Last night marked the final session of Temple of the Twelve. The second book of the Dead Suns adventure path and man, I am SO glad it’s over.
To summarise, the first adventure had the party tracking down the murderers of their one and only contact at the Starfinder Society – a Dwarf named Duravor. This murder investigation had them traipsing across Absalom Station, negotioning with the criminal underbelly of the space station as well as figureheads from heartless megacorps. Tonally, it was the perfect change from the typical fantasy setting and it really pulled the players in. There was combat, there was intrigue, there was a sense of danger and it all felt right.
Fast forward to the second book and I thought we were on to another winner. The party was tasked with travelling to an alien planet to track down a university professor who was going to translate some mysterious glyphs. Again, this felt right, tonally. The planet of Castrovel was different enough from Absalom Station that retreading this theme of tracking someone down felt different but still managed to fit within the same context.
It still felt futuristic, it still felt sci-fi and it still had just enough of that Bladerunner cyberpunk vibe to keep the players absorbed.
Then came the jungle.
There’s a whole section of this adventure that has the players tracking their contact through an untamed expanse of jungle. Dangers around every turn, obstacles to overcome and an oppressive heat that constantly drained the players of their resources. All the while they’re on the trail of a terrorist cell that have kidnapped a university professor for their own nefarious purposes.
Sounds pretty epic, right? If it does you’ve just fallen into the same trap I did.
It SOUNDS and READS as this epic jungle trek akin to something like Indiana Jones, Jumanji or Jurassic Park and for the most part that’s exactly what it is. An ardeous slog through a jungle expanse, the issue is the game unintentionally does too good of a job at getting that fatigued feeling across.
The feeling of fatigue and the feeling of the trek being a hard-fought slog extends far beyond the characters and the players around our table had also reached a point where they weren’t sure if they could continue.
Let me break it down.
For every hour of travel, the system calls for the characters to make fortitude saving throws to protect them against the heat of the jungle. This saving throw increases by 1 for every hour the characters travel and starts at DC15. If the characters travel for 12 hours (and they will) the final saving throw will be DC27. Ever failed save has the characters incur 1d4 non-lethal fire damage.
So let’s do some maths. If you have 4 characters playing this adventure and they travel for 12 hours a day, thats 4 players making 12 rolls every in-game day. What sounded fun on paper is now a case of rolling FORTY-EIGHT fortitude saving throws. Ouch!
It gets worse though because your your characters are travelling for multiple days per session. Which means the amount of fortitude saves they’ll have to make extends into the triple digits. Even if they travelled for two days a party of four would be rolling a combined NINETY-SIX times. That’s not a fun experience at all, for anyone. Now the players can circumvent these rolls by expending their armour’s environmental protection. For every level of the armour they have equipped they can use up to 24 hours of protection.
So what’s the big deal, right? You don’t need to make the rolls anymore! Problem solved. Well, no.
The players start this jungle trek at level 3 and have thus far had limited access to upgrades meaning many of them will still have the armour they started the game with at level. Level 1 armour offers them 24 hours of protection which they can use in hour increments. So, 2 full days of travel (if you travel 12 hours a day) can go by without the need of any rolls at all. Well, that’s fine, right?
Again, no. Because this trek is meant to last somewhere in the region of 10-14 days.
Here’s some more maths. Using out party as an example, there are 4 characters all wearing level 1 armour. If the joruney takes 14 days (which the players have no way of knowing!) and the characters use their 2 days of environmental protection we now have 12 days where saving throws need to be made.
4 Characters rolling 12 times a day is 48 combined rolls. 48 Rolls over 12 days is a staggering 576 individual saving throws. Let that sink in for a second.
FIVE-HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-SIX SAVING THROWS!
Imagine the amount of time that saps out of your game. Imagine the amount of excitement that would sap out of your game. Who play-tested this?! My heart goes out to groups with more than 4 characters!
Our group is made up of players who are either still relatively new to tabletop RPG’s or have never played an RPG before. After an amazing introduction with Incident on Absalom Station, Temple of the Twelve suddenly thrusts you into this mindless time-sink. Afterall, there is only so much roleplay to be had about the jungle wearing your character down. Are players expected to roleplay out that scenario almost 600 times? This is appalling game design.
I didn’t even mention the survival checks you have to make at the start of each day to see if you’re able to track a path through vegetation either.
Now, I know the instant argument to this criticism would be to have just ignored the mechanism entirely but I’m new to running Starfinder. As this is Paizo’s first Starfinder AP I’m going to make the fairly safe assumption that anyone else running it is also going to be new to Starfinder. How many times as a new GM would you feel comfortable to go completely off track and make something up? When you’re learning the ropes and learning the game I’d say it’s probably not something you’re going to do often until you’ve found your feet.
Having never experienced a Paizo adventure path in any format (D&D is my mainstay) I’m hoping this isn’t a trend but if it is, I’ve learnt from this that it does not work. Not for our group at least because we’re not into masochism. As far as I’m aware. I definitely would not repeat this experience.
Another complaint my group had was that they all got on board with Starfinder for it’s sci-fi theme, or rather it’s “science fantasy” theme as Paizo are calling it. This portion of the adventure could have been plucked from any fantasy RPG on the market. There was literally no reason that this couldn’t have existed in D&D or Pathfinder. You’re trekking through a jungle and exploring ancient ruins. The only difference is you’re armed with a laser gun. Most of my group lean more towards sci-fi than they do fantasy and this just didn’t do anything for them. In fact we had a guest player from our main D&D group turn up to see what Starfinder was all about and he walked away not being able to tell the difference between the two from a thematic standpoint.
That probably isn’t the feeling you want your players to have.
Could this not have taken place in another environment? What about a machine planet? The heat coming from ventilation pipes and exhausts as the group have to traverse through the belly of a planet that is a giant engine or factory. Vines become cables, trees become cylindrical pipes and tubing, light isn’t blocked out by the tree canopy but instead by another layer of the living machine above. There were so many options here and it felt as though the one chosen was the least inspiring and by far the least fun.
After the second or third session in the jungle the morale in our group was so low I was expecting a few of them to tell me they didn’t want to continue anymore. After a particularly bad session of this book, I spent a weekend poring over the rest of the section and I knew that if I were to run it as written I’d end up with no Starfinder group at all. Instead I re-wrote the rest of the book in a 12 page document. I took the villains, I took some of the cooler events and made them into something that was our own. If I didn’t, our campaign would have likely had come to an end.
You could say that as a GM this is what you’re supposed to do. Yes, you’re right. To a degree. Imagine though if this was the first RPG I’d ever run. Would I be confident enough in my abilities to rewrite swathes of the adventure by the second book? Probably not! Also if I’m buying an adventure path to run something that’s been written for me should I really have to go to such drastic lengths as re-writing a third of the book in order for it to be fun? Again, proabably not!
This portion of the adventure feels like it would be a huge hurdle for anyone wanting to get into Starfinder. I can only imagine how many games are out there that never get beyond this point and never get to experience the really amazing content from the other books. Which isn’t just a shame, it’s is a travesty. Of course, I have no figures or numbers to back theory up I can only base this opinion on my group’s experience. Should you really have to endure something so tedious for the promise of something good if you ‘just stick it out’? No way.
The rest of the book however is fantastic. The additional content in the back – the lore and information about the Devourer Cult, the new weapons and armour, the new Mystic connection are all amazing. The opening portion of the book at the university is also top notch. Some of my players said that it was their favourite part of the adventure so far. As good as those sections of this book are they simply cannot overcome the jungle.
The trek taints the entire experience so much that if for some reason you were buying this as a standalone book I’d wrestle you until you put it down. This is a morale killer and should come with a “keep clear” sticker attached to the front in big red letters.
I’ve given this a generous 1.5 out of 5 and that’s purely for the additional content and the opening section with the university. If I were to run this again I’d either skip the jungle entirely and replace it with a narrative cutscene or invent my own mechanics for it. It’s the absolute worst RPG experience I think any of us have ever had.