Musings on Adventure Path Structure

When 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, it also gained a series of eight adventures that took a group of adventurers from levels 1 to 20. Starting with the Sunless Citadel and continuing through to Bastion of Broken Souls, it demonstrated something that previous editions hadn’t provided: a complete “Adventure Path” series that went the full range of levels. However, players only familiar with the Paizo Adventure Paths would likely not recognise the structure of this original series.

The adventures were mostly stand-alone, to begin with, with only a couple of links between them. Yes, you got a (very) few references to Ashardalon and Gulthias, names that would become important in later adventures, but this wasn’t like – say – Tyranny of Dragons or Kingmaker where everything is part of one connected story. It was very easy to take one of the adventures and just play it; you didn’t need to play those that came before or after, because each adventure was self-contained. At $9.95 each for 32-pages of adventure, they were pretty neat.

The structure of the Sunless Citadel path reminds me most of the structure of many late-1E and 2E campaigns: one where the DM would throw together a bunch of unrelated published adventures because they looked fun. Certainly, this is a style that I’ve played in and employed (many times), with a few adventures hinting it at a later threat, because the DM has looked ahead and seen what the later adventures will hold. The design is “standalone first, connections later”.

So, when I ran my original 3E campaign, we started with The Sunless Citadel, moved through the next couple of adventures, and then wandered off into adventures of my own design – only coming back for a dip into Deep Horizon. And I’m not even sure it was the same campaign… for most of the last 16 years, I’ve been running 2 (or 3) campaigns, sometimes on a weekly basis. And Deep Horizon happily didn’t reference anything else in the other adventures.

Towards the end of 3E, Paizo started publishing Adventure Paths. These covered levels 1-20 to begin with (later fewer levels, due to the poor experiences people had at the highest levels). They’ve continued doing so, using their Pathfinder system. At present, I can see over one-hundred volumes on my shelf of their AP releases – it’s something like 20 Adventure Paths, including their initial releases in Dungeon Magazine.

These are ongoing stories. You start at the beginning, each adventure directly leads into the next, and by the end you’ve played an entire campaign that is (mainly) one story. However, they have a major problem to deal with. The problem isn’t that they’re bad or repetitive (although both could be true), but rather that the periodical release of the adventures – plus the underlying system – causes them to be relatively linear in form. One of the features I encountered when running 3E (over many, many sessions) is that two or three levels gained makes the monsters that were a challenge at the original level now utterly under-powered at the new levels. This is quite unlike how most of 5E plays – it takes a lot longer for monsters to become nonthreatening.

So this has a particular effect on adventure design: each section of an adventure must be set for a particular narrow set of levels. Once you exceed those levels, you need to proceed to the next section lest things get dull. When you add that these adventure paths are published as six chunks, the adventure thus has a straight line pointing in the way to proceed. Players can have a little freedom in each section, but the arrow inevitably points on to the next volume.

Now consider the new Wizards adventures for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. There’s only one of them that could be published as a Paizo Adventure Path – and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons duology. (Even that does interesting things with the form, but it is the most linear and could be broken into more chunks if necessary).

Every other adventure presents an adventure environment. Storm King’s Thunder comes closest to the Paizo form – but could you imagine Paizo printing an AP instalment where you only use 1/5th of the adventure and ignore the other parts? That’s the structure of the Giant Strongholds in SKT. Curse of Strahd and Princes of the Apocalypse are primarily sandboxes, allowing the players to encounter threats in any order (though there are hints as to the best way to encounter things). These are only presentable in a single-book format. Out of the Abyss spends the first half as a sandbox, before wandering into a more traditional quest structure (while still allowing the DM and players the ability to use it as a sandbox if they really feel like it…)

The “bounded accuracy” of 5E makes these sandbox/environment adventures far more interesting than in 3E; the various locations stay relevant for a larger range of levels. Ogres? Yes, you could encounter those from levels 1-10, and they’re likely to still be relevant at all levels, though the nature of the encounter still changes. They could hurt you even when you’re high level – a far cry from the power curve in 3E.

One of the reasons I’ve been so excited about the 5E adventures is because they’re trying new things in their form, something aided by their presentation as single hardcover adventures. They don’t all appeal to everyone, but there are new things being tried, and we’re seeing a lot of exploration of the possibilities of adventure design and presentation. It’s a very exciting time to be reading and running Dungeons & Dragons adventures!

Oh, and Happy New Year! I hope you have a fantastic 2017!

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