Jesse Heinig (trekhead) wrote,
Jesse Heinig
trekhead

Running Pathfinder: The Adventure Paths

While my last article discussed a bit of Pathfinder's Kingmaker adventures and their specialty rules for building kingdoms, I figured that I would take a quick detour (and buy myself some time to work on the additional construction material for elven and dwarven themed kingdoms) to write a little bit about Paizo's market strategy with Adventure Paths.

For those who're not big-time role-playing game aficionados, Paizo is the publisher for the Pathfinder game, which is essentially the half-step adopted successor to 2000's Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition. Pathfinder is, by several metrics, very successful and quite a competitor with D&D as far as sales and brand loyalty in the role-playing game market. This should not be a surprise, because Paizo is under the watchful gaze of Lisa Stevens, who's been keen on industry opportunities for over twenty-five years at this point and is one savvy businesswoman -- especially for a business sector that's generally pretty low-profit.

Anyway, Paizo regularly publishes "Adventure Paths," which are monthly adventures that connect in a six-episode arc designed to carry your game group from introduction (brand-new characters) all the way to a heroic conclusion (at the upper tiers of gameplay, as mighty adventurers with a history of many victories). This means that Paizo publishes two complete series of adventures every year. Their other releases often synergize with this: If the current adventure takes place in the River Kingdoms, there's also a Guide to the River Kingdoms. If you're exploring a crashed spaceship, there's a Guide to Technology in that release cycle. It's a very smart release strategy and it's certainly no accident.

The current iteration of Dungeons & Dragons, the fifth edition, is positioning to emulate this -- to some degree. At least one industry survey found that the typical fantasy gaming campaign lasts for about a year, and the new D&D has opened up with one-year story arcs. Last year was the Tyranny of Dragons story arc; this year it's Elemental Evil. Each story arc gets a campaign sourcebook detailing the particulars of that campaign, and some adventure support -- in the case of last year's Tyranny of Dragons arc, via the third-party publisher Kobold Press, under the guidance of the effulgently creative designer Wolfgang Baur. (You've heard his name before if you're an old hand with D&D -- he is, after all, for whom the Bauriar of Planescape are named.)

The problem that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast has with D&D right now is that their publication schedule is basically sticking them with one book for the whole year. This causes a loss of momentum in the customer base. People want to be excited about upcoming releases, and one campaign sourcebook -- with the adventurer's handbook to go with it, chock full of meaty new character-creation goodness, cancelled and turned into a PDF -- isn't cutting it. Folks are looking at their D&D sourcebooks, saying "That's it?" and looking around bored, wondering what to do next. The loss of momentum is going to cause people to drift away from the brand and seek something more dynamic with more frequent support. (Wizards of the Coast's design department is in a tough nut here, though. Too many books cause feature bloat and make it impossible to support the game. Too few mean not enough releases to sustain interest and sales. They could probably get away with doing something closer to Paizo's model, releasing smaller amounts of content every month or two -- or subcontracting that out to other companies -- and tying a lot of their game rules updates into that content in small bite-sized chunks, but they aren't doing so and nobody seems to know why they're so hesitant to license out for other companies to help out with the small-run publication of adventures and support.)

So, aside from having an aggressive release schedule that supports the sale of other setting books, Paizo is also eating Hasbro/WotC's lunch by reprising everything popular that D&D players have loved, and going through that with their releases. A significant chunk of Paizo's adventure paths -- say, maybe half of them -- have storylines that are pretty close to some of the very early D&D modules that are known by, loved by, and popular with old hands of the role-playing game field. Let's have a look . . .

Release # Adventure Path Notes
1 Rise of the Runelords Your basic "Evil is awakening, fight your way through a series of dungeons to defeat it!" Straight-up boilerplate out-of-the-box epic adventure.
2 Curse of the Crimson Throne Fresh off a dungeon saga, Paizo says “You like that? We’re gonna do something wildly different,” and throws players into a court intrigue and political gamesmanship campaign.
3 Second Darkness Fight against the dark elves and their attempt to take over the world, starting with a major metropolis on the surface and tracing back to their demonic roots deep underground! It’s the old drow series of modules: D1-3, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, and Vault of the Drow.
4 Legacy of Fire Strange events are afoot in a desert landscape where two warring factions invoked genies to do battle. Sounds suspiciously like the infamous Desert of Desolation modules I3-5: Pharaoh, Oasis of the White Palm, and Lost Tomb of Martek.
5 Council of Thieves A corrupt city in an evil empire is the source of all manner of hellish problems, as the heroes infiltrate criminal enterprises while evading the wickedly malevolent forces of the ruling class. Some similarities to Iuz the Evil, the sourcebook of Greyhawk’s evil kingdom ruled by an evil demigod.
6 Kingmaker Explore the wilderness, build a kingdom, then defend it. This is essentially the main thrust of D&D development in 1st edition AD&D and in the D&D basic and later boxed sets: When you have had enough adventures to become powerful leaders, you settle some lands, fight off monsters, and become a local baron or other noble and collect taxes while fending off rivals. The D&D Companion Set also had a system for domain building and management, something that Kingmaker also includes as an integral component.
7 Serpent’s Skull Shipwrecked on a jungle shore, the party eventually reaches a dangerous trade city and uncovers activities of a deadly cult of serpent people. Some similarities to I1, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which featured serpent cultists in a desolate city deep in the jungle, as well as N4 Treasure Hunt, which has the party shipwrecked. Also echoes of C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, with its jungle crossing to a ruined ancient temple.
8 Carrion Crown Horror adventures in a grim, haunted kingdom. Very much in the vein of I6 Ravenloft.
9 Jade Regent Escort a caravan and a few local friends across the North Pole to reach the far east and establish one of them as the rightful ruler of a distant fantasy Japan-themed kingdom.
10 Skull & Shackles Escape from captivity on a pirate ship and become pirates yourselves, then fight for the pirates and traders of your independent archipelago. Opens similarly to the aforementioned N4 Treasure Hunt with the players enslaved on a ship, then goes straight into Pirates of the Caribbean territory.
11 Shattered Star The players find themselves roped into re-assembling the Sihedron, a powerful artifact that was broken into seven pieces long ago. Very close concept to the Rod of Seven Parts. Same number of pieces, even!
12 Reign of Winter Baba Yaga and Rasputin show up to bring eternal winter to the fantasy Russia analog. Naturally the fact that it has Baba Yaga means there’s a content connection to the module The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga, though there’s a lot more going on in this adventure path.
13 Wrath of the Righteous Descend into a massive hell-scar to fight demons and try to save the world. Features the special mythic hero rules, as one might expect. This somewhat mirrors the Bloodstone series H1-4, which had the players going to Hell to steal an artifact from a demon prince and was recommended for characters up to level 100 (that is, mythic!).
14 Mummy’s Mask Fight the cult of an ancient undead god-king in fantasy Egypt analog land. Has some similarities to Gygax’s Necropolis supermodule hardcover and to module RA3 Touch of Death.
15 Iron Gods Explore tech-dungeons from pieces of a crashed spaceship, collect space weapons and fight aliens with the goal of overthrowing a mad tyrant, a secret society of tech-sorcerers, and a crazed AI. Very much a Thundarr the Barbarian style adventure in the footsteps of the famous module S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.
16 Giantslayer Giants are invading! Fight them off! So far this adventure path looks like it’s treading some ground similar to modules G1-3 Against the Giants.

So am I saying that Paizo's Pathfinder team is just doing a bunch of rip-offs? Not at all. Paizo's staffers know their audience. They know how to schedule releases, they have a good idea of what people want, and they're bringing their own touch to classic adventure ideas, while occasionally throwing their own curve balls. Keep in mind, too, that the typical old-school D&D adventure module is 32 or 64 pages, while an adventure path boasts a series of 6 books at 96 pages each, including the adventure, some short fiction, and some supplementary monsters and new rules. So Paizo's doing what any good creative endeavor does when making sequels: They're taking the familiar elements that people learned to love, putting a new polish on them, and giving them much more lavish treatment.

Since Paizo manages two adventure paths every year, this also gives players an "either-or" choice. If you just want to play in one game (or run one game), you can pick either adventure path for the year and run it. Since the average campaign goes on for a year, you'll have two more choices by the time the end of your campaign rolls around. Thus, you can pick the one that you like.

I daresay that this is an example of something incredibly rare in the game industry: a marketing division that works with the creative division and actually gets what the audience wants. Pathfinder's success rests on people who felt like the newer editions of D&D left them behind; they liked what they were playing, and they wanted to keep playing more of it. The adventure paths that Paizo is publishing recognize that these are people who will spend their dollars on adventure gaming that lets them reprise the cool stories from their game roots with a game system with which they've become familiar over the last fifteen years.

Thus far, D&D's new 5th edition looks like a good game, but a good game will only last if you have something to sell to people. Wizards of the Coast needs to step up its commitment to publication -- either on their own or through their licensed partners -- or Paizo is going to continue to eat their lunch.
Tags: game design
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