Shades of Suffering

Encounter sets in this scenario: Dark Veiling, Mysteries Abound, Scarlet Sorcery, Spreading Corruption, Striking Fear
Available experience: 4 (locations) + 3 (saved geists) + 1 (Tzu San) +1 (using the Reaper against Tzu) = 9XP

Location: Kuala Lumpur (unlocked through Shanghai)
Involved Coterie Members and Keys: Tzu San Niang, The Shade Reaper
Time spent: 1 for the scenario itself, but getting there from Shanghai will require 5 more
Nearest other scenarios: Alexandria, Tunguska (2 time)

Size of the Encounter Deck30
# Enemies2
# Willpower7
# Agility0
# Doom2
# Damage0
# Horror5
# Concealment4
# Hollow0
Please note that in addition to the horror and damage cards in the table above are 4 cards that can cause enemies in the shadows to attack.

Synopsis: Agent Flint is on the tails of Tzu San Niang aka “Lady with Red Parasol”, an exceptionally influential woman. Either with or without Flint’s help, the players make their way from Shanghai over Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur where they finally catch up to her. As they soon learn from a local Bomoh (a Malaysian shaman), Tzu San and her parasol feed on the pain of the restless spirits in three places among the city. To stop the Lady with the Red Parasol, the investigators need to put those spirits to rest and finally confront Tzu San if they want to take possession of the artifact for their own purpose.

My take on this scenario: For better or worse, this is an iteration on the much maligned Wages of Sin from The Circle Undone. The parallels are immediately obvious, with the players being tasked to put spirits to rest using some conditions on the backside of the cards of those spirits. There is a lot of time pressure and efficient use of actions is key to getting somewhere in either scenario. I consider Wages to be one of the (or maybe THE) worst scenarios in the game, so i am happy to see a scenario that improves on it.
That being said, Shades of Suffering has its own problems for sure. Especially all the action taxing that we are exposed to here is too much for me. Far too much. The combination of Spreading Corruption with Striking Fear is already painful enough in other scenarios of the Scarlet Keys campaign, but here it is coupled with a key that takes away actions whenever it shifts and scenario objectives that don’t exactly help the situation. Moving around the locations and activating whatever is required to meet the geist enemies demands takes away a lot of available actions and so does messing around with the concealment part.
This scenario also scales very heavily with time already spent. Depending on how far along the campaign you are, the Shade Reaper already starts with 0, 3, 6 or 9 charges which not only makes the skull token a pain, but also makes Tzu San’s ability in the final confrontation a lot more deadly than it already is. Having more cultist tokens in the chaos bag will also contribute to this by putting charges on the Reaper whenever that token comes up.
One of the biggest differences to me when comparing this scenario to Wages is that there are almost no random enemies around. While Wages would bombard you with a constant barrage of unkillable shades, exploding witches and of course the Watcher, Shades is content with having the scenario mechanics stand on their own. I approve of this.
While i do like Shades of Suffering a lot more than Wages of Sin, i do still think it’s possibly the low point of the Scarlet Keys campaign. Constantly having my actions been taken away is just not any fun to me and the final confrontation also feels a bit cheap and non-interactive to me. You either have to tech fairly heavily for beating the fight or you can just randomly run into a situation where you don’t have the tools to do anything worthwhile. At least you have the option of resigning at any point, so you can just go for the victory points on the locations and hoof it when things start to derail too much.

Scenario specific encounter sets: Two scenario-specific treacheries are added to the encounter deck and looking at them already gives us a preview of how central the Shade Reaper is to this scenario. Spirit Harvest gives a rather difficult choice of dealing damage and horror to everyone or giving Tzu San an opportunity to shift her key and also charge it up. Shifting the key makes everyone lose an action, so whatever the choice, it will affect everyone at the table. Actions, sanity and stamina are all in short supply, so this is going to be an awful card pretty much every time. And since there’s three of them in the deck that’s going to be a frequent occurrence. Excruciate isn’t quite as bad. While it will always place a charge on the Reaper, it will at least give the chance to either pass a willpower test or discard cards to mitigate the damage. There are two copies of Excruciate.

Chaos Tokens: This one is nasty, with none of the symbol tokens being particularly pleasant. The Tablet is the only one of the four that doesn’t tie into the Shade Reaper mechanics. It’s just a -1, but at a location with a Geist another token will have to be revealed, so it becomes quite problematic then. It becomes a lot worse in Hard/Expert, where it’s a -3 and will autofail any test in the presence of a Geist. Oof. The Cultist is a -4 and will put a charge on the Reaper on a fail by 2 or more. Hard cranks this up to -5 and will always put a charge, even on a success. In comparison, the Elder Thing looks almost tame. It’s also a -4, but the player can choose to put a charge on the Reaper to treat it as a 0. Hard increases these numbers to -6 with the option to bring it down to -3. So there’s quite a few large modifiers around, even on Easy/Normal and each test taken during the scenario has the potential to increase the power of the Shade Reaper. An immediate payoff for this power is the Skull token, which is -X. On Easy/Standard, X is half the amount of charges on the Reaper, to a maximum modifier of -6 for the Skull. Hard and Expert just define X as the amount of charges (so no halfsies there) and there is no cap on the modifier either. Seeing the modifier grow to -20 and beyond is absolutely possible and unless you are Jim Culver you can probably expect them to just be extra autofails during the final bits.
This is a chaos bag that pulls no punches, which is oddly appropriate for this scenario.

Act/Agenda: With 3 cards each, there is some meat to both the agenda and the act deck. The scenario is neatly divided into three parts, with a pair of agenda and act cards for each part. The first act has the investigators try to find Tzu San while having a few clues at hand. Not too difficult, but the agenda only offers 3 doom worth of time to do so. Failing to do so is punished rather harshly with the loss of an ally, charges on the Reaper and 1 doom on Tzu San for good measure. No matter if the agenda or act is fulfilled first, getting to that point will trigger an interlude with additional setup that leads to act and agenda 2. Three Geist enemies spawn at seperate locations and Tzu San returns to the shadows, with herself and two decoys at the locations of the Geists. The act tasks the players with bringing the spirits to rest before Tzu can exploit them for her own cause. Tzu will make one such attempt every 3 doom (4 in solo) and the only way to prevent it is either removing her from the shadows in time or pacifying the spirit at her location. This cycle of Tzu returning to the shadows and making attempts at subjugating another geist before the players get to it returns until all geists have left play, either into the victory display or facedown under the Tzu San. The third act sets the stage for the final confrontation with Tzu San and the players will have to defeat her to win Shades of Suffering. The agenda for this has 4 doom and should it run out, everyone is defeated and suffers mental trauma.

Tzu San Niang: She is the primary opponent in Shades of Suffering and defeating her will ultimately win the scenario. But first you will have to stop her (in her “The Lady with the Red Parasol” form) from harvesting spirits to power up her artifact. There’s not much to her at that point and the mechanics are mostly driven by the action economy of making it to the spirits in time. The direct confrontation happens with her “Out for Blood” backside which is one of the most terrifying enemies this campaign throws at you. While her stats make her look rather unimpressive, it’s that Forced effect that can be just utterly devastating. Oversucceeding against her 2 fight or evasion is punished with an amount of horror and damage that is equal to how many point you succeeded by. This ability is limited by the amount of charges on the Reaper, but at this point there are often double digits of charges on the thing even if happened to save most of the Geists. To be able to defeat Tzu without immediately defeating yourself as well, you will need to manage at least one of the following:
– Keep the number of charges on the Reaper low. This is very difficult to do and will pretty much require you to go to this scenario early in your campaign to avoid starting changes through passed time and to keep the number of Cultist tokens in the bag low.
– Be able to take the pain. If you have exceptional amounts of soak at your disposal, then you might just be able to power through what the Reaper inflicts on you.
– Have testless damage available. If you don’t have to take tests, you can’t oversucceed and thus you won’t trigger the Reaper’s wrath. Shoutout to Brother Xavier for both bringing exceptional soak and testless damage.
– Don’t oversucceed (much). I feel like i have to mention this, but i don’t really see how you can plan for it. With the chaos bag being as nasty as it is, keeping your fight value low (by maybe attacking without a weapon) in hopes of not succeeding by too much just will make you fail … and of course Tzu San also has Retaliate to punish that! I suppose you can at least hold back your Overpowers and Darings.

The Geists: There are three different Geist enemies and the players should try and banish them before Tzu San can exploit them. Doing so requires defeating the enemy while having one of the special actions on the locations already fulfilled. It’s not strictly required to defeat these Geists in the first part of the scenario, but failing to do so will put them into play alongside Tzu San in the last part while also putting more charges on the Shade Reaper. You are awarded a Victory point for each geist you save from being exploited by the Shade Reaper.

Other enemies: The only other enemy in this campaign is the Coterie Envoy from the Mysteries Abound set. This guy is quite annoying here as he limit you options when it comes to sniffing out Tzu San among her decoys to buy time. At the same time he can, between his 3 health and Aloof, take away a complete turn to be defeated. So either way, he increases the time pressure on the players in a big way.

Treacheries: This is a very narrow-minded encounter deck that does two things and it does them in a horribly efficient manner. On the one side are cards that deal damage and/or horror to the players, from cards like Seeing Shadows over In Plain Sight to Rotting Remains. On the other side are cards that take actions away. Like the Marrakesh scenario, Shades of Suffering combines Spreading Corruption with Striking Fear to make sure players barely get to take turns. However, Shades cranks this up further with the Shift ability on the Shade Reaper itself, which will take actions away from everyone through the scenario-specific Spirit Harvest and even the surging Key Charge.

Locations: The location grid isn’t anything too special. There’s a total of seven of them making up Kuala Lumpur and players are going to need to backtrack between rather often to find the correct location abilities that match with whatever the Geists are requiring to be put to rest. A resign location is available right from the start *wink wink nudge nudge*

Reward and Failure: Apart from the sheer satisfaction of putting this horrible person in her place, there are a total of 9XP to gain here. Four of them are on locations and another one of the boss enemy itself, so these aren’t hard to miss. One more is awarded for each geist you manage to pacify before Tzu San gets to them. If you get the final one will depend on a choice you have to make in the resolution: either use the Shade Reaper against Tzu San or don’t. If you do, you get the XP, but you will also gain a physical trauma. You will also put Tzu San under your sway which will have her abstain from the final vote.
Should you spare her, you won’t get either XP or trauma, but you will “not have seen the last of” Tzu San and she will vote against you in the finale.
Either outcome will make you the new proud owner of the world’s most horrifying umbrella. As impressive as it was in Tzu San’s hands, it’s considerably less so in yours. It does have a very useful ability that moves enemies and possibly makes them attack each other, however the steep cost to flip it back from Unstable to Stable put a strong limiter on how often you can take advantage of it.
Should you lose the scenario, either through full defeat or resignation, you’ll at least keep the XP from the locations and any geists you managed to put to rest already, but of course the Shade Reaper stays with Tzu. And since she is going to be added to the “not seen last of” list, you might run into her with that thing in hand in later scenarios which can be rather annoying. Her “Whisper in Your Ear” form that follows you around is a rather generic Hunter with high fight and evade values and Retaliate to make further use of those stats. Oversucceeding against her will make her shift her key, but at least that doesn’t deal damage anymore, it will “just” cost your team an action each. She’s a respectable enemy but not much worse than for example the Red-Gloved Man.

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