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Kingmaker: Prepping Varnhold Vanishing

May 3, 2016

Kingmaker 3This post might be of interest to DMs running Kingmaker. It’s a collection of issues I had with Varnhold Vanishing while preparing it for my campaign, and some of the changes I made as a result. I make no claims as to how entertaining the following might be. Also, spoilers for this adventure and the adventure path as a whole follow. Consider yourself warned!

With book 3, we have the first adventure that presents a foreign kingdom for the players’ kingdom to absorb. We also have the first adventure that starts with the PCs as established rulers, as well as the first divergence from the main plot line.

To Skip or Not to Skip

In my research of other’s experiences running the Kingmaker campaign, I’ve seen a few ideas pop up again and again. One is throwing out the fetch quests that appear inside the covers, as it no longer seem fitting for rulers of a nation to be gathering eggs or eels for cooks back in town. Two is ditching the hex exploration aspect of the adventures entirely, for similar reasons. The third idea, rarer than the previous two, is getting rid of book 3 altogether, since it has no ties to the overall story.

Given how long it’s taken us just to get to book 3 (2 1/2 years?), skipping book 3 might be a good idea if there’s any hope of us actually finishing this campaign. But I actually like that it’s not connected to the overarching story. As one may infer from our meandering run-through of book 2, I am not at all averse to wandering away from the main plot. I would even say that as a sandbox-y campaign, or at least one more sandbox-y than most adventure paths, having the story to wander should be expected.

Also, I spent a lot of time establishing Varnhold and the Nomen centaurs for the players. So I’m not about to let that go to waste!

I do find myself in agreement with the other ideas, though. I will be cutting out many of the inside-cover quests, and won’t spend much time forcing the PCs to map out the region. Heck, logically they should be able to find detailed maps for much of the Nomen Heights in Varnhold. Underlings can map out the remaining hexes, or at least the ones that don’t have any threats. Rewards for the forgotten quests can be added to quests that remain.

Does Size Matter?

By the book, Varnhold is a village, although technically it’s a hamlet since it only has 40ish inhabitants (villages have a population of at least 61).  But neither designation squares with the population it should have given all of the buildings the town gets if the players claim it – there are 21 plots’ worth, which is 5,250 people, or a small city! I think the translation of the town from personal scale to kingdom scale may have been a little too literal.

Varnhold’s territory isn’t very big, either – 2 hexes in every direction of the village, or 19 hexes total. And none of those hexes are supposed to have any improvements on them – no farms, mines, or quarries. No wonder Varnhold is not faring very well against the centaurs – the colony is run by a bunch of lazy do-nothings! Not to mention that their Consumption would be sky-high, before they even got around to recruiting any armies.

This might make a little sense if Varnhold was brand new, but book 1 implies that the Swordlords sent out the various expeditions at around the same time. Maybe it took longer for Varn to clear the land and found the kingdom? Ok, but would it take so long that the player kingdom has grown to 50-60 hexes (book 3’s suggestion before starting the adventure) in the meantime? And even then, without improvements on those hexes, their kingdom would have been unmanageable and unable to support a war against the Nomen. With neighbors as incompetent as Varnhold and Fort Drelev (as we will see in book 4), the PCs’ accomplishments become trivial. Yes, you all built a mighty kingdom, but only because everyone around you was sitting on their hands, doing basically nothing.

Obviously (for those who have read the our play-through of book 2), I’ve already deviated from what the adventure proposes. In my version, Varnhold and Fort Drelev had much more important missions – get rid of the centaurs, establish river trade with the River Kingdoms – than the PCs did, and those missions were entrusted to more accomplished people and given higher levels of resources. Now, Varnhold has to support armies, which are murder on Consumption, so it needs to be heavily in the black on that front. Which means that it needs farmland, and lots of it. But the Nomen are going to keep them from expanding into the Dunsward plains or too far south from town, so where can they go after claiming all the of territory next to Brevoy/Restov?

By the time Varnhold vanishes – many years after the campaign started – I imagine that they’ve spread throughout the hills west of the Tors, up to the borders that they’ve established with the PCs. Unable to go further west, they’ve gone south, and maybe even built a town next to Lake Silverstep at the mouth of the Gudrin River.

This changes the adventure in a couple of significant ways. (Spoilers for Varnhold Vanishing!)

Change #1: Vordakai steals the souls of just a few dozen people in the adventure, killing some others and turning a couple into undead. If Varnhold balloons to a small city with over 5,000 inhabitants, what does Vordakai do with all of those bodies and/or souls? Does location W28 gain 5,200 more soul jars? Is the tomb and/or the surrounding area filled with hordes of zombies of those the lich did not consider worthy of a jar? And if the city’s population ends up getting turned into zombies and (presumably) destroyed, would anyone willingly come to live in Varnhold again, or would it come to be regarded as a cursed place?

As it happens, I’m using 100 population per district plot in my game, so Varnhold only has about 2,100 people living there, making it a large town instead. That’s still a lot of extra bodies to account for, though.

Change #2: Turning Varnhold into a real kingdom means that there are a lot of Varn citizens that live outside of town. How do they react to the vanishing? Did those who live between the town and the tomb see anything on that fateful night, or did Vordakai take all those in his path as well? Or did he teleport there and back?

If we think of Varnhold as another player kingdom, it has lost all of its leaders, which normally means that the kingdom gains +7 Unrest a turn and can’t do much of anything. Kingdoms start losing hexes at 10 and fall into anarchy at 20. If there is another town in the kingdom, the capital could be moved there (Stability check; gain 1 Unrest if successful or 1d6 if not) and new interim leaders could be appointed. This might slow the descent into anarchy, but I would guess that the damage has already been done. When Varnhold “loses” a hex due to Unrest, it will be on the border region with the players or with Brevoy, and the people there will possibly request to join the bordering kingdom. When the kingdom falls to anarchy, I would say that all of the hexes become up for grabs. These hexes would be very attractive, as they are already built-up, but I would maybe use the subjugation penalty for the Vassalage Edict after absorbing a few of them.

Who is Maegar Varn?

Book 1 names Maegar Varn “a low-ranking but eager-to-impress swordlord.” Book 3 describes him as:

“the third son of Androth Varn, a Brevic baron of Issian descent. As such, he does not stand to inherit his father’s title and holdings, and the opportunity to found a colony offered by the swordlords is likely his best chance to make his fortune. Maegar has no particular loyalty to Brevoy…”

I would be inclined to give more weight to book 3’s version, as that’s the adventure that actually involves Maegar as a character (albeit only in the backstory). I’m going to guess that his background changed to explain why the PCs had to be the ones to investigate Varnhold, and why no one in Restov would get involved (aside from Jamandi requesting their aid). I also like that he is an Issian, or in other words from northern Brevoy, when the main fault line in Brevoy politics is the north/south divide. It brings a possibly sympathetic northern perspective to the conflict within Brevoy.

Way back when, I also gave Maegar a daughter, Sojana. I had picked up that idea from someone else’s campaign, and thought she was a good way to forge a relationship between the PCs and Varnhold.

Book 1 says Maegar’s mission was to establish peace with the Nomen centaurs, but this doesn’t hold up with what we find in Varnhold itself in book 3, especially in the tannery. I must have absorbed that from the start, because my Varnhold never had peaceful intentions towards the Nomen, and I’ve always assumed there was a good amount of racial animus towards centaurs in Restov.

Spriggans Sprung

Beyond the issues detailed above, I was decidedly underwhelmed by the spriggan presence in Varnhold. The party is assumed to be 7th level, and spriggans are CR 3, so they don’t actually pose a threat. But beyond that, they’re just boring – a bunch of under-leveled melee fighters with no spell support against 7th level PCs? That’s a joke.

Originally I planned to replace them with lurkers in light, a faerie species with a neat trick – they can’t be seen in daylight! Also, they can cast daylight! And if the players are able to trap them in darkness, most races will have to deal with still not being able to see them because of the lighting, or at least not see them very well. The lurkers are CR 5, which combined with their natural invisibility made me think they would be an interesting challenge for the players. As an added bonus, since they can’t be seen, Varnhold really does look empty when the players reach it.

Now that I’m writing that out, I don’t know why I ditched that plan. It sounds like a great fit to me now, although it might be a real headache for PCs that aren’t equipped to handle invisibility.

I ended up keeping the spriggans, but added in a group of grimstalkers (last seen in the Dancing Lady’s ruin) as well. Basically, two groups of fey had moved into the abandoned town and were fighting over it. Then I added in a powerful fey who came to make peace between the two factions – a fossegrim skald. The fossegrim, by the way, is based on some neat Scandinavian folktales. Since the players will probably be skipping other encounters tied to exploration, beefing up Varnhold felt like a good move.

Let Nomen Put Asunder…

My players have already burned their bridges with the Nomen centaurs, and will probably end up waging war against them. But for those DMs who have kinder, gentler PCs, I would be remiss not to link to Dudemeister’s expansion of the centaur section of the adventure from the Paizo Kingmaker board. It’s even been compiled into a helpful PDF document by the poster Rickmeister.

Passive-Aggressive

Varnhold Vanishing suffers from a common problem in this adventure path: most chapters start with the villain making a move (raiding Oleg’s, vanishing Varnhold, attacking Tatzylford) which is then followed up with… a lot of nothing. They sit in their lair until the PCs stumble onto them and kill them. The lich is a little better than most since he sends a dementor soul eater after the party, but that’s pretty small potatoes for a high-level undead cyclops necromancer. I’m still mulling this over, but as with the Stag Lord and Hargulka, I want the antagonist to be more active in opposing the players.

Action #1: soul eaters. He can bind a single soul eater once per week. He could instead use the oculus to summon:

  • 3 yeth hounds
  • 2 nightmares
  • 2 shadow mastiffs
  • a night hag
  • lots of different kinds of daemons

But none of these other options are particularly compelling for hunting down and assassinating the PCs. So, soul eater it is.

Action #2: scry & fry. The oculus gives Vordakai greater scrying 3/day, and he can cast 5th level spells, and conjuration is not one of his barred schools. Presumably he still has access to all of his old spell books, so he should have access to common spells like teleport. Unfortunately, because of his low caster level, he can only bring only one other cyclops (or other Large creature), or three Medium creatures. So it’s potentially risky. A permanent Mordenkainen’s private sanctum on the tomb prevents the players from scrying on the lich in response.

This tactic could be combined with using the oculus to summon a daemon. Bind a piscodaemon, scry, teleport in with it, teleport out, leaving the daemon. Maybe throw in a few summon monster spells before leaving. Piscodaemon didn’t work? Bring a hydrodaemon or a couple of venedaemons next time! Vordakai can remain invisible in order to keep himself hidden during the drop-off so the players can’t even try to scry him in response. This has the advantage of introducing the piscodaemon to the players – I’ve read several stories that the piscodaemon in the tomb caused serious issues because the players were blindsided by the daemon’s abilities.

Action #3: zombie horde! If we assume he still only has 42 citizens trapped in soul jars, that leaves roughly 5200 remaining citizens to do something with. That’s two Colossal armies + one Large army of zombies, which is actually a substantial threat using the mass combat rules. Assuming that they’re attacking a fixed position and that you can’t simply run away from them. Thousands of zombies boiling out of the southern part of the map could be a good pointer for the players on where to go if they get stumped.

Action #4: animated linnorm skeleton. A couple of hexes north of Vordakai’s lair is the linnorn grave (location R). And Vordakai is a necromancer. It’s a match made in Abaddon! At caster level 9, Vordy can use animate dead to raise a 18 HD skeleton, or more with desecrate, but supposedly only creatures up to 20 HD can be skeleton-ized. The ice linnorm has 18 HD (and is suitably Colossal), so let’s start there. The bones will probably need to be excavated first, which could be done with zombie labor overseen by a dread zombie cyclops. Unfortunately, the massively monstrous skeletal dragon-thing is only a CR 8, which would be a pushover for most groups in this book. We could make it a skeleton champion (no rules exist for creating such an undead), but allowing the linnorm to keep its special abilities and feats feels like too much for a simple +1 CR. Instead, we can make it burning or bloody by doubling the HD for the purposes of animate dead, which means we do need that desecrate after all. But that’s a cleric spell; Vordy can’t cast it.

Now, the 6-player conversion for book 3 on the Paizo forums adds a cyclops graveknight antipaladin as Vordakai’s bodyguard/champion. Graveknights are basically Paizo’s version of the D&D death knight, a classic monster that was not part of the OGL (although there is a death knight template in the Tome of Horrors). One noteworthy ability of the graveknight is that it has a constant desecrate aura. With the champion present, Vordy can animate  the linnorm as a burning skeleton. Although since it’s an ice linnorm, maybe we want to flip the energy type to cold.

That brings us to CR 9, although honestly the linnorm’s natural attacks are so crazy I’d be tempted to call it CR 10. We can add in the Advanced template to bump it up to CR 11, and I would say that’s a worthy adversary.

Now all he has to do is get it dug out of the hillside…

Mo Players Mo Problems

Up above I mentioned the 6-player conversion for book 3. At this point, I’m using the conversion documents for ideas but doing my own thing; I derive too much pleasure for tinkering with monsters in Hero Lab to let someone else do the work for me. Going from 4 to 6 players in terms of XP is pretty easy, but I do have a small problem – Boliden’s player had to drop from the game, so I only have 5 players. And I’d already done all the work converting the encounters for 6. I think it might be ok, though, since the group is a level above where they would normally be at this point and all the PCs are pulling their weight.

Seeding the Story

The last part to consider is how to continue to foreshadow the larger arc of the adventure path. Even though book 3’s main plot is a divergence, I can still remind players that something is going on with the mysterious “Green Lady” and perhaps even drop some hints as to her ultimate plan.

The squatters in Varnhold are an obvious sign of the strong fey presence in the Stolen Lands. They can also reinforce the idea that the local fey feel that the region belongs to them, and that one day the Green Lady will reclaim the Land for their kind.

And to really bring it home, the Green Lady can conduct a test run of her ultimate plan! Spoilers for book 6! I picked up the idea from the Paizo Kingmaker board that maybe the BBEG has to try out her grand ritual a few times before she gets it right. What that means is that the Stolen Land gets temporarily stolen away to the First World, but the magic is unstable and it warps back, causing much destruction and mayhem in the process. During the brief time when the land is transposed, the PCs get a glimpse of the Wriggling Man and the Knurly Witch, two of the BBEG’s lieutenants who are assisting with the ritual. They also overhear a snatch of conversation between the two lieutenants and Nyrissa, who isn’t visible – or who is veiled so as to not blind those around her. My plan is to spring this on the PCs (and their kingdom, and the larger region) while they are traveling between their home and the Nomen Heights.

Such an event would also catch Vordakai, and no doubt the lich would be very interested in figuring out just what happened. He might be able to provide some further clues to the players when the final confrontation comes. Perhaps he can argue that a renewed (undead) cyclops empire with himself in charge is the only possible bulwark against the machinations of the fey.

We will see how it all plays out. My hope is that we can get through this adventure fairly quickly, as it has a quick setup, some obvious breadcrumbs to solve the mystery, and an obvious solution.

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14 Comments
  1. Mei Yu Lian permalink

    I thought that was a rather interesting read, as it happens. 🙂

    • Thank you. 😀 I forget, have you played through Kingmaker, or are you currently?

      • Mei Yu Lian permalink

        Funny you should ask that right now 😉
        https://rosecrown.wordpress.com/ (looks to be edited!)

      • Very cool! I was asking because I was curious if you had any thoughts based on your experiences with the AP. But it sounds like your old group didn’t make it very far. 😦

      • Mei Yu Lian permalink

        We about made it to the end of the first book 😦

  2. Pinkius permalink

    Oh… oh my, your players might fall for the undead cyclops fey bulkward ploy.
    it’s not even that bad of an idea if the terms are good enough for the Caeralians, aside from the turmoil being allied with an undead necropolis would bring to the populace.

    Invisibility is really a kicker for pathfinder, the rules make cancelling out certain invisibility effects nigh impossible. Like those Lurkers in Light, the only way to fight them without the 50% miss penalty is to cast a situational spell. Any effects that cause dim light are far too situational to be prepared, and they’re not going to be encountered in areas without bright light. See invisibility only works for one Character at a time, and even invisibility purge sometimes does not work (for example. invisible stalker EX invisibility). There was even an ability called Undetectable in mythic pathfinder that made invisible characters immune to detection of any variety, it was frankly disgusting.

    I mean, I prepared invisibility purge and see invisibility on my spellcasters, glitterdust was a good one, but if you don’t have them, you don’t have them, and you may as well just run away.

    • Yeah. I think the annoyance factor is why I ditched the idea. But now that we’re actually here, the lurkers would actually be trivial – the group is loaded with anti-invis measures after dealing with Ivo.

      I don’t know if they would fall for the lich telling them he’s the only one who can handle the fey; that might bruise their ego. And anyway, he’s a lich. After our last session I think I have them figured out: if someone is a monster or ugly, they don’t trust them. If they’re human or good-looking, they do trust them. Except for Salar’s player, he trusts everyone.

  3. Chris M permalink

    Some very interesting thoughts. I have enjoyed following your campaign. I am running Kingmaker in a converted form in D&D 5e. We are halfway through the Rivers Run Red and I am looking at ideas for when I need to convert Varnhold. I am hoping to get a few more published monsters because the lack of Fey and several other things leads to lots of reskinning in 5e (why I backed Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press).

    Funny thing is we are playing the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Skull & Shackles and undead cyclop casters show up regularly in it so it won’t be ‘strange’ so I might completely retheme.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I can see the lack of (antagonistic) fey being a problem. Even in Kingmaker, they had to pull a lot of the fey monsters from Tome of Horrors.

      I’m curious, how are you handling the kingdom management? I suppose the Pathfinder rules work mostly as-is, but I’m wondering if you’re doing something different for 5e.

      • Chris M permalink

        Actually the Kingdom rules are why I found your blog. We mostly use the basic rules in the modules fixed with the divide by 3. The lack of magic items for sale will rule out some buildings in the future but they are only at 10 hexes. I am reconsidering that for minor items (uncommon potions, lvl 1/2 scrolls). I am also using some of the rules to allow improvements on hexes without towns (watchtowers, mines, etc.). To help track it we use your browser supported app which works for us. I have not tried the other app yet. Most of the stats work fine.

        My players (2 Paladins, 1 Ranger, 1 Wizard) made a deal with Happ from the initial encounter (after capturing him – basically hiring a number of the lower brigands to watch the roads for pay). They made him Spymaster in their kingdom which will be an interesting problem soon as his misdeeds come back to tarnish them. As Mik Mak (the Kobold that the players rescue in the first adventure) is smitten with the Dragonborn ranger, he has became a member of the party and is the Kingdom’s Assassin.

      • I’ve never heard of a group recruiting Happs for one of the leadership positions before. Neat!

        Also, interesting group composition.

      • Chris M permalink

        On Happs – out of all the games, how many times did Happs actually survive the initial encounter – probably not high.

        One Paladin (last time played is 1st edition circa 1983) is more traditional and a follower of Pharasma but in more the protection of the common man vs anti undead. He is very long term looking for not burning bridges and trying to prepare the land for civilization. The other paladin (played by his wife – a first time player) is a follower of Erastil Fey Paladin (Oath of Ancients) with a strong interest in balancing development vs keeping the Stolen Lands wild. Like the Narlmarches are pretty much off the table for development. With short rest healing through hit dice and all hp back in a long rest, the lack of traditional healers hasn’t hurt them.

      • My Happs got away and escaped back to the Thorn River camp, but he was captured there and executed when they hauled him back to Oleg’s.

        It’s just as well that the Narlmarches won’t be developed, since there’s nothing to build in forest hexes anyway, using the kingdom rules in the adventure. 🙂 Sounds like an interesting group, in any case.

  4. A thought occurred to me – there’s this giant linnorm skeleton a couple of hexes away from the BBEG’s lair. The BBEG is a necromancer. Colossal skeletal linnorm, perhaps? Not sure where would be a good place to work that into the story, though.

    One downside is the skeleton template tops out at CR 8, which is a bit wimpy for the PCs at this stage. But if we add in some templates…. hmmm….

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