By: Michael Kortes
When Harrowstone Prison burned to the ground, prisoners, guards, and a host of vicious madmen met a terrifying end. In the years since, the nearby town of Ravengro has shunned the fire-scarred ruins, telling tales of unquiet spirits that wander abandoned cellblocks. But when a mysterious evil disturbs Harrowstone’s tenuous spiritual balance, a ghostly prison riot commences that threatens to consume the nearby village in madness and flames. Can the adventurers discover the secrets of Harrowstone and quell a rebellion of the dead? Or will they be the spirit-prison’s next inmates?
This is a ONE HUNDRED page adventure that describes a forty-ish room multi-level ruined prison full of ghosts, along with the nearby town and a few downtime events. The encounters are interesting and it has a ghostly vibe somewhere between The Haunted Mansion and creepy-as-fuck Inn of Lost Heroes … which makes it a better ghost adventure than most. The atmosphere and encounters are ruined, though, by the UTTERLY incomprehensible wall of text issues and lack of any sensible formatting. Rewritten in 20 pages this would be pretty decent but as is I don’t even think a highlighter could make it runnable.
I’m reviewing this old Pathfinder adventure from 2011 because my son is running it for his friends. He starts Purdue in a week and I’ll miss him, weakening my resolve when he suggested I review it.
“Welcome to You Are Doom” says Killface, the introductory chapter header. The first hint of trouble is when the writer poses the question “Can a hoor adventure also be a PATHFINDER adventure?” If you have to ask the question then you know what’s to come … trouble. And trouble it is, in the form of “let me explain EVERYTHING to you.”
This thing is one hundred pages long. The appendix starts on page 65, with the ten pages before that being the town. The dungeon starts on page 28, once the events, preamble,hook are done. That leaves about thirty five pages for forty rooms. Why use one word when eighteen will do? Why format your adventure using bullets, tabs, whitespace and bolding when instead you can bury the important bits inside all of those extra words? I’ll dump in a couple of example in the end, but it’s same history, padding, and other nonsense that most adventures fall into, making it unusable at the table.
What’s a shame here is that there is some good content buried in the muck. The town text is padded out to all hell and back, but mixed in there is GOLD. The mangy stray dog that is the town’s mascot. The chili cook-off/peasant wedding community center (bingo anyone?) But all of that is mixed in a lot of garbage. The town square has a gazebo and the dog and takes two long paragraphs to describe. Likewise the notice boards take about the same amount of space, if not more, and that’s without telling you what the notices are! The fucking general store takes the amount of space to say they don’t sell weapons or armor. FOCUS. Yes, a tidbit of detail is great if it helps makes the place memorable to the PC’s or impacts gameplay, but that’s a fucking TIDBIT, not a paragraph.
Oops, off track. Nice magic items like a Ouiji board, are ruined by a half column of text to describe them. A ghost has two pages of backstory inserted in to the main text. The opening dialogue punishes you for listening to it. You actually NEED to interrupt. How many times has a bad DM said to me “let me finish the dialogue”? ENough for me that I just let them finish it. It’s like asking people for attack rolls and then punishing them for doing it.
The opening scene is a great example of the agony of this adventure. You’re pallbearers carrying a casket. Locals show up to start trouble. If you put the casket down the dialogue ends and combat starts. There’s are chances to drop the coffin, spilling the body (Yeah! Cool!) The locals attack with weapons … but to subdue. Killing them REALLY fucks you over in town. They steal the body if you drop the casket. (Nice!) All of the cool things are ruined by punishing the PC’s for the set up the designer is giving them. “READ MY MIND” he seems to be saying. That’s not good design. Columns of read-aloud, mountains of DM text unorganized, shitty design … it all hides a potential combat while carrying a casket, dropping the body and the locals running away with it. That’s GOLD. But it has to be ruined. By “Pathfinder shit.”
I love the ghosts in this. I love the weird shit they do. The Splatter Man is a great enemy and he’s even foreshadowed by some of the very creepy events that go on in town during downtime. There’s even a nod to investigation with a page devoted to finding out more by asking around, making skill checks, etc.
Here’s the text of one of the rooms:
The guards used this large room as a holding pen whenever new prisoners arrived at Harrowstone. Here, the guards searched the prisoners for hidden items and dressed them in their new clothes, all while a guard sergeant carefully explained Harrowstone’s rules to the new “guests.” Once this procedure was complete, the guards led the prisoners one by one to area S6 to be branded, and thence on to their cells.
Creature: Psychic echoes of shame and anger fill this room—as the PCs enter, have them make Perception checks. Whoever rolls the highest hears a faint sobbing and the clanking rattle of chains, while at the same time being filled with a momentary sensation of hopelessness and the strange feeling of heavy manacles clamping over her wrists. These sensations pass quickly, but as soon as they do, the spirits of the prison cause a set of manacle chains to rise up, animate, and attack. Although there are several sets of old manacles scattered through this room, only one set rises as an animated object.
Note the first paragraph is all bullshit. It adds NOTHING to the adventure. The second is poorly written and padded to fuck and back but delivers a nice creepy little encounter with animated shackles THAT MAKE SENSE.
That’s a fairly typical description, lots of useless stuff hiding something a little above average. Was is bad before it was submitted? Did Paizo ruin it? Was Pay Per Word the cause?
The PDF is $14 at Paizo. I guess they need the padding to justify the price? I don’t see a preview available.
I haven’t read an Adventure Path in a long time (and never read one for running), but how does it compare to the Paizo Dungeon Magazines, in general? I often felt like I was gold-mining those articles, but there were some nuggets to be found, as you seemed to feel in about 1 out of 5 of your issue reviews. I did play in the Starfinder one and had fun, but that’s no indication of how well it was written.
Basically, have they gotten worse?
Just finished doomsday dawn, they have tried a couple things (enemy roster, expected dificulty) but brevity or run ability seems to be the last thing on their minds. i believe they think that unless I know the ogres dating history an favorite color I will not find the adventure believable. It works for the quintessential blue medusa or strahd but, not the orcs living in room T6. I would love if they gave a succinct pdf w/ purchase that included enemy rosters an the map of the room on the same page as the description & the addition of permisive language for you to run the adventure your own way. At that point their adventures may be better then some osr publishers, who have already embraced a succinct style, but whose art an class mechanics are often garbage sweetened with nostalgia (crit table checking is just as bad as checking the forums for errata changes.) Doomsday dawn is free if you wanna check it out
The Adventure Paths aren’t really adventures but actually more intended as a subscription magazine. That’s why the adventure itself only makes up a third or so of the pages and you get a lot of new monster pages, some items and other stuff, and setting expansion with every issue. And fiction.
I believe this has to do with the Paizo team’s expectation. I have a colleague who is an amazing GM and has gone on also to become a pretty good game and adventure designer, write an adventure Path adventure for Paizo. Unfortunately for him, his adventure draft was way too succinct and short based on the parameters he was given because he designs things with usability at the table in mind.
Needless to say, Paizo brought on others to pad the fuck out of the adventures and to add additional “content.” All of which made the whole thing bloated and unusable, like every Paizo adventure there is.
I think part of the issue would be that these APs would be 1/4 the size if they added ease of use at the table as a criteria.
“Needless to say, Paizo brought on others to pad the fuck out of the adventures and to add additional “content.” All of which made the whole thing bloated and unusable, like every Paizo adventure there is.”
That’s a pretty horrifying indictment.
One problem is that each adventure has to be ca 64 pages and cover a set level range under PF xp, like 1-4 or 10-12. If a writer writes succintly for the level range it’s too short. If he adds more material it will cover too many levels. Even switching to the Slow XP Track doesn’t really help much.
Really, the whole AP paradigm is a conveyor belt intended to produce an endless line of identical processed sausages/AP issues. It’s not designed for a good GMing experience at all.
The absolute worst Paizo adventure for padding that I have seen was Bastards of Erebus (part one of the Council of Thieves adventure path). There were special circumstances, it being the first adventure written for the (then) new Pathfinder RPG, but the ratio of novel to adventure was ridiculous even by Paizo’s standards.
It’s a shame. I applauded Paizo for keeping the spirit of 3.5 alive but these days I can’t imagine using any of their products. They are the antithesis of everything I love about old school D&D.
A) I’m curious what your son and his friends find compelling about this adventure and the Pathfinder adventure path in general?
B) Haunted places are hard to write and run.
“Why use one word when eighteen will do? Why format your adventure using bullets, tabs, whitespace and bolding when instead you can bury the important bits inside all of those extra words? ”
This is a good summation of everything Paizo puts out. Their writers have good ideas in there but when I’ve run their stuff I end up missing most of it due to the difficulty of actually running endless-text-wall adventures at the table. Thank God for minimalist OSR adventures where the authors are not being paid by the word!
Captain Hastings: Miss Lemon says he makes pies.
Hercule Poirot: Makes pies! Hastings, to say that Benedict Farley makes pies is like saying that… Wagner wrote semi-quavers.
Captain Hastings: Oh, they’re good pies, are they?
Hercule Poirot: No, horrible. But there are a great many of them.
“But it is a pity that such diligence does not improve the quality of his so-called delectables”. Are you an Agatha Christie fan?
It does seem that Pathfinder modules have a recipe (one part small dungeon, some “roleplay”, or more likely ability checks, some overwritten NPCs), mixed together with a straitjacket that you must support Princess Perfect, and that area C is out of bounds until Part 2. Of recent offerings, Songbird, Scion, Saboteur has the basis of an interesting “noble trying to settle down in inherited estate and win over the locals” sandbox, if you can only extract the gold nuggets.
About the adventure writing style of Paizo, here is a gem from 2010 found by Justin Alexander (look for Smart Prep on The Alexandrian) : James Jacob, (then?) Creative Director at Paizo responsible for their Adventure Paths, says that they write adventures to please people who read them as fiction.
“Paizo more or less exists as a game company today (and not merely as an online RPG store) because adventures sell. If they’re done right. And by “right,” I mean “fun to read.”
Because I suspect that the majority of adventures published by game companies are never actually played by most of those who read the adventures.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE hearing stories about how much fun folks have had playing adventures, and I’m really pleased with how robust our messageboards are with just this type of feedback, but the truth is that there are more gamers than there are gaming groups. And you don’t STOP being a gamer when you’re not actually playing an RPG.
So, gamers who don’t currently have groups and gamers who want to enjoy their hobby on days when they’re not gaming need something fun to read. And adventures, which tell stories, ARE fun to read. (If they’re built to be read.)
If someone plays an adventure that Paizo publishes, I count that as MUCH as a successful adventure as if someone reads an adventure and uses an idea in his home game AND as much as someone who just reads an adventure one rainy afternoon and enjoys it.”
Justin Alexander is right on the money about this :
“The problem is that there are a number of things you can do as a writer to enhance the enjoyment of the reader that are actually inimical to the runner. And I’m increasingly seeing these elements in published adventures: Bloated descriptions. Material sequenced so that the reader is given a Shocking Reveal!™ instead of being sequenced for easy reference by the GM at the table. Narrative discourses and background information for which there is no clear vector for the players to ever learn of them.”
Joseph Manola at Against the Wicked City has endeavored to sift the gold from the dross for some of the Pathfinder APs. Really goes to show that there is some actual content in these things, they’re just smothered in bad writing.
I did not know about this blog. Just read the intro of the linked post, and another shorter one, and it’s great! Thanks!
Interesting link: the rewrite of Kingmaker is compelling, reading it actually makes you want to play it. It is a good point that the “level appropriate challenge constraint” means Pathfinder groups need to be channelled. As Gus L has noted elsewhere, there is a whiff of this in Curse of Strahd, one of the better 5E hardbacks (although I consider most of its merits come from the original I6 Ravenloft). Maybe the problem is rapid advancement, and big differentials in power between various levels. in TSR D+D, levels where fighters got extra attacks or magic-users/clerics higher spell levels were vital, but after a certain level, what magic items you had (and how well you used them) were just as important. In epics spanning many levels (e.g. G1-G2-G3-D1-D2-D3-Q1 or Night Below), distance stopped you from getting to the endgame too early.
One thing I’ve noticed is that running Pathfinder APs via text-chat online, seems to work much better than trying to use them at table.
1. I have a lot more time to extract useable info from the text wall.
2. If I have the pdf I can just copy/paste the damn text wall and info-dump it on the players. >:)