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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

1988Sander31

Villager
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.
Well other modern moral and societal Strukturs and ideals exist in that world like beeing openly gay or having interspicies couples (humans and elves ) with out having a bigoted society so it is not unreasonable to have a modern like law enforcement too
 

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Catulle

Explorer
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.
Seemed pretty in-depth to me. Seemed like the review discussed a load of the characters and structure, too (which are called out multiple times in the review) as well as the pacing. Is the issue, maybe, in the conclusion for you?
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Sure but law has to be enforced to make sure that lvl 1 commoners are free to I’ve there lives

That, itself, is a rather modern concept. Medieval and Renaissance law enforcement is not about protecting the weak and common - it is about protecting the wealth and rights of the noble classes and guilds.

The Western World didn't get the idea that everybody had rights to life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff until John Locke's Two Treatises of Government in about 1689, and doesn't really get much play until the US Declaration of Independence nearly a century later.
 

Seemed pretty in-depth to me. Seemed like the review discussed a load of the characters and structure, too (which are called out multiple times in the review) as well as the pacing. Is the issue, maybe, in the conclusion for you?
The review left me with an unclear idea of what parts of the game work and which don't. Funnily enough, I have the impression that the adventure really isn't that good, because for example the first part seems completely disconnected from the rest of the story.
Seemed pretty in-depth to me. Seemed like the review discussed a load of the characters and structure, too (which are called out multiple times in the review) as well as the pacing. Is the issue, maybe, in the conclusion for you?
I did feel the conclusion was lacking in a way that reflects the rest of the review. Too much time is spent discussing the problems with real world parallels (which I don't consider relevant, but if you do, fair enough) and not enough time is spend discussing why certain parts of the adventure work as a game or not. I would have appreciated a review more focused on the game itself, because the political matters have been talked about to death for the past months. Yet I haven't really been able to find much information on the adventure itself. This is the second review I've been able to find (the other one wasn't very favorable either, but it left me with a better sense of WHY I wouldn't like it as a game, regardless of it's subject matter).
 

Catulle

Explorer
That, itself, is a rather modern concept. Medieval and Renaissance law enforcement is not about protecting the weak and common - it is about protecting the wealth and rights of the noble classes and guilds.

The Western World didn't get the idea that everybody had rights to life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff until John Locke's Two Treatises of Government in about 1689, and doesn't really get much play until the US Declaration of Independence nearly a century later.
It would be a kindness if you could not do the "hilarious" misapplication of spelling?
 

1988Sander31

Villager
That, itself, is a rather modern concept. Medieval and Renaissance law enforcement is not about protecting the weak and common - it is about protecting the wealth and rights of the noble classes and guilds.

The Western World didn't get the idea that everybody had rights to life, liberty, and the purfuit of happineff until John Locke's Two Treatises of Government in about 1689, and doesn't really get much play until the US Declaration of Independence nearly a century later.
The medieval excuses is not very valid golarion is only midieval in some aesthetic choices but Hase several modern moral concepts as well is very advanced via magical travel and communications

Not like the medieval ages where the people 2 villages over where total strangers you miss trusted and sometimes could not even understand

Where the fantasy city’s are all very modern in cleanlyness openness and progressive mind set so why shouldn’t the laws be to

Instead of texting they just focused on magic

And do I have to point out the dwarven nation with the guns ? They had enogth time to advance morally too
 


TheSword

Legend
Supporter
I have no problem with the police force of Absalom being lazy, corrupt, and utterly incompetent. After all the plot of Terry Pratchett’s excellent Ankh Morpork Watch series is based on a young optimistic guardsman turning the force into something to be proud of. If the PCs are a positive force for good then does it matter if one NPC is a womanizer, ones lazy and one is downright evil. How the players react to these things is what matters.

Before lockdown we played the starter box from WFRP 4e by Cubicle 7, to learn the new rule set. I won’t spoil the story but one watch NPC that the PCs work with is everything horrible about a greedy, venal, cowardly, conniving cop who’s crawled his way to the top of the s%*t heap and will make sure everyone else is getting dirty too. He was an absolute blast to roleplay and the PCs were very creative in solving the various problems he created while maintaining their integrity. That said it was a short segment and total railroad to introduce the rules and I definitely wouldn’t want a six book AP like it 😅

All that said, in Discworld, or WFRP there is an accepted gallows humour, clear sense of satire and opportunity to defy convention that I’m not sure exists in Paizo. I’d need to read the AP myself before I condemn it but it does seem like the reliance on mortal combat, wealth acquisition and a more straightforward approach makes Pathfinder very different to WFRP and perhaps that makes this harder to pull off.

I have no problem with gay bad guys, or indeed closeted ones. In fact it would be fairly weird if gay guys couldn’t be antagonists. There are also many reasons to not to be honest about yourself, that’s not insulting. (Incidentally who was the closeted NPC in Sandpoint?) Though I must admit if these are the only NPCs it seems like an odd set of choices. I think they would have been better leaning into the traditional stereotypes a bit more rather than inventing new ones. If the aim is to improve the Absalom Watch why would you have it currently staffed by the people that are least served by the police IRL.

I’ll be honest the AP as presented makes me raise an eyebrow and I do wonder what possessed them to make this editorial decision at this time. I really do hope Paizo can pull it off. As a lifelong lover of APs I was left very lukewarm by the first two for PF2. I hope the apple doesn’t fall too far from the RotR/Kingmaker/CotCT tree.
 
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TheSword

Legend
Supporter
I’m both second language and dyslexic I try my best
To be fair, you’re doing fine and your posts make perfect sense. Don’t let anyone tell you that grammar matter more than what you say.

However don’t worry Catulle was digging at Umbran’s spelling of “Purfuit of Happineff” as in older texts S’s look like f’s. He wasn’t getting at you!
 

Catulle

Explorer
The review left me with an unclear idea of what parts of the game work and which don't. Funnily enough, I have the impression that the adventure really isn't that good, because for example the first part seems completely disconnected from the rest of the story.

I did feel the conclusion was lacking in a way that reflects the rest of the review. Too much time is spent discussing the problems with real world parallels (which I don't consider relevant, but if you do, fair enough) and not enough time is spend discussing why certain parts of the adventure work as a game or not. I would have appreciated a review more focused on the game itself, because the political matters have been talked about to death for the past months. Yet I haven't really been able to find much information on the adventure itself. This is the second review I've been able to find (the other one wasn't very favorable either, but it left me with a better sense of WHY I wouldn't like it as a game, regardless of it's subject matter).
You're not wrong, in that conclusions deserve the work put in aforetime. But your reaction does tick a few boxes. Good luck with that. I imagine it will suit you super-well in the future.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Someone still upheld law and order before that. shrug
[/I]

Among the commoners? That wasn't a government function. A city didn't have street cops at the ready to respond to thefts from or assault on commoners.

"Upholding law and order" looks a lot different depending on what the laws are, and who and what they protect.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It would be a kindness if you could not do the "hilarious" misapplication of spelling?

Sorry - it was a reference to the font used to print copies of the US Declaration of Independence, one of the first government documents to make serious application of Locke's philosophy, and that used that phrase. They often had "s" that looked like "f".
 

1988Sander31

Villager
My main problem is that I’m not even sure you’re clean cups it says privateer so to make this clear are you law-enforcement employed by the city or not which rules apply have to bye-bye what are the new rules for the GM do we get suggestions how to instate city laws and punishments and how police responsibilities handed in your fantasy city?

I second problem is the pies it couldn’t let go of players taking NPC of villains equipment in this case if they are not enforcement privateer call or any form of that they should not be allowed to do so and if they’re allowed to do so this should explain how law enforcement in different cities work look behind a veil of how NPC carrot a lot enforcement in the cities our adventures go through acts when the players don’t look or which restrictions to have to abide by otherwise we could say you’ve got captured by the guards well
I second problem is the pies it couldn’t let go of players taking NPC of villains equipment in this case if they are not enforcement privateer call or any form of that they should not be allowed to do so and if they’re allowed to do so this should explain how law enforcement in different cities work look behind a veil of how NPC carrot a lot enforcement in the cities our adventures go through acts when the players don’t look or which restrictions to have to abide by otherwise we could say you’ve got captured by the guards well no date on your magical armour and weapons as well as your coin sorry they have to finance him self somehow because the city is not paying them well sorry players that would result in a massacre of the town gard in most groups


On the other hand it might work if you’re playing a villainous law in force meant in evil society or evil dictator ship which I don’t think this is the intention

And yes maybe they should have taken a look at Terry Pratchett books I love them even if they’re hilarious nature might not be optimal for an adventure path that’s restoring the law in the city that has constantly been reducing police funding as well as respect for the police there to rebuild it as an honourable and helpful establishment would be interesting basically build a better police that’s what happens in those blocks it goes from a group of A failure is outsiders and people that just living at a lower bottom So that not even people would ask them for help to rebuild it as an actual respected organisation that is exported into other countries and places into the final books after watch series it’s actually interesting read
 
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Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
My main problem is that I’m not even sure you’re clean cups it says privateer so to make this clear are you law-enforcement employed by the city or not which rules apply have to bye-bye what are the new rules for the GM do we get suggestions how to instate city laws and punishments and how police responsibilities handed in your fantasy city?

My main problem is that I’m not even sure you’re clean cups it says privateer so to make this clear are you law-enforcement employed by the city or not which rules apply have to buy to buy what are the new rules for the GM do we get suggestions how to instate city laws and punishments and how police responsibility is handled in your fantasy city?
What?
 

You're not wrong, in that conclusions deserve the work put in aforetime. But your reaction does tick a few boxes. Good luck with that. I imagine it will suit you super-well in the future.
Wow, are you really that offended by someone having a different opinion? If you liked the review that's fine, it's really all the same to me. No need to be snarky with me. We don't even know each other.
 

1988Sander31

Villager
After the critique on my writing style are used voice recognition on my phone this resulted in a double post

If you refer to the context review says you’re more privateers than cups which is confusing

What is the exact role and legitimisation after players action as any form of law enforcement in this adventure path?

Let’s use an example are they more like the cops in the Batman the animated series like officer Gordon a stand-up cop between a more or less corrupt police establishment in a crime ridden city then is barely holding together or are they let’s use an example are they more like the cops in the Batman the animated series like officer Gordon a stand-up cop between a more or less corrupt police establishment in a crime ridden city then is barely holding together or are they like the cops are privately Hired group of security people like to crows in the TV show bat woman where the police is so nonpresent that you can only believe police has been so much to find a daddy have to employ a private security firms to handle police work now in a crime ridden city well they deal with mass murderers and thieveries?
 

1988Sander31

Villager
On another question what is the average power level of the light cosmetic any major city in an RPG that has the actual population of adventure ask how do you deal with high-level adventurous? Is that outlined there if we have high-level line cops / police npcs and pieces I would thatis n the project are a star retroactively?
 



Catulle

Explorer
To be fair, you’re doing fine and your posts make perfect sense. Don’t let anyone tell you that grammar matter more than what you say.

However don’t worry Catulle was digging at Umbran’s spelling of “Purfuit of Happineff” as in older texts S’s look like f’s. He wasn’t getting at you!

Yeah, I was basically being a bag of dicks, and I'm sorry about that. My bad, Absolute apologies.
 

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