Remember How Much Wrath of the Righteous Sucked?

So Wrath of the Righteous is an adventure path Paizo made back 2014 that I have just remembered exists because I needed an example of how incredibly aggravating Paizo’s plot-necessary NPCs often are, and that will always be my go-to example of that particular weakness in their writing. So long as I’ve got it on my mind, and in the interest of having an article to link to whenever anyone asks for details on why that particular encounter is so goddamn aggravating that even some of Paizo’s forum population revolted over it, let’s talk about how incredibly dissonant and frustrating Iomedae’s behavior is in Wrath of the Righteous.

So, Iomedae is the goddess of justice and honor in Golarion, the default setting for Pathfinder. In the encounter in question, the 15th level PCs are dedicated members of a crusade against demons of the Abyss, a crusade led by the faithful of Iomedae herself. They are undoubtedly and decisively her allies, and given the adventure premise is “join crusade against the Abyss led by the Church of Iomedae,” it is quite likely that at least one character is an actual worshiper of Iomedae. Bear in mind this context for the encounter: The PCs are guaranteed allies of Iomedae and most likely one or more of them is specifically one of her faithful.

So Iomedae has teleported the party into her seat of power for a one-on-one interview to determine their worthiness to become the foremost champions of her crusade, to be sent into the Abyss itself to rescue her herald, imprisoned during the events of the previous adventure in the path. After telling the GM that the players have been teleported to Iomedae’s cathedral, the adventure then spends several paragraphs explaining all the ways in which it is totally futile to try and attack Iomedae, and all the ways in which she will respond to direct insults, most of which are violent.

Bear in mind that in an actual, real life honor society, responding to an insult with immediate violence is dishonorable, disorderly, and probably illegal. Even in honor societies where defending one’s honor from insults is perhaps the single most important thing to maintaining your reputation, when insulted you do not immediately shank the other guy, you demand satisfaction. We get that term specifically from the honor society of Victorian (and earlier) England, where you’d demand that in the form of a highly formalized duel. Other honor societies take more the approach that you just brandish a weapon at your accuser and say “call me a coward again and see what happens” or whatever. The point here is that an honor society expects you to respond to accusations or insults by threatening violence, not immediately committing some.

The idea is that attaching the threat of injury or death to an insult would mean that only people who were really certain the accused had behaved ignobly, and really certain that the behavior was a big enough deal to spread around, only then would someone keep doing so. If you’re accused of something, you threaten violence, and if the other person backs down, then they probably just lost their head, or got drunk, or otherwise weren’t really speaking from a position of conviction. The thinking went that if they back down once real consequences were on the table, their accusation was probably empty (a less noble interpretation is that if they’re not willing to fight over it, it’s probably because they wouldn’t win, and if they can’t beat you in a fight, who even cares what they have to say? This isn’t the interpretation of honor you’d expect a Lawful Good deity to use, though). If they apologize, no need for further action.

Iomedae does not do this. This is the exact text of the opening line of the “Trumpet Blasts” paragraph of this encounter: “As soon as a PC openly mocks her, a deafening trumpet blast echoes through the cathedral.” No challenge to a duel, no threat, no effort whatsoever to get the offender to withdraw their mockery while still keeping the peace. Sure, reputation is really important in an honor society, it’s the beginning and end of your position in that society. Attacking someone’s reputation is basically like setting their car on fire. That doesn’t mean you can just straight-up murder anyone who spreads rumors about you, though. The entire point of an honor society is to attach rules and ritual to violent resolution of differences so that you can have a whole society of redblooded warriors without everything descending into anarchy. Abiding by these rituals are the entire reason why an honor society can claim to be Lawful with a straight face. If you throw them out the window and start responding to any mockery with immediate violence, you are not an honorable warrior defending your reputation, you’re a drunken lout who starts a fist fight at first provocation.

So before even getting to the actual tests Iomedae intends to present to the PCs, she is already demonstrating total contempt for the ideals of an honor culture, not to mention keeping order, which is not specifically part of her profile but definitely still plays a big part in her overall ethos, even though it is not her highest priority.

So Iomedae hasn’t even started her celestial quiz show and she’s already violated a few of her alleged principles, including one of the two she is the patron deity of. That’s not a great start. Here’s the text of her first actual question to the PCs:

You are bold to look on me and I favor boldness. When facing demonic foes, one must be bold, as I was when I faced one of my most dangerous enemies. Tell me, then, which undead lord did I slay while leading my knights of Ozem into the Three Sorrows, and why do I think you might be worthy to carry the legacy of that knighthood into the depths of the Abyss?

So, this is a trivia question about Iomedae’s own past. The first of her three tests of character is about her biography. She is apparently under the impression that being virtuous is somehow directly correlated to knowing her backstory. What do you call someone who thinks that being able to recite trivia facts about their own backstory is critical to being a good person? “Narcissist,” maybe. “Cult leader” would be reasonable. Probably not “physical embodiment of the ideals of justice,” though.

You might think that the question is mainly about the tail end there, about the legacy of the knighthood. There is nothing to support this in the text. Here is the complete advice given to GMs on the PCs answer to that question:

This question refers to events that unfolded during the Shining Crusade, when Iomedae defeated Erum-Hel, the Lord of Mohrgs, at the Battle of Three Sorrows. The defeat of the mythical mohrg overlord proved to be a turning point in the Shining Crusade, and is recalled today by the faithful as the Fifth Act of Iomedae. A PC who succeeds at a DC 35 Knowledge (history) check or a DC 25 Knowledge (religion) check recalls the tale of Erum-Hel’s defeat.

Iomedae wants to know that the PCs understand the history of her ongoing war against evil in all its forms. The second part of her question is deliberately openended and designed both to make a devotee of law and good squirm and to give them room to brag of their good deeds. Iomedae is looking for both self-confidence and humility in this answer, and as long as one player roleplays an answer in this manner, she is pleased.

There’s all kinds of problems with this. First, the aforementioned total dearth of advice as to what would actually be considered a correct answer to why Iomedae considers the characters worthy to carry the legacy of her knighthood. It’s not even clear what Iomedae’s defeat of Erum-Hel has to do with the knights of Ozem, or what kind of legacy she thinks this particular story left other than “Iomedae is good at murder” and “fuck mohrgs.” Mohrgs are dicks and all, but is that the grand legacy that Iomedae left behind? “Creatures relentlessly dedicated to the extermination of all life are bad news?” That’s the great moral she wants to make sure the PCs understand before she sends them into the Abyss to rescue her kidnapped herald?

The second paragraph says that Iomedae wants to know that PCs understand “the history of her ongoing war against evil in all its forms,” but it’s not clear how answering this one trivia question is supposed to demonstrate any greater understanding, and the whole thing falls flat because there is no history to understand. Iomedae does not have a complete history of her ongoing war against evil. That history has never been written up in its entirety. Players are being asked to roleplay an understanding of a thing that does not exist, so instead of actually being asked to reference knowledge that can’t be had, they’re given a trivia question that demands no deeper understanding at all.

And Iomedae is looking for both self-confidence and humility simultaneously. How is a GM even supposed to interpret whether or not a PC is threading the needle between those two nearly opposite attitudes?

If the PCs answer wrong, Iomedae has her heavenly choir blast the party with 5d6 sonic damage. That is the equivalent to being stabbed by a shortsword five times by someone of average Strength. That is the equivalent to a magic missile at around the level the PCs are currently at. If you get her narcissistic trivia question wrong, Iomedae launches an attack at the players that is probably more damaging than a swipe with the party Fighter’s greatsword. I bring up how damaging the attack was because one of the defenses made for Iomedae in this encounter is that 5d6 sonic damage is basically a slap on the wrist for characters of this level. If you were GMing a social encounter and the party Fighter pulled out his greatsword and hacked into the person they were talking to, would you consider that anything else but an attack?

Even worse, Iomedae is the goddess of honor. She is the paragon of a moral code that states unambiguously that you don’t suffer attacks to your reputation, let alone your physical person. Treating insults as an attack isn’t just something nebulously associated with honor in other contexts, it’s referenced earlier in this same encounter! Iomedae will totally attack you if you insult her, because honor demands that you respond to attacks on your character and she is a goddess of honor! Honor also demands that you respond to attacks on your person! The only appropriate response for someone committed to the ideals of honor to an unprovoked attack like this is to demand satisfaction. You do not apologize to the person who attacked you for making them hit you. You demand they apologize and make amends or you are going to stab them in the face. No matter how unlikely you are to win, no matter how futile your defiance is, honor demands that you not tolerate such an attack. That’s what honor is.

So let’s look at the second question.

You have a hero’s bravery. You have proven that you can survive the horrors of the Abyss, and this marks your courageousness as surely as any feat. But also you have learned that not all those in the Abyss are your enemies. Some are creatures whose nature can be used as a tool to defeat greater evils. So tell me, when evil assumes a fair form, and when weak villains beg for their lives, are they due mercy? Or are the wages of their villainy always death and oblivion?

First of all, let’s look at some of the weird phrasing in this question. “[W]hen evil assumes a fair form” very strongly implies that, in addition to hose begging for mercy, a case can be made for sparing evil creatures because they are pretty. Like, what? Forget the specific tenets of an honor society. This is the belief system of a Saturday morning cartoon villain. Sure, the Halo Effect is a thing and Hollywood doesn’t even try to fight it, so heroes are always beautiful in the movies, but when someone comes out and says “beauty is a virtue and ugliness is a sin,” they’re either clearly evil or else their beliefs are so cartoonishly vain that they are a joke. As in, Zoolander 2 literally made a joke about how their protagonists were so cartoonishly vain that they grappled with the idea that being fat might make someone inherently evil.

Really, though, I’m nitpicking over a sentence fragment. If the rest of the encounter held up to scrutiny, I’d chalk this up to being a really clumsy way of referring to evil creatures sometimes doing good deeds, and that “fair form” was just a really bad word choice that probably should’ve been caught in editing for a professionally produced product, but whatever.

Of course, the rest of this encounter already doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but wait, there’s more! Read the advice the GM is given to determine whether or not the PCs answer correctly:

There is no one true answer to this question, for it is a philosophical conundrum that has vexed many warriors of law and good. The teachings of Sarenrae are explicit in that an enemy should be granted a chance at redemption, and that those who ignore this chance should be put down swiftly and mercifully, yet the teachings of other gods of good, including Iomedae, are not so clear. Certainly the execution of evildoers prevents them from perpetrating more evil in the future, yet doesn’t this also just send the sinner’s soul to fuel the evil-aligned planes? Is it not better to redeem the evildoer, thus removing a piece from the enemy’s board and adding it to your own, in this life and the next?
Iomedae is not looking for a specific answer to this question; rather she’s seeking hesitancy and conflict. Blindly adhering to any rule may be lawful, but is not always good—a truly lawful good person will temper rules with judgment. A paladin should never be so bound to his pursuit of the law that he loses sight of what it is to be good. As long as at least one character seems conflicted about answering this question, yet in the end answers either yes or no with conviction, Iomedae is pleased. If the characters fall into a long, bickering argument (and thus fail to work as a team) or if they all immediately answer “yes” or “no” without seeming to think through the repercussions of the answer, they fail.

Okay, so giving a firm and immediate answer is wrong, but debating it for too long is also wrong. The GM isn’t really given any advice as to how long the conversation has to go on before it counts as a failure, nor how quick is too quick, so basically the GM just blasts you with more sonic damage if he feels like it. At least in the first question only one party member had to get it right, now the entire party has to be a very specific amount of conflicted or they get hit with 10d6 sonic damage. 10d6 is getting into “we should probably rest up before fighting the boss” amounts of damage. It’s unlikely to flat-out kill even the most fragile of party members, but it will shave off nearly half their health. Under no circumstances can you plausibly interpret this as anything other than a serious threat to their well-being.

Also: For a goddess of justice, Iomedae sure doesn’t bother with much cross-examination or representation in this trial. If characters have an immediate answer before, is it because they have rigid and inflexible beliefs, or is it because they are dedicated enough to the causes of law and good as to have discussed this issue in depth in the past, and have already come to their conclusion on the subject? Apparently investigating the crime before punishment is too much effort for the goddess of justice, and instead she blasts the characters halfway to death as soon as she’s given any reason to suspect they might be insufficiently judicious.

So, let’s look at question #3:

Honor is my soul and life, justice is the passion that stirs me to war, and yet the cause of the true and the righteous is beset on all sides by evil. Tell me, how does one outwit and defeat a demon lord in his own domain? For let us not pretend, this is what I ask you to do.

So this is a…strategic question? It’s not really a test of character, but then, neither was the first question. At least this one is directly relevant to the matter at hand rather than Iomedae indulging her megalomania. The damage dealt by the celestial choir is even more out of place if this is, rather than a test of virtue, just a job interview. As you may have guessed, that damage is only getting higher for this question, but first let’s again examine the advice given to the GM to evaluate whether the players answer correctly:

More than any other question, this one has no right answer. Possible responses could involve elements of “Stealth, then strike with fury!” or “We’ll find your herald and save him to humiliate Baphomet,” or even something like “A demon lord’s domain is its seat of power, but also its greatest weakness.” As with previous questions, it is not the answer so much as the method of answering that Iomedae is interested in. Here, she hopes to see conviction and bravery—evidence that even in light of such a dangerous task these true heroes do not shirk. As long as at least one PC seems confident about the quest, presenting an air of resolve that it’s better to die attempting such a task than to avoid it out of fear, Iomedae is pleased.

Remember how last question having firm convictions was frowned upon? Now it’s required. At least we’re back to only requiring one PC to strike upon the right answer rather than the entire party needing to get it right. Even so, if the PCs learn from failing the last question that arriving at answers to difficult questions too quickly and confidently is a flaw, then they will actually suffer more retribution here for trying to learn from their “mistake.” PCs aren’t very likely to fail otherwise (what are the odds that, when presented with a quest hook, PCs will answer “eh, sounds dangerous, let’s not bother?”), but that just means that the PCs most likely to be punished in this scenario are the ones who are trying their hardest to learn what Iomedae wants from them and give it to her. The damage for failure on this one is 20d6, which, even with the bonus HP from seven ranks in the Archmage mythic path, is enough to potentially kill the squishier party members.

Remember: Goddess of justice! The goddess of the belief system that no one has any right to do harm to another without good reason is the one who is dishing out potentially fatal damage to anyone who answers in a way she suspects might indicate cowardice or mercilessness! The goddess of fair trials doesn’t even tell the accused what they’ve been charged with, let alone let them make their case, before dishing out potentially fatal retribution! The goddess of not taking insults to or attacks on your reputation or beliefs lying down is dishing out direct and lethal attacks and will be angry, rather than pleased, if the characters make a suicidal threat of retribution if she doesn’t apologize!

It’s D&D, so even if Iomedae executes a character for failing her quiz show, it’s really only a temporary inconvenience. She’ll even heal the damage/revive the dead herself at the of the quiz, which is why the charge leveled against her here is “torture” rather than “murder.” That doesn’t really help, though. Iomedae is still demonstrating clear opposition to the concept of honor, the idea that you don’t back down from attacks on your reputation and beliefs, as well as the concept of justice, the idea that people should only be punished for crimes they have been proven to commit against a set of laws that have been defined in advance and not just the whims of whoever happens to be in power. Iomedae isn’t just generically Lawful Good, she is the goddess of two specific virtues with fairly specific definitions, and she violates both of them constantly in this encounter. Even specific virtues like justice and honor are still relatively broad concepts with room for interpretation, but Iomedae’s disregard for both of them is way too thorough to get out of with the wiggle room the words provide.

That’s not really the worst part, though. So Iomedae fails to really represent anything. Let’s face it, Wrath of the Righteous was never going to actually be about the ultimate nature of good, and what do your ideals really mean in the face of overwhelming evil or anything like that. It was always just going to be a dumb fun kind of adventure where you get to stab a lot of demons and feel awesome. That’s fine. Popcorn movies have a niche. JJ Abrams is not a prophet of the Antichrist.

The worst part is how thoroughly this adventure fails even within the context of being a dumb fun kind of adventure. What about this encounter is supposed to be fun? The part where one of your allies bullies you if you don’t answer her questions correctly? The part where you’re asked all these complex philosophical questions that don’t belong in this adventure, and which the GM has been given confusing and contradictory guidelines on evaluating the answers to? It’s not like you get to settle up with Iomedae later on, and being bullied here sets up the catharsis of punching her later. The designers don’t even realize that the whole experience is unfun and disempowering and will make the players want revenge, and that’s the ultimate problem. The designers wrote an encounter that suddenly stops providing the kinds of fun the entire adventure path (as well as pretty much the whole Paizo library) have been good at, and suddenly starts trying to provide a completely different kind of fun (arguably a different kind of engagement from fun altogether), and failing horribly at it. This is why you should pick a handful of the elements of fun and get good at them. Try to branch out to too many and sooner or later you’ll start producing content you suck at.

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