PaizoCon 2013 was a special occasion—and not only because it was my first as a Paizo employee. It was also the playtest run of Pathfinder Society Special #5-00: Siege of the Diamond City by the esteemed Thurston Hillman (Thursty as we often call him), and the two of us had an opportunity to hang out in the hotel bar for several hours afterward. At first we spoke about entirely professional matters, such as how the playtest went, what changes we would make, and the screams of players whose characters foolishly attacked the [REDACTED]. As I have learned is typical of our conversations, we gradually meandered into the realm of theorycrafting, humorous hypotheticals, and madness.
Somehow we started talking about a Special to end all Specials—an event so maddeningly obnoxious that at least half of all tables would be flipped by the half-way point, the author would end the night tarred and feathered, and the Recent Reviews banner on paizo.com would be choked with the adventure's 1-star reviews for a week straight. Demons were still pretty fresh on our minds, and in an attempt to create a suitably kooky yet catchy title, I dubbed it "Shax's House of Pain," named for the demon lord of murder, lies, and sadistic torture.
We were on a roll that evening, and together we detailed at least ten different encounter areas that all centered on pulling the rug out from under players, tearing up Chronicle sheets, and metagame humor. Several brave souls stuck around for a while as Thursty and I spoke with escalating excitement and increasingly frequent falsettos. The shrill "Shax's House of Paaaain!" became our battle cry for the next 24 hours, and we sometimes heard a few others shout it from down the hall. Ever since, I've seen it referenced at the weirdest times on the messageboards, and sometimes I hear it uttered at conventions.
Well, two years ago, Mark Moreland and I cooked up a fake blog post about defective Chronicle sheets for April Fool's Day, and last year I felt the pressure to outdo that somehow. Unfortunately, April 1st fell on a Tuesday, so another blog was out of the question. Instead, I decided it was time to up the ante on Thursty's and my abyssal creation and grant it the mockery of unlife... by actually assigning it.
The email used the same format as any official assignment, but I tweaked the language to give Thursty a growing sense of its comical disingenuousness. For example, it informed him that he would be paid a negative amount of money and should expect an invoice from our finance department to sort out how much tribute Mr. Hillman owed us for the privilege of writing this piece. It further instructed Thursty to tinker with our stat block spreadsheet until it broke (and report any issues to Mark Moreland) and advised that his final turnover would be due on March 31st, 2014—the day before he even received the outline. As icing on the cake, I signed my name by including my dear officemate Mark Moreland's email address as the point of contact.
Of course, this was just some crude rewriting of email boilerplate, and I knew that leaving it at that would just elicit a shrug and a halfhearted golf clap. That wouldn't do. Instead I dedicated far too much free time to writing up a full assignment outline, which I have reprinted here (minus a bit of unnecessary introduction that spoils part of Season 5).
Shax's House of Pain is a Pathfinder Society Exclusive scenario for 5th- to 9th-level characters. It provides characters an opportunity to cry their own bodyweight in tears and contributes to the ongoing Decemvirate faction metaplot.
Adventure (30,000-40,000 words)
... In fact, Shax, lord of lies, envy, and particularly violent murder, has worked from the shadows to ensure that the Pathfinder Society dies horribly in its final showdown with his disciple Tancred Desimire. Thinking themselves clever, Pathfinder agents studied Desimire's diaries and spelled out a hidden message by erasing all but prime-numbered letters, reversing their order, and then translating the new message into Aklo with a poorly written bilingual dictionary.
Master of Scrolls Kreighton Shaine gathers the PCs in the Grand Lodge to perform a counter-ritual to foil Desimire's plans, but upon beginning the rite, Shaine accidentally remarks that he is hungry and would appreciate a sandwich. The admission flings the PCs into the Abyss (no saving throw), specifically into the depths of Charnelhome, Shax's abyssal realm. They land in between two massive slices of whole wheat toast on top of a table made of fiendish spider swarms being used for a demonic tea party attended by powerful demons; to promote the Advanced Class Guide, be sure to give them levels in something sensible like bloodrager. This is a social encounter. Use the structure employed in The Blakros Matrimony in which the PCs must positively influence multiple demons to apologize sufficiently for ruining their party; however, skill checks alone are insufficient. A PC must perform a profane act of villainous, self-effacing depravity to be allowed to attempt a skill check. Be sure to include a sidebar reminding the GM how the atonement spell works.
Once the PCs successfully convince the demons to let them go, they are free to explore adjacent rooms in a sandbox-style adventure that actually allows the players no freedom of choice. To introduce the PCs to Charnelhome lightly, start them on easy (APL+4) encounters before ramping up the difficulty. Consider classic encounters such as fiendish kraken, hydras that are actually amalgams of all linnorms published to date, prismatic spray elementals, greater pugwampis, and some kind of evil clown demon (include the creature's stats in the appendix in case you want to use these in multiple encounters). When mapping this area, depict at least one chamber that can only be represented accurately by printing out the map and twisting it into a non-Euclidean Mobius strip. Should the PCs have difficulties, Shax himself appears in a burst of blood mist wearing a pristine white smoking jacket to heal the Pathfinders sufficiently to continue the adventure.
Once the PCs have overcome these routine challenges, begin presenting them with more difficult encounters. Popular choices include swarms of vorpal chickens, elder god golems (don't use that imitation elder god stuff; use the real thing), kaiju, and abyssal gut worms that consume the PCs from the inside out (pro tip: this grants them a surprise round). To save on word count, consider referencing random encounters in existing Adventure Path volumes without actually reprinting relevant text.
The PCs then come across a courtyard garden in which Shax has set out a pleasant buffet, table settings, and chairs. He apologizes for the PCs' recent inconveniences and invites the PCs to relax and let him know if anything has upset them lately. If the PCs fail to list their grievances without using the letter E, Shax cackles, eats 5d4+5 random boons (including ones earned by non-participating characters), and teleports them back to the initial encounter, where they find an insulting handout that informs them why they failed. When the PCs next encounter Shax, he repeats his tactic but chooses five other different letters at random to listen for. The third time, Shax is absent, but if any PC looks for him, the GM gets to smash the player's mini with a hammer (included with the pdf download). The scenario concludes with a thrilling ten-paragraph opus of read-aloud text in which less competent Pathfinders save the PCs in an excruciating act of deus ex machina.
Season 5, Year of the Demon, does not use traditional faction missions, but many scenarios emphasize the season goals of one or more factions. When such a faction's goal features in a scenario, it typically takes up more time than a Season 0-4 faction mission would have, but many are tasks that a Pathfinder of any faction would find interesting.
The Decemvirate faction is interested in accomplishing awesome stuff, which is explained in a faction head letter update on paizo.com accessible only by moderators. Include several opportunities for faction PCs to fulfill goals that rely heavily on player knowledge and yet-to-be-published sourcebooks in the Pathfinder Campaign Setting line.
You have a map allotment of 5 pages worth of new maps to create for this adventure. These can be 5 vertically aligned full-page maps or 10 horizontally aligned half-page maps. In either case, north should correspond with real-world geographic north when at all possible. Feel free to use out-of-print maps from Paizo's GameMastery Flip Mat and Map Pack lines. If you decide to generate your own maps, be sure that no single map can fit on a Flip Mat (24x30 squares). When possible, have one square equal 27 feet.
Additional Reference Material
Since this adventure takes place in Charnelhome, please familiarize yourself with that topic before outlining and writing the scenario.
Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Book of the Damned, Volume 2: Lords of Chaos: This book contains one sentence about Charnelhome.
Beer: When consumed in vast quantities, this beverage may assist you in deciding what else is true about Charnelhome.
Mark Moreland just got his 'Not Canon!' stamp today, and he graciously weighed in with his opinion of my flawless outline.
To Thursty's extraordinary credit, he took this assignment email and expanded it into a massive April Fool's Day email campaign sent to various Paizo employees. Among these jokingly-crafted missives were a letter to the finance department asking to meet in person in Florida for the cash transaction (which Thursty would happily pay using Canadian currency), a letter to Mark telling him to add a wealth of 3rd-party publications to the stat block spreadsheet (and build a new one to handle 3rd-edition psionics), a letter to the tech team requesting a new section of the website dedicated to the adventure be designed within the next week (including an interactive and animated demon element programmed entirely in Flash), and an email to several of our marketing and sales folks instructing them to prioritize a massive world-wide release of the adventure over promoting PaizoCon (including a request that Cosmo somehow finagle a Shax's House of Pain TV series). Of course, each of these ended with a polite request to forward any questions the recipients might have to Mark Moreland.
Perhaps my favorite was a letter to our project manager, Jessica Price. With their permission, I'll reprint a portion here.
The sheer amount of energy required to upkeep the time travel necessary to match these timelines is ridiculous. I have done some research, speaking with AP authors, and I have discovered that they are only required to go 1 week back in time to complete their projects. This is just another example of how AP authors are given preferential treatment over PFS writers. I don't mean to rant, but this is getting out of hand.
I don't know how much money AP authors are expected to pay when they are tasked with writing for Paizo, but I'm assuming it's somewhere in the thousands. Compare this to the paltry tribute us PFS authors need to provide to our overseers... Again, further discrimination.
Anyways, I digress. I simply wanted you to be aware of this potential problem with scheduling. As I am a handsome and charming miracle worker, this will pose no problem for me, but other less handsome authors may struggle under these conditions. My suggestion is to increase the tribute required by PFS authors to at least $XX, that way you know they have a well-paying job that affords them the extra time to work on freelance.
Thanks for the heads-up, Thursty. Unfortunately, we don't currently have the resources to manage having you pay us fees equal to those of the AP writers, or to extend your deadlines further into the past. I'm happy to put a meeting together to reevaluate this after our Gen Con 2025 crunch period, when we should all have a bit more breathing room to circle the wagons on our current processes.
The madness gradually wound down by the end of the day, but I fondly remember April 1st, 2014 as one of my favorite April Fool's pranks. The holiday's almost here again, but I think I'll take this year off. After all, I need to save my energy for another round of memory making at this year's PaizoCon!
Oh, and Thursty? I still haven't received your turnover. What gives?