NS10: The Broken Shieldwall
This is it. The final adventure in the Northlands Saga Adventure Path, for levels 16th to 18th. There has been 6 years of relative peace since the defeat of Althunak and the passing of Hengrid Donarsdottir. In that time old Meg's prophecy of nine years of bliss came to be, as Njal Magnusson took up leadership of Hrolfland after the passing of his father. After finishing a successful war against mountain folk and thrydreg raiders he established trade ties with Nieuland . He even established a colony of Hrolfsberf in the far western edge of the continent of Libynos. For a while, things were on the up-and-up, but his wife Sveni died in childbirth after the delivery of their second son. To make matters worse the colony of Hrolfsberg was attacked by strange forces, its entire population slaughtered and ritually staked. It was discovered that the raiders bore coins minted in Mulstahba, a pseudo-Arabian city-state whose land-bridge canals control trade between the northern and southern seas. Normally they were neutral and kept out of people's affairs beyond trade, but this seeming hostility was enough to get Njal to mount an army to take the fight to their citadel-city of Jem Karteis. He also took along his 14 year old eldest son Eymund and eventual High Køenig . The result of the campaign has not been heard of in months, and the loss of such warriors risks opening much of the eastern Northlands to attack. Fritha, the 8-year-old daughter of Njal, is a preternaturally-gifted seer who with the aid of other godi experienced a vision: to save not only the Køenig and his army from destruction (who are alive yet caught behind enemy lines) and to save the entire Northlands, a Great Northern Army must be assembled with the PCs at the helm. But the real masters behind the scenes are the Huuns, whose advance forces more or less took over Mulstahba via a coup. This is but a part of a much larger plan to invade the Northlands and eventually all of Akados.One Thing to Clear:
the PCs gained the sword Kroenarck as a reward for NS9, as the dwarf smith Bvalin may only ass to the afterlife when the sword's placed in the hand of the rightful High Køenig of the Northlands. Given that merely carrying this sword will summon all manner of opportunistic troublemakers and no end of grief, Bvalin transforms the sword to appear as a different legendary blade: Magnarck, a golden sword lost at sea.
The adventure begins with the PCs arriving in Trotheim at a gathering of some of the greatest political rulers of the Northlands and Kollsveinn Hearthson. The above information is more or less relayed (save the details of Njal's ascension which is public knowledge), and after taking a palm-cutting blood-oath to Odin and Thor the PCs have a task: gather up warriors from Storstrøm Vale, Estenfird, and Vastavikland. Gatland and Hrolfland are already willing to commit given Eymund's blood relation, and the Køenig of Hordaland has also committed his forces. The PCs can handle each region as its own sub-plot in whatever order they please, but before they head off Kollsveinn has one more thing to give them: Skíðblaðnir, the magical dwarven ship capable of shrinking down into a portable cloth!
Man, this adventure path hands out ships like candy. But this isn't just for fun; it's meant to get around Mulstahba's territorial defenses later on down the road. The adventure path notes that while the PCs are more than capable of using divination and teleportation to locate Njal's forces, the point of the AP is to gather an epic army and a small-group hit and run would rob them of that.
This is not some vapid Southlander adventure where so-called heroes battle evil simply for profit or diversion, and the means to the ends are no more important than the ends themselves. No, this is a Northlands’ adventure, and its heroes are Northlanders for whom concepts such as courage, striving against hardship, and mind’s-worth stand as greater reward than a king’s ransom in hacksilver. As such, a Northlander has no qualms about going at it the hard way rather than finding the easiest route. That’s not to say that they won’t take the easier route if there’s no good reason not to; Northlanders are lusty and often larger-than-life, but they’re not stupid. Rather, in this case the Norns have spoken through the runecasting of the soothsayers and Frítha. Though it may well be within the capabilities of the PCs to quickly travel to Mulstabha on their own and singlehandedly defeat the enemy and rescue Njal, as Northlanders they would not because the fates have decreed it so. The runes said that the venture of the Great Northern Army would be successful only if it the PCs led it personally. For whatever reason, that is what the gods stipulated to prevent failure in the rescue of Køenig Njal, and as true Northlanders, the PCs know it is not the place of mortals to question the will of gods. Instead, it is their place to bear up under whatever hardships the gods have placed before them and prove their mettle so that they may brag about it to legendary heroes of old over drinking horns filled with mead in the corpse-hall of Valhalla. That is the stuff that makes a Northlander. Wyrd bið ful aræd.
It's rather railroady, although I wish the adventure built around this a bit. Although saving Njal is a thing drawing the adventure forward, the larger threat in waiting is the Huun Imperium's plan. Even if Njal is found and taken back, the creation of a Great Northern Army is a necessity if this information is found out by say, scouting around Mulstahba and noticing that the city's underwent a change in leadership. Anyhoo back to the adventure.
The Great Army of the Northlands
The first chapter out of four is actually the longest at 31 pages, enough to equal an entire adventure in page length. In order to gather the forces for Storstrøm Vale, the PCs must attend the Althing and use Perform (Oratory) and various other skill checks to win over the votes of various factions. Given that the PCs are quite literally the highest-level badasses in the Northlands, holmgang cannot be used to win votes given that the PCs' victory is a sure thing and slaying/disgracing beloved leaders for what is to be a unitary thing isn't a good idea. Additionally, no magic may be used in the hall during the votes. Every faction has a list of their concerns, their spokesmen, how many votes they have, and what arguing points can be used to help persuade them. The actions of previous adventures can play into this: mentioning the saving of Trotheim to sway the traders, having a colony in Nieuland to act as a supply line in war, using NPCs from prior adventures such as Jarl Anud Curse-Spear to vouch for them, etc. I particularly like this, in that it strongly plays upon the actions of earlier adventures to make the PCs' accomplishments matter right now.
If the PCs can score 95 out of 142 votes (2/3rds majority) they get army units from Storstrøm Vale. If not they will have to make do without them in the coming battles.
The side-quest in Estenfird you'd think would be harder, given that they use direct democracy. But the adventure has this covered. The PCs' heroism and the news of a great army has already reached this frontier land, and the larger villages appointed representatives to head for Vöss to hear from the PCs and carry the news back to their people to deliberate. The meeting was intended to take place in a large barn, but Jomsviking assassins under the payment of the Mulstahbin government already got here. The 24 representatives are dead and hanging from the rafters, and the Jomsviking's druid officer transformed the warriors into disguised trees to better ambush the PCs. The Jomsvikings underwent some level-ups since Raven Banners Over Gatland
with assassins being multi-class barbarian/fighters/rogues at 4 levels each; the common giants have 5 levels in fighter, and the leader is a 15th-level druid. Mulstahbin coins can be found on their persons or in their longship. News spreads fast of the massacre and soon the Estenfirders are united in a way the PCs could not do. Their anger will initially be towards the Jomsvikings, but the coins are ample evidence of Mulstahba's guilt.
The final realm is in Vastavikland, the hardest and toughest realm of a hard and tough campaign setting. Even the ruler Kol the Redhanded's authority is but as long as his sword-arm, and when the PCs meet him in his fortress-village he's quite eager to explain how things are done here:
I am Kol the Redhanded, who killed Hermund Giantson on the mountain and drank the blood of Óleifr’s wife before his very eyes — just before I plucked them from his skull. I am the deadliest raider of the North Sea and the Scourge of the Southlands. I am Køenig of Vastavikland by right of the might in my sword arm, and my blood-worm drinks deep of any who dare challenge. I will rule until I am too old to fight and some other comes to challenge and wets the floor of my hall in my battle-dew. This is the way of the true Northlander; this is the way of Vastavikland. None question my right to rule, yet even still my word reaches only the length of my sword. Beyond the walls of Smølsünd other Vastaviklanders may say unto me ‘Køenig,’ but it is not worth a piss in the sea if my sword cannot reach them. They know this, and I know this. This is a land of free men, and it is the way of Vastavikland!
This is but a portion of the boxed text, but I really like this dude. Kind of a shame we only see him in the last adventure. Instead of politicking or voting at a Thing, the only surefire way the PCs can unite Vastavikland for their fleet is to fulfill a prophecy: kill the legendary dragon Hlundel. Before they do this, the PCs can make skill checks to learn of the dragon, the legend, and previous heroes who fought it (Diplomacy attempts gets them laughed at). When they are ready, the party along with Kol and a gathering of people prepare either to fight or watch the proceedings. Hlundel is a taniniver,
basically a disease-focused dragon, and the last two heroes it killed are juju zombies under its control. It is powerful in melee and has some sickness-related debuffs and spells, but since the PCs have 3 rounds to prepare before the mountain quakes and it shows up it should not be too hard for characters of this level.
Once the PCs get as many factions as they can, we get a detailed write-up of the Great Northern Army using the Mass Combat Rules. Instead of a single huge unit, it’s a bunch of units separated into smaller armies based upon region. The Vastaviklander and Hordaland armies are by far the most disciplined, being made up of 3rd-level Barbarians and 2nd-level Fighters respectively. Estenfird is the smallest army with 1st-level Warriors, and Storstrøm Vale's Army are also 1st-level Warriors but whose numbers can vary depending on whether the PCs made a deal to keep some warriors at home to defend the Vale or not (in order to gain the votes of one of the factions). Hrolfland has the largest army numberwise but most are 1st-level Commoner feudal peasant conscripts. There are also rules for splitting up the armies into smaller units after they take a certain amount of casualties. All told, the maximum number of this army is 14,000 souls (not counting leaders and PCs) and 280 longships.
Before sailing out the warriors feast, drink, and give their goodbyes to friends and family. Ljot Gatson makes an animal sacrifice of a prized stallion to win Odin's favor and hopefully bring a good omen. The 19-day long journey to Mulstahba has no random encounters, on account that any common dangers by now would be trivial to the PCs and not worth worrying about.
When the fleet reaches Mulstahba, making land is far from straightforward. Much of the island is covered in marshland and the water level changes rapidly based on whether it's high or low tide. To prevent ships from being stranded on land, the people of the peninsular land-bridge use long willow stems known as withies to mark passages that can support vessels in both high and low tides. Unfortunately the city-state's magical diviners are well aware of the planned invasion and moved around the withies. One of the Northlander scout ships is beached, but Skíðblaðnir's portability serves as a useful countermeasure. The PCs cannot carry the whole army with them, but they can scout ahead to find safe landing quickly. There is a swamp fort which must be taken care of to let the rest of the army pass through without incident.
The fortress is kind of a "filler" dungeon. The main entrance is guarded by carved animal statues which transform into enemies in waves for the PCs to fight (but can be dispelled). The interior is full of marsh giants and lizardfolk mooks of middling challenge rating (8). Iskarfa is a green hag witch and commander of the giants, who when killed transforms into a peluda
dragon which causes the ground in the room they're fighting to give way to lower flooded passages.
After the fortress is taken care of, the PCs are tasked with scouting further inland. There is no army on the main shore, but there is a small elite team of assayers dispatched to lay magical and alchemical traps along the shore to cripple the Northlander fleet. They also happen to be some of the most politically powerful people of Jem Karteis remaining after the Huun coup. They're a five-person band: Boabey Mhez, a crazed pyromancer who believes he's actually a fire elemental and can wild shape into one; Ezkercia S’tinbxa, a conjurer wearing a veil of coins who has a legion of eunuch bloodragers to carry her in a palanquin to prevent her from touching the ground (a superstition among Mulstahba's rulers); Bolatehbu, a dragon disciple sorcerer who initially wears a cloak but disrobes in combat to fight naked; Shith Kalhe, a necromancer who commands a war chariot pulled by a hill giant; and Tbyx, a crazy fire mage who is eager to kill people and is only along for the ride after the rest extracted a promise from him to obey their every command.
Interestingly all but Bolatehbu do not have stats in the book; the other Assayers make reference to stat blocks from Paizo’s NPC Codex, which is surprisingly common for this last adventure. Most enemies beforehand were fully-statted in the adventure path. It's generally only monsters and mooks who get the 'see book X' treatment. Fortunately all of these statblocks are on the D20PFSRD, so you don't need to buy a whole new book to use this adventure!
The Land of the Bull From the Sea
This is a relatively short chapter. From way back in Blood on the Snow
we used Mass Combat Rules only once, but now they're coming back in full force! The main battle here is when the ships of the Great Northern Army begin to sail to the shore to meet the first of the Mulstabhin army. The PCs' actions can help even if they don't choose to command the army; using area of effect and terrain-based spells on the army can lower their Offensive and Defensive modifiers when the actual battle comes,. There is an encounter on the plateau when a team of elite assassins will sweep into the northern units to lay havoc if the PCs don't wipe them out as its own encounter. Initially the battle begins with crappy Hrolflander conscripts and a better Gatlander unit on the PCs’ side; although initially outnumbered, every few army phases (basically rounds) more Northlander ships dock to provide more units until the whole Great Northern Army is present.
In case the gaming table's not interested in mass combat rules, there is a Narrative Summary
to sum up the action. Although a good idea in principle, it's very wordy and has the feel of reading a fictional novel. It even dictates the actions of PCs (presuming common archetypes), which I personally find a big no-no. There's also a detailed sidebar explaining how to calculate treasure shares gained during this battle and future ones, both to divide among the PCs and the army units. I personally find this extraneous; it's already late in the campaign and given the process it's unlikely the PCs are going to have enough time to craft expensive magic items or buy more longships/siege equipment given that the only major trade city nearby is the one they’re invading. One thing that brought a chuckle out of me is in an example provided in the sidebar, the party cleric keeps a larger share via a loophole where he's the owner of Skíðblaðnir and entitled to a captain's share...with no crew to split the proceeds. The party acquiesces to his demands as he's the only provider of magical healing.
I get the feeling this happened in the Northlands' playtesting phase...
The army makes camp at the shore to recover their losses. The battlefield attracts all manner of carrion, including creepy crab swarms that make distressing scuttling sounds and are kept at bay from the ships via ring of brushfire torches. The assembled godi spellcasters are doing their best to cast divination after divination spell to locate Njal to no avail, while using their own to ward the army from scrying attempts. The reality of the situation is that the wyrd of Njal is not to be hunted and cornered, but to face his foes in open battle. As such the Æsir are engaging in a cosmic spellslinging game with Nergal (the Huun's patron deity) to counter the influences of each other's spellcasters on Midgard. The Northern Army does not have much to go on besides the fact that "the setting sun hides the Køenig of the Northlands," but a distraught new soldier comes in. He claims to have seen the shade of Lord Jorund (a Hrolfand leader who perished in the preceding fight) repeating a single line:
'The doom of the North lies where the Bull climbs from the sea. They that would stay the hand of darkness must go there and look for the mark of Donar, but they must go alone for the army marches to Ragnarök and not god nor man can say its fate while the Bull yet stands unbroken.’
Certain skills and research infer that Mulstahban folklore tells that a mythical bull rose from the sea to become leader of what is their modern nation, and the city of Jem Karteis has an architectural design akin to that of a bull: two fortress-spires as horns at the front gates, with buildings sloping down a cliff to form the bull’s back, and the "legs" are a pair of sturdy cliffs rising out of the sea where the docks are located. As such the Great Northern Army must continue westward to find Njal's forces while the party infiltrates Jem Karteis to find the mark of Donar.
Along the way the adventure provides optional encounters in the form of mass combat encounters for the army and encounters for the PCs. The adventure advises changing the size and scope of challenges to avoid the army from taking too many casualties for the eventual grand final battle. The "random" encounters for the PCs are one-time occurrences and appropriately powerful, providing a bit of world-lore for Mulstahba:
1.) a road of staked skulls who provide divination to the Deathspeaker necromancer responsible for its upkeep (an astrological divination spoke of a Road of Souls to defeat the Northlanders);
2.) a former battle of Mulstabhins and a portion of Njal's forces dead, where appropriate checks can show that it's not just Mulstahbins they fought (the Huun) and possibly non-humanoid tracks among them;
3.) villages either occupied (whose folk are protected by hobgoblin mamluks, elite forces of the city-state) or empty (Huuns slaughtered inhabitants for withholding tax grain);
4.) the Titan of Mulstahba, a jack-in-irons giant who is has an arcane archer and drummer bard strapped to each of its soldiers, and is one of the islands' most notable guardians.
The Mulstahba of Jem Karteis
This chapter is a two-parter: the first portion is dedicated to an extensive write-up of Mulstahbin society and culture, and the second half covers the PCs' adventure for the mark of Donar. The detail for Mulstahba is quite commendable, especially on account that ordinarily in the adventure a lot of this would be passed over given the nature of it (sneaking in followed by big battles). I'm not going to cover it all, but I'll cover a few salient points.
“Mulstabha” is a rather interesting word: it's derived from a minotaur sailor of the same name who landed his ship here and conquered the native tribes to build a large city. Very little is recalled of the minotaur king beyond speculation and legend, but the iconography of a bull rising from the waves to walk upon land is a huge fixture in Mulstahban art. The word "Mulstahba" is meant to represent government as well as a social contract forged to unite the people. Therefore, it is used to describe the homeland, the city-state, and its ruling king. The Mulstahba (city-state) of Jem Karteis is located inland, and is ruled by the Mulstahba (king) of Jem Karteis. This confuses a lot of outsiders, and the meaning of the word is meant to be sussed out based on the context of the sentence it's spoken in. Additionally while many people use Mulstahban passage for north-south trade (and indeed Northlanders have to pass through here to raid the Southlands beyond Monrovia), the city of Jem Karteis restricts entry to citizens only. Foreigners may only set foot on and trade in the docks which comprise the city's "hindquarters." Their monetary units are directly inspired by real-world Greek and Jewish currency: staters, shekels, drachma, dekastarter, and electrum staters. Although the sample NPC names don't sound Arabic or Greek that I know of, their use of mamluks and a military rank title of Emir-general were concepts of authority in the real-world Islamic Caliphates (and later the Ottoman Empire).
Mulstahba is a caste-based society, where theoretically a person's lot in life is based upon the astrological divinations and prophecies. There are the Unseen, rulers directly related down five generations to the current and former Mulstahbas. The Unseen mask their faces and have strong taboos upon walking on the ground outside their homes (footwraps and palanquins get around this to varying degrees). The Unbearing are a conglomeration of religious and governmental authorities whose function is vital to running the city but do not otherwise have royal blood. The Unknown comprise common laborers, workers, and business owners, and one among them every year is elevated to the Unbearing caste to encourage loyalty and a sense of contentment ("if I win the nobles' favor I stand a chance!"). The Unwritten are slaves, criminals, and the poorest of the poor. It is common for higher-ranking Castes to be banished to this one for great crimes. The Uncasted includes nomadic tribes living outside the city and certain Hykadrion priests who are tolerated but do not have any specific privileges or restrictions. Then there are those who lie outside the caste system in their own social orders: the hobgoblin slave-soldier mameluks and the Unspeaking, an undead slave labor force responsible for mining, road-building in swampland, and other dangerous jobs.
There are two major religious orders: There is Mulstahbin Astrology, where people chart the course of the future via a combination of study of the heavens and the natural philosophy of the world's elements. The second religion is known as the Hykadrion Prophecies, who hold more temporal authority and believe that dragons are sacred beings to revere and emulate. It is believed that such creatures will help save humanoids from a prophesied "Time of Darkness."
As for the Huun, much less is talked about them, with the bulk in a single-page sidebar. The authors of Frog God Games have been building them up as a mysterious evil force for the Lost Lands Campaign Setting, with scant references to them in other products. This adventure ends with hints at their plans of a magical network of portals as a teaser for their eventual world domination. This is done by transporting whole armies around the world. The book doesn't out and out say it, but after looking at their military titles (aga, chorbaji, etc) as well as their scribes wearing red felt caps (a fez) they are more or less Fantasy Counterpart Ottoman Turks. That is, if Ottoman Turks were uniformly dark-skinned and worshipped the Babylonian death god Nergal. The Huuns live on the far eastern side of Libynos and contributed to several major campaigns fighting the Foerdewaith Empire and most recently the city of Bard's Gate. Their homeland is an arid desert and their warriors dress in black robes and paint their eyes and top half of their faces with kohl (mascara make-up). This last part earned them the title of "black-eyed Huuns" among their enemies. They are ruled by an immortal King of Kings who sat uncontested since their empire's founding, and they believe the people of the continent of Akados (which includes the Northlands) are descendants of one of their ancient enemies, the long-dead Hyperborean Empire. As a result, they have a major grudge against everyone west of Mulstahba and seek to show this in campaigns of slaughter.What I Changed:
I made the Huuns in my campaign based off of real-world Hunns on account of the one-letter difference. They were much more steppe-archers than Ottomans. While their King of Kings still plotted the domination of Akados, he wants to turn the inhabitants into loyal subjects rather than outright genocide. During Return of Hallbjorn
I had a colony of lost Huun scouts as one of the settlements along with Northlanders and people from the Ammuyad Caliphate; I had the Transborean Current be a sort of Bermuda Triangle-like effect of taking lost voyages to Nieuland’s shores. Although I still had the Huun as a sort of mysterious stand-offish group, they allied with the PCs when a branch of the Children of Althunak was using supernatural localized winters to force the various settlements and (human!) indigenous people to pledge loyalty. I plan to combine bits of NS10 with NS9 to wrap up our campaign early, where the Huuns invade the Northlands while an Althunak-possessed Hengrid is stirring up trouble. Although the King of Kings is villainous (he wants to find a way to control Althunak's power to direct the Fimbulwinter against enemy nations) the allied Huun NPCs from NS7 can make for potential strange bedfellows. But I have yet to tell that story...But enough about late-game world-building, let's move on to the adventure!
This part of the chapter is a dungeon crawl where the PCs encounter a massive ringed fortification. As the PCs are presumed to have all manner of magic, class features, and even just high Stealth at their disposal, encounters and eluding detection are assumed to be automatic. There is a section of wall being repaired where a huge split from a great lightning bolt hit many years ago. This is obviously the mark of Donar, and here the PCs can go into an underground section and make an unlikely ally. The dungeon beneath the wall holds brass golems, a pit of chain worms, and legions of undead slave miners in tunnels full of flammable gas. Some undead will notice the PCs' intrusion to report to their master: Islaug, the first Jomsking cast out from the Jomsvikings to sail to unknown shores. He and a crew of loyalists landed in Mulstahba and gifted with undeath from their dark god managed to survive for several centuries underground. If the PCs do not immediately attack, he will explain his story and how he can aid the party in the eventual battle: the undead laborers are commanded by a necromancer bearing a black stone which can bend undead to his will. If the stone is destroyed he can lead an army of the unliving to fight for them. He addresses the PC bearing Kroenarck, even if the blade is disguised and not currently wielded.
Later on in the dungeon the PCs can find several Huun soldiers, who are alternately spear-bearing infantry or astride Karkaddan mounts. There is also a prison where Huun scribes take notes of the confession of Mulstahbin prisoners with the aid of a crucidaemon and a giant martuush (cobra-scorpion hybrid) to feed less compliant captives. The PCs can find a shrine to Nergal tainting a local water supply, as well as an incense-heavy shrine where several priests and Egyptian-style golem guards are maintaining a soul gate
where several Huun assassins cross through to teleport elsewhere. This is one of the Huun's major military breakthroughs: via the use of unholy water mixed with blood a watery one or two-way portal can be made that acts as a scrying focus for the connected areas. Although still in the development stages, the Huun Imperium plans to create large enough Soul Gates keyed to strategic locations around the Material Plane to move entire armies around the world in an instant.
In fact, examination of this particular Soul Gate after the battle shows a stone corridor hallway bearing the clan emblem of the Hrolfs. The Huun sent a team of assassins to kill Njal's family and other important people of the Hrolf clan!
The next dungeon takes place in the tower of Stone Keep, the Northlands' greatest (and only) feudal-style castle. It's a short six-room affair, with the rest of the castle beyond the scope of this adventure. A group of Nachtjäger Rogues ambushed the guards while the Huun and their daemon allies went further into the tower. A pair of cacodaemons will shapeshift into guards to convince the PCs that nothing is amiss and the intruders are taken care of, although talking with them reveals that they know little of Northlands culture and a Perception check spots fresh flowing blood leaking out below a nearby doorway they’re guarding. Lady Sanja, the wife of the late Magnus Hrolfsblood, was killed by a daemon who’s now taking her disguise, but the two younger children (Fritha and Grimr) are in the last room. Fritha's precocious magic was able to ward the doors for a time, and when the PCs finished off the assassins she opens the door to thank them. She explains how the future for once is uncertain, where the Norns left their wyrds to chance instead of cutting the string. This is significant, as the forces of Fate do not often let mortals plot their own destiny. Still, Fritha explains the Huun's portal plan for world domination along with an omen from Odin:
"The sun does set but also rises
’Gainst blackest wyrd of fiends and men
Call forth the dead the North despises
The sword that sleeps must wake again."
And with that she tells of how the PCs are needed in the east again to help their father. The adventure mentions that one of the assassins has boots of teleportation the PCs can use, along with a portable hole to transfer the whole party if they cannot do so themselves (the soul gate to the castle's one-way).
The Battle of Jem Karteis
We're in the home stretch baby! The last chapter of the last adventure of the Northlands is a good old-fashioned final battle between tens of thousands of soldiers with a mixture of Mass Combat Rules and personalized encounters for the PCs. The first part occurs when the PCs aren't here: Njal's forces, who managed to survive so far via hit-and-run raids and sacking villages for supplies, are headed to Jem Karteis. Njal saw an omen as two one-eyed ravens visited him while sleeping, which he interpreted as a sign to seek out their ultimate foes directly. Meanwhile the Great Northern Army is closing in on Jem Karteis.
Our first mass combat encounter has Njal's outnumbered, inferior forces facing Mulstahbin cavalry. When the good guys suffer a heavy beating, the Great Northern Army joins the fray to save their Køenig and High Køenig-to-be. There's a bunch of detailed tactics listed for the Mulstabhin forces, along with a two page-long Narrative summary (but no PC-dictating this time!). Unfortunately, the assembled forces are but a fraction of the Huun's true might. Via a complicated series of sluice-gates and canals, a massive Soul Gate forms like a side-ways lake of blood over the wall, revealing a vision of a desert land with an old pyramid...and countless legions of Huun warriors, from humans to giants to Colossal armored glyptodons
bearing siege towers! They charge through the join the fray and the Northlanders’ resolve wanes.
Our PCs join the fray once they teleport back to Mulstahba. There is a strong sensation (like fingers pulling at golden threads connected to their souls) to head to the wall which bore the mark of Donar. Upon the wall is Servant Ali-Asekar, Death’s Master and Herald of the Bringer of Peace, the general responsible for Mulstahba's subjugation and the eventual destruction of the Northlands. He does not have his own stat block, instead using the NPC Codex's Death Master but with several domain spells swapped around. The PCs must scale the wall by might or magic and destroy the Soul Gate along with Ali-Asekar and his many guards and zombies. Additionally the black stone Islaug spoke of, is here too and destroying it (and Ali-Asekar) causes the next scene to occur. Setting fire to the tunnels below, sections of wall crumble to disrupt the Soul Gate (the PCs automatically escape harmlessly).
Now the PCs can join the battle directly. If they tarry about on their own rather than shacking up with the larger forces, they encounter a fight with one of the glyptodon war-beasts and its tower's occupants. We go back to Mass Combat Rules, save that an Army of the Dead gives two more units on the battlefield (and of course more Narrative Summary).
The final encounter is the Broken Shieldwall, the same name as the adventure. Some serious shit happens in a long amount of boxed text: Kol the Red-Handed lands a lucky critical hit on a war-beast's neck and sends it and its riders tumbling to their deaths, Eymund grabs a Huun's spear and stabs the eye of another war-beast to kill it, only for Eymund to encounter a pair of giants and Njal follows to save his eldest son. The PC bearing Kroenarck feels a strong pull, and if they get there super-fast via magic a pair of desert giants ambush them while the following boxed text is presumed to happen while the PCs are fighting. This is an interesting touch I haven't seen many other adventures do:
Njal gets into a one-on-one duel with an armored troll. Although at one point the troll loses his weapon, just like way back in Raven Banners Over Gatland
does Njal allow his opponent to regain his footing. But instead of rising the troll deceptively thrusts forward with his blade, straight through Njal's stomach and spine before the monster's skull is crushed in from one last blow. Njal breathes his last and a vision of the Norns cutting his thread flash by the PC's eyes. Eymund's sword shatters at the troll’s hands, leaving him weaponless as the enemy advances. He does not take his father's weapon, knowing that he must have it in his hands to reach Valhalla...
At this point the adventure encourages the PCs to give/throw him Kroenarck, and the PC who does so gets 100k EXP and a +1 bonus to an ability score of their choice; the rest of the party gets 50k each. Eymund uses the sword to kill the troll in one hit (what's with all these Cutscene Powers lately?) as a pair of Sand Giants ambush the PCs. They're like desert giants but stronger.
If the PC does not give the sword, the adventure's kind of at a loss for words as to what happens:
The rest of the adventure assumes that the PCs follow their wyrd set in motion decades ago with a call to the mead hall of Jarl Olaf Henrikson and give Eymund the sword. If they choose to not do so, all is not lost. Continue the adventure as written with the modification to remove Eymund receiving the sword. It may just be that the PC is destined to become the High Køenig of the Northlands, if the GM wishes to develop that campaign ending.
But that's not all. The sword may be united with the High Køenig, but the Final Boss of The Northlands Saga has yet to appear. Continuing on, the Northmen seem to be winning against all odds, but something terrible happens: the bodies of the Huuns twitch, roll, fly, and otherwise move together to form a giant mound. But instead of a pile of bodies the corpses melt together into a giant amorphous pillar of bubbling acidic flesh. This is Ali-Asekar's last gambit, the summoning of one of Nergal's divine messengers into Midgard.
I'm just going to say it. It doesn't compare to the fight against Hengrid Donarsdottir. The "Pillar of Nergal" is a living monolith, a monster from the Tome of Horrors 4. It is a CR 20 extraplanar ooze with good sensory capabilities (tremorsense & blindsight out to 120 feet), regeneration vs non-fire attacks, an impassible DR 10, and Spell Resistance of 30. It has the ability to spawn offfspring every 1d4 rounds (treated as their own monsters) but it's presumed that the Northern armies are fighting them so it's just the Pillar vs the Party. The Pillar has 5 attacks and can deal lots of damage in melee and 10d8 acid to those it swallows whole...BUT THE FINAL BOSS HAS NO RANGED ATTACKS OR MOVEMENT CAPABILITES!
Yes, a PC with overland flight or even a winged mount can basically stay out of this thing's reach and whittle it down with spells and arrows (ideally fiery arrows). I realize I didn't get time to do an in-depth look at Hengrid in the previous chapter, but at least she had an iceberg AoE and a magic hammer which can be thrown and used to call lightning/wind wall. Besides the least-powerful yeti, each of the forms had some kind of ranged capability: cone of cold (wendigo), polary ray (ice yai oni), rock throwing for the jotun, a fly speed (wendigo and oni), and possibility some battlefield control and defensive capabilities such as a solid fog or gaseous form with the ice yai oni, or an at-will phantom steed and freedom of movement as a cold rider. Both bosses have an action economy disadvantage, but in this case Hengrid is most likely going to be a more entertaining fight.
And the Pillar of Nergal is the ooze type, the second-least common creature type in this AP besides Fey and of a type not vulnerable to the Saga’s most iconic weapons!
Concluding the Adventure
Once the Living Pillar is felled, the remaining Huun forces fall into disarray and retreat. The Mulstahbin forces either surrender to beg for mercy from the Northlanders or attack the retreating Huuns for taking over their country. In the aftermath, a great haul of 1.7 million hacksilver is taken as loot to divide among the commanders and PCs. Many of the most powerful leaders of the Northlands fell in battle, and they cannot be resurrected as they became Victims of Fate. Aha, that explains all those one-hit kills! Eymund inherits the crown of Hrolfland at the tender age of 14 and is appointed ruler of Gatland as well as their Jarl. Køenig Leif Ragison of Hordaland swears fealty to him, and the Althing of of Storstrøm Vale appoints him Køenig of the Vale. Vastavikland and Estenfird are the only lands to not officially recognize him, but the possession of Kroenarck as well as the aforementioned claims of rulership more or less unite the Northlands. Eymund takes the surname Njalson instead of Hrolfsblood in honor of his father.
As for the PCs, they are recognized as the greatest heroes of the Northlands and there's a bullet-point list of suggestions for their futures. They include becoming Køenig of Mulstahba which is conquered as a Northland province, becoming Køenig of Vastavikland for defeating Hlundel, becoming head of the Hall of the Hearth Stone for a godi PC, an arcane spellcaster is appointed to train Fritha, a diplomatic PC is appointed emissary to the Southlands in Bard's Gate, a guardian-type PC replacing Hengrid Donarsdottir as Protector of Estenfird, and for a Nûk or dwarf PC leading their people to establish a new homeland in the Seal Coast or Mount Helgastervän respectively. Finally we have an option of venturing beneath the Wold Tree's roots to bring news of the daughters of Skuld to the Norns, or clearing out the undead beneath Jem Karteis.
But all of that, as they say, is another story.
So ends the Northlands Saga Complete … Wyrd bið ful aræd.
The last bit translates to "Fate is inexorable."Concluding Thoughts:
The Broken Shieldwall has the right tempo for an epic battle, only to be hamstrung by "but thou must" options and a little too much Cutscene Dialogue in both narrative summary and boxed text. The environs of Mulstahba, although quite evocative and cool, are a place never before mentioned in the adventure path. Eymund and his legacy feels like a bit of spotlight-stealing. Although his legacy was mentioned before by Old Meg 5 adventures ago, Eymund’s an NPC who the party has never interacted with and won't until the final battle. He's 14 years old by the time of this adventure, and the inclusion of a Chosen One Kid Hero doing all this superhuman stuff feels a bit jarring in comparison with the Northland's intended gritty sword-and-sorcery feel. The Huun more or less come out of nowhere and do not have that feeling of leading up to the big confrontation like one would do with say, Althunak's defeat. Whereas the Mulstahbins were portrayed with some nuance and had a surprisingly detailed society, the inner SJW in me can't help but bristle at the Huun being more or less swarthy Middle Eastern invaders part of a death cult.
In short, Broken Shieldwall does not rate highly for me. But I feel that for a more holistic view of the entire sourcebook, we need to separate the Northlands into several "arcs."
First we have the Prequel Arc of NS0,
both very strong adventures which in spite of their low level sell you on the setting's themes and make you feel like big badass heroes right from level 1.
Then we have the Kenneth Spencer Arc of NS1-NS4.
It too is good, with plenty of variety from one adventure to the next. From Argonauts-style voyages to lift a curse to leading an Inuit uprising, there's something that keeps this Arc feeling fresh instead of stale.
Then we have the Post-Ken Arc, NS5-NS10
where other writers take over based on his existing notes. And hoo boy do we see a massive change here! Raven Banners Over Gatland was overall good clean fun. Plague in Trotheim is passable if a bit too high fantasy, and Return of Hallbjorn is straight up "slaughter the Indians for loot and EXP." Hallburning is several levels too high for its concept and involves characters the PCs never heard of or cared about to make things personal. Daughter of Thunder and Storm is perhaps the best adventure in that it wraps up the long-standing BBEG of Althunak with a touching mixture of role-playing and Nordic martial heroism. Broken Shieldwall feels like an extended sequel-bait for a Huun Invasion metaplot for a future Lost Lands book.
But in spite of the gradual downward curve and additional personal changes to make the campaign work, Northlands overall is a very good book. I do not regret purchasing it and running it for 1.2 years. For in spite of the problems I outlined throughout this review, there is a golden core of material for a GM to mold into something beautiful.Join us next time as we cover a bonus stand-alone adventure in the back of the book: Winter's Teeth!