The Final Act of Burnt Offerings
The last part of Burnt Offerings takes place in the head of an ancient statue that’s half-sunk into the Varisian Gulf and inhabited mainly by goblins and ancient evils. As dungeons go, it’s actually pretty neat, given that its history dates back to the era of the fallen nation that once ruled the region. It’s also sort of frustrating, in that none of this info is likely to pass to the players.
In any given Paizo module, there’s a good chance that locations and NPC’s will be given vast amounts of engaging history and backstory, little of which ever filters down to the characters that are moving through the area. The most egregious example of this was probably in the first module of Kingmaker, where the bandit leader that your group is likely to kill off in the beginning of the adventure is given motivation and characterization about why he came to the uncharted lands that serve as the setting. It’s really interesting and very, very wasted.
The dungeon of Thistletop lies some six miles from Sandpoint, and despite its proximity and probable use as some sort of navigational aid to passing sailors, even the GM is given the indication that the player characters will have never heard of the place. Also, oddly, it’s assumed that the characters will make their way to the dungeon by foot, despite the abundant coastline and assumed access to boats. For a seaport town, there’s never any mention of the actual seaport aspect of Sandpoint beyond the single mention of smugglers in regards to the glassworks tunnels. Do with that what you will.
Getting to the actual dungeon requires an overland journey, followed by a labyrinthine sort of maze through tangled briars and nettles. There’s an encounter with a goblin Druid who can be questioned if he survives meeting the PC’s, and a pit that leads to a Bunyip’s sea cave. The most interesting thing about the entire area is the notation of the Druid using Lesser Restoration as a fantasy version of Red Bull. This shows up in the Carrion Crown Adventure Path as well, since it seems to be a favorite amongst Paizo writers. Personally, I had never thought about the addictive nature of divine spells, but I guess you do what you have to.
Thistletop is divided into three levels, both in terms of elevation and thematically. The uppermost level houses the goblin tribe, including Chief Ripnugget (every now and again, I have to question if this is a thinly veiled scatological joke on the part of James Jacobs; I’m pretty sure it is). Once again, the goblins are played mostly for laughs, even though they’re up to their usual awfulness with seagull torture and attempted horse murder. Below that are the various humans and demi-humans that have drifted into Thistletop for one reason or another. This includes Nualia, whose confrontation in the Thistletop Shrine to Lamashtu ended up being somewhat anti-climactic for reasons that I’ve gone over before. Being that myself and another player had run through Legacy of Fire, we had no patience with cultists of Lamashtu anyway and killed her before she had much chance to do anything interesting.
On this particular level, there’s an interesting sort of optional encounter that the GM is encouraged to add in as he chooses. One of the rooms houses a number of small and filthy cages, empty by default unless the GM chooses to add another layer of madness to the dungeon. Apparently the goblin methodology for raising children has them ‘toughen’ them up through basic neglect and abuse. When we ran through the module as players, the GM described the room as having what amounted to a poorly constructed rabbit hutch against one wall, each cage holding a feral goblin child inside. The idea was that this was supposed to confront the characters with some sort of awkward moral choice as to what to do with this situation.
Our characters silently looked at each other, carted the cages up to the top level and threw the whole lot off the cliffs onto the rocks below.
Like so many encounters in this module, I’m not really sure what was expected of the characters. They’d seen all of the various atrocities that the goblins were capable of, and they’d had to deal with the murderous parents of these goblin children all throughout the dungeon. There was no sympathy left for these creatures, and if there had been, there was no logic as to what was expected of the characters anyway. It wasn’t like they were going to bring them back to Sandpoint to raise, and I have serious doubts as to whether there was an orphanage in all of Golarion that would want to deal with them.
The best I can figure is that this would be a contrived chance to earn some Wrath points, but even then, there was a sort of cold logic to the proceedings that obviated any actual anger. The best we had was the Ranger that had taken Goblins as his Favored Enemy, at which point it starts to call into question the morality of being a Ranger in the first place. While interesting, I’m not really sure that this Adventure Path was the best place to delve into those sorts of questions.
The lowest level of the dungeon houses the two encounters that nearly ended up killing our entire group. One of them was just weird happenstance, as it revolved around fighting a rather massive hermit crab in the water, and none of our group had a good solution of how to best deal with this. We ended up with the Druid and the Ranger trying to kill it while being beaten senseless by it, while my Priestess stayed on shore and dumped as many Channels into the area as she could. We came out of it exhausted and nearly dead, but even a narrow victory is better than nothing, right?
The other encounter was the startlingly difficult one, where our group was faced off against the strange elder evil that was currently manipulating Nualia. According to the module’s text, the Greater Barghest, Malfeshnekor, had been imprisoned in the dungeons below Thistletop since before the fall of ancient Thassilonia. This puts him at some age around 10,000 years, as that’s the go-to dating of the fallen empire. Since the empire collapsed, he’s been stuck in the dungeon, waiting for someone to release him, with only the occasioned communications with the faithful of his goddess Lamashtu. Recently, of course, he’s been manipulating Nualia to his own ends.
There’s a Quasit lurking in the Shrine to Lamashtu under Sandpoint that has spent her time similarly manipulating our feckless anti-heroine. None of this is ever revealed to the player characters.
Suffice to say that the CR7 Barghest beat us like so many drums. We managed some sort of trickery to distract him and dumped every available ranged attack on him once we realized that he couldn’t leave the room we’d found him in. It was a hard-fought victory, and looking back on it now, I’m not entirely sure how we dealt with him.
What I do know is that he was a lot more of a danger, and as such, that fight sticks in my memory much more than the theoretically cinematic battle that we faced with Nualia, who was the main instigator for the bulk of the module. Not that we had any idea of this really. And given what we little we knew about Malfeshnekor, he was just another truly awful monster that was lurking in a room. Our main reason for trying to kill him wasn’t revenge or anything actually interesting; he was something too powerful to chance letting out on the world.
So all in all, it was a strange module.
We had no idea why anything was going on, save for the members of our party (like the aforementioned Ranger) who wanted to remove the goblin threat once and for all. In some ways, Sandpoint is treated as having a collective sort of ‘fortress mentality’, where everyone’s safe so long as they never venture outside of the city walls. When we got done, it felt like our characters had suffered some sort of goblin-based PTSD, given the horrors we’d endured, especially with the numbed response we’d come to have any time we encountered something newly terrible at their hands. It makes the strange comedic glints of their whimsical incompetence seem starkly at odds with the viciousness that they proved capable of.
Once Thistletop was cleared of goblins and other terrible things, our characters set about civilizing the area a little bit more, convincing the Sheriff of Sandpoint to make it an outlying guard post. In the mean time, my Priestess had set up a brewery in the basement, being that one of the rooms has ancient magic that hosted eternally burning flames that could be used in the brewing process. She was, after all, a brewmeister by trade. With the various Shrines to Lamashtu re-consecrated to Desna (or Sarenrae, given the usual requirement for open sky with Desna), there was an attempt to eradicate the foulness that had propelled the events of the module. As far as our beleaguered characters were concerned, we’d eliminated the worst threat the area had seen in a long time and could retire back to our former lives, dull as they were.
Naturally, this was not to be the case.