Publisher: Paizo Inc
Authors: Scott D. Young with Vanessa Hoskins
Artists: Mirco Paganessi, Wilmar Ballespí Escarp, Rael Dionisio, Ivan Koritarev, Rob Lazzaretti, Ilina Naydenova, Mirco Paganessi, and Darko Stojanovic
Genre: The second chapter in the three part Sky King’s Tomb Pathfinder adventure path
Pages: 94 pages
MSRP: $26.99 in softcover or $19.99 in PDF
Cult of the Cave Worm leads players on an underground odyssey through some deeply unpleasant terrain. By the end, they’ll discover a powerful rival and find themselves in a race against time to stop a war.
Travel adventures are tricky to land. Too many encounters and the part can get bogged down or run too low on resources; too few and the unstructured time drags the narrative to a slow grind. Cult of the Cave Worm never shies away from the journey aspect, but takes on a travel montage approach where events happen at specific intervals or triggers and the minutiae of travel goes largely unremarked. This allows the adventure to keep its sense of time and scale without the risk of disrupting the pacing.
One of the most refreshing things about the second entry in the Sky King’s Tomb Adventure Path is its opening message that asserts that characters exist as complex beings within a harsh society and that recognizing and incorporating their complexity and multidimensionality into the roleplay will lead to a better game. In an era where more and more fandom discourse tends to flatten characters and stripe them of their nuance, this is a heartening reminder that fiction is not weakened by embracing grey areas.
While it would have been easy to take the adventure’s NPCs in a comically grimdark direction, Cult of the Cave Worm largely refuses to do so. Characters are motivated by the desire to fit in, the hope for a better future, and their survival in an unforgiving world; this helps to keep things grounded and disincentivizes casual violence when other options exist — and exist they do! Scott D. Young has given players plenty of latitude in devising creative solutions to problems, often choosing to offer suggestions rather than strictly prescriptive options. Should player characters find themselves stumped, GMs have enough to keep them going; conversely, should they come up with something completely out of left field, the adventure can still progress as planned.
Cult of the Cave Worm also has some pointed commentary to make on financial oppression and exploitation. Money is a necessity in Hagegraf —fees and taxes are the primary means to subjugate the population— and wealth is derived primarily from the exploitation of subordinates. Those trapped at the bottom face long odds of ever having the means to leave the city and thus break the cycle. While both Hagegraf and the Court of Ether are deeply unpleasant places, it’s the comparatively safer Hagegraf that feels more oppressive. While the vast majority of NPCs players encounter in the city are lawful or neutral evil, there’s a clear reason —and the sense that under better circumstances, they might have had very different values.
Of course, it’s always fun to spot where authors have drawn references or slipped in clever nods. Fans of Fallout New Vegas will likely get a chuckle of seeing the wink to the game’s infamous restaurant and its White Glove Society.
Cult of the Cave Worm mixes problem solving, social maneuvering, and combat into an interesting and diverse adventure with a broader point to make. Paizo has nailed fusing great gameplay with pointed social commentary, perhaps hoping to inspire some real world heroics as well. While the adventure does end with the party in something of a substantial jam, its conclusion feels like a strong lead-in to the final act.