To the top four competitors: congratulations! Though I’m not a guest judge this round, I will be the person developing the winner’s submission, so I thought I’d take the opportunity while you’re putting together your adventure proposals to offer some advice. Chances are good that the same elements I touch on here are the same things Clark, James, Neil, Ryan, and Sean will be looking for and judging you on next weekend, so pay attention!
1. Scope: Every year at least one competitor puts forward an adventure proposal that simply couldn’t fit in a 32-page print product. The judges will ding you for this hard, and even if you win by popular vote despite that, the physical limitations of the medium will necessitate changes from your proposal that may jeopardize your winning vision. A Pathfinder Module typically has around 20,000 words, with 1,800 of those restricted to appendixes. That means you have around 18,000 words to describe all the backstory, characters, and locations in the adventure, as well as all the stats contained therein.
The average encounter is 500 words (including statblocks). If you anticipate using 10,000 words of your final adventure detailing a cult’s lair, know that you’re going to need (and have room for) about 20 encounter areas. Some of these will be fights that have statblocks that push them over the average, and some will be mostly empty rooms with only a paragraph or two of text to even that average out. But if you set half of the adventure in a giant castle that couldn’t reasonably have less than 20 rooms, chances are you’ll have to cut a lot of the contents within, or cut other elements of the adventure to make room. If everything you propose is vital to the story, then cutting things can drastically change the adventure from the proposed concept.
2. Simplicity: Another thing we see every year are what we’ve termed “wahoo” elements in folks’ proposals. I understand why some competitors want to pull out all the stops with complicated and cinematic fights, locations, villains, and adventure premises: you want people to think your adventure will be the coolest to play. But consider that the more we need to explain something—whether it’s a rules subsystem or the complex way an encounter in a weird location plays out—the less words you have to tell your story. You’ll note we often save our rules subsystems for Pathfinder Adventure Path books, where they can be explained as independent articles that don’t eat into the adventures themselves. This is because we don’t have room for such things in most 32-page modules. Tell an engaging story that relies on plot, memorable characters, and interesting locations rather than a few complicated, off-the-wall elements; your job, my job, and the GM at the table’s job will be easier, and if it’s a good story, the players will enjoy it just as much as something wacky, as long as their PCs partake in something meaty.
Along the same lines, consider the number of sources needed to run the adventure and especially to run any single NPC. If your adventure hinges on a creature from the Bestiary 3 who has levels in both alchemist and rogue and uses an archetype from Ultimate Magic, you’ve necessitated the use of four books to design, develop, and ultimately run that character. In most cases, the same story can be told with only one or two books, everyone has an easier time, and the encounter can be just as memorable.
3. Scale: The assignment this year is to propose a 9th-level adventure. That means it assumes a balanced party of four 9th-level PCs and thus needs to be able to account for some of the things a 9th-level party can do. By this point in a character’s career, she has become a mover and shaker on the national or even regional stage. A 9th-level spellcaster can cast such spells as commune, dominate person, polymorph, raise dead, scrying, teleport, and true seeing. It’s not unreasonable to assume they also have a few higher-level spells on scrolls, which are more than affordable in limited quantities. Characters of this level should always be assumed to be able to fly, turn invisible, and take on whatever disguise they want, and encounters that hinge on them not being able to do these things will fall flat. Large parties of creatures with class levels to bring them up to the right CR are likely to stretch credulity, in that a meager thieves’ guild wouldn’t typically have a lot of people in it with more than a few levels; they’d have already taken over the whole town, not to mention that masses of low-CR creatures are literally speed bumps overcome with a single area of effect spell. All of these are the sorts of things to keep in mind when deciding if a general premise or specific encounter is appropriate for characters running through your adventure.
4. Format: Pathfinder adventures (and Pathfinder Modules specifically) follow an established format. When coming up with your idea, consider whether it will work within the format it will be published in. Could the “story so far” fit on a page or two at most in the Adventure Background section? Can the events of the adventure itself be summed up quickly and concisely in the Adventure Summary? Would you need to use more than the two and a half pages of maps most Pathfinder Modules get? Does the story have a clear beginning, middle, and end that could be broken into three distinct parts or acts? Does it contain a new monster and can that monster be run without us needing to print its stats twice (i.e. the base creature in the appendix and a version with class levels in the adventure itself)? Is there a location in the adventure that, while set in Golarion, could be easily ported to a different setting or dropped into a GM’s game independent of running this adventure? All of these are parts of the Pathfinder Module format, so it’s important you build an adventure that adheres to these elements.
And now that I’ve fully channeled Neil Spicer with my lengthy post, I’ll let you get back to the task at hand. I hope the above advice is helpful and doesn’t discourage you from proposing the story you really want to tell. Rather, I hope it encourages you to find creative ways to tell that story in a way that will both capture the voters’ attention and garner the backing of the judges and your potential future employers here at Paizo. Best of luck, gentlemen!
Thanks Mark - it's great to see the lessons of previous years laid bare so clearly; and enriched with the thoughts of the developer who will take this from proposal to published adventure. Great, useful, post.
So many of Mark's points here can be applied to even homebrew work for your gaming table - discipline in terms of your work makes it not only manageable as a complete project, but probably a tighter use of the time you have - that the advice really is useful for any GM who likes to plan out things, and have the story progress at a decent clip.