I was skeptical when I first read the premise of the Fists of the Ruby Phoenix adventure path – a fighting tournament. What’s usually great about Pathfinder adventure paths is that there’s more going on that just combat. Sure, there’s cool combat, but there’s a real story there. I worried that ‘fighting tournament’ would have a hard time serving as a framework for a story. I mean, have you seen the “stories” in the Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter movies?
This is the part where I would like to flip that around and say how Paizo managed to pull it off and weave this great story and adventure together with the concept of a fighting tournament, and how Despair on Danger Island (the first book of three in the adventure path) is amazing. Alas …
The funny thing is that there isn’t even that much fighting tournament in Despair on Danger Island. The tournament proper doesn’t even start until the second book. The events of Despair on Danger Island are a qualifying round. The characters, having been invited to compete by Hao Jin (Despair on Danger Island is for 11th level characters, not 1st), must first clear out their assigned home base on the island. Then the qualifying round begins in earnest there’s a mix of bouts and some modified hexploration. Finally, assuming there PCs manage to qualify, there’s a gathering where they can fight some more to impress the gathered notables.
Ultimately, while the ‘tournament’ part of the adventure is supplemented by additional activities, those other activities don’t contribute to a narrative. Instead, they feel kind of random – just ways to be doing something else and non-combat ways to earn points towards qualification. Unlike in Planetfall, where the hexploration was an integral part of the theme of the adventure and tied back into the story, here the modified hexploration seems out of place. It kind of feels like using hexploration just to use hexploration, semi-randomizing which of the encounters on the island the characters will run into. The tournament bouts can’t lock into a broader narrative because, at least in this third of the adventure path, there isn’t a broader narrative to lock into.
Another thing I thought might happen was that the bouts, even if narratively disjointed, would be some cool set-piece combats. But they’re just fights – there aren’t any exotic locations or special rules. That does change somewhat in the third section (the part that’s after the characters have qualified), where there start to be some combats with special rules or environmental hazards. They’re still just random fights to amuse the audience, but there’s some style. And, it seems, this segment probably has more of an effect on the future story than the prior segments.
That leaves the initial portion of the adventure the most narratively coherent, because there’s a history to the building assigned to the characters, and the characters have to deal with that history to make full use of the location. It doesn’t much tie in to the broader adventure path (at least, from what we can see in this book), but there’s a self-contained story for the players to figure out and resolve.
Of course, there are some mechanical additions, beyond the adventure itself. There’s an archetype based around using butterfly blades (a Tian Xian weapon). I like the ghost eater archetype, which to start makes all unarmed or weapon attacks count as magical, and acts like ghost touch against incorporeal creatures. At higher levels the archetype can make attacks against incorporeal creatures who have retreated into solid objects, smash undead generally, and eventually ethereal jaunt. It’s not a broad archetype, to be sure, but incorporeal creatures can be a real pain for some parties.
There’s a series of feats for a witch with living hair – interact actions, grappling, higher damage, reach, and the like. I’m personally not usually that mechanically interested in natural weapons, but being able to do all sorts of things with living hair is just a really cool visual. Monks can take a feat to deal different types of damage with ki spells or take a feat to gain access to gain access to wronged monk’s wrath, which unleashes a storm of damage.
Note that all of these likely requiring re-training to meaningfully use during the adventure itself, unless you wanted to start taking level 4 feats at level 12 (making your weapons count as magic, for example, is particularly bad for high-level characters who surely already have plenty of magic weapons). There are also a smattering of spells, magic items, and the like.
So, I do like the mechanical content in Despair on Danger Island – I think that the living hair feat chain is really cool, and the ghost hunter is a solid (if niche) archetype. But, in a rarity, I just can’t get excited about the actual adventure. I just don’t see the story here. And that is a lot of what an adventure path is all about.
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