Some time ago, I picked up the Anniversary Edition of Rise of the Runelords, the very first Pathfinder adventure path. It's 428 pages containing six modules, starting with Burnt Offerings. Over this Waitangi Day's weekend, I finally had the chance to sit down, kick my feet up, and start reading. I've only played Runelords as a card game (and not even all the way through yet). I do intend to run a group through the book eventually, even if I have to convert it to 5e, but until then this is just a review of my initial read-through.
Before they became purveyors of Pathfinder, the keeper of the flame for D&D 3rd edition, Paizo was publishing Dungeon, Dragon, and Polyhedron magazines. I was too poor in the early 2000s to afford the luxury of a magazine subscription, but when I visited the bookstore I'd always grab these magazines and flip through them, and they never failed to spark my imagination. And that's the breadth of knowledge and experience they brought with them when branching off to keep D&D 3.5, and the Open Game License itself, alive.
Nothing about Pathfinder or Runelords is amateur. Literally, they were both developed by a team with years of experience. But that didn't mean Runelords was necessarily destined to be one of their best adventures.
The Anniversary Edition doesn't exactly begin with the Burnt Offerings module. First, there's the obligatory Introduction, which provides a little context about why an "Anniversary Edition" is warranted, and what it contains. A few things have been added, a few minor things have been adjusted based on player feedback. Good to know, although you'll probably never notice unless you've run the originals.
I do feel there's a little bit of unnecessary humility in the introduction, though. There's no mention of the pedigree of Paizo or the authors who contributed to early Pathfinder. Then again, I guess it's not entirely necessary to brag once someone's already bought the book, and maybe that's what blogs are for, anyway.
In addition to contextualizing the book, the introduction also points the reader to a few important appendices that should be read prior to running the adventure.
Appendix Two provides details about Sandpoint, the location of the start of the first module. It's about 20 pages of history of the Lost Coast and the town of Sandpoint itself. A thoroughly engrossing read, the appendix sheds collateral light on the world of Golarion as a whole, just through casually mentioning, for instance, Cheliax or Varisia and their cultures. And it details Sandpoint building by building, providing every major structure with both purpose and proprietors. This is particularly important, as Sandpoint is the primary homebase and setting for the first module. Knowing Sandpoint well means players get to explore every corner of the town, meeting innumerable NPCs with lives and backstories and concerns and conflicts.
This is the kind of source book I love. It's a lot like the Saltmarsh chapter in the old DMG 2, in fact, and I used Saltmarsh as a homebase for a group with great success, because no matter where they went or what they were looking for, I had a consistent answer. For everyone they met, I had a story. However impractical it may seem at first, there's great comfort in having every detail about a fantasy town.
The next appendix provides an overview of Magnimar. Of course, Magnimar is a much larger place than Sandpoint (closer to Baldur's Gate or Waterdeep in Faerûn) so this appendix is nowhere near as complete as the Sandpoint one. Then again, the adventure path only visits Magnimar, the city isn't the main focus, so you can afford to have only a cursory knowledge of the city. And anyway, it's nice to have the overview just because Magnimar is the nearby big city, so it would be an important point of reference for the region.
I have run adventures in Magnimar, and I own and have read Campaign Setting: Magnimar, City of Monuments and highly recommend it, should you find yourself in need of more information about this influential city.
This is a quick look at the Hook Mountain region, including its primary settlement, Turtleback Ferry. Two maps of the region are provided: one for the settlement itself, and one for the mountains. Only a few buildings are discussed in detail, but there's a d12 table for rumours that could serve as diversionary adventure hooks.
New to the anniversary edition is Razmus, a chaotic-neutral hill giant that could be used as either an enemy or even an ally.
The city of Xin-Shalast was the capital of Shalast within the lost empire of Thassilon. It's ancient history by the time Burnt Offerings begins, but it plays a role in one of the latter modules of the adventure path, so reading this appendix is a good way to get the highlights of the setting. There's more to be found in the Campaign Setting: Lost Kingdoms source book, as well as the Inner Sea World Guide source book. I own both of these, as well, and recommend them.
There are yet more appendices, but those cover monsters and rules and magic items, and I haven't read them yet because I wanted to get into the first module. The appendices that cover settings reveal one thing, though, and that's the depth of available lore about the world of Golarion. Paizo's never been accused of not publishing enough, and while some people might look at that as overwhelming or gratuitous, I think this material demonstrates how it can be useful. When I'd finished reading the appendices, I felt like I'd visited Sandpoint, Turtleback Ferry, Magnimar, and the ruins of Xin-Shalast.
I know some Game Masters enjoy the thrill of inventing locations and NPCs at a moment's notice, but I'm pretty lazy when it comes to gaming. Knowing that when I run this adventure, my players will be visiting Sandpoint and the surrounding region every week over the course of several real-world months, I feel prepared to let them explore as much as they want to, and I know that it'll require no effort from me. That's why I buy these books, so in my view this preparatory material has provided exactly what I hope for in an adventure book: just the right amount of background material to make me feel comfortable in the setting. In this particular case, it's provides a little more than necessary, which I don't mind because it's divided into separate appendices, any one of which I can skip, in a pinch.
To that end, the required appendix, in my opinion, is the one on Sandpoint. You can treat the others as bonus information, or refresher courses if you're already well read on Golarion. Whatevery you choose to read, though, you'll be provided with a rich history and story of a highly detailed and nuanced fantasy world, and you'll be wel prepared to start an adventure on Golarion's mythical Lost Coast.