Curse of the Crimson Railroad
Editor’s Note: I thought I’d post this here as well as on the RPG blog because, well, this has taken up more of my time than World of Warcraft does. Tabletop RPG’s have been a part of my life well before MMORPG’s were even a thing. I don’t play WoW all that often and write about it even less, so I thought I’d post this here as an excuse for my WoW absence.
Also, as usual, content.
I haven’t looked too deeply into the changes coming in Pathfinder 2E. However, there is one change I’d like to see that probably won’t happen. That change is – call the campaign adventures something other than Adventure Paths.
It’s the “path” word that bothers me. I get the linear aspect of working through an AP. It helps move the story along and keeps players “on task”. But when it doesn’t allow for flexibility, it really takes me out of the immersion. I suppose it’s the old “railroad vs sandbox” conundrum.
My cousin was GM’ing the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path, and it was one of the rare occasions where I was able to be on the player side of the GM screen. We had almost made it through Book Two before schedules bumped our session to once a month, then once every six weeks. Finally, the campaign transitioned into an indefinite hiatus. There’s talk about starting up again, and if we do I’m hoping that enough time has passed for me to be a little less frustrated with the AP.
That’s right, frustrated. I know it’s a widely beloved adventure path, but I personally found it frustrating.
- The intro really played hard into a revenge plot, and my character was down to clown on Gaedren Lamm’s corpse. The traumatic history that he had with Lamm defined who he was, and what he had become. Characters and motivations throughout the group revolved around getting revenge on the old crime boss. When the time came to confront him, I was waiting for a twist. Once my character stood over Lamm’s dead body, I was still waiting for a twist. It felt, wrong somehow. Was that it? We had all come to Korvosa to deal with Lamm, and we had – like, halfway through the first book. There were something like five more books to go in the AP, and the group’s motivation and goal had already been achieved. Roll credits I guess. My character was actually about to leave the group and go on with his life when the riots started, trapping him in Korvosa. We’d been given no reason to care about the city, the kingdom, or anything other than the revenge plot. It seemed to take the wind out of the party’s sails.
- In Book Two, the frustration continued. Right out of the gate, we had been told that a mysterious ship had been sunk in the harbor. Days later a plague started to spread across Korvosa. Then, mysterious plague doctors arrived from Cheliax and set up a makeshift hospital where the infected were to be taken for “treatment”. All with the Queen’s blessing. Coincidence? We wanted to investigate the sunken ship and the makeshift hospital right away, because duh. Every time we started to discuss it, an NPC showed up on our doorstep desperate for our help. “Help” which felt more like distractions rather than objectives. It was like a video game where we couldn’t access a certain level until we picked up four of Zelda’s keys. We cared as far as we knew it was all part of the adventure path, but with our “give a damn about Korvosa” sitting at about a three to start with, the breadcrumb quests were a bitter pill to swallow.
- The party really, really didn’t like the queen. That seemed to be the point I guess. They didn’t trust her minutes after meeting her. So naturally, we questioned why we were doing any of this at all. She was asking us for help (indirectly), and that was pretty much the last thing we wanted to do. We didn’t want to help her, and we didn’t have a great deal of loyalty to the city at large. In hindsight, maybe an intrigue-style setting wasn’t the best fit for a bunch of revenge-starved goons.
To his credit, the GM guided us along by putting occasional backstory plot points in front of us to keep us motivated. But none of us really felt engaged in the story at large. There was no connection, no reason for our characters to be doing this except that we were supposed to. Even the character creation section for the CotCT Player’s Guide has traits that revolve around revenge against Lamm. He was the focus, not the Queen or the city. When you’re dealing with an adventure path, that’s the idea – follow the path. We’d started off on one path, somehow got turned around on a cloverleaf, and ended up in the middle lane on the eight-lane freeway.
Fast forward to the campaign I am currently running. Oh, and Second Darkness spoilers ahead.
I won’t go into too much story detail, but in Second Darkness the PC’s have to save the elven empire of Kyonin from destruction from drow. A noble endeavor. Only the elves are rude and kinda shitty to the PC’s. At least, they’re supposed to be. The players have just started Book Two and are quite a distance from their first interaction with Kyonin and its snooty inhabitants.
There are 5-6 people in the group – one assimar (who believes tieflings are devils that cannot be trusted), one halfling (who tends not to trust people larger than him due to kidnapping issues), and the rest are humans of various tragic backgrounds (as one does). Half of the players are my age, and the other half are their teenage kids. I’m trying to balance the content to keep things engaging for teenagers, but still interesting for adults.
However, there is one thing that they all seem to share – they don’t like elves very much. Now none of them have interacted with elves, but through comments and observations, it is clear that they are not overly enamored with elves. Maybe it’s a Lord of the Rings things, but they seem to have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders when it comes to the pointy-eared elitists. And from what I’ve read in later books, once the party has their initial interactions with the denizens of Kyonin, they will be less likely to want to help them.
Anyone familiar with Pathfinder knows of an event called Earthfall. Ten thousand years ago, powerful creatures known as aboleth were getting tired of their uppity human slaves acting out. So they used a ritual to yank a big ol’ piece of space rock out of the sky and slammed it into the planet. A thousand years of darkness (the fantasy version of nuclear winter), land masses destroyed, demons roaming the world, it was all sorts of bad.
Well, the drow gained access to the ritual. They wanted to use it to call down another space rock. Only this one wasn’t targeting uppity humans. It was targeting uppity elves. And yes, the fallout would obviously affect a lot more than just the elven empire. But the AP devotes a great deal of time to interactions with the elves, and few of those interactions are meaningful enough to encourage the PC’s to help save them. The last thing I want is for the campaign to drag during what should be a crucial spot because the PC’s can’t stand the people they’re “supposed” to save. It works best when they “want” to.
The more I thought about it, the more I flashed back to the Curse of the Crimson Throne adventure path. The party would be led down the path, and they would have to follow it. Not because they wanted to, but because they felt they had to.
Of course, there are different ways for me to handle the situation:
- Change how the elves interact with the PC’s. Make the players care about them, and what happens to them. I may do that, but with my players I don’t think they’d buy it.
- Remind the PC’s that everyone and everything they care about will be destroyed, regardless of where the dark elves bring down their space rock. Address the consequences of the fallout. That’s an option, but since they are typical players with the tragic backgrounds, they don’t have much left to lose.
- Change where the drow park the space rock. I’ve already planted seeds that would make this believable. However, this would involve changing significant portions of the adventure path, which is why I prefer to look at it as a “campaign” rather than a “path”. Ideas for me to build off of, rather than to follow blindly and forcing square players into round plot-holes.
By no means do I think I’ve dodged a bullet. I may have deked a punch, but there are more coming. That’s the nature of tabletop games. Just when you think you have the answers, the players change the questions.
What I’ve Learned From This:
- As a GM, don’t fall in love with your story. Stay fluid. Don’t plan specifics too far ahead. Know where you want to get to, but be ready to change how you get there. Don’t force the players down a road they don’t want to take. Nudge them sometimes, if you have to, but if you try and force them you’ll lose them.
- As a player, be open with your GM if you feel yourself disconnecting from the narrative. Discuss things after the game session. Meet for coffee, or send an email. Maybe the GM can develop a hook that would get your character engaged. Maybe you can offer narrative suggestions that might allow your character to be more involved in the storyline. Have that conversation. The solution may end up with you introducing a new character, on that is involved with the story on some level. Or, unfortunately, you may end up leaving the game if you’re just not enjoying yourself.
Have you ever been involved in a campaign that you just couldn’t connect with? Or one where you felt like you were being railroaded through, with your character simply along for the ride? How did you handle it?
Posted on September 26, 2018, in RPG Actual Play and tagged Curse of the Crimson Throne, Pathfinder RPG, RPG Actual Play, Second Darkness, TTRPG. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Curse of the Crimson Railroad.