Friday, 4 October 2013

The end of Carrion Crown

Warning - O gentle reader, there are spoilers for Paizo's Carrion Crown adventure path below. Continue at your peril.

Last week we finally completed the Carrion Crown adventure path, using Pathfinder. Our characters finished the campaign at 15th level, leveling up in lacum, so to speak, in the final dungeon. Carrion Crown seems to have taken longer than previous campaigns, but we did interrupt it after one player left, only to re-start it again after some other games. What follows are my observations, firstly on Carrion Crown, having played through the bulk of it (and only missing a few room clearing sessions) and secondly on what it has taught me about Pathfinder and by extension, playing high level Dungeons and Dragons.

Firstly, Carrion Crown. This is the second Paizo Adventure Path we've played, having played through the bulk of Kingmaker. The group had played in an earlier one, I think Rise of the Runelords, before I joined, but we're going back a way here. Carrion Crown sets out to be something of a gothic horror setting, perhaps inspired by Hammer Horror films and latterly the Ravenloft campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons. It does feel a bit like the recent Van Helsing movie, certainly in its earlier stages.

We had some interesting challenges along the way, particularly in the earlier stages of the campaign when the party was weaker. In terms of characters killed, I think Kelvin's PC Nicodemus and Nicodemus' henchman Norman both died at some point, although application of powerful magic in both cases managed to restore them (luckily, when Nicodemus succumbed to dragon breath in the later stages of the campaign, the cost of a Raise Dead scroll was a lot less, relatively speaking, than it might have been earlier on).

There is a nod to H.P.Lovecraft in the campaign.
Because we were expecting to face undead on a regular basis, our party was keyed to fighting undead, which made any undead encounters much easier to manage. In a conventional game, it might be possible to prep your spell list for undead, if warned in advance, but ultimately, a party needs to be a little more balanced. Here, we had specialist undead killers, including a cleric of Abadar, a paladin and a necromancer. Even our rogue/ranger had undead as his favoured enemy. Hence undead encounters were more easily dealt with (e.g. my cleric, Veneticus, made regular use of large area effect spells which could do plenty of damage to low level undead, which appeared in their hordes later in the campaign). The addition of another lower level cleric henchman, a follower of our paladin's, made life easier, as he took on healing duties. At higher levels we were wading through dozens of vampires with relative ease.

Probably our toughest encounters were with constructs, of which there were a fair few throughout the campaign, although one story arc was particularly heavy with them. They caused us no end of trouble and it was no surprise that the scenario designer peppered the later levels with constructs too. Again, this was because the party was keyed to fighting undead (and hence anything else became commensurately tougher), and the constructs' invulnerabilities made them much harder to stop.

The gothic horror/pseudo-Ravenloft atmosphere began to suffer somewhat as the PCs became more dangerous and scarier than the opposition. Our paladin morphed into a dragon disciple with infernal leanings, while the rogue/ranger became a shadow dancer. The necromancer was always a little suspect, particularly once he began throwing Control Undead around. There is quite a fine line ethically speaking between Raise Dead and Control Undead, but he trod it well. Walking into a spooky ruined cathedral and being surprised by dozens of ghouls is also less shocking if you can summon a dinosaur or a rhino into the fray - the presence of stampeding megafauna is always going to detract a little from the creepy miasma. Peter Cushing didn't have an anklyosaurus to back him up against Dracula.

At one point we teamed up with some werewolves.

 Secondly, Pathfinder. Playing through a full campaign in this way - and, yes, we finished it, which was an absolute triumph of consistency - brought home to me how different, how very different, the high level and low level games are to what I'll call the middle game. This was brought home to me when we had a break to play 1st level characters in Rappan Athuk while our main party was about 13th level. Going back to 1st really brought home the weaknesses and limitations of 1st level parties. On the other side, parties of 13+ are massive killing machines, able to blast their way through hordes of enemies, frequently taking down most opposition in the first round of combat. You end up rolling bucket loads of dice, which feels more like Warhammer 40,000! Our GM Ben was forced to combine encounters to save time and to present more of a challenge in the later stages of the game. Some encounters were nixed at higher levels with Magic Jar and I remember taking down some mummies and two invisible stalkers with Holy Word.

I therefore have come to the conclusion that Pathfinder distils into three very distinct games. The first, the low level game, where the characters are more vulnerable, can potentially die and not be resurrected, regularly drop to negative hit points, and where they can be more constrained by the campaign environment. This probably stops at about 5th level. The high level game kicks in at around 12-13th and really becomes more exaggerated from there, with followers, masses of summoned support, some really ridiculous spells coming online, teleportation, magic jars, etc.

Our 14th level party recently rooted through a pile of loot including magic items that would have had the same characters whooping for joy at 3rd level, but the magic was literally discarded on the floor of the dungeon. Hence, my view is that the optimum core party strength levels, and the most fun for both GMs and players, is 5th-12th level. And that also explains to me why so many older modules were written for those strength factors. The party is tough enough that there is less scope for total party kill, but not so powerful that many encounters can be nixed almost immediately.

So that's it really. Carrion Crown is a wrap. Now we're on to a Warhammer campaign next week, the new Enemy Within.

1 comment:

  1. Preserving the atmosphere was the main reason behind me rejecting the flashier magical schools; I didn't see fireballs and lightning bolts having any place in gothic horror.

    I think you're right about the optimum levels for D&D play and that's why I'd like to try the E6 variant or something similar that tones down the power levels while keeping a sense of progression.