it all. (This is also why we never got farther than module #3 of Kingmaker; we had seven players for that over the years, but they faded even worse. And there were never more than three players at any one time for that game, so it was a rotating cast with one or two regular characters.) The player attrition rate has been something to behold, in all truth. If I didn’t know better, I’d think we were doing something wrong.
Runelords, as we all know, was the first official product under the Pathfinder imprint. Paizo had done all manner of Gamemastery products beforehand, as well as Dragon and Dungeon Magazines, but the Pathfinder line marked their new license in light of the OGL and Wizards of the Coast revoking their right to publish the two magazines. Paizo had chosen to develop their own campaign setting with the Pathfinder line, and this was the start of a new Adventure Path under a new name. They’d done three solid ones in the issues of Dungeon, and this new product was to be exclusively working in this direction.
The set-up for Runelords is pretty basic. The characters are all townsfolk in a small town on the edge of nowhere. In proper D&D fashion, they dwell in a broken land surrounded by the ruins of a long dead civilization. (I have to think this is a convention directly cast from Tolkien’s mold, given that it seems to show up in nearly every campaign setting that has ever come along.) And naturally enough, the characters have little time to get acquainted with their home grounds before something awful comes to disrupt the peace. One thing leads to another, and in the space of a couple of encounters, they’re on their way to stranger locales to unravel larger conspiracies.
I like Runelords. It was a slick product when it first debuted, and I’d have to say that it has held up pretty well over the years, even if I questioned the pricing at the time. (To be honest, it’s still something of a money pit, overall, as the individual modules ran $20 at the outset and have recently jumped to $23. I’m glad Paizo has prospered over the years, but these aren’t a bargain by any stretch. And with my collection, I’m into them for about $1,500 in modules alone, to say nothing of the other supplements and hardbacks.)
But even as I profess my sappy adoration, I can’t say that the modules aren’t prone to … shall we say … unevenness. The tone tends to vary wildly between modules, and there are various parts that are either confusing or hilariously deadly for the party.
One thing that always bothered me was that the backstory of the town of Sandpoint kind of got shoved into the dark with the opening of the module. I’ve played the opening part of Burnt Offerings, the first module in the series, about three times over the years, due to different GM’s wanting to take a shot at it. In none of these runs through the first part of the adventure were any of the weird establishing events dealt with.
See, if you read into the module to any extent, the backstory talks about something the townsfolk term as ‘The Late Unpleasantness’ in conversation. This blanket term refers to three extremely important events that took place about five years before the start of the campaign, but there isn’t any easy way for the player characters to become aware of them over the course of play. And for what it’s worth, all three events are crucial to understanding why half of the weird shit that’s happening in Sandpoint is centered there.
In no particular order, there’s the fire that killed the village’s main cleric, destroyed the chapel and apparently killed the beloved half-celestial that lived in the town. There’s the apparent suicide of the wife of the richest man in town, who threw herself off a cliff onto the jagged rocks below. And there’s the eccentric and beloved wood-carver who ended up being a raving serial killer and adherent to dark and eldritch gods.
The module handwaves some of this as being ‘something that is not talked about’ as a reason for the characters to be unaware of what sort of hellish underpinnings are driving the plot forward, but as curious children in and around the small town environs, they’d have not only heard rumors and tales in passing; they’d likely have created their own new versions of the tales as rambunctious adolescents. I’d have loved to have seen a rumors table to flesh out some of this intricate and important background material, replete with distortions and lies, but instead the relevant parts of the plot that these events point to is left in the dark. When it finally is revealed, there’s no sense of having this new information shed light on the weirdness of their earlier lives. More to the point, the revelations are just confusing and weird, as the characters are told something that they’ve never heard about yet were expected to know.
Next time, I’ll look at the events of Burnt Offerings in closer detail, as well as talk about some of the characters that started the modules off for our group. Sadly, very few of them survive through to the fifth module, where we stalled the game at, mainly because the players themselves vanished.