Review: Emerald Spire

The latest release in the Pathfinder Modules product line is something a little extra special: the Emerald Spire Superdungeon. This 159-page book covers sixteen dungeon levels, details a nearby town, and takes a party of adventurers from 1st level to 13th level.

What Is It?

Emerald Spire is the first Pathfinder superdungeon. There have long been requests by fans of dungeon crawls for a larger-than-average dungeon, but Paizo never felt able to do this with either the Adventure Paths (which have to stand alone) or the module line (previously too short). Then came the second Pathfinder Online Kickstarter, attempting to raise extra funds for the forthcoming sandbox MMO. Paizo had already published the book Thornkeep as a reward for PFO’s first Kickstarter, establishing the precedent of supplementing/subsidizing Kickstarters with RPG products. This meant there was the opportunity to do something extra special to encourage gamers to pledge funds.PZO9545_500

The hook of the dungeon was each level would be written by a different author, and as the Kickstarter raised more funds more authors would be added. The book would be written by a number of Paizo staff supplemented by a who’s who of past game designers. A couple planned authors ended up dropping out, so the final book is written by Keith Baker, Rich Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Jason Bulmahn, Ed Greenwood, Tim Hitchcock, James Jacobs, Nicolas Logue, Erik Mona, Frank Mentzer, Chris Pramas, Sean K Reynolds, F. Wesley Schneider, Michael A. Stackpole, Lisa Stevens, and James L. Sutter.

The Cool

There’s something ineffably awesome about a book partially written by Ed “Forgotten Realms” Greenwood, Frank “Red Box” Mentzer, Keith “Eberron” Baker, Chris “Green Ronin” Prama, and Wolfgang “Kobold Press” Baur. In addition to the CEO of Paizo (Lisa Stevens) and the creator the Pathfinder RPG (Jason Bulmahn) and the creative forces behind the campaign setting of Golarion (James Jacobs and Erik Mona).

There’s also a lot of cross support. Paizo is doing its usual excellent job of releasing companion products, including a deck of Campaign Cards and a Flip-Mat Map Pack. The Campaign Cards are similar to the decks released for the last few Modules and Adventure Paths, and includes a deck of 53 cards containing items from the adventure, Face cards of various NPCs, and Quest cards summarizing important missions. The Flip-Mats set is more impressive, being eight double-sided flip maps covering every layer of the dungeon. The entire dungeon is pre-mapped!

For those fans of Paizo world of Golarion there’s another surprise: a heretofore unrevealed secret! Golarion has a series of underground vaults that are essentially magical wildlife preserves ( inspired by pulp stories and Hollow World tales, such as Journey to the Center of the Earth). While they filled the same niche as the Underdark of other campaign worlds, these Vaults had a mysterious origin having been created by an unknown race who once warred with the aboleths. The Emerald Spire reveals the identity of these mysterious Vault Builders.

The Good

First off, the presentation is excellent. The book features all new art and looks good. It’s not quite as drool worthy as Inner Sea Gods but the book has high production values. The layout is clean and it’s easy to find information.

Each dungeon level has consistent formatting with a full map followed by a page with flavour text and an introduction of the level. The third page features a sidebar explaining some key features of the dungeon layer, such as doors, ceiling height, lighting, etc. This is excellent and I wish most dungeons crawls would make use of that style: too often I’m left wondering if the ceiling is 10 feet or thirty feet high or if that particular level is well lit or pitchblack.

 

The dungeon is really diverse. Many dungeons – especially mega-dungeons – get a little samey, having the same rough tone and execution: the same types of monsters, the same architecture, and same level design. There might be a varying room or two but the majority is familiar for reasons of consistency. The Emerald Spire doesn’t even try for consistency; a steady design would have been impossible with sixteen different authors, nine of them freelancers. There’s a flooded level, a magma level, an overgrown garden, a machine shop, and more.

Similarly, not all layers are just kick-down-the-door combats. Some levels have the opportunity for some roleplaying and interaction. Two or three layers have the PCs choosing a side to support in that level’s conflict. One level could even serve as a headquarters for the party as they adventure deeper.

There’s a small element of non-linear play to the dungeon. At several opportunities PCs are given the chance to skip a level, ignoring a door or using a token to travel to a deeper layer. This adds a slight feeling of old school exploration to the dungeon, where players just pick a wing or area to explore: there is not a set order to the exploration that must be upheld, there are no rails for the dungeon.

The book presents a lengthy background describing the dungeon, with much of it focusing on an Azlanti expatriate that features heavily in the lore. He’s not quite the Big Bad of the dungeon, but he’s presented as such for most of the expedition. The history is accompanies by a very cool cross section of the dungeon showing the height difference of the various levels, as well as some side passages. This is actually pretty useful and evocative, showing just how deep things get while also countering the mental image of the dungeon being shaped like an inverted sixteen-story office building.  Although, looking at the cross section does not give the full scope of the dungeon’s depth; at two miles, the spire is four times the height of the tallest building in the world, and a little under half the height of Mount Everest.

The book describes the small city of Fort Inevitable, created as one of the starting areas for the MMO. This is a decent starting town, with lots of potential for side quests and adventure hooks, but not so much content that GMs have to use the city or cannot move the Spire elsewhere. There’s some excellent conflict in the city, tension between the ruling Hellknights and an underground resistance movement. The players could support either faction or freely decide to ignore the struggle. Heck, as the adventure is close to the city of Thornkeep, GMs could choose to set it there and forgo Fort Inevitable altogether.

Speaking of Thornkeep, the adventure has some ties to that product, referencing organizations from that town. But the references are largely self-contained, so Thornkeep is not required to play Emerald Spire. But it’s a nice nod to the earlier product and the fact the dungeon is equidistant from both settlements.

One final point is the new monsters. With so many monsters available for use, the new creatures here seem a little superfluous (save two). However, these are based on repainted minis provided to Kickstarter backers, exclusive figures for the Kickstarter. Including new statistics for these figures is a neat perk, as is incorporating them into the adventure.

The Bad

The largest problems with Emerald Spire are structural. Because it was written by sixteen people who only somewhat coordinated their efforts, each of the dungeon levels feel unrelated and do not PZO30059_500connect well. There are two layers that have similar inhabitants (snake people) but the actual layers are independent of each other. There’s no cohesive story or sense of progress beyond getting deeper underground.

In more than a few cases it’s unclear why the inhabitants of a layer are unaware of others, or have no interaction with people above or below. Neither the rogues inhabiting level 3 nor the troglodytes of level 4 seem to expand their territory and the morlocks curiously don’t overrun the serpent people’s layers. The most glaring example is the Hellknight expedition, a party of former adventures who delved deep into the dungeon before dying but left no mark or sign of passage.

There’s a few odd omissions to the product. First, there’s no overland map of the surrounding terrain, a curious oversight as one was created for Thornkeep. There are also no guidelines for expected levels, requiring GMs to eyeball the Challenge Ratings of encounters to decide if their party is ready for a level or needs a couple random encounters first. And while there is some roleplaying and lots of combat there are precious few puzzles or areas that require creative thought or ingenuity. This last criticism is fairly standard of modern adventures in general, but d20/Paizo in particular; skills and the need for codification have reduced problem solving to chucking dice.

Speaking of problems tied to the game system, Pathfinder and 3e have the associated catch of assumed character wealth: magic items are assumed for power level. However, there are only a couple small cities nearby the dungeon, making selling the substantial treasure accrued at higher levels much trickier. There is also no spellcasters nearby able to cast spells like raise dead making death rather permanent in the campaign until the PCs can handle it themselves.

Unlike Adventure Paths, there is no Player’s Guide supporting the product. Modules do not typically need a Player’s Guide but an adventure covering 13 levels of content – likely an entire campaign – needs some suggestions on character creation. Player motivations might be a little problematic for the adventure, as there are fewer overt goals beyond exploring and completing the quests.

The Emerald Spire also feels a little tacked-on to the campaign setting. There are no shortage of established super dungeons that could have been detailed, places people have heavily requested such as the Test of the Starstone, Gallowspire, and other locales. The reason it’s the Spire is because it’s set in the same area as Pathfinder Online (and the exteriour will be featured in the game). Similarly, the revelation of the Vault Builders falls a little flat, as they’re a new monster. Their nature is a revelation, but it is not a twist on an established race.

The Ugly

I praised Paizo’s cross support, but this is very much a mixed blessing.

The use of the Campaign Cards feels a tad forced, with the quests in the book very obviously tied to the cards. The missions are less organic and more, well, like a video game: the PCs pass through a certain area or talk with someone and a just gain a quest. Cards and a quest log can be a useful reminder for goals, both long-term and short – there is a reason video games use them – but some are a little more forced. And there is a LOT of experience tied to the quests in the dungeon, and it often feels like padding.

The Flip-Mats are also a bonus feature with liabilities. With all visible rooms required to fit on the Mats, secret passages are often a little too obvious and visible. Managing the “fog of war” will also be challenging with the entire map potentially visible on the table. GMs will need to develop some strategies for covering and revealing details.

The size of the maps is also problematic, as the entire dungeon has to fit on a single poster. A few layers seem to have been compressed to fit, with entire settlements squished into an area the size of a city block. A few layers have opposing factions, but because of the size each faction is comprised of a half-dozen individuals. It’s a shame more maps couldn’t have described passages and chambers beyond the borders of the map, where conveniently no combat occurs or only non-combative creatures live.

A lesser annoyance is repeated use of the new monsters. As mentioned earlier, the book contains new monsters based on repainted Pathfinder Battles minis. But some dungeon layers use multiples of the same monster, monsters whose minis are going to be particularly difficult to acquire elsewhere. But this is mostly a problem for 4500 people who are receiving the minis.

TL;DR

The Emerald Spire is certainly a cool idea for a product: lots of Name authors collaborating and making a unique product. And lots of people like a good extended dungeon crawl. The Emerald Spire will certainly keep people occupied for a year of twice-monthly delving.

But the product is inconsistent and is very episodic. For a group of players meeting for long sessions of delving, each layer could be a single session. The superdugeon might feel like a long series of Pathfinder Society  dungeons. There’s a little foreshadowing and some suggestions of a larger menace, but for the most part the PCs just kick in the door of a level and fight their way to the next staircase down.

Thankfully, the problems of the adventure are nothing a skilled GM cannot overcome. Knowing that the menace of the “Crowned Skull” needs to be emphasised and reiterated, the provided random encounter table can be used. Signs of former expeditions and passage can also be added, suggesting the Hellknight’s previous delves. The GM can also add as much motivation for their players as required, adding extra quests and problems (although, as these will lack a card, they’ll be a little more obvious).

–Addendum–

The Order of Amber Dice did a marathon playthrough of the entire Super Adventure over the course of a month. If you’re planning on running the Adventure and want some advice, they have some good feedback. Because the best reviews of an adventure will always come from people who actually played it.