Several disparate gaming paths crossed for me this week, and their conjunction taught me something important: namely, why it was that, after an initial fascination with the “adventure path” format some years ago, I have come to dislike it so much.
Having pulled out Dungeon #124 in order to look over “Chambers of Antiquities” by Rob Kuntz (I’m thinking of modding Maure Castle back to 1st edition for my campaign), I noticed that this was in fact a rather Greyhawk-oriented issue- Age of Worms is, of course, set in the Cairn Hills area, which I had forgotten. Suddenly I realized that Diamond Lake, the Cairn Hills mining town my PCs are heading to, their imminent base-of-operations for an exploration of the Lonesome Hill Dungeon, is the starting-point of the whole Age of Worms path. Perhaps, I thought, instead of developing some extended notes for the town based on the GoF entry, I could attempt to convert Erik Mona’s Diamond Lake to 1st Edition. The thought was there, but already I was feeling nervous...
Okay, so I determined to have a read of the backdrop, and that old feeling (it’s been a while since I’ve bothered to examine adventure path material) almost immediately began to emerge, what I would call the “take-away” phenomenon. An experience, at first pleasant, begins to turn sour, as it dawns upon the imbiber that what they have consumed is less satisfying than the initial experience suggested. Now, funnily enough, I’m not setting out to lambast either Mr Mona’s work or the general quality of food in the take-away industry. I’m not making declarations of cheapness or shoddiness here at all. The problem for me is all about richness.
I’ll explain my analogy. Most of us enjoy take-away food at least some of the time. It is convenient, flavourful, and cost-effective by-and-large, and as such it’s fine. The problem is: it’s not generally a good idea to eat that way all of the time, but we can be tempted to want to because of all of the above qualities. I have just these issues with the format of the adventure path. Let me get back to Diamond Lake to explain why.
I was hoping for something of a gazetteer of the town, with the locations on the map detailed, and relevant information about stores, inns and taverns, the presence of the law, and perhaps some details about the important figures of the area. All of this was, of course, available. An initial satisfaction comes with the loving detail applied to the various characters and locations- it is all well thought-out and interesting. Complex individuals are presented in commerce or conflict with a complex setting. Their motivations are both well-developed and believeable. The town as a whole radiates a palpable atmosphere of seediness, corruption, vice and the abuse of power. As an adventure backdrop for a group of D&D characters, it works, and I have no difficulty imagining Fighters, Clerics, Theives etc getting up to their ordinary wayward business here. Only, in a novel, or perhaps a film- definately NOT in my campaign.
The issue is not with any departure from canon- that may or may not be the case here, and I make no claim to be any kind of Greyhawk scholar. My problem is that, as a backdrop for the activities of a group of player characters, the place is TOO interesting. Every location mentioned here is fun, atmospheric, cool, seedy, ominous, sexy or SOMETHING. Every NPC mentioned not only has a history of some kind but is also UP TO SOMETHING. That works if you’re watching Deadwood (the two settings actually have a lot in common), but PCs operating in Deadwood would struggle for the spotlight amongst so many fascinating NPCs. Such levels of detail can forcibly subdue the creativity of a DM at the table, because suddenly he feels as though he’s trying to be true to a script instead of tunneling around in his own sandbox. The sandbox, made concrete, ceases to be fun for anyone.
As with the megadungeon, wherein the interesting locations emerge as such by virtue of the contrasting presence of those which are more pedestrian, so a backdrop should serve largely to support the actions of the player characters until they get to the adventure. I understand that, in the case of the adventure path, there is no distinction between adventure location and town location- they merge,and rightly so. It is just that, not EVERYTHING should be cool. Not EVERYTHING should be rich and fascinating. It all becomes too much, and our more delicate, subtle gaming sensitivities become overwhelmed, and, perforce, are dulled and our own imaginings diluted. Light and dark, loud and quiet, rise and fall- each must have their moment. If we have only drama, then the end result is a loss of dynamic momentum.