Why do Paizo always get such an easy ride?

…and WotC do not, at least when it comes to their adventures. Readers of this blog will know that I’m a 4e fan, and that even extends to the published adventures. They’re far from perfect, in fact at times they’re downright awful, but overall they provide a good gaming experience. Hours of fun, as advertisers would say. I realise that’s a minority view. Spend a little time on forums or blogs to see some real vitriol towards WotC’s offerings. At best you might see grudging praise for the occasional one off adventure. The most lambasted products are the adventures in the H/P/E series of adventures, often called the Orcus modules. I don’t share those views. My gaming group has been happily playing those mods for the last couple of years, and we’ll continue to do so right to the end of the epic tier. We enjoy ourselves.

Despite my largely positive opinions, I’m not blind to their faults. They are too often dry, mechanical, very linear, and almost entirely based on combat encounters. In an ideal world, I’d want more. So I’ve always kept my ear to the ground, looking for new adventures that might give me that more rounded adventure experience.

Conventional wisdom says Paizo are the people to go to. Paizo fans are just as vocal as anyone, and to be fair their adventures are almost universally lauded as exemplars in the field of the modern module. They attract praise even from gamers who don’t play 3e, or even D&D at all for that matter. The stand out features are most often the ‘production qualities’ and the non-linear nature of the stories presented. I won’t disagree with those points particularly but I will say this: Paizo’s adventure paths are good scenarios, but that’s all they are, they’re not great. I believe this because I’ve just finished reading the entirety of the Legacy of Fire adventure path. I’ve also played the openers from Serpents Skull and Curse of the Crimson Throne. I tried to be objective, and apply my reviewer’s eye to them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast with 4e as I went, consciously looking for conversion possibilities.

So the Paizo APs are pretty average. That’s a provocative statement, mainly because the mods garner such near unanimous praise across the board. Compare with the reaction to WotC being accused of mediocrity, there’s rarely an organised or vociferous defence of their adventures. Let me try t back up my claims. I see a few consistent issues with the adventure paths I’ve read and played.

  • They are choked with text. Vast reams of words, endless verbiage that, crucially, add little to the game. Some of this is because of the rules mentality, which provokes lots of explanation for materials and architecture and (the biggest offender) magic effects. Whole paragraphs are sacrificed to explaining lighting conditions. Whole pages go to statblocks, for creatures that are extremely unlikely to be entering combat. There seems to be a prevalent idea that everything has to be statted out, just in case the players want to break it. It means that for every flash of inspirational text, or illuminating exposition, there’s a seam of dry as dust text to be overcome.
  • They’re written to be read rather then played. I really don’t think many groups have played all the way through these paths, although I think a lot of DMs have planned to do so. They strike me as ideal for subscriptions, because you get the sense of an unfolding story each month as it flops through the letterbox. I think the DMs really look forward to the next instalment, but I don’t see gaming groups being able to digest the adventures at that pace. I imagine most campaigns fizzle by the end of the second part.
  • They’re too complicated. The plot synopsis takes two pages of double columned text, and they need to be read twice, while taking notes. Every location, or monster, or NPC is so defined, both by fluff and crunch, that it’s hard to hold them all in place in your imagination. There’s backstory piled on backstory, and exotic creatures with bizarre motivations. Again, it makes for a decent read, but players being players will only add complications to existing plots, so I prefer simplicity in the adventure. None of this is helped by the layout.
  • The art is only ok. There’s some good pieces where the story in the text has been directly illustrated. Otherwise, it’s on a par with WotC, but no better. The layout is meant for reading rather than utility at the table. Again, I have huge issues with WotCs use of the delve format, but this is not much better. The stats run across multiple pages, and there’s a lack of a decent overview to guide you.
  • They’re just as linear as any other adventure on the market, they just do a better job of hiding it. Yes, there’s lots of room devoted to what happens if the players go off piste, but it comes with heavy handed guidance on getting the plot moving forward in the direction the designer planned no matter what. Essentially, the adventures are padded out with lots of extra material, much of which will not see any use as the spine of the story proceeds directly from one instalment to the next. Diversions do not make for freedom.
  • They’re slaved to the 3e rules, specifically to the presence and availability of high level magic. When wizards and clerics are not being catered for in the plots, they are being handicapped by Paizo fiat. Some spells just won’t work in certain circumstances, while some adventures come to a standstill without the use of spells. All the time the poor old fighters just sit on the sidelines. Almost every encounter is against a solitary opponent, or groups of exactly the same creature. 4e monster roles have spoiled me, and I can’t be doing with this type of opposition anymore.
  • They’re slaved to Paizo’s world and cosmology. As I read through Legacy of Fire, I had to have my laptop open so I could look up the gods and nations of Golarion as I went. There’s really no nod to being a generic fantasy campaign, which is ok to an extent, but leaves little room for the DM to insert into their own world. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve read many adventures that don’t offer any guidance on customisation, except these. It’s tempted me to look deeper into Paizo’s world, but that would be research for no real gain (ie, nothing that would come out at the table).
  • Half the books are not adventure at all. There’s a grab bag of fiction, new monsters, essays on locations or religions or whatever. It all makes each ‘issue’ more like a magazine than an adventure. Some of this stuff is absolutely fine, good even, but serves to embed the product further into the Paizo vision.

Now, it’s important to say here, that I don’t have huge issues with any of these things. They’re fine for what they are, but that doesn’t make these perfect adventures, that every other publisher should look up to. What I really object to is the notion that WotC adventures are so much worse than this. At least the damn things are written to be played.

There are some very, very good things to be taken from Paizo APs, things WotC could learn. However, this has already been a long post so I’ll save my thoughts on exactly what they could learn for another post.

18 Comments

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18 responses to “Why do Paizo always get such an easy ride?

  1. Arbanax

    I’ve not read any Piazo stuff, but have noticed the trend you’ve mentioned and its really interesting to get your perspective, especially as this is the only post I’ve ever seen to swim against this tide. I well thought out argument – and it reminds me that not everything WOTC does is that bad. I’m taking my party through the scales of war, yes there are problems but at least I can read it in a fair space of time and am not overwhelmed with so much useless stuff I’d end up just skipping it anyway. Could it be better- what couldn’t, but then its for me a start point, its the party that together with me makes it really come alive.

    All the best.

    Ab

  2. Here is the real reason Paizo gets a “easy ride”, they support their fan base. Paizo would never insult them with “bumps in the road” like the GSL. Paizo makes the fanbase feel that they are involved with the development of their products. Look at the core rule book, Advanced Player’s Guide and currently with the upcoming Ultimate Magic sourcebook. Hell look at RPG Superstar. Paizo treats you like a fan, WOTC treats you like a customer. That is it. Simple and plain.

  3. Jason

    I agree 100% with LPJ.
    On the subject of adventures, I can say that I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by most of the Wizard’s adventures, and a lot of that has to do with their formats. I hate the one encounter per page “dungeon delve” format, it makes everything feel very disjointed to me, like a series of random action scenes without a narrative to tie them together. Now, to be fair, maybe thats changed- I haven’t read any of their adventures since the third part of the Scales of War (which I love the idea of, but that first adventure…. *shudder*)

  4. Many of your negatives are other people’s positives. Some people prefer more complex adventures that draw you into a world. The one thing that Paizo does that nobody else does is make monthly adventure path installments. To produce that much “average” quality work consistently is still a monumental task.

    So the short answer is: a lot of people like what they are doing. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other publishers to cater to different tastes. I recommend you check out Open Design, which has some really good adventures for both Pathfinder and 4E. I also recommend Rite Publishing, although they don’t do any 4E. Coliseum Morpheuon is an excellent high level planar adventure for Pathfinder though. LPJ Design also has some excellent material, although I haven’t actually tried any of his adventures.

    • To be fair, WotC publishes Dungeon online every month. The Scales of War AP ran for ages. Goodman games have a healthy adventure release schedule too. Paizo do get a lot of product out, but they’re not unique in that regard.

  5. I have to say, our group has played completely through many of the Paizo APs. Over my life I’ve been part of many campaigns that fizzled out – but have yet to play in a Paizo AP that didn’t go through to completion. The coherent “vision” you dismiss is actually something that is compelling to my group. Nontrivial NPCs and motivations and plots, being part of a living breathing world instead of “town that was made up just for this module…” All awesome.

  6. Yong Kyosunim

    I agree with LPJ on Paizo. Also, Paizo gets a pass because the % of fans who are happy with Paizo’s products versus the % who are not is different than WotC’s proportion simply because WotC sells a lot more books than Paizo does and therefore will typically have more room to piss off more people who will be vocal about their modules or products. Plus a lot of Paizo’s fans are bought into the idea of Pathfinder and Pathfinder is a product that has all the bells and whistles of a top-notch publisher, not some dude who got his 8 year-old nephew to draw some pictures and wrote his own houserules on what 3.5 should be like.

    Also, WotC does things that puts off people and customers such as their Christmas layoffs (which luckily, they seem to have broke tradition and didn’t lay off anyone before this Christmas). While it doesn’t necessarily factor into the quality of WotC’s products, it colors the perception that gamers will have toward the company that acts in such bad faith towards its own employees each year.

    LPJ, I liked your Obsidian Twilight book.

  7. Nevyn

    One minor comment, of the three lines of modules Paizo produce, you’ve only commented on one of them, the APs…

    How about the PFS scenarios (which address a lot of your concerns, and emphasise others) or the stand alone modules?

    • Well, I don’t own any of those! What would you recommend?

      • Nevyn

        I would definitely recommend the D0/D1 etc that were FreeRPG day products, the PDFs are free on the website I think, or minimal cost. Same with the Pathfinder Module: Master of the Fallen Fortress, which is a PFRPG module, but also a PFS introduction….

        As for PFS scenarios, they are very low priced PDFs I’ve run, or played
        #49: Among the Dead (PFRPG)
        #47: The Darkest Vengeance (PFRPG)
        #51: The City of Strangers—Part I: The Shadow Gambit (PFRPG)

        And I’d probably recommend them in that order.

        As I say, they are each styled slightly differently, so you may see more merit from the modules line (which I think most closely matches the Wizards modules) or from PFS modules than you do APs, as a lot of your comments could be re-read as “I don’t like adventure paths, from Paizo or otherwise”. Other than that, Kingmaker may be more to your liking, as it’s a lot more “Sandboxy” than the other APs.

  8. darjr

    Huh. I was reading this and many of your points make me WANT them. Good to read, great! I’d like to enjoy reading the adventures I’m going to run. Lots of detail to have at hand for the players to tell them what is going on, to show instead of tell? Great! Stats for things they may go off the rails for and attack or otherwise have to deal with? Cool, I’d want more space to the adventure, but this is nice to have. Tied together with the world and campaign I’d probably be running anyway? Fantastic.

    Negatives for you, OK, but I don’t see it.

  9. Pingback: Brand New Year | Treehouse:

  10. One is customer service which LPjr points out but I will add another Kingmaker is a pure Sandbox which was their response to feedback about the APs being railroads.

    Another Point: Paizo has been doing adventures longer than WotC, they were Dungeon magazine how many APs has WotC done vs. Paizo (and don’t forget the two from the Dungeon Magazine days). We are not just talking about Aps we are talking the Adventure Modules and the Pathfinder Society.

    But let me get into specifics
    ” There seems to be a prevalent idea that everything has to be statted out, just in case the players want to break it. ”

    Again this can be an appeal to you when your actually playing it and your off the rail player decides to break it this can seem crazy to a reader but awesome to a Player.

    ” I think the DMs really look forward to the next instalment, but I don’t see gaming groups being able to digest the adventures at that pace.”

    Correct but players don’t buy adventures DMs do. So the person who raves about them is DMs.

    “They’re too complicated. ”

    I don’t get this at all, we are talking about a group of people who can memorize all 13 books of the Wheel of Time or all the Lore that was ever published for the Forgotten Realms. This segment that has not been served by WotC (who in my opinion trampled on us, so see customer service), Also as Proffestor Tolkien wrote this level of detail helps to “Suspend disbelief in a fictional world”

    ” Otherwise, it’s on a par with WotC, but no better.”
    With the current age of 4e I would have to agree but most Pathfinder folks are 3.5 fans and they look back at the last years of 3.5 and the poor quality of WotC art used in that last era. But another thing Paizo does is promote their artists where WotC treats them like as disposable as the artists for Magic the Gathering. Giving thier fans a sense of “ownership” or “connection” with the art in their books. Ask a 4e fan to name a DnD Artist then ask a Paizo fan to name a Paizo artist, I have found a difference.

    ” The layout is meant for reading rather than utility at the table. Again, I have huge issues with WotCs use of the delve format, but this is not much better.”
    Some pathfinder fans are collectors and enjoy reading, because they either A. don’t have time to play, or B. they are located in an area that is hard to group (outlying rural areas). C. They like to read it before running it, so while delve may be better for running specific types of encounters you have to get the GM to read it and having liked reading it before he will run it.

    “They’re just as linear as any other adventure on the market, they just do a better job of hiding it.”

    Kingmaker! and again this is where WotC failed to listen to its customer base, and where Paizo made a change.

    “They’re slaved to the 3e rules, specifically to the presence and availability of high level magic. ”
    Funny thing I was at the seminar where 4e was announced to publishers at GenCon. Eric Mona of Paizo was there, and everyone was talking how we would support 4e and what Paizo would produce in support of it. Then the GSL was delayed, and delayed, and Paizo had to make choice so they supported 3.5, Then the GSL was released and it negated the possiblity of any major company supporting (Goodman Games used the OGL to make 4e content) 4e. So Paizo was FORCED by WotC to make Pathfinder Rpg using the OGL to keep their customer base. So yes they are slavish to the rules their fanbase likes and they picked up every fan that was not a fan of 4e or had been disenfranchised by WotC poor customer service, it also picked up the 3PP support that WotC lacks.

    “It’s tempted me to look deeper into Paizo’s world….”
    See my above above about immersion and suspension of disbelief, along with how WotC treated those who liked the Lore rich Forgotten Realms. Think of all those fans of products like Planescape, in 2e which was 10x slavish devotion to a fluff and world detail. These are the people who are making the raves, this is especially favorable to the 30 year old+ family responsiblities and a full time job who gets to play every other sunday and has no time to world build.

    ” It all makes each ‘issue’ more like a magazine than an adventure.”
    Again your forgetting thats exactly what Paizo is, a former magazine company that supported WotC. They took every person who was a subscriber to the print version of Dragon and Dungeon magizines and gave them what they were used to, in a book format. WotC helped creat Paizo because they decided in house that they were not good at creating magazines (and this is bore out by the split in house between the magazine staff and the rules staff when it was part of WotC)

    • Hi Steve, thanks for the lengthy comment. Since I posted this originally I have softened my stance a little. I even posted about it here – http://rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/paizo-of-the-coast-modules/
      That said, some of your assertions, for me, don’t stand up.
      Paizo promote their artists and WotC doesn’t? eh? like Wayne Reynolds, whose work is looking at me right now from loads of WotC books? Nah, don’t buy it.
      “Kingmaker! and again this is where WotC failed to listen to its customer base, and where Paizo made a change.” What has Kingmaker got to do with WotC not listening? Anyway, I think it’s pretty widely acknowledged that WotC adventures have gotten a lot better post feedback.
      (You know Planescape was 2e right?)
      Listen, you obviously love your Paizo, and that’s cool, there’s a lot to love. But you do realise you don’t have to balance out that love with hate right? You’re not obliged to like 4e, or WotC, but it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition you know.
      Thanks for dropping by. B.

  11. gino

    Wow I agree. I love Paizo, love there adventures…. but if they could just reduce the endless, tiresome walls of text that in no way help the adventures they would be so much better. It seems to me about 30 percent of each adventure is just history the players will never know, motivations the players will never learn about, and names and terms the dm willl never remember.

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