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Pathfinder Review: The Ruby Phoenix Tournament

In past reviews and columns, I have examined a number of different products and product lines published or licensed by Paizo – and there are still a few lines I’ve yet to look at. Nevertheless, if one golden thread emerges from looking at these diverse products and brands, it can be summed up by the term “cross-support.” The trend has become increasingly clear over the years as Paizo...

In past reviews and columns, I have examined a number of different products and product lines published or licensed by Paizo – and there are still a few lines I’ve yet to look at. Nevertheless, if one golden thread emerges from looking at these diverse products and brands, it can be summed up by the term “cross-support.”

The trend has become increasingly clear over the years as Paizo looks to focus their various cards, miniatures, maps, hardcover rulebooks, and soft cover books and modules on a particular unifying theme. The cross-support theme has proved successful and was expanded last year within Paizo’s Organized Play under the catch-line “Year of the Ruby Phoenix”.

Paizo’s Ruby Phoenix strategy was to create a centrepiece, 32 page stand-alone module, and insert that module into its new setting material developed for Tian-Xia, Paizo’s new East Asian inspired region in its official game world, Golarion. The Ruby Phoenix Tournament would not only be the first stand-alone module set in Tian-Xia, but it was also intended to be easily adapted for use as a “capstone adventure” as part of Paizo’s Organized Play program, Pathfinder Society.

Given the trend within the OP program to explicitly permit inclusion of stand-alone modules never intended for PFS play as part of the in-store OP program, the strategy seemed to fit. The Ruby Phoenix Tournament module was assigned to ENNie award-winning author Tim Hitchcock who also wrote the PFS Society Special, titled Blood Under Absalom, that commenced the Ruby Phoenix metaplot storyline.

With that bit of branding and cross-line support in place, Paizo had a tent-pole around which it could arrange its OP theme at both Gencon and throughout 2011/2012. T-shirts bearing the red and white Ruby Phoenix logo were seen throughout the Exhibit Hall at last year’s Gencon and especially in the Pathfinder Society game areas around the Indiana Convention Centre. From my own experience, I can assure you that these t-shirts continue to appear in local gaming stores and regional conventions ever since. It's not an accident. Pathfinder Society players get one free "re-roll" for their characters during each play session if they are wearing a PFS shirt.

It’s all about creating buzz, increasing product visibility and building thematic brands designed to inter-operate with one another so as to increase sales. As a brand marketing strategy, you have to hand it to Paizo for this sort of approach in marketing its OP program. Okay, so it's slick -- but what about the quality of the adventure?

Which of course brings us to the subject of this week’s review, the PFRGP 32 page stand-alone module The Ruby Phoenix Tournament.

The Back-Stories to the Tournament -- and the Module

The back-story to The Ruby Phoenix Tournament is that a Tian sorcerer, Hao Jin, spent a lifetime amassing a priceless collection of wondrous perfect magical items, storing them in a carefully protected vault. Throughout her lifetime, many sought to kill her in order to wrest her treasures away from her. As it turns out, many succeeded, but Hao Jin had planned for such contingencies. Every time she was slain, she returned from death, her hair a little more fiery coloured upon each miraculous resurrection, thereby earning her nickname the "Ruby Phoenix".

Ultimately, Hao Jin passed away of natural causes and willed that the winner of a great tournament, to be held once every ten years, would receive the choice of one of her precious and wondrous objects from her Golden Vault as their prize. Thus was born a great tournament in honour of the "Ruby Phoenix", the backdrop for an 11th level adventure set in Tian-Xia.

The back-story to how The Ruby Phoenix Tournament module came to be is perhaps more interesting.

Paizo developer Mark Moreland explains “We knew from the start that we wanted a stand-alone module to be set in Tian-Xia. James Jacobs and I both felt very strongly that a martial arts fighting tournament, which is at the heart of classics like Mortal Kombat, and other fighting games and martial arts cinema had a strong Asian theme and would feel iconic. Everything flowed from that.”

Moreland, who is responsible for both the stand alone-module line within Paizo as well as the developer charged with development and oversight over the Pathfinder Society Scenario line was a fan of the idea to extend the PFS Season 3 campaign into a physically published module. “The plot determined what level the stand-alone adventure would have to be. Just as it feels inappropriate to send high level characters to do things which are clearly lower level missions, we also thought it wouldn’t feel right for the Pathfinders to send low level characters on something that was important for the Pathfinder Society to win. They would be there to win the Tournament which means they would send their best. In Pathfinder Society Organized Play, that meant that the Ruby Phoenix Tournament would have to be an 11th level module, as that’s the highest level in PFS play.”

The Module

The tournament slots the PCs as one of 32 teams (or qualifying individuals) who compete daily in the martial arts competition. Over the course of five days, the field of competitors is winnowed down from the initial 32 teams to the ultimate champion, with the PCs fighting in one arena match per day. Beyond the actual matches are other daily tests and exhibitions for the PCs to participate in. Each day is capped with some festivity which provides a backdrop to a social roleplaying encounter.

The combat and various tests provide some interesting opponents and special rules which govern each fight. My personal favourite was Hitchcock's use of a boar (or a tiger) chained to the leg of PC, with the other animal chained to that of his foe. The animals will attack whoever is closest to them. The object of the exercise is to kill the foe's animal while protecting your own -- perhaps the most interesting quandary presented in one of the module's "exhibition" matches.

Without spoiling matters further with the particulars, the tests, exhibitions and matches present a variety of venues in which the heroes will compete. The thrust of the module is clearly on gladiatorial combat and the module suggests use of the Performance Combat variant rules presented in Ultimate Combat. To summarize that system, PCs who take the Performance combat skill have a chance to "win the crowd" in order to obtain advantages to the rolls to hit, damage, and armor class throughout the match.

The one weakness in all of this is, of course, what to do if the PCs manage to lose a match. The rules permit a deus ex mechanic to allow the PCs to continue in the place of a rival team that is forced to withdraw; however, this is a moment where the man behind the curtain is most easily ignored when he is never seen in the first place. Hopefully, the players won't lose a match and most teams of four 11th level PCs won't. Still, there are no guarantees. I wouldn't characterize this as a flaw attributable to Hitchcock's design so much as I would note that such possibilities are inherent to all RPG combats. Sometimes, the PCs are going to lose. Without such a possibility, the game would be boring as all hell.

Nevertheless, for the most part, the PCs will be challenged across their five main matches and then... the surprise unfolds.

Deja...Vu?

If any of this sounds somewhat familiar to you -- it should. This ground has been ploughed before, perhaps most memorably in Dungeon Magazine's The Champion's Belt, a gladiatorial adventure which formed part of the Age of Worms Adventure Path (also published and developed by Paizo).

In that adventure, author Tito Leati has the heroes fighting within the Greyhawk Arena as ostensible gladiators only to gain access to the areas beneath the Arena in order to investigate a foul plot of the Kyuss cultists.

In The Champion's Belt, it was the investigatory part of the module which was the focus and the most entertaining aspect of the adventure. The gladiatorial combat throughout the Age of Worms module was mostly a sideshow, with the exception of the epic fight with the great Kyuss worm at the very end -- a highly memorable scene.

With the important exception of the final epic fight in the Champion's Belt, the matches and competitions throughout the Ruby Phoenix Tournament are better designed, more fun and more engaging. In that sense, Tim Hitchcock did his homework in his crafting of Ruby Phoenix and he presents a far better overall tournament and gladiatorial challenge to both players and GMs alike.

The problem, however, is that the investigatory aspect of the Ruby Phoenix Tournament fails to engage. As the module unfolds, it's clear that someone is interfering with the tournament, but just who is responsible and why fails to electrify and stimulate the interest of players in the same manner that the Champion's Belt did.

Perhaps the real issue is the mystery that someone is trying to rig a martial arts tournament (for admittedly interesting purposes) is not nearly as compelling a plot as someone scheming to bring about an Apocalypse and the End of Greyhawk as We Know It. The stakes aren't as high, the villains not nearly so diabolical -- and so neither is the payoff.

The Verdict

For all that, provided the module is played as part of Pathfinder Society Season 3, the Ruby Phoenix Tournament serves as a real climax (though not the end) and highpoint to the metaplot's unfolding tale. Indeed, when played as part of a nearly year-long metaplot, the underlying narrative backdrop supplied by Season 3 lends sufficient gravitas to the module and everything about it seems far more satisfying then it does when judged as having to stand on its own.

Given the inherent nature of the module and how it came about, I think it is only fair to judge it in light of its place within Season 3 of Pathfinder Society as a whole. Indeed, as a contiguous part of Season 3, the module has been warmly received and viewed as a "highlight reel" of a player's participation in Paizo's OP program.

Moreland agrees that the metaplot of the Ruby Phoenix has been well received by Pathfinder Society GMs and players, though he admits there are problems caused by the intrinsic nature of the PFS OP program in terms of which PFS characters can play in it -- and when. “Some players want character continuity and they want to be able to play their characters sequentially throughout the season’s metaplot arc like it was an Adventure Path. The problem is, we need to be releasing scenarios throughout the year aimed at different character levels at different times in order to be able to support the Organized Play program as a whole. So character continuity isn’t always possible with these things; sometimes, you have to settle with just player continuity. After all, if it was all sequentially affecting the same character throughout in terms of continuity, it wouldn’t be a “metaplot” -- it would just be a “plot”.

It isn't yet clear whether or not a similar stand-alone module will be worked into next years' releases in the same manner of The Ruby Phoenix Tournament. Moreland admits that the experiment might have benefitted more from inclusion at the very beginning -- or more probably -- the very end of the season. "The problem is that there are significantly more time pressures involved in a print product. With a PFS scenario I can work and tweak a .PDF up until the very day it is released. Print publications require a much tighter timeline. It's just more difficult to slot in a stand-alone module exactly where we might prefer it".

Still, Moreland confirms that the idea of a season long metaplot as part of PFS play is a winner and that the idea is here to stay. Including the Society Special Blood Under Absalom, fifteen scenarios in the overall Year of the Ruby Phoenix will be presented between Gencon 2011 and Paizocon in July 2012. "At Paizocon, we will be releasing the last of the scenarios which will conclude the Year of the Ruby Phoenix and Season 3 will end by leading directly into next year's metaplot."

While being cagey on the overall plot itself and the name, Moreland confirmed that just as this year's Season 3 focused upon the lands of Tian-Xia, Season 4 will coincide with the release of the Anniversary hardback of the Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path and the release of the RotRL's sequel AP, Shattered Star, both of which are set in Varisia. "Season 4 will also be focused in the lands of Varisia and will tie-in to that region and the City of Magnimar."

Recommended: For all Pathfinder Society GMs and PFS Players

Title: The Ruby Phoenix Tournament
Author: Tim Hitchcock
Cost: $13.99 (Print) $9.99 PDF
 

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