Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why I Don’t Like Adventure Paths.

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.

I may work over this backdrop, and post my more minimal translation here later in the week, but it will be a much more subdued affair...


  1. It might be an interesting exercise to re-read The Village of Hommlet in the context of your observations here. The same might be said of that module, in many ways.

  2. Good point, Joe. I had actually considered Hommlet- after all, it's arguably the template for the method of setting design applied to Diamond Lake. There are several important diiferences, however, in my view.

    In Hommlet there is certainly a great deal of detail, and that sense of loving attention to detail is noticeable (and admirable) in both settlements. In Hommlet, though, there are plenty of examples of what I might call 'blending' detail- a form of detail with two distinct purposes. One is to reflect recognizeable mileaux elements, familiarities or tropes. The players arrive in what is apparently a sleepy rural community, and much of what they find reinforces this initial image. Many of the lovingly detailed NPCs are utterly pedestrian fictional entitities, however, and I believe intentionally. Mytch the Miller, Ostler Gundigoot and Brother Smyth are all believeable characters, yet unlikely to steal the spotlight from the PCs. They are simple, goodly rural folk, and little more.

    Many other similar characters, like the wheel and wainwright, the potter, various farmers and so on, are so pedestrian as to not even warrent earning names. Clearly such figures are meant to be secondary to the drama, and are proper 'backdrop' characters. What is more, they are vulnerable innocents, relative non-descripts who rightly should have no place in the unfolding drama at Hommlet. This is at the heart of their second purpose: to retire from focus once their plot component (ie: vulnerability, naivety, stasis/calm)has been delivered.

    This doesn't happen in Diamond Lake. While it's true that Diamond Lake is a seedier locale, and can't really get by with plot components like those above, the problem that results in my view needs to be better dealt with by the designer. Because almost any of the figures we meet at Diamond Lake are as interesting (or moreso) than many PCs are likely to be, and almost any of the locales are as interesting as a dungeon.

    One of the wonderful things about Hommlet is the way that a sinister series of subnarratives exist in the life of the village, which emerge only as the players interact with the inhabitants. This happens slowly over the course of the PCs time there. By the time they have first gone to the Moathouse they are possibly still unaware of anything sinister going on within the village itself. When they do start to see through the veneer, its a case of the exception proving the rule- Hommlet is a nice, normal place, intruded upon by abnormal elements. The PCs are a part of that abnormality, but the restorative part.

    On the other hand, while I adore Hommlet, I don't necessarily think it represents as good an example of at-table utility as say, Keep on the Borderlands does, in terms of offering an evocative shell with the details left to be filled in by the DM, which is my preference. It is as though the configuration presented is the one Gary arrived at for himself, one of any number of possibilities. As such, I love it more as a glimpse of Gary's style, imagination and approach to DMing than as an exemplary module. Many will disagree with me, of course, and this, as everything, is just my perspective, take it or leave it... :)