Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
The Bastards of Erebus is the first adventure in the Council of Thieves adventure path, the first Adventure Path by Paizo written explicitly for the Pathfinder RPG; their previous four AP products having been for the 3.5e rules. It is written by Sean K. Reynolds, a long-time veteran of the RPG industry.
It’s also a great disappointment.
The Council of Thieves adventure path has problems as a whole, and these are not helped by The Bastards of Erebus. The basic idea of the adventure is fine. Characters in a Lawful Evil society (Cheliax) join a rebel group, flee from the law, rescue their leader, and then take on bandits the law has ignored to boost their credentials. That all works well. It’s in the execution that it all falls apart.
The biggest problems of the adventure come at the start, as the party flees the law after meeting a rebel organiser, Janiven. This takes place in a mad chase through the sewers. Well, I say chase, but what it actually comes down to is the DM rolling dice and throwing random encounters at the players until everyone gets bored and goes home. This is meant to get the characters up to 2nd level. No map of the sewers is provided because mazes are frustrating in RPGs. This is true. This doesn’t make how this adventure handles it better.
The fundamental problem of the sewer section is that the choices the party make don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if they turn left or right, go forward or back. The end of the sewers is determined by the DM: “You should place this exit once the PCs have had enough encounters to reach 2nd level, or once their resources have run so critically low that going on for much longer becomes too difficult.”
Or, it’s when they start getting glassy eyes and start playing games on their mobile phones. That’s probably also a clue that the sewers have become boring.
It would help if the encounters in the sewers were more interesting. Unfortunately, they aren’t. One of the commoner foes in the sewers are the Sewer Goblins, and they have unbelievable stats: AC 16, hp 9, two attacks at -6 dealing 1d4-1 hp (and possible sneak attack +1d6). You will meet between 1 and 3 of them, and a single goblin is CR ½, which is probably generous. I haven’t mistyped their attack values: they are first level rogues attacking with broken weapons they aren’t proficient with, thus -6 to hit. It sort of enters the sphere of “why bother”? What you actually have here is an incredibly swingy monster: on a natural twenty it hits and drops a character (if it’s lucky enough to sneak attack), otherwise they stand there looking stupid.
Assuming your players haven’t gotten bored and gone home due to the interminable encounters in the sewers, eventually you allow them to reach the hideout, where about ten would-be rebels greet you. The other dissidents actually don’t have any part to play in the rest of the adventure path, but they’re described here in case you want to expand their parts and (ahem) do some role-playing.
Also described - and more key to the adventure path - are the rebel leaders Janiven and Arael. Unfortunately for the rebels (who have just named themselves the Children of Westcrown, or something of your players’ choice), Arael isn’t there: he’s been captured by the Hellknights. The group get to rescue him in the one part of this adventure that actually works. Janiven goes with some of the rebels to cause a diversion, allowing the players to attack the prisoner transport and rescue Arael. It’s effective and enjoyable.
After Arael is back with the group, the real business of organising a rebellion against the government can begin. An interlude that introduces the characters to an insufferable actor who will appear in the second installment is one of the better-handled parts of this adventure, but the adventure then suggests three other small missions the group could go through instead of taking space to properly detail them. At this point, I rather wish SKR had detailed them rather the pointlessly long sewer section.
The final part of the adventure has the group going up a bandit group (The Bastards of Erebus) that has been harassing the citizens of Westcrown and that the Powers That Be have been ignoring. Incredibly, despite detailing the buildings around their lair (some of which have encounters that are quite important), the module does not include a map of the area. This is really incompetent design.
The status of this adventure as First Pathfinder Adventure becomes clear as the adventure references monster stats (wolf skeletons) that aren’t actually anywhere in the Bestiary. The lair of the Bastards of Erebus is effective after the problems with the map, and fairly small, but it’s got quite a bit of combat in it and can prove difficult for a group to clear in one expedition if they don’t find one of the secret passages.
And that ends The Bastards of Erebus. As it stands, it’s extremely underwritten and shouldn’t take your players that long to negotiate - it took our group all of one session, albeit with the sewers mostly excised from the adventure.
The adventure also has problems related to the greater adventure path. Introducing the Hellknights as enemies will prove problematic later on when the group needs to work with them. A greater problem relates the shadow beasts that prowl the streets of Westcrown at night, and are one of the major plot strands in the adventure path: they aren’t used here at all! There’s not even a random encounter table for the foes that appear at night. The adventure doesn’t really establish some of the major themes of the AP very well.
This is not a highlight of Paizo’s products, and it is the start of a long chain of misfires that makes up the Council of Thieves AP. Thankfully, the second adventure was written by Richard Pett, bringing a rather interesting new dynamic to the story: the heroes have to become actors! As for The Bastards of Erebus, it has parts that work, but is much, much weaker than it should be.
I wish I read this before I picked up the book. This is very insightful.