Homebrew Scenario Design with Jen "Iammars" McTeague

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Greetings, Pathfinders! This is the second in a recurring series of blog posts written by you. Today Jen McTeague shares with you his conversion of a cool story trope to a Wrath of the Righteous homebrew scenario. But before we get to the delicious design in this week's blog, we wanted to let you know that in addition to all the card types already available for creation, you can now create six more card types with DriveThruCards' Community Card Creator. Create your own Locations, Scenarios, Adventures, Adventure Paths, Blessings and Cohorts! Also, for this week only, all custom cards are just 25 cents! Create your own card or browse from hundreds of cards the community has already made. Head over and check it out, then come back to learn what's new in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game."

Hello, everyone! My name is Jen "Iammars" McTeague, and I like tinkering with board games. It's very rare that I get heavily invested into a board game and don't end up tinkering with it. You may have seen some of my work with Mansions of Madness (seen here and here, which led to a consulting gig with FFG on its Call of the Wild expansion. Since I've recently become addicted to the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, I've been looking at it with an eye toward writing material and tinkering with it.

Everyone has a favorite monster or two—it's hard to play this game (or any RPG) for too long before you settle on the monster or two that you really like fighting. And for me, there's one monster that stands out above the rest. It's pictured just below these words. Why don't you go and click on it and bask in its great glory?

Aw... Look at the cute fire-breathing pig!

BAM! Shadow Demon! Bet you didn't see that one coming! And that's the beauty of a shadow demon. You don't know he's there at first, but then suddenly people start disappearing, outsiders know all of your battle plans, and friends start turning on each other. Once it's obvious that the havoc is coming from inside the house, the scenario becomes a witch hunt as you interrogate your allies, trying to get them to screw up. Those who aren't as friendly with you may take your questioning as a challenge and come to blows. In the end, you find the "traitor" only to have a black smoky form come out as its flesh puppet falls unconscious, cackling at all the chaos it has caused.

If you're only familiar with PACG Shadow Demons, you may be wondering where this is coming from, since card-game shadow demons can't actually do this. Well, that's the thing. In the PACG, they're vanilla incorporeal servitor demons that do a bit of damage if you're in an Abyssal location, while in the Pathfinder RPG, they're super cool. I think these guys deserve to have their time in the sun—let's put them center stage in their own scenario!

Maybe "time in the sun" wasn't the best choice of words...

Now that I've gotten my impassioned rant in defense of shadow demons out of the way, let's determine what we want the scenario to do, stripping it down to the important points:

  • Chaos is being caused inside friendly lines
  • We interrogate various allies to figure out who is causing the problem
  • Once we find the possessed soldier, exorcise and defeat the shadow demon.

That first point can be modeled by choosing locations that are mostly friendly, but have a decent number of monsters. The final point can partially be covered by making the Shadow Demon a villain, but we need it to not show up until we've beaten its host. To solve the middle point, we'd really like a henchman that can defeated by either Diplomacy or Combat, and we'd really like one of the henchmen to spawn our Shadow Demon at some point.

Looking at those points, we can start to lock down some parameters about the scenario. The Shadow Demon needs a Combat 20 to defeat, which puts it on the higher end of the Adventure Deck 2 villains, which means that this likely wants to be an AD2 scenario. (It's certainly much closer to AD2 than AD3, and the only part of the demon's powers that make the check harder is requiring the Magic trait. That's not trivial in AD2, but it's not hard either.) At this point in the game's power curve, the only henchman that has both a Diplomacy and a Combat check to defeat is the Corrupted Soldier. Since there's only one of him in the box, we'll have to use a proxy, much like the Adventure Card Guild scenarios. It's ugly, but it'll do. [Tanis: Welcome to my world.]

It's like a shell game, but if you lose, hundreds of people die.

Spawning the Shadow Demon is going to have to be part of the scenario mechanics, since there's no other place to put it. What we want is a way to randomly pick which one of the Corrupted Soldiers in the scenario is actually a Shadow Demon. Whatever method we devise must not fail to produce a Shadow Demon if all the Corrupted Soldiers are encountered and defeated, which means we'd prefer a random event that was dependent on previous events (such drawing cards from a pile without replacement) as opposed to an independent event (such as a die roll). Stack of cards it is then!

If we place one Corrupted Soldier in each location, we need a stack of cards with 1 Shadow Demon and (# of locations - 1) other cards. When we defeat a Corrupted Soldier, we flip a card from the stack. If it's a Shadow Demon, then we shuffle it into the deck of the Corrupted Soldier we just defeated. If it's not, then maybe we banish the card to the box and we can attempt to close the location as usual. While I was brainstorming and writing the scenario, the extra cards were blessings. As I wrote up the scenario for initial playtesting, they became allies that you automatically acquired for a couple of reasons. First, having a second deck that mostly consisted of blessings next to the scenario card sounded confusing. The second reason was thematic. Shadow Demons are all about confusing you as to who your allies are. Gaining an ally when you defeat a Corrupted Soldier reinforces the idea that you are eliminating the ally as a suspect for the demonic possession. This does mean that it's possible that your crusader ally was a Wolf all along, but that's funny and I stopped worrying about being 100% thematic every time a bell fell on me in the Forest during Rise of the Runelords.

I assure you, it made a sound.

At this point, we have the meat of the scenario written down and we're just filling in details. Locations are the biggest detail we haven't filled in yet. We want locations that have positive or neutral benefits for the characters, but still have monsters in their deck lists, and we want locations from Adventure Deck 2 or lower. That leads us to Cathedral of St. Clydwell, Citadel, Dark Forest, Laboratory, Watchtower, Defender's Heart, Tower of Estrod, Celestial Beacon, and Paradise Hill. Of these, Defender's Heart and Citadel both play on the allies theme we've got going on and will definitely see use in the scenario, whereas Cathedral of St. Clydwell and Paradise Hill will definitely not see play, given how powerfully friendly they are. Most location picking is more art than science, guided by the idea that this is your base that's being assaulted.

Finally, our reward. As an optional scenario for an Adventure Path, we can't have this give out a feat, as that would throw power levels in later scenarios out of whack. (Well, not by much in Wrath, but still.) Since we're borrowing a trick from the Adventure Card Guild in scenario setup, we're going to do it again in the scenario reward. The scenario has given you an ally for all but 1 of the Corrupted Soldiers you defeated, which is already pretty strong. We could give another ally for completion, but that's boring. Instead, let's grant a cohort for use in a later scenario. [Tanis: In published designs, we avoid asking you to remember something for a later scenario; we call this "the memory issue."] Luckily we have the world's first and foremost expert on shadow demons available to us: Sir Ilivan!

Confused? Play Adventure 2!

Well, that's the basic design done. Now comes writing everything up so that other people can read it. I try to word things as best I can before playtesting to give myself an extra editing pass. I went through multiple iterations to make it clearer, and I had to change the proxy card when I realized that I would need 8 Corrupted Soldiers but only had 7 Cultists of Baphomet.

No scenario is complete without playtesting. One thing that my playtesting showed was that when you put that many ally-heavy locations in the scenario, the locations get closed really quickly—perhaps a little quicker than I'd like. I don't really have any room on the scenario card to adjust anything, so I needed to swap a few locations. The Cemetery replaced the Laboratory, and the Gray Garrison replaced the Watchtower. Fortunately, the core of the scenario worked fine. Which leaves us with this:

[Vic: Even after tightening up the text, the art box on this card is a little bit smaller than we like in a printed product. It's hard to make scenarios that fit in the allowed space!]

Well, that about wraps up this article. I hope you enjoyed a look at one person's methods of adapting a RPG situation to the PACG, and a glimpse at how rough a Shadow Demon can actually be.

Fortunately Shadow Demons can't possess books, so this book is obviously safe to click on.

Jen "Iammars" McTeague
Homebrew Scenario Designer

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Tags: Adventure Card Game Homebrew Community Pathfinder Adventure Card Game
Pathfinder ACG Developer

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Seeing your tribulations with locations, number of proxy henchmen, and the like; ayep, that's definitely how it goes :)

I agree with you on shadow demons needing their chance to be extra cool; I encourage you to check out a different take, with some similar concepts, on messing with shadow demons in Season of the Righteous scenario 5D.


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This is an exciting look behind the curtain of scenario design. I love the drive toward the theme right from the beginning of design to the actual play. One of my WotR groups is about to start Adventure 2, and we'll be running through this scenario when we do.

Thanks for sharing this with us!

Sovereign Court

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Pathfinder Adventure Path, Starfinder Adventure Path Subscriber

An interesting comment based off of Vic's note - before I handed the scenario over to the PACG team, I mocked the scenario card up in Magic Set Editor to make sure all of the text would fit. But one of the things I didn't consider is that MSE will make the text smaller if it doesn't fit in the box automatically, which means the text took up more room than I thought. Something for me to keep in mind for later.

Keith - Yeah, I played that a couple days after sending the email in, and I will admit I got scared slightly when I saw Shadow Demons mentioned, but fortunately it was the _other_ kind of Shadow Demon attack. I did enjoy it.

Ron - Awesome! I have Pilgrim's Axe ready to go myself the next time I get to play AD2.

Thanks to the PACG team for giving me the space to show off my designing chops. This was fun, and hopefully you'll see more from me in the future on the boards.
*looks at a partial outline titled "Skull & Righteous"*
Well, give it some time...

Pathfinder ACG Developer

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Iammars wrote:
Keith - Yeah, I played that a couple days after sending the email in, and I will admit I got scared slightly when I saw Shadow Demons mentioned, but fortunately it was the _other_ kind of Shadow Demon attack. I did enjoy it.

Yep, I similarly perked up in concern when I saw your subject matter, but we're pretty far apart :) Yours looks fun! I particularly like the ally or shadow demon stack mechanic.

This looks awesome! I'll see if I can convince my boyfriend to play it with me. I really like the ally mechanic (I enjoy beating up monsters and henchmen and getting cards as an instant reward).

I actually burst out laughing when I clicked on the book. I don't know why I clicked on it. I knew that's what it would be for some reason. I hate fire damage...

Silver Crusade RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16

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This is a great scenario! Would you consider putting it up in the "public" section of Drivethrucards.com so that the rest of us can order it? :)

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these blogs about customization are really helpful, not only for directing brainstorming on custom cards but for understanding the overall design philosophy of the game itself. knowing this stuff can definitely help me appreciate the themes of the scenarios and extrapolate the "story" they are trying to convey in the scenario-specific rules for the regular game (not just customs).

Adventure Card Game Designer

Gwyns Firstborn wrote:
these blogs about customization are really helpful, not only for directing brainstorming on custom cards but for understanding the overall design philosophy of the game itself. knowing this stuff can definitely help me appreciate the themes of the scenarios and extrapolate the "story" they are trying to convey in the scenario-specific rules for the regular game (not just customs).

Excellent! That's why we're doing them. :)

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