Monday, January 23, 2017

Something New for Monday: The End of the Wrath of the Righteous Campaign

So Saturday was supposed to be the 2017 kickoff and re-launch of the Pathfinder campaign, Wrath of the Righteous. I was thinking this new once-a-month plan would help keep things on track. I've spent the last week reviewing my notes and re-reading the remaining books in the adventure path. By Friday I was ... not excited about starting things back up. I thought about it a lot. Saturday morning I was trying to make some notes to prepare for that night's session and ... I just couldn't. I am burned out on the whole thing. After spending a lot of time Saturday morning pondering this state of affairs I can break it down to roughly 5 things:

  • Priority - We have really spun our wheels on this campaign. Sessions have become increasingly infrequent, dropping into the single digits in 2015 and 2016. Everyone says they like it but it's just not coming together regularly. It does not seem to be the priority for everyone that it started out as. 
  • Rules - I like Pathfinder but 10th-level PF core + Mythic + Mass Combat + Downtime is a ton of crunch. Playing infrequently and playing multiple characters means combat slows to a crawl and it's typically an hour, minimum, for any fight, even one that just lasts a few rounds. Some monster stat blocks are half of a full page long - later ones are a full page! The drawn-out combats are one of the reasons we set 4E aside. Now I have the same problem with a different set of rules. There are other sub-systems at play too, like item creation. Book #4 has a sub-system for gaining the attention of a demon lord in order to get an audience with her - it's not a skill challenge, it's not a specific adventure, it's a set of tasks to generate a number of points that indicates you have achieved sufficient notoriety to get a moment of her time. It's the last thing this campaign needed.
  • Remaining adventures - the latter half of the AP is increasingly distant from traditional D&D. 
    • Most of it happens on other planes  - the Abyss - and involves a ton of weird demonic monsters that you're not going to find looking through old monster manuals. I'd expect some weirdness, but it's some pretty exotic stuff and some of the stat blocks get to be ridiculously long. It's tough as a DM to figure out how to run these more complex creatures effectively when they have this many details to juggle, especially considering most of them are only going to be around for one fight.
    • It's very heavily plotted with dependencies on meeting/impressing/defeating specific NPC's to advance the storyline.  At one point the assumption is that the party will negotiate a deal with one demon lord in order to take down another demon lord. I know my players and one of them in particular is not going to just go along with that - especially not as a lawful good paladin! This is supposed to be the bigtime demon-bashing campaign made specifically for lawful good duty-bound paladin and cleric types and yet for some reason they felt the need to include a plot point like this  that is going to be a non-starter for hardcore holy avenger types. There's also a sub plot about a demon turning to good which may be interesting for some people but my crew is "demon = evil" and should be destroyed. They're not usually looking to talk with a demon because that's not why they're there: they are stopping an invasion, not negotiating. 
    • The DM advice at the front of the modules says that XP is going to be difficult to track so you should just level the party up at appropriate times. This is a tremendous failure in my eyes. "Balanced encounters" are a central concept to the game. The XP and level system is tied to that concept. Many pages in many books are spent on it and many discussions online revolve around getting this right. To recommend throwing it out and winging it partway through an AP means either your system doesn't work or that you're not trying hard enough to make it work. It's disappointing.
  • Time  - We've been playing this AP since 2013. I've been looking at these same adventure books for over 3 years. I've been looking at the same notes, the same NPC's, the same maps, for over 3 years and honestly I'm tired of doing that. There are six books in the AP and we're now averaging a year per book. I don't want to be running this same campaign in 2019!
  • Approach - I realized I am tired of running not just someone else's setting - I like Golarion and a lot of my games are set in published campaign worlds - but I am tired of running an entire campaign designed by someone else. It is full of NPCs pushed into way too prominent roles, monsters I don't care that much about, background information the players will never discover, and way too many assumptions about how the plot must proceed - assumptions my players are not likely to automatically jump to. 
Now there are some very cool things in this AP, which is why I wanted to run it in the first place. You will rescue helpless civilians, liberate a city, forge a bastion of good in a hostile land, journey to the Abyss, have the opportunity to slay multiple dragons, major demons, and demon lords, and pretty much ascend to demi-godhood yourselves along the way! 

The problem is that is just so much work to get there!

So I decided to tell my players after they arrived. I had no particular game I wanted to play, I just knew I did not want to keep playing this one. So after we all gathered around the table I talked through a lot of the points above.

They didn't scorch me. They completely understood. I admit it's a little weird to be burned out on a game you only ran 5 times last year but that's the best way to describe it. I haven;t deliberately ended 

I've talked about zero-prep campaigns here a fair amount and they do have some good points. Without Combat Manager I wouldn't have gotten as far as I did. Even with it though there's still a lot of overhead during the game. Honestly, I was spoiled by 4E's monster statblocks and how easy they were to run. I also think if you want to run demigod level characters that's a much better system for it than Pathfinder. I have evolved my thinking on this whole concept a bit: 
  • A pre-made adventure is a handy thing as they tend to be a chunk of something you can fit in to a campaign. 
  • A pre-made campaign is a mixed blessing, probably too much of a good thing. I'm running someone else's plot and characters and setting for years, potentially, and that's likely to exceed my own threshold for pre-made stuff. 
If nothing else this has helped me figure out the limits of my tolerance for longer packaged campaigns and what I do and don't like about them and that's good to know. Part of why I run games is to exercise my own creative impulses and having everything done for me removes that part of the fun. Taking one of the old AD&D adventures and fitting it into a new setting can be a creative challenge and a lot of fun, plus it's still my framework. This AP got to where it felt like I was running someone else's script and not doing a lot of the things I enjoy. So we're going to fix that - with a new game.

DM Notes:
If I was revamping the whole thing ...
  • Skip Mythic. It is really cool, but it adds a ton of overhead to both leveling up, and to actions in play. I think the optional hero point system gives you plenty of flexibility, especially when you consider the inherent powers of a fully kitted out high level Pathfiner character anyway. It's also a ton of work for the DM to manage Mythic monsters and that whole extra layer of capabilities for a creature that will typically be making one appearance only.
  • Fewer NPCs. My players are capable of talking to each other in-character. They are capable of motivating each other. For a very long time my philosophy has been that the "important" NPC's develop in play, whether it's the High King of Men or the local blacksmith that the fighter deals with after every adventure. I do not like being presented with the "lynchpin NPC" who drives the plot forward - the PC's should be doing that.
  • A different kind of Redemption: One of the main themes of the PA is "redemption" - there are various sub plots involving some NPC's in the party, a fallen paladin, a succubus, and more. I don't mind some of this but making the reformation of a demon - the supernatural personification of chaotic evil in the game! - such a major point is problematic. I would rather have seen more emphasis on saving mortal souls than those of evil outsiders who, largely being made up of deceased mortals, presumably had their chance and chose their side.
  • Additional Theme: Good is not monolithic. I would have loved to have seen more disagreement between the leaders of "good" and suggestions of alternate approaches on how to tackle the scenarios in the campaign. This would give a source of conflict within the campaign - besides the obvious one - AND it would have opened things up more to let the party have some choice in their actions. The plot of the reformed succubus is a great example as there is no mention of what other people think when the party shows up with a rescued/captured demon girl. How about those other NPC's you've been toting around for months? How about that band of 100 paladins that's the cornerstone of your army?! I can picture a great scene happening in the city square - "You brought a what back to our camp? A demon of seduction? To a camp full of men on campaign? This seemed like a good idea to you?" - that kind of thing. I could probably work it in but there's nothing along those lines in the adventure and in fact it assumes that she's a helpful and trustworthy source of information on the Abyss for the rest of the campaign!
  • Less Abyss - it's an unpleasant place. It imposes negative modifiers. It should be the target of a commando raid, not an extended visit in my opinion, yet a whole bunch of books 4 & 5 and some of 6 all take place here. Book 2 & 3 together are all about capturing, garrisoning, and rebuilding the city of Drezen in the Worldwound, then exploring the area around it. It's a really interesting part of the campaign  with mass combat, hex crawling, and dungeon bashing all mixed together. It's very old school D&D in a lot of ways. Then we leave the city and do very little with it for the next 2 books. It comes up again somewhat in Book 6 but it just doesn't flow together very well. This may be where having different authors for every volume of an AP shows.
The concept is cool and there are a lot of memorable parts, but the way it is stitched together is just not working for me any more. 


Miguel de Rojas said...

I've only played through one Adventure Path, Kingmaker, but your last point reminded me about it. You chart and then build a small kingdom in the first two books, then leave it unattended for no good reason in the third. And the presentation order of some rules (particularly, army building) and the key NPCs of the campaign was weird. I thought an AP's structure would be planned up from the start, but maybe it is not the case.

thekelvingreen said...

We faced a similar problem with Carrion Crown; the campaign guide encouraged us to create good-leaning undead hunters so that's what we did, then we hit a chapter in which a bunch of vampires are being hunted by a serial killer and we're supposed to help them catch the killer.

I admire Paizo's productivity and I think it's brilliant how the company supports its game with regular adventure material, but the quality control is a bit wobbly.

Blacksteel said...

I still think it's a great concept but part of the failings are on them and part of them are on us.

On Paizo's side there are some holes and conflicting situations that will only be discovered by playing through the whole thing and I have to wonder how many different groups play through the entire set prior to release. It's not just "is this mechanically correct" but conceptually, does this whole thing make sense? Does NPC A drop out and NPC B drop in because that's what makes sense for them or just because we changed authors? Things like that could be a lot tighter I think after playing through a few and reading some others with that experience.

For us - and I'm talking about my own group here - I'm not sure something this long can really keep our interest when it's spread out over multiple years. I ran 30 sessions of one of my 4E campaigns in less than 18 months. If I could still run on that kind of schedule to where it might only take 2 years (or less!) to complete one I'd be more optimistic about it. For now though I don't think any of us want to be tied to a single heavily-plotted campaign for that long, including me as the DM!

thekelvingreen said...

Yeah, with the chapters coming out once a month, there's not a lot of time for detailed planning and playtesting, and the subscription model means that Paizo can't take a couple of months off to polish things. It's a victim of its own success, I think.