Shattered Heart #4: Crucible of Faith
#4 of my Top Ten of 2015!
The (for now) final installment of the superb Shattered Heart-saga clocks in at 48 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 43 pages of content, so let’s take a look and answer the question whether this installment managed to retain the ridiculously high quality of the first three parts of the series!
This being an adventure-review, the following text contains MASSIVE SPOILERS. Potential players should not read ahead and jump to the conclusion instead.
Still here? Only GMs around? Great! So the worst is done, right? I mean, this powerful paladin has been establishing an outpost on the wild, jungle-island with its volcano, what can possibly go wrong? Everything. The PCs are on trek to the burning isle…and it’s not looking good. Upon arriving at the newly established colony, they are not welcomed as saviors – for the few people that do exist still on this accursed land lack the strength to do so. Diseases run rampant throughout the settlement – from bubonic plague to slimy doom and worse, all are afflicted…including the paladin Faerilon. Provided the PCs can care for the weakened populace, they’ll notice a couple of disquieting developments – when an ashen giant with a rather dark sense of humor arrived, people were all too happy to have the massive brute help with construction – even though his tree-slingshot-like means of transporting proved perilous for the smaller population…but when people started disappearing, getting sick…well, who if not that leprous brute to blame? Under pressure, the poor sap of a paladin ventured forth to slay the giant – who happily obliged in combat, but ultimately proved to be no match for the holy warrior…who had, in fear and ignorance just slain a creature based on prejudice…and promptly fell. This is when a grotesque, equine-skull-headed monstrosity took the paladin…and did things to him. From there on, it only took a dead cleric to make the local situation escalate at a horrid pace – welcome PCs, enjoy your all-expenses not paid trip to killer plague island incorporated!
Kidding aside, the module goes into ample depth regarding the fighting of the various plagues and caring for the populace and, much like in the installments before, the PC’s actions do matter – the community point score (handy tracker included) determines the ultimate outcome of this module. Whether or not the PCs manage to save the populace or not, the module can be pictured as pretty much a sandboxy exploration of a rather hostile wilderness environment: Strange ape-men (kech) are hiding in the jungle alongside their disease-carrying ape companions and if the PCs don’t intervene, even reaching the final temple, much less restoring it, will prove to be nigh impossible. In the forests, multiple fully mapped encounters await and grisly talismans lead deeper and deeper into kech territory. A particularly grisly find awaits the PCs upon finding the remains of the slain ash giant – entombed in mud and focus of dread magics, the mud-baked carcass rises as the new monster herein – lavishly illustrated the dread yercindere with its tentacles and diseases makes for a dread agent of the mastermind behind the kech’s aggressions – in case you haven’t figured that out by now: A leukodaemon stalks the jungles and he and his allies make for brutal foes and deadly ambushes – but unless the PCs stop these dread beings, there’s probably be no colony left to return to…
Making their way past the hellish jungle (potentially infected with a disease/poison-combo that is a truly nasty affliction), the PCs will have to make their way in the direction of the badlands, where steam geysers and vaporized flesh provide icky hazards and fallen gobbets of leprous flesh bespeak a horrid sense of humor on the side of the remaining, though not necessarily hostile ash giant, who btw. takes the news of his brother’s death with a cynic pun…and provides directions, when prompted – to either the “big” trouble of the “little” one. Hint: Both are truly nasty territories titan centipedes or HUGE amounts of army ants – the PCs will unknowingly pick their poison, while hopefully not falling prey to the roaming belkers. Btw.: The ant-combat may be actually the more lethal of the two – one careless application of fire and the PCs face off against a nasty grass fire – full, detailed hazard rules provided.
And yes, in the end, the PCs will have to scale the mountain – these climbing challenges take magic into account…and if you’re like me, you may actually want to flesh out that section a bit: Call to Arms: Ropes by Fat Goblin Games imho makes with its pioneering a nice supplement to enrich the trip through the jungle further. Well, suffice to say, the climbing PCs may well draw the attention of multiple flame drakes. The crater itself sports a unique type of magical flora, firefrost moss, which can provide an interesting edge – for, within the crater, a massive tree of obsidian looms, as lava trickles in streams from it – the PCs have to brave magma oozes and elementals crazed by the desecration of the tree in a furious and truly intriguing combat – with streams of lava and the tree standing at the very edge of the volcano, the PCs can meet rather grisly demise due to the smart selection of foes. Attaching the proper, healthy branch may see the tree come back to health and the PCs return home to live happily ever after…right?
Wrong. Instead of a hero’s welcome, the PCs are greeted by emissaries from the eldermoot and a newly reinstated paladin, with papers that show Carlyetta (and them!) to have been deemed guilty of heresy – uncommon harshness for the eldermoot, for sure. However, neither the inevitable waiting in the wings, nor the paladin or the halflings seem to care much…let’s hope that astute PCs realize that one of the envoys is indeed their asura foe in disguise, which can potentially make the finale easier…but still challenging. Should the PCs prevail, it’s once more time to tally up the community points and see how Carlyetta’s mission has went – how much communal spirit and openness is within the hearts of halflings very much depends on them…and whether Carlyetta has to rejoin the fallen leaves among the clergy. Their foe may be defeated…but the corruption at the heart of the eldermoot and the accusation of heresy surely provide ample means for further adventuring…and hopefully epilogue modules in the future…
As always, the pdf does contain player-friendly versions of the gorgeous maps, with and without grids.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to AAW Games’ two-column full-color standard for the series and the book sports multiple awesome full-color artworks. Cartography is absolutely superb and quality-wise excellent. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and the PoD-premium dead tree version sports a neat glossy cover, thick paper and vibrant colors.
Michael Allen’s final installment depicting the re-consecration of the holy tree-shrines of Piccolo is perhaps the most conventional of the modules – compared to the mind-bogglingly evocative third installment, the overall set-up is less complex, less fantastic…and needs to be played to truly work its magic. The combination of elemental themes and pervading sense of decay suffusing the environments herein work in more subtle ways, but they do work – where the previous installments required quick thinking and focused on a wide diversity of tasks, the structure of this module very much mimics the flame and fire of its element: It begins with a slow burn, ignites and then continues to increase the heat. Unlike the previous modules, this one’s focus is less on investigation and more on pure wilderness survival against a cadre of lethal adversaries and challenges. This does not, by any means, make the module bad, mind you – the modular, somewhat sandboxy depiction of the island and its perils fits the theme and provides a welcome change of pace, with “burning” – both physically and metaphorically (fear, faith, rage, disease, etc.), constituting an apt leitmotif for the module. While my personal favorite remains the third of these modules, ultimately all of them, this included, can be considered to be masterpieces; to what extent depends on your taste, but their quality as such cannot be doubted.
My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and, yes, nomination as a candidate for my top ten of 2015.
Since this seems, for now, to be the last of the Shattered Heart-adventures, let me with some observations regarding the whole adventure arc (APs are whole campaigns in my book that span at least two thirds of PC-levels…):
Shattered Heart is one of the smartest and most rewarding linked series of adventures I’ve read. The saga constantly takes note and the community point gauge for moral behavior works well, though the farther the modules progress, the easier it becomes to maintain a good chunk of them. The tactics of the primary antagonist are a joy and befitting of a creature sporting this intellect and agenda. Maps that feature illusions as handouts remain one of my favorite things to see in a given module and going the extra mile in that regard is fantastic. The awareness of modularity and fact that this series assumes smart players is refreshing – players are rewarded constantly for using their brain and showing compassion.
The critical achievement of the series, to me, lies in the fact that it takes basically one of the blandest plotline-structures (Re-consecrate elemental temples? Oh, haven’t seen that one before…) and blows you away with it – both thanks to the unique cultures and downright awesome environments you explore, this series manages to make the old trope of elemental temples actually work with a narrative vibrancy that invigorates one’s inspiration. The problem for all authors out there, though, is that from now on, any elemental-themed module will automatically be compared with this series…and beating it will be exceedingly difficult. The end of the saga if open and deservedly so – the Shattered Heart-series presented herein very much inspired me as a GM…and it certainly could use two or three follow-up modules…perhaps the “Sickened Heart”? The curious amount of two rather rare outsiders, time and again, do point towards further threats to Piccolo…and I sure as hell want to see the PCs trying to clear Carlyetta’s name, engage in the shadow politics and backdealing of the society here…heck, should this ever be made into a hardcover, rest assured that both setting and expanded adventure-possibilities exist in abundance. The fact that each module plays differently, but manages to retain the same exceedingly high quality standard is impressive – most series sooner or later falter, at least a bit. This does not. Shattered Heart, as a collective, is a gem that establishes Michael Allen as one of my favorite adventure authors. Get these modules – they’re worth every single penny.
You can get this inspired module in the Pathfinder-rules here on OBS!
Want the Fantasy Grounds-version for PFRPG? You can get that here!
Do you prefer D&D 5th edition? The module can be found here!
Want the 5e-Fantasy Grounds version? Well, it’s here!