Pathfinder Adventure Review: Battle of Bloodmarch Hill

The first adventure of Paizo’s Giantslayer adventure path, Battle of Bloodmarch Hill is a 96-page book with typically excellent production values. The adventure portion of the book takes up 52 pages, with the remainder of the book presenting NPC profiles, a “giant primer”, more rules for giants, a 10-page bestiary, and a short piece of fiction. The adventure covers levels 1-3, with characters advancing to level 4 by the end of the adventure.

The adventure begins in Trunau, a small human town in the orc-dominated lands of Belkzen. It begins with one of the saddest and most disturbing events I’ve ever seen in a role-playing product: a young girl being given a knife (a hope knife) and being shown how to use it to kill herself and her family should the town be lost to orcs.

This is problematic, to say the least. I’m really not sure how I feel about it.

The adventure does have trouble getting the players involved in the adventure. A murder takes place, and as it’s the brother of the person who would normally investigate, he asks the player characters to help despite them being novices and quite likely not known to anyone in town. This is not my favourite way of introducing players to a game. It gets even stranger when the Giver of Quests says, “Our militia is trained to fight orcs, not investigate mysterious deaths”, as if the PCs were any different…

This isn’t a major issue. However, I would have preferred to see this addressed in the introductory text for the adventure. The players need to have someone in the group that is a viable choice as an investigator, it’s as simple as that.

In any case, once the players are investigating, there are a few clues to follow up, which lead to more clues, which finally lead to the discovery of the murdered man’s journal and the realisation that everything isn’t quite what it seems. Writing good investigative scenarios is hard, and this one is pretty good; the clues point the players down the trail to the solution, and there are good revelations here. A few odd omissions puzzle me. For instance, the father of the deceased is introduced as a potential suspect, but he’s never properly described in the adventure; the text only refers you to a different product for more about him. There’s also a small dungeon filled with small vermin for the PCs to slay, which highlights one of my biggest problems with the AP range: there’s a lot of superfluous combat which is included just to provide enough XP for the characters to reach the next level.

After the mystery is solved, the town comes under attack by orcs! It’s all set-up for excitement. However, I have concerns.

My major concern comes from the size of Trunau. It’s population? 780. This is extremely small. The orc attack has a lot of preparation behind it, and is aided by about a dozen half-orc saboteurs inside the walls. The party will directly face – by my count – 57 orcs, and it must be assumed that the village will face more. Orcs are extremely dangerous in Pathfinder, and given that several of the gates have been sabotaged (and the Inner Quarter is quickly in ruins), it’s something of a surprise that the town doesn’t fall and that it will be successfully defended.

Having a town under attack draws direct comparison with the opening chapter of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. That adventure has problems due to the difficulty of the encounters (not helped by the 5E rules not being finished when it was written), but its structure was pretty strong; characters could choose which missions to do, and – in the end – was more about survival than victory. Battle of Bloodmarch Hill has the characters attempting to light several beacons to illuminate the town, whilst participating in other activities that will help the town survive, with the battle culminating in a battle against a Cave Giant. This battle is far more about the victory of the characters over the attackers, and feels a lot more linear in structure.

The overall difficulty of this section is a problem. Individual encounters with orcs are likely better balanced than the encounters with kobolds and cultists in Hoard (Pathfinder is a much more settled system), but the cumulative effect of so many battles builds to something that could easily be deadly. The adventure does give some suggestions for mitigating this, but it’s really tough for the spell-casters in the group, who soon will be without spells. We’re talking about 12 combats here. Even if the party avoid some, this seems to be entirely too many for a 2nd-level party.

Given that, I’m bemused that the adventure then suggests immediately going into another dungeon at the conclusion of the battle! Patrick Renie, the author of this adventure, must really hate the characters!

There is, at least, some suggestion that the PCs might get some rest at this point, which they’ll definitely need by the time they enter the dungeon. It isn’t that big, a mere six chambers, but it manages to have challenges of ratings 4, 2, 6 and 6! Or, using descriptive terms for 3rd level PCs, Challenging, Easy, Epic and Epic! This is probably fine, given the optimisation many Pathfinder players engage in.

With that, the adventure ends.

Honestly, given how important the hope knife is to the story, I’m amazed that we never once see one used for its intended purpose during the battle, when there are certainly villagers killed or trapped by the orcs.

No playtesters are listed for this adventure; I presume it had some. There’s a lot of quality material in this book and, even though the Paizo house style tends to use more words than I’d prefer, it’s definitely well-written. My chief problem with the adventure comes directly from it having too many encounters in too short a space of game time; as long as you can navigate that, there’s a lot here to like. Battle of Bloodmarch Hill needs a little work on the part of the GM, but should provide an entertaining start to the Giantslayer adventure path.

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