I picked up the Anniversary Edition of Rise of the Runelords, the very first Pathfinder adventure path. This is my review of the fourth module, Fortress of the Stone Giants.
This is an exciting and brutal ending to an exciting adventure path. The plot is simple: get to the tippy-top of a mountain to find Xin-Shalast so you can kill the evil Runelord. Accomplishing that apparently straight-forward goal, however, takes some doing.
As is often the case for me, by the time I finished reading the previous module and started reading this one a day later, I'd already forgotten how the two connect. For the life of me, I can't remember why the players had to find the Runeforge, nor what they found there that would lead them to their hunt for Xin-Shalast. I trust Paizo enough to believe that there is a connection, but I do wish sometimes that these adventures would just have a flowchart of major plot points to help the forgetful DM.
In the first part of this module, the story is put on pause while players rummage through the snowy banks of Kodar mountains in search for two long lost dwarven miners. As it turns out, these two dwarves had stumbled upon the secret to finding Xin-Shalast, so players must either find them or, because this is an RPG, find some journal pages they left behind when they inevitably met their grisly demise.
This section takes up a good 15 pages, and it's one of the most intriguing stories embedded within the adventure. Maybe I'm biased because I currently live in an old mining town, or maybe my childhood affinity for Oregon Trail has influenced me, but I found this third of the module is really strong. I think it's easily strong enough to be played as a one-shot, with the ultimate prize being a stash of treasure or something definitive like that.
Of course, in this adventure it's but the first step toward the final showdown, and it's a great start.
Once the players are put on the right path, they find themselves journeying through mountain passes in search for a planar rift. It's odd that this occurs here, because in the previous chapter there's the exact same story beat. I was underwhelmed with how the previous module handled it, but the second time's the charm. There's an encounter with a mysterious ice nymph with an unexpected callback to a previous NPC, and there are frost giant sentinels. It's plenty of material to propel the players through the mountains.
When the players arrive at their destination, they find that their destination is a lot bigger than they probably expected. Xin-Shalast is a big city. In terms of the map size, it's a Neverwinter size. To make matters worse, there are lamias and giants living in the region, all of whom have sworn allegiance to the runelord. The player's aren't exactly in an enemy camp, because the forces aren't yet that organised, but it's definitely enemy territory, and there's an ever-present danger of stumbling into a life or death encounter.
The city map of Xin-Shalast is big but there are only a few key locations, so it's easy to manage. If you're going to run this adventure, though, you'll probably want to have a generic city cheatsheet, or whatever you use to keep realistic locations fresh in your mind. It's an ancient city, of course, so the buildings are all abandoned and they can be as well-preserved or as devastated as you please, but either way it can serve as a rich environment for your players to explore.
And surprise! Even though it's been languishing for 10,000 years, there are plenty of stories within Xin-Shalast for players to discover. There's an ancient race known as "The Spared" who have been enslaved by a vampiric entity, there are giants slowly organising forces in anticipation of the runelord's awakening, there are ranks of abominable snowmen, scarlet walkers, a dragon, and more.
And there's no sign of the runelord yet. It's maddening, and it'll drive your players nuts.
It gets better.
The final (actually not final) destination is the "Pinnacle of Avarice", a tall tower where the runelord is awakening. I'll admit that I don't exactly remember how the players are supposed to figure this out. It may be that it's just sort of obvious. It's a big tower at the top of the mountain. However the players find it, they climb up to the tower and ascend to its top floor only to find a dungeon crawl awaiting them. This was once the runelord's command center, and now there are all manner of evil beings waiting to serve him again.
Currently, the runelord is still collecting souls, so he's still captive within the demi-plane he created for his own safety. To get there, though, the players must find the portal into it, and that portal is somewhere within this tower.
The backstory of the runelord is likely to emerge during this dungeon crawl, as players encounter the apprentice who failed to awaken the runelord thousands of years ago, the conspirators who worked against that apprentice to make him look bad, a woman possessed by a powerful weapon forged by the runelords of the past, and many more NPCs and stories. The module states that this should NOT feel like a dungeon crawl so much as one very extended combat, so the intent here seems to be to force the players to run a gauntlet leading to the true climax of the tale.
The final battle takes place in the runelord's demi-plane, called the "Eye of Avarice". It's not a huge demi-plane, either, and it already contains the runelord himself, his runewell of souls powering his awakening, a few giant guardians, and a dragon. Much of the floor is lava, too, which promises to make maneuverability difficult.
The runelord is powerful, and there's half a page dedicated to each round and what his attack tactics are. He's got lots of spells, lots of abilities, and a few notable contigency plans, so this is a final battle that requires actual prep work. It promises to be an exciting one, though.
By the end of this module, the player characters are expected to have reached 17th level. There's a short appendix with ideas for what the players might do next, although I have to admit I found it a little more generic than I'd expected. There were very general ideas, like "Other powerful beings in the region will have heard about the runelord's defeat" but no names or story-starters on why that might matter. I could imagine players needing to go back out into Xin-Shalast and fight off a bunch of giants and lamias, for a start. But where do they go once they've gotten back to the real world? I guess it's just time to hunt for a high-level adventure to get players up to level 20, or for player characters to retire. Obviously, it depends on your players and whether they play for the end of an adventure or for level status.
All in all, though, this adventure path was an excellent read. It's a shining example of Paizo's skill for weaving complex stories that propel players through all the levels of D&D play. Sometimes those stories are strongly related, other times they're just individual tales, but they're all richly textured and they give the DM plenty of material to work with. I feel this is a must-have D&D adventure, and the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition is a convenient way to get all the modules, and a bunch of extras, all in one place.