Lord of the Black Sands
This is part five of seven in a comprehensive review of the entire Extinction Curse Adventure Path. You’ll be able to read all the parts below.
part 1 • part 2 • part 3 • part 4 • part 5 • part 6 • accessories
[EDITORS NOTE: If this is your first experience with the Second Edition Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, you may want to consider starting with our previous review of the Core Rulebook. -dc]
When we last left our intrepid heroes of the Circus of Wayword Wonders, they were enjoying a prosperous run in the city of Willowside; after successfully defending the city from a Siege of the Dinosaurs. What is in store for the newly Level 15 characters, when they clash with The Lord of the Black Sands on their way to Level 18? Let’s see what the Paizo website says:
“On the hunt for a life-giving aeon orb far below the surface world, the heroes venture into a blighted Darklands waste known as the Vault of the Black Desert. Facing off against lurking, vampire-like urdefhan and even stranger subterranean beasts, the heroes track the lost artifact to an enclave of undead dark elves in the twisted city at the vault’s blackened heart, where they must confront the malevolent mummy who strives to become the desert’s eternal sovereign!“
The Lord of the Black Sands is unique so far in the Extinction Curse adventure path. The only actual circus performances are part of the transition between parts four and five, with this book seamlessly beginning whenever the players and GM decide they are done performing in Willowside. After some brief transitional scenes, the circus heads off to wherever the GM wants (likely towards the town of Diobel where Part 6 begins), but they do so without their heroes. The players, instead, are teleported into the underground caverns of the Darklands.
The first chapter of the book is an extended travel sequence through a Crystal Cavern, an Iridescent Garden of bioluminescent flora, and a Ruined Outpost before arriving in the Vault of the Black Desert. The Black Desert is, more literally than most, a big ol’ sandbox. There is a ton of open desert and multiple locations marked on a general map of the desert, with only a very few of them important to this story. One such location provides an entertaining sequence of Exploration Activities to challenge this is one of the areas that players can utilize a Performance check in lieu of other skills.
The Second chapter is still largely sandbox exploration, but with a more focused goal. The players must find and decipher a number of clues to triangulate the location of the next chapter. The clues are specific enough that players can hopefully figure them out, while also being cryptic enough to allow the GM a great deal of leeway in guiding them to the answers if they need it. As with many things throughout the adventure path, the deduction part of this can be circumvented by the GM entirely if it’s not enjoyable for the players.
The final chapter is half urban exploration adventure and half “dungeon crawl” adventure. The players should (but don’t have to) spend a great deal of time garnering influence around the city, including time with the Red Circus. In this case, “circus” is used in a more classical Greco-Roman sense, but it does provide the players with another opportunity to unleash their Performance skills. The adventure “ends” when they [no spoilers], but there are still choices to be made surrounding the outcome that can be used to fill out your play-time a bit as you transition into the next part.
I’ve mention Performance skills and checks a few times, and in a bit of detail in my Seige of the Dinosaurs review two weeks ago, but never in a lot of detail. So here’s some more detail. This entire adventure path is designed around the premise that the players are part of a travelling circus. There are roles that players can take outside the three rings, but most players will want to find their way into that spotlight. This goes all the way back, into character creation. Paizo usually puts out a PDF player’s guide for their Adventure Paths, and Extinction Curse is no exception. It gives players a ton of character advice; including recommended backgrounds, including some new ones, and suggests some Skills that a player may want to select. Prominent in those potential skills is the oft-overlooked Performance skill. Part of the character creation for this adventure involves creating a Signature Trick to perform in the circus shows. Depending on the character design, any skill may be usable, but Performance is a key one. Another part of the process is selecting an Archetype, and parts 1 and 2 (and technically 3, but not as circusy) give some specific Archetypes which will let you access more specific Skills and Feats that may list Performance as a prerequisite. During a circus show, players will make a Performance (or whatever skill) Check to entertain an audience, but the need to perform can find it’s way into many unexpected places. Specifically in these adventures, but also in your homebrewed games.
Every GM likes extra background, so there is a gazetteer on the city of Shraen and a look at some of the Cults you might encounter there and across the Darklands. The Adventure Toolbox is more heavily packed with adventure-specific spells and gear, and even the bestiary portion is almost entirely adventure-specific. You know you’re in for a wild ride when the Toolbox chapter has neither the need nor space, for extra padding.
The only thing I didn’t love in this was the maps. While each one was exceptional in its own right, they didn’t always seem to connect up as well as usual. There are also a couple of locations that are explicitly three dimensional, and they had opposite issues, one was hard to interpret from the top-down view, while the other showed a 45º 3D image with a normal top-down 2D grid. But all told, Lord of the Black Sands brings a unique and varied experience to the table and I loved it. If you had a group of Level 15-18 adventurers in an existing game, it would be very easy to drop any or all of this book into most campaigns with very little modification.
I’ll be back in another two weeks with the sixth and final part of the Extinction Curse Adventure Path: The Apocalypse Prophet.