This is the first of my two design blogs, which I hope lend some insight into my adventure design generally, and my design on Dark Waters Rising in particular.
I’ve done a lot of Pathfinder adventure writing in the past years and I wanted to give a few comments, appropriately, about the beginning. I’m a sucker for a blockbuster, special-effects laden opening. The “adventurers meet a patron in a tavern” trope is so stale that it’s become charmingly nostalgic, but it’s not very interesting. I’ve started adventures with the PCs amidst a poorly-aimed fireball, with a building’s window shattering onto a city street, and with traveling PCs suddenly stumbling upon a crushed carriage and a half dozen corpses.
The key reason for a blockbuster opening is player engagement. If your opening has great flair and embroils the PCs in a dangerous situation, the players immediately care what happens next. By the time the PCs sort out the opening issue, they’re knee-deep in the adventure without even realizing it. Each of the adventure introductions I listed above gets the PCs’ attention and propels them into the action.
For more than a year, I’ve wanted to open an adventure with a not-entirely-accidental building collapse (perspicacious readers will note that Dark Waters Rising starts just this way). However, a good adventure introduction is about PC engagement, and I could see players responding to a dramatic building collapse by saying “Wow, that looked bad. That part of town might be unstable, so we back away.” I might not have hooked the PCs, so I had to ramp up the introduction further.
Okay, instead of a mere building collapse, it’s a building collapse almost immediately followed by underground monsters now brought to the surface (in Dark Waters Rising, these are suspiciously well-trained ghouls). But those same players might fight off the ghouls, dust of their hands, and say “Wow, that looked bad. And then there were ghouls rampaging around. We definitely back away.” Still not hooked.
Instead of a building collapse and an attack by underground monsters, the PCs soon learn that other underground monsters just kidnapped several townspeople and took them into their lair beneath the collapsed building. The ghoul assault wasn’t merely a random encounter, but some nefarious plan at work. Any PC who turns away from this opportunity for heroism just doesn’t deserve a “G” in their alignment. In my initial outline, this is how I left the introduction, and considered it a good beginning.
When Creighton suggested that I set my proposed adventure in Swallowfeld along the Lonely Coast, I was thrilled that he’d let me dramatically destroy one of the largest buildings in his town. But a look at the map of Swallowfeld actually threw me a serious plot wrinkle: there’s a whole barracks full of trained soldiers near the Swallowfeld grist mill. There’s no way soldiers wouldn’t quickly be on the scene of an accident like that. I could practically hear my overcautious players saying, “Wow, that looked bad. And now there are ghouls rampaging around? And kidnapping people? Well, these soldiers are right here. No shame in letting soldiers deal with it. We back away.” So by setting the adventure basically right next to the police station, I had to boost my introduction even further.
At 5th-level, the PCs are no mere bystanders. It’s entirely conceivable that even several soldiers could get into a situation over their heads and then need the PCs to rescue the rescuers. I thought this could be an entertaining solution to involve the PCs further, so I’ve worked that into Dark Waters Rising in a way that I hope people will find interesting and clever (my playtesters has a lot of feedback about that encounter in particular, even after I’d already run it by a few other writers I know, and it has proven to be the most worked-over encounter I’ve ever written).
By now, I’d found myself a couple of encounters deep into the adventure just while trying to craft a gripping introduction. If the adventure got me hooked into the action so completely, I have every hope it will do the same for your players!
I’d love to hear any experiences you have with, and how your players move through these phases as they move through the dungeon! Why not write a review or leave a comment below!