“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” ― H.P. Lovecraft
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
The PCs confront Ara Mathra, a monadic deva and their final adversary in the vale. Tears of the Blessed is the third book in the Way of the Wicked campaign, a third-party published adventure path for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, using the OGL. The concept is a campaign for evil characters, consisting of six books, taking a party of four players from level 1 to level 20.
You can read my review on the previous adventure in the series here.
The book is available as a PDF—completely bookmarked, and it includes a printer-friendly version plus a player handout PDF—or as a print-on-demand softcover issue. What we have is a 100 page softcover of excellent quality, and if you purchase a print copy of the book, you also get the PDF version for free. The adventure spans the first 81 pages, with the rest taken up by two back articles, which I'll discuss later in the review.
In Tears of the Blessed, the players start off at level 10, and should reach level 13 before the adventure's end. The art is consistent and on par with the previous volumes, but the editing is a bit off this time, and I came across numerous spelling errors, omissions, and examples of bad sentence structures.
Warning: this review will contain spoilers about the plot of this adventure, so be warned if you want to continue reading beyond this point.
The adventure starts off with the party receiving the command to travel to Ghastenhall, to meet with the leader of one of the other knots, Barnabus, who poses as a priest of Mitra there. There they get a month off, after which they are to meet with Sakkarot Fire-Axe again—the bugbear general from the first book—who will supply them with an army to raid something called the Vale of Valtaerna when winter comes.
Upon arriving in Ghastenhall and meeting with Barnabus, the PCs will supply him with the Tears of Achlys, the plague that they obtained in the previous adventure. The book also gives the GM several possible answers to questions that the players might want to ask him. They now have a month to kill before their scheduled meeting with the Fire-Axe, and the author makes some suggestions for sidequests, and a bonus encounter where the PCs fight all sorts of creatures in an arena.
After a month, Tiadora—Cardinal Thorn's handmaiden devil—appears, and takes them to see the Fire-Axe. We also get a few scenarios here what happens if the players are starting to rebel against their leader—they are evil, after all. As a GM, you are to encourage this behavior, but the time is not yet right for such blatant disobedience. At this point, the PCs will be 10th level, and so they will have a reasonable chance to discover that the iron circlets they received in the first adventure are more than they appear to be. These seemingly simple items behave like a hat of disguise, but are actually far more powerful than that, and Cardinal Thorn is using them to scry on the party with divination spells.
During the meeting with the Fire-Axe, the players can engage in some roleplaying, in order to obtain part of his army to march on the Vale of Valtaerna. They also learn of three other potential allies; namely a band of duergar, a medusa, and an exiled oni mage. The party now has three months to secure these alliances, before the winter starts and their assault begins. The players can also learn that Ghastenhall is home to a vampire prince, whom they can approach for help. It's even possible for PCs to be turned into vampires themselves if they so desire, on the condition that they can help out this vampire prince. The author promises an appendix in the next installment that discusses the possibility of undead PCs, and the nature of the mission for the vampire prince means they probably won't accomplish it until the adventure's final climax.
A notable encounter in this act is the one with Dessiter, a contract devil who appears to the party to offer some counsel. He gives them some additional information about the Vale of Valtaerna and about what they will face there, and offers them an infernal contract that will supply the party with three Nessian Warhounds, CR 9 hellhounds that can serve the players. The main purpose of this encounter however, is to foreshadow Dessiter as someone that can help them out later on in the campaign, to wiggle out of the contract they signed with Cardinal Thorn.
At this point, I've mentioned the Vale of Valtaerna several times, so what is this place exactly? Basically, it's an idyllic green valley, a prayer retreat, and the center for Mitran worship in all of Talingarde. It lies in a vale surrounded by mountains, there's a town called Sanctum at the shores of a lake, and a large cathedral called Mitra Made Manifest. Besides the priests, guards, and farmers that inhabit the vale, there's also a number of celestial beings.
To conquer the vale, the PCs first have to get past the wall and the watchtower that guards the entrance. Preferably, they have to do this without the defenders sounding the gong on top of the tower, or their further conquest will be all the harder. If they simply march their entire army towards this wall, they will be facing a siege, so the recommended way is an infiltration. This does sound very similar to what they had to do in the first adventure, but this watchtower is a lot smaller in scale and only has a handful of encounters. After the watchtower, they can command their army to enter the vale, upon which they will have to fight their way to the town of Sanctum. These encounters are presented as a battle of attrition, as the players will be fighting mounted cavalry, archer units, shield archons, knights on griffons, warrior monks, and more, all in rapid succession. The author recommends the GM to push his players to the edge. They will be fighting as many as eight or nine significant battles one after the other, without the option to rest in between. This should be the fight of their lives, with death and madness on every side, and when the day is over, they should be thoroughly exhausted.
Offcourse, the party isn't alone, as they will likely have numerous allies with them. There is the bugbear army they secured from the Fire-Axe, and other (possible) allies are the duergar, the Nessian Warhounds, the medusa, the oni-mage, the vampire spawn, as well as Grumblejack the ogre from the first book. The players have the option of letting these minions handle some of the fights, and every encounter details how these choices play out. In the end, the degree of victory (or possible defeat) is determined by a system of victory points, based on the player's actions during the battle.
When the battle ends, the PCs claim Sanctum, and can do what they want with it. This is probably a good time to remind them they will have to spend three months here, as Cardinal Thorn has instructed them to occupy the vale in the winter, and to not let word out that the vale has fallen. The author gives some advice on Sanctum and possible events there. But the worst is still to come, as there are still greater threats in the vale. There is the mountain spire that stands in the center of the lake, that the players will eventually have to ascend, and where they have to fight and defeat a peri (a fiery outsider with wings of flame), and even an actual phoenix.
After this, there is still the Cathedral of Mitra Made Manifest. It's located in the far end of the vale, and can be reached by following the river. To get there, they will have to navigate a magical labyrinth, after combatting more archons, outsiders, and a storm giant. Once inside, they will have to find a way past a wall of divine fire, to reach their final foe, the angel Ara Mathra. To accomplish this, they will have to scour the cathedral's catacombs. They will also encounter the Lord-Abbot of the order here, who is engaged in a last ditch ritual to save the vale. If he is not stopped before spring begins, he will summon 5,000 ghost martyrs, who will overwhelm the vale and our villains.
After the PCs defeat Ara Mathra and extinguish the three sacred flames, their work is done. When spring comes, Cardinal Thorn will use the Tears of Achlys from the previous adventure to unleash a plague, and when the citizens arrive at the Vale of Valtaerna to sick the healing of Mitra, they will discover that the Vale is no more. The adventure ends with an advice and troubleshooting section, including advice on running it as a stand-alone adventure.
The two backmatter articles that come in the book don't really come as a surprise. The first is an 8-page gazetteer for the city of Ghastenhall, including a map. There's information here on the Duke of Ghastenhall as well, and a description of the various city districts. Ghastenhall classifies as a metropolis using the city rules from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game GameMastery Guide, so the PCs have plenty of things to explore, experience, and buy. Considering the adventure as presented has the players spending several months in the city, this is a useful—perhaps even a necessary—addition to the book.
The other article is a deity article about Mitra, the central god of worship in Talingarde, and in fact, the only god. Mitra as presented as three different facets, each with their own portfolios and domains. It gives us a detailed hierarchy of the church and how they operate, and describes the place that the Mitran faith occupies in Talingarde, in particular the political repurcussions that come out of an entire nation adhering to a single faith. It closes off describing the symbols and heraldry. An interesting fact here is that Mitra is actually based on real world mythology, and is an Indian deity of contracts, as well as having a Persian and Greek-Roman equivalent. Mitra was also used by Robert E. Howard in his Hyborian Age stories.
Tears of the Blessed left me with somewhat mixed feelings. It's refreshing to see all these good-aligned celestials as the antagonists in an adventure, since players will hardly ever get the chance to fight these in a traditional campaign. There's a monadic deva, an azata, a chalkydri angel, several movanic devas, a leonal agathion, and a peri. If this all sounds like gibberish to you, most of them are basically some sort of angels, all with a slew of damage reduction and spell resistance. As a GM, I would emphasize and play up the physical difference of all these beings, to avoid repetition, which I fear these encounters might suffer from a bit, since most of these will happen in the last part of the adventure.
My favorite part of the adventure was the attrition battle, when the PCs have to lead their army from the guardwall to the town of Sanctum, facing the vale's defenders all the while. The players will be facing some interesting choices here, as they can choose how to approach the encounters, and can opt to send in some of their minions. In reality however, most of the times their minions will be slaughtered, forcing the PCs to have to deal with the threat themselves. The most tragic part for me was how all these angels and champions get stomped into the dirt by the PCs, and it even makes me think a TPK wouldn't be all that bad, since at least then these magnificent creatures would be spared. I guess this is a feather in the cap of the author, to elicit such a reaction.
A few other things that struck me as off, were the omission of certain item stats and statblock entries. For instance, the very last encounter against the CR 16 Ara Mathra gives us his stat block, but fails to mention his gear, and in the catacombs the PCs can find three magical items—a mirror, a chalice, and a blade. And while it does describe what these items do, we don't actually get a proper statblock for them, which feels like a pretty big oversight on my part. The last thing that bothered me is the huge amounts of XP that the adventure gives out for relatively simple accomplishments, such as several CR 12 XP rewards for simply burning some books or defacing some relics. It might have been a better idea to run the campaign on the fast advancement track, but this is pretty much only a minor slight on the book, since many GMs will ignore specific XP counts anyway.
All in all, while the book as a whole has some issues, the adventure itself was still to my liking. Compared to the previous two though, this one doesn't jump out and it may even be the weakest one so far, which still means it's pretty good, since the other ones were so strong. This adventure is also a lot easier to run for a GM than its predecessors, since it's much more straightforward about what needs to be done. I feel the author has succeeded in his setup, and after playing through this installment, there's no more doubt; this campaign will make the players feel evil!
Note: Iron Reviewer 2013 - Entry #11
Great review again Kris!
I intend to convert the whole AP to Savage Worlds and run it for my FTF group.