A first look back at Burnt Offerings
If I could think of a snappy title for this, I’d run with it. Alas, we’re going to have to settle for something a little more in the ‘what you see is what you get’ territory of things. We’ll see where things end up with the other modules in the series, if I get any more imaginative with the titling.
When we settled down to play Runelords, it was something of a consensus vote on most of our parts. The GM had been sitting on the modules for a couple of years, and for my part, I’d been interested enough in the Adventure Path to have gotten into a couple of other GM’s abortive attempts to gin up interest. A couple of the other players were less proactive about it, but there was enough interest overall to throw a group together. I hadn’t been driven to run the modules myself, as there were other series that I’d wanted to try first, but it was a good chance to play and see how these early efforts conducted themselves.
As previously noted, the module doesn’t really concern itself with illuminating the characters with the background that seems necessary for having grown up in the Sandpoint environs. Even looking over the revised edition that they published in the 5th Anniversary hardcover, there isn’t anything really bring people up to speed. The official Player’s Guide for the new edition is extremely helpful in serving as the general gazetteer for the entire region of Varisia, but beyond a map for Sandpoint, there’s not much that’s going to fill in these needed gaps.
The module itself starts off with the Swallowtail Festival, a local celebration paying homage to the goddess of dreams, Desna. The original module actually covers this in a little more detail than the revised version does. Since the original was setting up the entire campaign world for players and GM’s new to Golarion, there was a bit more text devoted to explaining this new material. The Anniversary Edition feels more like there’s an expectation that the GM is already familiar with these details.
The module goes over the timeline of the festival, offering general details that the players can follow up on as part of a small town autumn festival. And then the goblins attack.
Even reading over the module now, I’m not sure what tone I would try to invoke with this scene. The goblins are set up as being largely comical, even as they’re eviscerating dogs and trying to drag off small children and pets to eat. They loudly sing what amounts to being a nursery rhyme, and the module encourages the GM to play up their general incompetence over the course of the encounters. They’ve come in to disrupt the festival on the orders of a much more subtle villain, and being goblins, they largely pose no threat to the assembled adventurers. And at the same time, there are notes of what sort of atrocities they’re capable of. A later scripted encounter has one of the goblins that managed to slip away during the commotion serve as the ‘monster in the closet’ for one of the local Sandpoint children. When the PC’s show up to investigate, they find the child’s father also attempted to deal with it, and they pull his half-eaten corpse out of the closet.
There’s a lot of mood whiplash to be found in this adventure.
And for my purposes, I’m not really sure what I would do with all of it. This sort of uneven tone persists through the early modules, and it only shifts towards more direct horror towards the latter half of the series. (That’s assuming that it wasn’t just a case of our GM trying to chip away at the odd whimsy for our sake. Which is entirely possible.) There’s a sidebar in the original printing of Burnt Offerings that suggests that the ‘monster in the closet’ scenario may be a bit depressing for players to deal with, but this is well after the lavish details about how the goblin attacked the child, burned its cat to death, and murdered the family dog. So, a case may already be made that the damage is likely to already have been done for scarring the players. The goblins are meant to be comic relief up to the point that they are meant to be outright traumatizing.
And this isn’t going into how an interesting NPC is developed in the module, only to serve as weirdly tragic villain in the second module in the path. As far as one of the characters in our group was concerned, that entire scenario was a defining moment of awfulness. Then the third module touches on cannibalism and rape. In an oddly comic manner as well. It’s a bit strange, all the way around.
But before I forget, I should probably detail some of the characters in our local group. They served to define a lot of things for the module path, even if most of them vanished over the course of play.
My own character was an extremely pious young Priestess of Desna. She was a variation of a Summoner that I’d tried to play in one of the earlier iterations of the campaign with a different GM. I’d built her to bounce off another friend of mine, as the childhood friends that denied there was anything romantic between them, even though the rest of the town pretty well assumed they’d end up married. It was a basic sort of set-up, and the other guy ran with it.
The weird thing was that when I rebuilt the character for a new group, the other player ( a different person) was far too self-absorbed, both in character and out, to make any sense of this idea. He’d built a Sorcerer, and the two had a shared background as being essentially adopted by the local innkeeper. My character served as brewmeister, and his character was the cook. (The Priestess’ fondness for brewing was a character trait that I grimly held to, improving her skill with every level. Not that the GM did anything to encourage this or even work it into the story, sadly.) But the nascent tension was sort of killed off as the Sorcerer ended up blithely ignoring everything to chase after most of the other girls in the town. And knowing the player as I did, this was a strange form of wish fulfillment on his part. It was a little unsettling to watch, really.
The Sorcerer had a Ranger brother, whose patron came in the form of the local stablemaster. The original intent was to have him tag along with the Sheriff, but somewhere along the way the character delved into extreme levels of pure hatred for goblins. Like ‘exterminate all goblins’ levels of obsession. The other players started joking about just what sort of insanity had to run in their family for the particular madnesses that we started seeing crop up.
One player made a Witch, which had the unfortunate effect of making me loathe the class as a whole. I’d built my Priestess on the idea of the twinned Luck and Chaos effects of being a follower of Desna. Roughly, this meant that I could imbue an ally with the ability to roll twice and pick the better of the two rolls. And with a touch, I could do the inverse with an enemy. It was a neat little ability that augmented the character and helped define her.
The thing was, it required that I touch the creature in question, the effect lasted for a single round, and there were a limited amount of times that they could be used in a given day. A Witch has access to the same abilities as hexes, which meant that they were wholly at-will throughout the day, didn’t require touch, and with the application of the Cackle Hex, they could persist pretty much forever. In comparison, the abilities that I had selected as part of my overall build were pretty weak and limited.
From there, we had an Alchemist whose player made a point of reading the module before he sat down to play (big surprise, it didn’t take long for him to get bounced from the group), a fairly flavorless Rogue that was killed off in short order, and a Druid that showed up halfway into the module. While the Druid was one of the lasting characters in the modules’ run, he’ll be detailed later.