Dark Heresy continues. The group, with folks popping in and out, finished up Illumination (the intro scenario in the core rulebook). Some spoilers follow...
Last night, I started up a Dark Heresy game. My intention is to run the players through pretty much all the official Dark Heresy adventures, with occasional "one-shot" sidelines of Only War and Deathwatch that tie into the events of the campaign.
My general approach to pre-fab modules is to the read them over and try to break down where there might be points of decision for the players. One of the downsides to a module is that they tend to have a single through-line of events which can make things feel railroady. By plotting out this through-line, I can usually find places to turn the railroad into more of a highway, with possible points where the players can get off the main path and explore other options. Hopefully, I'll share some of my analysis on here. Fingers crossed.
The session last night went really well. There was no combat, just a lot of role-play between the players and scene setting. For mood setting, I had a bunch of Hans Zimmer and Ramin Djawdi movie tracks on in the background, which gave a nice martial and epic feel to the proceedings, even though nothing much happened. I introduced them to their Inquistor (Darias Cyrene, Ordo Hereticus) and got them down onto the planet and to their destination. The Inquistor, Darias Cyrene, is basically a female riff on The Shadow at the moment. She marks her Acolytes with a ruby ring, dresses in a dark cloak and hat with a red scarf. Wields twin automatics, etc. She's Traditionalist, but I'm going to have her flirt with Radicalism as the campaign goes forward.
Our Acolytes are:
Conscript Klightus - survived the Mara Massacre and has spent the last while in custody of the Inquisition. He's been released to work for Darias. Has a quirk that he hears a strange buzzing sound, and only cat-naps, so has a constantly tired look.
Trooper Havelock - working the Scintilla gangs, Havelock came to Darias attention when he spotted a murder in the style of the Calixian Pattern Killings. He's a bit like Bud White from LA Confidential; he's a pretty good detective, but he's been stuck working gangers because that's what everyone thinks he's good at.
Novice Nihlus - ship-born orphan, he ministered to a gun crew on the BFC Damocles. After witnessing an Exterminatus order being executed, he had his faith shaken. He's seeking redemption in service to Darias. Tries too hard to be a pious man, to cover up his wavering belief in the God Emperor.
I've started up yet another Pendragon campaign, this time using the Book of Manors, Book of Knights and Ladies, Book of Armies, and Book of Battle supplments that Greg Stafford has released for the 5th edition. While White Wolf is no longer publishing, Greg seems to have struck up an arrangement with a group called Nocturnal to continue putting out material. Check out http://www.gspendragon.com/ for more info.
We had two players for the game, Graham and Jeremy, and used the new creation rules in The Book of Knights and Ladies (BoKL). I went random where possible, which resulted in two interesting and extreme knights.
Sir Cyric (Jeremy) is British Christian and a giant of a man (SIZ 17), but nimble for his size (DEX 16). He's the son of the Castellan of Tilshead*, sadly dead in the battle of Mt. Damen. He inherits the Manor Broughton and some other rights and incomes to bring him to £9 annual income. His special gift is a sword belt that keeps him from being Knockdowned in melee, and his family is known as book readers.
*Opted for Tilshead, since it notes in the rules that Sir Amig is the new castellan of Tilshead and I figured that'd be a good fit.
Sir Bledsi (Graham) is a Pagan, son of an Esquire (though court gossip has it that he's the son of a real knight, and the product of adultery) raised to knighthood by the gaps in the ranks after the battles of the previous year. A man of strong personality, he is both proud and generous to extremes (19 in both!). He starts the campaign as a household knight in the service of Earl Roderick of Salisbury. His special gift is a magic housecat, bringing an extra £1 income to the Earl (at the moment), and his family is full of keen-eyes.
Having started many Pendragon campaigns, I decided to fast-forward over a lot of the initial scenario stuff. The two knights had an initial melee with wooden swords, to introduce Jeremy to the combat system. I followed that with some lance example, and Graham and I took some time to explain the wound and healing system. Since the hunt for the bear has become something of a joke, we skipped that part (time enough for a hunt in 486).
A short scene was held in court, where the situation with the Saxons was laid out and some intrigue was performed. After that, it was off to the Battle of Mearcred Creek using the new rules laid out in the Book of Battle (BoB). Unfortunately, I hadn't had a chance to fully read the rules over and over again, so some mistakes were made. I used the Defending Saxon Army (weak) list from Book of Armies (BoA) for the opponents.
The hero knights were placed in a squadron with Sir Amig, and the battle began. King Uther failed the initial Battle roll, so no bonus for the first charge existed. I described this as the Saxons having established their battle line near the creek, which forced the charge to slow just before impact. Their first target was some Archers (heorthgneats)*, and this is where the first of my mistakes happened. I had the archers both fire missiles and melee … having re-read the rules, I realize now that they should have just gone into melee with our heroes.
In subsequent rounds, the heroes pushed into the 2nd rank** of the Saxons, running down some ceorls, elite heorthgneats, and even some frothing mad warriors. I made a few more mistakes here, having our heroes face multiple opponents when they should have faced just one, but another mistake (letting the heroes inspire themselves every round) worked to counter the worst damage of that mistake. I also had them rolling damage each round, which they should have skipped, and forgot the squire rolls. In any case, the end of the battle came right on schedule in round 5, and the Saxon army retreated due to Battlefield intensity. Our heroes survived, a bit battered but with no major wounds and good amount of Glory.
* I really like the way the Book of Armies list uses symbols to indicate things like ransoms, attack types and passion abilities. It made it really easy to, at a glance, run the fight.
** Also really like the ranks and the zones of battle, which gave a better sense of the fight and helped with the narrative description of the fight. I was able to give a sense of the chaos caused by their punching into the back lines, as well as convey their danger.
We wrapped up with a quick Winter Phase, skipping much of the details in The Book of Manors (BoM) due to time. We'll fill in some of those details next time we play.
Last night, a few of us (Dale, Graham and I) got together and dug up the old D&D Cyclopedia and Basic/Expert books to play a bit of the old school D&D. Despite the offer of Dale the DM to allow for some relaxed character creation, Graham and I decided to go hard core – 3d6 in order, no re-rolls. G ended up with an obnoxious yet nimble and bright Elf, while I ended up with a Thief with little strength, but some agility and wits. There were only the two of us to start, but we figure to make up the difference with some hirelings and retainers fairly soon.
Graham took Detect Magic for his first spell, and started with very little equipment. I had a bit more cash, but boy getting Thieves Tools sure takes a big chunk of change. We were done creation in about 30 minutes, and jumped into play. DM Dale quickly sketched out a situation for us – wooden fort called Stronghold in the wilderness of the Shield Lands, a recently claimed land by my PC's uncle. My thief had been sent to help out his uncle, and after a roll on a table of random reasons for the party to be together, we discovered that Graham's elf had been drawn to me by some kind of psychic bond. A bond, we decided, that only grew stronger the more coins we could find together.
The Uncle sent us off to collect taxes from one of the local hamlets. Arriving, we discovered the hamlet paying their taxes in decidedly more coin of orc and elf mintage than they should. There was also a strange goblin-crafted wagon, a bit of a party going on, and pretty much evidence something unusual was going on. Our explorations turned up references to something buried in the forest outside by drunken villagers, so off we went to explore the woods.
We found signs of a battle, but more scarily, two scaley finned humanoids who smelled bad and seemed unhappy to see us. After a short, running fight through the dark woods, we managed to kill one of the creatures and the other ran off. Not finding any sign of any buried treasure, we returned to the hamlet and took the taxes back to my PC's uncle.
What was nice, from my perspective, was that much of the night's play was taken up with Graham and I interacting with each other In Character, rather than just referencing rules. In the process, we determined that Graham's Elf is haughty, cocky, overly cautious and dismissive of human society. My Thief is cheerful, a little suspicious of other's success, and definitely on the make for quick cash.
Back at Stronghold, Uncle was happy to get the taxes, and immediately sent us back out to deal with a different problem – a missing female blacksmith. We ended the night's session about to descend into a likely cave, most likely where the smith had been taken.
It did bring back a lot of fond memories, playing old school. We dug up hex paper and started making our own map of the area… a simple pleasure I'd forgotten, but also a hand-crafted record of the game so far. It reminded me why you dungeon-mapped, too. Not just to have a map, but also to act as a record of events and progress, and a tool for decision-making. Something lost in the current trend of 'combat arena' maps, I think.
Fun stuff, and we'll see where it goes from here.
I've seen it mentioned on the Paizo forums that the Graul homestead encounters would likely have be presented as optional, if they had though to do that in the first few Adventure Paths. The thinking apparently being that the Grauls are a sideline from the main adventure through-line of "rescue Fort Rannick, save the dam, defeat Barl Breakbones". Myself, I disagree with this, based on my play.
The Graul encounters were important to change the general tone of play and the shift in general deadliness that occurs once you start fighting giants. While there's elements of horror in the first two adventure installments, the shift to slasher-film and gore in the third is something that, I think, needs to be gradually introduced.
The descriptions and situation at Fort Rannick are pretty graphic and paint a picture of ogre society that is extreme. Without the transition provided by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre feel of the Graul, I suspect that the appearance of such grotesques would be very jarring.
Another important role the Grauls play is introducing the really high damage output of the giant-types. Up til now, the players have mostly been fighting human-scale opponents with human-scale damage. With the bump to giants, suddenly they face the possibility of one-shot kills (ogre hooks are, by the way, very nasty weapons). The ogre-kin of the Graul provide a little warning of what the party will be facing for the rest of this adventure, and most of the next.
The Grauls themselves are opportunistic hunters. Many folks wonder how they could surive so long, so near civilization. I suspect its because they're selective and careful about who they take, and that they probably have a fairly large hunting ground. What we're seeing in the Adventure Path is the Grauls having lucked into a find – a group of wounded and vulnerable Black Arrows. It isn't their normal modus operandi to grab a large group like that, but given the state of the Black Arrows, they couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Sorry I let this lay fallow so long. We're still playing and making progress.
To quickly do a partial update (we're now into Fortress of the Stone Giants) …
The fight against the Graul was definitely a highpoint. We had moments of grim slapstick, mixed with horror and a good amount of kicking ass. It was during the fight with the Graul that I added a new feature… at some point, either when they first appear or when they've been defeated, usually… I will give the players a little cutscene. This cutscene gives either the NPC background, or an example of their personality. The result has been effective, both in impressing the players with the details that are included in each adventure, but also in making them feel like they're doing more than just killing bags of hit points.
A cool moment that stand out in the fight against the Graul are Valak opting to do a scouting mission of the farm alone, refusing to get invisibility cast on him before hand by Lymka, and then getting critted and killed in one shot by Crowfood. This immediately established the Grauls as serious opponents. The party was able to recover Valak's body, retreated, and scraped up enough to get a Raise Dead cast on the monk. Now, whenever anyone suggests a plan that involves something extremely dangerous, the party will ask if the PC wants invisibility cast on him.
The rest of the Homestead proved a tough fight, with the party having to retreat one more time after clearing (and burning down) the barn. The fight against Mammy was a little anti-climactic (though revolting), mostly because its hard for anyone to survive a fireball and a lightning bolt.
The fight to clear the Fort was also enjoyable. For the first time in a very long time, I was able to actually bring a group of players to speechlessness with description (in this case, with the description of the Infirmary). In the big fight, the PCs dropped Jagrath in 2 rounds of massive damage dealing. This was a bit faster than Jagrath had expected, so when on round three Dorella joined the fight, it was too late for him. Dorella, however, proved to be a tough nut to crack. An initial confusion spell neutralized the spellcasters and forced Valak the monk to use non-lethal damage to actually drop half his own party before they killed each other. After that, it was a long and tough battle between Dorella's spells and Valak's high saves… in the end, Valak came out on top.
I'd made a mistake running the Fort, and forgot to have Lucretia in her room under the fort when the PCs came through. I rolled with the mistkae, though, and had her coming back to the fort after paying a visit to the work on the Dam. This worked to let me get in a bit of expostion, when the PCs overheard her telling the ogre's at the wall gate that things were going slow at the dam, but a breach was expected soon. It twigged the PCs to the fact that something was happening further north, and tied into the observations by Dolgunn the ranger that weather was too wet in the region.
Lucretia was ambushed and dropped fast in a well-done bit of work by the PCs. It is impressive, sometimes, when a player plan actually comes together exactly as planned. Following her defeat, the PCs used some alchemists fire and their superior position to finish of the remaining ogres in the Fort. With it cleared, they had a choice: return to Turtleback or head to the Dam…
Using the cutscenes when introducing new NPCs and monsters has been really effective. It was a great tool for establishing the ogres as EVIL monsters, unlike the cute/scarey goblins or the horrific ghouls they'd previously fought. Mostly, though, I just like being able to share some of the excellent work that has gone into the adventures.
We picked up the campaign last night after a long hiatus. New player and character joined the group – Limka, a Varisian dancer & singer (Bard). The Sandpoint Cavaliers now consist of Hyanth (Cleric 5/Paladin 1), Valak (Monk 7), Dolgann (Ranger 6), Wertz (Rogue 6), Voldemon (Wizard 6) and Limka (Bard 6). Not a lot of heavy armor in that bunch, really. For this session, Wertz and Hyanth were both not present. The NPC Shalelu was accompanying them, as was Shayliss, the fiancee of Hyanth.
Most of the session was spent recapping the events of Burnt Offerings and The Skinsaw Murders, to bring the new player up to speed and refresh the memory of the other players. "We've done a lot," one of them observed. In game time, a little over 2 months have passed since the game started, so there was quite a bit to recap. The important part was reminding them that they were headed to Fort Rannick to find out what had happened to Orik, the fighter from Burnt Offerings who had left Nualia before the final fights and ended up being a Black Arrow. The last correspondence they'd had from him was a mention that he'd seen a sihedron rune tatoo on someone at Turtleback… and then no more letters had arrived.
We picked up events with the players arriving in Turtleback Ferry. I'd sent out emails describing the trip earlier, and had that printed off to refresh their memories. While the adventure says the trip should take 9 days on horseback, my estimation was closer to 14 days, considering the weather (the characters are travelling in the end of Neth (aka November)) being cold with lots of rain and some snow. I emphasized the rain, trying to set up the eventual flooding events to come.
This meant that Fort Rannick had been captured about 3 weeks ago, and the Paradise has been burned and sunk for about 10 days. I figured the last patrol of Black Arrows was captured by the Grauls around 12 days ago, and the Grauls have been killing them at a rate of about one every 3 or 4 days (takes a long time for them to die by the torture, and the Grauls wanna enjoy it).
In Turtleback, the party established that: Fort Rannick had been silent for weeks, a party sent to check on it had never returned, and that the people of the Ferry were afraid and had sent word to Magnimar for help. The party didn't disabuse them of the notion that they were that help (which I found interesting). They also flashed a sihedron symbol (the amulet recovered from Nualia) and got muted reactions from some of the townsfolk.
The next day they were off to Fort Rannick. The encounter with the bear was nearly passed over, but once Shalelu and Limka both mentioned that bears were unusual in the Kreegswood, someone made the connection that maybe it was a Ranger's animal companion and they opted to investigate.
They were able to free Kipp the bear just before the Graul hounds showed up (Valak having picked up some Disable Device skill). Voldemon tossed me a curveball, hitting the hounds with Hypnotic Pattern and basically taking them out of the fight for the first while. This let Valak go toe-to-toe with Rukus, while the rest of the party (and bear) dealt with the dogs one on one.
I had ruled that all the ground was difficult terrain and concealment terrain (so x2 movement costs and 20% miss chance). Also used the rule that trees provided +2AC and +1 Reflex cover. For the most part, the only effect was to prevent 5-ft steps and to have one or two hits miss. Rukus was quickly dropped to under 30 hit points, so tried to run… but when there's a Monk in the party, running never works (50ft of movement is awfully fast). Rukus ended up getting charged and hit with a Stunning Fist (DC 15 to save, +11 Fortitude save, roll on the d20 is a 2… priceless). And with the target being Stunned, the Monk unleashed a flurry of non-lethal blows on the half-ogre hillbilly mutant and knocked him out.
They tied Rukus up and were going to leave when they noticed his blanket and all the Black Arrow patches. Figuring he might have captured some, they decided to follow his trail and ended up at the Graul Homestead, which is where we left it for the night.
The big game changer for the fight was the Hypnotic Pattern, which took out 4 of the 5 hounds. It let the party focus on Rukus more than they otherwise could have, and thus he was stripped of hit points pretty quick. Still, they did end up using a number of charges off a wand of cure light wounds, and the wizard used up a couple spells, so the fight served its purpose.
Aside – I've really noticed that the monk is a game changer class, by which I mean that it has the ability to completely turn encounters on their head if it gets half-way lucky. Their special attacks (stuns, trips, grapples, etc.) can all shut down a monster completely on a good roll, and their speed makes it nearly impossible for anyone to just run away.
As always, plenty of spoilers for the Pathfinder Adventure Path: Rise of the Runelords follow.
Pathfinder #2: The Skinsaw Murders is presented in five parts, but in play I found it was structured more as three Acts. Act One is dealing with the Skinsaw Man, Act Two covered the Cult of Seven, and Act Three ended up being the Shadow Clock Tower. Of the three, Act One was probably the most fun to play, being a murder mystery mixed with a haunted house tale. Act Two is more or less a false victory, with Act Three ending up a little dissatisfying given the overwhelming nature of the opposition.
The Skinsaw Man portion of the adventure was my favorite part, likely because it built on events in Burnt Offerings and was set around Sandpoint. After all the work making Sandpoint feel like a real community in Pathfinder #1, it was good to continue in the same setting and with the same characters. The Foxglove Manor haunted house is a great environment, with minimal combats, but plenty of atmosphere. I screwed up running the Carrion Crows, missing the fact that they did 1d6 damage … as a result, they were a little less threatening than expected. The hauntis made up for it, though – my players never clued in that these things might be turnable undead, and instead just accepted them as some supernatural quality of the home.
Another good point I found while running this first part was how the players really are paying attention to Sandpoint. It was quickly realized that with the Glassworks down (thanks to Tsuto's attack in Pathfinder #1) and the Sawmill shut down (due to the murder), plus all the dead farmers (with the ghoulings), the economy of the town was going to be in trouble over the winter. The players stepped up in the later section, with the Cleric of Abadar trying to drum up support for more business going to Sandpoint and the other heroes contributing some of their treasure to help out.
This need to help Sandpoint was a good way to smooth into Magnimar, as the heroes had reasons to be in the city other than just tracking down Foxglove's co-conspirators. It made things feel a little more organic, possibly helped along by tying the background of one of the characters into the Justices. This part of the adventure felt pretty standard. The heroes tracked down our cultists, engaged them in battle, and were victorious. This is where it felt a bit like a false ending… with Justice Ironbriar defeated, surely the trouble had past?
Of course, it hadn't. Xanesha remained. What a monster … fully buffed, she can single-handedly destroy a party, I think. She has the advantage of position (180' up, flying), is buffed to the gills (AC 34?!), has pretty much an automatic hit with her melee attack (+20?!), is backed up by spells and over 100 hit points. Truly deadly, and I think a bit overwhelming for a party that's just fought through a flesh golem and a bunch of faceless stalkers.
To deal with this, I had decided Xanesha was basically going to take off once her lair was discovered and she'd managed to tell the heroes that they were wasting their time and the end of days was coming. Even then, the monk nearly killed himself with a desperate gamble on a grapple attempt after leaping off the tower… thankfully the cleric was flying and able to pull a Superman-like rescue.
We're on a break right now, as sailing schedules and re-life intrudes, but will pick up the game in November with the Hooksaw Mountain Massacre.
I found the adventure ran very smoothly, with minimal railroading. The actual structure of the adventure helped a lot. The first half has the PCs in reaction mode, and the second half does a good job helping to transition them into being active without being too obvious about it.
The PCs I ended up with:
Valak of the Sun Clan - a Shoanti "monk", cast out from his tribe and working as a bouncer of the brothel when we start. I put "monk" in quotes, because the character class is Monk, but the character is not. He ends up in a fledgling relationship with Ameiko.
Hyanth, Cleric of Abbadar - the charismatic travelling priest. This is the target of Shayliss affections, which turned into a nice running subplot.
Voldeman the Necromancer - a wizard from Magnimar, who has come to Sandpoint to follow up on clues surrounding his master's brutal assassination. His master was found with a sihedron rune carved into his chest (I was laying the groundwork for Skinsaw Murders here)
Dolgan the Musketeer - a dwarven ranger from the far, far south. He's armed with a musket and revolver and hates goblins. Naturally, when he hears about Sandpoint's goblin problem, he comes calling.
Vaxielle, ex-Soldier - mustered out of the Magnimar military, Vaxielle has retired to Sandpoint but finds himself drawn out by the danger to the town. He's a long spear user.
I've never had all 5 present for a session yet, as at least one player's been unavailable.
The attack on Sandpoint and the subsequent minor events were really fun to play. The town really does feel alive and it doesn't feel too forced when the PCs become the focus of the townspeoples attention and support. I didn't push things too much, letting the players spend the days after the attack doing what they wanted to do.
The Tsuto attack on the Glassworks plus the information Dolgan was gathering while patrolling the local farms for goblins, pointed the PCs towards Thistletop in a way that felt like it was rewarding them for their initiative, rather than just handing them the next set of clues.
They also had fun with the Catacombs of Wrath, and join what appears to be a long list of parties who defeat Erylium using grapple.
The assault on Thistletop ended up being a series of at least 4 distinct attacks. The fight in the thornbushes was very brutal... an entangle spell in the thorns became a frightening and deadly encounter (since the thorns would do damage every turn someone was entangled). The team pulled back and rested up after this.
There then followed a botched assault on the fort proper that turned into showcase for Valak (him being the only one to actually make it across to the fort - everyone else ended up in the drink and swimming to stay alive). Once everyone was not drowned, they once more pulled back - but destroyed the bridge.
At this point, I had Orik, the fighter on the bad guy team, bail on his fellows and come warn the PCs about what they were going to face. I did this for two reasons - one, because it seemed to fit the character of Orik, based on his write up. And two, because I got the distinct impression the players didn't feel any sense of urgency. Orik was able to give them a "ticking clock". The PCs sent him on his way (with a horse), which I'm going to use as a hook into the Hooksaw Mountain stuff.
It was also at this point I realized that Nualia's party and the PCs party had a strange mirror-mirror quality: Nualia had assembled a ranger, cleric, monk, wizard and fighter. The PCs were a ranger, cleric, monk, wizard and fighter. Kismet!
Another assault was made on Thistletop, which cleared out Chief Ripnugget and the gobbos upstairs. The party pulled back again. At this point, Nualia was a day or to away from freeing the barghest, and I had word reach the PCs that the goblin tribes were marching towards Thistletop.
The final assault was made and Nualia defeated soon after. I don't know that the PCs had a hard time of it - the yeth hounds put a hurt on them, it's true, but otherwise the fights seemed fair and balanced.
I've been poked out of silence by the discovery (thanks to a comment) that someone actually read my posts. Not surprisingly, the realization that I have an audience greater than one (me) is a motivator to continue where I left off.
Just a quick update – I did finally get the Rise of the Runelords campaign underway and we have finished #1 Burnt Offerings. Thus, I can talk about my experiences in play with the story and will. We've taken a break, due to scheduling conflicts, but should be starting #2 The Skinsaw Murders this month.
Burnt Offerings Structure
The adventure is structured around 5 set pieces: the initial attack on Sandpoint, the rescue at the Glassworks, fighting Gogmurt in the thorny approach to Thistletop, defeating the Warchief Ripnugget in the Thistletop Fort, and last, confronting Nualia. These set pieces feel very much like they're the result of the NPCs motivations and characters, rather than just being arbitrary encounters, which is definitely a function of the work done creating so many antagonists for the PCs.
The raid on Sandpoint and the rescue at the Glassworks function as Act I – we're introduced to the town, the PCs are established, and after the events at the Glassworks, they should realize that they're up in the proverbial tree. Act II is the fight with Gogmurt and Warchief Ripnugget (and possibly Erylium), both of which should be challenging and tough for the PCs. Act III is the confrontation with Nualia, which should be a climax for the heroes.
In between, there's quite a bit of other stuff going on, such as Erylium and Malfeshnekor, plus a number of roleplaying opportunities in and out of Sandpoint. However, these are more subplots and branches off the core spine of the story.
The role of the attack on Sandpoint is three-fold. First, it establishes the goblins as characters and antagonists for the PC. Since the bulk of the adventure is spent fighting them, it is very important to get them set-up as a dangerous comedy relief early. Second, it gives the PCs a chance to become tied to the village of Sandpoint. While later adventures move away from the setting, in this first adventure the village and its safety need to be a motivator to get the PCs involved in subsequent events. By having the PCs save the village early on, and then interact with various NPCs in town, they're more easily motivated to help later. Third, it introduces the mystery and threat of what Nualia is doing, which should helpfully direct the PCs towards proactively going after her in Thistletop.
Usually this would just be the section of the adventure where the PCs level up to face the climactic encounter. In Burnt Offerings, they don't stray too much off course here. The fights with Gogmurt and the Warchief don't really advance solving the mystery of Nualia very much, unless you have PCs who (a) speak goblin, and (b) are much more willing to talk than shoot first. The possible throwdown with Erylium also doesn't do much for the mystery of Nualia, but does lay some groundwork for the overall plot of the adventure path by introducing some of the Runelord lore that the PCs will encounter in the back half of the story.
That said, all the set pieces here have interesting wrinkles. Gogmurt has the advantage of being a small druid, fighting in a cramped and thorny area where most PCs will be at a very big disadvantage. The Warchief also gets some interesting use out of a mount that can run up walls and across ceilings, which allows Ripnugget to make good use of his feats. And Erylium is a nasty mix of size, inherent magics, and spells which is sure to give the PCs fits.
The final encounter with Nualia and her adventuring is more classic, relying less on providing her with terrain or positional advantages, and more on using tough monsters and NPCs as allies. One hopes that, by whatever method, the PCs have some understanding of Nualia's background so that her turning herself into a monster has a bit of emotional resonance… but more likely, she'll just be seen as a final monster to defeat.
Next, I'll start discussing my experiences running the campaign and my thoughts on how things went.