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Devil at the Dreaming Palace: An In-Depth Review

Hey howdy y’all, it’s time for yet another PAIZO REVIEW! This go-round we’re sinking our teeth deep into Pathfinder Adventure Path #157: Devil at the Dreaming Palace! There’s a lot to dig into with this one, so we’re just gonna get going!

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Introduction

As with the Player’s Guide, the elephant in the room is that Agents of Edgewatch thrusts the players into the role of law enforcement at the precise moment when the history, role, and actions of law enforcement officers is under intense public scrutiny. As such, the review of this AP would be incomplete without an understanding of its connections to real-world policing that the AP is so clearly inspired by—indeed, as the AP leans on “cop movie” tropes, it would be irresponsible not to provide that context and understanding, to highlight parallels and unconscious connections.

Now then, on to the adventure itself! Once past the preamble and adventure synopsis, the adventure runs smack into one of those unfortunate parallels as it tries to bridge the gap between the traditional TTRPG mechanic of looting fallen foes and the PC’s positions as cops. The best it comes up with is explicit and sanctioned civil asset forfeiture, something which is quite contentious in modern policing.

On top of this, the organization to which the PCs belong is referred to in-text as “the police version of privateers”, which is a poor comparison. Privateering is government-sanctioned and -backed assault and theft during times of war, which in turn generally requires two relatively equal “sides” or belligerents. On one side is the government of the city of Absalom (which pays its law enforcement officers so little they have to resort to this behavior in order to make a living), and on the other side are people “forced to resort to crime to survive”—at least according to the Player’s Guide. To me, that speaks to a pretty careless attitude towards the general populace of Absalom, one which flies in the face of the Player’s Guide assertion that the PCs are uphold justice and protect the people. In short, this is a truly unfortunate parallel packed into just a few choice phrases early on in the adventure.

Meet the Cast

On to NPCs! For what would an adventure be without a few good NPCs? To this end, a sidebar introduces us to Detective Delesden Bolera, Sergeant Moldun Ollo, and Corporal Kerr Batiste. Detective Bolera’s description starts out strong: she’s a smart and successful investigator with a strong grasp on the particulars of her job. Unfortunately, half of Detective Bolera’s biography is dedicated to her status as an office “heartbreaker”, which is about as family-friendly description for that particular trope as I can imagine. Worse still, her description suggests that a GM have her make advances on one of the players, which is…yikes.

Sergeant Moldun Ollo is a sleepy, agreeable, middle-aged dwarf who is literally “getting too old for this”. Sergeant Ollo is so “placid” that he falls asleep mid-conversation and spends the whole adventure as a handy subordinate. He’s also depicted as a person of color.

Corporal Kerr Batiste provides moral texture to the Edgewatch department, in that she’s evil and corrupt in a way that the Player’s Guide forbids the players from being. Indeed, the sidebar suggests that she can attempt to bring in one of the PCs on her schemes, which the Player’s Guide completely rules out. There’s enough discrepancies between the two books that it seems there was some miscommunication between the writers of this adventure and of the Player’s Guide.

So in short, the first three NPCs presented are: a woman who known for numerous romantic entanglements, a Black man who falls asleep on the job, and a woman who is capital-E Evil. My guess is that the adventure was written with fairly generic NPCs as placeholders, and then their ethnic and gender diversity was added later without regard to what potentially offensive stereotypes might be created. Some of these issues could be mitigated by fleshing out the characters in more detail; but instead, the two women aren’t mentioned again, despite the fact that there are several natural places where they could be an important part of the adventure. Perhaps they’ll show up in later chapters of the Adventure Path, but without further context they seem weirdly out of place here.

Speaking of full writeups, we now move on to the NPC who receives the most attention and the only spoken lines boxed text: Lieutenant Grospek Lavarsus! A broad-chested mustachioed man who is perpetually chomping on a cigar while simultaneously yelling at his subordinates at the top of his lungs, this guy is every possible trope about police chiefs crammed into an ill-fitting breastplate.

His biography in the appendix fleshes out his personality and history, and it’s here that aspects of Lieutenant Lavarsus’ personality cross over from tired trope to offensive stereotype. It is made explicit that Lavarsus’ continued abuse and authority comes directly from the behavior he learned as a child, of cozying up to those in power and sticking close enough to the letter of the law that his superiors allow him free reign. It’s hard to think of someone I would want to be a figure of authority in law enforcement less than Lieutenant Lavarsus. The horrible cherry on top of all of this is that Lavarsus is a closeted homosexual—because the last toxic trope this character needed was a closeted gay man burying their feelings and behaving aggressively to mask it.

The writers made Lavarsus an antagonist, but there’s no real reason why he dislikes the PCs. Even the necessity of unifying them into a cohesive team is handled with the law enforcement conceit of the whole adventure.

Chapter 1: The Mean Streets of Absalom

We kick things off in where of all places but a tavern! The initial encounter is solid enough—the stereotypical adventuring party the group is tasked with pacifying is varied, and each one is given a few psychological levers to pull so that the encounter can end without violence. It ain’t great that the first encounter is functionally “rich white businessman thinks the transient workers are partying too loud and calls the cops”, and that the PCs are encouraged to leverage some of that civil asset forfeiture to relieve said workers of their hard-earned pay (one of them even had their familiar die in their latest job). Still, the adventure earns some points by giving the ultimate villain of the adventure a smugly punchable face (according to his portrait).

I have to give kudos where kudos are due when it comes to clever adventure design, and kudos are definitely due for having “walking a beat” be an excuse for the next few encounters and for getting the players familiar with the character of Absalom. That said, while I love the map that’s included in this adventure (the same one that appears in the Player’s Guide), I can’t help but think a map of the Precipice District in specific would have been more useful. After all, the Edgewatch for which the AP is named is formed explicitly to safeguard the convention that is the cause of the Precipice District’s revival, and a more detail map would allow GMs to show the players where they are as they walk their beat. Something to look forward to in later chapters, perhaps!

The encounters themselves are quite solid: a brawl between goblin street vendors, a fleeing pickpocket, a gaggle of skeletons, and a break-in at a wizard’s shop. Goblins continue to be my favorite thing in Pathfinder, to exactly no-one’s surprise. Also, given the supposed non-lethal nature of combat in this AP and the purported origin of the skeletons, I highly encourage GMs to allow PCs a limited amount of reasoning with the shambling bones. After all, they’re apparently ex-guards, and in theory they died defending the city! Also, more kudos are due here, as the PCs earn more XP by resolving any given encounter non-violently.

Points are awarded again for the showstopper encounter of the chapter in the traveling menagerie. After all, there’s hardly a better way to get together a collection of iconic or unusual monsters for players to throw down against—when was the last time YOU fought a rust monster in the room next to an owlbear?

Chapter 2: Missing Persons

The sidebar synopsis for Chapter 2 indicates this chapter is going to at least somewhat brush by the issue of worker’s rights, and after the last chapter I didn’t hold out much hope for this topic.

The chapter kicks off with what looks to be a bit of a mix-up between writing teams. At first the introductory text says their mission handler doesn’t have a lot of information about where the characters should go and why, but then the very next paragraph lays out not only who the missing persons are, how long they have been missing, and why the mission handler is extra motivated to send the PCs to a specific location over other possible places to search for clues.

As soon as combat starts it becomes apparent that the topic of worker’s rights will be handled poorly. Every combat encounter up to this point has options for when the belligerents surrender before they’re knocked unconscious, but these kobolds protesting for equal pay do not. Kobolds are apparently not considered human enough to negotiate. The fact that the Stonescale kobold laborers have legitimate grievances adds a further unpleasant layer to the expected actions of the PCs.

Worse, the plot development for this adventure in no way hinges on how peacefully the characters approach the kobolds. If the players are nonviolent and negotiate their way through, they are rewarded with an extra piece of information from the leader of the kobold strike. If the players hack and slash until the kobolds surrender out of fear, one of the nameless kobold extras provides the same information! I realize there’s a limitation to how much variance you can have in the course of a pre-written adventure, but that’s what sidebars are for. This gameplay choice completely refutes the insistence the Player’s Guide makes on approaching encounters with a mind towards nonviolence.

Chapter 3: Into the Undercity

We’re now treated to a bit of a fashion montage as Sergeant Ollo helps the characters find snazzy disguises with which to infiltrate their next target, a seedy criminal speakeasy. If you wanted to reincorporate the corrupt Corporal Batiste or the flashy Detective Bolera from the sidebar earlier, you can use Corporal Batiste to provide some crucial criminally-linked information the players may have missed and Detective Bolera in an undercover fashion montage. Once things dive back into encounter and dungeon-delve mode, the adventure starts to shine again. A gelatinous cube early on sets a cautious tone for exploration, and the other encounters are balanced enough to tax adventurers but likely not kill them—after all, there’s the whole smuggler’s den to get to! I do like seeing more old favorites show up, in this case a grick that the party has to go out of their way to provoke.

The smuggler’s speakeasy itself is some very fun social encounter work. The rooms themselves are delightful—a colorful, instantly interesting big shot holding sway and some truly gut-wrenching challenges that the players can best through a variety of different skills or saves.

In addition, as the players are looking for information, each knowledgeable NPC is given a real clue and a piece of misleading info. How smart is that? Letting the players puzzle out (it may be easier for some false leads than others) truth from fiction really lends itself to the detective work one might expect in a law enforcement campaign.

Chapter 4: The Murder Hotel

This chapter is the one that gets the content warning, folks, so be advised if you choose to take the plunge on this AP. I won’t get into specifics here—don’t want to spoil anything—just know that the designers walk right up to the line of good taste when it comes to new and unusual undead monsters.

The encounter design on display here is again quite good—no one room is really tough enough to take out an entire party (or likely even a single party member) by itself, but they’ll take a toll on the party resources quite quickly. The traps are clearly enough to be fatal to an ordinary commoner, but not enough to down a party member before the cleric can intervene.

It’s also possible that the PCs could get dumped right next to the final fight very early on in their exploration. Take it from someone who ran a haunted castle and had players unintentionally beeline directly to the final boss—let the party explore a bit and see to truly twisted mind of the hotel proprietor.

The characterization here is also good, and very tragic. I have nothing but sympathy for poor Ralso, and once you finish reading about her you will be hard pressed to disagree. The ultimate villain is a delightfully hateful and despicable person, and the way they defend their inner lair in a way that calls back to the very start of the adventure is a truly inspired bit of adventure design. And, once again for those in the back, everything undead here is yikes on top of yikes with a healthy dollop of YIKES besides.

The Back Nine

The final pages of the Adventure Path detail not only the history of the Radiant Festival itself but also the new items and major NPCs that can appear. The history of the Radiant Festival may run a bit long for those looking to simply run straight into the action, but I’m always for letting the lore nerds at Paizo run loose. A lengthy description of each of the upcoming Festival’s displays and districts makes the lack of a dedicated map hurt all the deeper. I’m sure we’ll get a better look in the upcoming Absalom, City of Lost Omens, but it feels like a missed opportunity here.

The items includes pepper spray and tear gas equivalents, but the designers could not have planned for the real-life controversies involving them, so I think the timing was just unfortunate. The undercover items are just delightful, however, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to use them in your next espionage game so that your characters can maintain fine bespoke suits while defeating billionaire criminal masterminds.

Conclusion

The encounter design of Devil at the Dreaming Palace is excellent—well balanced, varied, and making good use of iconic monsters and hazards. There’s even a delightful old-timey newsprint-style summation of the whole adventure at the back, and it’s a treat and a half. That said, the whole of the adventure is mired down in a combination of a poor grasp of the role, history, and effects of policing in the modern world and repeated use of game design elements that contradict much of their other attempts to soften the blow. It’s probably too late in the production line for substantial changes to future chapters of the Agents of Edgewatch AP, but I will hold onto that hope for now.
 
Ben Reece

Ben Reece

Derren

Hero
The discrepancies between adventure and player guide are imo because of the last minute attempts to sanitize the adventure path.
As for stereotypes, what exactly is stereotypical for a female "(wo)manizer". Thats usually a male stereotype. I do not know how pronounced the stereotypes are, but I see nothing wrong with them as long as they are not overdone.

I also see no problem with tear gas etc. They are still better than fireballs and as the adventure tries to emulate modern policework they fit the setting perfectly (if modern police procedures actually fit into a setting like Pathfinder is a other discussion).
 

CapnZapp

Legend
Introduction

As with the Player’s Guide, the elephant in the room is that Agents of Edgewatch thrusts the players into the role of law enforcement at the precise moment when the history, role, and actions of law enforcement officers is under intense public scrutiny. As such, the review of this AP would be incomplete without an understanding of its connections to real-world policing that the AP is so clearly inspired by—indeed, as the AP leans on “cop movie” tropes, it would be irresponsible not to provide that context and understanding, to highlight parallels and unconscious connections.

Now then, on to the adventure itself!
Wait, what?

Where did the context and understanding go? Or do you mean the module discusses this? Or do you mean it would be great if that was discussed, but it isn't? Is someone responsible for providing it or is someone else irresponsible for not providing it?

Thank you, though, for calling out the tropes about its NPCs. While I think the combination of personality and color can be chalked off as random, the police chief's traits remain unfortunate. Even then, the "disliking the heroes for no reason" is very much part of the gruff police captain trope, so I wouldn't draw any conclusions from that specific part of it.
 
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CapnZapp

Legend
(if modern police procedures actually fit into a setting like Pathfinder is a other discussion)
I think that's a very interesting discussion.

I would expect a fantasy city to feature fantasy law enforcement. Not necessarily as in "alien" or "incomprehensible", since there are a lot of historical metropolises to draw inspiration from. And obviously, the procedures would have to be much simplified to keep the focus where it should be, on the action.
 

1988Sander31

Villager
As with the Player’s Guide, the elephant in the room is that Agents of Edgewatch thrusts the players into the role of law enforcement at the precise moment when the history, role, and actions of law enforcement officers is under intense public scrutiny. As such, the review of this AP would be incomplete without an understanding of its connections to real-world policing that the AP is so clearly inspired by—indeed, as the AP leans on “cop movie” tropes, it would be irresponsible not to provide that context and understanding, to highlight parallels and unconscious connections.

Now then, on to the adventure itself! Once past the preamble and adventure synopsis, the adventure runs smack into one of those unfortunate parallels as it tries to bridge the gap between the traditional TTRPG mechanic of looting fallen foes and the PC’s positions as cops. The best it comes up with is explicit and sanctioned civil asset forfeiture, something which is quite contentious in modern policing.

On top of this, the organization to which the PCs belong is referred to in-text as “the police version of privateers”, which is a poor comparison. Privateering is government-sanctioned and -backed assault and theft during times of war, which in turn generally requires two relatively equal “sides” or belligerents. On one side is the government of the city of Absalom (which pays its law enforcement officers so little they have to resort to this behavior in order to make a living), and on the other side are people “forced to resort to crime to survive”—at least according to the Player’s Guide. To me, that speaks to a pretty careless attitude towards the general populace of Absalom, one which flies in the face of the Player’s Guide assertion that the PCs are uphold justice and protect the people. In short, this is a truly unfortunate parallel packed into just a few choice phrases early on in the adventure.
So does adventure path is not about being real policeman having to deal with the struggle between following the law defending the law and people who are just ignoring it but it’s about something else taking riches from them showing is sitting on the bed like the day you don’t even care to have proper law enforcement in the city despite being one of the biggest and most important cities in the world?
is it just me or how would that city work if the criminals are forced to commit crime to survive to have some privateers id. doesn’t that show the city in a bad picture?

Are you even cops?
Or did they just want and let out for murder hobos and for a power game is so they can do the whole thing unimpeded and get a load instead of getting rewards tomorrow behaving properly from the superiors

Or did they just want and let out for murder hobos and for a power game is so they can do the whole thing unimpeded and get a load instead of getting rewards tomorrow behaving properly from the superiors It would’ve been interesting if they had done it like this people following the law get provided by certain infections in the police will get the one who work with the mafia or something equivalent can get equipment buy them by working against the city interest or something like that shame to waste a hard righteous way struggling with reflections of real problem is that police face like okay when you use voice when is it not correct when is this correct or how can I advance myself in the system so I get better equipment and so on
 

What made me raise an eyebrow is that Lt. Lavarsus is not only a jerk but also a closeted gay man...
Err...why, in a world like Golarion, would you need to be closeted anyway? Nearly all good gods either don't care (except for - maybe - Erastil, but there's nothing anywhere about his stance towards homosexuality) or are all for giving love its due (Shelyn) no matter the sex of your partner.
There are no legal repercussions for being gay in most metropolitan places...and why would there be without a church that abhors homosexuality making the laws like it happened in our history?
Paizo seems to like this trope (there was one closeted gay character in Sandpoint, too), but I have no idea why....it's a cheap move to introduce drama and it's not really supported by the fiction.
 

1988Sander31

Villager
What made me raise an eyebrow is that Lt. Lavarsus is not only a jerk but also a closeted gay man...
Err...why, in a world like Golarion, would you need to be closeted anyway? Nearly all good gods either don't care (except for - maybe - Erastil, but there's nothing anywhere about his stance towards homosexuality) or are all for giving love its due (Shelyn) no matter the sex of your partner.
There are no legal repercussions for being gay in most metropolitan places...and why would there be without a church that abhors homosexuality making the laws like it happened in our history?
Paizo seems to like this trope (there was one closeted gay character in Sandpoint, too), but I have no idea why....it's a cheap move to introduce drama and it's not really supported by the fiction.
To be honest as a gay man I have to say the following if you cannot have it both ways you cannot say being gay is of any meaning if you make a send h to be honest as a gay man I have to say the following if you cannot have it both ways you cannot say being gay is of any meaning if you make a Setting where being gay is not unusual and they are open gay characters or something so closeted gay wouldn’t make any sense you cannot have suppressed gays in the world with being gay doesn’t matter same thing with transgender I know it’s normal or not cannot have it both ways in the setting where some treat it is completely normal but understand if so you have to explain why and why it changed if you want to make it more real world like that means you have to say hate it wasn’t like that and it’s starting to normalise now but that’s not the case and the Laurion so basically being gay or transgender in this setting is not worth mentioning if it is a accept thing like in other adventure paths
 

HawaiiSteveO

Explorer
Not for this adventure specifically, but in general I'd really like GM notes that make prep easier. For example, NPC catchphrases, personality characteristics, and so on.

"A broad-chested mustachioed man who is perpetually chomping on a cigar while simultaneously yelling at his subordinates at the top of his lungs..." Awesome - I can do this!

All the rest of it..? My portrayal of NPCS is average at best, and that's being generous. I wouldn't have the first clue what to do with that information..!

I understand it’s reviewers words , not actual text from adventure ?

In this case, I think I learned way more about the reviewer than I did about the adventure 🤷🏽‍♂️?
 







Lefi2017

Explorer
Historically speaking, law enforcement as we think of it today is an 18th to 19th century development. Putting that into a pseudo-medieval or pseudo-Renaissance framework is going to be a mismatch to begin with.
In a world where magic in cities should be heavy regulated since t is so common there should be a well-structured way to deal with it to this requires a well-thought-out system or a big city like Absalom would go under chaos. Magic is their equivalent to technology it is a highly advance society sop they should have comparable modern and regulated law system
 


It's like media exists within a broader social context or something...
I don't really care if the author feels the need to talk about that or not, my disappointment stems from the fact that the rest of the content seems lacking. For an "in-depth" review I would have really appreciated more discussion regarding the structure, pacing, characters etc. Maybe even some talk about an actual game session. That would have made it more informative.
 

1988Sander31

Villager
Law and regulation are separate from law enforcement methods and procedures.
Sure but law has to be enforced to make sure that lvl 1 commoners are free to I’ve there lives in a world of powerful lvl 10 Mages and rouges

A street patrol will not do to handle a bunch of roudy adventure

How were casting spells on people and Marchands Handel in the past to avoid a „might makes right“ place we’re powerful npcs and pc would get of Scott free or with a slap on the wrist

This could have been fun players dealing with npc adventurer groups emulating how may players behave charming npcs to get better deals and so on or solving murders / murder-suicides with some mind Controlling the murder and so on how valid would be sleek dead in investigative and how many headless or jaw less corpses would turn up to prevent that spell
 


CapnZapp

Legend
Historically speaking, law enforcement as we think of it today is an 18th to 19th century development. Putting that into a pseudo-medieval or pseudo-Renaissance framework is going to be a mismatch to begin with.
Someone still upheld law and order before that. shrug

Anyhoo, my point is that this module silently assumes this city has thoroughly modern priorities coupled with a contemporary set of moral beliefs. I find that hard to believe in a fantasy game.
 

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