I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited for this.
I think that at some point, every GM (and quite possibly every player too) has entertained the thought of running an evil campaign, or at least playing an evil character. After all, who could resist the temptation of being the uber-cool arch-villain, unbound by moral codes and social niceties, doing what you please and may the gods have mercy on those who cross you? Of course, this flight of fancy tends to run headfirst into some very real problems when put into practice, and so no one’s every really marketed an adventure – let alone an adventure path – for Pathinder (or its ancestor game).
That’s all changed with Fire Mountain Games’ new adventure path, Way of the Wicked. It all begins here with book one, Knot of Thorns.
Let’s cover some of the technical aspects of the book first. The single PDF file is exactly one hundred pages long, making it a fairly substantial work. Bookmarks are present, but only to each of the book’s major sections; you won’t find nested bookmarks to more specific parts of each section, so you may need to do a bit of scrolling.
The artwork in the book is notable for its quality; something all the more impressive for the book having had but a single artist. Each piece is a full-color illustration that is clearly professional in its detail; this is especially true for the maps, which I found to be quite pretty (and wished that there was a map pack available as well). My only complaint about the maps was that they use a scale of having one square equal 10 feet, which I always find slightly off-putting, since Pathfinder uses a default 5-foot square assumption. If you’re redrawing these, make sure to scale the locations appropriately.
The pages themselves are nicely decorated, being set against a dark background and having page borders on three sides. Having said that, there is no printer-friendly version of the book available (nor, for that matter, an epublishing version), so this may be a strain on your printer.
Following a single-page introduction where the author exhorts conquering the world rather than saving it, the adventure opens with a background for the course of the campaign. Set in the island nation of Talingarde, where the faith of the sun-god Mitra has become the state religion, a deposed prince turned worshipper of Asmodeus seeks to subvert the current order and have the Devil God’s faith ascend to become the religion of the kingdom, complete with a new king on the throne. For this, he has crafted a diabolical plan utilizing nine teams to create unrest and thwart attempts to solve the problems he’ll create. It’s with these teams in mind that he turns to your PCs.
The adventure starts out with your characters already being the bad guys. You’ve been found guilty of committing major crimes (not wrongly, either; your PCs being criminals is a major part of the backstory; see below) and sentenced to prison to be executed or sent to a life of hard labor. However, thanks to a mysterious benefactor, and a lax administration, you have a chance to escape.
This first part of the adventure is a fun prison break, not only for the heightened tension in that you’re working from a disadvantage (you don’t get to keep your gear in prison), but also due to the different angles from which this scenario can be run. Are you just trying to make for the exit as fast as you can, or do you take bloody revenge on everyone around you and arm yourself with their equipment?
Following their escape, the PCs make their way to their patron and are given the choice to swear themselves to Asmodeus (which, perhaps appropriately for a devil god, isn’t much of a choice at all) and begin their training. This part of the adventure is heavier on the role-playing, as this part introduces a lot of key NPCs and the chance to build relationships with them, along with internalizing the fact that they’re now serving the forces of Hell.
The adventure’s third act consists of a journey to their first assignment. A long sea voyage, this scenario is broken up by a number of encounters, which are broken up into three groups of making the voyage, completing their task, and after the trip. This is also the most open part of the adventure, as not only can the order of events be shuffled quite a bit, but new encounters can be added or deleted as necessary; this is where a lot of the restrictions on the PCs come off.
The fourth and final part of the adventure is a mission of infiltration and destruction. Outmatched and outnumbered, the PCs have to bring down a fortress filled with soldiers of the forces of goodness. Very cogently, the adventure adopts a method of granting “Victory Points” for various actions, with the end results of their mayhem being tabulated by how many points they’ve achieved via their acts of disruption.
That’s the end of the adventure, and if it sounds short, then it’s only because I’m doing it a disservice. There’s a lot that happens throughout Knot of Thorns, so much so that your characters are supposed to end the adventure when they’ve just reached 6th level. Interestingly, while there’s plenty of bloodshed going on throughout the book, a great deal of the XP the PCs are supposed to gain comes from story-based XP awards for accomplishing various tasks. I’d go so far as to say that I’ve never seen an adventure that relied so much on story awards. This is comforting, as it makes it easy to arbitrarily increase or decrease the XP the PCs are given as they move through the series of unfortunate events they’re causing.
The book doesn’t end with the adventure, however. The last twenty pages or so are devoted to what’s essentially a player’s primer. We’re given an overview of Talingarde’s history, some of its more notable locales, and a quick overview of some of its major organizations. It’s in this last section that I think we come to the book’s single biggest oversight – there’s no information on the sun god Mitra. To be fair, the church of Mitra is covered (albeit briefly), but that’s not enough. What are Mitra’s domains and sub-domains? What is his holy symbol and favored weapon? We don’t know, because the book doesn’t tell us. True, none of that information is directly pertinent, but if GMs want to deviate from the material here and make up their own Mitran clerics (or inquisitors or similar divine spellcasters), the missing information becomes more pertinent. Hopefully we’ll see something on this from Fire Mountain Games soon.
The author then includes a section on how to run a villainous campaign. Specifically, he outlines five problem areas, and how this campaign attempts to avoid them (where possible; otherwise he includes advice for making things go smoothly). This section was, to my mind, very cogent in its reasoning. I’d always held that the major problems of an evil game were PvP conflicts, and someone being so evil that it squicked out the other players. All of these, as well as other problems (“why can’t we just send minions to do our evil for us?”) are covered, with sound reasoning given for why and how to handle them.
Subsequently there’s a short guide on PCs in a Way of the Wicked campaign. Interestingly, goes through the character creation guidelines and recommends specific changes, the sum total of which are to make the PCs more powerful, since they’re evil outcasts in a good nation. I’m not sure that this is necessary, but then I’m slightly biased against increasing the level power the PCs have, since my group includes a couple power-gamers.
What’s most interesting here are the new campaign traits. Remember how the game starts with your PCs being condemned criminals? There are twenty campaign traits here, each of which is a crime – which trait you pick is the crime that you performed, and were caught and lawfully sentenced for. I was really impressed with this simple yet elegant way of bringing the characters background, and evil nature, into the spotlight. This serves as a brilliant method for highlighting what the PCs did to start them on the road to villainy, and why they throw in with the powers of darkness.
The book closes out with a two-page synopsis of the entire adventure path, outlining what happens in each of the six adventures.
Overall, I found myself very impressed with the opening act for Way of the Wicked; this promises to be an adventure path as epic as anything by Paizo. The campaign’s themes are tightly focused, and the tenor of the adventure steers away from the problems that usually come from having a group of evil characters. The challenges are diverse, from infiltration to puzzles to deception to combat. You’ve never seen such a good job of being the bad guy.
Of course, the book isn’t without its flaws. The CR for the triton oracle seems to be off, for example, and the tactics section of Father Donnagan’s stat block seems to be an incorrect cut-and-paste. But the major problem that I think people might have with this campaign is that, even more than other adventure paths, this one is an exercise in railroading.
The first two acts of the adventure basically force the PCs to go in the specified directions, and while the third act – as mentioned above – starts to loosen the tight grip around the characters, it’s never truly removed (though in many cases it’s less visible). The PCs are bound by the goals that are set for them; their only freedoms lie in how to accomplish them – to put it another way, they’re free to do what they want, so long as they want to do what their patron says. In theory they can go their own way, but the adventure talks about what to do if the PCs go off the rails at various points, and its never good (in some cases, it flat-out says that they get slaughtered).
Of course, that may very well be a necessary evil (pun intended) for an evil game, as it’s much easier for an evil game to fall apart. I certainly don’t think it’s a deal-breaker, as the adventure offers a great “us against the world” scenario that’s a great inversion of the usual “points of light” backdrop. Follow the Way of the Wicked, and be the darkness that snuffs out the light.