Every now and then, I pester my creative colleagues with five questions about their work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Paris Crenshaw is one of the friends I first met at PaizoCon, back when I first wrote for Pathfinder Tales. I don’t think we ever discussed the coincidence, but Paris and I both grew up in Virginia, and we almost attended the same university.
When we met, Paris was already writing for Wayfinder in the precious little time he could find between his navy career and family obligations. Since then, he’s contributed to Champions of Corruption, Faiths & Philosophies, the Inner Sea NPC Codex, and other publications.
Now Paris has designed a five-chapter adventure sage for both Pathfinder and D&D. Trail of the Apprentice bridges a gap between introductory games, like the Pathfinder Beginner Box and D&D Starter Set, and the Pathfinder Adventure Paths and the D&D adventure hardcovers. Published by Legendary games, the series is aimed at younger and beginner players. It’s currently raising funds on Kickstarter, but since it’s already achieved its funding goal, the next three weeks are all about hitting those stretch goals.
Apart from simplified rules, what changes do you make to a roleplaying adventure to make it perfect for younger or novice players?
When I’m writing adventures for novice players, especially younger players, I focus on the structure of the story. I try to keep the story focused, with clear connections between events. Encounters need to flow logically from one to the next. An experienced gamer may criticize this approach as “railroading,” but a more linear adventure is helpful to new players. Games like D&D and Pathfinder are complex. There are a lot of moving parts, and many different components define a single character. When you’re still trying to figure out what things your character can do, having to figure out what your character should do adds another level of confusion. The sheer number of options can lead to paralysis and cause players to shy away from the game. For very low level adventures, I make it clear that certain locations are specifically designed to limit players’ choices. That way, they can focus on moving forward and figure out how their characters can face one challenge at a time. As they gain experience with the game, they can get more opportunities to make decisions that impact the direction the story takes.
Obviously, when working with younger players, content is also a consideration. Having grown out of wargames, tabletop RPGs have always had a tradition of fighting and combat, so I don’t want to try to remove that, but I do want to help keep things clear for players. I want to make sure that the player characters are portrayed as heroes and their enemies are clearly “bad guys.” I think it’s important that this “bad guy” status is based on actions, rather than just by nature of being a certain type of creature. The PCs need to be able to see that if they have to fight an enemy, it’s either because that enemy is trying to hurt them or because it’s doing something clearly very bad. As we get older, we can enjoy delving into the gray areas of morality, but that kind of thinking is challenging for younger players (admittedly, it’s challenging for many older ones, too). Trying to remove that ambiguity can be difficult, because I know that different players are going to have different values. I may not always hit the mark, but I hope I’m able to keep to a decent middle ground while still making things interesting.
What considerations do you keep in mind for the Game Master when designing these adventures? How much hand-holding is necessary?
In terms of designing the module—the actual printed adventure—one of the things I decided to do was to place full stat blocks alongside each encounter. That stat block is slimmed down to present only the information the GM needs, but it’s on the page where the encounter happens. That way, the GM doesn’t have to go to a different book to find the information he needs about the creatures in that encounter. That’s a pretty significant difference from other modules. Usually, the goal is to provide as much story information as possible and word count is limited by the product’s format. Publishers often encourage writers to reference monsters or non-player characters who already have statistics in other books. Legendary Games let me try my own approach for Trail of the Apprentice, and I think it will help GMs be more comfortable with running the encounters. They can branch out to other sources later when they know the system better.
The other thing that designers can do when writing for new GMs is to rely on tropes. Modern media has really embraced much of geek culture, but gamers have always been the type of people who are exposed to a wide variety of material. We often try to stay away from familiar stories or concepts because we’re trying to offer our players something new and different. That’s great for players who’ve “seen it all,” but when you’re new to the game, especially if you’re very young, it’s actually better to rely on what’s familiar. The players can help you tell the story if they have a sense of how it’s supposed to go. GMs may be afraid that players will think they’re just copying a favorite book or movie, but the truth is that many people enjoy RPGs because they get a chance to be a part of their favorite stories. Embrace that concept.
With a willingness to borrow from tropes or familiar storylines, GMs don’t have to worry so much about forgetting where they’re supposed to go next. As an author, I know you’ve created intricate and original plots, and I’m willing to bet that you have to keep notes to make sure you stay on track. I’m also willing to bet that you have to refer to those notes and revise them as your characters evolve through the story. If it’s challenging to stay on track when you’re a writer who controls all the characters, it’s even more difficult for a GM who has a group of players all contributing their own characters’ actions. It takes a long time to learn how to handle that kind of complexity. By starting with something familiar, everyone can have a good time while learning the game together.
In both rules and settings, there’s a spectrum between generic and specific. How generic do you feel an adventure should be to appeal to the broadest audience without losing a sense of setting as character?
While I love world building, I have to remind myself that stories really are more about the characters than about the setting. A good adventure should have a story that brings out the PCs, no matter where it’s set, but many details that influence characters’ decisions are derived from the setting. It’s also true that many things that make an adventure interesting are the little details, which are usually derived from some kind of history or background. It’s hard to create those interesting details for a specific setting. On the other hand, if you base the whole adventure on something that is unique to one setting, it can be difficult to use that adventure somewhere else.
A good example of the latter situation is the The Whispering Cairn, the first part of Paizo’s second adventure path, Age of Worms, in Dungeon magazine. I loved that adventure path, but it was set in Greyhawk, and I’d always been partial to the Forgotten Realms. Without going into spoilers, a specific, legendary magic item features in that adventure. The item just doesn’t exist in the Realms. So, in order to make it fit, I had to come up with a similar item and create a whole new history. I actually posted that stuff on the Paizo message board. It was fun to create, but it took a lot of time and energy. Busy GMs don’t usually have the luxury of spending so much time on that kind of conversion.
Designers can make things easier by placing the adventures in areas that have analogues. Create situations where it isn’t too difficult to change some proper nouns and rearrange locations so that people can use the story in whatever setting the group it using. The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and even Golarion all have areas that are fairly close in terms of culture and theme. They have differences that make them unique but are similar enough that you can adapt modules for use in the setting of your choice. For example, if you’re a Golarion fan, it wouldn’t be at all difficult to play the Trail of the Apprentice campaign in that world’s River Kingdoms region.
Especially in my TSR and WotC days, I met a lot of military gamers. As a Naval officer, what do you think is the particular appeal of games like D&D and Pathfinder to military personnel?
My experience is through the lens of an officer, so it’s perhaps a little different. After college, my gaming took a precipitous plunge, because officers just didn’t admit that they were gamers. I had one or two friends who I knew were gamers, but we were scattered around the world. The rules against socializing with junior personnel to prevent fraternization made it unwise to get a group of sailors together. And ashore, as a Naval officer, building a gaming group with civilians was tough, because we would get underway for weeks at a time, making it even more difficult to keep a campaign going. It wasn’t until later in my career, around 2000 when I was at Monterey, that I met a bunch of fellow officers who were also gamers and we got a group going. Since then, I’ve managed to keep up with gaming, either via play-by-post games, online tools like d20Pro, or more recently, via a regular in-person game with friends I’ve made in San Diego. Now that I’m in my forties, I’m meeting lots of officers and senior enlisted folks my age who are avid gamers. It makes me wish I’d been more open about my geeky hobby when I was younger.
Regardless, tabletop gaming is much more visible and common among the junior enlisted personnel. For some reason, it’s more accepted among 18 or 19 year olds right out of high school than it is in 22 year-olds right out of college. I think the enlisted folks who pass the time with RPGs appreciate that it’s a social game that has some strategy and tactical elements. During long deployments, sailors and soldiers are going to see their comrades every day and get into set routines. For people who enjoy gaming, it can be a great opportunity to really make progress in a campaign. Another plus is that, unlike console or PC games, you don’t need electricity to play. There are tons of software-based tools to help manage campaigns, and most folks can take laptops with them on deployment, these days, but they aren’t necessary. Dice, paper, pencils, and some rulebooks are really all you need. Maybe a little more involved than a deck of cards, but still a great option for passing the time between watches and drills.
What are some of the classic roleplaying modules that influence your design sensibility? And what are a few “modern classics” gamers should seek out?
I didn’t really start playing D&D regularly until 2nd Edition, so I missed many of the true “classics.” But I did get to enjoy many early modules. I clearly remember that sessions from the module Wildspace, the Legend of Spelljammer box set, and the Ravenloft module Feast of Goblyns taught me a lot about dealing with players who weren’t interested in the module’s storyline. That probably wasn’t the fault of the modules, per se, but learning when the players just aren’t interested in what’s going on in an adventure is a skill that a good GM needs to develop. So is knowing that you shouldn’t try to argue too much about physics when you’re playing in a fantasy space setting where entire solar systems are encased in massive crystal bubbles.
Trying to run the Time of Troubles series and playing in the Curse of the Azure Bonds for the Forgotten Realms taught me how forcing the player characters to stick too closely to the events in novels can ruin the fun for everyone. Those modules were fun to read, but the Time of Troubles, in particular, cast the player characters in supporting roles for the story’s main characters. That should never be the case. Things can be going on in the background and the heroes may not be able to influence them, but the players should be the ones making a real impact on the world.
As for “modern classics”? That’s tough. There are so many great adventures being published these days. I love Paizo’s adventure paths. I’ve already mentioned The Whispering Cairn from Dungeon #124, and I think that’s probably one of the best. I’ve been a player in the Kingmaker story and in Legacy of Fire, and I enjoy both of them. Kingmaker in particular puts the player characters in the center of the story and allows the players to shape how that story moves along. However, it was designed as a sandbox, and I don’t think it’s the best choice for new players and GMs because there are so many choices and it takes a skilled GM to keep things “on track” toward the encounters in the later adventures. I also think that the adventures set in Darkmoon Vale for the Pathfinder setting are great: Hollow’s Last Hope, Crown of the Kobold King, Revenge of the Kobold King, and Hungry Are the Dead make up a fantastic series with cool dungeons and other adventure sites and a backdrop that feels like an old Western town. Kind of like living in Deadwood or Lahood (from Pale Rider).