Heart of the Razor
This expansion anthology of 4 adventures to enhance Razor Coast clocks in at 162 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page ToC, 2 pages char-sheet, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 152 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?This being a review of an adventure-anthology, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here?
First of the adventures would be Richard Pett's "Angry Waters" for 10th level characters - which could be summed up in the words "Quest for Eldorado," at least on a superficial level. The PCs are recruited by one dazzling lady-captain, captain Mercy and her crew - they require the PC's assistance, since they've found the legendary veiled isle - unfortunately, it's within the territory of Armada. What's Armada, you ask? Well, if you've read China Miéville's "The Scar", you'll have an idea - Uriah Tame, the vile lord of the place, lords over a lawless city made of vessels tethered together. Unfortunately, Tame and Mercy aren't exactly on speaking terms. Thus, accompanying the crew on their voyage, the PCs are off to said place. Here, a rather cool mechanic takes root -the PC's actions accrue Victory Points, which serves as a means for the DM to determine the loyalty of Mercy and her crew towards the PCs...and whether they'll be betrayed. Neat! It should also be noted that the module offers quite an array of troubleshooting advice, should the PCs betray Mercy at given stages in the module, making it rather easy to run. But back to Armada - in order to secure passage, the PCs will have to brave the decadent, chaotic revels on Armada in a cool mini-game of skill and, potentially, combat.
Securing passage, the PCs then finally reach the isle in question...which first brings me to an issue. Armada...ought to be more detailed, Seriously, I love the concept (air elementals as spies, btw.!) and its presence in the module, but at the same time, I feel that Armada would change the power dynamics in Razor Coast as a setting, whereas it here is mostly an afterthought to the plot of this one module. So DMs using this in razor Coast probably ought to give some thought to the change of dynamics Armada's existence poses to the power dynamics of the coast. That complaint out of the way, the island is interesting - displayed as a mini-hex-crawl (YEAH!), not only has another crew of pirates been stranded there (and make neat adversaries/allies, depending on your PC's actions!), the island is also home to degenerate orcs sired by the local girallon populace, which makes for formidable guerilla foes. Worse, said intelligent primates are led by a deadly girallon vampire, offering the true Pett-horror in terrible traps and truly spooky environments. What about e.g. a corpse of a fallen pirate, stuck on a tree and stuffed with rotten fruit, thus attracting swarms of hornets? Yeah, shudder-worthy...in a good way.
Sooner or later, the PCs will finally reach the city of gold - beyond the gold, deadly guardians remain, as do sadistic traps (which I will not spoil) as well as some old-schoolish puzzle-like hazards. Exploration of the city will sooner or later put the PCs in a position, where they may wake an ancient evil and defeat it...also dooming the island, which proceeds to sink, while all hell breaks loose. As they are trying to escape with as much gold as possible, the PCs will reap what they have sown throughout the module and potentially have final chances to out-gambit their opposition. A rather uncommon module that shows well that Richard Pett's talent is not limited to dark adventures - he can obviously craft old-school explorations just as well!
The second module, would be Gary McBride's "Black Spot" - in which the PCs are once again hired for a mission, this time by one captain Riggs, who wants them to help him salvage the grounded wreck of the Flying Fortune, which is stranded on a tooth-like mountain in the middle of the sea. Once again, the journey provides ample opportunities for bonding with the crew. As soon as the PCs reach the iconic locale, though, a completely different tone begins - exploring the Flying Fortune proves to be one of the finest examples of mood-setting I've seen in any mystery/horror module - the slowly creeping suspicions rising, inquisitive PCs may soon deduce that something's not right with captain Riggs. Indeed, he was the captain of the Flying Fortune and as clues accumulate, the PCs may actually find out that he's possessed by a weird, parasitic black leech. Taking the captain prisoner, killing or saving him or falling prey to his wiles, the PCs find themselves in a nightmare most uncommon: Riggs ran afoul of the wiles of the Engineer - the vanguard of a planned neh-thalggu invasion, whose ship is hidden in the depths, just missing a few brains to launch true otherworldly death on the Razor Coast. In order to stop the aberration's plan, the PCs will have to brave the vastly iconic and superb ship and its dread inhabitants:
From strange undead-like creatures to jade butterflies used for scrying (which are also rather deadly!) up to a heart-pounding race to escape the self-destruct of the ship upon the defeat of the dread engineer, this mystery/horror-module makes for a superb offering - even in Gary McBride's great oeuvre, this one stands out as one superb example of adventure-crafting, including the extensive notes on possible aftermaths. Glorious indeed and both as stand-alone and as part of Razor Coast, a great module!
The third module, intended for 11th-12th level, would be Owen K.C. Stephens' "Jungle Fever" - yes, grandmaster crunch actually took up the pen for an adventure - but how does it fare and what's it about? It starts with a simple, yet uncommon hook - the PCs are hired by the mistress of a brothel, which has suffered from a curse/returning disease that is, of course, bad for business. But, and that is no hyperbole - your players won't see where this module is going with that angle. Soooo...players, seriously, skip ahead... All right. What happens if isolated Tulita become desperate? They, in this case, turned to a dragon turtle as a false deity, cannibalism and worse....and no one would care. Problem is, their island harbors a special plant which amplifies the power of the dragonsmoke-drug. A Tulita survivor seeking help stumbled across a truly vile captain with this drug and she promptly set out to erect her own, no less vile and despicable colonial nightmare on the island, enslaving everyone, poisoning the dragon turtle and killing the spiritual leader of the tribe in a most gruesome manner. Now her super-drug didn't catch universally due to limited supplies and the wanton cruelty of her men - and now, only one of her former crew remains, for the wench has reaped what she's sown - the dread cannibalistic shaman turned the tables upon his vanquishers upon returning from the dead, making terrible disease-creature-incubators of the living and turning the island into full-blown nightmare territory. In order to stop the disease and its undead carriers, the PCs have to find the island, navigate its treacherous reefs and end the various despicable existences on the island as well as the false turtle-totem and its degenerate offspring -preferably including all the dread dragonsmoke enhancing flowers and before Pele smashes the island for the atrocities there. Seriously...wow. If I hadn't known better, I would have assumed one of the masters of dark horror here - Owen K.C. Stephens delivers in spades here, with a module that encapsulates all the terrors of colonialism without falling into the "tulita are good"-glorification some parts of Razor Coast fall prey to. This module is dark, iconic, action-packed and full of great, unique creatures. If you've asked yourself why Paizo got Owen for their module-series - here's a superb reason. I've always said that I'd enjoy it if Owen wrote more fluff - this one is an excellent example for that stance. Impressive indeed!
The final module, by Tom Knauss, would then be "Sinful Whisper" for 5th level characters - but can it stand up to its predecessors? The PCs are hired for a task they're bound to hate rather soonish - escort a noble scion, a pampered (but capable!), arrogant elven woman to a taboo island where her former vessel was attacked, her fellow noble scions taken by bestial men. The thing is - the island isn't taboo for nothing - chocked in hallucination-inducing, paranoia-enhancing spores, populated by degenerate subhuman creatures, the trip to the island not only will lead them all into dire danger, but also on a journey into the heart of the surprisingly dynamic elven maid - who may be turned towards good or evil, all by the PC's actions - if they manage to survive the truly dastardly creatures and not lose their sanity to the plants of the place, the vile practices there or the ancient evil slumbering beneath the island's soil, waiting patiently for its time to return to truly vile glory... This module is psychological horror paired with some truly disturbing imagery and on par with the best and most disturbing ones I've read for PFRPG - a good indicator that Tom Knauss should try his hand at these types of modules more often!Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn't notice an undue amount of glitches. Layout adheres to Razor Coast's two-column full color standard and the pdf comes with quite a few iconic, awesome original pieces of full-color artwork. The pdf comes with one bookmark per adventure, which makes navigating rather hard and in the pdf, at least the cover is a bit blurry - something absent from my hardcover copy. The maps in full color are great, though I wished they had player-friendly versions included in the map folio.
4 modules by masters of their craft - and I don't use that lightly - and all 4 are killer. Seriously, all 4 of the modules in this book greatly enhance not only a Razor Coast campaign, but can easily stand alone. In fact, at least "Angry Waters" probably works slightly better as a stand-alone, with Armada otherwise changing the political landscape of the coast a bit too much for my tastes. The other 3 are plug-and play in the truest form, with the last one offering actually a way into Port Shaw's elite sans rubbing shoulders with the despicable masters of the place and thus making for an all but required addition for particularly virtuous groups. Now let me say this again, loud and clear - each module herein is killer. Each one, 5 star + seal of approval material. However, the scarce bookmarks and lack of player-friendly maps make for somewhat significant detriments. Usually, I'd rate this down a whole star for these issues...but the modules don't deserve that. They're too good, even providing, in multiple instances, vistas that help make the Tulita less annoying one-dimensional good guys. As such, I think they should be considered required for Razor Coast. If I may offer a piece of advice for DMs: Don't fall back quite as often on the "island-sinks"-gimmick as implied here; a given campaign should probably one employ this plot-device once and I'd suggest "Angry Waters" as the best candidate. Owen K.C. Stephens' module doesn't require the sinking and actually poses an interesting conundrum if the island remains...
But I'm rambling. Long story short - too good to be rated down, in spite of some comfort-detriments - 5 stars + seal of approval.
You can /And should) get these awesome modules here on OBS
or here on d20pfsrd.com's shop!
If you rather roll old-school, here the link for the S&W-version here on OBS
and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop! Endzeitgeist out.
546 pages, 1 page front cover (by Wayne Reynolds), 1 page editorial, 3 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page dedication, 5 pages of advertisement, 1 page back cover.
That leaves 534 pages.
It's been a long time since Razor Coast has been released and there's a reason my review took this long. First of all, let me preface this with a disclaimer: I can't, by any means, be truly neutral regarding Razor Coast. I just can't. you see, there would be no Endzeitgeist without this book. It was Razor Coast that made me excited enough about a book to actually end my online abstinence and register at Sinister Adventures back in the day. I didn't even have a Paizo account. I had no idea Rite Publishing or Open Design even existed. Without this book, NONE of my reviews would have ever been written. Without it, none of the friendships, none of the kind people would have ever entered my life. I was stunned by the kindness of Nick and Lou and then...Sinister Adventures went down. My heart bled, I raged, I reasoned...all the steps of grief, as pathetic as that may sound. I never ordered a refund. I waited. When Frog God Games took Razor Coast and uploaded the KS, I thought "NO WAY" - why? Because the funding goal seemed insane. The requirement to commit 30-buck preorders from back in the day, get new artwork etc. blew up the goal and you can't begin to understand the amount of exhilaration I felt when it funded...with flying colors, reaching all those stretch-goals. I couldn't believe it. At this point, not only had Razor Coast's prior vapor ware status been the grain of sand that was in the center of my decision to go reviewer, it had amassed such a n epic level of expectations, I started dreading the arrival of the massive tome (#213, btw.!) and all the bonus books I went for via the KS.
Then, I started reading it. And from a reviewer's perspective, I was looking at a problem of no small proportions - Razor Coast seems to defy proper reviewing. Usually, when I take a look at a module, I take a look at the plot, hooks etc. and then give you a synopsis of what to expect, try to analyze issues with the plot etc. Alternatively, a sandbox gets a similar treatment, but more free-form. Well, Razor Coast refuses to fit in either mold. So what is this monster's structure? We have inciting incidents, that kick off a given arc - two massive major plot-arcs suffuse this tome. These are supplemented with vignettes, set-pieces and stand-alone encounters as well as relationship subplots. These are here, and in the end, it's up to DM and players to decide in- and outgame which/what to pursue. Essentially, Razor Coast tries to combine the free-form modularity of a true sandbox campaign with the plot-driven structure of an AP.
Now, usually, I'd just give you a run-down of the general plot-structure - that doesn't work here. If I were to list everything herein, this review would probably be as long as all my Slumbering Tsar-reviews combined. So instead, I'll tell you about what can be found herein: First of all, there would be indulgences, i.e. Sinister Adventures' small pdfs, converted to the PFRPG-ruleset. This means that Craig Shackleton's dueling rules, including the bind combat maneuver, have been updated. These are intended to essentially make the swashbuckler a more valid option char-build wise and if used as intended for low-armor, dex-based fighter, makes sense. The thing is, the feats aren't particularly weak and while not per se broken, e.g. treating a one-handed piercing weapon as a reach weapon can be broken badly - enlarge character, magus levels etc. At prereq BAB +1, too easy to abuse, also thanks to the feat not requiring an explicit action, thus making it possible to combine this with other feats. Then again, the parrying rules per se are solid and have seen some use in my game. The Tulita-ethnography comes the throw maneuver (which feels unnecessary) and also some feats, one of which isn't as broken as it was in 3.X, but fixing unarmed threat range at 18 sans following usual rules of threat range enhancements would be bound to lead to confusion. The Mai'kal archetype gets a somewhat broken ability at 15th level, allowing them to, as an immediate action, reverse an attack on the adversary 1/round as an immediate action for 1 ki point. The essay on underwater adventuring contained here is also nice, though after the release of both Sunken Empires and Alluria Publishing's glorious Cerulean Seas, there are better options. But you don't want me to pick this one apart crunch-wise, do you? The adventure is what counts, so what can I say about it before I go into spoilers?
Let's give you an overview - the Razor Coast is a tropical paradise, though not one sans its dark past. The native population, the Tulita, lived in relative peace until colonialization began and the white/yellow/black/whatever men came and defeated them handsomely. Now, the once sacred whales are hunted, the eggs of the venerable turtle smashed and colonial ignorance has erected Port Shaw, a thriving port on sacred ground. Dark days have found the paradise in peril, as racial tensions rise and evil conspires above and beneath the waves. Here, one thing should be noted - the writing is superb. In a genre, where Freeport and Sasserine constitute two very iconic settlements with their own flavor, making a given age of sail-style settlement stand out is quite a feat and neither settlement would be confused with Port Shaw (though they probably could replace it with some work) -the writing makes the settlement, the whole coast really, come to life from the pages. immersion is also increased via the entries on e.g. deities in the appendix. Oh, have I mentioned that5 thanks to a collaborative effort with Green Ronin, the book actually offers information on how to handle both Freeport and Port Shaw in the same setting and how they geographically relate? Yes. Awesome.
Now beyond the leitmotif of colonialism and the resulting racial tensions and cultural warfare, we have a leitmotif of progress vs. nature in the guise of colonial powers destreyinbg natural resources and killing essentially the sacred animal guides of the Tulita. This topic per se is rather subdued, though its presence can be felt in one of the main plots, but more on that later. Now I've mentioned relationship subplots - and these deserve the moniker. Essentially, Razor Coast is as character-driven and NPC-rich as you want and a former band of heroes, down on their luck and destined for an inglorious downfall, is provided in excruciating detail - these beings are characters in the truest sense of the word and while they all have been broken, the PCs have a chance to mend them. The same btw. holds true for the legendary widow of Captain Razor and even some antagonists - overall, indifference will lead to depressing ends indeed, while invested PCs can truly make a difference and save those souls from the abyss into which they gaze. If you're like me and read these, you'll probably recognize yourself or some of your friends n their darkest hours in these NPCs - yes, they're that detailed. So if your PCs are big on the ROLE of roleplaying, Razor Coast provides ample potential.
A DM also gets special tools - essentially, a level-by-level breakdown of potential plotlines/encounters to run as well as check-list-sheets for the respective levels/phases of the plot as well as an NPC-relationship tracker help further in making sense of the tremendously complex, vast array of potential plots one can craft from Razor Coast. Which is rather interesting, for the plot per se is as strong as you'd expect from a linear AP:SPOILERS
Essentially, colonialism and the killing of animals has helped dread shark-god Dajobas and his chosen to return to shore. Dread were-sharks have infiltrated Port Shaw and expect to hold a massive feast of carnage and death in its streets. Furthermore, the legendary kraken-fiend has all but taken control of Port Shaw via a secret society and plans to soon reap the city. Then former plot is conspiracy 1, the second one no.2 and both make for linear, rather epic (apocalyptic, even!) scenes - within the modularity of the vast tome, these stories are what drives the meta-plot. And yes, they're infinitely more complex, tied to x characters, strange islands, sunken treasures, betrayals long past etc. And yes, in order to not bloat this review beyond 20 pages, that's all you'll be hearing from me regarding the plot(s)./SPOILERS
Soooo...those plots and all the encounters, flavor etc. need to be organized. The tools are there. Before we go into that, another caveat, though - look at the end of the book. Among the indulgences, several mini-modules await and the book also features essentially what can be considered an additional Voodoo-themed adventure that is completely optional. These are NOT part of the main-book's outline, nor are the modules from the expansion "Heart of the Razor", though the latter help with levels in which the main material is a bit less versatile than one would expect. It should also be noted that the appendix features new creatures galore, including, yes, undead cannibal pygmies (and their unliving totems!), a race of degenerate Cyclopes, drugs, items both mundane and magical and much, much more. Have I mentioned the hand-out driven puzzle/treasure map, options for underwater adventuring etc.?
Since its formal approach to adventure-craft is so different, the grand question would be how to rate this... which brings me, perhaps to a surprisingly earlyConclusion:
Editing and formatting are surprisingly good for a book of this length - while there are glitches in here, they are relatively few and far in-between. Layout adheres to a parched-map-style full-color 2-column standard that is easy to read. The respective full color artworks are universally drop-dead-gorgeous and the maps are as well. While some maps have the scaling-numbers slightly pixelated, the maps themselves are plenty and beautiful. Furthermore, the map folio offers player-handout-style maps of the respective areas herein, adding for me tremendously to their use. The massive tome comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks for your convenience. The pdf's artworks sometimes feel a bit less high-res than those present in the hardcover - if you can, I'd definitely suggest going for the full-color dead tree tome. Printing this would probably cost more in ink/toner than just getting the book anyways.
There's another reason for this - you'll need post-its. Seriously. A metric ton of post-its. I have a very good memory, but still - running this behemoth will require you to have a lot of things at your fingertips, even with all the help the book tries to give you.
Which also brings me to the reason why this took forever - first of all: Novice-DMs need not apply. Sorry. Even for me, who considers running modules of ZEITGEIST-complexity easy, with years of sandboxing campaign information, this is a rather complex endeavor. The best advice I can give is to read the whole book. At least twice. Which won't be an issue, since the respective areas are full of iconic encounters, compelling characters and superbly dark, gritty, nail-biting climaxes. The writing is superb and just glorious. It should also be noted that the shades-of-grey themes actually are there - while the Tulita generally are pictured as the good guys, there are ample exceptions and only scarcely does the book stoop to painting a clear b/w-contrast. When it does, though, it MAY be slightly jarring - the whole book essentially portrays the process of colonialization in all its violence and despicable facets. Indigenous population under control via drugs? Yes. Cultures destroyed? Yes. Slavery? Yes.
There are not much saving graces for the powers that be here and thematically, that is the only narrative weak spot in an otherwise surprisingly versatile plot. While the book actually manages for the most part to maintain complex moralities and shades of grey in all protagonists and even in some of the more despicable antagonists, when it comes to the Tulita, it sometimes reverts to simple b/w: Portraying them in a very much romanticized noble savage-way. I'm been discriminated against and personally, it's probably this experience that makes me consider this to be, in its way, just as problematic as a demonization of a given people. In any other setting/module, I wouldn't have complained here, but in the gritty, surprisingly deep Razor Coast, this feels a bit off at times, especially due to generally, the depiction maintains an enlightened, non-glorifying stance. But then again, perhaps that's just the cultural studies mayor talking. To let me make this abundantly clear - this is NO white guilt-trip, theme-wise, but it also falls, by a margin, short of what it could have been in that regard.
It took me some time to analyze what made this, at least in my perception, harder to run than e.g. Slumbering Tsar and similar massive campaigns. The reasons are twofold: For one, the massive tome shoots itself somewhat in the proverbial foot by noting several sample motivations à la "Champion of the Tulita", "Allied with the Powers that be" etc. IGNORE THESE PREMISES. While one could craft a Razor Coast-campaign with these themes, the overall narrative is imho neutered by trying to shoehorn it into one of these adventure-path-like premises. Essentially, the whole of the book does not particularly support these themes. Yes, they're there, but looking for them and trying to jam the sandbox into that frame tremendously hurts the experience and limits players/could lead to a less versatile experience for them. The support for these pseudo-AP-motivations is just not pronounced enough and I'm of the conviction these hurt the book more than anything else. So, again: Ignore those.
Secondly, the organization of the massive material is more confusing than it ought to be - the "build-your-own-AP"-section with all its checklists and help doesn't help that much - or at least, it didn't help me. Why? Because it lacks the supplemental material, even from the same book. Tying indulgences and "bonus-storyline" (and Heart of the Razor) into the whole would have made this section much more useful. Another issue would be that you first get Port Shaw, then the Key-NPCs, then the planner and then the encounters/meat of the book. Essentially, the planner is talking about things, which, if you read this in a linear way, you haven't read and have no clue about. So if you start reading, skip this section and return after reading. While this isn't bad, it also makes preparing this behemoth more challenging, at least at first sight, than it ought to be. Much of the problems simply dissipate if you just read the meat of the adventure, the setting-information etc. and start planning for yourself.
One of the reasons some people experienced a slight backlash here, can be explained via the tremendous expectations associated with this tome, while others lie primarily at the problematic organization. This book would have imho fared better by sticking to a sandbox-presentation and then just add a generic time-line and insert encounters into that. Just my 2 cents, of course. Endeavoring to make this both an AP and a sandbox ends up unnecessarily complicating this.
Now all of this sounds awfully negative - and it shouldn't, let me make abundantly clear that this is a rite-of-passage-style monster-tome to separate the men from the boys, DM-wise. It's challenging (Though not Frog God Games-hard.) and ultimately a great module that takes cultural cues otherwise scarcely, if at all, explored and provides a rich, fun, dark and at times downright evil setting that oozes unique style and flair, provides superb writing, ideas galore and more potential for fun than MANY collective modules/APs of similar length.
Is it for novice-DMs? Hell no. Is it polarizing? Yes. Is the crunch universally awesome? Nope. But does this belong into every PFRPG-DM's library? In my opinion, yes.
Razor Coast is a gloriously wicked tome, superbly written and while it is not perfect, I don't regret a single cent I've spent on it. (And yes, I went all-out on the KS.) Is it the perfect tome of superlatives that years and years of expectations painted it in, in many a mind around the globe? No, but it honestly couldn't have been. What it is, is a great mega-adventure in a unique setting, full of unique, interesting characters and a living piece of PFRPG-history, a mega-adventure your players WILL keep talking about for years to come. And while it didn't make my Top Ten-list of 2013, it came damn close, by virtue of its originality, scope and ambition, by its narrative clout and the hard work of Nicolas Logue, Lou Agresta, Tim Hitchcock, John Ling, Ton Knauss, Frank Mentzer, Richard Pett, Craig Shackleton, David Posener, Greg A. Vaughan, Adam Daigle, Wolfgang Baur and Brendan Victorson.
To me, this tome is still 5 stars + seal of approval must-have material. It may not be perfect, but it is different, ambitious and downright evocative. And we need more books of that caliber, that take chances with something different, both in form and ambition. Oh, and if you're an experienced DM, you'll be hard-pressed to find a given module to better show off your skills - in the hands of one, this vision will come alive in all its blood-drenched, tropical glory.
You can get this monster for PFRPG here on OBS
and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop.
If you'd rather go old-school, there also is a Sword & Wizardry-version here on OBS
and here on d20pfsrd.com's shop. Endzeitgeist out.