Review of J4: The Pact Stone Pyramid

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

August 20, 2012


by: David Olshanski


Style: 5 (Excellent!)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

This is an outstanding little adventure, with a early portion that lets the characters engage in sandboxy mayhem, and second-half trick-filled pyramid that surpasses many classics in the genre.

David Olshanski has written 19 reviews, with average style of 3.26 and average substance of 3.63. The reviewer's previous review was of The Bonegarden.

This review has been read 1614 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: J4: The Pact Stone Pyramid
Publisher: Paizo Publishing
Line: d20: Golarion
Author: Michael Kortes
Category: RPG

Cost: 12.99
Pages: 32
Year: 2008

ISBN: 978-1-60125-145-9


Review of J4: The Pact Stone Pyramid


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the Pact Stone Pyramid (Paizo 2008)
By Michael Kortes
AD&D 3.5 edition for 4 characters level 8

An Osirian nobelewoman has discovered the lost pyramid of Ahn'Selota buried beneath the shifting desert sands. Hidden within it is a great magic that allowed the Four Pharaohs of Ascension to rule the land. If this corrupt sorcererss gets her hands on this power, she'll bring back the ancient pharaohs and rule beside them, eradicating the current government in Osirion and plunging the region into immortal despotism. With tens of thousands of lives at stake, the only way for the PCs to stop her is to find the source of the magic before she does and destroy it—or steal it for themselves.

THE BASICS:
The adventure is 32 pages long, cover price of $12.99 American.

Depending on how thoroughly your party explores or how mission oriented they are, some encounters will be bypassed. In my estimation, there are:

In this adventure, NONE of the trap/tricks were ordinary traps (spiked pit, glyph of warding), every trap had unusual tricks to it, requiring more than a skill roll to resolve. There is a great "crushing room" trap, that some players will see happening, but they may not recognize it as a trap until they are in trouble, at which point they'll slap their forehead as something they should have recognized sooner. These are my favorite kind of tricks--they challenge the player rather than the "character build".

Plot Overview
The first third of the adventure has the players trying to sabatoge a massive archeological dig site. This is very open ended, and the adventure outlines a broad number of ways that the PCs can engage in sabatoge, (from spreading rumors of a curse, to weakening architectural supports, to intercepting supply caravans. I almost wondered if the author was not familiar with published adventures, because this was so unconventional in a published adventure. This sabatoge is the kind of fun stuff that homebrew-only DMs let their crazy players get away with. It is very well written and very well organized, so that the players comfortably have an unprecedented amount of freedom to come up with their own plans. Eventually, after the PCs have delayed the dig for long enough, the PCs may have a chance to sneak into the pyramid themselves, or perhaps they'll compromise with the person running the dig. This again is very open to player freedom, giving them a number of very resonable ways to get inside the pyramid. The pyramid itself is a masterpiece of brilliant little tricks and a few unconventional combats. There is a gaurdian devil that is bound bound by a contract to remain until he has killed 56 robbers. True to form, the devil is trying to weasel out of the contract, so he WANTS the players to survive long enough to encourage other people to come into the pyramid. The guardian devil is a great antagonist, as he is simultaneously conflicted to both help and harm the party. The devil is bored with his long confinement and relishes the opportunity to engage the party in some conversation before killing them. The adventure shares some NPCs, locations, and plot points with a previous adventure by this author, "Entombed with the Pharaohs" (for 6th level characters_, but the two adventures are completely stand-alone. One of the plot points involves the noblewoman trying to bring back to life the ancient pharaohs from the previous adventure--the same pharaohs that the party may have encountered and defeated in their undead form in the previous adventure.

Strengths
The early roleplaying portions give the players a huge amount of freedom. It is far more open than other published adventures. The encounters in the pyramid are brilliant and devious. There is not a single routine encounter here. weaknesses of adventure

Weakness
If your players are used to routine dungeon bashes, these tricky encounters may seem unfair. There are multiple paths in the top level of the pyramid, each that lead to the next level. Some of those paths have tricks that are difficult to solve or survive without some information or magic available until further on. Particularly a room with a coin trick (area 5) and a room with a scales trick (area 6) both are much easier to solve with hints or magic available deeper in the pyramid.

THE SPECIFICS:
I don't give much weight to text density and cost per page... I'd rather pay a lot for a small clever mystery than pay a little for a huge repetitive monster bash. I don't give much weight to new monsters, prestige classes, and magic items... they can add a little variety to an adventure, but to me they are minor decoration.

1. Interesting and varied encounters (I look for unique encounters, allowing for a variety of role and roll playing.): (5/5)
These encounters are outstanding. I haven't seen sabatoge encounters on such a scale before. Inside the pyramid, the tricks and traps stand up to some of the best encounters I've seen in many other adventures. I enjoyed reading "I3-Pharaoh" for 1E, and "Return to the Tomb of Horrors" in 2E, and the "Dread crypt of Srihoz" for 3E, and In my opinion the tricks here are at least as good as the best that those earlier adventures had.
Combat is fairly sparse in this adventure, and to me that is a good thing, as I slightly prefer the problem-solving and roleplaying parts of the game. At least one of the significant "tricks" is sort of a combat encounter. There is a trap in which swarms of carnivorous beetles are unleashed on the party, but as the beetles are released they are enchanted with both silence and improved invisibility. This means that the party may find themselves suddenly getting eaten alive with invisible bugs crawling over them, and the silence prevents their warning the other players or even casting spells.

2. Motivations for monsters and NPCs (or some detail of how they interact with their environment or neighbors.): (5/5)
The NPCs and monsters have excellent motivations. There are three mostly antagonist NPCs, and two allied NPCs, and they all act reasonably to achieve their goals. The NPCs are all well weritten, some of whome may agree to compromises with the party, depending on their actions.

3. Logical (the adventure should obey a sense of logic that clever players can use to their advantage): (5/5)
The tricks in the adventure are surprisingly logical. A lot of time these ancient tombs seem like random deathtraps, but these tricks are extremely well thought out. For example, there is a treasure room that is blocked by an anti-life shell. The pyramid builders would send mindless skeletons to retrieve any treasure, and replace the treasures when they were finished with them. There is even a scroll of animate dead and some body parts just outside the treasure room. (whether the party will think to use the scroll to explore the next room is another question).

4. Writing Quality (foreshadowing, mystery, and descriptions that bring locations and NPCs to life): (4/5)
The writing is all very good. The characters were believable. The descriptions of the rooms were interesting.
At the beginning of the pyramid, there are 4 distinct routes, and I am think those could have been somehow tied to the 4 pharaohs of ascension, with some clues as to what the challenges would be. I mentioned earlier that 2 of the puzzles have solutions available only after the puzzle is passed, unless the party happens to loop around to the puzzle from a different route.

5. Ease of GMing (Clear maps, friendly stat blocks, skill check numbers, player handouts and illustrations): (4/5)
The maps are clear. There is read-aloud boxed text. The stat blocks were clear.
There was excellent sample dialog for the "plot-hook" NPC, and a tiny bit of dialog with the guardian devil. I would like to have seen sample dialog for the other antagonist NPCs, particularly the person running the dig.
There were no player handouts. I really would liked to have seen a player handout version of the archeological dig, perhaps even with some of the main features included in the illustration. For example, there are charmed ankhegs pulling loads of sand on cables. There are ramps that workers are using to climb out of the pits, etcetera. I'd like to have just given the players a large illustration of the site, and let them come up with some sabatoge plans on their own.

FINAL WORD:
This is an outstanding little adventure, with a early portion that lets the characters engage in sandboxy mayhem, and second-half trick-filled pyramid that surpasses many classics in the genre. I've read and enjoyed "I3-Pharaoh", "C1-Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan", "B4-The Lost City", and many other tricky pyramid-themed adventures.
In my opinion, this is one of the top adventures published for the 3.5 system. I've read two adventures by Michael Kortes, and I've been very impressed by both of them.

You can see my other reviews at the forums at http://www.grippingtales.com

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