…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.