Curse of the Crimson Throne (for the Pathfinder RPG) is a masterpiece of campaign design. The first half, in particular, is some of the best RPG work I’ve ever seen (the second half is good, but isn’t as brilliantly interwoven as the first half). There’s a solid story in a solid setting, and weaves the players into that story in a way that gives them a critical role to play at all levels, while still being one appropriate for their level (and accomplishments thus far). The NPCs are fantastic, with detailed descriptions and art that really breathe life into them – I think it would be an unusual group that would not care about these NPCs and how they relate to their characters. The campaign features a harrow mechanic that adds extra mechanical and thematic cohesion to each chapter. The adventures are varied, clever, and work to bring the characters, NPCs, and plot together. I was blown away by Curse of the Crimson Throne. Blown. Away. My only complaint about Curse of the Crimson Throne is that, since I’ve read the whole thing, I’m never going to be able to find a GM willing to let me play through it.
Curse of the Crimson Throne is an updated and expanded version of Paizo’s second Adventure Path (Rise of the Runelords, which also received this treatment, was the first). Although Curse of the Crimson Throne was originally designed for D&D 3E, the updated version of course uses the Pathfinder rules, including mechanics from fairly recent supplements (e.g., Ultimate Intrigue, which fits well because so much of Curse of the Crimson Throne is set in the city of Korvosa). The new campaign book, which retails for about $60, weighs in at a hefty 478 pages. It is, as one would expect, a full-color hardcover and the art is – as usual for Pathfinder – absolutely gorgeous.
Curse of the Crimson Throne puts the player characters in the Korvosa just when in time for the city to fall into chaos and repression. Over six chapters (most divided into three distinct parts), the PCs start out engaging in random acts of heroism, get involved with resistance to slaughter and tyranny, leave the city for some high-level adventure to get the tools they need, and then return for an epic confrontation for the soul of Korvosa. In addition to the adventure itself, Cures of the Crimson Throne includes a small gazetteer for the city (including varying statistics depending on the current level of turmoil), bestiary entries for new monsters used in the campaign, write-ups for unique magic items, and long presentations of the significant NPCs.
Warning: Stop here if you don’t want any spoilers.
Edge of Anarchy – Curse of the Crimson Throne starts off innocuously enough, as the characters (who are all to be designed with a hook into the enemy of this first adventure) are brought together to defeat a local misery-making (but small-time) crime lord. But the person who brings them together is a spirit, who will play an integral part in one of the campaign’s mechanics, the use of a harrow (tarot) deck, with a reading conducted for every chapter, each themed around one of the six attributes, providing some mechanical boosts and storytelling telegraphs. When the characters finish of their target, they learn that the King has suddenly died (poisoned!), and his young Queen has taken the throne. This leads into the second part of the chapter, which really lays the foundation for the Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign. It does this in two ways. Mechanically, it is a series of 14 events, heavily pushing Curse of the Crimson Throne’s preference for chopping things up into smaller bits, rather than relying on large-scale dungeon-crawls that eat up many play sessions. For the story, this is where the characters will first meet many of the NPCs who can become significant recurring characters in their own right. As the characters deal with the many small (and a few not-as-small) tragedies taking place in a city gone mad, they will meet Amin Jalento (a noble contact), Grau Soldado (a drunken guard who might be able to turn his life around), Cressida Kroft (current city guard commander and future resistance leader), Trinia Sabor (an artist/bard who has been falsely accused of the King’s murder), Thousand Bones (a Shoanti leader), and legendary vigilante Blackjack. They’ll also meet Queen Ielosa herself, her right-hand woman, Sabina Merrin, and Rolth Lamm (the son of the petty crime lord from before, and a later foe of greater power). This chapter culminates with Blackjack’s rescue of Sabor just as she is about to be executed.
Seven Days to the Grave – This chapter presents the spread of a manufacture plague through Korvosa.. The first part of the chapter, in addition to seeing the characters asked to escort Sabor out of the city by Vencarlo Orisini (ally of Blackjack), the party will see the first signs of this plague and help in small ways. In the second part, the characters (much like in Edge of Anarchy) will engage in a series of smaller-scale missions, with the neat twist that most of these missions have a direct impact on the ultimate death toll from the plague – at the end of the chapter, the players can be told exactly how many lives the character saved. As before, the events of this chapter let the characters develop NPC allies and a reputation within the city. Finally, the characters will learn enough – including about the creepy “Queen’s Physicians” – to visit the “hospital” that conceals the lab/temple of the Queen’s cadre of bad guys who created and spread the plague.
Escape from Old Korvosa – With the information they learned about the plague, and the Queen’s role in it, the party fully adjusts from a general protection of Korvosa to actively (although not necessarily openly) working against the Queen. And so the characters venture into a crime-ridden city district that has been “quarantined” and left to rot (they need to rescue a friendly NPC and a politically significant NPC). Part of this chapter consists of smaller encounter areas as the PCs try to figure out where their targets might be located, with the largest of these being the slum realm of the self-declared “Emperor of Old Korvosa,” a mob leader. This search will also see the characters run into Laori Vaus, a happy-go-lucky cleric who happens to worship and evil goddess of pain. Laori is probably the last significant NPC the characters may (or may not) develop a relationship with, as after this point the NPC interactions will focus more on payoff of existing relationships rather than the creation of new ones. The investigation phase of this chapter may also include the PCs discovering Blackjack’s secret identity (and maybe even getting set up as the next hero to bear that vigilante’s name). After this stage of the chapter, the adventure shifts to interaction with the noble family who are the not-so-secret crime lords of Old Korvosa, an interaction that will likely (but not necessarily) result in the PCs exposing the family’s real secret in the course of retrieving their NPC targets. Also, there might be a game of pigball …
A History of Ashes – The fourth chapter takes the characters outside of Korvosa for the first time, as they must learn about the source of the Queen’s newfound power, and how to defeat her (success will lead them to the magical McGuffin that will be the target of chapter 5). Two-thirds of the chapter cover this voyage, which requires the characters to get into the good graces of the Shoanti in order to secure the information they seek (the Shoanti have a vaguely Native American feel to them, having been driven off of their land by the founders of Korvosa). This keeps most of the chapter broken up into smaller missions, consistent with the style of the campaign so far. The final third of the chapter (which may come after or in the middle of the party’s efforts to earn the respect of the Shoanti) has the party introduced to the burgeoning resistance back in Korvosa (consisting heavily of NPCs with whom the PCs have already interacted), and being sent on a search and destroy mission into a secret base of the Queen’s forces.
Skeletons of Scarwall – Skeletons of Scarwall presents a significant departure from the proceeding chapters of Curse of the Crimson Throne, as the chapter is essentially one big dungeon/exploration of the cursed Scarwall Castle in search of the magical McGuffin that will let the heroes stop the Queen’s ultimate ritual. The castle is home to several unique guests and a plethora of undead and haunts, embodying the distinctive, tragic, and bloody last weeks of the castle’s history. Scarwall is a really good, multi-layered dungeon/exploration experience, but it does take the characters out of the ongoing narrative about Korvosa for several levels worth of adventure. On the bright side, Laori Vaus and a fellow cleric are along for the ride, connecting the PCs with that ongoing NPC element of the campaign, and letting the players effectively choose Laori’s ultimate fate (likely depending on what sort of relationship they developed with Laori in earlier parts of the campaign).
Crown of Fangs – Like the prior chapter, Crown of Fangs involves invading a castle. However, that’s only one of several elements of the chapter, and it doesn’t really involve exploration. The final chapter of Curse of the Crimson Throne sees the characters return to Korvosa. The bulk of this chapter has the characters successfully restore order to the city, working with the NPCs they’ve befriended throughout the campaign to convert who they can from the Queen’s service, and then ransack the castle to eliminate the foes who are left. There will likely be little exploration, however, as the PCs will have access to extensive sources of inside information (and probably magic to let them make surgical strikes). However, our Queen is, as they say, in another castle (well, pyramid, technically) – the characters are able to take back Korvosa in part because the Queen has left the city to complete the Ultimate Ritual of Final Doom, which the PCs must go stop to put a cherry on top of their epic campaign.
In conclusion, Curse of the Crimson Throne is great, and you should go play it if you can. It’s amazing.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.