Let’s Build: What’s In An Adventure Path?

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Let’s Build A Campaign Setting – What’s In An Adventure Path?

Designing a setting and a level 1-20 campaign is a big task. It’s an even bigger task to do them both simultaneously. At first I wasn’t entirely sure I could manage it – that’s why I made no promises about how often I’d update this series back when I started – but now I’m beginning to see that this method of working actually suits the way I build things. I’ve even revised my update schedule to make this a weekly post, though we may have to reassess that if I can’t keep up with it.

I talked a lot about my creative process last time, and one thing I can’t say enough is that much of it happens in my head when I’m doing other things. If I focus too hard on one big task, trying to force work out, it stagnates. The time away from the project while I work on other things is instrumental to me for making progress.

I had every intention of posting the article last week and immediately jumping into trying to map the island. I’m still going to do that soon, but for now I’m going to step away from the setting itself and think about the campaign that’s going to take place here for a bit. At this stage I’m not really going to concern myself with the story – I have the broad strokes of a plot already, as I outlined last week, and that’s enough for now.

This time we’re going to take a look at the projects that inspired this one – namely, the Adventure Paths that were published in Dungeon magazine at the end of 3rd edition and the beginning of 4th edition, as well as the ones that Paizo have continued to put out after they parted ways with WoTC and Dungeon.

What I’m interested in looking at in more detail is how they structured the campaigns, because (at least with the Adventure Paths that appeared in Dungeon) they covered 20 levels over 12 adventures. My question is – how did they do that?

Without going to the books straight away, we can guess at a couple obvious answers. (It’s been long enough since I read any of these things that I can’t actually remember for sure – and I’ve never run one of them, although I read them when I was subscribed to Dungeon and for the year afterwards when Rise of the Runelords was being published). Firstly, one of two things has to be true; either each adventure was long enough to allow for multiple level gains, or the adventures were designed to allow for DMs to create their own adventures to fill the gaps between the published modules and get the characters up to the right level to continue with the pre-written campaign.

It seems likely to me that it’s the latter of those two options that is true. And if that’s the case, we also need to think about the reasoning behind that decision. It’s not good enough to just look at what Paizo did and copy it. It needs to be an accurate, informed decision – either to do what Paizo did, or to do my own thing.

The only way to make that decision is to go back and read some back issues of Dungeon. Luckily, I have in my possession an unbroken run of the physical magazines from somewhere around 1997 plus physical copies of the entire Rise of the Runelords path, and the digital issues of Dungeon that contained the Scales of War campaign are still available online. I also got hold of full runs of Skull of Shackles, Iron Gods, and Strange Aeons, because I thought it would be useful to compare how these things were put together in the early days of Adventure Paths (i.e. the collection that I already had), the middle of Paizo’s run of producing them, and what they did in the most recent completed path. Unless they’re completely incompetent (and I have no reason to believe they are), it’s certain that Paizo learned from each path they’ve published and streamlined/improved their process in later releases. By looking at the development of their paths, I can learn from them too.

In fact, after writing that paragraph I ended up looking for any interviews etc. that I could find from anybody who had worked on an Adventure Path, and I came across a discussion about how to write Adventure Paths from Paizo’s forums. What’s interesting about this is that James Jacobs, Paizo’s Creative Director, jumped in the answer the questions being posed. He said two things. The first was this:

It bears repeating. All Adventure Paths… even ones like Kingmaker which have a lot of sandbox elements in them… are railroads to a certain extent.

A true sandbox game doesn’t use adventures. It uses campaign settings, be those settings entire continents or small regions. The Stolen lands from Kingmaker could be seen as a campaign setting—the only way we were really able to pull Kingmaker off as sandboxy as it is was by completely limiting the entire AP to one region and not going outside of that area.

That said… railroads are not bad—they’re necessary if you want to run a game with a story that YOU want to tell. Learn to love them if you want to be the story architect! If you want the players to create the story, THAT’S when you use the sandbox method.”

And the second, this:

There is a template—the previous AP, which was built on the PREVIOUS AP and so on and so on”

So, I’m not wrong and Paizo aren’t incompetent – they actively used their last AP as a springboard and a template for the next one. By looking at how Paizo have developed these things over the years, I can build from their templates. It’s also interesting – to me, at least – that they seem to have thought about some of the same things I’ve been thinking about with regard to exploration, campaign settings, and keeping players on-track. It’s been obvious to me for a while that running an Adventure Path must necessarily require some buy-in from the players – that is, they need to know going into the game that there is a long, multi-game story here, and that they aren’t necessarily going to have the freedom to explore wherever the hell they like.

Once the players are onboard, the problem of keeping them within the boundaries of the setting evaporates. If I wasn’t building this setting with a 1-20 campaign in mind as well, I’d still have  to think about how to keep the players invested – but I am building the campaign, and the way to keep them invested is to get them to agree to it from the beginning.

Had I realised that the issue could be solved as simply as  that at the beginning of this process, I may well not have settled on an island. But we’re building an island now, and that’s that. I’m not going to go back and start from scratch at this point (even though I haven’t really done all that much yet).

So, let’s look at how Paizo structure their APs, shall we?


The Building Blocks of Adventure

I went back to look at some of Paizo’s Adventure Paths, starting with the first few in Dungeon as well as Rise of the Runelords, then picking a couple from the middle of their run and the most recent one that I could get hold of full copies of. Money was an issue, so I didn’t really put any thought into which APs I looked at beyond “I can afford it and I want to have a decent view of how these have developed”. I also took a look at WoTC’s one (as  far as I can tell) post-Paizo AP, Scales of War, which was released right at the start of 4e.

Before I show you photos of the spreadsheet I put together, understand that this isn’t complete. Compiling this data involved physically going through hard copies of most of the adventures here (apart from the few that I have as PDFs, like Scales of War) and noting down the advertised levels plus the actual start and end levels of each adventure. I haven’t had a chance to get to all of them yet, so there are blank spaces in the spreadsheet. At some point in this process I also decided it would be useful to look at how long these adventures are in terms of page count, and I added space to the spreadsheet for that data, but I haven’t done it yet.

Anyway. Here’s what we’re working with in terms of the first 3 Dungeon Adventure Paths.

The first thing I want to point out is how much of a mess – relatively speaking – the first few APs were. You can’t see it in these charts, but many of those adventures contained text that said things like “the players might hit this level partway through the adventure, and they might be this level at the end”. In one case – the second adventure in Age of Worms – the adventure never actually tells you what level the PCs should be by the end. We can infer it, and obviously you can go through and total up all the XP gained during the adventure to work it out, but it strikes me that that should be something DMs should know without having to hunt for it.

There are plenty of occasions where it’s not possible to know for sure what level the group will be at the end of the adventure, and at least one occasion where they finish the adventure under-levelled for the next one in the path. Without reading the whole thing – which I intend to do, but that’s going to be a long process – it’s impossible to know whether the designers intend for DMs to run another session in between to level the players up. My original thought was that this would be the intention across the whole AP, but now I know I’m wrong. These are long adventures designed to level characters up multiple times. We’ll come back to that, because I have some issues with it. But we’ll get to that.

Now let’s look at how Paizo and WoTC did things once 4e and Pathfinder came along.

[You might want to enlarge that. Clicky clicky]

What’s immediately interesting to me is that, while WoTC took the opportunity to bump the campaign up to 19 installments, Paizo dropped it to 6. I have a suspicion that this is due to Paizo publishing physically vs. Wizards publishing digitally, but I don’t know for sure. I also suspect that Paizo wanted to avoid getting towards epic levels, because 3.5 sort of falls apart at higher levels. I haven’t played Pathfinder, so I can’t speak to how higher levels work in it, but given that it was based on 3.5 I’d be happy to make an educated guess that this was one of the factors guiding this decision.

There are two interesting things here, one of which is in the charts and one of which isn’t. Firstly, look at how the levels break down – there are no more questions. We’re told up front what level the PCs should be at the start, and what level they will be at the end. No more guessing or hunting for information.

The second interesting thing is in how this information is presented. In the Dungeon-era APs, this information was buried in long paragraphs of introductory text, along with vague statements (as mentioned above) about how the players might level up at some point in the adventure. With Pathfinder, though, we get this (and I hope that anybody from Paizo who stumbles across this post won’t have any issue with me posting this to illustrate a point):

Firstly, the adventure is now split into chapters which are essentially their own discrete adventures. That’s something that would have greatly benefitted the longer AP adventures in Dungeon. Secondly, there’s a very clear indication of what levels are gained and when that will happen. It’s still using words like should, rather than being certain, but there’s no accounting for what encounters players will skip, so that’s understandable. Even if it’s not as specific as I’d like it to be, it gives a GM a much better idea of how advancement is going to work over the course of this adventure.


What Am I To Do With This Information?

At this point, frankly, there’s nothing I can do with this data except file it away and bear it in mind. It’s going to be instrumental when it comes to plotting out the beats of the campaign and what adventures will happen where, but we’re not quite there yet. We’re actually closer to that point than it might seem, but we’re still not quite ready for that.

Basically, I now know that I want to approach this in a similar fashion to the way Paizo do it – but I’m going to take the things that still bother me and tweak them until I like it. The first thing to tackle will be experience.

There’s a section of text in one of the Dungeon adventure introductions – I can’t remember which one now – that advises DMs to allow players to level up during the course of the adventure rather than waiting until the end so as not to slow things down. This was a higher level adventure, too, and that piece of advice blew my mind.

This may just be my own preferences speaking – or even my own weaknesses as a DM – but I hate having characters level up mid adventure. In my experience, nothing is guaranteed to break the flow of a session more than having players start changing their character sheets. Woe betide anybody who suddenly gets access to higher level spells and wants to start changing things around. I guess it work fine for groups who plan their characters ahead and already know what the next level will bring, but I’ve personally never played in a group like that and never run a game for a group like that.

So, the first thing I’m going to change is the way experience is handled. As a DM there are a couple of things I really hate. One is uncertainty when it comes to trying to run a published adventure. The other is tracking experience. If I track it on behalf of my players, it’s one more thing taking up my time and energy. If my players track it, then they’re always thinking about how much experience they need for the next level, constantly looking a few encounters a head. Personally I feel like that encourages a video game-esque, ‘grindy’ mindset that I don’t enjoy. You may well disagree. You’re welcome to.

I want to mitigate both of these things, because I can ultimately only write the kind of adventure that I would want to run – and I don’t want to run an adventure that gives me uncertainty over levelling or makes me do unnecessary paperwork. I’m not just going to hand out levels as I see fit – the adventures are going to be designed and balanced with 5e’s progression in mind – but I’m going to do something to make that process as simple and as transparent to GMs as possible. I want GMs to be able to look at a given encounter in a given adventure and be able to say, with confidence, what level the PCs will be. I don’t quite know how I’m going to do that yet – I’ve talked about XP in the past, and Angry GM went into it in great detail in one of his Megadungeon posts. In fact if you read that post you’ll have a good idea of where I’m approaching this whole thing from.

So that’s where I’m up to, and where I’m going to leave this for the week. I haven’t made any definite decisions about how many adventures we’ll be dealing with or how XP will be awarded, but everything I’ve talked about this week is going to become very important very quickly. It’s good to be working it out now.

Next week I’ll be talking about how I’m going to physically lay all of these adventures out. That may seem premature, and in the context of this project it absolutely is. I’m nowhere near that stage yet. The reason I’m going to be talking about layout is simple; I’ve spent the past few weeks working on a free adventure as a reward for hitting my $100 a month funding goal on Patreon, and it’s finally given me the opportunity to experiment with some ideas I’ve had floating about regarding layout for what feels like years now. I want to talk about them while they’re fresh in my mind and while I have current, relevant examples, because I’m going to be applying those ideas to the Campaign Setting project when we get to that point. Well, I think I am – what I’m planning is, honestly, unlike anything I’ve seen anybody else try to do with an RPG adventure. I’m not saying that nobody has ever done it – I can’t possibly know that for sure – but I’ve certainly never seen it, and nobody who I’ve spoken to about this already has ever seen it, either. There’s a very real chance it’s going to alienate some people, and it might not be a success, but the only way to find out is to try.

But that’s for next week. For now, here’s the cover of that free adventure, in case you missed it.

Thanks for reading.



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