I don’t play a Pathfinder, but like many, I love their stuff and I look to include it in my gaming whenever I can. Not everything they produce is great, but so far I’ve always enjoyed their Adventure Path initial offerings. There’s something special about level 1 adventures. I guess it’s the fresh feeling of starting something new, something with potential. Of course, these don’t always become classic oft remembered campaigns, but they could do, and that’s exciting.
This adventure is part one of a 6 part campaign called Skull and Shackles. It’s about pirates, and that’s almost all you need to know. This is a genre well served by the RPG hobby, so I was interested to see what Paizo could bring to the party.
One of the things that Paizo does so well, and continues with this adventure, is to go to real world myth and legend to inform its stories. Even though it’s set in a fantasy world, with dungeons and dragons aplenty, there’s deep rooted and respectful research running through the whole endeavour. Within this adventure you can check off at least a dozen piratical must haves, including press ganging, parrots, boarding actions, digging for treasure, floggings and more.
The detail provided is both broad and deep. The ship, it’s crew and it’s journey are spelled out and started out comprehensively. It’s almost too much, but better to have the detail there than not. The party will be on a ship for 21 days, and every day brings something new to the story. The conditions are cramped and brutal. In fact, one of my worries is just how brutal this could be. This scenario needs some mature players, as the temptation to fight back against the odds will be strong, and will end up with dead PCs pretty promptly. Infractions on the ship are Not brooked and the punishments are potentially deadly.
Even if the PCs keep their heads down (and that makes for a dull adventure) the NPCs will be pursuing their own agenda, and there’s plenty of those aboard. What’s not immediately obvious to the party is that they need to win friends and influence people, not slay every creature that crosses their paths. Given that their captain is 16th level, that’s a clue that they’ll need to use their wits first and sword and spell second. And even that assumes they can get a hold of their kit, which is not a given.
The GM has an awful lot of info to maintain. I would absolutely have to get myself organised before running this. Whether that be spreadsheets or index cards, or a bunch of sticky notes, I would recommend several careful reads before starting.
The fact is, the story that unfolds is pretty standard, but the level of interaction available to the party is enormous. Every nook and cranny of the ship and it’s crew is explored. Every days events are detailed. The author has packed so much content into this that he has had to supply a list of potential ship actions that the pcs will use to squeeze in their extracurricular activities. The party are kept so busy just staying alive that they really have to work hard to push their agenda.
And therein lies the dilemma with this adventure. If your group likes to improvise and roleplay their way through obstacles, then large parts of the text will be ‘wasted’. On the other hand, there’s enough content here to play through this entirely with dice rolls, and it wouldn’t be a bad game at all. But in doing that, the GM really becomes more of a referee than a guide. Obviously, groups will find their own way, but be prepared to not use every piece of the adventure provided, I just don’t think you can.
The second half of the adventure becomes less constrained and the party will get the opportunity to play in a more traditional exploration and combat style. In fact, the difference in tone is like day and night. I wonder if it’s possible for groups to love both halves of this adventure?
As with all APs, the adventure is only part of the deal. You also get a serial, this time written by Robin Laws (I loved it), as well as essays on pirate life, Besmara the goddess of pirates, and a bestiary.
Overall, this is a great package. Whether or not you continue the campaign through the rest of the AP is immaterial. This is a super detailed resource that could launch any nautical campaign, in any ruleset. In fact, most other pirate themed adventures would skate over the detail provided here, and simply rely on the groups knowledge of films and stories. This book puts in the hard work for you. It provides a lot of structure, and absolutely delivers a pirate tale with aplomb. It’s a challenge, both to run and to play, but worth every minute.