Review of Runelords

Burnt Offerings Anniversary Edition

gaming modules rpg pathfinder dnd

I picked up the Anniversary Edition of Rise of the Runelords, the very first Pathfinder adventure path. This is my review of the first module, Burnt Offerings.

Swallowtail festival

If you've played enough starter Paizo adventure paths, you may recognise the opening formula. The players find their characters in Sandpoint at the start of a local festival. This one's called the Swallowtail Festival, and like the Hopeknife Ceremony or the Quest of the Everflame ceremony, it serves as a gentle and jovial way to get players comfortable and familiar with the town. Depending on the curiousity of the players or the improv talents of the Game Master, this could probably go on for a full session. It's a festival, and Sandpoint is painstakingly mapped out in an appendix, so there's plenty of character and B-plot story development that could happen before the module properly begins.

From the card game, though, I already knew what was coming, and it happens early in the module whether it happens at the end of your first session or several sessions in. Goblins attack, and not just a few. It's a full raid consisting of a whole horde of what has now become uniquely Pathfinder-flavoured goblins.

Goblins in Pathfinder

The Anniversary Edition provides a little insight into the development of goblins for Pathfinder. It seems they were developed specifically for this adventure path by author James Jacobs, with several specific traits that were never in the D&D Monster Manual. Pathfinder goblins are a sort of dark-universe version of AD&D tinker Gnomes, but with heads, (canonically, it's not just in the artwork) the shape of a rugby ball. They're overly fond of fire, they hate horses and ride around on dogs, and they're vicious killers except when they're too uncoordinated to inflict harm on anyone but themselves or each other.

A warparty of goblins would normally outnumber and overpower a group of 1st-level characters, but of course the goblins aren't just after the PCs. They're ravaging the entire town and everyone at the Swallowtail Festival, so the player characters are able to perform acts of heroism for a few notable citizens, thereby tidily making a name for themselves.

It's an elegant way to establish a reputation for the PCs early on, which in itself serves as an excuse for them being asked for help with the rest of the module's trials.

Alliances, betrayals, and conspiracies

It turns out there's more to goblins attacking Sandpoint than goblin restlessness or greed. They were't acting alone, as it turns out, and it's up to the player characters to learn what drove them to attack when they attacked, and why it seemed to be an, arguably overzealous, diversion for the exhumation of a local priest.

There are lots of moving parts to this story, and as is often the case in the story of an RPG being generated from the player characters's points of view, a lot of it has either already happened by the time the game begins, or it happens "off screen". Players will be able to piece together some of it through clues and NPC dialogue, but I think a major task for the Game Master is to keep the story straight and to make sure it gets relayed to the players in time.

I think that's secretly one of the hardest parts about running a D&D game, in fact. There's so much story that the Game Master knows but that players never discover, either because they only arrive for the aftermath, or hundreds of years after the event, or they miss it entirely for want of hurrying to the next important plot point. Short of pausing the game and explaining the fascinating backstory to players once you think it won't affect the game for them to know, it can be difficult to work history and hidden events into the story being created through gameplay. I wish modules could help with the delivery, but I don't know that they can map out backstory reveals, because different gaming groups experience the story in a sometimes unexpected order.

This module does the best it can with backstories, I think, by telling big chunks of history for the Game Master to digest before starting the game, and then small snippets of stories within each location. In fact, the small stories are just as effective as world lore. Some dead goblins in an arena, for instance, can lead to the discovery of the prize warhorse that stomped their heads in. It's a tiny story, just a moment in a day of a returning raiding party of goblins, but it gives players puzzle pieces to connect for a larger story. With a little effort, the Game Msater can reveal the even larger story through little history lessons provided through dialogue or, when necessary, the old reliable journal entries.

Strong start

Burnt Offerings is a strong module. It balances a relatively unstructured city-based investigation with "dungeon" crawls (sometimes the dungeons are just buildings or encampments, but they're functionally a dungeon). This serves not only as a change of pace for players, but also adds variation to what the Game Master has to plan for (there's usually less planning and thinking required of a Game Master for a dungeon crawl). The story is a little complex, but it adds up in the end, which isn't always the case in a module. As is often the case in a Paizo adventure path, this module is mostly self-contained. You could skip this module and start players (provided they're at the appropriate level) with the next chapter without issue. There's a link from this chapter to the next, so the modules fit nicely together, and all the clues ultimately do point to the same Big Bad, but there's flexibility.

This isn't just a fun module, it's a strong start to a great adventure.

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