Thursday, March 09, 2017

Borrowing from Paizo, part I

I like to borrow a good idea when I see one, and they're around all over.  Of course, few stories or games or what-have-you are truly original—and that's actually a good thing.  Originality is nice, but often over-rated.  Execution beats innovation.  Every time.

So, in trawling through some published ideas looking for adventure seeds that can be adapted, spindled and mutilated beyond recognition, yet still providing the seed from which something new can grow, I found my way to Paizo's website, a place I haven't visited in some time, and read through the summaries of their adventure paths.  I dislike the execution of most modules, and Paizo does very stereotypical modules.  Lots of dungeon-crawling, every problem resolved by a strike team of PCs, McGuffin quests, and plenty of SJW preaching abound—but all of those (except the latter) should be expected from a D&D game product, really.  Sure, it's contrived, but that's the nature of the game.  There are, however, some great seeds out there in the adventure paths.  I'm summarizing in my own words each of the adventure paths below, which make great fodder for you to use.  Maybe even better as fodder than as the original modules that they are, because for the most part there's a pretty contrived scenario and the PCs have to be passive enough to just do what they're told and allow themselves to be railroaded into the adventure.

If you look at my CULT OF UNDEATH tab, you can see how I took one of the adventure paths and kind of "remixed" it to be more compatible with the way I'd run a game.  In many respects, I hewed fairly close to the original, and I could have gone further afield with the concept and still been happy about it, but it's at least one example of what can be done.  I never got down to the real brass tacks on this project, since I didn't have any immediate plans to use it and lost interest in the details after I came down from high level to a nice executive summary level—but I could turn around and convert it into something gameable on almost a moment's notice given what I've prepared so far.  It was also, as it happens, the vector by which my FANTASY HACK game came to be; I expanded the CULT OF UNDEATH stuff just a little bit and then I had my very own D&D Mine ready to go with very little work.  I had long thought it would be fun to do the same thing in at least as much detail for another one of the adventure paths too, but that's a project that I never actually kicked off.  Maybe this summary will help motivate me to try it, though.

Anyhoo, without further ado, let's start summarizing the adventure paths and see which others of them might look like something I'd be interested in.  Because there are now so many, I'm going to split this up into two posts.  I put a small star graphic following the description of the ones I'd be most likely to actually try and do this to.  There are 21 Adventure Paths so far identified (although the last two are still in the process of being released, or upcoming) and I've already done one, so that means I can split this 10/10.

Rise of the Runelords. This is the original Paizo adventure path; starting off in a sleepy coastal town in rural Varisia, the PCs help fight off a goblin invasion, explore a haunted mansion, investigate a cult of serial killers, rescue a platoon of rangers from backwoods inbred ogres, fight stone giants, a dragon, and finally find out that much of this was put into motion by the resurrection of an ancient wizard-king of a past empire who wants to reclaim what was once his.  Honestly, I thought that in play, it dragged on interminably (see some of my early comments on CULT OF UNDEATH) and presented a bizarre, scatter-shot approach where ties between the various modules were either contrived or even non-existent.  This is OK for a game, but the pacing and focus is death for any other venue, and even as a gaming element, we got tired of it about halfway through and dropped out.  I think thematically, this one just suffers from trying to do too much.  If it were trimmed by... a lot (at least 50%) of its content and refocused, it might be workable still.  But the tropes and conventions it lays out are so old—classic, if I want to be more charitable—that they are better described as cliche and tired.

Curse of the Crimson Throne.  This time we start off with some urban intrigue—the king of a powerful city-state (also in Varisia, but Chelaxian by culture) has been assassinated!  First chaos fills the streets, but then some kind of biological weapon releases a plague, then organized crime rushes in to fill the power vacuum that the ineffectual and depleted government leaves, and then... it gets a little cliche here as the PCs must go on a quest to find the McGuffin that will end the tyranny of Queen Ileosa.  Exploring the backcountry of the Cinderlands, doing an ethnologue on the Storval barbarians, they have to explore the "haunted castle of a draconic warlord" (sigh) and then rush back with the McGuffin to end the Queen's tyranny.  This one might yet be workable, primarily by using the 5x5 method to break up the episodic nature of the various threats, minimizing the time spent out of the city, and maybe changing the nature of the McGuffin somewhat to make it less overtly Standard Fantasy Quest™ in nature.

Second Darkness.  Starting out for a third time in a Varisian city-state, this time the kinda sorta pirate themed Riddleport, the PCs encounter strange portents in the skies.  A meteor falls and while rival groups rush to claim the starmetal, they find instead strange Lovecraftian horrors have come to Varisia (echoes of a more action oriented "The Colour Out of Space" and maybe Mordheim about here.)  Turns out that the meteor was part of a dark elf plot to bring an even bigger, catastrophic meteor crashing to the world.  The PCs go to the forest of the elves to learn about the drow, which are unaccountably secret here, even though every player will know exactly what one is, of course.  In disguise, they infiltrate the underground city of the drow to find clues, and discover that a forest elf has turned traitor and given them information that will lead to this catastrophe.  On returning to the elfin forest, they find themselves embroiled in intrigue, and have to explore a tainted section of the forest to end the squabbling in the elf court, then finally venture to a tiny, deep pocket of the Underdark, or whatever it is that they call the Underdark in Paizo-land again, and disrupt the magical ritual thus sparing the world from an extinction event level meteoric impact.  As always, this is a little bit too all over, lacks focus, is too long, and focuses on McGuffin's and other things that a small strike team is best able to handle, rather than a lone hero, or an army, etc.  Again; makes sense given the venue in which this story happens, but it's in desperate need of some pruning and refocus.

The Legacy of Fire. When a small desert village is invaded by gnolls, the PCs must rescue it, and then take the fight to the hive of the hyena-men themselves and put an end to their would-be local conquering ways.  They find that the gnolls have been unwittingly guarding a magical map, though—when they take that to cosmopolitan wretched hive of scum and villainy Katapesh to find out more about it, various other interested parties want to steal it from them.  Eventually they discover that the map is a portal to a mysterious world—a combination pleasaunce and prison.  On their way out, after finally escaping, they pass through the City of Brass, a D&D element that's been around for a long time and which comes from 1,001 Arabian Nights originally.  This has a strange Odyssey like feel to it as they wander around trying to get home, and inadvertently bring with them a conquering army of efreet, which must be stopped.

Council of Thieves.  Westcrown is the run-down, former capital of Cheliax, a harsh country of fantasy devil-worshipping Nazis.  This is an adventure of urban intrigue and ancient curses—in some ways not unlike an even darker take on Crimson Throne above.  Some kind of sinister shadow beasts are stalking the city, and the head of the thieves guild seems to be off his rocker.  The PCs have to "infiltrate" a play as actors (strange echoes of "The King in Yellow" here), raid an abandoned Pathfinder lodge, find out that some old wizard had shackled a demon (devil, to be specific) and the shackles are now wearing thin, the leadership of the city is supplanted, eventually devils openly walk the streets, the PCs must make a deal with a hag, and then take sides in a war between the deposed leaders, the insurgents trying to take over, or maybe just do away with them all and take over the city themselves.  This is pretty atmospheric and has some good elements, but as normal, they need to be pruned and rearranged to really work.  Given the many thematic similarities to Crimson Throne maybe they should be remixed together as a mash-up.

Kingmaker. An exploration of the idea of carving a new fiefdom out of the wilderness.  While this could have had some of the excitement of founding the Crusader States or something like that, it reality it ended up being more of, of course, strike team exploration, i.e. classic hexcrawling.  They manage to found a small border kingdom, but the task of running it (a bureaucratic exercise not well suited for the genre, I'd wager) comes down to going out and fighting bandits and monsters in their lairs.  There's a magic McGuffin that needs to be found, frog-people that are thrown in as fan-service, as near as I can tell, a classic Medieval tournament of sorts, and an invasion by a Faery-like otherworld known as the First World.  All in all, I think the point was to try and make a hexcrawl, but they simply couldn't divorce themselves from the story-structure for which they're known.  I don't know how well it really worked.  Although it seems to have gotten good word of mouth, they haven't done anything like it again, as near as I can tell (although I freely admit that I kinda lost track of what Paizo was doing quite some time ago.)

Serpent's Skull. In an adventure path that takes its cues from H. Rider Haggard and Tarzan and Lovecraft and whatnot, the PCs start off shipwrecked on a strange island, and discover a map that will lead them to a lost city in the para-African jungles to the west.  Rushing off to discover it before a cult of assassins or a predatory mercantile organization gets there, they reach the city in the third installment after an entire module of jungle travel adventure, only to discover that "lost" doesn't mean "uninhabited."  There's daemonic apes and monkeys, the Gorilla King (a great idea if ever there was one) and underground serpent people (sigh.  There's always some vast underground society in D&D.  Doesn't that get tiring to anyone else besides me?) who are trying to resurrect their serpent god and conquer the surface world. (Deja vu.)  The PCs decide the fate of the world (not really a sword & sorcery goal, but I digress) by going to battle as an elite strike team against the half-resurrected serpent god.

Carrion Crown. see CULT OF UNDEATH material, linked above.  The D&D horror campaign.

Jade Regent.  This is the "exotic" chinoiserie adventure path, made to highlight specifically a totally different para-Asian continent that's part of the Pathfinder setting.  An NPC character from way back in Rise of the Runelords discovers that she is the last heir to the Minkai Empire, a para-shogunate Japan, which is of course in the iron grip of a tyrannical regent at the moment.  This secret is, of course, discovered when a band of raiding goblins leads the PCs to a dungeon to explore.  Sigh.  Having to pass through the para-Norse lands on their way over the North Pole to reach this continent, they discover more clues and have to get the heir's McGuffin, left behind when her parents brought her this way many years before.  They get distracted in their journey across the ice cap by some strange plot to unleash a new ice age on the world, and finally arrive on the new continent.  Agents of the Jade Regent harrass them, they have to explore a haunted forest compound of some kind, the PCs and the heir, a ride-along NPC which will probably irk many players with her passiveness, since they're pretty much propping up her entire claim, have to earn the trust of the locals by taking on a bunch of side quests like defeating bandits, rescuing imprisoned geishas, and get the blessing of the ghosts of past emperors or something.  Sigh.  All very cliche.  It could maybe be manageable if you get rid of the idea that the PCs are just altruistically trying to put their friend on the throne of a country she'd never even heard of before, and instead was the story of an adventurer and his close friends taking their rightful place.  Better yet, what if the heir is just a puppet to some other attempt of the PCs to set up their own fiefdoms?  This doesn't have to be "bad"—nobody says that they want to set themselves up as despotic tyrants, after all.  Anyway, there's some potential here, but the structure of it, especially making the real pivotal character an NPC, is just begging for some rework.  Also, I'm not an Asiaphile, so I don't see any reason that this has to be feudal Japan and Warring States era China, like the setting is here.

Skull & Shackles.  This pirate-themed adventure path highlights some of the really glaring weaknesses of the whole default module writing paradigm—what if the PCs don't go along with the premise and do what they're "supposed" to do?  In any case, this one can be salvaged (no pun intended) with some work.  I like the pirate theme, but the pirate-themed area of the setting probably needs a lot of work, because it's just a small scale patchwork of all of the rest of the setting, in many ways, with it's little mini-feudal Japan pirates, mini-Byzantium, the mini-dragon kingdom, the mini-dinosaur island, the mini-undead kingdom, etc.  Much of this doesn't necessarily feel very piratey anymore.  Anyway, the PCs start out press-ganged, but when they get put on as the skeleton crew of a prize ship, they're expected to mutiny and take over.  Then they're expected to want to become respected peers of the rest of the pirate captains (instead of just sail back home, or whatever) so they go follow a treasure map tattooed on the back of a hot pirate chick that they captured earlier (echoes of Waterworld except with a hotter chick.)  Then they participate in a race, at some self-styled pirate king's whim (instead of just going plundering and either ignoring or overthrowing this chump), explore some ruins to claim their prize for wining the race (as opposed to just ignoring the race and going directly after the prize, if it's really so great) all so that they can be accepted into the pirate clique (is it just me, or are adventure writers still compensating for not having felt popular enough in high school?) and then recruit a navy of pirates to defend their newly granted island from attack by some rival.  Again; all in all, this adventure path depends way too much on compliant players that lack imagination or ambition.  But if you get rid of the structure of the adventure and just raid it for its elements, there's probably a good deal of good stuff in here yet.

Shattered Star.  This last one is among the most cliche of all of the adventure paths I've described so far; the search for a McGuffin that's been broken up into multiple parts and scattered across the nation of Varisia.  Echoes of pretty much every CRPG I've ever played come to mind.  It's also a sequel of sorts to Rise of the Runelords, Curse of the Crimson Throne and Second Darkness because it utilizes the geography, some of the same characters, and some of the same concepts introduced in those paths—although it also supposedly stands alone.  Recruited to find and/or rescue a rookie Pathfinder, the PCs discover the sundered artifact and of course are expected to drop whatever else they may have been wanting to do to go chase all of the pieces down. There's a tower-dungeon in a swamp with lizard and frog people, there's the ridiculous bohemian freak paradise, which any normal healthy person will instantly dislike but which the writers at Paizo seem to be inordinately fond of (with, of course, dungeons underneath.  And a headless horseman.)  There's a "multifaith monastery" (who comes up with this stuff?!) that's been taken over by weird fey and giants, and they have to go close to Leng to another dungeon, where they race against rivals from Leng itself, as well as from the Darklands. Finally, as the Pathfinders try to put on some kind of cute little festival or party or whatever, some ancient evil awakens and disrupts it and the PCs must fight it.  Sigh.

Anyway, like I said, the cliches and poor story structure that is rife throughout these is a problem, but not an insurmountable one if you do like I did with CULT OF UNDEATH and remix the elements into something that works better.  Of the ten that I reviewed, I starred four of them as sounding intriguing enough for me to look into them and see if I want to do the same exercise again or not.  If I get the same amount out of the second half of the adventure paths, I'll have eight starred APs, which is too many.  I doubt I'll do more than two or three of these (in addition to the one I've already done) but we'll see.

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