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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

Catulle

Explorer
[/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.
Yeah, sorry, I was being awful. Mea culpa.
 

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Catulle

Explorer
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.
I'm not offended, so much as (as a social worker) I'm not in any way confused by the pretense you're advocating. To be clear: what precisely do you mean by -

"Too much time is spent discussing the problems with real world parallels (which I don't consider relevant, but if you do, fair enough) "

...which seems bizarre, given the suppression of free speech going on in the USA right now. What, precisely, are you standing against (if anything that isn't "a-thing-I-don't-like?")
 

Derren

Hero
I'm not offended, so much as (as a social worker) I'm not in any way confused by the pretense you're advocating. To be clear: what precisely do you mean by -

"Too much time is spent discussing the problems with real world parallels (which I don't consider relevant, but if you do, fair enough) "

...which seems bizarre, given the suppression of free speech going on in the USA right now. What, precisely, are you standing against (if anything that isn't "a-thing-I-don't-like?")
Dont mix real world issues with fantasy pretend games.

It sounds like having a requisition system where the PCs can request new equipment based on funding which increases by success (and plot progression) would have been way more appropriate for this AP instead of keeping confiscated equipment. Then again the police keeping such things for their own use is not unheard of either.
 

CapnZapp

Legend
It is not unheard of. But it is not nearly as uncontroversial as the module makes it out to be either. Which is the issue here: Paizo apparently failing to realize many customers expect or demand a police-focused AP to play out significantly differently from a regular AP.

Which brings me back to my overarching point: either you're totally cool with playing a regular Paizo hero doing the same things you do in every other AP except you don't get to choose your own uniform, or you're probably much better off by staying very far away...
 

Derren

Hero
It is not unheard of. But it is not nearly as uncontroversial as the module makes it out to be either. Which is the issue here: Paizo apparently failing to realize many customers expect or demand a police-focused AP to play out significantly differently from a regular AP.

Which brings me back to my overarching point: either you're totally cool with playing a regular Paizo hero doing the same things you do in every other AP except you don't get to choose your own uniform, or you're probably much better off by staying very far away...
Thats a general problem with D20 systems. They are designed to do only one thing and are not really good for other stuff.
Although I do not know how bad this is in Pathfinder.

Other system like for example Traveller or Shadowrun are much more supporting when you play something different than the default.
What most D20 games lack is imo a robust skill system which would allow you to handle non combat with any kind of granularity or complexity.

But Paizo could certainly have done better from what I read.

Another problem with this particular AP is that it heavily leans on modern police forces as inspiration, but the police is very different depending on where you live with the US one being rather "special" compared to the rest of the western world, at least that is my impression.
 
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CapnZapp

Legend
Yep.

Even if "doing better" means "realizing the story idea should not have been explored at all, not for anything as conservative as the rather formulaic take on D&D-ish gameplay that is a Paizo Adventure Path".
 

Lefi2017

Explorer
It is not unheard of. But it is not nearly as uncontroversial as the module makes it out to be either. Which is the issue here: Paizo apparently failing to realize many customers expect or demand a police-focused AP to play out significantly differently from a regular AP.

Which brings me back to my overarching point: either you're totally cool with playing a regular Paizo hero doing the same things you do in every other AP except you don't get to choose your own uniform, or you're probably much better off by staying very far away...
I would expect a more investigate style of play to lead up to encounters and moral conundrums
not playing as "normal" heroes
more a let's watch how the town grads deal with the craziness that is normal day in this world

you can do a lot the concept but you have to have a clear vision what it will be about
Also you should not use a reward system of plundering enemies ...
Difficult choices of doing thing by law or doing what feels right with consequences the loose canon cop trope
 


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