Thread: Review: The Slumbering Tsar Saga
Saturday, 5th May, 2012, 08:39 AM #1
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Review: The Slumbering Tsar Saga
Pathfinder Review: The Slumbering Tsar, Greg A. Vaughan's Magnum Opus
So here's the thing: four weeks ago, Greg Vaughan provided me with an advance .PDF copy of The Slumbering Tsar Saga for preview/review purposes. I had joked with Greg that I would try to get a preview article up right away that same night. I almost meant it; however, any ENWorld Review article written under those rushed circumstances would have to be described as a preview and not a review. How can I possibly "review" a 964 page .PDF with only a night -- hell, even browsing through it over a weekend -- to read it? Can't be done. It's just too big; WAY too big.
So I settled on the idea I would call the article a preview and just try to take in what I could over the weekend and try to get the article out the next weekend. It was a fine plan. Like many such plans, it did not survive contact with the enemy. The enemy, in this case, was the sheer size of this massive book.
Truth was, The Slumbering Tsar was too big to even browse in a weekend. Sure, you can flip through the document like some flip-book for grownups, but you will be kidding yourself if you think that even a dozen hours with an IV mainlining Starbucks Sumatra blend into your veins and a half-carton of smokes at the ready is going to get you through this tome with anything approaching even a passing level of familiarity. This book is so huge that you will find yourself just losing hours of time reading it, here and there. To put it in perspective, a typical issue of Pathfinder Adventure Path clocks in at 96 pages; however, the adventure itself is only about 45-50 pages. The balance is composed of introduction, ads, campaign/region specific background articles, special rules, short-story fiction, and yes, advertisements.
Take out the extraneous material from six copies of Pathfinder Adventure Path and you are left with about 300 pages of adventure material over the course of six volumes. Even adding in some pages of the excised material that deals with important regions and monsters, you might reach 380 or even 400 pages - about the size of the Rise of the Runelords Anniversary Edition hardcover, actually.
As big as the RotRL Anniv Edition will be? Slumbering Tsar is nearly 2.5 times as large. Gamers being gamers, it's not as if many of us have not talked about doing something like this, or marveled about how cool it would be to be able to buy something as large and detailed as The Slumbering Tsar Saga. But to make the transition from wishing and speculation to actually doing it? To date, the only person crazy enough to do that is Greg Vaughan.
It started innocuously enough as Greg's own home campaign as a prequel to Rappan Athuk. Originally, The Slumbering Tsar was to be released for 3.5. The first installments of the product were literally at the printers when 4th Ed was announced at Gencon. After some soul-searching (and number-crunching), Necromancer Games decided to put Slumbering Tsar permanently on hold. Vaughan was invited to shop the product elsewhere if he could, but publishing a large campaign for 3.5 just didn't seem to make good commercial sense at the time.
So in the summer of 2008, The Slumbering Tsar appeared to have died on the vine; however, Vaughan was persistent and dedicated to see the final product in to print. Ultimately, Vaughan received a commitment from Bill Webb at Frog God Games (the heir apparent to Necromancer Games) to publish and release the installments to Slumbering Tsar over time. More importantly, Bill Webb committed to publish them all together under one cover once the final Adventure Path was complete. Indeed, the entire initial reason for Frog God Games in the first place was to act as a vehicle to permit The Slumbering Tsar Saga to be published. However many pages it took to finish the task by Vaughan and get it all published, Bill Webb would see it done.
So Vaughan got to work, reworking, rewriting and expanding The Slumbering Tsar Saga, changing the design from D&D ver 3.5 to Pathfinder RPG. Along the way, the recrafting of many of the monsters in the Slumbering Tsar to PFRPG provided the impetus for the Pathfinder version of last fall's Tome of Horrors (Complete) -- a project that was also overseen by Vaughan. All the while, Vaughan continued to write, continued to test the material in his home campaign, and FGG continued to release the campaign in installments. Finally, after a course of nearly 8 years, The Slumbering Tsar is now complete and its release is imminent. Those who pre-order the hardcover will receive the .PDF version immediately in their downloads.
What's With The Title?
The thing which struck me first was the title. "Slumbering Tsar"? Is this some Russian folklore inspired campaign? What's with the title and what does it mean?
Turns out, the "Slumbering Tsar" simply refers to the area and ruined city of "Tsar". The city was given its name by Bill Webb in his home campaign and in the original Rappan Athuk: Dungeon of Graves module by Necromancer Games. The name has no tangible link to Rome nor Russian folklore, -- let alone a whiff of Tolstoy. While Rappan Athuk has since become infamous as a high level dungeon with a 1st edition feel, Vaughan's plans from the outset for the Slumbering Tsar Saga was to fashion it as the prequel campaign to Rappan Athuk. If Rappan Athuk was to lead the party ultimately to combat Orcus, The Slumbering Tsar Saga would be the backstory of how the PCs got to be powerful enough to even contemplate that rash act. To be clear on this point, if you don't have Rappan Athuk or Rappan Athuk Reloaded - that's ok. You don't need any of those products to run The Slumbering Tsar or to make sense of it. It's nice if you do have it of course. Happily, the Pathfinder version of Rappan Athuk Reloaded is scheduled for release later this year by Frog God Games.
The Overall Story Arc
Vaughan's initial concept for Slumbering Tsar was as three books, loosely broken up by adventure region: The Desolation, an area of desolate and barren wilderness, the Ruins of the Temple-City of Tsar itself, and finally, the Hidden Citadel - the great temple to Orcus which provides the mega dungeon which takes up nearly half of the book.
Corresponding by level, "Book 1" of The Slumbering Tsar Saga is designed for characters 6th to 11th level. "Book 2" is designed for levels 11 to 16, while the final part, Book 3, is intended for characters of 16th to 20th -- and potentially achieves higher levels than that, too, if you want to kludge in an Epic/Mythic power level into Pathfinder RPG. As between the three parts, I enjoyed the first part the most as I found it to be highly evocative of the vignette style encounters we saw in the first two volumes of the Kingmaker Adventure Path. Self-contained encounters, small encounter maps and a high degree of variation in the challenges made Book 1 completely work for me in a way that the subsequent, and especially the third book's massive dungeon crawl sometimes did not.
Bring out Your Dead
In terms of power level and lethality, Slumbering Tsar is Greg Vaughan at his most "over the top". Quite frankly, potential TPKs lurk almost everywhere and frequent character deaths are not simply possible -- they are probable. There are eight pages of a blank Obituary chart included at the end of the book just to record character deaths. While this is a bit of a prank by the author for the .PDF version, the point is well taken: this thing is deadly.
Why it is deadly is a more interesting topic, however, as it stems from Vaughan's own design philosophy which is reflected throughout the Slumbering Tsar Saga. Vaughan's approach throughout most of The Slumbering Tsar is to lead the players to a general area where mostly level appropriate challenges are presented in a sandbox format. Still, there are very few "golden paths" leading the characters on by the nose throughout most of the Slumbering Tsar. Yes, there may be a level appropriate challenge in area 1 and 2, but if the PCs go over the ridge to area 3 the challenge can often be beyond the characters' resources and experience level. Smart characters will withdraw and leave that area alone until they are ready; whereas, not-so-smart characters will quickly learn why there is a lengthy obituary chart in the back of the book.
Similarly, the random encounter charts are more fleshed out than they typically are in an issue of Pathfinder Adventure Path. Unlike Paizo, Vaughan gives most every encounter on the encounter chart a one or two paragraph breakdown to provide some guidance to the GM in what the encounter is supposed to represent and how it ties into the story (if it does). The encounters may be of a lethality level which can destroy the party, too. As with all things, the GM is the final arbiter of the dice and no encounter happens unless the GM says it does. While we frequently joke in our own game sessions that "once again, we blame Greg Vaughan" after a particularly nasty challenge, privately, most of us are blaming the GM -- as we well should, too.
When the sandbox nature of the encounter zones impact is taken into account and when the effect of the random encounters putting the 10 minute adventuring day firmly into the grave are added to that --The Slumbering Tsar Saga is often deadly. Going one step further, even the supposed "level appropriate" encounters are very challenging, too. Add all three of those factors into the mix, and PC death is something everyone should expect.
In fairness to Vaughan, the author underscores this throughout the book and cautions GMs about the lethality and managing players' expectations. Vaughan also builds in various opportunities for introducing new player characters and sometimes methods for reviving the slain. Whether you as the GM want to have the campaign unfold in that manner or prefer to pull punches on your players is a matter which is left -- as always -- entirely in your discretion.
The last factor which contributes to the lethality is the aspect of Vaughan's design which I enjoyed the most: the foes are largely unknown and unknowable. Unlike many adventure products, Vaughan is constantly reaching for new monsters, new templates, new classes and applying class levels to monsters in a manner many GMs and players will be unfamiliar with. This means that unlike most adventure products, the players (as distinct from the PCs) usually never know what they are up against and never know what the foe's capabilities actually are. This aspect of the design adds immeasurably to the difficulty of the Slumbering Tsar Saga. If "knowing is half the battle", then the PCs start each battle in Slumbering Tsar on the losing side.
New Monsters Galore
Moreover, this approach adds immeasurably to the sheer value of the product as well. Vaughan uses a lot of monsters from Paizo's various Bestiary products throughout Slumbering Tsar. However, just as often, Vaughan is using a monster from the Tome of Horrors Complete (each stat block is reproduced in Slumbering Tsar so you do not have to have TOHC to play). There are other "go-to" books constantly referred to by Vaughan throughout the Saga. For example. Creature Collection Volumes I,II and III make frequent appearances throughout - with each stat block updated to Pathfinder RPG format by Vaughan. This approach greatly adds to the utility of the work and makes Slumbering Tsar as much a Pathfinder Bestiary as any bestiary product on the market.
It's an effect which Vaughan repeats in other ways and times throughout The Slumbering Tsar. While new monsters are presented throughout the work, the same thing can be said for new NPCs, too. Some of these NPCs are monsters with strong motivations and backgrounds. Others are humanoids detailed as you might expect them to be in an issue of Pathfinder Adventure Path. Other times, the monster is templated or has class levels added to it together with a backstory and character history which makes all the difference. What would otherwise be an encounter with a nameless, faceless monster in most books becomes an epic showdown with a NPC who simply happens to BE a monster in Slumbering Tsar. This approach has been tried before and has literally been around for decades (Lord Soth is a classic example). However, I don't think I have ever seen this design philosophy resorted to as consistently -- or as extensively -- as Vaughan does in The Slumbering Tsar.
The payoff is sheer gold. The pages leap to life with encounters that feel markedly different from those presented in most other adventure products -- even Paizo's own Adventure Path series typically don't present most of their encounters with as much of an NPC feel as Vaughan does. The overall impression is often one of stat blocks of monstrous NPCs, not simply encounters with monsters.
This approach allows most GMs to use The Slumbering Tsar as an ore rich deposit to mine gold for their own campaigns. It isn't hard to do as the nuggets are everywhere and on at least every other page. Even if you never ran a single adventure as intended in The Slumbering Tsar Saga, most purchasers will get their money's worth just by mining the book for monsters, NPCs and encounter maps alone. We've seen this before with adventure products. Indeed, before the Adventure Paths were introduced by Paizo to Dungeon Magazine, most people would buy the magazine but would rarely actually run the adventures as written -- if at all. Often the main "value-in-use" of Dungeon Magazine's adventures were to act as a stat block source and inspiration for a home brewed encounter. It's a noble cause and my guess is that for many people who purchase The Slumbering Tsar, this will be the principle practical use the book will receive for them, too.
But How does it Read?
The other main use of the book, however, is not simply as a source of new monsters, NPCs, magic items or spells and prestige classes (though it has all of this and more). The main way that The Slumbering Tsar can be used and enjoyed is as a work of fiction. And it is here that Greg Vaughan's unique talent for writing highly entertaining adventures rises to the top. Greg Vaughan has been the most prolific adventure author for Paizo not simply because he is capable of delivering a large volume of work on time which requires little developmental polish -- but because Vaughan understands that for many people who buy the product, they will never actually run the adventure. For those customers, the value-in-use presented by the product is simply to be able to read it and be entertained by it as they read. It's a rare skill to be able to pull this off given the limited prose opportunities that highly technical writing can require. Nevertheless, Vaughan does it consistently throughout The Slumbering Tsar.
Presentation and Artwork: Yes and ... maybe.
The Slumbering Tsar Saga is a massive work with over a half a million words of text. The layout of the book, in 256 greyscale, is surprisingly easy to read and I enjoyed the 2 column format and font selection in both the heading, box text and main text and stat blocks. While the overall presentation of the book is necessarily less "gee-whiz" that we have come to expect from Paizo -- the book presents much better than you probably expect. The artwork, in particular, was rather well done I thought. The illustrations, while not excellent, are good to very good and the overall art direction in the book is far more unified in approach and impact than the hit-and-miss illustrations we saw in Tome of Horrors Complete.
For the most part, this is because there is a lot less art in The Slumbering Tsar Saga than there is in a monster book like Tome of Horrors Complete which provided an illustration for each monster on each page. All of that extra art required by a monster book lead to a large number of artists being engaged on the project with distinctive -- and often clashing -- art styles and skill levels. In contrast, while there are still a lot of contributors to the artwork in The Slumbering Tsar Saga, far and away the most prevalent of these are the illustrations of James Keegan which appear as half page panels throughout. As a consequence, the greyscale art in the book seems to tie everything together much better and with a consistency that I found pleasing.
But it's not all roses. The one problem in the book where the art style failed to engage me was the style used for the maps. I am told that the initial maps designed for the first part of Slumbering Tsar when it was a 3.5 product were maintained throughout the balance of the book for consistency's sake. The problem is, the map style is too much a throwback to "1st edition feel". If these maps were on a blue inked map on the inside cover of a TSR 1st edition module, many would not feel out of place. While the artstyle IS more refined than TSR's maps circa 1980, they certainly are a far cry from the cartography of Chris West, Rob Lazzaretti and Jared Blando. The overall quality of the book suffers for it and reduces the impact of The Slumbering Tsar from its otherwise "Triple A" writing impact.
In fairness -- and to the credit of Greg Vaughan -- the key to a great map is not simply in the presentation of the cartography, it's also in the underlying design of the map. Indeed, I've seen some pretty iffy maps from Rob Lazzaretti that have made it into print at Paizo. They are iffy maps not because of Rob Lazzaretti (he's generally a brilliant cartographer/illustrator) but because the original map turnovers Lazzaretti was working with were poorly conceived. That's the saving grace with Slumbering Tsar's stylistically challenged maps: Vaughan's map turnovers are crisp, make sense and are all highly serviceable.
In the end, "highly serviceable" is how I would describe the maps in Slumbering Tsar. They aren't going to make your eyes fly wide in awe the way some of Jared Blando's masterpiece art-masquerading-as-a-map illustrations can evoke -- but each map in the book works well and makes sense.
By now, it should be quite clear that I really liked The Slumbering Tsar Saga in almost every aspect of its design. While the first point to take away is that The Slumbering Tsar Saga is massively big, it's massively good, too. Yes, it's an epic styled Adventure Path for Pathfinder RGP, but it's so much more than that: it's a treasure trove of encounters, maps, NPCs, stat blocks and 100+ new creatures for Pathfinder RPG. If you do not already have Tome of Horrors Complete - then there are literally HUNDREDS of new monsters in this book for you. Vaughan doesn't stop there, either. New magic items, new templates, new spells, new sorcerous bloodlines, new prestige classes. The list goes on and on. The Slumbering Tsar just delivers so much new material that trying to drink it all in is like trying to sip from a fire hose.
After spending a month with this thing, I would go so far as to say that in terms of sheer usable content in this book, it easily fulfills the "content requirements" of most any other accessory book that you would ever buy for Pathfinder RPG. There is a reason this book is 964 pages long. The book overflows with gaming goodness from beginning to end.
Above all, the thing that struck me most about The Slumbering Tsar Saga was the realization that I would probably never run this as an entire adventure path -- at least not any time soon. However, unlike other massive adventure and setting books published during the 3.5 era, Vaughan's Slumbering Tsar towers above them all for one central reason: he's a superior writer. That difference in the author's fundamental writing talent made The Slumbering Tsar FUN TO READ. If you've got a copy of World's Largest Dungeon, World's Largest City or even Ptolus on hand, I dare you to randomly choose a page and start reading for five pages and call it "fun". In the case of Ptolus - it might happen. In the case of WLD and WLC, it almost never will. And that's the single greatest difference with this book. Vaughan makes it all fun. Seeing as we are talking about a game, it doesn't get much more fundamental than that.
Greg Vaughan is, in my opinion, the best (and certainly the most prolific) adventure author in the RPG games field currently working. The reason why he is the best is on display throughout The Slumbering Tsar Saga. If you were on the fence about pre-ordering this book -- you can hop off that fence right now.
Highly Recommended: All Pathfinder GMs
Title: The Slumbering Tsar Saga
Author: Greg A. Vaughan
Publisher: Frog God Games
Price: $125.00 (Print) $89.99 (.PDF)
Last edited by Morrus; Friday, 8th June, 2012 at 02:59 PM..Robert
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