Thursday 17 June 2021

Condensation in Action 10: Wrath of the Righteous

Part 10 in an irregular series where I take bloated Pathfinder adventure paths and try to prune them into something more useful. Previous Condensation in Action posts can be found here:

Wrath of the Righteous was Paizo's attempt to write a high-level campaign. Normally their adventure paths top out at level 15, but this one goes all the way up to level 20, as well as awarding the PCs additional power boosts in the form of 'mythic tiers' along the way. If you think this sounds like a recipe for disaster, you'd be right. D&D has always had three basic tiers - levels 1-3 for scrappy underdogs, levels 4-8 for tough, capable fantasy heroes, and levels 9-14 for epic heroes and domain level play - and has tended to really struggle to imagine what adventures are supposed to look like beyond that point. (Tellingly, most of the original classic module series like Dragonlance and Queen of the Spiders topped out at level 14.) What are you meant to do once you've outleveled the dragon at the bottom of the dungeon?

Most of Wrath of the Righteous is very boring: just standard-issue dungeon crawling with much, much higher numbers. The situations quickly start to get ridiculous: the PCs are strong enough to take on dungeons full of demons by book 2, so all that books 3-6 can do is fill their dungeons with ever-bigger demons. One late-campaign dungeon has guards who are fourteenth-level demonic clerics made of locusts riding ancient black dragons. In any other campaign, just one of these guys would be a terrifying end-boss whose dark schemes threaten entire nations. In this one whole groups of them just sit around like glorified security guards, keeping an eye out for intruders and waiting for the over-levelled PCs to wander past and kill them all. 

This hexcrawl is what I was able to salvage. About half of it comes from the appendices rather than the adventures proper!

Context: This adventure takes place on a militarised frontier zone, where a crusading military order maintains a string of fortified settlements along the edges of a demon-haunted region of deserts and jungles, blighted by the release of unholy energies a century ago. (The order was founded in response to this event, and has had the same leader, Queen Galfrey, ever since.) Recently, stories have been emerging from the jungles of some kind of magical and/or industrial undertaking by the region's most prominent demon-cult, the Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth. Armies fare poorly in the jungles, and Queen Galfrey is in the market for a team of disposable, deniable scouts willing to brave the warped lands of the south and work out what's going on before it's too late...

A Note on the Military Situation: The land north of the jungles is notionally controlled by Queen Galfrey, though the border is porous, and beasts and cultists from the south sometimes slip across. The jungles are inhabited mostly by monsters and cultists, too few in number to meet the crusaders on the field of battle, but amply capable of whittling down military expeditions who enter their territory. Over the last century the crusaders have several times advanced as far as the southern coast and claimed 'victory', but the jungles are impossible to hold and they have always ended up retreating, leaving nothing but abandoned forts and temples in their wake.

Hexes are 12 miles across.

  • 0000: This broken-down old town is sinking into the swamps, and has been abandoned by all but its most misanthropic inhabitants, who are increasingly coming to resemble the toads that infest its rotting buildings. One among them is a master astrologer, an expert in predicting all kinds of ill-fortune, but the only thing he wants is to be left alone. If he could be persuaded to cooperate, his divinatory abilities would provide one way to navigate the ivory labyrinth at 0104.
  • 0001: This shadowy, bat-haunted town is run with psychopathic violence by its despotic governor, who has reduced its people to a state of abject terror. In truth, she, in turn, is a mere pawn of the cabal of vampires who secretly run the town, using its cowed inhabitants as food stock. The vampires are no friends to the Templars, whose victory would ruin their comfortable living arrangement, and could be convinced to ally with the PCs if they were persuaded that the threat against them was serious enough. (Such an alliance would, however, obviously need to be kept secret from the crusaders.)
  • 0002: In this tower lives a crazed cavalier, a defector from the crusades, who believes the victory of the demons is inevitable and hopes to win their favour and attention by committing random acts of pointless villainy. The townsfolk of 0001 hate and fear him, but their governor is in no hurry to apprehend him, as his depredations are a good excuse for all manner of restrictions and curfews.
  • 0003: A succubus lairs in this desecrated chapel. She is served by a band of charmed warriors - mostly ex-crusaders - who believe her to be a holy goddess, and will gladly lay down their lives in her service.
  • 0004: These mountains conceal a ruined and accursed city, among whose shattered buildings can be found an ancient library of stone tablets containing many secrets otherwise lost to the outside world, including maps of the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104 (which was built by the same vanished race who constructed this city). It has no guardians, but its curse afflicts all who discover it with psychotic and murderous jealousy, meaning that expeditions that stumble across it tend to self-destruct long before they bring word of it to the world beyond.
  • 0005: This blasted ash waste is the origin-point of the demonic taint that afflicts these lands. The earth here trembles with magical energy, and the air is full of demonic whispers. Anyone remaining here too long will be tainted in body, mind, and soul. 
  • 0006: The jungles here are roamed by a filth spirit who takes the form of a woman made of mud, rising from foul-smelling seepage of its rivers and caves. She is furious about the mining activities of the Templars in 0105, which are polluting 'her' waters with all kinds of weird magical run-offs, and will gladly assist in any efforts to shut them down. 
    • 0100: These marshy hills are collectively known as the Moonbog. They are dotted with huddled settlements, who live in fear of the werebeasts who roam the moors by night.
    • 0102: Hidden in these hills is a trap-filled dungeon of iron and stone - the stronghold of a cruel demon, the Razor Princess. She is served by a demonic murderer with the head of a stork, who abducts victims for her and drives them through her deathtrapped mazes so that their blood might lubricate her cruel machines.
    • 0103: The jungle here is roamed by a flayed, headless angel, once an ally of the crusaders, now a victim of the Templars. It attacks intruders with its still-blazing sword, its body continuously spurting gouts of boiling, sulpherous blood over anyone who comes too close.
    • 0104: Here stands the Ivory Labyrinth itself, a vast subterranean maze paved and walled with ancient bones. It is inhabited by primitive humanoids who have dwelt there for centuries, but who have recently been enslaved by the Templars, who have claimed the place as a site sacred to their demonic patron Baphomet. The labyrinth is very confusing, mostly due to the demonic magic that infuses it, and navigating it successfully is almost impossible without very good scouts (such as the Pitlings at 0401), magical aid (such as the Stalker's Crossbow from 0205 or the divinations of the astrologer at 0000), or a map (such as the one at 0004). The Templar leadership are all demoniacs, who willingly invite demonic spirits into their bodies, and spend most of their time in states of entranced spirit-possession. Their champion wields an enchanted golden scimitar, which once belonged to the wife of the antipaladin from 0404.
    • 0105: Here, deep in the jungles, the Templars have begun mining enchanted crystals from the magic-saturated earth. Their mine labourers are demonic minotaurs, who use their immense strength to hack their way through the rock. The more of these crystals they mine, the more demonic spirits their leaders will be able to call down into their bodies. If left unchecked for too long, they will become powerful enough to sweep away the crusaders once Queen Galfrey finally meets her death. 
    • 0107: Here a demonic sorcerer dwells with his herd of man-eating aurochs. He is notionally allied with the Templars, but is happy to turn a blind eye to visitors as long as they bring offerings of human flesh for his herd.
    • 0201: This manor house is home to a noble family, supposedly subjects of Queen Galfrey, but secretly loyal to the Templars. Building a labyrinth in their own home was a bit impractical, so instead they settled for a hedge maze, consecrated by unholy stone bull's heads buried beneath its corners. Unbelievers who try to navigate it find themselves becoming confused, their bodies growing heavy, their skin scratched by branches and opening in hundreds of tiny wounds that never, ever stop bleeding. By the time they reach the centre of the maze, where the family wait for them, they're ripe for slaughter.
    • 0204: This ruined temple is full of maggots that constantly squirm across its floor, spelling out heretical prayers with their writhing bodies. If intruders enter, the maggots twist themselves into the shape of unholy runes instead, blasting all those who gaze upon them. Beneath the temple are tunnels made from heaving, cancerous flesh, continuously fed upon by vermin. At their heart meditates an awful cleric made of locusts, the servant of an ancient demon lord of vermin. If he is still alive after the Templars are defeated, he will lay claim to their abandoned places of power and start calling forth horrible insect monsters, laying the foundations of a new demon-cult to replace them.
    • 0205: This Templar stronghold is guarded by obese naked undead armed with scythes, who have the power to cause bloody wounds to open upon all those they gaze upon. Within dwell a nest of cultists who have amputated their own feet and replaced them with enchanted brazen hooves, the better to resemble their demonic master. If their stronghold is invaded they attack in a kicking, trampling mob. One of them wields the Stalker's Crossbow, whose wielder will always be able to find the last person wounded by it.
    • 0302: This frontier camp is the current base of Queen Galfrey. Galfrey swore at the very start of the crusade to vanquish the demons or die trying: she is now over 100 years old, her life prolonged at crippling expense by alchemical means. Utterly weary of her life of endless warfare, she has developed a not-so-subtle death-wish, and has begun provoking new battles mostly in order to give herself a chance to die in them. (It hasn't worked yet because people with alchemically-enhanced bodies and a century of combat experience and are very difficult to kill.) Morale in the camp is low, as the soldiers resent being made to risk their lives in unnecessary battles. They have been secretly infiltrated by an agent of the Templars, Hosilla, who is here posing as a knight from a minor (and fictional) noble house. If the queen actually does manage to get herself killed, Hosilla will hasten back to the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104 and tell the Templars to call down as many demons as they can and strike as soon as possible, while the crusaders are still reeling from her loss. If the mine at 0105 has not been disabled yet, they will probably win. 
    • 0304: The trees here exude a sticky sap into the poisonous, swampy waters below. Anyone who ascends into the canopy is set upon by monstrous bird-creatures, who attack in screeching flocks
    • 0307: Here the jungle is torn open by vast rifts inhabited by warped and troglodytic humanoids, who roam ceaselessly searching for prey. 
    • 0401: This massively fortified clifftop city is the stronghold of the crusaders. The cliffs beneath are riddled with caves and tunnels inhabited by the 'pitlings', deformed descendants of the original crusaders who found their children were born warped by the weird energies to which they had been exposed during their campaigns. The people of the city regard the pitlings with scorn, but the pitlings still revere their warrior ancestors, guarding the graves of their crusader forebears and nurturing a pathetic loyalty to the state that rejected them. They are hardy and stealthy and can see in the dark, making them perfect scouts for any attack on the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104.  
    • 0404: The jungles here are inhabited by giant slugs and dire crocodiles. On its poisoned rivers floats an enchanted barge, pulled by a great skeletal serpent, and manned only by a freezing undead antipaladin as cold as his own frozen heart. He wields a terrible icy halberd, which freezes the blood of all those it wounds. He will curtly question all those who pass if they have seen his wife, who vanished into the Ivory Labyrinth years ago: anyone failing to give a useful answer will receive an icy death, instead. If touched or wounded by her scimitar (see 0104), his heart melts and all his unholy powers desert him.
    • 0405: Deep in these jungles lies a hidden chasm, apparently bottomless, whose walls are lined by the immense fossilised bodies of dead demon kings from ages past.
    • 0502: In this town, the people long ago started to adopt the talking animals that occasionally wandered from the forests, keeping them as pets and messengers. Unfortunately for them, the animals are demon-tainted and delight in defamation and slander, with the result that the whole town is now a tangle of feuds, scandals, and misplaced attempts at revenge. (In particular, everyone is convinced that their neighbours have something to do with all the children who have been going missing recently - in fact these have been taken by the inhabitants of the house at 0503, frequently with the connivance of the talking animals.) The people are highly resistant to the idea that their animal companions are anything other than loyal and adorable. 
    • 0503: High in these gloomy mountains stands a huge house in which kidnapped children tend to a great clockwork mechanism of obscure significance, guarded by cloaked, silent figures and clanking automata who hunt down any who try to escape. What, if anything, the machine actually does is deeply unclear.
    • 0504: A succubus inhabits this mansion, beset by besotted admirers longing for her favour or even acknowledgement. Most starve to death in her courtyards, or kill one another in desperate attempts to win her attention and prove their devotion. Only the most exceptional displays of talent or prowess will suffice to win an audience. 
    • 0600: This steep mountain valley echoes with distant, half-heard songs. (These come from a tragic ghost who haunts its slopes, but finding her is extremely difficult.) It leads to a smug little town, bright with mirrors and loud with bells, whose vain inhabitants are notionally loyal to the crusade but actually care nothing for the outside world. It would be a good source of mirrors with which to torment the rat-demon at 0603.
    • 0601: This town is a prison-colony, to which convicts are set from throughout Queen Galfrey's domain to work as slave labourers, mining gems from the hills. (These are the kingdom's most profitable export.) Because slaves are so much more profitable than corpses, many captured low-level demon cultists have been sent here, and their teachings are spreading covertly among the convicts. If the flow of gems from the mines was disrupted then the crusaders would soon be unable to afford Queen Galfrey's ruinously expensive life-extension potions, and she would wither and die within a year. 
    • 0603: This ruined town was built by the crusaders during one of their expansionist phases, only to be abandoned when the tides of war turned. Now it is infested by flocks of fiendish vultures, and roamed by a ghastly knife-wielding rat demon that hates and fears its own reflection. A band of mad knights camps nearby, utterly unreconciled to the town's abandonment and determined to reclaim it regardless of what it may cost them (or anyone else). 
    • 0604: This ruined shrine is inhabited by a deeply confused demon, who unwisely preyed upon a priestess of the goddess of dreams. The priestess linked their minds as she lay dying, and now the demon has a head full of someone else's emotions and memories and is having a massive identity crisis. She still has her demonic instincts towards cruelty, but her new human feelings mean that she feels revolted by them. If her newly human side was carefully nurtured she might be guided along a path of repentance, but any kind of severe stress will cause her to have a massive breakdown and start lashing out. 
    • 0605: Here a boiling river pours out of the mountains and runs through the jungle to the sea, terminating at a beach of powdered bone.
    • 0607: This graveyard island is surrounded by shipwrecks, driven upon its shores by the regular floods and hurricanes that beset it. It is the home of a powerful ghoul, the Coffin Groom, who feasts upon the drowned dead.
    • 0701: This ghost town was abandoned when its well ran dry. By night it is haunted by the walking corpses of the parched and vengeful dead. 
    • 0704: This desert is inhabited by gigantic scorpion-human hybrids, who know ancient spells capable of calling armies of mummified demons up from their crumbling tombs to do their bidding. They greatly predate the conflict between the crusaders and the Templars, but have been stirred up by the energies released at 0005. If the taint could be lifted from the land they would go back to sleep.


    1. These posts are a tremendous service. When I read them, I think "ah, there's good stuff in these Pathfinder books, maybe I could mine out some inspiration..." Then I try to read PF and find that A) So much dross! & B) you've already pulled out the good stuff anyway.

      I love it whenever a new one drops.

    2. Man, your work is awesome.

      'I don't like this adventure so I made a cool hexcrawl from it'


    3. This is a great material! After what you did, it's much more useful for normal campaign. Thank you.

      1. Thanks, all!

        This one has a particularly tenuous connection to the original. About half of the hexes come from the appendix to book 4, which describes various regions of the Abyss that don't actually appear in the adventure proper. Most of them made much better hexes than they did hells!

    4. Would you say that your adaption keeps the high leveled vibe of the original?

      1. No - I try to avoid 'high level only' content, as this drastically limits usefulness. It's deliberately written to be scaleable. Just turn the power levels of all the monsters up or down as required.

        The one adjustment it probably would need for high-level play is some way to deal with the fact that high-level parties often have easy access to flight. In this case I'd suggest extending the bird-creatures from 0304 to cover the entire jungle. Now the PCs *have* to slog through it, at least until they learn where things are!

      2. Makes sense. It does feel much more... Larger scale, still? Then many other adaptions you've done, but that feels neccessary to the setting, there's no easy way to do "small" demonic apocalypse invasions. I might drop this hexcrawl into the far dark corners of my sandbox (it'd be the second I'm stealing, since I'm plopping a modified version of your skulls and shackles hexcrawl smack dab in the middle of it)

        Thanks again for these!

    5. Minor point: in 5th Ed the tiers are in slightly different places, or at least meant to be - there are noticeable jumps in power for most classes at levels 5, 11 and 17, explicitly designed in, rather than implicit ones around 4 and 9.

      Even in earlier editions, it always felt to me as though the important levels in terms of changes of tone were the odd ones, when new spell levels came into play - I'd put the jump from scrappy underdogs to capable heroes at level 3, or conceivably level 5, but probably not level 4.

      1. I'll happily believe you about 5th - I've never read the rulebooks. I did notice that the early 5th Edition adventure books went up to level 15, but the more recent ones have mostly topped out in the 10-12 range. This makes me suspect that level 15+ play is very rare in practise, just as it always was in earlier editions.

        I agree that in most (all?) editions, more changes mechanically when you go from 4-5 than when you go from 3-4. My actual play experience has been that level 3 characters usually still *feel* fragile in a way that level 4 characters don't - in early editions they often have few enough HP to be randomly one-shotted by an unlucky hit - but I've never played 4th or 5th, so this may have changed. I have noticed that, for all editions of the game, adventures that want to stay grounded in something close to reality are usually written for levels 1-3.

        I'd also note that Basic D&D was written for levels 1-3 - level 4 was when you moved onto Expert and finally got out of the dungeon!

    6. This looks like an interesting hexcrawl. I don't know much about the AP for this one, since I was avoiding anything that interacted with the mythic rules (my opinion then and now was that anything derived from 3.x didn't need more power creep).

      The only APs I still have are Kingmaker and Skull & Shackles, which (IMO) were the closest to being sandboxes out of the ones I owned.

      1. I honestly can't recommend the original AP unless you really love mashing giant Pathfinder statblocks together. Some of the imagery in book 4 and its appendices is pretty good - they were the source of most of this hexcrawl - but the power levels are loopy.

    7. did you have an opportunity to take a look at the some of the newer APs like the extinction curse. i kinda like the idea of PCs being circus performers involuntarily involved in an apocalyptic plot.

      1. I read most of these during an adventure-reading binge several years ago, unfortunately - the most recent one I've read was Giantslayer. I haven't read any of the last dozen or so.

    8. I love your breakdown of this adventure, but I wonder if you have what each of the encounters was called be3fore you remade them. I want to adapt them into a game I am already running, and besides the maps, it would be good to potentially pull more inspiration.

      1. I'm not sure I follow, here. By 'what each of the encounters was called' do you mean what the names of the original monsters were?

    9. I love when you post those condensed things. Please keep them up!