Friday, February 17, 2017

13th Age - The Strangling Sea Review and Recap

(Find it at... Pelgrane Press  / Drivethru RPG / Amazon)

I choose The Strangling Sea to kick off my new Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign, not just because it was a published 1st level adventure that I could run without much prep but because it is an excellent adventure and tailored towards GMs who are new to running 13th Age. While I am not new to running 13th Age, it was still nice to have the extra advice in the adventure to guide me as I gear up to running an ongoing campaign that I hope will cover 1st through 8th levels.

Major spoilers for The Strangling Sea adventure follow, obviously. I'll do the review first and the recap of my players second, so that readers who just want a review of the adventure don't have to stick around for the hi-jinx of my players.



Organization

The adventure is nicely organized; it opens with an introduction that covers almost everything that a GM needs to know about the overall plot and backstory of the module. The one thing that isn't covered in the introduction is the "dread state of Inigo Sharpe" the macguffin NPC the players are there to rescue, but that gets its own chapter so it's hard to imagine a GM would overlook it. Still it would have been nice to have a sentence alluding to it in the intro. Sidebars are used well, providing options or advice, but never hiding plot points or truly integral information that you could miss if you skip them (unlike some other adventures I may have read back in the summer of 2016...) The stats for all the NPCs and antagonists are included, which pads the length out a bit, but overall is handy as it keeps the GM from needing to flip back and forth between multiple books. The adventure finishes with a bit about how to end the adventure and possiblities for having events foreshadow future plot in a home campaign.

Structure/Modularity/Balance

One of the things I liked best about reading through and then running the Strangling Sea was its structure; its got a definite start and end, but a nice small sandbox for the middle. Being a 13th Age adventure, there are plenty of hooks, as all of the 13 icons could serve as the patron giving the mission or the antagonist opposing it. Basically the task given to PCs is to find Inigo Sharp, eccentric genius and difficult person (one of his defining traits is bailing on jobs before finishing them and leaving others in the lurch). The patron's servitors send the PCs to find Firgin, the first main NPC and former Sharpe collaborator, and arrive to find him under siege, which provides a nice introductory combat and a reminder to the players that their PCs might not be the only ones looking for Sharpe. This is the first encounter that lets the GM make the adventure setting feel dynamic instead of just a dungeon waiting for PCs to open the door to the next room. Firgin sets the PCs off on a boat that will take them magically to wherever Sharpe is, which as the adventure name might have tipped you off, is the Strangling Sea, a massive weedmat. 

Once the PCs step out onto the Strangling Sea the adventure opens up into a mini-sandbox that works really well because (A) there is a limited area to explore, a peninsula of the larger weedmat, with seven named locations (B) three feuding factions to provide social interaction and/or combat challenges and (C) something to accomplish and strong incentives to do so, i.e. finding Inigo Sharpe and not being able to leave the Strangling Sea without him or his help unless the PCs are incredibly clever. The three factions are distinct and memorable, with "native" goblins taking on fishy characteristics ala Innsmouth, Wreckrats, shipwrecked humans and demi-humans going crazy from the magic of the weed island and paranoid dwarves who came to destroy the Strangling Sea and got caught. There are also strange weedbeasts, fungal masses and mutant elephant seals for the PCs to stumble across.

My players didn't quite believe me when I described how large Elephant Seals are...


One fantastic thing about the adventure, it leaves it up to the GM to decide which of the the three factions has (or had) Inigo Sharpe and suggests strongly that its in the last place the PCs look, which provides players incentives to see more of the small sandbox setting and gives a GM a good way to make sure the three pillars (exploration, social interaction, combat) are available in whatever balance their group enjoys. For groups who enjoy investigation and social interaction it can be a mystery as they try to determine which faction is lying about where Inigo is and why, but for a group that just wants to pound enemies into the ground Inigo can be placed so that they get to battle through waves of enemies to grab him.

Once the PCs find Inigo, its suggested that if there are still encounters left that the GM wants to have the players complete that Inigo could insist on the PCs taking revenge on a faction, but otherwise he can activate the magic boat Firgin gave them to bring them to the Strangling Sea and they can leave with him. But its also left open that they could assist the paranoid dwarves or Wreckrats with repairing a boat with Inigo's help and leave that way too. But the adventure's (probably) not over, because there's a final combat encounter where thugs from the antagonistic icon show up in an ambush to try and grab Sharpe and steal him away. By default this would happen when the magic boat takes the PCs back to Firgins, but the adventure suggests it could happen just about anywhere.

As far as modularity, there's plenty in the adventure you could use elsewhere or re-purpose. The sandbox of the weedmat peninsula works fine as an adventure locale even if you ditched the plot about finding Inigo Sharpe. A GM who just wanted an interesting place for his PCs to get shipwrecked could easily use it for that. Likewise some of the creatures provided would easily fit elsewhere, I could see using the aquatic goblins in other locations, because how can you not want to re-use Goblin Fish-Witchers and Jellyfish Throwers? The weedbeasts and fungul masses provide good plant monster options, as those can be far and few between sometimes. Inigo Sharpe is tailor made to be an excellent recurring NPC, as an eccentric inventor he could often be useful, but given his flaky and aloof personality he won't just be a push-over there to provide unqualified support to PCs.

Advice/Tools

There's plenty of GM advice in the Strangling Sea, which makes this an excellent adventure for a new GM or even just a GM new to 13th Age. Much of the introduction covers how to work in the Icons, which can be the most challenging part of 13th Age for GMs, and there are additional suggestions later on when Icons come up again. The sidebars have useful suggestions for getting recalcitrant PCs and players back on track or for showing them when something isn't worth the time. One of my favorite sidebars covers things that PCs would find if they insisted on looting every wreck in the Strangling sea that have examples like... "brass buttons too slimy to pick up properly...disgusting nest of some foul bird...untraceable bizarre odor that comes back whenever you stop looking for its source..." 

The encounters tables are well laid out and provide numbers for groups of 4-6 PCs for both fair and unfair fights, which makes it easy to adjust difficulty on the fly and to make the combat encounters PC do face more difficult if the PCs talk their way out of others. Another incredibly useful tool included is descriptions of the faction base areas with soft and hard approaches; basically, if the PCs aren't expected or come with weapons holstered then you have a different description to provide than if the PCs have been making trouble all over the peninsula and the faction is entrenched and ready for a fight.

Overall Thoughts

I'd highly recommend the Strangling Sea to anyone interested in running 13th Age, it's well written, well organized and has plenty of advice and tips for someone starting out as a 13th Age GM. Plus, it provides a great sandbox without getting too open-ended and has fantastic flavor in its combat, social and exploration.

Recap

So how did my PCs move through the Strangling Sea? I set it up by having the PCs be looking for Inigo Sharpe because he was rumored to know something about the Stone Thief, the living megadungeon that the campaign will revolve around. They got a lead on where Sharpe might be through Abbess Panutha, loyal servant of the Priestess, who is in the adventure as the patron if the PCs are working for the Priestess.

The structure of the adventure worked to my advantage, as I was able to have the first session focus on character creation and then have the introductory section of the adventure with the quest giving, the travel montage (still one of my favorite 13th Age GM techniques) and arriving at Firgin's to find it under siege by thugs dedicated to the Lich King. Having an easy, introductory fight right after character creation gave me a good chance to let the players get comfortable with their PCs various mechanics and the thugs they fought also had some nice mechanics to introduce players to how 13th Age combat works, or as the adventure puts it...

The thugs’ various 1-point damage effects are meant to memorably annoy the players, making victory all the sweeter when it comes.
Then the PCs talked with Firgin, learning what he knew and many of the group developing an incredible distaste for him and his predilection for talking about his many water color paintings. Still, they managed to get the info they wanted from Firgin on Inigo and to talk him into letting them use his magic boat that hones in on Sharpe's location. I was able to end the first session with the PC arriving at the weedmat of the Strangling Sea.


I started the second session with the PCs stepping onto the weedmat and spotting the newest party member, Felix Mittens. Felix, with his twin brother, Boots (who happens to be in kitten form at the moment due to a curse) had gotten shipwrecked on the weedmat after Boots talked back to the wrong people. Having Felix on the weedmat for a few days let me provide the PCs with a general lay of the land, they knew there were three groups on the mat so they got to choose which to investigate first instead of wandering blindly. I did, however, have some weedbeasts ambush them as they were on their way to talk to the Wreck Rat faction and then after the fight several began to feel the call of the madness of the Strangling Sea. Then when they got to the shipwrecks that made up the Wreck Rat camp they got to see even more of the ocean madness...

Obligatory Futurama reference...

The players spoke with an NPC, the memorably described thusly...

While trying and mostly failing to be subtle about it, their selfappointed spokesman here, the thoroughly drunk but wily swashbuckler Clendennon, tries to learn how they got here.
I got to put my foot down on any kind of "sense motive" or "detect lie" skill check as the players began to suspect that Clendennon might have been less than truthful (I'll save my rant about how abused "sense motive" and its ilk are for later). I did double-down on the drunkeness, which I hope came across, and had Clendennon say that the goblins took Inigo and then that the Dwarves took Inigo and let him give a very confused (and ultimately false) description of what Sharpe looked like.

Believing that Sharpe was with the goblins, the players headed over there after scouting out the very well defended dwarven boat-fort and since I wanted to finish the adventure in two sessions I decided to go with "crazed and unreasonable" for the goblins, having them warble like fish and attack on sight. I beefed up the encounter figuring that the PCs were unlikely to fight the dwarves or wreck rats, plus then I got the fun of throwing a mob of gobs at 'em, some of which summoned flying fish to attack the PCs... The PCs, beaten up a bit by the first fight and spotting goblin eyes in the wrecked ship they made their base decided to take a short rest, then returned and wiped out the remaining goblins but not without having plenty of jellyfish thrown down at them from the rafters. I stuck in a goblin captive, a gnome named Iachamo, to provide them some information. I let Iachamo spill the beans on Sharpe's "dread state" and that the goblins had tossed him in the garbage heap where the elephant seals sun.

Not quite certain of how big elephant seals are, partly because I may have slipped and called them sea lions the first time I informed the players about them, the party's druid decided to take seal shape and challenge the alpha/beastmaster for supremacy, which let me employ one of the "nastier specials" which... This elephant seal is not so normal after all! As a reaction to being staggered, it unfurls a long mutated elephantine nose, spraying blood and noxious goo.



While the battle didn't rage for hours, it was a nice spotlight for the druid. Once they had Inigo's head they decided to hurry back to their ship before any of the other NPCs attempted to steal it. I didn't get to have the PCs who had failed saves and gotten temporary "icon" relationship points with the Strangling Sea have crazed seaweed dreams, but oh well. The players leveled up their PCs to 2nd and arrived back at Firgin's where they were surprised by the second group of Lich King thugs whose bugbear leader almost kinda almost got away with Sharpe's head (not really, but for a split second it looked like she might).

So now the PCs know from Sharpe that there is a temple of Ettercaps in the forest just north of Drakkenhall who know the name or location of the tomb of a sage who lived during the 2rd Age and studied the Stone Thief. Inigo told them that they could trade a truly forbidden, hidden or dangerous secret for that knowledge, but even though they might have a secret or two of their own they could trade, they decided to hunt down an NPC to get a secret. So I gave them three options...

  • Elizabeth Clawchoke, Lich Baroness residing in Drakkenhall
  • Malaggar Lyme, Dark Elf emissary to the Emperor, currently visiting the court of Drakkenhall.
  • Corgak the Bruiser, Half-Orc thief and thug who killed an agent of the Prince of Shadows and stole a magical key.
A little to my surprise they decided to go with Corgak, but I have some ideas for that now... plus I'm just extra excited that I get to use Ettercaps!





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