Game Day: Wandering off the Adventure Path

My Second Darkness Pathfinder campaign is rapidly approaching its climax. The heroes recently started Book 4: Eternal Night but, as is often the case with my group, they quickly went off the proscribed path. Far off the proscribed path.

It illustrates one of the big lessons I learned while running an adventure path: it’s not going to save me a lot of time.

Saving time was one of the big reasons I wanted to run an adventure path — my day job was consuming (and to be honest, still consumes) a huge chunk of my free time. I figured an adventure path, with its established plot and fleshed out NPCs, would help make up for my lack of free time.

I was wrong. Yes, it can help, but more often than not I found my heroes were wandering off the adventure path, if not actively charging away from it. They’d bypass encounters, ignore plot points, and/or actively cut to the chase. All of it furthered the ultimate goal of saving the world … but their path to that goal was often very different from the one anticipated by the adventure writers.

This shouldn’t have been surprising — our group has been playing for 16+ years, and almost all of that time was dedicated to free-form campaigns. Even when we ran the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the nature of the book meant we could attack things in whatever order we pleased.

Not so Second Darkness, which had a specific progression in mind. As the dungeon master, this meant I’d have to write a lot of filler material to bridge the gaps in experience left by skipped opportunities. In Book 4, which involved an open-ended investigation of a drow city, the heroes diverged from the expected path during the very first session.

I’m fine with that. My players were having fun and being true to their characters, but it does mean more work for me. I expect other dungeon masters might fair better, particularly those with characters less likely to wander or take shortcuts, but for me Second Darkness involved a lot of game prep.

Another lesson learned? Some stories take too long to tell. Second Darkness isn’t a bad adventure path, but it is a protracted one. By the end of Book 2 the heroes have learned that the fate of the world is at stake … and the clock is ticking. Book 3 is a big protracted battle, which isn’t a bad thing, but Book 4 was a quest to learn the one bit of information needed to save the world, and Book 5 was essentially needless exposition. We could have cut to the chase and gone directly from the end of Book 3 to Book 6 and the climactic battle (which is exactly what we ended up doing … but that’s a tale for another day).

Personally, I think shorter is better. A series of linked modules would work well, as would a short 3-book adventure path. My group’s collective interest starts to wander after the 18 month in a campaign (as discussed here and the 2-to-2.5 year run time of an adventure path feels too long. Again, if you’re playing weekly, this is likely less of a problem since you’ll be able to knock out the adventure path sooner, but with the twice-a-month schedule isn’t as good a fit.

I think the biggest thing I learned is that adventure paths aren’t for me. I can see using them as background material, and perhaps lifting large chunks for use in a campaign, but I’d rather my players and I be free to do our own things rather than be tied to a 6-volume plot.