The title of the newest Pathfinder adventure path is Extinction Curse. Playing through all six parts will take intrepid heroes to the highest of levels as they seek to prevent the destruction of all life on the island on which sits Absalom, the very center of the Pathfinder universe. If you had given me four dozen tries at what the thematic frame of the Extinction Curse adventure path was, I would never have gotten down to “the circus.”
But here we are, with The Show Must Go On, which takes the characters from levels 1 to 4 as they start running the circus for which they work (the Circus of Wayward Wonders), deal with a variety of local problems in Abberton, and take the first steps on the path to fame, fortune, and the preservation of life as we know it. Characters do not have to be performers, but most of them probably should be (or else, especially early on, they will be detached from that aspect of the adventures). Because The Show Must Go On is primarily a product for GMs, a lot of the review will be further down below the spoiler bar.
For players, I’ll say that The Show Must Go On is a well-constructed set of adventures. The characters get a nice, level appropriate start with a couple of loosely organized encounters (pick which small encounter you want to go to, instead of jumping straight into a formalized encounter flow chart/dungeon). There’s a solid backstory that makes for interesting NPCs and smooth transitions as the party moves into more traditional fare. There’s also a solid mechanic for the circus as well, where the party can try to drum up anticipation before the show, design tricks to wow the crowd during the show, and over time upgrade the circus to rake in the adulation (and the gold pieces).
There is, I think, a weakness in the integration of those two sides of things. Some players will love the circus concept, but it seems to me that even there the circus must be secondary to the adventure. For example, when told that the princess has been kidnapped (note: no actual princesses were harmed in the making of The Show Must Go On), I do not see many gaming groups being inclined to hang around for another week to promote and put on a show. In my experience they will (reasonably) l want to go Do The Thing right away. After an initial show, The Show Must Go On has a sense of urgency to most of the transitions. The adventures don’t involve traveling to a bunch of different towns. And for half of the adventures, the characters will be going places that the circus cannot follow. Unless the GM and players force more in, there’s really only one opportunity to put on a second show. So, the adventures themselves are good, and the framework set up to run the circus is good, but those aspects don’t play as well together as I would like.
Of course, The Show Must Go On has some mechanical bits for players (and a selection of 8 or so new monsters for GMs). The primary draw on this front will be two new archetypes, the juggler and the staff acrobat, ready to give a bit more of a circus/performance vibe to characters. The Juggle skill feat allows characters to hold more objects and/or keep a hand free. A character who is “juggling” a single item can both use that item and have a free hand for some other activity (for example, to cast a spell with material component). Or a character could use a single hand to juggle two one-handed weapons, attacking with whichever one best suited the nearest foe that round. The Juggler archetype starts off with this feat (and training in Performance), then enhances the uses of juggling, allowing more items to be juggled, fewer actions used, more ability to catch and throw, and so forth. The initial Staff Acrobat feat helps with leaping, and then piles on bonuses when shoving and tripping with the staff.
The Show Must Go On adds in a few pages of snares, circus weapons, and spells as well. My personal favorite is the personal rain cloud. Sure, it can do minor things like put out fires, grant fire resistance, or damage enemies that are weak to fire. But mostly it’s just unbelievably amusing to grief an enemy (rival, friend, whatever) by making a tiny cloud float around raining just on them.
GM-only section below …
A Closer Look for GMs
OK, if you’re a player and you’re still looking at this, you deserve what you get for spoiling the adventure for yourself …
The overall plot of Extinction Curse relates to the aeon towers and the aeon orbs that orbit them. These five structures were erected by Aroden to bring life to the islands he had raised out of the sea. They’ve been weakening and malfunctioning for years, but now they’re under active threat.
But before the characters can venture off to try and save/fix some god-level magic, they first have to navigate the hazards of small town life. The small town, Abberton, is about to be hit by some local druid types who believe that the town is the cause of recent ecological problems. This (fairly irrational belief) has been fanned and honed by the succubus who has set up shop at the druidic hermitage. These demonic eco-terrorists are the primary villains of the first three adventures.
The Show Must Go On positions the characters as members of a new circus that recently broke off from the tyrannical leadership of a cruel circus master. The circus is just about to start its performance in Abberton when the new circus’s leader is found dead. The characters are thrust into positions of leadership, and the adventure path kicks off with a deployment of the new circus performance mechanics (possibly the only deployment in this book, unless you force it in). Once the crowd is suitably awed, the characters must turn their attention to the cause of the murder. This results in a series of encounters in and around the circus camp, including plant-based traps, mischievous mephits, a confused bear, and the chance to make friends with faeries. The characters will ultimately find the killer (the leader of the corrupted druids), although they will only discover her motivations later (she thought that ruining the circus performance would scare off the town’s citizens).
Next up is solving all of the problems currently plaguing Abberton. With the heroes having solved one problem (and his sheriff missing-presumed-dead), the town’s mayor will turn to the party. Members of the circus will promptly report some information back to the characters, who will then have the option of which problems to tackle first. Most, but not all, of these will involve cleaning up after the killer and the various demons she left behind. One noteworthy encounter sees the party evicting demons who are trashing the local temple of Abadar and rescuing the priest, who will likely become a quest-giving ally. There’s also an appearance by some performers from Ye Olde Evil Circus (presumably to help the players build up some bile for when they run into each other again in the next AP installment). Along the way, the characters will learn that the killer was a former acolyte of Gozreh.
This having been accomplished, there’s an opportunity for the circus to put on a second act, as enough time has to pass for the mayor to leave to visit the local hermitage of Gozreh and then have everyone get worried that he hasn’t returned. Of course, once that time has passed, it’s off to the now-corrupted hermitage. The adventure here is a more traditional ‘dungeon’ with an undead-infested crypt and the corrupted merits to deal with. Things can go a bit easier for the players if they can figure out Gozreh-themed puzzles, such as a door that opens when in contact with both wind and water (e.g., saliva and breath). The climactic battle of this adventure is noteworthy for the environmental hazards, with magical channels of air and water crossing the main temple area. By the time this adventure is done, the characters will have rescued the mayor, and also the former leader of the hermitage.
It is here that the characters will start transitioning to the longer-term focus of Extinction Curse, as the druid delivers some exposition about the aeon orbs, and his suspicions that the recent ecological problems are related to them. Urgently, he has learned that the xulgaths (troglodytes, for us old-timers) are seeking to interfere with the nearby aeon orb. Along with the xulgaths are dinosaurs (and who doesn’t like dinosaurs?) and demons (because the same succubus who got the evil ball rolling at the hermitage is working for the xulgaths). Working through the xulgath-infested aeon tower involves roaming gelatinous cubes, some NPC-infighting, information-gathering, and a tower-top battle involving a pterodactyl. In the end, the characters will have magically linked with the aeon orb and learned that there is a greater threat out there.
As mentioned back up top, I think the adventures flow smoothly, with well-designed encounters presented in an easily-digestible format. There’s relevant backstory for the NPCs that keeps things interesting while still having internal consistency. I’m not entirely sold on the circus aspect, so I personally would keep that part of the adventures in the background, but that’s easily adjustable to the taste of the GM and players. There’s also a clear tie-in to the lore of Golarion and the future of the area around Absalom, which should be an extra bit of fun for players invested in the setting. Well worth checking out.
Promotional consideration provided in the form of a review copy.