Saturday, October 09, 2010

Gems and Ugliness in Pathfinder Plots

A couple months ago I was pleased to see that the local library has a few role-playing game campaign books.  I checked out the first two Pathfinder campaigns, each of which was six books long.

I do not have much time for pleasure reading, so it took me months to get through these, and many books I skipped entirely or only skimmed partially.

Two books stood out as adventures that are especially well-written.  Both provided many useful ideas for planning urban stories.

The first notable book is The Hook Mountain Massacre, which is the third part of the campaign entitled Rise of the Runelords.  The highlight of this adventure is when the heroes reclaim a fort captured by a large tribe of ogres: a daunting task made possible in all sorts of clever ways.  Before getting to the fort, the heroes rescue three of its previous inhabitants, who can provide helpful information and draw maps.  The fort includes one ancient watchtower ready to collapse and one badly-designed wooden building that can easily be lit on fire.  The fort's sewer system would be a messy but feasible way for a halfling or gnome hero to sneak in.  The cliff behind the fort has some tunnels and caverns that can allow quiet access into the fort (these are inhabited by a few cave beasts, but killing those monsters is much easier than a frontal assault on the fort).  The ogres belong to an evil religious cult, and an unusually observant group of heroes can even bluff their way to the leader by posing as high-ranking cultists.  The ogres are so noisy and used to fighting among themselves that they normally ignore what other ogres do or shout, and even the sounds of combat unless a watchtower bell is rung.  To spice up the action, one of the three rescued people is of course the traitor who provided the ogres with the information required to capture the fort: whether he continues to hide his guilt or he sabotages the heroes' plan depends upon how the adventure unfolds.  All-in-all, the adventure is a great example of how to challenge the PCs with a task that is too big for them by provided numerous options for seizing and combining small advantages.

The second notable book is Seven Days to the Grave, which is the second part of the campaign entitled Curse of the Crimson Throne.  This adventure was expressly designed to be the textbook example of how a plague spreading across a city would be a source of adventures.  It succeeds, but I won't spoil its surprises with a summary list.

Unfortunately, both campaigns were needlessly filled with the despicable and vile.  The authors openly share that they admire horror films and use these as a source of ideas.  Moreover, making the villains acutely evil helps a combat-centric RPG by freeing the PCs from concerns about whether human enemies should be shown any mercy.  Nevertheless, it makes unpleasant reading.

As one example, a small side-plot within the plague adventure involves the PCs helping the city watch bring back a guard captain who has abandoned his duties.  A wealthy family has decided that gaining the loyalty of some military men would be a wise precaution during increasing civil unrest and thus offered this captain a job.  Each morning they will provide some livestock to an abandoned slaughterhouse to help feed the needy (food prices are increasing rapidly as farmers refuse to enter the plague-infested city) if he and some of his men will run the operation.  That setup is enough for an interesting story: how would this captain be most helpful to the city, does his loyalty as a city guard extend primarily to his superiors or to directly the populace, and what might the wealthy family eventually ask he and his men to do?  But the authors banish these subtle questions by making the captains four flunkies despicably evil men who have been moonlighting as murderous thugs and using their day job in the slaughterhouse to dispose of the bodies, and the captain a depressed drunk who has not emerged from his upstairs office in days.

That the city's poor have been eating "special" meat does nothing for the adventure except minimize storytelling and encouraging combat by allowing the PCs to kill the flunkies without remorse.  And those two Pathfinder campaigns are full of such superfluous depravity, which was one reason it took me months to skim through them to find the useful pearls of exemplary adventure design.  (Although I have heard that latter Pathfinder campaigns stop that trend, and the game's rulebooks certainly give little indication that they are written by fans of horror movies who write combat-heavy adventures.)

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