Adventurers of any stripe are independent types; that’s a truism that goes back to the beginning of gaming. Few are the adventurers who care to have someone telling them how to take the risks they take, let alone telling them where to go and what to do. This is doubly so for those characters who are evil in nature…and yet that’s exactly what the PCs of the Way of the Wicked adventure path have had to endure. Until now.
Now, in the penultimate adventure, The Devil My Only Master, the PCs finally throw off the shackles of their earthly patron and take control of the plot to conquer the nation of Talingarde. But their master is not willing to go quietly. Let’s take a look and see how the adventure plays out.
The adventure comes with three PDFs. The first is the adventure itself, the second is the printer-friendly version thereof, and the third is a set of player handouts. Let’s look at these in reverse order. The player handouts largely consists of the adventure maps with the various keys and descriptors removed, which is a good thing to have; only one is an actual handout for the players to peruse. I had mixed feelings about these only being available in full color, as you’re most likely going to want to print these out – still, there aren’t that many (a grand total of six single-page items), so it shouldn’t be too difficult.
The critique about color artwork follows us to the printer-friendly version of the adventure. The printer-friendly version of the adventure has the same layout and artwork as the full-color version; what’s changed is that the page backgrounds (a parchment-color tan) and borders (a mixture of black and deep grey) are removed, with the borders being denoted only in grayscale lines. All of the other artwork and maps are present, color included.
I’ve mentioned before that I can understand leaving the artwork and illustrations in a printer-friendly PDF, as removing them requires redoing the layout. However, I’m less sympathetic to not finding a way to set the artwork to black-and-white at the very least. Would that really have been so hard to do?
Of course, the artwork is gorgeous – Michael Clark continues to live up to his high standards from previous works here, with artwork that seems to leap off the page, most in gorgeous full-color. Notwithstanding the maps, the bulk of the artwork goes to various NPCs introduced throughout the adventure, and the pictures do a marvelous job of showcasing just who it is your PCs are electing to go up against.
The PDF itself hits most of the technical marks you’d expect of it, having copy-and-paste enabled, and having bookmarks to each major section, though it’s still worth a frown that there are no nested bookmarks to sub-sections. I’d also like to see things like Mac-compatible files and epublishing versions available, but the lack of these certainly isn’t a deal-breaker. I should also note that there are some points of errata throughout the adventure as well – Cardinal Thorn’s CR, for example, is one point higher than it should be (unless it was bumped up to account for his gear, in which case that should be mentioned). Again, nothing that’s worth taking points off over, but if you have the time you may want to double-check a few things.
The book’s first act begins immediately where the last one ended, with the PCs now ready to turn against their patron, Cardinal Thorn. Indeed, at this point Thorn is already making preemptive strikes against them, whether the PCs have antagonized him or not, as his paranoia (and failure to act in accordance with the strict dogma of Hell) has already pushed him to the edge. The first act is therefore a mixture of dealing with Thorn’s agents as they attempt to kill the PCs and bargaining with his former associates to usurp his position. It’s here that the PCs manage to deal with the contract they signed way back in Book One, and the manner in which a particular loophole is exploited is quite diabolical indeed.
This part of the book features a sidebar wherein the author admits to this act’s repetitive nature – roughly a half-dozen encounters with outsiders teleporting in to either talk or fight. He mentions, wisely in my opinion, that you might want to consider spacing at least some of these out – this is good advice, but may be hard to put into practice; as I read it, only the last section can really bet set later in the adventure. Virtually all of the rest are required for setting things up. Also, the third section struck me as somewhat awkward, as it’s incumbent on a character from the previous Book having escaped alive – this is a bit tenuous for me; something should have been put in there to make this more definitive.
The book’s second act takes a detour, as the PCs now regroup and meet up with the Fifth Knot to gain some new intelligence on another old foe. The paladin Sir Richard has his story detailed here in full (something that takes a surprising three pages, and brings up another small complaint I have – at this point the PCs will only have met Sir Richard in combat once. There are supposed to be other instances where they come near each other, but these are easily downplayed unless the GM takes steps to play up the paladin’s accomplishments. This section, which covers his story in one place, makes it easier to do that; I just wish this had been highlighted earlier).
Of more pressing concern is that the paladin is currently on the Isle of Chargammon, attempting to secure funds for the army Princess Bellinda is trying to raise. The PCs must race there, overcome him and his company of knights, and make a decision as to whether they can try and kill their righteous foe once and for all, or something far more sinister.
This second act is the built-in “downtime” between the first act and the rest of the adventure. While it does have some combat, only the last part (with Richard and his fellows) is truly a threat to the PCs; far more important is what they do with the intelligence they gain, and what they do with Richard after his defeat. This islargely setting the direction for where to go next.
In this case, that’ll likely lead to the book’s third act; now that the PCs know that Cardinal Thorn is a lich, it’s time to go after his phylactery. Of course, this is no easy win – the phylactery is hidden in the lair of a truly terrible linnorm that dwells in a lonely cairn filled with undead. Contrasting to the previous section, there’s little politicking to do here; this is purely a smash-and-grab, and it’s likely to be a tough one. Of course, smart PCs will know better than to go charging in blindly (indeed, there are multiple notes in the book about one particular encounter being a likely TPK if the PCs don’t play it smart). Of course, once the PCs have the phylactery, it isn’t quite over, and then there’s the question of what to do with it.
I didn’t have any major complaints with this areas, as the book’s sole choke-point in terms of difficulty is addressed directly in a sidebar. I do wish that some discussion had been given to groups who try to employ the “fifteen-minute adventuring day” schtick, as this part of the book seems to lend itself to the PCs resting for a day after a difficult encounter, as most of the creatures are location-based.
The book’s final act is the assault on Thorn’s sanctum sanctorum, the Agathium. This two-level temple to Asmodeus is the final showdown with their old master and his few remaining servants. This last act is a mixture of the second and third, as there are multiple opportunities to make deals with some of the NPCs here, but at the same time there are plenty who won’t be willing to negotiate. Ultimately, this makes it something of a straightforward dungeon-crawl.
I quite enjoyed this section for its mixture of bloodlust and diplomacy, as it invites the kind of role-playing that I think Pathfinder does best. I do wish that there had been a larger section on the threats on the journey to the Agathium, but this is a small complaint as it does cover at least one obstacle on the way there, and by this time the PCs are likely using magical travel anyway, so it’s something of a moot point.
Far better is that this last section lends itself much more easily to scaling. The NPCs are largely divided by this point, thanks to Thorn’s paranoia and mismanagement of his resources; this can easily be changed if the PCs seem like they’re having too easy a time of it. I also don’t think this section suffers from the same “fifteen-minute” problem as the previous one, not because it necessarily goes out of its way to work around it, but because it’s somewhat self-evident that the PCs can’t stop halfway through a major assault on Thorn’s base of operations and then just pick up where they left off. Any GM who lets them get away with that is being far too lenient.
Once the PCs have settled the score, the stage is set for the final conquest, but unfortunately that will have to wait until the final book.
Luckily, this one doesn’t end here. A two-page FAQ is given on various areas where the PCs could go off the rails. In previous books, this was helpful – here, it is an absolute necessity. I’m frankly amazed that this section is only two pages long and yet manages to cover virtually all of the major deviations that the PCs could take; GMs would be well advised to pay close attention to this.
Following this is a section titled “Children of the Night,” a continuation of the same section from the previous book that deals more with vampire and lich PCs; whereas that was focused on the flavor of running an undead PC, this article focuses on the mechanics.
For vampires, the balancing mechanism for a vampire PC is largely handled as a feat tax. Specifically, becoming a vampire is set as a five-feat tree; only three feats are necessary to become a vampire, but gaining the full powers and benefits of the template from the Bestiary takes all five. This works well, I think, to balance the panoply of powers that vampires get (particularly since the vampiric weaknesses are not that difficult to ameliorate for smart PCs).
Liches are treated somewhat differently. Lichdom requires only a single feat, but crafting a phylactery takes months of constant effort. While some may find this lopsided compared to the degree of feats a vampire needs to pay, I think that it’s important to recall that vampires gain much greater utility and offensive powers than liches do, so I found this to be a comparatively equitable price to pay.
Of course, these aren’t the only feats in the book, as over a dozen new feats, and a half-dozen new spells and magic items each, all specific to the undead, follow. With spells such as “restore the destroyed” (a “resurrection” for the undead) and magic items like “the false heart” (so that a vampire may remove their real heart from their body, protecting it), these will definitely enable undead PCs to stretch their rotting wings to the fullest.
The book’s final section is similarly crunchy in what it offers. Titled “Hellbound” and written by Jason Bulmahn, here we’re given four new Asmodeus-specific class archetypes and nine new feats; most of the latter revolve specifically around striking deals with agents of Hell in exchange for power, albeit at the cost of your soul. Most of these were quite good, though I wish the antipaladin archetype had explicitly called out that changes the class alignment to Lawful Evil.
There’s one other aspect of the book that was disappointing in its exclusion; the PCs minions (a la the minion rules from Book Two). There’s simply very little for their minions to do here, as the book focuses almost exclusively on the PCs’ tactical actions against their enemies; while it can’t be helped given the nature of things coming to a head, it’s a shame that there are no opportunities for greater villainy undertaken on a wider scale here. Hopefully the evil followers of the PCs will play a greater role in the final book.
Having said that, the fifth book of the Way of the Wicked is a different beast than its predecessors, but not a lesser one. Here, there are extremely few good-aligned creatures to fight; instead, this is a battle against other villains to crown yourselves as the undisputed master of evil. This adventure is the first part of the dark reward your PCs will have been yearning for since the campaign’s start, and they’ll surely reap it with relish. From now on, each PC will bow exclusively to The Devil My Only Master.
[5 of 5 Stars!]