I’ve been asking a lot of questions about companies’ approaches to adventure design recently, but I haven’t been supplying many of my own answers. Some of that is because I don’t really know the answers! However, there’s a few observations I do have.
At time of writing I’m running my weekly group through WotC’s Orcus modules. We’re deep into E1, Death’s Reach. It’s been good fun so far, and we’re one session into the final section, which is a dungeon called the Reliquary of Timesus. Simultaneously, my current read is part 5 of Paizo’s Legacy of Fire Adventure Path. It’s also a dungeon, based in a palace complex set within the City of Brass. It’s called The Impossible Eye. It’s a good read, full of flavour, but looks very tricky to run.
There has to be a middle ground between WotC’s dry/linear adventures, and Paizo’s complex/verbose ones. What would a product that took the best of both worlds look like? Let’s take the Reliquary, and reformat it the Paizo way.
On the WotC side, they utilise(d) a two book format. The first book has the overview, and the extras like new monsters and treasures, and art work. The second book has the encounters all laid out in a delve format for ease of play. The folder also contains a double sided poster map of some of the big locations in the adventure. (I should say that WotC have moved away from this format in the last year or so, but only in that they bundle all this together into a single book, otherwise it’s broadly the same).
Paizo are much more traditional in their formatting. It’s written in a travel-guide fashion, with a brief overview at the front and then it takes the reader through the adventure, location by location. It does mean having to flick back and forth a lot to see how various parts link up. The art is sprinkled through the adventure. In the APs, they give a big chunk of the product to supplementary material, fiction, new monsters etc.
WotC try to separate the encounter information from the plot exposition. The trouble is, there’s too much bleed over. There are 13 encounters in the Reliquary spread over 19 locations. All the locations are summarised over a mere two pages, with references to the combat pages in book two. The entire dungeon is presented over just 4 pages. There’s a lot of story/plot elements that only appear when you get to the encounter format itself, or worse, it’s duplicated. Those encounter maps are keyed with starting monster locations.
Paizo blend all the mechanics into the prose sections of their keyed entries. They have a tendency to start with some boxed text that concentrates on the architecture and the furnishings. If there are any adversaries present, they get introduced right at the end of the entry. The description can be wide ranging about histories and relationships. Adversaries can be flagged up that don’t get explained until later in the book. Each entry rewards repeat reading and notetaking so that nothing gets missed, like the monsters.
My blended approach would be to stay with the single book, but to separate it into sections to facilitate play at the table, and to make the inevitable page flicking easier. I would spread the art through the book. That gives it context and the company website or a scanner allows the images to be shown to players as required. I would put the stat blocks and tactics directly into the main body of the adventure. The delve format has only one pro (to not have to flick pages in the middle of a combat) and too many cons (repeated, or discreet, story info; the keyed map which can’t be printed; lots of white space; repeated environmental info and more). Fourth edition encounter design means that groups of opponents are far more likely to be encountered than solitary monsters or traps. The delve format brings all those stats to one place, but frankly, a 3e statblock for a single creature easily takes up half a full page. I don’t think it’s completely necessary to separate out the encounter info. At worst, the encounter info might run onto another page, but that’s a small price to pay for legibility and read-flow.
Similarly, there’s no need to repeat the encounter map with starting positions. These positions should be apparent from the description, either the boxed text (enabling the DM to place the monster as they read) or within the description for hidden monsters and traps. These starting positions are wasted post the initiative roll anyway. Same with environmental effects like tables, chairs, doors, fires etc. All common environmental effects can be boxed out in an appendix or at the start of the adventure.
The dungeon overview provided by WotC is actually fine, it’s concise and gives the DM what he needs, the story and enough to improvise on should the party enquire. This should be followed by the dungeon map. The Paizo maps are like architects drawings, they’re fascinating, inspiring even, but they are extraordinarily difficult to describe or map out at the table. They also have verisimilitude, with barracks, kitchens and kennels. There are more ’empty’ rooms than inhabited ones. Some of those empty rooms contain clues or history, but others are there just to fill out the map. There are lots of linked levels, and the DM has to be careful to see how inhabitants hear and see the other locations. It’s very pretty, but low on utility.
On the other hand, the WotC map of the reliquary is made up of scanned dungeon tiles, and it’s squeezed into the A4 page. There are no dead ends, only 3 empty rooms, and it’s a largely straight sequence of chambers. There’s no sense that this was designed and built by anyone but a WotC employee. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s eminently playable. The DM and players won’t get lost and no-one needs to worry about what the surrounding locations are doing. It’s almost brutally functional.
The meat of the adventure is in the keyed locations. This is where WotC have again, gone for the functional approach. They make a nod towards story by having every chamber covered in sculpted reliefs that slowly tell the story of the Dawn War between the Gods and the primordials. They even back this up with art depicting the same. There’s a skill check noted on occasion to translate the carvings. This is the best part of any location description as it’s almost all of it. the room will only ever have one or two more sentences of description outside of the encounter book. For example, the final room:
“This chamber, the prison of Timesus, shows signs of a methodical excavation.”
That would have been fine back in the days of 1st edition, but the modern audience is entitled to more. In fairness, the encounter book expands on this and gives read aloud text as well as tactics, but even then it errs on the side of sparsity.
This is where the biggest change could be made. the locations should be able to be read as if part of a story, or at least a travel guide. Paizo go too far too often by including text that’s irrelevant to the adventure at hand, and tenuous in it’s relationship to anything the characters are likely to encounter. The happy medium would be for the text to be explanatory first and interesting second with inspiring a third priority. If it is only one of those three things, it’s missing the key element of a role playing game scenario.
Lastly, and this isn’t in Death’s Reach, WotC have made strides to make the treasure placement more customisable in latter adventures. This is a great use of an appendix, and needs to help the beleaguered DM keep their game, and campaign, on track.
In summary, I’d hugely expand the first book from WotC, using the best writing from the Paizo styles, and I’d contract the delve book into the body of the adventure. At every stage I’d look to see that the book remains a gameable product, and not something to be read in lieu of a novel.