Game Day: Second Darkness

I did something I’ve never done before in September: I kicked off someone else’s campaign. Ok, technically it’s still my campaign, but material belongs to Pazio. The campaign is the Second Darkness adventure path, and if all goes according to plan, it will see our seven freshly-minted heroes face the ancient hidden evil of the drow in an attempt to save the world from a second apocalypse.

I’ve been running my own campaigns — for D&D, Star Wars, and Savage Worlds — for 15 years. Over that time I’ve made liberal use of material from a variety of source books, including more than a few one-shot adventures, but by and large I was the one writing each week’s episode. It was fun … but it was also tremendously time consuming.

When the time game to launch a new campaign, Paizo’s Pathfinder Role-Playing Game was an obvious choice. It preserved the strain of Dungeons & Dragons that my gaming group preferred, and enhanced it just enough to get rid of the things that had been driving us crazy in the 3.x branch. But the challenge with Pathfinder is that it’s a crunchy, rules heavy game. When we ran Star Wars, I could easily knock out non-player characters in a night, but going with Pathfinder meant a return to magic and all its inherent complexity.

With a day job that never seems to let up, kids who enjoy playing at least one sport per season, and the need for sleep, something had to give. I didn’t want that something to be RPGs, so I looked to Paizo’s adventure paths.

Adventure paths are something I’ve enjoyed reading since Paizo’s original Shackled City adventures in Dungeon Magazine. The idea is that they publish a series of linked adventures that take characters from level 1 to level 15. In the Dungeon days, the adventure path was usually accompanied by two other, one-shot adventures and copious amounts of dungeon-mastering advice.

When Paizo lost the Dungeon license, they decided to continue the adventure paths, but this time as standalone 96 page books. These books consist of a three part adventure supported by write-ups on geographic regions, new monsters, new magic items and major NPCs, as well as new fantasy fiction. The first books were written for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 but recent adventure paths use Paizo’s own Pathfinder RPG.

The single biggest advantage for me is that it cuts down on my prep time. Instead of writing an adventure each week, I can simply run what’s in the book. There’s still prep time required, and frankly I underestimated how much in September’s first session.

I had read through the entire adventure once, but I should have read-up on that night’s particular encounters before running them. The game went well enough, but I think I could have avoided some pauses and fumbling if I’d spent the night before reading through the part I was going to be running. The other potential gotcha is that Second Darkness was written for D&D 3.5. While 3.5 and Pathfinder are largely compatible, there are a few areas — such as hit points for low level characters — that need adjustment. At higher levels I anticipate having to figure out things like Combat Maneuver Bonuses and spell lists ahead of time.

These are minor issues, easily resolved by adjusting my own game prep techniques. I’ve pulled out my old black D&D binder and filled it with random encounter tables from the old Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon Magazine, printing out copies of maps, location write-ups and major NPCs, and starting a campaign wiki. All of these help to keep me organized, and let me quickly access essential materials during the game.

The campaign gets fully underway this month, when we have two sessions. I expect a dedicated hour of game prep, plus my ever-present black binder — should be sufficient to file off the rough edges. Compared to the 6-10 hours of game prep a week I used to put into high-level D&D, that’s a significant improvement.